Thursday, December 31, 2015

The limits to intelligence

There's an old saying: if you want to know how smart someone is, don't ask them about things they're familiar with; give them a problem with which they are unfamiliar .. and see how they cope.

Actually, intelligence is implicated in both procedures, but not equally.

In the first case answering requires deduction within a framework already established. The problem solving process proceeds by deduction (whose results may already have been memorised). Another old saying: the expert doesn't have to think because they know.

If someone is a quick thinker or has encompassing knowledge then we're impressed. But it's hard to gauge whether we're seeing quick wits or the consequences of long experience: fluid vs. crystallised intelligence. The former is more associated with high IQ.

The second case, where the problem is unfamiliar, calls for a different kind of cognitive process - abduction. Concepts which at first sight may appear to be unrelated to the problem need to be brought into play, to transform the paradigm into something which can then be successfully addressed by deduction (in truth both processes intertwine). Raw intelligence is much more apparent in searching a space of general concepts to see which might turn out to be useful. Still, those concepts must have been learned in the first place. Perhaps that's why the truly intelligent are curious about everything.

Here's an example from this website (there are more puzzles there).
You are driving down the road in your car on a wild, stormy night, when you pass by a bus stop and you see three people waiting for the bus:

1. An old lady who looks as if she is about to die.
2. An old friend who once saved your life.
3. The perfect partner you have been dreaming about.

Knowing that there can only be one passenger in your car, whom would you choose?
If you're like me, you'll think about this for a while, mulling over the three alternatives - none of which seem particularly compelling - before plumping for the altruistic but unsatisfactory solution of the old lady.

And that's where deductive logic gets you. Using abductive logic there's a much better solution, as shown in this diagram.

Modelled after a semantic net (hand-waving as to how a machine intelligence might do it) we introduce a new concept - that nothing says you have to stay in the car yourself. Then (assuming the old friend is amenable and can drive, both of which are plausible) everyone gets to be happy.
Solution: The old lady of course! After helping the old lady into the car, you can give your keys to your friend, and wait with your perfect partner for the bus
Suppose we were confronted by a super-intelligent entity. I suggest that the content of its super-intelligence is that it has superior powers of deduction (ie it can quickly search and rate a large tree of relevant consequences) and it has enhanced powers of abduction (ie it has a large and well-attributed set of concepts about all kinds of things which it can rapidly search and grade for relevance to the problem at hand, thus effecting a paradigm-transformation, a reframing of the problem).

Such an entity wouldn't just be impressive, it would be awesome. It would be impossible to predict because it would keep moving the goalposts. How unsettling is that?

How could you defeat such an entity? Put it into a situation where no amount of reframing the problem (which occurs in conceptual space, not material reality) can be mapped back into effective action. A genius, thrown into a prison cell which is then locked and the key thrown away, may find escape impossibly difficult.*

* Watch out for repurposable implements, jailers susceptible to compelling propositions and pre-prepared allies.


Talking of entities which keep reframing the plot so that you never know what's happening next, may I recommend to you the ridiculously exciting and 'possibly bonkers' SF thriller, The Breach' by Patrick Lee.


This morning's addition to our front garden menagerie

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Immortality Ltd

My new business venture.

"Good morning, sir.

"Once you have signed up we take your DNA sample - saliva or a cheek swab will do the trick. We'll hold off on the full genome sequencing as long as possible - you know, costs are coming down and accuracy's getting better all the time.

"Now let me explain the basic service.

"Our trained interviewers will help put together a detailed biography of your life. Any of your photos and videos plus supporting documentation will be invaluable here. Going forwards, it would be helpful if, from now on, you could keep a detailed diary - even better would be a blog. My own would be an example - oh yes, we do eat our own dog food here.

"Now when the time comes, we will need to see a death certificate, for legal reasons. Then we can take your stored cells and started the cloning process. We choose the foster parents to replicate the kind of idealised childhood you would wish to have had. We can reassure you that given basic standards of care, the correlation between parental environment and life outcome is essentially zero. So it's not too critical.

"As you grow and develop, our company will use the biographical material I mentioned to systematically brief you on your previous life."


"Yes, sir, that's the life you're living at this moment. As your future self grows up, he will absorb your biography as part of his education. You have heard about so-called false-memory syndrome? Well, consider this a benign case. Your future self will gradually remember being you in this life.

"And in the much more remote future? Well, we can do it all over again. And again."


"You ask about the special services? As you know, we all have a couple of recessive lethal mutations. These can be snipped out. We can remove genetic disease traits if sequencing shows you to have them. And we can tweak the quantitative traits. Sir might wish to be a little more intelligent, a little taller or stronger, perhaps a shade more attractive? And if you find certain aspects of your personality slightly irksome, well, something can be done about that."


"You ask, will you still be you? As you know, we all change a bit over our lifetimes, and provided we keep your genome edits within the normal range we're talking about a better you, not a different person. As I said, these are optional services and we do charge a fee, but nevertheless we find them popular. Our customers seem to want that extra edge for their future selves.

"And now sir, if I could draw your attention to the contract we have here, ready for your signature?"


What do you think? Angel investors or crowdfunding? Should I offer a discount for a husband-and-wife family plan?


Steve Hsu had a not-dissimilar post for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The implacable state; Autonomous AI; 23andMe as a family investment

I was reduced to helpless, incandescent fury this morning by the unexpected arrival of a speeding ticket. I had been caught on camera on the way to my mother's funeral on Monday, Dec 21st 2015. I have applied for the driving awareness course option and will let you know in due course how it went, if accepted.

I visualise the Speed Enforcement Unit putting this together, chuckling as they did so.

Turns out I was doing 35 mph in a 30 mph section of the A-road at Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol. Once my head-banging, visceral anger had subsided (a trip to the gym helped considerably) I found the list above of more or less lame excuses (none of which work) quite amusing.


Robin Hanson has an interesting piece about a newish book, 'Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy' by Prof. David Mindell at MIT. The book argues:
"If robotics in extreme environments are any guide, Mindell says, self-driving cars should not be fully self-driving. That idea, he notes, is belied by decades of examples involving spacecraft, underwater exploration, air travel, and more. In each of those spheres, fully automated vehicles have frequently been promised, yet the most state-of-the-art products still have a driver or pilot somewhere in the network. This is one reason Mindell thinks cars are not on the road to complete automation.

“That’s just proven to be a loser of an approach in a lot of other domains,” Mindell says. “I’m not arguing this from first principles. There are 40 years’ worth of examples.”
As someone who is interested in AI and its impact on the automation of everyday tasks, I promptly bought the book (Kindle) and will let you know how compelling I think his arguments are. After my speeding ticket I am thinking wistfully - and defensively - about Google cars. How does anyone drive on a regular basis in the UK without collecting 12 points in short order and losing their licence?


In August 2014 I persuaded my mother to donate a spit sample to 23andMe. Eventually I was able to show her the report plus the much more detailed information from Promethease. My mother had no technical interests and in particular no background in genetics. Nevertheless she read all the material in the folder with close attention for half an hour and then took possession of it, refusing to allow its contents to be shared with anyone else, even close family.

I think there was a little bit of magical thinking here, as the information was in no way earth-shattering. However, the reason I signed her up was in anticipation of a future where 23andMe provide a full genome description and we actually know what it means. It's a family history gift to future generations. I might have mentioned to her that we could clone her from this data, bring her back memoryless, but I doubt she took it on board!

My father unfortunately died in 2009, before 23andMe got into business. I have some of his personal effects in storage anticipating future DNA profiling ... .

On an adjacent topic, it's interesting to see the latest genomic news on the ancestry of the Irish. Razib Khan has an in-depth discussion.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Emergent spacetime: a review of George Musser's book

George Musser is profoundly disserved by his book’s cover. Featuring garish colours, a clichéd title and fatuous sub-title, it is easy to assume that this is a sensationalist popularisation for dummies. You could not be further from the truth. George Musser is a contributing editor for Scientific American and the author of ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory’ – he has interviewed the world’s leading physicists and produced a wonderfully clear account of how our familiar spacetime might be emergent (Amazon link).

He starts with the classic experiment: produce two photons in correlated polarisation states. Set them going in opposite directions. If the polarisation of one photon is measured, its value instantly determines the polarisation state of the other, no matter how far away it has flown. This is quantum non-locality and it tells us that something is wrong with our understanding of spacetime as a smooth continuum with light cones determining cause and effect.

Physicists tend to hate this kind of observation. Given that quantum theory itself defies any straightforward interpretation as a theory of ‘reality’ it seems that non-locality is just one more piece of ontological weirdness. Better to shut up and calculate: we know the theory work incredibly well and we know how to interpret the answers (as probabilities).

The sense that ‘reality’ is real and should make sense in its own terms is a powerful intuition. It has frequently been use to highlight conceptual weaknesses in otherwise successful theories. Musser recounts just how much trouble Newton’s contemporaries (and Newton himself) had with the apparently infinite speed of gravity in his theory – this is also a kind of non-locality. It was nineteenth century field theories (Faraday, Maxwell) followed by General Relativity which (briefly) restored locality to physics.

Quantum non-locality is something else. Musser writes (p. 125), “Instead of thinking of quantum non-locality as an effect which operates within space, I think we need to take it as a sign that space itself is a doomed concept.”  What would a theory of emergent spacetime look like? There are a number of ideas; naturally none are fully worked out.

Fay Dowker talks about causal sets - space is built out of discrete units, ordered in a complex network whose structure creates space. Fotini Markopoulou has a similar networked theory of ‘atomic grains of space’ in an approach punningly-termed quantum graphity; the link density is determined by the available energy, from which emerges space as we know it. String theory has a model of emergent-space based on matrix models: the matrices catalogue the web of interactions between D0-branes, dimension zero building blocks of space. Leonard Susskind is associated with this line of research.

Musser explains these various theories in some detail, as best he can, describing their applications to black hole modelling and the early universe. AdS/CFT makes its obligatory appearance with yet another brave attempt to explain the holographic principle. But these diverse approaches deal mainly in space, treating time asymmetrically.

The book finishes with the Amplituhedron. Built on the foundations of S-matrix theory and twisters with a dash of string theory, the amplituhedron is a geometric structure used for calculating transition probabilities for particle interactions. Each particle contributes a polyhedron vertex with its momentum setting the size of the corresponding polyhedral face. The interior volume gives the resulting amplitude.
‘“There are no fields, no particles, no interactions,” Trnka says. The locality we observe in daily life is a consequence of the way the faces fit together – specifically that they form a closed shape, as opposed to disconnected planes.’
I don’t think the reader is expected to fully grasp this.

The idea that the 13.8 billion light year observable universe is an emergent artefact of an underlying non-spatial non-temporal quantum reality is surely the most mind-blowing concept of modern physics. Yet there are excellent reasons for taking it seriously. George Musser has written a clear, accessible and intelligent review of how this might be possible – it’s as near as most of us are ever going to get to understanding it – and he is to be congratulated.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Gospel according to Trump

A seasonal thought from Morten Morland, cartoonist at The Times.

Seems to me that Trump is not the hard thing to explain. It's regular politics that's hard. After all, if you perceive a problem and you have the power to fix it, why not just do it? As Stalin observed, "No man, no problem."

It's not like Trump's white, non-elite base don't have a bunch of well-telegraphed problems ranging from economic stagnation, cultural imposition and deprecated patriotism. Many other countries have Trump-like leaders - they are, however, countries which by and large can't get themselves together, limiting their potential for collateral damage.

America not so much.

Trump isn't remotely a fascist, but his aggressive tribalism is not dissimilar to the rhetoric of the Führer in the thirties. The bourgeoisie swung behind Hitler when all alternatives to resolving Germany's economic, political and social crisis were exhausted - they mistakenly believed they could, in the end, control him.

I doubt the American bourgeoisie hasn't learned that lesson.

Beryl Seel: Some memories of my early life

My mother, Beryl Joan Seel (née Porter) wrote the following in 2004. The text was read out at her funeral at Canford Crematorium on Monday, December 21st 2015.

Beryl Seel

                                       Some memories of my early life 

                                            by Beryl Seel (née Porter)

I was born on February 11th 1923 at a Nursing Home in Brunswick Square, St Paul’s, Bristol.

I was my parents’ second child, their first born son Raymond Richard was born September 4th 1921, he unfortunately suffered from encephalitis; his condition was never explained or talked about in front of me. Gordon Alexander followed on October 30th 1925.

We lived and were brought up at 14 William Street, St Paul’s until the day I married.

I was a very shy child and was quite scared of my mother who believed “children should be seen and not heard.” My father was a lovely man but mother dominated him as well.

Granny and Granddad Hewlett, mother’s parents lived with us and I spent a lot of my time in Granny’s room, they were a delightful couple and I felt very relaxed in their company. Before she married, Aunty Daisy (mother’s sister) lived with us, she was great fun.

Granny was loved by every-one and was always being called out to help neighbours with problems, she had no medical training but she diagnosed all the children’s rashes, was sent for when a death occurred in a family, and once cut down a neighbour who had hung himself. When I reached my teens she would take me with her, but only to the minor incidents!

The three of us children went to St. Barnabas School. At every playtime I had to look after Ray because school staff would not be held responsible if he should fall and hurt himself.

I became a Brownie as soon as I was old enough and was very proud of the badges I earned, sewing each one on my sleeve as I was awarded them. I then moved on to the Girl Guides and soon became a Patrol Leader, When the Brownie Tawny Owl left to get married I was asked if I would take her place, I spent many happy years helping to train the young Brownies.

I loved sport and played in the Netball and American Ball team, I was also in the swimming team travelling to other schools to take part in Galas. I gained my Bronze Medal at 13 yrs of age, and was mentioned in the local paper for dragging a stupid non-swimmer out of the pool, she had jumped off the spring board.
I was 16 yrs old when war was declared, I clearly remember that Sunday morning waiting for the Prime Minister’s announcement. There was Mother, Father, Granny, Granddad, Ray, Gord, Uncle Will, Uncle Ted, Basil (my cousin) and me, all eyes glued on the radio. The adults muttered things like “That’s it then” and “Oh God! Here we go again.” They all remembered the first war.

Dad was appointed Deputy Chief Warden, we had a telephone installed, and I went around with him when he fitted baby type gas masks. We started a shelter in the crypt at our Church and gave out refreshments during Air Raids. People came to the shelter every night to start with, but with no aircraft activity everyone went back to their normal way of life. Things started to change when the German planes were over Bristol bombing on a regular basis; we had our windows blown out. I remember Ray refusing to get out of bed during air-raids and worrying us sick. One bomb went through the church roof to the crypt, we had to evacuate everyone and take them to surface shelters but some lives were lost in the rubble, some were my friends.

The Wardens Post and our house were always full of activity and we had some dishy Messenger Boys coming and going. Gordon, my younger brother joined them, so my social life improved. Although black-outs and air-raids dominated the early 1940s we went dancing in a group and enjoyed ourselves, and one Messenger lad, in later years, became my husband.

I was due to be called up at 18 yrs, but mother said I should join the local Fire Service which would make me exempt from being called up for the Armed Forces. Dad had to contact the Fire Service to enroll me as a volunteer.  I hated it and was quite shocked at the goings-on; I was so innocent then, what a sheltered life I had led!

Meanwhile, my best friend Doreen Oliver, who I had met when I joined the firm of Printers and Bookbinders called J. W Arrowsmith at the age of 14 yrs, decided we would join the Women’s Forces. She was born the year before me and would be called up on her 18th birthday so we decided we would volunteer for the WAAF so that we could stay together. Mother was horrified and said NO!!! She persuaded Doreen and me to take the option of working in an Aircraft Factory first, then if we didn’t like it we could transfer to the forces.

We reluctantly agreed and after 6 months in an underground aircraft factory at Corsham, near Bath, the Government changed the system we couldn’t transfer. Doreen and I spent almost 4 yrs doing 12 hour weekly alternating shifts, day and night underground, and hating every minute of it.

We arrived for night shift one Friday to find that the “powers that be” had decided to close the factory down as the aircraft engines consistently blew up on testing. We were all ecstatic; no work was done that night.

Doreen and I immediately contacted our old boss at Arrowsmiths who then applied for our release, so we were out in no time. It was absolute heaven living a normal life again, going to the cinema, theatre, and dancing, especially when the boys came home on leave

My Messenger boy friend  joined the Army on the 8th of January 1943 we wrote to each other practically every day and we became engaged on my 23rd birthday. Mother wasn’t at all happy with the news, as I had not told her of our plans, I knew she would nag and put obstacles in our way, which she did. Anyway, Fred was told he must provide decent accommodation and new furniture for her daughter and we shouldn’t marry until he was demobbed.

Accommodation was very hard to find in those days and furniture, furnishings, and clothes were all on coupons so it took a couple of years to get everything organized We found two nice rooms in Campbell St for the first year, then moved into a flat in a house bought by a friend of Dad for his newly married son, that was in Richmond Road, St Andrews.

Our eldest son Nigel was born while we were living at the flat and our second son Adrian followed two years later.

We then moved to a house in Henbury, where in 1956 our daughter Elaine was born, our happy family was now complete.

The children were a great joy to us, we had some good times, also infuriating teen-age times.

We are very proud of our three children. Nigel worked hard and passed his 11 plus exam for a place at Bristol Grammar School, then to Warwick University.

Adrian qualified as a Registered Mental Nurse at Glenside Hospital then moved on to Bristol General Hospital, finally he went to Barrow Hospital where an accident resulted in a hip injury, preventing him from continuing his nursing career.

Elaine went off to Guys Hospital, London and trained as a Nurse; after qualifying she moved to Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon.

We had quite a few road traffic accidents outside our house because of the bend in the road; I did my best with my Girl Guides First Aid knowledge, but realized I was out of date. So I joined the Red Cross to get up to date. That was 1960, and I remained a member for 34 yrs, I qualified in First Aid, Nursing, Mental Health, Psychology and Physiology. I spent many hours on duty, met a lot of people, and when Fred joined a few years later he took over the Henbury Detachment and organized First Aid Courses for the general public. I moved over to the young cadets and trained them in Nursing and First Aid, many of them went on to become nurses. In 1993 Fred and I were each awarded the Badge of Honour for our work in the Red Cross.

One day in 1966, I was asked by a friend if I would like a part-time job. I knew she worked at the school for deaf children and wondered how I would cope. Anyhow I went along to see the Headmaster, he told me he was aware of my Red Cross training and would be happy if I would accept the position of Classroom Assistant with responsibility for medical room duties. I was very happy working at the school and stayed until I retired 21 yrs later. I had a great party with loads of presents from children and staff, and still keep in touch with them.

We have been blessed with 7 delightful grandchildren; Nigel and his wife Clare have two sons, Alex and Adrian. Adrian and his wife Anne also have two sons, Matthew and Simon. Elaine and Michael have two daughters and a son, Jennifer, Sarah and Christopher.


Here is my mother's diary of their ill-fated cruise on the Saga Rose.


Here are some of the many blog posts featuring my mother in her later years


Saturday, December 26, 2015

The exceptional Christmas Cake and the iPad novice

My post 'Zena Skinner's Christmas Cake recipe' has now had 235 views. We are consuming Clare's version - absolutely delicious - and I have been instructed to tell you that the fruit spread thickly and evenly throughout the cake, as it was meant to, with no sinkage.


Back in October 2012 my mother had just taken possession of a new iPad but was struggling to get it to work. Naturally, we were all keen to help her, particularly with the video camera. So that's Elaine, myself, Alex and Adrian; one of us is rather shy. And I am the first to admit I am no Lars von Trier.

My mother died on December 3rd 2015, aged 92, after a long illness. She is fondly remembered.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Links

Two million YouTubers can't be wrong .. Happy Holidays!


Chinese is hard.
"At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn't yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn't read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People's Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline."
Read David Moser's (University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies) scintillating essay, "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard" - even for the Chinese themselves.


Stairs. Such a long trudge forward to get any height .. but wait, Jess Riedel explains that 'alternating tread stairs allow for extremely steep stairs without making the tops of each step too short.'

Take a look at this diagram - the alternating tread stairs are in green - so what's going on?

Alternating tread stairs in green: get upstairs fast. But how does it work? 

Also from Jess Riedel. Alex and I watched this all the way through. If you want to go to Mars you'd better have plenty of delta-v, so big engines. Designing those calls for state-of-the-art computational fluid dynamics.

Great videos of their combustion chamber simulations and re-entry vehicle flows:- from SpaceX.


As I write, Clare and Alex have just departed for Midnight Mass. Have a good Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Christmas Badger and other stories

Remember all those badgers we saw in our garden earlier this year? I really thought the badgers were gone, driven out by culling and teams of tooled-up Hedgehogs looking for payback.

And then, two days ago, this.


Amidst all the hype about the second coming of Deep Learning AI propelled by Google, Facebook, Baidu, IBM and Microsoft, Randall Munroe at xkcd nails it.

You can point your multi-tiered artificial neural net at vast datasets too large to imagine .. your system can induce optimal concepts to its heart's content on zillions of parallel graphics chips .. and still it will have no common sense.

Please, people, do not trust your life to our new AI overlords!


We have Alex staying with us. Last night we ran the BBC Proms programme (stashed way too long on our Sky Box hard drive) featuring Sir András Schiff playing the Goldberg Variations. Seventy five minutes of virtuoso technique and total commitment.

Alex complained of 'lack of musicality' at intervals, to the alleged advantage of Glenn Gould.

Today we reverted to type at M&S Frome where we stocked up on Christmas goodies.

Alex and Clare: the profiterole mountain is yet to come ..
Not long now!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Wind is in from Africa

Isn't this one of Joni Mitchell's best songs?

The wind truly is in from Africa at the moment. We're sleeping just fine and marvelling at the mild weather.

And Carey?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Windows 10 ships with a keylogger turned on

Not being paranoid but this latest from Peter Watts sent me off to Google .. and this:
"Last fall, I discussed the keylogger that Microsoft openly put into the Windows 10 Technical Preview. The company admitted that “we may collect voice information” and “typed characters.” At the time I defended Microsoft, pointing out that the Preview was “intended for testing, not day-to-day use,” and that Microsoft recommended against installing the Preview on a computer with sensitive files. I said that “I seriously doubt that the worst spyware features will remain in the finished product.”

"I was wrong.

"Microsoft pretty much admits it has a keylogger in its Windows 10 speech, inking, typing, and privacy FAQ: “When you interact with your Windows device by speaking, writing (handwriting), or typing, Microsoft collects speech, inking, and typing information—including information about your Calendar and People (also known as contacts)…”

"If that makes you feel creepy, welcome to the human race."
The text continues with instructions as to how to turn the keylogger/microphone monitoring off.

I have done so.


I though exoskeletons had to be powered (and therein lies the problem - batteries!) but apparently not always so.

From The Economist.

Friday, December 18, 2015

'The Law' as a field theory

When I was thirteen I stumbled upon an interesting paradox: the law applies continuously but is enforced discretely*. I wondered whether technology (AI 'cops' implanted in the brain at birth, or ubiquitous surveillance?) would bridge the difference, make 'the law' act more like gravity.

My mistake was excessive reification. Later, under the influence of Marxism, I realised that the 'law' is a useful conceptual fiction, a social abstraction. What it really denotes is a codified set of intentions, contrived by elites documenting how they require society to be regulated. The extent of the law is identified by the set of people who can be coerced into abiding by it - geography is secondary.

(This is not to deny that social protocols are needed to make any society work, and that often, or even usually in a democracy, most laws run with the grain of popular compliance.)

Internal colonies with different norms such as Sharia stand like islands above the 'pervasive legal field', creating holes. Do we enforce our own laws there or allow cultural autonomy to have its legal head?

No straightforward solution presents itself and if you're looking for a strategy, don't bother asking those high-priests of reification, the lawyers.


* I was reminded of this youthful thought reading George Musser's excellent book about non-locality, entanglement and emergent spacetime. More on that later.


Further reading. Kafka: 'Before the Law' (from 'The Trial') (Wikipedia).

Thursday, December 17, 2015

In which I sign up with the PGP

Back in September 2014, I tried to sign up with the Personal Genome Project, based at UCL in its UK incarnation (Harvard Medical School in the States). Sadly, this proved so popular that admissions had closed by the time I tried. But now they're open again and I've signed up!

It's a process which selects for both intelligence and perseverance. An online exam has to be passed testing your understanding of their ethics policy, the risks and dangers as well as your basic understanding of genetics. The whole thing took me an hour and a half.

They try to scare you off:
"Unanticipated uses of your data and cell lines

"The list of potential uses of your data and cell lines by other individuals is diverse and sometimes worrisome. The benefit of these things is that other researchers will use them in their own work, greatly facilitating the process of scientific research. Other researchers might also create their own interpretations of your genetic data -- and these could make incorrect claims regarding your predisposition to traits and diseases that we cannot control.

"Someone might match your public data against other genetic databases to find matches for yourself or relatives - this includes criminal and forensic DNA fingerprinting databases as well as other genetic research studies.

"More nefarious uses are also possible, if unlikely. DNA is commonly used to identify individuals in criminal investigations. Someone could plant samples of DNA, created from genome data or cell lines, to falsely implicate you in a crime.

"It’s currently science fiction -- but it’s possible that someone could use your DNA or cells for in vitro fertilization to create children without your knowledge or permission, or to create human clones."
Anyway, I'm good with all that.

Hopefully the UCL process will now run and at some point I will be asked to provide a DNA sample.
"You may be invited to provide additional tissues or other specimens as approved by the study and the UCL REC ...

"Description of certain specimen sample collection procedures:

"(i) A skin punch biopsy (about 3–4 mm in diameter) is collected from the underside of the upper arm or hip and requires local anaesthesia. Anaesthetic cream is applied and covered with a bandage for 45–60 minutes then wiped off and swabbed with alcohol to sterilise the area. Then a 3‒4 mm skin biopsy is obtained. A bandage and antibiotic ointment is applied.
"The ... skin biopsy may involve pain, bleeding and/or fainting, and may also cause temporary bruising and/or infection at the site of puncture. Some degree of permanent scarring can be expected from the skin biopsy procedure."
Under 'Benefits' the documentation states:
"ARTICLE VII: Benefits

"7.1 No benefits to you

"You are not likely to benefit in any way as a result of your participation in the PGP-UK."
So cool.

Me at the gym vs. Chris Froome

My post "Burning it up at the gym" noted that Chris Froome averaged 414 watts on his breakthrough climb in the 2015 Tour de France. The aerobic machines at the gym show Calorie counts, but taken at face value and converting kcals/hr to watts I seem to be generating more than 800 watts during aerobic exercises!

Dream on!

This afternoon I used the Rowing Machine in power-meter mode. Here are the results.

  • Protocol: five minutes: three @ one-minute hi-intensity + two one-minute recovery periods.

  • Distance covered: 1,100 metres.

  • Average power: 147 watts

  • Average power during hi-intensity: 210 watts

  • Absolute highest power: 265 watts momentarily.

I'm put in my place: I develop about half the power of Chris Froome during a sustained climb.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

All hail our affably-evil overlords!

We, the people, often fall short of the ideals of our liberally-minded rulers. In the future they will look to genome editing to fix that (as Bertolt Brecht already intimated when I was two). Stephen Michael Stirling in the Draka books and Ken MacLeod in 'Intrusion' have already been there.

The UK - proud to be part of The Domination

The Draka series is right up there with Brave New World and 1984 when it comes to real scary futures. What makes the Draka so insidious is that  - like our own elites - they're actually quite pleasant from their own point of view, even admirable.

And so we get to the concept of the 'affably evil':
"Gwendolyn Ingolffsen, the eponymous villainess of S. M. Stirling's Drakon, is quite nice and friendly for a member of a genetically-engineered master race who is attempting to reduce the whole human race of the parallel Earth she find herself stranded on to eternal slavery and degradation. She sees it as merely a necessary "taming" of "ferals".

"There are hints in the story (and others in the series) that she's actually quite mellow for a member of her species. In fact, all Draka are like this. As long as you accept that they're superior to you in every way and do what you're ordered to do, they'll treat you like a favourite pet.

"Cross them, though, and you'll end up with a four foot spike up you, as they point out to you how it didn't have to be like this, if only you'd obeyed without question. The ones who aren't like this end up in the Security Directorate. They'll stake a few of you at random just to show what you can expect."
Should we be scared that in thirty years time all newborns will have already been genetically-tweaked for pro-sociality: a little more pleasant, a little less aggressive; a little more conscientious, a little less impulsive? Perhaps dial down the intelligence slightly for the masses - they're less-trouble happier that way?

I'm already there: I'm glad I'm a Beta*.


"Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able …"

You know the reference.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Burning it up at the gym

A little while ago my sister asked me how many Calories I burned in my hour-long gym session. After a bit of totting up and estimating, I guessed around 600 kilocalories.

Recently Team Sky released power data for Chris Froome on the climb to La-Pierre-Saint-Martin, the decisive stage 10 of the 2015 Tour de France.
“It’s about a 15.3 km climb,” said Kerrison. “Around 41.30 [in duration]. Chris’s average for the whole climb was 414w,"
My '600 Calories over an hour' equates to 700 watts sustained. Gosh, I'm better than Chris Froome!


Time for a more accurate estimate. The aerobic machines give a semi-accurate account of Calories burned, but the resistance machines are more problematic. I spend 22 minutes aerobically exercising and around 28 minutes on the resistance machines and was assuming roughly equal energy expenditure.

But Lance Armstrong's former website begs to disagree:
"The exact number of calories burned during strength training workouts depends on intensity, time and your body composition. According to the Harvard Medical School, on average, caloric burn ranges from 90 calories per hour of moderate training by a 125-pound person to up to 266 calories per hour of vigorous effort by a 185-pound person."
I'm 70 kg = 154 pounds, and I think I'm doing vigorous exercise. On that basis, and scaling, I'm burning only 90 Calories on strength training.


So, putting it all together (and adding a minute recovery time after each hard exercise):
  • Cross-trainer: 80 Calories (five minutes: 2 x 90 secs hi-intensity)
  • Rowing machine: 68 Calories (five minutes: 3 x 60 secs hi-intensity)
  • Bike: 58 Calories (five minutes: 3 x 60 secs hi-intensity)
  • Treadmill: 44 Calories (4 minute warm-down at the end on 10%, ~6 km/hr).
My aerobic total = 250 Calories in 22 minutes - average power of 870 watts (no way!). *

About half the time on the first three machines is high-intensity but the average power overall seems way too high. Still, the Calorie estimate is not out of line with this LiveStrong estimate.

According to this website, averagely-fit people can produce sustained power at 3 watts/kg, which for me means 210 watts, with shorter-duration power 30% higher, say 280 watts (240 kcal/hr).

Perhaps I'm not burning as many Calories aerobically as I think I am!

Now add in the 90 Calories from resistance training (which over 28 minutes gives an average power of 200 watts - sounds about right).

So my grand total is at most 340 calories burned at the gym.

That's breakfast accounted for.


*  See this update.

Monday, December 14, 2015

"Armed Insurrection"

People often complain that Marx, Engels and Lenin had little to say about Communism - what would this utopian society be like? As a revolutionary marxist in my early twenties, I was more interested in the practical business of the prior overthrow of capitalism.

I read about the great controversies in the Second International: those who argued for a peaceful road to socialism exploiting bourgeois democracy vs. those like Lenin who said that you might win the government but the state would fight back. Lenin proved his point in the October Revolution in Russia and later, to my excitement, I discovered that the Third International, the Comintern, had written this practical manual. See also this review.

Sadly, I could never afford it.

I was reminded of all this watching the main-stream media (MSM) reacting to Jeremy Corbyn and Marine Le Pen .. and to a lesser extent, Donald Trump ('Muslims') and Tyson Fury.

When faced with challenging opinions outside the liberal orthodoxy, my former trotskyist self would argue that the bourgeoisie goes through five stages:

  1. Ignore them*
  2. Attempt to ridicule them
  3. Threaten them with civil war
  4. Sabotage them
  5. Deploy the military in a coup.

We already saw an endless series of stupid gibes at Corbyn. Today it's the turn of Marine le Pen's Front national to be ridiculed for only getting 40% of the vote (more than UK election winners generally achieve) and losing in the face of a manoeuvre by the French establishment parties, the Socialists and Republicans.

It's telling that the intellectual case for bien-pensant capitalism is apparently so weak that the battle of ideas can't be won on a level playing field. That's what comes of denying reality I suppose - or maybe we should elect genetically-engineer a new people.

The Draka got there first, with Homo Servus. **


* See also 'Repressive Tolerance'.

** On this topic see Ken Macleod's good-to-middling novel 'Intrusion'.

In which the vole traverses a CTC (Vole #4)

So here's the story so far.

On Friday morning (Dec 11th) at around 5.30 am the BadgerCam first sees the vole waltzing around our kitchen. Clare moves furniture, mops floors and leaves doors open - we hope it has escaped.

Saturday morning at 4 am the revitalised BadgerCam catches the vole again, brazen as ever. We dig out the trap-refuge and bait it.

Saturday night at 10.33 pm the trap has worked! We video the vole and it is released outside the house. I set up the BadgerCam once again, expecting nothing but languid cat pictures.

Sunday morning at 5.05 am, the camera shows the (selfsame?) vole skating around the kitchen again, followed an hour later by the cat taking an early morning stroll.


So last night (Sunday) the trap-refuge was baited again with delicious bread-and-butter, and scraps of date. The camera was again set.

This morning? One video of the cat checking out its reflection in the cat-flap cover at 6 am, no skating vole, the vole-trap empty and untouched.


Our best scientific theory suggests that the vole executed a 'closed timelike curve' in our kitchen at around 5.30 am Sunday morning, shortly after being videoed for the last time. It was then whisked backwards in time to 10.30 Saturday night, at which point it entered the vole-trap and was duly captured, videoed and released outside.

If this theory is correct, the vole-trap tonight will catch nothing, and the camera tomorrow (Tuesday) morning will show no more than the preening cat. And I'll be on the phone to CERN.

More to come ... .

Update: Tuesday morning Dec 15th. Just watched Maj. Tim Peake blasting into space .. oh yes, the vole. Nothing at all, no clips, on the BadgerCam this morning. A quiet night then. Looked behind the tumble dryer, its presumed 'nest' - no droppings. We're going to declare the kitchen vole-free.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

In which the vole toys with us (Vole #3)

Much excitement last night as we prepared to retire. The vole retreat appeared to have done its work:

As Clare placed the box in the bushes outside we reviewed the situation. This vole was one of the smartest and most alert we've ever had. Thank God we were now clear of it!

The BadgerCam was left in place in the kitchen overnight - just to be sure. A few moments ago I checked and this is what I found (just after 5 am).

The sleepy (and thoroughly useless) cat appears an hour later, languidly grooming itself. What are we to do? The trap-retreat is drying downstairs and will be re-baited shortly.

It's playing with us!

We trapped this animal at 10.30 pm last night. How come at 5 am it (or a friend) is still skating around our kitchen, ignoring our sleeping cat? What is it with this animal?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Oops! (Vole #2)

With new batteries, our Badgercam (the Ltl Acorn 5210A trail camera) was deployed again in the kitchen last night. The cat appears in early clips, languidly wandering to the cat flap, staring at it, then narcissistically grooming himself. After midnight he appears to retire to his electrically-heated cat basket for a long sleep.

Just after 4 am, a number of clips catch our new kitchen resident. This clip (be sure to watch the whole thing - patience!) is typical.

We have now deployed the vole-trap-refuge, baited with nut fragments and buttered bread. Perhaps tonight will be the night?

"Quantum Dot" (revisited)

I don't know. I write about politics, history, genetics or intelligence and the readers line up. If I write about Christmas cakes or central heating, crowds read my work. But let it be physics and you can count the page-views on your fingers and toes.

Back in 1973 I was a teacher-training student in London (secondary maths since you ask, and just booted out of Warwick University - another story). I was also a member of the International Marxist Group .. and broke. I suggested to the appropriate senior comrade that I might be excused endless and onerous political duties during the summer to get a job on a building site. The ostensible reason was to proselytize amongst the urban proletariat but even I knew that was idiotic; my real reason was to make some serious money. Amazingly, the IMG bought it.

In 1973 the economy was booming and a construction site down from the Elephant and Castle was prepared to take me on - I had never done building work in my life. To say I was a weedy, incompetent fool amongst all those tough, muscled and very working-class builders would be to massively understate it. I didn't have the first clue, couldn't be trusted to follow the simplest instruction and the only thing I got really good at was drinking five pints at lunchtime (it was very hot and you habituate fast).

I lasted out my time, made my money and never discussed politics. Years later I wrote a story which combined the self-pity of the effete intellectual with a bigging up of my own intellectual stature. Yes, Reader, that story was published on this very blog (read it after you've finished with my intro here).


Just a note on the physics of "Quantum Dot". In 2007 I hadn't yet taken the OU quantum theory course (SM358) (which I only got around to in 2009) so in retrospect I'm surprised at how much I got right - I've only had to make a few tweaks to update it.

The central physics idea is the time evolution of a well localised particle (an electron) placed at the centre of a quantum dot. In hand-wavy terms (as in the story) the evolution is pretty obvious, but actually, what does the wave function do?

At time of writing I wouldn't have had a clue, but the usual trick is to model such an initial wave function as a narrow Gaussian, approximating a Dirac delta function - and then apply the Schrödinger equation for the time evolution. The maths is difficult but I did find this surprisingly accessible paper which investigates the relative contributions of the energy eigenfunctions. For an initial narrow Gaussian there are a lot, with amplitudes falling away for the higher energy eigenstates, as you would expect. David Etlinger's analysis is for the infinite square well, but the interior results won't be qualitatively different for a quantum dot.

In any event, since we now know the amplitude for each energy eigenstate, we just add them all together. Turns out my description:
"its wave function is just smeared around: small-scale choppy, large-scale pretty much flat - in configuration space, that is."
is a fair description of the emerging state (p. 17).

OK, now I've put you off, go read the story! You may then spot the connection with the first paragraph above.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The kitchen at night (Vole #1)

The badger-cam, so successful earlier this year, has been brought out of hibernation. It's not totally working properly - I blame the used Duracell AA batteries I put in - always the cheapskate.

So I'm not getting the 30 second video clips I was hoping for, more like three seconds; today I'll change the batteries.

Anyway, to test the Ltl Acorn trail camera, I put it on the kitchen floor last night, mostly to see whether alien cats were stealing our own animal's night time snacks. So there are, of course, many three-second micro-clips like this:

And then at 5.29 am I see this.

As I type, Clare is in the kitchen, moving furniture ... .


I was reviewing the 24 or so clips this morning when I came to the one below. I was sure it showed Clare leaving the kitchen at 3.54 am - no doubt after snacking or something. I immediately confronted her:

"The camera shows you popping down to the kitchen in the middle of the night!"

She emphatically denied it but I was adamant. This got her musing - had she been sleep walking?

"Go look for yourself!" I replied in triumph.

(You can slo-mo by dragging with the mouse yourself - the first half-second is what convinced me.)

When we looked together, the scales fell from my eyes.

Never ask me to be a witness to anything, OK?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Emergent Spacetime

An extract from this book - (publisher, you have no idea how naff that front cover is).
"“Spacetime can’t be fundamental,” says the theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed. “It has to come out of something more basic.”

This thinking completely inverts physics. Nonlocality is no longer the mystery; it’s the way things really are, and locality becomes the puzzle. When we can no longer take space for granted, we have to explain what it is and how it arises, either on its own or in union with time.

Clearly, constructing space isn’t going to be as straightforward as melding molecules into a fluid. What could its building blocks possibly be? Normally we assume that building blocks must be smaller than the things you build out of them. A friend of mine and his daughter once erected a detailed model of the Eiffel Tower out of popsicle sticks; they hardly needed to explain that the sticks were smaller than the tower.

When it comes to space, though, there can be no “smaller,” because size itself is a spatial concept. The building blocks cannot presume space if they are to explain it. They must have neither size nor location; they are everywhere, spanning the entire universe, and nowhere, impossible to point to. What would it mean for things not to have positions? Where would they be? “When we talk about emergent space-time, it must come out of some framework that is very far from what we’re familiar with,” Arkani-Hamed says."
Emergent spacetime is a hot topic. Relativity assumes spacetime as a prior manifold and imposes geometry upon it. Quantum theory knows nothing - ab initio - about spacetime; its setting is a high/infinite dimensional complex vector space known as Hilbert space.

How are the two reconciled? Physical observables such as spatial position (momentum, energy, spin state are others) define coordinate systems (sets of basis vectors) within Hilbert space. It seems that Hilbert space is more fundamental than the spacetime we find ourselves in, but how do we get our perceived universe out of quantum theory? A unified theory needs to tell us but no compelling narrative has yet emerged.

I'm hoping this book can bring me up to date (in a sort of, a bit like, resembling kind of way).


A review from Backreaction (which de-risked this purchase for me).

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Many d*gs - none ours

Danny Finkelstein has a characteristically smart piece in today's Times. If I were still a Trotskyist writer, I would add that Finkelstein hides his devotion to the British Imperialist neoliberal project under a veneer of sweet-reasonableness. Yet there is always the barest hint of sophistry in his arguments .. if you can lift up the right piece of the carpet.

He starts with an endearing dig at the bluff, unreconstructed Scottish Nationalists:
" The day after last week’s debate on Syria I bumped into a Scottish Nationalist MP who had spoken forcefully against the action recommended by the prime minister. I told him truthfully that I thought his speech the best on his side of the argument.

"The MP thanked me and told me that his intention now was to do all he could to undermine David Cameron’s claim that there were 70,000 non-jihadist Syrian fighters. This, he said, was exactly like Tony Blair’s dodgy 45-minute claim.

"As people often do in politics, he said this with a stare and in a stern, unyielding way that didn’t leave much space for questioning. His eyes didn’t say: “And what do you think, Danny?” So I took the hint, nodded politely, and left him to it."
Beautifully written. That's exactly how the SNP come across - dogmatic and immune to argument. Next Finkelstein takes us through the many d*gs in the fight, all of them pretty bad.
"The idea that we should join with Assad has the support of foreign policy realists such as Julian Lewis and Boris Johnson. They accept the moral case against the Syrian regime, but Lewis points out that there was a moral case against working with Stalin in the Second World War. Assad can be our ally, as the Soviets were, in delivering us from the greater evil of Isis.

"On its own terms — on realist, practical, pragmatic terms — this argument is utterly wrong.

"Assad is now in alliance with Shia Iran and its proxies to suppress a mainly Sunni revolt. As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan describe in their book Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, his strategy has been to make the West believe he is fighting only jihadists and thereby to draw us in on his side. Throughout the conflict he has therefore been aiding Isis, while fighting the Free Syrian Army and other factions.

"If the West joins with the regime to assist Shia suppression of the revolt against the regime it will drive even more Sunnis into the hands of Isis, making the problems in Syria worse, not better."
It is worth recalling that in the old days, when Syria kinda worked, the neighbouring Israelis always gave the Alawites implicit support. Running a fragile, unstable dictatorship over a majority Sunni population made the Assad regime weak; Israel liked it that way.
"There are many Syrians living in or near Isis-controlled areas who accept jihadist rule for entirely practical reasons. There is fear, of course. But it is also because Isis keeps the lights on and suppresses crime (except its own) and ensures the supply of food (having first taken control of the grain stores).

"One might think of these Syrian acceptors as “shy Isis”. They have little ideological commitment to Isis. They resent the jihadists’ medieval social ideas as much as one might imagine they do. Yet Isis protects them from the regime and from Shia revenge. Western support for Assad would deepen and widen Sunni commitment to Isis, pulling in moderate Syrians. It would be a disaster."
Politicians and the media have demonised Isis as uniquely awful. Yet they are on a continuum with pretty much every Islamic fundamentalist outfit: a little more observant, a little less corrupt, a little more ruthless. Hamas in Gaza, tainted by compromise and corruption, is presently losing members to Isis for just these reasons.

So if supporting the Assad regime would put us on the wrong side of the majority Sunnis, but the Sunnis themselves are dominated by fractious, clannish Islamic fundamentalists, perhaps we should admit our limitations and just clear out?
"Those who don’t want to support Assad argue that our best course is just getting the hell out.

"I think there is quite a strong argument for this. After all, the conflict seems never-ending; the moderate forces, however many there are, appear not that forceful and dubiously moderate; and the sectarian battle is not something we want to be muddled up with.

"There is no clean finish, no victory, so what’s the point?

"The point is that leaving the whole thing alone altogether won’t work either. We can’t allow the creation of what one might call “terrortories” — lands where either Sunni or Shia jihadists settle and can turn from fighting the near enemy (each other) to fighting the far enemy (us).

"So our best bet is to see that we are involved in something that is better thought of not as a war, but as a police action, one that sits alongside our domestic anti-terror policies. One that won’t have a neat ending but will carry on for many years. One in which conquering and concluding is not likely to be an option.

"We have to work with the bogus battalions and the shy Isis and the many Syrians willing to live in peace and under law. There are many of them, however weak or fractious they may be, and however much their status as fighting forces may be questionable.

"We have to help them — that means them, not us; we can’t do it for them — to take control using every lever we have, diplomatic, economic and, where necessary, military.

"I can’t see that we have much of an alternative."
Have you ever seen a more feeble argument? We have a murderous civil war dominated by extremely-unpleasant militias, with no significant forces aligned with objectives any bien-pensant Western liberal would sign up to. And Finkelstein talks about a police action?

When you see logic replaced by artful sophistry, you know that the real reason for intervention is going unmentioned. And what would that be, Danny?

Yes, it's the Great Game all over again.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

"Hive Mind" by Garett Jones: a review

Amazon link

The long, slow march of Darwinian Evolution applied to the human sciences continues. For more than a decade the work of Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen on ‘IQ and the Wealth of Nations’ was ostracised and ignored; now, in Garett Jones’ new book, it is re-appraised and rehabilitated.

In 2007 James Watson was, well, ‘Watsoned’ for suggesting, "[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." Since his views are validated in this book, I imagine his re-admission to public life cannot now be long delayed.

What else do we know? From genome studies and CSI police procedurals, we know that humanity exists in genetically-distinguishable ethnic groups, both within ancestral Africa and (via complex historical migrations) in the rest of the world. We know that intelligence as measured by IQ is strongly heritable (0.75). We know that the genetic component of intelligence is polygenic, and that the (thousands of) alleles positively associated with IQ are slowly being identified (the Beijing Genomics Institute is aiming to produce substantive results in the next few years).

And we expect, when we have this sequencing information, that different ethnic groups will exhibit different cognitive genotypes. It will then be clear that to elevate ethnic group (‘country’) intelligence up to (and perhaps beyond) the current East Asian level of IQ 105 is going to require DNA editing – there is a limit to how far good nutrition and iodine supplementation will take you.

Naturally Professor Jones knows all this - as does everyone else who takes the trouble to enquire. Unfortunately in the present state of public discourse, it cannot all be said without the Watsoning process re-engaging.  So in ‘Hive Mind’ Garett Jones had a tough task: to synthesise the current state-of-the-art through the lens of economics while not getting fired. The scientific constraint? Not to say or imply things which are actually untrue or gratuitously mislead in the process.

As many have observed, the book starts well. Rehabilitating the concept and utility of IQ is not new science, it’s a defence and popularisation of what every informed person already knows but of course, it’s necessary and done well. Similarly, the detailed re-examination of national/ethnic phenomenological IQ differences (mostly from Lynn and Vanhanen) is both clear and brave.

IQ is then linked with patience, propensity to collaborate and future-orientation, as Jones reviews research in psychology, political science and game theory. Applied to economics, he describes how, in complex technologies where mistakes can break the whole process (‘O-Ring technology’), there are surprising returns to pervasive intelligence. To put it crudely, high-IQ countries can do leading-edge high-tech, and low-IQ countries can’t (note that this is hardly a surprise when one observes the world).

So far so good, but now the wheels begin to come off a little. As if concerned by the consequences of his argument, Jones feels the need to signal his essential liberalism and humanity. There are long accounts of the Flynn effect to motivate speculation about increasing the IQ of poorer, more corrupt and disorganised nations (really ethnicities). Here he presents intelligence (as measured by IQ) as far more plastic and environmentally-malleable than it actually is.

Finally he plays with some oversimplified economic models to suggest that immigration from low-IQ countries is in the interests of the inhabitants of high-IQ countries (it’s plainly in their own interest - to a point). Naturally he equivocates (consequent damage to existing high-quality institutions). But he seems to ignore both the evidence from history and the increasingly-scary predictions of a hollowing-out of demand for low-and middle-skilled jobs. I’m sure he felt he had to write this but it breaks the rule: do not mislead the reader.

Perhaps in five years or ten years, it will be possible to write a well-balanced public-policy book starting from humanity as it actually is. In such a more enlightened time, a Garett Jones revision of this book would be well-worth reading.


Here is the list of national IQs from the book.

Greg Cochran's review - be sure to read the comments.

Slate Star Codex review - be sure to read the comments.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Funeral Music

Let me recall to you the case of Paul, the husband of a relation on my wife's side. Paul was a middle-manager in the nuclear power industry and a staunch Catholic; in fact he was a member of the Catenians. Slightly shy in person and middle-class, Paul was socially awkward - he may even have been a little bit 'on the spectrum'.

In December 2006, Paul unfortunately died. His Funeral Mass was well attended and solemn, the priests (more than one) gravely peregrinating around the large, echoing church. As the ceremony ended the presiding priest announced that Paul had chosen the accompaniment for our exiting the church en route to the grave.

At this point, a ghetto blaster was produced, as if from nowhere, and a cassette inserted. We departed the building to the jarring, amplified sounds of ABBA's "Thank You For The Music".

I was delighted. Paul had managed, in the end, to subvert the formalities with the power of kitsch. At that moment I decided that I myself could do no less. Putting aside my pompous inclinations to 'The Goldberg Variations - Aria', I have therefore decided to leave you with this.

Excerpts, right? We don't want to be there all day. I believe that in the church of the future, we can probably stream.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

A Basic Income in Finland?

Marginal Revolution links to this article - "Finland plans to give every citizen a basic income of 800 euros a month":
"The Finnish government is currently drawing up plans to introduce a national basic income. A final proposal won’t be presented until November 2016, but if all goes to schedule, Finland will scrap all existing benefits and instead hand out €800 ($870) per month - to everyone.

"It sounds far-fetched, but it’s looking likely that Finland will carry through with the idea. Whereas several Dutch cities will introduce basic income next year and Switzerland is holding a referendum on the subject, there is strongest political and public support for the idea in Finland. ..."
The Economist had an article about this a while back:
"... The left has usually viewed such policies as a way of beefing up the social safety net and fighting inequality. That is particularly appealing in a world where technology creates unimaginable riches for some, but threatens the jobs of others. As early as 1964 James Meade, an economist, argued that technological progress could reduce the demand for labour so much that wages would fall to intolerable lows. In a world where a computer can suddenly make a profession redundant, those who have worked hard cannot be certain of a decent standard of living. That may justify more generous state support.

"For their part, right-wing advocates of the citizen’s income view it as a streamlined replacement for complicated means-tested welfare payments. A system where everyone receives the same amount requires fewer bureaucrats to administer. Existing schemes withdraw benefits from low earners as they earn more, discouraging work and so trapping some in poverty. For this reason, Milton Friedman, an economist known for his laissez-faire beliefs, wanted to replace all welfare with a simpler system that combined a guaranteed minimum income with a flat tax."
The Economist then looks at the costs:
" In 1970 James Tobin, an economist, produced a simple formula for calculating their cost. Suppose the government needs to levy tax of 25% of national income to fund public services such as education, policing and infrastructure.

"Paying for a basic income worth 10% of the average income requires average taxes to rise by ten percentage points, to 35%. A basic income worth 20% of the average income requires average taxes to be 20 percentage points higher, at 45%, and so on. Eradicating relative poverty, defined as income beneath 60% of the median, would require tax rates approaching 85%.

"The Swiss proposal is absurdly expensive: a rough calculation suggests it would cost about SFr 197 billion ($210 billion), or 30% of GDP.

"A generous basic income funded by very high taxes would be self-defeating, as it would reintroduce the sort of distortions that many of its advocates hope to banish from the welfare system. Loafers could live comfortably without lifting a finger.


"A better system might also be financed by a return on assets, rather than by taxes. Alaska pays its residents an annual dividend - $1,900 in 2014 - from the returns on its oil fund. An asset-financed basic income would remove welfare distortions without introducing new ones through higher taxes.

"Unfortunately, few governments have wealth funds. On the contrary, they are mired in debt (though some think they could monetise public assets, including land, more effectively). In any case, many would worry that widespread government ownership of financial assets would lead to bureaucrats meddling in the private sector.

"Fans of the basic income make plenty of good arguments. A welfare system riddled with complicated means-testing distorts incentives and is a headache to run. Paine’s intellectual case for all citizens to be entitled to a return on the bounties of the earth is compelling. But a basic income is too costly and inefficient to act as a wholesale replacement for welfare. It is feasible only if it is small, and complemented by more targeted anti-poverty measures. Basic income: the clue is in the name."
Marx said "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." It's worth recalling that both abilities and needs have quite a broad statistical distribution: there are always going to be those whose lack of useful abilities make them essentially unemployable yet who happen to have very expensive needs (physical/mental disabilities and/or dependents, for example).

A one-size-fits-all basic income is an ill-fitting panacea despite its intellectual attractions, even if we ignore the enormous transfer payments implied.

The article about Finland concludes:
" ... But, as Bloomberg calculated, giving €800 of basic income to the population of 5.4 million every month would cost €52.2 billion a year. Finland only plans to give the basic income to adults, not every citizen, but with around 4.9 million adults in Finland, this would still cost €46.7 billion per year. The government expects to have €49.1 billion in revenue in 2016."
A laboratory for true libertarians, then.

Nativity Crib Festival

A visit to the Nativity Crib Festival at St. Cuthbert's Church in Wells, Somerset this afternoon.

Alistair Glanville's Model Village (video below)

Angels at the Altar

Some of the Cribs from surrounding churches and individuals

More Cribs

The Crib from the local Catholic Church - St. Joseph and St. Teresa

The presiding minister

And here's a video of Alistair Glanvile's Model Village - it's quite impressive to watch the village come to life.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

James Clerk Maxwell on TV

BBC2 in Scotland had an hour-long documentary earlier this week presented by Prof Iain Stewart, a geologist. The programme was probably not bad for a general audience. After all, how do you explain Maxwell's equations to anyone without a good background in vector calculus?

I think you should try. Maxwell himself constructed an elaborate edifice of cogs and mechanisms in space to aid his intuitions about the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields (div and curl). The eponymous equations followed, and his newtonian-physicalist model was thrown away; it took a major cultural shift in physics to accept the validity of equations that seemed to have no intuitive or obvious underlying interpretation.

Of course, modern physics is all like that: no-one has a good intuitive model of Minkowski spacetime, its variably-curved analogue in GR or most particularly for what the equations of quantum mechanics are telling us about 'reality'.

The BBC programme carefully took the lower path, more travelled. But at least they showed Maxwell's equations on a blackboard with a competent professor 'explaining' them to the hapless Stewart. A geologist faced with differential equations! He explained to camera that he understood none of it - he gave a convincing impression of a man whose head hurt.

He could be right. Geologists are, I would guess, less bright than biologists these days ... and how bright are they? Razib Khan had a post about that with this diagram ...

This diagram is from the science journal Nature

and this explanation (noting that green is not good) (and also see this):
"The above is from an article in Nature, A test that fails. ...

"My physicist friends always enjoy a chuckle whenever I honestly state that physicists are smarter than biologists, as I am a biologist. There are rare cases, such as Ed Witten, of people entering physics from other fields, but in general it’s the physicists who are the imperialists. And that’s because they’re smart, able to decompose general problems rapidly and decisively. In contrast, biologists are somewhat narrow in their focus, and plodding in their reasoning.

"These are generalizations, but I think they’re roughly correct (I had a friend at a prominent non-profit who was irritated with how difficult it was to find Ph.D. biologists who were flexible thinkers in interviews). And standardized tests bear out my generalization (though honestly, it is a pleasure talking to physicists and mathematicians about out of topic fields compared to biologists partly because they’re so mentally acute; you don’t need GRE stats to get this)."
So Professor Stewart, shape up or ship out of this presenting lark!