This is the February 2020 edition of the
gwern.net newsletter; previous, January 2020 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
<q>quote syntax highlighting due to maintenance/annotation burden; removed PNG preview popups due to low screenshot quality (the Web is why we can’t have nice things) & reader complaints
Everything Is Heritable:
“The transcriptional legacy of developmental stochasticity”, Ballouz et al 2019 (whence the nonshared-environment? Identical-quadruplet armadillos allow estimating how much is due to random prenatal transcriptome differences: a lot!)
“Childhood Adoption and Mental Health in Adulthood: The Role of Gene-Environment Correlations and Interactions in the UK Biobank”, Lehto et al 2019 (genetic confounding in adverse outcomes for adoptees)
“The Evolution of Sex Ratio Distorter Suppression Affects a 25 cM Genomic Region in the Butterfly Hypolimnas bolina”, Hornett et al 2014 (remarkable real-world demonstration of Fisher’s principle: a parasite caused a 100:1 female:male sex ratio, which after a century of stasis, collapsed to 1:1 in 5 years once a resistant mutant immigrated)
Robot startup Covariant.ai releases details: in warehouse deployments, >95% picker success, ~600 items/hour (real-world success of DRL robotics from BAIR alumni & Abbeel, using a relatively exotic mix—imitation learning + sim2real + transfer learning + meta-learning + fleet-learning—for high performance in robot arms picking up many kinds of objects)
“Transformers as Soft Reasoners over Language”, Clark et al 2020 (“deep learning can’t reason”)
Matters Of Scale:
Turing-NLG: a 17b-parameter LM, showing the usual long-linear gains from increasing parameters (1.5✕ T5 & 2✕ MegatronLM) trained using ZeRO (user-friendly library for splitting a single model across GPUs & then replicating that across the cluster, scaling to 100b parameters & planning for 1000b; competitor to Mesh-Tensorflow)
“A Constructive Prediction of the Generalization Error Across Scales”, Rosenfeld et al 2019 (smooth power-law scaling of NN performance with data & model size across many architectures & datasets; see previously Hestness et al 2017/Shallue et al 2018/McCandlish et al 2018/Kaplan et al 2020; found via TR on OA, which confirms OA is all-in on the scaling thesis and is working on a multimodal followup to GPT-2, presumably trained with model parallelism on a cluster, like Turing-NLG using ZeRO)
“REALM: Retrieval-Augmented Language Model Pre-Training”, Guu et al 2020 (learning to query all of WP for question-answering; combo with T5 pending)
“Growing Neural Cellular Automata: Differentiable Model of Morphogenesis”, Mordvintsev et al 2020 (HN; training tiny CNNs to coordinate as cellular automata to create complex damage-resilient global patterns, fun)
“How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America: The toll of history’s worst epidemic surpasses all the military deaths in World War I and World War II combined. And it may have begun in the United States” (the Spanish flu & government censorship); “A Sea Story”, William Langewiesche 2004 (the sinking of the MS Estonia & the psychology of survival among horror)
“This Is Why Your Holiday Travel Is Awful: The long, sordid history of New York’s Penn Station shows how progressives have made it too hard for the government to do big things—and why, believe it or not, Robert Caro is to blame” (tragedy of the anticommons in infrastructure)
“The reality and evolutionary significance of human psychological sex differences”, Archer 2019 (graph of differences); “Greater male than female variability in regional brain structure across the lifespan”, Wierenga et al 2020
“Typologies of Extreme Longevity Myths”, Young et al 2010; “Was Jeanne Calment the Oldest Person Who Ever Lived—or a Fraud? Some researchers have cast doubt on the record of the celebrated supercentenarian” (update on the fraud accusations: Novoselov & Zak’s claims appear to not be holding up, but unfortunately, also no progress on blood testing, and so the mystery remains)
“A simple procedure for the long-term cultivation of chicken embryos”, Auerbach et al 1974; “A Novel Shell-less Culture System for Chick Embryos Using a Plastic Film as Culture Vessels”, Tahara & Obara 2014 (DIY artificial wombs)
“Physical activity and weight following car ownership in Beijing, China: quasi-experimental cross sectional study”, Anderson et al 2019 (no effect of car ownership on weight; it’s a pity more regulations aren’t randomized)
“In the 1970s, the CIA Created a Robot Dragonfly Spy. Now We Know How It Works.” (reflective eyes for remote laser microphone eavesdropping, powered by an engine running on lithium nitrate crystal fumes, and the operator controlled flying using infrared lasers to heat a bimetallic strip & adjust wings)
“‘The intelligence coup of the century’: For decades, the CIA read the encrypted communications of allies and adversaries” (2 leaked internal histories lay bare exactly how the CIA/BND backdoored Crypto AG to achieve global penetration for ~40 years, obfuscating weak designs & subsidizing marketing to gain users)
“All the money in the world couldn’t make Kinect happen: For a moment a decade ago, the game industry looked like a very different place” (oral history of Microsoft’s bold but ultimately failed experiment in revolutionizing UI using the Kinect motion-tracking device)
“Predicting the outcome of roulette”, Small & Tse 2012
“Judge Judy Is Still Judging You: For more than 20 years, Judith Sheindlin has dominated daytime ratings—by making justice in a complicated world look easy” (the long and lucrative career of Judy Sheindlin’s Judge Judy)
“Anesthetizing the Public Conscience: Lethal Injection and Animal Euthanasia”, Alper 2008 (see also inverse p-zombies/anesthesia awareness, pain & learning, and Dennett’s 1978 “Why You Can’t Make A Computer That Feels Pain”)
“In 1964, with Seven Up! Michael Apted stumbled into making what has become the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema. 55 years later, the project is reaching its conclusion.” (regrets & reflections as Apted tries to finish Up, one of the longest-running documentary film projects ever)
“The fascinating and ego-killing existence of human wormholes” (on the brevity of contemporary history, especially when compared to histories like ancient Egypt where the millennia roll on… A history of humanity in 10 words: “nothing much happened for a long time; then everything happened.” cf “Timeghost”)
“The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist: They were an all-star crew. They cooked up the perfect plan. And when they pulled off the caper of the century, it made them more than a fortune—it made them folk heroes” (they tunneled into vault from city sewers, staged an armed robbery to distract police, dammed the sewer, & escaped with the loot on Zodiacs while spreading fake evidence; as often with perfect crimes, the only flaw was a woman scorned)
“Visions of the Future” (JPL-sponsored Art Deco poster series advertising travel in the Solar System & to exoplanets)
The Hye Ch’O Diary: Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Regions of India, Hyecho, translated by Yang et al 1984 (review)
Apollo 11 revisits the NASA archives and, in an exercise somewhat similar to They Shall Not Grow Old in making the old shockingly new, extracts never-before-seen clean high-res color footage to stitch together into a single continuous contemporary documentary without any later props or talking-heads or interviews, using instead contemporary news commentary/narration. The Apollo program benefited from the knowledge they were making history, and could afford multiple roving camera crews with high-end film cameras; there are so many that (reminding me of The King of Kong), they can show scenes in parallel, like during the launch where each controller group apparently had its own cameraman. (The rapid back-and-forths also emphasize the degree to which NASA approximated a giant open-air computer and how organizations back then had to use a lot of humans & bureaucracy to control processes which we would now implement in software. I am pretty sure neither NASA nor SpaceX need such crowded control rooms or enormous contingents of nerds these days.) The sheer number of people and checks involved reminds one of the immense care and dedication to thinking through plans, testing, preparing, and sciencing the shit out of things it takes to audaciously let 3 monkeys in a can walk on the Moon and come back on the first try. (As ideologies go, Western science is a pretty good one.)
Because we’re not used to seeing (non-fiction) footage from the 1960s which is so high-quality and tend to forget that the Apollo program didn’t just ‘happen’ but was carefully stage-managed and the best available equipment used, the footage of intimate details and narration is too good and produces a feeling of hyperreality—it was hard to shake the feeling that I was watching a large-budget Hollywood movie rather than the real thing. (“Such dedication to getting the handheld cameras & snacks for the spectators right! Props to the props department! And their hair, it’s so 1960s!” I thought inanely.)
Similarly, who knew that the Apollo crew had so much time to mess around with cameras inside their space capsule, or that the lunar descent had been filmed so thoroughly? It is one thing to read about the last-minute error and Neil Armstrong earning his place by navigating the dust to land with just seconds of fuel left, and quite another thing to experience it.
Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in space, greatness, or reality.
Porgy and Bess (Met HD opera; Gershwin)
Another unusually recent opera, Porgy and Bess is famous for not just focusing on African-Americans but legally discriminating against non-African-Americans in its casting (WP describes the white Gershwin stipulating this because “he believed that Metropolitan Opera staff singers could never master the jazz idiom, which could instead only be sung by a black cast”), yet, received as denigrating and insulting early on and its reputation rising as a beautiful portrayal of a marginal and long-gone community. (In its reception, it reminds me of Freaks, which similarly featured a mainstream creator/director spending time with a stigmatized and obscure group and trying to preserve them, only to be accused of exploiting them for public mockery.) The circumstances were surprisingly political too: the Met manager took to the stage to announce that while the lead Porgy was ill, he would still be performing, alluding to the ‘dark times’ we were experiencing in which spirits needed lifting (he was not referring to coronavirus, which was still being pooh-poohed as a purely Chinese matter); later, during the extras, an actress brought in to advertise Agrippina much later in February, noted its portrayal of lies in the search of the supreme executive power was sadly all too contemporary. Two such naked references to Trump, where I had seen none in all the Met HD opera broadcasts previously, makes me think people in NYC were taking Trump’s impending inevitable acquittal rather hard—they must truly had been convicted he would be convicted, and to see it whimper out, however utterly predictably, must be painful. Fortunately, the HD debut was damaged by neither disease nor disappointment.
The plot is ostensibly like Manon, in which the beautiful but aging drug addict Bess, who has been enjoying the high life with her thuggish paramour (and pimp?) Crown, is abandoned when he impulsively murders another man after drinking & gambling at the end of the working day when all the employed men return and becomes a fugitive. She is scorned by the community, but taken in by the lonely crippled beggar Porgy, who discovers how much he needed to love and be loved. A third man, “Sportin’ Life”, slithers about the stage tempting people into buying drugs (cocaine), or just hanging about, waiting for an opportunity to take Bess off to the Big City and prostitute her out for a few years to make some real money, instead of peddling out in the sticks to poor fishermen.
The murdered man is not forgotten, and his funeral proceeds (despite a lack of money for the undertaker), and Bess is accepted when she says she has become an honest woman and tries to make amends. The women try to knit things back together and keep the men on the straight & narrow (bourgeois) path, but are constantly set back by men like Sportin’ Life, extravagances like gambling (the funeral shortfall is similar to the amount we saw lost gambling), men taking unnecessary risks (like fishing in a storm), and female defectors like Bess or Manon.
Crown, in hiding on an island, reappears during a picnic, and Bess is unable to resist his masculinity and alpha ways. He returns to claim her for good in the middle of a devastating hurricane, boasting of defeating God, and vaunting his strength with vulgar song. Another woman runs out into the storm, fearful for her hardworking (but now drowned) husband, and Crown leaves to show off further by assisting her. He survives but she does not, leaving her child an orphan (and perpetuating the cycle of poverty). Crown returns again that night, but Porgy chokes him to death. Porgy is arrested for Crown’s murder, but the community is reflexively silent (as it was for the original murder) and he is eventually released for lack of evidence. Unfortunately, Sportin’ Life has struck, and convinced Bess that Porgy would be locked up for life, and in despair she relapses into her expensive drug addiction, and they leave for the city. Porgy learns this, and having little choice, enslaved by his love, departs from his home for a distant city with no place for him; as noble as love may be, one feels that his love has doomed Porgy to years of misery, at best, before possibly a faded Bess returns to him (assuming she does not die of disease, drugs, or delinquents during).
While ostensibly about Porgy & Bess from start to finish, it quickly becomes apparent that the opera is really about the community: the damage done by gambling, drinking, and extreme events like murder; the difficulty of surviving the elements in dangerous subsistence occupations; problems caused by well-intentioned but destructive intrusions from the outside, like the justice system; and falling back on religion as a crutch for weak willpower and defense against social pathologies. What is built over decades is demolished in an instant—a single stab bickering over nothing, a choice to fish in hurricane season, and leaving to follow a no-account woman.
A surprisingly ribald & ironic comedy of Agrippina scheming to make Nero the Emperor Nero, drawing on Tacitus & Suetonius (taking many liberties with characters, particularly Poppea/Ottone). I and the audience laughed regularly at the broad physical comedy. Spoilers: she succeeds.
This production sets the drama in a vaguely-1980s Manhattan (but with smartphones), and leans in to the comedy and sexual manipulation. The MILF empress Agrippina, having secretly learned her husband Emperor Claudius has drowned, without formally naming an heir (Claudius’s other children, particularly Britannicus, never come up), summons her son (from an earlier marriage) Nero. Nero, cross-played by Kate Lindsey, is a heavily-tattooed club rat, a coke fiend, something of a break-dancer (Lindsey is given gymnastic choreography, including an aria while planking, which is just plain showing off), and a sociopath who hungers for the throne to better sate his desires, including his Oedipal ones. (The cross-play is not as arbitrary as it seems: Handel wrote the role for castrati.) Agrippina reveals the truth, and sends him out into the streets to bribe the masses and show his philanthropy for the cameras. Simultaneously, she rushes to recruit Claudius’s two primary supporters (Narcissus & Pallas), both of whom lust after her, and promises each of them her exclusive affections should Nero ascend; meta-fictionally, she meets the second at the opera, where the pamphlet helps cover up a handjob she administers to seal the deal. (Fortunately, she brought hand sanitizer in her purse.)
The plot succeeds, and Nero is being acclaimed—when Claudius returns alive. He had been saved from drowning by a heroic officer, Ottone, and has decided to designate Ottone his successor. Agrippina’s scheme foiled, she lucks out when the guileless Ottone confides in her that he wishes only to marry the beautiful Poppea: who is the target of Ottone, Claudius and Nero. Agrippina seizes the opportunity of this love polygon, and tells the gullible Poppea that Ottone has betrayed her for the throne, and she should get revenge by telling the horny Claudius that Ottone was denying him her affections. Enraged, Poppea plays along. Claudius, played by the blinkered bear-like Matthew Rose (who plays the lecherous old man comedy-bits well, including the attempts at sexy poses), falls for it. Despite her success, Poppea is crushed by the betrayal of her love, ripping up old love letters and stuffing her face with a box of Valentine chocolates.
The next day, instead of anointing Ottone, degrades him, proclaiming him a traitor without further explanation. All and sundry desert him, Agrippina slapping him on her way out. Alone in his despair, Ottone gets the longest segment of the opera. Nero finally gets named the heir, and Agrippina appears to have won. To tidy up loose ends, she orders the two supporters to murder each other.
Drunk at a bar, Poppea laments Ottone’s betrayal, falling asleep. In an extended interlude, the barflies snap selfies with the drunk Poppea, and continue drinking and admiring the bartender’s juggling and dancing (to a harpsichord instead of a jazz pianist) when who should Ottone walk in and overhear her mumblings? He convinces her to hear him out, and Poppea realizes how Agrippina deceived her. Instead of unmasking Agrippina, she plots her own revenge, by telling both Claudius and Nero to come to her penthouse at the same time. She hides Nero in a closet (with Ottone in another—no wonder women need so many closets), and when Claudius comes, reveals she ‘really’ meant Nero was the one obstructing him, and as proof of how Nero was harassing her, pulls him out of the closet. Claudius is infuriated at Nero’s low morals, and expels him.
The two supporters, having decided that trying to murder each other is not that appealing after all, throw themselves on Claudius’s mercy, revealing the original plot to put Nero on the throne. Claudius summons everyone, and enquires into what exactly is going on. Agrippina persuades him her intentions were benign and preserved the throne for him in his absence, and he decrees that—as in any proper comedy—everyone will get what they want, and there will be a marriage, with Ottone and Poppea wedding while Nero will ascend the throne.
All’s well that ends well, happy music plays, and the curtain descends, as Claudius’s butler, who has killed time in between arranging arraignments by reading a copy of Tacitus, turns to the end and starts laughing. The End.
The comic ending, of course, is ironic, as any viewer in 1709, steeped in the classics like Tacitus & Suetonius, would be well aware, because this is actually a tragedy, a tragedy of how Claudius failed in the vital matter of the succession: far from having cleared everything up and ensured a happy ending, Claudius set the stage for disaster—Claudius & both supporters were likely murdered by Agrippina after he began considering a different heir than Nero, Nero would then murder Agrippina and become one of the worst Roman Emperors ever, which would dismay the noble Ottone who thought only of the empire’s good and the love of Poppea, and who would be banished by Nero (ultimately committing suicide after his own bid for emperorship fell through post-Nero), a divorce forced, and Poppea taken for his own, only to be beaten into miscarriage by Nero. Nero himself didn’t exactly die in his sleep, either. The slapstick and sexual comedy emphasizes this by the contrast; as they pursue their petty lusts and schemes, they set in motion disaster on a vast scale.
Compared to other later actions, it is striking how univocalic and straightforward the action is: every scene is dominated by the single voice of the character pursuing the action, and deceiving the other characters, often alternating between their spoken deceptive ‘dialogue’ and truthful monologue asides. Agrippina in particular always has a plan and is executing it, without a shred of remorse; it’s not so much that she’s evil as she is aimed solely at the goal of enthroning Nero, and nothing else enters into her amoral considerations (like Nero being a sociopath), as she dances to her own music with celebratory booze. (It is something of a uniquely female role: Agrippina is utterly invested in Nero, as she can have no more children; it’s harder to see a man quite the same, as they always have other options, and to be pursuing other intrinsic drives like conquest and prestige.)
Entertaining, funny, and beautiful, Agrippina is worth a watch.