Robot Minds, Amazon’s Primed, + Dizzy’s Time

This Week — We’re smarter than you think! — An AI primer with Max Tegmark, Erik Brynjolfsson, Yarden Katz, and Cathy O’Neil. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Listen to this one for Chris’ thoughtful probing of our genial tech guides and for Yarden Katz and Cathy O’Neil’s super smart critiques. For Cathy the AI future is here — in the algorithms insurance companies, credit bureaus and law enforcement are already using in insidious ways. Just like the companies and people programming them, they’re biased and unfair and screwing over lots of people. It would be nice to think that the machines could correct some of these problems as Max and Erik say they can, but don’t bet on it. The human beings aren’t really part of the story, and just follow the money to Silicon Valley to see why. The power dynamics of gender and race and the historical contingencies of life are uninteresting to AI researchers, Yarden says, and when you can remove the politics you can remove democratic control. We can’t vote on AI or the shape of Life 3.0.

That leads us to next week’s show. We can’t quite believe the hype over the next Amazon headquarters, and we’ll try and dope it out. Boston seems to have gone bonkers, in our humble opinion, but maybe there’s some momentum building towards regulating these behemoths. Maybe the scariest thing we took away from this week’s show is how little the field of AI is being studied carefully much less the very scary implications for it. As Chris said, quoting Irwin Corey, If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.

Yarden Katz leaves us with another thought, from Hanna Arendt:

“If it should be true — and not simply a case of a scientist’s self-misunderstanding — that we are surrounded by machines whose doings we cannot comprehend although we have devised and constructed them, it would mean that the theoretical perplexities of the natural sciences on the highest level have invaded our everyday world.”

Happy Birthday Dizzy!

George Hicks (our wonderfully talented engineer): After our show last week with Thelonious Monk biographer Robin Kelley (for Monk’s 100th,) I found myself head-on with another jazz milestone — the 100th anniversary of Dizzy Gillespie’s birth on October 21.

Along with the sui generis Monk and the protean Charlie Parker, Dizzy led the bebop revolution of the late ’40s, altering the DNA of jazz from the arranger’s art of the swing era, to the improvising player’s art of modern jazz, still going strong against all odds today.

Picturing Dizzy, you see the trademark upturned bell on his horn and the bulging cheeks — but hearing him, a trumpeter who has yet to be matched in speed, range and dexterity. Disparaged by some for his clownish antics, the ever-entertaining Dizzy created a short-lived craze across the nation for hipster slang, berets, hornrims and soul patches — “You dig?” But he also wrote forward-reaching tunes like “A Night In Tunisia,” (still in every jazz musician’s book,) and with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, Dizzy parented a new hybrid: Afro-Cuban jazz. He led the last important new big band of the ’50s; ironically, it fell victim to the small-group ensemble norm that he himself helped create.

Dizzy was known from early days as a natural teacher; he helped shooting stars like Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan understand bop fundamentals and then perfect their own trumpet styles. He taught advanced harmony on the piano to Miles Davis, who, left helplessly stranded in Dizzy’s wake, had to invent a whole new approach to playing the trumpet.

Bebop is a music that, to my ears, will always be novel. When I hear it, I have no trouble at all finding myself in a dive off 52nd Street in 1949, in utter amazement at the sophistication, virtuosity and swing that comes speeding and swerving across the tabletops. Not music for dancers, this; it’s music for the mind, heart and soul. Crack a few “Salt Peanuts” and listen to this rare footage of Dizzy and Bird playing Tadd Dameron’s inspired contrafact of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” — “Hot House.”

And then comes Chris:

Yo, George. This is beautifully well taken, well heard, well written. Now what? You’re so right about John Birks Gillespie. Again my DJ Tom Reney at WFCR has been priming the pump with lots of Dizzy marvels — like one I’d never heard till this week: Dizzy and Sonny Stitt in a sort of tribute flight on the “Funky Blues” that Johnny Hodges did with Charlie Parker. It reminded me of having Sonny Rollins in the WGBH studio ten years ago and playing for him on air a passage of the “Sonny Side Up” session with Diz and Sonny Still — and Sonny Rollins, live on air, virtually teared up at the music and said “I really can’t believe I played with those men.” Dizzy was the musicologist as well as virtuoso in that exalted circle, the Bahai saint as well as the jokester, a man of /utmost respect. He’d come out of the Billy Eckstine experimental band in 1941 with Bird, Fats Navarro, Miles, Sarah Vaughn and lots of others — and then in his own turn he founded the United Nations Big Band with people like Arturo Sandoval (at Scullers this weekend), Paquito Rivera, James Moody, our own Danilo Perez and others, fulfilling the original promise of his alliance with Chano Pozo. I used to call Dizzy our species’ “intergalactic leader” in all things, and called Yo-Yo Ma his successor. We’re talking about a bigger figure than any of our politicians and almost all of our writers. And I had the joy of meeting him several times, with and without Ron Della Chiesa, also at the Berlin Philharmonie with Dizzy’s road manager Charlie Lake of Revere. Is he still among us?

In any event, you get my blood running on a complete giant and immortal.

Thank you, Diz. Thank you, George.


Here’s Tom Reney’s playlist for Dizzy’s 100th and his terrific Dizzy blogposts.

Mariners, Renegades and Castaways

Chris, Zach, Frank and I went a whalin’ on Friday. We went aboard the Charles W. Morgan, built and launched in 1841, the last of the American whaling fleet. This is the real McCoy, folks, not a Disney knock off. She’s America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat — only the USS Constitution is older.

In Case You Missed It

George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize for his terrific novel Lincoln in the Bardo. He might be the nicest person I’ve ever met. Chris’ wonderful interview with him is here.

The JFK Files

President Trump says he’s opening the JFK files, the last batch of documents related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination held by the National Archives and Records Administration. Axios says the decision came Thursday after Trump spoke with Roger Stone, who wrote “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ.”

Misc. Links

Molly Crabapple on Puerto Rico. Sarah Leonard in NYT on turning Trump turning liberals into radicals. David Marcus on the old power politics of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. A mind-bending history of radio jingles on KCRW’s The Organist podcast. Talking about my generation over at the Ministry of Ideas. Alex Press and Jes Skolnik discuss organizing against sexual assault on Delete Your Account. Boston hip-hop legends Mr. Lif & Akrobatik (aka The Perceptionists) visit NPR’s Tiny Desk.

Til next week,

The OS Deckhands



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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.