Bright Sarcasm in the Classroom

That old American tradition, the Roman Salute

When a Pew research poll discovered a shocking divide between self-identifying Republicans/GOP-leaning Independents and their Democratic Party opposites on the question of the value of higher education, the commentariat went apeshit. Here’s a brief rundown of sources, left, center, and right, and what they decided are the key issues:

  • National Review: Higher education has eroded the Western canon and turned into a devious plot to rob our children of good thinking, spiked with avocado toast.
  • Paul Krugman at New York Times: Conservative tribal identification leads to opposition to climate change science or evolution, and further towards a “grim” anti-intellectualism.
  • New Republic: There is no evidence that college kid’s political views are changed by higher education and, also, that conservative-minded professors aren’t much maltreated on campus either, so the conservative complaints are just overblown anti-liberal hype that, they point out, has some very negative consequences.

I would make a slightly more radical claim than Krugman, for instance, and one that is pointedly opposed to Simonson at National Review. In higher education we see not just a dedication to science but an active program of criticizing and deconstructing ideas like the Western canon as central to higher thought. In history, great man theories have been broken down into smart and salient compartments that explore the many ways in which groups and individuals, genders and ideas, all were part of fashioning the present. These changes, largely late 20th century academic inventions, have broken up the monopolies on how concepts of law, order, governance, and the worth of people were once formulated. This must be anti-conservative in the pure sense that there is little to be conserved from older ideas, except as objects of critique. We need only stroll through the grotesque history of Social Darwinism, psychological definitions of homosexuality as a mental disorder, or anthropological theories of race and values to get a sense for why academic pursuits, in becoming more critically influenced by a burgeoning and democratizing populace, were obligated to refine what is useful, intellectually valuable, and less wrong. The process will continue, too.

The consequences are far reaching. Higher education correlates necessarily with liberal values and those values tend to correlate more with valuing reason and fairness over tradition and security. That means that atheism has a greater foothold and science as a primary means of truth discovery takes precedence over the older and uglier angels of our nature. The enhanced creativity that arises from better knowledge of the world and accurate and careful assessment then, in turn, leads to knowledge generation and technological innovation that is derived almost exclusively from a broad engagement with ideas. This can cause problems when ordering Italian sandwiches.

Is there or should there be any antidote to the disjunctive opinions on the value of higher learning? Polarized disagreements on the topic can lead to societal consequences that are reactive and precipitous, which is what all three sources are warning about in various ways. But the larger goals of conservatives should be easily met through the mechanism that most of them would agree is always open: form, build, and attend ideologically-attuned colleges. There are at least dozens of Christian colleges that have various charters that should meet some of their expectations. If these institutions are good for them and society as a whole, they just need to do a better job of explaining that to America. Then, like the consumer flocking from Microsoft to Apple, the great public and private institutions will lose the student debt dollar to these other options and, finally, indoctrination in all that bright sarcasm will end in the classroom. Maybe, then, everyone will agree that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that coal demand proceeds from supply.

Less Dead

I’m feeling less dead than I could be. Here’s the rattlesnake that struck and bounced off my running shoe this morning:

He started rattling after the initial strike, which seems like an evolutionary spandrel. At least he didn’t have a machine gun. I’ve named him Bartholomew and wish him the best on his future journeys. And here is the juvenile oryx who was laughing at the situation nearby:

Zebras with Machine Guns

I was just rereading some of the literature on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) as a distraction from trying to write too much on ¡Reconquista!, since it looks like I am on a much faster trajectory to finishing the book than I had thought. EAAN is a curious little argument that some have dismissed as a resurgent example of scholastic theology. It has some newer trappings that we see in modern historical method, however, especially in the use Bayes’ Theorem to establish the warrant of beliefs by trying to cast those warrants as probabilities.

A critical part of Plantinga’s argument hinges on the notion that evolutionary processes optimize against behavior and not necessarily belief. Therefore, it is plausible that an individual could hold false beliefs that are nonetheless adaptive. For instance, Plantinga gives the example of a man who desires to be eaten by tigers but always feels hopeless when confronted by a given tiger because he doesn’t feel worthy of that particular tiger, so he runs away and looks for another one. This may seem like a strange conjunction of beliefs and actions that happen to result in the man surviving, but we know from modern psychology that people can form elaborate justifications for perceived events and wild metaphysics to coordinate those justifications.

If that is the case, for Plantinga, the evolutionary consequence is that we should not trust our belief in our reasoning faculties because they are effectively arbitrary. There are dozens of responses to this argument that dissect it from many different dimensions. I’ve previously showcased Branden Fitelson and Elliot Sober’s Plantinga’s Probability Arguments Against Evolutionary Naturalism from 1997, which I think is one of the most complete examinations of the structure of the argument. There are two critical points that I think emerge from Fitelson and Sober. First, there is the sober reminder of the inherent frailty of scientific method that needs to be kept in mind. Science is an evolving work involving many minds operating, when at its best, in a social network that reduces biases and methodological overshoots. It should be seen as a tentative foothold against “global skepticism.”

The second, and critical take-away from that response is more nuanced, however. The notion that our beliefs can be arbitrarily disconnected from adaptive behavior in an evolutionary setting, like the tiger survivor, requires a very different kind of evolution than we theorize. Fitelson and Sober point out that if anything was possible, zebras might have developed machine guns to defend against lions rather than just cryptic stripes. Instead, the sieve of possible solutions to adaptive problems is built on the genetic and phenotypic variants that came before. This will limit the range of arbitrary, non-true beliefs that can be compatible with an adaptive solution. If the joint probability of true belief and adaptive behavior is much higher than the alternative, which we might guess is true, then there is a greater probability that our faculties are reliable. In fact, we could argue that using a parsimony argument that extends Bayesian analysis to the general case of optimal inductive models (Sober actually works on this issue extensively), that there are classes of inductive solutions that, through eliminating add-ons, outperform predictively those solutions that have extra assumptions and entities. So, P(not getting eaten | true belief that tigers are threats) >> P(not getting eaten | false beliefs about tigers), especially when updated over time. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that William of Ockham of Ockham’s Razor-fame was a scholastic theologian, so if Plantinga’s argument is revisiting those old angels-head-pin-style arguments, it might be opposed by a fellow scholastic.

¡Reconquista! at 50K

¡Reconquista! has taken on that magical quality of momentum where it is almost writing itself. Or maybe it’s just that satire, bleak and horrifying, is the perfect mood for the times. These counts do not include early plot development and notes, which read out at another 4K or more, depending on how you factor it.

The analytics put me on an exit trajectory around mid-August.

Brain Gibberish with a Convincing Heart

Elon Musk believes that direct brain interfaces will help people better transmit ideas to one another in addition to just allowing thought-to-text generation. But there is a fundamental problem with this idea. Let’s take Hubert Dreyfus’ conception of the way meaning works as being tied to a more holistic view of our social interactions with others. Hilary Putnam would probably agree with this perspective, though now I am speaking for two dead philosphers of mind. We can certainly conclude that my mental states when thinking about the statement “snow is white” are, borrowing from Putnam who borrows from Quine, different from a German person thinking “Schnee ist weiß.” The orthography, grammar, and pronunciation are different to begin with. Then there is what seems to transpire when I think about that statement: mild visualizations of white snow-laden rocks above a small stream for instance, or, just now, Joni Mitchell’s “As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl.” The centrality or some kind of logical ground that merely asserts that such a statement is a propositional truth that is shared in some kind of mind interlingua doesn’t bear much fruit to the complexities of what such a statement entails.

Religious and political terminology is notoriously elastic. Indeed, for the former, it hardly even seems coherent to talk about the concept of supernatural things or events. If they are detectable by any other sense than some kind of unverifiable gnosis, then they are at least natural in that they are manifesting in the observable world. So supernatural imposes a barrier that seems to preclude any kind of discussion using ordinary language. The only thing left is a collection of metaphysical assumptions that, in lacking any sort of reference, must merely conform to the patterns of synonymy, metonymy, and other language games that we ordinarily reserve for discernible events and things. And, of course, where unverifiable gnosis holds sway, it is not public knowledge and therefore seems to mainly serve as a social mechanism for attracting attention to oneself.

Politics takes on a similar quality, with it often said to be a virtue if a leader can translate complex policies into simple sound bites. But, as we see in modern American politics, what instead happens is that abstract fear signaling is the primary currency to try to motivate (and manipulate) the voter. The elasticity of a concept like “freedom” is used to polarize the sides of political negotiation that almost always involves the management of winners and losers and the dividing line between them. Fear mixes with complex nostalgia about times that never were, or were more nuanced than most recall, and jeremiads serve to poison the well of discourse.

So, if I were to have a brain interface, it might be trainable to write words for me by listening to the regular neural firing patterns that accompany my typing or speaking, but I doubt it would provide some kind of direct transmission or telepathy between people that would have any more content than those written or spoken forms. Instead, the inscrutable and non-referential abstractions about complex ideas would be tied together and be in contrast with the existing holistic meaning network. And that would just be gibberish to any other mind. Worst still, such a system might also be able to convey raw emotion from person to person, thus just amplifying the fear or joy component of the idea without being able to transmit the specifics of the thoughts. And that would be worse than mere gibberish, it would be gibberish with a convincing heart.

Inclement Science

Found at 6,500 feet in New Mexico’s Organ Mountains this morning, driven into an old log, facing White Sands Missile Range:

Can’t help but think it is a statement on the threat to climate science and missions like Jason-3, but someone likely just lost it on the trail and a good soul pushed the pin into the wood for potential rediscovery.

The Obsessive Dreyfus-Hawking Conundrum

I’ve been obsessed lately. I was up at 5 A.M. yesterday and drove to Ruidoso to do some hiking (trails T93 to T92, if interested). The San Augustin Pass was desolate as the sun began breaking over, so I inched up into triple digit speeds in the M6. Because that is what the machine is made for. Booming across White Sands Missile Range, I recalled watching base police work with National Park Rangers to chase oryx down the highway while early F117s practiced touch-and-gos at Holloman in the background, and then driving my carpool truck out to the high energy laser site or desert ship to deliver documents.

I settled into Starbucks an hour and a half later and started writing on ¡Reconquista!, cranking out thousands of words before trying to track down the trailhead and starting on my hike. (I would have run the thing but wanted to go to lunch later and didn’t have access to a shower. Neither restaurant nor diners deserve an après-run moi.) And then I was on the trail and I kept stopping and taking plot and dialogue notes, revisiting little vignettes and annotating enhancements that I would later salt in to the main text over lunch. And I kept rummaging through the development of characters, refining and sifting the facts of their lives through different sets of sieves until they took on both a greater valence within the story arc and, often, more comedic value.

I was obsessed and remain so. It is a joyous thing to be in this state, comparable only to working on large-scale software systems when the hours melt away and meals slip as one cranks through problem after problem, building and modulating the subsystems until the units begin to sing together like a chorus. In English, the syntax and semantics are less constrained and the pragmatics more pronounced, but the emotional high is much the same.

With the recent death of Hubert Dreyfus at Berkeley it seems an opportune time to consider the uniquely human capabilities that are involved in each of these creative ventures. Uniquely, I suggest, because we can’t yet imagine what it would be like for a machine to do the same kinds of intelligent tasks. Yet, from Stephen Hawking through to Elon Musk, influential minds are worried about what might happen if we develop machines that rise to the level of human consciousness. This might be considered a science fiction-like speculation since we have little basis for conjecture beyond the works of pure imagination. We know that mechanization displaces workers, for instance, and think it will continue, but what about conscious machines?

For Dreyfus, the human mind is too embodied and situational to be considered an encodable thing representable by rules and algorithms. Much like the trajectory of a species through an evolutionary landscape, the mind is, in some sense, an encoded reflection of the world in which it lives. Taken further, the evolutionary parallel becomes even more relevant in that it is embodied in a sensory and physical identity, a product of a social universe, and an outgrowth of some evolutionary ping pong through contingencies that led to greater intelligence and self-awareness.

Obsession with whatever cultivars, whatever traits and tendencies, lead to this riot of wordplay and software refinement is a fine example of how this moves away from the fears of Hawking and towards the impossibilities of Dreyfus. We might imagine that we can simulate our way to the kernel of instinct and emotion that makes such things possible. We might also claim that we can disconnect the product of the effort from these internal states and the qualia that defy easy description. The books and the new technologies have only desultory correspondence to the process by which they are created. But I doubt it. It’s more likely that getting from great automatic speech recognition or image classification to the general AI that makes us fearful is a longer hike than we currently imagine.

Tweak, Memory

Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) were, from early on in their formulation as Threshold Logic Units (TLUs) or Perceptrons, mostly focused on non-sequential decision-making tasks. With the invention of back-propagation training methods, the application to static presentations of data became somewhat fixed as a methodology. During the 90s Support Vector Machines became the rage and then Random Forests and other ensemble approaches held significant mindshare. ANNs receded into the distance as a quaint, historical approach that was fairly computationally expensive and opaque when compared to the other methods.

But Deep Learning has brought the ANN back through a combination of improvements, both minor and major. The most important enhancements include pre-training of the networks as auto-encoders prior to pursuing error-based training using back-propagation or  Contrastive Divergence with Gibbs Sampling. The critical other enhancement derives from Schmidhuber and others work in the 90s on managing temporal presentations to ANNs so the can effectively process sequences of signals. This latter development is critical for processing speech, written language, grammar, changes in video state, etc. Back-propagation without some form of recurrent network structure or memory management washes out the error signal that is needed for adjusting the weights of the networks. And it should be noted that increased compute fire-power using GPUs and custom chips has accelerated training performance enough that experimental cycles are within the range of doable.

Note that these are what might be called “computer science” issues rather than “brain science” issues. Researchers are drawing rough analogies between some observed properties of real neuronal systems (neurons fire and connect together) but then are pursuing a more abstract question as to how a very simple computational model of such neural networks can learn. And there are further analogies that start building up: learning is due to changes in the strength of neural connections, for instance, and neurons fire after suitable activation. Then there are cognitive properties of human minds that might be modeled, as well, which leads us to a consideration of working memory in building these models.

It is this latter consideration of working memory that is critical to holding stimuli presentations long enough that neural connections can process them and learn from them. Schmidhuber et. al.’s methodology (LSTM) is as ad hoc as most CS approaches in that it observes a limitation with a computational architecture and the algorithms that operate within that architecture and then tries to remedy the limitation by architectural variations. There tends to be a tinkering and tweaking that goes on in the gradual evolution of these kinds of systems until something starts working. Theory walks hand-in-hand with practice in applied science.

Given that, however, it should be noted that there are researchers who are attempting to create a more biologically-plausible architecture that solves some of the issues with working memory and training neural networks. For instance, Frank, Loughry, and O’Reilly at University of Colorado have been developing a computational model that emulates the circuits that connect the frontal cortex and the basal ganglia. The model uses an elaborate series of activating and inhibiting connections to provide maintenance of perceptual stimuli in working memory. The model shows excellent performance on specific temporal presentation tasks. In its attempt to preserve a degree of fidelity to known brain science, it does lose some of the simplicity that purely CS-driven architectures provide, but I think it has a better chance of helping overcome another vexing problem for ANNs. Specifically, the slow learning properties of ANNs have only scant resemblance to much human learning. We don’t require many, many presentations of a given stimulus in order to learn it; often, one presentation is sufficient. Reconciling the slow tuning of ANN models, even recurrent ones, with this property of human-like intelligence remains an open issue, and more biology may be the key.

The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.