Thursday, June 15, 2017

Computers and Language

So-called artificial intelligence programs are still a long way from tackling language. And by language I mean languages which are spoken by humans, like English or Japanese. "Computer languages," sets of instructions followed by computers, are not the same as human languages. It has not been demonstrated yet that the languages which we speak can be reduced to such sets of instructions. If they can, we're still a long way away from doing it. If they can't, then, in my opinion, that would be one of the reasons not to worry about the machines eventually rising up and killing us all. If a computer was capable of having a conversation with me which was indistinguishable from a conversation with a human, then I'd be startled. And possibly a little spooked as well. I would include written conversations like those in chat rooms.

Math is exact and language is not. Often times letters, the symbols used to record some languages, have been used as mathematical symbols. Roman numerals are one well-known example of that. But while the symbols used in language and math may be the same, what they refer to is not. X + IV = XIV means exactly the same as 10 + 4 = 14, and any number of different systems of notation can be used to express exactly the same thing as 10 + 4 = 14. However, many times the simplest sentences are untranslatable from one language to another. And very many, perhaps most sentences cannot be exactly translated. Furthermore, in many cases, perhaps most, the best translation is a matter of opinion. Highly-qualified experts in linguistics and literature routinely disagree about whether this translation of a poem or novel is better than that one.

As long as we're talking about translation made by humans, that is. With all of the astounding advances made in computing, the best computer translation programs still routinely produce results which are comically bad and far inferior to any work done by any competent professional human translator. The same goes for original written compositions by computers compared with those written by ordinary lit students.

Computers are far beyond humans now when it comes to playing chess. (And if recent headlines have not misled me, computers are about to pass us as Go players as well.) But computers play chess differently than humans, by crunching enormous amounts of data. How do we humans do it? Well, we don't know yet.

Perhaps human intelligence would be less mysterious if the possibility were more often considered that it involves things which aren't reducible to math. Perhaps researchers sometimes resist considering that, because one of the things it would mean is that we're not, in fact, on the brink of developing artificial intelligence. Well, actually, many people think that we're already well past the brink, and that artificial intelligence has already existed for some time.

No doubt, information technology has produced many amazing things, and continues to do so with no end in sight. Maybe there's no reason for me to object to calling some of those things artificial intelligence. I don't go around angrily telling IT people to stop using the term "computer language."

But as I've said, a computer language is a fundamentally different thing than a language spoken by humans. And artificial intelligence, if we want to use that term for things which already exist, and why not -- I mean, people are using that term for things which exist, whether we approve or not -- is still fundamentally different from what human brains do. Playing chess, computers win. Writing poems, computers still have not given us any competition. Perhaps the things needed in order to write great poems are quantifiable. But perhaps they're not.

And perhaps the latter possibility is too often overlooked.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Bad Mental Habit of Anachronism

The Roman roads were not "the Internet of the ancient world." Clipper ships were not "the Internet of the 19th century." I really dislike this tendency on the part of some historians, and some pseudo-historians and sort-of-historians, to say that something was "the (insert 21st-century thing) of (insert earlier era.)" That does not help people to understand what the earlier era was like.

In the ancient world, yes, the Roman roads did improve travel significantly. But it still could take months or years for news to travel from one part of the world to another. But most people didn't travel much at all, unless they were soldiers, which could be a very unpleasant way of traveling.

There were no newspapers in the ancient world. To say that the Roman Acta Diurna were daily newspapers is again a disservice to anyone trying to understand the ancient world. They were daily announcements, but they were not newspapers. More like signs, put up in a public place in Rome, with a little bit of information or misinformation which the government wanted the people to receive. The earliest thing in Europe resembling a news periodical was the Notizie scritte which began to appear in Venice in the 16th century. It only appeared monthly. In 1631 a weekly news publication, La Gazette, began to appear in Paris. The earliest daily newspaper of which I am aware was the Daily Courant, which began publication in London in 1702. And none of these early European news publication was affordable to the general public. Newspapers aimed at the general public didn't begin to appear until the 19th century.

So what? So stop telling me that there are no mentions of Jesus in any ancient newspapers, that's what. The Acta Diurna were not a newspaper; no copies of any of them have survived; they weren't made and distributed in big stacks of papyrus copies. That would have been an extremely extravagant expense. They were scratched into stone or metal, a few words a day. One copy. Occasionally somebody would copy something down from one of them and send the copy to a governor.

It's hard to imagine what earlier eras were like. Often it's very difficult for us to remember earlier times in our own lives. I've noticed this in the records of earlier eras: people who lived most of their lives without the telegraph, for example, or passenger trains, took them completely for granted once they had been available for a few years. (Available to their privileged classes, that is. The difficulty of imagining the lives of those less fortunate seems to be another constant feature of human consciousness.) I'm 55 years old. I know that in my childhood there were 4 channels on TV, 3 commercial networks plus PBS, and that there was no Internet, and that very few people could afford computers, and that computers much simpler than the simplest of today's pocket calculators were as big as typewriters, or bigger.

I know this, but it's hard to really remember what it was like, and how much different things were back then. I know things such as that Presidential candidates could say one thing to one crowd, and something completely different to another crowd later the same day, and it was much harder to nail them for it if there wasn't any audio or video of either speech, and often there wasn't. So, for example, when Hunter S Thompson tells me in his book on the 1972 Presidential campaign, during which I turned 11, that Hubert Humphrey did that sort of thing constantly, I have to take his word for it. (I do take Thompson's word for that. But why should you? Well, that's a tough one.)

Ah, but I'm going to have to explain to many of you what typewriters were.

They were not the Internet of the mid-20th century. There was no Internet back then.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Comey Vs Ryan OnTrump

Today, James Comey said:

"It confused me when I saw on television the president saying that he actually fired me because of the Russia investigation, and learned again from the media that he was telling privately other parties that my firing had relieved great pressure on the Russian investigation. I was also confused by the initial explanation that was offered publicly that I was fired because of the decisions I had made during the election year. That didn't make sense to me for a whole bunch of reasons, including the time and all the water that had gone under the bridge since those hard decisions that had to be made. That didn't make any sense to me. And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple."

That's the kind of comment that earns you a reputation for honesty.

Today, Paul Ryan said:

"The president’s new at this. He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this."

That's not.

What Comey said was surprising, not because it's news to anybody that the President is a pathological liar, one of the biggest liars most of us have ever had the misfortune to encounter. It's surprising because so few of the leaders of the US and so few of the leading journalists covering US politics are coming right out and saying what we all know. It was also surprising because Comey is a Republican, and almost all of the Republicans are still doing what Ryan is doing: saying ridiculous things to try to cover up what everybody can plainly see: that the President is a liar, a crook, a bully, a sociopath and utterly unfit to hold any public office.

The Republicans are wasting so much time, saying so much weasel-mouthed infuriating garbage like Ryan excusing the President's behavior with comments like "He's new to this," letting things get so much worse and worse, before doing what we all know they are going to have to do: remove Trump from office. Unless they actually put that off until after the 2018 mid-term elections, when, if they still haven't done it, presumably enough of them will lose their seats to Democrats that removing Trump from office won't be up to them any more.

For years now, Republicans in elected office have failed to do the most important thing political leaders are supposed to do: lead. They've been following the base, and this has shown what following the base does: it makes the base stupider. It seems clear that the only thing which will cause the Republicans to impeach and remove Trump is Trump's approval rating sinking to a certain point. Now, if they were real leaders, and explaining to their constituents how horrible Trump is and how important it is to get rid of him, that would surely make Trump's approval ratings sink quickly. But that would be leadership. That would be integrity. That would be country over party. That would improve the party, give it some dignity. That would be the sort of thing Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt did. But of course, today's Republicans are just about exactly the opposite of Lincoln and Teddy. One of the last times I can remember a Republican elected official leading instead of following was during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when John McCain was taking questions at a campaign event, and a woman in the crowd said some birther nonsense about Obama, and McCain corrected her. I don't like John McCain very much, but unlike Paul Ryan, he does seem to have at least some principle and backbone.

Although today, at the hearing where Comey was testifying, McCain was very interested in Hillary's email, and at one point addressed Comey as "President Comey." McCain insisted that Comey was setting a "double standard" because the FBI investigation into Hillary's possible improper behavior with her emails was now closed, and this investigation into the Trump administration was not.

Yesterday McCain seemed very troubled by the state of the Trump administration. It seems we can't be sure which McCain we're going to get from one day to the next. He may not be the man to turn the GOP toward leadership, toward integrity, and toward doing the right thing with Trump.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

If Oprah Winfrey,

Larry King, Harold Bloom, Charlie Rose, Stephen King, John Grisham, Barack Obama, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Brokaw, Keith Olbermann, Bob Costas, Barney Frank, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary and Bill and Chelsea Clinton, George Bush Sr and Babs and W, Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, Lady GaGa, Stephen Colbert, Jay Z, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Tina Fey, Alicia Keyz, Kanye West, Leonardo DiCaprio, Demi Lovata and Raed Selah all praised my blog at once, all on the same day, publicly -- on Twitter or Facebook or their own shows or wherever they go to publicly praise obscure bloggers -- that'd be pretty cool for me.

Commercially. Those wouldn't be the 32 most flattering raves possible for me. In some of those 32 cases I'd be extremely flattered. Some of those people, I admire their work very much and value their opinions very highly. In other cases less so. And in some cases I don't even know who they are, or anything about them except that lots of people hang on their every word and gesture.

I don't suppose it's realistic to hope that all of those people will publicly praise my work today.

Life is hard. I need a break. I need a whole bunch of huge breaks.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Our Deadliest Enemy: HUMAN STUPIDITY

This really happened to me, just now. On the side of a busy road, a sign said, "GARAGE SALE. Everything FREE!" with an arrow pointing down a side street into a residential area.

No, the fact that "sale" doesn't match "free" is not the stupidity referred to in the title of this post. I noticed the incongruity right away, but it didn't really bother me. In retrospect, however, it does seem to match what followed. Onward:

I was somewhat busy, but the announced pricing scheme was too tempting to pass up. There was no address on the sign, so as I walked down the street I looked all around for anything resembling a garage or yard sale.

The street curved and ended in a T-intersection. I still saw no sale going on anywhere. And there was no sign about any sale anywhere in sight, either.

And now I'm thinking about people so stupid that they literally have great difficulty giving stuff away. I hope there are people looking out for them who realize how special they are.

All Solar All The Time

I have an unusual relationship with the sun. I don't like bright sunlight. This has to do with my autism. Even with me avoiding bright sunshine as much as I can, I still get very tan very quickly. Maybe this is a sign that my body doesn't NEED as much sun as the average body does.

So, I stay out of the sun, and find it unpleasant when I have to be outside on a sunny day -- pretty much the exact opposite of most people. It has been this way my entire life.

But lately a new element has been added: my enthusiasm for solar energy. This enthusiasm, much like the solar-power industry, has just kept rapidly growing and growing over the past few years. But despite the steady growth in solar power, I've been getting steadily more and more frustrated because it isn't growing faster. I see the bright sunlight falling down all around (usually looking out from inside through a window), and all I can think of is how that tremendous amount of energy is being wasted every second, because there aren't solar panels everywhere. You know how in movies sometimes there's a character who knows something very important, and he goes around yelling about it, but nobody understands this very important thing, and so everybody thinks he's crazy? I haven't gotten to the point yet where I go around screaming about solar power all the time. But I've gotten to the point where I can very easily picture myself doing it: "Put the solar panels everywhere! Smash the power of the private utilities! We don't need coal! We don't need it! Aaaarrrghh!"

Except that more and more people would understand exactly what I was talking about, and fewer and fewer would think I was crazy.

Maybe I should do it: just start flipping out and screaming about it in public. Maybe if I do, lots of others will join me.

This is a global issue, as you may have heard, but it's been much easier for me to find statistics on US solar power than on global solar power.

And even the US statistics aren't always entirely clear. For example, I've read that 1.3 rooftops in the US have solar panels, including nearly 400,000 installations in 2016 alone. But are those all residential rooftops, or does that include the rooftops of factories and warehouses and office buildings and restaurants and malls and gas stations and other buildings? And among residential rooftops, how do the logistics of solar for single-family houses compare to those of solar for apartment buildings of various sizes? Not to mention the logistics for non-residential buildings?

There are lots and lots of figures and stats involved here, and in case it isn't already completely obvious: I'm not up to speed yet on all of them. I apologize for being lazy about that even though I understand how important it is to give you the best information I can.

One figure that you see very often is that between 40% and 50% of America's electricity could be generated by solar. Frankly, I don't trust that figure, because I think they're not counting all of the places where solar panels could be put. I know, I know, it's not cost-efficient to put solar panels everywhere, or to completely cover every roof with PV (photovoltaic, light-to-electricity) panels. But let's put 'em everywhere anyway. Let's over-do it.

Plus, the technology is making the PV panels more efficient, and all of the other related technology more effective, such as batteries which keep more power longer. So I think we can go way past 50% of our electricity from solar.

And then there's still wind and geothermal and tidal and so forth.

Also: a lot of the projections about the future of solar power (and other renewable sources of energy) have to do with energy utility policy: utilities could decide to screw people over and minimize the benefits of renewables, legislatures could continue to give big incentives to oil and gas, etc.

In short: politics will have a lot to do with it.

Which means that we the people can grab this issue and make it ours. We can take over all the utilities, and vote for people who will run them for the greatest possible benefit to health and sanity, and pass laws which are friendly to methods of generating power which are friendly to living things. We can do that. In the US, that means: vote Democratic, and in the primaries, vote for the Democrats who're most progressive on energy. Don't throw your votes away by voting Green, because this is much too important. This post attempts to explain to American Green Party voters how it is that they are throwing their votes away while Green Party voters in other countries are not, and what changes we need to make to the US Constitution so that we can vote Green here too without throwing our votes away. The idea of doing away with the Electoral College has gotten very popular, and we should do that. But in addition to that, we can make a lot of other huge improvements in the way our government functions.

Monday, May 29, 2017


What is the evangelischer Kirchentag, which was held a couple of days ago in Berlin, and at which Barack Obama met with Angela Merkel? I don't really know for sure, except that I'm sure we don't have anything exactly like it in the US.

I got the impression from the news that the Kirchentag was pretty laid back in general.

This guy was there, and he does not seem laid back:

His sign reads:

"A warning to all drunks, liars, party animals, drug freaks, adulterers, porn freaks, masturbators, whores, thieves, abortionists, magicians, gossipers, hypocrites, homosexuals, greedy people, idolators, feminists, false Christians, atheists, pagans: Hell awaits you!"

Thanks for the heads-up, Buddy!

Clearly, that sign represents a minority view among Christians today. The thing is, though, for most of the history of Christianity, it was not a minority view, it was mainstream. You could get into a lot of trouble for saying that anything on that list was not going to be punished by an eternity of torment in Hell.

As I've pointed out before on this blog: many Christians today, most of them, have beliefs which are entirely at odds with the beliefs of Christians in earlier eras. Which makes me wonder why they still keep calling themselves Christians.

I'm not upset enough about this to go around waving signs of my own. That would be the New Atheists. In fact, my experiences with New Atheists have made me a lot more tolerant of religious believers. New Atheists have removed all doubt from my mind that whether or not a person has religious beliefs is NOT a reliable indicator of that person's intelligence.

Still, this huge contradiction between the great majority of today's Christians (and adherents of other faiths) and the history of Christianity (and the histories of those other faiths) is -- really quite something.

Someone saw that picture above and remarked that John Paul II said there was no Hell.

John Paul II didn't say that. I'm pretty sure not even Pope Francis has said anything like that yet.

But Christians, a lot of them, busily revise the history of Christianity, rather than deal with the contradictions between their beliefs and the history of their religion. And, again, it's exactly the same with other religions today.

Yes, progressive Christians, I get that you're entirely different than that guy with his hateful sign. And I'm not going to get up all in your faces about the things on that sign, but it's still the very plain truth that THAT is traditional Christianity, and that you guys are making it up as you go and still, for some reason, calling it Christianity.

And I get the reasons, too: There's a Hell of a lot of tradition and inertia here besides all that stuff on the guy's sign, and a lot of good stuff, and billions of people can't be expected to suddenly just dispose of one of the centrals aspects of their lives.

Still. It would be nice to hear more often that this good stuff is based on nonsense. As opposed to refusing to face that the nonsense ever existed, and insisting that none of the stories in the Bible were taken literally before 19th century America, and all of that recent nonsense.

It would be nice.