quarta-feira, junho 27, 2018

Give Me a Boat: “The Tale of the Unknown Island” by José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa (translator)


In “The Tale of the Unknown Island” by José Saramago

I love the way Saramago builds this parable by using the Portuguese King D. João II and Columbus. He went to Lisbon in 1476 and remained here for several years, seeking the support of King D. João II and gathering nautical and geographic intelligence from the returning sailors. Why did we want to embark on the Age of Discoveries? Easy: We saw a niche begging to be literally explored. On the other hand, Spain was fighting the Moors, the Turks were attacking Italy, and Austria and France and Britain were fighting each other in the Hundred Year War. Portugal, on the other hand, was a united kingdom with relatively few internal problems and enemies. Smart, uh? We’re always looking for an opportunity to shine bright…

I think the biscuit-tin view of Portugal's place in the world is absolutely more pervasive (and comically skewed) than is generally recognised. The outlook of a born-and-bred Portuguese is too often one of ugly prejudice hidden under a facade of dignified national pride.  Our attitudes regarding many other countries reeks of the idea that we are still at the top looking down over the world. Unfortunately, an almost slavish devotion to the US in matters both economic and military over recent decades makes the real situation clear (look at what happened in Azores, a Portuguese Island in the middle of the Atlantic). And it sucks. But it's best to see the world for what it is rather than clinging to this tattered superiority complex.

The past is a foreign country - we have no reason to feel pride or shame by anything that happened there, because we didn't do it. For the vast majority of us, our ancestors didn't do it either - they were busy exploring the seas in the 1400s under the aegis of Prince Henry, digging coal, weaving cotton, farming fields, and neither did they have any say in what happened as the empire was well advanced by the time universal suffrage came into force. Maybe we need to look at exactly where Portugal and its former colonies would be today, had there been no empire and also look at Belgium, Spain, Britain, France and Holland's colonial past to contextualise things somewhat.

I'm not drawing any conclusions as I don't purport to be an expert or have any answers. I've just loved this parable of the Portuguese Sea Discoveries (The Americas, India, etc.)

Perhaps the fact that José Saramago was a Portuguese writer makes the idea of writing a book called "The Tale of the Unknown Island" extremely appropriate. This is because we ourselves had our time to go out into the world and make great discoveries through maritime explorations. Nothing more fitting than a Portuguese writing a story where someone wants to discover an unknown island. But this individual wants to find an island that nobody knows, located in a sea where everything to be found has already been found. “The Tale of the Unknown Island” is a work that speaks about ourselves and "converses" with us in a very peculiar way.  This is a must for anyone who wants to start the adventure that is reading Saramago, for those who have already embarked on this trip, and also for those who are looking for something simple and smooth, giving us another vision of life and of the lessons we must draw from it.

Bottom-line: We can understand each island as a person: the "known islands" are people who have already reached self-knowledge (or think they have). As to the "unknown islands", I always see them as people who do not know who they are or who are in search of themselves.

segunda-feira, junho 25, 2018

Alekhine’s Embalmed Body: “Theory of Shadows” by Paolo Maurensig

“‘Imagine,’ he said, ‘that Stalin, with the complicity of the Portuguese police [PIDE], gave the order not only to kill him, but also to bring his body back to bring his body back to his native soil. Although the man was considered a traitor, his genius belonged to Great Mother Russia. Imagine that Alekhine’s embalmed body is to this day displayed in a showcase in some secret room in the Kremlin. Imagine that, as the conclusion for your novel.’”

In “Theory of Shadows” by Paolo Maurensig

For those of you who don't know, Estoril is near Lisbon. 

Chess is a troublesome game. I gave it up after many years playing at expert level. At club level the element of sheer chance involved means that most players would have more fun and probably considerably more success playing Ludo. This does not stop egocentric oddballs from exhibiting a most unbecoming arrogance whenever the dice happen to fall in their favour. This is likely to be true at Grandmaster level equally and explains much about their strange behaviours. Alekhine hated losing and would have fits of carpet-biting rage whenever he did. Weird lot of them chess players! There is of course no chance at any level of chess except for the draw in some tournaments. If two novices play, the chances of one making some silly blunder before the other does are I suppose what we expect; but for anyone to win at any level, someone has to make some kind of mistake, after all. But chess certainly is the domain of the oddball. The nervous competitive tension of the game combined with time pressure and the rhythmic pulsing, clicking, or flashing of the clock will bring out the strangest unconscious behaviours in people as well as exacerbating whatever tics, compulsions, rages, and other psychological afflictions they may already be suffering from. Tal's genius still takes my breath away. If only there could have been a match between Tal and Kasparov: Saladin versus Richard the lionheart: the finely-sharpened blade verses the broad sword :)

Alexander Alekhin was quite normal by any standard. He was born into aristocratic privilege, drank like a fish, and willingly collaborated in Nazi-sponsored tournaments during the war - as well as publishing a number of nakedly anti-semitic articles. We need more chess players like him. Er, maybe not. The late Harry Golombek knew Alekhin well, and said he was perfectly normal, which he probably was. He is on record as making anti-Jewish comments before WW2. But these were typical of someone from his class and background, and are probably only skin deep. Once you are a French citizen in the hands of the Nazis, things can get precarious. So I suppose you allow your name to be put to any journalistic article placed in front of you. Other players took part in German chess tournaments during the war, including Keres, and Bogoljubow - I think the latter had been a German citizen for years anyway. The only eccentricity I found in Alekhin is the pronunciation of his name. He insisted it was pronounced Alyekhin. The only Russian I have heard pronounce it this way is Anatoly Karpov. Every other Russian I have met pronounces it Alyokhin. (One of the hooligans from Pu$$y Riot was named Alyokhina.)

Alekhin was a wonderful player with a very complete style.

NB: “Xeque-Mate no Estoril” (Checkmate at Estoril) by Dagoberto L. Mark was the first book I read regarding Alekhine’s death (unfortunately there’s only a Portuguese version).

sábado, junho 23, 2018

Implausifiability in Physics: “Lost in Math - How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” by Sabine Hossenfelder

“The time it takes to test a new fundamental law of nature can be longer than a scientist’s career. This forces theorists to draw upon criteria other than empirical adequacy to decide which research avenues to pursue. Aesthetic appeal is one of them. In our search for new ideas, beauty plays many roles. It’s a guide, a reward, a motivation. It is also a systematic bias“

In “Lost in Math - How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” by Sabine Hossenfelder

One of the most obnoxious notions I’ve ever read in Physics is the one that purports that we’re a simulation. If it's all a simulation, why wouldn't the world that simulated us be a simulation too? This is the turtles all the way down idea. This doesn't mean it isn't true but it's also the same question as, if God created the universe and us, who created God? The answer I sometimes get when I say it’s all hogwash, is that the theory is aesthetically pleasing. Where is the evidence? And more importantly, is it “implausifiable” (I’m borrowing here Hossenfelder’s term)? The supposed evidence for our universe being a simulation seems to largely include the idea that if we extrapolate our technological progress further ahead in time, we will be able to build such a simulation ourselves *therefore* we are a simulation. That's not a very good argument for a lot of reasons. First, how do we know there aren't hard blockers that prevent us from ever getting to the point in our technology to actually build a simulation equal to the world we live in? Of course those blockers might be because we are in a simulation. But like string theory, you might have a theory of everything but if it can't predict anything, its utility is questionable without some other actual theory that predicts things in a testable way.

But in actually thinking about this idea (I always do this thinking before my morning bowel movement), the one word that best describes the world we live in is "lazy". It answers why water doesn't go uphill, why everything seems to submit to math, even quantum mechanics and the weird observer question. The answer is, if you are lazy, why bother to do something unless you have an observer or something that impacts an observer in some manner? Why bother building other galaxies when you can just show them to us as photons of light? Why bother actually building Mars until humans bother to send spacecraft there?

If I were programming our universe, a computer language with lazy evaluation would be ideal. Write the whole thing out but only actually calculate each function when it is actually needed. We could be living in a Haskell REPL and God could be having fun making changes at the command line. Of course the full Schrödinger equation is rather complicated so perhaps our universe could be termed "mostly lazy". Make it complicated enough to confuse us with a dazzling array of possibilities but down deep, lazy. At this point, even entropy is reduced to a notion of laziness, the glass shatters on the floor but it never fixes itself and returns to its original form because that would be too much bother.

Why do physicists embark on the “Aesthetically-Pleasing-Bandwagon”? Because Physicists belong to the Human Race (at least some of them do). I think it’s due to the human need to believe in an ordered universe. It's all part of our pattern-finding instinct that lets us turn separate flashes of colour into a tiger hiding behind some trees. It can be very useful, this desire to provide simple, aesthetically and pleasing explanations. We get chemically rewarded when we make links, so we feel satisfied when we identify a tiger and successfully run away. Unfortunately, we also feel satisfied when we make a wrong link, as long as it doesn't eat us. Hence a String Theory (the TOE of all answers), provides the same three-letter answer for pretty much anything and everything (TOE that is). The same goes for the Multiverse. Fortunately, some people are less than satisfied by this. We call these people "well-grounded physicists". In millennia gone by they would all probably have been eaten by tigers while they checked the rigour of their solutions. It might be a tiger, or a series of birds, or possibly some oranges carefully positioned, so what I am calling for is more research into... chomp!
If the universe is simple, as it was for early man, simple answers will do. Now we know it to be more complicated, we need better answers than just yelling "Tiger!" every time we see something orange. Sabine says: “Since Pauli's days, postulating particles has become the theoretician's favorite pastime. We have preons, sfermions, dyons, magnetic monopoles, simps, wimps, wimpzilla, axions, flaxions, erebons, cornucipons, giant magnons, maximons, macros, branons, skyrmions, cuscutons, planckons, and sterile neutrinos – just to mention the most popular ones. We have unparticles. None of thse has ever been seen, but their properties have been thoroughly studied in thousands of published research articles.”  It’s quite a jungle. General Relativity was invented based on facts that were already known for a long time and it opened doors to new insights. What Einstein did is play with ideas to come up with something unique. In that sense if you let more people play with ideas on what the Vacuum is made of connected to how the Higgs Field works and how Dark Matter works, doing (thought) experiments with something like granular and CFD simulators than 'something' interesting might pop up. What the LHC is doing is like sifting through the desert to gain an important clue of what 'sand' is, while with simulations you can explore the idea of grains and interactions on a whole new level, we already know almost everything there is to know and can find out with these machines. Now with powerful supercomputers we have a chance to play with as many different kind of simulations we like, this is the new world that is opening up and new to explore, and where we should focus on.

Bottom-line: “Physics isn’t math. It’s choosing the right math”. I fully agree with Hossenfelder. What a load of BS what’s happening in the world of Physics nowadays. This is nothing more than a pack of hack physicists trying to explain what they can't understand with absurd fantasies just to justify tenure. I like the proverbial analogy with Copernicus, which alludes to certainty to give a modicum of credibility to their erroneous reasoning. If I can rip holes in these absurd claims, anyone can. The people who make them have below average intelligence; real not simulated. Billions of weirdos and thickos think otherwise...Who cares!

quinta-feira, junho 21, 2018

Fin-de-siècle Urban Nightmares: “Lucio's Confession” by Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Margaret Jull Costa (translator)

"Deep down, I did hate those people – the artists. That is, those false artists whose work consists of the poses they strike: saying outrageous things, cultivating complicated tastes and appetites, being artificial, irritating, [and] unbearable. People who, in fact, take from art only what is false and external.”

In “Lucio's Confession” by Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Margaret Jull Costa (translator)

From the street, two floors below my hotel window in a dreary urban business park slash hotel district, I heard desperate, blood chilling cries for help. I rushed to the window, expecting to see the victim of a hit and run car accident lying bloodied at the curb-side but instead, I saw a young man with a tear stained face wearing only a long sleeved, open-cuffed shirt walking this way and then that, each time with purpose, until the moment he changed his mind. Shouting, pleading with his hands outstretched. For a heartbreaking moment, I thought he looked like a guy I knew from work. It was early morning and there was no-one on the street to hear his shouting; I guessed he’d been up all night. For some reason, I felt I understood his problem; he should be in a field somewhere herding cattle for the morning milking or chopping wood for winter but instead, he’s been dumped in this incomprehensible, concrete and steel alien landscape, except that it isn’t alien … we made it, we imposed it on the poor bastard and it just doesn’t make sense. Before I had time to decide whether or not I should go outside and see if he was OK, a police car turned up and scooped him away.

I was reminded of this incident by reading “Lucio’s Confession” by Mário de Sá-Carneiro. They speak to me of the same kind of lost soul drowning in the same kind of fin-de-siècle urban nightmare – not at all of a celebration of life or of happiness or even of anything particularly specific to men or women. Coveting another woman’s wife is one of those symptoms for which people can be sectioned instantly. Are we so different from the protagonist Lucio? Our supposed lucidity is reliable, especially in a world where it is not impossible, for example, to fall in love with an image on the computer, and often before this virtual reality, we fantasize about being another person, and let the fantasies dominate? The novel left me very strong impressions; it seemed to me to be within a dream and at the same time within a reality that denies itself, re-creating it. Madness? Not sure. Maybe it’s just the way we see Art depicting Life.

I agree with Mário de Sá-Carneiro. This is not art, it is a symptom.

Mário de Sá-Carneiro killed himself in 1916.

Coda: “Like Pessoa, Sá-Carneiro had a horror of madness and abnormality in general, the reason, perhaps, why the whole of his work was a concerted effort to exorcise those demons.” Yes, we all know about the influence Sá-Carneiro had on the Pessoa’s Heteronimity. The letters between those two is something everyone interested on these matters should read.

By Eugénio Lisboa in the introduction to “Lucio's Confession” by Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Margaret Jull Costa (translator)

terça-feira, junho 19, 2018

Et ego in illo: “Baltasar and Blimunda” by José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero (Translator)

“If Adam was punished for wishing to resemble God, how do men come to have God inside them without being punished, and even when they do not wish to receive Him they go unpunished, for to have and not to wish to have God inside oneself amounts to the same absurdity, and the same impossible situation, yet the words Et ego in illo imply that God is inside me, how did I come to find myself in thus labyrinth of yes and no, of no that means yes, of yes that means no, opposed affinities allied contradictions, how shall I pass safely over the edge of the razor, well, summing up, before Christ became man, God was outside man and could not reside in him, then, through the Blessed Sacrament, He came to be inside man, so man is virtually God, or will ultimately become God, yes, of course, if God resides in me, I am God, I am God not in triune or quadruple, but one, one with God, He is I, I am He, Durus est hic sermo, et quis potest eum audire.”

In “Baltasar and Blimunda” by José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero (translator)

(“ […] Se a Adão por querer assemelhar-se a Deus, como têm agora os homens a Deus dentro de si e não são castigados, ou o não querem receber e castigados não são, que ter e não querer ter Deus dentro de si é o mesmo absurdo, a mesma impossibilidade, e contudo Et ego in illo, Deus está em mim, ou em mim não está Deus, como poderei achar-me nesta floresta de sim e não, de não que é sim, do sim que é não, afinidades contrárias, contrariedades afins como atravessarei salvo sobre o fio da navalha, ora, resumindo agora, antes de Cristo se ter feito homem, Deus estava fora do homem e não podia estar nele, depois, pelo Sacramento, passou a estar nele, assim o homem é quase Deus, ou será afinal o próprio Deus, sim, sim, se em mim está Deus, eu sou Deus, sou-o de modo não trino ou quádruplo, mas uno, uno com Deus, Deus nós, ele eu, eu ele, Durus est hic sermo, et quis potest eum audire.”

In “Memorial do Convento” by José Saramago

Arriving in Mafra, let us imagine ourselves as part of the crowd that, on October 22, 1730, attended the consecration of the convent. Impossible not to be impressed by this façade more than 230 meters in length. To the centre, the basilica with its dome and bell towers, and on each side the imposing turrets. The portico columns clearly showed the neoclassical influence, complemented by several sculptures in the same style. Saramago tells us that 40,000 workers worked night and day so that the Basilica could be finished on D. João V's birthday. Three centuries later, this Portuguese National Monument gave way to the atmosphere of the sacred places: a row of chapels, a high altar with an altarpiece of an Italian master and a magnificent crucifix four meters high. Of course little Manuel had no idea who Saramago was. "Do you think this an ugly or beautiful King?" Mafra's convent guide asked little Manuel, as the group passed by his portrait in one of the rooms. The little visitor's response was peremptory: "It's ugly!" “Very fat, it appears that the King ‘even brought chicken legs to the opera,’” the cicerone whispered to little Manuel. But it was this monarch that clothed the Palace with the most valuable furnishings and other artistic treasures such as tapestries and paintings by renowned artists of the time. During his exile in Brazil, he also took with him a large part of these works. The guide also told little Manuel that the massive silver bathtub commissioned from England by King John V was also missing, although he did not bathe very often. At the time, the idea was that the maladies of the body entered through the pores of the skin. Therefore, the more they were covered by accumulated dirt, the fewer diseases they picked up. For this, the "sangrias" (bleeding) were used a lot at the time; little Manuel also saw in the Infirmary and in the Botica objects to remove blood, male sweepers and syringes with large centimeters in size and width, attached to the nucleus of Sacred Art (also visited). Without stopping, the guide still had time to mention in passing, about the time of greater decorative magnificence of the Convent, that the building "was perhaps one of the first in the country to have a mechanical elevator" and that Queen Maria Pia (regent who almost indebted the Portuguese crown with her whims) demanded that her piano not be transported by a normal joint of oxen, but rather by the effort of "eight men of confidence", who brought it along on the their shoulders to Mafra, traveling about 40 kilometers. Thomaz de Mello Breyner (1866-1933) was the 4th Count of Mafra and doctor of D. Carlos I. When he was a child, at the end of a vacation before returning to Lisbon, he left an inscription on the walls of one of the corridors of Church that visitors can still observe today. What this inscription has of special relevance is that the author is the grandfather of the poetess Sophia de Mello Breyner and great-grandfather of Miguel Sousa Tavares. Ludicrous was also the way King D. Carlos hunted pigeons on the terrace: he ordered torches to be put in the chimneys' respirators, where those birds nested, and these, frightened by the smoke, fled. The monarch, comfortably seated, shot at them. It is said that "only 43 pigeons were caught at a time, suspecting that many others had fallen around the neighborhood," says the guide with her eyes gleaming with gusto… It was also the pigeons that motivated the Convent's greatest myth: the existence of murderous rats. A soldier from the Infantry Prison School (who had been in the building for nearly 100 years as the story goes), when he was on the terrace hunting pigeons with a colleague, fell off from eight stories high, directly into the sewer canals. The colleague did not immediately report the accident to his superiors so as not to be punished, and a few weeks later the body was found chewed on by the rats. Obviously he was not attacked by rats; died yes, of the dizzying fall. But the story went beyond the borders of the village and recently a laboratory talked about the possibility of delimiting the area for reasons of public health. There are even schools in various parts of the country that still call the Palace to ask whether students can visit the Palace safely without being bitten. "I am living proof that the rats do not harm anyone. I visited the sewage canals and the rats ran away from the slightest presence of light," said the guide rubbing her hands together with a malevolus look towards little Manuel. It’s also true that even bats fly through the endless Library of the Convent of Mafra. Although the eighteenth-century paper of the nearly 38,000 existing volumes is of high quality, these small rodents of the night help preserve the books of small insects that are harmful to the maintenance of the huge tomes. Amazed, little Manuel could even see one of these small animals, dead, in the hands of the guide when they went through the library, through many reading-rooms and the scientific study rooms. Also a must-see, for a complete script of the book's action, are the Throne Room, the Hunting Room, the Music Room or the Royal Rooms. Saramago tells us of the cold meetings between the king and his wife, twice a week, in which he made the 200 meters that separated his rooms in the North Tower from the South Tower (the rooms of D. Maria). Of course little Manuel was not told of the King’s perambulations by the guide.

(my own copy of the Portuguese edition)

Coda - In 2010 I wrote this:

The body of José Saramago was cremated this Sunday in Lisbon next to an edition of the "Memorial of the Convent", one of his fundamental works and thanks to which he met his wife, Pilar del Río. The work was placed next to the coffin by Eduardo Lourenço, contemporary of Saramago and considered one of the most outstanding Portuguese intellectuals of the twentieth century.  Lourenço handed over the book, with tears in his eyes, to Pilar del Rio and wrote some words that nobody was able to read, since it was deposited and closed next to the coffin in Lisbon’s City Hall.

domingo, junho 17, 2018

SFional Lorentz Transformations: "Tau Zero" by Poul Anderson

“Consider: a single light-year is an inconceivable abyss. Denumerable but inconceivable. At an ordinary speed – say, a reasonable pace for a car in megalopolitan traffic, two kilometers per minute – you would consume almost nine million years in crossing it. And in Sol’s neighborhood, the stars averaged some nine light-years part. Beta Virginis was thirty-two distant. Nevertheless, such spaces could be conquered.”

In “Tau Zero” by Poul Anderson.

Yeah I'm aware of the twin paradox and how Special Relativity alone doesn't account for the returning twin being younger; at the time I remember wondering specifically whether one of the main criticism of Tau zero (i.e. that the crew of the ship should observe the universe as being slower relative to them while they're accelerating, not sped up as it is in the book) was on the nose. Not that most people think that special relativity is simple, but in fact it is even trickier than is apparent the first time you meet it. The crucial point to remember is that what you actually see is very different from what is happening "in the observer's frame of reference" as the jargon has it, because you have to allow for the time that light takes to get to you, which adds a whole extra layer of distortions they don't tell you about in your first relativity course. If you take that into account, special relativity has no problem completely accounting for the twin paradox, for instance. In fact in Tau Zero the speed of light is still an uncrossable barrier - as it would be; the point is the effects of time dilation, and as the drive keeps working and the momentum increases, so the dilation effect increases. Since he was trying to discuss the physics, might help to get that bit right. Most "paradoxes" in Special Relativity can be resolved by just doing the Lorentz transformations. The implications of SF time travel are different. Time Travel in a deterministic universe (Terminator 1). People have a lot of problems with this, partly because they assume everything started out in a timeline without time travel. If it is a deterministic universe, the time traveler was always going to travel back in time and his actions were always going to happen. This imposed self-consistency would exclude a large numbers of possible timelines and require very specific actions, but it's not all that strange. Time travel in a not self-consistent universe (Terminator 2 or back to the future). Yep. Quite straightforward. Time travel in a seemingly self-consistent universe that might not really be- See many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Add time travel. 

Think about it for a while. Fun.

What bothered me at the time was not the twin paradox though; what bugged me was the pushing the spaceship to light speed. Besides the fact that it would take infinite energy to push mass "at" the speed of light, let alone surpass it, which Einstein proved is impossible; if you reached it, for an observer your time would stop and for you, your time, distance to everything would be zero, you would see the whole future life of the universe unfold instantaneously.

But SF does not have eyes to see, eyes lacking elsewhere; the insights come from physics, and the writers can have no more insight than that. In general, they have less. So, despite a final paragraph obviously written more with an eye for an ending than with an eye on content, it is no good looking to SF to tell you what the Universe is up to; much of it is sub-O level, much of it fantasy, not SF and the remainder is both hard to find and usually badly written (very few people who spend years studying math and physics turn out to be good writers - it has been known, but it is rare).

Perhaps the larger point is that looking at others to explain things for you is a weak idea (in fact doomed); better to learn and understand for yourself.

When SF authors develop the courage to stop recycling their Sunday school primers, perhaps the genre will prove the Jesuits wrong: "give me a child until the age of seven, and I will show you the man!"

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, junho 16, 2018

C/Fe: "The Caves of Steel" by Isaac Asimov

"There were infinite lights, the luminous walls and ceilings that seemed to drip cool, even phosphorescence; the flashing advertisements screaming for attention; the harsh, steady gleam of the 'lightworms' that directed:
Most of all, there was the noise that was inseparable from life. The sound of millions talking, laughing, coughing, calling, humming, breathing."

In "The Caves of Steel" by Isaac Asimov

Set 2,000 years in the future, "The Caves of Steel" shows us contrasting pictures of Earth and the Outer Worlds - colonized planets throughout the Galaxy. Although the inhabitants of the Outer Worlds trace their origins to Earth, they are separated from it by much more than mere distance, now calling themselves Spacers and ruling the decaying mother planet as benevolent despots. In his earlier novels, Asimov mastered the translation of speech into its written equivalent; but to recreate the speech of a human being is a problem every novelist faces. Credible robotic speech is a much less common challenge, and in "The Caves of Steel" Asimov developed a form of dialogue for Daneel that is completely believable. Daneel's speech, while possessing the rather formal lilt one might expect from a machine, also possesses a gentle, tempered quality that allows him to pass for human. I was always conscious of a slight mechanical flavour as well.

No zeroth law yet here...it'd have made allowed some interesting variations. In "Robots and Empire", Asimov's robots do indeed find a cunning way around the three laws - they invent a Zeroth Law which states that "no robot can injure humanity or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm" which doesn't directly contradict the First Law, so their brains will accept it, but has the interesting effect in moral philosophical terms of turning them from Kantians to utilitarians. So rather than being guided by an absolute "thou shalt not kill" imperative they become able to kill or harm humans if and only if they have calculated it's for the greater good. Rather than becoming brutal overlords because of this (as the other laws still apply) they end up guiding the development of humanity quietly from the shadows, taking on a role not a billion miles from Banks's AIs. As I say, it was a billion years since I read Asimov but I had hell of a blast re-reading this first volume in the Robot Series.

I always thought Asimov's setup with the Three Laws of Robotics had a bit of a problem when it came to defining 'injure'. Is psychological damage also injury? Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies but don't tell me the truth if my feelings are going to be impacted. The ignorance and avoidance of truth causes a lot of harm in this world. Asimov's laws would clearly not cope with that. You would need to resolve the inherent conflict in the first law and it strikes me that’s when you have to include a decision made regarding relative good (i.e., five lives = better than one life). But then you have to include other factors (e.g., are children 'better' than old people) which becomes subjective. And this is in a simple situation where the "knowns" are all there, not the unknown consequences.

How can we give robots morals? What is our best guide to morality in practical affairs? Cicero's "De Officiis”, surely. Throw in his "Academica", "De Finibus" and "De Natura Deorum", and the robots might have a better sense of what it is to be human, and what it means to be a good person, absent life after death. These are ideas that have stuck fast in the history of European literature and philosophy, and I reckon Cicero's practical style of philosophy is a better guide to acting morally than any work of fiction. But the whole point of AI surely is to create an intelligence which surpasses human capabilities. What could ethics, applied or otherwise, possibly mean at this level of cognition...? AI is meant to make in-roads into the 'paradoxes' of philosophy; paradoxes which we 'resolve' in practical affairs with the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom. Asimov's robot collapses into a heap of motionless metal when confronted with such paradoxes, but it seems to me that AI might be capable, at one point, of dealing with them. The big question is how...? Would we be willing to cede moral judgments to a non-human intelligence, if it could not adequately convey its 'prudence' to us in our own language?

Obviously, we enter into the realm of speculation here. But I think it behooves us to speculate...

Bottom-line: One of Asimov's best novels. I'd be content with politicians having some morals actually too. It's not the robots we have to worry about...I'd also add that rather than teach robots to read literature so that they can become more human, we should teach literature students to read texts as featuring not 'ethical dilemmas' but concurrency or race hazard problems so that they can become less robotic when they in turn become pedagogues...It's important, however, that those Sex Robots coming off Japanese production lines are also kept well away from feminist stuff, though, I would have thought. I suppose that Fighter Robots might be programmed with only war stories. Obviously stuff about muskets and cannon balls and stuff like that would need to be excluded from the reading lists as well. What would happen if Daneel started reading Enid Blyton? I think it's just encourage Daneel to wander about all day trying to solve mysteries, being beastly to travellers, having high tea and picnics with lashings of strawberry jam (which probably wouldn't be good for him).

sexta-feira, junho 15, 2018

GOATnaldo - It was men against God: "Portugal vs. Spain in Russian World Cup"

(@ Record Newspaper)

I know what I wrote before on this same blog, but now I'm going to have to debate the diagnostic labeling of Ronaldo as narcissist. Nothing of the kind I’m Afraid - yes, impossibly good looking, yes there is the Ronaldo shrine in Madeira, indeed there are the pirouettes and the swashbuckling, muscle rippling equivalent of Colin Firth as Me Darcy, shirtless, sweaty and gleaming in the sun...but: to be a narcissist you have to have an emptiness inside where the soul sits - you got to have a lack of empathy for your comrades, family, lovers, children, nation- you have to have grandiose expectations of yourself that are at odds with reality...that is not the man we speak of. If you doubt it replay the final vs France in Euro ‘16. A truly spiritual moment in football if not recent cultural history. 20 mins in and injured, in agony, in tears for letting the team and himself down as he is stretchered off the pitch. One man down - and it’s Ronaldo FFS - and Portugal never gives up...then...then: in the last 5 mins, the oldest player in the Portuguese squad is encouraged onto the pitch by the team captain...all full of nerves and pride...and Ronaldo whispers into his ear: ‘I believe in you’...and the nameless hero goes on to score the winning goal in the last 3 mins of the match...when I saw that, whatever cynical doubts I may have entertained about the genius of Madeira evaporated into thin air...I really cannot believe what a machine Ronaldo is. The guy is tenacious on the pitch. He's not perfect by any means but he had a near perfect outing against Spain tonight. I really didn't want that match to end but that exactly what keeps us coming back for more matches like that one. If the rest of the World Cup matches are half as good as that then I think we're in for a ball this year. Kudos and more of the same please.

(@ A Bola Newspaper)

What we saw today, and have seen multiple times before, was a player who is determined, hard working, ruthless and has an incredible mental strength. How does one get that out-of-world focus and calm in the 88th minute of a World Cup match in which your team needs a goal? How? Ronaldo shows us time and again how it's done. Relish this while it lasts, though by all evidence he has no plans of slowing down. And for this year may be in the top 10 games of the tourney. This is football of the 70s and 80s. Ronaldo and Costa delivered the stuff of legends. Hats off to the Referee for keeping the players in check. A breathtaking finish. It was a universal "We want more!" chant at the end. An all-time classic. I wish those who are allergic to football and the World Cup could have seen this: it was the beautiful game in one of its best guises. The only problem is that it is hard to imagine it getting better.

(@ A Bola Newspaper)

Bottom-line: Outstanding. Plots, sub-plots, drama, skill, goals, pressure, conflicting styles, egos, errors, bonkers venue. Enough talking points to fill a 10 hour phone-in. 99 times out of 100 that Ronaldo free kick never goes in. That look Ronaldo gave after scoring the penalty. Bloody football eh? Ronaldo is outer-worldly; he's just what we need to have a credible claim to this World Cup. This match was football at its best; I doubt we'll watch a better, more intense, more skillful match in this tournament. Whom the gods love, the gods love. Piety knows nothing from logic. I see too many are still mixing the footballer with the man/personality. It's like, when talking of Van Gogh, fixating on the madman. The guy is 33, enjoy his game while it lasts, it will be a huge void after he and Messi retire. It's as a footballer that we should celebrate him, marvel at his skill and desire. It's sad because the hatred jaundices appreciation and inevitably mirrors; hatred never projects, it eats those who hate from the inside, until they're hollow and without credibility.

NB: Yep, Costa certainly gave Pep a forearm smash but the Portuguese defender should be ashamed at the way he reacted like a big jessie and allowed Costa to go and score rather than manning up and doing his job. Claret gushing out of your forehead and into your eyes? Get out a sewing needle and a length of crepe bandage and let's get on with it! Dislocated shoulder? Push the bugger back in and let's get going, we've a game to win! That's the attitude! Pepe got what his craven conduct merited, I just felt sorry for his teammates.

Coda: I confess that some posts in the Portuguese press depress me. They just provide an example of something resembling "sebastianismo", one of the most damaging facets of the "old school" Portuguese ethos. I want a brand new model of Portuguese. One that stops longing for the magnificence of Portugal 500 years ago and stops being depressed by the situation 50 years ago. I am an old model of Portuguese that is trying is best to transform in to a new model: one that believes in work ethic and innovation, one that does not have an inferiority complex. As someone has rightly said, Portugal is not just Lisbon and Porto. There are plenty of good, skillful, intelligent and talented Portuguese scattered around the World. For me that is the real Portugal. And the average is certainly not "little" or "intellectually poor".

Um abraço lusitano

quinta-feira, junho 14, 2018

The Stars Look Different Today: “The Somnambulist's Dreams” by Lars Jerlach

“’So what is it Enoch Soule? Why are you here? What are you here to tell me?’
‘I know why you’re here,’ he [the chess player] said.”

In “The Somnambulist's Dreams” by Lars Jerlach

2018’s been my year of reading some fundamental books on Physics. At least they are what some of my friends call Fundamental Books on Physics. After having read a bunch of them, some are not so fundamental: “Reality Is Not What It Seems” by Carlo Rovelli, “The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III -Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family” by Peter Byrne, “What is Real - The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics” by Adam Becker, “The Emergent Universe" by Wallace, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality” by Max Tegmark. My tiny brain is a hive of activity…Most of them were on the so-called Measurement Problem in Quantum Mechanics. The Everett Multiverse is one of the most interesting theories I’ve ever read in Physics, and it changed the way I read Jerlach’s novel. Quantum Mechanics as a generalization of probability theory just seems to me to throw into the rubbish bin the measurement problem rather than either solve or replace it with something better. Why doesn't the dynamics (e.g. Schrödinger's equation) describe the distribution turning into a delta function when it happens? The fact that different dynamical descriptions are required for evolution and measurement always seemed like the problem to me; multiverse doesn't exactly solve that problem but it at least kind of suggests a program for trying to deal with it. Do I believe in it? That’s not the point. All these time I thought were just a mad ranting nutters when they tried to emulate Quantum Physics in novelistic terms, but I realise now, in a sudden flash of insight, how wrong I was, how wrong we've all been, how crappy my work is on Computer Science (and such) and, in short, I was blind.


It’s all about the dialectic. Floating in front of me. It does that, right? It floats by your nose? Is the ghost of Hegel hanging there in front of Enoch Soule’s face, wherever he goes just all over us like a bad rash? His cold dead beady eyes following us around...... by the way. Sorry Jerlach. I'm a chronic acute insomniac with a workload, and this made me read your novel in a different way. That's my excuse for this behaviour and I'm sticking to it. I always do.

Bottom-line: Futurehuman 4 eva!!!!

quarta-feira, junho 13, 2018

2018 Lisbon Book Fair

My annual pilgrimage...

The history of Lisbon Book Fair since 1930:

Some of the stuff I bought:

NB: All pictures taken by me at the 2018 Lisbon Book Fair

terça-feira, junho 12, 2018

I Have Been Nominated for the Liebster Award!

The Award
The Liebster is an award that is given to bloggers by other bloggers. Liebster in German means “sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome.”
The Rules
Entries start 1st Jan 2018 and ends on 25th Dec 2018. The winner will be picked on the 31st of December.
And as posted from he who nominated me:
1) Thank the person who nominated you — humble thank you to Knight of Angels
2) Answer the questions provided by the nominator
3) Nominate 5-11 bloggers with fewer than 1000 followers who you think deserve the award
4) Create a new list of questions for your nominees
5) List the rules in your post
6) Let your nominees know of their nominations personally
I post both versions because clearly there’s been some drift as this travels.  It’s kind of cool to see how it’s evolved.  I’ll do my best to honor both sets of terms.

1. What was the worst vacation you’ve ever been on?
Going to Algarve and also working on a critical IT Project at the same time...
2. Who was the most memorable person you have ever met?
Several: Lauren Bacall, Mickey Rooney, Wim Wenders, ... at the Portuguese Cinemateca.
3. If you could go back and remake a movie before it’s been made, what movie would that be?
Hackers (1995) by Iain Softley. Made on the brink of universal internet access, in which skateboarding computer nerds still needed to use payphones to get online...
4. What food, in your opinion, should be stricken off of menus nationwide?
MacDonalds. The point is that if you stop gorging and get lots of exercise, it's OK to include junk once in a while. If a kid is addicted to junk food, don't blame it on the ads, blame it on the parents. Nevertheless, I'd get rid of it anyway.
5. What is your least favorite book of all time?
Lifeguard by James Patterson. It's really bad...
Questions for my nominees:
1. Have you got a bad book habit? If yes, which one?
2. How do you feel giving bad ratings and reviews?
3. If you could read in a foreign language which one would you choose and why?
4. Have your reading habits changed after you started blogging? If yes, why?
And my nominees are…

NB: BrokenTune has already been nominated by Troy.

You are under no obligation to accept your nomination and/or participate.  All the same, I’m usually educated and/or entertained by you and your work, so it’s only right that you should be recognized.