All posts by Phil W

Self-Consciousness And Can a Machine Have It

Hugh Howey explains Theory of Mind and how it relates to artificial intelligence. He says AI can do marvelous feats of computation, but it can’t and probably will never think like we do. He says it’s fun to describe our minds as computers, but that’s misleading.

Computers are well-engineered devices created with a unified purpose. All the various bits were designed around the same time for those same purposes, and they were designed to work harmoniously with one another. None of this in any way resembles the human mind. Not even close. The human mind is more like Washington, D.C. (or any large government or sprawling corporation).

Parts of our brain can compete with each other, and what we call the mind is all of the brain and more combined. He describes seasickness as part of the brain believing it has been poisoned and vomiting to defend itself, even though you may know without doubt you have not been poisoned.

Not only are we unable to control ourselves completely, we also talk to ourselves incompletely. “The explanations we tell ourselves about our own behaviors are almost always wrong,” Howey says, because we defend ourselves even against our better judgment.

All of this leads to how AI machines will not and should not become so man-like as to pass for human beings. “The only reason I can think of to build such machines is to employ more shrinks.”

Howey has a book of new and collected sci-fi stories out this month.

Worse Than You’ve Heard

Tullian Tchividjian has started blogging again.

“As Charles Spurgeon once said, ‘If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him. For you are worse than he thinks you to be.’ This statement is painfully true. The truth is, I selfishly wrecked my life and the lives of many others.”

He tells the story of seeing his endorsement on the cover of a book and feeling renewed guilt over the blotch of his name.

Having resigned his ministries in 2015, he has remarried and his family now attend a Lutheran Brethren church in Florida.

What Banned Book Did You Read?

Last week was Banned Books Week in America. I hope the loyal readers of this blog enjoyed their local book burning fires and a witty tête-à-tête with a stranger over a cup of pumpkin spiced something. I was somewhat busy last week, so I ignored the festivities entirely, which I hasten to say is in keeping with the holiday spirit.

Matthew Walther wishes all of this would just go away. They urge him to read a banned book. Which book? he asks. Mein Kampf? If that old Hilterian classic appeared in readers’ hands throughout a city during Banned Books Week, would librarians and bookstore owners be slapping each other on the back for a successful campaign? Heil, no, they would not. Walther writes,

In my experience, those with the strongest emotional investment in Banned Books Week tend to be people whose idea of literature is something called “Y.A.,” which they can continue to enjoy well into their 20s, plus whatever they found themselves forced to slog through as liberal arts majors in college in between tweeting and watching prestige cable and old Buffy reruns on Netflix.

(via Prufrock News)

God Has Designed Us to Sing

We have three young daughters, and it has surprised us with each of them how early they could sing. Simple melodies with mumbled words grew into phrases like “O sing happylujah,” or a bizarre mixture of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Keith and Kristin Getty say, “Your ability to sing is fearfully and wonderfully made,” which is the reason God has called us to sing in worship. They say it isn’t your talent for carrying a tune that’s most important; it’s the tenor of your heart.

National Coffee Day: Get Coffee by Drone

Today is national coffee day. I don’t know why this very special day is always overrun in the stores by Halloween or Fall decorations. Where are the family values?

Mercedes-Benz is testing a drone-delivery system in Zurich, Switzerland, to speed up coffee delivery. Their current plan combines drones and vans to get the coffee into your hands, which in a world without flying cars is about what we should expect. When I first saw this news, I hoped they would be testing a system of delivering coffee to your moving car during your morning commute. But maybe self-driving cars would be a prerequisite to avoid collisions.

In honor of the day, let me recommend some coffee roasters you may not have heard about. These guys have skills and unique personalities behind their companies and coffee.

  1. Lagares Coffee Roasters, the proud sponsors of the Happy Rant Podcast. Hector Lagares is one of those marvelous men in a small community who works an uplifting magic that can smooth away your worries. He offers a few blends and a few single origin coffees, so check him out.
  2. Mad Priest Coffee uses their business to employ refugees resettled in the Chattanooga area. As the name suggests, they’re a little crazy. Here’s how they describe their Dark Night of the Soul blend. “It’s been a dark night. A very long dark night (St. John of the Cross thought so). But never fear, this dark roast blend will help awaken you to the dawn of a glorious new day. Flavor Notes: Sunshine, Sigh of Relief, Puppy Kisses.”
  3. Goodman Coffee, also Chattanooga-based, is definitely a good-to-the-last-drop roaster. Ian Goodman raised the bar for delicious coffee in our city back in 1995 with the establishment of Greyfriar’s on Broad Street. This is my favorite brand.

You can order from any of these companies at the websites I’ve linked, but deliveries will not come by drone this year. If you’re ordering from Minnesota or Iowa, you’ll have to use your typical pony express.

Learning English in North Korea

In Pyongyang 1989, a man greeted Theodore Dalrymple in an open square, asking if he spoke English.

“I am a student of the Foreign Languages Institute,” he said. “Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only, joy of my life.”

Dalrymple says, “I think I understood at once what he meant. In Dickens and Shakespeare, even the poorest and most downtrodden person speaks in his own voice. His utterances are at least his own, and are the product of his own brain. In North Korea, with its endless speeches in the most rigid of langues de bois, to speak in your own voice was impossible. All speech is either compulsory or forbidden.”

Rice on the Spirit of Democracy

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to Hugh Hewitt last May about her book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom and the many accounts of democracy, mostly in Eastern Europe and Russia. This is from the transcript of their talk.

Hewitt: At the bottom of my notes, I wrote you have to be willing to accept defeat, and you have to really believe that political campaigns and political warfare are much more preferable to the real thing with bullets and artillery. And that the democratic spirit is just the people you hold up to admire, embrace it, and the people that you scold, and sometimes not so gently, don’t.

Rice: Right. Right, because democracy is really right perched, sort of perched between authoritarianism and chaos. So democracy’s that sweet spot. It’s the place where you have institutions where people can carry out their concerns, their interests, they can change their leaders peacefully. I say in the book that democracy is built for disruption, because what we do in democracy is we say okay, you want change? Go and vote in a new candidate, a new president or a new governor or a new senator. You want change? You think your rights have been violated? Take it to the courts. And by the way, take it all the way to the Supreme Court if you want to, Brown V. Board of Education. And because we have this spirit of constitutionalism, or spirit of democracy, we are willing to use the institutions of disruption rather than going into the streets and fighting it out in the streets. And that’s a tremendous gift from our founders, from the people who have sustained that system over the more than 250 years or so of our existence. And we sometimes lose patience with those who are just starting that process. You know, Hugh, democracy is a pretty mysterious thing that you get people to say I’m going to rely on this abstraction called the Constitution rather than my family or my clan or my religious group. And we’ve been very fortunate that we have those institutions, and I think part of our greatness is to be able to help others find them, too.

Honoring Theologian Robert W. Jenson

Throughout modernity, the church has presumed that its mission was directed to persons who already understood themselves as inhabitants of a narratable world. Moreover, since the God of a narratable world is the God of Scripture, the church was also able to presume that the narrative sense people had antecedently tried to make of their lives had somehow to cohere with the particular story, “the gospel,” that the church had to communicate. Somebody who could read Rex Stout or the morning paper with pleasure and increase of self-understanding was for that very reason taken as already situated to grasp the church’s message (which did not of course mean that he or she would necessarily believe it). In effect, the church could say to her hearers: “You know that story you think you must be living out in the real world? We are here to tell you about its turning point and outcome.”

But this is precisely what the postmodern church cannot presume. What then? The obvious answer is that if the church does not find her hearers antecedently inhabiting a narratable world, then the church must herself be that world.

Mars Hill Audio calls Robert Jenson, who taught at at Luther College, Mansfield College (Oxford), Lutheran Seminary, and St. Olaf College, one of our “greatest living theologians.” He passed away early this month. The above quotation is from his essay “How the World Lost Its Story,” which Ken Myers reads in this recording.

Death Wish Coffee Could Kill You

Demonstrating that the gods of irony will not take time off, Death Wish Coffee‘s cans of nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee are being recalled for possible botox contamination. Yes, apparently our federal watchdogs are okay with allowing it to be injected in your face but not growing in your coffee. The toxic effects of Botulinum include but are not limited to death.

But then, you’re drinking Death Wish Coffee, so…

Actually, the lede is far stronger than the reality. The coffee is being recalled because a tester raised a flag on the possibility of botulinum growing. He did not find it there and no one has become sick… yet.

Of course, this could end up being a publicity boon for the company.

In completely unrelated news, Atlanta’s newspaper asks if it’s possible to overdose on caffeine. They say it would be very hard to die by drinking too much coffee, adding that people can safely consume ten cans of cola per day. Really? If it’s not caffeine that makes ten cans unhealthy for you, maybe it’s the sugar.

Discovering a Poem by Ezra Pound

Daniel Swift discovered a little poem about bread and flowers by Ezra Pound, written on the back of an envelope. It shows something of his skill but also the inconsistencies of his philosophy. He spent WWII as a propagandist for fascists, condemning equality among nations and races, and was tried and acquitted for treason in 1946.

“And yet the method of his poetry,” Swift says, “insists that ideas can and must be translated across cultures. He mixes African myth with classical Greek epic, ancient Chinese poetry and the American blues.”

This sharply contrasted his poisonous radio diatribes, which Robert Wernick describes:

His scripts for Radio Roma covered political, economic, historical and cultural subjects, interspersed with personal reminiscences, all tumbling over one another in such impulsive and unpredictable order that some Italian officials suspected he was transmitting military secrets to the enemies of Italy in an unbreakable code. He was in fact expressing in his customary percussive prose style his deeply-held beliefs that only a currency reform under a system known as Social Credit would solve the world’s economic problems; that only an authoritarian regime like Mussolini’s could clear out the muck that was stifling modern life; and that something, preferably something violent, should be done to get rid of the Jews, the Bank of England, Franklin Roosevelt (“Stinky Rosenstein”), Winston Churchill, publishers, night-clubs, usury, birth control, muddy painters like Rembrandt, sloppy composers like Beethoven and Puccini (“Spewcini”). Along the way he would drop in gnomic utterances on the order of, “The laws of durable government have been known since the days of King Wen,” or, “The cultural stink betrayed the U. S. in 1863.”

Pound did spend time after the trial in a mental hospital, but I’m inclined to attribute his hateful ideas to simple human hubris more than mental illness. It doesn’t take much to hate other people.

Nabeel Qureshi, 34, Has Died

The author of the brilliant Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi, has passed into glory. He was 34. May 100 more just like him rise up in this generation for the glory of the Lord.

Justin Taylor has a good summary of his life and Ravi Zacharias writes about Nabeel’s enduring faith, boundless energy, and the discovery of the stomach cancer that took his life.

“He was not just an evangelical; he was passionately evangelistic. He desired to cover the globe with that good news: that God’s forgiveness was available to all. When he spoke, he held audiences captive.”

Eddison, Influence on Tolkien, Lewis,

Michael Dirda describes the little-known book he says inspired many great fantasy epics. “Published in 1922, the same year as so many modernist masterpieces, The Worm Ouroboros [by E. R. Eddison] combines elements of Homeric epic, Norse saga, and Jacobean drama, while its opulent style borrows the vocabulary and verve of Elizabethan English.”

Here’s a bit of Eddison’s voice from the book:

Dismal and fearsome to view was this strong place of Carcë, most like to the embodied soul of dreadful night brooding on the waters of that sluggish river: by day a shadow in broad sunshine, the likeness of pitiless violence sitting in the place of power, darkening the desolation of the mournful fen; by night, a blackness more black than night herself.

(via Prufrock News)

Nestlé Now Majority Owner of Blue Bottle

This is big news in the business world of coffee. Nestlé, the makers of Nescafé and Taster’s Choice instant coffees, has put millions of dollars into buying a majority share of third wave coffee leader Blue Bottle. For many coffee lovers, Blue Bottle offers the kind of flavor they wish they could get everywhere. Now it will be owned by the people whose coffee they left to the seventies.

Naturally, Nestlé won’t nix this new coffee kid; it just wants the money.

And speaking of instant coffee, I just heard of a new company with what is rumored to be wonderful, flavorful, and instant coffee: Sudden Coffee. If you’d like to up your coffee convenience game with something tasty, this is for you.

On Not Watching Game of Thrones

Kevin DeYoung wrote a post in early August on how he couldn’t understand why Christians would choose to watch Game of Thrones. No amount of awesome cinematography, great dialogue, or storytelling could outweigh the soul-damage done by the graphic violence and exhibitionist nudity. DeYoung followed this post a couple weeks later with a list of reasons he still wasn’t convinced and how he didn’t need to watch the show to know it was something to avoid.

We’ve talked about the show briefly here and not in an entirely negative way. What little I know of the story does appeal to me. The castles, costumes, landscape, dragons, and walkers look amazing. But DeYoung’s points are largely the reasons I don’t want to see it.

I remember seeing a conversation with a couple actresses about how much the show featured female nudity and why couldn’t they expose more men. They were willing to run with that, even mock-campaign for it. Men should have equal access to being full frontal, they said.

DeYoung wrapped up his thoughts like this.

On occasion I’ve stumbled upon a few minutes of PG-13 movies I used to enjoy as a teenager (like the Naked Gun series). I’m appalled by the things that didn’t tweak my conscience then but do now. We are so awash in sensuality that many Christians have no idea how compromised they’ve become. . . . Only in a hyper-sexual, pornographic-saturated culture like ours could we think that graphic sex scenes are no big deal, or somehow offset by a brilliant screenplay.

Sci-Fi and Man’s Abolition

I don’t remember when I read Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, but I remember agreeing with all of it.

Sam Edgin reviews the book’s influence on sci-fi film and literature in the essay collection Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man

The backbone of much of the science fiction we love are the questions Lewis asked: What do we do when technology gives us such powers that we are no longer able to identify that which is human? Or, even worse, at what point do we begin actively denying humanity around us for our own comfort or gain?