Sunday, December 7, 2014

Customary Units

From the New Zealand Herald via today's "News Quiz":

A strapping newborn baby boy is understood to have set a New Zealand record, weighing in at a whopping 6.85kg (15lb 1oz) - the equivalent of nearly seven 1kg blocks of cheese.

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':

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! :)


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:

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'.


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 practise 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..."


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:, 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".

Dickens is characteristically hilarious: 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.