Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 117

Amazon Mechanical TurkHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The online hell that is Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Why are some cities hotbeds of revolution?

Chuck Close is accused of harassment. Should his artwork be banned from museums, or carry a disclaimer?

Why we forget most of the books we read (and how to do something about it).

The shallowness of Google Translate, from the point of view of someone who knows a lot about both languages and machine learning.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

45 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 117

  1. wtc48

    Hofstadter: “To me, the word “translation” exudes a mysterious and evocative aura. It denotes a profoundly human art form that graciously carries clear ideas in Language A into clear ideas in Language B, and the bridging act not only should maintain clarity, but also should give a sense for the flavor, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the writing style of the original author.”

    His point (which I share) seems to be that extrapolating human literary art from data will be forever impossible. However, it saddens me to think that this is not at all self-evident, and that it comes across as an almost desperate attempt to affirm that humans are indispensable.

    In view of the fact that our understanding of life is dispersed in hundreds of different and mutually incomprehensible languages, it seems impossible to over-emphasize the importance of translation to an eventual goal of global peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author


    “For instance with regards to slavery we can safely say that there is a right side and a wrong side of history.”

    Sure, but that’s after the fact. Here we are talking about someone who presumes to know what the future right side of history will be. It’s a whole different enterprise, seems to me.


  3. saphsin


    Yeah we can never be sure, but that goes for all judgment. Moral progress occurs because people constantly challenge other possibilities of upright behavior and better ways to organize society, so using your imagination I think can get you a long way, or it at least has before. My personal opinion is that questions of moral decency are probably not as profoundly difficult like scientific ones (where the betrayal of intuition is much more vulnerable) to the extent that the powers of imagination becomes too limited and flawed to allow us to reach reasonable conclusions, a lot of it has to do with being insufficiently critical of cultural biases. I think there’s a lot wisdom from repeated history that can guide our judgment. A sign for me is that anything that is already recognized as having shades of gray should be immediately suspicious for promoting justifications that are much more shallow than most people notice.


  4. Paul Braterman

    A digression, but can’t resist.

    Southwest Airlines had a slogan “fly in leather” because of their leather seats. They translated into Spanish, without noticing that “en piel” would be understood as “in your skin”, ie naked. And I’m told (can anyone verify?) that Kennedy should have said “Ich bin Berliner”, since “Ich bin ein Berliner” means “I am a doughnut”.

    And of course, is the Septuagint “parthenos” (virgin) the right translation of the Hebrew “almah” in Isaiah 7:14?


  5. brodix

    To take both sides of the issue, both Massimo and saphsin have points.

    Slavery, for instance. We know slavery is bad and evil, but seem to have packaged it as more of an identity issue, than an economic one and it is safe to say vast numbers of people still exist in states equivalent to, if not actual slavery, because it is an economic issue and we can distance ourselves from its condition, but still benefit from its produce.

    Yet eventually we could address the actual mechanisms producing it, if we were ever to recognize finance functions as a public utility and privatizing the benefits, while socializing the responsibilities is inherently corrupt.

    At some point, future generations will look back on our age as the Marie Antoinette moment of financial extremism, much as Versailles represents the extremes of government as hereditary.

    Presumably they will have learned that destroying the planet and social cohesion to stuff chits on banks is a really, really stupid way to prepare for the future.


  6. brodix


    That article reminded me of when Chevrolet changed the name of the Chevy 2 to Nova, around 1970, sales in Spanish speaking countries dropped off significantly.


  7. ejwinner

    I admit I haven’t been able to access most of the readings here; I’m having internet connection problems, partly caused by the constant updating by my provider, by Microsoft, and by some of the websites I visit.

    However, I did want to comment on the “right side of history” issue in the comment thread. Having studied Hegel and Marx, who preferred two of the grandest historical narratives, stretching into the future; and having compared these grand narratives with the histories that actually happened after they wrote; I can well and truly state that history will not be predicted. History is simply the story of what people have done – not what they wanted to do.

    The US Founders wrote: “in order to form a more perfect union.” Well, look what we got….

    I could be wrong, but I suspect that the US Constitution will be recognized (centuries hence) as an expression of the finest hopes of the Enlightenment – and realized as one of the Enlightenment’s greatest disappointments.

    Yet I am dedicated to its continued realization as a living document. I’m an American; our heads are full of such nonsense. It keeps us civilized – mostly, when we don’t elect reality TV personalities as president….

    Liked by 1 person

  8. synred

    In Germany pastries are named after cities and ‘ein Berliner’ is a jelly donut.

    To say you’re a citizen of Berlin you’d say ‘Ich bin Berliner’

    So Kenney did indeed face Khrushchev across the wall and say “I am a jelly donut’

    There’s also a story the Dean Rusk making a speech in Vietnam got the tones wrong and said “Long live dying duck” when he intended to say “Long live Vietnam”.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. brodix


    “Everything contains the seeds of its own destruction.”

    Remember George H.W. Bush’s comment in the 1980 primaries, referring to Reagan’s campaign promises as “voodoo economics?”

    Should anyone with any knowledge and experience with not only the dynamics of debt, but the psychology of denialism that usually accompanies its more dangerous extensions really be at all surprised we should have some bankruptcy skating con artist eventually? Really?

    Remember Karl Rove’s comment about the gullibility of “reality based journalists” and how it is the politicians who create the reality and the journalists who follow it?

    Look at the whole “Russia Hacked the Election” narrative being put out as an excuse for both the overwhelming incompetence of the Democrats, as well as more reason to pour money into the military. How many “journalists” really truly believe it and how many just follow it because that’s what they are paid to?

    So I would argue that if you do want some perspective on what the future holds, it is best to separate the propaganda and overall wishful and delusional thinking from the underlaying dynamics. Think of it as a scab peeling away from the wound. The harder and more rigid it gets, the more it separates from the underlaying organism.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. wtc48

    ejwinner: “I could be wrong, but I suspect that the US Constitution will be recognized (centuries hence) as an expression of the finest hopes of the Enlightenment – and realized as one of the Enlightenment’s greatest disappointments.”

    I don’t think we’ll have to wait centuries for that: the disappointment phase is already emerging in the work of originalist justices.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. synred

    To my wife, Jamie, and to Schrödinger’s cat. The cat will know why, but only if you ask it.

    Levitan, Dave. Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (p. vi). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

    This our next book for the Martin Perl Book Club. Maybe Massimo might consider it for his.


  12. saphsin


    I find that you are missing the point (and Massimo too initially) and interpreting the rather simple phrase “right side of history” too uncharitably. We can talk meaningfully about progress without assuming linearity, or requiring some theory that requires fixed assumptions. Now we can constantly challenge how progress should be understood and how data representing it should be re-interpreted, just like studying measures of “happiness” And that’s because we don’t have any other term to better replace those descriptions. I don’t think anyone who uses the phrase is trying to put forth any of those assumptions, that history can be predicted properly and so on.


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