Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Pheasant eats old cheese biscuits

Your bonus picture today.

The pheasant lives across the road. The crumbled biscuits are rejects from our cheese biscuit box, fallen past their damp-and-limp threshold.

The dispiriting little secret here is that immediately after this picture, the pheasant pushed off. The crumbs don't impress him much. I pleaded with Clare for some tasty oils/fat to sharpen the appeal, but my entreaties have fallen on deaf ears.


Update: this morning its friend (offspring, mate?):

Bike crime in our city

The city of Wells is not a notorious crime hot-spot, but bad stuff still happens.

Clare and Alex had a little bike ride out on Sunday. While they were in Morrison's, near the Glastonbury roundabout, someone tried to steal Clare's bike, not noticing the chain. Frustrated, they then took a knife to the back tyre.

I retrieved Clare and her bike in the car.

This morning, the bike was ferried to the Bike Shop in town. The bike guy told us that over the last week, three bikes have been stolen from Halfords and the other day someone came into his very shop and walked out with one of his bikes.

I know this isn't Syria, but still ..

"The Way We Die Now" - Seamus O'Mahony

I too have had the illusion. That as my parents transitioned to death, I would sit with them and have 'the conversation'. The one where a life is summed up, wisdom imparted and the profound significance of death debated.

In both cases the syringe-driver displaced my naive expectations.

People do not have the ideal, the philosopher's death. They fade, suffer, their bodies fail and it's messy and sometimes horrible. And so to Irish consultant Seamus O'Mahony's anthropological stories of dying.

Here are some excerpts from The Times's review:
"As a doctor, O’Mahony says, “there is little reward, professionally or emotionally, for doctors who tell patients the truth” about the end of a patient’s life and what to expect. “Nearly all families, and many patients, prefer the Lie.” Most of what he reads on the subject bears little resemblance to the reality. This is his corrective."


"The worst kind of death you could have “without exception”, he says, is an acute death on a busy, understaffed general ward. Another cause of a “bad” death is family interference. O’Mahony describes the situation with an elderly woman with dementia and pneumonia who is brought to hospital by her family. He tries to persuade the family that at her age and in her condition, she should not be admitted to intensive care, where she will have to have highly invasive procedures: a breathing tube and mechanical ventilation.

"They aren’t convinced and so she is admitted. “Her death was farcical and undignified,” he says and he doesn’t try to veil his anger: “Although I had made it clear to the family that we would not attempt cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, when the poor woman finally died, two of the daughters attempted their own cack-handed version of cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
O’Mahony is not a fan of assisted dying - in thirty years he claims never to have encountered a case where this would have been appropriate, and he is sceptical about advance directives - you just don't know what your wishes will be when the time comes.

On the other hand, he's extremely opposed (as are we all) to medical intervention without end, noting that doctors themselves frequently choose the least medical treatment when diagnosed as terminal.

CPR is a particular dread.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A tourist map of physics

This interesting cube-diagram is from Jess Riedels' blog.

The idea of this diagram is that the fundamental theories of physics can be placed in three dimensions as to how they treat gravity, the speed of light and Planck's constant h-bar, ℏ.


G is Newton's gravitational constant as in his law F = Gm1m2/r2. When we dial G to zero we're in domains where we ignore the effects of gravity. Most of quantum theory is here, as is special relativity and classical mechanics.

The speed of light

Strictly speaking the important thing about our universe is not the weirdness of the speed of light, it's that in the large the universe's structure is Minkowski spacetime, not our intuitive 3D Euclidean space + time. This is a difference in metric, as well-explained here.

If you dial the speed of light to infinity (so 1/c goes to zero) then the space + time metric tends to that of common sense.

Planck's Constant

This is the weird one. Quantum phenomena such as superposition and entanglement emerge mathematically from the non-zero value of , most clearly seen in the uncertainty principle.

However, the emergence of classical physics from quantum mechanics as you reduce to zero isn't too clear. The state space of quantum mechanics is an abstract structure, a complex high-dimensional vector space called Hilbert space, which is not directly mappable to spacetime.


You might say that seven out of the eight nodes on this cube are well-established - the central mystery of contemporary fundamental physics is the eighth, quantum gravity.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lytes Cary Manor

Phew, what a scorcher! It was 16 degrees when we set out to Lytes Cary Manor (NT) and a shocking 19 when we returned home. Clare fled indoors from her zero gravity seat on our front driveway, clutching her cup of tea and complaining of the heat.

It's going to be a long summer.

Your author and his wife fronting Lytes Carey Manor

Lytes Cary Manor

An advanced case of topiary

Nigel in the Bijou Garden

Clare: "Enough already!"

Our picnic consisted of two egg rolls, a Viennese Whirl and a piece of fruit each plus hot drinks from a thermos.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A song of showers and tepid sunshine

We came to Game of Thrones soooo late.

Daenerys Targaryen

Tyrion Lannister

Ned and Catelyn at the Keep

Wookey Hole ('Winterfell') in the late spring sunshine.

Monday, May 23, 2016

2017 War With Russia: An urgent warning from senior military command

Amazon link

Like David Cameron, I was once in my school's Combined Cadet Force. I have read books on military affairs and profess an interest. I wonder how General Sir Richard Shirreff would rate my abilities to come up with an effective British Army battle plan from my armchair?

I guess the literary world had a similar expectation as regards the bluff man-of-action's first novel. And they have not been disappointed: our troops are battle-hardened, hawk-faced, athletic-looking types who get up at 4 am to run ten miles before hitting their offices; the Russian President is pale with bloodless face, oval eyes cold and menacing, and with a voice 'slightly high-pitched and nasal'.

The American President, one year from time of writing, is a curious Clinton-Trump hybrid, the female CEO. Here is how one of the minor characters, aide Bear sees her:
"Standing up with all the others as she entered, Bear felt an almost physical sense of the power she gave off. The graver this crisis became, the more assured became her leadership.

"I know how lonely command in war can be, he thought. But, dammit, she’s just thriving on it. What was the saying? Cometh the hour, cometh the man? This time it was firmly cometh the woman ... and what a woman.

"With the President seated, MacWhite, the tall, lean former Special Forces general, who looked as if he’d be more at home riding the range somewhere out West than inside the Washington beltway, led the President through the agenda."
Enough: put aside the hyper-stereotyped characters, the pedestrian plotting and the over-acronymed prose. We are not reading the new Tom Clancy; we want to know what's wrong with our defence posture.

In this novelised scenario, the Russians, suffering from empire-withdrawal-syndrome and a realisation that their new borders have left large populations of co-ethnics in the Ukraine, the Baltic States and East Poland, decide to restore their kinfolk to the embrace of Mother Russia.

An invasion of East Ukraine delivers a land-route to the Crimea, followed by an assault on NATO member-states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO is paralysed by the inability of its 28 members to agree on anything, the bureaucratic pacifism of the Germans and the openly pro-Russian sympathies of Hungary and Greece. In any event, it has no real military capacity anyway - years of underfunding and neglect have totally hollowed it out.

It's almost game-over, but the Russians make mistakes. They destroy British and German ships anchored in a Latvian port and kill forward-based American soldiers in the battle.

The rest of the story recounts events as America mans up ('that new president'), the Europeans find a new unity and the NATO military come up with a cunning plan. And thankfully, the romantic storyline is kept to a minimum and there is no sex.

Does the plot work as presented? Not a chance: unacceptable risks of nuclear armageddon, way too much reliance on cyber-stuff (which would almost certainly go wrong) while the Russians are portrayed as far too unimaginative.

I suspect that General Shirreff doesn't care much about this criticism either. He really isn't here to write a crafted thriller. His true point is that Europe has essentially blundered into disarmed pacifism and this has to be fixed - so what of that argument?

I don't doubt for a second the detailed picture he paints of European political-elite pacifism, Russia-accommodationism and generalised Euro-incompetence. His picture of the Russian leadership looked a bit too paranoid, emotional and cold-war-ish .. but a little reading around the subject seemed to support his view of the dangerous instability of President Putin's worldview and style of leadership. His view of Russian war aims - not to 'take Europe' but to expand Russia to its 'natural frontiers' - seemed highly plausible too.

Should we risk the nuclear destruction of Western Europe and perhaps American cities to stop this? The novel says 'yes' but in real life the political class would say no. And unless we believe that the current borders in Europe are inviolable until the heat-death of the universe, then it's unlikely that we'll risk armaggeddon for adjustments which, in the end, many will think not without some natural foundation. If the Russians play their cards right.

The critical learning experience is on page 285. Kydd, the new Chief of Defence Staff, is briefing the post-Cameron Prime Minister, Oliver Little, on the relationship between strong conventional forces and the strategic nuclear deterrent:
"But surely, even if we're outmatched conventionally, we've still got Trident?"

"OK, Prime Minister,' sighed Kydd, let me take you through this from first principles. You ask what the Russians will do and I'll repeat. They'll do what they've done at the end of every snap exercise they've called recently. Launch an Iskander tactical nuke as what they call a de-escalatory measure to stop us dead in our tracks and stop us counter-attacking?"

"Hardly sounds to me like de-escalation. Surely them firing a nuke will lead to all-out nuclear war?" asked Little.

"That's precisely the point, Prime Minister. It's counter-intuitive . . . the President knows that there's no way you are going to risk the destruction of human life in the UK by launching a Trident at Russia in response to his tactical nuke when, by so doing, you can almost guarantee a retaliatory strike from an intercontinental ballistic missile in return."

"So, how should we respond? We just have to take it on the chin?"

"Sadly, with the state of our Armed Forces as they are today .. Yes. That would be my advice. Plenty of people told the last government that to be effective, deterrence needs to be matched at every level, conventional and nuclear. As I've just explained, you can't weaken conventional forces and expect Trident alone to protect you. Conversely, if we did have strong conventional forces, but no Trident, they could easily defeat us by threatening to nuke us and we would have no way of deterring them."
This argument is exactly right, but contra the book, NATO is not going into a hot war with Russia over the latter's border accommodations. The trouble is, in the present state of disarray, NATO couldn't get into a hot war with any prepared state over anything; not a good place to be when negotiating with potential adversaries such as Russia and China.

Absent a clear and present danger, none of these Cassandra-like warnings are going to make the slightest difference. So expect more dangerous brinkmanship in the years to come.


The Iskander ballistic missile can carry a nuclear warhead up to 50 kilotons. Warheads with one third of that yield were dropped on two Japanese cities in 1945.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A visit to Newquay

We had visited Newquay in Cornwall back in 2012; I remember taking my wife, Clare, my sister-in-law and her husband to the Roman Catholic Church there for Mass one Saturday evening. The roads were convoluted - thank God for the sat nav! - and afterwards, the route back to our cottage took us past Sainsbury's.

Now I'm back here again.

It's a warm evening, the sunset fading behind me as I stare at the lit-up spaceport. The Government had resolved to build this facility back in 2016, with Virgin Galactic's space tourism as the 'anchor tenant'. That dream was long gone; what I would be seeing tonight would be the first UK 'heavy lift' launch for the new orbital laser platform.

Our contribution to future interstellar missions.

Thousands of us, mostly young, lithe men and women, crowd together here this evening. We didn't need to be here, but there is something tactile, sensual, about our presence in this moment.

Turning around, I see the ranks of synth trucks parked on the layby.

The loudspeakers speak the countdown, redundant as the main boosters ignite. A wall of ambient sound compresses my very body as the vast machine lifts on its plume of smoke and fire.

I watch it dwindle into the sky, its plume beginning to tip for orbital insertion.

It's time to go.

I peel the induction cap off my scalp, pull up my duvet and in a creaky whisper, ask the care home AI to turn off the lights.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Army ready?

"The famous run is a 2.4km (1.5 mile) track in which you must complete the full distance within the given time. The time you have to complete the run will vary depending on the position within The Army that you have applied for.

"Before starting your timed run, you will warm up as a squad with the other people in the selection process. This consists of a slow jog and walk over a distance of 800 metres.  You will then immediately begin your test.

"The required times for the various regiments within The Army are as follows:

"Parachute Regiment - Run Time 09.40"
OK, so we're not going there.
"Royal Signals, Army Air Corps, Royal Logistic Corps, Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers, Adjutant Generals Corps, Army Medical Services, Royal Army Veterinary Corps, Intelligence Corps, and Corps of Army Music – Run Time 14.00"
In my school CCF I was in the Signals, so let's take 14 minutes as my target. If you run a km in five minutes (12 km/hour) you will run 2.4 km in 12 minutes. Way to go.

I don't usually use the treadmill in the gym. Too many historical problems with my knees after years of pavement jogging. But this morning I did five hard minutes on the cross-trainer, then did five minutes at a fast-but-comfortable pace on the treadmill.

Distance run in five minutes? 0.88 km.

Time for 2.4 km at this pace = (2.4/0.88) * 5 = 13 minutes 38 seconds.

I'm army-ready.


Is the British Army ready? This morning, Amazon delivered General Sir Richard Shirreff's new book, "2017 War With Russia: An urgent warning from senior military command", ordered on the back of my recent reading of Mark Urban's tale of military unpreparedness, "The Edge".

From the blurb:
"Written by the recently retired Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and endorsed by senior military figures, this book shows how war with Russia could erupt with the bloodiest and most appalling consequences if the necessary steps are not taken urgently.

"President Putin said: 'We have all the reasons to believe that the policy of containment of Russia which was happening in the 18th, 19th and 20th century is still going on...' And 'If you press the spring, it will release at some point. Something you should remember.'

"Like any 'strongman', the Russian president's reputation for strength is everything. Lose momentum, fail to give the people what they want and he fails. The President has already demonstrated that he has no intention of failing. He has already started a lethal dynamic which, unless checked right now, could see him invade the Baltic states.

"Russia's invasion and seizure of Georgia in 2008 was our 'Rhineland moment'. We ignored the warning signs - as we did back in the 1930s - and we made it 'business as usual'.

"Crimea in 2014 was the President's 'Sudetenland moment' and again he got away with it. Since 2014 Russia has invaded Ukraine. The Baltics could be next.

"Our political leaders assume that nuclear deterrence will save us. General Sir Richard Shirreff shows us why this will not wash."
I see the Amazon comments are already being filled up with 'warmonger!' sentiments. And naturally one would like to discount books like this in advance, on grounds of special pleading and bureaucratic rent-seeking.

But the job of the armed forces is to defend the country against credible threats. If a senior guy believes it's incapable of doing that, he has a duty to speak out and give chapter and verse.

So I'm going to read this one carefully.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The economics of small repairs

Our upstairs bathroom fan died a couple of weeks ago.

We did the right things. We asked our neighbour to recommend an electrician and she supplied two names. We phoned: the first never showed up; the second never called back.

You sometime see ads for self-employed tradespeople: 'No job too small'. Perhaps not so much these days. The ads point to a problem - for an electrician, replacing an awkward-to-get-at fan over a shower is a lot of work for not much cash. With houses being built, there are better opportunities.

We finally went to the local electrical shop in Wells:
"Do you install fans?"

"Yes, I'll get our electrician to give you a call."
The shop exists to sell components and that's the main profit-generating business. Installation (which undoubtedly also contributes to the bottom line) is a necessary add-on. An interesting example where vertical integration allows a market opportunity to be addressed.

The electrician called us back and is due next Wednesday.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Two stories on a Russian theme

Frequent visitors here will I know how often I give op-ed writers on The Times a hard time for PC-inspired nonsense. Today, however, Hugo Rifkind recounts an amusing story in his piece: "Russia lost Eurovision but won the mind games".
"My absolute favourite anecdote about modern Russia comes from the British author, Edward Docx. At a dinner with the cream of Russian literary society, he happened to mention that the panel of the Man Booker Prize of 2011 was headed by Dame Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5.

"Docx recalled: “They guffaw ‘Oh, the West! Oh, England! Oh, hypocrisy! You mean,’ they splutter, ‘that the winner of your most famous literary prize is judged by the security services?’ ” Startled, Docx protested that Dame Stella was retired now, and wrote thrillers herself. Sure, his hosts chortled. Like Vladimir Putin is retired from the KGB! And the more Docx blushed and stammered, the more they laughed and laughed."

From Wikipedia:
"Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (also known as KAL007) was a scheduled Korean Air Lines flight from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage. On September 1, 1983, the airliner serving the flight was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor, near Moneron Island west of Sakhalin in the Sea of Japan.

"The interceptor's pilot was Major Gennadi Osipovich. All 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed, including Larry McDonald, a Representative from Georgia in the United States House of Representatives.

"The aircraft was en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul when it flew through Soviet prohibited airspace around the time of a U.S. aerial reconnaissance mission."
I was thirty two when this happened, and it was a big, scary deal. In the story which follows (comment #24 from here) you should recall that the SAC is the US Strategic Air Command, their nuclear bomber force.
"I was in college when KAL 007 happened; we were all shocked but it was pretty clear it was a mistake. But a few weeks later, I was in my room listening to the college radio station (it was a really good station BTW) when the Emergency Broadcast System activated; I figured it was the standard test of the system, but when the alert tones stopped, instead of the typical “this is only a test” statement I heard “Attention: Please stand by for an official statement from Washington D.C.”…my pulse spiked and I immediately jumped to the window to look in the general direction of the SAC base about 30 miles away, then just as quickly tore my eyes away from the window and shut the curtain – after all, you really don’t want to be looking at the bomb when it goes off.

"After a few seconds, my rational mind began to assert itself, thinking “this has got to be a mistake.” And after another few seconds, the message on the radio cut off, the DJ said, “Woops, I’m probably in big trouble now,” and the standard “this is only a test” recording came on. I decided that escaping near-certain nuclear annihilation was worthy of a shot of whiskey, even at 10am; fortunately my first class that day was after lunch.

"The DJ was right; I never heard him on the station again."

How unfair is access to university education?

The Times today has a leader, "First-Degree Burn", where they state:
"With notable exceptions, Britain’s universities are still not doing enough to attract poor students. English 18-year-olds from the most advantaged 20 per cent of backgrounds are still more than six times more likely to attend a top university than those from the least advantaged 20 per cent.

"Jo Johnson, the universities’ minister, calls this unacceptable and he is right."
In fact he is quite wrong.


Suppose 'advantage' is normally distributed in the UK population (it is not - more later) and suppose it correlates pretty well with IQ (which seems more reasonable).

Then the top 20% would have a mean IQ of 121 and their children (regressing to the mean) an average IQ of 117. *

The bottom 20% would be a symmetrical story, the left side of the bell curve. Their mean IQ would be 79 and their children's an improving 84 (83.2 but let's round up).


The Times mentions 'a top university', by which they most likely mean the Russell Group. The IQ needed to get into a Russell Group university is estimated to be 120.
 - Given a population with average IQ of 117, you would expect 42% to be eligible to meet the 120 cut-off.

 - Given a population with an average IQ of 84, you would expect 0.8% to be smart enough to meet the IQ 120 cut-off for the Russell Group.
That's a ratio of 42/0.8 = 52.5 - far worse than the lamentable six to one quoted by The Times.

The problem is with the financial-advantage model. The disadvantage-advantage distribution is far from normal; a small minority are very well off while a very large minority share a lowish level of income which is conventionally described as 'disadvantaged'.

What IQ amongst the 'disadvantaged' would replicate The Times' statistic of six to one?

A 'disadvantaged ' IQ of 98.

A population with an average child's IQ of 98 would have around 7% with an IQ at or above 120 - and thus be eligible to attend a 'top university'.

Since 98 is pretty much the average IQ of the mass of people in the UK, The Times' figures do not surprise me at all - they're exactly what we should expect.

And for that reason, despite any confected outrage or exciting new policies, I don't expect them to alter at all, short of crashing admission standards. **


* If you're wondering where all these figures came from, we're applying truncation selection ideas which were explained in detail here.

The first part of the calculation goes like this:

Talking about the top 20% of the population for IQ (mean = 100, std. dev. = 15) we have p = 20% = 0.2. This is the area we are 'breeding from', the top 20%.

The mean IQ of this group S = 100 + std. dev. * i(p) = 100 + 15 * 1.4 = 121,

... where we look up i = i(p) = i(0.2) = 1.4  in the table.

Using an IQ heritability of 0.8, the mean children's IQ = R = 100 + 0.8 * 21 = 116.8 = 117,

... reversion to the mean.

A symmetrical calculation give us the story for the bottom 20%

The rest is just putting numbers into the normal distribution.


** If pushed I'd say that the above analysis makes both the affluent and disadvantaged children too smart. As a reality check, what if we made the mean IQ of the advantaged kids 115 (1 sigma up) and the disadvantaged kids 95 (one third of a sigma down)? That sounds more like it.

Then 40% of the 'rich' kids could get into a Russell Group university, and 5% of the 'poor' kids. That's a ratio of eight to one. And The Times did hint that the ratio was worse than 6:1 ...


More bad science from The Times.

Monday, May 16, 2016

When well-intentioned people write bad things

It's not that Matt Ridley hasn't got form. There's a veneer of political correctness which seems to stick to public-intellectual science-writers; they persist in writing cosy, comforting pieces they must know to be misleading, even untrue.

Today, Ridley has an op-ed piece in The Times. "Gene editing isn’t a slippery slope to eugenics", trying to rehabilitate the notion of eugenics.  This is opportune given the dysgenic features of advanced Western countries (relaxed selection leading to mutational load, & the idiocracy stuff), combined with the ameliorating possibilities of genetic engineering.

Ridley starts with the correct statement that eugenics is bad when coercive. State-controlled reproduction is oppressive whether it's China's one-child policy, India's compulsory sterilization or - that old favourite - the disreputable practices of Nazi Germany.

So few problems with his first point:
"First, the essence of eugenics was compulsion: it was the state deciding who should be allowed to breed, or to survive, for the supposed good of the race. As long as we prevent coercion, we will not have eugenics. Our politics would have to change far more drastically than our science."
His second point is more dubious - reassuring cant, some might call it. Artificial insemination with the eggs or sperm of strangers is not what most couples want - they made their own eugenic selection when they chose their partner.
"The second reason we need not fear a return of eugenics is that we now know from 40 years of experience that without coercion there is little or no demand for genetic enhancement. People generally don’t want paragon babies; they want healthy ones that are like them. At the time test-tube babies were first conceived in the 1970s, many people feared in-vitro fertilisation would lead to people buying sperm and eggs off celebrities, geniuses, models and athletes. In fact, the demand for such things is negligible; people wanted to use the new technology to cure infertility — to have their own babies, not other people’s. It is a persistent misconception shared among clever people to assume that everybody wants clever children."
But what if their own child-to-be could be tweaked a little? Or there could be a little bit of selection amongst all their possible children? This is already pretty popular for genetic disease screening; and rightly so.

And then we descend to the plain wrong.
"The more recent discovery that traits such as intelligence are caused by the complicated interaction of multiple genes of small effect means that it is anyway going to be virtually impossible to decide what genetic recipe to recommend to somebody who wants a clever child, or a good-looking one, or an athletic one. By contrast, the genetic changes that cause terrible afflictions such as Huntingdon’s disease or cystic fibrosis are singular and obvious. Selecting embryos that lack such traits, or editing the genes of people so that they are born without carrying such traits, will always be much easier than selecting genetic combinations that might, in the right circumstances and with the right upbringing, lead to slightly higher IQ. Cure will always be easier than enhancement."
We know that embryo selection on as few as ten fertilised eggs could span an IQ gap of ~11 IQ points. That would boost Caucasian populations to the level of the Ashkenazim in one generation. And not a CRISPR in sight.

There is little reason to believe that genetic engineering of many hundreds of SNPs wouldn't be possible within two generations, resulting in significant trait alterations on any reasonably-heritable trait - which is most of them.

We're talking height, health, athletic ability, musicality, personality .. and of course IQ here.

So, Matt, it's not going to be so hard and, trust me, they'll all be jumping at it once it's safe and cheap.

And you must know this. So what's with the 'reassuring' lies?

European pacifism won in practice, if not in theory

Mark Urban, diplomatic and defence editor on the BBC's Newsnight, wrote "The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?" about six months ago.

Its arguments have been highlighted again by recent Brexit Referendum discussions about the impact of the EU on war between states in Europe.

Here is an excerpt from The Telegraph's review.
"How many American tanks are permanently stationed in Europe? At a time when Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and grabbed 10,000 square miles of his neighbour’s territory, you might be surprised to learn that the answer is none.

"With impeccable timing, the last American main battle tank left Europe shortly before the onset of Ukraine’s crisis in 2014. During the Cold War, the United States Army kept 5,000 tanks in Europe to defend its Nato allies; today, not a single one remains.

"Surely the world’s only superpower could rustle up some heavy armour pretty quickly in the event of an emergency? Don’t be so sure. General Sir Richard Shirreff, formerly Nato’s deputy supreme allied commander, thinks that America would need between six and 12 months to deploy one armoured division in Europe.

"Russia, meanwhile, has no fewer than 2,300 tanks, most of them already positioned in the European theatre.

"In The Edge, Mark Urban sounds the alarm over the scale and pace of the West’s disarmament since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in 1979, Urban, now the diplomatic and defence editor of Newsnight, was “for a short heady time” the “commander of one of the British Army’s 900 Chieftain tanks”.

"The era when Britain could field hundreds of the heaviest machines of war now seems impossibly distant. By way of comparison, the Army was down to 36 operational tanks for much of last summer.

"The picture at sea or in the air is little better. Year after year, every country in Nato – including America – has been paying off warships and decommissioning fighter squadrons.

"Even the forces that remain have been hollowed out by a shortage of spare parts and trained personnel. On paper, the Spanish Air Force has 39 Typhoon fighters, but only six are actually ready for combat. Of Germany’s 109 Typhoons, only 42 are in any condition to defend the country’s airspace.

"In clear and concise prose, Urban lays out the way in which an entire continent has chosen the path of wholesale disarmament. It is impossible to read this authoritative book without feeling a deep sense of alarm, indeed of wonder, that our leaders have chosen to take such breathtaking risks.

"The assumption behind the shredding of Nato’s defences is that warfare between European countries is no longer conceivable. In military jargon, “state-on-state” conflict is now irrelevant; the sole purpose of the tattered remnants of our armed forces is to fight “non-state actors” like terrorists and insurgents.

"Russia, however, was never so foolish as to make such an assumption. After the Cold War, the Kremlin was at first compelled to disarm for the simple reason that Russia’s economy had collapsed. For the last decade, however, Russia has been rearming on a huge scale – and its generals take the ruthless business of “state-on-state” conflict very seriously indeed. In Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine, those are precisely the kind of wars that Putin has chosen to fight."
Mark Urban paints a disturbing portrait of a "hollowed out" Western military. After the end of the Cold War, investment in classic state-on-state military systems was throttled right back. We have ageing ships and aircraft, and if they were destroyed in combat, the factories which could replace them have long since ceased production.

Urban contains his irritation at his colleagues in the media 'commentariat' - pacifist, consumed by imperialist guilt, united in a belief that interstate conflicts will never again transition to violence, at least as far as EU nations are concerned.

It's not true that pacifism has won a bloodless victory amongst Western elites. Urban observes that there is substantial funding for spooks and drones. And some UK investments, notably the carriers and the aircraft to fly off them, should come good after 2020 (we trust).

Absent an existential threat, the military was always going to fare badly in the tight budget wars after the Cold War. It's still possible to argue that Russia is simply sorting out historic anomalies as to where its borders should lie, and that the level of middle-eastern inspired conflicts outside of the middle-east are far removed from conventional warfare. Urban discusses these points.

Fundamentally, however, Western Europe is prosperous and disarmed. Historically states which have placed themselves in such a posture ended up as easy pickings for anyone with a military who felt sufficiently acquisitive.

It seems hard to believe that such a fundamental truth is now entirely behind us. Or that America will always save us (at potentially huge cost to itself).


It might be argued that we would have warning and could re-arm fairly quickly. But our weaponry is getting more and more complex and expensive with ever longer lead times.

It's been a cliche for a long time that an adversary with cheap and cheerful weapons (guns, fighter aircraft, bombers, ships, missiles) which can be produced quickly and in bulk, and who has a readiness to accept losses can beat a much higher-tech opponent who finds it difficult to develop, deploy and maintain its super-advanced systems .. and is loss-averse.

Friday, May 13, 2016

IKEA - the standards are slipping

My previous employer, Nortel, was once a great global telecoms company. It hired smart, conscientious people; it 'did what it said it would do'; and it had high ethical standards. It embodied Canadian virtues.

In the few years after 2000, it destroyed itself by recruiting a bunch of greedy, self-serving senior executives to cash in on that Internet thing.

We used to keep our cash with the RBS, a stalwart Scottish bank which was a byword for probity and straight, efficient dealing; it was destroyed by a culture of greed and psychopathy orchestrated by CEO Fred Goodwin.

There may be a great deal of ruin in a country, but a company can be brought down in just a few years. Which is why, if it were possible to sell shares in IKEA, I'd say let them go now.


Our mattress. Ordered from IKEA with additional payment for home delivery and removal of the old one. I was a little surprised by the two delivery guys, one of whom spoke not-brilliant English and wore his baseball cap the wrong way round. Neither seemed that bright, though they had, perhaps, a roguish charm.

There were minor alarm bells as the baseball-capped one rolled the mattress, by himself, up our drive, end-over-end. Hmm.

And when they left, all that cardboard and plastic sheeting was just left littering our drive. Customer service in action.

The mattress disposal people didn't come. IKEA customer support were not helpful; I was told I could have my £20 refunded. Excuse me?
"I have a mattress blocking my hall. I'd like you to remove it as you contracted to."

Apparently, the delivery people should have picked up the old one and taken it with them. Ooops.

We are rescheduled for Sunday.


This is very sloppy. When a company takes its eye off the ball, hires lazy and non-conscientious staff and when challenged, tries to evade the problem, it's a pretty good diagnostic that something's wrong with the internal culture.

I know this is an N = 1 sample, but IKEA, you have a great brand - don't blow it all away!


Update Sunday: They came: the  mattresses are gone.

The two guys who arrived to collect it stared glumly at the items-to-go. "They should be wrapped in plastic sheeting," the one in charge said, "It's company policy - before we can touch them."

This was the first I had heard of this new rule. IKEA was making heavy weather of what - at point of sale - had been a single tick-box item.

I sort of understand that IKEA subcontractors should not be expected to deal with the fleas, bed bugs and other mattress-denizens of IKEA customers - but surely we should be warned in advance and perhaps provided with the means to shrink-wrap our cast-offs?

With much ill-grace, the two men rejected my offer to carry the mattresses down the drive myself, and duly departed with them.

Much thanks for that.

The Economist explains about science - quite well, actually

I am frequently irritated by pious lectures from The Economist's young writing team as to how the affairs of the world might be better ordered. But the Science and Technology section sometimes does it right - applying sophisticated thinking to get to the essence of a contemporary issue.

This week we have an excellent account of the new ideas underlying that exciting new genome analysis technique, SDS, which I mentioned in my last post.

Here's what they have to say:
"The team’s technique looks for changes not in alleles themselves, but in the DNA that surrounds those alleles.

"If a particular allele is more beneficial than other variants of a gene, it will tend, as lactose tolerance did, to spread through the population. As it does so, it will carry with it neighbouring DNA which is not strictly part of the gene and does not affect its function. This DNA can thus mutate without damaging the allele. And it is the amount of mutation this peripheral DNA has undergone which is the giveaway.

"DNA neighbouring an allele that has recently spread quickly will have had less time to accumulate mutations than that near one which evolution has been ignoring. By looking for evidence of mutations around particular alleles, Dr Pritchard and his team can reconstruct their history.

"Apply the method to lots of people, and it is possible to discern what evolution has been up to."

If only The Economist would apply the insights of contemporary behavioural genetics to the great affairs of the world. Here is my suggestion for an Economist Special Report:
"Is there something about the genomics of Europeans/Asians which enables them in principle to run successful democracies?"
If they wish, they can have the null hypothesis that the answer is no.

Let me suggest some reasons why this is even worth considering (apart from evidence in the actual world, that is):
- a democracy replaces kin- and tribe-based interest-mongering with an atomised population delegating conflict resolution to a formal and non-violent elite

- in a democracy, leaders who wield power are expected to hand it over in the event they lose an election, regardless of the idiots who won it

- if your sectional group has a problem, you are expected to wait for an election until it gets resolved; and then suck it up if your group does not succeed in winning power.
None of these things seems the kind of thing social animals usually get selected for.

Psychologically, democracy would appear to require the majority of the population to exhibit:
  • an immense amount of forbearance (self-control and future time-preference) 
  • pervasive intelligence (needed to make institutions work and, in fact, to buy into them) 
  • generalised trust (required for networks of relationships over time and space).
None of these psychological traits seems to be ancestral.

Historical defaults are:
  • to seek immediate redress for wrongs ('an eye for an eye')
  • to not be that capable of handling conceptual abstractions
  • to trust only those you or your neighbours can actually vouch for.

So we have some research to do here, checking the genomes of societies which have managed to sustain democracy over the decades or centuries vs those populations which can't seem to get it together. You'd be looking for elevated frequencies of the many relevant alleles of small effect.

By the way, the payoff to democracy - if you have the sort of people who can get it to work - is a scalable, developing economy and a benevolent social environment.

A great prize for inclusive fitness if you can get there.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Genius of Birds

Clare with her new new summer dress and book

She also has the new Chris Packham book.

Our new mattress is due to be delivered tomorrow, so this may be the last day the cat can place itself in the groove - at least in this particular way.

Monday, May 09, 2016

A science lesson from The Times

In its editorial 'Conservative FutureThe Times informs us today:
"The second law of thermodynamics implies that the energy inside a closed system will always tend towards the lowest level possible. ..."
This is meant to be a metaphor for the complacency of the present Conservative government.

From Wikipedia:
"The first law of thermodynamics is a version of the law of conservation of energy, adapted for thermodynamic systems. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed."
So it seems that in a closed system, the energy is unlikely to always tend to the lowest level possible (which would presumably be zero, ignoring quantum fluctuations).

But wait, The Times mentioned the second law. From Wikipedia again:
"The second law of thermodynamics states that in every real process the sum of the entropies of all participating bodies is increased."
So got that? In a closed system the entropy (not energy) will increase (not decrease).

But entropy is way too hard a concept for Times readers.

I imagine that the unfortunate author might have recalled some folk-memory involving free energy: Wikipedia is again your friend:
"According to the second law of thermodynamics, [...] there is a general natural tendency to achieve a minimum of the Gibbs free energy."
Perhaps Times readers are more familiar with the pioneering work of Willard Gibbs.


I never fail to be impressed by the sheer entitlement of arts-educated journalists, who would never commit a solecism - but feel free to display their basic ignorance of science as a form of tribal virtue signalling.

In case you think free energy vs energy is a distinction without a difference, consider the money available to spend in your bank account vs. the total money which happens to be in circulation. You would soon notice the difference if your bank account emptied and its contents were dispersed elsewhere in the economy.


Incidentally, here's a test you can use to gauge the Asperger level of a science lecturer.

If the academic, faced with a gratuitous error such as that committed by The Times', simply points out that it's wrong, then that's a high-score for AS.

If, however, they try to infer the source of the error in the student's misunderstanding (energy confused with free energy) and straighten that out, they score as more on the neurotypical scale.

Just thought I'd mention that.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

War and Peace and War in Europe

People say that the European Union has prevented war in Europe for seventy years; in fact, the truth is precisely the opposite - it is the absence of the conditions for war which have enabled the EU to stagger along all these years.

There are two conditions for war (armed conflict between states):
- two or more states experience differences which cannot be resolved peacefully;

- each state must be militarily capable with a belief in the possibility of winning.*
In the United States, a well-honed system of federal conflict resolution + economic unification tends to dampen inter-state conflicts of interest. If that were ever to break down, the US (federal) military would demolish any individual state's armed forces. They did it before.

In Europe, not so much.

Don't underestimate the sheer war-exhaustion and folk-memories of the Second World War in Europe's economically-strongest states as an engine of peace-so-far.

As Peter Turchin observed in "War and Peace and War" there is a generational cycle here:
'...the father’s generation fights bitterly, their sons seek to avoid the mistakes that led to violence, but the underlying pressures still exist, so their grandsons repeat the pattern as memories of the causes and consequence of civil strife fade.'
If the interests of states within the current EU were to diverge sufficiently, then war is perfectly possible - the legally-enshrined authority of the central institutions of the EU would be brushed aside as effortlessly as during the continuing refugee/immigration crisis and the events in Greece.

KALs' cartoon from The Economist this week

Inter-state war in Europe is neither an imminent prospect nor on the horizon, but a generation of young people has grown up who are not that scared of the idea (having not directly experienced the effects on their societies) and might even welcome the excitement, bonding and opportunities for glory. You may be able to think of examples even as we speak, in the middle-east.

In the absence of an EU army and a demilitarisation of its constituent members a la America, a sufficiently deep clash of interests could certainly lead to armed conflict. (The people pushing for an EU army understand this, I think, but that particular boat is never going to sail).

It's not like the 1990s Balkans conflicts (Yugoslavia was once 'for ever') and the recent Ukrainian events don't show viable scenarios.


* If two states have irreconcilable differences but one cannot stand up militarily against the other, we have a technical name for what then happens to it: it's defeated.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Thoughts on an IKEA visit

Never let it be said that quantum mechanics is not risqué.

In Book 3 of the Open University course you learn about molecular orbitals: crudely, the probability distribution of electrons around the nuclei of atoms bound together as molecules. The simplest case is two protons sharing one electron - H2+, the hydrogen molecule ion.

Lowest energy orbital for the hydrogen molecule ion

A pleasing shape, wouldn't you say?

The distribution of body weight on our double bed has a similar density function. This is not simply because we naturally prefer to sleep on our own sides, it's more that our mattress is in fact two single mattresses zipped together. The central hard ridge repels each of us off to the side.

To solve this problem, Clare and myself visited IKEA Bristol yesterday to purchase a super kingsize mattress. We both lay on the store bed, exploring mattress possibilities, to the general hilarity - some verbally expressed - of passing fellow-shoppers.

It should be delivered next Thursday, after which our bedtime molecular orbital may look more like the additive combination below:


We also bought a small flat-pack chest of drawers which took me almost three hours to assemble. I am astonishingly inept at manipulating physical reality and therefore had to work extra hard at being systematic, laying everything out in the right orientation, and checking every diagram three times.


It's an IQ test, and I googled "minimum IQ to assemble IKEA flat-pack" but there were no relevant hits. I recommend this as a research project.

But upon reflection, I figured that anyone who could afford IKEA prices would either have a high-enough IQ to do the assembly correctly already or would be rich enough to hire a handyman, so I doubt it's a problem IKEA lose any sleep over.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

"The Secret of our Success" - Joseph Henrich

Luke tells us that "there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one repentant sinner."

There is similar rejoicing in heaven over anthropologists who embrace gene-culture coevolution. The late Henry Harpending was the paradigmatic example while Joseph Henrich, by contrast, has only made it part of the way.

That being said, the stellar reviews of "The Secret of our Success" correctly identify the good parts of Henrich's new book. We are cultural beings to the core and without the wisdom of our societies our big brains and high IQs are as nothing. Henrich's paradigmatic example is well described in this review from Joe Brewer:
"HMS Erebus and HMS Terror .. left port in June 1845 from the British Isles under the command of Sir John Franklin in search of a Northwest Passage that could energize trade by connecting western Europe to East Asia. They were outfitted with two field tested ice-breaker vessels equipped with state-of-the-art steam engines, retractable screw propellers, and detachable rudders. They also had five years of provisions and were prepared to deal with the harsh winter in the Arctic Ocean. And yet, even with all of these things going for them, the crew was forced to abandon ship in their second year and move onto King Williams Island—where they became fragmented into small groups and forced to the point of cannibalism before all dying eventually.

"The crew was in an area where Inuits had lived for thousands of years, some of whom came into contact with the shipwrecked crew during the time they were stranded there. It was a harsh environment where the locals had amassed a repertoire of knowledge about how to build kayaks and igloos, hunt sea animals for food, and scavenge for plants during the brief warm spells of summer. Unfortunately for the British explorers, this body of cultural knowledge was not available to them and they suffered the consequences."
Henrich has many similar anecdotes about the adaptations which enabled humans - uniquely amongst primates - to develop, share and propagate a collective culture, something we understand in business when we say that 'good processes get excellent performance from average people'.

Still, there are things not to like. The book is too long: after a promising start it becomes a long-winded sprawl, obscuring the big picture.

Henrich has not internalised modern thinking in genetics, particularly population genetics; his underlying mental framework is still at heart blank-slatism. He doesn't understand the genetics of racial differentiation (cf Greg Cochran's post "Such a thing"); he thinks humankind is still evolving into more effective cultural animals (where's the evidence for selection for that?); and many of his assertions - the reasons for the menopause, for example - are far less settled than he suggests.

The book, despite its flaws, is well worth reading as an antidote to Dawkins-style evolutionary individualism. Ironically it's by far the best account of what a theory of memes would actually look like. But its approach to genetics makes one wince.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

It's cold up north

In an act of travel insanity, our week's holiday in Yorkshire coincided with rain, hail, snow, arctic winds and more rain.

We were close to Pickering, just south of the North Yorkshire moor. We took in York (charming), Whitby (proletarian and popular, with a plethora of chips and gulls), Scarborough (poor and unloved) and Nunnington Hall (NT and as nice as you would expect).

The highlight of the week for us was the final day of the Tour de Yorkshire; we intercepted the race twice:
- on TV,  you get to appreciate team strategies;

- roadside, the lycra blur communicates supreme athleticism .. and stoicism.
Here are some pictures.

Yes, we were on TV (ITV4). On the left Clare, Alex and Adrian spectating
& green-anoraked myself above with camera. We're just up from Hutton-le-Hole

Alex at Nunnington Hall (NT)

Clare and Adrian at the TdY finish in Scarborough

On the strength of two generous evening meals, Chinese and Indian respectively, Clare and myself returned home three pounds heavier than at our own grand départ a week ago. A diet of fruit, salad and porridge is already in effect - and I was (underpowered) at the gym this morning ...

In which I spit for science

"Dear PGP-UK Participant

Following your completion of the PGP-UK geographic survey, we would like to invite you to participate in PGP-UK.

As outlined previously this involves the collection of a saliva sample from you, from which DNA will be extracted and whole-genome sequenced at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute."
I have this morning spent ten minutes spitting into a test tube and the sample has been posted off to the  Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to be sequenced: whole genome sequencing. Scary thought: I can now be cloned.

I was selected (as one of a number of participants) as my four grandparents all lived in or around Bristol, in support of this study.
"Fine-scale genetic variation between human populations is interesting as a signature of historical demographic events and because of its potential for confounding disease studies. We use haplotype-based statistical methods to analyse genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of 2,039 individuals from the United Kingdom.

"This reveals a rich and detailed pattern of genetic differentiation with remarkable concordance between genetic clusters and geography. The regional genetic differentiation and differing patterns of shared ancestry with 6,209 individuals from across Europe carry clear signals of historical demographic events.

"We estimate the genetic contribution to southeastern England from Anglo-Saxon migrations to be under half, and identify the regions not carrying genetic material from these migrations. We suggest significant pre-Roman but post-Mesolithic movement into southeastern England from continental Europe, and show that in non-Saxon parts of the United Kingdom, there exist genetically differentiated subgroups rather than a general ‘Celtic’ population."
More later.