Archive for February, 2006

I refuse to use the word b–g from now on

Not to onanistically discourse too much about the very medium that I am using to inflict my thoughts on you all, but this article interested me for partaking of the category of “people writting resentfully in response to technological developments that represent a perceived threat to the economic viability of their profession” pieces. Basically, a guy at the The Financial Times lashes out at “the blogosphere” (God I hate that word), which he perceives as completely over-hyped both in terms of economic viability and journalistic potential. But it seems to me that he’s taking a very narrow-minded view of what blogs are or can be. He seems to think that they stand or fall insofar as they represent a profitable alternative press or fail to do so.

I mean, sure he’s a journalist so that’s what is important to him, but are blogs really only valuable as profit-making journalism? Basically, to me all they mean is that the entry costs to publication have been lowered to virtually nothing. With very little effort you can make your thoughts available to everyone with Internet access, at least in theory (unless you live in China). When he writes: “yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence,” he’s pretty much setting up a straw man. The only people I know that actually come close to this caricature are the big mainstream political bloggers, and even they tend to follow much more idiosyncratic, irregular schedules than the newspapers. For most people, the very economic marginality of bloggers means that they are free from any particular obligations as far as posting goes. To use a personal example, I (and my brother, as far as I know) don’t make any money from this site, and I know only a few people are reading it anyway, so I can write about whatever the hell I want to. And even if I were trying to make the site economically viable, I would be pretty stupid to “yoke” myself “to the unending cycle of news,” because I know tons of blogs are doing that more diligently anyway, to say nothing of the mainstream media. It’s the newspapers and the money-making press that is “yoked…to the unending cycle of news.” So the writer is pretty much just imposing the newspaper model on blogs, as if we all took as our motto “all the news that’s fit to print” like the New York Times. I personally couldn’t give a shit about the news; the only task I take for myself is cultivating a coherent worldview. Whether or not blog postings tend to be verbally diarrhetic and lacking in structure, it’s not the fault of the technology, which after all could just as well accomodate A la recherche du temps perdu as the ravings of Arianna Huffington.

What does that mean, exactly?

Shani Davis

After showing the (wildly tape-delayed) footage of Shani Davis winning the 1000m in the Olympics, the bobbleheads on NBC mentioned a couple of times that he was the “first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics”. Okay, interesting, especially after Bryant Gumbel’s comments, but what does it mean, exactly? As everybody knows, “African-American” is the standard media euphemism for “black”, so I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out if NBC was trying to tell me that Davis is the first black American to win an individual medal or whether they might have actually meant that he was the first black person, regardless of nationality, to win an individual medal (I immediately discounted the possibility that they meant he was the first American of African ancestry, regardless of race, to have won an individual medal; white people from Kenya and Arabs from Egypt never get called African-Americans, even when they are).

When I whipped over to later, I assumed the headlines in the above screencap were the answer to my question: certainly ESPN appears to be claiming he’s the first black person, period, to win individual glory. But the article linked from the “first black” head only talks about black Americans; it makes no mention of other nationalities.

If you believe Knight Ridder, Davis is, in fact, the first black athlete to win individual gold at the Winter Olympics. Which means that NBC, ESPN and various other media outlets we’re sure to hear from in the next few days are so ingrained in their habit of using “African-American” to mean “black” that they are implicitly denying the existence of the hundreds of millions of non-American black people around the world.

One can only imagine that this is exactly what Malcolm X was hoping for when he introduced the term.

If I know Chinese does that make me conscious?

“Of course, the failure to pass the Turing Test is an empirical fact, which could in principle be reversed tomorrow; what counts more heavily is that it is becoming clear to more and more observers that even if it were to be realized, its success would not signify what Turing and his followers assumed: even giving plausible answers to an interrogator’s questions does not prove the presence of active intelligence in the device through which the answers are channeled.”

It is fairly evident that Mark Halpern takes a low view of the proponents of “strong AI,” the idea that machines can actually be created which will be functionally indistinguishable from human minds. The above passage is the summation of his argument that not only have programmers manifestly failed to create any computer remotely close to passing the so-called “Turing Test,” but that even passing that test would be insufficient to demonstrate the possession of “active intelligence” on the part of the machine. The “Turing Test” was basically the claim by Alan Turing that scientists would have succeeded in creating artificial intelligence if, in responding to a set of questions, the interlocutor was unable to distinguish the responses of a machine from those of a human. Halpern gives several examples of incompetent judges who are unable to distinguish the real hallmarks of intelligence in conversation when placed in a position to interview machines.

He concludes that these failed tests basically confirm the “Chinese room” argument of John Searle. Searle presented a situation in which a man locked inside room was fed questions written in Chinese. The man, not knowing Chinese but having a lexicon of set responses to the questions posed to him, is able to provide intelligent responses to the questions without actually knowing what he is saying or what is being asked of him. This seems to offer strong logical evidence that a test of the sort proposed by Turing is quite inadequate to determine the existence of intelligence or consciousness.

Of course, almost any test where input can be anticipated and output “pre-programmed” is liable to this vulnerability. It is only by witnessing the continuous presence of apparently intelligent behavior, consistent through a variety of new and unanticipated scenarios, that the presence of intelligence can be inferred. I object, on the other hand, to the way in which Searle elsewhere uses his thought experiment to imply that the existence of consciousness can never be inferred from external signals, that its essence consists of the presence of the “qualitas” of perception, the experience of perception which is only accessible to the perceiver. But of course in that case the presence of conscious intelligence could never be inferred, for a conscious individual can only vouch for his own awareness, since he can only perceive his own qualitas. Needless to say, this is a very solipsistic conclusion, and even if it is metaphysically correct, it is not a useful basis for any potential interactions with other conscious entities. As David Hume has taught us all, in some strict sense all inferences are unjustified, but we don’t really have any choice at our disposal, and the “Chinese room” is only valid to the extent that it holds evaluation of artificial intelligences to the same standard as human intelligence, not by subjecting them both to unreasoanble skepticism.

The herd of well-dressed lemmings

This article about wiretapping is worthwhile, if only for the point it makes at the end about how Europeans both mistrust corporations and trust governments much more than Americans. As cultural generalizations go, in my experience that is pretty much true, and I admit that it is perhaps the one aspect of European culture that most baffles me. Most Europeans really seem to regard their governments as fair, impartial arbiters removed from the tawdry self-interest of corporations and individuals, rather than just another participant in the competition for resources, and the one that is uniquely enshrined with coercive powers in a society to boot. I don’t think I will ever understand the fear of corporations, who may be pretty ruthless but, in the end, cannot force one to do anything (except by means of governmental corruption), whereas the entity that can lock up anyone at any time is trusted. But it’s impossible to understand European social views without taking into account this difference in outlook and values.

So just to clarify…

“The Danish government needs to make a more formal apology, in acknowledgment that freedom of expression does not mean people are free to insult prophets.” —Egyptian MP Hamdi Hassan of the Muslim Brotherhood