The Limits of Formal Learning, or Why Robots Can’t Dance

Uri Bram in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2221 Sep. 16 18.09The 1980s at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory seemed to outsiders like a golden age, but inside, David Chapman could already see that winter was coming. As a member of the lab, Chapman was the first researcher to apply the mathematics of computational complexity theory to robot planning and to show mathematically that there could be no feasible, general method of enabling AIs to plan for all contingencies. He concluded that while human-level AI might be possible in principle, none of the available approaches had much hope of achieving it.

In 1990, Chapman wrote a widely circulated research proposal suggesting that researchers take a fresh approach and attempt a different kind of challenge: teaching a robot how to dance. Dancing, wrote Chapman, was an important model because “there’s no goal to be achieved. You can’t win or lose. It’s not a problem to be solved…. Dancing is paradigmatically a process of interaction.” Dancing robots would require a sharp change in practical priorities for AI researchers, whose techniques were built around tasks, like chess, with a rigid structure and unambiguous end goals. The difficulty of creating dancing robots would also require an even deeper change in our assumptions about what characterizes intelligence.

Chapman now writes about the practical implications of philosophy and cognitive science. In a recent conversation with Nautilus, he spoke about the importance of imitation and apprenticeship, the limits of formal rationality, and why robots aren’t making your breakfast.

More here.

How America became a 1% society

Bill Moyers in The Guardian:

3888The Greek historian Plutarch is said to have warned that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Yet as the Washington Post pointed out recently, income inequality may be higher at this moment than at any time in the American past.

When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s growth accrued to the bottom 90% of households. From the end of the second world war until the early 1970s, in fact, income grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of American society than at the top.

In 2009, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez explored decades of tax data and found that from 1950 through 1980 the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans had grown, from $17,719 to $30,941. That represented a 75% increase in 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top. In these years, workers were more productive but received less of the wealth they were helping to create. In the late 1970s, the richest 1% received 9% of total income and held 19% of the nation’s wealth. The share of total income going to that 1% would then rise to more than 23% by 2007, while their share of total wealth would grow to 35%. And that was all before the economic meltdown of 2007-08.

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Bringing up babel

Robert Lane Greene in More Intelligent Life:

BabelHer is a bad guy!” This is a nerve-wracking moment, not the first and not to be the last. My son Henry is describing the squid-witch Ursula, from Disney’s “Little Mermaid”, to his brother Jack. “She” is one of the most common words in the English language, but Henry has botched it and come up with “her”. He has just turned four. He should be able to use “she” properly at his age. Is his bilingual upbringing holding him back?My wife is Danish; we met and married in New York. I sweated to learn Danish partly because she emigrated to be with me; I wanted to make the deal fair and be part of her world too. If you don’t speak a person’s native language, there’s always a corner of their mind you can’t quite reach. But everyone who has learned a language in adulthood knows how hard it is, with the grammar books and the flash cards, the pronunciation problems and the awkward rhythm, never quite getting to fluency. How much better to raise a genuine bilingual.Plenty of parents have come to that conclusion. The new German-English state school near us in London is full to capa­city. The French-English bilingual programme in our old neighbourhood in Brooklyn is crammed to the rafters.

Parents normally use one of two strategies to make sure the minority language sticks: either “one parent, one language”, or “one language at home, the other outside”. Neither would work for us, as Jack is the offspring of a previous relationship, and speaks only English. But while my wife speaks English to Jack, she has stuck to speaking only Danish to Henry.

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The Wooster Group’s ‘The Town Hall Affair’

ArticleJ. Hoberman at Artforum:

WHAT EXACTLY IS The Town Hall Affair, an hour-long performance piece the Wooster Group staged this past May as a work-in-progress at the Performing Garage in SoHo? Is it a reconstruction of Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s 1979 feature Town Bloody Hall, which documented the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” presented April 30, 1971, at New York’s Town Hall by the Theatre for Ideas? Is it a deconstruction? A hall of mirrors? A stroll down memory lane?

Multiple iterations of a narrative (often jumping from medium to medium) tend toward myth. Such has been made of that archetype-populated April evening when Norman Mailer took the stage to defend his masculinist manifesto “The Prisoner of Sex,” which had just appeared in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, before a panel of four women (three of whom would publish accounts of the event) as well as a packed house.

Originally, Mailer had wanted to debate Kate Millett, author of the literary polemic Sexual Politics (1970) and bête noire of Mailer’s countercritique of feminism. Millett refused and so Mailer made do with the Australian feminist Germaine Greer, then on a book tour promoting her best-selling feminist analysis The Female Eunuch (1970). The panel was rounded out with Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of now; Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston, recently out as a lesbian; and New York intellectual dowager Diana Trilling.

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Are we masters of technology or has it mastered us?

GettyImages-53378696_web-293x300Will Self at Prospect Magazine:

Since the inception of wireless broadband in the early 2000s there’s been an increasingly febrile climate surrounding our use and understanding of a suite of technologies I like to refer to as Bi-Directional Digital Media (BDDM). The proleptic insights of thinkers as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord into the ontological and epistemic impacts of mass mediatisation are now felt experientially by those masses: our bodies may still patrol the streets, but our minds, increasingly, are smeared across a glassy empyrean—and we feel this deep and existential queasiness, as our emotions are pulled hither and thither by the ebb and flow of massive online feedback loops: an acid reflux of imagery and data to which we’re subject 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Which is presumably why there have been a rash of books, of varying quality, which attempt to explain what the hell’s going on—although for once, the devil really isn’t in the detail, since nobody imagined signing a mobile phone contract was tantamount to becoming a cyborg. James Gleick’s searching and thoughtful The Information, published in 2011, limned the origins of the current age of data—Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows(2010)and The Glass Cage (2014), looked respectively at the cognitive impacts of the internet and automation. Last year saw the publication of Laurence Scott’s The Four Dimensional Human, which hymns the emergent phenomenology of the BDDM realm; and this year came Greg Milner’s Pinpoint, a history of the United States’s military global positioning satellite system, the technology of which, arguably, is most foundational of the cosmic cat’s cradle humanity has woven together out of the virtual and the actual.

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how Ursula K. Le Guin started writing

OrsiniaUrsula K. Le Guin at Paris Review:

My first attempt at a novel, begun in a tiny notebook in Paris in 1951 (for I had at last got to Europe), was intrepid, immodest, and unwise. An attempt to relate the fortunes of an Orsinian family from the late fifteenth to the early twentieth century, it was called A Descendance. I did not know enough about people to write a novel, and barely enough European history to support my invented history, which included the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and a civil war resulting from it, several invasions, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a couple of revolutions. The characters were mostly men, because in the early 1950s, fiction was mostly about men and history was all about men and I thought books had to be about men. I wrote it at white heat and submitted it to Alfred Knopf, who rejected it with a letter that said (in essence) that ten years ago he’d have published the crazy damn thing, but these days he couldn’t afford to take such chances.

A rejection like that from a man like that is enough to keep a young writer going. I never sent the manuscript out again. I knew Knopf was right, it was a crazy damn thing. I suspected he was possibly just being kind because he knew my father, but also knew he was too hard-nosed an editor for that. He’d sort of liked it, he might have published it. That was enough.

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What Happens in the Brain When We Misremember

Simon Makin in Scientific American:

MemeMost people think of memory as a faithful, if incomplete, recording of the past—a kind of multimedia storehouse of experiences. But psychologists, neuroscientists and lawyers know better. Eyewitness testimony, for instance, is now known to be notoriously unreliable. This is because memory is not just about retrieving stored information. Our minds normally construct memories using a blend of remembered experiences and knowledge about the world. Our memories can be frazzled, though, by new experiences that end up tangling the past and the present.

The sometimes dire consequences of misremembering have led psychologists to try to discover the underlying causes of faulty memories—and a new study has just found a key site in the brain whose functioning gives insight into both the underpinnings of memory and why we misremember things. The research builds on the DRM task—a way of eliciting false memories that was discovered decades ago. The task combines the last initials of three researchers: James Deese first described the psychological illusion in 1959, but it wasn't until Henry Roediger and Kathleen McDermott linked it to false memory in 1995 that it became widely used in psychological experiments. During the task, participants are presented with a list of words, such as “snow,” “ice,” “winter” and “warm,” which are all related to another “lure” word (in this case “cold”) that is never presented. After some delay, participants must recall as many words from the list as they can, and people frequently report clearly remembering seeing the lure word.

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Friday Poem


There are five more things that must be done
than there are lines on my To Do list
and the cat just got sick in the family room
and the car needs an oil change last week


The woman in front of me at Starbucks
decides today is the day to give the barista
holy hell for misspelling her name
which we all know now is Melanee with 2 ees


Today I meant to make a key lime pie
to celebrate our twentieth anniversary
but the power's out and I forgot to buy
half of the ingredients at the store, but


by Anita Sanz
from Poets Online

The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art

Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine:

08-the-keepers-3.w529.h352The art world likes to ask big art-centric questions like “Can art change the world?” We usually answer “Yes.” I usually disagree. Art can't stop famine in sub-Saharan Africa or eradicate Zika. But art does change the world incrementally and by osmosis. Typically by first changing how we see, and thereby how we remember. Raymond Chandler invented early-20th-century L.A.; Francis Ford Coppola forged our vision of the Vietnam War; Andy Warhol combined clashing colors that were never together before and that palette is now ubiquitous; God creating Adam looks the way Michelangelo painted it; Oscar Wilde said “the mysterious loveliness” of fog didn't exist before poets and painters. That's big. But art as we now know it has narrowed. These days our definition of it is mainly art informed by other art and art history. Especially in the last two centuries — and tenaciously of late — art has examined its own essences, ordinances, techniques, tools, materials, presentational modes, and forms. To be thought of as an artist someone must self-identify as one and make what they think of as art. This center cannot hold. Why? It is far too tight to let real art breathe.

More here.

How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language

Julie Sedivy in Scientific American:

DD7C32B5-0EB9-4BA0-AA611BF0E4D306CCWhat defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

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Typecast as a terrorist

Riz Ahmed in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2220 Sep. 15 19.27To begin with, auditions taught me to get through airports. In the end, it was the other way around. I’m an actor. Since I was a teenager I have had to play different characters, negotiating the cultural expectations of a Pakistani family, Brit-Asian rudeboy culture, and a scholarship to private school. The fluidity of my own personal identity on any given day was further compounded by the changing labels assigned to Asians in general.

As children in the 1980s, when my brother and I were stopped near our home by a skinhead who decided to put a knife to my brother’s throat, we were black. A decade later, the knife to my throat was held by another “Paki”, a label we wore with swagger in the Brit-Asian youth and gang culture of the 1990s. The next time I found myself as helplessly cornered, it was in a windowless room at Luton airport. My arm was in a painful wrist-lock and my collar pinned to the wall by British intelligence officers. It was “post 9/11”, and I was now labelled a Muslim.

As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another. The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.

Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help stretch these necklaces, and that the teenage version of myself might breathe a little easier as a result.

More here.

Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century

51cQ25DA91LMichael Burleigh at Literary Review:

The new order is evident from the ceaseless travels of President Xi Jinping, a relatively imposing Chinese leader who can virtually kill with a disdainful glance and reluctant handshake (see his first encounter with Japan’s prime minister, ShinzōAbe). Xi pops up not just in Africa and Latin America, for which China is a more important trading partner than the USA or Europe, but also in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Poland to dole out massive energy and transport contracts. Angela Merkel likes to visit a different Chinese province every year in her annual trips to the country too, for €80 billion of exports are at stake. Earlier this year, Xi was lord of all he surveyed when he visited Britain: so eager was the government to herald a new ‘golden era’ in Anglo-Chinese relations that it set heads in Washington wondering what had happened to the ‘special relationship’.

One constant theme in Rachman’s book is how many countries are hedging their bets to accommodate new global realities. Take Australia and Singapore. There is still a lot of quaint talk about an ‘Anglosphere’ and the Five Eyes intelligence network, but Australia now resembles a giant Polo mint, such is the extent of commodity extraction by the Chinese. Although, with great fanfare, US marines are stationed in Darwin, to reflect Australia’s status as the firmest of US allies, this did not prevent the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, from granting a People’s Liberation Army-connected corporation a ninety-nine-year lease on the port at which they are based.

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the life of Adrienne Rich

Gilbert-everettSandra M. Gilbert at The American Scholar:

Rich’s life, like her writing, was marked by dramatic metamorphoses, changes that reflected, even while they influenced, the world that was radically changing around her. Her growth, observed the poet-critic Ruth Whitman in 1975, was “an astonishing phenomenon to watch: in one woman the history of women in our century, from careful traditional obedience … to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time.” Like Yeats, the poet she most admired when she was an undergraduate, Rich evolved from phase to phase as, increasingly, she elaborated the politics of her aesthetic in essays that can be read along with her poems as both manifestoes and glosses. In prose and verse, she herself remarked on these transformations, sometimes almost with wonder. A dutiful child, she was homeschooled for some years by a strict pianist mother, who taught her to play Bach and Mozart, and more overwhelmingly, by a scholarly pathologist father who set daily literary tasks for her and her sister. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Papa Brontë,” she once wrote to the poet Hayden Carruth, “with geniuses for children.” (Her unpublished letters to Carruth appear in “The Wreck,” an article by Michelle Dean in the April 3, 2016, issue of The New Republic.)

But beneath a veneer of decorum, the stubborn poet had begun to stir. In secret, she confided to Carruth, she “spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously,” and “mercifully,” she recalled in print, she “discovered Modern Screen, Photoplay, Jack Benny, ‘Your Hit Parade,’ Frank Sinatra,” and other icons of popular culture.

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publishing ‘Mein Kampf’

96179412-79a9-11e6-a967-d76ae2cbdd22Anson Rabinbach at the Times Literary Supplement:

The heft and price of the new Mein Kampf is the best guarantee that it will not become a must-read in racist and extreme nationalist circles. The initial print run of 4,000 copies sold out in days, however, with 15,000 subscribers still awaiting delivery. Sales reached 14,000, securing it a second place on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list. In other words, Mein Kampf, so long out of print, has become a celebrity book, eagerly acquired by bibliophiles and comparable to prestige editions of Shakespeare or historical-critical editions of theLeitfiguren of the German intellectual pantheon. Released from the poison cabinet, Mein Kampf has become a desirable commodity.

The critical edition is a sober affair, comprising nearly 2,000 pages with over 3,700 notes in two imposing large-format volumes. The interlaced annotations by a first-rate research team are in reality a second book. The purpose, the Institute’s Director, Andreas Wirsching, writes in the foreword, is the “demystification” of “the most comprehensive and in a sense the most intimate testimony of a dictator whose policies and whose crimes completely changed the world”. The annotations doggedly track Hitler’s biographical elisions, document his sources, correct his countless factual errors, and puncture his exaggerations. Flagging up scores of malapropisms, the editors dissect Mein Kampf’s style with a nod to Victor Klemperer’s brilliant reflections on the positive connotation given to words like “ruthless”, “brutal”, and “fanatical”, in his famous LTI: The language of the Third Reich (1947).

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The Sellout is an outrageous racial satire

Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

Paul-beatty-large_trans++24XwFvPCDtx-O_vsZ1KwL2tjRctyCc3pPkzaOrzxNfsWhen Barack Obama became President of the United States, many hoped the nation’s racial traumas might start to heal. Instead, his presidency has exposed disturbing bigotry and anger, notably in this election year. For African-American writers this paradox is a particular problem. How to write literature dramatising racial oppression when a black man is in the White House? The approach of Paul Beatty, born in 1962 in Los Angeles, is to throw caution to the wind. His fourth novel, The Sellout, is an outrageous scattergun satire taking aim at racism and what racism has done to black Americans. Earlier this year, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is now on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. The Sellout aims to do for race relations what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – a favourite novel of Beatty’s – did for the Second World War. The novel begins with our narrator Bonbon on trial at the Supreme Court. His opening line: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” It’s a fair reflection of the book’s gleefully provocative tone. What he is actually on trial for is – wait for it – trying to reinstitute slavery and segregation in his Los Angeles suburb.

The ghetto is called Dickens (a nod to another literary inspiration) and resembles the real-life Compton. Bonbon was raised by a single father, a thoughtful man who specialises in quietly calming down angry black men. After his father is shot dead by police, Bonbon is on his own. Consumed by guilt and anger, he takes on an ageing black actor and makes him his slave. The twisted logic (if there is one) is that to become successful, he needs to become “white”, and to do that he must first dominate another black person.

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New hope for AML patients

Laure David et al in Science:

AmlA pair of papers provides new hope for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) by showing that the DNA replication checkpoint pathway is a viable target for therapeutic intervention. By integrating survival data from 198 treated AML patients with gene expression data for genes encoding proteins involved in the regulation of DNA replication, David et al. identified the CHEK1 gene and its product, the DNA replication checkpoint kinase CHK1, as both a prognostic indicator of survival and a therapeutic target to overcome resistance to the current standard of chemotherapy. The patients had all received standard-of-care chemotherapy. Patients with high expression of CHEK1 in their AML cells had reduced survival, and AML patient cells with high CHK1 abundance were resistant to the toxic effects of the DNA replication inhibitor cytarabine. CHK1 is activated by the kinase ATR in response to DNA replication stress arising from DNA damage. The identification of CHEK1 expression as high in lymphomas and leukemias, including AML, prompted Morgado-Palacin et al. to investigate targeting ATR and ATM, the most upstream kinases in the DNA damage response, as possible AML therapies. AML cells with oncogenic rearrangements in MLL are particularly resistant to genotoxic therapies that form the backbone of AML treatment. Inhibiting ATR resulted in death of AMLMLL cells in culture and exhibited antitumoral activity in AMLMLL mouse models. Inhibiting ATM also prolonged survival of the allograft mouse model, indicating that targeting the DNA damage response pathways alone or in combination with other chemotherapeutic agents may be beneficial in patients with AML.

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Thursday Poem


If the red slayer think he slays,

Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

by Ralph Waldo Emerson
from Emerson's Essays and Poems
Scribner and Sons, 1926


Peter Moskowitz in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_2218 Sep. 15 09.48On a particularly hot day this August, Tommy Pico explained his approach to the work of poetry. A book-length poem he wrote, “IRL,” will come out in September, and he had been giving readings and planning events. Pico grew up on the Viejas Reservation, near San Diego. His dad was a chairman of the reservation and often told his son that he was good at his job because he didn’t like it. This is how Pico now feels about being a poet. “That’s why I’m good at reading,” Pico told me, as we rode the train from a hair appointment to his apartment, in Bushwick. “I don’t want to be the one onstage, but that’s part of the job.”

“IRL” will be published by the independent press Birds, LLC. Pico’s next book, “Nature Poem,” is scheduled for release in May, 2017, from Tin House. Pico, thirty-two, is part of the Kumeyaay nation; he has lived in New York for the past thirteen years. He told me that he uses poetry to square two identities that don’t fit together well: being a poor, queer kid from the rez, and being a pleasure-seeking, technology-addicted New Yorker who would rather chase the boys he meets on apps than think about centuries of pain passed from one generation to another. Poetry is also, he said, a way to make people understand just how hard that squaring is. He wants his readers to feel the disjointedness of his life.

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