Later On

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Archive for December 27th, 2020

536 CE: The worst year in history

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Ann Gibbons writes in Science:

Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week.

To Kyle Harper, provost and a medieval and Roman historian at The University of Oklahoma in Norman, the detailed log of natural disasters and human pollution frozen into the ice “give us a new kind of record for understanding the concatenation of human and natural causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire—and the earliest stirrings of this new medieval economy.”

Ever since tree ring studies in the 1990s suggested the summers around the year 540 were unusually cold, researchers have hunted for the cause. Three years ago polar ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica yielded a clue. When a volcano erupts, it spews sulfur, bismuth, and other substances high into the atmosphere, where they form an aerosol veil that reflects the sun’s light back into space, cooling the planet. By matching the ice record of these chemical traces with tree ring records of climate, a team led by Michael Sigl, now of the University of Bern, found that nearly every unusually cold summer over the past 2500 years was preceded by a volcanic eruption. A massive eruption—perhaps in North America, the team suggested—stood out in late 535 or early 536; another followed in 540. Sigl’s team concluded that the double blow explained the prolonged dark and cold.

Mayewski and his interdisciplinary team decided to look for the same eruptions in an ice core drilled in 2013 in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps. The 72-meter-long core entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, Saharan dust storms, and human activities smack in the center of Europe. The team deciphered this record using a new ultra–high-resolution method, in which a laser carves 120-micron slivers of ice, representing just a few days or weeks of snowfall, along the length of the core. Each of the samples—some 50,000 from each meter of the core—is analyzed for about a dozen elements. The approach enabled the team to pinpoint storms, volcanic eruptions, and lead pollution down to the month or even less, going back 2000 years, says UM volcanologist Andrei Kurbatov. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including an interesting chart.

It’s worth noting that nature can dish out severe catastrophes with no warning. Humans should really try to get along, because certainly the future will at some point(s) see additional great catastrophes that will make the pandemic seem like a walk in the park.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 6:54 pm

Time for Hoppin’ John — or at least black-eyed peas

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Black-eyed peas are not so easy to find here, but they are a Southern necessity for New Year’s Day. I usually just cooked them as a bean dish, though drained black-eyed peas are the basis for Texas caviar (of which there are many versions — here’s mine and here’s another version, also mine).

The name “Hoppin’ John” seems to have arisen as a mondegreen of the Haitian French “Pois Pigeon” (PWAH pee SHAWN) — say it aloud and you can hear how a non-French speaker with a lazy ear could find “Hoppin John” in it. And the true Hoppin’ John of the old South is no longer available because of the way foods have been debased to facilitate industrial production — this article explains it well. From the article:

If you try to cook Sarah Rutledge’s recipe for Hoppin’ John using bacon, rice, and black-eyed peas from the supermarket, you’re probably going to be pretty disappointed. Today’s ingredients have been transformed by a century of hybridization, mechanization, and standardization to meet the demands of an industrialized, cost-minimizing food system.

As we’ve already seen, Southern stone-ground cornmeal was replaced by hybridized corn picked unripe, air-dried, and bashed to powder by steel roller mills, forcing cooks to add sugar to cornbread to simulate its former sweetness. Tomatoes are bred to be as indestructible as racket balls, and they’re picked green, shipped to supermarkets across the country, and get a good zap of ethylene gas so they arrive perfectly round, bright red, and flavorless. Heirloom breeds of pigs, with meat so red it’s almost purple and marbled with thick layers of fat, gave way to lean, factory-raised American Yorkshire engineered to pass as white meat.

All three of the main ingredients in Hoppin’ John have suffered a similar fate. Let’s start with the bacon. Not only are the breeds the pork bellies come from different, but so is the way those bellies are treated.

The Bacon

In the old days, salt and smoke were used to preserve the meat, which cured for weeks and then was smoked for two days or more. Today’s commodity bacon is processed in less than a day: brine-injected, flash-smoked, and packed for shipping.

The Rice

The original Hoppin’ John was made with the famed Carolina Gold rice, a non-aromatic long-grained variety prized for its lush and delicate flavor. But that rice was ill-suited for modern agriculture. The Lowcountry tidal swamps were too soft to support mechanical harvesters, and the rice required far too much manual labor to be viable in the post-Emancipation world. A hurricane in 1911 effectively finished off the industry in the Carolinas, and American rice production shifted to Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where planters grew new hybridized varieties on dry ground.

The new rice varieties are mechanically processed—heat-dried, polished, and degerminated. They aren’t nearly as nutty and flavorful as the old Carolina Gold and not nearly as nutritious, either, since the processing strips away all of the bran and germ. Until well after World War II, much of rural South Carolina still depended on a diet heavy on rice and beans, but that rice was the new kind brought in from the Gulf regions. During the winter months when fresh produce was unavailable, rural South Carolinians started suffering from malnutrition due to lack of proteins and nutrients. A 1956 law required that all rice sold in the state be enriched with the very vitamins and minerals that mechanical processing had stripped away.

The Peas

Finally, let’s address the thorniest issue: the peas. It’s a hard to know out exactly when black-eyed peas started being used in Hoppin’ John, for people have tended to use the terms cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas interchangeably. All these beans (they’re technically beans, not peas) belong to the species Vigna unguiculata, and they’re often called “crowder peas” because of the way the beans crowd together in the pod.

Red cowpeas have a black-eye in the center just like their paler cousins, so they can be referred to as “red black-eyed peas.” To complicate matters, in the 19th century there were any number of landrace and cross-bred varieties, often unique to just one or two family’s fields. These included the Sea Island Red Pea, which was once a key rotation crop on the Sea Island just south of Charleston but whose production was abandoned when rice growing ended.

As Adrian Miller relates in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate as a Time (2013), black-eyed peas spread more widely than other cowpea varieties. They were eaten throughout the South by both blacks and whites alike, but they were looked down on as poor-people food and were slow to take on in the north. For most of the 20th century, the navy bean was preferred by most northern shoppers, except for the African-Americans who had arrived during the Great Migration. Miller posits that these expatriate Southerners ended up substituting black-eye peas the traditional red peas in Hoppin’ John because the red versions weren’t available outside of the Carolinas.

The two peas aren’t the same. Old-fashioned red cowpeas are firmer than black-eyed peas and have a deep, rich flavor that can only be described as “meaty.” You walk a fine line when preparing dried commodity black-eyes: cook them too briefly and they’ll be unpleasantly crunchy in the middle; cook them too long and they turn to mush. You don’t have that problem with red cowpeas, for their texture holds up well, staying firm and chewy even with long, slow cooking.

Read the whole article — it’s informative and interesting — and note the conclusion:

Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills sells Carolina Gold rice online, and he has worked with farmers in the Lowcountry to cultivate heirloom beans and peas, too, including Sea Island Red Peas. A few smokehouse operators like Benton’s in Madisonville, Tennessee, and Edwards of Surry, Virginia, were still practicing their craft quietly out in the countryside, and their rich, deeply-smoky products have been rediscovered by chefs and home cooks alike.

So, for this New Year’s Day, try to get your hands on some Sea Island Red Peas, Carolina Gold rice, and some good old-fashioned smoky bacon. Cook them together in the same pot until the grains of rice and the peas stand separate and apart, the rice dyed a purplish-red hue from the peas. I can’t guarantee it will bring you more money in 2015, but you’ll certainly enjoy true riches on your plate.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 6:15 pm

Diet Drift and a Hard Reset: Learning to recover from failure

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I just had another article published on Medium. It discusses something I’ve blogged about, though with an emphasis on the learning aspect.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 5:18 pm

Propaganda, PSYOPS, and the End of Democracy

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David Troy blogs:

I wrote this piece in mid-2017 and declined to publish it at the time — I considered it to be perhaps too dark, or an overstatement of the situation. Now, over three years later, I think it was an accurate, if partial, assessment of where things stand. This week I plan to write more on this topic, and I think this is an appropriate time to revisit this piece.

We have all heard about “fake news” and most of us have some sense that there has been a concerted effort to manipulate online news media for political influence.

But for all the discussion, there has been relatively little analysis of the underlying strategy: how exactly does this work? What is the goal? And why does it seem so difficult to fight? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions as concisely as possible and is the product of a considerable amount of study of this topic.

Here is how and why propaganda and psyops techniques are being used by right-wing (and far left) political operators, specifically in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere.

How does modern propaganda work? There are three main tactics that define today’s efforts.

When we think about mass media, we think of television, radio, and newspapers, where a relatively small number of outlets and content producers can reach a very large audience. Historically, there has been a wariness of the power concentrated in these producers, as well as regulation that has aimed to ensure that these broadcasters do not have undue influence.

By contrast, contemporary propagandists aim to build up many smaller audiences. This is made possible by the internet, where a single blogger, YouTube star, or small website can garner audiences in the hundreds of thousands or low millions. That’s not a lot by mainstream media standards, but when taken together, an array of small audiences can reach many millions of people.

People only have so much time and attention. The more that people believe that mainstream media is biased — or worse, incorrect—the more they will distrust it and seek outlets that reinforce their own worldview. So the cultivation and growth of these smaller audiences is aided by the gradual chipping away at mainstream media.

Democracies place a high value on independent thinking and rational analysis, and having an “open mind” is a desirable quality. Those seeking to build small audiences for the purposes of propaganda can thus appeal to the ideal of an “open mind,” and prompt people to question both mainstream media and conventional wisdom, causing them to search for ‘alternative’ voices that comport with their own predispositions. This reinforces their self-image as an “independent thinker,” and accrues social capital with others who also question dominant narratives about reality.

By clawing away at consensus-reality, modern propaganda efforts aim to build a bloc of constituents composed of a wide range of small audiences. Because all of these audiences are built on opposition to consensus-reality, they can be relied upon to oppose it.

Now that we understand exactly what is being done, we can try to identify what it actually is. Today’s propaganda techniques borrow heavily from three other concepts: fascism, PSYOPS, and reflexive control.

The term fascism is widely used but broadly misunderstood. It is derived from the ancient Roman word fasces, which is a bundle of rods (or arrows) bound together with a strap, and an axe blade projecting from the bundle. This symbol was used to signify the power of a magistrate in Ancient Rome.

The modern idea of fascism came from Mussolini’s Italy, and was borrowed from the Sicilian concept of fasci, meaning “men organized for political purposes.”

Fascism is thus a literal bundling together of interest groups to wield political power and to achieve political ends. It is an aggregation of aggrieved audiences.

Contemporary right-wing propaganda is thus literally fascist in nature, inasmuch as it aims to build a voting bloc from many smaller audiences.

PSYOPS is a military term meaning “psychological operations.” It was developed as a technology rooted in modern behavioral science and psychology, and aims to exert control over a population to achieve military objectives.

For example, in managing the aftermath of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was desirable that the many factions present in those countries support US military operations, or at the very least, that any opposition be minimized and managed.

To do this, coalition military forces deployed PSYOPS techniques as a kind of weapon aimed at achieving its goals.

According to SCL Group, a leading practitioner of military PSYOPS techniques, here are the steps involved in planning an effective behavioral modification campaign:

  1. Identify the objective: what do you want people to do; how do you want them to behave, or not behave?
  2. Strategic Communication Planning: what messages do you want to convey to produce the desired behavior?
  3. Target Audience Analysis: what audiences exist, and what are their belief systems and goals that may affect whether you can get them to adopt the desired behavior?
  4. Campaign Intervention Strategy: how does your strategic communication need to be tailored to produce the desired behavior in each of your target audiences?

In PSYOPS, the goal is . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s important and urgent.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 4:17 pm

Bob Fosse documentary

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And see also this New Yorker interview with Ann Reinking from May 2019.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Art, Movies & TV, Video

Tagged with ,

COVID-19 virus enters the brain, research strongly suggests

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University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine reports in Science News Daily:

More and more evidence is coming out that people with COVID-19 are suffering from cognitive effects, such as brain fog and fatigue.

And researchers are discovering why. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, like many viruses before it, is bad news for the brain. In a study published Dec.16 in Nature Neuroscience, researchers found that the spike protein, often depicted as the red arms of the virus, can cross the blood-brain barrier in mice.

This strongly suggests that SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, can enter the brain.

The spike protein, often called the S1 protein, dictates which cells the virus can enter. Usually, the virus does the same thing as its binding protein, said corresponding author William A. Banks, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine and a Puget Sound Veterans Affairs Healthcare System physician and researcher. Banks said binding proteins like S1 usually by themselves cause damage as they detach from the virus and cause inflammation.

“The S1 protein likely causes the brain to release cytokines and inflammatory products,” he said.

In science circles, the intense inflammation caused by the COVID-19 infection is called a cytokine storm. The immune system, upon seeing the virus and its proteins, overreacts in its attempt to kill the invading virus. The infected person is left with brain fog, fatigue and other cognitive issues.

Banks and his team saw this reaction with the HIV virus and wanted to see if the same was happening with SARS CoV-2.

Banks said the S1 protein in SARS-CoV2 and the gp 120 protein in HIV-1 function similarly. They are glycoproteins — proteins that have a lot of sugars on them, hallmarks of proteins that bind to other receptors. Both these proteins function as the arms and hand for their viruses by grabbing onto other receptors. Both cross the blood-brain barrier and S1, like gp120, is likely toxic to brain tissues.

“It was like déjà vu,” said Banks, who has done extensive work on HIV-1, gp120, and the blood-brain barrier.

The Banks’ lab studies the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, and HIV. But they put their work on hold and all 15 people in the lab started their experiments on the S1 protein in April. They enlisted long-time collaborator Jacob Raber, a professor in the departments of Behavioral Neuroscience, Neurology, and Radiation Medicine, and his teams at Oregon Health & Science University.

The study could explain many of the complications from COVID-19.

“We know that when you have the COVID infection you have trouble breathing and that’s because there’s infection in your lung, but an additional explanation is that the virus enters the respiratory centers of the brain and causes problems there as well,” said Banks.

Raber said in their experiments transport of S1 was faster in the olfactory bulb and kidney of males than females. This observation might relate to the increased susceptibility of men to more severe COVID-19 outcomes.

As for people taking the virus lightly, Banks has a message:

“You do not want to . . .

Continue reading.

Speaking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, notice how many of those who confidently assert that COVID-19 is no big deal seem to lack any training at all in infectious diseases or epidemiology.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 11:17 am

J.G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction

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J.G. Ballard was one of the great science-fiction writers, and he also achieved excellence in other fiction. His 1984 novel Empire of the Sun is based on his childhood experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese takeover in WWII, and in 1987 that novel was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, with Christian Bale (playing the boy), John Malkovitch, and Miranda Richardson.

Thomas Frick interviewed J.G. Ballard for Paris Review in 1984. The interview will be available outside the paywall for only a short time, so read it soon if you’re interested (or clip it to Evernote or Pocket, both free). It begins:

The son of an English businessman, J. G. Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai. For the past twenty-odd years, he has lived more or less anonymously in Shepperton, a dingy, nondescript suburb of London lying under the approach to Heathrow Airport. Ballard’s writing is so often situated within the erotic, technical, postholocaust landscape, and so often concerned with the further reaches of postmodern consciousness, that it is inevitably rather droll to come upon the man himself. On first meeting, Ballard is standing somewhat shyly in the doorway of a modest two-story dwelling similar to all the others on the block; one would take him as a typical suburban lord of the manor. He is wearing a brown sweater over his shirt, protected against the faint chill of a summer afternoon.

Inside, two shiny silver palm trees, bending amiably over a reclining aluminum lawn chair, inject the only note of fantasy into an otherwise quite normal-looking household. Until a few years ago, Ballard, a widower, raised his three children here as a single parent.

We sit down in his study, which appears to have once been the living room. Ballard works at an old dining table against the wall, upon which sits his middle-aged typewriter, surrounded by fairly tidy stacks of letters, books, and papers. The bookshelves are overflowing, packed every which way with an odd collection, including a thick, illustrated anatomy text called Crash Injuries, the complete Warren Commission Report, the collected works of Shakespeare, and many books on surrealism, dadaism, futurism, and pop art.

An extremely articulate and wide-ranging conversationalist, Ballard expresses his ideas, speculations, and concerns with considerable force. A serious sense of humor is also evident, and one often has the feeling that he is continually amused, or at least bemused, by the sheer fact of existence.

At the time of this interview, Ballard had just finished the first draft of his latest novel, Empire of the Sun, which was published in October 1984 to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s my first good review in the States in fifteen years,” comments Ballard, referring to the generally indifferent reception his books have received here to date. This is a situation which has long been puzzling to Ballard, who consciously draws on specifically American iconography in much of his work. Yet, within just a few weeks of publication, Empire of the Sun has already become his most commercially successful work. This “nonfiction” novel—a great departure in subject matter for Ballard—details his own adolescent experiences, first in war-formed Shanghai as the son of a British merchant, then, after Pearl Harbor, as a fugitive-then-prisoner-of-war in the Lunghua Assembly Center. “I assume that it took me a long time to forget, and then a long time to remember,” Ballard recently told an interviewer who asked why he had only now attempted this reconstruction.

After an hour or so of talk, Teacher’s Scotch and sodas are served, and Ballard discourses briefly on the virtues of Shepperton water (several low-lying reservoirs are nearby). While the sun is setting in the shady green backyard, visible through French windows, a moment of suburban quiet prevails. “I don’t know why I ended up here, really . . .” Ballard comments. “Actually, the suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom. It needn’t be much; kicking the dog will do.”

INTERVIEWER: Are you ready to risk the fate of the centipede, who, when asked exactly how he crawled, shot himself?

J. G. BALLARD: I’ll do my best to examine my hands in the mirror.

INTERVIEWER: So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD: Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s start with obsession. You seem to have an obsessive way of repeatedly playing out permutations of a certain set of emblems and concerns. Things like the winding down of time, car crashes, birds and flying, drained swimming pools, airports, abandoned buildings, Ronald Reagan . . .

BALLARD: I think you’re completely right. I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray—a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes.

INTERVIEWER: So you rely on the magnetism of an obsession as a way of proceeding?

BALLARD: Yes, so the unity of the enterprise is forever there. A whole universe can be bounded in a nutshell. Of course, why one chooses certain topics as the subject for one’s obsessions is a different matter. Why was I obsessed by car crashes? It’s such a peculiar idea.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, why were you?

BALLARD: Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.

INTERVIEWER: Your work does at times seem to possess a sort of prophetic quality. Are you aware of this as you write?

BALLARD: It’s true that I have very little idea what I shall be writing next, but at the same time I have a powerful premonition of everything that lies ahead of me, even ten years ahead. I don’t mean anything too portentous by this. I suppose people—certainly imaginative writers—who consciously exploit their own obsessions do so in part because those obsessions lie like stepping-stones in front of them, and their feet are drawn towards them. At any given time, I’m aware that my mind and imagination are setting towards a particular compass point, that the whole edifice is preparing itself to lean in one way, like a great ramshackle barn.

INTERVIEWER: Has this manipulation of your obsessions come to feel at all mechanical over the years?

BALLARD: I do exploit myself in a calculated way, but there again one has to remember the old joke about the laboratory rat who said, “I have this scientist trained—every time I press this lever he gives me a pellet of food.”

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps it’s a symbiotic relationship.

BALLARD: I take for granted that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is part of the basic process of coping with reality, just as actors need to act all the time to make up for some deficiency in their sense of themselves. Years ago, sitting at the café outside the American Express building in Athens, I watched the British actor Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa) cross the street in the lunchtime crowd, buy Time at a magazine kiosk, indulge in brief banter with the owner, sit down, order a drink, then get up and walk away—every moment of which, every gesture, was clearly acted, that is, stressed and exaggerated in a self-conscious way, although he obviously thought that no one was aware who he was, and he didn’t think that anyone was watching him. I take it that the same process works for the writer, except that the writer is assigning himself his own roles. I have a sense of certain gathering obsessions and roles, certain corners of the field where the next stage of the hunt will be carried on. I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.

INTERVIEWER: I believe I once read—perhaps it was in connection with the Vermilion Sands collection—that you actually enjoyed the notion of cultural decadence. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 11:06 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

Brexit in the context of a coffee shop

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The British government is the customer, the EU is the barista.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 10:54 am

The Vatican’s Latinist

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John Byron Kuhner wrote in The New Criterion in 2017:

I1970, the Procurator General of the Discalced Carmelite Order, Finian Monahan, was summoned to the Vatican for a meeting. The subject of the meeting was a promising young American priest by the name of Reginald Foster. The head Latinist of the Vatican’s State Department had tapped Foster to write papal correspondence, which was at the time composed entirely in Latin. Foster wanted the job but was bound by a vow of obedience, and the decision would be made by his superiors. Monahan intended to resist. Foster, thirty years of age, had proven himself to be both supremely intellectually gifted and utterly reliable—a precious thing at a time when the Catholic Church’s religious orders were hemorrhaging priests. Monahan thought Latin was a dead end. He didn’t want to lose one of his best to a Vatican department that would only get less and less important every year. He said Foster would go to the Vatican “over my dead body.”

Foster remembers the meeting vividly. “So we arrive there, and we’re ushered into this office, and who do we find there but Ioannes Benelli,” Foster says, using Benelli’s Latin name, as was customary at the Vatican at that time. He continues:

Benelli was Paul VI’s hatchet man—whenever he wanted something to get done, he called on Benelli. He was very energetic—got things done, and no nonsense. Everyone was terrified of him. I was too, and now here we were in the room with him, and he turns to Monahan and says, “This is Foster?” The General said yes. Then Benelli said, “Thank you very much, we won’t be needing you anymore.” And he took me by the hand and brought me down to the State Department and that was the end of that. Monahan didn’t say a word. I was now working for the Pope, and it was like I was more or less out of the Carmelite Order. A lot of the time the Order didn’t even really know what I was doing.

Foster would spend the next forty years at the Vatican, part of a small team of scribes who composed the pope’s correspondence, translated his encyclicals, and wrote copy for internal church documents. His somewhat unique position between the Carmelite Order and the Vatican bureaucracy meant that in fact he had a great deal of freedom for a priest. Later in his career his loose tongue—some in the church called it a loose cannon—would attract the notice of journalists looking for interesting copy. “Sacred language?” he said when asked about Latin as the “sacred language” of the church. “In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently—and much better than most people in the Roman Curia.” The Minnesota Star Tribune quoted him as saying “I like to say mass in the nude,” which caused a small Curial kerfuffle (Foster claims he was misquoted). He appeared in Bill Maher’s movie Religulous, which featured him agreeing with the proposition that the Vatican itself was at odds with the message of Jesus, that the pope should not be living in a palace, and that hell and “that Old Catholic stuff” was “finished” and “gone.” Foster says the pope received complaints from bishops and cardinals about his appearance. “They said ‘Who is this Latinist of yours and what the hell is he doing?’ They would have fired me for sure. But by the time the film came out I was sick and a few months away from retirement anyway. So they just waited it out and let me go quietly.” He had already been fired from his post at the pontifical Gregorian University for allowing dozens of students to take his classes without paying for them.

Besides being the Pope’s Latinist and “one of the Vatican’s most colorful characters” (as the Catholic News Service called him), Foster has been a tireless champion of Latin in the classroom. Indeed, Foster’s greatest legacy may be as a teacher. “The most influential Latin teacher in the last half-century is Reggie Foster,” says Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College. “That’s not just my opinion—that’s a fact. For decades, he had the power to change lives like no other teacher in our field. I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life. His approach was completely different from every other Latin teacher out there, and it was totally transformative.”

A humanist par excellence, Latin for Foster was not something to be dissected by linguistic analysis or serve as the raw data for a theory of gender or poetics: it was a language, a medium of human connection. I first met Foster in 1995, at his summer school, and couldn’t get enough: I returned seven times. No one on Earth was reading as much Latin as he and his students were, but he was more like an old-school newspaper editor than an academic: he wanted the story. But for that you actually had to know Latin, and know it well. Foster was ruthless about ignorance, and equally ruthless about anything that to him looked like mere academic posturing. “I don’t care about your garbage literary theory!” he barked at his students one day. “I can tell in about ten seconds if you know the Latin or if you are making it all up.” “Latin is the best thing that ever happened to humanity. It leaves you zero room for nonsense. You don’t have to be a genius. But it requires laser-sharp concentration and total maturity. If you don’t know what time of day it is, or what your name is, or where you are, don’t try Latin because it will smear you on the wall like an oil spot.” The number of Foster’s students runs into the thousands, and many of them are now themselves some of the most dedicated teachers in the field. “When I was in college I asked people, ‘Hey, we all know Latin is a language. Does anybody actually speak it anymore?’ And they told me there was one guy, some guy at the Vatican, who still spoke the language, and that was Fr. Foster,” says Dr. Michael Fontaine, a professor of Classics at Cornell University. “I said to myself, ‘I have to study with this guy.’ And that changed everything for me.” Dr. Paul Gwynne, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the American University of Rome, said of Foster, “He is not just the best Latin teacher I’ve ever seen, he’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever seen. Studying Latin with the Pope’s apostolic secretary, for whom the language is alive, using the city of Rome as a classroom . . . it changed my whole outlook on life, really.”

Time seems to bend around Foster, and past and present intertwine. When I wrote to Fr. Antonio Salvi, the current head of the Vatican’s Latin department, for comment about Foster, he responded entirely in Latin, beginning with four words that sounded like an old soldier praising Cato—“Probus vir, parvo contentus.” An upright man. Content with little. And in many ways Foster’s resembles the life of a medieval saint: at the age of six, he would play priest, ripping up old sheets as vestments. He entered seminary at thirteen. He said he wanted only three things in life: to be a priest, to be a Carmelite, and to do Latin. He has spent his entire life in great personal poverty. His cell had no mattress: he slept on the tile floor with a thin blanket. His clothes were notorious in Rome: believing that . . .

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Full disclosure: The Younger Daughter teaches Latin and Classical Greek.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 8:42 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Religion

Tagged with ,

Cellphones cripple social skills

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Ron Srigley writes in MIT Technology Review:

A few years ago, I performed an experiment in a philosophy class I was teaching. My students had failed a midterm test rather badly. I had a hunch that their pervasive use of cell phones and laptops in class was partly responsible. So I asked them what they thought had gone wrong. After a few moments of silence, a young woman put up her hand and said: “We don’t understand what the books say, sir. We don’t understand the words.” I looked around the class and saw guileless heads pensively nodding in agreement.

I extemporized a solution: I offered them extra credit if they would give me their phones for nine days and write about living without them. Twelve students—about a third of the class—took me up on the offer. What they wrote was remarkable, and remarkably consistent. These university students, given the chance to say what they felt, didn’t gracefully submit to the tech industry and its devices.

The usual industry and education narrative about cell phones, social media, and digital technology generally is that they build community, foster communication, and increase efficiency, thus improving our lives. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent reformulation of Facebook’s mission statement is typical: the company aims to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Without their phones, most of my students initially felt lost, disoriented, frustrated, and even frightened. That seemed to support the industry narrative: look how disconnected and lonely you’ll be without our technology. But after just two weeks, the majority began to think that their cell phones were in fact limiting their relationships with other people, compromising their own lives, and somehow cutting them off from the “real” world. Here is some of what they said.

“You must be weird or something”

“Believe it or not, I had to walk up to a stranger and ask what time it was. It honestly took me a lot of guts and confidence to ask someone,” Janet wrote. (Her name, like the others here, is a pseudonym.) She describes the attitude she was up against: “Why do you need to ask me the time? Everyone has a cell phone. You must be weird or something.” Emily went even further. Simply walking by strangers “in the hallway or when I passed them on the street” caused almost all of them to take out a phone “right before I could gain eye contact with them.”

To these young people, direct, unmediated human contact was experienced as ill-mannered at best and strange at worst. James: “One of the worst and most common things people do nowadays is pull out their cell phone and use it while in a face-to-face conversation. This action is very rude and unacceptable, but yet again, I find myself guilty of this sometimes because it is the norm.” Emily noticed that “a lot of people used their cell phones when they felt they were in an awkward situation, for an example [sic] being at a party while no one was speaking to them.”

The price of this protection from awkward moments is the loss of human relationships, a consequence that almost all the students identified and lamented. Without his phone, James said, he found himself forced to look others in the eye and engage in conversation. Stewart put a moral spin on it. “Being forced to have [real relations with people] obviously made me a better person because each time it happened I learned how to deal with the situation better, other than sticking my face in a phone.” Ten of the 12 students said their phones were compromising their ability to have such relationships.

Virtually all the students admitted that ease of communication was one of the genuine benefits of their phones. However, eight out of 12 said they were genuinely relieved not to have to answer the usual flood of texts and social-media posts. Peter: “I have to admit, it was pretty nice without the phone all week. Didn’t have to hear the fucking thing ring or vibrate once, and didn’t feel bad not answering phone calls because there were none to ignore.”

Indeed, the language they used indicated that they experienced this activity almost as a type of harassment. “It felt so free without one and it was nice knowing no one could bother me when I didn’t want to be bothered,” wrote William. Emily said that she found herself “sleeping more peacefully after the first two nights of attempting to sleep right away when the lights got shut off.” Several students went further and claimed that communication with others was in fact easier and more efficient without their phones. Stewart: “Actually I got things done much quicker without the cell because instead of waiting for a response from someone (that you don’t even know if they read your message or not) you just called them [from a land line], either got an answer or didn’t, and moved on to the next thing.”

Technologists assert that their instruments make us more productive. But for the students, phones had the opposite effect. “Writing a paper and not having a phone boosted productivity at least twice as much,” Elliott claimed. “You are concentrated on one task and not worrying about anything else. Studying for a test was much easier as well because I was not distracted by the phone at all.” Stewart found he could “sit down and actually focus on writing a paper.” He added, “Because I was able to give it 100% of my attention, not only was the final product better than it would have been, I was also able to complete it much quicker.” Even Janet, who missed her phone more than most, admitted, “One positive thing that came out of not having a cell phone was that I found myself more productive and I was more apt to pay attention in class.”

Some students felt not only distracted by their phones, but morally compromised. Kate: “Having a cell phone has actually affected my personal code of morals and this scares me … I regret to admit that I have texted in class this year, something I swore to myself in high school that I would never do … I am disappointed in myself now that I see how much I have come to depend on technology … I start to wonder if it has affected who I am as a person, and then I remember that it already has.” And James, though he says we must continue to develop our technology, said that “what many people forget is that it is vital for us not to lose our fundamental values along the way.”

Other students were worried that their cell-phone addiction was depriving them of a relationship to the world. Listen to James: “It is almost like . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 7:59 am

Learning concentration through playing chess

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Jonathan Rowson, the co-founder and director of Perspectiva, a research institute in London, and the author of The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (2019), writes in Aeon:

Arriving at the chess board is like entering an eagerly anticipated party. All my old friends are there: the royal couple, their associates, the reassuringly straight lines of noble infantry. I adjust them, ensuring that they are optimally located in the centre of their starting squares, an anxious fidgeting and tactile caress. I know these pieces, and care about them. They are my responsibility. And I’m grateful to my opponent for obliging me to treat them well on pain of death.

In many ways, I owe chess everything. Since the age of five, the game has been a source of friendship, refuge and growth, and I have been a grandmaster for 20 years. The lifelong title is the highest awarded to chess players, and it is based on achieving three qualifying norms in international events that are often peak performances, combined with an international rating reflecting a consistently high level of play – all validated by FIDE, the world chess federation. There are about 1,500 grandmasters in the world. At my peak, I was just outside the world top 100, and I feel some gentle regret at not climbing even higher, but I knew there were limits. Even in the absence of a plan A for my life, chess always felt like plan B, mostly because I couldn’t imagine surrendering myself to competitive ambition. I have not trained or played with serious professional intent for more than a decade, and while my mind remains charmed by the game, my soul feels free of it.

In recent years, I have worked in academic and public policy contexts, attempting to integrate our understanding of complex societal challenges with our inner lives, while also looking after my two sons. I miss many things about not being an active player. I miss the feeling of strength, power and dignity that comes with making good decisions under pressure. I miss the clarity of purpose experienced at each moment of each game, the lucky escapes from defeat, and the thrill of the chase towards victory. But, most of all, I miss the experience of concentration.

I can still concentrate, of course, but not with the same reliability and intensity that a life of professional chess affords. In fact, from a distance, chess looks to me suspiciously like a socially permissible pretext to concentrate for several hours at a time. In The Island from the Day Before (1994), Umberto Eco composes a love letter that includes the line: ‘[O]nly in your prison does [my heart] enjoy the most sublime of freedoms’ – that could be said of chess, too, and the experience of concentration is what makes it possible. I believe concentration is a defining feature of a fulfilling life, a necessary habit of mind for a viable civilisation, and that chess can teach us more about what concentration really means.

Any skilled endeavour entails concentration, but chess is unusual in requiring that we concentrate not for a few minutes at a time, but for several hours at a time, within tournaments, for days at a time, and within careers, for years at a time. Concentration is the sine qua non of the chess experience.

In chess, concentration usually unfolds in quick succession through perceiving, desiring and searching. But it’s recursive, so I often find something I didn’t expect in a way that leads me to see my position differently and want something else from it. My perception is pre-patterned through years of experience, so I don’t see one square or piece at a time. Instead, I see the whole position as a situation featuring relationships between pieces in familiar strategic contexts; a castled king, a fianchettoed bishop, a misplaced knight, an isolated pawn; it’s a kind of conceptual grammar. The meaning of the position is embedded in those patterns, partly revealed and partly concealed, and my search to do the right thing feels fundamentally aesthetic in nature.

I could describe the feeling as a kind of evaluative hunting  not so much for a particular target, but for trails of ideas that look right and feel right. I am drawn towards some transfigurations of the patterns that make me look deeper, and repelled by others. Good moves have the qualities of truth and beauty. They are discoveries of how things are, and should be.

However, chess invites me to deepen my concentration a few centimetres away from another being who is also trying to concentrate; someone I can smell, sense moving, and hear breathing. I often know, even like, these people, but they loom within my psyche in a relatively impersonal sense – a familiar energy, not friends as such. I sometimes think of chess opponents as psychopathic flatmates with whom I have to share a living space. They look harmless, but I know we signed the same contract that says they need to try to get inside my room, steal my possessions and hunt me down, before killing me; naturally, I am obliged to do the same to them. Together we create a story, and narrative themes such as attack and defence are both reduced and reified into particular moves with particular pieces on particular squares, which we record like stenographers, into our own arcana of algebraic notation. The climax of a game’s story might be ‘Brutal counter-attack!’ but the record merely reflects the logical power of a short sequence of moves, for instance: ‘…34. Bf3 Nh3+ 35.Kh1 Qg4!! Resigns.’

The forces on the board are always . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 7:32 am

Posted in Chess, Daily life, Fitness, Games

The long history of *

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The site Shady Characters has an interesting post that begins:

The as­ter­isk is old. Really old. Gran­ted, it is not 5,000 years old, as Robert Bring­hurst claims in the oth­er­wise im­pec­cable Ele­ments of Ty­po­graphic Style1 (Bring­hurst con­fuses it with a star-like cunei­form mark that rep­res­ents “deity” or “heaven”2), but it has more than two mil­len­nia un­der its belt non­ethe­less. I go into greater de­tail in the Shady Char­ac­ters book, but the abridged ver­sion of the as­ter­isk’s ori­gin story goes something like this.


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In the third cen­tury bce, at Al­ex­an­dria in Egypt, a lib­rar­ian named Zen­odotus was was strug­gling to edit the works of Homer into something ap­proach­ing their ori­ginal form. I say a lib­rar­ian, but really Zen­odotus was the lib­rar­ian, the first in a long line to be em­ployed at Al­ex­an­dria by the Ptole­maic pharaohs.3 Many spuri­ous ad­di­tions, de­le­tions and al­ter­a­tions had been made to the Odys­sey and Iliad since the time of their com­pos­i­tion, but Zen­odotus lacked the tools to deal with them. As such, he star­ted draw­ing a short dash (—) in the mar­gin be­side each line he con­sidered to be su­per­flu­ous, and, in do­ing so, in­aug­ur­ated the field of lit­er­ary cri­ti­cism.4 Named the ob­elos, or “roast­ing spit”, in the sev­enth cen­tury Isidore of Seville cap­tured the es­sence of Zen­odotus’s mark when he wrote that “like an ar­row, it slays the su­per­flu­ous and pierces the false”.5

The as­ter­isk, in turn, was cre­ated by one of Zen­odotus’s suc­cessors. In the second cen­tury bce, Aristarchus of Sam­o­thrace in­tro­duced an ar­ray of new crit­ical sym­bols: the diple (>) called out note­worthy fea­tures in the text; the diple per­iestig­mene (⸖) marked lines where Aristarchus dis­agreed with Zen­odotus’s ed­its; and, fi­nally, the as­ter­iskos (※), or “little star”, de­noted du­plic­ate lines.6,7 Oc­ca­sion­ally, Aristarchus paired an as­ter­isk and ob­elus to in­dic­ate lines that be­longed else­where in the poem.8

Thus the as­ter­isk was born. And right from the be­gin­ning, it came with a warn­ing: a text with an as­ter­isk at­tached to it is not the whole story.


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Hav­ing sur­vived the in­ter­ven­ing mil­len­nia with its visual form largely in­tact, by the me­di­eval period the as­ter­isk had moved into a new role as an “an­chor” for read­ers’ notes: where a reader wanted to link a note scribbled in the mar­gin to a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage in the text, a pair of as­ter­isks would do the trick. Later, in prin­ted books, au­thors used the as­ter­isk to call out their own asides.9

By the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the as­ter­isk had be­come the de facto leader of the foot­note clan. In 1953, a lex­ico­grapher named Eric Part­ridge ex­plained that “the fol­low­ing are of­ten used”: ‘*’, ‘†’, ‘**’, ‘‡’ or ‘††’, ‘***’ or ‘⁂’ or ‘⁂’, and fi­nally ‘†††’.10 Things have calmed down a little since Part­ridge’s time, but ‘*’, ‘†’, and ‘‡’ are still re­l­at­ively com­mon and even ‘§’, ‘||’ and ‘¶’ ap­pear on oc­ca­sion. Should a writer’s pen­chant for foot­notes ex­tend past five or six per page, lettered or numbered notes may be a bet­ter op­tion and, in­deed, the fre­quency of ty­po­graphic foot­note mark­ers does seem to have waned over the past few dec­ades.


.
Yet even as the as­ter­isk is used less of­ten as a foot­note marker, its im­plied mean­ing — that there is more here than meets the eye — is as strong as ever. For Amer­ican news­pa­pers, merely to use the word “as­ter­isk” is to tar­nish its sub­ject by as­so­ci­ation; for Amer­ican sports writers, doubly so.

It all goes back to 1961, and a base­ball es­tab­lish­ment un­will­ing to . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 7:22 am

Posted in Daily life, History, Writing

Will Apple release a car next year?

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Stephen Nellis, Norihiko Shirouzu, and Paul Lienert of Reuters report that Apple will have a car available by 2024:

Apple Inc is moving forward with self-driving car technology and is targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle that could include its own breakthrough battery technology, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The iPhone maker’s automotive efforts, known as Project Titan, have proceeded unevenly since 2014 when it first started to design its own vehicle from scratch. At one point, Apple drew back the effort to focus on software and reassessed its goals. Doug Field, an Apple veteran who had worked at Tesla Inc, returned to oversee the project in 2018 and laid off 190 people from the team in 2019.

Since then, Apple has progressed enough that it now aims to build a vehicle for consumers, two people familiar with the effort said, asking not to be named because Apple’s plans are not public. Apple’s goal of building a personal vehicle for the mass market contrasts with rivals such as Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, which has built robo-taxis to carry passengers for a driverless ride-hailing service.

Central to Apple’s strategy is a new battery design that could “radically” reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle’s range, according to a third person who has seen Apple’s battery design. . .

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And Joe Rossignol reports in MacRumors that it’s possible that the auto will debut in 2021:

Apple’s long-rumored electric vehicle is running at least two years ahead of schedule and will be released in the third quarter of 2021, according to Taiwan’s Economic Daily News, which cites unnamed executives at Taiwanese manufacturers.

The report claims that Taiwanese manufacturers are preparing to ramp up for production of “Apple Car” components as early as the second quarter of next year, adding that Apple has been secretly testing dozens of prototype vehicles on the road in California. Apple received a permit from California’s DMV to test self-driving vehicles in 2017, and it was spotted using Lexus SUVs rigged with LiDAR equipment that year.

While many sources have claimed the Apple Car will be released between 2023 and 2025, including analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the report cites an unnamed director at a major Taiwanese manufacturer who said Apple is targeting a September 2021 launch.

While anything is possible, the earlier timeframe is questionable, especially due to the impact of the pandemic. Earlier this month, a DigiTimes report claimed that Apple was in “preliminary” negotiations with automotive electronics suppliers, suggesting that its vehicle project still remains in the fairly early stages. The report added that Apple’s chipmaking partner TSMC is reportedly working with Apple on a “self-driving chip.”

Over the years, reports have flip flopped on whether Apple is developing a full-fledged vehicle or working on artificial intelligence and autonomous driving technologies for vehicles in general. Apple’s artificial intelligence chief John Giannandrea recently took over leadership of the project, according to Bloomberg‘s Mark Gurman.

Given that automakers often announce all-new vehicles years in advance, one possibility is that the Apple Car will be previewed in late 2021, but not released. For now, though, the report should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 7:16 am

Posted in Business, Technology

The Twelfth Day of Christmas may be very bad

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January 6 is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, ending the Christmas season with the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the anniversary of the visit of the Three Magi to view the infant Jesus. This year the date may have a grimmer outcome. David Troy comments on Facebook:

It looks like we have a serious problem emerging. There is a gap between what intelligence analysts and government officials are reporting and what journalists are reporting about our current situation. This may be a potentially catastrophic “failure of imagination” that may lead to dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.

Washington Post’s columnist, the intelligence analyst David Ignatius, shares with increasing alarm that Trump loyalist Kash Patel, recently installed at the Pentagon, may replace Wray at FBI. This may stall important investigations and also threaten intelligence dumps intended to harm political enemies and/or protect allies.

Most alarmingly, he reports that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom we have been watching and reporting on here, may replace Gen. Paul Nakasone as head of NSA. This likewise has potential for damaging intelligence dumps.

There is perhaps an unhealthy if understandable focus on the election. There do seem to be efforts to incite violence around DC on January 6th. That violence may spread; it may lead to invocation of the Insurrection Act; there may be calls to invalidate the election and, at Flynn’s urging, re-run the election using “military capabilities.” I rate this as young adult fantasy. The Constitution is clear and the election will not be re-run.

HOWEVER, the actual thing to be on the lookout for here is the final thrust and twist of the knife on the way out the door, and the damage that could ensue. Who benefits? Putin and Trump. Moves that harm the incoming administration’s ability to govern; moves that create chaos and delegitimize American democracy; things that kill Americans through inaction and neglect? All of those things are on the table.

I can’t stress this enough: it’s not about overthrowing the election, it’s about saving face, tearing down as much as possible, creating conditions that favor the maximization of discord and even death.

We have no idea the harms possible with Patel at FBI and with ECW at NSA! The fact that Ignatius is getting the same chatter that we are as lowly OSINT analysts is extremely concerning. The Nashville incident was driven by a 5G fringe lunatic, and is adding momentum to the cult narratives.

We need to close the gap between analysis and reporting immediately and get people within government and media up to speed on the potential for harm here. This is a moment as dangerous as 9/11 (as if every day is not already; difficult to overstate here) and we are suffering from a lack of imagination about what is possible — especially with regards to Iran, as noted by Ignatius. In the end the election is over but there is a high-stakes final roll of the dice. We mustn’t be in denial about the potential for harm.

The article by David Ignatius that Troy references begins:

Not to be alarmist, but we should recognize that the United States will be in the danger zone until the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6, because potential domestic and foreign turmoil could give President Trump an excuse to cling to power.

This threat, while unlikely to materialize, is concerning senior officials, including Republicans who have supported Trump in the past but believe he is now threatening to overstep the constitutional limits on his power. They described a multifaceted campaign by die-hard Trump supporters to use disruptions at home and perhaps threats abroad to advance his interests.

The big showdown is the Jan. 6 gathering of both houses of Congress to formally count the electoral college vote taken on Dec. 14, which Biden won 306 to 232. The certification should be a pro forma event, but a desperate Trump is demanding that House and Senate Republicans challenge the count and block this final, binding affirmation of Biden’s victory before Inauguration Day.

Trump’s last-ditch campaign will almost certainly fail in Congress. The greater danger is on the streets, where pro-Trump forces are already threatening chaos. A pro-Trump group called “Women for America First” has requested a permit for a Jan. 6 rally in Washington, and Trump is already beating the drum: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Government officials fear that if violence spreads, Trump could invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military. Then Trump might use “military capabilities” to rerun the Nov. 3 election in swing states, as suggested by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Trump “could take military . . .

Read the whole thing.

Later in the article:

Another strange Pentagon machination was the proposal Miller floated in mid-December to separate the code-breaking National Security Agency from U.S. Cyber Command, which are both currently headed by Gen. Paul Nakasone. That proposal collapsed because of bipartisan congressional opposition.

But why did Trump loyalists suggest the NSA-Cyber Command split in the first place? Some officials speculate that the White House may have planned to install a new NSA chief, perhaps Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the young conservative recently installed to oversee Pentagon intelligence activities.

With firm control of the NSA and the FBI, the Trump team might then disclose highly sensitive information about the origins of the 2016 Trump Russia investigation. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe tried to release this sensitive intelligence before the election, despite protests from intelligence chiefs that it would severely damage U.S. national security. Trump retreated under pressure from then-Attorney General William P. Barr, among others.

Trump’s final weeks in office will also be a tinder box because of the danger of turmoil abroad. Iranian-backed militias fired more than 20 rockets last Sunday at the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, with around nine hitting the compound but inflicting no American casualties. The United States sent intense, high-level messages to Tehran, public and private, warning against any further provocation. The toughest was a Dec. 23 tweet from Trump warning: “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.” State Department and Pentagon officials say Trump’s retaliatory threat is real.

Another potential flash point is just a week away. Jan. 3 marks the first anniversary of the U.S. targeted killing of Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraq militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Any new violence could . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 7:02 am

Beyond AlphaZero: New AI capabilities in MuZero

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DeepMind’s blog reports:

In 2016, we introduced AlphaGo, the first artificial intelligence (AI) program to defeat humans at the ancient game of Go. Two years later, its successor – AlphaZero – learned from scratch to master Go, chess and shogi. Now, in a paper in the journal Nature, we describe MuZero, a significant step forward in the pursuit of general-purpose algorithms. MuZero masters Go, chess, shogi and Atari without needing to be told the rules, thanks to its ability to plan winning strategies in unknown environments.

For many years, researchers have sought methods that can both learn a model that explains their environment, and can then use that model to plan the best course of action. Until now, most approaches have struggled to plan effectively in domains, such as Atari, where the rules or dynamics are typically unknown and complex.

MuZero, first introduced in a preliminary paper in 2019, solves this problem by learning a model that focuses only on the most important aspects of the environment for planning. By combining this model with AlphaZero’s powerful lookahead tree search, MuZero set a new state of the art result on the Atari benchmark, while simultaneously matching the performance of AlphaZero in the classic planning challenges of Go, chess and shogi. In doing so, MuZero demonstrates a significant leap forward in the capabilities of reinforcement learning algorithms.

Generalising to unknown models

The ability to plan is an important part of human intelligence, allowing us to solve problems and make decisions about the future. For example, if we see dark clouds forming, we might predict it will rain and decide to take an umbrella with us before we venture out. Humans learn this ability quickly and can generalise to new scenarios, a trait we would also like our algorithms to have.

Researchers have tried to tackle this major challenge in AI by using two main approaches: lookahead search or model-based planning.

Systems that use lookahead search, such as AlphaZero, have achieved remarkable success in classic games such as checkers, chess and poker, but rely on being given knowledge of their environment’s dynamics, such as the rules of the game or an accurate simulator. This makes it difficult to apply them to messy real world problems, which are typically complex and hard to distill into simple rules.

Model-based systems aim to address this issue by learning an accurate model of an environment’s dynamics, and then using it to plan. However, the complexity of modelling every aspect of an environment has meant these algorithms are unable to compete in visually rich domains, such as Atari.  Until now, the best results on Atari are from model-free systems, such as DQNR2D2 and Agent57. As the name suggests, model-free algorithms do not use a learned model and instead estimate what is the best action to take next.

MuZero uses a different approach to overcome the limitations of previous approaches. Instead of trying to model the entire environment, MuZero just models aspects that are important to the agent’s decision-making process. After all, knowing an umbrella will keep you dry is more useful to know than modelling the pattern of raindrops in the air.

Specifically, MuZero models three elements of the environment that are critical to planning:

  • The value: how good is the current position?
  • The policy: which action is the best to take?
  • The reward: how good was the last action?

These are all learned using a  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Julian Schrittwieser has a blog post that delves further into this development:

To celebrate the publication of our MuZero paper in Nature, I’ve written a high level description of the MuZero algorithm. My focus here is to give you an intuitive understanding and general overview of the algorithm; for the full details please read the paper. Please also see our official DeepMind blog post, it has great animated versions of the figures!

MuZero is a very exciting step forward – it requires no special knowledge of game rules or environment dynamics, instead learning a model of the environment for itself and using this model to plan. Even though it uses such a learned model, MuZero preserves the full planning performance of AlphaZero – opening the door to applying it to many real world problems!

It’s all just statistics

MuZero is a machine learning algorithm, so naturally the first thing to understand is how it uses neural networks. From AlphaGo and AlphaZero, it inherited the use of policy and value networks1: . . .

Both the policy and the value have a very intuitive meaning:

  • The policy, written p(s,a)p(s,a), is a probability distribution over all actions aa that can be taken in state ss. It estimates which action is likely to be the optimal action. The policy is similar to the first guess for a good move that a human player has when quickly glancing at a game.

  • The value v(s)v(s) estimates the probability of winning from the current state ss: averaging over all possible future possibilities, weighted by how likely they are, in what fraction of them would the current player win?

Each of these networks on their own is already very powerful: If you only have a policy network, you could simply always play the move it predicts as most likely and end up with a very decent player. Similarly, given only a value network, you could always choose the move with the highest value. However, combining both estimates leads to even better results.

Planning to Win

Similar to AlphaGo and AlphaZero before it, MuZero uses Monte Carlo Tree Search2, short MCTS, to aggregate neural network predictions and choose actions to apply to the environment.

MCTS is an iterative, best-first tree search procedure. Best-first means expansion of the search tree is guided by the value estimates in the search tree. Compared to classic methods such as breadth-first (expand the entire tree up to a fixed depth before searching deeper) or depth-first (consecutively expand each possible path until the end of the game before trying the next), best-first search can take advantage of heuristic estimates (such as neural networks) to find promising solutions even in very large search spaces.

MCTS has three main phases: simulation, expansion and backpropagation. By repeatedly executing these phases, MCTS incrementally builds a search tree over future action sequences one node at a time. In this tree, each node is a future state, while the edges between nodes represent actions leading from one state to the next.

Before we dive into the details, let me introduce a schematic representation of such a search tree, including the neural network predictions made by MuZero: . ..

Continue reading. Again, there’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2020 at 6:37 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Software, Technology

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