Numbering AIs

June 22, 2010

I’ve been watching Stargate: SG-1 recently, and came across something interesting halfway through season 6 (episode 12: “Natural Selection”). One of the enemy races in the Stargate universe is the “replicators,” who are basically self-replicating machines with artificial intelligence that look like legos and re-arrange themselves to form various useful shapes, often insect-like in appearance. In this episode, for assorted reasons, the replicators have created humanoid variants – still machines, mind you, but to every appearance human. And they’re numbered. There are six of them, though they’re making more; the first one is “first,” the second “second,” and so on.

What does this remind me of? Battlestar Galactica, of course. BSG has the humanoid Cylons, who go by the order in which they were created – “number one,” “number two,” etc. But wait, it gets better. In SG1, “first” is a dignified old man who is also ruthless and completely devoted to what his programming tells him to do, replicate. It’s only a later model, “fifth,” who has emotions (which has good and bad consequences). In BSG, “number one” is a dignified old man who claims to be an atheist and whose only desire is to take over the universe and eliminate all traces of his humanity. Many of the other models end up siding with the humans, but “number one” is devoted to the machine cause till the end.

I’m wondering if this was coincidence, or if the writers of BSG took a bit of inspiration from SG1; the SG1 episode came out in 2002, and the BSG miniseries was in 2003, so it’s possible. But there also seems to be just a natural impulse to make number one in a set of numbered characters be evil, and to make artificial intelligences not get names, and thus go by the order of their creation. I’m thinking of the movie 9 (not a very good movie, sadly), which has nine ragdoll-robots that go by “1,” “2,” etc. In it, “1” isn’t exactly evil (since the ragdolls are the good guys), but he is the least sympathetic character, in theory (I actually liked him more than some of the other ones), and he’s an obvious stand-in for dogmatic religion.

I wonder if has anything to say about this. I didn’t see anything on the BSG page.

Soccer, Baseball, Football

June 16, 2010

The world cup has started. I’ve only seen ten minutes of it; they happened to be the ten minutes in which the US scored its goal against England (or, rather, the English goalie scored against himself). Good luck on my part, I suppose, tuning in when I did.

Unlike the great majority of the world, I’m not a fan of soccer. Partially, I admit, it’s because I’ve never spent the time needed to understand the sport. I have a basic understanding of the rules – even the off-sides rule isn’t that hard to understand, after all (compare it to the arcane definition of a balk) but the strategy of the game I’ve never spent a great deal of effort trying to understand. I don’t have much desire to, though; the game is too fluid for my tastes.

This is really the main distinction between soccer and baseball. When it comes down to it, I suspect, there are really only three kinds of team sports: soccer, which is the same sport as hockey and basketball; baseball, which is the same as cricket; and American football, which is the same as rugby.

  • In soccer (and hockey and basketball), you have a completely fluid game where two sides are trying to get the ball into the opponent’s goal but possession can shift at any time, and there is no clear division of the action except after goals and out-of-bounds, and thus at each division both teams are back to being equal except for the score.
  • In baseball, you have a completely delineated game, where teams take turns going on offense and defense, which involve completely separate goals, and each at-bat is a separate action. The game has basically no fluidity to it, and there are numerous states (having men on base, getting outs) that a play can begin in that make the teams unequal yet with the score remaining the same.
  • In football, you have a strange mix of the two. There are separate offensive and defensive squads, but both teams intend to get the ball in the opponent’s goal, and possession can shift at any time. There are clear divisions between plays, and teams can gain yardage and lose downs without scoring. Yet the basic symmetry of the game gives it a sense of fluidity not found in baseball or soccer.

Of all the professional sports baseball is my favorite, and I think  it is because it is so delineated – it makes it possible to describe it is a step-by-step progression in a way you can’t describe a soccer game. Football I can enjoy for similar reasons, but I find myself easily bored by soccer (though I find it easily the most interesting of the soccer class of games); it always seems the same except when someone scores, and once there’s a score, there’s nothing to be excited about because it’s already back to normal.

Still, I wonder if I wouldn’t like soccer better if it were higher scoring – not as high as basketball games, but more like a baseball game, with an average score being 5-4 not 1-0. That’s about an average football score too, once you factor out the x7 multiplier – a 5-4 game translates into a 35-28 game, which is quite reasonable, and since field goals are only x3 not x7, it makes sense that they tend to be a bit lower than that.

So, though I prefer baseball mainly for its divisions and ability to be analyzed, I wonder if the reason I actively dislike soccer, or at least find it boring, has more to do with the low scores. If a 5-4 score, i.e. 9 total scores, is ideal for a 3-hour-game including commercials (so, a 2-hour game without them), does that mean the proper ratio for sports is a score every 10-15 minutes? Anything significantly more than that leads to a repetitive monotony (in basketball it’s a score every 30 seconds, which is way too often), while anything significantly less leads to a boring game (soccer is probably about a score every 45-60 minutes, though I couldn’t say exactly).

How much deviation from this 10-15 minutes can there be, I wonder, before the sport becomes boring? I also wonder if having such a ratio for some reason requires delineation, separation into different plays. At first glance that may seem preposterous, but it makes a sort of sense. All achievements in sports, I suspect, will be either really difficult (and so happen extremely rarely) or be really easy (and so happen quite often). Delineation means you can have multiple steps that are easy to achieve while requiring that many be achieved in succession in order to score. Having a pitch go in one’s favor is relatively easy; scoring a run requires that happening several times without three outs occurring first. With a more fluid game, you can’t do this, and so either scoring is easy (basketball) and happens too often, or it’s difficult (soccer) and happens too rarely. It’s hard to achieve a good mean.

As a simple thought experiment: consider transforming baseball into a game where there were no gradual accomplishments – it was either all or nothing, every time. The game would consist, basically, of team A making one pitch to team B, and if it results in a home run, team B scores a run; if not, team A comes up to bat. I don’t think that would be a very good game.

Andrew Bird and the Scientific Sublime

June 8, 2010

I haven’t said anything here about music for a while. With this post I intend to rectify that. My subject will be Andrew Bird, an indie-baroque-pop artist, whom I only started listening to in the last few months (probably since January), but who has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. I have three of his albums, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha,” and “Noble Beast”; all three have many good songs on them, some of which I’ll mention over the course of this post.

Andrew Bird has several things going for him. To start with, I find his intricate musical style quite appealing; he plays guitar, violin (pizzicato and arco), and whistles, as well as other instruments, and layers them all together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm –  in fact, his music has a quite minimalistic feel to it, until you pay attention and realize how complex it really is. The whistling in particular makes it unlike most other music I’ve listened to. Andrew Bird songs often give me the feeling of being in a white room looking at a complex yet not chaotic contraption, a clock or perhaps a circuit.

A related strength is his use of his voice and the sound of his lyrics. He doesn’t have an amazingly strong voice, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s melodic yet matter-of-fact, occasionally plaintive, which fits with the precise minimalism of the instrumentals. Then there are the lyrics. The words of his songs always sound as if they mean something, merely by their sound, even if they don’t. For example, he has a song called “Fake Palindromes,” the first few lines of which are, “my dewy-eyed disney bride, what has tried / swapping your blood with formaldehyde?” No one else would try to rhyme with a scientific word like “formaldehyde.”

Which brings me to what I find really interesting about Bird; the subjects of his songs. Given his complex, layered, precise, even scientific, aural aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he often takes as his subject science and mathematics. What he is most interested in are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the scientific way of looking at things. He wants to believe in beauty, to have free will, but the fact that we can quantify the universe threatens to make these things impossible. In the song “Masterfade,” he says to his lover that “when you look up at the sky / all you see are zeros / all you see are zeros and ones.” That way of looking at the world, he fears, make a true appreciation of the wonders of the world impossible. In “Imitosis,” he reports (a lot of Andrew Bird songs have the feeling of being reports, perhaps even scientific abstracts) that “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case of mitosis.” If we’re just organisms like any other, than whatever meaningful relationships we may have, whatever rights and duties to others we may think we have, are actually just our genetic code controlling us.

But Bird doesn’t go from here to a rejection of science; he loves science and math and logic. You can tell from listening to his songs, to his use of complex latinate words and bizarre conceits and language games. He rejects any attempt, religious or otherwise, to feel better by ignoring what science seems to be saying. In “The Privateers,” he asks of us, “Don’t sell me anything / Your one time offer, so uncalled for / You call it piece of mind.” In “Measuring Cups,” perhaps my favorite Andrew Bird song, he asks, “when you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gory / is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed.”

So Bird doesn’t want us to look for meaning by rejecting science. What, then, does he turn to? In the end, I think, he never answers that question in full. If he could, he wouldn’t have to make songs about it. But I think he finds a partial answer in the very scientific aesthetic that resulted from his worrisome interest in science. His songs, after all, though often sounding plaintive and questioning, rarely sound despairing. Instead they revel in their own precision. Rather than seeking beauty outside of science, he finds it in the patterning, of numbers and of sound. This is what the best Andrew Bird songs show us; the precise use of language and sound can conjure images of what they describe that make us feel almost like we’re watching a nature documentary, like with with sea aenenome of “Anonanimal.”

But beauty, I think, might be the wrong word here. He finds aesthetic pleasure in patterns, and beauty is defined as proportion; but more precisely, beauty is found in things being proportionate relative to the viewer. Beauty requires something to be on a human scale. Bird doesn’t find the science beautiful for it’s relationship to humans (in fact, that’s what scares him about it); he finds pleasure in it for its own sake. That sounds to me more like the sublime. And indeed, I think there’s an aspect of reveling in the infinite going on here. Bird is probably one of the few songwriters who would completely understand what it means to say that the world itself is not infinite – it is very large, but bounded. When we draw general laws from it – which is what science does – we are inductively drawing the infinite out of the finite. Bird already intuits this, I think; in “Tenuousness,” he talks about the world, which is “tenuous at best,” coming “just shy of infinity.” The world itself is beyond our grasps and finite; strangely, what is infinite, what is in our minds, is less tenuous.

Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

June 4, 2010

I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.

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