Tim Boucher

Questionable content, possibly linked

The Empty Algorithm

Have had this thought rattling around in my head forever, about how “karaoke” translated to English means something like “empty orchestra.” I’ve always thought that captured a certain kind of beautiful sense of desolation…

Likewise, for years has been careening around my awareness of the emptiness of algorithms. How cold and forbidding they feel when encountered emotionally – which is all the time now almost in daily life. Nudges, notifications, so-called dark patterns. Driving user behaviors. Predicting preferences, recommendation engines.
Once, long ago, I remember hearing about new music through friends. Now Spotify serves up lukewarm drivel “based on your interests,” and sometimes all you can decide in the information tidal wave, is will this make adequate background mush sounds for the next few moments?

I swear sometimes I can almost hear the algorithms that control many popular music stations on the legacy technology called “radio.” Some scientific calculation based on popular multiplied by payola multiplied by who knows what, but I don’t like it.

Lately, I listen to Radio Paradise Mellow Mix a lot (internet radio station), and FIP Pop out of France. Both of these are good and feel much less cold and artificial and algorithmy than letting Spotify dictate which kind of audio-mush will be served today. But after hours and days of listening, one might still discern the shapes of those algorithms as well I suppose.

The neologism solastalgia apparently describes nostalgia for a world where nature and the environment was a source of solace, rather than a source of distress and anxiety. What word might describe a life lived free of (or at least more free of) the cold dead reach of the algorithms. Algostalgia? It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it. But I think it’s linked. That once there was a way, a reality, a modality, a type of living that provided solace. Not endless scrolling feeds, behavioral manipulation, yadda yadda. A desire to go back there again, even if perhaps we’ve never been there in the first place: outside the reach of the Empty Algorithm.

Jiba in Tenrikyo (Japanese religion)

The ultimate spiritual aim of Tenrikyo is the construction of the Kanrodai, a divinely ordained pillar in an axis mundi called the Jiba, and the correct performance of the Kagura ritual around the Kanrodai, which will bring about the salvation of all human beings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenrikyo

And:

It is said that when the hearts of humankind have been adequately purified, God will inaugurate the world of the Joyous Life by bestowing a sweet dew on the basin to be placed on top of the Kanrodai, which when consumed, will allow people to live the full lifespan of 115 years without illness or misfortune, and die painlessly to be reborn.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyous_Life

Goal of corporations

“The common goal of corporations around the world is to monetize human activity and what’s left of nature’s abundance as rapidly and efficiently as possible.”

Source: Patterns of meaning

Also from same author, a relevant & worthwhile read:

Disorientation in AI writing

There’s a really good article on the Verge about authors who use AI tools like Sudowrite as part of their writing workflow. Lost Books has released about a dozen books in this genre now, which comprise the AI Lore series.

Anyway, there are a few themes I want to tease out, namely the feeling of disconnection & disorientation that seems to be a common experience to authors using these tools.

One author quoted says:

“It was very uncomfortable to look back over what I wrote and not really feel connected to the words or the ideas.”

And:

“But ask GPT-3 to write an essay, and it will produce a repetitive series of sometimes correct, often contradictory assertions, drifting progressively off-topic until it hits its memory limit and forgets where it started completely.”

And finally:

And then I went back to write and sat down, and I would forget why people were doing things. Or I’d have to look up what somebody said because I lost the thread of truth,” she said.

Losing the “thread of truth” strikes me as utterly & inherently postmodern af. It’s the essence of hyperreality.

It is the essence of browsing the web. You pop between tabs and websites and apps and platforms. You follow different accounts, each spewing out some segment of something. And then somewhere in the mix, your brain mashes it all together into something that sort of makes sense to you in its context (“sensemaking”), or doesn’t — you lose the thread of truth.

To me, hyperreality as an “art form” (way of life?), has something to do with that. To the post-truth as they say world where truth is what resonates in the moment. What you “like” in platform speak, what you hate, what you fear, just then, just now. And then its forgotten, replaced by the next thing. Yet the algorithm remembers… or does it? It may be “recorded” but it knows little to nothing on its own, without the invocation.

Forgive me as I ramble here, but that’s why this is a blog post…

Pieces I’ve been meaning to put together in this space.

In no particular order:

“Networked narratives can be seen as being defined by their rejection of narrative unity.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Networked_narrative

The PDF wikipedia goes on to reference regarding narrative unities has some worthwhile stuff on the topic. From it, we see these are more properly perhaps called Dramatic Unities (via Aristotle — an ancient blogger if ever there was one), or Wiki’s redirect to Classical Unities here.

1. unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.

2. unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.

3. unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

Popping back to the W networked narrative page:

“It is not driven by the specificity of details; rather, details emerge through a co-construction of the ultimate story by the various participants or elements.”

Lost the thread of truth, “not driven by the specificity of details.”

While we’re in this uncertain territory, we should at least quote again Wikipedia on Hyperreality:

“Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.”

What I guess I want to note here – in part – is that what the Verge article quoted at top seems to be considering obstacles, bugs, or room for improvement around the lack of apparent coherence of AI-generated texts… is actually probably its primary feature?

Disorientation as a Service.

Jumping now to latent spaces, as in AI image generation:

“A latent space, also known as a latent feature space or embedding space, is an embedding of a set of items within a manifold in which items which resemble each other more closely are positioned closer to one another in the latent space.”

This Vox video is probably the most complete and accessible explanation I’ve seen of how image diffusion models work:

My understanding of it is basically that a text query (in the case of Dall-E & Stable Diffusion) triggers accessing of the portion(s) of the latent space within the model that corresponds to your keywords, and then mashes them together visually to create a cloud of pixels that reference those underlying trained assets. Depending on your level of processing (“steps” in Stable Diffusion), the diffuse pixel cloud becomes more precisely representative of some new vignette that references your original query or prompt.

So it sort of plucks what you asked for out of its matrix of possible combinations, and gives you a few variations of it. Kind of like parallel dimension representations from the multiverse.

Which leads me to the Jacques Vallee quote that has been stirring around in the corners of my mind for some twenty-odd years now:

Time and space may be convenient notions for plotting the progress of a locomotive, but they are completely useless for locating information …

What modern computer scientists have now recognized is that ordering by time and space is the worst possible way to store data. In a large computer-based information system, no attempt is made to place related records in sequential physical locations. It is much more convenient to sprinkle the records through storage as they arrive, and to construct an algorithm for the retrieval based on some kind of keyword …

(So) if there is no time dimension as we usually assume there is, we may be traversing events by association.

Modern computers retrieve information associatively. You “evoke” the desired records by using keywords, words of power: (using a search engine,) you request the intersection of “microwave” and “headache,” and you find twenty articles you never suspected existed … If we live in the associative universe of the software scientist rather than the sequential universe of the spacetime physicist, then miracles are no longer irrational events.

Vallee’s quote strikes a metaphysical chord which is mostly unprovable (for now) but also feels , experientially speaking, “mostly true” in some ways. Without debating the ontological merits of his argument vis-a-vis everyday reality, it occurs to me that he’s 100% describing the querying of latent spaces.

Of course, he suggests that reality consists of a fundamental underlying latent space, which is a cool idea if nothing else. There’s an interesting potential tangent here regarding paranormal events and “retrieval algorithms” as being guided by or inclusive of intelligences, perhaps artificial, perhaps natural. (And that tangent would link us back to Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic/morphic fields as retrieval algorithms, and maybe the “overlighting intelligences” of Findhord…) But that’s a tangent for another day.

Anyway, to offer some sort of conclusion, I guess I would say perhaps the best use of AI tools for now, while they are in their current form, is to lean into, chase after, capture that confusion, that disorientation, that losing of the thread, that breaking of narrative unity, and just… go for it. There are as many roads through the Dark Forest as we make.

The Sibylline Books & Oracles (Roman religion)

Interesting in relation to “lost books” as a trope.

Source (re: the Books – the Oracles are something different):

An old woman, possibly a Cumaean Sibyl, offered to Tarquinius nine books of these prophecies at an exorbitant price; when the king declined to purchase them, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquinius at the same price, which he again refused. Thereupon, she burned three more and repeated her offer, maintaining the same price. Tarquinius then consulted the Augurs whose importance in Roman history is averred by Livy. The Augurs deplored the loss of the six books and urged purchase of the remaining three. Tarquinius then purchased the last three at the full original price, and had them preserved in a sacred vault beneath the Capitoline temple of Jupiter.

And:

The Roman Senate kept tight control over the Sibylline Books,[2] and entrusted them to the care of two patricians. In 367 BC, the number of custodians was increased to ten, five patricians and five plebeians, who were called the decemviri sacris faciundis. Subsequently, probably in the time of Sulla, their number was increased to fifteen, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis. They were usually ex-consuls or ex-praetors. They held office for life, and were exempt from all other public duties. They had the responsibility of keeping the books in safety and secrecy. The 15 individuals were custodians of the Sibylline Books that were kept on the Palatine. These officials, at the command of the Senate, consulted the Sibylline Books in order to discover not exact predictions of definite future events in the form of prophecy, but the religious observances necessary to avert extraordinary calamities and to expiate ominous prodigies (comets and earthquakes, showers of stones, plague, and the like).

One more:

The books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and, when the temple burned in 83 BC, they were lost. The Roman Senate sent envoys in 76 BC to replace them with a collection of similar oracular sayings, in particular collected from Ilium, Erythrae, Samos, Sicily, and Africa.[4]

As distinguished from the Oracles:

The Oracles are nevertheless thought by modern scholars to be anonymous compilations that assumed their final form in the fifth century, after the Sibylline Books perished. They are a miscellaneous collection of Jewish and Christian portents of future disasters…

Further to the oracles, sometimes called the Pseudo-Sibylline Oracles (which is a helpful name to indicate the distinction between the two sets):

They are not to be confused with the original Sibylline Books of the ancient Etruscans and Romans which were burned by order of the Roman general Flavius Stilicho in the 4th century AD. Instead, the text is an “odd pastiche” of Hellenistic and Roman mythology interspersed with Jewish, Gnostic and early Christian legend.[1]

Still confusing:

Some have suggested that the surviving texts may include some fragments or remnants of the Sibylline Books with a legendary provenance from the Cumaean Sibyl, which had been kept in temples in Rome. The original oracular books, kept in Rome, were accidentally destroyed in a fire in 83 BC, which resulted in an attempt in 76 BC to recollect them when the Roman senate sent envoys throughout the world to discover copies. This official copy existed until at least AD 405, but little is known of their contents.

Humans as natural dispersion mechanism

Have been reading a lot the arguments against so-called “invasion biology” on a site called MillionTrees.me. Invasion biology or invasion ecology is the supposedly conservation theory that says plants which are native to a given area are “better” than plants that are introduced, or worst of all those that exhibit “invasive” characteristics. This is then applied as justification for all manner of restoration ecology projects which may apply mass-scale pesticides in an effort to “wipe out” the invaders.

I won’t go into all the elements against this largely prevailing mindset just yet. But there are a few things I wanted to tee off as themes as we go forward.

One, is that the nativist language used against “invasives” is uncomfortably reminiscent for me of a certain far-right conspiracy theory called the Great Replacement, which alleges that elites are bent on ruining white majority countries by allowing or encouraging mass migration (“invasions”) of non-white peoples into them from elsewhere. Interestingly, this theory and its many permutations are nothing new, and in a previous era (around 1900), it was called Race Suicide, and in the United States the “natives” where white Protestants, and the “invasives” where Catholics from what were considered less desirable European countries. (Who will be the bad guy in 20 years, 100?)

Of course, white Europeans were not actually “native” to North America. There were and are indigenous North Americans who have thousands of years of prior claims to that title, making all Europeans the invasive ones from that perspective. But even they came to this continent from other places thousands of years prior to that. Were they then the introduced ones?

This leads directly to the next theme: that in the plant world likewise (and the multi-species ecologies they support), the decision about what is “native” in a given locale may end up being a somewhat arbitrary one, depending on what part of the geological record one is referring back to. Is a “native” plant referring to something growing “on it own” only prior to European settlement? Or is it outside of all human intervention?

There are two sub-issues implied in the conventional dichotomy offered above. One is the implicit suggestion that white European settlers were not “acting naturally” (i.e., could not be acting as agents of nature for reason x). Whereas, indigenous communities are conversely seen as acting in accord with nature because reasons. If its true that Europeans were somehow acting apart from nature, how and when did that happen? Sounds a bit like a myth of falling from grace or loss of innocence, or original sin, tied up with romantic Rousseau-ish myths around the noble savage…

I don’t have a complete thought there, but I’ve long held that humans effectively cannot be outside of or apart from nature. No matter the ethnicity, origin of the actors, nor degraded ecological outcomes that might result from our actions. I believe in participatory ecology (as well as multi-culturalism). We’re here to be a part of this. We might very well fuck it up, but we might also make it better if we take an honest look at ourselves, our social systems, and the natural situation in which we are embedded.

Ecology, taken neutrally, seems to support the notion that animals, especially mammals have important natural roles to play in seed dispersal. Consider:

“Seed dispersal via ingestion by vertebrate animals (mostly birds and mammals), or endozoochory, is the dispersal mechanism for most tree species.[29] Endozoochory is generally a coevolved mutualistic relationship in which a plant surrounds seeds with an edible, nutritious fruit as a good food resource for animals that consume it.”

As well as dispersal vectors more broadly:

“There are two types of dispersal vector, those that are active and those that are passive. Active dispersal involves organisms that are capable of movement under their own energy. In passive dispersal, the organisms have evolved dispersal units, or propagules, that use the kinetic energy of the environment for movement. In plants, some dispersal units have tissue that assists with dispersal and are called diaspores. Some dispersal is self-driven (autochory), such as using gravity (barochory), and does not rely on external vectors. Other types of dispersal are due to external vectors, which can be biotic vectors, such as animals (zoochory), or abiotic vectors, such as the wind (anemochory) or water (hydrochory).[2]

I guess I just fail to see how it’s different if a bear eats and poops out an apple, causing seed dispersal, and if a human does it? Okay, a difference of scale might be one significant element here. But if the difference is scale, intensity, or systematization, we should probably express that as the value of relevance, rather than the species who is the vector (though that might obviously imply different scales of possibility).

Anyway, I am still just thinking these things through out loud and it helps to write them down.

There are other arguments put forth on MillionTrees (linked at top) which dovetail into those explored above. Namely that if we concede that the concept of “native” is time-bound based on a historical reference point, then we should also examine the differences between the climate in that place at that time, and what exists there now. Because climates are most definitely changing (even if we tentatively accept that anthropogenic climate change is itself “natural” because humans are part of nature — the sticking issue here being that our actions are causing degraded conditions, not that they are “unnatural”). And whether your reference point is something like 250 years ago, 25, or 2500, nature is not static. Average temperatures change. Precipitation changes. Dozens of other factors change over time. Nature is not static. Ecologies are dynamic and evolving, not frozen forever in one specific time period we decided to idolize for whatever reason.

The follow-on being that we might wind up with a climate/species mismatch if we try to revert a landscape to what we think was a previous and more desirable ecology by removing or suppressing all introduced or invasive species, and replacing them with officially-approved “natives.” What may have been well adapted to the conditions of 250 years ago may very well not be adapted to current conditions. Which makes the rationale for doing so even weaker than it already is.

These are threads I will keep unraveling as I go.

Biodiversity as a crop

I recently published an extensive write-up with pictures of some hedge laying that I did with the intention of boosting biodiversity on our property. It occurs to me that the “biodiversity farming” aspect of the whole thing deserves closer attention, so I wanted to drill down on that in subsequent posts.

Biodiversity refers to the number and variety of species living within an environment or region. There are a few of perhaps more precise and more complex terms that come into play here — such as species richness, species diversity, something called species evenness that I don’t quite understand, etc. etc. Suffice it to say there are a variety of ways to measure biodiversity, which I’ll explore in another installment. This is just to get us started, after all…

Crops, meanwhile, revolve around agricultural production. Wikipedia calls a crop “a plant that can be grown and harvested extensively for profit or subsistence.” The Free Dictionary calls it “cultivated plants or agricultural produce, such as grain, vegetables, or fruit, considered as a group,” adding that it is also the “total yield of such produce in a particular season or place.” Merriam-Webster goes one step beyond those to include animals and animal products (though I think a “crop of cattle” sounds wrong, personally).

The etymology of crop seems related to cutting tops off plants (via Old English) — anything that isn’t the root.

General sense of “anything gathered when ready or in season” is from 1570s.

I kind of like that last definition the most in some ways, because it is the most clear, and most multi-purpose: “anything gathered when ready or in season.”

Conventional agricultural thinking seems to consider a crop a type of harvest of the fruits of a production — sometimes literal fruits. Then there is a secondary factor that seems to be part of our regular understanding of the word “crop” in which that produce is either sold (in order to live off) or just eaten directly (as in subsistence). So there’s a usually literal harvest and then an economic outcome of enrichment.

Applying that back to biodiversity, we’re less accustomed to thinking of it as a crop, but I maintain that it could be. With some imagination, that is. I especially like trying to connect it to “anything gathered when ready or in season,” though we would have to think about what the “gathering” here would entail. If our objective was biodiversity, it might not always be appropriate for us to take a literal harvest, if we want to not reduce vitality or population. Though in some cases — as proven by gardeners, foragers, hunters, trappers, etc. — taking physical harvests of the produce of biodiverse life forms may help increase vitality and population. Depends on the life form, and the situation.

Putting aside those questions of appropriate and timely physical harvests, what if we could say that the “gathering” we are doing when we grow biodiversity as a crop would be of scientific and observational data? That, of course, will require us to drill down deeper into understanding how can we measure biodiversity.

Secondarily, how might that enrich us economically? Certainly, participating in a biodiverse environment might enrich our well-being and connectedness to other forms of life. But that’s not the same as eating. We can’t eat data. Physical harvests of produce though (and transformation of products), that could be one way to survive — living off the land, so to speak. Biodiversity credits or offsets might be another.

There are a handful of emerging governmental and non-governmental initiatives to incentivize farmers to engage in biodiversity enhancing practices. I’ll rabbit hole on individual programs later on, but this “carbon + biodiversity” initiative from the Australian Government is a decent anchor reference point for now:

“The Carbon + Biodiversity Pilot (C+B Pilot) trials market arrangements for farmers to create new income from plantings that deliver biodiversity improvements and carbon abatement. Through the C+B Pilot, we are testing the concept of buying and selling biodiversity services from farmers.”

This one combines carbon capture with biodiversity as a sort of byproduct, and is just one way to potentially configure the economic enrichment side of “biodiversity as a crop.” It all sounds like a lot of paperwork, with tons of restrictive eligibility requirements, and itself requiring a third party to grant the credits, and broker their trade. It’s a far cry from simply cutting the tops off plants, and eating or selling them. But what I’m thinking is… why can’t we do some of both? All while enriching natural ecosystems, and making landscapes more resilient in the face of climate change — and perhaps even mitigating some of its extreme effects regionally or locally.

To be continued…

Zero

When the cost of production goes down to zero, so does the value of the product. Which is why the internet is full of garbage.

Luddites, labor exploitation

Source:

“…the Luddites were not indiscriminate. They were intentional and purposeful about which machines they smashed. They targeted those owned by manufacturers who were known to pay low wages, disregard workers’ safety, and/or speed up the pace of work. Even within a single factory — which would contain machines owned by different capitalists — some machines were destroyed and others pardoned depending on the business practices of their owners.

Second, the Luddites were not ignorant. Smashing machines was not a kneejerk reaction to new technology, but a tactical response by workers based on their understanding of how owners were using those machines to make labour conditions more exploitative.”

Nudge theory

Wikipedia:

“A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice, or behave in a particular way, by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favour the desired outcome.”

Page 1 of 124

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén