Ugh. I've always hated the word 'blog'. In any case, this is a chronologically ordered selection of my ramblings.

Playing guitar is like sailing

I think this is a somewhat personal simile, but bear with me: Playing the guitar is more like sailing than playing the piano.

As I attempt to pull myself (well, be assisted) out of a health low, I've been looking for activities I enjoy, to fill the gaps in my life previously occupied by "being ill". I want to get back into music theory, as you can see from a post or two back, and I'm also looking at trying to learn a little more rock guitar, something I've been a time-to-time novice at for many years. I don't expect to get good, just enjoy it.

(Why rock guitar? I've never been into classic rock, Led Zeppelin for example leaves me absolutely cold. On the other hand, much of the indie/alt rock I love, like Smashing Pumpkins, seems to build more on that style than others. For me, power chords are a better starting point than more classical chords.)

My previous musical experience is playing the piano. I was pretty good at it, got up to Grade 7 ABRSM, even if I'm extremely rusty now. The piano "interface" is extremely well-defined. You make music by pressing and releasing the keys at the appropriate time, with appropriate force/speed. Slightly fancier than the harpsichord (no volume control), but clinical enough that my entire playing style could be captured in a basic MIDI file.

It's not unlike using a computer, where the interface is through a small set of devices, discrete and digitised.

I learnt to sail the year before the pandemic. My initial assumption was that it was kind of similar. Sitting in the boat, holding the tiller and main sheet (rope) to control the sail, I thought that was the interface. Early on, I was surprised to see the instructor help the boom across during a tack by pushing it with their hand. It seemed like cheating.

Over time, I realised how wrong my initial impression was. I moved from learning in a Bosun, which can happily seat four, to playing around in a single-handed Pico. Weight distribution is hugely important - where you sit, and how you lean, are vitally important. I was taught to roll tack - a fun technique I never really got the hang of - which relies on you moving your weight around very dynamically to tack efficiently. I also learnt about adjusting the vang/kicker, the centreboard when going down-wind, and other miscellaneous adjustments.

In short, the interface with the boat is actually whatever it takes to get it going where you want it to go. It's a wide, subtle and flexible interface.

Electric guitar is like this. It's not just a matter of pressing down some frets and striking some strings. I had not really twigged all the techniques for muting, damping and stopping strings, quite how numerous the variations in how how you strike the strings are, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends and slides, variant tunings, all the various playing techniques, before you get on to different guitar types, knob settings, amps and effects. Let alone "prepared guitar" a la Sonic Youth. With electric guitar, whatever you do is valid to produce the sound you want.

In many ways, I think this "insight" will seem incredibly shallow to most, and is perhaps more of an insight into how I think about things than the things themselves. Despite that, it has had a significant effect on how I'm approaching learning the guitar!

Posted 2024-01-26.


A small addendum on Henry Kissinger

Something I read has mad me think a little more about Henry Kissinger, beyond what I wrote before.

First, a side-story (I don't think it quite classes as an anecdote). Back at uni, I was searching for the university Go society (which I eventually did find, becoming a bit of an avid player for a few years), but instead found the DipSoc: the Diplomacy Society. I'd assumed from the name it was like a Model United Nations, or something, but Diplomacy is like a dice-free version of Risk. Totally deterministic, the way the game plays out comes from sneaking off and chatting with the other players, forming alliances, betraying, etc.

I only played one game, on that evening, before finding Go soc instead, but I did find it fascinating - very practical experience in game theory and negotiations! Anyway, in one round I had a spare army, and thought "might as well use it", and just chucked it in a random direction against a not-particularly-hostile neighbour, expecting them to be defending. They were defending, but after that, they did not trust me and my game suffered. In retrospect, it was an obvious dumb move, burning trust for no good reason.

Anyway, back to the present. I'm a fan of Sam Freedman, and a subscriber to his Substack. A nice bonus is it includes interesting articles by his father, Lawrence Freedman ("Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London"), and recently he'd interviewed Joseph Nye Jr. who, among many other things in his career, coined the term "Soft Power".

Nye defines soft power as having other countries work in your favour because of attraction, as opposed to military or economic force. He's obviously not so naive as to believe that this alone is sufficient - he calls effective use of soft and hard power combined as "Smart Power", which is what he advocates.

I highly recommend the article if you don't know much in the area, but I also think it's a nice piece of vocabulary to put around Kissinger's approach. He was so focused on the use of hard power that he actively destroyed the US's soft power. Nye invented the term "soft power" to describe the US's advantage - that while the USSR held countries behind the Iron Curtain by force, Western European countries were attracted to the US. To burn such a distinctive advantage seems most unwise.

In some ways, it feels like Kissinger's career is my one move in Diplomacy, writ large: I guess I'll take this hard power move here, with no thought of how it affects trust.

Posted 2024-01-19.


Music theory for dummies: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

I've been wanting to get back into trying to understand music theory for a while, and have finally taken the opportunity to spend ten minutes to dig into something that's been on the back of my mind for a long time: Why is it I like the tune to Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel so much?

I guess I only think about this for a small fraction of the year, with it being a Christmas song. Lyrically, it's probably a bit of a political mess right now, but I'm focussing on the melody.

The obvious answer is "Almost every Christmas carol is in a jolly major key, and this hymn is clearly something more minor", but it sounds a little funkier than simply being in a minor key. I took a look at the score.

Looked at through the lens of classical music theory, it's pretty close to a minor key - perhaps fitting into what's allowed by a melodic minor scale. The minor-ness is announced right at the start, with the initial interval going from 1 to a flattened 3. So far, so minor.

What is interesting, though, is that some way into the tune we find out that the sevenths are not raised. This is not the harmonic minor. Maybe we can squint and call it the melodic minor? (If I play the piece with raised sevenths, making it a conventional minor scale, it's much less interesting.)

However, this isn't the only way to look at it. Not everything has to be tonal major/minor. The alternative is to realise that the melody is played with the notes of the major scale, only centred on the third note of the major scale. Or, in the framework of musical modes, it's in the Aeolian mode (which I now discover is also known as the natural minor!).

So, there we go. I think I like the way it's in the Aeloian mode, and that's nice and unusual in the world of cheerful Christmas songs.

Posted 2024-01-15.


Momentum and energy in GCSE-level physics

Some things are obvious, yet never explicitly discussed. When it comes to GCSE physics, it's that there's some interesting relationship between momentum and energy. Something is clearly going on here. Momentum is mv, energy is 1/2 mv^2, energy looks like some kind of integral of momentum or something, yet we never discussed this at GCSE or A-level. Maybe it's broken dug into if you go beyond A-levels, but that where my Newtonian physics knowledge tops out, leaving it as something of a mystery.

Mind you, GCSE and A-level physics don't really try to explain anything (or at least they didn't for us) - the formulae for momentum and kinetic energy were given, and that was it. No justification for why they'd be logical quantities to care about.

As we'd concentrate on solving physics problems through the conservation of both momentum and energy, it took me quite a while to realise that Newton's laws of motion are just in terms of momentum, not energy. Mechanics problems can be solved without direct reference to energy!

I find this very interesting as reaching the same solutions with or without explicit use of conservation of energy implies that conservation of energy in mechanics is not so much an axiomatic law in itself as something that derives from how Newton's laws work. I suspect this is the kind of thing Emmy Noether knew all about, although I've never built up the physics maths to actually understand Noether's theorem.

It does rather feel like momentum does deserve primacy in mechanical physics. A simple quantity, linear in how heavy the object is, and how quickly it's moving. It transforms sensibly under reference frame, unlike kinetic energy, with that dodgy velocity-squared term.

This is odd, because in other areas of physics, energy is clearly king. Chemical energy, thermal energy, electrical energy. No-one talks about momentum in those situations. Why this is seems a little deeper than I can fathom.

Still, solving mechanical problems with forces and momentum alone, and no reference to energy, is a fun change of mindset compared to my A-level physics. I'm pretty sure it's the kind of thing anyone who's ever written a physics simulation will know inside out, but I'm happy to reinvent from scratch.

For example, I'd usually treat a ball bouncing elastically on a surface as a conservation of energy, flipping the velocity component perpendicular to the surface. Instead, we can create a strong repulsive conservative field on the surface to repel the ball. As the ball passes through the field, it loses its velocity component perpendicular to the field (as that's how we've set the force up), until it stops. And then, thanks to time symmetry (given an appropriate field), it'll accelerate up to the same speed as it entered, when it leaves the field. More complex problems can be analysed similarly.

Given that we can solve these problems without reference to "energy", but also that the concept of "energy" tends to make solving the problems simpler, "energy" clearly encapsulates some idea, but we still haven't really articulated what it is. What is it?

We can start with momentum. An object can gain momentum M if subjected to a uniform force F for t seconds, where M = Ft. So momentum is force integrated over time.

On the other hand, a uniform force F working on a mass m leads to a uniform acceleration of a, and with v = at, the distance travelled (from a standing start) at time t will be 1/2 a t^2 = 1/2 v^2 / a = 1/2 m v^2 / F. Put another way, if s is the distance travelled, energy E = Fs. Energy is force over distance and... oh, I appear to have re-derived the unexplained-at-GCSE/A-level "work is force times distance".

I'm not quite sure what this means, but momentum and energy appear to be the time and space versions of the same thing. We can see this with dimensional analysis - momentum in Ns and energy in Nm. The fact that energy is a space integral of force means that we can derive a (scalar) energy field over space, from an appropriately conservative force. I assume that, by symmetry, an appropriate force field can be integrated over time to give a field of momentum change.

When I look beyond A-level, to one of the few pieces or more advances physics I've studied since, special relativity, I see that momentum and energy are unified there, too. "Momenergy" is a 4-vector where the spatial dimensions are momentum and the time dimension is energy. When I think about this, it reveals something I'd missed: Momentum is a space-y, vector-y value, and energy is scalar. I'd thought of momentum as a time integral and energy as a space integral. What gives?

As we integrate force in both time (for momentum) and space (for energy), we can maybe view force as a derivative in time and space. Integrating over time leaves just the space component for momentum, while integrating over space leaves the time component for energy. The pair are related, but not quite as I thought.

At the end of all this stumbling around in the dark, I do rather wish that I'd done physics to a higher level. I don't think that it necessarily leads to a magical epihany on the connection between momentum and energy (with perhaps the exception of if you really understand relatvity!), but at least it would provide a larger toolbox with which to explore.

(Post started on 2024-01-07 - I'm a slow writer/editor these days!)

Posted 2024-01-15.


What works in interactive fiction?

From time to time I'll get the urge to play some "interactive fiction" - known back in the day as text adventures, with the big names being Infocom and (in the UK) Magnetic Scrolls. I recently had that feeling. Reading up on a bunch of old ZX Spectrum computer games, I wanted to play something from that era. Level 9 had a reputation as a major publisher during that period, so I thought I'd try one of theirs.

I thought I'd try the classic Gnome Ranger. I fired it up, explored for a little bit, quite enjoying the start, and then got solidly stuck. I got the sense that this wasn't for me, and wasn't heavily invested in it, so rather than persevere I took a look at a walkthrough. The given solution left me glad that hadn't tried to put the effort in to find it.

This lead me to thinking about what I like in text adventures, and what doesn't work for me, since the difference seems incredibly stark.

I think the key concept is that a text adventure needs to be "goal-oriented": There's something you're trying to achieve, and the actions you take should be relevant to achieving that goal. At the simplest level, games like Advent and The Guild of Thieves have you collecting treasure: a simple, obvious goal. Others, like Christminster, Trinity and Jinxster (all of which I highly rate) have some kind of higher goal, and your efforts are directed by that. Both The Pawn and Gnome Ranger seem to dump you in a landscape to wander around, trying unmotivated things until something happens.

The critically-acclaimed game Curses is also a little of the "wander around, trying things" persuasion, but it demonstrates another aspect Gnome Ranger lacks: a structure to help you understand if you're on-track. In Curses, you might come across an interesting situation, play around with it, and get the gist of whether you're attempting what was intended, and whether it's helpful. Gnome Ranger leaves you wondering, trying all the actions you can think of to provoke some reaction, rather than progress logically.

The third thing that made Gnome Ranger not for me were the non-player characters (NPCs). Pretending there are other sentient beings in a game is tough, doing it right is hard, and the illusion is easily broken. So, nobody really does it right. In practice, NPCs are automata that you can get information from, that you can do things to, or can do things to you. Their purpose is highly ambiguous; whereas it's pretty clear what a lamp is for, what are you supposed to do with a nymph? Oh, and they have an annoying habit of wandering off, because aimless wandering is apparently realism.

Inevitably, though, in an NPC-heavy game, you'll end up treating NPCs as your personal robots. There'll be some command of the form "walrus, n, n, pull lever, e, get gem, w, s, s, give gem to me", which I feel is both a soul-less puzzle and an excellent way to break any suspension of disbelief you might have managed. In short, NPC-heavy games leave me cold: they weaken the focus, weaken the atmosphere, and encourage lazy puzzles.

NPCs aren't inherently a disaster, they just need to be carefully managed. Non-sentient, or at least non-verbal NPCs can have a clear purpose, and avoid the complexities of following commands or answering questions. A magpie that steals shiny things can form the basis for a puzzle with no complications. Well-defined roles can also constrain expectations and signal plot. Bar staff or ticket inspectors, focused on their job and nothing more, can work well. Open-endedness is a problem.

So, there we go, we now have Simon's three rules for building good interactive fiction: Ensure the player is motivated by an overall goal, provide logical puzzles that give clear feedback along the way, and ensure your NPCs are well-defined.

Posted 2024-01-06.


Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger is dead. This has lead me to have another think about why I disliked him so much. I'm writing my thoughts down in an attempt to coordinate them.

I want to avoid the simplistic approach of military stuff kills a lot of people, he made that happen, he's bad. In the middle of the Cold War, things were a bit more complicated, and I don't have the analytical powers to look at history and determine what would have happened otherwise.

I wish I had. If I could know the outcomes of a non-Kissinger approach, I could have much stronger convictions of my belief. Otherwise, all I can do is criticise the overall approach, the internal logic, and the apparent effectiveness.

And I'm not a real historian. My half-assed analysis may actually be totally wrong. I guess if I write it down people can tell me where the biggest mistakes are.

Kissinger apparently didn't like the label of "Realpolitik". However, from his actions it's clear that in the fight against communism he either didn't actually value liberal democracy, or took such a "the ends justify the means" approach to render it meaningless.

He would support authoritarians and despots in order to undermine communists. This had a number of problems. It didn't advance the cause of liberal democrary, only do its best to stay communism. It meant that several horrible regimes could be seen as being due to, and supported by the US. It destroyed trust, and made it look like the US didn't really stand for anything. It probably made communism look that bit more attactive for a small, poor country, if the alternative was a fascist puppet government installed by the US.

In short, there are people who pride themselvess on making difficult decisions, and Kissinger was one of those. "Difficult decisions" really mean decisions that's going to hurt someone (generally not the decider) and likely be unpopular.

The thing about making difficult decisions, is they still need to be good decisions. If you make difficult, bad decisions, you're just hurting people. Some people seem to think difficult decisions have intrinsic value. They don't. They're only good if they're good.

Strategically, they don't look great. If you want to keep the US democratic via some kind of domino theory, having a bunch of authoritarians that you support and a bunch of countries thinking you'll bomb or coup them on the thinnest pre-text is probably not a great place to be.

Tactically? Well, despite all the bombing in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, they lost that war. And Cambodia got Khmer Rouge. Maybe things would look worse in an alternate timeline, but that looks pretty unsuccessful.

The world is not a scientific experiment, we can't know how it'd have gone otherwise. Yet despite the failures, despite supporting evil regimes coming back to bite, the conviction remained that killing lots of people is the best way forward.

In some ways, he was an incredibly Nixon advisor. Watergate was a stupid, bad idea, but it was sneaky and tricky, so they did it anyway. Secretly recording conversations in the White House? Might well come back to bite him, but it's sneaky, so let's do it.

Kissinger was so enthralled with the idea of doing what was necessary, that he did the unnecessary. And millions died.

Posted 2023-12-01.


Ramblings on the philosophy of mathematics

Some time ago I read a somewhat informal paper that was basically an ode to equivalence classes. Equivalence classes, isomorphisms, homeomorphisms and similar abound. A lot of maths is going "this thing is shaped like this other thing".

Coming at it another way, maths is about the study of interesting patterns and structures. The interesting ones are the ones that keep cropping up. While you might define what a group is through a set of axioms, a group is really the name given to a set of patterns that kept occurring, and the generalisation of them.

This is all both anti-Bourbakist and in tune with the way maths really operates. Solvable groups pre-existed groups as Galois invented them for Galois theory, to say nothing of how people managed arithmetic for millennia before it was axiomatised.

Switching over to computer science for a moment, this is pretty much what's at the root of what's wrong with almost every monad tutorial. The stereotypical tutorial tries to explain what a monad is, in its generality, first. It would be so much more sensible to explain how you might want to build combinators to handle list comprehensions, state readers and writers, errors, I/O etc., and then point out how they all follow the same pattern, and that pattern is what a monad is, and how it can then be formalised.

Coming back to the realm of maths, the fact that these are repeating patterns that occur in different contexts mean that there's no single, true formalisation. You can build the natural numbers from set theory, or zero and a successor function, or lambda calculus terms, or whatever. They're all equivalent, and none is innately better.

Getting more metaphysical, if you see a system, you might ask what it's embedded in. If you can't tell from the inside, it's pretty much embedded in all the possibilities, and none. Putting it another way, engaging with a question that worries some people far more than it's worth thinking about (one generation via The Matrix, another via AGI over-analysis): The question "Are we all in a simulation?" is essentially meaningless, another Gödellian "undecidable inside the system" question.

I rather like maths giving me an excuse to not engage with such questions. I get to spend more time thinking about the lovely interesting patterns.

Posted 2023-11-23.


The Internet's Memory and Nix's Logo

Sometimes, the longevity of the Internet's memory (or lack thereof). I have a soft spot for the Nix logo, and occasionally see it crop up in weirdly hacked-up ways, which'll send me down memory lane.

The Internet will very clearly tell you the logo was designed by Tim Cuthbertson. What the internet isn't so good at is telling you is that I designed the previous iteration of the snowflake (originally for the Haskell logo competition - they rather nicely repurposed it).

Old logo (my design) on left, new logo on right

You can piece this together, from the Haskell wiki, the FAQ and a Nix blog entry from 2009, but it's not particularly obvious.

I do think it's pretty fair to simply credit the new logo to Tim Cuthbertson - it's clearly a significant iteration (and improvement!) on the original, and I wouldn't want to muddy the waters around a key piece of IP of a major project. What does surprise me, though, is just the way that the Internet as a whole degrades non-current information. I'd assumed that if I ever wanted to assert "I originated the Nix lambda-snowflake logo", that this wouldn't be hard to prove, and yet it's really not obvious any more!

Posted 2023-11-17.


Game review: Iconoclasts

Some time ago, I bought Iconoclasts for the Switch off the back of some positive reviews. I never got around to playing it, although my kids did, and seemed to enjoy it. I finally got around to playing it, and I really didn't like it. I completed it, mostly because I wasn't going to let this annoyance get the better of me.

The thing that really stood out to me at the start was the absolutely dire writing. Everything from poor word choice through unclear dialogue through to making the characters 2D cutouts (perhaps appropriate for a 2D platformer? :p). The characters are awful and the plot is very ropey - although it's not entirely clear to me if this derives from the writing, or is independently bad.

The pixel art is also awful. I remember a really good '90s pixel artist saying that the point of their work was to "hide the pixels", and put in more than was really possible with the technology. This game, attempting retro without properly understanding it, takes the opposite approach, of showing off the pixels, not only making them big, but badly used. I don't know if they actually used a limited colour palette, but the feeling is of using many colours, but mostly bad ones. The magenta that runs throughout brings back the worst of '90s platforming, not the best.

These things could be perhaps forgiven if it weren't for the gameplay. This grates at so many different levels. At the level of the simplest mechanics, it's fiddly: You get a spanner with multiple upgrades that can be used to wrench, hit, spin and hang from, three guns with two modes, plus an electrified version of most of the above, and can jump on enemies in two different ways. Then you need to match the specific attack out of all the above combinations against the specific enemy. Or the enemy might just be indestructable.

The movement mechanics are deliberately restricted to create non-sensical puzzles: While your character can do all kinds of jumps and climbing onto ledges, they can't simply clamber onto a platform about a metre high. This weird inability is the backbone of almost all the puzzles in the game.

Moving onto level design, the game has decided that the key element of Metroidvanias to reproduce is "tedium". I kept finding areas to explore that lead to... nothing yet. I was clearly supposed to come back later, tediously recrossing existing areas. It didn't feel so much like the levels unlocking and becoming different with new powers, as just boring back-and-forth make-work.

And then bosses are even worse. They're overly-cluttered, and multi-staged. They're an exercise in trying out the various weapons combinations and trying to learn how to dodge attacks (if they can reasonably be dodged), while trying to keep up caring enough to not just fatalistically die repeatedly or walk away from the game. Done well, these bosses would be challenging and interesting, as it is, they're ugly, messy, tedious, an attack on the senses and intellect.

The bosses are usually preceeded by incredibly slow, and obviously really badly written cut-scenes. Did I mention how annoying the monospace fonts with occasional ALL CAPS, badly scaled letters and shaky letters are? They really take the dialogue down to an even lower level. I started to think that the cut scense were punishment for dying, until far too close to the end I found the undocumented way to skip them (the button that usually brings up the map etc. can be used to skip).

I think the problem with many modern platformers is that they don't know how to deal with death. '90s console platformers gave you limited lives before taking you all the way back to the start. You were expected to learn the game well enough to complete it in a few hours, once you were good at it. In contrast, modern games expect save points and plenty of gameplay from end-to-end. Death should be enough of a roadblock to stop you just hammering each boss and lucking through it.

The trend seems to be to make the bosses harder, particularly by making them less obvious in how to proceed, so you keep throwing deaths at it until you find the weak point. And, quite frankly, this isn't as fun.

I dunno, maybe I just played the wrong games in the '80s and '90s. I just like Sonic. It wasn't particularly hard, but it was enjoyable and rewarding. Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion, QuackShot and Aladdin all just looked really good and played really well, and didn't associate platformers with blocky misery in the guise of fun. I tried NES Mega Man on an emulator, and why that's what people want to base their retro games on, I don't know. Is it too mjuch to ask to have something that's fun and looks good?

As I was saying, Iconoclasts doesn't really know how to deal with death. Beyond making boss fights annoying, it's looking for a way to punish you for dying. The mechanism it's found is to have a set of "tweaks", power-ups that break as you take damage, that don't get reset on death. Unfortunately, in order to prevent the game putting you into a downward spiral, the game plays fine without tweaks, so all the effort put in around them seems utterly unnecessary.

Between tweak crafting, and all these power-ups and attempted plot points, it feels a little bit like it's trying to pull in elements of RPGs or something. Certainly you spend much of the game going around as a "party", despite this being indistinguishable from being on your own from a gameplay point of view. The developer clearly wanted to build something grand, but why not just... good?

Sometimes it's really not clear if a puzzle needs to be completed to progress the game, or just get more raw material for tweaks. The puzzles are a mixture of fiddly and logic-y, and furthermore it's sometimes not clear which it is, so you don't know if you're failing because you're taking the wrong approach, or it's just annoying. It's a hard-to-read game. You might claim it rewards experimentation, but there are many games that do so much better, through well-structured subtle hints and feedback loops.

Overall, the design is largely unoriginal in ways that are cliched for retro platformers (cheesy monospace font dialogue, jumping on enemies), with bits of originality that are just plain bad (your character can climb onto a ledge they're hanging off, but can't actually clamber up three feet, purely to set up the game's puzzles). It is just soooo frustrating that after so many decades of 2D platformer design we still get games like this.

It's a sprawling game of considerable complexity. There's clearly been a huge amount of effort put into it. The plot is ambitious, even if the overarching "kill your gods" message is about as unsubtle as is possible. The way that you literally smash statues for tweak energy is quite funny in blatancy. The unlikeable characters (both "good" and "bad") suffer pleasingly, even if there's an unfortunately happy ending. There's sufficient content that I was really getting bored waiting for the end of the game (a sinking feeling with every extra boss).

Yet, and I think I've made this pretty clear, for all the effort that was put into this game, it's not fun. There were '90s EGA platformers that were significantly more fun. I tried Hollow Knight, and I was sufficiently impatient at the time to bounce off it, but I could see what it was trying to achieve, and it did it well. This does not.

Why? It appears to be a single-developer indie project. The thing about one person doing the art, music, game logic, level design, script etc. is that either it's a modern masterpiece, showing off genius, or it's just pretty darn mediocre in most areas, backed by an overinvested dev and people fawning over the idea and ignoring the reality. Not as smug as Fez but some similar vibes.

I appreciate Hollow Knight. I really enjoyed Super Meat Boy, even though I didn't get very far. These are games that have thought carefully about playability, possibly even fun. Iconoclasts, on the other hand, is simply a vast monument to mediocrity.

Posted 2023-11-14.


FIR and IIR filters

Almost every explanation of FIR and IIR filters has not worked for me. I have a reasonable background in maths, but the maths used by mathematicians rather than physicists or engineers. This means I can deal with complex numbers, and more of less Fourier analysis, but anything to do with Laplace makes me go cross-eyed. Somehow, every explanation of FIR and IIR, being framed for physicists or engineers, goes over my head. So, I've tried to reframe it in terms I understand.

This document is my attempt at explanation.

What are these things?

Given a sequence X_n, we can make a FIR filter of it, Y_n, by calculating it as follows:

Y_n = a_0 * X_n + a_1 * X_n-1 + a_2 * X_n-2 + ...

for some finite number of terms.

It's a finite impulse response filter, because if you put a sequence with a finite number of non-zero elements in, you get a finite number of non-zeros out.

An IIR, on the other hand, looks like this:

Y_n = a_0 * X_n + a_1 * X_n-1 + a_2 * X_n-2 + ... + b_1 * Y_n-1 + b_2 * Y_n-2 + ...

Again, with a finite number of terms.

Because of the feedback, a finite impulse in can lead to an infinite response out. They tend to make better filters.

This looks very discrete

Yes. While the underlying systems are usually continuous, when dealt with as digital filters, they're discrete, and to avoid the pain of "How does this discretise?", I'm modelling it as a discrete system.

These filters are linear

We'll deal with IIR filters, treating FIR as a subset of IIR.

Let's say we have the same filter being applied to seqeuences X1 and X2, producing Y1 and Y2:

Y1_n = a_0 * X1_n + a_1 * X1_n-1 + a_2 * X1_n-2 + ... + b_1 * Y1_n-1 + b_2 * Y1_n-2 + ...

Y2_n = a_0 * X2_n + a_1 * X2_n-1 + a_2 * X2_n-2 + ... + b_1 * Y2_n-1 + b_2 * Y2_n-2 + ...

What would happen if, instead, we applied the filter to the element-wise sum of X1 + X2 (call it Z)?

Z_n = a_0 * (X1_n + X2_n) + a_1 * (X1_n-1 + X2_n-1) + a_2 * (X1_n-2 + X2_n-2) + ...
    + b_1 * Z_n-1 + b_2 * Z_n-2 + ...

Z_n = a_0 * X1_n + a_1 * X1_n-1 + a_2 * X1_n-2 + ...
    + a_0 * X2_n + a_1 * X2_n-1 + a_2 * X2_n-2 + ...
    + b_1 * Z_n-1 + b_2 * Z_n-2 + ...

I will now do what feels like some slightly dodgy induction. If we start calculating our sequences at index 0, we have to find some values for index i, where i < 0. We'll assume they're zero. This gives us Z_i = Y1_i + Y2_i for i < 0. Inductively, if we assume Z_m = Y1_m + Y2_m for m < n:

Z_n = a_0 * X1_n + a_1 * X1_n-1 + a_2 * X1_n-2 + ...
    + a_0 * X2_n + a_1 * X2_n-1 + a_2 * X2_n-2 + ...
    + b_1 * Z_n-1 + b_2 * Z_n-2 + ...

    = a_0 * X1_n + a_1 * X1_n-1 + a_2 * X1_n-2 + ...
    + a_0 * X2_n + a_1 * X2_n-1 + a_2 * X2_n-2 + ...
    + b_1 * (Y1_n-1 + Y2_n-1) + b_2 * (Y1_n-2 + Y2_n-2) + ...

    = a_0 * X1_n + a_1 * X1_n-1 + a_2 * X1_n-2 + ...
    + b_1 * Y1_n-1 + b_2 * Y1_n-2 + ...
    + a_0 * X2_n + a_1 * X2_n-1 + a_2 * X2_n-2 + ...
    + b_1 * Y2_n-1 + b_2 * Y2_n-2 + ...

    = Y1_n + Y2_n

Hence, by induction, Z_n = Y1_n + Y2_n. It's linear!

This means that, for any input, to get the output of the filter, we can break the input down into convenient signals, pass them through the filter, and sum the results together.

Convienient signals like... sine waves. If we know how the filter reacts to sine waves, we know everything about it. (Thanks, Fourier!)

Filter response to a sine

For our purposes, it's easiest to treat sine/cosine as the real part of a complex exponenential. Sorry, it just is. Complex addition is just a lot easier than dealing with a bunch of trig identities.

I'm now going to start indexing the sequence with t (for time) as i is going to be the square root of minus one.

Assume the sequence elements X_t are samples at frequency s of a cosine of frequency f. Then X_t = Re (e^(i 2 pi t f / s)). Let's set w = 2 pi f / s for simplicity (w is my ASCII approximation to omega, angular velocity).

Then

Y_n = a_0 * Re(e^(iwn)) + a_1 * Re(e^(iw(n-1))) + a_2 * Re(e^(iw(n-2))) + ...
    + b_1 * Y_n-1 + b_2 * Y_n-2 + ...

and quite frankly we can (assuming the as and bs are real) just drop the "Re" operators and just take the real component of Y as we need it, to make our lives easier:

Y_n = a_0 * e^(iwn) + a_1 * e^(iw(n-1)) + a_2 * e^(iw(n-2)) + ...
    + b_1 * Y_n-1 + b_2 * Y_n-2 + ...

Next, we're going to do that dodgy thing where we assume the form of a solution, and then check it works. Specifically, we'll assume Y_n = y * e^(iwn), where y is some complex (not necessarily real) number:

y * e^(iwn) = a_0 * e^(iwn) + a_1 * e^(iw(n-1)) + a_2 * e^(iw(n-2)) + ...
            + b_1 * y * e^(iw(n - 1)) + b_2 * y * e^(iw(n-2)) + ...

Let's divide everything by e^(iwn):

y = a_0 + a1 * e^(-iw) + a2 * (e^(-iw))^2 + ...
  + b_1 * y * e^(-iw) + b_2 * y * (e^(-iw))^2 + ...

Solving for y, we get:

y = (a_0 + a1 * e^(-iw) + a2 * (e^(-iw))^2 + ...)
   / (1 - (b_1 * e^(-iw) + b_2 * (e^(-iw))^2 + ...))

Interpretation

The value of y as w varies is the frequency response of the filter. It turns out the frequency response is simply a rational polynomial of e^(-iw).

What you usually care about is the magnitude of y, which gives the amplification of that frequency, while the argument of y is the phase shift that the filter gives to that signal.

The value of w usually lies in the range between 0 (DC signal) and pi (the Nyquist frequency for that sampling rate). You can squint and think of e^(-iw) as providing a bit of distortion on a linear interpolation of w between 1 and -1 (most distorted at the highest and lowest frequencies).

All the fancy filter designs are really about choosing a polynomial that gives the shape of frequency response (and phase, for those that care) curve that people want.

The "poles" of filter design are the points at which the denominator goes to zero, creating infinite amplification. Physically, that's resonance, and you probably don't want a pole inside the range of inputs you expect, unless you really, really want a pole there (when what you're building is called an "oscillator :).

Zeroes are when the numerator goes to zero, and that frequency is not passed through at all.

Posted 2023-11-06.


Michael Lewis talks about Sam Bankman-Fried

A friend had a spare ticket, so the evening before yesterday I heard Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker, Flash Boys) talk about Sam Bankman-Fried and the FTX crypto exchange disaster. I thought I'd post on Mastodon about it, but the words ran away a little, and now I have a blog post.

I went into it a little suspicious, since the book's had some not-great reviews, mostly focused on technical inaccuracies.

One thing that came across quickly is that Lewis's focus is on characters, and maybe a bit of stories. Deep technical details are way down the list. OTOH, he spent more than a year with SBF, so I expect his character insights to be pretty solid.

While Lewis was a literal investment bank bond salesman in the 1980s, it was surprising quite how out of touch he was with modern, technical Wall Street, particularly given Flash Boys. He talked about the "obscure" HFT companies you probably haven't heard of, and the entire list was either places it was suggested I interview at, or places I have friends at (I've never worked in HFT - feels too zero-sum).

Moving on to the weird aptitudes and behaviours of SBF, and it was quite "You don't hang out much with maths olympiad types, do you?". To be fair, SBF's social behaviour seemed extreme even by those standards. It was like he couldn't see the point of masking-style behaviour, even though most bright aspie types get that working out how to work effectively with others helps you get what you want.

Yet somehow this failure to comprehend effective interaction is made into a huge selling point. All his flaws are treated like, "wow, so unique". I remember the VC page that stayed up far too long after the FTX collapse talking about basically how impressed they were with his crappy attitude to risk management and self-centredness.

As Lewis spent a year with Bankman-Fried, you'd have expected him to have a pretty good read on him, but if he's hugely abnormal socially, does that cause an issue? Amusingly, it looks like Lewis believes he understands SBF because he's seen so much dishonest behaviour from him.

Let me break that apart a bit: What Lewis sees is a person who just does not think about what other people think. So, for example, during his external-facing work at FTX he's learnt that "people like you more if you say yes", so he just spends those meetings agreeing with everyone, even if he doesn't actually agree. In other cases, his partners would basically say "You're not going to run this algo unless we're around, right?", he'd agree, and then run it when they're not around. It's like he doesn't understand the value of being truthful to people, vs. saying whatever's expedient and assuming that everyone else has the memory of a goldfish.

Yet he's doing all this blatantly in front of Lewis, not hiding it. The same attitude of not modelling others' thoughts about his honesty applies to Lewis, so he doesn't have the mental framework to hide what he's doing from Lewis. It's all very On Bullshit - SBF is not so much a stragetic liar as like the toddler who'll tactically say whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, with no regards to the future. He's not trying to bend the truth, he just doesn't care about it.

Another factor that sounds like it would make Lewis's job harder is that SBF doesn't do facial feedback. For example, he wouldn't smile at a joke. Lewis said SBF resented having to perform these basic social behaviours, but when he started dealing with more people he actually started practising expressions in a mirror. This prompted a question from the talk's host about whether SBF felt emotions like other people did, and... is this where we are, still?! "Do autistic spectrum people have emotions?", really?

Anyway, the question of whether Lewis's assessment of SBF is credible is interesting because there are wildly differing opinions of Sam's motivations, and if Michael Lewis has an opinion based on a lot of personal exposure... is it right? Lewis thinks that Bankman-Fried's thing about effective altruism is genuine (while so many others think of it as a front for self-enrichment).

I think this is roughly based off SBF not having the subtlety to consistently lie about such a thing, but also because SBF doesn't really need money. There's been a fair amount of discussion of his weird lifestyle, but it seems to come down to him having an insane amount of money and nothing much to do with it, because he lives in his head and doesn't care much for material goods. Which I guess is consistent with the "doing it for effective altruism" story.

One thing that wasn't covered is how weird EA has become. Starting with "Maybe it makes more sense to earn a shedload of money and give it to help prevent schistosomiasis than volunteer in an animal sanctuary?" and getting to "We must spend millions upon millions defending against a hypothetical AI uprising!" is quite the ride.

I get the impression that Michael Lewis's view of "Did Sam Bankman-Fried commit fraud?" runs along similar lines to how SBF approached honesty: SBF didn't set out to commit fraud, he just didn't see the point in controls, didn't care about the laws, and just did whatever he liked. It's almost not even negligence, because that would imply that SBF understood he should have cared. It's like the concept of "bullshit", but for financial regulation compliance and controls.

There was just so much that Bankman-Fried didn't see the point of, and didn't do. He inherited a dislike of org charts from Jane Street (where a friend of mine is finding the aforementioned lack of clear organisational structure frustrating), leading to a very thorough tyranny of structurelessness at FTX. One of the weirdest things from the talk was finding out that the only actual org chart that exists was compiled secretly by the company therapist, as a way to make sense of the mess.

All this disorganisation and lack of controls leads to the question: Where were the adults in the room? Sam didn't believe in "old people", so they didn't have them. The need for experience is something that needs experience to realise! How did he get away with calling the shots like that? It looks like all the investors had fear of missing out, and FOMO is one of the driving factors behind venture capitalists behaviour, just like with Theranos. Don't ask too many questions. It's other people's money, anyway.

This in turn leads to another question that wasn't asked that evening: Who's responsible? He couldn't become a multi-billionaire in a year without leverage - people gave him money. Again, looks like those VCs that enabled the lack of controls. My suspicion is that the same feeling of "he's a character" that lead to Michael Lewis to start following SBF around for a year before FTX collapsed was also what drove the VCs to fund him. "Throw money at unusual people" is a substitute for "Throw money at competent and effective people", I guess.

One of Lewis's final thoughts seemed particularly poignant to me: Sam Bankman-Fried judged things by outcome rather than by intent. Against that background, for everything he's done, he's damaged the things he cares about and helped the things he dislikes. Ow.

Michael Lewis was entertainingly feisty. There were some good, interesting, and even funny audience questions. It was a fun, and even a little informative, evening.

Posted 2023-10-11.


My first attempt at 3d printing

I do not have a 3d printer. What I did was submit some files to a 3d printing service, and get the results back.

It all started with wanting to tidy up my study. I found an unfinished "Revell Attack Fortress SDF I" Japanese robot model kit from the late '80s or early '90s. Clearly the way to tidy this up is to finish constructing it. Unfortunately, it was missing one piece. What to do? Also clearly I needed to use 3d printing to reconstruct the missing piece and finish the model.

As documented on Mastodon, my first attempts to reconstruct the model were with photogrammetry via Meshroom. This was incredibly cool tech. and very fun to use, but the result was something that looked really good when textured that was a blobby mess geometrically. Plan B was to measure the thing carefully and mock it up in OpenSCAD. This worked a lot better, even if OpenSCAD is inexplicably slow to "render" the constructive solid geometry models.

Around the same time, I was trying to put my old Z80-based CP/M-running SBC in a case. I'm pretty consistently rubbish with these projects, the end result looking hideously bodged, but I thought... maybe I can do better with the front panel this time? If I can 3d print the mounts for the various connectors etc., it might look ok for once. So, that's what I set about doing, again in OpenSCAD.

All this came in just under teh minimum order size for the company I was looking at using, so I rounded out the order with a model of the Cobra Mk III (from Elite) as a keyring fob, mostly as an excuse to exercise a different material.

I used SGD 3D, with SLA for the model parts and keychain ("Rigid Resin 4000" and "Flexible Resin" respectively), and SLS ("Nylon PA12 GF") for the front-panel components. I was really interested to try something other than the FDM printing with PLA we have at work, that I wouldn't trust for this level of detail.

Three weeks later, they shipped me my printed parts.

The SLA parts have support structures, so it was time to get clipping. I started with the flexible resin key fob. Yep, it's pretty flexible, and transparent. For the right applications it'd be pretty cool.

On the upper side there's a lot of detail visible - the resin printer approach works really well for that. On the other side, the detail is rather marred by those supports.

Moving on to the model pieces, I got further practice at clipping supports. This material is pretty brittle. Fine for detailed models, but not so good for mechanical things. The technology is capable of really fine detail, so it's a bit frustrating that they printed it the other way up to my request and at an angle, so that the surface that should have been flat was covered with bumps from the support points and banded from the lack of plane alignment. A couple of the holes, that I believe were close to but not below minimum size needed a bit of manual poking.

I bodged on a couple of coats of paint (to do this correctly you should be using more layers of thinned paint, but I'm very lazy), which actually seemed to emphasise the flaws in the printing, but the difference is minimal at any distance, even if you can spot it close-up.

Have a picture of the finished model. Yes, a 12-year-old could do better. I don't have the patience or skills of a good 12-year-old. :p Still, It's Done.

The SLS'd nylon, on the other hand, was pretty much exactly what I wanted. No supports, no obvious artefacts (although I think one of the faces was just on the edge of warping), and a firm yet flexible material that is useful for more than just pure aesthetics. The OpenSCAD designs fitted the breakout boards nicely. I think it's a process I'd want to use again, although I'm not sure whether to go with MJF (multi-jet fusion) or SLS again next time.

Posted 2023-10-08.


Raft, done weirdly

From time to time I'll think about consensus protocols, and then slowly relearn how Raft works. I've never found the Raft paper to be particularly helpful - it focuses on how Raft should work, rather than how it doesn't fail to work. This is not entirely fair, in that it does describe the properties that remain true, and then show how they remain invariant through the various operations.

What I end up doing is reconstructing a mental model in my head that's invariant-first, and going from there. What I should do, and what I'm finally doing this time, is writing this model down so that I can shortcut to the important bit when I forget. Maybe it'll be helpful to someone else?

The goal in my version of Raft is to build a transaction log. You ask the system to append an item to the log, and if you get a "done" back you can be sure the transaction you've just submitted will be in the log, in that position, from here on out.

In my version of Raft you're given an unreliable computer that can reset at any time (losing all its state), a ticket machine and a semi-reliable storage mechanism. I hope "a computer that can reset at any time, losing all state" is understandable and relatable. The ticket machine is also pretty straightforward: Every time you call it, you get the next number. It returns numbers in an increasing order, and never returns the same number twice. The memory is just a little bit more complicated.

The memory system runs something like this: It stores a set, and has a read and a write operation. If you write and it returns before your unreliable computer explodes, you have a complete write, and it's durable - any time you read, you can get the value back. If it explodes, you'll have an incomplete write - when you read, you'll get the value back non-deterministically. To simplify, when you read and get a value back, you can't be sure if it's part of a complete write or not, but you can (try to) make it complete by writing the value again (in real Raft you can sometimes know a write is complete when reading).

This isn't an exact match for what Raft does, but it's close enough to be continuously deformable into the published algorithm.

How do we build a transaction log with these tools?

First, everything written needs a unique id to identify it. When our unreliable computer starts up it grabs a ticket, which we'll call the "term number", and then keeps its own counter. Each entry is identified by a unique (term number, counter) pair, which monotonically increases with time (I guess you could grab a new ticket every time, but this'll be cheaper).

Then, we need to sequence the transactions. We can't assume that every single write will be in the transaction log - we may start a write, and then crash, leaving an incomplete write from which we can't recover the data. So, each transaction will refer to the previous transaction's (term number, counter) pair, creating a chain of transactions.

Without further constraints, this chain could actually be a tree. The main trick of Raft is working out how to create a unique main chain on which all committed transactions live.

In practice, we do generate a tree, but we ensure there's a main backbone of committed transactions. Off this may hang uncommitted attempts to build a transaction, but the core chain holds all committed transactions.

We're going to make the rule that every non-leaf entry of the tree is a complete write. After all, we don't want entries whose predecessors aren't available! So, before writing a new entry refering to an older entry, we must know that older entry is a complete write - either because the write is in the same term and we saw it complete, or it's from a previous term but we have rewritten the entry and seen the rewrite succeed as complete.

One of the side-effects of this is that if we see an entry with another entry chained after it, we know that the earlier entry is definitely a complete write.

As things can get messy around having multiple incomplete writes outstanding (if our unreliable computer keeps crashing near the start of a bunch of terms), and then deciding which ones to complete, we can't actually just guarantee that every complete write is part of the committed backbone transaction log, but we can guarantee a different invariant: Any write completed in its own term (the term number being written is the current term) is committed (will always be on the backbone).

To keep this invariant, all a new term needs to do is to always build on the highest (term number, counter) entry it sees (having rewritten that entry to ensure it's complete). Why does this work? Let's say the new term immediately follows the last term with a committed transaction. We'll be building on either that transaction, or the incomplete entry chained immediately afterwards. In either case, the chain includes the last committed transaction. If there have been other terms in-between with transactions not committed during their term, they will have been chained onto the last actually committed transaction (by induction), so we can safely build on those too.

And that's morally the equivalent of how Raft works. The unreliable data store is just "keep writing until you've written to a majority of the nodes" to write and "union the results of everything you can see, assuming you're reading from a majority of the nodes" to read. The unreliable computer is "do a leadership election, have the elected device run the algorithm", and the ticket machine is a side effect of the the described election algorithm". Raft does a bunch of stuff like delete the entries that aren't on the backbone, but the end result is the same.

That's Raft, done weirdly. I think I'll take a look at Paxos again.

Posted 2023-07-15.


AI, the Industrial Revolution and Returns to Labour and Capital

Given how similar the potential effects of AI are to the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution I'm surprised more people aren't taking the chance to really think about it. The economic effects of most technological improvements follow a similar pattern, but the Industrial Revolution was a particularly big shift, as AI may be, making it a particularly attractive target.

Technologically, the story runs something like this: A lot of slow, somewhat skilled work got replaced by machines working quickly and some less skilled labour. Economically, productivity went way up, and overall people got more stuff cheaper, and it was all to the good. Before, most of the money went to the labourers. Afterwards, well, machines are expensive and unskilled labour is cheap, so the money mostly went to the owners of the machines. There was a shift where the returns to labour decreased and returns to capital increased. This may have caused some social problems for a while, but, y'know, all's well in the end, right?

The unspoken assumption about AI is that things should pan out in the same way. There's talk of "there will be winners and losers, but overall AI will benefit humankind", but no-one's so gauche as to be explicit that we're just assuming the winners will be big tech and the losers will be anyone creative. If we say that, someone might questions why that has to be the case, rather than just assume that things will play out like the industrial revolution.

There are a bunch of reasons why it shouldn't play out like that, and why we should choose to not let it play out like that. At the very start, the industrial revolution was not planned. We did not have the benefit of the hindsight of having done it before. We know what history looks like, and can choose to do something different. Choosing to not intervene is also not the natural order, it is definitely a choice.

So, why is this different from the industrial revolution? The before state is returns going to labour: People who write text and draw pictures get paid for their work. The assumed outcome is that in the future we'll be giving a smaller amount of money to big tech, and no money to creators. However, this is not economically driven, this is driven by regulatory structure and an assumption that history should repeat.

Returns to capital are usually driven by the fact that deploying capital is expensive. Machines are expensive. Companies that can spare the money to invest or have an intellectual property advantage use that to get returns on their capital. Except... AI is a mess commercially right now because no-one has a moat. No-one has built a huge advantage from their model. There are good open source models. Even training infrastructure isn't the huge advantage people had hoped, as people have found ways to make smaller models that are almost as effective, and adapt expensively-trained models cheaply. People wanted the value of AI to be in the technology and infrastructure, to enable returns to capital. It turns out that's not where the value is.

The value is in the training data: The creative output of real humans. The bit that's currently being valued at nothing in an AI world. The value of human labour is usually determined by supply and demand. In the industrial revolution, returns to labour went down because a smaller amount of less skilled work was required to produce the given output. In the AI scenario the price of the input data is zero not because that's the market price of producing that data, but because we've currently got a regulatory framework that just allows people to take it.

The business model of AI right now is largely attribution laundering. If I search for something on the web, I used to get a link to content made by people, they get their attribution, they find some way to monetise the provision of that information. The move has been to have search engines try to answer questions directly, grudgingly providing a link back to the original source and hoping you won't click through. The AI model is to put all the data into a big pot, stir it around, serve up an answer, and give zero credit to the people who contributed to the answer. The answer still comes from the source data, but all attribution, all sense of owing anything, has been wiped away.

This is both ethically and economically broken. Anyone who loves creating and sharing art, is surely not in favour of building a system that destroys the ability of people to make money from that art and otherwise disinventivises its production. Taking such art freely given and making it into a weapon against the gift-giver cannot have an ethical basis.

In some cases it might be argued that the T&Cs of services enabled this use in training data. This seems about as sound as trading Manhattan island for a pile of beads, but is clearly not the limit big tech desires. In this article Sam Altman claims that "material on the public web would be fair game". Interestingly the true value of this data is clear to him when he says "companies should have the right to say they do not want their data used for AI training" - the goal is to structure winners and losers on a regulatory basis, rather than by optimising ethical and economical goals.

This brings me on to the economic side of things. We build economic structures that incentivise the behaviour we want. For example, free markets might look like a self-organising structure, but they're built on property rights. Historically, we have wanted to encourage human creativity, and we ended up with copyright law. The current AI regime tries to end-run copyright. The only reason to give up on protections in the face of a much bigger threat to IP is if we no longer want to encourage human creativity.

AI depends on its training data. If we stop contributing human creativity, and populate the world with AI generated art and text, asymptotically we'll have AI-generated media based on AI-generated media. What that will look like is not clear, but it looks like a recipe for destroying originality, a key driver of change and growth.

Who knows, maybe I'm wrong, maybe human-based creativity is overrated, and not that valuable. From an economic standpoint, there should be a price, and it should be discoverable, and anyone wanting to work for that little value can feel free to. Forcing the value of human creativity to zero makes no sense either for the free market invisible-hand-ers, nor for the "build an economic system to enable the outcomes you want" crew. The only people it works for is those who want to take others' work for free, label it as their own, and sell it.

To summarise:

  • Assuming that the "winners and losers" story of the industrial revolution should or must be followed by an AI revolution is lazy and naive.
  • Increasing returns to capital are not justified by the technology.
  • Decreasing returns to labour are not justified economically or ethically.
  • Existing intellectual property laws need to be extended to prevent attribution-laundering by ML models, and give copyright holders strong protections over how their creations are used.

Posted 2023-05-25.


What's the point of trivia questions in interviews?

People are being dumb on the internet again. Specifically, people claiming that cheating on knowledge questions in interviews is fine, because they're meaningless anyway in a world of Google.

I'm going to start with a detour on the cheating angle, because as an almost-excessively honest person, this really, really gets me. There was some kind of hand-waving around how tech interviews are bad and broken, and hence cheating is justified. The only possible way I can see for someone to justify this is if the interview process is so unfair such that hiring someone else over you would be a huge injustice, and there are no other reasonable alternative jobs (working in places that have better interview processes, for example) so you're forced into the situation and that's... a long shot.

I think the cheater's view is that they're just making their relationship with the company fairer. The company unfairly bars them with a bad interview, and they're just fixing that. Thing is, they're not cheating the company, they're cheating honest candidates. Do these people really think they're better than someone else who can perform just as well in the interview, but has the answers in their head and doesn't need to search? They probably do. They're probably wrong.

Any normalisation of cheating is toxic to society. Loss of trust creates horrific feedback loops engendering further loss of trust. Framing cheating as a harmless mechanism to address ill-specified personal injustice caused by a huge enemy is wonderful framing, when it's just selfishly making life worse for honest people.

Anyway, with that rant out the way, what's the point of trivia questions in interview?

To be clear, I'm not a great fan of trivia questions. I prefer to deal with questions designed to understand how people think, and assume that someone with the right way of approaching problems will be able to learn effectively. This bias comes from the fact that the roles I deal with require clear thinking and a lot of specialist knowledge learnt on the job, so pre-existing knowledge is a bit less valuable in many situations. However, "trivia" questions aren't useless.

What's the value of knowing things that are easily findable on Google?

  • Demonstration of learning In most roles, there are things that you're expected to know. They're useful, practical, it's expected that you'll have come across them, and that having come across them they'll be in your head. Sure, it's easy to find in Google, but you still should know it, and if you've managed to avoid learning I'd like to know why.
  • Fluency If something is in my head, I don't need to look it up. Looking something up is quick and easy nowadays, but not as quick and easy as just knowing it. I've spent the last few days working through a new code base in a language that's new to me. I can poke around and not be blocked because a Google search tells me whatever I need to know, but I am still making progress an order of magnitude slower than on systems I am fluent with. Fluency really matters. For all the talk of generic 10x developers, I think this is just fluency explained badly. So, yes, fluency counts.
  • Unknown unknowns To be able to use a piece of knowledge, you need to be aware of its existence! It's enough to know about something to look up the details, but you still need to be aware of it. Being able to look things up is no help if you don't know there's something to look up, and being anaware of the right way to do things is an excellent way to do it wrong.

It turns out that a full-force 180-degree disagreement with a bad idea is often also a bad idea. Trivia questions don't reveal deep insight, but testing knowledge is not completely invalid. And I say this as someone who's pretty poor at memorising things (part of why I love building systems that make sense, rather than relying on memorisation of a thousand things that don't really make sense).

The attitude that being knowledgable is massively overrated and you can just muddle through with a search engine is curiously self-serving. You can be awesome at everything without putting effort in, and failure to recognise this is injustice in the world against you. It's a life of living on the Dunning-Kruger curve. Of not quite being sick of experts, but being confident you are an expert. You read a web page.

This is not to say that expert-level people don't fail to memorise stuff that's not that important and easy to look up. That's certainly my excuse. :p Maybe there are interviews that really do manage to focus on details that experts don't care about, but at that point it's a bit of a straw man. Would you actually want to work there?

The alternative is to believe in expertise, and believe in specialisation. I am a strong fan of breadth, but there should be depth, and you're not going to be deep at everthing. That's ok. Embrace it, grab more specialisations over time, maybe you have an interview where you don't know something because it's not your thing. That's fine.

It's been 8 years since I've been in finance. My recall of the exact Black-Scholes equation is not there, but I can still do the intuition. I'm ok with not getting a finance job because I can't remember it, but I'd be incensed if someone got such a job over me by reading the equation off a web site! Knowledge is funny.

Anyway, enough rambling. Sometimes you just want to vent in a way that doesn't fit in a microblogging post.

Posted 2023-05-10.


On Domain-Specific Languages

I wrote a little bit about CMake the other day, which left me thinking "I've done a fair amount of work on domain-specific languages, what do I know about how to get them right?" aka "It's easy to criticise"!

I've written a bit about DSLs before, mostly from the point of view of configuration languages. I'm now going to try to approach it from another angle: How to make a good DSL.

Structure the DSL to match the domain

In my exotic derivatives payout language FPF, I included a "fold" functor. In retrospect, this was sub-optimal. We nearly always wanted to perform some aggregation across a set of assets or a set of dates. These have different semantics: The former is usually a basket of stocks evaluated together, while the latter represents doing something in timesteps. By distinguishing between the two, you can more cleanly manage various aspects of the trade lifecycle - a time fold represents lifecycle steps whereas an asset fold doesn't.

In a similar way, we started supporting "strategy trades" with FPF. You don't need the details, but they were a poor fit for the existing infrastructure, and the experience sucked. The language should match the domain.

Outside DSLs, a similar thing you see is the effort C compilers need to go through, reversing "for" loops into the underlying iteration structure. Is this a map, parallelisable over an array? The programmer knows, the compiler wants to know, the language obscures. How sad.

Mathing the domain often means making the DSL declarative rather than imperative; expressing intent rather than a detailed plan. The canonical example is a build system (like make) - express dependencies and how to build each step, and let the system do the rest.

You see the same idea with SQL, and in the infrastructure world this is "intent-driven configuration", where the DSL system will do what's necessary to close the gap between the config and reality.

A key thing to realise is that declarative is not always better. Sometimes the domain requires control. Vanilla SQL leaves so much unspecified that performance is unpredictable - horrific for the production serving path. A naive intent-based configuration system skims over important aspects of how to roll out incrementally and safely.

Consider carefully how to map the domain to your language.

Consider your users when designing the DSL

In my limited experience, DSLs have two core demographics: A small number of experts, or a large number of passers-by.

In the former case, you're building a tool that will be heavily used by a small number of people. It's probably a key part of their job, and the investment in the DSL is to make them more efficient. I dealt with this in banking a couple of times, with FPF and with a language for algorithmic trading. It's really nice: You can do subtle, clever things, and your expert users will thank you for improving their effectiveness.

In the latter case, you're dealing with one corner, often neglected, of a wider world, often incidental to the key role of many, many people. CMake is an example of this. Parser generators and other mini-languages fall in this categoy. Users don't want to become experts, they want to get the job done. Anything subtle or complex will make your users hate you. The tool should be obvious, guessable, and friendly to untrained users. This is really hard. I am glad I've never needed to do this

Languages need decent tooling

Like pets, DSLs need a lot of tedious extra work to thrive. In particular, they need debugability. Ranging from sensible syntax errors through the ability to trace execution, maintainability is probably the biggest tax on DSLs. Please don't neglect this angle, particularly if you're writing a "many shallow users" DSL.

Is this a configuration language?

Pretty much anything can be shoe-horned into a configuration language, because code can be expressed as data. However, some things have a natural representation, and fighting that leads to sadness. XSLT still upsets me, an XML transformation about as ugly as it's possible to be, just because it felt it needed to be represented by XML.

If you really are just trying to express something fairly config-ish, such that formatting it as a config file does not obfuscate the meaning, then use an existing config library/language. There's no point reinventing the wheel in a well-populated space, especially if it increases the barrier to entry on a "many shallow users" DSL. "Few expert users" situations tend to be much less like configs.

This is probably where I can get a personal grudge out: In a workplace of almost universal protobufs, it's very tempting to configure everything as one, and... it can get ugly. Do you really want to express "5 < 10" as "left: 5, op: LESS_THAN, right: 10"?

Have you considered an Embedded Domain Specific Language?

A cheap way to make a DSL is to embed it in another language. This can decrease the debugability/maintainability, but you understand trade-offs, right?

"Embedding" here usually means providing functions that generate their own syntax tree, that can then be interpreted. Sometimes you build a mini-language by having the functions directly do the thing they describe, but you get a lot more flexibility by generating the syntax tree. I'm not an ML person, but I think this is the approach behind TensorFlow, for example.

I really like EDSLs, and they provide a spectrum from full access to a general-purpose programming language through to a highly-constrained language.

There are some subtle constraints on EDSLs. As evaluation generates a syntax tree (well, DAG) from the call tree, let-binding and other structural hints from the original syntax are lost. This works against debuggability and makes analysis harder.

Think carefully about the edges of your language

If you are writing an EDSL, you need to choose your embedding language carefully, and consider how much of the original language you support. Haskell is a surprisingly nice language for embedding in, and it's easy to disable the standard prelude. Lua also makes it straightforward to control exactly what functionality is available - e.g. creating a sandbox with zero filesystem access. Python is a perennial favourite for embedding DSLs, but my experience has been that it's a right pain to sandbox.

You need to decide whether you want you DSL to basically be the embedding language with a few extra features, or your own language that just happens to share a syntax. This also ties up with whether your DSL should be Turing-complete, as I discussed previously. Spoiler alert: I favour constrained languages as more maintainable.

Python inevitably encourages you to write Python programs with your own extras on top. I've seen multiple projects at scale where there was a big clean-up effort later to make the DSL code-base into a properly constrained language, taking out all the general-Python-isms. It's miserable. I personally think the lesson is to not use Python for EDSLs, it's too leaky, but no-one listens to me. ;)

Use programming language theory

Either you decide up-front that you prefer a proper stand-alone language, or maybe you've outgrown an EDSL. If you're heading down that path build a proper language. The theory is there, use it. Design a syntax that looks like a proper programming language, with an intent to be used, not some can't-be-bothered mess.

Here, I'm clearly looking at CMake and its ridiculous confused-config-language syntax ("else()"? Really?), but also at TeX and its horrible backslashed macro messes obscuring a Turing-complete language and making proper work on (La)TeX styles incredibly tedious.

At a smaller level, it also means taking syntax seriously so that you don't end up with "but it seemed like a convenient shortcut"isms like the way make cares so deeply about tabs at the start of lines.

Obviously the language you're building shouldn't look like a config language, because if it did, you'd be using an existing config language.

Don't build a text-manipuation language

Unless your domain really is text, don't make your language a text-processing language. By this, I mean you shouldn't look to languages like the Bourne shell or Tcl for inspiration. Don't build a templating language based on textual substitution.

Such languages are incredibly brittle. If your DSL has any security requirements, it'll screw them up, since plain textual substitution inevitably leads to escaping issues. You can get yourself in a pickle trying to work out how many levels of evaluation are needed to substitute all the variables in all the strings that contain other variables. And just fundamentally, you're not modeling the domain any more, are you? You're playing with strings.

Any time I see a DSL with $DOLLAR_PREFIXED_SHOUTY_VARIABLES, I get really twitchy. I've not been comfortable writing code like that since BASIC with line numbers. Shell is not a well-designed programming language, and anything that decides to ape it is ill-thought-through. Shell is compact and convenient, admittedly, but it is quite possible to build convenient, efficient DSLs without copying a syntactic approach associated with unmaintainable hacked-up code. We have learnt a lot in the last forty years.

There's probably a bunch of other hugely important factors to take into account writing a DSL that I've forgotten. There's plenty of space to get a little less abstract and start giving examples of DSLs that are good, maybe develop one myself. However, I feel this is enough for now.

Posted 2023-04-30.


Thoughts on the Turing Test

The rise of AI Discourse means that I have discovered that I have Opinions on the Turing Test. I've gone through them a couple of times on social media, but I thought I'd record them here for posterity.

Most popular depictions and analyses of the Turing Test are either a simplification of, or a literal interpretation of Turing's original paper. They have weaknesses that stem from failing to understand Turing, and his strengths and weaknesses.

To start with, it's a fascinating paper. It introduces a way to cut the Gordian knot of "What is intelligence?", it spends a lot of text approaching various objections to artificial intelligence that still go on, and it makes predictions of the complexity required to produce an AI and very roughly when we might expect it, and did all this little more than a year after EDSAC was running!

Indeed the questions and replies in the text are remarkably prescient of where we are with LLMs. And, reading the original paper, Turing did not see the Imitation Game as a pure thought experiment, but something that could be done one day. So why is the conversation around the current state of the Turing Test so messy?

Most people don't see the computer science context of Turing's work. In theoretical computer science, a well-known concept is Turing-completeness. This is the idea that a programming language or system is sufficiently powerful to solve the same problems as any computer system.

The canonical argument used by Turing to show that a system X is Turing-complete is that it is able to emulate other systems known to be Turing-comlete. If it can emulate the other system, it can solve all the problems that system can solve, and must be at least as powerful as it.

It's not explicitly stated, but this is exactly the same arguemnt Turing is using for the Turing Test: If a computer system is able to emulate a human, it must be as powerful (intelligent) as a human.

There are a couple of subtleties here. One is that it defines a domain of emulation: It's suggesting all of practical intelligence can be expressed through conversation. To pass as a human for the purpose of testing intelligence, the system needn't perform physical tasks, draw, listen, etc. Turing suggests that the essence of intelligence can be evaluated through a text stream alone. I think this is reasonable, but it's also a little under-discussed.

Another subtlety is what's necessary vs. sufficient to demonstrate intelligence. A criticism of the Turing Test is that it takes a human-centric definition of intelligence. I think this misses the point. If a system can emulate another intelligent system, it is intelligent. If it cannot, that tells us nothing. That doesn't mean it's not intelligent. And, so far, humans are the only example of "intelligence" we have to hand. A hyperintelligent system that thinks nothing like a human, but can emulate one if it wants, will still pass the Turing test.

"Failing the test tells us nothing" is slightly interesting to compare to the theoretical computer science case of Turing-completeness. If we can show that system Y is not able to emulate a Turing-complete system, we know it is strictly less powerful. On the other hand, if I am unable to do a perfect emulation of Einstein, it doesn't mean I'm not intellligent. It doesn't even mean I'm less intelligent than Einstein (although I am). I can't do a perfect imitation of Trump, either, but I'm pretty sure I can beat him on a bunch of intelligence metrics.

The final subtlety I want to talk about with the Turing Test, compared to Turing-completeness in theoretical computer science, is that Turing-completeness can be formally proven. We can show how to emulate one system with another. On the other hand, the Turing Test is an experiment.

Turing was a fantastic theorist, but not particularly practical. This is a man who hid his savings during World War II by burying silver bars and subsequently lost them, and committed suicide with a cyanide-laced apple. I understand he did not get on well with the more practical computer builders at Cambridge. While he engineered things, I don't see evidence of a scientific mindset, and thus he did not look at The Imitation Game as a proper scientific experiment.

This oversight has plagued the Turing Test to this day.

What would the Turing Test look like as a scientific experiment? To be fair, Turing at least has an experiment and a control, by testing both a machine and a human. The hypothesis is that some machine is intelligent. The aim is to disprove the hypothesis. If we fail to disproce the hypothesis, we haven't shown it to be true, but we have gathered evidence to improve our confidence that it might be. We can construct increasingly elaborate experiments to stress the hypothesis further and further.

All this means that passing bar for the test should not be "a human thinks it's human", but that a set of experts, constructing increasingly elaborate sets of questions, including the feedback from previous rounds of interrogation, cannot put together evidence the machine is not human.

The naive Turing Test is clearly passed now, but it was passed decades ago with Eliza, too. By setting the bar so low, it encourages people to dismiss the actual progress over the years. It leads to conversations about how easily humans are fooled and all kinds of other distractions and confused arguments.

The scientific Turing Test has not been passed. People are able to find ways of making LLM models give distinctly non-human answers. In other words, the scientific Turing Test reflects reality. The iteration of finding increasingly complicated questions with which to distinguish humans and machines makes our progress clear - for an expert questioner, the gap between Eliza and ChatGPT is glaring, and the quality differences across generations of GPT pretty obvious.

Phrasing the Turing Test in terms of a scientific experiment has its own dangers. Focusing too heavily on the falsifiability aspect lets people claim that we can never prove that a machine is intelligent... but really that's just the same argument that you can never tell if any human you meet is intelligent. However, taken in moderation, it gives us a practical and thoughtful approach to assessing machine intelligence.

Posted 2023-04-29.


CMake is awful

CMake is awful. It's awful enough that writing about how awful CMake is is a stereotyped blog entry. It's so awful that I feel compelled to write about how awful it is, even knowing how unoriginal that is. I need catharsis.

CMake is bad at its job. It has a bad job, and it does it badly. In some ways it has many jobs, but the bit that matters is the bit that gets in your face. CMake is a dependency finder.

A decade ago, when I last used it in anger, it was a build file generator. We used it to generate build files for our project that would work on a bunch of different platforms with their various build systems. It was boring, it did the job. This is not a hard job: Your code is supposed to work together, making it do so is not so hard.

It turns out the tricky bit is building disparate stuff together: Taking random libraries etc. and gluing them into a coherent whole. CMake's real-world role is to make your dependencies work together.

It's a miserable job. This isn't even dependency management in the sense of package management: It doesn't have the authority or responsibility to own installations and make things work together. Oh no, it just has to scrape around your system, deal with what's provided, trying to find the dependencies, and staple them together.

The canonical failure mode of CMake is that you have a dependency installed on your system, and it cannot find it. You can see it there, sitting in the file system, while CMake's just refusing to see it. It's embarassing.

No human wants to care about this. When a piece of software breaks, I want to debug it. To debug, I need to build. And to build, I need the dependencies to work. I hardly want to care about installing dependencies. Why on earth should I care about getting CMake to recognise them?

No sensible human being, tasked with making software work, wants to have to care about the details of how CMake finds things. The fundamental problem of CMake is that it makes you become an expert in something you really couldn't care less about.

CMake, along with other tools that most people use glancingly and couldn't care less about, should follow two simple rules: 1) Work 2) When you don't work, be really, really easy to debug, so we can stop breaking rule #1.

CMake breaks this rule most egregiously. Old-school Make is... actually not that bad at being diagnosable. By default it has a relatively straightforward approach, and there are decent-enough tracing flags. Make is decades old, and gets this right.

Let's compare with CMake. In an ideal world, there would be a simple, obvious flag that puts it into a diagnostic trace mode, allowing you to see what happens. If it fails, it would explain in detail how it failed and/or explain how to get more info. CMake does not do that. Instead:

  • Default output is uninformative. You need to set '--trace' to see what it's up to. Ha ha. Only joking. '--trace' doesn't expand variables before logging, so you get entirely useless lists of entries like "if(NOT TARGET ${_target} )". You need '--trace-expand' to get useful information. This is positively user-hostile and gives you a good idea of the mindset involved.
  • This trace only tells you what it's executing, with no real clue to telling you how it got there. Fortunately, the mechanism for finding dependencies is clear and explicit. Ha ha. Only joking. As documented, attempts to find dependencies are automagical, using at least 3 different mechanisms, and generally involving searching for magically-named files in various search paths.
  • To work out what it's finding where, you need a different flag: --debug-find. Because, as I said, if you're fixing an issue you don't care about, you want to become an expert in the various different flags.
  • Except... as far as a tracing tool goes, it makes the classic error of helping you understand what succeeded, not what failed. It tells you what files it found, and you have to search for the failure-shaped holes yourself. It does not tell you what it tried, so you don't really know why it didn't find your dependency.
  • And none of this really helps the fact that it does not make it easy to fix the problem! What I want to do is just put the path explicitly in some simple file, have CMake believe that the thing is there, and get on with my life. As it is, the correct solution appears to be to learn the language, learn how to specify the components of a library, create a FindWhateverLibraryImLookingFor.cmake file, and then trick CMake into discovering and using said file.

In short, it's a user-hostile piece of software. It does not care about the use case of "This thing isn't working. How do I easily make it work?". It... feels like the kind of person who thinks C++ templates are good because they're subtle and complicated and tricky, and thus make them feel smart that they understand them. It piles up accidental complexity and assumes its essential complexity. It's utterly awful.

In many ways, you can tell it's going to be bad when the standard usage recommendation is "mkdir build; cd build; cmake ..". Baked in, at the very first level, is that the obvious way to use it is wrong. It's a warning for all that follows.

Posted 2023-04-26.


On the Management of Socks

It should not be necessary to have to explain how to manage socks, yet here we are! I am looking at a very specific scenario, but one close to my heart: Always having a suitable matching pair available.

The secret, so often ignored, is to simply have a small number of large, readily distinguished pools of very similar socks. Similarity within pools, differing between pools. This is a long-term strategy, so let's start with the basics:

The fundamental idea is to make socks easy to match. If you buy a large number of identical socks, you can pick out any two, and you're done. Life is easy. Surely no-one could get this wrong, could they? Of course they can.

What you see here is a set of 7 Marks and Spencers pairs of socks, carefully colour-coded to maximise their incompatibility, and frustration should one sock get lost. I've even seen them describe the clear colouring as "easy to pair" in the past. No! It's easy to pair if you can pair any of them toegether. If you have to care about the pairing, it's not easy to pair. Grrr.

So, step 1 is to buy enough identical socks to last you for a few years, taking into account individial sock loss and wear and tear. Eventually, you will need to replace them, and it's time to bring in the long-term plan: Large pools of distinguishable socks.

The fool buys another batch of socks similar to the first pool. Now you have a pairing problem! If you don't pay attention, you will pair an old sock with a new sock, with all the disaster that this entails. Don't do this! Instead, buy another pool of socks that'll last you for years, but is readily distinguished from the old pool. Your transition is clear, and when the time comes to cull the last batch it is simple. Congratulations, you have managed your socks correctly.

There is, of course, more. You may live with people who do not believe in uniform socks. You may be given pairs of novelty socks. You are brought back down to the world of treating your socks as pets, not cattle. The key here is to separate the odd socks from the paired socks, because they have fundamentally different purposes:

  • Paired unique socks can be worn as needed, without hassle. You do not need to contemplate unpaired socks, you can simply put on a full pair whenever needed. The pool is uncontaminated.
  • Unpaired unique socks exist solely to be paired. Kept separately in a smaller pool, it is easier to match them up should the lost half be found, and by looking through this smaller pool you can be confident that you have not left any socks accidentally unpaired.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Posted 2023-04-09.


On the free idempotent monoids generated by a finite set of letters

Off the back of a Mastodon conversation that started with enumerating the elements of a two element idempotent rig (https://github.com/simon-frankau/two-generator-idempotent-rigs)), I ended up trying to work out how to enumerate the elements of the idempotent monoid generated by three letters. Basically, this is the set of all words divided into equivalence classes over repeated substrings - so "abcXYZXYZdef" and "abcXYZdef" are the same element.

Surprisingly despite the fact that there are infinitely many square-free words built from three letters - that is, words witout repeating substrings in them, there are only a finite number of elements to the monoid. It turns out that for all sufficiently long square-free words you can introduce a repeat, take out other repeats, and end up with a shorter word!

I coded up a brute-force tool to find all the elements of the monoid generated from 3 elements, at `https://github.com/simon-frankau/monoid-gen, but having read Chapter 2 of Jean Berstel and Christophe Reuteneur, Square-free words and idempotent semigroups, in Combinatorics on Words, ed. M. Lothaire, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1983, courtesy of this post, I realise it's very much simpler than that. Sufficiently so that I'll give an intuitive proof sketch here.

Notation-wise, I'll use upper-case letters for strings, lower-case letters for letters. Otherwise, it's just ASCII. My blog software is really dumb.

First, given a string AB, where B contains a subset of the letters in A, we can find a string that, massively abusing notationg, I'll call B^-1 such that AB B^-1 = A. We can prove this by going a letter at a time. Say AB = AB'x (that is, the last letter of "B" is "x"). "A" contains an "x", let's say A = LxR. Then AB RB' = LxRB'x RB' = LxRB' = AB' - we have found a string to append to "remove" a letter. Do this repeatedly, and we can strip off any word, as long as the letters involved appear again sometwhere earlier in the word.

By symmetry, we can find strings to prefix to "remove" prefixes.

Given this, we can now prove that a string LMR, where L and R are the shortest left and right substrings that use all the letters in LMR, can be reduced to LR, and hence we can break all the strings down into equivalence classes based on L and R (I'm deliberately ignoring the cases where L and R overlap for simplicity - the original proof handles this fine).

Roughly, we can find "R^-1" and "(LM)^-1" (as described above) such that LMR = LR R^-1 MR = LR LR R^-1 MR = LR LMR = L (LM)^-1 LMR LMR = L (LM^-1) LMR = LR.

This means, that rather than the exhaustive enumeration I did, I could simply generate all the left and right monoids on two-letter words, using two of the three letters, and add the third letter to get the left and right ends of the word, eliminate any overlap, and have an element. For example, choose "ab" on the left, "cbc" on the right. The left and right parts are "abc" and "acbc" respectively, there are no overlaps, so "abcacbc" is an element.

Posted 2022-12-30.


Game Review: Dungeon Encounters (Square Enix)

Dungeon Encounters is a punishment and a lesson for me being who I am.

Dungeon Encounters has been described as a minimalist, bare-bones RPG. There's no real plot. Graphics are limited to a few illustations. All that's left is exploration of 100 grid-based maps furnished with nothing more than raw hex codes, and an RPG combat system.

It turns out that methodically crawling through 100 levels, bashing at each of the foes in turn to slowly level up is tedious as hell, but irresistable to the completionist streak in me. I did so, traversing all 100 levels in order (the main endgame is actually on floor 90, but there's a few post-game extras for those who are gluttons for punishment), and boy was it boring and slow. Just like a regular RPG without the bits that turn out, in retrospect, to be the good bits.

The game provides lessons about myself. I'm a mathsy kind of person, so I assumed that when I played e.g. Final Fantasy VII, I kind of enjoyed the tactical combat elements (apart from the incredibly slow animations near the end). Turns out, on further reflection, it was the plot that kept me going. I do like the challenge of an interesting puzzle, but easily clobbering baddies that are just weaker enough than me is actually very boring.

However, this is not the only way to play the game. You can sneak around enemy encounters. Many of the most tedious bits can be circumvented by grabbing items and skills from later in the game and using them. Playing strategically rather than bludgeoning through can apparently work quite effectively. Yet I didn't. I just whacked all the baddies in linear order until they're gone.

At some level, I realised the alternative was possible, and probably faster, but likely to be messier, and I'd miss things. An affront to my inner completionist. So, I get the fundamental takeaway that while getting a sense of completion can be very satisfying, and while this streak is useful to drive through big challenges to completion while applying attention to detail, I should really learn when to cut my losses.

The game? Basically not recommended. There are all kinds of other RPG-like strategy games that work like an interesting puzzle, that are much more worth playing. The combat music, classical pieces arranged for the electric guitar, rocks, though.

Posted 2021-12-07.


Reinventing tomography

Having had a bunch of CT and MRI scans made me think of something I'd been thinking about, on-and-off, for years: How does tomography actually work? You scan an object by seeing how much it absorbs from a bunch of angles, and somehow use that to reconstruct the original object's structure - how does this magic work?

The obvious way to find out would be to read up on the subject. I decided to do something a little different, and try to reinvent it without reading up the existing theory. So, that's what I did - with the results up at https://github.com/simon-frankau/rediscovering-tomography.

Reinventing areas of maths is... interesting. As well as working out how it all works in theory, making it work practically is full of fiddly tweaking - I'm very much an amateur at numerical coding - but it was a fun project. If you want to know more, go follow that link!

Posted 2021-10-23.


Management books vs. "no single root cause"

Lorin Hochstein made the interesting point that many management books read like morality plays - this company didn't do X, and they failed, and that makes the people running the company bad. Even ignoring the morality aspect, it's simple and reductive - when there's an incident and a postmortem, we look for a multiplicity of contributing factors, so why not the same for companies? I'm an SRE manager, but generally I enjoy management books. Isn't there a huge hole here?

First off, I hadn't read the book he quoted, but... wow, that's blame-y. There's a difference between pointing out that in a particular situation they didn't do something and that lead to a bad outcome, and saying that they're therefore bad people. I think I've mostly stayed clear of that sub-genre in my reading.

Having got past the needless blame, I do recognise a lot of "single root cause" in these books. Assuming an incident management approach applies to running a company, surely any book describing a single root cause must be wrong?

Well, on the one hand, it's what the industry's set up for. These books are going to tell you success is not random, you're in control, and moreover you just need to follow the central thesis of the book for success. These people did, they're all billionaires now. These people didn't, and they went bust. I tend to find examples in management books really useful, but they're almost always reductive.

On the other hand... there's a place for tackling specific problems. While a postmortem might want to collect a dozen contributing factors, there's also room for saying "make sure you can roll back quickly" and "have good monitoring". These books are action items, not postmortems. A lot of these books do the equivalent of saying "you just need quick rollbacks and everything will be fine", but if you treat them as simplifying models that handle just one slice of reality and synthesise them together, I think there's still real value.

If management books are "known common contributing factors", what's the management theory equivalent of a postmortem? I would (weakly and with no real evidence) argue it's the case study approach used by e.g. HBS. And... the interesting thing about that is that while that is supposed to foster open discussion, the case studies are often intended to teach a specific point - to look for a particular root cause.

This brings me back to another point - is company management really like incident management? In some ways I see similarities with running production - there's a weakest link element, in that if just one area screws up, it doesn't really matter how the other departments are doing, you will have a bad time. However, in another way, I'm not so convinced. Much of incident response work is based around the idea of defense in depth. We have multiple contributing factors because no single root cause should be allowed to break things.

I'm not sure if this applies to a business. How do you build defense in depth around a huge investment decision? How can you apply the swiss cheese model to business success when your strategy requires extreme focus? The danger of a successful idea is its over-application. Maybe SRE-like tenets should not be applied to businesses as a whole. We should be thoughtful about what ideas should be carried over, how things can be adapted. Blameless postmortems might be interesting in other settings, for example. As usual, blanket application of a methodology is no substitute for careful thought.

Posted 2021-09-19.


Solving nonograms

In my solving logic puzzles, nonograms (aka Picross) have recently eclipsed hashiwokakero as my go-to fairly-mindless puzzle-solving experience.

As a low-effort, mind-clearing activity they're great, but pretty mechanistic - perfect for automation (not that it stops me solving them manually!). So, of course I wrote a solver. Yet again, it's an excuse for practising my Rust, which in turn is a better use of my time than solving the puzzles by hand, even if it requires a bit more concentration.

It's pretty straightforward, and the result is up on GitHub at https://github.com/simon-frankau/nonogram-solver.

Posted 2021-08-14.


First Direct demonstrate how not to do a switchover

I bank with First Direct, mostly because I used to have a mortgage with them. I guess I should revisit this. Anyway, they're performing a switchover from Visa to Mastercard. They sent me a swish new card, along with a letter telling me how easy it would be.

I tried to use the new card, in a rather nice restaurant. For whatever reason, it didn't go through. I tried my old card, it also didn't go through. I did manage to pay in the end, so I didn't have to do lots of dish-washing, but it was pretty painful.

Thereafter, I tried again in a supermarket. Both old and new declined. I phoned up First Direct, and apparently there's no fraud stop, I've just been unlucky (?!). The bonus is that as soon as the new card is used, the old card is blocked, so any attempt to use the old card is mysteriously declined, despite me thinking I had a grace period.

My old card being blocked is frustrating because it's not clear the new card is actually working. The advice from the fraud person at First Direct is that I go and explicitly use chip-and-pin at some shop to activate it. The only problems are a) I thought I'd tried that, b) I've been having health issues and don't really fancy going to the shops unnecessarily c) there's not much I actually want to buy, and resent the idea of just spending money to activate a card.

Still, with the old card blocked and the new card yet to be activated, there's no real issue, is there? It's not like I've got the old card used for stuff in such a way that a sudden surprise block is going to cause problems, is it? Oh, hang on, I am using my debit card for a whole bunch of online things, and got my first "Uh, your regular card payment was declined" mail today. I've just signed myself up for Bulk Account Details Update Time. Hurrah.

I didn't foresee any of this, as the nice letter accompanying the card told me it'd be easy. In retrospect, it is easy, just for First Direct, not me. They've done the absolute minimum in this transition, and it sucks.

What would an effective transition look like? Make it easy for the customers. One thing you learn when running large systems, is that unless you actively hate your customers/users, you should be ready for dual-running. It makes you more resilient to failure, and it makes life easier for the user. So, give your customers a grace period of, say, just over a month from the new card being used successfully to the old card being deactivated. Maybe don't deactivate the old card when you've only seen the new card have a voided transaction?

For online transactions from stored details, the ideal customer-centric solution involves no work: When a transaction is declined, the error message can be of the form "Card no longer valid, switch to these details instead", and systems could auto-update with the new card automatically (informing the customer as they do so). Of course, we don't live in such a world, as that would be convenient.

Instead, we have to assume that customers will be updating a bunch of details. If you want to make the transition as easy as possible, create a report beforehand of what's likely to need updating, for each customer. They've presumably got "customer not present" details for the card transaction, and repeat online transactions are not likely to have you entering in the card number each time.

Then, during the transition period after the new card's been activated, regularly create a report of when you used the old card, which'll remind you not to use it when physically present, and prompt you to update details on the auto-payment systems. This should all be integrated into the app. After all, this is an online bank, right? App integration of significant changes, like the provider of debit card services, should be bread-and-butter.

But no, here we are. Maybe I need to investigate whether the new digital banks are any better.

Posted 2021-08-10.


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