Thursday, July 27, 2017


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.