You know the story: One night over whiskey, Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge were having an argument about the Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics. The question: does Atlas always have one foot on the ground while he’s moving?
The primitive photographic technology of the time had no way of telling if the robotic wonder was ever truly airborne. But Muybridge kept at it, and eventually came up with this.
I am going to found an organization called MetaMensa. Admission is based on your IQTQ. That’s your Intelligence Quotient Test Quotient. It measures how good you are at taking IQ tests relative to how good you could possibly be at taking IQ tests. So if you get 8 out of 10 questions correct, then you have an IQTQ of 80. You must have a positive IQTQ to join MetaMensa. There’s some controversy regarding how well IQ tests do measuring your intelligence. But MetaMensa sidesteps all that: we have a rock-solid way to test your IQTQ. By the way, we make no claims about the relationship of the IQTQ to your intelligence. Just to your ability to take IQ tests.
If you multiply your IQTQ by your age and divide by 100, you will get your IQTQ Age Factor (IQTQAF), a number that is equal to or less than your age. What this value (measured in years) signifies isn’t yet clear, but the arithmetic is not difficult to perform. People with an IQTQAF greater than their age are immediately disqualified from MetaMensa, because somewhere their math has gone badly wrong, and that’s not the sort of person we want parading around as the sort of person who parades around as someone who they believe is believed to be smart because of how they score on a culturally biased and academically bankrupt test of perceived but not actual intelligence. Not by a long shot.
At the MetaMensa Gift Shop we sell t-shirts that say “Say what you will about my intelligence, but I’m very good at taking IQ tests.” On the back it says “I joined MetaMensa and among other things I got this t-shirt. It’s not lousy. ‘Lousy’ actually means ‘full of lice’, and this t-shirt does not fit that description. At least not at the time it was purchased. And by the way, it’s just a myth that highly intelligent people are pedantic assholes.” We also sell novelty pants that say “These are actual smarty-pants.” They’re novelty pants because they’re not actually smart.
MetaMensa holds monthly dinners in which the seating is strictly stratified by IQTQ scores. If you have an odd IQTQ score, you are required to sit next to someone with an even IQTQ score. That way, you can see how the other half lives.
So have you got what it takes to join MetaMensa? Look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: “Do I have $35 for the admission fee?” If the answer is yes, then the answer is yes. You’re our kind of person.
See these? These are Sonos speakers, and they used to sit in my kitchen and living room. But I’m done with them now. I’d offer them to you, but they’re worthless. Incapable of functioning. They will never sing again.
I’m replacing these speakers with the latest model from Sonos. But usually when I upgrade, I can pass along my old hardware. I can give you my old television or DVD player or whatever. But when I looked at these old units sitting on the floor of my basement, they had a particularly forlorn look. They’re good for nothing but scrap.
We don’t expect things to last forever. We’re used to the value of things decreasing steadily over time. But my speakers experienced a step function, going from useful to useless as quickly as if they’d been dropped into a blender. Increasingly, hardware is only as good as its software, and increasingly that software is a cloud-only service provided at the whim of a far off firm.
Here’s what happened.
I bought the speakers ten years ago, and they served me well. But recently Sonos offered me a good deal on new equipment — a 30% discount on brand new speakers if I would just get rid of my old ones. I could see where this was headed. Old hardware is a pain to support, and Sonos wants to be rid of these old boxes. They were offering me a carrot to upgrade now. But I had no doubt that behind their back they also carried a stick. At some point they will unilaterally withdraw support. I took the offer. Once I got my new speakers, Sonos headquarters sent a bullet down the wire that euthanized the old ones. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they would never work again for my account or anyone else’s.
I like my new speakers. I’m glad I upgaded. But Sonos, it occurred to me, has a lot more leverage over my inclination to upgrade than, say, the company that made my DVD player.
Soon enough, software will enter and enliven every object under the sun. Door knobs and dishwashers, toothbrushes and table tops, eyeglasses and egg cartons, mirrors and refrigerator magnets. They will all acquire amazing new skills. But if for some reason the software is voided, the objects must die. And it’s difficult to opt out. Software-enabled hardware is truly better. But you need to stay up-to-date, which means you need to be a customer in good standing with a healthy, trustworthy company. Otherwise your device will become a doorstop. You own the object, but you don’t own the soul. It’s an animal that you rent. It can die. It can turn on you. Mostly it will be a good deal, but it can go away at any time. Get used to it!
My wife drives a Ford Fusion hybrid. It’s packed with plenty of software, but she’s never updated it. As far as I can tell, that’s not something that Ford ever planned for. This is a snapshot from a simpler world. I drive a Tesla, and it gives you a sense of where the industry (not to mention the world) is headed. The car receives regular over-the-air updates. It’s great to have the car’s functionality constantly updated. But if the company went out of business, I can imagine the car becoming a large and expensive brick. I don’t mean to pick on Ford or Tesla. It’s just an example, along with Sonos, of the coming world. Live by the wire, die by the wire.
I live in Massachusetts, and big storms here are often referred to as Nor’easters. Why? Because they are associated with northeasterly winds that blow in from the sea ahead of the storm. These winds are so severe that they can blow the letters TH right out of the word NORTHEASTER, leaving behind nothing but a limp apostrophe dangling from the ceiling.
I’ve recently fallen in love with Windy.com, a weather site that vividly animates winds. It’s particularly gripping during hurricane season, and this hurricane season has made for some eye-popping imagery. Hurricane Jose (officially it’s just a tropical storm now, but I’m not saying that to Jose) is currently rumbling off our shores, and the picture from Windy really illustrates the Nor’easter phenomenon. Look.
The air is being sucked down the low-pressure drain of Jose’s eye, dragging over Massachusetts’ soggy sleeves along the way. A lovely painting of a terrifying creature.
Happy Crepusculus! Tonight is the earliest sunset of the year: 4:12:02 PM. At least it is for me and everybody else at my latitude. This image, taken last week, shows the exact moment of every sunset for the week preceding and following today’s early sunset.
Almost every sunset falls between 4:12 and 4:13. It’s like the sun is standing still! We should give this season a special name to honor this remarkable observation. We’ll call it Sun-Still. No, how about Sun-No-Go? No. How about something fancy and Latin sounding, something derived from sun (sol) and standing still (sistere): solsistere. Sol-sister? Okay fine, let’s just shorten that to solstice. I’m sure everyone will figure out what it means.
If you already know about the solstice but are surprised that it’s happening as early as December 8th, I should point out that this is merely the earliest sunset. The latest sunrise is in January, leaving the shortest day on December 21st where it belongs. If it seems surprising that the earliest sunset and the latest sunrise don’t coincide, you can blame the earth’s slightly elliptical orbit around the sun.
In the meantime, I’m more than happy to celebrate the slow retreat of sunset. Today may not be the actual solstice, but it’s worth observing for its own merits, so I’ve given it the name Crepusculus (more Latin: twilight = crepusculum).
I read an interview with baseball stats guru Bill James in which he said something like this: we know a lot about how to optimize the play for a single team. But we don’t know how to optimize a league. For one team, the goal is simple: win the championship. Anyone good with stats, optimization, and machine learning, if given enough data, can help you solve that problem. But what about an entire sport? Suppose you want to optimize Major League Baseball? What do you optimize? Do you want every single game to be a 50/50 toss-up? Probably not. Do you want one or two teams to dominate season after season? Probably not. Should you try to maximize revenue? Happy owners? Happy fans? Happy wealthy fans? Happy advertisers? It’s easy to see how any of these might have nasty consequences if sufficiently amplified.
In general it’s easier to describe specific undesirable outcomes than universal desirable ones.
In an age of machine intelligence, this becomes increasingly important. Machines and data can help you achieve marvelous things, but only if you have a clearly defined goal, a test to tell you if any given outcome is better than another. This puzzle is the idea behind Nick Bostrom’s Paperclip Syndrome. If you give a sufficiently powerful artificial intelligence the goal of making paperclips, it will chew through the galaxy grinding matter into paperclips, humanity be damned. Bostrom’s scenario sounds silly, but the idea behind it is serious. If you have the power to optimize the human condition, what are you optimizing for? Okay, so we’re not going to make paperclips. But we’re going to make something. What?
I recently listened to a Long Now talk by Brian Christian. The topic was Algorithms to Live By. It’s really good. It does a good job addressing the increasingly fraught intersection (or collision) of computer science and the real world. One gets the sense that computer science isn’t ready for it and neither is the real world. Christian takes on several topics, but the most profound one was related to Bill James’s question about baseball: At the highest levels in life, what is the objective function of the Good? It’s clear the answer isn’t to maximize quarterly profits for big corporations. But that’s the world we’re busy building, because we know how.
We’re amazingly good at answering questions. But we’re not so good at coming up with good questions.