Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ancillary Sword

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, her knockout first scifi novel. All the excellent elements are there --- multiple simultaneous interwoven viewpoints, indignant outrage, powerlessness in the face of structural inequality. The book is about a spaceship in the body of a person, which body is itself often in other spaceships, and so of course the book is about boundaries and personality and what elements of a mind one can be aware of, and not aware of, and how each person must make conscious decisions that shape her character. Especially, of course, the supreme tyrant, in thousands of bodies, currently having a civil war over a little disagreement with herself.

The book is excellent. I have no idea how the author managed it, but it is supremely impressive. The characters develop meaningfully; the setting changes, without escalating to the Fate of the Universe Lies on One Heroine's Shoulders. Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Ann Leckie makes human-sized problems, daily issues of real life, have real-life-style focus of her books, while still mattering to a larger plot. And it's presented in an intellectually and emotionally engaging way. The mind boggles at the number of things she has juggled here, perfectly. seemingly-effortlessly.

It's weird that there are three types of ship: Justices, Swords, and Mercies, and in book I the main character is a Justice, and the book is called Ancillary Justice, but in book II the main character is captain of a Mercy, and the book is called Ancillary Sword. And of course book III is called Ancillary Mercy, since that's the third type of ship, and it's nice to finish the trilogy off on the note of mercy, but in the interests of evenness, will the third book focus its action on a Sword-class ship? I wonder. Just for structure, you see, because I'm sure that whatever Ann Leckie has plotted is magnificent and deeply satisfying and engaging on every level.

This post's theme word is monish, "to warn; to admonish." The AIs monish, but few humans heed.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Confounding science with science

Scott Alexander is resplendent in this blog post about science, statistics, confirmation bias, control groups, and the study of whether psychic effects are real. If that list of keywords is not enough to hook you, I really knew the article attained a blazing level of reading delight when I reached this paragraph:
Then there’s Munder (2013), which is a meta-meta-analysis on whether meta-analyses of confounding by researcher allegiance effect were themselves meta-confounded by meta-researcher allegiance effect. He found that indeed, meta-researchers who believed in researcher allegiance effect were more likely to turn up positive results in their studies of researcher allegiance effect (p < .002).
Everything about it is a delight. The layers of meta-analysis. The English noun-phrase-constructing rules that permit the construction of a sentence in which the prefix "meta-" appears five times, variously modifying words which themselves are modifying other "meta-"-modified words.

I wonder if the same researcher bias/confounding exists in fields where the experiments are entirely done on computers. Can researchers' belief in the effectiveness of certain machine learning techniques affect their experiments? What about physics simulations? I don't see how, but of course I deeply believe in the inviolable sanctity of mathematics. This is an opinion founded in my acknowledged bias. Maybe coders would self-sabotage by writing bad code, so that experiments run slower? ... but in the end this wouldn't affect the actual outcome, just the agony and feasibility of running the experiment many times.

On a larger scale, I am supremely happy that scientists are using their scientific reasoning to criticize the very practice of science itself. In the same way that I frequently remind myself that the basis of the field studying privacy is "trust no one"*, it would be nice to have big science conferences where we all get together and just shake our heads at how unreliable the current practice of science is. Apparently. I mean, check out this conclusion:
But rather than speculate, I prefer to take it as a brute fact. Studies are going to be confounded by the allegiance of the researcher. When researchers who don’t believe something discover it, that’s when it’s worth looking into.
... which sounds convincing. 


You know what?

I'm skeptical. 

This post's theme word is obverse, "the more conspicuous of two alternatives or cases or sides." The skeptic and his obverse performed a coordinated, randomized, double-blind study.

*Or, as I memorably put it during a job interview, "We've known for a long time that almost everything is impossible."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Maximum bagel/person/day rate

Testing the edge cases is important. This edge case is ridiculous.

Who would ever need more than 500 bagels per person, per day? The imagination exercise is left to the reader.

This post's theme word is schmeer, "the entire set (as in the whole schmeer)," or "bribe or flattery," or "spread or paste," or "to butter up: to flatter or bribe." Even if you schmeer the owner with a schmeer of money or positive media exposure, the whole schmeer of bagels is not available for today's cream cheese schmeering party.

*that I've found so far

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Australian laundry

I encounter Australians when I do my laundry.

Every. Single. Time.

They peer at the machines (labelled in French) and the posters of instructions (in French) and the fire-escape instructions (French) and even the change-making machine (guess which language). Then, inevitably, they cheerily ask me for help: "Can you speak English? How does this work?"

And it's great. They are adorable at this. This one even tried to ask in French if I could speak English. But then again, he's the only stranger I've spoken to in months who correctly placed my origin as NY and not England. (My accent --- in English or French --- baffles the French, or they just default to assuming that English-speakers are from England. It's cute? I guess. Bizarre, to my ear.)

Since this happens with such predictable regularity, no matter what day of week I do my laundry, I grow more and more impressed with several (correlated) possibilities:

  1. Australians visit Paris often;
  2. Many Australians visit Paris;
  3. Australians do laundry while travelling (possibly because the remoteness of Australia limits the amount of brought laundry, or lengthens the standard trip duration);
  4. Australians with no knowledge of the local language nevertheless venture into strange regions and do not let linguistics limit their activities;

... and so on.The Australian launderers are always friendly, happy to chat, enjoying their trip, and pleasantly doing their laundry-chore like responsible adults. My interactions have all been positive, from the retired couple to the various students during (their) summer break, to assorted month-in-Europe travellers who work until they have enough money, then jet around the world, enjoying what it has to offer.

In this season, that seems to be mostly rain.

This post's theme word is enchiridion, "a handbook or manual." An English-language enchiridion at the laundromat would receive daily use.