Tuesday Poem

Three Poems by Nils Peterson

By the Sea

To watch a seagull fly overhead,
a girl child on the beach in red pajamas
tilts her head back and back,
impossibly back to anyone a second older.

Now she digs a hole
tossing the sand back between her legs
as if her hands were forepaws.

Now she sits on her haunches
in the hole and draws a circle
all about herself.

Now she is safe from everything.

With William

With Black William, half Lab and half
Golden Retriever, at the percolation ponds.
He is learning he likes the water and stands in it
up to his chest, snaps three times at the midges, then
erupts up the bank in a great larruping horsey gallop
surrounded for a moment by a fine thin silvery shield
of water curved like the battle shields of the Assyrians.

Tao from a Train Window

……….. a white cow
……….. picks up her
……….. right foot and
……….. places it
……….. down again.

from: All the Marvelous Stuff
Caesura Editions, Poetry Center of San José, 2019

Ozempic keeps wowing: trial data show benefits for kidney disease

Rachel Fairbank in Nature:

The blockbuster diabetes drug Ozempic — also sold as the obesity drug Wegovy — can add another health condition to the list of maladies it alleviates. Researchers presented clinical-trial data today at a conference in Stockholm, showing that it significantly reduces the risk of kidney failure and death for people with type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease. Scientists are thrilled with the result, and think that the drug, otherwise known by its generic name, semaglutide, will eventually be proved to help a more general population of people with kidney disease. This trial is a first step towards that goal, they say.

Semaglutide manufacturer Novo Nordisk, based in Bagsværd, Denmark, announced in October that it had halted its kidney-disease trial because of a recommendation from an independent data-safety monitoring board that the overwhelmingly positive results made it unethical to continue to give some participants a placebo. But until now, it hadn’t revealed the full data analysis, which is also published today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

More here.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The Frozen Trucker and the Fugitive Slave

by Barry Goldman

The “frozen trucker case” got a fair amount of attention a few years back. At Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing Senator Al Franken hammered him about it. You can watch it here. The facts of the case are these:

Alphonse Maddin was employed as a truck driver by Petitioner TransAm Trucking (“TransAm”). In January 2009, Maddin was transporting cargo through Illinois when the brakes on his trailer froze because of subzero temperatures. After reporting the problem to TransAm and waiting several hours for a repair truck to arrive, Maddin unhitched his truck from the trailer and drove away, leaving the trailer unattended. He was terminated for abandoning the trailer.

Maddin challenged his discharge in a proceeding before an Administrative Law Judge and won. TransAm appealed to the Administrative Review Board, and Maddin won again. TransAm then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which issued its decision in August of 2016, more than seven years after the incident.

The 10th Circuit found in Maddin’s favor, with Gorsuch in dissent. All that is water under the bridge. Today Gorsuch has a life appointment to the Supreme Court, and Franken is back in private life. But it is worth revisiting the case for what it can tell us about legal reasoning and judicial decision making. Read more »

The Large Language Turn: LLMs As A Philosophical Tool

by Jochen Szangolies

The schematic architecture of OpenAI’s GPT models. Image credit: Marxav, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a widespread feeling that the introduction of the transformer, the technology at the heart of Large Language Models (LLMs) like OpenAI’s various GPT-instances, Meta’s LLaMA or Google’s Gemini, will have a revolutionary impact on our lives not seen since the introduction of the World Wide Web. Transformers may change the way we work (and the kind of work we do), create, and even interact with one another—with each of these coming with visions ranging from the utopian to the apocalyptic.

On the one hand, we might soon outsource large swaths of boring, routine tasks—summarizing large, dry technical documents, writing and checking code for routine tasks. On the other, we might find ourselves out of a job altogether, particularly if that job is mainly focused on text production. Image creation engines allow instantaneous production of increasingly high quality illustrations from a simple description, but plagiarize and threaten the livelihood of artists, designers, and illustrators. Routine interpersonal tasks, such as making appointments or booking travel, might be assigned to virtual assistants, while human interaction gets lost in a mire of unhelpful service chatbots, fake online accounts, and manufactured stories and images.

But besides their social impact, LLMs also represent a unique development that make them highly interesting from a philosophical point of view: for the first time, we have a technology capable of reproducing many feats usually linked to human mental capacities—text production at near-human level, the creation of images or pieces of music, even logical and mathematical reasoning to a certain extent. However, so far, LLMs have mainly served as objects of philosophical inquiry, most notable along the lines of ‘Are they sentient?’ (I don’t think so) and ‘Will they kill us all?’. Here, I want to explore whether, besides being the object of philosophical questions, they also might be able to supply—or suggest—some answers: whether philosophers could use LLMs to elucidate their own field of study.

LLMs are, to many of their uses, what a plane is to flying: the plane achieves the same end as the bird, but by different means. Hence, it provides a testbed for certain assumptions about flight, perhaps bearing them out or refuting them by example. Read more »

Monday Poem

—“For all practical purposes a lie is as true
as the bias of its believer.”
 —Roshi Bob

Plum of a Lie

If I told you a lie
would you believe it?

….. Will it be a true lie? Will it
….. pierce my bias to the bone? Will it
….. meet my need?

Does that matter?

….. As sure as my world is flat, it does.

It would be a help then?

….. I cannot believe without a true lie
….. therefore, please tell me a plum of a lie,
….. gild it, make it sing, craft it so well
….. I’ll not know, have it swell,
….. have its juice challenge the
….. breadth
 of the universe

Shall I then?

….. Please, please—

.Jim Culleny,
3/27/18

Living Your Best Life?

by Martin Butler

The expression ‘Live your best life’ is very much in vogue. It appears more than 3 million times in Instagram posts, which are no doubt full of pictures of smiling attractive 20-somethings completing amazing sporting feats, strolling along glorious beaches or doing exciting things in exotic places. Working 12 shifts delivering parcels for Amazon presumably doesn’t make the grade. As with many other inspirational (or is it aspirational) sayings that pepper the internet, perhaps we should dismiss this expression as just part of the froth produced by internet influencers desperate for our attention. But what does its popularity say about our times? Let’s look beyond the predictable healthy lifestyle stuff and try to actually make sense of it as a philosophical idea. After all, if interpreted generously, it does have a certain philosophical pedigree.

To start with, what does best actually mean? It very much depends on how we view human beings. Regarded in a narrowly hedonic way, where the only things that matter are pleasure and pain, our best life would be one where we avoid as much pain and experience as much pleasure as possible.  This is clearly implausible for many reasons, one being the conclusion of Nozick’s powerful thought experiment: few would regard their best life as being permanently hooked up to an ‘experience machine’ which eliminated pain and provided you with nothing but delightful pleasure. The passive experiencing of pleasure would not be enough. A best life surely requires that we participate in meaningful activities which lead to fulfilment and flourishing, a point which tends to lead to a more individualistic notion. Most people are roughly similar in terms of what they find pleasurable and painful; masochists excepted, human beings tend to find physical injury painful and sweet food pleasant. This is not the case, however, with regards to living a fulfilling life. I personally wouldn’t find a life dedicated to martial arts, rock climbing or running marathons fulfilling, but for many these activities are deeply fulfilling. So is there something distinctively modern about the individualism implicit in living your best life? Read more »

This is Called Freedom

by Rebecca Baumgartner

A little over a year ago, in Allen, Texas, we saw the precise moment when a “good guy with a gun” became a “bad guy with a gun.” It turns out that the line between these two different types of people (and there are only two, we’re told) is as slight as a finger squeezing a trigger. Certainly nothing prior to that trigger-squeeze at the Allen Premium Outlets was illegal. In Texas, as of 2021, someone can legally carry eight guns in public – without a license or permit of any kind. 

Under Texas’ recently expanded “open carry” law, you can take as many guns as you want into a library. You can take as many guns as you want into the state Capitol building in Austin. You can take as many guns as you want with you while walking down the street.

This is called freedom.

It’s a freedom that requires you to accept some logical catch-22s, though. For example, the dividing line between a law-abiding citizen exercising his supposed right to bear arms and a mentally unstable man who should never have had a gun in the first place is only discernible after he has killed people. Once someone becomes a gun-wielding maniac, they retroactively never should have been allowed to have a gun. (It’s a shame they don’t have the courtesy to tell us ahead of time that they’re the bad guys.)

You can get around this conundrum if you believe in a world where people are either all good or all bad, and we can tell the difference. Gun extremists believe in a fairytale world split into dark and light. They would have us believe that it’s just a matter of finding out who falls into which camp. The forces for good get as many guns as they want and are trusted implicitly, and the forces of darkness are (somehow, without legislative intervention) kept from getting guns. And then the good guys with guns keep us safe from the bad guys with guns. Just like in stories.

But notably, and tragically, this is precisely what does not tend to happen during mass shootings in the real world. This is not what happened at the Parkland school shooting or the Orlando nightclub shooting. This is not what happened at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, either. The good guys with guns just stood there, scared out of their minds, while people died. Read more »

Theories of Art and Rachel Cusk

by Derek Neal

An excerpt of Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming novel, Parade, appeared in the Financial Times last week. The story features two narratives, one about a female painter simply referred to as “G,” told in third person, and another about a group of people visiting a farm in the countryside, told in first person plural. It is unclear how these two stories intersect in terms of plot—is G the narrator of the second story? Is she the woman living on the farm?—but these are not questions worth asking. Thematically, the two stories fit together as they both tell of women constrained and controlled by male figures of authority: in this case, their husbands.

Nestled within this narrative is a fascinating articulation of a theory of art, which is what I will focus on in this essay. Cusk does not pause the story to explain this theory, as some purveyors of “autofiction” might do, but embeds it within the story by explaining G’s different artistic periods and the way her art relates to her personal life. The story is stronger because of this.

In the beginning of G’s career, she is seemingly self-taught, lacking formal and technical skill but compensating for it with inspiration and honesty. Her painting is described as existing “autonomously, living in her like some organism that had happened to make its home there.” In this characterization, G is simply the vessel giving shape to an artistic drive she scarcely understands, rather than the source of its creation. Read more »

Pantomime: Not Just For Horses

by Mike O’Brien

This is going to be a broad-strokes, fast-and-loose affair. Or at least loose. In April I wrote a piece about recent work in the field of animal normativity, a quickly developing area of research that is of interest to me for two key reasons: first, it promises to deepen our knowledge of animal cognition and behaviour, allowing us to better attend to their welfare; second, it promises to fill in the genealogical history of our own normative senses, allowing us to better understand the human experience of morality.

Mostly following the cohort of researchers around Kristin Andrews, who are working on de-anthropocentrized taxonomies and conceptual frameworks for studying animal normativity, I noted that one question of particular interest remains outstanding, viz. “do animals have norms about norms?”. Put another way, do animals think about the (innate, and learned) norms governing life in their communities, and do they (consciously or unconsciously) follow higher-order “meta-normative” rules to resolve conflicts between two or more conflicting norms? The answer still seems to be that they do not, at least not among the higher primates who are the principal focus of study for these questions.

One possible explanation for this apparent absence of recursive or reflexive normativity among non-human animals is a lack of language. It is supposed by some that in order to make norms the object of thought, capable of being analyzed, evaluated, compared and synthesized, some system of external representation is needed, and such a system would fit most definitions of a language. If other species possessed such a powerful cognitive tool, we might suppose that they would use it for all kinds of things, not just resolving normative quandaries. And yet we don’t see much evidence for that kind of abstract, propositional communication among other species. Some tantalizing exceptions come to mind, like enculturated apes using sign language and cetacean communication exhibiting structure and complexity that we have yet to fully understand. But as yet there are no examples of bonobo judges or dolphin sages sorting out the immanent logic of their societies’ rules. Read more »

Sunday, May 26, 2024

On Salman Rushdie’s ‘Knife’

Michael O’Donnell at The Millions:

Is Salman Rushdie an artist or a symbol? Can he be one but not the other? Or perhaps it’s an all-or-nothing affair and he is both or else neither. Ever since Rushdie, the author of 13 novels, was violently attacked onstage in August 2022 at a literary event, one line of thinking has it that his books should perforce be celebrated. The New Yorker embodied this view when it made the case, with very little discussion of Rushdie’s work, to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was not an unpersuasive editorial, but in it, what Rushdie’s work represented outweighed what it contained. Yet if that’s the “both” case, the “neither” perspective feels even less satisfactory. Six days after the attempted murder, the American Conservative poured disdain on Rushdie as a free-speech icon and as a novelist, suggesting that anyone who mocks religion deserves a punch at the least and crassly asserting, “the fact that someone tried to kill an author doesn’t make that author’s books any good.”

More here.

What mosquitoes are most attracted to in human body odor is revealed

Kate Golembiewski at CNN:

“We were really motivated to try and develop a system where we could study the behavior of the African malaria mosquito in a naturalistic habitat, reflective of its native home in Africa,” McMeniman said. The researchers also wanted to compare the mosquitoes’ smell preferences across different humans, to observe the insects’ ability to track scents across distances of 66 feet (20 meters), and to study them during their most active hours, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

To tick all these boxes, the researchers created a screened facility the size of a skating rink. Dotting the perimeter of the facility were six screened tents where study participants would sleep. Air from their tents, carrying the participants’ unique breath and body odor scents, was pumped through long tubes to the main facility onto absorbent pads, warmed and baited with carbon dioxide to mimic a sleeping human.

More here.

Ken Roth: Why is the west defending Israel after the ICC requested Netanyahu’s arrest warrant?

Ken Roth in The Guardian:

In a terse statement, Joe Biden called the charges “outrageous”, stating that “there is no equivalence – none – between Israel and Hamas”. The German government, while saying it “respects the independence” of the court, echoed this “false equivalence” charge. But Khan made no claim of equivalence. He simply charged both Israeli and Hamas officials for their own separate war crimes. Indeed, given the severity of the offenses, it would have been outrageous had Khan ignored one side’s crimes. The dual charges underscore a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law: war crimes by one side never justify war crimes by another.

Ironically, Hamas responded to the proposed charges with a variation of this theme, saying that Khan’s action “equates the victim with the executioner”. But regardless of the perceived justness of one’s cause, it never justifies war crimes.

More here.

AI chatbots are intruding into online communities where people are trying to connect with other humans

Casey Fiesler in The Conversation:

A parent asked a question in a private Facebook group in April 2024: Does anyone with a child who is both gifted and disabled have any experience with New York City public schools? The parent received a seemingly helpful answer that laid out some characteristics of a specific school, beginning with the context that “I have a child who is also 2e,” meaning twice exceptional.

On a Facebook group for swapping unwanted items near Boston, a user looking for specific items received an offer of a “gently used” Canon camera and an “almost-new portable air conditioning unit that I never ended up using.”

Both of these responses were lies. That child does not exist and neither do the camera or air conditioner. The answers came from an artificial intelligence chatbot.

More here.