General Jim Mattis Invokes Abraham Lincoln In Farewell Letter!

Dear Commons Community,

On his final day as defense secretary, General Jim Mattis today urged all Pentagon employees, military and civilian, to “hold fast” in defense of the nation.

Mattis, who submitted his resignation on Dec. 20 and was, in effect, fired by President Donald Trump three days later, was working in the Pentagon and preparing to hand off his duties to Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan.  

In a written farewell message (see above), Mattis quoted a one-sentence telegram that President Abraham Lincoln sent to the commander of Union forces, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, on Feb. 1, 1865, in the final weeks of the Civil War. It said: “Let nothing which is transpiring, change, hinder, or delay your military movements, or plans.” On that date, Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.

Mattis, who resigned over a series of policy disagreements with Trump, including over the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, said he’s confident Pentagon employees will remain “undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life.”

“Our Department is proven to be at its best when the times are most difficult,” he wrote. “So keep the faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes.”

Mattis had initially said he planned to serve as head of the Defense Department through February to ensure an orderly transition. But the fallout of his decision to leave — including the shock and dismay expressed on Capitol Hill — annoyed Trump, who accelerated Mattis’ departure to Jan. 1.

General Mattis was a class act and deserved better.


Donna Shalala: Too Old to Be a Freshman in Congress? Not at All!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article this morning entitled, Too Old to Be a Freshman in Congress? Donna Shalala Doesn’t Care, on recently-elected Donna Shalala, who will be the oldest freshman representative  in the new Congress.   After describing her background and qualifications which are impeccable, the article focuses on her feisty and can-do qualities.  Here is an excerpt:

“Taking office a little over a month before her 78th birthday, Ms. Shalala, who once presided over a sprawling bureaucracy and budget as secretary of health and human services, will take on a new role: the oldest freshman in her class and one of the oldest true freshmen in congressional history. (Representative James Bowler of Illinois, elected at 78 in 1953, still maintains the distinction of being the oldest first-term freshman.)

“Do they see her skill set as an asset or is she sort of dismissed as the old guard who’s out of touch with how the world is now?” asked Scott Klug, a former Wisconsin Republican representative who introduced Ms. Shalala at her 1992 cabinet confirmation hearing. He answered, “Donna, just by the force of her personality, will have a presence.”

In a freshman class where some first-time candidates may be reluctant to transition to governing, Ms. Shalala is unlikely to Instagram her way through office, like Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, or joust with Twitter trolls the way Representative-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota does. (She does maintain accounts on both platforms.)

The newcomers may come to value the woman nicknamed Hurricane Donna, who wrestled with a Republican Congress and spent years testifying before the senior lawmakers she now calls colleagues. But in the meantime, the adjustment could well be brutal for someone who has led staffs of thousands and controlled budgets of millions, or even billions.”

…Ms. Shalala, who weathered a surprisingly competitive primary challenge and general election race, understands the persistent disbelief from both Republicans and Democrats over her decision to run. (“I got pissed off,” she says, watching President Trump doing something — she can’t remember what, but something — on TV.)

And she concedes that her new junior status will be a challenge.”

I had the pleasure of working with her in the 1980s when she was the president of Hunter College. She was one of the finest administrators with whom I had ever worked.  She was also one of the few college presidents who could both lead and manage. She will be more than up for the challenge.




Video: Migrant Children Being Slapped and Dragged at Southwest Key Shelter!


Dear Commons Community,

Surveillance videos obtained by the Arizona Republic (see above from CNN Reports) show migrant children being slapped, pushed and dragged by employees at the Hacienda Del Sol shelter run by shelter provider Southwest Key Programs.

In one video, a male staffer is seen pulling and dragging a young boy into a room before slapping him and pushing him against a wall. The child then appears to strike back at the employee who retreats from the boy and leaves the room. A second surveillance clip shows a female employee at the shelter dragging a child into a room. Another staff member is seen in the same video dragging and pulling another child across the floor.  As reported by various media.

The Republic said the videos were obtained from the Arizona Department of Health Services under state public-records law. The clips were blurred by the department to protect the children’s identities.    

According to the Republic, Southwest Key had reported the incidents shown in the videos — all of which occurred in mid-September — to state authorities, local law enforcement and federal officials.

The shelter was shuttered by the federal government in early October. At the time, Southwest Key said the Office of Refugee Resettlement had decided to suspend operations at Hacienda Del Sol because of an unspecified incident.

“We wholeheartedly welcomed the [decision] and are working to thoroughly retrain our staff,” a spokesman for the Texas-based shelter operator said. 

It’s unclear whether the encounters shown in the surveillance videos were directly linked to the shelter’s suspension. The Republic reported in October, however, that the facility was shuttered because staffers there had been found to have physically abused children.

Southwest Key declined to elaborate on the surveillance videos, the Republic said on Friday. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office told the paper that it had reviewed the surveillance clips and determined that “while physical force and restraint techniques were used against these minor children, these actions did not rise to the level of criminal charges.”

Southwest Key is the country’s largest shelter provider for migrant children, according to The New York Times. The shelter operator has come under scrutiny in recent months for an array of issues, including accusations of child sexual abuse, the possible misuse of federal money and the failure to conduct adequate background checks on some employees. 

A staffer at a Southwest Key shelter in Phoenix, Arizona, was arrested in July for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old girl at the facility. About a month later, an employee at a shelter in Mesa, Arizona, who is HIV-positive, was convicted of sexually abusing several boys

Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Times earlier this month that there had been “numerous red flags and licensure problems” with the Hacienda Del Sol shelter, as well as another Southwest Key shelter in Phoenix, which the federal government also shuttered in October.

Sad, sad, sad!



Trump Blocks Federal Workers’ Pay Hike as Shutdown Continues!

Dear Commons Community,

In the middle of a partial shutdown of the federal government, President Donald Trump ordered a pay freeze for federal workers late Friday, blocking an automatic pay increase from going into effect Jan. 1.  As reported by the Associated Press.

“Trump said months ago that he was seeking the freeze. It was ultimately made possible by Congress, which never passed a pay hike before the end of the year. The GOP-controlled Senate had signed off on a bipartisan 1.9 percent increase, but the GOP-controlled House left it unaddressed.

If Trump had done nothing, the federal pay formula would have enacted an automatic 2.1 percent pay increase. But the inaction by Congress gave him an opening to make the increase zero through executive order.

It’s likely that the House will agree to a pay raise after Democrats take over as the majority on Jan. 3. Federal employee unions will press for any raise to be retroactive to the first of the year if an increase gets passed.

Groups representing federal employees said Trump’s freeze comes as added insult to the shutdown. Roughly one-fourth of the federal government is not funded at the moment, as the president demands $5 billion in federal funds for a wall along the southern border that he used to say Mexico was going to pay for.

Roughly 420,000 federal employees are working without pay, and another 380,000 have been furloughed and are temporarily out of a job. Although lawmakers have typically approved backpay retroactively after previous shutdowns, there is no guarantee a divided Congress would do so this time.

NARFE, a group representing current and retired federal workers, said the implementation of the pay freeze is another sign of Trump’s “disdain” for government employees.

“Refusing to provide a nominal raise for our nation’s hardworking federal employees amid a partial government shutdown shows clear contempt for those who carry out public service,” Ken Thomas, the group’s president, said in a statement.

Tony Reardon, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers, said Trump was “pouring salt into the wound” while workers go without paychecks…

…Members of the military are not subject to the pay freeze. They will be receiving a 2.6 percent pay increase next year, even though Trump falsely told them to their faces that they would be getting 10 percent.”

Trump is indeed pouring salt into the wounds of federal employees.


Movie: “Vice” Written and Directed by Adam McKay!

Dear Commons Community,

Elaine and I saw the movie, Vice, last night.  It was depressing to see and hear the story of Dick Cheney’s rise to become the most powerful vice president we have ever had in the United States. His dark view of the world supported entirely by his ambitious wife, Lynne, comes to life on the screen. For those of us old enough to remember the rise of Cheney and especially the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, the movie is at times infuriating.  The cast is excellent and entirely believable. If you did not despise what Cheney, his wife, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Vice’s crew perpetrated on the United States and especially on the people of Iraq, you will after seeing this movie.  Below is an excerpt from a New York Times review written by A.O. Scott.


‘Vice’ Review: Dick Cheney and the Negative Great Man Theory of History!

New York Times

A.O. Scott

December 17, 2018

The way “Vice” tells it, Dick Cheney, who would go on to become the most powerful vice president in American history, started out as a young man in a hurry to nowhere in particular. After washing out of Yale, he retreated to his home state of Wyoming, pursuing his interests in booze and cigarettes and working as a utility-company lineman on the side. Dick was saved from ruin — or at least from the kind of drab destiny unlikely to result in a biopic — by the stern intervention of his fiancée, Lynne Vincent, who told her wayward beau that they were finished unless he pulled himself together.

Her reading of the romantic riot act would have far-reaching consequences. In that pivotal moment, Dick (Christian Bale) looks Lynne (Amy Adams) in the eye and swears he’ll never disappoint her again. The thesis of this film, written and directed by Adam McKay, is that Dick kept his promise. And that everyone else — including his daughter Mary (Alison Pill), thousands of American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and just about everyone on the planet with a care for justice, democracy or simple human decency — paid the price.

It will break no news and spoil nobody’s fun to note that McKay is not a fan of his protagonist. His argument is essentially that much of what critics of the current president fear most — the erosion of democratic norms; the manufacture of “alternative facts”; the rise of an authoritarian executive branch — already came to pass when George W. Bush was in office. But “Vice” offers more than Yuletide rage-bait for liberal moviegoers, who already have plenty to be mad about. Revulsion and admiration lie as close together as the red and white stripes on the American flag, and if this is in some respects a real-life monster movie, it’s one that takes a lively and at times surprisingly sympathetic interest in its chosen demon.

McKay, staying close to the historical record (and drawing on books by the journalists Jane Mayer and Barton Gellman), propounds a negative great man theory of history, telling the story of an individual who was able, through a unique combination of discipline, guile and luck, to bend reality to his will. The man’s feats are both impressive and appalling. He learns the Washington inside game during the Nixon and Ford administrations, applies the lessons during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and demonstrates his unmatched mastery when George W. (Sam Rockwell) comes along.

The story of his rise, roller-coastering through four decades of American history, is a hectic blend of psychohistory, domestic drama and sketch-comedy satire bound together by McKay’s ingenuity and indignation. Like “The Big Short,” his rollicking explication of the financial crisis of 2008, this movie transforms gaudy pop-cultural toys into tools of polemic and explanation. The pace is jaunty, the scenes crackle with gleeful, giddy incredulity, and the dry business of statecraft attains the velocity of farce. The fourth wall is periodically broken, most often by an affable everyman narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose connection to the main character turns out to be one of the few surprises in the plot.

Everything else we’ve already known — or would have if we had been playing closer attention. Bale, thickening and graying before our eyes, burrows into the personality of a shrewd operator endowed with whatever the opposite of charisma might be. His Cheney lacks any trace of charm, humor or warmth, except sometimes in the company of his family. Dick’s devotion to his wife and their two daughters is genuine, but what motivates him above all is the study and acquisition of power, a vocation in which he has Lynne’s fierce and unstinting support.

While he can afford to be sentimental about domesticity and chivalrous toward the women in his life, she has no use for such softness. Dick brings doggedness and tactical instincts to their partnership; Lynne provides the ideological steel. McKay’s portrait of their marriage subscribes to a Macbeth-like conception of political morality. Behind every bad man, there is a woman who is even worse. Adams, as brisk as January in Cheyenne, once again subverts a potentially marginal, helpmeet role (see also “The Master”), establishing Lynne as the movie’s covert protagonist.

If she has a rival for that role, it’s Donald Rumsfeld, played with demented vigor by Steve Carell. The Dick-and-Lynne marital saga is shadowed by a buddy comedy, in which Dick and Don make their merry Machiavellian way through the legislative and executive branches of government. At first, Rumsfeld is the mentor — an acerbic congressman from Illinois while Cheney is an intern. They dabble in Nixonian intrigue without being tainted by scandal, and cross swords with Henry Kissinger (Kirk Bovill) during the reign of Gerald Ford (Bill Camp).

“What do we believe in?” Dick asks his Yoda at one point, provoking a gale of laughter in response. The more substantive answers are torture, deceit and the all-but-unchecked power of the American presidency. Which turns out, once George W. Bush gets that job, to mean the American vice presidency.

“Vice” is crowded with supporting players, figures plucked from the limbo between the headlines and the history textbooks whose names chime like alerts on an ancient cellphone. Remember Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk)? David Addington (Don McManus)? Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan)? You probably remember Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) and Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton). “Vice” reminds you of all of them, and of other Bush-era people and events, obscure and otherwise, that you might have preferred to forget. It’s a cure — and perhaps a punishment — for amnesia.

To the question “How did he do it?” McKay offers a fairly coherent answer, one grounded in Bale’s canny and sensitive performance. As biography, in other words, the movie works pretty well. As history, though, it’s another story — at once tendentious and undercooked, proposing a reductive, essentially conspiratorial account of recent events.

“The Big Short” used the interplay of personalities to illuminate the workings of a complex system, but “Vice” moves in the opposite direction. The motley pageantry of our politics — the endless arguments about race, class, religion, ideology, sex, region and heritage that have defined the republic since the beginning — boils down to a single personality. All you really need to know about the world today is that everything wrong with it is Dick Cheney’s fault.

How did he get away with it, though? The answer McKay supplies is that he was smart and the rest of us were too dumb and too distracted to stop him. As “Vice” winds down, there is a scene of a political focus group during which a young woman, bored by all the partisan bickering and talk of abstract issues, looks forward to the next “Fast and Furious” movie. It’s hard to know whether this represents hypocrisy or penitence on McKay’s part, but the idea that someone can’t care about both politics and popular culture is dubious at best. At worst, it’s a sneer directed at the audience, an expression of contempt for the public that the movie seems to share with its designated villain.


Video: New York City Night Sky Turns Blue!

Dear Commons Community,

An electric arc failure late Thursday night at one of New York City’s power facilities caused the night sky to turn blue across much of the area. 911 receive thousands of calls from residents, a number of whom thought it was an alien invasion. Actually it was quite beautiful.  See for yourself.


Elizabeth Drew: The Inevitability of Impeachment!

Dear Commons Community,

Elizabeth Drew, a former journalist with the The Atlantic and The New Yorker, who covered Watergate, had an op-ed in yesterday’s  New York Times  entitled “The Inevitability of Impeachment,” where she makes the case that short of his resignation, President Trump will face an impeachment over the next two years.   The basis for her position is that Democratic Party leaders  will be pushed by their base to bring impeachment charges before the 2020 presidential election and that Republicans may be deciding that the president is becoming too great a burden to their party or too great a danger to the country.  She writes:

“An impeachment process against President Trump now seems inescapable. Unless the president resigns, the pressure by the public on the Democratic leaders to begin an impeachment process next year will only increase.”

Drew points to several happenings in the past few weeks – including Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation, the partial government shutdown, and new revelations in investigations involving the president – as events that she claims have “instilled a new sense of alarm among many Republicans.”

“It always seemed to me that Mr. Trump’s turbulent presidency was unsustainable and that key Republicans would eventually decide that he had become too great a burden to the party or too great a danger to the country. That time may have arrived,” Drew continued.

“In the end the Republicans will opt for their own political survival,” she wrote. “Almost from the outset some Senate Republicans have speculated on how long his presidency would last. Some surely noticed that his base didn’t prevail in the midterms.”

Below is the entire op-ed.

I agree with Ms. Drew but I am not  confident that the impeachment process with be handled well by either the Republicans or Democrats.



The Inevitability of Impeachment

By Elizabeth Drew

Dec. 27, 2018

An impeachment process against President Trump now seems inescapable. Unless the president resigns, the pressure by the public on the Democratic leaders to begin an impeachment process next year will only increase. Too many people think in terms of stasis: How things are is how they will remain. They don’t take into account that opinion moves with events.

Whether or not there’s already enough evidence to impeach Mr. Trump — I think there is — we will learn what the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has found, even if his investigation is cut short. A significant number of Republican candidates didn’t want to run with Mr. Trump in the midterms, and the results of those elections didn’t exactly strengthen his standing within his party. His political status, weak for some time, is now hurtling downhill.

The midterms were followed by new revelations in criminal investigations of once-close advisers as well as new scandals involving Mr. Trump himself. The odor of personal corruption on the president’s part — perhaps affecting his foreign policy — grew stronger. Then the events of the past several days — the president’s precipitous decision to pull American troops out of Syria, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s abrupt resignation, the swoon in the stock market, the pointless shutdown of parts of the government — instilled a new sense of alarm among many Republicans.

The word “impeachment” has been thrown around with abandon. The frivolous impeachment of President Bill Clinton helped to define it as a form of political revenge. But it is far more important and serious than that: It has a critical role in the functioning of our democracy.

Impeachment was the founders’ method of holding a president accountable between elections. Determined to avoid setting up a king in all but name, they put the decision about whether a president should be allowed to continue to serve in the hands of the representatives of the people who elected him.

The founders understood that overturning the results of a presidential election must be approached with care and that they needed to prevent the use of that power as a partisan exercise or by a faction. So they wrote into the Constitution provisions to make it extremely difficult for Congress to remove a president from office, including that after an impeachment vote in the House, the Senate would hold a trial, with a two-thirds vote needed for conviction.

      Lost in all the discussion about possible lawbreaking by Mr. Trump is the fact that impeachment wasn’t intended only for crimes. For example, in 1974 the House Judiciary Committee charged Richard Nixon with, among other things, abusing power by using the I.R.S. against his political enemies. The committee also held the president accountable for misdeeds by his aides and for failing to honor the oath of office’s pledge that a president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The current presidential crisis seems to have only two possible outcomes. If Mr. Trump sees criminal charges coming at him and members of his family, he may feel trapped. This would leave him the choice of resigning or trying to fight congressional removal. But the latter is highly risky.

I don’t share the conventional view that if Mr. Trump is impeached by the House, the Republican-dominated Senate would never muster the necessary 67 votes to convict him. Stasis would decree that would be the case, but the current situation, already shifting, will have been left far behind by the time the senators face that question. Republicans who were once Mr. Trump’s firm allies have already openly criticized some of his recent actions, including his support of Saudi Arabia despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and his decision on Syria. They also openly deplored Mr. Mattis’s departure.

It always seemed to me that Mr. Trump’s turbulent presidency was unsustainable and that key Republicans would eventually decide that he had become too great a burden to the party or too great a danger to the country. That time may have arrived. In the end the Republicans will opt for their own political survival. Almost from the outset some Senate Republicans have speculated on how long his presidency would last. Some surely noticed that his base didn’t prevail in the midterms.

But it may well not come to a vote in the Senate. Facing an assortment of unpalatable possibilities, including being indicted after he leaves office, Mr. Trump will be looking for a way out. It’s to be recalled that Mr. Nixon resigned without having been impeached or convicted. The House was clearly going to approve articles of impeachment against him, and he’d been warned by senior Republicans that his support in the Senate had collapsed. Mr. Trump could well exhibit a similar instinct for self-preservation. But like Mr. Nixon, Mr. Trump will want future legal protection.

Mr. Nixon was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, and despite suspicions, no evidence has ever surfaced that the fix was in. While Mr. Trump’s case is more complex than Mr. Nixon’s, the evident dangers of keeping an out-of-control president in office might well impel politicians in both parties, not without controversy, to want to make a deal to get him out of there.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Take a Step Forward with DeepMind’s AlphaZero!

Dear Commons Community,

Steven Strogatz, professor of mathematics at Cornell and author of the forthcoming  Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, has a critical essay this morning in the New York Times that examines the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  Using AlphaZero, the machine learning algorithm developed by DeepMind, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc, as his example, Strogatz raises the possibility that artificial intelligence has evolved to the point where it has the beginnings of insight.  He starts off by describing how AlphaZero, a generic algorithm, had mastered chess, shogi and Go, with absolutely no knowledge of the games beyond their basic rules, and within a matter of hours of playing against itself had become the best player, human or otherwise, we have ever seen.   Earlier this month, AlphaZero’s achievements and inner workings were formally peer-reviewed and published in the journal Science. This paper raises the issue of whether AlphaZero displays a breed of intellect maybe insight that humans will be mulling over for a long time to come.  Here is an excerpt from Strogatz’s essay.

“Computer chess has come a long way over the past twenty years. In 1997, I.B.M.’s chess-playing program, Deep Blue, managed to beat the reigning human world champion, Garry Kasparov, in a six-game match. In retrospect, there was little mystery in this achievement. Deep Blue could evaluate 200 million positions per second. It never got tired, never blundered in a calculation and never forgot what it had been thinking a moment earlier.

For better and worse, it played like a machine, brutally and materialistically. It could out-compute Mr. Kasparov, but it couldn’t outhink him. In Game 1 of their match, Deep Blue greedily accepted Mr. Kasparov’s sacrifice of a rook for a bishop, but lost the game 16 moves later. The current generation of the world’s strongest chess programs, such as Stockfish and Komodo, still play in this inhuman style. They like to capture the opponent’s pieces. They defend like iron. But although they are far stronger than any human player, these chess “engines” have no real understanding of the game. They have to be tutored in the basic principles of chess.

These principles, which have been refined over decades of human grandmaster experience, are programmed into the engines as complex evaluation functions that indicate what to seek in a position and what to avoid: how much to value king safety, piece activity, pawn structure, control of the center, and more, and how to balance the trade-offs among them. Today’s chess engines, innately oblivious to these principles, come across as brutes: tremendously fast and strong, but utterly lacking insight.

All of that has changed with the rise of machine learning. By playing against itself and updating its neural network as it learned from experience, AlphaZero discovered the principles of chess on its own and quickly became the best player ever. Not only could it have easily defeated all the strongest human masters — it didn’t even bother to try — it crushed Stockfish, the reigning computer world champion of chess. In a hundred-game match against a truly formidable engine, AlphaZero scored twenty-eight wins and seventy-two draws. It didn’t lose a single game.

Most unnerving was that AlphaZero seemed to express insight. It played like no computer ever has, intuitively and beautifully, with a romantic, attacking style. It played gambits and took risks. In some games it paralyzed Stockfish and toyed with it. While conducting its attack in Game 10, AlphaZero retreated its queen back into the corner of the board on its own side, far from Stockfish’s king, not normally where an attacking queen should be placed.

Yet this peculiar retreat was venomous: No matter how Stockfish replied, it was doomed. It was almost as if AlphaZero was waiting for Stockfish to realize, after billions of brutish calculations, how hopeless its position truly was, so that the beast could relax and expire peacefully, like a vanquished bull before a matador. Grandmasters had never seen anything like it. AlphaZero had the finesse of a virtuoso and the power of a machine. It was humankind’s first glimpse of an awesome new kind of intelligence.

When AlphaZero was first unveiled, some observers complained that Stockfish had been lobotomized by not giving it access to its book of memorized openings. This time around, even with its book, it got crushed again. And when AlphaZero handicapped itself by giving Stockfish ten times more time to think, it still destroyed the brute.

Tellingly, AlphaZero won by thinking smarter, not faster; it examined only 60 thousand positions a second, compared to 60 million for Stockfish. It was wiser, knowing what to think about and what to ignore. By discovering the principles of chess on its own, AlphaZero developed a style of play that “reflects the truth” about the game rather than “the priorities and prejudices of programmers,” Mr. Kasparov wrote in a commentary accompanying the Science article.

The question now is whether machine learning can help humans discover similar truths about the things we really care about: the great unsolved problems of science and medicine, such as cancer and consciousness; the riddles of the immune system, the mysteries of the genome.

The early signs are encouraging. Last August, two articles in Nature Medicine explored how machine learning could be applied to medical diagnosis. In one, researchers at DeepMind teamed up with clinicians at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to develop a deep-learning algorithm that could classify a wide range of retinal pathologies as accurately as human experts can. (Ophthalmology suffers from a severe shortage of experts who can interpret the millions of diagnostic eye scans performed each year; artificially intelligent assistants could help enormously.)

The other article concerned a machine-learning algorithm that decides whether a CT scan of an emergency-room patient shows signs of a stroke, an intracranial hemorrhage or other critical neurological event. For stroke victims, every minute matters; the longer treatment is delayed, the worse the outcome tends to be. (Neurologists have a grim saying: “Time is brain.”) The new algorithm flagged these and other critical events with an accuracy comparable to human experts — but it did so 150 times faster. A faster diagnostician could allow the most urgent cases to be triaged sooner, with review by a human radiologist.

What is frustrating about machine learning, however, is that the algorithms can’t articulate what they’re thinking. We don’t know why they work, so we don’t know if they can be trusted. AlphaZero gives every appearance of having discovered some important principles about chess, but it can’t share that understanding with us. Not yet, at least. As human beings, we want more than answers. We want insight. This is going to be a source of tension in our interactions with computers from now on.

In fact, in mathematics, it’s been happening for years already. Consider the longstanding math problem called the four-color map theorem. It proposes that, under certain reasonable constraints, any map of contiguous countries can always be colored with just four colors such that no two neighboring countries are colored the same.  

Although the four-color theorem was proved in 1977 with the help of a computer, no human could check all the steps in the argument. Since then, the proof has been validated and simplified, but there are still parts of it that entail brute-force computation, of the kind employed by AlphaZero’s chess-playing computer ancestors. This development annoyed many mathematicians. They didn’t need to be reassured that the four-color theorem was true; they already believed it. They wanted to understand why it was true, and this proof didn’t help.

But envisage a day, perhaps in the not too distant future, when AlphaZero has evolved into a more general problem-solving algorithm; call it AlphaInfinity. Like its ancestor, it would have supreme insight: it could come up with beautiful proofs, as elegant as the chess games that AlphaZero played against Stockfish. And each proof would reveal why a theorem was true; AlphaInfinity wouldn’t merely bludgeon you into accepting it with some ugly, difficult argument.

For human mathematicians and scientists, this day would mark the dawn of a new era of insight. But it may not last. As machines become ever faster, and humans stay put with their neurons running at sluggish millisecond time scales, another day will follow when we can no longer keep up. The dawn of human insight may quickly turn to dusk.

Suppose that deeper patterns exist to be discovered — in the ways genes are regulated or cancer progresses; in the orchestration of the immune system; in the dance of subatomic particles. And suppose that these patterns can be predicted, but only by an intelligence far superior to ours. If AlphaInfinity could identify and understand them, it would seem to us like an oracle.

We would sit at its feet and listen intently. We would not understand why the oracle was always right, but we could check its calculations and predictions against experiments and observations, and confirm its revelations. Science, that signal human endeavor, would reduce our role to that of spectators, gaping in wonder and confusion.

Maybe eventually our lack of insight would no longer bother us. After all, AlphaInfinity could cure all our diseases, solve all our scientific problems and make all our other intellectual trains run on time. We did pretty well without much insight for the first 300,000 years or so of our existence as Homo sapiens. And we’ll have no shortage of memory: we will recall with pride the golden era of human insight, this glorious interlude, a few thousand years long, between our uncomprehending past and our incomprehensible future.”

I agree with Strogatz’s basic premise in his essay that humankind may be moving to an “incomprehensible future” where artificial intelligence will dominate much of what we do.



Trump says: ‘The only problem our economy has is the U.S Federal Reserve” – It’s the Fed, Stupid!

Dear Commons Community,

Over the past two days, President Trump has been blaming the U.S. Federal Reserve for the weakening economy and the stock market plunge in December.  When the stock market was surging earlier this past year, Trump claimed the credit commenting that his tax reform policies were the reason.  Now that the stock market is tanking, he is placing the blame on the the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates.   As reported by Reuters:

“The only problem our economy has is the Fed. They don’t have a feel for the market,” Trump said on Twitter.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump also said U.S. companies were “the greatest in the world” and presented a “tremendous” buying opportunity.

Asked if he has confidence in Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Trump said: “Yes, I do. Very talented guy. Very smart person.” His comments came after Mnuchin on Monday held a conference call with U.S. regulators to discuss plunging U.S. stock markets.

The call did more to rattle markets than to assure them. All three major U.S. stock indexes ended down more than 2 percent on the day before the Christmas holiday. The S&P 500 has lost about 19.8 percent from its Sept. 20 closing high, just shy of the 20 percent threshold that commonly defines a bear market.

Mnuchin also spoke on Sunday with the heads of the six largest U.S. banks, who confirmed they have enough liquidity to continue lending and that “the markets continue to function properly.”

Investors said his move to convene a call with the president’s Working Group on Financial Markets, known as the “Plunge Protection team,” may have weighed on sentiment.

Yesterday, Trump praised U.S. companies and said their lower stock prices present an opportunity for investors. “I have great confidence in our companies. We have companies, the greatest in the world, and they’re doing really well. They have record kinds of numbers. So I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to buy.”

U.S. stocks have dropped sharply in recent weeks on concerns over weaker economic growth. Trump has largely laid the blame for economic headwinds on the Fed, openly criticizing its chairman, Jerome Powell, whom he appointed.

“They’re raising interest rates too fast because they think the economy is so good. But I think that they will get it pretty soon,” Trump said, repeating his criticism.

Media reports have suggested Trump has gone as far as discussing firing Powell, and he told Reuters in August that he was “not thrilled” with the chairman. On Monday, Trump said “The only problem our economy has is the Fed.”

The Fed hiked interest rates again last week, as had been widely expected.”

We can breathe a sigh of relief now that Trump has eased our concerns for the country’s stock market turmoil.  It’s the Fed, stupid!