Eliza’s realist vision of AI

Content note: I’m not going out of my way to spoil the game, but I’ll mention some aspects of one of the endings.

Eliza is a visual novel by Zachtronics–a game studio better known for its programming puzzle games. It’s about the titular Eliza, an AI that offers counseling services. The counseling services are administered through a human proxy, a low-paid worker who is instructed to read out Eliza’s replies to the client. It’s an exploration of the value–or lack thereof–of AI technology, and the industry that produces it.

As a professional data scientist, media representation of AI is a funny thing. AI is often represented as super-intelligent–smarter than any human, and able to solve many of the world’s problems. But people’s fears about AI are also represented, often through narratives of robot revolutions or surveillance states. Going by the media representation, it seems like people have bought into a lot of the hype about AI, believing it to be much more powerful than it is–and on the flipside, fearing that AI might be too powerful. Frankly a lot of these hopes and fears are not realistic, or at least not apportioned correctly to the most likely issues.

Eliza is refreshing because it presents a more grounded vision of AI, where the problems with AI have more to do with it not being powerful enough, and with the all-too-human industry that produces it.

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Answering physics FAQs without preparation

Experts don’t know everything. Often, they only know how to look things up, and how to understand what they find. If you’ve ever seen physicists answering a physics FAQ, those answers took a lot of effort to get right. Some common questions are in fact really complicated, or hard, or maybe they just aren’t about the things that physicists normally think about.

With humorous intent, I’m going to answer a bunch of frequently asked questions, sampled from this physics FAQ by John Baez. And I’m doing it without preparation, so the answers will be bad.

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Link Roundup: January 2022

Circumgender: A Gender/fucked history | Fox Auslander (zine) – This zine tells a story of a single microlabel.  It was supposedly coined by a 13-year old girl on Tumblr, but in fact the girl was the fabrication of a then self-proclaimed truscum (roughly means a binary trans person who doesn’t believe in nonbinary identities).  Now, the term is regularly mocked by TERFs, while also being “reclaimed” by a small number of people who identify with the experience it describes.  The original coiner collaborated to make this zine to beg people to stop.

You may have heard of the many microlabels that have been coined, especially in relation to asexual or nonbinary experiences.  These microlabels often have a secret history.  They’re not usually hoaxes–so far as I know–but they tend to be individual projects.  They rarely gain much traction as identities, but often gain disproportionate attention.  I have no ill will towards people who like adopting uncommon labels, and a few of them are more successful than you might think, but I’m extremely critical of resources that list all these identities without any real context on what’s going on.  If you’ve ever used the LGBTA wiki, please don’t, it’s completely littered with terms that were basically dead on arrival, and it routinely fails to supply that important bit of context.

‘Buy the Constitution’ Aftermath: Everyone Very Mad, Confused, Losing Lots of Money, Fighting, Crying, Etc. | Vice Motherboard – A cryptocurrency-based organization crowdfunded $40M to bid on a copy of the US Constitution, but ultimately lost the auction.  People donated eth in exchange for tokens that supposedly gave them voting power over a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO).  However, the details of how this governance would actually work was never quite worked out, and the decentralized organization was in fact centralized in all but name.  Even though the governance tokens are theoretically tied to a concrete amount of money, prices fluctuated wildly due to speculation and erratic behavior from the central group. I think if the central group was smart, they made a killing by making trades prior to their own public announcements.

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Sexual identity and topology

One of the consequences of having a great deal of math and physics education, is that whenever I learn about something, I internally encode it as math, even if nobody else is thinking of it that way. Today I’m going to share one of the more ridiculous examples, the analogy between identity labels and topology.

I’m mainly thinking about sexual identity labels, and especially arguments over boundaries of those labels. I’m thinking of how people claim “everyone is a little bisexual”; or they argue about the validity of bisexual lesbians; or they ask “isn’t demisexuality just normal?”; or they draw sharp distinctions between asexual, gray-asexual, and allosexual.

In all these arguments, there is the essentialist viewpoint, which says that everyone has an underlying sexuality, and each word covers (or should cover) a specific space of sexualities. If your underlying sexuality falls within the domain of the identity label you use, then your label is “correct”, and if it doesn’t, then your label is “incorrect”.

I disagree with the essentialist viewpoint, and I frequently point to prototype theory, family resemblance theory, and Wittgenstein as alternatives. But I also feel that if you’re going to take the essentialist viewpoint, obviously you should take it all the way, and learn about the math that you’re implicitly using. I am not going to “prove” that essentialism is wrong, and if you summarize my essay as “Mathematics disproves essentialism” then so help me, you did not read the fourth paragraph. The goal is to explore the implicit mathematical framework of essentialism, and point out its unaesthetic aspects.

Of course, I don’t recommend actually using this in an argument, since it relies on teaching people math.

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Origami: Crane Heart

Crane Heart

Crane Heart, designer unknown

The origami crane is probably the most iconic design in origami, so naturally people make all sorts of designs that riff on it.  This design has a crane grafted onto a heart.  It’s easy to find video instructions for this one, although I haven’t found any credited designer.

Happy new year!

Link Roundup: December 2021

Just a couple videos in today’s roundup, and that’s probably it for me this year.  See you in 2022!

Disney’s FastPass: A Complicated History | Defunctland (video, 1:43 hours) – A detailed exploration of the virtual queue systems used in Disneyland and Disney World, explaining their advantages and disadvantages.  I grew up in Los Angeles and we had annual passes during the paper FastPass era… I didn’t realize how good we had it.  Although it is true that we had the routing problem of walking to the ride to get a FastPass, and then returning again an hour later to ride.  And the result is that my memories of Disneyland are strongly associated with listening to my parents bicker about optimizing the routing all the time.

I Found the Worst Christian Show | Big Joel (video, 37 min) – Joel watches episodes of Dream Motel, explaining how it often comes close to telling a decent story, but frequently veers off, defying conventional narrative logic.  A fun video, it feels like it provides insight into the American Christian mindset, although it’s hard to put into words what that insight actually is.  I wonder whether the show actually makes sense within the expectations of its target audience, or if it would just be perceived as bad writing.

Reviewing “outsider” music

In past years, I’ve made lists of drone and xenharmonic music. This year, I’d like to review examples of “outsider” music. Also called “naïve” or “incorrect” music, it’s frequently defined as music made by people who lack formal training, or who come from outside the musical establishment. I think the definition is a bit bogus though, because many of the most famous examples don’t actually fit. I would describe it as music with unconventional appeal, often standing diametrically opposite to what is considered “good” in music. And usually there’s a narrative (true or not) about how the artist is leveraging their lack of skill or experience in order to produce something especially unique or authentic.

This is not the sort of article where I praise each and every artist, or advocate for the value of the outsider genre. Rather, my goal is simply to listen to outsider music and give my honest opinion. This list was compiled by looking through other people’s lists (such as this list on RateYourMusic) and selecting those who were most frequently cited. I also threw in a personal favorite.

I think it’s easy to form a self image of being Not Like Other Music Fans, where your favorite music is the weird stuff, and the weirder the better. And that’s me, I have been that guy. But this is hardly a coherent preference, because there are just so many different ways to be weird. And one thing I have learned from writing this article, is that the outsider genre spans quite a large range. What I personally find valuable about the outsider genre is its ability to reveal where one’s preferences actually lie.

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