Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day ...

Family stuff.

Beryl Seel is puzzled by this creature ...

Clare and peanut butter milk chocolate ... (and cat mat)

Elaine won the 'weird present' competition with this foolish game (streaming video).

Beryl Seel acquired an addictive but annoying dependent (streaming video).

Fun and games with the new toys (streaming video).

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve ...

A couple of days ago Alex, Adrian and myself got to see the DVD of "Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow" featuring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. A bit smarter than the usual shoot-em-up; we liked it.

Then we saw the wonderful B-movie "Johnny Mnemonic" featuring Keanu Reeves and that chick from "Starship Troopers" Dina Meyer as his bodyguard. Neo gives a more lively performance

Neo and Starship Troopers chick
than his usual passive-aggressive schtick as he's chased around dystopian hi-tech slums by a bunch of Yakuza after the 320 GB of stolen Big-Pharma data in his head. Love the cross-bows. From William Gibson's somewhat slight prequel-novella to his rather superb "Sprawl" trilogy - this works better as a film.

Tonight we got around to watching the inscrutable "Primer". We knew we had fallen off the edge by the last twenty minutes but we actually lost contact 15 minutes in. We never realised that the narrative has nine parallel time-lines of which seven are featured on screen.

Afterwards I spent as much time again trying to find out what was really going on from Wikipedia, Sparknotes and movies.stackexchange. I now know the difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, at least as regards the plot. Loved it.

Here are some Christmas precursors. More will be revealed tomorrow.

Someone is going to adopt a little friend ... God help them!

Alex with another perfect gift - haw haw!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Paddington (film)

This afternoon we watched a film about a penniless immigrant of no discernible skills who enters London illegally from South America, and who inveigles himself into the home of the charmingly-eccentric, upper-middle-class Brown family.

Paddington Bear with posh family Brown
Once ensconced, the Bear (for it is he) proceeds to trash the place.

The Bear creating havoc in the Brown's posh London house
Fortunately, an evil (but beautiful and swishily-attired) taxidermist known as Nicole Kidman is on hand to dart the bear and whisk him off to the Natural History Museum to be stuffed.

Nicole Kidman wants to stuff you, bear!
Sadly, this public-spirited act is subverted by the hopelessly-liberal Brown family, and finally love conquers all, including the all-important public policy issues.

The kids present laughed out loud and the adults present seemed to much enjoy it too. Little ones (and UKIP members) might find some of the scenes a bit scary.

Christmas card kitsch

In this season of Christmas cards, my mind wanders again to the wonderful concept of kitsch.

Roger Scruton's recent essay on kitsch does not deserve to be lost in obscurity. He quotes Milan Kundera's classic depictment of the essence of kitsch:
"The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation*. "Kitsch," he wrote, "causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!"

"Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this - it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, "Look at me feeling this - how nice I am and how lovable."

"That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens's most sickly death-scenes, said that "a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell".


"Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all."
Scruton criticises much modern art as superficial anti-kitsch: an attempt to shock, rather than pamper the emotions of the audience. But shock alone is not art - and neither is shallow irony:
"Take Allen Jones, whose art, currently on display at the Royal Academy, consists of female lookalikes contorted into furniture, dolls with their sexual parts made explicit by underwear, vulgar and childishly nasty visions of the human female, the whole as frothy with fake sentiment as any simpering fashion model. Again the result is such obvious kitsch that it cannot be kitsch. The artist must be telling us something about ourselves - about our desires and lusts - and forcing us to confront the fact that we like kitsch, while he pours scorn on kitsch by laying it on with a trowel. In place of our imagined ideals in gilded frames, he offers real junk in quotation marks.

"Pre-emptive kitsch is the first link in a chain. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product and the modernist establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretence, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretence come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself - namely its money value. Even at this point, however, the pretence is important. The purchaser must still believe that what they buy is real art, and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody - even the purchaser - could have faked such a product."

I find the concept of kitsch quite hard to pin down. There is the element of emotional manipulation, which may even be self-manipulation as described by Kundera, where vanity and self-satisfaction perfuse the primary emotional response.

There is also something of the judgement made by the smart and cultured about art which pleases the lower orders. Suppose that those three ducks on the wall are genuinely appreciated by the dim and uneducated whose tenements they adorn. When our lips move into a smirk and we mutter "kitsch", are we condemning the taste of those who decorate their meagre habitations thus, or are we demonstrating our complicity with those cynical capitalists who fabricated the wretched birds in the first place, intending on an unsophisticated and blindingly obvious emotional response?


The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Adrian Wooldridge on Torture (Sunday Times)

Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist’s management editor and Schumpeter columnist. Today he wrote an op-ed in The Sunday Times entitled  "Dick Cheney is wrong about torture, but for all the right reasons".
"Since the Senate committee published its torture report last Tuesday, Washington has been engaged in a full-scale civil war, which has pitted Democrats against Republicans and the CIA against liberal institutions such as The New York Times.
"But the most interesting battle is not partisan or institutional but philosophical: the battle between soft hearts, who think that torture is an offence against fundamental moral principles, and the hard heads, who think that it is justified if it saves lives. The soft hearts say that good people don’t torture, full stop. The hard heads say that that is self-indulgent pap."
Good to hear someone taking the issue seriously.
"Is this distinction between hard heads and soft hearts correct? The torture report poked some holes in it. On the basis of a detailed study of 20 cases, the report argues that enhanced interrogation played no role in disrupting terrorism plots, capturing terrorist leaders or finding bin Laden.

"But the more I reflected on the report, the more it struck me that conventional wisdom is upside down. Hard heads such as Cheney were motivated by a mixture of outrage over what happened on September 11 and fear of something worse: Cheney’s friends have repeatedly argued that 9/11 changed him fundamentally and transformed a measured figure into a warrior. But there is also a hard-headed case against torture.

"The classic hard-headed argument in favour of torture — the ticking timebomb — is less convincing than it sounds. Imagine that a nuclear bomb has been placed in the heart of London and you have half an hour to extract the necessary information from a jihadist before the device goes off. Will he really give you the right information as you apply the electrodes? Or will he waste your time by giving the wrong leads and then rejoice as you are all blown to smithereens?"
This is sophistry - the specious argument of the inutility of torture. Any interrogation of the nuclear-bomb jihadist is going to be met with initial silence or obfuscation. Suppose torture is the only way to make the jihadist say anything? Suppose you can rapidly check answers and persist until you get the truth? Suppose you have a scanner which can reliably detect the act of lying (so keep applying the current until the subject gives the right leads)?

In other words, suppose torture does in fact work - does that make it OK, Mr Wooldridge?
"Public opinion has been so thoroughly focused on the CIA report that the revelation that last month alone jihadists killed more than 5,000 people passed almost without comment.

"It is precisely because the stakes in this war are so high that we should avoid using torture. The war is fought on the home front: you have to keep the people on your side in a world where patience is limited and the enemy can disappear for long periods of time. Torture divides serious people and gives succour to the frivolous looking for an excuse to argue that “we” are not so wonderful and “they” are merely misunderstood."
"Torture divides serious people ...". Of course it's not alone in that, you could make the same case against drone attacks.
"The most interesting thing about the terrorism report is what it reveals about the internal state of the CIA. Torture took a toll on morale: in August 2002 some officers in a black facility in Thailand found torture so harrowing that they petitioned for a transfer. It created internal divisions: in January 2003 the CIA’s chief of interrogations sent an email to colleagues saying that “enhanced interrogation” was a wreck “waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens”. It forced the agency to engage in endless lies and cover-ups — not just to Congress but even to the more sympathetic Bush White House."
Again, there are many cases where military exigencies clash with liberal ideals. Pacifism and unilateral disarmament have durable and vocal constituencies. Not a slam-dunk reason to desist from doing what states sometimes have to do, even against their own public opinion.

But Wooldridge has a final argument.
"Democracies that have given in to the use of torture — Britain in the Cyprus emergency in the 1950s, the French in the Algerian War and the Americans in Vietnam — have always come to regret it deeply not just because they lost the moral high ground but also because torture has a peculiarly corrosive effect on democratic institutions.

"It is easy for people who take the war on terror seriously to dismiss the terrorism report as a charade. The Democrats who are baying for the CIA’s blood this week were as one in demanding tough action in the wake of 9/11. They will be as one in condemning the CIA for negligence if jihadists mount another attack on the West.

"But this temptation should be resisted: the West must do what it can to ensure that the dubious decisions taken in the wake of 9/11 are not repeated — for hard-headed reasons rather than soft-hearted ones. Eschewing torture is not just the right thing to do morally. It is the right thing strategically as well."
What it comes down to, I think, is Wooldridge's statement that "torture has a peculiarly corrosive effect on democratic institutions". There is something uniquely unpleasant about torture, not just that it's horribly painful (many battlefield injuries are also agonising), but that the pain is inflicted with intent.

As social and moral creatures we have always made the most profound distinction between bad outcomes which just happen, and those carried through with full forethought and intent. It's the difference between manslaughter and murder. We have a horror of the psychopath, the malevolent person who literally doesn't care about the welfare of others - no conscience and no remorse; pretty much our definition of evil.

I think that for populations with a high degree of empathy, (arguably European populations), there is a profound disinclination to write a blank cheque for the application of unbearable pain by state employees. As a consequence, torture cannot be legitimised in policy or law.

That is not to say (as 'Andy McNab' wrote in The Times last week) that torture isn't (or shouldn't be?) used tactically by troops in battlefield situations (they keep quiet about it). Equally, other cultures which displayed less empathy seem to have had less angst about their states using torture (I recall few protests in the Roman Empire).

So while Adrian Wooldridge's article is full of logical flaws, in the end our inbuilt sense of empathy prevents us from ever legitimising torture, while we should be aware that it's a tool which may never be completely dispensed with in practice due to its sheer utility.


I'm sorry if this seems a cop-out, but you've got two principles in contradiction with each other, each with its own domain of compelling applicability. Some degree of hypocrisy is inevitable. Ask the Christian church if it agrees with killing people.

There are no accidents in careers

Someone once told me that there are no accidents in life (he meant in career trajectories actually). Where you end up does indeed correspond to your innermost potential.

Many people believe that they are under-rated by their colleagues and that their inner worth is not (or not yet) appreciated. In particular, they wonder why they have not yet been promoted. Yet if you ask those very same people how they rate their workmates, they will give you a devastatingly accurate account of their strengths and weaknesses. It's really rather astonishing how quickly people can come to an accurate view of others' potential.

I've had a number of reasonably senior management positions over the years and we frequently had to dip into the available talent pool to try to fill a management vacancy. Invariably it was hard work: most people are, by definition, pretty average and only a few sparkle. On the rare occasions where we happened to identify a junior with genuine talent, it was noteworthy how rapidly they subsequently progressed through the ranks. Everybody wants a star. This is perhaps clearer to observe in entertainment, the media and in sports.

Of course, I had the privilege of working in meritocratic organisations not blighted by nepotism or corruption; and not packed with mediocre place-holders fearful of being shown up or being made to feel uncomfortable.

Back in 2001 when I was VP for systems architecture in Cable & Wireless Global (the title was Chief Architect) my nickname was 'the professor'. My then-colleagues in the industry are still beavering away now in a variety of C-level jobs, building their empires and their pensions. By contrast I'm retired and getting my head around genetics, quantum theory and differential geometry.

You know, they wouldn't be at all surprised.

A Garden Visitor

I'm a squirrel - I eat off the floor
As seen in our garden this morning.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Under the title "This racist, sexist genius deserves no pity" Times 'science correspondent' James Whipple writes today about an interview he did with the legendary bio-scientist James Watson.
"James Watson, one of the world’s greatest living Nobel laureates — joint discoverer of DNA, titan of 20th-century science — leant in closer. “I’m really missing him,” he said. He was talking to me about the death of his friend, mentor and co-laureate, Francis Crick. I nodded sympathetically. “The existence of Francis was very important,” he said. Another compassionate nod. Why was Crick’s existence important? “Now that he’s dead,” Watson explained, “I think I’m brighter than anyone else.”

"To be clear, he meant “anyone else in the world”. And, suddenly, I felt a little less sympathetic.

"It has been a bad decade and an excellent week for James Watson. Since claiming in 2007 that people of African descent are less intelligent — or, as he puts it, being “outed as believing in IQ” — Watson says he has been shunned by the scientific community. He has lost positions on boards, lost income and been made an “unperson”.

"So, citing penury, he sold his Nobel.Things began to look up: not only did he get £3 million for it but its buyer, Alisher Usmanov, part-owner of Arsenal FC and the richest man in Russia, gave it back to him. Watson may get Usmanov’s sympathy. He doesn’t get mine."
Watson is an incorrigible joker - surely he couldn't have been mocking the earnest, bien-pensant Tom Whipple?

Tom Whipple - Times science correspondent

We, of course, have our own decorations.

Modelled after Stourhead house

Straggly maybe; it normally lives on the porch


Here is the piece I did after the disgraceful 2007 attack on James Watson which started all this nonsense.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A colonoscopy experience (Dec 9th 2014)

On the afternoon of  December 9th 2014 I had a colonoscopy at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton. The referral was based on family history, as my father had colon cancer in his forties, and again in the last years of his life.

The process starts with food restriction to empty the colon, but they give you a laxative preparation to make absolutely sure. And so the evening before, I downed the first litre of MoviPrep, with further in store the following morning.

MoviPrep One (evening, Dec 8th 2014)

17.30: Clare and myself mix sachet A (the active stuff) and sachet B (the citrus flavouring) in a large jug and add a litre of water, stirring to dissolve. I then retire to the spare bedroom next to the toilet where I spin up the St Matthew Passion on my phone and relax in the recliner. I have an hour of drinking ahead.

17.40: I start on the first 250 ml. On the net, some reported that the stuff was so foul that you had to hold your nose to swallow it. Not so: I'm pleasantly surprised to find it tastes like a cold lemon drink from a rubbish supermarket. Quite drinkable but crass.

18.15: Halfway through. No effects whatsoever (except I've been to the toilet to deal with the vast reservoirs of liquid I'm ingesting). I pause to reflect that there are others out there who right now are working their way through a litre of laxative and wondering like me about their proximate future. Then I return to sipping, and more of the Leipzig choral baroque.

18.40: An hour into the mission and it's all drunk. The stuff seems to get thicker and more gelatinous towards the end and the taste way too repetitious. However, it's still quite doable. But now what? Feeling no effect whatsoever.

19.05: OK, just got a feeling. Yep, it's off to the toilet - not in a rush but .. you know .. when it's time .. . Over the next 45 minutes I'm back five times and the results are steadily more liquid. Of course, I haven't eaten properly for a couple of days but I suspect I'm losing the last of my friendly bacteria. I feel an odd sense of shame. I'm betraying them.

19.45: It's over. Much shorter period than I thought. It's just over two hours since I started the process. I give it another hour or so and then head for the shower.

MoviPrep Two (morning of the next day, Dec 9th 2014)

I thought I was done by mid-evening last night but the process doesn't really stop completely. A trip to the toilet just as I was going to bed, and also a little activity as I got up (05.30 since you ask). Definitely worth wearing those underpants in bed for, as they say, peace of mind.

05.55: The solution is made up and I start to sip with a hot green tea chaser. Glenn Gould's Prelude in C major tinkles softly from the mini-speakers as I wonder whether this session will be a repeat of last night's. After all, I now have the chemicals in my body, don't I?

06.45: God, I am so sick of lemon!

06.50: Yep, it's started. Much more quickly than last night!


8.20: To sum up, the whole process is not as bad as I anticipated. Everyone's experienced diarrhoea after food poisoning. This is a little like that, but sanitised and safer, with no abdominal pain. Still, I'm glad it's over - I crank up Boston's 'More Than A Feeling' to celebrate.

The Colonoscopy (later)

Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton on a chilly winter's afternoon. The staff seem to expect me to sedative-up, but I'm determined to stick to 'gas and air' (Entonox). They insert a precautionary cannula in my hand regardless.

In the procedure room, the doctor splashes some jelly onto the relevant area and off we go. The whole thing takes about half an hour and for almost all this time I'm alert and watching the monitor. The doctor is standing at my waist manipulating this tube with what seems alarming physical force: I mostly don't feel a thing.

There is an odd moment when he seems to have a little trouble getting around a corner and a pain grips my abdomen like someone squeezing my guts in a vice. I suck madly at the Entonox nozzle and the pain eases up, or maybe it just goes away naturally. I really don't like gas and air, it makes me feel dizzy and 'out of myself'. Luckily after that one spasm of pain I never needed it again.

So again, nothing like as bad as I had anticipated and I didn't regret missing the sedative at all - I remember the whole thing! Perhaps I got lucky or the doctor was particularly skilled. It reminded me of the dentist: mostly it doesn't hurt .. but you're always a little tensed up in the expectation that the next moment it might.

Result: I had a small polyp removed (no pain receptors in the gut!) which will be biopsied. If there are any issues with it (3-5 weeks to find out) they'll probably get me back in three to five years for another look. Otherwise I'm off the hook for colonoscopies.

My colonoscopy report

Update: you may believe that once you've had the procedure it's all behind you, so to speak. But think: to prepare your colon you flushed away all those symbiotic gut bacteria. It will take a week to get your colon back to the status quo ante (keep taking the Yakult!). Till then you will feel your abdomen to be quite queasy, maybe a little sore and certainly not in a restful state.


And the NHS letter with my results.

Friday, December 05, 2014

"A Land Fit For Heroes" - Richard Morgan

From the Kirkus Review of the final part of the trilogy, The Dark Defiles:
"Homosexuality is anathema in the world where swordsman Ringil Eskiath, a weary, gay, middle-aged war hero, lives and fights. With his friends Archeth, last of the immortal Kiriath race, and Egar the Dragonbane, he sets off to find the Illwrack Changeling, supposedly the evil-sorcerer scion of a powerful race, the dwenda  or Aldrain, that once ruled the world.

"However, the instructions given by Anasharal the Helmsman, a grouchy and supercilious Kiriath robot, are irritatingly imprecise. If the rumors about the Changeling and the return of the dwenda are correct, Ringil will need to develop his understanding and control of the ikinri ‘ska, a demonic magic powered by otherworldly glyphs. Even worse, the dwenda possess an irresistible weapon, the Talons of the Sun—though nobody knows what it might consist of.

"He soon becomes separated from Archeth and Egan, who locate a Warhelm, an ancient Kiriath combat installation that seems to have had much of its programming and capabilities purposefully damaged—by Archeth’s father. This time, Morgan’s ultraviolent narrative, while still crackling with intensity and expletives, bloats up into doorstopper territory, with a corresponding loss of focus.

"Still, for the most part the prose remains atmospheric and highly textured, complete with subtexts and sexual interludes. Add on a conclusion that contrives to be both enigmatic and less than fully satisfying, and maybe doesn't even add up—yet such is the quality of Morgan’s vision, and few readers will feel short-changed or disappointed."
With so many back references to volume 1, The Steel Remains, and volume 2, The Cold Commands, the complete trilogy should be read in just a few sittings to keep the whole thing in your head.

Morgan writes in mosaic style - that is, the writing focuses on the day-to-day adventures of his protagonists (he prefers multiple parallel narratives in alternating chapters). Consequently, the overall plot-line remains background and emergent. This makes for wonderfully naturalistic prose but does force the reader to work a little to infer the larger picture. Plus you're kept tantalisingly short of information.

Morgan's densely-imagined world is one of clans, tribes and their kinship/tribal bonding and blood-debts; the impersonal bureaucratic state of modern capitalism barely exists. Society has reverted thus to its 'default social form' following a catastrophic war some thousands of years ago which destroyed the moon (giving the Earth a new ring system - the 'band'), a war which wrenched gaps between universes of the multiverse, wherein magick now resides.

One set of magical beings, the Dark Court, has some familiarish names: Takeshi Kovacs reappears cryptically as the Dark Court God Takovach (or Dakovash) while Dark Court Goddess Kelgris, (or Quelcrist) might remind you of Quellcrist Falconer. These strange back-references sort of make sense in the final revelations.

The trilogy title is of course ironic: all the heroes are messed-up outsiders who attract the attention of various power-elites who want to manipulate them. They've got tough choices to make and never quite enough information: sometimes it's gotta be gut feel all the way.

Here's Richard Morgan's world-view condensed down to a paragraph.
"Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses."

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Stourhead @ Christmas

Today we visited Stourhead to see the Christmas-bedecked house. It was coooold, with a northerly wind and clear winter skies.

Stourhead in the winter sunshine

The house is decorated for Christmas

The Christmas-themed drawing room

A Jihadi training camp in progress - who knew?

Real bad hijab from the new Jihadi bride
Hey guys, I know this post was flagged by ECHELON on account of keyword hits but .. seriously, it's a joke, right? We are allowed still to joke? You guys have a sense of humour? No, wait, ...

Kevin the teenage geneticist

"All this nonsense about designer babies, what's so bad about modifying human genes?  - It's just organic chemistry innit?"

"Twins are the space equivalent of yourself in time. Geddit?"

"If human clones are so bad, why allow twins, triplets and the rest? Track 'em down and execute 'em for their inherent evilness, why don't we?"

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

'Another Place' by Antony Gormley

Visited earlier today.

Clare at Crosby beach, Liverpool

The author with the same Antony Gormley piece

Not sure about the white stuff: art or vandalism?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sword fighting

I'm re-reading "The Cold Commands"; reculer pour mieux sauter for just-released 'The Dark Defiles', Richard Morgan's final volume in his epic 'swords-and-sorcery-as-if-it-were-hard-SF' trilogy. Parenthetically, how does Mr Morgan get away with writing this stuff when a rocket scientist is taken to the cleaners for a pin-up tee-shirt?

Dr Matt Taylor (Rosetta, Philae) with tee-shirt and interviewer

Anyway, it got me excited again by lethal sports. But what is the actual sport, you know, sword fighting? It was the kind of mental confusion only Google can address; yes, the sport is called fencing.

I looked up fencing clubs near where I live, south of the Somerset Mendips. The nearest club which looks established and competent is in Bristol: £60 for a six weeks beginner's course to learn the basics of foil, épée and sabre .. or some subset thereof. Did you know Marx took up fencing as a hobby when he was living in London?
"Karl Marx took up fencing again in London after his exile but characteristically "split" with his fencing master over political differences."
I feel quite attracted to deadly pursuits; in fact my home town has an archery club (just under a year's waiting list inspired, no doubt, by The Hunger Games) but there's something so much more attractive about cold steel, don't you think?

Not sure about the hour's drive to Bristol. Perhaps it's better just to wait for the spring?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"The Imitation Game" - (film)

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) with his Bombe

At the start of this film there's a frame which states: 'Based on a True Story'. You may recall a similar claim in 'Fargo' with equal claims to verisimilitude. Key events are distorted and re-arranged to support a BBC-1 level of soap-operatic muppetry. Putting such histrionics to one side, I'm actually most aggrieved by the portrait of Turing as an odd Aspie misfit (telegraphed with clunking prose and stereotypical vegetable obsessions).

A more daring and imaginative film would have tried to convey just how clear and sophisticated Turing's vision was, allowing him to see how to think about Enigma, how to break it. But this is a film aimed at dull people who can't imagine the intellectual life of those smarter than themselves. Since most of the characters in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park were pretty smart or they wouldn't have been there, they have to be played as over-emotional, drama-queens. It's embarrassing.

A note to the gay rights hijackers: the most important thing about Alan Turing was not that he was gay.

Update: Peter Woit can tell you more about why this is so bad here.

From the Wikipedia article:
Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) was a British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, pioneering computer scientist, mathematical biologist, and marathon and ultra distance runner. He was highly influential in the development of computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of "algorithm" and "computation" with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general purpose computer. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.

During World War II, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain's codebreaking centre. For a time he led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. He devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Turing's pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several crucial battles. It has been estimated that Turing's work shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years.

After the war, he worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the ACE, among the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1948 Turing joined Max Newman's Computing Laboratory at Manchester University, where he assisted development of the Manchester computers and became interested in mathematical biology. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis, and predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, first observed in the 1960s.

Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, when such behaviour was still criminalised in the UK. He accepted treatment with oestrogen injections (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. Turing died in 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined his death a suicide; his mother and some others believed it was accidental. In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated." The Queen granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.

Your illustrious medieval ancestors?

I caught a "Who Do You Think You Are" programme featuring Celia Imre the other day. She sought the origins of her son's radical politics and her own feminist feistiness in her ancestors. Here's what the program found for her:
"Imrie’s particular wish to uncover an ancestor to inspire her politically inclined son, Angus, unearthed a corker in her “eight-times grandfather” William, Lord Russell, son of the Earl of Bedford in the time of King Charles II. A leading Whig politician who truly had the courage of his convictions, Russell was such an intransigent defender of Protestantism and lover of constitutional liberty that he was accused of plotting to kill the King, and promptly beheaded.

"At Woburn Abbey, the Russell family seat, Imrie set out on the still more dramatic trail of Frances Howard, grandmother of the aforementioned William. A victim of one appalling dynastic marriage, and caught up in vicious courtly intrigues while trying to secure happiness in a second, she was packed off to the Tower of London with her new husband, accused of murder. Frances was eventually pardoned but history was not so forgiving."
So she had found her 'good genes' then? Not so fast, here's Richard Dawkins:
"For relationships as distant as third cousin, 2 x (1/2)8 = 1/128, we are getting down near the baseline probability that a particular gene possessed by [an individual] will be shared by any random individual taken from the population."
Celia Imre's “eight-times grandfather” William, Lord Russell, is nine generations separate from her and shares a relatedness of  1/512 = (2-9). That distant relatedness could be greater if her lineage includes a degree of inbreeding - but it's unlikely to be more than 1/128 - Dawkins' rough figure for the genetic relationships of any two random ethnic English people.

So Celia Imre's traits for general lefty feistiness are certainly in her genes, but not through the good offices of those specific medieval ancestors.

More generally, you get a dilution down to 1/128 in seven generations. At four generations per century, you may assume that any specific traits of a specific ancestor more than 175 years ago (i.e. before c. 1839) have since been diluted out by Mendelian segregation and recombination. (Also more from 23andMe's reseaches here).

Genetic immortality? fuhgeddaboudit..

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Politicians lie in cast iron sinks

Back in 1979 I had just joined Kienzle Data Systems as a programmer, and had been bundled off to their German headquarters at Villingen in the Black Forest to learn their assembler*. Here's a picture I took.

Villingen in the winter of 1979/80

Yes, it was very cold that year. Twenty below, the kind of cold which hurts your ears and bites your nose. In the evenings I curled up in my hotel room and read Douglas Hofstadter's new Pulitzer Prize-winning book, 'Gödel, Escher, Bach', which in my circles was the publishing event of the year, the decade or maybe even the century. Here's what Amazon has to say.
'What is a self, and how can a self come out of inaminate matter?' This is the riddle that drove Hofstadter to write this extraordinary book. Linking together the music of J.S. Bach, the graphic art of Escher and the mathematical theorems of Gödel, as well as ideas drawn from logic, biology, psychology, physics and linguistics, Douglas Hofstadter illuminates one of the greatest mysteries of modern science: the nature of human thought processes.
The book is astonishingly profound and well-written - if overlong - and is on the syllabus of many university computer science courses. Strangely, what  I particularly remember relates to the title of this post.

Hofstadter is introducing us, in his gentle way, to the propositional calculus. He is going to take us all the way to Gödel's great Incompleteness Theorems but first he has to teach us about logical connectives (such as AND and OR).

In logic if we have 'Dorsai are tough' together with 'Exotics are wise', both taken to be true, then we may validly deduce: 'Dorsai are tough AND Exotics are wise'. Sounds trivial, but that's how computers work. You will observe that this is really definitional of 'and'. Hofstadter playfully introduces us to this idea by using a preposition which is not in fact a logical connective - 'in'. So, he says, we can all agree that:
'Politicians lie'
(little has changed over the years), and
'cast iron sinks'.
But would we want to conclude that:
'Politicians lie in cast iron sinks'?
Cue big smiles, but you see what he did there? Changed a verb into a noun? There's playfulness, there's trickery and there's outright cheating!

Didn't forget it though.


* An incredibly geeky aside. We initially thought that the Kienzle assembly language directly spoke to their CPU chip. But then we learned that the microprocessor was in fact Intel, and that the Kienzle systems guys had 'microcoded' their own assembly language via an interpreter written in Intel assembler. No doubt they had their reasons - yet another layer of indirection, how traditional - but we felt, somehow, .. emasculated!


Continuing on this theme, soon afterwards I was asked whether I could modify some of the systems utilities: I recall they wanted some changes in the 'disk copy' program. Utilities were, of courser, written by the German systems programmers and we had only the binary, and no documentation.

I knew the answer: write a disassembler. Given the simplicity of the Kienzle assembly language this was a relatively trivial problem. The most difficult part was just finding where the end of a program actually was, as there was no 'terminating' code. Program-end was usually indicated by a long subsequent string of binary zeroes.

So I succeeded in disassembling the German copy utility, making the required changes and then re-assembling it. The management were happy. I was so impressed with myself that I decided that every floppy disk should have a copy of my disassembler on it, for the world's convenience. I therefore added some code that checked any mounted disk for a copy of my program and, if it didn't find one, wrote my disassembler out onto the said floppy.

Yes, I had written my first virus!


Some stories are timeless. Thanks to Dave Rainey's site for the full text.



Gordon R. Dickson

Treasure Book Club

Mr: Walter A. Child

Balance: $24.98

Dear Customer: Enclosed is your latest book selection. "Kidnapped," by Robert Louis Stevenson.

437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan
Nov. 16, 2000

Treasure Book Club
1823 Mandy Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Sirs:

I wrote you recently about the computer punch card you sent, billing me for "Kim,' by Rudyard Kipling. I did not open the package containing it until I had already mailed you my check for the amount on the card. On opening the package, I found the book missing half its pages. I sent it back to you, requesting either another copy or my money back. Instead, you have sent me a copy of "Kidnapped," by Robert Louis Stevenson. Will you please straighten this out?

I hereby return the copy of "Kidnapped"

Sincerely yours,
Walter A. Child

Treasure Book Club

Mr: Walter A. Child
Balance: $24.98
For "Kidnapped," by Robert Louis Stevenson
(If remittance has been made for the above, please disregard this notice)

437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan
Jan. 21, 2001

Treasure Book Club
1823 Mandy Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Sirs:

May I direct your attention to my letter of November 16, 2000? You are still continuing to dun me with computer punch cards for a book I did not order. Whereas, actually, it is your company that owes me money.

Sincerely yours,
Walter A. Child

Treasure Book Club
1823 Mandy Street
Chicago, Illinois
Feb. 1, 2001

Mr. Walter A. Child
437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan

Dear Mr. Child:

We have sent you a number of reminders concerning an amount owing to us as a result of book purchases you have made from us. This amount, which is $24.98 is now long overdue.

This situation is disappointing to us, particularly since there was no hesitation on our part in extending you credit at the time original arrangements for these purchases were made by you. If we do not receive payment in full by return mail, we will be forced to turn the matter over to a collection agency. Very truly yours,

Samuel P. Grimes
 Collection Mgr.

437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan
Feb.  5, 2001

Treasure Book Club
1823 Mandy Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mr. Grimes:

Will you stop sending me punch cards and form letters and make me some kind of a direct answer from a human being?

I don't owe you money. You owe me money. Maybe I should turn your company over to a collection agency.

Walter A. Child

88 Prince Street Chicago, Illinois
Feb. 28, 2001

Mr. Walter A. Child
437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk Michigan

Dear Mr. Child:

Your account with the Treasure Book Club, of $24.98 Plus interest and charges has been turned over to our agency for collection. The amount due is now $36.83. Please send your check for this amount or we shall be forced to take immediate action.

Jacob N. Harshe
Vice President
88 Prince Street Chicago, Illinois
April 8, 2001

Mr. Walter A. Child
437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk Michigan

Dear Mr. Child:

You have seen fit to ignore our courteous requests to settle your long overdue account with Treasure Book club, which is now, with accumulated interest and charges, in the amount Of $47.53

If payment in full is not forthcoming by April 15, 2001 we will be forced to turn the matter over to our attorneys for immediate court action.

Jacob N. Harshe
Vice President

Attorneys at Law
April 22, 2001

Mr. Walter A. Child
437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan

Dear Mr. Child:

Your indebtedness to the Treasure Book Club has been referred to us for legal action to collect.

This indebtedness is now in the amount of $101.56; if you will send us this amount so that we may receive it before May 5, 2001, the matter may be satisfied. However, if we do not receive satisfaction in full by that date, we will take steps to collect through the courts.

I am sure you will see the advantage of avoiding a judgment against you, which as a matter of record would do lasting harm to your credit rating.

Very truly yours,
Hagthorpe M. Pruitt, Jr.
Attorney at law

437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan
May 4, 2001

Maloney, Mahoney, MacNamara and Pruitt
89 Prince Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mr. Pruitt:

You don't know what a pleasure it is to me in this matter to get a letter from a live human being to whom I can explain the situation.

This whole matter is silly. I explained it fully in my letters to the Treasure Book Company. But I might as well have been trying to explain to the computer that puts out their punch cards, for all the good it seemed to do. Briefly, what happened was I ordered a copy of "Kim," by Rudyard Kipling, for $24.98. When I opened the package they sent me, I found the book had only half its pages, but I'd previously mailed a check to pay them for the book.

I sent the book back to them, asking either for a whole copy or my money back. Instead, they sent me a copy of "Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson-which I had not ordered;  for which they have been trying to collect from me.

Meanwhile, I am still waiting for the money back that they owe me for the copy of 'Kim' that I didn't get. That's the whole story. Maybe you can help me straighten them out.

Relievedly yours,
Walter A. Child

P.S.: I also sent them back their COPY of "Kidnapped," as soon as I got it, but it didn't seemed to help. They have never even acknowledged getting it back.

Attorneys at Law
May 9, 2001

Mr. Walter A. Child
437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan

Dear Mr. Child:

I am in possession of no information indicating that any item purchased by you from the Treasure Book Club has been returned.

I would hardly think that, if the case had been as stated, the Treasure Book Club would have retained us to collect the amount owing from you.

If I do not receive your payment in full within three days, by May 12, 2001, we will be forced to take legal action.

Very truly yours,

Hagthorpe M. Pruitt, Jr.

Chicago, Illinois

Mr. Walter A. Child
437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk Michigan

Be informed that a judgment was taken and entered against you in this court this day of May 26, 2001 in the amount of $135.66 including court costs.

Payment in satisfaction of this judgment may be made to this court or to the adjudged creditor. In the case of payment being made to the creditor, a release should be obtained from the creditor and filed with this court in order to free you of legal obligation in connection with this judgment.

Under the recent Reciprocal Claims Act, if you are a citizen of a different state, a duplicate claim may be automatically entered and judged against you in your own state so that collection may be made there as well as in the State of Illinois.

Chicago, Illinois

Judgment was passed this day of May 27, 2001, under Statute $135.66

Against: Child, Walter A. of 347 WoodIawn Drive, Panduk, Michigan
In: Picayune Court, Panduk, Michigan

For Amount: Statute 941

437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Michigan
May 31, 2001

Samuel P. Crimes
Vice President, Treasure Book Club
1823 Mandy Street
Chicago, Illinois


This business has gone far enough. I've got to come down to Chicago on business of my own tomorrow. I ll see you then and well get this straightened out once and for all, about who owes what to whom, and bow much!

Walter A. Child

From the desk of the Clerk
Picayune Court
June 1, 2001


The attached computer card from Chicago's Minor Claims Court against A. Walter has a 13500-series Statute number on it. That puts it over in Criminal with you, rather than Civil, with me. So I herewith submit it for your computer instead of mine. How's business?



Panduk, Michigan



Convicted: (Child) A. Walter
On: May 26, 2001
Address: 437 Woodlawn Drive
Panduk, Mich.
Crime: Statute: 13566 (Corrected) 13567
Crime: Kidnap
Date: Nov. 16, 2000
Notes, At large. To be picked up at once.







Chicago, Illinois



From the Desk of The Honorable Judge Alexander J. McDivot
June 2, 2001

Dear Tony:

I've got an adjudged criminal coming up before me for sentencing Thursday morning - but the trial transcript is apparently misfiled.

I need some kind of information (Ref: A. Walter-judgment No. 456789, Criminal). For example, what about the victim of the kidnapping. Was victim harmed?

Jack McDivot

Tonio Malagasi
Records Division
June 3, 2001

Records Search Unit

Re: Ref: judgment No. 456789 ----- was  victim harmed?

Records Search Unit
Criminal Records Division
Police Department
Chicago, Ill.
June 3, 2001

To: United States Statistics Office
Attn.: Information Section
Subject: Robert Louis Stevenson
Query: Information concerning
Information Section
U. S. Statistics Office
June 5, 2001

To: Records Search Unit
Criminal Records Division
Police Department
Chicago, Illinois

Subject: Your query re Robert Louis Stevenson (File no, 189623)

Action: Subject deceased. Age at death, 44 yrs. Further information requested?

Records Search Unit
June 6, 2001

To: United States Statistics Office
Attn.: Information Division
Subject; RE: File no. 189623

No further information required. Thank you.

Criminal Records Division Police Department
Chicago, Illinois
June 7, 2001

To: Tonio Malagasi
Records Division
Re: Ref: judgment NO,- 456789

Please be advised that victim  is dead.

Records Search Unit

Tony Malagasi
Records Division
June 7, 1966

To: Judge Alexander J. McDivot Chambers

Dear Jack:

Ref: judgment No- 456789. The victim in this kidnap case was apparently slain.

From the strange lack of background information on the killer and his victim, as well as the victim's age, this smells to me like a gangland killing. This for your information. Don't quote me. It seems to me, though, that Stevenson - the victim has a name that rings a faint bell with me. Possibly, one of the East Coast Mob, since the association comes back to me as something about pirates - possibly New York dockage hijackers and something about buried loot.

As I say, above is only speculation for your private guidance.

Any time I can help . .

Tony in Records

June 8, 2001

49 Water Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Tim:

Regrets: I can't make the fishing trip. I've been court-appointed here to represent a man about to be sentenced tomorrow on a kidnapping charge.

Ordinarily, I might have tried to beg off, and McDivot, who is doing the sentencing, would probably have turned me loose. But this is the damndest thing you ever heard of.

The man being sentenced has apparently been not only charged, but adjudged guilty as a result of a comedy of errors too long to go into here. He not only isn't guilty - he's got the best case I ever heard of for damages against one of the larger Book Clubs headquartered here in Chicago. And that's a case I wouldn't mind taking on.

It s inconceivable - but damnably possible, once you stop to think of it in this day and age of machine-made records - that a completely innocent man could be put in this position.

There shouldn't be much to it. I've asked to see McDivot tomorrow before the time for sentencing, and it'll just be a matter of explaining to him. Then I can discuss the damage suit with my freed client at his leisure.

Fishing next weekend?




49 Water Street
Chicago, Illinois
June 10, 2001

Dear Tim:

In haste


No fishing this coming week either. Sorry.

You won't believe it. My innocent-as-a-lamb-and-I'm-not kidding client has just been sentenced to death for first-degree murder in connection with the death of his kidnap victim. Yes, I explained the whole thing to McDivot. And when he explained his situation to me, I nearly fell out of my chair.

t wasn't a matter of my not convincing him. It took less than three minutes to show him that my client should never have been within the walls of the County jail for a second. But - get this - McDivot couldn't do a thing about it.

The point is, my man had already been judged guilty according to the computerized records. In the absence of a trial record - of course there never was one (but that's something I'm not free to explain to you now) - the judge has to go by what records are available. And in the case of an adjudged prisoner, McDivot's only legal choice was whether to sentence to life imprisonment, or execution.

The death of the kidnap victim, according to the statute, made the death penalty mandatory. Under the new laws governing length of time for appeal, which has been shortened because of the new system of computerizing records, to force an elimination of unfair delay and mental anguish to those condemned, I have five days in which to file an appeal, and ten to have it acted on.

Needless to say, I am not going to monkey with an appeal. I'm going directly to the Governor for a pardon-after which we will get this farce reversed. McDivot has already written the governor, also, explaining that his sentence was ridiculous, but that he had no choice. Between the two of us, we ought to have a pardon in short order. Then, I'll make the fur fly . . . And we'll get in some fishing.



June 17, 2001

Mr. Michael R. Reynolds
49 Water Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mr. Reynolds:

In reply to Your query about the request for pardon for Walter A. Child (A. Walter) may I inform you that the Governor is still on his trip with the Midwest Governors Committee, examining the Wall in Berlin. He should be back next Friday. I will bring your request and letters to his attention the minute he returns.

Very truly yours,
Clara B. Jilks
Secretary to the Governor

Death Row Section
June 27, 2001

Michael R. Reynolds
49 Water Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mike:

Where is that pardon? My execution date is only five days from now!


June 29, 2001
Walter A. Child (A. Walter)
Cell Block E, Death Row Section
Illinois State Penitentiary
Joliet, Illinois

Dear Walt:

The Governor returned, but was called away immediately to the White House in Washington to give his views on interstate sewage.

I am camping on his doorstep and will be on him the moment he arrives here.

Meanwhile, I agree with you about the seriousness of the situation. The warden at the prison there, Mr. Allen Magruder will bring this letter to you and have a private talk with you. I urge you to listen to what he has to say; and I enclose letters from your family also urging you to listen to Warden Magruder.


CELL BLOCK E, Death Row Section
June 30, 2001

Michael R. Reynolds
49 Water Street
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Mike: (This letter is being smuggled out by Warden Magruder)

As I was talking to Warden Magruder in my cell, here, news was brought to him that the Governor has at last returned for a while to Illinois, and will be in his office early tomorrow morning, Friday. So you will have time to get the pardon signed by him and delivered to the prison in time to stop my execution on Saturday.

Accordingly, I have turned down the Warden's kind offer of a chance to escape; since he told me he could by no means guarantee to have all the guards out of my way when I tried it; and there was a chance of my being killed escaping.

But now everything will straighten itself out. Actually, an experience as fantastic as this had to break down sometime under its own weight.




Order of Pardon

I, Hubert Daniel Willikens, Governor of the State of Illinois, and invested with the authority and powers appertaining thereto, including the power to pardon those in my judgment wrongfully convicted or otherwise deserving of executive mercy, do this day of July 1, 2001 announce and proclaim that Walter A. Child (A. Walter) now in custody as a consequence of erroneous conviction upon a crime of which he is entirely innocent, is fully and freely pardoned of said crime. And I do direct the necessary authorities having custody of the said Walter A. Child (A. Walter) in whatever Place or places he may be held, to immediately free, release, and allow unhindered departure to him . . .

Interdepartmental Routing Service

Notice: Failure to route Document properly.

To: Governor Hubert Daniel Willikens
Re: Pardon issued to Walter A. Child, July   1, 2001

Dear State Employee:

You have failed to attach your Routing Number.

PLEASE: Resubmit document with this card and form 876, explaining your authority for placing a TOP RUSH category on this document. Form 876 must be signed by your Departmental Superior.

RESUBMIT ON: Earliest possible date ROUTING SERVICE office is open. In this case, Tuesday, July 5, 2001

WARNING: Failure to submit form 876 WITH THE SIGNATURE OF YOUR SUPERIOR may make you liable to prosecution for misusing a Service of the State Government. A warrant may be issued for your arrest.

There are NO exceptions. YOU have been WARNED.

Gordon R. Dickson is perhaps best known for his excellent Dorsai! series, but this little Kafkaesque story will speak to us as long as the sun and stars shine in the sky.

Smoke detectors talk to each other; chirp

When the Council electricians visited my mother's house yesterday to 'stop the smoke detector chirping' I discovered two things.

1. I had previously replaced the battery in the downstairs smoke detector; it still chirped. Reason? The upstairs one also needed its battery replacing. They talk to each other. One has a problem, they both chirp.

2. Both batteries had expiry dates of March 2016. I said to the electrician, "They're mains powered, the batteries are backup. How come they need replacing at all?" He gave me a knowing look, "They draw power just the same."

Anyway, blessed silence till the next time.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

'Mr Turner' - Mike Leigh

Timothy Spall as Mr Turner
Starts slow. Cutaway scenes. Mosaic of artist's life and character. Rough diamond; pig of a man hiding a bluff honesty. Obsessive genius; personal life stuffed into gaps. Mr Leigh masterclass of show not tell.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Meaning of Human Existence

The Great Man is back in town, promoting his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence.

I hadn't pegged E. O. Wilson for a liberal - anyone who nailed Marxism so solidly ("Wonderful theory; wrong species.") must surely be better than that. Yet he digs the hole deeper. Apparently he doesn't want to debate with his tormentor, Richard Dawkins, on the grounds that Dawkins is a journalist, not a scientist. Withering. But in science it's not who you are, it's whether you're right that counts. On group (or multi-level) selection, Edward O. Wilson has consistently fought on the wrong side of the barricades.

Dawkins reviewed Wilson's earlier book, The Social Conquest of Earth, in characteristically elegant and stiletto-tipped prose:
"When he received the manuscript of The Origin of Species, John Murray, the publisher, sent it to a referee who suggested that Darwin should jettison all that evolution stuff and concentrate on pigeons. It’s funny in the same way as the spoof review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which praised its interesting “passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper” but added:

“Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

"I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms."
The key conceptual idea that it is genes which are selected in natural selection is spelled out by Dawkins thus:
"At stake is the level at which Darwinian selection acts: “survival of the fittest” but, to quote Wilson’s fellow entomologist-turned-anthropologist RD Alexander, the fittest what? The fittest gene, individual, group, species, ecosystem?

"Just as a child may enjoy addressing an envelope: Oxford, England, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Universe, so biologists with non-analytical minds warm to multi-level selection: a bland, unfocussed ecumenicalism of the sort promoted by (the association may not delight Wilson) the late Stephen Jay Gould. Let a thousand flowers bloom and let Darwinian selection choose among all levels in the hierarchy of life. But it doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Darwinian selection is a very particular process, which demands rigorous understanding.

The essential point to grasp is that the gene doesn't belong in the hierarchy I listed. It is on its own as a “replicator,” with its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection. Genes, but no other units in life’s hierarchy, make exact copies of themselves in a pool of such copies. It therefore makes a long-term difference which genes are good at surviving and which ones bad. You cannot say the same of individual organisms (they die after passing on their genes and never make copies of themselves). Nor does it apply to groups or species or ecosystems. None make copies of themselves. None are replicators. Genes have that unique status.

"Evolution, then, results from the differential survival of genes in gene pools. “Good” genes become numerous at the expense of “bad.” But what is a gene “good” at? Here’s where the organism enters the stage. Genes flourish or fail in gene pools, but they don’t float freely in the pool like molecules of water. They are locked up in the bodies of individual organisms. The pool is stirred by the process of sexual reproduction, which changes a gene’s partners in every generation. A gene’s success depends on the survival and reproduction of the bodies in which it sits, and which it influences via “phenotypic” effects. This is why I have called the organism a “survival machine” or “vehicle” for the genes that ride inside it. "
I doubt that Wilson doesn't intellectually understand this argument, or even the not-very-hard mathematics of Hamilton's notion of inclusive fitness. Wilson is, I suspect, simply indifferent to analytical, mathematical argumentation which he probably dismisses as simplistic model-building. No, group selection just feels emotionally right, and congruent to his optimistic, liberal outlook on life.

Another fine writer, Stephen Pinker, wrote an essay at Edge which elegantly demolishes the 'theory' of group selection. Here's an excerpt.
"Nepotistic altruism in humans consists of feelings of warmth, solidarity, and tolerance toward those who are likely to be one's kin. It evolved because any genes that encouraged such feelings toward genetic relatives would be benefiting copies of themselves inside those relatives. (This does not, contrary to a common understanding, mean that people love their relatives because of an unconscious desire to perpetuate their genes.) A vast amount of human altruism can be explained in this way. Compared to the way people treat non-relatives, they are far more likely to feed their relatives, nurture them, do them favors, live near them, take risks to protect them, avoid hurting them, back away from fights with them, donate organs to them, and leave them inheritances.

"The cognitive twist is that the recognition of kin among humans depends on environmental cues that other humans can manipulate.Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux-families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. None of this wasteful ritualizing and mythologizing would be necessary if "the group" were an elementary cognitive intuition which triggered instinctive loyalty.  Instead that loyalty is instinctively triggered by those with whom we are likely to share genes, and extended to others through various manipulations."
Read the whole rather wonderful piece here.

In the end there are only gene pools and allele frequencies. That is the bleak truth underlying modern biology. Those alleles reside in bodies like yours and mine; those alleles which survived to this point did so by making us what we are. As humans we individually survive and reproduce better by being somewhat pro-social (there is, of course, genetic variation in degree). Our feelings mediate between our genetic interests and our bodily actions, helped along by our intellectual competencies. We search for meaning in our lives because that's what we do - and and reject the answer because propagating our own genes seems .. somehow beneath us, and curiously inadequate.*

How speciesist! It works for the housefly.


* Read Stephen Pinker's essay to be persuaded that the propagation of one's genes is a more-than-sufficient scientific explanation for the most rarefied human achievements in arts, sciences and general good works. Reputation management (q. v.) is a good part of it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Liberals truly believe in the SSSM

Liberals in the American sense, that is; in the UK we tend to use the term 'Hampstead Socialist'. Here are some English liberals: Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg; the BBC is liberal, so is The Guardian; sadly, so is The Economist.

It's easy to make a list of the things liberals like: internationalism, multiculturalism, immigration, diversity .. and the things they don't: anti-drug laws, state powers of surveillance, long prison terms, war. In general, liberals tend to the politically-correct.

I'm not interested in either backing or knocking any of these things: I don't like war either, especially when it's gratuitous. In any case, my wife is liberal. Instead, I'm trying to really get to the bottom of what makes a liberal, what really is the fundamental defining quality of liberalism.

I think it's adherence to the 'blank slate' Standard Social-Science Model.

You will recall that this model proposes that human are all nurture, with no important genetic differences when it comes to physical, social, personality or cognitive traits. In this model there is an ideal to which all may/should aspire: it is the person who is intelligent, healthy, agreeable, friendly, tolerant and generally pro-social. Someone very much like a liberal in fact.

The Standard Social-Science Model is spectacularly inconsistent with both everyday observation and the relevant theories (evolution, genetics and genomics, psychometrics, anatomy, etc). So how do liberals deal with such ubiquitous empirical refutation?
  • If the unpleasant fact is small and relatively non-threatening (e.g. it happens not to be the case that everyone is of equal potential intelligence) the fact is distanced and ignored.

  • If the fact is deeply destabilising to the SSSM and has 'difficult' public policy implications (e.g. the empirical fact that the distribution of intelligence differs between ethnic groups) then this is seen as a major threat and 'repressive tolerance' kicks in (the arguments are ignored and the perpetrators are excluded from the domain of rational dispute by a distancing epithet such as 'racist' - distancing labels generally end in '-ist').
Next question. Why do liberals believe in a model which is empirically wrong - and obviously so? I think there are two reasons.
  1. Liberals believe in the SSSM not for intellectual reasons, which would be empirically refutable as discussed, but viscerally. The liberal worldview emerges from the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex. In this, liberalism is a statement of faith and not of rationality. I hate to say it, but the propensity to be liberal is actually somewhat genetic.

  2. Liberal thinking is encapsulated in Enlightenment political thinking, and in its normative social form is the underpinning for the universal franchise and liberal democracy. Après moi le déluge, they surely think. They're wrong about that, by the way, but it's certainly true that a political philosophy based on being generally nice, and having high hopes for personal development, is a big improvement on most prior political philosophies: there are worse things than Patrician Benevolence.
Believing in a Pollyanna-ish, benign and perfectible view of the human condition - and life in general - is a common failing of writers and is particularly damaging if you write science-fiction. Take David Brin, who is ferociously smart, well-connected in US technocratic circles and liberal to the core.

I have just read his door-stopper Existence. Here's an excerpt from this review.
"Starting with a series of snapshots of a world thirty years or so hence, Brin creates a picture where most of today's great threats have occurred and have been, if not overcome, then at least lived through. The seas have risen, nuclear terrorism has been perpetrated and the Yellowstone supervolcano has burped. It's a tomorrow where social and technological change have reshaped the world, and where a new social order is trying to put the brakes on progress, to end the Enlightenment. Beneath the optimism, though, there's danger. The world seems doomed to stagnation, unable to respond to any of a growing list of existential threats.

"But then an astronaut on the last space station, clearing space garbage, finds something strange — something not of this earth. And that means everything is about to change, once again.

"Brin draws on themes he's written about and discussed over much of the last decade, exploring a society shaped by ubiquitous surveillance (and equally ubiquitous sousveillance), where governments and ad hoc social media groups can use the same tools to draw their own conclusions and solve their own problems. It's the scenario he shaped in The Transparent Society, where little brother is the antidote to Big Brother (and that he elaborated on in a conversation with ZDNet earlier this year). But in Existence Brin also shows the downside of radical transparency, exploring how demagogues and propagandists can manipulate transparency to their own ends, using targeted disinformation.

"The picture Brin draws is one of a densely networked world that's easy for us to recognise. Ubiquitous augmented reality layers information on everything we see and do, and a networked society pulls together in clusters, joining together in smart mobs to interpret information and solve problems. The rich and the poor share access to an ocean of information, and understanding is the key to everything. It's also a world where machine learning and artificial intelligence have become everyday tools, and there's an uploaded rat living in the interstices of the internet.

"Of course, as in much of Brin's fiction, there's more. It's a story that travels the world, observing it through the eyes of a crusading journalist, a polemical novelist, an ageing astronaut, an aristocrat (or two) and a peasant shoresteading the ruins under a rising ocean. And as we leave the cradle there's also an answer to the Fermi Paradox, plus a tip of the hat to his popular Uplift novels."
In every fibre of his liberal being, David Brin believes that people are fundamentally friendly and nice, uplifted dolphins are friendly and nice (if a bit boisterous), aliens can be tricksy and disingenuous but Brin writes indulgently of them .. and the heartfelt message of his novel is that the universe awaits those who venture out in the spirit of friendliness and niceness.

Makes you nostalgic for the sheer malevolence of the Inhibitors!