Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Cult of Null-A

In "The World of Null-A" (1945) and "The Pawns of Null-A" (1956) A. E. Van Vogt was writing as a disciple of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics. I was going to write some thoughts on this, where it is now etc, but of course Wikipedia got there well before me.

Many people from Lao Tsu onwards have observed that the map is not the territory; the world is too complex to be circumscribed by mere words - language misleads by imposing simplistic models and categories on an always-more-complex-and-dynamic reality. Characterising this insight as 'non-Aristotelian logic' (null-A) is intellectual catch-up.

The cult-aspect arises from training purporting to suppress mindless emotionalism in favour of rational responses to life's complexities. There is of course something to it - rationality can offer superior solutions - but pure rationality is motiveless: there's always some underlying biological impulse driving our actions. Who's to say that murderously lashing out isn't sometimes the right answer? Certainly not the game theorists who analyse the logic of revenge. Suppressing your own emotions subcontracts your goals to those of others (the corporation, the state) while nullifying kindness, mercy or empathy.

Null-A's unemotional, hyper-rational supermen seem more like idealised Gestapo agents than heroes to me, although Van Vogt clearly liked them.*


On a related topic, the prospects of genetically engineering our children never goes away, with daily reporting of advances in genetic sequencing, analysis and engineering. The professionally-horrified (it's ethically wrong to play God) seem to think we'd all elect for a kind of bland niceness: beautiful/handsome clone-ish people, uniformly smart and nice.

Game theory applies here as well: if the majority elected to have their children fashioned as doves, it would be very much in the interests of some to fashion their progeny as hawks!


* This is a bit unfair, as Van Vogt seems to believe that the Null-A trained do not suppress but are consciously aware of their emotional reactions, integrating them as 'facts' into a supremely cerebral response through the famous 'cortical-thalamic pause'.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Glastonbury on Speed

... or as I would prefer to title it: Glastonbury with guns.

Kafka wrote the prototypical airshow report with his 1909 piece "The Aeroplanes at Brescia" which I just re-read. Of course he had Italians to write about - a rich seam. With the stout folk of Somerset it's safer perhaps to let the pictures speak for themselves.

What I wanted from the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton was low, exceedingly noisy, very fast jets. They were mostly there - though they seem to veer away from breaking the sound barrier over the runway at fifty feet, to my intense disappointment.

Stall after stall sold fish 'n' chips, pies, AA membership, aircraft DVDs and Mr Whippy. There was a bungee trampoline and a Eurofighter simulator; static displays of vintage cars, military vehicles and heritage aircraft. The grass beside the runway was thronged with thousands of picnickers; and here are the pix.

As I mentioned: Glastonbury with guns

The author: with helicopters

A woman with an ice-bottle on her head

A Vulcan bomber - as used in the Falklands

An F16 'Fighting Falcon'

The F18 Hornet on a fast, low pass

Not a huge fan of airshows .. but enjoyed the picnic

Our car was parked maybe a kilometre from the runways. We trudged back laden through the mid-afternoon heat - and hilariously, we couldn't find it. We split up and after ten minutes or so I managed to locate it - hundreds of metres away from where I had thought it was: no sign of Clare.

I carefully climbed onto the bonnet and looked around
" stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien." 
She was wandering a couple of hundred metres away, tired, hot and dispirited. I shouted and hollered, clapped and waved - to no avail. Finally I drove through the heavily mown grass to the dirt road and caught her up, to her extreme delight. Going home, we were in aircon heaven.

Update: Back home I said to Clare, "There's got to be an app for that. You know, click when you park and then later you just fire up the app and it shows an arrow and how far away you are from your car."  She replied, "Well, write it and you'll make a million!"

Sadly, the Google app store has 'quite a few' already and I downloaded this one - My Car Locator - which functions just as I had imagined.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Death and sex

Selection, artificial and natural - a wonderful concept.

Those serious-minded jihadis out in the Caliphate raise psychopathy to new levels. I expect the prospects of joining them in their exciting campaign of mutilation, amputation, beheading, FGM and crucifixion will likely prove more attractive to UK psychopaths than the average religiously-observant regular guy who has a bit of empathy. And so the pit is dug deeper.

A completely different example of selection. Nature used to select women with an interest in sex (hard to believe, perhaps, but how could it be otherwise?).

These days, in advanced countries with contraception, selection is for women who actively like children (or are too unconscientious or unmotivated to use birth control). Interesting to speculate on the psychological and social consequences in future generations.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Starting the new assignment

As a consultant (telecoms in my case) every new contract was like starting a new job: it gets better with practice. Here are my top three super-hints for doing it right.

1. Be a 'yes' person

Tom Wolfe in 'Bonfire of the Vanities' reminded us of the 'favour bank'. This is the informal register of favours done vs received. It's essential to build your credit when newly in position .. so show willing. Success and effectiveness go to the friendly and cooperative.

Effective consultants know this.

2. Suck it up

Most people are idiots aren't they. Self-important, opinionated, biased, short-termist, incapable of seeing the obvious, blind to detail .. just plain wrong.

Most of these people are your colleagues and some are your superiors (obviously only in a bureaucratic, hierarchical sense). Still, they seem to have uncanny antennae for the partly-suppressed sneer of contempt.

It's helpful if you can think of them as clients who cannot be wrong .. but may need friendly and diplomatic assistance in seeing things exactly correctly.

3. The first week is the worst

Day one you know nothing and no one. My first priority was to draw up a chart showing everyone I had to deal with, detailing their role and place in the organisation chart.

Next I would note each person's location, mobile phone and email address .. making sure to capture this in Contacts on my laptop/mobile.

Then I would get copies of all relevant documents so I had an idea of what was expected.

Good to go!


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Iain M. Banks: still read in 20 years time?

Will Iain M. Banks' science fiction still be read in the middle future? Golden age authors such as Heinlein, Van Vogt and Philip K. Dick have held up well;  others such as Asimov and Clarke not so much.

I'm not optimistic about Banks. His Culture novels - great tomes that they are - sprawled towards increasingly complex and unmemorable plots. They are undeniably intelligent but seem (like much contemporary writing) to lack authorial conviction and intensity. Style trumping passion.

You write best when you really care about something, the writing borne aloft by longing, hope and fury.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life's transitions

Putting aside the many mini-transitions of school, the first significant life transition I recall was in my mid-twenties. Suddenly all the people hanging-out and going to parties were younger than me: my own age-cohort was moving on. A couple of years later I was married and starting a career in computer programming.

I don't really recall any transitions in my thirties through to my fifties. I got more senior but somehow we were all 'in it together' - same culture, same pre-occupations, same corporate-speak.

The strange transition to being old has come upon me slowly. Over the last few years I've come to be detached from those 30-50-somethings. It's some visceral thing, like all of life's transitions: nothing you can put your finger on, no qualitative decline in energy or cognition, just a sense that you've departed (or been ejected from) that younger cohort.

Is this the last transition? I don't think so. When I look at people half a generation up from me - folk in their late seventies and beyond (the 'old old' as distinct from the 'young old') - I see another phase change, another transition in my potential future.

Transitions happen to you: they don't emerge from the inside. It's a collective, visceral judgement of a younger cohort - of reclassification and exclusion. It places a burden upon you of mental adjustment, to 'act your age' and to accept that you have to make a psychological transition, to match the social one already imposed upon you.

Ageism? No. I detect the signs of something deep in the human psyche.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Devonshire cottage

A weekend with Clare's niece and her husband in a Devon cottage, a few miles north of Bude.

Clare watches Le Tour in our cottage

A nearby Devon cove

The author - hey, lighten up there!

Picnic at Hartland Quay

Dinner at The Old Smithy

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Woke up recalling a dream where I was working as the new member of a warehouse team - probably as an Amazon elf. Awesome, isn't it, how the brain can create simulations of other people with their own personalities in dreams?

Then I recalled that's how it is when you're awake as well. Everyone you deal with, your brain has created a simulation model of them which you mistakenly believe to be 'out there' and objective. Your brain fabricates that creative illusion by neural activity alone.

Then I thought. That's got to apply to me too - I must be a self-model. No wonder other people are amazed at my self-delusions. I remind myself this is only what my simulations of them are saying -although these have proven remarkably accurate in the past.

I idly wonder how stupid people can ever create accurate simulations - in their sorry apologies for brains - of smart people? Obviously they can't.

I then remind myself of how often my own predictions of other people's responses go sadly awry. I hurriedly move on.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Not so smart

I see the 'experts' are setting a date for ‘high–level machine intelligence’ = one that can carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human about 50 years out from now.

If they were really expert they would know just how stupid this proposition is. Consider this: you have never seen a self-hating computer system. To loathe yourself you have to be a multitude: one part standing judgement over another for its presumed failings. Poor design for artifacts, but comes with the territory for social creatures bent only on their best options for genetic-survival. Why build any of those on our own cute planet?

There's more to smart than passing heavily g-loaded IQ tests.


It's embarrassing, though, when you can't do the first question on an intelligence test for four year old kindergarten kids. Ambiguous picture, heh?


Lunch yesterday with my brother Adrian and mother in Bristol. I'm the one who never gets the celebrity PR right.

At the 'King Billy', Hallen

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The letter from hell

Clearing out my files today I found this wonderful letter, as sent to my parents when I was aged twenty (1971). Click on image to see full-sized. The arrogance and self-confidence of youth. I believe it was not well received; the point at the end - about the car - is particularly impressive.

I see I already posted this back in March 2011.

Truly the letter from hell