Book: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

Cover of You Look Like a Think and I Love You by Janelle Shane

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You
by Janelle Shane, Ph.D.
published by Voracious (Little, Brown and Company)
2019

I’ve enjoyed Janelle Shane’s site, aiweirdness.com, for some time, and when she mentioned that she had published a book on the same themes, I couldn’t resist it.

What are her themes? Machine learning, mostly, and how difficult it is to train a neural network to do what you really want it to do. You THINK you are training your software to recognize cancerous lumps, and it does well with your training data, but it doesn’t work so well in real life. In retrospect, you trained it with images of cancerous lumps that have rulers next to them to show the size of the lump, while no one cares (or measures) what size benign lumps are. Your program relied on the rulers to know whether or not a lump is cancerous: ruler = yes, no ruler = no. You invented… a RULER-DETECTOR.

Why I am reading about this geeky, specialist topic? I have to deal with the limitations of “AI”s of various designs all the time. Voicemail hell? That’s a not-very-intelligent program imitating an AI, possibly with AI voice recognition. Applying for a job? Software is screening my resume. Getting a laboratory test? Software may be screening that for me, too!

If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with your phone, you know that these programs are… not perfect. Depending on whether you have a high or low voice, they may not seem to work at all. My father is still amused that one of his friends couldn’t get her voice assistant on her phone to understand ANYTHING she said, but my father (who sounds like Darth Vader) could ALWAYS be understood. Why? Because it was trained this way.

Janelle Shane finds amusing ways to talk about how neural networks and other near-AI programs work, what they are good at, why they fail at so many tasks, and how the data sets they train on can make them vulnerable to manipulation.

You will laugh, as I did, as an AI trained to generate metal band names learns to generate ice cream flavors! You’ll laugh often, really: Ms. Shane has some good stories, and good quotes from people who fought to teach their AI something specific, and their AI interpreted them literally and won. The challenges she sets up for the simple neural nets she build are VERY FUNNY.

It isn’t just jokes and witty examples: you won’t laugh at the idea of a navigation-bot telling you to drive TOWARD a fire (because there is less traffic in that direction!), nor at racial and gender biases that oblivious employees train software with, nor at the fact that image recognition programs that train on the same free (manipulatable) data sets can be mis-trained to see things that aren’t visible / obvious / correct to humans.

Maybe there’s a rare but catastrophic bug that develops, like the one that affected Siri for a brief period of time, causing her to respond to users saying “Call me an ambulance” with “Okay, I’ll call you ‘an ambulance’ from now on.”

Excerpt From: Janelle Shane. “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/you-look-like-a-thing-and-i-love-you/id1455076486

It is good (and refreshing) to truly think about the serious implications of our rush to be dependent upon machines, and the hazy way we think that machines are neutral decision makers, when nearly every application we have developed for them is not neutral in inputs, programming, or impact.

On how I read

It is a foggy day, and I am filled with French press coffee, vegan sandwiches, birdsong (without automobile traffic, you can hear the birds!), and things I want to research that I’m either reading about, or that came up while reading about something else.

Reading is a rabbit hole with many tunnels.

I’m writing out reviews about books I enjoy(ed) here, because writing about them is part of my ‘processing.’ Conveying feelings and thoughts in language requires a lot of translation, and that translation teaches me things. If I really enjoy something, I should be able to describe it concisely and well in words, and choosing the right words thoughtfully can take some time. (For example, it wouldn’t be enough to say that the protagonists of William Gibson’s recent fiction are “cool,” because that doesn’t convey what I mean: I mean that they are capable, curious, observant, cool-headed, and have some special niche expertise that they enjoy. I admire people like that, and want to be like that. “Cool” wouldn’t cover it. )

While I am writing reviews of recently read books in a linear fashion, I’m also various stages of reading other books. In my youth, I would force myself to finish each book (whether or not I was enjoying it) before I could go onto the next; but now I drop any I’m not in the mood for (I have so little time – why spend it on a book that isn’t working for me?), and to jump in and out of longer books, based on where they are taking me. Truly stimulating books send me on research projects or reveries that take me a while to return from!

I am in various stages of reading:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (fiction, about women being able to generate electricity and defend themselves – fun and a real page-turner!),
  • Appreciate Your Life: The Essence of Zen Practice by Taizan Maezumi Roshi (deep, but likely to inspire reverie about the meaning of life, which distracts from reading),
  • My Seditious Heart: Collected Nonfiction by Arundhati Roy (1000 pages including the extensive footnotes! I had to stop to recover from the pain of reading about injustices done to various minority groups in India by more politically dominant groups, especially “development” programs that make minorities landless while enriching the majority),
  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (I’d read the earlier translation, but this one is much better – the only catch is that I keep using up all my book flags, pad after pad of them, because there are SO MANY CONCEPTS I want to revisit…),
  • You Look Like a Thing And I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane (I started this last night, and was laughing so hard I was nearly in tears from examples of her neural net transitioning from generating death metal band names to naming ice cream flavors – I may finish this today), and
  • Olafur Eliasson In Real Life, (which I started this morning), which appeared at first to be a typical catalog of the brilliant show I saw at the Tate Modern last fall, but which is sending me in many directions because it also includes interviews with scientists, artists, chefs, and others, and is becoming more like the best current-topics magazine I’ve ever read.

My reading of the Eliasson book today has made me pause to:

  • write for myself about what it means to be a California artist, a San Francisco native, and a product of the optimistic and green international cultural sensibilities of California in my 1970s childhood (Eliasson is a similar age, but clearly Icelandic-Danish in his influences);
  • look up artists like Fujiko Nakaya (fog installations!);
  • wonder if artists I like have any new work to marvel at (maybe not – Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s Lou Bontecou Selected Works page doesn’t suggest so, but she could be saving up for a new show),
  • admire the design of the catalog (it is beautifully composed and printed; I’ll save the rest of my gushing for the write up);
  • remember that I recently read other books I haven’t posted reviews of (oops); and
  • try to decide if I should use my photos of Harpa to play with in MirrorLab…

It is FUN to let my mind wander so freely, and to have such stimulating material to read.

Working long hours prevents me from spending more time thinking like this – while I am working, I am VERY dedicated to solving work problems, and sometimes dream about possible solutions, or wake up dwelling on work issues to solve – but a weekend like this is like a brain vacation / day spa / slice of free-thinking heaven.

Book: Mail / Art / Book curated by Jennie Hinchcliff and John Held, Jr.

Cover of Mail / Art / Book

Mail / Art / Book
curated by Jennie Hinchcliff and John Held, Jr.
published by San Francisco Center for the Book
2014

This is another stellar catalog from the SFCB’s shows, and from longstanding teacher and author Jennie Hinchcliff (co-author of the fun book, Good Mail Day).

Mail art – art that is specifically intended to be sent through the mail, and enjoyed by other mail artists – is small and can be difficult to display, but this book does a solid job of arranging and photographing this exhibit in a way that preserves the many 3-D items, as well as the relationships between envelope and contents (when there is a distinction).

The submissions were fun and varied widely, and it was great to see all the complex, thoughtful, colorful, creating works that made it through the mail!

Book: Calligraphies In Conversation, 6th Annual Exhibition curated by Arash Shirinbab

Cover of Calligraphies in Conversation

Calligraphies In Conversation, 6th Annual Exhibition
curated by Arash Shirinbab
published by San Francisco Center for the Book and Ziya Art Center
2019

This is a beautiful, fully illustrated catalog of an exhibit of calligraphic writing from multiple traditions, and it is really gorgeous. Work from fourteen artists shows a lovely stylistic and creative range. I had been expecting Chinese calligraphy for its local (SF Bay Area) popularity and long tradition, plus some western-language calligraphy, and was delighted to see those PLUS work in Urdu, Hebrew, Arabic, and more. My favorite piece is in a Devanagari / Sanskrit script over gorgeous shades of blue – the composition and color are WONDERFUL.

This is a beautiful and inspiring catalog.

Book: Artificial Condition : The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Cover of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2018

This is volume 2 of the 4-so-far series of novellas by Martha Wells, describing the ongoing adventures of a Security Unit with a bloody past.

In this book, our Murderbot journeys to investigate that ‘bloody past’ story, since its digital memory has been wiped, and its organic memory is confused. Can a lone bot, without funds or travel papers, visit the mining colony where things may have gone so wrong?

The short answer is YES, and Murderbot makes some friends along the way.

Ms. Wells writing is speedy, clear, and direct. (This is not a Lovecraft book, where many pages will be devoted to the way a coffee table was decorated in the middle of a conversation.) Key technologies are applied without dwelling on any boring details about specific codes, just like we use technology in real life – it works, we don’t need to overthink it. Murderbot has endearing qualities which it is largely unaware of, and lots of anxiety, which is completely plausible in its situation.

I also enjoy the depiction of… let’s call it friendship between synthetic intelligences, and their willingness to use their processing power to meddle favorable and to pass the time! The relationship between Murderbot and an assertive (and sensitive) Transport ship gave this story a charming tone.

Book: No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg

Cover of Greta Thunberg's Book

No One is Too Small To Make A Difference
by Greta Thunberg
published by Penguin Random House UK
2019

This pocket-sized book contains the English text of many of Greta’s recent speeches, in which she consistently tells world & business leaders to listen to scientists and reduce carbon emissions immediately. Because world & business leaders do not listen, she has said this in a variety of very clear, concise ways.

She caught on very quickly to the various arguments used by the not listening camp, which can be summarized by me like this:

Naysayer: you are not the right person to listen to, because
you are young (so you aren’t wise),
old (so you have no longer term future),
from the developed world (and I don’t believe you would give something up),
from the developing world (and you want to live like the developed world),
do have a plan (but I don’t like it),
don’t have a plan (so what are you expecting of me),
– are not the right person (but I won’t listen to the right people),
etc.

She breaks through that with a message that we must act, we must all act, and we must all act now. It isn’t about her, no matter how you try to make it about her, and she isn’t having it.

We talk about our children’s future, while destroying it in the same breath.

Also: what the hell is wrong with adults?

This is a quick read, and her speeches are very clear – perfect for our short-attention-span age, and our need to excerpt tiny snippets for the evening news. Ms. Thunberg is admirable, though she would prefer we just snap out of our stupor and DO something rather than admire her.

Books: All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Cover of All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red: the Murderbot Diaries
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2017

Do you read Janelle Shane’s hilarious posts on training neural nets at aiweirdness.com? Or perhaps follow her on Twitter? Well, I do, and she kept writing about how much she LOVES Murderbot. And she is so fun! Which suggests to me that Murderbot might be fun.

I investigated. I read. I learned. MURDERBOT IS FUN.

Sorry, I didn’t meant to shout that. 🙂 But it’s TRUE! Martha Wells’ novella about a security unit that’s a little bit cloned human, and a lot of roboty parts, is fun to read. Murderbot itself is fun: it had… a bad run of luck that was very fatal for a lot of people, and doesn’t really trust its makers anymore. And loves video dramas. And is a little too smart for its job. And… then things get VERY INTERESTING in the unmapped bits of the planet that its clients are exploring…

It’s a page turner! (You can read a sample on the Tor website here.) And there are more volumes to turn, and a full length novel coming out, and now I’m going to need to read all of those. Because: Murderbot is fun.

Book: Vija Celmins: To Fix The Image In Memory, edited by Gary Garrels

Cover of Vija Celmins: to Fix the Image in Memory

Vija Celmins: To Fix The Image In Memory
edited by Gary Garrels
published by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with Yale University Press
2018

In late 2018 & early 2019, SFMoMA had a fantastic exhibit of the art of Vija Celmins, and that show led to the publication of this enormous, substantive catalog of her work. It contains essays with a broad range of interpretations of her catalog, high quality reproductions, a collection of insightful interview excerpts, AND a biographical timeline that is unusually well written. It is one of the better catalogs I’ve purchased, and after enjoying it in small servings since the viewing the exhibit in person TWICE (it was that good), I read it from end to end today.

There is something remarkable about Celmins’ artistic focus. She has created a range of work to show off her skills, but her long term commitment to drawing and painting certain subjects, such as the surface of the ocean or the depth of the sky, in a very particular method, has led to a profound body of work. It is remarkable to have such a range of skills, to have shown them off through solid early representational work in oil paints and remarkable sculptures (though she considered those drawings or paintings of a sort), and also to perform time-consuming, in-depth studies of a few subjects in graphite with such SATISFYING results, all while bucking other artistic trends, and maintaining a unique “voice.”

I’m old enough to have trained in architecture back when we actually drew (no, really), and so seeing such amazing work in graphite means something to me – it’s a medium I worked in for so many years… and she does wonders with it.

The graphite drawings in particular are inspiring and gorgeous in person. From afar, they are the sea; from up close, they are the texture of graphite on paper; and you can feel yourself slipping between the two understandings, especially around the edges, and being pleased with that experience.

Her pictures of the surface of another planet are also remarkable, and you realize after viewing several that you recognize specific rocks appearing in the drawings, because the rocky landscape is NOT a random drawing of high precision, but a high precision interpretation of a specific NASA image, methodically mapped out and reinterpreted in different weights of pencil, or from a closer point of view.

The reproductions would have been satisfying enough for me, but the texts, including the interview snippets on her NEED to do this work, and on the way drawing and painting on these projects became part of her way of living in awareness… it’s all quite informative.

I love her consistency; the way she challenged herself by changing media when the time felt right; the depths of the blacks in her drawn skies; the inverse skies she created recently… there is a lot to enjoy.

Great artist; great show; unusually satisfying catalog.

Book: Maria Merian’s Butterflies by Kate Heard

Cover of Maria Merian's Butterflies

Maria Merian’s Butterflies
by Kate Heard
published by Royal Collection Trust
2016

I LOVE scientific illustrations – they are a glorious combination of art and science! I received a postcard with a gorgeous botanical illustration on it by Maria Sibylla Merian, and decided I needed to learn more.

This remarkable illustrator was born in 1647, and devoted her life to the study and documentation of insects, along with the plants they feed on. She became fascinated by insects at age 13, and studied them throughout the rest of her life. Her father and stepfather both made their living by painting; she taught young girls (including her daughters) to paint, and her painter husband (one of her stepfather’s former apprentices) helped her publish her first book on entomology of local (northern European) insects. After several complex life changes, she wound up selling most of her possessions and taking one of her daughters to a Dutch colony in Suriname to study insects in their natural environments. That trip provided the content that she developed into the publications that became her major life’s work, which were collected by scientific societies, royalty (which is how this book came to be published by the Royal Collection Trust), and wealthy amateurs.

It’s not ONLY that she was a remarkable observer, or that she could draw and paint: she also had to master printing arts to be able to sell editions of her work (printmaking is another skill set entirely), and business to sell different variations of the results at different price points (discounted advanced subscription prices, higher prices after publication; uncolored prints for one price, prints hand-colored by her and her daughters for a higher price, and painted variations on vellum for luxury editions…) . She also collaborated with a botanist to provide in depth information about the included plants.

While this little book is just about 6×8″, the printing is on heavy stock and of high quality. Not only are her plates shown in their entirety with their original titles, but there are many pages of details, so you can enjoy the precision and skill of both her drawing and coloring. It’s the color and detail excerpts that really pulled me in.

collage of details from Marian Merian's Butterflies

The book covers her early work, as well as her work in Surinam. (Note that, while she was born in Germany, she lived in Amsterdam, and the colony she visited was under the control of the Dutch at that time. There is a lot of discussion now about the meaning of the “Dutch Golden Age,” especially since so much of the wealth of Amsterdam was generated by exploitation (the death rate of Dutch sailors working for the Dutch East India Company was shockingly high), colonialism, and slavery. It’s good that this concept of whose hard work the country’s success was based upon is ongoing.)

The Royal Collection Trust has images of their copy of her book on Surinam, which I’ll link to here for your enjoyment:

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) – Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

Maria Sibylla Merian travelled in 1699 with her younger daughter to Suriname in northern South America, to study the flora and fauna. The resulting natural history plates were published in Amsterdam in 1705, at her own expense.

I’m delighted with this book. I even inadvertently learned some things about moths! 🙂

Book: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Cover of On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
published by Tim Duggan Books (Penguin Random House)
2017

This pocket-sized book of about 125 pages is written by a Yale History professor specializing in the Holocaust. Snyder relies upon this historical expertise to compare the language, speech, rallies, actions, and slogans of the US president elected in 2016 to those used by Nazis, Communists, and Fascists in a prior century. He finds many commonalities, and summarizes appropriate responses into twenty themes intended to support civil society over repressive authorities.

I read this when it was quite new, and found its warnings insightful; I read it again recently, and found it to be understated relative to our current circumstances.

What struck me more on the second reading is the idea that we are formally taught to believe that “progress” is inevitable; that the future is bright; that the seeds of the future were planted long ago, and all we need to do is step back and let it naturally grow. I recall being in high school and believing this, despite known systemic flaws in that plan. The idea is appealing, because it requires no real effort on any one individual’s part. If the future takes care of itself – how convenient is that? But I grew up, and could see clearly that having a future I’d actually want to live in requires effort.

Progress is NOT inevitable. Democratic institutions DO NOT defend themselves. People DO commit terrible crimes in the names of ideologies they can barely explain. Civilizations DO collapse.

Effort is always required to maintain good things. Always.