Thursday, July 19, 2018

Goodbye to The Economist

Dear Sir/Madam,

This is to inform you that I have cancelled my Direct Debit to The Economist, due in August 2018. My customer reference number is *******.

The reason is that I am increasingly exasperated by the partisan slant of your articles, particularly on politics and culture. Instead of analysing and explaining the great changes afoot in the world (where I commend Irwin Stelzer for example), your articles are highly partisan on one side of the debate. You could be writing for the UK Liberal Party or the US Clintonite Democrats. In cultural pieces your journalists consistently indulge blank-slate, Guardian-style prejudices, offending the intelligence of your readership.

It's a shame. There are pockets of analysis in your science section and the generally excellent technology quarterly that I shall miss.

Regards, etc

Monday, July 16, 2018

"Steps Toward Super Intelligence" - Rodney Brooks

Rodney Brooks's long-awaited essay has now arrived. It's in four parts starting here: Steps Toward Super Intelligence I, How We Got Here.

Follow the links therein to read the three subsequent parts, or click here: two, three, four.

Rodney Brooks

I fleetingly met Rodney Brooks once, at an AI conference in London. I guess this would be in the 1980s when he was already rather famous for his controversial 'subsumption architecture'. He was a small guy who reminded me of Paul Simon. He politely asked me what I did and I pompously replied that I was an AI theoretician. He looked at me as I would have looked at someone from, say, Andorra who claimed to be an 'AI theoretician'.

The eminent roboticist gracefully made his apologies and moved on.

My subsequent encounter with Rodney Brooks was indirectly via our purchase of several vacuum cleaners from his highly successful company, iRobot. They were excellent.

The essays too are uniformly excellent.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

"Comments" now posted

Apologies to those people who sent comments which I apparently ignored. Google failed to send me the notification emails. Thanks, Roy.

I've now gone through the backlog (sorry again!) and they're up now.

Keep them coming!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Variational Principles

Amazon link

Like Ted Chiang ('Arrival'/'Story of Your Life') I am a huge fan of variational principles. I was therefore pleased to discover Jennifer Coopersmith's well-regarded book (above). She has a good article about the connection between Newtonian Mechanics and the Principle of Least Action which I stumbled across when I was thinking about something quite different .. .


First Brexit. Beneath the daily froth of politics find the plate tectonics of political-economy. Political forms and institutions seek their stable equilibria, their maximal-entropy configuration. There's a variational principle here!

The UK is a small island abutting a Franco-German empire . The EU likes to drape itself in high-falutin' ideals but it's really about elite power and economic efficiency. Institutionally it's in crisis. Neoliberal stagnation and decay has frayed the bonds of social cohesion across the western world. Yet the economics of international supply chains, specialisation and scale permit no national regression. The consequent collapse-process is slow and uneven - and BRINO was perhaps always the fated outcome in this phase.


I was also thinking of my days as a BNR network planner in the 1990s, bringing modernity to the ex-socialist states of Eastern Europe. I was a frequent flyer, regularly presenting Nortel's model for modern network design to Polish, Hungarian and Romanian telecom planners.

We would take a country and look up the main town and cities in an atlas. We'd carefully measure the distance between every pair of towns to create a distance matrix. Then we'd check the populations figures: so many thousands of people per city, and apply a multiplier to work out the total traffic generated (erlangs in those days, now G/Tbps).

Next came the clever part. We used a gravity model on the inter-city distance matrix to work out how much traffic each link would have to carry. As I recall, we didn't use an inverse-square law: empirically that was too sharp a cut-off. A 1/distance rule worked better. So now we had a traffic matrix.

This was input into our network design tool, and out came design-graphics and equipment lists for access, aggregation and long distance core networks. Our audience, people who'd been using pencil and paper hitherto, were awestruck.

We made a lot of sales.

I mention this only because our solutions, too, seemed instances of a variational principle. The least cost solution to support a 'traffic potential field'.


Update: Gwern has researched all this to within one inch of its life.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Three cute cats

"What did you think of the previous post?" had more than 159 hits over the last week.

Were they all there for the concept of '2'? No. Here's what you guys really crave .. .

Our legendary HP printer with yet another fan

That thing they do on the carpet. So cute.

Shadow on his first day with us.

Normal service will be resumed shortly. Enjoy a sunny Sunday.

Friday, July 06, 2018

"They choke horses, don't they?"

It was a sunny afternoon, nearly as hot as the famed July of 2018. Clare was setting up a picnic table in the back garden when I exclaimed,
"Look what I found under the stairs!"
I had been looking for seldom-used barbecue coals.

"It's a six-pack of those carbonated water bottles that Waitrose used to sell."
These had been unavailable since the great plastic panic of 2018-19.
"Wow! Bring one out and we'll have it with the wine."
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood protection drone cruised up our street on its stealthed rotors. Fully autonomous, it provided a complete suite of crime prevention and counter-terrorism functions.

A shadow crossed my path as I stepped into the brilliant sunlight of our back garden - a shadow followed by a great sky-shout:
"Stop! Put down the plastic bottle! Back away with your hands up!"
With a glance at the malevolent predator thirty feet above me, I slowly and carefully complied. An elderly man just a few months ago, crying defiance, had ineffectually held a similar plastic bottle to his chest. Next thing he was rolling on the ground in agony. Taser flechettes.

I needed a story for the SWAT team already on its way.

Sat on the ground with my hands on my head as the thing maintained its surveillance, I turned to Clare who had her hands over her mouth in horror.
"You remember back in 2018 there was that carbon dioxide shortage? When it turned out that they'd be using it to 'stun' animals before slaughter? As if suffocating an animal with carbon dioxide - like putting a plastic bag over its head - wasn't the cruellest thing, much more cruel than simply slitting its throat.

"I reckoned the animal rights people, the liberals, would be all over it. But not a peep. No moral high ground on choice of gas, you see. No kudos in nitrogen.

"But plastic - huh! - what's not to like?
As my hands were taped behind me and I was marched off to the van, I figured most likely they would not make a terrorist rap stick.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Huawei MediaPad M3 10" Lite Tablet

Clare with her new tablet and its girly cover

Huawei MediaPad M3 10" Lite Tablet: Amazon link

Clare got her (refurbished) Nexus 10 tablet back in September 2016. I suppose two years or thereabouts is the expected lifetime of a tablet. In fact over the last twelve months it's developed a common Nexus 10 problem: from a full charge the battery runs down rapidly and after a couple of hours - despite ~50% charge remaining - the tablet shuts down. She has ended up using the device in tethered mode, largely undermining the intended experience.

So today we make a new start with Huawei's M3, a device which I chose based on its solid battery life and fingerprint security. It's also pretty fast - which mainly buys you future-proofing.

The Nexus 10 - which I was prepared to junk - has migrated to her bedside.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

"Angelmaker": free will and quantum indeterminacy

Amazon link

In “Angelmaker’, Nick Harkaway’s Apprehension Engine MacGuffin threatens to bring complete truth to the human race, in the process necessarily eliminating quantum uncertainty. According to the government agency tasked with suppressing this dastardly plot, this would end reality as we know it. People would be reduced to Laplacian clockwork automata; Free Will would vanish.

The agency is most likely wrong about that, and I'm still too early in the novel to determine whether the author shares that belief (which incidentally didn't seem all that upsetting to Laplace).


AI researchers tend to take it as axiomatic that human consciousness (including the illusory sense of free will) may be implemented on a classical computer - no explicit quantum phenomena there.

But are they right?

Neurons are chemistry and chemistry is an effective theory largely decoupled from its quantum foundations. Indeed it's news when a non-classical mechanism is discovered within the chemistry of the cell, such as electron tunneling transport in ATP synthesis.

But nothing in biology depends upon 'the collapse of the wave function’.

In my QM course (SM358) we discussed atomic and molecular structure in terms of orbitals - solutions of the time-independent Schrödinger equation. There were no quantum fluctuations (except for the miniscule Lamb shift), and nowhere for free will to be smuggled in.

Amazon link

I'm reminded of Greg Egan's (classical simulation) Autoverse in his novel Permutation City. If our universe could be re-engineered to work in a Laplacian fashion (and maybe it does) I don't think in a state of nature we'd really notice. Historically, people didn't, you know.


I wrote this today while Clare was swimming. Strangely, Google didn't autocomplete this one.


Backreaction has a post on this very subject just out. Take a look.

Thoughts of a biological neural net

This post is hard to write .. and equally hard to read and internalise.
"The passion between Darcy and Elizabeth was frozen in time, locked down by the strictures of Regency England. As they are driven away after their wedding, the final shot shows Darcy leaning across Elizabeth: finally, finally! - their lips touch."
How romantic.

I have read science-fiction stories which would narrate the scene thus:
"The larger protoplasmic bag of fluids and guts slithered towards the smaller one. The damp, tumescent borders of their ingestion orifices made contact and an exchange of mucus and pre-digestion fluids took place."
You see what I did there. But it's a reframing designed to elicit disgust - and that's not what this post is about. Try this:
"The two multicellular systems were positioned adjacently in the carriage. Both neural nets, housed in their respective skull cavities, were in a state of dynamic tension. Brainstem and limbic arousal (evolved to coordinate mating behaviour) was suppressed by higher cortical inhibition (encoding social norms). Only a small preliminary act escaped this standoff, which duly occurred."
The stance of the engineer or evolutionary biologist - abstracting from the emotional experience of being human. The fish doesn't see the water it swims in; we don't see each other the way the Martian Anthropologist (or a psychopath) would.

Yet it is the truth.

When I consider myself not as a Cartesian 'person’ but as a mobile biological neural net with a defined lifespan, I find that somehow reassuring (the truth shall set you free), no matter that it is subversive of every possible ambition, sentiment or point. But none of us (putting aside psychopathy) can consistently live our lives like that. We're hardwired not to - it would be evolutionarily self-defeating - indeed, how does it feel to you to even engage with this line of thought?

Scott Bakker, in his blog Three Pound Brain, has been arguing this it seems like forever.

Monday, July 02, 2018

"The end of spacetime" - Nima Arkani-Hamed

Recently via Lubos Motl's blog.

"Nima Arkani-Hamed talks about the demise of spacetime, simplification in QFT, amplituhedrons which turn scattering amplitudes into high school geometry volumes, and other things."
Ideal if you have a spare ninety minutes 😏 .. . It's a public lecture, so not too technical.

"The Last Samurai" is a work of genius

Amazon link

From the New York Times review:
"The progenitor of these projects is Sibylla, a woman of frightening intellectual intensity who trades America for Oxford in an attempt to avoid a family tradition of dreams deferred. Frustrated by the limited scope of her Oxford studies, she soon drops out, opting for a precarious existence at society's margins in a sad parallel to the American life she had tried to escape.

Nine months after a drunken tryst with a popular travel writer, Sibylla gives birth to Ludo, a child prodigy who at 4 is reading the ''Odyssey'' in Greek. Sibylla refuses Ludo knowledge of his father because she can't bear the idea of involving such a banal man in the life of her son.

As a father substitute, Sibylla offers Kurosawa's film ''The Seven Samurai,'' which she watches obsessively in her attempt to escape the drudgery and mediocrity of the real world. Rather than sating Ludo's paternal yearnings, the film inspires him to embark, at 11, upon a quest to choose his own father. ...

Ludo shares the novel's narrative center with a cast of seven potential fathers, one literal and six wishful, whom Ludo seeks out during his Kurosawa-inspired quest. The lives of these men are provided in asides that almost constitute a short-story collection within the body of the novel.

DeWitt's imaginative powers are showcased here as she details these engaging and eccentric men, luminaries in fields ranging from astronomy to professional bridge. DeWitt's facility with their stories is so convincing that you wonder, briefly, if these characters are based upon historical figures -- a true marker of effective fiction.

Ironically, these men often feel more real than Sibylla herself, who becomes more a collection of quirks than a multidimensional presence."
The Last Samurai is laugh-out-loud funny, highly ingenious and a page-turner; it's rationalist-libertarian, self-satirical and smart. I have her latest, Some Trick, on the stack downstairs.

Amazon link

Here's the more erudite Paris Review on DeWitt's novel.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Huawei Honor 10 (mobile phone)

From the Amazon site:
"With a 19:9 Inch FHD+ all screen display, 4 GB RAM plus 128 GB ROM, enhanced dual camera, super charge and the Android 8 software. Honor 10 is also powered by an AI processor boosting the performance to the higher level in market.

Honor 10 will be the AI phone with its stunning design and photo capabilities."
Naturally, I couldn't resist the 'AI phone'.

Honor 10: Amazon link

So the Honor 6X, bought thirteen months ago, has undergone accelerated depreciation and now transfers to Alex where it will replace his previous hand-me-down, a cracked-screen Galaxy S3. Call me altruistic.


The Honor 10 doesn't need an SD card (I had to buy a 64GB card for the 6X) because of its 128GB internal storage. It also uses the new Type-C USB power cable with a high-power Supercharger, which makes it incompatible with all my other phone chargers.

Other than that and the usual security/authentication hurdles, Google restored my apps and data and I just have to sit down now for an hour and reconstruct my screen app-layout, my favourite settings and re-login to all my apps.

I also want to know just how smart its built-in AI is (it's currently contextually-improving image quality for the camera - reviewers say it could in future do so much more).