Thursday, December 12, 2013

Truth Tables

Summary: There's a short program that can run all possible programs, OMG

Alternative Summary: Just about any universe that can exist must contain ours, OMG.

I was thinking about diagonalization arguments. Does this make any sense? Can anyone debug it for me?

Self Evident Truths

The universe is computable.

All computations can be performed by Turing Machines.

The mind is made out of atoms.

The name of the empty string is epsilon.


Binary Strings are enumerable : epsilon, 0, 1, 00, 01, 10, 11, 000, ....

There's a way of converting binary strings to Turing machines and back again. It gets all Turing machines.


Consider tables TT(n), which are numbered by binary strings along the top and side, representing turing machines and inputs respectively.

Construct a series of finite triangular tables which are defined iteratively as follows:


To construct the first table, we need one element, the top left, which corresponds to the turing machine epsilon working on the input string epsilon.

Convert the string epsilon to its corresponding turing machine, which has no states and no transition rules, and which therefore halts immediately without accepting.

The value of TT(1)(epsilon,epsilon) is therefore F0 (Fail after no steps).
eps F0 

That's it for TT(1).


TT(2) will have three cells, the topleftmost three

To construct the second table, consider again the element at the top left. Since it represents a halted state, copy it verbatim from the last table.

Then consider the element corresponding to (epsilon,0) , or  row epsilon, column 0, or (TM(epsilon), "0")

Again TM(epsilon) is either a machine with no states, or an invalid specification, and so it halts immediately on the input 0.

For the third step in constructing the second triangle, consider (TM("0"), epsilon).

TM("0") is another dud. It halts immediately without accepting.

So TT(2) is the table

     eps 0
eps  F0  F0
0    F0

Towards Infinity...

It should be reasonably clear how to continue the construction of these tables

For instance TT(3) looks like

     eps 0  1
eps  F0  F0 F0
0    F0  F0
1    F0 

Eventually we will reach a row whose string represents a TM which does something other than halt immediately without accepting.

As an example of what to do then, consider the string 1001111, which is the 207th string.

In the usual encoding, this string will represent the TM with start state 0, and transition function delta(0,B)=(0,0,L).

The first time we consider the 207th row will be when we calculate TT(207), the 207th triangular table.

The first cell we consider in that row will be ("1001111", epsilon). Since 1001111 represents a valid machine, we construct the Instantaneous ID (epsilon,0,epsilon), which represents a machine in state 0 with a blank tape.

That's the value of TT(207)("1001111",epsilon).

When we construct TT(208), we take that ID from TT(207), and execute one step.

In this case, the machine head moves one step left, writing a zero, and so the instantaneous ID becomes (epsilon,0,0) (State zero, tape reads ...0...., head just to the left of the zero)

And so on. The values of TT(n)("1001111",epsilon) are undefined for n<206, since the tables are not that large, but for n=207 onwards, they are:
(epsilon,0,epsilon), (epsilon,0,0), (epsilon,0,00), (epsilon,0,000), and so on, with the tape head moving ever leftward, leaving a run of zeros behind it.

Other strings may represent TMs that do things that are even more interesting.

But Not Beyond, (Or Even As Far As)

As we construct the successive tables, they become larger and larger.  Some cells will stabilize after a finite number of steps, either accepting or
rejecting their input strings, at which point their contents become
either F??? or A??? where ??? is the number of steps taken.

Some cells will loop. By comparing the instantaneous state of the table with the state of the cells in all previous tables, loops can be detected. We can mark them as loops, continue computing as before, or re-use the values in the previous tables to avoid performing the computations again.

And some cells, like the ones at ("1001111", epsilon)  will keep producing new instantaneous IDs, without looping.

But every TT(n) is a finitely computable object. Indeed the program to compute them all is very short and will run on any computer worthy of the name.

I Find This A Bit Worrying, Because:

As we continue to construct the successive tables, we will perform every conceivable computation.

We will simulate in precise detail every possible world, universe and multiverse. Even though our computer is not quantum, we will simulate all quantum computations.

In particular, if you believe that you are a computation, or that simulation of your brain is equivalent to your existence, then you will be present in the computation, with exactly as much free will, and with your behaviour as precisely determined, as it ever was or will be.

Some of you will live in universes in which artificial intelligences rise and successfully paperclip everything.

Some of you will live in universes where friendly AIs are built, if that is possible.

It will not be possible for these copies to tell which copy they are, and so they will not be able to tell what is about to happen, or what has happened. Any more than you can.

There will be hells and paradises.

In some universes, copies of you will set programs running to calculate the successive triangular tables TT(n), and they will keep adding memory to their computers as needed (only actually one extra storage location per step of computation, at worst).

And so the sequence of finite truth tables will contain itself, as well as everything else. Everything that has ever happened will happen again. You will be reborn and live and possibly die. You will not know whether you are in the 'base universe', or in the computation. If that even means anything. And every computation that occurs as part of this great computation is utterly "Beyond the Reach of God".


1/ It will take me about a day, a packet of cigars and a machine full of coffee to write this program and start it running. That is what I am doing now. When I start it running, will I have done a bad thing? If someone were to stop me before the program started running, would that make any difference to anything important?

2/ Can anything except what is computed by this program be said to exist in any sense? Continua, and sets of all sets, and so on, are very problematic. And if the human mind is itself a computation , contained in a universe which itself is a computation, how can we think of or interact with any non-computable thing?

3/ Does the ultimate Truth Table, which the finite tables TT(n) approach as the process continues, exist? What does that question mean? The values of many of its cells are determined. Many of them are not computable. The ratio is unclear.

4/ We can perform the initial stages of this computation with a finite computer with finite memory. At no point does the amount of memory required become infinite. If the computational power of the universe is infinite, then it can contain not only itself but every other thing. If the computation power of the universe is finite, where does that number come from?

5/ The program is very short. Any randomly chosen computation has a good chance of being it. It would probably be very hard to construct an interesting universe which did not contain every possible universe and person.

6/ Does it make any sense to talk about 'not being part of this computation'?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Blue Jasmine (Film)

Unbelievably good. Rivetingly edge of seat heart-tearingly good. A masterpiece. I only went to see this on the off-chance. Someone told me that it was a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's not. This portrait of a soul utterly damned is a modern Faust. Cate Blanchett is awesome and if she doesn't get an Oscar for a performance that must have torn her apart then there is no justice.

Gravity (3D) (Film)

A beautiful and thrilling special-effects spacefest. I have certain concerns related to angular momentum. Five stars anyway.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Two Modern Operas

The Nose (Shostakovich, Metropolitan Opera Live Broadcast, don't bother it's awful)

Over the last few years, I've started to notice that the operas which I'm least looking forward to turn out to be the memorable jewels which stay with me for months, whereas the famous works that everybody knows and loves have started to seem a bit flat and possibly even a bit clichéd.

I've also noticed that whereas, when driving, I used to do a sort of awkward Markovian radio-dance (Five Minute Advertisement for Henry Kelly's Hundred Greatest Classical Hits Selection -> back to Radio 3, Three Hours of Mongolian Nose Music -> back to Classic FM), nowadays I tend to think that Classic FM is like a continous diet of icing and that I quite look forward to the bleeding meat that is two consecutive performances of a deservedly little-known baroque opera by the same people but in a slightly different tuning. I wouldn't quite say 'enjoy', but perhaps 'find interesting' might work.

I take this an an ominous sign that my tastes are becoming jaded, and that I am starting to tire of what the bourgeois calls 'good' music, and must seek out the 'edgy', the 'dangerous', the atonal, the 'interesting', the 'piss-poor'. This is the sort of mental decay that causes people to resort to listening to modern jazz or the music of the Second Viennese School.

So imagine my surprise when Shostakovich's 'The Nose', which on the face of it appeared to be an absurd modernist ordeal about a singing nose, turned out to be every bit as dreadful as I'd thought it would be.

It's difficult to describe how unwatchably bad it is. There's literally no plot beyond 'A man's nose sets up on its own, to his distress.' Everything else that happens is apparently just completely random, and presumably you can read into it all sorts of things about Stalin and despair, and the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century and the horror of a writer whose work has become public property and taken on a life of its own, but for fuck's sake why would you do that?

I couldn't care less about any of that and if I did I could go and read about it directly. It's not Zen. It's not some unknowable mystic crap that you can't perceive directly but can just vaguely sense if you hear the right hints in a carefully cultivated frame of mind. You don't have to approach it obliquely, trying to sneak up on it like a man sneaking through a forest stepping on hundreds of miserably mistuned twigs and being screeched at by vultures made out of old newspaper.

It's fairly normal in modern operas not to have an interval, because the audience tend treacherously to take advantage and escape, and this can dishearten the performers, who have worked terribly hard to learn the incomprehensible sequence of random notes.

Many people left anyway. I stuck it out, mainly because by the time I realised that I just couldn't take another half an hour of it, and asked my exhausted and suffering companion if she knew how long it was, it was only fifteen minutes from the end and even though by this time I could see a clear path of empty seats to the exit as long as I didn't mind climbing over things, I figured I should dig in for the bitter end and get my money's worth.

It's a fabulous argument against public subsidy, or it would be if the Metropolitan Opera was subsidised. As it is, what are they thinking? Are they just so absurdly overbooked that they can put on anything at all and sell out anyway?

It is at least mercifully short at two and a quarter barren, hopeless, interval-free hours.

But the music is appalling, and Shostakovich knows this perfectly well, because there's a point where the noseless bureaucrat's drunken flatmate takes out a balalaika and plays a foot-tappingly good folk song.

By contrast with the murderous squeaky-gate plinking that has been going on for the last 93 horrid minutes it's an aural paradise, an oasis of relaxation, like when a torturer decides that it's time for a tea-break.

Halfway through the folk song the no-nose bureaucrat comes home and stops it, shouting "What are you doing messing about with this rubbish?". Which is admittedly hilarious and gets a terrific laugh from everyone still present.

The staging and general production values in this performance are wonderful. I can't imagine how it could have been done better. I spent quite a lot of time wondering what the hell it would be like to sit through a bad production.

I would like to compliment the singing, but apart from one lovely soprano snatch, which again I'm sure is in there as a sort of anti-audience taunt, there isn't any. But there are some quite funny angry shouts from time to time. Particularly the three people on the balcony who shout "The most bewildering thing of all is why an author would waste his time on this material".

I was bewildered to notice that it got a quiet, unenthusiastic, but nevertheless standing ovation, and I can't quite imagine the confusion of mind that could produce such a thing. Presumably you had to be there. The audience watching in the cinema just groaned in pain and rolled their eyes at one another. I heard someone say "Wild horses wouldn't get me to another one of these" to his wife.

Throughout the ordeal, I was sustained only by the thought "It can't possibly be as bad as Wozzeck. Treat it as a warm up."

Wozzeck (Alban Berg, Royal Opera House)

Wozzeck is a sort of Everest of Awfulness.

Alban Berg was the most talentless, over-rated, screeching horror of the lamentable Second Viennese School of just limitlessly terrible composers. He wrote something about Napoleon that a dear friend once lent me,  that I had to listen to all the way through because he had kept looking at me with such hope.

"You're clever, John, you like all sorts of things and you love patterns and structure and are interested in the properties of sound and you've liked opera since you were a little boy and you even sat through an entire ballet once you are that hard...

"Surely you can see the inner beauty in this work that no-one else can begin to understand.", said JB silently with his sad little eyes as he lent me his treasured CD and hoped sincerely that I'd enjoy it.

And I couldn't face giving it back and saying that I'd managed ten minutes and then given up because it was too painful.

So I listened to the whole bloody thing. You remember that Monty Python sketch where someone is making music by smashing live mice with a mallet and they are making a jolly tune with their death-squeaks? Well that is only funny because it is short, and not actually happening.

Alban Berg's accursèd  (<-look, I hate it so much that I found the out where the è key is!!:-))

Alban Berg's accursèd Napoleon is without a shadow of a doubt the worst piece of music I have ever heard. I include the Birdie Song. I include sugary professional 1950's versions of 'Enniskillen Dragoons' cynically designed to appeal to blue-collar plastic paddies in the United States and performed half-heartedly by people who had grown up wanting to be famous singers and clearly loathed everything about what they were doing and everything about their lives. I include a certain video of 'Rose Garden' that is available on YouTube and that Sipper played me when I laughed at him for admitting that he liked it (in strict confidence) when he was drunk.

Napoleon is like someone doing the mice-smashing-mallet-death thing with real mammals. Real living mammals whose hopeless cries for pity tear incessantly at the heart like badly-oiled bandsaws with grit in them.

Just in case there was any danger of anyone being moved by the purity of its despair, the cover picture shows that it is being performed by an unbelievably oily-looking fat man wearing really bad schoolgirl make-up and swallowtails and smiling like Margaret Thatcher.

But the worst thing about Berg's Napoleon is that it doesn't even exist. It's a false memory. Apparently Schoenberg wrote something called Ode to Napoleon but I'm pretty sure that wasn't what John lent me. What sort of sewer of a mind do I live in that can imagine an experience like that? I suddenly empathise with the man who wrote to the Times complaining about the increasing amount of sex and violence in dreams.

I realise that it's probably unfair to blame Berg for it.

But those who have spent their lives studying the music of the Second Viennese School tell me that of all Berg's music, there is nothing remotely as bad as his opera, Wozzeck.

Apparently it's entirely without discernible structure, almost impossible to play or listen to, and about a deserter and a prostitute, who live in hopeless misery and then die. They say it's only possible to appreciate it by reading the score, and that actually turning it into sounds spoils it.

So imagine my joy when my dear friend Bob told me that she had a freebie ticket for the dress rehearsal of a new production of Wozzeck that she is playing in, but had given it to someone else on the basis that I was too much of a philistine to come.

'Oh', I said, one part of my brain not quite believing that the other part of my brain was actually saying this, 'that's a shame.

'I've been getting a bit worried about being unadventurous recently, and I'm trying to do as many new things as possible. I would probably have quite enjoyed that.' The sane hemisphere, unable to take control of my mouth, had gone into spasm.

Bob rang back, of course, a couple of days later, after the original recipient of the golden ticket had been found hanged in his garage.

I'd been a little worried about the logistics of getting to London in time. Early mornings are not really 'my time', and getting to Covent Garden for 11 o'clock would involve facing rush hour commuter trains, which are not really 'my thing'. But Bob very kindly looked up all the train and tube transit times for me and sent me a detailed text message telling me that if I could manage to make it to Cambridge station for the 09:20 train then I could get a return ticket with tube for £23 and make it to pick up my ticket at the box office in plenty of time. So there was no escape.

I figured if I got up at eight then I'd make the train easily enough even allowing for a certain amount of uselessness on my part, and so I diligently left my office at ten o'clock on Sunday, intending to get an early night.

I phoned Bob to check that the plan was all in order, and she mentioned in passing that she was going to London that night and staying over, having fallen victim to Storm Fever. She seemed slightly surprised that I hadn't heard anything about this storm.

I stopped off for a kebab on the way and was slightly amazed that by the time I got home it was eleven thirty. But it was a hella kebab (thanks Gardenia!, we've missed you, welcome back, your new look is lovely), so maybe it had taken slightly longer to eat it than I'd budgeted for.

Still, that's still 8½ hours sleep, which ought to be enough even if it's sub-optimal.

When my alarm went off my first thought was 'Oh God, not already?', but after about fifteen minutes of staring hopelessly at the ceiling wishing I was dead I manned up and got dressed and headed off on my bicycle to the station through the curiously deserted and darkened streets of Cambridge. My sources inform me that everyone else in the entire world gets up at about 8, and I was expecting things to be pretty busy at 8:30, but no.

Even the station was curiously quiet, in fact there was only me and a couple of other bewildered looking elders, and a polite guard who told me that there was absolutely no possibility of getting to London by 11 o'clock, never in a million years, there have been 102mph winds on the Isle of Wight and everything south of a line between Birmingham and Bishop's Stortford has been effectively destroyed and the absolute best we can offer you is that there might be a train at 9:30 but it will be going very very slowly because of the danger of fallen trees and pit vipers and everyone on the world will be on it so you'll either have to climb on over the bodies or lie on the floor and be crushed under a pile of sweaty fat men and palely attractive women in suits who smell of early morning cigarettes and twitch because their souls have been sucked out by management consultancy.

And even if you do that there is no way you are getting to Covent Garden for 11, mate. I would give your friend's opera (in Cambridge they are trained to say that sort of thing without even sneering even slightly) a miss. We are advising people to make only absolutely essential journeys and if I were you I would go home and sit in front of the fire and not get killed, if you take my meaning.

Well I am the sort of man who can take a hint, I like to think, so I fucked off home and on the way I bought a newspaper and some croissants so I could enjoy reading about the Great Storm over breakfast. As I got towards home I noticed that the common was covered in willow branches, which I hadn't noticed on the way out, and a couple of friends were walking up and down the bank with mallets and mooring pins, rescuing distressed narrowboats, which seemed pretty Christian of them, so I made them tea and apparently the storm had been through while I'd been at the station, and smashed everything in its path except immediately around my boat, which seemed curiously undisturbed.

Breakfast seemed to go on for a extraordinarily long time, and then after that grim Woman's Hour came on, and so I went back to bed.

And I'd been in bed for about 15 seconds when Bob rang up to say that they'd put the opera back to 12 o'clock because Nick Clegg had been hit by a falling storm-gherkin, and I could still make it.

And I said, but it's ten past eleven, there's no way I can get to Covent Garden from here in fifty minutes, even if the trains weren't sneaking carefully from station to station for fear of fallen trees. And she said "you haven't put your clocks back yet, have you?", which was a bit embarrassing but did make better sense of all sorts of little discrepancies that I had been noticing for the last day or so.

So off again to the station and it was all a bit groundhog day only this time the light was much brighter and people were up and about but there was still no-one at the station, and the very same guard, who had visibly grown a beard since I last saw him, patiently explained that there was no possibility of getting to London until at least three o'clock, what with the roof having blown off St. Pancras and the Potter's Bar tunnel being full of water and the electricity being down all over the South of England and all the wheels having blown off all the trains.

Lucky escape, I was thinking, and I'm sure that all that cycling around has been good for me and there's a certain sort of early rising-bastard who'll tell you that accidentally getting up at 7am is character building but obviously they only say that because they can't bloody sleep because their souls are so laden with sin and horror and there is no rest for the wicked ones. Dear God what is this evil that they must have done?

But here's the thing. I had been really looking forward to Wozzeck, I now realise. I was confidently expecting it to be one of the worst experiences of my life and I was anticipating just how bad it would be with exactly the sort of enthusiasm that I used to muster for a bad Channel crossing in a tiny yacht, or a game of rugby in the sleet against Newmarket III. And so now it is a sort of Everest of Awfulness which I keep glimpsing distantly through the clouds but some sort of mystic force is preventing me from getting to it and I am taking it personally.

And so now I'm going to have to go and buy a ticket. And spend serious money supporting something I am confident that I will utterly despise and loathe and sincerely wish would be banished forever from the memory of man. And Covent Garden are going to interpret my ticket purchase as meaning that there is a market for this sort of thing, and that maybe the common philistine-in-the-street is finally coming round to modernism at last and we should put some more of these on......

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gis Job (£500 reward)

Anyone in Cambridge need a programmer? I'll give you £500 if you can find me a job that I want.

CV at

I make my usual promise, which I have paid out on several times:

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 whom 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.

And I also make the following boast:

I know all styles of programming and many languages, and can use any computer language you're likely to use in the style which it was intended to be used in.

I have a particular facility with mathematical concepts and algorithms of all kinds. I can become very interested in almost any problem which is hard enough that I can't solve it easily.

I have a deserved reputation for being able to produce heavily optimised, but nevertheless bug-free and readable code, but I also know how to hack together sloppy, bug-ridden prototypes, and I know which style is appropriate when, and how to slide along the continuum between them.

I've worked in telecoms, commercial research, banking, university research, chip design companies, server virtualization, a couple of startups, and occasionally completely alone.

I've worked on many sizes of machine. I've written programs for tiny 8-bit microcontrollers and gigantic servers, and once upon a time every IBM machine in the Maths Department in Imperial College was running my partial differential equation solvers in parallel in the background.

I'm smart and I get things done. I'm confident enough in my own abilities that if I can't do something I admit it and find someone who can.

I know what it means to understand a thing, and I know when I know something. If I understand a thing then I can usually find a way to communicate it to other people. If other people understand a thing even vaguely I can usually extract the idea from them and work out which bits make sense.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Baby Steps

This is little Cameron Dawson, Gareth and Lisa's son:

He is just learning to walk, and has taken to using me as a sort of intelligent zimmer frame. His joy in this is extraordinary.

Today Gareth and I showed him all around the Maypole!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Petrov Day

On September 26, 1983, when I was thirteen years old, I nearly died. So did you.

1983 was a terrifying time.

A child with an active imagination, I would often look through the big picture window, across the beautiful Loxley valley to the great city of Sheffield nestling in the hills beyond.

Sheffield is a huge city, and for centuries it was the city where steel was made. It had been heavily bombed during the second war.

I used to imagine the air burst of the bomb that would kill the great city.

First there would be a siren. A screaming from the sky. People would look up.

And then the flash. A flash so bright it would blind everyone looking at it forever.

I would be standing in the big room of my parents' house in the village I loved, but I would be blind and screaming in pain.

The bomb would explode above the ground. They do more harm that way. A piece of the sun brought to earth.

The terrible light would flash over the city, melting anything near, setting fire to everything it touched.

I would be standing in the big room of my parents' house in the village, looking at the city I went to school in, where all my friends lived. But I wouldn't be able to see anything. My skin would be burned. My clothes would catch fire. The carpet and the sofas would burst into flames. I'd be blind and screaming in an inferno.

And then the blast would come. And the window would shatter under the hammer of the wind.

Flying glass fragments would lacerate our home. If I was lucky one might kill me.

But probably not. I'd imagine I'd get a few in the eyes though. I imagine losing even blind eyes hurts.

I might make it out of the fire. You never know.

But I'd already be dead. I'm burned and cut and blind and no one is coming to help.

My father might have lived. He was always in the garden, on the wrong side of the house.

We were miles away from where the bomb would burst. The big stone house might have shielded him. He might even have kept his eyes.

But not for long.

The last horror is the ash of the great city itself. Falling everywhere as radioactive poison.

An agonising, humiliating death that takes days. The fate of anyone unlucky enough to survive a nuclear attack.

That was what we worried about in the last days of the Cold War.

On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov chose not to destroy the world.

Today is Petrov Day.

Honour him.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Why does Evolution look like Intelligent Design?

When an engineer designs something, he tends to think in a hierarchy of parts.

For instance, a car is thought of as an engine, transmission, wheels, chassis and bodywork.

The engine is a self-contained part. I live on a narrowboat, and its engine is actually a diesel engine designed for a van.

So independent is the engine from the rest of the van that it can be used as a component in a different vehicle entirely.

The engine itself has distinct independent transferable components. Identical pistons can be used in several different types of engines, and the same is true for many other parts.

The engine parts themselves have components, like screws and washers, that are interchangeable with screws and washers in many other types of machinery.

This hierarchical principle is even more pronounced in the design of computer programs.

The history of programming, and computer systems in general, is the history of abstraction and combination.

Abstraction is the breaking of complex ideas and difficult techniques into simple reusable components which are understandable on their own.

Combination is used to make ever more complex and useful structures out of the simple pieces.

It is thought that this 'hierarchical design' is psychological. It makes things easier to understand if they can be understood piece by piece.

But the same hierarchies are evident in animals and plants.

I have a heart, which is interchangeable with other human and animal hearts.

There have been experiments where the hearts of pigs have been exchanged with the hearts of humans.

Arms, legs, eyes, lungs, fingers, fingernails, bones, skin have distinct functions, are transferable and independently understandable as pieces.

But evolution has no mind.

So this apparent hierarchy cannot be psychological.

What is its cause?

It is possible that the hierarchical design in nature is illusionary, and that we are, with our hierarchical minds, perceiving a structure that is not there.

I do not believe this.

I suspect there is a mathematical answer, that causes mindless evolutionary processes to produce hierarchical designs.

And I further suspect that that answer might explain why our minds like to make hierarchies.

But I do not know what the answer is, or even how properly to ask the question, and I do not know whether anyone has asked or tried to answer the question before.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Coursera : Universities are Dead

The last time I was this enthusiastic about a new thing it was Amazon, in the days when no-one had heard of Amazon but it had just allowed me to buy in seconds a rare book that I'd been looking for for years. (for comparison, I was mildly enthusiastic about google, and I loathed, and still loathe, facebook)

The new thing is coursera:

I loved being an undergraduate. Partly because I loved being young and brave and free and surrounded by clever girls and subsidised beer, but at least a little because every day some wise elder would reveal one of the secrets of the universe to me.

I haven't felt that rush of learning lots of new important stuff for such a long time. I hadn't realized quite how much I missed it.

The difference now is that I'm capable of dealing with it all. I know how to learn things much better than I used to, back in the days when I thought that talent was inborn and practising was cheating.

Coursera is offering, entirely for free, elite-university courses on line.

Not just the lectures, which would be no more use than textbooks are, but the exams, tests, course structure and collaborative environment which make it possible to learn.

You need to be very motivated indeed to study something alone from a textbook, no matter how good. Twice in my life I've managed it, once with the incredible Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, and once with David Mackay's Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms.

Over the last few months I've done two world-class university courses. Daphne Koller's famous Probabilistic Graphical Models course from Stanford, and Tim Roughgarden's Algorithms I course, also from Stanford. PGM is a graduate-level maths course, and Algorithms I is a core component of Stanford's computer science degree.

Both of them have been mind-blowingly interesting and fun. Twenty years I have made a good living as a programmer, and Algorithms I has convinced me that I've never known that much about programming.

What's really freaking me out is that they're every bit as good as the best courses I remember from Cambridge, and that I have found the continuous assessment / easy-ish problems to do every week structure of them fantastically motivating. Even addictive. There are things I should have been doing, and want to do, and would enjoy doing, that I have not done because I would rather spend the time watching Daphne and Tim's wonderful explanations of concepts that, with hindsight, I realize I should have learnt about years ago. Both courses have unexpectedly turned out to have been directly relevant to my current real-world project.

So I recommend coursera very highly indeed, but I also wonder if they realise what they have done.

There is a thing called a winner-takes-all market. You don't want to be in one.

What happens is that you're, say, a man who makes his living playing the piano in public houses. There were once many such men.

You make a modest living, because there are many people who can play the piano, and many pubs, and the market is quite competitive, but you are compensated on roughly the right scale for the effort you put in to learning to play.

Or say you are a football player, who plays for his local football club. It is only a game, so you have to have a proper job as well, but tribalism being what it is, once a week, you play at your local ground for the honour of your town, and a couple of thousand people turn up to watch. Together they pay enough to keep the stadium running and pay the expenses of the club and there's enough left over to distribute round the players in salaries, and maybe even some of the really good players manage to make it a full time job.

This world is gone. Dead and no-one can remember it or believe it or understand what it might have been like.

It is as gone as the world where literate scribes copied books by hand, and only a very wealthy man could afford the abbeyful of people that it took to copy out whole books with quills.  Can you imagine a world where owning a single book would be evidence of enormous power, wealth and status? Can you imagine a world where the ability to write legibly would guarantee a man a good income for life?

What happens is that someone finds a way of making the labour of one person, which used to satisfy the needs of a few, satisfy the needs of many. A printing press, a record player, a live TV broadcast. Often these ways are referred to as media, because they stand between.

This is a great thing for the many. Suddenly the world is full of books, full of music, full of televised sport. Things that were expensive or impossible luxuries (like being a Manchester United supporter who lives in Cork, or owning Several Books, or listening to the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in your croft in the Shetlands) become widely available and cheap. Staggeringly good news for almost everyone.

But what happens to the army of people who used to do all the writing, football playing, music playing, acting, etc, etc?

A clue. Think of a profession where there are stupidly, staggeringly rich individuals, and yet most people who do it pay to do it.

Let us say: George Clooney versus your nearest friend who does amateur dramatics, or (I do not know the names of any current good football players but I predict their existence and characteristics with confidence) versus the best football player you know personally, or Bryn Terfel versus the world's tenth best interpreter of Wotan, or JK Rowling versus anyone you know who's paid to publish their own book. On and on and on this list goes, covering the huge number of professions and people that used to provide widely used services on a personal basis for modest reward but where someone found a way for everyone to enjoy the output of a few people who were very good at it.

As I say, this is very very good news indeed for almost everyone.

Clever inhabitant of a little village in Tanzania whose parents can't afford to educate him past primary school? Welcome to Stanford.

Middle aged computer programmer who'd quite like to do a second degree for fun but has never quite wanted to commit the three years and £50,000 that it would probably cost in total to a project which may not be quite as much fun as he imagined? Screw that. You can take your pick of the interesting sounding courses from all the best universities in the world, and do them in the order you want, and try stuff and bin it if it's boring.

Hell, I even thought I'd try a literature course, just to see if there was anything to it. The lectures were fun and the lecturer inspiring, but I still think it's the singer not the song. They know lots of stuff, these literature types, it's just that none of it is true. Which is why they're so into post-modernism I guess. You would be if you built on quicksand and kept finding your house had sunk.

But what about the universities? I can't imagine how anyone could beat Tim Roughgarden's charmingly macho Algorithms I course, and I'm certain that he's one of the best teachers of that subject anywhere in the world. But I bet there's someone somewhere who can do it even better.

And if that guy or girl puts in the months of work to make a better version of the course, everyone will want to watch that instead. There is no room for two people doing the same thing in a winner takes all market.

And what about the sea of relatively uninspiring no-hopers in the world who have dedicated their lives to teaching important things to the young?

These people are fucked. And they do not deserve the fucking, because they are good people who have spent years doing good things for good reasons.

But who will want to pay £30,000 to do something they can do much better for free on their computer?

A shame. I will miss the universities. I hope the places who do research and consider teaching a distraction from that will weather the storm and maybe even benefit.

I wonder if any of them have seen the tsunami that is coming for them yet. I talked to a very eminent academic the other day and he thinks that coursera's an interesting experiment that might do some good. It isn't. It's an onrushing wall of death. I give the universities ten years, tops.

Schools have a child-control function. They're somewhere for society to imprison the young people it has no use for. But I suspect that quite soon they'll be places where people look after children who are doing on-line courses rather than places where people teach.

As I say, excellent news. For almost everyone.

The Haymakers, Cambridge

While I'm on the subject of much improved pubs, I should mention the Haymakers. Twenty years ago I worked at Philips Telecom, and I used to eat in the Haymakers every lunchtime. The people were friendly and the food was terrific.

Unfortunately, as Philips and its fragments declined, the Haymakers did too, until it eventually became a tragic hell-hole offering pitiful 'Live Music' of the sort that you'd go a long way to avoid.

My friend Richard Naisby, eminence rouge of Milton Brewery, has recently taken over the Haymakers, gutted it, and pretty much built a new one.

The transformation is astounding. Richard's a fine brewer, but I think he might have been a world-class interior designer. Who knew that there was a vaulted timber beamed ceiling above the Haymakers' nasty old chipboard?

The whole pub has changed out of all recognition to become a beautiful quiet open space. The beer is the excellent Milton range, they sell coffee at £1/cup, and there's an solid wireless connection. Again it's just an open wifi router rather than the horrid Cloud arrangement with its irritating and intrusive log-on page.

The real point of the place, though, is the food. They're doing traditional Italian cooking, and have a traditional Italian chef to do it for them. There are huge (and superb) pizzas, and the rest of the menu feels much like a little Italian village restaurant.

Good luck to the Haymakers and to Milton Brewery in general. (The Devonshire Arms on Mill Road is also a Milton pub and is also very good. There are an awful lot of Cambridge pubs that could benefit from Richard's genius.)

The Clarendon Arms, Cambridge

Lawrence Dixon, long time landlord of the Champion of the Thames, took over The Clarendon Arms a few months ago.

His first act was to get rid of the TVs, piped music and fruit machines that had blighted it for years, and to redecorate. The pub is hugely improved as a result.

His second has been the bizarre and unorthodox move of offering good pub food at reasonable prices. He said to me "Everywhere I go people get obvious things wrong, and it drives me up the wall. I just want to do a traditional pub well". I could feel a michelin star coming on as we spoke. Lawrence and all his staff obviously really really care about their new pub.

The food in the Clarendon is absolutely exceptional! You would be pleased to find a restaurant this good, and yet the menu is traditional orthodox English cooking, and the prices perfectly normal for a city centre pub.

I'd particularly recommend the Scotch Eggs, one of the cheapest things on the board. They're like nothing I've ever tasted before. The platonic ideal to which all scotch eggs aspire.

The beer is standard Greene King, but very well kept, as it always was at the Champion. I think I'm not alone in thinking that Greene King's ubiquitous IPA is actually a very good drink when it's been looked after. It's just terribly hard to find a pub where they know how to keep it well.

The Clarendon also does the superb Greene King mild, which is a rarity these days and quite difficult to find. It's a reminder of why the old traditional real ale brewer Greene King that I remember from my student days grew into today's behemoth that everyone loves to hate.

Well done Lawrence and good luck!

P.S. There's also a wifi connection. A proper one, not this "_Cloud" rubbish that infests most pubs now. I think that's an example of Lawrence's attention to detail. It must have been very tempting to go with Greene King's standard arrangement.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring Breakers (Un Film d'Harmony Korine)

In recent years I've become more and more worried about the ability of modern youngsters to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. Their parent's generation, which cared very much about self-expression and exploration, seemed to have failed to pass on the flame.

Harmony Korine's fundamentally feminist, and yet light-hearted remake of the Bacchae has fully put my mind at rest. I am relieved to note that with one glorious exception, the music is execrable throughout, as it should be.

If the film is to be taken seriously, with its many scenes of young people enjoying themselves in the most life-affirming manner, then it must be said that it's essentially about what it means to be a man.

But you can tell that it's a feminist film because it passes Wossname's test: It contains more than one woman. The women have a conversation. That conversation is not about men. Job done bitches. Also the powerful eroticism of the water pistol.

Act like you're in a movie or something.

It is come that we might have life, and have it more abundantly to boot. I shall never listen to Britney Spears in the same way again.

I really want to get out of here. Everybody else already left.

We're just having fun. We didn't do anything wrong. This wasn't the dream. It's not supposed to end this way.

You can't be scared yall. Let's just get the fucking money and go on spring break.

Spring Break Forever.

We robbed the chicken shack with squirt guns.

I really wanted to hear more of the history lecture.

There was blood on the piano keys.

Descent into evil / descent into hell / fundamental message of redemption through suffering blah.

unfortunate effect on race relations

unfortunate effect on race relations

the wages of sin seem rather generous

The film contains several disturbing scenes of religious activity, and is unlikely to be suitable for the very young.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Maths Tuition (Cambridge STEP)

A plug for Chris Metcalfe ( email tel: 07752 532811)

If anyone has children (or is a child!) wanting to do maths in Cambridge then they'll need to pass the ferocious STEP examination.

A friend of mine is setting up as a private tutor for these specific exams, and is in the process of making a website.

Chris is a brilliant teacher, and is familiar with STEP both through having been an examiner for it for many years, and from having been on the sharp end of it when we were eighteen years old.

I recommend him absolutely unreservedly.

The new website's here, although at the moment it's just a plain page with contact details.

Chris has taught maths to bright students aspiring to Cambridge at Villiers Park for many years, and while there he produced some short videos and activity sheets to be used while teaching bright teenagers that despite being completely impossible to find are the site's most popular pages:

Chris was clearly born to teach maths, and loves it, and I really hope that he makes a success of his new venture.

Please recommend him to all your friends, and if you control web sites, link to and use words like Cambridge, STEP, and tutor in your link.

He really is as good as I'm trying to make him sound. Give him a hand getting hits if you can.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Perfect Day

It snowed last night, so I gave the fire its head for the first time this year, and woke up to the boat at a decadent 25 degrees.

The coal man had promised to come round 'late morning', so I cleared the snow off the roof where the coal goes, and sat in front of the fire drinking tea and listening to the radio in anticipation. While I was waiting I dusted things and cleaned things and read books. Eventually there was a tap on the window, just as the sun was at its brightest and the snow melting away.

The Tills are lovely people and it's always a pleasure to get coal from them. They'd noticed that I'd written a blog post recommending them and were very grateful. They deliver direct to the roof despite the trouble it takes to bring a coal lorry onto Midsummer Common. We stuck half a ton of Taybrite on the top. That should last the winter with some to spare.

Once they'd gone I changed out of my coal clothes and sat in front of the fire again, meaning to go out, but the radio had become enchanting.

Ruby Hughes was singing Schubert's romantic songs live from the Wigmore Hall in a thrilling voice.

There's something about a soprano singing German well that takes the breath away.

How cruel the world is to make me so in love with such sounds; a platonic ideal, of which birdsong is only a shadow on the wall; and yet unable ever to make them.

It's bizarre to find yourself sitting completely alone, crying and clapping and shouting brava at the radio.

But it did make me feel like I'd had a part in bringing her back for her encore, just as the announcer had given up and was handing us back.

She sang a Benjamin Britten arrangement of various sentimental songs that I know from childhood. I've always thought that Britten's arrangements of folksongs rather missed the point, but when Ruby sang O Waly Waly you could see what he'd been driving at after all.

I had to turn the radio off once she'd finished. It seemed a terrible shame to overwrite the memory of something so beautiful with any further music.

I have gone for a walk in the snow.