The Samovar

“It’s a community urinalysis”
August 28, 2007, 11:45 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Surveillance Society

This raises some interesting questions about government power and privacy (via Bruce Schneier):

Researchers have figured out how to give an entire community a drug test using just a teaspoon of wastewater from a city’s sewer plant.

The test wouldn’t be used to finger any single person as a drug user. But it would help federal law enforcement and other agencies track the spread of dangerous drugs, like methamphetamines, across the country.

Ideology posing as rationality
August 27, 2007, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics

One of the defining themes of the New Labour government is that it claims not to do anything ideological, but just “what works”. But in fact, it’s largely just a cover. They invent elaborate and confusing ways of evaluating options so that their preferred choice seems to be objectively the best. PFI/PPP projects are the usual example of this, but this extremely interesting (although a little dry) article shows they’ve been doing the same thing with their road building programme.

Studies show that new roads do not solve congestion – they just generate more traffic. They add to pollution and, of course, they raise Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport already generates 142m tonnes of CO2 a year – about 25 per cent of Britain’s total. As the European emissions trading scheme puts an ever-higher price on carbon, those emissions could cost the taxpayer increasingly dearly.

The Treasury and Department for Transport know this, so why do their economists give their blessing to Labour’s £13bn roads programme?

The answer lies far away from public scrutiny in the arcane and biased rules under which proposed roads are assessed. These New Approach to Appraisal (Nata) rules were introduced by Labour in 1998…

Under Nata, road builders such as the Highways Agency and local authorities must submit detailed assessments of proposed transport projects to the government. These are meant to be balance sheets showing the costs, benefits and environmental impacts. In theory this is a good thing, but in reality the rules are designed to make road schemes look better than any greener alternative, every time.

Take section 3.5.11 of the Nata rules. This awards extra points to schemes that generate more traffic because more cars and lorries on the road mean more fuel sales – and hence more tax revenue for the government. By contrast, public transport schemes, which take motor vehicles off the road and so reduce fuel sales and tax revenue, have points deducted.

Then there’s the rule on journey times, where planners can claim that a road will bring economic benefits if they can show it will cut the average journey time of each user. Every minute saved for a car driver is valued at 44p – which can be offset against the cost of building the road.

Just how biased this system can be is set out in the Nata rules that assign lower values to other types of traveller. A minute saved on a cyclist’s travel time, for example, isn’t worth 44p but just 28p. A bus-user’s time is valued at 33p a minute. The implicit assumption is that cyclists and bus-users make less contribution to the economy than car drivers.

Read the article for more… 

je peux a du fayzan?
August 27, 2007, 2:14 am
Filed under: Frivolity

Submittable to icanhascheezburger? Sadly, the picture quality is a bit shit – mobile phone in a museum not really ideal.


Le Samovar
August 27, 2007, 1:59 am
Filed under: Frivolity

Found on a recent trip to France:


Je vais à Paris
August 12, 2007, 1:38 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yes, that’s right. I’m off to Paris from September for at least a year. I have a job at the École Normale Supérieure doing research in theoretical neuroscience.


Click the picture for a wider view.

So I have a job, an apartment, now all I need to do is learn French…

Nobel Prize winning literature meme
August 11, 2007, 1:55 am
Filed under: Frivolity | Tags: ,

Normally I hate memes, but since I actually invented this one myself to do with friends, why not put it on the blog? The meme is simply to go through the list of Nobel Prize for Literature winning authors and mark which ones you have or haven’t read, and tot up your score.

The rule for prose is simple: one book is enough. For playwrights, having read or seen one play is enough. For poetry, use your own judgement. Do you deserve to count them or not?

My score was a pitiful 19/103.

  • 2006 – Orhan Pamuk
  • 2005 – Harold Pinter
  • 2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
  • 2003 – J. M. Coetzee
  • 2002 – Imre Kertész
  • 2001 – V. S. Naipaul
  • 2000 – Gao Xingjian
  • 1999 – Günter Grass
  • 1998 – José Saramago
  • 1997 – Dario Fo
  • 1996 – Wislawa Szymborska
  • 1995 – Seamus Heaney
  • 1994 – Kenzaburo Oe
  • 1993 – Toni Morrison
  • 1992 – Derek Walcott
  • 1991 – Nadine Gordimer
  • 1990 – Octavio Paz
  • 1989 – Camilo José Cela
  • 1988 – Naguib Mahfouz
  • 1987 – Joseph Brodsky
  • 1986 – Wole Soyinka
  • 1985 – Claude Simon
  • 1984 – Jaroslav Seifert
  • 1983 – William Golding
  • 1982 – Gabriel García Márquez
  • 1981 – Elias Canetti
  • 1980 – Czeslaw Milosz
  • 1979 – Odysseus Elytis
  • 1978 – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • 1977 – Vicente Aleixandre
  • 1976 – Saul Bellow
  • 1975 – Eugenio Montale
  • 1974 – Eyvind Johnson
  • 1974 – Harry Martinson
  • 1973 – Patrick White
  • 1972 – Heinrich Böll
  • 1971 – Pablo Neruda
  • 1970 – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
  • 1969 – Samuel Beckett
  • 1968 – Yasunari Kawabata
  • 1967 – Miguel Angel Asturias
  • 1966 – Shmuel Agnon
  • 1966 – Nelly Sachs
  • 1965 – Mikhail Sholokhov
  • 1964 – Jean-Paul Sartre
  • 1963 – Giorgos Seferis
  • 1962 – John Steinbeck
  • 1961 – Ivo Andric
  • 1960 – Saint-John Perse
  • 1959 – Salvatore Quasimodo
  • 1958 – Boris Pasternak
  • 1957 – Albert Camus
  • 1956 – Juan Ramón Jiménez
  • 1955 – Halldór Laxness
  • 1954 – Ernest Hemingway
  • 1953 – Winston Churchill
  • 1952 – François Mauriac
  • 1951 – Pär Lagerkvist
  • 1950 – Bertrand Russell
  • 1949 – William Faulkner
  • 1948 – T.S. Eliot
  • 1947 – André Gide
  • 1946 – Hermann Hesse
  • 1945 – Gabriela Mistral
  • 1944 – Johannes V. Jensen
  • 1939 – Frans Eemil Sillanpää
  • 1938 – Pearl Buck
  • 1937 – Roger Martin du Gard
  • 1936 – Eugene O’Neill
  • 1934 – Luigi Pirandello
  • 1933 – Ivan Bunin
  • 1932 – John Galsworthy
  • 1931 – Erik Axel Karlfeldt
  • 1930 – Sinclair Lewis
  • 1929 – Thomas Mann
  • 1928 – Sigrid Undset
  • 1927 – Henri Bergson
  • 1926 – Grazia Deledda
  • 1925 – George Bernard Shaw
  • 1924 – Wladyslaw Reymont
  • 1923 – William Butler Yeats
  • 1922 – Jacinto Benavente
  • 1921 – Anatole France
  • 1920 – Knut Hamsun
  • 1919 – Carl Spitteler
  • 1917 – Karl Gjellerup
  • 1917 – Henrik Pontoppidan
  • 1916 – Verner von Heidenstam
  • 1915 – Romain Rolland
  • 1913 – Rabindranath Tagore
  • 1912 – Gerhart Hauptmann
  • 1911 – Maurice Maeterlinck
  • 1910 – Paul Heyse
  • 1909 – Selma Lagerlöf
  • 1908 – Rudolf Eucken
  • 1907 – Rudyard Kipling
  • 1906 – Giosuè Carducci
  • 1905 – Henryk Sienkiewicz
  • 1904 – Frédéric Mistral
  • 1904 – José Echegaray
  • 1903 – Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
  • 1902 – Theodor Mommsen
  • 1901 – Sully Prudhomme

Question about protest
August 10, 2007, 11:38 pm
Filed under: Activism, Politics

A question I wrote to myself. Any ideas?

Forms of protest that were effective in the past are not effective now because they are expected, dealt with and integrated into standard procedures. In the past, it might have been enough to point out how many people were being killed or hurt because it wasn’t expected. Now this tactic fails – a newspaper won’t print that sort of news. This is justified on the basis that news has to be ‘new’ and this sort of thing isn’t new. The real dynamic underlying it is that news media is run in the interests of the wealthy and powerful (through direct and indirect influences), and they are better resourced to modify their tactics than protestors. Public relations companies specialise in exactly this sort of thing. An example is the global warming debate – the tactic of the oil companies etc. is to get across the idea that there is reasonable doubt by continually promoting new deniers heavily. Each one gets shot down but the overall impression is of a debate when in fact there is none. The question is: can we design new forms of protest that get around this? (A new tactic.) Or, can we address the fundamental dynamic that stops the long term effectiveness of protest?

Comments Off on Question about protest

From playing games to the nature of knowledge
August 1, 2007, 1:36 pm
Filed under: Academia, Epistemology, Games, Mathematics, Neuroscience, Philosophy | Tags: , ,

I’ve been reading some interesting things about games, computers and mathematical proof recently. A couple of months ago, it was announced that the game of checkers (or draughts) had been “solved”: if both players play perfectly then the game ends in a draw. That’s sort of what you’d expect, but it’s not entirely obvious. It might have been the case that getting to go either first or second was a big enough advantage that with perfect play either the first or second player would win. So for example in Connect Four, if both players play perfectly then the first player will always win.

Checkers is the most complicated game to have been solved to date. The number of possible legal positions in checkers is 1020 (that is a one followed by twenty zeroes). By comparison, tic-tac-toe has 765 different positions, connect four has about 1014, chess about 1040 and Go about 10170 (some of these are only estimates).

There’s a strange thing about the terminology used. A game being “solved” doesn’t mean that there’s a computer program that can play the game perfectly. All it means is that they know that if the players did play perfectly, then the game would end in a certain way. So for example with checkers, it might be the case that you could beat the computer program Chinook (which was used to prove that perfect play ends in a draw). Counterintuitively, the way to do this would be the play a move that wasn’t perfect. The number of possible positions for checkers is too large for them to have computed what the best move is in every single one. They limited the number of computations they had to perform by using mathematical arguments to show that certain moves weren’t perfect without actually having to play through them. So, by playing a move that you knew wasn’t perfect (which means that if you played it against a perfect opponent you would certainly lose), you would force the computer into a position it hadn’t analysed completely, and then you might be able to beat it.

This is a bit like in chess, where a very good player can beat a good computer program by playing a strategy that exploits the way the computer program works. Chess programs work by looking as many moves ahead as possible and considering what the player might do and what the computer could do in response, etc. However, the combinatorial complexity of the game means that even the fastest computers can only look so many moves ahead. By using a strategy which is very conservative and gives you an advantage only after a large number of moves, you can conceal what you’re doing from the computer which has no intuitive understanding of the game: it doesn’t see the advantage you’re working towards because it comes so many moves in the future.

So at the moment, there is no perfect player for either chess or checkers, but the top computer programs can beat essentially any opponent (in chess this is true most of the time but possibly not every time). This raises the question: how would you know if you had a computer program that played perfectly? For games like chess and checkers, the number of possible positions and games that could be played is so enormous that even storing them all in a database might take more space than any possible computer could have (for instance the number of possible positions might be more than the number of atoms in the universe). Quantum computation might be one answer to this if it ever becomes a reality, but an interesting suggestion was recently put forward in a discussion on the foundations of mathematics mailing list.

The idea is to test the strength of an opponent by allowing a strong human player to backtrack. The human player can take back any number of moves he likes. So for example, you might play a move thinking it was very clever and forced your opponent to play a losing game, but then your opponent plays something you didn’t think of and you can see that actually your move wasn’t so great after all. You take back your move and try something different. It has been suggested that a good chess player can easily beat most of the grand master level chess programs if they are allowed to use backtracking. The suggestion is that if a grand master chess or checkers player was unable to beat the computer even using backtracking, then the computer is very likely perfect. It’s not a mathematical proof by any means, but the claim is that it would be very convincing evidence because the nature of backtracking means that any weaknesses there are in the computer program become very highly amplified, and any strengths it has become much weakened. If it could still beat a top player every time, then with very high probability there are no weaknesses to exploit in it and consequently it plays perfectly. (NB: My discussion in this paragraph oversimplifies the discussion on the FOM list for the sake of simplicity and brevity, but take a look at the original thread if you’re interested in more.)

This leads to all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of knowledge. At the one end, we have human knowledge based on our perceptions of the world and our intuitive understanding of things. Such knowledge is obviously very fallible. On the other end, we have fully rigorous mathematical proof (which is not what mathematicians do yet, but that’s another story). In between, there is scientific knowledge which is inherently fallible but forms part of a self-correcting process. Scientific knowledge always get better, but is always potentially wrong. More recently, we have probabilistic knowledge, where we know that something is mathematically true with a very high probability. Interactive proof systems are an example of this.

The argument above about backtracking in chess suggests a new sort of knowledge based on the interaction between human intuition and computational and mathematical knowledge. These newer forms of knowledge and the arguments based on them are very much in accord with my view of the pragmatic nature of knowledge. My feeling is that interactions such as this between computational, non-intuitive knowledge, and human intuitive understanding will be very important in the medium term, between now and when artificial intelligence that is superior to our own both computationally and intuitively becomes a reality (which is I feel only a matter of time, but might not be in my lifetime). At the moment, these new forms of knowledge are really only being explored by mathematicians and computer scientists because the human side is not yet well enough understood. It will be interesting to see how this interaction between human and computational/mathematical understanding will develop as our understanding of how the human brain works improves.

If you found this entry was interesting, you might also be interested in two unfinished essays I have on epistemology without truth and the philosophy of mathematics.