Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Wednesday done and 'to do' list

1. Reviews written of James Gaines' book on J. S. Bach and Frederick the Great + The Rule of Three, by Jagdish Sheth and Rajendra Sisodia + Personality in Adulthood, the Five-Factor Model, by McCrae and Costa.

2. My Creative Zen Sleek MP3 player powered up, configured and around 23 albums transferred: took most of the day and was nothing like as 'intuitive' as has been billed. I am radically underwhelmed to be called antisocial as I lie back on a recliner and listen to some really sublime stuff :-(

3. Note to self: buy a BIG external (USB2) disk drive - my PC has passed the magic 85% full point where defrags stop working, and I have run out of dross to delete.

To do: rewrite the book chapter on business strategy, around concepts of the rule of 3.

Noted: my book now has a price and publication date here.

Further note to self: being totally focused on getting a backlog of tasks done over the Christmas holiday can be perceived by family members as not wholly entering into the spirit of things: try to make amends. (And hope blog does not descend into a pastiche of Bridget Jones' Diary).

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Choosing you

More on the subject of trans-humanism and the singularity.

The community interested in this subject talk about uploading one's mind, or personality, to a hardware 'silicon' substrate. There are two ways this could be imagined.

1. A scanning process which maps brain cells into a 'silicon analogue': analogous to photocopying or making a bitmap of something. This would have to be done carefully, as the brain is more than an electrical neural network. Each cell, neuron or glial, is a giant by nanotechnological standards, and has many hormonal/chemical responses as well as the standard synaptic inter-neuron communications. I think this was the basis of John Searle's critique of AI.

2. More interestingly, your brain could be parsed into its major functional components and settings. Now you have some choices. Want to be more extravert? Following the parsing stage, modify the descriptor file to increase extraversion and then burn to substrate. It is clear that we all live in personality space somewhere, so by this means you could turn into any other type of person at all - but would you still be you?

We are again venturing into Greg Egan territory - many of his books and stories explore these ideas. My question is as in the previous post: why bother?

I think given that we start as motivated beings (the recursive base case, if you like), we would choose personality models - if we could - which explored other drives, not 'no drives'. Choices which made for a richer social interaction would simply promise more fun: social isolation would be few people's choice.

If it were me, I would insist that after a prescribed period I would be restored to my base personality case, albeit with my new memories. This to ensure I was not captured by my 'trial personality'. Readers of Greg Egan's Quarantine will be familar with the argument.

I am grateful to Alex Alaniz for mentioning some of these issues to me in a note.

Friday, December 23, 2005

What would motivate something really smart?

In Iain Bank's 'Culture' books the somewhat smarter humans mostly seem to want to party, while the truly intelligent AI 'minds' are doing something incomprehensible involving higher maths or something.

In Peter Hamilton's 'Night's Dawn', the motivation of intelligent humankind is said to be to 'have experiences', while in 'Pandora's Star', the distributed-intelligence alien seems to have a primitive 'will-to-power'.

All SF writers have the problem of the motivation of super-intelligent aliens, and all aliens are ourselves. Their motivations are projections of our own drives and passions, whether those are domination, hedonism, empathy or curiosity (cf. Keirsey's temperaments) - but whence those drives in the first place?

A sufficiently-intelligent entity will surely reason thus: the Universe provides no built-in objectives - it's a space-time block (or multiblock depending on your favourite cosmology). Darwinian evolution has generated contingent survival architectures manifesting themselves as drives for the 'four F's' as well as the more specifically human drives of sociality, empathy, curiousity and problem-solving.

But rather than submit blindly to any drives at all emerging from our pre-consciousness, why - rationally - do anything at all? Behind the accidents of our biological history, there really is no reason to do anything.

So here is one realisation of the Fermi paradox: the truly-intelligent realised the futility of it all, and turned themselves off. Of course, in reality, such an outcome is an evolutionary blind-alley. And that compromise between emotion and rationality represented in humanity is more than competent to spread through the galaxy, so that solution to Fermi doesn't really work.

It actually gets worse. Consider that intelligence is just a module [some combination of creativity (useful new axioms, if you like) and inference (drawing non-trivial consequences)]. Although 'intelligence' may draw nihilistic conclusions about motives, the module itself is not implicated in the motives themselves. So under the impact of powerful drives, intelligence remains a tool for their implementation anyhow.

Maybe we should worry about those super-smart predator-aliens after all!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sunday odds and ends

I was going to post something about the 'singularity'. This is the idea, associated with Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil amongst others, that super-intelligent AIs will emerge around 2030 and will positively feedback their own evolution until the rate of technology change goes through the roof and humanity transcends or something.

On reflection, this idea seems so self-evidently ludicrous that it is hardly worth an essay. Some intellectuals reify and project 'intelligence' in a similar way to which Guardians reify a martinet in the sky and Idealists sense an oceanic entity of empathy and compassion underpinning all of Nature [the irreverent Artisans are too busy having fun].

I, for one, will be amazed if we have something by 2030 which can operate in polite society without running down its battery and which can avoid scratching the furniture. We can always hope.

I have finally drafted a section on grid computing for the book. Since I am now working full-time on a client project, my time for word-production has been severly circumscribed. I have a couple of reviews to write (Personality in Adulthood, and The Rule of Three: Surviving and Thriving in Competitive Markets) which will serve to remind me of their contents, and that will add further material for the book. Then something additional on casual gaming (typically older ladies playing bejewelled) which complements the hardcore World of Warcraft crowd.

As I write this, BBC Radio 3's Bach Christmas is playing over my Internet connection. In a childlike fashion, I am looking forwards to my Christmas present from my younger son, the book by James Gaines with the wonderful title: 'Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment'. My elder son was asked to get a CD recording of 'the well-tempered clavier', but has apparently forgotten...

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Someone out there just like you

In Greg Egan's book 'Axiomatics', there is a story about someone who believes that there have to be other people who are so similar in personality to himself that they are essentially 'him'. With this confirmed to his own satisfaction, he has no compunction in suicide - after all, 'he' continues to live.

How often have we met someone, and decided they are incredibly similar to someone else we know. We fantasise what would happen if these two people met each other - would they realise they were psychological twins?

It is a spooky thought, that there are other people wandering around the world - seeing things, feeling things - in exactly the same way that you would if you were in their situation. But how likely is it?

What we need is a relationship of similarity between two personalities (an equivalence relation, in the jargon) which holds just when the two personalities are effectively one. As a first try we could take David Keirsey's division of personalities into four temperaments (Guardian, Artisan, Rational, Idealist), or the Myers-Briggs sixteen types.

But these are far too broad-brush. I am an INTP/Rational and meet many typologically-identical people, but I do not think they are me. Like me, in many cases, yes - but a psychological clone, no.

More quantitative metrics come from academic personality theories such as the 'Five-Factor Model'. The NEO Personality Inventory is organised around five traits (Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness), each of which is further divided into six subtraits.

This gives a total of thirty scales, each measured (say) between 1 and 100. This defines a space of size 10030. If personality was randomly allocated into a space this size, the chances of two people getting the same score would be negligible - you would be truly unique.

But of course, that level of precision is ridiculous - even on re-test, people do not score so similarly. Also of course, people do not score randomly - the distributions are normal and outliers are rare.

Back of the envelope time. Suppose we adopt a coarser measure of similarity and score each of the 30 traits in five categories, i.e. not 1-100 but 1-5, equivalent to percentile intervals 0-20, 20-40, 40-60, 60-80, 80-100.

Then the size of the new personality space is 305 = 24.3 million. If we take IQ as an independent variable (it actually correlates at around 0.3 with Openness) and group IQs in the range 100 to 140 in steps of 5 IQ points (let's assume you are brighter than average), then we have a further 8 categories increasing our space to around 195 million separate personality/intelligence 'boxes'. Let's say 200 million to keep it simple.

Take the world population of adults of one gender between 20 and 60, that comes to around: 5 billion divided by two for gender and divided by two again for the age restriction, say 1 billion people.

Take the 40% with IQ above 100 (average global IQ is a little below 100). This gives 400 million people. Allocating 400 million males (or females) to 200 million personality/IQ boxes gives 2 people per box.

So there are you are: there's someone else out there who is essentially you in intelligence, personality, gender and 'adulthood'.

How do I get to meet them?!

A more accurate discussion would factor in that not all psychological types and IQs are equally prevalent, so that the boxes are not at all evenly filled. If you are more 'average', then there will be more 'psychological clones' in your box, and so 'out there' somewhere. If you're statistically exceptional, your box may be empty apart from yourself and your most similar 'clones' may be in an adjacent box, so not quite like you.

Given the projected world population, your box occupancy will rise, so it may be a relief to know that even after you are dead and gone, someone just like you will still be experiencing the world ...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Iraq: playing it long

There was an interesting letter in The Economist this week (Dec 10-16 2005).

Robert Dujarric from New York noted that the Iraqi war aims of the US were:

  1. keep out al-Qaeda
  2. contain Iran
  3. prevent Shia clerical power
  4. restrain the Kurds
  5. maintain a united nation.

He then noted these were the same aims as Saddam Hussein's. Cue irony.

My elder son pointed out that the one aim Mr. Dujarric had omitted, the one not shared with Mr. Hussein, but the most important one from the US point of view was:

... 6. ensure security of oil supply from the Middle-East.

Samuel Brittan, in his book 'Against the Flow' , argued against military invasion to secure oil, noting that dictators have at least as much need to sell oil as America has to buy it. So there is no harm on relying upon global markets to ensure the supply.

However, there has to be an element of doubt. When American planners looked at the Middle-East, they would have seen a rogue Saddam Hussein, a destabilising Saudi Arabia (wahhabism), and an unfriendly Iran. Suppose, in an evolution of this situation, one of these decided to stop their own production and/or permit sabotage of the oil production of neighbours. Under the influence of militant Islam, perhaps they wouldn't care about the lost revenues. You can see America's point.

It is unwise to criticise states for acting in their perceived interests. The complaint about the US leadership's incompetence in not understanding the specifics of Iraqi society (or any society other than their own), by contrast, is an easy one to make. But despite everything, the game is not yet lost.

Recall that no section of Iraqi society today has armed forces worth anything. The best they can muster are small arms and jeeps. They have no tanks, artillery or air power. Those unobtrusive and well-fortified US bases will be there for a while yet, and once the new Iraqi Government is up, it will be severely circumscribed by American power.

Playing it long, the Americans may yet emulate the Roman tactic of letting a local administration apparently run the show, while keeping the legions garrisoned just around the corner.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A new kind of (science) fiction

Seen today at the W. H. Smiths bookshop at Terminal 2, London Heathrow Airport.

In the section: "Science Fiction and Horror" next to 'Dune' by Frank Herbert, we see 'The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory' by Brian Greene.

String Theory as SF or Horror? You decide.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Labyrinth of Time

Just finished Michael Lockwood's book 'The Labyrinth of Time' . This explores how our common sense views of the past, present and future are substantially at odds with what relativity (special and general) and quantum mechanics tell us about the nature of time.

People periodically get excited when they are told that time doesn't flow (or maybe doesn't even exist as a fundamental feature of the universe), and that the future is as real as the present and the past. However, if you accept that modern physics is a better description of the world than common-sense, you really just have to go with conclusions like that.

Lockwood's book is excellent in parts, and my review of it is here.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A dance to the music of time

A visit to the 4,700 year old stone ring at Avebury. The general site is typical National Trust, under-invested and scrappy, nothing like the sophisticated visitor centre you would get in the States.

The picture shows Clare and some of the standing stones. There is a huge ditch and rampart to the right. As always, the purpose of the site is a mystery. We were particularly struck by the sheer size and mass of the stones - almost unimaginable in the effort required to move and situate them.

On the way home, we appropriately listened to a radio programme on Anthony Powell's 12 volume novel sequence "A Dance to the Music of Time" (which we sadly haven't read, despite a number of contributors opining that the work is an all-time masterpiece of literature).

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Art and Mass Culture

Why is 'culture' counterposed to popular culture? Why do organisations such as the BBC have a 'merit goods' mission to bring an adequate diet of culture to the underconsuming masses?

One of the interesting paradoxes about the Myers-Briggs (TM) approach to personality typing is its emphasis that all types are equally 'good' and that IQ is orthogonal to type. Whatever one may think about the former proposition, the latter is plainly not true.

In 'Gifts Differing', Isabel Myers exhibits table after table (chapter 3) which show that as one goes up the educational ladder, specifically for more abstract subjects, the proportion of 'Intuitives' (Rational NTs and Idealist NFs) disproportionately increases, and the incidence of 'sensing' Guardian SJs and Artisan SPs declines. Since success in advanced theoretical subjects is clearly, IQ-related, this shows a strong IQ-N correlation.

The Myers-Briggs 'Intuition' dimension also correlate strongly with the 'Five-Factor Model' attribute of 'Openness to Experience', a trait with a well-known correlation with an interest in arts and sciences.

What this seems to amount to is that a kind of sifting process occurs. According to Myers analysis of high school students (both girls and boys) prior to any academic selection, 'Sensors' make up 70% of the population, and 'iNtuitives' only 30%. Education, often a pre-requisite for later advancement, systematically skews the successful towards a population far more dominantly N. Myers' science students, for example, were 83% N; Rhodes scholars were 93% N.

So we see that the educated, successful middle class (both male and female) are dominantly N. By comparison, Myers' non-college-prep boys were 85.5% S and non-college-prep girls were 87.3% S. These are the mass of the population who will grow up to form the consumers of 'mass culture'.

If you are educated and middle class, don't be surprised if the most popular channels on your TV seem pretty brain-dead. They are focused on Guardian and Artisan needs such as relationship-oriented soaps and action-oriented sport, and not on the 'high-concept' stuff which might grab you more. [cf. "Personality in Adulthood" 2nd Edition, McCrae & Costa, Guilford Press, 2003: page 217].

This raises two questions - first of all, why shouldn't (the fewer in number) iNtuitives arrange to have (read 'subsidise') more intelligent, conceptual programming in politics, current events, arts and sciences which suits their tastes and abilities?

And secondly, why do Rational and Idealist senior decision makers adopt the Pygmalion project of seeking to make the Guardian and Artisan masses more 'cultured like themselves'? Is the concept of merit good in these areas really so well-founded, or is it just patronising, as in 'Shakespeare-lite'?

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Constant Gardener

We went to see this movie last night in Basingstoke. Typological plot summary: ENFJ activist Tessa meets INTP diplomat Justin Quayle and marries him. They go to Africa where Justin cultivates his garden in the High Commission in an introverted alternative reality, whilst all around his slimy FCO colleagues are helping coarse and evil big Pharma work with the corrupt local Government. Africa is portrayed as the locals living in a garbage heap amidst great natural beauty.

Tessa and local help unmask big Pharma drug testing on hapless locals - Tessa's direct moral intensity embarrasses the hypocritical games of diplomacy all around her, but she makes the fatal mistake of trusting said diplomats (Justin meanwhile is unaware of all this). Tessa is killed for her pains. The remaining part of the film shows Justin coming out of his gardening-centric world and extraverting his NT skills to find out what's really going on. He, of course, gets killed too, but the real message of 'what's going on' succeeds in getting out.

A film like this - Tessa is the mouthpiece for John Le Carre's own explosive moral indignation - has more impact and 'market share' than anything the fictionalised Tessa could have hoped to achieve. After all, the audience knows that the plot is thinly disguised fact. Yet tomorrow, big Pharma will be doing exactly the same.

We know the emotional motives for justice which impell Le Carre - they are present in all of us. Institutions will continue to pursue their interests where they can, and not care too much about collateral damage. We are back to the familiar territory of the 'circle of empathy', with those inside it and those without.

Individuals with exceptional moral conviction will always be driven to action at the boundary, but only sometimes will the underlying conditions allow their actions to effect a step-change, and a widening of the circle. Mostly they will be considered totally unrealistic emotional idiots who self-indulgently create problems for everyone else. And that harsh judgement will also be correct. The film, however, is good enough to make Justin's acceptance of his wife's cause in this case not a betrayal of his own rationality.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Wrong Kind of Famous

Years back, when I was working at STL (Standard Telecommunications Laboratories) at Harlow in the UK, I recall a corridor conversation. A senior researcher, Dr Robert Milne and myself were talking to one of the managers, George and the conversation turned to career aspirations.

For George it was a matter of climbing the corporate hierarchy, but he turned to us and said "I expect that everything you do is geared towards making you famous!" It was a quip, and he said it with a smile on his face, but there followed an awkward silence, which George picked up on: "Right then ... perhaps we should talk about something else" and the stalled conversation got round to rebooting.

A few days ago, my wife Clare made a similar observation to me, suggesting that 'speaking at conferences, meeting senior clients, writing a book', it amounted to "you want to be famous."

It seems both churlish and self-deceiving to deny such a well-known motivator, but I rather think that both Robert and myself did not in fact want to be famous. 'Being famous' involves an unacceptable amount of hassle, socialising and travel! What I do think we want, like most intellectuals, is that our work should be famous, while we remain personally unaffected.

And I would add one more thing, that the work should be famous because it is good, and not merely through some accidental fad or mere momentary significance.

Other supportive anecdotes: I met a mathematician at a conference once - I sat next to him at dinner - who said the most important thing in his life was that some (highly esoteric) mathematical structure had been named after him. And then there was the scientist on the TV programme 'Seven Up' - and therefore already famous - who confided that his dearest ambition was to be better known for a scientific achievement than for appearing on that programme.

Sometimes we reflect on surveys which show that people are unable to name any existing scientist apart from Stephen Hawking ... fame is evidently a pretty selective thing!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Blogging as vanity publishing?

Busy most of today putting a client bid together.

I am also having trouble extending the book chapter on 'choosing the right people'. I thought I would do a personality-type analysis of various styles of leadership in carriers and vendors. Somehow the words aren't quite ready to come. Not exactly writer's block, more that I haven't got an angle which sufficiently excites me to motivate 3,000 or so words.

If writing this stuff is vanity publishing, then it's surely reprehensible and self-indulgent. Maybe it is. Other possible framing constructs: (i) it's a diary; (ii) it's a notebook which is harder to lose than scraps of paper + it's searchable; (iii) it's useful to your later, more senile self + any descendants who are that interested.

Perhaps the truth is that some of us have a bunch of ideas, and quite enjoy writing them down. We're allowed that, aren't we?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Towards an Adequate Personality Theory

"Adequate" modifies "Theory", not "Personality" ... :-)

Consider three kinds of personality theory.

1. The standard 'Big 5' 'traits' model with the mnemonic of OCEAN (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism/emotional stability).

2. The Keirsey theory of four temperaments - [Guardian, Artisan, Idealist, Rational].

3. Jungian typological theory, in its Myers-Briggs form of 16 types.

It seems to me that there are three interesting issues.

a. To what extent are all three approaches really addressing the same underlying reality (so that a formal correspondence can be established between them)? For example, correlations are shown between the 'Big 5' traits and the four MBTI dimensions - see the bottom of the page ('Statistical Studies') here.

b. What kind of brain architecture would generate the observed diversity of personality/ temperament across individuals? For example, is there a superego-like module which encodes social norms and which inhibits 'selfish' impulses from the lower brain regions? If so, would variations in the 'strength' of this module explain Guardian-Artisan differences (SJ vs. SP) --- or conscientiousness, if you like?

c. What is the evolutionary psychology framework for understanding the evolution of personality differences? It seems likely that there is some merit in having some people who care about social norms, others who are more motivated by risk and excitement, others who can inspire and empathise, and finally people who can think a bit (aka 'intellectuals'). Can formal evolutionary models and simulations make this intuition something testable?

It's not obvious there is much research today on these topics, more's the pity.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Four Books

1. The Rule of Three - Sheth and Sisodia. Why every market will be dominated by just three (generalist) players and a bunch of specialists. Ought to be wonderful, but it's a hard read. Full of facts and examples, it's a Guardian (SJ) book. There's an interesting theory trying to get out, but it's incredibly well-hidden. Frustrating.

2. Feynman's lectures in Physics - Vol III. What a joy to read! But the thought/text ratio is so high that it's not a fast read. I guess a six month course over at Caltech.

3. The Economics of Regulation - Kahn. Another kind of worthy book full of dense but interesting ideas. But it's huge, and getting through it is such a slow process.

4. Chronicles of Amber - Roger Zelazny. First read when I was a teen, and I had forgotten how good it is. For when I'm too tired to think.

I installed BOINC today - the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. It is not a user friendly system: there is real confusing stuff about account keys (no longer used, apparently but you still get error messages). Configuring preferences for your computer is obscure and hard to find, and there is little guidance as to what values to set, what they mean and what might be the consequences.

In the end, I rolled over, and just let BOINC do whatever it wanted with my computer. It seems restrained so far, running the Einstein@Home gravitational wave detector and the Rosetta protein folding experiment. But guys, I was persistent: you can do better than this!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Peter Drucker loves Jane Austen

On November 19th 2005 the Economist published an obituary for Peter Drucker. Amongst the extensive reviews of Drucker's thinking about Management Theory there is also this wonderful quote: "he preferred reading Jane Austen to doing multivariate analysis".

Jane Austen's cultural presence is pervasive today, yet she got off to a shaky start. Claire Tomalin's 'Jane Austen- a life' mentions in the Postscript that by the 1850s her work was appreciated only within 'a small circle of cultivated minds' (Jane Austen died, aged 41, on 18th July 1817). By the turn of the century, she was on the up, but the mass market for Austen had to wait until the mid-twentieth century.

Austen now seems to tower above other 19th century novelists. Still, many people find the old-fashioned, rather stately English a little impenetrable, while men in particular are inclined to write her work off as 'girlie'.

Taking the trouble to actually read and get into the stories is a revelation - Jane is a satirist! Her work mocks all those self-important and slow-witted individuals who populated the cultural wasteland she saw around her. There is a kind of wilful, intelligent fury which drives her work, which she mostly keeps under an iron discipline: Lady Susan being the exception.

Didn't anyone notice, you think, that she was subverting the establishment under the guise of describing it in miniature? The answer is that some did, and many did not. And Jane knows how to write, although her plotting is sometimes a bit awry, especially at the denouement - think 'Sense and Sensibility'.

We live in an age where disrespect is rampant, but where the intelligent disrespect called irony is also appreciated. Fertile ground for Jane Austen's real intent, even when all that rather well-done 'girlie' stuff has been discounted.

A memoir of Charles Kao

Charles Kao is known internationally as the 'father of fibre optics'. I knew him in the 1980s when he was already a distinguished scientist in ITT, and I was a new recruit to ITT's UK R&D Lab, STL in Harlow. At that time I was researching the upcoming field of Artificial Intelligence - Charles took a keen interest in new scientific areas and arranged a meeting at Yale with a leading AI researcher, Drew McDermott.

As we drove to the university, Charles had to stop for gas. I should explain that Charles is typically asiatic in his appearance and slight build, and additionally has an unassuming personal style ... outside intellectual debate. The gas attendant stopped by and with casual racism said dismissively 'What's it to be, Wong'? Something inside me gulped at how this guy was treating one of the smartest and most accomplished people in the world. Charles of course took it all in his stride.

My research was in models of the modal logic of intention and belief. The structure of these models is that they represent all the ways the world could be, based on what you belief and want. There is a rough analogy with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (it is no more than that, pace David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality) and I made the mistake of saying so to Charles. He looked at me quizzically, and asked me a question about non-commutative operators in Hilbert Space.

I literally stood there, without any idea how to respond: I had never taken a course in QM. Charles waited a moment, and then strolled away, leaving me feeling about one inch tall.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Buying Canada

There is an old joke that George Bush (senior) wanted a kinder, gentler America - so he bought Canada.

Canada is recognisable to Europeans as one of their own - a kind of Switzerland-ish state. America? - Well, that's something else. One explanation is that in Canada, the state reached the Pacific before the settlers did - there was never any frontier where men made their own societies. Canadians have a European attitude to the state (perhaps carried to extremes!) . The state is the consensual public authority for social welfare. (Putting Quebec to one side here!).

In the States, things seem more complex. As in the well-known inclination for 'voluntary associations' noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, American culture views the state more as an alien force than as a guarantor of the public good. The state is viewed with suspicion, and is not to be relied upon in preference to self-help.

Hence the fragmentary nature of American social life - so many distinct groupings, each with their own agendas and internal solidarity (asabiya!) but with national solidarity artificially achieved by loyalty to symbols and institutions rather than a genuine national fellow-feeling.

When a social group which is unashamedly tribalist (e.g. the Southern loyalist group around George W. Bush) gets to sit in the driving seat of the state apparatus, it is not surprising that the results are fantastically divisive.

Running America effectively is neither an exercise in expressing a pre-existing social consensus according to the European/Canadian model, nor should it be the ruthless execution of one faction's view of the world. Instead, it should be a rational interests model, which acts to increase social solidarity within the diversity which is American society and deepens the roots of all that symbology. Most reforming administrations have had that goal ... so perhaps the next one?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Learning to love IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem)

Chapter 2 of the book is about the next-generation network and IMS. I extensively revised and added to the chapter today and was struck by how we have to move the IMS debate on.

It is NOT an argument against IMS that IMS is complex. Lot's of things are complex (aircraft, GSM, legal systems) but they work and are manageable.

It is NOT an argument against IMS that carriers may use it to destroy their Internet competition. They don't need IMS, a Narus box will do perfectly well. Regulation, and to an extent market pressure, are the forces which need to be applied to anti-competitive carrier behaviour.

IMS integrates many of the functions carriers care about: authentication, authorisation, generic access to service platforms, security, access efficiency via compression, roaming, sophisticated call-control, QoS management and most importantly metering and billing.

If you want to attack IMS, whinging about its general unpleasantness is not the answer (honestly, it's quite interesting when you get into it!). Look for paradigm-breaking services which need signalling/session management functionality not found in the IMS roadmap. If the service is popular, then you will get market share and the cumbersome IMS standards process will take 3-5 years to change direction and absorb your new functionality.

No, I don't have a view as to what this new functionality is either, which kind of weakens the argument against IMS, don't you think?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Wading Through Treacle" comments page

The book "Wading through Treacle - dispatches from the next-generation network" is due to go to the publisher sometime in mid to late 2006. One of the reasons for publishing the book on my website as it is being written is to give opportunities for reader feedback, leading to improvements before the text gets frozen into hard copy.

Another reason was to advertise the book and increase sales, but you knew that already!

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts below. This is a moderated site, so I get to preview your comments before deciding if you are in or out. Like slashdot, insightful and/or funny work to your advantage - basically stuff I can use rather than amorphous praise or disdain.

Thanks for the comment!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Playing for Time

Yesterday evening we went to see Arthur Miller's play "Playing for Time" at the Salisbury Playhouse. The play is about an orchestra of predominantly Jewish women musicians who survive by playing to the German officers at Auschwitz. Originally a TV play, the production didn't seem to us to transfer particularly well to the stage - too many scene changes broke the continuity. And the ethical dilemmas of perverting art to soothing the angst of concentration camp guards seemed too telegraphed to be truly moving.

However, the scenes of brutality and ill-treatment segued into today's story of Shia government brutalisation and torture of 173 predominantly-Sunni detainees in Baghdad. Another day in Iraq, you might say.

The question never addressed: once we put aside the hypocrisy of official statements, and the hand-wringing of the human rights community, why does this occur and how could it be stopped? In a previous post I described Peter Turchin's concept of asabiya (loosely the degree of human social solidarity in a society). A high-asabiya society works together - a low-asabiya society is divided into mutually-disregarding groups which routinely abuse each other. Guess where, in the global Asabiya index, Iraq is today?

I guess the answer I was looking for was this. To minimise ill-treatment and torture, create states around the boundaries of communities which can realistically expect to evolve towards a stable high-asabiya condition. Practice politics between states and groups so that relations do not transition to that low-asabiya state known as war.

Do you think current western policy in the middle-east is aligned with this approach?

Note added a little later:

Thinking about it, if you reflect on what they're actually doing rather than what they're saying, this could well be the policy. The 'unified Iraq' model was long-ago abandoned, replaced by the hyper-federated model along ethnic-cultural-religious lines. I would guess the last piece of the puzzle is to get the Sunnis to agree to their own mini-statelet, and close down jihadist attempts to destabilise the entire region while unleashing holy war on everyone non-Wahhabi.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pain, consciousness, intent and the Dentist

Yesterday I had to visit the local dentist to have a cracked filling drilled-out and replaced. As I anticipated and imagined this event beforehand, I recalled Daniel Dennett's account of how he arranged to have dental treatment without anaesthesia in order to understand better the nature of pain and consciousness (in The Intentional Stance as I recall). Dennett reported that if you really, really concentrated on pain, then the awful sensation went away, but that pain was so boring that it was impossible to keep this level of concentration going for too long.

My other pre-visit inspiration was Lao Tzu, and the benefits of not fighting experiences but accepting them as integral to participation in the evolution of the Tao.

Modern dental practice being what it is, I was subjected to an almost unnoticed application of injected anaesthetic before I could nerve myself to refuse it, and there was consequently no pain whatsoever.

However, with the further assistance of Lao Tzu, I convinced myself that this, too, was consistant with 'the way'.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Many Worlds (1)

Still thinking about Greg Egan's Quarantine, which I re-read coming back from Brussels last Wednesday, I looked on the web for more on Everett's 'Many Worlds' interpretation of QM. Michael Clive Prices's The Everett FAQ was a more compelling account than I had seen before, and prompted me both to re-open the Feynman lectures in physics, Vol. III and to purchase Colin Bruce's Schrodinger's Rabbits: Entering The Many Worlds Of Quantum.

Although I tend to be inundated with Amazon books, I couldn't resist something which got five stars from Peter Shor, the (ex-) AT&T mathematician who developed the first algorithm for quantum computers which could factorise large numbers really fast, thus undermining public key cryptography. He also has a great limerick about this.

Today will see more work on the book, focusing on how the Skype & E+ deal in Germany violates the ethics of common carrier provisions.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Theory of History? 'War and Peace and War'

I have always believed that History is susceptible to Theory. As a teenager, I was inspired by Asimov's 'science' of psychohistory (although even then, I was properly suspicious of the Second Foundation's democratic credentials). In my twenties, marxism provided a comprehensive view of past and future modes of production across vast millenia. And then the dream died and all we were left with was people, events and narratives.

Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War (which I have reviewed on the Amazon site here) starts by acknowledging the inspirational power of Hari Seldon's concept, before introducing Turchin's own framework of cliodynamics. Extensively illustrated through the rise, development and fall of the Roman Empire, the development of Europe into the High Middle Ages, the birth of the United States and Russia, and the rise of Islam and the Caliphate, Turchin's theory has that rare quality of suddenly putting many isolated facts into a coherent framework, suddenly granting a whole new perspective. The world does not look the same after reading his book.

His formal treatment covers pre-capitalist agrarian societies, but the conceptual framework seems perfectly applicable to the contemporary workd. It would be good to know that Turchin and his co-workers are on the case.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mobile Operators' disdain for WiFi/WiMAX

Just back from a conference in Brussels on Wireless Voice over IP and the Telecoms Market. There was a time when I believed that a combination of WiMAX (802.16e) and WiFi, surrounding a cheap fibre core would create a mobile Internet platform which would seriously challenge the cosy international oligopoly of mobile operators.

Don't hold your breath! Base on the mobile operators' comfort level expressed at this conference, any danger of that has been postponed till after 2009. You can read my report at:

On the Eurostar train I reread Greg Egan's Quarantine ( I assume this truly excellent book is on every Physics undergraduate's reading list?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Bist du bei mir

Yesterday I ripped some Baroque tracks, and was struck by "Bist du bei mir" (Be thou with me), attributed to Bach in the 1720s. It was included in the Clavier-Büchlein for Anna Magdalena (his wife), catalogue number BWV 508.

A little research showed that it was actually written by a guy called Stölzel.

The piece is pleasant and moving and apparently a favourite at weddings and funerals. Only the latter is appropriate, as the words accompanying the music are as follows.

Bist du bei mir, geh' ich mit Freuden
Be thou with me, and I'll gladly go
zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh'.
To death and to my repose.
Ach, wie vergnügt wär' so mein Ende,
Ah, how my end would bring contentment,
es drückten deine lieben [schönen] Hände
If, pressing with thy hands so lovely,
mir die getreuen Augen zu!
Thou wouldst my faithful eyes then close.

Another random fact: according to the Wikipedia article on famous people with Asperger's Syndrome, Glenn Gould, the famous Bach interpreter on piano apparently had an autism spectrum disorder. What is it with Bach and intellectuals?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Welcome to the Blog. I was completely in two minds about doing this - it seems so jumping on the bandwagon, so naff really. Here is how I convinced myself: I just need to know how this stuff works, so it's kind of a trial, right?

There, I feel better about it already.

Hot news - Chapter 10 of the book - at was uploaded today. I look at the main P2P file sharing programs - Napster, Gnutella, BitTorrent and Freenet and describe how each of them work.

The chapter starts with a short drama piece about the trial of the creator of a Freenet-like system, Rete Populi. It's used to hit home points about the ethics of these kind of systems, which are genuinely worrisome.