Desolation


The spider is curtain-bearer in the Palace of Chosroes The owl sounds the relief in the castle of Afrasiyab

A couplet by the Persian poet Saadi eulogizing the conquest by the Arabs of the Persian Empire in 651 AD, reputedly whispered by Mehmet II upon entering the conquered city of Constantinople in 1453.

The Useless Class

AI frightens many people because they don’t trust it to remain obedient. Science fiction makes much of the possibility that computers or robots will develop consciousness—and shortly thereafter will try to kill all humans. But there is no particular reason to believe that AI will develop consciousness as it becomes more intelligent. We should instead fear AI because it will probably always obey its human masters, and never rebel. AI is a tool and a weapon unlike any other that human beings have developed; it will almost certainly allow the already powerful to consolidate their power further.

Yuval Noah Harari

I like this quote because it shows a better understanding of where AI is likely to go in the foreseeable future. Rather than anticipating general machine intelligence with plans of its own — which is a red herring — the threat of AI is that it can be a powerful weapon used by a few people to exert control (even just de facto control) over a large number of them. 

This quote comes from this article n Bloomberg. Earlier this week I learned Harari’s name from this article in the NYT, which contains this passage:

Everyone in Silicon Valley is focused on building the future, Mr. Harari continued, while most of the world’s people are not even needed enough to be exploited. “Now you increasingly feel that there are all these elites that just don’t need me,” he said. “And it’s much worse to be irrelevant than to be exploited.”

The useless class he describes is uniquely vulnerable. “If a century ago you mounted a revolution against exploitation, you knew that when bad comes to worse, they can’t shoot all of us because they need us,” he said, citing army service and factory work.

Now it is becoming less clear why the ruling elite would not just kill the new useless class. “You’re totally expendable,” he told the audience.

Leaving gaps

In 1985 there arose, simultaneously in three places around the world, by groups entirely unconnected and completely ignorant of each others’ existence, a notation for juggling tricks. The notation was incomplete, since not every trick could be described, and like many notations, it was not immediately apparent to the uninitiated how to read it, how to use it, or whether it would be of any real use. For those who understood it, however, it was instantly obvious that it was right. Somehow the notation managed to capture the essence of those tricks it described, and the fact that the same notation arose in more than one place at once showed that its time had come, and it was, quite simply, the notation.

Colin Wright

… eventually we hit on a scheme that seemed to work. And we used it to write down loads of different juggling tricks that we knew.
We discovered that if we arranged those tricks in just the right way, they fell into a pattern. There was an underlying, unsuspected structure. As long as you had the courage to leave gaps. And this goes back to things like the Periodic Table, when Mendeley was writing down all the elements—he realized that if you arranged them all according to function, then there were gaps, and that then predicted the existence of chemical elements.


Well, we were predicting the existence of juggling tricks. And it worked! We actually found juggling tricks that no one had ever done before. And when we took these to juggling conventions, people literally sat at my feet for days to try to learn some of these tricks. And months later, at another juggling convention, people from—in particular, I remember going to the European Juggling Convention—and people from America were trying to teach me a juggling trick that I had shown people just a few months earlier at the British Juggling Convention.

— Colin Wright

Taken from Notes on Notation and Thought

The slow realization of loss

A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he misses this, then that, then the other thing. And when he casts about for it he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential — there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.

— Mark Twain

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, I

Vol. I, September, 2018

Carlitos Way (1993)

I finally watched Carlito’s Way (1993), which is a movie where Al Pacino plays a Puerto Rican gangster that everybody thinks is Italian. Maybe they saw him in The Godfather (1972)? It’s nice to see a movie from back when Pacino was making an effort. In this movie, also staring Luis Guzman, Pacino does an excellent Luis Guzman imitation, maybe the best I’ve ever seen committed to film. Good plot. Brian de Palma could show the director of Jurassic World (2015) how the camera can track complex action in a space without completely fucking it up. John Leguizamo has a magic silencer that means nearby police officers can’t hear him fire 3 shots, or hear Penelope Ann Miller screaming. I give it 3.5 curly red wigs out of a possible 5 curly red wigs.

Unbreakable (2000)

Rewatched Unbreakable (2000). They are opposites: Bruce Willis can’t be harmed, and Samuel L. Jackson shatters like glass. Samuel L. Jackson emotes, and Bruce Willis does not. The entire movie, he has only two faces: inexpressive, and lifting weights. M. Night Shyamalan includes certain things in many of his movies: twist endings, depth of field in shot composition, water as a symbolic threat, and tense scenes where kids want to shoot Bruce Willis. I can’t wait for the next installment of the MCU (the M. Night Shyamalan cinematic universe)! I give it 3 custom made glass canes out of a possible 5 custom made glass canes.

The Siege (1998)

Rewatched The Siege (1998). I had forgotten the ending to that movie: the FBI arrests the Army, thus stopping Martial Law. 30 seconds later, all detainees are free, then there is a spontaneous celebratory dance party like at the end of Return of the Jedi. I give it 3 broadswords out of a possible 5 broadswords.

Sharpe’s Rifles (1993)

Watched Sharpe’s Rifles (1993), the first of a series of BBC movies starring Sean Bean as an enlisted man rising through the ranks during the Napoleonic wars. They made an interesting choice to set the story in Spain and film it in Crimea, and you really get some great shots of that foggy weather Spain is so famous for having. Another interesting choice was to have the main character’s theme be an electric guitar with as much whammy bar as possible, and any time a Spanish person was on screen they made sure to play some flamenco guitar to let you know what’s going on. On the other hand, Sean Bean is awesome, and though he did not get ambushed wit’a [bleepin] coffee in this movie, he did get ambushed several times without being killed — a rarity. I give it 2 field promotions out of a possible 5 field promotions.

Predator (1987)

Rewatched Predator (1987). Turns out Bill Duke as Mac and Sonny Landham as Billy are tied for best character. Who would win in a fight, Rambo or Dutch? Dutch kills the Predator, and Rambo kills Brian Dennehy. So Rambo wins. It’s implied that the Predator visits this jungle in Nicaragua (?) during the hottest years in order to hunt, but 99 times out of 100 he is just going to be hunting random villagers / jungle possums, so why come back to this particular spot if he wants to hunt the best of the best? Go to that town where Brian Dennehy is sheriff and see if you’ve got what it takes. I give it 4.5 MTV t-shirts out of a possible 5 MTV t-shirts.

Gone Girl (2014)

Watched Gone Girl (2014). Horror story about the media. Good cast. David Fincher movies are all pretty good, this one is one of my least favorite. Went on way too long, 2.5 dang hours. Tyler Perry and Rosamund Pike were good! Ben Affleck is literally Ben Affleck. Got that Fincher color palette. I bet none of that blood was practical. I give it 3.5 robot dogs out of a possible 5 robot dogs.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Watched Hail, Caesar! (2016). A little loose, left me feeling like it wasn’t quite finished, but I would say it’s in the top tier of Cohen Brothers movies because the best parts are amazing, and the worst parts are still good. What a cast. Clancy Brown and Christopher Lambert! I give it 4 bernanners out of a possible 5 bernanners.

Den of Thieves (2018)

Watched Den of Thieves (2018). Hey, I liked Heat as much as the next guy, but maybe not as much as the director of this movie, who decided he would remake it. It actually has the scene where the detective and the thief talk to each other in a restaurant, and the climactic point-to-point shootout on the streets of Los Angeles. Gerard Butler gives a watchable, leathery performance in the Al Pacino role, but everyone else in the movie is just a talking tattoo. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. was okay. I wonder if 50 cent was offer only, or whether he had to audition. I am a sucker for movies with a lot of procedural police talk and tactical military gear, so I liked that part. The movie had serious pacing issues: it didn’t need to clock in at 2.5 hours. The twist ending was that it was The Usual Suspects, not Heat. I will watch the sequel. I give it 3 Boracchos out of a possible 5 Borrachos.

Bande à Part

Watched Bande à Part (1964), a Godard film that influenced everyone from Wes Anderson to Quentin Tarantino. Very meta and fourth-wall breaking, so maybe it ripped off Deadpool? It is a low-stakes caper movie that shows the lives of three teenagers (who are played by people who look like they’re 40, but I guess that’s what growing up in the depression will do to you) in the bleak economy of post-war France. I give it 4 minutes of silence out of a possible 5 minutes of silence.

Insomnia (2002)

Rewatched Insomnia (2002). Christopher Nolan’s least appreciated movie? One of his best! The last time he made a movie set in something resembling our world? Fits in the cultural history right between the Silence of the Lamb-inspired thrillers and the era Scandinavian inspired Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-inspired thrillers. Good thing Al Pacino had a reason to sleepwalk through this performance! 4 dead dog corpses out of a possible 5 dead dog corpses.

Farewell to the King (1989)

Watched Farewell to the King (1989), with Nick Nolte as a WWII deserter who appoints himself king of a tribe in Borneo. John Milius can write a meaty script, but he is a bad director, and the editing was awful. Combines parts of Lawrence of ArabiaThe Man Who Would Be KingPatton, and a pinch of Blanka from Street Fighter, but all of them are better than this movie. I give it 2.5 tattoos of an eagle riding a dragon out of a possible 5 tattoos of an eagle riding a dragon.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Rewatched Catch Me If You Can (2002). Is this my favorite Steven Spielberg movie? Maybe, if you don’t count Jaws (1975)! Definitely my favorite DiCaprio performance. Favorite Walken performance? Can’t think of a better one! Not my favorite Tom Hanks performance, but he is always good. I give it five hacking chest coughs out of a possible five hacking chest coughs.

Language fails but does not collapse

The Greek chroniclers struggled to convey what they saw, or even to find a vocabulary to describe the guns. “No ancient name exists for this device,” declared the classically minded Kritovoulos, “unless someone refers to it as a battering ram or a propeller. But in common speech everyone now calls it an apparatus.” Other names proliferated: bombards, skeves, helepoles— “takers of cities”—torments and teleboles. In the pressure of the moment, language was being shaped by a terrifying new reality — the infernal experience of artillery bombardment.

Roger Crowley, 1453

Kritovoulos, or Critobolos of Imbros, was a contemporary chronicler of the Ottoman expansion.

User Interface

The development of formal systems to leverage human invention and insight has been a painful, centuries-long process. (…) In the twelfth century, the Hindu mathematician Bhaskara said, “The root of the root of the quotient of the greater irrational divided by the lesser one being increased by one; the sum being squared and multiplied by the smaller irrational quantity is the sum of the two surd roots.” This we would now express in the form of an equation, using the much more systematically manageable set of formal symbols shown below. This equation by itself looks no less opaque than Bhaskara’s description, but the notation immediately connects it to a large system of such equations in ways that make it easy to manipulate.

 – Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner

I don’t hate math per se; I hate its current representations. Have you ever tried multiplying Roman numerals? It’s incredibly, ridiculously difficult. That’s why, before the 14th century, everyone thought that multiplication was an incredibly difficult concept, and only for the mathematical elite. Then Arabic numerals came along, with their nice place values, and we discovered that even seven-year-olds can handle multiplication just fine. There was nothing difficult about the concept of multiplication—the problem was that numbers, at the time, had a bad user interface.

— Bret Victor

Taken from Notes on Notation and Thought