Recent reading: Pnin, Ancillary Mercy, The Other Wind, The Right and the Power

I use this blog partly to recall books and papers I have read, but lately I have not been taking the time, so now I have to play catch-up.  Here are three books I finished in last few weeks.

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov. I told my book group this was “awesome.” Many of them were ho-hum about it, enjoying the humor, definitely enjoying the writing, but wondering what was the point really? To me it was like a having a tour guide tell the rest of the group to take a break, and she was going to show me, just me, through the museum of literary fiction, step by step. I found as I went deeper into the novel, and started reading sections, paragraphs, alone, I was just just amazed by what Nabokov was doing. Especially once I got to the ending, where the whole thing loops around to Cremona, it was like the guide saying, “now you have to start all over, and notice what you missed, and try to see why you missed it and what it is doing.”

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie. I bought this, thinking it was the second in the trilogy, but after 50 pages I realized it was the third. Then of course I felt like I had saved time, and so could enjoy it more, if you know what I mean. Leckie I think is one of the few sci-fi writers who can pull off a novel primarily about emotions: very good stuff the relationships between Breq, crewmembers, others. The action such as it was and concepts (basically just AI) play second-fiddle to the evolving emotional understandings. One thing that makes no sense as I think about the trilogy (caveat only having read two) is that somehow all the AI ethics conferences and social scientists and humanists who think about these things… well, their work had been forgotten? Humans learned to bend space but the ethics of AI was still at Asimov level? I think Culture series does much better with that.

The Other Wind, by Ursula Le Guin. Her Earthsea series very good, very light reading. This one a little darker, and some gaps (I am not a huge Earthsea fan, so some of the sections seemed like shout-outs to fans), but overall enjoyable fantasy reading.

The Right and the Power, by Leon Jaworski. A neighbor was selling her books so I picked this up. Fascinating stuff. So timely, as the Mueller Report came out just as I finished reading. And Leslie and I watched All the President’s Men on Netflix- what a powerful, gripping movie, very daring in pacing and composition. The Deep Throat scenes the only misstep (they could have edited those out and movie would have been even better). Anyone who purports to care about Trump era make a regular habit of occasionally reading and watching thoughtful work on Watergate.

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Treemendous performance of El Siquisiri

Ay, que sí, que sí y que no
Y el son jarocho bailamos
Ay, que sí, que sí y que no
Es decente en su nobleza
Ahora sí, mañana no

Posted in Music

Want to understand the reparations issue? Nobody better than Prof. Sandy Darity to patiently and clearly explain

Cannot embed directly into WordPress, so here is the link:

Posted in United States

Teaching… and research… that is what a university is.

Just saying, and regardless of controversy, this is what I look for in a university president: when she needs to make a pithy statement about her university, learning and research are the things she mentions. Athletics is not mentioned. Buildings are not mentioned. Identity (i.e. platitude about branding of university) is not mentioned. I wished she had said “a student body engaged in learning” and that financial aid “increases opportunities for learning for those most in need” but one cannot have everything.

When I look at U.S.C. I see so much that is opportunity. I see the $320 million in grants-in-aid, one of the largest financial aid pools in the country. I see incredible faculty, with Nobel laureates and Genius awards, making discoveries that are changing health care, and I see a student body that is outstanding.

From new USC president Carol Folt.

Posted in Burkina Faso

Probabilistic AI decision-making

Don’t want to humble-brag (but already right if you think about it what am I doing?) but this was the first hit in my search for a bit more on the question I asked at the end of an interesting talk today at SCU by Vivek Krishnamurthy, and it was exactly my question. Glad to know I am not in the far-away rafters when it comes to these issues.

Giving algorithms a sense of uncertainty could make them more ethical  Posted on February 5, 2019 by Michael Rowe The algorithm could handle this uncertainty by computing multiple solutions and then giving humans a menu of options with their associated trade-offs. Say the AI system was meant to help make medical decisions. Instead of recommending one treatment over another, it could present three possible options: one for maximizing patient life span, another for minimizing patient suffering, and a third for minimizing cost. “Have the system be explicitly unsure and hand the dilemma back to the humans.” Hao, K. (2019). Giving algorithms a sense of uncertainty could make them more ethical. MIT Technology Review.

Source: Giving algorithms a sense of uncertainty could make them more ethical – /usr/space

I think about clinical reasoning like this; it’s what we call the kind of probabilistic thinking where we take a bunch of – sometimes contradictory – data and try to make a decision that can have varying levels of confidence. For example, “If A, then probably D. But if A and B, then unlikely to be D. If C, then definitely not D”. Algorithms (and novice clinicians) are quite poor at this kind of reasoning, which is why they’ve traditionally not been used for clinical decision-making and ethical reasoning (and why novice clinicians tend not to handle clinical uncertainty very well). But if it turns out that machine learning algorithms are able to manage conditions of uncertainty and provide a range of options that humans can act on, given a wide variety of preferences and contexts, it may be that machines will be one step closer to doing our reasoning for us.

Posted in Development thinking

Report: Housing bill law could almost triple size of Palo Alto

One of the most controversial of these measures is SB 50. Hailed by advocates as a solution to the Bay Area’s housing shortage, the bill would override cities’ density rules, height limits and parking requirements in areas near public transit hubs. For example, projects within a half-mile of major transit stops — including two Caltrain stations in Palo Alto and one on the border with Mountain View — could be up to 45 feet tall, or about four stories. About 7,000 parcels, or 40 percent of Palo Alto’s total parcels, would be subject to SB 50 rules — enough to transform Palo Alto from a community of predominantly single-family homes into a city dominated by townhouses and apartments, according to the Embarcadero Institute.The legislation could cause the city’s population to grow to 2.7 times its current size and bring up to 30,000 new students to Palo Alto, the report said, potentially stretching the capacity of the local schools in a city renowned for the quality of its public education system. SB 50 also could bring as many as 90,000 additional vehicles to town, according to the report.

Source: Report: Housing bill law could almost triple size of Palo Alto

Posted in Burkina Faso

Recent reading roundup

I have been slacking.  For Christmas I got several novels.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Excellent big sci-fi opera, with genetic engineering and big questions.

The Peace War by Vernor Vinge. I started skeptical but got drawn in. By the end I really enjoyed it.

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge. I had read it years ago, and since it is a sequel of shorts to The Peace War I had to skim-read it again. The bobbles were one of the great “discoveries” in sci-fi.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. Reading for our neighborhood book club. So inventive, so much fun.

Radical Markets by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl. Read it with Economics students in a discussion group. Lots of food for thought, but a bit maddening as they are sloppy in not thinking through many obvious questions. But always worth a reminder that institutions that seem solid and right are contingent and changeable.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. it was gripping the whole way through. but I will admit I got stuck halfway through the third volume. let’s say I am saving it for a rainy day!

The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell.  A graphic novel. Compelling, if in the end a bit thin.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. Worth the slog. If only to march through the amazing history of John Brown via wikipedia.


Posted in Book and film reviews