Category Archives: Wonders

Fran Varey: Mom’s Life

Mom at 94

My Mom died on 26 August 2021. It fell to me to write the obituary, which, as a task, is at once both an honour and an impossibility. The reason for the former is obvious; the reason for the latter is that no words can capture and condense a person’s life.

Mom’s Life

Mom was born in Toronto and spent all her early life there. As a child, she was particularly close to her father, Ed Sproule, and it would appear it was from him she inherited her great love of walking. One of her earliest childhood memories was of him coming home each Friday, having been paid, and giving her some small coin so that she could go down to the shop and buy the fish and chips for dinner.

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On Fermi Calculations

Big Falling Fermi Confetti

Take a piece of standard paper. Rip it up, roughly, into an 8 by 8 grid, which will net you 64 pieces of over-sized confetti. Hold them in your cupped hands at chest height, and let them fall to the ground.

What can you learn from doing this? Well, for one thing, it can help you estimate the strength of Trinity, the first atom bomb test explosion.

No, really, it can.

But I’ve left out two things. You have to have been at the observing site at the time when Trinity was actually detonated. And you have to be Enrico Fermi.

Enrico Fermi 311x300

Enrico Fermi in front of a machine he invented for toasting bread.

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Superforecasting Will Become the Next Big Thing Unless It Doesn’t

Forecasts That Don’t Mean Much

Comedian George Carlin had a character called Al Sleet, otherwise known as the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman. Sleet’s speciality was vague or ambiguous weather forecasts, and his most famous was:

Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight, changing to widely scattered light towards morning.

Everyone can find this funny, but it takes a very special kind of intellect like Philip Tetlock to take it seriously. Why seriously? Because Tetlock has spent much of his career studying forecasting, why we get it wrong (as we often do), and whether we can get it right (which, with discipline, we sometimes can).

Meteo-France Rhone Alpes 502x200
A forecast

He has just come out with a new book, Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction, which I am going to discuss in just a second.

But first, we have to talk about dart-throwing chimpanzees.

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Like It So It Hurts

Liking is Meaningless

The problem with the Facebook “LIke” button (and equivalents) is that it is so easy to use, using it is virtually meaningless. Click, click, click. Like, Like, Like. Now that was painless….

And yet the Like button is supposed to mean something.

Herman - Feel Great 320x407

Herman on the relation between liking and hurting.

Facebook says Liking something allows you to “give positive feedback and connect with things you care about”. The number of Likes a post receives helps to determine whether it goes into your news feed. But its absurd ease-of-use seriously dilutes any notion of whether you actually do care about the thing in question. You can click without looking, and you certainly can click without caring.

Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I know this for a fact, as I have French friends, people who don’t even read English, who have “Liked” some of my English blog posts. Of course it is well-intentioned, and a kind gesture. I shouldn’t complain. Merci, mes amis, mais….

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Lawrence Krauss: Finding Beauty in the Darkness

Lawrence Krauss, one of our very best science writers, has penned a fine article describing the aesthetic significance of the recent LIGO discovery of gravity waves. It is a short article, full of wonder at the accomplishment and its implications. I urge you to go and read it. It is entitled Finding Beauty in the Darkness and appeared in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times on 14 February 2016.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Such a near perfect piece needs no review from me, but I don’t mind stealing some of Krauss’ text. These brief passages fit the “wonders” side of the “wonders and deception” theme that is the backbone of this blog. So I just cannot resist.

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A Key to the Charles Bridge, Prague

Every once in a while you hear a story that is just so good, the pessimist gets the better of you, and you immediately think it is of apocryphal origin. But I trust the guy who told me this one, and he claimed it happened to him. So I believe it.

And it would be so nice if it were true….

I was in Prague at the beginning of February, pursuing a job opportunity, and had the chance to meet up with a friend there, a mathematician and engineer, Václav. He reminds me a bit of my old Classics professor/friend, Ceri Stephens: kind, engaging, intelligent, and loves his beer. Not quite the same age as Ceri, so perhaps in his 60’s. Václav and I had dinner on the outskirts of town near the castle that overlooks it, and walked back towards Prague around 23:00.

Charles Bridge, Prague

The Charles Bridge, Prague

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Bricks and Mortar in Human-Level Artificial Intelligence

Bricks and Mortar:

Strategic Positioning of a Long-Term, Human-Level AI Project

Bricks and Mortar
Bricks and Mortar


  • Any 10 year project needs to have a robust strategy for dealing with change during its lifetime
  • This is particularly true for a human-level AI project, as all key aspects of the field are changing dramatically
  • To date, all previous AI projects have been narrowly-focused and highly specialized: designed to achieve one goal (diagnose a disease, play chess, decide when to sell a stock, etc.)
  • Any human-level AI project, by contrast, will be orders of magnitude more complex, integrating sub-systems that will need to work together to achieve many sub-goals simultaneously, so…
  • Any human-level AI project will end up being a cooperative affair, involving many manufacturers/labs producing many specialist components. It is useful to think of these components as bricks, and the larger project as an edifice to be built
  • This heterogeneous nature will lead to novel constructs not seen in previous AI projects. Most notably, a human-level AI project will be a distributed system, not a monolithic program. Some data and third-party AI sub-systems will be called as services, not bolt-on components
  • To carry the “bricks” metaphor to its logical conclusion, a kind of highly dynamic “mortar” will also be required to bind any human-level AI project together: a mechanism that will allow the bricks to discover one another; to coordinate and sequence their activities; to recover gracefully when a component fails, gets upgraded or goes off-line; to communicate with outside sensors, AI services and data
  • The best business strategy involves developing the mortar, not the bricks

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Book Review: What to Think About Machines That Think

Intelligentsia impresario John Brockman has done an admirable job of assembling some very impressive thinkers for his web site Although most are scientists, there is a fair number of people from the other estates, and the cross-fertilisation of ideas frequently draws even hardened specialists out of their shells, to make pronouncements on things well outside their fields of expertise.

Hal and Dave
Hal and Dave

Although this is not always a good thing, it does make entertaining, stimulating discussion, and I can recommend the site wholeheartedly.

Every year Brockman sets a current question to his group (whose members are, cringingly, called “Edgies”), and turns the resulting answers into a book. This year’s question, and the book’s title, is “What do You Think About Machines That Think?”

The responses, which take the form of short essays, are only very roughly organized by theme. These themes bleed slowly from one to another, without dividing section headings. This provides a surprisingly effective minimalist structure to the book, hinting at emergent concepts that transcend the distinct points made by individual authors.

There are so many excellent ideas presented in the book, that I can recommend it, too, without reservation. So rather than write a normal critical review here, I thought it would be more useful to look at these themes, especially how the thinkers have thought through them, rather than just analyse what they’ve written. From this we can glean a lot about the state of the fields of AI and machine intelligence.

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Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131 I

In 1826, a year before his death, Ludwig van Beethoven completed his string quartet number 14 in C# minor, opus 131.

Although it was not well received by the general public upon its first performance, a rather large number of quite significant musicians seem to have thought highly of it in their time.

Beethoven String Quartet 14, Opus 131, first movement

Beethoven String Quartet 14, Opus 131, first movement

When Schubert first heard the piece, he is reported to have said, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And as he lay dying, a year after Beethoven’s own death, Schubert asked for it to be played, and his closest friends obliged him. It was very possibly the last piece of music Schubert heard in his life.

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A Note On Timelines and Measures

Different cultures have different ways of expressing common concepts. One of the most interesting aspects of this cultural relativism arises when it comes to notions of number, small sets, plurals, and so on.

Prague Astronomical Clock

Prague Astronomical Clock

For example, in English, we have the concepts of singular and plural. If there is one of something, it is singular; any more, and it is plural.

One stone; two stones.

Russian, on the other hand, includes a concept of “twoness” before moving on to the more generic plural. It is as if we had a construct like…

One stone; two stonae; three stones.

One finds other differences, especially when cultures are viewed historically: how the concept of number and measure has changed over time. As is well known, it took a long while for the concepts of zero and infinity to be invented.; Roman numerals are particularly difficult to use to do math; the mathematical community needed many years to come to grips with the notion that the square root of a negative number could in fact be a pretty useful concept (if you didn’t let its inherent weirdness bother you too much).

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