All Hallows’

Hallowe’en is a cross-quarter day, that is it falls midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the northern hemispherical view of things, it’s the opposite Down Under, they are preparing for summer now and take their Christmas in swim togs. But here it is distinctly fall and the cold of winter greets us each morning. I love the winter, you can always bundle up against the wind and frost, you can barely escape the solar onslaught and the stifling air of the summer. Wedged as we are into a slice of the earth that’s not high enough to be alpine nor dry enough to be desert we’ve a unique climate; and winter, though brisk, is mild compared to Wyoming or North Dakota. I like to ski and mostly you have to drive to snow, it falls occasionally in town and a handful of times might it require shoveling.

We like to say that the Winter Solstice is the first day of that season but as you go further and further north (we are at 42 degrees) that day feels more like mid-winter. In fact the early Celts and Britons reckoned the start of the dark season from this time, the solstice told them the sun would start moving back north and the days would lengthen. The Feast of St. Brigid on the first of February, corresponding to Imbolc and Groundhog Day, is the next cross-quarter day after that. There are legends that Brigid could turn water to beer and that is truly an outstanding personal quality, we need more saints like that.

After the Vernal Equinox comes May Day or Beltane marking the start of summer. Thus the Summer Solstice becomes mid-summer. This is logical as the sun reaches its peak on its path across the sky and moves southward from that point. The final cross-quarter day happens on the first of August and acknowledges harvest time. It’s Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon) or Lughnasa (Gaelic) to the old-timers. It’s halfway to the equinox by then and we are back where we started.

There was a time when the phase of the moon was known to every person as a matter of daily existence. Artificial lighting took care of that, and with our automobiles and airplanes we can carry that light around with us wherever we go. The Industrial Revolution did the rest, the calendar is a mere convenience now and is not wedded to our bones like it once was. So few of us need to farm that we can run our lives independent of the sunrises, sunsets, and seasons.

But we kept the lore. We still read our horoscopes and celebrate our holidays. I don’t know what to make of Hallowe’en, it seems to be a much bigger deal than it was when I was a kid. (God forbid I become one of those old cranks who whines about how things were better when he was little; stop me if I ever get there.) But everything seems that way now, probably because there are a hell of a lot more of us—about 100 million more since I left high school, 18 million in California alone! I remember dressing up and trick-or-treating as a kid, it was fun. I remember one year when the Zodiac killer was on the loose, I think it was 1969, the Chief of Police asked all the moms to keep their kids in for Hallowe’en. The Zodiac’s first victims were on Lake Herman Road, just within the city limits of Benicia where I grew up, and his next victims were in Vallejo at Blue Rock Springs Park where I had been many times. That case was never solved.

I’ll admit I’m not much for costuming and never liked having to dress up for Hallowe’en at work. I suppose it was because I already had on a costume, or rather a uniform, and would never dress for life outside of work in work garb. And going out in public requires dressing up as well. All these clothes we wear are already costumes, we just don’t think it so. Our corporate retail masters and their handmaidens, the TV advert people, have trained us to see certain things as clothing and other things as costumes.

The days continue to shorten and if you want to believe we have already started winter then be my guest, you’ve got a cultural precedent to follow on this cross-quarter day. The fall here has been spectacular and unusually long, I’ll hate to see it go despite my enthusiasm for winter. The shoulder seasons are never long enough, often the autumn that’s slipped in after the hot summer seems to last mere days and not weeks. As the sun marches away make a point to note its position on the horizon at rise or set. Keep an eye on that spot. Or note its place in the sky at noon and the length of the shadows. Check again around Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and by New Year’s Day you’ll be seeing it come back around. The ancients had to do these things to survive, but we can do it just to enjoy the celestial show.

AlphaGo Zero

I suppose it did not surprise people that a computer could be programmed to beat a human in chess. Chess has a finite set of pieces on a fixed board with strict rules of movement. There are only so many positions. There are a hell of a lot of positions, but still a finite number of them. Give a computer enough computing power as well as a database of chess games between grandmasters and it can figure out the optimum move for every situation. Ultimately even world chess champions succumbed to the machine.

The next challenge was more complex: the ancient Chinese game of Go. Go has more possibilities. It has a larger board, more pieces, and more alternative moves per turn than chess even if its rules are simpler. The game is primarily played in Asia and does not have much of a North American presence. Nonetheless computer programmers took up the challenge and, of course, created a program that could beat the world’s best players. That program was called AlphaGo. AlphaGo started with the rules of Go and 100,000 actual games from expert players and “learned” to imitate the tactics needed from that information. It also “learned” by playing against itself and developed its own schemes from those outcomes.

The next step was to see if the machine could learn all by itself. AlphaGo Zero was the next iteration of the project. This time the programmers gave it the rules of Go and nothing else. No database of games to “learn” from. AlphaGo Zero, using the rules, played against itself and discovered, by trial-and-error, the optimal strategies for winning. The idea was that if a machine only learned by imitating humans then it would be limited to concepts humans had already discovered. The computer would not come up with anything new, it would just be better at the game because it could master all the moves tirelessly and faultlessly.

But AlphaGo Zero “learned” new things and discovered new ways to win and in fact routed top-rated human players easily. AlphaGo Zero works by using a tree search to find the best move. It doesn’t play out every possible outcome, it instead prunes the branches by selecting the most promising ones. It “learned” this from all the previous games it played against itself. It then “remembers” the outcomes of all those pruned tree searches and can use that information again to make optimal “decisions” for the next set of moves.

When I want to draw a straight line I use a ruler. It’s a tool to help me complete a task. When I need to calculate something complex, I use a calculator. AlphaGo Zero is another such tool. Computers are better at data mining than people. They don’t get tired or make mistakes, and the mountains of data available today are beyond the scope of any purely human effort. Now it’s looking more and more that computers are better than people at making the best decision when many, many decisions are possible.

This isn’t scary. It’s exciting. Think about musical notation. A master musician can look at a sheet of music and hear the whole thing in his or her head at a glance. The notation actually frees the mind to see the larger pattern. It’s the same with algebra. The symbolism is powerful, it reduces complicated procedures to almost effortless manipulations. You don’t have to “understand” each step and that saves time and energy. So computers and thinking machines—what we call artificial intelligence or AI—can save time and energy and free humans to work on the things that humans are best at.

So what are humans best at? What can humans do that our technology can’t touch? I don’t know. I imagine most folks would say things like feel and express emotions. A computer could be programmed to simulate human emotional responses, and in fact I suspect that some existing AI systems could pass the Turing Test and fool a user into believing it was interacting with a real person. But that’s not the same thing.

People live in a subjective reality. We experience the world in our own particular way and since no two people are perfectly alike there are a hell of a lot of realities out there. Computers don’t have that problem. If they use the same algorithms to solve the same problems they ought to get the same results. But we aren’t wired like that. Our internal algorithms are fuzzy and inconsistent. We are easily confused, self-contradicting, and frequently irrational. Artificial intelligence is an obvious boon to humankind as it can take on tasks too big and too important (air traffic control, for example) that we mere mortals would eventually screw up. I say we get these machines in as many places as possible and free us from things we don’t need to do anymore (I can’t wait for self-driving cars!).

Then we can spend our time being silly, chaotic, and creative. We can love and laugh and goof off. The sooner this happens, the better, in my mind. I realize that Go and chess are mere games and thus not fully representative of the messy complexity of nature. But machines can do a lot to help us with the mess and I say let’s put ’em to work.

Friday the 13th

I’m not superstitious by nature, I’m too much of a rational materialist for that sort of thing.  Math and science have more impact on my mind than rabbit’s feet and black cats. I was born on a Friday the 13th (November 1959) so I tend to think of it as my lucky day. But luck is like beauty as it’s in the eye of the beholder. If wildfires wipe out your neighborhood but leave your house standing, that’s good luck for you and bad luck for your neighbors. So I prefer to think in terms of random variation.

If you hit .400 for a month you stand a good chance of hitting .200 in a different month. Guys don’t hit .400 for a season very often and they don’t hit .200 for a season very often, either. They tend to swing back-and-forth between those extremes and even out somewhere north or (mostly) south of .300 for the year. That’s random variation. If you bat ten times in any weekend series and hit five balls as hard as you can you might wind up with five hits or five outs. It’s not entirely up to you or your skill level. Once the ball leaves the bat you have no control over it and the baseball gods take over. That’s random variation.

We don’t like random variation. We like to think we make our own luck. That’s true to some degree. A batter has to practice and keep improving his skills, and he has to make good decisions in the games he plays. He has to swing at pitches he can hit and he has to make solid contact. But he can do all that and still go 0-for-10 and be the goat.

In America if you are down on your luck you don’t get much sympathy. Poor people are considered weak and foolish. Their lot is their own doing and has nothing to do with luck. If they were just smarter or worked harder they would see their lives improve. The American success ethic has no place for randomness. You are a winner or you are a loser and that’s that.

But nature is not like that. And we humans are as much a part of nature as the birds and the fishes and the trees. When a volcano erupts and spews gas and lava over the landscape some living things get buried and some escape. That’s mostly a random phenomenon. The village or forest that gets immolated is not lacking in courage, fortitude, brains, or heart. It’s just unlucky. Your genetic package is not under your control. The assortment you get from your parents is the result of random variation, the outcome is not anyone’s doing.

With so much randomness around you’d think we’d be more focused on process and less focused on outcomes. But we are an outcome-oriented people. We like to assign credit and blame for things even if those things are too big for any one person to get the credit or the blame. Presidents get credit for a good economy or blame for a poor one but they may have nothing to do with it either way. Economies are very big systems with a lot of inputs and despite all the Nobel Prizes folks really don’t understand them. It’s not science as you can’t run proper experiments and thus you can’t test your hypotheses. And when economists get tangled up with politicians all bets are off. Politics is about as irrational a business as humans can come up with and people who are good at it know that feelings and attitudes are way more important than facts.

Facts are over-rated anyway. We are believing and doubting creatures. We believe some things and doubt others and most of the time it has little to do with actual events. We are products of our upbringing and environment and it is really hard to see the world in any other way but the way we’ve always seen the world. Prejudice, or perhaps I should say bias, is more important than objectivity. In fact objectivity is impossible for humans, as no matter how hard we try at least some of our preconceived notions will be part of our world view.

So what is one to do? I think the key is to recognize our inability to see the facts in a situation and accept that we are opinionated as hell. What we can do is try on some of those other opinions and try to see where they come from. They come from somewhere, they are not entirely random or without foundation. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes you might see the world a little differently than you did before and that is, in my mind, progress. I think the most beautiful thing in the world is empathy. When you can feel what another person might be feeling even if you’ve not had the experiences of that other person you become a larger version of yourself. You enrich your own humanity.

Empathy can only come about through humility. We have to recognize our own weaknesses and limitations. We have to accept that sometimes it is luck that gave us what we have and not our checklist of virtuous behavior. The mystic believes that god is in everyone and that anyone who accepts that fact cannot hate another person or be indifferent to their suffering because that would be an affront to god. I think that might be the hardest thing in the world, to see god in everyone. Too hard for most of us I expect.

For us ordinary mortals, those of us without the necessary spiritual equipment to see god everywhere, we could try something a little easier. How about seeing that the process is more important than the outcome? That random variation doesn’t discriminate and thus we are all subject to it. That bad luck could be just around the corner no matter who you are, and that most of us don’t “deserve” it when it happens. How about letting go of opinions? That’s all they are, opinions. They aren’t universal truths or bits of wisdom or guidelines for ethical living. They are just opinions. We love our opinions and think they define us. They don’t. They come and they go and we change our minds and then we rail at others for changing theirs. Seems pretty stupid, don’t you think?

One thing I know is true: we are all the same. Forty-six chromosomes made out of the same stuff, DNA. We are different, the DNA says that too, but the differences are not as great as the similarities. That’s one of those things worth keeping: what divides us is a lot less than what we have in common. That’s biology, man, and you can’t argue with that.