John Meaney's Blog

March 9, 2016


Today's AI news is that DeepMind's AlphaGo has won the first game against the Go world champion. As it happens, DeepMind's CEO gave a lecture at Oxford recently, and although I couldn't get there in person, the ubiquitous magic of tech allowed me to watch it streamed live. (I did manage to physically attend the first Ada Lovelace Memorial Lecture given by the awesome Barbara Liskov, a little while back.)

There's something missing from today's news reporting, which I happen to believe is significant.

Playing Go at this level requires a more "intuition"-based approach than chess, which is a significant difference between AlphaGo and Deep Blue (which beat the chess world champion back in the *gulp* last millennium). That's in the news reports, and correctly so.

The other distinction is that AlphaGo is not designed purely to play Go. It has learned the game, and an earlier project learned to play dozens of other games (all the old Atari games!), based only on an input of numbers, the ability to recognise patterns, and a goal of maximising its score. In other words, even that earlier software could adapt to a new game with new rules, something that DeepBlue could never achieve: it would require rewriting by its developers to cope with anything besides chess.

Although the overall constraint is game-playing, within that constraint the DeepMind AIs employ general learning algorithms (so-called "DQL"). And that, I suspect, is the most impressive part of all.

Meanwhile, I shouldn't be blogging... I've a book to write. Hence my vast silence for months now.

Cheers, all!

P.S. It belatedly occurs to me that my VERY FIRST STORY concerned an AI challenging its creator's father to a game of Go. That appeared just the other day, in 1992... Bloomin' heck!

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Published on March 09, 2016 08:57 • 6 views

October 24, 2015


Back in the day, top martial artists used to quote the golfer Tony Jacklin: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." It was a response to a spectator exclaiming that Jacklin's hole-in-one was lucky. Right...

For me it's right up there with Somerset Maugham's answer to the question of whether he wrote to a schedule or whenever inspiration struck. He said, "I write when inspiration strikes. Luckily, it turns up at nine o'clock every morning."

So here are some reasons I feel lucky right now. Random chance can strike anyone down at any time, and it plays a part in the good things also; but none of the things below happened without effort from me, apart from the last two. I have a dojo in my back garden. I spend at least half my life breathing fresh country air. I eat healthful foods. I have three new books in the works, at various stages. I have eleven books already out there. I gained my master's degree from Oxford. I'm enjoying the heck out of minimalist shoe running. Likewise my ongoing practice of dand-bethak and related calisthenics. I was a member of Enoeda Sensei's dojo (a regular for 6 or 7 years, with visits thereafter). Great people in my personal life. Great people in my professional life. Both of my professions. My parents loved me unconditionally. They raised me in a country where the other things are possible.

Maybe the last two are a necessary precursor to the rest. Maybe not. People can work through all sorts of grief, can't they?

Why am I feeling in the mood for general gratitude? Dunno, but perhaps something Dr Ann Maria De Mars wrote in a recent post in her general blog had something to do with it, or perhaps the one in her stats & maths blog. Two of my regular reads.

From her latest post, following a sequence of links (as one does) brought me to this this great list of online educational resources. Of course, anyone reading this is likely to be pretty smart already, and familiar with a good percentage of the resources.

My preferred way of growing smarter involves reading actual books. Amazon is my friend. (Although Colm says: "More like the other way round, bro.") There are still things like writing code to do, or whatever is required to make use of the knowledge.

I've been thinking about ways to mix functional and object-oriented programming for some time. It's been a while since I learned a new programming language in depth, so I'm about to dive into Scala. I started a while back with the has-to-done first piece of code:

object HelloWorld {

   def main(args: Array[String]){
      println("Greetings, Cosmos!!!");


Geek customs, eh? It's like wearing a gi to train in karate: traditional, provided you define a tradition as a practice that is decades (rather than centuries) old.

I guess tradition is a fashion that never went away. Those of us with beards are, of course, on the leading edge of fashion now. I wondered if it would happen in my lifetime...

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Published on October 24, 2015 05:50 • 26 views

September 14, 2015


Or consistent non-blogger... Six months absence is a bit too much. Sitrep: I've two (count 'em) books on offer to publishers right now. The cyber thriller is complete and pretty well polished, while the fantasy is a complete first draft. And I'm living in my other world, of computing (teaching high-profile technology grad programmes for Big Name Organisations), before returning to the fantasy.

The Class of 2015 from my long-term wonderful client were absolutely awesome, so a huge shout-out to The Thing, Groot, Star-Lord, Black Widow, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Squirrel Girl and Harlequin. You were brilliant!

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Published on September 14, 2015 12:29 • 13 views

March 24, 2015


"He's not the boogeyman. He's the one you send to kill the f***ing boogeyman."

If you're in the mood for a stylish, violent revenge thriller, John Wick might be just the movie to watch. Strangely, the only Region 2 (European) DVD that I could order online was the Scandinavian version (which of course has the original English-language soundtrack included). It's the best thing I've seen Keanu Reeves in since Point Break.

He's also slated to play Barry Eisler's iconic assassin, John Rain, in a forthcoming TV series, with action stunts from the same guys that did John Wick. Let's hope the series goes ahead. At 50, Keanu Reeves is the same age as John Rain in the first novel. I hope it's successful.

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Published on March 24, 2015 13:50

March 13, 2015

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Published on March 13, 2015 07:50

February 25, 2015


Maybe I should use topic tags. Last time I looked, they were incompatible with the way I'd styled this page, but I could look again... At any rate, consider this post tagged: martial arts, physical training, general rambling.

Westerners performing dand/bethak training - aka Hindu push-ups and Hindu squats - are probably doing it because the controversial Matt Furey (re)popularised the notion. I've been training in martial arts since 1972, and lifting weights since '75, so I've a reasonable idea of how people trained in general, back in those YouTube-less days. (Although you can use YouTube to check out the legendary Kimura training judoka in the '60s: hundreds of dands every day. Likewise Japanese wrestlers and shoot-fighters.)

When I had a Links page on the main website, I used to link to an apparently respectable "fitness guru", until I realised how fake his credentials were, and how much he overcharged for the small amount of good information he provided. I removed that link, so I understand the notion of choosing your recommendations on grounds other than pure content. But from my entire bookcase and Kindle collection of training books, only Furey's Combat Conditioning changed my actual daily practice. Bear in mind, I already ran and lifted weights: anything new I learned could only be a tweak, and the books were more for motivation than knowledge. In those days also, Furey wrote that combining weight lifting and calisthenics was fine - he later changed his tune - and it probably helped that I bought his book in a bookshop, not as a result of his viral marketing (in magazines I never read). I judged the book purely on content, and the effect of actually engaging in that training for five to seven days a week, for years.

Since keyboard warriorship is clearly oxymoronic and unworthy of further discussion, I guess what I really wanted to say was that I'd never write approvingly about an exercise or piece of equipment if I'd not used it seriously for at least two years, and probably an awful lot longer. Bear in mind this comes from an old guy with a too-thick waist. My energy levels are high, but so is my coffee consumption, plus I've never quite grown up: bouncing around is what I do, and there's no guarantee it comes from hundreds of daily freehand squats.

While travelling, I take Bodylastics exercise bands with me, as a substitute for lifting weights. They have a door anchor and use carabiner clips, so you can attach multiple bands to the same handle or pair of handles. I like them a lot, and I've used them a lot over the last three years (up to 2 months at a time in a hotel, though I usually get home at the weekends, to my heavy bag and dumbbells).

I've owned a pair of Vibram minimalist training shoes for about nine months (they were a present), ran a few miles in them the day after I got them (not recommended by the manufacturers, but martial artists are used to training in bare feet), but only used them in the last few weeks seriously, while doing calisthenics and "hill sprints" up hotel staircases. So no verdict yet. Mostly, I'm no fan of buying new gear for the sake of it, or swapping exercise routines, or even training in the usual kind of gym, where everyone's nicely dressed, talkative, and enamoured of their phones or interactive screens mounted on or above the treadmills and exercise bikes. That's partly the getting-old thing, I suppose, but my personal workout music - I've mentioned this before - is rap and hip-hop, with Rocky themes just for a touch of nostalgia. I'd like to think I'm not entirely superannuated.

To my mind, not critiquing something until you've tried it seriously for a serious period of time - I'd been performing dands, bethaks and neck bridges for a lot longer than two years before I ever mentioned them - links to the common courtesy of never insulting another martial art. I say "another", because it's the adherents of one art who are most likely to put other arts down. I first came across this phenomenon in an aikido dojo that I visited for a single session in the 1970s: the instructor was physically proficient and tough... and rude about other styles. I never went back. By contrast, Juliet McKenna's aikido dojo, when I visited a few years back, was an excellent place to train.

(As an aside, from my limited experience among British aikidoka, and extensive experience among British karateka... How come it's only the aikido guys who can pronounce Japanese terms correctly? Is it because we karate blokes is, like, working-class thugs? Been hit in the skull too often? Just wondering.)

Likewise, BJJ. In a sports centre near where I used to live, I wandered over to listen to a BJJ coach (not the regular instructor) boast about how he'd wiped out some non-jiu jitsu fighters at a BJJ tournament - he used exceedingly derogatory language - with no mention of the fact that they were the ones who'd dared to enter a competition whose rules were entirely alien. He also proceeded to teach some gymnastic, spectacular techniques that I would classify as low-probability, sport-only movements. I never trained there at all.

On the other hand, when I turned up at a Gracie Barra gym - where the guys had one hell of a lot more impressive competition credentials than the rude bloke - the techniques were practical, and everyone was very nice to me. Even the huge bloke who sat on my chest for the duration of our encounter when we were rolling... He apologised afterwards, on the basis that he hadn't realised it was my first-ever Brazilian Jiu Jitsu session. Toughness and politeness in one package.

Seems to me, that's how things should be.

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Published on February 25, 2015 06:47 • 21 views

February 13, 2015


So I dunno... When I'm away from home and teaching a grad programme (which is pretty much 100% of the fee-earning work I do computing-wise these days), I take my heavy-duty laptop and a large bag containing workout gear and hardcopy books and A4 folders full of notes and diagrams, besides the usual essentials. At least I did until last month, when I tweaked my lower back as I lugged the stuff up and down Tube station stairs.

Throughout my 20s and 30s, when my only strength training was on the weights, the odd back injury was no surprise. Or you could say, I should've trained smarter. For me personally, though, it was the addition of calisthenics (Hindu push-ups, Hindu squats and neck bridges) that largely banished such injuries, so I was a little miffed when my back said ouch. Part of my response, since I had to travel again the next week, was to lighten the load I carried... and part of that was to order my very first Kindle, specifying next-day delivery.

Ah-ha, Meaney. Coming to the point at last, are we?

Despite my love for dead-tree books, text books included, I've had a variety of Kindle books on my laptop for several years - over a hundred books - but never found it a satisfying experience, particularly in regards to fiction. I've bought Kindle readers as presents, but this was the first time I'd bought one for myself.

Since I teach computer science graduates as well as grads of other disciplines, I'm aware that part of preparing them for the cut and thrust of projects is creating an awareness of the differences between the worlds of business and research. The former includes risk analysis and management, which means not letting the cutting edge sever your arteries: unless there's a compelling reason in terms of being first to market, you might want to wait until the bugs have been fixed in whatever technology you'd like to adopt.

Hang on... Aren't you always going on about learning Haskell and keeping track of the new stuff?

Well, yes... But keeping track of the leading edge is different from using it in projects. It's more in line with being an eternal student, and it applies to computing and martial arts both, or can do: Dan Inosanto, the doyen of jeet kune do, was fifty-eight when he took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Blimey, Meaney. That's about your age, innit?

I'm fifty-seven and three-quarters, and that's enough of that.

So anyway, my brand-new Kindle is seventh generation, which makes it thinner and lighter than its predecessors and something of a joy to read. A month later and here I am, with over a hundred and thirty books in my pocket, weighing practically nothing...

You said over a hundred. Where did the extra thirty come from?

I might have gone a little over the top purchasing new books. The point is, it's an SF future brought into the present, a true pocket library, and a joy. And if you've read my early books, you might have noticed that a happy scene with lots of laughter is sometimes the set-up for a cataclysm. So this isn't entirely a happy story, because I finally got round to catching up with the news from Borderland Books in San Francisco, to discover they're closing down, victim of the current book trade environment, with a local change in legislation being the final straw that means the business is no longer viable.

One way or another, progress kicks you in the @$$. We're all caught up in the tides of history, and if we avoid tsunamis, it's probably down to the laws of chance.

Anyway, I'd like to proclaim public best wishes to Alan and Jude and the rest of the Borderland gang, and hope they do well. (If I were living in SF, I'd back Alan Beatts for mayor any day.)

Somewhere I've got a photo of Alan performing his party trick with a coat hanger: passing his entire body through it. From the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes... It's the least of his talents, of course. He's rather more dangerous than you'd probably expect.

Perseverance sometimes involves changing goals. Nil carborundum, my friends.

Keep on truckin'.

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Published on February 13, 2015 03:29 • 26 views

December 30, 2014

2014 FUGIT; 2015 VENIT

New Year's resolutions? Gonna need some psychological prodding to keep going? Try Dr Ann Maria de Mars' blog for thoughts on perseverance (incl. "persevere at the right thing") or Steven Pressfield's War of Art book. The latter has tiny "chapters" that will seem simplistic to the vague or casual reader, while speaking volumes to anyone engaged in an actual struggle towards a longterm goal - especially that of getting a novel written.

A new dedication to fitness? Good for you. For the seasoned gym rats, January is a hateful time, because gyms allow far too many people to enrol... in the certain knowledge that by February, most of the newcomers will have fallen by the wayside, but still be paying money to the gym in some form or other. Maybe you should start by walking every day and doing push ups, and join that gym in a few weeks time? But hey, start something now.

So, how about a 2014 round-up?

I'd pick my best SF reads of the year, but... I haven't ready any. Not a thing. That's pretty telling. Crime fiction, certainly - always! - including new books by old favourites, John Sandford and Ian Rankin, as well as re-reading some of their earlier work. (I've been reading Sandford since his first two books, written as John Camp.) A bunch of books by C.J. Box, who I discovered only last year. Those are the stand-outs.

My computer consultancy has been all to do with graduate training programmes this year, both writing material (cyber security being just one of the topics) and delivering two bootcamps for global brand-name organisations, which meant four months away from home, but a chance to do good work. Nicely successful, thanks to all involved.

My first programming job in the commercial world began in February 1982, when I was 24. The company's live production system was an IBM System/34, using the RPG II programming language and without a database (the data being stored in flat files, and formatted by the programs). We wrote code in pencil on pre-printed coding sheets, for an operator to key in and compile.

The exciting work was on the new non-production box, the System/38, using RPG III and an inbuilt relational DBMS, later re-engineered to become DB2. An ex-IBM expert called Ian Smith performed an amazing job as a consultant setting it up, and was soon offered the chance to head up the IT department - except that in those days, of course, the term "IT" hadn't been coined yet: this was the DP (Data Processing) Department. Wonderful days.

And now? I'm writing this on a laptop on which I code primarily in Java, but also C#, C++, Frege, Haskell, Erlang, Python and Ruby (off the top of my head), while using MongoDB or MySQL or SQL Server or JavaDB for the persistence (object-relational mapping by hand or Hibernate, either way will do), and including web apps with EJBs and servlets and JSPs, with HTML5 UIs, including jQuery for the snazzy modern look'n'feel... Times have changed.

To anyone starting a software development career in 2015: how similar do you think IT will be in 33 years time - at the start of 2048 - compared to now? Buckle up, and carry on learning...

It's a good job that old notions of age making it more difficult to learn new stuff are plain wrong. For example: adults talk to children in a slow, exaggerated way when the kids are learning their first (or a second) language - and if language teachers talked to adults in a similar (not identical) way, the adults would pick up new languages as easily as children. (The problem isn't really teachers: it's adult natives of another country not knowing how to talk to people who are still learning the language. No one makes TV dramas for adults where the language use is deliberately slow and simple...)

Likewise, early studies of memory involved undergraduates - the experimental psychologist's test sample of choice - memorising lists of nonsense syllables, as directed by an academic. When the researchers wheeled in retired older people, with decades of work experience where relevance is materially rewarded, these test subjects had no motivation to perform well on nonsense memorisation, and did not view the academics as authority figures. (It was experimental psychologists themselves who came to recognise the unintentional bias in the methodology.) More recent studies show very different results.

And then there were the researchers who discovered old Eleven Plus papers in a Scottish archive, and realised they had a nice opportunity. These were IQ tests that school pupils sat, aged eleven, back in the old days - a practice that ended mostly in the early 1970s - and determined which kind of secondary education they received. (The inventor of IQ tests, Alfred Binet, did not believe that intelligence was a single, measurable thing, or that his tests should be used to categorise people for serious social purposes.)

The rediscovered test papers allowed researchers to find people in their seventies and get them to resit the tests, and compare the results. Guess what? A large group had increased their IQ by twenty points or more. (That's massive.) And the correlation? These were the people with intellectually demanding professions and/or considerable further education.

Learning new stuff makes you smarter... and that's not a tautology. You don't just take new cognitive material on board: you increase your ability to learn yet more.

I find a deep geeky joy in learning a new programming language, but hey, maybe I'm on my own. Again.

"That's all very well, John," I hear you cry. "But tell us about your books. Never mind computer programming and the novels you're reading... What are you actually writing?"

I'm glad you asked. Thank you. The idea for the new novel came to me in early 2010, and it's part of the reason I returned to the computing fold, having previously dropped my computing work to literally a couple of weeks a year (albeit with some seriously interesting clients). Finishing my postgraduate studies part-time at Oxford (having put them on hold back in the last millennium), and getting back to the leading edge of current tech, all integrated with planning to write a contemporary novel, heavy on the cyber security but for for the general reader as well as the specialist, to be started when the Ragnarok trilogy was finished.

The plan was to finish the book the last spring.

What I hadn't counted on was the need for a total rewrite, which is business as usual for the professional novelist, but stress-inducing for the writer who's planned for months of computer-related work and no writing... But hey, it's only hard work. I finished the rewrite and got the book to my agent a couple of days before Christmas. This being the first book I've written on spec since - gulp - the 1990s, it's now Out There in the hands of editors who with luck will be reading it in January and liking it enough to offer money so they can publish it...

Fingers crossed for 2015.

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Published on December 30, 2014 16:44 • 56 views

November 21, 2014


Ah, those intermittent bloggers and their pathetic excuses for long absences... What to make of them?

It's a good while back that I guest-blogged on Mr Stross's fine site, and my more modest contributions dwindled even further after that experience, when I glimpsed just how much ongoing effort it takes to keep that kind of high-octane blog going.

Well, I'd said some time back that I was going to teach two massive, bootcamp-style graduate programmes this year, pretty much back to back, and that's exactly what I did. Thanks ever so much, guys... You and the Monster were awesome!

So that was my summer, and a fine one it was too.

Writing-wise, the Satellite 4 Souvenir Book features a YA story set in the Pilots universe, and called Jonquil's Ray. I hope all you Eastercon 2014 attendees like it.

I suspect it's my final piece of science fiction to be published, twenty-two years after my first story appeared in Interzone. Like Charlie Stross, who's written about the same thing on his blog, I've no desire to write more SF. All done, and it's been magnificent.

I'm working harder than ever on the new book, of course. It just ain't SF...
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Published on November 21, 2014 12:04

August 22, 2014

CLASS OF 2014!

Massively special: the best of all grad programmes, back for a 3rd year, finished last week, and a huge honour to teach.

Here's a shout-out to my homies: Alex (Captain 100%!), Calvin (it's all quantum), Connor (Ginger and Tablets!), Dan (Chinstrap no longer), Divia (you wuz brill!), Jamie (cool under pressure), Mark (awesome), Matt (the new Brian Cox), Mikey (keep it real, King Java), Tom (trance and maths, what could be better?), Victoria/Tors (my mentor forever!), Westlee (coolest of dudes)... You guys are absolutely amazing. Keep on being brilliant!

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Published on August 22, 2014 10:14 • 18 views

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