Killer Whales

Are killer whales persons?

A more modern and future-proof definition of personhood might be based on functional characteristics of a lifeform instead of its outward morphology. But it’s still one big simplistic property, and that’s a bit problematic. Being categorized a person – in much the same way as being labeled intelligent – might more properly be represented by a multi-dimensional gradient rather than a single scalar value. It’s better than the current consensus which is based on a boolean variable though.

Ascribing personhood to a very big mammal is a relatively easy sell. However, no matter what characteristics we choose to define it with (complex social behavior, a sense of ethics, altruism, advanced problem solving, capability for human-like emotions, and so on), we’re liable to end up adding a lot of other mammals to that list as well, plus a few species of birds and possibly some other surprising lifeforms.

It seems to me that the overdue shift in thinking is not about whether or not we should carve out a personhood exception for the killer whale. We should rather rethink the value we ascribe to non-human intelligent life in general.

 

Reddit: an Incubator of Hate?

What’s up with hate groups living on Reddit?

I disagree that Reddit is an incubator of hate, but the article makes a good point showing it’s a channel for all kinds of communication, including – apparently indiscriminately – racism and other kinds of hate.

In much the same way 4chan was getting increasingly linked in public opinion with the bad things happening in /b/, it appears that Reddit has similar albatrosses around its neck. At that point, it becomes very difficult to get rid of a worrisome user segment – because of their nature and number, any action to drive them away has a huge potential to backfire.

This is a bad position to be in for a business: you need to placate a growing number of mean-spirited users who constantly probe the boundaries of what they can get away with, and yet you have to do everything you can to avoid the problem that your brand is publicly identified with the hate groups residing on your site.

I want to point out that the goals of a company having these problems are not necessarily the goals of people who want to deprive hate groups from having a public and company-supported outlet.

 

Killing off Wasabi

Fog Creek is getting rid of their DSL.

> Building an in-house compiler rarely makes sense.

I disagree. First of all, Wasabi solved a real problem which doesn’t exist anymore: customers had limited platform support available and Fog Creek needed to increase the surface area of their product to cover as many of the disparate platforms as possible. Today, if all else fails, people can just fire up an arbitrarily configured VM or container. There is much less pressure to, for example, make something that runs on both ASP.NET and PHP. We are now in the fortunate position to pick just one and go for it.

Second, experimenting with language design should not be reserved for theoreticians and gurus. It should be a viable option for normal CS people in normal companies. And for what it’s worth, Wasabi might have become a noteworthy language outside Fog Creek. There was no way to know at the time. In hindsight, it didn’t, but very few people have the luxury of designing a language which they know upfront will be huge. For example, Erlang started out being an internal tool at just one company, designed to solve a specific set of problems. Had they decided that doing their own platform was doomed to fail, the world would be poorer for it today.

There are lots of reasons why maintaining and using Wasabi was no longer feasible, but that doesn’t mean people should abstain from developing their own languages and platforms just because it lead to nasty code that one time at Fog Creek! And it’s a “failure” that – from what I can tell – was a pretty good business decision at the time. But even if you discard that, even if you assert this was nothing but badness with no upside whatsoever, it would still be a learning experience.

When a rider falls off a horse, they have to make a decision: abandon the idea of horse riding (“riding your own horse rarely makes sense”), or apply that as a lesson to your skill set and re-mount. While there is nothing wrong in deciding that, upon reflection, horse riding was not for you, I think it’s harmful to go out and announce to the community that riding your own horse rarely makes sense and should be left to the pros. Because what you’re left with then is a world where the only riding is done by dressage performers.

(Sorry, that analogy got a bit out of hand, and admittedly I know nothing about horses, but I hope the point is still discernable.)

Destructive Discourse Between People with 95% Overlapping Opinions

I’m an atheist. I think religion holds no valid claims over the nature of reality and is overall a force of evil in the world. I am for gender equality, and I do believe that while gender discrimination exists towards both sexes to an absurd degree, that overwhelmingly it’s women who find themselves at the shitty end of these traditions. Both of these convictions are at war with each other, without any compelling reason, on social media.

Maybe somewhat disappointingly, my personal opinion in these matters comes from an internal default position rather than extensive cultural exposure. I never really considered religious beliefs to be something else than fairy tales. I never really think about myself or other people primarily as representatives of a gender, so I don’t have any gender-specific expectations or conventions in mind, and I kind of expect other people to be the same way. (There’s a recent Vi Hart video that pretty much sums up my mindset in this regard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmKix-75dsg)

I follow a couple of atheists and feminists on Youtube, and like in all such things, I find myself agreeing with them sometimes and disagreeing at other times. I consider this normal: you don’t subscribe to a person as a whole, but certain people are more likely to reflect your views or to make interesting arguments than others.

The problem is ever since Gamergate, I’ve been watching those groups tear each other apart. Atheists and feminists seem to be at each others’ throats a lot, but what’s more there is actual some bitter conflict between, say, people promoting gender equality and others carrying the feminism flag.

We’re now at a point where some labels, although they may have been convenient at some point, simply don’t mean a lot anymore – yet, they that’s also the time where fighting over perceived allegiances seems to be most fierce and ultimately most pointless.

The sad thing is, people are using this to have pointless, personal fights – and watching people you actually liked behaving in this way is disappointing. For example, you get a lot of atheists suddenly viciously attacking Anita Sarkeesian: the person, not her opinions. Do I agree with everything she ever said? No. But do I think there are some valid points in there worthy of further discussion? Hell, yes! By the same token, more often than not the Amazing Atheist is to me a thoughtful guy expressing a lot of stuff that makes sense to me, but there are other times when he expresses things – especially when he’s doing the Drunken Peasants rounds – that I just can’t agree with. People who would otherwise be characterized as reasonable, such as MrRepzion, sometimes stoop to low-grade personal attacks and what looks like willful misinterpretations of what adversaries said.

All of this happens for no particular reason, and to no particular end, other than to have a war. These are people who could have led a meaningful discourse on the subject, but instead they chose to become worse enemies to each other than the groups who they actually purport to fight. Instead of providing a cultural counterweight to the growing influence of conservative ideas in public opinion, they prefer to be at each others’ throats, doing their very best to personally destroy self-declared adversaries who actually agree with 95% of their opinions.

Maybe I’m missing something. Chances are, I am. The most obvious explanation is that all of these people need to make a living off their channels and speaking engagements. And to be honest, I kind of envy they have that option. Maybe it should give me pause that I don’t see anyone in my auto-suggested YT playlist who is willing to offer a reasonable and rational alternative opinion – it’s just escalating polemics and name calling all the way down. That’s probably because reasonable people get like 3 views and we’ll never know they exist.

However, if you do need conflict and drama to get subscribers, why choose something so destructive to your own cause?

Peace the fuck out.

TV: The Dark Matter Pilot (or: a Belated Eulogy for SGU)

I like to watch pilots of TV shows. It’s generally understood that they tend to be rough around the edges, neither the characters nor the plot are expected to be fully fleshed out. But they need to show promise, they do need to make some argument about why this show will be interesting to watch. Most people will likely empathize when I say 90%+ of series don’t hold any interest for me at all. So when I feel compelled to write about something I liked, that’s a real sign of passion – and when I am disappointed in something to the point of blogging about it, it is also because of passion. Science fiction is, among other things, a subject I do care about and it’s also a ready source of disappointment because it’s so easy to get wrong – both subjectively and objectively.

The opening scene of Dark Matter shows us a starship adrift, switches from an overview exterior of the vessel to a camera gliding through empty, damaged corridors until finally centering in on a bunch of confused people who just arrived at the place. I worded this a little vague because that’s exactly the opening scene from Stargate Universe, too.

The differences in execution could not be more pronounced, however. I was never a Stargate fan before, but when that wonderful, rusty old space ship dropped out of FTL to a perfectly orchestrated soundtrack, when the camera panned through the corridors as ancient machines came back to life for the first time in thousands of years, when the view finally centered on that open portal with a stream of panicked evacuees coming through it, I fell in love with that show. Within the first two minutes. The set design was so unique, the space ship built with love and attention to detail, the characters had so much chemistry that I only figured out much later they were in fact not a spinoff of some pre-existing ensemble of characters and actors. These things made me more than eager to forgive and forget many, oh so many, of the series’ flaws for most of its run.

Judging from the pilot, however, Dark Matter could not be more different although it is very clearly and intentionally positioned to fill the niche SGU left behind. Where SGU’s actors and characters were varied and (mostly) interesting, the people in Dark Matter are all young, beautiful, and exceedingly bland. Maybe the utter lack of personality is by design, because the writers literally gave these characters only numbers in lieu of actual names. The problem is though their generic qualities are so oppressively emphatic, as a viewer I really don’t care about any of them either.

Dark Matter’s set design and overall cinematography is so badly done it actually made me laugh out loud at several points while watching it. I swear some of these scenes looked and felt as if I was watching raw footage from an irony-free science fiction LARP, or alternatively, a bunch of business school students in a laser tag arena.

When a generic science fiction show was featured on Castle one time it had a more thoughtfully built set, better CGI, and special effects than Dark Matter. And remember, on Castle it was meant to be funny, but on Dark Matter I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw the twentieth generic spark pyro go off in that generic ship corridor (to hammer the message home that the ship is damaged), or whenever the hilariously bad computer console action was taking place (which was often). My suspension of disbelief was not just interrupted a few times, at no point was any suspension ever allowed to build up in the first place.

And the plot, oh the plot. Amnesia. Literally. It’s like that Buffy episode where Willow had erased everybody’s memory, only without the lovable characters. It could still have worked though, if the show had any atmosphere, or interesting figures, or even just some cool tech.

I apologize if anyone involved in the show ends up reading this, but as a viewer I felt like you were mocking your audience. Like you didn’t care how unconvincing the ship looks, or how strenuous it would be to reach into the deepest wells of patience to muster some semblance of interest for these forgettable characters. The trouble is, and we both know this, dear hypothetical show runner, that you clearly did care at some point – and so did I, obviously, that’s the source of my disappointment. It comes from the fact that this could have been great. A show like that doesn’t get made without people being passionate about it, and it’s so extremely sad that none of this passion made it across the screen. I don’t claim that I could have done better, but I do claim what probably sank this show before it began was there’s obviously someone missing at some place in the production process, someone who says “no” to things.

SGU, for all its many problems, in hindsight, probably had such a person on the team. Someone who cared about making a couple of painted plywood walls and 3D models into an actual place inside the minds of their viewers. Someone who cared about making good hard-science-fiction plots instead of just doing variations on Farscape. Someone who cared more about hiring interesting actors and writing actual characters than merely trying to appeal “to a younger audience”. Of course, on SGU, that hypothetical person didn’t always win. But they made enough of an impact to foster a real connection to the show.

It seems to me, from watching the pilot, nobody on the Dark Matter team cared about these things enough to fill that role. To do good science fiction, it’s not merely enough to append “…in space” to plots and sprinkle them liberally with tech concepts pilfered from 50 years of shows that came before. It must be intrinsically cool. It must appeal to nerds and normal people alike. It must take risks, and it must above all else create a believable world for 40 minutes at a time. These things are incredibly hard, because on top of all that you still have to deliver all the other features people expect from entertaining shows. I couldn’t do this, not even remotely. But I do see when it’s not working. I do see when writers and producers don’t care in places where they should have. And it disappoints me because all that budget, all those years of hard work, all that promise, and all that vision was just dumped on a barren field, and left to rot because someone assumed sci-fi nerds would eat anything.

I regret not the hour spent watching this and blogging about it, I regret that it’s another opportunity unfulfilled.

Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret: It’s All About Age

From Techcrunch:

The young understand new technologies better than the old do, and are like a clean slate: they will rapidly learn the latest coding methods and techniques, and they don’t carry any “technology baggage”.  As well, the older worker likely has a family and needs to leave by 6 pm, whereas the young can pull all-nighters.

I’m definitely old – going on 40 this year – and I don’t recognize myself in that argument. I think the reason why these points sound like they’re made up is because they are, in fact, made up to justify something that’s already been decided based on feeling.

I would be very surprised if investments with old, smart, and driven people were correlated with failure. Considering the bias against age is so strong, I believe more than one person would have reveled in pointing that out already if the data remotely allowed for that conclusion.

There’s a difference between what they say the reasons for discrimination are and what they actually are. There are plenty of young developers with families and plenty of old ones without (including myself) – it’s not clear at all that having a family makes you less likely to get hired.

If anything, older programmers tend to learn new tech faster and more efficiently – it’s usually the young who complain they can’t do something because they have never done it before. The more experienced ones know they can most likely acquire domain knowledge where need be.

Whether all-nighters are actually a productive work mode is highly debatable, but they are a stop-gap measure when something needs to be done right now instead of done well. In these cases, I’ll be just as likely as a young person to work through the night (if not even more so).

I think the primary reason why founders only hire young people is also the reason why employees are more likely to be white and male, and it’s got nothing to do with malice per se. The reasons you hear against the hiring of people belonging to a certain group always sound similar, and that’s because they’re made up after the decision was already formed on an emotional level. The simple truth is that most people like to surround themselves with other people who are just like them. For an entrepreneur more often than not this means hiring the young.

It’s sad this needs to be pointed out but it applies in many situations: make decisions based on the person in front of you, not the group they happen to belong to.

[contains cross-posted content from this HN thread]

 

return() People Are Confused

…says Linus Torvalds:

> return(0);
Absolutely. Anybody who does that is just terminally confused. “return()” is in no way a function.

I’d like to confess that I’m one of the return() people, and I also do if() even in cases where the language in question doesn’t require it. This behavior isn’t borne out of confusion about what is and what isn’t a special language construct. Rather, it helps me prop up the illusion that programming is about using a few simple primitives instead of being the chain of compiler directives it actually entails – it’s an esthetic choice if not always a logical one.

The thought that if() could just be a lazily-evaluated function taking a code block argument, and that return() could be a way of marking the end result of an expression somehow pleases me.

I think the different expectations about sizeof() come from the artificial distinction between operators and functions, the implication being that in a compiled language the sizeof operator would be a compile-time construct, or barring that, at least a behavior of the type system. On the other hand, there are tons of compiler intrinsics in C/C++ that look exactly like functions but aren’t.

Plastination vs. Cryonics – Spoiler: Cryonics Sucks, Still Wins

Profile_of_intense_and_punctate_reelin_IR_during_hippocampal_maturation_journal_pone_0005505_g001_cr

Here’s an analysis of the respective benefits and drawbacks of Plastination vs. Cryonics in respect to neuropreservation: http://www.gwern.net/plastination

However, a central part of the argument is missing from the essay. Namely how absolutely awful plastination is for any purpose that needs to feature the preservation of protein structures. I believe people have been mislead by how awesome the specimen look to the naked eye and microscope that they forget it’s an aggressive multi-step extraction and replacement procedure taking days to complete. The overall biochemical information loss is in fact more severe than just letting the organs soak in formalin for a few decades.

“current plastination techniques sufficing to create connectomes, but what does it miss?”

I’m not worried about neurotransmitter levels or electrical activity, there are enough events during a normal lifetime where these can be severely compromised without any long term effects. What I am worried about, though, is the fine structure of “custom” proteins – meaning proteins that have been specifically generated by the brain to modulate the activity of one or more very specific neurons. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that these serve an important role in long term memory formation and function.

I strongly suspect digitizing the connectome by itself may not be enough in the same way that saving the structure of an artificial neural network without preserving info about any weights, activation functions, and other parameters is not enough to reproduce the network later.

White Matter Connections obtained with MRI Tractography
White Matter Connections obtained with MRI Tractography

“by copying the digital data to many archives and formats online and offline. No such option is available to a cryonics brain unless it abandons cryonics entirely”

How you judge this depends on what you’re trying to achieve with cryonics. In theory, a destructive scan of a cryo-preserved brain should yield more and better data than that of a plastinated one. The question becomes: do we need that additional data or not?

I’d like cryonics to preserve brains until it becomes clear how to scan them adequately. By comparison, cryonic preservation is a relatively gentle process, whereas plastination imposes some heavy chemical changes on the brain to the point where it’s entirely likely that too much information could be lost. The promise of cryonics lies not in a biological resurrection at a later date, but in giving researchers enough time to figure out how to actually do an upload. It may well turn out that plastinated remains are a sufficient data source, but contrast that with cryonics where much fewer doubts about the preservation of the necessary information exist.

Of course, cryonics is beyond problematic – it requires constant and costly upkeep. And more importantly, just a few days of political, economical, or technological instability can easily wipe out every cryo-preserved brain in existence. So it’s clear this can’t be a solution for the next few hundreds or years. It’s a solution for the next few decades at best (until the first provider goes bankrupt).

The options, in a word, all suck.

The Real Difference between Cryonics and Plastination, from an Information Theoretic Point of View

Golgi-stained neurons from somatosensory cortex in the macaque monkey, from brainmaps.org
Golgi-stained neurons from somatosensory cortex in the macaque monkey, from brainmaps.org

Plastination: What you need to be aware of is that, while the finished specimen look very good and life-like, they are radically altered on a biochemical level. All the water and lipids get replaced by resin. That requires soaking them in formaldehyde, acetone, and other chemicals before resin can even be applied. This process absolutely destroys proteins, in fact it relies on that. Also, the whole process takes days to complete, and during that time bio matter is actually being washed out and the whole structure is in motion. There is absolutely no question that information is lost here, in droves. If you believe plastination has a decent chance of preserving people’s minds, you’re operating under the assumption that the connectome itself will yield enough data for an upload.

Cryonics: Compared to that, freezing is, well freezing. Molecular motion almost ceases, so the most important aspect to gauge information loss in cryonics is what happens to the brain until it’s finally cooled down. There are three main problems here. The first is the formation and shape of ice crystals which can (and do) destroy cells. This is a bit more relevant to in-vivo reanimation enthusiasts, because the physical shearing should probably be algorithmically correctable in a scan scenario. The second is the effect of the cryo fluid they pump into patients to prevent said ice crystals from forming, because it’s also toxic to proteins. It’s not as invasive as plastination, but it’s still pretty bad. The third aspect is the time span from asystole to the halting of information loss. This might be a problem, but since current research indicates that a lot of ischemic brain damage is actually a cascade triggered by re-perfusion, there is cause for the assumption that anything up to a few hours might actually be fine.

(This is a partial re-post of my comments from the corresponding HN thread)

Neurons: Selfish or Eager?

See: Neurons Gone Wild

Multiple occupancy

What follows in the article is a list of diseases like schizophrenia and conditions such as split brain. This is a lost opportunity to address this phenomenon inside the “normal” brain: Our brains are a substrate for ideas, that’s what the hierarchical agency model as well as observational data really imply. There is multi-tennancy, but these ideas are also both cross-fertilizing and competing with each other. Ideas, or concepts, form an interactive web that very much reflects the architecture of the brain itself.

One glaringly obvious example for these concepts would be religion, another one is tool use, or communication (not only as a means to coordinate with other individuals but also a vector to serialize and exchange code for ideas), as well concepts like rationalism and art.

That’s what science fiction writers call memes, and I think they’re on to something there.

Without resource contention, there’s no need for selfishness. And this is, in part, why computers are less flexible and adaptable — less plastic — than brains

I never understood why Dennet et al always say this. Computers merely provide the fabric of computation in the same way biochemistry provides the fabric of neural computation. The informatics discipline that takes most liberal inspirations from biological systems is artificial intelligence – an intellectual framework concerned with nothing but the rules and principles of resource contention and how these techniques apply to equation solving.

Lastly I think selfishness is a really bad word for this organizing principle. I get why they chose to use it, because it’s catchy. But it’s not actually a good term for scientific description (I blame Professor Dawkins for making it acceptable in popular science literature). A better word would be eagerness, because it more accurately describes what’s going on without anthropomorphizing the behavior, and eagerness also more accurately reflects situations where components parts – although eager for resources – subjugate themselves for the benefit of the whole.

A population of truly selfish components doesn’t survive for long.

 

Interviews

I conducted more interviews than I care to think about over the years, and there is probably a good reason why I always shied away from being on the receiving end of them (cue an analogy about why competitions are for losers).

In retrospect, I think I did a horrible job of doing interviews, and I’ve been reflecting on that for a while (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2385424). Whatever I personally might have done wrong though is now dwarfed by doubts about the interview process itself.

If the goal is to actually find people who are good at their jobs, interviews seem to be the thoroughly wrong way to filter them. Sure, an initial checkup on credentials (if you really need them, but if you think you do you’re probably wrong!) and some basic properties of the applicant might be warranted.

But beyond that, the only way of finding out if they’re good at their jobs, if they “fit in”, if they are what you’re looking for, is to actually let them work. Hire them for a few days, and let them do the actual work!

There are no real downsides to this, and I believe our industry will have to move to this model if we want to optimize hiring. Employers get reliable real-world data instead of bogus predictions and extrapolations, and potential employees also need a chance to get to know their future work environment. There is nothing you can do during an interview to gather this data.