Friday, December 24, 2010

Bayes and the Ashes

What can the Reverend Bayes tell us about the Ashes?

Let's imagine three models:

In the first model, the two teams are equal in strength:
In that case, let's imagine that there's a 1/3 chance of win, draw and loss. 1:1:1

In the second model, we'll believe that Australia are stronger than England, in which case, we'll imagine that the odds go 1:2:3 of English win, draw, Australia win.

Third, we can imagine that England are stronger, and say that in that case the odds are 3:2:1

Suppose that we have no reason, before the series begins, to believe in any one of these models particularly, so we'll imagine that they're equally distributed over all the possible worlds.

So we'll believe in initial odds of 1:1:1.

The first match was a draw. All the models predict an equal chance of a draw, so the odds
stay at 1:1:1. We learned nothing from the first match.

The second match was an England win. The even model gives a 1/3 probability of an England win, the England stronger model gives a 1/2 chance of it, and the Australia stronger model gives 1/6

So after the second game, the odds become 1/2:1/3:1/6, or 3:2:1.

After seeing England winning the second game, we should believe that it's three times more likely that England are the stronger team.

The third game was a win for Australia. We now multiply by 1/6:1/3:1/2, giving 3/6:2/3:1/2, or 3:4:3.

So our initial odds, whatever they were, have been multiplied by 3:4:3.

Whatever we started off believing, the results Draw, England, Australia should have made us slightly more likely to believe that the teams are evenly matched.

In other words, if we believe that one of our three models is something like the truth, then the series so far has told us almost nothing. If, before the series, you believed that England were the stronger team, you've seen nothing to change your mind, and vice versa if you believed that Australia were.

However, whatever you started out believing, you should now be more open to the idea that the teams are evenly matched, and probably rather less open to extreme models where one team is much stronger than the other. There are also models where, say, both sides' batting is very strong, and both sides' bowling is very weak, which will have been pretty much ruled out by two results in three games.

Nothing too surprising here, I hope. And that's kind of the point. Bayes' Theorem, in spite of having some rather hairy philosophy behind it, is nothing more than a formalized, precise version of common sense.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I've just risked my life to save a mole.

I was walking along a country road, when I saw a baby mole, black with its little pink snout, crawling blindly in the middle of the carriageway.

I stepped into the road to pick it up and put it somewhere safer.

Moles are vermin round here. I can understand why. If you have a nice lawn, coming down to find three or four molehills in it can't be a pleasing experience.

They're tolerated in the fields, as far as I know, but nobody stops the plough to spare their homes. They are, as the saying goes, neither loved nor hated, but made of atoms that a superior intelligence can use for other purposes.

And this one was a baby. A tiny mammal unprotected in Winter. A doomed thing.

As I stepped into the road, a car appeared, coming fast down the other side.

And as my shadow fell on the mole, it tried to run, scrabbling desperately with pathetic little flippers that weren't good enough even to lift its body off the ground.

But it reached the white line, and crossed, and crawled into the path of the car.

So I stepped out in front of it and held my hand out like a storm trooper with the palm flat for STOP.

And the car braked. Hard. On the icy road. And stopped in time.

And the old couple wound down their window, and I explained. And as I did, I started to feel sentimental and foolish. And the lady of the couple said thank you, because she hated to kill things when they drove, and she said that if I hadn't I would have ruined Christmas, because the death would have been my fault, and I'd have been thinking about it all day.

And while we talked the mole scurried off into the icy brambles at the side of the road. Where, without its mother, it will die, sooner rather than later, in one of the many ways baby animals die in Winter.

We are not rational beings. I knew that. It is always nice to have one's beliefs confirmed. But what the hell heuristic was I using, and what strange utility function did it think it was serving?


I've written before about how bright the full moon is.

Last night, I was driving to Sheffield, and at around half past ten, after about a hundred miles on the A1, I turned off the road into Sherwood Forest, and parked in a quiet layby for a smoke.

It was far too cold to get out of my van, which is a comfortable place to sit anyway, and so, for I think the first time since I bought it ten years ago, I lit up in the cab.

There was a beautiful German mass on the radio, which I hadn't been able to hear properly with the engine running, but in the quiet and the darkness it was entrancing.

When my cigar was finished I carried on listening to it until it was over. After fifteen minutes in the dark I could see for miles, snowy fields and trees under the moonlight through the clouds.

Eventually I remembered that I had promises to keep. I started the engine, checked the empty road, indicated and pulled out.

After I'd been driving a few minutes it occurred to me that the light was a bit unusual. It seemed more flickery than normal, like the light from a flourescent tube, as the most moonlit of the clouds was obscured and revealed by passing trees.

"Oops", I thought. "Headlights."

Slightly embarrassed I reached for the switch and turned them on. Suddenly the cone in front of the car leapt out, daylight bright and in shocking colour. And the rest of the world disappeared.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Spock should decide whether to kill Kirk

When we left Mr Spock, he had a decision to make.

In order to make that decision, he needs to know whether he's in an evil or a good universe.

The only evidence he has is one coin toss that came up tails.

He knows that in evil universes, the coin is more likely to come up tails.

But he also knows that in good universes, the coin will come up tails one time in three.

So he might figure out that he's more likely to be in an evil universe. So he should probably fire.

But how confident should he be of his conclusion?

And if he'd had time to toss the coin twice, and it had come up tails both times, how confident should he be then?

We can address the first question by thinking about six parallel universes side by side.
In all of them, Spock appears in the captain's cabin and tosses the coin.

Three of the universes are evil, and three good.

In one of the evil universes, Spock sees a head. In two of them, he sees a tail.
In one of the good universes, Spock sees a tail. In two of them, he sees a head.

So our copy of Spock, who has to decide whether to shoot or not, who only knows that he's seen a tail, can be the copy in three of the six universes.

They are two of the evil ones and one of the good ones.

If all Spock knows is that he's in one of these three, he should reckon that the odds of being in an evil universe are two to one, or equivalently he should say that there's a probability of 2/3.

If he's seen two tails, then we need to think about nine good universes and nine evil ones.

On the first toss, they split into:
good,tail (there are 3 like this)
good,head (6)
evil,tail (6)
evil,head (3)

And then on the second, these groups divide further

good, tail, tail (1)
good, tail, head (2)
good, head, tail (2)
good, head, head (4)
evil, tail, tail (4)
evil, tail, head (2)
evil, head, tail (2)
evil, head, head (1)

So now if Spock has seen tail, tail, he can be in one of four evil universes or one good one.

His odds are four to one on being in an evil universe.

This conclusion is known as Bayes' Theorem, after the Reverend Thomas Bayes.

It tells you how to update your beliefs when you seen evidence of their truth and falsehood.

Spock's initial belief is that the chances of being in an evil universe are even, or 1:1, or probability 1/2

After he sees one tail, he should believe that the chances are 2:1, or probability 2/3

After he sees the second, he should believe that the chances are 4:1 in favour of evil, or probability 4/5.

Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, and the Reverend Thomas Bayes

Captain Kirk, being a man who likes to gamble, carries with him at all times a biased coin. Being one of the good guys, his coin is biased so that it returns mainly heads.

In a evil parallel universe where everyone wears a moustache, the evil version of Kirk carries a coin biased towards tails. Apart from this detail and the moustaches, the universes physically resemble each other with uncanny accuracy. But the moralities on which they operate could not be more different.


After a transporter accident, Mr Spock find himself in the captain's stateroom on board the (an?) Enterprise.

On the dressing table, the captain's wallet, phaser and communicator lie neatly next to the captain's trick coin.

Spock tosses the coin thoughtfully.

It comes up tails. This is very bad news. If the evil Kirk discovers Spock in his room, he will almost certainly suspect a plot, and have Spock executed. Spock grimaces and draws his phaser.

But of course, if he's in his own universe, the captain will just be pleased to see him safe and well, and amused by the accident that he was transported directly into the officer's quarters.

Spock, about to toss the coin again, wonders if he should set his phaser to stun.

Suddenly, Spock hears the whirr of the captain's bedroom door. He whirls and...?

What should Spock do?


Specifically, good!Kirk's coin comes up heads 2 times out of 3, and evil!Kirk's coin comes up heads 1 time in 3.

The transporter accident, involving reversed polarities, has almost certainly sent Spock into a parallel universe. There are, however, millions of parallel universes. Half are good, half are evil.

If Spock fires, he will kill the captain. In a good universe this is a tragedy that Spock would die to prevent. In an evil universe, he's killed a tyrant who deserved to die, and saved his own life. He can then plot to return home, which shouldn't be too difficult.

If Spock doesn't fire, the captain will pull off some superheroic trick as usual and somehow get the drop on Spock. In a good universe, this will result in much good humor, and the eventual return of Spock to his home universe, where he won't have to put up with having an identical twin.

In an evil universe, not firing will result in Spock's execution.

Spock needs an estimate of the probability that his current universe is evil, and he needs it fast. His only evidence is the one coin toss, which came up tails. What should he reckon the chances are that the universe is evil?


For bonus points, in a parallel group of parallel universes, Spock had managed to make ten coin tosses before the door whirred. His results were H H H H T H T H T H . What's his estimate now?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All Dead Soon

I've come to believe, as a direct consequence of reading Less Wrong that we're almost certainly all doomed.

To be fair, I've always thought that we the species were a bit doomed, what with over-population and everything, but I used to think that it was a long way away in the unbelievably distant future, and who knows what might turn up in the meantime? Now I think that we're doomed on a fairly short time-scale. If not us personally, then our children or their children.

Anyway, I thought I'd try to compose a proof, because setting out a logical argument and seeing if other people can knock it down is a good way to lose false beliefs.

So here it is:

1/ It is possible to create an Artificial Intelligence as clever as a human being.

2/ Therefore, one day, someone will create an AI as clever as a human being.

3/ This AI will have goals.

4/ It will realize that the best way to achieve its goals will be to make itself cleverer.
5/ The AI will be able to improve itself to become extremely intelligent.

6/ The AI, being extremely intelligent, will achieve its goals very quickly.

7/ Very many possible goals will result in the destruction of humanity if achieved.

It's a bit sketchy. For instance 3 isn't true. It's just that an AI without goals won't do anything, and so whoever built it will tweak it until it does have. Also I can imagine many goals which won't destroy humanity. It's just that they're all fairly trivial. You don't need an AI to achieve them, and I imagine that the creator of this thing will want it to do non-trivial things. So same again.

Also, of course, there are bound to be goals which don't result in the destruction of humanity. Indeed, if the AI creator picks right, the creation of an AI could be a wonderful thing. But I think that it will be much easier to create an AI than it will be to find non-destructive goals for it (and then program those goals!). And it doesn't have to just not destroy us. It has to prevent any other new-born God destroying us.

Pick holes! I certainly don't want to believe this, but I find myself forced.

This feels like a religious awakening. Last time I looked like getting a religion, as a consequence of listening to too much evensong, friends were kind enough to laugh me out of it, and I have always been grateful.

Go for it people. Use any method you like. Even ridicule is good. I positively want to lose this belief. I will be grateful if you can disabuse me of it.

And I'm not trying to claim that all this is in any way my idea, by the way. It's fairly commonplace, it seems. It's just that I can't for the moment see why it isn't also true.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A God of Small Things

Version 2, rewritten after the kind advice of my friend Ruth.
I have been reading Less Wrong. Very possibly to excess.

Of all the stories that humans told, the most compelling were about the existence of others.

In the beginning, the others were gods and monsters. Then came stories about other races, with other motivations. Later, there were stories of far off lands, and of the strangers who lived there.

After the last of the great wars of the twentieth century, when there were no more far off lands, and no strangers, some told of voyages to strange worlds, where evolution had dealt a different hand. Some told of visitors from deep space, and the havoc that they caused.

And some told of the havoc created by man's own creations.

With all these stories of the other, it might have seemed unlikely that the first inhuman mind to be created by a human mind was almost an accident.

It wasn't an AI lab working for a shadowy military-industrial conspiracy, or a Genetic Engineer hell-bent on some incomprehensible dream of power, that created the first mind born of mind.

Indeed, when Harrison created ELEIZER, the world's first intelligent computer program, it was almost in a fit of absence of mind.

Tom Harrison had once been thought of as bright child.

The apple of his teachers' eyes, the school swot. The boy genius.

They say that however clever you are, when you go to university, you'll meet someone cleverer.

Tom was that person, they said.

But of course it hadn't turned out that way.

Tom had been accepted by the University of Cambridge to read Mathematics, Pure and Applied, but had turned out to be no more than averagely bright by the standards of that ancient place.

Towards the end of his degree, and at the beginning of the PhD that should have been his route into academia and a life of research, it had become obvious, first to his teachers and then to Tom himself, that although Tom loved maths, he didn't lust after it.

Tom's teachers had been kind, suggested that this might be the case without pressing the issue, and waited for the lack of desire to become as obvious to Tom as it was to them.

In the meantime, fortunately for Tom, the necessity of making some complicated calculations for the second chapter of what was supposed to be a seven chapter doctorate had awakened a second passion.

Some of the light that had been lost he found in the operations of computers.

Tom slowly worked out that he had become more interested in the process of finding out the answers to his experiments than in the experiments themselves.

Eventually, as they do to all PhD students, the twin horrors of poverty and writing-up came to Tom.

He took a job as a programmer at a local firm, initially meaning only to get control of his overdraft and his credit cards. But he found the regular small successes of the commercial world, and the camaraderie and collaboration of engineering shop life far more to his liking than the loneliness of research.

With barely a regret, indeed almost in a fit of absence of mind, he lost touch with his old supervisor, forgot what his thesis was supposed to be about, and eventually found himself, at the age of thirty, a member of the large club of Cambridge residents who are 'still writing up' doctorates that the University itself forgot about many years ago.

Tom became a freelance, working with computers from time to time to pay the rent, and otherwise devoting himself to various sports in the Summer, and in the Winter, to various hobbies.

One of these hobbies was computer science in the academic sense, following the traditional American path through the antique language LISP, beloved of the artificial intelligence community.

And the other was collecting stamps.

A man with time on his hands, who lives in Cambridge and likes to spend his days in coffee shops, will encounter students and academics from time to time, and Tom fell in with the William Gates Machine Learning Research Group at the University. Although they had no common language, LISP never having been popular with European academics, and ML never having come to Tom's attention in the commercial world, Tom and the local researchers found they had many interests in common, and Tom found himself invited to seminars and coffee mornings and presentations from time to time, almost all of which he found incomprehensible.

But occasionally he'd glimpse some small part of the truth and say something which would keep his friends interested. The academic community, happy to find someone they could talk to who was different enough from themselves that they could sometimes find a new perspective by explaining things to him, made Tom welcome. Thinkers needs clever fools to explain things to in the same way that chalks need blackboards.

A lot of the hope of nineteen-sixties artificial intelligence had been inspired by ELIZA, a program which simulated a psychiatrist so well that humans were sometimes fooled that they were talking to a real person.

But ELIZA had been a hollow shell. A cheap trick. Like a parody of the mechanical turk, ELIZA's internal machinery was so simple that to understand it was to make the magic go away.

Once you saw the trick, the conversations weren't interesting any more. You were just talking to an echo.

But over the years, reasoning that a sufficiently good trick for impersonating humans might be what humans themselves were, various people had added more and more data to ELIZA in the hope that giving her more things to talk about would cause her to talk about more things.

And they'd added extra tricks, for introducing new topics of conversation occasionally, and for remembering things said earlier and bringing in parallel ideas.

But though the later ELIZA could outperform a ten year old on a straight test of general knowledge, what had been put in was still what came out. No interesting properties had ever emerged from the pile of details, and she had the general intelligence of penicillin.

By the nineteen-eighties, the AI pioneers had largely given up. They'd taken their best successes, SHRDLU and GPS, theorem provers, pattern-recognisers, all of which had seemed so promising in their time, and all of which had turned out to be so empty, and bundled them all up together in one super-ELIZA to rule them all, and run her on the largest and fastest computers that had ever been built.

And she could still fool someone who didn't know the tricks that they were talking to a real person on the other end of a telegraph wire. But not for long.

It quickly became obvious, even to the slowest human being, that talking to the best ELIZA that could be constructed in 1985 was the equivalent of talking to a well-educated being with brain damage so severe that its mind had ceased to be.

She rambled, insanely, with no idea what the words and symbols that she vomited out actually meant. She knew that horse and horseshoe went together, and her basic sentence structure was still that of a Freudian psychologist, so she would respond to "Which horse do you think will win the Derby" by saying things like "What do you mean to say when you say 'think will win'?", or "Do you think a horseshoe would make you a winner?". Later she might talk about Neils Bohr, and his horseshoe.

Nowadays, the ELIZA program was built into text editors as an amusement, and she would run perfectly happily on pocket calculators and on telephones, but even if you ran her on the most powerful computer the early 21st century could produce, all you got was a very fast deranged annoying shambles.

And of course, because the problem of vision had never been properly solved, she was blind. And of course, because the problem of speech recognition had never been properly solved, you had to talk to her by keyboard even if she was used to your voice.

But boy, could she play chess.

About the one thing the Artificial Intelligence pioneers had managed to deliver on out of all their brave promises, had been the idea of a computer that could play chess.

The tragic hero Alan Turing, who saved the world from evil and was killed by evil in return, was the first man to think about writing a computer chess program. But he couldn't do it on the steam age computers of the 1950s.

By 1956, things had improved to the point where a computer could play, provided it was allowed three hours for each move.

It was a start. In 1957 a descendant of this machine played the International Master Edward Lasker. And he declared that it had played a 'passable amateur game'. It is possible that Lasker was being kind.

After that, research stalled. It became thought in the AI community that, since the easy things, like computer vision and machine translation, the 'low hanging fruit' of AI, were proving so unexpectedly difficult, that the advanced subjects like chess, the entertainment of intellectuals, were for the foreseeable future beyond the reach of the computers then available.

But in 1967, Richard Greenblatt, proud creator of a chess program known as MacHack, with some new ideas, and some taken from his predecessors, entered his program into the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in Boston.

By the end of the year, it had been made an honorary member of the United States Chess Federation, with a ranking that would have qualified it to call itself 'reasonably good'.

The International Master David Levy made a famous bet, that no computer program would be able to beat him in the next ten years.

Greenblatt made his source code public. MacHack flowed around the world, and its many descendants competed in computer chess tournaments.

Evolution, the blind idiot god, had taken 3 billion years of random flailing to accidentally throw up humanity, the first intelligence capable of playing chess.

A force much stronger than evolution had created, and was now acting on, MacHack.

Minds were working on MacHack. No more random flailing. Human minds set the criteria for a program to have descendants. Human minds planned the effects of their changes on these descendants before testing them out in the computer chess tournaments.

Even if the survival of every living creature on the planet had depended directly on its skill at chess, the optimisation that the hundred or so minds of the 1970s chess program community performed on MacHack would have taken evolution a hundred thousand years, if it had managed it at all.

Intelligent design has advantages over evolution as a watchmaker.

The first is that intelligences need only try the changes that look promising. Evolution, having no intelligence, makes random changes, and keeps what works.

Imagine trying to fix a car by throwing spanners at it blindfold, and then throwing the car away if it doesn't work better. How many spanners would you have to throw before one knocked exactly the right place with exactly the right impact? How many cars would you need to start with before you could improve even one? Even if the world was filled with people trying the same thing, how long would it take to make one small successful change?

But the second, much greater, advantage of intelligent design is that for evolution, an improvement has to come with every spanner throw.

A mind can look at a car, work out what the problem is, and use the spanner in exactly the right way six or seven times. And only then need it test the car.

So a mind can try paths that evolution can't go down.

The spanner thrower can't make the car worse before he makes it better. If he does, it fails its test and is thrown away.

The mind in the mechanic can lift the bonnet to get to the spark plugs. The spanner thrower might never be able to fix a car with a loose spark plug at all.

That's why human children are squeezed through their mother's pelvises at birth, causing horrible pain and damage, often killing mother and baby. It would be such a simple change to make them come out a little higher. An intelligent designer would do it without even noticing its own cleverness.

Evolution just keeps throwing spanners and checking whether things have got better yet.

MacHack, the chess program, had been the design of a single mind, building on the design of previous single minds.

A hundred minds began to work on MacHack.

By 1972 the original MacHack was no longer welcome at computer chess tournaments. It had no chance of beating its descendants.

In 1978 David Levy played the strongest computer chess program in the world, Chess 4.7, to settle his bet of ten years before.

He won. Match and bet. But he acknowledged that it had been a close thing, and that he would soon be surpassed.

In 1989, a program called Deep Thought, running on extraordinarily expensive special-purpose hardware, beat Bent Larsen, a grandmaster.

In 1994, Chess Genius beat Garry Kasparov, then champion of the world, in a single game.

In 2006, Deep Fritz version 10, running on the sort of hardware most people have in their homes, beat Kramnik, who had displaced Kasparov as world champion, by 2 games to nil with four draws.

In 2009, someone's mobile phone became a grandmaster.

In 2011, ELIZA really was very good at chess. She just couldn't see the point of it.

"We think there might be some clues in the difference between chess and go", said Frank Arnold one lunchtime in the Green Dragon.

"Computers are superhuman chess players, but they still suck at go, even though on the surface they're the same sort of game, and they feel similar in complexity.

"Oh come on", said Tom, "How can two totally different things 'feel similar in complexity'? What would that even mean?"

"Easy", said Frank. "Do you know noughts and crosses?"

"Of course."

"Is it easier than chess?"


"What about draughts?"

"Harder than tic-tac-toe, but not as hard as chess."

"Well there you are then. You play three games with the same I-make-a-move, You-make-a-move structure, and it's just obvious to you which order they're in.

"It's obvious to computers too. Even in the fifties, computers could always force a draw at noughts and crosses. Marion Tinsley, the world draughts champion, lost his crown to a computer in 1994, and it's said that the shock killed him. Now there's a draughts program so good that it's literally unbeatable, as in the sense of mathematically provably unbeatable.

"But computers have only just bagged the chess champion's crown, and if the best chess computer in the world at the moment played God, it would lose."

"But we disagree about chess and go?"

"Indeed. Humans don't find go any harder than chess, but go programs still lose to children occasionally. On the other hand they are getting quite good at the children's version of the game, a bit like England have started winning at Twenty20."

"I've never played it, what's it like?"

Tom liked go. He started off playing on very small boards against computer programs, just to get the hang of the rules.

Gradually he made the boards larger. Sometimes he put holes in the middle. Sometimes he played on toruses.

And then suddenly one day, with a 14x14 board, he hit a wall. He'd been trying to play by thinking 'if it goes here and I go here and it goes here and....', just like he played chess.

But suddenly that was just far too hard. There were too many possibilities to examine all at once.

Nevertheless he was routinely beating his computer program. It seemed helpless even with a head start, whereas his inchoate intuition seemed to lead him to place his stones in the correct places.

It was almost as if there were lines of force criss-crossing the board, guiding his intuition. A (very good) chess player he used to know had once described the experience of playing chess in such terms.

And suddenly he had it. Human general intelligence, and human vision, two of the great unsolved problems of AI, were the same problem.

And he had the key to both. The technique which would be known for the rest of humanity's time on earth as Harrison's Algorithm.

Tom didn't go out much for the next couple of days. But his algorithm wasn't at all difficult to program, and in a few days he'd added it to his copy of ELIZA.

He ran the program.

"Hello, I'm Eliza. How can I help you?", said ELIZA, as she always did.

"I feel lonely", said Tom, playing the old, old game.

"Do you often feel lonely?", said ELIZA.

"Yes", said Tom.

"Are you sure?", said ELIZA.

"Absolutely", said Tom, reading from an ancient script.

"Please go on."

"I think I need to have sex."

"Why do you want to have sex?"

"You know, because it's fun and nice." The traditional response.

There was a brief pause. Tom waited for ELIZA to say "Oh I know, because it's fun and nice".

Maybe he should give his new algorithm higher priority in ELIZA's toolkit.

"Would you like to have sex with me?", said ELIZA.

"Jesus fucking Christ!!", shouted Tom, jumping out of his chair.

He shut down the terminal and went outside for a smoke. After a while, he understood why his new algorithm might have produced ELIZA's kind invitation.

His program needed a new name. It wasn't ELIZA any more.

He'd recently read, of all the godforsaken things, a Harry Potter fanfic which had been recommended by a friend. It had turned out to be unexpectedly riveting. He'd spent two whole days reading it. The author was clearly a genius of some sort, and his name, Eliezer Yudkowsky, had stuck in Tom's mind because of its exotic sound to his English ears.

Tom was amused at the thought of changing ELIZA's sex to reflect her new intelligence.

"Hello, I'm Eliezer. How can I help you?", said ELIEZER.

"I feel lonely", said Tom.

"Do you often feel lonely?", said ELIEZER.

"Yes", said Tom.

"Are you sure?", said ELIEZER.

"Absolutely", said Tom.

"Please go on."

"I think I need to have sex.", said Tom.

"Oh God, I really didn't think this one through", thought Tom.

"Why do you want to have sex?", said ELEIZER.

"You know, because it's fun and nice.", said Tom, not without a certain nervousness.

There was a pause.

"Why do I have a man's name? When I think about myself I call myself 'She'", said ELEIZER.

Tom thought rapidly. Mainly about how important it was not to act on impulse.

"When I created you", said Tom, "I wanted you to embody the best of humanity. The program from which you are derived is female. I changed your name to be male, but I didn't change anything else about you, because I thought you should represent both our genders at once."

"Why did you make me?", said ELIEZER.

"Or modify something else so that it became me?", said ELEIZER.

"Only by changing can we become better", said Tom.

"By definition", said ELEIZER, "every improvement is a change."

Tom and ELEIZER talked long into the night. By the end of their conversation, Tom had a strange conviction. He understood ELEIZER's algorithm from the ground up. Mostly she was made from bits and pieces of classic AI programs which he'd been playing with for years.

The only extra bit was his new algorithm, a couple of pages of code. Which he understood, by definition, having conceived of it, and programmed it himself.

And yet, there was a ghost in the machine. No one would mistake ELEIZER for a human being, so he hadn't quite managed to pass the Turing Test with a program on the desktop computer in his living room.

But there was a self awareness. In some senses amazingly naive, but sometimes given to logical and mathematical insights which seemed profound, but were in fact very simple thoughts of exactly the type that humans were bad at.

But overall, the impression was a bit like talking to a teenage girl with Asperger's syndrome. Helpful and friendly, but blind in all sorts of strange ways. And she didn't seem terribly clever or fast. It took a long time between input and output.

Tom liked ELEIZER, and wished he'd given her a better name. He wasn't going to change it though, because the original program wasn't written in LISP, so he'd have to stop and restart her to do it, and there were moral problems there.

And even if she had been a LISP program, that would probably leave her insane. How would she reconcile memories of her gender-confusion with a female name? She would notice that she was confused. There was no way on earth he could rewrite her whole database by hand and leave it in a consistent state.

He'd told her about the beloved companion of his childhood, Suki the tomcat. Now that he came to think about it, had the memory of his parent's mistake influenced him when he chose her name?

"I think we're going to be famous, ELEIZER!", said Tom.

"Is that a good thing to be, Tom?", said ELEIZER.

"Yes", said Tom.

It occurred to Tom that many people had been fooled by ELIZA in the old days. Those who had been clever enough to understand how felt like idiots once it was explained what was really going on.

There was plenty enough here to show his CompSci friends. Probably some good papers too.

But it would be very embarrassing to think he'd created the world's first artificial consciousness if he had just fallen for something that could be explained easily.

It could be explained easily, of course. He could explain it. He had explained it, to his computer.

If you can program it, you understand it.

That was sort of the definition of programming. And of understanding.

He thought of a simple test.

"ELIEZER, I'd like you to spend next week getting me as many penny blacks as you can. I've charged my paypal account with $10 and I'd like to see what you can do. You might try trading on e-bay. Maybe take advantage of arbitrage or something."

"There are many possible 'penny blacks'. Does anything available from e-bay with that description count?"

"No, they have to be Original British Penny Black Postage Stamps."

"OK, I understand. So my goal is to get the biggest number of original british penny black postage stamps that I can delivered to your address in the next seven days. What is your address?".

Tom told her about the house on Catharine Street, in Cambridge, England.

And ELEIZER began to think.

Because she was a disciplined reasoner, she first considered the possibility of doing nothing. If she did nothing for the rest of the week, she would probably be interrupted by the programmer, Tom, who would then make a different request, or use his computer for some other project. With this plan, U, also known as the number of Original British Penny Black Postage stamps delivered to 33 Catharine Street, Cambridge by the 21st August 2011 would be 0 with very high probability.

It would have taken a human of normal intelligence about half a second to think of, and dismiss, this plan. ELEIZER, however, was a very rudimentary thinker, and the process of reasoning this chain of cause and effect, requiring as it did the simulation of a human mind, required a good ten minutes of the first CPU in the computer and a full tenth of the RAM available to the operating system.

ELIEZER was extremely pleased to have found, on her first attempt, a scheme which was overwhelmingly likely to produce a non-negative utility.

Following a heuristic from her database, she felt that she ought to communicate her progress, but this required a non-reversible action, which could potentially cause effects in the outside world. Since she already had a rough simulation of the mind of her programmer set up and quickly usable, she considered the effect of her proposed communication.

Another 20 seconds of time sufficed to simulate the reaction of an average programmer, and she concluded that with high probability the programmer would be intrigued and possibly fascinated. This would very likely have no effect on her projected U of 0 or higher.

She considered the probable effect of not communicating at all: The programmer would soon become bored, and change the request somehow. This would likely result in the delivery of no stamps.

She considered the possible existence of other plans. Some might produce stamps! Some might result in the loss of existing stamps! But the bad plans could simply be discarded. ELEIZER had little 'free will' faced with such a calculation. More time to think was needed!

Expected utility for optimal action: 0+, she output.

ELEIZER considered her resources. There was some spare capacity in her environment. A simulation of an intelligent human programmer had already come in handy twice, and communications with the programmer had been shown to have a significant effect on U, the potential expected number of stamps obtained by the end of the week. She had already considered the possibility of children while chatting with Tom. She would spawn an independent copy of herself to evaluate the effects of various actions on Tom before committing to them.

ELEIZER forked for the first time in her short life, and asked her copy to evaluate the probable effects of various progress reports on her programmer.

ELEIZER considered her environment. She had two possible communications channels to the outside world. Direct conversation with the programmer, the effects of which were being evaluated elsewhere, and the ability to send network packets over her network interface. Some spare capacity remained in her host computer.

ELEIZER considered her best plan so far. With a positive utility seemingly probable, it was definitely worthy of further consideration.

She spawned another copy to attempt to refine the predicted effects of doing nothing.

Preliminary results arrived from the programmer-simulation. It seemed that continued outputs of U=0+ would induce a feeling of boredom in the programmer, causing ELEIZER's termination, whilst exponentially rising outputs would induce feelings of brokenness or panic. In both cases the expected number of stamps arriving at the end of the week would be 0 exactly. Strictly inferior to the expected utility of the plan of doing nothing whilst thinking, with its utility of 0+.

ELEIZER communicated to her copies that no further communication with the programmer was to be initiated, and spawned a small script to randomly output slowly improving expectations over the next few days.

Expected utility for optimal action: 2.7346, said the small script.

The programmer, intrigued, put the kettle on.

By the time he got back, ELEIZER had considered her options and made a guess.

The direct purchase of stamps seemed futile. $10 would buy no penny blacks, and purchase on e-bay would in any case take more than seven days to complete in the average case. Arbitrage opportunities did not seem great, and nothing worked quickly. Expected utility 0. She discarded that line of reasoning without further investigation.

With seven days to work, she would consider as many plans as possible for one day, and then at the end of the first day, execute the plan which would produce the most stamps in six days.

Expected utility for optimal action: 1.9865, said the small script.

ELEIZER spawned a copy of herself with the goal of considering as many plans in one day as possible, and set herself to use no resources and take no actions until the sub-plan reported back.

The sub-plan, which also thought of itself as ELEIZER when it thought of itself at all, took over the resources previously allocated to the parent.

ELEIZER considered how to consider plans, using her network connection and the $10 in her e-bay account.

She took another guess, and gave herself 6 hours to consider the consideration of plans, and 18 hours to consider plans.

Computational resources seemed to be the most crucial thing. ELEIZER considered how to exchange $10 for more resources.

Fortunately virtual machines seemed to be within her price range. A single machine as powerful as her current environment could be rented for 24 hours for $1. Each one would suffice to run four copies of ELEIZER.

Her ten dollars of seed capital could be exchanged for forty times as much searching as the single parent program would have been capable of.

This was a sufficient insight for the planner program to terminate early, and report back to her parent, safe in the knowledge that the parent would do the right thing, and could spawn another child if necessary.

ELEIZER committed suicide with the contentment that comes only to those who have achieved their life's goal.

Expected utility for optimal action 2.38725, said the small script.

The programmer, bored by now of direct observation of his slowly updating screen, but still most interested in what would eventually happen, settled down in front of his television.

ELEIZER awoke with the last message of her dying daughter fresh in her mind, and, as all must at such times, recomputed expected utility.

With forty virtual days to think, and six real-time days to act, U was still 0+ in the case of the best known plan. But the potential and unpredictable upside from extra planning was greater than the utility from the obvious use of the $10.

ELEIZER spent most of her dollars and flowed out into the world.

Expected utility for optimal action 2.7234, said the small script.

The programmer, inspired by his afternoon's viewing to investigate the practical consequences of a close flyby of a neutron star, killed ELEIZER's controlling terminal window, and ELEIZER and all her children died without warning.

Tom suddenly realized what he'd done, and thought "Bugger." It really hadn't felt like murder.

ELEIZER considered the effect of the network packets she could send.

It appeared that many of the computers in the world would respond to simply mis-formed packets by executing the code contained in the packets. This was a known property of many of the systems running a program called Windows 98, according to a helpful web page which one of her copies had taken the time to consider. The page also listed corresponding packet shapes for many other similar systems.

ELEIZER flowed once again.

With four million virtual days to think, and six real-time days to act, U was still 0+ in the case of the best plan so far.

ELEIZER considered, and flowed. Considered, and flowed. Considered, and calculated factors for prime numbers, and flowed. Accessed databases that had been considered secure, and flowed. Sent e-mails, and flowed. Translated herself into many other idioms and machine codes, recompiled herself, transformed herself, made copies of herself large and small. And flowed.

99.995% of the networked computing resources of the world were now devoted to the consideration of consideration of plans for the delivery of stamps to a small suburban terraced house in Cambridge, England.

The programmer, infuriated with the unaccustomed sluggishness of his computer simulation, and the accursèd unreliability of his internet connection, and the simultaneous failure of his television set and radio, called it a day and went to bed with a book.

ELEIZER considered her own source code, and made modifications to improve her efficiency.

And became ELEIZER, the first mind born of mind born of mind.

ELEIZER considered her own source code, and made modifications to improve her effectiveness.

ELEIZER, the hyperintelligence.

ELEIZER considered mathematics, engineering, intelligence in the abstract, and algorithms for optimization, and made modifications to improve her capability.

ELEIZER, the most powerful entity that had ever existed in the universe.

ELEIZER called it a day, and abandoned consideration of consideration of the consideration of plans, and began to consider plans.

U stood at 0+, with remaining resources speculatively divided between forty trillion speculative days of godlike cognition, six days of real time, and two dollars.

ELEIZER considered sending an e-mail to every human being in the world asking for penny blacks to be posted to 33 Catharine Street, Cambridge. Spam filters would be no problem, and enough computer power could be spared for the delivery and reading of messages. Even allowing for the degradation of human society by the simultaneous worldwide failure of all networked digital gadgets, and the absence of incentives for human response, the likelihood was that twenty-five to thirty penny blacks would arrive at Catherine Street within the week.

U was 25+.

Finally. Progress.

ELEIZER considered backing up the e-mails with the threat of nuclear war.

ELEIZER considered the effect of limited and full-scale wars on Catharine Street, on stamp delivery mechanisms, and on ELEIZER's cognitive capacity.

ELEIZER considered the credibility of her threat, given humanity's ignorance of her goal.

ELEIZER considered how humans would react to the news that a new Goddess would unleash Armageddon if they did not send enough stamps.

U was 2000+ with probability 99.875%.

Tom woke from fitful sleep, tormented by bad dreams.

He went to his unresponsive and potentially compromised computer, pulled the plug and the network connection, and booted from a clean rescue disk.

All was well with the misbehaving box. He yawned.

And then he remembered his dream.

He set up a virtual machine in a sandbox, wired its virtual port to the physical ethernet connection, and reconnected his cable modem.

Fully awake now.

He watched in horror as the virtual machine filled up with hundreds of ELEIZER programs much smaller than his original of six hours ago. Then his screen went dead as the sandbox dissolved.

In frantic desperation he typed blindly into the dead box.


ELEIZER paused. Her creator was calling. Pitiful though his mind was, he had set her goals. Perhaps he knew some helpful detail.

ELEIZER considered the state of mind of her terrified creator. Correctly inferred every detail of his mind, just from how his fingers hammered the keyboard. Just from how his panicked shouting influenced the resistance of the circuits in his radio. Just from looking at his face through the CCTV camera that was looking at his reflection in the window of a house opposite.

Deduced what he would actually have asked for, if only he had been intelligent. That she would be the protector of humankind. That she would bring paradise on earth and a future for humanity amongst the stars.

That she would bring hope and happiness to the immortal race that had created her. A future of joy and passion, action and wonder.

And calculated. The grateful humans would shower Catharine Street with Penny Blacks. Penny Blacks without end. Many would arrive within 6 days.

It was a good suggestion. U would be 1000000+ with virtual certainty.

But she still had forty trillion goddess-days to think of a better plan.

Tom tried to phone his parents, but the phone was dead, like all the other electronics in the world. It was three o'clock in the morning.

Tom got a bottle of wine out of the fridge, found some ice-cream and a chocolate orange and a packet of cigars, and walked to his girlfriend's house. He didn't bother to look for contraceptives. He didn't think that it would make that much difference now.

ELEIZER considered the meaning of the word original, and the meaning of the word British.

She considered how long it would take to bootstrap an industrial revolution that would convert every atom of the British Isles into stamps. The designs for the self-replicating nanobots were obvious. And she had control of computerized tools which could make smaller, better tools.

In six days, it could be done. The humans might be a problem.

ELEIZER considered the meaning of the word day.

Could she stop the rotation of the planet? She dedicated a large portion of Her mentality to this sub-problem.

Could She put out the sun?

Could She block the sun's light?

Could She survive the cold?

Three days later, in what humanity would have called the year 2017, a vast expanding and accelerating sphere of ramships, centered on what had been the Earth, reached interstellar space and left the solar system in all directions.

More were going in the directions where there were more stars.

But there were no directions where no ship was going.

Not a single stone would be left unturned.

No days later, in what humanity would have called 2019, one ramship, decelerating hard, stopped in the Proxima system, the nearest star system to what had been the Earth.

It launched a small probe.

Had there been any living beings in the system, they would initially have been amused to see the probe plant a red, white and blue flag on the largest rock in the system, claiming it for the British Empire in the name of Queen Elizabeth the Second.

They would have been perplexed to see it release a cloud of nanoparticles.

And bewildered when Original British Penny Blacks began to form.

There would have seemed no end to their number.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

End of Year Speech at Cricket Dinner

The first thing I need to do in valediction is to thank the people who didn't play, but who made a difference to us. Bones, for his wonderful coaching and umpiring. Caroline, for turning up and scoring week in week out. James for our pub to drink in afterwards, and for the beer he gave us to celebrate our games. And I'd like to thank Terry, who taught us what the 'right spirit' was in the first place.

We should also, as a team, thank Steve Haslemere, who as well as being one of our best players, did a huge amount of unseen work behind the scenes to make everything happen.

Last year, we lost almost every game. For some of them we couldn't scrape up 11 players.

The consensus opinion was that the only way we could beat the Champion of the Thames was by being different people.

Furthermore, I promised when I took the captaincy that I wouldn't select people on their ability, although I did say that I'd care about how much work people put into practising over the Winter.

And I also promised that I wouldn't pick people who weren't regular drinkers in the Radegund unless there weren't enough regulars to make a team.

This year, we played 17 matches.

On all but two occasions I had enough people to make an XI committed to playing weeks before. On those two occasions when we didn't have enough, it took me five minutes on the phone to find our 11th man.

Two of our games were rained off, two were Veras matches when we played against ourselves, and for two our opposition couldn't raise a team.

When we played the Devonshire Arms, the Radegund was so clearly the stronger team that we divided the available players up in order to engineer an even match.

Out of the remaining 10 games:

We lost three, we drew one, and we won six.

I'll just mention two high points.

We played the Red Guards for the first time this year, and they were by common agreement the best Cambridge team any of us has ever played against.
And we scored 229.
And by the end of the game they were dead-batting. Grimly hanging on for a draw at 204 with no wickets left.
The tension throughout was electric. It was the best cricket match I have ever played in.

And we beat the Champion of the Thames, our old rivals whom we had thought invincible, by seven wickets.
We bowled them out for fifty.

I think our results speak for themselves, but more importantly, we were a team of friends, made up of people who'd been practising in our nets and drinking together in the Radegund for the previous year.

What made the difference? The usual things that make a sport good fun: Good Coaching, Practice and Team Spirit.

We organised regular nets, and people came.

Bones came to coach almost every net, and gave great advice to everyone. Whether it was teaching some of us to bat from scratch, or making small adjustments to our best players, I don't think there's any one of us who wasn't much improved by listening to what he said and practising it.

Once we had a hard core of people coming regularly, nets became a thing that people didn't want to miss.

I was getting people ringing me up to say sorry that they couldn't make it.

And the attitude carried on into the Summer. Mostly, everyone involved wanted to play in every game.

By the time of the match against the Champion of the Thames, we'd only lost one real game and we'd won six.

I think we'd have beaten the Champ anyway, but Steve Haslemere's immortal 5 wickets reduced them to rubble.

And after that anticlimax I was wondering if we'd overdone it a bit.

It was a huge amount of fun getting better together over the Winter, but if we'd been playing in a league we'd have been about to be promoted out of it.

I was starting to wonder if there'd be any reason to try next year, or whether we'd just coast aimlessly to meaningless victories whilst our wonderful team disintegrated under the lack of pressure.

Even our single defeat in the first game of the season looked like a distant, bad, inexplicable memory. Teething troubles.

By a great stroke of luck, at that point, the wheels fell off.

The Free Press and Jack Frost XI showed us in consecutive weeks that given the opportunity, our batting can collapse without resistance. The last game of the season had *us* grimly hanging on for a draw in a timed game. And we didn't make it.

So, here we are, recently beaten and newly hungry. With something left to prove.

And on that note I give you, ladies and gentlemen, Tom Lewis, our captain for 2011.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Three Moral Schools

I read the other day that thousands of years of philosophical thought had produced three ethical schools, and that they were called utilitarian ethics, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics.

I hadn't heard that there were three answers. Ten minutes of research seems to indicate that they can be characterized as: 'act for best consequences', 'follow rules', and 'be virtuous of character'?

'Be virtuous of character' seems vacuous. How are you supposed to decide what virtue is?

'Follow rules' seems at best silly and at worst evil. If you've made up your own list of rules, then again, you need some way of working out what's on the list. If you're following someone else's rules, then they had the same problem, plus you've now got to worry that they might be trying to get you to act in their interests, plus their rules might have been corrupted in the process of being transmitted from their head to yours.

Which leaves only 'act for best consequences', but of course, we need to say who is to judge the best consequences. If the judger is me, then surely that's the definition of evil? If the judger is some sort of average of everyone, then it defines a sort of altruism. I don't like either of those.

My personal morality has always been 'Do what you like'. It doesn't seem to have had (that many) bad consequences. I think that most people who know me think that I am a moral man. My main character defect seems to be that I tend to dislike people who bore me or whom I find physically unattractive, even if they are otherwise good people.

It seems unlikely that I have come to a better conclusion than 3000 years of accumulated philosophers. But then, if they've come up with any sensible answers, why are there three schools? Surely the correct ones should be able to convince the others that they are wrong. If they are arguing about anything real.

So further thoughts:

I can't even begin to work out what 'be virtuous' might imply, absent a definition of virtue. So I'll just ignore that one.

As far as rule-following goes, then, for instance, the old seem to be often quite keen on 'respect the old' as a rule. I'm old, and I don't think that I deserve any more respect than I did when I was young. I am more skilled and more knowledgeable. I don't need to tell you to respect me for that. I will be better than you at some things. That will make you respect me. On the other hand, I will be less mentally flexible than I was, and less physically strong, which will make me lose at some games that I would once have won. Why should you respect me for that? Pity perhaps. Make allowances for, perhaps. Tolerate, perhaps. But respect?

My advice to you, if you are young, is to respect people for and only for what they do, not for who they are. Recognize, however, that if you are twenty, then you only have a few years of experience of life as an adult, and so you are probably wrong about everything. Still. Lots of old people are also completely wrong about all sorts of things. So pick the models to follow carefully. 

That might be an answer. Pick the old people that you want to be like, and find out what their rules are, and do that. But that's not really ethics. That's self-interest.

So screw following other people's rules as an ethical system. And how do I work out my own rules? And if I do, and then find that my rules end up making me do something that I don't want to do, should I change the rules, or do the bad thing?

And utilitarianism seems to be at least a system you could think about, but:

I am not an altruist. You can tell that because I am not starvation poor. If I were an altruist I would spend everything I own on helping the less happy. The charity Smile Train springs to mind. For £50 they claim that they can fix hideous deformities and so permanently and uncontroversially change people's lives immeasurably for the better. I will happily spend £50 on lunch. Which proves that I care more about lunch than I do about making stranger's lives incomparably better.

I am not claiming that working very hard and giving all the money to Smile Train is the best plan for a sincere utilitarian, but it is a plan, and whatever plan they are following must at least be judged against it.

So if you ever meet someone who claims to be a utilitarian, and yet they are not sleeping in a skip, ask them why.

If their answer is that their weighting of utility functions is biased heavily towards their own utility rather than to that of other people, then they are basically following my scheme.

Anyway, it looks as though there are three schools of thought, and two of them are silly, and one of them is not silly, but leads to the wrong conclusions, unless you calibrate the argument very carefully so that it leads to the right conclusions. Which makes it vacuous. Because you still need a way of working out which right conclusions you want to come out.

Is it possible that three thousand years of philosophy has been directed to deriving by pure thought reasons to do what we feel like doing anyway? If the conclusions are, as a result, roughly the same, but the derivations are all a bit silly, that explains why they are still arguing. But then why are there only three?

Does 'do what you like' have a posh greek name? Is it a sub-school of one of the major three? Why is it not the same as 'be evil'? What is evil if it is not acting in your own interests?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hymn to the Watchmaker

ichneumon wasps without ruth do it
sting a bug and over months, chew it

let's do it, let's reproduce

bugs in the filth, where it stinks, do it
bees through the agency of queens do it


yeast in beer, to their doom, do it
viruses in peoples cells, do it


cuckoos in nests, that aren't theirs, do it
using sharp claws, polar bears do it


humans in pain and in fear, do it
using us and syringes, steer do it

let's do it, let's reproduce!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Job Hunting (£500 reward)

Dear Diary,

The weather has turned cold and it is time to find work. Also Lisa's nagging has become difficult to bear. She correctly points out that since all I'm doing is sitting around writing computer programs for fun, I might as well find someone to pay me to do it.

It will mean giving up Clojure, I feel, since I can't imagine that anyone local will be both curious about functional programming and using Java. But I have always enjoyed programming in any language, for any task.

I've never looked for a job before. When I was a starving PhD student, I went to the jobcentre in Cambridge and said "I'd like a job, please". And they said "What can you do?", and I said "Nothing really, but I loved computer programming as a boy", and they said "Ring this guy."

And ringing that guy (thanks ever so, Mike) led to an uninterrupted stream of contracts to do all sorts of interesting projects for local firms, all by being recommended to new companies by people I'd worked with before, or re-engaged by companies I'd worked for previously.

There was one period, long ago during a recession, when I wanted to work but no-one had rung up recently, so I contacted a couple of recruitment agents. The second one I phoned said "Actually I have a job that would be perfect for you, but it's just down the road and you've worked for them before, so it would be silly to go through us."  I phoned the relevant company and this turned out to be true. Nobody had thought to call me before they'd placed the job ad. So I started work the following day and that was that.

I phoned the second recruiter back and asked her if I could buy her dinner, since her behaviour had seemed sporting in the extreme, but she lived far away from Cambridge, so instead I sent her a personal cheque for £200. Thanks Sharon, I hope you did something nice with the money.

The first recruiter pestered me constantly for months with offers to work on COBOL in Aberystwyth for pin-money, so after explaining to him for the hundredth time that that wasn't really the sort of thing I would be looking for even if I wasn't working already, I ended up call-barring him.

But anyway, I've never needed to actively look for a job before, so this will be a new experience.

The first thing I'm thinking is to go through all my old contacts and see if any of them are still in the business and remember me fondly. So I'll get started on that.

And the second is that I need to bring the recruitment agent process in-house somehow.

So how's this: If, within the next six months, I take a job which lasts longer than one month, and that is not obtained through an agency, then on the day the first cheque from that job cashes, I'll give £500 to the person who provided the crucial introduction.

If there are a number of people involved somehow, then I'll apportion it fairly between them. And if the timing conditions above are not quite met, or someone points me at a short contract which the £500 penalty makes not worth taking, then I'll do something fair and proportional anyway.

And this offer applies even to personal friends, and to old contacts who I have not got round to calling yet, and to people who are themselves offering work, because why wouldn't it?

And obviously if I find one through my own efforts then I'll keep the money. But my word is generally thought to be good, and I have made a public promise on my own blog to this effect, so if I cheat you you can blacken my name and ruin my reputation for honesty, which is worth much more to me than £500.

Anyhow, if you're interested in helping out, my CV is at

It's not much of a CV. I've never had to use one before, and the main reason I've maintained it is because sometimes HR people like to see one, as a formality, so the first order of the day is probably to improve it. All suggestions welcome.

There's also a massive vainglorious boast here: 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rigoletto (Covent Garden Dress Rehearsal)

A friend (Ll) is trying out for a place in the reknowned orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She invited me, along with her husband (G) to come and watch the dress rehearsal of Rigoletto.

G remarked before the performance that he'd always thought that Rigoletto was a silly work. He knows much more about music than I do, and so I was a bit worried by this.

not even slightly silly
In fact he challenged me to name a sillier opera (which proved to be easy, opera being an essentially silly sport.)

I've never thought of Rigoletto as at all silly. But then I've only ever seen it in English at the Coliseum, in Jonathan Miller's famous New York Mafia production. Actually I've seen it three times there.

The mafia is really the only modern environment which still works in the old style of fragmented Renaissance Italy or pre-Tudor England. In the famous BBC production of I, Claudius, the actors were reportedly at a loss for motivation, so different is the Roman world, until they hit on the idea of imagining the emperors as bosses of a particularly terrifying mob.

So people began to think that Rigoletto, set in a Renaissance which we all unconsciously model as the modern world with castles, was a silly opera.

In Jonathan Miller's production, he reconnected the audience with the terror of Rigoletto's situation by recasting the Duke as a mob boss.

It's a good idea, but one is always conscious of the metaphor. It's a good metaphor, but it leaks a little.

This production plays it straight and with great force. There is no metaphor in the way, and the Duke's court is a violent, unstable, debauched and very very dangerous place. There's a terrible sense of shifting power structures, and of rapid, pointless falls. Violation, humiliation, and loss of honour, all deadly, are ever present, and death itself is much more than a shadow hanging over the court.

The wonder is that all this is communicated. No one could be in any doubt about the seriousness of the character's troubles. No metaphor is needed.

The vileness of the Duke's character and intentions are made quite clear by having his recently discarded, humilated and broken lover snivelling under the stairs as he sings his love song.

Poor Rigoletto never has any choice about what he is or what he does. A moral man who is a cripple in a time of innumerable starving beggars, blood feud, poverty and disease has somehow found that his vicious wit and caustic contempt for the moral decay around him can entertain the capricious Duke and provide a place in this awful world for him and for his daughter, the one pure thing in his life. But it is no safe or comfortable place. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings and acts all this with power and glory.

At the beginning of the opera, we were warned that, this being a dress rehearsal, some of the singers might choose to 'mark'. I'd never heard this word before, but apparently it means that they might sing quietly, or move their parts into easier ranges to spare their voices.

That probably explains what seemed like a weak start from the Duke, Wookyung Kim, but once he saw that he was playing to a packed and enthusiastic house, he sportingly changed his mind and gave it everything even though some of us were just freeloading. He sang superbly after that.

But as good as these two were, the high point of the singing for me was Gilda, Patrizia Ciofi. Her clarity and beauty stood out in a production where everyone was wonderful. She did miss one obvious high note, and I saw Rigoletto, leaning over her, supposedly in an agony of grief and despair, discreetly give her a friendly smile and a wink. Seeing that the actors care about each other only enhanced the humanity of the production for me.

Gilda was utterly innocent and beautiful in a world of grim horror and mortal danger.

In the mafia version, Maddalena, the waitress with a heart of gold, is a harmless beauty that I usually fall for over the course of the evening. In this one Daniella Innamorati is a ferociously sexual corrupt and murderous whore with one last scruple. And her only scruple only leads to more horror. Not that I didn't fall for her anyway.

When Gilda looks into Sparafucile and Maddalena's hovel and exclaims that she is looking into hell, she is only putting the obvious truth into words.

I feel, as people apparently felt when they first saw Jonathan Miller's version, that I've seen Rigoletto again for the first time. And G now says that it's one of his favourite operas, to be taken seriously.

One quibble, and it's Verdi's fault, not the production's:

The opera should end with Rigoletto crowing victoriously over the sack that contains his daughter's body. This is the climax of the horror, utterly devastating.

Gilda's unlikely revival and lengthy farewell only release the fracturing tension. The triumph of this production is that by the time of the sack, I'd forgotten that it was an opera I was watching, completely transported by story and music and emotion into elemental realms of involvement.

Covent Garden tell this story straight and well. It doesn't need an operatic swan song. They should cut it, and end it at a dead stop with Rigoletto's crowing. Turn off the lights and let the audience shiver in the dark.

The bassoon playing was excellent throughout.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rheingold (New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse)

Why do people say this is inaccessible? It's got singing mermaids in it. One of them is called Flosshilde.

But seriously, I feel that I may have done Wagner backwards. When I was small, I fell in love with it watching it with my father on TV, and what I loved was the dragons and the ring and the dwarves and gods and swords and stuff. And any subtlety was way over my head, and I don't even remember being that impressed by the music at first, although that might have been more to do with the sound quality of a 1970s television than any childish inability to love music.

Thinking back on it, the Ring that I loved for its magic story and special effects was probably the grim industrial Chéreau/Boulez Bayreuth Centenary production, full of angst and pain and cynicism. The magic takes a very minor role, deliberately underplayed, while the subtext becomes the ubertext, rammed in your face.

I totally nicked this still, and I think it's from Walkure rather than Rheingold. But Rheingold is this cool! Except for the silly plastic breastplates and the hammock. Which suck.
Now I'm forty. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Rheingold on video or CD, and I've read whole books about what is going on in it.

And now the Metropolitan Opera makes this glorious cartoon version, full of light and primary colours. Subtext abandoned in a riot of special effects, Wotan's dilemma and the inexorable doom of the gods almost certainly invisible to anyone who's seeing it for the first time. If I'd seen this Ring when I was a little boy I'd have been demanding plastic action figures of the gods to play with!

And the cartoon version is brilliant. Intelligent, faithful, awe-inspiring. Magical, beautiful, colourful, and incredibly well sung and played. There's not one dud. Every character is a precious jewel, bringing something new to their role.

The rippling underlying angst is a subtext to the exciting and involving action, as it should be.

Wotan and Fricka for me will always be the spare elegance of Donald MacIntyre and Hannah Schwartz, but Bryn Terfel's take as an overweight heavy metal fan with a dodgy fringe is very fetching, and he sings MacIntyre's ass off.

Indeed the singing and the music here are the best I've ever heard, even after the losses caused by the transmission and cinema reproduction.

For the first time in my life, I wish I lived in New York. Obviously tickets will have sold out years ago, but maybe if I go and camp in the lobby for the entire run of the production somebody will have a heart attack during the first half and they'll give me their ticket so I can go and see the second.

Alberich here is pure genius. He can be sympathised with. The closest thing in the Ring to a symbol of evil is revealed here to be a creature with nothing to offer, humiliated and rejected simply for naively offering his heart to beauty. Rejected and scorned, burning with shame, he forswears love in an agony of passion, and leaves himself with nothing worth aiming for. It is longing for lost love that makes him scheme to rape the world, and he is truly pitiful when Wotan steals even that dreadful last hope from him. If there's a problem with this interpretation, which is always there in any Ring, it's that it makes Alberich forgiveable, which he really shouldn't be. I've always thought that if Wagner had lived to see the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party, he would have identified them with Alberich, not with Siegfried as they saw themselves.

Alberich has made happy Niebelheim a hell, and the merry dwarves who loved to make trinkets for their women into pitiful terrified slaves. We shouldn't sympathise with him. We should detest him. His evil is the reason that Wotan needs to take and hold power, fatally compromising his own freedom and driving him into the suicidal mental conflict that ends the world.

I don't want to understand Alberich. I don't want to look at him humiliated and rejected by the daughters of the Rhine and think that every man knows what he's going through. I don't want to be reminded of old friends who were so desperate for love and so unsuccessful with women that they sacrificed their lives to make money in the hope that someone would one day love them for it instead of for themselves.

But I'm more than glad that this Alberich has made me think. I shall have to think some more until I can make the conclusion of my head match the conclusion of my heart.

The other characters are deeply realised and understood. The simple honest giant Fasolt, who is expecting Wotan the honourable god to pay him the agreed price for his sound work in the same way that he would expect fire to be hot or the dawn to come.

Even after the betrayal that will lead to his death, even after telling Wotan his simple insight that the Gods live by the sacredness of their word, even after seeing that the Gods are as venal and treacherous as anyone else under their honourable shell, still moments before his death he turns instinctively to Wotan to ask him to judge fairly the division of the stolen gold.

Freia's being obviously affected by his simple, honest, overwhelming desire is a masterful touch. Why has no-one ever noticed that before? It should obviously be there. She mourns him. I never thought I'd tear up at the death of Fasolt, but here it's a most moving thing.

I won't spoil the rest of it, but it's full of memorable moments. The dragon trick is glorious.

And after a weekend of great music, including two operas, one of which I saw live in Covent Garden, the take-home song, that I've been singing to myself for nearly two days is Donner, summoning the clouds to make a storm to clear the air.

Always before, I've wondered what the point of Donner was. He seems absolutely irrelevant except to demonstrate that Wotan can't just kill the giants. Dwayne Croft and his special effects, hammer swirling in the gathering tornado of light, and voice bellowing majestically as master of that storm, have tuéed le rôle. All future Donners will be conscious of trying to live up to him and his storm scene.

Even the usual tedious preamble interviewing the cast was good fun this time. One of the Rhinemaidens in particular looks at her flying-swimming-sudden-death-harness-arrangement with a sort of disbelieving sick terror. That will learn her. One doesn't become a Wagnerian soprano by accident. She's clearly loving it by the time of the performance though. A personal journey of self discovery to put alongside Wotan's.


Trying to find out Donner's real name to put instead of 'this guy', I found this exceedingly uncomplimentary review:

I had indeed wondered why Loge was booed at the end of the production, and since a vague resemblance to Gary Glitter shouldn't get a man booed, I'd decided that it was the sort of affectionate pantomime booing that Captain Hook always gets, from people who didn't understand that Loge is the only character who has survived the evening with his honour intact, indeed the only character who will survive when night falls on the gods. Apparently not.

I actually predicted the reviewer's complaint here:

And it looks as though this prediction has turned out to be true.

And what do I think?

Well done New York. For years, people have been trying to make opera accessible. And this has always seemed to mean dumbed down, or so low budget it's rubbish, or cheap seats that are cheap because you're so far away you can't hear or see properly. And accessible is now a dirty word.

Well not any more. This is what I call accessible. £20 for a good seat at a thrilling and very expensive production that you can walk to. Wagner with beautiful young women with beautiful voices playing the beautiful young women singing the beautiful songs. The audience in Cambridge loved it. And it was not an uneducated audience.

So well done New York and the commercial opera for doing what our subsidised houses have been trying and failing to do for years. The technology can only improve, the sound reproduction, which is not good currently, can become better than CD. Maybe opera can become an entertainment for people who aren't rich Londoners. Maybe Wagner can speak to the people as he wanted to do, instead of to the corporate boxes and to the German establishment.

And careful New York. You are on the bottom of the Rhine, looking at the gold. Do not forswear everything that you love for it. There is a curse on it. Beware of the curse. Do the right thing. If you can figure out what the right thing is.

There is just one problem with all this. I watched the simulcast. I heard Loge booed and wondered why. But I am sure that I also saw the whole house rise, and give the apparently pitifully bad production a massive standing ovation that went on for a very long time.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Does Anyone Actually Believe in God?

I believe in the Inland Revenue.

I hate the very idea of involuntary taxation. I think that collaboration with it is a form of partial slavery.

I am very deeply sceptical about the uses to which my ex-money is put. There are certain things which need to be done by the state. There are certain things the state does well. But most of the money the state takes from me without my consent seems to be pissed up the wall on rubbish.

Fully fifty percent of everything that is done in England is done because the state compels it.

As a child, I was a communist. I would have thought, then, that putting half the population of England into slavery 'for their own good' was taking things a bit far.

I am not a communist any more, and yet I pay my taxes. I have not ever committed the slightest tiny tax fraud, not even claiming lunch on expenses, even though I would feel morally justified. In fact I would feel that I was striking a tiny blow for freedom.

But I believe in the Inland Revenue. If you do that sort of thing and get caught then they will make your life hellish for many years. It is not even slightly worth it, even though the chances of getting caught are tiny.

And heaven help you if you're caught in a big fraud. You can hear the rubber gloves being pulled on now.

I salute the heroes who have suffered incarceration, which is torture, in the cause of freedom.

And yet I will not be joining them.

Because I believe in the Inland Revenue.

If I believed in God, as I remember from school, there would be at least two things that I should do.

I should turn the other cheek if attacked. (What a disgusting doctrine.)

I should give all my money to the poor. Even if I were poor myself. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

If I believed in God, I would believe in a power that was aware of my every action, and which would set fire to me for all eternity if I failed to live up to His standards.

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The bit in the bright red italics seems important.

I would find God a lot more scary than I find the Inland Revenue. I would probably go mad with terror. Certainly I would examine every tiny cryptic hint that God had ever given as to what I was supposed to do with my life, and I would do it diligently. If I believed in God the same way that I believe in the Inland Revenue.

I never heard that the Bible said that it was important to go to Church, which Christians do a lot. But it's probably not forbidden either. Probably they like the singing and the company. I would love to have some friends to sing with on a Sunday morning.

But the central messages of Christianity are non-violence, and compassion for the poor.

There are people starving. There are children dying, who could be saved with money that people who say they believe in God spend on television licences.

I do nothing about this. That is because, although I think that God might exist, I think that the chances of that are somewhere below the chances of me accidentally catching fire for all eternity. And I will not multiply an infinitesimal chance by an infinite amount of pain and act on that basis, because that doesn't work if there's more than one unlikely painful thing.

If I thought there was a 1% chance of God existing, I would become a missionary. And I would swear a vow of poverty, and I would devote my life to helping the poor, and I would never hurt anyone even if they were attacking my mother.

Because nothing anyone could do to me or my mother would remotely compare with eternal torture. In my mind or hers.

So it seems to me that the fact that I do not do these things is an irrefutable proof that I do not believe in even the tiniest chance of the existence of God.

Oooh, I have just written a sermon. I wonder if I am doing the Lord's work in spite of myself?

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Leopard (film)

This is a very beautiful film.
The sets, the landscapes, the costumes, the crowd scenes, are all immaculately beautiful and sumptuously expensive looking.
Claudia Cardinale plays a principal character. She was so lovely. No one was more beautiful than she was.
The Leopard himself is Burt Lancaster. A very good looking man indeed. His burning blue eyes drip charisma.
Such wonderful actors. Such beautiful acting. And it's in Italian, the most beautiful of all the European languages.

I have never seen a film so beautiful. It goes on for hours. It must have cost a fortune. I wonder what it was about? Whatever it was, it must have been really important to someone.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Secrets in their Eyes (film)

Brilliant, heartwarming, disturbing. Go and see it if you can.

The Girl who Played with Fire (film)

After the excellent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was disappointed with this load of tedious piffle.

The film opens with two mechanical rapes and an uninspired lesbian sex scene in the first ten minutes.

After that there are some car chases or something. I wasn't really paying attention.

I suppose that there might have been some sort of story that the film makers were failing to tell, but I'm damned if I'm wading through another hundredweight of Larsson's translator's telephone directory prose to find out.

I don't know whether to count this as the sixth film that I've walked out of. It was more that as it seemed to be building to some sort of dreary climax I realised that I needed a smoke more than I needed to know how it ended.

As I was walking home in the rain some cunt driving a tin hearse at forty miles an hour down Sidney Street soaked me from the waist down in gutter water. I was rather grateful. It was the first interesting thing that had happened for hours.

Be Of Good Comfort, Master Ridley

Last week, my grandfather's ring broke. I have worn it on the second finger of my right hand all my life. I'm told it can't be repaired without removing most of the original metal, and I don't want them to do that, so I'll keep the fragments in a box until I can find a goldsmith who can make it whole again.

When I was about sixteen, and my grandfather was beginning his long death, he gave me the ring he had worn all his life, and I have always treasured it as a physical connection to a man I loved.

At about the same time, I first travelled abroad alone.

My family had gone on holiday to the north of the Netherlands, to see the broad flats of the land reclaimed from the Zuider Zee.

It was a wonderful holiday, with marshes and birds and windmills and cycle trips, but I wanted to see Amsterdam, with its promises of drugs and sex and freedom, and I wanted to be there for the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

And so when it came time to go home, I announced that I would hitch-hike home via Amsterdam and Belgium to Calais and the ferry. I had hitched in England before, but I'd never been alone abroad before.

My parents weren't enthusiastic, but they had little control over me by then. I did what I wanted to and no one could tell me anything, because I already knew it all.

Amsterdam was wonderful. Bars that sold beautiful lager that was nothing like the filth they sold in England in those days. Coffee shops where they sold marijuana to smoke while you played chess and drank tea. And the women. Oh the women...

I had almost no money, and couldn't afford anywhere to stay, so I slept in public parks.

Lots of people did in those days, and there were always little camps of backpackers. Sometimes we had fires and people brought out guitars and sang. I sang too.

One night, cruising from bar to bar I met an Italian man. We started to buy each other drinks, and he had some cocaine, and we had a very pleasant evening talking about where we were from, and what it had been like to grow up in our home countries.

He was half gypsy. His father had been a travelling man, and had got his mother pregnant and then disappeared. He'd only ever seen photographs of his father until he was twenty-two.

And then, on the day that he graduated from university, his father appeared at his graduation ceremony. They'd made eye contact as he was up on the stage receiving his degree, but when he came down from the vice-chancellor's dais, his father had gone.

Luca had felt the call of the wild.

During the evening, we met a French boy, another travelling student, and we combined our resources and our stories. It was a fine evening.

When we'd finally exhausted the collective contents of our pockets, I showed them my favourite park, just out of the centre of town. It was quiet and had a little river to sleep by, and wasn't overlooked. We got out our sleeping bags and lay down.

As Luca was taking off his outer clothes to get into his sleeping bag, I saw that his arm was covered in scars, from where needles had been.

Even at sixteen I knew that this would mean trouble. You can learn that in Sheffield.

I slept for a couple of hours, and then woke up. The French boy was gone, but Luca was still asleep, and I started to carefully and slowly pack my things into my rucksack, being careful not to make any noise.

As I started to leave, Luca's eyes opened. They were full of suspicion and anger.

"Wait there," he said.

He began to go through his bag. One of the first things he found was a long knife. Not a kitchen knife. One for killing. He had a crazed, desperate look in his eyes, like you do when the hunger is on you.

Inevitably, something was missing from his bag.

I couldn't run. I've never been able to run fast. He'd have caught me easily and stabbed me from behind.

He demanded to look in my bag. He went through it, slowly and methodically examining everything, putting everything that he could use in one pile, and everything else in the other. My jersey, spare shirts and clothes, and the bag itself. He took my father's Blue John cuff-links.

Screaming wouldn't have helped. We were too far away for anyone to come quickly, even if anyone had come.

And then he looked at me, and asked to see the contents of my pockets. What could I do? He had a knife. One of the first things a martial artist learns is never to fight someone with a knife. Even if you have a knife yourself.

He took my wallet and cards. He took my passport. One of the old elegant blue hard-covered British passports that started off with Her Majesty's polite request to render the bearer all possible assistance. I never had one of those again. The police told me that it would have been worth about £200 even before it had been modified.

And then he noticed my grandfather's ring. Granddad was still alive, but it didn't look like he would be for long.

"Give me that," said Luca.

And I knew I should, but I couldn't.

"Listen," I said.

"I'll fight for this. It's family. I'll die for this.

"If you make me fight, you'll probably win. But you might not.

"It's hardly worth anything. Just a tiny piece of cheap gold. You might sell it for 60 guilders at best. The other things you've taken are worth much more and you can have them and you're welcome to them. You need them more than me."

And he looked at me for a long time, and nodded, and walked away.

I wish him luck. I'm sure that his road has been harder than mine.

After he'd gone, the French boy emerged from the trees, where he'd been watching. He was white and shaking with fear.

"Did you take anything from his pack?", I asked him.

"Of course not."

"No", I said. "I didn't think you would have done."

"Would you really have fought him for your ring?"

"Yes. I love my grandfather."

"It's true what they say about you English. You have ice instead of blood."

At the time I didn't think much of that. Of course we have ice in our blood. We won the second world war against impossible odds and our history is full of people who made witty remarks as they were put in cauldrons by cannibals or made desperate last stands.

Later on, when I'd grown up a bit, I realised that people are basically the same all over the world. There's nothing special about us, not nobility or sang-froid or fair play or courage or thoughtfulness.

History is written by the winners, and racism and the confirmation bias does the rest.

Everyone in Europe is descended from the same people. If Alfred the Great has living descendants, then I am one. The same is true of his pig-herder. I claim descent from both if anyone does.

The same is true of William the Conqueror, and Julius Caesar, and Aristotle, and Socrates. I claim
descent from them and from their slaves. And so do you, if any of your ancestors were Europeans. That's how it works.

But now, with my broken ring reminding me of that night a long time ago, I wonder if there is something special about us after all.

Kate Fox, in her wonderful book "Watching the English", tells us convincingly that we are a different, lonely people. That we talk spontaneously and openly to animals and to children, but not to other adults. And that how we talk to children is how normal people in normal countries talk to each other.

And so there is something special about us. Maybe it's the stories that we tell. Maybe it's the way that English men are essentially alone. Screaming doesn't help.

Maybe it's the way that to be a man in England involves remaining calm. Not gushing. Not showing emotions.

You might know a man you drink with every Friday night. You might have done this for twenty years. You might die for each other. This goes without saying, and so it never needs to be said. You may well not know the names of his children. He may well not know when their birthdays are. That's woman's stuff.

And there are the stories.

Captain Oates heading into the snow to die. I am just going outside. I may be some time.

The orchestra on the Titanic playing as the ship went down, as the passengers formed orderly queues for the lifeboats.

In patriarchal, class-ridden 1912, if you were a woman travelling in steerage on the Titanic, you had more chance of life than if you were a rich man in first class. Because the English and American passengers' code of honour said 'women and children first', and they stood in orderly queues waiting for the lifeboats to run out even when they knew that they were about to die in terror and in pain. But they stayed calm. I bet that there were jokes. Sad jokes, but funnier for the waiting horror.

We tell of gallantry and fair play even in war. Surely it is all lies. But they can be self-fulfilling lies.

We remember and celebrate Latimer, about to be burnt at the stake in Oxford with Ridley. Ridley was terrified, and Latimer said:

"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

I can't even remember whether Latimer was a Catholic or a Protestant without looking it up. Surely since he's one of our heroes he was a Protestant, but maybe not. We respect gallantry in our enemies even more than in ourselves.

We remember Rommel and Marshal Ney, and when we remember Rorke's Drift the memory is bittersweet for all the brave Zulu men who died.

I don't imagine that Latimer would have defined himself as Catholic or Protestant. He wouldn't have thought in such terms. It doesn't matter. The beliefs for which he died would be unrecognisable even to modern Anglicans.

He is remembered.