A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Short-rideThe minimalist movement in music began in the 1970s as a much-needed response to a complexity that had long ago come to sound like randomness to any but the most gifted and highly-trained musical ears.

The problem with early minimalism is that it didn’t fully reward our attention. It was good for background music. A little too close to elevator music.

Enter John Adams, the maximal minimalist. Don’t worry about boring!

Listen to A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

John Adams is 71 years old today.

Want an encore? Try Lollapalooza



The Clod and the Pebble

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

— William Blake

The Intellectual Underpinnings of Nonviolence

Gene Sharp died last week. What Sun Tzu and Clausewitz were to war, Sharp, who was 90, was to nonviolent struggle — strategist, philosopher, guru. An American academic who worked from his modest Boston home, Sharp studied and cataloged examples of nonviolent resistance, looking at why they succeeded or failed.

Sharp’s major contribution was to demonstrate that nonviolent struggle is not only effective, it’s superior to armed struggle in most circumstances. Nonviolent action is not an appeal to a dictator’s conscience. It is a war, but fought without arms.

Sharp’s first work, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” a three-volume series published in 1973, lists 198 tactics that movements use. Marches and parades are just two. The other 196 include holding mock awards ceremonies, staying home from work, skywriting, rude gestures, suspending sports matches, performing guerrilla theater, staging work slowdowns — even withholding sex.

Read more from Tina Rosenberg, writing for the NYTimes


Artificial Intelligence: A Reality Check

Is there a qualitative difference between understanding and manipulation of symbols? Humans (and animals) are natural champs at the former, while most humans (who might have been flustered by 8th grade algebra) have trouble with the latter. Computers have gotten quite good at faking understanding by manipulating symbols.  They can do algebra and calculus so much faster and more reliably than humans that theoretical physicists operate on a different level than when I was in school 30 years ago.

In this month’s Atlantic, Douglas Hofstadter does a thorough (and amusing) job of illustrating the difference between symbol manipulation and understanding.  The reason that Google Translate is useful is not that it produces even workmanlike translations, but that we supply human intelligence at the back end to make sense of its output.

“One swallow does not a summer make.”
“One swallow does not a thirst quench.”

The word “swallow” has two different meanings that have nothing to do with one another.  Google Translate hasn’t a clue.

Even the least articulate native speaker dips into the art of language in ways that stymie the most sophisticated AI programs now available.  When you hear  “a heap of bull” your mind automatically fills in the four-letter word that was omitted for the sake of polite society.  The unwashed AI program tries to conjure a bevy of bovines.

For the present, we can agree that AI is taking shortcuts that produce impressive demonstrations, but a little probing reveals glaring shortcomings.  What about the future?

The prevailing view, which Hofstadter reiterates, is that understanding is in principle something that computers can do, but that a huge database of facts about the world needs to be available, with all appropriate associations.

The more radical view is that human minds are doing something qualitatively different from what a computer can ever possibly do.  Many laypeople come to this view from common sense.  But in the elite world of mathematical philosophers, the only prominent thinker who defends it is Roger Penrose.


Turn the Other Cheekiness

The world’s great religions counsel us to humility, tolerance, and generous service. Nietzsche invites us to partake of pride and self-assertion. Is this madness? Or does he relish the role of the contrarian, pushing our buttons for effect? We cannot deny that he shakes us up, causes us to rethink. — JJM

One day had Zarathustra fallen asleep under a fig-tree, owing to the heat, with his arms over his face. And there came an adder and bit him in the neck, so that Zarathustra screamed with pain. When he had taken his arm from his face he looked at the serpent; and then did it recognise the eyes of Zarathustra, wriggled awkwardly, and tried to get away. “Not at all,” said Zarathustra, “as yet hast thou not received my thanks! Thou hast awakened me in time; my journey is yet long.” “Thy journey is short,” said the adder sadly; “my poison is fatal.” Zarathustra smiled. “When did ever a dragon die of a serpent’s poison?”–said he. “But take thy poison back! Thou art not rich enough to present it to me.” Then fell the adder again on his neck, and licked his wound.

When Zarathustra once told this to his disciples they asked him: “And what, O Zarathustra, is the moral of thy story?” And Zarathustra answered them thus:

The destroyer of morality, the good and just call me: my story is immoral.

When, however, ye have an enemy, then return him not good for evil: for that would abash him. But prove that he hath done something good to you.

And rather be angry than abash any one! And when ye are cursed, it pleaseth me not that ye should then desire to bless. Rather curse a little also!

And should a great injustice befall you, then do quickly five small ones besides. Hideous to behold is he on whom injustice presseth alone.

Did ye ever know this? Shared injustice is half justice. And he who can bear it, shall take the injustice upon himself!

A small revenge is humaner than no revenge at all. And if the punishment be not also a right and an honour to the transgressor, I do not like your punishing.

Nobler is it to own oneself in the wrong than to establish one’s right, especially if one be in the right. Only, one must be rich enough to do so.

I do not like your cold justice; out of the eye of your judges there always glanceth the executioner and his cold steel.

Tell me: where find we justice, which is love with seeing eyes?

Devise me, then, the love which not only beareth all punishment, but also all guilt!

Devise me, then, the justice which acquitteth every one except the judge!

Thus spake Zarathustra.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

From flickr.com: Toying With The Men {MID-245827}