Friday, 20 October 2017

Petty grabbers

The BBC has this widely reported story about Labour party chairman Ian Lavery and money he received from the trade union he ran.

MP Ian Lavery received £165,000 from the 10-member trade union he ran.

We have learned this from the trade union regulator which has now released a report into Mr Lavery's actions as general secretary of the NUM Northumberland Area.

He will now face questions on his record over a number of disputed payments by the union he ran.

Mr Lavery, who is the chairman of the Labour Party, denies any wrongdoing.

Ian Lavery is a coming power in the land, Jeremy Corbyn's general election joint co-ordinator and chairman of the Labour Party. If the Conservatives fall, he's most likely destined for high office. But, perhaps, for one thing: his refusal to answer a simple question asked by BBC Newsnight last year: "Did you pay off the mortgage?" BBC Newsnight asked him nine times without getting a reply.

I'm sure this is all within the rules but to my mind it is a worthwhile reminder of how common petty grabbing seems to be, especially among the second-rate. Nobody gets to be rich this way, so why do people do it - especially people in comfortable financial circumstances?

I’m reminded of people I knew who would take great care to claim every penny allowed by the rules. As I recall, none of them were indispensable and I'm sure that's not a coincidence... 

...What am I saying? I know it's not a coincidence.

The scandal over MPs' expenses showed us just how strong is the temptation to grab whatever is there to be grabbed and how many petty grabbers there are in Parliament. We are hardly likely to be surprised by the story and will not be surprised by the next, nor the one after that. One even might treat it as a useful reminder of how lax we are as voters, how pitifully poor we are at gatekeeping the House of Commons.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Money and lies

What are the greatest powers among men on this earth? Some will say the pen, or the sword, or love, or what not. Men of the world will say, money and lies; and they will be very nearly right.

Arthur Morrison – The Red Triangle (1903)

It may be a throwaway line by a fictional character, but it isn’t easy to think of a more cynically cogent take on the reality of power.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Walking the past

Yesterday found us walking the hills around Matlock. It doesn't matter where we walk, signs of the past are always there. At the end of a leafy woodland track -

- is a derelict stone building. A cottage perhaps? 

Set on a wooded hillside so probably nothing to do with farm animals. No services but lots of wood. A little further we have a chapel in need of friends which it seems to have found -

An attractive building it is too, built above a very quiet lane. Fortunately and unlike the cottage, this one seems to have friends.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

No tipping

While out on a walk today we popped into a favourite cafe for a coffee. On the counter was a saucer for tips which seemed to be doing better than usual with a few pound coins among the silver. All were the old round coin I noticed.

It’s the thought that counts.

Friday, 13 October 2017

The 5 Types of BS Jobs

As we know, this kind of cynicism has been around for decades at least but the impact seems to be less than negligible. There are so many things we must pretend not to know, yet so many of us do know and don't mind hearing about it again and again. It's such fun. For now.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

If machines are already conscious

Not to be taken too seriously, but a previous post presented Karl Friston’s idea that consciousness is not a thing but a process, the process of inference.

Conscious processing is about inferring the causes of sensory states, and thereby navigating the world to elude surprises. While natural selection performs inference by selecting among different creatures, consciousness performs inference by selecting among different states of the same creature (in particular, its brain). There is a vast amount of anatomical and physiological evidence in support of this notion. If one regards the brain as a self-evidencing organ of inference, almost every one of its anatomical and physiological aspects seems geared to minimise surprise.

Karl Friston

As far as I know this isn’t Friston’s view, but if his idea is sound, then surely some machines are already conscious because inference is one of the things they do. From complex inputs they infer the best output. It may be a remote, alien and robotic consciousness and it may not be intelligent as we understand it, but it can be adaptive with the ability to infer and learn enough to improve the next inference. Not all of us can do that consistently.

Many, most or almost all people may dismiss Friston’s idea either because they don’t like it anyway or because it can be adapted towards such a tricky conclusion. One obvious reason to dismiss the idea is that machines merely follow algorithms and following an algorithm is not the same as being conscious. It’s a good argument and deeply convincing because we do feel as if we humans are fundamentally different from machines. We feel as if we could do this or we could do that in ways which are not mechanical.

How about the political convictions of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers? In an interesting sense they follow political algorithms and that may be part of the chap’s appeal. His concept of government is essentially a socialist algorithm and his response to any political input is restricted to whatever the algorithm allows. Even the way he assimilates input is dictated by the algorithm.

Following a similar line of thought, it could be said that Theresa May’s problems are caused by her following no obvious algorithm. One could even claim that this is the problem with politics, it places too much weight on algorithms and too little on pragmatic flexibility.

None of this need be taken too seriously, but there are at least two reasons why we might play around with the idea of machine consciousness however dubious it feels.

Firstly the obvious one – forewarned is forearmed. Many of us must regard artificial intelligence with at least some degree of trepidation, possibly mixed with scorn, scepticism or a hard-nosed tendency to dismiss it all as hype. It may be more than hype though. If so then it may be as well to adjust now and not have the adjustment forced upon us in the near future.

For example, if self-driving vehicles ever take to public roads, and it is not certain that they will, but if they do then one might say that these vehicles are able to drive themselves because they are conscious. They constantly infer the current state of the road from a range of sensory inputs and act on that inference - geared to minimise surprise. Not only that but they do it within an unpredictable environment – just as we do.

Admit this and the possibility of machine consciousness makes some kind of sense, if only as a means to assess any threats it may pose. There is an important sense in which self-driving vehicles are more aware than human drivers, a sense in which they are more conscious of their environment, a sense in which they are much more conscious of their environment.

Secondly a linked problem – the wider issues of automation and employment. As we all know automation kills off old ways of working and consigns old forms of employment to history. This should not be a problem if new jobs appear, jobs we probably haven’t thought of yet. Or so we are often told.

However, automation via conscious machines may be different and for that reason the new jobs may not appear or they may be inaccessible to many people. A key problem could be the rate of progress. In time, and that time may be now, conscious machines may acquire new areas of expertise more quickly, cheaply and comprehensively than their human competitors. Million may find themselves out-competed by conscious machines.

I mean – look around you. How unlikely is it?

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Darwin Awards - a near miss

From The Local we hear about a game attempt at the Darwin Awards.

A Danish man was injured over the weekend after he was shot in the stomach by a friend.

The 30-year-old had asked his friend to shoot him in the stomach with an air rifle "to see how it felt", according to reports in the Swedish media.

But the prank went so badly wrong that the friends had to call an ambulance, and the victim was taken to hospital where he needed surgery.

"He survived, but it could have been worse," Helena Renberg, a local police spokesperson, told Sveriges Radio. "He was in a bad way, but was operated upon."

She said that the victim did not want to press charges, so the police would not be taking the matter any further.