Monday, October 10, 2016

Intelligence and the Limits of Machine Logic

Among the opinion makers and wealthy scions of Silicon Valley, it is treated as an article of faith that Strong AI is inevitable. And like all faiths, this is rooted in sentiment and a limited experience of the world rather than any serious philosophical investigation.

To demonstrate how wrong these assumptions of the techie class are, imagine a chess match between yourself and a super computer. This is not some imaginary You who is an experienced Chess Grand Master, but the actual you reading this. The one who likely has no more chess experience than average, maybe so little that you don't even know the horsey ends its move on a turn. However, you can defeat the supercomputer in your very first move. White or black, you can win the match with only one move and there is no way it can be countered by your hypertech opponent:

Unplug the computer.

You win by default! A cumputer, no matter how complex or advanced, cannot function without a steady supply of electricity. If it cannot function, it cannot calculate chess moves. So it cannot play and forfeits the match.

"But that's cheating!" you say. Exactly. The entire point of this thought experiment is to demontrate something intelligent life can do that simply cannot be recreated in a computational system: cheating!

People too often view computers as mysical and irreducibly complex. The truth is that modern computation is indeed perfectly reducible to its component parts, all of which must work as planned for the system to perform its function. And this necessitates a machine logic that is strictly linear.

Anyone with coding experience knows this in their bones, though surprisingly few will admit the reductionist nature of computing. Even though they frequently employ reductionism in their engagement with society... But to elaborate, every program you've ever used, no matter how complex and seemingly reactive, springs from a code sequence that has been laid out along a strict A to B route. It may contain variables from A.1.j to B.7.&, but if it encounters anything not covered in these variables the whole system will freeze up or throw a fault.

Another example illustrating this quality of computation: video games. Currently the manner in which the most people directly engage with AI, so much more pertinent to this discussion than the latest half-baked idea to emenate from a tech billionaire, video games demonstrate both how computational systems can appear adaptive and dynamic while strictly enforcing their own linear logic.

Ever felt like the computer is a cheating bastard? A boss fight that violates established rules on health and damage or, for you youngsters, the enemy's bullets always hit the mark while yours veer off course for the sake of "realism." While aggravating, this is not indicative of conscious cruelty on the part of the game but rather crummy design. Every pixel that flies across the screen to knock pixels out of your pixel is as predetermined as Spinoza's cosmos, and whether the determined events are pleasing or frustrating to you depends on how many of "you" are upset enough to create a marketing problem for the game's publisher. Otherwise you're likely to hear that old saw, "It's not a bug, it's a feature."

The linearality of machine logic is indeed its biggest feature. A graphing calculator can do your high school algebra test better than you, but that's all it can do. Because that's all it was designed to do. And, returning to the heart of our argument, it cannot cheat.

Intelligent life cheats all the time. You, your pets, and the squirrels in your front yard - all can and do cheat. Frequently. Because survival in this harsh and complicated universe of ours requires constant and ruthless adaptability. Real intelligence does not have the luxury of working within a defined system and so must seek any possible advantage.

Example: A sociopathic carnivore with knife-hands.

Further, mere quantitative power is itself no indication of intelligence. Returning to the example of chess, Garry Kasparov famaously went win-loss-draw with Microsoft's Deep Blue. Much better than You would have done in the same circumstances but still Kasparov operated within the rules of the computer system, rather than employing the full range of options available to him as a sentient lifeform. He lacked the simple wisdom of Alexander to pull the plug and declare Man superior to Machine.

This is not to call Kasparov dumb. No, he is dumb because of the smorgasbord of conspiracy theories he embraces: NATO invaded Afghanistan to destabilize Russia, Anatoly Fomenko's assertion that human history only begins in the 11th Century AD, and of course that Microsoft cheated in the match that granted Deep Blue a victory. More damning to quantitative logic as the litmus for intelligence, this range of crankery does not make Kasparov an outlier among chess "geniuses." Bobby Fischer was famously anti-semitic, despite being of Jewish descent, and praised Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks.

These cases of chess players - brilliant in their field, bonkers everywhere else - is indicative of the "intelligence" one can expect from a machine system. The system may perform excellently within the bounds of its programming but the unbending logic of programming itself means it cannot achieve intelligence even on par with a cunning adolescent. That the myth of Strong AI has so occupied tech culture is not because it is close to being realised but simply because tech culture itself is a dog wagged by its own tail.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

World War Trump

I've been trying to avoid the election. Because it's a stupid thing for stupid people. But sometimes the noise gets too loud, like it did over the weekend with everyone arguing over whether or not it's proper etiquette to call brain-dead racists "deplorable." A very Beltway sort of issue - trying to find some way to square the total objective grotesquery of a typical Trump voter with the wonk's instinct to not insult anyone who might see your LinkedIn profile.

And while every right-thinking human knew Trump supporters were deplorable from day one, what to think of the Clinton supporters?

I've mentioned before how Clinton's oh so liberal supporters seem to be kinda bloodthirsty. It's the biggest criticism of her record despite what Peter Daou and other well-paid apologists might tell you and it's always been rooted in the historical fact that Hillary Clinton has killed more Muslims than Donald Trump.

This often leads people to think Trump is a protest vote. Not necessarily a good one but at least a contrary point to the eternal grind of this technocratic empire. They cite a few things he's blurted about getting the US out of NATO and his criticisms of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Of coure, Trump is an American businessman and therefore a lying sack of shit.

James Woolsey, who served as CIA director in President Bill Clinton’s administration, will serve Donald Trump as a senior adviser on national security, defense and intelligence, the campaign announced today. 
Woolsey appeared on CNN shortly after the announcement, saying he joined the Trump campaign because he favors the Republican candidate’s defense budget proposal. Trump has proposed to lift the caps on defense spending.

CNN makes a big to-do about Woolsey having worked under the last Clinton and his time in the CIA, as opposed to his more recent work for anti-Russian NGOs. Probably because of that same wonk instinct to ignore the warts, like a good Victorian, and because distracting y'all from he's an even bigger neocon nutter than Hillary.

Woolsey’s resume of evil is impressive. He helped found the notorious Iraqi National Congress, which provided “proof” about Iraqi WMDs. And he also serves on the Center for Security Policy, headed by fellow goon Frank Gaffney, who in 2004 publicly advised President Bush to level Fallujah (which Bush did), invade Iran and North Korea (which Bush can’t but yet may try), and adopt “”appropriate strategies for contending with China’s increasingly fascistic trade and military policies, Vladimir Putin’s accelerating authoritarianism at home and aggressiveness toward the former Soviet republics, the worldwide spread of Islamofascism.” Note how Gaffney, like Woolsey, equates “Islamofascism” with Putin’s Russia, making Russia a mortal enemy bent on destroying the US.

With the revolving door that is the Trump campaign, it's possible Woolsey will have quit in disgust by the time you read this. And if he does, another neocon will slither in to fill the post. American politics won't let any bad idea fail, whether it's bombing democracy into the swarthy hordes or celebrating business executives as innovators and job creators.

Screw this election. It's all deplorable.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Leprous Bathos

There is a long and storied history among "serious" writers of using some more interesting moment in history to add flavor to their muddling bourgeois tales of self-discovery. Jonathan Safran Foer did it most famously, reducing Soviet pogroms and Nazi extermination of Ukrainian Jews into so much tear-porn for his self-insertion character in Everything is Illuminated. Good business model but makes for lousy storytelling. And lousy storytellers.

Victoria Hislop doesn't have anything as sexy as the Holocaust to pad out her own sentimental novel, The Island, but still found a pretty interesting piece of Greek history: a leper colony! The titular island, it serves as the fulcrum for a family drama stretching back to the Inter-War years, through joys and tragedies that valiantly manage to remain a steady "meh" across more than four hundred pages.

Just off the shore of the tiny Cretan village of Plaka sits a dry and hardscrabble island named Spinalonga. It's a leper colony, one of the last in Greece so it receives "patients" - really internees - from as far away as Athens and Thessaloniki. These Cosmopolitan Hellenes are quite a contrast to the local Cretan villagers, Hislop tells us. And only tells. There's maybe ten pages out of a hundred devoted to telling about the difference - and how it gets all wrapped up neatly with bi-weekly film showings - before this very interesting clash of cultures is left by the wayside, the better to make room for the soap opera drama of three generations of Petrakis women. Noble women of course, as enduring and determined as their provincial island home. Except for Anna, who's a big ol' slut.

I'm inferring quite a bit about the setting as Hislop is less interested the external world of Cretan islands - full of exotic history going back to the Minoans trading and fighting wars with the Pharoahs to the south and the Hittites to the east - than she is in the internal world of her characters. Which is very bad because there's so little there there. The most compelling of them is the aforementioned Anna, a headstrong drama queen determined to escape the doldrums of village life. She marries into a rich family, the only means of social mobility in a society as stratified and chauvinistic as Greece, but quickly finds married life to be just as punishingly boring as kicking around her father's fishing village. This leads to affairs and murders that everyone blames on Anna's perfidy - including the author - though it all comes across with the dull familiarity of predestination. Or a pudding of narrative cliches.

Anna is of course presented in contrast to her dutiful sister Maria and their martyr of a mother Eleni. The eldest Petrakis catches the dropsey from a little boy at her job as a schoolteacher and the both of them are shipped across to the leper colony. Maria follows on the eve of her wedding to the same wealthy family her sister joined, freeing her groom-to-be to plow Anna like a wheat field. What could be a grim and naturalistic look at family history gets a Hallmark makeover however, as a fancy doctor soon arrives to treat Maria and all the lepers with a cure that frees them from exile. Maria doesn't even carry any scars from her five or six years on a leper colony, much like her mother died with quiet nobility offscreen, as it were, with no description of her final horrendous hours.

In fact, aside from a few comments on gnarled hands or feet and one old lady with walnut-sized boils on her face, the leprosy at the center of this turgid tale gets very little attention. From the first introduction to Spinalonga, the focus is much more on the day to day doldrums of any village - just with the added caveat of "Oh BTW, they all lepers." The colony even vanishes from the narrative for long stretches, particularly when Anna and Maria are doing their little girl dream wedding stuff. Even World War II happening in the first third of the book doesn't generate more drama than a few boys running out into the mountains to play soldier, returning after peace is declared in the newspapers without so much as a lost toe and goddamn did Olivia Manning do the banality of war better! All the talk of leprosy is really there to distract the reader from how this book has fewer sharp edges than a rubber nipple.

Really, you can't expect much from a middle of the road Anglo writer like Hislop. She even has a name like one of PG Wodehouse's third tier antagonists, Honoria Glossop the lady sergeant major who forces philosophy books she doesn't understand herself on those who've already mastered the Buddha's path to the good life. Hislop doesn't share that same bludgeoning personality - near as I can tell - but certainly agrees with the Glossops of the world that thick books of ponderous seriousness are what is most needed.

I haven't even gotten to the framing device yet! The bourgeois self-discovery that necessitated all this tiresome historical lecturing, the young Alexis and her misgivings about her fussy boyfriend. I don't remember his name but we'll call him Chad because he is very much that sort of stock character. Actually, we won't call him anything because the frame narrative is even duller than the village girls trying on wedding dresses. In fact, let's forget this whole fucking novel!

But let's not forget Hislop. Proving that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce, Victoria Hislop has managed to craft a literary career for herself out of being the same sort of high-serious dunderhead the almighty Wodehouse skewered so brilliantly with a hundred better stories.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Gazing into the Abyss

I'd like to talk about the nature of evil. "Evil" as a vaguely defined concept is awfully popular in American culture, especially since 2001, but it's never come in for sharp critique.

This is due to two powerful factors: 1) Americans as a general rule do not like to critique anything ever, hence why shit-awful movies like The Avengers and Transformers always make more money than anything worthy. And 2) A serious analysis of evil as a concept leads to discomforting revelations.

Let's start slow - Who do you hate? Just of the top of your head, someone you wouldn't mind seeing creamed by a bus? If you answered at all you've demonstrated evil, naturally, but that brings us to our next question: Why do you hate this person?

Have they done something to you? They probably have, since people are so invariably shitty to one another. Or, to go into murkier waters, has this person actually not done much of anything to you directly but something about their existence just offends you? Maybe they're more successful, maybe they're less successful but not bothered by it.

Maybe they're just different from you...

All of these reasons are evil, there's no denying. At least not by anyone who matters. But why would you have these reasons in the first place? Why should the material fortunes - or lack thereof - of another person concern you in such a way?

Because society told you to. Whether your parents or television or the other kids in your neighborhood, you were conditioned to hold these wicked views by others. Racism is often explained this way and while it doesn't touch on the depth of human atavism it at least gets the gist of things. Whatever malice you hold for others, if not founded in a direct personal experience, was fostered by the world around you as culturally normative behavior.

Here we move out of the comforting Neoplatonist definitions of evil and into the more grimly rationalist view. The idea that this is not in fact the best of all possible worlds, that the harmony we think we see in Nature is just an anthropocentric delusion, and that Evil is not an aberration in the grand scheme of things but rather the banal starting point.
[T]here’s only one evil, it suffuses everything we see, and while one might do less harm than the other, each of its warring parts is still fundamentally the same thing. Donald Trump’s frenzied populism couldn’t exist without the suffocating liberal condescension of a Hillary Clinton; nobody would ever vote for Clinton if it weren’t for the looming threat of a Trump.
That which is good, or at least not-evil, is not the baseline but rather the achievement. The long and ugly march of human history bears this out, though it is too often taken as a given. The old feudal hierarchies of Europe did not so much progress to liberal democracy as they were dragged kicking and screaming. As a labor activist once said, "It's never been easy," because every little improvement came from a confrontation with entrenched power that always sees its own self-perpetuation as the most important task at hand. Whether the power is claimed by divine right or meritocratic ladder climbing, it always seeks to preserve "order" at the expense of those outside its hallowed halls.

Evil, then, is both the natural state of existence and the resistance to changing for the better.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Bad Apples

American politics is like a game of Bloody Mary. If any subject more taboo or complicated than a bland platitude is spoken aloud, everyone freaks out and starts sleeping with the bathroom door shut. As if merely naming something gives it power.

Like the Alt-Right, or more accurately Young Republicans who are honest about their racism. Really, there's not a single difference between Alt-Right and Original Recipe except the Nazi anime avatars.

It's really just branding. Or re-branding, as Trump's ascendancy is making more and more Republicans unelectable. And despite Hillary's histrionics, the Alt-Right very much is Repuclanism as we have known it for decades:

In this election, we have the opportunity to repudiate not only Donald Trump but Trumpism, and not only Trumpism but the entire apparatus that gave us this man and this moment. That apparatus is the Republican Party and the modern conservative movement. The movement and the party that gave us the Southern Strategy, that made white supremacy the major dividing line between the two parties, that race-baited its way to the free market as the dominant ideology of our time, that made hysterical, revanchist militarism the common sense of bipartisanship, that helped turn the Democratic Party into the shell that it is today (with plenty of assistance of course from people like Bill Clinton), that gave us Donald Trump.

Trump is a walking nightmare to his own party because he is their apotheosis. The GOP folks who'd like you to think of them as staid and rational are horrified not by the blunt fascist rhetoric but that their own deeply held reactionary beliefs are being trumpeted about. And it worries them because it's embarrassing around the other rich parasites in their little upwardly mobile enclaves in New York and DC. The Alt-Right, the Young Republicans of the 21st Century, are an echo of that trashy showmanship because they don't have any friends to offend.

Most important of all though, the Alt-Right is as impotent as their anointed Glorious Leader. Even if they constituted more than a fraction of a percent of the electorate, they're too busy masturbating over children and contemplating suicide to be an effective political force. Much like Trump's campaign logistics, there's no there there.

By the time the dust settles on this bummer of an election, the only purpose the Alt-Right will have served is as a convenient scapegoat for all those "decent" Republicans who still want to starve anyone not born into a Fortune 500 executive suite. They'll be able to point to them - "See? It was those neonazi freaks, not us!" - and Hillary will join them, since she's just as much an establishment conservative as her BFF and noted war criminal Henry Kissinger.

The Alt-Right won't mind of course. Those sad screwheads would love to be used by a woman.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Your Vote Does Not Matter

There isn't so much a silver lining to Election 2016 as there is a gallow's humor punchline. For all the striving of Third Parties and the popular push for social democracy, the choices in November come down to Donald Trump or a Republican. That's the most nihilistic of slapstick.

Since before the Philly convention the Clinton campaign and its apparatchiks have worked hard to court establishment Republican support while showing contempt for their nominal base on the political Left. Either Clinton herself is being honest about her long-held neocon principles or she is committing career suicide. Her supporters think it shows she can win in November but they also think Muslim women objecting to Jen Kirkman's shitty jokes is misogyny. The Democrats, from the ruling class to the rank and file, are sailing towards the future with an Alfred E. Neuman "What, me worry?" obliviousness to how much everyone hates them.

The same hate, much more than racist nativism, just fuels Donald Trump's campaign. It's easy to dismiss his supporters as paranoid morons because they are - every single one of them -  but this is less a collection of individual failings than it is the collective result of generations of political and government dysfunction. Trump fans thinking Black Lives Matter is secret ISIS psyops comes from the exact same social atomization and sense of powerlessness that lead so many (presumably) sane people to think September 11th was orchestrated by the Bush II administration. As documented by Matt Taibbi in The Great Derangement, the point of 9/11 Truthism isn't so much a quest for justice as it is a grasping after personal meaning in a culture simultaneously celebrating individual achievement and stymieing that very same achievement through social and economic policies by and for a 1% oligarch class.

That Trump was born and bred in that class doesn't worry his supporters anymore than Clinton's professed love of Goldwater worries the good liberals. The presidential race is too tied up in atavism and personal egos grasping for that same elusive meaning as the Truthers for anyone to give ground or admit that the majority of Americans who don't like either of these assholes might have a point. A vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Hitler Trump, same as no vote same as questioning the DNC's vote-rigging in the primary. Everything is acceptable if it's your side and all the Muslims should vote against Trump if they don't want to be deported (implicitly voting for bombing other Muslims). It's the Jack Johnson versus John Jackson fight everyone expected between Clinton and Jeb! but much cruder thanks to Trump's Fox prime time manner of speaking.

But what's really ugly is that Donald Trump is the successful insurgent candidate. The Democrats have waged war on their own base to keep Sanders off the ticket, only to turn around and see the supposedly authoritarian opposition fold to some neonazi yahoos who believe Alex Jones. The same forces that have spent twenty-odd years calling for Hillary Clinton's head are now lining up behind her to protect their own phoney baloney jobs.

The most successful challenge to the system is coming from a minority fringe of cranks, the same flat-earth flatheads Karl Rove cultivated as "values voters" which, with his limited intellect, he believed could be steered by his seven-figure Yalie buddies indefinitely. Those same piggies are now running for cover behind the woman they hate most in the world and precedents suggest she will steamroll over The Donald in an electoral blowout to rival Nixon's in '72. Trumpism as a sentiment may be here to stay but the GOP as an effective political force is now castrated, their only hope for success being low voter turnout.

And would that be so bad? There's a neocon at the head of the liberal party and an incestuous con-man perched atop the wreckage of the opposition, so why bother legitimizing this farce by choosing sides? Vote Third Party or for yourself or not at all. You're vote really, truly does not matter.

Assuming it ever did.

Friday, July 22, 2016

NATO Nonsense

The worst thing about the Republican National Convention this past week is that it was broadcast. America has plenty of ridiculous fringe lifestyles, from trekkies to furries to anime perverts, but you don't see CNN breathlessly reporting on their sad little rituals.

The Internet Outrage Machine has been overclocked every day but if there's one thing that actually deserves special mention it's the Combover Feurher's comments on NATO:
He said the rest of the world would learn to adjust to his approach. “I would prefer to be able to continue” existing agreements, he said, but only if allies stopped taking advantage of what he called an era of American largess that was no longer affordable.

This is an outrage among the coastal yuppie enclaves but I've been hearing the same sentiment from Northern Virginia Republicans since the 1990s. And that's really what I want to say here - that Trump's comments are completely in the mainstream of American conservatism.

Spend enough time at Fairfax summer barbecues and the conversation always turns to how the liberals are destroying America. Not just with all the sex and hippity-hoppity music, but specifically how Democrats are both weak on national defense - leaving Us open to Our Enemies, whoever they are this week - and simultaneously how the Dems are expending American resources on taking care of ungrateful foreigners. Yes, they do have it both ways because Virginia Republicans are fucking morons.

Trump merely echoed the second half of their deluded worldview - the self-flattering assumption that the rest of the world needs to be policed by America. As opposed as the various State and DOD office drones  claimed to be to "nation building" in the Clinton I years, it was always predicated on the assumption that all those other countries full of poorer, browner people needed the patrician hand of the US to raise them out of Third World squalor, to keep their distant streets safe and to tuck them in at night. And these objections were always couched in a finger-wagging "Well they should take care of themselves!" rationalization that never admitted trying to police the world in the first place was a bad idea.

And not due to ignorance. If anyone in America should have a handle on the realities of geopolitics, it would be just these proto-Trumps carpooling around DC and Arlington. They're educated folks, upper middle class at the least, and hold TS security clearances with the military and intelligence agencies of a nuclear superpower. Yet they still blame immigrants for their problems and take Fox News seriously due to bog-standard American chauvinism.

Really, this latest turn against NATO is just the logical extension of the 1990s opposition to all things United Nations. Middle class suburbanites who'd never set foot in Manhattan spent the '90s bitching and moaning about how much space the UN offices took up, how much it strained the resources of poor put upon New York City - which itself was the wretched hive of scum and villainy for other conservative gripes. Because America is always the one taking care of everyone while also being under siege from those same dependents. It's an international variant of the "Water Carriers versus Water Drinkers" meme of the past eight years.

More to the point, this is not a new sentiment nor a strictly Republican one:
We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.

And we know how those same Republicans against nation-building behaved in the Bush years. All those isolationist principles proved as constant as wax - much like how all the current Clintonites who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 have spent the past year celebrating Hillary's own imperial wankery.

Donald Trump's shirking of NATO duties is not some aberration. It's perfectly in line with post-Reagen American culture: an opposition to the empire's wars when the other party is in the White House, mixed with a sanctimonious narcissism that only Our Side can do what is Right for the whole world. And all easily reversed as soon as the reins of power change hands.

Come meet the new boss, same as the old...