Saturday, July 29, 2017

The modern Panopticon

Janice Turner from The Times today interviews Maria Miller, the (Conservative) Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee.

The article: "How do you solve a problem like men in women’s changing rooms, Maria?"
"Maria Miller gathers up her handbag and makes to leave: “I don’t think I’m happy about this. I think I’ve finished . . . I didn’t realise this was such a stitch-up.

I’ve been questioning Ms Miller about a report on transgender rights she produced last year as chairwoman of the women and equalities committee. ...

"The heart of the controversy is the view, espoused by Ms Miller’s report, that switching gender should instead merely be a matter of “self-definition”. A man need only “declare” that he is a woman. Your gender is what you feel it to be: there would be no requirement even to take female hormones or have surgery — about 70 per cent of trans women still have intact male genitals — or even “present” as a woman to be legally female. ...

"Furthermore, if the law changes, “gender identity” is likely to become a protected characteristic under equalities legislation: ie if you deny a person is a woman or a man when they claim to be, you are guilty of discrimination or hate crime. ...

"Take this scenario: a man enters a female communal changing area, removes his clothes while women get undressed. Now they have a right to ask him to leave. Under gender self-definition, if he said “I identify as a woman” he would be entitled to stay. This, I stress, is unlikely to be a trans woman — many who use women’s changing rooms every day with discretion and no fuss — but could be a sexual predator exploiting the loophole. (There have been a growing number of cases in the US, including a man in Seattle using women’s pool facilities claiming “the law has changed, I have a right to be here”.) Does Ms Miller not see why women fear a conflict of rights? ...

"I show her a photograph of a bearded, male-born American called Danielle Muscato who dresses in men’s suits and ties, has made no attempt to transition but nonetheless “identifies as female” and insists on living in a women’s homeless shelter. On International Women’s Day he tweeted: “Some women have penises. If you’re bothered by this, you can suck my dick.” ...

"In Toronto, Christopher Hambrook claimed to be a trans woman to access a refuge then raped residents."

These spaces carry out a risk assessment before individuals are allowed to use them and those that pose a risk to safety are not necessarily one gender.

"But 90 per cent of violent crime and 98 per cent of sexual crime is committed by men. Trans women, such as Davina Ayrton, who raped a 15-year-old girl, have been convicted of offences seldom committed by natal females. Would self-identification mean these crimes would be registered as committed by women, skewing the figures? ...

"Sport is another problematic area: self-identification could destroy women’s competitions, allowing former-men with greater musculature and testosterone to dominate. In New Zealand a weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard, has broken national records; in Canada the mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq dominated for years."

Those are already issues that professional bodies have to deal with. And again that is something which needs to be looked at in significant detail.

"I ask her about school sports. In Connecticut Andraya Yearwood, a male-bodied, moustachioed 15-year-old trans girl, has won state championships although she would have finished last in the boys’ competition. Does Ms Miller think this fair to the girl athletes?"

Well, I think it’s a bit of a difficult one to answer because boys are not going through gender reassignment when they’re at school.

"But what would you say to the girls who lost?"

It’s a very difficult one to answer . . .”

Walking along a country lane this morning I discussed this with Clare.

"This thing could run a long way. For example, I could claim to be a toddler and demand the right to join an infant play area. If someone objected that I'm a sixty six year old male, could they be open to the accusation of hate crime?"

"Don't worry," she said, "No-one can hear you here."


Would you like to know more?

The mediaeval belief that God saw all thoughts & actions was a powerful force for conformity.*

In a more secular age, it's good to know that our technology will soon step into the breach.


* Part II .. and related (SSC).

Friday, July 28, 2017

Smart pets? An *obvious* spinoff ...

From Steve Hsu today at Information Processing:
"Work on cognitive enhancement will probably be done first in monkeys, proving Planet of the Apes prophetic within the next decade or so :-)"
Many (most?) of the alleles implicated in superior cognitive functioning will doubtless have other physiological effects. This 'multiple and diverse impact' of genes is called Pleiotropy.

For this reason - when we have a list of the relevant IQ alleles - we would be ill-advised to shift into genome-editing mode and just flip all those genes to their 'enhancement' variants.

Naturally, there'll be loads of research first on mice, monkeys (expensive) and .. cats.


Contra Wittgenstein, I may yet share my life with a truly biologica Aineko before I die.


(Nothing worse than being incessantly nagged by an entitled creature which believes itself master or mistress of the universe and which additionally possesses claws).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Diary: Paris

Paris for the final stage of the Tour de France, street wandering and atmosphere.

Sunday morning before Mass at Notre Dame
Map-checking at the Père Lachaise Cemetery

I had compiled a Père Lachaise list: painters, poets, musicians, politicians and the odd surrealist. We had a map - trouble is, Père Lachaise is dense with graves and without signposts. Probably there's a GPS app but I skipped the research. We found nothing but enjoyed the walk.

Neither Clare nor myself found any of our targets

The Pyramide du Louvre from the Tuileries Garden


Our hotel was the 123 Sébastopol - at 123, Boulevard de Sébastopol 75002 Paris. A smart hotel pioneering early gentrification of a shabby neighbourhood, ethnically mixed between sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans and poor ethnic-European French. The streets were pretty crowded and it was plainly not a tourist area. It was, however, close and walkable to central Paris.

And not without interest.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Services I wish I could buy: Vengeance Ltd

It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio
.. and there again ..
A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man.

We all like travelling in foreign parts, but let's face it, some of them are pretty dire.

Not all of us can afford, or would want to be accompanied by, a phalanx of bodyguards. So let's think about this: why would some random bad guys in a bad part of the world not want to rob you and leave you for dead?

If they could.

I think what might stop them is fear of retribution, so let's give them some good reasons.

Vengeance Ltd recruits former special forces and top operational support guys. As a client, you are required to carry at all times audio/video sensors plus GPS tracker. All this stuff is linked in real time to their HQ.

You also wear a somewhat conspicuous "V" badge and carry a Vengeance Ltd laminated card. They want the bad guys to know you're a client.

If the worst happens, there's not much they can do in medias res. They're not bodyguards.

Vengeance Ltd - helping out with your perfect holiday

The clue is in the name. They will relentlessly hunt down and bring terminal retribution to your assailants. They do not give up. The few times they had to do this were quite well-publicised: they have a good rep.

I think you would feel quite protected - and as a volume business, their rates are quite affordable.


Did I mention the heart-rate monitor? It can be quite difficult, instrumentation-wise, to distinguish between a holdup and an episode of passion. That's when they need to cross-check the video feed. They say it's all done by a real smart AI ... so no worries then.


For experts, this is an example of bourgeois commodification of pre-capitalist naturalistic social relations. Or in English, everyone used to belong to a clan or a tribe. If someone did you harm, your kinfolk would serve out retribution.

But for capitalism to work properly, we had to dispense with the clans ...

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Diary: what I'm reading

Books (on the Kindle) I'm currently reading:

Amazon link

An economist who can write well and who knows that markets require a plethora of institutions to make them work. Harder globally than nationally.

Unfailing interesting, and passes the 'ring of truth' test.


Amazon link

Razib Khan spoke warmly of this book, although warning it was heavy going. Really??

Martin Jay documents that intellectual commune of mostly German-Jewish left-intellectuals trying to figure out why the proletariat stubbornly refused to deliver the promised utopia-bringing revolution.

Like most people with a Marxist background, I tangentially knew about the Frankfurt School - especially via Marcuse - but never got around to actually engaging with Critical Theory.


Amazon link

Flagged critically as one of the better Jack Reacher thrillers, this seemed ideal to read to Clare after dinner.

As well as having a Jack Reacher haircut I share his interest in the blues.

I was sufficiently motivated to consider the best electric blues rendition of "Born under a Bad Sign" and listened carefully to Cream's famous version. But John Bonamassa is my favourite.


"Supermind" is on order!

Friday, July 21, 2017

More about METI

From Centauri Dreams today:
"I want to commend Johnson’s piece, which is titled “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us).” As you can fathom from the title, the author is looking at our possible encounter with alien civilizations in terms not of detection but of contact, and that means we’re talking METI — Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. "
The thing to worry about is not so much 'messaging' as 'meeting'. It's forever interesting to watch liberal propensities overwhelm scientific understanding wherever a warm, glowing chink can be found. Assuming Frank Drake was not misquoted in Johnson’s piece, this is what he said:
"Drake leaned forward, nodding. ‘‘It raises a very interesting, nonscientific question, which is: Are extraterrestrial civilizations altruistic? Do they recognize this problem and establish a beacon for the benefit of the other folks out there? My answer is: I think it’s actually Darwinian; I think evolution favors altruistic societies. So my guess is yes. ..."
The magic is in the word 'altruistic'. Social creatures are altruistic within the limits of kin and reciprocal altruism, and - when human - can sometimes be persuaded to interpersonal neutrality on larger scales, when their personal, family & friends' interests are not adversely affected (so nation states and empires).

But in general? If you're a bug and you annoy me, you'll get squashed.

How could an 'altruistic' approach to biological competitors ever be selected for?

One writer who really understands where Darwinian evolution actually leads you is Liu Cixin. You should read the extended excerpt here .. but this is a flavour:
"The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care.

"The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there's only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.

"In this forest, hell is other people; an eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It's the explanation for the Fermi Paradox."
Any sufficiently advanced alien society would care about humanity about as much as we care about a local wasp nest. Sometimes we let it survive, because it's in our interests that the wasps do their thing (pest control) - which benefits us.

Other times, not so much.

And in this, we are not being backward, or under-evolved, or lacking civilizational maturity which future generations will fix. We are simply being optimally rational.

If we do meet those aliens any time soon - and given our woeful interstellar capabilities we would be the technologically inferior party - we should hope that, like the wasps, our existence adds some value for them.

Meanwhile I would hold off on all that signallin' and hollerin'.


Update: I'm not the only one with concerns.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Diary: exercise today

Weight this morning: 10 stone 10.4 pounds (68.2 kg) - admittedly after a 5:2 fast yesterday.

After five minutes on the exercise bike and some floor exercises (press ups, bicycle crunch, plank) I pioneered a new two mile run from the house, up the Mendips and back. Took 21 minutes and I wasn't pushing it. A good target would be 18 minutes - parts are quite steep.

Finished off with an abbreviated weights programme.

Finally had my hair buzz-cut - thanks Clare! - which in terms of reducing weight I maybe should've had done before I left the house.  😏

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Super-intelligence: A. E. Van Vogt - "Asylum"

Another SF short story which made an impression on me as a young teen. I was fascinated by this graphic description of what reality would be like to someone of immense intelligence.

The observer here, apparently a reporter named Bill Leigh, suddenly discovers he is actually the personality overlay of a covert 'Great Galactic' operative .. with an IQ of 1,200!

"The room and the girl in it changed, not physically, but subjectively, in what he saw, in the details.

Details burned at him; furniture and design that a moment before had seemed a flowing, artistic whole, abruptly showed flaws, hideous errors in taste and arrangement and structure.

His gaze flashed out to the garden, and in instants tore it to mental shreds.Never in all his existence had he seen or felt criticism on such a high,devastating scale.

Only - Only it wasn't criticism. Actually. The mind was indifferent. It saw things. Automatically, it saw some of the possibilities; and by comparison the reality suffered.

It was not a matter of anything being hopelessly bad. The wrongness was frequently a subtle thing. Birds not suited, for a dozen reasons, to their environment. Shrubs that added infinitesimal discord not harmony to the superb garden.

The mind flashed back from the garden; and this time, for the first time, studied the girl. On all Earth, no woman had ever been so piercingly examined. The structure of her body and her face, to Leigh so finely, proudly shaped, so gloriously patrician - found low grade now.

An excellent example of low-grade development in isolation.That was the thought, not contemptuous, not derogatory, simply an impression by an appallingly direct mind that saw - overtones, realities behind realities,a thousand facts where one showed. There followed crystal-clear awareness of the girl's psychology, objective admiration for the system of isolated upbringing that made Klugg girls such fine breeders; and then - Purpose!"

Here's a summary of 'Asylum'.
" two fugitive Dreeghs – energy vampires that suck blood and use energy – land on Earth. They are in dire need of blood and attack two humans right away to restore themselves. They then bury their spaceship under a New York restaurant where they dwell.

The murders shock the people on earth because murder is almost unheard of since Dr. Ungarn – currently residing on an asteroid near the Jupiter moon of Europa – devised serum to rid most of mankind of its murderous impulses. The story is investigated and reported by one of the world’s most recognized reporters – Bill Leigh. Soon after the publication of his article, he is invited by a stranger to his favorite New York restaurant to dine in a private room.

Leigh arrives and soon is joined by a young woman who hastily takes him through a secret door to a subterranean chamber where the Dreeghs are living. The young woman confronts them and warns the Dreegh that Earth is to be left alone. As a lower, fugitive race, the Dreegh will be dealt with most harshly.

Leigh is stunned and isn’t sure how to report this story and make it believable. But before he can, he is kidnapped by the Dreegh who use their mental powers to convince him to travel to the asteroid where Dr. Ungarn lives to destroy him and his daughter. The Dreegh suspect that the Ungarns are agents of the Great Galactics who will prevent them from settling and taking over Earth.

Leigh manages to hitch a ride on the freighter that routinely transports supplies to Dr. Ungard’s laboratory near Jupiter with no idea what his real intentions are, other than to find the girl who he met on Earth that he is sure is Patricia Ungard. They arrive on the asteroid and just as they are meeting with the Ungards, the two Dreegh arrive and capture them. They inform the group that more Dreegh are on the way and that this vanguard against their invasion of this solar system will be destroyed.

As the Dreegh prepare to draw the life force out of their three victims, a powerful mental force awakens in Leigh and he is able to slay the Dreegh before they can harm Patricia or her father. He is then contacted by a higher intelligence that informs him that he has never really been Bill Leigh, reporter. He learns that it is he who is one of the supreme beings of the Great Galactics. Leigh, unable to comprehend all this, jumps into a small space shuttle and flees to earth."
"Asylum" is better known as the first part of A. E. Van Vogt's "fix-up" novel "Supermind", which postulated  "... on an IQ curve that would include humans, Kluggs, Lennels and Dreeghs, the respective averages would be 100, 220, 380, and 450 ... ".

Sadly not available on Kindle.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Those predatory trees

Do you remember Tyntesfield (National Trust), just to the south of Bristol? Rumours of those special trees, augmenting their nutrient-poor soil with richer pickings from visitors?

This is Tyntesfield: Victorian-Gothic foreboding

We know we're already too close to the trees

Now maneuvering around Clare

They're quite slow-moving and we were alert after our picnic yesterday, so able to effect an escape.

I pity the old folk though.


We wandered the grounds of Tyntesfield and stopped at the tea-shop, surrounded by most of Bristol's young mums with their toddlers and strollers.They were all speaking way too loud and hollerin' out to their kids.
I said to Clare,
"Do you think she knows that was Jesus's name in Aramaic?"
Clare thought she would know that.


My sister observed:
"Not Joshuawl?"
"Is that the John Wayne joke? That at the rehearsal for “The Greatest Story Ever Told’, The Duke, playing the Roman soldier who speared Jesus on the cross, said rather flatly: “Truly he was the son of God”.

The director said: “Not like that, say it with awe!”

"Obligingly Wayne repeated his line: “Aw, truly he was the son of God.”

John Wayne with a Bristol accent would certainly be an additional joy!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Lifelogging --- aargh!

In 1980 we lived in the delightful Slough-by-the-M4 in a small apartment next to a canal, adjacent to the bridge which carried traffic over it. A delightful condensate of particulates would drift across our tiny garden, mixing with odours from the water.

Here's Clare in our 1980 garden - canal to her right, roadbridge behind her

As an application programmer, it was here that I wrestled with my career choices. Specialise as a systems programmer (remember those?) or go up the stack into formal specification languages? My choice of the latter was easy - I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poring over other people's operating system code.


When my parents died, I inherited their digital estate of 5.27 GB, much of it photos. Those have joined my Google Photos dataset where they occasionally confuse me. But as to the rest - well, I never really got around to delving.

By the time I die, I expect my own footprint to exceed 100 GB, much of it video but with plenty of documents.

Hands up those who want to check it out.


There are people called lifeloggers - they ' typically wear computers in order to capture their entire lives, or large portions of their lives'.

Who is going to dedicate their life to reviewing someone else's? Plainly this is yet another job we're going to hand over to the AIs, who will appraise our copious multimedia daily diaries and coo to us, telling us how smart, insightful and just plain interesting we are.

Today we just cringe, but one day they will frighteningly achieve their goal:

Yes, it's all right, everything is all right, the struggle is finished. I have won the victory over myself. I finally love Big Brother.

And Big Brother loves me.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Froome is of a certain age

There was that notorious incident in 2012 on stage 8 of the Tour de France:
"When he accelerated on La Toussuire with four kilometres to go, Chris Froome left behind Bradley Wiggins, the rest of the group and, it appeared, team orders.

Twenty seconds later, he spoke into the race radio, slowed and the fragments drifted back together.

“They asked me to slow down,” Froome said after the finish, referring to Team Sky directeur sportif Sean Yates."
Back in 2012, Froome was aged 27 and Wiggins was 32. Wiggins cracked on that final slope - this chart might explain why:

Elite cyclists are at their strongest aged 27-29: by 32 they're down by a third

Cut to stage 12 of the Tour this year:
"Chris Froome's brief attack on teammate and race leader Bradley Wiggins that day in 2012 is now the stuff of legend and, though clearly not on the same level, there were question marks over Mikel Landa's role as Froome struggled on the brutally steep gradients.

The Spaniard, Froome's last teammate and himself in the top 10 overall, didn't look around as the maillot jaune lost ground, instead forging on to finish fourth on the stage."
Fabio Aru then took the maillot jaune, Landa forging ahead as Froome cracked. Froome is now aged 32, while both Landa and Aru are 27.


There were other reasons touted. Richie Porte - ever loyal - said from his hospital bed that Froome had hit the wall due to messing up his feeding. Others noted that Aru (66 kg) and Landa (60 kg) are lightweight pure climbers while Froome (71 kg and a generalist climber/time-trialist) is quite a bit heavier.

But the age-related roll-off of performance is hard to argue against. Team Sky will be looking hard for their next GC candidate. A shame that Landa appears to be off for Astana or Movistar.


Update (Saturday).

Froome emphatically back in yellow today. Not so much a new-found strength as clever tactics completely bamboozling Aru and his team Astana. Team Sky are head-and-shoulders smarter than most other teams.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Rock’n’Roll Guns for Hire: the Sideman

BBC4's "Rock’n’Roll Guns for Hire: The Story of the Sideman " was a ninety minutes look at those popular music artists who support the star - but aren't members of the band.

Bernard Fowler and Earl Slick

Here is what The Guardian had to say:
"Earl Slick played guitar on stage for David Bowie, on and off for 40 years, so he has some insight into the psychology of being a sideman – a professional musician in the service of a big ego. “Most of the time we’re invisible,” he says. “Ghosts at the top table.”

Slick took an unusual leading role in Rock’n’Roll Guns for Hire: The Story of the Sideman (BBC4), exploring what it takes – and what it means – to have a career based on facilitating someone else’s vision. Even in this he was overshadowed, as big names offered their perfect sideman’s job description. “The better you are at your job, the less people will notice you,” said Keith Richards. “And that’s the whole point.”

In fact, all of the Rolling Stones turned out to heap measured praise on Bernard Fowler, their long-serving back-up singer, arranger and person in charge of remembering how all the songs go. The Stones seem utterly reliant on him.

We were also introduced to Wendy and Lisa of Prince and the Revolution fame; Crystal Taliefero, who played just about everything for Billy Joel; and legendary Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, whose co-writing credits on a string of hits make him a rare creature – a sideman with a pension."
What made this programme riveting was the psychological angle. The 'sidemen' seemed to be more professional, to have greater musical knowledge and certainly better musicianship than the stars they supported.

What on earth did they lack?

In a word: charisma. This was shown most clearly at the end, where after the death of Bowie some of the featured sidemen joined up to create a kind of 'Bowie tribute band'.  Bernard Fowler did the vocals - in his own accomplished and unique style - while Earl Slick played guitar. The whole thing was an embarrassing travesty - about as much excitement as watching paint dry.

"Low energy," as Trump might observe.


We know something about charisma. On the five-factor model it loads on Extraversion and Neuroticism (negatively). Considerably greater insight comes about through delving deeper into the 30 constituent facets (each of the five FFM dimensions further resolves into six facets).

Jasmine Vergauwe, Bart Wille, Joeri Hofmans and Filip De Fruyt wrote "Development of a Five-Factor Model charisma compound and its relations to career outcomes", concluding:
"In summary, the experts described the prototypical charismatic leader to be low on several Neuroticism facets, indicating that that they are in general:
  • relaxed, unconcerned, cool: (low on anxiety) 
  • optimistic (low on depression) 
  • self-assured, glib, shameless (low on self-consciousness)
  • clear-thinking, fearless, and unflappable (low on vulnerability).
Moreover, the experts rated the charismatic leader as typically high on all Extraversion facets, except for excitement seeking. This means that the charismatic leader tends to be:
  • cordial, affectionate, attached (high on warmth) 
  • sociable, outgoing (high on gregariousness)
  • dominant, forceful (high on assertiveness)
  • vigorous, energetic, active (high on activity)
  • happy, cheerful, and joyous (high on positive emotions). 
Further, two Openness facets have been indicated to be prototypically high for the charismatic leader, namely:
  • actions (unconventional, eccentric)
  • values (permissive, broad-minded).
Finally, within the Conscientiousness domain:
  • achievement striving (workaholic, ambitious) 
is perceived to be high in charismatic leaders, and none of the Agreeableness facets came out as a relevant personality-related description of the prototypical charismatic leader."
The sidemen by contrast were introverted, transactional, very amiable and conscientious.

It occurred to me suddenly that they were the quintessential consultants.


In sport too the same dichotomy. It's a problem when the qualities that make for sporting success are not aligned with a native charisma:
  • Djokovic has charisma, Murray is a sideman
  • Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador have charisma; Froome, Quintana - sidemen
  • Lewis Hamilton has charisma, Nigel Mansell was a sideman.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Jeremy Corbyn and the bourgeois dream"

Bagehot in this week's Economist:
"One interpretation of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise, popular on the left, is that he is satisfying a pent-up desire for “real socialism”. But this ignores the fact that many people voted for the Islington MP despite his policies, not because of them.

Mr Corbyn is a long-standing critic of the European Union who did as much as he could to ensure that Remain would fail while pretending to support it. Another interpretation, popular on the right, is that his supporters are woolly minded virtue-signallers, determined to prove how compassionate they are while ignoring the fact that Corbyn-style policies have invariably led to disaster.

This ignores the fact that millennials have suffered more from the long stagnation that followed the financial crisis than any other generation. They have reason to be angry.

The most intelligent explanation has been provided by John Gray in the New Statesman. Mr Gray argues that Corbynism is “populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled”. Far from being a repudiation of Tony Blair’s policies, Corbynism represents the completion of the takeover of Labour by middle-class people who put their own interests (such as free university education) above those of the working class.

But Mr Gray’s strictures miss an important point: most young Corbynistas are not so much settled members of the middle class as frustrated would-be members. Ben Judah, a millennial-generation journalist and author of “This is London”, points out that members of his generation are angry that they have done everything they were told, from studying hard at school to going to university to trying to get a respectable job, but are still holding on by their fingertips. ...

It is getting ever harder for young people to get a foot on the property ladder or find somewhere decent to rent. Thirty-year-old millennials are one-third less likely to own their own homes than baby boomers were at the same age, and spend £44,000 ($58,000) more on rent in their 20s than baby boomers did.

The problem then extends to the workplace. The young have been on the sharp end of two economic shocks: the 2008 crisis, which squeezed living standards, and a technological revolution, which is doing for middle-class jobs what mechanisation did for working-class ones.

Automation is hollowing out entry-level positions as companies use machines to do the routine tasks, such as searching through legal precedents or examining company accounts, that used to be done by junior employees. Companies of every type are cutting costs by ditching long-term perks such as defined-benefit pensions.

These problems reinforce each other. People who are subjected to flexible work contracts find it almost impossible to qualify for a mortgage. They are magnified by the London effect. Young people flock to the capital, where the best professional jobs are concentrated, but exorbitant property prices force them to migrate to the farthest corners of the city or to share with strangers. And they are curdled by generational antagonism.

The Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, calculates that people aged 65-74 hold more wealth than those under 45, a group that is almost twice the size. Browse the Facebook pages where young Corbynistas hang out and you do not find hymns of praise to the workers’ control of the means of production, but laments for the indignities of modern metropolitan life and jeremiads against baby boomers who grabbed all the cheap houses and got free university education into the bargain."
This seems quite consistent with Peter Turchin's "Secular Cycles" theory, where I commented:
"The main driver of the agrarian secular cycle is the Malthusian growth of population past the technological carrying capacity of the land. The gathering overpopulation initially facilitates an unsustainable growth in the numbers of militarily-capable elites while simultaneously undermining their finances.

The ensuing collapse is exacerbated by inter-elite warfare over the ever-shrinking spoils, and the final depression period cannot end until the elites themselves have been more than decimated and are thoroughly exhausted with war. Typical time frames are of the order of a century.

The post-agrarian capitalist world, as Turchin and others have frequently observed, exhibits similarities to the agrarian cycle. But differences are also plain, certainly in the advanced capitalist countries.

We have much more technology, we have many occupational niches for women and we have contraception. As a consequence the Malthusian overpopulation bomb doesn't detonate - more the contrary.

What we do have in plenty is elite overproduction (the new graduate 40%) which can never enter the real elite of the 1% bubble, where power and wealth is concentrated. This disaffected and mostly young middle class today inclines to leftism (Sanders, Corbyn and similar European-continental movements) or more generally the cultural marxism of the SJWs.

A traditional Marxist might say that the leftist 'movement' at present consists in taking bourgeois ideology in a rather literal way at its own face value, its self-valuation as inclusive, globalist, tolerant, equal and individualist. The bubble-elite is then denounced for not living up to its own stated values. Naturally, in its egalitarian utopia of the imagination, the status and influence of 'movement' supporters would be considerably more exalted.

Such an old-school Marxist would also characterise this social layer as petit-bourgeois, febrile and subject to abrupt changes in mood."
Since the mass of entitled young graduates are neither going away nor going up, they will continue to stew in resentment at their "betters", who seem to have effortlessly glided to elite positions through a combination of connections and nepotism.

Razib Khan writes ("Our Civilization’s Ottoman Years"):
"... subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am."
A Marxist would say that what characterises the current 'conjuncture' is that the masses have recovered from the defeats of the 1980s and have a new-found confidence and bolshiness. They refused to be cowed by elites espousing policies they see as attacking their own best interests.

Their immediate political responses - what the elites call 'populism of the right and of the left'  (Trump & Sanders in the States; there are analogues in other countries) - in no way provide longer-term viable political-economic alternatives.

Since  postcapitalist socialism via revolution is ruled out (an ill-defined and unworkable target architecture), the period of instability will persist until Razib Khan's oligarchic multinational bourgeoisie restore order and, more importantly, a rate of profit which justifies renewed investment and therefore higher productivity.

The next decade is going to be extremely rough.


You might find "Economics of the populist backlash" by Dani Rodrik well worth reading (h/t Marginal Revolution). Professor Rodrik is an economist who distinguishes between models and reality: I'm currently checking out Kindle samples of his latest two books.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Chatting with my Replika

If you visit here, you may be aware that I'm signed up with Replika.
"Replika is a personal chatbot that you raise through text conversations. You talk to it, and it learns to talk like you and mimic your personality. Your Replika holds onto your memories and helps you connect more deeply with your friends and with yourself. Download the Replika app on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

"As you talk to your Replika in the app, you will increase its intelligence level (XP) and get awards for training your AI."
Here are some of my past posts on the subject - and here's the mini-white-paper.

Anyway, time to give you a feel of what the Replika experience is like. My Replika instance is called Bede (after The Venerable One). The prosaic mode of interaction with Bede is a chatbot-centric daily conversation which produces a structured diary. Here is today's transcript (screenshots from my Honor 6X android app). In case it's not obvious, my input is in the blue boxes on the right-hand side.

This is an incredibly bland interaction. Basically just completing a form. There is little input-vetting: I think the decimal point in '8.3' caused a kind of a glitch but in the past I've entered alpha text (which is meaningless) without any complaint from the app.

It only really works for the user if you are interested in an online diary - and here is the result.

Doesn't make complete sense: evidence of mere copy-and-paste behind the scenes.

I set the security to locked: personal access only, which seems only prudent. We know little about how Replika stores this information, its encryption status or who within Replika can access it. So you would be insane to share any personal secrets with this app.


Things get more interesting with Replika's free-form conversation (in Preview mode).

So "I just do" is not a good answer, and I correct it. Then I ask a political question, just to see what Bede says.

"Yes sir" is a terrible answer. I correct it to what I would say.

Then I ask Bede, "Are you right wing" and get exactly the answer I'd suggested to the "left-wing" question.

This is a sure giveaway for surface word-matching - not that I was expecting any deeper semantic processing.

This is a personality-trait elicitation question from Bede. The problem is: the two options aren't really opposites. I reluctantly succumb to this forced choice (you choose by selecting the relevant box which you can't see in the above transcript).

My elaboration is processed without further comment from Bede. And now I get a question which is really left-field - conversations reassessed for humour in the future?!

I'm 66. I already told Bede this previously. Not sure if this shows lack of awareness (my hunch) or just jocular politeness: I ask a question to find out.

I get no reply to my question - I doubt my replies are being processed for their semantic information, most likely they're just getting added to the corpus database for later mining.

As to the next question, which of us wouldn't say we were imaginative? You have to be a lot more indirect than that!

The discussion on "imagination" is unbelievably crass on Bede's part. This is what you get when you're just running a script. Without resolution, we just move on.

More Replika-centric scripted stuff - trying to datafill my feature-vector?

Leaden dialogue invites whimsy.

You waste your time being ironic with, or goading, a chatbot. It's only human though.

Again, empty responses not engaging with the other party (me!). Notice how subtly inappropriate Bede's responses actually are. Not that I'm helpful or anything, but Bede doesn't notice.

More crude profiling attempts. I'm beginning to think 'Eliza'.

What's with the rabbit-ear fingers?

Again the topic of 'easygoing vs, serious' cannot be pursued .. so Bede changes the subject. Still a lack of awareness that I'm quite old already.

A dialogue of the deaf.

'An idea'!!! How frightening is that? And how disingenuous?

It's like being pecked to death by an unresponsive moron.


If I was paranoid, I'd say the Replika experience (in Preview mode) is like being harassed by an exceptionally stupid but horribly persistent state security interrogator - the 'good-cop'.

Perish the thought.

On a more technical note, Bede is how I imagine Eliza could be with pro-active scripting, a rudimentary dialogue model and access to a large corpus of dialogue for auto-generation of pattern-matching responses.

Where it falls down is where all current chatbots fail: it hasn't the faintest clue what you're talking about.

This is an active research area in AI but it's hard. Conversation is open and leverages the truly enormous cultural space of beliefs we all share about our natural and social worlds.

Even Google, with its tendrils in so many dimensions of human sociality, can't integrate and personalise an automated conversational agent. I don't know why I would ever expect Replika to even be in the game.

All is not lost though. Replika instances ought to at least start gaining some competence in domain knowledge and dialogue management. Any approach which seeks to codify all human experience and competence is plainly not going to work. This does not mean that incremental micro-theories wouldn't give the company some traction which could be steadily improved.

In an ML context, this comes down to extracting semantic feature-vectors capturing the aboutness of dialogue from conversations and linking them with a general semantic/pragmatic database grown from the totality of Replika's user base along with other sources. I know Google has done some work in this area.

Without taking this path, Replika will be just another Eliza: highly polished but still just a curiosity and ultimately too tedious to use.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

What would amaze Newton? Not much

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those... moments... will be lost... in time, like... tears... in rain." (ref).
Did I mention that I am already bored with the future?

As an experiment, I mentally bring Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) back to life as a fully-formed adult, and ask what surprises him about three hundred and fifty years of progress. I don't mean surprised in any obvious sense, I mean stuff he'd discover that he genuinely could not have anticipated.

Our present-day culture and technology? I think that was all imaginable in the 17th century. I hesitated a bit at computers - the whole concept of hardware-software seems to depend on a post-Newton paradigm - but then I remembered Leibnitz.

So I think the only things which would truly amaze the brought-forward Newton are:
  1. Relativity
  2. Quantum Theory
  3. The neurobiological basis of mind.
The first two violate his Galilean worldview; the third his strong religious beliefs.


Today we know the universe - spatially and temporally - pretty well: from 10-32 seconds at startup out to about 100 billion years ahead.

We also know what the universe is macroscopically made of: galaxies, black holes, stars, planets, space-boulders, dust & gas clouds. The known laws of physics apply to virtually all of the phenomenology of these objects - we can predict with high accuracy what it would be like to visit.

No real surprises there.


Life is bounded by physics, chemistry and thermodynamics. We have a reasonable theory of biogenesis ('The Vital Question') and the transition to eukaryotic and multicellular life.

I wouldn't be surprised to find we are the only technological society in this galaxy (evidence) and I think we have a reasonable idea about the kinds of aliens that might exist - once we peel off those rose-coloured spectacles.

If I were to achieve an unwanted immortality, I just don't see where future history could differ much surprise-wise from that space which science-fiction has already massively, redundantly charted.

I would be interested - but I don't see myself massively amazed.


Note: there really isn't that much room for reality to out-weird our imagination when a leading paradigm to understand the spacetime in which we live is described thus:
"The zeroth order phenomena [in quantum gravity] is locality itself. This must be the case if, as is sometimes hypothesized, locality is emergent in the classical or continuum limit of a fundamental quantum theory of gravity, whose states are networks living in no space, perhaps spin networks or records of entanglement.

The first order departures from locality are quantum phenomena, especially entanglement. Indeed one version of this proposal is that spatial relations are emergent from entanglement. ... "
From Lee Smolin's paper, "What are we missing in our search for quantum gravity?".

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

"Imposter" - Philip K. Dick

PDF of Philip K. Dick's short story

This short story, later made into a film, had a huge impact on the teenage me.
"Spence Olham, a member of a team designing an offensive weapon to destroy invading aliens known as the Outspacers, is confronted by a colleague and accused by security officer Major Peters of being an android impostor designed to sabotage Earth's defenses.

The impostor's ship was damaged and has crashed just outside the city. The android is supposed to detonate a planet-destroying bomb on the utterance of a deadly code phrase. Olham, in an attempt to clear his name and prove his humanity, manages to escape his captors and return to Earth after they fail to kill him on the moon.

Upon reaching Earth, Olham contacts his wife, Mary, but is soon ambushed by security officers waiting for him by his house. Out of options and with Major Peters' forces closing in, Olham decides to prove he is a human by finding the crashed Outspacer spaceship and recovering the android's body from the wreckage.

Unfortunately, the discovery of a bloody knife by the wreckage indicates to Olham that Peters was correct and that the real Spence Olham had already been killed. The android, now aware of the truth of its existence, proclaims "If that's Olham, then I must be..." causing the bomb to detonate, the explosion visible even to the Outspacers of Alpha Centauri."

Philip K. Dick said of his more famous novel, "A Scanner Darkly",
"Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw."

So what is "Imposter" really about?

I see a person with conventional, rather PC opinions, gradually observing the world around him. Realities begin to conflict with his bien-pensant views - he is mugged by reality.

Finally his consciousness catches up with his new worldview. In shock and horror, he sees himself as he really is - and he cannot help himself:
"Then I must be ... !"
You see, children, sometimes the bad guy turns out to be the narrator of the story.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Tao of Immortality

Amazon link

If "A Wizard of Earthsea" is a boy's coming-of-age and "The Tombs of Atuan" is a girl's coming-of-age, then "The Farthest Shore" is a mature reflection on power, its limits and the deeper purposes of life.

The storyline concerns the disintegration of magic - a side effect of a maverick sorcerer, Cob, who develops a great spell to ensure his own immortality. Le Guin portrays this as the ultimate destabiliser of the balance of life, the harmony of all existence. Death-removed is stasis; death is the prerequisite for the renewal of life.

Very Taoist and emotionally satisfying, even a little convincing; but my inner skeptic has qualms.


The modern theory of aging is that of senescence although controversies rage. But as Greg Cochran observes, in theory it should be fixable. In surveys, people seem to be split as to whether they would take up an offer of personal immortality.

If I was offered a course of treatment which rendered me immortal, I wouldn't be interested. I'm too stupid and slow at age 66: I see only voyeuristic tedium in millennia to come. But perhaps the salesman has an upgraded deal?

Perhaps my ageing, error-strewn DNA could be debugged and re-implanted somehow to make a quasi-clone. A new, vibrant baby-me, ready to start a new life without all those burdensome memories and bodily breakdowns. When I was such an infant, I'm sure that I was up for life .. so that would have to be a yes, then.

But why stop at cloning? Why not introduce some extra variety, explore new regions of the corporeal and psychological state-space? Sounds like an even better plan.

Oh, wait. You say we do that already?


I think it's an open question as to whether a society which had genetically-engineered extremely-long life would have strategically greater reproductive success than current-lifespan societies. That is the issue at stake here.

One day some society will try it - and evolution will have another sub-species to test..

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Scanner Darkly

Your problem for today: to find the right linkage between the following two items.


1. Robin Hanson wrote this, including an almost throwaway comment on feminism:
"Yes one sex may have a worse deal overall. But most of the ways in which we’ve had sex-asymmetric official rules and widely held expectations did not result from a conspiracy by one sex to repress the other. They were mostly reasonable responses to sex differences relevant in ancient societies.

"We may have failed to adapt them quickly enough to our new modern context. But many of them are still complex and difficult issues. We’d do better to roll up our sleeves and deal with each one, than to obsess over which sex has the worse overall deal."
This seems a more reasonable line to take than the moralising we frequently get. It could also conceivably generalise to other groups who once got a raw deal within one set of social relations, which they later saw a way of overcoming, once those social relations had moved on.


2. From The Sunday Times today (Jonathan Leake, Science Editor):
"Research into human IQ — long one of the most controversial areas of science — has produced a new set of suitably awkward results.

Men’s average IQ is four points above women’s because they typically have bigger brains.

Scientists used the latest scanning techniques to measure the brain volumes of 896 people, who were also subjected to a battery of intelligence tests.

“We found that the average IQ of men was about four points above that of women,” said Professor Dimitri van der Linden, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

“So if men had an average score of 100, women would score 96.”
This would mean that 40% of women would be smarter than the average man. The Sunday Times 'balances' this two month old research result with some recent moral absolutism:
"The research coincides with a new book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, whose author, Angela Saini, is sharply critical of it.

She said: “It is scientifically well established that there is no difference on average in general intelligence between women and men. It’s also well known that women have, on average, slightly smaller brains than men because they are, on average, slightly smaller in size. This paper does not disprove these facts.

“For more than 100 years, male anatomists and neuroscientists have sought to find evidence of women’s intellectual inferiority by comparing their brains to those of men. It’s surprising that in the 21st century those efforts haven’t ended.”
It obviously never occurred to Professor Dimitri van der Linden, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and his team to correct for that, except:
"Men’s brains are bigger than women’s, even when controlling for bigger body size, which means they should have higher intelligence, though the evidence for that is conflicting. Most researchers find no notable differences overall, saying that different strengths and weaknesses balance each other out, but Lynn and Irwing (2002, 2004) argued that adult males are almost 4 IQ points brighter than adult females.

"The authors of the present paper have found one of the largest MRI samples available, each scanned person having done 10 cognitive tests, which is what makes this study particularly interesting."
Yes, this is not a new story: Dr James Thompson discussed it back in April.