Saturday, October 31, 2015

We are all set for 'trick or treat'

4.45 pm, Halloween has arrived and we are all set:

I'm told that the tendency these days is to hold Halloween parties where the kids come dressed up. It's all a bit passé going door-to-door, threatening the innocent townsfolk.

In any event, we are prepared; and if no-one comes, trust me, none of this is going to waste!


Update 10 pm: For the second year running, no-one came. Oh well, time for plan B ..

You get stupider as you get older

With my 65th birthday in view, I am kinda worried that I'm getting stupider by the year.

Stupidity (can we still say that?) is really a decline or lack of fluid intelligence, the horsepower that lets you think abstractly and creatively solve new problems. Most older people have learned stuff over the decades and score rather better at crystallised intelligence (see the Wikipedia article for more on fluid and crystallized intelligence).

What does the world of science have to say? It's not completely easy to find out, but after some digging I found the diagram below (from here) - where the T-scores on the vertical axis are rescaled IQ scores, as shown further down this post. It shows the sad story of someone who had an IQ of 120 at their mid-twenties peak (T-score 63) but was merely average at 60.

It seems we lose about 0.6 IQ points per year from a high point when we're 26, a figure consistent with this Aberdeen/NHS study. How depressing!

Whatever my IQ was at age 26, it's now 23 points lower. And yes, I had to resort to pen and paper to work that out ...

Age decline in fluid intelligence - around 0.6 IQ points per year

Translating between the different statistics (IQ, Z, T)

You might want to take a look at this LessWrong article which has a different graph, but one which is depressingly and scarily consistent.


* Understanding the Stats (Descriptive Statistics and Psychological Testing - Stephen E. Brock, Ph.D., NCSP)

How is IQ scored?

IQ scores are a standard score with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15.

Z-scores have a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1.

Z-scores can be transformed into IQ scores by multiplying a given Z-score by 15 (the standard deviation of  IQ scores), and then adding 100 (the mean IQ score). For example, a Z-score of –1 equals an IQ of 85 [100 + 15(-1) = 85].

Transforming a Z-score into an IQ score: IQ = 100 + 15Z.

What are T-scores?

T-scores are standard scores with a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 10.

Z-scores can be transformed into T-scores by multiplying the Z-score by 10 (the standard deviation of T-scores), and adding 50 (the mean of T-scores).

For example, a Z-score of –1 equals a T-score of 40 [50 + 10(-1) = 40] ,,, and an IQ of 85.

Transforming a Z-score into a T-score: T = 50 + 10Z,  and IQ = 1.5T + 25.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Strange Car Noise

Yesterday, driving back from Swindon, I heard a strange noise from under the bonnet. I found myself saying aloud, "Something's wrong with this car."

Strange how you can say something completely spontaneously, with no reflection, and realise you've expressed a visceral truth.

This morning I had rationalistic doubts: do I really know what a car engine is meant to sound like? At the garage, I admired the wet and dripping scenery outside while the mechanic disassembled the plastic overlay and the pulley cables.
"Do you live local?" he asked.

"Yes, about a mile away," I replied.
He smiled grimly,
"This car is off the road, it can't be driven."
He drew my attention to the six inch diameter water pump attached to the left end of the engine block. I use the word 'attached' advisedly, as it was desperately wobbling under his hand.
"Bearings are gone."
The guys did a good job. For £150 it's been fixed this afternoon and I've just collected it. The car, a Toyota Auris, is eight years old and I don't know whether this is normal wear-and-tear, whether we got a 'Friday car' or whether this is a symptom of Toyota's notorious lapse in quality a few years back.


In moments of self-indulgent fantasy, I sometimes imagine a time of solitude where I could create A Major Piece of Work. A villa in Tuscany is a familiar cliché; I'm told monasteries also offer facilities for the Intense Writing Experience.

Now, courtesy Marginal Revolution, I have a new option - cruising on a cargo ship.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Final Parsec Problem

Another interesting link from Jess Riedel's blog. He refers to an article with this title: "Supermassive black holes found spiraling in at seven percent light speed".
"Data from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed the presence of a pair of supermassive black holes orbiting each other so closely that they're moving at relativistic speeds—a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Supermassive black holes are expected to come in pairs pretty often. That’s because every galaxy has its own supermassive black hole, and galaxies often merge, bringing the two together. These mergers are very slow processes that distort both galaxies until their stars settle into new orbits (a process known as "violent relaxation"). While this is happening, extremely heavy objects, such as supermassive black holes, will tend to move in toward the center of the new galaxy. The new galaxy would end up with two supermassive black holes, one from each original galaxy, orbiting each other at its core."
The supermassive black holes (millions of solar masses) tend to orbit each other at a distance of a few parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 light years). Orbits are pretty stable things - the Earth has been orbiting the sun for quite a while - so to get really close (for example, so close that both black holes would fit inside the dimensions of the solar system) they have to lose energy somehow. But how do you slow down supermassive black holes? This is the Final Parsec Problem.

The binary black holes in the article have:
 "an inferred distance between them somewhere between .007 and .017 parsecs, which is not much bigger than the diameter of the Solar System. That’s astoundingly close for two objects of this size .... To maintain their orbit, the black holes have to be whipping around at relativistic speeds."
The black holes in question will coalesce in perhaps one million years in a massive burst of gravitational radiation. Strictly speaking this has already happened as the system is 3.5 billion light years away - in fact it occurred at the origins of life on Earth!

Here's a Caltech/Cornell computer simulation:

And for further reading, here's the Wikipedia article on binary black holes.

On colonising the observable universe quite quickly!

Stuart Armstrong and Anders Sandberg

Future of Humanity Institute, Philosophy Department, Oxford University, Suite 8, Littlegate House 16/17 St. Ebbe’s Street, Oxford, OX1 1PT UK.


"The Fermi paradox is the discrepancy between the strong likelihood of alien intelligent life emerging (under a wide variety of assumptions), and the absence of any visible evidence for such emergence. In this paper, we extend the Fermi paradox to not only life in this galaxy, but to other galaxies as well.

"We do this by demonstrating that traveling between galaxies – indeed even launching a colonisation project for the entire reachable universe – is a relatively simple task for a star-spanning civilization, requiring modest amounts of energy and resources.

"We start by demonstrating that humanity itself could likely accomplish such a colonisation project in the foreseeable future, should we want to, and then demonstrate that there are millions of galaxies that could have reached us by now, using similar methods. This results in a considerable sharpening of the Fermi paradox."
The authors have in mind the launching of replicators both to other stars in our own galaxy and to other galaxies. They note that once the interstellar/intergalactic probe is up to relativistic speed it basically turns off and cruises. In cosmological time it's rather irrelevant as to whether the cruise time is hundreds, thousands or millions of years (the universe operate on a timescale of billions of years).
"However, the main difference between interstellar and intergalactic travel is merely a longer time until the destination is reached. If the contents of the colonizing probe are inert over long timescales (as they would need to be for many forms of interstellar travel) it is likely that they can be made inert over the longer flights to other galaxies." (Page 3)
We could send lots of probes without too much effort assuming a technology a few hundred years in the future.
"... we will first delineate a potential replicator probe design, and tackle how such probes could decelerate upon arrival. We will see what speeds these probes could move at, and how many duplicates need to be sent out to avoid collisions with intergalactic dust particles.

"Then we will consider the launch system – due to the great inefficiency of the rocket equation, it would be much more effective to use fixed launch systems than to count on the probes to power themselves. We will analyse these launch systems, and delve into some details as to how they could be powered (four different scenarios will be considered, from speculative antimatter drives to reasonable fission engines).

"It will turn out that only about six hours of the sun’s energy is needed to commence the colonisation of the entire universe! And this is the kind of energy that a future human civilisation could quite easily aspire to, as we shall demonstrate." (page 4).
They propose we disassemble Mercury (they describe how to do it with mass drivers, and on page 16 calculate it will take 31 years and 85 days!) and use the material to create a Dyson Swarm of solar mirrors powering propulsion devices (lasers, particle beams, coilguns ...).

The probes will be accelerated by these power-plants to relativistic speeds at which point they will coast to their targets. Thousands, millions or billions of years later they will arrive, slow down and find asteroids or planets to start terraforming. The seeds they carry will germinate .. and our descendants will walk under the light of other stars .. in other galaxies.

They're careful to stay within the envelope of feasible, or exploratory engineering,

so why didn't aliens on some of the other relatively nearby galaxies get to us first? They show that there's plenty of candidate colonisers (of the order of a million galaxies) and plenty of time for it to have happened (page 25).

The Fermi Paradox just got sharper.

All in all, a very stimulating big-concept read. Here's a links to Anders Sandberg's blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"Ancestors in Our Genome" - Eugene E. Harris

The following review now posted on Amazon.


Somewhere between a coffee table book and a textbook, Eugene E. Harris’s new work is an excellent introduction both to the human evolution story and to genetics itself. Here’s a chapter summary.

Chapter 1: Looks Can Be Deceiving

The author recalls his experiences as an anthropologist post-grad in the 1990s. These were the years of the ‘morphology-molecules’ wars. Where should we look to reconstruct the tree of life, anatomy or genetics?  Reliance on anatomy is undermined by convergent evolution: structures which suggest a close relationship between two species can mislead. The war was eventually won by genetics, and the author was soon getting his head around genomics and population genetics.

Chapter 2: Many Trees in the Forest

You can build gene-trees (going back in time) for a target gene found in different species by looking at sequence differences (base substitutions, insertions and deletions). This looks a good way to determine ‘genetic closeness’ between species – except that different genes give different answers!

It turns out that the gene-tree and the species-tree are rather different things: the species tree emerges when looking at the aggregate of mutations and divergences between many different genes. Affordable whole-genome sequencing transformed the genetic synthesis of evolutionary descent trees. The key population genetics concept used here is that of gene coalescence, and specifically coalescence time (typically thousands or millions of years).

Chapter 3: The Great Divorce

How and when did humans and chimpanzees part ways?  Think of this as looking for the coalescence time for genes which differ between humans and our closest living cousins. It turns out that an important variable in computing this is the ‘effective population size’ of ancestral groups.

This is another key concept of population genetics, relating to the number of individuals breeding in a ‘model population’ which would create the same population genetic diversity as we see today. The author suggests that, as a rough rule of thumb, actual populations are around three times the size of calculated effective populations, as many individuals do not leave descendants. The answer, by the way, is not known for certain but is of the order of four million years.

Chapter 4: A Population Crash in the Past

The effective population size of humans (based on existing genetic diversity) is rather small – around 10,000 individuals. This is one fifth to one tenth the effective population size of the common ancestor to humans and chimpanzees and indeed that of deeper ancestral populations which also evolved into gorillas and orang-utans.  This has consequences in terms of genetic drift and a weakening of positive and negative (purifying) natural selection. Humans have more slightly detrimental DNA than our cousin species, which translates into an increased propensity to disease.

Chapter 5: What Can the Genome Tell Us about Being Human?

We share a great deal of genetic commonality with chimpanzees, and indeed other apes and monkeys. Our differences are the result of mutations in our genomes (and, of course, those of the other species), amplified by positive natural selection. How do we look at human and cousin genomes for evidence of adaptation?

Most obviously there are human physiological differences in areas such as larger brains, loss of fur, bipedalism and speech. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about what most genes actually do so we can’t just take the sets of genomes (ours, chimpanzees, etc) and read off the differences. Instead we use the statistical tools of population genetics to identify areas of the human genome showing signs of recent selection. The author explains what has been found so far.

Chapter 6: The Genomic Origins of Modern Humans

As we sequenced more individuals across the world, we learned more about the original exodus from Africa and the signature of multiple founder effects: genetic diversity decreases rapidly in populations geographically furthest away. Whole genome analyses build up a complex picture of migration histories.

Chapter 7: The Ongoing Evolutionary Journey

Humans now cover most of the planet, but as they expanded they encountered new stresses, differences in: temperature, humidity, foods, disease-causing pathogens, intensity of ultra-violet light, altitude etc. These varied demands created selective pressures for further evolutionary change and that change was sometimes in the form of a small number of point mutations as in the classic Mendelian model (lactose tolerance and malarial resistance are examples). The process by which a beneficial mutation spreads through a population is called a selective sweep. This population genetics concept is explained in detail, as is the methods of seeking evidence of such ‘hard sweeps’ in genomes taken from different populations across the world.

Most traits, however, such as height are quantitative, normally being distributed in the population as a bell-shaped curve. This is an indicator that the traits are under the control of many hundreds of genes, each of small effect. It’s evident, for example, that different human populations have varying average height. An adaptation process which changes the frequency of many alleles to modify the overall distribution of a quantitative trait (such as height) between populations is called a soft sweep. This is even harder to detect in genomic analyses, requiring extremely large sample sizes.

Chapter 8: Kissing Cousins – Clues in Ancient Genomes

In this final chapter we’re led into the murky depths of Neanderthal and Denisovan genomics, and hybridisation between these archaic hominid lineages and modern humans. A very detailed discussion follows, which highlights just how much more there is to learn.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book to understand the state of the art (2015) in human evolution over the last, say, ten million years. As a bonus you get an extremely clear conceptual overview of the main concepts of population genetics. The author avoids the mathematics, which sometimes makes his arguments look rather arbitrary, but after reading his account you are in a much better place to study population genetics in detail.

A final remark: there is always a worry reading books on genetics, human evolution and population differences that one is going to get an agenda - propaganda rather than science. The reader may rest assured – this book is thoroughly scientific, and Henry Harpending was one of the pre-publication reviewers.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Diary: genetics + NHS screening + political correctness

1. Reading the rather good "Ancestors in Our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution" by Dr Eugene E. Harris, Professor of Biology at the City University of New York. Based on whole genome analyses from diverse human populations, chimpanzees, gorillas and other apes and monkeys, what can be said about our recent evolutionary history? The right framework to think about this turns out to be population genetics. What follows is an extremely informative history of the last 20-30 years of human evolution research plus a very good conceptual overview of population genetics itself. I intend to write a much more detailed review once I've finished this book. (Update: read it here).

2. How many screening programmes does the NHS run for 'elderly men'? I'm already on the  faecal occult blood (FOB) test programme (as yucky as it sounds) and have been sent off for a colonoscopy (the link takes you to my diary of the experience). Today I received the invitation for abdominal aortic aneurysm screening which thankfully promises to be just an abdominal gel rub-down and an ultrasound scan: ten minutes. I will let you know. Google tells me that I've now run the gamut of age-appropriate screening.

3. Only in America department (from the New York Times via Steve Sailer who has the summarised story).
"Anna didn’t want to keep her feelings secret. As far as she knew, neither did D.J. In recent weeks, their relationship had changed, and it wasn’t clear when or how to share the news. ‘‘It’s your call,’’ she said to him in the lead-up to a meeting with his mother and older brother. ‘‘It’s your family. It’s up to you.’’

When she arrived at the house on Memorial Day in 2011, Anna didn’t know what D.J. planned to do. His brother, Wesley, was working in the garden, so she went straight inside to speak with D.J. and his mother, P. They chatted for a while at the dining table about D.J.’s plans for school and for getting his own apartment. Then there was a lull in the conversation after Wesley came back in, and Anna took hold of D.J.’s hand. ‘‘We have something to tell you,’’ they announced at last. ‘‘We’re in love.’’

‘‘What do you mean, in love?’’ P. asked, the color draining from her face.

To Wesley, she looked pale and weak, like ‘‘Caesar when he found out that Brutus betrayed him.’’ He felt sick to his stomach. What made them so uncomfortable was not that Anna was 41 and D.J. was 30, or that Anna is white and D.J. is black, or even that Anna was married with two children while D.J. had never dated anyone. What made them so upset — what led to all the arguing that followed, and the criminal trial and million-­dollar civil suit — was the fact that Anna can speak and D.J. can’t; that she was a tenured professor of ethics at Rutgers University in Newark and D.J. has been declared by the state to have the mental capacity of a toddler. …"
Anna has now been found guilty of sexual assault and - with sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 9 - could end up in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women for up to 40 years.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The 'Red' Trilogy: Linda Nagata

Just posted reviews of the first two books of 'The Red' trilogy on Amazon under the general heading of good beach reads, if that's not damning with faint praise.

Here they are.

The Red: First Light
"Linda Nagata writes military SF and the result is .. interesting. Her depiction of tech ('linked combat squad', weapon systems, drones) seems spot-on, the action is relentless and the pages turn with no difficulty whatsoever. The plotting is driven by revelations: sudden changes of scene which introduce new mysteries. Most of the leading characters are women - Wait! you say, Lt Shelley is a man! - but Shelley doesn't come across to me as a male personality. Interesting.

This is a classic beach read. You will learn nothing about future technology, social issues or the human predicament from this book - everything has been done before. You will, however, be diverted by a fun read which makes this book (and volume 2, which I've just finished) better value than 90% of what's out there."
The Trials
"I was slightly in two minds after the high-octane action of 'First Light'. Was this second volume going to be mired in legal procedural stuff? Rest easy, the page-turning excitement is still there. It's still first-person narrative from Lt Shelley aided by the secret AI ('The Red') in the Cloud which seems to be babysitting humanity. In a good way. Maybe.

In the classic taxonomy, this, like its predecessor, is a 'fairly-good bad book' which makes easy and fun reading. I'm looking forward to volume 3 where I'm hoping for shocking revelations as the various mysteries and loose-ends get tied up."
I wrote a previous post about Linda Nagata, and some of the issues about women writing hard-SF here.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Parrot Man

I promised my sister that I would 'draw her attention' to this (hopefully) unique phenomenon. Our home town is Bristol, and we just love its cultural diversity. Ted Richards from Hartcliffe (aka 'Parrot Man') - you've done us proud!

According to The Daily Telegraph, Bristolian Parrot Man  - who has 110 tattoos, 50 piercings and a split tongue - has now had both his ears removed by a surgeon in a six hour operation.
"I am so happy it's unreal, I can't stop looking in the mirror."
The eccentric Mr Richards has given his severed ears to a friend who "will appreciate them" and is now planning to find a surgeon prepared to turn his nose into a beak.

Here's a bonus picture of Parrot Man with one of his pet parrots (which may conceivably be a dead parrot).

I would say he'd have a rich social life, wouldn't you?

Friday, October 23, 2015

"Twenty Two!"

You will be surprised to discover that occasionally Clare and myself have arguments: politics usually. I think it's fair to say that emotions are sometimes engaged and we get a little red-faced. But now, if I come close to winning, Clare defiantly spits back: "Twenty Two!".

Back-up to this report from OKCupid. Christian Rudder, the 39-year-old president and co-founder of the online dating site, has written a book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking”. The book describes trends he's found analysing OKCupid's enormous database.

An example: here's how straight women rate the men on OKCupid based on their age. Rudder reports: “Women who are, say, 28 find guys who are also 28 about the most attractive, and so forth. Up until about 40, when that’s getting too old.”

The dotted line is the 'equal age' line. You can see that young women find men a few years older more attractive. Around 29-30 it all evens out. As women get into their forties, they want a younger specimen, a moderately-toy boy.

Now, you will naturally be interested in the similar chart for men. As men age, what is the age of the women they find most attractive? And this data is, of course, also available.

The feminist rests her case.


Via Steve Hsu.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Terraforming Exam Question

Ready for the next stage of terraforming
The script below was obtained through the most extraordinary circumstances, purporting to be an examiner's guide to an exam set in 2265 AD. The test appears to be aimed at sixteen year olds.
"Q1.  Terraforming Options

For the purposes of this question the planet to be terraformed orbits a sun-like star (such as Tau Ceti) within 50 light years of the Earth. The planet is Earth-like, with rocky continents and large oceans, but when discovered was completely devoid of life.

You may assume that the relevant global mapping and resource surveys have been carried out and that initial seeding of the planet's landmass and oceans has been accomplished. As a result, the conversion from carbon-dioxide to oxygen is well under way as the atmospheric composition approaches that of Earth.

At this point in the terraforming process, two possible ways forward present themselves - scenarios A and B. You should discuss the pros and cons of each of the two methods as precursors to human colonization.

Scenario A: the 'Protestant' strategy.

Sometimes called the 'high-technology approach', this scenario calls for large-scale autonomous robot deployment on the planet to undertake mining, infrastructure-creation, manufacturing, farming and city-construction work. The intention is to create a post-industrial rural/urban environment into which humans can be inserted with an extremely high standard of living from day one.

1a. Why is this called the 'Protestant' strategy?

1b. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

Scenario B: The 'Buddhist' strategy.

Sometimes called the 'ecological' or 'genetic-engineering' approach, this scenario creates an ecology of plants and animals which have been genetically engineered to be tame and to implement a number of important functions and services. For example, most multicellular creatures possess a  'packet-radio transceiver' organ, which allows them to operate as both edge-devices and routers in a 'biological internet' (sometimes known as the 'Internet of creatures'). Humans are also genetically upgraded to participate in this global network.

Dwellings, transportation and the hundreds of other services used in an advanced society are mainly or exclusively provided by gene-tailored organisms.

1c. Why is this called the 'Buddhist' strategy?

1d. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

As you will be aware, both approaches have been used with more or less success.

1e. In less than 250 words, compare and contrast the two strategies and indicate whether one is clearly superior to the other, and why.


Examiner Notes

(a) For full marks, the student should note that the 'Protestant' strategy refers back to the early twentieth century thinker Max Weber's views of the Rise of Capitalism, while the 'Buddhist' strategy particularly relates to the views of the unity of nature in that religion, linked to ideas of reincarnation.

(b) The student should expand on the idea that the main advantages of the 'Protestant' strategy are that devices (such as high-powered radio transmitters, aircraft & spacecraft, high-density power-generators) can be quickly implemented in the most convenient materials and that the design process is extremely flexible.

The main disadvantage is the brittleness of the resulting civilisation: any systemic social catastrophe leads to the end of hyper-specialisation and a collapse back to hunter-gathering.

(c) The student should have noted that the 'Buddhist' strategy is in some ways complementary to the 'Protestant' strategy. Since functions are implemented in the biosphere, an ecology which is distributed, self-maintaining and self-reproducing, the basics of civilization are extraordinarily stable and resilient in the short to medium term.

There are, however, three main disadvantages:

As the optimised ecology needs negligible input from the majority of people on the planet, there may well be a psychological loss of purpose, a kind of 'ennui in the Garden of Eden'.

Secondly, it may require considerable ingenuity to implement a novel function or service within the constraints of biology. Credit will be given to answers which make reference to the difficulties already encountered in genetically-engineering routing and wifi across diverse biosystems.

Thirdly, the student should draw attention to the fact that the genomes of virtually all the organisms in the ecology have been purposefully set up not to benefit the fitness of the creature itself, but to be useful to humans. It follows that mutation and natural selection will tend to subvert the status quo and cause reversion to a feral ecology; without the closest monitoring and ruthless culling the Buddhist utopia will eventually collapse.

(d) In the final part of the question, full marks will be obtained by answers which appreciate that neither pure strategy is optimal under all conditions. In practice the question is where to draw the balance point in a mixed approach. In conditions of social stability with backup, the 'Protestant' strategy can be given enhanced weighting; in opposite circumstances the more resilient 'Buddhist' approach is recommended."
The manuscript ends here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station not such a bad deal

Once in a while you learn something from the media. Remember the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station? The deal agreed today with the French and Chinese? You recall there was a very great deal of fuss over the extremely high guaranteed price for the nuclear station's output. You may remember being shocked by this, and wondering why we didn't Go Green instead. And then the BBC today printed the following chart.

Compared to offshore wind and gasification of waste, Hinkley Point is actually pretty cheap. It's not a whole lot more expensive even than the intermittent onshore wind and solar. And they're all a lot more expensive than today's deprecated coal and gas stations.

I happen to think that nuclear power stations are contained cauldrons of hell. But as someone who lives downwind of Hinkley Point, I do my best to put overblown fears to one side and note that there are considerable benefits to a new fission reactor through its ecosystem of hi-tech industries: computing, communications and control systems, sophisticated engineering.

And in "Lucifer's Hammer", Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had a working nuclear power station as the engine of recovery after a global catastrophe.

So that's a cautious positive response to the deal going ahead, then ..

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Maesbury Castle

Quick trip out today ("the last day of summer") to nearby Maesbury Castle.

Maesbury Castle
The Wikipedia article has this to say:
"Maesbury Castle is an Iron Age hill fort within the parish of Croscombe on the Mendip Hills, just north of Shepton Mallet, Somerset, England. It has been listed as Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The name is derived from maes, meaning field or plain in Brythonic Welsh, and burh, meaning fort in Old English. There is also a record of the name Merksburi in 705 AD, meaning boundary fort. The area was a boundary between the Romano-British Celts and West Saxons during the period 577-652 AD, when the nearby Wansdyke fortification comprised part of the border.

The enclosure has an area of 2.5 hectares (6.2 acres), and lies at a height of 292 m (950 ft), with spectacular views in many directions. This includes the Somerset Levels to Glastonbury Tor and Brent Knoll which are the closest and probably the most easily identifiable landmarks from the site. The fort has a single rampart up to 6 m high, with an outer ditch (univallate). Entrances are to the south-east and north-east (with possible outworks).

The Fort and surrounding grounds are now owned by the Stevens' Family who have been farming in Somerset for over 60 years."
Here are some of the pix we took.

On the ramparts

Clare on the way up

Looking west, the Mendips TV transmitting station
We also took a stroll through the ancient Beacon Hill Wood.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Demons" by Dostoevsky

Sadly, a great Russian novel I've failed to finish, although I did get about one third the way through.

The translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is as idiomatic, witty and sardonic as I imagine the author intended. The plot is not without topical interest: a provincial gathering of tame political radicals in the mid-1860s is "invaded" by a small group of nihilist extremists who shrink from no destructive act (including murder) in their struggle against the establishment. The social setting is Jane Austen's: the lower gentry, sandwiched between the serfs (peasantry) and the upper aristocracy.

It's true that the infamous Russian names are a bit of a trial. The author wields a large cast who are frequently referred to by differing subsets of their entire names - it's easy to fail to recognise that differently-named individuals are sometimes the same person .. which quite derails things.

The Wikipedia article explains why Dostoevsky wrote Demons:
"Set in the 1860s, Demons is an allegory of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent at that time in Russia. A provincial town descends into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution, orchestrated by master conspirator Pyotr Verkhovensky. The mysterious aristocratic figure of Nikolai Stavrogin — Verkhovensky's counterpart in the moral sphere—dominates the book, exercising an extraordinary influence over the hearts and minds of almost all the other characters. The idealistic, western-influenced generation of 1840s Russia, epitomized in the character of Stepan Verkhovensky (who is both Pyotr Verkhovensky's father and Nikolai Stavrogin's childhood teacher), are presented as the unconscious progenitors and helpless accomplices of the 'demonic' forces that take possession of the town.

According to Ronald Hingley, Demons is Dostoevsky's "greatest onslaught on Nihilism" and constitutes "an awesome, prophetic warning which humanity...shows alarmingly few signs of heeding." He describes it as "one of humanity's most impressive achievements—perhaps even its supreme achievement—in the art of prose fiction."
So where was my problem?

Well, I'm not reading this novel for a course or for an exam but for fun. Dostoevsky writes at an incredibly fine texture (I almost said Proustian); pages are set aside for this meeting or that social call or those events outside a Mass. Painstaking detail serves to build the fabric of time and place, character and back story. Much of it is not without interest, but the plot proceeds at a glacial pace.

I can understand that the author's contemporaries would have been able to immerse themselves in all this scene-setting, just as Jane Austen's readers happily cross-checked her social scenes with their own experiences. One hundred and fifty years later, the past is another country and the whole thing is just slow.

A piece of advice for anyone setting out with a little more determination: the Wikipedia article has a summary of plot and characters which can help considerably in disentangling the early chapters. You're not a mid-19th century Russian, you don't know all this stuff by upbringing - and it will help. In the end, you don't read Dostoevsky as a whodunit thriller.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A proof beyond understanding

From Nature via Peter Woit:
"Sometime on the morning of 30 August 2012, Shinichi Mochizuki quietly posted four papers on his website.

The papers were huge — more than 500 pages in all — packed densely with symbols, and the culmination of more than a decade of solitary work. They also had the potential to be an academic bombshell. In them, Mochizuki claimed to have solved the abc conjecture, a 27-year-old problem in number theory that no other mathematician had even come close to solving. If his proof was correct, it would be one of the most astounding achievements of mathematics this century and would completely revolutionize the study of equations with whole numbers.

Mochizuki, however, did not make a fuss about his proof. The respected mathematician, who works at Kyoto University's Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (RIMS) in Japan, did not even announce his work to peers around the world. He simply posted the papers, and waited for the world to find out."
So you'd think people would be all over it, right?
"Probably the first person to notice the papers was Akio Tamagawa, a colleague of Mochizuki's at RIMS. He, like other researchers, knew that Mochizuki had been working on the conjecture for years and had been finalizing his work. That same day, Tamagawa e-mailed the news to one of his collaborators, number theorist Ivan Fesenko of the University of Nottingham, UK. Fesenko immediately downloaded the papers and started to read. But he soon became “bewildered”, he says. “It was impossible to understand them.” ...

Everyone — even those whose area of expertise was closest to Mochizuki's — was just as flummoxed by the papers as Fesenko had been. To complete the proof, Mochizuki had invented a new branch of his discipline, one that is astonishingly abstract even by the standards of pure maths. “Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” number theorist Jordan Ellenberg, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote on his blog a few days after the paper appeared.

Three years on, Mochizuki's proof remains in mathematical limbo — neither debunked nor accepted by the wider community. Mochizuki has estimated that it would take a maths graduate student about 10 years to be able to understand his work, and Fesenko believes that it would take even an expert in arithmetic geometry some 500 hours. So far, only four mathematicians say that they have been able to read the entire proof."
And something strange happened to those four ...
"But so far, the few who have understood the work have struggled to explain it to anyone else. “Everybody who I'm aware of who's come close to this stuff is quite reasonable, but afterwards they become incapable of communicating it,” says one mathematician who did not want his name to be mentioned.

The situation, he says, reminds him of the Monty Python skit about a writer who jots down the world's funniest joke. Anyone who reads it dies from laughing and can never relate it to anyone else."
Worth reading the whole thing. Another article, from Quora, here (written by a 15 year old!)

There will be a Clay Mathematics Institute, University of Oxford, Workshop on IUT Theory of Shinichi Mochizuki, Monday December 7 - Friday December 11, 2015.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

We invade the Moon .. but when?

Proposed lunar habitat

According to the BBC,
"The European and Russian space agencies are to send a lander to an unexplored area at the Moon's south pole. It will be one of a series of missions that prepares for the return of humans to the surface and a possible permanent settlement. The spacecraft will assess whether there is water, and raw materials to make fuel and oxygen.

BBC News has obtained exclusive details of the mission, called Luna 27, which is set for launch in five years' time. The mission is one of a series led by the Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, to go back to the Moon."
The only practicable way to construct a lunar habitat, like the one pictured, would be by using autonomous robots. They couldn't be teleoperated from Earth due to communication delay.

You may have noticed that nowhere on Earth right now are there autonomous robots capable of building a house - even under the benign conditions on our planet. People aided by dumb machinery build houses.

It's often said that the future is already here, just unevenly distributed. Absolutely cutting-edge stuff is very expensive and is solely used by elites (the rich, or priority government programmes). Later, technologies get better, prices come down via economies of scale .. and the future arrives for the masses.

Example: the first mobile phones, clunky things, date back to c. 1975. The mass take-up of mobile phones began in the mid-1990s, twenty years later. This period, twenty years from earliest adopters to mass deployment, seems about right for sophisticated, high-technology systems engineering.

As I noted above, there are no autonomous construction robots at all right now: we're probably ten years from systems which could autonomously build a habitat on Earth and perhaps thirty years from systems which are cost-effective for large scale use.

For a special-project moon base (large budget, customised equipment) I would guess twenty years out. For routine off-planet construction opening the way to significant lunar/martian cities it would have to be at least forty years.

So here's my summary timeline:
2025:  first proof-of-concept complete-house-building robots (autonomous)
2035:  first special-purpose lunar/martian habitat-building robots (autonomous)
2045:  houses routinely built by autonomous robots across the world
2055:  large scale town/city construction on the Moon and Mars by autonomous robots.
These are the earliest dates.


On a personal note, which of these events could I expect to see?

I checked an online life-expectancy calculator with this result:

My life expectancy at current age 64 (in 2015) = +25 years

This puts my expected date of death 25 years in the future, to 2040.

I might see the habitat pictured above before I go, with zen-like equanimity, to that good night.

Friday, October 16, 2015

... or a cluster of Culture Orbitals?

Suppose there was a star 1,480 light years away which was orbited by a vast cluster of alien artefacts  - artefacts something like Iain M. Banks' Culture Orbitals.

And suppose the Kepler space telescope, currently surveying 145,000 stars for exoplanets, happened to observe it. What exactly would it see?

We actually know the answer to this question: something very like KIC 8462852.
"KIC 8462852 has been causing ripples since 2011 because while we do seem to be seeing something passing between its light and us, that something is not a planet but a large number of objects in motion around the star. Some of the dips in starlight are extremely deep (up to 22 percent), and they are not periodic.

Here’s how Phil Plait describes the situation:

…it turns out there are lots of these dips in the star’s light. Hundreds. And they don’t seem to be periodic at all. They have odd shapes to them, too. A planet blocking a star’s light will have a generally symmetric dip; the light fades a little, remains steady at that level, then goes back up later. The dip at 800 days in the KIC 8462852 data doesn’t do that; it drops slowly, then rises more rapidly. Another one at 1,500 days has a series of blips up and down inside the main dips. There’s also an apparent change in brightness that seems to go up and down roughly every 20 days for weeks, then disappears completely. It’s likely just random transits, but still. It’s bizarre.

A ragged young debris disk would be the natural conclusion, but arguing against this is the fact that we don’t see the infrared excess that a dusty disk would create."  ...

Is the companion star transiting and disrupting a comet cloud?

We’ve often discussed cometary disruptions in these pages, speculating on what the passage of a nearby star might do to comets in the Oort Cloud. As per the images above, it’s a natural speculation that the anomalies of KIC 8462852 are the result of a similar scenario.
The paper, as we saw yesterday, explores other hypotheses but settles on comet activity as the likeliest, given the data we currently have. The kind of huge collision between planets that would produce this signature would also be rich in infrared because of the sheer amount of dust involved, and we don’t see that. You can see why all this would catch the eye of Jason Wright (Penn State), who studies SETI of the Dysonian kind, involving large structures observed from Earth. Because if we’re looking at cometary chunks, some of these are extraordinarily large.
See the Centauri Dreams post for full details. It's worth noting that if we ever get around to building large structures in orbit around our own sun, alien observers thousands of light years away will be able to see them.

Update: Centauri Dreams has yet another post on this object today.


October 27th 2015: Here's an updated view from Oxford University.


Bruce Schneier points to the following article:
"The three men who showed up at Michael Usry’s door last December were unfailingly polite. They told him they were cops investigating a hit-and-run that had occurred a few blocks away, near New Orleans City Park, and they invited Usry to accompany them to a police station so he could answer some questions. Certain that he hadn’t committed any crime, the 36-year-old filmmaker agreed to make the trip.

The situation got weird in the car. As they drove, the cops prodded Usry for details of a 1998 trip he’d taken to Rexburg, Idaho, where two of his sisters later attended college—a detail they’d gleaned by studying his Facebook page. “They were like, ‘We know high school kids do some crazy things—were you drinking? Did you meet anybody?’” Usry recalls. The grilling continued downtown until one of the three men—an FBI agent—told Usry he wanted to swab the inside of Usry’s cheek but wouldn’t explain his reason for doing so, though he emphasized that their warrant meant Usry could not refuse.

The bewildered Usry soon learned that he was a suspect in the 1996 murder of an Idaho Falls teenager named Angie Dodge. Though a man had been convicted of that crime after giving an iffy confession, his DNA didn’t match what was found at the crime scene. Detectives had focused on Usry after running a familial DNA search, a technique that allows investigators to identify suspects who don’t have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose close relatives have had their genetic profiles cataloged. In Usry’s case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable—a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.

Usry, whose story was first reported in The New Orleans Advocate, was finally cleared after a nerve-racking 33-day wait—the DNA extracted from his cheek cells didn’t match that of Dodge’s killer, whom detectives still seek. But the fact that he fell under suspicion in the first place is the latest sign that it’s time to set ground rules for familial DNA searching, before misuse of the imperfect technology starts ruining lives."
You can see why the police might have wanted to do this: the article goes on to state, disparagingly,
 " In the United Kingdom, a 2014 study found that just 17 percent of familial DNA searches “resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender.”
but in the absence of other evidence, 17% is a lot better than zero for most detectives.

I suspect it would be easy to do much the same with 23andMe, even without invoking warrants and secret agreements with law enforcement. As with most things genetic, this issue is only going to get bigger.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Dark Ages were robustly dark

What is bothering Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins in his excellent book "The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization" (2006)? The introduction to chapter 5 gives a clue.
"It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a 'crisis' or a 'decline' occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a 'civilization' collapsed and a 'dark age' ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, 'transformed' into a medieval form.

However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries! This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of saints resting in their churches.

It was no mere transformation—it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as 'the end of a civilization'. "
So, Professor, what was it really like?
"Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage. A shy newcomer to the village, who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on. The accommodation that was reached between invaders and invaded in the fifth- and sixth-century West was very much more difficult, and more interesting, than this.

The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter, and headed straight for the cake stand. Invader and invaded did eventually settle down together, and did adjust to each other's ways — but the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time, and, as we shall see in Part Two, left the vicarage in very poor shape. "
Razib Khan's post here recommended this.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dry humour; periclone

Professor Susskind begins his lecture by stating that Quantum Field Theory can in principle predict all physical phenomena except gravity; however, in practice, the computations are too difficult except in the simplest cases. We can use QFT to explain the Hydrogen atom, he continues, but an atom such as Boron is way too complicated.

 And then, at one minute, he says dryly, "certainly studying human beings is well beyond the capacity of any quantum field theorist that I know."

 And no-one laughs.


In certain science-fiction plots, the villain keeps a clone of himself (it's always 'he') which is used to harvest spare parts for transplantation. Now we have pig-to-man transplants coming along, the best results will surely be to engineer the pig to express the same organ genetic markers as you yourself (the brain excepted - obviously!).

This tailored pig, so much like you, needs a generic name: I propose it be called a periclone (Greek prefix peri-), a word which now exists in English on Google for the first time.

When I mentioned this happy thought to my sister, she replied that I'd find it hard to use the gym equipment with trotters.

Monday, October 12, 2015

'The creatures outside looked from pig to man ...'

The good news:
"A gene-editing method could one day make pig organs suitable for use in people, scientists say. Prof George Church and colleagues used a technique called Crispr to alter the DNA of pig cells to create a better match for humans. The early work, in the journal Science, aims to address concerns about rejection and infection by viruses embedded in pig DNA. If successful, it could be an answer to the shortage of human donor organs."
The details:
"Crispr is a relatively new scientific tool that lets scientists snip and play around with the code of life - DNA. Prof Church, from Harvard University, used it to inactivate a retrovirus present in the pig cell line. This porcine endogenous retrovirus is potentially risky because it can infect human cells - at least in the lab. In tests on early pig embryos, Prof Church was able to eliminate all 62 copies of porcine endogenous retroviruses from the pig cells using Crispr. Next, he checked if the modified pig cells would still easily pass the retrovirus on to human cells. They did not, although there was still a small amount of transmission. Prof Church says the discovery holds great promise for using animal organs in people - what doctors call xenotransplantation."
... and the less good news:
"Years more research is needed before genetically modified pigs could be bred to grow organs for people."
Tough, of course, on the animals, but how many of us agonise on the subject of bacon?


Subsequent my recent post (poor gym performance) I can confirm that today, Clare is snuffling like a cow-threatening badger while I'm nursing a sore throat and doing that limp man-thing.


If they ever make "The Martian 2" do you think the star will be Jeremy Clarkson in a reasonably priced MAV together with a maddeningly-chirpy sidekick and a gormless, nerdy sparring partner?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Three-Body Problem" - Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin's "The Three Body Problem" is a most amazing work of science-fiction. Here's an excerpt from the Locus Online Review:
"The novel begins as a politi­cal horror story, set during the more shocking excesses of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Ye Wenjie, a young astrophysi­cist, witnesses her father beat­en to death by youthful Red Guards, simply for insisting on a standard model of quantum mechanics, which they view as ‘‘reactionary idealism.’’ Though this brutal opening chapter is short, it sets up not only an impor­tant aspect of Wenjie’s character for the rest of the novel – including an action she takes which may imperil the world – but also much of the novel’s ideational structure, which returns again and again to the question of science as a reliable model of reality.

For US readers, the anti-intellectualism of the Red Guards may come as something of a shock – but it’s not as though we haven’t seen impassioned denials of science for political and ideological reasons here at home. Wenjie herself survives, but is exiled to a remote logging camp, where she is betrayed by a colleague and given a choice between prison and participating in a secret research project located near the camp, which we soon realize has something to do with a SETI effort on the part of the Chinese govern­ment.

Decades later, an aging and reclusive Wenjie is sought out by a young nanotech researcher seeking clues to a series of suicides among physicists, the most recent of whom is Wenjie’s daughter Yang Dong, who left behind a cryp­tic message that ‘‘Physics has never existed, and will never exist.’’ A line like that is cat­nip for just about any hard SF reader, and The Three-Body Problem delivers on the promise in ways that are at times stunningly inventive and at times contrived.

Physics experiments, even under the most controlled conditions, are beginning to yield apparently random re­sults, and the researcher, Wang Miao, begins to wonder if there might be a connection be­tween these events, Wenjie’s earlier activities at that SETI installation, and even an addic­tive online game called ‘‘Three Body,’’ set in a world that alternates between random peri­ods of chaos and limited times of stability – caused by the three suns that give the novel its title, and that reflect the three-body problem of classical physics and the difficulty in predict­ing the orbital mechanics of such a system.

Suddenly the novel begins to open up from its violent beginnings and more ruminative middle sections. We learn that those ancient SETI signals had been intercepted by an im­periled alien civilization in just such a three-body system, the Trisolarans, who now see the colonization of Earth as their best chance at survival. (If this sounds like a dreaded spoiler, it’s already there in the book’s jacket copy.) We find ourselves in the middle of an alien invasion narrative, albeit an invasion that may not arrive for centuries, given the distance. This pretty clearly sets up a problem for the second novel in Liu’s trilogy, while a dramatic point-of-view shift late in the novel seems to set us up for a third, which promises to be radically more science fictional than this one.

In fact, Liu has been prepping us for this sling­shot as far back as the opening chapters, where he says of Wenjie’s betrayal by her colleague that ‘‘historians would all agree that this event in 1969 was a turning point in humankind’s history.’’ That’s the sort of pulpish narrative hook that makes you want to dare the author to deliver, but Cixin Liu does, causing us to not only to wonder whether physics might ac­tually be ‘‘destroyed,’’ but what those Triso­larans are actually up to. If Tor (or someone) doesn’t follow up with the next two volumes in this series, it will be a crime against trilogies (a line I never thought I would write)."
The purist in me blanched as the author seemed to confuse his gravitational attraction forces with his gravitational tidal forces in a couple of game-scenarios; but despite the wobble I remained hooked on a plot which continually defied prediction. Reminiscent of Stanisław Lem, this is not the kind of science-fiction anyone in the west is writing.

Part 2 of the trilogy, "The Dark Forest", arrived on my Kindle app an hour ago. And the Chinese are making a film of "The Three-Body Problem" due for release in July 2016.


Note: in reading this book, it helps to know that in Newtonian mechanics, the three-body problem is chaotically intractable. For normal planetary/stellar dynamics, general relativity doesn't add anything, but in fact the three-body problem in GR is even worse (look under 'Geodesic hypothesis').

Friday, October 09, 2015

Diary: artist at work + gym + books + genetics

The Artist at work - October 2006
We haven't seen much painting recently. I wonder how I can persuade her?


We were both at the gym this morning: sweat dripping off us. We hit the wall about half way through which in my case meant abandoning. A mystery: excessive humidity or perhaps we're incubating bugs?


I liked this article, about the original 'steely-eyed missile man', a phrase which got name-checked in that excellent film 'The Martian'.


Next, two books recommended by Razib Khan (a population geneticist):
"You should also read Garett Jones’ 'Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own' . It comes out early next month.

A week before Garett’s book, Joe Henrich’s 'The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter', is coming out. You should read it too!"
I'll let you know about them if I decide to buy; the second seems more interesting to me but I'd like to check the reviews first.


We had this remarkable story today about an incursion of middle-eastern 'early farmers' back into Africa c. 3,000 years ago. This has left a significant genetic footprint across sub-Saharan Africa.
"The Neolithic farmers from western Eurasia who, about 8,000 years ago, brought agriculture to Europe then began to return to Africa.

"We know now that they probably corresponded to a quarter of the people that already lived in East Africa (at that time). It was a major backflow, a very sizeable movement of people," said Dr Manica.

It is unclear what caused this move - potentially changes happening in the Egyptian empire - but it has left a genetic legacy.

"Quite remarkably, we see in Ethiopia about 20% - so a fifth - of the genome of people living there right now is actually of Eurasian origin, it actually comes from these farmers," explained Dr Manica.

"But it goes further than that, because if you go to the corners of Africa, all the way to West Africa or South Africa, even populations that we really thought were purely African have 5-6% of their genome that dates back to these western Eurasian farmers."
The most interesting question: those particular Eurasian alleles which have been preserved in present-day African populations - what exactly do they code for?

I guess it's early days.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

We know who you are

Bruce Schneier has an interesting article:
"Walk into a store, and the salesclerks will know your name. The store's cameras and computers will have figured out your identity, and looked you up in both their store database and a commercial marketing database they've subscribed to. They'll know your name, salary, interests, what sort of sales pitches you're most vulnerable to, and how profitable a customer you are. Maybe they'll have read a profile based on your tweets and know what sort of mood you're in. Maybe they'll know your political affiliation or sexual identity, both predictable by your social media activity. And they're going to engage with you accordingly, perhaps by making sure you're well taken care of or possibly by trying to make you so uncomfortable that you'll leave.
The critical technology here is computer face recognition. Traditionally it has been pretty poor, but it's slowly improving. A computer is now as good as a person. Already Google's algorithms can accurately match child and adult photos of the same person, and Facebook has an algorithm that works by recognizing hair style, body shape, and body language ­- and works even when it can't see faces. And while we humans are pretty much as good at this as we're ever going to get, computers will continue to improve. Over the next years, they'll continue to get more accurate, making better matches using even worse photos."
There is a gap in this example. The store's computers will know who you are, but how will the sales assistant? I foresee something akin to Google Glass, the optical head-mounted display which Google discontinued for consumer use. Glass would seem to have more specialised application for augmented reality in areas such as security ... and as described above, in retail.

If this ever comes to pass, expect a large banner header on this blog:

'Don't bother me, I'm just looking!'

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

I accompanied Clare last night to this:
St Joseph & St Teresa Catholic Church

Everyone is warmly invited to the start of our 9-day celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila.  Our parish’s former association with a Carmelite convent makes this a very special time for us.

The celebrations begin  next Tuesday 6 October at 7.30pm with a talk on St Teresa of Avila – writer , reformer and mystic.   The talk will be given by Louis Carruthers who is a recent young graduate of the Department of Religion & Theology at Bristol University.

Louis is about to start post-graduate study on St Teresa.   He says his interests include Teresa as a mystic and, more recently, applying the teachings of Teresa to everyday life.
Louis was a young, engaging man with a fashionably small beard. His 30-40 strong audience consisted mostly of women with a median age of sixty. We were in the old Carmelite convent chapel.

It turns out that Saint Teresa was an interesting person in the Spanish Counter-Reformation - who had celebrated visions. Louis reverentially read out one of her most famous (the subject of this statue from Bernini).

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
" I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely.... In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus.

He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim....

I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God.

The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God."
So, my emphasis. As the young man calmly read all this out, taking the words at face value, and as his audience carefully didn't react at all, I thought: 'Freud would have had a field day with this.'

The tyranny of everyday things

A month ago I was writing about our central heating, how it had packed up and how I had fixed it with a bit of Internet research and a hammer. Of course I hadn't really. Ian Hosegood, the engineer from Shepton Mallet, checked it out and blamed the 'three-way valve'; he promised to order a new one.

So that was two weeks ago (Weds Sept 23rd). Plainly his very presence had a salutary effect, for the central heating has since behaved itself: until last night. In fix-it mode, I went upstairs to the boiler cupboard and tapped the three-way valve with a kind of insistent thoroughness. Naturally this had no effect at all .. but this morning, the heating is working as normal. Go figure.

Last Friday we went for a stroll ('the last day of summer') in the Priddy Mineries, close by us on the top of the Mendips. As we returned to the house, Clare said, "My window won't shut." Indeed, the front passenger window had jammed half-open.

The car was booked into the garage for this morning. I climbed into the driver's seat, turned on the engine and tested the window. No problem, it was up and down like a yoyo.

The last time this happened (some years ago) I did get as far as the garage where the technician had no problem making the errant window work. "Could you have inadvertently pressed the childproof lock?" he asked with a commendably straight face.

Naturally I vehemently denied it, citing a 'transient fault'.


Matt Ridley, in a Times opinion piece yesterday, suggested that the latest research on telomere extension would mean we were all going to live for ever. Today, in The Times, there is an article explaining that we will all continue working to 100.

You know, sometimes, death seems a very attractive prospect.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Martian (film)

We saw The Martian yesterday. It's a flyover country film, red not blue (see what I did there?*).

We enjoyed it.

After all the nail-biting excitement, it was brave to end the film with Mark Watney ('The Martian') giving a homily to aspiring astronauts that there are always problems in space, that you just have to solve them one at a time, then you get to come home.

For me the message was: space and off-Earth operations are incredibly brittle: one serious problem and you're dead.


* In case you didn't: red Mars vs. blue Earth is being compared to red states (Republican, STEM, rugged individualist) vs. blue states (Democrat, liberal arts, statist) in terms of the film's culture and target audience.

I know: never apologise, never explain!

Monday, October 05, 2015

Existence is rather important

Consider the ontological argument:
"The ontological argument attempts to prove God’s existence through abstract reasoning alone. The argument is entirely a priori, i.e. it involves no empirical evidence at all. Rather, the argument begins with an explication of the concept of God, and seeks to demonstrate that God exists on the basis of that concept alone.
All forms of the argument make some association between three concepts: the concepts of God, of perfection, and of existence. Very roughly, they state that perfection is a part of the concept of God, and that perfection entails existence, and so that the concept of God entails God’s existence.
The ontological argument was first formulated in the eleventh century by St Anselm in his Proslogium, Chapter 2. Anselm was a Benedictine monk, Archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the great medieval philosopher-theologians. Anselm’s ontological argument rests on the identification of God as “that than which no greater can be conceived”. Once it is understood that God is that than which no greater can be conceived, Anselm suggests, it becomes evident that God must exist."
The usual rebuttal, due to Kant, is that "existence is not a predicate".

There is a biological analogue: that the zoological properties of a species are predicated upon that species actually existing. An animal's behaviour is such as to ensure the continuing existence and successful reproduction of its genes: in the jargon, its inclusive fitness.

I think about this every time I hear some clever-stupid contortions in moral philosophy.

Take Peter Singer's observations that we would all help a drowning child in a pool before our very eyes - even at the cost of ruining our maybe-expensive clothes. Yet there are people in similar dire circumstances across the planet but out of our view, right now. We should therefore make similar material and effortful sacrifices for them too.

But, unless we are very gullible, we don't much (don't get me started on virtue signalling). So there's a moral deficit to explain and counter - if you're a moral philosopher of that persuasion.

The proximate reason we help the drowning child in front of our very eyes* is that we feel a strong emotional reaction, that of empathy, which drives us to action. And the causal reason we experience that emotion is that we have mirror neurons in our brains which emulate the child's fear and panic.

Let us progress. The ultimate reason for the evolution of empathy (and its enforcer, guilt) via the apparatus of mirror neurons was to facilitate reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism allows cooperation with non-kin across time and space to mutual advantage and can therefore be subject to positive selection (Robert L. Trivers).

We have a term for the network of those with whom we can work to the benefit of our mutual inclusive fitness: family and friends. The outer limit to the number of people you can do deals with has been quoted as around 150. Beyond that, people are just an anonymous mass.

When E. M. Forster made his over-quoted remark “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” he was capturing the essentially fictive notions of 'fatherland' (and indeed ethnicity) as objects of spontaneous emotional attachment. **

Politicians, religious leaders and ethnic spokespeople have to work hard to create feelings of mass emotional solidarity, ("Brothers and Sisters ...!", "Friends ...!"), misusing the language of small-group bonding. Sometimes they are right to do so, as there are indeed inclusive fitness benefits to some social organisations of scale. And sometimes they are just conning people and reducing their life chances (cults such as scientology come to mind).

Giving away your material goods to people with whom you can never hope to have any reciprocal relations of advantage is plainly a case of the latter. Which is why, (except for the most gullible who invite their extinction from the gene pool), people tend not to do it.

The argument above is related to this issue:
... the “problem of human ultra-sociality“: from an evolutionary point of view, how was it possible for the human species to go from living in small foraging bands of close relatives in the Palaeolithic to the global network of billions of anonymously interacting strangers that we see today ?
To read more, refer to this current post from Pseudoerasmus.


* We should note the perverse power of television in making the whole world appear as 'in front of our very eyes' and thus further scamming our emotions. Expect things to get worse in the coming days of virtual reality.


** Suppose that in a foreign and dangerous land you happen to meet a fellow country person. You might well feel a warm feeling of anticipatory camaraderie, as did those merchant seamen who, captured by the enemy, were rescued by sailors who were strangers to them with the cheery words "The navy's here!". Plainly a shared culture and heritage can make it more likely that there is a basis for future reciprocal altruism - prosocial dispositions may facilitate such an outcome.