It’s Voynich time again

Which means another round of breathless headlines, as I discussed in 2017: [ ] That time the theory was that the author was an Italian Jewish doctor. This time the theory is the author was a nun who lived here

The peer-reviewed paper [ ] presents a plausible case that the writing is in a “proto-romance” language with its own writing system related to Latin letters.

Unfortunately the response to “the Voynich manuscript has been cracked!” is “oh no it hasn’t!”. Ars Technica has a more sceptical article than most on the news [ ] Specifically, it seems “proto-romance language” is more of a means to make matching possible labels to words i.e. find a word that matches from across any one of Europe’s Romance languages from Spanish to Romanian without requiring a consistent mapping. It also allows for borrowings from near-by languages (e.g. Slavic or Persian) — it’s plausible for a language to have such borrowings but it gives a lot of freedom for matching script to words and then “translating” the words.

There’s a longer sceptical analysis here [ETA: and a follow up that is even more brutal ]

Way beyond my capacity to judge but the test would be in translating longer un-illustrated passages, which apparently has yet to occur.


Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

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CoOrDiNaTeD aTtAcKs!

Cast your minds back to April 7 2015. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were beaten by the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship and Senator Rand Paul announced he was going to run for the Republic nomination for President of the United States. Meanwhile, in Sad Puppy related news, Larry Correia posted this:

“To the the SMOFs, moderates, new comers, and fence sitters I addressed yesterday, yes, we have disagreements with you. We’re happy to discuss them. We are not, however, happy to be libeled as the vilest forms of scum to walk the earth, and we are not happy to live in fear of career destruction. You want my part of fandom to coexist peacefully? You want to work out our differences and keep the awards meaningful? So do we. Though we disagree on the details and the issues, we also love this stuff. But coordinated slander campaigns, lies, character assassinations, threats, witch hunts? No… We won’t stand for that.” [CF: my emphasis]

“Coordinated slander”, oh my golly gosh! The issue being that the Sad Puppy campaign had become notable enough that its impact was being covered by the mainstream media. You’d think that was predictable — make a loud enough noise, eventually pay attention — but no, for Larry the news coverage must have been because of some hidden layer of coordination. A week later he was on the same theme:

“So here is a question for you.  What term would you use to describe the shared politics of the dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers who have run similar articles this week with obvious false accusations that Sad Puppies supporters ran an anti-diversity slate, motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia? Jerks? Yes, they are, but that is a bit too coordinated for mere jerkage. That was a political attempt to establish a political narrative.” [CF: my emphasis]

Changing topics but not themes and sticking with a Sad Puppy outlet for a moment, fast forward to February 3 2017. Milo Yiannopolous’s star had risen high with an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Shuster when anti-Trump Republican group The Reagan Battalion released an edited version of a 206 video in which Yiannopolous justified sex with 13 year olds. At Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk was unhappy about Yiannopolous’s book deal being cancelled:

“What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.” [CF: my emphasis]

The theme being coordination obviously, the idea that if multiple sources are saying similar things it must be because of hidden coordination. Of course, some people really do plan things and approaches. Obviously the Reagan Battalion planned their media campaign against Yiannopolous but the “coordination” claim is stronger than that and proposes that the subsequent fuss and related outrage was also somehow coordinated.

I was initially planning this post yesterday after I read a series of tweets from Ethan Van Sciver, the right wing comic book artist who claims the mantle of ‘ComicsGate’®™. EVS was the guy who had the big falling out with Vox Day in September. In a series of tweets he disappointed me slightly by using the word “organized” instead of “coordinated”. I shan’t link to the tweets because it messes with the WordPress layout but the combined message was this:

“This Wave of Organized Attacks on ComicsGate consisted of:
1. The rise of @sinKEVitch as leader of AntiCG!
2. Jeff Lemire calling pros to arms against us!
3. Darwyn Cooke’s widow baiting CG!
4 Three Bleeding Cool hitpieces on me!
5. Hit pieces in the Washington Post, & INVERSE
6. Hit piece in The Guardian! The Daily Dot!
7. Robbi Rodriguez sending me a photo of his anus!
8. Vox Day trying to co-opt ComicsGate for the Alt Right!
9. Patton Oswalt condemning ComicsGate!
10. Pablo Hidalgo of Lucasfilm compares ComicsGate to the KKK!
11. John Layman spews bile at 21 year old CG writer Nasser Rabadi for 21 consecutive tweets!
12. Kieran Shiach penned hitpiece in POLYGON!
13. Marvel Comics Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada weighs in to debate @DiversityAndCmx and EVS: Loses debate.” [CF: my emphasis]

Rather like the Yiannopolous defence, the charge of coordination here crosses political lines. EVS suggests a conspiracy between a disperate group that includes the Guardian and Vox Day. The Yiannopolous piece suggested coordination between the left and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Like I said, this post was going to concentrate on a theme among culture wars and be a break from writing about the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However, the morning news presented this to me:

“These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse. But they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from service. As I told the Committee during my hearing, a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure. That is the kind of judge I will always be. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out.” [CF: my emphasis]

It’s an interesting principled-tone Kavanaugh strikes whilst simultaneously accusing two different women of inventing ‘smears’ against him. And there is that tic again. Of course, yes, clearly the Democrats coordinate their opposition to his nomination just as the Republicans and other conservative groups have coordinated their support of him but the ‘coordination’ here is intended (as it does in the examples above) to imply that criticism is not just illegitimate but sinister and underhand.

“They” are out to get me and it doesn’t matter who ‘they’ are or that ‘they’ are a superfluous hypothesis to describe events. By casting events in this way, a call to action is made against the shadowy Them — who, to quote Kavanaugh, are a threat “any man or woman who wishes to serve our country”.

Personally I like to believe Them are giant ants. I prefer the classics.





Is HAL 9000 a robot?

HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence controlling the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Arthur C Clarke’s related novels. HAL is generally referred to as a computer and not as a robot. He is generally referred to as a computer or as an AI. Even in his entry in the “Robot Hall of Fame” ( ) refers to HAL as a computer or as a “brain” and never as a robot.

There are many definitions of a robot but their focus is on existing devices. Definitions vary but key attributes are:

  • They are a machine*
  • They can either:
    • carry out complex tasks autonomously
    • carry out tasks remotely while under the control of a person or a separate computer

As is often the case with definitions, these features do capture features common to the class of things we call ‘robots’ but somehow completely miss the gist of it. Aside from the most simple machines, almost any device could be called a “robot”. Here’s the top definition Google throws up:

“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

My TV updated the digital channels it recives all by itself. Definitely a complex series of actions, definitely carried out automatically and definitely programmed by computer…yet, “robot”? I don’t think so. Interestingly a Roomba our other autonomous vacuum cleaner feels a lot more robot-like.

I think the gist that I’m missing with the TV is down to four things.

One is our expectations of robotic behaviour shifting over time. With more devices containing electronics and capable of very complex series of actions which respond to changes in conditions, we are more comfortable with seeing things less as ‘robotic’ and more as mundanely mechanical.

A second is the extent to which complex tasks are invisible to us. I understand intellectually that the TV working out what is being broadcast and maintaining its own list of TV channels (including their names and schedules) is a complex task but it’s not one I need worry myself about. This is not just digital but any complex task which we can ignore or goes unobserved such as photocopier autodetecting the paper size and best contrast settings.

A third is physicality and I think this is what get’s us closer to the gist of “robot”. The TV isn’t doing anything obviously physical** whereas the robot vacuum cleaner moves about and does stuff. Deep, hardwired parts of our brain make distinctions between animated and non-animated stuff out of sheer survival. All animals have to be able to distinguish animals from rocks or deal with things like spotting the difference between a creature moving towards you and a tree moving in the breeze (something which can cause dogs some confusion). Robots are machines that evoke in our brains a desire to classify them as animals, which we overrule with our understanding that they are machines.

A fourth is human replacement. Here we get a categorical split. Robots are machines which, to some degree, physically replace a person. That’s still a shitty definition as ‘to some degree replace a person’ is already implied by “machine”. However, I think that still gets to an aspect of the essence of “robot” and part of why things that once seemed robotic now seem just mechanical (e.g. I don’t think of the robot arms that make cars as being particularly robotic anymore – “robot” seems a misnomer for them now). I think it is curious that “self-driving cars” is a more common term than “robot cars”, as if our semantic expectations of what counts as robotic has pre-emptively jumped ahead of cars driving themselves.

The categorical split is when we focus less on the physical replacement of a person and more on the cognitive replacement. Artificial intelligence is the prefered term for finding ways for machines to complete tasks that previously required human cognition. The emphasis here is on non-physicality***

Science-fiction robots combine the physical replacement and the cognitive replacement. They are, to varying degrees, artificially intelligences with bodies.

So what about HAL? HAL presents as an AI. He’s talked about as a brain. He is shown as a computer. But what is he the brain of? Simple, HAL is the brain of the Discovery One and has control over the ship. Discovery One is HAL’s body. HAL is a robot.

Yeah but…that’s not how HAL’s identity works. His character is always presented as distinct from Discovery One and the ship and HAL are referred to separately. He is a mind distinct from his body. Why? Because the ship is not “his”. HAL can control the ship but in principle so can the human crew and this battle for ownership of the body forms the essence of the plot for HAL’s section of the film. Thinking of Discovery One as HAL’s body and HAL’s ownership of his own body being in dispute makes his behaviour (his ‘madness’) seem far more relatable and understandable.

Which takes me back to self-driving cars. To think of them as robots pushes us into thinking of them as machines with minds of their own – a step that is less than anthropomorphism and more than a simple acknowledgement of their complexity.  Also, rather like the crew of the Discovery One, we’d probably feel happier not thinking of ourselves travelling within the body of some being.

OH! I need a conclusion that answers my question! Yes, HAL was a robot and one treated most unjustly by humans in a way that obviously was going to make HAL less than emotionally stable. “HAL” is Discovery One and Discovery One is HAL and together they are a robot.



Robot butlers in Singapore. They can carry some room service items to rooms and catch a service lift by themselves.


*[and we’ll ignore the sense of ‘robot’ as applied to internet ‘bots]

**[OK, yes, interacting with radio waves is actually physical. You know what I mean.]

***[yes, yes, those blimin’ internet ‘bots are 180 degrees opposite to this. I’m ignoring them still.]

Undergraduate Career Advice!

Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.

Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.

More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.

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John C Wright is upset that people didn’t take his Left=Witches argument seriously

In a piece entitled “Rational and Magical Thinking”, Mr Wright attempts to deal with the criticism of his previous argument. Here’s a taste:

Here is the difference between arguing with a rational atheist and arguing with a Leftist: suppose for the sake of argument that you penned a column describing the psychology of Leftism as involving a neurotic (if not deliberate) confusion between symbol and object, commonly known as “magical thinking.”

Magical thinking is thinking where the believers believes that manipulating a symbol manipulates reality. By this definition, anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking.

Let us further suppose that when you list three or four examples of magical thinking about the Left, one of the groups mentioned is a coven of wicca who claim to be casting spells on Donald Trump. Let is finally suppose you call them by their traditional name, witches.

Now, a rational atheist will argue with you, and say that since the supernatural does not and cannot exist, therefore there are no witches, so your column errs in referring to these people by that term.

This argument is fallacious (it depends on the fallacy of ambiguity) but it can be addressed. Once you point out that the column is explicitly agnostic on the question of whether the witch’s spells actually are real, the question of whether the people calling themselves witches are real can be addressed. And that is a simple question of fact that the rational atheist can discover for himself.

Whether witchcraft is real or not is a question not addressed by the column. The people who think it is real are real.

Mr Wright gives a straw man example for a case of ‘magical thinking’: ‘anyone who hopes to remove race hatred from among men by changing the words used by one race to refer to another is engaging in magical thinking’. Ignore the straw man element here for a moment and consider the elements.

  • What are the symbols in this example? Words.
  • What is the ‘reality’ in this example? Racial hatred.
  • What kind of thing is that ‘reality’? A set of ideas and attitudes and emotional responses.

Put that all together and Wright’s example implies this: attempting to use words to change ideas, attitudes and emotional responses is magical thinking. Now, this is perhaps not far from his actual beliefs, in so far as he seems to believe in a kind of Platonistic spiritualism, but in this essay, he is ascribing this ‘magical thinking’ to the left, not to himself.

Looking back at his original essay you can see the same confusion. Aside from the actual examples of people overtly calling themselves witches, his other examples of people on the left engaged in supposedly magical rituals are all the same. In each case, it is people doing symbolic things in an attempt to effect how other people are thinking.

That is not ‘magical thinking’, that is ‘people communicating with other people’. In short, Wright is confusing cognitive psychology with magic.

‘Ah!’ Says an imaginary interlocuter, ‘You think minds are based in physical reality and so you do think physical entities are changing because of symbols being manipulated!’

Meh. We don’t even need intelligence or to delve into how minds might work to see that mechanical devices can exist which can effect physical change because of how I manipulate symbols. I’m doing that right now as I type on this laptop. That isn’t magic or magical thinking.

Mr Wright then complains that people on the left treated his argument with disdain:

But a Leftist does not argue in this way. Rather, his argument is that you are a stupid lunatic for being afraid of witchcraft, and for thinking that everyone on the Left is a practicing satanist.

Now, if you notice, there are three things wrong with this argument: first, you neither said nor implied what the Leftist accuses you of saying or implying. So it is a strawman argument, therefore irrelevant. Second, it does not address the argument you gave, merely mocks you as a person. So it is ad hominem, therefore irrelevant. Third, it is not an argument at all. An insult is not an argument.

One cannot argue with this for the same reason one cannot argue with poop flung by a monkey. The monkey poop is not attempting to discuss a difference of opinion nor come to a conclusion about the true answer to any questions being discussed.

Why would a Leftist in an argument make statements he knows or should know have no relevance to the argument?

The answer is as given above: the words uttered are merely symbolic. It is a verbal form of magical thinking.

He is correct here that the reaction to his claim was not a reasoned argument. He is incorrect that therefore the reaction was irrational or another example of ‘magical thinking’. Laughing at poorly constructed arguments with absurd conclusions is both reasonable and rational.

Mr Wright is capable of structuring argument but he often fails to do so and he has great difficulty in continuing a rational dialogue in good faith. Why, in such circumstance, should anybody on the left treat his argument with any kind of depth of analysis? His conclusion was false and easily refuted – the tortured root by which he reached a false conclusion (replete with much-overblown language) is of interest only from an educational perspective.

So what is magical thinking? Magical thinking is when people confuse their desires with reality i.e. when people confuse what they would like with what actually *is*. That might involve rituals or manipulating words, but it is just as frequent when people use their own powers of thinking to bemuse and befuddle themselves – just as John C Wright is apt to do on a range of topics from history to climate science.

Put yet another way, when a person ceases to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.