Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

March 16, 2019

A brief story of Silicon Valley's affair with AI by Piekniewski'S BLOG (ai)

Once upon a time, in the 1980's there was a magical place called Silicon Valley. Wonderful things were about to happen there and many people were about make a ton of money. These things were all related to the miracle of a computer and how it would revolutionize pretty much everything.

Computers had a ton of applications in front of them: completely overhauling office work, enabling entertainment via computer games and changing the way we communicate, shop and use banking system. But back then they were clumsy, slow and expensive. And although the hope was there, many of these things wouldn't be accomplished unless computers somehow got orders of magnitude faster and cheaper.

But there was the Moore's law - over the decade of the 1970' the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubled every ~18 months. If this law were to hold, the future would be rosy and beautiful. The applications would be unlocked for which the markets were awaiting. Money was to be made.

By mid 1990's it was clear that it worked. Computers were getting faster and software was getting more complex so rapidly, that upgrades had to happen on a yearly basis to keep up … Read more...

Escaping the tyranny of the ‘no new ideas’ myth by Jessica (via Meaningness)

I was reminded recently that a few years ago I chose to reject the maxim that there are no new ideas to be had.

This truism comes in a variety of forms. I remember hearing it most often when it comes to stories. Apparently humans are all basically alike and any story about humans has already been told. I heard this in the context of Shakespeare “merely” reworking stories from the past, while all that moderns do is rework Shakespeare.

The passage actually comes from the Bible, the end of Ecclesiastes 1:9 reads “…there is nothing new under the sun”. In context Ecclesiastes is a book of “wisdom” with some good advice for living a fulfilling life. But it’s also pretty damn nihilist, asserting that nothing really means anything since we all die in the end. And as we’ve seen, nihilism is a trap.

This concept is culturally pervasive – everyone I know has heard of it, and many people recite in a variety of circumstances.

Well as I said I consciously rejected it a while back and I think I was Right and Good to do so. The more I think about this truism, the more absurd and outright harmful it seems to be.

Most important is that it simply can’t be true.

If there are currently no new things under the sun, have there ever been new things? If we answer “no, there have never been new things” then we should still be apes that cannot fish or hunt or crack open nuts. Clearly at some point there was a time when new things were being generated by the human mind.

Now, if there was a time when there were new things, and then there came a time when there were no new things, when was that, exactly? Ecclesiastes was probably written between 450 BCE and 180 BCE, so the usual just over 2,000 years ago. Society was pretty damn modern then, but it’s absurd to say there have been no new things since before King Soloman. Indeed, it is absurd to say “new things” stopped being possible at any point in history because new things can and do happen all the time.

So cleary this truism needs to be diluted into something like “lots of low hanging fruit has already been reached” and “humans like hitting the same emotional notes in their storytelling”.

Psychologically, these weak versions are importantly different than the “no new things are possible” version and so I believe we should kick it out.

For the record, I think I also disagree with the weak versions of this argument too.

I think there are good examples of low hanging fruit that nobody got around to until really recently with no good explanation why not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb mentions a good one in his book Antifragile: suitcases with wheels on. This should not have been a hard idea to come up with! We have been putting wheels on stuff to make it easier to move since long before the days of Soloman! But until 1970, everyone was struggling with trunks and cases that were a damn pain to carry around. Truly, we moderns don’t know we’re born.

I also think human emotions are complex and deeply nuanced. While it’s great to realise we are all united by similar feelings I think the variety of those feelings and the circumstances and cultures under which we feel or prioritise those feelings are near-infinitely varied and nowhere near exhausted.

I believe there are great benefits when one rejects the idea of “there are no new things under the sun”. It means that we have to take it as given that new things are possible. If there maybe can be new things, then it’s an exciting prospect for me to explore my inner and outer landscapes to find what they are. Life seems more open and meaningful, many activities take on greater significance (such as daydreaming) and consequently I feel more happy.

Indeed what I think we really should be doing as a culture is exploring the landscape of new things with urgency and abandon. Our truisms should say “while we have had time to grasp some low-hanging fruit, we theorise that there are still tons of new things! Life is a game of finding the new things! There are no rules. Play together, play alone. Stay in, go out, read the manuals for tips or write manuals for others, but however you play, we can all join in with the massive multiplayer, highly meaningful game of Find New Things.”

So reject that myth of there being nothing new. It’s a dead end phrase that sucks the joy out of everything, doing far more harm than good.

Philosophy labels by Jessica (via Meaningness)



I have this problem where I get up in the morning or go to bed and worry about what I’m doing with my life or what I like or what my purpose is. It happens really regularly, it pops up in my diary all the time when I review it.

This is particularly weird because about three years ago I chose a purpose. Or at least an idea for a purpose, and leaned into it more than I had ever leaned into a purpose before. It’s the thing I do when I’m not earning money. Essentially, for the last three years I have had an answer to that question of meaning (the answer is more or less this blog, in case you’re wondering). But once every few months or so I wring my hands and toss and turn in bed and get all angsty in my diary about whether I’m doing anything meaningful.

So I had the idea of putting typed out reminders on my wall saying what I do and what my life is about. I haven’t acted on that idea, even though it’s a good one. Or I hadn’t, until the other day when I had a breakthrough.

I decided to give what I do a name.


One of the problems about being self employed is that there is no longer an outside power motivating half your waking hours. The mental effort required to set one’s goals or systems for achieving goals is often little appreciated. The cognitive load of deciding how to tidy is much bigger than actually doing the tidying. Having an outsider with some legitimacy come along and tell you a system for tidying is a huge boon. I’d say 80% of the effort is tied up there.

So setting your own parameters and being your own boss is hard.

I think this goes double if you’re not sure you have the authority or the legitimacy to do so in the first place.

What gives a person legitimacy? An academic institution, very long years of experience in a job, running a successful business or getting a book published seem to denote legitimacy in society’s eyes.

Long ago I gave up on the academic route to legitimacy as too narrow, expensive and boring. But it is easy. Getting letters after your name, speaking the secret language of the learned and being able to name drop or even meet the right researchers and gods in your field is your reward for the boring narrow expensive time sink that is academia.

You also get a rubber stamped pre-approved curriculum of study that actually has a start and end. No worrying that you’ve missed some basic thing because you haven’t read the “right” books for you. No imposter syndrome, no looking over your shoulder for people laughing behind their hands at your naive errors.

It’s hard to make your own authority, even if it is more fun.

I decided my route to ‘fame’ would be blogging and tweeting. Reading books on a whim curriculum, generating new ideas or at least describing old ideas in a more accessible way. Legitimacy sort of comes from views and likes and retweets. From the esteem of my Twitter peers. Perhaps I’ll get to write a book one day. This is all very nebulous though. It’s not easy to sum up to a new aquaintence who, vaguely outraged at the notion that I only work 4 months a year, asks the question “so what do you do the rest of the time?” “Philosophy” is the word I’ve often used but it feels wrong because it gives the wrong impression to others. It also does nothing to help describe what I’m doing hour by hour, week by week.


If you’re going to name something, it helps if you understand it. During the course of coming up with a name for what I do I had a lot of ideas about Where Ideas Come From which I think I’ll split off into a separate post.

But as a purpose I try to: find ideas and work with them. So what kind of job title is appropriate for that activity?

Well there aren’t that many synonyms for ‘idea’ but ‘insight’ and ‘theory’ are two of them. In terms of the wrangling, I felt inspired by the word ‘practice’. As a noun, only two types of people have a practice: artists and doctors. It’s pleasing how different these two roles are and how they seem to be on the opposite sides of the fence. However I myself have been an artist and while I’ve not been a doctor I am quite a STEMy person so this seemed to fit. Added bonus, both these people have phyiscal locations where they practice, ie a studio or an office.

So, a person with a practice is a practioner. In the artist sense, another possible word is maker. In the STEM sense, another possible word which is loaded-with-kudos but not necessarily academic word is: engineer.

This is how I got ‘ideas practitioner’, ‘insight engineer’ and ‘theory maker’.

Unable to decide, I mentioned this list to friends and it became clear that they actually prefered the combination ‘theory engineer’. Given the title of my blog it now seems utterly absurd that I had to take a journey this long to figure it out. None the less, here we are.

Hello, my name is Jessica and I’m a Theory Engineer.


There have been a some benefits to naming what I do all day.

I had to think deeply about what I actually do, both instrumentally and in terms of goals.

Some of my anxiety was tied up with the fact that I couldn’t really give a good answer about what I actually do hour by hour, week by week. When I formalised the fact that I “try to find ideas”, I realised that all the time I spend reading, engaging on Twitter and lying around daydreaming all count as work-related activities (if I want them to). In the past I had dismissed these as not counting towards anything or a “waste” of time. But in fact they represent hundreds of hours of work per month. This realisation also gave me insight into ways to find ideas more efficiently, if I want to.

I now feel more legitimate. It’s silly human psychology, but it works. Now that I feel more legitimate, I feel more confident and less apologetic. I also have a very short phrase I can print very large on my wall for those existential panics, which I suspect might actually happen less often.

So hello, I’m a Theory Engineer, please step into my office 🙂

The March Equinox Issue of The Planetary Report Is Out! by The Planetary Society

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of the March Equinox issue of The Planetary Report: “Inside the Ice Giants.” The print issue shipped to members yesterday!

Where We Are by The Planetary Society

Emily Lakdawalla introduces an at-a-glance spacecraft locator to The Planetary Report.

The Skies of Mini-Neptunes by The Planetary Society

A GREAT QUEST is underway to discover Earthsize worlds in their stars’ habitable zones. Along the way, astronomers have been surprised to learn that the most typical size of planet in our galaxy is one with no counterpart in our own solar system.

A Kepler Orrery by The Planetary Society

As of mission end on 30 October 2018, Kepler had detected 1,815 planets or planet candidates in multi-planet systems. All 726 such systems are drawn here.

The Realm of the Ice Giants by The Planetary Society

Imagine 2 icy worlds far from the Sun. Their serene, blue atmospheres. Huge, ominous-looking storms. Tantalizing glimpses of moons with exotic, icy terrains. Delicate sets of encircling rings.

Amidst Cuts to NASA, Mars Sample Return May Finally Happen by The Planetary Society

The President's Budget Request for NASA in 2020 would start a Mars Sample Return mission and ramp up efforts to send humans to the Moon. But it would still kick off the first year of a new decade with a half-billion dollar cut to the space agency.

The subtle color difference between Uranus and Neptune by The Planetary Society

The color of Uranus and Neptune is similar, but not identical. Uranus appears greener and Neptune bluer.

March 10, 2019

The List: Have an email read out on @wittertainment. by Feeling Listless

Film Oh wow, so this happened.

The Set-up:

Dear Mal and Wash,

Just listened to Mark's review of Serenity in a post viewing, hazy miasma (on Sky Cinema rather than an actual cinema) and although it is not a good film I did want to defend at least the central performances from McConaughey, Hathaway etc

Without spoiling the twist that isn't, my impression is that the actors are playing into the requirements of the film's setting and requires performances which hover between a glossy Hollywood style and something altogether more simplistic.

They're doing what is probably expected of them and giving a pitch perfect version of that even if it has no relation to how normal human beings react, because [spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler and indeed spoiler].

Which isn't to say that it's entirely consistent and the director's other key influence seems to be early 90s erotic thrillers which doesn't make an awful lot of sense given what we learn as the story continues. To say anything else would be too much of a spoiler.

In other words, although this is otherwise a good example of what happens when someone who isn't Christopher Nolan attempts to make a Christopher Nolan film, the Mcconaissance is fully intact as is Hathaway's come back and The Princess Diaries 3 can't come soon enough.

Take care and tinkety-tonkety,

Stuart Ian Burns
Hard fought merit in MA Screen Studies at Manchester University.

The Result:

Well, scroll through to about minute 28 on the podcast.

Yes, that is Simon Mayo reading out the email (including stage directions) and Mark Kermode reacting to it and giving some coherent reasons as to why I'm wrong, or at least being very sympathetic to the performances.

So that happened.  Wow.

5. Have an email read out on @wittertainment.

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Updated using Planet on 16 March 2019, 05:50 AM