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03 August, 2012

Move Right Along. Nothing (Else) to See Here

Yes, after almost exactly eight years, I'm finally winding up this blog. I won't delete it or anything - there's far too much good stuff in there and I know a lot of people still visit, read, and comment on those old posts - but I will stop adding to it. So this is probably the last post ever...

...on this blog. I will continue blogging at my other blog though. I've kept the two of them going side-by-side for over four years now and, increasingly, I can't see the point of doing two quite similar things. It's like having two mistresses, worshipping two gods, eating two dinners: fun at first but it eventually grows wearisome.

"Why this one?" I hear you ask. Those who have followed this blog for eight years might reasonably be thinking I should shut down the other one. Well, it's like this. I called the other blog "Graham Storrs" for a reason. It's where I have been building my "brand" as a writer (when you're a writer, you are the brand) and where I need to  put my energies because that's where I water the struggling seedling of my emerging career. I can't quit that blog because my livelihood depends upon it. This one... Well, while I love that you all come here and read it, it doesn't actually help me earn money, and in these days of weekly Financial Meltdowns presaging the imminent Fall of Capitalism, I need to scratch a living somehow before things get so bad that I have to abandon the Internet and start growing my own vegetables.

So, may I humbly beseech each and every one of you who follows this blog through an RSS feed (or in any other way imaginable) to click this link to set up an RSS feed for the other blog, to update your bookmarks, or to write the other blog address on a post-it and stick it to your screen (http://grahamstorrs.cantalibre.com/). Do it now. No, no, no, don't check your Twitter stream. Switch to the new blog while it's still fresh in your mi -

Ah well. Too late.

27 March, 2012

Why Does America Like Me?

Ive been to the States a few times. I had a great visit to Atlanta once, and an unforgettable holiday driving around the South West, starting and ending in the Rockies, oh and I gave a paper at a conference at Stanford Uni one time and stayed a few days in Palo Alto and that was terrific. So I've got some fond memories of beautiful places and lovely people.

That's why it makes me a tiny bit guilty sometimes that here in this blog, (and the other one) I tend to be rather critical of the place. It's why I've been pretty quiet this time around about the Republican primaries (although, I have to say, that guy Santorum is a certifiable nutjob - and the War on Women makes me shudder - but let's not go there). It's hard to listen to the GOP's insane rantings without wanting to lay into them with a syringe full of antipsychotics, or an axe. I thought G W Bush was bad, but this year's crop is just scary.

So, as an antidote, I'd really just like to say thank you to the good people of America for all the support they've given me over the past few years. Consistently, I find that five times as many Americans than, say, Australians or Brits, read my blogs - even though I come from the UK and now live in Oz. Better still, ten times as many Americans have bought my novel, TimeSplash, than Brits, (and ten times more Brits have bought it than Aussies)! That is just amazingly kind of you all.

So, to the thousands and thousands of Americans who have been helping me out over the past few years: Thank You. You guys are great. Sorry about all the carping. And I hope you get your economy fixed soon, and you don't get saddled with too big a loony at the next general election, and you finally sort out that church and state thing you've been having so much trouble with.

16 January, 2012

Too Big to Know? So What?

The other day someone pointed out an article for me by David Weinberger which appeared in The Atlantic, plugging his new book Too Big to Know. It was a strangely breathless article, but I'm not sure that Weinberger's point is a very interesting one. Essentially, he seems to be saying that we have been developing data sets that are so vast they are beyond what people - with our limited brains and short life-spans - can possibly analyse and understand without the aid of computers. What's more, when we let our computers loose on these huge data sets, the derivation of any new knowledge they come up with (usually by running computer models or simulations on the data) is not accessible to us. To understand why the weather bureau's model predicts a 40% chance of rain in South-East England today would take teams of humans years to calculate by hand using the same rules and the same data. To all intents and purposes, these models might as well be black boxes. Worse than this, there are programs that can derive new mathematical and physical laws and relationships - new knowledge whose creation is forever shrouded in mystery because the cost of understanding how it was discovered is astronomically high for unaided humans. 

While some gasp at the epistemological implications right along with Weinberger, my own reaction is one of puzzlement. After all, isn't this and hasn't it always been how nearly all knowledge comes to us?

At one level, we have been hugely successful at seeing the underlying patterns of the world, without the aid of computers - General and Special Relativity, and the Standard Model reduce everything to a handful of very simple equations and constants. On another level, we have the complexity of chemistry, biology, fluid dynamics, and so on, which, while following the rules of basic physics, have lots of interacting parts that we can only model statistically. That the predictions of some of these statistical models can only be made if they are based on huge data sets and worked out by big, fast computers, doesn't fill me with the same kind of trepidation with which it seems to fill Weinberger. Even the fact that the predictions of many such models are acutely sensitive to their initial conditions is hardly cause for concern (unless you're planning a camping trip and need an accurate weather report).

It's true that the models themselves can be generated or learned by second-order systems and that we do not necessarily have any meaningful way of knowing how they work (something researchers in neural networks have been grappling with for several decades already). But that isn't a particular cause for anxiety either. Such models are in principle analysable, if we should ever want to do that (which, I suggest, removes any hint of scariness). Generally, it is not important to know how a model does its job, as long as we are confident about how it was constructed and have verified its behaviour against the data. If we want to verify their outputs or increase our confidence in what the models are doing, we can always set up a second, third, or nth model to cross-check the first or poll their outputs. (Weather models tend to be run over and over and their results combined, for instance.) The thing is, these models tend to be of systems that do not have the scientific significance of E=mc^2, although they may have ample practical significance for campers and drug companies. 


I used to work in artificial intelligence and I made a particular study of a field called "argumentation". It's all about how and why we find arguments convincing - like a modern Rhetoric. The early pioneers of expert systems understood well the issue this article raises. If you run a system with more than a handful of rules, it quickly gets to the point where you can no longer understand or predict the outputs - not without a disproportionately huge effort to delve into the workings. So they tried to devise schemes for expert system to explain their own reasoning (which boiled down to traces of rule activation - presented with varying degrees of clarity). I worked on some particularly massive rule-based systems and I can attest to the fact that presenting a conclusion is not enough - people need more - but presenting the machine's reasoning is a very difficult task.

However, I believe it is doable. People just haven't put much work into it yet.

There is an example of a massively parallel supercomputer of immense power but which is virtually a black box as far as the question of how it reached its outputs are concerned. In fact there are many such examples. One of the best was Albert Einstein. This processor came up with some astonishing physical laws by a process that nobody understands even a hundred years after they were derived. However, the Einstein processor was able to explain its reasoning and the derivation of its laws in a way that satisfied everyone who was able to understand (and the rest of us have been happy to take their word for it). I've read a few books on relativity now and I must say, the fact that I don't know how Einstein derived it from what was known at the time doesn't bother me at all. The rules are logical, consistent, match the evidence, and (having been shown the way) are derivable by other, similarly-endowed processors.


Certainly machine-derived knowledge raises questions in epistemology and ontology. Does it mean something different to know a physical law derived by a machine, for example, especially where the reasoning processes involved are hidden from us? My argument, already stated, is that it doesn't. In fact, it is similar in all important ways.

The question of how much we can trust machine-derived knowledge is a different kettle of fish. Here, I'm happy to use all the usual methods of improving my confidence - particularly the Gold Standard, empirical testing.

There is a possibility that knowledge could be derived by machine that is so far beyond our human understanding that only other machines of similar capabilities could peer-review it, or understand how to devise and run empirical tests, or interpret the results of such tests. When that day comes, we are put in the position that most of us are in now vis-a-vis the great scientists. Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg, Einstein and the rest may have been able to understand and devise tests for each others' discoveries in quantum mechanics, but most of humanity could not. To us, it is entirely a matter of trust - even of faith.

It's like the climate change "debate". Here the science is simple enough that any intelligent layman can follow it. You could replicate John Tyndall's experiment that first measured the greenhouse effect in your own kitchen with some pipes and jars and rubber tubing. Yet still, for the majority (especially GOP politicians), it is all incomprehensible scientific mumbo jumbo. They can't grasp the principles. They can't separate out the scientific claims from the denialist obfuscation. They are so far from being able to judge the validity of what the scientific community is telling them, that they can have no confidence in what they are hearing - leaving them free to dismiss it as "scare-mongering" or a left-wing conspiracy to increase government regulation of our lives, or any bizarre rationale they can come up with.

One day, even the brightest of us will probably be in that position, when the machines have taken it all to a new level, way beyond our understanding. Will we look like simple-minded denialists to them when we question what seems to us to be the unfounded gibberish they will be spouting? I think so. Or maybe, being so much cleverer than us, the machines will be rather better than human scientists at explaining what they mean and why they're saying such outrageous things.
 

09 January, 2012

Asset-Stripping

What kind of rubbish is this? An online newspaper I read just published an article about an article in a print newspaper called The Australian. Since when was quoting another news outlet's opinions considered news?

The piece in The Australian - a newspaper famous here for being a mouthpiece of the Rupert Murdoch view of life and a front-runner in his stable's race to the bottom -  was about how low the planned Chinese carbon tax would be and how high the Australian one is and how "out of step" with the world our carbon tax is.

And what a surprise, a Murdoch-owned newspaper doesn't like Australia's carbon tax. Big deal. Murdoch and his cronies in the mining, coal and oil industries can spout off all they like, his opinions are hardly news any more and I'm sick of hearing them over and over from all the newspapers and TV and radio stations he owns.

The fact is, China's move to a carbon tax (however low they've started) is the most important and significant event since the Kyoto treaty was signed. It's a major triumph and I'm sure Australia's dramatic recent move had an influence. The whingers at the Australian should remember that China has already made big steps towards becoming a 21st Century, clean economy. This is another one.

If the West wants to keep up, we need to force our old industries to change - and fast. They won't do it themselves. These old, polluting dinosaurs will drag Australia down to Third World status if we let them. And when they've asset-stripped Australia, they'll move on to their next victim.

22 December, 2011

Nerfreader: Giveaway: TimeSplash by Graham Storrs!

Nerfreader: Giveaway: TimeSplash by Graham Storrs! The audiobook of my time travel thriller, TimeSplash is being given away free at Nerfreader. Three copies of the audiobook are up for grabs, plus, as a bonus, there is a short story prequel to the novel, read by me, for each winner.

Just saying.

10 December, 2011

Reviews By Martha's Bookshelf: Giveaway Three Audiobooks of Timesplash & Prequel!...

Reviews By Martha's Bookshelf: Giveaway Three Audiobooks of Timesplash & Prequel!...: A month or so ago I posted a review of a good audiobook, Timesplash ! The author, Graham Storrs, has written a prequel, in the form of a s...

16 August, 2011

I Know What is Wrong With The World - and there is no way to fix it

I can sum up everything that is wrong with the world in three words:

People Are Stupid.
We like to think we are the pinnacle of evolution (in itself a stupid misconception of how evolution works) and that our vast intelligence separates up from the animals (sorry, stupid mistake, the other animals, I mean), but the fact is that we're not all that bright. We have a few advantages over, say primates, language and better memories for example, but research suggests that when it comes to sheer reasoning ability, we're not all that much brighter than chimps. I don't want to get into an IQ debate here, but let's assume there's some correlation between general intelligence and IQ. The average is around 100 (it varies from group to group and culture to culture - mainly because we're too stupid to devise a sensible test where the average is always 100 for every place and time).
Give or take a couple of standard deviations, most of us - like 96% of us - have that IQ. And it's abysmally low. It's the IQ of the kind of person who reads Murdoch newspapers, the IQ of the kind of person who watches soaps (even if it's the slick US cop show or medical show type and you think it's somehow better than Home and Away), and the kind of person who believes in the supernatural ("well, there has to be something more than this, doesn't there, science can't explain everything").
If you're still reading, it probably means you think you're not one of the stupid people I'm talking about. Well, you're wrong. Here's a little test to show just how stupid you are. 
  • Q1 Can you solve world poverty? 
  • Q2 Can you stop war? 
  • Q3 Can you stop the persecution of minorities?
  • Q4 Can you devise an economic system that treats everybody fairly?
The answers to all those questions are "No". I can think of dozens, probably hundreds of other questions that you would have to say no to, too. The fact is, we are all, even the very brightest among us, deeply and unutterably stupid. We can't solve the world's problems because we're too thick. We've been trying throughout recorded history (and presumably long before then) and we have failed. Failed dismally. Failed in a way that should be excruciatingly embarrassing to all of us. Let's face it, we're a bunch of chimps with cars and cell phones and we haven't got a clue.
And that's why there is no way to fix the world; we just haven't got the brains. We might as well give up, go back to the trees and scratch our arses until we're extinct.
Oh, hang on, we can't do that, can we? We stupidly cut down all the trees.


Now how did he get here?

04 August, 2011

Yasmin needs brain surgery but can't afford it

It is a sad and terrible indictment of the society in which we live that a woman like Yasmin McKillop might die because she can't afford the surgery that could save her life. Yasmin is a young woman, a nurse who cares for old people at my local hospital. She's one of those lovely people you take to immediately. She is married to my friend James, who is blind, and they have two young boys. And now, Yasmin has a brain tumour. The prognosis from surgeons at the public hospitals here is very poor, but there is a surgeon in Sydney who believes he can save her, if she can find sixty thousand dollars for the operation.

On a nurse's wage and James' invalidity benefits, Yasmin has no house to sell, no savings to draw on. Her family are just ordinary, working people. That kind of money is so far beyond the reach of normal people that it must seem completely hopeless to her family and friends.

In desperation, her sister, Mia, has launched an appeal. Mia is not a media-savvy campaigner with far-reaching networks into the circles where money like this is easily found. She's just a young woman who lives and works in a small, country town who loves her sister and is doing all she can for her. She has put up a Facebook page. She is talking to local people and local businesses - in Stanthorpe, one of the poorest towns in the whole of Australia. That's why we need to do something to help Mia raise that money and save her sister.

I know most of the people who read my blog are writers and working people too. I doubt we could raise that much money between us, but we can raise some, and there are plenty of other ways we can help. This is what I would like each of you to do.

1. Visit Mia's Facebook page and donate something to the appeal - even if it is only $5 - the price of a cup of coffee. The link is also at the bottom of this post.

2. Use the Facebook and Tweet this links at the top of this post to spread the word to your social networks. You can also Digg the post, or use StumbleUpon or any other sharing tools you like. Do whatever you can to help Mia get the message out to the world that Yasmin needs help.

3. Mention the appeal on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, MySpace, Twitter, and anywhere else you have an audience.

4. Write a blog post on your own blog - even if it is just one sentence with a link to Mia's appeal page, it might just help.

5. If you know a journalist, mention Yasmin's plight to them. A 'human interest' story like this might just be something they, or a colleague, are looking for. If the story made it into a State or national newspaper, or was mentioned on a popular radio or TV show, it would take the appeal to a level where anything is possible. Even if you don't live in Australia, mention it anyway. Generosity doesn't stop at national borders.

6. Write a letter and send it to your local newspaper, your local radio station, your local Rotary Club, anywhere you can think of where people might be willing to help.

I'm sorry to ask. I'm sorry to live in a society where I have to ask. Please help Yasmin and her family. Please do whatever you can.

The link to the appeal is http://www.facebook.com/Yasmin.Aid?sk=info


28 June, 2011

What Does it Mean to Believe in Reality?

I tend to say things like "I believe in reality and nothing else." Possibly seeing the world "reality" as a potential chink in the armour of my belief system, someone asked me recently to define what I mean by it. You know, it's a hard question, and I can only think of long answers to it.

Basically, like Samuel Johnson, I'm a rock kicker, not a solipsist (that Occam's Razor thing again). Once you take the step of believing in an external reality, it seems the sensible thing is to accept what your senses tell you. After that, to know more than what you personally experience, you need to start accepting what other people tell you they have seen and felt. And the only way to separate true from bogus (or mistaken) accounts, is to rely on the scientific method. Observations need to be replicable, theories need to be clearly and transparently related to observation by solid argumentation, and experiment must always trump theory (when enough evidence exists). On top of that, coherence and mutual support among theories is nice to have too.

Within the vast arena of our ignorance and the tiny capacity of our intellect, this leaves much to wonder and marvel at in the world. So much, in fact, that I wonder why anyone needs magic at all. When, from what we know and the arguments that sustain it, we can suppose that the whole universe might be a holographic projection from the surface of a cosmic sphere, one hardly needs the rather mundane imaginings of religious fantasists to excite one's sense of wonder.

20 May, 2011

My Predictions for the Future

Just a quick note to give you a couple of predictions about the future. Here they are:
  1. The Rapture will not happen tomorrow (as predicted by the Christians).
  2. The world will not end in 2012 (as predicted by the Mayans).
  3. No prediction from any religious text, or any ancient text whatsoever about the end of the world will ever be correct.
I will absolutely stand by these predictions and will happily put money on any or all of them.

Just a note about prediction #3. Telling me that Nostradamus predicted Napoleon, or whatever, doesn't count. It's easy to interpret vague nonsense to mean anything you like after the fact. What I want to see are real, solid predictions about the future. Like the Rapture prediction.

And, on prediction #1, all those guys who are waiting to be taken up to heaven tomorrow, are going to feel really embarrassed on Sunday, and not a bit let down. Please don't laugh at them too much as they make their way, red faced, to church.

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