It’s been awhile since I did a Remainders posts so I figured I’d throw one together. In theory it’s all the other stuff I didn’t get a chance to blog about. In reality, it’s pretty much everything I’ve been reading that isn’t about mental models/frameworks (and even some of that). You can find previous versions filed under Remainders and, as always, if you enjoy the writing, please subscribe by email and pass around.
Let’s start with some books. Here’s what I’ve read in the last three months (in order of when they were read):
Countdown to Zero Day(Kim Zetter): As far as I know this is the definitive book on Stuxnet, the digital weapon that targeted the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.
Complexity: A Guided Tour (Melanie Mitchell): Easily one of my favorite books of the year. I’ve read lots about complexity theory, but nothing that pulled all the various strings together so well. (This also helped send me down a deep physics rabbit hole that I’ve yet to emerge from.)
A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking): If you find yourself in a physics rabbit hole, this seems like something worth reading …
Dreamtigers (Jorge Luis Borges): I read about this in the Borges interview book. He basically explained that his publisher asked for a book and so he collected a bunch of poems and stories that were sitting around his house and hadn’t been published and stuck it together.
Okay, onto some other reading, etc. …
This Wired piece about the possibility of a coming “AI cold war” has two particularly interesting strings in it: One is a fundamental question about the nature of technology and its relationship with democracy (put simply: is the internet better structured to support or defeat democratic ideals) and the other is about how China (and the US) will use 5G as a power play (“If you are a poor country that lacks the capacity to build your own data network, you’re going to feel loyalty to whoever helps lay the pipes at low cost. It will all seem uncomfortably close to the arms and security pacts that defined the Cold War.”)
Benoît Mandelbrot (of fractal fame) is apparently responsible (at least in part) for the introduction of passwords at IBM. From When Einstein Walked with Gödel (which I’m reading now), “When his son’s high school teacher sought help for a computer class, Mandelbrot obliged, only to find that soon students all over Westchester County were tapping into IBM’s computers by using his name. ‘At that point, the computing center staff had to assign passwords,’ he says. ‘So I can boast-if that’s the right term-of having been at the origin of the police intrusion that this change represented.'”
Also from the same book, the low numerals are meant to be representative of the number of things they are. Since that makes no sense, here’s the quote from the book: “Even Arabic numerals follow this logic: 1 is a single vertical bar; 2 and 3 began as two and three horizontal bars tied together for ease of writing.”
A Rochester garbage plate “is your choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, white or red hots*, served on top of any combination of home fries, french fries, baked beans, and/or macaroni salad.”
Rahimi believes contemporary machine learning models’ successes — which are mostly based on empirical methods — are plagued with the same issues as alchemy. The inner mechanisms of machine learning models are so complex and opaque that researchers often don’t understand why a machine learning model can output a particular response from a set of data inputs, aka the black box problem. Rahimi believes the lack of theoretical understanding or technical interpretability of machine learning models is cause for concern, especially if AI takes responsibility for critical decision-making.
Uber’s business plan, like that of so many other digital unicorns, is based on extracting all the value from the markets it enters. This ultimately means squeezing employees, customers, and suppliers alike in the name of continued growth. When people eventually become too poor to continue working as drivers or paying for rides, UBI supplies the required cash infusion for the business to keep operating.
Another very strong piece from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub about Trump. Here’s a snippet: “The Trump family aspires to mafia status, a thuggocracy, but they are manipulable and bumbling where Putin and company are disciplined and Machiavellian. They hire fools and egomaniacs and compromised figures—Scaramucci, Giuliani, Bannon, Flynn, Nunberg, the wifebeating Rob Porter—and then fire them, with a soap opera’s worth of drama; the competent ones quit, as have many lawyers hired to help Trump navigate his scandals. The Trumps don’t hide things well or keep their mouths shut or manage the plunder they grab successfully, and they keep committing crimes in public.”
“In another respect, the drive to identify reasons for committing extreme violence runs opposite to the very logic of terrorism. I am using the term ‘terrorism’ in its broadest possible meaning, to denote acts of violence intended primarily to terrify. This works only when the violence is unpredictable—when it’s senseless. This is as true of state terror and political terrorism as it is of a school shooting—especially one perpetrated by the shy kid who never seemed to say a word about girls. It is so frightening precisely because most of these shy, unpopular kids who are ignored and spurned by others will never hurt a fly. Nor will most other people, including most of those who claim to want to blow up the world, whether because they are not getting enough sex or because they want to live in a caliphate.”
This episode of the podcast 80,000 Hours with computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg is really fun (if you’re into talking about stuff like the Fermi Paradox). I particularly liked Sandberg’s “Aestivation Hypothesis”. Aestivation is the opposite of hibernation (sleeping during the summer instead of the winter) and the gist of the hypothesis is that maybe the reason we haven’t heard from the aliens is because they’re waiting for the stars to die out so it gets cold enough that they can efficiently run massively complex calculations that would otherwise take tons of power to cool:
So if you imagine the real advanced civilization that has seen a lot of galaxy expanded long distances, once you’ve seen a hundred elliptical galaxies and a hundred spiral galaxies, how many surprises are we going to be there? Now most of the interesting stuff your civilization is doing is going to be culture, science, philosophy, and all the other internal stuff. The external universe is nice scenery, but you’ve seen much of it. So this leads to this possibility that maybe advanced civilization is actually an estimate. They slow down, they freeze themselves, and wait until a much later era because we get so much more. It turns out that you can calculate how much more they can get. So the background radiation of the universe is declining exponentially.
As promised, here’s an interesting snippet from the book I’m reading, How to Thinkon how we don’t actually “think for ourselves”:
“Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”
Bipartisan posturing of this kind would be absurd in a healthy democracy, even at the best of times—after all, one of the reasons we elect people is so that they can debate and disagree. If you’re not fighting with anyone, you’re not fighting for anything. But given the stated agenda of the current administration, not to mention countless other Republican-led administrations across the country, bipartisanship is perilous and counterproductive almost by definition.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend and memorial day.
Before I left for my trip to Asia I went to see Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the hunt for, and ultimately killing of, Osama Bin Laden. Before, and after, seeing it I had read quite a bit about the raid, the movie and the controversy around both. I thought maybe it would be worth collecting all this stuff into a post, so that’s what I’m doing.
My guess is that much of the fascination with this film is inspired by the unveiling of facts, unclearly seen. There isn’t a whole lot of plot — basically, just that Maya thinks she is right, and she is. The back story is that Bigelow has become a modern-day directorial heroine, which may be why this film is winning even more praise than her masterful Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker.” That was a film firmly founded on plot, character and actors whose personalities and motivations became well-known to the audience. Its performances are razor-sharp and detailed, the acting restrained, the timing perfect.
In comparison, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a slam-bang action picture, depending on Maya’s inspiration. One problem may be that Maya turns out to be correct, with a long, steady build-up depriving the climax of much of its impact and providing mostly irony. Do we want to know more about Osama bin Laden and al Qaida and the history and political grievances behind them? Yes, but that’s not how things turned out. Sorry, but there you have it.
One thing that I found particularly interesting in the film was the very short sequence on the doctor who had gone around Abbottabad under the cover of vaccination who was actually collecting DNA. I remembered reading about him in the original New Yorker account of the raid and thought that had made clear he had been successful in collected DNA evidence (it turns out the article says he wasn’t, the same way it’s presented in the film). January’s GQ has a longer account of what happened to the doctor who helped the CIA and tries to get at whether he was successful in his mission. (The answers: He was tortured/imprisioned by the Pakistani government for assisting the Americans and, as to whether he got evidence, it’s still unclear.)
If you’re interested in more reading on the subject, No Easy Day, an account by a Navy Seal on the mission is a fast and interesting read. And although I haven’t read it, my friend Colin Nagy highly recommends The Triple Agent, which covers what happened at Khost, where a Jordanian triple agent beat CIA intelligence and security to bomb a military base and kill a sizable group of CIA operatives (there’s a scene in Zero Dark Thirty about it, though the film offers no real depth on what happened).
Just in case you’re on the lookout for a new show to watch I highly recommend Showtime’s Homeland. Both Daily Beast and New Yorkerhave written good little writeups, the latter describing it like this:
But what I love most about “Homeland” is the way it acts as an apology for “24.” The show was created by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, former writers for that series. (Gordon created the plot arcs for Seasons 3 and 4, and he was the showrunner from 2006 to 2009.) Their previous hit was popular for good reason: it was a well-made fun machine, a sleek right-wing dreamscape with just enough moral ambiguity to elevate it above a Road Runner cartoon. Unfortunately, “24” was also a carrier for some terrible ideas, among them the notion that torture is the best and only way to get information; that Muslim faith and terrorist aims overlap by definition; and, most of all, that invulnerability is the mark of heroism. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was tortured again and again, but he always bounced up, jack-in-the-box style, to waterboard on. Characters surrounding Bauer did occasionally argue with the show’s premises. But most of them were A.C.L.U. types who wouldn’t know a ticking time bomb if it kicked them in the face.