Friday, February 15, 2019

The Center for Mathematical Seances

The Center for Mathematical Seances (CMS), was not designed along the lines of Teletubby land, contrary to popular myth. In fact, it was flown here on Mistletoes by the Master of Duality College from the Miskatonic University in Arkham as a gift, when she realized that Cambridge could no longer afford architects, let alone builders. Of course, due to its unique Nomenklature, the Center (or Centre, which is of course near the edge of Cambridge) is able to operate at very reduced academic salaries, since many of its faculty have been, not to mince words, dead for some time. This hs caused no end of problems with the REF, since outputs cannot be returned through research fish or ORCID, for deceased, and much of the original work was done too many centuries earlier to be allowed for impact case studies, Fermat's first posthumous theorem being a standout example, and Turing's work on quantum ghosting with Paul Dirac and Paul Wittgenstein, which will haunt the UKRI policy makers for decades, since it has proved to have so many applications and saved the British economy from collapse after brexit, for example allowing true precognitive behavioural economic models of trade to be built with genuine precision.

Friday, February 08, 2019

clock synchronisation in data centers - why not just use GPS?

in a recent discussion about accurate one-way latency measurements in data centers, it was asked "why not use GPS?" (instead of PTP for example) - the rationale being every smart phone has GPS in so it must be cheap...

at first blush, this sounds plausible, given the pervasiveness of GPS (G=Global) and decent accuracy, so I started to come up with a (long) list of reasons why it isn't (plausible) - starting from

1. you're indoors.
no reception -
ok, so a) run an antennae from the roof of the building down to each rack, and re-dist across the systems in the rack
or b) have one receiver and re-broadcast the radio signal in the server rooms and have an antennae on every rack or system

2. distributed antennae
a) need to calibrate the latency of the signal over the roof to each system + significant wiring cost
b) re-broadcast could cause significant interference, plus the racks themselves would cause massive multi-path problems - since they're stationary could obviously calibrate for that....

note you need to have sight of enough satellites at any given time to get reliable signal, plus they are not actually 100% reliable anyhow....

3. What about re-distributing the GPS received data in packets (ideally as part of ethernet pre-amble)
So you still now have all the packet delay variance/jitter you had to solve with PTP (or NTP in the old days) and estimating that was the whole point of PTP - GPS is just one source - just have a local accurate master clock on some systems in the data center is fine and dandy

4. cost
phone GPS is actually Assisted GPS usually and not very accurate - indeed, even outdoors, mult-path (reflections off buildings) disrupts things sufficiently that most navigation systems resort to accelerometers, gyros and maps to validate (or rule out) received clock/location data. Also the signals need to be cross checked against Ephemeris data, which is 50k of info about where the satellites orbits take them. real precision GPS (satnav in planes/boats) is not cheap in fact.

that'll do for now

Friday, January 04, 2019

Why Ethics Needs AI (or Machine Learning, if you want to be pedantic)

There's a lot of people talking about why AI needs ethics. In fact, more generally, there's been a lot of chat about why technology needs ethics for quite a few years now, as if technologists work in some kind of moral vacuum, which is pretty demeaning way of refereing to people who are very often quite aware of things like Pugwash and Asilomar. Computer Science related technology is one of the most inter-disciplinary of all science&technology disciplines, and practitioners are exposed to many application domains and sub-cultures. At one extreme, people have worked in cybernetics for 6 or more decades (e.g. ICA Cybernetic Serendipity show, curated in London in 1969). At another extreme, computing and cybernetic artefacts have been embedded in creative works for around a century (e.g. Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. from 1920 ). Much of the fictional work that is based on speculation about science has a strong moral element. This is often used as a simplifying approach to plot or even character, to see how a technology (as yet not realized) might play out in another (possibly future) world, or society. Thus recreational and societal control through drugs in Huxley's Brave New World, Robot detectives in Asimov's Caves of Steel, Genetically engineered aristocrats in Frank Herbert's Eye's of Heisenberg, are all doubly genre fiction (dystopia, 'tec and costum drama, as well as, of course SciFi).

However, these shorthands come with a powerful baggage - that of morality tales - Since Aesop, story tellers want to have a message (don't feed the troll or it will feed on you, don't fly too lose to the sun or your wings will fall off, don't imbue the device with intelligence without a soul or it may turn on you). These tales also build in solutions (it takes years of disciplined training to become a dragonrider of Pern, with great power comes great responsibility, a robot may not harm humanity  or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm). Indeed, popular TV series from the last 4 decades (from Star Trek to Firefly) are often based directly on earlier morality plays (sometimes two removed from religious allegories via something slightly less old such as the Western movie genre).

Technogeeks are highly aware of this. They do not operate in a vacuum. Critics confuse the behaviour of large capitalist organisations with the interests or motives of people that work on the tech. This is an error. Society needs more fixing than individual crafts. Much more.

So on to Machine Learning. We here so oft-repeated the negative stories of the misuse of "AI"  from medical diagnosis with insufficient testing, through self-driving cars which require humans to stop driving (or cycling, or even just walking across the road - off their trolley!) on to the cliches of algorithms used for sentencing in courts which embed the biases of the previous decisions, including wrong decisions and so re-enforce or amplify societies discrimination. Note what I just said - the problem wasn't in the algorithm - it was in the data, taken from society. The problem wasn't in the code, it was in the examples set by humans. We trained the machine to make immoral decisions, we didn't program it that way ("I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way", as Jessica RabBit memorably said).

But as with the zeroth law, we can learn from the machines. We could (in the words of Pat Cadigan in Synners) change for the machines. We can quite easily devise algorithms that explain the basis for their output. Most ML is not black box, contrary to a lot of popular press. And much of it is amenable to Counterfactual reasoning even when it is somewhat dark in there. We can use this to reverse engineer the bias in society. And to train people to learn to reduce their unconscious prejudice, by revealing its false basis, and possibly socialising that evidence too.

We can become more than human if we choose this mutual approach.

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.

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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