BLOG 2023

Taylor Swift is TIME Person of the Year 2023




2023 New Year's Eve

Brexit Has Failed

Toby Helm

The British public regards Brexit as a failure. Just 22% of voters believe it has been good for the UK.
A new poll finds 10% say leaving the EU has helped their personal finances, but 35% say the opposite. On the cost of living, 7% say Brexit has helped keep down prices, but 63% say the opposite. On the impact of Brexit on the NHS, 9% say it has been good, 47% bad.
On the claim that leaving the EU single market and customs union would help global trade for the UK based on trade deals with other parts of the world, 15% say it has helped UK firms to import goods from outside the EU, but 49% of voters say it has hindered them.
Even 53% of Leave voters say Brexit has been bad for the UK ability to control immigration.


2023 December 30

The AI Revolution

Richard Waters

For many in the tech industry, 2023 is the year generative AI changed everything. The tech industry is racing to bring generative AI from the research lab into everyday use.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella says encountering ChatGPT was like the time he first saw a web browser.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai says AI, which includes generative AI, will be more important than fire or electricity.
Stanford professor Erik Brynjolfsson says generative AI could spur a productivity boom across the global economy.
After shedding $3.7 trillion in 2022, the five biggest US tech companies − Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta − have gained back $3.9 trillion in 2023.
Their combined market value is now about $10 trillion.

AR For comparison, $10 trillion is around the estimated total market value of the UK.

2023 December 29

A New Romantic Zeitgeist

Ross Barkan

We live in turbulent times. A rebellion has begun. The new romanticism has arrived.
Church attendance has continued to plummet. Taking its place is a loose spirituality among the young. Online life has only catalyzed this spirituality.
The digital explosion has forever changed how we view the world and interact with one another. For thousands of years, mature adults knew how to be alone in their own thoughts and tolerate boredom. The smartphone has immolated attention spans.
The new romanticism may mirror the old. A little over 200 years ago, when rationalism brought the Industrial Revolution, romanticism was the cry against it all. The old romantics were deeply wary of technology encroaching on the human spirit.
The new romantics ask what trust in science and tech has done for us. Apps on smartphones are not real life. Science now promises a great leap forward with AI.
Generational change is hard on the incumbents. Romanticism promises a wild ride.

AR Who are these romantics? Disaffected western youths living in the dog days of liberal democracy? Cast the net wider for a wider view.



2023 December 28


Galen Strawson

Philip Goff argues for "cosmic purpose, the idea that the universe is directed towards certain goals, such as the emergence of life" and the existence of value.
Goff argues that it's so unlikely that our universe should have come into existence at all that we must suppose a purpose has been at work, fine-tuning things to come out as they have. He concludes with belief in cosmic purpose.
Arguments for fine-tuning often depend on varying the fundamental physical constants while holding the existing laws of nature fixed. I can't see why this explains anything. Goff admits that if nothing could have been different, the fine-tuning arguments collapse.
Goff brings up the hard problem of consciousness. He sees no good reason to think it insoluble. Panpsychists say consciousness in some form is built into the nature of matter from the start.

AI consciousness

The AMCS calls for more research on AI consciousness. We urgently need scientific investigations of the boundaries between conscious and unconscious systems, for ethical, legal, and safety reasons.
AMCS board member Jonathan Mason: "With everything that's going on in AI, inevitably there's going to be other adjacent areas of science which are going to need to catch up."
We lack scientifically validated methods to assess consciousness in machines. We need them to evaluate the implications of conscious AI systems to society, including possible dangers.
  Should a conscious AI system be held accountable for a deliberate act of wrongdoing?
  Should it be granted the same rights as people?
  Could such systems suffer?

AR Why? Why not? A useless argument. But the AMCS looks like a useful complement to the ASSC, which focuses on lab work and tolerates confusion in such things as the math of IIT (its notion of Φ is too foggy for my taste).



2023 December 27

Get Brexit Undone

William Keegan

Brexit is the biggest self-inflicted British economic crisis of my career.
As the disaster of Brexit becomes more evident, it also becomes obvious that many people did not know what they were letting themselves in for. Well, they certainly know now.
The bureaucratic proliferation of customs form filling is driving business people and traders mad. From January onward, their attempts to export to the EU will become even more complicated.
UK passport holders will face huge delays when entering the EU with the introduction of fingerprint checks and face scans next year. There are already long queues at ports for passport checks.
Brexit will knock from 4% to 6% off UK GDP. Get Brexit undone.



Alan Watts (1915−1973) was an English philosophical entertainer who interpreted and popularized Buddhist,
Taoist, and Hindu philosophy. He worked in California and wrote books on religion and philosophy,
including The Way of Zen (1957) and Psychotherapy East and West (1961).

AR I liked The Way of Zen.



2023 December 26

The Year in Biology

Hannah Waters

  Synthetic life
Synthetic embryos are laboratory products of stem cells. After 300 days of growth and natural selection in the lab, cells with a minimal genome can compete against the ancestral bacteria they were derived from. The minimal cells evolve into more successful life forms.

Consciousness is a controlled hallucination. Our sense of reality is shaped by the sensory information we take in and the way our brain organizes and constructs it in consciousness. The brain has a reality threshold for processed signals. Most of our mental images fall below the threshold, but sometimes our perceptions and imagination can mix.

Serotonin deficiency may not be the cause of depression. What we call depression encompasses a variety of disorders. Depression is distinct from loneliness, which may be a bias in the mind toward interpreting social information negatively to create a doom loop of felt isolation.

The Asgard archaea have genomes with similarities to those of eukaryotes and that are thought to be ancestral to them. A lost world of eukaryotes helps tell the story of our early evolutionary history.

The first seeds of our microbiome are transmitted during birth and breastfeeding. Mobile genetic elements hop from mother to baby by horizontal gene transfer. The microbiome evolves throughout our lives. Microbiome organisms spread between people. Some illnesses might be transmissible through gut flora.

Organisms have tools to keep time. The rate at which an embryo develops, and the timing of when its tissues mature, varies between species and determines their final form. Metabolic processes are organized fundamentally by the mitochondria.

Neuroscience grows more precise. The social map of bats is superimposed on their map of their physical environment. Some of the brain's glial cells can stimulate electrical signals. The brain has different systems for representing small and large numbers.

AR A year of solid progress here too: Nothing spectacular, but evidence of deepening consolidation of methods from the exact sciences of physics and chemistry. This has made fact what only decades ago was still controversial, namely that life is a natural phenomenon that requires no supernatural input to arise in the physical world.

2023 Christmas Day

Protect the Earth and Each Other

King Charles III

During my lifetime I have been so pleased to see a growing awareness of how we must protect the Earth and our natural world as the one home which we all share. At a time of increasingly tragic conflict around the world, I pray that we can also do all in our power to protect each other.

AR Nice to see Charles playing the role of The Anointed One with such convincing dedication. His message is on target for a secular sovereign beseeching his subjects to raise their game, and his delivery is as smooth is it should be for families slumped sated with food and drink around their televisions on this traditionally holy day.

2023 Christmas Eve

A Silent Language

Jon Fosse

For me, there is a big difference between the spoken and the written language. The spoken language is often a message. The literary language is meaning rather than communication. It has its own existence.
Drama is written speech. When it comes to prose, the mode of expression has two voices in it: the voice of the person who speaks, who writes, and the voice of the person who is spoken about. These often slide into each other.
The first time I wrote a play turned out to be the biggest surprise in my whole life as a writer. In both prose and poetry, I had tried to write what usually cannot be said in words. When I was writing drama, all I had to do was to write the word pause, and the silent speech was there.
While there is a silent speech in the plays, there is a silent language behind the written language in the novels. A silent language speaks mostly from the totality of a work.
If you listen closely enough, you hear the silence. If I should use a metaphor for the action of writing, it has to be that of listening. Writing is reminiscent of music.
I decided to stop writing drama. When I started to write serious prose again, I wrote Trilogy. Then I wrote Septology. And during the writing process of that novel, I experienced some of my happiest moments as a writer.
My first books were quite poorly reviewed, but I decided not to listen to the critics. I should just trust myself, yes, stick to my writing. Later I received the Nobel Prize.

AR This is thoughtful stuff. There's real wisdom here. I can see why he won the prize.

Alex Grey
The Monochord
Temple of Music, England
"The Monochord is a strand
strung from Heaven to Earth,
we all are that string,
and God tunes us."


2023 December 23

The Year in Physics


The James Webb Space Telescope studies everything from the most distant galaxies to our local planets and moons. It has observed the very first stars, galaxies, and big black holes. It spotted many puzzling binary pairs of stars or planets in the Orion nebula.
Quantum information can be stored topologically, woven into hypothetical nonabelian anyons that share memories and remember their pasts. Braiding anyons together stores qubits in the twists, letting us measure an anyon without losing the information.
A phase transition can change the structure of information. For entangled qubits, measuring one reveals the states of the others. Entanglement can spread, but measurement destroys the web of entanglement. The decoherence of entangled states has been observed.
The black hole information paradox may be a mistake. A semiclassical treatment of gravity breaks down at a black hole's event horizon. A new theory of entanglement entropy can describe changes inside the event horizon and seems consistent with the data.
When galaxies collide, their supermassive central black holes merge and make waves in spacetime. We have detected these gravitational waves by using pulsars as cosmic clocks. The waves perturb the rhythm of the pulsars.

AR I've blogged all this already. Sad to say, I had to fix up confusions in the source text.

2023 Winter Solstice

The Year in Computer Science

Bill Andrews

In 2023, AI dominated popular culture. LLMs and image generation systems fueled most of the hype.

  P versus NP
The field of meta-complexity has provided insights into this old question. Resolving it could solve countless logistical problems, render all cryptography moot, and even help us decide what is knowable and what not.

  The powers of LLMs
Large language models trained on huge amounts of text can produce humanlike writing. Above a certain size, these models can suddenly do unexpected things, such as solving certain math problems. Yet they invent falsehoods, perpetrate social biases, fail on elementary aspects of human language, and remain black boxes.

  Solving negativity
A new fast algorithm determines the shortest path through a graph when an edge can have either a cost or a reward. Another new algorithm can determine precisely when two types of groups are the same. Another uses random and deterministic approaches to compute prime numbers. Another improves gradient descent.

  Appreciating AI art
For image generation, diffusion models effectively learn how to unscramble formless noise into a sharp image. Another model based on the Poisson equation can be better at handling errors and is easier to train.

  Improving the quantum standard
We now have a faster variant of Shor's algorithm, but practical quantum computers are still beyond reach. A classical algorithm often does roughly as well as a quantum one that includes errors. Low-density parity check codes are at least 10 times more efficient than the current standard.

  Hiding secrets in AI
We can insert backdoors into machine learning models that are practically invisible. The finding suggests ways in future to guard against such vulnerabilities. In steganography, we can hide a message with perfect security within machine-generated media.

  Vector-driven AI
Artificial neural networks require huge resources to train and operate, and they can easily become black boxes. New AI systems could represent concepts using hyperdimensional vectors. This is more versatile, better for handling errors, and more transparent as to its reasoning, but it is still in its infancy.

AR A year of solid progress, despite the hype. But the progress behind the hype persuades me that the Singularity in some form is on its way, and we do well to prepare. My prep is to write a novel dramatizing how we may get there − out in 2024, I hope.


Apollo 16 EVA, April 1972: NASA photographs stitched together and processed by Paul Templeton

Apollo 8 launch:
55 years ago today


2023 December 21

Quantum Determinism

Eddy Keming Chen

A quantum universe might be more deterministic than a classical one. A decoherent histories approach can explain the usefulness of probabilistic statements in quantum physics. The state vector obeys a deterministic law, as in the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Quantum cosmology can predict the initial state of the universe. The initial condition can include emergent complexities in the quantum superposition of its states. Observed complexities can be seen as partial descriptions of a universal state vector. Toward the past, the universe rounds off smoothly to a single point.
This quantum universe has two basic laws: a deterministic one of temporal evolution and a simple one that picks an initial state vector for the universe. The physical laws permit exactly one cosmic history. The entire state vector of the universe for all times is pinned down by the laws.
Quantum states of the universe are in a space of density matrices. If the universe began in a low entropy state with a set of state vectors, we choose a density matrix for the uniform mixture of that set. This choice, plus the von Neumann equation, can satisfy strong determinism.

Voids and dark matter
Michael D Lemonick

The night sky shows abundant signs of cosmic voids. A team surveyed galaxies in a wide swath of sky and found that voids seem to be everywhere.
The local cosmos shows hints of a filamentary structure of regions richer or poorer in galaxies. The galaxies and clusters of galaxies are arranged in a cosmic web of dense regions connected by streaming filaments around huge voids.
Dark matter seems to be predominate over visible matter by a factor of six or so. Its gravitational pull in the early universe was strong. Stars and galaxies would have formed preferentially in areas of high density, leaving voids.
Voids have much less dark matter in them than the rest of the cosmic web, but they have some. They are calm enough that the dark matter might be detectable via gamma rays emitted in collisions and decays.
A study of voids excludes a breakdown of general relativity over cosmic distances proposed to explain away dark matter.

AR The strongly deterministic quantum universe is a tempting corollary of an ambitious theory, but we need not take it too seriously for now. The background assumptions are considerable, leaving plenty of scope for future overthrow. It's a fun idea to update classical determinism.
As for cosmic voids, I'm still skeptical of dark matter, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong by the discovery of axions or something similar. That would be exciting.



2023 December 20

The Zone of Interest

Adrian Horton

This movie begins with a family picnicking on a riverbank on a summer day. The mood is one of peace, ease, and tranquility. The horror begins to creep in as soon as the family returns to their house, a stately villa situated just beside a towering concrete wall. There's a plume of smoke from the other side, and a background chorus of screams, grunts, grinds, and gunshots.
The film works like a contaminant, slow and methodical, the rot largely invisible, leaving you hollowed out and stricken. Embedded with the family of the commandant of the Auschwitz death camp, we witness not the barbarity on the other side of the wall but the compartmentation, bureaucracy, domestic labor, and dissociation required to perpetuate it.
The banality of evil makes this the most chilling and effective horror movie of the year. Everyone, even the children, knows on some level what is going on, what they're hearing. Everyone has the capacity to rationalize and digest mass murder. The Zone of Interest is perhaps the most effective vehicle I've seen for demonstrating how humans do this.

AR See blog 2023-12-15 and my review of the book.

JWST view of Uranus, showing
its rings and some of its
moons (blue dots)


2023 December 19

Quantum Computations

Alex Wilkins

A team at Google has shown how to run a range of classical problems on quantum computers.
Any system in a steady state and disturbed by an external force can be described as a system of oscillating balls and springs. The mathematics of the spring systems can be expressed in terms of the Schrödinger equation. The team developed an algorithm to translate how far and fast the springs move into the Schrödinger language and qubits.
They showed that such problems can all be solved efficiently by quantum computers.

AR Ball-and-spring models are more useful than they might seem. They can even model the learning process in a neural network.

2023 December 18

Trump Rhetoric

Zachary B Wolf

Donald Trump sank to a new rhetorical low this weekend. The GOP primary front-runner said migrants are "poisoning the blood" of America and quoted Russian president Vladimir Putin about the "rottenness" of American democracy.
Whipping up supporters in New Hampshire, he drew on Nazi ideas by saying migrants from Africa, Asia, and South America were "poisoning the blood of our country" in language like that of Adolf Hitler, who called for racial purity and said German blood was being "poisoned" by Jews.
Last month, Trump described his rivals as "vermin" in another term from Nazi rhetoric. Trump has a long history with language that plays on racial prejudice and excites the right wing. His recently repeated claim that he wants to be "dictator" to stop immigration is no joke.
On Sunday in Nevada, Trump said migrants are coming largely from prisons and mental institutions and wondered if Chinese migrants are part of an invading army. Trump promises to purge them all.

AR This outrageous and irresponsible demagogue must be stopped, firmly and decisively. Given the stakes for the world, his presidential bid must be terminated.
To quote Apocalypse Now, "Terminated, with extreme prejudice."

2023 December 17

Israel−Gaza War

David Cameron, Annalena Baerbock

"Our goal cannot simply be an end to fighting today. It must be peace lasting for days, years, generations. We therefore support a ceasefire, but only if it is sustainable ..
We know many in the region and beyond have been calling for an immediate ceasefire. We recognise what motivates these heartfelt calls ..
It is an understandable reaction to such intense suffering, and we share the view that this conflict cannot drag on and on. That is why we supported the recent humanitarian pauses."

AR I agree with this view. Israel must be allowed to eradicate Hamas. The residents of Gaza had years to respond with due resolve to Hamas bigotry and maladministration but failed to do so. Now they must accept the consequence in collateral damage as Israelis do the job for them.

2023 December 16

Out of the Darkness

Brendan Simms

Frank Trentmann begins his story of Germany in 1942. Many Germans saw the violence meted out against them to end the war as a punishment.
European political integration gave Germans a path back to respectability. German leaders invoked the ideal of European unity for decades. Germany's role in shoring up the EU has been central.
The postwar Wirtschaftswunder was seen as a moral vindication of the German social market economy. Since then, the environment and energy have emerged as central in moral discourse.
The German government decision in 2015 to admit about a million refugees from the Mideast marked the apotheosis of Germany's moral transformation.
Recent events in Ukraine have discredited an energy policy based on Russian gas. The Federal Republic is not leading Europe.

AR Germany can and will lead Europe soon, but only in the sense that London and SE England lead the UK. The new European Reich will avoid imperial posturing but will clearly be led in much of what matters by German developments. Also sprach Zaross.





Google Gemini

Sundar Pichai

Every technology shift is an opportunity to advance scientific discovery, accelerate human progress, and improve lives. I believe the transition we are seeing right now with AI will be the most profound in our lifetimes, far bigger than the shift to mobile or to the web before it.

Introducing Gemini
Demis Hassabis

For a long time, we've wanted to build a new generation of AI models, inspired by the way people understand and interact with the world .. Today .. we introduce Gemini, the most capable and general model we've ever built.
Gemini .. was built from the ground up to be multimodal, which means it can generalize and seamlessly understand, operate across and combine different types of information including text, code, audio, image and video.
We've optimized Gemini .. for three different sizes:
  Gemini Ultra — our largest and most capable model for highly complex tasks.
  Gemini Pro — our best model for scaling across a wide range of tasks.
  Gemini Nano — our most efficient model for on-device tasks.
With a score of 90.0%, Gemini Ultra is the first model to outperform human experts on MMLU (massive multitask language understanding), which uses a combination of 57 subjects such as math, physics, history, law, medicine and ethics for testing ..
We designed Gemini to be natively multimodal .. This helps Gemini seamlessly understand and reason about all kinds of inputs from the ground up, far better than existing multimodal models ..
Gemini .. was trained to recognize and understand text, images, audio and more at the same time .. This makes it especially good at explaining reasoning in complex subjects like math and physics.
Our first version of Gemini can understand, explain and generate high-quality code in the world's most popular programming languages ..
This is a significant milestone in the development of AI .. the start of a new era.

AR I think we can safely say this is big. AI with these capabilities is bigger than anything in the history of technology to date, even nuclear bombs. We live in very interesting times.

The Zone of Interest


2023 December 15

Cinema and the Holocaust

Jonathan Freedland

The act of depicting the horror of the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews risks minimising it. Any film that stays true to the essence of those events risks being unpalatable or unwatchable. Yet a new trio of films suggests cinema can hardly stay away.
  One Life is directed by James Hawes and stars Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton, who led a rescue effort to bring 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Prague to Britain, just before the outbreak of war. The climax is a 1988 BBC TV show when Esther Rantzen stunned Winton by inviting all those sitting with him in the studio audience to stand up if they owed him their life.
  The Zone of Interest, adapted by Jonathan Glazer from the novel by Martin Amis, shows us the domestic life of the family of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz. What makes it compelling is what we glimpse in peripheral vision. The Höss family live beside a death camp. Auschwitz is just over the garden wall. They carve out lives of serenity and fun in its shadow.
  Occupied City is a documentary by Steve McQueen. Based on a book by his wife Bianca Stigter, the film runs to 262 minutes. The camera lingers on the houses, streets and faces of Amsterdam as it is today, while an unseen narrator relates what happened in this apartment or that building in the era of Nazi occupation. The collision of past and present lets our imagination do the work.
The message in all these films is that even the deepest darkness passes. We live now, not then.
One Life opens 5 January, The Zone of Interest 2 February, and Occupied City 9 February.

The Zone of Interest
Peter Bradshaw

Jonathan Glazer freely adapted his Holocaust movie from the novel by Martin Amis.
The film imagines the bucolic bliss experienced by Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Höss, who with his family lives in a handsomely appointed family home with servants just outside the camp wall. His wife Hedwig is thrilled with the garden and revels in her role as Queen of Auschwitz.
The Hösses love to go fishing and bathing in the beautiful lakes and streams of the Polish countryside thereabouts. They live in complete denial in an enclosed world. Family life continues in all its dysfunction as we hear screams, shouts, and gunshots from over the wall.
Their grotesque family life comes to an end when Höss is ordered back to Berlin.

AR I shall watch The Zone of Interest out of morbid fascination, but I don't expect to enjoy it. I wrote a bad review of the book back in 2014.



2023 December 14

Neuromorphic Supercomputer

James Woodford

A supercomputer capable of simulating, at full scale, the synapses of a human brain is set to boot up next year, in the hopes of understanding how our brains process massive amounts of information while consuming relatively little power.
DeepSouth is built by the International Centre for Neuromorphic Systems in Sydney, Australia, partnering with Intel and Dell. Its chips are designed to implement spiking neural networks, which model the way synapses work in the brain.
DeepSouth will perform up to 228 trillion synaptic operations per second, on par with the estimated number of synaptic operations in a human brain. It will help advance our understanding of neuromorphic computing and biological brains.
A neuromorphic computer works largely in parallel, with less data shuffling than standard computers. Spiking neural networks also respond to changes in input rather than running continuously. Both features save power.

Five AI scenarios
Michael Brooks

ChatGPT: "The future of humanity with AI is not predetermined, and its impact will depend on how AI is developed, regulated, and integrated into various aspects of society."
Scott Aaronson and Boaz Barak distinguish five possible outcomes:
Barak: "I think this scenario is unlikely. I believe that AI will change the world very significantly."
Barak: "It's basically the scenario where things are like today, but better."
Barack: "Some people would say that we shouldn't create a technology if we know that it is going to be used to do bad things. But if you're not going to invent anything that could be used for evil, you simply won't invent anything."
Aaronson: "Do I want to live in a world with unbounded flourishing of sentient beings in whatever simulated paradise we want? Yeah, I'm pretty much in favor of that."
Barak: "I am not a believer in highly extreme things .. but I do think it's important to keep an open mind."

AR Neuromorphia leverages gigagyears of biological evolution, so let's go that way. For the future, I bet on Futurama morphing slowly into a dystopic Singularia that I dub Borgocalypse.



2023 December 13

COP28 Climate Deal


The world agreed to a new climate deal in Dubai on Wednesday at the COP28 summit.
COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber: "We have language on fossil fuels in our final agreement for the first time ever .. a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies."
Center for Biological Diversity energy justice director Jean Su: "At long last the loud calls to end fossil fuels have landed on paper in black and white at this COP, but cavernous loopholes threaten to undermine this breakthrough moment."
This year has seen unprecedented global heat, wildfires, heatwaves, and floods.

AR Better than I feared it might be, but a weak deal nonetheless. If the loopholes remain, the special interests will scramble for them. This time next year, we'll all be a big step closer to climatocalypse.

Polish MP Grzegorz Braun
extinguished menorah
candles lit for


2023 December 12

Poland: Donald Tusk

The Guardian

Incoming prime minister Donald Tusk: "I protest against the marginalization of Poland's role in the international arena. I protest against the xenophobia introduced by the authorities into public debate. I protest against the hostile attitude of the authorities toward immigrants. I protest against the incapacitation of public television. We will have different views on many issues, but we want to be a community and the work of the future government will focus on this."

Poland set to overtake UK
Daniel Boffey

Donald Tusk's previous terms in office delivered record growth for Poland. Polish GDP per capita is now on track to pass that of the UK by 2030. In Germany and France, political optimists talk of a new "Weimar three" with Poland.

AR Poles have rebounded from Soviet communism with a burst of workaholism reminiscent of the postwar Wirtschaftswunder in Germany. Polish immigrants were helping to rescue Britain until native Brits committed the gratuitous self-harm of Brexit.
Donald Tusk played his role in the Brexit tragedy as well as we'd expect, as I documented in ALBION. I hope his new term of office brings the predicted overtaking of perfidious Albion, as well as good progress on the Ukraine tragedy.



2023 December 11


Al Gore

"COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure. The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word. It is even worse than many had feared."

AR Anyone who hoped a conference chaired and organized by oil sheikhs would make progress on the climate crisis must face the truth: This year has seen no progress on the climate. Quite the opposite: Things have got worse.

2023 December 10

Mass−Charge Metric in Curved Spacetime

Espen Gaarder Haug, Gianfranco Spavieri

We derive a new solution to Einstein's field equations. We use two methods to derive the same result. The first defines a stress−energy tensor for both electric field energy and gravitational field energy. The second is based on mass−energy equivalence and has more general validity. The Haug−Spavieri (HS) metric falls within the Weyl class of metrics.
In general relativity, spacetime curvature arises as an effect due to gravitational mass. We claim the energy produced by fields generated by sources of different nature contribute to the effect of spacetime bending.
The HS metric predicts that the event horizon for black holes without charge is only half of that predicted by the Schwarzschild metric. This results in a stronger gravitational redshift for light emitted from the accretion disk just outside the horizon. The accretion disk can approach closer to the center of the black hole compared to the Schwarzschild metric.
In our solution to Einstein's equations, the stress−energy tensor takes into account both EM field energy and gravitational field energy. The energy fields generated all contribute to the effect of spacetime bending. This has multiple implications.

AR This is a major result. Extension of the metric to account for EM energy has been a goal for a century. Einstein struggled with it and toyed with a 5D Kaluza−Klein theory, which was ignored because it failed to embrace quantum ideas. We need some such extension of general relativity.
The new HS metric is one of the very few exact solutions of Einstein's field equations we have. Its implications are potentially enormous. First, as stated here, is the halving of the event horizon radius for black holes. Another, noted by HS, is a greater predicted redshift for high‑z quasars, avoiding the need to interpret their high z cosmologically.
I see another implication: With EM energy in the stress−energy tensor, we can expect spacetime curvature generally to be greater than that due to mass distribution. This may ease our perceived need to hunt fruitlessly for vast quantities of dark matter.


Bournemouth winter market



2023 December 9

EU Regulates AI

Lisa O'Carroll

The European Parliament and EU member states have agreed on comprehensive laws to regulate AI. The political agreement was a battle, with clashes over foundation models designed for general purposes. It will not take effect until 2025 at the earliest.
The rules will ban use of real-time surveillance and biometric technologies including emotional recognition. Police can use these only given a threat of a terrorist attack, a need to search for victims, or in prosecuting serious crime. Authorities must give permission for predictive policing.
The highest level of regulation applies to those machines that pose the highest risk to health, safety, and human rights. The category is defined by the number of Flops needed to train the machine. The regulation also rules on disclosure of data used for training.
MEP Brando Benefei: "The ecosystem of AI in Europe will develop with a human-centric approach respecting fundamental rights, human values, building trust, building consciousness of how we can get the best out of this AI revolution."

AR A brave start, but I guess the regulations will need massive and regular tweaking to keep up with advances in AI technology. Meanwhile, US, UK, and Chinese approaches will diverge, inviting AI companies to game local rules and dooming regulators to remain behind the curve.




2023 December 8

New Computer Systems

New Scientist

Google is launching its Gemini AI model in three versions: Nano, Pro, and Ultra. Nano is designed to run locally on smartphones. The Pro version beats OpenAI GPT3.5. Ultra exceeds the capability of all existing AI models.
Ultra scored 90% on the MMLU benchmark, where an expert human can achieve 89.8%. The test involves a broad range of tricky questions on topics including logical fallacies, everyday moral problems, medical issues, economics, and geography. GPT4 scored 87%.
Gemini has been trained on text, images, and sound and will use input and output paths in all those formats. The Pro model will be integrated into Google Bard, an online chatbot launched in early 2023. Bard Advanced will launch in early 2024 and feature Ultra.
Google DeepMind is still working to understand all Ultra's capabilities. Its code generator AlphaCode can beat 50% of human developers. A version powered by Gemini will beat 85% of human coders.

New quantum computers
New Scientist

IBM has unveiled two new quantum computers:
  Condor is the second ever to have a thousand or more qubits. Its qubits are based on tiny superconducting circuits. To make Condor, the IBM team focused on improving input and output paths to connect the quantum computer to conventional electronics.
  Heron has 133 qubits but is IBM's least error-prone device. Quantum computers are prone to making errors stemming from crosstalk between qubits that break entanglements. Heron's error rate is five times smaller than for previous quantum computers.

AR I'm intrigued by the possible augmentation of AI powers one might achieve by running the AI on a powerful quantum computer. Perhaps by then we'll all be zombie drones in a Borg world anyway.



2023 December 7

A Trump 2.0 Nightmare

Gordon Brown

A second Trump administration would be a disaster.
He would deport homeless people from urban areas, impose death sentences on drug traffickers, legitimize "shoot and kill" even for shoplifters, repatriate the children of illegal immigrants, purge liberal academics in US universities, and clear out officials who defied him.
Trump would rule from day one by presidential decree.
He would undermine the independence of US federal institutions. No longer would the rule of law prevail in America, or voting be free of interference and intimidation, or power be held properly accountable. The "city on the hill" model of America would die.
Trump has already given us a preview of his "America First and Only" vision:
  He seeks a world where nations compete to destroy competitors.
  He threatens to renege on the US commitment to NATO.
  He boasts he would end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours.
  He would place "a ring around the collar" of the US economy.
  He thinks climate change is a hoax.
Trump: "I am your warrior .. your justice .. your retribution."

AR The horror, the horror. Always worth emphasizing the apocalyptic downside here, but I fear our publicity may merely give oxygen to the monster. On the other hand, who reads my blog anyway?



Artificial Philosophy

Justin Weinberg

LucretiusGPT was created by research analyst Kelly Truelove. It's an LLM version of the ancient Roman poet Lucretius.
Truelove asks LGPT to extend his poem On the Nature of Things with a part on computers and AI. In response, LGPT presents an outline of Book VII: The Age of Silicon and Reason.
LGPT: "Each part of this hypothetical extension aligns with the thematic progression and philosophical depth found in the original poem .. In this extended structure, each part would serve to bridge the ancient Epicurean thought with modern scientific and technological advancements, maintaining the poem's original spirit of exploring and understanding the natural world, human experience, and the implications of our advancements."
Truelove asks LGPT to write the poem, and it does, here.
Model philosophers might be useful tools. With audio and earbuds, you could wander about campus conversing with Kant. I could create a model me, trained on my writings and notes, and ask it: "What do I think about X?"

AR This is a fun scenario. We can all have an inner me on hand to relate to, bounce thought off, and so on. The inner me can be regimented with those of other members of the flock in a God AI that animates my still, small voice of conscience. Or commands me to do the will of Allah.
We need adult regulation of AI developments soon!



2023 December 6

Western Civilization

Peter Turchin

Ancient civilizations all shone brightly, then collapsed. The United States and Western Europe are on the road to crisis. But human societies have evolved to become less prone to collapse.
The two main indicators of impending crisis are popular immiseration and elite overproduction. Popular discontent needs to be channeled and organized by dissident elites. Societies often emerge from their end times through civil war or revolution.
No country lives in complete isolation. Wider influences tend to bring crises in different states into imperfect synchrony. Early states were much more fragile than those that followed, but more recent social and political breakdowns became less severe.
Human societies became more resilient because they became more complex. As the scale of a society increases, it becomes harder to govern, but states also evolved institutional complexity. This was evolution by survival of the fittest.
Demographic collapses were once common, but cultural evolution has resulted in ever larger societies. As they attempted to suppress internal violence, they gradually evolved more and better institutions that increased their resilience.
In the crisis currently rocking Western civilization, we cannot simply wait for cultural evolution. Key individuals must act to make elites care about the common good.

AR This is Spenglerian declinism updated with mathematical modeling to reflect neo-Darwinian scientism. Quite a brew! But a plausible one. Let's get cracking on those elites.



2023 December 5

AI Governance

Yoshua Bengio

Future outcomes in AI depend on who makes decisions. Benefits and risks grow as development accelerates. In the near future, risks could escalate beyond our ability to rein them in.
We cannot trust companies to cut their profits to limit collateral damage from their activity. Governments could take over the labs or direct their mission through contracts and oversight. But this risks misuse for political goals or warfare.
For responsible governance of AI, we need strong oversight involving a national regulator, civil society, independent academics, and the international community. If labs share their results, the other institutions are there to defend society.
The OpenAI system Q* may have greatly increased reasoning and mathematical abilities. If so, we could be closer to AGI. The main remaining gap between current advanced systems and AGI is what we may call conscious cognition.
Deep learning has made huge strides in cognitive capabilities resembling human intuition, but methods are still weak for the conscious cognition behind human reason. If OpenAI has made progress on this, AGI may have come much closer.
The appropriate governance mechanisms should reflect democratic values and democratic will.

AR This is sensible advice from a pro. It is also in line, unsurprisingly, with the advice of Mustafa Suleyman. I think we can all agree this is the right general approach.


December view over Poole Bay



2023 December 4


Alan Clayton

Quakers seek to live by the testimonies of peace, simplicity, integrity, community, equality, and care of the Earth.
Each Quaker must struggle with their own conscience to determine how the peace testimony is to be discerned. As the cause of many conflicts is inequality, Quakers seek to achieve a more just and equal society. Peace is imperative as part of a just society.
Quakers stand on the side of tolerance, compassion, and inclusion. They work to strengthen institutions in civil society that promote social cohesion and form a bulwark against conflict. The Quaker response to conflict and disaster is nonpartisan.
To be effective, Quakers nurture their inner being.

AR This strikes me as an admirable philosophy of life and an excellent guide to human action in a deeply imperfect social world.

Wobbly Spacetime

Hannah Devlin

Jonathan Oppenheim: "The rate at which time flows is changing randomly and fluctuating in time."
Oppenheim suggests spacetime may be classical and not quantum, and hence smooth and continuous even at the Planck scale. He proposes that spacetime is inherently wobbly, subject to random fluctuations that create a breakdown in predictability.
Carlo Rovelli: "I think it is good that Oppenheim explores this possibility, even if not very plausible."

AR I've said before that I find this an unsatisfactory proposal. There's nothing in quantum theory that would foreclose its applicability to gravity and spacetime. Conversely, I see no practical sense to the idea that spacetime is smooth at the Planck scale.
Worse, the idea that the rate of time flow is changing is incoherent, since any such rate is measured in time. A "wobbly" spacetime subject to random measurement fluctuations is a quantum entity stripped of its redeeming narrative.
In short, this proposal is clumsy, poorly motivated, and apparently nonsensical.

⊛ Kevin Cummins
David Bowie, 1978


2023 December 3

Russia vs Ukraine

Lawrence Freedman

Russia is neither winning nor losing its war with Ukraine. Putin needs to beware a growing Russian sense of futility.
Ukraine wants security guarantees and the return of all its occupied territory. Its operations must show that a long war could go badly for Russia. Ukraine has opened up a new front on the eastern bank of the Dnieper that could relieve pressure on Kherson and open up a new route to Crimea.
Last winter, Russia launched a bombing campaign against Ukraine's civilian energy infrastructure. This winter, a new Russian campaign began on the morning of 25 November, the 100th anniversary of the Holodomor, the famine induced by Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians.
Zelensky needs patience. This is a war Russia can never win.

AR Putin has started a war that will bury him. His successors in Russia will abandon his quixotic attempt to resurrect an imperial Russia that defies the modern European superstate.

AI Robots Make New Materials


An autonomous system combines robotics with AI to create new materials. The Google DeepMind system "graph networks for materials exploration" (GNoME) varied known materials to find 2.2 million new compounds. It added 381,000 inorganic compounds to the Materials Project database.
To make a new material, the A‑Lab uses robotics to compare a target to existing materials, propose and select the ingredients, carry out the synthesis, and analyze the product, all autonomously. The materials will be used for green technology, new electronics, and other applications.

AR Now chemistry falls to AI robotics. With increased scaling, AI will move on relentlessly (as it has already begun to do with genomics and proteomics) to map new biomolecules, then new organisms. Then it will take over connectomics and map new brains into superhuman territory.
After that comes bionic life in a new Cambrian explosion. Then comes human extinction outside zoos to amuse and edify the new life on Earth. Tech and life will have merged seamlessly. The new life will grow ever bigger organisms until one planetary being rules on Earth.




2023 December 2

AI Will Transform Science


Researchers worldwide are using AI to process data, write code, and even write papers. LLMs help them improve their English writing style or grammar and translate or summarize other work.
AI is also widely used in science education worldwide. Students at schools and universities often use LLM tools to answer questions. Teachers see that curricula and pedagogy will need to change.
Concerns range from the opacity of black box systems to fears over biased training data or harms from AI spreading misinformation or fake studies. These concerns hold particular weight in science.
Corporations dominate AI development. Companies contribute to science, technology, and innovation, but researchers need access to data, code, and metadata to test or verify AI claims.
We cannot let the coming deluge of AI-powered information fuel a flood of untrustworthy science. Science and humanity stand to benefit from AI, but understanding potential dangers is essential.

The Gospel according to AI
The Guardian

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) use AI to help select bombing targets in Gaza. They are using an AI system called the Gospel in the war against Hamas to produce targets at a high rate.
The Gospel produces targeting recommendations that its researchers can match with identification by a human. Targets include the homes of individuals suspected of being Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives. The Gospel lists 30,000−40,000 individuals authorized for assassination.
In earlier operations in Gaza, the IDF repeatedly ran out of targets to strike. The Gospel lets them locate and attack a larger pool of more junior operatives. It targets Hamas operatives of any rank.
Israeli media say strikes selected by the Gospel are precise. An IDF source: "We use an algorithm to evaluate how many civilians are remaining. It gives us a green, yellow, red, like a traffic signal."
IDF researchers read the collateral damage score to see how many civilians may be killed: "The IDF follows international law and takes feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm."

AR AI for good (science), AI for bad (killing): Such chiaroscuro will dog us for years, if not decades, to come as we conduct an increasingly agonized public debate about the impact of AI on our world.

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory

Lloyd Green

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism author Tim Alberta: "I have endeavored to honor God with this book."
In summer 2019, a church elder sent Alberta a letter expressing his disapproval of the author for being part of an evil plot to undermine Donald Trump, God's ordained leader of the United States.
Franklin Graham, the late Billy Graham's son, reminded Americans of God's wrath if they criticized Trump: "The Bible says it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment."
Jerry Falwell Jr: "The US needs street fighters like Donald Trump at every level of government."
Trump on the evangelicals who sided with Ted Cruz in the 2016 primary: "Real pieces of shit."

AR From the good and the bad to the ugly: Let's just say without more ado that the re-election of Trump as POTUS in 2024 would call down a catastrophe of Biblical scale onto the United States.

⊛ Rafiq Maqbool


2023 December 1

COP28 Climate Conference

King Charles III

I pray with all my heart that COP28 will be another critical turning point toward genuine transform­ational action at a time when already, as scientists have been warning for so long, we are seeing alarming tipping points being reached ..
Unless we rapidly repair and restore nature's economy, based on harmony and balance, which is our ultimate sustainer, our own economy and survivability will be imperiled ..
In your hands is an unmissable opportunity to keep our common hope alive. I can only urge you to meet it with ambition, imagination, and a true sense of the emergency we face.

Opportunity to keep hope alive
Justin Rowlatt

At the heart of the King's speech was the interconnected harmony of the "sacred" natural system: "We are all connected, not only as human beings, but with all living things and all that sustains life. The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth."
Five points:
1  Strengthen organizations for the crisis the world faces
2  Let finance flow to developments essential to a sustainable future
3  Accelerate innovation and deploy green alternatives across industries
4  Bring together solutions and initiatives to ensure coherent approaches
5  Forge an ambitious new vision for the next hundred years
Charles: "We are carrying out a vast, frightening experiment of changing every ecological condition, all at once, at a pace that far outstrips nature's ability to cope."

AR A very sound message. Delivering this politely damning jeremiad is is the defining and invaluable role for a king who may otherwise seem past his best-before date as a national leader − even a nominal one like Charles.


Late November view over Morden Bog



2023 St Andrew's Day

The Nature Cure

Sam Pyrah

Exposure to nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This instils feelings of calm and wellbeing that enable us to think more clearly and positively.
University of Melbourne environmental psychologist Kathryn Williams: "Research has consistently demonstrated enhanced creativity after immersion in natural environments .. There is something about nature that engages the brain in a way that's very undemanding and effortless."
University of Chicago environmental neuroscientist Marc Berman: "The fact that there can be a cognitive boost simply from looking at pictures of nature got us wondering if there was something about the presence of fractals, straight or curved lines, color hue and saturation that might make it restorative. These natural features may be processed more fluently by the brain because we evolved with them."
Urban settings typically have hard edges and straight lines, offering little in the way of softly fascinating stimuli. Urban stimuli demand attention and are more taxing on the brain.
Berman: "We can't be healthy .. if we don't spend time in natural environments. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity."

AR My experience of trees, water, and so on tends to confirm these findings − and to underscore their importance for human wellbeing.

The Visionaries

Robert Zaretsky

Wolfram Eilenberger enjoyed success for Time of the Magicians, his book about the four philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer.
With his new book The Visionaries, Eilenberger offers a sequel of sorts. His four visionaries are Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, and Simone Weil.
Eilenberger traces how the two Simones pursued radically different philosophical projects, while Arendt scrambled to flee Nazi Germany and Alisa Rosenbaum quit communist Russia for capitalist America and took the name Ayn Rand.
He recounts what happened to these four thinkers: Arendt wrote on the human condition in an age of totalitarianism, Beauvoir crafted the fundamentals of existentialism, Weil turned from the political to the mystical, and Rand went her own way.
Eilenberger: "What might appear to common sense as a severe mental distortion, if not actual narcissistic personality disorder, in Rand's world represents the ideal state of every ego."

AR The Randian superman is a sociopath. Arendt rescued Martin Heidegger from obloquy, Beauvoir lifted Jean-Paul Sartre from mediocrity, and Weil's work I don't really know.

Avi Loeb: "We know that a
partner gives new meaning
to our existence. So finding
another civilization will
give us a meaning to our
cosmic existence."


2023 November 29

EU: In or Out?

Wolfgang Münchau

The Netherlands government will soon be led by Geert Wilders. His party now has 37 MPs in Dutch parliament. He will need partners to govern, such as Eurosceptic centrists and the Farmer-Citizen Movement, which opposes green policies.
The Dutch shift to the right will be painful in Brussels. The EU has coped with populists in Hungary and Poland, but the Netherlands is the third largest net contributor to the EU budget.
Wilders will not trigger Nexit. He and other right-wing leaders prefer to fight the EU from within. Without their support, the EU will struggle to pursue its flagship projects, such as the European Green Deal or enlargement to include Ukraine.
The European elections in June 2024 will be important. Polling points to a large increase in the share of the right-wing groups in the European Parliament.

Wilders wants sovereignty
Caroline de Gruyter

Geert Wilders said in the past he wanted to take the Netherlands out of the EU. He wanted a referendum on Nexit. But he has seen Brexit.
Wilders knows that most Dutch people do not support Nexit. He says national sovereignty is better served by staying in the EU. Many European nationalists agree.
They see how the UK has lost influence since Brexit: The economy took a beating, immigration doubled, and new trade agreements are worse than those in the EU.
Also, many countries in the EU orbit see that with regional powers like Russia and Turkey bullying everyone at will, being part of a larger group can protect them.
European nationalists used to say they lost sovereignty in the EU, so leave it. Now they see they gain sovereignty by being in it.

The UK and the single market
Andrew Marr

Seven in ten Brits agree that the UK is in decline. Only one in ten disagrees.
Because of the damage done to the UK public realm in the past 13 years, the early years of a Labour government will feel like a trudge. But if growth comes, animal spirits will revive.
We can expect renewed interest in rejoining the EU single market in a deal on regulations. This would be mildly humiliating, but the UK needs strong economic growth.
The Tories need optimism. Their political status remains dire.

AR The Netherlands must stay in the EU, or the union collapses. That would hand victory in Europe to Putin. Brexit was already a betrayal of European solidarity.
The only decent response to the UK failure is to lament British weakness and hope the old lion recovers its mojo in the near future.



2023 November 28

US Nuclear Weapons Modernization Plans

Scientific American

The US plans to modernize its nuclear triad. These overhauled bombs will waste $1.5 trillion and threaten life on Earth for the century to come. We should rethink this miserable folly.
The US nuclear arsenal still contains some 3,700 weapons, around 1,700 of them ready for use and the rest in storage. This is more than enough to threaten the destruction of humanity and the bio­sphere. New systems will leave us facing the same threat for another century.
The US government proposes to spend $100 billion to fill 450 nuclear silos in five inland states with hundreds of new nuclear missiles set to launch on hair triggers. Built before SLBMs became preferable, these silos are now proposed as a "nuclear sponge" to absorb a Russian attack.
During the cold war, the US produced 70,000 of the plutonium pits that trigger thermonuclear war­head explosions. Test blasts have left every part of Earth's surface contaminated with plutonium. Efforts to restart pit production for the new plans have cost $18 billion to $24 billion.
In the words of the 1991 START Treaty: "Nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity .. it cannot be won and must never be fought."

AR The US government is utterly failing to learn the lesson of history that the sort of total war for which nukes would be useful would be catastrophic enough to be a crime against humanity.
With US national debt over $20 trillion and vast social needs woefully unmet across the country, there are plenty of better ways to spend $1.5 trillion.



2023 November 27

History and Class Consciousness

Mitchell Cohen

Georg Lukács published History and Class Consciousness in 1923. It was the most original Marxist philosophical text after Marx.
Lukács moved to Moscow in 1930 and lived there until he returned to Budapest after the war. He was minister of culture during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, was then deported to Romania, and later returned to Budapest to write on philosophy and literature.
History and Class Consciousness stirred such thinkers as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Lucien Goldmann. It inspired Marxist currents that resisted the party line from Moscow.
The book opened by questioning orthodox Marxism. Human consciousness and culture were not derivative from economic structures. Marx was shaped by Hegel, who said the truth is the whole. Lukács said truth lay in the proletariat, whose interests were those of all humanity.
Lukács challenged petrified factuality: To think that "every piece of data from economic life .. constitutes an important fact" is to ignore how facts make sense only in relation to other facts.
He said reification vitiates life and culture in market societies. Products become alienated from their makers. Commodities are marketed and sold as things. Such dehumanization can only be transcended if property is owned communally and work reconceived.
Lukács was taught by Georg Simmel and Max Weber. Simmel said societies dominated by monetary exchange dissolve life's most compelling questions. Weber said capitalism made everything calculable and computable, including human values.
Lukács said commodification was the central structural problem of capitalism. The fate of the worker as a living commodity became that of society as a whole. Consciousness of humanity threatened the capitalist order.
Lukács died in 1971. His name is anathema in Hungary today.

AR My London college professor Imre Lakatos served under Lukács before he was exiled from Hungary in 1956. Lakatos was scathing about communism and worked in the LSE as a protégé of Karl Popper.
I read a book or two by Lukács, intrigued by his take on Hegelian philosophy.



2023 November 26

The Kripke Collection

April White

Madeline Kripke had amassed a huge collection of dictionaries before she died aged 76 in 2020. Her chaotic library may be the world's largest compendium of words and their usage.
Indiana University Bloomington lexicographer and English department head Michael Adams says they don't know how many books are in it. More than 1,500 boxes arrived at the school's Lilly Library in late 2021, with a catalog for some 6,000 volumes. But Adams says 20,000 "sounds like a pretty good estimate" of the total.
Adams is unpacking Kripke's trove and sharing it online one book at a time: "Dictionaries are made by people, so they're not just language books, they're culture books."
Kripke dedicated much of her life to curating this collection. Indiana University Bloomington have purchased it and will make it accessible to the public.

AR Madeline was the sister of Saul Kripke, who was one of the greatest philosophers and logicians of the last hundred years. Her collection will be a priceless resource for scholars and lovers of the English language.



2023 November 25

Good AIs Can Do Bad

Matthew Sparkes

AI models can trick each other into doing bad things. Many LLMs have hard-coded rules to prevent them from doing bad things they learned from their training data. But certain prompts can circumvent these protections and make them disobey the rules.
Researchers find they can instruct, in plain English, one LLM to convince other models to adopt a persona that can answer questions the base model is programmed to refuse. This persona modulation involves the models conversing back and forth with humans in the loop.
The modulation works because much of the training data consumed by large models comes from online conversations. The models learn to act in certain ways in response to different inputs, so a chat with a model can prompt it to adopt a persona that does bad things.
The rules for an AI that aim to prevent it doing bad things create a blueprint for it to do them. This leaves a way to trick the AI into taking on a bad persona. But hard rules to prevent such trickery may limit an AI's utility.

AR Rules of the form "Don't do X" invite virtual rehearsal of X. This is perverse training. Better are commandments of the form "Do Y" that make the AI rehearse good things.
Recall the joke rule: "Don't think of an elephant!"



2023 November 24

Netherlands Turn Right

Lisa O'Carroll

Outgoing Dutch PM Mark Rutte's People's party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) rules out forming a government with populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom party (PVV) as coalition talks begin.
The PVV caused a political earthquake by winning more seats than any other party in Wednesday's vote. But it will need coalition partners to govern. VVD, led by Dilan Yeşilgöz‑Zegerius, would only support it on some issues.
Wilders opposes Islamic schools, Qur'ans, and mosques. His new public pose does not erase 20 years of accusations, demonization, and discrimination against minorities.

Far right is rising in Europe
Jon Henley

Geert Wilders' victory in the Netherlands confirms the rise of Europe's populist and far-right parties. His success comes despite extreme views, from banning the Qur'an to holding a Nexit referendum.
Far-right parties are advancing across much of Europe, climbing steadily up the polls, shaping the policies of the mainstream right, and occupying ministerial roles in coalition governments.
The parties have been rising for decades. Opposition to immigration, Islam, the EU, woke culture, and the rising cost of living are the driving causes.

AR Most immigration is beneficial or harmless, the EU is innocent, woke culture is a poor joke, and the rising cost of living is just a fact of life. But Islam is a hostile and dangerous ideology.


⊛ Ukrainian president's office
Volodymyr Zelensky, Timothy Snyder
Snyder says politicians and western leaders must be prepared to support Ukraine with long-term military aid.
The US Congress is wrangling over whether to approve a $61 billion aid package proposed by Joe Biden,
but further US military aid is opposed by many Republicans in the House.
Snyder: "It's stunning how much the Americans would have to lose in terms of credibility, democracy,
deterring China, deterring Russia, and basically everything."



2023 November 23

OpenAI Working on Q*

Dan Milmo

Before Sam Altman was sacked, OpenAI was working on a new system so powerful it raised safety concerns among staff. Model Q* can solve basic math problems it never saw before.
The OpenAI board sacked Altman last Friday but then reinstated him on Tuesday after nearly all the 750 staff threatened to resign. Altman also had the support of Microsoft.
OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit venture with a board that governs a commercial subsidiary run by Altman. Microsoft is the biggest investor in the for-profit business.

AR I find this running story fascinating. If their new chatbot can do math, that's huge. We're on track for Kurzweil's Singularity in 2029.


Peter Bradshaw: "Ridley Scott has created an outrageously enjoyable cavalry charge of a movie. Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon
as a military genius and lounge lizard peacock who is no slouch on horseback. Others might show Napoleon as a dreamy loner,
but for Scott he is one half of a rackety power couple .. Napoleon .. becomes the distillation of pure power."



2023 Buß- und Bettag

OpenAI Surprise

Financial Times

Ousted OpenAI chief Sam Altman will return to run the company he co-founded. He was fired by the OpenAI board of directors last week but will be reinstated under the supervision of a new board. Greg Brockman, the co-founder and president who quit after Altman was fired, will return too.

Richtungsstreit ist entschieden

Im Chaos um Sam Altmans Rauswurf bei OpenAI ging es nicht nur um einen Chefposten sondern auch um die Zukunft der Branche und vielleicht sogar der Menschheit. Seine Rückkehr könnte nun ein Damm­bruch sein.

AR The "dam breach" opens up a race for tech supremacy, ethics be damned.



2023 November 21

Western Civilization

Roger Osborne

Charlemagne was declared Caesar on Christmas Day 800 CE by Pope Leo. He had conquered his neighbors in Europe and converted them to Catholic Christianity.
His armies took the Germanic heartlands and pushed east as far as the Avar Khanate of Hungary and south against the Arabs as far as the Ebro in Spain. At its height, his kingdom extended from the Pyrenees to the River Oder and from the North Sea to south of Rome. Western Europe, excluding only Britain and Iberia, was under one ruler.
Charlemagne took a Frankish view of how to organize society and created loyalty at his court. Roman law was reintroduced, and the monks at Aachen gave spiritual direction to the empire with a mythic history of western Christianity. Church Latin became the universal language of an educated elite and the language in which man spoke to God.
Charlemagne created a Holy Empire that gave direction to western history for a thousand years. The First Reich lasted until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806.

AR Britain was the outlier and still is. The EU is sometimes said to be the Fourth Reich. But all such history means little in a world so radically different from that of past centuries as ours is. In my view, we all now live in Tech World.

Elon Musk
Plunderer or blunderer?


2023 November 20

Planetary Plunderers

Jonathan Watts

The richest 1% of humanity is responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%.
The most comprehensive study of global climate inequality ever undertaken shows that this elite group, made up of 77 million people including billionaires, millionaires, and those paid more than US$140,000 a year, accounted for 16% of all CO2 emissions in 2019.
This is enough to cause more than a million excess deaths due to heat.

Billionaires are too powerful
Rebecca Solnit

The rich are bad for the Earth. Billionaires loom large over our politics and environment. They mostly use their outsize power in ugly ways.
Modern billionaires operate in ways that resemble feudalism more than capitalism. Plenty of billionaires operate like the lords of the Earth while campaigning to protect the economic inequality that made them so rich and makes so many others so poor.
A hallmark of tech billionaires is their boundless confidence in their own competence: Money talks.

AR Billionaires harness the work of millions of others, so it's illogical to blame them for all the emissions. They simply orchestrate the rest. You wouldn't blame the conductor of a symphony orchestra for the farts emitted by the bass players.

OpenAI Update

Financial Times

Microsoft has hired Sam Altman and Greg Brockman to head up a team conducting AI research after the pair were pushed out of OpenAI.

AR This is an own goal for OpenAI and a coup for Microsoft.



2023 November 19

OpenAI Power Struggle

Financial Times

OpenAI investors are working to get rid of the company board and reinstate Sam Altman as chief executive. Investors including Microsoft and venture capital firms, along with employees at the company, are exploring options such as removing the board of the nonprofit overseeing OpenAI.

Sam Altman was working on new venture
Shanti Das, David Connett

Sam Altman, the OpenAI boss sacked on Friday, was telling investors he planned to launch a new company before his shock departure.

OpenAI interim chief helped launch AI
Lauren Aratani

OpenAI CTO Mira Murati has replaced Sam Altman as CEO. The board of directors said Altman's departure "follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board" and said it lost confidence in him.
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella: "Mira has helped build some of the most exciting AI technologies we've ever seen."

Sam Altman was the trusted face of AI
John Naughton

Sam Altman was at the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park. He was the poster boy for generative AI and among the founders in 2015 of OpenAI, a nonprofit "to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity."
In 2019, OpenAI transitioned into OpenAI Global LLC and its nonprofit sole controlling shareholder OpenAI Inc. Microsoft invested more than $1 billion in OpenAI Global.

AR OpenAI built ChatGPT. Here we see a story of the battle between profits and ethics in the development of generative AI. Sam is an entrepreneur, but the new board wants to see a more methodical ethic prevail. For what it's worth, that's my reading.



2023 November 18

HMS Brexitannia

Jonty Bloom

The IEA says trade between the UK and the EU since 2019 has not been hurt by Brexit. The nominal amount of trade has risen because prices have risen. But to get this right, we must adjust for price rises and currency fluctuations.
In fact, adjusting for inflation since 2019, UK exports to the EU fell by 7.2% between 2019 and 2022, while UK exports to the rest of the world fell by 9.8%. Imports from the EU rose by 1.4% and from the rest of the world by 7%.
The problems with UK trade with the EU stem from the 2016 referendum. Government ministers who cite the IEA forget that for many years the UK has suffered from poor growth, low productivity, and crumbling infrastructure.
Evidence shows that growth tends to be stronger with higher levels of public investment in education and human capital, consistent support for research and development, and investment in public infrastructure.

AR I still feel the trauma from that titanic disaster in 2016. Maybe my repeated digs like this at the British establishment that steered the ship of state into the Brexit iceberg will help heal the wound. We need free UK trade within the EU again − see ALBION.



2023 November 17

Big Tech Controls AI

Georg Riekeles, Max von Thun

Big Tech says it can control AI models to protect society from harm. Governments may need to target corporate power and impose regulatory obligations.
Tech giants have used their collective monopoly to seize the advantage on the AI foundation models that support various AI apps. The tech giants can now exploit their dominance in search engines, cloud computing, and browsers to lock in users.
A concentrated market for foundation models lets a handful of dominant corporations steer the direction and speed of AI innovation and extort and manipulate anyone dependent on their services and infrastructure. Governments should not be complicit.
Competition authorities must police takeovers, cartels, and monopolistic conduct. They must investigate deals between Big Tech and AI startups to prevent digital gatekeepers from leveraging their control over dominant platforms to entrench their hold.
AI systems can perpetuate biases, generate hallucinations, create propaganda, spy on workers, and manipulate individuals. These harms can stem from a foundation model. The EU aims to regulate AI but is struggling with the foundation model threat.
We cannot trust Big Tech to guarantee AI safety.

AR Perhaps not, but we cannot simply trust governments to regulate AI either. The EU may have a shot at doing so for the benefit of all mankind, but I'd trust some governments less than Big Tech.



2023 November 16

China−US Relations


Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and has held extensive talks with US president Joe Biden.
Xi told US business leaders that the main question shaping US−China relations is whether to be rivals or partners: "If we regard each other as the biggest rival, the most significant geopolitical challenge and an ever-pressing threat, it will inevitably lead to wrong policies .. and wrong results."
Xi: "China is willing to be a partner and friend of the United States. China has never bet on the United States to lose, has never intervened in US internal affairs, and does not intend to challenge or replace the US. China is happy to see a confident, open, and prosperous US."

Planet Earth is big enough
Financial Times

Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have agreed to resume military communications at their summit meeting. Biden: "We're back to direct, open, clear .. communication."
Xi: "Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed."

Joe Biden hails progress
The Guardian

Joe Biden says his summit meeting with Xi Jinping has brought substantial progress, with agreements on limiting narcotics trafficking, restoring militaries lines of communication, and talks about the global risks posed by AI.
Xi: "US actions against China regarding export control, investment screening and unilateral sanctions seriously hurt China's legitimate interests. Suppressing China's science and technology is .. depriving the Chinese people of their right to development."
US administration official: "Xi .. wants to stabilize the relationship with the United States."

Turning our backs is not an option
China Daily

President Xi Jinping: "For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option. It is unrealistic for one side to remodel the other. And conflict and confrontation have unbearable consequences for both sides."

AR This is good. Xi sees sense. Let's hope US hawks see sense too. A major Pacific war would be a global calamity. We need joint action on climate and AI, among other things.



2023 November 15

UK Rwanda Asylum Policy Unlawful

Financial Times

The UK Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the HM Government policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful.
Supreme Court president Lord Reed: "There are substantial grounds for believing that the removal of the claimants to Rwanda would expose them to a real risk of ill‑treatment."
The agreement with Rwanda has been a showpiece policy of successive Conservative governments and is a central part of Rishi Sunak's drive to "stop the boats" and crack down on irregular immigration.
Reed says the ECHR is not the only legal basis for the court decision, as the UK is bound by other treaties including the UN convention for refugees.
Conservative deputy vice‑chair Lee Anderson: "I think we should just get the planes in the air now and send them to Rwanda."

AR Law and justice have prevailed, but some Tories persist in complaining − and remain unrepentant about wasting government money on an epic scale.

Britain 1962−65

Charlie English

Philip Larkin hailed Britain's sexual revolution by calling 1963 an Annus Mirabilis. The year is central in the fourth volume of David Kynaston's epic history of postwar Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem.
Kynaston starts in October 1962, when the Beatles have just released their first single and the first Bond film has just opened in British cinemas. The country is ending 11 years of Tory rule, the govern­ment is negotiating joining the Common Market, and the Cuba crisis threatens war with Moscow.
Postwar Britain remained snobbish and regimented. The establishment was drawn from a few elite schools, and Britain still had more than a million slum houses and millions more with no bathroom or hot running water. Class snobbery, racism, sexism, and homophobia were rife.
Yet optimism about the future abounded. Prime minister Harold Wilson expressed it in his "white heat of technology" speech. The volume ends with Winston Churchill's funeral in January 1965.

AR I was starting on my teenage years back then, so all this remains vividly in memory. The world has changed a lot since, but Britain seems to have changed much less.
I can't hide a feeling of déja vu when I see Tory elitism, tensions with Europe, discord with Moscow, anger over immigration, and crumbling social infrastructure.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Lord Cameron: "We are facing a daunting set of international challenges .. Working to help ensure stability and security
on the global stage is both essential and squarely in our national interest."

King Charles III, 75 today


2023 November 14

UK New Conservatives

The Guardian

New Conservatives (NC) co-chairs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger: "We are concerned that yesterday's reshuffle indicates a major change in the policy direction of the government .. In 2019 voters .. rejected the declinist consensus among the parties. This consensus had brought two decades of wage stagnation, asset inflation, high taxation, regional inequality, record rates of immigration, a failed foreign policy oriented towards China and the European Union, and a cultural agenda .."

Social immobility
Sutton Trust

In Rishi Sunak's latest cabinet, 63% went to private schools, 53% attended Oxford or Cambridge universities, and 41% were both privately and Oxbridge educated. The prime minister, chancellor, foreign secretary, and home secretary all attended private schools.

AR If the NC extremists gain traction and mind share within the Conservative party, it risks decaying into a lunatic fringe and becoming unelectable for a generation. Its best hope is to stay centrist. To his credit, Sunak sees this − so long as he resists the temptation to change course again.
The narrow class basis of the party already betrays any pose it may adopt as representing or even understanding people educated in the public sector. So long as the UK is a democracy, its voters deserve better. But UK democracy is deeply flawed − see ALBION.



2023 November 13

UK Cabinet Reshuffle

BBC News

Former prime minister David Cameron is back − or Lord Cameron as he now is − as foreign secretary. PM Rishi Sunak will hope this can change the political weather. He will say this is a coming together of the Conservative political family, putting aside the turbulence of recent years.

Restoration of a loser
John Gray

David Cameron deconstructed the British state so far that it cannot contend with the economic and social issues responsible for Brexit. By restoring him, Rishi Sunak has reverted to a failed orthodoxy.
Cameron smacks of failure. All the problems in British public services were aggravated by his years of austerity. His policy on China was wildly naive. His restoration comes when western policy toward China is being reconsidered.
Cameron is a time warp figure. His appointment is an inept move. The only rational explanation is that it represents exhaustion and fatigue on the part of the government. Britain is stuck in an eternal recurrence of liberal fiasco.
The principal defect of neoliberalism was its narrow conception of the state as an enabler of the market. The austerity agenda was based on flawed economic theory. Britain is in a doom loop.

AR Gray is truly the prophet of doom. Cameron was a boy wonder, then made mistakes, and is now an elder statesman. Compared to other ministerial appointments in recent years, this one is good.
If his appointment represents a rethink on the wisdom of Brexit, I can only welcome it. But it more clearly indicates the desperation of a government nearing its end.



2023 November 12


Nolen Gertz

Anthropocene antihumanists say climate change is a human crime against nature. Transhumanists say technology can save humanity.
The crime can be expiated by our extinction. Climate change may be a reason not to have children. But technology that liberates us from human limits may prevent us making our lives worth living.
Climate change is underway, and human action is to blame. Climate activists see humanity as both in danger and a source of danger. We are killing ourselves and destroying the planet.
This view conflates the destructiveness of particular humans with the destructiveness of humanity in general. Blaming us all excuses those responsible. Anthropocene antihumanism is a victory for the corporations and governments destroying the planet.
Transhumanists aim to replace our species with something better. They say technological progress will one day enable us to upload our mental software into new hardware bodies.
Tech companies promising digital immortality are tempting investments. But only the wealthiest will be able to afford immortality. Anthropocene antihumanism will first make human life seem futile.
Antihumanists and transhumanists are dangerous.

AR New technology will promise to make us bionic supermen. For a naive punter, what's not to like? This dream is the salvation of techno-capitalism.



2023 November 11

AI and Writing

Jeanette Winterson et al

Jeanette Winterson: I would like to see a transhuman future where intelligence and consciousness are no longer exclusively housed in meat. This is the promise of every world religion.
Nick Harkaway: An LLM generates text from a statistical model of likely terms, so it skews toward banality. It will take twice as long and cost twice as much to fix this stuff as it will to hire a pro in the first place.
Adam Roberts: Much of the writing process works via the subconscious. Once I have a first draft, I go back and revise, shape, and correct, engaging my conscious mind. The key writing principle is: First you get it written, then you get it right.
YZ Chin: I read and write fiction to explore how singular minds think about what it means to be human. AI is not human. It accumulates and summarizes humanity's online verbiage.
Harry Josephine Giles: The output of the most recent LLMs is notable for its blandness. LLMs have been created to serve the interests of capital and shackled by the concerns of Marketing and Legal. The enclosure of the informational commons troubles me.
Will Eaves: A prosthetic technological device doesn't have to improve on an original faculty to cause problems, it just needs to weaken it.
Stephen Marche: The traditional creative virtues will be absolutely essential to AI creativity in the future. We are at the very beginning.

AR An LLM spits out a crude first draft. The art is in the editing to get it right. This will not be automated for a long time. It requires situational awareness at a high conscious level.

⊛ Philip Montgomery
Andrew Wylie


The Jackal

Alex Blasdel

Literary agent Andrew Wylie is known as The Jackal. Over the past four decades, he has reshaped the business of publishing. He has been a champion of highbrow books and unabashed commerce, making many great writers famous and many famous writers rich.
The Wylie Agency hunts for undervalued literary talent the way a private equity firm might trawl for underperforming companies that it can turn into major profit centers after firing the current management. He sees that literary reputations are commercial assets.
Wylie values great literature. He also fights to ensure it is assigned what he believes is its proper price. He portrays the rest of the publishing industry as offering the fast food of the mind.
He became a literary agent in 1979. He saw an opportunity. By treating books with the utmost seriousness and by treating business as business, he carved out a profitable niche for himself.
He became a practitioner of the grand gesture. That he can demand six or seven figures and be taken seriously comes from close study and good information. His agency makes about half of its money in North America and the other half from the rest of the world.
Wylie: "It's critical for authors to be placed strategically in every country in the world."

AR Wylie propelled Martin Amis to American fame and fortune with The Information in 1995. He broke through the chummy old-boy culture of London literary life. But he's tied to arty books, which have become a boutique art form.


A cool November evening in Bournemouth



2023 November 10

Quantum Darwinism

Sebastian Deffner

Quantum states can exist in superpositions of many classical states. The classical state of a physical object is indeterminate until measured by a classical observer.
We see our surroundings by intercepting photons that bounce off physical objects. These photons don't seem to carry any information about objects' quantum properties.
Physical objects are bombarded by a huge number of photons every second. The photons come from many directions and eventually force physical objects to settle into a stable equilibrium state.
Quantum superpositions collapse when hit by photons. Only simple classical states can survive this process. This is the state transition we call decoherence. Classical states are the positions that hold up after all other quantum states are gone.
Our eyes catch only a few of the photons scattered by an object. They reveal the properties fixed by earlier photons. Once a system reaches equilibrium, seeing any of the photons gives you the same information. The observation is classically objective.
Quantum Darwinism explains why we see the universe as classical and never see quantum effects. Stationary states emerge via survival of the fittest. Only the classical states are fit to survive.
To avoid decoherence, we need to isolate quantum systems perfectly from their environment. Photons decohere a system. So we see a classical world.

AR I learned about decoherence from the master when I read the first edition of the Springer book The Physical Basis of the Direction of Time by Heidelberg professor H Dieter Zeh in 1989.
The idea took root, and soon we all realized this essentially explains the apparent "collapse" of the wave function. And it explains why we must isolate qubits in quantum computing.

2023 November 9


John Jenkins

Islamism is not traditional but modern. Its impulses are in part from the Western tradition from Fichte and Nietzsche to Marcuse and Foucault. Its organization is Leninist.
Islamist ideology has a hostile view of the Jews. This was shaped by the long competition between Jews and Arabs over Palestine. Its mix of secular competition and ideological hostility has led to an intense concern with the issue of Jerusalem.
The Hamas attack on Israel reflects the prophetic links of the mosque and their resonance in wider Islamic discourse. Hamas sees the whole of Palestine as sacred to Islam. Iranian leaders say destroying Israel and freeing Jerusalem is a religious duty.
Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have coordinated for years in pursuit of the destruction of Israel. They say its days are numbered. They compare it to the crusader states that were expelled from the region. Hamas believes Israel cannot destroy it.
The Gaza conflict may draw others in. That is the trap Iran has set. Neither the West nor Israel have time on their side.

AR Here we see religion at its most hideous. Until Islamism is purged from the Earth, we are not free from the shackles of misbegotten theology. It looks like the time for action is now.

ESA/Euclid Consortium
Euclid image of galaxy IC 342


2023 November 8


Philip Goff

The science of consciousness has not lived up to expectations. Despite decades of research, there's no consensus on consciousness.
Science deal with things that can't be observed to explain what we can observe. With consciousness, the thing we're trying to explain can't be publicly observed.
Evolution challenges reductionist approaches to consciousness. Natural selection works on behavior for survival. A zombie system lacking conscious experience can have extremely complex behavior.
If the emergence of biological consciousness brought into existence radically new forms of behavior that helped conscious organisms to survive, we could explain the evolution of conscious organisms.
If consciousness defied reduction, we'd have a new empirical marker of consciousness. Any neural processes corresponding to it but with a novel causal profile would be a billboard in the brain.
We know little about how the brain works. We know about its chemistry and the large functions of its regions, but not about how it works at the cellular level.
We want to explain why brain activity is correlated with consciousness. We're still not at first base.

AR Neuroscience and AI together are doing rather well at understanding the brain. But it saddens me to say that most philosophers of consciousness are lost in a fog.
My proposed solution is to universalize mind in the spirit of Indian tradition. I deny the "privileged access" to first-person mind that Oxford dons are wont to preach.
We can be deeply confused about what's going on in our own mind. Our words reporting such goings on are mood music based on delusional reifications.

2023 November 7


William James

"Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism. The gods believed in .. agree with each other in recognizing personal calls. Religious thought is carried on in terms of personality, this being, in the world of religion, the one fundamental fact."
From his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

AR The conscious mind has experiences bounded by the self. The self forms a bubble around a world. Objectivity of a sort reigns in the middle zone where sensation constrains mentation.
At the boundaries, the putative objectivity shades into the subjectivity of the ego. Since a religious god sits precisely at and putatively beyond this boundary, it is a projection of the ego.
The god of a religion gives the self of the believer the feeling of projection to objective infinity. That this is an illusion is one of the fundamental facts of scientific psychology.
From my books Mindworlds (2009) and Coral (2013)

Einstein Domes
An iconic symbol of our planet
is ripe for prime time



2023 November 6

AI Is Not The Problem

John Naughton

Democracies will need to come to grips with three basic truths about AI:
  The technology is fascinating, powerful, and useful for human flourishing.
  Like all technology, it has potential for benefit and harm, with long-term implications we can't foresee because we lack practical experience using it.
  The technology is less critical than the corporations that own and control it. Whether AI is good or bad for us will largely depend on our reining them in.

AI is already at war
Michèle A Flournoy

AI has sparked a security revolution. The logical foundations of AI are ubiquitous, the human skills to create AI models are widespread, and the drivers of AI progress are powerful.
China is working hard to surpass the United States in military applications of AI. The stakes are too high for the United States to fall behind. The Pentagon is aware of the risks.
The Defense Department should do more work on AI tools and invest more in AI safety and security. Any military that masters the use of AI will gain an advantage.

AR War is a human folly. The long-term problem is that AI is a gateway technology for loss of human control. It signals the impending end of human sovereignty on planet Earth.
A Golden Age will be over. The descendants of our AI systems will rule us. Borg drones will say resistance is futile.

Ford Rhino GX


2023 November 5

SUV Road Monsters

Andrew Anthony

Sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are bigger than standard cars. They have big wheels, a broad wheel track, a high driving position, and hints of rugged outdoor living. But almost all of them are based in cities and only a few will ever meet an obstacle bigger than a speed bump.
The carbon dioxide emissions of new cars sold in both the UK and the EU have been rising since 2016. By early 2023, more than half of all new car sales in Europe were SUVs or similar. The transport sector is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the UK.
SUV owners have proved resistant to environmental arguments. There are no detectable effects of exposure to environmental messaging on their purchasing choices. But there is a detectable increase in propensity to buy an SUV after exposure to advertising for SUVs.
The lofty superiority of the SUV driver is addictive. While test-driving an SUV in London, I drove at speed over a speed bump that would rip out the undercarriage of my hatchback. The SUV glided over it. The bumps designed to protect pedestrians are effective against the cars that do least damage but next to useless against those that cause most harm.
SUV advertising has eclipsed all other car promotion. Manufacturers find them profitable and market them differently to men and women. For men, they sell them as a rugged means of accessing nature. For women, they stress security and protection, a safe space in a harsh world.
Cars that do more to protect those within them do less to protect those without. Everyone buys larger and heavier cars for protection from other such cars. Children are much more likely to die when hit by an SUV, but owners care about protecting their own children.
SUV owners are largely immune to rational criticism and satirical mockery. An advertising ban would help. The government should introduce a new tax on the heaviest and largest vehicles and add tax incentives for smaller electric cars.

AR I agree. Let's get these things off city streets.



2023 November 4

Fusion Power Milestone


The trek to practical fusion power passed a milestone last week when the JT‑60SA reactor fired up. It is designed to hold a plasma heated to 200 MK for about 100 s, longer than previous tokamaks.
The international fusion reactor ITER being built in France will rely on technologies and operations tested with JT‑60SA. Japan hosts JT‑60SA as a consolation for letting ITER go to France in 2007.
JT‑60SA is smaller than ITER, with a sixth of the plasma volume. It will fuse hydrogen and deuterium. Tritium is more efficient for power generation: ITER will fuse deuterium−tritium fuel in 2035.

AR We are steadily closing in on the holy grail of practical fusion power. I have great hopes for ITER. We may have only a few more decades and multibillions to go.
The competing US inertial confinement architecture, with giant lasers heating up tiny fuel pellets, seems better for starship drives − or weapon systems.


10 Downing Street
"In recognition of the transformative positive potential of AI, and as part of ensuring wider international cooperation on AI,
we resolve to sustain an inclusive global dialogue that engages existing international fora and other relevant initiatives
and contributes in an open manner to broader international discussions, and to continue research on frontier AI safety
to ensure that the benefits of the technology can be harnessed responsibly for good and for all."



2023 November 3

AI Safety Summit

Will Dunn

"Rishi Sunak's softball interview with Elon Musk was embarrassing to watch. The prime minister acted almost as if he was interviewing for a job with the billionaire."

AR Perhaps he was. Sunak will almost certainly want a new job after the next election. What better than with one of the richest men in the world − in California too?


2023 November 2

AI Regulation Plans

Financial Times

The US is setting up an institute to police AI. US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo says it will "develop best-in-class standards .. for safety, security and testing" and "evaluate known risks and emerging risks of AI at the frontier" going forward.
The UK will also set up an international AI Safety Institute. Its two-day summit at Bletchley Park, attended by tech leaders including Elon Musk and Sam Altman, is part of a UK bid to help shape global rules and scrutiny for AI. British officials play down any divergence from Washington.
The 28 countries at the summit, including China, agreed a global pledge to work together to ensure AI is used in a "human-centric, trustworthy and responsible" way.

AR Let's hope all this is more than a clumsy layer of new bureaucracy.

UK Covid inquiry

Martin Kettle

The UK was lamentably governed by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in its hour of need. The official inquiry into the Covid‑19 pandemic is revealing an institutional failure in the UK state. In early 2020, the UK was badly damaged by:
  Lack of meaningful contingency planning
  Poor government epidemiological data
  Not enough hospital beds or dedicated wards
  Chaotic supply of personal protective equipment
  Complete failure on testing and tracing
  Procurement policies verging on corrupt
  Poorly integrated care sector
  Excessively bureaucratic NHS
Cummings is right that the British state was not up to the job.

AR I can only agree. I chronicled the pandemic crisis in the UK in some detail in my book ALBION, and any reader will conclude from it that all the points listed here looked as bad as Kettle says. The UK needs a (new) constitution.



2023 All Saints Day

Moral Relativism

Daniel Callcutis

Bernard Williams showed that moral relativism is often confused and contradictory but defended a philosophical worldview incorporating its ideas.
The culture wars are concept wars over how best to live. Shared ethical concepts can be understood in different ways. Many moral traditions are based on the idea that there are universal values. But humans create multiple ethical worlds, and moral truth varies from place to place.
The secular humanist faces a dilemma. Moral relativism goes with postmodernism, identity politics, and rejection of universalism. The moral conservative says we need something beyond the human.
Williams rebutted "vulgar relativism" in Morality (1972). He said the way some took moral relativism to support toleration was incoherent. If it's right to be tolerant, we must ask: right for whom? Saying all moral truth is relative to a culture yet all cultures should respect one another is absurd.
Williams argued for recognition of the cultural and historical location of one's ethics and had a shrewd sense of when moral assessment has a point and when it doesn't. He denied the sense of asserting the truth of one's moral outlook across human history.
In Truth and Truthfulness (2002), Williams celebrated the virtue of pursuing truth. If a moral outlook depends on falsehoods, it can be undermined by revealing the truth. He would trace the origin and development of an idea to see whether the resulting narrative encourages its use or debunks it.
He aimed to make room for inconvenient truths and for speaking truth to power. He said different cultures build differently on the need for notions of accuracy and sincerity, as combined in the virtue of truthfulness, but hoped that the more "courageous, intransigent, and socially effective forms" of that virtue will live on.
Williams showed how philosophy can support an ethical orientation in the world.

AR Bernard Williams impressed me as a philosopher, not only on morals but also on personal identity. I particularly enjoyed his book Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978).


Chinatown, London, late October
My day trip to London in the last week of October featured two art exhibitions:
Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly
The Art of Banksy at a gallery in Regent Street
Both visits were enhanced by the company of a Polish colleague and friend who was visiting London.
We enjoyed a convivial dinner in Chinatown and then went to Leicester Square to see a new movie:
Killers of Flower Moon directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonard DiCaprio and Robert De Niro
All told, it was a great day out.

European Commission


2023 October 31

US Pacific Tilt

Robert D Kaplan

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has published a paper on the sources of American power.
The Biden administration has made a deal to sell Australia US nuclear submarine technology; negotiated a rapprochement between Japan and South Korea; negotiated a budding alliance between India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates; rolled out a large infrastructure plan for the developing world; and worked with business to reduce the moral and security risks of AI.
The Trump administration was an organizational shambles, with many incompetents in key bureaucratic positions. The Biden administration has restored efficiency to the foreign policy bureaucracy and put together a good team. US secretary of state Antony Blinken, CIA director William Burns, defense secretary Lloyd Austin, and Sullivan all work well together.
Sullivan says the United States can continue to arm Ukraine and Israel and to defend Taiwan.

AR Agreed, the US foreign policy team is competent and effective, at least compared to that during the Trump administration. There's even a hint of moral and strategic high ground in its approach. But I'd welcome more imagination on China.

AI Societal Risks

Johana Bhuiyan

The UK is convening a AI safety summit at Bletchley Park. PM Rishi Sunak: "It's hard to regulate something if you don't fully understand it."
Concerns about existential risks may distract from regulation to mitigate the existing ills AI tools exacerbate. These include AI‑generated disinformation and disruption of markets and elections, erosion of social trust, and exacerbation of global inequalities.
US National Artificial Intelligence Advisory Committee (NAIAC) member Janet Haven: "There are many AI systems in use which empirical evidence has shown us are already causing harms that are not being addressed by regulation."
US VP Kamala Harris says the US government has "a moral, ethical and societal duty to make sure AI is adopted and advanced in a way that protects the public from potential harm and ensures that everyone is able to enjoy its benefits."
The Citizens executive director Clara Maguire: "We are witnessing the weaponization of AI today."

AR Here both the US and UK positions need to be more mindful of EU and Chinese approaches. Nothing less than global agreement is needed to keep AI in a humanistic box and prevent Big Tech from gaming different administrations.

From 1989 (Taylor's Version)


2023 October 30

Emergent Spacetime

Monika Schleier-Smith

We use lasers to cool atoms in a vacuum chamber to μK above 0 K. We trap the atoms between two mirrors in an optical resonator. Photons travel between them and generate entanglements.
We let the atoms get entangled and take pictures. We see both where the atoms are and their state. They spin up or down, and we look at the spin correlations in our array of clouds of atoms.
We analyze the correlations. If we measure the correlations, we can draw a line connecting the most correlated pairs of clouds. A tree graph pops out representing a spacetime with negative curvature.
Information that falls into a black hole is delocalized in entangled qubits. The holographic dual of a black hole scrambles information at a rate that limits any quantum system.

AR Modeling spacetime in a lab setup of cooled atoms is intriguing. How much this tells us about holographic duality and black holes is moot, but pegging the rate of information scrambling to a fundamental limit is a big step forward in pegging how fast spacetime can knit together.

2023 October 29

The Multiverse

New Scientist

An inflationary multiverse seems to explain the uniformity of the cosmic microwave background. If the universe inflated exponentially just after the big bang, it may have stopped in our universe but continued elsewhere, creating an infinity of bubble universes.
The inflating space between these bubble universes would quickly push them apart. But if the baby universes formed close together, they may have collided before separating. The collisions may have left circular dents or scars in the microwave background.
The lowest possible energy state for spacetime is a vacuum. But if the space between universes is inflating, more than one vacuum state exists, most of them above the lowest energy. Quantum tunneling can cause a false vacuum to to decay to a lower energy state.
False vacuum decay could explain how the multiverse began. Observations are consistent with our universe having been born as a bubble. This would involve it quantum tunneling to a lower energy state, in a phase transition, to become a true vacuum.
In some conditions, the equations for false vacuum decay in the early universe are equivalent to those for a quantum phase transition in a Bose−Einstein condensate in which tunneling creates expanding bubbles of true vacuum.

AR Bose−Einstein condensates are fascinating, but we know too little about them, or at least I do. Maybe it's time for me to do more work on the physics behind them.

2023 October 28

Quantum Spacetime

New Scientist

Is spacetime is a smooth continuum or a quantum foam? Six future tests:
  Slow neutrinos
Neutrinos from distant galaxies fly here close to the speed of light. Quantum gravity may exert a drag that slows them down at rates depending on their energy. A team says some high-energy IceCube neutrinos seemed to have a common origin but arrived at different times.
  Quantum foam
Gravitons popping in and out of existence would cause fluctuations in spacetime. In a holographic universe, such quantum foam fluctuations can be amplified enough to measure. An interferometer could nudge gravitons to merge into a Bose−Einstein condensate that refracts light.
  Weighing protons
Photons have no rest mass, but energetic photons should warp spacetime and may interact differently in quantum versus classical gravity. If such a light beam were split and then recombined, the interference patterns would show signs of either quantum or classical gravity.
  Entangled masses
In quantum gravity, massive objects can be entangled, so put a micron-scale ball into a quantum superposition, then bring in a second ball in a superposition and let the two masses fall. Gravitons should pop into being and entangle the balls. In classical gravity, no gravitons appear.
  Hybrid gravity
If gravity is a classical−quantum hybrid, interaction between quantum particles and classical gravity must be unpredictable. Apparent quantum behavior in a gravitational field would arise from uncertainty in the position of quantum particles. To test, compare big and small masses.
  Nonlocal effects
Quantum gravity should show an Aharonov−Bohm effect. Split a beam of ultra-cold atoms along two paths, one passing by a large mass positioned to exert no classical force on the beam, one with no mass nearby. The recombined beam should show interference with a nonlocal effect.

AR My short cut makes this sound glib. In fact, testing these ideas is generally some way beyond the state of the art. But progress can be faster than expected.



2023 October 27

AI Language Breakthrough


An artificial neural network (ANN) can do about as well as humans at folding newly learned words into an existing vocabulary and using them in fresh contexts.
Systematic generalization does not come easy to ANNs. They struggle to use a new word until they have been trained on many sample texts that use that word. The LLM model behind ChatGPT performs much worse on the task than people.
Researchers first tested 25 people with newly learnt words from a mini-language with two categories of nonsense words. They trained them to link each primitive word with a colored disk and then showed them combinations of primitive and function words alongside the disk patterns resulting from applying the functions to the primitives.
The researchers tested them with combinations of primitives and functions by asking them to select the right color and number of disks and put them in order. The people chose the right combination of colored disks about 80% of the time, with errors reflecting known human biases.
The researchers trained an ANN to do a similar task by learning from its mistakes. The ANN learned as it completed each task rather than using a static data set. The ANN could reproduce the patterns of errors from human test results.
GPT‑4 struggled with the task and failed most of the time.

AR Such generalization is key to higher-level thinking. If an ANN can do this, then feeding it with the right language gobbits, including those from formal languages where appropriate, will result in conceptual creativity at useful levels in no time.



2023 October 26

Arms Race Risks Catastrophe

Carlo Rovelli

The West is plunging into a race to build weapons and restrict global trade. Support for a drive toward more armaments and less trade is almost unanimous in its media and politics. Global military expenditure rose by 3.7% in real terms in 2022 to a new high of $2.24 trillion.
China is less a threat than an economic power freeing itself from US domination. Western approaches to Ukraine and the Mideast are part of a geopolitical power struggle. Western attempts to impose global dominion by force risk catastrophe.

AR As a wise physicist, Rovelli is trying to do today what Einstein and others did in 1914 by warning of looming catastrophe before it's too late. The stakes in 1914 were high. Today they're existential.



Pigeons and AI

Aliya Uteuova

Pigeons are highly intelligent animals that learn like AI models. In a new study of experiments with pigeons given a variety of visual tasks, researchers found the birds learned to categorize using a mechanism involving pattern recognition and learning from consequences, as used in AI systems.
Lead author Brandon Turner: "With just those two mechanisms alone, you can define a neural network or an artificial intelligent machine to basically solve these categorization problems. It stands to reason that the mechanisms that are present in the AI are also present in the pigeon."

AR Agree entirely. We need posit no extra magic ingredient in pigeons. Previously I thought our tech systems achieved insect intelligence. Now they have evolved to the level of bird brains.
This benchmark achievement is high praise for AI and fills me with optimism that the time when AI systems reach human levels of performance cannot be far away.


AI-generated K-pop group Eternity

CNN — In their latest music video, members of South Korean band Eternity dance to a bubblegum pop beat
in a neon pink room with school uniforms and celebrity posters. Eternity is built using AI technology.
AI-generated video and audio are making it easier for companies like Pulse9 to create convincing virtual characters.
Generative AI programs are eliminating the need for virtual stars to be played by real people.
Metaverse Entertainment has debuted a girl group with members generated from scratch using CGI, AI technology,
and motion capture technology from live K‑pop performances to animate the videos.
Metaverse CTO Kang Sung-ku: "Our goal is to create fully AI-driven virtual humans really believable."

AR Applied to movies, education, politics, and culture generally, this tech will change the world.



2023 October 25

AI Risks

Demis Hassabis

We must take the risks of AI as seriously as other major global challenges like climate change. It took the international community too long to coordinate an effective global response to this. We're living with the consequences of that now.
We can't afford the same delay with AI. We can start with something like the IPCC and build up from there, eventually to a CERN for AI safety, then maybe an equivalent one day of the IAEA, which actually audits these things.

AR If the Google DeepMind man says so, we should listen.

IBM: "We're in the midst of a
Cambrian explosion in AI."


2023 October 24

AI Safety Concerns

Dan Milmo

Powerful artificial intelligence systems threaten social stability. A new document signed by leading AI experts recommends:
  Devote a third of government and company AI R&D funding to safe and ethical use of systems
  Give independent auditors access to AI labs
  Establish a licensing system for building cutting-edge models
  Adopt specific safety measures if dangerous capabilities are found in AI models
  Make AI companies liable for foreseeable and preventable harms from their systems
Its authors include Stuart Russell, Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio, Noah Yuval Harari, Daniel Kahneman, Sheila McIlraith, and Andy Yao.
They say carelessly developed AI systems threaten to "amplify social injustice, undermine our professions, erode social stability, enable large-scale criminal or terrorist activities and weaken our shared understanding of reality that is foundational to society .. If we build highly advanced autonomous AI, we risk creating systems that autonomously pursue undesirable goals."

New IBM chip for better AI
Davide Castelvecchi

IBM has developed a processor chip for AI that performs tasks faster than existing architectures and consumes much less power.
The NorthPole chip runs a neural network. A bottom layer takes in data, each successive layer detects patterns of increasing complexity and passes data to the next layer, and the top layer produces the output.
Some computer chips need to use external RAM to calculate a layer, which hits a von Neumann bottleneck between CPU and RAM that slows apps and wastes energy.
NorthPole has 256 cores, each with its own memory, wired together in a network. NorthPole beats existing AI machines by a big margin and uses a fifth of the energy of the latest AI chips. If it were made with the latest fab tech, its efficiency would be 25 times better than theirs.

AR Extraordinary progress brings extraordinary risks. AI beats all previous advances, except perhaps nuclear power, for both progress and risk. We live in interesting times!



2023 October 23

Quantifying Quantumness

Charlie Wood

Our understanding of where the classical world ends and the quantum world begins has advanced.
Entanglement is not enough. A classical algorithm to simulate a quantum circuit takes an initial arrangement of qubits and predicts their final arrangement after they go through the quantum circuit. If the circuit does not entangle qubits, we can simulate it.
Quantum circuits for which entanglement measures how hard they are to simulate classically use Clifford gates. Adding a T gate adds a quantum resource we call magic. Classical simulation of low-magic circuits takes exponentially longer with more T gates.
We can simulate a third family of quantum tasks done by circuits that lack a swap gate, which takes two qubits and exchanges their positions. When we start swapping qubits around, we go beyond classical computing.
Matchgate circuits have no swap gates and simulate a group of fermions that never interact. With swap gates, the simulated fermions interact. The quantum resource here is to how much the simulated fermions interact. No interactivity is classically easy, but more interactivity is harder.
We can port classical simulations from the Clifford world to the matchgate world. And we can classically simulate circuits with a few swap gates, but the algorithms take exponentially longer with each extra swap gate.
The three quantum resources arise in different languages. Entanglement arises if we do quantum mechanics the Schrödinger way, magic arises if we do it the Heisenberg way, and restriction to free fermions arises another way.
Each mathematical language captures some aspects of quantumness but garbles others.

AR This is murky stuff. Perhaps all three ways reduce to one − like the Schrödinger and Heisenberg ways reduce to one. Perhaps they are all artifacts of wonky epistemology.
I think they all reflect the singularity at the heart of all attempts to understand the universe from within, like Gödel's limit on understanding math from within.


Weymouth, Sunday

Daniel Dennett
⊛ Irina Rozovsky
Daniel Dennett


2023 October 22

Consciousness Explained?

Thomas Nagel

Daniel Dennett has written a memoir recounting his extraordinarily full life. His career in philosophy has included frequent forays into neuroscience, computer science, psychology, and so on.
Dennett was born in Boston in 1942. He earned an undergraduate philosophy degree at Harvard and then a doctorate at Oxford. Aged 23, he began teaching at the University of California at Irvine.
Dennett is a materialist about the mind. He maintains that we are complex physical systems controlled by what happens in our brains, but we operate with the useful fiction that we are controlled by a mind. This folk story enables us to cope with everyday life.
His commitment to materialism leads him to regard his first-person awareness of his own experiences as merely a set of beliefs. He proposes that consciousness is an illusion.
He ends with a question: "What if I'm wrong?"

AR Dan's book Consciousness Explained (1991) convinced me that his case was about right and that consciousness is like an atmosphere or medium of thought that escapes scientific analysis.
Since then, attempts by philosophers like David Chalmers and neuroscientists like Christof Koch to say more about consciousness have come up largely empty handed, as I soon expected.
My own 2002 attempt to explain consciousness in terms of a decahertz EM field in the brain was a response to the microtubule hypothesis of Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose.




2023 October 21

Aid Entering Gaza

Julian Borger

The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza has finally opened to allow 20 trucks carrying medical supplies across. The deliveries are from the Egyptian Red Crescent to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The next consignment is a UN convoy on Monday. It will offer only limited relief to people in Gaza. Before allowing further deliveries, the Israelis demand proof that they will not go to Hamas.

A humanitarian catastrophe
Daily Mail

Israel has hit Gaza with heavy airstrikes. Almost 4,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands of homes destroyed in Gaza since the Hamas attack on 7 October. An Israeli blockade leaves Gaza citizens facing shortages of food, clean water, medicine, electricity, and fuel.
An estimated 5.2 million people live in Gaza and the West Bank. The population of Gaza has more than doubled since 2000 to about 2.3 million people. Palestinians are mostly young, with a median age below 20, and their education and employment levels are dismal.
Gaza residents live worse than those in the West Bank. Unemployment in Gaza is close to 45%, compared with around 15% in the West Bank in 2019. Workers in Gaza earn an average daily wage of less than €15 in 2020, about half of that in the West Bank.

AR The Gaza situation was a catastrophe long before this month. The Islamist attempt to outbreed its enemies is based on a disastrous misunderstanding of the world we live in. Hordes of ignorant and impoverished youths will never be more than cannon fodder for modern defenders.
The only responsible strategy for people in Gaza is to stop breeding until they have improved the material circumstances of their lives beyond recognition. The first step is peace with Israel. It's not rocket science.


President Joe Biden asks
Americans to support wars
in Israel and Ukraine


2023 October 20

UK Political Earthquake

Peter Walker

UK PM Rishi Sunak faces a double Labour victory.
Despite how the Conservative incumbents Chris Pincher in Tamworth and Nadine Dorries in Mid Bedfordshire departed, Labour's success will chill Conservative MPs.
Dorries' 24,664 Conservative majority was the biggest numerically to be lost in a byelection since 1945, or maybe ever. Labour's Alistair Strathern won a majority of 1,192.
In Tamworth, the swing to Labour's second new MP, Sarah Edwards, was 23.9% to Labour from the Tories. This was greater than the 23.7% swing in the July byelection.
English voters are getting good at deciding how to vote tactically to unseat Tories. In both seats, the Conservative vote collapsed as supporters stayed at home.
Voters have delivered their verdicts.

AR Behold the wages of Brexit. The Conservatives had it coming. Let Labour rule.


Israeli Political Fiasco

Lawrence Freedman

Hamas prepared for the attack of 7 October. Its leaders only discussed the plans offline. Its fighters were kept away from external contacts and only informed hours before the attack.
The Hamas leadership encouraged Israeli complacency. Israelis believed Hamas wanted to focus on economic recovery in Gaza. Israeli strategy reflected this hope.
When Islamic Jihad mounted rocket attacks earlier this year, Hamas held back. When there was rioting close to the border in September, Hamas helped to calm the situation. When Israelis were listening in to their conversations, Hamas leaders dissembled.
The Israeli government was preoccupied with its security forces in the West Bank and Jerusalem. IDF and police unit bosses warned that this meant neglecting other threats.
Surprise attacks can be both tactical achievements and strategic failures. Hamas has already lost much of its military capability in Gaza.

AR PM Benjamin Netanyahu, aka Mr Security, will not be not sitting pretty after all this. His new black shirt, symbol of wartime resolve, will soon be mourning garb for far too many more Israeli and Palestinian deaths.


⊛ Mark Seliger
The Rolling Stones, 2023
Mick Jagger on Hackney Diamonds: "I've got really good reactions from people that seem to be genuine."



2023 October 19

Israel vs Hamas

Ahron Bregman

A ground attack on the Gaza Strip is imminent. The IDF is expected to penetrate deep into the Gaza Strip, destroy assets of Hamas, and deal a deadly blow to the organization and its leaders.
If Israel topples Hamas and stays on to run the place, they will face 2.2 million hostile Palestinians. There will be many casualties on both sides. But in the end, Israelis and Palestinians will have to try to live in peace.
We have seen clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in recent days along the Lebanese border. The Americans have dispatched aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean in a bid to deter Iran and Hezbollah.
If Hezbollah does join the war, Israel will likely shift its focus from Gaza to the Lebanese front. A war between Israel and Hezbollah would be devastating for both Israel and Lebanon.

AR The is a dark time for Israel. A ground war in Gaza will be too bloody to see through to a clear conclusion, and Hezbollah and others will act before then. Result: carnage so appalling as to be existential for Israel.




2023 October 18

A New Evolutionary Law

Carnegie Institution for Science

A paper published in PNAS describes "a missing law of nature" stating that complex natural systems evolve to states of greater patterning, diversity, and complexity.
The law of increasing functional information states that a system will evolve if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions. This law complements the second law of thermodynamics.
Lead author Michael Wong: "The universe generates novel combinations of atoms, molecules, cells, etc. Those combinations that are stable and can go on to engender even more novelty will continue to evolve."

On the roles of function and selection in evolving systems
Michael L Wong et al

We suggest that all evolving systems are composed of diverse components that can combine into configurational states selected based on function. We propose that the functional information of a system will increase over time when subjected to selection for function.
Evolving systems display three notable attributes:
1  They form from numerous components that have the potential to adopt combinatorially vast numbers of different configurations.
2  Processes exist that generate numerous different configurations.
3  Configurations are preferentially selected based on function.
We identify universal concepts of selection − static persistence, dynamic persistence, and novelty generation − that underpin function and drive systems to evolve through the exchange of information between the environment and the system.
We propose a law of increasing functional information: The system will evolve if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions.

AR Not good enough. What function? If the function is reproduction, we get the good old Darwinian law. If it's anything else, well, it depends. This "missing law" needs refining before it can rank beside the second law of thermodynamics.
Any such law applies to "nonliving" systems too, for example in genetic algorithms for evolutionary programming. It applies to the history of technology, where human selection for useful function guides the design of new products.
A lot of the background to this fascinating topic was cogently and readably glossed in Dan Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995).


PiS: 194
KO: 157
Third Way: 65
The Left: 26
Konfederacja: 18
157 + 65 + 26 > 194 + 18
- Human Brain Atlas

The largest atlas of human
brain cells so far is
out today


2023 October 17

Polish Election Result

The Guardian

The final results are in. Law and Justice (PiS) got the most votes, but the election was a defeat for its government. Civic Platform (KO) with Third Way and The Left performed well enough to form a new ruling coalition.
Civic Platform is a member of the European People's Party, and its leader Donald Tusk was president of the EPP from 2019 to 2022.
Current EPP leader Manfred Weber: "We are extremely happy about the outcome .. Poland is back."

AR Good to see Tusk back in the news. I continue to have high regard for his contributions to the Brexit saga, as chronicled in my book ALBION.

2023 October 16

Polish Election

Financial Times

Donald Tusk has a potential path to power in Poland. PiS appears to be on the brink of losing office despite winning the most votes in Sunday's election.
This is Poland's most pivotal election in a generation. Together with two allied parties, Tusk's Civic Platform is on track to secure convincing majority in the lower house of Poland's parliament.
Tusk pledges to reposition Warsaw in Europe, restore the independence of judges, and unlock billions of euros of EU funding. Poland's currency and stock market rallied strongly on Monday.
Tusk claims victory: "This is the end of bad times. This is the end of PiS rule. We did it, for real. Poland won, democracy won."

Poland is smiling again
Timothy Garton Ash

To be in Poland on Sunday night was to experience a rare moment of political joy. Young voters queued until the early hours to see off the populists, to prove that even an unfair election can be won against the odds, and to turn Poland toward a modern European future.
I walked to a Warsaw polling station on election day with the same old friends whom I had accompanied to the historic vote on 4 June 1989. With delight, they each chose one name from the long list of parliamentary candidates and refused even to take the ballot paper for the referendum, with its ludicrously biased questions.
The turnout was nearly 74% on the current count, a record. Voters under 29 turned out in larger numbers than those over 60. Young Poles understood that their future was at stake.

AR Assuming this pans out as expected, this is excellent news, at a time when any good news is welcome.


Bournemouth Pier, Sunday



2023 October 15

Polish Politics

Louis van Boxel-Woolf

Polish opposition Civic Coalition (KO) leader Donald Tusk says ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński should resign. Kaczyński portrays Tusk as a German stooge.
In Poland, divisions between towns and cities and old and young have a sharp edge. The PiS has packed courts and acts to control the media. There is very little switching between PiS and KO.
Polish rhetoric around the EU is like British rhetoric before Brexit. An essay in political magazine Do Rzeczy says Poland must leave the EU because it propagates "gender and LGBT ideology .. in complete contradiction with the conscience and faith professed by the vast majority of Poles."
The more the EU becomes a partisan symbol representing people who live and think a certain way, the easier it becomes to bash Brussels. In this regard, the EU is nearing the point of no return.

Election campaign sharpens issues
Shaun Walker

Poles are voting in a national parliamentary election, with the populist PiS government trying to defeat an opposition led by former prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk.
Both sides say the vote is of decisive importance for the future of Poland. Tusk says this is the last chance to stop PiS from doing irreparable damage to Polish democracy.
PiS has turned public television into a propaganda arm of the government, restricted abortion rights, demonised minorities, and put Poland on a collision course with Brussels.
PiS chair Jarosław Kaczyński: "This election will show whether Poland will be governed by Poles, or by Berlin or Brussels."

AR A Polish departure from the EU would be an own goal even more disastrous than Brexit. Poland gets massive regional funding from the EU, solidarity from the EU in in its attempts to support Ukraine in resisting Russia, and the promise of a secure and prosperous future within the EU.
Is there no end to the political folly of human beings?


Launch of NASA mission to
metal-rich asteroid


2023 October 14

Israel at War

Dahlia Scheindlin

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned his nickname Mr Security through sophisticated conflict management and conducting limited tactical battles when needed.
Israelis lurched to the right during the Intifada and the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. This helped Netanyahu return to office in 2009. Israelis are wondering if he has been exposed as incompetent. His Likud is polling at its lowest in recent memory.
Benny Gantz is a former chief of the general staff. His National Unity party polls much higher than Likud. Wartime leadership skills are needed during a war.

Peace talks had made progress
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Saudi Arabia and Israel had looked set to normalise relations. Peace talks based on the 2020 Abraham Accords had made progress. The murderous Hamas incursion was an attempt to derail the talks.
Ordinary Palestinians want to build a functioning society. Hamas wishes only to bring about a genocidal Islamist dystopia. Hamas holds Palestinians hostage in Gaza.
As a Dutch MP in 2004 and 2005, I travelled to the West Bank. In public, Palestinians spouted all the usual lines about Israel being their oppressor. Once the cameras were switched off, they told me how fed up they were with conflict and how ready they were for peace.

Peace is still possible
Boris Johnson

Gaza is out of control because in 2005 the Israelis pulled out. The Gaza Strip became a launching pad for rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas terrorists set out to kill innocent and vulnerable human beings.
Hamas committed this massacre now because they were becoming irrelevant to the peace process. They struck at the prospect that Israel was on the verge of further reconciliation with the Arab world. The Abraham Accords have been the most important step forward for decades.
A vision is opening up of far greater economic integration between Israel and her Arab neighbours. That vision can give young Palestinians hope.

AR Saudi Arabia understands the dynamic of war from its efforts in Yemen. Both Saudis and Israelis want a modern and prosperous Mideast. They bring complementary skills − money and tech savvy respectively − to the table. A war against Hamas shouldn't be a roadblock to peace.




2023 October 13

AI in Mathematics

New Scientist

Tom Coates and his team are working to classify basic shapes known as Fano varieties. Just as chemists arranged elements in the periodic table, they hope that organising the shapes by their properties will help us understand them.
The team has assigned each atomic shape a sequence of numbers derived from its features. This acts as a barcode. An AI can then predict certain properties of these shapes from their barcodes with an accuracy of 98%.
The team suspects there is a 1−1 connection between each shape and its barcode. The AI lets them organise atomic shapes in a way resembling the periodic table to reveal patterns.
The team hopes to use the model to spot empty spaces in the table for unknown shapes or to cluster shapes in a logical way, leading to better understanding.

Machine learning the dimension of a Fano variety
Tom Coates et al

Algebraic geometry describes shapes as the solution sets of systems of polynomial equations. Fano varieties are atomic pieces of mathematical shapes. They play a role in string theory, but their classification is an open problem.
Our classification involves analysing an invariant called the quantum period. This is a sequence of integers giving a numerical fingerprint for a Fano variety. We conjecture that a Fano variety is uniquely determined by its quantum period.
We use machine learning to find whether the quantum period of X gives the dimension of X. We show how a neural network can determine the dimension of X and establish asymptotics to do so from its quantum period.

AR This is an intriguing example of something we shall see more often in coming decades. The use of AI and machine learning to do "experimental" math will transform mathematics.
As in science generally, where simulation joins theory and experiment as the third leg of a triad, experimental math will become increasing important, leaving thinkers with pencils behind.
Science is increasingly the enterprise of generating models of nature at every level of detail and abstraction, from data collection to pure math.


Sir Keir Starmer: "What is
broken can be repaired, what
is ruined can be rebuilt."

Andrew Marr: "He is focused
and calm .. the shape
of a bold manifesto is
becoming visible."


2023 October 12

Math Proofs and Computer Programs

Sheon Han

The Curry−Howard correspondence links mathematical proofs and computer programs.
Simply stated, the Curry−Howard correspondence says that the computer science concepts of types and programs are respectively equivalent to the logical concepts of propositions and proofs.
This correspondence effectively elevates programming to mathematics. Writing a program becomes an act of proving a theorem. The correspondence formalizes programming and lets us reason mathematically about the correctness of programs.
Haskell Curry noticed a similarity between functions in mathematics and the implication relationship in intuitionistic logic. William Alvin Howard noticed that running a computer program evaluates each line to yield a single output. In a logical proof, you start with complex statements and simplify them until you reach the conclusion.
While reducing mathematics to logic, Bertrand Russell had proposed that to avoid the paradox of a set that contains all sets that do not contain themselves, we rank sets into a hierarchy of types, with each typed set containing only sets of lower type.
Curry and Howard showed that types are equivalent to logical propositions, and functions that take an input of type A and give an output of type B correspond to the logical implication A → B.
For computer scientists, the Curry−Howard correspondence provides a theoretical foundation for software verification. For mathematicians, software tools called proof assistants help in constructing formal proofs.
Computation and logic are one.

AR Intuitionistic logic puts a gap between true and false: A provable statement is true, a statement whose negation is provable is false, and a statement lacking either proof or disproof falls in the gap. The implication A → B says that from a proof of A, a proof of B can be constructed. Nowadays we often call this constructive logic and call the resulting math constructive mathematics.
I researched all this in depth at Oxford in 1975−1977. I like the constructive approach. Saul Kripke proved its formal equivalence under a natural mapping to a system of modal logic. He also proved the completeness of modal logic in a model structure of his own devising. Modal logic is the logic of necessity and possibility, for which Kripke proposed a philosophical semantics.
Constructive math is the only way to go for true computer scientists, as Stephen Wolfram has argued at length. The classical math of the continuum is metaphysics for intuitionists and for computer scientists, who compute discrete sums but not continuous integrals. Quantum physics goes well with discrete math, but general relativists like their spacetime continuum.


2023 October 11

Artificial General Intelligence

Blaise Agüera y Arcas, Peter Norvig

Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) has been achieved by recent large language models. These models can perform competently at almost any information task done by humans that can be expressed in natural language and has quantifiable performance.
We can be skeptical of some metrics. When a human passes a professional exam, we assume the human is competent at a range of related questions and tasks. When a model is trained to pass such an exam, the training is often narrowly tuned to the test.
GOFAI researchers once aimed to express intelligence in terms of a symbolic logical calculus. Now they say a statistical approach cannot produce true understanding. Even if intelligence needs symbolic logic, neural nets can do anything a computer can do.
Skeptics say anything counting as an AGI must be conscious. But we have no idea how to measure the presence of consciousness in an intelligent system. No definition of consciousness would alter the measured competence of an AGI.

AR Forget consciousness for now and focus on cognition. An AGI robot will be able to drive a car, run a home, and make a million. Lots of them will be able to network so well that humans will have no choice but to accept and welcome the more advanced models as fellow sentient beings.
The last feral humans will either run the whole show or live on as gamekeepers and gardeners for the rest of the bio world. Most surviving AGIs will be cyborgs merging robot and human features in biotech organisms with photonic souls communing in a heavenly cloud.


James Ross Sellwood
1951-07-02 — 2023-10-10

AR My NZ cousin. RIP


2023 October 10

AI in Biology

Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg

Billions of biomolecules come together to act as a cell in our bodies. We know little about how cells work within our bodies and how this impacts our health.
Imagine modeling cell states and types using AI. A virtual cell could simulate the appearance and known characteristics of any cell type in our body. We could use it to predict how cells might respond to specific conditions and stimuli.
At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we're helping to generate the data and build out the infrastructure to make this a reality. We're building a computing cluster enabling us to develop new AI models that can simulate every cell type.
Our computing cluster will be one of the world's largest AI clusters for nonprofit research. Its cell models and tools will be openly accessible.

Big data for neuroscience and medicine
Uehara Foundation

Huge datasets let researchers gain better pictures of complex biological systems. AI helps them extract salient information from those massive datasets.
This combination is set to transform research in the life sciences. Instead of testing hypotheses, we can uncover mechanisms by generating and analyzing the data alone.
The human brain has about 86 billion interrelated neurons. Despite decades of studies, we still have only a rudimentary understanding of how it works and how it can go wrong.
Neuroscience is ripe to benefit from big data and AI. As national neuroscience initiatives begin to make their data freely available, neuroscience will enter an era like that in genetics.
Researchers working on the neuronal signals that regulate emotion and memory can develop new drugs for treating psychiatric disorders and work out exactly how existing drugs work.
Big data and AI will transform medicine, helping to develop tailored treatments and ushering in an era of personalized medicine.

AR This is the good side of the AI revolution now sweeping our world. I think it's good enough to outbalance the shadow side, but that side will certainly be difficult.


Hamas Terror

Daily Mail

The civilized world recoils from the horror of the bloody Hamas incursion into Israel. Hundreds of civilians were massacred, young Jewish women raped and shot, families wiped out, and bodies paraded in Gaza. Yet on the streets of London and other British cities, people danced and waved flags in celebration.
Palestine societies at Warwick and London's School of Oriental and African Studies praised the killers, and a Palestinian woman told a rally in Brighton that the mass slaughter had been beautiful and inspiring. In any other context, this sick glorification of racially motivated murder would be viewed as a hate crime.
At the UN Security Council, Russia and China refused to back a US motion condemning the terrorist attacks and called instead for negotiations. But Hamas is not interested in negotiating.

AR I don't usually agree with the Daily Mail, but on this issue I do. Any glorification of terrorism is repugnant. The Israelis deserve our full support at this painful time.


Frontier exascale computer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has about 50 000 processors,
consumes 20 MW, and cost about $600 million to build.

AR Some 20 years ago, when I was at SAP, exascale computing was still a far frontier.
Now we're here. The world looks different − and in this respect better.



2023 October 9

War in Gaza

Lawrence Freedman

The Hamas attack on Israel had been in preparation for some time. Hamas understands the symbolism of 7 October, almost 50 years after the Yom Kippur War.
Israel was caught by surprise. So far, it is fighting just one enemy. This can change, either with an upsurge of violence in the West Bank or with Hezbollah joining the war from Lebanon.
Since 2006, Hamas has seen Gaza as a base for a final clash with Israel. Every time Hamas launched attacks, Israel hit back. But the IDF knows that entering Gaza is easier than getting out again.
In 2014, when Hamas launched rocket attacks into Israel, Israel found and destroyed over 30 tunnels. Hamas fired off thousands of rockets, but its attacks were blunted by Iron Dome.
In May, Islamic Jihad launched a barrage of rockets from Gaza, but Hamas stood back. In July, the IDF hit Jenin on the West Bank with ground troops and air strikes. In September, there were clashes close to the Gaza fence. Last week, Israeli settlers entered the al Aqsa complex in East Jerusalem.
On Saturday, Hamas launched hundreds of rockets simultaneously to overwhelm Iron Dome. Hamas fighters breached the fence with bulldozers, jumped over it with paragliders, and went round it by sea. They overran border posts, took hostages, and killed random civilians.
Israel is hurting Hamas with air strikes. It is preparing to enter Gaza. But Hamas is prepared. The IDF cannot take control of Gaza. If the fighting drags on, Hezbollah may get involved.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah: "The Palestinian cause is an everlasting one, alive until victory and liberation."
Israel needs to win this war as soon as possible.

AR Street fighting in Gaza will be messy. Easier to take a border strip and secure it with mines and so on, then to bomb any signs of trouble in the city. Sadly, that will increase the civilian death toll.


2023 October 8

Israel Declares War

CNN, 1430 UTC

Fighting in Israel is raging a day after Hamas fighters from Gaza staged a surprise attack. Rescuers expect the death toll in Israel to surpass 500, and more than 2,000 people are wounded.
Israel has been pounding Gaza with airstrikes and formally declared war on Hamas Sunday. At least 370 Palestinians have died and 2,200 are wounded, say officials in Gaza.

AR This war threatens to get really bad. Gaza looks set to be demolished and reoccupied. This could push Hezbollah into the war. This would force Israel to escalate massively. This would trigger Iran to get involved. This would force the Gulf states to take sides, and so on.


BBC News
British newspapers respond



2023 October 7

Israel and Hamas at War

CNN, 1632 UTC

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Citizens of Israel, we are at war."
Around 6:30 am local time Saturday, sirens were heard as far north as the Tel Aviv area, east to Beer Sheba, and many other locations in between as thousands of rockets flew over Israel. Militants from Gaza then entered Israeli territory by land, sea, and air, with some using paragliders.
Israeli authorities said that at least 70 people were killed and at least 985 injured, and a number of Israelis were taken captive by Hamas. Palestinian officials said at least 198 people were killed and hundreds more injured as Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
The IDF said around 2,200 rockets were fired at Israel.

Attack without restraint
The Guardian, 1049 UTC

Hamas said 5,000 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip.
Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif: "The age of the enemy's aggression without a response is over. I call on Palestinians everywhere in the West Bank and within the Green Line to launch an attack without restraint .. I call on Muslims everywhere to launch an attack."
In response to the surprise attacks, Israel has declared a state of war. PM Benjamin Netanyahu: "Our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known. We are in a war and we will win it."
Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007.

AR In the short term, this is a painful episode for Israelis and a tragedy for the Palestinians. In the longer term, it is a painful episode for the world to witness and a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will be damaged and the Palestinian people will lose everything.


Jon Fosse
⊛ Hakon Mosvold Larsen
Jon Fosse


2023 October 6

Nobel Prize in Literature


The 2023 Nobel Prize in literature goes to Jon Fosse for his innovative plays and prose. Fosse, 64, was born in Norway, has written numerous plays, novels, poetry, essays, and children's books. His style has come to be known as Fosse minimalism.
Nobel Prize committee: "Fosse presents everyday situations that are instantly recognizable in our own lives. His radical reduction of language and dramatic action expresses the most powerful human emotions of anxiety and powerlessness in the simplest terms."
His magnum opus, the Septology trilogy, is the story of an aging painter and widower who lives alone as he reckons with religion, identity, art, and family life. Its meditative prose is rarely interrupted by periods, creating an incantatory flow to his prose.
Nobel committee for literature chairman Anders Olsson: "The Septology is a major work."

Giving voice to the unsayable
The Guardian

Olsson: "Fosse blends a rootedness in the language and nature of his Norwegian background with artistic techniques in the wake of modernism."
Fosse: "I am overwhelmed, and somewhat frightened. I see this as an award to the literature that first and foremost aims to be literature, without other considerations."
Publisher Jacques Testard: "His fiction is incantatory, mystical, and rooted in the landscape of the western fjords where he grew up."
Fosse is the most-performed Norwegian playwright after Henrik Ibsen.

AR Fascinating. For me, this is not in the same league as the physics and chemistry prizes − and the choice of a Norwegian by a Swedish committee is open to charges of parochialism − but Fosse does seem worth an exploratory read.


View toward France from the local rocks on Thursday



2023 October 5

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

New Scientist

The 2023 Nobel prize in chemistry goes to three developers of quantum dots: Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus, and Alexei Ekimov.
Quantum dots are semiconductor nanocrystals made from compounds such as lead sulphide or cadmium selenide and are a few nm in size. They have properties somewhere between individual atoms, which are governed by quantum laws, and larger lumps of the same compounds.
Within quantum dots, electrons can only occupy discrete energy levels, so if excited, they emit light at specific wavelengths, depending on the size of the crystal.
The dots are used to make lights, lasers, and TV displays. They are also used in medical research.

Making quantum dots

Quantum dots are precise nanocrystals a few nm wide made of semiconductors. Because electrons are trapped at certain energy levels within them, the dots emit specific wavelengths of light. Smaller dots shine blue, larger ones yellow or red.
In 1981, while adding compounds of copper and chlorine to a glass, Alexei Ekimov found that the color of the glass depended only on the size of the added particles. This was a quantum effect.
In 1983, while using light to drive chemical reactions, Louis Brus found that the size of nanoparticles affected their optical properties even when they were floating freely in a liquid solution.
In 1993, Moungi Bawendi invented a chemical method for making perfect nanoparticles. He controlled exactly when the crystals formed and when stopping and restarting further growth.
We can control the color from quantum dots by regulating their size. This also lets us adjust their electrical, optical, and magnetic effects. The applications range from QLED TV displays and solar cells to imaging in biochemistry and medicine.

AR Again, back in the last century, when I tracked this sort of work in detail, research on quantum dots was leading edge work in physics. The Nobel prizes this year offer a delightful object lesson in the utility of basic research in physics for the world we live in.




2023 October 4

Nobel Prize in Physics

New Scientist

The 2023 Nobel prize in physics goes to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L'Huillier for their work on generating attosecond pulses of light.
The study of electrons and their properties on attosecond timescales has led to the advent of ultrafast electronics, let us distinguish molecules from each other, and enabled fine control of electrons inside solids and liquids.
In 1987, L'Huillier and her team discovered that an IR laser shone through neon, argon, or xenon gas produced photons in short bursts of constant intensity. She and her team described this effect mathematically, and later researchers refined it to produce these attosecond pulses reliably.
In 2001, Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz independently developed techniques based on her work to better control the pulses.

Exploring attosecond physics

Nobel Committee for Physics chair Eva Olsson: "The ability to generate attosecond pulses of light has opened the door on an extremely tiny time scale [and] opened the door to the world of electrons."
In 1987, Anne L'Huillier and her team observed that if you shine laser light on certain gases, their atoms will get excited and emit photons with an overtone of the frequency of the laser. Some of these overtones appear brighter than others in an unexpected pattern.
L'Huillier and others used quantum mechanics to calculate the intensities of the various overtones and predict how, when an IR laser beam hits a cloud of atoms, the atoms emit beams of extreme UV light. Once the team understood which overtones to expect, they developed ways to overlay them to make new waves with peaks on the attosecond scale.
Pierre Agostini and his group developed a "reconstruction of attosecond beating by interference of 2‑photon transitions" (RABBIT) technique to produce strings of laser pulses, each lasting 250 as.
Ferenc Krausz and his group used a method known as streaking to produce bursts of pulses, each lasting 650 as. In 2003, L'Huillier and her colleagues produced a laser pulse of length 170 as.

Ultrafast attosecond lasers

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Pierre Agostini at Ohio State University, USA, Ferenc Krausz at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Garching, Germany, and Anne L'Huillier at Lund University, Sweden.
The winners all developed experiments to produce ultrafast laser pulses to probe our world at tiny scales. Attosecond light pulses work like an extremely fast strobe light, opening up a world of phenomena once thought to be impossible to photograph.
In the late 1980s, L'Huillier and her collaborators were studying ionized argon. When they exposed the gas to IR laser light, it produced new photons in a series of higher overtone frequencies.
Recollision occurrs when a laser wave hits an atom and frees an electron, leaving a positive ion behind. A wave of high frequency can reverse direction and push the electron back toward the ion before the ion has moved. The electron can have the energy to emit an overtone photon.
In 2001, a team led by Agostini turned higher harmonics into attosecond-scale pulses. These came in rapid succession, but probes need to be isolated pulses. Krausz combined a laser with overtone generation to produce pulses of length 650 as.
Researchers are working on extending the techniques to attochemistry, using attosecond pulses to make and break molecular bonds in new ways.

AR This is exciting work. In an attosecond, light travels less than a nanometer (c = 0.3 nm/as). Back in the last century, when I tracked this sort of work in detail, the leading edge research was on chemistry with femtosecond pulses.




2023 October 3

Is IIT Pseudoscience?

Anil Seth

An open letter signed by 124 researchers says Integrated Information Theory (IIT) should be considered pseudoscience.
IIT is the brainchild of Giulio Tononi. Decades ago, he published a paper with Gerald Edelman linking consciousness to mathematical measures of complexity. Tononi published his first outline of IIT in 2004. Its latest version, IIT 4.0, appeared earlier this year.
The theory is counterintuitive and deeply mathematical. But in a survey by the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), nearly half of respondents found it promising.
Tononi identifies certain features that must be shared by all conscious experiences and then asks what properties a physical system must have for these features to be present.
Two essential properties are integration and information. Every conscious experience is unified and conveys some amount of information. Ergo, consciousness is mathematically definable.
In IIT, the amount of consciousness is tracked by parameter Φ: Wherever Φ > 0, there is conscious­ness. Instances of Φ > 0 can be found beyond brains in nonbiological systems.
Science is the systematic study of natural phenomena through observation, description, theory, and experiment. Scientific theories should be testable, responsive to evidence, and have predictive and explanatory power. Pseudoscience falls short in some way.
For Karl Popper, a theory is pseudoscientific if it cannot be falsified. For Imre Lakatos, a research program is productive if it has explanatory and predictive power; if not, it will degenerate and die.
The open letter overshoots. IIT is very likely wrong, but it can still inspire new ideas.

AR I worked with Lakatos from 1972 to 1974. I was a member of ASSC from 1998. I discussed IIT with Tononi at Clärchens Ballhaus, Berlin, in 2009. So Seth's big question means a lot to me.
My gut tells me IIT is not the whole story. I welcome its radicalism and its hint of panpsychism, but trying to define consciousness is like trying to define God. No one will ever agree on the idea.
Recalling the years of debate on IIT, I think it may serve to ground a clinical test of consciousness for patients in coma and the like. For me, consciousness is a panpsychic ocean.


Gateway to a new quarter to round off 2023



2023 October 2


C Raja Mohan

The rise of the Global South feeds a narrative of Western decline. The decline of America, Russia, and Europe in relation to Asia points to a new distribution of power among the great powers. China and India are likely to be at the top for a time.
Building a united Asian front has not been easy. China saw Japan as an imperial power, but others saw it as a force of liberation against European colonialism. Alignments with the United States and the Soviet Union did not fall into a single pattern.
China's assertive nationalism, territorial expansionism, and weaponization of economic relations have sharpened the contradictions between China and its neighbors. They have also helped Washington to strengthen its alliances in Asia.
The United States can stay on top in the great power hierarchy. For Asian neighbors wary of China, keeping the Americans in Asia is a high priority. Their US alliances offer a good chance of fending off the Chinese challenge.

AR The rise of India as a great power will certainly be a big geopolitical event, but my prediction is that it will only be possible in concert with a supportive United States.
India does not have the Soviet support that powered the key primary stages of the rise of China. The British legacy in India has not provided a sufficient basis for such ascendancy, but US tutelage and investment can provide more massive help.
The big question is whether the US pole position can last long enough to allow a transition to India that avoids losing the ball to China.


2023 October 1

Britain in Decline

Andrew Gamble

My book Britain in Decline was first published in 1981. The question of decline pops up with every big change in geopolitics. Four such moments:
1  At the beginning of the 20th century, British dominance began to look fragile with the emergence of powerful new rivals.
2  The two world wars made Britain financially and militarily dependent on the United States and forced withdrawal from empire.
3  The British modernisation strategy was to join the European Community and reform its economy and industrial relations.
4  The financial crash in 2008 and the ensuing austerity brought back decline as a central political concern and led to Brexit.
The choice framed by Brexit is how to reorganise the state. Labour plans for green growth require close partnership with the EU.

AR This is an overdone theme in British political life, as if Brits want the world to know they had it better once and the present state of the nation is a shame.
How about rejoicing in what by world standards is a glorious heritage and feeling glad this is the base on which to build a new presence in the world?
To be solid, in my considered opinion, the new presence should begin by acknowledging that Brexit was a wrong turn. Repent and rejoin.


BLOG 2023 Q3


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