Archive for ‘Limbo’

November 24, 2016

Dogs in the park have their rituals, as do their masters. 

November 20, 2016


Nothing is unnatural or artificial. There is a first- and a second-order nature; the former is what is given to us (oceans, trees, animals), the latter is what we have made of the first. As such, second-order nature is always subjective: it is defined in relation to us, the authors, who once were just first-order natural beings. 

October 22, 2016

Better recommendations


Current recommendation algorithms merely suggest things we might want; they should instead help us choose the one thing that is best.

The technology powering our recommendation engines today falls into two main categories: “similar items” and “others also bought”. The first is what Netflix uses: it analyses all the movies i have already watched and looks for similar ones. The second algorithm is what you will find on Amazon: it is simply a list of things that were bought by other people who also bought the item i am currently looking at. The first type of AI analyses the intrinsic properties of items, whereas the second looks to external and relational elements. However, both algorithms nevertheless produce the same output and involve the same human behavior: they propose a list of things i might want and ask me to choose.

That only gets me half way there. I really want the AI to tell me which of those items i should choose. Moreover, it should not select the item i currently want the most, but rather that magical item i might not even know i want, though in retrospect i will agree it was even better than what i had initially wanted.

Note that such an algorithm might not require any new inputs: it can still use the intrinsic and relational data about items and people to hone in on the right choice. But it does require a different process, and a different set of assumptions about human nature: instead of the algorithm presuming that i am an opaque “bundle of wants”, it must construct an intelligible model of my “better wants”. To do so will require a dynamic model that can determine what i am likely to pick now as well as what i am likely to “like having picked”.

Such assumptions and their ensuing models play out in how the humble recommendation engine influences the quality of our lives. Our current algorithms notoriously encourage us to stay within our comfort zones, and they force us to choose (often mostly at random) between broadly indistinguishable options. This is a shallow kind of freedom. Do you want the blue one or the red one? We should look instead for a deeper kind of freedom, one that might indeed ask the AI choose for us, but which in return allows us to determine the desired outcome. We are training that AI to better serve us.


Grocery aisle yogurt: BobMical via photopin cc

July 28, 2016

Our idea of religion originates in the axial age when philosophers and prophets discovered that we can interpret the world from within our own souls: it is a subjective concept; and we are now in thrall to its addictive promise of a single truth which will illuminate the meaning of the world to each of us.  We must give up this religion and accept that the promise was false. Then we can return to understanding the world little by little, accepting that there will always be much that others must explain to us, and even more that none of us can yet fathom. Hopefully the violent symptoms of our addiction will then subside. 

July 28, 2016

The desire for a Grand Unified Theory is metaphysical and religious;  the desire for a better theory is scientific. 

August 29, 2015

Careening through time,
i right my course,

July 26, 2015

As i think,
so the beast grazes,
trees grow,
the tide turns.

December 5, 2011

Extraordinary Realities

The religious impulse is perhaps best understood today as a desire for something extraordinary to break into ordinary existence. This “extraordinary” might be a God “outside” the universe who can and does intervene from beyond to transform our world; or it might be an extraordinary outlook & intuition: new, unusual practices and ideas that work to suddenly liberate us from the pervasive misconceptions of our inherited ways of life. However it is taken to manifest itself, the extraordinary must burst into the universe so that nothing remain the same after — our hope is for a pointed, salutary revolution in what we do and how we think.

This religious expectation for something extraordinary & new is nothing but the eternal intuition that our ordinary understanding of the world has always already built an invisible prison around us. We know there is much more to the world and life than what we see and have been told — but how are we to discover this inconceivable reality? The religious impulse is just this attempt to be free of the oppressive, mundane, ordinary world. When properly directed, it can be an unstoppable force for bettering our lives, for miraculously happening upon exceedingly better worlds.

The ordinary world against which religion must rebel is often that of science, the economy, ethics or politics; these make up a good but insufficient world that continuously traps us in its shortcomings. These realms are very real and must never be ignored or sidestepped by a religious outlook: the perspectives are in an important sense true; and yet, they are also myopic and oppressive in their simplifications; they have never been able to conceal their gaping, dangerous blindspots. The religious outlook must search for extraordinary solutions to the problems these ordinary views of the world cannot fix, escape routes from our always closed understanding of reality. But religious attempts will only prove successful if they can compel the ordinary world to accept their extraordinary solutions on its own terms. Though the religious inspiration is extraordinary, the solutions it offers must become conveivable, that is, they must transform the ordinary world as they are incorporated into it — at which point, of course, even better extraordinary realities must be sought.

January 27, 2011

The pronoun e

As the English language regrettably lacks a third person singular pronoun to designate persons of all sexes, and refusing to settle for “he or shes”, “theys” and other heavy duty work arounds, i decided to create my own such term. Seeing that all other vowels were otherwise occupied (a, I, oh, you, and why), i decided to dignify the letter e with its own purpose, especially since it is also the shared last letter of the two gendered pronouns, he and she.

I decline the pronoun following the simple rules that also apply to “it”, hence: e (subject), e (object), es (possessive) and eself (reflexive).

While i am on the subject of grammatical innovations, i will point out that i have also ceased to capitalize the letter i when used as the first person singular, since the reasons for this bombastic spelling, the alleged need to save manuscripts’ cursive i’s from disappearing into a mass of indistict humps and waves, has itself long since disappeared.

May 11, 2008

wittgensteinian thoughts on morality

How does one choose a morality? — Like shoes: by trying them out.

A: Aren’t humans determined by their moral past?
B: No, they can interpret it.
A: With what?
B: With one another.

What do i want? — To be at peace with myself and the world. — Is this what everyone wants? — Probably not. Others are creatures of movement.

When i decide between a kantian and a utilitarian act (killing an innocent man to save the world), the ultimate rule of my decision is nothing other than my peace of mind.

What is the purpose of morality?