Friday, November 30, 2018

Little Lost Lammas bicycle

those dockless bicycles keep showing up in the oddest of places  in cambridge -

some are in small (3rd policeman like) huddles outside what can only be a student party venue, but others are in the middle of nowhere, so perhaps they are part of a very good Dr Who episode where people walking across lammas land suddenly mutate into bicycles (or they are alien bicycles lying in wait to feed on early morning joggers or dogwalkers)

I think we need to set up some drones to spy on them and see how they move around at night

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


so i'm not exactly a technophobe, although i had no internet/computer at home til 2001, or smart phone in my pocket til they got small enough that you could still keep it there and cycle.

however, i do find the "advances" of tech over time pretty annoying more than half the time. lets give 3 examples, from recent upgrades...

cables/connectors - so here I Have to say that SCART TV plugs were one of my all time hated things, so when we got past the SCART/RGB cabbles for games consolves and went to HDMI, the world did actually improve (mostly).....even connected laptops to TVs and digital recording boxes got a lots less I finally threw out all but 1 SCART thing (coz I still have one VHS video recorder/player for all the kids Disney tapes they still occasionally want to watch in genuine lo-res glory...but why isn't it all just wireless? oh, and reliability - i have a box full of broken ipods and phones - but the walkman tape decks still work after 30 years - digital built in obsolence back with a vengenece - where's Ralph Nader when you need him....

data storage - just binned a bunch of CDs but still have drawers full of USB sticks. have on my desk two "floppy" discs just to show incredulous kiddies - and also two sony walkmen tape players and data things for them....ha ha am i better off paying for cloud storage? hmmmm...i do have 2 terabyte SSD boxes which are quite ok, but they are USB and half the people in the house just upgraded phones and laptops so have lightning and USB3 sockets/chargers, so welcome to dongle hell (and expensive hell too)

television/music tech - so while the screens got bigger and higher res and crisper and lower energy and cheaper, the idea of a smart tv is completely daft - i don't want some bunch of bogus apps running on the tv's meagre ancient slow processor  - i just want a nice display. while we're about it, i don't really want the screen to have speakers - i think people that make good audio gear really know what they are doing - but if I disaggregate all these components, i go back to a cable  & wireless mess again - in fact I have both so i have the annoying (but least bad smart tv, and every screen on the house has an old mac mini and then there's wireless adaptors for the hi-fi - so now I have an interconnection management nightmare - perfectly smart and non-technophobe members of my household cannot figure out how to just turn on and watch BBC1....without just unplugging everything and starting from scratch - not good - another lesson for why the internet-of-things is a despite aforesaid HDMI, half the time, half the TVs are left in the wrong resolution/aspect ratio by the last thing that was connected and someone has to manually reset things...

I'm not grumpy about any of this at all, no really...

here's some historical artefacts mentioned above:

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The wrong Fears of the wrong AI.

The unfortunate revisionist appropriation of the AI name for Machine Learning has also led us down the garden path after a red herring in a total wild goose chase for accountability of algorithms. While that is an entirely reasonable thing to do, it always was back when algorithms were just human bean counters with clip boards (I am sure you could find people like that controlling the tasks for slaves constructing the Ziggurat of Ur (c.f. the me of Enki  in Stephenson's novel, Snow Crash).

These algorithms can be deployed with a lack of transparency or explicability, and in ways that offer no agency to people subject to their outputs, and so on, as discussed in many places in recent years (or just "computer says no").

But real AIs will be extremely weird, and the clue is in the A bit. We recognise intelligence and we have started to see it more widely than previously - the smart tool-making crow, the chimps that play tricks on each other that clearly demonstrate a theory of mind, curious cats, the possibility that dolphin's language supports teaching of abstract concepts (left/right, counting, colour etc), this is all natural, evolved, and embodied intelligence.

Why would an artifice that had complex, adaptive, and possibly social ways to perceive and manipulate the world around it be anything like things we recognise above (tool, making, humour, language, curiosity)? Can't we use our so-called intelligence (and creativity) to imagine some AIs that are really radically different? Where might we find such ideas? I'm thinking, perhaps, in mythology - however, a lot of gods are only human - indeed, tales from Asgard, from Mount Olympus, from the Vedic era, smack of soap operas.

Perhaps from more pointless activities (what is Art for, after all)? or from the emergent murmuration properties of innumerable spelling bees? Perhaps the closest to what I'm talking about are the eccentrics (Ships) in Iain Banks' Culture novels...

And its most likely that a real AI would not represent any existential threat to humans, as we are doing a good enough job of that ourselves without any help from smart machines. The only hope would be that AI humour would rest in some jape like saving the human race from itself, just for the lolz.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Chinese Remaindered Book Club - the CRBC

In this club, members can only borrow a book for 5 minutes and must then pass it along.
After reading a month's worth of books, members come together and try to reconstruct the
books they have read from these snippets.

The books are all acquired for free from the remaindered books lists of low-ranking publishers.

Incredibly, the reviews written by the CRBC are amongst the most highly sought examples of literary criticism in the history of the world,. offering deep insight into plot, character, authorial quirks, the influences and cultural norms and divergences of the life and times in which the book was written and set.

Except that none of the books described can be found anywhere in any library or book shop, nor are the publishers to be discovered at their addresses. The ISBNs appear to have never been issued, and serious investigations at the Library of Congress and Bodlean have come to nothing.

Membership of the CRBC is by invitation only, and the names of the current active participants is a closely guarded  secret.

Attempts to ghost write the books based purely on the reviews have led to despair and ridicule.

Monday, November 05, 2018

evidence-resistent policy - four thoughts

I read the Professor R.D.French's provocative article on four schools of thought on evidence-based policy, which did not seem to be terribly optimistic about our chances as scientists to influence policy makers (and at some level, may even have cast doubt on whether we should try).

It prompted me to think these even more negative thoughts about policy making itself, which might suggest that people that accumulate evidence, and wish to have an effect ("impact"), may just do better to look elsewhere - as with French's article, I group these four thoughts under for R's

Redundant - perhaps the tension between consideration of politics (popularity/fear etc) and evidence is such that it cancels out, and policy is made that essentially has no effect - an example of this was when presented with evidence of how to improve road journey travel, a policy maker said "oh no, if we do that that way, we'll be accused of spending too much money, and if it doesn't work we'll be accused of wasting money" so policy was to do it a way that cost little and did nothing.

Reactive - a lot of policy may just be a response to de facto behaviour - examples here might include some countries legalising of THC, where the alternative was to continue with the ludicrous position that half of the population were criminals. here policy makers are responsive followers, rather than leaders (which may also be the case above too).

Resignation - a decision has been made and can't be changed, despite al the evidence, even evidence that the population doesn't like the decision any more (think "invade Iraq" or "leave Europe" or Thatcher ignoring civil servant advice on the poll tax - flying in the face of policy because one is resigned to the decision is a suitable path to resignation in the other sense of the word:-)

Reality - some writing on EBP says that scientists should not be so arrogant. However, nuclear war, climate change, anti-biotic resistant bugs - these are very different matters from austerity and keynsian economics or fake news and brexit - to get these in proportion, they're potentially total extinction events. of course, there may be some of the same schmoozing and influence necessary to get some significant change of direction, but in my view we need something more fundamental like a shift away from capitalism (I didn't say socialism), since there's no evidence there are any ways to connect with longer time scales in the current scheme of things. And evidence suggests we must, and policy makers show little sign of understanding that these are game changers.

p.s. after discussion with Ian, lets note that natural & life sciences have probably had more success influencing policy, and perhaps the resistence is highest for input from social & economic sciences, where the evidence may more in dispute, or even the entire methodology or disciple in some doubt (recent results on lack of reproducibility in psychology, or lack of predictive value in macro-economics appear to lend credence to the policy makers' distrust of academic advice, for example, in those realms).

Saturday, October 27, 2018

an alphabet of data

who ate my data
who bartered my data
who curated my data
who deleted my data
who exfiltrated my data
who faked my data
who googled data
who hoarded my data
who imitated my data
who japed my data
who kyboshed my data
who lambasted my data
who mumbled my data
who nimbied my data
who ogled my data
who perfumed my data
who quarantined my data
who rationed my data
who stole my data
who traded my data
who undeleted my data
who valued my data
who whistleblew my data
who xeroxed my data
who zeroed my data

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

brief review of proof copy of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

I was sent an unbounded proof copy of this book by an editor at the publisher, so what you get in a bookshop may not be quite the same.

tl;dr This is like Jaron Lanier with teeth.
i.e. if you read You are not a gadget, and then the polemic,
"Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now", or you want to go back in time, have read Jerry Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television", you have a head start.

However, you also have to have read Hannah Arendt's revision/update work on the cycle of 0wnership by capitalism, and much much more. The chapters are also all prefaced with fine quotes from Auden (except a couple of outliers with Leonard Cohen and Hildebrand) from sonnets from China.

The take home (perhaps) is the coup from above, where surveillance capitalism is (perhaps) distinguished from any other capitalism by 3 extraordinary properties:

1. a position of extreme privelege (why do those old rules apply to our shiny bright new stuff?)
2. massive asymmetry of agency, and necessarily also of legibility and status in any negotiation.
3. disregard for democracy in the deepest sense (there is no demos)

The book is largely descriptive, but has a mass of detail, reminding me of a (more readable) digital world version of Piketty's Capital in the 21st century, although he also had some modest proposals for remedy/redress, which are still possibly not out of reach, whereas this work seems somewhat more pessimistic, although I need to read it again and see if the seeds of surveillance capitalism's destruction are contained within.

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home