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I’m counting on Apple to do AI right

An article yesterday at asks “Should Apple Kill Siri and Start Over?” My answer to that would be yes. Siri was (and is) terrible. Siri fell far short of the vision that Apple described in 1987 in the video above, which gets the vision right. Siri was a huge embarrassment for Apple.

I remember watching this video in 1987 at an Apple promotional event, and I’ve never forgotten it. Almost 40 years later, Apple at last is in a position to make the “Knowledge Navigator” a reality.

There’s an important hardware angle here. AI’s need a lot of computing power. AI’s run better on graphics processors than on CPUs. Apple’s M1, M2, and M3 chips are generously supplied with graphics processors. I’m writing this on a 2023 M2 Mac Mini Pro. It has ten CPU cores and sixteen (!) GPU cores. AI’s run very well on Apple’s high-end M2 chips, but it seems that Apple is not going to release M3 models of some of its computers and will skip straight to M4 chips, which are engineered specifically to optimize AI’s.

As for software, we still don’t know much about what Apple is planning. We should hear a lot more at Apple’s annual developers conference, which starts June 10.

It’s interesting that, in its 1987 visionary video, Apple showed its “Knowledge Navigator” being used by a Berkeley professor. Sure, there are plenty of people who would use an AI for sports statistics or investment research. But to really advance human knowledge, we need an AI that has read everything. The best material is behind paywalls — all the daily newspapers, academic papers new and old, new books plus all the older books that have been digitized, and even much of the daily chatter on the web. That’s going to cost a lot of money, but if anyone can figure out how to ethically acquire all that material and pay for it, Apple can.

A major failing of current AI’s is that they don’t attribute anything. My guess is that that’s because the people who are building the currently available AI’s don’t want us to know where they are stealing their training material. But if an AI is to be trusted, and if an AI’s answers are to be suitably weighed for reliability, then the AI must tell us where it got its information with citations and footnotes.

AI development is moving very fast. Acquiring, licensing, and figuring out the economics of the training material is a huge undertaking. Google, my guess is, will try to gouge and steal. Apple, I think, will do a more trustworthy job. In a few years, I expect to have a truly useful Apple AI running on Apple hardware.

At last, a whipporwill

When I was a young’un in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, I often heard whipporwills. But in the 16 years I’ve been living in the Blue Ridge foothills, I had never heard a whipporwill until last night. It was very close — in my front yard, or in the edge of the woods that adjoin the yard. The video is terrible — it was almost dark. But you’ll be able to hear the whipporwill.

A podcast with Ken

Regular readers here will remember Ken, who lived here at the abbey on and off for a number of years and who wrote his books here. He’s featured in a new podcast from The Art of Manliness that I think is brilliant. The podcast is about Ken’s first book, Walden on Wheels.

Podcast #980: Walden on Wheels — A Man, a Debt, and an American Adventure

Down the rabbit hole

Consciousness and Quantum Mechanics. Edited by Shan Gho. Oxford University Press, 2022. 520 pages.

First, a disclaimer. I am by no means qualified to review a book like this. The book is a mix of theoretical physics and the philosophy of physics. Theoretical physics goes way over my head, though I do think I can glimpse the gist of it. The philosophy of physics, though expressed in dense language, is not as dependent on mathematics and differential equations as theoretical physics. A patient and persistent reader can pretty much make sense of the philosophy of physics.

I read books like this even though I cannot completely understand them. I am more than satisfied to settle for understanding as much of it as I can understand. During the past forty years, there have been many excellent books written by scientists for ordinary people, because those scientists wanted as many people as possible to know where science, particularly physics, is headed. I often refer to Roger Penrose as my favorite physicist. He has written several such books. However, in the last ten years or so, as far as I can tell, there have been fewer such books. Thus, if we’re looking for an update on what has been happening in contemporary physics, we need to listen in on what physicists are saying to each other, and then try to follow that as best we can.

This book is a collection of seventeen papers by different authors. The papers cover the leading theories for understanding “the measurement problem,” which seems to involve conscious observers of how tiny particles behave. I won’t try to define the measurement problem here other than linking to the Wikipedia articles on the measurement problem and Schrödinger’s cat. If physicists can solve the measurement problem, that would resolve some profound questions about just what sort of universe we live in.

The thing is, all the theories pretty much go down a rabbit hole. That is not surprising, because what scientists observe in quantum behavior is so strange (think Schrödinger’s cat). It has been almost 90 years since the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment was proposed, and we still don’t know what’s going on.

Another disclaimer: Many physicists find the ghostliness of some of the theories repugnant. Not me! The more ghosts the better. I’m rooting for the ghosts.

Here’s an example of the distaste for ghosts, in this book’s chapter written by Michael Silberstein and W.M. Stuckey. They are writing about the mysterious nature of matter at the quantum level:

“Rather, panpsychism only makes matter weirder and seemingly less natural. It’s like learning that there are fairies in the world, but then being told to relax because we have decided they are just brute features of fundamental physics.”

Relax? OK. Some philosophers don’t like fairies. But we still don’t know whether there are fairies lurking in fundamental physics. Whatever Silberstein and Stuckey may think, I find the idea of fairies comforting rather than threatening.

One thing I get from this book is that the leading theories all seem to involve some version of panpsychism, the idea that the universe is conscious on some level. Roger Penrose’s theory, my favorite theory, is a panpsychist theory, though it regards objects such as electrons as “proto conscious” — not really conscious but capable of consciousness if organized into a larger unit and somehow “orchestrated,” which is what Penrose and Stuart Hameroff think happens inside the brain to generate consciousness. Nor is Penrose’s invocation of a Platonic domain without theoretical grounding in quantum mechanics. Before a “wave function” “collapses” because it has been observed or measured, it exists as a wide range of uncertainties that have a wide range of probabilities. After the wave function collapses, it is in, and stays in, a known and fixed state, or “eigenstate.” The theory is that certain possible states, ideal states, are favored by the probabilities — hence Platonic. Or, to say it a little differently, there may be natural probabilities that dispose nature to unfold toward ideal Platonic states. Thus, if there exists a Platonic bias in the structure of the universe, we get beauty of form, and we conscious creatures can perceive and work to realize the ideals of the true and the good, the just and the fair.

Some of the theories described in this book are as repugnant to me as fairies are to some people. One such theory is the “many worlds” theory. Many people take the many-worlds theory seriously, though to me it seems to be a ridiculous way of disposing of the measurement problem.

One theory described in this book is a somewhat modified version of the Penrose-Hameroff theory of “orchestrated objective reduction,” a theory that I have been trying to follow for years. The Penrose-Hameroff theory is mentioned in a number of the chapters, and always with respect. Penrose wrote Chapter 13 of this book, and Stuart Hameroff wrote Chapter 14.

The book makes no such judgment, but I might say that Penrose-Hameroff are out ahead with the most plausible — and, to me — the most attractive theory. It’s also the only theory that takes us into the brain and proposes a testable, falsifiable theory on how consciousness arises in the brain. Thus I don’t feel like I am out on a limb in having Penrose-Hameroff as my favorite theory, only because it appeals to me on aesthetic and intuitive rather than scientific grounds, where I am hardly qualified. I want a Platonic universe that is filled with ghosts (and fairies!), and it is entirely possible that we do live in a Platonic universe that is filled with ghosts and fairies. There would be an actual arc of justice in a Platonic universe, because of physics’ influence on nature and consciousness, disposing nature and consciousness toward Platonic ideals.

But we still don’t know.

Remember Madras?

I can’t remember what made me think about Madras shirts last week. It might have been because we were having uncommonly hot weather for early spring, and that started me thinking about whether I needed new warm-weather shirts. I’ve made a bad habit of buying Harris tweed jackets on eBay, so of course I went on eBay and searched for Madras shirts.

There were quite a few. Most of them seemed to have been made by Ralph Lauren. They were surprisingly inexpensive, which made me think that, unlike well made Harris tweed jackets, which can be pretty dear, nobody wants Madras shirts anymore.

Well, too bad for them, then, because I’ll wear them. When I was in junior high school (think 1963), Madras shirts were a major thing and a status symbol. I don’t think I had one until high school, when I bought a Madras shirt with my own money, which I had earned from my weekend job as a newspaper copy boy. It was mostly yellow, as I recall, with a lot of narrow deep red lines, and maybe some blue or green.

The shirt I’m wearing in the photo actually is 100 percent linen, which makes me think that it’s not authentic made-in-India Madras. Madras was always made from cotton, as far as I know. But it seems that the history of Madras is as long as the history of Harris tweed. Originally, Madras cloth was loomed by hand, by workers in India. Unsurprisingly, there also is some sort of British colonial connection, including a particular connection with Scotland.

Go figure. But my new thinking is that Madras shirts are to hot weather as Harris tweed jackets are to cold weather. And suddenly I’m afraid that I’m at risk of starting a collection. They are outrageously comfortable, though, and much cheaper on eBay than any decent shirt bought new.

The Taste of Things

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel

I have some complaints about the plot of “The Taste of Things,” but the plot really isn’t the point. The point is the food and what happens in the kitchen and at the table. The amazingly beautiful food in this film makes me feel like a complete slob in the kitchen.

Did anyone really cook and eat like that in the 19th Century? Was anyone in the 19th Century really that far ahead of us in presentation? I tend to doubt it. But the point, I think, has to do with the deep roots of high cuisine, what we owe to the French, and the importance of having a garden just outside the kitchen door.

This film was released in U.S. theaters earlier this year. It’s now available for rent or purchase on Apple TV and Amazon Prime. I actually bought it rather than renting it. There are a great many things happening in the kitchen that move a little too fast to properly study. I’ll want to review the kitchen work. The film opens with Juliette Binoche in the garden harvesting celeriac. The kitchen work moved too fast for me to see whether the celeriac reappears in the kitchen, but, if it does, I’m very curious about celeriac.

Sooner or later you’re going to be asked whether you’ve seen this film. You want to be able to say yes.

Russia’s strategy

The Kremlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian. Her daily newsletters are a must-read every day, in my opinion. But today’s newsletter is a must-must-must read. Its subject is Russian disinformation, to which we are far more exposed than we usually realize.

Richardson writes:

“This means that the strategy that matters most for the Kremlin is not the military strategy, but rather the spread of disinformation that causes the West to back away and allow Russia to win. That disinformation operation echoes the Russian practice of getting a population to believe in a false reality so that voters will cast their ballots for the party of oligarchs. In this case, in addition to seeding the idea that Ukraine cannot win and that the Russian invasion was justified, the Kremlin is exploiting divisions already roiling U.S. politics.”

She is referring to a rather long piece posted on March 27 by the Institute for the Study of War, “Denying Russia’s Only Strategy for Success.” This piece, too, is a must-read. It’s not just about Russia and Ukraine. It’s about the sea of propaganda in which we all are immersed: “The Russian strategy that matters most, therefore, is not Moscow’s warfighting strategy, but rather the Kremlin’s strategy to cause us to see the world as it wishes us to see it and make decisions in that Kremlin-generated alternative reality that will allow Russia to win in the real world.”

We might ask: But what about the Institute for the Study of War? It’s an American think tank. According to the Wikipedia article, it’s funded mostly with corporate money. It claims to be nonpartisan. Is there any reason why we — as Heather Cox Richardson clearly does — should have more confidence in the output of the Institute for the Study of War (which Russia would say is American propaganda) than in the Kremlin’s output?

I have two friends, one of them American and one of them Danish, who take Russia’s side on Ukraine. I believe that they’re deceived by Russian propaganda. They believe that I’m deceived by American propaganda. But even if, for the sake of argument, we were to suppose that Russia’s case and the Western case are equally valid, there are still very rational reasons why I, as an American, should choose the Western case.

I’m an American citizen. I am subject to American, rather than Russian, law. If I ever get entangled with a court, whether as a plaintiff or as a defendant, that will be an American court, not a Russian court. In my working years, I made my living in the United States, and now that I’m retired my income depends on the American economy, not the Russian economy. When I was 19 years old, I was subject to being drafted into the American, not the Russian, army. I have an American passport, not a Russian passport. If World War III should start in my lifetime, I will need to count on American defenses for my survival, not Russian defenses.

Not by any means does this mean that I think that Putin is just as likely to be right about Ukraine — or about anything, really — as those of us in the West. Even if Putin’s perspective were saintly and golden, as an American it would still be rational for me to prefer American interests. Yes, as my American friend and my Danish friend like to remind me, the United States has made terrible mistakes. I certainly don’t deny that, and I even would claim that, as a liberal, my conscience has been cleaner, and my sight clearer, than the opposition’s when America has been wrong. Fortunately, though, it seems pretty clear in this particular case that the West can make arguments that are more sound and more just, and that it’s Russia that is trying to deceive us.

The post-truth era indeed

AI image by DALL-E 3

Google for the term “post-truth era” and you’ll find a great many hits, many of them in the most august of publications. For example, just a couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic ran a piece with the headline “We’re already living in the post-truth era.” This morning, in a review of an HBO documentary about Alex Jones, the Washington Post writes “A new HBO documentary about the right-wing conspiracy theorist behind Infowars explores the mainstreaming of ‘grift’ in a post-truth era.”

The irony is that, even as the mainstream media write about the post-truth era as though they had nothing to do with it, they deny their own ongoing guilt — providing an unlimited amount of space and air time for the repetition of disinformation, as though intentional disinformation is just another side of the story and something to be taken seriously. And thanks, of course, for all the hits and ratings.

It’s encouraging that there does seem to be some limit on how far media people are willing to go. Executives at NBC News must have been surprised at the blowback over their hiring of the Republican disinformation agent Ronna McDaniel as an “analyst.” Even Chuck Todd, who was notorious for allowing Meet the Press to be used as a platform for the unchallenged dispensing of right-wing disinformation, suddenly acknowledges that McDaniel has been gaslighting us.

But even if the blowback causes Ronna McDaniel to lose her sinecure at NBC News (it was reported that she’s getting a retainer of $300,000 a year), we’re still all on our own in a post-truth era.

It’s nothing new that NBC News provides a platform for right-wing gaslighting. What’s new is that with Ronna McDaniel they made it so brazenly obvious.

Television and cable news are a zone where it’s not safe to go without gas masks for protection from the gaslighting. Even those print publications with the most respected of names allow themselves to be used by people with agendas, agendas that are often disguised. For example, The Atlantic regularly prints articles by people who have accepted money from the Koch network, and The Atlantic even has Koch people on its staff. We mustn’t forget that the new publisher of the Washington Post used to work for Rupert Murdoch. We learned a great deal about the New York Times after James Bennet was forced out as editorial page editor. Members of the Koch network spilled a lot of ink about that. Their version of the story was that a bunch of young new “woke” members of the New York Times staff were intolerant of conservative voices on the editorial page. I see it differently. It’s that those young “woke” members of the New York Times staff haven’t normalized, as so many older journalists have, providing a free platform for right-wing disinformation and gaslighting. Conservative voices are one thing (Liz Cheney, for example), but intentional disinformation is something else.

The New Republic, in a blurb this morning about a new podcast, writes, “The revolt among NBC personalities is extraordinary — and could force a real debate about all the ways the media enables Donald Trump and MAGA.”

I wish I could be that optimistic. Even after Trump is in prison, I’m afraid the media will look for ways to keep the MAGA bonanza (of hits and ratings) alive.

Update: This evening, NBC News announced that they have reversed their decision, and NBC won’t be taking on Ronna McDaniel after all. Now we will get to see whether the mainstream media and its pundits can explain and defend the principles that justify its existence.

Ronna McDaniel. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Feðgar á ferð

Click here for high resolution version.

The Old Man and His Sons. (In the Faroese edition, the title is Feðgar á ferð.) By Heðin Brú. Published in Faroese, 1940. English translation by John F. West, 1970.

I got from this book just what I hoped to get — an impression of life in the Faroe Islands before the modern era. Given that the novel was published in 1940, I would assume that the novel’s period would be the 1930s.

Ketil and his wife are old, old-fashioned, and very poor. They live in a cottage with a turf roof. Their chickens roost on the ceiling beams at night, and the cow lives on the other side of the wall. In their fireplace they burn peat. They don’t like eating with forks. When the weather is bad, they stay in by the fire to spin wool and knit sweaters to sell. They have grown sons, all of them married and living nearby, and all of whom want a more modern and more comfortable way of life.

There is not much plot in this novel, and no doubt that’s how it should be. The range of experience available to a Faroese villager born around 1865 is not going to be very great. Village life is everything. People look out for each other, but they also gossip and condemn. A cow, an old boat for fishing, and a place to grow potatoes are enough to subsist on. Money is hard to come by. One is always aware of the sea and the weather.

The book includes an excellent introduction by the translator, John F. West. The introduction includes a brief history of the Faroe Islands and a somewhat more detailed history of Faroese literature. West writes:

“The reader may well ask how it happens that a miniature nation of 38,000 people [now about 55,000] manages to throw up such a wealth of literary talent. It is a result, I think, of the vivid sensation of community membership that a citizen of such a small nation inevitably feels. Anyone with talent tends to shoulder his artistic responsbility, whereas in a larger community, many a potential author is prepared to leave it to the other fellow.”

In other words, in such a small nation, nothing can be wasted, including people and their talents.

The bleak island beauty of the Faroe Islands, and its location in the wild North Atlantic, appeal to me. I have a fantasy of visiting there someday. But the food! I suspect that the Faroese diet can’t have changed all that much. The only crops mentioned in the novel are potatoes and barley. Everything else comes from the sea, or from the sheep, or from the cow. Today there are regular ferries to the Faroe Islands from northern Denmark, but Denmark does not have the best soil (or the best cuisine) in the world. I will not be looking for a Faroese cookbook.

3 Body Problem

Last night I watched the first episode of Netflix’s new “3 Body Problem.” It looks very promising. It’s smart and complicated, and it focuses on dialogue and drama rather than action.

The series is based on a book by the Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. The Netflix project was done by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who produced “Game of Thrones” for television.

My only complaint is that some of the dialogue sounds mumbled and muddy, which makes it tempting to turn on subtitles.

By the way: The three-body problem has to do with the physics of predicting the motions of a group of three masses in space (such as stars). When only two masses are orbiting each other, their motion is easy to predict. When there are three (or more), it’s almost chaos. This idea is introduced in the first episode of the Netflix series, but how it relates to the plot is still a mystery.