Friday, October 21, 2016

Exploring deep π

1. Contact

In 1985, Carl Sagan wrote a liberal-utopian novel called 'Contact'. Ellie (Jodie Foster in the film) traverses a wormhole where she meets wise, benevolent aliens. Returning to Earth there is a wormhole malfunction, all records are erased and she is not believed.

A discredited and broken women, she holes up in an apartment, recalling the confirmatory information she received from the alien,
"Ellie works on a program to compute the digits of π to heretofore-unprecedented lengths. [...] When Ellie looks at what the computer has found, she sees a circle rasterized from 0s and 1s that appear after 1020 places in the base 11 representation of π. This gives her a way to convince the world of something greater—that intelligence is built into the universe itself."
When I read this my suspension of disbelief collapsed entirely. As a matter of mathematics, the value of π is fixed, it's not a variable which can be programmed by any passing alien!

I was right .. but also wrong.


2. Dystopias

I prefer my alien first-contacts to be more dystopian:

  1. His Master's Voice
  2. The Mote in God's Eye
  3. The Three-Body Problem (The Dark Forest)

3. How Deep to Dive?

Suppose you have a conventional six-sided die. On average, how many trials do you need to throw a three (or any other number)?

The answer is six.

If you have any sequence of trials where the probability of success per trial is p (1/6 in the die example) then on average you need 1/p trials to get the first success.

This is not entirely obvious.

Take a coin. Keep tossing it. How many throws on average before you get a head? Here are some possible sequences: H, TH, TTH, TTTH, and so on. The longer sequences have lower probability. On average you need two throws - one divided by a half.

The number of trials is a random variable and its distribution is called the Geometric distribution.*

As apparently a normal number, the decimal representation of π is believed to have the features of a random sequence. We imagine producing the digit-sequence of π from the set {0, .., 9} essentially by choosing at random - there is no systematic pattern.

If we consider any particular digit, for example 7, 'on average' how deep do we need to search to find it in the π-sequence?

The probability of a digit of π being 7 is 1/10 so 'on average' we should expect to search down 10 digits before finding a 7.

Here are the first fifty digits of π. We start counting after the decimal point.

3. 14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288 41971 69399 3751

And here are the depths of the different digits

0 -> 32  1 -> 1  2 -> 6  3 -> 9  4 -> 2

5 -> 4  6 -> 7  7 -> 13  8 -> 11  9 -> 5

Average = 9 deep.

Suppose we want to find a longer digit sequence in π. For example, 42. On average, how deep do we need to dive? Here's how to think about it. The probability of a digit at a given location in π being 4 is 1/10, but then the next digit, 2, also needs to match. So the combined probability of a two-digit match at any point in π is 1/100. So on average we need to search to a depth of 100 digits.

Here's the interesting site I'm using - The Pi-Search Page - and it tells me that:
"The string 42 occurs at position 92. This string occurs 2 000 419 times in the first 200M digits of Pi counting from the first digit after the decimal point. The 3. is not counted."
For three digits, you would expect to search 1,000 digits of π deep. The Pi-Search Page lets you search to 200 million digits of π, which is ~ 108, so strings of eight digits then.

You can have a lot of fun searching for meaningful numbers buried deep within π. Take a naive coding where a=1, b=2, c=3, ..., z=26. Then

Clare = 3 12 1 18 5:
"The string 3121185 occurs at position 1 785 482. This string occurs 21 times in the first 200M digits of Pi"
Nigel = 14 9 7 5 12:
"The string 1497512 occurs at position 21 024 008. This string occurs 24 times in the first 200M digits of Pi."
My wife and myself each get our names encoded in 7 digits so we would expect an average search depth in π of around 10 million. We both kind of straddle that depth (see note at end).

Enough of this vanity! People tend to put in their birthdates (ddmmyy = one million depth) but be aware, web sites and apps allow this to be reverse-engineered.


4 Circles in π

Let's take the simplest possible raster image of a circle. Each pixel is white (0) or black (1) and we have three rows of three bits. This can be written 010 101 010 or in octal, 252.

As we have three digits which we choose to interpret as base 10, how deep should we expect to look in π for this sequence, this three bit by three bit raster of a circle?

Obviously 1,000 digits.

Back to the Pi-Search Page.
"The string 252 occurs at position 822. This string occurs 200 446 times in the first 200M digits of Pi."
OK, the aliens have spoken - the circle is there. They truly exist. I was wrong.

This is a pretty pathetic circle, though. In 'Contact' it was described as 'a circle rasterized from 0s and 1s that appear after 1020 places in the base 11 representation of π'.

Let's handwave here a little. Assume that in base 10 this might be 1021 or thereabouts decimal digits. How long was the raster sequence to be found at such a depth? Around 21 decimal digits (which we could interpret as octal without too much effort). Multiple by three to get bits and we have 63-64 bits encoding the raster sequence.

So Ellie (Jodie Foster) gets to see an 8-bit by 8-bit picture of a circle. I think that would look very pretty and would definitely convince me that aliens (or God) exists.

By a suitable encoding any information can be mapped into a decimal digit string. If the length of the string is n digits, then on average we have to search to a depth of 10n digits in π to find said string.

But with probability 1 it's in there somewhere (.. it is generally believed but there is no proof!).


5. Searching π on your own device

I thought for one self-indulgent moment that it would be cute to write a program in Prolog (weird choice!) to compute π to zillions of digits and search for longer and more interesting digit-sequences. I even researched it a bit.

But it's all been done.

I downloaded the 'RealPi Benchmark' app onto my Nexus 10 and it computed ten million digits of π in about five minutes - which I was then able to search.



* Statistics Note

The variance of the Geometric distribution is (1-p)/p2.

For the long digit strings we have been considering, p is very small so (1-p)/p2 is approximately 1/p2, and the standard deviation is just 1/p which is the same as the mean.

So revisiting the depth of Clare's and my names above, (7 digits), the mean number of trials to find our codes was ten million, and the standard deviation was also 10 million. So a +/- confidence interval of 1 std. dev. would be from zero to twenty million. Quite wide, but consistent with the values we actually saw.

I think that's why the Pi-Search Page computes 200 million digits of π.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Book of the Way and its Power

The word Tao means 'way' or 'path'. For a reductive materialist it could be identified with the spacetime block-universe. But this fails to capture the relationship of the Tao to agency as well as physics.

Te means 'power', not in the sense of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, but in the old-fashioned sense of 'virtue'.

Ching means 'classic', or 'canon' or 'book': an authoritative statement.

People argue about the best translation of the Tao Te Ching. Perhaps the most accessible is that due to Ursula K. Le Guin, the most prominent contemporary Taoist in the philosophical tradition. I like many of her chapters (see below) which render Lao Tzu's thoughts into a contemporary idiom.

But there's always the danger of over-processing. My real favourite is Arthur Waley's peerless text, which presents the Taoist work in its original cultural setting, allowing the reader space to engage and to seek the relevance in his or her own situation

Amazon link

Arthur Waley's translation

To oxymoronically take a chapter almost at random. Here's Ursula Le Guin's Chapter 16.
Be completely empty.
Be perfectly serene.
The ten thousand things arise together;
in their arising is their return.
Now they flower,
and flowering sink homeward,
returning to the root.
The return to the root
is peace.
Peace: to accept what must be,
to know what endures.
In that knowledge is wisdom.
Without it, ruin, disorder.
To know what endures
is to be openhearted,
following the Tao,
the way that endures forever.
The body comes to its ending,
but there is nothing to fear.
In her note she comments, "To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it, or spirituality of which man is not the measure, the firmness of Lao Tzu's morality and the sweetness of his spiritual counsel must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed."

And here is how Arthur Waley translates the same chapter 16.
Push far enough towards the Void,
Hold fast enough to Quietness,
And of the ten thousand things none but can be worked on by you.
I have beheld them, whither they go back.
See, all things howsoever they flourish
Return to the root from which they grew.
This return to the root is called Quietness;
Quietness is called submission to Fate;
What has submitted to Fate has become part of the always-so.
To know the always-so is to be Illumined;
Not to know it, means to go blindly to disaster.
He who knows the always-so has room in him for everything;
He who has room in him for everything is without prejudice.
To be without prejudice is to be kingly;
To be kingly is to be of heaven;
To be of heaven is to be in Tao.
Tao is forever and he that possesses it,
Though his body ceases, is not destroyed.
So there you are: two interpretations of the same 2,400 year old text.

The Tao Te Ching, with its 81 chapters, is mystical and allusive. It's easy to let the eyes glaze over the stanzas which seem to require too much intellectual hard work.

A hard core materialist, who believes we - along with the other 'ten thousand things' - are 'just atoms' may simply walk away. I am basically just such a materialist, but I learned long ago that the map is not the territory, and that an effective theory of agency and consciousness is not identical to being an agent and experiencing consciousness.

It's only when you examine your own self, abstracting a little from the busy personas of everyday role-playing, that the moral framework of the Tao Te Ching comes into focus. It's not for everyone, and it's not for every day. Sometimes, though, you should lift your head up if you can and try to engage with the biggest picture.

Cheng Man-Ch'ing used to say that Taoism was for the sage on his mountain, not for practical folk. But then, he was a Confucian.


Here's a short link to this post: using the Google URL shortener.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

“The Business Blockchain” by William Mougayar

Amazon link

Bitcoin emerged on the scene in 2009, the first digital currency to achieve lift-off. Satoshi Nakamoto's brilliant innovation was to make the transaction the central concept. The Blockchain is a complete record of every Bitcoin transaction ever carried out. The wallet containing ‘your Bitcoins’ is a secondary construct, computed from scanning the public Blockchain on the Internet and adding up all the ‘unspent transaction outputs’ which have one of your Bitcoin addresses as a recipient.

The Blockchain is public, duplicated on all full Bitcoin nodes (i.e. computers), and the transactions, organised in blocks, are unencrypted. Yet transactions are still sufficiently secure and anonymous – the architecture and protocol design to accomplish this is both complex and amazing. It soon occurred to people that the Blockchain concept could be repurposed to support other services across the public Internet: the management of contracts, the administration of digital identity, healthcare records.

Just as the public Internet spawned private Intranets and business-ecosystem Extranets, Blockchain technology has begun to interest companies looking to exploit a robust, decentralised ‘smart database’ function internally, or with their customers/suppliers. We are in the earliest days of this new network technology and many, even basic, questions of architecture, design, implementation and operation are deeply unclear. It’s timely then, to have a book explaining the ‘Business Blockchain’.

Chapter 1 of William Mougayar’s book aims to explain what the Blockchain is all about. He uses a great many metaphors intermixed with appropriate tech buzz-words, but I don’t think the reader will be much the wiser after reading it. Saying endlessly that the Blockchain is like a decentralised database, like a shared accounting ledger, like a transaction platform, it’s a peer-to-peer network and a trust services layer is all sort of true, but leaves the reader ignorant as to how the Blockchain manages to accomplish all these marvels. It was at this point, I decided to read Andreas M. Antonopoulos's excellent “Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies” which made everything a lot clearer (the book is accessible to non-developers).

Chapter 2 focuses on the Blockchain’s role in distributing trust. In Bitcoin, trust is about ensuring that someone who pays you has a right to the Bitcoin they’re sending you, and that they can’t spend that amount twice. There are specific mechanisms involving digital certificates and the Blockchain mining protocols (producing ‘confirmations’) which implement the trust relationship. The author doesn’t engage with these issues, however. Instead we get lots of cotton wool marketing speak, essentially hand-wavy boosterism for how wonderful the Blockchain model is, leading to further and rather vague excitement about Ethereum-style smart contracts (no details). The ratio of useful-ideas to words-expended is particularly low in this chapter.

Chapter 3 is a simple ‘innovator’s dilemma’ style essay on Blockchain acceptance. We are in the earliest stages of take-up, mostly because Blockchain architectures and implementations are very new and there are plainly many issues in adapting these ideas to other application areas, and up-scaling the platforms. This is entirely normal – most new technologies go through a phase where the technical guys have to link up with the business strategy guys to research possible new solutions. I think I just summarised that chapter.

Chapter 4 is entitled, ‘Blockchain in Financial Services’ and starts with an overview of the Banking and Financial Services industries’ responses to the Internet (less than impressive). There then follows a list of financial services where you could imagine Blockchain technologies having an impact with a few summary examples of exploratory prototypes. Regulation is correctly identified as a major constraint for Blockchain-type architectures. The chapter ends with a little more boosterism, although the truth is that all major financial institutions have already set up task forces to research this area. As before, there is no real content to this chapter.

The short chapter 5 looks at some more far-out examples of Blockchain-powered applications, specifically the ‘Distributed Autonomous Organisation’ (DAO) based on smart contracts and pioneered by Ethereum: again, very hand-wavy and speculative, with no depth.

Chapter 6, ‘Implementing Blockchain technology’, advises your organisation to appoint a “Blockchain Czar” to get things moving, and then lists all the requirements for a successful software project - which would apply to any new development programme: statements of the blindingly obvious, really.

The final chapter, ‘Decentralization as the way forward’, is an unashamedly utopian vision of 2025, when Blockchain-powered, decentralised crypto-services will have transformed the world.

No they won’t.

In summary, this book is superficial boosterism expressed in crass marketing-speak. The reader, far from being enlightened, will end up more confused than ever. My advice is to find a text which explains – in conceptual outline – how the Blockchain (and its main application, Bitcoin) actually works (Wikipedia is not bad). You will then be in a position to assess whether this model has any application for your business. Unless you are a disruptive, entrepreneurial innovator or a company operating in a specialist niche, you will probably correctly conclude that it is too early to tell. Ask the strategy guys to keep an eye on it. And save your money on this book.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Inferno (film, 2016)

Reviews of Inferno have veered between 'excellent' and 'rubbish'. Let me take the median position - it was an OK popcorn movie, hyperkinetic tourism with a ludicrous plot. I looked at my watch twice; Clare said she enjoyed it.

The bad guy, billionaire Bertrand Zobrist,  kicks the film off with a long rant that the only way to save the world from the consequences of rampant overpopulation is to wipe out a large proportion of the human race. Naturally he has a virus which will kill one in every two people infected, and of course triggering this virus is going to involve following a long and tortuous series of clues linked to Dante's Inferno.

I thought Zobrist was given fair space to make his point and his concerns about overpopulation are well-founded  - his solution, not so much.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Bitcoin Transaction Process Model

The process of setting up and validating a Bitcoin transaction is complex and seems under-explained in the literature. For what it's worth, here is my own attempt to figure it out.

Some caveats. I have oversimplified, not taking account of transaction fees. I have not tried to be faithful to the syntactic format of a transaction; I'm after maximum conceptual clarity.

As is traditional, Alice is going to pay Bob 12 milliBitcoins, which I estimate today is worth £6.36.

The idea of Bitcoin is that everything is transactions. For Alice to pay Bob, someone else must have already paid her. I'm going to make it real easy and assume Alice has already received a single payment (from someone else) of 12 mBTC - this is called an 'unspent transaction output - UTXO', and she is merely going to 'pass along' that 12 mBTC to Bob.


This is how Alice got her 12 milliBitcoins

The transaction I'm calling TX: Pre was set up by someone else to pay Alice 12 mBTC. The payment was to Alice's Bitcoin address, a designator (like a bank account), which was constructed by hashing one of Alice's Public Keys and encoding it into an alphanumeric format (Base58). There are no security issues here, Alice published this Bitcoin address freely to accept payments. It all worked.


Alice constructs a transaction to pay Bob 12 mBTC

So TX: A2B (my name for the purposes of this post, not a Bitcoin term) is a new transaction. Alice (Alice's wallet software in fact) first inserts a pointer to TX: Pre, to its location on the public Blockchain - recall this is the source of Alice's 12 mBTC.

Secondly, she combines (most of) the fields in TX: Pre along with Bob's Bitcoin address to produce a hash code. This is then encrypted with her Private Key (corresponding to the already mentioned Public Key) to produce a digital signature. Only Alice can produce this digital signature as only Alice knows her own secret private key.

She then adds Bob's Bitcoin address as the destination, the amount of 12 mBTC to pay, and some other stuff (of course!) and the transaction is now ready to be launched onto the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network. Every node that receives it will check the transaction for validity (there are many checks in fact).


How can the Bitcoin network ensure Alice is the only one who can spend that 12 mBTC on prominent public display on the Blockchain as TX: Pre? Note that like all transactions on the Blockchain, TX: Pre is read only and cannot be altered. To do so would constitute a successful attack on the Blockchain - the 'confirmations' mechanism is one way this risk is mitigated.

The transaction validation  process model (carried out by all full nodes) 

A validating node (including Bob, who has perhaps the greatest interest in determining that Alice is legitimately able to pay him) first repeats Alice's hash.

TX: A2B has a pointer to TX: Pre so this can be retrieved from the public Blockchain and concatenated with Bob's Bitcoin address which is stored in the 'output locking script' part of TX: A2B. So these two items of data are hashed.

At the same time, Alice's public key (in the 'input unlocking script' of TX: A2B) is used to decrypt Alice's digital signature, uncovering Alice's original hash. If the two hashes are equal, this proves that Alice originated this transaction.

We finally make sure that Alice's Public Key (which we know to be valid because it unlocked Alice's digital signature) matches Alice's Bitcoin address (the latter is a hash of the former) from TX: Pre. Once this is done we are assured that the Alice who was the recipient of 12 mBTC in TX: Pre is the same Alice as the one who has originated (and signed) TX: A2B.

Bob can breathe a sigh of relief.

Note that formally, the above validation procedure is a concatenation of the 'input unlocking script' from TX: A2B and the 'output locking script' from TX: Pre.

And once TX: A2B has been lodged on the public Blockchain, transaction TX: Pre will be 'chained' to it, so will now be considered 'spent'. No-one else can spend it.


If anyone sees an error in this account which is more than just sloppy over-simplification, I'd be grateful if you could put something in the comments and I will fix it.

You may also be interested in my review of "Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies" by Andreas M. Antonopoulos, and the diagram (from Satoshi Nakamoto's original paper) there.

Bitcoin: the suits move in

From The New York Times (Oct 11th 2016) via Marginal Revolution: "Central Banks Consider Bitcoin’s Technology, if Not Bitcoin".
"Bitcoin was created by libertarian-minded programmers with a deep suspicion of central banks and the national currencies they issue.

"Yet it is central banks that are doing some of the most ambitious work of late in trying to harness the technology introduced by Bitcoin.

"The central bankers do not want their institutions to own or use Bitcoin itself. Instead, they hope they can use the decentralized method of record-keeping introduced by Bitcoin — known as the blockchain or distributed ledger — to complete and record transactions in the real economy more efficiently, quickly and transparently.

"The most enthusiastic central banks — including the Bank of England and the People’s Bank of China — have discussed issuing their national currencies onto some sort of distributed ledger, a name that comes from the concept of several parties keeping records simultaneously.

"Blockchains allow several players to keep a shared spreadsheet using cryptography and so-called consensus mechanisms that provide a way to agree on which transactions happened at what time.

"For the central banks, the promise of the technology is that it would allow them to track every pound or renminbi on every step of its travels through the financial system in real time — something that is impossible now. The goal would be to make the financial system more transparent, fast, efficient and secure.

"If the central banks succeed, it would be one of the greatest unexpected twists in new technology: An invention aimed at dethroning central banks and making it harder for money to be tracked instead ends up empowering those central banks and making money more easily traceable.

"The Bank of England has produced several research papers on the topic. One suggests that the economic benefits of issuing a digital currency on a distributed ledger could add as much as 3 percent to a country’s economic output, thanks to the efficiency it could offer."
Inter-bank settlements and a means to ensure "a financial system that does not go down even if the central bank’s computer systems are temporarily taken offline," seem to be important drivers.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar

We went to see Tom Holland give his talk at the Wells Literary Festival this afternoon. During the session - in a marquee at the Bishop's Palace - the rain became more and more torrential, until he was practically shouting into the microphone.

The audience waits in anticipation ...

Tom Holland in full flow while the rain beats down above

According to Wikipedia, Holland had the usual gilded background.
"Holland was born near Oxford and brought up in the village of Broadchalke near Salisbury, Wiltshire, England. He was educated at Chafyn Grove School, Canford School, and Queens' College, Cambridge, where he obtained a double First in English and Latin,"
I was expecting a standard Matthew Parris-style super-liberal. But Holland is more interesting than that (and not without courage):
"In March 2015, Holland published a piece entitled "We must not deny the religious roots of Islamic State" in the New Statesman. It argued that the jihadis of ISIS call themselves Islamic and people like Mehdi Hasan ought not to deny it, as he had in the previous week's issue. Holland wrote that "It is not merely coincidence that ISIS currently boasts a caliph, imposes quranically mandated taxes, topples idols, chops the hands off thieves, stones adulterers, executes homosexuals and carries a flag that bears the Muslim declaration of faith."


"... he provided an insight into his own views, asserting that "Liberalism is essentially Christianity-lite, and you can include atheism and secularism in that bracket too—these are basically Christian heresies. The ethics involved are really New Testament ones." and adding later, when asked about resistance to his views on Islam, that "when I write about Islam my anxiety, and the reason I always pull my punches, isn’t that I’m afraid I’ll be killed, it’s that I’m afraid to be drummed out of the liberal club."

Best insight of the afternoon? He was asked why, after Augustus, it proved impossible ever to restore the Republic.

He replied that the Republic was a governance model which worked when Rome was just a city-state. Once it had expanded into its conquered provinces, each with established legions under the command of a battle-hardened general, it would always prove impossible for the Senate to resist that determined general with an army at his back.

Julius Caesar was the first over-mighty general, but made the mistake of treating Rome's elite as powerless minions: they promptly assassinated him. Augustus was smarter and retained absolute power while pretending to be merely 'first citizen' - the Senate were prepared to collude in the pretence that they too shared a measure of power.

Tiberius truly believed in the values of the Republic and couldn't square that with the reality of his own absolute power. His solution was to retire to Capri and run the Empire very competently from there. In return his enemies in Rome blackened his name in their histories for all eternity.

Caligula gave up pretense and enjoyed absolute power, terrorising the aristocracy into submission. If only he hadn't insulted his own bodyguards ...

Here's a link to the list of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


Amazon link

Friday, October 14, 2016

"Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies"

Amazon Link

Anything digital can be copied, indeed duplicated endlessly, while the Internet is full of bad people. It's clear that designing digital money to be exchanged anonymously over the public Internet was never going to be easy.

Bitcoin (and similar digital cryptocurrencies) have to solve a number of problems: security of the contents of your 'wallet', trust between buyer and seller, the integrity of the currency itself. Any robust solution is plainly going to be both complex and counterintuitive.

Bitcoin's key architectural innovation is the blockchain: a list of every transaction which has ever occurred. Transactions - as they occur - are broadcast across the peer-to-peer network, validated by each node, assembled (for a fee) by 'bitcoin miners' into a new block which is then rebroadcast (there's a kind of race to finish a new one), the new block being finally stacked by each full node onto its local copy of the ever-growing blockchain. The protocol provides mechanisms to ensure global consistency as divergences (forks) are quickly damped out.

Transactions are protected (signed) by private keys (permitting you to spend your own coins) and public keys - used to construct bitcoin addresses (like bank account numbers) to which payments are addressed, and also serving to validate signatures.

The mechanism is illustrated by this diagram from Satoshi Nakamoto's original short paper (PDF) which has taken me hours to properly understand.

The bitcoin chain of ownership

There are endless overviews of bitcoin which handwave about how it works. You will never understand bitcoin that way, because the reason it works is in the detail. Andreas M. Antonopoulos's book contains that detail and is accessible if you already know about public key cryptography, cryptographic hashing and digital signatures.

The book itself is focused on developers - plenty of code examples - and is weaker on the overall architecture and those essential usage models. However, if you read it alongside Satoshi Nakamoto's original paper and the Wikipedia article on bitcoin, then you will get there -- and be both amazed and impressed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Reincarnated as a .. chatbot?

My avatar for my own reincarnation chatbot - finally a hipster

Mark Bridge has an interesting piece in The Times today, "Good grief: chatbots will let you talk to dead relatives".
"Anyone grieving for a loved one will soon be able to talk to them using artificial intelligence technology pioneered by a woman who lost her best friend.

"Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of Luka, a US technology company, has used the latest in AI systems to create a virtual version of Roman Mazurenko, who was killed in a road accident last year, days before his 33rd birthday.

"She fed more than 8,000 lines of text messages sent by Mr Mazurenko into a Google programme that allows people to create their own “chatbots” — computer programmes designed to simulate conversation with human users.

"The chatbot responds to questions in language that mimics Mr Mazurenko’s speech patterns so that she and other friends can “talk” to him as part of the grieving process.

"Ms Kuyda, 29, said that any doubts she had about the technology were allayed when the bot responded to her first questions in a tone that sounded like her friend."

... more.
There's plainly a market here, but what's the product?

I think a pitch to the grieving relatives is wrong, it's akin to not leaving your affairs in order. Who is best placed to create your after-death digital alter ego?


Everyone thinks they're unique, but personality research shows that this is not so. The Myers-Briggs instrument, for example, will allocate you one of 16 Personality Types. Despite sniffiness in the academic community, Myers-Briggs has received plenty of real world validation.*

So here's what you do. First purchase your 'eternal digital doppelganger', an app which connects back to the Cloud where the deep-learning engine resides, along with your about-to-be-constructed  cryptographically-assured personality database.

This is probably your mind.

Once the app is installed and has been given the maximum set of permissions, you do the interview:
  • A personality test determines your kernel personality-type,
  • An IQ test assigns the number of cores/gigaflops required to run you,
  • You point the chatbot to your digital life.
So the app checks you out on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, your email accounts, your blog if you have one,  your Google account (photos, videos, appointments, travels .. God, Google knows everything!), and so on.

Everything is cross-referenced to your well-documented social network plus current affairs to create that essential context which will predict your responses in future.

Once the neural net has crunched all this and built up the associational model, your alter ego will sit with you for the rest of your life, peeking over your shoulder and getting more and more like you**.

In fact after you die, many - or even most - people will remain entirely unaware of the fact.

Wait, haven't I just described Google's plan for Assistant?


* A person's personality is a point in some high-dimensional phase space which we don't yet fully understand. Myers-Briggs, the Five Factor Model and other personality theories are projective subspaces from this ultimate model. That's why it's pointless to throw rocks in these entertaining academic feuds.

** As always, Greg Egan got there first, 'Learning To Be Me' in Axiomatic.


I even have a good name for the reincarnation chatbot - altar ego ©.

"Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum"

Ss Joseph & Teresa Catholic Church, Wells

The Carmelite motto:
"The motto of the Carmelite Order is: “Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum.” This powerful expression is a direct quote of the words of Elijah from the First Book of Kings, 19:10: “With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.”
I struggled with this at first, as I recalled being taught that Latin lacked the letter 'z'. Not entirely so.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Etiolated liberalism, the hollow triumph of the superego

From Ross Douthat's op-ed piece in the NY Times (via Marginal Revolution).
"THE Western system — liberal, democratic, capitalist — has been essentially unchallenged from the inside for decades, its ideological rivals discredited or tamed. Marxists retreated to academic fastnesses, fascists to online message boards, and Western Christianity accepted pluralism and abandoned throne-and-altar dreams.

"The liberal system’s weak spots did not go away. It delivered peace and order and prosperity, but it attenuated pre-liberal forces – tribal, familial, religious — that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.

"Those needs endured, muted but not eliminated by greater social equality and rising G.D.P. Nonetheless the liberal consensus seemed impressively resilient, even in the midst of elite misgovernment. 9/11 did not shake it meaningfully, nor did the Iraq war, and it seemed at first to weather the financial crisis as well.

"Now, though, there is suddenly resistance. Its political form is an angry nationalism, a revolt of the masses in both the United States and Europe. But the more important development may be happening in intellectual circles, where many younger writers regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed.


"The first post-liberal school might be called the new radicals, a constellation of left-wing writers for whom the Marxist dream lives anew.


"The illiberalism of these new radicals is mirrored among the new reactionaries, a group defined by skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism, admiration for more hierarchical orders, and a willingness to overthrow the Western status quo.


"Then finally there is a third group of post-liberals, less prominent but still culturally significant: Religious dissenters. These are Western Christians, especially, who regard both liberal and neoconservative styles of Christian politics as failed experiments, doomed because they sought reconciliation with a liberal project whose professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief.


"And all three post-liberal tendencies are in synch with aspects of the populisms roiling the West’s politics: the radicals with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos and Syriza, the neo-reactionaries with Trump and Brexit and Le Pen, the Catholic integralists with Eastern Europe’s rightward turn.

"So their ideas are, perhaps, genuinely dangerous to the order we take for granted in the West. Or — it all depends — they might be beneficial, because liberal civilization’s flourishing has often depended on forces that a merely procedural order can’t generate, on radical and religious correctives to a flattened view of human life.

"When those correctives are in short supply, the entire system becomes decadent. When they re-emerge, it’s best to learn from them — or else the next correction will be worse."

Douthat is writing in the ultraliberal New York Times which accounts for his dessicated take on all this. The ring of truth in his piece is that liberalism imposes a model of unfailingly prosocial, utterly good-natured citizenship which could consistently be carried through only by genetically-engineered or lobotomised humans.

It only works at all if normal human emotions can be atomised and damped down: a society without ego or id.

But these are not normal times, as Mr Douthat has observed.

Worth reading the whole thing.

On becoming a hipster

As mentioned in my previous post, I started reading the above thinking it would explain about Bitcoin, Ethereum and the blockchain. Sadly, I was mistaken. It's a business book with the same airy hand-waving that you get in popular science books 'explaining' quantum mechanics to the unwashed.

I decided I had to read this first (always O'Reilly!).

Amazon link

So far it's excellent although conceptually deep. You need to know about public key cryptography, digital signatures and hashing as prerequisites; I read with Wikipedia open on my other screen-based device (Base58? Remind me).

When I'm done with Mr Antonopoulos I'll return to Mr Mougayar.

Update: here's my "Mastering Bitcoin" review.

Bitcoin and similar have something else in common with quantum mechanics. Many people have a vague semi-familiarity with both topics (shared ledger, peer-to-peer; probabilities, collapse-of-the-wave-function-whatever-that-is) but to get to a proper understanding takes really significant hard work and the assimilation of a number of difficult intermediary concepts.

Finally, the student does 'get it':

"Finally I understand how [the blockchain; quantum mechanics] really works!"

And then they find they can't explain it to anyone who hasn't shared their arduous journey.


A Mummer's Farce

Could someone explain why BBC and ITV news presenters are using their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language to indicate the authorised emotional reaction to news items?
  • "Donald Trump said ..." - the face contorts into refined distaste; 
  • "Refugees in 'The Jungle', Calais ..." - the face beams as if an indulgent relative; 
  • "Britain has just won another Gold medal at ..." - official joy, rejoice!
I'm sick of this manipulative, insinuating nonsense; you?


"The hipster subculture is composed of affluent or middle class youth who reside primarily in gentrifying neighborhoods. It is broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, vintage and thrift store-bought clothing, generally progressive political views, organic and artisanal foods, and alternative lifestyles. The subculture typically consists of white millennials living in urban areas."
I'm considering becoming a hipster. I already have the physique I think (do you like the new exercise bike?).

Amazon link

The concept of 'hipster' is an example of what Wittgenstein called a 'language game'. There is no one set of necessary and sufficient defining conditions: you don't need to have your slim jeans rolled up or to wear a plaid shirt - although these things help. Nor do you need a beard (though that certainly helps!) or serve in an artisanal cafe, or be fascinated by all things wood.

Somehow I have to stop being my father: green Gore Tex anorak, beige trousers, dad-trainers (above). I won't get everything right: I can't imagine doing the rounds of the charity shops.

I think my lunge for full hipsterdom may start at a large Bristol department store.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Go Geth Ethereum

Amazon link

I was enrolled into the Amazon Vine programme back in 2008 (Amazon post a list of stuff they want reviewed tailored to your interests, you choose an item, they send it to you for free, you review it). In the old days there was a monthly email but that, for some reason, got discontinued. I assumed the Vine scheme had lapsed.

Still, you continue to get personal kudos, even on reviews for products you paid good money for.

But Vine is not dead - you merely have to hunt a bit for the obscured product page. Most of my items there seemed bizarre: Mills and Boon style romances, children's books, iPhone covers .. but there was one which looked tolerably interesting and I selected it, half-thinking to test whether Vine was still working for me.

"The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice, and Application of the Next Internet Technology" by William Mougayar  (Author), Vitalik Buterin (Foreword), arrived yesterday afternoon.

Vitalik Buterin is a 22 year old wunderkind and a founder of Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Ethereum? I knew I had heard something about that recently. I vaguely recalled it was 'bitcoin on steroids', a blockchain with added scripting language which had been hacked! Since the code was meant to be authoritative, no-one knew what to do about that at the time.

Synchronicity. SSC pointed to this breathless tech-journalism and I was transported back to the land of Neal Stephenson: 'Snow Crash' and 'Cryptonomicon'.
"It’s 4am and I’m sitting in a hotel room in Shanghai, China. The second ever Ethereum developers conference is set to kick off in a few hours. The time-zone shift woke me up early, and I’m sitting in my bed playing with my newly modded phone. The Chinese government censors most large American mobile apps behind something colloquially referred to as “The Great Firewall” so you need to use all of these shoddily made, Chinese government approved, replacement apps instead.

"The preferred app for messaging is an app called WeChat, a bizarre Slack / Venmo / Tinder hybrid that 800 million people use to communicate every day. We have a group chatroom for the conference going, which I’m scrolling through when my phone buzzes. Someone posted a new message. “The Ethereum network is under attack”.

"Ethereum is this insane thing going on in the tech world right now. It’s a new cryptocurrency that is picking up the pieces of the fractured Bitcoin ecosystem and trying to succeed in accomplishing what Bitcoin has failed to do, deliver the first batch of successful consumer applications built on top of blockchain technology. You can think of Bitcoin a bit like a shared google doc spreadsheet that anyone in the world can send data to, one global ledger of accounts and balances. Ethereum builds on this idea by providing a mechanism for users to add custom formulas into the cells.

"Anyone who has done any kind of Microsoft Excel programming knows how powerful spreadsheets can become with just a few simple formulas. Ethereum is the first working implementation of programmable money, a simple concept that may one day bring the entire global financial system to it’s knees. And it draws brilliant people from all walks of life into its orbit.

The 4AM attack on the network is bizarre in that it’s not really a malicious hack, but more like comical mischief. Ethereum runs as a distributed system. At any given time, there will be thousands of separate computers (also called nodes) running the Ethereum protocol and keeping the network online. The actual software that the computers use to run the Ethereum protocol comes in many different flavors, the most popular one is an application called Geth, written in Google’s Go programming language. 85% of all Ethereum nodes are running Geth at the time.

"The attack pushes a piece of data onto the blockchain that exploits a bug in the Geth software causing the program to crash. Because every live node syncs the latest version of the blockchain in real-time, just like that 85% of the Ethereum network goes offline. Some developers are able to respond by switching over to the Parity Ethereum client, a new client written in the high-performant Rust Language that is currently gaining market share, but for others switching over to Parity is too risky without having time to run extensive testing. The Ethereum network is essentially frozen until an update can be pushed to Geth.

"The main developers of Geth are asleep in Shanghai. They might not even have their laptops with them, as it’s risky to take your work computer into mainland China if it contains any sensitive information. They’re also scheduled to go on stage and give a presentation in a couple hours. When they wake up, do they fix the bug and miss their talk or go onto the stage? Like I said, comical mischief."
And so it continues.

I can hardly wait. My review should be up in a week or so.