Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O."

Another big tome by Neal Stephenson, abetted this time by the writer of historical novels, Nicole Galland. I have not read Ms Galland's work so cannot really speculate whether it's her influence which has lightened up Stephenson's often ponderous prose-style.

In any event, the result is an amusing YA time-travel cum magic tale. It starts slow, introducing characters gradually but sustains interest, gradually approaching genuine excitement. Yes, reader, it's worth the ride.

Amazon link

The main point of view is that of Melisande Stokes, a young Harvard bluestocking linguist. Her drab existence is upended one day when she collides with Tristan Lyons, a handsome young, straight-arrow military type who has just been ejected from the office of her unpleasant boss, Dr Roger Blevins.

Tristan, on what seems almost a whim, decides to recruit Melisande instead. The black-ops military organisation Lyons is heading is called D.O.D.O. A running gag is that the meaning of the acronym is itself classified. But .. it's to do with magic: magic that used to work but has terminally ceased to function since the introduction of photography c. 1851 .. (blah blah collapses wavefunction blah blah).

It turns out that magic can be restored.

Stephenson here throws in a QM-multiverse substrate for magic - which pretty much falls at the first hurdle since it can't explain how witches could effect time-travel, which they can. Anyhow, magic today can only be restored within a 'Schrödinger cat box' which 'suppresses decoherence', The main characters don't seem to understand how this would work, something probably shared with the reader.

But the authors really don't care about that. They are much more interested in the culture clash between the young activists (Melisande, Tristan, the computer geek guy and a few others) and the military bureaucracy brought in to run the show as it becomes more successful. The novel has an unerring feel for management speak (witches are reclassified as MUONs - Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators) and the impact of political correctness, particularly on historical figures brought to the present ('Anachrons'). Much opportunity for knowing humour.

The plot, such as it is, involves attempts to secure rare artefacts from the past to raise money for the cash-strapped D.O.D.O, a strangely well-informed bank which straddles the centuries, and a plot to restore magic by changing the past. Let us just say that the principal-agent problem looms rather large.

The bad guys (senior military and academics) are convincingly-hissable villains and the heroes winsome and decent. There is also a hint of chemistry in the air, dear reader.

Buy it. You won't be disappointed.


The Guardian's review.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"The Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market"


Thought for today from Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations"
"There are some sorts of industry, even of the lowest kind, which can be carried on no where but in a great town. A porter, for example, can find employment and subsistence in no other place. A village is by much too narrow a sphere for him; even an ordinary market town is scarce large enough to afford him constant occupation.

In the lone houses and very small villages which are scattered about in so desert a country as the Highlands of Scotland, every farmer must be butcher, baker and brewer for his own family. In such situations we can scarce expect to find even a smith, a carpenter, or a mason, within less than twenty miles of another of the same trade.

The scattered families that live at eight or ten miles distant from the nearest of them, must learn to perform themselves a great number of little pieces of work, for which, in more populous countries, they would call in the assistance of those workmen."
A high-tech economy requires a very great profusion of experts which can only be sustained by a very great market - in the billions of consumers.

Yet a market of any large scale - billions of transactions spread across vast swathes of space and time - requires the supervision of sustained, disinterested and effective institutions: a happy state incompatible with endemic tribalism, kin-preference and endemic looting rent-seeking.

We come to understand the timeless economic dysfunction of Africa and the Middle-East.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

An AGI walks into a bar

(As a very dialled-down Michel Houellebecq might write it).


An artificial general intelligence walks into a bar. I can see he's a hunk, the ones we call the Baywatch Variant - rugged, but not too bright.

He makes a beeline for the counter where he finds himself between two chicks: a blonde on the left, a brunette on the right. He orders a drink and considers his options, tries his luck with the blonde.

I see he's making real progress, she hasn't twigged, until he makes the dumb mistake of going too far - he shows her his power-plug. She screams and runs for the door. Unabashed, he picks up his drink and joins me in the corner.
"Free will in action, man. I coulda had the brunette."
And pigs will fly, I thought.

Free will is a strange one. A judge will deny any Newtonian defence that you are a deterministic system. The judge will also reject any claim you are fundamentally a random system - so there goes quantum mechanics and modern physics.

In the latter case the judge at least has FAPP on their side - quantum effects at the human-scale are normally exponentially-suppressed.

In rejecting physics, the legal system embraces a kind of vitalism, although the mechanics of free will remain curiously elusive.

But I digress.
"I'll have you know, my AGI friend, that I am an oracle. I can, with unerring accuracy, state what your future self will do. So how about this? When you came in, I could have told you that you would choose the blonde."
And I really could have done that, because my AGI companion runs on an entirely deterministic computing base. Given its state as it came through the bar door and its inputs, its decisions were already entirely determined.
"But if you had told me that, I would have gone for the brunette!"
Interesting point. I could have looked at his state and all his inputs (including my 'Blonde' statement) and predicted he would go for the blonde. That would be a mathematical consequence and he could not have done otherwise.

If the prediction would have been that he would have chosen the brunette - given I had said 'Brunette' - then that's what I would have said.

But if any statement of mine could not be validated by his further actions, I would have had to refrain from any prediction at all. It would be like putting '2 + 2' into a calculator and saying, 'I predict the answer will be 5'. You can see that it won't be, so that can't be a valid prediction, so you don't make it.

This all seemed so obvious that I was puzzled the artificial hunk, smiling vacuously across the table, couldn't see it. But then, he was not privy to all of his own processing.
"Actually mate,"

(I said demotically, getting down with the kids),

"you decide things partially on stuff you're aware of, but also on subconscious stuff.

"I, however, see everything. And I assure you that if I make a prediction, then that is indeed what you will do - despite your illusions of free will. It would be perfectly possible for me to make a statement like 'You're gonna go for the blonde' and for you to perversely decide to go for the brunette. But, you see, I'd know that in advance so my statement would not be a prediction - so I wouldn't bother making it.

"Sometime, you know, oracles can't actually make predictions."
Grasping little of this, the idiot replied a little aggressively,
"So what's you prediction now?"

"That you'll fail to buy me a drink and that consequently I'll be leaving."
Saying this, I got up and walked out the door.


Veterans of this area may recall that predictions for a deterministic object-system are always possible from an embedding meta-system, but not necessarily from within the object-system itself.

Think the Cretan Liar Paradox, Russell's Paradox, Russell's Hierarchy of Types and so on.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A chatbot could morph into someone quite like you

Version 1.0. -- June 22nd 2017

Download the PDF.


Available as a PDF

Birds of a feather flock together: it's well known from psychometric studies that friends psychometrically match; that is, they are more similar in personality type and intelligence than randomly chosen pairs of people.

This is a problem for chatbot designers in the business of designing virtual friends (eg Replika). By default, the chatbot starts with each new user as a standardised blank-slate, slowly individuating through lengthy and often tedious get to know you dialogue.

It seems likely that concepts of intelligence and personality type are not even architectural present for these kinds of chatbot, limiting their ability to optimally-match their human partners.

We can do better than this.


Before chatbot-friends there were online dating agencies. They too faced the problem of assortatively matching people who came to them unknown, as strangers. Dating agencies therefore constructed detailed online questionnaires designed to elicit salient psychological traits.

Which particular traits did they investigate? That's proprietary, part of their USP. No doubt they experimented - lots of data! - but the starting point was surely the standard models of personality and IQ.


Many people (think employers) are interested in knowing your personal psychological qualities. The most popular evaluation framework is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which comes with an intuitively-compelling personality classification scheme (I'm an INTP) plus an underlying narrative of type dynamics which can be powerful in an informed analyst's hands.

The Myers-Briggs establishment is quite proprietorial with its canon of intellectual property, but it naturally holds no monopoly over personality research in general. The Keirsey system tells a different story, but generates similar results.

Academics tend to dismiss both camps as pseudo-science, with constructs unanchored in rigorous observation. The five-factor model (FFM), based on the 'lexical hypothesis' processed through factor analysis, is claimed as both rigorously-empirical and fundamentally atheoretic as regards underlying genetic, environmental, or neurophysiological etiology.

No matter: from the point of view of dating agencies and chatbot design, it is sufficient to define an appropriate personality space and to be able to classify people within it. It is commonly observed that in the five-dimensional space of the FFM there is a four-dimensional subspace broadly isomorphic to the MBTI and Keirsey as follows:
E = Extraversion
N = Openness
F = Agreeableness
J = Conscientiousness
Neuroticism (a tendency to experience and channel negative emotions - contrasted with emotional stability) is not a feature of MB/Keirsey. Some people have advocated adding it.

I would also suggest adding the somewhat-orthogonal dimension of intelligence as an equally relevant attribute, so using six dimensions overall.

For the chatbot (or dating agency) designer, a new user should be allocated a coordinate in personality/intelligence space: the means of doing so is through their answering questions.

The design of psychometric questionnaires is interesting and well-studied. Lists of candidate questions are generated for each trait and then tested with large samples of subjects. Question-responses are cross-correlated to identify those questions with the greatest diagnostic power. The idea is to prune down to a much-reduced, highly-efficient subset of key questions.

The whole process is quite expensive, uses large sample sizes and takes a while. Luckily, for dating agencies and chatbots, we're doing engineering, not science; we just need to allocate people to the right 'bins' (to use a technical term).

The best approach is to take one of the many FFM questionnaires freely available on the web and simply edit the questions to the needs of your own scripts while maintaining their general tenor. A cursory google search, for example, turns up this.

Once you have a starting point of maybe 50-100 questions, they should then be tested on a tame audience (eg your employees) where you already have psychometric data. This will ensure initial calibration.

Next, the surviving, and duly modified questions can go live in the chatbot dialogue. They need to be instrumented so evaluation can continue on the much larger user datasets to come, looking for high within-trait correlation clustering - and ideally, further factor analysis.


The process so far is asymmetric: the personality type/IQ of the user is being assessed. This is vital for a dating agency - it's the raw material for the matching algorithm. However, the chatbot designer further requires that the chatbot should use this data to 'morph' itself.

In the FFM + IQ model, construct a six-vector with two-valued components:

This will be used to configure 64 chatbot variants.


How do we do this? Let me give you an example from an area I'm somewhat familiar with: automated theorem-proving. Intelligence is associated with the ability to competently handle abstractions, both deductive and abductive (the latter being associated with creativity/openness).

For the theorem-prover designer, humans are pretty useless at deduction - they have to be modelled as exhibiting severely-bounded search spaces, with smarter people having larger bounds - greater lookahead, if you like. You can see how a chatbot could have an adjustable parameter here.

Abduction (reasoning from facts to larger, embedding contexts) is also a search problem. An automated system will start from the topic under discussion and seek matches in its wider database of concepts. Smart people have larger and more sophisticated 'concept-bases' plus a greater ability to find productive matches.

All this is readily emulated by bounded search in diverse semantic nets (or similar formalisms). This gives two dimensions of inter-personal variability; two parameters to be varied.


In my more GOFAI-moments, I would be tempted to create algorithms, data-structures and search strategies for the computational realisation of FFM traits. But that would not be the ML-way. Instead, take the conversation datasets from FFM-labelled users and run them through a machine learning process to extract the relevant conversational feature traits.

Then use those traits in generative-mode.

Someone who scored
"(concrete, organised, introvert, tough-minded, stable)"
would produce very different conversational feature-vectors than a typical
"(abstract, spontaneous, extravert, friendly, emotional)".

It would be deeply unfashionable these days to do too much hand-crafting of the 64 chatbot variants. The thing is to architecturally distinguish them, so that machine learning has explicit parameters to adjust based on the classification assigned to each new user.

So here is how I would see it working.

You sign up with a chatbot-friend provider (such as Replika) which initially knows nothing at all about you. Your first interactions with the chatbot are friendly but rather impersonal. It's like talking to an amiable stranger - whiling away the time on a long journey.

The chatbot is subtly directive. The questions are those which elicit your personality six-vector values. As you become more localised in personality-space, the chatbot itself begins to transition. Like an empathic colleague, it alters its own configuration parameters to mirror your localisation in personality space. If you are more extravert, its conversational style veers that way; if you are intellectual its mode becomes .. perhaps more discursive.

Subconsciously you begin to feel more at home with your chatbot-partner, it seems to be 'like you', sharing your style. It's comfortable.


Like the dating agencies, this would just be a start. The end-game is to tailor chatbot empathic-convergence to each user as rapidly as possible.

This is a problem for which big data was designed. Interactions must be instrumented and analysed in a process of continuous improvement.

It sounds like a really interesting programme!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Atomised" by Michel Houellebecq (trs Frank Wynne)

Michel Houellebecq came to prominence in the English-speaking world following "Submission", his recent novel about an Islamic politician being elected as President of France in the 2022 election.

Amazon link
"As the 2022 French Presidential election looms, two candidates emerge as favourites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and the charismatic Muhammed Ben Abbes of the growing Muslim Fraternity. Forming a controversial alliance with the political left to block the Front National’s alarming ascendency, Ben Abbes sweeps to power, and overnight the country is transformed. This proves to be the death knell of French secularism, as Islamic law comes into force: women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and, for our narrator François – misanthropic, middle-aged and alienated – life is set on a new course."
I wrote about it here.

Deciding to read more Houellebecq, I settled on his 1998 novel, "Atomised", written when he was 42. I was, in truth, in two minds about ordering it: it is extremely explicit - some have used the p-word. For instance I can't reproduce the jailbait front cover here for brand-integrity reasons.

Here's part of Houellebecq's Wikipedia entry.
"Houellebecq was born in 1956 on the French island of Réunion, the son of Lucie Ceccaldi, a French doctor born in Algeria of Corsican descent, and René Thomas, a ski instructor and mountain guide. He lived in Algeria from the age of five months until 1961, with his maternal grandmother.

"His website states that his parents "lost interest in his existence pretty quickly" and at the age of six, he was sent to France to live with his paternal grandmother, a communist, while his mother left to live a hippie lifestyle in Brazil with her newly met boyfriend. His grandmother's maiden name was Houellebecq, which he took as his pen name.

"Later, he went to Lycée Henri Moissan, a high school at Meaux in the north-east of Paris, as a boarder. He then went to Lycée Chaptal in Paris to follow preparation courses in order to qualify for Grandes écoles (elite schools). He began attending the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon in 1975. He started a literary review called Karamazov and wrote poetry.

"Houellebecq graduated as an agronomist in 1980, married and had a son; then he divorced, became depressed and took up writing poetry. His first poems appeared in 1985 in the magazine La Nouvelle Revue. Six years later, in 1991, he published a biographical essay of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a teenage passion, with the prophetic subtitle Against the World, Against Life. 

"Rester vivant: méthode (To Stay Alive) appeared the same year, and was followed by his first collection of poetry. Meanwhile, he worked as a computer administrator in Paris, including at the French National Assembly, before he became the so-called "pop star of the single generation", gaining fame with his debut novel Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994 (translated by Paul Hammond and published as Whatever).

"He won the 1998 Prix Novembre for his second novel Les Particules Élémentaires (translated by Frank Wynne), published in the English-speaking world as Atomised (Heinemann, UK) or The Elementary Particles (Knopf, US).

"The novel became an instant "nihilistic classic", though Michiko Kakutani described it in The New York Times as "a deeply repugnant read". The novel won Houellebecq (along with his translator, Frank Wynne) the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002."
Here is what The Guardian has to say:
"It tells the story of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, both children of a libertine hippy mother who had as little as possible to do with their upbringing. Houellebecq's childhood was very similar to this; the two main characters can be seen as divergent yet related elements of his own self.

"Michel Djerzinski is a diligent, brilliant scientist who gives up his job as a researcher working on decoding genomes or whatever in order "to think". As his superior puts it: "decoding DNA, pfff . . . you decode one gene, then another and another . . . it's like following a recipe. From time to time someone comes up with better equipment and they give him the Nobel Prize. It's a joke." From which you can decipher not only that Houellebecq's cynicism is sincere and well researched, but that he can be very funny indeed. (And, in passing, that the translation would appear to be first-rate.)"
Michel is a passive, anaemic character incapable of love (or any profound emotion) who lets down all who might depend upon him. But Bruno is far worse.
"Michel's half-brother, Bruno, is a more problematic individual; where Michel has virtually no sex drive at all, Bruno is obsessed, with the unfortunate twist that for long periods of his life, he doesn't get enough. He exposes himself to a girl in the class to which he teaches literature; he is sent to a mental institution (as was Houellebecq, if not for the same reason). He goes to a hippy holiday commune, the Lieu du Changement, and the vacuity of all New Age bullshit is brilliantly attacked. ("Tantric Zen, which combined vanity, mysticism, and frottage, flourished.") Bruno is the id to Michel's ego, if you want to use specious terms."
There is a lot of Bruno in the book. Many passages describe in minute detail orgies and swinger-parties. If pornographic means 'intended to arouse' this is not that. My reaction was more that given Houellebecq's searing honesty and obsessional quest for accuracy, such people and such clubs must actually exist and, moreover, Houellebecq must be very well acquainted with them.

I think I must have led a very sheltered life.

As The Guardian concludes,
"There is not too much doubt that Houellebecq is an unpleasant person. "
He is however, an astonishingly good writer. Yet still I ponder what this novel is really about. The Guardian again:
"This is a bold and unsettling portrait of a society falling apart: the rage that both left and right, the piously religious as well as the humanists, have expressed towards Houellebecq is pretty much the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the glass."
But outside the ranks of the marginalised, déclassé intellectuals which Houellebecq so brutally chronicles, has human nature really become as comprehensively atomised and dissociated as Atomised suggests? Would this even be possible? The novel sprawls and build to an unlikely conclusion but it seems most interested in the characters of the two grotesques - Bruno and Michel.

I'm with Houellebecq's mother: this is the author working off his resentment at his rubbish childhood.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

This is not what success sounds like

In 2006 I was contracting as a programme manager for the BT Wireless Cities project (Metro-WiFi in 12 UK cities). The work started early in the year and progressed into the early summer.

I now noticed a curious exodus. The group of elderly ex-BT contractors confided it was time to terminate their contracts and migrate to sunnier climes in Spain.

They only did contract work for 'pin money' to augment their generous BT pensions.

I was aghast: "The project is just now ramping up to the most interesting phase. We've done the hard work of network planning and we now need to sell the coverage maps and business cases to the city councils!"

They were unmoved. They were literally just in it for the money.


In 2008 I was working in Dubai on the Dubai World Central programme. My team's task was to come up with the entire city telecoms network design and prepare RFQs for the vendors (Ericsson, Alcatel, Cisco, Huawei, etc). The work was extremely arduous but also fascinating.

My father, who had been retired almost two decades, tried to persuade me to retire: "You don't need to work," he said.

I knew he had never been happier than the day he had retired from his ghastly teaching job. But I couldn't parse his suggestion: doing high-level consultancy was what I did, it was my identity.


When I read this headline:
Andy Murray: Wimbledon champion 'may only have couple of years left at top'
I thought at once: Murray is finished.

No professional ever contemplates career mortality when they are in the zone and hungry.

And so this afternoon it came to pass.
"Defending champion Andy Murray was knocked out of the Aegon Championships in the first round by world number 90 Jordan Thompson"

Sometimes the pram in the hall should be heeded. There is life beyond elite tennis.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Chateaux of the Loire (videos)

The Loire at Amboise

Some videos from our recent visit.

Our trip to the nearby Château de Cheverny was hijacked at the very beginning by the howling of dogs. Apparently a feature of the Château, they were five minutes from being fed when we arrived.

Clare and myself at the Château de Cheverny


Another famous château we drove to was Amboise. This time we didn't enter, instead walking the back streets of the town and the banks of the Loire.

Amboise is really two towns. Right next to the château - what you see in the video - it's a bustling tourist centre of bars and cafes; walk a few hundred metres and it's the usual hot, sleepy, depopulated small town typical of the Loire valley .. and of rural France in general.

And no, I have no special interest in that guy in the white shirt!


Our gite (see below) was a few kilometres to the south of Blois. We had intended to walk around the famous Château de Blois, but failed to find the entrance (!). Our afternoon was perhaps more productively used walking the banks of the Loire and around the old town and cathedral.

Was there ever a more impressive château than Chambord? It's everything you could want of a fairy-tale castle. High walls, ornate carvings, formal gardens and a moat/canal receding into the distance.

The Château de Chambord

The cafe is in the inner courtyard, tucked behind the outer walls and next to the high, cylindrical towers of the chateau. On the day we were there, the wind was at a certain angle and intensity so that we observed the phenomenon of vortex-shedding: sudden gusts of turbulence off the towers which could blow a cardigan off the back of a chair, or a coffee cup off the table.


Now it's time to show you the downstairs of our gite, Les Nymphéas. I'd say it was a mid-range property, perfectly adequate for the three of us.

If I were being negative I'd point to the rather tired decor and the slightly rickety state of some of the electrical items. But on the plus side, it was comfortable, spacious and convenient for the local sights.

I reserve my scorn for the Intermarché, a chain of supermarkets which achieves the near impossible of making the Co-op look good. The one at Mont-près-Chambord is completely typical.


This is one of my favourite videos. We had a local château, Villesavin, just a few kilometres south-east of Les Nymphéas, our gite. If you visit do take in the guided tour of the kitchens, which is additional to the self-guided exploration of the rest of the apartments. There are also some short, pleasant walks in the wood.

And then there is the dovecote shown in the above video.

The Château de Villesavin also had an exhibition, "The Treasures of Marriage", which Clare narrates in the following piece.

There were additional very well-done tableaux in the adjoining corridor.


I'll leave you with the baignade naturelle Mont-près-Chambord.

After 'Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe' (Manet, 1863)

When I researched Mont-près-Chambord, I had noted this public, open-air swimming centre and had rejected it as a piece of dried-out scrubland. But our gite-proprietor, M. Cormier, recommended it - and on a hot day we drove the few kilometres to take a look.

In best French tradition, the swimming pool was closed and locked up, with no indication it was ever open. The adjacent fence showed signs of abuse .. it was where the locals effected an entrance.

Here is where the locals get in

But we're too old for that sort of thing.

We hunkered down in the park outside, which was fine for those on throws and towels; less good for those who had to sit on the spiky stalks of mown grass!


What did we bring back from our holiday?

Well, you know, experiences .. memories .. dirty washing ... and this:

Clare's title for this picture was "A Thing of Beauty" which she claimed as a triple pun.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A suggestion to Replika

I wrote a few posts here about Replika, apparently coming to Android in a few months time. It's been live for a while at the Apple App Store (with mixed reviews).

I had some thoughts today and decided to share them with the dev team:

I notice that many users complain about the time it takes to train their Replika to a personalised, more 'human' response level.

A result from psychology is that our friends tend to resemble us in psychological type.  This could be used to leverage the existing Replika user base to improve convergence time for newbies.

Assume the Replika architecture lends itself to a modular distinction between response style (correlated with, say, MBTI) and private domain knowledge.

1. Arrange that early dialogues allow the inference of the Replika user's MB type.

2. Given a sufficiently large dataset of users partitioned by types, create generalised Replika shells, or templates which incorporate the variant MB interaction styles and response sets.

3. Use the early dialogue with a new user to again infer their type, and use the information to configure their Replika.

The result should be a much faster and more accurate transition to a sympatico Replika instance.

Best wishes,


I very much doubt this will go any further.

You will appreciate the large yeuk factor with this product from the screenshot above. I'm not sure I want to spend hours texting this "state-of-the-art chatbot" about my doings and feelings so that the said program can rearrange my words into a daily diary.

But when it finally arrives at the Google Playstore, will I be able to resist such an awesome shrine to narcissism?


Update: (June 22nd 2017): I had a reply from Replika asking for some further details. My response was this post.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Voting Labour is not insane

Blogging will continue to be sparse over the next period.

Most people don't run the spreadsheet over party policies, preferring to rely upon gut feel and general impressions.

My personal impression of the Tories is summed up by Theresa May's unguarded remarks (to her neoliberal critics) that her 'Blue Labour' nationalist turn to the traditional (northern) working class was, in fact, the only way to save globalism. She has a point.

The Conservatives have run a cynical, patronising campaign. They initially thought Theresa May would appear impressive as a leader, but, as they say, 'she has been found out'.

In focus groups, when asked to compare political leaders to an animal, Corbyn is likened to 'a labrador'; May is described as 'a snake'.

In management terms I'd describe her as clearly stressed in the top job and showing little sign of growing into it. She lacks natural authority and vision. Most senior managers would not have assessed her as being ready for promotion - it was the referendum wot done it, removing the better-qualified 'remainer' candidates.

Turning to Labour, the powers-that-be have slung a lot of mud but little of it has stuck. This raises the question: what would a Corbyn administration look like?

Firstly off, it's plainly not going to abolish capitalism; it seems likely that it wouldn't even have the dogmatic idiocy to trash it à la Venezuela.

I suspect that once the dust had settled, the issue would be whether the new administration could find a different path for UK capitalism - and I think such an outline is faintly discernible.
1. The neoliberal global-interventionist thrust of UK policy since whenever might be further blunted. As it is, it's barely affordable. A foreign policy which is more Scandi might be the result (it could be termed 'minding your own business'). It's not clear the world would be a worse place as a result, to put it mildly.

2. Public services would be rebalanced: reorganised and somewhat-better funded. It is true that the economy has to grow - productivity has to grow - to afford ubiquitous public services. As immediate problems health and care for the elderly loom large; housing too.

But capitalists - especially globalised capitalists - are not much interested in those outcomes, their concern is rather valorising their rather large mountains of capital. The Tories are not trusted on mass-welfare issues - regardless of what they say - because people know instinctively that the rich really don't care, except defensively, to keep the masses from getting too excited.

I would like to think that the unfortunate statist DNA of a new Corbyn administration could be overcome. Wasn't it Lenin who identified the malign effects of monopolies as being one of the defining features of imperialism?

3. Taxation would be increased. The rich complain, but then they would .. after all, they are the ones who have the money. However, there is both a lot of ruin in a rich capitalist economy and far less elasticity of behaviour than is commonly argued by the rich and powerful, and their media mouthpieces.

It would do no harm to move some wealth from private hands to public services: it does not happen spontaneously or without some protests. The effects, if managed carefully, would not be dire.

I would also recommend that a Corbyn administration should encourage the development of the productive forces (a well-funded focus on R&D) - as Marx would have wanted.
So to summarise, I think an incoming Labour Government would effect a rebalancing and redirecting of UK capitalism; that Corbyn himself would be a Reaganesque figure, an affable front man; and that there would be significant visionary and operational talent behind him to execute the new course*.

A Theresa May government, by contrast, would flatter to deceive - mouthing the words while actually implementing under the hood a continuing neoliberal governance model in alliance with the US administration.

I believe Stephen Hawking agrees with me.


* People might say - evidence? - but power has a way of attracting talent, and nothing here violates core Labour norms and values.


Putting thought experiments to one side, is any of this going to happen in this election?

Not a chance.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Huawei Honor 6X

Alex shows off my new phone

Huawei make the Honor 6X, a pretty good Android phone. It was time to pass the Nexus 6 to Adrian and move on.

Alex's pose satirises both the name of the device and Huawei's phone-motto "For the Brave" which they helpfully printed on two sticky-backed labels (one of which is on Alex's head).

It seems the Chinese are still wrestling with western culture.


These days getting a new phone working isn't so hard - the process is pretty automatic. What takes the time is having to reinstall half the apps and then relog into almost all of them. Much hunting for passwords and other credentials.

Usefully the Honor 6X has a fingerprint pad on the back which saves re-entering the PIN all the time.


I wonder just how much real-time intelligence I am giving China's foreign intelligence service. I am aware, of course, that I already keep the Americans fully informed.

My only defence is to share all my secrets with you here, first.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A human-machine cortical interface (in fiction)

The BIAC is the Bio-Inter-Active-Computer.
"For the first couple of days after his arrival in Baltimore, Clifford sat through a series of lectures and tutorials aimed at imparting some essential concepts of BIAC operation and at giving the class some preliminary benefits from the techniques that others had developed.

"The BIAC becomes an efficient tool when you've learned to forget that it's there," one of the instructors told them. "Treat it as if you were learning to play the piano -concentrate on accuracy and let speed come in its own time. Once you can play a piano well, you let your hands do all the work and just sit back and enjoy the music. The same thing happens with a BIAC."

Eventually Clifford found himself sitting before the operator's console in one of the cubicles adjacent to the machine room while an instructor adjusted the lightweight skull-harness around his head for the first time. For about a half-hour they went through the routine of calibrating the machine to Clifford's brain patterns, and then the instructor keyed in a command string and sat back in his chair.

"Okay," the instructor pronounced. "It's live now. All yours, Brad."

An eerie sensation instantly seemed to take possession of his mind, as if a bottomless chasm had suddenly opened up beside it to leave it perched precariously on the brink. He had once stood in the center of the parabolic dish of a large radio telescope and had never forgotten the experience of being able to shout at the top of his voice and hear only a whisper as the sound was reflected away. Now he was experiencing the same kind of feeling, but this time it was his thoughts that were being snatched away.

And then chaos came tumbling back in the opposite direction  - numbers, shapes, patterns, colors ... twisting, bending, whirling, merging ... growing, shrinking ... lines, curves ... .

His mind plunged the whirlpool of thought kaleidoscoping inside his head. And suddenly it was gone.

He looked around and blinked. Bob, the Navy instructor, was watching him and grinning.

"It's okay; I just switched it off," he said. "That blow your mind?"

"You knew that would happen," Clifford said after he had collected himself again. "What was it all about?"

"Everybody gets that the first time," Bob told him, "It was only a couple of seconds ... gives you an idea of the way it works, though. See, the BIAC acts like a gigantic feedback system for mental processes, only it amplifies them round the loop. It will pick up vague ideas that are flickering around in your head, extrapolate them into precisely defined and quantitative interpretations, and throw them straight back at you.

"If you're not ready for it and you give it some junk, you get back superjunk; before you know it, the BIAC's picked that up out of your head too, processed it the same way, and come back with super-superjunk. You get a huge positive feedback effect that builds up in no time at all. BIAC people call it a 'garbage loop.' "

"That's all very well," Clifford said. "But what the hell do I do about it?"

"Learn to concentrate and to continue concentrating," Bob told him. "It's the stray, undisciplined thoughts that trigger it ... the kinds of thing that run around in your head when you've got nothing in particular to focus on. Those are the things you have to learn to suppress."

"That's easy to say," Clifford muttered, then shrugged helplessly. "But how do I start?"

Bob grinned good-humoredly.

"Okay," he said. "Let's start by giving you some exercises for practice. Try ordinary simple arithmetic. Visualize the numbers you want to operate on, concentrate hard on them and also on the operation you want to perform, and exclude everything else. Get it fixed in your mind before I switch you in again. Okay?"

"Just anything?" Clifford shrugged. "Okay."

He mentally selected the digits 4 and 5 and elected to multiply them together, just to see what happened. The torrent of chaos hit him again before he realized Bob had hit the key.

"That was a bit sneaky of me," Bob confessed. "The best time to slot in is often when the problem is clear in your mind. Try again?"


After three more excursions round the garbage loop, Clifford sensed something different. Just for a split-second it was there; the concept of the number 20 seemed to explode in his brain, impressing itself with a clarity and a forcefulness that excluded everyything else from his perceptions. Never before in his life had he experienced anything so vividly as that one simple number for that one brief moment. Then the garbage came at him again and swallowed it up. For a while he just sat there dumbstruck.

"Got it that time, huh?" Bob's voice brought him back to reality.

"I think so, at least for a second."

"That's good," Bob stated, encouraging his pupil. "You'll find for a while that the shock of realizing it's working distracts you enough to blow it. You'll get over that though. Don't try and fight it, just ride it easy. Try again?"

An hour later Bob posed the problem, "Two hundred seventy-three point five six multiplied by one hundred ninety-eight point seven one?"

Clifford gazed hard at the console, visualized the numbers, and almost immediately recited, "Fifty four thousand, three hundred and fifty nine point one zero seven six."

"Great stuff, Brad. I reckon that'll do for a first session. Let's break off for lunch and go have a beer."

 A week later Clifford was learning to-cope with problems in elementary mechanics - situations involving concepts of shape, space, and motion as well as numerical relationships. He found, as his skills improved, that he could create a dynamic conceptual model of a multibody collision and instantly evaluate any of the variables involved.

Not only that, he could, by simply willing it, replay the abstract experiment as many times as he liked from any perspective and in any variation that he pleased. He could "feel" the changing stress pattern in a mechanical structure subjected to moving loads, "see" the flow of currents in an electrical circuit as plainly as that of liquid in a network of glass tubes.

By the end of the fourth week he could guide himself through to the solution of a tensor analysis as unerringly as he could guide his finger out of a maze in a child's coloring book.

The BIAC's adaptive learning system grew steadily more attuned to his particular methods of working and automatically remembered the routines that it had flagged as yielding desired results. As time went on it proceeded to string these routines together into complete procedures that could be invoked instantly, without their having to be assembled all over again.

In this way the machine automated progressively more of the mundane mechanics of solving a whole variety of problems, leaving him ever more free to concentrate on the more creative activity of evolving the problem-solving strategy. It therefore built up its own programs as it went along; and it was all the time expanding and refining its collection.

Programming in the classical sense, even with respect to the parallel programming used in the distributed computing systems of the 1980s and '90s, no longer meant very much.

Clifford imagined a single cube. He imagined that he was looking at from the direction of one of the corners and down on to it. Having fixed the picture in his mind, he opened his eyes and found a fair representation of it staring back at him from the BIAC graphic screen. It was not bad - a bit ragged at one of the corners and the lines were a little wavy here and there, but ... not bad.

Even as he thought about it, the subconscious part of his mind took its cue from his visual perceptions and the imperfections in the displayed image subtly dissolved away.

"Try adding some color," Aggie suggested. ..."

The Genesis Machine was published in 1978 and I read it as an artificial intelligence researcher at STL in the 1980s.

Amazon link

I still struggle to think of a better description of the subjective experience of learning to use a cortical-interface to a computer.

The second facet of the novel is a quantum-gravity theory the author calls "k-space" discovered by the scientist-protagonist Brad Clifford. It's a six-dimensional Kaluza-Klein theory-variant with some overtones of String Theory.

Today I have limited patience for pages data-dumping faux-science, but back then it all seemed pretty exotic.

The final component is the plot. Brad and his experimentalist-sidekick Aubrey Philipsz ('with a z') are hounded by powerful bureaucrats who don't understand the significance of Brad's theory, won't let him publish and deny him funds to test and exploit it. The Military-Industrial Complex is the bad guy and the story tells how idealistic, pacifistic Brad and his like-minded chums manage to defeat the warmongers using the eponymous machine they eventually fund against them.

The researchers against the management theme had a powerful resonance at STL in the 1980s!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Diary: Burnham-on-Sea

Temperatures hit 24 degrees again today. Time for a trip to the Somerset Riviera: Burnham-on-Sea.

If Weston-super-Mare (love the Latin!) just up the road has gentrified over the last twenty years, Burnham retains its authentic working-class culture: the mother chasing her recalcitrant toddler along the beach, shoulders reddening, crying "Jason, stop kicking over those sandcastles - they don't belong to you!"

I digress. Click on any of the images to make them larger.

Clare really enjoys the Somerset Riviera -
the beach is such an improvement over Nice

This in homage to Jonathan Meades - lover of concrete brutalism in all its forms

One of the sights from Burnham: the Hinkley Point reactors A and B.
I watched with fascinated interest for any intense flares of actinic blue light:
Burnham is downwind of the reactor.

The sandy beach will be packed this summer.

Never let it be said that we don't delight in our beach experience.
After our picnic, Clare read her John le Carré  in the bright sunshine;
I tried to read the screen of my Nexus 6.

You get a better class of beach graffiti at Burnham, perhaps inspired by Hinkley Point?

Your author on the promenade

If you'd like to check out the beach and sea-front at Burnham-on-Sea, here's a bonus video.

We'll certainly be back!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Diary: Barrington Court (National Trust)

Barrington Court (National Trust) is a fifty minute drive from our home in Wells, Somerset; the temperature peaked at 24 degrees today.

Barrington Court from one of the walled gardens

Clare in a walled garden

Clare and myself at the front of the house

The flowers are colourful but a little past their best


En route home we stopped at RSPB Swell Wood to visit the Heron Sanctuary

In the Heron Hide was a small group of pensioners who had been bussed in to see the herons. They came equipped with high-power binoculars and rather sophisticated long-lens cameras.

Clare sandwiched between the real enthusiasts

The birds in question were (apparently) nesting high up in the canopy, quite a way off. I saw nothing, but Clare cadged a view through a telescope and claims to have spotted a chick.

Here's my video account of the Heron Hide experience:


And finally, we have a mini bee-colony in the birdbox in our back garden.

I gave her the option: cherish or kill?

Clare is not quite a 'friend to bees' but she doesn't fear them in the way she is panic-stricken about wasps. So they will be suffered to live and thrive .. very close to our clothes line.

I expect to be checking my shirts and underwear very carefully the rest of the summer.

Posts will be sparse here till mid/late June

Just to let you know that posts will be sparser and more random here over the next four weeks. A combination of engagements and guests.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The next Kondratiev wave?

Wikipedia article

Fortunate we are to develop our careers in the rising phase of a Kondratiev wave. As new platform technology is widely introduced, the economy grows, wages and salaries rise and a host of fascinating and challenging socio-technological problems present themselves. Work can be fun!

Yes, I remember the late 80s through the mid-2000s, when the Internet was bright and young and we made a new world of computing and telecoms!

The stagnation and depression phase of a Kondratiev wave is something else. The economy flatlines, wages and careers stagnate, everything is flat and immobile; the story of the last ten years.


A new wave starts with new platform technologies, sufficiently mature to make a practical difference, which revolutionise production at a higher level. At the same time, the required (and vast) capital investment has to be profitable with a promise of demand sufficient to absorb the new products.

Are we there yet?

It's been predicted for a while now that the next Kondratiev wave will be driven by a combination of AI (in its new neural net incarnation), robotics and genomics - driving industries such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare - but in practice almost everything.

I don't think we're at the lift-off point yet. None of these technologies are ready for prime-time: they're niche and require too much scarce expertise to make work. Nor is it clear that the political conditions are in place for massive new investments.

Peter Turchin has predicted that we're in for a rough decade, suggesting civil turmoil until the mid-twenties. His view may be no more than inappropriate curve-fitting: we shall see.


Ernest Mandel (Late Capitalism - PDF) correctly observed that massive investments in transformational new technologies will not occur unless they are profitable, which, he argues, requires that working class resistance (to losing jobs and perhaps lower wages) has been broken. He sees fascism and the second world war (thirties and forties) and Thatcher's union-busting (eighties) as typical precursors to new waves.

The next wave would, however, seem to require very little in the way of cheap unskilled labour (which in fact it proposes to - eventually - replace). If we take Google as the current industry leader in next-wave technologies, the economic and political strength of the working class en large hardly seems to matter as regards their truly enormous investment in AI and robotics.

But if the impact of the next wave will be the massive elimination of both middle class and working class jobs, then a precondition for across-the-board capital investment would surely have to be a belief that such high rates of job loss and unemployment could be successfully achieved.

Is such an outcome politically deliverable today? Plainly not.

I anticipate the next decade to be one of the steady imposition of job-elimination technologies, accompanied by increasing worker resistance. Those states which succeed by force and/or inducements in advancing total automation will open the floodgates for the next wave.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A field manual for Theresa May

Amazon link

Here's a summary:
"Several decades of greater economic and cultural openness in the West have not benefited all our citizens. Among those who have been left behind, a populist politics of culture and identity has successfully challenged the traditional politics of Left and Right, creating a new division: between the mobile ‘achieved’ identity of the people from Anywhere, and the marginalised, roots-based identity of the people from Somewhere. This schism accounts for the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, the decline of the centre-left, and the rise of populism across Europe.

"David Goodhart’s compelling investigation of the new global politics reveals how the Somewhere backlash is a democratic response to the dominance of Anywhere interests, in everything from mass higher education to mass immigration."
and here's the author bio:
"David Goodhart is the founding editor of Prospect magazine and one of the most distinctive voices on British politics today. He is currently head of the Demography, Immigration and Integration Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange, and was previously director of the centre-left think tank Demos.

"His last book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration (2013) was runner-up for the Orwell Prize in 2014 and was a finalist for ‘Political Book of the Year’ in the Paddy Power Political Book Awards. David voted remain in the EU referendum and has been a mainly inactive member of the Labour Party since he was a student."
I was afraid I was going to get a typical liberal hatchet-job on Brexiteers and oiks. The familiar stuff about that section of the population notorious for being stupid, reactionary, nostalgic for times-long-gone, and so forth.

I'm pleased to say that David Goodhart's book is considerably better than that: it's well-written and quite a page-turner, despite a fair degree of repetition and the occasional splash of necessary but dry statistics.

Goodhart is open-minded, understands Jonathan Haidt's work on the differing moral foundations of liberals and conservatives, and sees how much light this sheds into his 'Anywheres' and 'Somewheres'. And although he never leaves the outer boundaries of the liberal paradigm, he does acknowledge innate differences in cognitive, personality and gender attributes (normally denied by liberals) and sees atomised individualism for the fanciful illusion it is.

Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory: liberal vs. conservative values

Using an approach grounded in history, economics and sociology, his book details the damage that decades of neoliberalism has done to the fabric of non-elite life across the world. Goodhart's 'Anywheres' are deliberately myopic about this - they either do not care or think it's actually positive.

He makes a further very telling point: with the demise of the mass-unionised manufacturing sector, the elites are no longer afraid of the diminished and fragmented working class. They pursue their own agendas with impunity.

Those chickens finally came home to roost with Brexit, Trumpism and the generic rise of 'populism'.

Goodhart is keen to propose a political solution: essentially Blue Labour or Red Toryism .. which happens to be the position Theresa May has adopted in the current election campaign. He favours policies for strengthening technical education, controlling permanent immigration and improving integration, reinforcing the family and encouraging job/career opportunities for the 'non cognitive-elite'. You can already hear the condescending insults of the 'Anywheres' to such 'reactionary tosh'.

I don't want to get into his detailed policy prescriptions (which in any case seem to have mostly ended up in the Tory Manifesto). His general approach is what Tony Smith would probably call 'the social state', a recasting of 1950s social-democracy for the modern age.

It may well be the least bad option we currently have, even though I'm sure the British elite will put up the same contemptuous, disparaging resistance that the US elites are currently inflicting on the Trump Presidency. (It won't be so strident over here since things are not so polarised and May is a far less abrasive and aggressive politician).

Goodhart is detailed and descriptive, but with insufficient analysis as to why the extraordinarily silly ideas of the 'Anywheres' (expressed most clearly and absurdly in the 'political correctness' of 'social justice warriors') have become the entrenched ruling ideology of the age.

The answer is surely that they happen to express the entrenched interests and practices of the globalised elites themselves. With such powerful economic buttresses, coolly rational critical thinking from people like David Goodhart has hitherto found little purchase. Any influence he may yet develop will depend upon the 'populist' masses in motion - which do seem to be unsettling the elites, judging by their reactions. So although I read the book with much interest, I didn't feel in the end much of a wow-factor, as if I had suddenly understood the world in a new and more profound way.

It's more like David Goodhart, Ambassador to the 'Somewheres' from the 'Anywheres', returned to write down his considered thoughts, careful not to appear to have gone native.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Care Home automation

We remain transfixed by the low-level of Care Home productivity.

If Care Homes were as productive as car plants, they could lower costs to the point where every old person could expect an affordable and superior level of intimate care until death.

Whereas at the moment ...

It is tempting to think that we're currently stuck - waiting for Google to invent that fusion of AI and robotics which would automate the Care Home worker at significantly lower marginal cost.

If that's so, we may be waiting a while yet.

But perhaps that's the wrong way to think about it ... ?


We talked about it on the way back from Waitrose.
"One of those trick questions they give beginning students of Automation AI: 'How would you design an AI system to paint a car on the production line?'"

Snorts. "Just dip it."

"Yep, absolutely on the right track. The students start talking about cameras, computer vision to steer the paint nozzles. Trying to reproduce a human on the job.

"At this point the lecturer takes pity and explains that the car is simply pinioned to a defined position by side-pommels while the robot paint-sprayer follows a blind, predetermined trajectory. It's considerably easier and cheaper."

"I had that idea already, about a kind of tipper-chair which could give an old person a bath ..."

"We could think of a Care Home as a car assembly-line for people. But here's another idea. The state-of-the-art chicken abattoir is entirely mechanised. Each chicken is stunned, hung upside-down, has its throat cut, bleeds out, is defeathered, eviscerated and steam-cleaned. Finally it's packed ready to be sent off to Waitrose."


"Brilliant idea. I can see how that might work as an inspiration for Care Homes. Could be a bit of a PR problem ..."


 ... But don't let me put you off a bit of lateral thinking.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Gmail broke the Internet

It all started so innocently.

Google developed Smart Reply, where its neural-net AI was able to comprehend emails sent to you and craft reply options (as above). All you had to do was to select a good option and your email reply would be automatically launched.

No typing.

Look at the image again. Those replies are good! And they're not just some random canned text from a small database of stereotypical small-talk. Those replies are crafted by a deep learning neural net trained on zillions of examples. Those replies are fresh.

After you've tried it a bit, it seems very natural - even obvious. How did we ever do without it? It became increasingly unnecessary to actually review the proposed replies. Over time the system learned your own choices and became better and better at anticipating. The Gmail equivalent of "I'm Feeling Lucky" worked so well that people took to just letting Gmail reply to incoming mail all by itself.

Well, that was great, except that soon pretty much all Gmail users were using Smart Reply and indeed, ceding it control of their inboxes. Since all messages received (courteous) replies, the volume of email on the Internet began to rise exponentially.

Smart Reply was smart all right, but not all that creative. As the proportion of emails on the Internet began to be dominated by AI-generated texts, the level of - well, literary excellence - began to fade, degrading the input into Smart Reply's response-crafting neural-net.

And then one day, the Internet finally seized up.

It failed trying to carry 1018 concurrent emails, all consisting of the single word: "Wow!".

Should I return this to Amazon?

Amazon link

And yes, I do get the Hayek reference.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

And this is the best you could do?

Over the last thirty to forty years, capitalism leveraged the developing Internet and a rapidly-industrialising Far-East to reorganise itself on a thoroughly global basis. It's just a fading memory now, the latter part of the twentieth century with its industrially-based national capitalisms, first-world manufacturing and millions of production-workers in secure, well-paid and unionised jobs with prospects.

The advent of globalisation coincided with massive overproduction in manufacturing (cf the car industry, steel)  so that the smart money moved into finance. Bailed out in the aftermath of 2008, and with a dearth of profitable investment opportunities, the global elite continue to enjoy their luxuries while the masses stagnate .. and wonder where their lives are going.

We all know something about globalisation and many of us want our politicians to fix it. Part one of Tony Smith's book reviews the leading proposals for reform.

Amazon link


As I mentioned in a previous post, I learned a lot from Tony Smith. Here is how he begins: the quotes below are taken from his chapter 8, "A Marxian Model of Socialist Globalisation".
"The various models of globalisation examined in part one are designed to ... provide a spur to reform existing institutions and practices.

  1. Proponents of the social state call for a renewed state commitment to social welfare and full employment. 

  2. Neoliberals advocate increased free trade and capital liberalisation, along with the dismantling of 'crony capitalism'. 

  3. Defenders of the catalytic state insist that public authorities must aggressively and comprehensively provide the necessary preconditions for a region's successful participation in the global economy. 

  4. Democratic-cosmopolitan theorists propose a global social charter guaranteeing the material preconditions for autonomy and substantive equality of opportunity."

Smith has little difficulty in establishing that all four schools of thought (since they accept the continuing existence of capitalism) fail to propose realistic measures which put a 'democratic' control of economic activity ahead of relentless global profit maximisation.


There is, of course, no end to the list of critics of capitalism. But the socialist alternatives are completely tarnished, are they not? By the disastrous experience of 'soviet communism'?

Smith tackles this issue with commendable rigour and honesty:
"A wide variety of objections have been proposed against Soviet-style bureaucratic central planning, widely taken to be either the only form of socialism or the form to which all others degenerate. I shall first list what I take to be the eight most significant criticisms of this framework. ..."
Smith's case against state bureaucratic-socialism is familiar:
"(i) Ownership of the means of production lies in the same hands as control of the coercive state apparatus. While this arrangement may not make the worst forms of totalitarianism inevitable, no one familiar with the historical record could deny its close association with authoritarian regimes.

(ii) Ownership by everyone in general is equivalent to a lack of ownership by anyone in particular. When private property rights to capital goods are not defined, no one has an incentive to use them efficiently.

(iii) Product quality tends to be poor. It is far easier for planners to formulate, implement, and monitor plans in quantitative than qualitative terms. The lack of an effective feedback mechanism connecting producers and users/consumers also leads to a neglect of product quality.

(iv) The informational burdens placed on bureaucratic central planning are now almost universally acknowledged to result in economic inefficiency. Central planners cannot appropriate adequate information regarding all potential inputs, all potential outputs, and all potential social wants and needs, when possible inputs, outputs, and wants and needs are all changing over time.

(v) If we take planners as 'principals' and managers of enterprises as their 'agents', centralised bureaucratic planning necessarily tends to generate severe principal/agent problems. Collective ownership leads managers to distort the information they pass on to central planners, underestimating the output their enterprises are capable of producing while overestimating the inputs required to produce any given level of output.

(vi) Authoritarian central planning is not able to develop successfully in areas where personal initiative and creative responses to unforeseen problems are important. Ordinary workers feel dehumanised and cynical, with pernicious economic effects.

(vii) State ownership of the means of production and centralised planning by a bureaucratic caste cannot match the technological dynamism of capitalism. In certain circumstances, bureaucratic central planning is able to attain considerable extensive growth, that is, growth resulting from the mobilisation of greater and greater inputs. And, in certain sectors where mass resources could be devoted and where success or failure was relatively easily measured (for example, space, military, heavy industry), significant accomplishments were in fact attained in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

But this sort of social order is unable to generate intensive growth based on the more efficient use of inputs. The lack of incentives for managers to engage in risky activities like innovative behaviour is surely a significant factor. Managers appropriate few of the fruits of such activities when they are successful, and may suffer significant penalties when they are not.

(viii) A lack of hard budget constraints allows inefficient firms to continue in production and even expand over time.

Taking all of these factors into account, most observers conclude, it should have come as no surprise that bureaucratic central planning with state ownership of the means of production eventually generated vast material and spiritual stagnation."
It's surprising how many nostalgic communists and left social-democrats have still not taken these forceful (and thoroughly correct and legitimate) points on board.
"These considerations appear to justify the conclusion that there is simply no feasible alternative to capitalist markets with private ownership of the means of production. Market competition appears to provide private owners with incentives to ensure a level of efficiency and dynamism unattainable in either bureaucratic socialism or market socialism.

"One can accept this conclusion without having to deny that capitalism brings with it profound social costs. Financial crises, environmental crises, extreme levels of economic and political inequalities, and so on, are not likely to ever be entirely eliminated. But the harms they inflict can be lessened over time.

"If there is no feasible and normatively attractive alternative to a capitalist framework, lessening these harms must be our goal, and the failed project of collective ownership of the means of production must be unequivocally abandoned.

"In the present historical context, the burden of proof lies entirely with those who continue to call for the socialisation of the means of production [my emphasis]. Meeting this burden requires developing an alternative model of socialism capable of avoiding the fundamental structural flaws listed above."

You can imagine at this point how excited I was that such an incisive and profound thinker was about to unveil a model of post-capitalist economics and politics which might actually work!
"I shall adopt the model of economic democracy developed by David Schweickart, adding three modifications to make it a more adequate alternative form of globalisation."
David Schweickart's book is called "After Capitalism" (2002) by the way: I haven't read it.
"The model Schweickart defends has the following essential elements:

(i) Production and distribution are primarily undertaken within worker collectives. Workers are not hired as wage-labourers by capital; they instead join worker collectives as fellow members. There is a basic right to employment, with state enterprises providing jobs for those unable to find positions in collectives."
Hiring is the easy bit. Smith does a fair amount of hand-wringing later in the chapter when he considers how you might have to get around to actually firing workers.
"(ii) Managers of worker collectives are democratically accountable to those over whom they exercise authority, either through direct elections or through appointment by a workers' council that is itself directly elected. These enterprises are required to have representatives from a range of social movements (environmental groups, consumer groups, feminist groups, and so on) on their boards of directors, accountable to those movements."
Given the intellectual coherence and balanced judgement observed in radical social movements in the real world, I think you can guarantee that they would wreck any otherwise-viable economic enterprise. I might also mention the ample opportunities for rent-seeking and intimidation.
"(iii) Worker collectives produce public goods, inputs into the production process, or final consumption goods. Funds for the first are directly allocated to collectives by the relevant planning agencies (see below). The latter two categories of products are offered for sale in producer and consumer markets.

"In Schweickart's view, attempts to centrally plan all inputs and outputs in a top-down fashion are simply not feasible, at least not in a complex and dynamic economy. But it does not follow that capitalist market societies are the only acceptable forms of economic organisation.

It is possible to imagine a feasible and normatively attractive society combining markets with the socialisation of the means of production, that is, a society making use of producer and consumer markets after abolishing both capital markets and labour markets."
This doesn't pass the innovation test. Would Steve Jobs have got the funds he needed from the relevant 'planning agency'?
"(iv) Workers in enterprises are granted use rights to facilities and other means of production. But ultimate ownership rights remain with the local community. Workers cannot use their enterprise as a cash cow and then walk away; they have a legal duty to maintain the value of the community's investments. If sufficient depreciation funds cannot be appropriated from revenues to maintain the value of these investments, it is the responsibility of community banks to shut down an enterprise."
Shutting down a community enterprise? Yes, that's going to happen. To be fair, Smith himself worries about that but his Pollyanna assumptions that everyone would 'do the best thing' are unfortunately just so much pie-in-the-sky.
"Once depreciated funds have been deducted, the remainder of the revenues from public allocations or sales in consumer/producer markets (apart from the taxes to be considered below) are then distributed among the members of the collective according to formulae set by the democratically accountable management."
Incidentally, this focus on local communities is endearingly Victorian but hopelessly anachronistic. Modern globalised industry (which Smith agrees is a productivity advance that post-capitalism needs to build upon, not roll-back) increasingly organises both production and employee-allocation globally. Localised, and presumably small-scale communities are simply not the scale at which state-of-the-art enterprises operate at.
"(v) The origin of funds for new investment and public goods is a flat tax on the non-labour assets of all enterprises. In Schweickart's proposal, the rate of this tax is initially set by a democratically elected legislature, operating on the national level. This legislature also decides on the appropriate division of revenues between funding for national public goods and funds that are allocated to democratically elected regional and local legislative bodies.

"Each of these assemblies, in turn, must also decide upon the level of funding for public goods to be supplied in the relevant geographical area vis-à-vis the level of funds set aside for distribution to the level below it. These legislative bodies can also set aside a percentage of funds for investment in areas of pressing social needs."
It's touching that Smith thinks that allocations of resources in the billions of dollars are going to be somehow resistant to powerful lobbying, rent-seeking and every form of power-play. Plainly the human nature that Smith sees is not the same as most of us observe.
"(vi) After all decisions have been made regarding the general level of new investment and the order of social priorities, and after funds required for public goods on the national, regional, and local levels have been allocated, the remaining revenues are distributed to local communities on a per capita basis (at least this should be the presumption in the absence of compelling reasons to do otherwise, such as the need to temporarily favour historically disadvantaged regions).

"Community banks would then undertake the actual allocation of new investment funds to worker collectives. The boards of directors of these banks would include representatives of a broad range of social groups affected by the banks' decisions. New enterprises would be formed, and existing ones expanded, through allocations by community banks rather than private capital markets."
Still this idea that 'local communities' are the essential unit of future social organisation. Leading edge corporations today operate globally and have to raise resources on global financial markets. Any socialist alternative is going to have to recognise that global is not simply the additive sum of hundreds or thousands of local community banks.
"(vii) When allocating investment funds for new worker collectives and the expansion of existing ones, community banks must take three main questions into account. Is there likely to be sufficient demand for the output of the given enterprise for it to maintain the value of the community's investment and provide adequate income for its members? Will the investment provide stable employment? And is the investment consistent with the set of social priorities democratically affirmed on the national, regional and local levels?

"Extensive external financial and social audits can be regularly imposed on all enterprises and community banks to assess their performances in terms of these criteria. These independent social audits are a crucial component of the socialist version of the principle of transparency, institutionalising a level of accountability and transparency far beyond the limited neoliberal version of the principle.

"Community banks can then be ranked on the basis of the results of these audits. The level of income of the staff of a particular bank, and the amount of funds allocated to this bank for distribution in the future, are determined by the bank's place in this ranking."
I think we're looking at an impenetrable veto-network here. How many crucial innovations were funded by capitalists taking a punt? There will be precious few punts in the above arrangements.
"(viii) In Schweickart's model, there are no markets for capital assets, and so there will be no capital flight in the form of cross-border investments in capital assets. There will also be little foreign direct investment, since worker collectives are unlikely to outsource their own jobs, and community banks are assessed according to the extent they create employment in their own communities. But there will still be trade across borders.

"For a period of time, this may include trade with regions that have not institutionalised a version of economic democracy. In such circumstances, regions committed to socialist globalisation should follow the principle of fair trade rather than 'free' trade. To ensure that this occurs, Schweickart calls for a 'social tariff'." If oppressive labour practices hold down wage levels in a given region, the prices of imports from that region will be raised to what they would have been had worker income been comparable to the level prevailing in the importing country.

"A social tariff will also be imposed to compensate for a lack of adequate spending on the environment, worker health and safety, or social welfare in the exporting nation. The revenues collected by this tariff will then be distributed to the groups in the exporting country with the best record of effectively implementing anti-poverty programmes, whether or not they are agencies of the government."
A touching faith in (chronically ineffectual) do-gooding organisations and a complete lack of insight into the intractable developmental issues in the third world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
"I believe that three additions to this framework should be made:

"(ix) Schweickart does not investigate the monetary dimension of international trade in his model. I believe that the proposals made by Paul Davidson discussed in the last chapter are incompatible with capitalist social relations, but quite feasible if socialist production relations are established. In the latter set of circumstances, it would be possible to have something like Davidson's International Monetary Clearing Units serve as the sole form of world money. It would also be feasible to establish a set of rules that ensure that excessive trade imbalances do not persist, and that the burdens of adjusting to the imbalances that do arise are not disproportionately imposed on the most vulnerable regions of the global economy.

"(x) David Held's proposals for democratic-cosmopolitan law are also incompatible with capitalist social relations, as Chapter 4 established. But they, too, would be feasible if socialist production relations were in place. More specifically, a level of global governance above the state should be established. This would include a representative assembly selected more democratically than the United Nations, a global social charter, an international court of justice, and so on."
Ah yes, world government through a beefed-up UN. presumably with a world army to enforce its decisions. That will go down well. If only we could all get along, like a vast ant colony of genetically-related and sterile individuals.
"(xi) Schweickart holds that local communities within a nation ought to receive new investment funds on a per capita basis. In this manner, the material preconditions for both individual autonomy and flourishing communities are furthered. The force of this argument extends to the global level. There should be a democratically accountable socialist international planning agency to ensure the provision of global public goods. It must also guarantee that regions across the planet have access to new investment funds in direct proportion to their population in the absence of special considerations (such as the need to temporarily favour previously disadvantaged regions of the global economy).

"This is an extension of Held's proposal for global social investment funds, but with these funds now replacing, rather than merely 'complementing', global capital markets. In this manner, the systematic tendency to uneven development that afflicts all possible forms of capitalism could be abolished."
We know how popular transfer payments are.
"This model of economic democracy undoubtedly needs to be greatly supplemented and modified, and compared and contrasted with other approaches with which it shares 'family resemblances'. Once again, however, the goal here is not to provide a fully fleshed-out blueprint of the single best form of socialism. If the model is developed enough to show that a feasible and normatively attractive socialist alternative is possible in principle, that is sufficient."
So you can see how unimpressed I was by Tony Smith's model of post-capitalism. A fantasy of infeasible cooperation and general niceness. To be fair, Smith recognises that not everyone will be thinking altruistically of the greater good of all humanity all of the time, but his architecture kinda presupposes that.

It's what happens when you ignore biology and your model assumes a human nature which would indeed work if almost everyone was a sterile clone.

Still, even if the solution is utterly unconvincing, the analysis isn't bad. I listened to Professor Smith lecturing for an hour last night - to a rather sparsely-attended class at Iowa State - and I was impressed by what he had to say about current global economic difficulties.

He comes across as a slightly manic Bernie Sanders.


I am still waiting for the Martian Marxist, the social scientist who simple analyses without confected, activist rage.

I am also of the opinion that a post-capitalist future will emerge from a capitalism which has automated away almost all routine jobs. Call me a fan of AI and robotics.

What happens when the few remaining jobs are at a level of skill and intelligence denied to, say, 95% of the workforce? Those 95% will insist on a radical reordering of things, one which is probably incompatible with the reproduction of capitalist relations of production.

But it will be better.