20:43 Saturday 18th August 2018

Today, a short story.


<b>AI: A Brief History of a Failed Dream</b>

In the 1950s, computer scientists confidently predicted that within 25 years, they could could produce working artificial intelligence. Specifically, computers that could do our thinking for us, but faster, better, and for longer than we could.

They wrote optimistic books about how the computers of the future would combine the rigour and reliability of algebraic formulas, with the subtlety and sophistication of creative human intuition.

By the 70s, they knew they were wrong. More importantly, they knew why they had been wrong. It wasn't just "The Hard Problem" of consciousness, nor "The Mysterious Problem" of creativity - it was that they couldn't define what qualities they were trying to distill.

Terms like "consciousness", "self-awareness", "thought" and even "reason" as distinct from "logic" - these are concepts from folk psychology. They had no direct neural corellates, and to describe them as "emergent" was simply to push the problem of definition one stage back.

Through the 1990s, multivalent "fuzzy" logic systems, smooth non-granular logics, and probabilistic randomisation were tried to mimic the spark of creativity which they thought distinguished "real" from "artificial" "intelligence". This was however to conflate indeterminacy with ambivalence, and tangential connectedness with unconnectedness.

In the 2000s, a new generation of computer scientists made the same confident predictions as half a century before, this time about neural networks. The problem would be solved within 25 years, they said, because humans didn't need to solve it at all.

Rather, each net would try trillions of decision trees, eventually finding the best one through brute force and dumb luck. However, it would do so more systematically and more thoroughly than any slow and ideosyncratic human could manage.

By the 2020s, they once again knew they were wrong. Their nets could indeed perform single menial tasks, without boredom or fatigue. But they required intensive expert training, on timescales and costs which expanded exponentially with the complexity of the task.

More than that, the notion of "the best solution" proved elusive. Much like "simplicity" which turned out to be extremely complex, "good" was different for every researcher, for every task, often every day.

The result was not the apocalyptic scenario of a computerised medical doctor concluding that the way to reduce cancer rates in patients was to commit genocide. Nor was it the pulp sci-fi plot of the machine doctor which exploded in a shower of sparks when told "I feel like a pair of curtains".

In the event, it was more like a doctor which concluded it could cure one patient's cold by persuading every fourteenth ginger cat to spell the word "coffee" with three Fs.

The new computers were insane. But it was no human kind of insanity where irreconcilable imperatives are reformulated and partitioned to achieve mental balance but real-world chaos.

Computer insanity was a meticulously plotted blind alley, a billion kilometers long, deriving from operational ambiguities and vaguenesses so subtle they were not expressible in ordinary language. Attempts to disambiguate and clarify inevitably had their own ambiguities and vaguenesses. The solution was therefore part of the problem.

Around the same time, other scientists turned their optimism to data mining. If, they thought, a human-but-better brain was impossible, a computer-but-bigger system might be the next step. They collected ever more vast quantities of raw data, feeding it through ever higher bandwidths of integration and model building.

The results were surprisingly similar. Applying massive amounts of complex logic to a small set of badly defined axioms might give us a cat-fixated doctor. Applying a little simple logic to vast amounts of badly defined data isn't so different.

The obvious answer was to increase the dataset even more, clarify it, and make the logic both expansive and clean. But increasing the resolution of an image is not the same as making it clearer. A detective looking for clues will see nothing but clues, even when there's no crime. The Pentagon's paranoid search algorithms showed that.

By 2050, it had become possible to scan the operations of a living brain, and even simulate small sections of it on an ordinary computer. Futurologists decided we would be able to keep our best and brightest alive for ever, as immortal wise advisors. When asked what was the point of recreating a single brilliant thinker as an office block that was only brilliant for one hour a day - as opposed to training a thousand students who could take their work further in a thousand directions - they had no answers.

At the same time, techniques were perfected of culturing real human neural tissue, in an organic support system. A "superskull" could be several square meters, living in a nutrient vat, being fed with constant multiple data streams, like an infant which grows up watching a thousand TV channels all at once. As "book geniuses", they were impressive. As willing slaves, they proved to be neither.

The "Back to the Brain" movement of the 2070s sought to hack the natural nervous system with implants that stimulated emotions toward problem solving, replaced sleep, auto-drilled learning, and linked to external information sources. Early successes led to excessive implantation, and burnout. With the ambition scaled down implantation is now a common part of education and employment.

As the 21st century draws to a close, there are projects to simulate brains which could not exist in the physical world. These "paraminds" operate in virtual universes with different laws of chemistry or physical dimensions. The researchers running these projects hope their creations can provide workable answers to real world problems that humans could literally never produce.

Others use languages and systems of logic that humans can design and define, but which the human mind is unable to use. Thus we are making for ourselves a council of alien friends who we can never hope to understand, but which can see problems we could never grasp, and solve them in ways we could never imagine.

Thinking is hard work. Technology lets us work harder by making the hard work easier. But we don't really want to work harder. We want someone else to do it all for us. We want someone who'll know what we need, and do it better than we could, without us even knowing what it was.

Perhaps it's fortunate that all our attempts to create an obedient god have failed. They failed because we can't really imagine what such a god would look like, and can't imagine how we could make one even if we could.

<i>Anas Malik, 21/06/2198</i>

19:34 Thursday 16th August 2018

Ah, the joys of watching young girls chase black cock.

What? No, someone in the street keeps chickens, which tend to roam, and that sometimes includes straying into our garden, where the girls are kind-of terrified but also kind-of fascinated by them. So sometimes you're not quite sure when it's the black-feathered rooster chasing after the screaming girls, or the other way around.

What did you think I meant?

Besides, I've never chased chickens, even when I was one. And if you, dear reader, are not a british middle aged gay man in around 2018, you probably won't know that "chicken" is what we called "twinks" back when I was...well, a chicken. Or twink. In the 1980s. I never chased roosters either. And I was certainly never into chicks.

18:23 Friday 17th August 2018

Some things people expect you to be able to teach, things they expect everyone should know without special research. Things like:

* What do we mean by Nth cousin?
* What do we mean by Nth cousin at Mth remove?
* Are there gendered words for cousins?
* Is there a gender neutral word for nephew or neice.
* Is there a difference between a step-sibling and a half-sibling?
* If your sibling marries then divorces, is their former partner an ex-in-law?
* If Fatima is my great-aunt, am I her great-nephew or her grand-nephew?

The answer to all of these is "I'm not sure". Sometimes it's "I've looked it up on Wikipedia and sort-of understood it, but then forgot. Several times".

I don't really do families.

UPDATE: According to my mother, half-siblings share one parent, and step-siblings are adopted by remarriage. Neither of which concepts exist in Arabic. In Arabistan (yes, they do use that word) your half-sibling is legally an equal sibling, and remarriage doesn't entail adoption. In fact the rules for adoption are absurdly stringent.

11:44 Tuesday 14th August 2018

There are two classroom skills I've never been able to aquire. Warming, and timewasting.

Warmers are short classroom activities that serve no pedagogical function, but get the students "warmed up" and "in the right frame of mind" for the lesson proper. And I can't do them. I can't invent them on the spot, and I can't perform them from a book. My pattern is just to jump in and revise the previous lesson.

Timewasting is more important. If you've got 60 minutes assigned, and you're finished at 50, the sensible thing to do is finish at 50. But the all-powerful timetable (blessed be the holy schedule) says you've got to keep going, doing <i>something</i>, for another 10 minutes. And everyone's got the pretend, to themselves and each other, that the extra 10 minutes is spent in useful drilling, practicing, revision etc.

And I'm no good at that either. It's part of a general tendency - I can't make small talk, do makework projects, or shuffle the papers on my desk pretending to be catching up on some filing.

I'm fascinated by fakery - art fraud, lies, magic tricks, propaganda, ideology, even optical illusions. And I'm repulsed by deception - pranks, bloviation, empty rhetoric. But I can't <i>do</i> any of it.

14:46 Monday 13th August 2018

Captain Obvious is Obvious.

Happy Chair is Happy

And stupid thief girl is stupid enough to steal an entire double-pack of chewing gum this morning, hoping I wouldn't notice. Also stupid enough to leave the wrapper behind. Then stupid enough to deny it when asked. <i>Then</i> stupid enough to try blaming someone else. <i>And</i> stupid enough to blame someone who wouldn't do anything like that.

Then smart enough to confess.

Then stupid enough to think we believe her promise to never enter my room and never steal again. Oh, and stupid enough to not notice the two timelapse cameras pointing at the non-hidden of the sweet caches, since I woke up this morning.

Only real question: Am I smart enough to not give her a damn good thrashing when she does it again? Dad says she's shamable - like all bullies, she's easy to bully. Okay, we'll see.

UPDATE: Minor mystery solved. What accounts for one stupid 8 year-old girl stealing random objects, and also taking sweets but leaving the wrappers? It's one stupid eight year old girl, and one normal three year old girl who doesn't grasp the concept of other people's property.

14:02 Sunday 12th August 2018

"A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell." - GB Shaw

There's a notion in psychology that each person has their own optimim stress level. Go significantly far below that, and you're not motivated to act. Go above it, and you get a whole range of results, none of them good.

The level and quality of your work suffers. You may panic, resulting in undirected, randomised action. Or you may feel strained, resulting in a progressive shut down, lock up, indecisiveness, paralysis, freeze.

The idea is that stress itself is just another word for motivation. But get the intensity wrong, and the result is de-motivation.

So here's a thought: Being trapped is similar.

Having a social group ... negotiating an incoherent, shifting web of interpersonal agendas. Owning a home ...  being tied down to one place. Having clear rules ... getting crushed by the system.

Jail is by definition a trap. And punishments in jail consist in reducing freedom even further. But some people <i>like</i> it, the same way some sign up to the army for the rigid discipline. Marriage is a trap. It's also called "a stable home life", "the warmth of close family", "having someone you can rely on".

So if you want to be happy, figure out how trapped you want to be.

18:41 Friday 10th August 2018

I keep well stocked with chewing gum.

It's an effective supplement to teeth brushing, it's a substitute for eating when you're not actually hungry but feel like chewing and tasting something, and it's probably good for breath too.

A week after I arrived, suddenly the girls were chewing gum too. Quite a lot of it - some of it they asked for and received from me. But my stocks dwindled faster than I expected. And one girl - the one who asked the most often - was always late for lessons, as though she always had somewhere to be in the 15 minutes between my leaving my room, and finishing setting up the whiteboard and screen.

Yes. She's smart enough to work out when I'm not in my room. And stupid enough to leave the wrappers lying around. Three unopened packets mysteriously turning into empty wrappers.

A few other things have gone missing and turned up in strange places - cups, cutlery, electrical adaptors, a towel. This is the girl who bursts into outraged tears when stuck in a cramped car, panics and starts hammering the doors when the elevator halts between floors for 30 seconds, and thinks the best way to stop the world inconveniencing her is to shout a single sentence at steadily increasing volume for ten minutes solid.

So, kind of crafty, but unable to recognise or adapt a losing strategy, unable to think things through. And hasn't learned a single thing in class for six weeks.

Probably the best thing for me to do is hide the gum, ignore her attitude, and leave life to teach her a few hard lessons - except she'll refuse to learn them, as a matter of pride.

Her father advises me to "treat her like the wall". And <i>he's</i> the one who calls <i>me</i> wise.

I can only promise to hide the gum.

01:39 Sunday 12th August 2018

You haven't lived until...

* A three year old girl wets herself while sitting on your knee.

Twice. On a car journey with half an hour to go. And so, to save the upholstry, and because moving her wouldn't really help anyway, you sit and feel the moisture creep around your right leg until you arrive.

You spend the time using google translate to help you work out how to explain your wetness, in your very basic arabic, when you arrive. Say "Bint Saghiir, Hamaam.", while pointing at the wet patches, and trying to look rueful.

The same three year old girl can't quite manage to climb onto a toilet seat. So she goes into the garden, very neatly and carefully takes down her pyjamas...and does an improbably large poo, next to the swings. In front of everyone.

This might be called lateral thinking.

* You've spent an hour in the morning walking to the local place of worship, locked yourself in one of its cubicles to give yourself a standing-up bed-bath with a cold, wet flannel, then dried yourself before getting dressed with the fleeciest bit of laundry you've brought with you.

Then done the laundry in the sink with a bar of baby soap, while a man behind you fills three 5-litre water bottles from the tap intended for foot-washing.

And meanwhile you keep yourself un-bored by imagining how you'd explain the difference between a Procedure and a Protocol, should an upper-intermediate level student ask.

Current answer: You can have a procedure, a series of steps to achieve a goal, for (say) washing your face - forehead, nose, mouth, chin, cheeks, ears, neck. And you can vary the order and the repeats, so long as you get the job done. But certain world religions have a <i>protocol</i>, just for the ears - right ear, insert wet little finger, wiggle around, do three times, repeat for left. Because if you deviate, there's a penalty - imaginary in this case.

Cookery has procedures, chemistry protocols. Calculating tax a procedure, filing it a protocol.

Procedures are defined by pragmatism. Protocols by authority.

* You realise your host has a doctorate, and you have a masters degree...which means The Doctor and The Master are living together.

Just like we always suspected.

00:07 Wednesday 8th August 2018

There's just no one to talk with.

And seeing as most thinking is done by talking, thinking gets hard too.

Of course, there's Jamal. I speak with him several times a day, occasionally about things more profound than how well his children can speak with me.

And of course, there's me. Specifically, my imaginary audience who I can explain things to - great for working on, and working out, and working through, programming problems. Did several of those today.

And there's these diary entries. Not an imaginary audience, but a distant one. Which includes me of the future.

But if living life requires batteries full of...whatever it is human interaction charges them with, my batteries have been flat for several weeks. And as one who's had intermittant depression their whole life, I can't think of a better analogy for depression than flat batteries.

This life - this job, this work - requires emotional self-sufficiency. But no one's completely self-sufficient.

Tomorrow it will be exactly six weeks. Half way through.

12:11 Tuesday 7th August 2018

We watched Blink yesterday.

The children screamed at all the right parts. Then asked for more.

Today it was Midnight, and tomorrow we might do Dalek. But I'm inclined to try a two-parter - Silence in the Library/Forset of the Dead, or The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

I've shown Dr Who to almost every group I've taught, and every time...well, I'm not sure they retained any of the vocabulary, but they certainly enjoyed it.

Which means, in the long run, it works. Just not exactly as a teaching tool, but as a priming tool. And most teaching is really priming.

Occasionally a student will have a specific or difficult question, and the teacher is expected to be able to give a specific and detailed answer. But most of the time, our job is to give the basics and a vague outline of the more advanced stuff, giving the students a grounding for their own, more advanced study - from books, experiment, field work etc.

Not that most students actually <i>do</i> any more advanced study, but it's not my job to make them. Just like it's not my job to get them to class.

But that means the vocabulary I taught and hopefully they learned for Blink - Gate, Climb, Weep, Angel, Move, Fast etc. - will be quickly forgotten <i>but</i> more easily relearned, if/when they get taught it in school later, or come across it in real life.

Priming is pre-teaching. It's sketching a map of major landmarks, which is only useful when they draw their own better map.

If I can inspire them to draw their own map, that's good, but a separate task.

12:39 Thursday 2nd August 2018

The western way of raising children is...confused. If it's based on anything, it's based on telling lies. Lies to children, lies about children, lies about lies. That and treating children as brain-damaged adults to be rehabilitated, with no clear notion of what a rehabilitated adult would look like. And it doesn't generally work.

The arabic way is clear. It's based on shouting. Shouting orders, making threats, and occasionally dishing out violence. And when that works, giving out treats. And it doesn't work either.

When adults fail at raising children in the west, the result is aimless children. Maybe creative, intelligent, curious, and sometimes happy, but the self-discipline is missing. When adults fail in the arab world, the result is... children who don't grow up at all.

The problem with shouting is it creates an arms race. You get children who require ever louder shouting and wilder threats and more beating to even register a simple imperative. A calm, polite request can be simply ignored. An instruction needs to be backed up by an implicit threat. Hence the fertile ground for religion.

I don't know how to raise chiren either. The closest I get to a method for turning children into adults is to treat them like they already are adults. But that's the western notion of adult - one who can make their own decisions. The arabic notion of adult is one who's internalised their sense of duty - one who does their own internal shouting.

My father always tried to shame me. Thus I quickly learned to ignore shaming. Which came in very useful later. Mother tried to sit me down and deliver a seminar. Thus my habit of resisting notions delivered from on high.

Arabic children are generally speaking a lot happier than western counterparts. The same may be true of adults. They just regard education as something to be passively received and mindlessly regurgitated. Rebellion is not independance but withdrawal. They seek sinecures in management, but refuse to manage.

Everyday problems are incomprehensible acts of god to be magically solved by the authority of others. I see this here in innumerable small ways. Can you imagine a ten year old child who doesn't know how to turn the TV on and off - and doesn't ask? A twelve year old who never considers trying to paraphrase a difficult idea into simple words - so doesn't try to speak? A 17 year old who disguises his own decisions as inviolable orders from his mother? This is commonplace.

19:04 Tuesday 31st July 2018

We have a housekeeper. She's a very good cook and a very good nanny. She's also about six foot tall and approaching 300 pounds.

We also have a bathroom. It has a non-working toilet, a broken-but-working shower, and an intermittantly working washbasin, this last with a nifty extensible arm for holding a shaving mirror. We flush the toilet by filling a bucket from the tap - on the occasions when there is water flowing. The room is also used as a temporary store for any clothes waiting to be washed.

The housekeeper has decided she doesn't want any adult males in the house to use the bathroom. On the grounds that some of the clothes waiting to be washed are her own undergarments. Suitably sized for a hefty lady intent on keeping herself fully covered, in several layers.

Because if we catch sight of them, we might become inflamed with lust.

Yes, that's her worry.

So, although she's the one being employed and taking orders, we've agreed to stay out of the bathroom. We use the separate toilet and/or the washroom of the mosque down the road instead.

Except when we need a shower, because we can't get that elsewhere.

So. The only time I'm allowed to be in the presence of the intoxicatingly suggestive feminine underthings... is when I'm naked and covered in hot soapy water. And presumably heterosexual.

This is called Morality.

17:18 Tuesday 31st July 2018

I think I know how I survived childhood. I didn't know any children.

In nursery school, I didn't speak to anyone. My parents thought I was deaf, so they sent me to a doctor to have my hearing tested. They said I had good hearing. Maybe I'd be a musician some day.

In primary school, I talked to myself. My parents thought I was retarded, so they sent me to a therapist to have my emotions tested. They said I was advanced.

In middle school - actually the same school - I occasionally talked to the teachers. I failed every single exam except "General Knowledge", where I was "exemplary". Had to look up the word.

In secondary school, I read books. So long as they weren't the ones I was supposed to be reading. I got sent to another therapist. They said I was highly intelligent. And eccentric. And egotistical. And emotionally detatched. The kind of person who writes a blog about their life, in fact.

In university...I read the wrong books, failed all the exams, talked to myself, and made music. Eventually qualified to run a museum.

And right now I'm a teacher in the morning, and a babysitter in the afternoon. Not a great deal of difference between the two - you let the smart kids take care of themselves, scream at the bullies till they cry, and hug the victims till they stop.

They would all be a lot happier if they didn't have each other.

18:45 Monday 30th July 2018

Well, that was at least a mercifully short midlife crisis.

Two days of vague romantic dreams - not even sexual, really - then I wake up and feel suitably ... uncrushing. Crushless. Unencumbered by crushiness.

Nice fellow, who need never know.