Thursday, August 25, 2016

Proxima Centauri b



I found out about it yesterday, from Paul Gilster's blog, Centauri Dreams.

It had all the right information:


The key question: observe it better with giant space telescopes (maybe a new push for the FOCAL mission using the sun as a gravitational lens) .. or send a probe?

Might a country (the US or China, say?) embark upon a high-prestige, multi-decade-long programme to send such a mission?

It encounters that old starflight paradox: the later launches - so much more technologically advanced - overtake the first ones.

I think it's possible that the youngest children on Earth might live to see close-in imaging of this planet .. and/or a mission that we might have figured out by then how to slow down.

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Related: this sad little tale from Alastair Reynolds.

"Help Eliza, I'm in trouble!"

I'm something of a subscriber to the view: 'AI's the solution .. so what's the problem?'

The problem under consideration today is that of child abuse, mentioned in this post about Internet paedophiles yesterday, and prominent in continuing revelations about abuse at Ampleforth College.
[Wikipedia: "Ampleforth College is a coeducational independent day and boarding school in the village of Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, England. It opened in 1802 as a boys' school, and is run by the Benedictine monks and lay staff of Ampleforth Abbey.
...
Several monks and three members of the lay teaching staff molested children in their care over several decades. In 2005 Father Piers Grant-Ferris admitted 20 incidents of child abuse. This was not an isolated incident.

"The Yorkshire Post reported in 2005: "Pupils at a leading Roman Catholic school suffered decades of abuse from at least six paedophiles following a decision by former Abbot Basil Hume not to call in police at the beginning of the scandal."]
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Let me remind you about Eliza, the original chatbot developed by Joseph Weizenbaum.
"ELIZA worked by simple parsing and substitution of key words into canned phrases. Depending upon the initial entries by the user, the illusion of a human writer could be instantly dispelled, or could continue through several interchanges.

"It was sometimes so convincing that there are many anecdotes about people becoming very emotionally caught up in dealing with [ELIZA] for several minutes until the machine's true lack of understanding became apparent.

"Weizenbaum's own secretary reportedly asked him to leave the room so that she and ELIZA could have a real conversation.

"As Weizenbaum later wrote, "I had not realized ... that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people."
Eliza works by matching text input against a large database of templates. Each input template is linked to one or more possible output templates, with variables which can be instantiated to the substantive words from the input.

Eliza might, for example,
"respond to "My head hurts" with "Why do you say your head hurts?" A possible response to "My mother hates me" would be "Who else in your family hates you?"

"ELIZA was implemented using simple pattern matching techniques, but was taken seriously by several of its users, even after Weizenbaum explained to them how it worked. It was one of the first chatterbots."
In addition to crafting a reply, Eliza could easily have updated a user-database with the information it was receiving.

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It's easy to see how this could be applied to helping victims of child abuse. A key design principle is that the abuser must not become aware that the child is passing on information: this rules out a tailored 'abuse app'.

I suggest a special WhatsApp-connected chatbot with a widely publicised name - let's say Help!.

The child contacts Help! on WhatsApp and the first thing he or she is asked to do is choose a name, say Peter, which is what will appear (instead of Help!) on their WhatsApp contacts list. I think the history of chats with Peter is going to have to vanish too, replaced with harmless confected froth.

The child is typing to an Eliza-like chatbot (maybe more like IBM's Watson than Eliza) which has been trained on scripts from charities like Childline.

Like Weizenbaum, we know that people of all ages are especially likely to confide in an AI agent.

The database which Help! constructs is a transcript of alleged abuse. The real problem is what to do with it. No doubt it's encrypted and identity-protected but at some point someone has to assess whether this is a real or false allegation, and figure out how to proceed.

But these are problems charities already have to deal with.

I think they should move on the app. There's already one for carers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Croquet at the Bishop's Palace, Wells

What a busy day today! I hoovered the house then walked across to the gym for my weight room induction session: bench-press machines and dumbbells; Clare got to mop the floor during this.

Back home Clare cut my hair to something appropriate to iron-pumping and then we strolled to the Bishop's Palace for a late picnic lunch.

Croquet in front of Wells Cathedral

We're fed and watching the croquet intently

I'm told that croquet only looks genteel; in reality it's hyper-confrontational and aggressive.

What would I know? I thought they played it with flamingos.

Blue Labour - so disappointing

I was really prepared to like Blue Labour and to that end bought this book.

Amazon link

I read about half the essays before finally choking on the conceptual equivalent of mushy bran.

Here's the story from Wikipedia.
"Labour peer and London Metropolitan University academic Maurice Glasman launched Blue Labour in April 2009 at a meeting in Conway Hall, Bloomsbury. He called for "a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity", an alternative to the post 1945 centralising approach of the Labour Party.

"The movement grew through a series of seminars held in University College, Oxford and at London Metropolitan University in the aftermath of Labour's defeat in the 2010 general election.

"Labour figures sometimes associated with the trend have criticised the New Labour administration of Tony Blair for having an uncritical view of the market economy, and that of Gordon Brown for being uncritical of both the market and the state.

"Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and the party's policy review co-ordinator, argued that New Labour's focus on 'the progressive new' resulted in the party embracing "a dystopian, destructive neoliberalism, cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour".

"Chuka Umunna, the Labour Shadow Business Secretary believes Blue Labour "provides the seeds of national renewal".
Chuka Umunna, one of the high priests of metro-liberalism, a Blue Labour guru?

Give me a break.
"Blue Labour suggests that abstract concepts of equality and internationalism have held back the Labour Party from linking with the real concerns of many voters, the concept of equality leading to an 'obsession with the postcode lottery' and internationalism ignoring fears of low paid workers about immigration.

"Blue Labour, alternatively, emphasises the importance of democratic engagement and insists that the Labour Party should seek to reinvigorate its relationships with different communities across the nation, with an approach based on what historian Dominic Sandbrook describes as "family, faith, and flag".
The essays, highly overlapping and uniformly light on conceptual depth and rigour, feature:
  • An ethical/cultural critique of liberal individualism
  • An economic critique of rampant globalism
  • A religious critique of secular atomisation.
So what is to be done?

Way too many essays base themselves on Catholic Social Teaching (various Popes get extensive name checks), a naive idealisation of the increasingly dysfunctional German social and economic model (workers on boards, apprenticeships etc) and the communitarian history of the British labour and cooperative movements over the last couple of hundred years, going back to the Romantic tradition of John Clare (yes, he gets a name check too).

There is no analysis of just why metro-liberal politics, economics and culture have proved so hegemonic over the last few decades everywhere in the western world, and no plausible political programme for going forwards - nothing beyond tinkering at the edges (community organising, anyone?).

No, Blue Labour is a superficial nostalgia-fest built on sand.

Sad.

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I also bought this which I have yet to read:

Amazon link

I have no hopes.

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Update (28th August 2016).

I've completed Rowenna Davis's book and it's an easier read than the essay collection above, as well as being way more insightful. It covers the 18 months stretching from the end of Gordon Brown's premiership to the Miliband brothers election and Ed's first year. During this time Blue Labour emerged and then became dominated by Maurice Glasman once he had been elevated (by Ed) to the Lords.

Glasman emerges as an argumentative, self-willed and naive radical activist who fell out with many of his co-thinkers. Interestingly, these were mostly Oxford academics. The other major support groups for Blue Labour were community activists (Citizens UK, led by a patrician bunch of Oxford graduates) and faith groups (Catholics and Muslims predominated).

When the book ends, in 2011, Blue Labour is imploding due to Glasman's egotistical gaffes. Plainly, it recovered later, but in the age of Corbyn its profile today is invisible.

I'm left with the lasting impression that, despite the academic credentials of its founders, the Blue Labour movement is distinctly lacking both in intellectual depth (in general) and in any analysis of 21st century capitalist dynamics (specifically).

It is possible that the Labour Party, as we know it, has no viable go-forward mission at all.

One small error on the Internet ...



This interesting Guardian article, "The takeover: how police ended up running a paedophile site", is discussed by Bruce Schneier.

Two high-profile, security-savvy paedophiles were taken down based on the smallest of errors.

The paedophile site
“... ran as a company or business,” Rouse says. Senior administrators took charge of individual boards, grouped around categories such as boys or girls, hardcore or non-nude. Users had to upload material at least every 30 days or risk exile. Each of its 45,000 accounts were ranked according to the quality of their output, with a “producer’s area” walled off to all but the most feted.

At the top was one man, “effectively the CEO”. He regularly started his messages with the cheery greeting “hiyas”.
The article explains how that one idiosyncrasy was enough to identify him.

The second paedophile took exhaustive steps to cleanse his uploaded material of any identifying information.
"Access to the full suite of Huckle’s material provided the breakthrough. It was not what he photographed, but what he photographed with. Embedded in some of his images, overlooked when he swept the files of metadata, was the brand and model of his Olympus camera. A tiny clue – but enough.

"Officers exhaustively swept photography sites such as Flickr and TrekEarth for photos taken in south-east Asia using the make and model."
Following that flimsy thread was, it turned out, enough.

I've long been convinced that it's essentially impossible to stay secret on the Internet if a major intelligence agency is on your case.

The article describes a fair amount of labour-intensive Internet searching by Australian police, but it's not hard to see how that could be mostly automated. And if the intelligence agency is allowed AI-based filtering of generic Internet streams, then security through obscurity doesn't really work either.

It would be interesting to know how agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ assess the Internet tradecraft of Islamic fundamentalists. Based on the levels of smartness and training we've heard about to date, I would guess that to any efficient agency with legal access to the right tools the wannabe terrorist is effectively saying, "Here's where I live. Come on in, rummage freely and stay as long as you want."

I think this explains the lack of successful attacks (touch wood) that we've seen in the UK the last few years. It's certainly not for want of attempts.

Of course, if your communications security agency is not up to speed - Hello, Belgium? - even incompetent jihadis can still make it happen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The worst army in the world? Not entirely

From The Telegraph today: "EU leaders want their own army, but can't agree on much else - five things we learned from the Renzi-Hollande-Merkel summit".



In fact the official statement seemed quite vague, but a European Army would plainly be a most ineffectual institution:

  • No common language
  • No common esprit de corps
  • No cohesive leadership
  • No common experience of combat
  • No overall political master.

Would there ever be political agreement to get this 'army' to do anything involving real combat?

Look on the bright side. It's probably a way to get national armies in Europe to converge to similar doctrines, equipment and command-and-control protocols. European military cooperation will surely be necessary in the future yet today the ability of European nations to fight effectively together (in theory within NATO) is lamentably poor.

The ideology of the 'United States of Europe' and 'no more European wars' is clearly alive, well and part of the rationale for this initiative. Although full federalism a la USA is never going to happen, the 'European Army' project should nevertheless aid national military renewal projects.

In a Europe which is today pacifistic, disarmed and vaguely helpless (leaving aside the UK and France) this is to be welcomed.

At least we know that in principle the Europeans can fight proper state-on-state wars: two world wars proved that.

Compare and contrast the situation with the Arabs. I guess we should be relieved.

A two mile circular walk from Priddy

The walk goes along Dursdon Drove and the West Mendip Way. Parking at the Queen Victoria pub.

Here's the route: we walked clockwise
starting from the Queen Vic pub top left

You could say it was hot - 32 degrees in the pub car park, and 26 on the open trail this afternoon. About an hour. Here are some pictures.

The southern part of the trail, looking east

Clare in camo-chic with wrap-shades

Strangely-hued sheep - could be a savanna shot

Your author recovering at the Queen Vic, Priddy

Monday, August 22, 2016

How will AIs become politically correct?



In my recent post, "Gloria Hunniford and the case for AI biometrics", I advocated the use of AI facial recognition systems in bank branches to check for scammers. They would be more effective than cashiers because 'AI systems don't have to be polite.'

But of course they do. Hardly a day goes by without some story appearing about an AI system which 'noticed' certain unfortunate connections and had to be tweaked.

Some of these stories reflect genuine issues of training sets and algorithm-configuration; others expose the system's aspie-like tendency to blurt out uncomfortable truths. And there are plenty of them - truths which fall outside the famous Overton window.

I think it will be a very smart AI which can keep two sets of books: the accurate model of the world it generates from its deep learning and the acceptable model which it has to use and pay homage to in public.

Since the acceptable model is ideological rather than based on evidence, it's a non-trivial process to concoct the politically-correct version from the data trawled exhaustively from reality. How would an AI handle this?

Till we get AI self-deception really locked down, I see a long spell of high-pay-grade tweaking from specialists at Google, Facebook and the like, carefully guided by their in-house commissars.

Kamm, Corbyn and NATO



There's something about establishment vilification which makes a person reconsider old certainties. In today's Times, Oliver Kamm takes Jeremy Corbyn to task for his 'pacifism' (as usual with JC, nothing is really for sure).

According to Kamm, what did Jeremy say?
"... asked at a leadership hustings how he would respond if a Nato ally was invaded by Russia, Mr Corbyn replied: “I would want to avoid us getting involved militarily by building up the diplomatic relationships and also trying to not isolate any country in Europe . . .” He added: “I don’t wish to go to war. What I want to do is achieve a world where we don’t need to go to war, where there is no need for it.”
We wearily recall Trotsky: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."

Kamm continues:
"President Putin’s regime has already unilaterally altered the boundaries of Europe by force on preposterous pretexts. Mr Corbyn has in effect announced to this aggressive and expansionist power that if he is in charge there will be no costs and no resistance if Russia adopts the same methods against allies to which we are bound by treaty obligations.

"A few weeks ago, Nato announced plans to increase its strength in Poland and the Baltic states. Under a Corbyn government, those democratic allies won’t be able to rely on us."
One should generally listen to Oliver Kamm's very trenchant, neoliberal/neocon views and then adopt precisely the opposite.

Going to war with a serious opponent (Russia) is an existential business. This is not something any state does lightly. You may recall that America, our supposed great ally, took its time coming to our assistance in both the first and second world wars. Strangely, they took account of their own national interests.

The problem with NATO is that its mutual self-defence treaty locks in a supposed commonality of national interests which cannot in fact exist.

When NATO attacks some ultra-weak foe in a discretionary war, this is obscured - the war effort by some NATO members may be purely notional. This renders moot Oliver Kamm's point:
"Imagine that Mr Corbyn’s wish had been acted on. In 1998, the UN Security Council voted three times to identify the crisis in Kosovo as a threat to international peace and security and demand a response by the government of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Milosevic’s forces intensified their persecution of Kosovan Albanians, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes.

"Belatedly, Nato launched a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. It thereby prevented a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe. Nato’s intervention rescued a threatened population and put Kosovo’s fate in the hands of a UN administration."
We say NATO, but in reality this was a coalition of the neocon-willing: no-one in the US or the UK feared retaliation from the Serbs. NATO was a convenient figleaf.

If Russia gets into a border war in Eastern Europe with a NATO member, does anyone really think NATO will automatically go to war on its behalf? General Sir Richard Shirreff pointed out in his recent book, "War with Russia", that for real wars NATO is an archaic, hollowed-out shell - an ineffectual paper tiger.

In truth we go to war when that's the only way to further advance our national interests. Treaties which would attempt to drag us into war against such interests are merely foolish pretences.

Would it really be such a catastrophe to let NATO go? Then we (and the rest of Europe) could get real about what we do, and do not, existentially care about.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Gloria Hunniford and the case for AI biometrics

Here is how The Telegraph covered it:
"Rip Off Britain presenter Gloria Hunniford was the victim of a £120,000 fraud by an imposter posing as the star.

"The 76-year-old Loose Women panelist's bank account was emptied just days after the woman arrived at a Santander branch with her "daughter" and "grandson".

"Personal banker Aysha Davis, 28, said the woman told her she had "a few bob" in there and had come to add the teenager as a signatory because she had been ill."
Here's a picture of the glamorous Gloria Hunniford and the rather-less-so scammer.



Should we condemn the unfortunate bank staffer Aysha Davis, who was charged (and rapidly acquitted) as an accomplice?

No.

The percentage of people who engage with banks using fake photo-ID must be miniscule. Say 1 in 10,000.

How many of the 9,999 bona fide customers happen to look rather unlike their photos? Quite a lot, I'd say.

So how many bank staff are going to say, "You look nothing like this glamourous photo, so I'm going to have to run a security check," given the overwhelming chances that the mismatch is actually a false positive?

Davis said in court, "... as they had all the correct ID documents and paperwork it wasn't [my] job to pry for fear of causing offence."

What would work is AI facial recognition, which now works better than the human eye - and doesn't have to be polite. However, outfitting every bank branch with a camera linked to an AI database (let alone building the customer facial database in the first place) would be a hard sell to customers as well as a major capital cost. This scam merely cost Santander a £120,000 refund.

However, if there was an independent case for facial-ID biometrics in the banking industry (and pretty much everyone has access to a smartphone now, so there could easily be an app) then it looks rather more doable.

I suggest that's the way to go.

---

In related news:
"Police officers in the US have arrested a fugitive after seeing through his elaborate disguise as an elderly man.

"They surrounded a house in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, and ordered Shaun "Shizz" Miller out.

"He walked outside in disguise and when they realised the "elderly man" was actually the 31-year-old they were looking for, they arrested him.

"He had been on the run since being charged with heroin trafficking offences in April."



The police don't have to be polite ...

Friday, August 19, 2016

The 10,000 year view

Amazon link

Richard Feynman once wrote:
"From a long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics."
What should we say about the other centuries?

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The seventeenth century, in 10,000 years time, will be remembered principally for Isaac Newton's laws of dynamics:

  • First law: When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a net force.

  • Second law: In an inertial reference frame, the vector sum of the forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector a of the object: F = ma.

  • Third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

And universal gravitation:  F = Gm1m2/r2  - plus calculus, co-discovered with Leibnitz.

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The eighteenth century was not rich in epoch-spanning discoveries, but future historians of science will recall it for Rev. Thomas Bayes, whose profound theorem will power the great AI learning engines down the ages.




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The nineteenth century we've already mentioned. Here are Maxwell's equations in the vector form he would not easily have recognised.


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The twentieth century is a cornucopia of fundamental science, but I think the most truly foundational, revolutionary and influential discovery has to be the Schrödinger equation, which explains .. well, almost everything around us.


But I doubt the 10,000 year future will have forgotten Einstein - or BohrHeisenbergDirac, ... .

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Sean Carroll has a related list of his seven favourite equations here.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reality and the MWI



From "Many Worlds? An Introduction" by Simon Saunders.
“As Popper once said, physics has always been in crisis, but there was a special kind of crisis that set in with quantum mechanics. For despite all its obvious empirical success and fecundity, the theory was based on rules or prescriptions that seemed inherently contradictory. There never was any real agreement on these matters among the founding fathers of the theory.
...
“In what sense are the rules of quantum mechanics contradictory? They break down into two parts. One is the unitary formalism, notably the Schrödinger equation, governing the evolution of the quantum state. It is deterministic and encodes spacetime and dynamical symmetries.

“Whether for a particle system or a system of fields, the Schrödinger equation is linear: the sum of two solutions to the equation is also a solution (the superposition principle). This gives the solution space of the Schrödinger equation the structure of a vector space (Hilbert space).

“However, there are also rules for another kind of dynamical evolution for the state, which is - well, none of the above. These rules govern the collapse of the wavefunction. They are indeterministic and non-linear, respecting none of the spacetime or dynamical symmetries. And unlike the unitary evolution, there is no obvious route to investigating the collapse process empirically.

“Understanding state collapse, and its relationship to the unitary formalism, is the measurement problem of quantum mechanics. There are other conceptual questions in physics, but few if any of them are genuinely paradoxical. None, for their depth, breadth, and longevity, can hold a candle to the measurement problem.

“Why not say that the collapse is simply irreducible, ‘the quantum jump’, something primitive, inevitable in a theory which is fundamentally a theory of chance? Because it isn’t only the collapse process itself that is under-specified: the time of the collapse, within relatively wide limits, is undefined, and the criteria for the kind of collapse, linking the set of possible outcomes of the experiment to the wavefunction, are strange.

“They either refer to another theory entirely - classical mechanics - or worse, they refer to our ‘intentions’, to the ‘purpose’ of the experiment.

“They are the measurement postulates - (‘probability postulates’ would be better, as this is the only place where probabilities enter into quantum mechanics). One is the Born rule, assigning probabilities (as determined by the quantum state) to macroscopic outcomes; the other is the projection postulate, assigning a new microscopic state to the system measured, depending on the macroscopic outcome.

“True, the latter is only needed when the measurement apparatus is functioning as a state-preparation device, but there is no doubt that something happens to the microscopic system on triggering a macroscopic outcome.

“Whether or not the projection postulate is needed in a particular experiment, the Born rule is essential. It provides the link between the possible macroscopic outcomes and the antecedent state of the microscopic system. As such it is usually specified by giving a choice of vector basis - a set of orthogonal unit vectors in the state space - whereupon the state is written as a superposition of these. The modulus square of the amplitude of each term in the superposition, thus defined, is the probability of the associated macroscopic outcome.

“But what dictates the choice of basis? What determines the time at which this outcome happens? How does the measurement apparatus interact with the microscopic system to produce these effects? From the point of view of the realist the answer seems obvious. The apparatus itself should be modelled in quantum mechanics, then its interaction with the microscopic system can be studied dynamically. But if this description is entirely quantum mechanical, if the dynamics is unitary, it is deterministic. Probabilities only enter the conventional theory explicitly with the measurement postulates. The straightforwardly physicalistic strategy seems bound to fail. How are realists to make sense of this?

“The various solutions that have been proposed down the years run into scores, but they fall into two broadly recognizable classes. One concludes that the wavefunction describes not the microscopic system itself, but our knowledge of it, or the information we have available of it (perhaps ‘ideal’ or ‘maximal’ knowledge or information). No wonder modelling the apparatus in the wavefunction is no solution: that only shifts the problem further back, ultimately to ‘the observer’ and to questions about the mind, or consciousness, or information - all ultimately philosophical questions.

“Anti-realists welcome this conclusion; according to them, we neglect our special status as the knowing subject at our peril. But from a realist point of view this just leaves open the question of what the goings-on at the microscopic level, thus revealed, actually are. By all means constrain the spatiotemporal description (by the uncertainty relations or information-theoretic analogues), but still some spatiotemporal description must be found, down to the length-scales of cells and complex molecules at least, even if not all the way to atomic processes.

“That leads to the demand for equations for variables that do not involve the wavefunction, or, if none is to be had in quantum mechanics, to something entirely new, glimpsed hitherto only with regard to its statistical behaviour. This was essentially Einstein’s settled view on the matter.

“The only other serious alternative (to realists) is quantum state realism, the view that the quantum state is physically real, changing in time according to the unitary equations and, somehow, also in accordance with the measurement postulates.

“How so? Here differences in views set in. Some advocate that the Schrödinger equation itself must be changed (so as to give, in the right circumstances, collapse as a fundamental process). They are for a collapse theory.

“Others argue that the Schrödinger equation can be left alone if only it is supplemented by additional equations, governing ‘hidden’ variables. These, despite their name, constitute the real ontology, the stuff of tables and chairs and so forth, but their behaviour is governed by the wavefunction. This is the pilot-wave theory.

“Collapse in a theory like this is only ‘effective’, as reflecting the sudden irrelevance (in the right circumstances) of some part of the wavefunction in its influence on these variables. And once irrelevant in this way, always irrelevant: such parts of the wavefunction can simply be discarded. This explains the appearance of collapse.

“But for others again, no such additional variables are needed. The collapse is indeed only ‘effective’, but that reflects, not a change in the influence of one part of the quantum state on some hidden or ‘real’ ontology, but rather the change in dynamical influence of one part of the wavefunction over another - the decoherence of one part from the other.

“The result is a branching structure to the wavefunction, and again, collapse only in a phenomenological, effective sense. But then, if our world is just one of these branches, all these branches must be worlds. Thus the many worlds theory - worlds not spatially, but dynamically separated.”
Saunders' introductory chapter from the book, "Many Worlds?" underlines the central puzzle of quantum mechanics. What would reality have to be like to make the theory of quantum mechanics so incredibly accurate?

Realists driven to the 'Many Worlds Interpretation' can still make no sense of it (Sean Carroll is a consistent defender, though). As Saunders observes on page 20,

“How does talk of macroscopic objects so much as get off the ground? What is the deep-down ontology in the Everett interpretation? It can’t just be wavefunction [...]; it is simply unintelligible to hold that a function on a high-dimensional space represents something physically real, unless and until we are told what it is a function of  - of what inhabits that space, what the elements of the function’s domain are.

“If they are particle configurations, then there had better be particle configurations, in which case not only the wavefunction is real.”


And so I have bought "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family" by Peter Byrne.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I'm with David

Daniel Finkelstein has this interesting comment piece in The Times today.
"When some years ago David Owen, one of the SDP’s founders, sent me an early draft of his memoirs, I understood for the first time that he had seen the SDP as essentially doomed — certainly in deep trouble — before I even joined it at the beginning of 1982. What had doomed it, in his view, was the decision to form a tight alliance with the Liberal Party.

"Owen’s conception of the SDP, which was formed in 1981, is that it would be a tough-minded, hawkish party of the left. It would appeal to an aspirational working class, particularly in the north, who had tired of bureaucratic socialism and saw the point of Margaret Thatcher, but were not Tories.

"When the future Labour foreign secretary was a student working on a building site he had been struck by the reaction of his fellow workers to the Suez crisis. It had been instinctively nationalist, uninterested in political protocol, and robust. It was these people he wanted the SDP to appeal to.

"Roy Jenkins, former Labour chancellor but also biographer of the Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, wanted a centre party that reflected his own liberal instinct. This would be a southern party of the middle class, disdainful of Thatcher, fastidious rather than bulldog-like on international issues, avowedly centrist.

"Everything about this Jenkins view — the electoral relationship with the Liberals in particular, but also the claret-drinking image — drove Owen crazy. But for all that he later did to shape the party, Owen was right that by 1982 Jenkins had won the battle. The SDP would be a liberal party. It lost almost all its northern and working-class seats, was not able to compete in the south because the Liberal Party took all the best constituencies, and ended up being swallowed up by its partner.

"Owen and Jenkins were rowing over whether liberalism and being a Labour moderate or even a centrist were the same thing. Jenkins felt that practically and philosophically they were. Owen felt that practically and philosophically they were not."
No-one in the current leadership cadre of the Labour Party, neither left, centrist or right, espouses David Owen's political views - with the possible exception of John Mann.

And so they will not reconnect with their millions-strong working class roots.

If Theresa May can find a way to overcome the respectable working class's tribal anti-Toryism, Labour are electoral toast till the end of time.

---

Blue Labour website and Wikipedia article.

Cheddar reservoir

This morning's walk in our local area of outstanding natural beauty. Cheddar reservoir, a two mile circumference walk with birdlife.

And if you swim near the pumps, you'll get to visit all of Bristol

Like my wrap-around mirror shades?

As we were returning to our point of departure after an hour, I could neither see our car nor recognise that strange pumping tower ahead. I speculated:
'This circular walk has an odd, helical topology - as you progress around you slip into an alternate universe, one which happens to lack our original car park."
Clare was quick to pooh-pooh this suggestion - and within the next few yards I could see that I was in fact mistaken.

That, and the linearity of quantum mechanics.

Why the Great Stagnation? What next?

This is what my CV says in the couple of years leading up to the great crash of 2008.
Programme Management - BT Wireless Cities: May 2006 - Sep 2007
A lucrative sixteen month contract, rolling out urban WiFi for BT across major cities in the UK.
Network architecture consultant to Dubai World Central: Jan 2008 - July 2008
A seven month contract in Dubai designing the network from scratch for a new ultra-wired airport/city complex. We completed the design and then the crash arrived .. and we flew home.
Network architecture consultant to Media City, Manchester: Dec 2008 - Jan 2009

Security Accreditation (IL2/IL3) at C&W and other clients: Jan 2010 - Sep 2010

Managed an RFQ for an international law firm, London: Jan 2012 - July 2012.
These were worthwhile but small-scale pieces of work. After that, things did not get any better. I was pleased to retire from network design in March 2014.

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The UK economy normally rebounds from dips within three years (12 quarters) as this chart shows,


Source 

but as you can see, the 2008 crash was something special. The rate of growth was clearly negative for about a year and a half (six quarters) and after that - anaemic.

This chart - same source - looks at the rate of change of GDP (ie growth) over the period 1949-2012 (during the last 3 years UK annual GDP growth has fluctuated between 2% and 3%).



I read that financial crises always exhibit a longer recovery period, as people have to pay down their debts, but it's now been eight years since the big crash and growth rates are still subdued.

What's going on?

Larry Summers suggested an answer in his essay, "The Age of Secular Stagnation".
"Most observers expected the unusually deep recession to be followed by an unusually rapid recovery, with output and employment returning to trend levels relatively quickly. Yet even with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies, the recovery (both in the United States and around the globe) has fallen significantly short of predictions and has been far weaker than its predecessors.

"Had the American economy performed as the Congressional Budget Office fore­cast in August 2009 - after the stimulus had been passed and the recovery had started—U.S. GDP today would be about $1.3 trillion higher than it is."
So what went wrong?
"The key to understanding this situation lies in the concept of secular stagnation, first put forward by the economist Alvin Hansen in the 1930s. The economies of the industrial world, in this view, suffer from an imbalance resulting from an increasing propensity to save and a decreasing propensity to invest. The result is that excessive saving acts as a drag on demand, reducing growth and inflation, and the imbalance between savings and investment pulls down real interest rates.

"When significant growth is achieved, meanwhile—as in the United States between 2003 and 2007 - it comes from dangerous levels of borrowing that translate excess savings into unsustainable levels of investment (which in this case emerged as a housing bubble)."
But why are people be so keen to save, rather than invest?
"Greater saving has been driven by:
  • increases in inequality and in the share of income going to the wealthy, 
  • increases in uncertainty about the length of retirement and the availability of benefits, 
  • reductions in the ability to borrow (especially against housing), and 
  • a greater accumulation of assets by foreign central banks and sovereign wealth funds. 
"Reduced investment has been driven by:
  • slower growth in the labor force, 
  • the availability of cheaper capital goods, and 
  • tighter credit (with lending more highly regulated than before).
"Perhaps most important, the new economy tends to conserve capital. Apple and Google, for example, are the two largest U.S. companies and are eager to push the frontiers of technology forward, yet both are awash in cash and are under pressure to distribute more of it to their shareholders.

"Think about Airbnb’s impact on hotel construction, Uber’s impact on automobile demand, Amazon’s impact on the construction of malls, or the more general impact of information technology on the demand for copiers, printers, and office space.

"And in a period of rapid technological change, it can make sense to defer investment lest new technology soon make the old obsolete."
So how do we get out of this? It seems that austerity (clamping down on public expenditure to claw-back massive Government debt) has few friends left. Summers' remarks are addressed to a US audience, but are equally applicable to the UK.
"... primary responsibility for addressing secular stagnation should rest with fiscal policy. An expansionary fiscal policy can reduce national savings, raise neutral real interest rates, and stimulate growth.

"Fiscal policy has other virtues as well, particularly when pursued through public investment. A time of low real interest rates, low materials prices, and high construction unemployment is the ideal moment for a large public investment program. It is tragic, therefore, that in the United States today, federal infrastructure investment, net of depreciation, is running close to zero, and net government investment is lower than at any time in nearly six decades.

"It is true that an expansionary fiscal policy would increase deficits, and many worry that running larger deficits would place larger burdens on later generations, who will already face the challenges of an aging society. But those future generations will be better off owing lots of money in long-term bonds at low rates in a currency they can print than they would be inheriting a vast deferred maintenance liability."
Finally we come to the politics. With our ever-expanding university sector, we're seriously in the business of elite overproduction. New graduates, particularly those articulate, idealistic young people with arts degrees, can't get high-status, well-rewarded jobs. They naturally channel their unhappiness into political activism.
"Secular stagnation and the slow growth and financial instability associated with it have political as well as economic consequences. If middle-class living standards were increasing at traditional rates, politics across 
the developed world would likely be far less surly and dysfunctional. So mitigating secular stagnation is of profound importance.

"Writing in 1930, in circumstances far more dire than those we face today, Keynes still managed to summon some optimism. Using a British term for a type of alternator in a car engine, he noted that the economy had what he called “magneto trouble.”

"A car with a broken alternator won’t move at all - yet it takes only a simple repair to get it going. In much the same way, secular stagnation does not reveal a profound or inherent flaw in capitalism. Raising demand is actually not that difficult, and it is much easier than raising the capacity to produce. The crucial thing is for policymakers to diagnose the problem correctly and make the appropriate repairs."
I'm interested in what Peter Turchin is going to make of all this in September with his new book, "Ages of Discord".

Many of the recoveries we have seen in the past were driven by massive investment in new, productivity-raising technologies: electrification, petrol engines, scientific management, computers and the Internet. In every case, it took a good few years for the new technologies to develop, be perfected and for people to learn how to use them to increase productivity. It was only then that the economic tipping point occurred.

The next revolution will be driven by new technologies such as AI, new sensors, robotics and VR, bound together by high-speed ubiquitous networks; also genetic engineering and genomics. These technologies will surely launch a huge boom, but plainly we're in the earliest days.

So I expect a good decade or so of bouncing around in 'the new normal' before the next lift-off, deficit spending or no.

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Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution (amongst many others) has written about this too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Erase/Rewind

Last Friday was our penultimate day in Hereford. The rest of the house had departed to Symonds Yat to do some canoeing, leaving the house to quiet and to me.

I sat in the sunshine and listened to this.



As a consequence, it's now become an Ohrwurm.

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An upcoming post will talk about "The Great Stagnation" for three reasons:
  1. We're living through it and it's blighting many lives
  2. It seems difficult to understand why we're stuck in it
  3. Leftist groups have characterised it as the final crisis of capitalism.
My point of departure is Larry Summer's influential essay on 'The Age of Secular Stagnation'.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Paul Mason and PostCapitalism

There are just a few people whose public personas I have rather taken against.

Number one on my current list is Owen Smith. He, you may recall with difficulty, is the insincere and glib little weasel who resembles a mini-me version of François Hollande and who is attempting, for reasons of petty ambition, a doomed campaign to displace Jeremy Corbyn.

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We move on. Whenever I saw Paul Mason on BBC's Newsnight or Channel 4 news, I observed my twitching hand reach unconsciously for the channel-flip, impelled by some combination of his northern lad with a chip on his shoulder schtick, his self-righteous anger at every policy trying to fix the economy combined with a fanboy gullibility as regards the modish antics of Occupy and every other middle-class angst-fest.

It was Kevin the Teenager reprised at fifty-something.

I understand the type only too well: too smart, idealistic and empathic to fit in with his working class contemporaries; too working class to be accepted into the well-born elite. His perpetual estrangement from power and influence fueling an inchoate rage channelled into left wing rebellion.

Paul Mason was a trotskyist in one of the more cerebral outfits, Workers Power, which has now dissolved/entered into the Corbynista mass to rebuild under the motif of Red Flag.

But Paul Mason noticed that none of the trotskyist predictions of proletarian revolution ever came good. Being of independent mind, he conceptualised an alternative road to communism; at least one reviewer bathetically called him 'the new Marx'.

Amazon link


His book is uneven: historical discussions of subsequent misinterpretations of Marx echo those of Michael Heinrich (blogged about here) who discussed 'worldview Marxism' as a coarsening of Marxist theory. Mason believes, I think correctly, that Lenin and Trotsky fundamentally misunderstood what really happened in Russia in 1917, documenting the reasons for that failure in convincing detail.

It's when he starts to advance his own ideas for post-capitalist transition that wishful thinking and blind hostility come to the fore. Owen Hatherley's review nails it.
"The organised factory proletariat in the US, Europe and Japan never carved out a path to post-capitalism – or socialism as it was then known – but Occupy, Maidan, Tahrir Square, and even the protests against the Workers’ Party government in Brazil, ‘are evidence that a new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity.

"The ‘new gravedigger’ produced by capitalism consists of ‘the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park’ etc. This is kitsch, but more significant is Mason’s failure to analyse the political content of the movements of the young.

"Not a lot of people in any of them considered ‘capitalism’ their main enemy, probably less so than the average striker in the 1930s or 1970s. They are a disparate bunch, from all manner of class backgrounds, advocating various positions across the political spectrum, but all united apparently by their use of Twitter and their distrust of ‘old elites’ and hierarchies.

"Since they carry no baggage, it isn’t worth investigating why, say, the protests in Brazil so easily passed over into racism, why some in Tahrir Square preferred a new general to an elected Islamist, why both sides in Ukraine’s unrest had a crucial far-right element, or why the descendants of Occupy in London and New York now find themselves campaigning for ageing, old-school leftist social democrats.

"Mason sweeps all this away on a tide of goofy utopianism."
Taking Wikipedia as your model for post-capitalist relations of production is to completely miss the intrinsically parasitic, hobbyist and career-furthering (let alone corporate) nature of so much open-source activity. It's never going to shake its shoulders and sweep aside all those mundane commoditised relations of production which coordinate activities to keep us fed, sheltered, defended, powered-up and online.

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Mason would have been more acute had he observed that, while Marx gave a very good conceptual account of capitalism in terms of systematised and recurrent patterns of human economic and political activity (process rather than structural models, if you will), he had considerably less to say about why capitalism was either inherently bad news for humanity or precisely why it would necessarily create the conditions for its own supersession.

Due to the inadequate development of the productive forces it inherited, capitalism was truly awful for its human participants (disproportionately for the working class, of course) in Marx's time and as recently as the second world war - but since then it has, by historical standards, not been so bad. Ask the Chinese or the Vietnamese.

And don't blame capitalism for Africa or the Middle-East.

Capitalism still seems pretty efficient at developing the forces of production as Mason, a fan of automation, is happy to concede. So what's going to light the fires of mass revolutionary zeal? Apparently nothing - so we're left with incremental socialism-creep within the interstices of capitalism,

Good luck with that.

Good try, Paul, but we need look elsewhere for possible paths to humanity's future.

Free Weights vs Resistance Machines

So this is the question I have recently been asking myself: for four years I have done the circuit of aerobic and resistance machines at the gym .. and resolutely walked past the weight room.

Am I missing something important?

'Dr. Mercola' writes,
"The primary difference between free weights and machines, however, is the fact that when using free weights, you can move in three dimensions: forward, backward, horizontally, and vertically. This is important, because this is how your body normally moves in daily life.

"When you use free weights, you therefore end up engaging more muscles, as you have to work to stabilize the weight while lifting it. The drawback is that you’re at an increased risk of injury unless you maintain proper form.

"Machines, on the other hand, are fixed to an axis that will only allow you to move in one or two planes. If used exclusively, this could lead to a lack of functional fitness, which can translate into injuries outside the gym.

"Simply stepping off the sidewalk could result in a knee or ankle injury if stabilizing muscles have been ignored in favor of only working your larger muscle groups. On the upside, a machine will allow you to lift heavier weights, and allow you to target specific muscle groups."
Other commentators noted that resistance machines tend to under-develop the 'core', which includes the abdominal and back muscles. Since I have had the odd twinge (some might call it a weakness) in my back, I am seriously thinking about doing some free weight training.

But it's so complicated! I don't know anything about weights, apparatuses or forms. Still, when in doubt, buy the book.



Obviously free weights can be done at the gym, but another thought occurred to me. As we walked back from our Bishop's Palace picnic today, I subtly murmured to Clare,
"If you like, you can use my weights, when they arrive."
(I have not in fact ordered any weights; the ground must first be prepared).

This is what I heard: the house is not to be made into a gym; the last thing needed is a testosterone-heavy male around (I thought there already was one); and some remark about sweat I didn't quite catch.

No real problems then. I emphasised that weight training is mostly kind and gentle, like yoga.

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Michael O'Neal eat your heart out; I will pump iron!!

Bishop's Palace, Wells and the Dragon's-Lair

A 'Spanish Plume' of warm air has sent us scampering to the Bishop's Palace today for a picnic lunch. They have just opened the 'Dragon's lair' for the summer holidays.

The Dragon - 'Come hither, tasty children!'

Clare explores the maze, where it's hard to get lost

The author with picnic

The garden fronting the cathedral

Hereford Cathedral - British Camp - Malvern Hills

We were away a few days last week near Hereford for my sister-in-law's 50th wedding anniversary, Here are some pix.

Clare in the Chain Library at the cathedral

From British Camp looking north over the Malvern Hills

This was, sadly, about as high as we got

British Camp is a spectacular Iron Age hill fort overlooking a reservoir. It's quite high, and our orbit around the Malvern Hills Hotel, with its beers, coffees and cream teas, was insufficiently eccentric to get us to the top.