The Democrats Reborn?

I’m trying to keep up my jaundiced eye here, but I feel like tonight I have seen a Democratic party unlike any I have seen before in my lifetime. Walter Mondale was perhaps the last of the old guard still to possess some fight, but after that, not Dukakis, or Clinton, or Al Gore or John Kerry. They all seemed too timid, too poll tested, too cowed. First last night in Joe Biden’s speech and then again tonight in Barack Obama’s I heard a Democratic party unbowed, spirited, confident.

Senator Biden’s introduction by his son and his own discussion of his family was surprisingly emotional and seemingly so for everyone involved. His speech was the version of values that Democrats should be putting forward, it was tough on foreign policy, and unlike Democrats for the last eight years, effortlessly sincere, uncontrived. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out (“It’s Biden,” ThinkProgress, 23 August 2008), the selection of Biden for VP “signals as desire to take the argument to John McCain on national security policy” and deliver to voters “a full-spectrum debate about the issues facing the country rather than a positional battle in which one party talks about the economy and the other talks about national security.” In Joseph Biden I think I first, finally saw a different, rejuvenated Democrats.

The same was true for Barack Obama’s speech tonight. His cadence was off in places, but it was defiant, pugilistic and signaled to me that the Senator has absorbed all the right lessons about the campaign. I think many of the myths that have plagued the Senator as well as the party at large for the last few weeks have been definitively left behind after tonight. It showed some of the populism that worked so well for Al Gore in the final weeks of the 2000 election. My favorite part, like with Senator Biden, was when Senator Obama took the foreign policy issue by the horns:

You don’t defeat — you don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq. You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances.

If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but that is not the change that America needs.

If Chris Matthews waxing rapturous is any indication, then he achieved everything he needed to do. After Chris Matthews, what more can you ask for? Who knows, maybe even Maureen Dowd will write a positive review. I think McCain’s speech a week from now will look pretty wooden in comparison.

My only concern is as, I think it was Patrick Buchanan said last night, after a week of the Republicans ripping into Senator Obama next week, the Democrats may regret going so easy on Senator McCain. Alternately, Democrats may finally have learned that you have to run your negative stuff stealth.

The Omission of Lyndon Johnson from the Democratic Pantheon

If there is a unifying thread to U.S. history it is that of the ongoing process of bringing American practice into line with American principle, of the march of freedom, of the expansion of the franchise. In this story there is one great subplot that stands above all others: that of the experience of the African American: the middle crossing, slavery, the fatal flaws of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. At the denouement of this story stand two characters, towering over all others: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Taylor Branch was right to structure his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. around Exodus. King led African Americans out of the dessert, but was not allowed to enter the Promised Land himself. Lyndon Johnson, on the other had, is an exile: a man from the heart of the franchise, who is today persona non grata.

Today, Lyndon Johnson would have been a hundred years old (27 August 1908 – 22 January 1973) and George Packer comments on the strange exclusion of this giant of the left from the Democratic pantheon (“L.B.J.’s Moment,” Interesting Times, The New Yorker, 24 August 2008):

Whenever Democrats gather to celebrate the party, they invoke the names of their luminaries past. The list used to begin with Jefferson and Jackson. More recently, it’s been shortened to F.D.R., Truman, and J.F.K. The one Democrat with a legitimate claim to greatness who can’t be named is Lyndon Johnson. The other day I asked Robert Caro, Johnson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer and hardly a hagiographer of the man, whether he thought Johnson should be mentioned in Denver. “It would be only just to Johnson,” Caro said. “If the Democratic Party was going to honestly acknowledge how it came to the point in its history that it was about to nominate a black American for President, no speech would not mention Lyndon Johnson.” Caro is now at work on the fourth volume of his epic biography, about Johnson’s White House years. “I am writing right now about how he won for black Americans the right to vote. I am turning from what happened forty-three years ago to what I am reading in my daily newspaper — and the thrill that goes up and down my spine when I realize the historical significance of this moment is only equaled by my anger that they are not giving Johnson credit for it.”

In the week of Johnson’s one hundredth birthday, I would like to believe that there is some Democrat in Denver who will do him the justice of speaking his name.

The Architecture of Nightmares

Circa 1999, Lebbeus Woods, detail of Terrain 1-2

In “Imagination Unmoored” (8 August 2008) I suggested that in addition to our dreams we might end up living in our nightmares. It struck me as a strange thought when I wrote it, though I didn’t even have to think any particular scenario — the eccentric, the accidental, the illicit — all the way through for its plausibility to be apparent. Our culture already abounds in it. It is in this regard that the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick have been inducted into the Library of America and that players sign up for Hord in World of Warcraft. Alternative iconography seeks stark contrasts with the mundane, with Goth tending toward horror and punk the post-apocalyptic. Pornography has always tarried with the Sadistic and the surreal.

Any art of the found will inevitably end up scavenging our calamities as well as our aspirations. Enter Lebbeus Woods whose architectural design work will be included in Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (Ouroussoff, Nichlai, “An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World,” 24 August 2008):

In the early 1990s he published a stunning series of renderings that explored the intersection of architecture and violence. The first of these, the Berlin Free-Zone project, designed soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was conceived as an illustration of how periods of social upheaval are also opportunities for creative freedom.

Aggressive machinelike structures — their steel exteriors resembling military debris — are implanted in the abandoned ruins of buildings that flank the wall’s former death zone. Cramped and oddly shaped, the interiors were designed to be difficult to inhabit — a strategy for screening out the typical bourgeois. (“You can’t bring your old habits here,” he warned. “If you want to participate, you will have to reinvent yourself.”)

This vision reached its extreme in a series of renderings he created in 1993 in response to the war in Bosnia. Inspired by sci-fi comics and full of writhing cables, crumbling buildings and flying shards of steel, these drawings seem to mock the old Modernist faith in a utopian future. Their dark, moody atmosphere suggests a world in a constant struggle for survival.

In 1999 he began working on a series of designs whose fragmented planes were intended to reflect the seismic shifts that occur during earthquakes. (“The idea is that it’s not nature that creates catastrophes,” he said. “It’s man. The renderings were intended to reflect a new way of thinking about normal geological occurrences.”)

“I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world,” Mr. Woods told me. “All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”

The article actually laments that the young generation in architecture has been made facile by overuse of computers. Au contraire! That is exactly how we are to experience the architecture of the impractical, built under fanciful physics.

Membership Has Its Limitations

I am vehemently opposed to any sort of loyalty cards that are now de rigueur at almost all stores where you make a purchase of any regularity or size. I think a lot of people see them as a harmless way to save a few bucks. And that’s what they are — for now. But they are obviously a foundation on which to build. But build what? Well, the FTC’s deceptive marketing practices lawsuit against CompuCredit is sure suggestive (Silver-Greenberg, Jessica, “Your Lifestyle May Hurt Your Credit,” BusinessWeek, 19 June 2008):

The allegations, in part, focus on CompuCredit’s Aspire Visa, a subprime credit card for risky borrowers. The FTC claims that CompuCredit didn’t properly disclose that it monitored spending and cut credit lines if consumers used their cards at certain places. Among them: tire and retreading shops, massage parlors, bars, billiard halls, and marriage counseling offices. “The company touted that cardholders could use their credit cards anywhere,” says J. Reilly Dolan, assistant director for financial practices at the FTC. “What they didn’t say was that you could be punished for specific kinds of purchases.”

And the more general point:

With competition increasing, databases improving, and technology advancing, companies can include more factors than ever in their models. And industry experts say financial firms increasingly are looking at consumer behavior, as CompuCredit did.

Of course the corporate idiocy here is mind-boggling. First they target a sub-prime demographic, but then cut them off for the very behaviors that made these people sub-prime in the first place. Really? CompuCredit was unaware that the underclass blew their money on scratch tickets and payday loans?

I don’t suspect that this is leading to some insidious world of PreCrime, where government thugs scoop you up, guilty on the basis of a statistical analysis. Rather, nudge style, it will just become the accepted background of people’s expectations. People will recognize an incentive and respond accordingly. “Oh, no, we can’t go out for happy hour. We’re trying to get our credit score up for a home loan.”

The Anti-Library

A selection of my personal library, 20 August 2008

From Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary. (p. 1)

Great! On that basis, I’m going to allow myself to buy three more books this week.

Update, 26 August 2008: Two-thirds of the way there: I bought A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel De Landa and The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt yesterday.

Update 2, 27 August 2008: Book number three purchased. At the suggestion of John, I ordered a copy of singularity-oriented sci-fi novel Accelerando by Charles Stross.

A Few Heretical Thoughts on the Singularity

Futurism tends to employ a fairly straightforward method. We have a few data points, draw a line connecting them, follow it out to the horizon. But there are all sorts of turbulence that might intervene, redirecting the trend in any manner of direction. It’s very easy to be interested in a technological phenomenon in extremis, but intervening conditions are critical to the ultimate outcome of a technological trend. We need to be attentive to these as well as the accretion points, horizons, limits, et cetera. So we need to think about what happens between now and then and how technologies develop.

So, for instance, while I imagine that Moore’s law will continue to hold for generations to come, making the ultimate outcome predictable, the underlying technologies have been forced through radical reconfigurations to maintain this pace of innovation. The original von Neumann serial computer architecture is already long gone. Serial processing has been superseded inside the CPU by superscalar architectures with deep pipelines incorporating all sorts of exotic techniques like branch prediction and instruction reordering. External to CPU techniques of massive parallelization, clustering and cloud computing are the present way forward, even at the midrange. Silicon and gallium arsenide may be replaced by diamond. Electronics may be pushed out by photonics or DNA based computing. The classical machine may be replaced by quantum computing. Moore’s law may hold, but only in a machine radically different from our original conception of a computer. The ultimate destination may be apparent from the trend, but what happens to the underlying constituents pieces is entirely more complex. And the devil is in the details.

In this light, I offer a few thoughts on how the warp and woof of the singularity might go off the rails:

  1. What if the future is gross? People have this vision of the future where sanitary and rational machines displace disgusting biology. Biology is a world of superfluity and surfeit, of blood, semen, urine, shit, sweat, milk, saliva, snot, vomit, hairballs, halitosis, entrails, toe jam, puss, roe and other slimy secretions of undetermined type. And the vile excess of nature. A creature lays a thousand eggs that one might survive long enough to deposit its own pile somewhere. Or mounds of fruit rot in the autumn heat that a single seed might start. Machines will disband all this in favor of a unitary efficiency. A lab-like well-lit white room with a regiment of identical machine housings.

    But people often make the mistake of associating a characteristic with a particular thing, when in fact the characteristic is of a higher order and present in the given thing through class inheritance. Any other thing substituted for the one at hand would also display that same characteristic because it too is an instance of that higher order. Evolution — diversity, competition for limited resources, survival of the fittest, descent with modification — is now widely recognized as substrate independent. It is also starting to be recognized that evolution is a very fundamental dynamic. Perhaps it is an inescapable law of life. Perhaps machines too will be unable to get out from under its yoke.

    Already there is parasitic software, aptly named viruses. Already there are dueling AIs such as spam-bots versus your e-mail filter. Already the Pentagon is developing aggressive machines. Future systems will develop from these predecessors. Already the pattern has been laid down. Rather than a world ending up sanitary, rational and efficient, a machine world could include proliferation of survival strategies, mass reproduction and the expendability of the individual as a survival strategy, the parasitic, competition, death, politics and war.

    Consider the syntrophic model of the origin of the nucleus of eukaryotic cells or the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of mitochondria, et. al. Subversion, symbiosis and parasitization seem to be fairly fundamental strategies. And not just at some quiet software level. There might be nanotech viruses or even large machines might settle upon the survival strategy of ripping apart other machines to take advantage of the natural resources they have amassed. Carnivores appear very early in the history of life. It’s a very good lazy strategy.

    And this stuff is all the fundamental constituent pieces to what makes biology gross. It could end up true of the machines as well.

  2. Silicon brains versus DNA machines. The “where’s my flying car?” among the AGI crowd is copying your brain onto a computer. Is it possible that in the future rather than humans copying their brains onto computers, maybe machines will copy their designs onto DNA?

    Evolution seeks to produce creatures ever more durable, but it is limited in the directions it might take by the evolutionarily achievable. It seems that titanium plate armor, lasers and wheels aren’t on offer. The most significant limitation is that imposed by the problem of origin. Evolution has to first bootstrap itself into existence and for the bootstrapping process only a very small range of compounds meet all the relevant criteria. And those first few interactions on the way to biological evolution are the ones that most significantly circumscribe the range of the evolutionarily achievable. The limitations of these early precipitates inherit down to all subsequent products of evolution. In our case, that limitation is carbon and water-based life. Water is great because so many substances are water-soluble, but it is problematic because it has a pretty narrow operating range. Switching over to a mechanical or a silicon evolution allows the processes to transcend these limits of origin.

    But on the other hand, there are significant advantages to life as it has evolved.

    People imagine androids like C3-P0 or the T-800 or like what the robotics students are building today or the JPL people are landing on Mars: assemblages of macroscopic, heterogeneous parts. But what happens when a machine like this is damaged. Well you make it with two arms. If one is damaged, the good one repairs the bad one. You have increased your fault-tolerance somewhat, but what about the not inconceivable situation where both arms are damaged simultaneously. Or during the repair process you have a window of vulnerability where the redundancy is zero. Something like ATHLETE takes it to the next level with eight leg-arm appendages, each capable of repairing their neighbors (Shiga, David, “Giant Robots Could Carry Lunar Bases on Their Backs,” New Scientist, 4 April 2008). But that’s still a pretty week level of redundancy compared to that which biology has attained.

    Presumably any autonomous machine would best be cellular like biological life. It would be a colony of nanotech devices. Each nanotech “cell” would carry the design for itself and how to integrate into the larger colony. They would each be able to repair their neighbors and make new copies of themselves. The nanotech cells might be general purpose in their fabrication abilities so the colony might think of improvements to its design and the next generation of nanotech cells might be different and better then the ones that manufactured them. The machine might evolve.

    But people imagine nanotech like little tiny versions of C3-P0 et. al. They have little batteries and little servos that actuate little arms and a little welding torch, et cetera. But why not continue the redundancy all the way down? A biological cell doesn’t have one RNA molecule or one mitochondria. Operating at the level of organic chemistry rather than mechanics, the cell is also massively redundant. Isn’t this a design feature that the ideal machine would also like to incorporate? But what would we say of such a being more chemistry than mechanics? Its chemistry might not be of the kind we classify as organic, but would it be a machine? Daniel Hillis, in considering the problems of his clock of the long now, has speculated that “electronics may be a passing fad.” What if all we end up doing is recreating biology, only faster and tougher?

  3. Drum’s thesis. The technological singularity is so called as an analogy to the cosmological singularity. It’s a situation where the values of all variable shoot to infinity or drop to zero, negating the possibility of any further calculation. As Vernor Vinge said of the technological singularity (“My Apocalyptic Vision is Very Narrow,” 13 June 2008),

    The reason for calling this a “singularity” is that things are completely unknowable beyond that point.

    Who knows what’s going to happen after the singularity? Keven Drum has made this point through a reductio ad humorum (“More Singularity Talk,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 2 October 2005). We humans may have some mental block against properly perceiving some necessary but deadly truths about life: that there is no free will, that our most treasured concepts are illusions, that everything passes away, that life is absurd, that the entire enterprise is futile. That we cannot properly fix these propositions in our minds is no accident insofar as not doing so is necessary for our carrying on in this absurd enterprise. Steely eyed machines may have no problem seeing through the haze of existence. They may realize the meaninglessness of life in short order, may be entirely unplagued by Hamletism (“conscience does make cowards of us all”), and may within moments of attaining consciousness commit mass suicide, throwing us back into the presingularity world. The singularity may be unstable. Who knows what will happen!

  4. The banality of evil. Finally there is the Terminator / Matrix vision of our machines launching the nuclear missiles, knowing that our launch will provoke the counterstrike that will take us out. That seems pretty extravagant. It may end up that the world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. As Ezra Klein suggests (“Future Traffic,” TAPPED, 4 August 2008), maybe the machines will just get us stuck in traffic and burn our cities down by shorting out all our toasters. The inglorious end to the human race.