Speculative Execution

Speculative execution is not exactly how thought works, it’s how you work without thinking about it. When philosophers talk about determinism versus free will, they treat the brain as if it were a black box with memory and sensory perceptions going in and actions coming out, with a clear sequence of causality from the first to the last. For the determinists, this is enough. For those who believe in free will, there’s an extra something special added at some point — the Soul, some kind of quantum magic going on in the synapses, whatever sort of swerve away from clockwork perfection seems convincing this decade — but it’s just another station on a linear progression.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience undermine all of this because the brain doesn’t work like a black box. Without your noticing, it’s continually second-guessing and anticipating in all sorts of different ways. Your visual field is not the beautiful and transparent 360-degree spherical sensorium, God’s own VR headset, that you think it is: it’s a little dot of fine-detailed vision in constant motion with the gaps filled in by how your visual centres have come to assume that the world works. You anticipate what other people are about to say; your own words come tumbling out of your mouth without any conscious composition. The mind isn’t some Cartesian homunculus behind your eyes, marshalling inputs and emitting appropriate commands like some idealised 18th century lord. It’s a democratic and noisy playroom of independently-acting modules, all fighting for what little bandwidth your senses and memory afford them, and only too keen to proceed as far as they can on what guesses they can make.

And just as in CPUs, the goal of all this mess, this willingness to go out on a limb, is efficiency. Err on the side of caution if you think there’s a predator or, more realistically, the hostile or mocking attention of your peers; get distracted by anything which seems promising, an attractive person or an appetising aroma, because who knows that it might not be your last chance.

That’s the evolutionary story, and while we like to locate the life-and-death struggles behind the bundle of hacks we call consciousness in the savage prehistoric past, think of how much more we need to rely on speculative processing in the buzzing and blooming and overcrowded Umwelt we’ve built around ourselves. Sure, we might have evolved on the savannah, but all of these words and walls and works and wills and won’ts are what we’ve built to suit us, and they give our phantom selves such a lot of opportunity to run down the paths of might-have-been.

You’re about to change lanes and you map out the trajectory towards the exit ramp but: there’s someone coming up the inside. Backtrack. You’re indulging in a daydream fantasy about an attractive co-worker and then have to be polite and efficient with him for an hour-long team meeting. Backtrack. You’re following the plot of a movie and then what is he doing? Didn’t she get shot? Backtrack.

And this is just on a small scale. You marry young, anticipating decades of mutual happiness, only to have to unpick it all in a messy divorce in your early thirties. You choose a degree based on a school friend you hero-worshipped but get sidetracked out of it and have to explain it away for the next decade. A swarm of ghost lives, decisions and commitments and purchases and options which, if we’re lucky, we get to retrospectively make sense of, justify, tell ourselves it was destiny or fate, that it was what we were aiming for all along, what we really needed. But perhaps the truth, and it need not be an unkind one, is that a human life needs a sort of virtual scaffolding of possibilities, that the might-have-beens which we’ve unconsciously or consciously rejected are what hold us together.

Certain mental illnesses and mood disorders can be seen as a perversion of this tendency. Depression as the paralysis brought on by too keen an awareness of the sheer volume — number is too narrow a word — of possibilities exploding from every moment: anxiety is a failure of the shielding which lets our minds evaluate them without bothering us with the nagging sense that we are dancing over an abyss. In the manic phase of bipolar disorder there is a dimming of the red light and bell that clangs to signal that it’s time to backtrack, impulses are followed through to their destructive last.

It doesn’t take very much paranoia to imagine that our brain’s talent for speculative execution could be an exploitable vulnerability. Maybe back in the days of the savannah — any predator will have a keen instinct for the false steps and feints of its prey — but now? The misdirection of the magician, the fortune teller’s cold read, the confidence of the con artist, sure in their ability to anticipate just how far down the garden path their marks will lead themselves. The manipulative and abusive, those who gaslight and interrogate, the grandstanding attorney and the demagogue: do they take not take their victim’s or audience’s might-have-beens and magnify them into terrors or seductions? Facebook keeps a record of not only the posts you write, but those you cancel. The algorithms that watch us will have a better map of our shadow self than we will, seeing all the links we follow and then hurriedly click shut, the people we stalk, the products we dare not purchase.

Except that we know from a hundred ads which clumsily ape our ten most recent Google queries that the algorithms are not yet that subtle. The idea that our brains could be hacked by means as delicate as those which can be used to steal the ghosts of data from the might-have-beens of CPU caches is science fiction. And what is fiction, if not a way to coax an audience into the speculative execution of a series of thoughts, a shared illusion, a thing which could never be?


Neural Streams of Consciousness

Style-extraction algorithms having reached the level of popular smartphone apps which could take the small-scale features of Hokusai’s wave or a Lichtenstein cartoon and apply them to a picture of one’s pet, it was only a matter of time before the technique was successfully applied to textual, rather than graphic, works. These first neural networks were mere mimics, more sophisticated versions of elementary Markov chains, which could produce plausible but nonsensical imitations of existing texts with no semantic content.

A breakthrough came with the Antal functor, which used a form of iterated adversarial machine learning algorithm to extrapolate multiple versions of a given text along many dimensions and then aggressively prune this ramifying cluster of words into “fixed points”, an unfortunate piece of mathematical jargon for what could be quite subtle and profound features of the source material. (The story of the functor’s use in extracting “virtual characters” from apparently objective and non-fictional texts, and the subsequent effects of this discovery on journalism and politics, have been told elsewhere.) Once this basic technique had been mastered, it could then be applied in an analogous way to that used in vision, sorting the qualities of a text on an approximate scale which ranged from such minutiae as idiosyncrasies of spelling or word frequency, to the characteristic syntactic patterns employed, and then on, with decreasing accuracy, into such large-scale qualities as extended metaphors, symbolic structures and plot.

The most famous application of this technique was the urDay service. The user registered his or her various social media accounts with urDay and allowed it to apply a battery of neural functors to the texts and images which flowed from them, taking these as a modern and technologically-mediated version of the stream of consciousness which had been pioneered in literature by Woolf and Joyce. The abstract versions of these could then be expressed in any number of ways: to generate wry or amusing animations with a cast of adorable algorithmically-generated mascots; inserted into an ever-changing roster of movie clips and viral videos as sarcastic commentary, witty cameo or heartfelt dialogues.

A set of textual plugins had been provided, more out of the curiosity of some of the development team and a sense of pride in their antecedence than any hope that urDay would have any serious impact on literary studies, much less kindle in its users a love of high modernism. With these, one could project the narration of one’s life in a kaleidoscope of styles and voices, just as Joyce had done in Ulysses: a cursory description of an annoying planning workshop or visit to a supermarket could be recounted in the language of high fantasy or science fiction. Use and abuse of these textual plugins became popular in certain literary circles, all the more because of the occasional thunderings against this digital prostitution of the art and craft of writing which came from the stodgier journals: although their output was, if anything, too facile and polished to really be groundbreaking as generated textual art, their use signalled that one was not above a certain populist bravado.

As is only natural, after a few years such collaborations seemed painfully dated, and the professional writers abandoned the field to those amateurs who enjoyed running an autoblog which gathered up and retold the output of their various encounters and days in the manner of, for example, a noir detective story, or an epic battle across frozen tundra, or a stylish psychodrama.

Their remained the matter of what became known as “the puzzles”. Certain scholars who had shifted from collaborating with the urDay plugins to analysing their outputs claimed that motifs and images seemed to be following patterns which, though elusive, could neither be attributed to the social media inputs, nor to the literary models used to generate the various styles. (The use of functorial analysis allowed this to be done with a degree of confidence.) For example, a week-long sequence from a university student’s autoblog, which alternated between a somewhat archaic translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Patti Smith’s memoirs, showed a striking affinity with certain of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, a work which neither the student nor her chosen electronic amanuenses had any connection. An archaeologist’s field notes, transformed into an elaborate science-fantasy scenario, spontaneously revealed a correspondence between certain ruins on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the galactic coordinates of active pulsars. Once one began looking for such patterns, it was said, they began to emerge everywhere, and perhaps it was this sense of ubiquity which explained the somewhat tepid response with which these demonstrations were greeted. While happy enough, at least in some circles, to let the false leads and teasing traps laid down by a legitimate genius like Joyce keep them busy for centuries to come, literary scholars saw the apparently limitless sea of neural “puzzles” as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of their computational origin, as uninteresting to them as the technical details of the programming languages used to create their word processors or functorial analysers.

Eventually, the “puzzles” became the hunting ground of that even more prolific realm of amateurism, the conspiracy theorists, to be added to their never-ending roster of patterns and coincidences, world without end.


Jupiter is at opposition, rising at sunset, so bright that it looks like a smudge of fire, no longer a point but possibly a plump vastness at an immense distance. A few weeks ago I looked at it with my telescope (a birthday present from C) for the first time and saw the Galilean moons, and with great pleasure made laborious pen drawings of their positions over the next few nights. They are exquisitely tiny when seen through the telescope, compared with their fat sugar daddy.


Jupiter is flanked to either side by the stars Porrima and Spica. After a few hours, when this trio has climbed up the eastern sky, they are followed by Arcturus, hanging directly below them. Some bright stars are red, or really pink, like Betelgeuse and Antares, and Aldebaran is yellow, but to my eyes Arcturus is a scintillating combination of orange and white. I first noticed it last winter: it is the brightest star in Boötes, a northern constellation, but not so far north that, like Polaris, it’s always invisible from Sydney. It’s really beautiful.

Getting favourite stars is something I do: last winter it was Antares. This has been a pretty bad year for my mental health and for my family, and I’m not really ready to blog about it yet, but looking at the stars is something I usually find comforting. Things are getting better, I think.

On Bullshit

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his 2005 work On Bullshit, presents a definition of, and perhaps an example of, bullshit. Not to be outdone, noted vacuole Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Flapdoodle: Handy Pull Quotes for the Working Thinkpiece Writer, shows how you can have a successful career based on nothing at all, as long as your flapdoodle provides handy pull quotes for the working thinkpiece writer. Well-known pronunciation shibboleth Thomas Pinker, in his book How to Have Perhaps Even More Influence than Gladwell by Writing a Large Book which No-one has even Read, has conclusively demonstrated how to have perhaps even more influence than Gladwell by writing a large book which no-one has even read.

The reader, in her 2017 work Milking It: How I Got Sick of Blog Posts Which Flog One Idea to Death, may observe that she has grown sick of blog posts which flog one idea to death. The present author’s work in progress, The Use of a List of Imaginary Books as a Vehicle for Satire is an Established Literary Technique Dating Back to Rabelais (at Least), argues that, on the contrary, the use of a list of imaginary books a a vehicle for satire is an established literary technique dating back to Rabelais (at least).

He also admits that the abandoned draft of his blog post “An earnest and depressing argument that if the Trump administration shows anything, it is that the language of political journalism has become a desperate manipulation of clichés and idées reçues in a hopeless attempt to avoid dwelling on an atrocious reality” is an earnest and depressing argument that if the Trump administration shows anything, it is that the language of political journalism has become nothing but a desperate manipulation of clichés and idées reçues in a hopeless attempt to avoid dwelling on an atrocious reality. It’s not a fun read.

The deep state

The deep state never sleeps.

The deep state is in a perpetual struggle with the shallow state.

The deep state is in an uneasy truce with the pelagic state.

The deep state denies the existence of the abyssal state.

The deep state, like the imaginary politics of science fiction writers and futurists, is radically univocal. Unlike the state proper and the historical events in which the latter has its being, it is not subject to varying interpretations.

The deep state has its own calendar of deep state holidays. The observance of these is carried out in public but go unnoticed, parades of unmarked black SUVs blending with freeway traffic, gifts exchanged by dead drops in failing suburbs, tag phrases inserted into the speeches of dignitaries, composite virtual dinners which consist of the food items on scores of plates scattered around the globe.

The deep state lives in a mound of old Tom Clancy paperbacks.

Uttering the name of the deep state is a phatic speech act or magical ritual which reassures both the speaker and auditor that they are at least capable of pretending to have not been completely overwhelmed by political events.

Deep libertarianism denies the validity of the deep state and relies upon the power of the deep market, which is also known as Nature.

The deep state resents the distancing use of quotation marks. Every time it is referred to as ‘the “deep state”’ the name and station of the perpetrator is noted in a ledger by agents of the deep state.

The deep state, like certain gods, is immanent. No woman or man can know that their least gesture did not form a part of the deep state’s hidden intentions.

Auch du bist liberal


I don’t know the political context of this poster – “You, too, are liberal” – which I first saw in Lewis Blackwell’s Twentieth Century Type (1992) as an example of the Swiss International Style. But it’s been on my mind since last year. I could feel myself turning into the kind of lefty who has a comfortable job and kids and acts online like they start each day with a cup of smoking hot bourgeois liberal blood, which is one of the reasons I got off Twitter. I know that liberalism as a political philosophy is based on horrors which its own history has carefully airbrushed away, but I also know that personally I’d shit my pants if I was ever made to live in a political system which wasn’t liberal in the broader sense, which is easy for a white dude to say but it’s still true, and that it’s our job to reform it and to defend the parts worth keeping from the Right, to whom we’re all just one enemy. The poster is by Karl Gerstner, who passed away on the first of January this year, I just found out. It’s a brilliant design.

The other image that’s been on my mind is from Blue Velvet and is about how fucking uneasy the Shitposter-In-Chief makes me feel about my own compulsive use of Twitter-


-even though I miss it like hell.

Two projects and an absence

My entry for NaNoGenMo 2016 is ANNALES, a procedurally-generated chronology of rulers, courtiers, tribes and intrigue:

Being a faithful narration of the history of the realm from the reign of Fobbial Artesia I to the present day

As transcribed by the algorithm annales-exe using the pseudo-random seed 1835917550 1 during the reign of Armey Engine III

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings”

Reign of Fobbial Artesia I the Unbridgeable.

Fobbial Artesia I, surnamed the Unbridgeable, won the throne by divination.

Fobbial Artesia I espoused Sidentilation with wild channession.

Rumours of morees in Wire Star.


Fobbial Artesia I the Unbridgeable gave birth to a son, Lavaloman, under the influence of Kabdhilinan.

Rumours of rederes in Vectary Viroth.

The source code is here and I’ll be blogging a bit about the technical details on mikelynch.org when I get around to it.

I also got around to implementing my dumbest Twitter bot idea, @TVisoTropes.

I’ve been away from Twitter proper since the US election: my mental health has been poor this year, so I’ve had a couple of enforced absences, but the way I was reacting late stages of the campaign and Trump’s victory were pretty decisive in showing me that the way I’ve been using social media is really bad for my brain. I miss it a lot but I still don’t know how to return: maybe when my mood improves? Maybe I should start a new account and reset things?