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!

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* 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.

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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.

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

50X70 FIBRE OPTIC TAPESTRY

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

But they do.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Surfing Uncertainty" on Autism (and Schizophrenia)

Scott Alexander got pretty excited back in September about Andy Clark's "Surfing Uncertainty" (in this post) - but that's because he's a psychiatrist and Clark's model has some insightful things to say about both Autism (Asperger's Syndrome) and Schizophrenia.

Amazon link

I read the book and found Clark's approach (that biological agents, aka 'animals', cognitively function through a combination of top-down model-based prediction and bottom-up sensor-based verification) highly plausible, though not that new. Still he pushes the model quite a way - the details are instructive.

My main problem with the text is that the proposed model is really an architectural/engineering one, yet Clark is a philosopher. He writes in that over-abstract, bloated and padded style which people like Daniel Dennett have made so famous.

Somewhere in there, good ideas are trying to extricate themselves from the gloop.

---

Anyway, here's how Scott Alexander, channelling Andy Clark, talks about Autism.
"Various research in the PP [Predictive Processing] tradition has coalesced around the idea of autism as an unusually high reliance on bottom-up rather than top-down information, leading to “weak central coherence” and constant surprisal as the sensory data fails to fall within pathologically narrow confidence intervals.

Autistic people classically can’t stand tags on clothing – they find them too scratchy and annoying. Remember the example from Part III about how you successfully predicted away the feeling of the shirt on your back, and so manage never to think about it when you’re trying to concentrate on more important things? Autistic people can’t do that as well.

Even though they have a layer in their brain predicting “will continue to feel shirt”, the prediction is too precise; it predicts that next second, the shirt will produce exactly the same pattern of sensations it does now. But realistically as you move around or catch passing breezes the shirt will change ever so slightly – at which point autistic people’s brains will send alarms all the way up to consciousness, and they’ll perceive it as “my shirt is annoying”.

Or consider the classic autistic demand for routine, and misery as soon as the routine is disrupted. Because their brains can only make very precise predictions, the slightest disruption to routine registers as strong surprisal, strong prediction failure, and “oh no, all of my models have failed, nothing is true, anything is possible!

Compare to a neurotypical person in the same situation, who would just relax their confidence intervals a little bit and say “Okay, this is basically 99% like a normal day, whatever”. It would take something genuinely unpredictable – like being thrown on an unexplored continent or something – to give these people the same feeling of surprise and unpredictability."
As an AQ high-scorer, I relate to this. In many a social situation I'm walking on eggshells, never quite knowing how people will respond. I'll say something which seems amusing within my own private model of the subject of discourse, only to be met with incomprehension - or worse, consternation - as my poor unconscious predictive model of other people's likely response fails again.

---

The very next section (11) summarises the story on Schizophrenia:
"Schizophrenia. Converging lines of research suggest this also involves weak priors, apparently at a different level to autism and with different results after various compensatory mechanisms have had their chance to kick in.

One especially interesting study asked neurotypicals and schizophrenics to follow a moving light, much like the airplane video in Part III above. When the light moved in a predictable pattern, the neurotypicals were much better at tracking it; when it was a deliberately perverse video specifically designed to frustrate expectations, the schizophrenics actually did better.

This suggests that neurotypicals were guided by correct top-down priors about where the light would be going; schizophrenics had very weak priors and so weren’t really guided very well, but also didn’t screw up when the light did something unpredictable. ...

The exact route from this sort of thing to schizophrenia is really complicated, and anyone interested should check out Section 2.12 and the whole of Chapter 7 from the book. But the basic story is that it creates waves of anomalous prediction error and surprisal, leading to the so-called “delusions of significance” where schizophrenics believe that eg the fact that someone is wearing a hat is some sort of incredibly important cosmic message.

Schizophrenics’ brains try to produce hypotheses that explain all of these prediction errors and reduce surprise – which is impossible, because the prediction errors are random. This results in incredibly weird hypotheses, and eventually in schizophrenic brains being willing to ignore the bottom-up stream entirely – hence hallucinations.

All this is treated with antipsychotics, which antagonize dopamine, which – remember – represents confidence level. So basically the medication is telling the brain “YOU CAN IGNORE ALL THIS PREDICTION ERROR, EVERYTHING YOU’RE PERCEIVING IS TOTALLY GARBAGE SPURIOUS DATA” – which turns out to be exactly the message it needs to hear.

An interesting corollary of all this – because all of schizophrenics’ predictive models are so screwy, they lose the ability to use the “adjust away the consequences of your own actions” hack discussed in Part 5 of this section.

That means their own actions don’t get predicted out, and seem like the actions of a foreign agent. This is why they get so-called “delusions of agency”, like “the government beamed that thought into my brain” or “aliens caused my arm to move just now”. And in case you were wondering – yes, schizophrenics can tickle themselves."
My overall take-home message from this book was that tabula rasa, blank slate paradigms of so much contemporary AI may suffice for crafting smart and powerful classificatory tools, but they won't hack it when we try to build socially-competent agents. In facial recognition and playing Go we're already superhuman; chatbots not so much.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Super-high-level programming languages

Not many posts recently as Alex is visiting. We were discussing programming languages, which divide between those focused on performance (C++, Go) and those focused on the problem domain (Java, Scala).

I floated Prolog past him, but with his engineering head on he wasn't that interested. The tutorial programs were 'hard to understand' and in any case 'could be coded much more efficiently in a procedural language such as Java'.

OK, I gave up on that but it did make me think: what would be a language at a much higher level of abstraction even than Prolog?

Richard Montague

There's a way of thinking about this as a logician, where you focus on different kinds of semantic models: those of higher-order logics, modal logics, type systems .. but I don't really want to go there. Richard Montague's 'throw the kitchen sink at it' logic for natural language is a kind of reductio ad absurdum for that kind of approach. You rapidly lose any computational capability.

Our intuitive idea of the inadequacy of current programming language expressivity derives from a comparison with natural language. What an advance it would be (we think) if we could engage with a computer system the way we today talk to the (human) analyst.

English as a super-high-level programming language?

For me the extra dimensions of natural language include the management of agency (hence speech acts) and context - the presumption of a detailed and extensive shared culture to make sense of implicit referents.

In the end it depends on what we think we're programming. If it's the behaviour of a non-intentional black box (every business system to-date) then a more-or-less souped-up predicate calculus specification language (which is adequately executable) will be optimal: a Prolog-variant.

If our target system is an intentional system, indeed a second-order intentional system - one which treats other systems such as ourselves as intentional systems - then the 'programming language' to engineer such systems will incorporate those additional capabilities we find in natural language.

Today's AI engineering community will hiss at this point: we don't program any more - our systems learn!

Don't worry, that pendulum will be swinging back soon enough. I expect legislation in due course that new AI systems will have to attend school.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

I am conflicted about AI-based law enforcement ...

From The Times today (Gang war fear after Romanian sex trafficker Sorin Serbu is killed):

Sorin Serbu - Romanian gangster
"The murder of a powerful Romanian gangster threatens to prompt an underworld war to control a lucrative sex trafficking market.

Sorin Serbu was beaten to death by masked men carrying baseball bats two weeks after he is said to have been involved in a fight with a rival Romanian gangster.

Serbu, 36, was left in a pool of blood outside the Global Bar in Ilford, east London, in the early hours of Sunday after a music gig. Police have confirmed that they are looking for five attackers. He was taken to an east London hospital but died of his injuries. The incident was reported to police by ambulance workers at 2.48am.

The gangster had a history of running drugs and prostitutes into Europe and made millions of euros while based in Italy, according to The Sun, which quoted a Romanian justice source saying: “There may be more bloodshed before this is over. Serbu tried to muscle in and imported around 100 prostitutes. The arrival of competition like that was always going to rock the boat.”

The vice trade in Ilford and neighbouring Redbridge has long been dominated by Romanian and Albanian gangsters. The problem has become so serious that Romanian police officers have been brought in on secondment to help tackle the gangs.

Locals have grown increasingly irate over the street trade and kerb crawling, with complaints about sex in gardens and used condoms strewn along a main road. Officers have seized vans belonging to the gangs and found mattresses in the back.

It is thought that Serbu, from Braila, eastern Romania, had relocated from Rome, his last base for drug and sex trafficking, after coming under pressure from Italian police."

Ilford used to be a relatively respectable area of east London. Not so much now.

Locally-ubiquitous CCTV and AI-based facial-recognition and incident-monitoring would surely help the authorities in dealing with this blight. What could possibly go wrong?

And then I read this (from Marginal Revolution):
"René Carmille  was a punch card computer expert and comptroller general of the French Army, who later would head up the Demographics Department of the French National Statistics Service. As quickly as IBM worked with the Nazis to enable them to use their punch card computer systems to update census data to find and round up Jewish citizens, Rene and his team of double-agents worked just as fast to manipulate their data to undermine their efforts.

The IEEE newspaper, The Institute, describes Carmille as being an early ethical hacker: “Over the course of two years, Carmille and his group purposely delayed the process by mishandling the punch cards. He also hacked his own machines, reprogramming them so that they’d never punch information from Column 11 [which indicated religion] onto any census card.” His work to identify and build in this exploit saved thousands of Jews from being rounded up and deported to death camps.

Rene was arrested in Lyon in 1944. He was interrogated for two days by Klaus Barbie, a cruel and brutal SS and Gestapo officer called “the Butcher of Lyon,” but he still did not break under torture. Rene was caught by the Nazis and sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1945."
I remember how the Nazis demanded that Jewish authorities in the ghettos of occupied Europe should render administrative assistance in documenting their Jewish inhabitants. The more efficient the Jewish leadership, the more Jews got deported to the depth camps.

Administrative chaos saved lives, lots of them. The Greeks and Romans understood the dilemma.

Q. "How do I get into Marxism?"

Marx is newly fashionable again, but it's a daunting task to take on the four volumes of Capital. And in most fields you don't retrace the founder's tortuous strugglings. In physics, students don't read Newton's or Einstein's original works: they read textbooks.

Marx wrote about what he knew, which was the inner dynamics of capitalism as a mode of production. A good start is "Understanding Capital" by Duncan K. Foley (search "understanding capital foley pdf").

Amazon link


Foley concentrates on the economics, is very clear and writes in a modern paradigm cross-referencing contemporary ideas in economics. The book is thematically-organised across Marx's economic work and is short (170 pages).

Amazon link


As a complement, there's Michael Heinrich's "An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital", (search "marx capital heinrich pdf"). It's similarly short (224 pages), well-written and conceptually clear. Heinrich is more focused on the actual contents of each volume. He also writes about topics Marx intended to address but never got around to, including the theory of crises, the state and communism itself.

Marx wrote very little about post-capitalist social organisation. Without data this would have been no more than speculation. It was down to Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and many others to theorise later developments - in ways I would argue were profoundly mistaken.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Rural life

Clare buys faggots this morning at Wells Market

Until you have tasted them, you have no idea how delicious this west-country delicacy actually is.

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My copy of "The Jewish War" arrived today (by Flavius Josephus).

Amazon link

I'm already much educated simply by reading the historical introduction. I feel that my entire life has now been revealed as an attempt to catch up with Helen Dale - (cf. her exciting bio).

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Morbid phenomena of the most varied kind

There's a curious sense of a world marking time. Politics in America, the UK and Europe sounds more than usually confected. Bogus 'outrage' over "Russian intervention in elections", theatrical tub-thumping over North Korea, tedious shadow-boxing over Brexit.

It's all shallow - elite protagonists going through the motions.

Here's an extract from that excellent essay which is Chapter 11 of Michael Heinrich's "An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital":  State and Capital (p. 208).

PDF link

"A decisive shortcoming of the conception of the bourgeois state as an instrument in the hands of the capitalist class is that it presupposes a “ruling” class that is both unified and capable of acting, as well as a clearly defined class interest that simply needs an instrument for its implementation.

Neither assumption is self-evident. The “economic ruling class” in capitalism consists of capitalists with widely varying, even opposing interests. There is a common interest in the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production, but if the system is not threatened by a revolutionary movement, then this interest is far too general to serve as a guideline for “normal” state action. The interests that determine the state’s activity are not just sitting around waiting to be implemented, as is assumed by the instrumentalist conception. Rather, these interests must first be constituted.

All of the state’s measures are contested, whether the issue is the concrete organization of the legal system, the securing of the material conditions of accumulation, or the type and extent of welfare state benefits.

As a rule, every measure brings disadvantages for some capitalists (sometimes even for all capitalists) and advantages for others (or fewer disadvantages than for the rest). Advantages expected - but not certain - over the long term are pitted against immediate disadvantages.

The issue of what the general capitalist interest consists in, which challenges the state should react to and how - all that has to constantly be ascertained. State policies presuppose a constant ascertainment of the general interest and the measures for its implementation."
We're witnessing the terminal decay of the neoliberal ideological project amid the rising resentment of significant strata of society who are 'just not happy with the way things are going' - who yearn for vague, inchoate change.

I see genuine confusion within the elite as to optimal policy going forwards.

This seems very Gramsci:

Amazon link

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”
It's hard to see a way out without some kind of multi-year social and economic crisis.

"Why the Culture Wins" - Joseph Heath

A Culture Orbital
"Many years ago, a friend of mine who knows about these sorts of things handed me a book and said “Here, you have to read this.” It was a copy of Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons.

I glanced over the jacket copy. “What’s the Culture?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “it’s kind of hard to explain.” She settled in for what looked to be a long conversation."
Thus starts this appreciation of Iain M. Banks by Joseph Heath, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. It's a long and interesting essay which for me flags The Culture as the literary expression of the culmination of neoliberalism (hedonistic individualism), not of the utopian-communism which Banks claimed for it.

Heath writes:
"This is in fact why Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, dislikes the Culture. The book is set during the Idiran-Culture war, and is unusual among the Culture novels in that its protagonist is fighting on the side of the Idirans, and therefore provides an outsider’s perspective on the Culture. The Idirans are presented as the archetype of an old-fashioned functional culture – their political structure is that of a religiously integrated, hierarchical, authoritarian empire.

The war between the Idirans and the Culture is peculiarly asymmetrical, since the Culture is not an empire, or even a “polity” in any traditional sense of the term, it is simply a culture. It has no capital city, or even any “territory” in the conventional sense.

(“During the war’s first phase, the Culture spent most of its time falling back from the rapidly expanding Idiran sphere, completing its war-production change-over and building up its fleet of warships… The Culture was able to use almost the entire galaxy to hide in. Its whole existence was mobile in essence; even Orbitals could be shifted, or simply abandoned, populations moved. The Idirans were religiously committed to taking and holding all they could; to maintaining frontiers, to securing planets and moons; above all, to keeping Idir safe, at any price.”)

Horza is not an Idiran, but rather one of the last surviving members of a doppelganger species. The question throughout the novel – and the question put to him, rather forcefully, by the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda – is why he is fighting on the Idiran side, given that they are, rather self-evidently, religious fanatics, with an exclusive and zealous conviction in the superiority of their own species.

(“It was clear to [the Idirans] from the start that their jihad to ‘calm, integrate and instruct’ these other species and bring them under the direct eye of their God had to continue and expand, or be meaningless.”)

The Culture, by contrast, is all about peaceful coexistence, tolerance and equality. So why would a member of an otherwise uninvolved third species choose the Idiran side?

The difference, for Horza, is that the Idirans, for all their flaws, have a certain depth, or seriousness, that is conspicuously lacking in the Culture. Their actions have meaning. To put it in philosophical terms, their lives are structured by what Charles Taylor refers to as “strong evaluation.”

(Indeed, the inability of the Culture to take the war that it is fighting seriously serves as one of the most consistent sources of entertainment in all the Culture novels, as reflected in ship names, which are generally tongue-in-cheek such as: What are the Civilian Applications? or the Thug-class Value Judgement, the Torturer-class Xenophobe, the Abominator-class Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, etc.)

Consider Weber’s famous diagnosis of modernity, as producing “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” In the Culture, the role of the specialist has been taken over by the AIs, leaving for humanity nothing but the role of “sensualists without heart.”

Thus the chief attraction of the Culture is the promise of non-stop partying and unlimited sex and drugs. (Genetic and surgical modification provide Culture members with the ability to make almost unlimited changes to their bodies, which typically include enhanced genitalia that allow them to experience intense, extended, and repeated orgasms, as well as the installation of specialized glands that produce a range of psychoactive chemicals, to dull pain, to produce euphoria, to remain awake, or to produce almost any other feeling that might seem desirable.)

One can see then why Horza might dislike the Culture. On the surface, his complaint is that they surrendered their humanity to machines. But what he really wants is a culture that can serve as a source of deeper meaning, which is the one thing that the Culture conspicuously fails to provide – on the contrary, it turns everything into a joke.

The Culture may be irresistible, but for essentially stupid reasons. (“Horza tried not to appear as scornful as he felt. Here we go again, he thought. He tried to count the number of times he’d had to listen to people – usually from third- or low fourth-level societies, usually fairly human-basic, and more often than not male – talking in hushed, enviously admiring tones about how It’s More Fun in the Culture… I suppose we’ll hear about those wonderful drug glands next, Horza thought.”)."

...

"There are a variety of developments that are associated with modernity. One of them involves a move away from ascribed toward achieved sources of identity. The idea is rather simple: in traditional societies, people were defined largely by the circumstances that they were born into, or their ascribed characteristics – who your family was, what “station” in life you were born to, what gender you were, etc. There were a strict set of roles that prescribed how each person in each set of circumstances was to act, and life consisted largely of acting out the prescribed role.

A modern society, by contrast, favours “choice” over “circumstances,” and indeed, considers it the height of injustice that people should be constrained or limited by their circumstances. Thus there is a move toward achieved sources of identity – what school you went to, what career you have chosen, who you decided to marry, and the lifestyle you adopt. “Getting to know someone,” in our society, involves asking them about the choices they have made in life, not the circumstances they were born into.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both arrangements. The advantages of choice, for people living in an achievement-oriented society, are too obvious to be worth enumerating. But there are disadvantages. Under the old system of ascribed statuses, people did not suffer from “identity crises,” and they did not need to spend the better part of their 20’s “finding themselves.”

When everything is chosen, however, then the basis upon which one can make a choice becomes eroded. There are no more fixed points, from which different options can be evaluated. This generates the crisis of meaning that Taylor associates with the decline of strong evaluation.

Human beings have spent much of their lives lamenting “the curse of Adam,” and yet work provides most people with their primary sense of meaning and achievement in life. So what happens when work disappears, turning everything into a hobby?

A hobby is fun. Many people spend a great deal of time trying to escape work, so they can spend more time on their hobbies. But while they may be fun, hobbies are also at some level always frivolous. They cannot give meaning to a life, precisely because they are optional. You could just stop doing it, and nothing would change, it would make no difference, which is to say, it wouldn’t matter.

Now consider the choices that people have in the Culture. You can be male or female, or anything in between (indeed, many Culture citizens alternate, and it’s considered slightly outré to be strongly gender-identified). You can live as long as you like. You can acquire any appearance, or any set of skills. You can alter your physiology or brain chemistry at will, learn anything you like.

Given all these options, how do you choose? More fundamentally, who are you? What is it that creates your identity, or that makes you distinctive? If we reflect upon our own lives, the significant choices we have made were all in important ways informed by the constraints we are subject to, the hand that we were dealt: our natural talents, our gender, the country that we were born in. Once the constraints are gone, what basis is there for choosing one path over another?"
The life of a robin in the garden, or a cat in front of the fire, is not bereft of meaning just because neither will ever master calculus.

Humanity has spent millennia .. continues to spend the millennia .. in transforming its environment to remove the obligation to labour for survival. Yet all our instincts, our motivations, are to do with our abilities to deal with existential challenges, to survive, succeed, find a mate, reproduce and have grandchildren.

Absent such challenges such drives, emotions and goals flail on air: great achievements are no longer existentially-motivated but merely discretionary. All actions reduce to the playing of games.

Perhaps we become no more than pets of the Culture Minds. Perhaps we'll alter our genomes so we'll enjoy that. Perhaps our future technology-womb won't be brittle.

So many 'perhaps's.

---

We do actually know what happens, biologically-speaking, when you take a species and move it into an utterly benign environment: step forward the Dodo.

Things they don't tell you about exercise

From Dr Mark Porter today in The Times (emphasis added):
"The real risk [of cardiac arrest] occurs when you push yourself, as can happen in a competitive setting (the squash court) or, as I discovered at the weekend, when hiking up and down the Jurassic Coast with two physically fit daughters.

Older people with “hardened”, furred-up arteries are likely to develop chest pain (angina) if they over-exert, giving them a warning sign that they need to slow down. In advanced cases this can occur on the flat after walking a couple of hundred yards, but with minor narrowings the pain may be evident only 10 to 15 minutes into a cycle ride. If you try to push through the pain, the starved heart muscle beyond the narrowing can trigger a cardiac arrest. Sensible people stop.

More of a concern are silent “soft plaques” that coat the lining of the coronary arteries of otherwise outwardly healthy middle-aged and elderly people. These are like poached eggs covered in a thin crust, and the shearing action caused by the twisting motion the heart adopts when it is beating at very high rates can cause them to rupture, with catastrophic consequences.

The fatty pool (the yolk of the egg) is released into the narrow coronary artery, triggering a clotting reaction that can block blood flow, causing chest pain and starving the muscular heart wall (a heart attack or myocardial infarction). And if you are my age it is often not a matter of if you have some of these plaques, but how many.

This is the rationale behind wearing a pulse-rate monitor and capping your heart rate during exercise as you get older (see the formula below). This is one reason why I am sceptical of the trend for high-intensity workouts that require you to max out on a bike or treadmill in short blasts rather than go for a steady ride or jog for 20 minutes. In my opinion this type of interval training is highly effective but, for the over-50s, best limited to lifelong athletes."
Peta Bee continues:
"while couch potatoes face impending doom in the form of a raised risk of heart disease and diabetes, the aspirationally athletic are encountering their own set of health issues — injuries that threaten to cause long-term harm if left untreated.

Hardcore workouts and high-intensity interval training sessions have contributed to a shift in our perception of what is required to get fit. A survey of more than 4,000 people from across the UK, commissioned by Bupa health clinics, reveals that more than a quarter of gym-goers assume that they have had a good session only if they feel pain during or after it.

Pushing through the pain barrier is taking its toll, with 4.5 million or 43 per cent of people in training for a fitness challenge getting injured in the process; 60 per cent of those who encountered a strain or pulled a muscle or worse never sought treatment and 22 per cent carried on regardless.

...

Lifting weights

Common problem: Haemorrhoids

Prevention

A trend for lifting heavy weights has resulted in an unexpected rise in haemorrhoids, or piles, among gym users. “Weight training is a common cause as people often hold their breath while lifting weights, which forces the air in your lungs downward, putting pressure on your internal organs and the veins in your rectum,” says Dr Amyn Haji, a consultant colorectal surgeon at the Whiteley Clinic in London. “As a result, the veins near your anus become swollen and are forced outside the body, which can cause uncomfortable and sometimes painful haemorrhoids.”

Treatment

In some cases haemorrhoids disappear within a few days. “However, I’d recommend seeing a qualified personal trainer to help you perfect your breathing technique while weight training,” Haji says. “To prevent it from worsening, avoid weight lifting if you have already developed the condition, drink plenty of fluids and buy some over-the-counter medicines — there’s a variety of creams, lotions and gels available to treat the problem.”
I had to stop weight training at the beginning of August as I was experiencing pain in my elbow joints (both arms) and in my forearm tendons. You know it's bad when you have problems lifting a mug of coffee, or using the loppers in the garden (yesterday).

Happier days. I started home weight-training in September 2016 - (link)

It's now November 2017, and the last three months have resulted in essentially no improvement, despite my having ceased lifting. I self-diagnosed as RSI and expect a long period of slow recovery. I was lifting at ridiculous levels for someone with no real history: squats at 28 kg, biceps curls at 23 kg. Idiotic at age 66.