A machine made of wood, metal, paint, bone and magic
31343 words

Cold war

The vast naïvity of the people who declared that the cold war was over, and the west won never ceases to amaze me. Did they learn nothing from history? Did they pay any attention to what happened to Napoleon in 1812 and what happened to the Germans between 1941 and 1945? The Russians are really, really good at retreating further than their attacker thinks possible, taking losses greater than their attacker thinks possible, and then winning. The cold war is not yet over, and the west is not winning.

Silicon valley ethos

People talk about the 'silicon valley ethos' as if it'a a good thing. So, let's remember what the silicon valley ethos actually is. It's the ethos that gave us techbros, gamergate and female participation in open source projects sitting at 1 or 2% (who knows what black participation is, but I expect it is very, very tiny). It's the ethos that drove down female CS & IT graduation rates in the US from 38% in 1984 to 18% in 2011. It's the ethos that gave us (male, white) people explaining that women are just less good at this stuff in terms which amount to eugenics (obviously very appealing to Cummings), despite it being trivial to show that there is no evidence for this (indeed data this paragraph shows why there's no evidence).

It's the ethos that gave us social media companies whose core business is harvesting souls and who evolve algorithms which encourage political extremism to do that, leading to the incipient fascism we now see in the US. It's the ethos of the people who continue to work for these companies while knowing what they are doing and where it leads.

It's the ethos that gave us the CEO of a large silicon valley company saying this:

I think that government said that they made a mistake. It's a serious mistake. We've made mistakes too, right, with self-driving... So I think that people make mistakes. It doesn't mean that they can never be forgiven.

The 'mistake' that government made, for which they should perhaps be forgiven, was sawing a journalist up with a bonesaw while they were alive.

That is the ethos of silicon valley: sawing a human up with a bonesaw is a mistake which can be forgiven.

Fuck the silicon valley ethos and fuck anyone who thinks it is a good thing. The silicon valley ethos has brought the US to the edge of fascism and in 48 days will quite likely bring it over that edge. The UK is not there yet, but it's moving in that direction: the Cummings-Johnson junta are clearly aiming to cause the EU to walk away from the negotiations so they can find a suitably identifiable group to blame for the disaster that will befall the UK in 107 days. Finding identifiable groups to blame for things is the fascist playbook.

Yes, it gave us really clever phones on which we waste our lives. But I'd give up the phones if I could avoid the fascism. I'd give up the phones if the 'silicon valley ethos' would help in any way at all with dealing with climate change which isn't 'let's go and live on Mars' (work out the climate impact of lifting a significant number of people off Earth sometime: we're not going to live on Mars unless, perhaps, we're billionaires). But it's OK, you see: climate change will only kill our children and their children and the people who believe in the silicon valley ethos don't care about anyone but themselves, or even in some cases know how many children they have, still less care about them. Oh and yes, it's killing some people now, but those people have dark skins and live far away, and silicon valley ethos people certainly don't care about people with dark skins, still less if they live far away.

It's so easy to laugh at them: Johnson is an upper-class twit who can write amusingly racist and sexist articles and Cummings is a eugenicist crank who, like all cranks, does not know what he does not understand. They're laughable. Trump was laughable. Hitler and Mussolini were laughable.

A theory

I'm still very puzzled by what the UK junta government is trying to achieve. Here's a theory.

While I think it's safe to say they have no long-term plans because they're not smart enough to do long-term planning, they do have the standard fascist authoritarian populist short-term plan, which is simple:

blame other people.

Blame foreigners, blame the gypsies, blame the Jews or the Muslims, blame remainers, blame experts, blame intellectuals, but blame someone else.

So they need someone to blame for the impending failure of the brexit negotiations, and the economic catastrophe that will engulf England the UK as a result.

Here's how they will find someone to blame: behave increasingly bizarrely and illegally until the EU finally says 'fuck it' and walks away. Then blame the EU for walking away. Now the economic consequences of a no-deal brexit can be portrayed as being the EU's fault.

We all know where this approach of blaming other people for everything ends up, because we saw where it ended up in the 1930s and 1940s: it ends with camps and ovens.

The rule of law

If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then, of course, I will go.

Robert Buckland, UK Justice Secretary

So if the law is broken in a way you find acceptable, why then, that's OK is it? I'll bear that in mind, then: in future I'll only break the law if I think that I'm doing it in a way that I find acceptable.

Theory of mind

As recorded, [Trump's statement that he wanted to 'play down' CV19 early in 2020] reads like a cold-blooded confession that Trump intentionally concealed deadly knowledge at a time—February and March—when that knowledge could have saved lives. But you can reach that conclusion only if you believe that Trump knows things the way fully rational people know them: as statements about reality that exist independently from the speaker. Trump’s mind does not work that way. He does not observe the world and then use words to describe it. He speaks the words he wishes you to believe, and then trusts the world to conform to his wishes.

David Frum, writing in The Atlantic

I think the problem is that our theory of mind leads us astray with Trump: we try to build a model of what he must be like in our heads and that model is entirely wrong. Trump is not really a person at all, he's the remains of a person who has collapsed in on himself. Insofar as this carcass can be said to be aware it is aware only of itself: the outside world and all the people in it are merely dim shadows and reflections of its internal processes.

Trump is the end state after a person no longer has the strength to prevent their mind collapsing under the gravitational force of their own vanity.

Their law

The English UK government is intentionally breaking the law. But of course it will expect the people it governs – especially those who are not English – to obey the rules it sets for them: not because they are laws, which count for nothing, but simply because it has power over the people it governs. There is a name for this form of government: tyranny.

Rule by idiot

In 2016, Donald Trump's Twitter password was yourefired: two English words with no substitutions and in a single case. Two English words which would be rather easy to guess for anyone who knew anything about him.

This is known because of the 2012 Linkedin leak: Donald Trump has (or had, in 2012) a Linkedin account, and the unsalted SHA-1 hash (07b8938319c267dcdb501665220204bbde87bf1d) of his LinkedIn password was included in the leak. It is easy to verify that the password above hashes to this. For instance, using Racket:

> (require file/sha1)
> (sha1 #"yourefired")

We know this was his Twitter password in 2016 because he used the same easy-to-guess password on Twitter, and was too stupid to change it for four years after the leak.

This was discovered and published by three Dutch people in 2016. They tried to inform the US authorities but were ignored. The Dutch authorities did least acknowledge their report.

The English dictionary on my machine has 235,886 words in it. A brute-force attack on Trump's password, given the hash, would take no more than 55 seconds if you could compute a billion hashes a second, which is very easily achievable with reasonable computational resources.

The Linkedin hack was very well-publicised at the time: any competent security organisation would have known about it. Any malicious such organisation certainly used the leaked hashes to try and infer the passwords of people of interest to them.

In other words, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that the Russians had access to Donald Trump's Twitter account in 2016 and before, as, probably, did any number of other state security services. That means, that, for instance, they could read Twitter DMs to him, and fake DMs as him, and in fact send public tweets as him if they wished.

If we assume his password hygiene was as terrible as it seems to be, it's likely that they were all over a large number of his other accounts: for instance his email.

Rule by toddler

The UK government admits that it is planning to intentionally break international law.

It is staggering to see a British minister brazenly admit to Parliament that the government intends to breach international law. Yet that is what Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, did this week – even if he sought to qualify the move as "very specific and limited". [...] As EU leaders are already asking, how can they do a trade deal with a country that is talking of ripping up a treaty it agreed with them less than a year ago? [...] The ramifications of Mr Johnson’s threat to breach international law go wider than Britain’s relationship with the EU. Because his plan revives fears of a hard border in Ireland, it would go down very badly in America. Congress has already made clear that it will not ratify a free-trade deal with Britain if Brexit undermines the Good Friday peace process. [...] Britain is a proud founding father of international law. If it is seen to be flouting it, that will only encourage others who dislike the concept (Vladimir Putin? Xi Jinping?) and would prefer to escape any constraints that it imposes.

The Economist.

The government's most senior lawyer is quitting over the plans. The EU thinks the UK has already breached the terms of the withdrawal agreement.

But it's not fair, it's not fair mummy. Dominic says it's not fair as well, and he's always right mummy.

– Boris Johnson, aged 3

A bit of smoke in the air

The skies are orange in California, but it's 'just a bit of smoke in the air', right? CV19 is a much worse problem.

It's not. CV19 might kill 1 person in 100 as a plausible worst case, so 70 million people. And it will go away: there will be a vaccine almost certainly (and there will be other pandemics of course, and they will kill people too). Climate change as a plausible worst case might kill 9 people in 10 – more than 6 billion people – and that 'bit of smoke in the air' is an early symptom of it. And it will, in human terms, never go away: the lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is hundreds to thousands of years (the lifetime of individual CO2 molecules is much smaller as they cycle through the oceans, and global warming denialist fuckwits make hay out of this, but the equilibrium concentration takes a huge time to decline). The future is going to be some crap version of blade runner: orange skies and the ruins of cities, except no flying cars, no off-world colonies (work out what lifting significant numbers (millions to hundreds of millions) of people into LEO does to the climate sometime), no android slaves (did the current AI bubble burst yet? Winter is coming), everyone is starving, and we'll be ruled by clown fascists.

Of course climate change will probably only kill your children and their children, together with people living in far-away countries with dark skins, and no-one cares about their children and they certainly don't care about people with dark skins even if they don't live far away. CV19 might kill you, and we all care about us.

(This is not meant to imply I don't think CV19 is serious: I think it is very serious. It's just not the most serious.)

Tantrum diplomacy

So the UK has apparently not just torn up the legal agreement it made with the EU. For which read: the UK has, in fact, just torn up the legal agreement it made with the EU and shown the world exactly what its word is worth: nothing.

Populist governments: the spoiled three-year-old children of international diplomacy.

What do they want?

The UK's government is driving the UK off a cliff. What do they think they are doing?

In the case of Trump this is easy to answer: he wants to be dictator, for his family to rule after him, and given his vast corruption he is completely terrified about what will happen to him if he loses power and the protections that come with it.

For the UK the conspiracy theorists' answer is that Cummings, Johnson and the tories wish to simply extract all of the money from the UK as the tories ever have done. I think this isn't true: if (when) the UK falls they fall with it. But they can't believe that the no-deal brexit that is now all but a certainty will be good for the UK, or for them, can they? Are they that stupid? Perhaps they are that stupid.

The myth of the lone genius

One of the reasons why Stephen Wolfram's crankery is taken seriously by reviewers is the myth of the lone genius: the idea of some brilliant man – and it is always a man, of course – who spends years toiling in seclusion to come up with a theory which changes the world.

The exemplar of this is Einstein: didn't he work, alone, on relativity while doing a day job as a patent clerk, only to publish the theory out of the blue in 1905? Well, he did work as a patent clerk, but that's the sort of thing people did, then and now, when they didn't have funding for a full-time position. We don't say that everyone doing a PhD part-time while holding down a job as a barista is a lone genius: it's just what people do. Well, OK, but didn't he work alone? No: he corresponded extensively with other physicists and mathematicians and met many of them. Between 1905 and the publication of General Relativity in 1916 Einstein collaborated extensively with other people, notably Grossman1.

Was Einstein a genius? Certainly he was. Did he work alone: no. He was somewhat isolated by today's standards, but everyone was somewhat isolated by today's standards at the turn of the 20th century.

OK, so perhaps not Einstein then, but someone else. What about Andrew Wiles, who locked himself away to prove Fermat's last theorem? Well, I will leave you to read about this – there is a good popular book on the subject, but no, he was not a lone genius. He did spend a lot of time working alone at some points but this was mostly because the sort of work he was doing required intense concentration, and also because he wanted to get there before other people did, which is perfectly understandable given how much time he had devoted to the problem.

Perhaps there are real examples of lone geniuses who changed the world, but they are few and far between, and Wolfram is almost certainly not an example.

The myth of the lone genius is, in fact a myth: a story which is not true.

  1. Indeed, Einstein's collaboration with other people is often used by vile people to perpetrate antisemitic lies that he 'stole' his ideas from these people, which he absolutely did not do. The people who claim this are bigots and liars. 

Stephen Wolfram is a crank

There is no doubt that Stephen Wolfram is extremely clever1. Sadly there is also no doubt that he is a crank. He may, in fact be the best example I know of why cranks are not just stupid people who think they are clever: cranks can be – and very often are – clever people. As I wrote yesterday

cranks don't realise when they don't understand something: for cranks, there are no known unknowns, all unknowns are unknown. [...] One group of people who very often become cranks are narcissists.

If you have used Mathematica, or read any of Wolfram's books you will very quickly realise that he's a narcissist. Mathematica is, on the whole, a very good tool, but the documentation for it is just nauseatingly crowing. Its documentation mentions almost no prior art: if you read only it you would believe that Wolfram invented much more than he in fact did. At least historically Mathematica's implementation also ignored prior art. Many symbolic languages predate Mathematica and much work was done on making them fast and sorting out their syntax and semantics. Mathematica simply ignored all of this, apparently because Wolfram thought he knew better. Even today the syntax and especially the semantics of Mathematica is a huge mess.

All of this is because Wolfram simply won't, or can't, listen to anyone else: because he's a narcissist.

Then we come to A new kind of science. Wolfram apparently thinks that he alone was responsible for the discovery that simple computational systems could give rise to complex behaviour. This is simply untrue, and it is also offensive. The idea of a universal computational system dates back to the Church-Turing thesis stated independently by Alonzo Church and Alan Turing in 1936, roughly 23 years before Wolfram was born. Anyone who has written computer programs, especially in AI, understands that very simple rules can give rise to very complex behaviour, and this was understood long ago.

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he simply does not understand what he's claiming and that his claim is far from new.

Recently he has resurfaced with an enormous paper proposing a computational model for physics. This paper has not been peer-reviewed, and Wolfram has something interesting to say about that:

I don't really believe in anonymous peer review [...] I think it’s corrupt. It’s all a giant story of somewhat corrupt gaming, I would say. I think it’s sort of inevitable that happens with these very large systems. It’s a pity.

– Stephen Wolfram, quoted here.

If that sounds like every crank you have ever dealt with fulminating against the scientific establishment who are conspiring to suppress the cranks' brilliant theory, well, that's not coincidental: Wolfram is a crank.

It's easy to see how this happened. Wolfram is extremely smart, and has a background in physics. Like many people – like me – he then got lost in computing for a couple of decades – unlike me he made a lot of money at it, not least because he's much smarter than me.

Then he decided to come back to physics. But he's now spent a couple of decades in computing. Computing is a very immature field where:

  • it's possible to do great things even while ignoring the work that has already been done because, comparatively, so little has been done – even I have occasionally managed to reinvent techniques which had been previously discovered, someone as smart as Wolfram can reinvent many of them, albeit often rather badly;
  • there are enormous financial rewards to be had if you construct the right product at the right time, which rewards encourage the people who receive them to believe that they are gods and to behave the way rock stars do, for exactly the same reasons;
  • there is no process of peer review, but rather employees whose livelihoods depend on you and who therefore treat you as if you were a god.

It's easy to see what happens: Wolfram is already a narcissist, and he's now spent twenty years lost in computing having his ego busily stroked by the people around him. He's now completely lost sight of the notion that computing is not all there is, and still more that there might be other people who might understand physics a little better than he does. He certainly does not want to hear what they have to say about his great masterwork, or at least he does not want to hear anonymously: he wants to be able to shout at them when they are rude to him.

As so often, Freeman Dyson put it best:

There’s a tradition of scientists approaching senility to come up with grand, improbable theories. Wolfram is unusual in that he’s doing this in his 40s

– Freeman Dyson, Newsweek, 27 May 2002 p 59, in a review of A new kind of science.

  1. I am only not using the word 'genius' because I don't really know what it means. In fact I am not sure what 'clever' and 'stupid' mean either: people who thing of themselves as 'clever' are often very willing to call other people 'stupid' (or 'less clever' if they are pretending to be polite), but human intelligence is not linearly ordered in that way. 

What it means to be a crank

Cranks are not just stupid people who think they are clever: cranks can be – and very often are – clever people. The important thing about cranks is that

cranks don't realise when they don't understand something: for cranks, there are no known unknowns, all unknowns are unknown.

The reason why this definition works is that when a crank approaches some field which they don't understand in some critical way then they fail to recognise that they don't understand what they are doing, and blunder on anyway, producing rubbish, but never understanding that what they are producing is rubbish.

Famously, the Dunning-Kruger effect implies that people who indeed are just not very good at something tend to be the ones who think they are best at it. But this isn't the same thing as saying that cranks are stupid: quite apart from anything else people suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect are not necessarily cranks: being a crank takes more than that.

One group of people who very often become cranks are narcissists. This is pretty obvious: if you think you are, basically, some kind of god who is just inherently better than everyone else, what are the chances that you are going to listen to the advice of these lesser people?

But, once again, cranks are not stupid people. Cranks can be very smart.


I remember when Godwin's law was a new thing1, and how clearly right it was: how obviously stupid and offensive it was to compare people and injustices to the monstrous horror that was fascism and the Nazis. We should all, instead, be thankful that the horror was in the past, and use language more carefully for the relatively tiny horrors of the late 20th century.

And suddenly not. Suddenly calling people fascists is not stupid hyperbole, because there are real fascists – there are possibly fascists reading this – and they are doing the trick they learned from the early 20th century fascists: get elected, and then destroy the democracy that elected them by spreading a fabric of lies and hatred. And like last time they will almost certainly win. And just as it did last time it has happened astonishingly fast after the crisis which caused the catastrophe: from 1918 to 1933 was 15 years, from 2008 to 2020 will be 12.

The sides are different this time: this time the Germans are on the side of the angels: they at least have remembered the terrible lesson of the past. The role Trump is playing is too obvious to mention2; while the UK has its own Mussolini: a clown-emperor who thinks he is the king of the world, a great leader from a greater but barbaric past reborn to lead his country to glory once more.

How many of us will go to the camps to be made free this time? I am sure I will.

We have learned nothing, or perhaps we have forgotten everything.

  1. I am fairly sure I used to read some of the newsgroups where he posted it. 

  2. And even now I have trained myself not to use the comparison which, this time, is so apt.