On Plants / De Stirpibus

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

6a00d83453bcda69e201b8d286d4fb970c-450wiImagine you are in an urban park. Look around. How many animals do you see? I’d imagine you see a few birds, a dog or two, perhaps some insects, and a dozen or so humans. Now how many plants do you see? You could not even begin to count, nor to say where one leaves off and another begins.

I am standing in the train station in Karlsuhe, on my way back to Paris from Wolfenbüttel. Even here I see: a few dozen humans, about as many pigeons, a good deal of concrete and iron. And off in the distance I see, again, countless trees, defining, in more ways than one, the horizon of my perception. I see grass pushing up through the gravel between the tracks. Over a stone wall bounding the station to one side an ivy or vine plant of some sort tumbles: it is not moving, visibly, but one might easily imagine it striving, grasping its way toward our platform. And this is a completely dominated space, this is nearly as close as we can get to the longed-for suppression of the vegetal.

We passively suppose that plants and animals are the two equal parts of living nature, the two kingdoms, two moieties each taking half the territory. Of course this does not stand up to scrutiny. I read somewhere that in terms of biomass Earth’s aquatic life is around 90% animal (and this mostly krill), and 10% vegetal, while among the terrestrials it is roughly the reverse. But this seems to give far too great a share to land animals.

Wherever there is a portion of the Earth’s surface that is covered predominantly with animals, there is a problem, an ecological anomaly. Even pods of gregarious walruses need to clear off the beach before too long, lest they destroy whatever balance was there before them. And this is not to mention factory farms with their billions of cows, or cities with their billions of people. Yet wherever there is a portion of the Earth’s surface that is covered predominantly with plants, there is, simply, nature.

Plant life is the paradigm and the general rule of life itself; animal life is the exception.

More here.

The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI: No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do

Will Knight in MIT Technology Review:

Mj17-aiblackbox1Last year, a strange self-driving car was released onto the quiet roads of Monmouth County, New Jersey. The experimental vehicle, developed by researchers at the chip maker Nvidia, didn’t look different from other autonomous cars, but it was unlike anything demonstrated by Google, Tesla, or General Motors, and it showed the rising power of artificial intelligence. The car didn’t follow a single instruction provided by an engineer or programmer. Instead, it relied entirely on an algorithm that had taught itself to drive by watching a human do it.

Getting a car to drive this way was an impressive feat. But it’s also a bit unsettling, since it isn’t completely clear how the car makes its decisions. Information from the vehicle’s sensors goes straight into a huge network of artificial neurons that process the data and then deliver the commands required to operate the steering wheel, the brakes, and other systems. The result seems to match the responses you’d expect from a human driver. But what if one day it did something unexpected—crashed into a tree, or sat at a green light? As things stand now, it might be difficult to find out why. The system is so complicated that even the engineers who designed it may struggle to isolate the reason for any single action. And you can’t ask it: there is no obvious way to design such a system so that it could always explain why it did what it did.

The mysterious mind of this vehicle points to a looming issue with artificial intelligence.

More here.

A Better Way to Choose Presidents

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Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen in The New York Review of Books:

Our recent essay “The Rules of the Game: A New Electoral System” [NYR, January 19] provoked thoughtful responses from many readers—in letters to The New York Review, in blog postings and columns, and in private communications. We are grateful to the Review for giving us the chance to reflect on some of the ideas that came up, and also to say something about the French presidential election.

Our essay proposed two improvements to US presidential elections. First, in both presidential primaries and the general election, we would replace plurality rule (in which each voter chooses a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he or she falls short of 50 percent) with majority rule (in which voters rank candidates, and the candidate preferred by a majority to each opponent wins). Second, we would reform the Electoral College so that nationwide vote totals rather than statewide totals determine the winner.

Currently, all but two states rely on both plurality-rule voting and a winner-take-all system to award Electoral College votes: the candidate with the most votes, no matter how far short of a majority, wins the state and gets all of its electoral votes. By contrast, two states, Maine and Nebraska, use plurality-rule voting but a proportional system to award Electoral College votes. In either case, however, plurality-rule voting is seriously vulnerable to vote-splitting, which arises when candidate A would defeat candidate B in a one-on-one contest, but if candidate C (who appeals to some of the same voters as A) also runs, then A splits the vote with C, giving B the victory.

More here.

Four years later, “Breaking Bad” remains the boldest indictment of modern American capitalism in TV history

Anis Shivani in Salon:

Breaking_bad_illustration-620x412Much of the critical attention paid to “Breaking Bad” — to my mind, not only the greatest television show but arguably the most sustained accomplishment in the history of the cinematic medium — remains centered on the shallower dimensions of character and plot. Now that enough time has passed since the end of the series, we should be able to have greater appreciation for the show’s artistic accomplishments, which elevate it beyond any competition for the best of the best.

“Breaking Bad” is not just the chronicle of an individual’s breakdown, but a global map of modern Western civilization: from its roots in a Lockean/Newtonian liberalism founded in empiricism and hands-on innovation all the way to its contemporary denouement in an abstract capitalism of runaway corporations unresponsive to human ideals. The series unflaggingly maintains the highest cinematographic standards — at the level of a Buñuel, Godard or Antonioni — for not just a couple of hours but for more than 60 hours. In doing so, it translates the abstract chronicle of the rise and fall of empire, and of the various classes of people who are part of it, into visual material that will outlast its moment.

Admittedly, “Breaking Bad” does not exploit alienation effects — the full range of high modernist techniques — to the extent that Vince Gilligan’s crew (particularly director of photography Michael Slovis and production designer Mark Freeborn) were undoubtedly capable of. Though there are occasional glimpses into how much farther the creators could have gone, usually they choose a light hand. This makes the techniques they did use all the more effective, absorbing the default Hollywood narrative style with more conviction.

More here.

Leonora Carrington’s Unruly Prose

1681370603.01.MZZZZZZZMatilda Bathurst The Millions:

Down Below is a troublesome book full of mystic reckonings and fragmented occlusions. As an autobiographical account of Carrington’s incarceration in a Spanish psychiatric hospital during the Second World War it is, as Marina Warner writes in her introduction, “an unsparing account of the experience of being insane.” You need to have acquired a certain prestige for a book like that to sell, and I felt a similar skepticism towards the new short stories. Knowing Carrington’s tendency for tail-chasing dream narratives, I didn’t necessarily expect them to be literary masterpieces. And I still can’t really claim that they are. Here’s the thing: Carrington resists all critical categories.

Any article about Carrington should probably start with an account of her life, a fiction in its own right. Carrington would no doubt subvert this tradition and so I’ll start with her death, which shocked everyone. Shocked, mainly because no one in 2011 expected her to be alive — to be 94, still living in Mexico, still notoriously “difficult” and still painting (she had renounced writing in 1980). British-born Carrington had made Mexico her home after marrying the diplomat Renato Leduc in 1941, a marriage of convenience which enabled her to bypass her parents’ plans to send her to an asylum in South Africa. Here, the story blurs. Over the course of the previous year, Carrington, aged just 23, had been under the charge of Dr. Morales at his hospital in Santander; there she was treated with Cardiazol, a drug designed to replicate the effects of electro-shock therapy through chemically-induced convulsions. Down Below is Carrington’s account of that time. Visions fill the spaces life left behind.

more here.

ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE?

0040d5e4-406d-11e7-a09b-a4ae022938a6Ian Ground at the TLS:

De Waal’s thesis is that our attitudes and ideas about other animal minds are at last changing. In the past twenty years or so, largely as a result of exhausting ourselves trying to defend philosophical presuppositions against the empirical discoveries of those who have taken a genuinely scientific perspective, the sense that we are the only genuinely minded creatures on the planet has begun to fade. We have moved from an age in which it was taboo for scientists to name their animals to one in which we recognize that dolphins use something akin to names among themselves. The answer to the question of the book’s mischievous title is: Yes. We are smart enough to learn how smart animals are. But you wouldn’t think so from looking at our history of trying.

Across chapters examining communication, problem solving, the experience of time and social skills, De Waal documents the ways in which we systematically underestimate animal complexity. Primates are an obvious central example, and attention is also given to the more recent stars of animal studies, especially corvids and parrots. But there are plenty of less familiar examples: from zebra fish and moray eels to the stupendous intelligence of the honey badger.

more here.

remembering David Lewiston

M1000x1000Brian Cullman at The Paris Review:

David Lewiston was born in London in 1929 and graduated from Trinity College of Music in 1953. Already interested in the spiritual teachings of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Lewiston moved to New York City to study piano and composition with Thomas DeHartmann, Gurdjieff’s aide-de-camp and musical collaborator, and an esteemed composer in his own right. From the Gurdjieff work, Lewiston learned about the many uses of solitude; from his studies with DeHartmann, who had helped Gurdjieff transcribe and notate Eastern hymns and dervish melodies, he learned to hear and appreciate music outside of the Western canon. These proved useful as Lewiston began traveling, but neither talent helped him support himself as a young musician in New York, and he reinvented himself as a financial journalist, working on staff for Forbes and then for an in-house journal of the American Bankers Association, a magazine so dull it practically walked to the trash bin and threw itself away.

Was he bored?

“Of course I was bored! It was awful,” he told me once.

And so in 1966, he took a short sabbatical: borrowed a couple of good microphones and a few hundred dollars, bought a small Japanese tape recorder on a layover in Singapore, and landed in Bali, hoping to make some field recordings.

more here.

When Hatred Goes Viral: Inside Social Media’s Efforts to Combat Terrorism

Larry Greenemeier in Scientific American:

GoogleSocial media companies have long used sophisticated algorithms to mine users’ words, images, videos and location data to improve search results and to finely target advertising. But efforts to apply similar technology to root out videos that promote terrorists’ causes, recruit new members and raise funding have been less successful. Video, which makes up well over half of mobile online traffic, is particularly problematic because it can spread extremists’ messages virally in minutes, is difficult to track and even harder to eliminate. Despite these high-profile challenges, Facebook, Google and Twitter face a growing backlash—including advertiser boycotts and lawsuits—pushing them to deal more effectively with the darker elements of the platforms they have created. New video “fingerprinting” technologies are emerging that promise to flag extremist videos as soon as they are posted. Big questions remain, however: Will these tools work well enough to keep terrorist videos from proliferating on social media? And will the companies that have enabled such propaganda embrace them?

ISIS has a well-established playbook for using social media and other online channels to attract new recruits and encourage them to act on the terrorist group’s behalf, according to J. M. Berger, a former nonresident fellow in The Brookings Institution’s project U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “The average age of an [ISIS] recruit is about 26,” says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “These young people aren’t learning how to use social media—they already know it because they grew up with it.” ISIS videos became such a staple on YouTube a few years ago that the site’s automated advertising algorithms were inserting advertisements for Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Anheuser–Busch in front of videos associated with the terrorist group. Despite assurances at the time that Google was removing the ads and in some cases the videos themselves, the problem is far from solved. In March Google’s president of its EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) business and operations, Matthew Brittin, apologized to large advertisers—including Audi, Marks and Spencer, and McDonald’s U.K.—who had pulled their online ads after discovering they had appeared alongside content from terrorist groups and white supremacists. AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and other major U.S. advertisers have boycotted YouTube for the same reason.

More here.

IN A 12TH-CENTURY IRANIAN POEM, A VISION OF SOLIDARITY WE NEED TODAY

Theodore McCombs in Literary Hub:

Conference-of-the-Birds“That anyone has ever been able to surpass one of the great figures of the Divine Comedyseems incredible, and rightly so,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, in his Nine Essays on Dante; “nevertheless, the feat has occurred.” Borges was speaking of the medieval Iranian poet Attar’s allegorical epic, Manteq al-Tayr, or The Conference of the Birds, and the magnificent image that caps the poem, of the mythical bird-deity of Persian literature, the Simorgh. Writers from Rumi to Borges to Porochista Khakpour have drawn on Attar and his sublime Simorgh, a vision of coherence in a divided world. Over eight centuries later, and with an exciting new translation released, by Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpé, Attar’s Simorgh still speaks to our moment of change and challenge: a moving and unsettling ideal from a very different, but very relevant time and place.

Farīd Ud-Dīn Attar, a pharmacist and poet in 12th-century Nishapur, Iran, composed The Conference of the Birds as a Sufi allegory for the soul’s journey to the Divine, with the Simorgh cast as the great king of the birds of the world. The birds look to the hoopoe, King Solomon’s favorite avian courier, to guide them on the Way to the Simorgh’s home on Mount Qaf. The birds present their fears, excuses, longings, and attachments to the hoopoe, who upbraids them to demolish their egos and fall into an ecstatic, irrational love with the Divine. The hoopoe illustrates each lesson with a series of parables on this not-quite-sane, often shocking love: there are kings who fall in love with male servants; there’s a Sufi sheikh who apostatizes for love of a Christian girl; there are blood-tears, and flayings, and every manner of holy fools ecstatically degrading themselves. The Way, Attar wants us to understand, is not confined by logic, worldly prudence, or even religious orthodoxy. Every form of ego must be sacrificed, even the conceit of rectitude.

More here.

THE ATOMIC BOMB CONSIDERED AS HUNGARIAN HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT

Scott Alexander in Slate Star Codex:

László_Rátz_(1863-1930)

László Rátz

A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But maybe we shouldn’t be joking about this so much. Suppose we learned that Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all had the same childhood piano tutor. It sounds less like “ha ha, what a funny coincidence” and more like “wait, who was this guy, and how quickly can we make everyone else start doing what he did?”

In this case, the guy was Laszlo Ratz, legendary Budapest high school math teacher. I didn’t even know people told legends about high school math teachers, but apparently they do, and this guy features in a lot of them. There is apparently a Laszlo Ratz Memorial Congress for high school math teachers each year, and a Laszlo Ratz medal for services to the profession. There are plaques and statues to this guy. It’s pretty impressive.

More here. [Thanks to Omar Ali.]

Elaine Mokhtefi Remembers Algeria and the Blacks Panthers

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Elaine Mokhtefi in the LRB:

In 1962, with independence declared, I went back to Algeria. Vacancies left by close to a million fleeing Europeans meant that jobs were on offer in every ministry and sector. Before long, I found myself working in President Ahmed Ben Bella’s press and information office, where I received foreign journalists, scheduled appointments and dished out information to the reporters from Europe and the US who were streaming in. I even learned to fake Ben Bella’s signature for his admirers.

I stayed on after the coup that brought Houari Boumediene to power in 1965. I had made a home in Algeria; I was happy with my life and my work in the national press. In 1969, events took an extraordinary turn. Late one night I received a call from Charles Chikerema, the representative of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, one of many African liberation movements with an office in the city. He told me that the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was in town and needed help.

It was June. I remember it very clearly. I can see myself walking down a side street between the Casbah and the European sector of Algiers towards the Victoria, a small, third-rate hotel. I climbed four flights of stairs and knocked. The door opened and there was Cleaver, and beyond him, flat out on the bed, his wife, Kathleen, eight months pregnant. The sense of awe I felt that day never left me. The shortcomings of the Black Panther Party are clear enough in retrospect, but they took the battle to the streets, demanded justice and were prepared to bear arms to protect their community. Their slogans – ‘The sky’s the limit’, ‘Power to the People’ – resounded through black ghettoes across the US. They denounced American imperialism as the war in Vietnam gathered pace.

More here.

For Jerusalem’s Police, Jews Defending Palestinians Are Human “Garbage”

1440089481Our friend Ori Weisberg in Jerusalem, writing for Haaretz:

No day of the year demonstrates the division of Jerusalem like Jerusalem Day, which was marked last week. Most Israelis see it as marking the city’s “liberation” and “unification”, but Palestinians, who make up a third of the population, and a minority of Israelis, see it as the beginning of its occupation.

The Jerusalem municipality annually authorizes a march through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, shutting it down for the protection of its residents. These Jerusalemites are forced to sacrifice a half day’s revenue, which many of them sorely need, while marchers punctuate their songs with chants like “Death to Arabs!”, “Mohammed was a pig!”, “Burn the villages!”, and “Burn the mosques!” Residents are locked into or out of their homes for the duration while marchers bang on the metal shutters of their closed storefronts, often causing damage that they must repair at their own cost. Even if such a march proceeds peacefully, it would be still be experienced by Palestinians as a form of violence.

The Muslim Quarter was never part of biblical Jerusalem, but was included by Suleiman the Magnificent’s 16th-century expansion of the walls. It has no religious or historical significance for Jews looking to connect with antiquity. The march could easily proceed around to enter the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall to celebrate its liberation. Life in the Muslim Quarter would continue apace. Shopkeepers might even benefit from increased revenue due to the traffic. But instead, they are closed down for their own safety.

more here.

What Is It Like to Know?

ImagesAri N. Schulman at The New Atlantis:

We arrive then at the perplexing sense that dualism apes physicalism by creating special non-physical objects, while physicalism apes dualism by creating special experiential categories of physical knowledge. We can begin to make sense of this mutual parasitism by turning to a different debate, about the place of rational thinking in human experience, waged between the philosophers John McDowell and Hubert Dreyfus.

The debate seems to reveal fundamental fault lines in how philosophers understand the relationship between reason and experience. Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at UC Berkeley, made his name in the 1960s, critiquing early artificial intelligence researchers for treating cognition as essentially rule-based and abstract rather than felt and intuitive. Whereas AI researchers saw chess and physics as the best models for understanding the mind, Dreyfus emphasized informal everyday activities like stacking blocks and opening doors.

Then, in the 1990s, McDowell, a South African philosopher teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, argued that there was an important problem in the ordinary way our culture talks about experience. In a lecture series eventually published as the 1994 book Mind and World, McDowell notes that modernity has disenchanted matter, rejecting ancient and medieval views that rational forces are at work in the operations of the natural world. Experience seems to be part of that disenchanted world, since it is created by natural processes, such as perception.

more here.

nietzsche and friendship

51d0zmO1YBL._SX314_BO1204203200_Richard Marshall and Alexander Nehamas at 3:AM Magazine:

Moral values, however, Nietzsche insists, are not the only values there are (in fact, he often writes as if moral values are not values at all). There are also values that depend not on our similarities but on our differences, values that bear a close relationship to the values of aesthetics and the arts. In the arts we always admire new and different ways of representing the world and expressing ourselves: we admire the artists whose work differs significantly from the work of those around them. It is on such values that Nietzsche wants to model the values of the rest of life.

The arts have another advantage, which fits very well with his perspectivism. Perspectivism consists in part in the view that there is no privileged representation of the world, no theory that can explain once and for all every worldly phenomenon. Many of its critics infer from this that perspectivism reduces to a relativism according to which every view is as true as any other. There are several answers to this charge. But the connection with the arts provides one of the strongest. For, although it makes no sense to think of “the greatest” artist or “the greatest” work, we are still perfectly capable of distinguishing between the quality of different artists and different works. Why, then, should that be impossible in the rest of life as well?

more here.