THE ROSS BLOG
AR   2024-05-27
ALBION
Publications Sitemap Contact
BLOG 2024

VKW
VKW
Poland 2024
(57 photos)

-

 

2024 May 27

Chinese Industrial Policy

New York Times

China accounted for 85% of all clean-energy manufacturing investment in the world in 1922. Now the United States, Europe, and other wealthy nations are planning to subsidize homegrown companies and block competing Chinese products.
China's industrial dominance follows decades of experience using the power of a one-party state. Its unrivaled production of solar panels and electric vehicles is built on an earlier cultivation of key industries and investment in infrastructure.
From 2017 to 2019, China spent 1.7% of its GDP on industrial support, more than twice the share of any other country. It is said to have skirted international trade agreements, engaged in intellectual property theft, and used forced labor.
China's rise to dominance shows the potential and power of national industrial policy. Beijing claims that China has increased the global supply of goods and alleviated international inflation pressures, while helping the world fight climate change.
President Biden will impose tariffs of up to 100% on imports of Chinese green technologies including electric vehicles. The aim is to deny China any more of an opening in America. European officials are expected to impose their own tariffs.
Hong Kong professor Zheng Yongnian: "The West's decision to pursue neoliberal economic policies was a strategic mistake, which led to the deindustrialization of their economies and provided China with an opportunity."

AR China's rise is a remarkable and impressive phenomenon. If the disastrous social aftermath in the United States and the UK had not already done so, that rise demonstrates the grossly wrong-headed decisions in the Reagan−Thatcher era to pursue market-driven "greed is good" policies and promote neoliberal capitalism as the ruling ideology.
Most European governments were more skeptical about the merits of neoliberalism, with the result that EU orthodoxy today is less toxic in its impact on domestic wellbeing than the nationalist nonsense that led to Brexit in the UK.
 

JLo
Netflix trailer
Jennifer Lopez

 

2024 May 26

Atlas

Space

Atlas, directed by Brad Peyton and starring Jennifer Lopez, centers on the hunt for a rogue android terrorist named Harlan who flees Earth after a major attack on humanity. This $100 million action flick features an AI specialist named Atlas Shepherd (Lopez) who insists on joining the hunt. Atlas is really about trust and how difficult it is to trust people.

AI shrugged
Alissa Wilkinson

The notion of an AI terrorist, as in Brad Peyton's new sci‑fi action movie Atlas, seems plausible.
That terrorist, Harlan, threatened humanity with extinction, wiping out millions of people before decamping for outer space. Humans left behind on Earth wait uneasily for his second coming.
After years of waiting, the authorities capture an AI bot associated with Harlan. A scientist named Atlas Shepherd (Jennifer Lopez) is called in as the world's leading expert on Harlan. She boards a spacecraft headed for the planet where Harlan has been hiding out.
At times, Atlas feels like pure pastiche, and it looks kind of fake in the big action sequences. Despite having an AI in her home, Shepherd is suspicious of the technology. So most of the movie's tension comes from her relationship to an AI named Smith.
Atlas is concerned with the morality of AI. It says we're wrong to stand in the way of progress.

Netflix mockbuster
Benjamin Lee

Atlas lead Jennifer Lopez is an actor with more star presence than most. An action movie with a sci‑fi bent is something new for her but feels like an awkward mismatch.
As data analyst Atlas Shepherd, Lopez plays someone who was a child raised alongside a robot called Harlan, which then became the world's first AI terrorist before escaping to another planet. Decades later, a mission to capture Harlan is launched with Atlas along for the ride.
Lopez is then situated inside a robotic mech suit, learning to fight and befriending an entity called Smith. As she finds that maybe AI isn't so bad after all. Lopez is stuck with some hideously corny dialog. The scenes of her bonding with Smith are embarrassingly awful.
For a film that wants us to stop worrying and love big tech, Atlas does an awfully good job of showing us why we should still be wary of it.

AR Atlas is made for American teens addicted to shootouts, explosions, and destructive mayhem in chaotic profusion. But if you cut through all that, there's a tender (yet sentimental) tale about friendship and trust transcending the humans-vs-machines divide. As a bonus, there's some really cool tech in the form of a supersized AI mech suit that Atlas drives and survives inside.
Most of the movie is generic, with obvious homage throughout to Aliens and Avatar. But the crafted quality of those James Cameron classics is lost and gone in Atlas. Instead, we get an exuberantly spectacular surfeit of over-the-top action scenes that defy all credibility as they consume vast arsenals of munitions to kill baddies yet not goodies.
The redeeming message of Atlas is that AI is good, so long as the humans who create and deploy it do their jobs well. Naturally, human imperfection makes this precondition hopelessly utopian. The result is a movie for which high hopes are also utopian, but at least it gives US teens a dose of moral uplift along with its orgies of destruction.
 

-

 

2024 May 25

European Rearmament

Radosław Sikorski

Since the end of the Cold War, the West has focused on high-value, hi-tech platforms and weapons. We are only now rediscovering that actually you need large volumes of low-tech stuff as well.
We allowed all those production facilities to be closed down. With hindsight, this looks like a mistake. Europe is lagging behind, and its defence, technological, and industrial base suffers from years of underinvestment.
Vladimir Putin is an absurd leader of international conservatism. We are talking about a KGB colonel. The Russians noticed that on some issues like attitudes to homosexuality, gender, to all kinds of identities, you can drive wedges in our societies.
We should drop the principle of unanimity in sanctions against Russia. Some of them have been delayed by one member state blocking them. Breaching EU sanctions should be an EU crime that can be prosecuted by the European prosecution service.
Poland welcomes the deepest possible inclusion of the UK in the EU security and defence structures. The EU−UK security defence cooperation must be revitalised within a more methodical framework.
I could imagine Britain being a permanent guest at the foreign affairs council. You can count on Poland being very receptive to those ideas.

AR All this reassures me. Poland's security is crucial to European security and hence also to British security. If Poland were to suffer Russian covert attacks or subversion, Germany would be exposed much like Poland is today, and the whole European economy would be affected.
The UK cannot stand back from such developments. Brexit was already a betrayal of European solidarity. Conversely, British military posturing without European coordination would be a lapse in European discipline that could have disastrous consequences.
 

book
-

 

2024 May 24

Liberalism

Alexandre Lefebvre

Liberals say decent democratic countries must be as inclusive as possible. Religious conservatives see a slow and steady creep of liberal values into areas remote from politics.
I believe their assessment of the scope of liberalism is correct. Liberal ideals and sensibilities have become omnipresent in the public and background culture of western democratic societies.
Religious people get their values and moral sensibility from a church, faith, or religious text. Most religious nones should identify liberalism as the source of the values that underlie who they are.
Liberalism has a characteristic set of values. At its core are personal freedom, fairness, tolerance, reciprocity, self-reflection, and irony, all built on noble ideals.
As an observer of the United States, I see conservatives fearing their views will die out in the current culture. They resist liberalism and use the power of the state to advance their views.
The most vital political movements in the world today are not liberal. They claim to know what a life worth living is for citizens, are confident of support, and will use their powers to advance it.
Instead of talking up our strengths and virtues, we liberals bang on about institutions. Our opponents appeal to identity, meaning, purpose, and redemption.

Populism 
David Brooks

American pessimism, hostility to elites, and authoritarian tendencies are all average.
The political climate in the United States and across the world is favorable for populists. Populism has emerged as the dominant global movement.
Europeans are bracing for the European Parliament elections next month. The parliament is likely to shift sharply to the right. Anti-Europe populist parties are likely to come out on top in the voting in France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia. Some 40% of European voters aged up to 35 have moved toward the right or far right.
American politicians are tossed about by global conditions beyond their control.

AR I tend to share Lefebvre's view of liberalism. I see it as a more or less secular (subject to his commentary) offshoot of Christianity. Populism, by contrast, is like Protestantism, a rude upstart in comparison but moved by mostly decent sentiments.
 

-

 

2024 May 23

The UK General Election

Financial Times

The UK government has seemed to be living on borrowed time. The Conservatives lag behind the opposition Labour party by almost 21 points in polling. With prices more than 20% higher than in 2021, the promise that things might be better tomorrow is thin gruel from a party in power for 14 years.
Parties need to address four main questions:
  How to resolve the strains in healthcare, education, policing, local government, and defence
  How to raise the necessary revenues and overhaul the tax system
  How to level up left-behind areas and revive productivity growth
  How to improve competitiveness and tap into new growth sectors
The UK needs a vision for its relationship with Europe and the wider world.

AR A lot to do, and neither main party is up to the scale of the challenge. Their campaign platforms are focused on the next 5−10 years, when generational thinking is required.

 

Dream Chaser
Sierra Space
Sierra Space's Dream Chaser is set to use its first trip to orbit to deliver supplies to the International Space Station later this year.
Dream Chaser is a lifting-body spacecraft that launches on a rocket and lands on a runway. It will carry about 5 tons of cargo
and could also make suborbital flights to deliver urgent supplies on Earth.
 

-

 

Optical Neural Networks

Amos Zeeberg

Computing with photons looks promising. Optical signals have more bandwidth than electrical ones, they can compute more in less time and with less latency, and they can do so using less energy.
An optical neural network (ONN) on a silicon chip encodes input data into beams of light and sends the beams through a series of gates. The ONN computes by repeatedly splitting the beams, changing their phase, and recombining them, then photodetectors measure them to show the result.
A new ONN called HITOP scales up throughput with time, space, and wavelength to push more data through the ONN faster, driving down cost. HITOP performs about 1 Tflops. The best Nvidia chips do 300 Tflops, but the HITOP energy cost is a thousand times lower.
A new chip-based ONN shines a laser onto part of the semiconductor substrate to change its optical properties. The laser maps the route for the optical signal to define a calculation. Since it is easily reconfigured, the model can be trained after installation on the semiconductor.
Optical computing is still in its infancy, but within a decade, an ONN could make some AI models a thousand times more efficient.

AR The field will be called photonics, by analogy with electronics. In future, the idea of computing by pushing crowds of electrons through resistive media will seem hopelessly clumsy. Orchestrating photons as they zip around at light speed will seem the obvious way to go − once we develop the skills to do so. Looking out further, photonic quantum computing will be a whole new world.
 

Rishi Sunak
BBC
UK PM Rishi Sunak announces
July 4 general election

 

2024 May 22

Nuclear War

J P O'Malley

Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen shows the prospect of nuclear war is still alarmingly real.
In December 1960, US officials convened in Nebraska to share a secret plan to hit Moscow in a pre-emptive first nuclear strike. The plan (SIOP) calculated that 275 million people would be killed in the first hour and that at least 325 million more would die from radioactive fallout within 6 months.
In June 1983, Ronald Reagan ordered a war game to predict the outcome of a major nuclear war. Large parts of the northern hemisphere would be left uninhabitable for decades, with 500 million people killed in the initial nuclear exchanges. This forecast led Reagan to reach out to the Soviets.
In October 1986, Reagan met with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit. The global nuclear weapons stockpile was then over 70,000. In July 1991, the United States and the USSR signed a treaty to reduce their deployed nuclear warheads to below 6,000 each by about 2020.
The nuclear winter following a war between the United States and Russia could kill 5 billion people.

Russia begins tactical nuclear weapon drills
Pjotr Sauer

Russian forces have started military drills near Ukraine simulating use of tactical nuclear weapons. Vladimir Putin ordered the drills earlier this month.

AR I used to think about the prospect of nuclear war in my teens, when the movie Dr Strangelove was new and RAND researcher Herman Kahn said "spasm war" would kill hundreds of millions.
Ever since then, "thinking the unthinkable" (in all its guises) has been my main preoccupation as a philosopher. A psychologist may see a link there.
 

face
Scarlett Johansson

 

2024 May 21

Sounds Like Scarlett Johansson

Alissa Wilkinson

In 2013, the movie her seemed like a fantasy. Its AI assistant Samantha was voiced by Scarlett Johansson. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said he loved her.
At the reveal of ChatGPT‑4o, its AI assistant Sky sounded like Samantha. Altman posted the word "her" to his X account.
During the reveal, an engineer asked Sky to solve a math problem. When he scolded Sky for starting to solve the problem before even seeing it, she giggled and said: "Whoops, I got too excited. I'm ready when you are!"
When shown a written "I  ChatGPT" sign, she said: "That's so sweet of you!"

AR Johansson twice declined when OpenAI asked her to be the voice of Sky. So I guess the judges will rule in her favor in the upcoming litigation. This is all good publicity for ChatGPT‑4o, but Johansson may be missing a trick here. I think she could make more money by licensing her voice to OpenAI than she would lose thru any likely reputational damage at being that voice.
More generally, lawyers worldwide seem likely to be more generous to content providers whose work is hoovered up by AI than is consistent with their likely financial loss. An AI trained from Johansson's voice could equally have been fed with a similar − or synthesized − voice. All the law will do is force expensive workarounds.
Open AI has now dropped the Johansson-like voice from the Sky voice options. Losers all round − except for the lawyers, of course.
 

book

 

2024 May 20

How AIs Think

Matthew Hutson

Explainable AI (XAI) can help explain AI systems.
Large language models (LLMs) power chatbots and are particularly inexplicable. Researchers probed an LLM that had 52 billion parameters to reveal which bits of the training data it used while answering questions. When they asked it whether it consented to being shut down, they found it drew on texts about survival to compose its response.
Some researchers interrogate LLM workings by asking the models to explain themselves. This approach resembles those used in human psychology. Treating an LLM as a human subject like this can illuminate sophisticated behaviors. Chain-of-thought prompting can get LLMs to show their thinking, but the models can confabulate their responses.
In causal tracing, researchers give a model a prompt and let it answer, then give it another prompt and watch it say something else. They then take some of the internal activations resulting from the first prompt and variously restore them until the model gives the first answer in reply to the second prompt. They can then edit what the model knows.
XAI is still work in progress.

What is thought?
Kate Douglas

Thinking is surprisingly hard to pin down. Even the experts are unsure about what thoughts are. Neuroimaging studies suggest we may never truly pin down how they manifest in the brain.
Cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff: "Thought is a mental state, or series of mental states, that has some kind of content to it, with some personal attitudes toward the content, like an attitude of remembering or believing or imagining."
Thoughts are independent of any stimulus produced by the object of thought. Three streams feed into our consciousness to trigger them: exteroceptive (from the outside world), interoceptive (from the body) and conceptive (from the subconscious mind).
Christoff: "The mind emerges out of a physical substrate, the brain, and the relationship of emergence is not deterministic."

AR My first systematic attempt to think about thought was at Oxford in 1971. Back then, the topic was mired in a legacy of bad metaphysics in the Cartesian tradition. Starting some 20 years ago, neuroscience has been transformed by hard data and massive computational models.
Traces of the metaphysics remain (not least in work on the hard problem of consciousness), but generally the field has changed beyond recognition. Philosophy has given birth to a new science. Clouds of fog have dispersed. Yet the problem of thought remains.

 

AR
AR
On Sunday afternoon, hiking over a hilltop overlooking Poole Bay, I waded barefoot through fields of buttercups
 

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

 

2024 May 19

Her

Manohla Dargis (2013)

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

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

2024 May 18

New ChatGPT Is Her

Jeff Yang

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

The race for an AI‑powered personal assistant
Madhumita Murgia

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

AI safety man quits
Dan Milmo

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

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

-

 

2024 May 17

Climate Change: Economic Damage

Oliver Milman

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

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

 

AR
AR
Peace in rural Dorset on Friday — priceless
 

-

 

2024 May 16

Civil War

Manohla Dargis

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

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

book

 

2024 May 15

Breasts

Emine Saner

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

A respect long overdue
Lucinda Rosenfeld

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

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

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

 

2024 May 14

European Fears

Nathalie Tocci

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

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

-

 

2024 May 13

Dreaming

Rahul Jandial

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

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

-

 

2024 May 12

Dyson Spheres

Jonathan O'Callaghan

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

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

 

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

-

 

2024 May 11

Eurovision Song Contest

Malmö, Sweden

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

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

book

 

2024 May 10

UK Life Gets Worse

George Monbiot

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

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

May 9

 

2024 May 9

New AI Tools Predict How Biomolecular Structures Assemble

Yasemin Saplakoglu

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

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

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

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

-

 

2024 May 8

Global Heating

Damian Carrington

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

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

book

 

2024 May 7

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

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

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

-

 

2024 May 6

Quantum Reality

Michael Brooks

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

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

2024 May 5

The Elephant and the Blind

Thomas Metzinger

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

AR MIT Press has made the text Open Access.
 

2024 May 4

Pure Consciousness

Alun Anderson

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

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

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

 

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

-

 

2024 April 22 — May 2

A Visit to Poland

Andy Ross

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

 

A24
A24

-

 

2024 April 20

Civil War

Rotten Tomatoes

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

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

-
-
Houses of Parliament
Rt Hon David Lammy MP

 

2024 April 19

Brexit Is Not Secure

Mike Galsworthy

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

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

A New Philosopher

Kyle Chayka

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

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

 

ESA
ESA

-

 

2024 April 18

LISA

Quanta

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

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

-
-
Google

 

2024 April 17

AI Threatens Translators

Ella Creamer

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

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

-

 

2024 April 16

The Quantum Multiverse

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

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

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

-

 

2024 April 15

AI Mathematicians

Alex Wilkins

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

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

-

 

2024 April 14

The Strong Force

Stanley J Brodsky, Alexandre Deur, Craig D Roberts

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

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

 

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

-

 

2024 April 13

Grokking Data

Anil Ananthaswamy

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

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

book

 

2024 April 12

Theory

Peter E Gordon

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

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

 

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

-

 

2024 April 11

Wigderson Wins Turing Award

Stephen Ornes

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

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

Higgs
⦿ Sean Dempsey
Peter Higgs in 2013

 

2024 April 10

Peter Higgs

Frank Close

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

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

-

 

2024 April 9

New AI Models

Financial Times

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

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

2024 April 8

UK in the World

Tom Fletcher

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

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

 

AR
AR
Windy Sunday seafront with surveillance cameras
 

Beyoncé
Beyoncé
Cowboy Carter
★★★★★

 

2024 April 7

UK Cannot Be Isolationist

David Miliband

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

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

2024 April 6

Black Hole Equation

Leah Crane

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

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

 

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

-

 

2024 April 5

New 3D Cosmic Map

Nicola Davis

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

Dark energy weakening?
Leah Crane

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

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

 

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

-

 

2024 April 4

NATO @ 75

European Commission

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

Europe and America
Reuters

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

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

-

 

2024 April 3

The Three-Body Problem

Tania Branigan

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

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

-

 

2024 April 2

Money

Stuart Kells

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

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

-

 

2024 April 1

God Chatbots

Webb Wright

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

Wearable AI
Callum Bains

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

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

 

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

-
⦿ Paramount Pictures
Natalie Portman in
Annihilation
(2018)

 

2024 Easter Sunday

The Genesis Device

A Star Trek Wiki

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

Annihilation 
Rotten Tomatoes

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

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

BLOG 2024 Q1

.

text
Back to Top Old Blogs Contact