Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality

Posted in books by Andrew Hickey on October 31, 2010

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

I loathe the Harry Potter books – or at least I loathed the first four, eight years ago, when a friend sent me .txt files of the first four books. I read through them in one day, and found them unimaginative, morally repugnant, barely literate, patronising crap. I haven’t looked at them since, so it may be that my judgement of them as someone in my early twenties was very different from what my judgement would be now, in my early thirties. But I doubt it.

I have very ambivalent feelings about Eliezer Yudkowsky, the founder of the LessWrong group blog. He seems the brightest of the various Singularity advocates, but that makes it all the more annoying when at times he falls into what look like incredibly basic faults in his reasoning. I also find the way he collects zealous followers more than a little worrying – the computer scientist Ben Goertzel has recently reported getting death threats from people who believe (following Yudkowsky’s rhetoric) that Goertzel’s investigations into AI have the potential to destroy the universe. (Note that Yudkowsky has emphatically not made such threatts – he is apparently friendly with Goertzel, in fact – but that his inflammatory rhetoric has the effect of encouraging that kind of behaviour even if it’s not his *intended* effect).

While I’ve committed fanfic in the past, and recognise that it can be a valid art-form in the right hands, I think that it rarely *is* in the right hands – Sturgeon’s Law probably needs to be adapted for fanfic so that it reads “99% of everything is crap – and 99% of the 1% that’s left isn’t up to much either”.

So why am I up to my third reading of a(n as yet incomplete) Harry Potter fanfic novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky, which already weighs in at longer than most completed novels?

Put simply, it’s one of the funniest, cleverest things I’ve read in a long, long time. While Yudkowsky originally intended this as primarily a didactic tool, it’s a rather brilliant satirical novel as well. The basic idea is that Harry Potter’s mother’s sister, instead of marrying an abusive slob, married a professor of biochemistry at Oxford University, so when he gets adopted after his biological parents, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres is brought up in a very loving family, surrounded by books on science and SF novels, and becomes a child prodigy in science before ever learning about magic. As a result, he sets about actually *analysing* how magic works, applying the scientific method to figuring out what’s *really* going on.

The results of someone able to actually *think* walking through this world that has no real logic to it and pulling at the loose ends lead to some remarkably funny moments, like when Harry makes the Sorting Hat become unexpectedly sapient by wondering about it, or his total destruction of the rules of Quidditch, but what makes the book work is the fact that it gets this humour from *actually taking the world in which it’s set, and its consequences, seriously* – and as a result it really does feel like the stakes in the story are high.

What helps as well is that the characterisation is so spot on. By this I don’t mean that the characters fit Rowling’s originals – they seem more-or-less as I remember them, other than Potter, but I’ve not read the books in nearly a decade. Rather they seem like real people. The most rounded characters are the child prodigies, Harry and Hermione, and I found some parts of the book almost painful to read having been a child prodigy myself, as Yudkowsky appears also to have been:

Aside from helping people with their homework, or anything else they needed, she really didn’t know how to meet people. She didn’t feel like she was a shy person. She thought of herself as a take-charge sort of girl. And yet, somehow, if there wasn’t some request along the lines of “I can’t remember how to do long division” then it was just too awkward to go up to someone and say… what? She’d never been able to figure out what. And there didn’t seem to be a standard information sheet, which was ridiculous. The whole business of meeting people had never seemed sensible to her. Why did she have to take all the responsibility herself when there were two people involved? Why didn’t adults ever help? She wished some other girl would just walk up to her and say, “Hermione, the teacher told me to be friends with you.”

But let it be quite clear that Hermione Granger, sitting alone on the first day of school in one of the few cabins that had been empty, in the last car of the train, with the cabin door left open just in case anyone for any reason wanted to talk to her, was not sad, lonely, gloomy, depressed, despairing, or obsessing about her problems. She was, rather, rereading Hogwarts: A History for the third time and quite enjoying it, with only a faint tinge of annoyance in the back of her mind at the general unreasonableness of the world.

There are a couple of minor flaws with the book, both tiny moments when Potter’s characterisation feels off, and it seems like Yudkowsky is putting his own thoughts in – a point where Potter attributes the success of a Jewish character to his being Jewish (Yudkowsky seems to believe intelligence to be more down to hereditable than environmental factors, and is himself ethnically Jewish), and a point where Potter dismissively writes off the minor character Ron Weasley, which almost made me stop reading – at that point the author appears to have fallen foul of the all-too-common current tendency to conflate intelligence and cruelty. Thankfully, this is the *only* point where this happens, and in general both book and protagonist show a far more enlightened moral attitude than the frankly medieval morality of the original books.

Which is not to say that this Harry Potter is a paragon – far from it. He’s a very, *very* well-drawn nuanced character, with elements clearly taken from real life (his 26-hour sleep cycle sounds very, *VERY* familiar to me, and I suspect it’s something Yudkowsky has also suffered from) but without being an author-insert character. He’s fundamentally decent and thoughtful, but a decent and thoughtful eleven-year-old with few social skills.

The other major problem in the book is more forgivable, and is just that quite a few Americanisms show up – not just in language, but in assuming that British society is like USian society in ways that it isn’t (little things like having pancakes for breakfast, as an obvious example). Those won’t affect American readers at all, and will only affect those British readers who, like me, find it more implausible that British people would naturally take the word ‘pie’ to mean a sweet rather than a savoury dish than that it’s possible to defeat soul-sucking monsters with chocolate.

The science in the book is more-or-less correct, and if you don’t already know the basics of Bayesian statistics, game theory, the scientific method and various other elements of what might be called “the study of how we know what we know”, you’ll come away with a very decent gut-level understanding of the basic concepts. But you should read it because it combines that with imagination, a decent moral sense, a rare level of intelligence and some genuine writing ability.

I think, to be honest, Yudkowsky has missed his calling. His propagandising for the SIAI seems to be putting off many people who should sympathise with his ideas (such as, but not limited to, myself), while attracting a few who shouldn’t (the death threat people mentioned above). Were he to become a full-time Science Fiction or Fantasy writer he would probably have much more success both in putting his ideas across and in not putting off his natural allies. Either way, though, if you can bear to lower your status enough to read a 700+page Harry Potter fanfic, this is the one you should read…

Do Something Nice…

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on October 27, 2010

The charity Reprieve, which works to help prisoners on death row, has posted an Amazon wishlist for Linda Carty, a British grandmother on death row, who reads a lot to help her cope. There were only five books on it to start with (and only one now), but I’m sure more will be added at some point, assuming Ms Carty lives that long…

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The Grandfather Paradox: Experimentally Resolved?

Posted in computing, science by Andrew Hickey on October 26, 2010

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

I am utterly astounded that I’d never seen this before today – an experiment that may have more profound implications for our worldview than… maybe any experiment since the Michelson-Morley experiment?

I’m going to assume here that everyone knows about the Grandfather Paradox. This is just the simple question “What happens if you have a time machine, and go back and kill your granddad so you can never be born?”, the staple of many TV science fiction shows.

Now the normal answer to that question is “You can’t, so don’t be daft”. But for physicists, that’s not good enough – apart from anything else, General Relativity allows for the existence of ‘closed timelike curves’. These are paths through space-time that act much like paths through space – you can go in at one end and pop out the other – except that the other end is somewhere else in time as well as space. So it’s theoretically possible that you *could* do that, and we’d quite like to know what would happen if you did before everyone’s granddad starts retroactively never-having-existed.

Now, the main hypothesis in physics up to now has been, in effect, that it doesn’t matter. David Deutsch, a quantum computing expert at Oxford University, demonstrated that in quantum-mechanical terms you could have an outcome that makes sense so long as you accepted the many-worlds version of reality. Essentially, the probability that you were ever born, and the probability that you killed your grandfather, would both be 1/2 – or in other words the ‘you’ in a universe where you were born would travel to a universe where you were never born, kill your grandfather there, then come back to one where you’d never killed your grandfather. Nice and simple.

However, Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, never liked the many-worlds hypothesis (for reasons which, I have to say, make no sense at all to me), and he and a team of colleagues came up with another, simpler, idea, which is just that if you go back in time and try to shoot your grandfather, something will stop you. Maybe the gun will misfire, maybe you’ll be arrested, maybe your grandma was having an affair with the milkman and you’re his biological grandchild – something will just make sure that you can’t do that, because it would be cheating.

Now, there are huge, huge, MASSIVE problems with this – it gets rid of causality, it allows information to come from nowhere, and it just seems like a gigantic handwave. It makes no sense at all, and just seems like a desperate attempt to try to get out of the obvious, blatant, truth that the Many-Worlds interpretation is the only one consistent with the experiments and maths. When I first read about it, I thought it was just a neat way of avoiding the truth.

Unfortunately, it appears to be true. What I hadn’t realised was that they’d *actually done the experiment*!

Lloyd and his colleagues came up with an ingenious experiment, which I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of explaining, as it’s not really sunk in yet. This will be a GROSS oversimplification, and is just designed to get the idea across – please don’t kill me for inaccuracies. The full description is in the linked PDF. This is what Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen call lies-to-adults – the story is right, but each individual fact is wrong.

Essentially, photons (light particles) can be polarised a couple of ways, and they’ll only go through stuff that’s polarised the same way. That’s why Polaroid sun-glasses work – they block all the photons that are polarised the wrong way, so only let some light through.

Now, until something detects it, a photon isn’t in any particular polarisation – it’s in all of the possible polarisations at once. But once something has detected what kind of polarisation a photon is in, it’s always been that way – quantum causality works both ways in time. So you can set up an experiment that only detects photons of one polarisation, and that way you can send a message back to the past, to the photon emitter (light source) saying “Only send photons of this type”. If you do this the right way, you can send a photon back in time (but you can’t look at the photon that’s been sent back in time until it’s come back to the time you sent it from, or the experiment can’t work). That might sound mad, but it’s the way things are – accept it for now.

Now, by doing this, you can set up a kind of quantum ‘gun’ – set it up so that the photon going back in time tries to cancel out itself coming forward in time – all you do is put something in the middle that tries to change the polarisation of the backwards-in-time photon to the opposite of the forwards-in-time one. Changing polarisation is easy, and works about 96% of the time.

It never worked on the backwards-in-time photons.

This means that if you went back in time and tried to kill your grandfather, the gun really *would* misfire! Every time.

Now, assuming their experimental design wasn’t flawed and their maths works – and it looks OK to me, but I’m not a quantum physicist – then that means a lot of things:

Firstly, it means the universe is completely deterministic. There’s no such thing as chance.
Secondly, it’s strong evidence *against* the many-worlds hypothesis – the first such evidence I’ve ever heard of. It almost certainly means there’s a single universe.

Most interestingly, it means we can say goodbye to cause-and-effect. Effects can cause their own cause. For science-fiction fans, we’re living in the universe of Bill & Ted, the Doctor Who story Blink, and By His Bootstraps, (EDIT or of this rather nice short-short story by Simon Bucher-Jones) rather than Back To The Future or Pyramids Of Mars.

This of course means that access to a closed timelike curve (something that has never been observed in the real universe, but is theoretically possible), gives you essentially godlike powers. Got a closed timelike curve and want a million quid? Just put two pence in the bank and say “tomorrow, if my account has two milion pounds or less in it, I’ll take half of the money out and bring it back today and stick it in the account.” So if tomorrow you’ve still got 2p, you’d go back and put an extra penny in, which means that actually tomorrow you’ve got 3p in, which means… and the only stable way that can work out (other than you dying or something over the next day) is for the million pounds just to appear in your bank account.

Want to write a bestselling novel? Decide to print out five hundred pages just covered with the letter “A” and send it to a publisher. If they publish it and it becomes a bestseller, you send that back to yourself. If they don’t, you print out all the letter “A” apart from one “B” at the end and send that back to yourself to try that, and repeat – the only stable outcome is that you have a novel arrive that you never actually wrote but that will be an instant bestseller. And so on.

The possibility of time-travel in a *single, consistent universe* has never been one that’s really been taken seriously before, because it was just so absurd. I’m still 90% sure that there must be a mistake somewhere – the many-worlds hypothesis, as odd as it may sound, is far, FAR less ridiculous than this. But this is one of those things where either in a few months we’ll have a very quiet paper by Lloyd saying “Oops, I was totally wrong about everything because I forgot to carry the one” or in a hundred years’ time we’ll have a totally new understanding of physics based around this paper. I really can’t see a middle ground here…

The Bulletproof Coffin

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on October 24, 2010

You know what’s really annoying? You ask people what comics to write about, and they all say “The Bulletproof Coffin, obviously, you idiot. Clearly, it’s the only comic worth writing about right now, and the combination of Kirby influence and metafiction would make it fit right into the series of essays you’re writing to fill out your Hyperpost book. Why would you even consider writing about any other comic YOU ABSOLUTE CRETIN?! BULLETPROOF COFFIN!!

Or words to that effect.

So you think “Of course! I should write about the Bulletproof Coffin! Of course I should! Why would I not have thought that myself?” and you start planning out a big long essay on it in your head. And then David Allison goes and writes almost precisely what you wanted to say, only better, because David can actually write.

I hate it when that happens.

But despite all evidence to the contrary, I still think of this as primarily a comic blog, and Bulletproof Coffin is, after all, one of only five comics I’d happily recommend to anyone right now (the others being MozBats (I don’t really care what the title is, it’s all the same comic), Joe The Barbarian, Glamourpuss and Tales Designed To Thrizzle), and of the five it’s probably got the lowest readership.

The Bulletproof Coffin, issue one of which you can read here, is a collaboration between scripter David Hine (who’s currently relatively well-known among comics fans as, among other things, the current writer of Detective Comics) and plotter/artist Shaky Kane. Shaky Kane is not so well-known among readers of American comics, but British people of my age will remember his work in 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine in the early 90s as “Shaky 2000″.

Kane’s work is to Jack Kirby as Brendan McCarthy is to Steve Ditko. His work can look at first glance like that of Tom Scioli, another practicioner of late-Kirby-as-genre, but whereas Scioli’s work, for all its irony, still has a fundamental sense of gosh-wow optimism, Kane’s work is filthy and grimy, evoking a sense of paranoia totally missing from his inspiration (or almost totally missing – this weird EC-esque piece from the 70s seems very close to the feel that Bulletproof Coffin captures).

The Bulletproof Coffin itself is a reaction to a reaction to a reaction to the comics of the 50s and 60s. Structurally, it’s superficially similar to comics like 1963 and Supreme in that it interweaves a story set in the modern day with excerpts from pastiche 1950s comics, down to the ads (the most inventive bits of the comic, reminiscent of Kane’s old Believe It Or Not parodies from 2000AD). But whereas Supreme set the two eras firmly apart stylistically, with a variety of Image-style artists drawing the ‘now’, while Rick Veitch expertly pastiched the artists of the past (as seen here in some excerpts that Veitch has posted that were never included in the trade paperbacks), here both ‘modern real life’ and the ‘old style comics’ are drawn in the same style.

This is an important distinction, and it gets to the heart of what Bulletproof Coffin has to say, and why it is closer to something like The Filth than to those other comics. Bulletproof Coffin is about the breakdown of boundaries – between character and reader (hence all the fourth wall breaking), between fiction and reality (the comics our protagonist is reading are by Hine and Kane, both described in fairly self-hating terms), and the boundaries in one’s own mind.

Supreme was Alan Moore’s reaction to what he saw as his own perversion of the superhero genre, and however much he layered it in postmodernism and irony, the contrast between the ‘gritty’ Image style of the modern-day parts and the clean, simple style of the older comics that Veitch evoked meant that an implicit criticism of modern comics was built into the very format of the comic. “Look what we’ve become”, it was saying, “there was a time when everything was simpler and better, when superheroes were good and villains weren’t all that bad and all was right with the world, and I had to spoil it, didn’t I?”

Bulletproof Coffin, on the other hand, says to Moore “No, you were right the first time – there is something vaguely perverted and strange about grown men reading stories that were created for pre-pubescent children, and devoting much of their lives to believing in them. And there always has been.”

The story of Bulletproof Coffin is the story of someone horribly unhappy in his life, finding a stack of old comics and retreating into a fantasy life… or is he… ? As such it’s a fairly standard plot (and not a million miles away from Joe The Barbarian which similarly parallels a ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ world where events in one impact the other, but the trope can be seen as far back as the film version of The Wizard Of Oz). Where it differs from those fictions, and comes closer to something like a real description of a psychotic breakdown, is in the way that the fantasy world offers no real escape, still having the same horrors as the real world, just exaggerated.

Our protagonist, Steve Newman, works clearing out the houses of dead people. So who does he become in his fantasy superhero world? Superman? Batman? No – the Coffin Fly, another parasite on the dead, whose only apparent power is the ability to hit people with a baseball bat. On the first page he describes a dead character as “No family, no wife, no kids, no friends. A regular sociopath”, but his fantasy is all about getting away from all those things and becoming like that.

This is best summed up by the cover of issue three. On the front we have a standard sexualised comic book cover – a scantily-clad woman with disproportionately large breasts and hips and impossibly-small waist pointing a phallic gun out of the cover, saying “Suck on this, punk!” But on the back we have a realistically-proportioned woman holding up something else you can put in your mouth – a pill to counteract the effects of VD, in a parody Army Medical Board advert. The fourth-wall breaking that happens all the time in this comic (“Ramona, Queen Of The Stone Age” at one point having to travel to the future to contact two men known as ‘the creators’ using clues in the actual comic she’s appearing in – the creators of course being Hine and Kane, who created the comic we’re reading, which isn’t the same comic…) isn’t Silver Age playfulness or Animal Man style philosophising, but closer to the confusion of reality and fantasy which happens in advanced schizophrenia.

When Bulletproof Coffin features fights with tyrannosaurs or zombies, it feels like those things really would feel – horrifying, depressing, and traumatising. And it says a lot about the world today that that still does seem like a more enjoyable alternative than working a nine-to-five job.

None of this is to say, of course, that Bulletproof Coffin isn’t an enjoyable book. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and it has so much imagination and incident that it makes pretty much every other comic out there look absolutely pitiful in comparison. But it’s a bleak, hard comic, and the absolute opposite of escapist entertainment. If the Doctor Who live show I saw yesterday was an artistic nothing, aimed at children, but joyful and life-affirming, Bulletproof Coffin is a depressing masterpiece. I’m glad that both exist, but I know which one I’ll still be thinking about in five years’ time.

Doctor Who Live

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 23, 2010

There have been several attempts to bring Doctor Who to the stage, some more successful than others, but all very typical of the time in which they were made. Curse Of The Daleks was a gripping base-under-siege story by Terry Nation and David Whittaker, with Daleks but no Doctor, from the 1960s. In the 1970s, on the other hand, we had Seven Keys To Doomsday, by Terrance Dicks,where the Doctor has to collect MacGuffins before the Daleks do. And in the 1980s there was The Ultimate Adventure, a ludicrous pantomime by a past-it Dicks, a lot of fun but making no sense whatsoever.

And in 2010 we have Doctor Who Live, an arena show full of explosions and spectacle, with almost no dialogue, little plot, and tons of special effects, but with a flying Dalek and a Dalek-vs-Cybermen fight, and lasers…

That sounds a little cruel, and it really shouldn’t. Doctor Who Live isn’t aimed at me, and nor should it be. It’s a circus by any other name, with people in costumes, music, silly jokes, and a light show and fireworks, and it’s aimed at very small children, who were there in droves. My own favourite Doctor Who stories are things like Genesis Of The Daleks, The Aztecs, The Keeper Of Traken or The Massacre – small-scale, character-driven, dialogue-heavy stories about ideas. Doctor Who Live was never going to be any of those things.

What it is – and all it is – is pure spectacle. There’s an attempt to give it a plot (a sequel to the 1973 Robert Holmes story Carnival Of Monsters), but really it’s just an excuse for as many monsters (all from the post-2005 series, obviously, and with a heavy weighting towards Stephen Moffat’s stories) to come through the audience and scare the children, for pyrotechnics, for loud rock music (Murray Gold’s music for the new series, rearranged very effectively by Ben Foster for a 16-piece band and choir, improved immensely from Gold’s original overblown arrangements).

That’s not to say there’s nothing to recommend it to adults- Nigel Planer gives as wonderful a performance as you would expect as the showman Vorgenson, and Nicholas Briggs does a rather magnificent Churchill, and Planer’s live interaction with Matt Smith on film has a real Doctor Who feel to it (reading a recent DWM interview with Smith where he mentioned that Peter Sellers is the actor he most admires unlocked something about Smith’s performance for me, and this is the first time I’ve seen any of his work since reading that, and I’m a lot more impressed now) – but it’s really best suited for adults who have brought their children along with them.

It’s very hard for me to judge the show, because what I want from art or entertainment is very different from what it was offering. In the comments to a recent post, various of us have been talking about how much of modern entertainment is geared towards the facile and childish, and how the highbrow is being devalued in favour of the trivial. This show would not have been something I’d have chosen to do by myself (a gang of friends were going) and it’s about as trivial and childish as you can get, with absolutely no intellectual content whatsoever.

But at the same time, while there’s probably something wrong with someone in their thirties or forties who lives off Flumps and Curly-Wurlies, there is nothing wrong with having those things *on occasion*, and this show is the equivalent of eating a Sherbet fountain – not something you would want to do every day, and something you might feel a bit embarrassed about doing at all, but as a little bit of a nostalgic treat it’s fine on occasion.

The show is much better put-together, with much higher production values, than it needed to be to satisfy its target audience of children. There were a number of points where I was genuinely highly impressed by the craft and thought that had been put into the performance. But there’s a bit in one of the About Time guidebooks where Wood and Miles talk about how Doctor Who toys would have been missing the point, because the best bits in Doctor Who weren’t spaceship races or light-sabre battles but elderly character actors being frightfully clever at each other, so you couldn’t recreate them with toys, you had to recreate them by reading the books. This show, on the other hand, is almost designed for action-figure recreation, while the script probably barely fit onto five sides of A4.

I am not so totally grown-up that I can fail to appreciate the show – so many of my formative years were spent thinking about Daleks and Cybermen that seeing Real Live Ones!!!, even if they look different from the ones I liked as a kid, is enough to put a grin on my face – but I’m adult enough that, while this is an extraordinarily well put-together, charming, spectacular show, I wouldn’t recommend it to any adult who doesn’t have a deep-seated, irrational love of Doctor Who.

This seems like a deeply ambivalent review, and it is. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while I was there – and I really did – but where I can fit most other things I enjoy into an aesthetic or intellectual framework, this had about as much for the rational part of my mind (by far the biggest part) to latch on to as a fireworks display would. And seen *as* a fireworks display – as a bunch of pretty images, flashing lights and loud bangs – it’s as good as any I’ve seen. But whereas the TV show at its best could appeal to children while still having some genuinely intelligent writing worth repeat viewing as an adult (and while I’m not one of those who thinks Doctor Who is the best TV programme ever made, I would certainly say that at its best, in stories like City Of Death or An Unearthly Child or Vengeance On Varos it was in the top rank of TV of its time), tonight’s show was a spectacular for the kiddies.

That I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to the readers of this blog (who, I flatter myself, like something with a little more intellectual roughage most of the time, rather than just sweets) merely says that we’re not its intended audience. That I still managed to have an enjoyable evening (and that despite having a migraine, meaning I was doped up to the eyeballs on painkillers) shows how well it does what it does. Nicholas Briggs in particular is to be commended – as well as his Churchill, he also provides all the Dalek, Cyberman and Judoon voices (at least some of them apparently live) and this show demonstrates what a fine voice actor he actually is. And Nigel Planer, who for most of the show is the only live-action performer on stage with any lines, carries off what is almost a one-man show at times superbly. I didn’t come out thinking I’d wasted my time and my money, which I was seriously worried I would do ahead of time.

But the people who enjoyed it most were the thousands of tiny children in their cardboard cyberman masks.

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