Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. Move Over, Deep Blue

Programmers at Google report that they have developed a computer program that has mastered Go, “the most complex board game ever created.” The program, AlphaGo Zero, provides one of the best pictures into what to expect from AI:  

AlphaGo Zero picked up Go from scratch, without studying any human games at all. It took a mere three days to reach the point where it was pitted against an older version of itself and won 100 games to zero. “They’re how I imagine games from far in the future,” Shi Yue, a top Go player from China, has told the press. “Go from an alternate dimension.”

Another world-class Go player adds: “It’s so hard to try to attach a story about what the program is doing. You have to be ready to deny a lot of the things that we’ve believed and have worked for us. A natural reaction is to sort of give up.”

2. Sally Beauty

With a single, short book review of Sally Quinn’s memoir Finding Magic, Andrew Ferguson reduces the once-irreproachable, socially peerless grande dame of Georgetown to a petty, self-absorbed kook. Probably the most consequential book review of the year. Must be read in its entirety:

Sally Quinn has been writing books and articles for more than 40 years, yet her prose retains a childlike, disarming artlessness that makesFinding Magic and its serial revelations all the more arresting. She buys a house, she switches jobs, she kills someone with a hex…the tone never changes. “During my college years I had occasional psychic moments,” is how she begins one chapter, as if daring you to stop reading.

3. The Bottom 60% of the Economy

Hedge fund investor Ray Dalio has published a long essay on LinkedIn that compares the conditions of the wealthiest 40% of US citizens with the bottom 60%. Many of his claims are familiar – household incomes flat, retirement savings inadequate, growing disparities in wealth – but some are striking:

Death rates are rising and mental and physical health is deteriorating for those in the bottom 60%. For those in the bottom 60%, premature deaths are up by about 20% since 2000. The biggest contributors to that change are an increase in deaths by drugs/poisoning (up two times since 2000) and an increase in suicides (up over 50% since 2000). The odds of premature death for those in the bottom 60% between the ages of 35 and 64 are more than two times higher, compared to those in the top 40%.

4. When Advertisers Go to the Mattresses

“All I wanted was a mattress,” writes David Zax in his amazing Fast Company expose of the online mattress wars. He details how home-based reviewers became enmeshed in an epic lawsuit with mattress king Caspar:

I couldn’t know it then, but the outcome of that battle would influence the purchase decisions of many thousands, if not millions, of people seeking a good night’s sleep. It would also reveal just how thoroughly the internet and the businesses that thrived there had blurred the lines between product reviews and advertisements.

5. Should Algorithms Grade College Papers

No, says an Australian professor of IT and organization. Algorithms excel at identifying a rubric in a student essay and determining if it checks the right boxes. But it can’t detect if a paper is any good:

It will not matter what a text is about: whether the argument is ethical, offensive or outright nonsensical, whether it conveys any coherent ideas or whether it speaks effectively to the intended audience. The only thing that matters is that the text has the right structural patterns. In essence, algorithmic marking might reward the writing of “BS” – text written with little regard for the subject matter and solely to fulfill the algorithm’s criteria.

6. The Problem with Art for Art's Sake

Earlier this year, actor and essayist Jonathan Meades went to the Royal Academy of Arts in London and delivered a stem-winder, attacking the arts establishment throughout the world. The Times Literary Supplement had the good sense to publish it this month:

The director of one of the most supposedly prestigious international festivals proclaims: “you can never have too much culture”. There speaks the authentic voice of the arts, a political endeavour measured by volume and by the cost of glittering venues: which is often no more than four times the initial estimate. The regeneration racket in general benefits no one but the construction industry and its lackeys. This particular branch of it is based in the confident and entirely wrongheaded persuasion that art is a sort of moral balm, a tonic, Sanatogen for the soul, that art is good for us, it makes us better people..



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