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andrewducker July 23 2014, 11:00

Interesting Links for 23-07-2014

less_wrong July 23 2014, 00:40

A Visualization of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence


Submitted by AmandaEHouse • 20 votes • 8 comments

Through a series of diagrams, this article will walk through key concepts in Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. The book is full of heavy content, and though well written, its scope and depth can make it difficult to grasp the concepts and mentally hold them together. The motivation behind making these diagrams is not to repeat an explanation of the content, but rather to present the content in such a way that the connections become clear. Thus, this article is best read and used as a supplement to Superintelligence.


Note: Superintelligence is now available in the UK. The hardcover is coming out in the US on September 3. The Kindle version is already available in the US as well as the UK.

Roadmap: there are two diagrams, both presented with an accompanying description. The two diagrams are combined into one mega-diagram at the end.




Figure 1: Pathways to Superintelligence



Figure 1 displays the five pathways toward superintelligence that Bostrom describes in chapter 2 and returns to in chapter 14 of the text. According to Bostrom, brain-computer interfaces are unlikely to yield superintelligence. Biological cognition, i.e., the enhancement of human intelligence, may yield a weak form of superintelligence on its own. Additionally, improvements to biological cognition could feed back into driving the progress of artificial intelligence or whole brain emulation. The arrows from networks and organizations likewise indicate technologies feeding back into AI and whole brain emulation development.


Artificial intelligence and whole brain emulation are two pathways that can lead to fully realized superintelligence. Note that neuromorphic is listed under artificial intelligence, but an arrow connects from whole brain emulation to neuromorphic. In chapter 14, Bostrom suggests that neuromorphic is a potential outcome of incomplete or improper whole brain emulation. Synthetic AI includes all the approaches to AI that are not neuromorphic; other terms that have been used are algorithmic or de novo AI.


Figure 1 also includes some properties of superintelligence. In regard to its capabilities, Bostrom discusses software and hardware advantages of a superintelligence in chapter 3, when describing possible forms of superintelligence. In chapter 6, Bostrom discusses the superpowers a superintelligence may have. The term “task-specific superpowers” refers to Table 8, which contains tasks (e.g., strategizing or technology research), and corresponding skill sets (e.g., forecasting, planning, or designing) which a superintelligence may have. Capability control, discussed in chapter 9, is the limitation of a superintelligence’s abilities. It is a response to the problem of preventing undesirable outcomes. As the problem is one for human programmers to analyze and address, capability control appears in green.

In addition to what a superintelligence might do, Bostrom discusses why it would do those things, i.e., what its motives will be. There are two main theses—the orthogonality thesis and the instrumental convergence thesis—both of which are expanded upon in chapter 7. Motivation selection, found in chapter 9, is another method to avoid undesirable outcomes. Motivation selection is the loading of desirable goals and purposes into the superintelligence, which would potentially render capability control unnecessary. As motivation selection is another problem for human programmers, it also appears in green.




Figure 2: Outcomes of Superintelligence



Figure 2 maps the types of superintelligence to the outcomes. It also introduces some terminology which goes beyond general properties of superintelligence, and breaks up the types of superintelligence as well. There are two axes which divide superintelligence. One is the polarity, i.e., the possibility of a singleton or multipolar scenario. The other is the difference between friendly and unfriendly superintelligence. Polarity is slightly between superintelligence properties and outcomes; it refers to a combination of human actions and design of superintelligence, as well as actions of a superintelligence. Thus, polarity terms appear in both the superintelligence and the outcomes areas of Figure 2. Since safety profiles are a consequence of many components of superintelligence, those terms appear in the outcomes area.


Bostrom describes singletons in the most detail. An unfriendly singleton leads to existential risks, including scenarios which Bostrom describes in chapter 8. In contrast, a friendly superintelligence leads to acceptable outcomes. Acceptable outcomes are not envisioned in as great detail as existential risks; however, chapter 13 discusses how a superintelligence operating under coherent extrapolated volition or one of the morality models would behave. This could be seen as an illustration of what a successful attempt at friendly superintelligence would yield. A multipolar scenario of superintelligence is more difficult to predict; Bostrom puts forth various visions found in chapter 11. The one which receives the most attention is the algorithmic economy, based on Robin Hanson’s ideas.



Figure 3: A Visualization of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence



Finally, figures 1 and 2 are put together for the full diagram in Figure 3. As Figure 3 is an overview of the book's contents, it includes chapter numbers for parts of the diagram. This allows Figure 3 to act as a quick reference and guide readers to the right part of Superintelligence for more information.



Thanks to Steven Greidinger for co-creating the first versions of the diagrams, to Robby Bensinger for his insights on the final revisions, to Alex Vermeer for his suggestions on early drafts, and to Luke Muehlhauser for the time to work on this project during an internship at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

monbiot July 22 2014, 20:29

Bone China Tea Party



Get ready for a radical rightwing insurgency that could be stirring within the Conservative Party.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 23rd July 2014

Beware the self-pity of the governing classes. Ministers of the Crown might look powerful and oppressive to us; often they see themselves as lonely heroes confronting a sea of troubles. That has been Tony Blair’s schtick from the month he took office. We now see him dripping with other people’s blood; he appears to perceive only the scars on his own back.

The whinging begins as soon as they are free to speak. Michael Gove, demoted but still in government, has said little, but his emissaries are wailing loudly on his behalf(1). Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, can speak directly, and he now lambasts the “green blob” against which he nobly fought and lost(2).

As one of those he blamed for bringing him down in his wild, minatory article on Sunday I’m happy to join Blob Pride. But I also see something new emerging in his position and that of other disaffected rightwingers. It looks like the development of a Tea Party faction within the Conservatives.

Tea Party politics can be defined as the interests of the ultra-elite cleverly repackaged as the interests of the common people(3). Here are its essential elements.

The first is a sense of victimhood. Never mind that those who make such claims are the least likely victims. They must find common cause with people who feel passed over or pushed out or ignored: the motivating themes of the radical right. In Paterson’s case he made it up, stating “I was burnt in effigy by Greenpeace as I was recovering from an operation to save my eyesight.” Greenpeace did no such thing(4).

The second requirement is an out-group: an enemy responsible for this victimhood. As the writer and campaigner George Marshall points out, it’s not enough that the out-group causes harm; the harm must be intentional(5). In this case, green movements oppressed Owen Paterson and the hard-working, country-loving people of this nation in order to “keep each other well supplied with lavish funds”(6). They know nothing about the natural world, he says: their leaders “could not tell a snakeshead fritillary from a silver-washed fritillary”. All they want is “to enhance their own income streams”.

This comes from a man who insisted on a mass cull of badgers against scientific advice(7), who stripped away the last regulations protecting the soil from erosion(8); who believed that “the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water” and sought to turn our rivers into featureless gutters(9); who championed the pesticides that appear to be destroying bees and many other animals(10).

Anyway, enough opinion: let’s test his proposition. I challenge Mr Paterson to a kind of duel: to walk through the countryside together, with independent experts, and see who can correctly identify the greatest number of species across all classes: birds, insects, spiders, plants, fungi and the rest. Will he take up my challenge?

The third element is a reframing of where power lies. People working on behalf of billionaires and corporations project themselves as horny-handed sons of toil, while casting their enemies as an aloof intellectual elite(11). Paterson lists his opponents as “rich pop stars”, “rich landowners”, “a dress designer” and “a public school journalist” (me), who “don’t represent the real countryside of farmers and workers”.

So who is this voice of the workers? He’s a millionaire, educated at Radley College and Cambridge, who owns “a large country estate on which he lets buildings and agricultural land”(12). While in office, he doubled the public subsidy for grouse moors(13). He also defeated an attempt to limit the amount of public money rich landowners can receive(14). As a result, the dukes and sheikhs and oligarchs who own England’s biggest estates each receive millions of pounds in subsidies. He appointed as chair of Natural England – which is supposed to defend wildlife – a multi-millionaire house-builder(15). And he ignored his civil servants to take advice instead from his brother-in-law, Viscount Ridley, described by ConservativeHome as “Paterson’s personal think tank”(16).

That’s another thing this putative movement has in common with the US radical right: discredited figures (think of Oliver North and G Gordon Liddy(17,18)) are feted by powerful industrial interests and able to develop a new career as commentators. Matt Ridley inherited (along with his estate, his opencast coal mines and his vast wealth) the chairmanship of Northern Rock, whose collapse under his reckless and incompetent oversight was the catalyst for the British financial crisis which impoverished so many(19). Yet, while the misdemeanours of Fred Goodwin – the son of an electrician who became head of RBS – were rightly condemned, Viscount Ridley’s have been comprehensively airbrushed. Rupert Murdoch used his first tweet to praise him(20), and he has worked as a columnist for the Times ever since. Unlike Fred Goodwin, he’s of use to the elite, as he has helped to formulate its talking points, arguing for deregulation and denying environmental problems.

The fourth element consists of shifting the spectrum of political thought by planting your flag on the outer fringes of lunacy. It’s a tactic often used in the US by people like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. Paterson’s contribution is to identify the Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and the Canadian premier Stephen Harper, who have arguably done more harm to the living planet than anyone else alive, as champions of environmental protection(21).

In other words, he has positioned himself as a spokesman for a new strand of conservatism, that’s likely to cluster and consolidate as David Cameron seeks to freeze out his party’s whackier fringes before the election. In a furious row with Cameron, after he was told he had been sacked, Paterson is reported to have shouted, “I can out-Ukip Ukip … You are making a big mistake.”(22)

Now, choked with resentment and self-pity, apparently convinced that, despite a life of wealth and power, he represents the whipped and wounded, he has spelt out the essential components of something that might soon become familiar to us. Tea Party politics were bound to reach these shores eventually, and they will be lavishly financed by the very rich. It won’t be pretty, but we should be ready for it.



1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cabinet-reshuffle-wife-of-former-education-secretary-michael-gove-slams-david-cameron-over-party-shakeup-9610706.html

2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10978678/Owen-Paterson-Im-proud-of-standing-up-to-the-green-lobby.html

3. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/oct/25/tea-party-koch-brothers

4. http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/no-ex-minister-20140721

5. http://climatedenial.org/2014/07/21/creative-writing-101-or-room-101-paterson-teaches-conservative-climate-comms-strategies/

6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10978678/Owen-Paterson-Im-proud-of-standing-up-to-the-green-lobby.html

7. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/oct/13/badger-cull-mindless

8. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil

9. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/13/flooding-public-spending-britain-europe-policies-homes

10. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/15/ban-neonicotinoids-another-silent-spring-pesticide-moratorium

11. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/01/us-debt-deal-tea-party

12. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1280554/The-coalition-millionaires-23-29-member-new-cabinet-worth-1m–Lib-Dems-just-wealthy-Tories.html

13. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/28/britain-plutocrats-landed-gentry-shotgun-owners

14. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/03/rich-landowners-farmers-welfare-nfu-defra

15. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/dec/06/andrew-sells-natural-england

16. http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2013/06/owen-paterson-more-than-meets-the-two-criteria-for-a-good-cabinet-minister.html

17. http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/war-stories/

18. http://tunein.com/radio/The-G-Gordon-Liddy-Show-p20256/

19. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/31/state-market-nothern-rock-ridley

20. http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/story/18011981/rupert-murdoch-joins-twitter

21. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10978678/Owen-Paterson-Im-proud-of-standing-up-to-the-green-lobby.html

22. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2698688/You-t-sack-It-s-smash-teeth-12million-voters-I-fought-bees-Former-Environment-Secretary-Owen-Paterson-number-sacked-ministers-react-male-pale-reshuffle-fury.html

andrewducker July 22 2014, 11:00

Interesting Links for 22-07-2014

monbiot July 22 2014, 03:08

A One Way Street to Oblivion



As soon as an animal becomes extinct, a new bill proposes, it will be classified as “non-native”.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 21st July 2014

Can any more destructive and regressive measures be crammed into one bill?

Already, the Infrastructure Bill, which, as time goes by, has ever less to do with infrastructure, looks like one of those US monstrosities into which a random collection of demands by corporate lobbyists are shoved, in the hope that no one notices.

So far it contains (or is due to contain) the following assaults on civilisation and the natural world:

- It exempts fracking companies from the trespass laws

- Brings in a legal requirement for the government to maximise the economic recovery of petroleum from the UK’s continental shelf. This is directly at odds with another legal requirement: to minimise the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions

- Abandons the government’s commitment to make all new homes zero-carbon by 2016

- Introduces the possibility (through Clauses 21 and 22) of a backdoor route to selling off the public forest estate. When this was attempted before, it was thwarted by massive public protest.

- further deregulates the town and country planning system, making life even harder for those who wish to protect natural beauty and public amenities

- promotes new road building, even though the total volume of road traffic has flatlined since 2002.

Enough vandalism? Not at all. There’s yet another clause aimed at suppressing the natural world, which has, so far, scarcely been discussed outside parliament. If the Infrastructure Bill is passed in its current state, any animal species that “is not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state” will be classified as non-native and subject to potential “eradication or control”. What this is doing in an infrastructure bill is anyone’s guess.

At first wildlife groups believed it was just poor drafting, accidentally creating the impression that attempts to re-establish species which have become extinct here – such as short-haired bumblebees or red kites – would in future be stamped out. But the most recent Lords debate scotched that hope: it became clear that this a deliberate attempt to pre-empt democratic choice, in the face of rising public enthusiasm for the return of our lost and enchanting wildlife.

As Baroness Parminter, who argued unsuccessfully for changes to the bill, pointed out, it currently creates

“a one-way system for biodiversity loss, as once an animal ceases to appear in the wild, it ceases to be native.”

She also made the point that it’s not just extinct species which from now on will be treated as non-native, but, as the bill now stands, any species listed in Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Among those in Schedule 9 are six native species that have already been re-established in Britain (the capercaillie, the common crane, the red kite, the goshawk, the white-tailed eagle and the wild boar); two that are tentatively beginning to return (the night heron and the eagle owl); and four that have been here all along (the barn owl, the corncrake, the chough and the barnacle goose). All these, it seems, are now to be classified as non-native, and potentially subject to eradication or control.

After the usual orotund time-wasting by aristocratic layabouts (“my ancestor Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, who was known as the great Sir Ewen … killed the last wolf in Scotland” etc), the minister promoting the bill, Baroness Kramer, made it clear that the drafting was no accident. All extinct species, it appears, are to be treated as non-native and potentially invasive. At no point did she mention any of the benefits their re-establishment might bring, such as restoring ecological function and bringing wonder and delight and enchantment back to this depleted land.

Here is a list, taken from Feral, of a few of the animals which have become extinct recently (in ecological terms) and which probably meet the bill’s new definition of non-native: “not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state”. Some would be widely welcomed; others not at all, but it’s clear that a debate about which species we might welcome back is one that many people in this country want to have, but that the government wants to terminate. There’s a longer list, with fuller explanations and a consideration of their suitability for re-establishment, in the book.

European Beaver: became extinct in Britain in the mid-18th Century, at the latest. Officially re-established in the Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Unofficially in the catchment of the River Tay and on the River Otter, in Devon.

Wolf: The last clear record is 1621 (not 1743 as commonly supposed). It was killed in Sutherland. As far as I can determine, neither Sir Ewen Cameron nor any of the other blood-soaked lairds and congenital twits from whom Lord Cameron of Dillington is descended were involved.

Lynx: The last known fossil remains date from the 6th Century AD, but possible cultural records extend into the 9th Century.

Wild Boar: The last truly wild boar on record were killed on the orders of Henry III in the Forest of Dean, in 1260. Four small populations in southern England, established after escapes and releases from farms and collections.

Elk or Moose (Alces alces): The youngest bones found in Britain are 3,900 years old. Temporarily released in 2008 into a 450-acre enclosure on the Alladale Estate, Sutherland.

Reindeer: The most recent fossil evidence is 8,300 years old. A free-ranging herd grazes on and around Cairn Gorm in the Scottish Highlands.

Wild horse: The most recent clearly-established fossil is 9,300 years old. Animals belonging to the last surviving subspecies of wild horse, Przewalski’s (Equus ferus przewalskii), graze Eelmoor Marsh in Hampshire.

Forest bison, or wisent: Likely to have become extinct here soon before the peak of glaciation, between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago. A herd was temporarily established at Alladale in 2011.

Brown bear: probably exterminated around 2000 years ago.

Wolverine: survived here until roughly 8,000 years ago.

Lion: the last record of a lion in the region is a bone from an animal that lived in the Netherlands – then still connected to Britain – 10,700 years ago.

Spotted hyaena: around 11,000 years ago.

Hippopotamus: it was driven out of Britain by the last glaciation, around 115,000 years ago, and hunted to extinction elsewhere in Europe about 30,000 years ago.

Grey whale: the most recent palaentological remains, from Devon, belonged to a whale that died around 1610 AD.

Walrus: late Bronze Age, in the Shetland Islands.

European Sturgeon: possibly as recently as the 19th Century.

Blue stag beetle: probably 19th Century.

Eagle owl: the last certain record is from the Mesolithic, 9,000-10,000 years old . But a possible Iron Age bone has been found at Meare in Somerset. Now breeding in some places, after escaping from collections.

Goshawk: wiped out in the 19th Century. Unofficially re-established in the 20th Century, through a combination of deliberate releases and escapes from falconers.

Common crane: last evidence of breeding in Britain was in 1542. Cranes re-established themselves through migration in the Norfolk Broads in 1979, and have bred there since then. Now breeding in two other places in eastern England. Re-introduced in 2010 to the Somerset Levels.

White Stork: last recorded nesting in Edinburgh in 1416. In 2004 a pair tried to breed on an electricity pole in Yorkshire. In 2012 a lone bird built a nest on top of a restaurant in Nottinghamshire.

Spoonbill: the last breeding records are 1602 in Pembrokeshire and 1650 in East Anglia. In 2010 a breeding colony established itself at Holkham in Norfolk.

Night Heron: last bred here in either the 16th or 17th Century, at Greenwich. Today it is a scarce visitor.

Dalmatian Pelican: remains have been found from the Bronze Age in the Cambridgeshire Fens and from the Iron Age in the Somerset levels, close to Glastonbury. A single mediaeval bone has been found in the same place.

These and many others are now to be classified as officially non-native, unless this nonsense can be stopped.

Incidentally, determining what is and isn’t a native species, let alone what “should” or “should not” be living here, is a much more complicated business than you might imagine, as Ken Thompson’s interesting book, Where Do Camels Belong?, makes clear. He also points out that some species which are initially greeted with horror and considered an ecological menace soon settle down as local wildlife learns to prey on them or to avoid them. Sometimes they perform a useful ecological role by filling the gaps created by extinction. He overstates his case, and glosses over some real horror stories, but his book is an important counterweight to attempts to create a rigid distinction between native and non-native wildlife.

Many species introduced to this country by human beings are now cherished as honorary members of our native wildlife. Here are just a few I’ve come across. How many of you knew that they were all brought here by people?:

Brown hare

Little owl

Field poppy


Crack willow

Greater burdock

Pheasant’s eye




White campion

Isn’t this an interesting subject? Unfortunately government ministers seem to know to know nothing about it and to care even less. They are crashing through the middle of delicate interactions between people and the natural world like bulldozers in a rainforest.


bruce_schneier July 21 2014, 20:57

Fingerprinting Computers By Making Them Draw Images


Here's a new way to identify individual computers over the Internet. The page instructs the browser to draw an image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, this can be used to uniquely identify each computer. This is a big deal, because there's no way to block this right now.

Article. Hacker News thread.

EDITED TO ADD (7/22): This technique was first described in 2012. And it seems that NoScript blocks this. Privacy Badger probably blocks it, too.

EDITED TO ADD (7/23): EFF has a good post on who is using this tracking system -- the White House is -- and how to defend against it.

charlies_diary July 21 2014, 16:21

App store annoyances


(Popping back in briefly: Nicola will be back again with a new essay on Thursday.)

I have a heavy iOS habit. And (you're not going to be surprised by this) I also have a couple of Android devices. My first real smartphone, back in 2003, was a Palm Treo 600; I switched to the iPhone 3G after Palm jumped down the rabbit hole in 2008. So I have a lot of legacy apps that run on mobile devices, and I thought I'd indulge in a little rant about the most annoying facets of the app store lifestyle.

Let's leave aside the issue of the creeping commoditization of software and the fact that these walled gardens are driving us to rent, rather than own, some of our most intimate moments. Smartphones are the third stage of the personal computer revolution, taking personal computing into the pockets of billions of people who don't even know they're carrying around sophisticated network-connected supercomputers with online access to the sum total of human knowledge (and in turn accessible online to the sum total of human computer criminals).

The fact is, we're increasingly coming to depend on these pocket wonders to keep us in touch with our friends, locate us when we're lost, to do business, to schedule our lives. And it's probably necessary for them to be locked down and centrally provisioned, because most of the folks who own them don't have the faintest clue about network security and, more importantly, don't have the time or energy or brain cells to learn how to defend themselves. This brings us to the app store model for curating software configuration: the Google Play store on Android, the iTunes Store on Apple devices, and various half-assed attempts at building proprietary company stores from Kindle, Nook, Windows Mobile, Samsung, and any other company who think they can hold their users to ransom.

For most mobile apps I use iOS. This is not an accident. Firstly, walled gardens may be prisons, but the bigger they are the less you notice the walls: also, Apple has always had a focus on design aesthetics that the rest of the CE industry has never understood. Simply put, the best iOS apps are pretty, and if I'm going to be interacting with a device from dawn 'til dusk I do not want it to offend my eyes every time I look at it. The flipside is that the Android ecosystem has, until iOS 8 ships, been more flexible: there are things Apple simply won't allow in their store, and if you want them you're going to have to look outside the walls.

But now for my main gripe. I've been using iOS devices since the iPhone 3G (not the 3GS), and I have to say that the App Store has usability flaws that are becoming crippling.

I'm not going to gripe about it being part of iTunes. iTunes has morphed from a CD-ripping and MP3 playing tool in 2000 into Apple's content and media store. But the iTunes app store offers virtually zero library management and curation tools.

Yes, you can view your app purchases by platform (iPhone/iPod Touch, or iPad, or Universal) and you can check for updates. But most of the development effort seems to go into how to sell you new apps, not manage the ones you've got. So my app library is slowly sinking under a pile of ...

* Abandonware. Many apps simply aren't updated. The developer gave up on them (often due to paltry revenue) with the result that they're rotting and no longer work once iOS retires one framework too many.

* Take-overware. Some apps are abandoned because the developer sold out to another company who wanted them for the staff, not the product. Big visible examples of this are QuickOffice (once a stand-alone office suite for phones, it's now being rolled into Google Drive as a bunch of editing tools) and Stanza (once the best ePub ebook reader on iOS; then Amazon bought the company for their ebook development expertise and left the apps to rot). Documents to Go may be joining QuickOffice soon—the developers were bought out by Blackberry, and although it's still occasionally updated the update tempo has slowed right down. In fact, since Apple focussed so intently on building out the iWork suite as a cloud-based cross-platform tool, most of the rival cross-platform office suites have withered on the vine, aside from Microsoft Office (perched lonely like a Microsoftian colonial outpost in the hinterlands of iPad-land, requiring an Office365 subscription to work). There are plenty of text editors, and a couple of fine document processors (Textilus, I'm looking at you) and some day soon Scrivener is promised on iOS. But I'm a bit peeved that over the years products I've spent good money for have been pulled right out from under my fingers and shut down without so much as a by-your-leave.

* Forced upgrade-ware. This is an increasing problem. Time was when software was expensive and came in boxes and you expected a new version every year or three, for which you would pay. Then the app store model cut the feet out from under the expensive boxed software industry. Now, if you want powerful software, it takes a lot of effort to make the stuff. So it's no surprise that some of the better apps in the app store cost rather more than the £0.99 norm—OmniOutliner, for example, is US $29.99. GoodReader, the best PDF reader/annotator I've found for iOS, is $6.99. These apps aren't cheap and maintaining them costs money, and it shows. But because the Apple app store only allows for a one-off purchase, the developers eventually see sales tapering off. So they run on forced obsolescence. Support and upgrades for an old version stops, and a new one comes along that you have to buy afresh—OmniOutliner 2, or GoodReader 4. The trouble is, the old version sticks around as a zombie in your iTunes library: I'm now looking at about three or four versions of Marvin, my ebook reader of choice, three versions of GoodReader and two of OmniOutliner. All of which insist on residing on any Mac I have registered with my Apple ID, sucking up valuable space.

* Get-out-of-my-face-ware: I just saw an app update today, for the Croatia Travel Guide I bought a couple of years ago when I visited Croatia. I am glad it is still being updated but I am less than charmed to be bugged about it, because I will not need it until the next time I visit Croatia, and while Croatia is charming this isn't likely to happen in the next couple of years. There is a lot of stuff like this in my iTunes library—cruft downloaded once out of curiousity and never touched since (many games, for example), or stuff used once but no longer of interest, or stuff purchased and immediately regretted because it didn't do what I needed. Many SF conventions publish their program guides as apps, so I've got about half a dozen bespoke apps for conventions long past gathering dust in my filesystem: then a couple experimented with commercial conference guide packages (which offered free entry-level versions of their software) until those products priced themselves out of the fan-run convention market. And they still keep updating on me.

* Excessively-updated-ware: I still have my old iPhone 3G. It sits on a stand on my bedside table, sans SIM card, as an alarm clock. (I can reach out in the night and hit the button to see what time it is without being kept awake in-between by a glowing display.) It doesn't update to anything more recent than some version of iOS 4. There are apps on it that claim to have updates pending ... but they won't install or run on it.

I have about 33Gb of apps in my iTunes library, on each of the three SSD-based Macs I use and have registered to that account. I estimate that at least 10Gb of these apps are unwanted. Some of these apps are big—games, mostly, clocking in at over 1Gb each. But there are 350 .ipa installer packages, the oldest date to 2008, and a bunch of them are basically trash that I can't delete without the store persistently trying to make me re-download them.

Apple, the iTunes app library is broken from the point of view of anyone who uses it intensively over a period of years. But I think you can probably fix it. Here are some features that I think would make life easier for people like me (of whom I believe there are some millions):

* I want to be able to create my own lists and "playlists" of apps, link them to folders ("all apps in this list go in such-and-such a folder") and tag these for downloading/synching on specific devices ("a folder containing playlist named 'Office apps' goes onto all iPads except iPad 1 but not iPhones or iPod Touches").

* I want to be able to lock some apps to never update, regardless of what the developer thinks. Or to retain a given old version for one specific iOS device that can't update—an iPhone 3G, or an iPad 1, for example. ("This app is needed in an iOS 4 compatible flavour for my old phone, and in the latest available version for every other device.") You don't need to support the old devices: just don't wreck my ability to restore them by trashing the last version of an app to run on them.

* I'd like to be able to tag apps for updating based on priority. Sometimes I'm on the road or on a train or in a hotel with limited wifi, or roaming on 3G data. When that happens, I want to update the apps that are important to me first. For example, security patches for DropBox or Pages are always going to be more important than some random game that can wait until I get home from a business trip. And I want my devices to know this so that I can leave the process of downloading app updates on automatic.

* I want to be able to "un-buy" an app. Not necessarily to be given a refund, but just to delete the waste of money, brains and disk space from my library forever so I'm never bugged to update it again and it doesn't spawn endless useless space-consuming copies across every Mac I own.

* I want to be able to link two apps so that iTunes knows that one of them supersedes the other. That way I wouldn't "un-buy" GoodReader 3, but iTunes would nevertheless stop insisting that I install it or update it, because it would be flagged as superseded-by GoodReader 4.

* Better still, Apple should offer developers the option of in-app purchases for updates. Limit it to no more than once per year, to prevent a forced-upgrade treadmill, and allow users to decline to update—but at least stop spamming our iTunes libraries with never versions of apps that relegate old versions to the state of abandonware.

* I want to be able to create views of my iTunes app library that hide some apps without deleting them from the database. (That "playlist" feature? Give me a special playlist called "hidden". Sort of like the undeleted items in the trash can. I can dive in and rummage for something if I find a pressing need for it, but otherwise it shouldn't clutter up my view of my iOS lifestyle.)

Final note: this is a gripe list for the Apple iTunes app store for iOS. However, you can come up with a near-identical list for the Google Play store. I'm pretty sure a similar but disjoint set of gripes exist for the Windows Mobile app store. It's an inevitable consequence of the app-ification of our lifestyles. App stores were designed for cheap, simple devices. But iPads and big Android tablets and Surface RT tablets aren't simple devices: they're about 80% of a personal computer, and within the next 2-3 years they will, to all intents and purposes, be the curated personal computing platform of choice for most people.

Over to you folks. What do you acutely feel the lack of in these curated app collections?

andrewducker July 21 2014, 11:00

Interesting Links for 21-07-2014

Original post on Dreamwidth - there are comment count unavailable comments there.
markdominus July 21 2014, 03:39

Similarity analysis of quilt blocks


As I've discussed elsewhere, I once wrote a program to enumerate all the possible quilt blocks of a certain type. The quilt blocks in question are, in quilt jargon, sixteen-patch half-square triangles. A half-square triangle, also called a “patch”, is two triangles of fabric sewn together, like this: half-square triangle

Then you sew four of these patches into a four-patch, say like this:


Then to make a sixteen-patch block of the type I was considering, you take four identical four-patch blocks, and sew them together with rotational symmetry, like this:


It turns out that there are exactly 72 different ways to do this. (Blocks equivalent under a reflection are considered the same, as are blocks obtained by exchanging the roles of black and white, which are merely stand-ins for arbitrary colors to be chosen later.) Here is the complete set of 72:

block A1 block A2 block A3 block A4 block B1 block B2 block B3 block B4 block C1 block C2 block C3 block C4 block D1 block D2 block D3 block D4 block E1 block E2 block E3 block E4 block F1 block F2 block F3 block F4 block G1 block G2 block G3 block G4 block H1 block H2 block H3 block H4 block I1 block I2 block I3 block I4 block J1 block J2 block J3 block J4 block K1 block K2 block K3 block K4 block L1 block L2 block L3 block L4 block M1 block M2 block M3 block M4 block N1 block N2 block N3 block N4 block O1 block O2 block O3 block O4 block P1 block P2 block P3 block P4 block Q1 block Q2 block Q3 block Q4 block R1 block R2 block R3 block R4

It's immediately clear that some of these resemble one another, sometimes so strongly that it can be hard to tell how they differ, while others are very distinctive and unique-seeming. I wanted to make the computer classify the blocks on the basis of similarity.

My idea was to try to find a way to get the computer to notice which blocks have distinctive components of one color. For example, many blocks have a distinctive diamond shape small diamond shape in the center.

Some have a pinwheel like this:

pinwheel 1

which also has the diamond in the middle, while others have a different kind of pinwheel with no diamond:

pinwheel 2

I wanted to enumerate such components and ask the computer to list which blocks contained which shapes; then group them by similarity, the idea being that that blocks with the same distinctive components are similar.

The program suite uses a compact notation of blocks and of shapes that makes it easy to figure out which blocks contain which distinctive components.

Since each block is made of four identical four-patches, it's enough just to examine the four-patches. Each of the half-square triangle patches can be oriented in two ways:

patch 1   patch 2

Here are two of the 12 ways to orient the patches in a four-patch:

acddgghj four-patch  bbeeffii four-patch

Each 16-patch is made of four four-patches, and you must imagine that the four-patches shown above are in the upper-left position in the 16-patch. Then symmetry of the 16-patch block means that triangles with the same label are in positions that are symmetric with respect to the entire block. For example, the two triangles labeled b are on opposite sides of the block's northwest-southeast diagonal. But there is no symmetry of the full 16-patch block that carries triangle d to triangle g, because d is on the edge of the block, while g is in the interior.

Triangles must be colored opposite colors if they are part of the same patch, but other than that there are no constraints on the coloring.

A block might, of course, have patches in both orientations:

labeled block 3

All the blocks with diagonals oriented this way are assigned descriptors made from the letters bbdefgii.

Once you have chosen one of the 12 ways to orient the diagonals in the four-patch, you still have to color the patches. A descriptor like bbeeffii describes the orientation of the diagonal lines in the squares, but it does not describe the way the four patches are colored; there are between 4 and 8 ways to color each sort of four-patch. For example, the bbeeffii four-patch shown earlier can be colored in six different ways:

bbeeffii four-patch bbeeffii patch 4   bbeeffii patch 1   bbeeffii patch 2   bbeeffii patch 3   bbeeffii patch 5   bbeeffii patch 6

In each case, all four diagonals run from northwest to southeast. (All other ways of coloring this four-patch are equivalent to one of these under one or more of rotation, reflection, and exchange of black and white.)

We can describe a patch by listing the descriptors of the eight triangles, grouped by which triangles form connected regions. For example, the first block above is:

bbeeffii four-patch bbeeffii patch 4   b/bf/ee/fi/i

because there's an isolated white b triangle, then a black parallelogram made of a b and an f patch, then a white triangle made from the two white e triangles then another parallelogram made from the black f and i, and finally in the middle, the white i. (The two white e triangles appear to be separated, but when four of these four-patches are joined into a 16-patch block, the two white e patches will be adjacent and will form a single large triangle: b/bf/ee/fi/i 16-patch)

The other five bbeeffii four-patches are, in the same order they are shown above:


All six have bbeeffii, but grouped differently depending on the colorings. The second one (b/b/e/e/f/f/i/i four-patch b/b/e/e/f/f/i/i) has no regions with more than one triangle; the fifth (bfi/bfi/e/e four-patch bfi/bfi/e/e) has two large regions of three triangles each, and two isolated triangles. In the latter four-patch, the bfi in the descriptor has three letters because the patch has a corresponding distinctive component made of three triangles.

I made up a list of the descriptors for all 72 blocks; I think I did this by hand. (The work directory contains a blocks file that maps blocks to their descriptors, but the Makefile does not say how to build it, suggesting that it was not automatically built.) From this list one can automatically extract a list of descriptors of interesting shapes: an interesting shape is two or more letters that appear together in some descriptor. (Or it can be the single letter j, which is exceptional; see below.) For example, bffh represents a distinctive component. It can only occur in a patch that has a b, two fs, and an h, like this one:

labeled block 4

and it will only be significant if the b, the two fs, and the h are the same color:

bffh patch

in which case you get this distinctive and interesting-looking hook component.

There is only one block that includes this distinctive hook component; it has descriptor b/bffh/ee/j, and looks like this: block b/bffh/ee/j. But some of the distinctive components are more common. The ee component represents the large white half-diamonds on the four sides. A block with "ee" in its descriptor always looks like this:

ee patch

and the blocks formed from such patches always have a distinctive half-diamond component on each edge, like this:

ee block

(The stippled areas vary from block to block, but the blocks with ee in their descriptors always have the half-diamonds as shown.)

The blocks listed at http://hop.perl.plover.com/quilt/analysis/images/ee.html all have the ee component. There are many differences between them, but they all have the half-diamonds in common.

Other distinctive components have similar short descriptors. The two pinwheels I mentioned above are pinwheel 1 gh and pinwheel 2 fi, respectively; if you look at the list of gh blocks and the list of fi blocks you'll see all the blocks with each kind of pinwheel.

Descriptor j is an exception. It makes an interesting shape all by itself, because any block whose patches have j in their descriptor will have a distinctive-looking diamond component in the center. The four-patch looks like this:

j patch

so the full sixteen-patch looks like this:

j block

where the stippled parts can vary. A look at the list of blocks with component j will confirm that they all have this basic similarity.

I had made a list of the descriptors for each of the the 72 blocks, and from this I extracted a list of the descriptors for interesting component shapes. Then it was only a matter of finding the component descriptors in the block descriptors to know which blocks contained which components; if the two blocks share two different distinctive components, they probably look somewhat similar.

Then I sorted the blocks into groups, where two blocks were in the same group if they shared two distinctive components. The resulting grouping lists, for each block, which other blocks have at least two shapes in common with it. Such blocks do indeed tend to look quite similar.

This strategy was actually the second thing I tried; the first thing didn't work out well. (I forget just what it was, but I think it involved finding polygons in each block that had white inside and black outside, or vice versa.) I was satisfied enough with this second attempt that I considered the project a success and stopped work on it.

The complete final results were:

  1. This tabulation of blocks that are somewhat similar
  2. This tabulation of blocks that are distinctly similar (This is the final product; I consider this a sufficiently definitive listing of “similar blocks”.)
  3. This tabulation of blocks that are extremely similar

And these tabulations of all the blocks with various distinctive components: bd bf bfh bfi cd cdd cdf cf cfi ee eg egh egi fgh fh fi gg ggh ggi gh gi j

It may also be interesting to browse the work directory.

johnckirk July 20 2014, 22:03

Integrated transport

LARP season continues, and I get to each event by bike/train. Arguably this is absurd, but it has advantages over driving (I avoid traffic jams on motorways) or getting a lift to/from the station (more independence). I wrote about the logistics last year but I've made some changes this year for the June/July events.

Read more...Collapse )

For instance, consider this signpost:
Cyclists dismount

They're saying that it's part of NCN 5 (the number on a red background), and that it's a shared use path for cyclists and pedestrians, but then they're also telling cyclists to dismount. What's going on there? Well, it turns out that the "Cyclists Dismount" sign is advisory, i.e. it's just a suggestion and anyone can ignore it without getting into trouble.

It's defined in The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (about 3/4 of the way down that page). Note that underneath the picture it says:
"Regulations: None
Directions: None"

Should you heed the suggestion anyway? It depends why it's there. For instance, I've sometimes seen these signs on roads when there are roadworks blocking the cycle lane. In that situation, I'll just ride in the main part of the lane, which is the same thing I'd do if there wasn't a cycle lane at all. (YACF has an example of this.) In this case, I considered the empty pavement and the dropped kerb and concluded that there was no need for me to dismount.

Read more...Collapse )
andrewducker July 20 2014, 11:00

Interesting Links for 20-07-2014

andrewducker July 19 2014, 22:51

So we just watched Schindler's List

Which Julie hadn't seen before. We were only going to watch the first twenty minutes, but we couldn't stop and ended up going through all three hours in one go.

(Well, we took a few breaks to refresh drinks, and occasional pauses for me to explain context and history to Julie, who doesn't have Jewish family, and didn't grow up knowing this stuff through osmosis.)

The depiction of Auschwitz was as perfect a depiction of hell on Earth as I could ask for wihout being needlessly graphic.

I teared up on five or six occasions. And I'd forgotten how a good half of it went, which meant I kept getting kicked in the emotions.

And Amon Goeth definitely beats Tom Riddle in the evil stakes. Comes pretty close to Umbridge...

Original post on Dreamwidth - there are comment count unavailable comments there.
andrewducker July 19 2014, 11:00

Interesting Links for 19-07-2014

andrewducker July 19 2014, 09:11

I need to know what you think about what the Lib-Dems did

Okay, a serious one this time.

After the European Court of Justice basically told the UK that it wasn't allowed to keep tracking its citizens in a blanket way, effectively striking down the surveillance law, there's been a lot of negotiation going on to get a replacement written.

As far as I can tell, the Lib-Dems had two choices:
1) Say "Screw you, we're not going to have anything to do with this awful attack on civil liberties". The result of which would be the Conservatives writing it by themselves, and Labour helping them vote it through. (As happened, for instance, on the recent mandatory sentencing for knife crime.)

2) Get some limiting provisions in place by taking part in negotiations, and accept that doing so means voting for the bill you helped write, even though it's not something they actually approve of.

(Clearly they went for option 2, and this is what Julian Huppert, one of the Lib-Dem MPs involved has to say about it. The Guardian's Home Affairs editor agrees that it's clearly had liberal input.)

But, frankly, both of these options sound awful. So the main point of this poll is to gather some other suggestions from people.

So, particularly in this case, ticking box 3 without actually leaving a comment isn't terribly useful - I'd like to know what people actively think they should have done.

Poll #1975685
Open to: All, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 17

Should they have...

View Answers
Introduced some proposals to water down the bill, and accepted having to vote for it as a consequence?
6 (37.5%)
Refused to have anything to do with the bill, and let Labour/The Conservatives push it through without their influence?
6 (37.5%)
Something else which I will explain in the comments
4 (25.0%)

Personally, I think that the lack of transparency is a massive issue here. The negotiations between the parties happened behind closed doors, so we have no idea what the possibilities were. This, of course, leads to massive distrust from voters on all sides.

Note: _Polite_ suggestions. Anyone engaging in name-calling, rudeness, etc. towards either individuals or political parties, is getting their comment screened/deleted. If you want to refer to a party as "authoritarian" or "confused" then go ahead, that's descriptive. Words like "bastards", "quislings", etc. are not ok. If you want to say that someone is wrong then "wrong" will do just fine.

Note 2: If you're reading this from Facebook/Twitter then you can easily log in to LJ using one of them, and leave a comment here.

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