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Causes and violence

August 15, 2019

There is little reason to think that video games have much of anything to do with mass killings. There is tantalizing evidence that misogyny and male grievance do.


More ancient

August 14, 2019

The recent work in Lokiarchaeota taxonomy and growing one of them in the lab is rightfully getting quite a bit of press. When you are young and learning biology, you realize that there are unknowns everywhere, some large intellectual gaps that seem destined to remain mysteries for a long time, partly due to the mysts of history, and partly due to the inherent complexity of biology and the limited tools for unraveling that. It’s quite fun, decades later, to see some of those gaps reduced.

Large mysteries remain, for future explorers!

The less of consciousness

August 13, 2019

David Chalmers, like many philosophers on the topic, is looking for a mechanism that explains consciousness. He sees the potential in artificial minds to help with that:

Once you’ve got an AI system that says, “I know on principle I’m just a bunch of silicon circuits, but from the first-person perspective, I feel like so much more,” then maybe we might be onto something in understanding the mechanisms of consciousness. Of course, if that just happens through somebody programming a machine to imitate superficial human behavior, then that’s not going to be so exciting. If, on the other hand, we get there via trying to figure out the mechanisms which are doing the job in the human case and getting an AI system to implement those mechanisms, then we find via some relatively natural process, that it A) finds consciousness in itself and B) is puzzled by this fact. That would at least be very interesting.

But what if the problem is one of what is missing, rather than one of what is there? Computer scientists long have known that what burns energy and increases entropy in computation is when you go to do something irreversible, when you delete data, not when you create it. There always is some of that when a system starts modeling itself and its environment, because it cannot simultaneously monitor every process that goes into the doing of that. I think this gets closer to the puzzle:

So far, the only research I know in this direction is a little project that was done last year by a couple of researchers, Luke Muehlhauser and Buck Shlegeris. They tried to build a little theorem prover, a little software agent that had a few basic axioms for modeling its perception of color and its own processes. It would give you reports like, “That’s red of such-and-such a shade,” and it would know it could sometimes go wrong. It could say, “I’m representing red of such-and-such a shade,” and from a certain number of basic axioms they managed to get it to generate a certain amount of puzzlement, such as, “how could my experience of this redness be the same as this underlying circuit?”

The Trump test

August 12, 2019

Those who are trying to pin down Trump’s bigotry might fail to bring that into sharp focus. He is, first and foremost, a charlatan and bullshitter. While he is quite happy inciting the nativists, the bigots, and the white supremacists who support him, that doesn’t mean his beliefs around those run much deeper than managing his network of allies and foes. He turns on a dime, from laughing when one of his fans proposes the shooting of immigrants, to pretending concern for the victims of a mass shooting that, from the evidence at hand, was committed from the same rage against immigrants that Trump encourages at his rallies. That is just one example of his frequent gaslighting. Every president past could offer sympathy to the victims of a tragedy without stirring controversy in the doing of that. Normal human concern crosses a broad range of political viewpoints. But what is an offer of sympathy, when it comes from a conman? Something grotesque.

Trump’s signal characteristic is his complete disregard for truth. That divides conservatives today into roughly three groups. The first are principled conservatives, from Max Boot and Charlie Sykes to George Will and David Brooks, who are so repulsed by that they refuse to support him. Despite the fact that he has united their political party and given it power, the never-Trumpers cannot bring themselves to align with him. This first group is important, partly for their demonstration of some integrity, perhaps more that their writing serves as historical witness to the fact that Trump’s mendacity was publicly visible from before his entry into politics. Many writers across the political spectrum pointed it out. No one will get by saying, “I didn’t know at the time.”

The second group are those with honesty enough to see Trump for who he is, yet who give him their hedged support from political calculation. They weigh the most corrupt administration in US history as the cost that must be paid today for their tax cut or their Supreme Court justices. Living in south Texas, I know many people who will continue to vote the straight Republican ticket, despite shaking their heads weekly over Trump’s latest lie or dishonest act.

The third group, the Trumpistas, are the supporters who cozy up to his lies. Some will try to excuse them, pretending that he is no different in that regard than any other politician. Many will carry them and repeat them. Some of his supporters will do so cynically, recognizing the lies as nonsense, but wanting to share in the victory of the winning story and in the trolling of their enemies. Some will claim his lies carry a “deeper” truth, that what he says must be taken “seriously, not literally.” Some simply are incapable of distinguishing fact from falsehood. Many slide back and forth between those poles, as the discomfort of one tactic causes they to flip to another. Trump and the right-wing media repeat each others’ lies, making any of those routes easier for those attuned to the latter. Bizarrely, there is a right-wing site that generates propaganda its audience repeats seriously — or should I say literally? — despite the fact that it labels itself satire.

Whichever of those routes they take, the Trumpistas show the holes in their own integrity from how they support their liar-in-chief. They will find their failure affects them long after Trump is dead. Those seeing their contortions today will and should laugh when a Trumpista in the future pretends any concern for political corruption, media bias, or any other issue of integrity.

More, the Trumpistas will find their failure runs deeper than normal politics. Short of violence, there is nothing less civil than Trump’s firehose of lies. Their alliance with that will change how Trumpistas are viewed by their friends, by their colleagues, and by their family members. The trust they destroy will not be restored when the political winds blow differently. They are being given a test, in the form of media channels that peddle the lies they like to hear, and in the form of a conman who uses those lies to make himself their leader. They fell for the con, or decided to play a role in it. Whether or not they eventually see themselves as winning at that game, they mark themselves. At best, such individuals are deluded Dale Gribbles. Every other possibility speaks worse of their character. Much worse. They need to remember that, when they think it is “mere” politics that has again come between one of their relationships. It is politics. But the kind of politics that reflects character.

A good guy or bad guy?

August 9, 2019

In the old westerns, it always was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Those today who grew up on those westerns, and who seem to think they are living in one, overlook that the NRA is telling good guys to act like bad guys. Should you openly carry a gun into Walmart? Yes. The NRA has been successful in modifying American law so that is now legal in many states. Even if it is a high-powered, semi-automatic weapon? Yes. Even if you are decked out in body armor? Well, that might be useful if you are trying to protect the public from a mass shooting. Or, if you are a wacko, making a trial run before doing committing one. Who knows which was the case yesterday in Missouri?

One reason open carry was broadly outlawed for so long in the US was precisely so that people acting like bad guys could be arrested and charged. We have no way to read someone’s mind and tell their intent. But the law can look at visible behavior. Even when imperfect, that still can be useful in shaping the character of public environs.

Update: Dmitriy Andreychenko says he was just demonstrating his 2nd amendment rights, like any good wingnut. Missouri prosecutors are charging him with making terrorist threats. It will be interesting to see if that charge holds. Other than going about armed like a soldier, what was the threat?

Backdoor Barr

August 8, 2019

It’s unsurprising that Attorney General Barr wants a backdoor to encrypted data. It reflects this administration’s authoritarianism bent. Barr doesn’t understand the technology. And he doesn’t care about the clear 1st amendment issue. A nation like China can jail people just for having encryption apps on their phone. That would be an ugly step for a democracy. (Interestingly, the first moves to liberal government banned the use of torture, whose purpose was the same: to reveal information someone wants to keep secret.)

Door was photographed in Spain. Which now lacks an inquisition, and is no longer Catholic. Though its recent fascism may yet lurk.

Quantum Darwinism

August 6, 2019

There is a real sense in which the measurement problem is solved, if physics can explain how to recover the features of the seemingly classical world from quantum theory. Which underlies the recent interest in Quantum Darwinism. To my thinking, the hard and important thing would be accounting for the Born rule from QM, possibly with some added assumption that is simpler and crisper than the Born rule. Something Zurek tries.