Friday, September 27, 2013

"The Sports Gene" - David Epstein

From Steve Sailer's review:
"Structured around the dismantling of the profitable notion pushed by self-help seers such as Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of monomaniacal practice is the secret of success, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is one of the best books on human biodiversity in recent years.

Beyond undermining Gladwellian blank-slatism, Epstein extols the sheer pleasure of noticing humanity’s variety for its own sake. On his book’s penultimate page, he writes:

…sports will continue to provide a splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that’s human biological diversity. Amid the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, make sure to look for the extremes of the human physique.…It is breathtaking to think that, in the truest genetic sense, we are all a large family, and that the paths of our ancestors have left us wonderfully distinct.

Epstein, a Sports Illustrated reporter, builds upon the work of journalists such as Jon Entine (Taboo) and me in taking an even-handed look at the roles of both nature and nurture.

“Is it so hard to consider nature and nurture simultaneously?”

You might think that any sports fan with a television would testify that success in sports depends upon a mélange of genetics, willpower, coaching, character, and opportunity, a mixture that differs from sport to sport and even from competitor to competitor. Much of the fun of watching sports is seeing who will triumph: the gifted goofs or the diligent grinds.

Yet Gladwellian nurturist extremism is the respectable ideology.

Gladwell is annoyed by this new skepticism directed at his massive 2008 bestseller Outliers. In response to Epstein’s criticism, Gladwell explained at The New Yorker:

In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked.

No doubt. But what separated the best from the rest within a group of hard-working people was also how talented they were.

Seriously, is it so hard to consider nature and nurture simultaneously? Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald was right to observe

…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Because it’s impossible to think comprehensively about sports achievement while flinching from the obvious racial and sexual differences, Epstein bravely goes there. Amusingly, he cites numerous sports scientists who demanded anonymity from him before they’ll dare touch the topic.

Epstein, a former college runner, even offers a couple of novel theories of why people of West African descent make the best sprinters. He points out that several of the top Jamaican sprinters, including Usain Bolt (a classic gifted goof), are from Trelawny Parish, historically the home to Jamaica’s largest free community of escaped slaves, the Maroons. Perhaps their ancestors were just tougher, and that’s why they ran away and stayed free for hundreds of years?

Epstein also speculates that the high fraction of fast-twitch muscle fibers in West Africans might have evolved as a defense against malaria. This is not a prima facie ridiculous idea, since falciparum malaria is arguably the worst disease on Earth and produces the most Darwinian pressure to evolve defenses. (The sickle cell genetic mutation, which deals out protection from malaria to those who inherit one copy and death to those who inherit two copies, is proof of how far nature will go to slow down malaria.)

My longtime readers will find Epstein’s framework and many of his examples (such as his chapters on Kenya’s Kalenjin distance runners) familiar. But I learned much from The Sports Gene.

For example, the average man has an arm span equal to his height (as in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man). Yet every NBA player except shooting specialist J. J. Redick has a wingspan greater than his already considerable height. This is especially true of African-Americans.

BYU economist Joseph Price provided Epstein with some intriguing data on NBA players:

…the average white American NBA player was 6’7.5” with a wingspan of 6’10.” The average African-American NBA player was 6’5.5” with 6’11” wingspan; shorter but longer.

Epstein adds that the average African American in the NBA can jump 29.6” versus 27.3” for whites. Combined with the extra inch of reach, that helps explain the preponderance of blacks in a game where the single most important metric is how high in the air you can get your hand. One scientist told Epstein, “So maybe it’s not so much that white men can’t jump. White men just can’t reach high.”

Baseball hitters are generally large men, but in contrast to lanky NBA players, they tend to have physiques less likely to stand out in crowds. What’s the ballplayers’ physical secret?

Eyesight. The ability to see the rapidly rotating red seams of the baseball as it leaves the pitcher’s fingertips is crucial to hitting. The Los Angeles Dodgers employed a team ophthalmologist who had to construct his own ultra-hard eye charts to test hitters’ vision because the team was, literally, off the commercial charts. “Half the guys on the Dodgers’ major league roster were 20/10 uncorrected.”

The Sports Gene is an easy read, filled with human-interest stories and anecdotes: I finished it in a day. Epstein has been brave in noting racial differences in sporting prowess based on between-race phenotypic differences - differences which are obvious to anyone who watches athletics.

But the really interesting message of his book is just how little is currently known about the underlying genetics of elite sporting achievement: we truly are at the dawn of this exciting new field of study.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Old Family Photos

Some photos from my mother, Beryl Seel, yesterday.

Beryl Seel: 7th February 1944

My father, Fred Seel - "To Beb with L & BW" (WW2)

One of Fred Seel's REME assignments (WW2)

The author and his younger brother (c. 1956)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Slimbridge wildfowl sanctuary

Clare, Beryl and your humble author visited Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust today to see the birds. There were plenty of them, many of whom had mastered the art of begging for food with appalling cuteness. I asked Clare which was her favourite bird: she replied, "The otter."

Beryl Seel shares her spare coronation chicken sandwich

It's almost certainly illegal to feed Slimbridge denizens bread sandwiches - even the soi-disant hi-quality ones served in the restaurant. But Coronation Chicken ... it's like eating your cousin, isn't it?

Flamingos: noisy, honking and pink

What's so cute, Beryl and Clare?

Yep, the famous otter 'birds'

The next fun day-trip for my mother and my wife will be to the Oldbury Nuclear Power Plant where we plan to enquire about contingency plans for a tsunami barrelling up the Severn.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Tour of Britain: stage 6

Exeter seemed like a typical ruined provincial city when we drove around yesterday afternoon: all inner-city ring-road and concrete canyons. This morning we walked around the pedestrianised centre and marvelled at how clean, airy and spacious the place was - not an eye-sore after all. The university is in the north part of the town and students have civilised the place, creating demand for boutique restaurants, coffee shops, stylish pubs ... and a buzz.

We saw the Tour of Britain, stage 6 in Exeter High Street. Saw is a relative word as the crowds were dense and we were not at the front. It takes perhaps 3 or 4 seconds for the peloton to flash by and then it's show over. Undaunted, we jumped back into the car and drove the twenty or so miles to the finishing point at Hay Tor on Dartmoor.

Waiting around at Hay Tor

I won't bore you with the interminable driving up and down steep single-track roads to get anywhere near Hay Tor (most roads had been closed). Suffice it to say that I dropped Clare at a roadblock and parked half a mile away: we didn't meet up again until the end of the race, at the Visitor's Centre.

A hotel room in Exeter featuring stage 5

Yesterday afternoon Clare was nursing her cold in the Premier Inn, Exeter, catching up on stage 5 in Snowdonia (above).

A leading group 1 km from the finish

Back to the finish today: the leaders (fronted by Bradley Wiggins) zoomed past so quickly I failed to capture them on camera (the helicopter did a better job, see below) but the following group above coincided with my pushing the button. Notice you can see the guy in the orange tee-shirt in front of me in both pictures.

The author (circled) with camera: Wiggins leads on right

We were home shortly after five at which point we consumed an enormous Chinese takeaway banquet for two and then collapsed in front of the TV to watch it all over again.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Cancer Chronicles - George Johnson

George Johnson is a successful American science writer mostly publishing on physics and cosmology. When his wife Nancy discovered a lump on the inside of her right groin the diagnosis was metastatic endometrial cancer - a cancer of the womb which has spread via the lymphatic system. The five year survival rate for a cancer as advanced as this is 15%.

Johnson determines to investigate the state of the art in the causes and treatment of cancer as he supports his wife through surgery, radiation- and chemo-therapy. The result is this book.

To understand cancer is to understand how human cells work. Complexity layers upon complexity - the machinery of cell operation,  communications and replication is beyond current comprehension. Johnson's guided tour is as good as the non-specialist is likely to get.

The ending is doubly-sad, but not as the reader was expecting.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Blogs I look at

Here's a list of blogs I check every few days or so.

Web Comics

The Goose is deeper; xkcd is published more often.


Genetics/Human Biodiversity


Science Fiction

It's customary to have a blog-roll on your own blog but I never got around to it, plus my list is somewhat volatile.

As a subscriber to The Economist I get to read their blog posts, non-subscribers are not so fortunate. The blogs Gene Expression, West Hunter and The Reference Frame combine fierce intelligence with blistering invective: what's not to like? A North-American academic compared Steve Sailer's blog to a gift which keeps on giving (if you can ignore his obsession with strange American sports).

Friday, September 13, 2013

Same old ...

No posts for a while because little to write about. The weather has been indifferent, no-one fired any missiles and I got to read Alastair Reynolds' 'Blue Remembered Earth' (Nov 2012).

The 80 reviews on Amazon UK give it an average four stars, and this shows the opacity of averages because this is very much a novel of some highs and more lows.
  • The book is leaden to read, only just motivating a turn of the page
  • The characters, quite well done, are uniformly unattractive and irritating
  • The immersion into a well-imagined future society is brilliant
  • The plot is detailed and somewhat engaging but completely implausible
  • The ending leaves a multitude of loose-ends flapping.
But there are two follow-up volumes planned, and I did finish the 560 pages.

Dr Reynolds is a classic type of science-fiction writer: smart, well-educated scientifically, at home with advanced tech, improving in his characterisation, ponderous; Stephen Baxter is another.

"The plot," I hear you ask, "What's the plot?"

From the Amazon site (inside flap):
Earth, the 22nd century.

The Mechanism knows everything. It knows where you are. It knows what you are thinking, what you are feeling. There is no crime. You are safe.

But in a Utopia like this keeping a secret can be a deadly business.

Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya want no part of their family and its wealth. The Akinyas have ridden Africa 's economic boom into orbit and beyond. Wherever mankind has gone in the Solar system the Akinyas have profited.

But Geoffrey and Sunday have rejected it all. Geoffrey conducts research into elephant cognition in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, Sunday makes her way as an artist beyond the reach of The Mechanism on the far side of the moon.

But when their Grandmother dies she leaves behind a secret that throws Geoffrey and Sunday into a desperate race against their family. A race run beneath the unblinking eye of The Mechanism.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

"Love Hurts"

Another tune going around in my head: a subterranean earworm which judders into consciousness in moments of quiet.

"Love Hurts" was most raucously recorded by a band called Nazareth, with bad teeth, but the kindest, gentlest and truest version is the original by the immortal Everly Brothers.

For some reason the lyrics seem to lend themselves to pastiche - thus:
"Love hurts, love scars
Love wounds, and marks
Any heart, not tough
Or strong enough

To take a lot of pain
Take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain

Love hurts
Love hurts

I'm young, I know
But even so
I know a thing or two
I learned, from you

I really learned a lot
Really learned a lot
Love is like a pig
It bites you when it's hot

Love hurts
Love hurts

Some fools think of happiness
Blissfulness, togetherness
Some fools fool themselves I guess
They're not foolin' me

I know it isn't true
I know it isn't true
Love is just a lie
Made to make you blue

Love hurts
Love hurts
Love hurts

I know it isn't true
I know it isn't true
Love is just a lie
Made to make you blue

Love hurts
Love hurts
Love hurts"

"Same War, Different Country" by Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas Friedman has the following piece in the New York Times today, which I mention because I agree with most of it.
"SAY, did you see the news from Libya — the last country we bombed because its leader crossed a red line or was about to? Here’s a dispatch from Libya in the Sept. 3 British newspaper, The Independent:

“Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Qaddafi two years ago. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country putting in doubt claims by American, British and French politicians that NATO’s military action in Libya in 2011 was an outstanding example of a successful foreign military intervention, which should be repeated in Syria. ... Output of Libya’s prized high-quality crude oil has plunged from 1.4 million barrels a day earlier this year to just 160,000 barrels a day now.”

I keep reading about how Iraq was the bad war and Libya was the good war and Afghanistan was the necessary war and Bosnia was the moral war and Syria is now another necessary war. Guess what! They are all the same war.

They are all the story of what happens when multisectarian societies, most of them Muslim or Arab, are held together for decades by dictators ruling vertically, from the top down, with iron fists and then have their dictators toppled, either by internal or external forces. And they are all the story of how the people in these countries respond to the fact that with the dictator gone they can only be governed horizontally — by the constituent communities themselves writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above. And, as I’ve said before, they are all the story of how difficult it is to go from Saddam to Jefferson — from vertical rule to horizontal rule — without falling into Hobbes or Khomeini.

In Bosnia, after much ethnic cleansing between warring communities, NATO came in and stabilized and codified what is in effect a partition. We acted on the ground as “the army of the center.” In Iraq, we toppled the dictator and then, after making every mistake in the book, we got the parties to write a new social contract. To make that possible, we policed the lines between sects and eliminated a lot of the worst jihadists in the Shiite and Sunni ranks. We acted on the ground as the “army of the center.” But then we left before anything could take root. Ditto Afghanistan.

The Obama team wanted to be smarter in Libya: No boots on the ground. So we decapitated that dictator from the air. But then our ambassador got murdered, because, without boots on the ground to referee, and act as the army of the center, Hobbes took hold before Jefferson.

If we were to decapitate the Syrian regime from the air, the same thing would likely happen there. For any chance of a multisectarian democratic outcome in Syria, you need to win two wars on the ground: one against the ruling Assad-Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite alliance; and, once that one is over, you’d have to defeat the Sunni Islamists and pro-Al Qaeda jihadists. Without an army of the center (which no one will provide) to back up the few decent Free Syrian Army units, both will be uphill fights.

The center exists in these countries, but it is weak and unorganized. It’s because these are pluralistic societies — mixtures of tribes and religious sects, namely Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and Turkmen — but they lack any sense of citizenship or deep ethic of pluralism. That is, tolerance, cooperation and compromise. They could hold together as long as there was a dictator to “protect” (and divide) everyone from everyone else. But when the dictator goes, and you are a pluralistic society but lack pluralism, you can’t build anything because there is never enough trust for one community to cede power to another — not without an army of the center to protect everyone from everyone.

In short, the problem now across the Arab East is not just poison gas, but poisoned hearts. Each tribe or sect believes it is in a rule-or-die struggle against the next, and when everyone believes this, it becomes self-fulfilling.

That means Syria and Iraq will both likely devolve into self-governing, largely homogeneous, ethnic and religious units, like Kurdistan. And, if we are lucky, these units will find a modus vivendi, as happened in Lebanon after 14 years of civil war.

And then maybe, over time, these smaller units will voluntarily come together into larger, more functional states.

Don't hold your breath.

Friedman refers to US and allied military forces as 'the army of the centre' but the role is straight out of Hobbes' Leviathan, the dictatorship which curbs the alleged natural tendency of all men to be beastly to one another.

Hobbes is more accurate if we take the unit of mutual antipathy to be kinship groups rather than individuals: clans and tribes, or the ersatz kin-groups of shared religious fanaticism. And Friedman is effectively arguing that in these fissiparous states, the US must replace the dictator it has overthrown or the whole show goes to hell in a handcart.

Roll on the US legislative vote for bombing Syria, on Wednesday.

Friday, September 06, 2013

"NSA surveillance: A guide to staying secure"

Interesting article by security guru Bruce Schneier in The Guardian here, on how to stop Government Intelligence Services accessing your data and communications. He states that he himself has been using:
"GPGSilent CircleTailsOTRTrueCryptBleachBit, and a few other things I'm not going to write about"

to avoid NSA surveillance while working on the Edward Snowden papers for The Guardian. His concluding remarks:
Trust the math. Encryption is your friend. Use it well, and do your best to ensure that nothing can compromise it. That's how you can remain secure even in the face of the NSA.
There was some speculation recently that NSA/GCHQ mathematicians had developed a new theory of large number factorization which would allow feasible attacks on Internet security protocols such as https. This always looked a bit dubious and now appears not to be the case. If you can intercept all the traffic and install back-doors on commercially-available cryptography software, then hacking the theory is purely academic!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

"The Last Train to Zona Verde" - Paul Theroux

"The Last Train to Zona Verde" is Paul Theroux's account of his solitary, backpacking trip from Cape Town through Namibia, Angola and all points north to Timbuktu. In the event, his luck and spirits run out in Angola and he decides enough is enough - time to return home. The following excerpt from the full review at American Renaissance captures his reasons
"Angola’s problem, Mr. Theroux decides, is not a lack of money or development aid, but too much of both. The government is a “thieving tyranny” that keeps virtually all the money it earns from foreign oil and mining companies. The difference between it and other African kleptocracies is only one of degree. In Africa, “only foreigners seem to care about the welfare of Africans.” He means whites, since the only other non-whites are the Chinese, and they are there only to make money. They care nothing about and do nothing for the black population—no Western sentimentality for them. It’s the same with the Western corporations looting the place of its natural wealth. The foreign aid workers and development specialists think they care, but Mr. Theroux considers them self-absorbed fools, whose officious meddling only makes things worse, and further entrenches tyranny.

Angola has great potential. The country is rich in natural resources, especially oil, diamonds, and gold. It also has the “hilly, cool, and fertile” Planalto, or high plains, much of it over a mile above sea level. Yet, there is little or no farming. Village people are moving to the cities. Those with any education, Mr. Theroux finds, want to leave for the United States. There seems to be little hope for a continent whose best-educated people all want to flee.

Mr. Theroux does find one Angolan who is optimistic about the country and wants to stay: a white man of Portuguese descent named Rui da Camara e Sousa. His grandfather was governor of the colony early in the last century. Mr. Sousa is a developer who is profiting from the building boom in Luanda, the capital. Mr. Theroux finds his optimism hard to fathom. Even with the new construction, “everything looked crooked or improvisational, with a vibration of doomsday looming.” The slums were a horror, and “the government was corrupt, predatory, tyrannical, unjust, and utterly uninterested in its people.”

Mr. Sousa lived on the salubrious Restinga peninsula, near the coastal city of Lobito. I use the past tense because a few months after Theroux visited him, Mr. Sousa was murdered by intruders who stole “a computer, a television, and a mobile phone.”

Mr. Theroux is an intrepid and resourceful traveler, who has completed, or nearly completed, all of his previous trips. Not this time. As he approached the northern border of Angola, formed by the Congo River, Mr. Theroux finally decided to abort his journey. First, his credit card had stopped working, and he was running out of cash. He learned later that someone had printed his name and credit card number on a duplicate card, and had run up $48,000 in charges.

Second, he realized that he would see only a variation on what he had already seen: a nightmare world of poisoned and ruined landscapes; impoverished, starving villages; and “cities that were indistinguishable from one another in their squalor and decrepitude.” Traveling any further, “meant traveling into madness.”

Third, he decided that he had pushed his luck far enough. As a 70-year-old white man alone in Africa, he was a natural target for thieves and hustlers. There was simply no reason to tempt fate by going on.

He also kept remembering the words of another white Angolan. As they contemplated the reeking, swarming slums of Luanda, this man said, “This is what the world will look like when it ends.” With that doomsday vision seeming all too real, Mr. Theroux decided to head home."
Paul Theroux

Mr Theroux's personality can be read off the pages of his book: he is somewhat detached and introverted yet keenly curious about the people he meets and their stories. He is naturally optimistic and improvisational, and is more concerned with values than intellectual analysis. In short, he's an INFP.

Theroux is too experienced a writer to dwell over-long on the hardships of his journey. We sit alongside him as he accepts a scrawny chicken leg in the bush, covered with flies - he desperately burns the stringy limb in a fire to sterilise the fly-droppings. We don't hear so much about the lack of sanitary facilities, the intimidation and personal thefts. Only in the last chapter does his pent up fury about the state of Africa finally burst onto the page.

His thesis is that in the last analysis, the African elites, the kleptocracies - hand in glove with foreign companies, governments and aid agencies - do not care in the slightest for the millions living in squalid shanty towns surrounding their tiny oases of western excess. Since they don't care, there can be no hope of progress.

This doesn't prevent foreign companies making plenty of money behind their own security cordons - and this is what you hear about in The Times and The Economist when they write about 'Africa rising economically'.

Paul Theroux's book is a journey from his initial naivety and hopefulness to his final recognition of the grim and hopeless reality for the African masses. He notes that in these places he is truly a lone observer: everyone else is too scared, too bought-off or too determined not to acknowledge the facts on the ground.

Monday, September 02, 2013


The Sunday Times yesterday explained why the Assad regime was using chemical weapons: the use is tactical - to clear urban battlegrounds where defenders are heavily dug-in. Once the gas disperses, government forces move in to take and hold the ground.

A second interesting fact: the RAF at its current technology and resource level is actually incapable of overcoming Syrian air defences. We'd be reduced to lobbing cruise missiles from a safe distance. I wondered to myself how many would get through - absent a US saturation attack including active defence suppression.
We were at Burnham on Sea today for a bracing walk on the prom under grey clouds, the blustery cold wind tugging at rigging lines and my tee-shirt. Why do I ever believe those forecasts showing happy yellow sun-symbols all the day long?

The town was busy, crowded with old folk (can I say somewhat shabbily-dressed, often overweight and in some cases over-tattooed?). In any event there is no harm in Burnham and avoiding the crowded pubs we lunched on delicious fish 'n' chips out of cardboard boxes in a formica seafront café.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A Mystery Picture

Shadow - Projection - What's the Story?

Stourhead's Festival of the Voice (NT)

"The Festival of the Voice" was the featured attraction today at Stourhead (as it will be throughout the Sundays of September). Singers and choirs milled around Stourhead's picturesque locations performing on the hour to visitors and waterfowl both.

We took a picnic and had a small, purely tactical battle with the wasps in the stable yard adjacent to the Walled Garden; the Spread Eagle courtyard, however, with its food, ice-creams and beer was swarm-central for the stripy summer muggers - tables were abandoned as the creatures colonised double-cream pots and sandwiches.

Well out of it, we circumnavigated the lake and played dilettante at the music we encountered. The ducks seem aggressive this year (pix) don't you think? It's like they own the place.

Ducks like wasps

Clare fronting the Pantheon

Duck crosses bridge

The view from the Pantheon

Wessex Harmony

The swans - circling

To watch a short video showing Wessex Harmony in action, plus a view of Stourhead from the Pantheon, just click here.