Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Stuart Russell on Making Artificial Intelligence Compatible with Humans

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Artificial intelligence has made great strides of late, in areas as diverse as playing Go and recognizing pictures of dogs. We still seem to be a ways away from AI that is intelligent in the human sense, but it might not be too long before we have to start thinking seriously about the “motivations” and “purposes” of artificial agents. Stuart Russell is a longtime expert in AI, and he takes extremely seriously the worry that these motivations and purposes may be dramatically at odds with our own. In his book Human Compatible, Russell suggests that the secret is to give up on building our own goals into computers, and rather programming them to figure out our goals by actually observing how humans behave.

More here.

The Cell

Jimmy Carter, Abigail Chang, Francesco Marullo and Agata Siemionow at nonsite:

The room is perhaps the fundamental element of any architecture. As a primitive hut, a simple shelter, a cave or a retreat, the room commands a unique and unrepeatable definition of a place. Making room means to clear a space for oneself: to identify a limit between inside and outside (room, from the proto-Indoeuropean root reue-“to open, space”). Like organs in a body, specific arrangements of rooms correspond to species of buildings with distinctive characteristics. Despite its concatenations, a room always preserves the possibility of autonomy, as a stand-alone entity. In the Western classical tradition—from Vitruvius to Alberti and Palladio—rooms are usually categorized according to forms accurately proportioned to their fulfilled functions.

Within an imaginary catalog of rooms, the cell could be considered its contradictory expression.

more here.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Dustin Illingworth at The Paris Review:

William Gass has written of the book’s “terminological greed,” a phrase that goes some way in preparing the reader for The Anatomy’s extraordinary surfeit. Burton the anatomist reaches us as a thoroughly modern figure, a gathering of vibrant and contradictory energies. He is a model of inconsistency, equally at home in sense and nonsense, science and superstition, asceticism and sensuality. He apologizes for the length of his digressions only to plunge into yet more. The resultant overgrowth of text is a sort of radiant miscellany; an accumulation of conjecture, proof, rumor, and heresy; endless lists of proper names, foods, herbs, symptoms, profligate et ceteras, disputations, and lengthy essays within essays. Though not itself a novel, Burton’s fabulous act of literary excess prefigures the encyclopedic postwar fictions of the twentieth century—Gravity’s RainbowJ RUnderworld—in which poetics and technics came together to approximate the informational density of culture.

more here.

Tomas Pueyo: How to Do Testing and Contact Tracing for Coronavirus

Tomas Pueyo in Medium:

Many countries are enduring the Hammer today: a heavy set of social distancing measures that have stopped the economy. Millions have lost their jobs, their income, their savings, their businesses, their freedom. The economic cost is brutal. Countries are desperate to know what they need to do to open up the economy again.

These four measures need each other. They don’t work without one another:

  • With testing, we find out who is infected
  • With isolations, we prevent them from infecting others
  • With contact tracing, we figure out the people with whom they’ve been in contact
  • With quarantines, we prevent these contacts from infecting others

Testing and contact tracing are the intelligence, while isolations and quarantines are the action. We’ll dive into the first two today — testing and contact tracing — and the next two will be covered next.

More here.

The Shakespeareans

Brooke Allen in The Hudson Review:

The Club: no literary club has ever equaled the one founded in London in 1764 by Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and a handful of others, and which came to include the very brightest intellectual, artistic and political stars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Leo Damrosch provided a close study of the Club, its members, and its doings during the first couple of decades of its long life (it still exists today), in a book I reviewed in The Hudson Review’s Spring 2019 issue: The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age.

But considerations of length (for the material he grappled with is voluminous, to say the least) confined Damrosch, mostly, to the biographical. There is another way to look at this group of remarkable friends, and perhaps a more fruitful one, and that is to focus on the contributions they made, as a group, to a number of fields of endeavor during this period: aesthetics, the theater, literary studies, biography, science, archaeology, political and moral philosophy. They never formed a school; each thinker in the Club was individual and occasionally antipathetic to its other members; but their joint endeavors pushed each of these fields forward toward modernity, sometimes to a remarkable degree. This was particularly true in the field of Shakespearean studies and performance.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare had become the iconic English genius—Britain’s answer to Homer, Dante, Cervantes. But this had not always been the general opinion and was not so at the outset of the eighteenth century. There had been a gradual elevation of Shakespeare from just one among several popular Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights to the one and only national treasure: “a kind of established religion in poetry,” as the playwright Arthur Murphy was already describing him in 1753, as well as a focus for a new, patriotic British nationalism that had begun to coalesce at that time. It was a process in which several members of the Club were intimately involved, both individually and as a team. Shakespeare might well have achieved his cultural apotheosis without these men, but the process would have been slower and less certain. Scholarship, criticism, performance, interpretation: the Club members had a profound effect on each of these aspects of Shakespeareanism.

The modern idea of “Shakespeare,” both as artist and ideal genius, was essentially an eighteenth-century creation, though it is often credited to the Romantics.

More here.

What the Coronavirus Crisis Reveals About American Medicine

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:

At 4:18 a.m. on February 1, 1997, a fire broke out in the Aisin Seiki company’s Factory No. 1, in Kariya, a hundred and sixty miles southwest of Tokyo. Soon, flames had engulfed the plant and incinerated the production line that made a part called a P-valve—a device used in vehicles to modulate brake pressure and prevent skidding. The valve was small and cheap—about the size of a fist, and roughly ten dollars apiece—but indispensable. The Aisin factory normally produced almost thirty-three thousand valves a day, and was, at the time, the exclusive supplier of the part for the Toyota Motor Corporation. Within hours, the magnitude of the loss was evident to Toyota. The company had adopted “just in time” (J.I.T.) production: parts, such as P-valves, were produced according to immediate needs—to precisely match the number of vehicles ready for assembly—rather than sitting around in stockpiles. But the fire had now put the whole enterprise at risk: with no inventory in the warehouse, there were only enough valves to last a single day. The production of all Toyota vehicles was about to grind to a halt. “Such is the fragility of JIT: a surprise event can paralyze entire networks and even industries,” the management scholars Toshihiro Nishiguchi and Alexandre Beaudet observed the following year, in a case study of the episode.

Toyota’s response was extraordinary: by six-thirty that morning, while the factory was still smoldering, executives huddled to organize the production of P-valves at other factories. It was a “war room,” one official recalled. The next day, a Sunday, small and large factories, some with no direct connection to Toyota, or even to the automotive industry, received detailed instructions for manufacturing the P-valves. By February 4th, three days after the fire, many of these factories had repurposed their machines to make the valves. Brother Industries, a Japanese company best known for its sewing machines and typewriters, adapted a computerized milling device that made typewriter parts to start making P-valves. The ad-hoc work-around was inefficient—it took fifteen minutes to complete each valve, its general manager admitted—but the country’s largest company was in trouble, and so the crisis had become a test of national solidarity. All in all, Toyota lost some seventy thousand vehicles—an astonishingly small number, given the millions of orders it fulfilled that year. By the end of the week, it had increased shifts and lengthened hours. Within the month, the company had rebounded.

Every enterprise learns its strengths and weaknesses from an Aisin-fire moment—from a disaster that spirals out of control. What those of us in the medical profession have learned from the covid-19 crisis has been dismaying, and on several fronts. Medicine isn’t a doctor with a black bag, after all; it’s a complex web of systems and processes. It is a health-care delivery system—providing antibiotics to a child with strep throat or a new kidney to a patient with renal failure. It is a research program, guiding discoveries from the lab bench to the bedside. It is a set of protocols for quality control—from clinical-practice guidelines to drug and device approvals. And it is a forum for exchanging information, allowing for continuous improvement in patient care. In each arena, the pandemic has revealed some strengths—including frank heroism and ingenuity—but it has also exposed hidden fractures, silent aneurysms, points of fragility. Systems that we thought were homeostatic—self-regulating, self-correcting, like a human body in good health—turned out to be exquisitely sensitive to turbulence, like the body during critical illness. Everyone now asks: When will things get back to normal? But, as a physician and researcher, I fear that the resumption of normality would signal a failure to learn. We need to think not about resumption but about revision.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Letter to my Children on Goya’s Executions of the Third of May

I don’t know, children, what world will be yours.
It’s possible (everything’s possible) that it will be
the world I wish for you. A simple world,
in which the only difficulty will come
from there being nothing that’s not simple and natural.
A world in which everything will be allowed,
according to your fancy, your yearning, your pleasure,
your respect for others and their respect for you.
It’s also possible that it won’t be this, and that this
won’t even be what you want in life. Everything’s possible,
even though we fight, as we must fight,
on behalf of our idea of freedom and justice
and – still more important – in steadfast
allegiance to the honour of being alive.
One day you will realize what a vast multitude,
as countless as humanity, felt this way,
loving others for whatever they had that was unique,
unusual, free, different,
and they were sacrificed, tortured, beaten
and hypocritically handed over to secular justice,
to be liquidated “with sovereign pity and without bloodshed”.
For being loyal to a god, to a conviction,
to a country, to a hope, or merely
to the irrefutable hunger that gnawed them from within,
they were gutted, flayed, burned, gassed,
and their bodies heaped up as anonymously as they had lived,
or their ashes scattered so that no memory of them remained.
Read more »

Minima Pedagogica: Teachable Moments from the Damaged Life

by Eric J. Weiner


As an “intellectual in emigration,” Theodor Adorno wrote Mimima Moralia, his book of philosophical, sociological, cultural, and psychological reflections “from the standpoint of subjective experience, [which] means that the pieces do not entirely measure up to the philosophy, of which they are nevertheless a part.” I have always been fascinated by this book. As form follows function, he uses common aphorisms as a springboard for this particular advance of critical theory; each section is a short but deep dive into the very essence of the experience about which he ruminates. As an intellectual in quarantine away from my home, I felt some loose kinship to Adorno’s condition of displacement and found the form compelling as well as comforting. My mind and spirit are restless and conflicted; protected yet partially blinded by my shelter, I nevertheless try to see, understand and find a kind of educated hope in the fact that through critical reflection there are pedagogical moments in the present and past from which to learn and grow.

Part One


Nothing is harmless anymore–Theodor Adorno


Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee–Often referenced as the shortest poem ever written, Muhammad Ali’s poem “Me, We!” captures in the most succinct way the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic presents to a species not quite ready for primetime. According to George Plimpton in the film When We Were Kings, after Ali completed his commencement address to Harvard’s graduating class of ‘75, a student yelled out from the audience, “Give us a poem!” I imagine “The Greatest” looking out from the podium over the congregation of overwhelmingly white faces—punctuated like an exclamation point by the occasional brown one—and spreading his famously long arms as if getting ready to accept the love of a neglected child. A grin widens across that beautifully regal face as he recites, “Me, We!”; a stinging jab, followed by a powerful overhand right.


You never forget how to ride a bike—Reuters, April 4, 2020, journalist Gabriella Borter writes, “Hospitals and morgues in [New York City] are struggling to treat the desperately ill and bury the dead. Crematories have extended their hours and burned bodies into the night, with corpses piling up so quickly that city officials were looking elsewhere in the state for temporary interment sites.” My nine-year-old daughter, on this same day, in a town about eighty-five miles from the crematories and refrigerated temporary morgues, learns to ride her bike. A northwest wind rips open several days of raw rain, ushering in chilly spring air, cerulean sky, and bursts of Goldenrod along the harbor’s edge. It takes just a short jog and gentle push from me to send her off into that magical moment in which velocity, gravity and centrifugal force mix with our human capacity, need and desire for balance; her triumphant laughter and hoots of delight are stolen by the wind as she pedals her bike farther and farther away from me. Read more »

Hearts In Hiding

by Rafaël Newman

For C.J. Newman

My father is no longer at home.

He returned to Montreal, the city of his birth, on retirement from the University of British Columbia, and has been living in the bottom half of a duplex in the Mile End district since. Some time ago he decided to sell the flat to a friend and now continues to inhabit it as a tenant, an arrangement known as viager, or “life lease”. My father’s place is near avenue Bernard; the strip of that thoroughfare starting at avenue du Parc and intersecting Jeanne Mance, Esplanade, Waverly, and Saint-Urbain has undergone gentrification since he was young, and now features a bookstore specializing in graphic novels and a variety of trendy, ironically louche venues; farther afield there are the celebrated feuding bagel bakeries, St-Viateur and Fairmount, each with its coterie of hipster disciples. Beginning in the adjacent Outremont district and spreading across Parc and down past those four perpendicular streets (whose initials, Ouija-style, eerily spell the word J.E.W.S.), there is also a large community of Hasidim, whom my father enjoys addressing (and occasionally serenading) in the Yiddish of his childhood, which was spent not far from here in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, among Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement. Those early immigrants, my father’s extended family and their compatriots, have long since moved on, to more salubrious districts to the southwest, away from tenements and walk-ups and into modern high-rises; or out of the province of Quebec altogether, to neighboring Ontario and beyond. My father’s immediate family – my grandparents, aunt, and uncle – have all died, leaving him with only a handful of cousins nearby, from whom he is for the most part estranged.

None of these disappearances or displacements, however, is the source of my father’s current alienation, which is not physical, but rather spiritual. Read more »

When The Market Comes to the Model

by R. Passov

Modeling in finance is done through the lens of mathematics. To put something into a model where you are not guided by observable constants, such as the speed of light, requires assumptions.

With so many models off the shelf a common understanding of assumptions is slipping by. If you go far enough back, most good finance text books bothered to explain the assumptions underlying the model. One such text – Modern Finance by Copeland and Weston – offers a comprehensive discussion of the assumptions necessary to argue that the world of asset pricing is mean-variant efficient (MVE.)

MVE underpins the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), the second most important model in all of finance; a model most students in business classes in western universities are exposed to; and something that simply can’t work. Much can be proven about what the model can say.

The most important of which is that there’s a certain portfolio of assets – the Efficient Frontier – that is better than all others.

But it turns out that while this portfolio can always be found in historical data, it can never be identified in the present.

But there are other models which can be derived from the same set of unrealistic assumptions. In 1997, The Nobel Prize committee awarded the prize in Economic Sciences to Robert Merton and Myron Scholes for their “… method to determine the value of derivatives,” – the Black Scholes Options Pricing Model (BS).

These two, along with Fisher Black who had passed prior to the award, solved the puzzle of pricing the right which affords its holder a specific time frame within which to purchase, for a set price, a risky asset. The right can be to buy (a call) or sell (a put) or otherwise manipulated in almost any fashion that mathematics allows, and still some form of the BS equation will arrive at a price.

The assumptions necessary for the options pricing model to mirror reality have never been met. And yet, pricing options and the reams of creative derivatives that spew forth is a several-hundred-trillion-dollar market.

The notional value of derivatives collapse, or ‘net,’ to a much smaller number as most activity is part of a giant zero-sum game. Still, options exist. Farmers have long since contracted in advance to sell yet-to-be harvested crop. It’s only in the past 45 years that a workable formula has been available to help someone negotiate a price.

The basic formula was derived in 1900 by a French mathematician. Read more »

The Mythological President

by Akim Reinhardt

Why not try an analogy? | The Floor is YoursViolence : War :: Lies : Mythology

This analogy holds. Violence is central to war, and lies are central to mythology. At the same time, violence and lies often stem from one or a few people, whereas war and mythology exist and function on a social level. One person can be violent to another, but warfare, by definition, involves entire societies. Likewise, one person can lie to another, but mythology, by definition, involves an entire society.

Donald Trump lies. A lot. Clearly more than most people, and probably more than any other president. Arguably professional journalism’s greatest failing of the last several years has been its reticence to label him a liar or to even identify his lies as such. Instead, they almost always play it safe, on the grounds that they cannot read his mind, and settle for euphemisms. He is incorrect. His statements are inaccurate. Respected, professional news outlets almost never state the obvious and the real. He is a liar. He lies. What he said is a lie.  Not all of it, of course.  Some if it is just gross stupidity.  But also intentionally lies.  A lot.

This is very important. Because Donald Trump’s many individual lies allow and the vast army of right wing media to perpetuate the mythology of Donald Trump.

A myth is full of statements that are “inaccurate” or “incorrect.” Sometimes these are expressed as supernatural impossibilities. Sometimes they are false statements purporting to be fact. Either way, a society can bundle up these individual lies and transform them into a mythological truth. Take for example story of Pocahontas. Read more »

Biden’s Binders: We Select A Veep

by Michael Liss

That Fifties-looking gent to your right is John J. Sparkman (D-Alabama) who was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1952. Sparkman served in Congress for more than 40 years, the last 32 of them in the Senate. While not a star, he was associated with several pieces of important legislation and became Chair of the Senate Banking Committee and, late in his career, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a committed segregationist and, in 1956, signed the Southern Manifesto, in emphatic opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education.

Not the best look in what was then an evolving Democratic Party, and the party bosses who made the decisions in those days knew it. When it became time for Ike to crush Stevenson again, Sparkman was replaced by Tennessee’s more liberal Estes Kefauver, who did not sign the Southern Manifesto. Sparkman remained in the Senate, where he served for 23 more years.

This scary-looking guy to your left is John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who, during a truly extraordinary career that included being a Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War, also managed to sneak in two terms as Vice President under two very different Presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. You are going to hear a lot over the next few weeks about “chemistry” between Joe Biden and his running mate. Suffice it to say that John C. Calhoun never had chemistry with anyone, except perhaps of the combustible kind. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Calhoun disagreed constantly, particularly on the enforcement of federal laws that South Carolina found not to its liking (including the juicily named “Tariff of Abominations”), which led Mr. Calhoun to resign the Vice Presidency during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.

I bring you these little worm-eaten chestnuts as an appetizer before today’s entrée, the coming vetting of either the next Vice President of the United States, or the next footnote to history. Sparkman’s and Calhoun’s experiences came to mind when it was announced that this is the week when Joe Biden’s team starts seriously thumbing through his binders of women. Since I have written kindly about Joe in the past, I thought he’d appreciate the input. Mr. Vice President, give me a call. Read more »

On the Road: Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

by Bill Murray

A fine young man with a Yesus Kristus medallion bouncing around beneath his mirror drove us the seven or so kilometers into Mt. Kinabalu park, through the sleeping village of Kundasang. Farmers congregated at a warren of tin-roofed stalls along the main road. It looked like a good day for green tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage.

They hauled us all in bas minis from the ranger station to the trailhead. From there, a six-kilometer trail led up to our destination, the Laban Ratah guest house, at 11,000 feet. At 13,432 feet, Mt. Kinabalu’s summit, in Malaysian Borneo, is the highest point in Southeast Asia.

Just at first the trail led downhill, charming, to a cool, wet place called Carson’s Falls. On the way down the mountain, conversely, having to climb at the end was just one last kick in the butt on the way out the door.The first kilometer (the trail was marked at each 1/2 kilometer) popped by in 23 minutes. We were flyin’, and all that stuff about how hard this would be was just talk. The first kilometer, we only stopped long enough to shed our wraps.

Still before 8:00 a.m. no sunlight had fought its way to the forest floor. The air was downright chilly once our shirts turned sweaty. And they did — at the first K marker they weren’t soaked through, but a breeze blew down the rise and chilled our damp skin.

We were cocky, jaunty, making tracks, and unappreciative of the flora, except the little violet flower of the Kinabalu Balsam, which was shaped more like it had a beard than lower petals.

The massif stood silent and still, the only sounds birds or a rustling squirrel. There are no monkeys on Mt. Kinabalu. They live nearer the sea, to the east. Read more »

Interpretation and truth, part 1: History

by Dave Maier

The word “interpretivism” suggests to most people a particularly crazy sort of postmodern relativism cum skepticism. If our relations to reality are merely interpretive and perspectival (I will use these terms interchangeably as needed, the idea being that each interpreter has her own distinct perspective on a world not reducible to any single view), our very access to objective facts seems threatened. Nietzsche, for example, famously says that “there are no facts, only interpretations” (a careless misreading, but let’s not get into it here). Fast-forward to Jacques Derrida and the whole lit-crit crew, who claim that everything is a text; and with the triumphantly dismissive reference to that notorious postmodern imp, the game is over. Interpretation is for sissies; let’s get back to doing hard-nosed empirical science (or objective metaphysics).

On this account, the opposite of “interpretive” is something like “representational”: our successful beliefs simply get the world right, with no (subjective, open-ended, wishy-washy) interpretation required. This makes sense up to a point. Our beliefs portray the world as being a certain way, not as (primarily) meaningful or enlightening or useful, or whatever is characteristic of our favored interpretations. On the other hand, to distinguish belief from meaning in this way makes it seem as if interpretation does not concern itself with belief or inquiry at all. Yet even if interpretation is not the same as inquiry, or meaning the same as belief, they are – or so we post-Davidsonian pragmatists claim – more closely intertwined than this dichotomous account would indicate.

One way to sort this out is to jump right into it with a close analysis of the notions of meaning and belief in the manner of the later Davidson and Richard Rorty’s frustratingly dodgy use of same. We’ll do more of that later on (he warned); but today I wanted to try another tack. It is generally accepted that history in particular is an interpretive discipline (a “humanity,” not a “science”), yet it is commonly accepted as well that historians deal in facts. If we can see how this conceptual accommodation works in the narrower context, we may be able to transpose it, or something like it, into our larger one. In this post I will set the problem up, leaving you in suspense until next time when I reveal a possible solution. Read more »

Thomas Bernhard and the City of Dreams

by Leanne Ogasawara

Arriving in Vienna, we immediately set out for District 14, in the western suburbs of the city. Exhausted after the long journey from Los Angeles, all we wanted to do was get something to eat and crash out in our room. Unfortunately, Viennese architect Otto Wagner’s legendary church was only opened to the public for four hours a week –on Sundays from noon to 4pm. And today was Sunday, so it was now or never!

Completed in 1907, the Kirche am Steinhof is considered to be one of the the most beautiful Art Nouveau churches in the world. Located on top of a wooded hill (Ah, the Vienna Woods!), the church is part of a sprawling psychiatric hospital—once one of the largest in Europe. It is also the place where a dear friend of mine had gone on her first date with the man she fell madly in love with decades ago.

It was an odd spot for a first date. But my friend assured me: It had been perfect–and they were still going strong!

Still, I had never been on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital before. The guard stationed at the front gate inquired if we wanted to see the church: Kirche? We nodded, and he pointed up the hill. There were maybe a dozen old buildings, each set within its own grove of trees, dotting the extensive grounds. The church loomed large above the wooded landscape. Its golden dome–recently renovated– was gleaming in the brilliant sunlight. I could easily understand why the locals called it: limoniberg (the lemon hill).

The hospital grounds were a cheerful place. It was only later that I learned its terrible history. Read more »