Random finds (2017, week 50) — On powerful habits, ceremonies of innocence, and what’s missing from machines

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity and thinking.

Powerful habits

“Habits are powerful.” writes Sendhil Mullainathan in Why Trying New Things Is So Hard to Do.

“We persist with many of them because we tend to give undue emphasis to the present. Trying something new can be painful: I might not like what I get and must forgo something I already enjoy. That cost is immediate, while any benefits — even if they are large — will be enjoyed in a future that feels abstract and distant. […]

Overconfidence also holds us back. I am unduly certain in my guesses of what the alternatives will be like, even though I haven’t tried them.

Finally, many so-called choices are not really choices at all. Walking down the supermarket aisle, I do not make a considered decision about soda. I don’t even pause at the generics. I act without thinking; I automatically grab bottles of Diet Coke as I wheel my cart by.”

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Illustration by Abbey Lossing for The New York Times.

Also executives and policymakers fail to experiment in their jobs, and these failures can be particularly costly.

“For example, in hiring, executives often apply their preconceived notions of which applicants will be a ‘good fit’ as prospective employees. Yet those presumptions are nothing more than guesses and are rarely given the scrutiny of experimentation. Hiring someone who doesn’t appear to be a good fit is surely risky, yet it might also prove the presumptions wrong, an outcome that is especially valuable when these presumptions amount to built-in advantages for men or whites or people from economically or culturally advantaged backgrounds.”

Experimentation is a thorny issue, especially for government policymakers. “We are right to be wary of ‘experimenting’ in the sense of playing with people’s lives. Yet we should also be wary of an automatic bias in favor of the status quo. That can amount to a Panglossian belief that the current policy is best, whereas the current policy may actually be a wobbly structure held together by overconfidence, historical accident and the power of precedent.”

Ceremonies of innocence

“Ours is a culture that has lost the ritual dimension to life and is suspicious of any ceremonial element to behaviour,” writes Alison Milbank, an Anglican priest and theologian at the University of Nottingham, in Lost Ceremonies. “Our culture is lacking in communal rituals in which we discover our roles and responsibilities, our value and dignity: literally our place in the world. Yet we cannot accept such rites because they counter the individualism of our conception of what it is to be human. Any group identity is now regarded as a denial of selfhood, and a rite of passage assumes you move from one stage of life to another, as part of a group.”

As life becomes ever more digital, could rituals help restore our relationship with the world around us? — (Above and below) St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet performs Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet which he choreographed for Igor Stravisky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, first performed in 1913.

“Humans are creatures of habit and make patterns of behaviour of the slightest daily activity, as we all know, as we gravitate to the same seat on the bus, or position our loose change in a precise formation on the bedside table every night. To see meaning in repetition, however, is to commit to the fact that there is a purpose and shape to our experience: to be religious, in fact. If we are not to be trapped like hamsters on the wheel of their cages, our rituals need to take us somewhere, and that is just not possible without an opening to some idea of a transcendent. Hence we have a communal residual afterglow of religion in our shared Christmas and Easter, our Lent fasting and harvest festival, clinging to some vestige of a lost teleology.

It is also traditional religious practices that keep the body central in this time of virtualisation. For we lose the body in abandoning ritual, in which it is accorded a high role, and you cannot have a ritual without the material. Perhaps this is the most important reason why we need ritual, so that it may restore our physicality to us, and allow us to honour it. There is an ecological aspect to this respect, for in ritual we restore earth, air, fire and water as precious bearers of meaning to which we are viscerally related. If we are to change our world and our relation to nature and each other for the better, then we need what one might call, echoing Yeats, ‘ceremonies of innocence,’ in which we treat people and things alike with ritual care, in life and death, as participants with ourselves in a cosmic liturgy of transformation.”

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Love is what is missing from machines

The AI revolution is on the scale of the Industrial Revolution — probably larger and definitely faster, argues Kai-Fu Lee, the Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures in A Blueprint for Coexistence with Artificial Intelligence.

“But while robots may take over jobs, believe me when I tell you there is no danger that they will take over. These AIs run ‘narrow’ applications that master a single domain each time, but remain strictly under human control. The necessary ingredient of dystopia is ‘General AI’ — AI that by itself learns common sense reasoning, creativity, and planning, and that has self-awareness, feelings, and desires. This is the stuff of the singularity that the Cassandras predict. But General AI isn’t here. There are simply no known engineering algorithms for it. And I don’t expect to see them any time soon. The ‘singularity’ hypothesis extrapolates exponential growth from the recent boom, but ignores the fact that continued exponential growth requires scientific breakthroughs that are unlikely to be solved for a hundred years, if ever.”

Based on these engineering realities, Lee believes we should focus on the very real ‘narrow’ AI applications and extensions instead of discussing this fictional super-intelligence. “These will proliferate quickly, leading to massive value creation and an Age of Plenty, because AI will produce fortunes, make strides to eradicate poverty and hunger, and give all of us more spare time and freedom to do what we love. But it will also usher in an Age of Confusion. As an Oxford study postulates, AI will replace half of human jobs, and many people will become depressed as they lose their jobs and the purpose that comes with gainful employment,” Lee writes.

“It is imperative that we focus on the certainty of these serious issues, rather than talking about dystopia, singularity, or super-intelligence. Perhaps the most vexing question is: How do we create enough jobs to place these displaced workers? The answer to this question will determine whether the alternate ending to the AI story will be happy or tragic.”

Illustration by Woolzian for WIRED.

“One suggested solution is to try to move people to jobs that are a step or two ahead of what machines can do. The idea would be to transition people to jobs that require higher dexterity (e.g., retrain an assembly line worker to be a plumber), hidden talent (e.g., encourage an accountant to pursue her dream of becoming a comedian), or new skills (e.g., train a cooling expert for a giant AI data center). Of course we should try this, but these numbers would be infinitesimal compared to the number of jobs displaced. And it is only the rarest accountant who can kill it at the Comedy Cellar.”

Based on his own experiences, Lee has a different answer. “Our coexistence with artificial intelligence hinges on combining what is humanly unattainable — the hugely scaled narrow AI intelligence that will only get better at any given domain — with what we humans can uniquely offer to one another. And that is love. What makes us human is that we can love,” Lee writes. “Love is what is missing from machines. That’s why we must pair up with them, to leaven their powers with what only we humans can provide. Your future AI diagnostic tool may well be 10 times more accurate than human doctors, but patients will not want a cold pronouncement from the tool: ‘You have fourth stage lymphoma and a 70 percent likelihood of dying within five years.’ […] In innumerable instances, excellent AI tools may emerge, but the ‘human-to-human’ interface is critical to ensuring we feel listened to and cared for when we encounter important life events.”

Illustration by Woolzian for WIRED.

“So, this is the alternate ending to the narrative of AI dystopia. An ending in which AI performs the bulk of repetitive jobs, but the gap is filled by opportunities that require our humanity,” Lee argues.

Of course, he can’t guarantee that scientists in the future will never make the breakthroughs that will lead to the kind of general-intelligence computer capabilities that might truly threaten us. But Lee thinks that “the real danger is not that such a scenario will happen, but that we won’t embrace the option to double down on humanity while also using AI to improve our lives. This decision is ultimately up to us: Whatever we choose may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we choose a world in which we are fully replaceable by machines, whether it happens or not, we are surrendering our humanity and our pursuit for meaning. If everyone capitulates, our humanity will come to an end.”

And also this …

“Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More importantly, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know,” Philip Yancey writes in The death of reading is threatening the soul.

But Yancey is going through a personal crisis. “I used to read three books a week,” he says, “[b]ut I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.”

“The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, ‘If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…’ Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up.”

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The Newbern Library in rural Alabama — “Within the town’s rural context, they understood that the library could become a social centre, providing such resources as after-school programming, computer access, and the first public internet point in the community.” (Photography by Timothy Hursley)

But according to Charles Chu, willpower alone isn’t enough. In an article on Quartz, Chu advises to “build a fortress of habits — these are what will keep you resilient in tough times.” The most impactful changes are environmental, Chu writes. If you want to read, make sure you remove all distractions from your environment and also, make books as easy to access as possible. “I try to keep books everywhere so I can just pick one up and start reading,” Chu says.

“I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle,” Yancey writes. “We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish.” If I would yield to the tyranny of the urgent, “my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places. When I retire to the mountains and unplug for a few days, something magical takes place. I’ll go to bed puzzling over a roadblock in my writing, and the next morning wake up with the solution crystal-clear — something that never happens when I spend my spare time cruising social media and the Internet.”

Seneca on a beneficial reading program (fragment from his Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 2, translation by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long):

“1. From your letter and from what I hear, I am becoming quite hopeful of you; you are not disquieting yourself by running about from place to place. Thrashing around in that way indicates a mind of poor health. In my view, the first sign of a settled mind is that it can stay in one place and spend time with itself.

2. Be careful, though, about your reading in many authors and different types of books. It may be that there is something wayward and unstable in it. You must stay with a limited number of writers and be fed by them if you mean to derive anything that will dwell reliably with you. One who is everywhere is nowhere. Those who travel all the time find that they have many places to stay, but no friendships. The same thing necessarily happens to those who do not become intimate with any one author, but let everything rush right through them. 3. Food does not benefit or become part of the body when it is eaten and immediately expelled. Nothing impedes healing as much as frequent change of medications. A wound does not close up when one is always trying out different dressings on it; a seedling that is transplanted repeatedly will never grow strong. Nothing, in fact, is of such utility that it benefits us merely in passing. A large number of books puts a strain on a person. So, since you cannot read everything you have, it is sufficient to have only the amount you can read.

4. ‘‘But I want to read different books at different times,’ you say. The person of delicate digestion nibbles at this and that; when the diet is too varied, though, food does not nourish but only upsets the stomach. So read always from authors of proven worth; and if ever you are inclined to turn side to others, return afterward to the previous ones. Obtain each day some aid against poverty, something against death, and likewise against other calamities. And when you have moved rapidly through many topics, select one to ponder that day and digest.

5. This is what I do as well, seizing on some item from among several things I have read. Today it is this, which I found in Epicurus — for it is my custom to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy:

Cheerful poverty is an honorable thing.

[…]”

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The death of Seneca (1871), by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez. (Photograph by Museo del Prado, Madrid)

In ‘Ma’ the spaces between are everything, Alan Moore refers to Alex Kerr’s book Lost Japan, which offers a fascinating insight into Japan’s landscape, culture, history and future. What captured Moore’s curiosity was the concept of ‘Ma,’ which Kerr explains as the spaces, the delicate variations and delays between notes in Japanese music. It is “the pure, and indeed, essential void between all things. It is the essence of Japanese aesthetic, the DNA of its design principles. Ma is all about space that holds potential,” Moore writes.

“In Kabuki, traditional theatre, it is intuitive as practice. Ma is in the purposeful pauses in speech which make words stand out. It is in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful, and in the silence between the notes which make the music. Ma takes its inspiration from nature. A Kabuki actor, talking to Kerr says, ‘Have you ever been in the mountains and listened to the Cuckoo? Its says cuckoo, cuckoo, with the slightest pause between syllables. It doesn’t say kuku kuku like a metronome.’”

The kabuki actors (left to right) Shichinosuke Nakamura, Kankuro Nakamura and Matsuya Onoe, performing in a production of ‘Sannin Kichisa.’ (Photoraphy by SHOCHIKU)

Ma is also integral to Arata Isozaki’s architectural legacy. Isozaki, a pioneer of Metabolism, the avant-garde 1960s architectural movement that proposed fantastic urban landscapes synonymous to biological structures, continues to inspire architects to this day. Among his best known works are the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Oita Prefectural Library and the Qatar National Convention Center.

“No time and no space, but we have ‘ma’ in-between.” — Arata Isozaki

In a video interview with PLANE — SITE, the first of a series in celebration of a forthcoming exhibition in the context of La Biennale di Venezia Architettura, entitled ‘Time-Space-Existence’ and opening in May 2018, Isozaki explores the concept of ma — the space and time in-between object and object, the pause in-between sound and sound. His work has been profoundly influenced by these intervals. Isozaki furhermore meditates on his practice and Japanese architectural identity as a whole.

PLANE — SITE met with Japanese architect Arata Isozaki in his studio to have a conversation and explore the topics of time, space, and existence in architecture. (Video by Michael Waldrep for PLANE — SITE)

This single-storey residence, designed by architects Megumi Matsubara and Hiroi Ariyama is situated in a clearing enclosed by dense woodland near Karuizawa, Japan, and nestles up to the existing trees, which cast constantly shifting patterns of light and shadow onto its rectangular roof, writes Alyn Griffiths in Dezeen.

Architects Megumi Matsubara and Hiroi Ariyama arranged this house in the forest near Karuizawa around five courtyards to provide views of vegetation both inside and outside the building.

“Its shape being flat and square, the house has a floor plan entirely defined by five courtyards alone,” according to the architects, who have also collaborated on a house close to an ancient Buddhist temple, which employs a range of exposed materials, such as glass, steel, wood, concrete and corrugated plastic.

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“All rooms are designed to face the courtyards, each of which is distinct in character and designed to receive light at different times of the day.” (Photography by Daici Ano)

“The Newbern Library is located in a town of the same name with less than 200 residents, and was converted by fifth-year architecture students at Auburn University’s Rural Studio — a programme founded in 1993 by Samuel Mockbee to create architecture for disadvantaged residents in rural areas,” writes Jenna McKnight in Dezeen.

“Within the town’s rural context, […] the library could become a social centre, providing such resources as after-school programming, computer access, and the first public internet point in the community.”

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“Within the town’s rural context, they understood that the library could become a social centre, providing such resources as after-school programming, computer access, and the first public internet point in the community.” (Photography by Timothy Hursley)

“There’s this stickiness to the liberalism of cities. The groups come and go out of there, which leads to an interesting question: ‘Why are cities so persistently liberal?’ That’s one of the great unanswered questions of social science. A lot of it has to do also with the way these cities bring together different mixes of people, and that changes the politics of individuals who are living there. There’s a push and a pull, where people who don’t like that mix of people get pushed out, but cities change people. I know that the experience of living in big cities changed me. The way these places are built and the people who already live there shape who we are.” — Ryan Enos, a political scientist and the author of The Space Between Us, in How Place Shapes Our Politics

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