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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A programmer wonders about living inside someone else's program

I've been thinking a lot lately again about Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument—the one that reasons that we're living inside a computer simulation. If you want a proper description of the argument, follow the link. However, if you're happy to accept my abbreviated version, the idea is that in the whole history of the human race there will be a specific number of conscious individuals. If humanity reaches the technological point of being able to simulate other consciousnesses, the total number of consciousnesses will soar, but the vast majority of them will be simulated. As being born human is equivalent to randomly picking one of those consciousnesses to be you, the odds are hugely in favour of you being a simulation.

I wrote about this a few years ago here.

Of course a huge IF here is the assumption that it is possible to simulate consciousness, or as they say, consciousness is substrate-independent. For myself, I would argue that this is not a given, seeing as we don't yet even understand how consciousness forms in our own brains. However, I suspect it is probably correct.

The first question that occurs to me is, why would you run such a simulation? Perhaps historians are using them to answer counterfactual histories. More worryingly, we might just be background details inside a video game.

Another question that arises is how we should behave once we start believing we're inside a simulation. Some people suggest we should endeavour to lead interesting lives so that the meta-beings running the simulation keep us going. Not sure of that personally: looking around, there are so many uninteresting lives, my own probably included, that if dullness was a recipe for termination, there'd be people disappearing right, left and centre.

And yet another question is when will the meta-beings decide to stop the whole simulation. I would think that a highly significant moment in a simulation's run is when the simulants (i.e. us) come upon the Simulation Argument, and another even more significant point is when they prove that the argument is correct. Maybe we can never prove this, but if enough people concluded it was true, it might be effectively the same thing. Our behaviour would now be influenced by the belief, to the point that the real purpose of the simulation (whatever that might be) can no longer be achieved, leading to the simulation being ended. If that's right, the sensible thing would be to forget all about the Simulation Argument. On the other hand, the meta-beings could easily (some big assumptions on my part here about their coding ability) have programmed us to be incapable of even conceiving the concept of being inside a simulation, so perhaps this self-realisation is something they look for.

At this point it seems that trying to second guess the meta-beings' motive is as fruitful as trying to see into the mind of God. They all move in mysterious ways.

I came across this argument maybe a decade ago and it's stuck with me ever since. Then recently Elon Musk stated that he thought it overwhelmingly likely that we are indeed living inside a simulation.

That's easy for him to believe. I can visualise a meta-being in the real world, or Base Reality, maybe in a games store picking up a box marked Elon Musk.

- "What's this one like?"

- "Oh, you get to play a billionaire tech genius who builds spaceships."

- "Cool! I'll take it."

Noticeably they do not buy the game called Charles Anderson, in which you play a software engineer who lives a reasonably good life, but to whom nothing particularly exciting ever happens (for which incidentally he is very grateful), and who certainly doesn't build spaceships (although I did have the Airfix Apollo 11).

This leads ti the nub of my problem with believing I'm a simulation: why would anyone bother putting in so much incidental detail? Currently I am recovering from a mild cold and there is also an irritating paper cut on my left thumb. Seriously? Someone programmed that in? What made them think that the simulation needed to include trivia like paper cuts and sore throats?

Here's some more unnecessary detail. If you are touched simultaneously on a toe and the tip of your nose, you perceive the touches as happening at the same moment. However, the distance the nerve signal from the nose has to travel to your brain is much, much shorter that the one from your toe. The conclusion of neuroscientist David Eagleman and others is that the brain, on receiving the message from your nose, holds onto that fact for a fraction of a second in case any other signals come in from further away on the body. If they do, that part of the brain then tells our consciousness that the two signals arrived together. In effect, our consciousness is living up to half a second in the past. There are other experiments which force you to come to the same conclusion. While extremely interesting in what it says about our minds, you have to ask why the meta-beings would need to build something like that into their simulation. Why not have just made it so that nerve signals travel so fast that they arrive effectively simultaneously?

As a programmer myself, I know that we nearly always take the easy route. If the meta-beings wrote a simulation with a complication like that in it, I can only guess that they did it because that's what happens in their own reality. In other words, humans in the simulation are likely very similar to the ones outside it.

I concluded before that the most sensible thing for me to do is to accept the possibility that I am just a simulation, but continue to live my life as if I'm not. Today, as I get my head round the concept of President Trump, while still not having got over the Brexit vote, I'm starting to wonder if a bit of prayer to our meta-overlords might not be worth a try.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Unexpectedly Loving Folk Music

Last week I went to a wonderful concert at the National Centre for Early Music, happily for me located in York. I've been to many types of concert there over the years, from Jazz to Klezmer through Classical, but I don't think I'd ever attempted English Folk Music. This is a genre that I can usually take only in small quantities, as I tend to find mock west country accents singing about fair maidens a bit tedious. And some folk songs can sound extremely repetitive. Once, in a pub in Whitby during the Folk Festival (my presence in the town at that particular time was completely accidental), I had to endure an especially grating song that repeated over and over without any apparent variation or development. When the band finally came to a stop, one of the musicians carried on playing for a few notes, proving my point, I feel.

So when I saw Kathryn Tickell and the Side advertised as folk music in the NCEM's brochure, I was initially doubtful. But then I found out that she had played with The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Aha! Now that's music I do know I enjoy! I got her latest album, loved it, and bought my ticket.

Although not knowing much about Folk Music, over the years I have discerned a connection between it and real ale, so I began the evening by purchasing a bottle at the bar. In the spirit of embracing the new, I picked a beer I'd never heard of called Mostly Ghostly, and went off with my bottle and glass to find a seat. Once sat down I put on my glasses (sad, but increasingly necessary) so I could read the label on the bottle: "York Brewery and the Chilli Jam Man present..."

Uh oh.

And I thought I'd learned to read beer before I pay for it.

Yes, it was everything you would have expected from 5.4% real ale flavoured with chillies, combining two things both notorious for their ability to get things moving to produce an effect that lasted well into the next morning. Although a very well crafted ale, I have to admit that my favourite beer aftertaste is not "hot". In the second half I washed the memory away with a bottle of Wold Top Brewery (this time checking the label for surprises).

It was nice to see that the concert was sold out. I've been to shows there where they've had to put out tables "caberet-style" to disguise the lack of customers, but not this time. Agewise, though, I was one of the younger attendees, which is sad, as this music has so much to offer. The band is a quartet, featuring cello, piano accordion, harp, and Kathryn Tickell herself on fiddle and Northumbrian pipes. I really like this last instrument (the others are great too), which came as a surprise, as the Scottish bagpipes are one of my least favourite musical instruments. The quality of their playing was superb, and their love for the music really shone out. The clog dancing was a nice touch, too.

From now on I will make more of an effort to listen to Folk Music, as there is clearly much that I would enjoy. I start off with Kathryn Tickell's pleasingly extensive back catalogue.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

In the Region of the Summer Stars Again

A week or two ago I went to hear The Enid in concert. This wonderful prog rock band are on their 40th anniversary tour, which explains how it can be that I last heard them in 1981. That was in the Reading Hexagon, and I also saw them a couple of years before that in a Reading University hall of residence (St. Andrews? They blur a bit after all this time). It's not that I've been avoiding them for the last three and a half decades—our paths just didn't cross, but I kept in touch through their albums.

Forty years old the band might be, but of the six musicians playing at the Pocklington Arts Centre, only one looked like he was around in 1976. In fact only one of the original lineup is still associated with the band, and unfortunately ill health stops him performing live nowadays. Despite this, the concert was brilliant, and took me back to when I first heard the beautiful "In the Region of the Summer Stars" on Radio 3's "Sounds Interesting". The radio station dedicated to playing classical music let its hair down late on a Sunday night and played rock and popular music for an hour (possibly the channel controllers didn't stay up that late). I only listened to the show for a few months before I went to University, but it introduced me to progressive rock just as most people were saying goodbye to it. I've been there ever since.

Decades after Prog's heyday in the seventies there are loads of great Prog bands around again, but it's nice that a band like the Enid is also going strong. The next day I joined their fan club (if the concert audience was anything to go by, I'll be one of its younger members), so I can keep in touch with their touring schedule and not leave it another 35 years.

Why npm install Stopped Working

A public service blog post, this time. I recently found that

npm install

had stopped working on my computer. When you typed an install command, all you saw was the spinning cursor, though it had definitely worked the month before.

I managed to track the reason down by a bit of googling and experimenting, but I thought I'd mention it here for posterity. I had recently installed the JSLint package for Sublime, and for reasons best known to itself, it had added its folder to $TEMP. (I suspect it was aiming at $PATH.) My TEMP "folder" was now two folder paths separated with a colon, which completely freaked out npm. I removed the extra folder path and npm went back to normal (after restarting the command shell, of course).

Thursday, 12 May 2016

My Thoughts on the European Referendum

Among all the noise and fear-mongering coming from both sides in the Great European Debate at the moment, I thought I'd chuck in a few thoughts and conclusions of my own.

First, some facts.

  • If we leave the EU, we cannot possibly end up with better access to the european single market than we've got at the moment, but we can end up with worse.
  • Even though the rest of the EU sells more to us that we do to them, that's in absolute terms. As a percentage of exports, we are far more dependent on selling into the EU than they are on exporting to us.
  • If we leave the EU, the remaining countries will have strong incentives to make sure that any deal we get is unattractive. Otherwise it might encourage other countries to think of leaving.
  • Much of the EU regulation that people complain about would still affect us, if it involves selling goods or services into the EU. The only difference will be that Britain won't have any say in them.
  • The rest of the EU regulations are not going to be just swept away. Regulations written by civil servants in Brussels will be replaced by regulations written by civil servants in London.
  • Scotland looks likely to vote massively in favour of remaining in the EU. A survey this week suggests that 76% of Scots will vote to stay. If England votes to leave, that will encourage the Nationalists to demand another referendum to leave the UK.

Now, some reflections.

  • Exit campaigners express horror about EU membership involving our country having to give up some of its independence. This is ridiculous: everybody gives up some of their independence whenever they need to work with others for a common goal. What do they think marriage is?
  • I am not so sure that the Commonwealth is quite as enamoured of Britain as some Exit campaigners think. In the Caribbean, some countries are starting to demand reparations from Britain for the slave trade. In India there are calls for reparations for the damage British rule did to the Indian economy.
  • It is ironic that the politicians who tend to be most against Britain staying in a federal Europe are also likely to be in favour of Scotland staying in a federal UK. Also ironic in the other direction that politicians in favour of Scotland leaving a federal UK dream of an independent Scotland joining the EU.

Both the campaigns, In and Out, have been uninspiring so far, concentrating on fear and prejudice to make their cases. I would like to hear somebody arguing to stay in the EU on ideological grounds. For myself, I will be voting to remain in the EU. I've always been an Internationalist, and I hope that one day (not that I'll live to see it) the human race will become a single nation.

If that wasn't enough, there's also the remarkable coincidence that almost all the politicians campaigning for an Out vote are people I strongly dislike or disagree with. In the case of Donald Trump, both.

I was 16 when the country last voted on whether to leave. That vote was supposed to settle the matter of our European membership once and for all. So a final prediction: whichever way the vote goes, the argument will carry on.

Monday, 2 May 2016

A lesson in beer drinking

It's been months since my last post, and the title of this blog is starting to feel less and less appropriate. Maybe I need to change it to The Right Side of 60 while there's still time.

Two nights ago I opened a bottle of 8.1% strength beer. I won't mention the beer's name because it's probably not the brewery's fault what happened next. However, as a hint it's named after a nearby star, which was also the setting for a battle between Starfleet and the Borg in a memorable Star Trek episode: the one where Captain Picard has been assimilated and uses his knowledge of Starfleet tactics to... er. Anyway, so I open the bottle as I always do, and it goes off like a roman candle, beer gushing all over the work surface.

Two tea towels later and I'm on top of the situation, but most of the beer has gone. I carefully sip what's left. Perhaps it's the great strength of the beer, or maybe the bits of floating sediment that the bottle's instructions suggest I should have left in the bottle ("pour into a glass in one smooth action"), but I cannot warm to its flavour. Part of me wonders if the fountain effect wasn't a red flag.

Why was I even trying to drink an ale nearly twice as strong as normal? Well, it's an age thing. I don't mean that I like more alcohol as I get older. I bought the beer in the poorly lit back room of a beer shop (such an excellent invention—I never saw one until I got to York), and the print on the bottle was very small, and bizarrely I hadn't thought to take my reading glasses with me when I went shopping, so it wasn't until I got home that I discovered exactly what I'd bought.

I made it into my forties before I needed glasses. First for reading, then another pair for longer range, such as looking at a computer screen. The decline is slow but persistent, and now reading without glasses is a definite challenge, particularly first thing in the day; some mornings I have difficulty focusing on my breakfast cereal. In that dim shop, this bottle's label might as well have been written in Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the good it would have done me. In fact, that might have been better, for a couple of glyphs of legless Egyptians or a vomiting crocodile-headed god might have given me valuable clues about the alcohol strength.

But wait, I've just noticed that the label shows an illustration of two Neanderthal figures. Could this have been a coded hint about the expected level of my mental ability after finishing the bottle?

It also says that all their beers are naturally carbonated. Aha! Unexpectedly I realise I must from now on always read the instructions on beer. (Just as an afternoon of near terminal flatulence twenty years ago taught me the importance of reading the instructions on sugar-free jam.)

Old dogs can learn new tricks, provided they learn the hard way.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Flood of 2015

With 2016 just hours away, I feel safe in titling this post "The Flood of 2015".

The "ancient city of York", as the news reports style it, is used to flooding. Built at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss, flooding literally comes with the territory. Indeed, it's in the very names of the local landscape: "Ings" is an old Norse name for meadows that flood, and around here you can find Clifton Ings, Rawcliffe Ings and Wheldrake Ings. In the centre of York, the Ouse routinely floods at Kings Staithes, providing wonderful photos of waters lapping at the Kings Head for lazy journalists.

But the weather we've had in the last week has been exceptional. This is a view of Clifton Ings from Clifton Bridge three days ago:

Flood meadow indeed!

On the other side of the bridge you can normally descend some steps and follow the riverbank into the City Centre:

Although we live just a few minutes walk from the Ouse, our home was not affected by the flooding. In fact, when I looked at the water levels on Monday it seemed to me that the Ouse would have needed to rise another two or three meters to threaten us. Then again, a street nearby flooded without any help from the river—if the sewers stop working, any road is at risk.

I haven't been into York to see the buildings that were hit by the Foss breaking its banks, but I imagine the consequences will be with us for several months to come. My heart goes out to everyone affected.

For myself, I now find myself noticing every slight dip and incline in the street, as I mentally track where rising waters would head. And the next time I see a blocked drain I will definitely be ringing up Yorkshire Water to let them know. The number to ring is 08451 242429. I wonder why it's not a free 0800 number.