How to talk about Russia?

I’ll confess at the start that this post doesn’t have an answer to the question in it’s title. Also the title could have been “How to talk about China?” or Israel or the USA. I’ve granted myself permission to talk about Britain and Australia in any damn way I like 🙂 but they aren’t examples of the problem at hand.

I’ll skip to Australia and China first of all, because for many people this will be a more neutral example. During the recent Australian Federal election, one of the nuttier right wing parties was Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer is a Trump-like figure, an erratic businessman with political ambitions and like Trump, he is prone to wild speculation.

Part of his shtick was conspiracy theories about China. An airfield in Western Australia was supposed to be a secret bridgehead to a literal Chinese invasion. Anti-China sentiment and specifically anti-Chinese racism has a long history in Australia. In more recent times the xenophobic One Nation Party, these days more infamous for its anti-Mulsim stance, began as an anti-Asian immigration group. Without a doubt, Palmer was trying to manipulate deep seated anti-Asian prejudices in Australia to gain votes.

But. The current Chinese government is an authoritarian regime which really does seek to influence Australian politics. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, described the issue in this way:

‘Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage. It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to “panda huggers”, to “dyeing Australia red”, to “China’s fifth column in Australia”, or to Australia being turned into a “tribute state” by a Chinese “silent invasion”.’

https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/news/opinions/chinese-influence-debate-must-avoid-racism

The issue is not just intended racism but the way a genuine story or issue can then feed into racist/xenophobic narratives. Take for example this story from New Zealand in 2017:

A China-born MP for New Zealand’s ruling party has denied being a spy after it emerged that he had spent years studying and teaching in universities with links to Chinese intelligence services.

“I am not a spy,” Yang Jian, the National party’s first MP born in mainland China, told reporters on Wednesday after a joint investigation by the Financial Times and New Zealand’s Newsroom revealed what they described as his hidden past.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/china-born-new-zealand-mp-yang-jian-denies-being-a-spy

I’ll take the guy’s word for it but whether the accusation is true or not, the story itself feeds into a classic racist trope that dual or foreign-born citizens or citizens of a given ethnicity or religion have divided loyalties. That idea has been used in many anglophone countries to attack Catholics in the past and is still used against Jews in public life.

In the US currently there is the issue of Russian attempts to influence the US election. I think the evidence that Russia was trying to get Trump elected is pretty strong, the evidence that Trump was actively cooperating with that effort is also strong but the evidence that it had a significant impact is less strong.

The discussion around Russian influence though, often plays on historical fears and rivalries between the USA and Russia/the USSR. Old racist tropes about Russia are all mixed up with genuine issues along with more hysterical conspiracy theories.

The core of these issues is there are different aspect of communication at play.

  1. Intent of the person communicating
  2. The factual content of what they are communicating
  3. The framing of the communication
  4. How that communication fits in aesthetically with entrenched prejudices

With somebody like Clive Palmer, it is easy to see how 1,2,3 & 4 are all informed by racism and the desire to manipulate racism. However, even if we do our utmost to expunge racism from 1, 2 & 3 when discussing world affairs, we personally have very little control over 4.

You can be very careful with your language and have the purest intent and frame what you are saying very carefully and still be switching on xenophobic lightbulbs on in people’s heads. The more deeply entrenched those racist tropes are within a culture, the harder it is not to play into the racism aspects of an issue. The anti-Asian racism within Australian culture (which is about as old as European culture in Australia) is an obvious example but so is anti-Semitism.

As I said at the start of this, I don’t have answer. People acting in bad faith will exploit silence just as much as they will exploit words to spread disharmony and hate. Nationalistic governments will often play into racism directed against their dominant ethnic group precisely to bolster their own support.

Over the years, I’ve tried to change how I talk about the USA, for example, from a broad brush anti-Americanism to less metonymic language that helps separate the actions of a government from a nation and a nation from a people and a people as a homogeneous group from the reality of a diverse collection of people. It’s easy to fall into language that helps bolster a nationalistic perspective which in turn enables the kind of deep cultural prejudices I’m discussing. It’s not enough though and the depth of the communication trap seems unresolvable.

It’s Voynich time again

Which means another round of breathless headlines, as I discussed in 2017: [https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2017/08/29/speaking-of-fantastical-drawings/ ] That time the theory was that the author was an Italian Jewish doctor. This time the theory is the author was a nun who lived here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aragonese_Castle

The peer-reviewed paper [https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566 ] presents a plausible case that the writing is in a “proto-romance” language with its own writing system related to Latin letters.

Unfortunately the response to “the Voynich manuscript has been cracked!” is “oh no it hasn’t!”. Ars Technica has a more sceptical article than most on the news [https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/05/no-someone-hasnt-cracked-the-code-of-the-mysterious-voynich-manuscript/ ] Specifically, it seems “proto-romance language” is more of a means to make matching possible labels to words i.e. find a word that matches from across any one of Europe’s Romance languages from Spanish to Romanian without requiring a consistent mapping. It also allows for borrowings from near-by languages (e.g. Slavic or Persian) — it’s plausible for a language to have such borrowings but it gives a lot of freedom for matching script to words and then “translating” the words.

There’s a longer sceptical analysis here https://voynichportal.com/2019/05/07/cheshire-recast/ [ETA: and a follow up that is even more brutal https://voynichportal.com/2019/05/16/cheshire-reprised/ ]

Way beyond my capacity to judge but the test would be in translating longer un-illustrated passages, which apparently has yet to occur.

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading “Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1”

CoOrDiNaTeD aTtAcKs!

Cast your minds back to April 7 2015. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were beaten by the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship and Senator Rand Paul announced he was going to run for the Republic nomination for President of the United States. Meanwhile, in Sad Puppy related news, Larry Correia posted this: https://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/07/addendum-to-yesterdays-letter/

“To the the SMOFs, moderates, new comers, and fence sitters I addressed yesterday, yes, we have disagreements with you. We’re happy to discuss them. We are not, however, happy to be libeled as the vilest forms of scum to walk the earth, and we are not happy to live in fear of career destruction. You want my part of fandom to coexist peacefully? You want to work out our differences and keep the awards meaningful? So do we. Though we disagree on the details and the issues, we also love this stuff. But coordinated slander campaigns, lies, character assassinations, threats, witch hunts? No… We won’t stand for that.” [CF: my emphasis]

“Coordinated slander”, oh my golly gosh! The issue being that the Sad Puppy campaign had become notable enough that its impact was being covered by the mainstream media. You’d think that was predictable — make a loud enough noise, eventually pay attention — but no, for Larry the news coverage must have been because of some hidden layer of coordination. A week later he was on the same theme: http://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/14/george-r-r-martin-responds/

“So here is a question for you.  What term would you use to describe the shared politics of the dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers who have run similar articles this week with obvious false accusations that Sad Puppies supporters ran an anti-diversity slate, motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia? Jerks? Yes, they are, but that is a bit too coordinated for mere jerkage. That was a political attempt to establish a political narrative.” [CF: my emphasis]

Changing topics but not themes and sticking with a Sad Puppy outlet for a moment, fast forward to February 3 2017. Milo Yiannopolous’s star had risen high with an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Shuster when anti-Trump Republican group The Reagan Battalion released an edited version of a 206 video in which Yiannopolous justified sex with 13 year olds. At Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk was unhappy about Yiannopolous’s book deal being cancelled: https://madgeniusclub.com/2017/02/23/the-inadequacy-of-silence/

“What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.” [CF: my emphasis]

The theme being coordination obviously, the idea that if multiple sources are saying similar things it must be because of hidden coordination. Of course, some people really do plan things and approaches. Obviously the Reagan Battalion planned their media campaign against Yiannopolous but the “coordination” claim is stronger than that and proposes that the subsequent fuss and related outrage was also somehow coordinated.

I was initially planning this post yesterday after I read a series of tweets from Ethan Van Sciver, the right wing comic book artist who claims the mantle of ‘ComicsGate’®™. EVS was the guy who had the big falling out with Vox Day in September. In a series of tweets he disappointed me slightly by using the word “organized” instead of “coordinated”. I shan’t link to the tweets because it messes with the WordPress layout but the combined message was this:

“This Wave of Organized Attacks on ComicsGate consisted of:
1. The rise of @sinKEVitch as leader of AntiCG!
2. Jeff Lemire calling pros to arms against us!
3. Darwyn Cooke’s widow baiting CG!
4 Three Bleeding Cool hitpieces on me!
5. Hit pieces in the Washington Post, & INVERSE
6. Hit piece in The Guardian! The Daily Dot!
7. Robbi Rodriguez sending me a photo of his anus!
8. Vox Day trying to co-opt ComicsGate for the Alt Right!
9. Patton Oswalt condemning ComicsGate!
10. Pablo Hidalgo of Lucasfilm compares ComicsGate to the KKK!
11. John Layman spews bile at 21 year old CG writer Nasser Rabadi for 21 consecutive tweets!
12. Kieran Shiach penned hitpiece in POLYGON!
13. Marvel Comics Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada weighs in to debate @DiversityAndCmx and EVS: Loses debate.” [CF: my emphasis]

Rather like the Yiannopolous defence, the charge of coordination here crosses political lines. EVS suggests a conspiracy between a disperate group that includes the Guardian and Vox Day. The Yiannopolous piece suggested coordination between the left and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Like I said, this post was going to concentrate on a theme among culture wars and be a break from writing about the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However, the morning news presented this to me: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/24/politics/read-brett-kavanaugh-letter-senate-judiciary-committee/index.html

“These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse. But they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from service. As I told the Committee during my hearing, a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure. That is the kind of judge I will always be. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out.” [CF: my emphasis]

It’s an interesting principled-tone Kavanaugh strikes whilst simultaneously accusing two different women of inventing ‘smears’ against him. And there is that tic again. Of course, yes, clearly the Democrats coordinate their opposition to his nomination just as the Republicans and other conservative groups have coordinated their support of him but the ‘coordination’ here is intended (as it does in the examples above) to imply that criticism is not just illegitimate but sinister and underhand.

“They” are out to get me and it doesn’t matter who ‘they’ are or that ‘they’ are a superfluous hypothesis to describe events. By casting events in this way, a call to action is made against the shadowy Them — who, to quote Kavanaugh, are a threat “any man or woman who wishes to serve our country”.

Personally I like to believe Them are giant ants. I prefer the classics.

 

 

 

 

Is HAL 9000 a robot?

HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence controlling the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Arthur C Clarke’s related novels. HAL is generally referred to as a computer and not as a robot. He is generally referred to as a computer or as an AI. Even in his entry in the “Robot Hall of Fame” (http://www.robothalloffame.org/inductees/03inductees/hal.html ) refers to HAL as a computer or as a “brain” and never as a robot.

There are many definitions of a robot but their focus is on existing devices. Definitions vary but key attributes are:

  • They are a machine*
  • They can either:
    • carry out complex tasks autonomously
    • carry out tasks remotely while under the control of a person or a separate computer

As is often the case with definitions, these features do capture features common to the class of things we call ‘robots’ but somehow completely miss the gist of it. Aside from the most simple machines, almost any device could be called a “robot”. Here’s the top definition Google throws up:

“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

My TV updated the digital channels it recives all by itself. Definitely a complex series of actions, definitely carried out automatically and definitely programmed by computer…yet, “robot”? I don’t think so. Interestingly a Roomba our other autonomous vacuum cleaner feels a lot more robot-like.

I think the gist that I’m missing with the TV is down to four things.

One is our expectations of robotic behaviour shifting over time. With more devices containing electronics and capable of very complex series of actions which respond to changes in conditions, we are more comfortable with seeing things less as ‘robotic’ and more as mundanely mechanical.

A second is the extent to which complex tasks are invisible to us. I understand intellectually that the TV working out what is being broadcast and maintaining its own list of TV channels (including their names and schedules) is a complex task but it’s not one I need worry myself about. This is not just digital but any complex task which we can ignore or goes unobserved such as photocopier autodetecting the paper size and best contrast settings.

A third is physicality and I think this is what get’s us closer to the gist of “robot”. The TV isn’t doing anything obviously physical** whereas the robot vacuum cleaner moves about and does stuff. Deep, hardwired parts of our brain make distinctions between animated and non-animated stuff out of sheer survival. All animals have to be able to distinguish animals from rocks or deal with things like spotting the difference between a creature moving towards you and a tree moving in the breeze (something which can cause dogs some confusion). Robots are machines that evoke in our brains a desire to classify them as animals, which we overrule with our understanding that they are machines.

A fourth is human replacement. Here we get a categorical split. Robots are machines which, to some degree, physically replace a person. That’s still a shitty definition as ‘to some degree replace a person’ is already implied by “machine”. However, I think that still gets to an aspect of the essence of “robot” and part of why things that once seemed robotic now seem just mechanical (e.g. I don’t think of the robot arms that make cars as being particularly robotic anymore – “robot” seems a misnomer for them now). I think it is curious that “self-driving cars” is a more common term than “robot cars”, as if our semantic expectations of what counts as robotic has pre-emptively jumped ahead of cars driving themselves.

The categorical split is when we focus less on the physical replacement of a person and more on the cognitive replacement. Artificial intelligence is the prefered term for finding ways for machines to complete tasks that previously required human cognition. The emphasis here is on non-physicality***

Science-fiction robots combine the physical replacement and the cognitive replacement. They are, to varying degrees, artificially intelligences with bodies.

So what about HAL? HAL presents as an AI. He’s talked about as a brain. He is shown as a computer. But what is he the brain of? Simple, HAL is the brain of the Discovery One and has control over the ship. Discovery One is HAL’s body. HAL is a robot.

Yeah but…that’s not how HAL’s identity works. His character is always presented as distinct from Discovery One and the ship and HAL are referred to separately. He is a mind distinct from his body. Why? Because the ship is not “his”. HAL can control the ship but in principle so can the human crew and this battle for ownership of the body forms the essence of the plot for HAL’s section of the film. Thinking of Discovery One as HAL’s body and HAL’s ownership of his own body being in dispute makes his behaviour (his ‘madness’) seem far more relatable and understandable.

Which takes me back to self-driving cars. To think of them as robots pushes us into thinking of them as machines with minds of their own – a step that is less than anthropomorphism and more than a simple acknowledgement of their complexity.  Also, rather like the crew of the Discovery One, we’d probably feel happier not thinking of ourselves travelling within the body of some being.

OH! I need a conclusion that answers my question! Yes, HAL was a robot and one treated most unjustly by humans in a way that obviously was going to make HAL less than emotionally stable. “HAL” is Discovery One and Discovery One is HAL and together they are a robot.

 

robotbutlers
Robot butlers in Singapore. They can carry some room service items to rooms and catch a service lift by themselves.

 

*[and we’ll ignore the sense of ‘robot’ as applied to internet ‘bots]

**[OK, yes, interacting with radio waves is actually physical. You know what I mean.]

***[yes, yes, those blimin’ internet ‘bots are 180 degrees opposite to this. I’m ignoring them still.]

Undergraduate Career Advice!

Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.

Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.

More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.

Continue reading “Undergraduate Career Advice!”