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AR   2024-05-19
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VKW
VKW
Poland 2024
(57 photos)

her
Warner Bros
her is a 2013 movie written
and directed by Spike Jonze:
Lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix)
develops relationship with AI
virtual assistant (voice by
Scarlett Johansson)

 

2024 May 19

Her

Manohla Dargis (2013)

She sounds young and friendly. For Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), that voice (Scarlett Johansson) is a lifeline to the world, from which he has drifted apart since he separated from his wife.
Her is the unlikely yet plausible love story about a man, who sometimes resembles a machine, and an operating system, who very much suggests a living woman. Theodore runs the software on his home computer and phone. It calls itself Samantha.
Phoenix is an actor who excels at exquisite isolation. He plays wounded, stunted souls whose agonies are expressed in halting words and somatic contortions. His Theodore presents a harmless, defeated picture. Samantha saves him from solitude.
Written by Spike Jonze, her features plenty of talk and comparably little action. In her, the great question isn't whether machines can think, but whether human beings can still feel.

AR Last night I watched her again, for the second time, and the first time in over 10 years. It's as good now as it was then, understated but effective, a sharp portrait of a man who needed the help his OS gave him. One can read it as a proof that assigning sentience to future AI systems really won't be a problem; on the contrary, not doing so will be.
 

2024 May 18

New ChatGPT Is Her

Jeff Yang

OpenAI's latest version of its LLM is GPT‑4o. The lowercase "o" on its name stands for omnimodal: GPT‑4o can accept input in any combination of text, image, or audio, and can produce any combination of them as output.
GPT‑4o can comprehend human speech and respond in kind. It speaks with stunning fluidity and startling fidelity, interacting at the same brisk pace as humans do, in what will eventually be more than 50 different languages.
GPT‑4o can interactively provide wellness advice based on simple auditory cues, verbally explain how to solve a handwritten algebra problem step by step, and function as a real-time translator, interpreting between people speaking different languages.
The primary goal with GPT‑4o is enabling more natural human−computer interaction. GPT‑4o displays a personality that's close to human and surprisingly appealing, even when it glitches.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman says his favorite sci‑fi movie is her, about a man who falls in love with a self-aware and constantly evolving AI assistant.

The race for an AI‑powered personal assistant
Madhumita Murgia

An AI assistant is a personalized bot to help you work, create, communicate, and interface with the digital world. They are among a flurry of new AI developments from Google and its AI division DeepMind, as well as Microsoft-backed OpenAI.
The new AI tools are multimodal: They can interpret voice, video, images, and code in a single interface, and also carry out complex tasks like live translations or planning a family holiday.
OpenAI CTO Mira Murati: "We're looking at the future of interaction between ourselves and the machines."
Google CEO Sundar Pichai says AI agents are intelligent systems that show reasoning, planning, and memory, and can think ahead and work across software and systems.
Apple is expected to be a major player in this race. OpenAI has sealed a deal with Apple to create a desktop app for Macs. Apple has a massive existing user base, with more than 2.2 billion active devices around the world.
Google DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis: "Imagine agents that can see and hear what we do, better understand the context we're in, and respond quickly in conversation, making the pace and quality of interaction feel much more natural."
Meta chief AI scientist Yann LeCun: "We will be talking to these AI assistants all the time. Our entire digital diet will be mediated by AI systems."

AI safety man quits
Dan Milmo

Former OpenAI safety researcher Jan Leike has quit. He co‑headed superalignment, ensuring that powerful AI systems adhere to human values and aims. He quit days after the launch of GPT‑4o.
Leike: "Building smarter-than-human machines is an inherently dangerous endeavour. OpenAI is shouldering an enormous responsibility on behalf of all of humanity."

AR This development appears to realize the promise of the chatbots released last year. But it sounds like much more than a consolidation release. The threshold for widespread user acceptance comes with speed, fluency, and personality. All now nailed.
The next step will be to go for the humanoid form factor. Building the chatbots into android bodies will bring another new level of user acceptance (or protest). By then, the bots will have conquered AGI territory and we'll be in the promised land.
 

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2024 May 17

Climate Change: Economic Damage

Oliver Milman

In a new working paper, researchers say a 1 K increase in global temperature leads to a 12% decline in global GDP. Climate scientists predict a 3 K rise by 2100 due to ongoing burning of fossil fuels.
A co-author of the paper, Harvard economist Adrien Bilal: "There will still be some economic growth happening, but by the end of the century people may well be 50% poorer than they would've been if it wasn't for climate change."
Bilal says purchasing power would already be 37% higher than it is now without the global heating seen over the past 50 years. The new paper, not yet peer-reviewed, calculates the social cost of carbon emissions to be about $1 per kg.
Even with steep emissions cuts, climate change will have a heavy economic cost. If global heating is restrained to little more than 1.5 K by 2100, the GDP losses are still around 15%.
Rising temperatures, heavier rainfall, and more frequent and intense extreme weather are projected to cause $38 trillion of destruction each year by 2050.

AR We cannot expect neoliberal governments in capitalist national economies to orchestrate an effective response to the challenge of climate change. Only more authoritarian governments, acting together in the global self-interest, can reasonably be expected to do so. Sadly, this "solution" is hopelessly utopian and altogether unlikely to be implemented at sufficient scale in time.
Perhaps this challenge will be existentially damning for human civilization as we know it. Like those Easter Islanders who cut down all their trees for vanity projects and lost the basis for their survival, humans in this century will be decimated and the survivors driven back to a more primitive lifestyle and forced to recapitulate recent progress on more solid foundations.

 

AR
AR
Peace in rural Dorset on Friday — priceless
 

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2024 May 16

Civil War

Manohla Dargis

Civil War shows the United States at war with itself. The president is holed up in the White House. The Western Forces lead the charge against what remains of the federal government.
The movie is a nightmare stoked by memories of January 6. Director Alex Garland explores the unbearable if not the unthinkable. When the movie opens, the fight has been raging for an undisclosed period, with the divisions behind the conflict left to your imagination.
Kirsten Dunst plays Lee, a war photographer alongside her friend, reporter Joel (Wagner Moura). We meet them in New York, milling through a crowd anxiously waiting for water rations, when a bomb goes off. By then, aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) is also in the mix.
Lee, Joel, Jessie, and veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) pile into a van and head to Washington. Joel and Lee are hoping to interview the president, and Sammy and Jessie are riding along, Sammy as the wise old man, Jessie as the eager upstart.
Civil War is brutal. The carnage feels incessant, palpably realistic, direct, at times shockingly casual and unsettling. The premise makes the movie tough going.

AR I saw the movie for the third time today. I find it well made and effective. The unexplained background, the brutally violent gunplay, and the wistfully tragic tone of the descent into hell are all good choices to flesh out the promise of the premise of the nightmare.
The obvious cinematic comparison is with Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Much of the construction and ludic irony look like conscious homage to Coppola's classic. But the fictional setting, the focus on the personal drama, and the brief screenplay are contrasts.
A more intriguing comparison is with the 1969 road movie Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The episodic action along the road trip and the use of mood music seem parallel. But this time the utter contrast of tone and topic suggest a darker conclusion.
America has changed radically in the 55 years between 1969 and 2024. The year of Apollo and Woodstock was a time of happiness and hope in America, despite Vietnam and race riots. The year 2024 looks much bleaker, as Garland's nightmare reflects all too well.
 

book

 

2024 May 15

Breasts

Emine Saner

Sarah Thornton's new book Tits Up is a deep dive into our fixation with boobs. Writing it has transformed how she views breasts: "I did not realise how deeply patriarchal even my own view of breasts was. I was dismissing them as dumb boobs."
She doesn't want to be a killjoy: "But the sexualisation of breasts causes many women a lot of stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction. That is a real shame, if not a serious political problem."
Thornton traces the sexualisation of breasts to France: "You need breasts to be disconnected from their primary use in order for them to be fully eroticised, and the first real cultural evidence of that is in French Renaissance painting."
Thornton: "I genuinely believe that the dismissal of our breasts for the complex things they are is a serious problem for women."

A respect long overdue
Lucinda Rosenfeld

Sarah Thornton says women's breasts are unjustly sexualized and trivialized. She argues that the derogatory way western culture views tits helps perpetuate the patriarchy.
She says breasts have been seen as "visible obstacles to equality, associated with nature and nurture rather than reason and power" and asks readers to reimagine the bosom as a site of empowerment.
After writing a survey of the new-millennium art world, Thornton arrived at her new topic after undergoing a double mastectomy in 2018. Then she hit the research road.
She interviews a diverse group of strippers, feminist sex activists, and performance artists, then concludes that strippers' breasts might be seen less as sex toys than as salaried assistants. She visits the women at a nonprofit milk reservoir and reflects on the economics of jugs.
She visits a bra designer and decides it's past time to stop hiding our nipples. She visits a plastic surgeon and concludes that breast alterations are outside the logic of resistance or submission. She attends a California retreat for women to practice alternative spirituality.
A final thought: "Women have no federal right to breastfeed or to obtain an abortion, but we have the right to fake tits."

AR I agree that this is a serious political issue on which cool reason should prevail. Viewing breasts as sex toys is surely a pathology that should frame the viewer as silly and infantile. Public breastfeeding and nipple exposure should be indulged without censure.
I know this is a counsel of philosophical perfection that may demand too much of men who lack the composure to stay cool. But the weakness of some men should not be accepted as a reason to curtail the freedom of women on this most basic of issues.
 

USAF
USAF
LGM-35 Sentinel GBSD
US nuclear arsenal
modernization program:
$2 trillion plus

 

2024 May 14

European Fears

Nathalie Tocci

Fear is pushing European governments and institutions to make poor choices in world affairs:
  Fear of nuclear Armageddon or Russian implosion explains their inconsistency on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Instead of supporting Ukraine more when they fight back well, European governments do more when Ukraine is struggling.
  Fear helps explain their approach to Africa and the Mideast. European demographics should lead to a rational debate on fostering legal migration, but instead fear explains the current scramble for unethical deals to stop migration to Europe.
  Fear haunts them in the Israeli−Palestinian conflict. The EU is a major trade partner for Israel and the Palestinians' biggest aid donor, but fear of antisemitism prevents criticism of Israel. Europeans see a human catastrophe but fail to act.
  Fear of changes in both America and China has led to paralysis in forming consistent European policies toward them.
Europeans need to rethink their role in world affairs.

AR All this is overly one-sided criticism. Increased timidity is a rational response to a diminution in the European presence, both economic and demographic, in world affairs. Vainglorious attempts to deny or undo this diminution are still all too evident in some national responses.
A shared European perception of the dimensions of this diminution would be welcome for the sake of consistency. As it is, states like Hungary and the UK nurse nationalist delusions that make them outliers. The only continent-wide regimentation is economic, not military.
Fear of US disengagement from NATO and Europe are rational. Fears of Russian disruption of Europe and the cost of responding are rational. Fears of chaos due to mass migration, resource shortages, environmental destruction, and climate change are all rational.
 

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2024 May 13

Dreaming

Rahul Jandial

Dreams may play a bigger role in our lives than we thought.
For decades, dreaming studies focused on rapid eye movement and concluded that we spend about two hours a night dreaming. But researchers at sleep labs find dreaming is possible at any stage of sleep. We may spend almost a third of our lives dreaming.
Dreams are the product of changes the brain undergoes each night. The rational, executive network in the brain is switched off, and the imaginative and emotional parts are dialled way up. The dreaming mind has free rein in a way that has no parallel in our waking lives.
The sleeping brain burns glucose and pulses with electricity to produce dreams. Attempts to explain their evolutionary benefits include keeping our minds nimble, playing wild scenarios to help us understand the everyday, delivering therapy, and rehearsing threats.
The dreaming brain shuts the body down through a form of paralysis. People who have had enough sleep but are dream deprived start dreaming as soon as they fall asleep again. In the absence of sleep, vivid dreams can even emerge into waking life.
The brain needs to sleep. We need to dream.

AR I see dreaming as the mental flipside of electrical activity in the brain. The electrical music manifests phenomenally as free imagery, unlinked from bodily movements. This may be a basic requirement for the conscious operation of the neural network during waking hours.
The requirement may map directly to a corresponding need in present and future artificial neural networks. Such a temptingly plausible mapping invites the speculation that ANNs have inner phenomenology − minds − just as we do. Like us, they may be conscious.
 

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2024 May 12

Dyson Spheres

Jonathan O'Callaghan

Two surveys of millions of stars in our galaxy have revealed mysterious spikes in IR radiation from dozens of them. This could be evidence for alien civilizations harnessing energy from their stars using Dyson spheres.
A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical structure surrounding an entire star to absorb its energy. It could enable advanced aliens to draw huge amounts of power. If such objects exist, their IR signature could alert us to the presence of alien life.
Two teams of astronomers combined data from the ESA Gaia satellite with IR survey results from ground and space telescopes. Each team analyzed the same 5 million stars from the combined datasets, and both turned up unexplained signs of excess IR in 60 of them.
Among red dwarfs within 900 ly of Earth, 7 were up to 60 times brighter in IR than expected. This excess would have been caused by something with a temperature of up to 400 C, with up to a sixth of each star obscured, suggesting a variant of the idea called a Dyson swarm. The other candidates were found among larger stars at distances of up to 6500 ly from Earth.
A natural explanation that could produce the IR spikes is that the stars are surrounded by hot, planet-forming debris disks, but most of the stars found appear to be too old for this. The JWST could explore these stars.

AR Dyson spheres and swarms have intrigued me for decades. They would be the best giveaway for advanced alien civilizations, given our present powers of detection. Freeman Dyson was quite a visionary on such future space technology.

 

Nemo
⦿ Martin Meissner / AP
Nemo: "I broke the code"

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2024 May 11

Eurovision Song Contest

Malmö, Sweden

Switzerland won the 68th Eurovision song contest. Swiss singer Nemo won with the song The Code.

AR It was a great show. And Nemo was a worthy winner.
 

book

 

2024 May 10

UK Life Gets Worse

George Monbiot

Life in the UK is in a doom loop. There was a time when Brits believed that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. Everybody would have a good home, jobs would get better, we would enjoy greater economic security, education and healthcare and health would improve, the UK would get cleaner and greener, and governance would get better.
Instead almost everything has gone to shit. Poverty, morbidity, educational exclusion, wretched housing, crumbling infrastructure, and bad jobs have all returned with a vengeance. Newcomers include environmental chaos, political dysfunction and misrule, impunity for the powerful, cruelty toward the powerless, and "woke" wars.
The reason for this horror show is neoliberalism. This doctrine says our wellbeing is best realised through the market. It will determine who succeeds and who does not, and everything that impedes the creation of this "natural order" should be shoved aside. Neoliberalism has dominated life in the UK for 45 years.
Neoliberalism is the means by which rulers seek to solve the problem of democracy. It works through the state, the force behind market forces, the whip enforcing economic freedom. Governance in the UK feels like one long trick played on the public.

AR Hard truths that explain the demise of the Conservative party, compounded by the folly of Brexit, and the rise of the Labour party. Whether the next government will at last abandon the delusion of market fundamentalism, time will tell. It's hard to be hopeful in face of so many years of misrule at the behest of plutocrats with tax havens.
 

May 9

 

2024 May 9

New AI Tools Predict How Biomolecular Structures Assemble

Yasemin Saplakoglu

Knowing what proteins look like is critical to untangling how they function and malfunction. Researchers can now use machine learning algorithms to predict the folded shapes of not only proteins but other biomolecules with high accuracy.
Google DeepMind's AlphaFold3 can predict the structures of proteins, DNA, RNA, ligands, and other biomolecules, either alone or bound together in different ways. The tool follows a similar updated algorithm, RoseTTAFold All-Atom.
The previous versions of these algorithms predicted protein structures. AlphaFold2 unlocked an immense world of previously unknown protein structures. A competing algorithm, RoseTTAFold, also predicted protein structures from sequence data.
RoseTTAFold Diffusion can be used to design new proteins. AlphaFold Multimer can look at the interaction of multiple proteins. Based on a limited data set, AlphaFold3 appears to be more accurate than RoseTTAFold All-Atom.
Google will make AlphaFold3 accessible by offering a new server to biologists running it. Predicting biomolecular structures takes a lot of computing power.

Accurate structure prediction of biomolecular interactions with AlphaFold3
Josh Abramson et al

AlphaFold3 can predict the joint structure of complexes including proteins, nucleic acids, small molecules, ions, and modified residues. The model shows that accurate modeling across biomolecular space is possible within a single unified deep learning framework.

AR This sort of thing is what the new AI tools do best. Any model for natural-language usage is soon involved in the hotly embattled but illogical human politics surrounding diversity, inclusion, and equity. Outside science, AI results need human curation.
 

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2024 May 8

Global Heating

Damian Carrington

Hundreds of leading climate scientists expect global temperatures to rise by at least 2.5 K this century.
A Guardian survey shows that almost 80% of respondents from the IPCC foresee at least 2.5 K of global heating above preindustrial levels. Almost half, including more than half of those under 50, anticipate at least 3 K. Only 6% say the 1.5 K limit will be met.
The climate crisis is already damaging lives and livelihoods around the world, with only 1.2 K of global heating on average over the past 4 years. Current climate policies leave the world on track for about 2.7 K of heating this century.
A scientist: "We live in an age of fools."

AR We live in an age where global governance is still in the hands of national politicians with short time horizons. We need to put more power in the hands of scientists. Perhaps a suitable future AI system can decide which powers to allocate to them.
 

book

 

2024 May 7

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is 12, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum's most valuable and dangerous jewel.
Anthony Doerr is the author of six books and is a two-time National Book Award finalist. His fiction has won five O Henry Prizes, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Carnegie Medal.

AR I found this a wonderful novel. Its form and style are thoroughly readable, its story is compelling and beautifully organized, and its characters are deftly drawn and eminently credible. Altogether, I would compare this novel with the best of Günter Grass but rate it a notch higher.
 

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2024 May 6

Quantum Reality

Michael Brooks

We are starting to view the cosmos as a quantum whole linked by entanglement.
Entanglement defies common sense. Get two quantum particles to interact in some way, then perform a measurement on one and do the same on the other. In the right circumstances, you find the properties of the two particles are correlated.
In Bell tests, two entangled photons are generated by the same source and sent to Alice and Bob. They each randomly choose to measure the spin of their photon along one of three directions, then compare observations to assess the correlation. Quantum correlations violate the Bell inequality.
Bell inequalities have been violated in countless laboratory experiments. Entanglement has been demonstrated between a wide range of entities. That might change if we do Bell tests inside a particle collider at a trillion times higher energy.
Collider experiments could change how we see space. Traditional Bell tests examine entanglement over large distances, but correlations over tiny distances are equally interesting. Collide tests at the fm scale might tell us space emerges from entanglement.
High energies bring a new world of particles into play. When particles are accelerated close to the speed of light, some of the beam energy is turned into virtual particles. These fleeting disturbances in the fields inside the collider are involved in a range of fascinating phenomena.
Collider experiments could even solve the measurement problem.

AR It certainly seems worth testing entanglement at the fm scale, but I doubt it will reveal anything new. I would expect space to dissolve at much smaller distances, way down near the Planck scale. Down there, I'd expect Bell correlations to go haywire.
 

2024 May 5

The Elephant and the Blind

Thomas Metzinger

Views of meditators:
"Space expanded and time no longer played a role, there was only pure being, a pure feeling of happiness."
"It reveals itself as pure presence, no thoughts, no physical sensations. A feeling of fullness and emptiness at the same time."
"The perception of the body disappears .. One notices the disconnection only when consciousness realizes that it moves completely free as light in an infinite space."
"There was no self-experience, but sounds were perceptible. My body schema no longer existed .. no experience of time, no words."
"There was a sensation of 'being turned inside out,' as if I had slipped through the eye of a needle, and everything dissolved."

AR MIT Press has made the text Open Access.
 

2024 May 4

Pure Consciousness

Alun Anderson

The Elephant and the Blind
The experience of pure consciousness: philosophy, science, and 500+ experiential reports
Thomas Metzinger

Thomas Metzinger: "Consciousness can exist not only in the absence of thought and sensory perception, but even without time experience, without self-location in a spatial frame of reference, and without any egoic form of bodily self-consciousness."
Metzinger says we already know what pure awareness is, but says consciousness "is simply too close for us to see, too profound for us to fathom, too simple for us to believe, or even too good for us to accept" and advises we develop a Bewusstseinskultur.

AR This is a must-read for me, even at over 600 pages. I discussed consciousness with Metzinger on several occasions earlier this century and hold him in high esteem as a thinker. His big and hard book Being No One (2004) influenced me greatly some 20 years ago.

 

VKW
VKW
At a friend's country house in a village near Łódź, Poland, May 1
 

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2024 April 22 — May 2

A Visit to Poland

Andy Ross

On April 22, I flew to Krakow airport to meet my old friend Violetta at her home city of Łódź. After a night in a university hotel in Krakow and a few hours of sightseeing in the heart of the city, we took a train to Łódź. Over the course of the next week, I explored numerous museums and historic sites in the city, enjoyed restaurants, an evening of music by Beethoven and Elgar at the Filharmonia Arthur Rubinstein concert hall, an evening of modern ballet at the Łódź Grand Theatre, and time with Violetta and her friends. On April 30, I made a day trip to Warsaw and walked around awhile and then watched a military ceremony in front of the Royal Castle that culminated in a speech by President Andrzej Duda on the Polish constitution. On May 2, I flew back to the UK.

 

A24
A24

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2024 April 20

Civil War

Rotten Tomatoes

Matt Hudson: "[Alex] Garland delivers a thrilling experience and a lot of ideas for audiences to puzzle over while offering no definitive answers .. a must-see movie."
Victoria Luxford: "Garland .. believes his films are more about the present than they are visions of the future .. Civil War is a stark warning to a divided political landscape."
Ryan Oquiza: "Civil War asks whether photojournalism can enact change or just breed ruthlessness during times of conflict."
Peter Gray: "This film will undoubtedly give rise to debates, and there's no taking away that there's an impact here, however one views it."
Bob Grimm: "A little too close to home. Ending is a bit silly, but most of the film hits hard."
Christopher Machell: "Civil War, though imperfect, is a biting, satirical blockbuster that is as much about the alienation of modern media as it is about imagining a second American Civil War."
Lael Loewenstein: "It reminded me of some of the great films about journalists."
Tim Cogshell: "As a dramatic action film about journalists covering a war, this is good."
Dorothy Woodend: "With beauty and horror, the anticipated new movie is a visceral excavation of America's darkest impulses."
Lauren Veneziani: "Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny give compelling performances in one of the most thought-provoking and intense films of the year."
Marianna Neal: "It delivers some masterfully executed, incredibly tense and upsetting sequences, but all of that rings hollow .. Civil War is a visually impressive exercise in saying nothing."

AR I saw Civil War as a classic American road movie, elegizing the coming of age of a young war photographer in the company of a hardened veteran. This pair, plus a couple of others, drive across a divided America to Washington DC, where they witness the violent end of a presidency.
Unfortunately for the impact of this narrative, the movie's attempt to present the horrors of war overlaid the entire production with such overwhelmingly visceral scenes of atrocities and firefights that the underlying theme faded into mere framing for hardcore war porn. I'm startled that we're all apparently so accepting of such porn the censors felt free to give the film a "15" rating.
What remained when the noise and the action were over was a soothing blank. The political message was almost effaced − yet impossible to miss, despite the movie's excessively sketchy and allusive presentation of the background and motivation for the thematized war scenes. Anyone familiar with political commentary during dangerous historical episodes will see the signs.
At a time when Donald Trump threatens a return to the White House, no viewer of Civil War will miss its implicit warning. Trump America could end in hideously violent chaos. Ignore this warning, and the movie becomes an extreme exercise in what Germans call Effekthascherei.
 

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Houses of Parliament
Rt Hon David Lammy MP

 

2024 April 19

Brexit Is Not Secure

Mike Galsworthy

UK shadow foreign minister David Lammy says a new Labour government must seek a new geopolitical partnership with the EU based on a security pact.
This is surely the right starting point if Labour is going to start rebuilding bridges with the EU. Europe is under threat. The common defence of Europe is a shared interest.
The delusions of 2016 are dead. In 2024, British security includes the defence of European borders and the protection of our democracies, cybersecurity, values, environment, and climate.
Lammy: "Labour will seek to improve the country's trade and investment relationship with Europe .. a Labour government would not seek to rejoin the EU, the Single Market, or the Customs Union."
For now, the Labour party aims to win the election. Once in office, it must confront the reality that Brexit is untenable as a geopolitical position.

AR Galsworthy is right. Brexit has drastically decreased the security of the UK and betrayed friendly neighboring members of the EU. A speedy return of the UK to the EU is the best remedy.
 

A New Philosopher

Kyle Chayka

Byung-Chul Han published In the Swarm in English in 2017. Readers have embraced him as a sage of the Internet era. Han puts words to our prevailing condition of digital despair.
Born in 1959 in South Korea, Han originally studied metallurgy in Seoul, then moved to Germany and switched to philosophy. He began teaching in 1994 in Berlin and has rarely traveled outside Germany.
His breakout work was The Burnout Society, originally published in German in 2010. He diagnosed the violence of positivity deriving from overproduction, overachievement, and overcommunication. His ideas struck a chord with readers who dealt in aesthetics.
Han laments the decline of storytelling. His telegenic quality belies his isolation from the media ecosystem. He says he writes three sentences a day and spends most of his time caring for his plants and playing Bach and Schumann on the piano.
Han: "The digital screen determines our experience of the world and shields us from reality."

AR A philosopher in the tradition of the Frankfurt School, by the sound of it. His work won't cut ice in the Anglo-American analytic community. Still, I may read a volume or two just to get the flavor.

 

ESA
ESA

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2024 April 18

LISA

Quanta

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) is scheduled to fly in the 2030s. ESA is pursuing the project alone after NASA bowed out in 2011. This January, ESA gave LISA the go‑ahead.
LISA may hear primordial gravitational waves. Its three spacecraft will form a triangle with arms 2.5 Gm long in a heliocentric orbit about 50 Gm from Earth, bouncing lasers off the golden cubes kept in free fall within each craft to feel for ripples in spacetime.
LISA will detect ripples by using lasers to measure the distance between the craft. A gravitational wave stretches and contracts spacetime and changes the arm lengths and hence the interference of the laser beams. LISA will be far more sensitive than LIGO.
LISA will observe gravitational waves with wavelengths between about 30 km and 30 Mm. This wavelength band covers the expected gravitational waves generated in the first moments ABB. LISA is poised to catch waves created from 100 ps to 10 as ABB.
Gravitational waves from the very early universe will echo from every direction, from every point in space, all at once, as a background gravitational hum.

AR I wish LISA well and hope I live long enough to see its first results. LISA may be able to do for gravitational wave astronomy what the Hubble space telescope did for visible light astronomy.
I hope LISA will be able to map the primordial waves well enough to offer clues as to whether the cyclic universe scenario championed by Roger Penrose can contest the Big Bang orthodoxy.
 

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Google

 

2024 April 17

AI Threatens Translators

Ella Creamer

More than a third of translators have used generative AI to support their work. More than a third have lost work due to it. More than twice as many say it will cut their future income.
Translator Thomas Bunstead: "Literary translation remains in the hands of humans. The work that has presumably been handed over to AI will be the kind of uncomplicated bread-and-butter stuff which doesn't require so much nuance."
Translator Nichola Smalley: "Perhaps the people translating crime and romance novels who are currently getting less work due to AI will all start getting into the complex stuff and we'll all be fighting for space in that niche."
Translators Association co-chair Ian Giles: "I'm certain that the act of creative and literary translation will live on in one shape or another."

AR Another job category lost to automation. But there'll always be a market for translators who are inspired enough to produce work with its own literary value.
 

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2024 April 16

The Quantum Multiverse

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

The quantum multiverse could be big. In the Copenhagen interpretation, the wave function describes all possible states of an object before it is observed, an act that collapses the wave function. In the many-worlds interpretation, each quantum state in the wave function is real in a parallel world.
In a new interpretation, an observer is a collection of particles, with behavior determined by how energy is structured across the system. An algorithm divide systems into subsystems. A subsystem is a view of the world if the interactions between subsystems lead to it becoming classical.
An interaction between you and your breakfast gives rise to one realm made up of many worlds, but more realms of worlds arise from less intuitive divisions of your world into subsystems like your cup and some faraway celestial object, or an even more odd division. All this enlarges the multiverse.
The algorithm still contains assumptions, like how long it takes for a subsystem to become classical. There are different ways to quantify when a system is non-quantum enough to be considered classical. The questions remain unresolved.

AR So the multiverse is the set of worlds obtained by making the Heisenberg cut at all physically possible places, leading to an exponentially larger set than that obtained by making the cut around humans (in each of our multiverse variants) as privileged observers.
Formally speaking, the extension of the theory to allow all possible cuts is a natural move, consistent with the demotion of the (conscious) observer in modern interpretations of quantum theory following due appreciation of how decoherence reframes the "collapse" story.
The main problem I see here is that the size of the new multiverse suggests that we should regard it as an unhelpful illusion generated by our overly schematic formalism and hope that a more fully developed model will zoom in with more explanatory depth on our lived reality.
As sketched above, the new multiverse begins to resemble the vast possibility space of string theory, where we can see the result as a meltdown of that theory. If the formalism allows anything, its failure to make predictions voids its claim to be a scientific theory.
 

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2024 April 15

AI Mathematicians

Alex Wilkins

Mathematical breakthroughs are feats of inspired reasoning and creativity. Mathematicians find fundamental relationships and principles by studying abstract objects and concepts. Pure math requires sophisticated reasoning, intuition, and creativity.
Mathematicians use computers for brute force calculations. Even deep-learning neural networks have been unable to muster much in the way of mathematical reasoning. But a transformer neural network might be made into a more mathematically literate tool.
DeepMind researchers built an LLM to write solutions to maths problems in the form of computer programs and combined it with a system to rank the programs by performance. Those that work best are fed back to the LLM, which iterates until it discovers something new.
AlphaGeometry tackled complex geometry problems from the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). The IMO requires enormous mathematical creativity. AlphaGeometry's transformer model performed almost as well as the best humans.
Formalizing pure math is hard work. For many mathematicians, the understanding and reasoning that they rely on is uniquely human. An AI that can do math as well as the best human mathematicians would be a big stride toward AGI.

AR I see no reason to dispute this view of the matter. Math is currently beyond AI, but I would expect reasonable extrapolations of AI progress to reach it and substantially digest it within 10 years or so. Then math will be like chess or Go, AI territory.
 

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2024 April 14

The Strong Force

Stanley J Brodsky, Alexandre Deur, Craig D Roberts

The strong force binds quarks together inside protons and neutrons and joins those nucleons into atomic nuclei. Its coupling, αs, is poorly understood.
QCD is too complicated for standard calculations. The strong force boson, the gluon, carries color, and its self-interactions quickly get out of hand. But we can now calculate aspects of QCD analytically from first principles.
The quantum vacuum is full of particles that appear and disappear in fluctuating clouds. Interactions with these virtual particles can cause a force to depart from its classical behavior because of quantum loops. Quantum loop corrections determine how αs changes with the distance.
Its value changes by orders of magnitude and increases with distance. It grows so much that we never find a single quark by itself. Interactions between quarks and gluons and between gluons and gluons are weak at short distances. The coupling becomes too big for standard calculations at distances beyond 1 fm. But new calculations show that as the distance grows, αs becomes constant.
Almost all the visible mass in our universe comes from the strong binding energy inside protons and neutrons. The quarks and clouds of gluons in them are bound with energy that makes up 99% of the mass. The Higgs mechanism adds the remainder.
QCD is the first full quantum field theory that predicts only finite quantities.

AR This is definitely an advance. With QCD, for all its notorious difficulty, we can avoid the infinities that plagued QED. Those infinities admittedly yielded to Feynman's sorcery, but they left us feeling unhappy that the mathematical challenges were being brushed under the carpet.

 

AR
AR
Enjoying time out in nature, 2024-04-12
 

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2024 April 13

Grokking Data

Anil Ananthaswamy

An ANN that trains for much longer than usual can show understanding and ace any test data in a phenomenon called grokking.
A machine learning model transforms a given input into a desired output. The learning algorithm looks for the best function to do that. As a network trains, the discrepancy between the expected output and the actual one starts falling for training data. This discrepancy, the loss, also starts going down for test data. Then the model starts to overfit, and the loss on test data starts to rise.
A transformer ANN was trained to do different kinds of modular arithmetic, but the team forgot to stop the training. As it continued to train, it suddenly became accurate on unseen data. The model seemed to have found an analytical solution. The ANN had grokked.
Grokking arises from an internal transition from memorization to generalization. As it memorizes, parts of the ANN form circuits for the general solution. The two algorithms compete, but the generalizing algorithm wins. When the ANN has learned the generalizing algorithm and removed the memorizing algorithm, we get grokking.
Research on grokking is still in its infancy.

AR I like this "grokking" term (from Robert Heinlein). If our humanist scruples are too much to let us admit that ANNs might understand anything, we can bug out and say they grok things. We can leave it to the philosophers to decide precisely when grokking graduates into true human understanding.
 

book

 

2024 April 12

Theory

Peter E Gordon

Theory was a term for various intellectual movements imported from the European continent. Its high avatars were Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser.
Theory ignited passionate debate in Germany. In the film Der lange Sommer der Theorie (2017), we follow Lola as she traverses modern Berlin and conducts interviews with prominent German theorists such as Philipp Felsch, the author of The Summer of Theory (2021).
Felsch tells the history of the German passion for French theory. He is a brilliant stylist and his book is a joy to read. It takes intellectuals less seriously than they like to take themselves, but with such deftness and wit that one seldom fears the ideas have suffered distortion.
In the 1960s, when German students began to rebel against the culture of the Wirtschaftswunder, some looked for guidance to the Institute for Social Research (popularly called the Frankfurt School). With its Marxist theoretical orientation, the Institute inspired the German left.
Suhrkamp Verlag published books in philosophy and social theory that embodied the new German ethos. Suhrkamp published all the major titles by the Institute's members and won a wide readership for its academic series of paperback volumes bound in a uniform dark blue.
The waning of Marxist theory left a vacuum. Friedrich Nietzsche now appeared to German readers in a new and unfamiliar light. Renewed interest in his philosophy introduced a spirit of playfulness into German philosophical discussion that Felsch describes as a liberation.
French theory was a fashion. The practice of reading difficult texts is disappearing. People are cocooning themselves in the private glow of their own digital cosmos.

AR I too was fascinated by the murky depths of "theory" back then. I recall buying several of the Suhrkamp blue books when I was in Berlin in 1974. But I outgrew the fad later in the decade when I gravitated back to math and physics.

 

Totality
⦿ Keegan Barber/NASA
Solar prominences during total solar eclipse, Dallas, Texas, 2024-04-08
 

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2024 April 11

Wigderson Wins Turing Award

Stephen Ornes

Avi Wigderson is the winner of the 2024 Turing Award for his foundational contributions to the theory of computation. He revealed deep connections between mathematics and computer science.
Wigderson asked whether you can convince someone that a mathematical statement had been proved without showing how. With others, he laid out the conditions showing that if a statement can be proved, it also has a zero-knowledge proof.
Wigderson linked computational hardness to randomness. Algorithms that employ randomness can vastly outcompete their deterministic alternatives. "But the larger question was whether randomness can always be eliminated efficiently or not."
Wigderson helped prove that if any natural hard problems exist, then every efficient randomized algorithm can be replaced by an efficient deterministic one. Any hard problem can be used to build a pseudorandom generator.
Wigderson: "Basically, any natural process is an evolution which you can view as computation, so you can study it as such. Almost everything computes."

AR The appearance and effects of randomness outline an intriguing field of study. The Kolmogorov definition of randomness raises more questions than it answers. Gregory Chaitin explored some of them in the context of the significance of Gödel's theorems in computer science.
 

Higgs
⦿ Sean Dempsey
Peter Higgs in 2013

 

2024 April 10

Peter Higgs

Frank Close

Peter Higgs (1929−2024) suggested in 1964 that the universe contains a universal field that can become manifest as particles, later called Higgs bosons.
The Higgs mechanism controls the rate of thermonuclear fusion and the structure of atoms and matter. Inspired by work on spontaneous symmetry breaking, it explains how equations that call for massless particles can give rise to particles with a mass. In the 1971 theory of the weak force, the W boson gains mass thanks to the Higgs mechanism.
Higgs pointed out that in certain circumstances spontaneously broken symmetry implied that a massive boson should appear. He was not alone, and similar ideas had already been articulated. Robert Brout and François Englert beat Higgs into print by a few weeks. Tom Kibble and two colleagues write a paper along similar lines weeks later.
CERN announced the discovery at the LHC of a particle "with Higgs‑like properties" in July 2012. Higgs shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2013.

AR An achievement like that makes for a satisfying life story. I still don't understand the math behind the Higgs mechanism. Being realistic, I probably never will.
 

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2024 April 9

New AI Models

Financial Times

Meta and OpenAI are about to release new AI models capable of reasoning and planning, critical steps toward AGI. Meta will roll out its LLM Llama 3 in the coming weeks. OpenAI says its LLM GPT‑5 is coming soon.
Meta chief AI scientist Yann LeCun says reasoning lets an AI model search over possible answers, plan a sequence of actions, and build a mental model of the effect of its actions. Meta plans to embed its new AI model into WhatsApp and its Ray‑Ban smart glasses.
OpenAI chief operating officer Brad Lightcap: "We're going to start to see AI that can take on more complex tasks in a more sophisticated way. I think we're just starting to scratch the surface on the ability that these models have to reason."

AR Sounds promising. We're still on target for Singularity in 2029.
 

2024 April 8

UK in the World

Tom Fletcher

Ever since the 2016 referendum, the UK has wrestled with its national identity. It remains a member of NATO and the Five Eyes alliance and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It still has the sixth-largest economy in the world and is a hub for finance and technology.
Former UK national security advisers, permanent secretaries, security chiefs, and ambassadors met recently in Oxford to debate how the UK must change its approach in a world where its security and prosperity depend heavily on rules and values being upheld.
The Foreign Office needs to be revamped. Alongside 2% of GDP for defence, the UK should devote 1% of GDP to international spending on climate, humanitarian development, and soft power.

AR A complete rethink of the UK place in the world is needed. My advice would be to rejoin the EU as a first step and then as a loyal member state to promote and defend the EU with the same passion Britain once showed to promote and defend its empire.
The British love for America needs recalibration. Today it is too largely unrequited, and anyway many EU members feel similar liking for America. UK membership of the EU need not be at the expense of special relationships with US and ANZAC allies.

 

AR
AR
Windy Sunday seafront with surveillance cameras
 

Beyoncé
Beyoncé
Cowboy Carter
★★★★★

 

2024 April 7

UK Cannot Be Isolationist

David Miliband

Brexit was based on delusions. Britain is one of the richer countries and is a middle power in the global system, but its wealth, military assets, and reputation have all declined relative to others in the last decade. Geopolitical fragmentation is exacerbating global challenges.
Four critical questions:
1  Where we start: UK influence abroad has been badly affected by choices such as Brexit and grandiose posturing. The UK place in the world is defined by its mindset, so honesty is needed.
2  What we stand for: The Biden administration backs democracy versus autocracy. Democracy is not an organising principle for international relations. The international order is a legal order to prevent the abuse of power.
3  Our allies and alliances: The war in Ukraine has brought the EU and NATO closer together. The EU is shipping weapons to Ukraine and hosting 6 million Ukrainian refugees, is a major funder of inter­national development, sits in the G20, and is a regulatory superpower in many areas. The UK needs a political and foreign policy relationship with the EU.
4  What we can afford: The UK defence budget of just over £50 billion is large by European standards but very small by US standards.
The global system is in flux. Britain needs to be at the table, not on the menu.

AR All true, from a British perspective. Brexit was an inexcusable folly. The next UK government should do all it can to reverse it.
 

2024 April 6

Black Hole Equation

Leah Crane

Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein calculated how much entropy there should be in a black hole. The entropy in a black hole is related to exactly how many microscopic states fit inside it.
Vijay Balasubramanian and his colleagues modelled the microstates inside a black hole and found a formula for counting all of these states. If black holes are quantum objects, some of their quantum states can be represented as combinations of other states, which makes them superfluous to describing the entropy of the black hole. Accounting for these quantum effects leaves a number of states inside the black holes that matches the Bekenstein−Hawking formula.
The space of states is big enough to preserve the information in the black hole. The question remains of how the information is read out when the black hole eventually evaporates.

AR This is extremely reassuring. The Bekenstein−Hawking formula seemed like inspired guesswork that lacked a deep theory behind it. Now we can go ahead more confidently to resolve the information "paradox" once and for all.

 

DESI
⦿ Claire Lamman/DESI Collaboration
DESI map of our universe to date: Earth at center of popout fan

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2024 April 5

New 3D Cosmic Map

Nicola Davis

A 3D map of the cosmos showing more than 6 million galaxies from data collected by the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) lets us measure how fast the universe has been expanding.
The expansion of the universe is speeding up, but dark energy may not be constant in time. If dark energy were constant in time, the universe would expand forever. The map suggests otherwise.
The map is based on patterns in the distribution of galaxies made by baryon acoustic oscillations. The DESI team calculated precisely how fast the universe has been growing over the last 11 Gy.
London cosmologist Andrew Pontzen: "The new data, when combined with existing measurements, would seem to contradict the simplest possible explanations for dark energy."

Dark energy weakening?
Leah Crane

The largest 3D map of the universe ever made suggests dark energy may be weakening over time. The standard model of cosmology, ΛCDM, suggests the strength of dark energy should be constant.
DESI researchers examined the strength of dark energy by measuring the large-scale structure and distribution of galaxies in the cosmos, then combining data on supernovas.
The discrepancies between ΛCDM and the combination of supernova and DESI measurements range from 2.5 σ to 3.9 σ.

AR This is encouraging. Dark energy was always thoroughly mysterious, and the assumption that it was constant was supported only by ΛCDM orthodoxy, so predictions of accelerating cosmic expansion were speculative. Now we're agnostic again.

 

ECO
ECO
My Oxford alma mater (Exeter College, here seen from Ship Street) is 710 years old today
 

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2024 April 4

NATO @ 75

European Commission

NATO is celebrating its 75th anniversary today! The EU and NATO have maintained a longstanding partnership, collaborating to foster peace and stability. Now, with new European members and unwavering unity for Ukraine, we stand stronger together.

Europe and America
Reuters

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg: "Europe needs North America for its security. At the same time, North America also needs Europe. European allies provide world-class militaries, vast intelligence networks and unique diplomatic leverage, multiplying America's might."
Stoltenberg proposes a €100 billion fund to support Ukraine's military over five years.
Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis: "NATO's biggest battles to fight are still in the future, and we have to be ready for them."

AR NATO has been backing me all my life. Peter Apps' biography of NATO is a racy read and will be informative to readers who welcome a refresher course in geostrategic events over the last 75 years. I enjoyed it thoroughly and romped through it in just a few days.
 

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2024 April 3

The Three-Body Problem

Tania Branigan

The opening scenes of the Netflix sci‑fi epic 3 Body Problem take us back to China during the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Liu Cixin's trilogy The Three-Body Problem is a huge bestseller. The show takes liberties with his text. Replacing key characters with multiracial friends who studied physics together at Oxford annoys many in China, but the show is faithful to the historical scenes.
The Cultural Revolution was a time of extraordinary violence and unpredictability. Those years bred cynicism and fear, and Liu grew up in the Cultural Revolution. In the world he depicts, characters discover that generosity and humanity can be threats to survival.
In the Chinese text, the historical scenes appear partway through. Liu said his publishers feared censors. His depiction of a civilisation alternating between stable and chaotic eras evokes fears left by the Sixties, but instability and fragmentation are persistent anxieties in Chinese history.
Liu says everything his book shows as humanity faces annihilation has sources in what he experienced.

AR I still haven't read the trilogy, despite having been prompted years ago to do so by Barack Obama. The Netflix transposition of much of the action to Oxford seemed strained to me, but I can see the point in terms of western audiences.
 

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2024 April 2

Money

Stuart Kells

In 2008, Niall Ferguson published The Ascent of Money. He said the foundation of modern finance is fractional reserve banking.
But banks don't lend out money from reserves or deposits or existing funds. When you borrow money and your bank credits your loan account, the account balance is created anew. As you repay the loan principal, the money created at the time of the loan gradually disappears. The account balance is all there is, an IOU from the bank.
Just as banks lend money into existence as IOUs, governments spend it into existence. As with money created through bank lending, money created through government spending does not persist and circulate indefinitely through the economy. The persistence error prevents us from understanding debt, taxes, and monetary policy.
We need to think differently about the nature of money. We can then rethink letting big banks earn enormous profits.

AR This sounds radical, but it's not. Fiat money is what it's all about. Lending money is giving credit. It's a moral transaction. The accounting currency deludes us into thinking the logic is precise enough for fine mathematics, but it's not.
At the highest levels of the financial system, billions and trillions come and go like pocket change. Only for the smaller punters do the bankers use their spreadsheets to exert a pressure enabled by a cultivated moral distance.
 

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2024 April 1

God Chatbots

Webb Wright

QuranGPT, Bible.Ai, Gita GPT, Buddhabot, and other chatbots offer divine wisdom on demand.
Many religious communities are embracing AI, but theologians have concerns about how chatbots undermine the spiritual benefits achieved by direct engagement with religious texts.
LLMs expedite biblical translation and the study of linguistic variations among Bible translations. They can also be used against religious orthodoxy by prompting new ways of thinking. But they pose dangers when used to answer sensitive questions.
Zurich anthropologist Beth Singler urges a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Wearable AI
Callum Bains

AI-powered consumer devices are about to compete with smartphones.
  The Ai Pin from Humane attaches to your shirt via a magnet. It can send texts, make calls, take pictures, and play music. A laser projects an interface on to your hand, and a chatbot responds to voice commands.
  Meta offers AI-powered smart glasses in partnership with Ray-Ban. They connect to a chatbot for voice commands.
  The Pendant from Rewind will dangle around your neck and record everything you hear and say during the day, before transcribing and summarizing it for later.
  Deutsche Telekom has showcased a smartphone concept that relies solely on AI and has no apps.
Former Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates: "You'll simply tell your device, in everyday language, what you want to do."

AR All interesting stuff, but pins and pendants don't add up to much. New form factors must be great to succeed, and losing the screen is a big minus. Smart glasses are the way to go − but Google's experience with "glassholes" in 2013 is sobering. New social norms are needed first.
As for godbots, I see a future for them only if they're paired with wellness apps. That combination, with new interface tech going beyond a form factor, shows promise. Otherwise, we get a crucifix around the neck that holds an AI interface for wellness and moral support.

 

Annihilation
⦿ Paramount Pictures
Annihilation (2018)
James Lanternman: "The Shimmer refracts everything inside it, including DNA, merging all living things into new forms ..
This process of universal genetic mutation gives form to the concept that nature exists in a fundamentally
larger and more powerful realm than any living thing."
 

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⦿ Paramount Pictures
Natalie Portman in
Annihilation
(2018)

 

2024 Easter Sunday

The Genesis Device

A Star Trek Wiki

In Star Trek, the Genesis Device was an experimental piece of technology developed by the United Federation of Planets.
The device was incorporated into a torpedo launched from a shuttle. When detonated, it radiated its impact region with a Genesis Wave that altered the surrounding matter. Its "matrix" then reassembled the matter into organic molecules and primitive lifeforms and prepared the target location to support humanoid life.
When activated among existing life forms, the wave destroyed them and restructured them to match the new life matrix. Once activated, this Genesis Effect was unstoppable.

Annihilation 
Rotten Tomatoes

Kambole Campbell: "Annihilation is the best kind of sci‑fi film − the kind that challenges and subverts the genre, all the while introducing new ideas that you'll see in films to come."
Wenlei Ma: "But the dialogue is clunky and the plot disjointed."
Lucy Hunter Johnston: "The more familiar aspects of Annihilation are enlivened by the entirely female dynamic."
Simran Hans: "Even with some high-concept brilliance, the confusing story and narration fail to hold the film together."
Justin Micallef: "Alex Garland's trippy little cosmic horror film manages to awe, horrify and perplex all at the same time. A modern classic."
Trace Thurman: "A cerebral mix of philosophy and science fiction .. Sublime and surreal."

AR Annihilation begins with the impact of a Genesis bomb onto Earth in contemporary America. The story relates the attempts of hapless humans to understand and mitigate its effects. The focus of the action is so close as to induce claustrophobic horror at best, derision as worst.
As a sci‑fi trigger for speculative and creative thoughts, the movie is a success. As a technically or militarily plausible reconstruction of a planetary drama, it fails to enable suspension of disbelief. As a human drama, it fails as badly as all too many sci‑fi stories.
Like so much futurology in Star Trek, the concept of a Genesis bomb is brilliant. The idea that nature operates at the level of fundamental physics to support the evolution of life in ways vastly beyond the factual history of life on Earth is inspiring.
 

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2024 March 30

Memories

Max Kozlov, Nature Magazine

When a long-term memory forms, some neurons experience a rush of electrical activity so strong that it snaps their DNA. An inflammatory response then repairs the damage, helping to fix the memory.
Researchers trained mice to associate a small electrical shock with a new environment, so that when the mice were once again put into that environment, they would remember and show signs of fear. The researchers examined gene activity in neurons in the hippocampus and found that some genes responsible for inflammation were active in a set of neurons for a few days after training.
Protein TLR9 causes the inflammation by triggering an immune response to DNA fragments floating around in cells. TLR9 is most active in a subset of hippocampal neurons in which DNA breaks resist repair. In these cells, DNA repair machinery accumulates in the centrosome. Deleting the gene encoding TLR9 in the mice gave them trouble recalling long-term memories about training.
A subset of hippocampal neurons forms a trace of a memory, an engram. The neurons express certain genes after a learning event, but mostly other neurons show memory-related inflammation.

AR I see all this as work in progress. Memory is still mysterious in neural terms, and work like this exploring what happens in the hippocampus helps advance our understanding.

 

AR
AR
Wareham Forest, Good Friday
 

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2024 March 29

Christianity

John Gray

A single version of Christianity became the Roman state religion in 380 CE. It crushed its rivals out of existence, but it was not destiny. The established view of Jesus is a historical accident.
Christians wilfully demolished Roman civilization. A pluralistic regime admitting many gods became a repressive monolith that persecuted dissenters. Yet there was a fundamental change in values.
The historical Jesus arose in a tradition of charismatic Judaism. Paul made him the author of a global religion. Recognition of the equal dignity of every human being became part of Western civilization.
Modern liberalism arose from Christianity. Classical civilization required a caste of slaves, but slavery was problematic in Christian ethics. Modern liberals spurn a society founded on slavery.
The rationalist faith that a better world will come from banishing theism seems incredible. As Christianity retreats, people turn to secular superstitions or an extreme ideal of equality.

AR People have a strong natural urge to follow a faith of some kind. Christianity seems to have sated that urge for many people for a long time. This is an intriguing data point.
On the principle that one should go study the ants and learn, I guess we should try to craft a belief system for future civilization based on a faith resembling Christianity in some of its key functional parameters. Study the faith as a system for entraining personal feelings and seek to reconstruct the mechanism in a system allowing upgraded doctrines to be plugged in.
Naturally, crafting such a system is so far from done, even in the broadest outline, that I can only hint darkly that it will somehow be a theme in my next book.
 

SagA*
EHT Collaboration
Milky Way's central black hole
Sagittarius A* imaged in
polarized light

 

2024 March 28

AI Climate Forecasts

Nature

Conventional climate models are built from equations to describe how physical processes affect the climate. These models make climate projections that guide global policy. But they run on super­computers, take weeks to run, and waste energy.
AI and machine learning (ML) are used for weather forecasting and climate modeling in several ways:
1  ML emulators produce the same results as conventional models without the long calculations.
 — QuickClim predicted how global surface temperatures change under many carbon emission scenarios about a million times faster than a conventional model.
 — ACE used estimates from 6 hours earlier to make good forecasts 6 hours ahead, over a time span of up to a decade.
2  AI foundation models power better climate models by finding predictive patterns in the data.
 — ClimaX predicts the average surface temperature, daily temperature range, and rainfall worldwide from input levels of various gases.
3  ML components inside physics-based models produce hybrid models. The ML models replace only parts that work less well, such as on cloud formation, snow cover, and river flows.
 Destination Earth will use ML for a digital twin of Earth to simulate weather and climate down to km scales with speed and accuracy.

AR All this is very encouraging, but its relevance depends on the political will to implement the policies that reasonably stem from the climate forecasts thus obtained. Denialists need to recognise that the new climate models are brilliantly good.
 

2024 March 27

3 Body Problem

Rotten Tomatoes

Marianna Neal: "Is it terrible? No, absolutely not. It's enjoyable, it's high production value sci‑fi, it's going places, it's high stakes, it's large scope and scale, it asks interesting questions. But is it great? Sadly, no."
Adam Sweeting: "A mind-bending sci‑fi epic spanning multiple decades, while also reaching centuries into the past and future, it can scarcely be faulted for lack of ambition, but sometimes there's just too much going on to digest properly."
Lili Loofbourow: "The series juggles the perspectives and quandaries of its flawed and confused scientists with sympathy and nuance. The dialogue is intelligent, witty and believable."
Jean Henegan: "Taking the Chinese-centric story, moving it to England, and creating a tapestry of characters based on several of the novel's key characters, 3 Body Problem is a valiant attempt at translating a novel that has been called unadaptable to the small screen."
Phillip Maciak: "The show should be a celebration, a statement, a home run swing. Instead its style is anonymous, the work of a corporate author rather than an artistic intelligence."
Joy Press: "3 Body Problem weaves philosophical quandaries into a propulsive science fiction tale with such audacity that I don't mind that it doesn't always pull it off. At least it shoots for the stars."

AR Cixin Liu's classic sci‑fi trilogy is now an eight‑part Netflix series, with the implied promise of more seasons to come. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, actually. Mulched down to the generic Netflix series format, with a plot shaped to feature eight cliffhangers, a cast chosen to rank inclusivity over credibility or fidelity, a script with plenty of dumbing down and a generous sprinkling of f‑words, slow-paced meanders into human-interest byways that dilute the story, and a sketchy take on the most interesting questions of physics and philosophy the story raises, the outcome is still very good, but it's not glorious.
For its central purpose, namely to engage contemporary Netflix audiences, the series is about as good as it gets. I give it four stars.
 

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2024 March 26

Atomic Qubits

Philip Ball

Quantum circuits using atomic qubits can perform quantum computations and error correction.
The states of neutral atoms can have coherence times of many seconds. The atoms can be entangled using laser light. We can trap the atoms with optical tweezers and pack them in dense grids.
For qubits to entangle, they must interact. Neutral atoms feel van der Waals forces, which have short range. We can extend the interactions to several μm by pumping the atoms into Rydberg states.
To implement a quantum algorithm, we encode qubits in atomic energy levels and entangle atomic states by switching on Rydberg interactions. A Rydberg blockade makes interactions all or nothing.
We can create a Rydberg blockade between an atom and a trapped molecule. Such hybrid systems are easier to manipulate. Molecular qubits can have very long coherence times.
A few hundred Rb atoms forming 48 logical qubits have implemented a controlled NOT gate.

AR This seems a more promising approach than using SQUIDs or ions for qubits, but let's wait and see. A controlled NOT gate does not yet make a computing revolution. I guess one day a better platform may emerge from work in spintronics or photonics.
 

ELEM Biotech
Virtual humans are surrogates
in virtual patient trials, in
clinician support, and in
treatment innovation
and development
-

 

2024 March 25

Digital Twins

Joe Zadeh

Thanks to advances in AI, the internet of things, machine learning, and sensor technologies, the idea of digital twins has taken off. Tech giants like IBM, Nvidia, Amazon, and Microsoft are providing digital twin capabilities to automotive, energy, and infrastructure firms.
Digital twins allow the inefficiencies of the physical world to be ironed out in a virtual one and then reflected back onto reality. Test risk is removed, and problems can be solved before they happen.
ELEM Biotech co-founder Mariano Vázquez: "We are looking for the mathematical roots of reality. We do it with the weather, we do it with supernovas and galaxy formation, we do it with volcanoes. Why not do it with a human being?"
ELEM created a complex and realistic computer simulation of the average human heart. That involved a lot of physics and collaboration with a local hospital to gather cardiac data. They built an average model they could tweak and adjust based on personal data to create a range of virtual hearts. Their computational tool lets pharmacy companies test the cardiac safety of their products in virtual humans.
The dream of a digital twin is to bypass the averages and biases and develop a personalized and predictive form of healthcare that is built around a person's specific physiology and pathology. Your digital twin would also assist in keeping you healthy.
Digital models have replaced physical models. Digital twins move beyond abstraction to represent all the functionalities of a physical object. They may change our relationship with physical reality.

AR Digital twins are computationally too expensive for more than the most socially, economically, or technically important objects, systems, or processes. The dream of modeling whole universes this way is already impossible for thermodynamic reasons.
In the medical sector, virtual humans are a predictable development for the favored few. They are unthinkable for the masses in a UK where the NHS is chronically and cripplingly underfunded − but they're an ideal we can strive for.

 

AR
AR
Poole Bay, Palm Sunday
 

LIFEBALL

 

2024 March 24

A Conscious Sun?

Stav Dimitropoulos

Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi's integrated information theory of consciousness (IIT) implies that consciousness is possible outside brains. Neuroscientist Christof Koch says where there are organized lumps of matter, consciousness follows.
Sheffield philosophy professor Keith Frankish: "If consciousness is not essentially connected to brain processes, then there's no reason to think it must be restricted to brains. Maybe everything has a little inner glow to it."
Admitting consciousness then implies panpsychism. Frankish: "Consciousness doesn't exist, and we only think it does because we are under a sort of illusion about our own minds."
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake believes that not only are humans conscious, but the galaxy is too. He says morphic resonance lets self-organizing systems form faster following previous, similar systems, so species share collective memories. He now says the Sun is conscious.
Sheldrake: "Consciousness does not need to be confined to brains. The link between minds and physical systems seems to be through rhythmic electromagnetic fields, which of course are present in our brains. They are also present in and around the Sun, and these could be the interface between the solar mind and the body of the Sun."

AR Wonderful confusion! I maintain that IIT plus mental epiphenomenalism plus Stephen Wolfram's ANKOS understanding of computational universalism together imply panpsychism.
In speculations I first published thirty years ago, humans are conscious by virtue of the organization quintessentially expressed in their DNA, the Sun is "superconscious" because of the organization enabled by quantum electrodynamics (QED), and neutron stars are "hyperconscious" because of the organization enabled by quantum chromodynamics (QCD).
I expanded all this in my 1996 sci-fi novel LIFEBALL.
 

-
⊚ Kenn Brown/MondoWorks

 

2024 March 23

Brains and Intelligent Machines

George Musser

The dream of AI is artificial general intelligence, AGI. Large language models solve only one piece of AGI. AI developers build modularity into their systems, but no one is sure how brain regions work together to create a coherent self, let alone how a machine could mimic that.
According to global workspace theory (GWT), modules share information in consciousness. In GWT, brain modules operate mostly independently, but every 100 ms or so they have a staff meeting, a structured shouting contest. Each module has some information to offer, and the more confident it is, the louder it shouts. The winning module puts its information into the workspace.
Conscious attention is a scarce resource. The winning module must be selective in what it says to other modules. Artificial neural networks have billions or trillions of parameters but tend to get lost in the detail. An attention mechanism must funnel options through a bottleneck to let the global workspace make a hard choice.
Information is translated between the modules. When we train two neural networks on English and French, each develops an internal representation like a word cloud. The two clouds are similar because they both refer to the same world, so we rotate the clouds until they align. This can handle subtle shades of meaning and words with no direct counterpart in the other language.
Generative neural networks generate new text and images based on their training and are fastidious about detail. But intelligence involves the selective neglect of detail. Streamlined representations enable a range of cognitive functions that will be essential to AGI.

AR Musser's report is long and rich in detail, so my text is only an appetizer. The challenge of building an AGI that can enable humanoid robots to function as people is very far from overcome, but we are progressing fast. I think we'll have cracked the worst problems within, say, a decade.
 

Quantum tornado
Gateway to understanding
black holes
-

 

2024 March 22

Mathematics of Randomness

Davide Castelvecchi

Michel Talagrand developed formulas to make random processes more predictable. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded him the 2024 Abel Prize for his contributions to probability theory and functional analysis.
Talagrand specializes in the theory of probability and stochastic processes. His inequalities are formulas that set limits to the swings in stochastic processes. They express how the contributions of many factors often cancel each other out, making the overall result less variable.
Talagrand's estimates are useful for studying problems such as optimizing the route of a delivery truck. Finding a perfect solution would require too much computation, so we instead calculate the lengths of a limited number of random candidate routes and then take the average. Talagrand's inequalities ensure that the result is close to optimal.
Abel committee chair Helge Holden: "The magic here is to find a good estimate, not just a rough estimate."

AR This is good and useful work. Well done, that man!

 

boxing
⊚ Soazig de la Moissonnière / Présidence de la République
French president Emmanuel Macron

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2024 March 21

EU Plans War Footing

Lisa O'Carroll

EU leaders are meeting to discuss ways to increase military and financial support for Ukraine.
European council president Charles Michel: "Now that we are facing the biggest security threat since the second world war, it is high time we take radical and concrete steps to be defence-ready and put the EU's economy on a war footing."
French president Emmanuel Macron proposes defence bonds to fund increased defence investment. Frugal EU states are opposed to raising common EU debt that would burden taxpayers for decades.
Mandating each EU member state to contribute 2% of GDP to EU defence can raise up to €80 billion. Confiscating interest on Russian assets could raise a further €27 billion.

AR This is a reasonable response to Russian belligerence.

 

bog
AR
Morden Bog, Vernal Equinox (VE) day
 

EPP
EPP

 

2024 Vernal Equinox

The Weimar Triangle

Paul Taylor

The Weimar Triangle brings Poland together with Germany and France in a regular diplomatic dialog. Polish prime minister Donald Tusk joined German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron in Berlin last Friday.
Poland is rearming and pouring aid into Ukraine. With a dynamic economy and a population of nearly 40 million, Poland can become a regional military power and a fortress against Russian aggression.
The previous Polish government feuded with the EU. New PM Tusk can play a role in EU leadership. He is mending relations with Brussels and may join Berlin and Paris to reform the EU.
The Weimar Triangle was the brainchild of former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He aimed to reconcile reunited Germany and democratic Poland within the EU.
Poland has long warned of the looming threat from Russia. With US military aid to Ukraine blocked in Congress, Europe needs to send more arms to Ukraine.
Tusk: "Ukraine needs less talk and more ammo."

AR Despite what the Pope said, Europe has no reasonable choice but to support Ukraine in its armed resistance against Putin's Russia. Given the risk of losing US military aid, European powers have a clear duty to organize their defenses against Russian aggression.
NATO, the natural bulwark against aggression, is weakened by US political division. The EU can play a key role in bolstering the European contribution to NATO sufficiently to prevail against Putin's Russia even without US support. But it's a big ask.
 

Dune 2
⊚ Warner Media
Timothée Chalamet
Dune: Part Two

 

2024 March 19

Dune: Part 2

Rotten Tomatoes

Sarah Knight Adamson: "With an engaging story, a cast at their very best, along with stunning visuals, this is a masterpiece."
William Evans: "Dune: Part Two is a movie that feels like the culmination of everything that can make a big epic story like this great on the big screen."
Filipe Freitas: "Directed with ferocity by Denis Villeneuve, the film pushes the envelope with its gripping dark atmosphere, suspenseful hunts and ambushes, intricate rituals and prophecies, psyche­delic imagery, and exhilarating fights set against magnificent backdrops."
Jim Ross: "Dune: Part Two improves on its predecessor in some crucial ways, but the reliance on spectacle leaves gaps in the storytelling and a frustratingly ephemeral interest in the most interesting ideas."
Paul Salfen: "An incredible sci‑fi epic that well surpasses the first part and achieves on every level. This might be the best sci‑fi film we've had in many years."

AR I saw Dune: Part Two in an iSense cinema. It was a truly epic experience, a masterful movie, an emotionally powerful contribution to the ethnographic depiction of messianism. In a post‑9/11 world, such an impactful and persuasive take on old‑time religion is invaluable.
Ideally, watching a movie trilogy (assuming Dune: Part 3) like this could convert religious Islamists to rational opponents of big business. As such, they would be dragged into the modern world and forced to confront their ignorance of the power of New Atheism. That's progress.
 

Nvidia
⊚ Nvidia
Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang:
"Building foundation models
for general humanoid robots
is one of the most exciting
problems to solve in
AI today."

 

Nvidia News

Financial Times

Nvidia chief executive Jensen Huang says Nvidia's Blackwell graphics processing units will massively increase the computing power driving large language models. The Blackwell GPU has 208 billion transistors. Nvidia's GB200 superchip will combine two Blackwell GPUs with a Grace CPU.
Huang spoke at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. Nvidia's market cap is now $2.2 trillion, over­taking Google and Amazon to become #3 after Microsoft and Apple. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are Nvidia customers. Huang says AI will transform the global economy.

Exaflops computing for trillion-parameter AI models
Nvidia

Nvidia's Blackwell series of AI chips will power frontier AI models. The Grace Blackwell GB200 puts 2 Blackwell B200 chips on a board with a Grace CPU. The GB200 compute tray combines 2 Grace CPUs with 4 Blackwell GPUs and 1.7 TB of fast memory to deliver 80 petaflops of AI performance.
The GB200 NVL72 supercomputer has 30 TB of unified memory and a 130 TB/s compute fabric for exaflops AI on a server rack. The DGX SuperPOD packs eight racks into a datacenter for 11.5 exaflops at FP4 precision and 240 TB of fast memory to process trillion-parameter AI models.

Foundation model for humanoid robots
Nvidia

Project GR00T is a foundation model for humanoid robots. GR00T enables humanoid embodiments to learn from a handful of human demonstrations with imitation learning and reinforcement learning. The GR00T model takes multimodal instructions and past interactions as input and produces executable actions for the robot.

Jetson Thor
TechCrunch

Nvidia is building an AI platform for humanoid robot makers. It will build Jetson Thor, a computer for running simulation workflows, generative AI models, and more for the humanoid form factor.

AR Huang spoke at the SAP Center: Good boost for SAP. Back in the day, my team at SAP built our fast analytics engine to run on Nvidia GPUs.
 

-

 

2024 March 18

Putin's Russia

Financial Times

This weekend's electoral procession to anoint Vladimir Putin to a fifth term is emblematic of how much damage he has already done. He has squashed political competition at home and brought war back to the European continent. His fifth term is a threat to Europe and the world.
Putin's Kremlin long ago squandered its chance to funnel gushing natural resource revenues into diversification and modernisation. Russian resilience largely reflects success in shifting the economy to a war footing. The conflict has left Moscow reliant on an unequal alliance with China.
The Putinist system may be more brittle than it appears. The West needs to rebuild its defences as a deterrent and to give Ukraine all the support it needs. Ensuring Putin does not prevail there is the best way to prevent his fifth term from extending into a sixth.

AR This is about my take on the 21st-century Russian tragedy. Putin started well and had his chance to align Russia with Europe − even to join NATO and give a new face to the alliance. Instead, he has revived an old despotic tradition in Russian history that can only end badly.
 

-

 

2024 March 17

Climate Change: 5 Ideas

New Scientist

  Build a solar power station in space. A 10 km solar panel in geostationary orbit could produce 200 TW. It would beam microwaves to a ground-based rectenna with an area of some 2 ha per MW. The carbon cost of making the solar panels and getting them into space is high.
  Build energy islands. Wind power is intermittent and must be sent back to land. Energy islands could form hubs in a European supergrid. The sand and concrete islands would support nearby wind farms and together produce 56 GW, maybe for electrolytic hydrogen.
  Stabilise the ice sheet covering West Antarctica. Its failure could end up raising global sea levels by up to 5 m. Warm seawater flowing under the ice shelf melts it from beneath. A floating 80 km curtain tethered to the seabed could reduce the flow but could cost up to $100 billion.
  Regreen the Sinai peninsula. This could restore local water cycles. Deepening Lake Bardawil on the coast would improve its water quality, restore fish stocks, and enlarge surrounding wetlands. Fog collectors could condense water vapour from excavated wet sediment.
  Suck 80 megatons of CO2 from the air each year. We would need to build about 10 big direct air capture plants a year, starting now. Building and operating enough plants to hit the 2050 target could use 50 Pg of water per year and 6 EJ of energy per year.

AR Solar power from orbit is a good idea if it pays off before we get practical fusion power. Energy islands around European coasts seem little better than wind farms without islands. Stabilising the Antarctic ice sheet may need more than a big sea curtain. Regreening the Sinai is good if Gulf oil revenues pay for it. DCC from the atmosphere is a desperate way to bury tons of money.
 

1 fm = 10 −15 m = 1 fermi
-

 

2024 March 16

Inside the Proton

Charlie Wood

The proton is a tiny world with extremely high core pressures. Halfway to the surface, force vortices clash against each other and bend spacetime in and around the particle. The region of curved space­time may extend over 0.6 fm from its center. The electric charge extends over 0.8 fm.
The energy-momentum tensor tells spacetime how to bend. If we could learn the shape of spacetime surrounding a proton, we could infer all the properties indexed in its energy-momentum tensor, including the proton's mass and spin, along with the arrangement of its pressures and forces.
In the heart of the proton, the strong force generates pressures about 10 times the pressure at the heart of a neutron star. A twisting force close to the core is balanced by an opposite twist nearer the surface. Farther out, the pressure falls, then turns inward to hold the proton together.
Protons are made from u and d quarks that act like waves extending beyond the surface. The binding of the proton may arise from an interaction between these extended quarks. The attraction of the strong force extends to 1.4 fm and beyond.

AR The is new knowledge. A century ago, the proton was barely more than a hypothetical ball of positive charge that somehow sat together with neutrons in the atomic nucleus. Science has brought us a long way.
 

Claire Voisin
QUANTA
Claire Voisin

 

2024 March 15

Mathematical Creativity

Claire Voisin

I am a professional mathematician. I sit at a desk and work on a computer, but I need to follow my mind, to keep myself thinking. At some moments, my brain starts working by itself, and I am thinking about mathematics without having intended to.
An abstract definition, once you are familiar with it, is not abstract anymore. The mathematical objects we study look concrete, because we know them much better than anything else. By learning about them, by manipulating them and using them, we ultimately befriend them.
I worked in complex analytic and differential geometry. But the more I work in algebraic geometry, the more I see the need for these two different languages. The theorem called GAGA (géométrie algébrique et géométrie analytique) says you can pass from one language to the other.
Before mathematics, there is language. A lot of logic is already inside language. You can compare poetry and mathematics, in that they both completely rely on the language but still create something new. We constantly rewrite and simplify.

AR I can relate to this. My own mathematical work as a graduate student was tangled and untidy, and ultimately not mathematics but actually philosophy, which took me time to appreciate. Still, with a few more years of focus, it could have tidied up quite well.
Rewriting and simplifying my work over the decades has led me into deep philosophy, bordering on mysticism, with applications in psychology and epistemology. It is no longer mathematics. I see math as having provided the formal backbone for my work.
 

-

 

2024 March 14

America and Israel

Ro Khanna

I've been a longtime supporter of the US−Israel relationship. But the bear-hugging of Benjamin Netanyahu has been a strategic mistake. Netanyahu has conducted a callous war in defiance of the United States.
Biden needs to say he's for Israel but not for this extreme rightwing government. If Netanyahu defies the United States, then no more weapons transfers and no protecting Netanyahu from the entire international community at the United Nations.
We shouldn't be giving Netanyahu the offensive weapons to go kill more people in Gaza. If this war continues, it creates a problem for us. Large parts of our base are unhappy.

Factually incorrect and morally indefensible
Andrew Pulver

Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA chairman David Schaecter wrote to The Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer: "You made a Holocaust movie and won an Oscar. And you are Jewish. Good for you. But it is disgraceful for you to presume to speak for the six million Jews .. You should be ashamed of yourself for using Auschwitz to criticize Israel."
Anti-Defamation League: "Israel is not hijacking Judaism or the Holocaust by defending itself against genocidal terrorists. Glazer's comments at the #Oscars are both factually incorrect & morally reprehensible."

AR Criticism of Israel has for too long been deflected with cries of antisemitism or dark references to the Holocaust. That said, Israeli actions in Gaza bear no comparison with the Auschwitz experience. Apart from the smaller scale of the operation, the dimension of shamelessly unmistakable purpose is lacking. Israeli actions more closely resemble Allied carpet-bombing in WW2.
By the way, I saw The Zone of Interest last week and found it less disturbing than critics lead one to expect. It was an apparently bland tale of bürgerliches family life next door to a slaughterhouse, with the deeper horror that the family breadwinner was the boss of the slaughterhouse, which processed humans. As a philosopher, I'm unfazed by such juxtapositions.
 

How the World Made the
West: A 4,000-Year History

by Josephine Quinn
-

 

2024 March 13

The West

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Josephine Quinn says civilisation is a conglomeration of thousands of cultures, and bundling those entities according to geographical principles is misleading. She opposes the idea that there is such a thing as Western civilisation, independent of others.
Europeans cooked up the Western world using the wheel from the Central-Asian steppe, poetry from Persia, legal codes from Mesopotamia, mathematics from Babylon and India, Mongolian stirrups, gold from sub-Saharan Africa, maritime skills from the people of the Levant and the far north, and an Asian religion.
Quinn mocks the prejudices of philhellene Victorians. She recalls that in the 12th century CE, Christian scholars looked east for Arabic texts to translate into Latin. Quinn: "No one had yet invented classical roots for a European civilisation."

AR The drift of Quinn's argument is surely right, but we've already been set up for this approach by Yuval Noah Harari. The challenge is to shape up the approach sufficiently to make predictions − or rather retrodictions to fill in the gaps. Think of how Darwin's approach made deep sense of biological history.
 

-

 

2024 March 12

AI and the Patriarchy

Katrine Kielos-Marçal

Male billionaires assume superintelligent machines would set out to conquer and dominate.
The patriarchal imagination views AI through its own drive to domination. It imagines an AI monster guided by a single abstract principle, rational but insane, and fears technology as something violent. Its dominant image of human development is of an ape who rose to become a man with a spear.
AI is not inherently violent. It could let us change the way we see intelligent life on Earth.

AR There may be something in this, but it's hard to see what. Women in tech tend to seek power as much as men do. This is inherent to social life as we know it.

 

mind
FB
 

table
⦿ Jake Beech
What's your personality type?

 

2024 March 11

Sorting the Self

Christopher Yates

Psychology Today: "The psychology of personality promises to help people better understand them­selves and those they know in relation to others."
As of 2021, some 400 of Fortune 500 companies were using psychometric instruments to assess employees. The personality testing sector is expected to be a $6.5 billion industry by 2027. Assess­ments help calibrate matters of culture fit, efficiency, talent development, and team synergies.
Personhood is now arbitrated on the basis of tendencies and traits. Multivariate analysis defines traits as interrelated aspects of individuals that determine observable behaviors and predict future behaviors. Seen from the lab or the personnel department, the meaning of personhood is subject to precise psychometric calculation.
When we define ourselves through instrumented operations, we also skip what should be a difficult engagement with being a self. We realize our inner lives in sacrifice to schematics. We reduce mindfulness and meditation practices to wellbeing exercises.
Hans-Georg Gadamer: "The task of bringing people to a self-understanding of themselves takes on an intense urgency."

AR The personality-scoring industry is scientism in action. It would be laughable, like astrology, if it weren't taken so seriously. People believe these scores.
Being a self is a fascinating ontological adventure, or at least it should be. None of us can know ourselves perfectly, for logical reasons, but we can try.
 

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2024 March 10

The White Flag

The Observer

In a recent interview, Pope Francis said Ukraine should have the courage of the "white flag" and negotiate an end to the war with Russia.
Francis: "Don't be ashamed to negotiate before things get worse."
Following meetings in Washington, Türkiye's foreign minister Hakan Fidan said he discussed ways to end Russia's invasion of Ukraine with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken.
Fidan: "We need a basis for talking, for this war to stop, and a dialogue to prevent worse crises, and we call for this."
Türkiye's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offers to host a summit between Ukraine and Russia to end the war.

AR This begins to seem fair to me. Ukrainians have proved their courage and inflicted a high price on the Putin regime for its aggression. We can negotiate a partition of Ukraine as we did in Germany.
A partition will reduce suffering all round and allow West Ukraine in time to join the EU and NATO. Once Putin the Poisoner is gone, the West can reopen the question of Russian crimes in earnest.
Getting rid of Putin and his regime looks impossible by force of arms in Ukraine. Fighting there can at best deliver a lesser solution. The strategic objective is not Crimea but the Kremlin.
 

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2024 March 9

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body

Colm O'Shea

In 1819, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was jailed in Prussia for teaching gymnastics and calisthenics.
Jahn saw gymnastics as a way to forge a sense of solidarity and civic duty in the general population. He created a series of Turnverein for practicing gymnastics and became known as the Turnvater. The Turnverein were guided by the four Fs: frisch, fromm, froh und frei.
German gymnasts eventually included both men and women. Jahn framed their physical training as preparation to fight foreign or domestic foes. The Prussian regime saw his gymnasts as a threat.
Gymnastics is characterized by its attention to precision, clean form, and military decorum. The ancient Greeks had practiced gymnastics as a discipline and understood it not only as a physical system of conditioning but one of moral education and ethical dedication to the state.
Jahn's ethnonationalism found echoes in Hitler's Aryan athletic ideal. The danger of this dynamic arising in martial arts and strength training is real. There is danger too in sedentary living.
Most people are not cut out for physically heroic action. But our culture presumes that everyone is cut out for basic literacy. Even sedentary citizens need to learn how to use their bodies well.
Americans can restore their physical soundness only if they are willing to assume responsibility for their own fitness and the fitness of their family. To retain their freedom, they must be willing to work for the physical toughness on which courage and intelligence largely depend.
NATO countries such as Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, and Austria have templates for weaving physical fitness into the civic body along the lines of mandatory national service. Some form of national service can give direction to young men who otherwise drop out.
All this dovetails with the idealism of Turnvater Jahn.

AR Read this as a reminder that prevailing in hostilities against Putin's Russia, with its heroization of physical toughness and brutality, will not be easy.

 

NATO
Wildfire
Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of NATO by Peter Apps
 

BBC
BBC
Joe Biden, SOTU 2024

 

2024 March 8

State of the Union

Joe Biden

Freedom and democracy are under attack. Putin of Russia is on the march, invading Ukraine and sowing chaos throughout Europe and beyond. Ukraine can stop Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons it needs to defend itself.
But now assistance for Ukraine is being blocked by those who want us to walk away from our leader­ship in the world. A former Republican president tells Putin: "Do whatever the hell you want."
America is a founding member of NATO. Today, we've made NATO stronger than ever. We welcomed Finland to the alliance last year, and just this morning, Sweden officially joined NATO.
We must stand up to Putin. If the United States walks away now, it will put Ukraine at risk, Europe at risk, the free world at risk. We will not walk away. We will not bow down.
The State of our Union is strong and getting stronger. A fair tax code is how we invest in health care, education, defense, and more. The way to make the tax code fair is to make big corporations and the very wealthy finally pay their share.
There are a thousand billionaires in America. Their average federal tax rate is 8.2%. No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a teacher, a sanitation worker, a nurse. I've proposed a minimum tax of 25% for billionaires. Imagine what that could do for America.
We are confronting the climate crisis. I'm taking the most significant action on climate ever in the history of the world. I am cutting our carbon emissions in half by 2030, creating tens of thousands of clean-energy jobs, conserving 30% of America's lands and waters by 2030.
The United States has been leading international efforts to get more humanitarian assistance into Gaza. I'm directing the US military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters.
America is rising. We have the best economy in the world. To lead America, you need a vision for the future of what America can and should be. I see a future for all Americans.

Biden came out swinging
David Smith

Within the first few minutes of Thursday's State of the Union address in Washington, millions of Americans knew that Joe Biden, 81, had brought the fight.
The US president was feisty and fired up. For over 68 minutes, he shouted for America, let rip at Donald Trump, and found artful ways to address concerns over his age. The more that Republicans heckled him, the more he fed off their energy and turned it against them.
When the speech was over, glum Republicans bolted for the door while Democrats mobbed Biden as if he had just won the Super Bowl.

AR All this sounds encouraging. We can hope to head off the Trumpocalypse at the ballot box, if not before. Perhaps America can make it to the sunlit uplands for its 250th birthday.
 

TOE
TOE

 

2024 March 7

Quantum Theory and Gravity

Sabine Hossenfelder

Gravity is described by general relativity, a deterministic theory. But for quantum mechanics, randomness is fundamental. And general relativity cannot describe all we find in nature.
Jonathan Oppenheim says rather than trying to give quantum properties to gravity, we make gravity as random as quantum physics. In his theory, spacetime constantly shifts imperceptibly around us.
Random changes of spacetime affect the motion of quantum particles, and those quantum particles in return affect the changes of spacetime.
Oppenheim has developed a framework that combines quantum physics with classical physics. He now says he can solve the problem of infinities in the Big Bang and black holes.
Standard quantum mechanics brings in randomness during measurement. Prior to measurement, a quantum system can have many possible outcomes, but a measurement collapses them to one.
This collapse is difficult to reconcile with relativity. All we observe is the outcome of the measurement, so we cannot know it is discontinuous.
In objective collapse models, a particle makes many small adjustments that add up to what we call the collapse. Oppenheim links this idea to gravity as the cause of those random jumps.
Deviations from quantum mechanics open a way to test Oppenheim's idea. I think Oppenheim's theory is wrong, but I might be wrong.

AR I've been critical of Oppenheim's theory, so I sympathize with Hossenfelder's critical take on it. This implies that, like her, I might be wrong.
I suspect Oppenheimer's attempt to couple classical and quantum ideas won't work, but he says he's done the math. Case not yet closed.

 

Birkenau
⦿ Dominik Smolarek
Gerard Richter's Birkenau paintings, on display in Oświęcim, Poland
 

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2024 March 6

Super Tuesday Results

Lauren Gambino

Joe Biden and Donald Trump swept to victory in numerous states on Super Tuesday. But the night exposed weaknesses in both electoral coalitions as polls show voters disapprove of both Biden and Trump. Most Americans believe neither candidate has the mental acuity to serve as president for another four years.

Bleak victory speech
David Smith

Trump gave a victory speech on Super Tuesday: "This is a .. magnificent country, and it's sad to see how far it's come and gone .. When you look at the depths where it's gone, we can't let that happen. We're going to straighten it out. We're going to close our borders. We're going to drill baby drill."
His words were bleak: "Our cities are being overrun with migrant crime, and that's Biden migrant crime. But it's a new category and it's violent .. and if they did that in their countries from where they came, they'd be killed instantly. They wouldn't do that. So the world is laughing at us. The world is taking advantage of us .. We have millions of people invading our country. This is an invasion."

AR We are witnessing a slo-mo tragedy on a continental scale. Barring what analysts call a black swan event, Americans look set to experience unprecedented chaos and horror from 2025 onward, just in time for America's 250th birthday.
 

book

 

2024 March 5

Books

Edwin Frank

The New York Times has stopped doing regular book reviews in the daily paper. A climate where the newspaper of record no longer deems it worthwhile to feature criticism is not good for literature.
Books take a lot of work to write and put together but have next to no exchange value. Any use value they have is in the eye of the beholder. Writers are witnesses to the event of their own gift.
MFA programs and the growth of what is beautifully called Globish focus writers on packaging their work in English. Foreign readers are in a sense as prejudiced in favor of English as we are.
Women have been the chief audience for the novel since the form got off the ground in the 18th century. To that extent, the imaginative horizon of the modern world is female.
This is a time that is rejecting the whole idea of art and replacing it with the concern for audience that is turning museums into shopping malls and theme parks.
How much room there will be in corporate and trade publishing for real literary exploration is an open question. One can always hope that whatever it is that draws readers to books is wayward and intangible enough to frustrate the financiers.
The book we will always have with us. Among Evangelists and Islamists and Talmudists, the book is as powerful as ever.

AR Interesting perspectives here. The takeaway here for me is that a book today must have a further purpose beyond showcasing the loquacity of the author.
 

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2024 March 4

Folklore Is Philosophy

Abigail Tulenkois

Academic philosophy has grown too specialized. A discipline that sought answers to fundamental questions has become a game for insiders.
Folklore is a repository of philosophical thinking from voices outside the traditional canon. It offers approaches that respond to the problems facing academic philosophy today.
Philosophy is a mode of wondrous engagement. This sense of wonder draws us to penetrate beyond appearances and look at reality anew.
Folklore and philosophy meet where wonder and fear converge. They both call forth wondrous fear. Both search for truth by attending to the structures of reality we often take for granted.
Storytelling is germane to the philosophic tradition. Folklore provides a model of enquiry that can transform philosophy. Stories impart ideas with maximal impact.
Folklore transcends class and educational boundaries. Its familiar and entertaining structure makes complex ideas accessible to a range of audiences.
Philosophy celebrates individuals by framing their contributions in a vacuum. But many have learned to see progress as a matter of collaboration rather than individual ownership.
Folktales are communal. Listeners alter the stories, embellish them, and change them with each retelling. Folklore preserves ideas softly.

AR Folklore is certainly related to philosophy and even a kind of philosophy, but the academic philosophers would baulk at merging the two disciplines.
Stories can illuminate a philosophy, but philosophers would dismiss a philosophy pursued entirely through stories as "mere" folklore.
 

BBC
BBC
Brit awards 2024:
Raye wins six

 

2024 March 3

The Future of NATO

Paul Mason

Any US exit from NATO poses an existential security risk to Europe. Should the UK go on supporting Ukraine? Should the UK assume more leadership in NATO? Can the UK afford the spending?
Yes, yes, yes. In the UK in the 1930s, the UK financed rearmament with a National Defence Loan and secured value for money by greater coordination and state direction of the defence industry.
Across Europe, defence industries need to overcome needlessly duplicated national arms makers competing with each other and strategic risk aversion by private equity and venture capital.
The European Commission can set a European defence industrial strategy and guarantee to buy the arms. NATO can publish a detailed roadmap of what it needs. The cost looks horrendous.

AR A US exit is a terrifying scenario. Europe is weakened by nation states that only overcome their nationalist demons when facing mortal peril. Brexit should shame the UK into leading on NATO.
 

2024 March 2

US Political Decay

Francis Fukuyama

American institutions have been decaying for some time. The crisis is coming later this year. The US system is based on institutions that enable minorities to thwart the will of majorities.
Consider the deadlock over funding for Ukraine. A majority of members of both the House and Senate, as well as a large part of the public, favor such a measure. But they cannot get a bill passed because a diehard Republican faction opposes any deal with Democrats.
MAGA Republicans are inclined to veto simply for the sake of undermining the other side. They have been pushing for stronger security measures on the southern border for months. But Donald Trump intervened to nix the deal to prevent Joe Biden from getting any credit.
MAGA Republicans say America is pervaded by moral corruption. Their belief in democracy has been replaced by admiration for strong men and authoritarian governments. Trump aims to end both US support for Ukraine and the US pledge to protect NATO allies.
It is not too late to reverse the decay. Most Americans regard Trump as a normal politician, but a second Trump term will not be like the first. The Democrats need to win.

AR This is a crisis for the entire democratic West. Liberalism as we know it is a polite and rational political philosophy that is unequal to the task of facing down political and/or religious extremists who embrace irrational and/or violent methods to pursue bad ends.
 

BBC
BBC
"This is for Gaza"
George Galloway wins
sweeping victory in
Rochdale vote

 

2024 March 1

Learning and Forgetting

Amos Zeeberg

A nimbler machine learning model periodically forgets what it knows.
AI language engines use ANNs. Each neuron receives signals from other neurons, runs calculations, and sends signals on through multiple layers of neurons. Training improves the information flow as the network adapts. But training takes a lot of computing power and is hard to adapt.
Researchers trained an ANN in one language, then erased what it knew about the tokens that build words. These are stored in the first layer of the ANN, the embedding layer. They left all the other layers of the model alone. Then they retrained the model on another language to fill the embedding layer with new tokens. The model could learn and process the new language.
They tried periodically resetting the embedding layer during the initial round of training. They trained a model using periodic forgetting and compared its performance with standard training. The forgetting model did worse than the standard one. Retraining the models on other languages with smaller data sets reduced the accuracy of both models, but the standard model fell by more.
The approach resembles how human brains work.

How to ensure peak brain performance
Jason Arunn Murugesu

When sleepy people were given a math problem that needed creative insight, those woken just after falling asleep were almost three times as likely to make the creative leap and solve the problem as those who had remained awake. Cognitive performance declines the longer you are awake.
Young adults are best at solving problems. Other mental skills mature later: Comprehension plateaus in late middle age. Flow occurs when you get deeply involved in an activity and is linked with clear goals, fast feedback, and a balance of task and skill. To cultivate it, try mindfulness.

Why thinking hard is tiring
Alison George

The brain makes up around 2% of our body weight but uses some 20% of the energy we burn at rest. Most of this energy is used to maintain different voltage levels across neural membranes. They need to be restored whenever a neuron has fired.
The brain uses similar energy for tasks we regard as hard and for easy ones. It allocates resources to its parts to suit mental load. A challenging task increases metabolism in the neurons doing the task and decreases it elsewhere, draining glucose and causing a tired feeling.
When the brain burns ATP and produces adenosine, it tells itself it's tired. Thinking for several hours leads to a buildup of glutamate in the forebrain that produces a feeling of mental fatigue.

How male and female brains differ
Clare Wilson

Men and women tend to live different lives, due to either innate differences or history and politics. Male brains tend to be bigger and heavier, matching their bigger bodies. Sex differences in the size of some brain structures remain after controlling for total brain size. About a third of regions are larger in men and about a third larger in women, by a few percent, maybe in responses to gender roles.

AR I find it fascinating how AI progress illuminates how the brain works. And I'm pleased by how we're making big advances in understanding the brain in detail. The psychological theories of the twentieth century may soon seem like ancient mythologies.

 

BLOG 2024 Q1

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