Sunday, 31 July 2011

a marvellous toy

I've been somewhat unproductive this last week, as I've been acquainting myself with my latest toy -- a Samsung Galaxy S II. I'm not an "early adopter" -- I waited a decade before getting a microwave oven, for example. I tend to follow the maxim
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
--- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1711

my new toy
However, I'm so dependent on email, and getting more dependent on a mobile calendar, that I decided the time had come to bite the bullet. I polled a few colleagues at work for their favourites, and ended up with the Galaxy (much to the disgust of the Apple brotherhood).

I've been playing with learning how to use it for the last week. First I had to get it talking to the home wifi. Which required getting the home wifi to advertise its presence a little more than it was doing. Work wifi connection required a quick trip to software support on my part, and for them to press two menu items on the phone (I think my mind "must be too highly trained" for that sort of thing). Now I've got my GMail, contacts, and Google calendar accounts synched. Bliss.

It seemed to take a while for the GPS to synch, so the weather map and other things thought I was in Waterbeach for a while. But after a few tries, it got my location correct, both at home and at work.

safe for carrying in a pocket
First peripheral: a slip case to carry it around in, so it doesn't get pocket-lintified. A quick Amazon search found something perfect. A subsequent search for a travel adaptor so that I can recharge the device in foreign parts, in order to use these facilities away from home/work, has opened up a whole new can of worms. I've ordered a couple of alternatives, and will test them out next week during my trip to France.

Then it was the apps. Google Sky Map, of course -- and MoonWidget.

Another colleague recommended Rail Planner Live, for all your UK rail trip needs. The download route I took for this required scanning a QR code, so I first downloaded QR Droid. The Rail planner app required actual money -- a whole £3.49! -- but it's definitely worth it.

Next, got my Dropbox account loaded -- piece of cake.

Then, I played around with the camera a bit more (more than merely scanning a barcode, that it). It's got autofocus (which I really need) and zoom, and auto-smile detect, and video, and ... more than I'll ever use, I suspect. The main reason for wanting a camera is as use as a "printing whiteboard" -- after a meeting, just snap the board, and email it to the participants -- a great productivity enhancer. (And I don't even need to photograph the board square on -- Paint Shop Pro has a nifty feature to square it up later.)

Of course, the first thing I wanted to photograph, so that I could blog about it, was the device itself. Ah, well, nothing's perfect! I suppose I could have employed a mirror, but I chose the route of using a separate camera.

I also want an simple sketching utility -- not some mini-CAD app that neatens up things into squared-off boxes and perfect circles -- and not something for the inner-artist (which I don't have) -- just something for simple line drawings that are part of the notes I take in meetings. I couldn't find anything -- but sketching on paper, then photographing, is a good substitute.

Games, of course -- Scrambled Net is frighteningly addictive. I also downloaded a few fractal and cellular automata apps, played with them for a few seconds, and then deleted them. I'm pretty sure I'll be writing the odd complex systems app at some point...

Oh, I believe the device also includes a phone. I haven't used that. Years ago I heard an advertising jingle: "You're never alone with a mobile phone" -- and interpreted it as a warning. Email is so much more civilised.

So, I'm not an early adopter, but after a week in its company, you'll get my new marvellous toy away from me when you prise it from my cold dead hands.

important safety information

Safety information when travelling is important, since we might come across unexpected hazards, as October Jones' poster illustrates.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

vanity publishing and ego-surfing

For the last four years, one of the research projects that I have been working on has run a small annual workshop, where people present papers on stuff relevant to computer simulation. It's nice to be able to print these papers in a professional-looking form, but it's not really a big enough event to attract the publishers who do conference proceedings. So, I've had the workshop proceedings printed by a colleague of mine who runs a small publishing outfit as a sideline, exploiting short print run and print-on-demand technology.

CoSMoS proceedings 2008-2011

So is this just an example of a "vanity press" publication? After all, we are paying to have the books printed. But no: we ensure that the papers are rigorously refereed, and that the accepted papers are modified in light of the referees' comments. The various books are also available on Amazon, and some (a few, to be sure!) get bought from there.

The latest workshop volume has recently arrived from the printers, ready for our workshop next month. I was checking whether it had appeared on Amazon, by searching for my name. It has.

What struck me, though, was the number of hits that resulted from my search. 73. I haven't written 73 books, or editted 73 proceedings, or anything like that. So what gives?

Aha! It's due to the Amazon search looking inside the books, too. Since conference proceedings are included in the search, and since I have some papers published in such beasts, these appear as hits. There were some hits of proceedings where I don't have a paper, but where other papers that reference mine. Good.

Reading Nora Roberts -- cover
But as I looked further down the hit list, there were some strangenesses. First I saw a book called Reading Nora Roberts by Mary Ellen Snodgrass, labelled "Pop Lit Book Club". What? I searched for my name within the book, and there, on p.113, I found the following:

Reading Nora Roberts -- text

Good grief. My website review of some of the mind candy I read has found its way into a book! (I must admit, I rather like the implication from this quotation that mine is a "cerebral" site.)

Scence Fiction Authors -- cover
And that wasn't the end of it. I also found Science Fiction Authors: A Research Guide by Maura Heaphy, because it cites a page on my site as a "research source" for information on Walter M. Miller. (My site is very sketchy and incomplete on this issue, I hasten to add!)

Science Fiction Authors -- text

Moral: if you put someing up on the Web, it could end up nearly anywhere.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

pedantry alert: signing silly declarations

I've just submitted yet another research funding proposal. As part of the bureaucracy surrounding this process, I have to sign a declaration, one clause of which states that I "confirm that I have no personal, financial or other interest in this project". I know what it means, of course, but it still feels silly to sign that I've no interest in this piece of work that has consumed the several months effort, and which, if my application is successful, will consume the next several years of my life.
"pedant": A man who likes his statements to be true.
--- Bertrand Russell. The Good Citizen's Alphabet. 1953
It's not just men, btw...

UK passport
I've also recently renewed my passport, which process required me to submit my old passport. I had to sign a declaration that said, in part (I forget the exact wording) "If I find my lost passport, I will return it immediately to the office". But I haven't lost my passport -- it's here, with this very form I'm signing -- so I don't have a lost passport to find. You might wish to argue, well, it's a joint form covering both renewal and replacement of lost passports, so if I do subsequently lose my passport, I'm saying I will return it. But I only need to return it if I've reported it missing, presumably by applying for a replacement, on a new form, where I could sign an accurate declaration.

And to cap it all, when a note was pushed through the front door saying that they had tried to deliver my new passport but I was out (they only deliver 9am-5pm Monday to Friday -- when most people are, of course, out), it said I would have to provide some ID when I went to collect it. One form of ID suggested was, you've guessed it, my passport.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Artificial BIID

Charlie Stross, in his recent blog post "Three arguments against the singularity", made an interesting comment on how to stop advanced AIs going all Skynet on humanity, an idea he attributes to Karl Schroeder:

Consciousness seems to be a mechanism for recursively modeling internal states within a body. In most humans, it reflexively applies to the human being's own person: but some people who have suffered neurological damage (due to cancer or traumatic injury) project their sense of identity onto an external object. Or they are convinced that they are dead, even though they know their body is physically alive and moving around.

If the subject of consciousness is not intrinsically pinned to the conscious platform, but can be arbitrarily re-targeted, then we may want AIs that focus reflexively on the needs of the humans they are assigned to — in other words, their sense of self is focussed on us, rather than internally. They perceive our needs as being their needs, with no internal sense of self to compete with our requirements. While such an AI might accidentally jeopardize its human's well-being, it's no more likely to deliberately turn on its external "self" than you or I are to shoot ourselves in the head. And it's no more likely to try to bootstrap itself to a higher level of intelligence that has different motivational parameters than your right hand is likely to grow a motorcycle and go zooming off to explore the world around it without you.
I’d not come across this idea before, and when I read it first, I thought "cool, that’s an interesting solution to the problem". But the idea kept pecking away in my brain, and after a while I began to be very uneasy about it. Not because of the AIs, but because of us.

Paul Martu, Early Tools, hammer
There's a problem called Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIID (which I thought it was called body dysmorphia before I checked, but that seems to be somewhat different), where people want to have a limb amputated, because it does not "belong" to them. The current idea is that the limb is somehow "missing" from the brain's "map" of the body, and so really isn't part of that person's body identity.

Well, what happens to my body-map when I have all those AIs with their sense of self safely focussed on me? Now, the human brain is remarkably plastic, and we do manage to incorporate many external devices into our body-map quite freely. Canes, tools, cars, whatever, can quickly come to feel like part of our bodies. But these are all under the direct control of the very brain where the body-map resides. What of more autonomous tools with their own brains (albeit focussed on me)? What if for some reason those focussed AIs don't smoothly mesh into my body-map? Will I want to "amputate" them? And will what today seems like a natural desire sometime in the future be treated as a mental disorder on my part?