Thursday, August 27, 2015

The coming China-America War

A good review from The Economist (excerpted below). And also from most of the American military-political-industrial complex.

The Economist notes that writing polemical books warning of inadequacies in your country's military posture is far from new:
Ghost Fleet” is an entertaining new entrant into this tradition. Peter Singer, who has thought about military matters at various Washington think-tanks, and August Cole, a former defence reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spin a story of a war between America and China a decade or so hence that takes place mainly in the Pacific, but also in cyberspace and outer space.

The Pentagon, long used to dominance, currently worries a lot about China’s defensive prowess; Chinese targets may be so well protected by missiles and radars that it would be hard for America to attack them, if such a move seemed necessary in order to assist an Asian ally. To fit the form of the future-war genre, though, “Ghost Fleet” looks not at China’s ability to fend off America but at its means to attack. Moving to forestall any American claim on vast energy resources it has discovered in the western Pacific, a post-communist Chinese government uses new technologies and subterfuge to destroy America’s aircraft-carriers, submarines and surveillance satellites, cripple its computer systems and subvert weapons systems that depend on Chinese-made microchips.

With some Russian assistance, China invades Hawaii and establishes its dominance across the ocean. America is forced to regroup and come up with a counter-attack, one that depends heavily on the USS Zumwalt, its capable, slightly-but-not-very conflicted captain, Jamie Simmons, and its master chief, Jamie’s estranged father Mike.

The plot rattles through its three acts in a manner well suited to beaches and long-haul flights. It is perhaps a little anticlimactic; the novelties and narrative twists deployed in the initial attacks make them more thrilling than the big battle at the end. The heart of the matter is not the plot, however, but the nifty details used to shape and adorn it.

Fighters on both sides take officially sanctioned stimulants and other drugs as a matter of course, with some combatants surgically enhanced so as to surpass human norms; familiarity with, and reliance upon, augmented-reality eyewear becomes a dividing line between seamen old and young; Walmart puts its supply chain onto a wartime footing; robot lobsters support SEAL teams. Throughout there are echoes of earlier future-war stories, from Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” to Hector Bywater’s “The Great Pacific War”—a novel from 1925 whose inclusion of a surprise Japanese attack on the American fleet came to look eerily prescient in 1941.

The technology is not all high, and the fighters not all straightforwardly heroic or villainous. The American resistance on Oahu—the “North Shore Mujahideen”—moves by mountain bike, uses GoPro cameras to record the carnage caused by its improvised explosive devices and provokes atrocities to keep the occupiers from winning the submission of the islanders.

The book makes fairly clear which side the authors take in various current military debates. They think more should be spent on dogfighting drones. They want a defence industrial base that is nimbler and more secure. They are keen on weapons that can smite things far faster than current missiles can, such as rail guns and laser beams. Their version of the Zumwalt, which in the real world is an experimental destroyer close to being commissioned, and which in the novel’s world has already been mothballed to the “ghost fleet” of the title, is kitted out with both.

They are intriguingly hard to read, though, on the key issue of the future of the aircraft-carrier. As missiles get better, the craft seem all but certain to become more vulnerable, as the American carriers in “Ghost Fleet” prove. But the book is silent on what to do about that in a world where America depends on them above all other tools for the projection of power.

Unlike Chesney, whose story ended with Britain a province of the German Reich, the authors do not underline their messages by having America’s defeat made permanent. Instead, after heroism, high-jinks and sacrifice, the Pacific is returned to something like the status quo. But if aircraft-carriers really are on the losing side of the sort of technological progress the book portrays, the real-world status quo looks unlikely to persist over the decades to come."
The authors of a 'novel of ideas' have the perennial problem of characterisation. If we're intended to focus on fatal flaws in our defence posture, why inflict a gratuitous soap opera of conflicted personalities acting out some oedipal conflict (as they do)?

But if you don't do this, you've written a polemical essay of interest only to defence analysts.

I think the authors just carry it off, breaking away from their concern with technologies and strategy to consider the human (... resources, I was going to say!) side of war. They've been as assiduous in capturing the experience of combat - and the impact of war on families - as everything else. But, as they say, they did a lot of interviews.

State-of-the-art military architecture is founded upon the integration of sensing, communications, automated analysis and force deployment. Fine if the opponent can't degrade your military nervous system. In biological terms, the Chinese in this novel deliver a neurotoxin to the US military, turning its neurons (chips) traitor and wiping out its higher brain functions. The fog of war descends upon the Americans - in absolute fashion.

If there's one lesson the reader should take home from the beach, it's how to address that problem* (along with the utter vulnerability of the carriers of course!).


* Here's a clue. What do you in today's professional armies when you can't rely on a command and control network? You make sure your units are well briefed and then you give them maximum tactical autonomy. It's the well known 'thin vs. fat client' spectrum: you can trade off lack of communications bandwidth with increased local intelligence, smarter sensors and drones.

Monday, August 24, 2015


The rain comes down and I retreat into books.


You can't hurt a hammer but we have a society which prevents cruelty to animals. Could you hurt a computer running a suitable program? I read "Consciousness and the Brain" by Stanislas Dehaene hoping for some illumination (if that isn't too subjective a stance).

The Global Workspace of Consciousness

Dehaene is an experimental neurologist, adept with fMRI scanners and EEGs. His book promotes the Global Workspace Theory of consciousness, a two layer model where primary sensory and motor processing is done by local subconscious neuron modules, while consciousness resides in higher-layer cortical modules characterised by long-range neural structure and 'global activation'.

He describes lots of experiments.

Dehaene is an interesting, influential and compelling writer. I can't say I was surprised by anything he said but he provided detail and texture. Degeneration in the cortex and/or lack of cortical activation leads to a kind of fade-out of consciousness, seen particularly in dementia. Perhaps this is reassuring.

The 'hard problem' alluded to in my opening remarks (subjective experience, eg the sensation of pain) is completely unaddressed by all this brain surveillance and modelling. Even the fact that it remains totally mysterious is mysterious.


Novels can bring the past to life. If you ask me about mid-19th century Russia I might give you a picture of a stagnant and antiquated society with brutish peasants and a proto-working class, a decadent aristocracy and an anaemic and stillborn middle-class of deeply-frustrated professionals. That's the picture I got from reading Lenin and Trotsky.

But I have since read Dostoyevsky and I really know better.

Adrian recommended "Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev. Here's an extract from the Wikipedia plot summary.
"Arkady Kirsanov has just graduated from the University of Petersburg and returns with a friend, Bazarov, to his father's modest estate in an outlying province of Russia. His father, Nikolai, gladly receives the two young men at his estate, called Marino, but Nikolai's brother, Pavel, soon becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called "nihilism" which the young men advocate.


The two young men remain at Marino for a short time, then decide to visit a relative of Arkady's in a neighboring province. There they observe the local gentry and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means who invites them to spend a few days at her estate, Nikolskoe.

At Nikolskoe, they also meet Katya, Madame Odintsova's sister. Although they remain for only a short period, both characters undergo significant change: their relationship with each other is especially affected, as they both find themselves drawn to Madame Odintsova. Bazarov in particular finds this distressing because falling in love goes against his nihilist beliefs. Eventually, he announces that he loves her. She does not respond to his declaration, and soon after, Arkady and Bazarov leave for Bazarov's home.

... They leave almost immediately and return to Arkady's home.

Arkady remains for only a few days, and makes an excuse to leave in order to go to Nikolskoe. Once there, he realizes he is not in love with Odintsova, but instead with her sister Katya. Bazarov stays at Marino to do some scientific research, and tension between him and Pavel increases.

Bazarov enjoys talking with Fenichka and playing with her child, and one day he gives her a quick kiss. Pavel observes this kiss and ... challenges Bazarov to a duel. Pavel is wounded in the leg, and Bazarov must leave Marino. He stops for an hour or so at Madame Odintsova's, then continues on to his parents' home. Meanwhile, Arkady and Katya have fallen in love and have become engaged.

At home, Bazarov cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions. He cuts himself and contracts blood poisoning (septicemia). On his deathbed, he sends for Madame Odintsova, who arrives just in time to hear Bazarov tell her how beautiful she is. She kisses him on the forehead and leaves; Bazarov dies from his illness the following day.

Bazarov is the centre of the novel, a charismatic and highly intelligent young man bristling with arrogance, conceit and more than a touch of sociopathy. The programme of the nihilists, an offshoot of the western european rationalist enlightenment, was to take nothing on authority. Everything was to be rethought from rational first principles.

This intellectual 'zero-based budgeting' doesn't work too well with entrenched and reactionary power structures (cf Dostoyevsky's Demons which is winging its way to me via Amazon as we speak) and is profoundly mistaken about human relationships, traditions and culture. It's really pure 'blank slateism' showing that the most contemporary of ideologies were already in circulation in 1860s provincial Russia. The remaking of society along rational lines rarely works out well.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Genetically Engineered People: ethics and prospects

The Economist coincidentally has this feature in its latest edition
Many SF writers have speculated about genetically-engineering people for diverse environments. Whether it's microgravity habitats, long-duration space missions, water-worlds or high-gravity planets, it seems plausible that we could help natural selection along the way and engineer human DNA to create the adaptations we would need to cope. I alluded to this in the recent post about about buying insurance in case of asteroid impact (apropos living on Mars).

Genetically-modified human: not a pretty sight
It's easy to float the idea, but could it work in practice? There are some ethical issues, to put it mildly. Although most mutations (I'm thinking SNPs - single nucleotide polymorphisms) are additive, the complex relationship between DNA structure and gene expression makes it difficult to mathematically or computationally predict the phenotypical result of this or that allele modification. To get an effect akin to creating a new, tailored species of humanity would require thousands of novel alleles.

How does Nature do it? Evolution creates new alleles by mutation, at random: if the mutation confers an advantage it may survive and spread as the people carrying its less-adaptive competitors are preferentially killed by the environment. Each of us is here because thousands of our long-ago relatives who were somewhat unlike us died horribly, without reproducing.

If our predictive models were good enough, we could short-cut Nature's brutal 'generate and test' algorithm. But no simulation is likely to give us sufficiently accurate data - there are just too many subtleties in a world of real bodies, real environments and real life histories. We would have to do our best, bring new kinds of people into life and just see how they coped. Reduced to such real-life debugging, expect inevitable tragedies.

Greg Egan was thinking along similar lines when he discussed his novel, 'Permutation City'.
Q6: What do you regret most about Permutation City?

A6: Something quite separate from the issues with the Dust Theory mentioned above, although these are all valid points. What I regret most is my uncritical treatment of the idea of allowing intelligent life to evolve in the Autoverse. Sure, this is a common science-fictional idea, but when I thought about it properly (some years after the book was published), I realised that anyone who actually did this would have to be utterly morally bankrupt. To get from micro-organisms to intelligent life this way would involve an immense amount of suffering, with billions of sentient creatures living, struggling and dying along the way. Yes, this happened to our own ancestors, but that doesn’t give us the right to inflict the same kind of suffering on anyone else.

This is potentially an important issue in the real world. It might not be long before people are seriously trying to “evolve” artificial intelligence in their computers. Now, it’s one thing to use genetic algorithms to come up with various specialised programs that perform simple tasks, but to “breed”, assess, and kill millions of sentient programs would be an abomination. If the first AI was created that way, it would have every right to despise its creators.
So what do you think? If the prize was to colonise a new planet, one which could not be terraformed but which could be occupied by suitably-modified people, would the ethics committee approve? Wouldn't it be insane not to go ahead, accepting the inevitable (but hopefully short-term) suffering?

By coincidence, The Economist wrote about similar issues in this week's edition.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Well, it's arrived

I've passed the rigorous scrutiny (as has Clare) and my ballot is now ready to cast. The following just arrived by email.

Dear Nigel,

You can now vote for the next Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

You can vote online and your vote must be received by 12 noon on Thursday 10 September to count.

To vote, go to and enter the following two-part security code to confirm your identity:

Security Code Part One: ********
Security Code Part Two: ****

Once you have entered your security code, the website will give clear instructions on how to cast your vote. It takes just a few moments to cast your vote online, and you can do so at any time until the ballot closes at 12 noon on Thursday 10 September.

Vote Online Now

These elections are being run by Electoral Reform Services, who have been appointed by the Labour Party as the independent scrutineer for this ballot.

If you live in London, as well as voting for Labour's Leader and Deputy Leader, you can also vote to select Labour's candidate for London Mayor for the elections being held in May 2016.

On the online voting site, please rank the candidates in your order of preference. You do not need to use all of your preferences, but doing so cannot harm your first-preference candidate. Click here if you want to understand more about the voting system.

Thank you for taking part in these important elections,

The Labour Party
Sent by Electoral Reform Services

This could ruin your whole day ...

Perhaps we should start to listen to the Tesla guy and put some of our eggs in another basket (make sure the video captions are on - box on bottom right, left of settings; and you can lose the audio ).

If you followed the link you may never think about Excel spreadsheets the same way again.

Putting the 'one million people on Mars' to one side, here are some other options:
  • long-duration refuge sites buried deep inside the mountains; 
  • a (largely) self-sustaining lunar colony;
  • asteroid or orbital habitats. 
They're all hard - but then, so is Mars. Any place where we need advanced technology to survive at all is going to be vulnerable to system crashes. All the proposed refuges need advanced, not basic technology, sustained by hi-tech societies and lots of skilled people.

I would much prefer self-maintaining and self-reproducing technologies (aka 'life') which could be engineered to thrive in these hard environments and could create an ecology in which even underskilled and numerically-depleted humans could survive and progress.

Maybe needs a similar reworking of human, though (see this post).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Logic Puzzle

From page 262 of 'The Art of Prolog' by Leon Sterling and Ehud Shapiro.

"The challenge is to write a Prolog program to solve the following logic puzzle.
(a) The Englishman lives in the red house.
(b) The Spaniard owns the dog.
(c) Coffee is drunk in the green house.
(d) The Ukrainian drinks tea.
(e) The green house is immediately to the right (your right) of the ivory house.
(f) The Winston smoker owns snails.
(g) Kools are smoked in the yellow house.
(h) Milk is drunk in the middle house.
(i) The Norwegian lives in the first house on the left.
(j) The man who smokes Chesterfields lives in the house next to the man with the fox.
(k) Kools are smoked in the house next to the house where the horse is kept.
(1) The Lucky Strike smoker drinks orange juice.
(m) The Japanese smokes Parliaments.
(n) The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.

Who owns the Zebra? Who drinks water?"
They provide the solution to a simpler problem.

Clare had a go and figured out that the water-drinker might be Norwegian, then things bogged down a little. My own programming efforts, meanwhile, were mired in bugs.

It is often the little things in life which absurdly please. Imagine my delight (spoilers follow) when my Prolog program produced the following output:
Logic Puzzle v. 0082
Persons = [person(yellow,norwegian,fox,water,kools,1),

S = [['The zebra is owned by the ', japanese], ['the ', norwegian, ' drinks water']].
For my next trick it's implementing one of those block-stacking planning programs, to be followed by Eliza. And after that, let's put them all together and have a go at a more interesting conversationalist.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Importance of Media Studies

Kevin Maher writes in The Times today:
" ... the Joint Council for Qualifications has revealed that the number of pupils taking allegedly tougher, more challenging subjects such as maths has risen this year. Simultaneously, and much to the delight of education snobs everywhere, the numbers taking so-called “flaky” subjects, such as media studies, has fallen.
Well, as someone who boasts a master’s in what must surely be one of the dumbest, flakiest subjects imaginable — film studies (I know, hilarious, isn’t it?) — I take enormous exception to the short-sighted assumptions behind this argument.
Under the guise of “studying film”, I was submerged, reluctantly it must be said (I was a student after all), in Italian social history (to back up the module on Italian neorealist cinema), German political history (for Weimar cinema), Marxist economics (for the term on the Paris riots of May 1968), Lacanian psychoanalysis (the Hitchcock class) and post-structuralist feminist theory (the Doris Day module).

It was ten months of non-stop brain-ache, speed-reading, essay writing, opinion-forming and tub-thumping debate, with a few movies thrown in. As a concentrated mind-expanding educational experience, it was more informative, inspiring and galvanising than anything I had done before or, to be brutally honest, since. "
So I was nodding along with this argument: Italian social history - OK; German political history - OK; Marxist economics - interesting but wrong; Lacanian psychoanalysis - obscure and wrong; post-structuralist feminist theory - opaque and wrong.

So in general you learned a great deal about stuff on a par with astrology, alchemy and theology - rigorous systems of thinking all and the cultural underpinnings of their times.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

" I like to think
       (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace"

Our machines are terrible: great, hulking ,wasteful things. We treat materials as continua, unable to exploit the wondrous functionality at molecular scale.

Unlike life. Those few pounds of nanoscale sludge between your ears can't be replicated by hangars of supercomputers burning through the output of power stations.

But we will get there. Some people bemoan 'the holocene extinction', the eradication of species as we engineer the planet for human purposes. Yet this is just an interregnum. Soon will come the new anthropocene explosion: endless new species, bioengineered to created a benevolent ecology, where we are watched over by animals and plants of loving grace.*

* No doubt they will be engineered to want to serve us: what could possibly go wrong ... ?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Is your author a butterfly?

The author's wife continually accuses your interlocutor of being a butterfly. He is said to pick up a new interest, insanely obsess about it (ordering books, reading articles, immersing himself) for .. oh, a few weeks ... until the next big thing comes up and, magpie-like, he moves on.

I naturally deprecate this characterisation but how to disprove it? Time to ask an artificial intelligence. Here is the transcript of my query to the mighty and powerful SWI-Prolog system.

/* Is Nigel a butterfly? */


interests(Person,List) :- findall(Topic,likes(Person,Topic),List).

obsessive(Person)       :- interests(Person,L),length(L,N),N=<2.

butterfly(Person)       :- not(obsessive(Person)).

Welcome to SWI-Prolog (Multi-threaded, 32 bits, Version 7.2.2) Copyright (c) 1990-2015 University of Amsterdam, VU Amsterdam SWI-Prolog comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY. This is free software, and you are welcome to redistribute it under certain conditions.

Please visit for details. For help, use ?- help(Topic). or ?- apropos(Word).

1 ?- interests(nigel, L).
L = [physics, prolog, genetics, politics, cosmology].

2 ?- obsessive(nigel).

3 ?- butterfly(nigel).

I am abashed, but what can I do? Clare was right after all: computer says yes ...

Friday, August 14, 2015

Turned out wet again, Piers

A trip today - there and back again in the rain! - to see my mother. Her general state of health is good and she continues to find her 'animatronic pet' Daisy engaging. Here's a previous video.

Beryl Seel with flowers today

Clare's idea - the flowers
My mother is a little confused: she told us that she'd been invited to the Council House to meet important people. I think she was referring to the Labour leadership contest which she probably saw on the TV news. We, in the meantime, have been bombarded with emails and campaign flyers from all the candidates since signing up as supporters. In fact Jeremy Corbyn's bright red pamphlet arrived today.

I have one degree of separation from Jeremy Corbyn. When I was in the International Marxist Group in London, I was on comradely terms with Piers Corbyn, his elder brother. At that time Piers was a post-grad at QMC (he did his BSc at Imperial College) studying astrophysics. He cut a rather shambolic figure with his long straggly hair and unkempt beard, coming across as eccentric and rather harmless: I recall he was always late for meetings. Subsequently Piers Corbyn became somewhat famous for unorthodox weather forecasting, more so than his MP brother. All that has now changed.

Jeremy and Piers Corbyn
I wish Piers well and suggest he rejoin the Labour Party in a senior capacity as soon as possible. I can't get enough of these fraternal leadership squabbles .. .

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Diary: timeline + gym + Susskind on YouTube

So what do we retired people do all day?
  • Up at 7.30 am, power up the computers, phone and tablets (five devices this morning) and read The Times on the Nexus 10 app (Clare ditto on her iPad).

  • 9.30 am finds me hoovering upstairs and downstairs while Clare is sloshing water around the kitchen, hall and bathroom. We take a break and wait for stuff to dry.

  • 11.30 and I'm off to the local gym. My session is 50 minutes: equal time aerobic and resistance machines. Taking into account there-and-back, warm-up and -down and showering and it's about an hour and a half. Clare's there too, about half the time, and claims to be 'weak as a kitten'.

  • Lunch.

  • We pop down to the shops to buy: sponges; a set of wooden spoons; groceries at Waitrose. It doesn't rain.

  • Clare takes a siesta with The Guardian while I spend ninety minutes writing a Prolog program to check palindromes (this tests data entry + list and string primitives: I'm still absorbing the language). The program doesn't work.

  • A cup of coffee.

  • I watch Professor Leonard Susskind's third lecture on Statistical Mechanics - he's deriving the Boltzmann distribution so we review Stirling's formula for factorials and Lagrange multipliers. Like half his audience, I'm much in need of his review.

  • Six pm. Dinner is delicious spicy chicken, bacon and rice prepared by Clare's fair hand. I eat way too much shortbread and chocolate. Never mind, it's a fast day tomorrow.

  • Evening. Catch up on blogs while Clare watches Andy Murray in Montreal on Sky Sports 5.

Another perfect day in paradise ...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bristol Harbour Tour

Another set of mindless day-trip snaps of no interest except to ourselves and perhaps real close family. Look away now, folks.

Bristol Packet Boat Trips do tours of the central Bristol waterways and as there was a rare lack of rain, today was the day. When the sun goes behind the clouds I can see the Nexus 6 screen, and then I can flip to 'selfie-mode' on the camera. Clare tells me that 'people' were 'staring' but they all seemed way too preoccupied taking their own selfies.

From the Packet Boat ... Bristol Harbour

Looking towards The Centre

The pastel houses of Hotwells

Clevedon Pier

First Mr Whippy of the season for Clare
I suggested Tyntesfield (National Trust) for lunch but as we sped through Failand Clare recalled past invasions of wasps there, so the meal was relocated to the Star Inn on the way to Clevedon (where we were driven inside by wasps).

Just watched the BBC 2 Horizon programme featuring Dr Michael Mosley on health tests for the worried well. The problem is the plague of false/misleading positives, where you are told enough to worry you but the diagnosis is either mistaken or there is no effective treatment. So you flip from joie de vivre to chronic low-level anxiety.

You are advised instead to eat and drink in moderation, take exercise, watch your weight and quit smoking.

Good advice .. as usual.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The poster boy of the left

Clare with her new poster - click on it to make large
Just back from the dentist where she suffered an injection & drilling en route to a new crown, Clare is cheered up by her new poster. Apparently I used to look like that guy with the red umbrella, back in my Jeremy Corbyn style salad days.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Simulating your significant other

Talking Angela: a tiresome app
I've told Clare that I'm writing a simulation of her - and that this explains why I spend long hours toiling away upstairs in  my study generating Prolog code.

I'm not sure whether she believes me ...

'Virtual Clare' will not be a chatbot in the mould of Eliza, or modern equivalents such as Cleverbot (try it here). Chatbot conversation is purposeless, vacuous and tedious beyond belief as it mindlessly pattern-matches canned responses*. But, as Ed Feigenbaum at Stanford noted with regard to expert systems, “In the knowledge lies the power.”

There were some expert systems a while back which explored a kind of creativity and learning. Given a comprehensive list of facts and a bunch of rules, they would apply the rules to generate new facts and then use heuristics to weed out those that were obvious, pointless and redundant. The system kind of saw the implications of what it knew. You can see how this might beef up a conversational chatbot's repertoire.

It's impossible for me to replicate the knowledge of an adult person - the significant other simply has had too many experiences, has too many memories and too much knowledge of the intricate web of daily life. The domain of conversation has to be drastically reduced -- for example, to the worldview of a cat.

Yes, notwithstanding Wittgenstein's aversion to the idea, I think Gossip Cat is coming back!


* So I guess that makes simulating me pretty easy, then ...

Saturday, August 08, 2015


We'd never visited the West Kennet Long Barrow and Clare was keen. The Barrow is nicer in the imagination than reality. Just an unassuming long bump on the top of a rise, the inside is even more disappointing, being quite truncated and showing only four or five (empty) burial chambers.

The furthermost space was occupied by four strange people when we arrived - one was tapping at a kind of small drum while the others were chanting, or droning or something. As the British do, we completely ignored them (I thought: 'druids!'). Leaving the Barrow I heard a truncated peal of laughter from inside so I suppose we were the targets of a practical joke.

There's a good view of Silbury Hill, which I wouldn't fancy constructing with just the neolithic versions of picks and shovels.

Silbury Hill

A grave chamber within West Kennet Long Barrow

The author and wife at the entrance to Avebury Manor

The amused wife

Inside the Manor: Clare is pensive

The author in his natural habitat

I just like slide rules ...

After we had moved on to Avebury itself and visited the Manor (National Trust) we finished with a trip to Swindon Hospital to see my mother, recovering from a hip breakage following a fall. She should be out on Monday but is increasingly frail.

GR as a spectator sport

I have now finished Prof. Susskind's ten-part General Relativity lecture course. Yes, we met the Field Equations in lecture 9. I feel like an American who has been shown a cricket test match by an informed guide: I sort of know what's going on, but I'd be completely incompetent at actually doing it.

I am nonetheless delighted.

I have now moved on to an area where I'm equally ignorant: thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. Luckily, Prof. Susskind has a ten lecture course!

Professor Leonard Susskind in action

Here's the link to the complete set of Professor Susskind's Theoretical Minimum courses.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Who to vote for in the Labour contest?

This is proving a surprisingly hard question.

1. It's hard to disagree with the proposition that policies which:
  • get the economy right
  • apply a level of redistribution to maintain an effective state
  • ensure social cohesion 
pretty much define the programme of a sensible political party. In the UK, this is called governing from the centre.

2. With a still-damaged economy, most people agree that the current priority is to clear debt-overhang, improve productivity, maintain growth and preserve social cohesion. Broadly that's where the Conservative Government has positioned itself and it's proved electorally sufficient.

3. When Labour was last in office, under Blair, it occupied essentially the same ground - albeit with less reforming zeal on public services. Blair won because the Tories had at that time narrowed their appeal to just their privileged friends and had lost the middle classes. The Tories continue to have the problem that the UK elite is culturally quite different from the mass middle classes; the latter typically find the former old-fashioned and rather repellant.

4. The brutal truth is that there is no political space right now for a successful Labour Party strategy, one which would be correct as in point (1) above (with Labourist nuances) but which would differ substantively from what the Tories are doing. That's why no one has come up with one.

5. The Labour Party in the fifties and sixties was the party of blue and white collar workers. Its powerhouse was the unions, while the TUC was a power in the land. The vast expansion of the middle-class in the sixties, seventies and eighties (fuelled by vastly increased university uptake) undermined the power and social weight of traditional organised labour.

6. Following these social changes (a testimony, by the way, to the success of capitalism in increasing all-round wealth) Labour politics moved to the Guardian agenda: identity politics and support for diverse 'victims and causes'. A rainbow coalition model always had the potential to destabilise the party: redistribution from those with wealth eclipsing any concern as to how that wealth might actually be produced in the first place (the not entirely trivial question of how a successful capitalist economy can be facilitated). The danger?  A fervent but self-limiting voting base, as Angela Eagle tried to point out in coded language the other day.

7. A party comprised mainly of a coalition of needy pressure groups is not that useful a project to safeguard the future of the UK. All parties tend to get captured by their natural backers despite the best efforts of their smarter leaders to undertake a truly national project. When that happens, it's vital to have a ready alternative. So when the reforming Thatcher government decayed to the ineffectual Major regime, we had a fresh-off-the-shelf Blair government to restore competence and re-address neglected concerns. The same will happen eventually with the Cameron-Osborne project.

8. OK, so we finally get to the point. Which is the least bad candidate to ensure that a future Labour Party will be fit for purpose?
  • Jeremy Corbyn is the worst candidate, because his passionately-held beliefs have essentially nothing in common with policies and strategies which actually work. A Corbyn leadership will lead to a cul de sac* at which point the party will have to have the discussion alluded to above in far more desperate straits.

  • Andy Burnham is not a good choice. All politicians are open to the accusations of hypocrisy and lack of principles, but Burnham seems to make an art form of it. I am inclined to believe he really is an unprincipled hypocrite standing on retrograde, statist and deeply-unhelpful policies.

  • Liz Kendall has neither the stature nor the ideas to take the party anywhere. Blairism was a model of Labour centrism for the 1990s; Labour centrism for 2020 and beyond has yet to be defined and I can't see Kendall playing any role. To start with, arguing for Blairist continuity going forwards is the stupidest political stance imaginable in the current febrile state of party opinion.

  • This leaves Yvette Cooper: machine politician, wife of Ed Balls, essentially invisible in this campaign. Three strikes there then. Paradoxically, electing a competent minder might be just what the party needs for the next few years. It has to wait out a Tory decline before it has a real chance of power again - and Yvette might be the one to take it there and oversee the new thinking required.
9. For deputy, one should vote for someone who can reach out to the membership and bring them along. Angela Eagle wouldn't be a bad choice; according to the latest polls, Caroline Flint might have a better prospect of heading off the malign Tom Watson.

(See what I did there? I ended up with three women candidates and their gender didn't even cross my mind until this exact moment).


* Adam Smith once wrote: "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation" by which he meant that mistaken policies take a while to wreck a strong economy. But at best they don't help and in the worst case, over a period, wreck it they can. We should not indulge utopian fantasies masquerading as political programmes.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Nice but Dim Party

Having each paid our £3 registration fee as Labour supporters, we were invited to come and hear Angela Eagle (candidate for deputy leader) in Bath this evening. In my lazy way, I had imagined a vast hall, with perhaps a thousand people from across the south-west, but it was not to be (see pix below).

Angela Eagle (deputy Labour Party leader candidate)

About fifty turned up in the end, at Friends Meeting House, Bath
In the end, about fifty people turned up at Friends Meeting House. I would say that it was about 2:1 women, and that the men were of that pleasant, agreeable type who make you welcome at parties. If the meeting had been a person, it would have been a forty-to-fifty-something woman brimming with empathy for the disadvantaged and fired up with moral fervour for Jeremy Corbyn, whose leftist inspirational campaign exactly captures her mood of trampled-upon values.

As Matthew Parris observed in a Times piece a few days ago, Mr Corbyn articulates with passion and conviction the genuine worldview of rank-and-file Labour Party supporters - this view is wholly based on emotion and values and they do viscerally believe it.

Faced with this squirming mass of barely-suppressed outrage, Angela in general copped out. Describing herself as 'soft left', she refused to put forward any strategy or policies for Labour going forwards. In her view it was too early in the election cycle for policies and she claimed to want to create a Labour Party where ideas bubbled up from an actively-involved membership. Her contribution was big on generic values (niceness, by and large) and demonology of the hated and uncaring Tories (George Osborne appears to be demon-in-chief, Cameron scarcely got a mention).

Angela made one brave attempt to distinguish between a political party which wants to attain power and has to address the issues of the whole electorate, versus a pressure group which simply lobbies for its pet concern.

Angela, I thought to myself, calm yourself, the pass is sold: you spoke to a meeting of overlapping pressure groups - pro-immigrant, pro-welfare, anti-welfare-caps, pro-trade-union .. I think that covers most of what came up.

Clare prepares herself for the meeting (Bath Abbey backdrop)
This does leave me with a dilemma: who do I vote for in the leadership elections next week? I strongly lean towards supporting Jeremy Corbyn, not because I agree with his policies (one Venezuela on the planet is quite enough) but because the Party seems to need to go through the Corbyn experience just to discover in practice why it doesn't deliver their noble (but deeply naive) objectives.

But then there's the argument that the sane wing of the Party needs all the help it can get to pick up the pieces after Jeremy gets in anyhow. But Liz Kendall seems a wasted vote - there is no constituency for her position in the Party's voting-electorate (Blairism is dead) and in any case she's a deeply underwhelming candidate with not an original idea that I've seen.

I'm still thinking about it ...


Ironically, Clare will vote for Jeremy Corbyn on the single issue of his opposition to Trident ...

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The painter

This has been a long time in the planning. I escaped most of yesterday as I was visiting my mother in Swindon hospital (she fell and broke her hip at the weekend and is awaiting an operation later today).

This morning I spun out the gym session, but there is only so long you can physically torture yourself.

To be fair, I have got off lightly. My services needed for sanding and dabbing those hard-to-reach corners of the bathroom upstairs. And we're mostly done now.

'Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming' - be a little concerned

Last year Steve Hsu wrote an article entitled: "Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming". Here's an excerpt:
"Genetic engineering will one day create the smartest humans who have ever lived.

"Lev Landau, a Nobelist and one of the fathers of a great school of Soviet physics, had a logarithmic scale for ranking theorists, from 1 to 5. A physicist in the first class had ten times the impact of someone in the second class, and so on. He modestly ranked himself as 2.5 until late in life, when he became a 2. In the first class were Heisenberg, Bohr, and Dirac among a few others. Einstein was a 0.5!

"My friends in the humanities, or other areas of science like biology, are astonished and disturbed that physicists and mathematicians (substitute the polymathic von Neumann for Einstein) might think in this essentially hierarchical way. Apparently, differences in ability are not manifested so clearly in those fields. But I find Landau’s scheme appropriate: There are many physicists whose contributions I cannot imagine having made.

"I have even come to believe that Landau’s scale could, in principle, be extended well below Einstein’s 0.5. The genetic study of cognitive ability suggests that there exist today variations in human DNA which, if combined in an ideal fashion, could lead to individuals with intelligence that is qualitatively higher than has ever existed on Earth: Crudely speaking, IQs of order 1,000, if the scale were to continue to have meaning.

"... Does g predict genius? Consider the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, a longitudinal study of gifted children identified by testing (using the SAT, which is highly correlated with g) before age 13. All participants were in the top percentile of ability, but the top quintile of that group was at the one in 10,000 level or higher. When surveyed in middle age, it was found that even within this group of gifted individuals, the probability of achievement increased drastically with early test scores. For example, the top quintile group was six times as likely to have been awarded a patent than the lowest quintile. Probability of a STEM doctorate was 18 times larger, and probability of STEM tenure at a top-50 research university was almost eight times larger. It is reasonable to conclude that g represents a meaningful single-number measure of intelligence, allowing for crude but useful apples-to-apples comparisons.

"... Once predictive models are available, they can be used in reproductive applications, ranging from embryo selection (choosing which IVF zygote to implant) to active genetic editing (for example, using CRISPR techniques). In the former case, parents choosing between 10 or so zygotes could improve the IQ of their child by 15 or more IQ points. This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good college degree. Zygote genotyping from single cell extraction is already technically well developed, so the last remaining capability required for embryo selection is complex phenotype prediction. The cost of these procedures would be less than tuition at many private kindergartens, and of course the consequences will extend over a lifetime and beyond.

"The corresponding ethical issues are complex and deserve serious attention in what may be a relatively short interval before these capabilities become a reality. Each society will decide for itself where to draw the line on human genetic engineering, but we can expect a diversity of perspectives. Almost certainly, some countries will allow genetic engineering, thereby opening the door for global elites who can afford to travel for access to reproductive technology. As with most technologies, the rich and powerful will be the first beneficiaries. Eventually, though, I believe many countries will not only legalize human genetic engineering, but even make it a (voluntary) part of their national healthcare systems.

"The alternative would be inequality of a kind never before experienced in human history."
Steve Hsu focuses on the additive nature of most genes:
"In plant and animal genetics it is well established that the majority of phenotype variance (in complex traits) which is under genetic control is additive. (Linear models work well in species ranging from corn to cows; cattle breeding is now done using SNP genotypes and linear models to estimate phenotypes.) There are also direct estimates of the additive / non-additive components of variance for human height and IQ, from twin and sibling studies. Again, the conclusion is the majority of variance is due to additive effects.

"There is a deep evolutionary reason behind additivity: nonlinear mechanisms are fragile and often "break" due to DNA recombination in sexual reproduction. Effects which are only controlled by a single locus are more robustly passed on to offspring. Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection says that the rate of change of fitness is controlled by additive variance in sexually reproducing species under relatively weak selection.

"Many people confuse the following statements:

"The brain is complex and nonlinear and many genes interact in its construction and operation."

"Differences in brain performance between two individuals of the same species must be due to nonlinear effects of genes."

"The first statement is true, but the second does not appear to be true across a range of species and quantitative traits."
The brain is a computational system of somewhat bounded size. There are two ways its performance can be improved: firstly by making neurons and neuron connectivity more efficient, for example, increased speed of operation, better insulation. This doesn't necessarily increase the size requirements of the brain.

The second is by increasing the number of neurons dedicated to certain tasks, for example abstract reasoning. Given a bounded skull size, this necessarily decreases the number of neurons available for other tasks. I don't think it's an accident that theoreticians are often clumsy, or that great athletes are often not renowned as deep conceptual thinkers.

Because of these trade-offs, the quest for greater intelligence is likely to raise all boats while issues in the first category are addressed (we'd all benefit from removing mistakes and inefficiencies in our neuronal blueprints) but will accentuate stereotypical nerdism and 'absent-minded professor' syndrome as we tweak alleles in the second category (not so good).

Do we know which alleles code for which category of enhanced intellectual performance? No.