“Her” pt. 2

Why Would You Install a Person on Your Phone?

Previously: Her pt 1.

One of the other things that I’ve been puzzling over since watching “Her” is whether or not anyone should want a Human-type AI in the first place. It seems like everyone just goes with AI = Human, but there’s no reason to make that assumption. In “Her”, the AI’s human-ness was the root of a lot of unnecessary tension and strife. Throughout the film, there’s not really any sort of struggle between the characters that arises from the technological nature of the AI. All of the problems that the characters go through are basically because of the Human-ness of the AI characters (doubt, jealousy, fear, etc). There’s also a heavy dose of the standard movie robot “longing to be more human” in Scarlett Johannsen’s “what does it feel to love” type questioning; but do you know what I want? An AI that isn’t human, and isn’t trying to be human. If I ever get an AI that’s supposed to be a companion/assistant to my everyday life, I want it modeled on humanity’s best companion/assistant: a dog.


I don’t want my AI to have the personality and soul of a sexed up Scarlett Johannsen, I want it to have the soul of a retriever. Or maybe a shepherd. Something that likes to play fetch and do cool tricks.

What do you think? What kind of AI would you want?


Why are Christians so concerned about sex?

The Sinful Scientist

When English interpretations of the New Testament talk about ‘sexual immorality’ they Courtisane recevant l'un de ses clientsare really translating the Greek word porneia (πορνεία), it’s used almost every time the topic of sex comes up and often when talking about the worst sins in general. If you can really grok what Paul was talking about as he uses the root for the word over and over again (it appears 32 times in the New Testament) then the rest falls into place. Now porneia has always been translated into Latin as fornication, while being understood by many conservatives to just be a 1:1 stand in for ‘any sexual expression not between husband and wife’. However, Porneia in post-classical Corinthian Greek did not mean generic sexual sin, or even sex outside of marriage, at all exactly and neither did fornication in actual Latin. The truth, like in many things, is a little bit more complicated and…

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What’s the conservative’s dream for the future?

So Matt Walsh‘s blog is “top post” on wordpress at the moment, and I must confess to being a little confused. As far as I can tell, his advice is basically: “Ladies, don’t be in the situation you’re in”, which is unhelpful at best. He spends a lot of time being upset that someone might have to pay for a product or a service for a third party- let’s all agree to never tell him what taxes or insurance are (i don’t think he could handle the strain).


In all honesty, his post really did make me ponder: what will a “conservative”s issues be in the 2020 elections? I’d bet solid money that a “liberal” will still identify with some sort of “equality” focussed agenda. Most people I know that identify as liberal/progressive/lefty talk about most social/political issues from a fairly simple value set; “equality” is the key idea, or perhaps it’s phrased as “equal opportunity”. Schools, Gay Marriage, Immigration, Obamacare- they’re all different facets of the same “equal access to opportunity” kind of idea. But what is someone like Matt Walsh’s underlying idea?

I hear a lot about liberty and tyranny, but I honestly can’t make the connection to policy and argument. “Don’t tread on me” is a common rallying cry, but is it the core value of a conservative? Consider the Hobby Lobby court case: it isn’t at all obvious that one side or the other is on the side of “Liberty”. Both sides are arguing that certain people should be allowed to make certain choices, even though these choices will limit other people’s behavior. Looking just at the structure of the Hobby Lobby corporation, we can see that (statistically)there should be several hundred employees of HL who want access the IUDs as part of their health plan, and there is a family that feels very very strongly that for these women to get access IUDs would be morally wrong. On the one side, we have hundreds of women being told that they aren’t allowed to buy certain health plans, on the other side we have about a dozen people being told that they can’t control their employees sex lives. I’d bet that the religious family fees more strongly per member, but that’s not the same as saying that their choices are more important than their employees. The conservative value of “liberty” doesn’t really help us make a decision in this case, because we still have to wrestle with the questions of whose liberty do we prioritize, and how?

So where is Matt Walsh coming from? Where is the conservative’s point of view in this? Is there a “conservative” set of values that is both applicable now and in the future, or is the conservative perspective just anti-progressive? Because the progressives can say they are coming from an “equality” sort of position, does this mean that the only value open to conservatives is some sort of anti-equality? I can imagine a party and a pundit/media class that continues to fight against the progressives for a long time, and it’s not hard to imagine one that is fairly successful. What I can’t wrap my head around is the values that a normal person would need to have in order to follow this hypothetical party.




“Her”! pt. 1

I saw “Her” recently, it was a beauty of a film. It’s a romance of sorts, between Joaquin Phoenix and a “Artificially Intelligent Operating System” voiced by Scarlett Johanssen. It wades into a lot of fun new territory in a number of ways. A huge chunk of the film is just Phoenix by himself onscreen, talking to Johanssen, who is only present as a “computer” thing about the size of a deck of cards. And it works, truly and surprisingly well- the scenes play out pretty naturally, and the characters came across rich and humane. There’s also some neat presentations of the just-around-the-corner sort of future in which the movie’s set (Joaquin Phoenix’s job is ghostwriting heartfelt handwritten letters, for example). One of the choices that I thought was most interesting was the romantical/relational dynamics between the two leads- they played all the emotional cues exactly the same as two humans would. They got to know each other in the same kind of chatty/flirty way, they mistrust each other the way that humans do, etc.

I mean, from a film perspective, that makes sense- it’s a fun, cool challenge to strip away familiar elements of a romantic interaction (holding hands, staring into each others eyes, etc.), while trying to maintain the emotional honesty that makes such interactions believable. I just couldn’t suspend enough disbelief for it to work, unfortunately. I mean, at no point does Phoenix wonder whether or not Johanssen’s character is actually conscious, or capable of love, or any of the questions I would have in that scenario. Wouldn’t he have to wonder if she was just an advanced form of Cleverbot? The only precursor technologies shown in the film aren’t even close to intelligence, no one seems to have anticipated this radically new intelligence in the world, and yet none of the characters have any doubt about the humanness of the AI, they only worry about their relationships with it.

Duplicity and falseness in computerized representation is nothing new. We all know that that’s probably not an actual Nigerian Prince emailing you for help moving funds, and we know that there probably aren’t “hot singles waiting to meet now!”- but none of the characters in “Her” show any of the same doubts and concerns for authenticity. Phoenix is a professional letter writer, and it’s implied that a) he’s been writing both sides of some couples correspondence for years (both sides are happy customers), and b) these ghostwritten personal letters are something like a popular fiction genre in this far future-  writers sell collections of their letters in hardbound editions, etc. The inherent falseness of his job doesn’t bother him, or anyone else. And this seems a reasonable view of the future as well- our definitions of “real” and “authentic” and “trustworthy” are always in flux. I remember when I first heard about Match.com and online dating, I assumed that issues of authenticity and realness would be too much and would sink the whole enterprise. I was way off.

I wonder if “Her” is right about the future, or if I am. Are we going to accept AIs easily and comfortably, because they feel real enough to us somehow? Or is there going to be mistrust and doubt? Or will the situation never arrive at all, because the future is almost certain to be weirder than anything we imagine it to be?


I’m looking forward to it.

Colorado Senate Roundup

I love FiveThirtyEight- I’m a numbers kinda guy, and they bring the numbers. Their recent Senate Roundup says that overall Senate control is looking more and more to go GOP, and that sounds sensible to me. Obama’s hurting, and the senators up for re-election last had to compete in 2008, when voter mobilization and turnout were much more DEM than they are now. In 538’s analysis, Udall has about a 60% chance of beating Gardner, and that seems like a tolerably vague estimate given how few polls we have so far.

The only new poll in the last few weeks l is coming out of the (left-leaning) PPP, who surveyed 568 registered voters last week. Udall still leads, although Gardner is doing better than the previous GOP batch. The issues at hand haven’t changed in years (Obama! Obamacare! Guns!), and even though 17% of voters say they’re undecided, I doubt that that many people are actually on the fence about who they line up with- it’s more likely that they’re not actually passionate in either direction about either candidate.


Finally, PPP also polled the state on the 2016 race, and I love that Rand Paul is the GOP frontrunner here- he’s only 3 points behind Hillary Clinton. I wonder if we’re actually shifting towards a sort of  left-libertarian mentality here in the Centennial State. I guess we’ll find out when we get there.

Some Numbers

Given the ongoing demographic shift in Colorado, the current GOP is position to lose a lot of ground for the next few elections. The traditional GOP voting block (white evangelicals) is shrinking in proportion to the current DEM coalition of young people and minorities. The state has shifted from strongly red to blue, and much of that shift is explicable through pure demographics. I used some charts from the Census bureau to look into Colorado’s demographic shift, and it doesn’t look good for the GOP. Here’s a look at the biggest shift happening in CO these days, the decline of (as labelled on Census data) “White (non-Hispanic)” voters, and the rise of “Hispanic (of any race)”.

In 2010, people who identified as “White (Non-Hispanic)” made up 79.7% of the CO population, and cast 86.37% of the votes. Voters identifying as “Hispanic (of any race)” made up 13.10% of the CO population, but cast only 7.9% of the vote. The DEMs did pretty well in CO that year, especially compared to the GOP swing nationally. Hickenlooper won his race, as did Michael Bennet (this despite the race being called a tossup, or even favorably GOP).

In 2012, “White (Non-Hispanic)” came in at 79.01% of the population, and accounted for 84.39% of the vote- a drop of almost exactly 2 percentage points. “Hispanic (of any race)”, on the other hand, had risen to 14.02% of the population, and had climbed to 10.38% of the vote- a gain of 2.48 pp. Nationally, Hispanic/Latino voters went for Obama at about 71%– so I’d reckon it that the DEMs picked up roughly 1.75 pp from 2010 to 2012.

We can only estimate the 2014 data, but the general patterns shouldn’t change too much. If we assume the same population shift from 2010-2012 will carry through to 2014 (as most people I’ve found do), then 2014 should see the “White (non-hispanic)” voting population at about 75%, and the “Hispanic (of any race)” voting population at about 19%. The Secretary of State’s office has put out it’s own projections, which indicate an even bigger shift (White <70%, Hispanic ~20%).

Rates of voter participation are a little easier to estimate, because they’re a bit more stable. Going off the last non-presidential cycle (2010), we can guess that the “White (non-hispanic)” share of the vote will be  ~80%, while the “Hispanic (of any race)” vote should make up about 11.5% of total votes cast. If we use Gessler’s population estimates, then the White vote will be down around 75%, while Hispanic votes rise to about 12.5% of the total votes cast. If we assume that this election really brings out the voters, and rates are closer to 2012, then the Hispanic vote could rise up to about 15% of the total electorate.

Even in the conservative estimates, the GOP loses over a percentage point every election, about 2.5 points every 4 year cycle. This is only true, of course, if the states demographic groups continue to vote the way they do. But the current crop of GOP candidates and ideas don’t show much in the way of change, and so I can’t imagine the voting patterns will, either.

the argument over the argument

Even before Bill Nye and Ken Ham began their Creationism vs. Evolution debate, there was a meta-argument surrounding the whole endeavor. Many scientists and secularists took the position that to even be on the same stage with Ham was a slap in the face to capital “s” Science.  As Slate’s Mark Stern put it “By seriously engaging with Ham at the international home of creationism in front of more than half a million people watching the webcast, Nye legitimized Ham’s creationist lunacy more than any weird and declining museum ever could”. Stern’s not wrong, but I think he’s missing the point, because he misunderstands who will be watching.

When I was in the 7th grade, my biology teacher told me that God had made the world recently (~6,000 yrs ago), but made it look old to test our faith. The scientific establishment was doing the best they could with the data that they had, he said, but The Bible was the best data of all, and without it our scientific knowledge would always fall short. I bought it. My entire support network reaffirmed what I had been told in school, and I can’t remember any dissenting voices in my childhood. It wasn’t until I moved out of Texas that I first heard a reasonable, articulate deconstruction of the myths I’d been sold as fact. I’m pretty sure I could drive a car before I ever heard and grappled with a real challenge to Creationism- and this is why the Bill Nye debate is so vitally important.

Those folks who say this debate shouldn’t have happened seem to be worried that such a debate “legitimized” Ham’s viewpoint. But to who? Who would watch this debate and become convinced that Ham was more logical than they previously thought? I don’t think many people over 20 would have such a conversion (although these things do happen occasionally), and I can’t imagine that anyone with a modicum of scientific literacy would be swayed. I’d submit that the largest relevant audience for this debate is kids raised in creationist communities who have begun thinking for themselves- they’re the only population that would both a) seek out this kind of discussion, and b) be available to change their minds. And to this population, the worry of “legitimization” isn’t valid, because they’ve already been told by their parents, pastors, and teachers that Ham is legitimate. The silence of the scientific establishment doesn’t de-legitimize Ham to these kids, it just lets the creationists pretend that “the scientific establishment is scared of real questioning, they’re the ones operating on faith” (I don’t know how many times I heard and said this particular nugget of bullshit. Probably hundreds). The vast majority of “swing voters” on this topic already find Ham “legitimate”, regardless of what the scientific community says.

dinosaurs probably had feathers, anyways.

If I’m trying to make the utilitarian calculus in this decision, it seems clear to me that many more lives are improved through exposure to a criticism of Ham’s ideology than are harmed through any marginal “legitimization” of such. There’s a 8th grader out there watching this video, hearing challenges to the science of Noah’s Ark for the very first time. That, to me, makes this an obviously worthwhile effort.