Tuesday, March 31, 2015


I still remember the excitement of my early teens when we established the first colony at Epsilon Indi A, a sun-like star about 12 light-years from Earth. They called the planet Hope: perhaps they thought we wouldn’t repeat the blood-sodden mistakes of old Earth.

Even then, I was intensely interested in the mechanics of the process. How could they get material and people across such immense distances? Naturally such an achievement ranked as the greatest engineering feat the human race had ever accomplished. The key was bootstrapping. Very powerful lasers delivered the first level nanoconstructor. It was a small device, and complex, but it only had to happen once.

The nanoconstructor was a basic fabricator, and the only thing it could do was create a better one. Soon we had devices which were remotely-programmable, and which could build macroscopic machines of general utility. You get the point: once started, there was no limit. Eventually we could send DNA codes and get adult clone bodies grown in a tank. You just had to know how to do it.

So here’s the macabre bit. We didn't grow brains in those copy-bodies. We didn't want new blank-slate individuals. Instead, we used a programmable neural substrate hosting a transmitted brain-state. (The opportunities for error were the subject of half-a-dozen plays and films). And so, with zero subjective time delay, Captain Vine, his assistant Commander Jung and I ended up in orbit around Hope, in a locally fabricated dreadnought with the encouraging name of Threat.

"Threat" in orbit around Hope


Bill Night met us in Threat’s conference room as we sat in a stationary orbit over New City, the first settlement on the new planet (when will people stop calling new things ‘new’?). Bill was the colony leader, and in theory responsible for all the hundreds of thousands of colonists who currently occupied the planet. There wasn't a single adult human brain in 12 light years and that wouldn’t change until the new kids grew up.

“Initially”, Night began, “things went well.”

“They always do,” Jung observed with a smile, “Simulation and reality always start in sync. But it’s like the weather; reality never stays properly on track.”

“We soon had a second group,” Night continued, “established on the next continent about a quarter way round the equator: security in diversity. We called it Fort 2. You understand that everything here is technology-driven. We need agriculture to kick-start the food chain; heavy equipment for construction. We have a lot of dual military-civilian stuff.”

We nodded, this was standard procedure.

“We knew there would be problems of course, we just didn't know where and when. So we weren't too surprised when the local vegetation started playing up.”

This was news to us, but of course we were years behind the game.

“There’s a kind of root system which tunnels quite rapidly underground; it seemed to take against us. Crops were disrupted and buildings began to collapse.”

“So what did you do?” asked Vine with interest. This was the kind of practical military problem which always engaged him.

“Flamethrowers were effective against the surface leaves and stems. Most of the action was below ground though, and here we tried several things. We had a microwave system, like ground-penetrating radar - that was good at frying the tubers. We also dug moats.”

Vine nodded genially, “And it worked?”

“For a while, but the wretched stuff proved astonishingly adaptable. It dug itself deeper and self-modified in its self-defence. It was then that the disagreement started with Fort 2. Don’t forget, everything we had, they had as well: same size population, same resources, same technologies and same skills. They were researching this plant, same as we were, and in their view it was showing some signs of sentience.”

“And your view?” asked Jung with a look hovering between concentration and consternation.

“It’s a plant. It’s a goddamn problem and it’s screwing up our operation. It it’s smart, that just makes it a bigger problem.”

I was watching Vine carefully. He gave little away but I sensed his pleasure.

“Our only concern was to remove the obstacle and our science team thought they had an answer:  a toxin which would basically just turn it off.”

“So what’s your problem?” asked Vine. “Just go with it.”

“The problem,” said Night with a scowl, “is Fort 2. This thing is so adaptive that we need to spray the entire planet to exterminate it. Anything less and we run the risk it will adapt away from the threat. Fort 2 won’t cooperate. Worse, they say it’s genocide, and that if we proceed they’ll actually fight to defend the wretched plant!”

Vine’s lip curled. “No doubt they offered their own solution?”

“Co-existence,” Night replied, “We clear some areas but leave others for the plant to live on. They want time for further research; they claim they may eventually even get some rudimentary communications going.”

“So what do you want us to do?” asked Commander Jung.

“Make them see sense: one way or another.”


After the meeting with Night, Vine kept Jung and myself behind to debrief. It was rare to see any sign of conflict between the two officers. I had once, in private, asked Jung whether he would see any problem getting Vine to approve some pet project of his. Jung had snorted in contempt: “Trust me, how hard could it be?”

As we waited on Vine in his executive office, it was obvious that Jung had been affected by the argument relayed so indirectly from Fort 2. The human race wasn't meant to be in the business of going around the Galaxy snuffing out other intelligent beings, no matter what we might have done back on Earth. It appeared that Jung was for caution.

“This is an irritating problem but not a crash priority – we need to be sure about what we’re doing here. My advice is to get some more research done and open up a line of communication with the people at Fort 2.”

Vine turned to me, a rare event in itself as the captain rarely felt need for science officer input. I hated to be put on the spot, particularly when I didn't feel we had enough data.


“I understand the mission here, but we still don’t know enough. I think, like Jung, we should restrain Night and learn more.”

“OK, thank you gentlemen. You’re dismissed.”

As we left Vine’s office, I saw that Night had not left, as I had imagined. He was being shown back in for a further meeting with Vine – alone this time.


In the Threat’s bar, I asked Jung what he thought Vine would do.

“He’ll talk big with Night, and they’ll agree that lawful authority needs to be maintained. Maybe we can use some of the big weaponry on the ship to cook an area around the two settlements so that the project can continue unhindered - until we can sort the bigger picture out.

“I’ll have a word with him later and straighten him out.”


On the ship we have a new and somewhat awesome system. I'm not even sure we would call it a weapon system. It’s a gravitational wave laser – inelegantly a Gaser. One consequence of being able to produce coherent Terawatt gravitational waves is light-year communication through the dustiest of regions. Another is truly astonishing destruction.

When Vine ordered the Gasar AI to ‘illuminate’ Fort 2, the effect was extraordinary. The beam was around 40 cm wide with a sub-kilohertz pulse rate. A gravitational wave produces a stretch-compress tidal force – in this case millions of Newtons. Anything in its way was literally shredded to fine powder, the absorbed energy ending up as heat.

The Gaser AI was instructed to deploy in fire-hose mode and with programmed obedience it traced a raster over the entire settlement. After ten minutes attention, Fort 2 and its entire population was transformed to thermally-incandescent dust down to the liquefying bedrock.


Afterwards, we were able to piece the story together. Vine and Night had called Fort 2 and given them an ultimatum: basically do as you’re told and eradicate the weed globally or face the consequences. The Fort 2 guys had had a bad attack of principles. They flatly refused, as I think Vine knew they would.  As the captain had carefully arranged, he now had no other option, so in the best traditions of empire he had the place slagged.

The Gaser had smashed a cone-shaped volume straight through the planet, but impressive as this was, it would not suffice to defeat the weed. Night and his team went right ahead with the sterilization programme and a few months later, the consensus was that they had succeeded: onwards to the new global colony!


Afterwards Vine tried to calm us – especially Jung, who seemed remarkably upset.

“C’mon guys. Earth has invested a major chunk of Gross World Product in getting this colony off the ground. There was never any way we were going to back off making this work for an indigent, highly-invasive plant species.”

Jung was smart enough not to make an issue of it, although you could see that something deep inside of him was burning. I didn't feel that good myself.

It turned out, much later, that the plant had had a kind of distributed intelligence. I don’t know whether we would ever have been able to communicate with it, but it seemed to know it existed, to have had fears and hopes and desires.

But then, you could say the same about cows.


When, 12 years later, Earth found out what had happened, Earth-Vine was commended, even though he personally had had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Ⓒ Nigel Seel, March 2015.

I rather like the idea of a “Gravitational Laser”. Gravitational waves couple so weakly to matter that I can’t imagine a technology that would deliver the level of destruction described. Luckily it’s not my problem. You may detect some similarities in theme between this story and the recently-posted “Space Opera”.


Back to "Stories".

System Integration

Yesterday I was cast back to a now sadly-familiar role: the family's systems engineer. My mother had reported that her ancient (CRT) TV had now evolved to sound only .. and indeed it was so. I didn't waste too much time with the old (2003) Sky STB, once turning off and restarting everything had failed to turn things around.

My first ploy was to attach her old aerial coax to a spare Freeview digibox I happened to have. This gave perfectly adequate reception for the channels she's interested in, but could I get that Flipper to control it? In despair I called digibox tech support: I paraphrase.
"Yep, the device you're dealing with is a cheap Chinese import we sell. We've never had any luck getting third party remotes to work with it. We don't know the codes and in any case you're wasting your time."
I was perseverant with the Flipper, manual in hand, but success eluded me. It was time to visit Currys/PC World. The tech assistants were entranced by my Flipper booklet.
"Hey," called my guy to his boss, have you ever seen anything like this?
These are folk who don't get out of bed for anything with less than 200 controls; the Flipper - with its minimalist on-off, channel +/- & volume up/down buttons - entranced and mystified them. The Samsung TV seemed most likely to be Flipper-friendly and so - eventually - it proved.

Samsung delivers the goods
I am so bad at manipulating physical reality, and tend to panic and hyperventilate when presented with two pieces of plastic and seven cross-headed screws. I did, however, finally get the stand assembled and connected to the TV.

Ab initio configuration is so much better now - no more diving through five layers of incomprehensible on-screen menus aided by a bulky manual written in microscopic font. So after no more than 90 minutes I was able to call the Sky people and close down her contract.

They were good about it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nexus 6: the aftermath

My new Nexus 6 'phablet' arrived yesterday and so far I am impressed. These days configuration is a doddle, as Google simply copies all the settings and apps from a back-up image of my Samsung Galaxy S3 (the one I dropped and broke on the summit of British Camp in the Malvern Hills) via WiFi. The new device is also pretty fast and I've gotten used to its size - so much so that the S3 now looks way too small and diminutive ...

One small note: the SIM card is smaller than the S3's so it'll be a trip to the Vodafone shop to burn a new one.

The cover I ordered with it is, however, a disaster. The Ringke MAX is a kind of shell which certainly fits snugly enough round the back of the phone ...

Ringke MAX shell-cover for Nexus 6
... but the power and volume controls are so diminutive on the Nexus 6 that the shell extends far beyond them on the device-edge: they're kind of buried in a long, thin trench. Ringke tried to solve this problem by having some rubber covers shaped to, er, cover these controls. Unfortunately the rubber simply compresses and the controls don't move. Great to have a cover which prevents you controlling the device.

Ringke also provided a screen protector for free. I have tried and tried again, but it always deploys as a simulation of entrapped bubble wrap. Can't get the thing flush - the bubbles stubbornly refuse to slide out to the edge. I applied sellotape and pulled it right off: it's unusable.

So I have spent even more money and await delivery tomorrow of this:

Orzly® - Multi-Function Wallet Case for Motorola NEXUS 6 - BLACK CARBON FIBRE Style Wallet Style Phone Case with Integrated Stand and Built-In Auto Sleep / Wake Sensor Functionality Custom Built for the GOOGLE NEXUS 6 SmartPhone

Can you see that the controls seem to be unencumbered?

Hopefully this will solve the problem of me dropping and breaking stuff, and will also allow the phone to be charged via the wireless charger (reviews seem to be mixed on this point).
UPDATE: the Orzly wallet case for the Nexus 6 arrived yesterday and it's perfect. The controls are easily accessible and the case both protects the device and makes it easy to hold. Also, the wireless charger works through it, so it's just a matter of placing the device in its case on top of the charger. Great.

Time will tell if the three credit card slots, and the ability to use the compartment behind to store paper money, are actually useful.

Space Opera

Commander Vine’s plan to confront the aliens was a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. I knew this because I had designed it myself. All the while I had been aiding the psychologist Jung and our manager Tina with their tentative psy-ops strategy, I had been covertly working directly for Vine on his alternative.

I had had no choice – orders! – but I wondered how my colleagues would take it when they found out. I had an awkward feeling about that in the region of my guts. The feeling puzzled me: was it in anticipation of a difficult moment to come? Or could it be guilt? I couldn't figure it out so set it aside: there was stuff to do. Once the Admiral had approved Vine’s plan he saw no advantage in delay. The show was about to begin.

We had been very, very cautious in our battle plan – ascribing to the enemy the ability to successfully disable anything we put up in their view. We intended an invasive reconnaissance: a close look at what we were dealing with .. which would also conclude with their complete destruction. Our strategy would admit no countermeasures at all.

The command centre was at the ship’s centre of mass, minimising the effects of spinning Constellation in combat. At one end was a large screen, where computed projections of the battle space were displayed - I could do considerably better of course, through my augmentation. Vine was seated at his console to my left with Jung on his other side. I noticed Tina at the back occupying one of the ‘hot desks’. She looked diminished somehow, and was staring fixedly at the screen.

I felt that gnawing feeling more strongly now. Once things started up, it was impossible to know how events would unfold. This could literally be the last few minutes of my life!  I looked around but no-one else seemed as concerned. Vine caught my eye and smiled – a hard smile. He seemed to be having the time of his life. I really couldn't figure him out, didn't he realise how badly this could turn out? I put it down to lack of imagination.

The first overt sign that the operation had started came as a firework detonated on the screen, orbitally forward of the planet. In my machine-augmented mind I could see the dense shell of tiny tungsten ball-bearings expanding from a point. The event had been carefully calculated: in a few minutes the planet's orbital path would puncture the ever-growing shell we had created, and some minutes later it would find itself momentarily at the centre of a spherical surface composed of tiny, shiny balls of the most refractory metal known.

These motes of tungsten were entirely passive. With no electronics, power supply or device-functionality, their only function was to reflect. With telescopic sensors on our ship and at other similarly distant locations, we could image any electromagnetic emissions from the alien outpost, either active or involuntary, across the spectrum.

Even if our opponents used high-powered beam weapons to try to clear the cloud, it was so vast and so refractory that success could not come rapidly. And we only needed it for twelve minutes.

The next phase of the plan required even more exquisite timing. Imagine a tangent line to the planet, brushing its surface ever-so-lightly at the aliens’ exact location. Extend it in both directions around one million km. At one end place a Terawatt gamma ray laser battery, at the other a telescope array.

Now, a small correction: put both the laser and telescope on trajectories where they’re below the planetary horizon as seen from the enemy base. They’re rising slowly, led by the laser battery. The plan is driven wholly by the speed of light.

In my body-hugging command chair, visualising a dynamic near-space model in real-time, I watch the clock tick down to t = zero.

The laser battery icon intersects the tangent line (the detector hasn't quite got there yet). A thin blue line emerges from the battery. This is all computed – Constellation can’t ‘see’ faster than the speed of light and in any case most of the action - from our vantage point - will be occurring behind the planet itself. The gamma beam crawls across space at this scale – physics assures us that the aliens can  see neither it nor the laser battery yet. The first they'll know will be when the beam strikes.

I check the beam attributes. It’s lensed to focus down to as near a point source as diffraction allows at the target. The straightness of the line is an illusion: in reality the spatial position will be rastered along an X-Y grid normal to the beam for total target illumination hundreds of times per second. At this stage the power is relatively low, we seek information not destruction. But that won’t last.

Three seconds have gone by and the beam has now encountered the alien base. If they could see gamma rays, and maybe they can, it would seem to them that a supernova has gone off exactly on their horizon – a brilliant point source flickering hundreds of times per second.

And now I visualise the detector sliding into position at the other end of the tangent line, just in time to pick up those gamma rays which scattered through the target, giving us an ‘x-ray movie’. Other detectors, out of sight of the enemy base, are viewing the scene from reflections off our convenient tungsten mote-cloud.

It is hard to see what the aliens can do about this. Our devices are more than three light seconds away and moving in a complex choreography which keeps them aligned, but makes their positions impossibly difficult to predict and target.

Four seconds into the mission and there has been no time for any real telemetry to get to us yet: everything is still simulation. If the aliens had even the fastest contingency plans, it’s getting way too late. They have been under gamma illumination for just over one second and those Terawatts are beginning to crank up. The plan calls for an exponential power ramp to full capacity of the laser battery in three seconds. This is to allow time for the telescope to track weapon effects and then deploy filters to avoid its own complete destruction.

What is the best the aliens could do? We asked ourselves that a hundred times and ran many simulations. The only tactic which had a chance of working was a reflex screen deployment to somehow block or reflect the incident radiation. It takes metres of heavy nuclear materials to absorb gamma radiation, and while you were doing that you would probably be quite preoccupied .. so we had one last surprise.

I checked my simulation and there it was. Compared with the gamma wave-front, this was slow-moving indeed, but it had had a lot longer to travel. We had launched the fusion weapon hours ago: it had now reached the planetary vicinity on a curving, grazing trajectory which would momentary bring it over the alien base at around 1,000 metres altitude. It was travelling at 300 kilometres per second.

The simulated flash on the screen surely didn't do justice to the reality: a multi-megaton blast optimised for neutron radiation (and of course a very hard gamma pulse) which by now must have already occurred. The enormous forward momentum of the missile would ensure that most of its debris would miss the ground and indeed exit the system. We wanted the base in tiny non-functional pieces, but retrieving those pieces was the kind of exploratory reconnaissance Vine had always had in mind.

At t plus six seconds the final act of our destructive play unfolded. Hidden by terrain from our cataclysmic thermonuclear vandalism, a hardened drone lifted out of a nitrogen ice trench and ferried a full surveillance suite towards the hopefully now ex-base.  We waited the minutes it would take before we got our first view on the ground.


Ⓒ Nigel Seel, March 2015.

This story follows on from the previous Gifts Differing.


Back to "Stories".

Saturday, March 28, 2015

New toys

Alex and Clare at British Camp, the Malvern Hills
Here is positively the last of the holiday snaps.

Yesterday I was mulling over a replacement for my 'smashed at the summit of British Camp' Samsung Galaxy S3. So two years almost to the day, a new mobile phone should be arriving this morning, the Nexus 6. It's not cheap, but it gives me hours of innocent pleasure (yes, you at the back!).

We should all be wary of being captured by some tech giant's platform ecosystem, but I am seduced by the lack of bloatware and the raw technical specs of Google's stuff. The pain of configuration hangs as a black shadow, etc ...

The other Amazon toy due today - out of the blue, so to speak - is the "Interstellar" DVD, ordered months ago after I refused to sit through three hours of inchoate mumbly hokum at the cinema. Obviously I have lower standards at home, although I shall tell everyone that it's to study the accurate visualisation of black hole orbital kinematics in regions of ultra-high spacetime curvature .. or something like that.

The chances of it being watched are not high: my copy of the Scarlett Johansson vehicle "Lucy" still lies unviewed weeks after its arrival, and that's been rated pretty good. Last night, after our arrival home, we all sat and watched Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens", marvelling at the mash-up of "Star Wars". "Starship Troopers" and "The Matrix" that film was (I may be getting my chronology a bit mixed up here).

Friday, March 27, 2015

Short break in the Malvern Hills

We're just back from a short holiday in the Malvern Hills: Clare, Alex and myself.

First day - all set for that peak behind Clare

It's so high!!!

At Worcestershire Beacon

Day 2: British Camp (Nigel & Alex)

The Malvern Hills Hotel - just before Alex knocked the milk jug over

Day 3: the author at the Tudor House at Brockhampton NT

The author with Galaxy S3 - dropped at the British Camp summit
You can't see all the cracked glass in this shot. Suffice it to say that I'm currently researching phablets - the Nexus 6 is a bit of a front runner, along with the Galaxy Note 4.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

One more for the bad guys

Barcelona to Dusseldorf air crash. This morning the most likely scenario seems to be that one pilot left the cockpit - perhaps to go to the toilet - and according to anti-hijack protocol the remaining pilot then locked the cabin door.

Some kind of medical emergency, perhaps a heart attack, occurs and the pilot slumps forward. Controlled flight into terrain follows.

I guess the risk analysts just figured this as an ultra low probability event.

No longer.

What's the fix? As we can't weaken the anti-hijack rules it seems an extension of ground-based surveillance and control is the way to go. Video cameras and remote door unlocking might have prevented this one.


You know, I so didn't want this to be murder-suicide.

Monday, March 23, 2015

John Ronald Reuel frames Richard III

1. The Fellowship of the Ring

Mitochondrial DNA is a ring, uniting Richard III and living descendants:
"The coffin, which was seen in public for the first time during the procession, was made by the king’s 16th great-nephew, a Canadian cabinet-maker called Michael Ibsen, who descended from Richard’s older sister, Anne of York, and whose DNA helped identify the remains."
2. The Two Towers

Leicester Cathedral and York Minster, both in contention for the reburial.

3. The Return of the King

Channel 4 already grabbed that one.


J. R. R. Tolkien - always there when you need him.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Social class differences in IQ

Since life is an IQ test it follows that in a meritocracy the upper echelons of society will be brighter than those at the bottom. How much brighter?

Details were documented by Bruce Charlton (see below). You would have thought that the public policy implications would be of great importance leading to intense public debate. But then, that might make some people feel bad.

Anyway, here's Charlton's answer to the question posed above.
"Typically, the average IQ of the highest occupational Social Class (SC) - mainly professional and senior managerial workers such as professors, doctors and bank managers - is 115 or more when social class is measured precisely, and about 110 when social class is measured less precisely (eg. mixing-in lower status groups such as teachers and middle managers).

"By comparison, the average IQ of the lowest social class of unskilled workers is about 90 when measured precisely, or about 95 when measured less precisely (eg. mixing-in higher social classes such as foremen and supervisors or jobs requiring some significant formal qualification or training)."
And here's an excerpt from his paper.
Social class differences in IQ: implications for the government’s ‘fair access’ political agenda

Bruce G Charlton

"Since ‘the Laura Spence Affair’ in 2000, the UK government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes. Evidence to support the allegation of systematic unfairness has never been presented, nevertheless the accusation has been used to fuel a populist ‘class war’ agenda.

"Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes.

"The exact size of the measured IQ difference varies according to the precision of definitions of social class – but in all studies I have seen, the measured social class IQ difference is substantial and of significance and relevance to the issue of university admissions.

The existence of substantial class differences in average IQ seems to be uncontroversial and widely accepted for many decades among those who have studied the scientific literature. And IQ is highly predictive of a wide range of positive outcomes in terms of educational duration and attainment, attained income levels, and social status (see Deary – Intelligence, 2001).

"This means that in a meritocratic university admissions system there will be a greater proportion of higher class students than lower class students admitted to university.

"What is less widely understood is that – on simple mathematical grounds – it is inevitable that the differential between upper and lower classes admitted to university will become greater the more selective is the university.


"There have been numerous studies of IQ according to occupational social class, stretching back over many decades. In the UK, average IQ is 100 and the standard deviation is 15 with a normal distribution curve.

"Social class is not an absolute measure, and the size of differences between social classes in biological variables (such as health or life expectancy) varies according to how socio-economic status is defined (eg. by job, income or education) and also by how precisely defined is the socio-economic status (for example, the number of categories of class, and the exactness of the measurement method – so that years of education or annual salary will generate bigger differentials than cruder measures such as job allocation, postcode deprivation ratings or state versus private education).

"In general, the more precise the definition of social class, the larger will be the measured social class differences in IQ and other biological variables.

"The non-symmetrical distribution of high and low social class around the average of 100 is probably due to the fact that some of the highest IQ people can be found doing unskilled jobs (such as catering or labouring) but the lowest IQ people are very unlikely to be found doing selective-education-type professional jobs (such as medicine, architecture, science or law).

"In round numbers, there are differences of nearly two standard deviations (or 25 IQ points) between the highest and lowest occupational social classes when class is measured precisely; and about one standard deviation (or 15 IQ points) difference when social class (SC) is measured less precisely.

"I will use these measured social class IQ differences of either one or nearly two standard deviations to give upper and lower bounds to estimates of the differential or ratio of upper and lower social classes we would expect to see at universities of varying degrees of selectivity.

"We can assume that there are three types of universities of differing selectivity roughly corresponding to some post-1992 ex-polytechnic universities; some of the pre-1992 Redbrick or Plateglass universities (eg. the less selective members of the Russell Group and 1994 Group), and Oxbridge.

"The ‘ex-poly’ university has a threshold minimum IQ of 100 for admissions (ie. the top half of the age cohort of 18 year olds in the population – given that about half the UK population now attend a higher education institution), the ‘Redbrick’ university has a minimum IQ of 115 (ie. the top 16 percent of the age cohort); while ‘Oxbridge’ is assumed to have a minimum IQ of about 130 (ie. the top 2 percent of the age cohort).
"When social class is measured precisely, it can be seen that the expected Highest SC to Lowest SC differential would probably be expected to increase from about three-fold (when the percentages at university are compared with the proportions in the national population) in relatively unselective universities to more than thirty-fold at highly selective universities.

"When using a more conservative assumption of just one standard deviation in average IQ between upper (IQ 110) and lower (IQ 95) social classes there will be significant differentials between Highest and Lowest social classes, increasing from two-fold at the ‘ex-poly’ through four-fold at the ‘Redbrick’ university to nine-fold at ‘Oxbridge’.

"In other words, according to social class definitions, the average child from the highest social class is from nine-to-thirty times more likely to qualify for admission to a highly selective university than the average child from the lowest social class."
So that was back in 2008. And seven years later, politicians are still not conceding the inevitability of elitism or that the unskilled labouring classes are, on average, not too bright.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Upcoming science-fiction

1. "Slow Bullets" by Alastair Reynolds (9th June 2015).

Synopsis: "From the author of the Revelation Space series comes an interstellar adventure of war, identity, betrayal, and the preservation of civilization itself.

"A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.

"On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.

"Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life."
2. "Poseidon's Wake" (Poseidons Children 3) by Alastair Reynolds (30 Apr 2015).

Synopsis: "Alastair Reynolds is known as an author with big ideas. From human modification, to techno-plagues, mega-crises to mega-structures, his writing has always contained big ideas. To get it out of the way, this book is no exception.

"The narrative explores the journey of several scions of the Akinya family, who figured heavily in the previous two books in the same universe. Reynolds has done something clever here – setting each novel with protagonists from a new generation of the same family allows the reader to track societal changes, see shifts in viewpoints at the macro level as well as the personal, whilst retaining reader investment in the individual.

"In this particular case, we’re given two initial strands to follow; one on Mars, the home of human ambassador’s to the human-created AI civilisation now present there, and another on Crucible – a human colony, home to the mysterious artefact ‘’The Mandala”, as well as the remnants of a tribe of uplifted, intelligent elephants. Not to give the game away, but these two locations may act as the springboard for the rest of the text, but things do quite quickly change.

"The Elephants, incidentally, are another key thread running through the series – their interactions with humanity showing the way in which we interact with other living beings unlike ourselves, even as the AI on Mars act as a mirror of how we might act when faced with a machine which is also, in some (or perhaps all) senses, alive.

"The characters are a key facet of this novel. I’ve criticised Reynolds before for having characters that seemed to act more like generators of interesting conversations than actual people; he’s done quite a lot to redress the balance here. The Akinya’s, their various friends, loves, and losses, have become quite believable over three books, and Reynolds has managed to avoid getting into the depths of technical exposition at the expense of character growth. Instead we get quite a lot of dialogue trying to build relationships around the characters, and more emotional reflection than might have been visible in earlier work. There’s still a few awkward flashes, emotional responses and intensities which didn't quite ring true, but the characters do feel a great deal like people.

"Worth noting that this is technically a standalone in a shared universe; honestly, I wouldn’t try and read it without having read the other two books first to provide some context. It looks like it would be possible, but a great deal of the text, especially the initial setup, draws on events from the other two books, and the universe of the narrative is much richer, and far less confusing, if you come to this as a conclusion to a multi-generational saga, rather than on its own.

"The text is full to bursting with answers to interesting questions, ranging from the philosophical - how do we act in a universe where we’re not alone? How might we interact with artefacts from a civilisation aeons older than our own? To the philosophical – how do we define humanity? If we were told the ultimate truth of the universe, how might we react? Who are we, really, as a species, as individuals? The narrative approaches all of these questions unflinchingly, and does its best to provide an answer to them.

"In that respect, it’s a typical Reynolds book, and if you want to explore these questions, and their answers, within a well realised sci-fi universe, with plausible characters and a decent narrative, then this book is worth picking up."
3. "Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (21st May 2015)  [880 pages!]

Synopsis: "Stephenson’s remarkable novel is deceptively complex, a disaster story and transhumanism tale that serves as the delivery mechanism for a series of technical and sociological visions. When the moon explodes, it doesn’t take long for scientists (including Doc “Doob” Dubois, who bears no small resemblance to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) to realize that the debris will soon cause the destruction of Earth.

"The residents of the International Space Station, including roboticist Dinah MacQuarie and commander Ivy Xiao, immediately begin working with their colleagues on Earth to turn the ISS into a viable habitat for as many people as possible. The next two years are filled with heroic sacrifices, political upheavals, and disasters, most of which are only exacerbated when Earth finally succumbs to the “Hard Rain,” meteorite bombardment that last for millennia.

"The survivors—seven fertile women—are destined to repopulate the human race, and it’s only here, over halfway through the story, that Stephenson (the Baroque Cycle) really shows his hand, moving ahead 5,000 years to explore the moral and political implications of the earlier events. There’s a ton to digest, but Stephenson’s lucid prose makes it worth the while."
All three pre-ordered: two Kindle editions + "Slow Bullets" only available as paperback.

And now we turn to the 'to be read' stack. I loved "Fairyland" by Paul McAuley; some of his other stuff not so much. I'll be giving his latest a try.

4. "Something Coming Through" by Paul McAuley (19 Feb 2015)

Synopsis: "The aliens are here. And they want to help. The extraordinary new project from one of the country's most acclaimed and consistently brilliant SF novelists of the last 30 years.

"The Jackaroo have given humanity 15 worlds and the means to reach them. They're a chance to start over, but they're also littered with ruins and artifacts left by the Jackaroo's previous clients.

"Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could for ever alter humanity - or even destroy it.

"Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that their visions point towards a new kind of danger.

"And on one of the Jackaroo's gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.

"Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe's orphans, and Vic Gayle's murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo's benevolence..."

5. The Revelation Space sequence by Alastair Reynolds

I read these over the years, but apart from the first volume (which is still pretty familiar) I've largely forgotten the sequels. Luckily they're pretty cheap on Kindle so books 2-5 are now stacked awaiting a revisit. Here are the titles in order.

  1. Revelation Space. London: Gollancz, 2000.
  2. Chasm City. London: Gollancz, 2001. 
  3. Redemption Ark. London: Gollancz, 2002..
  4. Absolution Gap. London: Gollancz, 2003.
  5. The Prefect. London: Gollancz, 2007.

Back to Conjoiners and their drive, Lighthuggers, Exordium, Hypometric weapons and the Inhibitors!

An ode to an eclipse

We searched, but failed to find 
My father's old and tinted welding glass 
That deep-hued slab which warded off actinic flares 
In days now passed. 
The Somerset clouds came then, a shield
To aid our task.

Me: "Listen, the birds are singing. It's a second dawn chorus!"

Clare; "I can't hear anything .."

High-frequency hearing loss - such a filter against Nature.


To descend even deeper into bathos, I sent my Passport renewal application off this morning post-eclipse. This involved an encounter with an authoritarian photo booth at the Post Office. Here's the result.

The author - not about to be incarcerated, I hasten to add!

I have to say that this doesn't correspond to my self-image, the 'inner me' at all. Why doesn't my inner 'David' manifest itself?

Michelangelo rather improves on the photo booth ...

Maybe it's the hair?


Finally, this little nostalgia piece from a pre-Christmas visit to France in December 2012. A left bank bistro in the Parisian night ...

Some of us ate frogs' legs (taste a little like chicken - isn't that what you're meant to say?)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When we were (a little) younger

This blog started in 2005; these three photos prove that we existed even before that time.

2003 in Aberystwyth, Wales

2002 - Yosemite

2002 - San Francisco

I felt I was channelling Andy Warhol here just a bit ... I know - wrong coast!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The great moth of sleep

To all those who mentor ...

The CEO mentors -- at Dilbert

The great moth of sleep alighted upon me yesterday afternoon, and as I drifted off my thoughts turned towards the Fool.
"In literature, the jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty, notably in King Lear, the court jester is a character used for insight and advice on the part of the monarch, taking advantage of his license to mock and speak freely to dispense frank observations and highlight the folly of his monarch. This presents a clashing irony as a "greater" man could dispense the same advice and find himself being detained in the dungeons or even executed. Only as the lowliest member of the court can the jester be the monarch's most useful adviser.
"Jesters could also give bad news to the King that no one else would dare deliver. The best example of this is in 1340, when the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Sluys by the English. Phillippe VI's jester told him the English sailors "don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French".
And then, for some reason, I thought of Jeremy Clarkson ...


The house painters are back!


A novelty door stop .. (in Wells this morning)

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Dieting Mirage

Every day you eat three to five pounds of food - where does it go? Most of it is (or is metabolised to) water which leaves the body as sweat, moist breath or liquid waste. Between half a pound and a pound is excreted as solid waste (eat more fibre!). The remainder is exhaled as yet another metabolic by-product - carbon dioxide. Oh, and maybe some of it adds to your unsightly girdle of fat!

Remember conservation of mass?

Suppose you go on a diet; you reduce your day's food intake by 1,000 Calories (i.e. half rations). Next day you weigh yourself. Triumph! ... you weigh a pound or two less!

So now it's an eating day again. Next day, omigod ... you've gained two pounds!

This is not a story of yo-yo dieting. You're weighing differences in internally-carried food!*

A pound of fat provides around 3,000 Calories. If you reduce your daily intake by 1,000 Calories you will metabolise of the order of one third of a pound of fat to compensate. Honestly, you will not notice this on the scales. If you can maintain a 1,000 Calorie daily deficit for a whole week (a big ask!) you might lose that magic two pounds for real - something noticeable behind the daily ups and downs of eat-process-excrete! Think incremental, marginal gains and stick at it.

* I don't think we should forget the gut microbiome either. Weighing in at two to three pounds, it seems plausible that this mass of symbiotic bacteria should be quite responsive to levels of nutrition, dying back when the host is dieting and re-expanding once the good times return. This additional (non-fat related) ebb and flow of weight probably occurs on a timescale of some days: yet another delayed reaction to dietary change.


And now for something completely relaxing: take your shoes off, lean back and just chill with this ...

Thanks to Marginal Revolution.


In other stuff, we have not seen the painter for some days after an initial half day of preliminary wall-scraping, an absence due entirely to rain and inclement winds. We hope to see him again tomorrow.

Free Energy is a thermodynamics concept: it's the amount of energy in a system which can do useful work. It's the reason why only differences in temperature can power machines like steam engines: a uniformly warm heat-bath can't make anything work. This has (negative) implications for life in the outer solar system. Remember Europa in the book/film 2001?

How do we know it's Spring? A vole's head, tail and unidentifiable lump on the kitchen floor yesterday morning + the animal has taken to ambush-hunting birds in the bushes under the feeders. Just thought I'd share ...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Joni Mitchell - "The Gallery"

This is rather poignant, don't you think? Clare's Joni collection in the car includes this from 'Clouds' (1969). It's become my latest .. well, you know.

Here are the lyrics:
When I first saw your gallery
I liked the ones of ladies
Then you began to hang up me
You studied to portray me
In ice and greens
And old blue jeans
And naked in the roses
Then you got into funny scenes
That all your work discloses

Somewhere in a magazine
I found a page about you
I see that now it's Josephine
Who cannot be without you
I keep your house in fit repair
I dust the portraits daily
Your mail comes here from everywhere
The writing looks like ladies'

I gave you all my pretty years
Then we began to weather
And I was left to winter here
While you went west for pleasure
And now you're flying back this way
Like some lost homing pigeon
They've monitored your brain, you say
And changed you with religion

"Lady, please love me now I was dead
I am no saint, turn down your bed
Lady, have you no heart," that's what you said
Well, I can be cruel
But let me be gentle with you.
One suspects that everything Joni sang about she also lived through - it turns out that the subject of this song was Leonard Cohen, who briefly dabbled in Scientology.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Thermonuclear War

I read excited prose in the newspapers, that the resurgent Russians are conducting endless war games in Eastern Europe which routinely simulate nuclear strikes, both tactical and on cities such as Warsaw.

As a teenager, I studied jaw-dropping books such as "On Thermonuclear War" by Herman Kahn (1960) (Wikipedia).

During the Cold War, NATO forces in Europe relied on nuclear weapons to address their numerical inferiority against a mass conscript Red Army. Allied war games had a curious deficiency: it was almost impossible to persuade officers to 'go nuclear'. And for good reason.

Doctrines were tweaked and special orders were given. What they found was that when the simulated conflict was forced to go nuclear, even if only tactical (kiloton) weapons were initially used, things rapidly escalated into Kahn territory .. and all out thermonuclear war. Count those megadeaths!

I really hope folk haven't forgotten all that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

<A|Q> = <A|I> <I|Q>

The title is a bit of a joke (don't ask) and even vaguely relevant to the subject of this post, which is the utility of artificial intelligence in thinking about hard stuff like IQ, human intelligence and even consciousness. This thought is not remotely original: Daniel Dennett was writing decades ago that AI and cognitive science would revolutionise traditional Philosophy of Mind topics such as free will, the existence of other people ('other minds'), and the nature of intentionality and agency.

It's a stretch to get from neuronal sludge to introspection. Into that gap flow ideas like 'the soul', philosophical dualism and 'the ghost in the machine'. Once you have a passing acquaintance with the architecture of theorem provers, AI planners and robotic control systems, a lot of things which previously seemed to defy a scientific, materialist explanation suddenly seem .. kinda obvious.

AI systems typically use deduction and/or abduction. Deduction lets you plan your way, despite obstacles, from a starting situation to a goal. The paradigmatic example must be the satnav, although we used to quote chess playing programs. The less familiar abduction looks for a conceptual framework which would economically account for the data under consideration, and which would allow a novel problem to be solved (typically by then applying deduction). We call these learning systems and it's the new hot topic in AI. A good example of such a system might be IBM's Watson.

A while ago I wrote about the Gossip Cat concept: an AI 'toy' which could be a companion to the young or old. It seems that Watson is going to add some value here: the dinosaur toy in the video below is powered by Watson in 'the Cloud'.

(The dialogue model has got to stop aping Wikipedia though. The point is to chat!)

Yes, the dialogue is processed by an AI system - IBM's Watson - in the Cloud. This means that everything spoken in the room is sent off to IBM's servers (somewhere in the States, I imagine) to be interpreted. Has anyone thought at all about the privacy implications of this? Apart from the police and intelligence agencies, obviously.

So then I had a further thought. The toy has been placed in the suspect's household ...  'Watson in the Cloud' is surreptitiously taken offline and a spook-interrogator takes over:

"Tell me Luke, what time is Daddy coming home tonight ... ?"

However ... there's lots of our most precious stuff already in the Cloud: our bank accounts, our savings, ... DropBox. I don't think these privacy issues are the kiss of death per se; what we need are sufficient trust relationships for this novel form of Cloud-based surveillance - it's the unpredictability and 'always-on' character of real-time conversation which presents the challenge.

A 'giddy clipper'

Clare cut my hair today. When is she ever going to master those clippers? Things you don't want to hear while the process is underway - 'Whoops!'.

So now I get to scare folk on the streets of Wells, Bristol and beyond. The upside - shampooing is a doddle!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Tomorrow, weather permitting, EA Construction will be coming around to paint our house. The front had been refaced with cement and looks gray and rough; the rest is old, tired and colonised (picture). I'm told that after two weeks we will be somewhat pink - I prefer to believe we're talking adobe.

Before painting (the back of the house)
What else? A spare bed which has been cluttering up the house for years is due to be collected by the YMCA, also tomorrow. I really have no knowledge of this organisation beyond that imparted by noted troubadours, The Village People, but I'm sure the bed will be put to good use.

I had an application in with the OPG for LPA which I had rather feared might lost in the post. I called this morning and yes, they have received it, there are no errors and the registration process is ongoing.

The author: why so smug?
Anything else? Well, this morning I weighed in at just 10 stone 11 (68.5 kg) ... and we have Clare's special homemade spaghetti carbonara tonight (.. so that might change, then).

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Frank Salter and the genetics of immigration

I've been thinking about Frank Salter, who wrote "On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethnicity, and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration" back in 2003 (I reviewed this last year). From being a taboo subject a while ago, immigration policy is now plastered across the front pages and camps out in op-ed pieces. When people immigrate to our country we gain their phenotypes in the short run => whatever skills they have to offer. If they stay and reproduce, we also get their alleles. Should we care?

Salter wants to argue that co-ethnics (people of the same race as yourself) are to be considered kin - part of your extended family. The figure I heard was that a random pair of co-ethnics are related at about 1/128 (apparently this is third cousin relatedness). Based on Hamilton's theory of kin selection, Salter suggests that this should lead us to favour co-ethnics over those more distantly related ('other races'). *

There is more.

In a review of Salter's book (p.10)  this is what Peter Gray (Department of Psychology, Boston College) had to say:
"Salter uses evolutionary theory not to explain behavior but to prescribe it. He clearly equates genetic interest with human good. In summing up his argument, in the “Afterword,” Salter writes, “My primary aim has not been to explain human behavior, but rather to offer social and political theory about what individuals should do if they want to behave adaptively” (p. 325, Salter’s italics). "

"What we should do, according to Salter, is discriminate by race. We should do this because it is in our genetic interest to do so. Races differ genetically, and we share more genes with people of our own race than with those of different races, so it is in our genetic interest to favor our own race. To Salter, unlike to the rest of us who use evolutionary theory, genetic interest is not just the metaphorical “interest” of the gene, it is the real interest of the person. Salter writes, “Genetic interest residing in a population is a public good that belongs, as it were, to its individual members” (p. 43)."
"I’m sure that Salter is not in favor of rape. But his logic states clearly that it would be immoral to pass laws against rape if that behavior is in someone’s genetic interest. When you think of it, most of our laws — laws against rape, murder, stealing, exploitation, slavery, and the like — are interfering with someone’s ability to pursue their genetic interest."
Yes, it's usually pro-social doves banding together to protect themselves against hawks. Insofar as doves tend to achieve more civilization-wise, this has to be judged a good thing. And here I think is the crux of the argument.  A civilised nation is better for all its members in terms of future survival (provided people actually get on and reproduce in the first place!). Looking around the world, and contra-Salter, a rational policy of genetic interests should be trying to boost alleles for intelligence, conscientiousness and general pro-sociality within our own societies. Strangely, that's exactly what immigration policies based on encouraging talent actually do.


* There is very little evidence of any built-in instinct which identifies somewhat genetically close kin. It seems very unlikely that we have spontaneous emotional connections to a random co-ethnic living in a town miles away. Even in a tight family environment, emotional bonding is apparently as much about growing up in close proximity as about cues from close genetic relatedness.

Friday, March 06, 2015

"The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" - Robert L. Trivers

Way too many people still waste everyone's time by falsely averring that the existence of altruism is a challenge and a puzzle to evolutionists. I re-read Robert Trivers classic paper: "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" and share with you the following observations.

  1. This is a model of how to write a paradigm-changing paper. It's an easy read, conceptually clear and comprehensive. You owe it to yourself to click on the link and give it a try.

  2. In a sense, it's a statement of the blindingly obvious, particularly when Trivers discusses human altruism and the psychological mechanisms underlying it (friendship, dislike, gratitude, moralistic aggression, sympathy). It is, however, a testament to the systematic confusion and obfuscation of prior intellectual elites that Trivers had to restate and reframe the obvious to clear away an edifice of tendentious, muddle-headed thinking. On second thoughts, you may delete the word 'prior' above: an evolutionist's work is truly never done.

  3. Trivers suggested that the arms race between altruists and cheaters (doves vs. hawks if you like) is so complex, with strategies and counter-strategies and counter-counter-strategies, that it may have been a major driver for human-level intelligence. I'm not sure this intriguing idea has really been explored to date.

Trivers' first case study- 'Altruistic Behaviour in Cleaning Symbioses' - carefully removes issues of kin-selection and inclusive fitness by considering between-species altruism. He then considers the puzzling case of bird alarm calls (which seem to put the calling bird in special danger) and shows that a bird warning non-kin still has a selective advantage over the cheating non-warner. Finally we get to the human condition, where his apparently commonplace observations are subtly situated within a carefully-argued evolutionary framework.

Going forwards, there has to be scope for a genetic level of analysis based on GWAS research. Is altruism normally distributed (many genes of small effect)? Is there evidence of multi-modal distributions based on distinct evolutionarily stable strategies (crudely, sociopaths vs. the prosocial)?

For evidence that people's natural instincts and inclinations do not naturally align with Darwinian thinking, review these comments at West Hunter.

The Aquarium

Turtles! Fish! Who would have thought it?

"I think that octopus thing isn't real .. "

This dinner-plate-size snapper certainly is ...

We could be in Florida ...
We ventured to the furthest of the greenhouses, farther than we've ever been before. And my mother and I chanced upon this aquatic wonderland.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Secret Gardens at Kilver Court

We visited the Secret Gardens this afternoon (Kilver Court, Shepton Mallet).

The author under the viaduct

Clare fronting the lake and design centre

The Tea Party - it's Alice-themed this Spring

and what a beautiful garden it is ...

Just us and a few gardeners

Do I look 'planted'?

Not just a smile ...

Curious how they could be ... twins?

Remember the 'playing cards'?

and here she is at last ...
After our garden tour we said calories be damned! It was coffee and toasted teacakes in the Harlequin Cafe while my pix uploaded.

Garden Pix (dept. of disguise)

After our trip to Kilver Court, Shepton Mallet, we dropped in to Dobbies Garden World where Clare checked out the category of 'plants which hide unsightly concrete posts when they grow up'.

The gardener at work ...

This is a bamboo which grows to 5 ft apparently

... and this is another plant with similar aspirations

The animal and his shadow ... checking stuff ...