Nicholas FitzRoy-Dale's personal journal. I also write a programming blog and a tumble log. Contact me at or subscribe to my RSS feed.

Jul 3, 2021
Book review: Terminal Boredom, by Izumi Suzuki

"Sounds like my kind of world. But I'd prefer living in a nightmare."

This mercilessly-bleak collection grabbed my attention and held it, but it seemed to do so as if by force -- reading was both enjoyable and horrifying. I read it over several evenings, and by the last story the book had actually started almost physically to loom on my bedside table. I'd always pick it up, but with trepidation. I was scared of what was coming next.

Technically, the stories are excellent -- I think they all hold up roughly equally well. The characters, or character copies, rather, as the protagonists of each story have a lot in common, are well-sketched: a girl or woman, coming to terms, and ultimately accepting, her lack of agency in the face of what can only be described as utter dystopia. Accepting unhappily, accepting with regret, accepting sometimes with a half-hearted rebellion or a fight, but accepting nonetheless. As you can imagine, this is not a theme that lends itself to happy endings, and in fact these stories (with perhaps one exception) don't really end. They just run out of words.

It's not perfect. These are sci-fi stories from the 70s and 80s, and some of the plot points around sci-fi tech seem hackneyed now. Fortunately, these parts are never major aspects of the story, so, for example, a story which has a wireheading plot would actually function just fine with a slightly different sci-fi deus ex, or indeed none at all. A more difficult aspect for me was the translation. It's not that it's bad, it's just that ... well, these are stories written in Japanese by a woman living in Japan, forty years ago, so it already felt difficult for me to try to take the point of view that Suzuki would have expected her readers to have. But on top of that, each story has a different translator, and for a couple of the stories I found myself rereading passages trying to work out if the reason I hadn't understood the overt plot points, let alone picked up on any nuance, was because I lacked the relevant cultural context, or because I was just thick (or, more likely, both).

I have a low opinion of sci-fi as a genre because it conjures images of usually-white mostly-men heading bravely out into the galaxy to show off their superior culture to the lesser beings (thus enlightening them or making them come to terms with their inferiority, depending on the author), but I'm slowly realising that this is a very narrow-minded view. Terminal Boredom is nothing like this, of course: the sci-fi elements are mostly tools to bring about or enforce dystopic laws or cultural norms.

The overall message I got from this collection is: Submit. You are powerless to resist, and you probably don't really want to anyway. I enjoyed the book and I recommend it, but I found it quite tough to read in parts. If you personally are feeling particularly unhappy with the world and your place in it, you may wish to put it aside for a little while.

Apr 5, 2021
"If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t" doesn't make sense to me

This quote is making the rounds again. As an off-hand witticism, which was presumably the intention, it's great. But I don't think it was supposed to be taken seriously.

To dig into why not, let's start by taking "human brain" literally and assume that everyone agrees that there is some kind of brain which can understand (leaving aside what it means to understand something for the moment). The brain of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster might be a good candidate for something we could eventually understand, as its brain has a relatively small number of neurons -- approximately 100 000. It's also convincingly a brain, exhibiting a large variety of behaviours and having some parts correlated with the brains of larger animals, unlike, for example, the "brain" of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which seems more like a simple junction between sensory and motor neurons. In other words, imagine a graph, with D. melanogaster at one end, and H. sapiens at the other, and at some point between the two there's a line which defines the point at which we stop being able to understand the brain.

So let's find that line. Take this brain that we understand and add a small number of additional neurons to it -- say a couple of hundred, which is the number of neurons in the entire body of C. elegans. At this point we have to decide whether we still understand this new, augmented brain. If we decide that we do, then we add some more. Keep doing this and, if you take the title quote seriously, at some point you "fall off the cliff", reaching a point of literally incomprehensible complexity and thus taking the brain from something we do understand to something we don't.

For this "complexity cliff" idea to be plausible, we would have to hold the belief that adding a small number of neurons can (at least sometimes) dramatically increase the complexity of the brain. This seems to fly in the face of what we know about biological systems in general, and the brain specifically.

Brains aren't exactly modular, but there is a clear flow of information through them. Visual cortex, for example, is relatively well-understood: impulses originating in the retina pass through a number of processing stages, starting with fairly basic things like recognising lines of a particular orientation, and culminating in more complex things like recognising faces (or even specific faces) regardless of orientation, lighting, and so on. (There is also a fascinatingly large amount of information flowing backward from higher-level regions to lower-level regions, but this is some other post's fun digression). It seems unlikely, for example, that if we were to take our C. elegans' worth of neurons and put them in V1 that we would suddenly hit incomprehensible complexity.

All right, but the visual system is nicely self-contained, and even tiny-brained insects have one. What about consciousness? The mind's eye? Art? And so on. This seems to me to be the crux of the matter, and a little chauvinistic, essentially saying that of the things we understand the least, the things we prize the most are the ones which will not fall to our own understanding. It's the same sort of argument that was made about computer chess in the 70s and 80s -- that beautiful plays on the chess board required empathy, or an appreciation of what it is to be human. Nope, it just requires a bunch of heuristics and computational power. (People were saying the same about Go right up until AlphaZero's historic match, though I think one could make a reasonable argument that we don't fully understand AlphaZero. But that's beside the point: nobody is claiming that AlphaZero is empathetic, or that it has a keen understanding of the human condition.)

Humans don't learn or understand by taking everything in at the lowest level of detail -- that would be like trying to explain how a tap works by discussing the movement of every water molecule in the pipe. We learn by abstracting and creating a hierarchy. There's a lot of evidence that the brain is arranged in a way that's amenable to this hierarchical approach. A good example is cerebral cortex, which seems to consist of the same fundamental neural circuit repeated over and over. Indeed, the difference between the cerebral cortex of a human and of, say, a cat, isn't in the types and connectivity of the neurons -- they're very similar -- but is simply in the number of these circuits that are present.

It's comforting to imagine that there is something ineffable that makes us human -- something which will never fully be understood or explained. But to me it's far more impressive and awe-inspiring if we do turn out to be completely explicable -- if that, for no particularly good reason, fifteen to twenty billion neurons came together in a well-defined order and wrote a blog post about themselves.

Mar 28, 2021
How to clean tea stains off mugs

Pour a little bleach in them. Leave to sit. Scrub gently. Rinse. Repeat if necessary (unlikely). Wash thoroughly.

I write this because for a long time I used bicarbonate of soda, or salt, or some productised kitchen cleanser, or even just washing up liquid and a lot of scrubbing, which is the sort of advice you find if you search the internet for "how to clean tea stains off mugs". None of these options is any good and I think people only suggest them because it feels weird bleaching something that you will be drinking from, even though all the bleach has gone after washing.

Jul 11, 2020
I ain't afraid of no ghost
  • For all ghosts X, the proposition "I am afraid of ghost X" is false.
  • It is not the case that there exists a ghost X such that the proposition "I am afraid of ghost X" is true.
  • The set of ghosts of which I am afraid is the empty set.
May 26, 2020
Some popular activities and their consequences
Activity: Cleanse the taint on Saidin.
Useful outcome: Saidin cleansed of Dark One's influence. Good opportunity to clean up Aes Sedai screw-ups.
Side effect: You go mad.

Activity: Invent new form of transportation, the Gravity Drive.
Useful outcome: Fast interstellar travel. Humanity's first real opportunity to explore new worlds.
Side effect: You and quite a few other people go mad.

Activity: Take a rest cure involving no creative output at all and no more than two hours of mental stimulation a day.
Useful outcome: Patriarchal domination of 19th-century psychiatry brought into sharp relief.
Side effect: It is not at all restful and you go mad.

Nov 17, 2019
British supermarket automated checkout loyalty scheme prompts, reviewed!

Loyalty schemes suck. They're another piece of plastic to cart around with you (more than one unless you're some kind of supermarket loyalist), and despite that fact that almost everybody uses them apparently they never remember to actually scan the cards, because every supermarket's automated checkout machine nags you about it. To save you the trouble of doing it yourself, I've ranked the big four in terms of tone and overall obnoxiousness on a 1-10 scale.

Tesco: "Scan your Clubcard to earn Clubcard points."

Great. Completely non-prescriptive. There is at least one way to earn Clubcard points, and that way is to scan your Clubcard. If you wish to earn Clubcard points, then you could do it by scanning your Clubcard. If you don't wish to earn Clubcard points, then do whatever the fuck you like. Tone is fairly matter-of-fact, perhaps a little sumptuous. The only thing better would be not saying anything at all. 9/10.

Sainsburys (new): "If you have a Nectar card, please scan it now."

Pretty good. A gentle reminder that doesn't impede your flow if you don't have a card. Loses points because you could have scanned your card at any time previously, and "now" is the last possible time, so the machine is assuming you've forgotten and/or is low-key advertising the scheme at you. Like Tesco, tone is neutral, though with a faint hint of the excitement to come if you actually do scan your card. 8/10.

M&S: "Scan your Sparks card and we'll donate to your chosen Sparks charity".

At first glance, very similar to Tesco, but worse because of the charity guilt trip. A far better way to donate to charity is just to, you know, donate to charity. You know we're here for the discounts, so cut the crap. Tone starts out okay, but it's such a boring and (relatively) long-winded sentence that it's hard to keep the lilt up all the way through. 6/10.

Waitrose: "Do you have myWaitrose card?"

A little pointed, given that you can scan your myWaitrose card at any time, and it makes you press "No" to confirm your guilt. How loyal are you, really? Are you even a myWaitrose member? Oh? Are you sure you didn't mean to go to the Tesco down the road? No idea of tone because it's displayed rather than spoken. 4/10.

Sainsburys (old): "Have you swiped your Nectar card?"

Terrible. Firstly, you know damn well I haven't. Secondly, if I forgot about it, I certainly don't want to be mocked by a machine. Given the fact that the machine already knows what you've done, it's impossible for it not to sound smarmy when it says this. M&S machines used to say a very similar thing. 0/10.

Oct 28, 2019
Cremorne Point walk

I'm heading back to the UK after a short stay in Australia. The flat I've been staying in, in Cremorne Point, has a very beautiful coastal walk nearby. Here it is, if for no other reason than to bring me a little sunshine when I'm back in Drizzletown.

It's scaled down by your browser, but if you embiggen you'd get 720p.

Jul 5, 2019
Lithium Batteries Do Not Have a Buddha-Nature

A little while ago, my Apple laptop stopped sitting properly on the desk. Some investigation revealed that the battery had done this:

Swollen lithium battery

As you can see, the battery, which covers the entire bottom half there, had formed charming little pillows in all six of its compartments. That's bad. (And weird. It wasn't that old.)

Apple will not replace this battery by itself, because it's glued to the case. Their solution is replace the case and battery in one unit, which means you end up paying for, and creating as waste, a new keyboard, trackpad, battery, and upper case. I like to pretend that this extremely user-hostile and wasteful design is the sole reason for Jony Ive's recent departure from Apple.

You can, of course, do it yourself. All you need is a pentalobe screwdriver, a Torx screwdriver, methylated spirits for the glue, a new battery, and a burning anger in your soul. Removal is not easy and basically involves dissolving enough of the glue that you can lift the battery up a bit in order to get more alcohol under it to dissolve more glue. Multiplied by six compartments. But I eventually did it. Look how pretty and un-puffed it looks:

IMG 3017

My favourite part about this picture is that the new battery, which is third party and thus always going to be used as a replacement, carries a large warning telling people not to remove it.

So now I had two batteries! A fresh new one in my laptop, and an old, puffed-up one, just sitting around. This wasn't as fun as it sounds.

The advice around lithium batteries online, over many sites, is always essentially the same and surprisingly bipolar. Everything starts by saying that modern lithium batteries are generally very safe and there is extremely little risk, and even when they’re removed and, you know, beaten up a bit, they’re not going to explode. Then there is always a dramatic switch in tone and you’re reminded that lithium plus oxygen and moisture is extremely flammable, battery technology is basically three or four failsafe mechanisms stacked on top of a small incendiary device and, oh, by the way, if they’re puffed up at all that means all the failsafes have failed except for the thin plastic shell, which is now filled with hydrogen gas.

When they’re in that state, to avoid what Apple calls a “thermal event”, you should not: charge the battery, rapidly discharge the battery, let anything contact the battery terminals, bend the battery, expose the battery to sudden shocks, be angry within 50 metres of the battery, hold any metal objects in the same house as the battery, or think bad thoughts about battery-kin. The number of ways you can cause an explosion is rather like this scene from Parks & Rec. Heaven help you if you actually touch it, let alone bend the fucking thing while digging it out of a computer case. You can't throw it in the bin, because spontaneous combustion, but also because it's poisonous ewaste. Apple and its authorised service centres won't dispose of it when it's not in a case, apparently because it's much easier to talk about your environmental record than it is to actually help your customers dispose of the environment-destroying chemical explosion bag which you sold them.

Anyway, as you may know, it’s possible to read the Internet too much. After a few of the above sites I had become, let’s say, rather cautious about my little bomb. I asked questions of myself like “what is the least annoying place to have a lithium fire?”, which is like those kōans in which the best answer is to unask the question. I’d been storing the battery on a metal tray either literally in the oven or at least on the hob. I had visions of the recycling centre people not only refusing the battery, but also arresting me on the spot for environmental pre-crime. I thought that the final resting place for this battery would be deep underground in an unmarked grave somewhere.

But, surprise! The paranoia was misplaced. The giant of a recycling centre employee took the battery into his hands and started folding it up, while affably telling me that I’d need to recycle my cardboard elsewhere. I left too quickly to see where he eventually put it, but as I drove away the centre did not burst into flames, so perhaps they know what they are doing.

My conclusion: I did the best possible thing, both for myself and the environment, and the computer shop guy who refused to do the repair for me on the grounds that it was extremely dangerous is a pussy.

(By the way, how do you recycle ewaste if you don’t have a car? Couriers are unsurprisingly disinclined to transport damaged batteries. Public transport, with the battery, to a station followed by a long walk? Maybe the attitude is that if you’re too poor to afford a car you shouldn’t be buying computers.)

Jun 27, 2019
We'll Never Penetrate The Interior of The Cosmic Mystery If You Keep Taking Yourself So Damn Seriously

A review of The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse

There are a lot of spoilers below, but if you're considering reading the book and haven't: This is a very entertaining satire of ivory-tower academia, and some other themes, by an excellent writer. Highly recommended. You'll enjoy it. Now stop reading.

Okay, now for the spoilers.

I've seen people wondering just how serious this book is. How much may we take at face value? Is there the remotest possibility that a human could churn out verbiage like "Unhampered by sudden revelations and indiscretions, the sublime process moved to its conclusion" without tongue lodged firmly in cheek? What is Hesse getting at here?

Well, I'm here to clear everything up. The entire book is satire, from stodgy academia to hallucinatory alternate lives. Reading The Glass Bead Game as satire is by far the more enjoyable alternative, doing so is the most charitable reading of the work (as I'll explain shortly), and the number of people who have taken the thing in deadly earnest is frankly disturbing. Sure, it may have changed your life when you read it at 14 with no life experience, but, if it's been a few years, read it again. It's funny. Laugh.

I actually picked this up after reading an opinion piece claiming that the modern always-connected lifestyle had destroyed attention, using as an example the columnist's inability to focus on books she used to enjoy, such as The Glass Bead Game. I'm afraid that the columnist's growing up and acquiring responsibilities probably did worse things for her attention span than her iPhone. But whatever -- with that piece in mind, I approached The Glass Bead Game with some degree of trepidation. But after the first forty pages or so, it became clear that this was only a problem for her because she took the thing seriously. By page 40 Hesse is writing of the hero, Knecht, that "His was the typical evolution of every noble mind; working and growing harmoniously and at the same tempo, the inner self and the outer world approached each other." As a sly parody of the way prodigies are heralded in media, appearing fully-formed, conquering all without effort, that's a hilarious description. As a serious attempt to describe Knecht, it's ridiculous. Worse, it's sloppy writing, effectively saying that Knecht was amazing without explaining how or why.

This is why the most charitable explanation of this book is as satire. It's the only excuse the writer could have for churning out what is brilliant as social commentary, but is dross otherwise. There is tell after tell after tell. The annual public Game being compared in majesty and religious solemnity to a performance of Bach's Passions (p 185). The way Knecht reproaches his friend's minor outburst "wordlessly, merely by a gesture of his finger" and later sends the Meditation Master to calm him down (p 208). The most ridiculously overblown description of a Purcel piece ever (p 293). Knecht's reflecting on literally the entirety of human knowledge and creation "if seen with a truly meditative mind" as "nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created" (p 105). I mean come on.

Oddly, this is the second book I've read about a genius game-player, and it suffers from the same problem as the first one (Iain Banks' The Player Of Games) in that the game being played is so complicated, and the hero is playing it at so high a level, that there is no way the author can actual describe it in text. Banks didn't even try; Hesse gestures weakly at Bach fugues and Leibniz.

Obviously, there is a serious core -- that's the point of satire, after all. Unfortunately the serious core is not very interesting. Knecht is an incredibly boring stand-in for the narrator, perfect at everything, overcoming his enemies with minimal effort. His youthful zeal for Castalia giving way to a chastened respect for the world outside academia and his vain and ill-conceived attempts to bring the two together are, as a life lesson, fairly insipid. Academia must be in dialogue with the world in order for both to flourish. Nobility owes a debt to the society that raised it up. Power corrupts. Yawn.

But, Nicholas, what of nuance? Couldn't Hesse have written in a pompous, overblown way to draw humorous attention to his serious ideas? Could Knecht's time in Castalia have been an actual ideal of Hesse's? I agree that it's possible, but I hope that it wasn't the intent: as a morality piece, it's not only weak, but -- cardinal sin, for writers! -- very boring. As satire, it's too long (his last book -- presumably his editor gave him too much leeway), but creative, interesting, and very funny.

Jun 23, 2019
Names for dust compartments found in portable vacuum cleaner ads on eBay
  • Transparent integration warehouse
  • Dust board
  • Garbage warehouse
Jun 17, 2019
My Goodreads Rating Scale
Not rated: Someone recommended I read this and I didn't like it, or it's such a classic that giving it stars seems stupid, or I didn't feel like it and/or want plausible deniability around option 1.

Five stars: Great. Something I want to re-read.

Four stars: I've stopped giving this rating because it seems like the (rounded) average of almost all books on Goodreads is four stars and I have to be different.

Three stars: I didn't hate it, but probably won't come back to it either.

Two stars: Disappointing.

One star: The Tao of Pooh.
Apr 14, 2019
What insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness

What I liked about this paper initially are the titles of the responses, which include "Insects cannot tell us anything about subjective experience or the origin of consciousness" and "Consciousness explained or consciousness redefined?" Actually, that second one is not so appealing: very unfortunately, the most interesting philosophical discussion on consciousness has spent an awful lot of time focusing on definition, and it seems that there isn't much more to be said. So cries of misdefinition aren't very satisfying unless the chosen definition is really outré, which this one doesn't appear to be.

In fact, the authors dive right in and attack the central issue, which is subjective experience. They argue that insects possess analogous structures to areas of the human midbrain which integrate sensory experiences, that the midbrain in humans is responsible for subjective experience, and that therefore these same structures in insects, having the same function, thus may give rise to subjective experience.

Obviously, subjective experience isn't purely a result of sensory integration, the classical objection being that if it were, that would bestow consciousness on such unlikely things as an automatic swimming pool pump or a thermostat. This is where the paper gets a bit lost, in my opinion. Nematodes, with their central nervous systems, are capable of sensory integration, but are denied subjective experience in this paper because it's not obvious that they are capable of using that integrated information in an "egocentric" way -- for example, to find food when hungry. Selective attention and the ability to create memories, both of which seem somewhat related to egocentric employment of sensory integration areas, are also referenced, but not given much discussion: "because insects clearly have a capacity for selective attention we may safely sidestep this debate for now".

A single paper could hardly be expected to completely address the issue of consciousness, and it's totally reasonable (in fact, it's a good thing) that this one doesn't attempt to. It makes a good case for the localisation of human subjective experience in the midbrain and for analogous structures in insects. It does quite well at avoiding what I've come to think of as "consciousness chauvinism", in which humans are obviously conscious but nonhuman display of what looks like consciousness is obviously just the stimulus-and-response patterns of a simple biological machine. It also makes the overall point that subjective experience is a useful trait for all sorts of creatures, not just humans. So perhaps the question shouldn't be framed as "do insects have subjective experience?" Instead, maybe we should be asking: if insects don't have it, why not?

Oct 1, 2018
Summary of London job advertisements from a recent Hacker News "Who is hiring" Thread
  • Jobs based in London: 19
  • Probably-interesting but likely low-paid startups: 5
  • Fintech: 4
  • Fintech AND blockchain: 1
  • Betting companies / human-misery optimisers: 2
  • Literally sales jobs: 1
  • Other: 6
  • Jobs advertising salary: 2 (both with a huge range)
  • Jobs not advertising salary: 17
Aug 1, 2018
Your choice of coffee chain is a political act in North America

... according to Robert B. Talisse, anyway. Though not, he adds, necessarily a conscious one.

This sounded ridiculous, but of these two American chains, which do you associate with liberals, and which with conservatives?

  • Starbucks
  • Dunkin' Donuts
And of these two chains?
  • Sam's Club
  • Costco

It was surprising to me, as a non-American who has never lived in America, that a) I immediately found that I did have strong conservative / liberal associations for the above chains, and that b) my feelings match those of the average American.

Talisse's point is that these allegiances are deliberately cultivated, and that this kind of tribalism is harmful to democracy.

Jun 26, 2018
Paper: Sporns: The non-random brain: efficiency, economy, and complex dynamics: February 2011

(New direction for this blog.)

“Modules (carefully defined) are important in biological brains for efficiency reasons”.

Older models of learning demonstrated the effects on random networks, but real brain networks are small-world networks (of some varying degree), with highly-interconnected hubs, for various reasons including metabolic cost of long-range connectivity (‘wiring cost’). It is therefore unrealistic to demonstrate learning on random networks.

“Random” has multiple definitions — random networks take one aspect of graph generation (such as number of nodes and average number of edges) and hold it constant while varying another aspect (e.g. the from and to nodes of the edges)

“Module” is overloaded. Modules definitely aren’t repeated neural circuits — there is a lot of variability in the actual wiring. Instead modules may be “characteristic patterns of ‘average connectivity’ that can inform dynamic models of local or large-scale cortical dynamics”.

Highly-connected hubs are association regions?

Dec 10, 2017
Snow in London!

Also featuring: the loneliest duck.


Sep 1, 2017
Youtube now pushes advertisements via Android notification

The Youtube app on my Android device just popped up a notification with a suggested video. Youtube monetises popular videos, like the ones in its suggestions list, by putting adverts at the start of them. So Youtube is promoting its popular advertisers via Android notifications. This is really trashy behaviour — and yet Google, while obviously all about advertising, is generally self-aware enough to realise that people object to having adverts pushed in their faces all the time. So it’s kinda surprising to see it, coming from them.

Jun 26, 2017
A sausage tale

There was once a German woman skilled at making sausages. She was intelligent and beautiful, and everyone wanted to date her, but she had one major flaw: she shared her home with a tame (but fearsome) monster, whom she’d found by the side of a lake one day and had befriended.


No man, not matter how much he loved good German sausages, could manage to live with the monster. And so the woman rejected them all in favour of the single life, because if you can’t handle her beast, you don’t deserve her wurst.

Nov 25, 2016
Lovelace and Babbage in the new British passport

I’ve just received my first British passport and am charmed to see these two computing pioneers in it.

(On the other hand, it’s ridiculous that Lovelace is one of only two women featured in the passport.)

lovelace and babbage, passport

Aug 24, 2016
Game theory in action
I just love this video, in which two gameshow contestants have to choose whether to share the money or to take it all, with the caveat that if both choose to take it all then neither of them get it. (Via Reddit.)