Magic iPod

Everyone has been passing around the Magic iPod this month. First Deep Blue beat Kasparov, then AlphaGo beat Lee Se-dol, and now we have Magic iPod taking down Girl Talk.

When you read stories about how artists come up with mashups (finding works with compatible BPM and keys, among other things), or how the Swedish pop factory mad scientists like Max Martin conjure pop hits, it seems inevitable that in our lifetime we'll have algorithms creating real pop hits.

How such work is received by a human audience is about more than its intrinsic qualities, however. In an objective competition like a game of Go, or when considering a mashup which is simply the synthesis of existing creative works, I suspect humans will be comfortable with acknowledging the achievements of an algorithm.

With original creative works, however, like music, novels, movies, I suspect humans will recoil from even intrinsically appealing creation if it was written by a computer program. Call it some variant of the uncanny valley effect.

We have a romantic attachment to human creation, and it may take a generation of people passing on before we overcome that cultural aversion. When a waiter places a beautiful dish in front of you at a restaurant, we like to imagine that a chef toiled over the plate in the kitchen, conjuring that beautiful, delicious entree from raw ingredients, fire, and ingenuity. When we read an engrossing novel, we picture a tortured writer banging on an old typewriter in a cabin by the sea, stopping from time to time to put out a cigarette and gaze out the window at the ocean waves trying to claw up the gentle slope of the beach.

When Beyonce drops Lemonade or any one of her jaw dropping awards show performances on an unprepared world, I like to believe the work was birthed from what is surely a vagina with mystic powers, belonging as it does to our modern icon of feminism and black empowerment.

It's not quite as appealing if the truth was that an algorithm finished processing in some computer lab somewhere. A progress bar on a monitor finally reaches 100%, and a file is deposited into a directory.

That's why if humans ever comes up with algorithms that are capable of creating popular works of culture, it's financially wise for the creators to claim the credit themselves, at least until many years of critical and popular embrace have accumulated. Then, and only then, spring the truth on the world.

We live in a Skinner box, and it was of our own making.

The hardest punch to dodge...

...is the one you don't see coming.

The paper attributes one-third to one-fifth of the decline in work hours by less-educated young men to the rising use of technology for entertainment — mainly video games. The new study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the researchers say they are continuing to refine the precise figures. But other prominent economists who reviewed it for this story said it raises important questions about why so many young men have abandoned the workforce.
 
Alan Krueger, a former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the research presents “strong evidence that the increase in the number of less-educated young men who are not working is not entirely a result of weak demand for their services.” He added, “They find evidence that a portion ... of the decrease in work time of less-educated young men can be a result of the appeal of video games.”
 
A few decades ago, an unemployed person might be stuck on the couch watching TV, isolated and depressed. Today, cheap or free services such as Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Netflix provide seemingly endless entertainment options and an easy connection to the outside world. Video games, in particular, provide a strong community and a sense of achievement that, for some, real-world jobs lack.
 

Excerpt from Wonkblog. Not a recent piece, but I thought of this thesis today during a conversation about declines in ratings for a variety of things from televised sports to movies and so on. It's much easier to assess a threat when it comes at you head on, in your exact industry. It's much harder to spot a threat that comes from an oblique angle, or in the case of business, from adjacent industries you know nothing about.

The marketplace for a person's time has gotten so crowded that competitors may not be aware who is stealing their market share. Who would've thought video games might cause some non-trivial percentage of young male unemployment?

Humans may be most attuned to this. We've never been so aware, at every moment now, of how charismatic and engaging we are as compared to another person's cell phone.

Last dance

Growing up, Keats was on my Leaving Cert English. One of the poems I loved was Ode on a Grecian Urn. It’s a lovely poem and the last few words are “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
 
That’s what I mean. He epitomises physical beauty in the way he plays and for anything we see that is beautiful in life we always feel there is a certain truth in it. It is an exposing of truth and that’s why people love sport. 
 
In a world of greys where nothing is clear, sport is clear. Sport defines stuff. We get winners and losers, villains and heroes. We get beautiful and ugly. He is the closest definition to beautiful as you can imagine playing any sport. Ali in his prime would have been a beautiful way to watch boxing. Definitely.
 
Roger also reminds me of a super hero in comic books. Real super heroes like Superman; even when he is under extreme pressure he never looks fully extended. If there is an avalanche or he has to lift up a mountain, he never looks like he is straining. 
 
He lifts the mountain with one hand. He never sweats. That’s Federer: you never feel that he is fully, fully extended. You always feel there is something left in reserve.
 

That's Mario Rosenstock on Roger Federer ahead of last weekend's Australian Open showdown with Rafael Nadal.

I stayed up until 5:30am watching the match. I had not seen near peak Federer and Nadal play in ages, and I'd given up hope that it would ever happen again. It felt like a privilege, a one time entry pass to a time machine that would take me to see two greats clash in their prime. I had some caffeine, to which I'm very sensitive, and plopped down in front of my TV for the night.

Perhaps they are a step slower than before. No one would expect anything less given their ages and accumulated wear and tear. And yet, to my eye, they seemed as good as ever.

I agree with Rosenstock that Federer's chief appeal has always been the aesthetic elegance of his game. Every shot of his seems choreographed for slow motion in an art gallery, like a piece of Bill Viola video art. That he never seems rushed or over-exerted implies that when you master the physical action of something, it becomes easy, not just in practice but in form. 

I disagree that Federer has never been fully extended, though. While his physical movements have never seemed strained, it is Nadal above all who has pushed Federer past his redline. I'll never forget the time Federer cried, after losing the 2009 Australian Open to Nadal, another match I stayed up all night to watch. Nadal owns a 23-12 edge vs. Federer head to head, but more than that numeric edge it's the way he's beaten Roger, almost physically overpowering him, to the point where he's seemed to break Federer's will. Rarely do you see Federer concede sets or go on strategic tilt, except vs. Nadal.

It's such a stylistic contrast, Nadal with almost no strokes that seem as effortless as any shot in Federer's arsenal (watch the highlights from their match and note that Nadal grunts after each stroke while Federer never makes a sound except for the occasional squeak of his sneakers). Every shot Nadal hits seems to require his full exertion, none more so than his forehand, which he hits with more topspin than anyone has ever hit a forehand . His follow through is so severe, the racket whipping up over his head and then back down over his opposite shoulder like a priest trying to whip himself on the back, that even without seeing the RPM statistics it is easy to believe they are unmatched in history.

It is that forehand, aimed at Federer's backhand wing, that has been decisive in so many of their matches. The one handed backhand is beautiful, especially Federer's, but it's a stroke uniquely vulnerable to shots with extreme topspin. Because of the way the human body is engineered, it is difficult to handle high balls, but the alternative, to stand closer and try to take those shots earlier off the bounce, requires incredible timing, strength, and coordination.

That's what was so incredible about Federer's win last weekend. In the past, he'd often shank backhands trying to handle Nadal's forehand, but in this match, I've never seen him hit his backhand so cleanly and aggressively. He sometimes won exchanges in which Nadal hit forehands at his backhand repeatedly (see for example the exchange that starts at 5:37 in this video), something that seemed unimaginable in the past.

More importantly, Federer finally changed tactice. Watch the highlights and look at where Federer's feet are in each exchange. Right up against the baseline. Now go back and watch Federer play Nadal in the French Open in 2007, to take an earlier confrontation between the two, and stare at Federer's feet again. He's several feet behind the baseline. He was taking backhands on the rise off the court, and whether it was his new, larger racket, which he switched to in recent years, or just improved timing, he was hitting the backhand as clean and as hard as he's ever hit it.

Commentators have long remarked that they'd love to see him switch up his strategy to challenge Nadal, his nemesis. Attack more second serves, approach net more, anything but trade with Nadal from the baseline. He did some of that in the Aussie Open final, but quite he was the aggressor while staying at the baseline. It was a surprise. The faster courts in Melbourne helped, but to switch things up at age 35 required, most of all, a fluidity of mind. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks?

The chief obstacle to seeing them meet like this again is probably their health, and so I hope they start taking more extended breaks between the majors to rest rather than work themselves to death in practice or in other tourneys on the circuit. They've done the grind in the past. What we want now are just the peaks.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

I love Steven Pinker's response to the 2017 Edge Question: what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

He chose the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I'm not sure that's a concept that needs more publicity, unless you consider almost all of science underrated, which is fair. It's his reason why he chose the law which is so striking:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.
 
To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.
 
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.
 

As Shelley once wrote:

"Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Moral Foundations Theory

Feinberg and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, have extensively studied how it is that liberals and conservatives—two groups that now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences—can convert people from the other side to their way of seeing things. One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.
 
For example, when Feinberg and Willer asked liberals to write an op-ed aiming to convince conservatives of the value of same-sex marriage, most wrote something to the tune of, “Why would we punish these people for being born a certain way? They deserve the same equal rights as other Americans.” The problem is, research on thousands of people around the world, summed up in something called Moral Foundations Theory, has shown that liberals are more likely than conservatives to endorse fairness-based arguments like these. Meanwhile, just 8 percent of the liberals in Willer and Feinberg’s study were able to craft an argument that would appeal to conservatives’ value of loyalty toward your own kind. (So something like, “Our fellow citizens of the United States of America deserve to stand alongside us ... We should lift our fellow citizens up, not bring them down.”) What’s worse, some of them picked an argument that directly contradicted what many conservatives value, with arguments like, “your religion should play no part in the laws of the United States.”
 

From Haidt in The Atlantic.

Bryan Caplan has proposed the ideological Turing Test: if you disagree with something, can you articulate the opposition's case as correctly as if you agreed with it? Whatever your belief in the merits of such a test, I find it a useful test by which to start a blog post. If I'm putting forth a position, have I thought through the counter and advocated for it intellectually? If I have and still feel resolute, I have enough conviction to proceed.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another, but perhaps what we need is a form of empathy of values to bridge the current culture wars. However, as Haidt notes, the challenge is that hopping outside your own value framing is extremely difficult.

So if it’s so easy, why don’t more people—either in studies or in real life—try this strategy?
 
“We tend to view our moral values as universal,” Feinberg told me. That “there are no other values but ours, and people who don't share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”
 
Some people just can’t bring themselves to take that last step, he said, even if they know it’s more effective. And perhaps the reason it’s so difficult is because politics is so deeply intertwined with our personal values. When something is important to us, it’s usually for a reason, and it’s hard to break free of those reasons, even for political expediency’s sake. To do so would take an abundance of empathy, and that’s in short supply all around these days.
 

That is, it might be ideologically appealing to have some version of "strong opinions, loosely held" for values, but people tend to only have strong values, strongly held. It's difficult for someone to be against abortion, for example, and say they only loosely subscribe to that principle.

Once we have strong opinions, we're likely to hold them tightly just reflexively, defensively, because that's one of the quirks of human programming. Also, it feels good to be part of the mob, holding a pitchfork. The blood races. Viva la revolution. 

To bridge to the other side, however, it's likely more effective to focus on Trump's general incompetence than his repugnant values, as disgusting as that might be to the opposition. There will be more than enough evidence on both fronts.

Twilight of the liberal world order?

The system has depended, however, on will, capacity, and coherence at the heart of the liberal world order. The United States had to be willing and able to play its part as the principal guarantor of the order, especially in the military and strategic realm. The order’s ideological and economic core order—the democracies of Europe and East Asia and the Pacific—had to remain relatively healthy and relatively confident. In such circumstances, the combined political, economic, and military power of the liberal world would be too great to be seriously challenged by the great powers, much less by the smaller dissatisfied powers.
 
In recent years, however, the liberal order has begun to weaken and fracture at the core. As a result of many related factors—difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism—there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project tended to elevate universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism; an increasing focus on the “other” in all societies; and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We have been witnessing something like the opposite of the “end of history” but have returned to history with a vengeance, rediscovering all the darker aspects of the human soul. That includes, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of seeming breakdown and incoherence.
 
This crisis of the enlightenment project may have been inevitable. It may indeed have been cyclical, due to inherent flaws in both capitalism and democracy, which periodically have been exposed and have raised doubts about both—as happened, for instance, throughout the West in the 1930s. Now, as then, moreover, this crisis of confidence in liberalism coincides with a breakdown of the strategic order. In this case, however, the key variable has not been the United States as the outside power and its willingness, or not, to step in and save or remake an order lost by other powers. Rather it is the United States’ own willingness to continue upholding the order that it created and which depends entirely on American power.
 

Sobering, from this Brookings Institution piece.

I don't know enough about history as a subject to judge the prognostication of historians and think tanks like Brookings. How to assess political realism as an explanatory theory? Perhaps some readers have a better sense of its predictive power.

All of it can seem like macroeconomics, maddeningly theoretical and imprecise. And yet the best of it has the appeal of strong narrative, which we humans love so much. It's too bad the story here, which seems quite plausible, is so bleak.

There is no stable balance of power in Europe or Asia without the United States. And while we can talk about soft power and smart power, they have been and always will be of limited value when confronting raw military power. Despite all of the loose talk of American decline, it is in the military realm where U.S. advantages remain clearest. Even in other great powers’ backyards, the United States retains the capacity, along with its powerful allies, to deter challenges to the security order. But without a U.S. willingness to use military power to establish balance in far-flung regions of the world, the system will buckle under the unrestrained military competition of regional powers.
 
If history is any guide, the next four years are the critical inflection point. The rest of the world will take its cue from the early actions of the new administration. If the next president governs as he ran, which is to say if he pursues a course designed to secure only America’s narrow interests; focuses chiefly on international terrorism—the least of the challenges to the present world order; accommodates the ambitions of the great powers; ceases to regard international economic policy in terms of global order but only in terms of America’s bottom line narrowly construed; and generally ceases to place a high priority on reassuring allies and partners in the world’s principal strategic theaters—then the collapse of the world order, with all that entails, may not be far off.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa

I laughed at this review of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's movie Creepy on Letterboxd:

I miss the old Kiyoshi. The can't-be-sold Kiyoshi. Back in the fold Kiyoshi. That was the bold Kiyoshi. Remember Cure Kiyoshi? That wasn't your Kiyoshi? 'Cause that was my Kiyoshi. Damn, that was fly, Kiyoshi! You came with Kairo, Kiyoshi. That shit was fire, Kiyoshi! Even Bright Future Kiyoshi, that ill repute Kiyoshi. I dug it all, Kiyoshi. So why'd you stall, Kiyoshi? And then that Journey to the Shore? You got some gall, Kiyoshi!
 
I miss the real Kiyoshi. I miss the real Kiyoshi. The danger you can't see but you can feel Kiyoshi. Stain on the wall Kiyoshi. Man, that was all Kiyoshi. Remember jellyfishin' mesmerism baller Kiyoshi?
 

Click through to read the rest. Letterboxd doesn't seem to have a large audience, and the site is still sluggish, but it's gathered what feels like the last of the cinephiles in a cozy little commune. Whereas many still turn to Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic to make filmgoing decisions, I'm far more reliant on reviews from folks I follow on Letterboxd.

Having watched over 3,000 movies in my life, I now crave both narrative and formal novelty much more than I used to, and the average mainstream film has lost a lot of its appeal. I still love to sit in a darkened theater, alone with just the image on the screen. True, there are only so many plots, but how the movies choose to shoot them can also do with constant renewal. A quick scan of ratings and reviews on Letterboxd is a far more reliable gauge to locating the type of movie I'm likely to enjoy at this stage in my life. In the area of aesthetic evaluation, score a small victory for niche-community-based reviews over the professional critic community (what little of the latter remains) or over algorithms like Netflix recommendations.

I'm a Kiyoshi Kurosawa fan, but I've yet to see Creepy. I'll always have a sentimental attachment to Kurosawa because his movie Cure was really the first movie I remember seeing at a film festival, at the Seattle International Film Festival way back in 2001 (?). It is creepy and sublime and a great introduction to his techniques for building dread. When I think of his movies I think of suspense built out in a single shot, usually a long or medium shot, with no cuts, as if the other more famous Kurosawa had decided to venture into horror and suspense. Kiyoshi Kurosawa would make an interesting VR director.

You see a Kurosawa scene playing out almost as if shot with a camcorder pointed out a mundane scene from everyday life, and then, bit by bit, you spot it. Evil. Uncoiling almost casually, camouflaged because it moves at the same pace as everyday life. It's what I think of as his signature style, a way to locate the horror hiding in plain sight amidst the seeming order of everyday Japanese life. I've only seen Cure that one time at SIFF and yet I can still picture some of the scenes, the mise-en-scene was so striking.

If you're a fan of Se7en or No Country For Old Men, give Cure a spin. I deliberately chose two very famous movies, though they are formally very distinct from Kurosawa's style, because they rhyme thematically. They inspired, in me, a claustrophobic sense of dread. The most terrifying evil is the one that can't be explained, can't be understood. In confronting it you look into the abyss.

Facts are still high cost, low virality

My friend Aaron wrote me in response to my piece Tower of Babel. It was thoughtful and he gave me permission to copy it here.

Regarding filter bubbles: you addressed information consumption but not information production.
 
Have you ever been to an out-of-control town-hall meeting? You know: one of those nightmare evenings on a hot-button issue that's poorly moderated, overly emotional, under-factual, with low information quality, self-promotional speakers, hardened political positions and an absolute din of side conversations? Such things happen in the real world, too, and that's what the current online state of affairs reminds me of.
 
Part of the reason for this is that Facebook, Twitter and online-comment forums have driven barriers to entry to near zero for OPINION production and broadcasting. And in the attention economy, a frictionless virality is the Holy Grail for any profit-maximizing firm. Nothing drives virality like outrage. And nothing drives opinion production by Homo sapiens sapiens like the opportunity to be liked a whole bunch instantly. Facebook has pulled all the design stops to encourage attention whores to feed the social graph and has used its market power to usurp news traffic while avoiding a concomitant journalistic responsibility. Twitter => 140 characters => anyone can tweet => often. And of course attention-economy profits are further increased for firms that can also minimize their moderation and editorial costs via automated algorithms and user-operated filters.
 
Is the end result at all surprising?
 
Add to these things the explosion of images, meme gifs and video -- further developments that change the nature of what is communicated and the relative densities of information vs. emotion; we have basically experienced the TV-ification of a once text-based Internet. You will recall that much of the BETTER-WORLD HOPE of the Internet 20 years ago was projected from the idea that the web was a super-fancy set of linked-up electronic books and that email was the means for any scholar to write to any other for the advancement of knowledge [imagine any suitable emoji here]. 
 
Meanwhile, journalism's FACT-finding remains expensive while its business model has been eviscerated. And: few facts go viral.
 
The results for our political discourse: 1) the raw information published today is lower average quality; 2) the mechanisms for information refinement are dramatically weaker; 3) the incentive to be heard drives a Darwinian process towards particular signals that cut through whatever present background exists.
 
I think adding these production-side aspects to the consumption-side points that you made provides a more complete picture. Also important (to my eyes anyway) is that we seem to be entering a period of some paradigmatic uncertainty in the United States and globally; such uncertainties would stress political discourse no matter the technological backdrop. It might only be possible to understand some developments with hindsight.
 

A question for readers: what systems, in any realm, at any point in time, rewarded quality over provocation, for a mass audience? I can think of systems that have done so at very small scales, but when the problem to be tackled has the advantage of scale, the solution may need to work at that same level.