Sunday, June 23, 2019

Happy birthday, Turing!

Today is the 106th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. (Of course, at birth he was probably very bad at abstract reasoning and proofs, like most babies, but he overcame these difficulties and grew up to be truly excellent at math.)

Just in case you haven't seen this yet (HT: I saw this on Twitter several times, then on slatestarcodex), it is amusing and recursive and cultural and involves computers:

Humans often post on the website reddit, which hosts many, many different message boards and oodles of subcultures and conversations on specific topics. Each specific message board is called a subreddit and has its own adherents, community standards, topic(s) of conversation, style, level of activity, etc.

There is a subreddit called r/totallynotrobots where the posts claim to be written by humans, but are written in all-caps and a style suggesting that they are actually written by robots. Redditors writing these posts are humans, so these are humans writing as if they are robots who are unconvincingly trying to pass as human.

There is a recent and extremely impressive system called GPT-2 which unsupervised-ly learns English and performs some really impressive computational linguistic feats, including writing mediocre high-school-style essays and writing very interesting and totally feasible poetry.

There is a subreddit called r/SubSimulatorGPT2 which trains GPT-2 on subreddits and automatically writes "coherent and realistic simulated content" for each subreddit. Of course, this subreddit is just going through other subreddits, training GPT-2, and writing new (automated, simulated) posts for that subreddit.

Now the subreddit-simulating robot has trained on r/totallynotrobots, which means that there are posts on the internet which are written by a robot imitating a human writing in a style pretending to be a robot who is unconvincingly trying to pass as a human. (Or, as slatestarcodex put it, "a robot pretending to be a human pretending to be a robot pretending to be a human.") You can see those posts here.

It's turtles all the way down, and every. single. turtle. is a Turing machine!

This post's theme word is anastrophe, "the inversion of the usual order of words or clauses." Silly grammar mistakes and anastrophe are used to denote unfamiliarity with human language.

Thursday, June 20, 2019


This classic recently bubbled back to the forefront of my attention because of its lovely new reissued cover art (bright green), so I reread it. It is one delicious sip of a novel, an elongated sluuuuuurp of a read, and impossible to read over more than maybe 2 sittings. The story just zooms along, eschewing the verbose detail of a more "deep worldbuilding" authorial style, and its protagonists' often drug-altered state comes through as confusing flashes of detail, occasional emotional insights, and unforeseen but interesting choices.

I've read this book several times, and this time it was no clearer --- the confusing bits were just as confusing (perhaps because I conflate this with several other Gibson books), and the payoff was just as flashy:

  • navigating "cyberspace" described as if a physical reality
  • networking and AI work unbelievably smoothly, but no one has a garbage Internet of Things device
  • the motorcycle chase scene was missing --- I misremembered this from Stephenson's Snow Crash, I think
  • going to a permanently-inhabited space station was a tourist-level outing; going online requires specialized equipment and training
  • lucid dreaming-like sequences that feel very accurately described to my own perceived sensorium when dreaming
  • AI police are called "Turing" and have legal jurisdiction above the level of states?!? I didn't remember this from my last reread, which may have predated my now-extensive knowledge of Turing and computational theory
  • basically zero discussion of the educational system, which I find I have a lot of lingering questions about

I recommend this book as still-relevant and -interesting, for any reader of any background; I suspect that different backgrounds/ages/"digital native" readers will have very differing receptions of what this book predicts, from the past, to be the present/future.

The recent edition I borrowed from the library included substantive front- and back-matter discussing "cyberpunk" and Gibson's relation to it. I've always thought "cyberpunk" was a marketing term for "William Gibson or an imitator wrote this", and I haven't updated my opinion.

This post's theme word is enantiodromia (n), "the tendency of things, beliefs, etc., to change to their opposites." While temporary, drug-induced enantiodromia is common amongst the drug aficionados in Neuromancer, most characters emerge from the haze with their core tenets intact... perhaps the titular *mancer is the only one to undergo a major change. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

Anxiety dream unfairly early

I am rushing to get to the first lecture of the fall semester and make sure there is chalk in the room, the students are all there, and nothing is yet on fire. I get there just in time, greet the new students, then look down at my lecture notes and ... I've brought the wrong lecture notes. For the wrong class, the wrong topic. My notes are useless. I flip through the first few pages anyway just in case the correct lecture notes are in there somewhere. They are not. No problem, I think, I've taught this several times, I'll just wing it... but then I forget how the setup goes, I forget the important beginning-of-semester announcements. I am flustered, and I know that I seem flustered, and this enhances my flusteration. I have no choice but to lecture off the top of my head. I just plunge right in with the crux of the lecture and I can tell, from the moment I open my mouth, it is not going well.

The students start to be unruly. Now it is a nightmare.

One student is --- loudly, and frankly with excellent diction and vibrato --- standing on a wheely chair (danger!) and singing an aria from The Barber of Seville. Other students are just on their phones. In the corner, it looks like maybe some of them are catching Pokémon. Some of them are openly working on homework for other classes. How do they already have homework in other classes? --- it is the first day of class!

I cannot regain their attention, somehow. My usual classroom demeanor is not working, everything is out-of-control, I make a math mistake on the board and now even the handful of students who were following are confused and starting to check out.


... then I wake up and it is still JUNE, how dare my brain already have this anxiety prepped, this is outrageous. I flatly refuse to experience waking anxiety about the next semester when the entire summer is still ahead of me. It. is. not. fair.

(I blame this on residual anxiety from my extremely dramatic late-to-my-own-final-exam event last month. I will have anxiety dreams about that for the rest of my life.)

This post's theme word is squirl (n), "a flourish or curve, especially in handwriting." I compliment you on your elaborate and expressive squirl, which I assure you is NOT a Pokémon.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

New neighbor

I have a new neighbor. Can you spot them in this picture?
They were nibbling on something in the lawn, but I am not yet familiar with all the plantings so I had no objection. My guess is that any dogs visiting Camp Lila over the summer will strongly react to the neighbor, possibly encouraging the neighbor to relocate.

This post's theme word is Struwwelpeter (n), "a person with long, thick, disheveled hair." Quoth Flopsy to Mopsy and Cottontail, "Have thee spotted our Struwwelpeter blue-haired new neighbor?"