Sunday, April 30, 2017

The machinery of the world is overly complex for the simplicity of men

From A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges. Page 80 Inferno I, 32.
In the final years of the twelfth century, from twilight of dawn to twilight of dusk, a leopard looked upon some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who were always different, a thick wall and, perhaps, a stone trough filled with dry leaves. The leopard did not know, could not know, that what he craved was love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of rending and the odor of a deer on the wind; and something rebelled and God spoke to him in a dream: You live and will die in this prison, so that a man I know may look at you a certain number of times and and not forget you and put your figure and your symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but will have furnished a word to the poem. In the dream, God enlightened the rough beast, so that the leopard understood God's reasons and accepted his destiny; and yet, when he awoke, he felt merely an obscure resignation, a gallant ignorance, for the machinery of the world is overly complex for the simplicity of a wild beast.

Years later, Dante lay dying in Ravenna, as little justified and as much alone as any other man. In a dream, God revealed to him the secret purpose of his life and labor; in wonderment, Dante knew at last who he was and what he was and blessed his bitter days. Tradition holds that on awakening he felt he had received and then lost something infinite, something he could not recuperate, or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is overly complex for the simplicity of men.
In Dante's inferno, the lines in which the poor imprisoned leopard makes his appearance are:
My wearied frame refreshed with scanty rest,
I to ascend the lonely hill essayed;
The lower foot still that on which I pressed.
And lo! ere I had well beginning made,
A nimble leopard, light upon her feet,
And in a skin all spotted o’er arrayed:
Nor ceased she e’er me full in the face to meet,
And to me in my path such hindrance threw
That many a time I wheeled me to retreat.
It was the hour of dawn; with retinue
Of stars that were with him when Love Divine
In the beginning into motion drew
Those beauteous things, the sun began to shine;
And I took heart to be of better cheer
Touching the creature with the gaudy skin,
Virgil's ascent of the hill is further hindered by a lion and then a she-wolf. Indeed, "The machinery of the world is overly complex for the simplicity of men."

Fear of automation is long-standing

H.T. Webster was a noted and successful cartoonist in the first half the 20th century. I came across this self-sketch from The Best of H.T. Webster A Memorial Collection which came out after his death in 1952.

It struck me because it illustrates that the concern about the disappearance of work is not new. Today we are concerned that artificial intelligence might put everyone out of work. In 1923 it was electricity.


In case the resolutions in insufficient, Webster on the phone:
This Frank Casey?

Say, Frank, how 'bout a little salmon fishing up in Labrador? Fine! We'll start this afternoon. Tell Roy to come along.
Up above is the Idea Dynamo connected indirectly to the patent Cartoon Dynamo. In the lower left is the observation:
In The Year 2023 When All Our Work Is Done By Electricity.

It has to be one or the other

By coincidence, shortly after the last post, Step aside Edward Gibbon, I picked up Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion.

His opening chapter deals with the pre-socratic philosophers of 6th century BC Greece. In discussing the pre-socratics, he mentions their belief in monism. From Wikipedia:
Monism is the view that attributes oneness or singleness (Greek: μόνος) to a concept (e.g., existence). Substance monism is the philosophical view that a variety of existing things can be explained in terms of a single reality or substance. Another definition states that all existing things go back to a source that is distinct from them (e.g., in Neoplatonism everything is derived from The One). This is often termed priority monism, and is the view that only one thing is ontologically basic or prior to everything else.
In Step aside Edward Gibbon I mention our collective inclination to seek monocausal explanations to complex systems. So, is this tendency simply a biological circumstance of our DNA which was first articulated by the pre-socratics or is it that the pre-socratics have an enduring appeal even 2,500 years later. It has to be one or the other, doesn't it? Heh.

Step aside Edward Gibbon

As I have argued before, all complex systems are multi-causal and yet our thinking inclines deterministically towards mono- or dual causalism. X deterministically causes Y, or at best, X+Y causes Z. The reality is that almost always there are multiple causes with different weightings, interacting with one another in different fashions under different conditions. All are contributive but in often inexplicable or non-transparent ways.

And all human systems are complex.

This is brought to mind by this tweet:


Going to the source, it appears that A. Demandt in Der Fall Roms (1984) compiled a full list of hypotheses as to the root cause of the fall of Rome. He came up with 210 reasons people have proposed caused the fall. While I would not argue that all of these are contributive causes, I would be happy to make the argument that a good number of them are (in different proportions).

With one or two causes, it easy to create a usefully true heuristic: Don't admit barbarians into your borders; Maintain proper respect for religion and tradition; Ensure consent of the governed; Avoid debt, etc. But as soon as you acknowledge that many things had to go wrong in the right proportions, at the right time and in the right sequence, the ability to extract useful heuristics declines. Complexity challenges us. Life is a lot simpler when you only have to do one thing right, much more of a burden when you have to do many things right.

Here are the 210 proposed possible causes of the fall of Rome as reported by Demandt:
1. Abolition of gods
2. Abolition of rights
3. Absence of character
4. Absolutism
5. Agrarian question
6. Agrarian slavery
7. Anarchy
8. Anti-Germanism
9. Apathy
10. Aristocracy
11. Asceticism
12. Attack of the Germans
13. Attack of the Huns
14. Attack of riding nomads
15. Backwardness in science
16. Bankruptcy
17. Barbarization
18. Bastardization
19. Blockage of land by large landholders
20. Blood poisoning
21. Bolshevization
22. Bread and circuses
23. Bureaucracy
24. Byzantinism
25. Capillarite sociale
26. Capitals, change of
27. Caste system
28. Celibacy
29. Centralization
30. Childlessness
31. Christianity
32. Citizenship, granting of
33. Civil war
34. Climatic deterioration
35. Communism
36. Complacency
37. Concatenation of misfortunes
38. Conservatism
39. Capitalism
40. Corruption
41. Cosmopolitanism
42. Crisis of legitimacy
43. Culinary excess
44. Cultural neurosis
45. Decentralization
46. Decline of Nordic character
47. Decline of the cities
48. Decline of the Italian population
49. Deforestation
50. Degeneration
51. Degeneration of the intellect
52. Demoralization
53. Depletion of mineral resources
54. Despotism
55. Destruction of environment
56. Destruction of peasantry
57. Destruction of political process
58. Destruction of Roman influence
59. Devastation
60. Differences in wealth
61. Disarmament
62. Disillusion with stated goals of empire
63. Division of empire
64. Division of labor
65. Earthquakes
66. Egoism
67. Egoism of the state
68. Emancipation of slaves
69. Enervation
70. Epidemics
71. Equal rights, granting of
72. Eradication of the best
73. Escapism
74. Ethnic dissolution
75. Excessive aging of population
76. Excessive civilization
77. Excessive culture
78. Excessive foreign infiltration
79. Excessive freedom
80. Excessive urbanization
81. Expansion
82. Exploitation
83. Fear of life
84. Female emancipation
85. Feudalization
86. Fiscalism
87. Gladiatorial system
88. Gluttony
89. Gout
90. Hedonism
91. Hellenization
92. Heresy
93. Homosexuality
94. Hothouse culture
95. Hubris
96. Hypothermia
97. Immoderate greatness
98. Imperialism
99. Impotence
100. Impoverishment
101. Imprudent policy toward buffer states
102. Inadequate educational system
103. Indifference
104. Individualism
105. Indoctrination
106. Inertia
107. Inflation
108. Intellectualism
109. Integration, weakness of
110. Irrationality
111. Jewish influence
112. Lack of leadership
113. Lack of male dignity
114. Lack of military recruits
115. Lack of orderly imperial succession
116. Lack of qualified workers
117. Lack of rainfall
118. Lack of religiousness
119. Lack of seriousness
120. Large landed properties
121. Lead poisoning
122. Lethargy
123. Leveling, cultural
124. Leveling, social
125. Loss of army discipline
126. Loss of authority
127. Loss of energy
128. Loss of instincts
129. Loss of population
130. Luxury
131. Malaria
132. Marriages of convenience
133. Mercenary system
134. Mercury damage
135. Militarism
136. Monetary economy
137. Monetary greed
138. Money, shortage of
139. Moral decline
140. Moral idealism
141. Moral materialism
142. Mystery religions
143. Nationalism of Rome's subjects
144. Negative selection
145. Orientalization
146. Outflow of gold
147. Over refinement
148. Pacifism
149. Paralysis of will
150. Paralysization
151. Parasitism
152. Particularism
153. Pauperism
154. Plagues
155. Pleasure seeking
156. Plutocracy
157. Polytheism
158. Population pressure
159. Precociousness
160. Professional army
161. Proletarianization
162. Prosperity
163. Prostitution
164. Psychoses
165. Public baths
166. Racial degeneration
167. Racial discrimination
168. Racial suicide
169. Rationalism
170. Refusal of military service
171. Religious struggles and schisms
172. Rentier mentality
173. Resignation
174. Restriction to profession
175. Restriction to the land
176. Rhetoric
177. Rise of uneducated masses
178. Romantic attitudes to peace
179. Ruin of middle class
180. Rule of the world
181. Semieducation
182. Sensuality
183. Servility
184. Sexuality
185. Shamelessness
186. Shifting of trade routes
187. Slavery
188. Slavic attacks
189. Socialism (of the state)
190. Soil erosion
191. Soil exhaustion
192. Spiritual barbarism
193. Stagnation
194. Stoicism
195. Stress
196. Structural weakness
197. Superstition
198. Taxation, pressure of
199. Terrorism
200. Tiredness of life
201. Totalitarianism
202. Treason
203. Tristesse
204. Two-front war
205. Underdevelopment
206. Useless eaters
207. Usurpation of all powers by state
208. Vain gloriousness
209. Villa economy
210. Vulgarization

Problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions

From The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Page 37.
We have already seen, however, that one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard, are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time. A paradigm can, for that matter, even insulate the community from those socially important problems that are not reducible to the puzzle form, because they cannot be stated in terms of the conceptual and instrumental tools the paradigm supplies.

Things moved slower back before digital

From Great Australian Stories by Graham Seal. Page 104.

Seal's account is built around a newspaper article from July 5, 1834 in the Perth Gazette. Perth, as a settlement was then only five years old, a lonely outpost on the far western rim of one of Britains remotest colonies.

Starting with the Gazette's account:
The following we believe to be the substance of the information conveyed to the Government: about a week or ten days since, Tonguin and Weenat came to Parker's and gave him and his sons to understand, that they (Tonguin and Weenat) had recently learned from some of the northern tribes, (who appear to be indiscriminately referred to un the name of ayo men, or Weelmen) that a ship was wrecked ('boat broke') on the coast to the northward, about 30 (native) days walk from the Swan — that there was white money plenty lying on the beach for several yards, as thick as seed vessels under a red gum tree. On some article of brass being shewn, they said that was not like the colour of the money; but on a dollar being shewn, they recognized it immediately as the kind of money they meant: but laid the dollar on the ground and drawing a somewhat larger circle round it with the finger, said 'the money was like that'. They represented that the wreck had been seen six moons ago, and that all the white men were dead: none, as it is supposed, having been then seen by their informants, the Weelmen. They added that, at low water, the natives could reach the wreck, which had blankets (sails) flying about it: from which it is presumed that the supposed vessel may not have entirely lost her masts on first striking, and they stuck up three sticks in a manner which led Parker's sons to understand that the wreck they were attempting to describe had three masts, but Parker himself did not infer the same meaning.

A day or two after Tonguin's visit, Moiley Dibbin called at Parker's with further information on the same subject, but derived from the same distant source; namely, the Weelmen. Moiley had been informed by some of the latter that there were several white men, represented to be of very large stature, ladies and 'plenty piccaninnie' — that they were living in houses made of canvas and wood (pointing out these materials, among several shewn to him) that there are five such houses, two large and three small — that they are not on a river but on the open sea (`Gabby England come') — that the sea coast, at the site of the wreck, takes a bend easterly into an apparent bay (as described by Moiley on the ground) — that the spot where the white money is strewed on the beach is some (indefinite) distance from the spot where the houses are and more within the bay — that the gabby (surf) breaks with very great noise where the money is, and as it runs back, the Weelmen run forward and pick it up — that the white men gave the Weelmen some gentlemen's (white) biscuit, and the latter gave in return spears, shields, &c. — that they, Moiley, Tonguin, and Weenat, had never seen the wreck or the white men, and were afraid to go through the territories of the Weelmen, who are cannibals: but that they intend to go as far as the Waylo country, and then coo-ee to the Weelmen, who will come to meet them and give them some of the white money — and that the white men then could walk to the houses at the wreck in ten days — but though the word walk be used, there can be little doubt that Moiley alludes to a 'walk—on horseback'.
The prospect of rescuing white people from the aftermath of shipwreck and perhaps the depredations of the 'natives', together with the lure of money, electrified the small settlement. A few months before, some other Aborigines from the north had brought a few British coins into Perth, claiming that they had received them from the fearsome 'Wayl men'. This only increased people's eagerness to find out more, and plans were made for a boat to sail north in search of the wreck.

At this point, a local Aboriginal leader named Weeip enters the story. He had recently been outlawed for his resistance to colonial rule, and his son had been taken as, in effect, a hostage by the administra-tion of Governor James Stirling. Hoping to win his son back, Weeip volunteered to travel north to see what he could discover. He returned in early August, claiming he had been told by the northern people that there were definitely no survivors of the mysterious wreck, but that there was plenty of 'white money'. The settlers were sceptical, but the Governor released Weeip's son all the same in return for Weeip's promise of good behaviour. The Monkey returned in October, having found nothing but some worm-eaten teak and fir wreckage on reefs off Dirk Hartog Island.

Meanwhile, however, other odd stories had begun to circulate. In July, soon after the Perth Gazette' s first story on the 'wreck', some Aborigines reported that they had contact with a party of whites living about eighty kilometres inland from the Perth colony. As there was no known settlement at that distance from the colony, this was astounding news. Who these people might have been, if they ever existed, is a mystery. Although highly unlikely, it is conceivable that a group had landed unnoticed and trekked inland to settle in the wilds.

It was eventually determined that the shipwreck stories were old. They had been passed down from one generation to the next for perhaps a century or more. Stories passed on in this way tend to compress time spans. In this case, the 'broke boat' and the 'white money' did have a basis in fact, but that did not become clear until 1927, when the wreck of the Dutch East Indiaman Zuytdorp was first located. She had foundered in 1712 and perhaps thirty survivors had mysteriously disappeared into the continent's vast emptiness. The only evidence of their coming was the wreckage of their craft and a sandy bottom covered in silver coins - a scene that bore out the Aboriginal story of 1834.
A ship wrecks in 1712, news of the wreck is first conveyed to Europeans by Aborigines in 1834, and the event is not actually confirmed until 1927. Things moved slower back before digital.


I was born poor, and I learned to know want before enjoyment

From The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior by Paul Strathern. Page 35.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, in the Santo Spirito district of Oltrarno, across the river from the main center of the city. His father, Bernardo, was the illegitimate scion of an old Florentine family;
he had gone bankrupt and was thus officially barred from practicing his profession as a lawyer. Bernardo lived off the income from his small estate in the country and continued to practice his profession "under the counter" at cut-price rates.
Money was short in the Machiavelli household, and Niccolò would later recall, "I was born poor, and I learned to know want before enjoyment."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems

From The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Page 23.
In a science, on the other hand, a paradigm is rarely an object for replication. Instead, like an accepted judicial decision in the common law, it is an object for further articulation and specification under new or more stringent conditions. To see how this can be so, we must recognize how very limited in both scope and precision a paradigm can be at the time of its first appearance. Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute. To be more successful is not, however, to be either completely successful with a single problem or notably successful with any large number. The success of a paradigm — whether Aristotle’s analysis of motion, Ptolemy’s computations of planetary position, Lavoisier’s application of the balance, or Maxwell’s mathematization of the electromagnetic field—is at the start largely a promise of success discoverable in selected and still incomplete examples. Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise, an actualization achieved by extending the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by increasing the extent of the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and by further articulation of the paradigm itself.

Few people who are not actually practitioners of a mature science realize how much mop-up work of this sort a paradigm leaves to be done or quite how fascinating such work can prove in the execution. And these points need to be understood. Mop-ping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science. Closely examined, whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory, that enterprise seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies

Friday, April 28, 2017

The sickest man in World War II

From The Burma Road by Donovan Webster. From page 216. Conditions in the Burma campaign in WWII.
In the intervening two days, Myitkyina's thousands of Japanese defenders dug in, creating World War I-style earthwork trenches across the city and on the river's far shore. When the Marauders finally began their attack, they carried with them little artillery, no armor, and pitifully weak air support due to the cloudy monsoon skies. By now, 80 percent of the Marauders were diagnosed by Colonel Seagrave as having dysentery, and one man, Lt. Samuel Wilson, was sent to India as purportedly "the sickest man in World War II." He was diagnosed with - and eventually recovered from - simultaneous cases of mite typhus, amoebic dysentery, malaria, infected jungle sores, nervous exhaustion, and starvation-related wasting.

Human bad habits undermining AI

It's from four years ago but still amusing. IBM's Watson Memorized the Entire 'Urban Dictionary,' Then His Overlords Had to Delete It by Alexis C. Madrigal.
And so, when IBM's famous artificial intelligence, Watson, he/she/it of Jeopardy-winning fame, was in development, its head researcher had a great idea. Humans created this repository of slang, The Urban Dictionary. For example, today on the site, we learn that 'healthy gas' is "the gas (fart) produced from a person who has eaten healthy foods like cabbage, beans, broccolli, grains, or other high fiber, high carbohydrate foods."

Brown realized that this formalization of informal language might be a great way for Watson to understand the way real people communicate. So, he and his team, fed the whole thing into their AI.

But one problem. Informal language has a tendency to be dirty, nasty language. Its insults and cuss words, new names for gross old things, old names for gross new things, etc. And so, we learn from Fortune's Michal Lev-Ram, they had to delete all that human messiness from Watson's memory.
I came across this on twitter. Someone's comment was,



Alluding to:


Click to enlarge.