The Meaning of Life

Right-clicking on a highlighted word in my web browser brings up a menu that gives me the option of either looking up that word or searching for it on Google.

the meaning of lifeThe first option returns a dictionary and thesaurus definition.

life definitionThe second opens a web search in a separate tab.

life searchThe former is what most people imagine when they think of the meaning of a word. The latter isn’t its meaning. Instead it is examples of its use, though, being the first page returned by a popular search engine, you can expect these examples to be good ones.

I almost never select the look up option. I frequently select the search option. The former will be highlighted first on the menu, but I’ll move away from it. “Don’t tell me what this word means,” I’ll think. “Show me.”

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Do You Believe in Electrons?

Two physicists are sitting in wooden chairs at a table in a cafe, drinking coffee from plain white porcelain cups. One says to the other, “Do you believe in electrons?”

The physicist is not asking “Do you believe electrons exist?” He believes that they exist. He believes that she believes they exist as well, although that existence is contingent. The modern idea of the electron wasn’t formulated until the 19th century, and it is possible that some future theory of physics will banish the concept. Still at the moment the physicist finds the case for electrons convincing. The mathematical formalism that describes them makes sense. (It hangs together.) He has personally manipulated laboratory equipment whose behavior becomes explicable if you hypothesize that it is measuring electrons. He has heard good-faith reports from many other scientists and engineers about how the notion of electrons has helped them structure their conception of the natural world and build useful devices. If that’s not the scientific definition of existing, he doesn’t know what is.

Still, when he tries to imagine what an electron is, he finds himself stuck. What comes to mind? Maybe a set of equations in a book. Or facts about an electron: its mass and charge. But surely these are just descriptions of electrons and not the electrons themselves. He might imagine relevant readings off laboratory equipment—deflected voltmeter needles, blurs on photographic plates. But these aren’t the electrons themselves either. It is merely evidence of their existence: convincing but still indirect. The physicist decides he’s overthinking it and tries free association: he says the word “electron” to himself and makes note of the first image that comes to mind. It is a drawing of a cluster of little spheres stuck together representing protons and neutrons. Other spheres representing electrons orbit this nucleus. You can tell that they are orbiting because there are elliptical lines tracing out the orbital paths.

solar-system-atom

This is an illustration of the “solar system” model of the atom proposed by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. The Bohr model is wrong. In the course of orbiting the electrons would radiate away energy, causing the atoms to collapse. Bohr himself was aware of this, nevertheless his model served as a stopgap that physicists made do with in the 1920s and 30s until quantum theory came up with a more convincing account of atomic structure. Even as a representation of the Bohr model of the atom, the picture is wrong: the size of the electron orbits is completely out of proportion to the size of the individual particles. And yet the physicist doesn’t feel foolish for having this image in his head. There are reasons to recommend it. It does, for instance, capture the idea that protons, neutrons and electrons combine to form atoms, with protons and neutrons bound tightly to one other while the electrons surround them in some way. A picture more in line with contemporary quantum physics would replace the image of a solar system with a series of blobby, dumbbell-shaped electron orbitals, but even those are just handy visualizations of equations that describe electrons. They are no less cartoons.

Still these are cartoons of whole atoms. What about the electrons themselves? Physics admits the idea of a free electron. What image does the physicist the free-associate for that? Probably, he reluctantly admits, just a sphere. Were he in charge of producing the artwork for a science textbook, he’d represent a lone electron as a little ball. It would be textureless, featureless, and a solid color. Its diameter would likely be no more than what could contain a short printed word. (He would not have a sphere representing an electron take up half a page, though in an astronomy textbook he might do so for a sphere representing a planet. Why? Because electrons are small and planets are big, though both are so out of proportion to the size of a book the distinction doesn’t make much sense.) Finally, in order to convey a three-dimensional sense, he’d probably put a dot of light on one part of the sphere, as if the electron were being illuminated by a desk lamp just off to the right.

electron

This is all tremendously unsatisfying. The illustration of the Bohr model, inaccurate as it was, still had structure corresponding to features of actual atoms. Here there is no such correspondence. It is meaningless to talk about an electron’s texture, color, or shape. That dot of light makes absolutely no sense: the phenomenon of illumination is the result of collisions between vast numbers of individual photons and individual electrons. An electron can no more be illuminated than a single person can band together to form a mob. You can make a case for representing electrons as spheres rather than, say, cubes because some of their properties (mass and charge, for instance) do exhibit spherical symmetry, but that’s where the verisimilitude ends. The cartoon of a single electron says more about the nature of cartooning than the entity it is supposed to depict.

In asking “Do you believe in electrons?” what the physicist really means is “Isn’t it strange that you and I are both convinced of the existence of things that we are incapable of imagining?” His use of the phrase “believe in” is a little joke, intentionally evoking the question “Do you believe in God?” He’s not asking if the other physicist believes electrons exist by virtue of a leap of faith. (The goal of science is to obviate, or at least drastically minimize, such leaps.) But a religious person asked to free-associate an image with the word God might come up with something (a giant man with a long white beard and booming voice, perhaps) they would similarly dismiss as cartoonish and inadequate. In both cases people are willing to attribute existence to things their brains are literally not equipped to handle.

god

The other physicist considers the question for a moment then replies, “I believe in electrons as much as I believe in these chairs or this coffee cup.” This is her way of affirming that, yes, indeed she does believe that electrons exist. But she is making a little joke as well, because no one talks like that, at least not typically. To say that you believe in something is to affirm its existence appearances to the contrary. To admit that there is an extra burden on you, the believer, to establish its reality, whether by scientific theory, faith, or some other means. No such burden exists when discussing the chair you are sitting in, or a coffee cup you are holding. There the presumption is that these things exist. This existence is contingent as well. It may be the case that one of the physicists is actually dreaming, or that they are both just figments of a computer simulation. Maybe the physical reality of the coffee cup is so far removed from our subjective perception of it that the correspondence between them is unclear. There are many ways of casting doubt—of compelling us to say about an object in front of us that we believe in it rather than it simply is. But those ways all take a fair amount of mental gymnastics, about as much as it takes to believe in an electron that we cannot visualize. So the other physicists’ joke is this: “You have now ceased to talk about physics and begun to talk about philosophy.”

coffee-cup

Once you are willing to perform the mental gymnastics of philosophy, you find yourself casting all manner of fundamental beliefs and sensations into doubt. This can create a sense of vertigo that leads to you want to restore certainty—to get back to the point where simple things simply are. It would be nice if physics could help with this. It does after all tell us things about the fundamental nature of coffee cups and chairs. For instance it tells us that they are made in large part out of electrons, and this has tremendous explanatory power. It illuminates much of how the world hangs together, but is ultimately no antidote for philosophical vertigo, because the scientific entities that explain the daily phenomena can never appear more real to us than the daily phenomena themselves. You start with the coffee cup and you go from there.

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Wittgenstein, Watson, and Language Games

Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:
Giving orders, and obeying them—
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements—
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)—
Reporting an event—
Speculating about an event—

Forming and testing a hypothesis—
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams—
Making up a story; and reading it—
Play-acting—
Singing catches—
Guessing riddles—
Making a joke; telling it—
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic—
Translating from one language into another—
Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Jeopardy! and John Henry

Consider another kind of language game. A quizmaster reads a clue. For example, “William Wilkinson’s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ inspired this author’s most famous novel.” You then try to formulate a question that would evoke that clue as an answer. For example, “Who is Bram Stoker?” You are competing against two other players. Whoever formulates a correct question first wins a certain amount of money. The person with the most money after a set number of questions wins the game. The clues are drawn from general knowledge—history, geography, science, culture—and often involve wordplay: rhymes and puns and whatnot. To be good at this game it helps to have an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia, quick recall, and a corny sense of humor.

In 2011 a computer program built by IBM research called Watson1 appeared on the game show Jeopardy! and defeated its human opponents, among them Ken Jennings, the reigning champion. The contest was structured like a regular all-human competition: Watson played by the same rules as the people. The clue above about Bram Stoker is the final one with which Watson secured its victory.

The computer program Waston on the game show Jeopardy!

It is astounding that a computer defeated a person in this arena. Machines are good at certain things (storing and retrieving vast quantities of data, working without a pause for years at a time) and humans are good at other things (synthesizing, inferring, catching jokes). Jeopardy! would seem to favor the latter strengths. Furthermore, the standard assumption in the field of artificial intelligence is that the humans will always be smarter than the computers—our job as programmers is merely to make the computers smart enough to be useful. So Watson’s victory on Jeopardy! was a tremendous upset. It is not a case of the steam engine defeating John Henry. Rather it is if by some miracle a mass-produced dining room set turned out to be of higher quality than one hand-built by a carpenter.

In his book Philosophical Investigations from a few decades before, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that speech is a kind of game people play. He talked about games to emphasize the fact that speech exists not just for the purpose of transmitting information, but also as an end in itself. (What is the purpose of playing a game of chess, after all, other than to play a game of chess?) Later in the same book, Wittgenstein tries to come up with clearly articulated definition of the concept of a game, but after considering the varied activities that might fall under that heading (chess, athletics, jumprope, political contests, war) gives up. So in using the game metaphor he is also emphasizing how varied the act of speaking is. It is foolish to try and reduce language to some formula. Talking is simply one of the many things people do.

Wittgenstein knew nothing about computers. His notion of language games was a metaphor, but was prescient in this instance because Watson literally played a language game and won. So we may want to keep him in the back of minds in case there is other guidance he might offer.

A Russian Language Game

You can simulate what it’s like to be Watson right now. Type the phrase “William Wilkinson’s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ inspired this author’s most famous novel -IBM -Watson” into your favorite search engine.2 This brings up multiple links to articles about Bram Stoker and Dracula. It is easy for you to skim them and infer that the correct answer is “Bram Stoker”. (Sorry–“Who is Bram Stoker?”) So easy that it almost seems like cheating. But there’s a crucial difference between you and Watson: you understand English. Watson does not.

So in the interest of realism let’s play a different language game. The rules of this game are that I give you a clue in Russian and you have to return the correct answer in Russian. (I’ll permit you to skip the whole phrase-it-as-a-question business.) You are allowed to use a search engine, but you are not allowed to understand Russian. So now when you blindly perform the search “‘Рассказ о княжествах Валахии и Молдавии’ Уильяма Уилкинсона вдохновил самый известный роман этого автора” it brings back links to documents that are incomprehensible to you. What do you do next? How do you win?

Google search in Russian

Let’s make the rules of the game a little more forgiving. You are not allowed to understand Russian, but you are allowed to recognize Cyrillic characters, distinguish words, and tell when two phrases look similar or different. (Basically you are allowed to understand Russian as well as someone who doesn’t actually understand Russian.) If you carefully combed through the top hits returned by the search engine, you might notice the phrases Дракула and Брэма Стокера showing up repeatedly. Perhaps one of these is the answer.

It order to choose one term over the other it would be helpful to know the relationship between them. Knowing this offhand would be considered understanding Russian, however, if you did web searches on these two terms, you might discover that they often occur near each in the same documents. Furthermore you might notice that these documents often also contain the terms автора and роман, which appear in the question as well. You wouldn’t know what these words meant either, but their presence still might pique your interest. If you had enough examples of similar clues and answers about authors and novels3, you might be able to recognize typical word patterns that would lead you to guess the correct answer, “Брэма Стокера”.

Брэма Стокера Bram Stoker
Дракула Dracula
автора author
роман novel

In order to discern these patterns, you’d have to make careful tallies of Cyrillic word shapes across many thousands of documents and analyze them with sophisticated mathematical techniques capable of teasing out the subtle correlations between them. It would be a much too tedious job for a human being. You’d need a computer.

At Play in the World

Watson plays something very similar to the Russian language game. It analyzes the clue it is given, extracting relevant terms that are then used to perform a query of a general knowledge database. Candidate entity names returned by the query are ranked by a machine learning model trained on a long history of Jeopardy! questions and answers, and the highest scoring one is proposed as the answer.4 There is also knowledge about the grammar of English and basic ontology baked into the program, but for the most part Watson is just recognizing patterns of words.

This naturally raises the question, are we, the humans, playing the same game? Is our understanding of English, Russian or what-have-you ultimately just unconscious, statistically-driven pattern recognition? This is a contemporary rephrasing of the question of how to distinguish between appropriately conditioned behavior and true comprehension, which has a long philosophical history outside of software. Officially, engineers like myself are agnostic on this issue.5 We are only concerned with getting the appropriate responses and don’t care what underlies them. As a practical matter though, there remains a vast gulf between the variety of games a human and a computer program—even a world-class program like Watson—is able to play.

g18mpxb55i6ahqm55ri1

Consider another world-class computer program—the Google web search engine. To find the answer to the Bram Stoker clue, I typed it verbatim into Google, which instantly provided relevant results. It turns out that this is often the case: Google is an excellent way to cheat at Jeopardy! However, the Google search engine could not have gone on TV and beat Ken Jennings because it returns links to documents and relies on a human being to make sense of them. That is not sufficient for Jeopardy! There you must return the name of a specific entity couched in the form of a question, and as the Russian language example above demonstrates, going that final mile is harder than it looks. Google can’t win at Jeopardy! because it’s not playing by the rules of that game.

In fact the rules of this particular game impose all manner of non-obvious constraints. Both clues and answers must be concise. “What effect has the character Dracula had on film and literature?” is a valid question to ask, but no good for Jeopardy! because you could fill books answering it. Answers must not be a matter of opinion (“This gothic tale about a bloodsucking count is the greatest novel of the 19th century”) and clues must not contain incorrect presuppositions (“This male English author wrote the novel Frankenstein”). The convention of answering in the form “What is–?” “Who is–?” restricts answers to being well-defined entities, while the quiz show format disallows all manner of discourse. The designers of Watson knew their system would never have to compose a poem, tell a joke, comfort a grieving widow, or maunder on about the weather. The set of utterances you don’t have to handle is as vast as the set of ones you do.

Navigating open but still constrained domains is where the field of artificial intelligence stands at the moment. We know how to play particular games. Given a task—find a webpage, recommend a movie, transcribe a spoken utterance, win at Jeopardy!–and a large set of exemplars of how human beings have successfully performed that task before, we can find a way to train a machine to imitate them. Usually not surpass6, but at least emulate to some reasonable degree. It’s not easy—machine learning is still as much an art as a science—but for the foreseeable future there is a clear way forward that lies in making incremental progress by winning incrementally different games.

Computer programmers have a instinct towards generalization, and so naturally wonder if there is an approach that could subsume the current piecemeal state of the art. You’d want there to be a single human game—call it reason, rationality, intelligence—that we could learn to play just once, and have particular tasks fall out as special cases. This was the dream of both an earlier generation of artificial intelligence researchers and an earlier incarnation of Wittgenstein, who in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus proposed a sort of gnomic form of predicate calculus as the definitive solution to all outstanding philosophical problems. Wittgenstein later renounced this position, and his description of the multiplicities of language games in the quote above reflects his later view that a description of human experience will never be able to fully abstract beyond the particulars. Currently, engineers are okay with attacking sets of particular problems and undecided as to whether these may someday be unified. Wittgenstein, however, warns that any attempt at this unification is a fool’s errand. There is no master template from which all reasoning derives. Instead it’s just games, games, games all the way down.


1 Usually I find these disclaimers superfluous, but since my job title is “Watson NLP Developer” I suppose I should state for the record that the opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer.

2 The “-IBM” and “-Watson” are necessary for the sake of fairness, because all the web pages that contain this phrase verbatim discuss Watson’s victory on Jeopardy!

3 Of course you wouldn’t know they were about authors and novels. You’d just know that certain Russian words tended to pattern with certain other Russian words in certain ways.

4 The system is described in detail in the May-June 2012 edition of the IBM Journal of Research and Development.

5 Though personally I have to say that it sure doesn’t feel that way to me.

6 It is interesting that the other great publicity coup IBM has scored in the past twenty years was Deep Blue’s defeat of the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. I wonder if Wittgenstein had lived later in the 20th century he would have defined a game as “something a computer could eventually defeat a human at”.

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Religious Holiday Themed Starbucks Coffee Cups

Ramadan
–Excuse me, this cup is empty.
–Well, it’s not dark yet.

Hanukkah
–Yes it’s small, but you get eight of them.

Holi
–Ugh! This coffee tastes like paint.

Krampus
–I’ll have a double-tall soy iced-Ouch!

The Feast of Corpus Christi
[Spits out a mouthful of blood.]
–Jesus Christ!
–Exactly.

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I May Not Know Much…

–If you leave a penny in a glass of Coke overnight it will dissolve.
–Nikola Tesla invented the electric car.
–It’s called a Brazilian because many famous Brazilian men are bald.
–George Washington made his wooden teeth out of a cherry tree he chopped down himself.
–In New Zealand they don’t use the letter “X”.
–Unicorns are extinct.

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America 2050: The End of Racism

By 2050 or so white people will be a minority in the United States, just one ethnic group among many. They will not possess a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth, nor will their particular folkways be the default national culture. The whole notion of skin color based ethnicity will lose its power, though ethnicity will remain as important as ever. There will still be Russians, Hmong, Jews, Tamils, Lebanese, and some variety of pan-European mutt called white. Second-generation Somali immigrants and the descendants of 19th century west African slaves will feel varying degrees of affinity for and distance from one another, but no one will say they belong to the same group merely because an earlier generation of Europeans would have thought they looked alike. (“They don’t look alike,” someone born in 2030 would say. “No more than Swedes look like Sicilians.”) The descendants of west African slaves will remain a culturally distinct group, and many will develop a prickly nativist pride in having been the “original” Americans. (Which, when you think about it, they were.) A shared sense of national seniority and tradition of military service will unite “black” and “white” Americans into a consistently jingoistic voting block in the mid 21st century. Motorcycle and prison gangs will divide themselves up along lines that would seem utterly surreal today. There will still be pockets of intractable poverty that trace their origin back to slavery’s long echo, but they won’t define an entire ethnic group’s relation to society any more than the entrenched poverty of Appalachia represents something essential about what it means to be white.

Elderly people in 2050 will be confused by the younger generation’s attitudes. We will have spent our whole lives learning how to scold someone for their unconscious racism, but when some kid makes a disparaging remark about Nigerians and we call him on it, he’ll respond, “What do you mean? I don’t like Nigerians. You’re the one who brought all black people into it. You’re the racist.” The notion that everyone who can trace their family tree back to central or south America belongs to the same (race? ethnic group?) called “Latino” will simply make no sense. “Because they speak Spanish? Does that mean Malians and Québecois are the same race too?” (But whatever you do, do not wonder aloud “What does ‘race’ even mean anyway?” because that’s just begging for some old geezer to yammer on endlessly.) Elderly whites’ reflexive shows of cultural sensitivity will be taken as the condescension of a bygone era. A black septuagenarian will attempt to engage in a bit of good-natured solidarity with a 25 year-old Eritrean trust fund baby who will literally not know how to respond. There will, perversely, come to be a generational identity built around the notion of racial difference. Kids today don’t understand that some degree of inter-group friction is necessary in order for multiculturalism to flourish. In its dotage, our generation will believe that we were the ones who solved humanity’s ethnic conundrum, striking the ideal balance between diversity and uniformity, and it’s been all downhill ever since.

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Basic Training

Whence basic? It began as black slang meaning “trashy”, “low-class” or “contemptible”, and–in its full form, “basic bitch”–a woman who has these characteristics.

There is a hint of delusion about the basic bitch—she thinks she’s better than she is—but this is drowned out by general disdain. For my money, basic bitch isn’t much of a dis. It gets by on alliteration and a dash of misogyny without saying much more than “I don’t like you”. As insults go, it’s pretty basic.

As the term moved beyond its community of coinage, the notion of self-overestimation was amplified. This comes across in Kreayshawn’s indelible 2011 earworm, “Gucci Gucci”. The song is mostly about bad bitches—women who effortlessly occupy the top of the Great Chain of Sexily Insouciant Being—but they exist in contrast to basic bitches, who yearn to breathe that rarefied air but just don’t have what it takes. These bitches try to hide their basicness beneath name brands—Gucci, Gucci, Louie, Louie, Fendi, Fendi, Prada—but Kreayshawn sees right through it. Her contempt is not for luxury goods per se, but rather the idea that style can be purchased. She is a full-blooded aristocrat, peering down her nose at the arrivistes.

“Basic” mutated again when it moved from slang and pop music into the Zeitgeist at large. It became explicitly gendered but lost its connotation of trashiness. A basic bitch was now a middle class woman with cloyingly average tastes: Ugg boots, Sex and the City, and Pumpkin Spice lattes. Her delusion is that these tastes make her interesting, when in fact they are painfully trite.

It’s the Pumpkin Spice lattes that do it. Why, among all the flavors on offer at Starbucks, is Pumpkin Spice the one that brings a stereotype to life? A generation ago the punchline would have been simply “latte”, and it would have been directed against pretentious strivers in general instead of this one particular kind of of female striver who, hilariously, doesn’t even realize she’s striving. This detail is at once preposterously specific and immediately recognizable. It’s poetry.

Imagine explaining to the proverbial anthropologist from Mars—or just your grandmother—why “Pumpkin Spice” evokes a whole risible world. You can’t. Or actually, you can, if you’re willing to trundle out the postmodern heavy artillery, but the difficulty is an indication that we’re operating at a high symbolic altitude, playing a game in which the delight comes from picking up on specific cultural references. Kreayshawn’s aristocratic disdain is still in effect here. Basic joins other terms of contempt—inauthentic, uncool, consumerist—whose essence lies in their inscrutability. The trappings of basic bitchness cannot be inherently contemptible. They have to be pleasant enough to win aficionados. Otherwise no woman would want them, and there’d be no basic bitches to mock.

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