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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Alan Turing, the man who built the modern world, has been pardoned by royal decree for the crime of being homosexual. Read, write, erase. The great Turing machine of formal history empties out registers, clears his record to blank state, moves to the next state.

Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Turing at Bletchey Park.

From a wonderful and moving essay by Robinson Meyer was published today in The Atlantic, which I highly recommend: 

Last year, on Turing’s centenary, members of parliament introduced legislation to formally pardon him. It did not pass: Parliamentarians decided they could not pardon someone for a crime that person had knowingly committed, even if the government no longer considered the offending act criminal. As Brown wrote in 2009, Turing “was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back.” (After the pardon’s failure, 10,000 people promptly petitioned for Turing to be added to the £10 note.)

Now, Queen Elizabeth II has done what elected officials did not.

The “royal prerogative of mercy,” the formal title for a King or Queen’s pardon, is one of the central affordances of English royalty. Its language is old and pleonastic, comfortable in its somber power.

That makes it all the more stomach-turning to read. “Now Know Ye,” it reads, “that We, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented unto Us, are Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.”

Perhaps this is standard language, but being “pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy” feels inadequate in any register. Turing should be forgiven for nothing; he did nothing we’d consider criminal. If any entity requires pardoning, it’s the government. And yet the same government, in the body of its messenger, is pleased to excuse itself.

More to the point, Meyer argues:

According to Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson, 75,000 men were convicted under the same law as Turing, some 26,000 of whom are still alive. (The law was repealed in 1967.) We might start by pardoning, or apologizing to, all those other men.

Indeed. In fact, it’s a disgrace that this has yet to be done, as the author Charles Stross so eloquently puts it:

The argument being made against this idea, by the former Minister of State for Justice, The Right Honourable Tom McNally, Baron McNally PC, is that you can’t pardon people for doing things they know to be a crime.

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.

It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

And you can make that argument for a lot of crimes. There are a wide spectrum of laws which have changed and which it would be absurd to pardon people for. We’ve changed the tax code so that things which were tax evasion 40 years ago wouldn’t be today. It would not make sense to pardon people for committing what they knew to be crimes.

But with anti-homosexuality legislation, it is different. We have come to understand that in a far deeper sense, the laws were the crimes. Crimes committed against people like Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde, John Gielgud, and tens of thousands of others. That’s not even counting the suffering it caused the millions who had to live in secret. Those condemned to private sentences of seclusion and lies.

To not pardon convicted homosexuals is like not pardoning people convicted for trying to escape slavery, like not pardoning those who rode on the backs of buses they were not allowed to ride in, not pardoning those who sat at lunch counters. The concept of justice encoded in those laws was not a just one, it was an unjust one. This miserly withholding of justice for the people convicted under unjust laws is itself a crime.

It erodes faith in the ability of the law to deliver justice, since justice could at any time be delivered to these people at no cost to the public. This disrespect for the real injustices, the real cruelty and the real pain suffered by these people deserves so, so much more than a pardon. But at least we owe them that.

Photo: Kevin Reed (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Daniel Dennett, philosopher and funnyman

The astute reader will have noticed my frequent namedrops of the philosopher Daniel Dennett recently. I have been plowing through his ouevre for the past couple of weeks, and he has made me rethink and reconsider a lot of things I was convinced about.

One of Dennett’s big ideas turned out to shed new light on something I’ve been noticing for years: that jokes on Twitter kind of suck and that they are all the same.

This is actually, it turns out, a philosophical problem of astonishing depth and scope, going all the way down to the nature of ideas and creativity itself. Stay with me, internet. I’m not kidding.

I’ve actually written briefly about this problem before in this post about the email tag line “Sent from my iPhone”. In brief, I’ve noticed that whenever big events happen in the world, a certain percentage of the population of my Twitter feed will try to make a joke about what happens.

Most of these people, I have noticed, make more or less the same joke. Sometimes with four or five different minor variations, but still: the same joke. Or maybe there will be two or even three different jokes floating around, each with its own little variations. But rarely more than that. Sometimes, two different topical events will be at the forefront of consciousness, and end up being combined in the same joke by many people.

So what do I mean by that? Let’s do the first example that comes to mind: the recent death of Nelson Mandela.  In my language, there is a possible pun on the word Mandela and something having to do with Christmas. The pun makes very little sense as a joke about Mandela, but if you happen to have the concepts “Christmas” and “Mandela” as active searches running in your mind, the odds of picking up on it are very high, and it kinda sorta looks like a joke if you squint and look at it sideways.

I just ran a search on Twitter, and the pun occurred in over fifty variations. And that was just on Twitter. A staggering number of people must have been doing this joke at watercoolers across the country.

Or how about that Obama “selfie” with the Danish prime minister? Everyone and his sister posted a link to the “selfies at funerals” Tumblr that went viral a few weeks back. (More so now that the Selfies at Funerals guy has written an op-ed for the Guardian declaring an end to his Tumblr).

Now, I think that most of the people who make these bad jokes make them up themselves. I suspect that they don’t in fact steal or borrow them from someone else. I think this same joke is not just being picked up and retold. I think it is actually being invented simultaneously by tens or hundreds of people near the same time.

This observation, that jokes are bad and kind of the same, has lead me to believe that the set of really original jokes is extremely limited, and as a rule comes more often than not from people who are professionally funny.

What do you do when you make a joke? The way Dennett would see it, you are basically running a creative search function through what he calls “Design Space”, an informational space filled with all possible designed functions. Everything from the full text of Moby-Dick to your DNA to all possible variations of DNA, to all the DNA that isn’t yours, all the combinations of DNA that could possibly exist and all the possible and impossible novels that aren’t Moby-Dick and all the strategies and ideas and concepts that can possibly exist as designed objects or code.

Design Space is Vast, in Dennett’s conception, with a capital V. And mostly filled with garbage. But a few things in there are really well-adapted to certain parts of the universe and can thrive there. Some of these things are really good bits of DNA that can make things like humans or blue whales or salmonella bacteria. Some of it is Hamlet. Some of it is a good recipe for chili and some of it is the blueprints to the international space station.

Natural selection is an algorithmic search function that looks through Design Space for good genetic designs. The algorithm uses the death of unfit creatures in order to generate order, design and adaptation.

Haeckel’s tree of life, a partial map of life’s search function through Design Space. 

Natural selection is a very wasteful, almost brute-force type search function. It’s basically just generating a bunch of designs and tweaking each of them a little and seeing what does best and discarding all the rest of it.

Making or designing a joke is different. You have developed biological and cultural search functions which are creative, in a sense. Our search algorithms are different. They choose, and choose hard, cutting away huge bits of the search tree so that you only really have to look at a really small part of Design Space and just decide between a few likely candidates.

Now, let’s look at a few different ways that humans do creative searches in Design Space. Let’s look at very restricted searches and more creative searches.

Take chess, for instance. When grandmasters look a chess boards, they will in most situations “see” instantly that there are only a few possible moves that are any good. And they’ll dedicate a lot of search power to finding out which of those three or four moves is the right one. That’s not just because there are a limited number of moves (and a limited number of moves after that), but because the rules of chess means that there are big restrictions on what kind of moves will work. And they have played enough chess that their search functions are really well honed and they therefore see that most moves can be instantly discarded. Those bad moves are just not going to adress the pressing issues at hand or get the player closer to a mate. (Getting close to a mate is, interestingly, also what natural selection is all about, but I digress.)

Now, Novelists don’t work like that. When they’re writing a novel, there is constantly an extremely wide amount of words or sentences that could go next. The reason the novelists end up choosing the ones that they do is first and foremost that most of the words sculpture anthrax acid colourless Wednesday whither monkey typewriter aren’t words that generate meaning or salmon intoxicated storehouse under woodchuck in that context. But of the ones that do, the “legal moves” will potentially move the plot in vastly different directions. And then a spaceship landed on the White House Lawn and Mrs. Dalloway stepped out.

Actually, no space ships. Just kidding, internet. But we see that there are some activities, like chess, which put intense restrictions on creativity, while others, like writing a novel, are much less restrictive. Though it’s hard to have a space ship land in the middle of a Regency romance and make it work, novels do have a very wide-open search field, and the search functions that the novelist uses to create the disembowellingly wonderful artifacts we worship in our lounge chairs must be strange and complicated indeed. Those search strings are generated by the novelist’s interaction with literary culture, her understanding of language, her life experience and the swathe of stories and their archetypes available to us, within reach in Design Space.

There are more possible chess games than there are particles in the known universe. And I can’t even begin to imagine the Vast, Vast, Vast number of possible novels. (Though fortunately Jorge Luis Borges has.) It’s a big field to search.

So despite the difference in the number of restrictions placed on chess players and novelists, we see that both activities need intense algorithmic trimming of the search in order to generate good design. And we see that we have some version of some of those algorithms.

So why do we choose the same jokes?

This is where I start to run out of answers, but I believe that one of Dennett’s ideas presents a way forward. He talks about “good tricks” and “forced moves” in Design Space.

A Good Trick is simply a genetic or behavioral innovation that an individual acquires and which enhances its fitness. A Forced Move is different. It’s something that, if you want to achieve something, presents itself as the only solution. In chess, if you see that moving your (unchecked) king quite simply is the only way to avoid a mate in one, there’s nothing in the rules of chess that prevents you from doing something else. But you easily see that moving the king is a “forced move”. The dictates of reason demand a certain kind of solution.

In evolution, if you want to be in the business of competing in the great Darwinian race, you need to have a way of seeing things coming, so eyes or something like them are a forced move. You need to have boundaries to your body. You need to have energy conservation. You will probably need to have locomotion if you’re an animal. These are all good tricks that really are the only way to fly — forced moves.

In jokes and other creative endeavours — in the world of memes, not genes — these kinds of good tricks and forced moves also abound. In the highly competitive meme-space of Twitter, jokes are put under intense selective pressure in order to replicate (become retweetet) or jump hosts (start a conversation, be tweeted or mentioned by other people). Many of the things that happen to genes under evolutionary pressure seems to happen to tweets as well.

And jokes, as my comedian friends are always telling me (though using different words), are the ideas under the heaviest competiton out there. It either works — is a good trick — or it doesn’t. Either they laugh, or you “die”, as the comic jargon talks about, leaving space for better, faster, sharper-toothed jokes.

(“Funny” story: I’m actually playing chess online with a comedian friend of mine as I write this, bringing all these themes into a higher unity. I’m kicking his ass, incidentally. But enough about that.)

The tendency for certain jokes to get repeated over and over again tells me that something draws us towards these funny points in Design Space. What I think we’re seeing is that as we can search through and look at each generation of joke memes thrown at the world, it’s becoming clear that, like evolution, some tricks are being tried a lot. They are, in fact, being tried by a clear majority of the people who try to solve that particular problem.

In a sense, we can now see the sum of the attempt to find good tricks in each time unit of Twitter. And we’re now capable of seeing that most of the tricks that are being played are “shallow” tricks. Tricks which come from a search of only a small and “obvious” section of Design Space. A search which only finds the neon-signed, obvious tricks. Maybe these tricks are so obvious that they are forced moves? Or maybe they are just easily located Good Tricks.

Charles Darwin (beardy)

A recent piece in n + 1on the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, has an interesting wording, which struck me: “reading My Struggle, you have the sense that Knausgaard has made a wonderful discovery, an almost scientific innovation. My Struggle is something new, something brave”.

I think this way of thinking about what Knausgaard did — and it is an absolutely remarkable piece of writing — is dead right. It’s a kind of daring, creative innovation. It’s so close to being like a normal novel, but somehow, it just isn’t. There’s something new happening in that language and its interaction with his personality and biography, something about the way he oscillates wildly between boring woodenness and unapologetic lyricism, often within the span of a sentence, while at the same time completely revealing his life.

It strikes me that Knausgaard is searching with deeper, stranger algorithms through Design Space. He is doing much more heavy creative design lifting (what Dennett refers to as “R & D”). And, unlike Mother Nature, he does not have to go through the brute force search of killing off millions of novels to get at his one good one. He can prune the search tree in interesting ways in his head. Ways that you and me can’t. (Though maybe we could learn.)

His possibility of finding genuinely Good, New Tricks in Design Space is somehow greater. He has a higher search return. He seems to have more competitive and innovative algorithms at hand and he seems to be using them in more interesting ways.

The same thing, this different, more deeply innovative and exploratory kind of creativity is happening (on a more limited scale) with really good jokes. Even on the minute canvas of 140 characters, really original twitter comics — Rob Delaney is the most celebrated one, but he has good days and bad, and there are literally thousands of good ones out there — are exhibiting this kind of deeper search, with stranger algorithms, pulling away to find good tricks in new places.

And even the good comedians go for the obvious jokes sometimes:

What the really profound long-form comics, like Louis CK or the other greats are doing, is the deeper, exploratory creative innovation stretching the boundaries of comedy, like Knausgaard stretches the boundaries of the novel.

We want to have this kind of deeper search happening more. A research question should be what brings these more creative search functions into action. A lot of recent study — for more on this, run and read Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow — seems to indicate that the one easy thing we can do to go deeper into the search field is to do something hard.

It is this: to think slowly, effortfully and with concentration about the task we are trying to perform. Just sitting down and doing some really hard work with the mind is the best way of getting the search to interesting places. That way, we weed out all the dumbest, instinctively heuristic algorithms that lead most people to the bad or not-great jokes, and we start to get to the really interesting places beyond. We get beyond the bad puns and the dumb gifs and start to find genuinely new expressions which help us do good tricks.

The next question for me which I’d like to think more about is whether or not there are forced moves at this level of play. Are forced moves just something that happens at the most basic level of a particular contest (life, literature, language), or is it something that you can keep finding as we uncover new regions of Design Space? Can we find new forced moves in literature or did we find the last ones when we discovered the narrative? The novel? The epic poem? Or can we keep finding new forced moves in, say, the early 21st century autobiographical novel? The Twitter joke? Or how about politics? Or love? 

Are there always new forced moves to find in the regions of Design Space we are moving through? Even in tiny subsections like “Nelson Mandela jokes” or “things to say around Christmas which are kind of funny and will get me retweeted”. Put more generally: can the human race always, in creative exploration, keep turning up new, good tricks no matter where we are or how far we look? Well, your mom can — so why shouldn’t we?

Image

I know: it’s an uninspired illustration, but what it says in the picture.

I find the controversy around Healthcare.Gov to be infinitely boring, stupid and uninteresting. A matter of supreme unimportance. As important as a new suggestion algorithm on Amazon or a tweak in the google PageRank system, yes — and also just as boring. It is one of those things which are really important in shaping our lives, but which it is obvious to absolutely everyone will — eventually — become fixed. And then the important thing happens, which is that the US, as the last industrialised nation, gets universal healthcare. Which, you know, is kind of amazing and a lot more important than a server rollout failure.

And the idea that anyone would be queuing up to fight against the idea of universal healthcare, using these tiny server outages as some kind of bullshit excuse to undermine a project that will end untold human miseries? Yeah, they’re sort of idiots. And if there is a tiny part of you listening even a little to the arguments from “website design fail = stop healthcare reform now!”, squash that part of you down into the dirt. It’s not your friend. The servers don’t matter. If it happens now or next year or the year after that, it doesn’t matter. As long as it comes it is amazing. And a huge improvement in the life and health of the US.

But there is one person who has written one interesting piece of writing about Healthcare.Gov, and I think you should read it. It’s Clay Shirky, and he’s written a great blog post generating a number of interesting and transferable lessons from the zeppeliner-down-in-flames-failure of Healthcare.Gov (for now, until it gets fixed and becomes unimportant because it works, at which point millions of people will not have to not got to the doctor and risking death from toothaches and pneumonia).

Healthcare.gov is a half-billion dollar site that was unable to complete even a thousand enrollments a day at launch, and for weeks afterwards. As we now know, programmers, stakeholders, and testers all expressed reservations about Healthcare.gov’s ability to do what it was supposed to do. Yet no one who understood the problems was able to tell the President. Worse, every senior political figure—every one—who could have bridged the gap between knowledgeable employees and the President decided not to.

And so it was that, even on launch day, the President was allowed to make things worse for himself and his signature program by bragging about the already-failing site and inviting people to log in and use something that mostly wouldn’t work. Whatever happens to government procurement or hiring (and we should all hope those things get better) a culture that prefers deluding the boss over delivering bad news isn’t well equipped to try new things.

Two quick, sharp and subtle observations about racism read in quick succession.

First, Andrew Sullivan about the tweet from the GOP seen above

That tweet reminds me again of how anti-Christian contemporary Republicanism is. The notion that racism can “end” misreads a core Christian truth about human nature. Our vulnerability to hatred, condescension, fear of others, resentment, and generalizations about “the other” are intrinsic to what it means to be human. Racism, like greed or envy or pride, will never end.

(…)

What Parks and so many others did was chip away at the legal architecture of institutionalized hatred and loathing. This matters – because we humans are an impressionable herd and can be encouraged to acts and thoughts of great evil by authoritative permission. So slavery was not just an evil in itself; but an incalculable fomenter of evil. Ditto segregation.

It’s a pointed observation. And it brings to the foreground the special position Sullivan himself occupies. He is trying to save conservatism from itself. I wish him well, and I think that he makes a lot of sense on a lot of topics. And I read him religiously, obviously. He is surely one of the finest commentators out there. But I think he is very misguided about the nature of conservatism. I think he fails to see that the conservative support for racism and the failure to see it as a problem is very much a feature, not a bug. As Corey Robin (see sidebar) describes in his magnificent book The Reactionary Mind, that’s what conservatism is: the attempt to prevent agency in the lower classes. The rest is just superstructure and ideology.

Second, Ta-Nehisi Coates about the death of Mandela

But the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa’s white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage. When you see a Tea Party protestor waving the flag of slavery in front of the home of the first black president, understand that this instinct has been cultivated. It is still, at this very hour, being cultivated: 

He won the country’s first free presidential elections in 1994 and worked to unite a scarred and anxious nation. He opened up the economy to the world, and a black middle class came to life. After a single term, he voluntarily left power at the height of his popularity. Most African rulers didn’t do that, but Mandela said, “I don’t want a country like ours to be led by an octogenarian. I must step down while there are one or two people who admire me.”

That is the Wall Street Journal, offering a shameful, condescending “tribute” to one of the great figures of our time. Understand the racism here. It is certainly true that “most African rulers” do not willingly hand over power. That is because most human leaders do not hand over power. What racism does is take a basic human tendency and make it it the property of ancestry.

That observation about the Wall Street Journal is so well done. I wouldn’t even have seen the racism had it not been pointed out to me. Sometimes a phenomenon I take for granted is seen in a new light and reveals its racist origin, and suddenly I stop and think holy shit, THAT’s what it feels like to be racist. You’re just going about your business, doing natural things.

The poem Nelson Mandela used to recite to his fellow inmates at Robben Island. The only famous poem William Ernest Henley ever wrote:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Nelson Mandela has died, aged 95, Jacob Zuma just announced.

After all the almost-deaths of Madiba, I didn’t think I would be sad when he finally left, but I am. His story remains one of the most powerful and inspiring ones in my life. I’m still reacting to this, but I think I want to make three points now:

1. MYTH: His life has been mythologised to the point of collapse, but we should resist the urge to beatify the dead. His life’s greatness lay in the humanity of it, which is to say the messy nature of it. He was a complicated man, who lived a deeply complicated, flawed and in many ways deeply tragic life. But he sacrificed for a cause he believed in, and achieved a deeper meaning which transcended himself. That’s what inspires me. That’s what I take with me from his life. I also think we should acknowledge what he could not accomplish. I remember the signs everywhere during my time in South Africa of a society in constant, low-level distress. Armed guards everywhere, thick locks on everything, meeting rape victims whereever I went, social need, racism, inequality and division. And at the same time: a blossoming economy, an infrastructure clicking into place, a social order lying dormant under the surface of chaos and division.

2. CHANGE: I think we should recognize the story of Mandela as a story of someone, like Martin Luther King during the civil rights era, changing the nature of his struggle to address the challenges the world impinged on him with. And of a man who was willing to sacrifice time, the very stuff of his life, and the possibility of him changing, for a greater cause.

3. RADICALISM: There are many things Mandela never got to do right. But he helped lead and embody a movement that fought for social justice. A movement of radical change in a repressive society. His movement used innovative means to achieve their ends, and they fought for a profoundly just cause. We should never forget just how radical and difficult a thing it is to raise the downtrodden of the earth to the status of equals. And we should never forget the damage, the warping and tearing of human nature which the inequality and injustice of institutionalised inhumanity does to the spirit of those who are ground down under it — and to those who are held high on their backs.

So thank you, Madiba. For your time.

Amandla! Awethu!

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz zzz zzz zzzzzzzzzzzzz

A really interesting dust-up in the land of evolutionary biology is going on. David Dobbs, a science writer, has thrown down a gauntlet against Richard Dawkins’ idea of The Selfish Gene. “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong”, he writes.

So, my curriculum vitae happens to have NOT AN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST right at the top, but as far as I can tell as a layman, Dobbs appears to be creating a huge conflict over something that isn’t really a conflict, in order to introduce some deeper levels of modern evolutionary theory to a broader public.

So, what follows is a really great, well-written article by Dobbs containing at its centre a phony conflict. This doesn’t make for a completely top-notch article, but it does transmit some of what I understand to be some really important ideas about the ways genes get expressed into phenotypes. Most interesting takeaway which I was not aware of: grasshoppers and locusts are the same species. Locusts are just different expressions of the same DNA in a reaction to environmental changes.

My understanding of the problem with the article is this: no matter what the gene expression in question, the coding that expresses the mechanisms that create gene expressions are also coded in the genes. The genes are the machines that create the machines that express the genes, so to speak.

So, there are two interesting companion pieces which I urge you to read.

Just as an apropos, I suspect that a lot of the temperature in the first piece by Dobbs stems from Dawkins’ standing these days as a public intellectual. He’s been doing some rather poor thinking on religion — I’m an atheist myself, but I think Dawkins’ overly confrontational approach to creating a secular society is probably not a good one. Though he makes many excellent points, I think his ranty twittery side just does not look good:

(I’d like to talk more about atheism and religion at some point — if that’s something you’re interested in, leave a comment.)

So I find that that’s a tension in the background of the piece by Dobbs, or at least in the commentary it has engendered. There’s this strong dislike of Dawkins by the multiculturalist leftists who see him as an islamophobe and by everyone in the religious community. And it seems to be driving the backlash against his scientific thinking. It should not. His scientific thinking remains completely sound, until rebutted by the scientific process.