Monday, February 26, 2007

Occupation 1973

Or, the day we nearly occupied the Chilean Embassy

In 1973 General Pinochet launched a military coup which overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. The aftermath was terrible, with widespread atrocities, torture and disappearances conducted against the Left.

At the time I was a leading member of the International Marxist Group, and headed the so-called ‘Red Defence Force’ (RDF) which stewarded our demonstrations and did various revolutionary stunts. Under the influence of our French sister organisation, the Ligue Communiste, which had a history of special forces-like operations which they conducted with characteristic élan, we decided to occupy and hold the Chilean Embassy in London just before a major demonstration against the coup, which would pass it.

As leader of the occupying force, it fell to me to reconnoitre the Embassy. I was a student at Furzedown teacher training college at the time, and invented a project about Chilean education as an excuse to get inside and see the cultural attaché. The interior was rather elegant, with broad staircases and large, high-ceiling rooms well-outfitted in a 1920’s style. There were also a disconcertingly large number of big, mean-looking guys with guns. I was reminded that this was Chilean territory, and these were the forces of counter-revolution.

We made our plans and arranged to meet a few streets away from the Embassy at around 8 a.m. that Saturday morning. I turned up early, with a few of my lieutenants and we surveyed the scene in what we took to be a nonchalant and inconspicuous way. Obviously we couldn’t hide our jeans, long hair and sheepskin jackets, but hey, this was the 1970s!

To our increasing concern, there were these strange guys lurking on every corner, screaming Special Branch. Every minute or two a white transit would cruise by, full of overlarge guys belonging to the SPG, the Special Patrol Group, who also wished to emulate their continental compatriots, in their case the CRS (the feared French riot police).

We soon realised that our chances, never very good to begin with, were nigh-on hopeless. They were already prepared for us. It was time to get together in a nearby university hall and call the whole thing off. I spoke to my RDF troops and explained we had been betrayed by a mole in our own ranks. There was relief in the room: those reported guns had led to many a sleepless night!

The RDF team was on the main demonstration that afternoon. We did pass the Chilean Embassy, but we never got anywhere near it. There were massed ranks of police and some very strange guys just behind them.

There’s something missing, the alert reader notes. I understand how you intended to get into the Embassy, but how were you going to escape?

Peter G., an IMG politbureau member had previously explained it to me. “You guys will hold the Embassy until the demonstration arrives” he told me “and then we will surge forwards, break the police lines and you will be able to escape.”

Even at the tender age of 22, I had been a veteran of many aggressive demonstrations, and I had a clear recollection that we almost never succeeded in breaking the police ranks! And given that the world would know we had occupied, how likely was it that the police would even route the demonstration close to the Embassy, let alone let their lines be broken. Hmm.

Yes, I was sure glad about that mole!

Jesus' tomb found (allegedly)

We can all admire the Christian church, like other religions, when it's doing its ethical thing: encapsulating all that's best in social solidarity, compassion and altruism. But occasionally the church is thrust back to its magical core and we collectively cringe in embarrassment.

Jesus' tomb has been found, it is claimed, with his bones (and those of his wife and child) inside. So did he die on the cross and was then resurrected three days later? Maybe.

But if his mother was a virgin and his father the holy ghost, what about his DNA? His Y chromosome?

So we see pearls like the following, from the New York Times today (here).

"If DNA research were to link Jesus and “his brother” Yose with Mary, the newspaper noted, it would undermine the concept of the virgin birth."

Glorious isn't it: scriptural exegesis from 2,000 year-old Jewish peasant mythology meets modern genetics (conceptually even if not literally).


The Adaptiveness of Beauty

The evolutionary psychologist (amongst other things) Nikolas Lloyd (NL) - who has an interesting site here - wrote to me (NS) in response to my posing the following question.

NS. Since beauty is so highly adaptive in girls, why is the range so wide?

NL. This reminds me of a similar thing someone once said to me: "I don't believe in all this evolution of beauty stuff. If we have all evolved to be beautiful, then why aren't we all beautiful?"

The answer is that we ARE all beautiful, and that the range of beauty is very narrow. How many people do you know with eyebrows below their eyes? How many bald women do you know? Women are in fact very, very similar to each other. Near enough all of them have two arms of the standard configuration. Even the tiny details like the exact placing of the eyes and the length, colour and location of hairs varies verylittle. This standardisation comes from millennia of evolution towards an ideal norm.

However, evolving at the same time in parallel was the instinct of the observers. They evolved an instinct to find the most beautiful women around attractive, and the least beautiful repellent, and this instinct meant that no matter how beautiful the ugliest women got, they always lost out to their more beautiful rivals.

Put a plain modern woman next to a Neanderthal, and the modern woman would look a stunner by comparison, but the same woman next to the current ideal (Angelina Jolie?) and all eyes would turn to her rival. Try to measure the difference in looks between a normal modern woman and a modern stunner, and you find yourself dealing with tiny fractions all the time, but anything that gives a woman the edge will do the trick.

NS. So what I take you to be saying here is that in reality, the morphological 'beauty' space which the majority of women occupy is relatively small, and we are probably hyper-attuned to small differences.

NL. I am certainly saying that we are very sensitive to the differences, yes.

NS. I think we don’t have to go back to the Neanderthals. As a personal anecdote, there are racial groupings such as Australian aboriginals or native South American Indians where, at least to my eyes, the women do not seem attractive at all. Perhaps they would think the same about Caucasian women, Ms Jolie or not.

NL. I don't like the use of the word "back" here, because it suggests that Aboriginals are less evolved/advanced. they are equally evolved, just with a smaller gene pool, and an isolated one.

Many tests on beauty have been done. Indeed, beauty is one of the more studied of human traits, and people of all races around the world rate the same faces of other races as the most attractive. There seem to be a universal human appreciation of beauty.

NS. There is a line of research which might be taken to imply that strong selection for female beauty should not exist on the grounds that almost all females get to mate anyway. I quote:

NL. Oh dear, this sounds shaky...

NS. “In polygynous species, where only a handful of males but the majority of females will reproduce, it is expected that females with higher resource predictability will bias their offspring towards males, because male fitness depends more on size and condition than does female fitness.” The Trivers-Willard effect states that for polygymous species in situations where resource predictability is high, mothers would produce more sons than they would daughters.

NL. And some species do, just a bit, but generally only the best specimens. So, if a peahen is not an above-average peahen, she should stick to daughters.

NS. However, although high-status males may get to monopolise access to females, they still tend to be rather choosy so there should be a fitness gradient in female attractiveness anyway.

NL. We seem to be confusing species like peacocks (zero paternal investment in offspring) and humans (high paternal investmant). Peacocks are not choosy, they'll screw as many peahens as they possibly can. Men, meanwhile are very choosy indeed about long-term mates.In humans, women who are attractive get the best men. They get the best sperm by sleeping with the best men, and they are also better at getting long-term paternal investment. This is a big edge over other women. Even if all women mate, evolution will still in the long term favour the genes of the women who mated with the best men.

NS. Perhaps, however, there is more than one way to be attractive?

NL. Of course, but I was writing specifically about beauty. You could say that some things are an extension of beauty in a way. Musical ability, or poetry, for example - not a survival asset at all, but a way of demonstrating quality.

NS. In species with simple mating arrangements, markers for raw fitness are represented phenotypically in a species-specific physical ideal we could call ‘beauty’ (peacocks, for example). However, humans participate in complex social relationships and there has been a great deal of psychological work on the basis for longevity in relationships - things like personality compatibility and assortative mating on IQ. It would not be surprising if different kinds of high-status men were looking for different properties in their optimal choice of mates (and conversely, as women get to finally choose).

NL. There is quite a bit of difference between choosing a one-night stand and choosing a wife. Men are every bit as choosy about wives as women are about husbands.Then again, I have read that the best single predictor of which man in a group has married which woman, is to show the faces of the group to people and get them to match them by looks.

NS. If this is true, then putting the actively ugly women to one side - where ugliness is a marker for some definite lack of fitness - there should be a number of distinguishable optima for women and perhaps there are physical correlates to these.

NL. Sure, we label stupid people by forcing them to wear baseball caps.

NS. A very specific example: there is a footballer’s wife ‘bimbo’ stereotype, which many evolutionary biologists might hold up as some kind of optimum, based on appearance.

NL. She is an optimum for a one-night stand.

NS. However, many of us frankly would not wish to choose such a person as a long-term mate no matter how high our status was.

NL. For an explanation of this, see my essay "Why we follow fashion".

NS. In the pre-harem environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, this was probably a real issue. As usual in evolutionary psychology, so many questions and so little research to date.

NL. I'd say that beauty has been pretty thoroughly investigated, partly because people are interested in it, and partly because, since on the surface, it is easy to measure.

NS. Thanks, Nikolas, for the comments.

I would be equally interested in your views as to why there is widespread male/religious prejudice against male homosexuality, as we see with recent Catholic and Anglican disputes. Also why there appears to be relative indifference to female homosexuality.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Down to Salisbury yesterday evening to see this beautiful film. The plot is excellently summarised in the Wikipedia entry here. Individually, the elements of the film - Captain Vidal the fascist officer, the mystic fairytale scenes - could easily have come across as stereotypes. But the director has crafted it so that they carefully interlock and convey rightness and a deeper reality.

Yes, there were (and are) people just like that; yes, sometimes we do withdraw into our inner world, dealing with the unbearable through the construction of a parallel narrative of myth and archetype.

NOTE: I thought there was a lot of CGI (computer-generated imagery) in this, but it turns out the faun, and the 'pale man' monster were both a heavily made-up Doug Jones. I don't think the fairies were real, though ...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Google + Cyc

I was researching something on Google, and bemoaning the limitations of keyword search. 'If only Google understood my query', I thought to myself. Then I recalled Doug Lenat's Cyc program, under development now for decades (since 1984 in fact).

Cyc is an attempt to formally codify all the knowledge of the world in a knowledge-representation language (based on predicate calculus) and then to use automated theorem-proving techniques - machine inference - to bridge the gap between questions and answers. The application to Internet search is obvious.

'I know', I thought, 'I'll write a post about this'.

Prudently, I first checked on Cycorp's website to see what Doug and the guys had to say. And there I found this video (here) where Doug talks to Google staff about exactly this concept.

So rather than me making it up, listen to Doug. The video is great: interesting and amusing, but it does run for more than an hour. It's clear, by the way, that this is all about Cycorp making a pitch to Google. If I had been Google, I would have sent someone down to Cycorp just to check them out in detail. However, given the video date of May 2006 and that we haven't heard anything, I would guess that Cyc is is still not ready for generalist-use prime-time. Most of Doug's examples of clients were DoD applications, and commercialisation still seems a problem for them.

Over the years, I have wobbled in my assessment of Cyc. Initially I thought it was a grandiose folly - a superhuman attempt to encode all of knowledge by manual means in a project lasting decades. Well, it has been decades, and perhaps they are getting close to critical mass. Nothing else over the last 20 or 30 years has solved the problem of automating the practical use of real-world knowledge, so maybe Cyc is it. I just hope that, like power from fusion, it's not always 10 or 20 years away from being truly useful.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Richard Lynn review

In a post some while back, I reviewed Richard Lynn's book "Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis" (book details here; my book review scroll down here). Professor Lynn is an exceptional scientist and very brave individual, pioneering a thoroughgoing evolutionary analysis of human intelligence and racial differences (due to different racial evolutionary histories) through the long decades when this was automatically classified as 'racist'. A close reading of any recent works in evolutionary psychology shows the extent to which the work of Lynn and colleagues has now become almost the orthodoxy.

I was pleased to come across a detailed, insightful and sympathetic review of Lynn's book here. Makes it clear to what extent my brief effort was just the work of a dabbling amateur. Definitely worth a look.

The core of the sun imaged by neutrinos

This is a picture of the sun as assembled from neutrinos detected in a 50,000 ton water tank located one kilometre underground in Japan. To build up the image took 503 days - days and nights really, as the equipment worked continuously. During the night, the neutrinos transited the entire earth before being registered in the detector

If this isn't a truly stunning picture, I can't image what would be. The full story here.

Looking at the image-resolution above and the 503 day 'exposure time', this is like observing the universe with a zeroth-generation digital camera - a few thousand pixels resolution and an aperture the size of a miniature pinhole. So much scope to improve.

I once had an SF idea about aliens with personal neutrino communicators: this would be completely undetectable with current terrestrial technologies. A little google research turned up "Neutrinos for Submarine Communications" (here). The paper ends with the following conclusion.

"Regardless of the seeming appeal of the concept, neutrinos as a means for communications appears impossible in practice. It would take nothing less than some type of a technological revolution to make it reality; until then, neutrino communications will remain the stuff of science fiction."

Still, this is a paper on open Internet distribution, so it's probably what they mean us to think :-).

The Strawberry

Like the previous 'literary' post, this is also a small literary piece, inspired by a recent business flight where security was even more intrusive than usual.

The Strawberry

“The bomb exploded in the forward compartment, I guess about 12 rows ahead of me. First the raw sound, so loud it hurt. My seat rose up as if on a see-saw – I was actually looking down on the carnage when slowly the plane tore in half and I was projected - through gut-wrenching pressure and unbearable force - into the night. Some moments of tumbling as my seat righted itself – I was falling bottom first with the air howling around. Shielded from the blast, I entered a curious state of peace, despite the whistling of the wind around me, and the constant chaotic buffeting.

They say that when a bomb goes off in a plane, everyone dies, or is instantly rendered unconscious. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m sure that some of my fellow passengers had indeed been torn to pieces by the explosion, but I was perfectly unharmed – so far, I reminded myself.

I thought inconsequentially of the Zen story about the monk pursued by tigers. He takes the upper path followed by the leading tiger only to find a dead-end. Climbing down the precipitous slope he sees beneath him the second hungry tiger, waiting patiently. He can hang on only a few more minutes. At his side is a small plant, with one ripe and mature strawberry. He takes it, bites into it, closes his eyes and savours the delicious taste.

I will impact in only a few minutes and I thought I would be terrified, but I’m not. I think of my life as a long thread and it happens to end here. Perhaps more as a lifelong work of art, which in some sense abides: God knows, I tried to make something of it.

No. Curiously, I am furious at this outcome. It has deprived my wife and my children of the years of life together, with me, to which they had become accustomed and to which they were completely entitled.

Unable to change the inevitable outcome, I lie back and withdraw from present reality - and with them this last time, I savour the moment.”

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Fallujah - status report 02/17/07

“With the arrival of my last two operatives, I can report that the intelligence squad is now up to full strength. Staff have been individually posted to the 12 forward holding positions, according to the new plans, and they're beginning to engage with local community leaders and elders.

"We are very focused on introducing the new doctrine into the local population. Now we have the staff to do it, I’m sure we can successfully get across the messages about the advantages of democracy and the importance of supporting the current administration.

"No significant problems so far, although there may be some issues of administrative boundaries with the Corps logistics team. I appreciate that the local logistics officers have been in-situ longer than my people, but inevitably, as my guys get up to speed, the logistics guys will have to readjust their roles.

"It's not that they're not fully supporting my people, but, well, they’re mercenaries, aren't they, not regulars, and although people say they have a lot of experience and are ‘old-hands’ doesn’t that equally mean they’re not as wholly on message as the regular army? Sometimes, with all their talk of ‘hearts and minds’ and ‘understanding the political concerns of the tribal leaders’ I think they’ve been talking too much to the Brits!

"I’m reluctant to complain but sometimes it’s a little hard to run a proper command and control for my people with those guys. It’s not so much that they’re deliberately obstructive, it’s just that - well, they’re on the spot and know their way round, and ... my guys listen to them. There’s a danger we’ll lose focus. All I ask really is that they’re reined in a little, just to get back to doing logistics. That’s what they’re paid for, isn’t it?

"It’s not a huge problem, I don’t want to make a big issue of it. I know that before my team was up to complement the logistics guys were the main point of contact with the locals. But, it’s different now. We have the right staff with the right training and we’re now in position to deliver effective, precision messages aligned to the mission.

"We can’t let anything stand in the way of that, can we?”

Capitalism and Asabiya

You can buy computer simulations of football. Often you are the football manager and choose the teams. You can observe the pitch, the players and the game in progress. Each player comes with attributes of skill and strength, they run around and sometimes score goals.

These computer games are correct insofar as they exactly abide by the rules for football. More often football is played by human beings on real pitches. Although the rules are the same in both cases, to understand real, human games you have to know about human psychological characteristics such as team behaviour, unselfishness, morale, courage, duty, concern for reputation, leadership and followership qualities and so on - as well as individual skill and strength.

What makes a team game interesting is the interplay between the formal level of the game and its rules, and the ‘implementation’ of the game by real human beings with social behaviours as typically studied by disciplines such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

Capitalism as a social phenomenon is in the class of games. The rules which define the concepts of market, company, owner, manager, employee are formal, and even enshrined in law. No reason not to have a ‘capitalism’ game on the computer which explicitly represented individual workers, managers, firms, regulators, courts and so on. At that granularity, it would merely be complex and perhaps uninteresting to play.

How good are human beings at playing ‘capitalism’ away from the computer? To answer this question we have to itemise the salient features of the ‘capitalism game’.

Good things about the ‘game’ are resourced teamwork for important outcomes as embodied in the operations of the firm, and physical rewards necessary to live, most particularly pay.

Bad things include the destruction of teams when things go badly wrong (trust me, firing people is deeply unpleasant) and differential rewards. Crudely, bosses usually get a lot more than the cleaners do.

The positive, Darwinian character of capitalism at its best and purest - welfare-optimising competitive markets and the creative destruction of inefficient firms - can be combined with a redistributive mechanism to ameliorate the lot of those thrown out of work. But to move resources from the haves to the have-nots requires a sense of collective community encompassing both sets of people - what the fourteenth century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, via Peter Turchin and Steve Sailer, called asabiya.

Counties which have it are aligned with human values and are good places to live (cf. the Scandinavian model); countries without it split into fractious (gated?) sub-communities with few and impoverished national redistributive programmes - the United States being a well-cited example. We talk about private affluence and public squalor.

Capitalism unrestrained by asabiya can be even more vicious when operating across community boundaries. The history of multinationals operating in Africa is a case in point. With little sense of social cohesion between the people who comprise the corporation (and their host country) and the indigenous population, the latter can be treated as dirt. And are.

NOTE 1: these reflections were partially motivated by the recent success of a Vulture Fund in extracting $40 million in debt repayment from Zambia, wiping out part of its internal poverty reduction budget (reference).

NOTE 2: the problem with marxist economics is that it correctly identified the sociobiological dimension (all institutions are social relationships) while failing to understand the autonomy of the rules determining how capitalism works at all, rules partially codified in microeconomics. This is why marxism was never able to get a handle on an adequate theory of pricing (an elementary issue in ‘bourgeois’ marginal economics).

Friday, February 16, 2007

What did you think of the previous post?

We asked Kitty what he thought of the previous discussion about the nature of 'two'.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What is 2?

Perhaps a question that shouldn’t be asked - too childish? - although it receives attention in the murkier corners where maths meets logic.

Let's be clear -“2” is just a symbol - something I just typed. We’re after what it means.

Suppose I assert that ‘2’ means an object shaped like a snowflake, something asterisk-shaped like this *. Would you believe me? How could you prove I was wrong?

It seems an essential part of being 2 that you are adjacent to 1. So we need more than ‘2’ to define ‘2’. Here is a common way to do it.

We define a set N and a function s which maps elements from N to N (s: N -> N). We define an arbitrary object ‘0’. This is not intended eventually to be ‘2’: to the contrary, it’s just any old arbitrary distinguishable object which we intend to call zero.

Then we say

(i). 0 belongs to N
(ii). if x belongs to N, then so does s(X).

So N = {0, s(0), s(s(0)), s(s(s(0))), and so on}.

‘2’ is now defined as s(s(0)) - the entity which is twice removed from zero by the operation of the function ‘s’.

This does not totally solve the problem.

Since there is no restriction on s, it could be the identity function, so that s(x) = x. In this case, the set N collapses to {0} and ‘2’ is simply another name for 0. Somehow I don’t think that’s what most of us mean by ‘2’.

A simple solution is to require that

(iii). for all x, s(x) does not equal x.

N then becomes the natural numbers. But perhaps that’s too strong. Suppose we had

(iv). s(s(s(0))) = 0 (or 3=0 in more normal notation)

Then N = just {0, s(0), s(s(0))} and it’s like counting around the corners of a triangle; 0, 1, 2, 0, 1, 2, 0 ...

If you don’t mind your concept of 2 as something which lies between 1 and 0, then that would work just fine. But note that in this case, '2' has no special 'two-like' properties which differentiate it from '0' and '1'. We just have a set with three arbitrary elements.

To make 's(s(o))' more 'two-like' we have to add more relationships which '2' participates in. This may mean defining new operations like addition and multiplication.

So in the end there is no one definite answer. What makes something ‘2’ depends on what you want to do with it, and the web of relationships with other numbers in which it participates.

NOTE: there is an alternative approach from logic rather than algebra, where we define a predicate TWO where TWO(x) is true just when x=2 (more properly, just when x has the property of 'twoness').

The meaning (denotation in the jargon) of TWO is just the collection of all sets with exactly two elements. If you think this has merely pushed the problem back to the mathematicians (or model theorists) you would be right.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

Down to Winchester to see this last night. I found it hard to watch. James McAvoy (from 'Shameless') plays Dr. Nicholas Garrigan - the young Scottish medical graduate drawn into Idi Amin's entourage as his personal physician.

Garrigan is so 'young bloke in his early twenties': - driven by sex; egotistical and arrogant; full of himself but completely naive. Weren't we all.

As the film progresses, he is sucked into the meat-grinder which is Amin's Uganda. Anyone who has had to work with a quasi-psychopathic boss (haven't we all) will re-experience the visceral combination of omnipresent fear and entrapment. I wondered why being redragged through this experience could conceivably be classified as entertainment.

Amin (Forest Whitaker - brilliant) says at the end to the beaten-up Garrigan, slumped in front of him: "You think this is some kind of game - but ... it is real". Yes, it was real enough for me, even only as a film.

Friday, February 09, 2007

More evidence for global warming

Adrian, snowboarding in Whistler, Canada, would not be impressed but we had our brief encounter on Thursday February 8th.

Pergola snow-scene in our garden


The brevity of snow

Our pergola may not look up to much at the moment, but there are great plans for it this summer ... when, no doubt, it will be a baking 30 degrees C. Global warming - when Provence comes to you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Salisbury Plain early February

Alex arrrived for the week-end and we took a walk on Salisbury Plain yesterday.

Still cold, and there's been quite a bit of rain.