Neanderthals are people too

Ever wonder how the US Ambassador to Canada starts his or her day? This is a pretty amazing view to savior before heading from the Residence to the Embassy!

IMG_20190916_173732.jpg

As part of our Fulbright Orientation, we visited the Canadian Museum of History (by walking all the way from Ontario to Quebec!) and saw the excellent Neanderthal exhibit.

Neanderthal (publication)

In addition to displaying a huge array of fossils, the exhibit was very clear about how our view of Neanderthals throughout history has often mirrored our view of the “other” in general. The issues raised are also prominent in the Amazon Prime show Carnival Row, which is a very thinly-veneered allegory about discrimination, identity, and acceptance.

See the source image

Not only are the fae in the show taken from Celtic mythology, their story adapts the real-life experience of many Irish refugees, as detailed by the EPIC museum in Dublin.

See the source image

The tool of using mythological races as a way to have a nuanced conversation about the very sensitive issues surrounding prejudice is often found in the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.

See the source image

Perhaps you could say that this method goes all the way back to Johnathan Swift, whose Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians also stand in for specific people and attitudes.

IMG_20190908_073847.jpg

Here in Ottawa, I saw a statue that provided a religious perspective on welcoming strangers, making reference to a particular passage:

“I was a stranger and you invited me…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you a stranger and invite you in?’…The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ -Matthew 25

Parenthetically, in fact Neanderthals ARE us, since almost all living humans have some Neanderthal DNA , which you can measure with genetic tests like 23andMe. Some of these genes have important functions:

“The disappearance of the Neanderthal population is an exciting subject — imagine a human group that has lived for thousands of years and is very well-adapted to its environment, and then disappears,” study senior author Silvana Condemi, a paleoanthropologist at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, told Live Science. “For a long time, it was thought that Homo sapiens had simply killed the Neanderthals. Today, thanks to the results of genetic analysis, we know that the encounters between Neanderthals and sapiens were not always so cruel, and that interbreeding took place — even today’s humans have genes of Neanderthal origin.”

The orientation also took us to the Canadian Supreme Court:

IMG_20190906_153841.jpg    IMG_20190906_162741.jpg

In contrast with SCOTUS, in Canada the gallery is open to public and video is available online. The Justices are appointed by commission, and there is a mandatory retirement at 75. As a big fan of Art Deco Architecture, I was very impressed by the building. In the downstairs Appeals court chamber, there was even a fake jury box for symmetry purposes.

IMG_20190908_065828.jpg

Since there is an election campaign going on right now, the prime minister is referred to as “Justin Trudeau, leader of the liberals” by the media so as not to give an unfair advantage to the incumbent.

I was also very impressed by the public infrastructure. For example, when you check out books from the public library, there is no need to scan barcodes individually. Rather, batches of five can be read using their RFID tags. And when you return the books, they are immediately sorted and logged by this impressive contraption:IMG_20190918_101832.jpg

And there is nothing like the “new train smell” the first week of the Confederation Line

IMG_20190917_142802.jpg

 

O, CANADA!

This year, I am on Sabbatical from NSU to be a Fulbright Distinguished Chair at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

My research will involve studying how antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria can diffuse throughout an environment, and how that can change the likelihood that the resistant bacteria will be able to outcompete the normal strains.

The Fulbright program was established by Congress right after the end of the second world war for “the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” It was initiated by Senator Fulbright from Arkansas, who based it on his own study in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship. – Senator J. William Fulbright

I’m planning to record some of my experiences here in the blog. During our orientation, we were told about this quote from President Kennedy:

See the source image

 

Who ordered that? Wonder in Science

For celestial objects that are millions of years old, Black Holes are having a pretty good decade. Physicist Kip Thorne shared the 2017 Nobel Prize after gravity waves from two colliding black holes were detected on Earth. Dr. Thorne had already brought computer simulations black holes to the masses as the executive producer and scientific consultant for the 2014 movie Interstellar.

Image result for kip thorne interstellar

More recently, scientists did what was long thought to be impossible. Using complex algorithms that combined data from telescopes all over the globe, they were able to obtain an effective aperture as big as the Earth. This allowed the black hole (or, or accurately, the light that barely escaped from just outside the event horizon) to be imaged directly.

Although the picture was not a surprise, the fact that humanity was able to accomplish this feat should be a cause for celebration. Science is awe-inspiring, even though it is not always a series of shocking discoveries. In fact, many experiments are done to verify existing models. When experiments in the 1930s uncovered an particle that had not been previously predicted, theoretical physicist  Isidor Isaac Rabi said “Who ordered that?”

Image result for katie black hole

The media widely shared this picture of Katie Bouman reacting the very first image. But here she is two years earlier explaining the science and what they expected to see.

One Small Step for (a) Man

“And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.” – Genesis 2:18 (King James Version)

“That’s One Small Step for [a] Man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

Instead of a triumphal, feel-good NASA movie like The Right Stuff, or even Apollo 13First Man is really a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. The theme of isolation is very strong. Neil is an “egghead” who would rather work alone, and leaves a social gathering to stare at the Moon from his backyard.

The tension between Neil’s individual journey, and the immense National undertaking that required a huge team of scientists, engineers, and astronauts to essentially invent a space program from scratch can be symbolized by the mangled famous quote from Tranquility Base – The “a” got lost in transmission, almost completely changing the meaning. He is just “a man” taking a “small step”, but one that represents the culmination of a incredible scientific, economic, and social accomplishment of the Human race:

The movie does not shy away at all from the personal and collective hardships that Armstrong faced on his way to the lunar surface. Neil chooses to deal with tragedy by turning inward and closing himself off emotionally. This is contrasted with the reactions of Buzz Aldrin, who likes to deal with horrific events by blurting out unconformable truths.

More than just being historically accurate, the movie takes viewers inside the claustrophobic cockpits, rattling rivets and all.

The complete isolation of Neil is starkly shown with the famous “Earthrise shot”. Every human to ever lived, besides Neil, Buzz, and Michael Collins (whom everyone forgets because he had to stay in orbit around the moon) is in that frame, 230,000 miles away.

Image result for moon surface

Surprisingly, the movie even includes the very real speech Richard Nixon was prepared to give in the event Neil and Buzz were left stranded on the Moon:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.

In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Even when they get home, the celebrated astronauts are forced into quarantine. In fact, the final shot of the movie is Neil and his wife separated by a glass window. Buzz Aldrin, who is famous for punching a Moon Conspiracy Theorist,

probably put it best with the title of his memoir:

Image result for beautiful desolation buzz aldrin

Overall, I really liked “First Man” for its unflinching look at the sacrifice that is required for greatness, as well as the story of “a” man, who became Humanity’s emissary to the stars.

 

 

Who needs a Thneed?

While Dr. Seuss is known as a author of children’s books, he got his start drawing some very pointed political cartoons:

Image result for dr seuss anti nazi

His messages can be seen in even in the stories read by today’s youth. The Butter Battle book is really about the futility of the arm races, while the Sneetches teach a lesson about racism.  The Lorax was published in 1971 and deals with environmentalism. In it, the Once-ler comes upon a pristine habitat, which he proceeds to turn into post-industrial hellscape to produce thneeds (“something that everyone needs”), much to the consternation of the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax.jpg

The Once-ler learns too late the costs of his unchecked greed, using one of my favorite literary/cinematic transitions to show the passage of time at the same location.

Image result for lorax pile of rocks unless

Just one year later, a TV adaptation came out. As in the book, the emphasis was on countering the notion that “progress is progress, and progress must grow.” The Once-ler starts his small business to provide for himself and his extended family. But after his company grows to unstainable size, he complains that curtailing industry would mean firing all his employees. I like to call this “supply-side environmentalism,” in which the evils of industrial pollution and the rapacious consumption of natural resources justified as the price of progress or sound economics are combated. Notice that consumers barely appear in the story. The narrative-arc revolves almost entirely around the Once-ler and his relationship with nature – represented by the Lorax.

In the 2012 feature film, the premise was subtly different.

The lorax movie image 01-389x600

The movie opens in Thneedville, a consumer-driven metropolis filled with artificial trees. The main antagonist is Aloysius O’Hare, who “found a way to sell air.”

In Thneedville it’s a brand new dawn!
With brand new cars And houses And lawns!
Here in got-all-that-we-need-ville!
In Thneedville we manufacture our trees
Each one is made in factories
And uses 96 batteries!
In Thneedville the air’s not so clean
So we buy it fresh!
It comes out this machine!
In satisfaction’s guaranteed-ville!

In Thneedville
We don’t want to know!
Where the smog and
Trash and chemicals go

In flashback, it is revealed that is it the consumers who fell in love with thneeds:

This is “demand-side environmentalism,” which asks us to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” and puts the pri onus on consumers, not industry.

While there is redemption for the Once-ler in all versions, Mr. O’Hare, a cartoonish villain, literally and figuratively, is ultimately overthrown by his own customers once they get wise to the fact that they could get air for free is they just planted some real trees. Here, the protagonist Ted leads the people to the realization that they should “let it grow.”

Incidentally, the tradition of inventing a new protagonist for an adaption based on the name of the author of the source material is becoming rather common:

 

TedTed Wiggins (Lorax 2012) / Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

Image result for elphaba Elphaba Thropp (Wicked 1995) / L. F. Baum

Walter watchWalter (The Muppets 2011) / Walt Disney

Hiding the Seams

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” -Albert Camus

Every time you sit down to read a book, watch a play, movie, or TV show, or otherwise consume a work of fiction, you have just entered into an implicit contract with the creators. It is a virtual Terms of Service ratified without even a perfunctory click. As in contract law, this meeting of the minds requires something of value from each party: You offer your willing suspension of disbelief, while the artist promises to lie to you. Or at least, to tell a non-factual story that will possibly entertain you for a while, and might even reveal a deeper truth about the human condition. We expect that if we keep our part of the bargain, and refrain from rushing onto the stage when Romeo is about to kill himself screaming “she’s still alive!,” the actors will do their best to stay in character. This is why plot holes or improbable science is so disruptive to the process, since they breaks the illusion of the story, raising the cost we pay to suppress our disbelief. However, in some special cases, a talented artist can take a weakness of the medium, and, in a kind of ninja maneuver, turn it into a strength that also subverts the audience’s expectations.

***SPOILER ALERT for Bioshock, Inception, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend***

In many video games, the player takes control of an avatar and has a great deal of freedom to dictate what happens. But video game makers have to bound this freedom if they want to tell any kind of coherent story. This is why some checkpoints or tasks must be accomplished, or else the player cannot advance. But what one of the main themes of the game is that free will is an illusion? In Bioshock, the game creators cleverly embed the message that your inability to deviate too much from your required tasks was not just a limitation of games in general, but a nefarious part of the main theme.

Andrew Ryan believes that he should be free of coercion by governments and religion because a man chooses, a slave obeys.” The irony is heightened by the fact that, in addition to Jack, almost every character is the game is, at some point, in thrall to some other entity. The little sisters are kidnapped and conditioned to collect ADAM from deceased splicers. Besides the “would you kindly” mind-control wielded by Fontaine, the splicers are also under his pheromone-induced influence. For his part, Jack himself can hypnotize a Big Daddy for protection, enrage foes to fight each other, and even hack turrets and health stations to do his bidding.

WYK

 

The movie Inception takes on the tropes of films, such as plot inconsistences, rules that seem to change without notice, and discontinuous jumps between scenes, and makes them part of the story. In dreams, we also experience these features. Are these just limitations of the medium, or evidence that we are watching someone dreaming?

Sitcoms require an extra dash of suspension of disbelief, since the plots are often driven by “crazy” schemes concocted by the characters. While madcap hilarity, but not serious consequences, is sure to ensue, the motivations would be pretty flimsy in real life if concocted by a actual human of sound mind.

Image result for Hilarity Ensues

But what if, instead of a time-worn trope, this the insane schemes really were the product of mental illness?

In a Purloined Letter worthy reveal, the big twist was hiding in plain sight, or at least in the first word of the title of the show. In the fantastic show  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the titular Rebecca really does suffer from mental illness, and receives a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the third season. It is rare for a show to attempt the difficult balancing act of being funny, while at the same time, exploring the ramification of metal illness and personal responsibility in general, and succeeds in a surprisingly sensitive and nuanced way.

Although some comedies, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, make the audience’s suspension of disbelief a part of the finale, they don’t take advantage of it in the same way.

I’ll leave you with a Handy exam trick: “when you know the answer but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don’t notice the seam.”

Untouched by Human Brains

In one science fiction story, a spaceship sets out from Earth on a long journey to a distant planet. Due to the length of the trip, many generations of passengers are born and die in transit. When they finally arrive at their destination, the descendants of those early pioneers find on the alien world … their cousins from Earth already there, in long-established colonies. These others settlers had left centuries later, but had access to much faster space travel, which allowed them to make the journey in much less time, even considering the massive head-start.

This is how I think of the quiet revolution Google ignited with its AlphaZero learning algorithm, which uses a neural network with general reinforcement learning. On December 6, 2017, it was declared that “Chess changed forever” when it was announced that AlphaZero had crushed the program called Stockfish, the 2017 Chess.com Computer Chess Champion:

“the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use a type of ‘machine learning,’ specifically reinforcement learning. Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not ‘taught’ the game in the traditional sense. That means no opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.”

Humans have been trying to improve Chess strategy for about 1,500 years, and computer programs have been refined for decades. Starting with ZERO knowledge of chess, besides the rules, AlphaZero became the most power chess-playing entity in history after training against itself for… 4 hours!

AlphaZero completely dispensed with all of the usual information chess algorithms usually rely on. These include simple human heuristics (e.g. “a bishop is worth three pawns” or “try to develop your pieces”), databases of openings or endgames, or even move lists from previous games. “Essentially, AlphaZero acquired 1,400 years of human chess knowledge—and then some—on its own, and in a ludicrously short amount of time.”  Unlike with previous programs, this is not a case of methodically tweaking and optimizing a specialized algorithm until it outperformed older versions of itself. Instead, this is a new kind of flexible artificial intelligence that has the potential to be put to use on a huge array of problems is science, healthcare, or finance.

For a brief primer of how neural networks work, since this excellent video:

Since it is untainted by puny human minds, AlphaZero’s “alien” style can be shocking at times:

What’s also remarkable, though, Hassabis explained, is that it sometimes makes seemingly crazy sacrifices, like offering up a bishop and queen to exploit a positional advantage that led to victory. Such sacrifices of high-value pieces are normally rare. In another case the program moved its queen to the corner of the board, a very bizarre trick with a surprising positional value. “It’s like chess from another dimension,” Hassabis said.

Hassabis speculates that because Alpha Zero teaches itself, it benefits from not following the usual approach of assigning value to pieces and trying to minimize losses. “Maybe our conception of chess has been too limited,” he said.

On the one hand, AlphaZero took an “arguably more human-like approach” , since it could only process about 80,000 positions per second, compared with 70 Million for Stockfish. However, since there are no identifiable “rules” AlphaZero is playing by, we risk the “Black-boxification” of our tools, in which we know that something works, but have no access to the internal workings.

One trend I did notice in some of the games released by Google, was that AlphaZero would often sacrifice material to obtain positional advantages over Stockfish. Over and over, Stockfish’s pieces would get blocked in and almost completely negated, while AlphaZero’s pieces would command a huge range of potential moves while coordinating with each other. Simply counting up the “point value” of the pieces remaining on the board is easy and tempting for human players, but perhaps AlphaZero has “discovered” that a blocked-in bishop might as well not be there, while a “good” knight can turn the tide of the game.

Image result for i for one welcome our new insect overlords gif

In a similar way, TensorTip is a medical sensor that tries to dispense with human programming. Using non-invasive monitoring of the temporarily color distribution of the tissue, it tries to measure “…a wide range of physiological and bio-parameters such as blood glucose, hemoglobin and hematocrit, blood PH, oxygen saturation SpO2, blood carbon dioxide, blood pressure, peripheral pulse and more…” based on a huge database of previously accumulated data.

CNOGA Medical Appointed ARTECH To Distribute Their Non-invasive Medical Devices In Italy

As described by the FDA filing:

The Tensor Tip is based on real time color image sensor, real time photographing the fingertip tissue. A color image sensor of the type used in the Tensor Tip enables a wide range of information in the spectral, resolution, dynamic range and time domains enabling further investigation of the blood chromatic changes as a function body physiology. The concept behind this investigation reflects the idea that a change in human physiology condition would temporarily change the blood pigmentation.

There is no small degree of irony in the fact some recent trends, like evidence-based medicine, that have tried to “optimize decision-making by emphasizing the use of evidence from well-designed and well-conducted research” – instead of age-old “professional opinion” or “expert intuition” – might themselves be superseded by black-box neural networks like AlphaZero or Watson. So the debate will continue about how much we really need to understand about what is going on under the hood of our best decision-making tools.