Sunday, July 31, 2016

“Hilary Clinton Makes History”

This was the title of the NYT editorial celebrating Hilary Clinton’s official nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. According to it, “Mrs. Clinton’s nomination brings women a big step closer to the pinnacle of American politics.” Perhaps. What it does immediately is bring a real outlier closer to the presidency of the United States. The broader effects are yet to be seen – and become a topic of ideological strife. I am still wondering if a human being with “normal” emotional/visceral reactivity can survive the US presidential campaign. Perhaps President Obama is, indeed, the closest we’ll ever get.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

“Will Sanders Supporters Come Around?”

In this piece on the NYT web site, psychologists Yarrow Dunham and David Rand predict a positive outcome. They point to multiple psychological experiments (some with kids) indicating a common “human tendency to forge alliances as the context demands.” In other words, team spirit wins over contingent (and even some deep) divides. Except when it doesn’t – as the mutiny in the French football/soccer team at the 2010 world cup suggests.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"There is no difference between computer art and human art"

This is the title of an Aeon piece by Oliver Roeder, a senior writer for ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight site. His basic argument is that since algorithms are created by humans, the art they generate is human art, too. This could well be a joke, but perhaps isn’t – which would be symptomatic in itself. My first reaction was to say there is a fundamental difference between real art and that produced by an algorithm (no matter how much “creativity” has gone into it). One requires, and evokes, a powerful emotional response; the other doesn’t. On second thought, artists, writers, composers, and others started to work on erasing this difference over a century ago. The cultured elite was initially abhorred, but quickly lost taste in representational art,  rhymed poetry, traditional narrative, tonal music, and the like – and embraced most forms of aesthetically neutral (or worse) art, poetry/writing, music, architecture, etc. This trend has recently been reinforced by the entry of tech billionaites into the prestigious art market. So perhaps we have reached the point where there is no meaningful difference between human and algorithmic artistic output.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Martha Nussbaum’ lessons for a life well lived – and conceptualized

The New Yorker carries a really chilling profile of the esteemed philosopher (“The Philosopher of Feelings”). It makes you think, “is this what it takes to achieve unrivaled success as a thinker and academic?” Also, much recent research has highlighted how much social judgment depends on proper emotional response, including gut feeling. So the article left me wondering about something else – how could someone so hardened, rationalizing, and detached become the preeminent philosophical authority on human emotion? Or perhaps this is a symptom in itself? I would be really curious about Prof. Nussbaum’s reaction to her profile, whatever that might be…

P.S. I keep thinking about this – an extreme, highly "weird" outlier, "monumentally confident" as she formulates universal principles valid for all of humanity? Or is this perhaps  refracted in a non-existing tear drop  the image of most Western social theorizing, despite the obligatory protestations of cultural sensitivity? I guess Prof. Nussbaum deserves all the sympathy she has tried to extend to the less fortunate  looking down from her elevated SES, fabulous apartment, plane windows, etc. In any case, it would be interesting to see some fMRI data for scholars who write about emotions – too bad I can't afford it myself...

Monday, July 18, 2016

Imagine … a digital afterlife!

On The Atlantic web site, neuroscientist Michael Graziano imagines a bright future when individual minds will be routinely uploaded on to some sort of IT hardware (“Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife”). The vision he projects is surprisingly poetic—though not quite in the “machines of loving grace” tradition: “Think about the quantum leap that might occur if instead of preserving words and pictures, we could preserve people’s actual minds for future generations. We could accumulate skill and wisdom like never before. Imagine a future in which your biological life is more like a larval stage. You grow up, learn skills and good judgment along the way, and then are inducted into an indefinite digital existence where you contribute to stability and knowledge.” Of course, Prof. Graziano’s utopia could be another clever hoax meant to provoke silly comments from clever readers. In case it isn’t, it may need to be amended slightly: 1) machine learning could at some point take care of the accumulation of skills and knowledge commonly associated with humans—making the latter superfluous; and 2) the project could work only for individuals like Graziano himself, Ray Kurzweil (whose foresight the neuroscientist praises), the early Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Richard Hendricks, etc.—whose thought processes run along strictly logical/algorithmic lines.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The future is (almost) now?

Ruth Franklin has a great book review in the NYT (“Lionel Shriver Imagines Imminent Economic Collapse, With Cabbage at $20 a Head”). In the novel, American civilization has apparently collapsed under its own weight – ending la dolce vita for the 1%. Here are the last 2 sentences from the review: “‘The line between owners of swank Washington ­townhouses and denizens of his sister-in-law’s Fort Greene shelter was perhaps thinner than he’d previously appreciated,’ Lowell realizes late in the novel. The line separating us from our dystopian future may be equally thin. The curse of Cassandra, after all, was that she told the truth.” The trouble is – I tend to trust people who can write so well…