Tuesday, 27 June 2017

sharing my internet

Latest scammer:  "Shaun Harris" (despite a strong Indian accent, but hey) calling from "BT" asking if I had "shared my Internet" with anyone recently, as that is why it is running slow.


Sunday, 18 June 2017

long day

This time of year, "tonight's" weather forecast can be for full sun, at both 9pm and 5am.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

book review: Thought X

Rob Appleby, Ra Page, eds.
Thought X: fictions and hypotheticals.
Comma Press. 2017

Ra Page at Comma Press has commissioned several books with the same concept: a bunch of academics are paired up with a bunch of fiction writers; they share a technical concept, the writer uses it for a (usualy science fictional) story, the academic writes an after-word explaining the technicalities. I was involved in an earlier book (Beta-Life) themed on Artificial Life and Unconventional Computing; this book covers thought experiments and philosophical paradoxes. Caveat: because of my earlier involvement, the publishers sent me a free copy of this book, for review.

One of the reasons I read science fiction is for the way it can include technical information as part of the story. And as I was reading many of these, I was reminded of several other tales based on simlar concepts. The technical after-words cite technical papers for further reading; I thought that here I could reference other fiction (and a little non-fiction, I confess), for readers who want more.

Several stories are based on special and general relativity: apparent paradoxes from its non-intuitive nature, and thought experiments by Einstein, master of such Gedankenexperimente. We start with Adam Marek’s “Lightspeed”, based on the Twin Paradox, where a person who goes of in a spacecraft moving close to the speed of light will find on their return that they have aged less that those who stayed at home. Here the traveller is a husband and father, leaving his family ever further behind on each trip he takes. This form of time dilation is a staple in SF, including Robert Heinlein’s 1956 juvenile novel Time for the Stars, featuring actual twins, and Joan D. Vinge’s 1974 novella “Tin Soldier”, which pairs a slowly-ageing cyborg with a time-dilated space pilot.

The next topic is the Experience Machine: is it better to live in reality, or experience more pleasure in a simulated world? The argument applies to drug use, too. Zoe Gilbert’s “Tether” gives us a story where the experience may be a magical hallucination, or such advanced tech that it is indistinguishable from magic; either way, the bliss of flying as high as a kite is irresistible. Examples of Virtual Reality and consciousness uploading abound in SF. Tom Cool in his late 1990s novels Infectress and Secret Realms delves into full immersion VR, and shows how, rather than being utopia, it can be used as the most sophisticated torture device ever invented. A few years earlier Greg Egan was exploring uploading, in Permutation City and Diaspora. The trope is common in SF movies too: 1999 alone saw The Matrix and eXistenZ.

Sarah Schofield’s “The Tiniest Atom”, a story of loss in war time, takes on Laplace’s Demon working in a Newtonian universe, where if you know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe, you can perfectly predict the future. Recently, chaos theory has shown that determinism does not necessarily imply predictability, because of sensitive dependence on initial conditions; one consequence is the Butterfly Effect, which has made its way into science fiction literature, with Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder” (presciently killing a butterfly) and James P. Hogan’s wonderfully titled 1997 story “Madam Butterfly”.

Annie Kirby’s “Red” moves from the technological to the psychological, and the thought experiment of Mary’s Room: a scientist is raised in black and white world, yet knowing everything there is to know about light, and the colour red; how will she react when she first sees that colour? (I always worry about the protocol of this experiment: the first time Mary gets a paper cut, or bites her nails over-enthusiastically, it will ruin the setup.) Here the protagonist loses her colour vision, but red plays a key role in why. I don’t know any SF based on this thought experiment (although gaining a whole new sense might be related), but the philosopher Daniel Dennett has written an interesting chapter on Mary in his 2005 book Sweet Dreams.

Andy Hedgecock’s “XOR” is a clever little double-loop variant of the Grandfather Paradox, where you go back in time and kill your grandfather, or make some other change, that alters the future so that you are no longer in the position to go back in time to kill your grandfather. Science fiction is full of Time Patrols, and Time Police, and Time Guardians, to stop this sort of thing in its tracks, and full of Time Criminals refusing to be stopped. Robert Heinlein has a couple of variants on this theme, with the time travel actually creating, rather than destroying, the timeline: his 1941 five finger exercise “By His Bootstraps” and his 1959 masterpiece “All You Zombies—”. There are several films in the sub-genre: The fun Back to the Future (1985), the bonkers Looper (2012), and the twisty Primer (2004) are just three examples.

Mary Louise Cookson’s “Bright Boy” is inspired by Maxwell’s demon, a thought experiment attempting to break the second law of thermodynamics. Here a little boy appears to have uncanny control over information and entropy. I’m not sure I know any SF that is explicitly about breaking this law, although many blithely ignore it.

The Chinese Room is an old chestnut in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence: a man who does not know Chinese sits in a room following an algorithm to translate input Chinese symbols into output Chinese answers: where is the understanding of Chinese? Annie Clarkson’s “The Rooms” features a woman employed to converse with human-like robots, to help teach them their roles. But she is following a prepared script. Who then is the robot? SF is full of robots, but their intelligence and interior life is usually a given (or at least as much of a given as the interior life of any of the other characters). Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett take a long hard look at the overall argument in their 1981 collection The Mind’s I.

Schrödinger’s Cat has long bothered quantum mechanics. Put a cat in a box with some poison that has a 50:50 chance of killing it. Is the cat dead, alive, or somehow both before you observe it? Here Margaret Wilkinson, in “If He Wakes”, has a protagonist who does not want to ask a fateful question, for fear of causing the very incident she is asking after. Greg Egan’s 1992 novel Quarantine explores different aspects of what happens when you open that box, and Jo Walton’s moving 2014 novel My Real Children explores a whole two lifetimes of superimposed consequences.

Several hundred years before Einstein, Galileo had a way with thought experiments. One, Galileo’s ship, shows that we could be enclosed in a ship and unaware of our motion relative to the sea; today we have this experience in cars, trains, and planes all the time. Claire Dean’s “People Watching” uses this idea to play games with the reader’s perspective: we are not where we think we are.

In “Monkey Business”, Ian Watson builds a world where the proverbial randomly typing monkeys are being monitored for their Shakespearean output. His world is growing more complex as a whole infrastructure is being built up to support the monkeys and the analysis of their outputs; there are even different factions of philosophical arguments about the success criteria. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges published his story “The Library of Babel”, sufficient to file away all the monkeys’ outputs. William Goldbloom Bloch’s 2008 treatise The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel captures the sheer Vastness of this endeavour, along with other bizarre properties.

Sandra Alland’s “Equivalence” is based on Einstein’s Equivalence Principle: enclosed in a lift, you can’t tell if the lift is stationary on the ground and force pressing you down is gravity, or if the lift is in space and accelerating upwards. In the story, an acrobat who performs drops with aerial silk is confined in a windowless room.

Robin Ince’s story “The Child in the Lock” is based (mostly) on the philosophical argument about The Drowning Child: if we saw a drowning child, we would save it, even at cost to ourselves, so why don’t we spend at least as much saving the out of sight starving millions? The protagonist comes to a different conclusion: they don’t save the child, for several mutually inconsistent reasons that sound all too plausible. Although this story borders on horror, Ince gets humour in early with the line “Tom had been an actor but decided to take a break from it as he’d always been keen to get into telemarketing”. The story also obliquely refers to The Spider in the Urinal, where the best of intentions can lead to the worst of outcomes, or, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Meaning well is not enough. There is a small sub-genre of SF stories about going back in time to kill Hitler, which just makes things worse.

Adam Roberts, in “Keep it Dark”, is trying out a novel explanation of Olber’s paradox, or why is the sky dark at night? If the universe were infinite and homogeneous, every line of sight should eventually end on the surface of a star: although they look smaller when they are further away, there are many more of them. Roberts goes for a solution based on the latest physics. One famous SF story about the sky being dark at night, but not as dark as expected, is Isaac Asimov’s 1941 novellette, “Nightfall”. And Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 story “The Nine Billion Names of God” has the night sky getting darker than usual, with one of the best last lines of a short story.

The book finishes as it starts, with another of Einstein’s thought experiments, here, chasing a beam of light, never catching it, but experiencing time dilation. Anneliese Mackintosh, with “Interia”, studies the time dilation of dying.

Thought X is a good entry in the long tradition of basing fiction on scientific fact. Here we have a wide range of thought experiments and paradoxes, with stories questioning, stretching, and interpreting them, then after-words explaining the scientific basis. The lucky reader thus gets the best of both worlds.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

fantasy sky

The view out our front window is very pleasant, but nothing particularly special.  Or so I thought.
our apple tree (left) combines with the neighbour’s tree (right), leaving a small gap of sky

Yesterday evening, however, I was sitting reading Neil Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats, about how he grew up reading science fiction, and how important these imaginary worlds are.  Well, I too grew up reading science fiction, and many of his imaginary worlds intersect with mine, so my head was full of resonances.

I looked out the window into the evening gloaming.  The trees formed a dark border as the pale sky beyond shone through the gap.  In my primed state of mind, it was a fantasy scene, combined from many tales of forests, and with a hint of one of Anne Sudworth’s magical light painting overlaid.

As the evening drew on, the scene grew darker, the trees blacker, the sky dimmer, but the feeling persisted.  Eventually, some strips of cloud moved across the sky, and the scene flipped.  It was no longer a fantastical scene in my mind, but now science fictional: the gap in the trees now looked to me like a striped gas giant planet, viewed from a nearby tree-covered moon.

a gas giant glimpsed through the trees
This is what it’s often like in my head.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

another fine mess

“I got us into this mess and I will get us out” — Theresa May

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” — Albert Einstein

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Mar a lago - dollah cheetah - Trumpo!

Opera as protest medium!

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Monday, 12 June 2017

is non-existence damaging?

First real problem with the Amazon dispute resolution process; they are usually very quick to refund after a bogus seller tries something on.  However, this time the seller used a bogus UPS tracking number, and claimed item was delivered.  Fortunately, we have CCTV evidence to show that it wasn’t.  However, when trying to submit a claim through Amazon, the “item not delivered” option is “helpfully” greyed out, because of the “evidence” of delivery.  (Note to software developers – greyed out options are always frustrating when they are the one you actually want/need!  Since this is a claims process, there are bound to be weird side cases.)  I had to submit a claim saying the item was “damaged” (is non-existence damaging?)  Let’s see what happens next…

Update: 72 hours later, a message from Amazon says I’ve been reimbursed – so that worked nicely despite my having to use an inappropriate option!

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

The what?

This article almost makes the misery worth it:
The Book of Jeremy Corbin
And it came to pass, in the land of Britain, that the High Priestess went unto the people and said, Behold, I bring ye tidings of great joy. For on the eighth day of the sixth month there shall be a general election. 
And the people said, Not another one. 
And they waxed wroth against the High Priestess and said, Didst thou not sware, even unto seven times, that thou wouldst not call a snap election? 
And the High Priestess said, I know, I know. But Brexit is come upon us, and I must go into battle against the tribes of France, Germany, and sundry other holiday destinations. And I must put on the armor of a strong majority in the people’s house. Therefore go ye out and vote.
And the elders rose up and said to the young people, If ye choose Jeremy, he will bring distress in your toils and wailing upon your streets. Do ye not remember the nineteen-seventies?
And the young people said, The what?

Read the whole thing; it's delicious.

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Saturday, 10 June 2017

oncoming train

Oh, wait.  The Tories are getting in bed with the DUP to cling on desperately to power.
May to form 'government of certainty' with DUP backing
Cancel my comment about the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  It was an oncoming train.

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Friday, 9 June 2017

Nicola Sturgeon nails it again

Sturgeon: 'Reckless' Tories put party ahead of country 
The damage the Tories have done to the stability and reputation of the UK cannot be overstated. In less than a year, they have caused chaos on an industrial scale. 
They recklessly forced through an EU referendum, they then embarked on a disastrous Brexit strategy, deciding to remove Scotland and the UK from the single market with no idea and no plan for what would come next. 
They were so arrogant they thought they could do anything and get away with it... They have consistently put the interests of the Tory party ahead of the interests of the country

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hung Parliament

The headline says "hung Parliament". Best news I've seen in the long year since last June's referendum.

Although it might not be hung enough to oust the hard Brexiteers...

But, it might be hung enough to mean we have to do it all over again in a few months!
Hung Parliament: Q&A guide to what happens when no-one wins the election

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Monday, 5 June 2017

there should be fail-safes in place

no longer the go-to advice to computer users

British Airways says IT chaos was caused by human error 
an engineer disconnected a power supply, with the major damage caused by a surge when it was reconnected.
but the commentators are sceptical:
an email leaked to the media last week suggested that a contractor doing maintenance work inadvertently switched off the power supply. 
The email said: "This resulted in the total immediate loss of power to the facility, bypassing the backup generators and batteries... After a few minutes of this shutdown, it was turned back on in an unplanned and uncontrolled fashion, which created physical damage to the systems and significantly exacerbated the problem." 
But the BBC's transport correspondent, Richard Westcott, has spoken to IT experts who are sceptical that a power surge could wreak such havoc on the data centres. 
BA has two data centres about a kilometre apart. There are question marks over whether a power surge could hit both. Also, there should be fail-safes in place, our correspondent said.

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Saturday, 3 June 2017

book review: Weinberg on Writing

Gerald M. Weinberg.
Weinberg on Writing: the fieldstone method.
Dorset House. 2006

In this slim book, Weinberg delivers his advice to aspiring technical writers, based on the metaphor of building a dry stone wall from “fieldstones”:

  • Write only on what you are passionate about.
  • Gather relevant pieces (the fieldstones) all the time, piled up ready for later use.
  • When you want to write on a topic, select relevant fieldstones from your collection.
  • Assemble them into the right order to make an essay, a report, or a book.
  • Avoid writer’s block by controlling the number of fieldstones you are considering together.

This is all very sensible advice, and pithily delivered. Possibly the most interesting part of the book is where it goes all meta, as he demonstrates how to assemble the fieldstones into a sensible order by doing just that to assemble the description.

The fieldstone method is a pragmatic process for writing: you are doing it all the time, from gathering small snippets, to writing entire books. It won’t work for those times when you just have to write on a topic that you are not passionate about. Weinberg is privileged enough that this has not been a problem for him: he “cheated” at college to be allowed to write on his own topics, then in industry he was lucky enough that his boss took his first somewhat off topic report seriously, and now as a consultant he can write what pleases him. However, even in a non-voluntary scenario, if you have the stones, you can probably pull off an acceptable piece of work using this approach.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.