Category: History

The Universal Roots of Fantasyland

Intellectual history and cultural criticism always teeters on the brink of totalism. So it was when Christopher Hitchens was forced to defend the hyperbolic subtitle of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The complaint was always the same: everything, really? Or when Neil Postman downplayed the early tremors of the internet in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death. Email couldn’t be anything more than another movement towards entertainment and celebrity. So it is no surprise that Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Wrong: A 500-Year History is open to similar charges.

Andersen’s thesis is easily digestible: we built a country on fantasies. From the earliest charismatic stirrings of the Puritans to the patent medicines of the 19th century, through to the counterculture of the 1960s, and now with an incoherent insult comedian and showman as president, America has thrived on inventing wild, fantastical narratives that coalesce into movements. Andersen’s detailed analysis is breathtaking as he pulls together everything from linguistic drift to the psychology of magical thinking to justify his thesis.

Yet his thesis might be too narrow. It is not a uniquely American phenomenon. When Andersen mentions cosplay, he fails to identify its Japanese contributions, including the word itself. In the California Gold Rush, he sees economic fantasies driving a generation to unmoor themselves from their merely average lives. Yet the conquistadores had sought to enrich themselves, God, and country while Americans were forming their shining cities on hills. And in mid-19th-century Europe, while the Americans panned in the Sierra, romanticism was throwing off the oppressive yoke of Enlightenment rationality as the West became increasingly exposed to enigmatic Asian cultures. By the 20th century, Weimar Berlin was a hotbed of cultural fantasies that dovetailed with the rise of Nazism and a fantastical theory of race, German volk culture, and Indo-European mysticism. In India, film has been the starting point for many politicians. The religion of Marxism led to Heroic Realism as the stained glass of the Communist cathedrals.

Is America unique or is it simply human nature to strive for what has not yet existed and, in so doing, create and live in alternative fictions that transcend the mundanity of ordinary reality? If the latter, then Andersen’s thesis still stands but not as a singular evolution. Cultural change is driven by equal parts fantasy and reality. Exploration and expansion was paired with fantastical justifications from religious and literary sources. The growth of an entertainment industry was two-thirds market-driven commerce and one-third creativity. The development of the World Wide Web was originally to exchange scientific information but was exchanging porn from nearly the moment it began.

To be fair, Chapter 32 (America Versus the Godless Civilized Word: Why Are We So Exceptional), provides an argument for the exceptionalism of America at least in terms of religiosity. The pervasiveness of religious belief in America is unlike nearly all other developed nations, and the variation and creativity of those beliefs seems to defy economic and social science predictions about how religions shape modern life across nations. In opposition, however, is a following chapter on postmodernism in academia that again shows how a net wider than America is needed to explain anti-rationalist trends. From Foucault and Continental philosophy we see the trend towards fantasy; Anglo-American analytical philosophy has determinedly moved towards probabilistic formulations of epistemology and more and more scientism.

So what is the explanation of irrationality, whether uniquely American or more universal? In Fantasyland Andersen pins the blame on the persistence of intense religiosity in America. Why America alone remains a mystery, but the consequence is that the adolescent transition from belief in fairytales never occurs and there is a bleed-over effect into the acceptance of alternative formulations of reality:

The UC Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik studies the minds of small children and sees them as little geniuses, models of creativity and innovation. “They live twenty-four/seven in these crazy pretend worlds,” she says. “They have a zillion different imaginary friends.” While at some level, they “know the difference between imagination and reality…it’s just they’d rather live in imaginary worlds than in real ones. Who could blame them?” But what happens when that set of mental habits persists into adulthood too generally and inappropriately? A monster under the bed is true for her, the stuffed animal that talks is true for him, speaking in tongues and homeopathy and vaccines that cause autism and Trilateral Commission conspiracies are true for them.

This analysis extends the umbrella of religious theories built around instincts for perceiving purposeful action to an unceasing escalation of imaginary realities to buttress these personified habits of mind. It’s a strange preoccupation for many of us, though we can be accused of being coastal elites (or worse) just for entertaining such thoughts.

Fantasyland doesn’t end on a positive note but I think the broader thesis just might. We are all so programmed, I might claim. Things slip and slide, politics see and saw, but there seems to be a gradual unfolding of more rights and more opportunity for the many. Theocracy has always lurked in the basement of the American soul, but the atavistic fever dream has been eroded by a cosmopolitan engagement with the world. Those who long for utopia get down to the business of non-zero-sum interactions with a broader clientele and drift away, their certitude fogging until it lifts and a more conscientious idealization of what is and what can be takes over.

I, Robot and Us

What happens if artificial intelligence (AI) technologies become significant economic players? The topic has come up in various ways for the past thirty years, perhaps longer. One model, the so-called technological singularity, posits that self-improving machines may be capable of a level of knowledge generation and disruption that will eliminate humans from economic participation. How far out this singularity might be is a matter of speculation, but I have my doubts that we really understand intelligence enough to start worrying about the impacts of such radical change.

Barring something essentially unknowable because we lack sufficient priors to make an informed guess, we can use evidence of the impact of mechanization on certain economic sectors, like agribusiness or transportation manufacturing, to try to plot out how mechanization might impact other sectors. Aghion, Jones, and Jones’ Artificial Intelligence and Economic Growth, takes a deep dive into the topic. The math is not particularly hard, though the reasons for many of the equations are tied up in macro and microeconomic theory that requires a specialist’s understanding to fully grok.

Of special interest are the potential limiting role of inputs and organizational competition. For instance, automation speed-ups may be limited by human limitations within the economic activity. This may extend even further due to fundamental limitations of physics for a given activity. The pointed example is that power plants are limited by thermodynamics; no amount of additional mechanization can change that. Other factors related to inputs or the complexity of a certain stage of production may also drag economic growth to a capped, limiting level.

Organizational competition and intellectual property considerations come into play, as well. While the authors suggest that corporations will remain relevant, they should become more horizontal by eliminating much of the middle tier of management and outsourcing components of their productivity. The labor consequences are less dire than some singularity speculations: certain low knowledge workers may achieve more influence in the economic activities because they remain essential to the production chain and their value and salaries rise. They become more fluid, as well, because they can operate as free lancers and thus have a broader impact.

This kind of specialization and out-sized knowledge influence, whether by low or high-knowledge workers, is a kind of singularity in itself. Consider the influence of the printing press in disseminating knowledge or the impact of radio and television. The economic costs of moving humans around to convey ideas or to entertain evaporate or minimize, but the influence is limited then to highly-regarded specialists who are competing to get a slice of the public’s attention. Similarly, the knowledge worker who is not easily replaceable by machine becomes the star of the new, AI economy. This may be happening already, with rumors of astronomical compensation for certain AI experts percolating out of Silicon Valley.

Amazonian Griffins and the Fantastical New World

Background research for ¡Reconquista! (or any book) takes unexpected dips and turns, from Google Street Views of Mexicali, Mexico to the origins of Alta California and the campaigns of Colonel Frémont. But the most unusual find in a week punctuated by trail running in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a brief, one hour, twenty minute circuit of Carlsbad Caverns (I was first in and had the descent largely to myself!), was a 19th-century translation of the Queen of California from Las Sergas de Esplandián. This 1510 book by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo related an amazing tale that, as the translator and commenter Edward Everett Hale notes, provided the origin of the name of California, for Cortez imagined what is now Baja California to be an island that was to the West of the Indies, following Columbus’ lead in mislabeling the New World.

Hale’s translation and commentary are even more remarkable in their intertextual reading of the postbellum mindset that pervades all the way to San Francisco. He carries a descriptive thread likening the battle prowess of the Queen of California’s man-killing griffins to Civil War naval craft:

These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or, if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.

And in those comparisons, he shows a careful traversal of residual war sentiments, though he is more direct in calling out the implicit racism of Hiram Powers’ statue of California for being incorrect in depicting Queen Calafia (sic) as classically whitewashed when she was described very clearly as “large, and black as the ace of clubs.”

But what of the story of Calafia? She is queen of an island of Amazonian-like women who kill men and boy children alike by feeding them to a hoard of semi-controllable griffins. The island is made of gold and gemstones litter the ground. Calafia decides to go to war, joining several sultans in an assault on Constantinople. She ultimately gets her chance to deploy the griffins and they kill legions of men on the walls. But when she directs the Sultans’ armies to scale the walls, the griffins slaughter them, too. Oops. She gets control of the griffins, finally, but then the assault becomes more problematic.

Finally it resolves that the Christian-side king will meet with one sultan and Calafia in personal combat to resolve the conflict. The losers will become the subjects of the winners. But before that happens, Calafia wants to meet those with whom she will fight. She is quite taken by the beauty of one of the king’s sons and arrives to check him out on a wild beast:

They brought out an animal which she rode, the strangest that ever was seen. It had ears as large as two shields; a broad forehead which had but one eye, like a mirror; the openings of its nostrils were very large, but its nose was short and blunt. From its mouth turned up two tusks, each of them two palms long. Its color was yellow, and it had many violet spots upon its skin, like and ounce. It was larger than a dromedary, had its feet cleft like those of an ox, and ran as swiftly as the wind, and skipped over the rocks as lightly, and held itself erect on any part of them, as do the mountain-goats. Its food was dates and figs and peas, and nothing else.

So the bestiary contained more than just the ravenous, man-eating griffins. But she and the sultan are ultimately beaten in combat. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Christians must triumph and the man must best the woman. She even gives up her pagan ways in the end and gets married to a random, good-looking member of the ruling class. She gets her sister a husband, too.

What becomes of the island and the women? They convert, take husbands, and help with further adventures we are told. The story and commentary concludes with some interesting notes on Columbus and his beliefs about the New World (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1872). Learned men knew Dante and few other things then, so it is not surprising that Hale suggests that Columbus took seriously the cosmic geography that Dante laid out in the Divine Comedy.

The New World, it seems, was named and traversed in equal parts reality and fantasy.

Traitorous Reason, Facts, and Analysis

dinoObama’s post-election press conference was notable for its continued demonstration of adult discourse and values. Especially notable:

This office is bigger than any one person and that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.

But ideology in American politics (and elsewhere) has the traitorous habit of undermining every one of those norms. It always begins with undermining the facts in pursuit of manipulation. Just before the election, the wizardly Aron Ra took to YouTube to review VP-elect Mike Pence’s bizarre grandstanding in Congress in 2002:

And just today, Trump lashed out at the cast of Hamilton for lecturing Mike Pence on his anti-LGBTQ stands, also related to ideology and belief, at the end of a show.

Astonishing as this seems, we live in an imperfect world being drawn very slowly away from tribal and xenophobic tendencies, and in fits and starts. My wife received a copy of letter from now-deceased family that contained an editorial from the Shreveport Journal in the 1960s that (with its embedded The Worker editorial review) simultaneously attacked segregationist violence, the rhetoric of Alabama governor George Wallace, claimed that communists were influencing John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement, demanded the jailing of communists, and suggested the federal government should take over Alabama:

editorial-shreveport-60s-m

The accompanying letter was also concerned over the fate of children raised as Unitarians, amazingly enough, and how they could possibly be moral people. It then concluded with a recommendation to vote for Goldwater.

Is it any wonder that the accompanying cultural revolutions might lead to the tearing down of the institutions that were used to justify the deviation away from “reason and facts and analysis?”

But I must veer to the positive here, that this brief blip is a passing retrenchment of these old tendencies that the Millennials and their children will look back to with fond amusement, the way I remember Ronald Reagan.

Theories of Leisure, Past and Future

img_0028I am at leisure. Specifically—and many may not regard this as leisure—I just ran 17.71 miles in Yosemite Valley. I dropped the car along the road near the 41 junction and then just started running. I went south for a while, then circled back to Bridalveil Falls (lightly flowing), then up to the Glacier Point loop, then back down to El Capitan, then up to Yosemite Falls (not flowing). Lunch was at the Village and then I tracked down the car again.

Now, then, I am at leisure. The barman has set me up with a martini. I have a Fresno Fig flatbread on the way: goat cheese, bacon, arugula, and the critical figs. I am showered all the way down to between my toes. The late afternoon light is filtering through a mild haze onto the muddy belly of the lake. There must be bass out there somewhere. Let the bass live. Let them be at leisure.

A must-read on this topic is Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article, The Free-Time Paradox in America. I don’t agree with the thesis, though. It’s not really a paradox. It’s just an unknown. You should read Derek’s original, but I will comment briefly on some of his points. He argues that John Maynard Keynes forecast a reduction in work requirements by the 21st Century. Mechanization would take the drudgery out of most things and we would get to 15 hour work weeks with the management of our leisure time an increasing burden on us.

The present didn’t work out that way.

Instead, educated high-earners work ever harder. The only leisure class is the non-college-educated male youth who don’t work much these days but instead play video games (75% of their spare time) and are happier than when more of them worked. Derek rolls up several theories about why this might be the case. First, maybe it’s because the industry jobs disappeared and young men don’t like to work in retail and health care. Second, perhaps it’s because the wealthy workers are trying to keep up with the Joneses, though not exactly in the way that the Thorstein Veblen imagined it. Instead of conspicuous consumption, it is conspicuous activity. Finally, maybe it’s because work and leisure have blurred too much; entertaining ourselves on our smartphones is just too close to responding to an email from work.

I agree partly with the suggestion that economic productivity can be a very high level of creative action that is implicit in some of Derek’s commentary. Is there really much difference between landscape design and watercolor painting? Both require an understanding of materials and methods that result in an aesthetic outcome, though the former has more of a pragmatic impact than the latter. Is this a significant deviation from past economic efforts? Perhaps. The modern startup doesn’t have the dark satanic mills of the past, and is based, generally, on technological advances that are intellectually interesting. Sometimes this was the case historically, but not consistently.

Ultimately, what constitutes leisure activities rather than productive activities is inherently blurry. I suppose the golfing set might claim otherwise, but I do work-related thinking while running, and may intertwine writing efforts with other actions without harm to either of them. Leisure is fungible.

The future of leisure is similarly fungible. We can guess that virtual gaming will be even more compelling than existing gaming options, pulling young men and others even further away from engagement with the traditional economic sphere. Yet, even here there are opportunities: toolkits for virtual world design, the designs themselves, monetizing the experiences in compelling ways. Even my Yosemite experience can be virtualized. Fly drones around, mapping and imagining every square inch in ultra-4K resolution. Yes, drones are currently illegal in National Parks, but they could be used by licensed content producers, I’m guessing. Then everyone could fly, run, hike, walk, boat, and swim this little, leisurely experience.

I am at leisure.

Euhemerus and the Bullshit Artist

trump-minotaurSailing down through the Middle East, past the monuments of Egypt and the wild African coast, and then on into the Indian Ocean, past Arabia Felix, Euhemerus came upon an island. Maybe he came upon it. Maybe he sailed. He was perhaps—yes, perhaps; who can say?—sailing for Cassander in deconstructing the memory of Alexander the Great. And that island, Panchaea, held a temple of Zeus with a written history of the deeds of men who became the Greek gods.

They were elevated, they became fixed in the freckled amber of ancient history, their deeds escalated into myths and legends. And, likewise, the ancient tribes of the Levant brought their El and Yah-Wah, and Asherah and Baal, and then the Zoroastrians influenced the diaspora in refuge in Babylon, until they returned and had found dualism, elemental good and evil, and then reimagined their origins pantheon down through monolatry and into monotheism. These great men and women were reimagined into something transcendent and, ultimately, barely understandable.

Even the rational Yankee in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court realizes almost immediately why he would soon rule over the medieval world as he is declared a wild dragon when presented to the court. He waits for someone to point out that he doesn’t resemble a dragon, but the medieval mind does not seem to question the reasonableness of the mythic claims, even in the presence of evidence.

So it goes with the human mind.

And even today we have Fareed Zakaria justifying his use of the term “bullshit artist” for Donald Trump. Trump’s logorrhea is punctuated by so many incomprehensible and contradictory statements that it becomes a mythic whirlwind. He lets slip, now and again, that his method is deliberate:

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Bullshit artist is the modern way of saying what Euhemerus was trying to say in his fictional “Sacred History.” Yet we keep getting entranced by these coordinated maelstroms of utter crap, from World Net Daily to Infowars to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh. Only the old Steven Colbert could contend with it through his own bullshit mythical inversion. Mockery seems the right approach, but it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the conspiratorial mind.

Build Up That Wall

No, I’m not endorsing the construction of additional walls between the United States and Mexico. There are plenty of those and they may be of questionable value. Instead, it is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and I’m quoting from Christopher Hitchens (who shared his birthday with Jefferson) in repurposing and inverting Reagan’s famous request of Gorbachev. Hitch promoted the Jeffersonian ideal of separating out the civic from the religious:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

from Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

A rather remarkable continuation of Enlightenment concepts that derive, typically, from a notion of “natural rights” and, even in the Virginia Statue, from religious concepts: “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free.” With the following paragraphs noting that human rulers are fallible and have tended to create false religions down through time, apparently regardless of God’s wishes.

Natural rights are an interesting idea that re-occurs in the Declaration of Independence and were also championed by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The notion that natural rights did not extend to slaves was something that Jefferson was conflicted about, according to Hitchens, until the end of his life, with the issue of state’s rights a pragmatic basis for opposition to an institution that he both profited from and found morally repugnant.

Natural rights might also be derivable from something like Rawl’s  “veil of ignorance,” which, in this capacity, just reiterates what might be more simply considered a method for minimizing the interference of people in the behavior and thoughts of other people. This concedes that evolving perspectives on interference may reduce the universality of any claim concerning those rights. But an interference model only accounts for specific categories of rights.  The right to schooling provided via taxation would not be covered, nor would the right for equality in dealings in the civic space. In fairness, Rawls’ argument about rights is greater than this minimal fragment, but both show how jettisoning a deontological approach to ethics yields testable hypotheses.

Michael Boylan’s “Are there natural human rights?” in the Stone Reader covers the controversy in some detail, describing the agency and capability theories, as well as objections from Chinese and Islamic sources. The latter rise to the level of problematic, for if the individuals within a society complain that outside perspectives on natural rights are not their own, is there any sense of universality in natural rights? Oppressing women is Allah’s will, after all, and is therefore “natural.”

And so, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I have to commemorate one of the greatest contributions to our modern world: a secular state with definable rights of conscience and radical freedoms, regardless of how natural that might be.

Against Superheroes: Section 18 (Chapter 15)

Against SuperheroesThe sessions with Sakara were illuminative and intimate. She asked me about what I remembered from before the transformation. I sat in the chair across from her, the susurration of the air conditioning that seemed to feed the field projectors as much as our comfort was a constant presence beneath our discussion. I remembered very little: hints of childhood, more about the dig at Mt. Hasan, bits of Ela’s sexual mystique, strange flashes of schools and lights. Interrogating this past revealed very little new or surprising to me. I was candid about my limitations concerning the changes to my memory. I was also candid about how with the loss of a personal history came, inevitably, a loss of the essentials of being human. We are continuitities of experience. I can’t describe who I am except as part of my memories and the feelings that surround and enervate them. The protracted calamity of religious ideas that Sakara raised, from ethical concerns about harming others to the status of the unborn all unravel with this consideration. A baby is alive but only tentatively human in the strongest sense. A god knows this—can even feel it as a ribbon into the future—but humans just arbitrarily assign categories that are driven by misunderstandings of these cognitive postures.

Why were the gods so capricious, she asked me. Why were they so inhuman? They were good human questions but the answer hardly raised above this faint echo of incapacity. If your mind is subsumed in this web of temporal flux, if you recognize the flammability of experience, and where there are other islands of experiences too, like for a human that there is only instead a moving arc of intransitive expectations and plans, then what is left is the broader permamence of an ineffable now. She tried to pin this to the Eastern experience, wrapping it like a crèche Jesus in the swaddling of Buddhist and Taoist language. They are partially there, I explained, but so are the ardent Penitentes or the Hindu self-mutilators. Sure, of course, that is what they think they see, what we as gods see and experience. It is confounded by the lustful futurism of the human condition. I don’t care if I live or die. I am not even sure I can. I only care about injustice through a willful effort to define and engage with my human past. I’m not sure any other gods ever did.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, when asked why God might be so cruel as to not only drown the entire world but to also kill all but some hundred thousand elect who will join Him in heaven, respond that we are like ants to Him and cannot know His morality. It is true, I realize and scare Sakara with this revelation, that Yahweh, if he was as real as I am, necessarily had a moral code that was indifferent to humanity. That any creation act was just a likely contigent effect of some greater, unknowable temporary perspective, a new technology almost built out of these fields and rhythms. He didn’t care and his confused expressions were recorded by his followers like imbecile ants trying to see beyond the pheromonic trails that took them in their daily cycles. Losing those gods to just myths and history was critical to developing freedom, but we kept reappearing in theosophy, in mysticism, in alien encounters, in superheroes imbued with superpowers. The gods lived on in our aspirations until they were actually discovered again.

Yes, re-engaging with humanity, becoming a force for good regardless of the edge randomization, was something that I wanted to do after a while. It was maybe loneliness—sure Sakara—I wouldn’t deny that diagnosis, that analysis. Discovering how to be human again brought the ability to quell the Tiamat within me, and the capacity to grok that vast, limited double-cone of past and future that comes with that humanity.

The sessions went on and on. I began marking the passing of days on the walls of my cell with a red crayon they granted me. A television arrived a week later and I asked Sakara if it was some kind of gift for being a good little god. She said she though it might help with boredom. I had little of that even now, maybe something like it at the edges, though. Holding the crayon in my hand late in the night, watching the unchanging shadows from the now-dimmed lights, I continued to work on the corners of those tubules, enlarging them against the pervasiveness of the suppression field. I felt like I understood its mechanism more in interfering with my penetration of the ensembles of microstates. It was like static that disrupted the realizations. By flexing a bit I could lift the edge of the gauzy veil without setting off alarms. I had begun in my cell but tried again during a session with Sakara to test my theory. No alarms, no stunguns.

By the third week Sakara asked me if there was anything I needed and I told her answers, just all the answers that I was waiting for. That was all I needed. She agreed at that point but said that I had to remain in the field for a bit longer. I was surprised that they were even considering lifting the field from me, and briefly suspended my own experimentation on it, fearing I would dissolve that trust that we had built together through these seemingly irrelevant chats. She smiled at me and told me I had been remarkably forthcoming and didn’t seem to be trying to manipulate her at all. I hadn’t, admittedly, though not telling her that I could probably throw off the effects of the field and break the building into pieces was not particularly forthcoming in the sense she was using the term. I thought briefly about telling her or showing her what I could now do. I wanted her trust, too. She was a wonderfully delicate woman doing some of the most fascinating and risky work in the human universe. And she was doing it competently in the face of incredible ambiguity and uncertainty.

I reached out, then, as I acknowledged her trust using the standard English symbology, a wrapping of idiosyncratic semaphors that conjoined our emotional transaction. Information was always secondary to the feeling, to the stance. And then as I felt through the field’s matrix of spongey sequenced variables, I touched the side of her face, disturbing the plumule like a gentle, cool breeze that can flow through any room, when an air conditioner comes on or a colleague passes near, but this was a controlled cell, a womb, and there was no motion outside our own flexing and re-arranging, and her right eyelid twitched and then pulsed reflexively, her searching about at the anomaly. But it was just that once, and I relented, satisfied with my cryptic stalking for that slice of time.

She continued then, though with a loss of certainty to her patter, a temporary hesitancy, until she excused herself to use the bathroom and I waited, watching the tile floor and the multiple shadows radiating from the complex of reflected lights bouncing through the room. When she returned she began to describe what they knew and what they were still trying to understand.

Neutered Inventiveness

I just received an award from my employer for getting more than five patents through the patent committee this year. Since I’m a member of the committee, it was easy enough. Just kidding: I was not, of course, allowed to vote on my own patents. The award I received leaves a bit to be desired, however. First, I have to say that it is a well-crafted glass block about 4″ x 3″ and has the kind of heft to it that would make it invaluable as a weapon in a game of Clue. That being said, I give you Exhibits 1 and 2:

Vitruvian Exhibits

Exhibit 1 is a cell-phone snap through the glass surface of my award at Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, so named because it was a tribute to the architect Vitruvius—or so Wikipedia tells me. Exhibit 2 is an image of the original sketch by da Vinci, also borrowed from Wikipedia.

And now, with only minimal scrutiny, my dear reader can see the fundamental problem in the borrowing and translation of old Vitruvius. While Vitruvius was deeply enamored of a sense of symmetry to the human body, and da Vinci took that sense of wonder as a basis for drawing his figure, we can rightly believe that the presence of all anatomical parts of the man was regarded as essential for the accurate portrayal of man’s elaborate architecture.

My inventions now seem somehow neutered and my sense of wonder castrated by this lesser man, no matter what the intent of the good people in charge of the production of the award. I reflect on their motivations in light of recent arguments concerning the proper role of the humanities in our modern lives. I have consulted with my wife, an expert on a range of obscure matters concerning art history, mythology, pagan traditions, and other scholarly things that enrich our lives but are sometimes hard to assign tangible value. She insists that penises should never be removed—nor inserted—just to make a point.

Further reflection suggests that the very choice of Vitruvian Man really wasn’t a very good one. How about this?

Leonardo_da_Vinci_helicopter

Shaft intact and all, it represents inventiveness far better than old Vitruvius’ meditations on the architecture of the body and the world.

Machine Learning and the Coming Robot Apocalypse

Daliesque creepy dogsSlides from a talk I gave today on current advances in machine learning are available in PDF, below. The agenda is pretty straightforward: starting with some theory about overfitting based on algorithmic information theory, we proceed on through a taxonomy of ML types (not exhaustive), then dip into ensemble learning and deep learning approaches. An analysis of the difficulty and types of performance we get from various algorithms and problems is presented. We end with a discussion of whether we should be frightened about the progress we see around us.

Note: click on the gray square if you don’t see the embedded PDF…browsers vary.

Download the PDF file .