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!

The Cybercity concept

Def. Cybercity (n). A town or city with high levels of automation and artificial intelligence designed to run and maintain itself autonomously for the benefit of its inhabitants.


The  concept of the self-maintaining city was extensively developed in twentieth century science-fiction [refs]. A typical plot-line features an automated city deserted for thousands or millions of years, which springs back into activity when the protagonists rediscover it.

In the early twenty first century the concept was elaborated into a detailed vision of a cheap 'machine system' which could 'terraform' an extended area of wilderness into a fully-formed and functional city. Visionaries imagined automated-machines digging sewage and communications tunnels, laying down foundations, erecting high-tech solar-powered houses and setting up communications networks, self-driving transport systems and shops without staff. Some thinkers imagined the main application of the cybercity concept to be that of colonizing Mars.

Realism soon set in, however. It became understood that a town or city is a number of different 'machines for living' and that each subsystem had to be treated separately. Indeed, a major issue was systems integration. It was further understood that the act of initial creation, 'breaking the ground', was fundamentally distinct from the demands of ongoing management and maintenance. And even here, full automation was not required.

Contemporary Developments

The modern theory of cybercities envisages an initial act of city-creation, relying on heavy equipment, usually remote-operated, and prefabricated structures. Once the elements of the city are in place and system-integrated, inhabitants can be allocated to their dwellings and can begin their new cybercity life.

The cybercity's management is remotely-operated. Surveillance systems are ubiquitous and a number of drone-like 'effector' systems perform tasks such as repair, transport, personal and medical care, and security. Some of these are fully-automated and operated by on-board AI systems, others are remotely operated from the cybercity control centre (which can be on a different continent), and some are hybrid.

Cybercity Economics

Cybercities deploy some of the most advanced automation and telecommunications systems currently available, and were initially deployed in first-world settings where they had a competitive advantage. The three main drivers were military bases in dangerous theatres, overspill towns in poor or run-down areas and refugee camps. As costs came down, it became possible to deploy cybercities for the first time in countries such as India, Latin America and Africa where they have had a huge impact, particularly in poor rural areas and urban slum-sprawls.

Although costs are born by that fraction of the world population which is both highly-educated and highly-paid, it is generally felt that the tax-burden is manageable, and that all alternatives are worse.

Security Issues

Where most of the inhabitants of a cybercity are relatively uneducated with poor job prospects, there are inevitably issues with gangs, criminality and violence. The cybercity approach to this problem features both carrot and stick. The stick is comprised of ubiquitous surveillance and pro-active security drones capable of apprehending an offender; the carrot features numerous diversions including VR and simulations, sports and leisure centres as well as facilities for clubs and competitions.

Prospects for the Cybercity

As automation continues to increase in capability and decrease in price, it is expected that the remaining human involvement in both building and operating cybercities will continue to decline. At first sight this would appear to create an ever-growing problem of un- and under-employment. However, with a concomitant rise in the sophistication of diversions which are inherently more interesting than work, this problem is generally felt to be manageable.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Idiocracy: a glimmer of hope

From Mike Judge’s film "Idiocracy" (2006):
 “Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. The years passed and mankind became stupider at a frightening rate. Some had high hopes that genetic engineering would correct this trend in evolution. But sadly, the greatest minds and resources were focused on conquering hair loss and prolonging erections.”
'Idiocracy' portrayed a society where the left-hand side of the bell curve (those with IQ less than 100, lack of conscientiousness, lack of impulse control, .etc, etc) had reproduced uncontrollably while those folk with the smarts hadn't bothered. In the quantitative genetics literature, this would be called truncation selection, in this case breeding for stupidity.

The results were that nothing worked. The complex infrastructure of logistics, power, water, sanitation - even keeping the streets clean - had broken down. People lived in decaying hovels and lived on scraps. The other, less obvious, feature of 'Idiocracy' was that innovation was now impossible: the extremely bright people who drive innovation either didn't exist, or lacked an infrastructure to do anything with their ideas.

The mean IQ of "Idiocracy" society was pretty low, I would guess well south of 90, but there are societies around today which are not dissimilar. Turn on the News.

Well-meaning people - which is most of us - typically have three main responses to these continuing human tragedies:
  • Hope for some unspecified 'development' which will fix things - a sadly illusory prospect.
  • Rely on a discredited neo-colonialism from outside to fix/run things (Ebola care is the latest manifestation of this).
  • Hope for future genetic engineering to increase the cognitive capabilities of these populations (as in the quote above). Good luck with that.
Yes, it looks hopeless.

You're may think I'm referring to the societies of sub-Saharan Africa but even in advanced western countries we have our areas of 'Idiocracy' - our bleak, welfare-ridden estates.

So what would an answer look like?

The low-IQ societies of today and of the past were (and in some cases, still are) equatorial hunter-gatherers, operating in a relatively non-seasonal environment, in smallish groups and mostly in the here-and-now*. In that environment they didn't experience any 'cognitive limitations' - they were adapted. We can't go back to that situation, which was hardly ideal in terms of lifestyle difficulty anyway. Besides which, the numbers are now too great and we've largely lost the ecological environment which made that lifestyle possible.

No, we have to create a simulated environment which pushes similar ecological buttons, but which operates at much higher population densities. It may sound ridiculous, but the model which comes to mind is that of a very-robust, highly-automated and free theme park.
  • The activities there would permit a variety of inter-personal relationship types including, for example, status-contests for the males (e.g. sports competitions).
  • Basic human requirements such as food, shelter, entertainment and medical care would be provided free-of-charge.
  • The mil-spec automated systems would fulfill a social role of 'slaves' - something we couldn't do with real, technically-competent people.**
I would guess we're less than a hundred years from being able to create such an effective and affordable infrastructure***. In that time we're not going to lose the many very smart people we need to create and maintain it. Let's get on with it.

* Sub-Saharan agricultural and pastoralism is fairly recent (cf the Bantu) in evolutionary terms.

** As last seen with the Romans and their Hellenic slaves.

*** You may be thinking 'zoo' but this would not be for the benefit of spectators: such a competent social environment would be pretty utopian for all of us.

LinkedIn: greedy, evil or just plain stupid?

Prof. Matt Strassler writes: (my emphasis)
I use LinkedIn sparingly, though I have found it beneficial on occasion. But one of its features is that its software is constantly asking you if you want to make LinkedIn-contact with people whom it thinks you might know. That’s understandable; LinkedIn has to make money, and information and contacts are money for them.

But there’s one LinkedIn request that you have to be careful with, in which they ask for permission to import your contacts lists and send LinkedIn invitations to make contact with every single person on that list. 

I don’t have to explain to you why this would typically be undesirable… it’s obvious. Just think of one person you’d rather not talk to, or who’d rather not hear from you, who might be down in a forgotten corner of your list of contacts.

In the old days, if you were to plan something so drastic as contacting hundreds of unrelated people on a single day about joining your professional network, you’d be discussing it on the phone or at a desk with a company representative, having a conversation. And you’d probably have to sign a piece of paper. Moreover, you’d have at least a few minutes, if not days, to consider what you’d done and change your mind.

In the modern age ... clicking is enough. But everyone knows that it is easy to misread something and click on it, or do something through accidental clicking of a touch-pad, a slip of a mouse, or a bump of a touchscreen. I don’t know which of these happened to me yesterday. In any case, in order to take an action as outlandish and irrevocable as sending blanket faux-personalized email invitations to everyone I have ever known, it is essential for a company to have a warning pop-up: “This action will send email invitations to 452 individuals. Are you sure you want to do this?” The default should be “No“, and you have to click on “Yes” for the action to go ahead.

But for LinkedIn, as I discovered yesterday, a single click is apparently all it takes, with no warning screen.  In my opinion, this is somewhere between unethical, negligent, and sneaky.

Actually let’s just call it evil.
I guess like most people on LinkedIn, I've also almost been a victim of this scam. My email-contacts list has more than a thousand entries, based on years of working in high-tech companies and as a technology consultant. I read about Prof. Strassler's disaster and thought, 'There but for the grace of God' ...

Now that I'm out of that, I think LinkedIn is just too high-risk. Goodbye, guys - you brought it on yourselves.

Friday, November 07, 2014

"What's my IQ?" (You ask yourself)

Lots of people haven't taken IQ tests, or maybe they did but their company declined to share the results. But calm yourselves: there is a way. Recall that one of the major utilities of IQ test results is that they correlate strongly with competence in occupations requiring intelligence. So naturally, you can reverse-engineer your IQ from your occupation or education, or at least establish a personal floor level.

Let's start with university. In the UK, along with many industrialised societies, something like 40% of the cohort go to university. This sets the entrance level at the 60th percentile. Looking up the value of 0.1 (corresponds to 0.6 = 0.5 + 0.1) in a normal distribution table tells us that this occurs at 0.25 standard deviations to the right of the mean. Since IQ is normed at mean = 100, standard deviation = 15, the minimum IQ to get into university these days is about 104.

Obviously if this is your IQ you're going to be doing media studies or drama, not economics, mathematics or physics. It's a floor.

Now we turn to another useful chart, this time from Steve Hsu via Lubos Motl. I reproduce part of Lubos' rather satirical post below. Steve Hsu's original data was GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) scores, which he then translated into IQ scores. The GRE are taken by most American university graduates seeking to do post-graduate study to PhD level. Anyway, here's Lubos:
"Steve Hsu has found a very interesting table with the average GRE scores computed for various concentrations. He has also defined a linear map translating the average V-Q-A scores into a more familiar IQ scale. This convention looks natural to me and I will follow his scale although it is not guaranteed that it is equally calibrated as other IQ measurements.

"Disclaimer: these cold numbers expressing typical IQ for different occupations must be interpreted very carefully. They don't necessarily imply anything. The outcome depends on the character of the question, discrimination, etc. Despite different numbers, all of us are equal. Blah blah blah. And so on.

"The results are: [A PhD student's typical IQ for this subject]

130.0 Physics
129.0 Mathematics
128.5 Computer Science
128.0 Economics
127.5 Chemical engineering
127.0 Material science
126.0 Electrical engineering
125.5 Mechanical engineering
125.0 Philosophy
124.0 Chemistry
123.0 Earth sciences
122.0 Industrial engineering
122.0 Civil engineering
121.5 Biology
120.1 English/literature
120.0 Religion/theology
119.8 Political science
119.7 History
118.0 Art history
117.7 Anthropology/archeology
116.5 Architecture
116.0 Business
115.0 Sociology
114.0 Psychology
114.0 Medicine
112.0 Communication
109.0 Education
106.0 Public administration"
Since these are graduate entry levels, they're creaming off the top end of undergraduates. So it's kind of an 'undergraduate good 2:1' floor we're seeing here. Oh, and scary & surprising about US doctors, don't you think? In the UK, the average IQ of medical students is reckoned to be 125 (page 61).

At the very top-end, Steve Hsu has observed:
"I doubt that the average among eminent scientists (averaging over all fields) is 160; probably a bit lower like 145."
Finally I draw your attention to "Smart Fraction" Theory, which examines the notion that to run a modern, complex, industrialised society requires a mass of people with (verbal) IQs greater than around 106. Our best societies today have a smart fraction just under 50% (see graph at the bottom of the linked article).

Estimating IQ from genotype

This post is a simple back of the envelope calculation based on Davide Piffer's paper as discussed in my earlier post.

First a quick reminder about opinion polls and sampling.

Opinion Polls

We assume a large population of interest and we sample n individuals (often 1,000) with a yes-no question. Something like "Are you going to vote for the Labour Party in the forthcoming election?" We want to know how likely it is that the population as a whole votes in the same proportions as found in our survey. Suppose p is the fraction of the sample-population who tell us they will vote yes (example: 0.32).

This is just the same as throwing a biased coin (Heads with probability 0.32) a thousand times and seeing how many Heads we actually get. Clearly on average we'll get 320 Heads [the mean of our sample is np]. Of more interest, however, is the standard deviation of the mean if we took sample after sample (or coin-throwing exercise after coin-throwing exercise). We would like to know the upper and lower bounds of 'yes' respondents we would get in, say, 95% of the samples we took, corresponding to +/- 1.96 standard deviations. We can be pretty confident that those bounds would play out in real life (nineteen times out of 20).

The standard deviation of a binomial distribution, which is what we have here, is √(npq) where n is the size of the sample (example, 1,000), p is the probability of the 'yes' outcome (example: 0.32) and q is the probability of the 'no' outcome (0.68 = 1-p).

The 95% confidence interval around the mean np is +/- 1.96 standard deviations - which we approximate here to 2. We also approximate p and q to 0.5 as this is the largest value of √(pq).

Plugging the numbers in, we get the 95% confidence interval as: 2 times √(0.5 x 0.5 x n) = √n.

In our running example with 1,000 people sampled (√1000 equals around 32), this tells us that the interval 320 +/- 32 will  contain the number of 'yes' answers we'll get 95% of the time. We sometime prefer to have the results as a proportion, usually written as a percentage, in which case we divide everything by n.

The mean number of 'yes' voters here is 320/1,000 = np/n = p (0.32 or 32%).

The 95% confidence interval here is 32/1,000 = n/n = 1/n  (usually described as +/- 3%).

Note that if we had sampled just 100 voters, we would have a 95% confidence interval of +/- 1/√100 = +/- 10%. We're already losing quite a bit of predictive power.

Asking just 10 people, the 95% confidence interval is 1/√10 = 0.32 = approx. 30%. So the three people who said they'd vote 'yes' .. in multiple surveys that number could dip as low as zero and as high as six. Pretty much worthless in forecasting the election.


To apply this to IQ I'm going to use the data in Davide Piffer's paper, as discussed in my earlier post - to which you may need to refer.

Looking at my own results I had 16 alleles to play with, of which 7 were 'good for intelligence'. So this is an opinion poll where I was able to survey only 16 people. Duh!

My computed allele frequency was 44% against a European average of 35.5% so I'm 8.5 percentage points up from the average.

Looking at the Chinese/Japanese figures we see an allele frequency score of 39.1% (a difference of 3.6% from the European mean) which corresponds to an IQ difference of 5 IQ points from Europeans. I'm going to assume a linear relation - an additive model.

To convert a difference of mean allele frequency to IQ difference we multiple by 5/3.6 = 1.4. So the estimate of my IQ is 8.5 * 1.4 = 12 points above the European average of 100. In my incorrigible vanity I'd like to believe that 112 is rather on the low side! What is the 95% confidence interval for this calculation?

Since n = 16, and following the path described above, the 95% confidence interval is +/- 1/√16 = 25%.

That's the allele frequency limits so my true allele frequency (of those hundreds or thousands of 'good alleles driving IQ') is probably in the range 44% +/- 25% or [19%, 69%]. To change these limits into IQ scores multiply the confidence interval of +/-25%  by 1.4 giving +/- 35 IQ points

We may be 95% confident that my IQ is in the range [77, 147].

So I guess we can be 95% confident that I'm neither extremely educationally subnormal nor Albert Einstein!

The take-home message is that we need hundreds of alleles to give us a big enough sample to get the error bounds down. The concordance of twins brought up together for IQ is around 0.86 so non-genetic factors will still prevent us getting all the way.

BTW we're just a few years from getting to that 'hundreds of IQ-affecting alleles' point, so although this is a fun exercise, reality will be along soon enough.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The genetics of intelligence - early results

Refer to text below to understand this
A somewhat overlooked paper: "Factor Analysis of Population Allele Frequencies as a Simple, Novel Method of Detecting Signals of Recent Polygenic Selection: The Example of Educational Attainment and IQ" available here.

This is how Peter Frost summarises the paper.
"We know that human intellectual capacity has risen through small incremental changes at very many genes, probably hundreds if not thousands. Have these changes been the same in all populations?

"Davide Piffer (2013) has tried to answer this question by using a small subset of these genes. He began with seven SNPs whose different alleles are associated with differences in performance on PISA or IQ tests. Then, for fifty human populations, he looked up the prevalence of each allele that seems to increase performance. Finally, for each population, he calculated the average prevalence of these alleles at all seven genes.

"The average prevalence was 39% among East Asians, 36% among Europeans, 32% among Amerindians, 24% among Melanesians and Papuan-New Guineans, and 16% among sub-Saharan Africans. The lowest scores were among San Bushmen (6%) and Mbuti Pygmies (5%). A related finding is that all but one of the alleles are specific to humans and not shared with ancestral primates.

"Yes, he was using a small subset of genes that influence intellectual capacity. But you don't need a big number to get the big picture. If you dip your hand into a barrel of differently colored jelly beans, the colors you see in your hand will match well enough what's in the barrel. In any case, if the same trend holds up with a subset of 50 or so genes, it will be hard to say it's all due to chance."
The alleles which Piffer frequency-analysed differentially code for things like:
"... the regulation of neuronal morphology in neurons, including hippocampal neurons and developing brains"

"... neuronal excitability, synaptic plasticity and feedback regulation of acetylcholine release."
Ten or so SNPs don't determine very much of a person's intelligence, which depends upon the actions of hundreds or thousands of genes as well as environmental effects. But even a small sample - if representative and correlated - can be quite predictive, as Piffer explains.
"As the effect size of each SNP is typically very low (around 0.1%), even 10 SNPs would not account for more than 1% of the variance in IQ or educational attainment scores across populations. The likely explanation for why the effect size for the 10 SNPs at a cross population level detected in this study is so high (around 80%), is that the alleles are not randomly distributed across human races, so that the combined frequency of a few alleles predicts the frequencies of many other alleles affecting the same phenotype. This inflates the correlation with the phenotype well beyond anything that would be explainable by the modest effect sizes of the examined SNPs.

"This is nothing more than the principle applied to psychometric instruments, such as IQ tests or personality scales, where a handful of items produce a reliable score, precisely because these items represent an underlying, latent factor and are thus correlated among each other. Even reliable psychometric scales are usually composed of around 10 items, equal to the number of SNPs examined in the present study, which in turn showed good internal reliability (Cronbach’s α= 0.84).

"A model based on random evolution or genetic drift alone cannot account for such a pattern."
The particular SNPs used in the study are listed in the tables at the back of the paper. I was naturally interested in checking which of these SNPs are analysed by 23andMe. It turns out that about half are. So in the graphic above you see the 'good for intelligence' SNPs in the first column, the gene name (where available) in the second and the chromosome it's on (from 23andMe) in the third. The fourth column is the specific nucleotide which marks this as a 'good-for-intelligence' allele, and the fifth is the database where the source-data came from (refer to the paper for details). The final column is my own genotype at these alleles, as downloaded from 23andMe.

Here is an Excel workbook for you to try yourself. Hint: download your 23andMe results and load into an Excel spreadsheet; then search on the rs SNP identifiers.

There are sixteen alleles (2 x 8) which are both 'good' and available from 23andMe. Of these 16, you will see that I have 7 'good' ones, so my personal 'frequency' is 7/16 = 0.44. This sounds terrible, but in fact the European average frequency for these 'good alleles' is 35.5% and the East Asian (Chinese, Japanese) average frequency is 39.1. This number of alleles is too small to be a good estimator of anyone's overall IQ though.

The message of Piffer's paper is that, as humans radiated out of Africa, a rising tide of natural selection drove novel alleles coding for increased intelligence to higher and higher population frequencies. This emerges clearly from the  SNPs analysed in the paper, and is by hypothesis true for the rest too. It appears that selection for higher intelligence has been more, rather than less, intense over the last 10,000 years - possibly reflecting the cognitive demands of agrarian, pastoral and yet more complex modern civilisations.

More to come, undoubtedly as the larger scale GWAS studies begin to deliver.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

A garden saga

We saw our first woodpecker this morning, on the sunflower hearts ... and then,

A hungry Mr Squirrel eventually climbed down onto the very same sunflower-heart feeder, which promptly collapsed under his weight and fell into the bushes ... as did he.

Sunday, November 02, 2014


War Dogs by Greg Bear. First of a new trilogy. Tired rip-off of Starship Troopers lacking ideas, authorial engagement and sadly, even much action.

Love Anthony by Lisa Geneva. Her third book (remember Still Alice?). She claims this is her first proper novel. Actually it's a superficial examination of humdrum and conventional setbacks in the lives of two middle-class female literary types. Plus her somewhat clunky, sentimental and rather tedious theory of what it's like to be autistic.

Dominic Cummings' blog. Frankly self-serving account of his time as Michael Gove's spad at the Department of Education. Cummings is somewhat familiar with scientific culture: he knows some stats, a bit of quantum theory, some economics, evolution, genetics and psychometrics. Amongst politicians and civil servants this makes him the one-eyed man blah blah. Sadly, he is of the opinion that this makes people like him better candidates to rule us. Even though he states it himself, he hasn't noticed that successful political leadership is not founded on expertise in formal systems and that the political track record of brilliant academics is abysmal.