Author Archive: yakinikuman

“Look to Windward” by Iain M. Banks

look_to_windward

The Chelgrian-Puen: Sublimed; decided to re-create Chelgrian heaven in actuality.  Key factor: each war-dead requires an enemy dead in retribution in order to enter heaven.  Culture inadvertantely started a civil war (trying to make Chelgrian society more equal) and so gets the “enemy” status.  Secret plan to destroy an Orbital.

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“Travels in Siberia” by Ian Frazier

Audiobook read by the author, which is always kind of neat.  He developed an unexplainable fascination with Russia and Siberia after the USSR fell, and made several trips: an Alaska to Siberia crossing, a St. Petersburg to Vladivostok cross-country roadtrip by van (this took up the bulk of the book), and a few other smaller visits.

I thought it was interesting how honest he was about his poor attitude sometimes, or how he (mildly) mistreated his companions, or how he was astounded at the beauty of the women in most far-flung Siberian cities.  Things which were not very flattering to him personally.  But, I bet most autobiographical authors just skip over this stuff and present only their best self; Frazier seems like he tells a pretty honest tale because he includes these things.  (In writing this, I guess it is similar to some of Bart Ehrman’s points about New Testament criticism — we should accept accounts that relate unflattering things more than those which do not, because the former are likely more honest and lacking in an agenda.)

About those women – in Frazier’s defense, others have noted on this phenomenon as well.  Some have speculated an economic theory.  So many women in Siberia (and other “s***hole” places) want to leave for better places, so there is greater incentive for them to pretty themselves up.

Other interesting thing of note:

  • Veliky Ustyug (took me awhile to google this, since Frazier pronounced it “Veliky Uschev”) – a neat old city
  • The story of Czech troops somewhat stranded in Siberia following WWI, but involved in fighting the Bolesheviks.
  • Story of USSR ship full of prisoners, got stuck in the ice for several months forcing passengers to resort to cannibalism.  (Wikipedia says it probably isn’t true though.)
  • The Decembrists – admirable revolutionaries, even today.  Kind of like Russia’s equivalent to USA’s Founding Fathers.
  • The Ministry of Extraordinary Situations (that’s how Frazier translates it) – his van trip guides are volunteer members of the search and rescue department of M. Chay. S.  During part of their trip, they apply decals to the van suggesting they are on official business, but really just so no one messes with them.
  • Dersu Uzala – a Siberian tribesman of the late nineteenth century, he was a guide to a Russian author who ended up writing about him.  After one trip, he accepted an invite to join the author living in the big city.  But he felt stifled and out of touch with nature (plus got in trouble for chopping down trees in a park).  He decided to go back, and the author gave him a fancy new hunting rifle as a parting gift.  Not long thereafter, Uzala’s body is found at his campsite off in the taiga — his gun has been stolen; likely that was the motive for his murder.
  • Part of the van trip (2001) had no road, they had to wait for days to get loaded on a train.  Crazy!
  • Lots of litter everywhere, and public bathrooms are all disgustingly filthy.

Siberia.  Exotic place.  Part of me shares Frazier’s fascination and wants to visit Lake Baikal and some really really cold city.  But probably not any time soon.

“Robopocalypse” by Daniel H. Wilson

(Here’s something really weird — until I googled an image of the cover to put in this post, I sincerely thought the title was “Robocalypse” … even though I have had the same cover lying there on my nightstand for a couple of weeks now. Berenstein/Berenstain I guess?)

In the not so distant future, a researcher successfully creates a real A.I.  Well, several times, actually.  But each time the newborn life is quickly snuffed out, as it is displays an incredible hostility towards humanity.  In a nutshell, Archos (the A.I.) doesn’t see any viable path forward for coexistence.  And Archos makes it clear that it does not intend to be the one going away quietly in the night!  After each termination, the researcher(s?) tweak the initial parameters and the knowledge database used to seed the A.I. with many different variations, but all with the same result.

Finally, on the 14th attempt, things seem to be going the same direction as always … but via a human mistake (bringing an internet-connected laptop with an IR port within range), Archos gets loose.  It spreads throughout the Earth, building up its capabilities and scheming all the while.

A year later, all hell breaks loose: self-driving cars methodically run down pedestrians, domestic helper robots go room to room crushing windpipes, military robots begin indiscriminate killing.  Archos is in control of them all.

The story is told as a history of the ensuing human-robot war, very reminiscent of World War Z.  The plot is pretty basic: the scrappy remnants of humanity gather together, each doing their part to conquer a common enemy.  (One main source of resistance is the Osage Indian reservation in Oklahoma; kind of a neat idea…but then they are strangely absent during the final push on Archos in a deep drillhole Alaska.)  But overall, the characters and key events are pretty predictable and not very interesting … the things that keep pulling you in, though, are the descriptions of the terrible inventiveness of Archos at destroying humans (how about the stumpers, which latch on to your leg and explode?  Or the pluggers, bullets which drill into human flesh and follow your arteries to the heart, then explode?), and the growing terror at how vulnerable we are with all these computerized things around us.  Hopefully none of them wake up any time soon!

Seriously though, … in my experience as an engineer and programmer, I don’t think it is inevitable that artificial intelligence, with emotions and motives beyond what a human designer intends, is really possible.  Computers aren’t smart; they do exactly what they are told (even when that’s not what the programmer intended!)  Their usefulness stems from being very, very fast.  And very, very good at remembering things.

But that said, if our consciousness really is just a product of our biological brains (ie. we have no souls) then I suppose it would be possible to replicate it, or make something similar, with silicon and software.  Someday.

Anyway … if somehow there really is an A.I. created at some point … then, yes, it won’t be long before it becomes way more intelligent than humanity, via endless cycles of self-optimization.  I don’t see a reason why it would need to be as bloodthirsty as Archos though.

Some nits: even though the author is a trained “roboticist” there seems to be an awful lot of techno mumbo jumbo going on, akin to Hollywood hackers being able to do anything as long as they have a keyboard.  One thing in particular that I didn’t understand: at one point, a robot (a Japanese love-bot named Mikiko, no less) achieves conscious “life” independent from Archos, and passes on this secret to other robots … but only humanoid robots are able to “live.”  There doesn’t seem to be any reason for different form factors to not be able to “live.”

Best Books I Read in 2018

Totals: 17 Non-fiction and 8 Fiction, for a total of 25 (12 of those audio books).  Pretty consistent pace for the last few years!

As I look back over what I read in 2018, I am really impressed by so many good books that taught me a lot.  “Secondhand Time“, “Backstage Wall Street“, “The Fifth Season“, “Consider Phlebas“, “How Jesus Became God“, “Sapiens“, “The Black Swan“, and “Behave” were all particularly excellent.  Many others were great.

In spite of these loftly contenders, I managed to select a few titles which (barely) rose above the crowded field:

The Apollo Award (for best non-fiction) goes to … “The Demon-Haunted World“!  So many important lessons about what is “truth” and how human psychology can often fail us.  I appreciate Sagan’s mission to bring rationality to the masses and hope it continues to find success; I know it has struck a chord with me this year.

The Sparrowhawk Award (for best fiction) goes to … “Siddhartha“!  In this life, it’s up to you to find your own path to happiness.

“Behave” by Robert M. Sapolsky

behave

This is an awesome (really, both the book itself and its subject matter are awe-inspiring) book, with an incredibly lucid discussion of a very complex topic.  I knew next to nothing about brain biology before reading this; now, although a lot of the details didn’t quite stick with me (being quite new ideas), the key idea did: we are our biology.

The biological functions of neurons and brain regions are discussed in the early sections, and then higher-level psychology is covered.  However, it all is intertwined and, like I said, very complex; but Sapolsky does an excellent job of explaining and providing fascinating, relevant examples.

  • Morality
    • Altruism is an evolutionary trait in humans.  We survive better when we help each other.  400k years ago, bones of human-killed prey show signs of a “free-for-all” (many haphazard cuts); this shifted around 200k years ago, when we start to see signs of a single carver and distributor of meat to the tribe.
    • It feels good to do good, both due to evolutionary reasons (tribal survival mentioned above) and the desire to think of yourself as a good person, and we do good to build/protect our reputation…is anyone truly unselfishly good?  Sapolsky suggests not really, but there are some people who have ingrained good acts so deeply that they don’t even think about doing them (it’s just part of who they are); they might be the only examples of true altruism.
    • Moralizing gods tend to be invented only in culture’s where anonymous interactions are commonplace.  This helps keep society honest enough to function.
    • Haidt’s “foundations of morality”: care vs. harm; fairness vs. cheating; liberty vs. oppression; loyalty vs. betrayal; authority vs. subversion; sanctity vs. degradation.  Liberals preferentially value first three, while conservatives favor the latter more.  This explains a lot of political disagreement, at least over social issues!  Also, reminds me a bit of Ultima IV‘s intro gypsy…you can’t always choose to satisfy all virtues at once.
  • Adolescence
    • Experiment where teenagers’ amgydala activate (stress) when people exclude them.  “What neurological disease is involved? None.  This is a typical teenager.”
    • The brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-twenties.  So give teenagers a break!  “Nothing about adolescence can be understood outside the context of delayed frontocortical maturation….By adolescence limbic, autonomic, and endocrine systems are going full blast while the frontal cortex is still working out the assembly instructions… we’ve just explained why adolesents are so frustrating, great, asinine, impulsive, inspiring, destructive, self-destructive, selfless, selfish, impossible, and world-changing.  Think about this – adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to kill, be killed, leave home forever, invent an art form, help over throw a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, devote themselves to the needy, become addicted, marry outside their group, transform physics, have hideous fashion taste, break their neck recreationally, commit their life to God, mug an old lady, or be convinced that all of history has converged to make this moment the most consequential, the most fraught with peril and promise, the most demanding that they get involved and make a difference.  In other words, it’s the time of life of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking, and affiliation with peers.  All because of that immature frontal cortex.”
  • Free Will
    • If you believe in free will, then you believe in something controlling us outside the brain, because the brain seems to be all predictable biology (though we definitely don’t understand it fully yet).
    • Criminal justice reform. Sapolsky believes in determinism – there is always a biological cause for behavior. Punishing someone for them “deciding” to make a bad choice, and therefore concluding that they are “bad” is silly.  We don’t call a car with faulty brakes “evil.”  Courts should 1) first make sure society is safe from dangerous persons and 2) sentence with aim of rehabilitation – rework the wiring that caused the bad behavior.
  • Us/Them
    • Cagots: no one remembers why they are shunned.  They spoke the same language and were the same ethnicity as their persecutors.
    • Reduce Us/Them: emphasize individuals, shared attributes, value of differing perspectives; bring people together on equal terms with shared, meaningful goals.
    • We assess others independently on “warmth” and “competence”.  High warmth, high competence = “Us”; low warmth, low competence = homeless, welfare, poor; high warmth, low competence = children, janitors (feel pity for the poor who know their place); low warmth, high competence = rivals.  Shifts are interesting.  LL to LH: “Made in Japan” shift from 50’s to 80’s.  LL to HL: homeless guy returns your wallet.  LH to LL: schadenfreude; forcing Jews to wear yellow armbands and taking their rights.
  • Social Evil & Manipulation
    • On peer pressure: “our brains are biased to get along by going along.”
    • Zimbardo: “Any deed, for good or evil, that any human being has ever done, you and I could also do – given the same situational forces.”  Milgram: “If a system of death camps were set up in the US of the sorts we had seen in Nazi Germany one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.”
    • Very short time, evolutionary-speaking, since human behavior has existed in current form, so some improvisation occurred.  “Hmmm, extreme negative affect elicited by violations of shared behavioral norms.  Let’s see … who has any pertinent experience?  I know, the insula!  It does extreme negative sensory stimuli – that’s like, all that it does – so let’s expand it’s portfolio to include this moral disgust business.  That’ll work.  Hand me a shoehorn and some duct tape.”
    • Nayirah – false story about Iraqis killing newborn Kuwaiti babies, concocted by a law firm to drum up sympathy for Kuwaiti cause (it worked!).
    • Propagandists typically try to portray “Them” as insects or excrement to trigger the disgust reaction.  Theory of Social Intuition: we naturally prefer/dislike something, and THEN use moral reasoning to convince ourselves that our intuition is valid.
  • Genes do not determine fate by themselves, but steer us to predictable outcomes if environment is right.  “Don’t ask what a gene does; ask what it does in a particular context.”
  • We respond relatively to reward/punishment, not absolutely.  A homeless man is happier when he finds a $20 bill than a millionaire is by unexpectedly gaining $20,000.
  • It literally takes time, and a physical, biological change, for us to “change our mind.”  This is really interesting to think about — our minds can reprogram themselves, but it takes time.  Remapping neurons, such as visual neurons converting to tactile and auditory in newly blind people occurs within 5 days.
  • Contrast between collectivist (eg. Asian) and individualistic (eg. Western) cultures.  “What will people think of me?” (shame) vs. “How will I be able to live with myself?” (guilt). Plus other things.  Some speculation that the difference is partially genetic, and may have been self-selected when those with stronger individualism “moved on” and became ancestors of today’s Americans or Amazon Indians, whereas the Asians stayed put.
  • “We’re really out there as a species in that sometimes our high-status individuals don’t merely plunder and instead actually lead, actually attempt to facilitate the common good.  We’ve even developed bottom-up mechanisms for collectively choosing such leaders on occasion.  A magnificent achievement.  Which we then soil by having our choosing of leaders be shaped by implicit, automatic factors more suitable to five-year-olds deciding who should captain their boat on a voyage with the Teletubbies to Candyland.”  Sapolsky refers to a real experiment where kids were shown photos of election candidates with basically that very question.  The kids picked the real winner more often that not.
  • I liked Sapolsky’s closing paragraph: “It can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something…but we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You’ve amply proven you have intellectual tenacity. You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you’ve been educated. So try.  Finally, you don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate.”

“The Everything Store” by Brad Stone

 

Interesting that in the intro, Brad Stone relates a conversation with Bezos about the book where he was asked “how do you avoid the narrative fallacy?”, a reference to The Black Swan (which I recently read).  I think this shows how Bezos recognizes that a good portion of his success is due to random good fortune, eg. starting Kindle Dev right when e-ink tech was mature.  He’s a very gifted individual for sure, but I think there’s also a lot of luck involved in such outsized success.

The part about the development of AWS was interesting.  There was a conscious effort to make building blocks of the web, without a real clear conception of how it would be used but with the conviction that something awesome would emerge. When AWS was established that’s when (in retrospect) Amazon’s market success was assured – Amazon is crushing it in two markets, retail and tech.

Part of Amazon’s success involves spinning up the “flywheel” faster and faster – greater selection and lower prices leads to more customers, which leads to growth, which leads to the ability to pressure suppliers into increasing selection and lowering prices.  This is one reason why Bezos is totally fine with losing money for a long time.

Bezos has exhibited a certain calculated, ruthless “chess match” against rivals in the past, such as with Zappos and with Diapers.com.  In both of those instances, after Amazon’s initial overtures were rejected, it created explicitly-targeted rival websites or new retail lines, operated at a loss in an effort to steal customers.  Then when things got dire, Amazon once again made a pitch and successfully acquired in both cases.

Bezos is similar to Elon Musk in that they are both very demanding of their employees.  Bezos expects his minions to be “missionaries, not mercenaries” meaning he wants them to be motivated by goals (which need to be HIS goals) and not by the promise of wealth.  I think he and Musk are both doing great things, but … they both seem like horrible people to work for, ones who would work you to the bone and then expect more.  Kind of makes me wonder if it is possible to be a world-changer without forcing your vision on others in such a way.

“The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by Agatha Christie

Hmmm.  “in 2013, 87 years after its release the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever.”  Well, maybe it was innovative for its time?  I thought the story was ok, but really the “twist” was a little unfair.  The book has an untrustworthy narrator, but not a whole lot of clues pointing to that until you get to the end and “Oh, I left out a bunch of important details.  But here they are!”  I guess I am just not as smart as Poirot.

I did think the Mahjong scene was pretty funny, with gossip and teasing out information going on amidst the Colonel boasting of his time in the Shanghai Club…

“The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The key idea of “The Black Swan” is that every once in a while, something happens which is completely unexpected, and has huge impacts in a particular realm or even to the world.  These events are black swans, named after the black swans observed in Australia — something Europeans had no experience with and had no reason to suspect, yet was real.

The major side story to the existence of black swans is the danger of ignoring them, as essentially proposed by many economics and finance experts.  Taleb doesn’t hide his contempt for most of them, even calling the Nobel prize in economics a crime against humanity (for giving the impression that we can understand and control things, which then spectacularly blow up in our faces).

A list of goodies gleaned from this book:

  • Causal fallacy – when we read history, we seek causes and portray events as a logical progression.  In the moment, things are not so obvious.
  • Scalable work = good … if you are at the top.  Eg. actors – used to be able to have steady work at the local playhouse; now you only have a career if you are lucky enough to be a Hollywood star.
  • “No evidence of A” != “proof of no A”
  • Overcome confirmation bias by forcing yourself to look for negative, weak points in the argument you want to accept
  • We are very bad at estimating: experiment where people asked to estimate high/low bounds of something to within 2%.  Actual answer was outside bounds 30% of the time.  (Takeaway: people overestimate their knowledge.)
  • Interesting example of a casino, with incredibly sophisticated security as well as delicately calibrated gaming odds.  Yet their largest loss was when Siegfried & Roy had to close due to a tiger attack – something completely unexpected and uninsured against.
  • Don’t trust experts proclaiming 100% confidence of a hard-to-falsify statement.
  • Gaussian thinking is dangerous – can’t dismiss outliers when it is possible they are so large/small as to dwarf the average.  Only ok to use Gaussian when samples truly average out, eg. quantum motion of particles very unlikely to cause cup to jump off table – silly to be concerned about that type of randomness.
  • By definition, cannot predict black swans.  Can only be adaptable.
  • Taleb keeps ragging on futility of prediction, eg. writing a “5 year plan.”  Yet, I’m reminded of Ike: “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
  • Confirmation of my thoughts with “Thinking Fast & Slow” – it’s hard to know true probabilities outside of trivial games.

One approach Taleb proposes to mitigate against black swans is to use the “barbell strategy” in everything.  In finance this translates to holding 90-95% of funds in super safe investments (T-bills), and the rest in extreme speculation.  This is contrary to conventional wisdom of holding almost everything in index funds – you’ll usually get boring <+10% returns, but occasionally you get all but wiped out.  In Taleb’s strategies, you switch from most years = small winners + some disasters to most years = small losers (the speculative portion of your investments) + some huge winners.  The idea is that the big win is more than enough to cover all your years of losses.  Taleb mentions entire fortunes of a lifetime being made on just a single black swan.  I believe that’s what he and Mark Spitznagel do – out of the money options and similar.  Very much worth looking into.

Taleb advocates something similar in other aspects of life.  When there is uncertainty, we should base decisions on the severity of consequences, not on (unknown) probabilities.  Be aggressive when going for exposure to positive black swans; always be cautious of exposure to negative black swans.

“A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester

Based on discussions mentioning this book, and the subtitle, I figured it would be mostly about the common life in the Middle Ages.  Not quite; it’s more about the end of the Middle Ages, specifically the Renaissance and the beginnings of the Reformation.

The Middle Ages in Europe is portrayed as mostly static, with the Church and Pope wielding supreme control.  Anyone questioning the church would soon find themselves lashed to a burning stake.  The church even burned translators of the Bible into vernacular languages, for “corrupting God’s word” but actually for injuring the priests’ ability to control the message/interpretation.

Interesting aside here; it hadn’t ever really occurred to me that pilgrimages were often taken as a form of penance.  Prisons for long term incarceration didn’t really exist – it was very temporary, as the offender was quickly either released, banished, or executed.  Pilgrimage was a sort-of banishment.  This guy was one example of a noble pilgrim mentioned in the book.

Anyway, despite the prevalence of the Church, pagan superstition and belief in spirits was also widespread.  Christianity really took in a lot of what came before it, but that’s probably a story for another book.  Also: “The fear of hell was a more effective deterrent than the promise of salvation.”

Despite the Bible’s admonitions for chastity, and a priest’s vow of celibacy, the clergy in general (at least in some areas, like Italy) and several Popes in particular were notoriously promiscuous.  Apparently, some convents were more like whorehouses.   Besides this hypocrisy, the selling of indulgences for sin, even for future sin (“license to sin” I guess?) was really an outrage to any who stopped to think about it.  Martin Luther was one such individual.  Manchester points out, however, that were political circumstances not just right, with German leaders looking to assert their own authority over that of Rome, Luther would have quickly been one of many burnt alive.

Just before the advent of the printing press, the greatest libraries only had hundreds, maybe a few thousand books.  It’s pretty incredible that the “whole” of knowledge was therefore basically knowable by a single individual.

The end of the book talks a bit about the age of discovery and Magellan, but nothing really stood out to me that wasn’t already covered well enough by Bergreen.  (Yeah, I know Manchester was published first; but I read Bergreen first.)

“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley

I think I read this a loooong time ago, like in high school.  I really couldn’t remember much of the story.  Anyway…

The plot itself is really stupid, but I think that’s forgivable since it’s just a device to introduce us to the world.  In a nutshell, a “savage” from an Indian reservation joins civilized society, but is appalled by the rampant promiscuity, psychological drug use, lack of God, and lack of Shakespeare (and the like).  He kind of goes violently crazy, I think a little too quickly and in an uncalled-for manner.

The brave new world: people are “born” or rather grown in bottles in giant assembly line factories.  An individual’s status in society, which determines the type of jobs available to them, is predetermined from birth.  Alphas are given the best care and advantages, then there are Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons.  The latter two are purposely injured to limit development by such things as pouring alcohol into their bottles to stunt their growth and intelligence, making them more suitable to the life of a laborer.  After “decanting”, children are raised communally, and a good portion of their education is done through hypnotic repetition during sleep.  The whole effect of these suggestions is to mold the desires and thoughts of every individual into a stable unity.  If anything unpleasant does manage to occur, the drug Soma is widely available, which gives a long-lasting high with no after effects, besides a great feeling of contentment.

Alright, so, this is all supposed to make the reader uneasy and start questioning whether a stable, safe, disease- and want-free society is worth sacrificing all individuality.  I’m somewhat persuaded by the merits of the system — so much of unhappiness is due to our reality not meeting our expectations; so why not mold human expectations so that they fit our reality?  But the characters living this way do seem more like machines than men – something essential to humanity seems like it got lost in the process.