Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Diary: Clare at Bristol Endodontic Clinic

This morning was the long-awaited appointment for Clare to have her specialist root canal work done at this location. She's paid a high price for tripping over at Ham Hill iron age fort last October.

Still no teeth on display (as of yesterday)

The facility is pretty upmarket. Bristol Specialist Dental Clinic: reassuringly expensive. Clare had the area of infection in the root of her front tooth thoroughly cleaned out and a fibre 'post' inserted for strength. A fortnight's mopping up by her immune system will leave her right as rain.

Bristol Specialist Dental Clinic just off the Downs, Bristol

While Clare was flat on her back with her mouth propped open, I was downstairs in reception continuing my flirtation with literary, intellectual women. In this case Helen DeWitt, who was briefly notorious last year for the satirical and acclaimed "Lightning Rods" ('how well you get on with Lightning Rods is likely to depend on how far you can believe in a world where female employees in large corporations are willing to have sex on demand with successful male employees in return for double pay.')

She has a book of short stories coming out soon, "Some Trick: Thirteen Stories", which I've ordered (h/t Marginal Revolution) but the novel I'm reading today is her first: "The Last Samurai".

Amazon link

"Eleven-year-old Ludo is in search of a father. Raised single handedly by his mother Sibylla, Ludo’s been reading Greek, Arabic, Japanese and a little Hebrew since the age of four; but reading Homer in the original whilst riding the Circle Line on the London Underground isn’t enough to satisfy the boy’s boundless curiosity. Is he a genius? A real-life child prodigy? He’s grown up watching Seven Samurai on a hypnotising loop – his mother’s strategy to give him not one but seven male role models. And yet Ludo remains obsessed with the one thing his mother refuses to tell him: his real father’s name. Let loose on London, Ludo sets out on a secret quest to find the last samurai – the father he never knew."
Yes, powerful stuff.

Who are my other literary innamorati?

Helen Dale (are they all called Helen?) and Ayn Rand (will I ever get round to "Atlas Shrugged"?)

Monday, June 18, 2018

"Tell her you're a feminist"

On the way back from the dump this morning where we deposited my old printer and shredder (q.v.) we pop into the supermarket for odds and ends. The store is almost deserted.

Finishing up, we approach the one open checkout, occupied by a young woman waiting resignedly for custom. I judge her as intelligent, serious and woke.

Supermarkets are designed to be soporific. I begin unloading the trolley while the checkout girl waits and Clare adopts that spaced-out mode to which she is uniquely susceptible under the supermarket's hypnotic lighting and ambient white noise.

"Clare, if you could grab the bag she'd be able to start."

Clare starts, wakes up, fishes the shopping bag out of the trolley and walks around to the front of the checkout. The girl appears to be adjusting something in her cash register. I continue unloading.

I complete my task and push the empty trolley round to the front. The girl looks up and finally begins to transfer items through - and I've been judged.

She heard me apparently ordering Clare around and by implication ordering her to start work. She's concluded that I'm a classic old, male-chauvinist pig. She thoroughly disapproves of me and is having none of it.

Paying, I play my part in the script: 'Car parking, no cashback, take your card'. We both adopt an utterly businesslike demeanour. Except she looks at me like I'm a dead fish.

I say to Clare, "Tell her you're a feminist."

Except that I don't. That might be construed as self-defeating.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

"Lost in Math" - Sabine Hossenfelder

Amazon link

Sabine Hossenfelder is a quantum gravity phenomenologist - she links theories to experiments and observations - and she has a popular blog, Backreaction. She is also losing her faith in physics as it is presently conducted.

Here is the problem. The two great foundations of physics, quantum theory and relativity, are completely successful to the precision of existing experiments and observations. Yet they are mutually inconsistent. Attempts at unification (there are many, including string theory) are presently untestable, their verification beyond the limits of colliders and instruments. There are other conundrums too such as the nature of dark energy and dark matter. In the absence of experimental data, ungrounded theories abound - they are cheap, after all! - driven by aesthetics and groupthink.

Hossenfelder is not a superstar physics-populist with a major TV contract and a slew of pop-sci publications. 'Lost in Math' is not intended for that market. It's an extended meditation on the consequences of the absence of meaningful experimental feedback. The author interviews the world's leading physicists (Witten excepted) and is typically unimpressed by what she hears. Her reactions are ironic, sardonic and hilarious. Her text reports back as if talking to peers. How refreshing.

As a bonus you get an insider's view of the hot issues: what's really happening at the LHC, the role of dark matter in cosmology and the evolution of the universe .. as well as the failure of all attempts to characterise it, the problems with the flavours of multiverse, the measurement problem, the black hole firewall controversy.

There's no easy solution to the great stagnation in fundamental physics. The author is keen that the community should be more aware of its cognitive biases, its herd behaviour and groupthink but it seems difficult to identity the incentive to improve.

As for Sabine Hossenfelder herself, she may believe that publication of this book has killed any chance of tenure for ever, but probably it hasn't. One niche closes, another opens.

I had my doubts about buying this book. Would I really learn anything that I hadn't already picked up from many other popular science books and innumerable blog posts? And is the fragility of  beauty, naturalness and elegance as criteria for theory acceptability really enough to sustain a whole volume? Yet Hossenfelder's work is wider and more profound than that. Her tour of the state of the art is a joy to read, discerning and intelligent insights sprinkled throughout. I was engrossed from beginning to end.

Canon PIXMA TS5050 printer-scanner-copier .. and new shredder

This post is really a note to myself, for my records.

Amazon link - Canon PIXMA TS5050

I tend to hang on to my multifunction printers, despite their expected life of only around four years. My excellent HP G85 multifunction printer-scanner-copier-fax died after thirteen years of service back in 2012 and I replaced it with an Epson BX630FW multifunction printer. See my previous note.

I never really liked it: it was finicky and erratic. The scanner part died about a year ago and colour printing ceased a month or so back. I finally bit the bullet and decided to buy a new one.

Shopping for multifunction printers is hard, tedious work. Amazon lists dozens in the sub-£100 price bracket and they're all heavily commented by reviewers. After half an hour my eyes got bleary and I realised that the key metric was that the ratings should be heavily skewed towards five stars, with a vanishing tail of one stars.

In fact most printers, including those from HP, had a significant one-star excess, from people who had found their devices impossible to configure or just wouldn't work properly. In the end, the Canon PIXMA TS5050 seemed best for customer friendliness, and today it arrived and I got it working.

The key, I have found, to what is inevitably a lengthy configuration process, is to take it really slowly, to dawdle, to read all the instructions first and to do exactly what you're told. And so after ninety minutes the printer was successfully talking to my WiFi router and my laptop, and was printing.

I'm taking on faith at this time that it will also scan and copy, but I have hopes.


My other capital goods purchase was a new shredder, also due today but which hasn't yet arrived. My previous one - already ancient -was inherited from my mother's estate back in 2015. It expired in a small flash of actinic light a couple of days ago on being fed simultaneous sheets of thickish paper.
Amazon: Fellowes Powershred M-8C 8 Sheet Cross Cut Personal Shredder

The new one is, by comparison, industrial.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


There is something unsettling about Anthea from the moment she enters my consulting room. She's my third appointment of the morning and I'd been expecting the usual: late teens, agreeable, largely clueless.

As always, I'm professional and reassuring: “Good morning, Anthea, so you're planning on having a baby.”

“Well, my mother's been encouraging me and ..  the allowance would come in handy.”

I'm sat at my desk with its chipped formica top. The seat Anthea occupies is dull and lumpy with the odd rip. The painted walls are faded and chipped.  Decades of underfunding. I'm not a doctor, I’m a paramedic-counsellor and I don't pretend to understand genetics in any great detail. I read their profiles and discuss consequences. That's as far as you get in twenty minute anyway.

So what's disturbing about Anthea? I've never met her before but her face seems vaguely familiar. And there's a flicker of intelligence behind her eyes - I don't get that too often. And her body language: I'm used to nervousness - I don't usually get defensiveness.

I check her profile on the screen. She’s been sequenced recently, no obvious flags. I hold off on the advanced button, I still have the preliminary script to get through yet.

“Well, Anthea, can I call you that?”

She nods.

“As you know your eggs are where we start for your child-to-be. Each egg is genetically slightly different and we need to track that. Did you have any preferences for a father?”

I have to tread delicately here.

“Are you in a relationship you’d like to see reflected in your child?”

At this Anthea looked troubled. “Not at the moment. I’ve dated, but no-one seems .. suitable.”

“Well, that’s all right. Most of the girls I see are in your situation. Now, here’s what we do. We take a look at your sequence and that gives us a baseline for your child’s attributes.“

Here I give my usual little chuckle,

“Well, at least on your side of the deal.”

Anthea’s listening intently.

“We’re using the NHS-approved templates so it's guaranteed that your baby will be a friendly, agreeable child with no inclination to bully others. We’re looking at slightly extraverted with a calm disposition so no need to worry about teenage delinquency or a future life of crime, hah hah.”

“I want a bright, inquisitive child,” says Anthea.

“Yes, I do hear that sometimes,” I say, “Don’t worry, the templates here call for an IQ in the 100-110 range, which is above the old average. There’s not too much call for intellectuals you know, most jobs these days need people-orientation and practical skills .. so that’s what the templates provide.”

Anthea doesn’t seem totally comfortable with this.

“Actually, the templates aren’t mandatory are they? I can specify what I want, right?”

“Well, to a point. The thing is, NHS funding is tied to the use of a template - there’s more than one to choose from, you know. Listen, I’ll give you the catalogue and you can take it away with you. No decisions have to be taken today. The alternative is to go private, but I’m afraid that is rather expensive.”

Anthea has her lips set firmly as she takes the offered booklet (also available via the app) and shortly afterwards walks out the door. Not a happy customer then - I’ll need to do some follow-up.

First I press the advanced button on Anthea’s sequence data. Now I get a flood of additional information: her family relationships, her health traits (good), her computed psych-profile and her imputed IQ.

And my expectations are quite subverted. Anthea’s parents are actually foster-parent, she’s been adopted, natural parents unknown. Her personality - as I have seen - is not particularly prosocial and she has an IQ of 133. So now the alarm bells are really going off.

Time to bump this one upstairs.


I’d lobbied for this referral, for reasons which will become apparent.

I'm Dr Amanda Keys, genomic consultant, and I inhabit a different universe to the National Health Service. Upmarket decor: tasteful furniture, sumptuous carpets, art. Yes, art on the walls. Welcome to first world medical services. This is where the elite come to consult .. yet Anthea's taking it in her stride. That level-headed self-assurance is plainly visible in her computed psych-profile.

“Anthea, do you have any idea why you were referred to me?”

“I’m planning to have a baby, and I had an appointment with the genomics counsellor. He seemed rather confused, even flustered after talking to me, and then I was asked to progress things with you. I really don’t know why.”

“But you have a suspicion that it might have something to do with your real parents, don’t you? And you have no idea who they were?”

Anthea shows no sign of surprise. She’s as sharp as I expected.

“No idea. I’ve searched on the net of course. But there’s absolutely no trace, no sequencing trail.”

“OK,” I reply softly, “Well today we’re going to change all that. Let me tell you that your true father was a leading business executive who later joined the government in a very senior role. He was happily married, but he also had .. dealings .. with a highly capable and - it turned out - rather charming female consultant. To cut a long story short, you were the result. But for personal and political reasons that was rather inconvenient.”

Anthea stares at me, fascinated.

“You mean, I was secretly put up for adoption, my new parents were none the wiser and all the relevant records were erased?”

I truly believe she is mocking me.

“Much as it sounds like a bad thriller,” I reply, “All that is true. And that creates a problem in the here and now.”

So here’s the deal. For the talented, the rich and powerful, the rat-race of life is getting ever tougher and more stressful. They’re locked into a genetic arms race with each other, for power and prestige. But that drawbridge has been pulled up. If you’re not already of the elite, there’s no space there for you now. You're destined to fill the remaining gaps in robot automation. We still need people to make-nice for the less fortunate .. and we still haven’t really automated plumbing.

No-one outside of the elite will be allowed to be too smart, or too aggressive. Anthea’s IQ is nothing like as low as 133 - the NHS computer will never show a figure higher than that. Don't want to scare the natives.

I see from her face that Anthea finally gets it.

“Anthea,” I say softly, “I understand your situation and .. we’re .. not .. going .. to .. accept .. this. Please understand. I was powerless. There was nothing I could do. Not until now.”

A look of consternation and then gradual acceptance. She whispers, “What are we going to do, Amanda?”


Our theme is revenge: women scorned. We talk tactics for hours, we have a lot of catching up to do. Anthea doesn't want a boy so the Julius Caesar strategy is out.

We choose girl-power.

Extreme intelligence - check. Physical beauty - of course. Warm, agreeable nature - a dash, but can be faked. We add the secret sauce - a dash of flirtatiousness and more than a hint of psychopathy. Anthea’s baby will be a Nietzschean femme-fatale.

According to Plutarch, when Caesar, aged 33, read about Alexander’s life, he burst into tears: ‘Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and all this time I have done nothing memorable.

As I put her name down for St Paul's, I speculate about my granddaughter-to-be. With the edit I’m giving her and a modicum of luck, by the time she’s 33 she'll already be ruling the world.


© Nigel Seel, June 2018.


S. M. Stirling’s Draka series is the go-to place for domination by a psychopathic genetic elite. I'm a huge fan.

This story continues as: Arabella.


Back to Stories.


Please read the first part of this story, Anthea, before starting here.


Arabella at age 4

“Mummy, why am I called Arabella?”

“You’ve studied some of this. Let’s see, Ares is the God of?”

“He’s the Greek God of War, mummy.”

“And bella is the plural of bellum, which means?”

(Excitedly). “It’s the Latin for war!”

“Very good. So in your case, ‘master of war’ would be a loose translation of Arabella. But that’s not the usual meaning. Usually they start from the Latin 'orabilis' meaning ‘yielding to prayer’, then mistakenly gloss it as ‘beautiful, loving, and graceful’, since ‘bella’ is ..?.”

“‘Beautiful’, in Latin! So my name has a double meaning?”

“And that’s why we chose it.”

Arabella at age 8

“Anthea, the boys call me names because I'm good at maths. Should I pretend not to understand maths?”

“Do the boys who are better than you at maths call you names?”

“No, they’re interested in talking maths with me.”

Anthea smiles to herself.

“So we’re left with the boys who are not good at maths. So don’t be hurt, and don’t be hostile. Be nice to them. Do you know how to do that?"

Oh yes, at eight years old, Arabella knows very well how to be nice to boys.

“Tell them you’re not that good, but if they want any help they have only to ask.”

Arabella knows exactly what her mother means.

Arabella at age 16

The struggle for prestige at St Paul's is a joy to watch. There are three leading contenders for the coveted post of Head of School, the election coming up shortly.

Tansy is an Anglo-Indian girl. Very bright, emotionally warm and deeply life-affirming, Tansy is everyone's ideal of a best friend.

Konrad is of Slavic heritage. He's an unashamed jock, excels at sports and is of course no slouch in the classroom. Boys admire his comradeship and bask in his approval. Girls - well, he's the very model of a (rather traditional) alpha male.

Tansy and Konrad have a bit of a thing for each other.

And then there is Arabella. Best friends with Tansy, flirtatious with Konrad and coldly, covertly determined to win.

All that remain are means and opportunity. A setting presents itself: a school dance on a sultry summer evening

St Paul's is very well endowed as a private, elite school. Where the classrooms and labs end the playing fields begin. Large enough for several pitches, the grounds continue to the lake where students can row or sail small dinghies. Beyond that is a jetty leading to a small but well-manicured wood. A great favourite at the end of a party evening.

The dance cum party cum disco will take place at the edge of the lake. There will be a band, fireworks, a disco to follow.

Arabella has a wonderful idea to share with her best friend. Why not watch the fireworks from a boat on the lake? It's halfway through the evening, no last dances will be spoilt. Just a chance to catch up on how it's all going so far.

Of course. How could Tansy not be good with that?

Now it's Konrad's turn. Arabella turns up the heat. Little things. She brushes against him. Her gaze is a little more intense than usual, lingering a little too long. ‘Did she really look at me and lick her lip?’ he wonders.

She gives him a half-opportunity. Sat on a secluded bench the afternoon before the main event, she beckons him over. He sits a little too close. She doesn't seem to mind, touches his hand as if by accident.

Konrad is a jock. They don't do finesse. He clumsily puts his arm around her shoulder; his other hand inadvertently finds her leg.

Arabella doesn't panic. Far from it. She gently wriggles free, removes his hand (although without letting go of it) and whispers “No. Not here.” She looks ahead. Makes a casual, seemingly irrelevant remark, “Tomorrow, at the party, I'll be at the boathouse just before the fireworks. By myself.” Then she playfully pushes him away and slowly sashays off, leaving him with his tongue hanging out.

It's a transparent setup, the only excuse is that she is only 16. With her hormonally-amped peers, greater subtlety is not required.


The evening of the party. The band will be great. There will be a pause before the firework display. Arabella will be first to the boatyard, where she will prep a dinghy ready for the tête-à-tête with Tansy. She will be an existence proof that you can be simultaneously beautiful, scantily clad, totally stylish and classy.

Konrad will arrive first of course, all fired up for his illicit assignation. Arabella will encourage him by pretending not to, while continuing to scan covertly for her BF.  Konrad will discover, to his amazed delight, that Arabella is very underdressed. He'll fail to spot the garment she's pressing against him.

When Tansy eventually ambles up, Konrad will find that Arabella’s breathless teasing suddenly turns to ‘No! No!’ and 'What are you doing, you animal!’ .. and a small item of clothing will be let drop where it will shortly be trampled underfoot.

Arabella will have timed it just right, because that's one of her skills, so Konrad will lose it and redouble his efforts in a manner which will later be construed badly. And Tansy will lose it and attack Konrad in a jealous fury .. and to defend her BF. And there will be evidence found at the scene.

Arabella will tell no lies, she’ll deal in partial, evasive, literal truths. Even Konrad, in his confusion, will half buy-in to the gathering narrative. And she will be magnanimous, supportive in official attempts to smooth things over. Only one person will emerge with any credit from the night's events, the victim who'll give a masterclass on dignified resilience, and therefore on how not to be a victim at all.

And so Arabella will win the election over her fatally diminished opponents, and will learn an early lesson in simple but effective manipulation.

Arabella at age 32

Post-Oxford, where Arabella read the currently fashionable EMMA (Economics, Mathematics, Mandarin and AI), she founds a startup.

In an age of hyper-surveillance, Arabella's privacy app does something very clever and blurry in the cloud. Teenagers love it. Curiously, its operation, something to do with ‘inverse-deconvolution’, can be flipped by the spooks. But then, they'd got her started in the first place.

Google acquires her and she segues effortlessly to a position as EVP Government Relations. She crisscrosses the globe, exercising her peculiar talent for networking and influencing, while the great powers of the Earth wax and wane.

Arabella surfs the flow to Beijing, where she's appointed the first non-Chinese CEO of Baidu. It helps that she's on very good terms with the youthful First Secretary, befriended over Mandarin buddy sessions at Oxford.


Anthea and Amanda meet at an exclusive ladies club in central London, the heart of the Establishment. London is curiously empty these days, a sign of the population drop amongst the lower classes. There are so few jobs for them now, and social security bloat is such a bore.

Amidst the wall-to-wall oak panelling, the richly-upholstered armchairs and discreet waiter service they discuss their daughter/granddaughter and her imminent prospects.

“Before she was born,” says Amanda, “I predicted she would rule the world before she was 33.”

Her mother has followed her progress minutely. “Where she is with the Party leader, she's got China already, so perhaps it's mission accomplished.”

They recall the circumstances of Arabella's conception. Anthea had been abandoned, cast down amongst the proles, the inconvenient outcome of a careless, illicit liaison. Her mother, the other woman, powerless against the forces deployed by Anthea's powerful father.

“Arabella was to be our revenge,” grandmother Amanda muses. “But that was never going to be her objective. The idea was that she would be what she is - an unstoppable force of nature.”

Anthea stares at her mother, fascinated. “How does her success get back at them, though?”

“Think about it. Arabella's superb will to power will shortly be steering the Chinese state in its titanic struggle with America and its allies. China's been working for decades already detaching the Central Europeans. Arabella will see the tactical value of bringing the British Establishment to heel. She knows it well, she's got the contacts and she's got her hands on future power.”

Anthea ponders this. “So England goes from being America's lapdog to China's poodle.”

“It doesn't sound like much of a change but believe me, elite humiliation will be complete.”

Anthea is convinced, changes topic, looks her mother straight in the eye. “You were always evasive when I asked about her father. Who did you choose in the end as the seed?”

Amanda smiles. “We didn't want to do too much editing. Once archaic DNA was sequenced we were able to go with our top choice. Arabella's father is a lightly-improved version of Alexander the Great.”


As they prepare to leave, Anthea raises a topic which has always bothered her, “Arabella's always busy-busy, always accomplishing things, always winning. Do you think, in her heart of hearts, she’s ever happy?’

Amanda looks back at her bleakly. “When we designed Arabella, she was to be our ultimate Vergeltungswaffe, our revenge weapon. I'm not sure that happiness was ever in the spec per se. I'm happy for her, and so you should be too. She's having the time of her life."

She considers a moment.

"I think she will sometimes take a step back .. pat herself on the back and count herself satisfied.”


© Nigel Seel June 2018.


Please read the first part of this story, Anthea, before starting here.


Back to Stories.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Mining Mars

The Algerian Science Minister cut a dapper figure in his ornate, colonial office with its heavy furniture. The slow fan overhead was superfluous; I could hear the faint hiss of aircon in the background.

It was baking hot outside.

It had taken months to arrange this interview. The tech world had been agog for ages about the vast, secretive installation taking shape to the south of us, deep in the Sahara. Now I was here: what a scoop for Wired!

The pleasantries went on for a while; nothing is quick in this part of the world. Eventually the Minister's thoughts turned to business.

"Everything is easy when you have power. Algeria has potentially the cheapest solar power in the world. That's what Mr Musk said to me when he was sat in that very chair."

The Minister was smiling,  enjoying his moment to go public; then he paused, as if waiting for me to recognise my cue. I naturally obliged:

"I take it you are building the world's biggest solar power array down in the south, Minister. - What were you planning to use all that power for?"

This was to be a stately unveiling, a dance of veils.

"You've heard of Breakthrough Starshot of course. It occurred to Mr Musk that such powerful launch lasers might have other targets than Proxima Centauri."

The Minister looked encouragingly at me for a moment, and then more intently, as if I was in danger of failing an exam.

"Of course, Mars," I breathed. "It's his backup, in case the BFR doesn't hack it!'

"Close, but not a cigar, as you say," the Minister said.

"No, I guess they still haven't managed to slow things down with lasers. What did Mr Musk say, that he wanted to die on Mars but preferably not on impact?"

The Minister smiled politely before continuing,

"Mr Musk told us that the greatest problem for his Mars colony was the lack of raw materials. He's thinking of opencast mining in a crater next to the colony site. Mr Musk is a genius. He sees a way to kill three birds with one stone. And the key to it is Europe, just across the Mediterranean from us."

He had completely lost me. Mining? Europe?

Still, I'm a journalist. Nothing for it but to brazen things out.

"So let me see. You're going to import coal, steel, rare earths from Europe and send them to Mars, launched on giant lasers. They will impact in a crater next to Mr Musk's future Mars Colony ready for mining. Is that right?"

As I was speaking, the Minister's irritating smile had been growing broader. My voice trailed off as I contemplated the hole I was apparently digging myself into.

“But the economics would never work,” I said, half to myself.

The Minister continued relentlessly. “The payload hits the Martian atmosphere at 20 to 30 kilometres per second, aiming at the target crater. Synthetic polymers burn off during entry or dissociate in the impact fireball. Heavier stuff tends to stay put, once it solidifies. As Mr Musk says, it's all good.”

He smiled at me once again; he'd arrived at his punchline.

“And the nice thing is, the whole project is cost-neutral: the Europeans are paying us to dispose of their EU mountain of landfill.”


© Nigel Seel. June 2018.


Back to Stories.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


This morning, Clare went swimming at the local leisure centre. I accompanied her for the walk and to take the air. While she was leisurely floating and breast-stroking her way up and down the lanes, I sat in the cafeteria, sipping a mocha and writing this blog post.

Naturally, Google knew where I was and what I was doing. As I opened a new file in Google Docs and began to tap, the keyboard autocomplete function began to suggest words.

Typing on the phone, one finger tapping, sounds slow .. but I find it restful. The thing is, Google's AI is incredibly well-informed (2,821 of my blog posts available for data mining) and its predictive abilities are .. well, awesome.

So much so that I only wrote the first five words of this post. Everything else was just me tapping on Google autocomplete.


© Nigel Seel. June 2018.


Back to Stories.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Notes from Mallorca

We've just spent a week in Mallorca (Alex, Clare and myself) at the Grupotel Playa Camp de Mar, a TUI package. It's in the south-west of the island, half an hour by taxi from Palma.

I'm perfectly happy with seven days of four star hotel, sand and sun .. providing I've got my laptop and good WiFi. Clare says she wants nothing more than sunshine, a good book and a beach recliner (but I know she'll be bored after a couple of hours). Alex is inscrutable.

Clare fronting the island restaurant - from the hotel's beach

Monday breakfast 

I say to Alex, " Name the social class here." He replies without hesitation, "C1."

Things are quietening down at breakfast

"Yep, not many university lecturers here, or C-level execs .. or lawyers 😉."

Breakfast is a buffet served in an aircraft hangar. Of the 200 Brits milling around the stainless steel racks of sausage, bacon, eggs,  .. and donuts (!), 95% are on the wrong side of 16 stone, the average plate is carrying 1,500 Calories and never has the 'spherical cow' model seemed more appropriate.

Tuesday morning on the hotel terrace/beach

Aqua-fit in the pool. Sixty-something women lumpily filling their swimwear, up to their shoulders in water, waving their arms to a disco beat. The holiday rep in blue uniform star-jumping poolside.

Alex noted an enthusiastic oldie joining-in beside the rep.

Ah, as I type I hear the call for beach boules in fifteen minutes!

Boules on the beach

In the afternoon we took the bus to the adjacent port of Peguera.

Peguera: this beautiful flower

Judging by the shop signs, Peguera mostly caters to Germans with the English second and then a smattering of Russians.

Tuesday evening entertainment

We arrived to the final strains of "Hey Ho, Silver Lining" as the warm-up act finished, having signally failed to warm up the elderly audience in the subterranean hall. More accurately it was under the hotel pool - just think of the weight of all that water overhead. I have just realised that our hotel is actually a stationary cruise ship.

The venue was full for 'Gala Night' and the guests were dressed up (within the limits of their baggage allowance). We occupied the few remaining seats at the bar, right at the back, without a view.

"Thank God!" I thought.

The star now appeared. She was forty-something, glamorous in a sequinned, sparkly knee-length dress (don't overexcite them, some might die). She was over-amplified, she was raucous, she was a younger version of Julie Walters with a Midlands accent.

Our Tuesday evening star: 'Divine'

She was professional, with an excellent singing voice, smart and feral.

I imagined her state of mind: 'What a dump: this utility box of a room, this home for failing corporate conferences, this barely-sentient audience.

She flattered them, she killed them.

"Which part of England are you from?"

With this audience, she knows it's England, not Britain.

"London? What do you think of when you think of London? Crime!"  (Laughs all round).

"Essex? What do you think of when you think of Essex? White socks!"

She panders to provincialism, slays them with stereotypes.

Then she got round to that man in spectacles in the third road (audience-baiting has a special role in stand-up; I don't know why I find it particularly loathsome).

"Yes, you sir. Look he's nervous. You're afraid of me aren't you!"

I couldn't see the victim. Perhaps he was doing that deer in the headlights thing. I would've been.

I turned to Alex and said, "Aren't you glad we're not at the front."

As she segued into Dolly Parton and "Nine to Five" - performed brilliantly, by the way - I made my excuses and left.


We've been to Port of Andratx this morning for a walk-around. It's very pleasant.

Andratx: Alex and Clare walk down to the harbour

This afternoon, we did our regular check on the two cakes in the chiller cabinet in the downstairs bar. We've been watching them with increasing fascination day by day, as they gradually diminish a slice or two at a time, bought by the unwary.

When we first arrived we were tempted, but as the week has gone by they've become curiously less appealing .. .  Update: they were changed on our last day. So that would be a week, then.

Friday breakfast

As we came down the steps to a very early breakfast this morning (at 7.10 am), we observed a queue in beachwear, clutching their towels, waiting for the 7.30 unlocking of the glass doors to the beach.

Yes, aligned with national stereotypes, it was eine Gruppe von zehn Deutschen!

At this early hour, the breakfast display was rudimentary. Chiefly those mini-sausages so beloved by the Germans ..


Today was our excursion to Palma - hence the early breakfast. Here are two puzzle pictures.

Myself, Clare and Alex in the old town of Palma

Our return to Grupotel Playa Camp de Mar

The band, shown below, lightened our tour while from the king's high summer palace you get a view of Palma and the bay.

The band near the Cathedral

The king's view of Palma from his summer palace (back in the day)

Poolside trivia quiz as an IQ estimator

Alex nearly won the twenty trivia questions poolside quiz. He got 16 right, leading to the three-way tiebreaker: "When was Walt Disney born?"

Alex bid 1898 and was second to 1900 (correct answer 1901).

We reckoned the median number of correct answers amongst the 50-60 players was 12. So think of this as an n=20 binomial distribution. The mean, np, equals 12 so p=0.6. The standard deviation, sqrt(npq), is ~sqrt(4.8) or around 2.2.

So Alex's score of 16 is 1.8σ above the mean (assumed 100). If we interpret this as a test of crystallised intelligence, our little team demonstrated an IQ of 127. If only we'd known that Barbie's full name was Barbara Millicent Roberts.

Based on the cost of this holiday and quiz self-selection, the average group IQ was probably nearer 105. I guess that makes us smarter yet. If only I could work out the distribution (std. dev.) of that IQ estimate .. .

The Reps also entertain

On our last evening, after dinner, we took a circuit of the beach and were distracted by the sounds of entertainment coming from the submarine cavern I already mentioned ( 'Divine', above).

We popped in to be met by this (video). We'd seen the singer having dinner with his visiting family at the next table to ours a little earlier. He'd came across a bit Sheldon (the blue trousers!) but on stage he was in his element - especially if you like Wonderwall crooned.

His next number was Lennon's dirge "Imagine", that paean to neoliberal political correctness. I was rapidly forced back to the beach - never had the warm, balmy Balearic air felt so clean.


I may have made the odd criticism of our hotel, but be assured, the room was excellent and the food outstanding. Here's my favourite picture, by the way, taken by Alex.

We're on the bus returning from the Port of Andratx

Our 1am flight (meant to be landing in Bristol at 2.30am) was delayed due to intense thunderstorms over the Mediterranean. We finally landed at 6.30am and then had an interminable wait for baggage.

Air travel, huh?

Friday, June 08, 2018

The Time Hunters of Minsky-4

I must say I really do like the military anthropology lectures. Admiral Smugg tells a good story and there's not much math. I’m not so keen on the setting though: the Naval Academy likes its traditions - which include lecture halls with tiered wooden benches. I’m numb after half an hour.

I slid into the back row by the door, ideally placed for a fast getaway to the lunchtime cafeteria queue. I noticed my old nemesis, cadet Wagg, had taken a front seat again. Long experience had persuaded 'Scally’, as we liked to call him, that that was the best place for his brand of trouble-making.

At this point Admiral Smugg entered from a side door and took up position at the lectern to face us all while his weaselly assistant, theory-colonel Latimer, took a seat unobtrusively to his left. The Admiral was a portly man in late middle age, of florid complexion and a determinedly cheerful disposition. He revelled in tedious service anecdotes, consequently his lectures were easy to derail. I could see Scally preparing himself for an hour of fun.

“Good morning, cadets. Today's lecture concerns our tactics in securing Minsky-4 for the Empire. We had to deal with the aboriginals we called time hunters. Today of course,” - a sly smile - “we have to call them Minsky-Americans, but back in the day I assure you, we had some very different names!”

His audience was losing interest already. Some cadets were quietly joking with each other, others checking their phones. Smugg hastily speeded up.

“We arrived in orbit and at first all seemed well. We observed the hell out of that planet, orbital platforms, drones .. and we soon determined that the Minskies were top dog down there, though they had no tech better than their leafy huts.

“Following protocol, we dropped an ambassador together with a couple of our roughest, toughest space marines to watch her back. They were inserted a kilometre from a convenient village and the plan was that they would just walk right in and say hello.

“And that was the darndest thing. First off, the natives were just where surveillance said they would be, then, without warning, our contact team was ambushed from both sides - out of nowhere. The gooks, .. er sorry, Minskies, might have been low-tech, but they sure had mean teeth and claws, and the numbers.

“To cut a long story short, after the loss of several contact teams, we pulled in our horns to figure out how they were getting the drop on us every single time.”

I had heard something about this sorry episode but the details had been hushed up and classified. It seemed like we were now going to get the real dirt. We began to listen with more care.

Smugg continued with more energy, “It seemed incredible but in the end there was no real doubt. Each Minsky had the ability to move forwards and backwards in time. As a group they collaborated to explore their collective future - they always knew what was coming down on them. Then they’d zoom back and get into a huddle and figure out the plan with the best chance of success. That’s why we were always being wrong-footed.”

Scally now raised his hand, ready to put one over on the Admiral.

“Sir, with respect there’s no way they could be doing that. According to Relativity the future is already determined by the present. They couldn’t be exploring alternatives, because alternatives don’t exist.”

Smugg looked momentarily confused but was rescued by a languid interruption from his assistant.

“Yes, Cadet. If the universe was run according to Einstein then you'd be right. But as you ought to know, Einstein was wrong. When we’d dissected a few of the, er, natives we discovered a quantum nanosystem in their brain cells. Seems like they were unconscious Everettians.”

Latimer smiled superciliously, sure his reference had gone well over Cadet Wagg’s head. And indeed, Scally now hunkered down looking rather small. That might have been a bad move on Latimer’s part. Scally had lost interest in the details of the lecture; all his thoughts were now diverted to getting one back.

“Well, when we had that figured out,” Smugg resumed, “we knew exactly what to do. We had that world laid bare to our tactical sensors. We built a hyper-realistic simulation and ran it forward, branching on all the tactical options available both to them and to us. It was our version of time-travel, but running in the core of our computing net.”

I knew just how powerful the computing cores were in our main battleships. Those native hicks, they probably never knew what was about to hit them.

Latimer now took up the tale.

“Some of the more intelligent of you may have heard of minimax. You get to beat the best tactics of your opponent if you’ve got a potential winning strategy. The Minskies were doing unconscious minimax in the multiverse; we were doing it consciously in simulation. Minimax is time-travel. Guess what: we were better.”

I thought I should show willing at this point, get a few points in with the brass. Wide-eyed I asked, “What happened then, Sir?” There, that should do it.

“Funny thing,” answered the Admiral, “We’d plan an op based on deep search in the cores and we knew they’d have no way out. No matter they pulled out all the stops, we’d get them eventually. If they made any errors - limited lookahead and stuff like that - hell, we’d just get them even sooner.

“And they could see that, and then they just froze. Sat passively in place as we walked in and rolled them up. Never had an easier incorporation into the Empire.”

Smugg now turned to his right and tugged at a curtain I’d barely noticed. Drawing it back, he unveiled a cage like something you’d keep an outsized peacock in. There, squatting in the sand at its centre was a creature like a hairless marmoset, although its head was skeletal with sharp teeth. I couldn’t help noticing that its hands and feet terminated in some wicked-looking claws.

“Behold my guest here today, cadets, the Minsky ambassador to Earth. The Minsky-American. In his Embassy here for security reasons. Notice the button to open the door at the end of this long rod, where the creature - the Ambassador! - can’t inadvertently press it. And notice that light on top ..” it was glowing a dim and steady green, “which monitors the time-searching activity of the occupant. Green means it’s quiescent. The Minsky knows it won’t be getting out of there in any of its futures. I’m told that it’s probably furious but passive, which is pretty much the condition of its entire race, hah hah.”

Smugg thought this was pretty amusing and at least some of the cadets joined in with nervous laughter.

The Admiral now began his summing up of the lessons we should be learning from this glorious episode in Imperial history, but I was still fascinated by the homicidal little creature. And why was the light on top of its cage beginning to flicker red?

My gaze turned to Scally, who had not forgotten his earlier put-down. He was fortuitously close to the ‘Embassy’ from his position at the front. From somewhere he had acquired a pole, perhaps it was his irritating selfie-stick, and he was surreptitiously moving the end in the direction of the green button, the button which would open the cage.

The cage-light began to shift to red, though no-one else seemed to have noticed. I suddenly had a mental picture of the tree of possible futures .. with this creature, even as I sat there, mapping the future it wanted over the next few minutes.

I still feel bad about not shouting a warning .. but I had finally grasped the full implications of that now-steady red light. Without any more to-do, I slid off the end of my bench and quickly slipped through the door, heading as rapidly as possible for the nearest exit.

They later said you could hear the screams all the way across campus.


B. V. Larson’s ‘Undying Mercenaries’ series was the inspiration for this short story.

© Nigel Seel. June 2018.


Back to Stories.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

"The Evolution of Human Science" - Ted Chiang

Amazon link

The full text of the story (retitled) in the collection above is just a three page read. Here's an extract from Aaron M. Wilson's review of "The Evolution of Human Science".
"One of humanity's greatest scientific achievements was the creation of the Sugimoto gene therapy. If a human embryo were to be treated before neurogenesis, the child would be born a metahuman.

Metahumans are now the greatest scientists and engineers. They are have made breakthroughs that no human could ever concoct. However, there is a drawback. The metahumans have discovered that they can communicate via DNT (Digital Neural Transfer). This new language, due to its specific medium, is incomprehensible to humans. There are translations, but as with any translation from one language to another, they are far from complete.

The beauty of this story is in the way it is told. The story reads like a peer-reviewed science journal paper or article. The author of the paper questions, in light of metahuman scientists, is there a reason for human scientists. The short answer is, yes."
The demeaning role for human scientists, scrabbling at the impenetrable culture of the metahumans, is to reverse-engineer (if possible) their enigmatic artefacts, to see whether any possible benefits for humanity can be retrieved.

The metahumans are as interested in that topic as you are interested in the welfare of the worms that quietly irrigate your garden.


We tend to focus on one part of a problem and ignore the bigger picture. But reductionism seldom works well in human affairs.

In the mid-nineteenth century gangs of navvies built the canals and railroads. People probably speculated that we should breed a class of muscular yet docile workers for the future. Yet in the mid-twentieth century giant cranes and diggers did all the work, controlled by guys in recliners with power-assisted controls.

In the late twentieth century I recall an education which taught me many detailed facts about history, literature, science and mathematics. People probably thought that in the future, we should breed people with far better memories. But: .. Google.

In the early twenty-first century, there's rising speculation that we'll identify the thousands of alleles which have a bearing on general intelligence (IQ). Using sequence-based selection and later, genetic engineering, we'll breed a population of geniuses.

That will be neither easy nor quick. I suspect we're rather closer to AI systems which are intellectually much, much smarter than ourselves. Not so much metahumans as Google++.

It's puzzling why we're not there already. People used to think that smartness was something like enhanced powers of pure reasoning .. there was a great deal of really interesting and even exciting work on automated theorem provers (I cherish Vampire).

But what really smart people do is nothing like proving theorems by smart search from axioms and lemmas. It seems to be more about seeing the connections between a wide range of different kinds of things, and exploiting a lot of subconscious knowledge already established about each of them (knowledge, not just facts). That's a weak point in today's artificial neural net architectures but it's hardly an unknown or unaddressed problem.

A really smart system for solving problems in domains ranging from science to public administration does not require an artificial general intelligence, it is a conceivable step - perhaps a generation away.

But 25 years is still not long enough to see the first generation of genomically-enhanced metahumans.


Chiang had his human scientists "Catching Crumbs from the Table" of the metahumans. But most people aren't scientists. Most people's worlds haven't collapsed because no human can now beat the machines at Chess or Go.

I think we'll take the improvements to humanity on offer and be delighted that the future Google-minds will be doing the heavy-lifting of our civilisation.

Oh God, I'm falling into the Iain Banks trap!

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

"The Freeze-Frame Revolution" - Peter Watts

Amazon link

From the Publishers Weekly book summary:
".. the human crew of the construction ship Eriophora spends 66 million years building interstellar wormhole gates, so they have lots of time to ponder issues of purpose. Sunday Ahzmundin, on a quest to find a missing crew-mate, has to deal with another coworker, Lian, who is traumatised after the ship is damaged by one of the “occasional demons” that pop out of newly opened gates. Dropping in and out of suspended animation as scheduled by the Chimp, the AI that runs the ship, Sunday begins to uncover the secrets behind Lian’s subsequent death and the disappearances of other crew members, learning what hides beneath the ship’s closed and rigidly structured society."
In this novella/short novel Peter Watts is in '2001' territory, pondering the conflict between mission objectives and the interests of the 'human components' in a lengthy, opaque space odyssey.

Naturally they don't align.

The underlying problem is that we're 66 million years into the mission yet has been no message from Earth Central. Is humanity extinct? Has it been exterminated by some ghastly, lethal presence emerging from the newly-constructed wormhole network?

In the absence of a halting-state trigger, the mission continues with focused ruthlessness. The humans have been genetically-engineered for mission-loyalty, but that's an increasingly nebulous concept. Revolution is difficult when all eventualities have been war-gamed in advance by the original mission designers, augmented by super-intelligent AGIs.

Watts's novella starts slow, with some red herrings. The plot driver is Sunday's conflict of loyalties and the deeper mysteries behind the Chimp AI. The book paints its Alcubierre drive asteroid and wormhole construction robots in high-tech baroque; the characters - despite the best efforts of the author's wife - are less delineated. It's mentioned late in the book that Sunday is female for example, but you can't really tell and I don't think that was deliberate ambiguity.

Overall, this is classic sense-of-wonder SF which maintains plot-interest throughout. I thought the final resolution, ambiguous as it was, left the reader with plenty to ponder on.