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Monday, January 23, 2017

Sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy

The incredible Jeroboam Bozeman of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater visited my daughter Carmen's 2nd grade class today.

I knew the visit would be special; in corresponding with him beforehand, he would sign off with variations of "sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy." I couldn't wait to see that energy in person.

And I'm so, so glad I did. I really think every child in the classroom felt his energy, light and love. Jeroboam engaged the kids right from the start, asking them questions about their lives, dreams and opinions, and getting every single child talking and responding.

He asked them to tell him their names when they spoke, insisted on getting their names right, and then complimented each child on her name. "What's your name?" "Alice." "Alice. What a wonderful name." He did this with child after child.

He spoke about the life-changing experience of seeing the Alvin Ailey dancers perform when he was a child, and seeing men like him performing with phenomenal strength and grace.

His path to the highest and most prestigious dance stage was anything but easy. He told the students about his family's struggles with housing, the bullying he faced for not conforming to expectations as a boy, and about the many times he auditioned for the Ailey company and was rejected.

No question was too small or too obvious: he took each child seriously, whether they were asking his favorite ice cream (Talenti gelato), how he felt when he was not picked as a dancer (disappointed but determined to work so hard they'd say yes the next time), or whether Ailey is only for black people (it was created to embody and reflect the black experience in America, and has a majority black company, but there are dancers, and audience members, of all kinds, and from all over the world).

He closed by having the children repeat a refrain:

I am a positive leader
My possibilities are endless
I can change the world

And had them say it again:

I am a positive leader
My possibilities are endless
I can change the world

Just imagine a room full of 7 year-olds, from all walks of life, repeating those words! What a crucial message, for any time or any age. In my mind, it was echoing together with the focused blend of joy, strength and determination I saw and felt at the women's marches last weekend.

Sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Is the left closed-minded?

I often scoff at conservatives' whining about the "PC police" and such, since such claims are often overblown and strike me as a cover for a refusal to take responsibility for stopping racism and sexism.

But, mostly privately, I know what they're talking about. Or rather, there's some overlap between my view and theirs, where we would both agree the left has some worrying traits.

I agree that there is a closed minded humorlessness that has become so rigid on the left that it shuts down productive conversation and turns away allies. I see so much "you don't get to say that" on Twitter and to a lesser degree Facebook, perhaps because Twitter operates more as a large continuous echo chamber, and Facebook more like an archipelago of somewhat separate echo chambers.

A reasonable person to engage in dialogue, like the Yale dean who wrote the letter saying there was developmental value in transgressing norms and that she didn't think she should be dictating costume choices to students, gets treated with the sort of absolutist opposition that was once reserved for the cruelly oppressive. Lena Dunham mentions in an interview that because of her looks, she felt Odell Beckham Jr. couldn't even register her as something you'd have sex with, and gets raked over the coals because of the problematic assumptions about black make sexuality her comments bring to mind.

It's not that I always disagree with the progressive analysis--far from it. But the absolute worst is always immediately assumed, and when people chime in with a "yes and, maybe they do have a point too" they are assumed to be an enemy. The Yale dean and Lena Dunham's words and actions are problematic, I agree. But I also think they are well within the realm of reasonableness. You can have disagreements, issues, and questions, without losing sight of the large overlap between their points of view and ours.

Say a friend confided in you, sighing, that she felt worthless when she dressed up and put on makeup and sat near a handsome and fit male celebrity, whose glance seemed to deny her a shred of seductive attraction. Part of you would register how her reaction is different from yours, how much she's assuming about his experience without knowing it, how she's not attuned to the possible historical echoes of a white woman presuming a black man should see her as a potential sex object. But wouldn't much more of you figure that her experience is substantially real, and that your criticisms are only part of the story? Wouldn't you keep in mind that you weren't there, and that her take might describe what happened accurately?

Alice has pointed out, when I have expressed similar concerns, that I sort of bend over backwards to come up with counterfactuals to extend doubt to otherwise solid criticisms levied by progressives. Maybe I do. I like to think that I will bend over backwards to imagine what version of the other would seem familiar; what alien concepts would feel like if they were native to my mind; how I would see an enemy if she were a friend. Am I denying that generosity to the progressive critics I'm denouncing now?

Again, maybe I am. I'll think about it. In the meantime, I do think the problem is asymmetrical. Dunham is saying ill of Beckam Jr., but she's hardly raking him through the mud. She felt that she didn't exist to him because of her looks. That's it. It's a mild drive-by criticism, not a relentless attack.

And there are, indeed, irrationally relentless attacks being made by the left. I got into a Twitter spat recently with a progressive woman whose writing I adore, just because I cautiously defended someone's point that the Clintons operate in a world of the powerful, with a vantage point from which it's hard to realize how bad some of their actions will appear.

I think you can fully support Hillary Clinton and oppose Trump, and still acknowledge that. Not so with this writer, and it took me repeating several times that I supported HRC, had volunteered for the campaign, and had brought both my daughters to another state for 3 days to volunteer, before she stopped insulting me.

I think that's a symptom of a significant vein of impenetrable certainty and scorched earth which is a big problem in progressive thinking and culture.

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Monday, January 09, 2017

Desert Island Discs, as of 2017

I recently came across a Desert Island Discs post of mine from 2007, a decade ago.

I wondered right away, how would this list have changed? And stopped myself from looking at the old list so as not to bias my present self!

Here are the current 10 albums I would take to a desert island. Note that these are the ones I would take, not the ones I recommend most to others! That means they're biased towards ones that evoke a time in my personal life, and which I could keep listening to forever, as opposed to albums I appreciate having listened to in the past. There are many great albums which fail the test of whether I could listen to them 100 more times without slitting my wrists!

For each album I considered, I tried to imagine no one else had ever heard of it, to reduce my bias towards the familiar. As the saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. No one ever got laughed at for having an obscure record other people couldn't judge on their lists, either.

So go ahead and laugh at Indigo Girls and Buffalo Tom being on my list!

Here they are, numbered for clarity but in no particular order:

  1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  2. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  3. Roger Waters: Amused to Death
  4. Outkast: ATLiens
  5. Nirvana: Nevermind
  6. Patti Smith: Horses
  7. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
  8. Indigo Girls: Rites of Passage
  9. Buffalo Tom: Big Red Letter Day
  10. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
...And, showing no discipline, I can't resist a second set of 10:
  1. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?
  2. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
  3. Jay-Z and the Roots Unplugged
  4. Aretha Franklin: Sparkle
  5. Handsome Boy Modeling School: So, How's Your Girl?
  6. Dujeous?: City Limits
  7. Orchestra Baobob: Specialist in All Styles
  8. Bjork: Vespertine
  9. Erykah Badu: Mama's Gun
  10. Amadou and Miriam: Dimanche a Bamako

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Best everything of 2016

My best of 2016:

Music: A Seat at the Table by Solange, fresh and loose and urgent

Book: Superintelligence: almost unreadably dry, but the single most perspective-altering thing I’ve ever read.

Comics: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew: astonishingly ambitious and virtuosic, like an artifact imported by Borges from a parallel universe

Art: Alexander Calder room at the National Gallery in DC, a perfect meeting of art and architecture and curation

Tech: Cannabidiol (CBD oil), as close to a cure for my pain as I’m going to get. Who needs the FDA?

TV: Happy Valley: an unforgettable lead performance, in a nuanced world

Film: The Lobster, weird and unforgettable

Theater: The Wolves, accessible and current and deeply real.

Reporting: David Fahrenthold, 21st century reporting-in-public meets old school pavement pounding. Thanks, Jeff Bezos

Commentary: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me was unforgettable, and his exit profile of Obama was incredible and much more insightful than David Remnick’s.

Cartooning: Randall Munroe, XKCD. As he gets older and loses that initial creative urgency, he’s moving into more reflective and less cute material4.

Criticism: Emily Nussbaum, still the best

Email newsletter: Stratechery, brilliant and thought-provoking week after week

Meme: #CarefreeBlackKids2k16 by the glorious Heben Nigatu

Podcast: The Ezra Klein show: smart and curious host, smart and curious guests

Podcast episode: Adrien Chen on Longform, providing the earliest warning of Russia getting behind Donald Trump

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Sounding the awkward and embarrassing AI alarm

I'm irked by Maciej Ceglowski's essay "Superintelligence: the idea that eats smart people".

Like so many who roll their eyes at AI alarmists like Nick Bostrom (and me), he seems to assume that we are imbuing the AI we imagine with evil will, and assume it will be some sort of enemy.

This is actually the opposite of how Bostrom sees things. He worries that humans will be endangered as a side effect of the rise of AI and its decisions about how to make use of the matter and energy available, not because of the sort of malevolence with which we're used to thinking about danger from other intelligences. In fact, Ceglowski's mocking is a perfect illustration of the problem!

So many people don't realize just how deeply we social creatures see the world through a social lens. The sort of brakes that stop a malevolent or militaristic human from killing more than a few thousand or million people simply don't exist for computers. They don't qualitatively distinguish between killing one person and every person; nor do they have to even notice anyone's died at all.

As Bostrom points out, an AI that surpasses us in intelligence does not have to go through a stage of human-like mentality on the way to unimaginable problem-solving effectiveness. It can be something that seems curiously crippled and incomplete to us, far more alien than the parade of earthlike aliens we congratulate ourselves for imagining in our entertainment. ("What if they have... SEVEN legs! And their writing is... wait for it... blotchy ink circles! Crazy, huh?")

The case for AI alarmism, as I see it, is that AI-powered communications and robotics are going to proliferate to a degree that makes it hard to imagine there won't be many instances of effects fatal to humans. You don't need some specific, monolithic series of events for there to be existential danger. Instead, for there not to be existential danger, you need every single instance of highly intelligent AI, ever, to be limited in many crucial ways.

Self-replication plus proliferation of cheap components plus proliferation of AI algorithms equals a time when a script kiddie or a stray bug can mean every last fragile sack of meat and water gets punctured or irradiated or whatever. That's just what occurs to this limited human mind, several paradigm shifts short of understanding the full breadth of AI and microtech capabilities.

Imagine an ecological VR MMORPG with good physics simulation, with a reward for finding a way to get a self-replicating robot building AI within it to kill all the animals in its world. If it can be done eventually in in such a sim, it can probably be done in real life. If it can be done with willful human intention there, it can be done with either human intent, or nonhuman intent, here. And if it can be done with that killing as a specific goal, the killing can certainly happen as a side effect of another goal, or even just a routine glitch or programmer oversight. (And we already know that militaries will be working hard on the deliberate killing front.)

All Bostrom and other alarmists are saying is that it's very hard to see why something like this can't ever happen. That position is based on a few assumptions, I'll grant you. But Maciej and other AI skeptics are saying, confidently, that it's foolish to think it could ever happen. That position seems to assume far more, and I think their essays don't show the rhetorical care and agnosticism that Bostrom's writing does.

In a way, this debate echoes Richard Dawkins's observation that if there are 10,000 religions, even the most devout among us believes 9,999 are false. For instance, a Christian can readily see that the teapot-worshipping sect is obviously just the result of human pattern recognition and the search for meaning gone wrong. Aphrodite and Hercules are obviously just neat stories that people made up. So an atheist like Dawkins agrees with religious believers almost entirely, since he too disbelieves in those 9,999 religions; he just disbelieves in one more!

Similarly, I agree with AI skeptics that most of the specific scenarios described by AI alarmists won't come to pass; the skeptics just disbelieve in a few more. Maybe that makes me like a religious believer who thinks foremost that there is some godlike power, whatever the true mythology.

I prefer to think of it like global warming skepticism. There's still much we don't understand about the climate, and that makes it easy for climate change skeptics to mock our certainty that global warming is man-made and progressing rapidly. But informed analysis can be on firm ground in identifying a trend and general causation, even if it's still shaky on many particulars. This is especially true when that analysis doesn't claim much certainty, just a strong likelihood of meaningful danger.

Our demise won't be like a movie where the ticking time bomb works on a human timescale and always has a humanlike weakness. Comparing this threat to nuclear weapons is silly. It's more like we're on track to issue every person in the world a "kill or help between 0 and 7 billion people" button that's glitchy and spinning up 1,000 4chan chains with advice on tinkering with it. What could go wrong?

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