Principle

A Quaker objector in the Civil War:

I was ordered out and required to fall in line with the company and drill, but I refused. They tried to make me and I sat down on the ground. They reminded me of the orders to shoot me, but I told them my God said to fear them not that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather to fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. The company was then ordered to fall back eight paces, leaving me in front of them. They were then ordered by Colonel Kirkland to ‘Load; Present arms; Aim,’ and their guns were pointed directly at my breast. I raised my arms and prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ Not a gun was fired. They lowered them without orders, and some of them were heard to say that they ‘could not shoot such a man.’ The order was then given, ‘Ground arms.’

After weeks of such punishment, William Hockett was captured at Gettysburg and released to live in Philadelphia. He remained there until the end of the war.

Blow by Blow

https://www.google.com/patents/US543086

In 1895, stung by charges that boxing is a brutal sport, Joseph Donovan patented the training rig on the left. Each boxer wears a harness and headgear with electrical contacts at each of the classic vulnerable points: the heart, the pit of the stomach, the chin, the nose, etc. When a sparring partner hits one of these points, a bell sounds and points are scored.

Donovan argued that this makes the scoring more objective and the sport more civilized. “It renders one of the healthiest and most fascinating athletic exercises absolutely safe,” he wrote, “doing away completely with roughing, bloodletting, brutality, knockdowns, and knockouts, and reducing boxing and the manly art of self-defense to a science, in which rapidity of arm and leg work, endurance, and quick conception are the only factors.”

In the same spirit, in 1956 Willie Roberson patented a glove with a built-in counter (right): “Each time a blow above a predetermined force is struck, such blow will be recorded, whereby the total number of effective blows struck during a boxing match will be readily available to the referee and judges judging the boxing match.” If we combine the two then we can even confirm the counts!

Warm Words

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_angel_leading_a_soul_into_hell._Oil_painting_by_a_followe_Wellcome_L0030887.jpg

Writing in American Speech in 1931, L.W. Merryweather predicted that “hell fills so large a part in the American vulgate that it will probably be worn out in a few years.” He proposed that “clerical circles should take it upon themselves, as a public duty, to invest some other theological term with a shuddering fearsomeness that will qualify it as a successor to hell, when the lamentable decease of the latter actually takes place.” He counted 14 usages:

  1. Hell as “the equivalent of negative adverbs,” or as an intensifier thereof, as in the hell you say and like hell I will.
  2. As a super-superlative, as in colder than hell.
  3. As an adverb of all work, as in run like hell and hate like hell.
  4. As an intensifier of questions, as in what the hell?, who the hell?, where the hell?, etc.
  5. As an intensifier of asseverations, as in hell, yes!
  6. As an intensifier of qualities, as in to be hell on and hell of a price.
  7. As an indicator of intensified experience, as in hell of a time, get the hell, and to play hell with.
  8. In a more or less literal sense, as in wouldn’t it be hell?, go to hell, the hell with, hell on wheels, hell to pay, like a snowball in hell, till hell freezes over, and to beat hell.
  9. As a synonym for uproar or turmoil, as in to raise hell, to give him hell, and hell is loose.
  10. As a verb, as in to hell around.
  11. As an adjective, as in a hellish hurry and hell-bent.
  12. In combination with other nouns, as in hell’s bells, hell and high water, hell and Maria, hell-raiser, hell-diver, hell-bender, and hell-to-breakfast.
  13. In derivatives, as in hellion, hell-cat and heller.
  14. As a simple expletive, as in Oh, hell!

Fourteen years later, in The American Language, H.L. Mencken wrote, “Fortunately, his fears have not been borne out by the event. Hell still flourishes in the Republic, in so far as profanity flourishes at all, and every one of the combinations and permutations of it that he listed remains in use.”

(L.W. Merryweather, “Hell in American Speech,” American Speech 6:6 [August 1931], 433-435.)

Present Company

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diamond_ring_by_Jennifer_Dickert.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Why do we give gifts during courtship, and what makes a good gift? In 2005, University College London mathematicians Peter D. Sozou and Robert M. Seymour modeled the question with a game. The male begins by offering one of three gifts — valuable, extravagant, or cheap — depending on how attractive he finds the female. After he offers the gift, she decides whether to accept it and mate with him. Afterward, he decides whether to stay with her or seek another partner.

Each is trying to judge the intentions of the other. She must decide whether he wants a serious relationship or only a brief encounter, and he must decide whether she’s really attracted to him or only wants the gift.

According to the courtship game, the most successful strategy for the male is to offer an “extravagant” gift that’s costly to him but intrinsically worthless to the female. This tells the female that he has resources and values her highly, but it protects him from coy fortune-hunters.

“By being costly to the male, the gift acts as a credible signal of his intentions or quality,” write Sozou and Seymour. “At the same time, its lack of intrinsic value to the female serves to deter a ‘gold-digger’, who has no intention of mating with the male, from accepting the gift. In this way, an economically inefficient gift enables mutually suitable partners to be matched.”

(Peter D. Sozou and Robert M. Seymour, “Costly But Worthless Gifts Facilitate Courtship,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272, 1877–1884, July 26, 2005.)

Redesign

We’ve upgraded our look today, to make the podcast and books easier to find and to make the site easier to use on mobile devices. Many thanks to Graph Paper Press for the new design and to the great Von Glitschka for our new logo (about which more in a future post).

Everything should work as it always has (including the RSS and email feeds), but hopefully things are easier to find now, especially for newcomers. If you spot any problems, please let me know.

This site is supported entirely by its readers. If you value Futility Closet and would like to contribute, either with a one-time donation or ongoing patronage, please see the support page. Thanks for reading!

Language Arts

https://pixabay.com/en/woman-artificial-intelligence-506322/

A replacement for the Turing test has been proposed. The original test, in which a computer program tries to fool a human judge into thinking it’s human during a five-minute text-only conversation, has been criticized because the central task of devising a false identity is not part of intelligence, and because some conversations may require relatively little intelligent reasoning.

The new test would be based on so-called Winograd schemas, devised by Stanford computer scientist Terry Winograd in 1972. Here’s the classic example:

The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.

If the word feared is used, to whom does they refer, the councilmen or the demonstrators? What if we change feared to advocated? You know the answers to these questions because you have a practical understanding of anxious councilmen. Computers find the task more difficult because it requires not only natural language processing and commonsense reasoning but a working knowledge of the real world.

“Our WS [Winograd schemas] challenge does not allow a subject to hide behind a smokescreen of verbal tricks, playfulness, or canned responses,” wrote University of Toronto computer scientist Hector Levesque in proposing the contest in 2014. “Assuming a subject is willing to take a WS test at all, much will be learned quite unambiguously about the subject in a few minutes.”

In July 2014 Nuance Communications announced that it will sponsor an annual Winograd Schema Challenge, with a prize of $25,000 for the computer that best matches human performance. The first competition will be held at the 2016 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, July 9-15 in New York City.

Here’s another possibility: Two Dartmouth professors have proposed a Turing Test in Creative Arts, in which “we ask if machines are capable of generating sonnets, short stories, or dance music that is indistinguishable from human-generated works, though perhaps not yet so advanced as Shakespeare, O. Henry or Daft Punk.” The results of that competition will be announced May 18 at Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Exposition.

(Thanks, Kristján and Sharon.)

Apollonian Circle Packings

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Descartes_Circles.svg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2014 I described Descartes’ theorem, which shows how to find a fourth circle that’s tangent to three “kissing circles.”

Descartes’ equation refers to the “curvature” of each circle: this is just the reciprocal of the radius, so a circle with radius 1/3 would have a curvature of 3. (This makes sense intuitively — a circle with a small radius “curves more” than a larger one.)

Remarkably, if the four starting circles all have integer curvature, then so will every circle we pack into the figure, each kissing the three around it. In the limit the figure becomes a fractal containing an infinite number of circles. It’s called an Apollonian gasket.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ApollonianGasket-10_18_23_27-Labels.png
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mistaken Identity

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hermann_Dick-Baumallee.jpg

Is immortality really so attractive? Even the most pleasant activities would begin to pall with repetition, so the only way to avoid an endlessly boring existence would be to undergo continual changes in personality, taking on different interests and values from those we have today. But such a person would be very different from our present self — so different, argues Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams, that we could not judge her life to be good from our own present point of view. We would have no reason to hope to become that person. Thus immortality must be either endlessly boring or an existence with which we cannot identify. On balance, then, it’s worse than the mortal existence we know.

“Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless,” writes Williams, “so, in a sense, death gives the meaning to life.”

(Bernard Williams, “The Makropulos Case,” in Problems of the Self, 1973.)