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Phenomenological question for the day

Will robots ever be able to lose — misplace — things?

I suspect that the answer is “no.”

But then: will robots ever really be able to find things?

Isn’t it precisely the lost thing that we find?

Isn’t it the case that losing is a capability, rather than a program dysfunction?

And that on this capability, the countervailing capability of finding is predicated?

(Alternative post title: After making and eating a mediocre sandwich I am unable for some time to find the mayonnaise lid until suddenly seeing it where I had placed it, upside down, in dim light on an inverted bowl of the same colour.)

When we were Kings

Teaching report. As usual when my learning-the-Bible course gets to 1st and 2nd Kings, with the building of the Temple and everything after, I shared with my students the website of the Temple Institute, an association of ultra-ultra-right Israelis who are committed to building a Third Temple on the ancient site, Al-Aqsa mosque be damned, and to reinstating Old Testament Judaism, complete with High Priest, animal sacrifices, etc. They even think they know where to find the Ark of the Covenant (in a secret chamber dug by Solomon). So we were amazed and amused by all that, as usual. But THIS time, I also had video of Netanyahu shouting about the Temple Mount, on the occasion of the US moving its Embassy to Jerusalem. And his words rolling out over CGI of the rebuilt Temple. And Ivanka and Jared beaming in the audience. And rich powerful morons in MAGA hats, applauding to the echo.

And it was like: holy

f**ng

s*t

A sort-of scripture for Labour Day

From the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus — and it’s a shame this one got “taken away” from the canonical Bible, cause it’s damn good.

“The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: & he that hath little busines shall become wise.

How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad; that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks?

He giveth his mind to make furrows: and is diligent to give the kine fodder.

So every carpenter, and workmaster, that laboureth night and day: and they that cut and grave seals, and are diligent to make great variety, and give themselves to counterfeit imagery, and watch to finish a work.

The smith also sitting by the anvil, & considering the iron work; the vapour of the fire wasteth his flesh, and he fighteth with the heat of the furnace: the noise of the hammer & the anvil is ever in his ears, and his eyes look still upon the pattern of the thing that he maketh, he setteth his mind to finish his work, & watcheth to polish it perfectly.

So doth the potter sitting at his work, and turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set at his work: and maketh all his work by number.

He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet: he applieth himself to lead it over; and he is diligent to make clean the furnace.

All these trust to their hands: and every one is wise in his work.

Without these cannot a city be inhabited: and they shall not dwell where they will, nor go up and down.

They shall not be sought for in public council; nor sit high in the congregation: they shall not sit on the Judges seat, nor understand the sentence of judgement: they cannot declare justice, and judgement, and they shall not be found where parables are spoken.

But they will maintain the state of the world, and all their desire is in the work of their craft.”

—Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34

Design thought for the day

A paradox of modernism (in architecture): The very emphasis on function as dogmatically determining form — functionality being what every formal element of the building is supposed to express — places a tremendous burden on the details: exact proportions, materials, finishes, etc. The resulting register is maximally aesthetic. This is how 2 buildings in, say, the International Style can be almost identical, in terms of the big stuff (size shape technique blah blah blah), yet fall on either side of the divide between brilliant and crap. It’s the small stuff that decides. Modernism is decorative.

(Alternative blog post title: On walking up to SFU in mild rain I am struck by the difference between the Madge Hogarth residence, which is really quite a satisfying example of austere 60s Brutalism, and the adjacent West Mall Centre, which is a witless 80s imitation of the earlier building, adding curves and nautical windows and a jaunty railing.)

Seven kinds of silencing

As somebody interested in language, dialogue, rhetoric, and so on, I’ve always been fascinated, as well as appalled, by strategies of silencing. That’s when one party to a conversation tries to get a decisive advantage over another by claiming to occupy a position outside the conversation itself, but framing and controlling it. The silencer tries to assert his or her alignment with some dominant “rule,” and to claim that the silencee has broken it and should therefore shut up. Of course, there are no rules for conversation, which is why silencing is always a dishonest, bad-faith, and cowardly attempt to avoid the challenge of seeking agreement about a subject-matter — that is, trying to understand it. Unfortunately, we appear to be entering a Golden Age of silencing, so I thought it might it be helpful to review some of its typical strategies. We can’t prevent people from trying these, but we can prevent them from succeeding, by recognizing their BS and calling them on it.

When you are putting your point of view to a silencer, he or she will try to shut you down by saying things like these (the list is not exhaustive, or in any particular order):

(1) “Your view is against the rules.” This is classic, as it were generic, silencing.

(2) “This isn’t the right time for your view.” A variation on the classic. 

(3) “Your view is not against the rules, but the way you’re putting it is.” This one I’ve noticed recently. It’s just another variation on (1). Many sub-variations, from specification of that “way.”

(4) “All of this has already been decided.” In-with-the-in-crowd silencing.

(5) “Everybody already knows about this.” Ditto.

(6) “Chill out!” Less chill than it sounds.

(7) “Your view is too dangerous!” This is a new one too, I think. It’s when the silencer tries to project a moral panic around the whole conversation, like a kid pulling the fire alarm to get out of an exam. Sadly, s/he probably does that because s/he experiences this panic internally every time s/he comes to the table of dialogue. And perhaps that holds for silencers in general. Although some of them, I suspect, are just authoritarian. 

How should we respond to silencers? Sadly, I think it depends on the strategy they’re using, the context, and many other factors. In other words, it ain’t easy. Silencing is a crime against conversation. If crime didn’t pay, at least in the short term, there wouldn’t be criminals.

But the first step, I’m pretty sure, is to see what’s happening and say: stop it.

The AV experience

There’s a roboticist at Columbia called Hod Lipson who has literally written the book on autonomous vehicles (AVs). Recently I came across an interview with him from a couple of years ago.

“No human driver,” Lipson states, “can have more than one lifetime of driving experience. A car that is part of an AI network can, within a year, have a thousand lifetimes of experience … these cars will drive better than any human has ever driven. They will have experienced every possible situation.”

Question: can a car experience?

Clearly not. Experience is the form of our encounter with the world. Cars don’t have a world to encounter. They do not have experiences.

By the same token: cars can’t become experienced. The situations they traverse don’t make them better cars. They just make them old.

Lipson might respond: “ok, sure, but it’s not just the car. It’s the computer-in-the-car.”

Can a computer experience?

Again, clearly not, and for exactly the same reasons.

Supposing that a combination of non-experiencing beings will lead to an experiencing being is like supposing that a top hat on a snowman will make him dance and sing.

It seems to me that what’s at stake here is the fundamental question of how, or whether, an AI system can replicate, or mimic, our encounter with the world.

Lipson suggests that cars can have experiences because he hasn’t even thought about it.

I think that’s pretty dumb.