Google’s AI Is Smart Enough to Understand Your Humor

Imad Khan at CNET:

Jokes, sarcasm and humor require understanding the subtleties of language and human behavior. When a comedian says something sarcastic or controversial, usually the audience can discern the tone and know it’s more of an exaggeration, something that’s learned from years of human interaction.

But PaLM, or Pathways Language Model, learned it without being explicitly trained on humor and the logic of jokes. After being fed two jokes, it was able to interpret them and spit out an explanation. In a blog post, Google shows how PaLM understands a novel joke not found on the internet.

More here.

Physicists Rewrite the Fundamental Law That Leads to Disorder

Philip Ball in Quanta:

In all of physical law, there’s arguably no principle more sacrosanct than the second law of thermodynamics — the notion that entropy, a measure of disorder, will always stay the same or increase. “If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations,” wrote the British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington in his 1928 book The Nature of the Physical World. “If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” No violation of this law has ever been observed, nor is any expected.

But something about the second law troubles physicists. Some are not convinced that we understand it properly or that its foundations are firm. Although it’s called a law, it’s usually regarded as merely probabilistic: It stipulates that the outcome of any process will be the most probable one (which effectively means the outcome is inevitable given the numbers involved).

Yet physicists don’t just want descriptions of what will probably happen. “We like laws of physics to be exact,” said the physicist Chiara Marletto of the University of Oxford. Can the second law be tightened up into more than just a statement of likelihoods?

A number of independent groups appear to have done just that.

More here.

There are ways to defeat the billionaire class and many of these tactics have been pioneered by Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant in Seattle

Chris Hedges in his Substack newsletter:

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative (SA) party have, for nearly a decade, waged one of the most effective battles against the city’s moneyed elites. She and the SA have adopted a series of unorthodox methods to fight the ruling oligarchs and, in that confrontation, exposed the Democratic Party leadership as craven tools of the billionaire class. Her success is one that should be closely studied and replicated in city after city if we are to dismantle corporate tyranny.

Sawant, who lives on $40,000 of her $140,000 salary and places the rest into a political fund that she uses for social justice campaigns, helped lead the fight in 2014 that made Seattle the first major American city to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage.

More here.

The Almighty Gun

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

THE CARTHAGINIANS WERE some of the richest and most powerful people in the ancient world. A Phoenician colony, Carthage was located in present-day Tunisia. The city was operative from around 800 BCE until 146 BCE, when it was sacked and destroyed by the Romans.

There is something else that was notable about the Carthaginians. This particular ancient culture sacrificed its own children to their gods. The wealth and good fortune of their city-state, Carthaginians believed, could only be assured by pleasing the gods, and their gods were hungry for children. These children, many seemingly only a few weeks old, were taken to ritual locations known as “tophets.” The accumulation of archaeological evidence from Carthage studied in recent decades reveals that the sacrifices appeared to have been carried out year after year. Archaeologists excavating the “tophet” sites have found the cremated remains in over a thousand urns, all containing the remains of sacrificed children.

More here.

Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?

Virginia Gewin in Nature:

On 4 March, Christopher Jackson tweeted that he was leaving the University of Manchester, UK, to work at Jacobs, a scientific-consulting firm with headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Jackson, a prominent geoscientist, is part of a growing wave of researchers using the #leavingacademia hashtag when announcing their resignations from higher education. Like many, his discontent festered in part owing to increasing teaching demands and pressure to win grants amid lip-service-level support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He is one of many academics who say the pandemic sparked a widespread re-evaluation of scientists’ careers and lifestyles. “Universities, spun up to full speed, expected the same and more” from struggling staff members, he says, who are now reassessing where their values lie. The demands add to long-standing discontent among early-career researchers, who must work longer and harder to successfully compete for a declining number of tenure-track or permanent posts at universities. And Jackson had another reason. He received what was, in his opinion, a racially insensitive e-mail that constituted harassment and alluded to using social media to police staff opinions, which, he says, was the last straw. Jackson filed a formal complaint and the University of Manchester responded: “The investigation has now concluded. We have made Professor Jackson aware of its findings as well as the recommendations and actions we will be taking forward as an institution.”

The level of unhappiness among academics was reflected in Nature’s 2021 annual careers survey.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

What it Was Like

If you want to know what
it was like, I’ll tell you
what my tio told me:
There was a truck driver,
Antonio, who could handle a
rig as easily in reverse as
anybody else straight ahead:

Too bad he’s a Mexican was
what my tio said the
Anglos had to say
about that.

And thus the moral:

Where do you begin if
you begin with if
you’re too good
it’s too bad?

by Leroy Quintana
from El Coro
University of Massachusetts Press, 1997

The Defiant Spirit Of Glasgow’s Doocots

Douglas Stuart at Lit Hub:

Doocot or dookit is the Scottish term for a dovecote or columbarium; a structure built to nest and breed domesticated pigeons. Some doo men keep their champion pigeons in doocots cut into attic spaces or adapted garden sheds, but on the schemes I lived on, we had neither attics nor gardens, and so the men who wanted to keep pigeons built their lofts out on any piece of unclaimed ground. Aesthetically they have little in common with the traditional stone dovecotes you might find on the grounds of a manor house. The doocots I remember were monolithic towers, twenty feet tall, and they were built from salvaged materials: old Formica tabletops, screwed to corrugated iron and offcuts of MDF. It gave most doocots a rickety charm, which the men tried to disguise by painting the whole thing a uniform colour.

more here.

What Is Space Opera in the 2020s?

Grant Wythoff at the LARB:

In an afterword to Far from the Light of Heaven, Thompson asks himself if he’s writing space opera — “a conversation my editor, my agent, my cat and I had many times” — and if so, what would the tropes of that subgenre bring to his work. As a practicing psychiatrist who somehow manages another full-time career as a novelist, Thompson has shared in interviews that he’s fascinated by “flawed people in interesting circumstances.” So, when he chooses space as the setting for this story, it seems to be a choice that grants his characters unique affects and experiences that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere: a backdrop, albeit an incredibly detailed and vivid one. But Thompson also acknowledges the problematic roots of spaceflight among Nazi scientists and military weapons programs: “We can’t erase the murderous origins just because we can see the first sunsets from Mars.” And so throughout the work, you can feel the characters engaging with the ethically compromised origins of the space sublime.

more here.

Individual Action Can’t Solve Social Problems

by Martin Butler

A UK politician recently suggested that people could combat the cost-of-living crisis by working more hours or getting a better job. This is one more in a long line of instances where societal problems have been framed as being solvable by individual actions. One of the earliest I can remember was when Tory minister Norman Tebbit, following a claim that the riots of 1981 were caused by high unemployment, cited his own father as a salutary example of self-responsibility. ‘I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father,’ he said. ‘He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.’ More recently British TV personality Kirsty Alsop recommended that young people start saving earlier and cut out the fancy coffees, gym membership and Netflix subscriptions as a way of combatting unaffordable house prices.

These ‘solutions’ have a homespun attraction and are indeed the kinds of advice you might give to an individual. Lurking behind this approach however is the assumption that societal problems can be reduced to the particular problems of individuals, that getting individuals to make the right decisions is a viable solution. Those who don’t make the right decisions, it is implied, only have themselves to blame, and must also take responsibility for the wider problems of society.

Let’s look at some of the forms this argument takes. Read more »

At the Laundromat

by Michael Abraham

My mom always told me if I didn’t separate my lights from my darks, I would ding my white laundry. I always thought this was nonsense. And, in fact, in the fancy washing machine in the apartment I shared with my husband, this was nonsense. Oh, I was absolutely reckless! I would toss bright red shirts in with white sheets and black jeans in with cream-colored t’s. And it was always alright in the end. The whites stayed white, and the colors did not fade. I was confident in my millennial assessment that separating the lights from the darks was simply Gen X anxiety, old wisdom, no longer applicable, démodé even. 

Divorce means many things, and, well, one of the things that mine means is that I no longer have a fancy, in-unit washing machine. So, I am at the laundromat as I write this. And I have just finished the wash cycle. I pull my clothes out one by one to put them into the wheeled hand cart that will transport them to the dryer. I pull out a few pink shirts and a few blue shirts, and these look fine, smell fresh. And then I pull out the first white one, and it is gray. And then the next white one: gray. And so on and so forth. They are all dinged, ruined, good only for sleeping in. (My mother tells me on a phone call that I can bleach out this mistake, and this time I trust her Gen X wisdom.) I hold in my frustration. I try to chuckle about it. I load the dryer, and I go for a drink at the bar down the street (it is Sunday after all), where—after a rousing conversation with the bartender, Pedro—I continue to write this. I pray that, if someone steals my laundry, they only steal the once-white, gray t-shirts. At this point, I don’t much care.

The laundromat is an apt metaphor for where I’m at in my life right now. Read more »

The pandemic, work, and wages

by Emrys Westacott

Numerous reports have been compiled and articles written about the way that the covid pandemic has affected, or will affect, work: the way people do it, and their attitude towards it. But although certain general trends can be identified–e.g. the percentage of meetings held online rather than face-to-face has, naturally enough increased–people’s attitudes towards work and the workplace haven’t been affected in a uniform way.

Many of those who have been able to work more from home relish the advantages of doing so. They avoid time-consuming and often stressful commutes; they are able to integrate the business of ordinary living–going to the dentist, picking up a prescription, working when the kids are off school, etc.–with getting their work done. Hours can be more flexible, and the same goes for the dress code.

For others, though, working from home all the time has many drawbacks. Commuting may have a bad reputation, but for a surprising number of people it can be positively enjoyable. A Canadian study found that where the commute take less than 30 minutes more than 50% of respondents said that they enjoy their commute. And among people who cycle to work, almost a fifth said that the commute was the best part of their day.[1]

The flexibility and freedom that working from home allows is undeniably a plus. But for some, the stricter routine provided by a requirement to show up at the workplace by a certain time brings order to the day and to the use of one’s time.

Most of all, though, physical workplaces serve an important social function. Just as it is good for our physical and mental health to to get outside every day and to be in regular touch with the natural world, so it is beneficial for most of us to meet and interact with other people regularly. The relationships in question may not be the most important ones in our lives: those with our fellow workers often are not. The conversations we have don’t have to be especially intimate or stimulating. But they can still be meaningful: occasions for sorting out a problem, cracking a joke, complaining about something or someone, giving or taking advice, offering or receiving a compliment. Read more »

Monday Poem

Book-banning is just one more tool
used by demagogs to murder truth
and hollow out God’s gift of intellect.

………………………. —St. Lingo


my brain’s a pouch in which
I stash my loot

if I keep its purse strings loose
I might add to its load
when new coin comes to town

but if I tighten down
the purse strings of my mind
and garrote its capaciousness
all that I might be
will be hopelessly consigned
to dangle from its noose

Jim Culleny

Domesticated Warfare

by Mike O’Brien

“Would that I did not have to speak!” —Confucius, Analects 17:19

Some writers are cursed with the belief that they have something uniquely important to share with the world, and that they must toil in order to make this special gift known to the world. I am free of such a terrible burden. But I know that if I didn’t write, I would simply degenerate and revolve around my own private mental drain-holes, so I hitch myself to writing obligations such as this one. It seems to be working out. I do, however, get the occasional twinge to write about the things that most bedevil my mind, whether or not I believe that anything good will come of it. These are, chiefly, the inevitable and hastening collapse of “normal” climate patterns (and the ecosystems dependent on them), and the perhaps not inevitable but certainly hastening march of lawless fascism in the United States. These two issues grip me like no others, because I live on Earth and, more precisely, above the United States. I don’t think that I have the power to ameliorate either situation by concatenation of the right sequence of letters. But I do feel an itch to see my feelings about these catastrophes put into words outside of my own head. Maybe as an affirmation of my own internal experience, maybe out of some duty to witness and to testify.

I shy away from indulging this impulse because I don’t want to bore people, or to further depress myself. I suppose this is a failure to believe in the entertaining power of my own writing, because when I read other writers’ work on these subjects I am not bored (and only a little more depressed), but rather absorbed and incensed. Some months ago I found a writer whose concerns and attitudes almost completely echoed my own in the bleak realms of empire, environment and global existential hurtling. Read more »

50th Anniversary of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Revelations

by Allen Hornblum

Fifty years ago this July, newspaper headlines shocked the conscience of the nation with a disturbing story of racial bias and medical mistreatment in one of America’s most honored institutions. The alarming Associated Press story first appeared on July 25, 1972 in the Washington Star. The front page headline, “Syphilis Patients Died Untreated,” caught readers attention. They’d go on to read that the goal of a strange, non-therapeutic experiment conducted by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) was not to treat the sick or save lives, but “determine from autopsies what the disease does to the human body.”

The next day every newspaper in the country covered the story. The New York Times front-page headline “Syphilis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated For 40 Years,” informed readers that hundreds of illiterate Black sharecroppers with syphilis in Alabama were denied treatment due to their participation in a scientific study. The alarming revelation not only provoked outrage and embarrassment, but caused Americans to look with a more discerning eye at what was occurring in the hospitals, orphanages, and prisons in their communities. It would also spark a long-overdue re-evaluation of the medical community’s cavalier practice of using vulnerable populations as raw material for experimentation.

How could such a thing happen in America people wanted to know, especially under the auspices of the government and scientific community? In the following days and months, academics, lawmakers, ethicists, and op-ed writers would ponder what the repugnant, four-decade long study of “Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” said about science, race, and the soul of America? Now, a half-century on and over two decades into the 21st century – and the 90th anniversary of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study’s inception – we are still reflecting on those same questions. Read more »

The Horror Of Stuff: On Speaking Unspeakables

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Objects in a scene as detected by an AI system. Image credit: wikimedia commons, MTheiler, CC BY-SA 4.0

The world we inhabit is a world of objects. Wherever we look, we find that it comes to us already disarticulated into cleanly differentiable chunks, individuated by certain properties: the mug on the desk is made of ceramic, the desk of wood; it is white, the desk black; and so on. By some means, these properties serve to circumscribe the object they belong to, wrapping it up into a neatly tied-up parcel of reality. No additional work needs to be done cutting up the world at its joints into individual objects.

Moreover, this fact typically doesn’t strike us as puzzling: objects seem entirely non-mysterious things. I could describe this coffee mug to you, and, if I include sufficient detail, you could fashion an identical one. The same procedure could be repeated for every object in my office, indeed, for the entire office itself.

Certainly: there may be edge cases. Where I see one cloud, you might see two. When the mug is glued to the desk, they don’t seem to become one object; but certain sorts of fastening, such as assembling various electronic components into a computer, seem to beget novel objects over and above mere collections of parts. Still: there are various ways out of these troubles. The computer can be described as various sorts of parts and their arrangement; the cloud by its shape.

Objects seem eminently describable sorts of things. There seems to be no residual mystery beyond an exhaustive specification of their properties. But not everything is so amenable to description, as speakable as objects seem to be. Read more »

Arguments and Ad Hominem Online

by Joseph Shieber

Yes, Dowd is such a hack! How can anyone still read her?!

One of the aspects of contemporary intellectual life that I find baffling is the extent to which online culture revels in ad hominem attacks. By this I don’t only mean the way in which someone who offers up an argument is “called out” for some personal transgression of theirs that is utterly unrelated to the argument they’re presenting. I also mean the way in which the mere names of long-serving opinion writers can serve as a short-hand for a type of writing or position reviled by a certain internet subcommunity. (In a recent post at Three-Toed Sloth, Cosma Shalizi suggests that these aspects are endemic to literary life more generally; I should drop the qualifier “online”.)

So, for example, you might read that “pundit types … seem to forget that [Matt] Yglesias rose to the top of the blogosphere based on being from Harvard and being early in the game and that’s it. Nearly two decades later and it’s just bullshit all the way down.” Or that “[Thomas] Friedman’s true peak of influence was in the late 90s through the 00s, when he combined random fake conversations with taxi drivers, Friedman Unit facile discussions of the Iraq War, and paeans to globalization as our savior that routinely made fun of the anti-globalization movement as hopeless Luddites who wanted to hold the world back.”

(I chose these examples from the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog – a blog I greatly admire! – but I could no doubt just as easily have found similar snark on right-leaning blogs about, say, Robert Reich or Paul Krugman.)

In one sense, of course, such snark isn’t baffling at all. It’s fun to read! Also, Yglesias and Friedman are both enormously successful and enjoy outsized public platforms, something that’s likely to engender at least a smidgen of jealousy from academics and others who rarely achieve those rarified levels of public prominence.

What puzzles me is that, if the goal of a discussion is intellectual engagement with an idea or argument, then such ad hominem broadsides are at best a distraction – and at worst positively obstructive to appreciating whatever might be gained from considering that idea or argument. Read more »