Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog

Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice” is a brief missive from the Woke-o-sphere that drifted across my Facebook feed earlier today. In it QTPOC1 Frances Lee complains that liberal activist circles often exhibit a variety of group-think, dogmatism, and puritanical intolerance that stands in hypocritical opposition to their stated mission of inclusion. This shouldn’t come as news to anyone who has spent time around human beings, but she has a particular story to tell that’s worth reading.

What struck me was the religious language.  The talk about churches and ex-communication isn’t just a clever way to get attention in the headline: Lee returns to religious metaphor throughout. She was previously an evangelical Christian herself and finds parallels in the specific forms of intolerance in the two communities.

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As a white, male, cishet, plus-any-other-privileged-group-I’m-currently-forgetting and an atheist2 I will always be an outsider to both these worlds and thus happily excused from their infighting. Even so, neither liberal activism nor Christianity are foreign to me. The former I know because I am an urban cosmopolitan fellow-traveller, and the latter because growing up in America it’s easy to get steeped in Christianity even if you don’t intend to. And like Lee, I find the parallels striking.

Take the notions of “sin” and “privilege”. Both are a kind of inescapable original stain on one’s moral character for which one must make ritual atonement. These rituals can often be ostentatious and self-regarding, but they still mean something, because there really is evil in the world, and society really does give unfair advantages to some people, and you have to find some way to confront these things both in the abstract and in yourself.

It often comes down to a matter of emphasis. There will be the Christian who uses an awareness of their own sinfulness as an incentive to be more forgiving, and there will be the Christian who uses everyone else’s sinfulness as an excuse to harangue them about Christian orthodoxy. Likewise you can use a knowledge of injustice as a reminder to be more respectful and understanding, or you can you use it to peer around the room quietly ticking off your moral inferiors.

Ironically, political correctness has made me much more sympathetic to religious conservatives. Here’s a story you’ve heard a million times: kid grows up religious, moves away from their small town, and discovers to their utter amazement that Christians aren’t the only good people on Earth, and some of them can even be quite mean. My instinct is still to roll my eyes at this, but Frances Lee is telling the same story here, and the change of details makes me willing to hear it fresh. Likewise, though religious talk of sin and forgiveness has always struck me as transparently passive-aggressive bullying, having the similar dynamics play out in my own liberal intellectual enclaves has helped me see the sincerity that can underlie it. I still recoil from orthodoxies, but more contact with actual human beings is always a good thing.

Don’t know what that stands for? Read the article.

I swore I’d never write an “As a…” sentence, but I have to admit there’s no more succinct way of expressing this point.

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English Has Over 1.5 Billion Meanings for the Word Snow

I was once at an Elvis Costello concert where he told the audience that the first song he ever wrote was in the key of E minor. It was called “‘Winter’”, he added, his ominous tone of voice getting a laugh. The joke turned on our shared understanding of the meaning of the word “winter”–not just its narrow dictionary definition, but the way in which we could imagine it being deployed by a budding adolescent songwriter to evoke the coldness of the world.

In part it is the realization that the workings of language can be this subtle while at the same time individual languages are so markedly different had led many people to speculate that the language one speaks profoundly shapes the way one perceives the world. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which persists despite linguists’ attempts to dispel it. (See John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax for a recent corrective.) At its most naive it takes the form of observations that language X has no word for Y, and at its most famous extrapolations from the untrue factoid that Eskimo speakers have over 80 words for snow. Though these examples are easily mocked, Whorfianism can retreat behind the camouflage of subtlety. Maybe our language doesn’t shape our perception at the level of gross meaning, but at the level of subtle connotation speakers of different languages still do live in different worlds.

After all some things really are untranslatable. You may be able to ask for directions on the Paris metro with the aid of a phrasebook, but in order to fully appreciate the poetry of Rimbaud you’ll have to break down and learn French. As evidence against the reality-warping effects of a linguistic frame, linguists are fond of pointing out bilingual speakers’ heads’ stubborn refusal to explode, but plenty of bilinguals will attest to a fundamental incommensurability between the tongues they speak. Sure, one might say, English is fine for getting by in daily life, but to express deep emotion only the Italian of their childhood will do. What if Elvis Costello went on tour in Australia, gamely acquired some facility at one of the aboriginal languages, told his winter joke to a group of native speakers, and had it fall flat because their word for “winter” means something slightly different? Might we take this as evidence they inhabit a different linguistic reality?

The standard linguist’s objection to these sorts of claims is to say they’ve got it backwards. It’s not language that shapes one’s worldview, but rather worldview that shapes one’s language. Obviously cultural differences influence all manner of human behavior: why should language be any different? My hypothetical aboriginals’ failure to get Costello’s joke is not due to some mysterious property of their lexicon, but simply because music, weather, and adolescence differ in Australia versus London. But the interaction is complicated here and can lead into a chicken-and-egg conundrum, so consider a different tack.

Grant that language-specific shades of meaning, the untranslatability of poetry, the general sense that different languages feel different–all this really is evidence for a kind of linguistic relativity separate from mere cultural difference. So though they inhabit the same world by virtue of inhabiting the same planet, Japanese and English monolinguals also inhabit slightly different worlds because of the different ways they frame their innermost thoughts. This isn’t implausible, but if we’re going to entertain that idea we should follow it all the way through. What about an English speaker and a French speaker? Would their worldviews be linguistically closer because their languages are more closely related? What about a Canadian and a Scot? An American with a Boston accent and an American with a Texas accent? What about two siblings who, though presumably linguistically very similar, will not over their lifetimes have been exposed to an identical set of utterances?

There are approximately 1.5 billion speakers of English in the world today. They all know the word “snow”, but for all of them it will bring up different memories, evoke different images, and land differently when employed as poetic imagery. At the very least the sound “snow” will trigger responses in different sets of neurons, one for each individual English-speaking skull. And yet we agree that there is an (admittedly hazy) sense in which the meaning of “snow” is the same for all English speakers, so a proponent of linguistic relativism has to additionally characterize the way that sameness noticeably breaks down at the (also hazy) boundary between languages. Otherwise we’re left saying that it’s not language that causes us all of us to inhabit different worlds. It’s just our brains.

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Wokespeak

In“What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic” writer and community organizer Asam Ahmad observes that some of his fellow cultural leftists are too willing to engage in shouting matches online and cautions them to remember that political opponents are people too. Ahmad notes that public personal attacks (“calling out”) may not be as effective as respectful private disagreement (“calling in”). Ahmad’s article is a thoughtful, sincere, entirely reasonable call for greater civility in online debate, and reading it made me want to punch him in his big dumb face.

It wasn’t what he said. It was the way he said it. There’s the pseudo-medical cliché of referring to uncomfortable social situations as “toxic”. The insistence on characterizing everything–even the most narrow and specific behavior–as a “culture”. A delight in inventing jargon (“call in” for “address politely”) where none is needed. A certain po-faced pedantry married to the tone of voice you might use with a child whose tantrum was just starting to wind down. The sense that you’re not being condescended to only because the speaker is taking great pains not to be condescending.

This is the current house style of the cultural left. Wokespeak. And even for those of us whose political sympathies lean cultural left, the sound of it can be like earnest well-meaning fingernails on a chalkboard. Usually I encounter it pressed into the service of making sloppy arguments, so I’m not sure whether I’m objecting to the words or the ideas, but when this article drifted across my social media stream it jumped out as a kind of perfectly controlled experiment. I agree with pretty much everything Ahmad says. He’s even a good writer in the sense that he gets his point across in a lucid and economical way, but he’s a terrible writer inasmuch as I can’t pay attention to this point because I’m too busy wanting to police the fuck out of his tone.

We all have our pet peeves. I don’t like the calculated blandness of corporate press releases or the way Ned Flanders speaks either. But when we’re talking about political rhetoric there’s more at stake. For instance, a lot of resentment and sloppy thinking congeals around the notions of “elitism” and “political correctness”. I find these concepts to be bogus and harmful, but when someone starts in with the toxic-this and culture-that even I want to shout can’t you drop all the politically correct twaddle and just talk to me like a regular person for once?

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the linguist George Lakoff cautions liberals to mind their words. If you can find the language to frame your political position favorably, you win. If you don’t, you lose. Though I find the specifics of Lakoff’s position simplistic, the premise is sound: rhetoric matters. And while Lakoff focuses on framing devices for policy proposals (“estate tax” vs. “death tax”), I suspect an even more important aspect of political rhetoric is nothing so specific, but just the general air you project.

Look, I don’t actually want to punch Ahmad in the face. We probably agree politically more often than not, and I’ll bet in person he doesn’t come off as smug. The aspects of his writing that drive me up a wall don’t sound like the flaws in an individual writer’s voice so much as what happens when a writer suppresses that voice in order to conform to a prescribed style. But for me this style fatally undercuts his message, so just imagine the reaction of someone who doesn’t start out already on his side. Ahmad is correct that shouting at people is a lousy way to get your point across, but there are times when I’d rather be shouted at than talked down to. Even when engaging in self-criticism on how to improve their tone, cultural leftists can be laughably tone-deaf, and I’m calling them out on it.

Posted in Belonging to the emperor | 1 Comment

At the Edge of the Abyss of Madness

–Oh Jesus Christ!
–Sorry, I shouldn’t have moved so quickly.
–No, no. Really it’s me. I feel awful about this.
–Don’t. It’s instinct. It’s biology. You can’t help it.
–Still, it seems rude. You don’t feel the same way about us?
–Not at all. Honestly, we think you’re kind of cute the way you’ve got hair in some places but not everywhere, and the way you only have two legs.
–Oh Jesus Jesus Christ!
–Sorry. Was it something I said?
–No. It’s me, but…maybe it’s best if you don’t make any references to quantities of limbs.

–Your circular toothy maw.
–Which one?
–The cone-shaped one. The one that has the teeth going all the way back into the throat.
–Yes.
–That looks like something on a giant carnivorous plant.
–Oh, a plant. I hadn’t thought of that.
–Well, sometimes you kind of…pulse it at me.
–Yes?
–And when you do…When you do it feels like you’re about to eat me.
–Eat you? Really?
–Yes! I mean you’re right up in my face!
–I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have laughed. It’s just, that’s a personal tic of mine.
–…
–You have to understand that among us a pulsating toothy maw comes off as self-deprecating, but in a funny sort of way. I guess subconsciously I was trying to put you at ease.
–…
–I can totally see how it seemed like I was trying to eat you though.

–Yikes!
–Yikes!
–Sorry. Better now.
–What the hell was that?
–It’s just when you put your limbs around the middle and kinda pulled, pulled upwards.
–I’m not following.
–The middle of your, you know, body, and bent at the elbows. Then your lower sheath sort of, moved upwards and…smoothed itself out.
–You mean when I hitched up my pants like this?
Yes yes that please don’t do it again!…I can’t explain it. That just gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Posted in Those that at a distance resemble flies | Leave a comment

The Echo of The Day Before

Consciousness is a subjective thing: you have your experience and I have mine, and short of one of us being psychic there is no way to compare them except by talking to each other. But even given this gulf, if enough people report on their experiences and these reports are sufficiently similar we can in good faith claim to know something objective about the structure of consciousness. For example, it is embodied. We are not everywhere at once, or five or six places. Human beings experience the world from a single vantage point that coincides with our bodies. We are one with our bodies, or at least “in” them somehow. Likewise, our consciousness has a particular orientation towards time. The past is unchangeable and the future unknown, while the outside world impinges on us through a narrow aperture we call “now”. We cannot go through time as we might wander from room to room in a house, retracing our steps at will. Instead time is like a roller coaster on which our consciousness rides, moving inexorably forward.

Clearly the challenge of elucidating a science of consciousness lies not in uncovering what is hidden, but rather in taking notice of what is so much a part of our everyday existence that we tend to overlook it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the manifestly binary nature of consciousness, the way each of us goes through life with seemingly two parallel identities, one acting in the present moment, and the other passively reliving the experiences of the previous day.

Say I have just returned from a business trip. In in the morning I sit in my kitchen at home, drinking a cup of coffee, while at the same time I am also back in another city hundreds of miles away, having breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Both experiences are equally “real”, perceived with equal vividness on parallel tracks, as it were, though obviously only in the forward one can I exercise my free will, while in the echo I simply ride along with the decisions and contingencies of the recent past. We take this duplication so much for granted that we can scarcely imagine how it could be otherwise. Still it is worthwhile to try and suspend our everyday intuitions in order to get a clearer picture of what the echo truly is.

Why should we have only two consciousnesses? Why not three or four, staggered over the past few years? Why should the echo lag be–barring the disorienting jumble that sometimes comes with prolonged lack of sleep–always about twenty four hours? Presumably this has something to do with the human diurnal cycle, but it provides no obvious evolutionary advantage. Couldn’t we get by just as well if we were like The Least Impulsive Man in the World in the famous James Thurber story of the same name, who reexperiences his life “like clockwork” a mere fifteen minutes after it happens? For that matter, why shouldn’t we have just a single consciousness? After all, we only have one body. Why not also one mind, one “now”, experienced once, then gone forever?

Though the idea of unitary consciousness may seem deeply unsettling to us, throughout history different cultures have manifested a range of attitudes towards it. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for instance, monks devote their lives to a meditation practice which has the goal of bringing the forward life and the echo together, so that there is only one experience, a solitary Now. Christians in medieval Europe believed that only the forward life was real. The echo was merely an image in God’s mind, a review in which He passed judgement on our (usually sinful) exercise of free will. As one goes further back in the historical record, the echo becomes more indistinct. In the Old Testament it is difficult to separate it from the voice of God, while in the writings of classical Greece it is hard to discern duality at all. Closer to our own time, the neurologist Oliver Sacks recounts in his classic book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat the experience of monoaphasics, people with a rare brain disorder that suppresses or even completely eliminates the echo. Contrary to what one might expect, the life of a monoaphasic is not particularly disorienting or unmoored. In fact, it is common for them to make it into their early twenties before realizing that they have a brain disorder at all.

Even assuming that our modern idea of a staggered binary consciousness is essentially correct, recent scientific research points to it being a more complicated phenomenon than we suppose it to be. Consider the question of memory. Across cultures there is consensus that whatever the echo is, it is not merely a memory of the previous day’s events. Now in a sense the echo must be a memory–it is, after all, the product of past experiences stored in the brain–nevertheless, to call it that just feels wrong. There are facts that argue in favor of this intuition. Memory is largely voluntary: we can choose to focus on this or that past event in any sequence we like. Memories also tend to be brief and indistinct. My memory of yesterday’s breakfast at the hotel is more like a collage–a coffee cup here, a buffet table there–that may cohere into the idea of the experience, but is nothing like the echo, which is that experience, replayed in precisely the same vividness and detail as when it first impressed itself on my body.

Or is it? In the past few years neuroscientists have been using fMRI brain imaging to get a clearer picture of exactly what is happening in the echo. It is possible to present people with visual and auditory stimuli that produce a distinct “signature” that shows up twice in brain images, once when it is first experienced and once, about a day later, when it echoes. This way, the journey of an experience can be tracked as it makes its way through our two selves. Using these techniques, neuroscientists have discovered that the same regions of the brain appear to be enlisted in both voluntarily recalling an event and in echoing it. Even more surprisingly, the data show the echo to be a less faithful recreation of the original experience than it seems. To the subject everything might feel smooth and coherent, but the fMRI tells a different story. Echoed events sometimes occur out of order. Something the forward self experienced for half an hour might echo by in a matter of seconds. Significant chunks of the previous day even appear to be occasionally dropped without anyone being the wiser. This is of a piece with broader findings of cognitive science, which have shown perception not to be a simple matter of taking in raw sense data but also of shaping it into a coherent form. If it is true of the perceiving edge of the forward self, why shouldn’t it be true in the echo as well?

A theory that has lately been gaining popularity among cognitive scientists posits a unitary “executive” consciousness that oversees both the forward and the echoed self, ensuring that the latter stays in sync with the former. Basically, we are all secret monoaphasics. The thought of this can be unsettling. To deny the reality of our echo is to dismiss part of our most intimate self as an illusion. Our echo is the inhibitor of our misdeeds, the amplifier of our pleasure, the thing that keeps us from feeling that life rushes by too quickly to take in, and ultimately the promise that we are not alone. It would be a mistake, though, to shrink from the insight science gives us into ourselves. Binary consciousness is in no way diminished by a glimpse of its deep neural underpinnings. If anything, understanding them only enriches the fundamental truth of our whole selves. Forward and echo: we remain who we are.

Posted in Fabulous ones, Those that at a distance resemble flies | 3 Comments

What Technology are you Comfortable with Tom Waits Using?

Sure

  • Automobile
  • Airplane
  • Telephone
  • Phonograph
  • Radio
  • Pinball machine

Maybe

  • Answering machine
  • VCR
  • CD player
  • Walkman
  • Vintage video arcade game

Definitely Not

  • GPS
  • Laptop computer
  • TIVO
  • Xbox
  • Keurig coffee maker
  • Siri
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Word Vectors, Gender Bias, and Postmodern Computing

You shall know a word by the company it keeps.

—J.R. Firth

Popular press reporting on scientific findings tends to be sensationalistic and oversimplified so I approached the recent Guardian article “AI programs exhibit racial and gender biases, research reveals” with a trepidation that proved to be mostly unfounded. The headline is inaccurate, but otherwise the article is a well-written précis of Caliskan et al. 2017, “Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases“.

In that paper, computer scientists found significant correlation between word vector separation of lexical stimuli in reaction time experiments and the reaction times themselves. For example, if reaction time indicated that people were more likely to associate “flowers” and “pleasant” and “insects” and “unpleasant”, the distance between these pairs would be correspondingly smaller in the embedding vector space.The fact that such radically different experimental paradigms point to the same results is an indication that a real phenomenon is being observed.

These findings take on an ethical significance because the same techniques reveal biases that are not just of a benign flowers-are-nicer-than-insects type. Reaction time and word embedding data also jointly find evidence that recognizably black names are perceived as less pleasant than recognizably white ones, or that “woman” is more tightly associated with “homemaker” than “scientist”. The Guardian headline is inaccurate because word embeddings are not AI programs themselves but rather statistical summaries of language phenomena that make AI programs possible. To my knowledge no one has yet built a racist HAL 9000 (at least not one that did anything worse than make Microsoft look stupid) but we know that unconscious bias can cause harm, so it seems reasonable to worry about how it might do so in software. This article captures some of the conversations taking place in the machine learning community around this issue.

Word vectors are just the latest instance of the distributional hypothesis that holds cooccurrences to be an indicator of semantics. It’s an old and eminently compelling idea, but it presupposes the existence of a semantics. That is to say, each word (or morpheme, or syntactic structure, or whatever you suppose the meaning-bearing unit to be) has an essential property called its meaning, which individual utterances only imperfectly reveal. It is semantics as Platonism. (Saussure’s langue/parole contrast embodies a similar idealization.) Semantics guides natural language engineering in that we want computers to not merely babble but say something meaningful. Lexical statistics help because they are a proxy for distributional facts, which in turn is a proxy for meaning.

But each link in this chain holds only if it is true in general, in the large. We may find it offensive that a mathematical representation of the word “woman” contains implicit sexist biases, but in a sense that is correct. Sexist ideas are part of the culture-wide concept represented by the term “woman”. If we didn’t observe this in our semantic representations, we’d suspect that we’d done something wrong. But word vectors aren’t just observations, they’re also an implementation tool, and there’s a big difference between observing an pernicious bias and replicating it. One might be tempted to invoke the old computer science adage Garbage-In-Garbage-Out at this point, but that misses the mark. We may object to the content of racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive language, but it is definitely not linguistic garbage. By causing offense it shows itself to be perfectly coherent, doing one of the things that language can do.

If you don’t want your word vectors to contain implicit sexism, you have to remove all the sexist documents from your training data. This is easier said than done, since human beings disagree with each other about what constitutes sexism, and even where there is consensus, automatically detecting that bias at the scale necessary for training language models it itself the kind of task that requires word vectors to work. Which doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. For instance, there is research into automatically debiasing language representations without degrading their statistical utility. Would debiased word vectors be less “true” in some Platonic sense than the unsanitized ones? Perhaps, but in an engineering context this is beside the point. There we are not concerned with having the computer capture some ideal form, but just in making it do what we want it to do.

My friend and colleague Jeremy Kahn refers to current deep learning techniques as “postmodern computing”. This is a tongue-in-cheek characterization that turns on the fact that “postmodern” is an ill-defined term that can mean pretty much whatever you want it to mean. In keeping with this spirit, let me propose a definition of “postmodern computing” that I find useful. “Modern” computing is Good Old Fashioned AI that abstracts the messiness of human behavior into logical, comprehensible rules. It is Platonic to its core. A word representation in modern computing might look like a dictionary entry: short, clear, and controllable. By contrast, current machine learning methods comprise “postmodern” computing. They make no attempt to abstract away from human messiness, but rather jump into the full statistical muck of it and proceed to wallow about. They are built out of opaque structures like word embedding vectors, which are impossible for a person to interpret, much less curate for ethical bias. It shrugs at underlying Platonic forms, and focuses entirely what you want to do in a particular, contingent moment. Pace J.R. Firth, you cannot know a word. You can only use it.

Posted in Fabulous ones, Those that have just broken the flower vase | Leave a comment