All posts by Number9

For (CNN) Anderson Cooper; Loss and Serial Immortality

(CNN) Anderson Cooper explores loss and grief in deeply personal new CNN podcast. People respond to loss in different ways.  I painted a painting, and wrote a eulogy.

(Click to enlarge)

Loss and Serial Immortality, oil on canvas, 48×36″

We are the Blue Men, infinite in the dimension of time.

 “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton.



Twitter and Elon Musk Part 2

We continue from Twitter and Elon Musk Part 1.

In 1950, the computers we know were science fiction. This did not stop mathematics, which tends to run 50 – 100 years ahead of actual need. So  40  years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing considered a hot problem of today: How do you detect a bot? His answer: Talk with it.

Since computer speech was neither anticipated or essential,  the Turing Test involves the use of a teleprinter by a person to converse with two hidden entities, one computer, and a second person.  If the hidden computer cannot be distinguished in conversation from the hidden person, the computer has  passed the test; it is intelligent.  This edges towards sentience, self-aware machine life. It may be the same thing.

As of 2022, though claims have been made, (BBC – Computer AI passes Turing test in ‘world first’),  prevailing opinion is that no computer has passed the Turing test. Yet there is strong motivation to deny the event. (CNBC) Google fires software engineer who claimed its AI chatbot is sentient. Google’s quest for perfection, with a chatbot powered by neural networks, may be at a level where the distinction is fuzzy.

Noam Chomsky’s deep structure linguistic theory argues that Google’s  LaMDA actually has to know things. And how much could it know without knowing about itself? Some AI researchers deprecate the Test, arguing it’s a test of deception, not intelligence. But  Turing’s intellect was great. His work, along with that of John von Neumann, is the bedrock of everything we do. Is it wise to be so dismissive?

To solve Twitter’s bot problem without expensive human employees, Musk’s software interrogator must run the Turing test. It must embody the intelligence of Turing’s human. If it does, Turing implies it’s possible to thwart any bot that lacks equivalent computing resources.  Something like LaMDA might fit the bill. But if the human brain has some secret sauce unavailable to artificial neural networks, then Musk’s LaMDA-esque bot interrogator lacks the unfoolable human advantage of Turing’s  human tester — unless he can find the secret sauce.

The secret sauce is the possibility that human brain is a quantum computer. The speculation is that a quantum brain has as yet unknown advantages against any silicon you could throw at it. To summarize:

  • If the human brain is not a quantum computer,  an efficient artificial interrogator for Turing’s Test applied to bots is within reach.
  • If the brain is a quantum computer, an artificial interrogator that fits Turing’s specification is not possible — unless Musk goes quantum himself. The technology for this does not exist.

The LaMDA chatbot and the Tesla autopilot use state-of-the art silicon neurons; neither use quantum computation. A Twitter interrogator based solely on silicon would be vulnerable to bots that share this technology. A bot war is implied. It might have entertainment value, like Saturday Night Wrestling.

To be continued shortly.

***Vengeance in Vegas***





Twitter and Elon Musk Part 1

Elon Musk and I have similar interests. Musk is interested in space travel; I wrote Att NASA; Move Over, Artemis; CTMT, a New Way Into Space. Musk is interested in AI; I wrote one of the early implementation  of the computer language Prolog, which by the standards of the day was an AI tool. Now Musk is interested in social media. I wrote Social Virtual Reality, An Internet Paradigm for Change, available for download from It’s about an evolved web, and has lots of citations. We share knowledge of terms like “regular expression, “software stack”, and “rpc”.

So although I am not an entrepreneur, I may have some insight into Musk’s thinking about Twitter. This is not about Musk’s management style, which is a separate issue, except to quote Winston Churchill: “When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.” Otherwise, you accrue more than the minimal number of enemies.

If  one views a software enterprise as nothing more than a deterministic code base running on reasonably reliable hardware, it gives rise to the idea that it ought to be able to run  itself. All system failures are then due to poorly written code.  This view has undeniable attraction to someone who has just spent $44B for an enterprise that is losing $3M per day. It gives rise to this logic:

  • In a world of perfect computer code, you could just fire everybody who was not directly connected with improving the code, and turn a profit.
  • This is not a world of  perfect computer code, but surely it can be improved, requiring far fewer employees to do so.
  • Those functions of Twitter that deal with human mayhem external to the code base, currently handled by expensive human beings, are to be offloaded to artificial intelligence.

The last point is encouraged by Musk’s success with the Tesla self-driving autopilot, which uses compute structures inspired by the brain, artificial neurons, to solve a problem beyond the reach of conventional computers. Does this predict Musk’s success in a battle of wits with malevolent humans?

Maybe, maybe not. The argument has flip-flopped several times since 1950. It  now hinges on the role quantum mechanics in defining the human mind. It will be a challenge to present. If you’re strictly liberal arts, don’t feel left out. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations will give you a feel for the problem. It’s downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Let’s take a little break, and let that sink in.


The S300 Russian Missile that hit Poland

Ukraine YouTuber Denys Davydov speculates  a cover-up: Update from Ukraine | NATO doesn’t want to respond on Poland attack by Ruzzia | Here is the evidence. It’s plausible;  watch the video. He does not claim fact or proof. Neither do I. What follows is an attempt to construct a plausible companion story, A Tale of Two Missiles.

Consult Google Earth, and put a pin in Przewodow, Poland. The range of the S300 missile in the adapted ground-to-ground role is not known. Energy considerations suggest about 30% further than ground-to-air. There is a single stage version, and a two-stage version, so the maximum range is a spread of 75 to 150 miles. So for Russia to  hit a target near Lviv , a launch point in Belarus is required. Crimea, or even Melitipol, is too distant.

A convenient launch site has nearby infrastructure, which is scarce in southwest Belarus. For this story, the vicinity of Brest is proposed as the launch site. Put a pin in it, and use the Google Earth “ruler” tool. A Russian missile overflies Przewodow on the way to Lviv.

Approaching Przewodow, the Russian S300 missile is spotted by Ukrainian S300 radar. In order to have enough time to intercept, the Ukrainians launch their S300 missile while the Russian missile is still overflying Polish territory.

In the original ground-to-air role, it maneuvers by two means:

  • Thrust vectoring vanes in the exhaust.
  • Movable external fins.

The solid fuel propulsion functions only in the first (WAG) 30 seconds of a 3 to 5 minute flight. As  the missile descends towards the target, it has only the fins.

The Russian S300 missile has been jerry-rigged for ground-to-ground with a new guidance package, while using the above means in a sub-optimal way. Since the S300 was not designed for ground-to-ground, this part of the control system is under-engineered.

If you’re familiar with the history of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles, you can anticipate what happens next. The control system isn’t good at using the fins; it goes out of control. The Russian S300 starts to tumble, increasing aerodynamic drag, causing it to fall short of Ukraine, crashing in Poland instead. It may even break up. The Ukraine S300 follows it down, correctly self-destructing.  The crash site is littered with the remains of two missiles.

Sticky point: The Russian missile warhead likely caused the fatalities, unless the victims were actually struck by the shattered bits of the Ukraine air frame.

Even if this story turns out to be somewhat descriptive, it would not be an important truth. Neither would what actually happened to Nordstream (Who Sabotaged Nordstream Pipelines?)

If the facts are obscured by fibs, the fibs are barely audible over the cacophony of Russian lies. See Otto Warmbier; When is it OK to Lie?









Politics Part 6: The Missing Meta in November 8

We continue from Politics Part 5; House Select January 6 Committee.

Political science is, academically, a broad, inclusive subject. The media have reduced it to the tactical form, which notably lacks self-awareness. We need a term that, encompassing the tactical, engages the greater framework implied by “meta.”

Definition of meta, Merriam Webster (3) — “usually used with the name of a discipline to designate a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one.”

Tactical politics is about the parameters of the moment, with the assumption that the form of government is  stable. Meta-politics is about the big picture: Why things are the way they are, and how they might change, in scope completely off the tactical radar. It is a neglected subject, which is why we start by giving it a name. It’s urgent — American democracy is in peril.

Social media is a significant cause, amplifying extremist viewpoints and misinformation that would otherwise be filtered. In some societies,  gatekeepers are elders, or”wise  men”, who have over their long lives seen more strife and suffering than impetuous youth can even imagine. In other societies, elders are the oppressors, challenged by comparatively enlightened youth. Why one-or-the-other prevails or flips is a meta question, vaguely addressed by Pareto’s “circulation of the elites.”

There is more than this to the American crisis. Our electoral systems are mostly majoritarian – plurality. In some other democracies, proportional representation facilitates formation of more than two parties, by which the political landscape would  presumably be fluidly remodeled. In the U.S., the closest thing to a viable third party was the Bull Moose Party of 1912-20, which did not outlast Theodore Roosevelt.

In the past, majoritarian – plurality machinery gained flexibility with across-the-aisle collaboration. Sadly, this has been supplanted by a majoritarian ethos, the “dictatorship” of the majority. While proportional representation would seem to provide an institutionalization of this, the records of other nations shows otherwise. Nothing replaces commonality of interest.

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative’s Morals? Can’t afford them quotes Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion:

Her no-good wastrel father, Mr. Doolittle, objects to Henry Higgins’ adoption of his daughter, and demands appropriate compensation. Higgins, and his friend Pickering, are shocked, “Do you mean to say, you callous rascal, that you would sell your daughter for 50 pounds?…Have you no morals, man?” “Can’t afford them, Governor,” Doolittle replies, “Neither could you if you was as poor as me.”

To paraphrase, an individual buys the morals he can afford. The cost of purchase is partly measured in bucks; the rest in peer pressure. The cost of moral maintenance is personal sacrifice, and benefits perceived as distant and indirect.

This is meta-political calculus relevant to the two parties now. Can you analyze  without partisan reference? Give it a try.

To be continued shortly.





Iran and The Anatomy of Revolution

(Note to President Obama at the end.)

In (CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by former president Obama on Iran, I asserted, with reference to Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, that Iran is not in a pre -revolutionary state. I’ve referred to Brinton a lot, yet he never claimed to predict revolution — “It always comes as a surprise.”

Prediction is an unsolved problem, vexing the CIA in particular. In 2013, the unmet need was partly responsible for a number of intel crowd-sourcing efforts, of which this blog is a personal spin-off. If there is a  solution, it will not come from a single analyst. It will result from the AI mediation of the unconscious minds of a large civic sample.

So how is Brinton useful? Histories come in various flavors — chronicle, political, conflict, economic, cultural…  Until recently, historical works tended towards lengthy chronicle, short on analysis. The shift towards analysis began with the intrusion of sociology, of Marx, towards pithy, short oversimplifications, long on specious certitude.  Brinton doesn’t fall for this trap. Convinced that analysis is still worth doing, he is the studious pathologist. Before microbiology and molecular medicine, autopsy  was the primary means of understanding disease. As well, Brinton is a clinician, analogizing revolution to a “fever” — his word, of the body politic.

It’s a tough problem. Brinton is one of the few to try, with only four case studies, which exclude coups and insurgencies.  The use of his studies in contemporary comparisons, such as Venezuela, immediately result in “yes, but” elaborations. In Revolution in Venezuela I wrote,

As noted, the accession of the extremists would be facilitated by rural sanctuary.  But “melting away” of the rebels into the countryside may be hindered by rural majorities of Maduro supporters…

In Revolution in Venezuela, Redux I wrote,

Revolutions have almost without exception had a strong geographic bias in support.  The French and Bolshevik revolutions were of urban origin, as was Hitler’s putsch.  In the First Indochina War, the Vietnamese refuge was rural. The  Cuban  was agrarian; the Red China revolution advantaged an agrarian base. In each case, a revolution had to subdue the other geography; urban against rural, or rural against urban.

The palace coup, entirely different, is not the subject of either Venezuela or Iran.  Lack of sanctuary, not one of Brinton’s considerations, was enough to frustrate Venezuela. Yet  Brinton’s prodromal description of a popular revolution is not easily contradicted. In Iran,  geographic bias, if not strict divide, dates to 1979.

The aspiring revolutionaries in Iran  are urban and sophisticated. They are the legacy of an amalgam of cultures, Persian and Safavid, which results in the paradox of pious clergy who revere  erotic poetry, and a limberness that contains a suppressed,  secular intelligentsia with a Western tint. Though spanning the social strata, they are at the bottom of the power pyramid. 

A dual society, one religious and one secular, under religious totalitarian control, reminds that totalitarian regimes vary widely in “penetrance”, intrusion of the state into personal space. One  opinion, citation missing, is that Stalinist Russia had the least personal space, with Nazi Germany allowing somewhat more. Iran, perhaps in result of cultural amalgam, has institutionalized hypocrisy, with low penetrance into private space, with severe control of the public sphere. This shows in the character of the protests. For the importance of hypocrisy as the glue of Iran, see Robert Baer’s book The Devil We Know.

We could get lost in this, or refer to Brinton. In atomic physics, a particle can transition to another energy state if it is not forbidden by a conservation rule — of charge, spin, energy, or usually , a symmetry rule. Brinton’s characterization of the  prodromal phase of revolution implies forbidden transition, in the absence of:

  • A period of  increasing prosperity, followed by sudden reversal. Not in Iran, where the economy has gone from bad to worse.
  • Incompetent use of power. Brinton’s meaning is power against internal opponents. In 1979,  the Shah met this criteria, killing just enough people to irritate the rest. Not so under Khamenei, whose government is liberal with torture and death.
  • Involvement of the masses with Brinton’s stereotypical grievances. A weak, qualified yes. Urban and rural protestors are dissatisfied for different reasons; urban protests are cultural, while the rural poor want jobs. There is no evidence of coordination between these groups.

Page 65 of the 1965 edition of The Anatomy offers an additional checklist:

  • Transfer of allegiance of the intellectuals.
  • Conversion of many members of the ruling class to the  belief that their privileges are unjust or harmful to society.
  • Intensification of social antagonisms.
  • Stoppage of the career path open to talent.

My interpretation is that it is almost impossible for a popular revolution, a revolution from below, to succeed if a single factor is missing. The display of these factors:

  • Allegiance. Secular intellectuals were silenced in 1979. If there are Shiite dissenters, they are very quiet. Sunni clerics have always made a little noise.
  • Conversion. About a decade ago, there were rumors of a reformist movement in the Qom seminaries, but there are no voices in evidence now.
  • Social antagonisms have been intense since 1979. No change.
  • Career stoppage exists; Iran is not a place of equal opportunity, but the bigger issue is lack economic opportunity.

After the presidency of Mohammad Khatami,  in 2005,  Iran gelled as a totalitarian theocracy, with weak consultative organs of what was formerly a dual religious/secular system.  The roots of the theocracy are unchallenged from within, with bedrock in the rural poor.  Challenges from without are dis-unified by the urban-rural divide. Venezuelan geography.

Except for the oil workers, economic recruitment is absent. The oil workers are worth watching, though their protests have tapered since the middle of the month. Will intensifying poverty result in an unholy alliance, urban/rural/economic? It bears watching.

Note to President Obama. So don’t feel bad about 2009.








(CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by former president Obama on Iran

(CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by a former president. Quoting,

“When I think back to 2009, 2010, you guys will recall there was a big debate inside the White House about whether I should publicly affirm what was going on with the Green Movement, because a lot of the activists were being accused of being tools of the West and there was some thought that we were somehow gonna be undermining their street cred in Iran if I supported what they were doing,” Obama said. “And in retrospect, I think that was a mistake.”

President Obama, you have an overactive conscience, You were right in 2009. The state of Iran is held together by  the theologically imbued perception of pressure from external enemies. Without, it would be ripe for revolution. With, it can withstand.

I’m putting together something on this. In the meantime, dust off your copy of Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution. Pay particular attention to page 65 of the 1965 Vintage edition.

Iran is not now in a prodromal, pre-revolutionary state. That transition requires clearly recognizable steps.




Fact-Check Time for CNN; Shahed-136 Drone Does Not Carry Missiles

(CNN)  Russia’s war in Ukraine , “Updated 10:50 AM EDT, Tue October 18, 2022 “, contains this statement:

According to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia has previously ordered 2,400 of the Shahed-136 drones from Iran. The drones are capable of carrying precision-guided missiles and have a payload of approximately 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

The part highlighted in red is incorrect. The Shahed-136 cannot carry any missiles, guided or unguided.



Path to a Ukraine Peace; Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths

The future is a forking path of innumerable possibilities. According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, every fork is taken in some world of the multiverse. If you need a little mind-stretch,  the Borges story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a riveting literary interpretation.

This applies to the conflict. Again and again, the garden path forks to left and right. On one pleasant extreme lies political change in Russia. On the other extreme of horror lies nuclear exchange.  In between lie innumerable forks, each leading to a different world. Which world will we live in?

The sheer multiplicity of intermediate forks suggests a probable mixture of life and death. We would like to positively influence the forks taken. This would seem to imply free will to choose the path, which may be an illusion — a question that will not be solved by us. It seems to us that we do, which motivates Biden and Musk to seek negotiations.

Perhaps we cannot choose, but can influence. A weaker option, influence might push or bias the forks chosen, even if the ultimate choice lies with the inscrutable fates. This hinges on “clever recognition” of some aspects of a situation ripe for a push. Perhaps this is the basis of the proverb, “All things come to those who wait.”

One of the things we are waiting for is a sign that Putin is a rational actor in ways that are relevant.  It is not a is/is-not proposition. Historically, he has been rational. Now, he is prisoner of an idea, victim of a  folie en famille, the family disorder of ultra nationalists.  In the 20th century, this delusion afflicted the majority of developed nations, and continues as a toxic derivative of healthy patriotism. As such, it is either a recurrent disease or unfortunate natural state of mankind. Putin’s thought seems a mix of the rational and emotional, tempting hope that we can somehow engage a part of Putin while ignoring the rest.

Although the forks are innumerable, speculation can be informed by conflicts of the 20th century:

World War I. Initiated by interlocking treaties and a random event, ruled by military science, ended by revolution in Germany, with a negotiated peace.

World War II. Initiated by a folie en famille , ended by crushing supremacy of the Allies.

Vietnam War. Ended by loss of political will in the U.S. No costs or penalties from loss, other than a loss of sense of national purpose.

Korean War. Ended by asymmetrical fatigue. China lacked the industrial base, while the U.S. was sensitive to casualties, even at a 10:1 ratio. U.S. aims were basically defensive, though  undermined by MacArthur’s  insubordination. The result was escalation, followed by a stalemate of ambition. Since both sides were sensitive to costs, their goals moderated towards a status quo ante bellum, resulting in an armistice.

The Korean War, with its innumerable forks, sudden reversals, overreach, and shifting fortunes, with end by stalemate, is not an inspiring picture. It is not the best of all possible outcomes, but neither is it the worst. This forking path occupies a large swath in the center of the garden; this intuitively assigns high probability, compared to the extremes.

Like most of you, I hope for Ukraine’s unconditional success and support all their operations. But hope is by itself effete, a wish for better without the mechanism. Prognostication is, like revenge, best served cold.

Is there any possible distillation for the policy maker? Keep your hand hidden, and be ready to turn on a dime.