Lourdes #1: Rain on Their Parade

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The thing about the Grotte de Massabielle is it’s near impossible to have a contemplative, prayerful or mystical experience there without visiting during the early hours or mid-winter. That’s why I’m still sat watching it from the pavillion just across the river. It’s been quite busy in the Basilica Domain until 30 minutes ago, but now roughly a dozen people remain at the Grotto, some praying and others passing through it. I’m determined to wait a while longer, despite not having slept for almost 24 hours. The statue of Our Lady appears to be a moving hologram projected into the cavern, but I know it’s an optical illusion caused by the lighting concealed just above it.

The sunny and extremely humid mid-day weather was replaced with several hours’ torrential rain and thunder, and it’s a miracle Lourdes wasn’t flooded. Many of us waited it out in the Underground Basilica, which started taking in water. There wasn’t much of a torchlit procession tonight, though the rain subsided a little by then and some groups were determined to have their parade. I was able to watch that from the balcony of the Basilica.

I arrived in Lourdes with a contingent from Wales, which is much smaller than the one I arrived with two years before, but also a lot friendlier. Some of them I’ve quickly become acquainted with: John, Joe, Declan, Lorna, and a Phillipino couple staying at the same hotel. Fr. Barry, Fr. Mike, Liz, Terry and former bishop Tom I already knew. We’re supposed to be following an itinerary, a programme of events that qualify one for a ‘plenary indulgence’, but I’m planning on going my own way.

An Overview of Lourdes

The first thing I noticed about Lourdes is the uncanny sensation of the familiar and mundane. As I first entered the town two years ago, it felt like I’d already been here numerous times before, and that I was returning to a place I knew intimately. In terms of climate and geography, the place is almost identical to the average town in the Welsh valleys.

Very few tourists seem to venture beyond the streets immediately surrounding Basilica domain, where the commercialism is on display in all its vulgarity. In these shops you’ll find every design of rosary conceived of, countless variations of Miraculous Medal, statues everywhere of Our Lady, and a collossal number of water containers. Consequently, most of Lourdes itself is relatively quiet, even in July.

The Basilica and Domain – the section of it that most people see – actually isn’t as big as it appears in photographs. The lowest level is very ornate inside and reasonably big, and it was the initial chapel/church they constructed before realising a further two levels were needed to accommodate the large number of visitors. The problem was the upper two levels are pretty cramped, being just large enough for a small congregation and a line of tourists filing in and out, so they added the Underground Basilica in the 1950s.

Passing under the arches, there is the Grotte de Massabielle, where St. Bernadette Soubirous allegedly encountered the apparition. Before the Domain was constructed, that area was a waste disposal site from where it was possible to cross the river to access the woodland where Bernadette and her friends collected firewood from. The town then extended only to where the western gate of the domain is today.

In the old town, there is the actual parish church, the places where the Soubirous family lived, and a large fortress that’s been there since the 8th century. A few streets beyond that is the modern town, which looks just like any modern high street.

And outside the town, there are mountains, caves and open land to explore.

RoSPA Session #3

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The Advanced Driver certificate is still some way off, but I’m certainly getting closer to earning it. This weekend I went on the first assessed drive, scoring As and Bs on 16 of the 24 points – my driving performance and control of the vehicle are excellent, apparently. I scored Cs on a few points around one specific thing: approaching hazards (mainly roundabouts) too quickly, so that’s what needs working on. Commentary driving, the Highway Code and overtaking I haven’t covered yet.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying out the stuff I was taught so far, eventually managing to get the right balance between using 3rd gear for rapid progress and using other gears to maximise fuel economy (trust me, it really does). What I’ve also found, making more use of 3rd and 4th gears, is that I’m not having to use my brakes so much – just a small reduction in speed can actually enable us to negotiate traffic lights, bends, junctions and corners more efficiently. This has knocked about ten minutes off my commute time.

Limit Points and Cornering

Last time we covered the stuff in chapter 10 of Roadcraft, which deals with cornering. Applying the IPSA system of car control to this is important, because the common tendency is to enter bends, corners and junctions a little too fast, and then we lose control and stability as a result – this is especially risky because there might be something around the corner that we can’t see. Roadcraft has a few pages on the physics and mechanics of this, and it claims that almost 50% of fatal collisions for drivers under 30 happen because they lose control on a bend or curve.

With advanced driving there are several techniques for dealing with bends in the safest and most efficient way. First one is to get in the habit of using ‘limit points’ – a limit point marks ‘the distance you can see to be clear on your side of the road’, and ‘the furthest point to which you have an uninterrupted view of the road surface’ (quotes from Roadcraft). If we’re able to stop our vehicle between our current position and the limit point, we’re travelling at a safe speed – obviously taking into account the road surface, other vehicles behind, indications of potential hazards around the corner, etc. By using limit points, we should find we’re always travelling at roughly the right speed to negotiate a bend.

A second technique is to apply the IPSA system – ensure we’re travelling at the right speed and in the right gear before entering the bend, then use the accelerator to maintain a constant speed while going around. This requires some practice, because most of us do the opposite in entering too quickly and using the brakes while cornering.
The ‘position’ component of the system might be relevant, because sometimes the safest and most efficient way to negotiate a winding road or roundabout is to ‘straight line’ it.

On the Humanist Counterpoints to the Statement of Principles on AI

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Admittedly I had never heard of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, and was unaware of the Statement of Principles on artificial intelligence, until I came across Luis Granados’ opinion piece on The Humanist.com.

Essentially the Statement of Principles lays out the evangelicals’ concerns about the potential of developments in machine intelligence to undermine the value society places on human life, fundamental rights and the dignity of the human person. If Luis Granados put his contempt for the religious aside and properly read the material, I think he’d find himself in agreement with them on many points.

America’s leading evangelical experts, as anxious to grab headlines as they are to make money, have now conveyed to us what God’s views are on the complex subject.‘ Granados claimed.

What the authors were trying to do is equip their fellow protestants, who (for reasons best known to themselves) take scripture as their authority, to argue against the compromise of freedoms and human dignity that might result from the way society views itself in relation to machine intelligence, or what society is being led to believe about the capabilities of related technologies. The Statement of Principles is predicated on certain religious beliefs shared among the intended readers, and the discourse between atheists and Christians on the basics of our faith has long passed the point of ‘let’s agree to disagree’. If Granados sees those beliefs as a valid target ridicule and derision, why bother writing an article about it?

The source of this inerrant and infallible word is the Bible, written thousands of years before AI was even dreamed of. After each of the statement’s twelve articles there is a list of Bible citations—most of which have little or nothing to do with the point being made.

Technically this is incorrect, though quoting scripture without some convincing exegesis isn’t really the best way to make a point. A substantial part of what’s being discussed here is the belief being promoted by certain ‘thought leaders’ that an artificial system could become conscious, super-intelligent and deifiable. There’s nothing fundamentally novel about this. Many cultures and religions over the millennia have attributed sentience and certain divine powers to inanimate things and emergent behaviours of nature that were beyond peoples’ understanding at the time. Likewise, the ‘simulated Universe’ idea is essentially creationism repackaged as something rational and scientific.
Our culture isn’t the first to become indifferent to the concept of objective morality, or become unstuck trying to define social progress, and it wouldn’t be the first to worship false gods if people started taking Silicon Valley ‘thought leaders’, such as Ray Kurzwel and Anthony Levandowski, seriously. Even Sam Harris ended his TED talk by referring to a potential intelligent system as a ‘god’.

What Granados labels ‘more bizarre excerpts from this Statement of Principles’ are actually his own misrepresentations of the sections he borrowed from. In fact, the bizarre thing here is how he consistently managed to completely misinterpret the source material, and ignored the substance of what was actually being said. A couple of his complaints were incoherent. Par example:

“We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral.” It isn’t? Of course it is! It’s a set of computer instructions, a bunch of zeroes and ones arranged in a particular pattern.
And two sentences later he asserted the exact opposite:
But the tool itself is as morally neutral as a shovel—it’s the human use of the tool that allows space for bias and discrimination to creep in.

“We reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.” There is a ton of money being spent right now on the prospect of linking human brains to outside data processing. Such capacity could unquestionably “improve” or “change” what it means to be a human being. […] For anyone to rule out the possibilities that could arise from a machine-brain interface based on what some theocrat wrote two thousand years ago is ludicrous.

This counterpoint dismisses the Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy that preceded the New Testament, the scholastic arguments for the immateriality of intellect and free will, and foundational principles of computer science – these things feature a lot in modern-day ‘apologetics’. One school of thought is that the ‘rational soul’ – the thing that gives us free will and intellect – is metaphysical, coupled with the human brain rather than emergent from it, too abstract to be coupled with any form of technology, and is beyond the capacity of humans to create.
At the risk of belabouring points I’ve made here before, I also argue that a computer-based system can never be anything other than deterministic – it couldn’t be a computer otherwise – and consequently technology could never do anything outside the bounds of what a human could express as an algorithm. Of course, stochastic neural networks might be an exception to the rule, but I’m not seeing how intellect or free will could emerge from them. I think it’s an impossibility that anything man-made could improve or complete the human person to any greater degree than the technologies we have now.

And this one:

“While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation.” Pollyanna couldn’t have said it any better. In truth, there’s every reason to be terrified of the power of AI. In the wrong hands, or without careful monitoring, AI could ruin the lives of billions of people. Anyone who claims that a spirit in the sky will keep that from happening is a simpleminded menace.

Yes, technology in the wrong hands has the potential to ruin billions of lives, and that’s the whole point of the Statement of Principles. Nowhere in the Statement of Principles has anyone made a reference to a ‘spirit in the sky’, let alone claimed such an imaginary entity would prevent that happening. Anyone who claims Christians worship a ‘sky spirit’ or ‘sky fairy’ is either a) misrepresenting the faith to make whatever point, or b) is genuinely ignorant of the basics of Christianity.

What the evangelicals wrote immediately before the statement Granados quoted was this:

God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

I can imagine this would come across as mere Bible-bashing denunciation of technology to an atheist, but in the warm incubator of cults where Silicon Valley just happens to be located, there are people who really believe artificial ‘superintelligence’, potentially the mere imitation of it, is something that should be worshipped.
Idolatory is considered a grave sin because it dehumanises by asserting the supremacy of inanimate things over humans, and usually those inanimate things are proxies for another party seeking to manipulate and exploit whatever social group. People die because they invest everything they have in ‘faith healers’, the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ and various pseudo-scientific alternatives to evidence-based medical treatments.
Could we imagine the amount of suffering and injustice there would be in a society that believed there was an equivalence of value between artificial things and human life, and deferred moral responsibility to an artificial ‘god’ that some corporation promoted as an infallible authority? And the granting of rights by the state to machines would necessitate limitations on human freedoms.

While devoting most of their text to meaningless platitudes, the learned evangelicals manage to ignore entirely the two most important ethical issues facing humanity as we stumble into an AI-dominated world. The first is the question of explainability—the importance of AI being set up in such a way that humans can figure out how it makes the decisions it does.

Aside from the irony of this statement coming from someone who devoted too much of his opinion piece to the usual juvenile ad hominems while again ignoring the substance of the source material, I’d say that explainability is a cursory ideal, because explainability in practice would be something along the lines of ‘These are the finer details of what we’re going to impose on society, whether you like it or not. Screw what Joe Average thinks.’ It’s naive to think we’d get to actually decide, given how powerful and unaccountable the corporations are in Silicon Valley, given their close relationship to the state, and given the ‘startup culture’ there exists to enable the expansion of those corporations. It’s public knowledge how facial recognition systems, IP cameras and other mass surveillance technologies work, to give a few examples, but we didn’t get to decide how they were used to violate our privacy.

The second is the question of “Who owns AI?” Unless something major changes about how our social systems finance capital growth, the tiny proportion of people who own most of the capital today will own an even greater share of it in the future, and the rest of us are going to own squat. When you consider how expensive it is likely to be to create the machine-brain interface mentioned above, the capacity of a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals to turn themselves into a super-species that doesn’t need the rest of us, as Yuval Noah Harari has warned, is more than a bit unnerving.

This has already been addressed at several points throughout the Statement of Principles, and the question itself is easy enough to answer: Silicon Valley corporations, Microsoft and IBM, since they have the resources to develop the most advanced technologies and buy out other firms that develop new ideas that consolidate whichever monopolies. Would it matter, though? Machine intelligence is already integrated into the lives of the general population, and in ways we’re not aware of. I have a digital/Internet radio that ‘learns’ which stations I listen to in order of frequency. Many smartphones have the capability to detect human faces in an image. Computer games include AI components, as do some high-end developer environments and anti-malware systems. If this is the current and future manifestation of machine intelligence in the real world, maybe we do get a choice.

An Afternoon with RoSPA

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I’ve spent Saturday afternoon with Missy (as I affectionately call my Renault Clio) and a couple of RoSPA guys for my first training session towards the Advanced Driver certificate. It was a positive experience, and definitely worth being on the waiting list for. I think full membership is a bit more expensive than the Institute of Advanced Motorists, and the certificate must be renewed every three years, but the South Wales RoSPA group organises a training day every month.

All the training is based on a book called ‘Roadcraft: The Police Driver’s Handbook‘, and the bulk of it’s about always having the right position, speed, gear and acceleration for whatever hazards and conditions present themselves, though there’s a lot of material around that to get through. Also, for this I’ll need to revisit the Highway Code, because there’ll be some questions about that, if and when I do the exam.

The good news is I drive almost exactly as I’ve been taught as a learner, as a matter of habit. The thing is some of it’s wrong, according to the advanced driving instructors.

One example is the use of gears. Before passing the standard test, we’re basically taught to move up the gears as our speed increases, and select the highest appropriate gear. On Saturday I was taught it’s better to stay in 3rd gear while travelling along a winding stretch of country road with a national speed limit – the idea was that 3rd gear is quite flexible, and it gives better control, balance and power to handle cornering. At first I wasn’t sure of this, and I was feeling guilty several hours later about the damage it might have been doing to Missy’s engine.
I went and looked this up, and it turned out IAM Bristol’s site has a whole page of reasons why it’s better to drive at higher speeds in 3rd gear. I watched some videos by another guy called Reg Local, and he does the same thing on fast roads when approaching a bend.

What they call the ‘cockpit drill’ is also slightly different to what learner drivers are commonly taught, unless that’s also changed. This time, we put the seatbelts on after starting the engine, to enable a quick escape if the engine catches fire, and we test the brakes twice before setting off.

Another point was push-pull vs. rotational steering. I still haven’t come across a definitive reason why we’re taught to use push-pull method – for most of us, that method sucks for taking corners. The Roadcraft handbook doesn’t actually prescribe one technique over the other, but it points out that we really don’t want our arms over the wheel if/when the airbag goes off.

Change of Venue

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There have been a few changes over the last month at the Aikido Society.

* We’re now training at the Scout Hall at the end of Cottrell Road, in Cardiff. We’ve got better mats, decent air conditioning (finally), and a lot more space to play with. This place should be more accessible to people living and working in the city, especially those looking for alternatives to the nearby MMA clubs. The traffic along Albany Road is rather chaotic, though, but we haven’t encountered any real problems with parking spaces.

* Training is on Thursday nights at 20:00 in Cardiff. We also train at the Scout Hall in Tonypandy (~30 minutes drive along the A470), at 20:00 on Wednesday nights.

* We’re putting some effort into advertising and building up the organisation. Larger numbers means everyone gets more out of training.

* I might need to take on an instructor position in Cardiff, depending on what happens over the next six months.