Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Igpay Atinlay

On page 258 of "The Annubis Gates" by Tim Powers, the hero, Brendan Doyle, is leafing through some ancient manuscript  .. when he comes across this message, written in his own handwriting from his future self!
Can you read it?

I had some faint recollection of a child's (or gypsy's) speech code, where everything ends in -AY. After some Google searching I got it: Pig Latin!

There is an urban myth that Google Translate has Pig Latin as one of its languages and I checked: it's not there, but ...

Google in Pig Latin
This site, however, translates from English to Pig Latin - did you know that web becomes ebay? It turns out that translating Pig Latin back into English is hard, and not deterministically possible, as different words in English can map to the same word in Pig Latin (for instance, "oat" and "two" may both translate to "oatway").

Andway ownay erehay isway away ideovay eway ooktay esterdayyay.


* Hi Brendan, can you dig it?

Monday, January 26, 2015


Following from my previous post on Internet privacy and VPNs, today I've been playing with a search engine which doesn't track your every move: DuckDuckGo. I saved it onto Chrome's bookmarks bar. Guess what? The Google browser deleted it within four seconds. A robust attitude to the competition!

The living room couch, a favourite habitat, is a bit of a wifi dead-zone. So today I installed a NETGEAR Wifi range-extender (pictured below). No more waving the tablet in the air ...

In other news, Clare has celebrated the triumph of the people of Greece by wallpapering our hall with a Birch tree motif ... go Syriza! I wonder how the Germans will take to having their feeding hand bitten?

A rather spectral NETGEAR N300 WiFi range extender

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Time to enter the Dark Web?

Here are three (mildly) transgressive Internet links you might or might not care to follow:

  1. Recently-deceased Leon Brittan's link to that paedophile ring
  2. The Sun's Page 3 website
  3. Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf"

Let's suppose you clicked on any of the above, who knows you've done it?

Ignoring the person standing behind you, then anyone who clicks "back" on your browser, who looks at your browser history or perhaps who inspects your machine's cookies. You can address this problem, partially, by using private browsing - although any downloads will still be on your machine, and who knows about temp files buried away?

If you had logged into Google, or Amazon, or other website owners, then they certainly know where you went, keep extensive records, .. and could be subpoenaed.

They also know your location. You may be unaware that your browser can run a script asking the operating system for the WiFi SSID you're currently attached to. The big players like Google keep vast databases which link SSIDs with their geographical location: this is how Google Maps magically knows where you are. Hard to stop this happening without disabling scripts, which will stop most websites working.

Even if you were maximally careful on your own machine, your ISP - the provider of your Internet service - keeps a record of your site-visits. It can correlate your personal details (name, address, bank details) with your allocated IP address and link that with the websites you visit.

Normally this is like, who cares? These logs get to Terabyte size and no human scans them. They're expensive to keep and are wiped after some months. But the Government is pushing to legally mandate ISPs to keep these records, on everyone, for at least a year - and make them available to the security services. Is it time to get worried?

If the proposal gets through (and there's a good case for it on anti-terrorist grounds) then everyone can potentially be hoovered-up by a log-searching algorithm. Perhaps one day soon they'll start to care about 'mildly-transgressive' Internet behaviour, and your name will go down on a file somewhere. Between Google's profiling us for targeted advertising, and GCHQ tagging us for subversion, most of us might want to draw a line somewhere.

A common response is to suggest using Internet proxies (eg anonymouse, vtunnel) for any web searches beyond the most anodyne. But these are cumbersome and ad-infested - and who knows what the proxy guys are doing with the correlation between your identity and your surfing information (which they have even if your target sites don't),

The best answer is an Internet VPN service, which unfortunately involves paying some modest fee. Your traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel (eg IPsec) and is proxied at the VPN service provider's Internet breakout point. The rest of the Internet doesn't see your IP address so your web searches appear to come from the VPN service provider; meanwhile your ISP only sees your traffic going to the VPN service provider and has no idea where it's destined for afterwards. It only remains to trust the VPN service provider to not keep your transaction logs for any length of time. When 'The Man' comes asking for the last six months of your usage, there's nothing to show. This is quite a big business for a variety of reasons (watching BBC iPlayer when out of the UK is one) and the market leaders appear trustworthy enough - their business depends upon it.

They tell a good story but I somehow doubt that these VPN service providers can really evade an after-the-fact subpoena. The utility is to prevent speculative trawling.

Do we care enough? Today, probably not .. but it's nice to know we have the option going forwards.

Note: Private Internet Access was named PC Magazine's Editor's Choice in 2013. Read their review.

Colonoscopy Pathology Report

I recently wrote about my colonoscopy experience (in December 2014). Today I received the pathology report: here's the relevant text.

Always good to know you've got to go back, even if it's 2020.

Here's the story on "benign tubular adenoma".
"What is a polyp in the colon?

A polyp is a projection (growth) of tissue from the inner lining of the colon into the lumen (hollow center) of the colon. Different types of polyps look different under the microscope. Polyps are benign (non-cancerous) growths, but cancer can start in some types of polyps.

What is an adenoma?

An adenoma is a polyp made up of tissue that looks much like the normal lining of your colon, although it is different in several important ways when it is looked at under the microscope. In some cases, a cancer can arise in the adenoma.

What are tubular adenomas, tubulovillous adenomas, and villous adenomas?

Adenomas have several different growth patterns that can be seen under the microscope by the pathologist. There are 2 major growth patterns: tubular and villous. Because many adenomas have a mixture of both growth patterns, some polyps may be called tubulovillous adenomas. Most adenomas that are small (less than ½ inch) have a tubular growth pattern.
The most important thing is that your polyp has been completely removed and does not show cancer. The growth pattern is only important because it helps determine when you will need your next colonoscopy to make sure you don’t develop colon cancer in the future."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Diary: jury service + car paint touch-up + Christmas lights

Clare was meant to be doing jury service this week and next, at Taunton; this is what we had her doing instead.
We're Auris 2007 3J6 (Super Red III)
Driving up the narrow, steep and twisty Old Bristol Road, you get to meet stuff coming the other way and it's kinda inevitable that you gouge a little against those stone walls. That's become the narrative, anyway, despite my complete amnesia on the said event.

Clare turned up in Taunton on Monday after an early start. One of 24, but the trials from the previous week were still ongoing, so all were dispatched back home until Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday they did indeed need a jury, but selecting 12 from 23 (don't ask), Clare suffered the fate of the bottom-of-the-pack card and a poor randomisation procedure. So rejected, she was sent back home again.

There is a final, extremely low-probability opportunity - she has to call again Monday afternoon. By then, however, there will have been a new set of 24 arrivals. There are apparently rare scenarios involving extended jury deliberations when even more jurors are required to keep justice trundling along - we shall see.

All of the above is allegedly, of course.

In other banal chores, we finally took down our outside twinkling Christmas tree lights, which had indicated to a fascinated passing trade that we had hitherto taken leave of our senses.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Testament of Youth" (film)

This is what the estimable and amusing Camilla Long had to say about this weepie:
"Testament of Youth is far from perfect, but at least Vera Brittain’s book about her experiences growing up in England as the First World War looms is a decent starting point. This is a slightly shameless attempt to capitalise on last year’s anniversary, but on the whole it’s fairly good stuff.

"Brittain is played by the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who is pink and earnest, but never quite manages to be not Swedish. She also looks almost identical to Pippa Middleton, especially in a scene at the end where she poses in a nightdress exactly like the famous Bum Dress from the royal wedding. Unlike Middleton, however, she is principled and furious. She spends a lot of time being angry about really Edwardian things, like pianos.

"In the opening scene, she is horrified that her father (Dominic West) is happy to buy her a piano — amazingly not pronounced pihano — but not a place at university. (Health warning here: this is a film where everyone talks about Oxford all the time. Oxford this, Oxford that. It makes me want to vomit. I can’t work out what is this film’s worse fate: dying in the trenches or not being able to go to Oxford.)

"As it happens, Brittain only wants to go to Oxford out of sheer boredom. She dumps her place almost as soon as her brother and her fiancé, Roland (Kit Harington), sign up for the war. She is deeply in love with Roland. I know this because they meet a) in porticoes and b) amid drying laundry, and c) she doesn’t honk with laughter when he actually tries to fly a kite. Yes, this is a film that uses kites as a metaphor for love. It is the film Downton really longs to be, literary and bluestockingy and full of clichés about “big pushes” and Spanish flu and phone calls that ruin tea.

"Harington is moistly beautiful as Roland, sending Vera poems and announcing, stiltedly, that he has decided not to go to Oxford. I think one of my out-and-out ultimate fantasies is Kit Harington standing in a forest wearing white trousers and shouting “YOU MUST WRITE”. In that sense, at least, this film did not disappoint.

"This is what I call an all-orifices film: there’s bromance, romance, weeping and an awful lot of slushy clucking around field hospitals. There’s a superb cameo by Hayley Atwell as a nurse looking after “filthy Huns”. I could have spent two hours watching a bustling Atwell maliciously changing some jabbering Bavarian’s bedpan. This looks like yet another weepy teatime film. But it’s better than that, and Vikander makes a great Keira Knightley."
Here's Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, who as noted is from Sweden).

And here's the girl who broke up the (Time Team) band, Mary-Ann Ochota:

So that confused me for a while.

Vera was consumed by grief at twenty minute intervals as her fiancé Roland, male friend Victor and gay younger brother Edward were successively killed by the Hun (all three seemed rather dim to me). Vera does that teary, trembly-lip thing beautifully except you keep thinking: 'acting'. And then towards the end she demonstrates her all-consuming grief by art-house tropes such as decorously sliding into a freezing Buxton pond, and anguishedly smearing herself with freezing Buxton mud on the moors. I tend to imagine that the searing cold and generally unhygienic nature of these emotional excesses would bring a body down to earth pretty rapidly - but what do I know of the searing passions of a feisty 25 year old?

Vera returns to Oxford as the film ends, about to transmogrify herself into a committed pacifist and emotion-charged writer about private loss. Thoughts of self-indulgence briefly passed through my mind as I headed for the exit.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pretentious, moi?

XKCD: too good to be lost as an ephemeron
Years ago, I had a car sticker which read:
"Another Family for Situation Semantics"
I was delighted that no-one had any idea what this pretentious sentiment actually meant. Now I can reveal the extremely tedious truth.

Situation semantics was a non-standard logic developed  by Jon Barwise and John Perry in the early 1980s at Stanford University. It was an attempt to create a better semantics for natural language than the more conventional Montague Semantics, by making the model-elements contextually-restricted 'situations' rather than whole worlds. I wrote it up as part of my Ph.D work but it was not central, as it did not lend itself to computational inference. In any event, world-wide interest subsequently slumped.

And families? In best West Coast tradition, their book was written in an irritatingly folksy style, with plenty of examples using 'family situations'.

In retrospect, I cringe.

The Economist this week

In The Economist this week, Schumpeter has a knowing piece about how to successfully network:

"The first principle for would-be networkers is to abandon all shame. Be flagrant in your pursuit of the powerful and the soon-to-be-powerful, and when you have their attention, praise them to the skies.  ... "

At Schumpeter I merely cringed along with the columnist. My blood boiled, however, at the first science article: "University Challenge", a tendentious piece of wish-fulfilment fantasy with dodgy methodology, misleading and unconvincing graphs, no correlation coefficients and in one diagram no regression line, and a wholly unconvincing, nay stupid, conclusion. All leavened with a deep ignorance of the underlying science combined with the promulgation of lazy fallacies and an entrenched gullibility.

I think it's fair to say I was unimpressed!

The view down our road this chilly morning

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Predicting IQ across the world from genotypes

Early days for this - I wrote about it last November, where I tried to 'predict' my own IQ. Now a much better article has appeared, written by Anatoly Karlin. Interesting stuff, highlighting the ground-breaking research of Davide Piffer.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Obesity genes and me

The BBC science programme Horizon is currently running a three part series on the science of dieting. They have identified three categories of the obese and one - the 'constant cravers' - are defined by having 'obesity genes'.

It seems likely that I'm a 'constant craver'.

A little internet research provides a short list which can be cross-correlated with my 23andMe genotype download.

1. The FTO gene

As Wikipedia explains: "In 2009 variants in the FTO gene were further confirmed to associate with obesity in two very large genome-wide association studies of body mass index (BMI). It was shown that adults bearing the at-risk AT and AA alleles at rs9939609 consumed between 125 and 280 Calories per day than those carrying the protective TT genotype," (c. 5-12% of the daily allowance).

A quick search of my Excel spreadsheet for rs9939609 confirms I'm AT at this location. No wonder I was thirteen and a half stone before starting the 5:2 diet (I'm now at 11 stone = 70 kg but not without continuing maintenance). As a carrier of one of the 'A' risk alleles my disposition to obesity is 30% higher than that of baseline TT people.

2. The MC4R gene

"Mutations in the MC4R gene account for 6-8% of obesity cases. A common variant of the MC4R gene, distributed in about 22% of the population, increases the risk for weight gain by causing increased appetite and decreased satiety. Calorie restriction through portion control and smart food choices is the best strategy for weight loss for people carrying this variant."

The relevant SNP is rs17782313 where C alleles are associated with higher body mass index (BMI). The three options are CC, CT, TT - where TT is baseline normal, CT is associated with a BMI increase of 0.22 units and CC with a BMI increase of 0.44 units. As is so often the case, the allele effects are, as you see, additive.

What am I?  Yep, it's bad: CC.

3  The ADIPOQ gene

The relevant allele is rs17366568. "A significant genotypic association was observed between ADIPOQ rs17366568 and obesity. The frequencies of AG and AA genotypes were significantly higher in the obese group (11%) than in the non-obese group (5%) (P=0.024). The odds of A alleles occurring among the obese group were twice those among the non-obese group (odds ratio 2.15; 95% confidence interval 1.13-4.09)." (From here).

At last some good news! I am GG at this location.


Doubtlessly I'll return to this topic when more is known, especially as the results to-date are so personally depressing!

In the deep midwinter ...

A small dusting of snow
The sun's now out and it's rapidly melting.

This afternoon we went down to the Wells Film Centre to watch the film "Testament of Youth" (Vera Brittain). But I had erred! It's not on until next week. So we arrived back early and I checked the vole trap by the side of the fridge in the kitchen. Why?

The cat had been behaving slightly oddly, patrolling with interest behind the fridge, and this morning I saw a brown blur speeding in that general direction as I entered the kitchen. "We've got a vole," I confided to Clare, "Where's the vole trap?"

After a false start with cat food, we discovered that voles particularly adore bread-and-butter and oatmeal. So suitably prepared, we left for the movies.

The vole we'd trapped was alert and boisterous, and has been released into the garden where it can vole anew. Next time a video!

Matthew Parris (mouse killer!) take note!*


* Opinion piece from The Times today (14/01/2015)
"I hate poisoning animals. Unlike their London cousins, Derbyshire mice are suckers for the traditional mousetrap so I baited two traps with Nutella and sorrowfully set them in the airing cupboard. I flinched next morning from checking. I hoped against irrational hope they would be empty. I opened the door. My heart sank. Both had sprung.

"Sadly I carried the small corpses to the dustbin. One — a mother — was a really beautiful little honey-brown creature with (unusually) a white breast. Her blind, pink babies (up to 12) would already be dead."
"I miss them, and somehow think the less of myself."
Yes indeed, Mr Parris!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Collapse of Democracy

Back in the late sixties, my Politics course at Warwick University taught that the democratic state acted as an arbiter between different sectional interests. My Marxist comrades knew better: the state actually operated to reproduce the power and position of the ruling bourgeoisie, while hiding behind an obfuscated, hegemonic ideology.

Yes, we certainly knew how to do jargon in those days!

Of course, both propositions are true. Marxists from Karl onwards have agreed that bourgeois democracy is the preferred form of capitalist state. Why? Because under capitalism, economic power is decentralised (private ownership of the means of production) so some kind of inclusive politics is the best method of synthesising overall political policy. If the state achieves the political autonomy of autocracy or dictatorship we have the familiar principal-agent problem. How do we get the state to properly advance the (weighted average of the) interests of the distributed capitalist power-elite? How do we stop the state going off on some crazy project of its own?

The Nazis in Germany are the usual case study, and my analysis above broadly paraphrases Trotsky's writings about the rise of fascism there.

The democratic government is distinguished from its dictatorial cousins by its unwillingness to decisively back one faction of society over everyone else, even if such a focussed policy is objectively necessary to break some social logjam. "We all know what has to be done; it's just that none of us knows how to be re-elected afterwards."

Bourgeois democracy is like pacifism - it's an unstable equilibrium requiring all sides to show restraint and be prepared to accept being overruled. It's when a significant social force won't accept compromise and sticks to its guns come what may that you get the logjam. The inclusive speech of liberal politicians becomes strained and ineffectual - weak hand-wringing and appeasement. The logjam-party takes heart while ordinary folk begin to despair. Oppositional parties calling for effective action begin to gain traction, parties which don't much care about discredited 'democratic' ideals. What if we're rather blasé about being re-elected afterwards, anyway - or we believe that subsequent 'facts on the ground' will make all the difference, come the day?

Returning to the party-of-the-logjam, there's nothing like a sharply defined and highly-deprecated religious identity to underpin a hard-nosed refusal to compromise under any circumstances: 'our martyred dead' and so forth. You can see where this is going: bourgeois democracy can handle small to medium logjams by uniting the majority and deploying state force against the obstructionist, unyielding minority and winning - Margaret Thatcher is the textbook example. But if the logjam gets too big and/or intractable, you slide into civil war (cf Libya) and the democratic state is swept aside and is transformed, or collapses.

None of these drastic things will be happening in Western Europe any time soon; we're at the very start of a long, tortuous and only semi-slippery slope. However, to mix metaphors, when your problem is currently a small but extremely intractable hole, it's surely time to stop digging?

After the Apocalypse

The worst way for the world to end is global thermonuclear war ... because of the after effects, particularly the radiation, obviously. A large asteroid strike is nearly as bad. The third worst way, surprisingly, is the impact of a large solar Coronal Mass Ejection. This would wipe out the power grid, including the transformers; in the absence of any kind of power the transformers themselves could not be fixed so everything depending on electricity would crash - including the economy.

The problem is that our current population in England of around 53 million is sustained by our

technological base. Knock this back and we revert to the carrying capacity of the Domesday book period (around one million).  If agriculture fails, however, we revert to hunter-gatherer status .. just ten thousands individuals in a country the size of England!

In the catastrophes above, trashing the infrastructure largely leaves the population intact. They fight viciously and starve over the next months, consuming much needed resources and wasting the period of grace before many supplies become unusable. This is why the 'best apocalypse' is more like a souped-up version of Ebola or The Black Death: a pandemic which is aggressively virulent, has a long incubation period (for maximum infectivity) and near 100% subsequent mortality. Yes, our civilization will crash, but the infrastructure will not be too damaged in the process.

And then you'll need Lewis Dartnell's book "The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch" from which the apocalypse palette above was taken.

Dartnell, a prolific science writer, organises his recovery material under the major themes of mediaeval sustenance: agriculture, food and clothing, materials (clay, lime, acids, nitrates, metal-working), medicine, power, transport and communications. There's not enough detail for anyone to actually construct (for example) a working plough - but at least we townies are told how it actually works, and what its function is - and that it therefore has to be on the list.

Well-written and full of interesting little snippets as this book is, reading it is to be reminded anew how precarious our comfortable lives actually are. If the ATMs stopped and the supermarkets failed, how scarily different things would be, and how quickly!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

When Sharia comes to town ...

Or it might just be a touch chilly ...

Nous sommes tous Charlie

In my Marxist days, I would have been penning articles about the bourgeois hypocrisy of leaders such as Hollande, Cameron and Merkel marching piously in Paris in defence of political correctness. I would have pointed out that the crass, obscene and unfunny cartoons of Charlie Hebdo posed no threat to the established order, despite the professed '68 Marxism of the authors, as the establishment never believed in any of the propositions lampooned in the first place.

In the spirit of the new diversity, the fact that apparently we are now "all Charlie", let me outline three excitingly innovative views of the recent events in Paris. Naturally, these accounts are designed both to be true and to offend.

1. The Physicist's view

Various atoms and molecules in the Paris area recently continued to conform to the predictions of the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. As expected.

2. The Psychopath's view

Various  biological machines in the Paris area with conflicting goals came into conflict. Some of the machines were destroyed.

3. The Jihadi's view


Do you think I'm crazy?


Sigh: one is not meant to explain one's work .. but: (1) is meant to get you thinking about the nature of 'free will' in all this; (2) is meant to highlight the methodological 'dispassionate' approach of rational science vs. emotionalism-altruism-empathy in human affairs. As for (3), I think we've had enough secularists floundering to represent to the world at large a community which organises itself (in contradistinction to a society ordered by abstract principles and the law) as an 'honour culture'.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Roomba's first outing (Vimeo)

Just playing with Vimeo. Back in 2007 I bought Clare a Roomba for Christmas. This rather primitive video (camera phones were so primitive back then!) shows its first outing in our bedroom, from our house in Andover, Hampshire. How nostalgic, looking back to the days when we were Roomba-naive!

Two fuzzy notions made crisp

1. Family and Friends

Family is easy; your kin group which is defined and preferred through inclusive fitness. Friends corresponds to that circle of individuals with whom one practices reciprocal altruism (qv). Since reciprocal altruism requires trust extended over time, it's not surprising that friendship tends to be psychologically regulated.
"According to Trivers, the following emotional dispositions and their evolution can be understood in terms of regulation of altruism.
  • Friendship and emotions of liking and disliking.
  • Moralistic aggression. A protection mechanism from cheaters acts to regulate the advantage of cheaters in selection against altruists. The moralistic altruist may want to educate or even punish a cheater.
  • Gratitude and sympathy. A fine regulation of altruism can be associated with gratitude and sympathy in terms of cost/benefit and the level in which the beneficiary will reciprocate.
  • Guilt and reparative altruism. Prevents the cheater from cheating again. The cheater shows regret to avoid paying too dearly for past acts.
  • Subtle cheating. A stable evolutionary equilibrium could include a low percentage of mimics in controversial support of adaptive sociopathy.
  • Trust and suspicion. These are regulators for cheating and subtle cheating.
  • Partnerships. Altruism to create friendships."

2. Birds vs Frogs (or Lee Smolin's seers vs. master craftsmen)

Freeman Dyson calls mathematicians who take a lofty conceptual view of their subject birds and those who work in details and solve their problems consecutively frogs. Smolin has a similar division in mind for theoretical physicists.

The crisp distinction is between deduction and abduction. Deduction draws consequences from theories and boundary conditions - and is the home territory of the master craftsmen and frogs; abduction is the creative synthesis of the most parsimonious and elegant theory which can be conjured up to explain the available data - the business of seers and birds.

(Your author, to tell the truth, has always felt more avian).

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Charlie Hebdo .. and internal colonies

France, like the UK, has lots of Muslims - probably in excess of 5% of its population (exact numbers are not counted by the rigorously secular state). The Muslims tend to derive ethnically from France's ex-colonies in North Africa. As many of them are geographically concentrated, they constitute internal colonies.

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, started out as a religion of pastoralists. Lots of references in the key texts to shepherds, and sorting out sheep from goats. Christianity was refashioned into a docile religion for the subjects of empire (another Roman achievement) while those same Romans dispersed the Jews after AD 70 and 135 so that their subsequent history was mostly within the empires of others - pastoralism was then not really their thing.

Islam, not so much.

What do we know about pastoralists? They keep animals (cattle, horses) in environments which don't support farming. Cattle are easy to steal and relatively low-maintenance. If you lose your cattle you don't get to have many descendants, so pastoralists are a might touchy about showing personal weakness, do not respond well to slights and have been known for their endemic blood feuds.

The more cattle you have, the wealthier you get so there are returns to scale. However, keeping the pastoralist "empire" together is tricky: it's just too easy for one clan or tribe to steal off the others. Islam is helpful to pastoral empire-builders, a 'glue-religion' which creates a framework for inter-tribal cooperation under a common deity and set of rules. However, as a cursory examination of Islamic world history shows, even a binding religion can't suppress the inherent centrifugal forces of pastoralism. And it always ends in violence.

So not all internal colonies are equal. A Chinese internal colony would, no doubt, be industrious, non-violent and successful; ditto the Jewish equivalent, historically the ghetto. History supports such observations. Again, Islamic internal colonies .. not so much.

This is not fundamentally a discussion at the level of values: free speech is pretty abstract and always circumscribed; it's about the norms and protocols of the way we organise society, the ways we relate to each other. People sometimes model social organisation using the game-theoretic model of "hawks vs. doves". The secularised West is ideologically a "dove" culture; Islamic culture, following its pastoral roots, is in most variants "hawk".

In the absence of any easy answers*, I would predict selective and enhanced surveillance and containment are going to be the outcome of all of this, across Europe.


* So what are the alternatives? Historically, socially-deprecated internal colonies have either been expelled (the Jews pretty much everywhere, the Muslims in Spain) with much suffering - or forcibly assimilated. The two policies were often pursued simultaneously.

Naturally any such operation in contemporary Europe would be met with the most ferocious and violent opposition from the said internal colony, together with a collapse of social cohesion on the part of the state attempting the ethnic cleansing.

That is not to say that it hasn't happened within recent history (Balkan wars, Soviet Russia under Stalin, the Nazis): just that a liberal democratic state can't do it. **


**  That's not to say we won't get gradualist or 'at-the-margins' versions of these policies advocated by populist parties amongst others: a kind of 'Reconquista-lite'.

Permanent jobs are much better (still!)

Congratulations to Adrian on getting his first permanent job (in finance) yesterday. Finance, along with marketing, is one of the two core experience-areas for career progression so .. result!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

"The Book of Strange New Things" - Michel Faber

Just finished reading "The Book of Strange New Things"by Michel Faber to my wife, Clare, in half-hour nightly chunks. Here is what The Guardian made of it:
"Beatrice Leigh is a nurse, an evangelical Christian, a cat owner and “an independent and capable woman”, not necessarily in that order. She lives in a Britain perhaps not so far in our future, in which “institutions that have been around forever are going to the wall” and a collapsing economy and deteriorating climate have become indices for one another. It would be easier for Bea if she had her husband Peter’s support, but he can’t help: he’s trillions of miles away, on a planet called Oasis, with a mission to convert its alien inhabitants. The conversations of Bea and Peter, which scaffold Michel Faber’s astonishing and deeply affecting sixth novel, are held via a kind of interstellar email. The awkwardness of this medium amplifies to screaming pitch our sense of the emotional space between them. “Sometimes,” she tells him angrily, “I feel as though your leaving caused things to fall apart.”

"Peter, meanwhile, finds it hard to focus on anything but his situation. The jump between worlds causes him to hallucinate. Oasis is too much to take in. His mission is financed by and carried out under the auspices of a shadowy corporate called Usic. They need him but won’t say why. The base personnel describe themselves as “a community”, “in partnership” with the indigenous population – “we do not use the word ‘colony’ ”. Yet many of them specialise in oil and mining technology, and Usic is already building infrastructure to support a larger population. Trade has begun, although it has taken a weirdly localised form: the Oasans produce food for the human settlement; in return, they seem to want only Earth analgesics and the Bible, the eponymous “book of strange new things”. On being shown a picture of Peter’s pet cat, they ask if it’s a Christian. When he tells them that, though he loves it anyway, the cat can’t be a Christian because it’s an animal, they respond: “We also love those who have no love for Jesus. However, they will die.” Finding a way through these mysteries requires Peter, whose Christianity is never presented as less than honest, to identify and dismantle his own deep temperament – avoidant, confused, manipulative, mistaking obsession for commitment.

"Like every fiction of Faber’s, The Book of Strange New Things is determined not to be mistaken for any other fiction written by Faber. At the same time, it’s difficult to read the description of an alien face as “a placenta with two foetuses – maybe three-month-old twins, hairless and blind – nestled head to head, knee to knee”, or an energy-saving light bulb as “a segment of radioactive intestine suspended from a wire”, without remembering the hallucinatory intensity of work such as Under the Skin. Oasis is a strange world, half paradisal, half dull, prime real estate for the imagination realised with determined sensuality. The atmosphere is full of “the sound of agitated leaves”, although there are very few leaves anywhere. The rain tastes sweet. The Oasans always wear gloves, and hooded pastel-coloured robes made of a fabric “disconcertingly like bath towel”. When they try to pronounce an “s”, they make the noise of “a ripe fruit being thumbed into two halves”.

"This is a big novel – partly because it has to construct and explain its unhomely setting, partly because it has such a lot of religious, linguistic, philosophical and political freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxiety that pervades and taints every element. Earth is becoming untenable. The more he feels at home with the Oasans, the more guilt Peter feels at abandoning his wife. The Usic personnel – who think of themselves as outcasts, members of a foreign legion – seem self-repressed to the edge of explosion. The Oasans, with their inexplicable faces and obsession with sharp objects can’t, surely, be as simple, gentle and fragile as they seem. And has their language, literalistic to the core, caused them to make a basic mistake about the Christian promise of eternal life? Even the planet’s low-diversity ecology seems to harbour some tension in need of resolution. The reader is desperate for relief, which can only come from turning another page, and then another and another.

"In Peter’s quarters at the Usic base, he finds “a red button on the wall labelled EMERGENCY, but no buttons labelled BEWILDERMENT”. Equally lost in the wild, dragged on by a mounting sense of urgency, we dread some upshot both ironic and gruesome: but while its surface finds the comic in everything from corporate architecture to the communication of taken-for-granted religious concepts, the deepest levels of the book privilege directness over irony. What you see is what you get: humans and aliens patiently trying to dismantle the very concepts of human and alien; making contact, making the best they can of a bad job. “We need a certain proportion of things to be OK,” Bea tells Peter, “in order to be able to cope with other things going wrong.” Perhaps that’s all we can ever hope for.

"Meanwhile, we have their letters, full of heartbreaking chat and a growing anger on her side, and on his a kind of restless evasiveness as he tries to find her life as interesting as his own. He misses her desperately, but he’s charmed and overwhelmed by all the strange new things; alone with everything they used to handle as a couple, she’s increasingly frustrated and desperate. The tragedy is that while we know that, Peter doesn't. If he spends the novel lagging behind the edge of the present, Bea spends it trying to stay ahead. She’s less concerned with understanding than keeping her head above the water. History is happening too fast and too completely for them. But what begins on Oasis must end on Earth and if Peter sets out as a holy fool, God requires him to finish as Orpheus. “I hear rain again. I love you and miss you. Don’t worry about anything.”
Here is what I see. A writer - Michel Faber - whose beloved wife and collaborator, Eva, is dying of cancer while he can only look on impotently. His anger and frustration channelled into a novel about a weak, superficial and fickle man who indulges his evangelical Christianity on Oasis as a psychological crutch while his pregnant wife is abandoned to global civilisation collapse back on Earth.

Faber is the ultimate 'show not tell' writer, so what might at first sight appear a rather low-key travelogue is in reality a quietly furious critique of institutional stupidity and personal inadequacy.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

"Proxima"/"Ultima" - Stephen Baxter

From the review at The Bookbag.
" In Proxima, alien hatches were discovered across the galaxy, hatches that when opened caused completely unimaginable events to occur - amongst many strange happenings, one character suddenly had a twin she didn't have previously , and one hatch led to a different earth, where the Roman Empire never died.

"It is there that Ultima begins - on a world where the Roman Empire never fell, and the technology and culture is markedly different as a result.

"This world is explored in length. Great length, and to be honest, reading about it begins to feel like quite a chore. Proxima was heavily character driven, and I went into Ultima hoping for more exploration of Yuri and Stef, but instead had to read what felt like a science fiction history book, with little tension, drive or excitement to make me want to keep turning the pages. It's a very well written exploration of a strange new culture, but given that the last book left me invested in characters and gripped to find out what would happen, I was disappointed to have to slowly read through a section that did absolutely nothing to thrill, entertain or challenge me.

"Thankfully, things do pick up - characters begin to become vivid again, and the story picks up such a pace that the finale is genuinely quite staggering - and I concede that it did make reading the book, especially the lackadaisical first two or so hundred pages, worthwhile. In addition, the ideas and concepts that Baxter is dealing with, as well as a diverse cast of voices with which he tells his story, really do come together to make for a fantastic story in the end."
Well, I beg to differ. I read these two blockbusters back to back hoping for some transcendent plot-revelation .. which failed to ever materialise. It seems that there is some Stephen Baxter conservation law:
Characterisation + Setting + Plot = constant.
Setting-wise, Baxter recycles his Roman Empire studies from previous books together with lots of scientific extrapolation about planets circling red dwarf stars. This subtracts from his characterisation, his menagerie of black-and-white-delineated characters who are merely activated stereotypes (marionettes might be a better word). The plot is all that keeps the pages ticking over, but in the end that reduces to just another tedious multiverse fantasy.

So sorry, couldn't recommend these two. Use the sparse hours of your life more productively.

Friday, January 02, 2015

The binary million

Today is the first and only time in my life I celebrate my binary millionth birthday. Naturally I got a nice card, helpfully re-purposed, from my wife.

The cover of my card

The greeting inside

I always say it's the thought that counts, don't you?

Here's the streaming video of the traditional ceremony of present-giving, in which I am eternally doomed to both joy and disappointment. Be warned that it's 800 MB with c. 6.5 minutes run-time. Sorry about the quietness of the sound - the humour, such as it is, is back-loaded.

Remember: absolutely no-one is making you watch home videos! No homework or future test involved.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Dreamers and Doers

Sean Carroll has a guest post by Chip Sebens on the Many-Interacting-Worlds Approach to Quantum Mechanics. Here's the first part of it.


"In Newtonian physics objects always have definite locations. They are never in two places at once. To determine how an object will move one simply needs to add up the various forces acting on it and from these calculate the object’s acceleration. This framework is generally taken to be inadequate for explaining the quantum behavior of subatomic particles like electrons and protons. We are told that quantum theory requires us to revise this classical picture of the world, but what picture of reality is supposed to take its place is unclear. There is little consensus on many foundational questions: Is quantum randomness fundamental or a result of our ignorance? Do electrons have well-defined properties before measurement? Is the Schrödinger equation always obeyed? Are there parallel universes?

"Some of us feel that the theory is understood well enough to be getting on with. Even though we might not know what electrons are up to when no one is looking, we know how to apply the theory to make predictions for the results of experiments. Much progress has been made―observe the wonder of the standard model―without answering these foundational questions. Perhaps one day with insight gained from new physics we can return to these basic questions. I will call those with such a mindset the doers. Richard Feynman was a doer:
“It will be difficult. But the difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, ‘But how can it be like that?’ which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar; I will simply describe it. … I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. … Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

-Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (chapter 6, pg. 129)
"In contrast to the doers, there are the dreamers. Dreamers, although they may often use the theory without worrying about its foundations, are unsatisfied with standard presentations of quantum mechanics. They want to know “how it can be like that” and have offered a variety of alternative ways of filling in the details. Doers denigrate the dreamers for being unproductive, getting lost “down the drain.” Dreamers criticize the doers for giving up on one of the central goals of physics, understanding nature, to focus exclusively on another, controlling it. But even by the lights of the doer’s primary mission―being able to make accurate predictions for a wide variety of experiments―there are reasons to dream:
“Suppose you have two theories, A and B, which look completely different psychologically, with different ideas in them and so on, but that all consequences that are computed from each are exactly the same, and both agree with experiment. … how are we going to decide which one is right? There is no way by science, because they both agree with experiment to the same extent. … However, for psychological reasons, in order to guess new theories, these two things may be very far from equivalent, because one gives a man different ideas from the other. By putting the theory in a certain kind of framework you get an idea of what to change. … Therefore psychologically we must keep all the theories in our heads, and every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics.”

-Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (chapter 7, pg. 168)
"In the spirit of finding alternative versions of quantum mechanics―whether they agree exactly or only approximately on experimental consequences―let me describe an exciting new option which has recently been proposed by Hall, Deckert, and Wiseman (in Physical Review X) and myself (forthcoming in Philosophy of Science), receiving media attention in: Nature, New Scientist, Cosmos, Huffington Post, Huffington Post Blog, FQXi podcast… Somewhat similar ideas have been put forward by Böstrom, Schiff and Poirier, and Tipler.

"The new approach seeks to take seriously quantum theory’s hydrodynamic formulation which was developed by Erwin Madelung in the 1920s. Although the proposal is distinct from the many-worlds interpretation, it also involves the postulation of parallel universes. The proposed multiverse picture is not the quantum mechanics of college textbooks, but just because the theory looks so “completely different psychologically” it might aid the development of new physics or new calculational techniques (even if this radical picture of reality ultimately turns out to be incorrect)."

Click here for the rest of it.


The essential mystery of quantum mechanics is that the theory is built around the dynamics of a thing called the wave function (hence wave mechanics), conventionally labelled ψ. The value of the wave function at each point in space and time is given by the solution to the Schrödinger equation (with appropriate boundary conditions): you imagine the ψ wave flowing around obstacles, through slits, and interfering with itself. The trouble is, the wave function is (apparently) not a 'real entity'. For one thing its values are complex, not real (all observables are real numbers); for another, in its multi-particle mode, the wave function lives in an arbitrarily high-dimension space called configuration space, not our conventional 3 + 1 dimensional space-time.

The wave function, as mentioned, is not itself observable. But if you square the value of the wave function (e.g. in a region of space at a point in time) you get the probability of observing the attribute-value of your interest (e.g. the probability of finding the particle in that region at that time).

The theory is incredibly accurate in giving you the correct probabilities; but it does not tell you what reality is actually doing. About that, quantum mechanics is not just silent - it informs you that your prior beliefs about the world consisting of well-defined particles with defined positions and momenta cannot be true (Bell's theorem).


The doers get on and calculate .. and design the modern technological world; the dreamers wonder whether there is completely non-obvious way to reconstruct the world of appearances ('reality') such that (relativistic) quantum mechanics turns out to be true in that structure of reality.

To date, no-one ever quite succeeded. Maybe Chip Sebens is onto something; maybe the Everett many-worlds formulation of quantum mechanics (still a work-in-progress) can be made to work.

It is my birthday tomorrow (I've reached binary one million) and I expect a present which will shed further light on these perplexing issues.