Monday, 13 August 2018

Computational Matter

My complimentary copies of our latest book have just arrived.

This book is concerned with computing in materio: that is, unconventional computing performed by directly harnessing the physical properties of materials. It offers an overview of the field, covering four main areas of interest: theory, practice, applications and implications. Each chapter synthesizes current understanding by deliberately bringing together researchers across a collection of related research projects. 

See the Springer site for table of contents.

This is one of the outcomes of our recent EU project, TRUCE

Sunday, 12 August 2018

book review: Living with Complexity

Donald A. Norman.
Living with Complexity.
MIT Press. 2011

It is interesting to watch Norman’s design philosophy evolve over a series of books. His 1988 classic The Psychology of Everyday Things argues for simplicity and naturalness in design. In his 2004 Emotional Design he is arguing for the consideration of the users’ aesthetic reaction to that design. And by 2007, in The Design of Future Things, he is focussing on the need for good communication between our ever-“smarter” technologies and us.

This 2011 book, Living with Complexity, admits that maybe simplicity and aesthetics isn’t the be-all and end-all of design. Our world, both natural and technological, is a complex place, and we want rich, complex interactions with it. Norman’s argument here is that good design should support that rich complexity, rather than making life harder by being unnecessarily complicated.
[p2] I use the word “complexity” to describe a state of the world. The word “complicated” describes a state of mind. The dictionary definition for “complexity” suggests things with many intricate and interreiated parts, which is just how I use the term. The definition for “complicated” includes as a secondary meaning “confusing,” which is what I am concerned with in my definition of that word.
There is a consequence of wanting rich complexity, however: it takes time to learn how to master it. We are (or should be) willing to put in the time when the reward is that richness.
[p30] Do we dislike the fact that learning to read and write, play musical instruments, and drive a car are all so complex? Not really. We don’t mind complexity when it seems appropriate. Yes, we truly dislike spending an hour learning some arcane, bizarre machinery. But we are willing to spend weeks or years learning other things, where the difficulties and complexity seem appropriate to the tasks
The issue is that we are often not willing to put in the time to learn complex tools. We seem to think everything should be easy to use (maybe because we have read some of Norman’s earlier books?) Norman argues for an even-handed approach: a willingness of designers to design well, removing complication, coupled with a willingness from users to put in the time to learn how to use the well-designed toolset. (Personally, I am willing to put in the time, but only in a staged manner: I want standard tasks to be simple and do-able without needing the full “10,000 hours” of mastery first, and only the richer, more sophisticated tasks to require a corresponding level of extra effort. That property, presumably, is part of the non-complicated design requirement.)

Norman offers a few guidelines on how to design well for complexity. The main one is to take a whole systems view: don’t improve just a single part of a malfunctioning system, rather, analyse the system to find where the real problem is, and redesign the whole of the “user experience” from beginning to end.
[p148] Never solve the problem the client has asked you to solve. Why? Because the client is usually responding to the symptoms. The first job of the designer, sometimes the hardest part of the entire task, is to discover what the underlying problem is, what problem really needs to be solved. We call this finding the root cause.
Of course, this is easier said than done in most cases. However, it is good to see an emphasis on treating a complex system as something that needs to be engages with, not simplified out of existence.

Unfortunately, I found the quality of the book itself somewhat poor. The text feels rushed and not fully polished, with a lot of repetition, as if an idea was written down, then reworded, but the original not deleted. The quality of the photographs is very poor: often too small and too dark to fully appreciate the point being illustrated. And I have the hardback, not just a paperback with traditionally poorer quality pictures. It is also typeset in a sans serif font, which I personally find ugly and hard to read. Nevertheless, there is an interesting and worthwhile idea in here, about taking a systems design view in a necessarily complex world.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Monday, 6 August 2018

too hot to handle

The outside temperature is only (only! only!!) 31 °C.  But when I got into the car to go shopping, it was a bit warmer inside:

I should have maybe parked in the shade.  But there isn't any...

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

book review: Object-Oriented Ontology

Graham Harman.
Object-Oriented Ontology: a new theory of everything.
Pelican. 2018

It may just be old age getting to me, but I’ve been reading more books and papers with a philosophical bent lately. In particular, I’ve been reading about process philosophy, a way of capturing the essential dynamism of the world in general, and biology in particular. So when I saw this title, I thought it might make an interesting counterpoint to that reading.

The topic is summarised as follows:
[p9] Some of the basic principles of OOO, to be visited in detail in the coming chapters, are as follows: (1) All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, nonhuman, natural, cultural, real or fictional. (2) Objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world. (3) Objects come in just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object. (4) Real objects cannot relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object. (5) The properties of objects also come in just two kinds: again, real and sensual. (6) These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence and eidos. (7) Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science.
Some of that sounds sensible, some is surprising, and some is confusing; but this is only the introductory summary, and more explanation comes later. There are some interesting comments on emergence:
[p31] predictability is not even the point, since even if we could predict the features of all larger entities from their ultimate physical constituents, the ability to predict would not change the fact that the larger entity actually possesses emergent qualities not found in its components.
But this is is a philosophy of objects: so just what is an object?
[p43] OOO means ‘object’ in an unusually wide sense: an object is anything that cannot be entirely reduced either to the components of wh1ch it is made or to the effects that it has on other things.
[p51] ‘object’ simply means anything that cannot be reduced either downward or upward, which means anything that has a surplus beyond its constituent pieces and beneath its sum total of effects on the world.
That definition seems a little circular: it is defined in terms of its components and of other things, both also presumably objects? However, such circularity is possibly necessary in a self-referential, non-reductionist, nonwellfounded world, which is how I got into process philosophy in the first place.

So far, so interesting. But then we move on to chapter 2: Aesthetics is the Root of All Philosophy. It starts off fairly clearly:
[p61] The previous chapter criticized most ‘theories of everthing’ for displaying four basic defects: physicalism, smallism, anti-fictionalism and literalism. At this point I hope mat most readers will agree that a theory of everything should be able to give an account of non-physical entities (the esprit de corps of a winning football club) no less than physical ones (atoms of iron). Perhaps most will agree as well that mid- to large-sized entities (horses, radio towers) need to be taken as seriously as the possibly tiniest entities (the strings of string theory). Finally, a good number of readers may also agree that a theory of everything should have something to say about fictional entities (Sherlock Holmes, unicorns) rather than simply eliminating them in favour of a discussion of their underpinnings (process, flux, neurons). Yet I suspect that the fourth point, OOO’s critique of literalism, will for many readers be the bridge too far.
We then get an excursion into metaphor and poetry. Now, I’ve read my Lakoff and Turner, so thought I was relatively happy with these concepts. But I find the discussion here very opaque. And when I got to:
[p85] It would be more accurate, however, to say that in art the part of the image which looks towards the object is subordinated to our efforts, as basically thespian beings, to become the new object generated by the metaphor.
which I read several times and failed to extract any meaning whatsoever, I decided that this is indeed a bridge too far for me. I may come back to this book later, as I have found several interesting ideas so far. But for now, I bounced off it at p85.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Monday, 30 July 2018

book review: Strange Practice

Vivian Shaw.
Strange Practice.
Orbit. 2017

Dr Greta Helsing (the family dropped the “van” some years ago) is dedicated to her patients, like any good doctor. Unlike other doctors, however, her patients are vampires, demons, ghouls, mummies, and other undead of London. Her practice is ticking along, until the day several monks attack Sir Francis Varney with garlic and a strangely shaped, deliberately poisoned knife. As the attacks on her patients increase in ferocity, she teams up with some of her more powerful undead friends to stop the perpetrators before all London is engulfed.

This is an exciting page turner with an interesting heroine: competent, resourceful, but all too human in a world of supernatural creatures who rely on her skills. The underlying mythology has a little overlap with standard vampires, but also branches out into a range of other creatures, all interesting, individual, and sympathetic. The plot twists and turns, leading to a world-shattering climax in the London sewers. I particularly like the way the team behaves sensibly, works together, and doesn’t try to hide information from each other for implausibly slim reasons. This is an interesting cast of characters, and I’m looking forward to Dr Helsing’s next adventure.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

book review: A Darkling Sea

James L. Cambias.
A Darkling Sea.
Tor. 2014

Ilmatar is home to a newly-discovered alien species, that lives in total darkness under thick ice, at extremely high pressures and deadly cold, building a civilisation around the energy available from hot vents. Humans have a scientific base nearby, observing the aliens. But they are forbidden from interacting with them by the Sholen, another alien species that so nearly destroyed itself that it now insists on consensus in everything, and minimising any interference with new contacts. But then the meddling humans accidentally make contact with the Ilmatarans, which might lead to war with the not-so-unified Sholen.

This is an interesting view of three very different species: the relatively primitive Ilmatarans, the superior but reclusive Sholen, and the humans. None of these is a homogeneous culture: the plot is driven as much by conflicts within as between species. Not all the Sholens are that convinced of consensus and there are different political sub-groups to be considered; not all the Ilmatarans are civilised; not all the humans are very scientific. There's a semi-amusing thread running through, as the humans and Sholens keep incorrectly predicting how the others will react, based on completely incorrect stereotypes they have of each other.

The majority of the plot takes place in the dark cold ocean beneath a kilometer of ice, giving an extra claustrophobic edge to the tensions between the three species. The background is well drawn: the Ilmataran life-cycle, language and living arrangements are gradually revealed; how the humans can live below the ice is engagingly info-dumped. There are a couple of distressing deaths: these are not described in gory detail, leaving it to the imagination to fill in the blanks. Some of the humans seem to get much too worked up about events, while others seem surprisingly unemotional about everything. But on the whole, this is an interesting story about conflicts between species who have completely different philosophies that are partly a result of their completely different physiologies.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

film review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Where Rogue One was a prequel, showing how the situation at the start of the events of Star Wars – A New Hope arose, Solo is an origin story, showing how the character of Han Solo became who he was. We see how Han got the name “Solo”, how he met Chewbacca, how he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a dodgy card game, how he made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (with a bit of hasty ret-conning why that even makes sense), and some things we didn’t know from previous films, such as how he joined the Imperial Army, the world and people he left behind, and how he was in at the genesis of the Rebellion.
no longer Solo
cocky kid

There is sufficient plot that this is an exciting stand-alone adventure of trust and betrayal, and also sufficient hooks to what comes later to make it a significant addition to the canon. My main gripe is that this is supposed to introduce us to the cynical Han Solo we know as an adult, by introducing him as a sort of "lovable rogue with a heart of gold"; but he’s just a bratty kid, really.

There is clearly meant to be a sequel, the “Jabba the Hut years”, maybe, since this ends well before episode IV kicks off, with a major part of the plot arc with his childhood sweetheart unresolved. We have to hope that the film does well enough not to end up with a prophetic title.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.