Monday, April 24, 2017

"The future is already here ... "

The full William Gibson quote: "The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed".

We'll wait a long time for AI systems as competent as human workers (for day-to-day tasks). But when those systems arrive, their great benefit will be low marginal cost: software copied for free, hardware rolling off production lines.

And people won't have to do those jobs, unless - hipster-like - they especially want to.

So what would society be like with an abundance of cheap, competent labour?

This future already exists (to the benefit of some of the people) in places with an overabundance of cheap human labour.

From Marginal Revolution:
"The first couple of times I took a taxi to a restaurant I was surprised when the driver asked if I wanted him to wait. A waiting taxi would be an unthinkable expense for me in the United States but in India the drivers are happy to wait for $1.50 an hour. It still feels odd.

The cars, the physical capital, in India and the United States are similar so the low cost of transportation illustrates just how much of the cost of a taxi is the cost of the driver and just how much driverless cars are going to lower the cost of travel. ...

Every mall, hotel, apartment and upscale store has security. It’s all security theatre - India is less dangerous than the United States - but when security theatre can be bought for $1-$2 an hour, why not?

Offices are sometimes open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not that anyone is in the office, just that with 24 hour security there is no reason to lock up, so the office physically stays open. ...

At offices, cleaning staff are on permanent hire so they come not once or twice a week but once or twice an hour. The excessive (?) cleanliness of the private spaces makes the contrast between private cleanliness and public squalor all the more striking."
Karl Marx's communism (abundance for all!) is often portrayed - by members of the elite - as an unattainable utopia; but Marx himself observed that communism for the masses would merely be an extension of the experience of the elite aristocracy through the ages.

Communism 'is already here', as the man said, but '... not very evenly distributed'.

Not yet.


India, with its oversupply of relatively unskilled manual workers, is not an optimal emulation of an AI future. AI systems will be more diverse, more embedded and hopefully not oversupplied.

Those waiting taxis come with negative externalities.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Diary: the Bishop's Palace in spring

We visited the Bishop's Palace, Wells yesterday. There was an art exhibition.

Among the tulips. It reminded me of a Joni song

The underground river flows down from the Mendips, then bubbles up in here

Artwork in the Palace

The Glastonbury Owl

Obvious kitsch - but it made people laugh

There was one room we were not permitted to enter. They appeared to be filming an interview with a parliamentary candidate.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Sunday: select two from four

There are six choices (2 from 4). It's a real hard call. An additional constraint is that you'd expect one candidate from the left (top two) and one from the right (bottom two). But even that's not certain.

I said before that if François Fillon could get into the second round he'd likely win. If you followed the betting you'd have to go for Macron - Le Pen .. with Macron to win the in the run-off.

Somehow I can't see bubble-candidate Macron winning ... .


Update (Sunday 8.15 pm): looks like I was wrong.


Essential reading: "The French, Coming Apart" - via Steve Sailer.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Those bright, flickering webs

As a hopeless case, I was finally admitted to psychotherapy.

I lay on the couch, as relaxed as I ever get, and listened to the analyst.
"I see that your profession is neuroscientist. Now, I have your file here, but perhaps you could explain the problem to me in your own words?"
I sighed: repetition had become tedious in the extreme.
"In the streets, at work and at home, .. I am surrounded by systems. They're controlled by webs of neural tissue. They spin carefully-crafted, conformist and entirely-deceptive narratives .. purporting to explain to themselves and others just why they do what they do."
The analyst paused a moment to parse these rather abstract reflections,
"And when you see the people around you, your loved ones, what exactly do you see?"

"I see what my MRI scanner sees: heads filled with bright, flickering webs of neural activation. Enhanced glucose metabolism. I see protoplasmic circuitry doing what evolution has honed it to do. ... I see the laws of physics operating."
At this the analyst looked thoroughly alarmed. He stood up and walked across to his desk where he made a hushed and urgent call. I caught the term 'psychopath'.

Returning, he resumed speaking almost before he had sat down.
"You might have what we professionally call a framing issue. The answer is ..."
But I was no longer listening, I was focused instead on the intricate movements of his jaw, tongue and larynx, all controlled by that bright, flickering web I could almost see inside his skull.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Diary: negative mass + Tintinhull + Montacute

I was reading the 'Stardrive' book this morning (the part about how the Casimir effect is related to a regime of negative energy between the conducting plates) when the latest news broke about negative mass.
"Washington State University physicists have created a fluid with negative mass, which is exactly what it sounds like. Push it, and unlike every physical object in the world we know, it doesn't accelerate in the direction it was pushed. It accelerates backwards."
The discussion at Physics StackExchange clarified that this does not mean stuff falls upwards. No cavorite then.
"You also asked whether an object with negative mass falls up or down. The equivalence principle tells us that gravity is indistinguishable from uniform acceleration. That means that positive and negative masses have to behave the exact same way under gravity, so negative mass falls down."
If you want a complete explanation ... .


This afternoon we took a trip.

Clare and your author at Montacute House

Montacute House: an Elizabethan wonder

Tintinhull Garden

We've been discussing (as a family) who'd we vote for in the first round of the French Presidential election this Sunday. I think we're converging on Jean-Luc Mélenchon: his policies seem to have something for each of us 😎 ... .

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On the granting of moral rights

If you gratuitously kick a cat, you are guilty of sadism; if you smash a laptop you are guilty of vandalism. There is a moral distinction.

Sometimes animals and people are not considered moral agents. It is said that in mediaeval times there was no legal or moral objection to a knight killing a peasant. It was, however, seen as vandalism towards a factor of production.

Slaves were famously 'tools with voices'.

No-one has yet met with any AI system and taken a moral stance towards it; no-one has yet worried about turning the power off. As far out as we can see, new and exciting 'deep learning' AI systems are just better tools.

In theory their very power should boost productivity but who gets the benefit? We over-produce generic graduates and consequently don't pay them much. A talented AI engineer can expect a six figure income pretty soon into their career. But what they know is technical and complicated: STEM remains a minority pastime.


Overproduction of wannabe elites is such a poor idea.

We really do need to find them something worthwhile to do.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The smart move

It's a bit obvious, the three-pronged attack, don't you think?
  • Decapitation-strike takes out the North Korean leadership
  • Bunker-busters take out the nukes
  • Jamming and carpet-bombing north of the DMZ  nullifies the NK artillery.
None of this is 100% so the collateral damage (not least to South Korea) is going to be intense. And then - what next?

I see a much better strategy. The Americans keep the pot boiling - making the status quo untenable. The Chinese .. well. let's say Kim Jong-un and his closest supporters have a little accident. Perhaps a bad case of 'flu' or some unfortunate transportation malfunction.

A new leadership emerges, one positively aligned with China, committed to economic reforms the People's Republic way - and prepared to forego nukes.

Looks win-win to me.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A star drive which might work (Mach Effect)

NASA has just announced this: "Mach Effects for In Space Propulsion: Interstellar Mission".

From Centauri Dreams:
" In this case, the work goes toward a so-called Mach Effect Thruster (MET). Mach effects are transient variations in the rest masses of objects as predicted by standard physics where Mach’s principle applies. Proponents believe they offer the possibility of producing thrust without the ejection of propellant, as discussed in James Woodward’s Making Starships and Stargates: The Science of Interstellar Transport and Absurdly Benign Wormholes (Springer-Verlag, 2012).

What Fearn proposes is to investigate such thrusters by continuing the development of laboratory-scale devices while designing and developing power supply and electrical systems that will determine the efficiency of the Mach Effect Thruster. The analytical task is to improve theoretical thrust predictions and build a reliable model of the device. At the theoretical level, this team is definitely talking deep space, with part of the proposal being to:

'Predict maximum thrust achievable by one device and how large an array of thrusters would be required to send a probe, of size 1.5m diameter by 3m, of total mass 1,245 Kg including a modest 400kg of payload, a distance of 8 light years (ly) away.'"
Here's the book mentioned.

Amazon link

I downloaded the book-sample to my Kindle app and so far it's both well-written and interesting. Unlike the 'EM Drive', which was widely criticised and seems to violate conservation of momentum, the Mach Effect appears to be a valid consequence of General Relativity when combined with Mach's principle - at least, no-one so far has come forward with a convincing theoretical refutation.

Experimental effects so far appear to be small (if they exist at all) and unproven, but NASA evidently considers there could be something to it.

I'll probably read the book a little later. At least Jerry Pournelle will be pleased.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Diary: today's chronicle of failures

Jerry Pournelle's blog (on the sidebar to the right if you're in a PC browser, otherwise here) has a recurring theme where he details his struggles with recalcitrant Microsoft products and sundry other applications.

I felt his pain today. The laptop refused to connect to the scanner (Epson BX630FW). I tried all the usual stuff: restarted everything, reconnected all devices to the router, reinstalled the printer software, switched from WiFi to an Ethernet connection, ... .

Result: stuff prints but the scanner remains unrecognised. My best guess is that something in the printer/scanner has broken. The workaround is just to take pictures via the pretty good camera on my Nexus 6 phone - I'm in no hurry to replace the five year old Epson device.


Work on the 'famous' chatbot has paused. Reason: I know how to do it and consequently I'm already bored.

The interesting hurdle was my bucket-list objective of getting a proper, FOL resolution theorem prover to work. Now that it does (gratifyingly high in Google searches), moving on to a planner has lost much of its appeal.

I suspect much of the power of a chatbot anyway is in the data (ie the data-fill), not the sophistication of the underlying architecture or algorithms. This makes me even less excited.

A deeper problem. A chatbot needs to interact with conversationalists and to learn. Minimally, this needs Internet access and engagement with a messaging platform such as Skype, Twitter or Facebook. But if you start from Common Lisp the integration problems look rather daunting and even expensive. I'm not enthused about shifting to Javascript or Python, where such integration would probably be easier.

So I'm awaiting some conceptual innovation sufficiently exciting to remotivate me. Something like cracking consciousness perhaps 😎 ...?


My favourite article today: this meditation from Greg Cochran disinterred from 2013 and still completely relevant.
"... Syria was born for trouble. Although we all know that ethnic diversity is our strength, better than ice cream or unicorn poop, it appears that Syria (like much of the Middle East) has managed to acquire too much of a good thing. Paradoxical as it may seem, Syria is actually overly diverse.

There are very ancient Christian communities, as well as Kurds (who aim for an independent Kurdish state, an idea that horrifies Turkey), but the real fight is between the Sunni Arabs (about 60 percent of the country) and the Alawites, who run the show and make up about 12 percent of the population. I’m sure that most of my readers are fully conversant with every detail of the history and practices of the various Muslim denominations,—just as our lawmakers are—but let me talk about the Alawites for a moment.

The Alawites have an esoteric religion, one in which their most important beliefs are kept secret from outsiders. Since those beliefs are only revealed through a long process of initiation, even most Alawites don’t know what they are.

We know some things, most of which don’t sound at all like Islam. Alawites drink wine: they celebrate Christmas and Easter. They reject to the call to prayer and the pilgrimage to Mecca. They have no places of worship. Women among the Alawites are not veiled, and enjoy greater freedom than among Sunnis or Shi’ites, but it seems that this is the case because they are believed to be soulless—they are never initiated into the mysteries. Alawites also seem to believe in reincarnation.

Traditionally, Alawites were considered non-Muslim and treated like dirt—worse than Christians or Jews. You can see how the Sunni majority might resent being ruled by them—indeed, it’s hard to imagine how that ever came to pass.

The roots of Alawite dominance go back to the French colonial era. Most Syrian Muslims opposed French rule and refused to serve in the local gendarmerie—but the Alawites did. After independence, the Alawites continued to enter the armed forces in large numbers, partly because they were poor as heretical church mice. At first, the highest ranks in the army were filled by Sunnis, but each coup led to the expulsion of Sunni generals on the wrong side, and there were many coups. The political struggles bred mutual suspicion among the Sunnis, but the Alawites stuck together. The Alawites were also overrepresented in the Baath party.

So, while the Baath party took over in 1963, the Alawites took over in 1966—and they haven’t let go yet.

The thing is, when you ride the tiger, you can’t let go. Although they have made efforts to build support outside their sect, through nationalist and redistributionist policies, the Alawite government has always faced violent opposition. They’ve put down full-scale revolts, most notably in Hama, 1982, where they leveled the city with artillery, killing tens of thousands. All that official violence means that they can’t afford to lose. Once the Alawites were despised, but now they’re hated. At this point, Peter W. Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia, says “The next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.” ...
The tone of the whole article is ironic and satirical. The comments - worth a look - confirm that Americans don't do irony.
"Reinhold says:

September 10, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Is this some kind of a troll? If not: proof that scientists are often brain-dead regarding politics."
A little later another commentator sadly remarks:
"Anonymous says:

September 11, 2013 at 8:49 pm

So far one out of seven people realized that the proposal is satire. That ratio is probably above average."
The standard procedure for Sunni Jihadis with Alawite captives is to behead them. If I hear the neocon-signposting phrase, "bombing his own people", one more time ... .

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Diary: my reading stack

Amazon link

I was looking for something explaining the history and evolution of the world's major languages - a book which was consistent with ancestral population genomics and the historical record. Nicholas Ostler does a fine job for written languages over the last 5,000 years.

On the strength of that I ordered (for both Clare and myself):

Amazon link

which is due to arrive today.


I recently reread Quantico, a testament to the power of Greg Bear's writing when he really cares about the subject matter. It's anthrax-based biological warfare - a revenge attack against the world's great religions. The main protagonist is an Americanised Muslim, sympathetically-drawn, and there is no preachiness to speak of. An exciting and chilling narrative.

On the strength of that I'm now in the middle of his follow-up.

Amazon link


After immersing myself in Bukharin's life, I was naturally curious about Stalin.

In my youth I was educated in the Trotskyist tradition, which sees Stalin as a malevolent dullard who broke with Marxist principle in a murderous struggle for absolute power.

On the other hand ... he did preside over the crash-industrialisation of Russia in the 1930s and arguably did ensure allied victory in the second world war. Would Bukharin's or Trotsky's policies really have worked better, given the objective situation?

I'm no longer so sure.

I selected this biography after carefully reviewing the three or four major candidates, looking for an author without too many moralistic preconceptions or an overt agenda. The book arrives tomorrow and I hope for the best.

Amazon link


And finally, I'm waiting for the arrival of James Hogan's classic pulp SF novel, which I first read more than thirty years ago.

Amazon link

I mentioned "The Genesis Machine" recently in this post.