Archive for Isaac Newton

the mechanical [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2021 by xi'an

Read this 2015 book by Ian Tregillis with growing excitement as I was first unsure why I had ordered it. It is a mix of the Baroque Cycle and of the Difference engine, with Huygens playing the central role (rather than Newton). The postulate of the story is that he found [in the 1600’s] a way to create robots (or mechanicals, or yet Clakkers) with autonomy, prodigious strength, and unlimited “life” time. Endowing the Netherlands with such an advantage as to become the unique European power. Except for a small population of French people, living in exile in Montréal, renamed as Marseille-in-the-West, where the descendants of Louis XIV were desperately fighting the Dutch robots with their barely sufficient chemical skills… In addition to this appealing alternate history, where the French are arguing about the free will of the machines, and building underground railways to convey rogue mechanicals outside the Dutch empire, partly for being Catholics and hence following the Pope’s doctrine [and partly to try to produce their own robots], where the Pope is also a refugee in Québec, and where New Amsterdam has not turned into New York, but is a thriving colonial city in America, linked to the mother country by mechanical boats and Zeppelin-like airships, the machines are constrained to obey the humans, with the Queen’s wishes at the top of a hierarchy of constraints. And no Asimov’s law to prevent them from being used as weapons, to the French’s sorrow! But their degree of autonomous thought is such that a mere loosening of a component may remove the compulsion and turn them into rogues, i.e, free willed robots. On the converse side, a nefarious guild in charge of a Calvinist faith and of the maintenance of the robots is attempting to extend this control of the Dutch State over some humans. Which makes for a great setting discussing the blurry border between humans and AIs, with both humans and Clakkers bringing their arguments to the game… I am now eagely waiting for the second and third volumes in the series of The Alchemy Wars to arrive in the mail to continue the story!

AIQ [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2019 by xi'an

AIQ was my Christmas day read, which I mostly read while the rest of the household was still sleeping. The book, written by two Bayesians, Nick Polson and James Scott, was published before the ISBA meeting last year, but I only bought it on my last trip to Warwick [as a Xmas present]. This is a pleasant book to read, especially while drinking tea by the fire!, well-written and full of facts and anecdotes I did not know or had forgotten (more below). Intended for a general audience, it is also quite light, from a technical side, rather obviously, but also from a philosophical side. While strongly positivist about the potential of AIs for the general good, it cannot be seen as an antidote to the doomlike Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom or the more factual Weapons of Maths Destruction by Cathy O’Neal. (Both commented on the ‘Og.)

Indeed, I find the book quite benevolent and maybe a wee bit too rosy in its assessment of AIs and the discussion on how Facebook and Russian intervention may have significantly to turn the White House Orange is missing [imho] the viral nature of the game, when endless loops of highly targeted posts can cut people from the most basic common sense. While the authors are “optimistic that, given the chance, people can be smart enough”, I do reflect on the sheer fact that the hoax that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring was ever considered seriously by people. To the point of someone shooting at the pizza restaurant. And I hence am much less optimistic at the ability for a large enough portion of the population, not even the majority, to keep a critical distance from the message carried by AI driven media. Similarly, while Nick and James point out (rather late in the book) that big data (meaning large data) is not necessarily good data for being unrepresentative at the population at large, they do not propose (in the book) highly convincing solutions to battle bias in existing and incoming AIs. Leading to a global worry that AIs may do well for a majority of the population and discriminate against a minority by the same reasoning. As described in Cathy O’Neal‘s book, and elsewhere, proprietary software does not even have to explain why it discriminates. More globally, the business school environment of the authors may have prevented them from stating a worry on the massive power grab by the AI-based companies, which genetically grow with little interest in democracy and states, as shown (again) by the recent election or their systematic fiscal optimisation. Or by the massive recourse to machine learning by Chinese authorities towards a social credit system grade for all citizens.

“La rage de vouloir conclure est une des manies les plus funestes et les plus stériles qui appartiennent à l’humanité. Chaque religion et chaque philosophie a prétendu avoir Dieu à elle, toiser l’infini et connaître la recette du bonheur.” Gustave Flaubert

I did not know about Henrietta Leavitt’s prediction rule for pulsating stars, behind Hubble’s discovery, which sounds like an astronomy dual to Rosalind Franklin’s DNA contribution. The use of Bayes’ rule for locating lost vessels is also found in The Theorem that would not die. Although I would have also mentioned its failure in locating Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I had also never heard the great expression of “model rust. Nor the above quote from Flaubert. It seems I have recently spotted the story on how a 180⁰ switch in perspective on language understanding by machines brought the massive improvement that we witness today. But I cannot remember where. And I have also read about Newton missing the boat on the precision of the coinage accuracy (was it in Bryson’s book on the Royal Society?!), but with less neutral views on the role of Newton in the matter, as the Laplace of England would have benefited from keeping the lax measures of assessment.

Great to see friendly figures like Luke Bornn and Katherine Heller appearing in the pages. Luke for his work on the statistical analysis of basketball games, Katherine  for her work on predictive analytics in medicine. Reflecting on the missed opportunities represented by the accumulation of data on any patient throughout their life that is as grossly ignored nowadays as it was at Nightingale‘s time. The message of the chapter [on “The Lady with the Lamp”] may again be somewhat over-optimistic: while AI and health companies see clear incentives in developing more encompassing prediction and diagnostic techniques, this will only benefit patients who can afford the ensuing care. Which, given the state of health care systems in the most developed countries, is an decreasing proportion. Not to mention the less developed countries.

Overall, a nice read for the general public, de-dramatising the rise of the machines!, and mixing statistics and machine learning to explain the (human) intelligence behind the AIs. Nothing on the technical side, to be sure, but this was not the intention of the authors.

Whispers underground [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , on December 6, 2014 by xi'an

East London from Tower Bridge, Dec. 2009“Dr. Walid said that normal human variations were wide enough that you’d need samples of hundreds of subjects to test that. Thousands if you wanted a statistically significant answer.
Low sample size—one of the reasons why magic and science are hard to reconcile.”

This is the third volume in the Rivers of London series, brought back from Gainesville, and possibly the least successful (in my opinion). It indeed takes place underground and not only in the Underground and the underground sewers of London. Which is this literary trick that always irks me in fantasy novels, namely the sudden appearance of massive underground complex with unsuspected societies that are large and evolved enough to reach the Industrial Age. (Sorry if this is too much of a spoiler!)

“It was the various probability calculations that stuffed me—they always do. I’d have been a bad scientist.”

Not that everything is bad in this novel: I still like the massive infodump about London, the style and humour, the return of PC Lesley trying to get over the (literal) loss of her face, and the appearance of new characters. But the story itself, revolving about a murder investigation, is rather shallow and the (compulsory?) English policeman versus American cop competition is too contrived to be funny. Most of the major plot is hidden from this volume, unless there are clues I missed. (For instance, one death from a previous volume which seemed to get ignored at that time is finally explained here.) Definitely not the book to read on its own, as it still relates and borrow much from the previous volumes, but presumably one to read nonetheless as the next instalment, Broken homes.

Rivers of London [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2014 by xi'an

London by Delta, Dec. 14, 2011Yet another book I grabbed on impulse while in Birmingham last month. And which had been waiting for me on a shelf of my office in Warwick. Another buy I do not regret! Rivers of London is delightful, as much for taking place in all corners of London as for the story itself. Not mentioning the highly enjoyable writing style!

“I though you were a sceptic, said Lesley. I though you were scientific”

The first volume in this detective+magic series, Rivers of London, sets the universe of this mix of traditional Metropolitan Police work and of urban magic, the title being about the deities of the rivers of London, including a Mother and a Father Thames… I usually dislike any story mixing modern life and fantasy but this is a definitive exception! What I enjoy in this book setting is primarily the language used in the book that is so uniquely English (to the point of having the U.S. edition edited!, if the author’s blog is to be believed). And the fact that it is so much about London, its history and inhabitants. But mostly about London, as an entity on its own. Even though my experience of London is limited to a few boroughs, there are many passages where I can relate to the location and this obviously makes the story much more appealing. The style is witty, ironic and full of understatements, a true pleasure.

“The tube is a good place for this sort of conceptual breakthrough because, unless you’ve got something to read, there’s bugger all else to do.”

The story itself is rather fun, with at least three levels of plots and two types of magic. It centres around two freshly hired London constables, one of them discovering magical abilities and been drafted to the supernatural section of the Metropolitan Police. And making all the monologues in the book. The supernatural section is made of a single Inspector, plus a few side characters, but with enough fancy details to give it life. In particular, Isaac Newton is credited with having started the section, called The Folly. Which is also the name of Ben Aaronovitch’s webpage.

“There was a poster (…) that said: `Keep Calm and Carry On’, which I thought was good advice.”

This quote is unvoluntarily funny in that it takes place in a cellar holding material from World War II. Except that the now invasive red and white poster was never distributed during the war… On the opposite it was pulped to save paper and the fact that a few copies survived is a sort of (minor) miracle. Hence a double anachronism in that it did not belong to a WWII room and that Peter Grant should have seen its modern avatars all over London.

“Have you ever been to London? Don’t worry, it’s basically  just like the country. Only with more people.”

The last part of the book is darker and feels less well-written, maybe simply because of the darker side and of the accumulation of events, while the central character gets rather too central and too much of an unexpected hero that saves the day. There is in particular a part where he seems to forget about his friend Lesley who is in deep trouble at the time and this does not seem to make much sense. But, except for this lapse (maybe due to my quick reading of the book over the week in Warwick), the flow and pace are great, with this constant undertone of satire and wit from the central character. I am definitely looking forward reading tomes 2 and 3 in the series (having already read tome 4 in Austria!, which was a mistake as there were spoilers about earlier volumes).

Le Monde puzzle [#824]

Posted in Books, Kids, R with tags , , , on June 13, 2013 by xi'an

A rather dull puzzle this week:

Show that, for any integer y, (√3-1)2y+(√3+1)2y is an integer multiple of a power of two.

I just have to apply Newton’s binomial theorem to obtain the result. What’s the point?!

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