Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Are British people stupider than the Chinese?"

Via Marginal Revolution, a memoir from Puzhong Yao. Here's an extract:

"It was the summer of 2000. I was 15, and I had just finished my high school entrance exam in China. I had made considerable improvements from where I started in first grade, when I had the second- worst grades in the class and had to sit at a desk perpendicular to the blackboard so that the teacher could keep a close eye on me. I had managed to become an average student in an average school.

My parents by then had reached the conclusion that I was not going anywhere promising in China and were ready to send me abroad for high school. Contrary to all expectations, however, I got the best mark in my class and my school. The exam scores were so good that I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city. My teacher and I both assumed the score was wrong when we first heard it.

As a consequence, I got into the best class in the best school in my city, and thus began the most painful year of my life. My newfound confidence was quickly crushed when I saw how talented my new classmates were. In the first class, our math teacher announced that she would start from chapter four of the textbook, as she assumed, correctly, that most of us were familiar with the first three chapters and would find it boring to go through them again.

Most of the class had been participating in various competitions in middle school and had become familiar with a large part of the high school syllabus already. Furthermore, they had also grown to know each other from those years of competitions together. And here I was, someone who didn’t know anything or anyone, surrounded by people who knew more to begin with, who were much smarter, and who worked just as hard as I did. What chance did I have?

During that year, I tried very hard to catch up: I gave up everything else and even moved somewhere close to the school to save time on the commute, but to no avail. Over time, going to school and competing while knowing I was sure to lose became torture. Yet I had to do it every day. At the end-of-year exam, I scored second from the bottom of the class—the same place where I began in first grade.

But this time it was much harder to accept, after the glory I had enjoyed just one year earlier and the huge amount of effort I had put into studying this year. Finally, I threw in the towel, and asked my parents to send me abroad. Anywhere else on this earth would surely be better.

So I came to the UK in 2001, when I was 16 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the UK’s exam-focused educational system very similar to the one in China. What is more, in both countries, going to the “right schools” and getting the “right job” are seen as very important by a large group of eager parents. As a result, scoring well on exams and doing well in school interviews—or even the play session for the nursery or pre-prep school—become the most important things in the world. Even at the university level, the undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge depends on nothing else but an exam at the end of the last year.

On the other hand, although the UK’s university system is considered superior to China’s, with a population that is only one-twentieth the size of my native country, competition, while tough, is less intimidating. For example, about one in ten applicants gets into Oxbridge in the UK, and Stanford and Harvard accept about one in twenty-five applicants. But in Hebei province in China, where I am from, only one in fifteen hundred applicants gets into Peking or Qinghua University.

Still, I found it hard to believe how much easier everything became. I scored first nationwide in the GCSE (high school) math exam, and my photo was printed in a national newspaper. I was admitted into Trinity College, University of Cambridge, once the home of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Prince Charles.

I studied economics at Cambridge, a field which has become more and more mathematical since the 1970s. The goal is always to use a mathematical model to find a closed-form solution to a real-world problem. Looking back, I’m not sure why my professors were so focused on these models. I have since found that the mistake of blindly relying on models is quite widespread in both trading and investing—often with disastrous results, such as the infamous collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. Years later, I discovered the teaching of Warren Buffett: it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. But our professors taught us to think of the real world as a math problem.

The culture of Cambridge followed the dogmas of the classroom: a fervent adherence to rules and models established by tradition.  For example, at Cambridge, students are forbidden to walk on grass. This right is reserved for professors only. The only exception is for those who achieve first class honors in exams; they are allowed to walk on one area of grass on one day of the year.

The behavior of my British classmates demonstrated an even greater herd mentality than what is often mocked in American MBAs. For example, out of the thirteen economists in my year at Trinity, twelve would go on to join investment banks, and five of us went to work for Goldman Sachs.

Three years later, I graduated with first class honors and got a job offer from Goldman’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity division, the division founded by my hero Rubin. It seemed like whatever I wished would simply come true. But inside, I feared that one day these glories would pass. After all, not long ago, I was at the bottom of my class in China. And if I could not even catch up with my classmates in a city few people have even heard of, how am I now qualified to go to Cambridge University or Goldman? Have I gotten smarter?

Or is it just that British people are stupider than the Chinese?"
So, words of wisdom here from Puzhong Yao. But is his final assertion plausible?

He states, "I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city". In a normal distribution this represents 1/10,000 of the whole area, on the extreme right hand side.

How many standard deviations is that?   3.72.

If we assume the mean north-east asian IQ to be around 106, then with standard deviation 15, this makes our author's IQ 160+.

This would not be an elite IQ in China*, but since the IQ threshold for Oxbridge is reckoned to be 145 (3 standard deviations above the lower British norm), he's plainly going to excel there!


* If Puzhong Yao is in the intellectual top 0.01%, then in a Chinese population of one billion he's in the top 100,000.

But the really top elite, say the top thousand people in the country, would be more than 4.75 standard deviations out, with IQs around 180.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Diary: without inspiration, the guitar

The world trundles along and attempts to provoke me - but I don't rise to the bait. Nothing has impelled me to the keyboard. So in the absence of inspiration, let me tell you that I have persisted in the guitar (it must be all of three days now).

As I audit the cobwebby ruins of my youthful craft, I discover that my chord placement is now poor. All the usual neophyte errors: buzzing, clunking and muffling. So at the price of fingertip-pain and forearm soreness I am seeking good form above all.

Secondly I am paying attention to fingerpicking: initially choosing the correct chord-bass-string for the thumb while plucking the top three strings without looking at them .. consistently, and in the right order.

Amazon link

Finally, I'm focusing on Paul Simon's "America" (from the songbook above). This is, astonishingly, scored in E♭  - can you imagine anything worse for guitar? Why not score it in C and use a capo if we needed to raise the pitch? Anyway, I transposed all the chords to C in the interests of my own sanity.

"America" is a beautiful, plaintive, elegiac song and it achieves these effects by esoteric chords such as major sevenths and ninths. So my chord-vocabulary is receiving attention.

Little and often is my mantra: you may get a video in a few weeks, once I can get through it at all.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Diary: Guitar for Dummies

Recapturing those rock-n-roll years ..

My first stringed instrument was an old family mandolin, which I was given as a young teen. I would try to play the blues in my bedroom with John Peel on the radio. Later I saved up for a stylish acoustic guitar with pickup, which I could plug into the back of the valve radio (the 'ext mic.' socket). How my parents thrilled to Eric Clapton's solo from "Sunshine of Your Love" screaming through their house.

I wanted to be a lead guitarist, and at Warwick in my first term I acquired a strat from another student who was just terminating his own rock-god aspirations. I played in a student band and we once warmed up 'Free' at the student union. They were kind enough to allow us to use their amps after we blew up the union's Marshall - turned out it couldn't be turned up to eleven.

But I was not very good - my deficiencies not sufficiently obscured by generous use of the fuzz box and wah-wah pedal.


Where did the guitar pictured above come from?

I forget, but it's been occupying the loft for many years now. Still, reading about Joni has awakened my inner music-artisan. My skills were always idiosyncratic, the bane of the autodidact. I can play a lead line and the usual chords, but fingerpicking I never learned: way too 'folky'.

Thankfully, the demeaning book also pictured above has a chapter on it, and I am instructed to spend half an hour a day in practice.

Maybe this afternoon.


Down from the loft, I tuned the guitar and tried a few chords. My finger placement was very rusty and those callouses had long gone - I winced at the imprint of steel strings.

My plan for Monday is to encourage Clare to play three-chord, 12-bar background (A, D, E7) on piano so that I can do some (acoustic) lead. But really I should cast such indulgences aside and hunker down with a solo "House of the Rising Sun" - work away at that fingerpicking.

They say Eric Clapton's career bloomed once he discovered he could sing. Sadly, if that's what it takes, my second career is DoA .. a cat ran screaming from the garden.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Kitsch at Christmas

So here are a few of my favourite things.

Your author with what turns out to be a fake bull today

And then there's the trend for flashing LED seasonscapes. which I first encountered at the Wells What! store.


OK, so you can't see the snowflake-lights flashing here.

But they do.


And finally I heard on the BBC news lunchtime today about this Muslim panto.
"This December, Penny Appeal is bringing you the only Muslim pantomime in all the land! With crazy costumes, silly songs, bizarre blunders and lots of laughs, you won’t want to miss this action-packed, fun-filled show.

The Great Muslim Panto is being performed in 6 cities from 12th – 21st December. It’s all in aid of our 'OrphanKind' programme, to give orphan children living in poverty a loving family."
The warning signs were all there: the gushing and indulgent BBC news presenter, patronising smile plastered to her face, describing how these *muslims* were hamming it up for *Christmas* in aid of ... *charidee*.

My heart sank: Islamic culture has something important of its own to contribute to UK culture, something true to its own values in opposition to bien-pensant trivialities and empty signalling.

But this? This is complete capitulation to the ruling ideology.

And "best practice in Muslim integration"? No way: it's pure kitsch.


On Christmas kitsch I have form.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Using gene drive for vermin control

Controlling 'vermin' with gene drive technology is both interesting .. and a possible fount of unintended consequences.

From The Telegraph:
"There are thought to be more than 10 million rats living in Britain and pest control is estimated to cost the UK around £1.2 billion each year.

The technique suggested for rodents is known as ‘x-shredding.’ Male mammals have both an ‘x’ and ‘y’ sex chromosome, while females need two ‘x’ chromosomes.

The scientists want to insert ‘x shredder’ code into the DNA of male rats which would destroy the ‘x’ chromosomes in their sperm, meaning they could only pass on a ‘y’ chromosome, so their offspring would never be female. With fewer and fewer females over time, the population would have to decline."
Here's an example, starting with sixteen rats, 8 male and 8 female, in population equilibrium. One of the males is a mutant with the gene drive. We assume, for clarity and simplicity, that the mutated males outcompete normal males and always 'get their gal' preferentially.

The population goes extinct in five generations. Initially the population exhibits an exponential increase in mutant males from a low base; in the terminal phase the process is dominated by the ever-decreasing number of females, and - no doubt - tremendously elevated inter-male aggression.

According to Wikipedia,
"Since it can never more than double in frequency with each generation, a gene drive introduced in a single individual typically requires dozens of generations to affect a substantial fraction of a population.

Alternatively, releasing drive-containing organisms in sufficient numbers can affect the rest within a few generations; for instance, by introducing it in every thousandth individual, it takes only 12–15 generations to be present in all individuals.

Whether a gene drive will ultimately become fixed in a population and at which speed depends on its effect on individuals fitness, on the rate of allele conversion, and on the population structure.

In a well mixed population and with realistic allele conversion frequencies (≈90%), population genetics predicts that gene drives get fixed for selection coefficient smaller than 0.3; in other words, gene drives can be used not only to spread beneficial genetic modifications, but also detrimental ones as long the reproductive success is not reduced by more than 30%. This is a great contrast with normal genes, which can only spread in large populations if they are beneficial."
There are of course issues:
  • Mutations: It is possible that a mutation could happen mid-drive, which has the potential to allow unwanted traits to "ride along" on the spreading drive.

  • Escape: Cross-breeding or gene flow potentially allow a drive to move beyond its target population.

  • Ecological impacts: Even when new traits' direct impact on a target is understood, the drive may have side effects on the surroundings.
In particular, natural genetic variation may prevent the drive 'taking' in some males; as a consequence a resistant population may soon emerge. It's been stated that the biggest danger with a gene drive is that it just won't work at all. There is talk of targeting several loci in parallel.

Something phenomenologically similar to a gene drive is at work in human populations (such as India, China) where female foetuses have been selectively aborted. But the numbers involved are well below population-lethal.

Monday, December 04, 2017

An INFP conducts a risk assessment

Amazon link

"And soon after that came the end of her complicated relationship with Don Alias. Even though he was willing to pimp her out to Miles Davis, his jealousy would brutally end the relationship.

"Don Alias was irrationally jealous and beat me up a couple of times,” Joni recalled in 2015. "So, the first time, it was a long break. And then he went and appealed to all my friends. So I went back, and then he did it again, irrationally. He thought I was cheating on him. He invented it. Paranoia, and probably because he was on the road all the time and was probably cheating on me.

"I would say it was projection. He was very sweet, but you don't want to get beat up by a conga player - in the face. He's very strong and those hands are lethal weapons. He beat me up pretty badly."

The second time Alias beat Joni, she had gone out to dinner with John Guerin with his permission. They agreed to a time when Joni would come home. Anyone familiar with Joni's rococo conversation style would expect her to be late. She was. She rolled in after four a.m. and came home to a battering.

The dinner was with a former lover, a longtime lover, a lover whose prowess Alias had been hearing about for a while. Alias must have known that Joni tried to maintain friendships with her exes, but he also knew how Joni had never quite let go of this one.

She kept hiring Guerin for albums and forgave him for everything he put her through.

"I'm monogamous when I'm monogamous," Joni told me. 'And it was with Don's permission. So I came home, he beat me up, ..."   (p. 286).
I'm transfixed by David Yaffe's encyclopedic, music-centred biography of Joni Mitchell. Reading the passage above I asked Clare, (a fellow INFP), what she thought Joni was thinking of as she made her way home that early morning.
  1. "I mentioned to Don that I was going to meet up with John Guerin, my former partner, and he looked at me and grunted through clenched teeth, which I naturally took for permission. OK, it's a bit late .. but what could possibly go wrong?"

  2. "It was meant to be a brief catch-up, but I've essentially spent the night with my former lover John Guerin. Don Alias will naturally think the worse: he's huge, has poor impulse control and form for violence. I'm going to get battered to within an inch of my life."

  3. "I've had a great evening with my soulmate John Guerin! How time flies! Oh well, time to get a little sleep!"
Clare plumped for option three. How very INFP.


There is a spectrum in biographies from vindictive hatchet-jobs at one end to hagiographies at the other. Since Yaffe is a self-confessed superfan, and also massively in awe of his subject, it's no surprise that she gets the benefit of the doubt every time.

This is not a good place for a critic to be.

So listen to Joni on "The Magdalene Laundries":

or on "Sex Kills"

and you will hear none of the lightness, humour or ironic self-awareness of her early (and popular) work. Instead we get full-on self-righteousness: Joni was a good hater.

As she veered off into ever more self-indulgent and idiosyncratic jazz-oriented pieces, her audience deserted her. Listen to "Mingus" (1979) and you will see why.

But for Yaffe, Joni truly can do no wrong.

Despite the author's all-embracing Joni-philia and tendency to uncritically recycle liberal platitudes, this encyclopedic labour of love remains a compelling read almost to the end (her final years, coyly described, are under-informative and over-detailed with band-trivia). Until the final, measured biography, surely not to be written for decades, this is absolutely as good as it gets.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Homosexuality as a side-effect of civilization

Discordant twins

We seem to be closing in on the underlying etiology of homsexuality (excerpt below via Marginal Revolution) as a consequence of polygenic kin-selection.
"Why are there homosexuals? According to Darwinian thinking, a genetic trait that reduces the reproductive success cannot endure in the long run.

"The answer sounds crazy: blood relatives of gays and lesbians have more offspring. ...

"That homosexuality has a genetic basis is evidenced by comparative studies. A study by US-researchers J. Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard reached a clear conclusion: With identical twin brothers of homosexuals, the probability that they are gay too amounts to 52 percent, with fraternal twins it is 22, with adopted siblings 11 percent.

"So can we estimate the proportion of genetic influence on homosexuality? Only to a degree. The estimates range from 31-74 percent heritability in men and 27-76 percent heritability in women. The interpretation of these statistics is made difficult by the fact that no precise figures on the incidence of homosexuality exist, because it is difficult to define who actually is homosexual.  ...

"Miller has proposed an alternative explanation quite a few years ago. Genes always exists as doubles on chromosomes, in the form of two alleles. Genetic factors that promote homosexuality can survive in the gene pool if they mostly occur in a heterozygous (coupled with other alleles) form and increase the reproductive success of their carriers in this combination. Only in the rare cases where the inheritance is  homozygous –  both alleles are identical - homosexuality emerges and reduces fitness.

"A man who carries a small dose of gay genes in his genome would, according to the theory, improve his success  in the heterosexual mating game. That “certain something” that heightens sex appeal probably consist exactly of those essentials which make homosexuals different from heterosexuals in the first place.

"According to his theory, the alleged "gay genes" equip men who carry  the heterozygous disposition with an above-average degree of feminine traits such as sensitivity, gentleness and friendliness. Gay genes therefore form a natural antidote against "hypermasculine" genes that turn men into rough machos. They would promote properties that appeal to women and indicate a good suitability as a father and significant other.

"A lesbian disposition lends women reversed traits that helps their reproductive success. Surveys have already shown that psychologically "masculine" women have more sex contacts.

"Imagine, for example, there were five genes, each of which occurs in duplicate and increases the probability of homosexuality, Miller speculates. Only if a man had all five alleles in duplicate, he would be gay. "That would be an event that occurs with a probability of 1 to 32, meaning in 3 percent of all men." Such a system would already be evolutionary stable if a hint of homosexual disposition would increase the genetic fitness of heterosexuals by only 2 percent.

"What hitherto was pure academic speculation, a team led by epidemiologists Brendan Zietsch from Brisbane in Australia has empirically underpinned with a study of 5000 twin siblings. Metrosexuals,  who in their appearance and lifestyle mix male and female characteristics, are the genetic proxies of homosexuals.

"The male and female subjects provided information about their personality traits, their sexual orientation and their total number of sexual partners. 2.2 percent of men and 0.6 percent of women admitted to having a purely gay or lesbian gender identity. There were also 13 percent male and 11 percent female "nonheterosexuals” who reported dating with both sexes.

"Crucial point: Both the siblings of homosexuals and those of nonheterosexuals possessed remarkably many personality traits of the opposite sex. And they also had a greater number of sexual partners than the siblings of heterosexuals. In the evolutionary past, before the invention of the pill and family planning, they should have had a particularly big reproductive success.

"The androgynous personality traits and above-average rates of sexual contacts which characterized these men and women were, according to the researchers' calculations, primarily due to genetic factors and not to environmental influences.

"The genetic vacancy which is caused by the reduced reproductive success of homosexuals is probably offset by the increased rate of reproduction achieved by their blood relatives. This, incidentally, also explains a puzzling fact which scientists previously could not figure out: Homosexuals have a larger than average number of relatives. This was first demonstrated for the maternal side, but is also true, according to the latest data, for the paternal side, perhaps even stronger.

"According to the results of psychologist Andrea Camperio Ciani from the University of Padua, not only the siblings, but also the mothers and aunts of homosexuals are offsetting their "reproductive shortcomings". They not only had a larger than average number of births, but had also been affected particularly rarely by miscarriages and infections. Maybe they are blessed with genes that produce a particularly strong "love of men".

"This would be conducive to their genetic fitness, as it would encourage them to have more children. With their sons, this aptitude could trigger an outright homosexual orientation. But even if those were to become reproductive “underachievers”, that could still be evolutionarily adaptive for mothers: If the same genes would procure them - and their daughters - a larger swarm of children.

"The fact that there are gene variants that provide a fitness benefit if they are "heterozygous" and therefore occur only in one edition of the genetic double set has long since been known in biology. Homozygous carriers on the other hand, who inherit the gene from both parents, are exposed to the fitness reducing effect of this dual system. The best-known example of the so-called heterozygous advantage is the gene for sickle cell anemia. ... "
Interesting that the phenotype of an individual with a reasonable smattering of 'gay genes' seems a lot more prosocial than the highly hetero/macho type. Perhaps the process of 'self-domestication' hypothesised to have coevolved - ie to have been selected for - during the rise of civilization has inadvertently promoted homosexuality as a side-effect?

Greg Cochran has noted (in the context of his rival 'gay germ hypothesis') that "It doesn’t exist in most hunter-gatherers: you have to explain what it is you’re even talking about when you ask them."


The 52% concordance on homosexuality for identical twins (rather than c. 100%) indicates that some kind of environmental effect is also present. A study reported in The Times today suggests this might be due to variant hormonal influences within the womb.
"It seemed like the sexuality differences were asserting themselves long before puberty. Dr Rieger said that this gave useful information about the development of sexual identity.

“What we can do is rule out a few things now. A lot of people jump to the conclusion it must be genetics.” Past research has indeed shown there is a genetic component to sexuality but also that that is not the whole story. Given these twins shared the same genetics, it can’t be that in this case. “This shows there is something early on, in the early environment, that has nothing to do with genes but can still have a tremendous effect on sexual orientation.”

Insofar as it is possible to rule out parenting, this research did so — all the twins shared the same home. Dr Rieger thinks the most likely explanation then is something happening before birth.

“Prenatal hormones are the number one candidate,” he said. “Our theory is that even though twins are identical, what happens in the womb can be quite different. They can have different nutrition, different levels of hormones.”
The study, Gender Nonconformity of Identical Twins With Discordant Sexual Orientations: Evidence From Childhood Photographs, is unfortunately gated. There's a summary (Daily Mail) here.

Friday, December 01, 2017

"The Quantum Labyrinth" - Paul Halpern

Amazon link

Paul Halpern, a physicist and historian of science, has written here a combined biography of John Wheeler and Richard Feynman covering the fifty years of their interlinked careers in physics (c. 1940-1990). Feynman started out as a student of Wheeler's, working on the deep problems of Dirac's early formulation of quantum electrodynamics, specifically 'the infinities'. Wheeler and Feynman resurrected the old Newtonian idea of 'action at a distance', combining advanced and retarded solutions of Maxwell's equations to model radiation resistance. This led to Feynman's development of the path integral formalism.

The war diverted both of them to the Manhattan project - Feynman's war in particular has been amply covered in many other books, together with his doomed marriage to Arline.

Post-war we see the full-on assault on QED where Feynman diagrams make their appearance, we accompany Wheeler as he makes General Relativity relevant again, and we encounter topics as diverse as cosmology, the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics, time travel, nanotechnology and quantum computing.

To read this book is to journey with the protagonists. It's strong on places and times, on personalities and issues and debates. There are no equations or diagrams, although Halpern has a talent for verbal description (he makes a reasonable job of describing delayed-choice experiments, for example).

If you're a physics graduate who has absorbed the abstractions as a logical edifice, you will find this book an ideal complement as you watch the builders debating models and shooting each other down, while racing for priority. They say you should never watch sausages being made, but in physics it adds that vital human dimension of context and motivation.

Virtue-signalling trickles down

So now you can shop at the bottom of the range with a clear conscience.

... where they are woken up each morning by our specially-trained concierges and served with tea and crumpets.

Each organic pig has an opportunity to write to Father Christmas with a list of its desired piggy-presents. Waitrose does its best to help Father Christmas with fulfillment on that special day of the ... oh wait, ...

"Offer not applicable to these pigs".

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ed Witten speaks ...

Ed Witten is the foremost theoretical physicist alive today, although his introspective nature does not make great TV: consequently he's largely unknown to the general public.

Ed Witten (from Quanta magazine)

Peter Woit's recent post points towards an interview of Witten by Natalie Wolchover of Quanta magazine. Here is some of what Witten had to say:
"I tend to think that there isn’t a precise quantum description of space-time — except in the types of situations where we know that there is, such as in AdS space. I tend to think, otherwise, things are a little bit murkier than an exact quantum description. But I can’t say anything useful.

The other night I was reading an old essay by the 20th-century Princeton physicist John Wheeler. He was a visionary, certainly. If you take what he says literally, it’s hopelessly vague. And therefore, if I had read this essay when it came out 30 years ago, which I may have done, I would have rejected it as being so vague that you couldn’t work on it, even if he was on the right track."
By synchronicity, I'm currently reading this (which I have also reviewed):

Amazon link

which is a biographical account of the tangled lives of John Wheeler and Richard Feynman. Wheeler was the visionary, the 'big picture' guy, while Feynman was the 'let's get down to the basics and do the calculations' artisan-theorist.

Somehow the whole was greater than the parts: birds and frogs.

Witten continues:
"I tend to assume that space-time and everything in it are in some sense emergent. By the way, you’ll certainly find that that’s what Wheeler expected in his essay. As you’ll read, he thought the continuum was wrong in both physics and math. He did not think one’s microscopic description of space-time should use a continuum of any kind — neither a continuum of space nor a continuum of time, nor even a continuum of real numbers.

On the space and time, I’m sympathetic to that. On the real numbers, I’ve got to plead ignorance or agnosticism."
The whole interview is Witten playing the role of Feynman to the shade of Wheeler.


Other posts on emergent spacetime: and here's Wheeler's essay (pdf) which Witten referenced - it is infuriatingly vague, written in Wheeler's characteristic mangled-syntax english.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Selling capitalism to the feudal nobility

Steve Hsu is pessimistic about the terminal age of decadence in which we live:
"The empires Glubb studied had a lifespan of about ten human generations, or two hundred and fifty years, despite changing factors such as technology. Glubb describes a pattern of growth and decline, with six stages: the Ages of Pioneers, Conquest, Commerce, Affluence, Intellect and Decadence. He pointedly avoided writing about India or China, focusing rather on middle and western Eurasia, stating that his knowledge was inadequate to the task.

Note that six stages in 10 generations means that significant change can occur over one or two generations -- a nation can pass from one age to the next, as I believe we have in America during my lifetime.
... There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people. The decline in courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however, gradual. The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves.

Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash. Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. [ Or to discover great things for all mankind! ] Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries. ...
Duty, Honor, Country:

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

The 21st century American reality (the Age of Decadence):

"Yeah, I calculated the NPV, and, you know, it's just not worth it for me. I really believe in your project, though. And, I share your passion. Good luck."
The description is of the decline of asabiyyah, as complacency and selfish individualism possess the elites. Yet there is still something superficial about this account.


It seems plausible that Duty, Honor, Country are the paramount virtues of a vigorous and rising polity. They are communitarian traits as in Jonathan Haidt's MFT, almost the opposite of the value set of liberalism. Undoubtedly they base themselves on evolutionarily-ancient components of the human psyche, selected for group cohesion.

Pre-capitalist formations, such as the empires of antiquity and those of feudalism, codified and celebrated duty, honour and country/empire. The elites knew they had to hang together or they'd hang separately, given their explicit social position as oppressors. When social solidarity failed, rebellions soon followed. Peter Turchin has written books about this.

In capitalism it's somewhat different. Economic exploitation is hidden behind the veil of equal formal rights for all. Most people sign up to the elite idea that capitalism is not a class society. The elites do not generally rely upon the threat of explicit oppression, but on the atomisation of labour, free to flow where fluid capital requires it (in terms of geography, roles and skills).*

Liberal individualism is the soul of modern capitalism but it doesn't really stir the heart .. and it doesn't glue society together.


I'm reading Charles Stross's The Bloodline Feud: The Family Trade and The Hidden Family (Merchant Princes Omnibus Book 1) where the heroine (a feisty tech journalist who is also feudal royalty) attempts to kickstart capitalism in a parallel feudal world. Stross is the pre-eminent writer of economics science-fiction and his book has received plaudits from leading economists such as Paul Krugman.

Amazon link

From a feudal point of view, capitalism as an overarching system looks incredibly weird. The world is run by merchants, who have no interests apart from enlarging their capital again and again?

'What then is life for?' they would ask**.


* This is at the root of the 'somewheres' vs. 'anywheres' distinction we saw with Brexit. The Remainers cannot conceive how anyone could be opposed to their vision of a uniform transnational community of right-thinkers embracing an enlightened globalised capitalism; Leavers conversely can't understand why our hard-built and largely pleasant British island community should be subordinated to more powerful European nation-states with their own somewhat inimical interests.

** A quote I once heard: "No-one ever gave their life for IBM."

Our crashed boiler (progress update)

On Friday November 24th our son, in a fit of DIY zealotry - decided to fix our leaking/clogged taps. This involved turning off both the water supply and the boiler. In restarting the boiler he turned the wrong valve (the central-heating top-up valve) which flooded the boiler causing a small cascade of water through the floor and into the kitchen, followed by a torrent from the overflow pipe down the outside wall.

The boiler has not powered up since.

As the temperature plummeted to five degrees, we thankfully had our two backup Dragon oil heaters, the living room gas fire and the electric immersion heater. We've been surviving thus for four days.

Cowering around the gas fire as temperatures plummet

This afternoon the plumber - who has stated in advanced that he's not a specialist in the Bosch Worcester Greenstar 30CDi gas-fired condensing boiler - will be popping around to see if he can reboot the system. It's seven years old and well out of warranty.

More later.


Update 7 pmSteve Abbott arrived and soon figured out that the boiler overflow valve had jammed open. It's hard to get at, but he popped it back and rebooted the boiler. After bleeding air out of some of the radiators (they had also lost water to the uncontrolled venting) the heating kicked back in and the house began to warm. The Germans probably have a name for that unique psychological state you feel as a radiator begins to warm under your hand on a freezing night.

The proximate cause of all this messing around was the leaking/blocked taps, still unfixed. Steve will be back soon to repair/replace those and do a quick overall diagnostic test of the boiler.

I had slightly forgotten how impressive expertise in action actually is.