Monday, December 30, 2013

Python and JavaScript

Watching a relative of mine (who wishes to stay Internet-anonymous) crank out hundreds of lines of JavaScript in four hours for the FFM questionnaire, I was able to reassess my views of the relative merits of JavaScript and Python. My intention is to produce non-trivial (AI) software which can animate agents for consumers such as yourself across the Internet (this really means games). So three requirements:

1. A real language, not a toy. I had previously believed JavaScript was a toy language but now I've had a look, I guess not (at least as far as expressive power goes, I'm not talking commercial scalability).

2. Ability to serve Internet clients. With Python this is quite hard as it runs within its own development/interpreter environment. JavaScript - in its client-side mode - is perfect.

3. Graphics. I've looked at Pygame with Python but it's not well-integrated with the Python distribution and seems hard to deploy in an Internet-client mode. JavaScript is hardly the world's best user-interface programming language but even here there seems to be progress. 

A difficulty with JavaScript which my anonymous developer highlighted was its brittleness and primitive development environment (we were using Notepad++).

I have ordered "Sams Teach Yourself JQuery and JavaScript in 24 Hours" and we shall see.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Five-Factor Model Questionnaire

The Newcastle Personality Assessor (NPA) from "Personality" by Daniel Nettle.

To understand the purpose of this questionnaire refer to my review of Daniel Nettle's book. For more on the Five-Factor Model see the Wikipedia article.

            Not me Not very me Me-ish Somewhat me Very me
Q1: Starting a conversation with a stranger
Q2: Making sure others are comfortable and happy
Q3: Creating an artwork, piece of writing, or piece of music
Q4: Preparing for things well in advance
Q5: Feeling blue or depressed
Q6: Planning parties or social events
Q7: Insulting people
Q8: Thinking about philoophical or spiritual questions
Q9: Letting things get into a mess
Q10: Feeling stressed or worried
Q11: Using difficult words
Q12: Sympathizing with others' feelings

Your personality assessment

Now you have your assessment, what does it mean? You should read Daniel Nettle's book (or the Wikipedia article for a fast review) but just to give you a flavour, here is what your score might suggest about yourself.

Interpreting your FFM personality assessment

“Personality” by Daniel Nettle

A rather excellent book: "Personality" by Daniel Nettle.

Suppose you ask people to rate their interest in such things as social activities, travel, competitive success and sex. Perhaps not surprisingly, their separate scores will correlate with each other (0.1 – 0.3). If you now ask them whether they ever feel depressed or ‘blue’, or whether they have sought help for anxiety, their scores for these two items also positively correlate with each other. But the first four sets and the second two sets don't cross correlate at all. This suggests there are deeper traits at work. A technique called factor analysis identifies Extraversion as the common factor in the first set, and Neuroticism as the common factor for the second. These two factors are independent.

When a wide variety of personality-relevant items are rated for large samples of people, factor analysis reliably and repeatedly confirms that there are five underlying, independent personality traits: Extraversion and Neuroticism as already describerelatesscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness. Each will get a chapter to itself.

The Five Factor Model of personality is often accused of shallowness, and of being atheoretic as the factors simply emerge from statistical processing (in fact just the same factoring procedure generates the g-factor – general intelligence – as measured through IQ tests). The great strength of Nettle’s book is that he can link individual variation within each of the five factors to differences in brain anatomy and metabolism as captured by MRI scanners and then with genetic differences. The five traits seem to be capturing something real about genetically-determined brain variation.

Common observation confirms that we are surrounded by different personalities. If personality is heavily determined by our genes, as it appears, then why haven't we all converged on an ideal personality? You can, of course, ask the same question about any continuously-varying trait which still exhibits variation, such as height or intelligence. The answer seems to be a combination of environmental instability (rewarding different parts of the variability-spectrum in different circumstances) and frequency-dependent selection (as in the way a few rather nasty people can take advantage of the many nice-but-gullible). Nettle discusses this in detail – it will be a recurring point that all positions in personality space help in some circumstances but hinder in others.

The chapter on Extraversion, setting a pattern for those to come on the other traits, links the behavioural attributes of extraverts with brain imaging and genetic studies. Extraversion, it turns out, comes down to a strong reaction to positive emotions – those feelings we find rewarding; introverts just don’t seem to care so much, conserving their energy. There seems to be a link between extraversion and genetic variation in sensitivity to dopamine.

Neuroticism, by contrast, relates to sensitivity to negative emotions: to score highly on this dimension is to be a worrier. The associated brain chemistry seems to involve the neurotransmitter serotonin: inhibitors such as Prozac seem to make us less worried about life’s many sources of anxiety.

Conscientiousness, the third trait to be analysed, seems at first sight a pretty good trait to score highly on. It’s the most reliable predictor of occupational success across the board. Conscientiousness is particularly valuable in structured, rule-based environments such as we find in advanced technological societies. Change the situation to one of unpredictable, fast-changing circumstance however, and the rule-bound are at a disadvantage. The army, for example, has a continual internal conflict as it needs both sorts, but they continually rub each other up the wrong way.

Agreeableness, the fourth dimension, sounds like a trait well-worth having. Who could fault being nice? Perhaps not so strangely, success in business correlates with low scores on this trait. Something about putting other people first and a degree of self-effacement doesn’t sit easily with tough, mission-oriented leadership. This is the one trait where female and male scores are clearly distinct, with women scoring more than half a standard deviation higher in agreeableness. There is a ready evolutionary explanation in the pre-modern sexual division of labour.

The final dimension is Openness to Experience. This is a hard dimension to pin down. Some people equate it with intelligence, but the author is of the opinion that intelligence is a kind of whole-brain efficiency measure implicated across all areas of neural functioning including such non-intellectual tasks as pure reaction times. Nettle believes high-scorers on Openness are artistic, creative people capable of making associations between different – and perhaps surprising – kinds of things. Intellectuals on the science, technology, engineering and maths front don’t look much like famous poets and acclaimed authors. Wherein lies the difference? For once the author doesn’t have good answers, believing the key to excellence in these STEM subjects is more down to general intelligence. But clearly that can't be the whole story.

In the final part of the book the author reviews the evidence for ‘environmental’ influences determining personality and finds they are few and hard to find. Family and parental input (if non-abusive) has been carefully measured to have exactly zero impact: you can't change your child’s personality. Does this give people a deterministic get-out - my genes made me do it? In the final chapter Nettle carefully demolishes this view, showing that dispositions are one thing, but the life choices you make to go with or against the flow of your dispositions are something else.

In summary, this book is a wonderfully accessible and profound exploration of the concept of personality. Everyone will learn something about themselves from reading it and it conclusively takes us beyond the limitations of the Jungian approach as in Myers-Briggs theory. There is a short 12 item questionnaire which you are encouraged to complete before reading (which you can take online here).

Your reviewer scored:

Openness:              HIGH;
Conscientiousness:  HIGH;
Extraversion:          LOW;
Agreeableness:       MED-HIGH;
Neuroticism:          LOW.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dorsai! - Gordon R. Dickson

Plot summary for Dorsai! from Wikipedia.
"The book is about Donal Graeme, warrior extraordinaire. In the Childe Cycle universe, the human race has split into a number of splinter cultures. Donal is a member of the Dorsai, a splinter culture based on the planet of the same name, which has specialized in producing the very best soldiers. Since each splinter culture specializes in a specific area of expertise, a system of trade labour contracts between the cultures allows each planet to hire the expertise they need. 

"The Dorsai, inhabiting a resource-poor world, hire themselves out as mercenaries to other planetary governments. Donal has great ambitions, and the book follows his rise in an episodic nature. The book begins as a straightforward tale of his career and then becomes something else, as it becomes clear there is something different about Donal Graeme himself."
The chronology goes: Tactics of MistakeSoldier, Ask Not, and then Dorsai!  but the novels were written in the reverse order with Dorsai! dating from 1959 while Tactics of Mistake was written twelve years later in 1971.

It shows. Dorsai!  is as much a page-turner as the others but it's undeniably cruder, with more 'tell-not-show' episodes and a degree of background-repetition. It also has the feel of 'young adult', or at least more so than the others. Readers will also note significant plot similarities between Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake.

Nevertheless, the novel amply repays the reader's investment and its exploration of history and even eugenics shows an intellectual ambition largely lacking from contemporary SF.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Smart Grammar School kids?

In the fifties and sixties about a quarter of school kids passed  the 11+ and went to grammar school. So what was the IQ threshold?

Based on a normal distribution with mean IQ 100 and standard deviation 15, this equates to an IQ of 110 to get into grammar school. To get into the top 20% of the grammar school you would need an IQ of 125.

With 40% of eighteen year olds going to university, that IQ threshold is just 104.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Xmas presents 2013

This creature from my mother - now put to good work.

The badger guards the door

Solar panel financial model

Based on the quote from IKEA/Hanergy I put together the following spreadsheet to model the finances in their first quote. Based on a Google Earth view of our property, the Hanergy team suggested 24 120 watt panels producing 2.88 kW. This produces 2,601 kWh annually.

How does this translate into revenues? We are treated as a power station and those 2,601 kWh are bought from us by our power utility at the index-linked feed-in tariff of 14.9p per kWh.

In addition, it's assumed that we only use half the power domestically so half of the 2,601 kWh is assumed exported to the grid for which we are paid an additional 4.6p per kWh (the export-tariff).

Going with their assumption that we use half the power generated by the panels, we are thus saved 1,301 kWh at our supplier's rate of 14.7p per kWh. This is therefore a saving on our electricity bill of 1,301 * £0.14.7 = £191 - electricity we no longer have to buy.

Taking these three revenues into account, the net annual return comes to £638. As the first installed cost is £5,100, this is a yearly return on investment of 638/5,100 = 12.5%. Equivalently, the break-even period is 8 years.

Here's the spreadsheet.

Solar panel financial model

A more complex model (discounted cash flow) would factor in the present value of the future revenues shown above, using perhaps an annual discount factor of 0.975, together with an inflation factor for electricity costs (kWh), perhaps 1.03 per year.

To an extent, these two factors counteract each other.

When the surveyor arrives in early January, we expect the number of panels and the costs to be reviewed. Our yearly usage of electricity is (according to our supplier) around 4,100 kWh so there is ample scope - if we can - to increase the amount we get from solar, given the RoI indicated.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fermi problems and the existence of God

In his or her article "The Math Sex Gap Revisited: a Theory of Everyone", famed scholar La Griffe du Lion writes:
"Good evening ladies. I am truly honored to be invited to the annual meeting of Women Against the Gap and even more so to be your featured speaker. I always enjoy visiting La La Land where a gap-free society defines the goal of human striving. Thank you for the invitation and for your hospitality. I confess to some initial misgivings -- after all, hundreds of WAGs in a single room can be intimidating -- but your gracious welcome quickly put an end to my fears. So, as a much-relieved featured speaker, I look forward to sharing with you a new analysis of the mathematics gender gap, which, if psychologists could do Fermi problems, would be largely unnecessary."
So what is a Fermi problem? Here is how the Wikipedia article starts.
"In Physics or engineering education, a Fermi problem, Fermi question, or Fermi estimate is an estimation problem designed to teach ... the importance of clearly identifying one's assumptions. Named after physicist Enrico Fermi, such problems typically involve making justified guesses about quantities that seem impossible to compute given limited available information.

Fermi was known for his intelligent ability to make good approximate calculations with little or no actual data, hence the name. One example is his estimate of the strength of the atomic bomb detonated at the Trinity test, based on the distance travelled by pieces of paper dropped from his hand during the blast. Fermi's estimate of 10 kilotons of TNT was remarkably close to the now-accepted value of around 20 kilotons."
An example of a Fermi problem occurred to me in the context of Christmas. What would be the consequences if God actually existed?

I know a lot of people are believers, but here I'm talking about the discovery of hard evidence that a supernatural, universe-spanning, guiding intelligence actually existed. This would surely be the ultimate intelligent alien scenario.

Don't you think that a good proportion of the Earth's R&D budget wouldn't immediately be diverted to God research? The Department of Pure and Applied Theology would surely be a branch of the Physics faculty.

I know of no country in the world, no matter how devout, where such a situation obtains.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Assortative Mating

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending have an interesting post at their blog West Hunter on human assortative mating. This means the tendency for like to marry like (i.e. mate with & produce offspring) on some trait. The heritable traits people care about tend to be those which reproduce a pleasant, technologically-advanced civilization: attributes such as an IQ above 105, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

The authors have a blog post on this topic from a few years back and a new PDF in draft (which uses some technical language but is not too technical in content). The results are that if the right and left population-segments of the bell curve (for that heritable trait) mate assortatively - largely amongst themselves - then a caste system (high-merit vs. low-merit) emerges within one generation and then consolidates. They speculate that with mass university-level education, we're already doing this experiment for the trait of intelligence.

The result? Perhaps a hollowed out middle in our society.

Friday, December 20, 2013

IKEA magic

Twenty five seconds into IKEA and we're already two purchases up; at the one minute point there are three items in the yellow raffia bag.

Being part of the IKEA family means you will never be short of scented candles,  stylish candle holders and those special Swedish crispy biscuits which promise to go well with coffee.

IKEA candles on the mantelpiece and hearth

On the way out (fully loaded) we noticed a full-sized solar panel mock-up. Yes,  the roll-out has come to Bristol and we're now signed up. We expect a call as soon as next week to arrange a survey.

'Frozen' - (film)

Frozen's target audience: ten year old girls who know they are princesses-to-be while modelling themselves on north-american rock chicks.

A north-american rock chick

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is here transmogrified to a tale of two sisters, one fun-loving and feisty (Anna) and the elder (Elsa) a possessor of dangerous powers: frightened, introverted and closed up. Elsa, at her coronation as queen, is scared into lashing out and the kingdom freezes. The new queen flees into the arctic wilderness where she magicks up an ice palace: free at last! Feisty Anna follows to persuade her to .. well, unfreeze stuff.

Interspersed we have a dubious prince, a brave-hearted lunk and a cutesy magic snowman (the lunk has a lunky reindeer - see below). The gags are good, the songs fun and the 3D CGI scenery awesome.

So lots of fun for children of all ages, as they say, and my only criticism is that the bad guy should have been subtly telegraphed as such from the very beginning. You can't have leading characters suddenly changing their character without warning or indication - it confuses the children.

A wise reindeer

Princess and ice queen

I was particularly impressed by the near-reality of the animation. I haven't been keeping track so I guess the trend is entirely obvious to most film-goers, but (banal thought) this stuff is going to be indistinguishable from real actors pretty soon.

Both Clare and myself noticed that as the 3D big freeze spread like a nuclear shockwave on the screen, we felt visceral shivers in the cinema. This stuff really works!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In which our house is finally fixed ..

The scaffolders came yesterday to remove same, followed by the roofers from S&S Hancock (who have project managed) to clean up and make good.

It's good to get our house back. The rendering is in cement and will need to be painted at some point.

New roof tile; new cladding

Wells has its traditional Christmas scenes - I particularly like the owl (if you can drag your attention from Wells Cathedral).

The owl to the left

I wonder what the elves and reindeer from Amazon will bring today?

'Soldier, Ask Not' by Gordon R. Dickson

From the Wikipedia entry.
"Soldier, Ask Not is part of Dickson's Childe Cycle series, in which mankind has reached the stars and divided into specialized splinter groups. It takes place at roughly the same time as Dorsai! and a few characters appear in both books. Themes from the rest of the cycle are echoed here, particularly the actions of a key person, like Paul Formain, Cletus Grahame and Donal Graeme in the other novels, who can drastically affect history due to his ability to analyze and influence the behavior of others. Unlike the other protagonists, however, Tam Olyn is no hero."
In my naive youth I first read this second novel in the Dorsai trilogy immediately after 'Tactics of Mistake'. I was expecting new military exploits from the ultra-smart and super-efficient Dorsai mercenaries. Boy, was I disappointed!

The story is told in first-person, Tam Olyn's point of view, and what a nasty piece of work he is: arrogant, selfish and manipulative. He takes a strong dislike to The Friendlies, Calvinist inhabitants of two poor worlds who hire themselves out as cannon fodder, and determines to destroy them. In my ignorance I figured we were seeing way too much of faith-ridden bigots (actually Olyn's view) and not nearly enough Dorsai. (This would be rectified in the third volume, Dorsai!, of course).

But what did I know?

The brilliance of 'Soldier Ask Not' is its careful portrayal of a man warped by his upbringing who causes great damage. But there are people around Olyn who can 'nudge' him in the subtlest of ways, bring him to his own personal crisis and show him the possibilities of redemption. If 'Tactics of Mistake' is centred on military doctrines, then 'Solder, Ask Not' uses the paradigm of Jungian psychotherapy. The author's brilliance is in making the character-evolution of Tam Olyn completely compelling.

The other preoccupation of the book is its penetrating analysis of the power, attractiveness and danger of faith. In the best case wholly admirable in giving form to duty and self-sacrifice, faith can also be a motor for atrocity. Since the book was written, we've become all-too-familiar with the latter case; in 'Soldier, Ask Not' we are immersed in both sides to our greater insight (and that of the main protagonist).

I mentioned in a previous post the importance of dialectics in understanding the Childe Cycle. Dickson's model of a full-spectrum Earth culture fracturing into superior but partial 'splinter cultures' under the impact of interstellar travel (thesis-antithesis) and seeking a resolution in a higher unity (synthesis) is one example. Another is the battle for Olyn's soul: his malevolent and evil initial persona creating forces which react against his destructive actions (thesis-antithesis) which could lead finally to a transformative resolution (synthesis).

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dialectics and the Dorsai

Somewhere Marx wrote that the king believes his subjects bow to him because he's king; in fact it's the other way round - it's because people bow to him that they become subjects and he becomes king.

This simple example is to Marxism as the double-slit experiment is to the essence of quantum mechanics.

Most people - ordinary folk, politicians and academics - look at a society as a nested set of institutions: parliament, government, the legal system, the armed forces, the health system and so on. If you think this way you can never be a revolutionary.

The Marxist looks at these 'structures' and sees only recurrent patterns of human behaviour. If one day people were to behave differently, all those 'structures' would vanish like early morning haze: the king would be revealed as just another bloke with a back-story. Think about it.

The Marxist holds just such a vision of an alternate organising pattern for society, one which will manifest in the overcoming of this one. And so to the famous Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

As the terms suggest, for Hegel the thesis is a founding idea; the antithesis a rebuttal which seeks out the contradictions in the original; and then through a process of dialogue and struggle emerges the synthesis - something genuinely new, deeper and more profound.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Marx thought that Hegel had this upside down as regards history. For Marx the thesis was that set of social processes we call capitalism; the antithesis was the revolutionary response invoked by the failures ('contradictions') of capitalism - such things as the revolutionary party, workers' councils (soviets), the general strike; the synthesis - emerging through the mass, self-organised revolution - was a new kind of society, post-capitalist and in transition  to communism.

Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all stressed the term 'dialectic materialism' as a synonym for Marxism; their opponents accused them of mysticism. Yet without seeing the 'structures' of the present as merely contingent shadows of conventional behaviour, there is no possibility of envisioning or bringing about a genuinely new kind of society. To reject dialectics was to reject the revolution, and to accept that the king was the king because he was king - end of story.

Why do I tell you all this? Because it's going to feed into my review of Gordon R. Dickson's second Dorsai volume, 'Soldier, Ask Not'. The author isn't a Marxist, far from it, yet he has a similar overarching concept of human history and destiny. Dickson's driving force is rather mystical - a Jungian concept of the collective unconscious - but dialectical the vision certainly is.

More here.

Oh, and Marxism? E. O. Wilson had it right.

Monday, December 16, 2013

'Mass in B minor' - J. S. Bach

Bach wrote the first version of this as a job application in 1733 (from Wikipedia).
"On February 1, 1733 Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, died. Five months of mourning followed, during which all public music-making was suspended. Bach used the opportunity to work on the composition of a Missa, a portion of the liturgy sung in Latin and common to both the Lutheran and Roman Catholic rites. His aim was to dedicate the work to the new sovereign Augustus III, a Catholic, with the hope of obtaining the title "Electoral Saxon Court Composer".

Upon its completion, Bach visited Augustus III and presented him with a copy of the Missa, together with a petition to be given a court title, dated July 27, 1733; in the accompanying inscription on the wrapper of the mass he complains that he had "innocently suffered one injury or another" in Leipzig. The petition did not meet with immediate success, but Bach eventually got his title; he was made court composer to Augustus III in 1736."
The full work was completed just before Bach died.
"In the last years of his life, Bach expanded the Missa into a complete setting of the Latin Ordinary. It is not known what prompted this creative effort. Wolfgang Osthoff and other scholars have suggested that Bach intended the completed Mass in B minor for performance at the dedication of the new Hofkirche in Dresden, which was begun in 1738 and was nearing completion by the late 1740s. However, the building was not completed until 1751, and Bach's death in July, 1750 prevented his Mass from being submitted for use at the dedication. Instead, Johann Adolph Hasse's Mass in D minor was performed, a work with many similarities to Bach's Mass (the Credo movements in both works feature chant over a walking bass line, for example).

Other explanations are less event-specific, involving Bach's interest in "encyclopedic" projects (like the Art of Fugue) that display a wide range of styles, and Bach's desire to preserve some of his best vocal music in a format with wider potential future use than the church cantatas they originated in."
The Beaumont Singers and Orchestra were excellent last night: my favourite parts of the work are the quieter sections, where the violins and counterpoint base are in dialogue with the soloists.

The poster

The Orchestra with Singers

Here is the Mass in B minor, starting with the Kyrie Eleison - the Capella Amsterdam recorded at the Jacobi church, Utrech.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Tactics of Mistake" - Gordon R. Dickson

Just reread this military-SF classic, the first volume of the justly-famous Dorsai trilogy. And this time I read a little more analytically.

The novel tells the story of Cletus Grahame,  initially a tactics officer with the "Allied" forces, later the leader of the Dorsai mercenaries in a great conflict between the colony worlds and the Alliance-Coalition forces of an imperialist Earth. See the plot summary here.

The story weaves a number of strands:

  • the personal conflict between Grahame and Coalition leader deCastries;
  • the claustrophobic atmosphere of political and military culture within which most of the action plays out - in this it is rather like Frank Herbert's Dune;
  • Cletus's romantic entanglement with headstrong and idealistic Melissa Khan - a classic ENTJ-ENFJ engagement; 
  • the unique take on military tactics and strategy which Grahame deploys to outwit his opponents again and again;
  • the mystical underpinning of the Exotics, with their Buddhist-like sense of destiny.

With a critical eye,  it seems impossible that Grahame's informed military guesses would turn out so consistently accurate,  while the plot depends upon them so doing. Yet the author has not conjured Cletus's doctrines from thin air - his Dorsai troops execute as classic special forces.

The novel's brilliance lies in the pacy, balanced writing together with interesting and plausible characters, the reader's inability to second-guess Grahame's brilliance plus a natural sympathy with the essential rightness of his cause.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The ghost of cricket future

It was in 2015, after the first powered exo-skeletons were permitted, that fast bowling began to regularly exceed 200 mph.

Batsmen increasingly resembled medieval knights in their kevlar-titanium armour, but their own powered augmentation meant they could run between the wickets even faster than before.

Soon, test match cricket became too fast for unaided human vision to follow and Sky resorted to broadcasting in ultra slo-mo.

A crisis, however, ensued when both bowling and running exceeded Mach one and stadiums had to be evacuated due to the dangerous shock waves. There was a proposal to move the 2020 test to the vacuum of the Moon, but this was rejected as making sledging too difficult ..

Friday, December 06, 2013

Christmas Cards

Well, that's the Christmas cards sent. I still remember the ancient injunction to "post early for Christmas" and God knows we're keeping Amazon busy enough. And then, to be honest,  it's a bit of a chore isn't it? Best to get it over with.

I can't avoid a feeling though that I'm a bit early. It is only the sixth today. Perhaps the recipients will scratch their heads, look at the date and murmur "What an idiot!"

Yeah,  I guess that could happen ...

Thursday, December 05, 2013

"Singularity Sky" - Charles Stross

Charles Stross is comically left-wing in his private writing (his blog). His novels, however, are imaginative, sophisticated deconstructions of received wisdom on both left and right .. and so to 'Singularity Sky'.

 I had a notion that this was going to be a black hole story - some orbital plot. But that's just my physics prejudice: the singularity here is that of AI and information transcendence - specifically what happens when post-singularity culture meets a rather nasty stalinist police state head-on.

 Leon Trotsky makes a lightly-disguised appearance as the domestic revolutionary leader but the heroes (Martin and Rachel) are Culture-like representatives of future-modernity. As in "Halting State", love soon blooms - I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"Parasite Positive" - Scott Westerfeld

So here's a review of "Parasite Positive" by Scott Westerfeld excerpted from here:
The book follows nineteen year old Cal, as he is on the tail of Sarah, the last of his girlfriends he has infected with the parasite (while not a full blown vampire he is a carrier). Once he has caught her, he can go after his progenitor, Morgan, the girl he lost his virginity to and caught it from.

You see, Cal now works for the Night Watch, and it’s their job to keep New York safe from rabid vampires and stop the spread of the disease.

Only this is much, much bigger that just that; something even worse than an out-break of blood suckers is lurking beneath the New York streets, and secrets centuries old are about to come to the surface, and Cal is going to be right in the middle of it.

I really liked Cal as a character and his developing relationship (and cluelessness) with Lacy a trainee reporter he meets in his search for Morgan, and while this is Cal’s show in regards starring roles, the rest of the supporting cast do an admirable job in keeping the plot moving and dialogue zippy and entertaining

We also get to learn more about parasites than I could ever hope to want to know. Each chapter is intermingled with sections where Cal explains about various parasites, and their particular foibles and reasons for existence. These sections are not just there to make your skin crawl – and they most certainly will do that! – but Cal is using them to illustrate the reasons for the existence of Vampires, and why they are the good guys.

All, in all an excellent read, your skin will crawl and your blood will race, and the next time your cat looks oddly at you, you may just shudder a little!

Scott is a natural SF-thriller writer and this is perfectly pitched for the male adolescent audience (what we call 'young adult'). So having admitted that I enjoyed the book and that the pages turned perfectly adequately, let me make a couple of criticisms.

1. The setting, Manhattan, (and frequently underground Manhattan) is rather claustrophobic - even a writer of Westerfeld's talent struggles to keep yet another case of the hero being chased through dank and dark tunnels fresh and interesting.

2. More importantly, the central premise of the novel is hard to take seriously. Without too many spoilers, we are led to believe that vampirism has something to do with defending humanity against nameless horrors from the deep, barely remembered in ancient legends. The thing is, those evil things just aren't scary enough. Anything a souped-up vampire could do, a tooled up special-forces team could easily surpass. Technology trumps raw evolution.

However, if you can manage to suspend your disbelief, the story is well told and fun.

NB: there is a 'sequel' but reviews suggest that it adds little value.

Our roof problem escalates

As mentioned here, we are in the process of having the front (gable-end) roof fixed. Today it turns out that fifty years ago the original builders used the wrong kind of sand to mix the cladding: it has turned into flimsy tat, incapable of holding even its own weight. It will all have to be replaced - a day or two's work has turned into over a week.

We were going to repaint the house at some point so our cognitive frame for this new paradigm is that it's early additional investment rather than a project spiralling into the heart of darkness.

We thought it was straightforward ...

Until the cladding started to fall off.

This Confucian refugee from Alice in Wonderland spooked us ...

And then this cat appeared, overlooking our back garden ...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

We win a hamper!

No need to bake a Christmas cake this year. We've won third prize at Clare's church bazaar and we have a Christmas Hamper!

The lucky hamper winner (with duck)

You can't see the mince pies, biscuits, pâté, wine, port, cheese and chocolates buried under the wrappings. I was so excited that I had to video Clare opening the wonderful arrival in this video (click here: 611 MB - if you stay to the end you see the cat, the duck and the Christmas lights).

23andMe forced out of business?

The personal genetics company 23andMe has been issued with a 'cease trading' notice by the American FDA. The issue is not the right of people to get a printout of their own genome (or the subset 23andMe analyse) but the advice which is needed to make sense out of it.

The FDA is concerned that without regulation, unscrupulous or incompetent companies will inform lay members of the public that they have this or that harmful allele (gene variant) leading to dangerous lifestyle or surgical decisions. Clearly some kind of 'quality' oversight is necessary but no-one seems to have a good answer as to how to do it. In the meantime, 23andMe has been told to stop sending out its 'spit kits'. More from Michael Eisen and Razib Khan.

The Economist has a good link to this report on the infamous Stuxnet cyber-weapon used to sabotage Iranian uranium hexafluoride centrifuges. Apparently the weapon was even more subtle than we thought.

Recently Read

1. "Proxima" by Stephen Baxter

From this review.
"Protagonist Yuri is an out-of-time remnant of “The Heroic Generation”, whose energy-intensive geo-engineering efforts to sort out global warming caused more problems than they solved. Popped into cryo-stasis by parents hoping for a better future, he wakes up into a world that resents him for his association with the disastrous past. He’s not treated well, and that includes being shipped off on the dodgy, bare-bones colony effort to the Alpha Centauri star system.

His struggle to remain alive, and the mysteries he uncovers on the way, form one of the novel’s two major strands. The other strand takes place in the Solar System, where the cold war between the expansionist Chinese Empire and the constituent countries of the United Nations is hotting up. Alien artefacts have been discovered on Mercury, and the UN isn’t sharing.

It’s not often you can agree with the hyperbole on the back of a book, but calling Baxter “Arthur C Clarke’s natural successor” is bang on the money. Clarkeian tropes such as mysterious extra-terrestrial leavings, deep time and the sinister majesty of the cosmos are greatly in evidence here. Baxter takes a worthwhile chunk of time detailing a fascinating planetary ecology for “Per Ardua” (as the colonists end up calling their world). This is ingeniously alien, and includes a banded series of biospheres. Rather than possessing cells, like Earth life, the creatures of Per Ardua are made of much larger, interchangeable “stems”, with the result that they behave somewhat like predatory LEGO, brutally disassembling one another and using the parts to create their own young.

The depth and ingenuity of this part of the tale has one thinking of Clarke’s efforts in Rendezvous With Rama. Similarly well set out are Baxter’s various modes of space travel, which include a multi-year colony mission, a one man cosmic dash, and a fascinating take on interstellar sailing, where the vessel contains tens of thousands of disposable sails, each invested with its own consciousness."
"Proxima" to me had rather the feel of "Flood", a similarly densely-textured, languid immersion in another time and place - this this case about 160 years into the future. Although not quite a page-turner, the details are sufficiently involving to keep you reading. Baxter specialises in writing about unpleasant characters who do nasty things, worse actually than you had imagined, and this keeps the plotting interesting. I was left shaking my head at the end - what was all that about? - before becoming reconciled to the fact that the novel doesn't really end, just sets things up for the final volume "Ultima" (to come in May 2015).

2. "Halting State" - Charles Stross

A hi-tech crime-caper set in a near-future independent Scotland. Chinese secret agents, black nets, augmented reality, TCP/IP covertly tunnelled over a 'Dungeons and Dragons'-style online game, quantum computers .. this breathless thriller has a page-turning energy notably absent from Baxter's work. And the heroes are a games-programmer (Jack) and a forensic accountant (Elaine): how could love not bloom?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Comings and Goings

So I've been working with two clients but unfortunately neither at this time has turned into a longer term contract.

There has been no news from the roofer so our absent roof tile has not been replaced and we have no dates for the work to be done. I gather this is not unusual.

Sorry for the Pooterish nature of this post but sometimes that's where you are ..

Friday, November 22, 2013

No more 'lumberjack' jokes please!

I never rated Monty Python. Yes, the Lumberjack Song is amusing, clever and satirical but there's something too self-regarding about the whole Python thing. Not many laughs.

Today Adrian and myself applied our saws, axe and 'loppers' to take down and cut up three trees. The temperature was barely above zero but we kept warm somehow. How useful those hours in the gym have proved to be!

The workers prepare

The first cuts

It's ready to fall

I captured the moment of success in this video. I was so intent on watching the phone screen that I completely failed to notice Adrian had sawn through the entire trunk and had indeed succeeded in dislodging the tree (which refused to fall over - our washing line restraint was quite unnecessary).

No more trees: like the aftermath of a disaster!

So much stuff to go to the dump!

Multiple trips to the dump may start as early as tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dry verge roofing vs. traditional mortar

We're awaiting the replacement of a fallen roof tile, a problem that has exposed the wear and tear of the entire mortar verge at the edge of the gabled tiling. The roofer has suggested plastic dry verge roofing. Here is what the plastic proponents have to say about it.
"If you have a gable roof and live in an older house, the chances are that you have ‘wet verge’ roofing. The ‘verge’ refers to the outer ends of your roof above the gable end (the wall above which two verges meet). Traditionally, these areas at the edge of your roof are fixed with mortar in order to prevent water ingress and pests such as birds nesting in your roof. Roofs rendered with mortar for these purposes are what we refer to as ‘wet verges’.

There’s no doubt that mortar does the job it’s built for; it stops pests getting into your roof and will stop water leaking through too. The real problem with mortar lies in its durability. Mortar naturally deteriorates over time due to weathering caused by facing the elements and the natural movement within a building structure, which can dislodge the mortar. This leads to cracks in the mortar which can lead to the problems it’s meant to prevent. It can also leave your roofline looking quite unsightly.

Mortar requires regular maintenance to keep functioning, such as repointing. Unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of task you’re able to carry out in an hour on a Sunday afternoon – it often requires scaffolding to be erected which can be costly. There is no way to stop the deterioration of mortar, which means the only guarantee you get from it is maintenance costs further down the line.

Thankfully, mortar isn't the only option for preventing water ingress and pests in your roofing. ‘Dry fixing’ is an increasingly popular roofing option which allows for the weather and pest-proofing of your roof without the need for mortar.

Dry verge roofing makes use of interlocking caps that fit over the edge of your roof tiles, and offers an effective and, more importantly, durable alternative to wet verges.

Dry verge caps are usually made of plastic, which in itself offers some distinct advantages. The most obvious advantage is plastic’s durability; plastic verge caps should last you at least 10 years and require a fraction (if any) of the maintenance associated with mortar. Essentially, you won’t need to worry about your roof leaking in or any pesky birds nesting in your roof!

Plastic’s durability also means that your roof will look better for longer. It’s a bit of a myth in the building trade that traditional materials such as mortar look better on older houses and that plastic can be a bit ‘impersonal’ and ‘cold’. This isn’t the case; plastic offers a clean finish that is guaranteed to last. With more and more homes adopting dry verge systems, your roofline won’t stick out like a sore thumb either.

It goes without saying that dry verge roofing offers all the roofline protection required just as, if not more, effectively than wet verges. Opting for dry verge caps also offers some distinct advantages regarding ventilation. They are fitted so that some air is allowed to enter, thus providing the natural ventilation a roofline requires to not get damaged by the elements.

If your mortar is starting to look a bit shabby, don’t waste your money on expensive repointing that will only last for a few years – look at investing in dry verges instead."
How durable is uPVC?
"Un-plasticized Polyvinyl Chloride is also the most durable of the materials available. Aluminium can pick up rust whereas uPVC is strong, tough and resilient. It is highly unlikely uPVC will need to be changed and some companies even offer up to 10 year guarantees on uPVC double glazing."

Not before a client meeting

Things they tell you in Consulting School number 42: don't eat a curry the evening before a client meeting. So in the best traditions of contracting, here is the author tucking into an enormous plate of naan bread, beef and chicken curry, tandoori chicken and quite a few other things yesterday evening.

The author hits the curry

As I sat in a London Starbucks this morning, sipping a double espresso before the meeting, I can assure you I regretted it!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Diary: Amazon Prime + book review + flue jab

I signed up for Amazon Prime today - it's like Super Saver Delivery but you get your stuff next day. In addition you join Amazon's lending library for a book a month.

This may be mostly a gimmick but I spent a happy half hour browsing the virtual library shelves. It soon became apparent that bestselling authors such as Iain Banks are nowhere to be found: the library is a repository of the obscure.

Eventually I borrowed "Experiment 43", a 37 page novella by Tony Raimen. It only takes 45 minutes to read this quirky little story but it gets weirder chapter by chapter. The bizarre plot links consciousness,  a plot for world domination by the North Koreans and Buddhism. Enough said  - I thought it was great.

My next choice becomes available Dec 1st.

This afternoon down to Tesco for a £9 flu jab. Didn't know you could buy those at the supermarket. I was prepared for agony at the point of a long needle but in the immortal phrase, I "didn't feel a thing".

I'm now prepared for contract work amongst those notoriously unhealthy telecoms folk this winter ;-).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Otter-watching at Nunney

A two and a half hour tramp through the riverside mud this afternoon at Nunney, the Shepton Mallet side of Frome. Given the size of our party (below) and the notoriously shy and secretive natures of otters and kingfishers, you can guess how much wildlife we actually saw.

Where are the otters?

At one point our group was invaded by a small white terrier which yapped in enthusiastic muddlement. It appeared to answer to 'Snowy' but, to my disappointment, the owner was an attractive ash-blonde who couldn't have looked less like Tintin.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Gravity" - film and "Quarantine" - Jim Crace

Was there ever a 3D film like it? From Wikipedia:
"Dr. Ryan Stone is a Mission Specialist on her first space shuttle mission aboard the Space Shuttle Explorer. She is accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, who is commanding his final expedition. During a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Mission Control in Houston warns the team about a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has caused a chain reaction forming a cloud of space debris. Mission control orders that the mission be aborted."
I wonder how this film will play in Moscow?

Russian space-litter hits the ISS

The action story-arc pitches Sandra Bullock's character from one peril into another. The emotional story-line is less stunning: a conventional schmaltzy american tale of a woman who has lost her daughter and can't move on. Somehow, through her experiences on this fated mission, she'll finally come through.

You won't believe a second of it.

The space scenes are a different matter. You will be profoundly convinced that space is irredeemably hostile, and be awestruck by the bravery of astronauts shielded from myriad forms of horrible death by staggering but very frail technologies.

"Quarantine" by Jim Crace is a very different experience. Here's an extract from Frank Kermode's review from the NY Times.
 ''Quarantine,'' a novel-fable that offers an imaginative account of Christ's 40-day sojourn in the wilderness. Crace is far from the first to expand the original version. Mark's Gospel dealt with that test -- the watershed of Jesus' career -- in two verses: ''And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.'' Matthew and Luke elaborated on this account, Matthew in 11 verses and Luke in 13, specifying the Devil's temptations -- to turn stone into bread, to possess glory and power, to cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Milton wrote his short epic, ''Paradise Regained,'' as an expansion of those expansions; his Christ is unmoved by all that Satan can throw at Him, the point being that He stands as an exemplary instance of the heroic virtue that just says no.

"Crace's Jesus seems to have no divine origin and no obvious supernatural administrations. An unlearned boy from Galilee, whose too-pious habits are deplored by His parents, He has deserted the paternal carpenter's shop and run away to the Judean wilderness in search of God. He arrives with other quarantiners, each with his or her own purpose: it might be to live 40 days in a cave, with what food and water they bring or can find, to purge guilt or be cured of cancer or barrenness. Jesus chooses the least accessible cave and means to go without food or water for the whole period. In contrast, the merchant Musa, though abandoned by other members of his caravan in what looks like a terminal sickness, lives in a fairly splendid tent with his oppressed and pregnant wife.

"Musa makes a miraculous recovery (ambiguously related to a momentary contact with Jesus). He is a greedy and lecherous crook who cheats the quarantiners, charging them rent for their cave accommodations, spotting and exploiting fake piety; yet he is aware of some special quality, some power of healing, in the Galilean. So, as in the Gospel account, it is the demons who recognize Christ for what He is when others fail to identify him.

"The wilderness setting of this story is rendered in obsessive detail: the geography and geology of the area, its birds and animals, insects and plants, its folk beliefs and superstitions. As often with Crace, there are words one needs to look up in a dictionary, and in fact there are some I can't find in any of mine. It doesn't matter; this, for the moment, is his world or continent, and this is its language. The effect is of an almost hallucinatory concentration.

"This effect is deepened by the reports of dreams and by the shadows cast over the characters and events by the original story from which the new fable derives. When Jesus dies, naked and starved, His body is prepared for burial by busy Miri, the wife of Musa, and her more contemplative friend, Marta; we may remember the sisters Mary and Martha who did the same once for Lazarus. The two women weave a birthmat on Miri's portable loom. It has, perforce, inferior wool and clashing colors, but they save it, a token of the new world of the future.

"Musa, seemingly stranded in the old world, is nevertheless vouchsafed a vague vision of a resurrected Jesus. He even refers to it without distinguishing it from the self-serving lies he tells some people he meets on the road: ''There was a man who had defeated death. . . . 'Be well,' he told me. And I am well.' '' As always with Musa, a faint, visionary knowledge has to live in a context of lies and deceptions. He will ''trade the word'' and ''preach the good news.'' He will make a good thing of it. Incorrigibly corrupt, Musa's is the unregenerate spirit that survives even the most virtuous and spiritual of revolutions, even the touch of the supernatural. Yet this rapist, bully and swindler alone recognizes a healer who will later argue that it is just such people He has come to heal."
Crace's novel is marked by the intense realism of his characters: Musa is sociopathic while the Greek, Shim, is an intellectual whose intellect has no answer to Musa's bullying, visceral intimidation. Shim's attempts to self-justify his many appeasements of Musa ("I never wanted that anyway") are classic.

The tribes of Roman Judea were clans: pastoralists with their well-known 'honour culture' where any insult is met by ferocious clan retaliation. This tends to select for macho males, comfortable with aggression. In such a physical force hierarchy women are often mistreated - I don't believe Crace considered this explicitly but his feel for the culture makes it manifest. Northern European societies which are more atomised (nuclear families, a concept of citizenship) can be more transactional, with less interpersonal aggression and more mutual respect. Nicer to live in for sure.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

"Steel World" - B. V. Larson

From B. V. Larson's website - a synopsis of "Steel World".
"In the twentieth century Earth sent probes, transmissions and welcoming messages to the stars. Unfortunately, someone noticed.

"The Galactics arrived with their battle fleet in 2052. Rather than being exterminated under a barrage of hell-burners, Earth joined their vast Empire. Swearing allegiance to our distant alien overlords wasn’t the only requirement for survival. We also had to have something of value to trade. Something that neighboring planets would pay their hard-earned credits to buy.

"As most of the local worlds were too civilized to have a proper army, the only valuable service we could provide came in the form of soldiers. Someone had to do their dirty work for them, their fighting and dying.

"I, James McGill, was born in 2099 on the fringe of the galaxy. When I ran out of college loans and options I turned to the stars. My first campaign involved the invasion of a mineral-rich planet called Cancri-9, better known as Steel World.

"The attack didn’t go well, and now Earth is in a grim struggle for survival. "
B. V. Larson's  "Steel World" is the hybrid offspring of "Starship Troopers" and John Ringo's "Posleen Wars". It's Heinlein sans the moral messages mixed with Ringo's duplicitous galactics.

The shtick is that the mercenaries of Earth's Legions can be revived after death: you fight, you die and then you fight again. This is not at all a gimmick, as some reviewers have suggested; it opens the door to interesting plot developments.

This ebook is well-written and highly recommended as an escapist, fun, military-SF page-turner; it's to be hoped Larson writes a sequel.

Munchkins go a-walkin'

It's Saturday and 5 degrees C with a cold, westerly breeze, so why not take a post-lunch walk on the Mendips overlooking the Somerset Levels.

Adrian and Clare at Deer's Leap

Adrian and I watched the film "Idiocracy" last night - most amusing. Must have inspired the look below. 

Idiots abroad

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

"On The Steel Breeze" - Alastair Reynolds

'On The Steel Breeze' is the second volume of Alastair Reynolds' planned trilogy Poseidon's Children (the first volume was the somewhat meandering and confusing 'Blue Remembered Earth' which I discussed here).

Here's part of the review from scifiempire.
On The Steel Breeze’ deals with three of the great-grandchildren of Eunice Akinya, the never seen but always present grand-mother of the two main protagonists Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya from Blue Remembered Earth. These three great-grandchildren are in fact clones of one called Chiku Akinya.

The clones are color coordinated, so you have Chiku Green, Chiku Yellow and Chiku Red. The latter got killed trying to save Eunice. Death must be interpreted relativistic as she still manages to influence the story. And so the two remaining clones set out to get the answers about life and everything that always seems to be a background theme of Alastair Reynolds.

Whereas ‘Blue Remembered Earth’ sometime has problems with characters performing actions that were illogical, or seemingly without purpose, this novel does it better. Each character is enriched with their own belief system and most importantly a personal politics that guide their every action and thought.
Reynolds has a talent for unobtrusively creating a densely imagined - one might even say anticipated - world. The central idea of OTSB is that the solar-system-wide computer system which runs civilization has been taken over by an AI which has itself been sequestered by signals from an alien machine intelligence. An epic battle for survival between organic and machine intelligences is about to play out, both at home and at the planet 18 light years out (called Crucible) where the alien machine systems hang out.

The novel is quite a page-turner, ending in multiple cliff-hangers. Many of the characters are less than endearing and the clone-heroines, the Chikus, are an irritating mix of smug moral superiority and inflexible pacifism. In real life this tends not to work too well, but the plot has been tweaked so that the expected bad things don't get to happen. Hmm.

Roll on volume 3.

Ten days ago a great storm lashed southern England and duly detached a single tile about a third the way up our steep roof, right at the front cement-edge. By some miracle the falling tile shattered on the driveway, missing the glass roof of the car port and the parked car. You'd think a quick climb up a long ladder and a bit of adhesive on a replacement tile would fix it, but what do I know?

Professional roofers have outlined a cascading sequence of problems.
  • The edge-tiles are light and experience wind-load, so the job should not be bodged. 
  • Insertion of a new tile will crack the one higher up unless that is also lifted: this domino effect extends for several metres.
  • Adjusting this set of tiles will require the removal and replacement of the edge-cement bedding, the cement verge. Actually due to age-deterioration it all needs replacement. (See here for more).
  • Scaffolding of some height is required for access. 
  • Our tree may need to be pruned back to get the scaffolding in.
Does any of this sound cheap?

The insurance assessor comes round tomorrow morning.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Torturing a computer

In Ralph Peters' "The War in 2020" an essential plot point involves the torture of a computer. Wow! Run that past me again. How do you go about torturing a computer?

Of course, a computer is just a chunk of stuff: you might as well torture a rock or a kettle. What is actually meant is the torture of a computational process. So far, no improvement though. It seems to make no sense at all to speak of torturing a computer program, at least those we're mostly familiar with. We need to dig deeper and talk about agents.

A Deterministic Agent (can't be tortured)

Most programs we meet in the commercial world can be modelled as rather complicated sets of "condition => action" rules. We give the program an input which it checks against a matching condition then it chugs away and executes an action, its output. An expert system implements "condition => action" rules explicitly; most programs do so implicitly through their code logic.

Programs like this don't learn and you don't want them to: a given input creates a deterministic output. In biology an agent like this has its behaviour governed by fixed instincts, like some kind of inflexible insect.

Can you torture an insect or a non-learning program? I think you can hurt it by a choice of malevolent inputs, but torture is more than that. The idea of torture is that you want to modify behaviour by inflicting pain (pain is indeed a 'malevolent input').

A Learning Agent (in some cases could be tortured)

Let's consider a learning agent. This still has "condition => action" rules but it also has a higher set of rules (meta-rules) which can modify the first set based on experience. Here's a simple example.

We have an enemy agent who we want to confess to us. The agent has loyalty to his own side, but he's also human and doesn't much care for pain. The agent's relevant rules are:

  1. If under interrogation => don't talk.
  2. If in pain => do what it takes to stop the pain.

The dilemma the agent finds himself in is that both conditions hold and it's been made clear that "do what it takes to stop the pain" = talking. So the two rules are in conflict but - as loyal and social creatures - most of us tend to give a moral priority to rule 1, don't talk.

When an agent finds that more than one rule-condition applies, with divergent consequences, artificial intelligence researchers explore various possibilities.

Use a weighting. This is the simplest approach - we simply assign each condition some number indicating its importance or priority in the current situation and this determines which rule executes. Unsophisticated torturers assume this model applies to humans and crank up the rule 2 weighting (the pain level) until rule 2 gets to fire and they get what they want.

Appeal to the meta-level, the meta-rules which manage the underlying "condition-action" rule-set. The agent may be able to generate a new rule, for example:

  • If under interrogation and in pain => give inconsequential or misleading information.

This has been known to work.

More sophisticated torturers also like to access the meta-level, for example by engaging in conversation to weaken rule 1, suggesting perhaps that the agent has given his loyalty mistakenly and that rule 1 should be modified to:

  • If under interrogation but under no duty of loyalty =>  talk.

This has also been known to work, often in conjunction with the previous tactic of brutality: the reader will be familiar with good-cop bad-cop.

What have we established so far? That a two-level agent, one which has a meta-level capable of modifying its own behaviour, can in principle be tortured to make its behaviour amenable to the torturer.

Let's consider two further questions: the problem of pain and the problem of consciousness: they are not unrelated.

Pain (applies to autonomous agents)

Creating pain in a human being is something we all understand, but hurting a computer process? An effective solution is not difficult: we define what, in the jargon, is called a state-variable for the program, let's call it PAIN-LEVEL (values: no-pain, some-pain, extreme-pain, unacceptable-pain). Most autonomous robots have something like this, for example, the battery power level indicator.

We build a primary objective deep into the program code to ensure that PAIN-LEVEL is to be minimised, and that the higher its value, the more priority is to be given to reducing it. We make this a fixed routine, one which can't be modified or switched off by the meta-level. Does the robot feel pain as you or I would? No, it just has a compulsion which may increasingly dominate its behaviour. Humans, such as those with OCD, may experience similar compulsions.

Consciousness (applies to social agents)

Suppose we additionally want the agent to be able to give an account of itself. This needs some extra architecture above the meta-rules level - a new level we'll call the consciousness-level.

The consciousness level has access to the basic "condition-action" rules level, the meta-level rules level and relevant state variables. On this basis the consciousness level constitutes an explicit, declarative theory of the agent's situation and behaviour set. Nothing less than this degree of coverage will permit the agent to answer questions like:

  • What are you intending to do?
  • Why did you do that?
  • How could I persuade you to do this?
  • How are you feeling?
  • Is there any way we could achieve that?

As many consciousness-theorists have argued, the consciousness-level - when functioning properly - is a complete and coherent self-theory. But this is not an article on consciousness, our interest is in torture. So how does the breaking of an agent under torture impact on the consciousness-level?

The Experience of Torture

Evidently, anything the torturer /interrogator says has to be processed (at least as regards its meaning*) by the consciousness-level before being absorbed into the ceaseless churning of the meta-rules.

Under torture, the agent initially holds out against the pain, consistent with his self-theory of a competent and loyal supporter of his cause. But the pain, and maybe seductive arguments, can't be ignored. The meta-rules launch planning-action after planning-action, seeking a strategy to stop the pain while not talking.

At the consciousness-level, this appears as scenarios: little vignettes in which this course of action pops up (tell them what they want to know), then that course of action (tell them nothing, grit your teeth), and numerous others.

The consciousness-level (self-awareness) is constructed from the deeper layers by non-conscious processes. That's why it seems so self-contained, so not-aware it's running on a brain or computer hardware. Similarly, the consciousness-level doesn't have a causal relationship to what the agent actually decides to do or actually executes** as executive functions occur at the "condition-action" rules and meta-level rules levels. Still, as a comprehensive self-theory, the consciousness-level mistakenly believes it controls its own destiny, although if you ask it how exactly, it's mystified.

So here's how the agent breaks. The "If in pain" condition has achieved primacy due to the extreme nature of the agony inflicted and, after much generating and testing of options, the meta-rule level has come up with a plan which is as consistent as possible with other constraints (loyalties, history, consistency of social persona - all of which come as status-variables to be managed) and which crucially provides a basis for the pain to stop.

The smart interrogator has provided some help, some arguments to get the agent 'off the hook'. No betrayal or disloyalty is involved here; the future looks bright.

This 'break-scenario' duly enters the consciousness-level as a compelling way forward, followed by something only the consciousness-level can achieve: dialogue with the torturer.

And no, I have no idea why pain is so awful.

* A blood-curdling scream will cut straight through to the primal subconscious. In general emotion-laden speech (threats, intimidation, etc.) talk as much to the subconscious as to the conscious. Everyone knows this except some psychologists.

** Brain scans show that decisions start to be executed before conscious awareness that a decision has actually been made. If you carefully monitor how you make decisions, none of this will come as a surprise.