Thursday, 14 December 2017

We’ll miss you Mrs Blue

He could feel in her what he felt in his own mother—in every good mother—love of order and peace, love of the well being of her children, love of public respect and private honor and morality. 

Any form or order of society which hoped to endure must have individuals like Mrs. Blue, who would conform to the highest standards and theories of that society, and when found they were admirable, but they meant nothing in the shifting, subtle forces of nature. They were just accidental harmonies blossoming out of something which meant everything here to this order, nothing to the universe at large.

Theodore Dreiser – The Genius (1915)

Even in Dreiser's day the sophisticated world had a sneaking tendency to make fun of Mrs Blue because in the depths of its hedonistic soul it preferred to believe that her precious harmonies were indeed accidental. Yet it reaped the benefits of those harmonies even as it sneered , even as it made fun of Mrs Blue for being quietly devoted to her ideals. It smirked at her blinkers, her sweetly fastidious etiquette and the domestic faith she lived by.

Unfortunately for us the real significance of Mrs Blue’s accidental harmonies lay not in their accidental nature but in their harmonies.

Today Mrs Blue has gone, supplanted by Ms Green. Mrs Blue may have been blinkered but so is Ms Green, and a foolish, strutting harridan she is to boot. Her harmony is disharmony and designed not accidental. Ms Green is frantically suppressing the sneers even though every one of them is far more deserved than Mrs Blue’s ever were.

We’ll miss you Mrs Blue.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Memory blanks

The other day Mrs H and I were discussing our early reading experiences because Granddaughter is learning to read. Our first introduction to reading in the fifties was the Janet and John series of books which we both remember reading. We also remember the different coloured book covers indicating different reading standards.

What we do not remember is being unable to read. We cannot recall what it was like to gaze at those black marks on the page and not understand their significance. We cannot remember knowing nothing at all about Janet and John and their thrilling world of cats and mats.

One might ascribe this memory blank to the patchy nature of early memories but it may be an example of something far more interesting. Daniel Kahneman says we cannot easily reconstruct past states of knowledge or beliefs that have changed. When there is such a change we immediately lose much of our ability to recall our state of mind before the change. That would include our ability to read – we cannot easily reconstruct a state of mind where we did not have that ability.

To take a related but more obvious example than early reading, I cannot remember my state of mind when I did not know what occurs when a solution of sodium hydroxide is added to a solution of copper sulphate. Yet there certainly was a time when I didn’t know it. I can imagine not knowing it and associate that lack of knowledge with the right time period, but I can’t recall it as an absence of knowledge. Hardly surprising of course - we can't easily reconstruct our own ignorance. For one thing there is too much of it.

Another example is trying to remember what I thought about the surface of Pluto before we found out via those photos from NASA's New Horizons mission. I think I remember not knowing what the surface of Pluto looks like, but as with the copper sulphate example this is merely an absence - there is no particular state of mind to remember as nobody knew what the surface of Pluto looked like anyway. It is the state of not knowing something now known which is so elusive. Presumably it is more efficient that way -  move on and forget. There is no point remembering ignorance. 

Pushing this a little wider, we cannot easily construct a state of knowing something we have no wish to know such as a celebrity career or the latest reality show drama or accusations of ancient sexual misconduct. What is it like to know and value these things? We cannot easily construct the state of mind of someone who is interested and affected by them. We easily lose sympathy with people who have knowledge and opinions we have no wish to share.

How about reconstructing a state of mind before we changed an opinion, belief or assumption? To my mind Monty Python comedy has not worn well although a few sketches I still find amusing. Over the years I have changed, the sketches have not, but do I remember my state of mind when I thought it was all hilarious? I certainly remember thinking it was all hilarious, but I am not able to reconstruct the associated state of mind. I have no real access to that earlier state of mind where Monty Python was almost uniformly hilarious.

Suppose someone ‘knows’ that capitalism is evil. Such a person cannot easily reconstruct a earlier state of mind where he or she did not know that capitalism is evil. It probably follows that the same person cannot easily conceive a state of not knowing such a thing. Especially puzzling is someone who claims to favour capitalism. How does that happen?

The fallback position here is to imagine that the person who fails to ‘know’ that capitalism is evil must be duplicitous in some way. They must be pretending not to know what is surely impossible not to know. Therefore they must be bad.

And so to politics.

Monday, 11 December 2017

A real winter can be beautiful

Photo from 2015
As it was fine and sunny today we settled on a drive out to Bakewell. A lovely drive it was too, meandering through a snowy landscape under a blue sky. As in the 2015 photo above, there was not much snow but enough to whiten the fields and create one of those bright winter days which are so exhilarating.

Gingerly navigating icy pavements in Bakewell wasn’t quite so much fun but there were far fewer people than usual and no traffic queues. The drive back was enjoyable too. Before it turns to slush and crud, a real winter can be beautiful.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

No snowmageddon

Yesterday: by early evening I thought we'd be doomed come Sunday, lost from view under a deluge of snow.  A Met Office amber warning no less.

Today mid morning: off to a local cafe for mid morning coffee and cake before everyone else notices the roads are clear and the snow is what we'd have called disappointing when I were a youngster.

20 minutes later: people are now pouring into the cafe but we have the best seat. Peaceful while it lasted.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Mere calculation

Not everyone plays chess so I’ll try to minimise the chess aspects of this post because there is an interesting addition to the previouspost. In one of the games between AlphaZero and Stockfish 8, AlphaZero made what the YouTube narrator calls a deep positional knight sacrifice.

If AlphaZero had been a human player then this knight sacrifice may well have attracted more superlatives - for example it might have been described as brilliantly imaginative. Computer chess can sometimes seem imaginative, brilliant, clever and strategically creative despite every single move being the result of calculation. There are sometimes subtle differences between computer and human chess but usually we cannot tell the difference unless the human makes the kind of mistake computers don’t make.

It is mere calculation, but can seem like brilliant positional insight. Mere calculation – is that all we do too? Not in quite the same way of course, but the question still hangs in the air.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Quick learner

This story has attracted a certain amount of attention but I'm surprised it hasn't attracted more.

BBC version

Google says its AlphaGo Zero artificial intelligence program has triumphed at chess against world-leading specialist software within hours of teaching itself the game from scratch.

The firm's DeepMind division says that it played 100 games against Stockfish 8, and won or drew all of them.

The research has yet to be peer reviewed.

But experts already suggest the achievement will strengthen the firm's position in a competitive sector.

"From a scientific point of view, it's the latest in a series of dazzling results that DeepMind has produced," the University of Oxford's Prof Michael Wooldridge told the BBC.

"The general trajectory in DeepMind seems to be to solve a problem and then demonstrate it can really ramp up performance, and that's very impressive."

There will be unreported caveats and it is reasonable to assume that the two systems ran on different hardware, but on the face of it this achievement looks like a remarkable demonstration of the growing power of AI. Remarkable enough to be disturbing even.

Of course chess is a rule-based environment suited to computation but AlphaGo Zero seems to have taught itself how to play the game to an extremely high standard in a matter of hours.

Strewth was my initial reaction. It still seems appropriate. So much so that I almost hope those caveats douse the whole thing in cold water but I don't think they will.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A parody

Why is parody amusing? I haven't watched a cowboy film for decades but must have enjoyed them as a youngster. I certainly watched the Lone Ranger and one or two John Wayne films. 

Even so I find myself smiling at parodies such as this one. The hero's ridiculous costume, his ability to fire a revolver from the hip with millimetre accuracy. It's silly but the genre must have been fun once upon a time.