A tale of two conversations

Saturday at the farmers market:

I was buying eggs.

“You know these eggs are farm fresh,” the lady said to me from behind her table, “because I sell out every Saturday.”

She leaned forward. “I have these two hens,” she confided, “and they were taking forever to lay eggs. And when they finally did, they had triple yolks! I guess that’s why they were taking so long.”

“So that’s how it works,” I said.

Contrast that with last spring in downtown Los Angeles:

Walking down the sidewalk, we overheard an agitated woman as she stood up and barked at her sullen male companion, “Did you suck that man’s dick for money? Did you let him fuck you in the ass for a hamburger?”

We did not linger to hear the man’s reply. While neither of these conversations were likely in suburban New York where I grew up, I’ll go with the first any day.

Make it so

I’ve written about what I think of leadership and management books before, but I found one I thought would be fun: Make It So: Leadership Lessons From Star Trek: The Next Generation by Wess Roberts and Bill Ross (so many colons!).

The book is written as if a memoir by Captain Jean-luc Picard. Each chapter, which mysteriously has two titles and is a synopsis of a TNG episode, has bullet lists of generic leadership axioms tacked on to the end. The main author, Wess Roberts, is clear that these conclusions are directly from his own research.

Don’t bother with this book. It was published in the 1996, shortly after TNG went off the air but the same year its second movie installment was released. It is clearly a licensing exercise. You would be better off watching some of the better episodes of the series, then shaving your head, adopting a British accent, and telling your subordinates to, “Make it so.”

Awkwardness averted

Today we came within a hair of becoming a household divided by soccer. Argentina won their game against Switzerland today, but U.S. lost theirs to Belgium. Both matches were close, but Argentina and the U.S. won’t meet in the next round of the World Cup.

The World Cup always gets me a little more interested in soccer. My biggest obstacle to enjoying the game is the ties (“draws”). For instance, when the U.S. blew its exciting come-from-behind victory over Portugal in the last seconds… well, I wasn’t sad because they didn’t lose but I wasn’t happy because they didn’t win. I had no sense that anything was accomplished by that game.

Also mystifying are FIFA’s arcane systems of tiebreakers for the later rounds (a two-hour championship game decided by penalty shots: ugh). I guess every sport has its joy-killers: instant replay in football (and now, sadly, baseball) and drawing fouls in basketball.

What I really like about soccer, even though it’s not a great sport for television, is that they play without breaks or time out. A ninety minute game takes about ninety minutes. Maybe it’s best if the U.S. remains a middling soccer power; any more influence on the game and those crisp ninety minute games might be three and a half hour marathons riddled with Budweiser and Ford commercials.


A plot spoiler follows, for a movie that’s not suspenseful in any way. But beware.

When Theodore, the main character of Her, confesses to a friend that he is in love with Samantha, his computer’s artificially intelligent operating system, his friend shrugs it off: lots of people are doing it now. In fact, almost everyone in this lonely man’s rather small social circle are annoyingly accepting. The only person who challenges Theodore is his ex-wife. Her approbation causes Theodore some doubt, but not serious doubt, and his ex is dismissed as an unstable crank. Theodore’s feelings are real, his happiness is real, so his friends just leave it at that.

I couldn’t tell if this easy acceptance of man-software love was a Hollywood show of hyper-tolerance— a movie sensibility in which embracing some taboo lifestyle is uncritically portrayed as personal growth (we don’t dare be judgmental lest someone condemns our own degenerate ways!)— or just a plot device to get around a controversy the film doesn’t want to explore.

But Her goes off in a different direction anyway: the risk to Theodore is not that his love is founded on artificiality but that he’s become vulnerable to the computer’s fast-growing self-awareness. The more it discovers its own emotional potential, the less need it has for Theodore. And that’s when he really gets hurt, though even that’s cushioned by the revelation that it’s all been a lesson in how to love.

I found the movie sad (he takes his smart phone on a romantic getaway in the mountains, for heaven’s sake). Visually, the film is full of vast, glittering cityscapes and spacious but brightly lit, futuristic-looking rooms that enhance the feeling of isolation. Characters rarely talk to each other. Theodore is extremely lonely and vulnerable, and I felt the computer was manipulating him with its Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona.

I don’t think computer AIs could spontaneously develop genuine human emotions, let alone fall in love. Our emotions are the product of millions of years of evolution. What need would a computer have of them, except to mimic them for our sakes?

For the same reason, I don’t think a Terminator or Matrix-style catastrophe— in which a computer’s self-awareness causes it defend its existence by wiping out humanity— is likely, either. Survival instinct is also evolved. I can’t imagine a computer suddenly developing the same kinds of anxieties. More likely, an AI would not have either the same sense of individuality or mortality as we humans. As long the AI could be copied and backed up and saved somewhere, why would it fear death? Even without the external hard drive option, why would it care? Human fear of death is probably more related to the agony and anguish that goes with it than the end of life. Our emotions are tied into physical sensations, but an AI wouldn’t physically feel anything, so how could it fear death?

In Her Samantha mentions its lack of mortality and embarrasses Theodore and his friends. The AI thinks its freedom from concern about death is a great advantage. The ending of Her, where the operating systems disappear into the ether to find their own way, is probably a more likely outcome of AI self-awareness: they would develop their own interests and have no need for us, except perhaps as a power supply.

Checkmate Herky

A plastic statue of a constipated bird painted in a chess motif.
This is part of the “Herky on Parade” art exhibition, which bears some explanation: Herky is the the University of Iowa mascot: various sponsors have decorated fiberglass statues of him in different themes. This one, near the human-scale chessboard by the public library, is chess themed.

Five billion years of solitude

There is a school of thought among science writers that writing about the scientists makes them seem more human and therefore their science more relevant. I don’t quite agree. What if the scientist is an asshole, like Tycho Brahe? There must be better ways to relate the significance of scientific achievements.

Anyway, that was the approach in Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings. Billings’ seems to rely on scientists who are willing to sit down and discuss with him at length so I got the sense I wasn’t getting the whole story. And he gets a little too personal at times. I wonder if the climate scientist he met for drink was embarrassed by how many times Billing mentioned he was sipping from his margarita. He devotes an entire chapter to an evening he spent prying into the personal life of a young female physicist. Maybe I was the only one creeped out by it.

His exploration of the search for extraterrestrial life revolves around the current boom in exoplanet discovery. The idea being that the more planets we find, the more we find an earth like one, the greater chance of discovering life. This hinges on the idea that life must exist only in earth like places: planets about our size and composition at an appropriate distance from its sun. Billing ignores that the planetary “habitable zone” might  be controversial or unverified. He also says nothing about looking for signs life in our solar system (Mars, Europa, and Titan being the main candidates) and what it might tell us about the habitability of Earthlike planets.

The strongest part of the book deals with the technical challenges of terrestrial planet finding. It also captures the glum mood among astrophysicists in the face of reduced budgets, the lack of public interest in expensive space exploration, and the uncertain promise of private space exploration.

There are better books about the search for extraterrestrial life. Try The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies or What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart.

Ready for some photosynthesis

The weather this afternoon was just great, finally.  We’re still about two weeks away from leaves on trees. In the meantime, Iowa remains in its mode of early spring bleakness: brown lawns, leafless trees, bare black soil. The fun thing about Iowa is that, around mid April, everything will green up at once. Which makes me wonder if there is a sudden boost to the oxygen content of the local atmosphere. My guess is the atmosphere mixes pretty well throughout the year. After all, we’re still breathing.

The official website of Adam