Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ganging up on the English

The Northern Ireland Protestants tended to vote leave, identifying with the English working class.

The Northern Ireland Catholics tended to vote remain, identifying with their brethren across the border.

The Scots voted remain to arm themselves with countervailing power against the English.

The Welsh showed their shallow sense of national ethnic identity by identifying more with the English working class. I don't know the figures for the more nationalist North Wales.

The illusions of the new European demos so cruelly exposed - it lives only in the elite bubble.

The fault lines in that historical and increasingly wobbly construct, the 'United Kingdom', are equally exposed to view.

Monday, June 27, 2016

My fantasy Labour Party

I'm watching the Labour shadow cabinet implode this morning with emotional detachment. There was a time, in my twenties, when I was tribally Labour; later I confess I voted for Blair. But it's all been downhill since then, Gordon, Ed and Jeremy.


My ideal, fantasy Labour Party

1. Puts its hands up for capitalism, predatory and destructive though it is, as no other economic system can take us forwards. My Labour Party supports technological innovation and accepts there can be no equality of outcome in a successful capitalist society.

Yes, we can and should do mitigation.

2. My Labour Party controls immigration on the basis of individual skills, talent and character according to national needs. No uncontrolled admission on the basis of which nation state the enquiring immigrant happens to reside in.

The most salient reason for this is that both our social fabric and the functioning of our institutions are critically dependent on our human capital. We need more people who are smart, skilled, conscientious and prosocial. They're hardly the majority of those wanting in.

3. I'd rather like the Labour Party to exhibit, or at least partially reflect, the value system of its mass base. Hampstead champagne-socialism and Islington bien-pensant liberalism doesn't do it for me.

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't actively ban readers of The Guardian from joining or leading my Labour Party - I do believe in toleration.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Weaselling out of Brexit

David Lammy MP has called for Parliament to vote to continue with membership of the EU, pointing out that the Brexit Referendum was advisory and non-binding. "Let this nightmare end!"

Such a vote would be superfluous. The exit process can only begin once Article 50 is invoked by the UK government. The 'Leave' leadership doesn't seem very keen, and apart from Gove, no senior Tory seems to have their heart really and truly set on Brexit.

The vast majority of parliamentarians, along with the bulk of the establishment elite want to stay in the EU. Here is how to weasel out of Thursday's inconvenient result (which was pretty close, right?).

1. Do nothing quickly. Any backsliding right now would have the northern masses on the street. Things would get ugly.

2. Do what Boris suggested a few months back. With article 50 in the back pocket, wring some further concessions out of Germany. Choose the issues which are both achievable and targeted to detach 3-4% of leavers back to remain.

3. Towards the end of the year - no sooner! - announce that the EU has finally seen sense and that there is no need to go through the upheaval of Brexit. After months of scare stories and a few actual horrors, see if you can get away without holding another referendum, just let the whole thing fade away (it was only 'advisory' 😉).

It was all a ghastly glitch, but things are now reassuringly back to normal.

See if I'm wrong.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Scottish Referendum v.2

Question for SNP supporters. You say you don't want to be a satellite country of the English. And I understand that, the history and everything. But why switch to becoming a satellite of the Germans instead?

We all like the Germans, of course. It was the satellite bit you should be worried about.

My advice: vote for your independence and then keep it. Like a grown-up country. Norway comes to mind. And Switzerland.

So don't apply to join the EU - and you do know they intend to humiliate you, right?

The 4th Reich hits a speed bump

When the historians come to write about Brexit they will observe that it took a human lifetime, 70 years, for Germany to resume its traditional role as dominant country in Europe (after WW2).

Although at first its policies appeared classically liberal - fiscal rectitude, free movement of labour, barely-limited Muslim immigration - they naturally aroused resentment amongst the populations of satellite countries within the EU as Germany tried to impose its will across the union.

"Naturally people feared the consequences of a further evolution of German expression of its national interests.

"It was perhaps inevitable that the UK, the second largest economy in the EU and the most semi-detached, would take the logical step of removing itself from satellite status in 2016.

"The emergence of a medium power on the periphery of Europe not structurally dominated by Germany was of interest to major powers such as the US, Russia and China, whose interests sometimes conflicted with those of the new Holy Roman Empire (this phrase, although deprecated in public, was frequently heard in the euro-corridors of power - whereas 'fourth Reich' was unthinkable).

"The resulting pattern of alliances was fascinating .."

Sadly the text finishes here.

Monday, June 20, 2016

"The Master Algorithm" - Pedro Domingos

Amazon link

Pedro Domingos starts his popular book on machine learning with a breathless tour of everyday life in middle-class America.As you drive to work, check your stocks, book a flight, do a little shopping and use the Internet, you're continually interacting with (and being surveilled by) AI learning systems. They can do so much, yet as Amazon's recommendations system continually reminds us, they also fall so short.

There are five main schools of thought in today's machine learning community,

  • The symbolists have inverse deduction (I think this is abduction) 
  • the connectionists have backpropagation
  • the evolutionaries have genetic programming
  • the Bayesians have probabilistic inference
  • the analogizers have support vector machines. 

Pedro Domingos believes that what we really need is a single algorithm combining the key features of all of them. In the final part of his book he describes Markov logic networks, his own best candidate for the way forward.

If I had to infer Pedro Domingos' personality type from reading his book (personality inference, he thinks, will become commonplace in future automated systems) I would guess ENTP. The books is optimistic, provocative, full of ideas, clever ... and sprawling, lacking conceptual coherence and depth.

The experience of reading it is that of empty calories. Popular science books avoid the complex abstractions of the real science in favour of familiar (but underpowered and ultimately misleading) analogies. Domingos is not afraid to use technical labels - Bayesian inference, hidden Markov models - but he carefully avoids any technical depth in his explanations. Ultimately the reader who has not previously studied a topic will be no wiser, drowning in cotton wool.

What is this machine learning all about? How can we understand it in a broader scientific framework? I was frustrated by being no clearer at the end of this book than at the beginning. Algorithms are not the stuff of science or explanation - they are realisation of relationships between inputs and outputs which need to be anchored in an underlying theory. The neuroscientist David Marr, namechecked in the book, was particularly insistent on separating these levels of description. Yet a theoretical framework for machine learning is conspicuously absent in Pedro Domingos' account; you never see the wood for the trees.

I was glad I read it, if only for the identification of the 'five tribes' mentioned above and his hand-wavy overview of their approaches. But given his intended audience, the book would have been much improved if the author had simply included five 'Scientific American' level appendices explaining at a semi-technical level how the five approaches actually work; including some maths.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

This & that

After putting the kettle on, my second most important task first thing is to feed the cat.

This morning I carefully diced his cheddar cheese into bite-sized chunks, scooped beef-pâté from a can and added a little salmon from a packet on to his plate.

I walked into the hall, bent my knees and leaned forward to place his plate in the floor. As I did so, I experienced a sudden arc of pain horizontally across my lower back. As I sat immobilised on the stairs, my first thought was: "No gym for me today."

I'm moving around cautiously at the moment and not sitting too much - this is not the first time I've had a lower back strain - and I expect several days of recovery time. Next time I'm at the gym, I hereby remind myself to ask about specific exercises to strengthen the lower back.

The cat enjoyed his breakfast.


Later this morning I went for a therapeutic walk to town - Clare wanted some straw for the strawberries.

Clare distributes the straw

She carried the bale back.


I've just finished the interesting (for a textbook) "Behavioural Genetics" by Robert Plomin et al.

I salute the bravery and sheer persistence of the pioneers (including the authors) who patiently worked over their professional lives to work out the heritability of almost everything. The social sciences establishment had (and has) little but contempt for their efforts.

Since almost all behavioural traits are heritable in the range 0.3 - 0.7, (even working out at the gym) such agenda-based prejudice against any role at all for genetics makes you want to weep.

The robust results reported were teased-out mostly from twin and adoption studies. The sections with least detail are those which try to identify specific alleles underpinning the measured heritability. At time of publishing (2013) the GWAS revolution had barely got started and here in 2016 it's still in the early phases.

If a new edition is published c. 2020, I imagine genotype chapter and verse will be available for most behavioural traits.

Blank-slate elite culture (media, TV, politicians) will continue to ignore these results, while mendaciously claiming that environment is everything.


I was in two minds about "The Master Algorithm" (Pedro Domingos) as the reviews were mixed. And then Bill Gates gave the book his imprimatur and I read the reviews more closely. It's not that the book is overly non-technical (which was my fear) - more that it's uneven and perhaps a little badly written.

I can cope with that. As the only popular science book about AI deep learning out there, I'm keen to start reading it. More later.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The FTO gene

We watched the BBC Horizon programme on genetic causes of obesity, fronted by Dr Giles Yeo (good to see an ethnic East Asian presenter).

Dr Giles Yeo with some of the AA variant folk

There is a gene of quite large effect; here is what Wikipedia says:
"A study of 38,759 Europeans for variants of FTO identified an obesity risk allele. In particular, carriers of one copy of the allele weighed on average 1.2 kilograms (2.6 lb) more than people with no copies.

"Carriers of two copies (16% of the subjects) weighed 3 kilograms (6.6 lb) more and had a 1.67-fold higher rate of obesity than those with no copies.

"The association was observed in ages 7 and upwards. "


"In adult humans, it was shown that adults bearing the at risk AT and AA alleles at rs9939609 consumed between 500 and 1250 kJ more each day than those carrying the protective TT genotype (equivalent to between 125 and 280 kcal per day more intake).

"The same study showed that there was no impact of the polymorphism on energy expenditure. This finding of an effect of the rs9939609 polymorphism on food intake or satiety has been independently replicated in five subsequent studies (in order of publication)."
The protective allele is T while the risk allele is A at SNP site rs9939609.


Here is what 23andMe says about my late mother, Beryl Seel, and myself.

My mother had the protective genotype, TT, and was never overweight; I'm not so lucky (AT) and had to fight to get my weight down to its current 70-71 kilograms (from 86kg in mid-2012).

We can infer that my late father, who definitely had an expanded waistline, was AT or AA. Based on family history and if pressed, I would guess AT .. and that I got unlucky.

I wrote about this 18 months ago: another Horizon programme.

Logistic discriminant analysis (= neural nets)

If you were trained (as I was back in the 1980s) on Good Old Fashioned AI (GOFAI), the technical background you studied consisted primarily of formal logic and discrete maths, implemented by symbolic programming languages such as Lisp and Prolog.

Meanwhile, the minority neural net tendency used statistical techniques and differential equations.

It's hard to imagine two more discordant cultures.

In these days of the overarching victory of the latter, I was interested to read the following from the excellent overview book, "Statistics: A Very Short Introduction" (David J. Hand), page 104.
"In fact, logistic regression can be regarded as the most basic kind of neural network."
I confess I had never thought of neural networks as simply a mainstream statistical classification tool.

Wikipedia has two articles on the subject: "Discriminant function analysis" and "Linear discriminant analysis" along with "Logistic Regression".

Something to look at further.


Marr's Tri-Level Hypothesis

David Marr was one of my heroes when I was an active AI researcher. Outside of computer vision I think he is mostly forgotten now (he died tragically early), but he said something important about methodology in AI research when many around him were writing programs that did vaguely cool stuff while claiming they were advancing science.

Marr distinguished three levels of analysis.

  1. computational level: what does the system do (e.g.: what problems does it solve or overcome) and similarly, why does it do these things

  2. algorithmic/representational level: how does the system do what it does, specifically, what representations does it use and what processes does it employ to build and manipulate the representations

  3. implementational/physical level: how is the system physically realised (in the case of biological vision, what neural structures and neuronal activities implement the visual system).

His terms are not great (he was trained as a biologist): his computational level is really the theory of system behaviour in the environment of interest; his second level might be better described as an architectural level, describing the various ways the system's capabilities could be decomposed into subsystems and their inter-relationships; finally comes the issue of specific processing mechanisms and algorithms.

It's still common to see people waving the banner for one of these elements of analysis, while ignoring the others. Only confusion results.

Neural networks are an architecture. As currently understood and built, the term denotes a distributed, connected computational architecture well-suited to a certain class of problems, namely pattern recognition, feature extraction and classification.

This is a proper subset of the cognitive problems animals (including humans) have to solve in the world.

Artificial neural networks today consume Terabytes of training data, solving recognition/ classification problems of interest to Google, Facebook and the like.

I am reminded of the man who has a hammer.

The easy wins will fade away well before they achieve the purported Holy Grail of Artificial General Intelligence.

I hasten to add the obvious: in any event, you and I are considerable more than arid and cerebral AGIs.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Last words

"It's going to be weird, not being alive."

"But of course, it won't be anything."


I'm collecting possible epitaphs.

A backup plan for Mars

One idea for terraforming Mars involves crashing kilometre-scale ice-comets onto the planet's surface.

A comet impacting on Mars

That might kick-start a colony, but the surface gravity of Mars isn't sufficient to retain a reasonable atmosphere and water over thousands of years.

We could be optimistic and hope our descendants will fix this problem, but why not a little insurance?

I propose we choose some large ice-comets, preferably in the outer system where gravitational perturbations from the likes of Jupiter and Saturn are minimised, and adjust their orbits to intercept Mars in, say, 5,000 years time.

The downside: if there's a civilisation on Mars at that time which lacks technological sophistication, they're going to have some real bad days.

The upside: some would survive. But if Mars loses its water and oxygen, they're all toast anyway.


I checked. The JPL ephemeris program can currently model the position of the planets out to 3,000 AD. Their positional accuracy for Mars is around plus or minus one kilometre.

I think we can do this, people.

You know they'll thank us in the end.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Power starvation

Isle of Wight Music Festival

Ever sat in a tent watching the battery on your phone or tablet die, with no mains power?

Such was my experience in Minehead last weekend. So I bought this:

RAVPower 26800mAh 3-Port 5.5A iSmart Output
Portable Charger Compact Power Bank External Battery Pack

It performed flawlessly, quickly recharging Clare's iPad, my Nexus 6 phone and my Nexus 10 tablet.

It then took around 14 hours overnight to recharge the Power Bank from empty, using the iPad's 5V 2.1A USB mains-charger.


Tablets charge at 5V 2.1A from a USB mains-charger while for phones it's 5V 1A.

You can charge a tablet from a 1A phone charger - but it takes twice as long; you can charge a phone from a 2.1A tablet charger - the extra current capacity makes no difference and can't be used by the phone - but it's perfectly safe.

My Nexus 6 phone has a 3220 mAh battery, my Nexus 10 tablet has a 9000 mAh battery while Clare's iPad 2 has a 6,944mAh battery.

At 1 amp you would predict that the phone would take just over three hours to charge, the iPad would take seven hours and the tablet 9 hours.

This is why it makes sense, tablet-wise, to invest in a 2.1 amp charger like this, rather than just reusing old phone chargers, so as to halve these times..

AmazonBasics Wall Charger with USB Outlet (2.1 Amp Output)


Due to various inefficiencies, you should multiply the device charging times above by up to an additional 50% (assuming you were charging from empty - but recall you are advised not to let the charge drop below 30% for long-term battery-health reasons).

Follow your passion

From Marginal Revolution.

... or there's always dentistry ...

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Bishop's Palace, Wells

A picnic lunch today at The Bishop's Palace, Wells.

The Pilgrim statue - inscription below

Here's a close-up of The Pilgrim's face .. it rather reminds me of ..

... China Miéville.

Wells Cathedral from The Bishop's Palace garden

If you know what this flower is, could you tell me in the comments?

Update: thanks guys, it's an Allium.

Your author and his wife

"The Last Days of New Paris" has an Amazon page, but no-one seems to know when it will be available. August?
"June 1940 following Paris’ fall to the Germans, the villa of Air-Bel in Marsailles, is filled with Trotskyists, anti-fascists, exiled artists, and surrealists.

"One Air-Bel dissident decides the best way to fight the Nazis is to construct a surrealist bomb.

"When the bomb is accidentally detonated, surrealist Cataclysm sweeps Paris and transforms it according to a violent, weaponized dream logic."
You had me at 'surrealist bomb'.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Robert Heinlein on Democracy

Robert Heinlein from "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, Time Enough for Love".
"Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something. Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again too. Who decides?"
In Robert Harris's novel "Archangel", I recall a scene after the death of Stalin where the secret police chief, Beria, tries to manipulate his colleagues to ensure his own succession. He has a cunning plan but it does not end well.

A politburo colleague observes that Beria, like many very smart people, assumes that more average people will never figure out what he's up to. But that's to mistake the nature of average folk: it's not that they can't get there - they can; it just takes them a little longer.

That's why I'm not that worried by the left-hand side of the bell-curve getting the vote.

The not-so-super-smart are usually not au fait with the niceties of public policy options, but they tend to be pretty expert on whether things are working out well for themselves. And in the end, that's a recipe for a stable and productive society: keep the punters reasonably content.

If you disenfranchise swathes of the population, you reserve political power to the vested interests of those who retain the vote. Naturally public policy will be captured (in the economics sense of regulatory capture) by such vested interests.

In the long run, this is seldom a good thing.

Sentimental, moralistic platitudes about the 'ethical superiority of democracy' don't do it for me.

No, I'm strictly functionalist. Democracy should be supported because it's the only system which provides a regular and universal protocol to "kick the bastards out".


Note: if you want Robert Heinlein's considered view as to how to make democracy work, you should read "Starship Troopers".

Tl; dr - voting should be restricted to those prepared to defend society, so no votes for parasites. Basically you do your military service, indicate your willingness to put your life on the line for your country .. and then you get to vote.

Monday, June 06, 2016

A book abandoned

Cool cover art.

 Amazon link

I read Scott Alexander's extensive review and tried to cancel but too late: the very next day the Amazon parcel arrived. Alexander's review is an easier read than the book itself, which is written in a 'flat' academic style akin to a succession of Wikipedia mini-articles.

I wouldn't have minded if the content had been as described in the back cover quotes ('mind-blowing', 'fascinating', 'stimulating') .. but the ideas are relatively pedestrian, what you would expect if you thought about it a bit; many of Hanson's assertions are plausible without being that compelling.

So after a while of mentally chewing on cardboard, I abandoned.

If a society of brains-emulated-in-hardware-and-software is truly your thing, then it's a lot more fun reading Greg Egan's sublime Permutation City.


Back yesterday from a couple of days camping on the heights above Minehead where we also took in the Civil War reenactment at Dunster Castle.

Clare fronting the view of Minehead from the campsite

Dunster Castle: the women spin and cook behind the cannon

The pikemen and musketeers assemble

I'd anticipated a mass mêlée, a pitched battle of The Sealed Knot - but what you see in the pictures was what we got.

The fighting persons in close-up

I especially liked Ginger Baker (above) who gave us a one-person marching drum solo after the obligatory team musket discharges and pike-drill.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The aircraft carrier in total war

Interesting discussion about that exciting new weapon, the US navy railgun. A lot of feedback in the comments, mostly skeptical, about new 'wunderwaffe'.

I think it boils down to this: against a third-world opponent, nothing works like a carrier group for overwhelming global force projection; conversely, if you're fighting a first-world state with up-to-date weaponry, your carrier group is toast.

First-world state-on-state warfighting doctrine doesn't seem to have kept up with drone & missile technologies. Drones and missiles are orders of magnitude cheaper than the platforms (aircraft, tanks, ships) they target.

Offensive modes involving pre-positioning and saturation-attacks seem impossible to reliably defend against. And if all else fails, comment 13 observes:
"when articles talk about a naval war between China and USA in 2050 using some sexy new weapon, they never seem to cover that old weapon - nuclear ICBMs."
Five missiles in an area-spread with megaton warheads - no carrier group is going to look too clever after that.


My favourite fictional account: "Firelance" by David Mace (although the Vindicator is a cruise missile platform, not a carrier).

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Google's war on folders

In the beginning, the search model for the Internet was (nested) folders:
Yahoo = "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle"
Remember, the intent is to find something in a vast space of candidates. The simplest way is to give that thing a label ('the filename') and put it in a folder which groups similar items by some salient property ('the folder'). Folders are nested ad libitum.

Folder-nesting is essentially set-inclusion, sometimes termed an 'isa-hierarchy'; a related idea is that of 'inheritance'.

Given an isa-hierarchy (a tree structure), a language to describe it is most simply effected by labelling the branches in order:
where the language syntax is pretty much isomorphic to the semantic structure.

It was a small shock when Gmail introduced arbitrary labels to replace folders. The semantic space became somewhat more complex, as the set of all subsets of a collection of labels constitutes a lattice.

A simple Google search on keywords is not dissimilar to a search on labels (plus a fancy ordering relation wherein lies the magic).

Then came Google Photos, where all those carefully-named folders on your hard-drive ('My-Pictures/Holiday-in-the-Dordogne-July-2014') vanished, and Google used metadata and AI scene recognition to organise your photos along many dimensions: people, places, things-in-the-picture, etc.

In real life and in ordinary conversation, people do not restrict themselves to labels to refer to things.
"That famous joke by that dead middle class comedian"
doesn't get a useful hit from Google today, although many British people might hazard a guess.
"That famous joke by Bob Monkhouse"
nails it, top of the list - but it's really labels at work here.

As Google augments its bottom-up, neural-net phrase-recognisers with stable and ubiquitous semantic/pragmatic models, the clunky, manual world of the folder hierarchy will finally be put to rest.

Google tried to bring a version of search to the personal hard-drive once before, but it never really took off: too much noise and not enough signal in the results.

But next time around?

Folders: archaic, inflexible, labour-intensive .. and doomed.