Friday, March 28, 2008

Opinion, Belief, Greg Egan and Philip K Dick

I’m currently reading Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. It is a collection of short stories. The ideas in them are extraordinary.

I have certain moral, ethical, and political beliefs. However I know that if a sufficiently strong argument was made against any of these beliefs I could change my mind. I also know that if a billion tiny nanomachines were injected into my skull and rearranged the structure of my brain they could also change my mind.

If, like me, you have decided to reject the idea that human beings are “defined” by an immortal soul then you are left with a wholly materialist (or “physicalist,” as materialist has the wrong connotations...) view of what a person is.

The physicalist view is that everything that makes up a human being can be expressed in the ordinary matter of the universe as we understand it at this point. We don’t have to invoke anything metaphysical to explain consciousness, love, art, mind, personality, or free will.

And if this physicalist view is correct then whenever we change our minds the person we were dies and becomes the person we are now. Of course this is nonsensical. Human beings are dynamic: changing with time. Phillip K. Dick spent a lot of time thinking about these topics:

The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?

If my most fundamental beliefs; including: “I love my family” and “killing people is wrong” can be altered in this way then what is it about me that can truly be described as me?

The basic atoms I am made of are constantly in flux, and are rarely the same for more than a month or so. The shape of the pattern of these atoms also changes over time. I have a beginning and an end, and I am of finite physical size. I probably have more in common with people my own age than I do with my “self” from ten years ago.

So what gives? What am I? Does this question mean anything and if so, what is the answer? Egan’s book explores all these themes in a fascinating and readable way. Egan isn’t so arrogant as to offer answers, but he is uniquely gifted in posing the questions.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

On Steampunk Design

One of my favourite SR subgenres is that of "steampunk." I love Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships.

Recently there have been a number of steampunk style casemods. These are great.

Part of the idea of steampunk is a celebration of the mechanisms within the machine itself.

There is also romance. The "style" of Steampunk, as exemplified by Alan Moore's depiction of The Nautilus in his The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series.

This "Bi-Orbital Spectral Audiometer" from Professor Emilio Zanturas is an example of a Steampunk style machine where the romance and style is more dominant than the fundamental mechanisms, which are hidden from view.

Here is another rather lovely Nautilus-inspired movie theatre from the designers of Tokyo Disneyland:

Combining this celebration of the mechanism with Victorian-era materials like brass, riveting, mahogany panelling, and a bespoke finish has lead to some amazing creations, all lovingly catalogued by the superlative Boing Boing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is dead.

I'd have really liked to have met the guy at some point.

Clarke wrote the first ever "grown up" book I ever read: 2010: A Space Odyssey.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Asus Eee, Google and Cloud Computing

I saw an Asus Eee in an electronics shop today. It is qualitatively different from any laptop I have ever seen. It has the feel of a child’s plaything, and carries the same air of cheapness.

As Charles Stross says, the laptop and PC are both heading for a period of commoditisation. As the cost of laptops, PCs, and consumer electronics in general start to fall they will become as expendable as pocket calculators and digital watches.

Aside from the size, the two things that struck me about the Asus Eee are how quickly it starts up, and the operating system. The OS is some Linux derivative. Because the Eee has a solid-state hard-drive and no disk drive it has no moving parts (except for the hinge and keyboard) and as such immediately feels less fragile than a normal laptop. There are no air vents either. Altogether it gives the impression of something you can pour tea on and drop on the floor and it will still work.

The OS is pretty straightforward. There is no messing around with desktop metaphors. There is a simple tab-based menu system with applications grouped into web, office, games, education etc. A great deal of the Eee functionality is based on connections with the Internet, and specifically with the web.

As I said, the laptop restarts in seconds. One of the single biggest causes of minor stress in my life is slow computers. It is a joy to finally discover one that starts in less than ten seconds.

These days most laptop/PC functionality for the casual user is connected with the Internet. Even office programs are now being brought online. Games are now played online. Programs can be developed online (I can’t actually bring an example of this to mind but I know they are there).

Would I buy an Asus Eee? Yes. If I had the disposable income, and if I actually needed one, and if I didn’t know that before my current lappy conks out there will be many cheaper and better laptops in the same league of cheapness and niceness as the Eee.

Google and Cloud Computing

If the Eee teaches us that laptops will become (even) cheaper and (more) ubiquitous then other movements in the world of technology show us even more about the nature of the world ahead.

One of the big buzzwords of recent months has been the idea of “cloud computing” where instead of running programs on a box on your desk, you just enter the data and the commands and they are actually processes in a big “cloud” out on the Internet. Eee-style computers will presumably one day be connected to the Internet via high-bandwidth links and farm out surplus processing to large servers many kilometres away.

Companies like Google have recently been moving towards support of this sort of computing. The Register article where I first noticed this is here. Those at The Register use the charming phrase data smelters (coined here) to describe the vast powerhouses of computation that exist for the purpose of swapping bits in the service of the Net.

The problem for Google is that what they really have (and all they’ve ever really had) is a good search algorithm, a superb brand, and a lot of computers. The search techniques that made Google so successful have now been copied by other search engines. The brand remains as strong as ever, and will be crucial to Google’s long term survival.

The last point: the lot of computers, gives us our glimpse into the future, not just of Google, but of computing in the second quarter of the 21st century. Vast data-warehouses connected via high-bandwidth links to thin clients like the Asus Eee.

Moore’s Law will probably chunter along for another few decades and then we’ll be left with ludicrously cheap laptop/mobile form-factor devices equipped with prodigious memory and processing power themselves, but connected via high-speed links to processing yards many orders of magnitude more powerful.

Every individual on the planet will own one of these cheap laptop/mobile form-factor devices but only the largest companies and states will be able to pay the huge costs of running the data centres.

Of course this could all be complete rubbish. It could be that swarm computing networks will emerge that reject the centralised client-server model in favour of a more egalitarian “flat” model without hierarchies.

Anyway: I’m willing to bet an Asus-Eee-equivalent of 2018 (i.e. £50 or thereabouts) that the next major upgrade of the MacBook family will involve a solid-state hard-drive.

Tom out.

UPDATE 21/03/2008: Goodness me I am such a fool. The most recent update of the MacBook family, the MacBook Air, does have a solid-state hard-drove option.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Morals and Markets with Robert Skidelsky

Economics boffin Robert Skidelsky has written an interesting article over at CiF about the morality of capitalism, this is my paragraph-by-paragraph response:

"...Because no social system can survive for long without a moral basis..."

This isn't really correct. Slavery persisted for centuries in the ancient world as the economic prime mover and yet was and is morally suspect.

"...It has often been claimed that capitalism rewards the qualities of self-restraint, hard work, inventiveness, thrift, and prudence. On the other hand, it crowds out virtues that have no economic utility, like heroism, honour, generosity, and pity..."

I think this depends on other cultural factors. Capitalism may encourage or discourage certain characteristics, but it doesn't mean these don't exist.

Also it isn't entirely true that honour and generosity are "crowded out" - good businessmen and businesswomen know the value of honour and generosity.

"...For quality of life, we have to rely on morals, not markets..."

This is very true.

"...But it is truer to say that the market economy is sustained by the stimulation of greed and envy through advertising..."

I wonder if it is useful to distinguish between capitalism and consumerism, and if it is useful to distinguish between "good" (buying organic, locally produced, low-CO2-profile vegetables) consumerism and "bad" (cigarettes) consumerism?

"...In a perfectly competitive market, with full information, models of the market show that all the factors of production receive rewards equal to their marginal products, ie all are paid what they are worth..."

As in the market, so in life. If everyone had "full information" we'd all be much happier. But because having "full information" is unfeasible it isn't useful to use this as a stick to beat capitalism with.

"...But no actually existing capitalist market system spontaneously generates justice in exchange..."

This is why liberal democracies have (democratically elected) representatives who control the state and who provide justice.

"...That is why the liberal theory of justice demands at a minimum equality of opportunity: the attempt - as far as is compatible with personal liberty - to eliminate all those differences in life chances arising from unequal starting points..."

Sorry, I should read down further before I comment. I agree completely.

"...Finally, the claim that everyone is - under ideal conditions - paid what they are worth is an economic, not a moral, valuation..."

Yes, I agree with this.

"...The simplest way of doing this is to restrict advertising. This would prune the role of greed and envy in the operation of markets, and create room for the flourishing of other motives..."

Governments do restrict advertising. "Re-moralising" wants is an interesting idea. But I don't see how "restricting" advertising accomplishes that.

Promoting morality is a difficult thing to do without being morally puritan and judgmental of other people's pleasures.

I would say that a good step would be to replace "RE" lessons in UK schools with "morality and ethics" lessons where students were taught about different moral and ethical structures and asked to consider moral and ethical problems.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Word of the Day: Agonism

Agonistic pluralism is the idea that we will never eliminate all the divisions and differences of opinion in society, and that it is unwise to try. It also means individuals can win and succeed, but not forever and not in everything. You can be President of the United States but not for more than eight years. You can build up a big corporation but not a monopoly.

Rather than try to destroy what are really irreducible differences of opinion; as liberalism, socialism, capitalism, and all the other political and economic ideologies attempt to do, agonism tries to find ways to accommodate disagreement and pluralism.

I stumbled across this concept today whilst reading Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder. This is a superb transhumanist, post-singularity, hard SF novel that deals with some interesting ideas about reality, democracy, and the future of humankind.

I strongly recommend everyone read this book. If you don't like it then I clearly do not have the same taste in literature as you do. Neither of us is right or wrong, so what does it matter?

Addendum: I know this doesn't affect irreducible differences, but there are some things that are considered (almost) universally bad and as such will still be considered bad in a agonistic situation. and 6pli

I've applied the ubercool data visualisation tool 6pli to my account: it's pretty awesome, and give me a new appreciation for how my interests overlap and relate to each other.

The results can be viewed for yourself here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Saul Bass

A while ago I commented on a trend in the design of movie and TV programme credits.

I noticed this style again in the opening credits of the sublime Mad Men.

A casual reference in The Independent informed me that this style was pioneered by someone called Saul Bass.

This sequence is inspired. Saul Bass is truly the Duke Ellington of graphic design.

This style must be retro at the moment.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


There are three distinct meanings of the word "politics."

  1. The process by which groups of people make decisions.
  2. The study of the processes, conventions, power structures, rules, laws, ideologies, and schema involved in the making of decisions.
  3. The interactions between people involved in the process of making decisions.
The difference between the first and third definition is nice, to the point that I can't be sure there really is a distinction.

I dislike "office politics" and I dislike the personality-based gossiping that passes for political commentary in many newspapers (ooh, get me! - but I actually think commentators should concentrate on policy, process, and personality in that order of importance rather than the other way round).

I am fascinated by ideology. I haven't really made any firm ideological political commitments yet. In the past I've tried to define what my political beliefs are, but I've decided to suspend this definition for the time being to concentrate on policy and problem solving.

Ubuntu Update

This is by way of being an update, rather than a full blown review.

There are many aspects of Ubuntu that I like and there are some I dislike. The ones I like are:

  1. There is no need for tedious and memory-consuming virus scans.
  2. When new hardware is plugged in Ubuntu waits for me to do something about it, instead of trying (and failing) to be helpful by providing Autorun features as Vista does.
  3. Change is good. It's refreshing to use something other than Windows.
  4. There seems to be much greater scope for personalisation than with Windows.
All these things said, for the average and casual user there isn't a great deal in any of this. Most of the above points are more to do with the general crapness of Windows rather than anything good about Linux/Ubuntu.

Things I don't like about Ubuntu:

  1. After dual booting Ubuntu with Vista I can no longer disable my Synaptics touchpad.
  2. Ubuntu does not include native support for DVDs or mp3 players. I know that this is a niggle and shouldn't be a big obstruction, but for the casual and lazy user (like myself) it is just irritating.
  3. New things scare me.
  4. Ubuntu defaults to being so like windows that there doesn't really seem to be much point.
  5. I've been prodding the bash shell or whatever it's called and it's all very oldschool and cool but to be honest I don't want to have to learn a whole new language just to get my PC to work when a GUI would do. And yes, I know that I can do pretty much everything through the GUI but I'm lazy.
OK - my conclusion so far is that there really isn't much point to Linux. If it's ever going to go mainstream it will be through things like the Asus Eee, which Charles Stross comments on at length here.

I'm still having trouble understanding the ubiquity of Microsoft Office in business, when OpenOffice is free and does exactly the same thing (at least as far as 90% of corporate users are concerned).

I think when I buy a new PC or laptop the first thing I'll do is install Ubuntu and use it from day one. This way I will avoid falling into the habit of using Windows.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Who do They Think They're Kidding?

A while ago I commented on the peculiar way computer/web use is portrayed in advertising brochures for banks and universities and news websites.

I've found another one on the Java website!

Laptop-use in a forest!?


Such free-thinking-ness is absurd!

What is this? xkcd land?

Because that would be really cool!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Rudy Rucker and the Singularity

To quote from Rucker's post:

"This is because there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the “principle of natural unpredictability,” fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don’t allow for drastic shortcuts."

Rucker's argument is fair enough as far as it goes but the whole point of the statistical mechanics invented by Gibbs and Maxwell and Boltzmann is that once you have enough particles in a system you can make accurate statistical statements about that system.

So we have the gas laws, the laws of thermodynamics etc.

Another point worth making is that current developments in spintronics (computations using the "spin" of electrons) offer a layer of computation beneath that of atomic matter.

I concede that at some point "fudging" will have to take place, but as I pointed out before: statistical mechanics isn't really fudging. Diffusion can be accurately modelled without having to model every single damn particle.

Anyway my gut feeling is that if something like a singularity happens it will be much weirder than simply grinding up the Earth into nanomachines then running a simulated Earth on the nanomachines.

I mean c'mon, if you're a superhuman intelligence what's the first thing you're going to do? Create the perfect lay? Work out the formula for the perfect cup of tea (of course, according to Douglas Adams this is a much more difficult computational problem than most anything else...).

Neil Gershenfeld

I stumbled across this talk with MIT Bits and Atoms dude Neil Gershenfeld on from way back in 2003.

I'm too exhausted to comment on it now. But I implore you, dear reader, take a few minutes out of your day and read what Prof Gershenfeld has to say.

I'll comment on this further later.

Information Overload

Hi, my name's Tom and I suffer from Information Overload.

Every day I open up my web browser. The browser currently contains tabs linked to slightly over 100 blogs, newspapers, magazines, and news sites.

On a typical day each of these sites will have a couple of articles worth reading, but call it one article for simplicities sake.

On average each of these articles is around 500 words long.

That's roughly 50 000 words every day.

At the moment I'm also reading Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder, and Java for Dummies by Barry Burd.

I have a box of books in my bedroom and another virtual boxload in my Amazon wish list.

I also have a 9:00 - 17:00 job.

Something needs to be done.

But what?


RSS feeds have never impressed me. Taking blogs, mulching them up and squeezing them into an email format doesn't appeal.

The challenge then is to find a service or piece of software that combines several blogs together without pissing me off.

I would first have to define exactly what I wanted. This is actually pretty hard.

If anyone has any ideas I'd appreciate them. I haven't thoroughly researched RSS feeds and similar services and if I'm missing something I'd appreciate being told about it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Like most people I have a few neurotic manias.

One of them is the one where I compulsively switch off wall sockets that don't actually have an appliance plugged into them.

I'm trying to wean myself off this as there is no discernible benefit.

However there is also my inability to tolerate TV screens left on standby. This is fairly reasonable as that TV is consuming valuable 'leccy but not actually being used. The puritan in me also suspects that getting up and turning the box on reduces sloth.

So standby button are bad for the soul.

The hotel across the street recently had a new wall-mounted flat-screen TV installed.

The room is unoccupied now but I can see that little red dot floating in the darkness...

...taunting me...

It would be the work of moments to email the hotel requesting they replace the offending item with a TV not equipped with a standby button.