Monday, June 29, 2015

Machine intelligence will eat us - right?

Currently reading Absolution Gap (Alastair Reynolds) on the Kindle and Greg Bear's 'The Forge of God' to Clare as her book after dinner. In both cases we're dealing with implacable, malevolent machine intelligences which destroy intelligent biological life. Worry about the existential threat of future AI systems seems very trendy recently.

The Inhibitors - Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space

Greg Bear's 'The Forge of God'

Here's the problem: to build a half-decent robot system currently needs a high-tech society of hundreds of millions of people; to build a person requires only untrained labour in a natural environment.

Everyone knows that living creatures are made up of cells (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen mostly). What is not commonly known is just how intricate a cell is - a tiny object capable of self-construction and self-replication. How does it do that, and how did this marvel of nano-engineering ever get started? I discussed Nick Lane's informed (and jaw-dropping) account a few weeks back.

The alleged dangers of future AIs comes about because of their faster learning, superior computational abilities and more powerful bodies. But does anyone know how to create an artificial analogue of cells with those desirable properties? I don't think so.

Absent that, our future machine overlords are going to look like a totally mechanised version of today's human societies: massive fully-automated fabs, battery factories, steel and aluminium smelters, and all the rest.

Sounds brittle and cumbersome to me - I feel sure we could take them down*.


* Bomb them back to the stone age and they're toast.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Slow news day

It's a wet Sunday - what can I tell you? The gym was pretty deserted this morning but, fuelled by massive over-indulgence in trifle last night, I did pretty well, especially on the resistance machines.

Later I started Lecture 2 on General Relativity by acclaimed Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind. Once of the best teachers in the world talking about one of the most tedious subjects (covariant and contravariant tensors, and transformations of the metric tensor): I literally fell asleep after 25 minutes.

And then this video. The setting is Marissal Road, Henbury, Bristol. Alex and Adrian, together with my sister Elaine, are visiting my mother (this was some years ago). I am my usual bumptious, overbearing self with a camera; my mother (with her robot cat, Cindy) is inveigled into the role of camera-person.

Despite everything, it's quite amusing.

Friday, June 26, 2015

I elected to be unsedated during my own procedure. There were a few gut-wrenching moments (I choose my words), one of which could conceivably have been the moment when the colonic chip was implanted. Now you mention it, I have had some strange experiences close to 'contactless' terminals recently ...

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Our very own synth, Daisy, arrived here today. It's destined to join Cindy (video here) as my mother's new animatronic pet. Here's a video of Daisy (Amazon link) showing off her repertoire.

We bought Cindy (below) for my mother seven years ago. I am amazed that so little progress has been made in the state of the art.

Cindy - my mother's robot pet

Family history note: Daisy was my mother's auntie. Oh, and here's Daisy's manual.

Click on image to make larger.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Francis Youell: 1946 - 2015

In Formby yesterday for my brother-in-law's funeral. Francis was well-respected as a senior police officer in Merseyside and the service was attended by hundreds of people including the chief constable.

Francis Youell as a young policeman

The reception at the St Jerome Parish Centre
When I first met Francis (on marrying Clare back in 1978) I was still somewhat associated with the International Marxist Group. Francis, who regularly drank me under the table, was a senior special branch officer. He seemed to know way too much about me. Perhaps because of this, he was always very friendly.

Here's another picture of Francis. I was told he was once tasked with infiltration of left-wing groups, which given that he always looked like that must have been quite challenging ... good luck with that, as they say.

Francis Youell

Monday, June 22, 2015

Life on the Saga Rose

Back in the year 2000, business for an Internet consultant was good. Knowing how much my mother loved boats and the sea, and how little of the world she had seen, we decided to buy the two of them a cruise.

In doing so, I lightly passed over the fact that my father was not good with rough water, and disregarded his social discomfort with having to cohabit with those he considered to be of higher social class - he correctly judged that the cruise we had selected would be populated by the retired officer class.

In the event his social fears were misplaced: their dining companions were pleasant. But then my mother had that terrible accident in Pompeii - and the worst storm for years hit the Bay of Biscay on the way home.

They secretly kept a diary: here are the highs and the lows (PDF here).


Fred and Beryl Seel’s Saga Rose Mediterranean Cruise

September 17th - October 2nd 2000

September 16th Saturday

Nigel arrived to fetch us mid-morning at our home [in Bristol]. After lunch we travelled to Maidenhead to spend the night at Clare and Nigel's home prior to joining the SS Saga Rose at Dover.

Day 1 Sunday

Clare and Nigel drove us to Dover and, after a lovely lunch in a hotel we boarded the ship. Our hand luggage was put through a scanner and we had to walk through another scanner. As Fred followed me through a bell sounded and he was called aside to empty his pockets. Having done so, he walked through again and the bell rang once again. This time he was "frisked” by the official standing there and he was then allowed through (I suspect they felt the truss he was wearing and realised he was no danger).

Day 2 Monday

Dull and dreary weather - drizzle and sea mist – we were warned to take care walking around the ship and to stay in cabin if feeling unwell. We sat on deck in the afternoon wrapped in heavy coats and in a sheltered corner. Super evening meal - cabaret show-time featuring Johnny Tudor, variety entertainer, old jokes and songs, impersonating Barry Manilow, Frankie Vaughan etc; corny!!! Ship was rocking madly throughout the night going through the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay; many passengers horizontal throughout day. Captain's Cocktail Party before dinner.

Day 3 Tuesday

Arrived at La Corunna, Northern Spain 8 a.m. We walked around the town in the morning, weather miserable, plastic macs and umbrellas. The temperature was 51 degrees F. and a transport strike was in progress. We were back on board at noon for a super four course lunch, with waiters to satisfy our every whim. Storms worsened p.m. after we left La Corunna and there were many empty chairs at dinner. We had taken some Stugeron anti seasickness tablets, but I felt very queasy after dinner. Had an early night.

Day 4 Wednesday

Another night of pitching and tossing, but the day dawned and we saw SUNSHINE for the first time. Attempting to wash in a still rocking bathroom, the ship lurched and I fell backwards into the empty bath, banging my head and grazing my ankles on the sink surround. Fred pulled me out and I went back to bed nursing a giant headache. By 10 a.m. brilliant sunshine; we make our way to the sundeck for a couple of hours —this is more like it!!!

Day 5 Thursday

Weather-wise things are improving; we now walk instead of stagger around the ship. Gibraltar today, we left the ship at 8.30 a.m. and were taken by taxi, first to the Spanish-Gibraltar frontier and then up to the Rock to visit St. Michael's Caves. The journey was short, through narrow streets, the buildings looking rather down-market, but it was a fascinating experience. We went into the caves, full of stalactites and stalagmites, we took several photographs. We saw the Barbary apes - more photographs. Many other interesting buildings and views were pointed out to us on our journey. We were dropped off in the town where Fred bought some booze - very cheap. We arrived back at the ship for lunch. We spent the afternoon on the sundeck. Dinner tonight was at 7 pm followed by dancing and cabaret as usual.

Day 6 Friday

Day at sea, beautiful weather, spent the morning on the sundeck. After lunch we went to a ballroom dancing class-the Cha-Cha-Cha, great fun. After dinner we watched the cabaret.

Day 7 Saturday

Arrived at Cagliari, Sardinia and spent the morning on deck – the sun very hot. After lunch we went ashore and boarded a coach to see the sights of Sardinia, a lovely little island in the Med. It was very dusty and everything was brown, the guide told us there had been no rain for months and water was severely rationed. We saw bananas growing but they were very sad and very small. We were taken to Poetto, with lovely beaches of white sand and the beach a deep turquoise. We then arrived at a Sardinian house and entered it through a gateway strewn with aromatic herbs which gave off a beautiful scent as we passed through. We entered into a large courtyard with chairs placed around it, in front of bushes of lovely flowers which gave some protection from the sun.

We were then entertained by local singers and dancers in traditional costume (very colourful), meanwhile we were each given a wine glass which the dancers filled with wine - again and again and again - also bringing around delicious cookies. This went on and on—the ship was due to sail at 5 pm and it was nearing 4.15 pm. We arrived back at the ship at 4.55 pm facing a worried Captain and crew. The tugs and pilot boat's crew were kicking up their heels - we didn't care - we had had a wonderful trip and the wine and cookies were fine.

Day 8 Sunday

Arrived at Civitavecchia at 7.30 a.m. and left for a tour of Rome and a visit to St. Peter's Basilica at 8.30 am, stopping just outside Rome at a Service station for toilets and to be issued with our packed lunch. After a whirlwind tour of Rome, seeing the Coliseum and many superb statues and buildings, we arrived at St. Peter's Square at approximately midday and had an hour to browse around and eat our packed lunch. We bought small gifts for Joyce and Maisie.

We joined a long queue to enter St. Peter's Basilica at 1 pm and entered through the Holy Door; this door is only opened every 25 years, On Christmas Eve, the Pope, according to a special ritual, makes a solemn procession to this door and after a triple genuflection and three strokes of a hammer, the wall barring the door is removed and the Pope is the first to cross the threshold and enter the Basilica. At the end of the Holy Year the door is re-closed with a solemn ceremony and the wall is re-built.

People wearing unsuitable clothing, e.g. shorts or sleeveless blouses are not allowed entry into the Basilica and several were turned away. It was very crowded with what appeared to be dozens and dozens of different guided tours, each tour leader carrying an identifying rod with a symbol on top as a focal point, ours was a minute Pinocchio model which in the gloom of St. Peters was quickly lost to sight if you glanced away. This made close examination of the wonderful exhibits, statues and paintings very difficult, but with so many visitors milling around it would have been almost impossible to organise and please everyone.

The tour lasted approx. one hour and we then made our way back to the tour bus, very hot and somewhat tired but extremely pleased at having had this opportunity to visit this wonderful building, so steeped in religious history. The journey back to the ship was uneventful and we arrived at about 3.45 pm in time for dinner at 7 pm.

Monday Day 9

Arrived at Sorrento at 8 am and went ashore by ship's tender as there is only a small harbour and the ship had to anchor in the bay. We joined the tour bus at approx. 10 am and after driving through the steep, narrow and very squalid streets we left Sorrento and continued on to Pompeii. The party was split into two groups of approx. 19 to each group, each with a local guide but only one Saga Rep to cover both groups, her name was Elaine.

After a very interesting tour of this ancient city, using the Red Tour which includes the most interesting relics and ruins, amongst which were the baths, shops, the forum and many more too numerous to mention, we eventually left the ruins at approx. 3.30 pm.

[Ed. note: at this point my father, Fred, takes over the writing]

The coach was parked about 500 yards away so after a short wait to re-unite with the other party we started off in crocodile formation to the coach-park along the very dusty and uneven pavements. Because of the close crocodile formation, Beb did not see a steel ring embedded in the pavement that is used to surround trees. In this case the tree had been removed but not the ring which now surrounded a hole about 10 inches deep. Catching her left foot against the ring Beb was thrown forward, her right foot going down into the hole and her face violently hitting the pavement, breaking her nose, injuring her jaw and chin, and damaging the tendons of the right leg. There was considerable bleeding from her nose and she was in pain from her right leg. I knelt by her and treated the injuries with help from the other tour members using tissues and wet-wipes. There was no sign of the Saga Rep and the local guide wasn't interested, only urging us to re-join the coach quickly, no offer to drive the coach to us.

Beb had to be assisted by myself to the coach-park. Once on the coach and leaving the city I called the Saga Rose Rep and asked her if she was aware of Beb's injuries and she said she had heard something about it. I brought her to Beb and she was quite shocked. I insisted she use her mobile phone and contact the Ship's Officer on the quay for assistance. This she did and we were met at Sorrento main square and transferred to a taxi which drove quickly to the landing stage where a Ship's Nurse was waiting.

As soon as the tender arrived Beb was transferred aboard with other passengers and it sped out to the ship where she was transferred on board first with the help of two burly crew members. A wheelchair was waiting on deck and we were taken straight to the sick-bay where the Ship's Doctor and another Nurse were waiting. After an examination and being cleaned up they applied five steri-strips to a very deep wound at the bridge of her nose but only gave us a cold pack and towel to take back to our cabin to apply to her right leg, which by now was non-weight bearing. The Nurse also administered an anti-tetanus booster.

Beb saw the Doctor again at 9.30 am the next day (Tuesday) when he was non-committal whether the nose was broken but said there wasn't any treatment for that anyway. He re-examined the right leg when Beb complained she could not support her weight upon it and diagnosed possible ligament and tendon damage, a tubular grip bandage was applied by the Nurse and a walking stick loaned. He advised Beb to see him Sunday morning and he would decide if the steri-strips should be removed. We received the Bill for this service this morning (Tuesday) for £110.95. I don't know if he will charge for removing the steri-strips next Sunday if needed.

Tuesday Day 10 at sea

The above entry accounts for this morning’s events. We had yesterday evening’s and today’s meals delivered by Room Service as Beb has problems walking but she feels much better now and we hope to resume normal cruising and meals in the restaurant tomorrow (Wednesday). I have cancelled the tour to Cadiz as she will not be well enough for that, but we may walk into town as we dock within the city.

Wednesday Day 11 at sea

Lazy day sunbathing on the stern sundeck, we had breakfast at Lido Café and stayed put until 12.20 pm. We had lunch in the restaurant for the first time since Beb's accident. Filipino waiters, especially Jonathan, made a big fuss of her. We spent another hour or so on deck, this time on the starboard side in shade; it was about 75 degrees F. in the sun.

Went back to the cabin for a while and then to the ballroom where a "Chocolate Afternoon Tea" was held at 4.15 pm. Visited gift shop and bought a couple of presents. After Dinner again visited the gift shops to buy deck shoes for Beb as hers were in a dangerous state. Beb still very groggy so we retired to the cabin again at 9.20 pm and prepared for bed.

During the day I visited the Purser to sort out the payment system and check ETA for Dover. Passengers using own transport or being collected by private transport will disembark at 8 am next Monday morning October 2nd. Phoned Clare and Nigel with information and they will pick us up at Dover as arranged.

[Ed. note: at this point my mother, Beryl (Beb), resumes writing]

Thursday Day 12

Arrived late at Cadiz, we had to dock at a different berth because another ship arrived just before us and had taken our place. As we had cancelled our tour on the Doctor's advice it made no difference to our plans which were to take a leisurely stroll around the shops near the harbour and maybe do some last minute shopping. I'm glad we did because we found some lovely Spanish dolls to give to Jenny and Sarah, also a model Bull for Christopher. It was a nice morning, nippy to start with but getting hotter as the sun came up. I am walking easier now and the swelling on my face is gradually disappearing. We arrived back on the ship for lunch, after which I went off to the Hair Salon to have a wash and blow dry, (£15 - daylight robbery). At 4.15 we went off for our usual afternoon tea, gooey cakes and scones with jam and cream, as much as you can eat.

Dinner at 7 pm after which we will go off to the ballroom to watch flamenco dancing (dancing for me is impossible with my damaged leg; I am still using a walking stick).We sail at 11 pm - the last lap of our Journey. Today’s weather forecast is for rough weather ahead, we are quite worried about what awaits us in the Bay of Biscay. Before we retire, an announcement from the Captain warns us that there are heavy swells ahead and advises us that all breakables, e.g. bottles of booze, should be placed on the floor. Also, we were warned to be careful moving around the ship: all is doom and gloom.

Friday Day 13

The ship rocked all night, but we had taken our Stugeron so didn't suffer too much. Wow!!! Things got a lot worse as the day progressed, impossible to walk properly. I am still using a stick and am hoping the Doctor won't need it back for his ever growing list of patients. Stayed in cabin all afternoon, more announcements from the Bridge warning of bad weather conditions and need for caution moving around the decks. After Dinner went back to cabin and found drawers and various commodities lying on the floor, Thought, Gosh! We’ve been burgled! .. but it was the heavy rolling of the ship.

Saturday Day 14

What a night! We are still off the coast of Portugal. The 9 o'clock announcement from the Bridge tells us that yesterday’s waves were 5 metres high and that it would be the same today. We didn't know whether we were on our head or heels while lying in bed, I've never experienced anything like it before. Fred went down to breakfast but I let the lovely Filipino waiter bring me tea and croissants to the cabin.

It's now 11.15 am, we have been told we reach the Bay of Biscay about noon and that one of the restaurants would be closed and some of the activities would be cancelled because of the weather. Oh well, let’s sit back and see what the afternoon brings.

Afternoon: weather worsening, waves now 6 metres and the ship rolling and pitching violently, I guess we are in for another rough night.

Sunday Day 15

We awoke to a calmer sea, much easier to walk about. More people having breakfast in the restaurant but at 9 am the message came through from the Bridge that we were heading for force 8 winds which I think are gale force. Groans all over the tea and toast, this will be the worse conditions yet. Apparently all these lows are coming down the English Channel.

We started packing straight after breakfast - where did all this stuff come from? At 11.15 everyone has to attend a disembarkation meeting so that all will go smoothly tomorrow. Breakfast is at 6.15 am tomorrow, we are number 2 so expect to leave the ship early. The last group leaves at about 10.15 am while the ship departs for its next cruise at 5 pm.

We go for lunch at 12.45 pm then more packing. Afternoon tea at 4.15 pm then to the ship's sick-bay to return the walking stick and enquire about further treatment when reaching home. The nurse advised me to hang on to the stick until tomorrow morning because of the approaching storms.

Just finished packing at 5.45 p.m. must remember to put our watches back one hour before going to bed. Going back to Saturday evening, I almost forgot to mention the Captain's Disembarkation Cocktail Party. It was held then because all our glad rags would be packed on Sunday. The cocktail party started at 6.15 pm with photographs taken - I dodged that, not looking my best with stitches decorating my nose. Jean Slater did not come to the party, she wasn't feeling too well.

It was a very good dinner, very lively and lots of fun, ending with a Baked Alaska Parade with all the waiters descending the staircase at the end of the restaurant holding aloft their trays with the Baked Alaskas decorated with sparklers down through the tables with the lights turned low, a very impressive sight. The evening closed with all the passengers standing to sing Auld Lang Syne.

Monday Day 16

Early rising with breakfast scheduled for 6.15 am. We arrived in the restaurant at 6.30 to see some strange faces, Susan and I suspect that these people spent most of the voyage in their cabins. We were in group 2 so were due to leave the ship a little after 8 am. As we were disembarking Nigel called us on his mobile phone to say he was waiting outside so, with a porter pushing our suitcases on a trolley, we met up with him outside the gate. With great relief we settled down in his car and he drove us to his home at Maidenhead. We were greeted by Clare with a very welcome cup of tea, and then Nigel carried on with his work and Clare drove us back to Bristol.

Home Again

It was a lovely holiday and I enjoyed every moment of it - except of course my accident at Pompeii, but even that had its bright side, I was a celebrity and the loving care I had from so many people was something I shall always remember, when the bruises and scars hopefully disappear.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Classic pix: fifty+ years after

Sometime it feels right to share. Yesterday we were rummaging around some old family pictures and these gems emerged. Thanks to Matt for doing the scanning.

Click on any of the pictures to make them larger.

Adrian and Nigel Seel c.1956 at WSM
Here my brother Adrian and myself are exploring the delights of Weston-super-Mare. My Wawrinka-style shorts are a sartorial delight, but Adrian easily trumps them with his designer nappy.

Beryl Seel in her early teens
This picture of my mother was probably taken in the late-1930s at her home in William Street, St Pauls, Bristol.

A mysterious person known only as my sister
My glamorous sister, in her youth, had a penchant for pictures like this. Naturally, we keep them very private.

Shirley Porter, Beryl Seel, Nigel, Elaine, Adrian mid-1960s
Yes, kids, the swinging sixties had arrive and (apart from Shirley), the Seel family hadn't noticed!

Wendy and the infant Nigel at 41 Oakleaze, Longlevens, Gloucester 
My first cousin once removed, Wendy, aged 15 years. Your humble author looks three, which would place this picture in 1954-55.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Classic pix: ten years after

Back in April, 2005 we decided we'd tour around England. Our circuit started at Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester), went up to Hadrian's Wall (Vindolanda), continued through High Force at Forest-in-Teesdale in the Durham Dales, then south to Blenheim Palace to finish at the Roman villa at Fishbourne.

Our pictures chiefly seem to feature Clare with funny expressions, and your author looking spaced out and tubby.

Clare: Cirencester Museum

Nigel: Cirencester Museum

Where are the Romans? We've paid!

Vindolanda - it's so spiritual ...

At High Force - the 5:2 diet was yet to be invented!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Cheddar Gorge walk: north side

Thursday - an opportunity to leverage all those treadmill hours to advantage. We walked up the valley road, then up to the top of the north side of the Cheddar Gorge, along the top and back down to the village. Two hours.

I'd say impressive: Clare not so much

Ladies glow, or is it 'feel the heat'?

The author, rather blocking the view

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The quantum theory of road racing

There are still some anti-quantum zealots who believe that it's an objective fact as to whether a road-racing cyclist is 'clean' or is using drugs. Thankfully those anti-science crackpots are in a small minority: the modern view is that no cyclist can be determined to be using drugs until some measurement determines that fact.

Most theorists agree that the professional cyclist exists in a superposition of drug states. The cyclist (or team, or peloton) is represented as an abstract vector in Armstrong space (named after a notable leader in the field who pioneered the modern view, noting that he had never tested positive for drugs).

Lance Armstrong - quantum pioneer

The basis vectors for Armstrong space are normally chosen to represent the cocktail of possible drugs in use thus:
|epo>, |testosterone>, |methylhexaneamine>, |blood-doping> and so on.
The observables for each vector are discrete: 0 = 'clean' or 1 = 'doping'.

Example: the state vector for a Sky rider (and indeed for the team) is claimed to be the eigenstate ψ = |0000000 ...>  whereas Lance Armstrong, amongst many others, turned out to be in a superposition of states like |nnnnnn ...> where quite a few of the 'n's were 1. This was only ascertained by enhanced observable operators late in his career.

Students sometimes ask whether cyclists are bosons or fermions. Some mistakenly believe that the bunching seen in the peloton indicates that cyclists are bosons. Indeed they are, but not for that reason - we are not operating in the position basis here. In the doping basis, the bosonic character of cyclists is largely due to the known performance advantages, the institutional influence of team doping policy and those shady doctors.

Can we move cycling into a stationary state, a 'clean' eigenstate? Sadly not, the 'clean' eigenstate is metastable and rapidly decays to the reality we see today. This is called  'spanish tunnelling'.


Note: it is generally held to be a hallmark of quantum theories that the observables don't commute. Pro cycling is certainly a quantum theory on this criterion. This may cast doubt on Sky's claims, but I refer you to the example of angular momentum in the s-orbital, where the components do in fact commute.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Humans (TV: Channel 4)

The 'synth' is the pretty one
From The Guardian review:
"Would you? Get one? That’s a discussion that will have been going on in the country’s living rooms during and after the first episode of Humans (Channel 4, Sunday). One meaning your own synthetic, or “synth”: a green-eyed humanoid robot.

On the plus side it will clean and iron and then cook you a nice chicken chasseur for tea, freeing you up for all the good stuff you never find time for. It might even provide some kind of companionship. Plus there are potential upgrades, including adult ones, if you know what I'm saying.

On the downside, there is a danger synths might make you, me, everyone redundant. They are already doing all the jobs people don’t really want to do, not just in the house, but street cleaning, handing out free newspapers, sex work etc (they are basically a bit like immigrants, I’m afraid). But it won’t be long before they’re doing the jobs you might want to do yourself – doctor, lawyer, politician, TV critic, footballer perhaps. The Singularity – when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence – isn't far off.

Also, returning to the basic domestic model, it might be a bit creepy having a machine that looks just like a person living in your house. It’s not good for the children either, it’ll mess with their heads. Plus you might be unlucky – like the Hawkins family – and get one, like Anita, that … who can think, and feel. Then things start to get really complicated.

One of the beauties of Humans is that, like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, it really isn't such a big leap, or ask. Only last week there was a story about Ocado creating an army of humanoids with artificial intelligence. The online supermarket robots might not be as pretty as Gemma Chan, who plays Anita (very convincing as a semi-humanoid), but this stuff is happening. Tellingly, Humans is set not some time in the future, but some time around now. It’s sci-fi for the non sci-fi fan, sci-fi that has more than a foot in sci-fact."
Here's the video showing the state-of-the-art in anthropoid robotics, from the DARPA Robotic Challenge last week.

My best guess is that 'synths' as portrayed are 20-30 years away. And then the human race will go extinct.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jurassic World

I went without high expectations, expecting CGI on steroids and way too many dinosaurs. But this film is enormous! It must be doing something right!

That something is marrying a traditional fairy tale (feminist flavouring) with knowing. Ice-princess Claire (park operations manager with a serious spreadsheet addiction) tells shareholders on the tour that the public are bored with dinosaurs. Time to add some new DNA to the mix.

How I agreed with her. There is only one dinosaur plot: they get out and start ripping people to shreds. The CGI is so good now that none of us will ever need to pay and see actual engineered ones.

So this is not about so-yesterday dinosaurs fighting and killing, it's about how the handsome prince - velociraptor expert and trainer Owen Grady - can win the heart of feisty Claire Dearing, the park's operations manager. Forget the dinos, here's what he's up against.

No pushover, huh ...
A modern-day princess is meant to save her hunk-to-be from a pterodactyl or two and not just swoon as her hero takes down the dragon. Claire (to Owen's well-telegraphed chagrin) has a scene where she unloads a magazine into the winged monster as it has the hero pinned to the floor. Most of the time, though, she is running around in her super-high heels getting more and more dishevelled.

Claire at peak dishevelment
It all ends happily (unless you're a dinosaur).

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Gym life

Hit the gym at nine am this morning with the usual collection of young men with large physiques and simulated boredom showing off their tattoos - preparing for later stints on doors I imagine. As I mounted the cross-trainer I was surprised to see a granny on the rowing machine. In her pants and perm she looked like a refugee from the bingo.

I thought I might be rowing next to her, but with a minute to go she stood up. As I moved across to the rowing machine myself, I noticed her heading off towards the weights ...

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The badger family

What's better than a badger in your back garden?

Clare: "Was it wise to post this video on your blog? Aren't we going to find armed marksmen camped on our drive?"

I reassured her. No way ... but, perhaps we will all come down with TB.


OK, you wanted more? What do you think - does this video show three badgers, or four?

Below, just watch the first 10 seconds. The fox appears, and grabs one of the uncooked waffles we'd thrown out .. and departs.

Such a surfeit of wildlife. The trail camera is going into store now till the winter.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Is quantum suicide allowed?

So here is my dilemma. I'm still reading "The Hollow Man" by Dan Simmons to Clare. The story starts with hero Jeremy losing his beloved wife Gail to the agonies of cancer. The hero and his wife are telepathic. (We are prepared thus far to suspend disbelief).

In one thread of the story, Jeremy falls apart in grief and descends into a hobo-existence (this is set in America) - there is a purposeful analogy to Dante. In the other thread, we get flashbacks to Jeremy's research as a mathematician, full of gobbledegook about personality/consciousness as hologram, the Schrödinger equation and populist quantum theory. It's the data dump from hell, riddled with spurious guff. This I don't read to Clare.

In the end, you sort of know that Jeremy and Gail are going to get reunited, but how can this be? The answer is a variant of quantum suicide. My question: do I dare read this to Clare; does it pass the suspension of disbelief test?

I can get away with the idea of a quantum superposition. Most people know that, for example, a particle's position can't be definitely localised - we say its wave function is spread out. This is equivalent to saying that it's in a superposition of location states. It's basic quantum mechanics, experimentally observed and not the least bit speculative.

We can also have discrete rather than continuous superpositions: the best known is Schrödinger's famous cat. This is also legitimate science though the fine details remain unresolved.

Now to quantum suicide (Wikipedia article). It's like you replace the cat and the radiation-triggered cyanide is replaced by a gun. You decide to shoot yourself. Now, there is some probability that the gun will misfire due to some unlikely outcome of events down at the quantum level. So the time-evolution of you with the gun evolves into a superposition like this:

|You and gun not fired>  =>  a|you-alive and gun-misfired> + b|you-dead and gun-fired>

a and b are coefficients expressing the relative amplitudes of these two states, with |b| expected to be enormously larger than |a| for a reasonably reliable gun.

In the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, this simply means that you'll most likely end up dead: end of story. The superposition quantum state 'collapses' to the
 |you-dead and gun-fired>
state with probability |b|2 (or maybe you got lucky with probability |a|2) once somebody notices (these days we invoke decoherence).

But in the many-worlds interpretation there are no collapses. All states of a superposition are realised in separate versions of the universe. Since you have no consciousness when you're dead, your continuing sense of self will continue to exist in the universe with this state:
|you-alive and gun-misfired>

Quite a lot of physicists believe in the many-worlds interpretation: it seems the only way to make objective sense of quantum mechanics and to remove the subjective role of a 'collapse-inducing' observer. But would Clare, my proxy for 'the person in the street', believe it for the purposes of a plot denouement?

I don't think so. And that's why Dan Simmons novel just doesn't work and I continue with the challenging work of real-time editing!

Monday, June 08, 2015

The trouble with love-dolls; consciousness & zombies

This stuff is getting so mainstream.

Love Dolls at $50,000 a throw
The Times had an article in the Saturday Magazine about Matt McMullen's company, Realdoll (only click on this link if you're happy with hyper-realistic female nudity).

I was most interested in the following observation.
"McMullen has attempted to introduce robotic enhancements along the way. They’ve seldom worked, though. He has tried internal heating, to get past that cold, sticky feel of the rubber. “We had three different versions of a heater, but we haven’t released any of them. Either it’s not completely safe, or it didn’t get warm enough, or it got too hot.”

He even got his dolls to gyrate at one time – a step into the animatronic arena. He installed a motor in the chest cavity. There were various speeds and sequences. “I won’t say she’s fully twerking, but that kind of thing,” he says. “But the downside is the noise factor. You hear this rrr-rrr, rrr-rrr.” He sounds like an old windscreen wiper. “It’s just not a turn-on.”
And it's not just the noise.
“It would be great to give the face 45 points of articulation, and all these subtle points of expression,” says McMullen. “But it’s prohibitively expensive and it’s prone to breaking down, which just becomes an ordeal. Those robots at trade shows that interact with people? That’s because there’s a team there. When the cable breaks on the left eye blink, a man just opens up the back of the head and re-attaches it. But when it’s in your house and one eye’s stuck shut? Not a happy customer.”
You know, high-reliability silent engineering is not rocket science. Someone out there knows how to do this stuff. Mr McMullen. You are so undercapitalised!

I wrote something about this at a while back.


Peter Watts, author of Blindsight and Echopraxia, takes some credit for his promotion of the idea that consciousness is a disposable epiphenomenon. Sufficiently-adapted space aliens should be the zombies of those Philosophy 'other minds' lectures, having the appearance of personalities but no inner lives.

His post is an interesting read but the idea that other people possess only the simulacrum of consciousness has a very long pedigree. I even recall (possibly mistakenly) encountering the concept from my Philosophy course at the University of Warwick back in 1970.

Could it be right? Don't think so. We're social animals spending our lives negotiating, having to give a sufficient, convincing and compelling account of ourselves to others. Our brain's social layers (those evolutionarily-modern cortical & limbic modules) fight with the selfish concerns of our reptilian hind-brains. Somewhere out of this endless internal battle comes consciousness. It's hard to see how social flexibility could do without it.

But ... our advanced machines need not be so conflicted. If those aliens were designed artifacts then consciousness might be a conflict-resolution function superfluous to their requirements.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sequencing Dad

How much can you tell just from someone's genes?

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose you could copy and recreate a person's genome pretty much exactly, give or take a few mutational errors. You could implant this genome-copy into an egg cell, bring the resulting foetus to term and allow it to grow into a full adult. How similar would the copy-person be to the original?

Of course, this is not a thought experiment. I'm simply describing the case of twins separated at birth. And how alike are these twins? Well, in appearance, personality, health and intelligence they are as alike as ... twins.

If we understood the human genome in all its SNP and copy-number variants, we wouldn't need to recreate a human copy, we would simply read off the attributes of the person with that genome. Police profilers can already do this for many traits (I mentioned recently facial reconstruction from DNA samples). In the future we will be able to know and do much, much more.

It's simplest if you donate a sample of your DNA to a gene-sequencing company. My mother and myself have sent our saliva kits to 23andMe (here's my report) and even with the restricted coverage currently offered there's lots to learn.

My father died in 2009, before the age of consumer genomics. If we had his DNA we would know quite a lot about his health and personal traits right now; and of course in the future we would know so much more. Personality, health and intelligence would be my interests.

Forensic techniques get better all the time. We have some of his clothing and other personal possessions; there must be traces of his DNA. If we wait a while till the prices come down, I think there is an excellent chance we will be able to find samples of his DNA and sequence them. Our family genetic history will take a further step forwards.

I wrote a little piece for about this a while back.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Badger vs. Cat

Not yet a major movie! As seen in our front garden yesterday evening.

After this stand-off, action moved to our back garden.

We've seen the badger before, through the trail camera, but that has limited resolution. Here the Nexus 6 camera gives us the HD experience. It probably came back afterwards but even for a badger, uncooked waffles are hard work!

Clare has instructed me to upload these videos to Springwatch - although I think our chances of air time would be greater if the badger and cat had actually come to blows ... .

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

How life got started from nothing at all

Our brains are wired to see life as something special, something fundamentally other than the rocks and stones we see in deserts, on the Moon and on Mars. Yet life is not beyond science, beyond rationality; in essence life is a special kind of chemistry, exploiting the physical properties of membranes, catalysts and energy flows. Yet it's always been hard to see how rocks and oceans on the early Earth could have produced self-replicating biochemical structures with a potential for complexity.

Nick Lane thinks he knows how it happened, written up in his new book "The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?".

Here is part of The Telegraph's review.
"The Vital Question ... consists of four parts: an exploration of the nature of life and living; a deep dive into life's origin and the emergence of cells; an account of how complex, or eukaryotic, cells arose and why sex and death are inevitable; and a final part that entertains some predictions as to life's future possibilities.

There's a well-known saying in biology: "nothing in life makes sense except in the light of evolution". Lane might amend that to "nothing in life makes sense except in the light of energetics". The discoveries of the structure of DNA, the genetic code and all that follows have been vital in building a better understanding of life and how it changes over time. But no less important, Lane argues, is the discovery - once described as "the most counterintuitive idea in biology since Darwin" - that cross-membrane proton gradients power all living cells. This may sound like a technical detail until one considers the power it unleashes: almost incredibly, it is, per gram, a factor of 10,000 more than the sun. Further, the fact that this mechanism is conserved across all life has vital implications for its origins, constraints and possibilities.

Lane works through these implications. He hypothesises that life originated at alkaline vents at the bottom of the ocean as early as four billion years ago. Lane and his colleagues have previously published on this subject in Nature magazine. Here it is set out with compelling clarity for the general reader.

He then explores the evolution of the eukaryotic cells that form all animals, plants, fungi and algae. "I challenge you to look at one of your cells down a microscope and distinguish it from the cells of a mushroom," writes Lane. "They are practically identical. I don't live much like a mushroom so why are my cells so similar?"

The answer, he argues, has a lot to do with our shared dependence on mitochondria, tiny organelles inside each of our cells that act like batteries, and which are descended from a bacterium that was once swallowed but not consumed by an archaeon. Lane argues that this union and subsequent symbiosis was a freak event. It took place only once, giving rise to virtually every living thing we can see.

Lane concludes that complex life is likely to be rare in the universe — "There is no innate tendency in natural selection to give rise to humans or any other forms of complex life," he writes. "It is far more likely to get stuck at the bacterial level of complexity." He adds that he cannot, however, put a statistical probability on that."
I am in two minds about this book. Lane has a compelling and convincing story to tell, and what could be more important than to see how life could emerge from the inanimate through plausible stages?

But that little biochemical nanomachine called a cell is very complex, much more complex than a car engine. You do have to delve into the details of the piece-parts to engage with this subject. For people without any background in cell biology how easy is that? It's the same problem in all areas of fundamental science: understanding isn't a simple extrapolation of everyone's common sense and experience - you really do have to learn something first and to concentrate.

So I doubt that all the people who generically 'would like to know how it is that life can get started on a planet' will actually engage with and complete this book. But with some degree of persistence (and, to be fair, some background) there is no end to the revelations in Nick Lane's analysis. I was reading along while periodically muttering under my breath things like 'Wow! So that's why we age.'

So recommended for those who really do want to know: you will finish the book and the world will be a different place.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

After-dinner reading

Here are some of the books I've been reading to Clare (c. 30 minutes) after dinner.

1. "Me Before You" - Jojo Moyes

A working-class girl finds herself through caring for a tetraplegic hunk, bound for Dignitas. Well-written chick-lit.

2. "The Kind Worth Killing" - Peter Swanson
"Ted Severenson is on a flight home to Boston when he strikes up a conversation with his pretty seatmate Lily. He's had a few drinks in the lounge before boarding and the conversation takes an odd turn along the way ... it becomes a little more personal ... and a lot more dangerous. Ted's wife Miranda is cheating on him:

"What are you going to do about it?"
"What I'd really like to do is kill her."
"I think you should, she said."
Yes, we really liked that.

3. "Last Night in Montreal" - Emily St. John Mandel
"Lilia has been leaving people behind her entire life. Haunted by her inability to remember her early childhood, and by a mysterious shadow that seems to dog her wherever she goes, Lilia moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers and friends along the way. But then she meets Eli, and he's not ready to let her go, not without a fight.

"Gorgeously written, charged with tension and foreboding, Emily St. John Mandel's Last Night in Montreal is the story of a life spent at the centre of a criminal investigation. It is a novel about identity, love and amnesia, the depths and limits of family bonds and - ultimately - about the nature of obsession."
As a literary thriller it's pretty good - very atmospheric. Doesn't totally work for me as some of the more extreme psychological reactions of her characters seem a trifle implausible. I believe that her "Station Eleven", which we also have, is better. Will read it shortly.

4. "The Hollow Man" - Dan Simmons (1992)

Simmons is a hugely talented writer and I have been in awe of his 'Hyperion' quartet for years (though I still gag at John Keats' overwrought, self-indulgent and pretentious poetry). Simmons has no scientific education and makes the schoolboy authorial error in "The Hollow Man" of trying to fake a scientific theory of consciousness. Much hand waving about the Schrödinger equation, standing waves and Fourier transforms: I was embarrassed to be reading this stuff aloud and had to skip on to where the hero is stuck in the Everglades swamp with a gangster. That Simmons does know how to write about.

I took the opportunity to explain Fourier transforms to Clare, using the Taylor series as an auxiliary concept (she has met that concept in the past). I wish I could convey to you how interested she was in the mapping of a time -> volume function (e.g. a sound wave) into a frequency -> amplitude function.

As she has just ordered a 'top of the range' hearing aid (age!) I was then able to bore her with Fourier transforms all over again.