03:14:06 UTC on Tuesday, 19 January 2038


Twenty years today we will know if the Y2038 problem has had more impact on human civilisation than the Y2k one. Of course, it may be necessary for the Eschaton to save us one second before the clocks roll over. So I predict the Singularity at exactly 03:14:06 UTC on Tuesday, 19 January 2038.

How possible is that? Conveniently enough for me, I will only be 69 in January 2038 and perhaps 70 will be the New 50. So, as a date, it is very much in the scope of my plausible lifetime. Of course, there will be a lot of getting there. Back at Intersection in 1995, I wrote of 1995-2005 as the research decade, 2005-2015 as the development decade and 2015-2025 as the implementation decade. After 2025, all bets are off. For A(G)I, that's perhaps not so far. The largest publicly listed companies in the world are explicitly A(G)I companies and one of them barely existed in 1998 (and not all in 1995) and the other is profoundly changed (and that leaves aside Microsoft and car companies; what about ExxonMobil?). For molecular nanotechnology, not so much, but I'm hoping to start see progress over the next few years and we do have techniques like CRISPR as well as OLEDs and graphene. And we've still got (nearly) 20 years.

Of course, we were talking about the Singularity in the mid-1990s or even the mid-1980s (Marooned in Realtime) or even the early 1970s (Gravity's Rainbow) or even the late 1950s (Ulam). AI has we know it today has been around for about 70 years now. We might still be another 70 from anything interesting. Or not. There's a lot of money being pumped into A(G)I research and development right now. Sure a lot of that money will be wasted and a lot of it will go either on fairly mundane stuff or stuff that is seen as the topic of the moment. A(G)I is hot right now, but in two or three years we might be firmly mired in the slough of broken dreams. But it is not as tough A(G)I is suddenly going to become a bad idea.  It's been around for 70 yeats through several AI winters. It's always going to be a good idea.

Probably the most interesting developments for the last few months have been the AlphaZero work and the research on evolving neural nets. Evolving nets offer another paradigm to backprop and possibly a way of more quickly getting novelty in systems. AlphaZero demonstrates that it is possible to achieve superhuman performance overnight, albeit in a limited domain. But three years ago, we were wondering whether go would ever fall to AIs. Chess might have been the Drosophilia of AI back in the 1960s, but now it's StarCraft. Will that fall before 2038? I'd wager it will. Civilization would be an interesting and simpler testbed. It's the thing one would like to do research on if one could. It would be great in Civilization fell before the end of the decade.

It's easy to say that A(G)I is always 20 years away. 20 years isn't really such a long time. But 70 years is and that's a blink on the scale of human much less planetary history. OK, perhaps not in 2038, but what 2088? 1988 was very different from 1918 even if there was no Google or Wikipedia or iPhone yet. And thus 2018 is really different from 1948, so something happened between 1988 and now. 

If you were about ti start a computer science degree (or, just as good, natch, a physics one), you would have four years of undergraduate and a year of master's degree in AGI before starting your PhD in 2023, when things could already be rather different. Bu the time you finish your PhD, 2026-7, you'd be well positioned to contribute to the big push towards a 2038 Singularity. We might 3-4 years from cracking StarCraft. Combine with advances in knowledge engineering and language processing and neuromorphic chips and a couple of other breakthroughs I haven't thought of. 5 or 6 breakthroughs taking 3-4 years. That's 20 years. We could get there.

The Big Eye


The Isaac Newton Telescope was the largest (optical) telescope in the the UK from its commissioning in 1967 at Herstmonceux Castle, Sussex, until it was moved to the Canaries in 1979 and was eventually recommissioned in 1984. I knew this, but what I didn't until yesterday was how big the INT was in 1967 or even in 1984. In 1967, it was the fifth largest telescope in the world with only two substantially bigger than it and the sixth a long way behind. In 1984, it was joint fourteenth. It got a new mirror on La Palma and had gone from 98" to a full 100".

What's extraordinary about the size of the INT is that it was decided to build such a large telescope at sea level (more or less) in England. Even in 1967, the other large telescopes were at altitude, but there were no large telescopes even in countries with better weather and mountains. There must be some interesting politics behind how the INT got commissioned in the first place. Of course, if you live somewhere cloudy, you just have to make the best of things. I wonder how much good science was done with it. Probably lots as it was there to be used (weather permitting) and there were no alternatives.

It's a tiddler now compared to the behemoth that have been constructed over the last three decades. Which goes to show how things have changed. When I was doing astronomy in the mid-1980s to early 1990s, the 4-metre class of telescope such as the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma were state of the art, but what we learnt as undergraduates had been achieved with telescopes of INT size or smaller largely. I recall reading somewhere the claim that CCD, new in the 1980s to astronomy anyway, would give a new lease of life to smaller telescopes (might be in Zeilik and Smith even; I wish there were a new edition of that book). I don't how much that happened. I'd be interested to know what the largest telescope is in the UK now and whether it is possible to do much serious work with it. Lots of universities have telescopes, but there are pretty much just for undergraduates these days as far as I know. Do any PhD students use them? Even the Canaries only has 75% clear nights and to be useful you would really need to be in a dark area. There might be some reasonably-sized amateur telescopes, but does any university have any research-orientated optical telescopes in the UK? 


The Lights in the Sky are Stars


"There are at least 1024 stars in the universe."

If we take the 1% closest in age, the 1% of those closest in mass and the 1% of those closest in metallicity, that 1018 stars. Even in the Milky Way, that's 400,000 very Sun-like stars. Almost all of those will have planets. What percentage have terrestrial planets in the Habitable Zone? We haven't got a good handle on that yet. Of course, life has existed on Earth for billions of years, so you don't necessarily need your Solar analogue to that close in age or, quite possibly even in mass or metallicity. But it is likely that the percentage with Earth-like planets is perhaps a few per cent as it is thought terrestrial planets are rare. That might mean a few thousand Earth-like planets around very Sun-like stars in the Milky Way. Of course, if we make similar demands of the planets as of the stars, we get one in a million, so 0.4 systems in the Milky Way, i.e. us. (Actually, the planet will be the same age as the star and age is less important as it's mass and composition we care about, so we might argue that it is just more like 1 in a 1000 or 1 in 10,000, so 4 or 40 planets.) But that's still 1012 "Earths" in the observable universe.

The fascinating thing is that there are a lot of stars and planets in the Milky Way and some if the will necessarily be Sun-like and Earth-like. Planets though will vary a lot more stars. A star is a much simpler thing that a planet embedded in a planetary system. So how Earth-like would an Earth-like planet actually be? Things like the mass of the atmosphere and oceans might depend a lot on happenstance. An Earth with tens times or a tenth of either would be a very different planet. And there's no guarantee of life. But the point is that even in the Milly Way there will be systems with Earth-like planets. And we just don't know where they are. Of course, it is possible that there might be fairly Earth-like planets nearby if they are common enough. We will be able to image planets around other stars at some point, but it is the really Earth-like ones that could be the most fascinating. (If the galaxy is teeming with life, perhaps it doesn't matter so much.)    

The Social Network


I hadn't looked at LiveJournal for ages. I just stopped a few months ago. A lot of people had drifted away and it just didn't seem there was that much happening there and it is never going to 2003 again. But there are still a few people there including, of course, as M pointed out in a recent entry me via the Atomic Razor feed, which is still working al these years later. So even though I haven't been reading LJ, people have been reading me on LJ. So it behoves me to pay more attention to it. There's still worthwhile material there. It took me a while to grok Twitter and there is good stuff on it, but it is not LJ in its prime. So keeping in touch with LJ makes sense as it is a connection to people I don't encounter through Twitter. So perhaps the tumbleweed might stay away from LJ a little longer, I hope.

Fly Away


So it looks as though the end might be nigh for the Airbus A380. Which is a real pity. Europe had gone one better than the US, both in building a bigger airliner and in having the chutzpah to do it. But it didn't work out. Point-to-point on Boeing 787 Dreamliners males more economic sense as well as being more convenient. We do have cheap and cheerful intercontinental travel now on Icelandair or Norwegian.  

I'd still love to fly on an A380 even in economy. I'd [particularly like to take a shower though at 10,000 metres. A380s are going to around for a while yet. I might well get the chance, just as I'd like to fly on a Russian airliner (the Irkut_MC-21 made its maiden flight last year and has 205 orders, although some older would be more exciting). But where do we go from here? The A380 was a tube with wings. It was just a very big (too big?) tube with wings. Is that all we are ever going to have now? In the age of Blue Origin and SpaceX, is there any prospect of something more exciting? What of a flying wing? What of a super-Concorde? What, indeed, of the sub-orbital hop? 

Hubble Trouble


So, we have four separate methods for determining the Hubble Constant, two of which come up with a low value (~69 km s-1 Mpc-1)and two of which give a high value (~73 km s-1 Mpc-1). Of course, that's still a lot better than it was back in our day, when the main methods were coming out at ~5- km s-1 Mpc-1 or ~100 km s-1 Mpc-1. The discrepancy is still within the error bars. If this were CERN, no-one would be claiming victory yet. We just don't know if there is some new physics here (the sterile neutrino or something to do with dark energy) or whether there are observational issues. Cosmological observations can be difficult to make and derived parameters can be model-dependent. It can easy to overlook systematic sources of errors because you are too close to the instruments and the data. 

Of course, what we really don't want, bit are probably going to get is an accelerating universe. The thought that eventually everything will be ripped apart is a profoundly depressing one. Freeman J. Dyson argued back in the 1970s that the energy required for infinite existence is finite. That's even more true if there are various hacks you can do with reversible computations. I do seem to recall that Fred C. Adams (indeed) and Greg Laughlin had something to say about in The Five Ages of the Universe (we could do with a third edition).  Dyson gave us a way of escaping the Heat Death of the Universe, but how do we scape the Big Rip? Sublime might not help. We will need to find a new physical substrate to compute on. Can that be found by creating and entering a new universe? 

Too Many Things in My Head


Sometimes I think there are too many things in the world and too many things in my head. But it is good that there are so many things in the world. I am never going to run out of new things. Sometimes, it seems as though everyone and everything is connected to everyone and everything and that there are only about seven people in the world.

I have 208 tabs open. But I will never get them back to a tractable number. My books are in storage and have no idea when I might have a house that ca house them, but I have quite a number of physical books here and how can I ever imagine I can even make a token impact on those on my Kindle. Or stop buying more.

I have probably mentioned my talent/energy/focus theory. If you have two of those, you might get somewhere. I'm not really sure I do. I was good at A-Levels. But I don't how much that helps me 32 years later. So it is not clear what the way forward might be. I am interested in lots of different things, but it is probably better to be interested in one thing. (This suggests Berlin's fox and hedgehog.) Or just a couple of things, unless you have a lot of energy and talent. The job that I had (strategy consultant) that was most like doing A-Levels was no good for me as I didn't have the energy or the energy either really and that leaves aside the stress.    

I enjoy blogging and then I don't blog for a while and then I make an effort to blog more often. My resolution is to blog everyday this year or rather produce 365 entries. I have said that before and John has made the point that I don't have to or even should not to do it. And it is, of course, though it is writing of a sort, just another displacement exercise. I haven't got time to procrastinate any more. I am 50 in three months. I am running out of searoom. I have to get on with proper writing.

One possible consolation is that it is still possible to become a writer in one's fifties. Examples include  

Any other examples would be welcome. It's going to be a matter of making by fifties count nd actually get round to achieving something in them.

But I Wouldn't Want to Have to Paint It


I was reading the Martin Filler article in the New York Review of Books on the Wiener Werkstätte and he mentions the influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh on the Austrian group 

Interestingly, it was not the earnest Morris, a crusading socialist, to whom the Vienna avant-garde gravitated among British designers, but rather the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose outlook was darker and more emotionally complex than the heartily straightforward ethos of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Not for nothing was Mackintosh’s Glasgow circle dubbed “The Spook School,” in response to the wraith-like quality and spiritual subtext of its decorative schemes.

Indeed, one of the Wiener Werkstätte’s signature motifs—repetitive right-angled grids in wood or metalwork—came directly from Mackintosh. His designs were extensively published in the new halftone-illustrated international applied art journals (especially The Studio, founded in London in 1893, and Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, established in Darmstadt in 1897) that allowed a rapid and reciprocal exchange of design ideas across great distances.

The Studio sounded interesting, but I thought there was no pint in googling that, but there was Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration. Which doesn't appear to have a FoAK article, but one of the top hits was to John Coulthart's website, where he has undertaken in-depth scruting of the journal (25 main entries plus other tagged articles)

Last year saw an exploration here of the fecund pages of Jugend magazine so in the same spirit I’m embarking on a serial delve into Jugend‘s more serious contemporary Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration. I’ve made a couple of posts in this direction already but these were done before I’d had a chance to look properly through the editions at the Internet Archive, the first thirty of which form a collection which comprises some 7500 pages. Since few people would want to download and sort through that mountain these posts can serve as a select guide to the contents.


Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration was published by Alexander Koch in Darmstadt and the first volume is dated October 1897–March 1898. Jugend was a humour magazine so the contents tend to be frivolous and lighthearted, Koch’s title by contrast was a guide to the best of German contemporary art and design and has the advantage of featuring furniture and architectural designs as well as graphic material. The content of this first edition is relatively sedate compared to some of the later numbers when the Art Nouveau style builds up a head of steam. There’s some astonishing design work in subsequent issues, as well as further illustration discoveries like Marcus Behmer. Watch this space.

(Hat tip to John for the illustration from Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration.)

John, of course, was a regular at the PSFG back in the days of our pomp in the 1990s when Bryan Talbot dwelt amongst us. But it's interesting that something I came across in a NYR article and sounded interesting led directly to someone I have met.

My copy of Steve Moore's Somnium arrived today. I looked at the cover and wondered if it was. Of course, it was, although it is not, to my eye, in John's usual style. There's an image of a fantastical palace on the cover that does look like something that might have been inspired by a picture in the pages of Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration. Given there's a lot of stuff to go through on John's website, I haven't found anything yet that might be a seed. 

Of course, the cover of a Strange Attractor Press book by a writer like Steve Moore is exactly the sort of thing that John does, so the coincidence is not so uncanny. I did wonder whether there is a link between my old mucker Joel Biroco and John. Unsurprisingly, there are a couple on John's website including one with a picture by Joel. Again, people who have interests that overlap are going to be connected. But I would like to write a book about it. Well, not specifically connections around something like Strange Attractor, but connections in general. It's a small world or not depending how you look at it. (There must also, I suspect, be a direct link between Steve Moore and Joel, but I don't know if I ever found it, although I do recall vaguely looking. Now I will have to again. Probably someone discussing both in a annotated bibliography of books on the I Ching. I seem to recall that now.) 

I should look up The Studio now.



Christmas Sunday Revisited


As you might have noticed, there is a Christmas Sunday article on the FoAK. This most refers to the ecclesiastical use of the expression. I have never come across it in the Roman Catholic tradition, although that does not necessarily mean that it is not used. The article links to a page on Christmas Sunday on the Osgoode Hall website. Osgoode Hall in Toronto houses the Court of Appeal for Ontario, the Superior Court of Justice and the

Law Society of Upper Canada

The page opines

Christmas Sunday is a name for the Sunday after Christmas. In the United Kingdom, if Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, December the 26th, is referred to as "Christmas Sunday", and Boxing Day moves to December the 27th. Since 1999 common practice has seen December the 26th, remain Boxing Day even when it falls on a Sunday. 

As I have said, in 50 Christmases, I have never come across the use of Boxing Day to refer to any day other than 26 December. Given that Boxing Day has been a public holiday in England and Wales (and Ireland as St Stephen's Day before independence for the 26 counties), the notion that Boxing Day itself is a day on which tips are given to workers or servants is likely to be nonsense because they would be holiday on the day. Certainly, the idea that "[s]ince 1999 common practice has seen December the 26th, remain Boxing Day even when it falls on a Sunday" seems incorrect to me. But I am willing to be corrected if anyone has documentary proof of Monday, 27 December being referred to as Boxing Day in the late C20th. I strongly suspect that hunts and probably shoots might do, but I'd like to see a more general example such as Radio Times listing or references in newspapers and magazines from years on which Christmas has fallen on a Saturday.



Christmas Saturday and Christmas Sunday


St Stephen's Day is the day after Christmas Day, 26 December. This is called Boxing Day in the UK and some other countries. There is some dispute about the origins of the name. "Boxing Day" as a term is only attested to from the early C19th, although Pepys talks of Christmas boxes, gifts or tips for workers or servants given on the first working day after Christmas. 

Saturday, of course, was traditionally a working day, so there is no problem with Boxing Day on that day of the week and thus no need for a Christmas Saturday. But Sunday was not a working day. If Christmas Day is a Saturday, Boxing Day should fall on 27 December, the Monday. Tat Wood in About Time 8 implies that is this is the definition of Boxing Day (in fact, he could be read as implying that it can't be a Saturday either). The FoAK says that that was the original definition, but now 26 December is universally referred to as Boxing Day and that tallies with own experience. I do not recall see a Christmas Saturday or Christmas Sunday in the Radio Times with Boxing day on the Monday. 

What though of boxing hunts and shoots? Presumably, these weren't held on Sundays at least until recent years. What about The Archers and the Grey Gables shoot? Does that move to the Monday if 26 December is a Sunday? Is it still called the Boxing Day shoot? I am guessing that in the period when there were no football games on Sundays, the Boxing Day fixtures were on the Monday. Similarly for race meetings. But as anyone personal testimony to Boxing Day being used to refer to Monday, 27 December outside a extended use to refer to these kinds of fixtures?

Wood also implies that tips are still given to dustbin men/milkmen/paperboys/posties on Boxing Day. Which is obvious nonsense. Yes, tips might be given to those people at Christmas, but never on Boxing Day as they wouldn't be working on a public holiday. (I recall an episode of the revived 2000s Basil Brush in which Basil and his companion become dustbin men and Basil refers to one benefit of the job being the tips at Christmas.)