Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Many Worlds

Caught an interesting science programme on BBC4 the other night. It dealt with the infamous Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but from the perspective of the musician Mark Everett (or E), son of the scientist who developed it, Hugh Everett. While I knew of both of these people separately, I was completely unaware that they were related, let alone father and son.

The programme followed Mark as he travelled the US meeting up with Everett's colleagues and with scientists currently working with Many Worlds. The programme devoted some time to the theory itself, but focused more on Everett's life and academic career, and with Mark's relationship with his father. While it probably overstated the importance of Many Worlds, and may give some viewers the idea that this interpretation is the most commonly accepted one among physicists, it was really quite charming.

Mark, who hitherto understood very little about his father's work, gradually came to some understanding of it, and was able to make sense of father's life and certain key events in it. He also came to realise the importance of his father's work, and the modern relevance of the Many Worlds interpretation. A particularly choice moment was when he dug out some old audio tapes from his father's stuff (Everett died in 1982). These recorded conversations with friends and scientific colleagues about his ideas. However, in the course of playing through them, Mark found a recording of their pet cat purring, a boastful recording of himself and, best of all, a conversation his father was having that, in the background, had Mark learning to play the drums.

My own view on Many Worlds is that, while I don't subscribe to it, I find its solution of the "measurement problem" strongly preferable to that of the "standard" Copenhagen interpretation. I simply refuse to buy the idea that measurement is an important factor in the lives of subatomic particles. At first glance, this seems a reasonable deduction given that quantum objects appear to switch from waves to particles when measurements are made of them. The large number of possibilities inherent in waves is instantly decreased to a single actuality by the act of measurement. But it's unclear (to me anyway) what "looking at" a quantum object does to it to make this happen. Many Worlds resolves this by stating that all of these possibilities actually occur, but do so in their own separate universes, such that we only see one outcome (i.e. we, too, are split across multiple universes). While this does elegantly sidestep the measurement problem, it does so at the great expense of an ever-expanding number of universes. I'm not prepared to make that leap. My own view is more along the lines of the neo-realist Bohm interpretation. In my understanding of it, this posits that quantum objects have hidden variables associated with them, such that they are composed of both wave and particle components. These hidden variables explain the dual behaviour of the objects but measurement is not a special process. Of course, this interpretation fails Occam's Razor by profligately introducing unobserved (possibly unobservable) hidden variables. Still, it allows me to continue believing in an external world that carries on regardless of our actions.

The "I" in CIA

A non-fiction review this time: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tom Weiner. First up, a confession: I bought this book as a birthday present for a friend, but read its opening chapter and found myself drawn in. Needless to say, I won't be mentioning this to my friend.

This is a long and generally detailed look at the history of the CIA from its inception immediately after the Second World War up until the present day (earlier this year in fact). Mostly because of the defining nature of the CIA's relationships with different presidents, the book is primarily structured by succeeding presidential terms, with it further divided to delineate CIA activities in different geographical arenas.

However, despite changes in presidents, enemies and arenas, two surprising themes run through and unify the history presented. The first is that, even after sixty years of evolution, the CIA has never truly come close to satisfying the role of centralising intelligence that it was set up for. The second is that, contrary to general public perceptions, the CIA has almost never been a successful organisation, and has consistently misread signals leading its paymasters into either complacency or shadow-boxing.

That the CIA has never gotten to grips with its main task stems in part from its founding members' interests in covert operations. Rather than serve as a clearing house for the collation and analysis of information drawn from military, diplomatic and other sources, from the beginning the CIA has expended considerable effort engaged in exactly the sort of "dirty tricks" that its name is synonymous with. Many of these have served legitimate or semi-legitimate purposes, but, contrary to the stated rationale for its existence, they have dominated its focus and have been the source of many of the historical troubles it has experienced.

The degree of incompetence of the CIA certainly came as a surprise to me. Mission after mission after mission have been executed with either poor planning, operational support or follow-up assessment. That the CIA is covert has given its management carte blanch to tag its many failed missions as "top secret", and to avoid what would be necessary oversight in just about any other organisation. The infrequent successes that it has experienced have been shamelessly, and successfully, flouted by its directors, to the degree that public perception is of an amoral but effective organisation. The book has certainly set me straight on the robustness of this perception.

As a book, this is engagingly written and never boring. Occasionally it is complicated by jumps backwards and forwards in time to follow particular avenues, but these aren't too confusing. One aspect that is somewhat confusing is the long list of players that enter, exit then frequently re-enter the stage. Short of viewing the CIA purely from a organisational vantage point (i.e. "the director did this", "covert operations did that"), it's not obvious how to get around this and, to be honest, the evolution of the CIA has been too strongly influenced by a succession of key individuals to avoid mentioning them by name. The text is supplemented by a large number of often detailed footnotes, so particular points can be checked for clarification.

An obvious concern with a book on such a topic is the nature of any bias introduced by the author. Especially with an ethically-challenged organisation like the CIA (to reveal my own bias). From what I can judge, the book appears to avoid allegations of bias by sticking closely to sources, and by simply being so thorough. Dozens of missions and operations are described, running the full gamut from well-known successes/failures to events in backwater countries that have long since receded into history. I think that all of my own knowledge of the CIA was more or less covered in the book, suggesting that it presents a representative sample of their work, and does not skew things towards their unsuccessful activities. I'm sure, however, that certain political viewpoints will not share this assessment.

Concerning politics, it's interesting to read about the approaches different presidents have taken to the CIA. First of all, without exception, all have taken a strong interest in it. Some, such as Nixon, seem to have taken a very negative view of it, and have actively shunned it at times. Others, such as JFK, have made considerable use of it. Interestingly, almost no presidency comes out well in its dealings with the CIA. The exception is Jimmy Carter who, contrary to what one might expect, took strongly to the organisation, but viewed it as a tool to accomplish human rights goals (as well as its conventional anti-Soviet role). One of the interesting uses he put it towards was undermining the then-Apartheid South African government, in direct opposition to previous CIA operations that aimed to support it as a bulwark against Communism. Ultimately, even Carter came unstuck using it, but his is the only presidency not to be tarnished by it (at least as far as this book presents things).

The book's final analysis is not a positive one for the CIA. As noted already, the organisation has singularly failed at becoming what it was originally intended to be. Furthermore, the (unpredicted) end of the Soviet Union robbed it of a sense of purpose that has not been replaced well by Islamic extremism. The book closes damningly with the fiasco surrounding Iraq and its "weapons of mass destruction". The certainty professed by the CIA on these, which practically anyone could see was bogus, has comprehensively dented the respect and trust placed in the CIA (however misplaced that already was). Although only briefly dealt with, the ebbing of experienced CIA staff to private security companies seems a longer-term problem for the organisation. This creeping privatisation of "security" generally seems a rather worrying trend.

Overall, an impressive tome. I'm sure that its central messages could be distilled into a much shorter volume, but that would trim the supporting material and lose the authority of this edition.

A final note: for all of the dubious efforts of various presidents and CIA operatives, the actions of William Casey (from 1981 to 1987) stand out as plumbing new moral depths. While I was already aware of the outlines of the Iran-Contra Affair, the depths to which Casey dragged the CIA in conducting this operation were very revealing to read about. More generally, his handling of the organisation is remarkable for how spotlessly clean it makes the rest of the CIA's operations appear by way of contrast. It seems incredible to me that there are people out there who defend people such as this. Regardless of politics, purely pragmatic or utilitarian analyses of the reign of such people should stop anyone capable of rational thought in their tracks. The anointing of the likes of Oliver North as near-saints would suggest otherwise.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Unconvincing games

Another book for the Charity Shop run. This time a "science fiction classic": Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Published originally in 1985, derived from an earlier short story, this is a book I've heard a fair bit about over a long period of time. I originally heard about it during my first working trip to the US in 1992 (from AMG), but it took C purchasing it for my birthday for me to finally get round to it. The book has attracted a large fan-base, several sequels, and even some rather odd endorsements from military organisations.

It tells the story of a young child, Ender, bullied at school but identified by the authorities as possessing certain strategic talents. These talents are desperately sought because humanity is on the losing side of a war with an alien race, the insectoid buggers (yes, indeed - what was Card thinking?). Along with other children, Ender is taken away from his family to enter a training programme that builds on and enhances the strategic skills that have been identified in them. This programme, which takes place in space, primarily consists of exercises in which Ender and his fellow students "play" strategic wargames, with themselves taking roles as playing pieces. At the same time, Ender confronts bullying from his fellow students, gradually triumphing both in this and the wargames played. As time passes, these wargames involve to take on more aspects of the fights with the aliens (no, I can't say "buggers") that they aim to train the students in. This success leads to Ender taking increasingly senior roles in the wargames, ultimately becoming the commander-in-chief of his fellow students. After a particularly long-winded and brilliantly-resolved fight it is revealed to Ender that this game was not what it appeared. It was not a game at all, and Ender was, in fact, fighting the aliens by proxy. His success in the game reflects a defeat for the aliens. As it happens, a terminal defeat, since his gameplay involved a devastating attack on their homeworld. The novel finishes with celebrations across human civilisation, but with Ender on the alien homeworld where he begins to atone for his unwittingly genocidal actions, by raising young buggers from pupae.

As I noted already, I knew a bit about this novel before I started. What I knew appealed to me, the theme of atonement by a powerful character, in particular, I'm a sucker for. However, reading the novel was quite a different experience. Firstly, right from the start, it got me shaking my head and disbelieving it. Bizarrely, Ender is only 6 years old when the novel starts, but has an interior life of someone much older. Suspension of disbelief on this scale, this early on, is unnecessary in a novel. Although Ender is supposed to be special, this sort of set-up in simply not credible. Making him a young teenager, and therefore more justifiably aware of himself, would have made far, far more sense. Anyway, there are other problems. He has a brother and sister who are also special, and who play key roles in propaganda events back on Earth, again while still very young. Another unconvincing turn of events.

More practically, the novel is medium-long in length, but stretches its central story too thinly. Despite being a gameplayer myself, I couldn't get excited about the games described during the novel, they just got in the way between plot advancements. I presume the author was aiming for character development here, but that's hard to pull off when the novel's characters are hobbled from the get-go by appearing unrealistically wise and self-aware for their ages.

Most importantly, I just didn't like Ender at all. Primarily because he's just very annoying, which makes it hard to get behind or care about his evolution through the book. The nature of the events at the end of the novel make these sections with him more interesting, but you have to wade through a lot of "character development" that just doesn't seem realistic to get there.

My suspicion is that the short story would work far more successfully. By focusing on the key themes, a lot of the peripheral aspects that annoy me in the novel would drop away. Perhaps I'll read that at some stage. Anyway, in summary, this is a "classic" with feet of clay. I can see why it might appeal, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. I suspect its focus on childhood appeals to some readers, while its novel approach to military activity appeals to others. It was probably more unusual and exotic when first released, so I'm doubtless being too harsh, but it's important to be honest about how novels hold up against time.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Charity shop run

Time again to purge the library and create space. First up are two more novels by Neal Asher:
These novels form a pair (from the so-called "Spatterjay sequence") that coexist alongside his other Polity novels (see my earlier post). Like much of the Polity novels, they take place outside the Polity, this time entirely on a planet known as Spatterjay.

A major background component of both novels is Spatterjay's ecology which, while implausible, is at least quite imaginative and merits some discussion. The whole ecosystem is infected with a virus that, as part of its own survival strategy, conveys impressive resistance to injury and imbues remarkable regenerative powers to infected organisms. Short of being completely consumed, animals on Spatterjay can survive, and recover from, extreme damage. Of course, complete consumption is part and parcel of the ecology, but these regenerative powers allow, for instance, Spatterjay fishermen to catch aquatic animals, strip them of much of their flesh, then return the "carcass" to the ocean for it to regenerate (the mechanism behind the regeneration of the carcass but not the flesh is not fully, well, fleshed out).

Humans arriving on Spatterjay (in the past, relative to the novels' timelines) were also infected by the virus, which conveyed the same strengths to them. Known as hoopers, they now live indefinitely, with age conveying greater and greater strength and resilience. Physical risks are now far less important to hoopers than the danger that ennui brings in their long lives. Many of them (almost all of the characters in the novels) live as fishermen on the planet-wide ocean where, among other resources, they harvest a chemical known as sprine. This is an anti-viral agent used by animals known as leeches to kill their virally-infected prey, but it also serves the desire for suicide that many hoopers are driven to by their massively extended lives.

Against this backdrop, The Skinner sees the arrival of an unusual police officer to Spatterjay, Sable Keech. He is intent on tracking down the remains of a gang of hoopers who, in an past conflict between the Polity and an alien empire known as the Prador, sold humans into mind-controlled slavery with the Prador. The leader of this gang, Jay Hoop, is known as the Skinner because of his penchant for skinning fellow hoopers.

However, Keech hasn't arrived alone. As befitting a Neal Asher novel, there are a number of other plot strands, most of which arrive at Spatterjay alongside Keech. These include: one of the members of Hoop's gang, come to clean up any remaining evidence of their crimes; an emissary of Earth's second sentient lifeform - hornets; and one of Hoop's Prador contacts, also come to "take care" of outstanding business. And, this being a Polity novel, the explosive meetings of these various individuals take place beneath the watchful eyes of a Polity AI, and a ragtag group of free AIs that work for it. Throw in some sentient indigenous flying aliens who act sails for the hoopers' vessels, and the stage is set for all kinds of revelations, double-crossings and Mexican stand-offs.

Although The Skinner is fairly pulpy science fiction (much like the rest of Asher's novels that I've read), it creates a world that's never uninteresting, and one that carries the reader along. Among its many imaginative, if gruesome, details is that Keech is actually a corpse, a so-called reification - his personality is stored in some AI form while his body is a mummified shell. On top of this, during his stay at Spatterjay, he undergoes a form of reanimation to restore his body to life. Another Asher-esque aspect is his focus on a bloody ecology. The violent goings-on between his characters are paralleled by inter-species blood-letting in the natural ecosystem.

Also similar to Asher's other works is the treatment of his characters. His "good guys" may suffer, but they generally triumph; his "bad guys" usually come unstuck in assorted unpleasant fashions or, if they're just amoral, are sometimes lucky to escape with a severe beating. Having read several of his novels now, it does somewhat deflate the action when you know that, chances are, your favourite characters will make it to the final page. Still, as this is science fiction, we're already quite far from the plausible.

The Skinner's sequel, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, in keeping with the general rule of Asher's work, is enjoyable but definitely a case of diminishing returns. The novel's central strand this time is the endeavor by a reification to set up a sort of tourist pilgrimage for other reifications that aims to follow the story of Sable Keech - the first reification to successfully be restored to life. This strand is complemented by the further working out of several others from the first novel. These include another strand involving Asher's ever-entertaining AIs, and a further one following a surviving Prador from the first novel who turns out to be not so bad.

I suspect this sequence of novels has a shorter life than Asher's other Polity novels, but I certainly give him full marks for imagination. Execution? Well, probably not - this is pulp. But enjoyable pulp.

Hurled into the abyss

Bar a few minor hurdles (e.g. is subsistence £20 or £25 per day? which value was used in the signed-off budget???) and some "last-minute" heavy editing of the bonus sections (objectives, beneficiaries) with TRA, the proposal was completed and fired into the abyss a whole 23 hours early. I just have to sit back now with my fingers crossed.

Well, I say "sit back", but I'm already involved in finishing off a further proposal. No rest for the wicked, apparently. This one I'm a contract mercenary on, though I've played a much larger role in its formation than I have on previous standard proposals. There are issues though: it only part funds me, so that should make for some interesting financial contortions if it's funded; our observational colleagues have trimmed back our original ambitions to what they think is actually do-able (well, do-able on 30% funding!). This trimming makes it a whole lot less interesting in a way, but since I wouldn't be doing the donkey work in the lab, I can hardly complain. Instead, I now have to focus more on modelling a coastal time-series station - should be fun given that I've only ever been open-ocean up till now (and have avoided coastal locales like the plague they are).

Anyway, that's the proposal update for now. More will doubtless follow after their assessments ...