Weekly Notes & Quotes—30th May, 2021: Invisible Muggles

And an allegory for Machine Learning

Hello Everyone

I have had a difficult week, mostly due parenting-related sleep deprivation. I did not post anything new this week, so I have pulled something out of the archive:

  • The Internet will be Balkanized: When China launched its Great Firewall, it seemed like an experiment doomed to fail. But the rise of Digital Native Authoritarianism and offensive Cyber warfare seems to be taking the whole world in that direction.

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Literacy and Future

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

Neil Gaiman, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Beating Intelligence into Shape

Look at it this way: long before the internal combustion engine, people knew about gas expansion and understood pistons. But the tolerances needed for the controlled explosions at the heart of internal combustion are not really available to blacksmiths who practice metal-beating. The very best smith could hammer metal into something close to a piston, and maybe could refine that piston into something functional, but only by throwing away a lot of off-tolerance items. The resulting engine would be halting and unreliable, and would have no path to reliability that did not abandon metal-beating alto­gether in favor of processes like casting and (more importantly) machining.

Machine-learning is metal-beating. Brilliant people have done remarkable things with it. But the idea that if we just get better at statistical inference, consciousness will fall out of it is wishful thinking. It’s a premise for an SF novel, not a plan for the future

Cory Doctorow, Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results

Unruly Muggles

But even if it were, beyond the walls of the imperial academy all of our world’s Muggles would still remain, with an agency and a power that they don’t have in the Potterverse.

Because after all it was mostly Muggles, not some dark conspiracy by the Slytherin sort of conservatives, who put Donald Trump in power.

It is Muggles who keep turning to parties of the far left and farther right, Muggles who drift into radicalism and set off bombs. Mass migration, rising nationalism, Islamic terrorism, rural despair — many disruptive forces in our era flow from global Muggledom’s refusal to just be a tame and subsidized surplus population, culled for its best and brightest, living only for the hope that occasionally a gifted son or daughter might be lifted up.

Ross Douthat, The Muggle Problem

Thank you for joining me this week. See you next week.

Mudassir Chapra

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