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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Another Topic Too Dangerous to Discuss?

I find the topic of sex, gender, identity, power and social constructionism very interesting. And here's an interesting article on the topic with the following catchy excerpt:
I basically just made it up.
Human characteristics generally have a basis in some mix of nature and nurture (or DNA and memes if you prefer). Topics like the above are dangerous to discuss because if it can be interpreted that one is putting just a little too much emphasis on nature (for example that the contribution of nature/DNA is non-zero) then one can get in a lot of trouble.

I sometimes wonder if the study of biology and particularly genetics is going to be shut down in the future. The problem is that it's seemingly increasingly at odds with social science. Biologists are finding more and more correlations between genes and human traits like intelligence and various behaviors via Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) and are starting to propose mechanisms for the genetic basis of those traits while Social Scientists clearly assert that what biologists are finding simply cannot be correct.

Perhaps not all of biology will be banned - just those topics that have to do with things like intelligence, behavior and identity. Nonetheless, it seems like we might be headed for a different sort of Creationism - not one that's deity based, but rather social science based.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Richard Stallman Resigns

There have been topics that I've wanted to write about but have been hesitant to do so. For example, I found the Epstein phenomenon to be fascinating (though awful), from his motivations to his operations to his (apparent) suicide. However, it was moderately clear that writing even one word about the subject that could possibly be interpreted by anybody as not being politically correct could be devastating to me.

I met Richard Stallman, a MacArthur Fellowship Award (Genius Grant) recipient and quintessential MIT nerd a few times when I was at MIT, both at CSAIL and at parties. He was, in my opinion, quite opinionated and could be very abrasive, but he was also very smart, very talented, extremely productive and seemed to overall have a good heart as far as I could tell.

He was recently forced to resign from various positions:
In 2019, Stallman was reported by colleagues to have made statements by email in defense of Marvin Minsky, then deceased, against allegations of sexual abuse in connection with Jeffrey Epstein's alleged child sex trafficking operation.[114] In the resulting furor, Stallman resigned from both MIT[115][116] and the Free Software Foundation.[117]
I'm not totally sure, but my recollection is that Minsky was at least somewhat of a mentor to Stallman, so it's not surprising that Stallman might be inclined to try and defend his dead mentor and given that he's the quintessential MIT nerd also not surprising that he'd lack the filters to realize it would be a really bad idea to do so.

Anyway, if I needed confirmation that Epstein was yet another topic I should stay way away from, this was it.

My question is: what can I write about that won't get me in trouble? I guess more science and math stuff so that's what I'll focus on.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Interesting Abstract


Here is an abstract I found interesting:

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted Ushape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.

This has been my intuition for a long time. My metaphor is this. Humanity/civilization is on a runway in a scramjet accelerating towards a brick wall. If we go full pedal to the metal we might, just might, be fast enough to lift off the runway in time to clear the brick wall. If we don't, we won't reach a high enough speed to to clear the wall but unfortunately our forward momentum is too great to stop and we're sure to hit the wall and that will be the end.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

YASP (Yet Another Sunset Photo)

As usual, from my apartment. This time with a little foreground rain. No rainbow though.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Capitalism on Parade

Socialists have a long standing argument against capitalism: it commodifies human relations, trades lives for money, and exploits the brown working class for the pleasure and benefit of the white rich.

I give you Exhibit A, which actually isn't trying to be Exhibit A.

I was going to summarize the video, except it is so well done as to well reward the 20 minutes spent watching it.

If this shows socialists to be right, why are they, nonetheless, wrong?

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Burning Down the House

Those of a certain age, towards the trailing edge of the Baby Boom, very likely vividly remember Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel.

When the first of his books came out, the pantheon of primary readers was anchored by a trio of pallid characters: Dick, Jane, and some damn dog Spot. They did boring things — run! play! — in various boring ways, enervated by cold porridge prose.

Then along came Dr. Seuss. Off kilter drawings, quirky rhythms, and hare-brained adventures.

He is how I learned to read. I made my parents read those things to me until I had completely memorized them, a process made easier not only by their novelty, but by the cadences shoving the words into my brain. Having made the connection between sounds and words and letters, learning to read came effortlessly.

So how to view Dr. Seuss?

Poisonously, of course:


In the fall of 2017, there was a furor involving Dr. Seuss, the first lady and a school librarian that many people found surprising and disconcerting. In celebration of National Read a Book Day, Melania Trump had sent a parcel containing 10 Seuss titles to a school in Massachusetts.

What could possibly be wrong with this, providing such a powerful tool to help children read?

Lots, apparently.

At that point, we were well into the first year of the “Resistance,” and the librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro, wanted to make various political points. Attacking Dr. Seuss was one of them. “Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” she wrote in an open letter to Mrs. Trump, adding: “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”

Being woke must be a real burden; but then, the savior business is never easy.

To be completely fair, Mr. Geissel was not without sin.

… in Geisel’s juvenilia, his early political cartooning and some of his first books for children, he evoked ethnic and racial caricatures that were common in the early 20th century and that, by the lights of the early 21st, appear shocking and shameful.



Is the full body of Geisel’s work fatally tainted by “harmful stereotypes”? Do the origins of the hat-wearing cat really lie in minstrelsy, as Kansas State University professor Philip Nel and others believe? And if so—assuming these transgressions are detectable to the civilian eye, which is not a sure thing—do they outweigh the joy and love of reading that Dr. Seuss brought to all sorts of children and families?

The author, Mrs. Gurdon, misses a critical point: the librarians presumption of an inborn moral superiority superpower.

This librarian is not alone. Everyone of these wokelings, the ones who want to tear down statues, rename buildings, or rubbish people like Mr. Gessel are, must be, asserting that their wokeness is timeless. That had they been alive in Dr. Seuss's time, they would have been just as enlightened as they are now. We must trust their judgment not as some post hoc virtue signaling, but rather as coming from a deeper place accessible only to the vanguard, give them special dispensation to decide for the rest of us which parts of our culture must be excised.

Thus, the first question to be asked of the this librarian, and every one of her ilk: Just who the hell do you think you are?




Thursday, May 09, 2019

Only the Best and Brightest

While I have quit wasting $20/month on the NYT — at which even the least discerning puppies turn up their noses — I still get their daily news summary. From today's comes this bit of journalistic excellence:

Indonesia: A group has begun translating the Quran into sign language, helping millions of deaf Muslims get access to their holiest book for the first time.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Book I Should Have Written

I'm old enough to remember those halcyon days when Earth was going to be burdened with so many people that some would get pushed off the edge.

Ummm. Not so much.

In the recently published Empty Planet, The Government and UN Experts are — shocking, I know — lagging the fight.

The great defining event of the twenty-first century,” they say, “will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end.

For roughly thirty years, fertility has been declining, starting with developed world. Since the 1990s, global fertility has plummeted far faster than anyone has predicted, and may well go below replacement rate within a decade.

The UN Population Division has systematically over estimated fertility, with projections out of date almost as soon as they are published. For example:

The U.N.’s most recent population forecasts suggest that the average U.S. total fertility rate from 2015 to 2020 should be 1.9 children per woman. In reality, CDC data shows U.S. fertility has averaged about 1.8 children per woman from 2015 to 2018. In 2019, early indications are that fertility will probably be nearer 1.7 children per woman.

Contrary to expectations, instead of recovering along with the economy, the US total fertility rate has continued to drop, now standing at 1.76. That amounts to 125 fewer daughters out of 1000 women per generation.

And the disconnect isn't limited to just the US — it is nearly global. UN population forecasts are almost certainly wrong, and not by just a little, but by billions.

Population decline isn't unique in history. The bubonic plague decimated Europe in the 1300s. War and famine have caused temporary, smaller, declines.

However, the recent, relentless, decrease in fertility during times of unprecedented peace, health, and material comfort is wholly unprecedented. So far, there is no indication that women, given a meaningful choice, choose to have enough children to prevent steady, relentless, global, population decline.

(Territory we covered here at Great Guys in 2013 and 2016.)

Yet, somehow, the woke are completely eaten up by GlobalWarmingClimateChangeChaos. Amazing.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Justice Kavanaugh and Global Warming

What do they have in common?

When Dr. Christine Ford's accusation against now Justice Kavanaugh arrived with all the subtlety of the stricken Hindenburg, there was one thing that near as dammit to certain: the correlation between political proclivity and assault assessment.

Which is, or should be, beyond odd.

After all, in as much as they occupy entirely different realms, judicial philosophy and inclination towards coerced sex don't have any obvious correlation.

Yet when Dr. Ford's accusation came to light, the correlation between attitude towards constitutional originalism and Dr. Ford's credibility was nearly one. Progressives almost without exception found Dr. Ford credible; conservatives, incredible.

Same goes for Anthropogenic Global Warming. Conservative ≅ disdainful. Progressive ≅ dainful. Yet AGW, as an objective fact, just as Dr. Ford's accusation, is completely independent of judicial philosophy or political priors. These strong relationships shouldn't exist, yet there they are, nonetheless.

Welcome to motivated reasoning.

Clearly, a great many people simply do not think things through independently of their desire for a preferred outcome. Kavanaugh is to be resisted, therefore any impeachment of his character is true, and to heck with that bothersome evidence nonsense.

And just as clearly, should one have settled on individualistic free markets as the sine qua non of human flourishing, then AGW cannot, must not, be true.

Of course, as should be transparently obvious to even the most casual observer of reality, I am uniquely immune to motivated reasoning.

No matter that I agree with constitutional originalism, I am certain that Dr. Ford is a moral cretin.

And completely disregard the fact I am an individualist, AGW is nothing more than scientistic catechisms.

My reasoning is entirely unmotivated.

Now you know.


Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Deep Learning and Emergent Deception

With all of the processing power available, all kinds of Deep Neural Network learning topologies are possible with tens of millions of connections or "parameters" (which are similar in purpose to synapses in a biological brain).

One of the more interesting nets to me are Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) which are two (or more) connected networks that fight to win in a game to "outsmart" the other network. I've written about synthetic face generation before, and those applications use GANs. One network in the GAN learns to distinguish between real faces and synthetic faces and is called the discriminative network. The other network learns to generate synthetic faces and, not surprisingly, is called the generative network. The generative network is "rewarded" when a synthetic face is so realistic that it fools the discriminative network and "punished" when the discriminative network correctly identifies that the face is synthetic and not real. And when the generative network is rewarded, the discriminative network is punished and vice-versa. The two networks are locked in this zero sum win at all costs struggle, each trying to be rewarded and avoid punishment. If the GAN is set up correctly (being correct is mostly guesswork and trial and error), it can provide really impressive results as with the case of the synthetic faces.

But deception is an inherent part of the generative network. After all, it's designed to try an fool the discriminative network and ultimately us humans. Recently, a generative network went well past the bounds of deception expected by its creators. The application is this: transform aerial images into street maps and back to automate much of the image processing for things like google maps.



The above images show the process. There's the original aerial photograph (a), the street view (b), and the synthetic aerial view (c) that's reconstructed ONLY from the street view (b).

But wait! Looking at image (c), which is constructed from ONLY image (b), how on earth did it guess where to put the air conditioning units on the long white build? Or the trees? None of those details are in the street view image (b), right?

It turns out that the network "decided" to cheat:
It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

In fact, the computer is so good at slipping these details into the street maps that it had learned to encode any aerial map into any street map! It doesn’t even have to pay attention to the “real” street map — all the data needed for reconstructing the aerial photo can be superimposed harmlessly on a completely different street map...
In other words, the street view map has gazillions of minute variations that aren't visible to the human eye that encode the data required for the remarkable aerial reconstructions.
This practice of encoding data into images isn’t new; it’s an established science called steganography, and it’s used all the time to, say, watermark images or add metadata like camera settings. But a computer creating its own steganographic method to evade having to actually learn to perform the task at hand is rather new.
Note the last sentence. The generative network wasn't very good at generating the reconstructed aerial view the way it was supposed to. So instead, it figured out how to encode the data it needed so it didn't have to learn how to do it the right way.

The thing I find most interesting is the emergent deception. Nobody predicted this would happen (since it wasn't a desired result) and I don't think anybody could've predicted it.

We're currently able to use multiple networks with hundreds of millions of connections and we're already seeing emergent behavior that can't be predicted. Every ten years gives about a factor of 100 increase in processing power and network complexity.

It will be interesting to see what emerges when thousands of networks with billions of connections interact.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Happy 60th Birthday to the Transistor!

And what a momentous invention it has been:
The invention of the transistor-based logic engine, the integrated circuit, turned 60 this year. Today, humanity fabricates 1,000 times more transistors annually than the entire world grows grains of wheat and rice combined. Collectively, all those transistors consume more electricity than the state of California. The rise of transistors as “engines of innovation” emerged from Moore’s Law. And we’re still in its early days: paraphrasing Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of that Law are greatly exaggerated.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Artificial Deception

I've written recently about state-of-the-art creation of synthesized faces and I concluded:
I think that the day is coming within my lifetime when there'll be no need for human actors. Any screenwriter will just be able to work with AI based tools to create and produce movies. 
But what if the "screenwriter" isn't creating a work that's meant to be viewed as fiction, but rather a fictional story that's intended to look like news? In other words, what if the screenwriting wants to purposely create fake news? And what if those creations are ever more indistinguishable from real videos of real events?

It's actually beginning to happen:
Lawmakers and experts are sounding the alarm about "deepfakes," forged videos that look remarkably real, warning they will be the next phase in disinformation campaigns.
The manipulated videos make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, as artificial intelligence technology produces fake content that looks increasingly real. [...]
Experts say it is only a matter of time before advances in artificial intelligence technology and the proliferation of those tools allow any online user to create deepfakes.
As a sort of expert in this area, I believe that to be true as well.

Pornography is one the biggest areas where deepfakes are developing at the moment. For example:
Deepfakes are already here, including one prominent incident involving actress Scarlett Johansson. Johansson was victimized by deepfakes that doctored her face onto pornographic videos.
“Nothing can stop someone from cutting and pasting my image or anyone else’s onto a different body and making it look as eerily realistic as desired,” she told The Washington Post in December, calling the issue a “lost cause.”
Ms. Johansson is wise enough to realize that trying to do much about it is a "lost cause." The problem is that the software to "understand" Ms. Johansson's face and to manipulate it realistically to replace the face of someone in a video, porn or otherwise, is actually fairly trivial, widely available, and getting easier and easier to access and use. The genie is out of the bottle and there's no way to recapture it.

Besides, porn is probably fairly far down in the list of things to worry about, even if it will be driver of the technology. Other sorts of fake news will generally be more of a problem:
Other cases have resulted in bloodshed. Last year, Myanmar's military is believed to have pushed fake news fanning anti-Muslim sentiment on Facebook that ignited a wave of killings in the country.
And as the fakes get better and better, inciting mobs will be easier and easier.

Of course governments, which like to regulate everything under the sun, are working to legislate against this sort of technology use:
Farid said First Amendment speech must be balanced with the new, emerging challenges of maintaining online security. [...]
Other countries are already working to ban deepfakes.
Australia, Farid noted, banned such content after a woman was victimized by fakes nudes and the United Kingdom is also working on legislation.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your point of view), my guess is that there's very little governments can do to stifle this sort of thing. Pretty much anybody with a high-end graphics card and a little too much time on their hands will be able to create these sorts of things.

In the end, I believe that the main reason fake news, including deepfake news, is a problem is that we're too damn gullible. The reason fake news works is because we want to believe it:
“We have to stop being so gullible and stupid of how we consume content online,” Farid said. “Frankly, we are all part of the fake news phenomenon.”
My guess is that after the first couple of outrageous deepfakes that catch us unawares, we'll quickly learn to be more skeptical. Hopefully, the first deepfakes don't drive us to nuclear war or anything completely catastrophic first.