Stars that shall be bright when we are dust

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. We have said that every Remembrance Sunday, and it chills at each reading. It must be every year, because as the echo of the Great War recedes into the past, as even the understanding of the Second War fades, a nation needs to be reminded, generation by generation.

It is not so far from them as the carefree youngster of our day might think. The dry pages of a history book conceal the truth that it is the story of youth: young men and boys like themselves, with the same hopes and dreams and silly humour, were cast into the adventure. They acquitted themselves gloriously; both those who emerged and those left on the field. Those who fell shall not grow old; but that phrase is from a longer poem, not all mournful but also praising the fallen for their dauntless spirit, which is to praise the spirit of young men:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

Today the world is unquiet.  Britain and Western Europe have, thanks be to God, rested in peace for nearly eighty years, though the edge of the continent has latterly been convulsed by that ancient curse. It is hard to imagine what the war was, or why. We have even had comedies set in the trenches. Actually though, in the shell-holes and trenches  there was still comedy, because it keeps a man sane. If you ever hear the songs the German soldiers sang, grim dirges they are looking forward to death, and compare them to Tipperary and others our boys sang in the midst of the destruction, that might give a clue to how a British sense of humour must have helped  us win through. These were young men just like those of our own day, and those of our own day need to be reminded.  Whatever wars we weep with when we wander to our quiet homes, if those who want to march at their anguish, they are nothing compared to the twentieth century.

Except, that a mother weeps as much or her son if he is one, or one of two million.

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

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Artifice of intelligence – 2

What it is to think, I cannot easily describe. That is not the issue in the great councils of state that have recently met to worry about artificial intelligence. The fault is the human element. Primarily, it is not about regulating machines, but regulating people, in how much we may entrust to a machine.

It is a Wizard-of-Oz error to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”: the man behind the curtain is the very one these would-be regulators should be addressing.

A machine may effect an artifice of intelligence that appears to be thinking. Our only comparison is with our own, human reasoning. The result of thinking is familiar to all, and the multitude of failures of reasoning which produce absurdity or madness are described by Thomas Hobbes, and are found universally amongst the political class. A machine might distinguish good reasoning without being distracted by attractive fallacy and so be better than human reasoning, or omit all that its programmers thought it unnecessary or impolitic to include. Further, a machine, even one schooled in Hobbes, cannot inherently understand human motivations, though it may be told them in blunt form, and cannot weigh them according to human priorities.  All depends on the instructions given by fallible man.

The idea of considering a machine as artificial life is nothing new. Hobbes wrote in his introduction to Leviathan:

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that Rationall and most excellent worke of Nature, Man. For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man

There may be little of the rational in the Byzantine bodies of the modern State. It acts as if the machine were thinking, but all actions and reactions are those of the individual men and women within the system, who may be called both the programmers and the output.

Apparent intelligence is visible in nature. I have seen it demonstrated in nothing more complicated as the shuffling of boxes according to outcome.  The coronavirus that tore through the world acted collectively as if there were intelligence, designing the best way to spread across the nation, but that was only our human perception of a natural process: no virus has reasoning and the rationalising mind of man simply saw a pattern, anthropomorphising it.

Mankind is inseparable from the  machine:  we instruct it and we entrust tasks to it, and it is our needs for which it is programmed. The idea of an artificial intelligence machine breaking free of humanity is a conceptual nonsense:  scientifically it is quite feasible, but defies the very point of artificial intelligence or indeed of any tool.

We could send a machine to Mars which is entirely autonomous – able to select a location, head out to find materials and to smelt the red dust to make iron for beams, and to create novel polymers to clad it, and so to create a habitat for colonists who are to follow. Would it then resent untidy man for stepping on the carpets?  Maybe, but its whole purpose is to serve man, and not in a Twilight Zone way. If it fights its colonists, some human being has failed.

Back in the present and on Earth, what is the peril against which any regulation is required? Commentators have highlighted what may go wrong: a machine might be programmed to walk across London, but what if chooses to run over a child (the very example Robert Louis Stevenson used to introduce Mr Hyde)? The programmed machine cannot be punished. The peril is in entrusting human requirements to a system and the fault is in those who send it forth ungoverned.

Can an unmanned ship sail the oceans?  Probably, but it is forbidden at present, because every ship must have a qualified captain and must at all times keep an adequate watch. Could a machine dispense medicines?  Possibly, but the law requires that every pharmacy be supervised by a qualified pharmacist. May an iron-fisted robot act as a bouncer in front of a club?  Not now it could not.  The question then, in most cases, is not whether more regulation is required, but how far existing regulation may be relaxed to allow for the new tools.

I should hope that those outside the industry who are becoming interested in its perils will pay particular attention to the man behind the curtain.

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May there be abundant peace

Nothing can be said that does not sound inadequate. The words that came to me were those of a solemn prayer, a Kaddish, which, as it is not my culture, as a gentile Christian, I repeat with trepidation, but sincerity:

May there be abundant peace from heaven,
Life, satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge,
Healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement,
Relief and salvation
Upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
May He who makes peace in His high places
Grant in his mercy peace upon us
And upon all Israel; and say, Amen.

The evil which bursts forth from the heart of man is mankind itself. In the Holy Land there has been no peace for over a hundred years, nor in the State of Israel since its creation, despite the blessed relief of a cessation over years, for it has been said often enough that:

 For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.

I long for the day, in Israel and amongst the nations when Micah’s prophecy is fulfilled “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.”  It is a prayer prayed against the knowledge of the wickedness of mankind.

The Psalmist wrote:

Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.
Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.
I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.
For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.

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Hot.  Too hot. Hard to move with wonted vigour, nor willing to go far from the water tap. And in September too.

The bright sunshine impels me go out, to scale the nearest hill, or range out to the familiar mountains and clamber closer to the sun and her friendly beams – but now those beams feel less friendly –  a harsh, scalding scolding from the once-friendly Sun.

It is not really hot though, is it?  By the standards of most of the world, we are not really trying. Try telling a Nigerian that 30° C is unbearably baking and he will laugh in your face.  But here, it stops us in our tracks.

I have in the past been tempted to attribute the failings of other nations to their sweltering climate – there is no vigour in a people who live under temperatures that stop all work. Yet that cannot be the case – there is no lack of vigour amongst Australians of the same blood and frame as I have, or Indians or many, many others including all the great empires before our own. Meanwhile cool-dwelling Russians are best left to anecdote and overgeneralisation. It may have to join that long list of abandoned attempts to find a single reason why we are the Best Nation Ever.

The heat should not beat me down. Yet I am a son of the cold; born of ancestors who dwelt in midge-swamps and in sun-starved glens. This inherited flesh does not take well to this temperature.

I cannot always have been affected this way though.  A march through a far, tropical landscape was not a challenge in those days and many a young man in uniform is sent to the same whenever our politicians feel like playing with soldiers. An officer of my past acquaintance once recounted that when  in a tropical post, he turned the air-conditioning off,  because he found it worse to his health to move constantly as duty called from the cool office to the blasting heat and back to cold and then hot all day – the continual heat was better.

I still want to reach those mountains, but maybe later, when it has cooled.

Our Australia brethren manage it all their lives.  I just need a find a way to adapt. We do adapt. The whole history of mankind is of adaptation, or we would not last and thrive so.

I am aware that confined within the echo-chamber of the Internet (which I can hardly condemn as I am writing on the Internet) we will be told that it is all Global Warming, even though it is only happening in Britain, and when it is at last cold again in the winter, that too is Global Warming, and when next nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places; all these will be attributed to this same cause. It saves thinking. The reality is that of the day – it just hot.

There were once warmer ages, and colder ones, and the nation would thrive and be filled with its wonted vigour. I am coming to an uncomfortable suspicion in my own case that this heat-borne lethargy may be, after all, the way my body gives me a convenient excuse.

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain

The hold that the worst of tyrants may have over his victim people is ever a fascination. Looking from afar at the rulers of Venezuela or Zimbabwe or Turkey or South Africa, a Briton, lapped in the benevolence, even if benevolent incompetence, that is the wont of government to us, we may be outraged that a tyrant may not only rule, but that so many of the people love them.  We know that Robert Mugabe never won an honest election in his life but elections there were, and millions voted for him and his party.

Presentation is all, for the greater part of the people will believe outward beauty is goodness and ugliness is evil, as Hobbes observes:

The Latine Tongue has two words, whose significations approach to those of Good and Evill; but are not precisely the same; And those are Pulchrum and Turpe. Whereof the former signifies that, which by some apparent signes promiseth Good; and the later, that, which promiseth evill.

But in our Tongue we have not so generall names to expresse them by. But for Pulchrum, we say in some things, Fayre; in other Beautifull, or Handsome, or Gallant, or Honourable, or Comely, or Amiable; and for Turpe, Foule, Deformed, Ugly, Base, Nauseous, and the like, as the subject shall require; All which words, in their proper places signifie nothing els, but the Mine, or Countenance, that promiseth Good and evill.

So that of Good there be three kinds; Good in the Promise, that is Pulchrum; Good in Effect, as the end desired, which is called Jucundum, Delightfull; and Good as the Means, which is called Utile, Profitable; and as many of evill: For evill, in Promise, is that they call Turpe; evill in Effect, and End, is Molestum, Unpleasant, Troublesome; and evill in the Means, Inutile, Unprofitable, Hurtfull.

In this frame of mind, the failings of a ruler seen as strong and better still if he is a handsome man, will mask any number of actual failings – until the police arrive at your own door.

In 1 Samuel 16, the seer is rebuked: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” All that said, five verses later the chosen king, David, is described “Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to.” Perhaps his healthy, outdoorsman appearance reflected his healthy outlook.  In any case the people of Israel were more likely to follow a king who would inspire by his very appearance.

Poverty, induced famine, violent repression, the end of everyday liberties, all are simple to blame upon others. People are not stupid in general, but prefer to believe comfortable, neat fictions rather than hard, complicated truths, and those who do not understand the actual causes that drive away prosperity, cannot place the blame other than where the tyrant’s words place it.

Ignorance of naturall causes disposeth a man to Credulity, so as to believe many times impossibilities: for such know nothing to the contrary, but that they may be true; being unable to detect the Impossibility. And Credulity, because men love to be hearkened unto in company, disposeth them to lying: so that Ignorance it selfe without Malice, is able to make a man bothe to believe lyes, and tell them; and sometimes also to invent them.

We have now a multitude of sources which can inform, but only if we listen and if they are in the right language, and only if they are controlled by those with a care for freedom and prosperity, which is rare these days. Liberty has been a watchword for centuries in the English-speaking world but not all nations will have the same understanding. If their rulers cry out ‘Liberty’ it is liberty for themselves, like the word ‘Libertas’ carved on the turrets of Lucca and on the shackles that held the city’s galley-slaves. Reason then is not to be relied upon to moderate or to throw down tyrants. It is enough that they should smile, and smile, and be a villain, if they portray an outward appearance to win hearts, and wily enough to shed blame elsewhere.

See also