Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence II

The book on the whole provides a scattershot view of the future of AI. Tegmark seems to include snippets of just about everything he knows on the subject. While one does get exposure to many aspects of AI, there is a lack of focus throughout the book, and, in my opinion, Tegmark draws far too much from the wide range of science fiction that he apparently has read. Instead of the multiple scenarios that he brings up, I would have preferred more basic categories, such as 1. Independent superintelligent AI acting benevolently toward humans; 2. Independent superintelligent AI acting maliciously toward humans; 3. Superintelligent AI controlled by humans and acting benevolently toward humans; and 4. Superintelligent AI controlled by humans and acting maliciously toward humans. Since one of the underlying themes of the book is the existential risk associated with AI, I think these would have been a better starting point. He includes many speculative ideas from all sources and organizes them into groups without reaching any definitive conclusions. The book is supposed to be a conversation-starter for those who are interested in the topic, and, as such, leaves each topic too open for my liking. I would have found it more effective it if he had restricted himself to probable scenarios, which would have reduced the length of the book considerably. Some chapters veer off into pie-in-the sky futures that have little likelihood of materializing ever. However, the book warrants attention, since Tegmark is concerned about existential risk and is one of the founders of the Future of Life Institute, which is one of the very few organizations in the world that studies this important topic.

Tegmark says very little about what I think is one of the most likely scenarios: superintelligent AI controlled by some humans and acting maliciously toward other humans. He spends what I consider to be too much time on independent superintelligent AI destroying mankind. Where I seem to differ with him is in my understanding of life. Almost the entire book is framed within the context of goals, whether they are the goals of humans or of superintelligent AI. In my view, goals are a minor aspect of humanity. We are no different from other animals in that we are driven by DNA-encoded behavior which generally leads us to reach adulthood, engage in sex, have children and raise them. Goals do not play a role in this except in the sense that we happen to superimpose an intellectual schema on our behavior, but in reality we would most likely behave exactly the same way without any deliberate plans to raise families. Though it is true that some aspects of modern society, such as the availability of birth control, have changed the landscape a little, in a biological sense we are hardly any different from people who lived hundreds of years ago. Speaking for myself, I have never been goal-oriented, and it seems possible that Tegmark and his cohort, which includes Elon Musk, are goal-driven in the extreme, but are hardly representative of most people. They may also be ascribing their goal hysteria to inanimate objects such as superintelligent AI. In my view, the outcomes that we prefer have no meaning outside the human sphere, and it is folly to think that sophisticated computers would have comparable preferences. We only think that living is good and death is bad because we have a biological imperative, and that imperative would not be shared by superintelligent AI unless it were programmed into it. Being dead or alive makes no difference to non-organisms, and it may be that Tegmark is unwittingly engaging in anthropocentric conceit. Thus, I think that Tegmark is somewhat misguided in not focusing more attention on the possible abuse of superintelligent AI by an individual or group that doesn't represent the interests of mankind as a whole.

I did not find most of the book objectionable, but didn't pay close attention to much of it, because I was not interested in many of the subjects. The only section that I thought was completely incorrect was Tegmark's view on intelligent extraterrestrial life. He proposes an obscure statistical model which indicates a low probability of other intelligent life anywhere in the universe. On this front, I go with more mainstream thinking. If one assumes that there is no magical ingredient to the formation of life, and that the evolutionary processes on earth that led to our existence are not unusual, the obvious procedure is to determine how many sun-like stars there are in the universe and how many of those are likely to possess planetary systems like the solar system. The fact is that our sun isn't unusual, and many stars have planets. Thus, given that there are billions of galaxies that each contain billions of stars, it seems likely that earth-like conditions aren't all that rare. Furthermore, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility that life has emerged on planets orbiting stars unlike the sun. At one point, Tegmark refers to himself as crazy, and here I can see why. Another section that I could have done without is the chapter on consciousness. Tegmark remains neutral on the topic, but I find it mostly irrelevant. I think consciousness is simply a biological feature that amounts to little more than self-awareness. As I've said, there is a continuum between small mammals and humans, and there is not a marked difference between chipmunk-level consciousness and human-level consciousness. For mammals, consciousness seems to be a byproduct of how the brain operates, and, to me, higher consciousness simply refers to more sophisticated brain function. There is no need to think about consciousness in AI, since it would not exist unless self-awareness were programmed into the AI.

In a similar vein, there is what I think of as a conceptual misunderstanding among many AI futurists. They envision futures as immortal cyborgs or digitized people who roam the universe and populate other regions for eternity. It seems to me that they are extrapolating from their current mental states to their future mental states without taking into consideration significant changes that might occur in the process. What if, with superintelligence, they soon know all that they ever can know about the universe: how might this affect their enthusiasm for exploration and discovery? What if, once they have merged with superintelligent entities, immortality suddenly loses its appeal? If they do in fact become immortal, what would the point of reproduction be? I don't think they have taken into consideration the ways in which their current thinking is skewed in a way that it only can be in living organisms, and they are not taking into account how their outlook might change. As I said in an earlier post, it is possible that advanced extraterrestrials that reached superintelligence may have opted for death over life.

One of Tegmark's primary purposes in writing this book and founding the Future of Life Institute has been to increase awareness of the situations that could develop as AI advances. My feeling is that if it advances slowly, in incremental steps, and different groups reach comparable technological levels in unison, it will be possible to enact various safeguards in a manner similar to the safeguards that were adopted in biological weaponry. However, in the event that AI research makes a sudden major advance that is available only to one group, there is a significant chance that all bets will be off the table. In that case, the risk of abuse of power would be significant, and there may not be enough time to enact any safeguards. This kind of thinking is so far from public and political awareness that we can only hope for the extremely slow and coordinated development of AGI in the coming years.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence I

There aren't many good general interest books on AI, and I have avoided reading the best known one, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom, because it was written by a philosophy professor, which, in my experience, guarantees that it will contain needless diversions and complications. For the same reason, I have not read Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, by Daniel Dennett, even though I received it as a gift, am interested in Darwinism, like Daniel Dennett and have attended one of his lectures: he is a philosopher. I thought I would give Life 3.0, by Max Tegmark, a try, since he is a physics professor and seems less likely to inundate the reader with excess baggage. His writing quality is not the best, and he uses gimmicks, such as the title. Life 1.0 includes life forms that are stuck in a stimulus-response mode, in which they react mechanically in all situations; life 2.0 includes life forms that can think and modify their behavior, i.e. humans; life 3.0 includes life forms that can change both their thinking and their physical form. Tegmark refers to thoughts as software and bodies as hardware.

The opening chapter is a science fiction short story set in the near future, in which a tech company assembles a crack team of researchers to work on AI. Their goal is to create artificial general intelligence, or AGI, which entails a machine which is able to perform a wide array of intelligent tasks at least as well as humans. Thus far, AI hardware and software have been able to exceed human capabilities only in narrowly-focused areas and have been incapable of performing a wide range of tasks. The team succeeds in steps, and their AI module, called Prometheus, gradually increases its capabilities. The company immediately decides to use Prometheus to create the maximum profit possible. One of its first potential projects is computer games, in which they could easily dominate the field, but they reject that option because it would provide Prometheus with a way to escape. Gradually they move to other fields and vanquish the competition. They are able to make virtual films that are calibrated to exactly match human preferences, and they soon control the entertainment industry. Often, shell companies are set up to disguise the dominance of the company. From a security standpoint, extreme measures are taken to prevent Prometheus from direct access to the internet. Because Prometheus is able to consistently create the best products at the lowest cost, non-AGI companies are unable to compete. Then the focus turns to politics, and Prometheus identifies the exact characteristics needed in politicians and how they should be presented if they are to be elected. Over time, the company is so profitable that it is able to absorb costs previously covered by government spending. The need for government services is reduced when the company successfully advocates massive privatization and then absorbs the costs of social services. Because of high efficiency and automation in the economy, there is widespread unemployment, and the company supports those who are unemployed by giving them jobs in community service. Finally, through its economic and technical strength, the company takes over the world.

Although this story isn't nuanced or detailed enough to be fully convincing, I think it does represent a plausible scenario for the future. In fact, the company roughly approximates Amazon.com, which is actively engaged in AI research. It is already noticeable that Amazon.com has expanded into unrelated businesses and is succeeding in them. In previous decades, companies that expanded this way often became unwieldy conglomerates, which eventually led to their breakup into separate companies because of their unmanageability. Even recently, RR Donnelley, the large printing company that I used to work for, was broken up into three companies, based on markets served. So far, Amazon.com is going in the opposite direction, and AI may already be playing a role in its management decisions and strategy. I recently noticed that Amazon.com may be expanding through shell companies. When I began to research pet food in 2016, I came across Reviews.com, which was the only site I could find that reviewed cat food that didn't have an obvious connection to pet food manufacturers. I was a little suspicious, because the recommended brands all had links to Amazon.com, but I didn't think about it much at the time, since the research seemed convincing. I didn't buy any cat food through Amazon.com, because other sites had the same products for less. Recently, I took another look at Reviews.com's cat food recommendations, and they were almost completely different; all of the new brands also had links to Amazon.com. There was no explanation as to why the brands that I had been buying disappeared. In the fine print, it is explained that, while all the endorsed brands are good, some of them are sponsored brands which provide the revenue to run the site. Reviews.com, unsurprisingly, is located in Seattle, where Amazon.com is headquartered. I would guess that nearly all of their research is based on data that is available in the public domain, and that they have very few employees. Their analysis is probably performed with software that other companies do not possess. Reviews.com is probably a cost-effective way for Amazon.com to boost its revenues.

Also, by coincidence, the influence on political campaigns by Cambridge Analytica, which recently came to light, mirrors the use of technology in the story. However, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, wealthy individuals such as Robert Mercer, rather than large corporations, seem to be focused only on political influence. If Mercer helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election, he is unlikely to attain whatever goals he may have had, since Trump obviously was not the right person for the job; he has been unpopular since day one, doesn't seem to know what he's doing, probably won't be reelected and will be lucky if he remains in office until the end of his first term. And it seems unlikely that Cambridge Analytica uses sophisticated AI. More likely, they were able to devise an effective campaign strategy by mining data from Facebook, processing it a little and using well-worn propaganda techniques.

I've still got a long way to go in the book, but it looks as if it covers all of the topics I've brought up before on this blog about AI, so it should be quite informative. I think Tegmark has a genuine concern regarding the effects of AI on human destiny. His science fiction short story is probably not the best way to open a book of serious nonfiction, but it does demonstrate what could happen in a possible future. In that instance, do we want the world to be run by Jeff Bezos? There are other scenarios, in which, say, China, develops AGI first, or perhaps different countries or organizations will develop it simultaneously. Since I think that AGI is likely to be developed, possibly in my lifetime, I don't consider this idle speculation, and I'll have more to say.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

This book, a selection of short items by Richard Feynman, is similar to "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", but is somewhat less autobiographical and discusses his work in slightly greater detail. There is some overlap between the two books, with two chapters in common. The foreword, by Freeman Dyson, is eloquent and touching, describing how awestruck Dyson became when he worked with Feynman at Cornell University in 1947, and he compares his relationship with Feynman to the relationship between Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. He and Jonson were the academics, whereas Feynman and Shakespeare were the boisterous geniuses. Strangely, Dyson has outlived both Feynman and Stephen Hawking, and is now 94.

My reaction is less intense than it was to the previous book, but I did find things in it that I liked. To comprehend the reach of Feynman's intellect, you have to realize that it was he who invented nanotechnology decades ago, and it is still a productive field now. The chapter I liked best, "What Is Science?," is a lecture that he gave to science teachers and discusses how his father influenced him by taking him for walks in the woods, and, rather than simply naming things, encouraged him to think about the processes taking place and how things worked. His father was a uniform salesman and, feeling that he had not lived up to his potential, encouraged Richard from the earliest age. I particularly liked this paragraph:

We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations and they make lists and they do statistics, but they do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science – like South Sea Islanders making airfields, radio towers, out of wood, expecting a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners' airfields around them, but, strangely, they don't fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are – experts. You teachers who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, maybe you can doubt the experts once in a while. Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

In the chapter, "Richard Feynman Builds a Universe," he recounts a seminar that he was asked to present by physicist Eugene P. Wigner when he began his graduate studies at Princeton University:

I started to prepare the thing. Then Wigner came to me and said that he thought that the work was important enough that he's made special invitations to the seminar to Professor Pauli, who was a great professor of physics visiting from Zurich; to Professor von Neumann, the world's greatest mathematician; to Henry Norris Russell, the famous astronomer; and to Albert Einstein, who was living near there. I must have turned absolutely white or something, because he said to me, "Now don't get nervous about it, don't be worried about it. First of all, if Professor Russell falls asleep, don't feel bad, because he always falls asleep at lectures. When Professor Pauli nods as you go along, don't feel good, because he always nods, he has palsy," and so on. This kind of calmed me down a bit, but I was still worried. So Professor Wheeler promised me that he would answer all the questions and that all I would do would be to give the lecture. 

So I remember coming in – you can imagine that first time, it was like going through fire. I had written all the equations on the blackboard way ahead of time so that all the blackboards were full of equations. People don't want so many equations...they want to understand the ideas better. And then I remember getting up to talk and there were these great men in the audience and it was frightening. And I can still see my own hands as I pulled out the papers from the envelope that I had them in. They were shaking. As soon as I got the paper out and started to talk, something happened to me which has always happened since and which is a wonderful thing. If I'm talking physics, I love the thing, I think only about physics, I don't worry where I am; I don't worry about anything. And everything went very easily. I simply explained the whole business as best I could. I didn't think about who was there. I was thinking only about the problem I was explaining. And then at the end when the question time came, I had nothing to worry about because Professor Wheeler was going to answer them. Professor Pauli stood up – he was sitting next to Professor Einstein. He said – "I do not think this theory could be right because of this and this and that and the other thing and so forth, don't you agree, Professor Einstein?" Einstein said "No-o-o-o," and that was the nicest no I ever heard.

Besides the above, there are passages relating to Feynman's discomfort with the humanities. There seem to be two parts to this. On the one hand, his mind was attuned to problem solving, and his training was in engineering and physics. This made him impatient with unempirical theorizing. On the other hand, he seems to have been humiliated by people who looked askance at his poor grammar and New York accent. There is the fact that he was rejected by his first choice for undergraduate study, Columbia University. He never read much in the humanities, which he came to associate with pretentious people who are lacking in rigor. He thought that their serious demeanor was artificial. Although I fall more into the humanities camp than the science camp, I tend to agree with him. I spent several years studying philosophy, and I now see it more as a cultural phenomenon than as a useful field. To be sure, scientists, like all humans, are susceptible to particular forms of myopia, but if you compare them as a group to intellectuals, who come mostly from the humanities, they look pretty good. If you contrast scientists with ordinary people, the difference becomes stark. The American scientists who were prominent in Feynman's day made the contributions that allowed the country to become the technological leader of the world. Looking at the U.S. now, with the marginalization of scientists, it is beginning to resemble an incompetently governed autocracy. The public intellectuals here have barely put a dent in the ascent of Donald Trump. Current conditions are a far cry from 1939, when Albert Einstein signed a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending the development of nuclear weapons; six years later, World War II ended with the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, scientists seem unable to convince the political leaders in Washington that climate change is real.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Diary

I had completely run out of books that I wanted to read, and now the ones I ordered are starting to trickle in. To keep expenses low, I generally buy "very good" or "fine" used books when they are available, and some of them ship from overseas. Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, is on its way from Australia. I got out of the habit of going to libraries and bookstores, because the odds of finding something I like through those sources aren't good. And I prefer to keep books on hand indefinitely in case I want to refer to them later. Every few years I clear out books that no longer interest me in order to make space for newer ones.

I've been looking at a couple of books of Vivian Maier's photographs. Some of the photographs are quite excellent. However, there is little or no context provided by the editor, John Maloof, in part because they were accidentally found. His first book, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, provides no information at all on individual photographs, e.g., location and date. They appear to have been taken in New York between 1951 and 1955 and in Chicago starting in 1956. The other book, Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, identifies the year and location for most. There is some duplication between the two books, and Self-Portraits includes several photographs of her which could have been taken by someone else, or she may have set up a camera to take them – no explanation or theory is provided. The photographs in Street Photographer are printed as duotones in black and sepia, which gives them a dramatic mood and added contrast, and Self Portraits is printed in ordinary four color process, without the sepia, and contains several color photographs.

The photographs themselves cover a variety of subjects. There are street scenes with closeups of individuals and ones with wider fields showing many people. There are a few shots of inanimate objects with unusual shadows. Her photographs called "self-portraits" comprise several types. Most are clearly intended as self-portraits, as, when looking through a store window, she photographed her reflection from a mirror inside, or when she framed a picture with a conspicuous shadow of herself in the foreground. Her reflection and shadow seem like signatures to a photograph, and her shadow sometimes adds a sinister element, with her imposing hat and long coat. Others may be accidental self-portraits. She liked to hide in recessed doorways to shops that had mirrors on the outside, because this enabled her to photograph the reflections of people on the street without being noticed. It may have been an accident that she appeared in them. However, she clearly was fascinated by reflections, whether from glass, mirrors, hubcaps or yard globes, and she liked to incorporate shadow effects in her compositions. Although I still think they're very good, I am not as impressed with most of the self-portraits as I was previously. Her best shots, I think, are either closeups of people with excruciatingly clear details or complex street scenes with different people and groups all going about their day. There is an astounding photograph of Third Avenue in New York City, looking south toward the Chrysler Building, when the Third Avenue El was still in operation. Some of her street people are just as striking as Diane Arbus's, and her compositions seem less contrived. Arbus had an agenda that is missing in Maier.

I have wondered about the ethics of distributing Vivian Maier's photographs. It seems that her intent was to keep them private, and that she did not think about being "discovered," even posthumously. As an intensely private person, I think that she would have been horrified to see these books in circulation. Yet she took no action that might have influenced their distribution, and her inaction has been a net benefit to the public.

On my next post I'll say something about Richard Feynman.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Meliorism

One of the most frustrating scientific writers for me has been Steven Pinker. I concur with him in that he is a proponent of the scientific method and is critical of intellectuals as a group, particularly the anti-scientific ones in the humanities, but he then goes on to make uninformed pronouncements, like a reigning king to his court, with congratulatory pats on the back from his friend, Bill Gates. His latest book, Enlightenment Now, argues that we are following a trend that started with the Enlightenment, in which the world has gradually become a better place, and that doomsayers are too pessimistic, given the empirical data showing continuous improvements in the human condition. It is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of Pinker's views from reviews, which are inconsistent, but his main argument, insofar as I can make one out, seems inadequate. In any case, I'm not going to read this book, because I see no evidence that I would find it either informative or persuasive. Therefore, as I have done with fiction that I dislike, I will discuss Pinker at arm's length, mostly as a launching point to clarify my own perspective, which doesn't seem to match Pinker's or most of his critics'.

It is undeniable that many statistics seem to support Pinker's main thesis: people live longer, technology has made life easier, food is relatively plentiful, educational levels are higher, etc. There is a lot of truth to meliorism, the idea that the human condition can be improved by our efforts. This term may not exactly match Pinker's view, but it seems to approximate it. George Eliot used the word "meliorist" to describe herself. She was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, which is a suitable position for a realist. In the mid-nineteenth century, intellectuals were tossing around various versions of positivism, including that of Auguste Comte, and meliorism became her chosen point of view. However, Pinker seems to have concocted a rather brash argument, and there are three main caveats that I offer here: first, happiness can't be quantified outside a specific cultural context; second, the concept of "better," when applied to the human condition, is not necessarily meaningful within a Darwinian framework; and third, so-called improvements could abruptly evaporate at any time due to unfavorable circumstances.

From time to time I have wondered how people would react if you transported them from the past to the present. Those from the near past, say, 1800, might be able to absorb some of the advantages now available, but they would still have to make adjustments, which could be stressful, in much the same way that it is for immigrants currently arriving in the U.S. from less-developed countries. In their case, they would probably agree that they had made progress, but they would probably still feel somewhat uncomfortable in their new environment and not see themselves as fully integrated with American society. It is not uncommon for immigrants to return home when they have the opportunity. Those from the distant past, say, fifteen thousand years ago, would be bewildered, and might not be able to adapt at all. In their case, one can't make facile judgments about their happiness. If they were happy wandering through the forest, hunting prey, picking nuts and berries and living in temporary shelters, they would be objectively happy, and if they were unhappy living in an apartment in a city, working in a factory and obtaining their food from the local Kroger, they would be objectively unhappy. If they didn't care whether they lived to be eighty instead of forty, they might not see any benefit to increased longevity. I don't think that Pinker recognizes that happiness is relative, which means that it cannot be viewed independently from the values within individual cultures. He seems to engage in a form of cultural imperialism when he says that those who live in the developed world now are happier than those who lived in earlier times.

This criticism relates to the second criticism, in which evolution is understood not as a directed process but as a random process with no teleological aim. Though Pinker seems to avoid teleological language, the concept may lurk in his ideas. From a Darwinian point of view, life on earth is usually perfect, because the life forms that exist during any time period are the ones best adapted to the existing environment as long as it is relatively stable. Once you state that there is a process in place leading to a specific outcome, you open the door to religious interpretations, such as the presence of an "invisible hand" which guides humans toward future perfection. Given what we know of evolution, ideas like that are absurd. In a strict Darwinian sense, the main thing that has happened since the beginning of the Enlightenment is increased reproductive success among humans, which has caused the world population to grow from about one billion in 1800 to about 7.6 billion today. While this does ostensibly appear beneficial to humans, it has been accompanied by planet-wide environmental changes which are precipitating climate change and mass extinctions of other species, and I'm not sure just how wonderful population growth has been. Pinker also ignores what I call radical Darwinism, in which moral behavior, rather than indicating an advancement of modern humans over earlier ones, is itself an arbitrary evolutionary adaptation which could disappear just as fast as it arose. It seems plausible that, like many thinkers in the humanities, Pinker has unwittingly absorbed a somewhat theological position, in which morality is seen to exist outside nature, as if placed there by God. That is hardly a position that can be supported by empirical data.

My third criticism is that Pinker doesn't know where this all leads. Apparently, he isn't familiar with the phrase "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," which applies not only to investments but to almost everything other than laws of nature. Even with many signs pointing in a positive direction for mankind, there are multiple events that could change the apparent trajectory, and although Pinker may address some of them in his book, the fact is that no one, including Pinker, is sufficiently omniscient to avert all possible future disasters. I find him ignorant and arrogant in his assertion that existential risk is a "useless category," and there are certainly many academics who would agree with me.

Besides the above, I am disappointed with Pinker in that, like other psychologists I've critiqued on this blog, he seems not to apply recent research on cognitive limitations to himself or his peers. The evidence is now incontrovertible that we don't think clearly, are poor at processing large amounts of information, don't individually know much and often engage in impulsive, irrational behavior, which we can't escape because of our biological provenance. In particular, psychologists act as if they are immune to confirmation bias. Like Daniel Kahneman, Pinker seems to think that, although most people are subject to various cognitive dysfunctions, the smartest people somehow escape them, or at least are able to work around them. Beyond the fact that they are deluding themselves, they are lending support to the existence of an elite, competent class which includes them. Enlightenment Now is music to the ears of people like Bill Gates, who love the idea that they are improving the future of mankind through their philanthropic work. But are they? Although everyone would agree that Bill Gates is a pretty smart guy, how smart is he? As a distant observer, I see no evidence that Gates has any particular talent beyond coding and building a software monopoly. If he had never been born, we would still have PC's, the differences being that Microsoft probably wouldn't exist and there would probably be no operating system called Windows. Gates's main skill seems to have been to recognize a business opportunity and capitalize on it. To be sure, that was a difficult and complex task, but it seems likely that Gates is significantly less competent in other areas. The same goes for Steven Pinker outside the field of cognitive psychology. Thus, when Gates and Pinker team up, one ought to be wary of their self-congratulatory tone, which, finally, is little more than self-approving hype. I have no objection to the modest, balanced meliorism suggested by George Eliot, which accords well with my understanding of eusociality, but I become skeptical when others use similar ideas to inflate their stature.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Diary

Over the last few years, ever since I purchased a decent set of speakers, when the opportunity has arisen I have studied the popular music that I used to listen to, and I have been trying to determine how various performers from that period in my life stack up qualitatively. I started out by listening to the Allman Brothers Band, which I hadn't paid much attention to earlier, since they were latecomers, with At Fillmore East recorded in 1971, and, from a musical standpoint, I currently think that they were the best. I have also been listening to Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, who died in 1990. Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits, is another good guitarist, but his albums are more obviously commercial than the others. I still prefer Duane Allman, who, in collaboration with Dickey Betts and other members of the group, made what, as far as I know, is the best live rock album ever recorded. I listened to Lynard Skynard, and still like "Sweet Home Alabama," but they were not on par with the Allman Brothers musically. I also revisited The Doors, who became popular in 1967 with "Light My Fire," and decided that although I like Jim Morrison's voice and Ray Manzarek's keyboard, they were a group of narrow interest, probably because Jim Morrison was a little crazy. I also listened to Jethro Tull's Stand Up, which was released in 1969; I became interested in that group during my hippie summer in Bloomington, Indiana in 1970, and have decided that, even though it was an innovative album, in hindsight it's good but not great. Most recently, I listened to Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, which was released in 1967 and was their breakout album. That was a significant year for me, and the first time that I took hallucinogenic drugs. Hearing it now, I still get a kick out of it, because it reminds me of the psychedelic days, when Timothy Leary was a cult figure – an era which seems to have vanished entirely from human consciousness. Surrealistic Pillow has musical limitations due to the talents of its members. In the 1960's, popular musical groups formed rapidly, and some groups had hits before they had become seasoned performers. However, with Grace Slick's voice, then-current musical innovations and cultural changes associated with the anti-war movement and the rise of drug use, it is an interesting sound and can be seen as a cultural signifier. Listening to that album is de rigueur if you want to fully understand Californian history during that period. I miss the days of long musical riffs, because the lyrics in popular music tend to be awful. Even though I'm sick of Bob Dylan and don't think that he deserved a Nobel Prize by any stretch of the imagination, he was, in my opinion, about the only popular performer who produced decent lyrics during the 1960's.

In other news, I have been wavering on what to read next. I considered reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft, but decided that, since it was published in 1792, it would be difficult to relate it to the modern world. Wollstonecraft was one of the most important female thinkers ever, and I enjoyed her biography, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Lyndall Gordon. I've ordered another short book by Richard Feynman, which I'm sure to like, but it probably won't be as good as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" I've also ordered a long biography of William Morris, which is a sign that I'm really hitting rock bottom. Given that my style might be described as "frugal ascetic," you may not think that I would be interested in fashion or design. However, I have always liked some of William Morris's designs, particularly his wallpapers. I like the architecture of Gothic cathedrals and some of the motifs in pre-Christian English art. Generally, I don't care for English artists, including those in the Bloomsbury Group, but William Morris seems to have produced some works that I can appreciate. Although you would never know it from looking at me, I probably have fashion awareness in my genes. My father's father came from a line of tailors and was a director at Liberty & Co., which apparently was Oscar Wilde's favorite store. My father's mother came from a line of hosiers, hatters and furriers. On my mother's side, although they made most of their money importing pianos, her parents later owned a ready-to-wear shop in Athens. I am tired of thinking about politics and hope that I can maintain a stream of books to read that will provide a more constructive and satisfying use of time.