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.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Distrusting your telecoms provider

Telecoms companies sell communications services to companies and governments. In the wake of the Snowden revelations about NSA spying (the NSA has penetrated American telecoms and Internet companies) how would you feel - if you were a non-US Government - on contracting with AT&T (say) as your Service Provider?

Most telecom products contain the built-in assumption that the carrier is to be trusted. Carrier Virtual Private Networks transport customer traffic in clear (if using MPLS VRFs) or in multiple encrypted hops with the traffic decrypted in-between (for IPsec VPNs). The ability of a telecoms carrier to read its customers' traffic is pretty much required by 'legalized intercept' legislation.

If you decide that you don't want intelligence agencies checking your traffic at will, then you have to relabel your carrier as an untrusted network - like the Internet. This dramatically collapses the service portfolio you should buy from them.

You will have to encrypt the traffic on your own premises to create your own Internet VPN across the carrier network. You can buy a quality of service (QoS) product from the carrier, marking your IP packets yourself, but you can't let the carrier have any access to content: so almost no hosted services. Life gets awfully hard.