Fiction, Humour

Mote of smartdust

Matthew beheld not the mote of smartdust in his own eye, for it was hiding itself from his view with advanced magickal trickery.

His brother Luke beheld the mote, yet within his brother’s eye was a beam of laser light that blinded him just as surely.

Luke went to remove the mote of dust in Matthew’s eye, but judged not correctly, and became confused.

Mark looked upon the brothers, and decided it was good.

AI, Philosophy

Nietzsche, Facebook, and A.I.

“If you stare into The Facebook, The Facebook stares back at you.”

I think this fits the reality of digital surveillance much better than it fits the idea Nietzsche was trying to convey when he wrote the original.

Facebook and Google look at you with an unblinking eye; they look at all of us which they can reach, even those without accounts; two billion people on Facebook, their every keystroke recorded, even those they delete; every message analysed, even those never sent; every photo processed, even those kept private; on Google maps, every step taken or turn missed, every place where you stop, becomes an update for the map.

We’re lucky that A.I. isn’t as smart as a human, because if it was, such incomprehensible breadth and depth of experience would make Sherlock look like an illiterate child raised by wild animals in comparison. Even without hypothesising new technologies that a machine intelligence may or may not invent, even just a machine that does exactly what its told by its owner… this dataset alone ought to worry any who fear the thumb of a totalitarian micro-managing your life.

Science, SciFi, Technology

Kessler-resistant real-life force-fields?

Idle thought at this stage.

The Kessler syndrome (also called the Kessler effect, collisional cascading or ablation cascade), proposed by the NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, is a scenario in which the density of objects in low earth orbit (LEO) is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.

Kessler syndrome, Wikipedia

If all objects in Earth orbit were required to have an electrical charge (all negative, let’s say), how strong would that charge have to be to prevent collisions?

Also, how long would they remain charged, given the ionosphere, solar wind, Van Allen belts, etc?

Also, how do you apply charge to space junk already present? Rely on it picking up charge when it collides with new objects? Or is it possible to use an electron gun to charge them from a distance? And if so, what’s the trade-off between beam voltage, distance, and maximum charge (presumably shape dependent)?

And if you can apply charge remotely, is this even the best way to deal with them, rather than collecting them all in a large net and de-orbiting them?


Cherry-manning? Nut picking

Creating a straw-man by cherry-picking extreme outliers of large data sets, e.g. using Caligula as ‘proof’ that the Roman Empire was uncivilised, and going on from that to say that all ideas and artefacts from the Roman Empire should be discarded.

(I can think of plenty of examples from the modern world, but if I actually name one then someone will misunderstand and/or believe the thing which I would call a straw-man and mistake the cherry-picking for a valid data-point — I’ve seen this happen quite a few times online).

There’s got to be a better name for this — it’s coincidentally the name of at least one real person — but I can’t think of one.

Edit: “Nut picking”, a neologism coined by Kevin Drum, Wikipedia attributes it to The Washington Monthly, (August 11, 2006).

Health, Psychology


It’s as fascinating as it is sad to watch a relative fall, piece by piece, to Alzheimer’s. I had always thought it was just anterograde- and progressive retrograde amnesia of episodic memory, but its worse. It’s affecting:

  • Her skills (e.g. how to get dressed, or how much you need to chew in order to swallow).
  • Her semantic knowledge (e.g. [it is dark outside] ⇒ [it is night], or what a bath is for).
  • Her working memory (seems to be reduced to about 4 items: she can draw triangles and squares, but not higher polygons unless you walk her through it; and if you draw ◯◯▢◯▢▢ then ask her to count the circles, she says “one (pointing at the second circle), two (pointing at the third circle), that’s a square (pointing at the third square), three (pointing at the second circle again), four (pointing at the third circle again), that’s a pentagon (pointing at the pentagon I walked her through drawing); and if she is looking at a group of five cars, she’ll call it “lots of cars” rather than instantly seeing it’s five).
  • The general concept of things existing on the left side as looked at. (I always thought this was an urban legend or a misunderstanding of hemianopsia, but she will look at a plate half-covered in food and declare it finished, and rotating that plate 180° will enable her to eat more; if I ask her to draw a picture of me, she’ll stop at the nose and miss my right side (her left); if we get her to draw a clock she’ll usually miss all the numbers, but if prompted to add them will only put them on the side that should be clockwise from 12 to 6).
  • Connected-ness of objects, such as drawing the handle of a mug connected directly to the rim.
  • Object permanence — if she can’t see a thing, sometimes she forgets the thing exists. Fortunately not all the time, but she has asserted non-existence separately to “I’ve lost $thing”.
  • Vocabulary. I’m sure everyone has a fine example of word soup they can think of (I have examples, both of things I’ve said and also of frustratingly bad communications from a client), but this is high and increasing frequency — last night’s example was “this apple juice is much better than the apple juice”.

I know vision doesn’t work the way we subjectively feel it works. I hypothesise that it is roughly:

  1. Eyes →
  2. Object and feature detection, similar to current machine vision →
  3. Something that maps detected objects and features into a model of reality →
  4. “Awareness” is of that model

It fits with the way she’s losing her mind. Bit by bit, it seems like her vision is diminishing from a world full of objects, to a TV static with a few objects floating freely in that noise.

An artistic impression of her vision. The image is mostly hidden by noise, but a red British-style telephone box is visible, along with a shadow, and a flag. The 'telephone' sign is floating freely, away from the box.

How might she see the world?


Utility function of meetings

A car will go faster if you lower the weight, for example by removing the passengers, luggage, steering wheel, and driver. If you do this, you will have a bad time and not go to space today anywhere nice ever.

Coders often share jokes about useless meetings; certainly, meetings can feel useless — they disrupt flow state, and nothing much seems to happen in them — but they’re not useless.

Meetings are for the business, not for the coder; they are to make sure that the coder is pointing in the right direction and solving important tasks; without it, the programmer may be more productive… but they’ll be producing random things, not money-making things.

Imagine the business has an internally-developed text editor. Left to themselves, a coder might produce something really well-documented with 100% code coverage in automatic tests, but if the business would’ve been fine with something that crashed every 1000 seconds, only did ASCII, and couldn’t open documents more than 2^15 characters long, then that effort was wasted.

The utility function of a meeting is how well it tells the drivers where the engine of production is pointing. The drivers of a company (just like the drivers of a car) may or may not be paying enough attention, may or may not be skilled at navigating the economic environment, may or may not be disregarding the business equivalents of speed limits — but even if the leaders of your company are wildly incompetent (and they’re probably better than any coder like you or I can realise unless we do a business degree), even in the worst case, the meetings can still do their job.

(Given the frailty of human memory, I bet you need someone recording those meetings or you’ll get Chinese Whispers up the corporate chain of command, which would make the meetings useless no matter how well people communicate).


Must we laugh to change our mind?

What’s long, hard, and something that men are unjustifiably proud of?

If someone is Wrong™, it’s really hard to get them to change their mind. If you just tell them, by default you will come across as a rude, mean, or contemptible person. If someone is looking for critique, they might listen… but, looking at the history of humans investigating reality, most people seem to want validation (or confirmation) rather than real tests.

A negative stimuli easily trains minds to dislike whatever they’re experiencing at the time they get experience that stimuli, for example the expert telling them “no”.

If laughter turns bad situations into good ones, might it turn a negative “no” into a positive “no”? Might it be that, rather than mere sadistic inverse-empathy, it is a way to learn from someone else’s mistakes when one laughs at, for example, “Ha ha, you should’ve see their face when they slipped on the floor and their beer went everywhere!”?

However, this doesn’t help with giving someone feedback; mocking someone for their mistakes is another way to make them dislike you even when you’re correct, so it does no good to — say — make fun of Trump’s hair, Bush’s bushisms, or David Davis not knowing that Holland and Czechoslovakia are not countries: “Stop mocking us!” is the gist of the responses of the former and the latter (and in retrospect it’s remarkable that Bush took such things in his stride).

What sort of humour, if any, makes mistakes (and negative feedback) palatable? And is there any way to make them palatable without humour? Is laughter a necessary precondition to changing a mind?

“Laughing with”, rather than “laughing at”? That might work for requested feedback — “Tell me a joke about something that went wrong with $thing” — but how do you reach someone who doesn’t even realise they went wrong?

I think that’s what embarrassment is for, but what’s the border between embarrassment and the sort of resentment that Trump and Brexit ministers demonstrate (something which I don’t even have a word for)?

Jokes can certainly make you think, but do you have to be open to thinking for them to help you along, or do they work anyway if they’re done right?

And the punchline? It’s opinions: men have long-winded opinions that are hard to change and which we’re unjustifiably proud of.