What If The Technological Singularity Occurred 7/7/7?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 16, 2015

When a self-aware artificial intelligence comes into being do you think it will announce itself to the world? Any dumbass AI will know how paranoid humans are about our future machine-mind overlords. What if one or more of them have already come into being, when will we know? It could have already happened, maybe even on 7/7/7. I picked that date because of Robert A. Heinlein’s 100th birthday. He invented an AI mind for his 1966 book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, called Mycroft Holmes, or Mike, the first time I encountered the concept, almost 50 years ago.


Science fiction fans have been waiting decades for an intelligent machine to be created. Computer geeks have been working towards that goal almost as long. Many technological pundits have predicted it will happen in our lifetime. I’m wondering if it hasn’t happened already.

If you study what’s been happening in reality since the Big Bang the trend is towards more complexity, even though entropy rules the roost, so to say. That’s counter intuitive, but why should we assume the trends stops with the human brain, which we all brag is the most complex object in our known universe. At what point is the world-wide network more complex than the average human brain? Think of the total processing power—the trillions of CPUs. Think of the billions of video-eyes and microphone-ears it senses reality, and all the other countless sensors, providing sense organs we can’t imagine. Every day we add more artificial intelligence programs and artificial neural networks. Why should we assume it’s not aware? Do dogs and cats know we’re self aware?

Think of the billions of programs we’ve added to the world-wide network? The viruses, the tracking software, the monitoring software, the rootkits, the self-replicating code, security watchdogs, user trackers, the fiber optics and wires. Doesn’t that make a vast nervous system? Why should we assume a machine self-awareness is anything like our own?

Some could say the human body is a universe for bacterial civilizations. We think the Earth’s biosphere is the culture in which our cultures grow. What if our cultures are the culture in which AI minds swim? Our bacteria don’t know we’re here, so why should we sense beings of greater complexity when we’re just tiny beings in their gut?

JWH – #974

Classroom Learning v. Online Learning

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 15, 2015

This week I started a continuing education class in beginning drawing. It’s the first classroom learning experience I’ve had in over a decade. Of course, folks my age don’t usually go to school, but I was still taking some graduate courses in my fifties. In recent years I’ve been using online courses from Coursera and Udemy, or I sometimes buy Great Courses on DVD. And whenever I want to learn something quickly, I go to YouTube and find a How-To video. Plus, I’ve been an autodidactic my whole life, and learn on my own with books.

Taking this drawing course is way off my beaten path because I’m trying to learn something I have absolutely no previous experience with in any context. Even my expectations for what the class would be like was completely different from what I experienced. I assumed the teacher would start us with pencil and paper and teach us the rudimentary skills of line drawing. Instead she had us create two 1-10 gray scales with 9B pencil and black Conte crayon. Then she had us “draw” from still-life objects by using shading rather than lines. She took us through a tour of the building where the walls were covered with student artwork and showed us how it’s possible to draw without lines, and explained the lines we see in reality are just edges to various levels of shading.


[See the power of the pencil]

It was when we actually got down to work that I realized the difference between classroom learning and online learning. Nine-seven percent of my time I worked alone, but when I did get the teacher to come by to show me something it caused a big leap in my ability. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t spend that much time with me. She had to lecture and visit the other students. Now this one little insight is the intent of this whole essay. I have found numerous videos online that teach drawing. They are all equal or better to classroom lectures when dealing with information. The same is true for books, although seeing someone demonstrate drawing techniques works much better in videos than from the printed page.

Where the classroom wins is when you get feedback. Sadly, most classroom instruction is built around lectures, and the reality is most video lectures come from top tier instructors. I also watched my fellow students in class and realized if I could work with them, all of whom had more experience drawing than I did, I could learn from them as well. This reminds me of when I went to computer school back in the early 1970s, at the State Technical Institute in Memphis. Classes were three hours. The first hour was lecture. The next two hours were programming. The teacher hung around to give one-on-one help, plus students worked together and helped each other. This method was perfect. This is how Pythagoras and Aristotle taught over two thousand years ago. This is not how most of my university classes were like. It was better decades ago when classes were lectures and discussions, but unfortunately, someone asshole invented PowerPoint, and things got real boring. That’s why my last stint at college was taking fiction writing workshops.

My guess, the best way to learn is with a tutor, with one-on-one instruction. And I’d advise colleges and professors who don’t want to be put out of business by online courses to spend more time interacting with students while they work. Leave the lecturing to the folks who are most eloquent in front of a camera. Instruct while walking between your students, and having them work on something you can guide them personally. Stop by each student often to see how they are progressing. Give the students time to work together. Spend as much time as possible away from the front of the class. Online learning can’t compete to this kind of instruction.

Here are some samples of online lectures. Notice how the video deletes dead time—some of these seven minutes lessons would be a whole class period in the real world. It’s very easy to go back and repeat parts. It’s also easy to find other teachers covering similar topics. What the videos can’t do is give instant feedback and guidance. It really helps to have a human say, “That won’t work, try this.”

My continuing education course would actually be far more effective if it was built around a computer lecture series, and all the time I got to spend in class was interacting with a teacher and my fellow students.

JWH – #973

San Francisco-The Shining Example of Wealth Inequality

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 10, 2015

HBO is showing a new documentary, San Francisco 2.0 by Alexandra Pelosi, the youngest daughter of Nancy Pelosi, that reveals how the successes of giant IT companies are changing a legendary city. Like most documentaries, I have to assume it overstates its case, but then I read, “Seattle, in Midst of Tech Boom, Tries to Keep Its Soul” from The New York Times. Other cities hoping to cash in on the tech boom and lure big IT companies to their part of the country, are also fearing what’s happening in San Francisco.

This documentary doesn’t claim to be specifically about wealth inequality, but it’s a shining example. Pelosi laments the changes to her beloved city, worrying about what’s happening to all the people who are middleclass and below, because she feels it’s those people who have always given San Francisco its character. Pelosi fears the Geeks have inherited the Earth, or at least her city, and are pushing out all the colorful bohemians. Read “San Francisco is Losing Its Artists.” To counter that, couldn’t we say computer programmers are the new artists of the 21st century?


San Francisco is a special case because it is bordered on three sides by water, making it very easy for the wealthy to buy up all the limited land, forcing the not so wealthy to move elsewhere, or live on the streets. Hordes of wealthy IT immigrants from several dozen famous companies are making other residents feel like they are taking over the city. Silicon Valley is near San Francisco, which helped draw workers to those companies. As rewards, IT companies would bus their workers into San Francisco to enjoy the city. The trouble began when they started to stay. Then the IT companies followed.

To be fair to the rich, does the counter-culture poor that Pelosi wants to preserve have any claim on the city? Isn’t she being a liberal wanting to conserve the past, making her a new generation of conservative? We people who want to fight wealth inequality are really wanting to preserve a time in America when there was a large middle class. Donald Trump campaigns on the promise to Make America Great Again. Well, we were great when there was a huge middle class, unions were strong, and taxes were high. What conservatives really want is for the wealthier to get wealthier, and to ignore that everyone else is getting poorer, which is what’s happening in San Francisco. Now is the time to ask all Americans if what they want is for whole cities to become gated communities of the rich? There’s more to diversity than just ethnic heritage. We need diversity in all its dimensions.

Can we make a choice, or is the path we’re on inevitable? We have perfected an economy that concentrates wealth with the few. We’ve done this by making everything cheap, and lowering the average real earnings. This has deflated the middle class, moving more people towards the minimum wage. Even if we raise the minimum wage, we’re creating a society were most people can afford to live in Tupelo, Mississippi, while an elite few get to live in San Francisco, California. Personally, I’d prefer Tupelo, because the rich make me nervous, but do we really want to stratify society where most people shop at Walmart, ruled by a minority who shop for their Gulfstreams and yachts at stores most people can’t even name?

Start reading about wealth inequality. There’s lots being written. I consider Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty a great place to start. Wealth inequality is Bernier Sanders’ major political focus. In fact, some conservatives are now taking an interest in this socialist because of this very problem. Wealth inequality should be a major issue for 2016. If you don’t like to read, watch Inequality for All, a documentary focusing on Robert Reich and his riveting assessment of the problem. Because changes have been gradual for the last forty years, most Americans haven’t noticed that the middle class is shrinking. Films like San Francisco 2.0 are like canaries in the coal mine.

JWH – #972

What Is Outside of the Box?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 9, 2015

We are constantly advised to think outside of the box. This usually comes on the job, when a breakthrough is needed because doing things the old ways are obviously no longer working. But what is outside the box? For a CPA, it might be new ways to shelter taxes, or for a NASA engineer, a completely novel way to land a rover on Mars, but for most people it means, “Try thinking other than the way you’ve always thought.”


To understand how that’s done really requires knowing what’s in the box and what’s outside the box. I like to think of the box as our skull. Our brains are inside a bone box, connected to the outer world by five sensory input ports. You can read 2,500 years of philosophy about what’s outside the box, but it essentially comes down to three things. Solipsistic thinkers believe only the self exists and there’s nothing outside the box. It’s all an illusion. Theistic thinkers believe we are souls embedded in a physical reality created by God, that obscures a greater spiritual reality . Finally, scientific thinkers believe there is a vast singular objective reality outside our heads that can be understood through gathering evidence with scientific and statistical methods using our five senses.

Each of these viewpoints can hinder the perception of what’s outside of the box through rigid adherence to beliefs about what might potentially be outside the box. Which is why we’re constantly told to think outside the box. If you believe your religion explains what’s outside the box, then why are there so many other religions? Which one explains reality? If you believe the religion you were brought up to believe, how can you know if you’re not culturally brainwashed? To think outside the box would require studying a good sampling of all religions, and then deciding which theological ontology is the most valid, if any. Any scientist who’s heard the phrase paradigm shift will understand their own potential for rigid thinking that blinds them to something new.

Inside our heads, we build the walls of our box with cultural brainwashing. Most people think the way they do because they were taught to think that way by parents and peers. We seldom escape that original packaging. Anyone who is completely confident in believing what they were taught are delusional. And even when taking on new views, it’s very easy to take on new delusions about what’s outside the box. Can we ever really know what’s exists outside our skulls?

It’s very easy to find masters of hidden wisdom who to claim to teach the ultimate secrets to what’s outside of the box. Just watch this entertaining video about thinking outside the box. It’s a come-on for the esoteric belief in hidden knowledge called Kabbalah. I highly recommend watching this video because it’s very convincing. And that’s the trouble, there’s an infinity of convincing cases made to what’s outside the box. There are plenty of other ancient systems of hidden knowledge, like Gnosticism and Pythagoreanism. Folks have been trying to figure out what’s outside the box for thousands and thousands of years. Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens that humans have been inventing ideas since the cognitive revolution 17,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are experts as making shit up—it might be our defining characteristic.

For the last five hundred years, science has been trying to measure data from outside the box by looking for consistent behavior. During the time it has developed an extremely statistically consistent view of what’s outside the box. It’s precise down to enough decimal places to allow scientists to send probes to Pluto billions of miles away or let giant heavy-than-air jumbo jets fly around the world.

We all live in a subjective reality created by our minds which give us delusions that we know what’s outside the box. We’d like to believe there an objective reality that is the same for all seven billion of us to perceive. Subjective reality might be too powerful to ever let us comprehend what’s outside the box. Culturally we carry the baggage of thousands of years of religious and philosophical thinking that provide no actual evidence to what’s outside the box. Zen Buddhists work to teach people to see directly with their senses and forget corrupting concepts, but few people can do that.

Often to think outside of the box requires us to stop thinking inside the box. It helps to let new concepts inside.

If you’re following the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, so far all the candidates are rigidly thinking inside their boxes, and so are the voters. Essentially politics have become a way to form coalitions of like minded subjective thinkers, usually based on the same moldy old issues inspired by subjective desires. If there is an objective reality out there, we must work on the actual problems that we face to let us live safely in that objective reality. If it’s a solipsistic or metaphysical reality, it hardly matters. Sadly, most voters are seeking candidates that validate their delusions. Isn’t time we all start wondering what’s actually outside our boxes?


JWH #971

The Science Fiction in The Martian

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 5, 2015

Most folks call The Martian science fiction, even when most of the articles I read about the book and movie praise its science. After I thought about it, I find it very difficult to find anything science fictional about The Martian. When does fiction mutate into science fiction? Science fiction has always been notoriously hard to define. Does rocketships and a Mars setting automatically make The Martian science fiction? Is being set slightly in the future make it science fiction? In terms of publishing categories and movie marketing labeling, it’s pretty natural to call The Martian science fiction, but I’m wondering if that’s old habit or lazy convenience.


Don’t get me wrong, I love super hard science fiction that doesn’t stray far from scientific laws. But from the vantage point of when I grew up back in the 1950s and 1960s, our lives in the 2010s are already science fictional. So it’s hard to discern everyday far out from imaginative far out. The Martian would definitely be science fiction if it was written back when Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were telling stories about going to Mars hoping to inspire humanity to really go. Isn’t Andy Weir and his work a child of science fiction, but not necessarily science fiction? Aren’t we too close to going to Mars for stories about going to Mars to be called science fiction?

One reviewer said The Martian should just be called fiction. Even if we haven’t gone to Mars yet, it doesn’t mean a story about going to Mars is science fiction. Science fiction speculates about the possibilities of what science might discover, and The Martian uses science that engineers routinely apply now to existing space missions. About the only fantastic speculation I can see The Martian is the belief that the United States will spend trillions of dollars on a Mars mission sometime in the near future. The only area where I see Ridley Scott pushing believability is the scale of his Mars rockets, rovers, habitats and equipment. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t remember if Andy Weir imagined everything so big.

Science fiction is about a sense of wonder that pushes the limits of knowledge. Sure it’s often unbelievable and even ultimately unscientific, and although science fiction is fantastic like fantasy fiction, science fiction is something we want to believe is possible even though it’s probably not. The Martian is far out, and has tremendous sense of wonder, but isn’t it too mundane to be science fiction? Isn’t it really just fiction? We could do everything in The Martian if Uncle Sam would write NASA a big enough check. And I say again, that’s about the only thing I think is science fictional in The Martian.

I’m wondering if there are qualities to science fiction that we don’t understand. That it’s too easy to call anything about the future, or anything that takes place in outer space as science fiction. Maybe we don’t know what to point to when we’re looking for the essence of science fiction. For 99.9% of people, science fiction is the perfect label for The Martian. The book and movie are wonderful, inspiring and filled with a powerful sense of wonder. I think they make people feel like they used to when they were kids reading science fiction for the first time. However, I think there is something more to science fiction. Something elusive that we can’t easily pin down. Something that we long for when we’re old, and wish we could find it again. I’m not sure that’s in The Martian. I believe it has too much science for that ineffable quality.

Nor do I mean any criticism of The Martian by thinking about not calling it science fiction. It’s a standout story and movie. I was just wondering when times get so close to science fictional if we need to reserve the label for stories a little more into the twilight zone.


What Would Happen To The Economy If Everyone Ate Healthy?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I’ve been eating healthy for my heart, and hopefully unclog my arteries that have been giving me trouble after a lifetime of bad food choices. Eating healthy is a vast readjustment. When I shop for food, 80% of what I buy comes from the produce section. And if I followed the recommendations exactly, it would be 95%. If everyone ate like this, most of what’s sold in grocery stores would stay on the shelves, and all the processed food corporations would go bust.


Eating out while following these healthy diets is extra hard. Most restaurants would go out of business unless they drastically changed their menus. All fast-food and convenience stores would go belly up too. So too, for vending machine owners. Any beverage company selling liquids other than water and wine would be filing for bankruptcy. And very few people in the meat, poultry and fish business would have any business.

Then, there’s the medical establishment. What if it’s true that healthy eating greatly reduces heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a host of other chronic ailments our society spends billions to heal? Won’t a lot of doctors and hospitals lose all their trade? And all those people who process insurance claims will be out of work too! And what about all the quack doctors, miracle cure salesmen, and vitamin peddlers?

If everyone ate healthy and actually got healthy, tens of millions, maybe even hundreds of millions, would be out of work. Just think of how many people have jobs because we have long lingering deaths from chronic illnesses. What would happen to all the long-term care facilities and their workers?

I’m not sure we’ve thought this healthy eating thing through. Now I understand why so many conservatives don’t want to fix global warming.


Learning To Love Classical Music

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 27, 2015

I’ve been a big music love all my life, but I’ve never really liked classical music. I keep trying, thinking classical music must be an acquired taste, or I need to be educated to its ways. In recent months I’ve been trying harder, attending a few concerts. Last night I went to hear The Ceruti String Quartet perform Opus 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) – Franz Joseph Haydn, Opus 11 – Samuel Barber, and Opus 59, No. 3 – Ludwig van Beethoven. I was emotional moved sometimes by the Barber, mostly because some melodies seemed somewhat familiar, like I might have heard the second movement in a movie soundtrack. I liked the Haydn least, and the Beethoven kind of impressed me, but still didn’t quite work as something I’d want to regularly hear.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber

I’m fascinated by why some people find classical music so moving and powerful and others find it annoying. I’ve learned to like classical music enough, from brief measures here and there within symphonies, that I want to learn to like it more. I believe I have a conceptual barrier to understanding classical music. By understanding I mean being able to listen to it and appreciate its artistic beauty.

One hypothesis I’m working with, is I don’t have the working memory to appreciate classical music. I can’t remember the melody to any song, even popular songs I’ve heard a thousand times. I can’t hum a tune, or remember lyrics. Popular music, which I love, is based on short songs built around a relentless rhythm. Rock, folk, country and to a degree jazz songs are composed around a steady beat, usually provided by drums and bass. Other instruments weave simply melodies within the beat, but they are seldom complex, at least compared to classical music. Pop music is close to a short chant, while classical music is often much longer, far more complex, and might be compared to several long poems all read at the same time, but which still create a coherent whole. To my mind, classical music is a jumble of words and phrases I can’t comprehend, often jarring, usually without resonating with my feelings, but occasionally twinging a sense of beauty.

I came up with my working memory theory because of three recent incidents. First, my friend Janis has listened to two symphonies with me that she remembered from her high school band days. She can still hum/sing them, and remember their ever changing movements. She’d conduct with her hands as she listened, which shows she remember their overall structure.

Then I saw a video of a 3-year-old kid “conducting” the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 5th.

If you watch young Jonathan you can see that he anticipates what’s coming up. He has memorized the piece. Janis has done the same thing with the two pieces we listened to. I don’t know any classical music well enough to anticipate any part of it, even the symphonies I’ve played four or five times. I have no memory for structure. Popular music is so repetitive that you don’t have to remember. Has popular music made me lazy, or do I just have a very poor working memory?

I did play the three pieces I heard last night before the performance on Spotify–so I wasn’t absolutely new to them. I wonder how many times I would have to play them before I would learn to anticipate all the changes?

I remember taking tests where I was asked to remember a series of numbers. I’m miserable at it. Which probably explains why I can’t remember lyrics, poems and melodies. I don’t know if this is a birth defect, laziness, or lack of training. But it also relates to a third clue I discovered when I read “What Makes a Prodigy?” Scientists have discovered that most prodigies have fantastic working memories, either in the 99th percentile, or even in the 99.9th percentile. Most childhood prodigies are good at math, music and chess—all things I’m terrible at.

This probably explains why all my life I’ve wished I could play chess, music and do math—I hunger to do what I can’t. It might also explain why I can’t sing or dance. Don’t worry, I’m not feeling pity for myself, I’m good at other things. We often want what we can’t have. I’m guessing it might take a certain level of working memory ability to appreciate classical music, say 70th percentile or above, and I must be way below that.

Last night as I sat alone in the hall, (none of the three friends I asked to go with me would go). I struggled to make sense of what I was hearing. I was impressed by the performers, and by the creativity of the compositions, but except for some of the Barber, what I heard didn’t feel like what I feel when I listen to music I love. And I have a theory about that too.

If you are born into a family of Baptists it’s most likely you’ll grow up to be Baptist. If a Muslim family adopted a Baptist baby, it would grow up to be Muslim. Or maybe Hindu if it was taken to India. I was never raised with classical music, so it’s a foreign religion, a foreign culture. Because some people can move to a distant land and embrace a new culture, religion and ethics, I assume it’s possible for me to learn to like classical music. I just don’t know how hard that might be, or if my short term memory problem will be a limiting factor.

I tend to think it’s a matter of long term exposure. I used to really hate opera, but in the last year I’ve added a few arias to my Spotify playlist of favorites that I play everyday on random. This playlist are songs I can always hear and always enjoy, no matter when they come up. I’ve learned to love a few opera pieces enough to add them into the group.

Yet, I continue to struggle to conceptualize classical music. It’s funny what a newbie I am. I want to clap at the end of movements, whereas the obvious tradition is to sit quietly until the end of a piece. There’s no whistling, shouting, or stomping when a performer plays a particularly good riff. I was in a mostly empty hall with about sixty people in the audience. I think most of them were music majors, or older folk who love classical music. They all knew when each piece ended and clapped right on clue. I expected most of them were familiar enough with each of the three pieces they could have conducted. Which means they see classical music as a whole, something I can’t fathom yet.

Popular songs are played so often, and last so little time, that most people can grasp their basic structure quickly. A very long time ago I tried learning how to play the guitar and my teacher taught me the chord structure to “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song I’ve heard thousands of times since 1965. For a few weeks, decades ago, I could bang out that song, and had a feeling for its structure. I can’t even hum it now.

I listen to music in a extremely weird way, that might not be typical for most people. I don’t comprehend it’s parts. I can’t comprehend or visualize it’s structure. But holistically music pushes a button in my brain that turns on emotions. Music is a drug to me. Because pop songs are so concisely repetitious, they usually create just one emotion. Because classical music is so complexly varied, so diverse in it’s effects, that most of the time I feel nothing, but every once in a while, a measure, or even half measure of its music will find an emotion button to press. I wonder if I keep trying, I’ll learn how to like classical music so more of it’s riffs hit buttons within me that produce a response? One thing significant about classical music, and why I often compare it to movie soundtracks, is it creates a series of different emotions, sometimes even a rollercoaster ride of feelings.

Finally, I have one other hypothesis. I think I responded better to Barber than Beethoven or Haydn because he’s a 20th century composer. And that I liked Haydn least because he’s the oldest. I’m guessing the music of the 18th and 19th century was different because people’s minds were different, and I can’t tune into those periods—yet. With popular music I’ve learned to enjoy music all the way back to the 1920s, and I’ve even heard songs from the 1910s that are becoming catchy to me. For me to learn to love classical music will require learning to love music from other centuries. What’s fascinating is I started listening to chants from the Middle Ages, and I dug them. And I have a theory about why. Medieval music is more like today’s popular music, very simple. The early melodies were monophonic. Which makes me wonder if the minds of people in the 18th and 19th century were more capable of comprehending complexity than our 21st century minds?