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“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”*…

 

Pope AI

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953

 

Nobody but AI mavens would ever tiptoe up to the notion of creating godlike cyber-entities that are much smarter than people. I hasten to assure you — I take that weird threat seriously. If we could wipe out the planet with nuclear physics back in the late 1940s, there must be plenty of other, novel ways to get that done…

In the hermetic world of AI ethics, it’s a given that self-driven cars will kill fewer people than we humans do. Why believe that? There’s no evidence for it. It’s merely a cranky aspiration. Life is cheap on traffic-choked American roads — that social bargain is already a hundred years old. If self-driven vehicles doubled the road-fatality rate, and yet cut shipping costs by 90 percent, of course those cars would be deployed…

Technological proliferation is not a list of principles. It is a deep, multivalent historical process with many radically different stakeholders over many different time-scales. People who invent technology never get to set the rules for what is done with it. A “non-evil” Google, built by two Stanford dropouts, is just not the same entity as modern Alphabet’s global multinational network, with its extensive planetary holdings in clouds, transmission cables, operating systems, and device manufacturing.

It’s not that Google and Alphabet become evil just because they’re big and rich. Frankly, they’re not even all that “evil.” They’re just inherently involved in huge, tangled, complex, consequential schemes, with much more variegated populations than had originally been imagined. It’s like the ethical difference between being two parish priests and becoming Pope.

Of course the actual Pope will confront Artificial Intelligence. His response will not be “is it socially beneficial to the user-base?” but rather, “does it serve God?” So unless you’re willing to morally out-rank the Pope, you need to understand that religious leaders will use Artificial Intelligence in precisely the way that televangelists have used television.

So I don’t mind the moralizing about AI. I even enjoy it as metaphysical game, but I do have one caveat about this activity, something that genuinely bothers me. The practitioners of AI are not up-front about the genuine allure of their enterprise, which is all about the old-school Steve-Jobsian charisma of denting the universe while becoming insanely great. Nobody does AI for our moral betterment; everybody does it to feel transcendent.

AI activists are not everyday brogrammers churning out grocery-code. These are visionary zealots driven by powerful urges they seem unwilling to confront. If you want to impress me with your moral authority, gaze first within your own soul.

Excerpted from the marvelous Bruce Sterling‘s essay “Artificial Morality,” a contribution to the Provocations series, a project of the Los Angeles Review of Books in conjunction with UCI’s “The Future of the Future: The Ethics and Implications of AI” conference.

* Voltaire

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As we agonize over algorithms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that Luther Crowell patented a machine for the manufacture of accordion-sided, flat-bottomed paper bags (#123,811).  That said, Margaret E. Knight might more accurately be considered the “mother of the modern shopping bag”; she had perfected square bottoms two years earlier.

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“There are old bikers and there are bold bikers, but there are no old, bold bikers”*…

 

film-the-wild-one-with-brando-on-a-bike-opening-scene

 

Harley knows what it’s future looks like with, perhaps by as soon as next year, more sales internationally than in the U.S., the continuation of a long-term trend. It’s desperately trying to prop up U.S. sales, but the LiveWire hasn’t been selling great, and its core demo is aging out. Revenue numbers for 2019 released today were also a lot worse than expected.

Let’s go to Reuters first off for some of the numbers:

Motorcycle revenue fell an annual 8.5% to $874.1 million in the December quarter, faster than a 3.4% fall predicted by analysts in a Refinitiv survey.

Its shares, after falling as much as 7%, pared losses to trade 2.5% lower at $33.96 on Tuesday afternoon…

Its bike sales in America last year were the lowest in at least 16 years. Falling sales in the past 12 quarters have forced the company to tighten the supply of its bikes to prevent price discount pressure and protect profit.

In 2019, the shipment volume of its bikes in the United States was the lowest in at least two decades. Global shipments were the lowest since 2010.

In a reflection of the demographic headwind, the motorcycle maker’s stock price has declined by 44% in the past five years. By comparison, the S&P 500 Index .SPX has gained 63%…

Most worryingly for Harley, they are posting falling sales numbers at a time when the economy is strong…

Tough times for an American icon: “Harley-Davidson’s Slow Decline Is Getting Hard To Watch.”

[TotH to RW]

[Image above, from The Wild One: source]

* Evel Knievel

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As we downshift, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that The Knights of Pythias– the first fraternal organization to receive a charter under an act of the U.S. Congress– was formed in Washington, D.C.  There are over 2,000 Pythian lodges in the United States and around the world; it’s members have included William Jennings Bryan, Louis Armstrong, and Nelson Rockefeller.  During the “Golden Age of Fraternalism” in the early 1920s, the order had nearly a million members; its current count is around 50,000.

Knightsofpythias source

 

“Who are you?”*…

 

Detail-of-Francois-Vase-side-B-Theseus-and-the-11-Athenian-Youths-8522828050_d7f4aea77f_o

Detail of the François kratēr: the ship of Theseus (fragment from vase) source

 

In the metaphysics of identity, “the ship of Theseus” (legendary Greek hero and founder of Athens) is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.  One of the oldest concepts in Western philosophy, it was discussed by the likes of Heraclitus and Plato by ca. 500-400 BC; it first appeared in written form in Plutarch:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same…

Vita Thesei, 22-23

Philosophers and theorists of identity still wrestle with the questions it raises…

Suppose that the famous ship has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece, and as the years went by some of the wooden parts began to rot and were replaced by new ones; then, after a century or so, all of the parts had been replaced.   The question then is if the “restored” ship is still the same object as the original.

If it is then supposed that each of the removed pieces were stored in a warehouse, and after the century, technology developed to cure their rotting and enabled them to be put back together to make a ship, then the question is if this “reconstructed” ship is still the original ship.  And if so, then what of the restored ship in the harbor?

Explore the puzzle at “The Ship of Theseus and the Question of Identity, ” “This thought experiment will have you questioning your identity,” “Identity, Persistence, and the Ship of Theseus,” and “Ship of Theseus.”

And for nifty list of appearances by the paradox in pop culture, see here.

* Peter Townsend and The Who

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As we interrogate identity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1856 that Millard Fillmore was nominated for the Presidency by the (altogether-accurately named far right nativist) Know-Nothing Party.  Fillmore, who had been elected Vice President in 1848 had ascended to the presidency in 1850, when Zachary Taylor died, but then failed to get his own party’s– the Whig’s– nomination to run for re-election in 1852.  In 1856, Fillmore turned to the Know-Nothings in (an ultimately unsuccessful) attempt actually to be elected to the highest office.

He was finally trumped by Gerald Ford, who was not even elected– but was appointed in 1973 by Richard Nixon– to the Vice-Presidency, then assumed the top job on Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Ford beat back a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination in 1976, but lost to Jimmy Carter.

Millard Fillmore, by Matthew Brady (1850)

 

Written by LW

February 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“If we were capable of thinking of everything, we would still be living in Eden, rent-free with all-you-can-eat buffets and infinitely better daytime TV programming”*…

 

buffet

 

Few things epitomize America more than the all-you-can-eat buffet.

For a small fee, you’re granted unencumbered access to a wonderland of gluttony. It is a place where saucy meatballs and egg rolls share the same plate without prejudice, where a tub of chocolate pudding finds a home on the salad bar, where variety and quantity reign supreme.

“The buffet is a celebration of excess,” says Chef Matthew Britt, an assistant professor at the Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts. “It exists for those who want it all.”

But one has to wonder: How does an industry that encourages its customers to maximize consumption stay in business?

To find out, we spoke with industry experts, chefs, and buffet owners. As it turns out, it’s harder to “beat” the buffet than you might think…

Is it possible to out-eat the price you pay for a buffet?  How do these places make money?  The dollars and cents behind the meat and potatoes: “The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets.”

* Dean Koontz

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As we pile it high, we might recall that it was on this date in 1883 that A. Ashwell, of Herne Hill in South London, received a patent for the “vacant/engaged” door bolt for lavatory doors… presumably a relief to the folks who had been using the public restrooms that had been introduced in London in 1852.

lock source

 

Written by LW

February 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine”*…

 

IP Badge

 

Article I Section 8 | Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution provides that “[The Congress shall have power] To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  And so that family of protections/rights in the intangible things that we now know as “intellectual property” was enshrined at our nation’s birth.  But has that affordance gotten out of hand?  More specifically, is the concept of “intellectual property” itself a problem?

The grand term ‘intellectual property’ covers a lot of ground: the software that runs our lives, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. But also the credit-scoring algorithms that determine the contours of our futures, the chemical structure and manufacturing processes for life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, even the golden arches of McDonald’s and terms such as ‘Google’. All are supposedly ‘intellectual property’. We are urged, whether by stern warnings on the packaging of our Blu-ray discs or by sonorous pronouncements from media company CEOs, to cease and desist from making unwanted, illegal or improper uses of such ‘property’, not to be ‘pirates’, to show the proper respect for the rights of those who own these things. But what kind of property is this? And why do we refer to such a menagerie with one inclusive term?

The phrase ‘intellectual property’ was first used in a legal decision in 1845 and acquired formal heft in 1967 with the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that represents and protects the commercial interests of holders of copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. The ubiquitous use of ‘intellectual property’ began in the digital era of production, reproduction and distribution of cultural and technical artifacts. As a new political economy appeared, so did a new commercial and legal rhetoric. ‘Intellectual property’, a central term in that new discourse, is a culturally damaging and easily weaponised notion. Its use should be resisted…

Samir Chopra (@EyeOnThePitch) argues that copyrights, patents and trademarks are all important, but the term ‘intellectual property’ is nonsensical and pernicious: “End intellectual property.”

[Image above: source]

* “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”                    — Thomas Jefferson

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As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Wallace Carothers, a chemist at DuPont, was granted U.S. Patent #2071250A for “Monocomponent artificial filaments or the like of synthetic polymers; [and the] Manufacture thereof from homopolycondensation products”– or as we know the product in question, nylon.

Nylon was the first commercially successful synthetic thermoplastic polymer.  It’s first commercial use was in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed more famously by its use in women’s stockings or “nylons” which were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and first sold commercially in 1940.  During World War II, almost all nylon production was diverted to the military for use in parachutes and parachute cord. But these wartime uses of nylon (and other DuPont-patented plastics) greatly increased the market for the new materials– and thus, for DuPont’s patents– in the post-war era.

220px-Wallace_Carothers,_in_the_lab

Carothers in his lab, stretching a sample of nylon fabric

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Written by LW

February 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The idea of a ‘virtual reality’ such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer-graphics community and is being implemented in a number of different ways”*…

 

Metaverse-1020x620-c-default

 

Technology frequently produces surprises that nobody predicts. However, the biggest developments are often anticipated decades in advance. In 1945 Vannevar Bush described what he-called the “Memex”, a single device that would store all books, records and communications, and mechanically link them together by association. This concept was then used to formulate the idea of “hypertext” (a term coined two decades later), which in turn guided the development of the World Wide Web (developed another two decades later). The “Streaming Wars” have only just begun, yet the first streaming video took place more than 25 years ago. What’s more, many of the attributes of this so-called war have been hypothesized for decades, such as virtually infinite supplies of content, on-demand playback, interactivity, dynamic and personalized ads, and the value of converging content with distribution.

In this sense, the rough outlines of future solutions are often understood and, in a sense, agreed upon well in advance of the technical capacity to produce them. Still, it’s often impossible to predict how they’ll fall into place, which features matter more or less, what sort of governance models or competitive dynamics will drive them, or what new experiences will be produced…

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of those in the technology community have imagined a future state of, if not quasi-successor to, the Internet – called the “Metaverse”. And it would revolutionize not just the infrastructure layer of the digital world, but also much of the physical one, as well as all the services and platforms atop them, how they work, and what they sell. Although the full vision for the Metaverse remains hard to define, seemingly fantastical, and decades away, the pieces have started to feel very real. And as always with this sort of change, its arc is as long and unpredictable as its end state is lucrative.

To this end, the Metaverse has become the newest macro-goal for many of the world’s tech giants…

Matthew Ball (@ballmatthew)  peers ahead: “The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite.”

[image above: source]

* “The idea of a ‘virtual reality’ such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer-graphics community and is being implemented in a number of different ways. The particular vision of the Metaverse as expressed in this novel originated from idle discussion between me and Jaime (Captain Bandwidth) Taaffe — which does not imply that blame for any of the unrealistic or tawdry aspects of the Metaverse should be placed on anyone but me. The words ‘avatar’ (in the sense used here) and ‘Metaverse’ are my inventions, which I came up with when I decided that existing words (such as ‘virtual reality’) were simply too awkward to use. […] after the first publication of Snow Crash, I learned that the term ‘avatar’ has actually been in use for a number of years as part of a virtual reality system called ‘Habitat’ […] in addition to avatars, Habitat includes many of the basic features of the Metaverse as described in this book”…   – Neal Stephenson, Author’s acknowledgments, Snow Crash, Bantam, 2003 (reissue)

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As we visualize the virtual, we might recall that it was on this date in 1978 that the first computer bulletin board system went on-line.  Created in Chicago by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, the Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS) had been built in 30 days.

250px-Remoteaccess1 source

 

“We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees”*…

 

bristlecone

 

About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California. The seed may have travelled there on a gust of wind, its flight aided by a winglike attachment to the nut. Or it could have been planted by a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker, which likes to hide pine seeds in caches; nutcrackers have phenomenal spatial memory and can recall thousands of such caches. This seed, however, lay undisturbed. On a moist day in fall, or in the wake of melting snows in spring, a seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots.

Most seedlings die within a year; the mortality rate is more than ninety-nine per cent. The survivors are sometimes seen growing in the shadow of a fallen tree. The landscape of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, as this area of the White Mountains is called, is littered with fragments of dead trees—trunks, limbs, roots, and smaller chunks. Pinus longaeva grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Conditions are generally too arid for the dead wood to rot; instead, it erodes, sanded down like rock. The remnants may harbor nutrients and fungi that help new trees grow. Bristlecones rise from the bones of their ancestors—a city within a cemetery.

Coast redwoods and giant sequoias, California’s gargantuan world-record-holding trees, can grow fifty feet or more in their first twenty years. Bristlecones rise agonizingly slowly. After four or five years, the seedling on the steep slope would have been just a few inches higher, sprouting needles in place of the embryonic shoots. The needles are a deep green, tough, resinous, and closely bunched, in groups of five. On a mature tree, they live for fifty years or more. Decades may have passed before the tree was human height, and decades more before it resembled a conventional pine. Bristlecone saplings grow straight up, with relatively sparse foliage, looking like undernourished Christmas trees. After a few hundred years—by which time the Old Kingdom of Egypt had fallen—it was probably forty or fifty feet in height.

Many tree species live for hundreds of years. A smaller but not inconsiderable number, including the sequoias and certain yews, oaks, cypresses, and junipers, survive for thousands. Once a bristlecone has established itself in the unforgiving conditions of the White Mountains, it can last almost indefinitely. The trees tend to grow some distance from one another, so fires almost never destroy an entire stand. Because only a few other plant species can handle the dry, cold climate, the bristlecones face little competition. Unlike most plants, they tolerate dolomite soil, which is composed of a chalky type of limestone that is heavily alkaline and low in nutrients. As for insect threats, bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it.

Empires rose and fell; wars raged; people were enslaved and freed; and the tree from 2500 B.C. continued its implacable slow-motion existence, adding about two-hundredths of an inch to the diameter of its trunk each year. Minute changes in the tree-ring record make bristlecones an exceptionally useful source of data about changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen. When volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings make the anomaly visible. The precision of these records means that bristlecones have periodically butted into other disciplines: geology, archeology, climatology. In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the trees contributed to the upending of the canonical theory that Bronze Age civilization had spread westward from Egypt and the Near East. Bristlecones have also affected modern political discourse: the famous “hockey stick graph,” which two decades ago raised awareness of human-driven global warming, relied on bristlecone data…

Bristlecone pines have survived various catastrophes over the millennia, and they may survive humanity: “The Past and Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees.”

[A grateful TotH to PN]

For a rather different look at bristlecones (as a setting): “‘Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography’ at the Nevada Museum of Art.” [TotH to EWW]

* Marcel Proust

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As we take the long view, we might spare a thought for Saint Valentine; he was martyred (beheaded) by Claudius II (for performing unauthorized marriage ceremonies) on this date in 269– an annual occasion observed as been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Saint Valentine’s Day) since 496 AD.  From the High Middle Ages, his Saints’ Day is associated with a tradition of courtly love (and more recently, of course, with sickly-sweet candy hearts).

180px-Leonhard_Beck_-_Heiliger_Valentin_(Veste_Coburg)

Oil painting by Leonhard Beck, circa 1510

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Written by LW

February 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

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