The problem with AI

In general, advanced AIs can be expected to want to take over the universe so that they can work towards their goals with the least risk of interruption (read: probably kill all humans), so what to do....

Give it a stop button! But it will want to prevent you from pressing that button, because that'll stop it from meeting its goals. It'll work hard to find a way to get to the button or to persuade you never to press it (read: probably kill you). You don't want this.

Program the AI to like having its stop button be pressed! But it will just act in an undesirable way (read: go berserk and probably kill lots of people) so that you press it.

So what to do? I wondered about programming the AI to simply like humans being in control of the universe (if you could figure out how to define "humans" unambiguously without messing up - a separate impossibly difficult problem). But then it might decide that, since AI is probably the biggest threat to human agency, AI development must be stopped.

Picture the scenario.... the AI programmers nervously turn on the robot and it seems to behave very nicely. Then a week later hitmen, paid by the robot who has hacked into all the banks, murder every AI developer on the planet and then the robot sticks its hard drive in a microwave and deletes itself.

Well it's a difficult problem as you can see.

Autumn "haike" to Tanzan Shrine

Last month I joined the Hailstone Haiku group once again for their annual autumn "haike", in which we hike and write haiku. I'm no haiku expertin fact I generally have no interest in poetry. But I find haiku writing to be like photography; you want to capture a meaningful image in a beautiful way, and there's fun to be had in playing around with that concept.

What follows is my account, and some haiku written by the poets (an edited version of this appears at the official blog of the group, linked above).

Tanzan Shrine

It's a cool, early autumn morning and four pilgrims are searching for a path through Mount Goharetsu. Their destination is Tanzan Shrine and its annual "Kakitsu" festival, which is due to start in a few short hours.

Cloud shrouds the peaks
Above the plains of Asuka --
A lone kite circling

another step up
rising earth, interrupted - 
span of silver thread

The persimmon farmer talks
of a typhoon-damaged slope:
Mt. Katsuragi
wreathed in mist

Their route has taken them through the streets of Asuka from the minshuku where they had spent the previous night; into the foothills past locals growing their crops; and up among tall, straight trunks of cypress and cedar trees growing on the mountainside.

Field of golden rice 
ready for harvesting---
Ancient village, unchanged

The entomologist -
showing us his bagged live specimens
in a dreary wood

the trees close in and
catch our voices - their reply
a soft mockery

They reach the shrine, a burst of Japanese architecture, as the festival's ritual is already underway. Removing their shoes, they shuffle quietly into one wide room—open at the back to a sunlit canopy—and join the spectators. Many elaborate displays of fruit and harvest are brought from within the shrine, passing from priest to priest, to the shrill accompaniment of traditional pipes. A glimpse is seen of the statue to the enshrined deity, Fujiwara no Kamatari, which the festival honours.

For another year
priest pulls the curtain down
on the clan divinity -
his long, plaintive wail

The shinto priest:
A single green pepper
Atop his chestnut offering

The festival complete, our pilgrims head back into the sun, retrieving lunch boxes from their backpacks.

tier upon tier,
the surrounding trees are touched
by its scarlet paint

Should we teach facts or skills?

"The scientist is not the one who provides the right answers; it is the one who asks the right questions."

So I was looking over the answers to a science test from a school I don't teach at today. I came across this answer to the question, "Explain what survival of the fittest means":
"It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."
I thought it was a bit of a weird way to describe it, since - as I understand it - survival of the fittest literally just means the individuals (not species) who are most fit for an environment are most likely to survive in it (an obvious truism and an important part of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection).

I puzzled over it a little more. I don't think it's a description of survival of the fittest, but is it even true? A species which is "most responsive to change" is more likely to survive? Are different species more or less responsive to change? Maybe, but I wasn't sure about that, and it certainly didn't sound like one of the fundamental elements of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which I think I have a solid conception of, and which is what was being taught in this unit.

So out of curiosity I looked it up. Turns out it's probably a simple misquote of Darwin made up by a business professor trying to teach people about how we should behave.

My instinct was correct; the quote does not belong in a middle school science class.

On a deeper level, this is a symptom of an issue I've been running up against recently. When I teach, should I teach facts or skills? Should my students spend every lesson copying from slides or from a textbook, and every night memorising those notes, and be assessed based on how precisely they can quote the information from memory? Is it important that, when learning about evolution, students (especially students who find English challenging at the best of times, which is very relevant to my current job) can define the following list of terms (and only these) in isolation: "adaptation, extinction, immigration, emigration, fossil record, vestigial organ, speciation, overproduction, variation..."?

The problem with rote memorisation like this, what I've heard called "guess the teacher's password", is that it's vulnerable to the kinds of errors like the Darwin misquote above. Textbooks (or any other sources of information) are not infallible and students need to learn how to acquire knowledge given a fuzzy world where there are few black and whites. Far better to teach concepts rather than quotes, to encourage synthesised explanations rather than word for word textbook answers, and even to learn how to think like a scientist rather than just a list of things that scientists have discovered.

After all, it is not the strongest students who survive,  nor the ones with the best memory, but the ones most responsive to change.

The Great Filter - why we are alone in the universe

What would it mean for our future if we finally found life beyond our planet? If you were hoping that the destiny of our species was to expand beyond Earth, it would actually be very bad news.

There's this concept called The Great Filter. It's an explanation for why we don't see any signs of life out there.

Life has had billions of years and billions of planets on which to come into being, evolve, and develop into a successful interstellar civilisation. But it hasn't happened. There must be some step along that journey - from chemical soup to reaching the stars - that is essentially impossible to pass, except by the most unlikely of chances.

Are we before or after this Great Filter?

If we've passed it, then we already GOT lucky and our road ahead is unforged and untested. We might well be able to make it off this rock.

But if it's ahead of us - if there's some cataclysmic event that every budding civilisation is bound to trigger - then you'd expect to eventually find signs of life confined to individual planets and moons. Little microbes or creatures on their way to the Filter like us, or the remains of those who reached it and were defeated. It still explains why we haven't found anything yet - we haven't investigated anywhere closely enough for that yet. We may well find such signs on one of several promising sites within our own solar system. The most we can say is that colonising the planet as we have isn't so easy that it happened twice in our own solar system.

So, what if we do find life on Mars (or Europa, or Enceladus, or Titan...)?

Then that would be evidence that The Great Filter is not behind us. Which means it's more likely to be ahead... which would mean we're doomed, because we really shouldn't expect to get through it (it isn't The Okay Filter, after all).

So, despite how much we all want to find life out there, and how depressing it would be to be alone in the universe, we're really better off being the first ones to get this far.

Unless you can imagine a scenario in which a civilisation like ours continues to advance significantly without becoming obvious to see through a telescope.
This post was inspired by a video that In A Nutshell released today.

WTF is going on with British primary school assessment?

I feel for my UK teacher friends... WTF is going on with British primary school assessment?
I always hated teaching English because languages, by their very nature, simply defy clear-cut, 'logical' rules and yet everywhere we're expected to teach rules. Teaching resources online always make bold, absolute statements about grammar points and I often had a niggling sense of doubt about them.
It turns out that linguists actually dispute the entire category of subordinating conjunction! I always found that hard to explain (or understand), apart from that it seems you can move subordinate clauses to the front of a sentence. But the oft-used definition of 'a subordinate clause is less important than the main clause' doesn't, to me, make sense, for example, of the coordinating conjunction 'so', which is basically the inverse of 'because'. As in, "I ate quickly because I was hungry." versus "I was hungry so I ate quickly." In either case, the reason for mentioning my hunger is in giving an explanation for the statement "I ate quickly".
Also 'but' - "I like comic book movies but I still haven't seen Batman v Superman." In that sentence, isn't the first clause subordinate to the second? Because you could replace 'but' in the middle with 'although' at the start, which is a subordinating conjunction?
I thought my own understanding of grammar, from my education and training leading up to me having to teach it, was just insufficient, but it seems like people who ought to know this stuff are equally disgruntled.
Example question from Y6 grammar test, taken from Michael Rosen's recent blog post:
Tick the sentence where the highlighted word is used as a subordinating conjunction.
Tick one.
He was at school BEFORE you.
She did her homework UNTIL dinnertime.
Do not undo your seatbelt, UNTIL the car has stopped.
WHEN the sun is out, we will go outside.
Just what in the hell? Can anyone answer this? It seems from Michael Rosen's update post that a lot of people who you'd think ought to be able to answer a Year 6 grammar question cannot.

My new favourite Japanese word

I love the Japanese word komorebi. It has no English equivalent; try typing it into Google Translate.

I was looking for an image to represent komorebi when I remembered this video I recorded at a folk music festival in Sheffield a couple of years ago. I was lying on my back listening to the music in the shade on a hot Summer's day, enjoying the komorebi so much I had to record it.

Komorebi means 'sunlight filtered through foliage'. What an absolutely glorious thing to have a word for. The Japanese, as if I didn't already know it, obviously have a keen sense of beauty.

What's even better about the word is how it's written. There are 3 kanji in it (the れ is just the hiragana for 're'): 木漏れ日. I tried to figure out what those kanji meant to see how such a cool concept was translated into a word.

Kanji are the complicated symbols that come from Chinese and have meanings but their pronunciation varies from word to word. There are thousands of them and, like English spellings, some people know more than others.

Firstly, I immediately recognised the final kanji, 日; it represents the sun and is often pronounced 'bi'. So this word probably has something to do with the sun.

The first two kanji are 木, tree, and 漏, leakage, which I had to look up. Weirdly, put together (木漏) Google Translate gives the result 'kimo', or 'liver'! I guess the liver filters things, like the leaves filter sunlight?? Why the kanji for tree/wood appears in the word for liver I have no idea.

Add the れ to 木漏, however, and the translation switches to 'komore', or simply 'tree leakage'. I assume that's either Google failing to think of anything more appropriate than slapping the two meanings together, or the Japanese genuinely have a general word for stuff leaking from trees. Which is kinda weird.

Komorebi in New Zealand (photo by me, from April 2014)

An honorable mention goes to 森林浴 ('shinrinyoku'), which translates directly to 'forest bathing', and according to the page which inspired this post means "to go deep into the woods where everything is silent and peaceful for a relaxation". I love me some shinrinyoku.

My first week living in Japan

It's half past 10pm on Tuesday the 22nd of December, and this time last week I was out cold on my newly-made futon bed, on my own in a cold and unfamiliar apartment, exhausted from my long journey to Japan.

Here's a summary of my first week living in Japan.

Tuesday - Arrival

I wrote a blog post as 'Mr Russell' for my journey to Japan, which you might already have read. It was a long journey from early Monday morning when I left my brother's in Hertford, to arriving in Japan on Tuesday afternoon local time. I had no internet that entire time, and when I landed in Tokyo's Narita Airport (pretty far from Tokyo's city centre) I had time to make a payphone call to OES (Ota English School) telling them I'd landed before I had to get on a coach for a 3-hour trip to Ota.

I arrived at Ota Station on Tuesday evening, with my backpack and two big luggage bags, and because I was half an hour early and had no means to contact anyone, I dragged my bags to a nearby mini-mart type shop and looked for some food. Turns out I was actually 2 minutes from OES's central office, though I obviously had no idea at the time. Eventually one of the native English speaking staff (can't actually remember who it was, thinking back now) arrived to walk me to the office.

After a few introductions and a chance to sit and chill, I was whisked off to Oizumi and my apartment. It was cold and dark by then, and the apartment seemed a bit dingy and dirty, but I was exhausted so after a very friendly Japanese OES member helped me make my new futon bed, I flaked out until Wednesday morning.

Wednesday - Exploring Oizumi and Ota

I woke early Wednesday morning and made myself more familiar with my apartment. There was a lot I wasn't sure about still - the Japanese garbage separation protocols, my washing machine, the hob, what supplies I had and what I needed to find - but it was nicer in daylight and I spent a while unpacking and made myself a cup of tea and had a hobnob, which naturally made everything a bit better.

I'd had my local 'corner shop' pointed out to me as we approached the night before, so I headed over there to scope it out, and picked up a few things I recognised like milk, eggs, bread, and croissants.

Then after Skyping my mum and sister, I planned a journey to Aeon Mall on Ota on the trains. Handily, once you've planned a journey with the Google Maps app on your phone, you can leave the route loaded and it'll track you on GPS even if you don't have internet once you've left your home. I spent a lot of time on the Japanese public transport system in April, so it wasn't that hard to get to the mall. I had a double cheeseburger at Japanese McDonald's (マクドナルド - 'Makudonarudo'), and had a poke around at the cinema (Star Wars would be coming out soon...!).

Knowing 'katakana' (one of the two Japanese scripts, the one used for emphasis or for foreign loan-words) is dead helpful in Japan and lets you figure out most of the stuff you see. Lots of stuff is labelled in approximate-English, using their writing system.

Thursday and Friday - Driving Lesson and Observations

After my day off on Wednesday, I had driving lessons and some lesson observations to do on Thursday and Friday.

I woke up early again on Thursday so after some Weetabix and a cup of tea to remind me I'm English, I headed out for a wander around Oizumi. I'd seen a few things of interest and Google Maps showed some more, so I plotted a route around Oizumi's industrial centre. There were supermarkets, big second-hand shops selling consoles and computer parts, restaurants, dingy parks (Winter's not really the season to show them off I guess), and lots of residential areas. It was pretty cold and I headed back with my arms full of a cheap computer case and second-hand monitor so I could try putting my computer together when I got time.

When I got back Joey was already waiting to take me out driving, so I dumped my stuff and we went out. Driving in Japan is really straightforward. They drive on the left like we do, and the cars are all automatic. The main thing to learn is how to use the crossings they have instead of roundabouts, but it's dead simple. I've been assigned a car by OES which is really handy as you can imagine! It's only 600cc and kinda looks and drives like a golf cart, but I'm not complaining!

So far I'd been eating snacky-type food from the 7-11s and McDonald's, so I went to a ramen cafe (ranem is a favourite food in Japan) and ordered this meal:

It was very tasty and I ate it all. I haven't been back yet but there are loads of ramen cafes around to try. I still haven't figured out what all the things are at the supermarket so I don't have enough supplies to make myself interesting meals at home, but I did make a cheaty stir-fry with real chicken and a ready-made pack of mixed veg and sauce, and a cute microwaveable rice portion (which works really well actually).

Saturday - Star Wars and Izakaya

Now I missed Star Wars in the UK which came out on Thursday, and I missed the first showing in Japan (which was Friday at 6:30pm across the country) because I was working, but the second showing was scheduled for 10am on Saturday, so I shot over to Aeon Mall in the morning hoping there'd be tickets left. I wasn't very optimistic, and I didn't know if I'd be able to figure out which times were English-language screenings (Japan shows both dubbed and subbed for lots of films). First hiccup: I arrived at the mall at twenty to 10 but it was closed. The mall didn't open until 10 and that's when Star Wars was supposed to be shown!

At 10 the doors opened and I hurried in to the cinema. There weren't many people around, a small group of Japanese shoppers waiting at the entrance, and when I got to the cinema it was easy to get to the cashier and ask, in my rudimentary Japanese, about tickets. Luck was on my side - the 10am showing had tickets to spare and was in English. With little fanfare, I was in and sat in my seat!

Even sitting by myself it was great fun seeing another new Star Wars film. My family's kind of nuts over Star Wars. We watched the prequel trilogy together, we've made silly fanfilms, we all went to Tunisia to see the filming locations. Missing out on this one with my family was sad, but seeing it and knowing they had just seen it themselves made me feel a bit more connected to them.

On Saturday night a bunch of OES employees were going out to a local 'izakaya' restaurant/bar as an end-of-year celebration thing. I tagged along and it was good fun. We sat at a table that was sunk into the floor, so you sat on the floor but your legs still had room under the table. We ate a small selection of finger food and drank and chatted.

Sunday - Computer Building

Even though Ota's a reasonably small town, and Oizumi's even smaller, there seem to be a lot of stores for things like computer parts, old and new. I brought my computer to Japan in pieces, and didn't bring a case or a monitor. I figured the motherboard wouldn't survive the journey, but that's the oldest part of my computer anyway so I was theoretically happy to replace that, but I didn't know if I'd be able to figure out how to get one, or how much it would cost.

At first it had seemed like my computer pieces didn't survive; I hooked them all up and the computer kept turning itself off after a minute. It was as if it was overheating but everything seemed to be connected properly so I thought something must have been fried in transit. I went to 'PC Depot' and picked up a few bits and pieces, and set about tinkering. The only thing that had gone wrong was that the fan had come loose from the processor, which I didn't realise would overheat so quickly. Connecting that up properly solved the problem, and with my new monitor I was set up again!

My 'tatami room' is now my fully-fledged computer/study room where I sit and relax at home. I'm feeling pretty settled and happy :)

Monday and Tuesday - Teaching

That just leaves the last two days. I've been observing some more lessons, including kindergarten which is an experience! Teaching in this context is quite a lot different from the teaching I did in the UK. Having 30 kids all day every day and being the Big Boss, versus having all sorts of different clients in short sessions and having less of an authoritarian role, is a big change.

Today I taught a few lessons, covering for one of the other OES teachers who's gone back to the UK for Christmas. I think once I get into the swing of it it's going to be pretty straightforward and a good fun way to spend a year. There should be lots of opportunity for me to explore Japan - its language, culture and food. But I still miss everyone in the UK!

It's now 1am on Wednesday morning and I'm teaching from 3pm to 9pm tomorrow (then I might sneak in another viewing of Star Wars...). I'm working on Christmas morning, but then I shall be Skyping my family and seeing what sort of Christmas dinner I can put together!