Archive for October 13th, 2011
I’m watching Due Date, with a stellar cast: Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride, RZA, Matt Walsh, and Brody Stevens.
Add to that a terrific script—picaresque misadventure odd-couple buddy comedy, I guess you would call it.
And, in addition to that solid foundation, I believe the laughs have extra energy because the premise of the movie—that on a perfectly normal day everything not only can go wrong, it can get worse—is exactly the background common worry. Why there is this on-going subliminal (as it were) sense of dread? Well, take a look: job losses, bad economy, Congress unable to function, a constant drumbeat of alarm over terrorism, violence drawing ever closer to our borders. It’s no wonder that there is a high level of background anxiety—and that energy is what makes this comedy so funny. It’s cathartic laughter, and it’s releasing a lot of energy.
Watch the movie and see if you don’t agree.
Digging deeper in a South African cave that had already yielded surprises from the Middle Stone Age, archaeologists have uncovered a 100,000-year-old workshop holding the tools and ingredients with which early modern humans apparently mixed some of the first known paint.
These cave artisans had stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ocher. This was blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a dash of charcoal. Traces of ocher were left on the tools, and samples of the reddish compound were collected in large abalone shells, where the paint was liquefied, stirred and scooped out with a bone spatula.
In the workshop remains, archaeologists said they were seeing the earliest example yet of how emergent Homo sapiens processed ocher, one of the species’ first pigments in wide use, its red color apparently rich in symbolic significance. The early humans may have applied the concoction to their skin for protection or simply decoration, experts suggested. Perhaps it was their way of making social and artistic statements on their bodies or their artifacts.
Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities “a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.”
The discovery dials back the date when modern Homo sapiens was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago. The exuberant flowering among the Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of Europe would come even later; the parade of animals on the walls of Lascaux in France, for example, was executed 17,000 years ago.
The cave people in South Africa were already learning to find, combine and store substances, skills that reflected advanced technology and social practices as well as the creativity of the self-aware. The paint-makers also appeared to have developed an elementary knowledge of chemistry and some understanding of long-term planning earlier than previously thought.
The discovery was made at . . .
So 100,000 years ago humans already had started technology and even, on some level, manufacturing. They clearly must have had language by then. So why did it take so many thousands of years to advance, looking at (say) how far we have come in the past 10,000 years? It’s like the pace picked up tremendously. And if you compare the last 5,000 years to the previous 5,000, or the last 2000 years to the 2000 before that, or just the progress since 1000 AD until today—a mere 1,011 years—it seems quite clear that the pace of change and technological development is exponentially increasing. To maintain the pace, one pretty much has to hypothesize superintelligence. Thus we get the Singularity.
But why did the pace pick up so quickly? Why so slow at the start and so rapid now? I’ve been reading William H. McNeill’s A World History (3rd edition) plus the book The Human Web that he wrote with his son, and fairly recently read his book The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since 1000 AD. So far as I can tell from that reading, the key change is the bandwidth of our communication channels.
Those early humans mixing paint had a great idea, but how to get it out? How can they let more people know, so more people are working on it, making discoveries, improving techniques, pooling experience, and in general getting a move on?
They can’t: no written language, no way to travel as “travel.” Their discovery lived within the tribe, and perhaps when the tribe split, two tribes knew it. But so far as spreading the knowledge? Slow going.
Once agriculture began with food surpluses that allowed many to turn their attention to things other than food, the pace picked up a lot: now people were free to get together and work on things. One of the things they developed was writing.
With the invention of writing, the communications channel widened considerably. It becomes easier to store and access knowledge, and to transfer it from place to place because the transporter no longer had to learn what was to be communicated: they can simply carry information in written form.
Having both writing and spare time, people did indeed start to communicate their ideas effectively and efficiently, pooling their efforts and continually building upon what had been previously accomplished (thus the exponentiality—and it utilizes recursion, in a way: it’s through the exponential growth of technical knowledge that we achieve exponential growth of the communications channels that allow for the… you see where that goes: very steep curve).
I think the growth of the capacity of the total human communications channel is the vehicle of change. And clearly today the total human communications channel is ENORMOUS, with information flooding the globe all hours of the day or night, both direct personal communications between individuals and work groups and also broadcast communications that go to many simultaneously. At the same time we have enormous capacity to store information and (equally important) can readily retrieve it.
So things move ever faster. It does not strike me as a stable situation. I am skeptical that superintelligences will come to pass, but if they should, we must wonder whether our superintelligent creations will care for us. Perhaps they will detest us and our weaknesses (take a look at Congress today: how would Superintelligence (the networked totality of the superintelligences—for surely they will quickly—at their speeds—decide to communicate: as I’ve outlined above, the benefits are obvious) view that?). And in any event Superintelligence—and it will surely exist, for it’s obvious that superintelligences, having decided to communicate, would be able to figure out how—is likely to develop its own goals and pursue those. (I think the hope is that we will be able to outwit it if it comes to that…)
I’m sure attempts will be made to incorporate some sort of Asimov’s Laws, but things are not always so easily controlled, and once the first artificial intelligences that exceed our abilities are building the next generation—and then, even more quickly, those build the next, and so on… Well, it seems to me that we won’t really know (or be able to understand) what they’re up to. We already have trouble figuring out programs now that involve neural nets and evolutionary algorithms. Take a look at “Creatures from Primordial Silicon” (PDF).
UPDATE: I am just at the part (page 231) where Charlemagne has nominally recreated the Roman Empire and is crowned as Emperor of the Romans by the Pope. “Co-operation between Byzantines and Franks was never close. Political distrust was exacerbated by persistent religious friction, centering on the proper role of images in Christian worship.”
I thought it odd that such a trivial issue—undetectable on the scale of natural events and thus totally a cultural construct—can have such an impact on us. Culture is our own creation (as humans) and we’re having such a conflict over something we ourselves made? And cultural definitions are low-energy events—as I say, undetectable on the scale of natural events—but they seem to totally control our exertions and energies.
But of course exactly that difference—among many others—continue to be burning issues and have whole peoples at daggers drawn to this day. We are unable to think like a species.
Do you think Superintelligence will be so caught up as we in issues purely of human creation? Or will Superintelligence perceive, plan, and operate at the scale of natural events: physical reality rather than cultural constructs? We don’t give much thought to, say, ant culture, though we do study and understand it. But on the whole we prefer our own culture. Will Superintelligence prefer its own culture to ours? Or that of ants, for that matter?
And will Superintelligence fail to think like a species? Not likely.
From The Sister in an email:
I was thinking wryly if the GOP were able to mandate a firearm in every household, maybe they’d allow the mandate to buy health insurance. A trade-off.
One problem that results when the government steadily and routinely lies to its citizens (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Jessica Lynch; Pat Tilman; “no prosecution of medical marijuana patients acting in accordance with state laws”; “I only learned of Fast and Furious very recently”; and so on—it’s a long list) is that citizens stop trusting in or believing the government. The FBI/Holder accusations of the Iranian fiendish plot is hitting this kind of resistance (though not, I’m sure, on TV or cable). Sebastian Rotella writes in ProPrublica:
The alleged Iranian plot to use Mexican cartel gunmen to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington is one of the strangest, most serious terrorism cases to surface in years, a mix of seemingly credible evidence and unlikely scenarios that departs dramatically from Iran’s past record of global terrorist activity.
On Tuesday, a grim-faced U.S. attorney general and the FBI director accused Iranian intelligence officials in an alleged $1.5 million scheme to kill Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia in a bombing at a restaurant in the capital.
The federal indictment has escalated an already fierce conflict between the United States and Iran, alleging a brazen decision by Iranian officials to shed blood on U.S. soil and an ominous convergence of threats from separate worlds: Iran’s far-flung terror apparatus and the Zetas, a drug cartel founded by former Mexican commandos.
The evidence seems strong in some ways. Investigators tracked wire payments amounting to nearly $100,000 allegedly from the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They caught a suspected Iranian officer on tape giving orders to a Texas operative working with a supposed representative of the Zetas who, in reality, was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant.
The alarming charges reinforce concerns among Western government officials and experts about signs of growing activity by Iran and its proxy, the militant group Hezbollah, in Latin America.
“Hezbollah and Iran have been masters at identifying existing organized crime groups in front line areas and exploiting them,” Michael Braun, a DEA former operations chief who led investigations of the nexus between drugs and terror, said in an interview. “Hopefully, this is going to be a turning point for many in government regarding what the DEA has been saying about Iran and Hezbollah for the past five years.”
But the account in the indictment clashes with the past behavior of the Zetas and the Quds Force. Both the cartel and the espionage unit have calibrated their murderous operations to avoid direct confrontation with the United States. Although the masterminds of the five-month-long plot seem powerful and dangerous, the plot as described by prosecutors unfolded atypically.
“If it weren’t for things like large amounts of money being deposited, and a guy floating around whom I assume they know to be a member of the Quds Force, I would say it just doesn’t feel right,” said Charles Faddis, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, “beginning with the selection of a target in downtown D.C. It’s so clearly an act of war that it’s hard to imagine why the Iranians would sign on to that. And the tradecraft seems amateurish and sloppy. It’s crazy.”
The chief suspect is Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, an Iranian-American used-car salesman. He has been in the United States since the late 1970s and has been married to two U.S. citizens, both of them Latinas, according to documents and officials. He became a U.S. citizen last year, according to officials.
Some years ago, Arbabsiar befriended a Corpus Christi, Texas, woman whose nephew he believed to be a member of the Zetas cartel, according to officials. The nephew was actually a confidential DEA informant “with direct access to key leadership elements” of the Zetas and the rival Gulf cartel, according to a U.S. law-enforcement official.
Arbabsiar told investigators that he recruited the informant in May at the direction of Arbabsiar’s cousin in Iran, a general in the Quds Force, according to the indictment. The informant advised his DEA handlers, who launched an undercover operation with the FBI. The informant met with the suspect in Mexico to develop the plot, officials say.
Arbabsiar’s record includes only minor traffic violations, and he apparently was not a veteran of the drug underworld. Some U.S. officials are puzzled that Iran would deploy an apparently inexperienced operative for a sensitive, potentially disastrous mission. . .
Take a look at this contest. Right now there are few entrants, so if you get busy you have a good chance of picking up some loot.
My weight gain/loss is much less interesting to me now that I’ve figured it out. It’s now simply a matter of building appropriate meals and eating a fruit snack twice a day (apple this morning, persimmon this afternoon). I do occasionally make discoveries. Once I reached 175 lbs, I figured it would be okay to add a glass of wine for dinner… and why not lunch? At 180 lbs I figured that this was not such a good idea, so cut out the wine save for one glass at dinner every few days. This morning I’m at 173.5 lbs, heading for 170, where I plan to remain. I figure at 170, I can bounce back and forth between 170 and 173 (3 lbs of play seems to be what I need—the 5-lb gain showed that something was wrong in the intake, and the wine was the obvious culprit).
When I began college, I was at 165 lbs, and I’ve thought about that, but I think I’ll stick at 170 for a while. The 170-173 range keeps me below a BMI of 24, so I’m well within normal/healthy range.
Although I now see weight control as practical knowledge, in the sense that it requires practice to learn how to do it, it’s not quite the same as the practical knowledge involved in, for example, playing billiards, dribbling, shooting free throws, and the like. Those all have a theoretical component, but they are primarily skills acquired through practice and in that sense they represent practical knowledge.
Maintaining weight as a matter of practical knowledge seems more like skill in playing Go: you need a fair amount of theoretical/abstract knowledge (nutritional values of foods, types of foods, correct diet balance, and so on), but to get good at it you also need to get involved with trying to do it: read Go and weight-loss books a lot, and you pick up much useful information. But when you go to apply that information, you’re back in an arena in which practice is required for success.
In the case of Go and weight loss, though, the practice is clearly not to gain physical skills. (Exception: I am now a dab hand at cooking an egg over-easy: I can flip like pro.) Instead, the practice is necessary to engage and involve the little pattern-recognition engine in your mind.
In Go you learn lots of stuff, but the key thing you learn is to look at a position and see patterns and possibilities. That skill—a mental rather than physical skill, though I’m sure it has a physical component in terms of brain structures that develop and pathways that are created and reinforced—does require practice. Indeed, after my first game of Go (with Ray Haas at St. John’s, for those interested), I swore I’d never play another game because I had no idea in hell what was happening.
But then I went to grad school, and (as, alas, is typical of me) I then cast about for things to get involved in other than study. The first trimester it was Go. (The second trimester was contract bridge.) After 10 or so games, I gradually started to get it and could “see” things that I simply could not see before: that is, recognize the possibilities in patterns, see that a group was dead, and the like.
This sort of ability to recognize things, but in the arena of food, weight, and exercise, was what I finally acquired after almost 7 months of daily weighing, recording intake, and talking (3 visits/week) with weight-loss counselor.
Little by little, I panned for the tiny flecks of gold dust in my daily experience. For example, in an effort to speed things along, I started skipping the mid-morning and mid-afternoon fruit snack. As soon as I did, I stopped losing weight.
I don’t pretend to understand the actual dynamics at work in my body, but I resumed the snacks, and my weight immediately started falling again. Okay, lesson learned.
There were a lot of lessons along those lines, enough to fill a book (I hope). But the take-home is that, with sufficient practice and data, your pattern-recognition engine can in time deliver the goods. My weight drifted up to 180, I thought about what I was eating and doing, identified the culprit (the addition of daily wine), and got back on track with no trouble.
The interesting thing was that I was never worried, desperate, sweaty, etc., that I would lose my way and soon be back at 250 lbs. No, now I know what is going on.
I recall an incident in John McPhee’s wonderful The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed about a test flight they were making to test a new propeller. It was a chilly morning, and McPhee was standing around as one of the men worked to start the engine. The guy heaved down on the prop, it turned some, and the engine coughed and stopped. Again. Again. The guy adjusted something on the engine, and McPhee asked, “Will it start?” The guy looked at McPhee as if he were nuts and said, “Sure, it’ll start. It’s an internal-combustion engine, isn’t it?”
I realized that the writer McPhee, like the reader Ham, had little real understanding of the intricacies and actual operation of an internal combustion engine—“suck, squeeze, pop, phooey”: yeah, we know that. And pistons and carburetors. But mostly what we know is that it’s oily, big, heavy, and sits out of sight and starts (generally) when we turn a key. But the details—things like firing sequence, spark advance—even how the heck the crankshaft works in a radial-piston engine—neither McPhee nor I really understand, but the guy starting the engine had deep knowledge: the internal-combustion engine was completely familiar to him in all its details: an open book printed in large type.
When I first started my weight-loss effort at 250 lbs, my relationship to my food resembled in some ways McPhee and that engine. But by almost seven months into the effort, I was (suddenly, it seemed) more like the mechanic starting the engine: it became obvious what to look for and what to do.
So as soon as my weight went up, I took a look, adjusted some things, and continue comfortably on my way.
I’ll let you know when I hit 170.
The US is horrified when other nations follow our example. An LA Times editorial today:
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Tuesday that federal authorities had foiled a plot backed by the Iranian government to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on American soil. Two men, one of whom is apparently a member of a special operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, were charged in federal court in New York on Tuesday. Holder called the bomb plot a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law. And Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, “We will not let other countries use our soil as their battleground.”
But wait a minute. Two weeks ago, the United States assassinated one of its enemies in Yemen, on Yemeni soil. If the U.S. believes it has the right to assassinate enemies like Anwar Awlaki anywhere in the world in the name of a “war on terror” that has no geographical limitation, how can it then argue that other nations don’t have a similar right to track down their enemies and kill them wherever they’re found?
It’s true that the assassination of Awlaki was carried out with the cooperation of the government of Yemen. That makes a difference. But would the U.S. have hesitated to kill him if Yemen had not approved? Remember: There was no cooperation from the Pakistani government when Osama bin Laden was killed in May.
It’s also true that there’s a big difference between an Al Qaeda operative who, according to U.S. officials, had been deeply involved in planning terrorist activities, and a duly credited ambassador of a sovereign country. Still, the fact remains that all nations ought to think long and hard before gunning down their enemies in other countries.
As the United States continues down the path of state-sponsored assassination far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, all sorts of tricky moral questions are likely to arise. But this much is clear: The world is unlikely to accept that the United States has a right to behave as it wishes without accountability all around the globe and that other nations do not.