Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Spring Afternoon in York

York Minster in the hail

A view from the warmth of the pub. He's cradling a takeaway coffee. One guy stopped and gave him a cigarette. Others pressed coins into his hands.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Being Jewish in contemporary America

Scott Aaronson is not yet 35 years old:
"I’m gratified that many people have described me as warm and friendly and helpful (“surprisingly so,” one can almost hear them add, for such a socially-inept, self-obsessed nerd!).  But there’s a reason for that.

"If I meet a new person, and they aren’t weird in the same ways I’m weird, my brain’s first questions tend to be: would this person be happy to rid the earth of me and everyone like me, regarding me as genetically defective?  Is he or she merely temporarily prevented from doing so?  In 1942, would he or she have smiled (as so much of Europe did smile) as I was loaded onto a cattle car?

"So then, if the person turns out—as most often they do—to be perfectly nice and decent, I’m so relieved and grateful that it’s like, how can I be anything but friendly and helpful in return?"
Read the whole of his extraordinary interview with Scientific American here.


I reviewed Scott Aaronson's book, 'Quantum Computing Since Democritus' back in 2013.

The Beacon at the Tor

Morrisons car park was almost empty (to my surprise) as we started our mile walk to the Tor - would it really be such an affront to the New-Age to build some parking next to the Tor's entrance?

We started the long climb at quarter to eight as the light began to fail, a queue of pilgrims rising before us; we could already see the crowd at the top of the hill.

Clare spotting for other beacons from Glastonbury Tor last night

We had thought the beacon would be some monstrous, Guy Fawkes-style bonfire, but it was more of a lantern. There was a town cryer in full regalia, reading the Royal Proclamation, and some guy in embroidered white robes adorned with knotted rope, who might have been a druid. A small contingent of military cadets stood aimlessly to one side.

There was a ragged singing of "Jerusalem" although to what purpose we did not know.

Your author, stoic in the cold wind and gathering gloom, as they try to light it

As they tried repeatedly to light the lantern beacon the crowd, as one, brought out their phones and tablets; I was equally an offender.

The obligatory drone was grounded on account of the arctic gale swirling around the Tor.

The Beacon was finally alight

Clare looked for other beacons in the national chain. I could not clearly differentiate candidates from distant car headlights but it occupied a few shivering moments, until we could plausibly make our way down again.

We popped into Morrisons and bought a couple of vanilla slices to compensate them for use of their car park, and went home.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

24 Hours

In bed last night, in a twilight state, I heard a faint scratching outside the bedroom door.

With insane indulgence, Clare maintains a bowl of munchy-crunchies on the landing for the cat in case it ever feels the need for a snack .. and can't be bothered to pop downstairs.

I turned to Clare, "We've got a mouse."

I retrieved the vole-trap refuge from downstairs and seeded it with the dry cat-food on a folded paper napkin (we give a 5 star service here), positioned the device by the side of the wall .. and went back to bed.

Several minutes later, more faint sounds from the other side of the door. And there in the box was a large vole, bright-eyed and alert, not the least bit cowed. He was forthwith released into the front garden.

The cat was roundly chastised this morning for laziness, lack of prowling and perhaps even bringing the wretched thing up in the first place.


Clare's bedside Roberts Radio packed up last night.

"The batteries are gone," she told me, so this morning I bought four large 'D' batteries (£6) and duly replaced them.

I never truly believe 'stuff works'. I turned the radio on to check and the screen lit up showing the DAB mode tuned to Radio 4 .. but no sound came out. I tried this and that, attached the mains power unit, checked for loose wires. Nothing.

I assumed this was the end of the story - time for a new radio, but Clare then confided she had had it in a hot bath with her yesterday, positioned on her knees amidst the steam while she played with the stations.


After fifteen minutes in the warmth of the room the radio came to life.

The world divides into those with an instinctive feel for the weaknesses of electronic equipment, and those that, well, .. not so much.


"The poster at George Osborne's event this morning made a bold claim - that there would be a £4,300-a-year cost to families by 2030 if Britain leaves the EU."

XKCD nails it again - "but somehow, I can't help myself ..."

Economic models which diverge from reality on a timescale of months extrapolated to fourteen years.

Give me a break! *


* Hint: what are the chances that the political-economic structure of the EU in 2030 (or even a lot sooner than that) will look anything like what we see today? Yet the models have to assume no significant difference - they don't do political extrapolation. The truth is, no-one can possibly know or even plausibly guess.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Matthew Parris, Brexit and MFT

For the background on Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) (Jonathan Haidt) start here.

The Conservative Right of the Tories

Matthew Parris writes a passionate opinion piece in The Times today, denouncing the Brexiteers in his own party as destroyers of the Tory Party and wreckers of Europe.
"My hunch is that there is a powerful correlation between those Tory MPs who want us to leave the EU, and those whom most people would describe as “right wing” more generally. There is no tick-box way of categorising a rightwinger: you have to look at a range of behaviours:

  • a strong and persistent interest in military matters; 

  • a marked admiration for Republican US presidents; 

  • social illiberalism (look at attitudes towards gay marriage, for example; or some of the church-fuelled reaction to what the rest of us might call progressive social policy); 

  • a certain lack of interest in the state’s role in protecting workers or the active promotion of healthy living; 

  • ... state intervention that such MPs would call “wishy-washy liberalism”. 

"All I can say is that in the Tory party you know a rightwinger when you meet one."

Compare that list of moral values with the standard conservative set I discussed yesterday.

Traditional conservatism - all boxes ticked, but moderately


The Liberal-Left of the Tories

I recall reading - I think in the Alan Clark Diaries - the consensus of the Thatcherite high command that for Matthew Parris, it was always going to be about Gay Rights.

And yesterday I also gave you the chart for the classic bien-pensant liberal, to which group Mr Parris is such an adornment.

This is broadly where Matthew Parris sits in the moral spectrum


I already wrote about Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) and Brexit here (scroll to the bottom).

Let me add that the Brexit camp combines three moral camps. As well as the traditional conservatives already mentioned - those well-represented in the conservative party - we also have:

The Libertarians

Matt Ridley, Mr Gove and the sole UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell. Here is their chart:

Libertarian Brexiteers dislike the dead hand of European oversight

The Authoritarians

The Nigel Farage wing of UKIP, and continental authoritarian nationalists like Marine Le Pen.

Brexit Authoritarians rally to a nationalist, communalist flag

Despite their preponderance in the media and the governing elite, there are only so many left-liberals. How to win over the others? Only fear of the unknown will do it. So Matthew Parris's column is full of fear and foreboding:
"It’s Project Fear that has turned us, and I don’t mind admitting it. Fear of the economic consequences of leaving. Distaste at many of the crew who want us out. Anxiety about the impact on our allies in Europe and worldwide if we kick this huge enterprise in European co-operation in the guts. Alarm at the rise of anger in the world. Shame that we British might come to be judged by history as vandals."
Fear has often been enough, when moral buttons are not being pushed too hard. But heaven help the 'Remain' camp if something bad (morally-speaking) happens EU-wise later this spring.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Jonathan Haidt in pictures (MFT)

This is my third post on Jonathan Haidt's book, 'The Righteous Mind' and his Moral Foundations Theory (MFT).

If you just arrived here you should read my introductory post first.

The first five foundations of morality are described in this table on page 146 of Haidt's book.

You can click on any of the images in this post to make them larger.

The sixth foundation, Liberty/oppression, which generates emotions such as righteous anger when faced with illegitimate authority was introduced later in chapter 8.

The six moral foundations are best understood as evolved psychological adaptations which make scalable, stable societies possible - getting you past the limits of small kin-groups.


One of Haidt's major proposals is that different groups in the political spectrum inhabit very different moral universes, ones in which their own 'tribes' seem good and virtuous, while others seem strange and evil. In the book he discusses the liberal left (which includes social-justice warriors), the conservative right and libertarians; authoritarians are analysed in the context of Donald Trump in this article.

See this previous post for more details.

Here are some charts I put together to illustrate the different moral foundations of contemporary political positions.

The six foundations to get us started (refer to the table above)

Liberal-leftists: it's 'caring', 'oppression' and 'equality - not much else

Conservatives care about all the foundations - equality of opportunity not outcome

Libertarians: 'Don't tread on me!' with a side-order of tough-fairness

Authoritarians: Loyalty, Obedience to Authority, Sanctity: No Free Riders!

Authoritarians would include Donald Trump, the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen in France. Oh, and Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jacob Zuma amongst many, many more.

These charts are hand-wavy and suggestive, not at all definitive. For example, I've not said enough about Sanctity which is, of course, big in the States. Haidt links Sanctity with Contamination as polar opposites on an awe-disgust spectrum.

I'm not a big fan of how he treats Fairness, which seems to include in a muddled way:

  • strong elements of compassion on the political left (equality of outcome)
  • reciprocal-altruism on the right (duty) and amongst libertarians (transactional integrity)
  • a tendency towards strong retribution amongst authoritarians.

Incidentally, I observed in a post a while back that the attitude of most societies, traditional societies, towards male homosexuals is not fear ('homophobia' - a piece of politically-correct misdirection), but disgust. Educated liberals have carefully averted their minds from what male gay sexual practices actually involve, but acceptance is a lot easier if you deprecate the 'Contamination' moral foundation - as liberals and libertarians typically do.

If you want to see quantitative details on all the above, read the book and check Haidt's blog and the article I linked to in this previous post.


In case these charts are of any use to you - you might want to improve them - here's a link to the PowerPoint.

"Why do they hate us?"

Consider a tough gang. You, an outsider and by yourself, choose to walk up to the gang leader in front of fellow gang members and indulge yourself in a series of choice insults.

What happens to you?

Most countries have (or had) laws of lèse-majesté, which formalise penalties for disrespect to leaders. You may protest you have a right to free speech, but rights do not grow on trees. They're no more than agreements to permit certain kinds of behaviour, backed up by the powers of a State.

Absent such a State .. there are no rights.

And why would different communities agree on what should be morally permitted?

Whether it's Charlie Hebdo or that German comedian and President Erdogan, Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory sheds some light.

Here's TheReformedMind post: "Applying Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory to responses to “The Innocence of Muslims”:

"At a lawyers conference I attended recently, the conversation turned to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the offensive YouTube video that has sparked riots throughout the Muslim world. “Why do they react this way?” a partner at a major law firm asked, referring to Muslim societies.

"The idea that people would take such offense at an inept video, and blame American society in general rather than the individuals who produced the film, was incomprehensible to this American lawyer: “We would never react that way.” The other lawyers agreed.

This conversation came back to me this week as I read Jonathan Haidt’s very worthwhile new book, The Righteous Mind. Mostly, the book explores the different moral psychologies of American conservatives and liberals.  (Haidt argues that the differences are largely innate — “pre-wired,” he says — thus confirming Iolanthe’s famous observation that “every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal /Or else a little Conservative!”).

"One chapter, though, compares American moral intuitions with those of other societies. America, Haidt says, has what psychologists call a WEIRD culture — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD cultures have a strong “ethic of autonomy”: they hold that “people are, first and foremost, autonomous individuals with wants, needs, and preferences” which, barring direct harm to others, should be fulfilled.

"In such cultures, as Jean Bethke Elshtain remarked at the annual Erasmus Lecture this week, “loyalty” principally means “being true to oneself.” The First Amendment reflects this ethic: it promotes the widest possible range of individual expression and advises offended listeners to avoid harm by turning away.

Largely through American influence, WEIRD values increasingly dominate international human rights discourse. This is ironic, because WEIRD cultures are global outliers — and America is the farthest outlier of all. Most of the world does not see autonomy as the most important value and does not privilege individual expression to the extent we do. Many cultures, Haidt says, have an “ethic of community” that sees people principally as members of collectives — families, tribes, and nations — with strong claims to loyalty. And many cultures have an “ethic of divinity,” which holds that people’s principal duty is to God, not themselves.

“In such societies,” Haidt writes, “the personal liberty of secular Western nations” — including the unrestrained freedom of expression — “looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.”

Haidt’s account explains much of the incomprehension on display at that lawyers conference. To someone in a WEIRD cultural environment — and the educated upper-middle class in America, Haidt claims, is the WEIRDest environment of all — it is very hard to understand how people could feel morally outraged by an inept video that insults divinity. It seems so counter-intuitive.

"The incomprehension works the other way, too. To someone in a non-WEIRD environment, it is very hard to understand how people could feel morally justified defending sacrilegious expression. Haidt’s account suggests that the differences between these cultures are going to be extremely difficult to negotiate. Intuitions are stubborn things."

Moral parochialism is very tempting. Haidt says, "Morality binds and blinds." We're right and the other guys are wrong. He believes modern democratic states are a better solution to organising society than those that preceded them, and that their organising principle of rule-based utilitarianism is for the best ;-).

However, we should do better than blank incomprehension, let alone gratuitous provocation, when we encounter cultures which are not so WEIRD. And if people choose not to, there will be consequences - even if you personally believe on moral grounds that there shouldn't be. *


Further reading:


* Very relevant to all this is the incomprehension between honour cultures and dignity cultures. The EU is a dignity culture; the Middle-East and Turkey are honour cultures.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Jonathan Haidt and Moral Foundations Theory

It's not often that you happen upon a book which reframes the entire way you think about humanity and large complex societies; a book with new paradigms for thinking about religion, politics and psychology.

When that book is beautifully-written and a real page turner you have this:

'The Righteous Mind' by Jonathan Haidt introduces Moral Foundations Theory - six dimensions on which our relationships with our fellow human beings and our environment can be classified. Emily Ekins and Jonathan Haidt explain the basics.
"We'd like to add another psychological tool to the toolbox: Moral Foundations Theory. One of us (Haidt) developed the theory in the early 2000s, with several other social psychologists, in order to study moral differences across cultures. Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) draws on anthropology and on evolutionary biology to identify the universal "taste buds" of the moral sense, while at the same time explaining how every society creates its own unique morality.

"Think of it like this: Evolution gave all human beings the same taste receptors — for sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (or MSG) — but cultures then create unique cuisines, constrained by the fact that the cuisine must please those taste receptors. Moral foundations work much the same way. The six main moral taste receptors, according to MFT, are:
  1. Care/harm: We feel compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering.

  2. Fairness/cheating: We constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters.

  3. Liberty/oppression: We resent restrictions on our choices and actions; we band together to resist bullies.

  4. Loyalty/betrayal: We keep track of who is "us" and who is not; we enjoy tribal rituals, and we hate traitors.

  5. Authority/subversion: We value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos.

  6. Sanctity/degradation: We have a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life. (This foundation is best seen among religious conservatives, but you can find it on the left as well, particularly on issues related to environmentalism.)
"As with cuisines, societies vary a great deal in the moralities they construct out of these universal predispositions. Many traditional agricultural and herding societies rely heavily on the loyalty, authority, and sanctity  foundations to create rituals, myths, and religious institutions that bind groups together with a strong tribal consciousness.

"That can be highly effective for groups that are often attacked by neighboring rivals, but commercial societies (such as Amsterdam in the 17th century or New York City today) are far less in need of these foundations, and so make much less use of them.

"Their moral values, stories, and political institutions flow more directly from the liberty and fairness foundations — well suited to a culture based on exchange and production — and are therefore much more tolerant and open to ethnic diversity.

"In recent years, MFT has been used to study political differences between the American left and right. Republicans and Democrats in the United States are now in some ways like citizens of different countries, with different beliefs about American history, the Constitution, economics, and climate science.

"Using questionnaires, text analyses, and other methods, psychologists have found that progressives put more emphasis on the care foundation than do other groups, while social conservatives see more value in loyalty, authority, and sanctity than do other groups. Libertarians, meanwhile, put liberty far above all other moral concerns.

"Fairness, important to all groups, nonetheless has subtypes: The left values fairness more when it is presented as equality, particularly equality of outcomes between groups (which is at the heart of social justice). The right values fairness more than the left when it is presented as proportionality — a focus on merit, which includes a desire to let people fail when they are perceived to have been lazy or otherwise undeserving."


"Here's a graph showing how how each candidate's supporters prioritize each of the moral foundations compared with the average American.

"Bars above zero indicate that the candidate's supporters place more emphasis on that particular moral foundation compared with the average voter.

"Bars that dip down below zero do not mean those supporters do not care about the moral concern, only that they gave relatively lower ratings to it compared with the rest of our nationally representative survey sample."

Diagram edited to remove Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson

An explanation of this chart can be found at the article. Suffice it to say that it conforms to a much-replicated finding that:

  • Liberals (ie left-wingers) are motivated almost entirely by the Caring dimension (blue - concern for 'victims of oppression') and Liberty (yellow -  "everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don't infringe on upon the freedom of others.")

  • Conservatives (ie right-wingers) are less 'caring', stronger on no freeloading (green - Proportionality is the desire for people to reap what they sow — for good deeds to be rewarded and bad deeds punished.") and supportive of institutions (red).

  • Libertarians, represented by no-hope candidate Rand Paul, are like Mr Spock in Star Trek: cool and unemotional, detached and strongly autonomous - as shown by the large response on yellow (Liberty - freedom from interference). 

Full disclosure: in tests, I score as Libertarian - even though I know that no such political movement can (or should) ever attain power.


In the UK, I think these political results would map smoothly across for the left.

Bernie Sanders presses just the same moral buttons as Jeremy Corbyn; Hillary Clinton could be any mainstream Labour Party machine politician.

Finding UK analogues for the right of the political spectrum is harder.

Trump's moral score makes him a traditional authoritarian, described in the article thus:
"Voters who still score high on authority/loyalty/sanctity and low on care — even after accounting for all the demographic variables — are significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. These are the true authoritarians — they value obedience while scoring low on compassion."
In the UK the only similar politician who comes to mind is Nigel Farage, who is not a serious contender for power. David Cameron is most like Jeb Bush, who scored pretty much where the average American was .. and got booted out of a highly-partisan contest for his pains.


Moral Foundations Theory also has something to say about Brexit.


The inflated 'Caring' universality of the left makes staying in the EU a liberal-elite reflex. The usual suspects include the BBC and The Guardian. The Bubble does indeed have a pan-European span. But the more parochial 'Caring' of the masses tends to stop at the Channel.


If you're for Brexit it pays to emphasise that our natural loyalty is to the institutions of the British nation state which represents 'our tribe'. The EU violates Fairness/ Proportionality when using our resources in favour of free-riders.

There are plenty of examples, starting with Club Med.


Here there are two narratives. The Brexit camp sees EU institutions as oppressive and pushes the Liberty button for freedom from them; the left sees the EU infrastructure (dominated by liberals) as a bastion of support in the battle against the truly oppressive elites (companies, English right-wing politicians).

Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity

Europe is not a demos for the masses: there is no sense of a 'moral us' between the English and the French, Germans, Italians and all the rest. This means that 'Remain' exerts little positive leverage on Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity although it can negatively leverage Authority, pointing out that leaving might lead to chaotically-worse institutional outcomes. Here lies Operation Fear.


I hope I've shown you the power of Moral Foundations Theory and I strongly recommend you read Jonathan Haidt's book. He has a blog, too.


Further posts on Jonathan Haidt's work:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Going interstellar

I'm interested in the Internet blogosphere reaction to Yuri Milner's $100 million investment into the new starwisp.

Incidentally, Milner is quoted at having £3 billion in his bank account, so his proposed investment is 3.3% of his wealth. It's not however coming out in one lump sum - I hear talk of a 10 or 20 year programme of research.

Let's be optimistic and say a decade. Then Milner is spending 0.33% of his wealth per year on this project. Given his likely return on assets invested, this is a rounding error in his global interest rate.

Luboš Motl focuses, as expected, on the physics of the thing. He writes,
"We want to accelerate a few grams to c/5. The kinetic energy may still be "barely" computed by the non-relativistic formula and it is E = mc2/50. If m were 5 grams, we get 9 trillion joules."
Now, one kiloton of TNT (a small nuke) is equivalent to 4 trillion joules, so when this interstellar probe hits the atmosphere of a planet around Alpha Centauri, it's going to look to the alien inhabitants like someone detonated a 2 kt nuke in their atmosphere. Did anyone mention we're going to send a swarm of these things?

This kind of first strike is a bit extreme, even for me ... .

Steve Sailer is reminded of the famous Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle book, "The Mote in God's Eye", and sees a parallel with immigration policy:
"A half-dozen centuries in the future, humanity has stumbled into a fortuitous discovery of a faster than light interstellar travel technology and spreads out across the habitable planets of the galaxy, never encountering any other intelligent life.

"Then a slower-than-light spacecraft driven by a light sail arrives from an unexplored solar system.

"Our Space Navy goes to visit the planet that sent it and discovers a civilization that seems as advanced as ours, except they don’t have our faster-than-light travel technology, so they are stuck in their solar system, except for sending out the occasional expensive probe. We can visit them, but they can’t visit us.

"Their extremely gracious ambassadors greet our ambassadors in a most affable manner.

"The book then turns into an ecological detective story as a few suspicious Earthlings try to unravel the complex story of the Moties’ nature before diplomacy gets too far advanced to put the brakes on proposals such as sharing the FTL drive with the aliens in the name of interstellar harmony and goodwill. We wouldn’t want to be seen as speciesist, now would we?"
Centauri Dreams wonders about the project itself, the timescales and whether it would work. No-one seems to have seen the engineering plans for the interstellar device, but with accelerations estimated in the region of 20,000-60,000g you can forget anything with a framed structure. The ultrathin sail will be the entire device, embedding sensors, communications and control.
"Writing for The Atlantic, Ross Andersen describes the sail this way in Inside a Billionaire’s New Interstellar Mission:

"Picture a thin disc about the size of a round picnic tabletop. It would have miniaturized electronics onboard, including a power source, cameras, photon thrusters for navigation, and a laser for communication. Some of this kit would be bundled into the disc’s center, and some would be distributed through the rest of the sail. But it would all be a single unit: If you saw it streaking by, it would look like a flat, round sheet of reflective material.

"We’ve also got a problem in that concept, because Jim Benford has pointed out that a flat sail is not a good ‘beam-rider’ — we’ll likely have to look at the kind of curved sail designs both Jim and brother Gregory Benford have studied in lab work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But get a sail under that beam successfully and it reaches Pluto the day after launch, as Andersen notes. Another 20 years and it’s streaking through the Alpha Centauri system."
It's easy to poke holes in the mission concept as we currently understand it:
  • The device can't be slowed so dwell-time on target is under a second
  • For similar sums we could image exoplanets with near-Earth space telescopes
  • Future progress might obsolete the probes before they even arrived.
Better to let the study programme think creatively about what you could actually do better with a relativistic flyby.


Most optimistic timeline:

2016: R&D project starts
2026: Infrastructure build project starts (10 years)
2036: Launch (and 20 year coast to Alpha Centauri)
2060: Results received back here on Earth.

We get the results in 44 years, when I will be 109 years old. Hmm.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells

We were at The Bishop's Palace, Wells this morning. First day it's been warm enough to wander around in a tee-shirt. After the photo was taken.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Truncation Selection by 50% (half the population)

This post uses the results of: "Boosting IQ by 15 points (truncation selection)". We now look at another example.

Suppose we had a country whose population originally shared the Caucasian average IQ,
(mean = 100; std dev = σ = 15).
And suppose a catastrophe occurred which led to half the population emigrating - such things have been known to happen in European history.

And suppose the brightest were the ones who emigrated.

What would be the average IQ of those who remained?

  • The proportion who remain, p, is 50%.
  • From the table at the bottom of the post above, the intensity of selection, i(p) = 0.8
  • Then use this equation, S = σ * i(p).

The average IQ of those left behind is S = 15 * 0.8 = 12 points below the mean; i.e. the non-emigrating have an average IQ of 88. However, due to regression to the mean, subsequent generations will do better than this.

Their descendants will have an IQ of R = h2S, where h2 = 0.6 (say) is the additive heritability of IQ.
So R = 0.6 *12 = 7 IQ points below the original population mean.
Their descendants will have an average IQ of 93.

Here's a list of country IQs.


The power of population genetics ...

Diagram from here

The mean IQ of Ireland was documented in the country list above as 92.


You have to be careful with country IQs. If the country is not ethnically homogeneous you tend to get a stratified society where the average IQ hides more than it illuminates. For example, in Israel the Ashkenazim are smart and tend to dominate at the top of society - but non-Ashkenazim have a more typical Middle-Eastern IQ and numerically dominate - the resulting averaged IQ is documented as 95. Many Latin-American countries are ethnically stratified so one number is not that useful.

If the country has had a dysfunctional economic system and/or history (China is a case in point, Vietnam another), then deprivation will depress IQ scores.

"The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom" by Stephen M. Stigler

A review of: "The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom" by Stephen M. Stigler.

Every student of an abstract subject like maths, physics or even philosophy is familiar with this: you are introduced to a foundational concept yet it seems pretty counterintuitive, and you can think of a number of reasons why the said concept ought to be considered problematic. Yet somehow, the textbooks are less than sympathetic.

My advice is to check the history of the under-motivated concept. The original formulations were often so much more compelling, especially when you realise precisely what problem their authors were trying to solve. Your own misgivings may well be represented in critiques by the innovator’s contemporaries.

It was the very success of later generations which led to the wholesale reconceptualisation of their subject’s foundations.

And so it is with statistics, a subject where deep ideas are often obscured by a focus on technique, and where it sometimes seems that little distinguishes a correct line of argument from an equally plausible, but fallacious, alternative.

Professor Stephen Stigler, in this determinedly historical book, starts with a concept as apparently trivial as the mean, or average, of a sequence of observations. Even this is counterintuitive as it requires discarding information, the individuality of the observations. By what right are ‘bad’ measurements to be treated in the same way as ones we think, or know, to be of higher quality? It took quite a few years for the idea to catch on.

Stigler’s second pillar, information measurement, looks at the processing of large data sets. Opinion polls have made us somewhat aware that the accuracy of the proposed mean is proportional to the square root of the number of observations, not the absolute number.

Sampling was applied to the Royal Mint in Isaac Newton’s time, to ensure that the coins they produced used the right amount of gold. In the absence of a correct theory of standard deviation, the tolerance boundaries were set way too wide. Stigler dryly notes that Newton was warden, then master of the Royal Mint from 1696 to 1727 and that on his death in that year left a sizeable fortune. “But evidently his wealth can be attributed to investments, and there is no reason to cast suspicion that he had seen the flaw in the Mint’s procedures and exploited it for personal gain.”

Later chapters deal with hypothesis testing (pillar 3); statistical processing within the dataset itself, without reference to population norms – as in Student’s t-test (pillar 4); regression to the mean - a concept which proved very hard to pin down (pillar 5); experimental design, particularly when varying multiple qualities at the same time (pillar 6); and finally pillar 7, the notion that a complicated phenomenon may be simplified by subtracting the effect of known causes, leaving a residual phenomenon to which attention may now be focused.

If you are both interested and well-versed in statistics, you will find this book illuminating and witty. The converse also applies.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

People-searching with Google Photos and VPN

Google Photos sorts your pictures into albums based on places and features. In the States, it will also set up albums of people, who you can tag by name. Misguided privacy laws outside of North America have led Google to disable this facial-recognition feature there. But it's quite useful.

This was the proximate reason I was keen to set up a VPN on my android devices, to relocate me virtually to the States. Here's the procedure:
"A footnote on the Google Photos website says that “[Facial recognition] feature isn’t available in all countries,” probably due to privacy laws, but there’s a simple workaround that will help you bring face detection in your Google Photos, no matter where you are.

  1. Go to your Android phone settings, select “Apps”, then select “Photos” under the “Downloaded” section and click the “Clear Data” button to reset your Google Photos app.
  2. Go to the Google Play store and download TunnelBear or Hola or any of your favorite VPN apps.
  3. Open the VPN app and connect. It will essentially trick Photos into thinking that you are connecting from US, a country that is supported by Google Photos for facial recognition.
  4. Open the Google Photos app, scroll past the wizard screen and then under Settings, enable the option that says “Group Similar Faces – Auto Group photos by matching faces.”

"That’s it.

"Disable, or even uninstall, the VPN app, launch Google Photos again and tap the blue search button. You should see a list of faces that Google Photos was able to detect from your uploaded photos. And the feature will automatically become available on as well."
It all works though you have to give the Google AI machine sufficient time to search and catalogue your photos - a few hours should do it.


Being as I had the VPN, I was able to track down the scurrilous story of the 'British celebrity threesome injunction scandal'. While obviously I have no interest in prurient tittle-tattle, I take this as a challenge to my Internet skills.

In fact this story is not all over the American media. The mainstream papers don't want to gratuitously undermine a British legal decision. It was left to the ******** ******** to splash the story on its front page. Naturally I can't let you in on the secret.


In unrelated news, I spent a large part of yesterday preparing for our upcoming holiday where we'll take in the Tour de Yorkshire, the moors, Scarborough, Whitby and York. Naturally we've made arrangements for the cat who can miss us terribly.

Clare reviewed my admin document, strewn with parking places and GPS coordinates. How she laughed! Never watch the sausages being made, I say ... .

We're not the only ones contemplating the virtues of a holiday.

Problems connecting VPN app (Android + Twilight)

I installed a couple of VPN apps (VyprVPN and FlashVPN) on my Nexus 6 and Nexus 10 devices. Trying to connect, I got an Android pop-up asking me to confirm I wanted to make the VPN connection [options: 'Cancel' - 'OK'].

The 'OK' button was unresponsive, I had to press 'Cancel'. Took some Internet searching to discover that the problem was Twilight, the screen-dimming app which runs as an overlay. Turns out it was masking the button from Android.

Twilight interferes with other apps too, such as Microsoft's Word for Android.

The solution is just to open Twilight and turn the app off (or use a force stop in 'Settings'). Twilight is useful in the evenings, but should always be a suspect if something is going a little awry.


Keywords: problem connecting with VPN

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Today's links

Around the Internet today for your amusement and education.

1. 10 Essentials of Quantum Mechanics

As the title suggests, Backreaction lists ten key points. It's a bit subjective as to which is the greatest misconception corrected here, but I'd vote for number 4.
"4. There is no spooky action at a distance

"Nowhere in quantum mechanics is information ever transmitted non-locally, so that it jumps over a stretch of space without having to go through all places in between. Entanglement is itself non-local, but it doesn’t do any action – it is a correlation that is not connected to non-local transfer of information or any other observable.

"It was a great confusion in the early days of quantum mechanics, but we know today that the theory can be made perfectly compatible with Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity in which information cannot be transferred faster than the speed of light."

2. A spat about increasing human IQ

Why did Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex), Garrett Jones (Hive Mind), and Razib Khan (GNXP) even bother to alert Steve Hsu to this pernicious post, and who is PZ Myers anyway?

Whatever - Professor Hsu gives a reasoned and educational reply.
"Myers is both confused and insulting in his blog post, but I'll refrain from ad hominem attacks, and just focus on the science.

Myers seems to think that humans with much better cognitive abilities than our own can't exist. Sort of like a farmer in 1957 claiming that chickens that are bigger and faster maturing than his own could not exist [...] . I urge Myers to read some books on population genetics before returning to this discussion.

"The argument for why there are probably genomes not very different from our own, but which lead to much better cognitive ability, is very simple, and I went through it in a post called Explain it to me like I'm five years old [...] ."
Worth following the link even if you're older than five.

3. A spat about the KKK on campus (Indiana University)

Via Breitbart (h/t Steve Sailer).
 'Students be careful, there's someone walking around in kkk gear with a whip.'

"Residential hall advisor Ethan Gill quickly wrote an email to his students, warning them of the “threat” on campus: “There has been a person reported walking around campus in a KKK outfit holding a whip. Because the person is protected under first amendment rights, IUPD cannot remove this person from campus unless an act of violence is committed. Please PLEASE PLEASE be careful out there tonight, always be with someone and if you have no dire reason to be out of the building, I would recommend staying indoors if you’re alone.”

"Later in the evening, Gill was forced to retract his warning on his Facebook page, where he clarified that the purported Klansman was actually just an innocent priest dressed in liturgical garments. The “whip” turned out to be the clergyman’s robe-like belt that was tied around his waist."

Are there no safe spaces anywhere any more? Will no-one think of the children?

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Drink was invented just in time

Self-control has always been valued in human affairs. No collaborative scheme can ever survive if everyone does exactly as they please.

Arguably, as civilization developed in the post-Neolithic, the premium attached to self-control grew, as social relationships straddled ever greater divides of time, place and class.

Death to the insolent and the hot-headed!

Conscientiousness is ever the enemy of spontaneity. Cold planning replaces warm emotion. How do we ever know what a person really thinks, if all we see is their reasoned, prosocial persona?

Self-control undermines social-bonding, replaces affinity with transactional logic. There are no real friends, only 'colleagues' and 'business partners'.

But no-one likes the calculated relationship. Does she love me or is this just manipulation - or worse, could it be that she's just making the best of it?

We need to close down the neocortex, turn off the calculation, erase forward-thinking, 'be ourselves'.

In vino veritas.

It was therefore very fortunate that the Neolithic revolution invented alcohol along with civilization, or we might well have all died out by now in atomised solitude.



1. Turning off prosocial norms is not without risk

Alcohol is a blunt instrument - and blunt instruments can kill. All cultures which have had to live with inebriation evolved biochemical pathways to mitigate its effects - alcohol tolerance.
"The tolerance to alcohol is not equally distributed throughout the world's population, and genetics of alcohol dehydrogenase indicate resistance has arisen independently in different cultures. In North America, Native Americans have the highest probability of developing alcoholism compared to Europeans and Asians." [Wikipedia].
2. The connection between alcohol use and personality type

You might expect that the trade-offs between self-control/rationality and alcohol-induced spontaneity would vary across different personality types. And you would be right.
"Many studies have shown the importance of personality traits as factors related to alcohol use and misuse. The relationship between personality traits and alcohol consumption was studied in a sample of 149 non-alcoholic women using the Karolinska Scales of Personality (KSP) and the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire-Revised (EPQ-R).

"The results showed positive correlations between alcohol consumption and disinhibitory personality traits (sensation seeking, impulsivity, psychopathy, nonconformity) and dimensions (psychoticism and extraversion). Sensation seeking combined with impulsivity were the strongest predictors of alcohol consumption. Anxiety-related traits and neuroticism were not related to alcohol frequency/amount of alcohol use."
3. The social construction of 'drinking'

If alcohol mediates the uncertain line between high-minded prosocial ideals of behaviour and our underlying biological reality (social animals with the usual drives in the engine room) then drinking is clearly going to be the subject of much social construction.

I only draw your attention to 'social drinking', which moderately and tastefully lowers social inhibitions in a controlled way, and 'binge drinking' which ... er ... doesn't.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

It's spring: time to order the kilt!

Since I discovered my male (Y-chromosome) lineage descends from the High Kings of Ireland I have been considering ordering a kilt, (yes, the Irish wear kilts too).

This is not just a matter of clan loyalty: kilts are more comfortable than trousers in the warmer weather.

But there are some social issues: Peter Turchin observes,
"To convince you of the primacy of social factors I urge you to check out this extremely funny site, Bravehearts in Kilts Against Trouser Tyranny:

"This site is hilarious not because the Bravehearts in Kilts are stupid, but precisely for the opposite reason. Once you have read their passionate defense of the kilt, you (at least if you are a male) will realize that it is us, pant-wearers, who are stupid. In warm climates or during summers in the temperate zone the kilt is much more comfortable to wear than jeans."

I have put off buying my summer kilt until I have figured out the right green-shaded clan tartan. Don't want to get on the wrong side of some exceedingly ferocious fighters!


Nobody in antiquity wore trousers except barbarians. Peter Turchin again:
"The basic garment worn by the Greeks was the chiton (basically, same as the Roman tunic). And wearing ‘sacks’ around their legs was something that only barbarians did. The Romans of the Classical Age felt the same way. Citizens were required to wear togas for any official functions, and at other times (e.g., for war) they wore tunics.

"Why did the Italians switch from tunics to pants? The answer is the horse. Not only are the horses responsible for why we live in complex, large-scale societies (or, at least, how such large-scale societies first evolved), they are also the reason why males have to swelter in pants in summer, instead of wearing the cool kilt. As I will discuss in my next blog, there is an exceedingly close historical correlation between the adoption of cavalry and switching to wearing pants."
Part II of Peter Turchin's illuminating article here.

Tribes are the thing in the atomised West

Scott Alexander considers the power of ideologies (warning: long but interesting essay including American-themed topics):
"Why is there such a strong Sunni/Shia divide?

"I know the Comparative Religion 101 answer. The early Muslims were debating who was the rightful caliph. Some of them said Abu Bakr, others said Ali, and the dispute has been going on ever since. On the other hand, that was fourteen hundred years ago, both candidates are long dead, and there’s no more caliphate. You’d think maybe they’d let the matter rest.

"Sure, the two groups have slightly different hadith and schools of jurisprudence, but how many Muslims even know which school of jurisprudence they’re supposed to be following? It seems like a pretty minor thing to have centuries of animus over."
We can say the same thing about other apparently-religious conflicts, such as the Protestant-Catholic divide in northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland. But Alexander probes more deeply:
"Nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements – these are all really different, but they also have some deep similarities.

"They’re all groups of people. They all combine comradery within the group with a tendency to dislike other groups of the same type. They all tend to have a stated purpose, like electing a candidate or worshipping a deity, but also serve a very important role as impromptu social clubs whose members mostly interact with one another instead of outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports, and have the same philosophical beliefs as other members of the group – even when there are only tenuous links or no links at all to the stated purpose.

"They all tend to develop sort of legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of the groups’ founders and past champions. And they all tend to inspire something like patriotism, where people are proud of their group membership and express that pride through conspicuous use of group symbols, group songs, et cetera. For better or worse, the standard way to refer to this category of thing is “tribe”."
It doesn't take much to generate a sense of tribal camaraderie. I've previously remarked about the benefits of membership of the International Marxist Group in my early twenties: a shared culture of mostly-fun activities .. and guaranteed weekend parties.

Scott Alexander applies this insight to the Shia-Sunni conflict:
"I know very little about early Islam and am relying on sources that might be biased, so don’t declare a fatwa against me if I turn out to be wrong, but it looks like from the beginning there were big pre-existing differences between proto-Shia and proto-Sunni. A lot of Ali’s earliest supporters were original Muslims who had known Mohammed personally, and a lot of Abu Bakr’s earliest supporters were later Muslims high up in the Meccan/Medinan political establishment who’d converted only after it became convenient to do so.

"It’s really easy to imagine cultural, social, and personality differences between these two groups. Probably members in each group already knew one another pretty well, and already had ill feelings towards members of the other, without necessarily being able to draw the group borders clearly or put their exact differences into words. Maybe it was “those goody-goodies who are always going on about how close to Mohammed they were but have no practical governing ability” versus “those sellouts who don’t really believe in Islam and just want to keep playing their political games”.

Then came the rallying flag: a political disagreement over the succession. One group called themselves “the party of Ali”, whose Arabic translation “Shiatu Ali” eventually ended up as just “Shia”. The other group won and called itself “the traditional orthodox group”, in Arabic “Sunni”.

"Instead of a vague sense of “I wonder whether that guy there is one of those goody-goodies always talking about Mohammed, or whether he’s a practical type interested in good governance”, people could just ask “Are you for Abu Bakr or Ali?” and later “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Also at some point, I’m not exactly sure how, most of the Sunni ended up in Arabia and most of the Shia ended up in Iraq and Iran, after which I think some pre-existing Iraqi/Iranian vs. Arab cultural differences got absorbed into the Sunni/Shia mix too.

"Then came development. Both groups developed elaborate mythologies lionizing their founders. The Sunni got the history of the “rightly-guided caliphs”, the Shia exaggerated the first few imams to legendary proportions. They developed grievances against each other; according to Shia history, the Sunnis killed eleven of their twelve leaders, with the twelfth escaping only when God directly plucked him out of the world to serve as a future Messiah.

"They developed different schools of hadith interpretation and jurisprudence and debated the differences ad nauseum with each other for hundreds of years. A lot of Shia theology is in Farsi; Sunni theology is entirely in Arabic. Sunni clergy usually dress in white; Shia clergy usually dress in black and green. Not all of these were deliberately done in opposition to one another; most were just a consequence of the two camps being walled off from one another and so allowed to develop cultures independently.

"Obviously the split hasn’t dissolved yet, but it’s worth looking at similar splits that have. Catholicism vs. Protestantism is still a going concern in a few places like Ireland, but it’s nowhere near the total wars of the 17th century [...]."
Like I said, it's a long essay which, with the comments, covers atheism, evangelical christianity, rationalism, science-fiction and video gaming subcultures, and cultural appropriation (some good points about that).

Alexander's take home message?
"My title for this post is also my preferred summary: the ideology is not the movement. Or, more jargonishly – the rallying flag is not the tribe. People are just trying to find a tribe for themselves and keep it intact. This often involves defending an ideology they might not be tempted to defend for any other reason. This doesn’t make them bad, and it may not even necessarily mean their tribe deserves to go extinct. I’m reluctant to say for sure whether I think it’s okay to maintain a tribe based on a faulty ideology, but I think it’s at least important to understand that these people are in a crappy situation with no good choices, and they deserve some pity.

"Some vital aspects of modern society – freedom of speech, freedom of criticism, access to multiple viewpoints, the existence of entryist tribes with explicit goals of invading and destroying competing tribes as problematic, and the overwhelming pressure to dissolve into the Generic Identity Of Modern Secular Consumerism – make maintaining tribal identities really hard these days. I think some of the most interesting sociological questions revolve around whether there are any ways around the practical and moral difficulties with tribalism, what social phenomena are explicable as the struggle of tribes to maintain themselves in the face of pressure, and whether tribalism continues to be a worthwhile or even a possible project at all."
Read the whole thing there.

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Amazon parcel problem

Alice and Bob are both signed up to Amazon Prime and each is expecting a parcel to be delivered to their respective apartment the very next day. The Amazon delivery person will arrive sometime in the ten hours from 9 am to 7 pm, but there's no more definite information. Let's say delivery has a uniform probability distribution.

Both Alice and Bob plan to be at home to collect the parcel, but each also wants to spend an hour in the bath from where, unfortunately, you can't answer the door.

Alice says,
"The chances of the Amazon guy turning up in any of the 10 hour-long slots is exactly the same. It therefore doesn't matter when I take my bath, I always have just a 1 in 10 chance of missing the parcel."
Bob says,
"I'll be taking my bath at 9 am. If I do that I've got a 9 in 10 chance of the Amazon guy coming later than that.

"But suppose I'm stupid enough to delay the bath till, say, 5 pm. Sure if the guy already came, I'm good. But assuming the parcel hasn't yet arrived, there's now a 50% chance I'll be in the bath when it arrives. I'd be insane to bathe then.

"It's always better to take a bath early when an Amazon parcel is due."
Who's right?


Update: (Tuesday, 5th April, 2.15 pm).

I'm  more interested in why Bob's argument might ever be considered psychologically plausible.

Let's say we get to 2 pm and the Amazon guy hasn't come. Then the probability per hour of the parcel arriving in the next five hours has doubled from 10% to 20%.

Definitely riskier to take that bath!

This assumes that Bob forgets the (on average) half the days that the parcel did in fact come earlier - he collected it or it arrived between 9am and 10am and he missed it, being in his bath.

But people have a past-future asymmetry; they forget the past but worry about the future. Early deliveries don't give much cause for worry; late deliveries generate increasing anxiety as the day progresses.

People remember things like that - the late days come to predominate in memory. And they have the higher per-hour probability distribution for when the parcel will eventually be delivered.

'Best to bathe earlier'.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

What is heritability?

We're told that intelligence is 60-80% heritable, and that personality is 40-60% heritable. In some hand-wavy way, we know that heritability captures the nature side of the nature-nurture contribution to traits.

But what does heritability really mean? It's a rather slippery concept. We'll get there by stages.

1. The contribution of genes to a phenotype

Let's take height as our running example (pretty much the same heritability as intelligence). Let's take a person with height P (P stands for phenotype - the measured trait). P is measured in inches away from the population mean height.

How did a person get to be that height? Nature and nurture, right?

We assume that the alleles the person got from their father contributes Xfather inches of height, Xmother counts the inches they received from their mother's alleles they inherited, and then there is a nurture - or environmental - term E inches. So their total height,
P = Xfather + Xmother + E.
Note these are genetic additive effects: each additional allele is plausibly assumed to make its independent contribution into raising or lowering X a fraction. Dominance and epistatic effects are neglected in this simplified conceptual model (in a polygenic trait, they tend not to be large).

Since we're measuring deviations from the mean, the average values across the population of Xfather, Xmother and E must all be zero. And so, therefore, must be the average value of P.

So without loss of generality, we assume Xfather, Xmother and E are normally distributed random variables with mean zero and variances as follows:
Var(Xfather) = Vadditive/2    -- each parent provides half the additive genetic 'input'

Var(Xmother) = Vadditive/2   -- each parent provides half the additive genetic 'input'

Var(E) = Venvironment.
So what is Var(P), the variance of height as we observe it in the population?
Var(P) = Var(Xfather) + Var(Xmother) + Var(E) +

        2Cov(Xfather, Xmother) + 2Cov(Xfather, E) + 2Cov(Xmother, E).
Messy, but if we assume Xfather, Xmother and E are independent, their covariances are zero, so
Var(P) = Var(Xfather) + Var(Xmother) + Var(E),

Vphenotype  = Vadditive + Venvironment
The fraction of the population phenotypic variation due to genetic, additive effects is then simply
h2 = Vadditive/Vphenotype = Vadditive/(Vadditive + Venvironment).
This is the definition of heritability, h2.

So if h2 is 0.5, then 50% of the variance in the phenotype is genetic in origin (additive-genetic, that is) and 50% is environmental (everything else).

Note that the more you reduce environmental variance, for example making sure that everyone's well-fed, properly educated and not knocked about, the more genetic differences predominate .. and heritability goes up. Not what the SJWs really want to hear!


2. Correlations

What is the correlation, ρ, between a parent and child for height?

If we have two random variables, A and B, the correlation between them is defined as follows:
ρ =  Cov(A,B)/√(Var(A) * Var(B)).
This is the standard definition.

In the case of one parent and their offspring, under some simplifying assumptions,
Cov(parent,offspring) = Vadditive/2
- this takes a few lines to work out, setting most of the Xfather, Xmother and E cross-terms to zero. It reflects the 50% of genetic material they have in common.

More obviously,
Var(parent) = Var(offspring) = Vphenotype,
So using the formula for ρ above,
ρ = (Vadditive/2) / Vphenotype = h2/2.
This shows that heritability is not the same as the correlation between a child and one of its parents.

In general, the correlation, ρ, on a trait between relatives is equal to the coefficient of relatedness times the heritability, ie ρ = rh2.


3. Predictions

If we know the height of both the parents, what's our best prediction of the height of their offspring? In our mind, we draw the best-fit regression line on the scatter-plot of parental-midpoint and offspring heights measured across the population.

If we centre the graph-axes at the mean values of the two populations (parental mid-point heights and offspring heights) then the regression line goes through the origin, with slope β. Then the equation of the regression line takes this simple form:
predicted-offspring-height = β * parental-midpoint-height
with both heights measured as inches in deviation from the respective means.

How do we compute β?

In this special case it turns out that β equals the heritability, so β  = h2. *

This should remind you of the Breeder's Equation.


Example: suppose the heritability of height is 0.673 and we know that one parent is 3 inches above the population mean while the other parent is 1 inch above the mean, what's the predicted (expected) height deviation from the mean for their child?
Answer: predicted-offspring-height = β * (3 + 1)/2 = 2h2 = 1.35 inches.
Yes, the child has regressed towards the mean.


This is problem 6.3 (p. 149) from 'Population Genetics: a concise guide' by John H. Gillespie, from which all the material above has been summarised.


* In general, β = ρ * (σyx) where x is the independent variable.

Friday, April 01, 2016

ISIS infosec seems to be rubbish

How ISIS does information security

CNN reports:
"Last summer, a French student was arrested in Paris on suspicion of a plot to take hostages at a concert hall. His name was Reda Hame. According to a transcript of his interrogation obtained by CNN, Hame claimed he had been provided weapons training, including in the use of Kalashnikovs, by Abaaoud in a park in Raqqa in early June. But he'd backed out of the plot when he arrived in France."
According to security researcher the grugq, CNN further reported:
"Hame also revealed to interrogators that ISIS had set up an elaborate encrypted communication system so that it could keep in touch with its European operatives.

"While with ISIS in Raqqa, he said he was instructed to encrypt communications with a software tool called “Truecrypt,” which authorities found on a thumb drive he had been given by Abaaoud. Hame said he had been taught to copy a message into the software, select an encryption option and then paste the message into a password-protected sharing site."
The grugq asks: "How Crap Is This System?"

It's pretty bad - Errata Security has a post suggesting how any half-decent intelligence agency might hack into this ISIS protocol.

ISIS won't have any autonomous cryptographic capabilities - you have to be a first-world state to do that kind of thing right. It's forced to use third party tools and systems. But it's very, very difficult as amateurs to design a system that the NSA, GCHQ or half a dozen other competent organisations can't address.

If the ISIS operatives are not using a VPN, then a 'listener on the wire' will get the IP addresses of dead-drop users. As Errata Security explained, TrueCrypt volumes are not hard to detect in transit. Metadata like IP addresses lead straight to identities. But I doubt that most VPNs are safe either, not when their logs and traffic can also be monitored.

Perhaps the bad guys should just send a courier, clunky as that sounds. But last I heard, couriers speak in plain, not ciphertext; they say that bugging with microphones is pretty good these days.

I like a one-time pad, but distributing it is the trick. If you send those very long random bit sequences on a USB drive, how do you know the intelligence services haven't covertly grabbed and copied it in transit? And then you're toast.

I begin to see why ISIS has been so singularly unsuccessful in the UK this last decade.


Note: from one of the comments: "Counterterror experts who reviewed this protocol tell me it reminds them of what al-Qaeda did for yrs: saving "drafts" in Yahoo inboxes" - (these were apparently in plaintext).



Our transition to a Planetary Hospital

Interesting and reasonably accessible article via Jess Riedel, "Mutation and Human Exceptionalism: Our Future Genetic Load" by Michael Lynch, GENETICS March 1, 2016. From the abstract:
"What is exceptional about humans is the recent detachment from the challenges of the natural environment and the ability to modify phenotypic traits in ways that mitigate the fitness effects of mutations, e.g., precision and personalized medicine.

"This results in a relaxation of selection against mildly deleterious mutations, including those magnifying the mutation rate itself. The long-term consequence of such effects is an expected genetic deterioration in the baseline human condition, potentially measurable on the timescale of a few generations in westernized societies, and because the brain is a particularly large mutational target, this is of particular concern.

"Ultimately, the price will have to be covered by further investment in various forms of medical intervention. "
The famous population geneticist W. D. Hamilton coined the phrase "Planetary Hospital", explained by Bruce Charlton like this:
"It is becoming hard to avoid the conclusion that we have been, for several generations, living in what WD Hamilton (in Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2) called the Planetary Hospital - in other words, a world in which almost everyone is suffering from significant genetic damage, and an increasing proportion of the population are suffering from genetic disease. "
The dystopian effects of relaxed selection and the removal of purifying selection are well-documented in the population genetics literature. The effects in just a few generations are, however, slight (c. 1% per generation).

Despite Dr Charlton's vividly-expressed concerns. I like to think we may still avoid Idiocracy.