Forgetting Machines

I offer you a simple conjecture: long-term memory is a bug, not a feature. To learn is to extract key patterns from events. Once that is done, the memory of events has no further value.

In an ideal world, we would learn from the environment around us, but remain unburdened by memories of the past.

But in the real world, learning is imperfect, and long-term memory is a work-around – it is an ‘archive’ of raw footage for us to consult, should we ever need them.

A more capable, or further evolved, learning machine (versus present-day humans) would not need long-term memory at all.

The Bread Is Gone

For a while, I’d been craving this dessert I could recall from years ago: bread soaked in sugar syrup. It’s a bit like bread pudding, judging from the bread pudding I had recently. Last month, I decided to take the plunge and make it myself. It seemed easy enough. You bring some sugar water to boil until it becomes a syrup, soak freshly toasted bread in it, and that’s it!

Unfortunately, my theory was way off. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how well-done the toast had to be. After all, making good toast is quite an art. I soaked the bread for too long and it became soggy. But the main surprise was with the sugar. For some reason, I decided to use brown sugar instead of the regular white variety. The end result…tasted a bit funny, to be honest. On the bright side, I think Anu liked it after all, so it wasn’t a complete waste of effort.

Fast-forward to last week: Anu offered to make शाही टुकड़ा (shahi tukda). As some of you may know, that’s also a dessert, also a lot like bread pudding, but with condensed milk. Burnt as I was by my recent experience, I cautiously offered my moral support as she made the syrup. It was at this point that I realized we were out of bread.

There was, of course, a good explanation for this state of affairs. You see, bread has a short shelf life (in our case, kitchen counter life). I’d become a bit too enthusiastic about cleaning for the New Year, and had thrown out the last loaf just the day before. In any case, I ran out to buy some bread.

Trade Joe’s had a long line of people waiting to enter the store. Bummer, but no surprises there. I drove to our regular QFC in Wallingford and was stymied by yet another line! Maybe it had something to do with it being New Year’s Eve and all that. Should I try the corner grocery store in Wallingford? I’d never found anything I needed in there, but maybe today was opposite day? Darn, no luck. Finally, I drove to the Safeway on University Ave, my last hope. The building was gone.

That’s right, the entire building had been razed to the ground for redevelopment. I took this as a sign and returned home empty-handed. No dessert for you!

Cryptocurrency Is a Pyramid Scheme

You’re strolling down the city market one day, when a tall, well-dressed man in a dark suit blocks your way. “Psst!” he says, “I have a great proposition for ya!” He takes you aside into a small but swanky shop, where he has you seated on a nice couch, orders someone to fetch you a cool drink, and explains that he has these magic beans that are of immense value. You’re skeptical but intrigued, and ask, “Ok, so what do they do?”. “Oh!” he says, “These beans are absolutely amazing! Take a look at these smooth shiny edges and the roundness…so perfect and balanced!”

He then proceeds to tell you the story of his aunt who struggled to raise him, and how thrilled she was when he acquired these magic beans for her. By the end of the story, he seems almost tearful and lost in thought. You’re a bit confused, as you have a vague sense that he didn’t answer the question, but you decide to bite. “Alright, how much are you selling them for?” For a second, he gives you a puzzled look, and then exclaims, “Oh! I’m sorry, I’m not actually selling these. Did I mention I bought these for my aunt? My poor aunt passed away last month, and I shall keep these in her memory. And anyway, these are the last few beans in my possession, and they’re all the rage today. Why, even my lazy neighbor Joe managed to get hold of some. I have to say, I’m so glad you caught this train just in time! The price of these beans is going to skyrocket. There’s no doubt about it!”

Now you’re more confused than ever, even a bit flummoxed. “Listen, if you don’t want to sell these magic beans, then why am I here?” He sighs and shakes his head. “Listen, friend, it’s so hard to come across honest and hardworking people these days, and it breaks my heart that opportunities like these pass you by while people like Joe become rich.” (You’re reminded of one of your co-workers that you always despised.) He continues, “I want to help you, I really do, and I hope to God I’m not too late! I know a guy…they call him Jack…he can acquire more of these magic beans for you. He’s a bit…difficult, but I’m sure I can persuade him — for you — to part with a few. I mean, it’s only fair that you get a share of this pie, and he’s a reasonable guy.”

You chitchat for a bit longer. Once or twice, you attempt to talk more seriously about what the magic beans actually do, but he has all these interesting stories to tell about the history of the beans that it’s hard to keep up. At some point, he enthusiastically brings out a chart showing the trading price of the beans — a closely guarded secret, apparently — and how it’s gone through many ups and downs, but has been zooming up over the past year. “This is it, this is the year we’re going to become millionaires!” he says joyously and laughs uproariously. The laughter is infectious and you can’t help joining in.

You eventually head home, but not before promising to follow up on buying a dozen or so of the beans. Once you get home, you look them up on the Internet and find a great many stories of people getting rich, but very little that explains what the magic beans actually do. But the guy was right: there did seem to be a lot of people who had managed to get their hands on these beans, and were thrilled to have them. Surely, they couldn’t all be wrong? You try to call up your local authorities to ask about magic beans, but they’re surly and unhelpful, except to remind you that you’d better account for them in your tax returns when you become rich.

You eventually get in touch with Jack over the phone, and he hums and haws for a bit before finally agreeing to sell a dozen magic beans to you for the special discounted price of $1300 per bean. He is reluctant, but admits that it’s for a good cause. “Spread the joy, my friend!” he says, before promising the beans would arrive by registered mail within a week.

When the magic beans finally arrive, you’re so relieved! For a few days there, you’d begun to wonder if it was all a scam. But now you can touch and feel the magic beans in your hand. Such smooth edges, beautiful, balanced…and indeed, the price had only gone up over the past week.

The Elements of Journalism

If there is one thing that you learn from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book The Elements of Journalism, it is that the challenges journalism faces today in the digital information age are, in many ways, the same ones that it has faced over the past two centuries. As the so-called Fourth Estate, it is unsurprising that the powers that be would attempt to wrest this institution into subservience. And as the political landscape has evolved, and new technology has emerged, the means of assault have changed, but the aims of this long-running struggle have remained the same.

The Elements of Journalism Cover Image
Cover Image

The authors begin with an explanation of what journalism is, by clarifying what it is not. The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. This distinguishes it from entertainment, or entertainment-posing-as-journalism. Its first obligation is to the truth and its first loyalty is to citizens. Ah, the truth! That’s where things start getting complicated. While some might throw up their hands and claim that the truth is subjective and ultimately unknowable, journalistic truth is far more pragmatic but still effective – it is the outcome of a discipline of verification. To put this differently, a true journalist is committed to understanding and sharing the truth, and they trust in the journalistic process of verification to ensure that they are not blinded by their own biases. Objectivity, in this sense, is not about eliminating personal biases, but relying on the integrity of the process to elevate the truth above all else.

The use of the term citizens is intentional, contrasted against the idea of consumers. Citizens have a responsibility towards free society, whereas consumers look out for their own interests. Citizens are active, whereas consumers are passive. Journalism is the process of community-building with the participation of vigilant and engaged citizens. Journalism is a conversation with citizens that helps them understand matters that are important for them to know. A free press is a barometer for the democratic values of society.

The authors dispel some common myths about journalism. The goal of a good journalist is not to simply state facts, but to interpret and synthesize facts into a true understanding of the world. A good journalist builds trust with readers by explaining how they reached their conclusions, and what relevant ideas they discarded along the way. The discipline of verification thus extends to readers and good citizens, and the journalist’s job is to provide transparency into their methods to help readers question and validate their conclusions. Good journalism need not be ‘balanced’ when the truth is not – attempting to be ‘balanced’ when the facts paint a clear picture otherwise is a form of dishonesty. Good journalism does not need to shy away from opinion, but it must be clear about the line between substantiated fact and unsubstantiated opinion.

The Elements of Journalism is thought-provoking, in that it raises deep questions about the future of society. For democracy to thrive in a seemingly post-truth age, the discipline of verification must ultimately be adapted to work with the rapid production and dissemination of information that modern technology makes possible. While we may not be able to prevent misinformation from being distributed through social networks, what we may be able to do instead is dampen its adverse consequences, by offering people transparency into the methods of production and helping them verify for themselves the trustworthiness of sources.

For the interested reader, the American Press Institute website has more principles drawn from this book, and explored in depth.

New Beginnings

In the grand old tradition of welcoming the New Year, I hereby roll out the red carpet for 2021, and *ahem* restore balance to the Universe by restarting my blog. This might well be the fifteenth time that I’ve categorically decided to commit myself to writing regularly. And a brand new year is just the right kind of kick in the pants to persuade me to jump in! On a more serious note, I believe there are good reasons for making the attempt, even when the goal seems unachievable.

First and foremost is the fitting cliché that life is about the journey, not the destination. The relentless pursuit of an ideal does not assume that we would ultimately reach it; rather, the ideal shines brightly as a beacon of hope, a call to action. We get satisfaction in the ‘how’ not the ‘what’. We seek the thrill of experience, not accomplishment.

Second, I imagine writing as a form of self-expression that records memories I can look back on fondly on some future date. I have always enjoyed seeing myself through the lens of my old posts — few and far in-between as they might have been — and marveling at how I was a completely different person not so many years ago. Finding these fragments of who I was and stitching them together is a way of finding my own identity. Your identity is not who you are, but the sum total of everyone you have ever been.

And finally, I enjoy wholesome debates (but not those limited to 280 characters!) and cherish the possibility of my blog sparking interesting ideas and healthy discussions.

I leave you with this apt quote from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy novels.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come to pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

— Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World