Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fashion, Faith and Fantasy: a kind of review

Amazon link

I have just "finished" this book and put my hands up in dismay at the thought of reviewing it.

Roger Penrose is now 85 and this book may be the final presentation of his worldview. Although he talks about the 'layman' as his audience, potential readers should recall "The Road to Reality". In Amazon reviews of that tome, retired maths professors and physics PhDs lined up to recount at which chapter they hit the limits of their knowledge and had to give up.

This volume is not so different.

In a nutshell:

1. Penrose dislikes String Theory because its extra dimensions admit too many functional degrees of freedom (basically the number of possible field configurations).  It is not explained clearly why the super-explosion in the functional freedom space size is problematic, although he does make a related point that he believes that the six 'curled-up' dimensions are actually unstable and should collapse.

Perhaps it's obvious.

2. Quantum Theory is seen as a partial or incomplete theory - in particular, Penrose thinks that its linearity will be violated in an improved theory. He believes that the reason we don't observe 'Schrödinger's cat' spatial superpositions is due to the gravitational effects of superposition (he takes spatial delocalisation to have a real gravitational effect, aligning with his ontological realism for the quantum state). Specifically, the gravitational self-energy due to the superposition generates energy uncertainty, equivalent to time-uncertainty, hence superposed stationary states collapse into a position eigenstate very quickly. As he explains it, the maths behind this is pretty advanced, requiring general relativity.

3. Cosmologically, Penrose is not a fan of inflation, basing his criticisms on the 2nd Law and entropy. His criticisms have force suggesting that inflation retains support faute de mieux.

What does Penrose himself suggest as alternatives? He thinks twistor theory (a framework featuring emergent space-time) continues to have promise, and believes that a particular kind of bouncing, recurrent universe traversing through repeated big-bangs can explain the extraordinarily low entropy 13.8 billion years ago.

I think it's good for physics that he wrote this book, but absent a huge background in general relativity, complex analysis, twistor theory, quantum field theory and tensor analysis it's difficult to assess the merits of his arguments.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

British political tribes are stabilising

With the anticipated anticlimactic confirmation of 'Jeremy' on Saturday, (the Jeremiad?), it seems that British politics has at last settled into a stable configuration. But what is it?

I wish I could see one of those tribal maps marketeers and demographers like so much, but absent that, here's my common-sense guess as to affiliations and voting numbers for the British electorate. From political left to right:

  1. Left middle-class activists + political far-left, the Corbynistas: (less than a million)
  2. Metropolitan BBC/Guardian Labour, the Tristram Hunt left: (some millions)
  3. Working-class socialists and trades unionists, Daily Mirror readers: (some millions)
  4. Metropolitan liberal Conservatives, Cameron/Osborne types: (some millions)
  5. 'Provincial middle-class' and working-class Conservatives: (many millions)
  6. Working-class socially-conservative 'Old' Labour: (many millions)
  7. Right wing fundamentalists such as hard-core UKIP: (less than a million).

The two mass-blocs are emboldened - notice they are both centre-right.

Labour Party capture by the Corbynistas has left both group 2, the Labour metro-liberals and groups 3 and 6, old-school working-class Labour voters, adrift and partyless.

I'm not sure any political tendency properly addresses the concerns of the old-school socialist and trades-unionist working-class Labour voters, (group 3), who have tended to tribally vote Labour, come what may. But this bloc is in any case in terminal decline.

On the liberal centre/centre-left, who now speaks for groups 2 and 4, the Guardian/BBC Labour left and the liberal, public school wing of the Conservatives? Institutional and tribal inertia makes it extremely difficult to establish a unitary party to address this bloc, despite much press speculation. The Liberal-Democrats are too despised, and projects outside the big two of Labour and Conservative have historically been doomed.

Meanwhile on the socially-conservative right, UKIP had a real chance to expand out from group 7, the 'right wing fundamentalists', to go after sections of the ex-Labour working class, but they have been way too disorganised. Instead, Theresa May moved adroitly to position the Tories towards conservative sections of that electorate. UKIP has thus been neatly marginalised.

Since we seem to have arrived at some measure of voting bloc stability, it seems inevitable that after some period - despite the difficulties - a new centre-left party will emerge (2, 3, 4) to confront Theresa May's forthcoming centre-right coalition (5, 6), with both UKIP and the Corbynistas marginalised.


Some Corbynista fellow-travellers believe that Momentum movement politics will 're-found' the Labour Party - a dynamic new membership allowing the Labour Party to reclaim those centre-left millions. Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge is a case in point.

However, Corbynism seems almost designed to make that impossible through its obsessional focus on SJW-style activism, lack of interest in parliamentarism, obscure to non-existent political programme, unpopular pacifism, anti-westernism .. and so on.

Weight Training Programme

Here, for my records and a bored posterity is my current weight training schedule: 16 exercises and the weights assigned to each. Click on images to make larger.

I have two dumbbell-pairs: one set to the full 10kg each; the other pair set to 7.5kg each which can then be reduced (via one pair of locking collars removal) down to 6.5kg.

The remaining weights, not affixed to the bar, (1.25 + 0.5 =1.75kg and not 5kg, as the spreadsheet mistakenly calculates) can be used for the final three exercises (dumbbell sets pictured below).*

Here are the exercises (most of them) - I tend to work through each, in the order above, starting with the heaviest weights and mixing the muscle groups.

Takes about forty minutes. Some cardio to start and end; stretching exercises at the end. Before I hit the weights I do some non-apparatus exercises such as press-ups, ab crunches, locust and plank, boat and leg stretch.

The weights shown are pretty feeble! I'm an ectomorph and very far from the stereotypical lifter. Also not trying for massive muscle gain - it's more about avoiding muscle-mass loss and general task competence.


* The dumbbell weights are: 2.5kg, 1.25kg and 0.5kg. Each dumbbell bar weighs 1.5kg empty.

So a full configuration is: 1.5 + (2*2.5) + (2*1.25) + (2*0.5) = 1.5 + 5 + 2.5 + 1 = 10kg.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


This is a joke, right? (H/t Jess Riedel)
"Many thoughtful people have embraced some form of vegetarianism, adopting practices long traditional with Hindus, Seventh Day Adventists, and other groups.  But that is only a partial solution.  Modern molecular genetics and biochemistry has proved beyond doubt the interrelatedness of all living things, from the lowliest bacterium to the tallest redwood.  We are scarcely less related to the wheat or the yeast in a loaf of bread than we are to our fellow animals.

"We can no longer hide behind the idea that these life forms are not our kin, nor can we rationalize our mistreatment of them by saying that plants, fungi, and microbes are incapable of suffering.  The instinct to avoid pain and noxious stimuli, and the restless search for favorable conditions, which Thomas Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness, are as universal among living beings as their DNA.

If we refuse to eat our relatives, what CAN we eat?  Fortunately, the same sciences of chemistry and biology that reveal our kinship to all life have freed us at last from the need to kill.  Although most people are surprised to hear it, it is possible to live and thrive on a diet consisting entirely of foods of mineral origin.

"This is because every one of the several dozen nutrients the human body requires - carbohydrate, amino acids, fats, vitamins, and of course minerals - can be synthesized or extracted from air, water, and rock without the involvement of any life form, aside from the chemists who perform these miraculous transformations.

"The Mineralarians are an international association of people, diverse in other respects, who share the common determination to subsist on foods of mineral origin, thereby sparing our fellow beings the victimization that has been their lot, at our hands for the last million years, and before that at the claws and jaws of previously dominant species."
So how would this work?
"How are Mineralarian foods made?  Starting with carbon from coal and petroleum, hydrogen from water and nitrogen and oxygen from air, a few feedstocks of simple organic chemicals are made.  Some,  like glycerine (C3H8O3), are already nutritious and digestible; others, like methanol, ammonia, and acetaldehyde, are merely intermediates along the way to synthesizing the dozens of amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins the body needs in greater or lesser quantity.

"Many of the synthetic reactions mimic those that occur naturally in plants and microbes, but we carry them out with mineral catalysts in a cruelty-free laboratory environment.   The body's own metabolism picks up where our chemistry leaves off, converting the few dozen essential nutrients in mineralarian food into the hundreds and thousands of specialized molecules, including DNA and proteins, required for life. "
Coal?! You're eating extracts from coal!? And petroleum!?? But these come from lifeforms, creatures that were once alive!
"Some mineralarians choose not to eat foods made from fossil fuels like coal and petroleum, or fossiliferous sedimentary rocks, for the same reason they would be not want to eat road kills.  Fossils are usually the result of violence and often contain plain evidence of a being's untimely and painful death.

"To be sure, the violence was not due to human cruelty or negligence, and indeed usually predates the appearance of humans on earth, but it is violence nonetheless.  For those who do not wish to bring the fruits of ancient violence into their bodies, we offer a range of strict mineralarian foods made entirely from certified igneous rocks and atmospheric gases.

"For some, even these foods are problematic, because there is no assurance that an iron or calcium atom freshly spewed from a volcano, or a nitrogen atom distilled out of the air, has not at some earlier time in geologic history been part of a living being who suffered a violent death.  Certainly there are some atoms on earth that have never been part of living beings, but there is no sure way to identify them, because all atoms of a given kind (isotope) are physically indistinguishable.

"The consumer of such atoms is like a reluctant participant in an old-fashioned firing squad execution, where it was customary to issue one blank round at random among the live rounds, so each squad member would have some chance of not having killed.

"If you are troubled by such thoughts, please contact us.  If there is enough interest, we will investigate the possibility of creating foods from material of extraterrestrial origin, in other words from meteorites.  Such food would be as nutritious and tasty as our other offerings, but it would likely be quite expensive, because some biologically essential elements, like nitrogen, occur only in low concentrations in meteorites."
If you feel a need to contact these folk - possible 'this person' - there is a contact email address (Charles Bennett) at the article.


If the Mineralarians are not to your taste, why not choose a Minuteman Pizza?

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Lots of good stuff at this group-blog of economists and evolutionists -

Many good people: Peter Turchin, Joseph Henrich, Jonathan Haidt, Matt Ridley, Garett Jones, .. .

Here are some notable articles, just from a fast scan.

Do Immigrants Import Their Economic Destiny? How migration shapes the prosperity of countries - Garett Jones.

A Radical Proposal After Brexit: End the European Union and Begin Destructive Creation - Peter Turchin.

How America Hates Socialism without Knowing Why - Lixing Sun

How Basic Income Solves Capitalism’s Fundamental Problem - Tom Streithorst

The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism: elites, hierarchy, and large scale society - Peter Turchin.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Why Jeremy will win

Watching Andrew Marr's insightful TV programme about recent political history in Scotland, I was struck by one of his observations: that the decline of Labour and the Trades Unions was a direct consequence of deindustrialisation. Scotland, he said, is now a post-industrial country with all the political and cultural diversity which comes with that.

Something else I read, relating to the evolution of the Labour Party (I have forgotten who wrote this): the Labour Party has walked away from its working class base and been colonised by its other historical support group, the urban leftist middle class.

OK, you knew that, but the real point was what came next: the middle class is largely unaffected by whichever party occupies government. Consequently, its political activism is fuelled not so much by righteous indignation on behalf of its own (mostly aspirational) problems, but by idealised, sacralised issues, often relating to other, less fortunate segments of society. [Example].

So do we think the future is more social, economic and political atomisation, more middle class overproduction and more cultural-tribal politics .. movement politics?

Or are we going to revert to the kind of proletarian solidarity formerly found in industries such as ship building and the mines?

To ask is to answer.

Forget those socialist-realist posters of cloth-capped workers united in storming the barricades. They are history.*

We have seen the future and it is Jeremy.


* Those posters have been history for a long time. This 'present conjuncture' so reminds me of the politics of the late sixties and early seventies, a time of protest, demonstrations and exciting left-wing politics.

The weasel Owen Smith's fundamental problem in this leadership election is that he thinks the 'Jeremy problem' is lack of competence in an electoral/parliamentary context.

Listen up, Owen! The new membership doesn't care about remote parliamentary antics - it's the movement, stupid!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Garden Engineering

So what's this about?

The height is such that it can just be seen from the couch. 'Dry stone' technology: no drilling, wires or cement - just gravity.

So far, no takers. I have quipped that they are waiting for the shower head and curtain.

Extending this thought and as we progress towards winter, I would certainly not be taking cold baths in the garden. Perhaps I should divert the Christmas lights so that a bulb or two is submerged? That would give them a heated swimming pool.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy

Amazon link

My hard copy has just arrived, a respite from reading Gareth Stedman Jones' theory-and-history-dense biographical tome, "Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion".

Here is how Peter Woit describes Penrose's book.
"Besides a mathematical appendix, the book is divided up into four parts:


"This is the section that deals with string theory, and Penrose’s central objection is to the use of extra spatial dimensions as a crucial part of the theory. When trying to use string theory as a unified theory, an assumption is made that one can take four space-time dimensions very large, and the rest very small, decoupling the large and small dimensions. Penrose argues that there is no reason to believe one can consistently do this, that there should be couplings between these degrees of freedom that cannot be ignored, leading to instability of the theory, rather than a stable ground state with large dimensions.


"In this section Penrose addresses the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, pointing out correctly that our standard story about quantum mechanics introduces an “ontological shift”, indicating that something more is going on than a well-understood consistent framework. He favors the idea that perhaps the introduction of gravity into the usual framework could resolve this problem, backing this up a dimensional analysis argument that a relevant effect could come from gravity, while being too small to be observable so far.


"Here Penrose describes in detail some basic problems in the theory of cosmology, and how they are supposedly resolved by the theory of inflation. He explains that characterizing this as “fantasy” is not meant to be purely critical, that “fantasizing” about the moment of the big bang is what theorists do in the absence of compelling evidence, and that he just has other fantasies he thinks worthwhile.

"A new physics for the universe?

"In a final section, Penrose describes some of his more positive ideas addressing the problems pointed out in the earlier sections. This begins with a wonderful summary of the theory of twistors, and I strongly suspect that he’s right that this very different way of thinking about space-time geometry will ultimately be part of any successful integration of our understanding of quantization and geometry. That this geometry is very specific to four space-time dimensions provides yet another reason for skepticism about the fashion of theories with more spatial dimensions."
Update: I have just been reading the mathematical appendices and - just as with The Road to Reality - Penrose's concept of 'lay person' essentially equates to: reader trained in mathematics and physics to at least graduate level, but not a practising post-doctoral physicist!


You might also be interested in John Baez's blog, Azimuth, where he has four pieces published so far under the general title, "Struggles with the Continuum". Part one is here, and each part links to the next.
"Is spacetime really a continuum? That is, can points of spacetime really be described—at least locally—by lists of four real numbers (t,x,y,z)? Or is this description, though immensely successful so far, just an approximation that breaks down at short distances?

"Rather than trying to answer this hard question, let’s look back at the struggles with the continuum that mathematicians and physicists have had so far."
Part one is devoted to Newtonian mechanics and considers point particles moving under gravity. Is this well-understood and well-behaved?

"Xia proved in 1992 that with 5 or more particles, there are solutions where particles shoot off to infinity in a finite amount of time!"
The second part introduces the quantum mechanics of charged point-particles (deploying the uncertainty principle). This makes a difference, but things break down with more than three spatial dimensions.

Part three brings in special relativity, and part four quantum field theory.

There is at least one more part promised, and the level of analysis is not beyond that of a maths/physics graduate - at least to get the general idea.


Today, another one of "the last days of summer", found us at Lytes Cary Manor in the 28 degrees sunshine.

Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset

We had a picnic, swished off a wasp or two, took a walk around the woodland trail then sat in the gardens for a while, watching the Yeovilton helicopters training overhead. Then we came home.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Workers, slaves, androids - and agency

Einstein produced well-validated scientific theories combined with speculations which seem out of synch with current quantum orthodoxies, while politically he seemed to be socialist-pacifist.

Marx produced rigorous theories of class societies focusing on the capitalist mode of production (Capital etc), speculated about the future of capitalism (inaccurately), and politically seemed to be, well, a communist.

It pays to stay focused on the theories.

So ignore the politicking and moralising and focus on Marxism as a theoretical system; how exactly do workers as living, breathing persons figure in Marxist economic theory?


In the beginning was the 'primitive communism' of egalitarian hunter-gathers. Following the neolithic revolutions - agriculture and pastoralism - we entered the age of class societies. All class societies are unequal. At the bottom there are one or more classes which are the primary producers of the necessities of life.

Through the increased productivity of agriculture and pastoralism, the lower classes produced more than they needed to survive. The excess, the social surplus product, was appropriated by the rulers, also serving to fund the elements of the state - administration, warriors and of course, tax collectors.

There was always an accompanying ideology to explain why this little ditty:

was inapplicable, and in fact downright subversive.

Archaic empires had their God-Kings while Axial age empires harnessed more abstract Gods to the maintenance of social order.

In feudal times, there was "a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord."

As I mentioned already, for Marx the specific essence of capitalism was generalised commodity production and exchange.

The value at which a commodity is exchanged is captured by the formula c + v + s, where c is the value of machinery and raw materials, v the value of the worker's wage and s the additional value created by the activity of the worker in producing the final commodity.

The class nature of capitalism is exhibited in that the worker produces more value (v + s) than he or she receives in payment (v). It doesn't seem that way, as wages are superficially presented as payment for labour (ie the product of labour) rather than labour-power (the capacity to work - placed at the disposal of the capitalist).

Still, in formal terms the worker and the capitalist meet as equals in the market place; the worker sells his/her labour-power and receives a fair price for it. The workers don't have to sell their labour-power and the capitalist doesn't have to employ them. Proletarians have agency (although the concept is not theorised).

We have to add a few things to get closer to quotidien reality: asymmetries of power between workers and bosses; supply/demand & differing profitabilities creating price-variations around value, and so on. But the principle is as stated.


People sometimes talk about wage-slavery, working for the Man. Slavery exists under capitalism (the antebellum American South and Nazi Germany being high-profile examples) but in Marxist economics a slave isn't a proletarian; a slave is not a party to a market-transaction for labour-power: a slave is owned.

In this sense, a slave is in the same category as any other piece of equipment, classified as constant capital (c) in the equation. The slave is not paid wages but is merely provided with the same maintenance and raw materials (specifically shelter, food) as any other piece of smart automation. In particular, a slave does not produce surplus value (just surplus product). An economy comprised wholly of slaves, with no wage-labourers, is exactly equivalent to a totally-automated economy - it cannot operate as a capitalist economy as no surplus value is produced.

It's in this sense that slave economies such as the Roman Empire prefigure speculative-future total-automation economies. The Romans had a class of incredibly advanced, intelligent instrumenta vocalia ('talking tools') embedded within a general technological environment of staggering backwardness and low productivity.

The instrumentum vocale philosophy might be adopted for future AI systems, such as the androids featured in the recent TV programme 'Humans', but we run straight into the problem of agency.

"Humans" on Channel 4, showing the 'Synth' Anita

The moment we start treating advanced automation systems as persons, we cannot embed them into the economy as 'talking tools'. Considering them as free agents, we may feel obligated to offer them rights, including labour rights in waged employment. They then enter our existing capitalist society as 'new proletarians' .. and 'new capitalists'.

No doubt that will turn out well.


Let's be clear. There is nothing in Marx or reality which prevents a 'robot capitalism'. As long as worker-robots are paid wages which they use to buy their means of self-reproduction in the marketplace, and as long as robot-capitalists can use their robotic work force's labour-power to make profits, capitalist relations of production remain in place.

Protoplasm is not a requirement.

Whether these industrious, capable androids will feel comfortable being taxed to support the remaining, wholly parasitic, humans is an issue I leave to your imagination.


In the previous post on this topic, "Total automation under capitalism?", I considered communism brought about by non-sentient automation, giving as an example the 3D printer/fabricator.

In the scenario above, abundance is delivered through automation systems with agency: sentient AI systems - androids or robots - which most people would classify as persons.

It mirrors the distinction in AI research between systems which augment people (like Google today, satnavs or exoskeletons) and those which emulate/replace people, which cut people out of the loop. There are few examples of the latter at the moment - autonomous piloted vehicles perhaps being the most salient.

If we are to avoid the much-hyped technological singularity where in the worst case humans are rendered extinct by our creations, we should perhaps make sure that our automated infrastructure is of the non-sentient type while AI-based agents become our colleagues, companions and friends.

On a bad day, I wonder if this distinction can really hold, given the likely extreme complexity of a communist economy.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Wapping Wharf - how cool is that?

Saturday at Wapping Wharf.

"Wapping Wharf is rapidly becoming a new independent food and drink quarter for Bristol.

"From sourdough pizzas to organic fruit and vegetables, and from freshly baked bread to specialist coffees, Wapping Wharf is home to a plethora of independent restaurants, cafes and shops.

"Gaol Ferry Steps, the tree-lined, pedestrianised route running through Wapping Wharf, has retailers located along either side, while CARGO, a new retail yard made of converted shipping containers, brings together a range of independent traders."
Street entertainers, artisan restaurants, plenty of wood ... Bristol Harbourside is buzzing!

Here we're taking lunch at the Mud Dock cafe, perched two floors above their cycle shop. It's a 'repurposed red-brick harbourside warehouse converted in 1994'.

Above is a view, through the serving hatch, of the kitchen.

The buzz was amplified by the Tour of Britain (stage 7 circulating nearby). Crowds of tall, thin, bearded young men with their pleasantly middle-class families were earnestly expounding the finer points of bike-racing as their heroes time-trialled past every minute.

Bradley Wiggin on the morning's time trial

Mark Cavendish on the morning's time trial

We were so excited that we at once resolved to dispose of our comfortable, spacious house in Wells and lease a trendy apartment in Wapping Wharf where we could be close to the real action.

Who needs a car when you can walk to the Watershed for artistic films and organic green tea? The Arnolfini gallery is just a few hundred yards away - we could explore the subversive power of punk. And all around the delights of central Bristol: galleries, museums, parks, shopping, political activism.

We wait by the river Avon for the next arrival of the Peloton

Mark Cavendish leading the Sky team

Andrei Greipel on the right

We even saw the former Mayor, George Ferguson, in his distinctive red trousers cycling past us from his flat near the Tobacco Factory theatre.

On our way home, we did the logistics. We probably do still need the car. We would want a large bedroom plus an additional large room for guests and as my weight room cum study. The new apartment needs to be affordable. Oh, and there are no more apartments to rent in Wapping Wharf; Phase 1 is sold out.

I think this one is going to have to be deferred.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Gym: Dec 2012 - November 2016

In December 2012 I wrote about my gym induction. The Wells Blue Sports Centre is just seven minutes walk from home and I had signed up.

The proximate cause was Dr Michael Mosley. In August 2012, after his TV programme introducing the 5:2 diet, I decided to give it a go. By December the fat had rolled off - I lost more than two stone. But healthy thinking is contagious: fed up with being a couch potato, I had decided to join the local gym.

So here we are, four years of gym-bunnying later. Recently it penetrated my consciousness that I'm not getting a whole lot stronger. Blaming my poor use of the resistance machines, I took the weight room induction.

There are big advantages to free weight training. But it's complicated learning the exercises and assessing the right weights, much harder than the choreographed resistance machines. Serious home study was required, so I bought the York Dumbbell set and started working through their recommended suite of routines.

Bench-pressing 20kg: things can only get better!

It's good, and this morning I additionally jogged almost two kilometres up the Mendips and back, so that's seen to my warm-up and cardio needs.

Why do I need the gym?

So there you have it. I walked across to the gym an hour ago and cancelled my direct debit. From the beginning of November, if Clare or myself want to use it, we pay-as-you-go.