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.


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?



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.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Why the Shangri La Diet Cannot Work as Supposed

A man should treasure his doubts:

If consuming tasteless calories lowers your set point, then anyone who loses their sense of smell should lose weight like crazy.

I do not know, but I think that this is not true.

The Shangri La Diet book was a best-seller. Many people must have tried it, even though it sounds crazy and I can quite see why people would not go around admitting that they were trying it. But if it works for most people, then surely people who tried it and had it worked would tell other people. People are usually happy to go around spouting the worst craziness once they are convinced it's true.

So it should have spread by word of mouth and taken over the planet by now.

More arguments please. We can be like Greek philosophers, finding the truth without troubling ourselves to ask reality.

The Master (Film)

Absolutely riveting. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams all give performances as clear and simple as the truth.

I like Lancaster Dodd and his goodness and folksy charisma. I wish his Cause well. I like his psychotic sidekick and his scary kind wife. I think their epistemology needs work.

I have no idea what this film is about. What it is trying to say. Why it was made. I would like to know. I would like someone to explain it to me. I wonder who is master.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Shangri-La Diet Needs Our Help

A while ago, Eliezer Yudkowsky, a man whose thinking and writing I very greatly respect,
mentioned a crazy-sounding diet in a positive light. He said effectively: "It sounds like it should work, but it doesn't work for me." (

I decided that I'd try it out on myself. And to my surprise, it does seem to work.

It seems that Seth Roberts has found a hack into the process that controls how much we eat, and (he says) that it works for most people. I am reasonably confident that it works for me. There are a fair number of experiments on rats that show that the various mechanisms work in rats.

If so, then Dr Roberts has found a cure for one of the great scourges of life in the first world.

Obesity is a great problem for many people, and made worse by the incredible lack of sympathy shown by people who never have the slightest trouble with their weight.

But anyone who believes that anecdotal evidence is more than a suggestion of a good place to look, will assuredly end up going to aromatherapy sessions to cure whatever problems they have. And that may even work.

So it seems that we need to do a randomized controlled experiment to find out whether this hack works, and also from a less practical but more curiosity-satisfying point of view, whether it works for the reasons Dr Roberts says it does or not.

I have been swapping e-mails with Seth Roberts, and he reports that there is barely any interest in academic circles in testing his theory.

I quote with permission:
I disagree that a trial would be dead easy. Let me explain some of the difficulties. 1. Who would do it? Not any grad student: after you get a Ph.D. associated with a quack diet, who would hire you? The only people I could hire would know zero about this sort of research, which is very rare. 2. Where? 3. What comparison group? Nothing, placebo control, or best alternative treatment? 4. If placebo control what would it be? 5. Enormously difficult to measure compliance and equate compliance between the two groups. 6. There are maybe 10 labs in the whole world experienced in doing this sort of expt. Unclear why they would want to do this. I would need a lot of money to convince them.

This is clearly insane. There is a very great benefit to be had if this is true, so the fact that it looks a priori rather unlikely is no reason not to test it, if the test is cheap by comparison to the obesity crisis.

But I have also been talking to academic friends, and they find it all too plausible that what Dr Roberts says about nobody being interested in testing his theory is true.

From which we can conclude that academia is very badly broken.

So we need to do it ourselves.

I would like to come up with a way of testing this, that will not cost me very much money, and yet will provide some more reliable evidence than 'try it yourself and see if it works'.

But of course, I have absolutely no idea how to go about this.

My initial intuition is that we should make a vast number of little gelatin capsules, some containing 15g of extra-light olive oil, and some identical-looking ones containing something harmless with no calories in it.

And we should get around twenty volunteers to promise to take one first thing every morning, and not to eat or drink anything for an hour afterwards, and to record every day their weight at the time they got up, and whether they felt hungry or not during the day, and to keep this up for a couple of months.

We should send each volunteer a selection of these capsules, with a pattern like 'one week of olive oil, then one week of placebo, then one week of olive oil, then one week of placebo'.

And each volunteer should get a different pattern, which pattern is recorded secretly by me.

If Seth's theory is correct, then the secret patterns should be reflected back clearly in the data, with perhaps some sort of time-lag.

I have no idea whether this is a sensible sort of experiment to run, or how to analyse the data. I have just made all this up.

And I wonder if anyone else can make suggestions, or explain why this sort of experiment is so badly flawed that we will learn nothing useful from it.

One suggestion that has been made is that there should be a third group, or a third part of the random patterns, where no capsules are taken, but the same data is recorded.

That's probably a good idea, but of course it makes the trial half again as much work. So how do I tell whether the extra information from that is worth the extra effort?

Anyone know how to do this sort of thing?

Feel the Spirit (Wolfson College Choir)

A lovely hour of accompanied solos, instrumentals, and songs from the full choir. The music was uniformly good, although sometimes too slow.

Lee Hall was far too bright, and the performers in the harsh light too obviously the postgraduates and fellowship of Wolfson College. Something should be done to dim the lights for future concerts, but with eyes closed the sound of the choir was bright and loud, with several fine voices over a skillfully interwoven background. If I had a recording of this I would listen to it often. I wished it longer.

The choir of an elite institution of the race responsible singing the songs of slaves in crystal accents could have been incongruous and off-putting, but it was touching to think that the descendants of the perpetrators remember the horror and sympathize with the victims. Has that ever been true of an atrocity before?

It made me imagine the scholars of a future society remembering this doomed generation, the first that will die, knows it is going to die, and stares that fact in the face unflinching.

I hope they sing our songs.

The Paradox of the Envelopes

Oswald Mega, the always welcome, has two envelopes and some money. He divides the money into three equal stacks.

He puts one of the stacks in one envelope, and the rest of the money into the other. He seals the envelopes, takes them to the usual watering hole, describes what he has done, swaps them around behind his back a few times, and then he hands you one of them.

The envelope contains £1000.

"Would you like to swap envelopes?" he says.

The Paradox of the Swans

A wise man once observed that "All swans are white." is true if and only if "Things that are not white are not swans".

So one day, you see a green mini. That is a thing that is not white, and lo, it is not a swan.

So the green mini is evidence that things that are not white are not swans, and so it is evidence that all swans are white.

If you do not buy this argument, why do you believe that swans are white?

The Paradox of the Children

Suppose you meet a mathematician in the street. Around here that is not such a far fetched thing.

And it comes to pass that she mentions that she has two children.

"Are either of the children boys?" you ask.

Yes, she says, with a cryptic smile, and speaks no further word.

And later, you meet another friend, who is a betting man. And you tell him your story.

He says "I bet you £50 that the other child is a boy."

Should you take the bet?

Consider: Had you asked "Is the older child a boy?", then the bet would be fair.
And had you asked "Is the younger child a boy?", then it would be fair.

And the boy must be either the older or the younger.

Related: How likely is the king to have a sister?

Music in Cambridge

Someone's gone to the trouble of collating the various sources of information about local concerts. There is some variety of classical music going on in Cambridge every day.

The best bit is they make the data available using google calendar as well, so if you've got a google account you can see all the dates and times in your diary.

It looks wonderful so far.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shangri-La Diet, Month Four, Success, I'm Convinced

I declare victory for the Shangri-La diet. My belt now prefers to be on its fourth notch more often than on its third, and I think that counts as a win. My appetite still seems suppressed.

Updating for (down a notch/appetite loss)
Priors H87 : W2 : S11
Likelihoods: H 25/203: W 5/134: S 75/134
Posterior: H63: W 1: S36

My original prior was H60:W39:S1, so what's happened over these four months is that the fad diet looks more likely by a couple of orders of magnitude while the conventional wisdom has proved to be utterly wrong.

According to my analysis, I'm now licensed to believe that the theory "Shangri-La Diet causes belt size to contract by one notch a month" has a half chance of being true.

But actually, of course, what's happened is that after an initial quite dramatic loss of body fat, I've been slowly losing weight for four months, and my belt measurement is now about 3 inches less than it was.

At this point, I think I can claim that this crazy diet works for me exactly as it's supposed to. Slow weight loss without any use of willpower.

And I'm also claiming that the prediction almost everyone made that if I deliberately ate an extra 300 calories every day I'd get fatter is just wrong. Badly, hopelessly wrong.

That's the end of my experiment, because my belt won't come in any more. Its diameter is now fixed by the size of my hipbones. All the clothes that I found I couldn't wear four months ago fit again, and I feel lighter on my feet.

I've still got a fair bit of abdominal fat that I'd like rid of, so I'm going to keep on with it, but I don't think my belt measurement will go down any more. I predict that it won't go back up as long as I keep up with the olive oil. Even over Christmas, where my Mum usually manages to leave so much lovely food lying around that I become visibly fatter over the fortnight.

The formula that seems to have worked for me is:

Drink 300 calories worth of extra-light olive oil first thing every morning and immediately wash the taste away with water. Let nothing except plain water pass your lips for one hour after that. Apart from that, eat whatever you like, whenever, for whatever reason. It doesn't matter in the slightest if you miss the odd day.

According to Seth Roberts himself, this diet works for lots of people but by no means all.

I am convinced that it works for me.

I recommend you try it if you're overweight and would like not to be. If it works for you, you'll know within a month. I'd also recommend you read Seth Robert's book 'The Shangri-La Diet', for his explanation of why he thinks it should work, which is helpful if it stops working and you need to work out why and what you can do to fix it.

If you're of a technical bent then is interesting as it reviews his theory of why his diet works, and lists lots of published papers that demonstrate various components of his theory. To be honest, I don't quite buy the mechanism proposed, but it's really not my field so I'm not competent to judge. On the other hand, it's definitely much closer to real science than most psychobabble and self-help. I'm pretty sure the guy's sincere.

My only worry here is that it does have to be Extra Light Olive Oil, not the tasty Extra Virgin sort. ELOO is produced by a nasty manufacturing process that pulls out the last drops of oil from olives that have already been squeezed, and it's not much fun to eat as it's nearly tasteless. However the consensus opinion seems to be that it's fairly healthy stuff.

Someone needs to do a proper randomized controlled trial on this.

D K Till, Cambridge Coal Merchant, 01223 232947

Getting a lorry onto Midsummer Common is an arcane and exotic process, which changes every year at the inscrutable will of Cambridge Council.

I'd like to recommend D K Till, our local coal merchant, who has managed this feat three times in order to deliver 15 bags / £150 worth of coal directly to the roof of my narrowboat. He even lifts it up there, which considering I once put my back out throwing 25kg coal bags around is a very fine thing for him to do.

They're a very friendly family firm, father and son-in-law. All their smokeless coal is £10/25kg bag and they sell Taybrite and Supertherm, the most popular brands for boat stoves, as well as several other brands. It's hard work to get it any cheaper than that round here. Their coal is fine quality and comes in their own heavy waterproof bags.

I'm told, although I have not yet experienced this for myself, that they also sell wood, kindling, and gas bottles.

They have no web presence, so I thought I'd try to give them one with this post. Their phone number is 01223 232947 and I recommend them without reservation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Personality Metrics (November 2012)

I've spent the day doing web-based personality tests. There is no subject more fascinating than oneself. Anyone who isn't me may want to skip this post.

The first one was for political opinions. It's at:

and it tries to classify your politics along two separate axes. I scored:

Economic Left/Right: -2.62
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.97

Apparently this makes me a libertarian lefty, a political ally of Ghandi and the Green Party.

The libertarian bit seems fair. Fuck off government.

But the left-wing bit strikes me as a bit unlikely. I do often vote Green, but that's because I love trees and hate cars, and want to send that message to the larger parties. I think the Greens' economics is loony, and I'd cheerfully die in order to prevent them getting their hands on power.

My ideal government would have been be the old Liberal party, before it merged with the lefty Social Democrats.

But out of Labour and the Tories, I feel happier when the Tories are in power. They seem to mess up less and interfere in my life less. The current Lib-Dem/Tory compromise strikes me as about right economically.

But the political compass has me as an anarcho-syndicalist, with all the major British parties well to the right of me economically, and way more authoritarian than me. One of my beliefs must be wrong. I wonder which it is?

Next one was the so-called Big Five test:

Apparently this is taken quite seriously by psychologists, and when I first heard about how it was designed, I thought "Yes, that's the way I would have liked to design a personality test".

I'm Open 95% Conscientious 41% Extravert 91% Agreeable 17% and Neurotic 4%

So, crazy open to new ideas, slightly less conscientious than average, very extrovert, very calm in a crisis, and rather disagreeable and rude.

All that seems terribly plausible. However I took the same test 6 months ago, and it came out:

Open 96% Conscientious 46% Extravert 93% Agreeable 79% Neurotic 11%

So it looks as though four of these traits are stable, but sometimes I'm very rude and disagreeable and sometimes I'm very tactful and nice. Or more accurately, since this is measuring my own answers to various questions, sometimes I think I'm nice and sometimes I think I'm nasty.

I'm quite impressed by the stability of the test over six months on four of its axes, but really, what sort of measurement is it that can go from 17% to 79% on the exact same questions answered six months apart by the same person?

An IQ test next (I wanted a second opinion):

On which I scored 148. That sounds about right, I always used to get somewhere between 150-170 on IQ tests. The scores are a bit variable at the ends of the scale. And I'm aging and have probably poisoned my brain a bit with alcohol over the years, so it's no surprise if I'm in a bit of a decline. Also there's the Flynn effect, which means that modern IQ tests have to be harder to make up for the fact that people are getting better at IQ tests. No one knows what is going on here, although I'm inclined to believe that people really are just getting cleverer. This means that an IQ of 165 in 1980 is about the same as an IQ of 150 in 2010.

The weird thing here is that I'm pretty sure that I got all the answers right, so I cheated and did the test again. The questions were the same, so I was able to do them a lot faster. On the second pass my score was 151, which isn't much of an increase. On the third pass I had all the answers memorised, and so I filled them in about as fast as it's possible for a human to do. That was worth 152.

I don't see how it could be done better, so unless I've got an answer wrong, this test probably tops out at 152, and speed seems to be worth very little.

And a second IQ test:

On which I got 147. Again, I think I got every question right, so I think I'm just topping out the test, like a fat bloke finding that his scales hit the bar.

Then there's the Myers-Briggs personality score, widely used in industrial personality profiling.

Extravert(56%)  iNtuitive(75%)  Thinking(12%)  Judging(1%)

So as far as I can tell from reading the explanation on the site, the Myers-Briggs type indicator is just some incoherent rubbish thing mainly designed so as not to offend anyone.

It does seem nice and stable though. About six months ago, I took this test and got ENFJ with strengths for each factor of 67/50/12/1. That evening, I tried the test again and got ENFP 22/38/25/11, and now apparently I'm: ENTJ 56/75/12/1

So it looks like I'm pretty normal on the last two factors, but am strongly extroverted and prone to abstract theorizing.

I think that's probably what you'd conclude if you talked to me for five minutes.

Next, the question that everyone who likes numbers must ask themselves: Am I Autistic?

Score 13 ( A bit less autistic that the average person)

So happily not. And this despite having spent the day doing personality tests on the web.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What is going on here?

Spoiler warning: This post contains a picture of one of the Raven's matrices from the IQ test suggested in the Less Wrong reader survey.

There's rather a nice little IQ test app here:  (If you want to go and take it, do so before you look at the picture below!)

I scored 130 on it, which makes me think that the leetle grey cells may be falling apart under the influence of alcohol and old age. In youth, I usually got between 150 and 160 on these things (they're not terribly accurate near the ends of their scales).

Anyway, my powers are obviously declining. What's worse is that even when not under time pressure, I can't figure out what the answers to the questions are. Can anyone figure out which of the eight possible choices here completes the figure? And explain why? It's completely opaque to me.

If anyone has a go at this, the questions I can't do are 26, 29, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39. And I'd be really grateful for an explanation of what any of those are about.

Aha! gives an explanation of how these things work. After reading it I went back and can now complete the test in about 10 minutes (which gives me a score of 145+, apparently that's as good as you can do.). Most of the answers are indeed obvious in retrospect, although there are a couple where I can't decide between two choices, and one where I'm a little sceptical I could have worked out the pattern having never seen it before.

The particular one above works by adding the dots. dots outside the figure cancel with dots inside. As far as I can see, the dot positions are irrelevant and random. In terms of crossword clues, this would be OK in the Telegraph but not meet the standard for the Times.

In fact, I've now got some thoughts about the analogy between IQ tests and cryptic crosswords. They seem closely related in terms of what they're measuring, although obviously these visual patterns are language neutral, whereas I can't see how you could hope to do a cryptic in English unless you were a native-standard speaker. I might try to work this up into a blog post later.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Personal Ad

In a recent discussion of eugenics, someone pointed out that there are sperm banks selling donor sperm by donor type, so you can choose a tall sporty white father with blond hair and a PhD. The service is expensive and a little impersonal. I reckon I can undercut these people.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

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.

I make my usual promise:

If, within the next six months, I take a full-time 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.

Anyhow, if you're interested in helping out, my CV is at

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 optimized, 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 one building 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 how to go about understanding a new thing, and I know when I know something. If I understand a thing then I can usually find a good way to communicate it to other people.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Correlation vs Causation

Stolen from Less Wrong

Correlation correlates with Causation, because Causation causes Correlation

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shangri-La Diet : Results for Third Month : Fail?

Now I'm confused. For this last month I tried modifying this by drinking water just after the oil, so it didn't leave any aftertaste.

As far as I could tell, this worked a treat, I had practically no appetite, and I got thinner. This despite doing literally no exercise this month as I've damaged my knee. I have been smoking quite a lot though, since I took my narrowboat cruising and steering a boat is much more fun with a cigar in one hand.

About a week ago I noticed that my belt was beginning to need to go in a notch, and I figured by the end of the month it would be comfortably on notch four.

But it isn't. In fact I seem to have swelled a bit. But my appetite is not back. In fact I'm finding it a bit difficult to believe that I'm eating anywhere near the number of calories I need to maintain my current weight.

Still, updating beliefs for notch 3/appetite loss:

H 77: W 10: S 13

likelihoods of observed results (clearly a win for helplessness and a defeat for willpower):

H 50/203 : W 5/134 : S 25/134

posteriors, rounded

H87 : W2 : S11

So the usual willpower theory of weight control, having made consistently inaccurate predictions as to the effect of deliberately eating extra calories, is getting annihilated as far as I'm concerned. But helplessness is slowly edging out Shangri-La, since although my belt measurement has gone down over the last three months, it's been stable twice and only dropped once.

I'll keep doing this for at least another month, and I'll keep the same protocol and predictions as last month.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

That's My Bush!

The Lord knows that my sense of humour can be juvenile at times. I have been giggling solidly for hours now after making the discovery that there was once an American sit-com called 'That's My Bush!'. And I wanted to share that with you, in case it amused you too.

I haven't seen it, and I have no idea what it was about. I can only expect disappointment from an unwise expedition to youtube.

In my version, the central character is a beautiful black headed young woman called Kate, perhaps played by Emily Blunt, who has a job at a Garden Centre.

At first I thought that, nodding to the great Armistead Maupin, this garden centre was called something like Plant Parenthood.

But then I thought of the almost infinitely sinister 'Rheingold Nurseries'.

There was actually a Rhinegold Nurseries on the other side of the Loxley valley where I grew up.

Despite the fact that my father is a lifelong Wagner lover, and that my memories of the 1980 Chereau/Boulez centenary at Bayreuth mean that I must have seen the whole of the Ring Cycle by the time I was ten, I believe that throughout my childhood I had the vague idea that the village on the other side of the valley was called Rhinegold, and that it had a kindergarten.

I think I had my first car by the time that it occurred to me that (a) it was a garden centre, and (b) it must have been named after a German Opera Cycle with Sinister Connotations just after the war.

What is it with Yorkshiremen and Wagner, anyway? The central joke of 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet', James Herriot's comic novel about a Scotsman in the North, is that he works for two entirely stereotypical yorkshire veterinary surgeons who are called Siegfried and Tristan Farnon.

I mean, it would be slightly funnier if it were Siegfried and Tristan Satterthwaite, but ISHTAV is a true story. Those were their names. And when you look at the timeline for that, that's just bizarre.

Incidentally, does anyone think that Lord Vetinari in the Discworld books might be based on Lorenzo de Medici?

My sister once told me that she didn't like the Harry Potter books because Ms Rowling had stolen all the ideas from Terry Pratchett. It is enough to make a Wagnerite bang his head against the wall.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The White Swan at Stow-cum-Quy

Very pleasant pub, secluded sunny courtyard. Open 12-11pm, food served 12-3. Phone 01223 811821. CB25 9AB. Good WiFi connection. Lunch with coffee ~ £10. 

The reputation of the White Swan has been growing recently. I stopped there at random one lunchtime.

It's a lovely little pub, split into a tap room and a restaurant area. Both suffer from piped music, but there are quiet tables by the road, and a secluded courtyard with ivy and flowers.

The menu is surprisingly varied and interesting. Sausage and mash has its own section, with many choices. I settled for one each of Ostrich, Venison and Pork, with herb mashed potatoes and red wine sauce.

The sausages were all superb, but came precariously balanced on a quite a small amount of mash, which was a shame, since that was very good too.

As I was finishing, the waiter/barman came out to ask if everything was ok, and I asked him if I could have some more mash. He shot off into the kitchen and came back very quickly with a huge bowl, freshly made, more than there had been in the original meal.

Stow-cum-Quy is perhaps two miles from Cambridge. Cycle along the river to Fen Ditton and then cut across to Quy to avoid almost all traffic.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Permutation City (Greg Egan)

There can hardly be a schoolboy in England who does not worry about the nature of consciousness, the apparent flow of time, and the continuity of personal identity.

Greg Egan has written a science-fiction novel about these things, and a very good novel it is too! Although it does gets a bit silly towards the end, the first nine tenths are well worth reading and should help even the most meat-headed young person to stare bleakly at his bedroom ceiling in the small hours of the morning endlessly saying 'No really, what the fuck is going on?' to himself, over and over again.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Impostor (Film)

You should go and see this film. It's one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen.

I'm told that it's based on a true story. I don't know whether that's true or not and I'm enjoying trying to work it out. If it was fiction, I think people would dismiss it as unbelievable. As fact, well, there are a lot of people in the world, and people are weirder than you think.

Sooner or later, I'll go and look the story up on the internet. For now, I'm enjoying just wondering about it. Trying to work out whether or not it's plausible. Wondering whether it could be an implausible film inspired by slightly more plausible real events. Wondering if any of the people shown in the film were real people, or whether they were all actors. Wondering at the horror of it all.

OK, The NHS is brilliant

About a week ago, while playing cricket, I got bitten by an insect. It wasn't a mosquito, cos it hurt, and when I looked where the hurt was, the damned thing had inserted itself halfway into my arm.

I can't imagine what its plan was, but it ended up leaving its head behind in a little hole that it had made in my forearm.

During the week, a weird rash spread out from the bite, until quite a lot of my forearm was blotchy red.

On Sunday, while playing cricket, I started to feel stabbing pains in my left knee. They were exactly like the stabbing pains in my right knee ten years ago that were the first sign that I'd torn the cartilage and I figured I was in for several years of random agony and sportlessness. My friend Beard lent me a knee brace, which originally seemed a bit superfluous, but as the pain got worse and worse the following day, it seemed more and more essential. (Thanks Beard!)

On Monday afternoon, while carefully not putting any strain on my knee, I noticed an article in the Times: 'The Bite You Should Never Ignore', reminding me in some detail of what I already knew but had been pretending not to know about tick bites and Lyme disease.

The pressure had built up to the point where I had to think about seeing a doctor.

I'm not keen on seeing Doctors. I only go to see one about once a decade, and it seems to involve a near infinite amount of form-filling and chasing round the country trying to find where your medical records are hidden, and then waiting for them to get posted to your GP.

Once that's done, you get an appointment, which will either be in two weeks' time, or at half past seven in the morning.

You turn up for the appointment, and are told that the Doctor is 'running late'.

This is a way for the Doctor to assert just how much more his time is worth than yours. You sit in a waiting room full of screaming, ill children, and disreputable looking adults breathing communicable diseases all over you for a couple of hours, at which point the Doctor calls you in.

The Doctor is invariably a harassed, beaten looking man who'd like to give a fuck about your problem, but who is only allowed to spend ten minutes with you, and has one eye on the clock at all times.

If you've got a sports injury, he tells you to give up sport. If you've got any sort of minor physical problem, he'll tell you to take aspirin. I'm told that there's a third treatment for minor mental problems.

But if it looks like there's any chance that something might really be wrong, he'll send you to Addenbrookes.

Addenbrookes is, by common consent, the best NHS hospital in the country. They have a special system devoted to making sure that your appointment is at the most inconvenient possible time, and another whole system devoted to making sure that it's actually up to five hours later than that. And another system devoted to making sure there's no way to guess how much later so that you have to stay close to the place where the eventual meeting might be.

For those five hours, the only thing you can sensibly do is sit in a horrid smelly room with literally hundreds of very ill people, at least four of whom are actively insane and either wish to communicate this to you, or keep looking at you as if you are a CIA spy who is going to kill them. The Lord knows that this is a hard thing to deal with one is on form. The Lord forbid that I should ever have to deal with it when I am ill.

In all fairness, when you do finally get to see the special doctors at Addenbrookes who do the bits of medicine that aren't aspirin or valium, they're invariably great. But I've only managed to get to that stage twice.

Five years ago I broke a finger (playing cricket), and had to go to Addenbrookes to get it X-Rayed. After waiting in Hell for three hours to see the broken-finger doctor, I stole my X-Rays, examined them, determined that I had a fairly straightforward fracture, looked up the best treatments for fractured fingers on the internet, and strapped my hand up with duct tape and ice-lolly sticks. You can hardly see the bend at all these days, and I consider that to have been one of my most satisfactory interactions with the NHS.

Over the years I've rather got out of the habit of going to the Doctor's. I never seem to get really ill and most sports horrors seem to get better on their own. It would be unrealistic to expect to be the same shape at forty that you were at twenty, after all.

But the grisly prospect of Lyme Disease and the agony of a torn knee cartilage were together just enough to persuade me to go through the process.

I do mean just. After I decided that I ought to, I sat around for about two hours thinking 'I really should'. And not doing.

So, at about 1645 I walked into the GP on Trumpington Street and explained my problems. The receptionist said that I'd need two appointments (gulp), and then asked if ten minutes time was alright. I must have looked a bit puzzled, because she explained "He's running about five minutes late, so you've got time to get a paper if you like, just make sure that you're back by five o'clock".

At five o'clock I got back, and spent two minutes in the waiting room reading my paper before being taken into the surgery of a lovely polite friendly doctor.

He asked questions and prodded my knee and bent it around and looked quizzically at it for about five minutes in exactly the manner of a competent engineer working out what's wrong with a mechanism. He told me exactly what was wrong, showed me how it all worked on a model, told me how to take care of it and how to tell when it would be OK to play cricket again. He even suggested a few fielding positions that I should avoid until I'm sure it's all better again.

Then he talked in some detail about where and how this bite and rash had happened, and said I'd need a blood test. At this point I was thinking 'Oh God, Addenbrookes'.

But no.

They asked me to come back at 1145 the following morning. I may have mentioned that I'm a bit scared of needles.

I turned up at 1145 on the dot and was immediately introduced to two nurses, one of whom kept up a friendly and distracting stream of chatter while the other took a syringeful of blood out of my arm so deftly that I was only barely conscious of it happening. And that was it. Blood in the post, test results expected in a couple of days time. They'll ring me.

I literally can't imagine how this experience could have been better.

What has changed?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Shangri-La Diet: Scheme and Predictions for Third Month

OK, despite last month's fail, I've still got more faith in the Shangri-La idea than I had a the start of this experiment. And my results certainly lead me to believe that the usual advice that if you eat more you'll gain weight is wrong.

I'm representing my results as:

H 77: W 10: S 13

This month I'm going to try as many tricks as possible to make the Shangri-La scheme work. I can tell whether my appetite is low or not, so if I start feeling hungry or looking forward to the supposedly tasteless calories, then I'll change plan. If I can't find a consistently appetite surpressing form of oil, then I'll try deadening my sense of smell with noseclips. And if that doesn't work, then I'll try sugar water. If none of that keeps my appetite down, then I'm going to abandon this as a dead loss.

Apart from that, I'll try to consume 300 extra tasteless calories per day, do only as much exercise as I'll enjoy doing (and since I've just screwed my knee up playing cricket that's probably not going to be much).

That leads to the following predictions for Willpower and Shangri-La:

Willpower (no appetite loss, weight gain)

    1  2  3 4 5 6
yes 5  5  5 5 1 1
no  5 75 25 5 1 1
(total 134)

Shangri-La (appetite loss, further weight loss)

    1 2  3  4  5 6
yes 1 5 25 75 25 5
no  1 5  5  5  5 5
(total 134)

But if I end up drinking large amounts of sugar water, it complicates the picture for my own "Helplessness" theory.

I've believed for a long time that fast carbohydrates screw up your metabolism and cause hunger and thereby obesity. This is pretty much the opposite prediction to Seth's theory.

So I'm going to make two different predictions for H, depending on whether I end up drinking sugar water every morning.

If there's no (or little) sugar water involved, then H says weight stays the same, some loss of appetite to compensate for the oil:

    1  2  3  4 5 6
yes 1 25 50 25 1 1
no  1 25 50 25 1 1
(total 203)

If I end up drinking sugar water for more than 15 days of the month, then H now says I should develop a robust appetite, and gain weight, the same as the Willpower theory. So in that case I'll judge it by the same criteria:

    1  2  3 4 5 6
yes 5  5  5 5 1 1
no  5 75 25 5 1 1
(total 134)

This honest curiosity stuff is turning out to be hard. So many judgement calls to make and possibilities for bias and expectation effects. I'm fairly sure that if I hadn't been making predictions in advance and updating accordingly then by now I'd be either convinced of Shangri-La or utterly dismissive of it.

As it is, the jury is out.

blogger is a piece of shit

This is broken. Any attempt to publish a post is met with errors. Eventually you give up, at which point it's published the same post fifteen times and it takes ages to delete them all. It never used to do this. What the fuck is wrong with Google these days?

edit: Needless to say, this post published absolutely perfectly.

Obviously the same spasmos that have been fucking up gmail have been let loose on this as well.

It really isn't that hard to communicate plain text between browser and webserver. I wonder what nefarious gigs of spyware are getting sneaked in along with the very few bytes of text?

And it's soo slow. At the moment I want to throw my laptop through the window. Even though I know it's not my laptop's fault.

Occasionally it throws your work away. Even comments. How can it be this bad? The only way to use it without ending up smashing your own equipment is to type articles in emacs and then cut and paste them over.

If you're reading this, and you're the moron who did this to what used to be a perfectly good service, so good that you didn't notice it getting in the way, then I would like to fight you.

You can't program, you can't design a UI, you can't run a team of code-monkeys according to whatever half-arsed 'methodology' you learned at moron school, you either didn't test this crap at all before you inflicted it on the millions of people who had grown to love and trust the previous service, or you did test it and your attitude to problems is so cavalier that Cromwell would have stuck your head on a spike without bothering to kill you first.

And yes. I'm sure it works perfectly well if you're using it in your office over a really good connection to the server.

Over any reasonable or realistic public or café connection, with for example latency problems, packet loss, or some kid using skype clogging everything up, it's just fucking appalling.

It didn't used to be. And you're a retard.


Shangri La Diet: Stats after Second Month

Even though it looks as though RII (which says that any strange diet produces brief weight loss, then a couple of months of plateau, then you fatten up again), looks like what's happening here, I'm just going to abandon all the R theories.

For various complicated reasons I think I was wrong to introduce them in the first place. So I'm just going to pretend I didn't.

So in fact I'll pretend my prior was:


My current state is some appetite loss (but not like the first month), belt notch=3 (although that feels slightly tighter than it did last month)

Likelihoods of that result according to various theories:

H 50/203 : W 5/134 : S 25/134

Therefore posterior:

H 2000/203: W 180/134: S 225/134

rounding off to scores out of 100:

H 77: W 10: S 13

This seems pretty reasonable. The willpower theory is getting annihilated because it's not predicting appetite loss and there's no weight gain. Shangri-La is looking better by comparison, and Helplessness, having won this round, is looking good.

I think that's what I actually believe.

The standard Willpower theory says I should just get fatter if I eat more food. This hasn't been happening.

Shangri-La's month of success has given it some credibility even though I originally thought it mad. This month has damaged it though.

The Helplessness theory, that your weight stays the same whatever, and if you eat more you get slightly less hungry to make up doesn't look like quite as good an explanation for the observed results as Shangri-La, but on the other hand, it looked much more likely before I started, and the difference is not great enough to wipe out that initial advantage.

But I want to give Shangri-La its best shot. So next month I'm going to try my damnedest to make it work. Various types of oils, the sugar water version, noseclips, the works. If that works (again), then I'm going to believe that something interesting is going on. If that fails then I think I have my answer.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Shangri-La Diet: Fail (But Interestingly!)

After the first month of oil-based antics, I'd forgotten what it was like to be hungry, and had to tighten my belt by more than a full notch.

After the second, I've still had noticeable appetite loss, but also had periods of hunger. My belt measurement has wobbled around a bit, sometimes up and sometimes down, and ended up exactly where it was at the start of the month.

I'm trying to be a truth-seeking robot, and I don't believe that a truth-seeking robot should go making exceptions for its favourite theories, so I'll update as planned according to that data.


What actually happened was that at the start of the month, I noticed that I was hungry again, and that my weight had stopped falling, and that I was starting to look forward to my daily dose of olive oil.

Seth Robert's theory makes the fairly straightforward prediction that once you've learned to associate a taste with calories, these things will happen.

I figured that the 'Sainsbury's Mild Olive Oil' that I'd been using, and had originally thought completely tasteless, had in fact enough substance to it that after four weeks I'd learned to like it.

So I went and bought a load of bottles of different types of oils and tried them all, and switched to the one that seemed the most tasteless (Sainsbury's Vegetable Oil, which is just rapeseed oil).

Initially that worked a treat. The experience of eating the sort of stuff you fry chips in was fairly grim, and killed my appetite stone dead, and my weight again began to fall.

But around two weeks later, the same thing happened, and I found myself looking forward to drinking chip fat.

So I'm intrigued. It seems that everything Seth says is true apart from 'you can't get used to tasteless oil'.

But in hindsight, I wasn't following the letter of his instructions, since I'd been using 'the most tasteless oil I could find', and he said 'use extra light olive oil', which I hadn't been able to find originally.

But there is a brand in England that calls itself ELOO (Borges Extra Light Olive Oil), and they sell it in Tesco. I've switched to this now just because of the name. It tastes almost exactly the same as the stuff I tried at first. And since I (now) think they both taste quite nice, I'm not expecting it to do anything particular.

But I'm wondering now. It seems that I can 'get the taste' for vegetable oils, in a way that isn't supposed to happen.

Maybe what they sell in America as Extra Light Olive Oil isn't what they sell here?

Maybe I've got a really good palate and could get a job as an oil-taster?

Maybe the sugar-water version of this craziness will work?

As someone suggested in a comment earlier, maybe wearing swimmer's nose-plugs so I can't taste anything would help? (Although at that point I may lose the ability to swallow because I'd be laughing at myself so hard.)

Who knows? But there are enough interesting things going on here that I'm not going to give up on this idea yet. I'll get in touch with Seth Roberts and see if he can suggest anything.

One thing that strikes me is that if his theory is true, people who lose their sense of smell for some reason should lose weight very dramatically. I wonder if that's true? If it isn't, that's enough to disconfirm this theory once and for all, isn't it? On the other hand, if it is...

Universal Translation

To continue my series of posts going on about bloody Star bloody Trek:

We got:

fairly good automatic speech recognition
fairly good automatic translation via Google Translate
very widespread adoption of high-powered portable computers with network connections and GPS.
very good automatic speech generation

Why do we not got an app that will listen to anyone speaking, try speech recognition with the local language and accent, and spit out an accuratish translation in the user's language?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gall's Law

I really like this law. Anyone know how true it is?

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

It seems to say something like: 'You can't solve an optimization problem directly, you have to iterate'.

Although I can think of immediate counterexamples when it's stated like that, it brings to mind Galois' discovery that you can't directly solve a quintic equation by arithmetic plus extraction of roots. And so I wonder if that itself might be an example of a much more general truth along the lines of 'general solutions are always more complicated than the problems they solve, and so the direct solution to any sufficiently complicated problem is usually uncomputable except by approximation methods'.

So, can anyone think of any complex systems designed from scratch that worked?
Or complex problems that have easily computed solutions?

But actually Gall's Law says more than that. It says that if you've got a starting point of great complexity, your iteration process will work better if you give up and start again.

That again seems likely in the context of numerical solution of polynomials. Pick a random number as the start of your search and unless you're unreasonably lucky then the search will take longer than if you seeded the search with zero.

So, can anyone think of any complex systems designed from scratch which, although they didn't work to start with, quickly converged to working systems without going back through previous known working designs?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Consequentialism FAQ

This is very good, if you like this sort of thing:

 I think I might be more sympathetic to consequentialism after reading it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Brave 3D (Film)

This film in no way perpetuates cultural or gender stereotypes.

Fierce flame-haired daughters should be taken to see it, that they may learn humility and obedience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Intelligence Explosion : We Already Have The Hardware

We have an example of an intelligence made out of matter, our own brain.

Whatever human-level intelligence is, it can be done on hardware of that complexity.

So it's worth asking what the complexity of that hardware is.

We think that whatever it is the brain actually does, the important level for understanding it is the neuron/synapse level.

Neurons look like transistors with thousands of legs and one output. Synapses are the connections between them.

The transistors that we know invariably have two legs. But we can chain them together to make a structure with a thousand legs and one output. We need a thousand transistors to do that.

So it could be that to make a working model of a brain, which implements the same algorithm, we'd need as many transistors as the human brain has synapses.

It's estimated that there are 100 000 000 000 000 000 synapses in a brain! (10^14)

Our largest commercial processors have something like 1 000 000 000 transistors (10^9).

So at first glance, it looks like we're five orders of magnitude short. That's a long way. It's the difference between a 1950s computer and a year 2000 computer. And we've got absolutely no way to predict whether the development of computers will continue at the astonishing rate that it's been going at over the last half of the twentieth century.

So most people who worry about the Singularity think that it's waiting on the hardware, and that the necessary hardware may never come.

But consider. The rate at which neurons can fire is something like 1000Hz. The speed of transistors in current chips is more like 3 GHz. That's six orders of magnitude.

It's always been our experience that making a computer ten times faster gives it more speed than making it ten times larger.

So I reckon that if we could work out what it is the brain is actually doing, then we could, on the sort of cheap hardware that lives in your desktop computer, make something that could do what the brain does, but at 10 times the speed.

And all my estimates above are highly conservative. Individual transistors can run much faster than GHz speeds. The speed limit for processor chips is to do with heat output and synchronization of the clock pulses across the entire chip. A neuron with 1000 inputs and one output probably can't do as much information processing as 1000 transistors.

And Moore's Law is currently continuing steadily. And whatever the brain does it is highly parallel, and nothing stops us linking processors together to get more total transistors, so if we knew how the brain worked and had a proper research budget to build a good one with, we should be able to make a brain that ran at least 1000 times faster than our own brains do.

But a lot of what our brains do is stuff like speech recognition, or vision. Computationally very hard, but not what we think of when we think of 'intelligence'. Whenever humans try to think about engineering problems, we run into having to do mathematics, or memorizing complex things. We are unbelievably slow at that sort of thing, which is actually computationally very simple.

At calculation, memory, symbolic manipulation, almost all the things that human intellectuals have traditionally found most difficult and most impressive, computer brains just blow us away by factors of billions.

These things are not natural for us. They take a great deal of training and practice. Consider the difference between a human child learning her own language and a human child learning the calculus.

Or your own ability to read emotions on strangers' faces versus your ability to solve simple probability questions.

This says to me that in order to do those things, we're in fact using mechanisms that were designed (by evolution) to do something else, and our schooling is a process of carefully repurposing and perverting these mechanisms to do new things, but to do them really badly and slowly.

A real computer brain could probably outspeed us by a factor of 1000 at the things that we're really good at, and that the great majority of humans can do very well, like catching cricket balls, or walking on two legs over rough ground, or imagining what is going on in other human brains, or finding our way home along a route after we've just walked a long way without a map, or recognising where would be a nice place to live, or throwing rocks, or throwing punches.

But at the things that we've traditionally thought of as our highest intellectual achievements, the things that very few humans can do well, which look more like accidental consequences of whatever our brains are actually for, things like mathematics and planning and logic and probability and scientific discovery, I would imagine that the speed factor would be more like several billion.

Luckily, we have absolutely no idea how the brain works, or what computations it performs.

If we knew how the brain worked, and what information processing it performed to work its miracles, and someone were fool enough to build a computer to do those computations, then they would have created a being which could recapitulate the whole of human scientific thought from Aristotle to Einstein in a few minutes.

That wouldn't really be something I'd like to play chess with. I've no idea how it would play. But I'm damned sure it would win.

A Slightly Harder Problem in Decision Theory

I'd be surprised if a cat could do this. But it think it uses the exact same tools as the easy one. 

The eccentric millionaire Oswald Mega walks into a bar and he says:

"This morning, I was showing my newborn about Dungeons and Dragons. We took a couple of six sided dice and rolled them, and wrote the results, which are just numbers from 2 to 12, on a piece of paper with 2D6 written at the top.

Then we took a twelve sided dice, and we wrote 1D12 at the top of a piece of paper, and then we rolled it lots and wrote down the results, numbers between 1 and 12, on the paper.

How she laughed at the difference in the patterns! Truly fatherhood is a joy.

Now, I've brought one of the pieces of paper with me, and if you can tell me which one it is, I'll give you £1000.

How much would you be willing to pay me to know the value of the first number on the sheet?"

And actually there might be some feline subsystem that solves a problem a bit like this.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge)

Vernor Vinge is a modern prophet. The inventor and populariser of the idea of a Singularity. Like Niven, a mathematician as well as a science fiction writer.

His most famous book is A Fire Upon the Deep. It's a clever and enjoyable book containing several excellent ideas, and it has a minor character in it called Pham Nuwen, who vaguely remembers the Slow Zone and the trading empire called the Qeng Ho.

Vinge's Universe is divided into regions, in order to avoid the modern science fiction writer's difficulty that even the very near future is likely to be incomprehensibly weird.

Gravity is opposed to Mind and Speed, so that the center of the Galaxy, the Unthinking Depths, is a place where no mind can exist at all.

The Slow Zone, which contains the Earth, can support human-level organic minds, and slower than lightspeed travel, but that's it.

Further from the core, you get the Beyond, where you can go as fast as you like and good computers are possible.

And after that, the Transcend, where intelligent minds become Gods and there is a Power known as The Old One, because it has been in continuous existence for ten full years.

I'm pretty sure that the reason for this scheme is that Vinge can't see how to set an interesting future story in the real laws of physics, where any technology much in advance of ours will just undergo Singularity and become a sphere of incomprehensible superintelligence expanding and destroying at the speed of light. He wants to play with these ideas but he has to keep a place where humans can exist in order to tell a story.

I was expecting the sequel, A Deepness in the Sky to be more of the same, to be honest.

But actually no, it's set entirely in the Slow Zone. It tells the story of Pham Nuwen and the Qeng Ho, and it tells this story as part of telling another excellent story about a single incident towards the end of Pham Nuwen's life, when he becomes involved in a first contact mission to an alien civilization.

The Spiders are the sympathetic characters here. They're very believable and actually quite interestingly alien, but also recognisably mid-20th century British. While the humans are the weird, monstrous lurking evil presence in space.

By the end of the book, you're completely rooting for the lovable aliens against the human space monsters.

The nice thing is that this is done whilst telling the entire story from the human point of view, and despite the fact that most of the humans are themselves sympathetic and likeable.

It's an unbelievable tour de force of shifting viewpoints and interwoven stories. Roles change around as the stories unfold and there are real and unexpected heroes and villians and victims.

This joins "Protector" and "The Sparrow" on my list of favourite books of all time. It's just much much better than its predecessor (and sequel) A Fire Upon the Deep, which is itself an entertaining, imaginative, thoughtful and important novel.

If I wrote science fiction, I'd like it to be like this. In the way that Sinatra sings the way I'd sing if I could. I'm now going to methodically hunt down and read everything Vinge has ever written.

Shangri-La Diet : Trouble in Paradise

Over the last couple of days, I've noticed a return of appetite. Nothing major, but I'm certainly remembering what it's like to feel peckish.

In particular, I've noticed that I'm actually looking forward to my couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Indeed I've been watching myself looking for excuses to have a third spoonful.

This is rather worrying. If Seth Robert's theory is true, then what that means is that I've managed to learn the flavour of the stuff and associate it with the extra calories that it's providing.

Shangri-La now predicts that it will act as a set-point raiser and my appetite should return in full force.

That means that Sainsbury's Mild Olive Oil is now just a normal food for me.

Oh well, off to the supermarket looking for oils that are unlikely to taste of anything at all.

Reading the labels when you know that what you're looking for is 'tasteless dregs ripped from the corpses of olives by unnatural means after all the good stuff is gone' is a most enlightening experience.

After a process of eliminating anything that claims to have any sort of taste, the candidates are:

Borges Extra Light Olive Oil
"True to the land and true to a long and deep-rooted family tradition"
"the result of an extraordinary blend of high quality refined oil and a slight touch of Extra Virgin Olive Oil"

I'm assuming that by 'slight touch' they mean 'homeopathic quantities'. It tastes pretty damned bland, but there's a slight nasty aftertaste.

Napolina Light and Mild Olive Oil
"Expertly blended for a softer and more delicate taste"
"composed of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils. comprising exclusively olive oils that have undergone refining and oils obtained directly from olives"

Ugh! This is actually bitter. If you put this on food it would make it inedible. What in the name of God do you have to do to olive oil before you're no longer allowed to claim that it has been obtained directly from olives?

Filippo Berio Mild and Light Olive Oil
"All the benefits of Olive Oil without a distinct olive flavour"
"composed of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils. comprising exclusively olive oils that have undergone refining and oils obtained directly from olives"

Notice that the second text is the same as the Napolina version. I wonder if they're the same company. If not, has one set of weasels actually stolen the weasel-words from the other set of weasels?

This is actually not bad stuff. It's very like the Sainsbury's stuff except even blander. Unfortunately I think I like it a bit too much. It's presumably the same taste as the stuff I've habituated to.

And finally for completeness:

Sainsbury's Vegetable Oil
"We're sure you'll love this product. If you don't simply return for a full refund"
"rapeseed oil"

I wholeheartedly approve of the lack of weaselling here. No one is even pretending that this is good for anything other than frying chips.

As far as I can tell, this tastes of absolutely nothing at all. I neither like nor dislike it. It is therefore declared the victor.

Sure enough, a hearty swig from the bottle is in no way a pleasant experience, and thirty minutes later I can no longer remember why anyone would ever want to eat anything ever.

I am changing my experimental protocol to read "Two Tablespoons of Sainsbury's Vegetable Oil" instead of "Two Tablespoons of Sainsbury's Mild Olive Oil"

I don't think I'm cheating here. Anyone disagree?

And does anyone want three bottles of nasty olive oil? Otherwise they're going on the common in the hope that something will enjoy them and that they won't kill the grass. No way is any of these horrors going anywhere near actual food.

The things I do for Science. I'm not even fat.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Intelligence Explosion

Recently I've been asking for help battling against an overwhelming complex of science-fictiony beliefs that I'm coming to hold. I hate having these beliefs, mainly because they feel uncannily like what I'd imagine a new religion must feel like to an early believer. It's very much not compatible with my self-image to fall for a millennial cult, and I trust that feeling.

So I've asked various friends to have a look at this belief-complex, in the hope that they can point out where it's a load of rubbish.

I'd actively like to be ridiculed here.

I once started feeling all spiritual after a particularly pleasant evening in King's College Chapel listening to Bach, and a few minutes of ridicule was enough to dispel the feeling and save me from the hideous mind-virus that is Christianity.

Unfortunately, the point in this set of ideas that people are consistently choosing to attack is the idea of an intelligence explosion. The same friend who saved my soul from Christ just looked at the idea of an intelligence explosion and said 'Nah, can't happen', and then stopped thinking.

The possibility of Intelligence Explosion is something that I've been worried about for many years, and it's not the bit that feels religious. It just feels like a threat that ought to be taken seriously. A bit like 'Earth might be Hit by an Asteroid', or 'Global Warming', or 'Nanotechnology Eeek!' or 'Nuclear War', or 'Flu Epidemic', or 'Worldwide Dictatorship', or 'Surveillance State', or 'Terrorists Who are Actually Good at it Rather than Mediaeval Halfwits with Towels on they Heads'.

i.e. It's a horrible existential risk, but there's bugger all I can do about it, and it's fun to think about, and it probably won't happen in my lifetime anyway.

I don't have children, I don't plan to, and although I care about you and your children, and hope for immortality myself, I don't care/believe enough to mean that I can't think straight about these problems and look them in the face.

And the idea of an intelligence explosion is just obvious in retrospect, isn't it? Like the idea of a chain reaction, or the infinity of the prime numbers. I'd never have thought of it myself, but once someone points it out, your head would have to be way broken not to take it seriously.

And it occurs to me that if I think it's that obvious, and I think that I am good at explaining ideas, then I should be able to make it obvious to other people. And so I'm going to try.

A Very Easy Problem in Decision Theory

Honestly, I reckon a cat could do this one, mutatis mutandis:

A barrell contains 25% diamonds, and 75% circles.

10% of the diamonds are blue, the rest are red.

80% of the circles are blue, the rest are red.

One of the objects is pulled out at random, and you're told the colour.

You can take a guess at the shape. If you're right, then you get $10, if you're wrong then you get a $1 for your trouble.

You do pretty well if you always guess circle. Can you do better?

In fact it could be argued that a cat is a mechanism for solving such problems, amongst others.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Is Murder Immoral? Is it Possible to Achieve Immortality by Not Dying?

It seems to me that if you're a materialist, then Cryonics is a pretty good bet.

When you die, you get your ass frozen in liquid nitrogen.

The argument that convinces most programmers that this might work is: 'this is not a secure delete algorithm'. If you take the hard drive out of a computer and put it in a fridge, then later on, you can read the data off it even if the mechanism's buggered.

If you want to make sure the data is not recovered, then you have to work a bit harder. If you put it on a bonfire for example, then that data is never coming back.

All the traditional methods of corpse disposal are bonfire-like. No way to reconstruct the information that was once there.

But cryonics will preserve the brain in the state it was a few hours after your heart stops, and at that point, we can imagine (with some difficulty) reading out the connections between the neurons. If that's all there is to being you (which is our best guess), then we can either (with difficulty) rebuild a brain with that wiring, or (easily) run a computer simulation of one.

And any good materialist has to reason: "I can have a conversation with this new person/computer program, and he will claim both to be conscious, and to be John, and be quite sincere in that, so I had better accept that he is John."

But of course, once we've done this, do we destroy the original body? Do we destroy the records?

What if, one day, long after your new self has headed off swanning around the Milky Way, someone finds a way to resurrect the actual body, rather than just the pattern? Which of these two people is you? What if they just make two copies of you? What if they slow down the clock on the computer simulation so much that the next scheduled tick is after the heat death of the universe? Have you just died again? Should you mind?

It looks like we're about to build a transporter. In our real universe, not our fictional one. Which of course is why I'm currently worrying about the morality of Star Trek. It's easier to think about, but the issues are the same.

It gets worse.

If you throw your hands up and decide that the future cop(y/ies) of you aren't you in any sense that matters to you (no one else will notice any problem), then consider the following:

When you go to sleep, you lose consciousness. Overnight, the configuration of your brain, the very atoms of your brain change much more than they would in an hundred years of cryonic storage.

If the cryonic you isn't you, then neither is the you that will be tomorrow.

Do you believe that you die every night, and someone else wakes up every morning?

If that's true, it's not so bad. We've been putting up with it for ages, and never suffered the slightest inconvenience by it.

If you give someone a drug that makes them sleep for days, have you killed them?

If you give them a drug that makes them sleep for years, have you killed them?

If you freeze them while they are asleep and wake them up thousands of years later, have you killed them?

If you freeze them while they are asleep, keep them revivable but never revive them, at what point did you kill them?

What the hell does it even mean, to be immortal?

Consciousness, we directly experience. No philosophy that does not account for it is acceptable to me.

Continuity of consciousness, not so much. Why should I care whether or not someone who isn't quite me, but who is quite like me, rises from the dead in 100 years time?

But then if I buy that and decide I don't care, why should I care if someone who isn't me, but who is quite a bit less like me that the revived cryonics patient would be, rises from my bed tomorrow morning?

So can anyone come up with an argument against cryonics (which costs around £30000 plus hassle) that doesn't also imply that if I thought someone was trying to kill me in my sleep I shouldn't mind?

Does Smoking Prevent Lung Cancer?

In 1964 the US Surgeon General released a famous report showing that smokers were much more likely to die of lung cancer.

This report came under attack from statisticians all over the world, since it had reported a correlation and inferred a causation.

The legendary Hans Eysenck, who coincidentally at the time was receiving a very large amount of research money from the tobacco companies, proposed that there might be some sort of hidden factor which caused both smoking and lung cancer.

This argument was greeted with the derision it deserved, and served mainly to discredit Eysenck in the eyes of the public, and cement the reputation of the tobacco companies as weaselly amoral murderers ( I speak as a happy customer of many years. )

But ridicule and cries of "come off it" shouldn't be enough to demolish an argument. I believe that they laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round[1]

Can we make Eysenck's argument look good?

Well, suppose that there were a vitamin deficiency disease, associated with the currently undiscovered Vitamin N.

Primarily it affects the lungs. If you're deficient in this vitamin, your lungs don't work so well, and you have a tendency to develop lung cancers in later life.

As it happens, one of the hundreds of ingredients in tobacco smoke is chemically close to Vitamin N. When people with the deficiency smoke, they find that they enjoy it! A bit like if you haven't eaten fruit for a while, Vitamin C tablets taste extra-nice.

If this was the whole story, then we'd expect to see that non-smokers died of lung cancer much more often than smokers. Which we obviously don't see.

But what's a vitamin and what isn't is genetically determined. Almost all animals can make their own vitamin C. For some reason, the fruit-eating great apes, who have a lot of it in their diet anyway, have lost the ability. Humans are a type of great ape. So we don't have the ability either, but we've moved away from the diet of fresh fruit without regaining the ability.

Without a source of vitamin C, we die of scurvy. Luckily we can get it from fruit or fresh meat. If we start trying to live on preserved foods, without taking precautions, we die.

But there must have been a point in the history of the great apes where there were some apes who had the ability to make vitamin C, and some who didn't. It just didn't matter very much when they lived on fruit.

So suppose there's a gene for making vitamin N. Some people have it, and some don't.

Let's say that half of people have the gene.

They don't tend to take up smoking because it doesn't cure any lack they have, so they never 'get the taste'. Suppose 20% of them smoke. And they're unlikely to get cancer. Say 20% chance. But if they smoke, it does protect them a bit, so they only have a 5% chance.

But the other half of the people don't have the gene. Unaided by tobacco, they'll have a full 90% chance of spontaneously contracting lung cancer. If they're lucky enough to try smoking at school, then they'll find it very enjoyable, will likely continue to smoke all their lives (80% chance) and it will reduce their death rate to 80% (it's not a very good substitute for vitamin N, but it does some good).

What will the numbers look like in this world? ( Which I find all too plausible. Nature is always playing nasty tricks like this. )

Consider 200 people:

100 of them have the gene, 20 of those smoke, and 1 gets cancer. 80 don't smoke, and 16 get cancer.

100 of them don't have the gene, 80 of them smoke, of whom 64 get cancer. 20 don't, and 18 of them get it.

So if we don't know about vitamin N or the gene for it, and we do a cancer study, then

100 smokers, 65 cancers
100 non-smokers, 34 cancers

and the US Surgeon General issues his report, and up goes a huge public outcry against tobacco, and a few statisticians point out that correlation is not causation, and are ignored.

Exercises for the Reader:

This argument is utter bollocks from start to finish. But why?

Next time someone publishes a study saying that vitamin supplements shorten life expectancy, what will you believe?

The standard answer to this sort of question is a controlled randomized trial. Consider how the idea of an experiment where you ask people to take up smoking is likely to go down at the ethics committee meeting that decides whether you're allowed to do it.

No, you can't do it on dogs. Dogs don't get scurvy either. They can make their own vitamin C. That's why they can live on tinned meat and dry biscuits.


1/ Actually sailors have always known the world was round. They laughed at Christopher Columbus for badly miscalculating the size of the thing and thinking he could sail to India the long way round. The error should have killed him and his men, but they got lucky and found the Caribbean Islands instead. I believe that Colombus died thinking that he had found a nice short route to India. Jamaicans today immortalize this mistake by calling themselves West Indians.