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[personal profile] wildeabandon
This is technically a reread, but the first time was around eight years ago, and I could remember very little of it. I found the first half, where he sketches out his model of consciousness - very condensed, a disparate and competing set of “content-fixation events” in the brain, some of which get retained as speech acts or memories, some of which get discarded and forgotten, but lacking any central “meaner” or “observer” co-ordinating these individual elements, and the bit of the algorithm that feels from the inside like being conscious is content-fixation events that are about other content fixation events - quite hard and slow going, and as I was reading them, wondered whether my memory of having found the book illuminating and clear was inaccurate.

Then I got onto the second half, which started looking at specific examples, and suddenly everything became much clearer, and I polished it off in about a tenth the time the first half took me. There are still bits that I don’t quite understand, or at least can’t articulate, in particular what ‘aboutness’ means as a property of a content-fixation event, but in general the theory felt quite comfortable and intuitive by the end of the book.

One thought that came out of the book that I want to follow up on is that there’s a fallacy in thought experiments, which is common to philosophical zombies, Mary the colour scientist, and the ontological argument, which goes “I can imagine this phenomenon, and using the properties of the thing I have imagined, such and such a proposition must be true (or is impossible)”. The fallacy being that you can’t actually imagine it accurately. I’m curious how much this crop up elsewhere. It almost feels as though it undermines the very concept of thought-experiments - or at least relegates them to ways of generating ideas, but not of providing any further insights.

State of the Sebastian

Feb. 13th, 2017 11:27 am
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[personal profile] wildeabandon
Gosh, has it really been more than six months since I last did one of these? It's been quite an eventful few months as well.

I am largely continuing to react to the giant trashcan fire that is UK and US politics by burying my head in the sand and not thinking about it, although I am guiltily conscious that I'm only able to do this from the top of giant pile of privilege that I'm sitting on. I need to make space to give some thought to what I should actually be doing about this, but that's a whole separate post, and in this one I shall concentrate on the personal.

The big exciting news is that we just bought a house. As it turns out, it's the place we'd had an offer accepted on nearly a year ago, but thought it had fallen through. It unfell in October, and after a fairly moderate amount of faff in the house-buying scheme of things we completed a couple of weeks ago. We've got the current flat until the 6th March, so we're taking the opportunity to get some minor bits of work done whilst it's empty, but we'll be moving in soon. I am very excited! Amongst the things that I'm excited about are having a bigger kitchen, and a proper dining room, and enough social space that hosting dinner parties and cocktail parties and readthroughs becomes much less logistically faffy; having a proper spare room so that we can put people up; Ramesh having a room that's big enough for him, so we can both share each other's space; being able to set up a home gym just the way I want it; getting a cat; having a permanent home, rather than somewhere I'm expecting to leave in a couple of years; never ever having to move house ever again; not having to move furniture around every time someone want to switch from using the dining table to using the piano; having double glazing, so Ramesh is consistently warm enough, and hopefully catches fewer colds; exploring the restaurants and cafes and shops of Green Lanes. Yes, many exciting and pleasing things.

Work is bobbing along reasonably enough. I'm currently working at the University of Northampton, doing much the same stuff I've been doing for the last few years, but no longer working for a raging narcissist makes it far more enjoyable. I've got a little flat out here where I stay Monday-Wednesday nights, and then work from home on Fridays, and although I'd rather be living at home full time , for some reason a 3/4 split feels far less arduous than a 4/3 one was (and Ramesh seems to find the same), so I think it's reasonably sustainable. Since I moved out here I've had a couple of interviews for interim positions at the 'next stage of my career' level, and although I didn't get either of them, in both cases it was close enough that I'm now feeling a lot more confident that something else will come up that means I'll be able to make that step without having to go back into permanent employment.

Health is mostly good. I've not been exercising as much as I'd have liked over the winter, because cold and wet and running don't mix that well, and the combination of some persistent tension in my shoulder, plus the logistics of living in two places has limited how much strength training I've been doing. But it's warming up now, and I'm seeing a physiotherapist tomorrow, which will hopefully lead to some progress on the shoulder, and I'll get a decent gym set up in the new house before long.

Relationship stuff is great. Ramesh & I celebrate our eighth anniversary this week, and I continue to be astonished by how lucky I am to be with him. He brings me delight and excitement and warmth and security; he's kind and clever and considerate and interesting; he goes out of his way to make me happy, and always notices and appreciates it when I make an effort to be good to him; he listens to me and makes me feel safe showing my vulnerability to him, and he opens up and trusts me with his in turn; even when we have conflicts to work through, he comes at it constructively and kindly and charitably, and then when we've reached an agreement of how to handle it he follows through. And if that weren't bounteous overflow of joy enough, I managed to spend time with all three of my FWBs in the last couple of months, all of whom remain charming and delicious. I do sometimes think it would be nice to have a secondary partner, someone I saw more than a handful of times a year, but without the commitment of lives entwined. But I don't want it enough to seek out new people, and my social life is shaped such that I rarely meet them through happenstance, so unless something changes, I think that will remain an occasional idle thought.

Twitter meme

Feb. 12th, 2017 06:27 pm
rmc28: (silly)
[personal profile] rmc28
"the first four people that come up when you type @ are the ppl that make up your zombie apocalypse survival team"

I got [livejournal.com profile] fanf , [personal profile] hollymath , Ann Leckie and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which amused me greatly, but I decided I was too shy to spam the mentions of Leckie and Miranda by posting to Twitter. What company though!

wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (Default)
[personal profile] wildeabandon
Aulis is the chef's development table at Fera, where they have a menu which is more experimental and changeable than the main restaurant, and is where they try out and showcase new ideas. With the exception of the first amuse bouche (which was rather bland, and an unfortunate note to start on) it was consistently very good, without ever reaching "this is the best thing I have ever put in my mouth" moments of rapture.

There were three courses that stood out as particularly highlights to me. First was the taco where both the taco itself and the filling were primarily made of celeriac, with flakes of cured egg yolk on top. Secondly the venison, momentarily blow-torched but almost a tatare, served with beetroot that had been dehydrated and then rehyrdrated with beetroot and blackcurrant juice (amazingly intensely flavoured, with a distinctive and pleasing texture), and a sorrel sauce, which tasted as vividly green as it looked. And finally the calcot onions (somewhere between a spring onion and a baby leek) with tiny mushrooms, mushroom goop (technical term, that), and grated truffles. I'm a simple creature, and it's not hard to please me if you cover a dish in fresh truffle, but this was an especially good use of the ingredient, with just enough sharpness from the onion to balance the rich warmth of the mushroom and truffle.

Some good radio

Feb. 10th, 2017 08:59 pm
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[personal profile] rmc28
I saw a tweet today which pretty much summed up why I like the Radio 4 show In Our Time:

The format is the same every time: professional enthusiast Melvyn Bragg invites three experts to discuss an interesting topic, and (mostly) gently steers them through a reasonably good coverage of the subject in about 45 minutes.  The entire archive of hundreds of episodes is freely available online, and I've intermittently subscribed to the podcast ever since I got a device capable of playing them. My current podcast app is set to give me the latest 3 episodes I haven't already told it I've heard, so I am mostly keeping up with new ones, and slowly catching up back in time with the ones I missed while not subscribed for a couple of years ...

I listened to two really good episodes as distraction from a migraine earlier this week.  I had only the haziest of ideas about The Gin Craze, (it forms the background for a historical romance series which included the amazing Regency Romance Batman novel, but with which I got fed up because my Opinions on prohibiting drugs are so very much at odds with that of the characters with whom I am meant to sympathise). I was delighted to discover that much of the SCANDAL of the Gin Craze was that WOMEN were making, selling and DRINKING it. Excellent stuff.

I had not previously been at all aware of the writer Harriet Martineau, who was prolific and famous in the 1800s and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about her. I think I would have liked her very much and found her deeply frustrating: she was clearly brilliant, clever, determined, incredibly judgmental and fixed in her views, and successfully supported herself and her household by her writing. The level and style of public criticism she got at times does rather demonstrate the long history of yelling at women with opinions in public to shut up, with gratuitous insult and commentary on their physical attractiveness.  (Oh, and she was partially deaf and got ridiculed for her use of an ear trumpet.)

Something new since I was last listening regularly is additional material and a reading list on the webpage for each episode, so I may follow these up some day (in my copious free time etc).

What I've been reading recently...

Feb. 6th, 2017 02:11 pm
wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (dorian)
[personal profile] wildeabandon
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - Eliezer Yudkowsky
This is a novel-length piece of fanfiction, which follows an alt-universe plot loosely paralleling that of The Philosopher’s Stone, where instead of Vernon Dursley, Petunia Evans marries an Oxford professor of physics, so Harry is brought up as a sceptic and a scientist, and after being selected for Hogwarts, starts trying to apply what he’s learned previously to the study of magic.

I was a little bit sceptical about it, because I find EY incredibly irritating on social media, and thought that his attempts to evangelise his philosophical ideas through fiction might be equally annoying. I was wrong. It was entertaining, emotionally engaging from start to finish, often laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally moved me to tears, all the while opening me up to and convincing me of its philosophical underpinnings. 10/10 would recommend to anyone who doesn’t hate Harry Potter.

Rationality: AI to Zombies - Eliezer Yudkowsky
This is a long and multifaceted book in six volumes with lots of diversions. It originally took form as a series of blog posts, and whilst they have been edited for coherence, it still feels rather bitty. There’s lots of good stuff in the earlier sections on why rationality matters and ways in which we convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. One aspect that was a bit off-putting for me personally was the constant use of theism as an example of irrational thinking, which meant I was spending less time absorbing the general principles of his arguments and more time going round in circles that I’ve been round many times before as to whether I can justify my faith. There’s a bunch of stuff about biases and cognition which wasn’t new to me, but I felt was presented well.

Some parts, primarily the philosophy of science and consciousness, I found it very hard to understand what he was saying. I’m not sure if this is just material that is beyond my ability to understand, or was explained poorly. There were sections on quantum dynamics, specifically arguing the obvious correctness of the many worlds interpretation which sounded relatively convincing, but I don’t know if I would agree after understanding the maths and the actual arguments from those proposing collapse. I’ve seen people claiming that his understanding of the physics is lacking, but I’m not currently in a position to judge.

I thought the intuitive explanation of Bayes theorem was pretty good (but I’m not the target audience), and I thought the concept behind the extension of this into a “Technical explanation of technical explanation” was good, but that the conclusions come into conflict with concerns about privileging the hypothesis. It seems as though it was boiling down to “it’s okay, indeed desirable, to privilege a hypothesis if it turns out to be right”. I found myself extremely suspicious of the whole analysis of the conflict between science and rationality, and although I can grant his point that we need some way of making decisions about what is true in cases where performing the experiments is very difficult or even impossible even in principle, he seemed a little bit too enthusiastic about careering off down that road.

Once it came back to ethical philosophy in the penultimate volume I found it much more enjoyable and easier reading again, and the final volume about how to make rationalism work in the real world was quite inspiring. II would definitely note that my perception of the quality of his writing and arguments correlated strongly with the areas where I already agreed with him, suggesting that he may not have presented them as well as I felt he did, and that all I’m seeing is a reflection of longer and shorter inferential distances.

Six Easy Pieces - Richard Feynman
One thing that I got out of the previous book was a great long list of stuff I want to read and learn more about, and fairly high on that list is quantum mechanics. Only one of these six lectures touched on QM more than very superficially (and even that one was pretty superficial), but it was a good memory jog of the basic physics which I’d forgotten lots of, and of course delightful reading in Feynman’s characteristic style.


Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at CoreOS. Member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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