Sunday, November 11, 2018


Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder reflects a little on a list she found of the way some machines that "learn" don't necessarily do so in a way that we might appreciate.

Among the unforeseen consequences: When hooking a type of learning processor called a "neural net" to a Roomba automatic vacuum in order to increase its speed by limiting bumper contacts (those are when the Roomba bumps into something, backs up, and starts off again in a new direction). So the Roomba learned to drive backwards, since it doesn't have bumpers on the back. Not really any faster and perhaps a little wearing on the device's housing, since it will still bump into things.

Another person set up a neural net that will "reward" a self-driving car that it is able to drive faster. So the net began driving the car around in small but speedy circles.

Perhaps a good thing to remember if we want to understand what it might mean to literally take things "literally,"

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Original Meaning

Today we remember Nov. 11 as Veterans's Day, set aside to honor men and women who have worn our nation's uniform in peacetime and war, and what they sacrificed on behalf of their fellows and their country.

Originally, of course, Nov. 11 was Armistice Day. A century ago as I write this, thousands of soldiers were just a few hours away from learning they might very well live to see Christmas and return home to their families. Today they are all gone, mostly seen in grainy photos or perhaps remembered as grandfathers by those who are grandfathers today.

But still they were here, and they offered much, even all, for a cause they were told was right and for each other. So when we say thanks to the service men and women still among us now, we might offer one as well for those of another era. A century may have thinned the memory and immediacy of their offering, but it mattered much to them at their time. And perhaps if we do so we can guide those in November of 2118 as they look back to our day.

Friday, November 9, 2018


In this recent Existential Comics, St. Augustine discovers that even the strongest spirit can have its weaknesses.

And they were delicious.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Speaking Out

Recently, the AbeBooks site, which sells used and antiquarian (AKA expensive used) books as a subsidiary of Amazon, said it was going to cut off sales to five countries entirely: the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, South Korea and Russia. Although little information ever came out, the company said it had to do with payment processing.

That didn't sit well with about 600 booksellers in 27 countries, who pulled their inventories from the website for a couple of days to get their point across. They did, and it seems that AbeBooks will not drop those countries from their roles at the end of the month as previously planned.

Stories on the matter say that the real problem was a lack of transparency in the decision. Without a clear reason why those nations presented a problem for the company, other sellers felt that they had no protection against being suddenly and mysteriously dropped themselves.

We'll have to see what happens eventually, but this has been an interesting exercise in watching some purveyors of a more old-fashioned product guide the behavior of one of the most modern sectors of today's economy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Sounds Like a Plan

According to a recent study, growing up in a house with a lot of books is good for you.

I've got the house with books part down. I'm still working on the other bit.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Voting With a Purpose!

Ah, Election Day! A day in which we ordinary citizens engage in a privilege secured for us by people who fought long ago, and kept safe for us by others who have fought in the meantime and who stand ready to do so today. It is an important day for people who live in a republican democracy, as we elect our officials and speak out on some issues directly before us.

We're often told that our participation in voting sends a message. Different people suggest different messages and different audiences.

To people of other nations, perhaps new to the idea of actual citizen participation in government, we send a message that shows how this is supposed to work: People make their choices, the ballots are totaled, and those who win the election take office while those who leave office do so peacefully and with at least some good will for their successors.

To younger people of our own nation, we send a message that shows how citizenship brings with it some responsibilities along with the privileges we like to enjoy. Speaking out may be important and sharing opinions may be important, but the actual casting of a ballot is the only action with guaranteed results -- even if we don't care for the results that come from the ballots all those other people cast.

To dictators who rule with iron fists out of fear that their own people might depose them if given the chance, we say, you are right to fear. With the snap of a counting machine long-standing personal empires of power and privilege disappear as people do that most human of things: change their minds. The ballot box ignores seniority in office, committee chair positions, businesses and people who owe someone a favor and everything else in the face of simple math: 50 percent plus one means hasta la vista, baby.

But most important of all as I consider it is the message our voting sends to the office holders and candidates whose names are on the ballots. The people who have sapped our phone minutes with robocalls. The people who have stuffed our mailboxes with campaign literature that used to be beautiful trees. The people whose television, radio and online ads filled every available nook and crevice like a foul sludge. The people who told us that they embodied all of the best of the wisdom of the great founders of our nation almost as though they were those very founders raised again to walk the earth. The people who told us that although they were not here to go negative, they did feel it was important to ask why their opponents could produce no evidence that they never played foosball with the bleached skulls of shelter puppies.

And the message we send to half of them is this: Leave us alone, and go get a job. To the other half we say: Leave us alone, and get back to work. After some six months or more of listening to them, we are finally able to make them listen to us, and it is a wonderful feeling indeed.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What You See

It's been a long day, so I leave you with a simple link to some trippy illusions at Nautilus.