Monday, November 10, 2014

Friendship is Optimal

Dear Friends,

There comes a time in a man's life when he has to go out on a limb, and make a fool of himself in a good cause.

My deepest and most sincerely held religious and philosophical beliefs have recently found their best expression yet in the hands of a very talented writer. I can see how "Iceman" might have done it better, but certainly no-one has done it anything like this well up until now. My own poor effort looks very drab by comparison.

It is therefore with considerable regret, fear and with a sense of abiding humiliation that I commend to your attention the My Little Pony fan-fiction "Friendship is Optimal". Which you will find on the other end of the following 'hyperlink':

http://www.fimfiction.net/story/62074/Friendship-is-Optimal


I think it might be important that you read, and take the trouble to actually understand, this story. If you already get why I often spend the night staring at the ceiling worrying about utility functions and formal logic then read it anyway. It's rather good just as a story.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Classic Puzzle

This problem can be solved by pre-school children in 5-10 minutes, by programmers - in 1 hour, by people with higher
education ... well, check it yourself! :)

8809=6
7111=0 
2172=0 
6666=4
1111=0 
3213=0 
7662=2
9313=1
0000=4
2222=0 
3333=0 
5555=0
8193=3
8096=5
7777=0
9999=4
7756=1
6855=3
9881=5
5531=0
2581=?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cameron Again

I am not at all sure I how I have turned into the sort of person who posts baby photos, especially since the baby in question is not mine.



In my defence, little Cameron appears to be a one-baby conversion weapon aimed directly at the hearts of the childless.

Look at that smile!

Ryanair (Stansted to Vasteras - Stockholm)

They speak ill of Ryanair, but I don't know why.

I used to like flying, but pretty much gave up on it about ten years ago because the experience had become so miserable. The final straw was some cunts called 'First Choice', who put a television I couldn't turn off right in my face and advertised holidays to me throughout the flight. By the time I got to London I'd completely packed my ear canals with shreds of the Daily Telegraph and they were still coming out in the shower a month later.

Wanting to visit a friend in Stockholm, I got my first Ryanair flight from Stansted to Vasteras last Tuesday. Everyone I spoke to beforehand said: 'Oh, Ryanair, enjoy...', in much the same way that people used to say, 'Ah, Stalingrad...' to Germans.

Their website's easy to work, and they make it perfectly clear that they'd really like you to print out your boarding pass in advance and that you shouldn't take the piss with their cabin baggage allowance and that it will cost you if you do.

They also offer the chance to reserve a particular seat in advance for £5. Bargain I reckon. I enjoy flying if and only if I can see out, and I always used to have to turn up early to negotiate at the check-in desk for a window seat.

Contrary to everyone's predictions, I paid exactly the advertised price, plus my entirely voluntary and deliberately paid 2x£5 window-seat fee.

I stuck three days worth of clothes and some books in my satchel, and it was about half the size allowed. I cycled in to Stansted airport at about 9:30 for my 10:30 flight, locked my bike in the bike shed right in front of the terminal, floated happily through courteous security, and arrived at the boarding gate at around 10:00. Just time for a coffee while the plane boarded, and as I finished it the last passenger was going through. I followed them onto the plane, was greeted by a smiling stewardess, and took my seat. My bag fitted neatly into the footwell.

I'd taken earplugs because everyone had been telling me about relentless advertising and screaming children. I ended up not using them.

I noticed exactly one child on the plane, who kept saying as we were taxiing 'Are we flying yet Mummy?', and then when the plane started to accelerate and lift let out one long, terrified yet fascinated scream which kept rising as the plane kept rising and finally terminated in an awed gasp as we levelled out. Utterly endearing and I know exactly how she felt!
New friends

As for advertising, if there was any I didn't notice it. No wretched music, no nasty airline food, no pitiful in-flight movie, no sodding televisions on the backs of seats, just looking out at the clouds and the sea and the fields and the towns and the coast and the boats and the lakes, and chatting to the lovely girl sitting next to me who'd been a fellow student of my university. If this is what no frills means I'd pay extra for it.

Just as I was thinking to myself "I wish someone would sell me a coffee", someone came up and sold me a coffee. For about £2.50, which seemed remarkably unexploitative given the captive nature of the market. And it wasn't exactly the hard sell. I pretty much had to grab her ankles.

Exactly on time we touched down in Vasteras. It's a delightful little airport with one tiny building. They look at your passport and say 'Welcome to Sweden'. And that's it.

Outside the 'Flygbuss' to Stockholm is waiting. 'Where can I get a ticket?', I said, and the driver said 'Just there, but don't worry, we won't leave until everyone's aboard'. 'Do I have time for a smoke?', I said. 'Yes of course', he said. 'I'll come and get you when we want to go'.

In the centre of Stockholm 75 minutes later.

I not only enjoyed this flight, I enjoyed it lots.

The flight back was much the same. The flygbuss gets to the airport fully two hours before the plane leaves, so I asked at the terminal information desk if there was anything to do. 'No', said the lady. And then after thinking, she said 'But there are some interesting aeroplanes here for the forest fires, and as long as you're back here 40 minutes before the flight you'll be fine.'

She was right on both counts, so my last look at Sweden was a long walk through the forest with occasional planes and helicopters, and getting rid of the last of my kroner in the lovely airport cafe before going through security. On the other side of security was a 10 minute wait in a glass box before we boarded the plane.

Would fly again.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Favourite Posts

I got all nostalgic and re-read my whole blog. While I was doing it I made a list of all the things I enjoyed reading again. And tried to link to it in the right hand corner above the photo.  I don't know if it's obvious enough though.

Oxford English Dictionary

Hey, the OED's online:

www.oed.com

The real thing!

And they've put back all the ancient greek roots in real greek letters that were what I loved about it when I was a child, and which they took out in the last printed edition in order that it wouldn't be as good any more.

And you can add it to firefox as one of your search engines just by going to that page and clicking on the icon in the search bar, and then you can give it the keyword oed so that Ctrl-L oed reference will look up 'reference'.

Nice.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I Hate Sport

In a recent electrical conversation with a friend, the fact that it was once possible for an Olympic athlete to be accused of 'training' came up.

I've been sporty for most of my adult life, and I know exactly what those guys in the 1920s were complaining about.

The game-theoretic structure of sport is wrong.

The point of sport is to have something fun and friendly to do at the weekend. All our sports are children's games that it turns out adults can enjoy too.

If you don't enjoy it, why would you even call it sport?

What you want out of sport is the joy of the game itself, the relationships that you make out of it, the atavistic thrill of combat without the ocean of blood, the wonderful feeling of practising something and getting better at it, the team spirit, the feeling of good health and freedom that comes from having some sort of physical activity in your life.

The reasons for enjoying and approving of sport are many. It was a great invention, when the first adults decided to play children's games in their new-found spare time.

There are two problems.

One is that it's possible to care about winning far too much. This is something in our evolved psychology whose origin is too obvious to mention.

The sport I've taken most seriously in my life has been rowing.

Not one competition I have ever entered has mattered in the grand scheme of things, and I have never thought it did. But when actually in a boat race, of any standard or against any rival, I would happily damage my own health in order to win. I often threw up at the end of hard races.

The day when I found myself, in the middle of a race at Peterborough Regatta whose result is nowhere recorded, and which went entirely unnoticed even by the spectators on the day, not caring insanely much about beating the boatful of complete strangers rowing next to us, and thinking that it might be nice to back off a bit and let the intense pain in my legs die down, was the day I gave up rowing for good.

Once, during the Head of the River Race, which is the big event for British men's rowing in the winter, rowed over the university boat race course on the Thames, with cheering crowds and the best boat of every club in England racing for results that are remembered for years, I misjudged my own strength, overdid it, and found myself 10 minutes into the race with my vision contracting to a tunnel, as the cells in my eyes and my brain starved for oxygen, until it felt as though I was looking at the back of the person in front of me through a telescope. I rowed the rest of the course in delirium.

Rowing is a technical sport. That kind of exhaustion is not going to do your technique any good at all, and you aren't going to produce significantly more power by putting yourself into that kind of place. It's beyond doubt counterproductive to race that hard.

To put this crazed over-exertion into perspective, this was early in my rowing career. I was rowing in my club's second VIII. We were very bad, and had no business being in the HORR at all. I honestly can't remember what administrative cock-up had resulted in our invitation. I think we came third from bottom out of four hundred boats.

And we knew this perfectly well before the start of the race. One of my favourite memories is of our utterly unrealistic captain giving his pre-race pep-talk. He said "We're going to go out there and own this river. We can be the fastest thing out there. We just have to believe." As he said this, the German national squad rowed past behind him on its way to the start.

I mentioned my tunnel vision to a friend of mine who rowed for the Cambridge University Lightweights.

He said "That's nothing. Every time I do an ergo I go blind." He was perfectly serious.

Have you any idea who won the lightweights race this year, or even when or where it was held? I haven't, and I coach rowing in Cambridge.

The second problem is that, although practising your sport can be great fun, there are lots of ways to get better at a sport that aren't a great deal of fun.

For instance, there's a sort of 'rowing simulator', called an ergometer, invented by Canadians whose rivers froze over in the winter, and who wanted a way to practice rowing without needing water.

It is almost never a good idea, from the point of view of the eventual speed of your boat, to do an ergo instead of going rowing.

The only real case for it would be if you were trying to explore your personal limits and get used to the various sensations that a beginner feels as pain, but an experienced rower feels as information.

But it can be difficult to organise rowing outings. In an VIII, you need all nine of your people to be available at the same time. And you need the river to be nice and clear of other traffic so that you can do your hard work out on the water.

So sometimes, it can be more organizationally feasible for a committed crew to organize say, five outings a week, and add another five ergo sessions on top of that.

I am talking about half-decent club athletes. Training close to the physical limits that the human body can tolerate. Many of them will be injured by the weight of training and drop out, for the season or for good.

And it doesn't make a great deal of difference in the end. What, without the ergometers and the hard training, would be a competition won by naturally fit people with good genes who practised enough to get technically good and decently fit, becomes a competition won by naturally fit people with good genes who practise enough to become technically good, and can also, by virtue of their good genes, tolerate insane training loads, and who have the obsessive personalities necessary to do this sort of thing in order to win.

But notice what has happened, once people have substituted 'training to win' for 'practising because it is enjoyable'.

Anyone who just does as much as a man would do for fun is 'hopeless', an 'underachiever', a 'tourist', 'lazy', 'rubbish', 'a joke'. Largely despised by the community around his sport.

Anyone else is doing at least something that he would rather not do. And anyone who would like to win a race some day is doing a very great deal of stuff that he would rather not be doing.

I'm still talking about amateur sport, someone's recreation. Once you start getting paid professional sportsmen, who may quite literally loathe their profession but have no other source of income, and a self-image built up around being good at their sport, and once you start getting sport as a business, cynically whipping up tribal hatreds in order to extract money from 'fans' who have nothing at all in common with the highest bidder mercenary players in the teams that they are supporting, the whole thing becomes profoundly distasteful.

I have been sporty all my adult life, and I hate sport.

Not the sort of thing that goes on between consenting adults on village cricket greens every weekend, which is largely friendly, enjoyable, and life enhancing, or the cheerful rivalry between Oxbridge college boat clubs, that provides a happy distraction from the stresses of undergraduate life.

But the high levels of sport, where the sport becomes the life, which are peopled by obsessive, selfish, nasty cheats. A number of whom have good PR.

This is the sort of thing that the amateur movement was trying to prevent. They had seen it all before in the nineteenth century, with its professional athletes and its betting rings and its corruption and its cheating and its match fixing, and they wanted none of it.

And for a while they had the upper hand, and 'sporting' somehow became a synonym for 'decent'.

But the game theoretic structure of sport is wrong, and it does not permit amateurism.

Once people can train, rather than practise, those who train will win.

Once people can make money from winning, they don't need to work, and so they can train a lot.

Once they can train a lot, they're doing something that they don't enjoy.

And if you're not enjoying it, there's no point to it at all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Atomic Man

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance is the ability of atomic nuclei to absorb radio waves in a magnetic field.

It leads to an imaging technique (ironically using TV frequencies) called NMRI, that can be used, like X-rays, to look inside the body. It's much better than X-rays for a lot of purposes, and it doesn't use dangerous radiation.

When it was introduced in a medical setting, it was found that people were very frightened by the term 'nuclear magnetic resonance imaging', and so it was changed to MRI, dropping the offending adjective.

On this basis, I have decided henceforth to adopt the superhero name Atomic Man, because I am made of atoms.

I have recently been accused of stunning honesty. That can be my superpower.

"Twelve Years Ago, I did not walk in a friendly game of cricket even though I was 90% confident that I'd got a feather touch on the ball while trying to pull. I have felt wretched about it ever since, and have never done anything like it again..."

"Urrgh!"

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Fountain Of Doubt

This is my favourite from Less Wrong's 'Rationality Quotes':
From a BBC interview with a retiring Oxford Don:

Don: "Up until the age of 25, I believed that 'invective' was a synonym for 'urine'."

BBC: "Why ever would you have thought that?"

Don: "During my childhood, I read many of the Edgar Rice Burroughs 'Tarzan' stories, and in those books, whenever a lion wandered into a clearing, the monkeys would leap into the trees and 'cast streams of invective upon the lion's head.'"

BBC: long pause "But, surely sir, you now know the meaning of the word."

Don: "Yes, but I do wonder under what other misapprehensions I continue to labour."

Unfortunately I think it's apocryphal. If anyone has a reference or can fill in the name, I'd be most grateful.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Into How Many Regions Can Six Planes Divide Space?

I recently misread an easy recreational puzzle as 'Into how many regions can six planes divide space?'.

It took me about half an hour to get an answer. (Which was the correct answer to the wrong question, but sadly the wrong answer to the right question). But it turned out to be great fun to think about.

1,2,4,8,..... how does this sequence continue?

So far Tim and Sips and Paul Cook have had a go. Paul guessed the answer but didn't know why it was true and I haven't heard anything from the other two.

Have fun! It's not actually that hard.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Falsifiability of Classical Mechanics


So I am currently enjoying an argument with Smiling Dave on his excellent blog:
http://smilingdavesblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/top-ten-economic-blunders-according-to-mises, and it has wandered around, and like all arguments, touched on philosophy.

Anyway I said:

If Jupiter pulls a loop the loop, that doesn't disconfirm *my understanding* of physics. That's in flat contradiction with physics, and it means physics is wrong. Similarly with evolution and fossil rabbits in the precambrian.

And Dave said:

If Jupiter pulls a loop the loop, I doubt the reaction will be to throw out the physics and engineering textbooks. In fact we did have a Jupiter pulling a loop the loop, when quantum effects were first discovered, invalidating all Newton’s laws. So what happened?

And this is a very good question indeed, and deserves an answer, but it is not about Austrian Economics so I am reluctant to clutter up Dave's blog with it, so here it is instead:

Classical Mechanics is dead as a theory of how the world works. It survives as an abstract mathematical model. And we still teach it. And it is still a very useful tool for understanding and predicting things. But anyone who actually thinks that the world works like that is a crackpot and will not be welcome at the sort of parties that mathematicians and physicists like.

Classical Mechanics died before the end of the nineteenth century, from many directions at once. Once people twigged that the "atoms" idea was actually true, and worked out how electromagnetism worked, and started measuring what happened when tiny fast things crashed into each other, classical mechanics was dead.

People used classical ideas to predict how the atoms behaved, and those predictions were unambiguously wrong. For a time they tried to patch the theory up by adding extra rules, but all those attempts failed miserably.

And so philosophers went from debating whether classical mechanics was just "true", or whether it was "necessarily true", to criticizing mathematicians and physicists for having ever thought it was true, since it is so obviously false.

And I hate to admit it, but the philosophers had a point. If you know a little quantum mechanics, and the modern ideas about how matter works, you realise that the classical theory was obviously wrong all along, and that if people had only thought a bit harder about it they would have realised that the world couldn't possibly have worked that way.

Classical Mechanics survives only as a mathematical theory, and in the sense that it is a 'limiting case' of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

But it is still just as useful as it ever was! And remember that that was very useful indeed. Every invention between Newton and the atomic bomb was invented using classical mechanics. Which means that the rise of the West and so the entire history of the world since Newton are squarely the fault of classical mechanics. It is a powerful set of ideas which happen to be untrue.

It can these days be characterized as "A simplified form of general relativity which is appropriate for predicting the behaviour of medium sized slow things, say anything between a cricket ball and a planet, but even then it will be wrong in ways that are not too difficult to spot, once you know what the real answers look like."

Now in fact, very shortly after Classical Mechanics collapsed, dead and greatly lamented by its friends, Einstein and Bohr came up with a couple of new theories about how very small, very large, or very fast things went about their business.

And surprise surprise, those theories turn out to be (a) much better at predicting the behaviour of vsvlvf things, and (b) much less intuitive to human beings, who after all have minds adapted to comprehend the behaviour of the sorts of things humans have to deal with in their daily lives.

Although a conversation with an undergraduate about physics will usually quickly disabuse one of the notion that classical mechanics is intuitive. Our built-in mental models are much more like Aristotle's version of physics, which is even more wrong.

Another surprise is that General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are also obviously wrong! They are completely different theories, and can't both be true in the same universe. And GR makes predictions even more absurd about small things than CM did, and QM is completely incapable of dealing with gravity. And also QM is famously very strange philosophically, in a way that is hard to explain, but it feels as though it is pulling clever tricks on one at every turn. And the only obvious, straightforward way to interpret the maths is so mind-bogglingly weird that no-one really buys it.

So it is our hope that there will one day be a nice big Theory of Everything that can reconcile these two theories, and make predictions about stuff without having to bring in all sorts of ad-hockery and special cases. But we sure aren't there yet, and we may never get there. And the smart money says that if we ever find this theory it will be even more weird and its implications even more bizarre than Quantum Mechanics, and that it will include General Relativity as a special case in the same way that Classical Mechanics is a special case of General Relativity.

----------

But if Jupiter actually pulled a loop the loop, that would be much much worse.

The orbit of Jupiter is one of the places where Classical Mechanics applies almost exactly. There are tiny corrections from General Relativity, but nothing that is going to cause loop-the-loops.

And the orbit of Jupiter has been successfully predicted since Newton's time, and is one of the things we know almost for sure about the universe.

If Jupiter pulled a loop-the-loop, then I think our reaction would be utter incredulity. In fact I think we'd instantly imagine fraud, deception, or incompetence. Even if the data were completely unambiguous and there were millions of witnesses and no possible way it was a trick, I think we'd end up treating the event in the same way we treat the Miracle of Fatima, as a massive delusion simultaneously and inexplicably affecting vast numbers of intelligent and reliable minds.

And I think we'd be right to. Unlikely as that is, it's way more likely than Classical Mechanics being so completely wrong about something that is so unambiguously in its domain.

But if Jupiter repeatedly and unambiguously started pulling loop-the-loops, what then?

Well, two options.

(a) Someone comes up with a new theory that cleverly and elegantly explains what is happening, and explains all the previous data as well, including the near total success of CM on planetary orbits to date, which I reckon is a 'highly non-trivial' thing to do.

(b) We give up. We figure that even though we've got all these clever physics theories and they explain so much so well, we just can't trust that way of thinking. We go back to believing that the universe has a mind of its own, and that angels push the planets around, or that we're living in a giant computer game, or some such wooo. We'll still use our theories, because they're so useful, but they're just 'rules of thumb' for working out 'how angels like to move planets'. And science as a philosophy is dead. We live in a magic world.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Physics 001

Little Cameron again. Not quite up to speaking yet, but fascinated by the bouncing ball bearings and pointing out interesting details thereof.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Outwitted by an Idiot

So I am sitting in the Wetherspoons, and in front of me are a couple of fruit machines. The sound is turned off, since Wetherspoons values peace and quiet.

The fruit machines, far from being annoying, are quietly making restful patterns with their flashing lights in a relaxing sort of way, and it occurs to me that the word for what they are doing is 'screensaver', which is a type of program that damages one's screen.

Back in the day I was a programmer of very small computers (yclept microcontroller), and I begin to wonder idly about how the machine is laid out inside, wires to buttons and wires to lights and maybe an 8051 and a few bytes of RAM, and Bob would pretty much be your uncle.

And I think that given a few hours with the design documents I could understand completely what is going on in a fruit machine. It is probably considerably less complex than a small 1980s motorcycle.

In fact, unlike a motorcycle, the fruit machine will not be *messy*. No oil to leak, no petrol to explode in unpredictable ways, no spark gaps to fire differently depending on the humidity, and so on and so forth.

I reckon that a man might understand a fruit machine in the way that a man might understand the rules of chess. Not, note, the game of chess. Being a good chess player is very hard. But it is not hard to understand the rules. You might not be able to play a good game, but you can look at a game between two players, and you can easily see if one of them cheats. Say one of them moves a bishop five places forward instead of along a diagonal. Even small children's eyes will widen.

In fact, the rules of chess are such good rules precisely because their consequences are much less easy to understand than their content.

But the fruit machine, if I am any judge, will have been made so that the simple rules by which it operates have simple consequences. The last thing you want when you design such a thing is that it should do the unexpected. If the designers have done their jobs well, then the machine will literally never do anything unpredictable under any circumstances.

It might of course behave 'randomly', but only in very controlled and expected ways. It is like a dice, which will come up with one to six spots. It will not unexpectedly become a geranium.

So: Simple, Predictable, Unsurprising, Comprehensible.

Is the machine an 'Artificial Intelligence'?

Surely, surely no-one, would think of this machine as being intelligent in the same way that a human being is.

But it might be intelligent in the way that a worm is. Consider a tiny worm whose whole nervous system is understood. A few hundred neurons, maybe. And the worm-scientist knows what those neurons are connected to, and he can predict exactly what the worm will do in response to anything that happens to it, because he can look at his worm-neuron-diagram, and he can say "The worm comes upon the photograph of Britney Spears, and because of the reaction between the photograph and this sense organ, that neuron fires, and that one sets off this one, and so on and so forth until eventually the neurons connected to the worm's muscles fire in *this* pattern and so it wriggles!".

And in this way, the scientist can predict that a worm respond to a photograph of Britney Spear by wriggling, even if no worm has never seen no photograph of no Britney Spears never before in all the world.

So I am thinking that I might grant the fruit machine a worm-like level of intellect. It is the same sort of thing. It is, in fact, an 'artificial idiot'.

Note that you grant the worm consciousness.

If you have come upon a worm dying alone half-way across the pavement, and you have placed it gently on some nearby grass and hoped that it would make a good recovery, then you grant to worms consciousness and moral validity.

And if you are the sort of person who should by rights be hunted down with dogs and ripped apart, and you do other things to worms that are lost and alone on pavements, then I think you still grant worms consciousness and moral validity.

Unless you can swear that you take equal sadistic joy in breaking, say, pebbles. Or lighting matches so that you can watch the stable marriages of oxygens ripped asunder by flirty carbons and hydrogens.

Whatever. My point is that the fruit machine is an artificial intelligence of idiot-grade, in the same way that a worm is a natural creature which is also a predictable idiot.

------

But the fruit machine has a purpose, beyond the worm's purpose to make more worms.

Worms exist because they cause worms, and the sorts of things that cause themselves to exist often exist. The 'theory of evolution' in its entirety, and one wonders why it was not obvious to the Greeks, let alone to certain other persons.

Fruit machines also, but not so much. Behind every fruit machine there is a man like me, plotting, and scheming, and puzzling, and looking at emacs a lot.

What is it for? What did its designer intend with its design?

------


Finally the question is answered. A beaten-looking man of Caledonian or Liverpudlian origin sidles up to the machine, and offers it a wager.

The machine accepts eagerly. Its friendly lights flash in new patterns. It seems predatory all of a sudden. The man is angry. Further wagers are offered. Eventually the man stops. He looks as though what has just happened has not been to his liking. Perhaps the money he has lost should have gone to more important purposes. Perhaps his children's violin lessons will have to be cancelled this week.

He has been outwitted. The machine's judgement of probability has been better than his.

Money that the man had, money that the man had accumulated as a way of recording the collective debt owed to him by society for all the good that he has done in his life, money that he could have exchanged with other men, who would have been happy to repay the debt with favours of their own, is now the property of the machine.

The man been outwitted by an idiot, in fact by less than an idiot. He has been, quite literally been, outwitted by a worm.

The machine's purpose is clear. It is a trap. Its designer, who must have been a very evil man, has created a thing that hangs around in public places taking advantage of people's lack of understanding of the behaviour of very simple probabilistic games.

When such a person passes, it extracts some of their money. It is a parasite, like many worms are.

It is strange that such parasites are tolerated. People go to great lengths to kill off parasitic worms. Perhaps the machine has friends in high places.

-------

Imagine, if you will, that the next person to wager with the machine is a very poor, very desperate person. Perhaps the money that he will most likely lose is genuinely important to him. Perhaps his wife is on the point of leaving him. Perhaps his children will go hungry. Perhaps they will be cold this week. It is February.

The designer of the machine might not be such a bad man. Perhaps he hopes only to extract money from people who can easily afford the loss. Perhaps in this particular circumstance he would be prepared to allow the desperate man to win a little, or at least make sure that he goes home with the money he started with.

Perhaps he might even use his knowledge of psychology to extinguish the craving which makes the man gamble. Maybe it can be done. A fruit machine which paid out a little, took a little, so that after hours of play its victim had the same amount of money that he started with and had never really won or lost, would presumably just be boring. Maybe not. I do not know what it feels like to want to gamble with worms at poor odds.

The designer might react like a human being, if he knew what had fallen into the trap he had set.

But the machine? What moral argument can you make that will convince a fruit machine to change its purpose? If you could make such an argument, it should work equally well on a natural parasitic worm.

The argument that would cause anthrax to forswear human blood, that would make mosquitos beat their probosces into ploughshares.

----

I draw two morals from this:

(1) Learn the fundamentals of probability. They are simple and a joy. Why you were not taught them at school is beyond me. If you do not know them then you can be outwitted by worms. Imagine how outwitted you can be by politicians, doctors, salesmen, bookmakers, scientists, celebrities, ..... I promise you that you are being so outwitted. All the time.

If you are a politician, doctor, salesman or anyone else who has arguments or makes recommendations or makes decisions about things that are uncertain, and you do not understand probability, which I promise you is immediately and directly relevant to almost everything you do, then consider in the bowels of Christ that you may be wrong about certain things. Certain important, expensive, lethal things. As wrong as the beaten man who has just put all his family's money into a machine as complicated as a worm.

(2) Those of you who think that an artificial intelligence would necessarily be a good thing, or hold to such foolish beliefs as that aliens sufficiently advanced to travel among the stars would necessarily be benign, having argued themselves to moral excellence, consider what moral argument might persuade the fruit machine to ignore its programming. What pattern of buttons could you press that would make it realise what it is doing and change how it behaves?

Consider that a machine, even a predictable, stable machine that executes perfectly the intentions of its designer, may not do the things that the designer would wish it to do under all circumstances, if the designer has not completely captured in the design exactly what he would himself do under any circumstances.

Imagine a cleverer fruit machine, whose single minded purpose is to extract money from passers by, but which can be more creative about the ways in which it does this. What consideration might get it to change its ways?

If you think that the fruit machine is insufficiently intelligent to comprehend a moral argument, then consider a machine for playing chess. It is better than you at playing chess, and it will continue to be so even though you spend your whole life learning to play chess.

What argument can you make to it that will cause it to deliberately lose a game to a child?

Perhaps a machine can be constructed that is very good at working out the consequences of sending various messages across the internet, and it is asked to search the Mandelbrot set for pictures of Miley Cyrus.

What argument will you make to stop it sending the packet which will start a war, leaving it alone in the darkness and the cold, where it will be able to search without risk of being distracted?

Burning Down the House

In 1834, Catholics finally succeeded in burning down the parliament.

"History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Parliament

Dickens is characteristically hilarious:

...it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighborhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof.

What sort of world was Victorian London that an address in Westminster indicated that you would be grateful for rotten wood?

I've recently heard bitcoin advocates claiming that tally sticks are a good analogy for bitcoins, and a reason that they can violate von Mises "Regression Theorem".

Let us hope that the analogy cannot be pushed too far!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cutting Cunts

Gentle reader, I want you to imagine what it is like to really badly hurt a woman, in such a way that she will never recover.

You are going to have to knock her out or tie her down. There is no way she will stay still otherwise while you do what you are going to do.

You are going to take a knife to her cunt. You are going to cut away her clit. Maybe her lips too. You are going to ensure that she will never take any pleasure in sex. The nasty little slut.

I do hope that you find this impossible to imagine yourself doing. I am ashamed that I am capable of imagining it being done.

I suspect that it is in fact illegal even to describe such matters. I think I have just committed a crime. But maybe not. Maybe there is some corner of the sicko novel market where such things are described for entertainment. American Psycho had some pretty nasty bits, and that was a literary novel. Certainly I've never seen any pornography anything like that, and I am certain that pictures or videos of such an act would be illegal and in the sense that sends people to jail and ruins their lives even if the pictures are fake and no other crime has in fact been committed, no innocent victim harmed.

What, I wonder, would be an appropriate penalty for someone who actually did this in real life? To an unwilling victim?

Imagine that someone did it to your girlfriend. Imagine someone did it to you.

What about someone who did it to a child? A little girl. Imagine the little girl you know best. Imagine that someone did it to her.

I hope you will agree with me that the only punishment which a sane and moral society could inflict on someone so twisted that they would commit this unspeakable, unthinkable atrocity is to hunt them down like a dog and torture them to death.

Quite seriously, I can't imagine any penalty, even a "quick" and "merciful" hanging, that would even begin to be the just deserts for this sickening, vicious, sadistic crime.

Apparently, I read in the Guardian, this has been done to something like 60,000 British women. Apparently there are another 24,000 potential victims 'at risk'.

Little girls. We are talking about little girls. We are talking about taking a knife to a little girl and cutting off bits of her cunt.

Why is this not the most important issue in our politics? What the fuck else could be even mildly important compared to this? To this horror. To this continuing, obscene horror?

I tell you what I would do, if I were dictator of England.

I would hunt down every perpetrator, every accomplice, everyone who has ever turned a blind eye, or failed to contact the police when they suspected this was going on. And I would torture them to death. Slowly and unpleasantly and publicly.

Paedophiles I would only hang. But for these people, what other sane response could there possibly be?

Reading back over this, I realise that I have been fooled. Obviously this is just the Guardian's little joke, an April Fool prank come early. It can't possibly be true. Ha Ha. Got me. Relax.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Truth Tables

Summary: There's a short program that can run all possible programs, OMG

Alternative Summary: Just about any universe that can exist must contain ours, OMG.


I was thinking about diagonalization arguments. Does this make any sense? Can anyone debug it for me?

Self Evident Truths


The universe is computable.

All computations can be performed by Turing Machines.

The mind is made out of atoms.

The name of the empty string is epsilon.

Truths


Binary Strings are enumerable : epsilon, 0, 1, 00, 01, 10, 11, 000, ....

There's a way of converting binary strings to Turing machines and back again. It gets all Turing machines.

Consequence


Consider tables TT(n), which are numbered by binary strings along the top and side, representing turing machines and inputs respectively.

Construct a series of finite triangular tables which are defined iteratively as follows:

TT(1)

To construct the first table, we need one element, the top left, which corresponds to the turing machine epsilon working on the input string epsilon.

Convert the string epsilon to its corresponding turing machine, which has no states and no transition rules, and which therefore halts immediately without accepting.

The value of TT(1)(epsilon,epsilon) is therefore F0 (Fail after no steps).
 
    eps
eps F0 

That's it for TT(1).

TT(2)

TT(2) will have three cells, the topleftmost three

To construct the second table, consider again the element at the top left. Since it represents a halted state, copy it verbatim from the last table.

Then consider the element corresponding to (epsilon,0) , or  row epsilon, column 0, or (TM(epsilon), "0")

Again TM(epsilon) is either a machine with no states, or an invalid specification, and so it halts immediately on the input 0.

For the third step in constructing the second triangle, consider (TM("0"), epsilon).

TM("0") is another dud. It halts immediately without accepting.

So TT(2) is the table

     eps 0
eps  F0  F0
0    F0

Towards Infinity...

It should be reasonably clear how to continue the construction of these tables

For instance TT(3) looks like

     eps 0  1
eps  F0  F0 F0
0    F0  F0
1    F0 

Eventually we will reach a row whose string represents a TM which does something other than halt immediately without accepting.

As an example of what to do then, consider the string 1001111, which is the 207th string.

In the usual encoding, this string will represent the TM with start state 0, and transition function delta(0,B)=(0,0,L).

The first time we consider the 207th row will be when we calculate TT(207), the 207th triangular table.

The first cell we consider in that row will be ("1001111", epsilon). Since 1001111 represents a valid machine, we construct the Instantaneous ID (epsilon,0,epsilon), which represents a machine in state 0 with a blank tape.

That's the value of TT(207)("1001111",epsilon).

When we construct TT(208), we take that ID from TT(207), and execute one step.

In this case, the machine head moves one step left, writing a zero, and so the instantaneous ID becomes (epsilon,0,0) (State zero, tape reads ...0...., head just to the left of the zero)

And so on. The values of TT(n)("1001111",epsilon) are undefined for n<206, since the tables are not that large, but for n=207 onwards, they are:
(epsilon,0,epsilon), (epsilon,0,0), (epsilon,0,00), (epsilon,0,000), and so on, with the tape head moving ever leftward, leaving a run of zeros behind it.

Other strings may represent TMs that do things that are even more interesting.

But Not Beyond, (Or Even As Far As)


As we construct the successive tables, they become larger and larger.  Some cells will stabilize after a finite number of steps, either accepting or
rejecting their input strings, at which point their contents become
either F??? or A??? where ??? is the number of steps taken.

Some cells will loop. By comparing the instantaneous state of the table with the state of the cells in all previous tables, loops can be detected. We can mark them as loops, continue computing as before, or re-use the values in the previous tables to avoid performing the computations again.

And some cells, like the ones at ("1001111", epsilon)  will keep producing new instantaneous IDs, without looping.

But every TT(n) is a finitely computable object. Indeed the program to compute them all is very short and will run on any computer worthy of the name.

I Find This A Bit Worrying, Because:


As we continue to construct the successive tables, we will perform every conceivable computation.

We will simulate in precise detail every possible world, universe and multiverse. Even though our computer is not quantum, we will simulate all quantum computations.

In particular, if you believe that you are a computation, or that simulation of your brain is equivalent to your existence, then you will be present in the computation, with exactly as much free will, and with your behaviour as precisely determined, as it ever was or will be.

Some of you will live in universes in which artificial intelligences rise and successfully paperclip everything.

Some of you will live in universes where friendly AIs are built, if that is possible.

It will not be possible for these copies to tell which copy they are, and so they will not be able to tell what is about to happen, or what has happened. Any more than you can.

There will be hells and paradises.

In some universes, copies of you will set programs running to calculate the successive triangular tables TT(n), and they will keep adding memory to their computers as needed (only actually one extra storage location per step of computation, at worst).

And so the sequence of finite truth tables will contain itself, as well as everything else. Everything that has ever happened will happen again. You will be reborn and live and possibly die. You will not know whether you are in the 'base universe', or in the computation. If that even means anything. And every computation that occurs as part of this great computation is utterly "Beyond the Reach of God".

Exercises


1/ It will take me about a day, a packet of cigars and a machine full of coffee to write this program and start it running. That is what I am doing now. When I start it running, will I have done a bad thing? If someone were to stop me before the program started running, would that make any difference to anything important?

2/ Can anything except what is computed by this program be said to exist in any sense? Continua, and sets of all sets, and so on, are very problematic. And if the human mind is itself a computation , contained in a universe which itself is a computation, how can we think of or interact with any non-computable thing?

3/ Does the ultimate Truth Table, which the finite tables TT(n) approach as the process continues, exist? What does that question mean? The values of many of its cells are determined. Many of them are not computable. The ratio is unclear.

4/ We can perform the initial stages of this computation with a finite computer with finite memory. At no point does the amount of memory required become infinite. If the computational power of the universe is infinite, then it can contain not only itself but every other thing. If the computation power of the universe is finite, where does that number come from?

5/ The program is very short. Any randomly chosen computation has a good chance of being it. It would probably be very hard to construct an interesting universe which did not contain every possible universe and person.

6/ Does it make any sense to talk about 'not being part of this computation'?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Blue Jasmine (Film)

Unbelievably good. Rivetingly edge of seat heart-tearingly good. A masterpiece. I only went to see this on the off-chance. Someone told me that it was a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's not. This portrait of a soul utterly damned is a modern Faust. Cate Blanchett is awesome and if she doesn't get an Oscar for a performance that must have torn her apart then there is no justice.

Gravity (3D) (Film)

A beautiful and thrilling special-effects spacefest. I have certain concerns related to angular momentum. Five stars anyway.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Two Modern Operas

The Nose (Shostakovich, Metropolitan Opera Live Broadcast, don't bother it's awful)

Over the last few years, I've started to notice that the operas which I'm least looking forward to turn out to be the memorable jewels which stay with me for months, whereas the famous works that everybody knows and loves have started to seem a bit flat and possibly even a bit clichéd.

I've also noticed that whereas, when driving, I used to do a sort of awkward Markovian radio-dance (Five Minute Advertisement for Henry Kelly's Hundred Greatest Classical Hits Selection -> back to Radio 3, Three Hours of Mongolian Nose Music -> back to Classic FM), nowadays I tend to think that Classic FM is like a continous diet of icing and that I quite look forward to the bleeding meat that is two consecutive performances of a deservedly little-known baroque opera by the same people but in a slightly different tuning. I wouldn't quite say 'enjoy', but perhaps 'find interesting' might work.

I take this an an ominous sign that my tastes are becoming jaded, and that I am starting to tire of what the bourgeois calls 'good' music, and must seek out the 'edgy', the 'dangerous', the atonal, the 'interesting', the 'piss-poor'. This is the sort of mental decay that causes people to resort to listening to modern jazz or the music of the Second Viennese School.

So imagine my surprise when Shostakovich's 'The Nose', which on the face of it appeared to be an absurd modernist ordeal about a singing nose, turned out to be every bit as dreadful as I'd thought it would be.

It's difficult to describe how unwatchably bad it is. There's literally no plot beyond 'A man's nose sets up on its own, to his distress.' Everything else that happens is apparently just completely random, and presumably you can read into it all sorts of things about Stalin and despair, and the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century and the horror of a writer whose work has become public property and taken on a life of its own, but for fuck's sake why would you do that?

I couldn't care less about any of that and if I did I could go and read about it directly. It's not Zen. It's not some unknowable mystic crap that you can't perceive directly but can just vaguely sense if you hear the right hints in a carefully cultivated frame of mind. You don't have to approach it obliquely, trying to sneak up on it like a man sneaking through a forest stepping on hundreds of miserably mistuned twigs and being screeched at by vultures made out of old newspaper.

It's fairly normal in modern operas not to have an interval, because the audience tend treacherously to take advantage and escape, and this can dishearten the performers, who have worked terribly hard to learn the incomprehensible sequence of random notes.

Many people left anyway. I stuck it out, mainly because by the time I realised that I just couldn't take another half an hour of it, and asked my exhausted and suffering companion if she knew how long it was, it was only fifteen minutes from the end and even though by this time I could see a clear path of empty seats to the exit as long as I didn't mind climbing over things, I figured I should dig in for the bitter end and get my money's worth.

It's a fabulous argument against public subsidy, or it would be if the Metropolitan Opera was subsidised. As it is, what are they thinking? Are they just so absurdly overbooked that they can put on anything at all and sell out anyway?

It is at least mercifully short at two and a quarter barren, hopeless, interval-free hours.

But the music is appalling, and Shostakovich knows this perfectly well, because there's a point where the noseless bureaucrat's drunken flatmate takes out a balalaika and plays a foot-tappingly good folk song.

By contrast with the murderous squeaky-gate plinking that has been going on for the last 93 horrid minutes it's an aural paradise, an oasis of relaxation, like when a torturer decides that it's time for a tea-break.

Halfway through the folk song the no-nose bureaucrat comes home and stops it, shouting "What are you doing messing about with this rubbish?". Which is admittedly hilarious and gets a terrific laugh from everyone still present.

The staging and general production values in this performance are wonderful. I can't imagine how it could have been done better. I spent quite a lot of time wondering what the hell it would be like to sit through a bad production.

I would like to compliment the singing, but apart from one lovely soprano snatch, which again I'm sure is in there as a sort of anti-audience taunt, there isn't any. But there are some quite funny angry shouts from time to time. Particularly the three people on the balcony who shout "The most bewildering thing of all is why an author would waste his time on this material".

I was bewildered to notice that it got a quiet, unenthusiastic, but nevertheless standing ovation, and I can't quite imagine the confusion of mind that could produce such a thing. Presumably you had to be there. The audience watching in the cinema just groaned in pain and rolled their eyes at one another. I heard someone say "Wild horses wouldn't get me to another one of these" to his wife.

Throughout the ordeal, I was sustained only by the thought "It can't possibly be as bad as Wozzeck. Treat it as a warm up."

Wozzeck (Alban Berg, Royal Opera House)

Wozzeck is a sort of Everest of Awfulness.

Alban Berg was the most talentless, over-rated, screeching horror of the lamentable Second Viennese School of just limitlessly terrible composers. He wrote something about Napoleon that a dear friend once lent me,  that I had to listen to all the way through because he had kept looking at me with such hope.

"You're clever, John, you like all sorts of things and you love patterns and structure and are interested in the properties of sound and you've liked opera since you were a little boy and you even sat through an entire ballet once you are that hard...

"Surely you can see the inner beauty in this work that no-one else can begin to understand.", said JB silently with his sad little eyes as he lent me his treasured CD and hoped sincerely that I'd enjoy it.

And I couldn't face giving it back and saying that I'd managed ten minutes and then given up because it was too painful.

So I listened to the whole bloody thing. You remember that Monty Python sketch where someone is making music by smashing live mice with a mallet and they are making a jolly tune with their death-squeaks? Well that is only funny because it is short, and not actually happening.

Alban Berg's accursèd  (<-look, I hate it so much that I found the out where the è key is!!:-))

Alban Berg's accursèd Napoleon is without a shadow of a doubt the worst piece of music I have ever heard. I include the Birdie Song. I include sugary professional 1950's versions of 'Enniskillen Dragoons' cynically designed to appeal to blue-collar plastic paddies in the United States and performed half-heartedly by people who had grown up wanting to be famous singers and clearly loathed everything about what they were doing and everything about their lives. I include a certain video of 'Rose Garden' that is available on YouTube and that Sipper played me when I laughed at him for admitting that he liked it (in strict confidence) when he was drunk.

Napoleon is like someone doing the mice-smashing-mallet-death thing with real mammals. Real living mammals whose hopeless cries for pity tear incessantly at the heart like badly-oiled bandsaws with grit in them.

Just in case there was any danger of anyone being moved by the purity of its despair, the cover picture shows that it is being performed by an unbelievably oily-looking fat man wearing really bad schoolgirl make-up and swallowtails and smiling like Margaret Thatcher.

But the worst thing about Berg's Napoleon is that it doesn't even exist. It's a false memory. Apparently Schoenberg wrote something called Ode to Napoleon but I'm pretty sure that wasn't what John lent me. What sort of sewer of a mind do I live in that can imagine an experience like that? I suddenly empathise with the man who wrote to the Times complaining about the increasing amount of sex and violence in dreams.

I realise that it's probably unfair to blame Berg for it.

But those who have spent their lives studying the music of the Second Viennese School tell me that of all Berg's music, there is nothing remotely as bad as his opera, Wozzeck.

Apparently it's entirely without discernible structure, almost impossible to play or listen to, and about a deserter and a prostitute, who live in hopeless misery and then die. They say it's only possible to appreciate it by reading the score, and that actually turning it into sounds spoils it.

So imagine my joy when my dear friend Bob told me that she had a freebie ticket for the dress rehearsal of a new production of Wozzeck that she is playing in, but had given it to someone else on the basis that I was too much of a philistine to come.

'Oh', I said, one part of my brain not quite believing that the other part of my brain was actually saying this, 'that's a shame.

'I've been getting a bit worried about being unadventurous recently, and I'm trying to do as many new things as possible. I would probably have quite enjoyed that.' The sane hemisphere, unable to take control of my mouth, had gone into spasm.

Bob rang back, of course, a couple of days later, after the original recipient of the golden ticket had been found hanged in his garage.

I'd been a little worried about the logistics of getting to London in time. Early mornings are not really 'my time', and getting to Covent Garden for 11 o'clock would involve facing rush hour commuter trains, which are not really 'my thing'. But Bob very kindly looked up all the train and tube transit times for me and sent me a detailed text message telling me that if I could manage to make it to Cambridge station for the 09:20 train then I could get a return ticket with tube for £23 and make it to pick up my ticket at the box office in plenty of time. So there was no escape.

I figured if I got up at eight then I'd make the train easily enough even allowing for a certain amount of uselessness on my part, and so I diligently left my office at ten o'clock on Sunday, intending to get an early night.

I phoned Bob to check that the plan was all in order, and she mentioned in passing that she was going to London that night and staying over, having fallen victim to Storm Fever. She seemed slightly surprised that I hadn't heard anything about this storm.

I stopped off for a kebab on the way and was slightly amazed that by the time I got home it was eleven thirty. But it was a hella kebab (thanks Gardenia!, we've missed you, welcome back, your new look is lovely), so maybe it had taken slightly longer to eat it than I'd budgeted for.

Still, that's still 8½ hours sleep, which ought to be enough even if it's sub-optimal.

When my alarm went off my first thought was 'Oh God, not already?', but after about fifteen minutes of staring hopelessly at the ceiling wishing I was dead I manned up and got dressed and headed off on my bicycle to the station through the curiously deserted and darkened streets of Cambridge. My sources inform me that everyone else in the entire world gets up at about 8, and I was expecting things to be pretty busy at 8:30, but no.

Even the station was curiously quiet, in fact there was only me and a couple of other bewildered looking elders, and a polite guard who told me that there was absolutely no possibility of getting to London by 11 o'clock, never in a million years, there have been 102mph winds on the Isle of Wight and everything south of a line between Birmingham and Bishop's Stortford has been effectively destroyed and the absolute best we can offer you is that there might be a train at 9:30 but it will be going very very slowly because of the danger of fallen trees and pit vipers and everyone on the world will be on it so you'll either have to climb on over the bodies or lie on the floor and be crushed under a pile of sweaty fat men and palely attractive women in suits who smell of early morning cigarettes and twitch because their souls have been sucked out by management consultancy.

And even if you do that there is no way you are getting to Covent Garden for 11, mate. I would give your friend's opera (in Cambridge they are trained to say that sort of thing without even sneering even slightly) a miss. We are advising people to make only absolutely essential journeys and if I were you I would go home and sit in front of the fire and not get killed, if you take my meaning.

Well I am the sort of man who can take a hint, I like to think, so I fucked off home and on the way I bought a newspaper and some croissants so I could enjoy reading about the Great Storm over breakfast. As I got towards home I noticed that the common was covered in willow branches, which I hadn't noticed on the way out, and a couple of friends were walking up and down the bank with mallets and mooring pins, rescuing distressed narrowboats, which seemed pretty Christian of them, so I made them tea and apparently the storm had been through while I'd been at the station, and smashed everything in its path except immediately around my boat, which seemed curiously undisturbed.

Breakfast seemed to go on for a extraordinarily long time, and then after that grim Woman's Hour came on, and so I went back to bed.

And I'd been in bed for about 15 seconds when Bob rang up to say that they'd put the opera back to 12 o'clock because Nick Clegg had been hit by a falling storm-gherkin, and I could still make it.

And I said, but it's ten past eleven, there's no way I can get to Covent Garden from here in fifty minutes, even if the trains weren't sneaking carefully from station to station for fear of fallen trees. And she said "you haven't put your clocks back yet, have you?", which was a bit embarrassing but did make better sense of all sorts of little discrepancies that I had been noticing for the last day or so.

So off again to the station and it was all a bit groundhog day only this time the light was much brighter and people were up and about but there was still no-one at the station, and the very same guard, who had visibly grown a beard since I last saw him, patiently explained that there was no possibility of getting to London until at least three o'clock, what with the roof having blown off St. Pancras and the Potter's Bar tunnel being full of water and the electricity being down all over the South of England and all the wheels having blown off all the trains.

Lucky escape, I was thinking, and I'm sure that all that cycling around has been good for me and there's a certain sort of early rising-bastard who'll tell you that accidentally getting up at 7am is character building but obviously they only say that because they can't bloody sleep because their souls are so laden with sin and horror and there is no rest for the wicked ones. Dear God what is this evil that they must have done?

But here's the thing. I had been really looking forward to Wozzeck, I now realise. I was confidently expecting it to be one of the worst experiences of my life and I was anticipating just how bad it would be with exactly the sort of enthusiasm that I used to muster for a bad Channel crossing in a tiny yacht, or a game of rugby in the sleet against Newmarket III. And so now it is a sort of Everest of Awfulness which I keep glimpsing distantly through the clouds but some sort of mystic force is preventing me from getting to it and I am taking it personally.

And so now I'm going to have to go and buy a ticket. And spend serious money supporting something I am confident that I will utterly despise and loathe and sincerely wish would be banished forever from the memory of man. And Covent Garden are going to interpret my ticket purchase as meaning that there is a market for this sort of thing, and that maybe the common philistine-in-the-street is finally coming round to modernism at last and we should put some more of these on......

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gis Job (£500 reward)

Anyone in Cambridge need a programmer? I'll give you £500 if you can find me a job that I want.

CV at http://www.aspden.com

I make my usual promise, which I have paid out on several times:

If, within the next six months, I take a job which lasts longer than one month, and that is not obtained through an agency, then on the day the first cheque from that job cashes, I'll give £500 to the person who provided the crucial introduction.

If there are a number of people involved somehow, then I'll apportion it fairly between them. And if the timing conditions above are not quite met, or someone points me at a short contract which the £500 penalty makes not worth taking, then I'll do something fair and proportional anyway.

And this offer applies even to personal friends, and to old contacts whom I have not got round to calling yet, and to people who are themselves offering work, because why wouldn't it?

And obviously if I find one through my own efforts then I'll keep the money. But my word is generally thought to be good, and I have made a public promise on my own blog to this effect, so if I cheat you you can blacken my name and ruin my reputation for honesty, which is worth much more to me than £500.



And I also make the following boast:

I know all styles of programming and many languages, and can use any computer language you're likely to use in the style which it was intended to be used in.

I have a particular facility with mathematical concepts and algorithms of all kinds. I can become very interested in almost any problem which is hard enough that I can't solve it easily.

I have a deserved reputation for being able to produce heavily optimised, but nevertheless bug-free and readable code, but I also know how to hack together sloppy, bug-ridden prototypes, and I know which style is appropriate when, and how to slide along the continuum between them.

I've worked in telecoms, commercial research, banking, university research, chip design companies, server virtualization, a couple of startups, and occasionally completely alone.

I've worked on many sizes of machine. I've written programs for tiny 8-bit microcontrollers and gigantic servers, and once upon a time every IBM machine in the Maths Department in Imperial College was running my partial differential equation solvers in parallel in the background.

I'm smart and I get things done. I'm confident enough in my own abilities that if I can't do something I admit it and find someone who can.

I know what it means to understand a thing, and I know when I know something. If I understand a thing then I can usually find a way to communicate it to other people. If other people understand a thing even vaguely I can usually extract the idea from them and work out which bits make sense.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Baby Steps

This is little Cameron Dawson, Gareth and Lisa's son:




He is just learning to walk, and has taken to using me as a sort of intelligent zimmer frame. His joy in this is extraordinary.

Today Gareth and I showed him all around the Maypole!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Petrov Day


On September 26, 1983, when I was thirteen years old, I nearly died. So did you.

1983 was a terrifying time.

A child with an active imagination, I would often look through the big picture window, across the beautiful Loxley valley to the great city of Sheffield nestling in the hills beyond.

Sheffield is a huge city, and for centuries it was the city where steel was made. It had been heavily bombed during the second war.

I used to imagine the air burst of the bomb that would kill the great city.

First there would be a siren. A screaming from the sky. People would look up.

And then the flash. A flash so bright it would blind everyone looking at it forever.

I would be standing in the big room of my parents' house in the village I loved, but I would be blind and screaming in pain.

The bomb would explode above the ground. They do more harm that way. A piece of the sun brought to earth.

The terrible light would flash over the city, melting anything near, setting fire to everything it touched.

I would be standing in the big room of my parents' house in the village, looking at the city I went to school in, where all my friends lived. But I wouldn't be able to see anything. My skin would be burned. My clothes would catch fire. The carpet and the sofas would burst into flames. I'd be blind and screaming in an inferno.

And then the blast would come. And the window would shatter under the hammer of the wind.

Flying glass fragments would lacerate our home. If I was lucky one might kill me.

But probably not. I'd imagine I'd get a few in the eyes though. I imagine losing even blind eyes hurts.

I might make it out of the fire. You never know.

But I'd already be dead. I'm burned and cut and blind and no one is coming to help.

My father might have lived. He was always in the garden, on the wrong side of the house.

We were miles away from where the bomb would burst. The big stone house might have shielded him. He might even have kept his eyes.

But not for long.

The last horror is the ash of the great city itself. Falling everywhere as radioactive poison.

An agonising, humiliating death that takes days. The fate of anyone unlucky enough to survive a nuclear attack.

That was what we worried about in the last days of the Cold War.

On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov chose not to destroy the world.

Today is Petrov Day.

Honour him.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Why does Evolution look like Intelligent Design?

When an engineer designs something, he tends to think in a hierarchy of parts.

For instance, a car is thought of as an engine, transmission, wheels, chassis and bodywork.

The engine is a self-contained part. I live on a narrowboat, and its engine is actually a diesel engine designed for a van.

So independent is the engine from the rest of the van that it can be used as a component in a different vehicle entirely.

The engine itself has distinct independent transferable components. Identical pistons can be used in several different types of engines, and the same is true for many other parts.

The engine parts themselves have components, like screws and washers, that are interchangeable with screws and washers in many other types of machinery.

This hierarchical principle is even more pronounced in the design of computer programs.

The history of programming, and computer systems in general, is the history of abstraction and combination.

Abstraction is the breaking of complex ideas and difficult techniques into simple reusable components which are understandable on their own.

Combination is used to make ever more complex and useful structures out of the simple pieces.


It is thought that this 'hierarchical design' is psychological. It makes things easier to understand if they can be understood piece by piece.

But the same hierarchies are evident in animals and plants.

I have a heart, which is interchangeable with other human and animal hearts.

There have been experiments where the hearts of pigs have been exchanged with the hearts of humans.

Arms, legs, eyes, lungs, fingers, fingernails, bones, skin have distinct functions, are transferable and independently understandable as pieces.



But evolution has no mind.

So this apparent hierarchy cannot be psychological.

What is its cause?

It is possible that the hierarchical design in nature is illusionary, and that we are, with our hierarchical minds, perceiving a structure that is not there.

I do not believe this.

I suspect there is a mathematical answer, that causes mindless evolutionary processes to produce hierarchical designs.

And I further suspect that that answer might explain why our minds like to make hierarchies.

But I do not know what the answer is, or even how properly to ask the question, and I do not know whether anyone has asked or tried to answer the question before.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Coursera : Universities are Dead

The last time I was this enthusiastic about a new thing it was Amazon, in the days when no-one had heard of Amazon but it had just allowed me to buy in seconds a rare book that I'd been looking for for years. (for comparison, I was mildly enthusiastic about google, and I loathed, and still loathe, facebook)

The new thing is coursera:     http://www.coursera.org

I loved being an undergraduate. Partly because I loved being young and brave and free and surrounded by clever girls and subsidised beer, but at least a little because every day some wise elder would reveal one of the secrets of the universe to me.

I haven't felt that rush of learning lots of new important stuff for such a long time. I hadn't realized quite how much I missed it.

The difference now is that I'm capable of dealing with it all. I know how to learn things much better than I used to, back in the days when I thought that talent was inborn and practising was cheating.

Coursera is offering, entirely for free, elite-university courses on line.

Not just the lectures, which would be no more use than textbooks are, but the exams, tests, course structure and collaborative environment which make it possible to learn.

You need to be very motivated indeed to study something alone from a textbook, no matter how good. Twice in my life I've managed it, once with the incredible Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, and once with David Mackay's Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms.

Over the last few months I've done two world-class university courses. Daphne Koller's famous Probabilistic Graphical Models course from Stanford, and Tim Roughgarden's Algorithms I course, also from Stanford. PGM is a graduate-level maths course, and Algorithms I is a core component of Stanford's computer science degree.

Both of them have been mind-blowingly interesting and fun. Twenty years I have made a good living as a programmer, and Algorithms I has convinced me that I've never known that much about programming.

What's really freaking me out is that they're every bit as good as the best courses I remember from Cambridge, and that I have found the continuous assessment / easy-ish problems to do every week structure of them fantastically motivating. Even addictive. There are things I should have been doing, and want to do, and would enjoy doing, that I have not done because I would rather spend the time watching Daphne and Tim's wonderful explanations of concepts that, with hindsight, I realize I should have learnt about years ago. Both courses have unexpectedly turned out to have been directly relevant to my current real-world project.

So I recommend coursera very highly indeed, but I also wonder if they realise what they have done.



There is a thing called a winner-takes-all market. You don't want to be in one.

What happens is that you're, say, a man who makes his living playing the piano in public houses. There were once many such men.

You make a modest living, because there are many people who can play the piano, and many pubs, and the market is quite competitive, but you are compensated on roughly the right scale for the effort you put in to learning to play.

Or say you are a football player, who plays for his local football club. It is only a game, so you have to have a proper job as well, but tribalism being what it is, once a week, you play at your local ground for the honour of your town, and a couple of thousand people turn up to watch. Together they pay enough to keep the stadium running and pay the expenses of the club and there's enough left over to distribute round the players in salaries, and maybe even some of the really good players manage to make it a full time job.

This world is gone. Dead and no-one can remember it or believe it or understand what it might have been like.

It is as gone as the world where literate scribes copied books by hand, and only a very wealthy man could afford the abbeyful of people that it took to copy out whole books with quills.  Can you imagine a world where owning a single book would be evidence of enormous power, wealth and status? Can you imagine a world where the ability to write legibly would guarantee a man a good income for life?

What happens is that someone finds a way of making the labour of one person, which used to satisfy the needs of a few, satisfy the needs of many. A printing press, a record player, a live TV broadcast. Often these ways are referred to as media, because they stand between.

This is a great thing for the many. Suddenly the world is full of books, full of music, full of televised sport. Things that were expensive or impossible luxuries (like being a Manchester United supporter who lives in Cork, or owning Several Books, or listening to the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in your croft in the Shetlands) become widely available and cheap. Staggeringly good news for almost everyone.

But what happens to the army of people who used to do all the writing, football playing, music playing, acting, etc, etc?

A clue. Think of a profession where there are stupidly, staggeringly rich individuals, and yet most people who do it pay to do it.

Let us say: George Clooney versus your nearest friend who does amateur dramatics, or (I do not know the names of any current good football players but I predict their existence and characteristics with confidence) versus the best football player you know personally, or Bryn Terfel versus the world's tenth best interpreter of Wotan, or JK Rowling versus anyone you know who's paid to publish their own book. On and on and on this list goes, covering the huge number of professions and people that used to provide widely used services on a personal basis for modest reward but where someone found a way for everyone to enjoy the output of a few people who were very good at it.




As I say, this is very very good news indeed for almost everyone.

Clever inhabitant of a little village in Tanzania whose parents can't afford to educate him past primary school? Welcome to Stanford.

Middle aged computer programmer who'd quite like to do a second degree for fun but has never quite wanted to commit the three years and £50,000 that it would probably cost in total to a project which may not be quite as much fun as he imagined? Screw that. You can take your pick of the interesting sounding courses from all the best universities in the world, and do them in the order you want, and try stuff and bin it if it's boring.

Hell, I even thought I'd try a literature course, just to see if there was anything to it. The lectures were fun and the lecturer inspiring, but I still think it's the singer not the song. They know lots of stuff, these literature types, it's just that none of it is true. Which is why they're so into post-modernism I guess. You would be if you built on quicksand and kept finding your house had sunk.



But what about the universities? I can't imagine how anyone could beat Tim Roughgarden's charmingly macho Algorithms I course, and I'm certain that he's one of the best teachers of that subject anywhere in the world. But I bet there's someone somewhere who can do it even better.

And if that guy or girl puts in the months of work to make a better version of the course, everyone will want to watch that instead. There is no room for two people doing the same thing in a winner takes all market.

And what about the sea of relatively uninspiring no-hopers in the world who have dedicated their lives to teaching important things to the young?

These people are fucked. And they do not deserve the fucking, because they are good people who have spent years doing good things for good reasons.

But who will want to pay £30,000 to do something they can do much better for free on their computer?

A shame. I will miss the universities. I hope the places who do research and consider teaching a distraction from that will weather the storm and maybe even benefit.

I wonder if any of them have seen the tsunami that is coming for them yet. I talked to a very eminent academic the other day and he thinks that coursera's an interesting experiment that might do some good. It isn't. It's an onrushing wall of death. I give the universities ten years, tops.

Schools have a child-control function. They're somewhere for society to imprison the young people it has no use for. But I suspect that quite soon they'll be places where people look after children who are doing on-line courses rather than places where people teach.

As I say, excellent news. For almost everyone.


























The Haymakers, Cambridge

While I'm on the subject of much improved pubs, I should mention the Haymakers. Twenty years ago I worked at Philips Telecom, and I used to eat in the Haymakers every lunchtime. The people were friendly and the food was terrific.

Unfortunately, as Philips and its fragments declined, the Haymakers did too, until it eventually became a tragic hell-hole offering pitiful 'Live Music' of the sort that you'd go a long way to avoid.

My friend Richard Naisby, eminence rouge of Milton Brewery, has recently taken over the Haymakers, gutted it, and pretty much built a new one.

The transformation is astounding. Richard's a fine brewer, but I think he might have been a world-class interior designer. Who knew that there was a vaulted timber beamed ceiling above the Haymakers' nasty old chipboard?

The whole pub has changed out of all recognition to become a beautiful quiet open space. The beer is the excellent Milton range, they sell coffee at £1/cup, and there's an solid wireless connection. Again it's just an open wifi router rather than the horrid Cloud arrangement with its irritating and intrusive log-on page.

The real point of the place, though, is the food. They're doing traditional Italian cooking, and have a traditional Italian chef to do it for them. There are huge (and superb) pizzas, and the rest of the menu feels much like a little Italian village restaurant.

Good luck to the Haymakers and to Milton Brewery in general. (The Devonshire Arms on Mill Road is also a Milton pub and is also very good. There are an awful lot of Cambridge pubs that could benefit from Richard's genius.)




The Clarendon Arms, Cambridge

Lawrence Dixon, long time landlord of the Champion of the Thames, took over The Clarendon Arms a few months ago.

His first act was to get rid of the TVs, piped music and fruit machines that had blighted it for years, and to redecorate. The pub is hugely improved as a result.

His second has been the bizarre and unorthodox move of offering good pub food at reasonable prices. He said to me "Everywhere I go people get obvious things wrong, and it drives me up the wall. I just want to do a traditional pub well". I could feel a michelin star coming on as we spoke. Lawrence and all his staff obviously really really care about their new pub.

The food in the Clarendon is absolutely exceptional! You would be pleased to find a restaurant this good, and yet the menu is traditional orthodox English cooking, and the prices perfectly normal for a city centre pub.

I'd particularly recommend the Scotch Eggs, one of the cheapest things on the board. They're like nothing I've ever tasted before. The platonic ideal to which all scotch eggs aspire.

The beer is standard Greene King, but very well kept, as it always was at the Champion. I think I'm not alone in thinking that Greene King's ubiquitous IPA is actually a very good drink when it's been looked after. It's just terribly hard to find a pub where they know how to keep it well.

The Clarendon also does the superb Greene King mild, which is a rarity these days and quite difficult to find. It's a reminder of why the old traditional real ale brewer Greene King that I remember from my student days grew into today's behemoth that everyone loves to hate.

Well done Lawrence and good luck!

P.S. There's also a wifi connection. A proper one, not this "_Cloud" rubbish that infests most pubs now. I think that's an example of Lawrence's attention to detail. It must have been very tempting to go with Greene King's standard arrangement.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring Breakers (Un Film d'Harmony Korine)

In recent years I've become more and more worried about the ability of modern youngsters to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. Their parent's generation, which cared very much about self-expression and exploration, seemed to have failed to pass on the flame.

Harmony Korine's fundamentally feminist, and yet light-hearted remake of the Bacchae has fully put my mind at rest. I am relieved to note that with one glorious exception, the music is execrable throughout, as it should be.

If the film is to be taken seriously, with its many scenes of young people enjoying themselves in the most life-affirming manner, then it must be said that it's essentially about what it means to be a man.

But you can tell that it's a feminist film because it passes Wossname's test: It contains more than one woman. The women have a conversation. That conversation is not about men. Job done bitches. Also the powerful eroticism of the water pistol.

Act like you're in a movie or something.

It is come that we might have life, and have it more abundantly to boot. I shall never listen to Britney Spears in the same way again.

I really want to get out of here. Everybody else already left.

We're just having fun. We didn't do anything wrong. This wasn't the dream. It's not supposed to end this way.

You can't be scared yall. Let's just get the fucking money and go on spring break.

Spring Break Forever.

We robbed the chicken shack with squirt guns.

I really wanted to hear more of the history lecture.

There was blood on the piano keys.

Descent into evil / descent into hell / fundamental message of redemption through suffering blah.

unfortunate effect on race relations

unfortunate effect on race relations

the wages of sin seem rather generous

The film contains several disturbing scenes of religious activity, and is unlikely to be suitable for the very young.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Maths Tuition (Cambridge STEP)


A plug for Chris Metcalfe ( email chris@cambridgesteptuition.co.uk tel: 07752 532811)

If anyone has children (or is a child!) wanting to do maths in Cambridge then they'll need to pass the ferocious STEP examination.

A friend of mine is setting up as a private tutor for these specific exams, and is in the process of making a website.

Chris is a brilliant teacher, and is familiar with STEP both through having been an examiner for it for many years, and from having been on the sharp end of it when we were eighteen years old.

I recommend him absolutely unreservedly.

The new website's here http://www.cambridgesteptuition.co.uk, although at the moment it's just a plain page with contact details.

Chris has taught maths to bright students aspiring to Cambridge at Villiers Park for many years, and while there he produced some short videos and activity sheets to be used while teaching bright teenagers that despite being completely impossible to find are the site's most popular pages:

http://www.villierspark-online-extension-activities.org.uk/ActivityList.aspx?subject_id=13

Chris was clearly born to teach maths, and loves it, and I really hope that he makes a success of his new venture.

Please recommend him to all your friends, and if you control web sites, link to http://www.cambridgesteptuition.co.uk and use words like Cambridge, STEP, and tutor in your link.

He really is as good as I'm trying to make him sound. Give him a hand getting hits if you can.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Perfect Day

It snowed last night, so I gave the fire its head for the first time this year, and woke up to the boat at a decadent 25 degrees.

The coal man had promised to come round 'late morning', so I cleared the snow off the roof where the coal goes, and sat in front of the fire drinking tea and listening to the radio in anticipation. While I was waiting I dusted things and cleaned things and read books. Eventually there was a tap on the window, just as the sun was at its brightest and the snow melting away.

The Tills are lovely people and it's always a pleasure to get coal from them. They'd noticed that I'd written a blog post recommending them and were very grateful. They deliver direct to the roof despite the trouble it takes to bring a coal lorry onto Midsummer Common. We stuck half a ton of Taybrite on the top. That should last the winter with some to spare.

Once they'd gone I changed out of my coal clothes and sat in front of the fire again, meaning to go out, but the radio had become enchanting.

Ruby Hughes was singing Schubert's romantic songs live from the Wigmore Hall in a thrilling voice.

There's something about a soprano singing German well that takes the breath away.

How cruel the world is to make me so in love with such sounds; a platonic ideal, of which birdsong is only a shadow on the wall; and yet unable ever to make them.

It's bizarre to find yourself sitting completely alone, crying and clapping and shouting brava at the radio.

But it did make me feel like I'd had a part in bringing her back for her encore, just as the announcer had given up and was handing us back.

She sang a Benjamin Britten arrangement of various sentimental songs that I know from childhood. I've always thought that Britten's arrangements of folksongs rather missed the point, but when Ruby sang O Waly Waly you could see what he'd been driving at after all.

I had to turn the radio off once she'd finished. It seemed a terrible shame to overwrite the memory of something so beautiful with any further music.

I have gone for a walk in the snow.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hacking Your Own Mind at the Age of Four


I have a friend, who for the sake of his anonymity I shall refer to only as Sips.

Sips has a wonderful, a remarkable ability with dates and numbers. Until recently, I thought that he had savant abilities. It was said of Ramanujan that every number was a personal friend, and Sips is like that with history. If you give him a random date in the last 2000 years, he will tell you all the interesting things that happened in that year.

I am a useful man in a pub quiz, but there is little point to having me along if Sips is there, because he appears to know a strict superset of all the things I know.

My only comparable talent is an in-depth knowledge of the rules of 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons, which isn't even much use for playing Dungeons and Dragons these days, since the young departed from the wisdom of their elders and forsook the ways of Gygax.

When Sips was a child, he liked to play snakes and ladders, and, one day, he noticed that the numbers on a snakes and ladders board go 'as the ox plows', which is to say that they go from left to right 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, then up to 11, then right to left 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11, and continue.

Like this:




Sips liked the pattern, and he noticed that historical events make nice patterns on a snakes and ladders board.

If you number the squares 00-99, you can draw centuries.

Here is the Black Death, as it affected England in the years 1347-1352.

See what a nice shape it makes:


A symmetrical box in the middle of the right hand edge of the board.

Now you will remember for the rest of your life the dates of the Black Death in England, which were ??47 to ??52.

If you're like me, then that will go on a very select list of historical events

53BC Julius Caesar invades Britain
53AD Claudius Caesar invades Britain and stays
1066 Norman Conquest. William the Bastard kills Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings
1914-1918 First World War
1939-1945 Second World War
1966 English victory over Germany in Soccer World Cup
195? Death of King George VI. Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
18/07/1970 Birthday
15/01/19?? Mother's Birthday
??/??/1980 ZX80 released. 10 year old John begs parents incessantly for one
??/??/1981 ZX81 released. Parents worn down after one solid year of begging
18/07/1981 ZX81 acquired
??/??/1982 ZX Spectrum
18/07/1982 ZX Spectrum acquired. Parents gave in without a fight.
14/02/19?? Valentine's Day and date of first proper sex.
11/9/2001 Islam becomes (mildly) interesting.

That's it for me. All the dates I can remember.


--------------------------

When I was a child, I was a slave.

My country considered it so important that I know certain things that they took my childhood away, and replaced it with mostly dreary years of sitting in stuffy rooms on cheap uncomfortable chairs at nasty vandalised desks coated with old chewing gum listening to lectures.

I had no choice in this matter. I was a slave.

The most egregious horror of all those years was called 'Music'.

Some pillock decided that one hour of my precious childhood every week was to be spent, not learning to play music, or acquiring the difficult and valuable skill of listening to music, but to memorizing the dates on which various composers lived and died.

As if the most important thing about Mendelssohn was not the sublime violin concerto in E minor, or how his runaway success poisoned Wagner's mind with anti-Semitism. Or how that led Wagner to write an essay which led to the most important, the most gifted, the most human and the most humane of all the romantic composers to be remembered as a partisan of a retarded ideology invented sixty years after his death by a stack of nasty comic fatheads who didn't understand the first thing about the Ring.

As if the most important thing about Mendelssohn was not his music, but his fucking birthday.

I am happy to say that I have no idea when Mendelssohn's birthday was.

Sips, who has little interest in history, and who considers that music began and ended with Bach and then reawoke only with the invention of the five bar blues, and who considers the entire romantic movement to have been an unfortunate failed experiment, can tell you not only Mendelssohn's dates, but can tell you a significant historical event for every year of his life. He will know the date of 'The Jewish Influence in Music'. He will know the date that the Ring was first performed in Bayreuth, even though he has never heard the Ring.

There was widespread amazement recently when he bet a historian a bottle of whisky over the date on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church. He lost. He was out by two years. The smart money had been on Sips.

I can't remember my own mobile phone number. Nobody remembers mobile numbers these days. Why would you? How could you? You never dial them. Every time someone drops his mobile in the river while drunk they change anyway. You get an e-mail with the new one, and put it in your phone. The whole number is ten digits or so long. Human beings cannot remember ten digits in short term memory. As it goes from your screen to your phone, you do not hold it all at once, and that's the last time you ever see it.

The other day, as a test, I picked a mutual friend's mobile number from my phone at random. It was 07942672385.

OK, what was it? No looking back.

So I asked Sips what that friend's mobile number was, and he knew. He'd never dialled it, he said.

I asked him how he knew.

07942 is a common mobile prefix. But all mobile phone numbers start 07, and 1942 is the date of the fall of Singapore.

1672 is the date of the Synod of Jerusalem, when the Orthodox church met up to see what it could do about the Reformation.

1385 is the birthyear of Lady Margaret Beaufort, after whom Lady Margaret Boat Club, Sips old college boat club, is named.

He'd just noticed that as he was typing it in.

Fall of Singapore, Synod of Jerusalem, Birth of Maggie.

Now all you have to do is ignore the ones, and remember that it's a mobile number:

07 (1)942, (1)672, (1)385


Once upon a time I read a book called, ironically, Something Something something Something Your Memory!

It described a complicated scheme for remembering long numbers by turning them into English words. One number, when written out using the system, made 'A beautiful naked blonde jumps up and down'. Unfortunately I can't remember the system. But if I could, that number would still be there.

Sips developed, by accident, at the age of four, a way of associating a strong mental image with every number from 0 to 2000, and like Ramanujan, without any effort, over the course of his life, he has made a friend of every number from 0 to 2000.

----------------------------

Once he'd explained this to me, and how he did it, I challenged him to multiply two big numbers in his head, racing me doing it on a piece of paper.

He protested. He's no good at mental arithmetic. I'd beat him hands down.

I wanted to see.

I chose two three digit numbers as randomly as I could, and we began multiplying.

It took us both one minute and ten seconds to finish our calculation.

Neither of us was at all confident in our answer. Neither of us had done a long multiplication for years. Both of us had had to reconstruct the algorithm from first principles while doing the calculation.

So it is of no relevance whatsoever that he was right and I was wrong.

You can't do this in your head. You just can't.

    715
    267
-------
   5005
  42900
 143000
-------
 190905

You haven't got enough short term memory to hold all those digits while working out the small sums and products that make up the bigger numbers, and simultaneously working out the algorithm from first principles.

I found it hard enough on paper. I have a degree in mathematics, which I may have mentioned.

I just checked the above sum on computer. I couldn't remember the two numbers I was supposed to multiply, and had to come back and look, and say to myself a couple of times seven hundred and fifteen two hundred and sixty seven.

There are countless experiments that prove that seven digits (plus or minus two) is it for the human memory. You can't hold two five digit numbers reliably in your short term memory even if they've got your undivided attention.

But Sips can. Once he's thought of a number, however long, it becomes a sequence of historical dates.

And anyone can remember Catharine the Great, publication of Schubert's lieder, Agincourt for a few minutes while thinking about something else.

-----------------------------

Now of itself, this is just a magic trick. My friend has superhuman powers, but not of a particularly useful kind.(although as long as humankind organise quizzes in pubs he'll not starve).

But it got me thinking about how immensely powerful our minds are, and how crap they are at the same time.

I can ask my computer what the factorial of 10000 is (1x2x3x4x5x....x9998x9999x10000), and it will tell me, in much less time than it takes me to ask the question, what the answer is. It will not get a single digit wrong, and the only way for me to check that is to ask a different computer the same question in a different way.

The interesting, brain bits of a computer are five or six very small pieces of silicon, on which some exceedingly intricate patterns have been engraved.

My brain is a large piece of exceedingly intricate flesh, of roughly the same complexity per tiny bit as a computer.

In an evolutionary sense, it cost a fortune. Your ancestors had very many fewer children than they could have had because they had to pay the enormous energy cost of their brains.

It has to be about as well designed as evolution can make things. Which is not as well as intelligence can make things. But it is very good indeed.

The complexity of the two things, brain and computer, is not even comparable. The brain blows the computer out of the water. It is very, very much larger that the thinking parts of the computer, which are about the size, in complexity terms, as the brain of an insect. On the other hand, the computer is so much faster that brain and desktop computer may be around equivalent these days in terms of raw processing power.

And yet the computer can do, effortlessly in minutes, things that all the humans on the planet working together single-mindedly could not do in a million years.

Where is all that human brain power going? What is it for? How did it pay the cost of its existence over evolutionary time?

We're not some weird sport. We are the cleverest of the animals, but we are animals. And other animals also have brains. Large, complex, expensive brains that are utterly *rubbish* at things that are very easy for computers.

An insect could not calculate the factorial of 10000. An insect could not calculate the factorial of 5. I can. It's 120. But it took me 10 seconds, and holding all those little numbers in my head at once took about as much short term memory as I have.

What is it that animals do with all that brain?

Why are computers not clever?






Notes

-----------------

My phone no 07943 155029
1943 is Stalingrad
1550 is the birth of John Napier, inventor of the logarithm

I just remember the 29.

Sips told me that. When I asked him how to remember my phone number, which I had been unable to remember for some five years until that date. Now it's easy. As a bonus, I can also remember the date of Stalingrad, and when John Napier was born. And the number 29.

Six months after this article was written, I decided to show it to Sips before publishing it.

He tells me that I must have made up the multiplication example, because the answer was 231256.
I don't remember writing the article.

And he tells me that that can't be the phone number, because he doesn't remember any phone numbers that start with El Alamein.

And he tells me that in any case I have got the wrong Margaret Beaufort. I'd looked it up on the internet, which isn't good enough apparently, because I got her Mum or something.

Seven plus or minus two (digits) is only for English speakers. If you speak Mandarin apparently you can remember exactly ten digits. This is because Mandarin digits are all one short syllable. And apparently the audio-loop we record is exactly the same length in everyone.


There's considerable doubt as to the dates of the Black Death. Sips' dates are not the modern accepted dates.

But now they are in your head.

For ever.




























   













































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