Books, music, etc. from November 2016

Books

  • Tye, Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Pretty good. I probably disagree with it in >100 places, but that’s to be expected for any book-length treatment on something as difficult to study as consciousness.
  • Haffner, Defying Hitler: Good. I wish it had been continued past 1933.
  • Pistorius, Ghost Boy: Scary but inspiring.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Tiernan & Vernon, Sausage Party (2016)
  • Various, Adventure Time, Season 7 (2015-2016)
  • Allen, Café Society (2016)
  • Various, Atlanta: Season 1 (2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (2016)
  • Gray, Straight Outta Compton (2015)
  • Various, You’re the Worst, Season 3 (2016)
  • Katis, Kilo Two Bravo (2014)
  • Coimbra, A Wolf at the Door (2013)

Media I’m looking forward to, December 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

15 classical music traditions, compared

Other Classical Musics argues that there are at least 15 musical traditions around the world worthy of the title “classical music”:

According to our rule-of-thumb, a classical music will have evolved… where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms… our definition does imply acceptance of a ‘classical/ folk-popular’ divide. That distinction is made on the assumption that these categories simply occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, because almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and periodically renews itself from them…

In one of the earliest known [Western] definitions, classique is translated as ‘classical, formall, orderlie, in due or fit ranke; also, approved, authenticall, chiefe, principall’. The implication there was: authority, formal discipline, models of excellence. A century later ‘classical’ came to stand also for a canon of works in performance. Yet almost every non-Western culture has its own concept of ‘classical’ and many employ criteria similar to the European ones, though usually with the additional function of symbolizing national culture…

By definition, the conditions required for the evolution of a classical music don’t exist in newly-formed societies: hence the absence of a representative tradition from South America.

I don’t understand the book’s criteria. E.g. jazz is included despite not having been created by “a quasi-priesthood of professionals” funded by “a wealthy class of connoisseurs,” and despite having been invented relatively recently, in the early 20th century.

[Read more…]

Henry Kissinger on smarter-than-human AI

Henry Kissinger, speaking with The Economist:

It is undoubtedly the case that modern technology poses challenges to world order and world order stability that are absolutely unprecedented. Climate change is one of them. I personally believe that artificial intelligence is a crucial one, lest we wind up… creating instruments in relation to which we are like the Incas to the Spanish, [such that] our own creations have a better capacity to calculate than we do. It’s a problem we need to understand on a global basis.

For reference, here is Wikipedia on the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire.

Henry Kissinger also addressed artificial intelligence in a recent interview with The Atlantic, though in this case he probably was not referring to smarter-than-human AI:

A military conflict between [China and the USA], given the technologies they possess, would be calamitous. Such a conflict would force the world to divide itself. And it would end in destruction, but not necessarily in victory, which would likely prove too difficult to define. Even if we could define victory, what in the wake of utter destruction could the victor demand of the loser? I am speaking of not merely the force of our weapons, but the unknowability of the consequences of some of them, such as cyberweapons. Traditional arms-control negotiations necessitated that each side tell the other what its capabilities were as a prelude to limiting those capacities. Yet with cyber, each country will be extremely reluctant to let others know its capabilities. Thus, there is no self-evident negotiated way to contain cyberwarfare. And artificial intelligence compounds this problem. Machines that can learn from their own experience and communicate with one another on their own raise both a practical and a moral imperative to find a way to keep mankind from destroying itself. The United States and China must strive to come to an understanding about the nature of their co-evolution.

Books, music, etc. from October 2016

Books

  • Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking [good]
  • Lieberman, Social [a mixed bag; insufficiently skeptical]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Hood, Eye in the Sky (2015)
  • Poekel, Christmas Again (2014)
  • Corbett, The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
  • Black, The Nice Guys (2016)
  • Various, Black Mirror: Season 3 (2016)

Media I’m looking forward to, November 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

Movies & TV

(only including movies and TV series or miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • Villeneuve, Arrival (Nov 2016)
  • BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (Nov 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Daldry & Caron, The Crown, S1 (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Villeneuve, Blade Runner sequel (Oct 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • Aronofsky, [Untitled] (Dec 2017)
  • Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

How German nuclear scientists reacted to the news of Hiroshima

As part of Operation Epsilon, captured German nuclear physicists were secretly recorded at Farm Hall, a house in England where they were interned. Here’s how the German scientists reacted to the news (on August 6th, 1945) that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, taken from the now-declassified transcripts (pp. 116-122 of this copy):

Otto Hahn (co-discoverer of nuclear fission): I don’t believe it… They are 50 years further advanced than we.

Werner Heisenberg (leading figure of the German atomic bomb effort): I don’t believe a word of the whole thing. They must have spent the whole of their £500,000,000 in separating isotopes: and then it is possible.

In a margin note, the editor points out: “Heisenberg’s figure of £500 million is accurate. At the then-official exchange rate it is equal to $2 billion. President Truman’s account of the expense, released on August 6, stated: ‘We spent $2,000,000,000 on the greatest scientific gamble in history — and won.’ …Isotope separation accounted for a large share but by no means the whole of that…”

Hahn: I didn’t think it would be possible for another 20 years.

Karl Wirtz (head of reactor construction at a German physics institute): I’m glad we didn’t have it.

Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (theoretical physicist): I think it is dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.

Heisenberg: One can’t say that. One could equally well say “That’s the quickest way of ending the war.”

Hahn: That’s what consoles me.

Heisenberg: I don’t believe a word about the bomb but I may be wrong…

Hahn: Once I wanted to suggest that all uranium should be sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I always thought that one could only make a bomb of such a size that a whole province would be blown up.

Weizsäcker: How many people were working on V1 and V2?

Kurt Diebner (physicist and organizer of the German Army’s fission project): Thousands worked on that.

Heisenberg: We wouldn’t have had the moral courage to recommend to the government in the spring of 1942 that they should employ 120,000 men just for building the thing up.

Weizsäcker: I believe the reason we didn’t do it was because all the physicists didn’t want to do it, on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded.

Hahn: I don’t believe that but I am thankful we didn’t succeed.

There is much more of interest in these transcripts. It is fascinating to eavesdrop on leading scientists’ unfiltered comments as they realize how badly their team was beaten to the finish line, and that the whole world has stepped from one era into another.

Books, music, etc. from September 2016

Books

  • Hanson, The Age of Em [dense; interesting; a worthy project even if very speculative]
  • Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided [fun]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior (2014)
  • Potrykus, Buzzard (2014)
  • Benson & Moorhead, Spring (2014)
  • Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
  • Koreeda, Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Media I’m looking forward to, October 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

Movies & TV

(only including movies and TV series or miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • Malick, Voyage of Time (Oct 2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (Nov 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Daldry & Caron, The Crown (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (TBD 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Villeneuve, Blade Runner sequel (Oct 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • *Aronofsky, [Untitled] (Dec 2017)
  • Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

Technology forecasts from The Year 2000

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson is pretty optimistic about our ability to forecast the long-term future:

Some say that there is little point in trying to foresee the non-immediate future. But in fact there have been many successful forecasts of this sort.

In the rest of this section, Hanson cites eight examples of forecasting success. Two of his examples of “success” are forecasts of technologies that haven’t arrived yet: atomically precise manufacturing and advanced starships. Another of his examples is The Year 2000:

A particularly accurate book in predicting the future was The Year 2000, a 1967 book by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener (Kahn and Wiener 1967). It accurately predicted population, was 80% correct for computer and communication technology, and 50% correct for other technology (Albright 2002).

As it happens, when I first read this paragraph I had already begun to evaluate the technology forecasts from The Year 2000 for the Open Philanthropy Project, relying on the same source Hanson did for determining which forecasts came true and which did not (Albright 2002).

However, my assessment of Kahn & Wiener’s forecasting performance is much less rosy than Hanson’s. For details, see here.

Hanson on intelligence explosion, from Age of Em

Economist Robin Hanson is among the most informed critics of the plausibility of what he calls a “local” intelligence explosion. He’s written on the topic many times before (most of it collected here), but here’s one more take from him on it, from Age of Em:

…some people foresee a rapid local “intelligence explosion” happening soon after a smart AI system can usefully modify its own mental architecture…

In a prototypical local explosion scenario, a single AI system with a supporting small team starts with resources that are tiny on a global scale. This team finds and then applies a big innovation in AI software architecture to its AI system, which allows this team plus AI combination to quickly find several related innovations. Together this innovation set allows this AI to quickly become more effective than the entire rest of the world put together at key tasks of theft or innovation.

That is, even though an entire world economy outside of this team, including other AIs, works to innovate, steal, and protect itself from theft, this one small AI team becomes vastly better at some combination of (1) stealing resources from others, and (2) innovating to make this AI “smarter,” in the sense of being better able to do a wide range of mental tasks given fixed resources. As a result of being better at these things, this AI quickly grows the resources that it controls and becomes more powerful than the entire rest of the world economy put together, and so it takes over the world. And all this happens within a space of days to months.

Advocates of this explosion scenario believe that there exists an as-yet-undiscovered but very powerful architectural innovation set for AI system design, a set that one team could find first and then keep secret from others for long enough. In support of this belief, advocates point out that humans (1) can do many mental tasks, (2) beat out other primates, (3) have a common IQ factor explaining correlated abilities across tasks, and (4) display many reasoning biases. Advocates also often assume that innovation is vastly underfunded today, that most economic progress comes from basic research progress produced by a few key geniuses, and that the modest wage gains that smarter people earn today vastly underestimate their productivity in key tasks of theft and AI innovation. In support, advocates often point to familiar myths of geniuses revolutionizing research areas and weapons.

Honestly, to me this local intelligence explosion scenario looks suspiciously like a super-villain comic book plot. A flash of insight by a lone genius lets him create a genius AI. Hidden in its super-villain research lab lair, this genius villain AI works out unprecedented revolutions in AI design, turns itself into a super-genius, which then invents super-weapons and takes over the world. Bwa-ha-ha.

Many arguments suggest that this scenario is unlikely (Hanson and Yudkowsky 2013). Specifically, (1) in 60 years of AI research high-level architecture has only mattered modestly for system performance, (2) new AI architecture proposals are increasingly rare, (3) algorithm progress seems driven by hardware progress (Grace 2013), (4) brains seem like ecosystems, bacteria, cities, and economies in being very complex systems where architecture matters less than a mass of capable detail, (5) human and primate brains seem to differ only modestly, (6) the human primate difference initially only allowed faster innovation, not better performance directly, (7) humans seem to have beat other primates mainly via culture sharing, which has a plausible threshold effect and so doesn’t need much brain difference, (8) humans are bad at most mental tasks irrelevant for our ancestors, (9) many human “biases” are useful adaptations to social complexity, (10) human brain structure and task performance suggest that many distinct modules contribute on each task, explaining a common IQ factor (Hampshire et al. 2012), (11) we expect very smart AI to still display many biases, (12) research today may be underfunded, but not vastly so (Alston et al. 2011; Ulku 2004), (13) most economic progress does not come from basic research, (14) most research progress does not come from a few geniuses, and (15) intelligence is not vastly more productive for research than for other tasks.

(And yes, the entire book is roughly this succinct and dense with ideas.)

Books, music, etc. from August 2016

Books

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Various, BoJack Horseman, Season 3 (2016)
  • Trey Parker, South Park, Season 19 (2015)
  • Steven Zaillian, The Night Of (2016)

Media I’m looking forward to, September 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round

Movies & Miniseries

(only including movies and miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • C.K. & Adlon, Better Things (Sep 2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (Sep 2016)
  • Dardenne brothers, The Unknown Girl (Oct 2016)
  • Malick, Voyage of Time (Oct 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (TBD 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

Rockefeller’s chief philanthropy advisor

Frederick T. Gates was the chief philanthropic advisor to oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, arguably the richest person in modern history and one of the era’s greatest philanthropists. Here’s a brief profile from Rockefeller biography Titan (h/t @danicgross):

Like Rockefeller himself, Gates yoked together two separate selves—one shrewd and worldly, the other noble and high-flown…

After graduating from the seminary in 1880, Gates was assigned his first pastorate in Minnesota. When his young bride, Lucia Fowler Perkins, dropped dead from a massive internal hemorrhage after sixteen months of marriage, the novice pastor not only suffered an erosion of faith but began to question the competence of American doctors — a skepticism that later had far-reaching ramifications for Rockefeller’s philanthropies…

Eventually Gates became Rockefeller’s philanthropic advisor, and:

What Gates gave to his boss was no less vital. Rockefeller desperately needed intelligent assistance in donating his money at a time when he could not draw on a profession of philanthropic experts. Painstakingly thorough, Gates combined moral passion with great intellect. He spent his evenings bent over tomes of medicine, economics, history, and sociology, trying to improve himself and find clues on how best to govern philanthropy. Skeptical by nature, Gates saw a world crawling with quacks and frauds, and he enjoyed grilling people with trenchant questions to test their sincerity. Outspoken, uncompromising, he never hesitated to speak his piece to Rockefeller and was a peerless troubleshooter.

For some details on Rockefeller’s philanthropic successes, see here.

Philosophical habits of mind

In an interesting short paper from 1993, Bernard Baars and Katharine McGovern list several philosophical “habits of mind” and contrast them with typical scientific habits of mind. The philosophical habits of mind they list, somewhat paraphrased, are:

  1. A great preference for problems that have survived centuries of debate, largely intact.
  2. A tendency to set the most demanding criteria for success, rather than more achievable ones.
  3. Frequent appeal to thought experiments (rather than non-intuitional evidence) to carry the major burden of argument.
  4. More focus on rhetorical brilliance than testability.
  5. A delight in paradoxes and “impossibility proofs.”
  6. Shifting, slippery definitions.
  7. A tendency to legislate the empirical sciences.

I partially agree with this list, and would add several items of my own.

Obviously this list does not describe all of philosophy. Also, I think (English-language) philosophy as a whole has become more scientific since 1993.

Books, music, etc. from July 2016

Books

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

Media I’m looking forward to, August 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round

Movies & Miniseries

(only including movies and miniseries which AFAIK have at least started principal photography)

  • *C.K. & Adlon, Better Things (Sep 2016)
  • Cianfrance, The Light Between Oceans (Sep 2016)
  • Malick, Voyage of Time (Oct 2016)
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Nov 2016)
  • Nichols, Loving (Nov 2016)
  • Scorcese, Silence (Nov 2016)
  • Edwards, Rogue One (Dec 2016)
  • *BBC Natural History Unit, Planet Earth II (TBD 2016)
  • Villeneuve, Story of Your Life (TBD 2016)
  • Dardenne brothers, The Unknown Girl (TBD 2016)
  • Swanberg, Win It All (TBD 2016)
  • Farhadi, The Salesman (TBD 2016)
  • Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes (Jul 2017)
  • Nolan, Dunkirk (Jul 2017)
  • Unkrich, Coco (Nov 2017)
  • Johnson, Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec 2017)
  • Payne, Downsizing (Dec 2017)
  • *Simon & Pelecanos, The Deuce (TBD)

Rapoport’s First Rule and Efficient Reading

Philosopher Daniel Dennett advocates following “Rapoport’s Rules” when writing critical commentary. He summarizes the first of Rapoport’s Rules this way:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

If you’ve read many scientific and philosophical debates, you’re aware that this rule is almost never followed. And in many cases it may be inappropriate, or not worth the cost, to follow it. But for someone like me, who spends a lot of time trying to quickly form initial impressions about the state of various scientific or philosophical debates, it can be incredibly valuable and time-saving to find a writer who follows Rapoport’s First Rule, even if I end up disagreeing with that writer’s conclusions.

One writer who, in my opinion, seems to follow Rapoport’s First Rule unusually well is Dennett’s “arch-nemesis” on the topic of consciousness, the philosopher David Chalmers. Amazingly, even Dennett seems to think that Chalmers embodies Rapoport’s 1st Rule. Dennett writes:

Chalmers manifestly understands the arguments [for and against type-A materialism, which is Dennett’s view]; he has put them as well and as carefully as anybody ever has… he has presented excellent versions of [the arguments for type-A materialism] himself, and failed to convince himself. I do not mind conceding that I could not have done as good a job, let alone a better job, of marshaling the grounds for type-A materialism. So why does he cling like a limpet to his property dualism?

As far as I can tell, Dennett is saying “Thanks, Chalmers, I wish I’d thought of putting the arguments for my view that way.”

And because of Chalmers’ clarity and fairness, I have found Chalmers’ writings on consciousness to be more efficiently informative than Dennett’s, even though my own current best-guesses about the nature of consciousness are much closer to Dennett’s than to Chalmers’.

Contrast this with what I find to be more typical in the consciousness literature (and in many other literatures), which is for an article’s author(s) to present as many arguments as they can think of for their own view, and downplay or mischaracterize or not-even-mention the arguments against their view.

I’ll describe one example, without naming names. Recently I read two recent papers, each of which had a section discussing the evidence for or against the “cortex-required view,” which is the view that a cortex is required for phenomenal consciousness. (I’ll abbreviate it as “CRV.”)

The pro-CRV paper is written as though it’s a closed case that a cortex is required for consciousness, and it doesn’t cite any of the literature suggesting the opposite. Meanwhile, the anti-CRV paper is written as though it’s a closed case that a cortex isn’t required for consciousness, and it doesn’t cite any literature suggesting that it is required. Their differing passages on CRV cite literally zero of the same sources. Each paper pretends as though the entire body of literature cited by the other paper just doesn’t exist.

If you happened to read only one of these papers, you’d come a way with a very skewed view of the likelihood of the cortex-required view. You might realize how skewed that view is later, but if you’re reading only a few papers on the topic, so that you can form an impression quickly, you might not.

So here’s one tip for digging through some literature quickly: try to find out which expert(s) on that topic, if any, seem to follow Rapoport’s First Rule — even if you don’t find their conclusions compelling.

Seeking case studies in scientific reduction and conceptual evolution

Tim Minchin once said “Every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.” One thing I want to understand better is “How, exactly, has that happened in history? In particular, how have our naive pre-scientific concepts evolved in response to, or been eliminated by, scientific progress?

Examples: What is the detailed story of how “water” came to be identified with H2O? How did our concept of “heat” evolve over time, including e.g. when we split it off from our concept of “temperature”? What is the detailed story of how “life” came to be identified with a large set of interacting processes with unclear edge cases such as viruses decided only by convention? What is the detailed story of how “soul” was eliminated from our scientific ontology rather than being remapped onto something “conceptually close” to our earlier conception of it, but which actually exists?

I wish there was a handbook of detailed case studies in scientific reductionism from a variety of scientific disciplines, but I haven’t found any such book yet. The documents I’ve found that are closest to what I want are perhaps:

Some semi-detailed case studies also show up in Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc. but they are typically buried in a mass of more theoretical discussion. I’d prefer to read histories that focus on the historical developments.

Got any such case studies, or collections of case studies, to recommend?

Books, music, etc. from June 2016

Books

  • Mukherjee, The Gene [meh]
  • Balcombe, What a Fish Knows [meh]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Haigh, 45 Years (2015)
  • Strong & Lyn, Broadchurch Season 1 (2013)
  • Eggers, The Witch (2015)
  • Haynes, Carol (2015)
  • Nichols, Midnight Special (2016)
  • Various, Game of Thrones, Season 6 (2016)
  • Nemes, Son of Saul (2015)