Friday, September 22, 2017

"The Long Depression" - Michael Roberts

Amazon link

I've been impressed by Michael Roberts's blog posts, on the right sidebar here in the web view. He is insistent that lack of profitability is both the proximate cause of crises and the underlying reason for long depressions, such as the one we're currently experiencing. He is also prepared to make predictions.

So this seemed to be the book to get (published in July 2016) to learn more about his thinking. Here's the Amazon summary.
"Setting out from an unapologetic Marxist perspective, The Long Depression argues that the global economy remains in the throes of a depression. Making the case that the profitability of capital is too low, and the debt built up before the Great Recession too high, leading radical economist Michael Roberts persuasively presents his case that this depression will persist until the profitability of capital is restored through yet another slump."

Here is Michael Roberts talking on "Economic crisis and the long depression" at Marxism 2017:


Michael Roberts on "Robots and artificial intelligence: utopia or dystopia?" at Marxism 2016.


I'll let you know what I think: it's competing with Steve Keen's book and Capital Vol 2 at the moment. But I think it's a priority.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dining in the underpass (a diary)

1. In Which We Encounter a Hipster Cafe in a Poor Neighbourhood (Tuesday 19th)

We're staying in the Holiday Inn, Bristol at the Stokes Croft (St James Barton) roundabout tonight. Check-in isn't until 3 pm so we're wandering the (rather poor) neighbourhood first.

Hilarious so far. The area (the bearpit in the plaza in the centre of the roundabout) has been occupied by anti-austerity protesters and dossers. Everything is covered in graffiti. There is parkour and a woman sitting in lotus position on the asphalt shouting random stuff to passers-by. We hasten on.

We visit the nearby St James Priory cafe. Hipster-friendly but the toilets have MI6-style key-code pads (the code is printed on your receipt). Keeps the dossers out.

I had lost my receipt but a kind woman gives us hers.
I fail by misreading C9367Z as C93672; who knows
why Clare's attempt (above) doesn't work.

We watch carefully as it keeps one in every two customers out too. As both Clare and myself fail, we resort to tailgating.

We decide to move on to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It's the start of term at Bristol University, hard to traverse the pavement at the top of Park Street for registering students.

I particularly liked this Xenomorph at Bristol Art Gallery

2. In Which We Check-In to the Bristol Holiday Inn

Meanwhile our hotel has had a partial aircon failure. We have been moved to an inferior room at a discount. Oh, and for similar dosser-related reasons the lifts only work via an elaborate protocol with the keycard. After abject failure we call the reception woman to tutor us.

The Chinese restaurant that's so highly recommended - adjacent to the bearpit - had its steel shutters down when we passed earlier. The metal was covered in graffiti and the place looked like a garage on a derelict estate.

By half past six when we decide to eat, it's opened to reveal a classic Chinese restaurant frontage. They can't do much about the area, though. Clare whispers that we should look inside first to see if they have tablecloths.

The Mayflower: a highly-recommended Chinese restaurant

Bristol has world-class graffiti

Inside it is a jewel - a large Chinese contingent vouches for authenticity

Pictured as we left - the Mayflower is to the right; there is a homeless man
in a tent somewhere off-picture.

The food is truly excellent.

3. In Which We Visit A Pub I Last Attended 49 Years Ago

The Christmas Steps

The progressive headmaster of Bristol Grammar School arranged weekly lectures for sixth formers back in 1968. We all trooped down to the Big Hall where an invited speaker would broaden our minds. Some of us had an alternative vision, however. The 17 year old me - with some equally-bohemian friends - would instead migrate to the Christmas Steps pub for an hour of underage drinking.

My favourite drink was a pint of Brown and Bitter. Only later did I discover that this traditional Bristol mix used the bottle of Brown Ale to disguise adulterated Bitter. Apparently I was insulting the Publican every time I ordered it.

No matter. Eventually the headmaster took a roll-call and we were all exposed. Most were caned, but I escaped as I was about to leave school. I was merely interrogated as to why I had done it. I replied that having opened an opportunity for choice, it was naive of the school authorities to imagine that some people wouldn't exercise it.

I hope they were pleased with this adolescent insight.

4. The Next Day Where We Visit Whitchurch Garden Christmas Centre

Whitchurch Garden Centre (!?)

Little Red Riding Hood and an animated Beaver

On the way back to Wells this morning, with Clare needing a bag of mulch, we stopped at the Whitchurch Garden Centre (we had not visited before). The vista above greeted us .. .

Monday, September 18, 2017

Marx and a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Marx, as far as I know, did not explicitly write about the impact on capitalism of the widespread introduction of a universal basic income.

He did however, (in chapter 33 of Capital, Vol 1) write about an equivalent situation: the economics of the early Australian and American colonies.

Because the land was unowned, it was possible for new, penniless immigrants to rapidly acquire a homestead for themselves and their families, making them effectively self-sufficient.
"Free Americans, who cultivate the soil, follow many other occupations. Some portion of the furniture and tools which they use is commonly made by themselves. They frequently build their own houses, and carry to market, at whatever distance, the produce of their own industry. They are spinners and weavers; they make soap and candles, as well as, in many cases, shoes and clothes for their own use. In America the cultivation of land is often the secondary pursuit of a blacksmith, a miller or a shopkeeper.”
This makes capitalist production difficult.
"The absolute population here increases much more quickly than in the mother-country, because many labourers enter this world as ready-made adults, and yet the labour-market is always understocked. The law of supply and demand of labour falls to pieces.

On the one hand, the old world constantly throws in capital, thirsting after exploitation ...; on the other, the regular reproduction of the wage labourer as wage labourer comes into collision with impediments the most impertinent and in part invincible. ...

The wage-worker of to-day is to-morrow an independent peasant, or artisan, working for himself. He vanishes from the labour-market, but not into the workhouse. This constant transformation of the wage-labourers into independent producers, who work for themselves instead of for capital, and enrich themselves instead of the capitalist gentry, reacts in its turn very perversely on the conditions of the labour-market. ...

It avails him [the capitalist] nothing, if he is so cunning as to import from Europe, with his own capital, his own wage-workers. They soon “cease ... to be labourers for hire; they... become independent landowners, if not competitors with their former masters in the labour-market.” ...

“Our capital,” says one of the characters in the melodrama, "was ready for many operations which require a considerable period of time for their completion; but we could not begin such operations with labour which, we knew, would soon leave us. If we had been sure of retaining the labour of such emigrants, we should have been glad to have engaged it at once, and for a high price: and we should have engaged it, even though we had been sure it would leave us, provided we had been sure of a fresh supply whenever we might need it.”
But sadly not. This little difficulty in kick-starting American capitalism was, however, only temporary.
"On the one hand, the enormous and ceaseless stream of men, year after year driven upon America, leaves behind a stationary sediment in the east of the United States, the wave of immigration from Europe throwing men on the labour-market there more rapidly than the wave of emigration westwards can wash them away.

On the other hand, the American Civil War brought in its train a colossal national debt, and, with it, pressure of taxes, the rise of the vilest financial aristocracy, the squandering of a huge part of the public land on speculative companies for the exploitation of railways, mines, &c., in brief, the most rapid centralisation of capital.

The great republic has, therefore, ceased to be the promised land for emigrant labourers. Capitalistic production advances there with giant strides, even though the lowering of wages and the dependence of the wage-worker are yet far from being brought down to the normal European level."
In Marx's time, the mid-nineteenth century, working class factory life was truly horrendous. This is well-documented in the later chapters of Capital Vol 1.

What lessons can we learn for the twenty first century?

If people can genuinely acquire the necessities of life without labouring for wages then most - given a free choice - won't be signing up as employees. They may do voluntary work or various leisure activities .. but clocking in every day? Forget it .. though work that was interesting and not coercive might still attract a few economically-self-supporting individuals.

I offer you the example of the recently-retired on good pensions.

Taken in the round a UBI set at the level of the average wage would be strongly subversive of the continued operation of a capitalist economy. Pitched at a subsistence level as a variant of welfare, it's a different story.


Capital Volume 1, which I've just completed, is an eclectic book. The first four chapters are rather abstract, dry and repetitious although not too intellectually demanding. They are necessary, however, to establish the foundation for the rest of the book.

Subsequent chapters alternate between conceptual analysis (interesting but quite repetitive) and detailed anthropological/statistical studies buttressing and illustrating the economics. Generally they come down to the appalling conditions of the working class of the time, mostly in England.

The last part of the volume is a very interesting account of the process of capitalist rise from the ashes of feudalism. Broadly answering the question: where did the working class and the capitalist class actually come from?

Marx is a very verbal thinker, avoiding mathematics and equations. Everything is explained in words which can help understanding while simultaneously hindering it. If only he had formalised his concepts while retaining the helpfully-tutorial explanations; most modern accounts do that.

I personally found it useful to have Marx's reproduction equations in mind as I read the volume.

Next is Volume 2, where we move from production to exchange.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The gag is on

Walking down to Waitrose this morning - and dragging the new sholley, my weight-training-induced sore forearms still haven't gone away and it's 'no more Mr Heavy-Shopping-Bags' - I ventured this thought to Clare.

"Shall I tell you the new thing I've learned today?"

Grudging acquiescence.

"You know I'm continually fascinated by the way AI and robotics are going to transform capitalism, and how exactly that transformation's going to work ..."


The new thing was from Part 2 of Michael Roberts' insightful series, 'Robots and AI: utopia or dystopia?' ..
"The question often posed at this point is: who are the owners of the robots and their products and services going to sell to make a profit?  If workers are not working and receiving no income, then surely there is massive overproduction and underconsumption?  So, in the last analysis, it is the underconsumption of the masses that brings capitalism down?

"Again, I think this is a misunderstanding.  Such a robot economy is not capitalist any more; it is more like a slave economy.  The owners of the means of production (robots) now have a super-abundant economy of things and services at zero cost (robots making robots making robots).  The owners can just consume.  They don’t need to make ‘a profit’, just as the aristocrat slave owners in Rome just consumed and did not run businesses to make a profit.

"This does not deliver an overproduction crisis in the capitalist sense (relative to profit) nor ‘underconsumption’ (lack of purchasing power or effective demand for goods on a market), except in the physical sense of poverty. ..."
Roberts here puts his finger on the key mode of production change required by total automation: production of exchange-values collapses and all production is of use-values, just like in slave-owning antiquity.

The issue is, who gets to be the recipient of such wonders of production, the owners of the robots .. or everyone? It seems contentious.


Where to start? The only place was the labour theory of value.
"So Marx said that the capitalist pays the worker the value of his labour-power - what it costs to maintain the worker as an effective employee - and sets him to work. But the value the worker actually creates in his day's labour is more than this, and that value belongs to the capitalist, creating his profit once realised in the exchange process.

"But if the worker is replaced by a robot ..."
But Clare was having none of this.
"That can't be right. If the worker is paid less than what he produces, then the employer won't be able to sell all his products. No, Marx was quite wrong."
I hesitatingly began to talk about Marx's simple and expanded reproduction equations, Departments I and II .. but the audience had switched off.

In truth, I don't think the objection can be addressed in ordinary conversation, the sources of demand being manyfold: in addition to the needs of proletarians you will find capitalists' spending on themselves, the market for reproduction and expansion of the means of production .. .

No less a luminary than Rosa Luxemburg got it wrong.

In fact I explained quite clearly both simple reproduction and expanded reproduction within capitalism on this blog, but if you review the two posts you will see the analysis is not wholly trivial.

This afternoon I considered going through the spreadsheets with her - and decided against having my arm bitten off.


You may have heard over the last couple of days: Mathematicians Measure Infinities and Find They’re Equal.

It relates to whether there are cardinal numbers between the infinity representing the size of the natural numbers and the larger infinity capturing the size of the real numbers. The continuum hypothesis says no, but that can't be proven using the normal axioms of set theory.

The work of Malliaris and Shelah has some bearing on the matter although not all is completely clear (is the cardinality of p = t the same as the continuum?).

I said to Clare, "Did you know there are different sizes of infinity?"

She snorted, "That kind of nonsense is just what gives mathematics a bad name."

I advanced on her with paper and pen; she sat back on the couch, closed her eyes, put her hands over her ears and started to hum.

Das Kapital for the 21st Century? - Anwar Shaikh

This week's topic is economics. You will see a new blog on the sidebar: A Critique of Crisis Theory by Sam Williams.

In the 1970s the International Marxist Group (IMG) was known as the most intellectual of the far-left organisations. Theory was taken seriously but as a member in my early twenties I never learned much economics - I was not the only one. An abiding memory was of a conference where a senior comrade gave a speech on economic perspectives: a colleague whispered to me that all he had done was take an editorial from The Economist that week and dress it up in Marxist language - I was appalled.

Amazon link

I'm in two minds about Steve Keen's book. I understand that it's dumbed down, written for students contemplating entering university-level economics. The book describes the vast arc of economics history stretching from the classical era of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx (who arguably terminated that tradition by making it politically explosive) through to the rise of the neoclassical tradition, Keynesianism and the confusion we are in today (Sam Williams' analysis is shorter and more definitive).

On the downside, in areas I know something about (quantum mechanics, special relativity) Keen's writing is confused although blusteringly self-confident. Throughout the book he has eschewed equations and diagrams, which is insane - he is reduced to conveying exactly the same concepts in prose which completely obscures his narrative. I was concentrating closely and his verbal arguments elide important steps and don't really hang together.

So I'm thinking Keen is interesting but intellectually underpowered, the kind of tourist guide who you sense isn't really authoritative.

The guy I'm really meant to read, apparently, is Anwar Shaikh.

Amazon link

Sam Williams writes:
"Shaikh’s book is by a modern university-educated economist written for other modern university-educated economists. Economics blogger Michael Roberts in his review says Shaikh’s “Capitalism” is more difficult than Marx’s “Capital.” I agree with Roberts on this point, and I think it is important to examine why this is so.

One reason is that Shaikh’s book demands a thoroughgoing knowledge of Marx’s work, including all three volumes of “Capital.” But it also requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of modern orthodox bourgeois economics—neoclassical marginalism. While parts of the book use Marxist language, the bulk of it is written in both the language of English and mathematics in a way that will be familiar only to those well grounded in orthodox bourgeois economics.

Shaikh provides some “translation” between the terminology employed by Marx and that used by modern economists, but it is hardly sufficient. In addition, where in the many places Shaikh uses the jargon of neo-classcal marginalism in place of basic Marxist concepts, it renders his language imprecise. Marx’s terminology was designed to describe in precise terms his analysis of capitalism. The terminology of neo-classical marginalism was developed for quite different purposes, to say the least, though it’s always possible to see what Shaikh is getting at provided the reader is sufficiently fluent in both “languages.”

Shaikh does provide a useful appendix listing the meaning of symbols he uses in his mathematical equations. The list is a long one.

Marxist political activists, even if they are highly educated Marxists but lack knowledge in today’s bourgeois economic orthodoxy, will have trouble understanding the book. But professional economists thoroughly grounded in modern bourgeois economics will be if anything in even greater trouble. The reason is that trained as they are in present-day bourgeois economics, they will also have a great deal of difficultly with the book unless they also have a thorough grounding in Marx. Though they will feel “more at home” with much of the terminology than will Marxist political activists, the Marxist foundations of the book will escape them.

The professional economists who will have the least difficulty with “Capitalism” are those familiar with the work of the Italian-British economist Piero Sraffa. For those somewhat familiar with Shaikh’s work, this will be no surprise. Much of Shaikh’s work has revolved around the “transformation problem”—the problem of transforming Marx’s values—or direct prices—into prices of production.

Shaikh has spent a considerable part of his career in refuting the suggestion by various critics of Marx that Sraffa’s work has both refuted Marx’s theory of value and surplus value and rendered it unnecessary. Essentially, these critics—also mostly university-educated economists—hold that the capitalist economy can best be described in terms of prices of production. According to them, analyzing capitalism in terms of “value” merely gets in the way.

But even professional economists familiar with Sraffa, unless well grounded in Marx, will not find “Capitalism” an easy read. I would most certainly not recommend Shaikh’s “Capitalism” as an introduction to modern Marxist economic thought.

None of this detracts from the importance of this work, however. Shaikh is undoubtedly one of the most important economic thinkers of our time. What it does mean is that it may take many years—or decades—for the arguments in this book to be assimilated into the understanding of the workers’ movement. I hope to contribute to this process in this extended review and critique."
So this is exciting and daunting! Although Michael Roberts in his review strikes a cautionary note.

Amazon link

Here is my go-forward plan (I have almost completed Capital Vol 1).
  1. Read Capital Vols 2 and 3 and Theories of Surplus Value (Vol 4)
  2. Read David Harvey's "Limits to Capital"
  3. Engage with Shaikh's book (or watch the video lectures).
I would like to complete this plan within my lifetime.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Diary: crown prep

Eight minutes and twenty seconds ago I was sitting on the couch, fidgeting and waiting for the right moment to leave.

Now I'm walking down the road towards the dentist. I'm going for crown preparation - always unpleasant. I'm a bit spaced out, to be frank.

I see a man walking 15 yards in front of me: same age, same clothes, same appearance. I think: "It's almost like I'm looking at my future self ten seconds time."

I make a note of where he passes. Ten seconds later I pass that very same spot. I think: "I'm now my future self."

I look at the sun, a vague ball through scudding clouds. I'm seeing the sun in its past, eight minutes and twenty seconds ago.

"Hello sun," I think, "You seem pretty solid for an object existing at the same time as I was fidgeting on the couch." I guess my former self is as real as the sun.

My crown prep will take 50 minutes. As I approach the dentist, I imagine my future self passing me in the other direction, on the way home, the ordeal complete. That future self exists just as much as I do right now, entering the surgery. But just elsewhen.


My new dentist is a young Polish woman, mid-twenties, with a brisk no-nonsense style. I'm guessing INTJ - she's usefully keen on explanation. She looks like an alien in her smock, full-face mask, cap, magnifying goggles and blinding-white forehead LED.

She's good with the injection, though; slow and gentle. I say how much I appreciate a dentist with empathy. The two of them giggle.

Then it's twenty minutes of electric drill whining in my mouth. The top-left molar is being ground down, shaped, flattened. I don't feel much - it's just stressing.

The really uncomfortable part is the mould, which feels like a length of squiggy plasticine cupped in a long, thin plastic container whose edge bites into my cheek.

"Bite hard and hold," she says. The two or three minutes is painful and interminable.

The final part, where she glues a temporary crown, is relatively uneventful. I have to come back in two weeks to have the real thing fitted.

"Don't worry if it comes off," are her final words.

I leave the dentist, start to walk home. 'Oh yes', I think, 'I'm now that future self I was so busy inferring but couldn't actually see 50 minutes ago.' *


The temporary crown survived dinner and even flossing, but split in two and detached on encountering a xylitol chewing gum.

There's a little sensitive area at the back which is forcing me to bite on the right. But it's pointless getting a new temporary crown - it would never survive.

Two weeks.


* I wrote about this (more correctly!) here .. the physicist's view as expressed by Einstein. You can see that my musings were all just a coping mechanism!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Tour of Britain 2017 in Cardiff, in the rain

We drove down to Cardiff yesterday (Sunday) to see the final stage of the Tour of Britain. The weather was predicted to be cold and gusty with heavy showers. My joy was further enhanced by Cardiff's notable traffic congestion, combined with road closures which prevented access to our hotel.

Whinging aside, we fortuitously ended up parked next to a pub a stone's throw from the Wales Millennium Centre, just where the riders were to do three loops of Lloyd George Avenue before completing stage 8.

Waiting for the cyclists at the Wales Millennium Centre - Lloyd George Avenue

A Madison-Genesis team car was handing out inflatable flappers (you can see the black tubes in the picture below on the right) and eventually the peloton arrived. Frankly we could hardly believe the riders' fortitude: it was horrible out there. We had to keep rushing back into the Millennium Centre's café for hot chocolate to stave off hypothermia!

As Clare says in the video below - "It's lovely here!"

Cyclists are made of considerably sterner stuff.

Team Sky take the curve: is that G. with his white sunglasses?

Clare enthusiastically flapped as the riders approached (video below).


This morning we visited Dyffryn Gardens (National Trust), about six miles west of Cardiff. The weather was still poor and Clare was complaining that her gore-tex was way too burka-like.

The author at Dyffryn Gardens - between rain showers

The gardens are good, however, and the greenhouse has plants from several habitats.

Clare explains about air plants in the 'Rainforest Room' at Dyffryn.


We arrived home just after lunch and Clare put some frozen fish in the top oven (on maximum heat! - why?) to defrost. Then she forgot about it as we walked down to Waitrose to restock.

Memory returned as we walked back about twenty minutes later. I jogged to the house clutching my two shopping bags and could hear the fire alarm even from outside. The house was thick with acrid smoke; eyes streaming, I ran from room to room throwing open doors and windows.

Finally I opened the oven, and through the billowing smoke I could see the seared fish. With oven gloves the tray was deposited in the back garden (below).

The tray contains the remains of the plastic plate - not fish

It looks like fish-skin in the metal tray. Not so, dear reader, you are looking at the remains of a plastic plate. Here is the response of the chef.

The chagrined cook

As I write she has passed the door with tools from my toolbox. She truly believes you can scrape that melted plastic off .. "good as new".


[update: remarkably, she seems to have pulled it off ..]

Jerry Pournelle RIP

Very sorry to hear that Jerry Pournelle has just died (of pneumonia after a long spell of ill-health).

I read his classic to Clare. Steve Sailer wrote a memoir here,

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Only engineering convinces

Amazon link

I'm only in the earliest stages of Steve Keen's critique of neoclassical economics (above). He's very successful in exposing their logical inconsistencies and utterly implausible assumptions.

From my own amateur reading of the standard texts, I recall authors conceding these points on the excuse that (i) we can learn something from pure models, and (ii) that despite the flawed assumptions the results seem surprisingly accurate.

I know that Dr Keen is underwhelmed by such hand-waving and will address those points in later chapters.


Keen is somewhat puzzled by the fact that leading economics journals won't see the force of his (undoubtedly correct) arguments or publish his erudite papers. He has some explanations in terms of cultural inertia, the apparent successes in the past of the neoclassical programme and even the usual lack of real-world consequences of getting the foundations so very wrong. He admits wryly that economics just isn't like physics or engineering.

This seems to me the crux of it:

  • People will believe all kinds of things if doing so underpins their self-interest.

  • If there are no practical consequences (ie nothing that can't be explained away), mere argument will never gain traction.

  • If you believe humans will never fly (“if God wanted man to fly he would have given him wings”) then only an aeroplane will refute you.

I'm waiting for the final chapters where Keen unveils his alternative macroeconomic model which, I believe, successfully outperforms those of the neoliberals.


Remember those stories of how racist AI systems were categorising criminals by their mug shots? Plainly, said liberals, crime was a matter of unfortunate circumstances. How could faces (which identical twins suggest are genetically shaped) have anything to do with it?

Yet it was engineering - hard to argue against.

The Economist (liberal susceptibilities very much on hold) reports today: "Advances in AI are used to spot signs of sexuality".
"When shown one photo each of a gay and straight man, both chosen at random, the model distinguished between them correctly 81% of the time.

When shown five photos of each man, it attributed sexuality correctly 91% of the time.

The model performed worse with women, telling gay and straight apart with 71% accuracy after looking at one photo, and 83% accuracy after five. In both cases the level of performance far outstrips human ability to make this distinction.

Using the same images, people could tell gay from straight 61% of the time for men, and 54% of the time for women. This aligns with research which suggests humans can determine sexuality from faces at only just better than chance."
Sexual orientation not so much a lifestyle choice after all.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

"Surfing Uncertainty" - Andy Clark

Amazon link

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has a glowing review of Andy Clark's recent book.
"Sometimes I have the fantasy of being able to glut myself on Knowledge. I imagine meeting a time traveler from 2500, who takes pity on me and gives me a book from the future where all my questions have been answered, one after another. What’s consciousness? That’s in Chapter 5. How did something arose out of nothing? Chapter 7. It all makes perfect intuitive sense and is fully vouched by unimpeachable authorities. I assume something like this is how everyone spends their first couple of days in Heaven, whatever it is they do for the rest of Eternity.

"And every so often, my fantasy comes true. Not by time travel or divine intervention, but by failing so badly at paying attention to the literature that by the time I realize people are working on a problem it’s already been investigated, experimented upon, organized into a paradigm, tested, and then placed in a nice package and wrapped up with a pretty pink bow so I can enjoy it all at once.

"The predictive processing model is one of these well-wrapped packages. Unbeknownst to me, over the past decade or so neuroscientists have come up with a real theory of how the brain works – a real unifying framework theory like Darwin’s or Einstein’s – and it’s beautiful and it makes complete sense.

"Surfing Uncertainty isn’t pop science and isn’t easy reading. Sometimes it’s on the border of possible-at-all reading. Author Andy Clark (a professor of logic and metaphysics, of all things!) is clearly brilliant, but prone to going on long digressions about various esoteric philosophy-of-cognitive-science debates."
It's prose like this which confirms what a great writer Scott Alexander is.


The underlying thesis of Surfing Uncertainty is certainly not news to AI researchers.
"We never see the world as our retina sees it. In fact, it would be a pretty horrible sight: a highly distorted set of light and dark pixels, blown up toward the center of the retina, masked by blood vessels, with a massive hole at the location of the “blind spot” where cables leave for the brain; the image would constantly blur and change as our gaze moved around.

"What we see, instead, is a three-dimensional scene, corrected for retinal defects, mended at the blind spot, stabilized for our eye and head movements, and massively reinterpreted based on our previous experience of similar visual scenes. All these operations unfold unconsciously—although many of them are so complicated that they resist computer modeling. For instance, our visual system detects the presence of shadows in the image and removes them. ...

"Predictive processing begins by asking: how does this happen? By what process do our incomprehensible sense-data get turned into a meaningful picture of the world?

"The key insight: the brain is a multi-layer prediction machine. All neural processing consists of two streams: a bottom-up stream of sense data, and a top-down stream of predictions. These streams interface at each level of processing, comparing themselves to each other and adjusting themselves as necessary.

"The bottom-up stream starts out as all that incomprehensible light and darkness and noise that we need to process. It gradually moves up all the cognitive layers that we already knew existed – the edge-detectors that resolve it into edges, the object-detectors that shape the edges into solid objects, et cetera.

"The top-down stream starts with everything you know about the world, all your best heuristics, all your priors, everything that’s ever happened to you before – everything from “solid objects can’t pass through one another” to “e=mc2” to “that guy in the blue uniform is probably a policeman”. It uses its knowledge of concepts to make predictions – not in the form of verbal statements, but in the form of expected sense data. It makes some guesses about what you’re going to see, hear, and feel next, and asks “Like this?”

"These predictions gradually move down all the cognitive layers to generate lower-level predictions. If that uniformed guy was a policeman, how would that affect the various objects in the scene? Given the answer to that question, how would it affect the distribution of edges in the scene? Given the answer to that question, how would it affect the raw-sense data received?

"Both streams are probabilistic in nature. The bottom-up sensory stream has to deal with fog, static, darkness, and neural noise; it knows that whatever forms it tries to extract from this signal might or might not be real. For its part, the top-down predictive stream knows that predicting the future is inherently difficult and its models are often flawed. So both streams contain not only data but estimates of the precision of that data.

"A bottom-up percept of an elephant right in front of you on a clear day might be labelled “very high precision”; one of a a vague form in a swirling mist far away might be labelled “very low precision”. A top-down prediction that water will be wet might be labelled “very high precision”; one that the stock market will go up might be labelled “very low precision”.

"As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can. This can end up a couple of different ways.

"First, the sense data and predictions may more-or-less match. In this case, the layer stays quiet, indicating “all is well”, and the higher layers never even hear about it. The higher levels just keep predicting whatever they were predicting before.

"Second, low-precision sense data might contradict high-precision predictions. The Bayesian math will conclude that the predictions are still probably right, but the sense data are wrong. The lower levels will “cook the books” – rewrite the sense data to make it look as predicted – and then continue to be quiet and signal that all is well. The higher levels continue to stick to their predictions.

"Third, there might be some unresolvable conflict between high-precision sense-data and predictions. The Bayesian math will indicate that the predictions are probably wrong. The neurons involved will fire, indicating “surprisal” – a gratuitously-technical neuroscience term for surprise. The higher the degree of mismatch, and the higher the supposed precision of the data that led to the mismatch, the more surprisal – and the louder the alarm sent to the higher levels."
Alexander's review continues to explain the theory outlined at greater length in Clark's book, and then moves on to applications. I was particularly struck by the reanalysis of autism (probably biased to Asperger's Syndrome).
"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.

"This model also predicts autistic people’s strengths. We know that polygenic risk for autism is positively associated with IQ. This would make sense if the central feature of autism was a sort of increased mental precision. It would also help explain why autistic people seem to excel in high-need-for-precision areas like mathematics and computer programming."
Clark's model also has suggestive things to say about schizophrenia and dreaming.

The idea that most of sensorimotor cognition is an interweaving of bottom-up sensor feature-extraction and top-down model-driven sensory-motor prediction is extremely persuasive and seems a shoo-in for exploitation by artificial neural network research. The architecture of the first round of AGIs seems to be emerging.

One thing not obviously accounted for is that great mystery: consciousness.


Surfing Uncertainty is on my 'to read' list and you'll get impressions later..

Diary: Montacute House

To Montacute House and Gardens (National Trust) today.

We're in the Meadow at Montacute House 

After walking with the sheep in the meadow surrounding the house and gardens (above picture), we decided to visit the adjacent village of Montacute. We ended up in the Kings Arms Inn, an historic and atmospheric hotel somewhat marred by:

- tabloid jokes hanging between the spirits dispensers behind the bar,
"I haven't spoke to my wife in years. Didn't want to interrupt her."
- a cold draft from the open front door which forced Clare to move her armchair, for which she was duly reprimanded by the woman behind the bar,
"Could you please move that back, you're blocking access."
- and signs in the toilet asking residents to keep quiet late at night, warning,
"Swearing will not be tolerated."
OK. Glad that's sorted then.

Diary: a brief history of scotoma

I visited the optician yesterday, an annual check-up as my father had Low-Tension Glaucoma.

What a scotoma can look like

Being organised, I prepared a detailed record of those weird scotoma events I've been experiencing this last year,. I suppose I secretly believed, despite Internet/Google reassurance, that something else might be implicated.

The optician read the note below with care.
Vision scotoma record of occurrences

1. 5th November 2016.
After weights exercise, visual illusion to the right of central visual field (both eyes separately). A flickering jagged arc. This is consistent with a scotoma. Same phenomenon with either eye closed. After half an hour it began to move out and enlarge while retreating further into peripheral vision. After an hour it disappeared.

2. 19th January 2017.
This phenomenon reappeared 19th January 2017, again (some time) after exercise, at 6.10 pm. Visible duration 20 minutes. Started at the centre of the visual field, a flashing-lightning V-shape with vertex at 8 o’clock. Gradually got larger until it vanished past the boundary of the visual field.

3. March 8th 2017
Same symptoms as before: jagged V-shape fading in five to ten minutes.

4. March 26th 2017
Five hours after exercise, proximately after ice cream (!)

5. Saturday July 29th 2017, 8.40 pm
While reading on the Kindle app felt a bit weird in the head and noticed an opaque, light grey cloud in the centre of the right visual field. I could see text clearly above and below (more above). The shape was like a large horizontal island from a great height; wider than tall with rough edges. The effect lasted about five minutes then vanished. I abandoned reading and went for a shower.

6. Tuesday 22nd August 2017 8 pm
Visual field cloud (right eye) - repetition of July - exactly the same symptoms. Grey/brown rectangular/angular/jagged-edged opaque patch screening the visual field in the right eye. Centre of the visual field, could see above and below it. Around 8 pm while watching Game of Thrones. Felt like scotoma but lasted only a couple of minutes. Had done fairly intensive exercise the day before.
He then proceeded to confirm that it was indeed scotoma, entirely consistent with my advancing age and generally low blood pressure, and that a darkened room was the best way to recover.

During the rest of the examination, as a bonus, I got treated as an intelligent patient - almost a peer, I felt.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Myers-Briggs meets Game of Thrones ..

A clickbait post for the weekend.

Daenerys and Jon

Why no chemistry between Jon and Daenerys? GoT personality typing explains all.

Jon Snow, a stolid, upright character is a typical INFJ. He's typologically excited by rule-breaking, concrete, uninhibited Ygritte, an ESFP wilful waif. "You know nothing, Jon Snow" captures the practical girl's disdain for a head-in-the-clouds idealist.

Daenerys Targaryen is a head-girl ENFJ who needs a dynamic, disinhibited ESTP to offset her idealistic, strait-laced character .. someone like the exciting mercenary, Daario Naharis.

Put Jon and Daenerys together, however, and destiny meets destiny means dullness. No sparkle. This is what happens when writers veer from character- to plot-centred narrative.

The story, unfortunately, of series 7, only partially redeemed by epic scenes.

One of the strengths of Game of Thrones is the clear personality typing of the main characters - many are pretty much archetypes. George Martin got this so right, and the TV version stayed true to character through series 1-6.
  • Littlefinger is an INTJ: an over-intellectual, cold-blooded manipulator
  • Sansa is an ESFJ on an arc from ingénue to queen
  • Arya is an ISTP tomboy - winging it and driven by righteous vengeance.

Myers-Briggs type dynamics predicts that Sansa and Arya will never be of one mind (though they have complementary personalities).

Littlefinger's calculating glibness makes him eventually distrusted by everyone he meets (excepting those who actually have a crush on him - no regrets there, Lysa?).

But really, we've hardly scratched the surface here!

Corbyn's economist: Steve Keen

In the days before sat-navs, you could find yourself driving around the English countryside trying to find your destination: a village, say, like Royston Vasey.  Signposts would contain the name and direct you down endless byways, but somehow you never got any closer. You may have had similar experiences in seaside towns with signs to public toilets.

My job as a self-employed telecoms network architect required a passing familiarity with microeconomics (traffic modelling, business cases). Sometimes I would delve into macro, my interest being in crises, recessions and the preconditions for a new wave of expansion. People only build big public networks in a time of exuberant growth.

Like Royston Vasey, the search proved elusive. Thanks to Steve Keen, I now know that orthodox macroeconomics simply assumes that crises cannot occur. Those that happen nevertheless cannot be structural, but are due to policy errors or 'outside shocks'.

Keen identifies the bizarre foundations of contemporary macroeconomic models as used by businesses, governments and international agencies: the modelling of all consumers as equivalent atomised individuals (no finance and industrial capitalists, no organised workers); the abstraction away of money, debt and the entire financial sector. A continual return to equilibrium is built in.

Taking these things into account, however, leads to very different models which show strong (and empirically-validated) correlations between excessive private debt and crashes; the economy exhibits chaotic rather than equilibrium-seeking behaviour, something like the weather.

This is all explained rather concisely in his latest book which I've now completed.

Amazon link

I was rather impressed: his arguments seemed plausible and well-corroborated. In the UK he sees an unregulated finance sector (think Margaret Thatcher's 'Big Bang' reforms) as having opened the floodgates of private debt (he has supporting data) and thinks that the chronic UK Government deficit is really a symptom of the long post-crash malaise rather than the prior cause of it.

Reading his Wikipedia bio, I was only slightly surprised to read this:
"In August 2015, Keen endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the Labour Party leadership election."
Amazon link

I'll be checking out his main book (above) in the near future. Here's Steve Keen on the BBC's HardTalk.

The interviewer is pretty aggressive and it helps to have read Keen's "Can We Avoid Another Financial Crisis? (The Future of Capitalism)" to understand the logic of his responses.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book reviews

Amazon link

Their big idea is that most brain processing occurs at a subconscious level, that intuitions are subconscious processes which lead (opaquely) to conscious conclusions (metarepresentations), that reasoning is an opaque process associating such metarepresentations with other metarepresentations allowing us to justify our actions to ourselves and others, mostly in reputational support.

This social rationale for reasoning explains why the accounts we give ourselves for our actions are often quite superficial and weak while in justifying ourselves to others we often strengthen our reasons through dialogue. And also that in most cases our reasoning is ex post facto.

The confabulatory rationale for reason is something designers of neural network AI systems will have to take on board. Since, according to the authors, our reasoning powers evolved for public relations purposes, justifications for our underlying evolutionary drives, expect the corresponding motivations of corporeal AI systems to be rather salient to their conversational capabilities.

The book is marred by its style of writing, too keen to show off its authors' liberal susceptibilities, moral qualities and faux-affability. I did not feel on their team. The book is also way too discursive, reminiscent of late-Dennett. They would probably think this a compliment.


Amazon link

Good, chronologically-organised exposition of Hegel's life and thought, placed within the context of the intellectual life of the times. In some places the detail is overpowering. There are two main areas of weakness: firstly there is insufficient explanation of the key conceptual edifices of Hegel's system (I am thinking particularly of the Weltgeist); secondly Hegel's actual works are not discussed specifically but only in passing via Hegel's underlying ideas.

I am still little clearer as to what Hegel actually wrote in the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Science of Logic. I had hoped for better.


Amazon link

I was quite impressed with this book for a while, as Rodrik explained that globalised capital really 'wants' a global 'democratic' institutional framework to ensure its continued replication .. and that nation states and pesky local interests (eg the working classes) get in the way and need to be shunted aside.

His solution was a return to a (modified) Bretton Woods arrangement of more enlightened nation states. My suspension of disbelief finally crumbled when he started advocating unrestricted immigration and the removal of border controls as a major driver of future economic growth. And this is the guy who accuses others of believing more in their oversimplified economic models than facts on the ground!

Even Hive Mind, with its hand-wringing cop-outs, was a lot better than this.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Marx on Slavery

Expecting a vitriolic rant on the absolute evils of slavery in the antebellum American South? There are plenty of those, but here Marx is more interesting, more analytic:
"This is one of the circumstances that makes production by slave labour such a costly process. The labourer here is, to use a striking expression of the ancients, distinguishable only as instrumentum vocale, from an animal as instrumentum semi-vocale, and from an implement as instrumentum mutum.

"But he himself [the slave] takes care to let both beast and implement feel that he is none of them, but is a man. He convinces himself with immense satisfaction, that he is a different being, by treating the one unmercifully and damaging the other con amore.

"Hence the principle, universally applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave-states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found. Conf. J. E. Cairnes. “The Slave Power,” London, 1862, p. 46 sqq.

"In his “Sea Board Slave States,” Olmsted tells us: “I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourer, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than with those ordinarily used with us.

"And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield – much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours.

"So, too, when I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they always must get from negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick, if neglected or overworked.

"But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time, treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North.”
From Note 17 of "Chapter 7: The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value", Capital Volume 1.

In this chapter Marx notes the extreme inefficiency of slavery as compared with the capitalist purchase of labour-power rather than the person of the labourer themselves:
"Then again, the labour-power itself must be of average efficacy. In the trade in which it is being employed, it must possess the average skill, handiness and quickness prevalent in that trade, and our capitalist took good care to buy labour-power of such normal goodness.

"This power must be applied with the average amount of exertion and with the usual degree of intensity; and the capitalist is as careful to see that this is done, as that his workmen are not idle for a single moment. He has bought the use of the labour-power for a definite period, and he insists upon his rights. He has no intention of being robbed.

"Lastly, and for this purpose our friend has a penal code of his own, all wasteful consumption of raw material or instruments of labour is strictly forbidden, because what is so wasted, represents labour superfluously expended, labour that does not count in the product or enter into its value. [note 17]."
Generalised slavery is incompatible with the capitalist mode of production as the use of slaves does not create surplus value - the basis of profits. Classical antiquity was not capitalist.

Putting aside moral issues, slaves replacing workers is a form of total automation. But unlike designed systems, human beings are understandably unenthused by a lifetime role as servitor.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Diary: what I'm reading

Amazon link

Peter Turchin recommends this book in his latest, rather blood-curdling post. He writes,
"It is strange to actually live in a society experiencing a structural-demographic crisis, after studying many examples of such crises in the past. Unfortunately the crisis is developing largely according to the classical pattern. The degree of political polarization is at its highest levels since the (First) American Civil War. Intra-elite infighting is tearing the Republic apart. ...

"Steve is one of the “heterodox economists” (meaning that they are pretty much ignored by the mainstream). His starting point is the theory of Hyman Minsky (another economist who was largely ignored by the profession). Minsky’s theory makes a lot of sense to me, however. Let me try explain it in one paragraph.

"The main dynamical driver is the magnitude of private debt (combining what’s owed by both corporations and households) in relation to GDP. Currently this indicator is at 150% of the US GDP. Why is it bad?

"Actually, for a while, as private debt grows, things are just fine because expanding credit drives economic growth (think of new housing construction during building booms). But eventually the cost of servicing accumulated debt starts to depress consumption (the more you pay for your mortgage, the less money you have to buy things). Falling consumption results in overproduction of goods and declining profits for businesses, which makes investment a losing proposition. Credit collapses, businesses go bankrupt, or downsize their labor, less employment means even less consumption, and (absent large-scale increase in government spending) the economy enters a downward-trending “death spiral” of a prolonged depression.

"The precise timing of the turn-around point is very difficult to predict (it’s another example of earthquake-like dynamics). Yet Steve Keen is one of very few economists who predicted the General Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007–2008.

"If Steve is right in identifying the main cause of the GFC, then we should listen to what he says in the book about the likelihood of another crisis in the next few years. Unfortunately, the news is bad, because we are still at a very high level of private debt in relation to GDP."
Turchin also sees the world economy in the 'winter' phase of the current Kondratiev cycle (I recently wrote about these here).

In any event, I acquired the book and will read it along with this:

They say the first four chapters are tedious, and that after that, things pick up (most readers have abandoned by then). In these early chapters Marx writes at length and repetitiously about the nature of the commodity, use-value and exchange-value, money and the transformation of money into capital.

He's a lively writer, always good for a venomous quip at the expense of an opponent; his knockabout style is far from politically-correct. It helps to be aware of just how important - how foundational - these concepts are for the whole development of Marxist economics.

Still, I'm glad I've got beyond chapter four.

Diary: a picnic at Brean Down

Yesterday was that rarity in England, a late-summer Bank Holiday which was actually hot. And remarkably the tide was in at the beach here, just south of Brean Down (pictured).

Brean Down: reminds me of a Predator drone

We didn't make it on to the peninsula itself, settling for a Waitrose-inspired picnic at the top of the beach and a walk along the damp sand.

Refreshments (!) at the entrance

The rights to beach-parking are held by the local council. It's £3 for the day and the beach is plenty big. That's more than you can say for the toilets located behind the Burgers and Fries. The women were queued twelve deep and the facilities were rudimentary.

What economic incentive would be required to create first-class facilities?

The demographic is mostly lower-middle-class parents-with-families

Lower-middle-class parents-with-families sounds snobbish, but is observationally accurate. There is an osmotic social gradient running from north to south along the coast here. Burnham-on-Sea, four miles to the south, features large, tattooed people; the shops are poor and the general sense is of a benefits culture.

The beach where we picnicked fronts many caravan parks and was populated mostly with young families on holiday. I heard Birmingham accents.

Progressing north beyond the Down itself you get to Weston-super-Mare which, while still working class, is becoming increasing gentrified as a dormitory for Bristol; it has a Waitrose.

So here is my video panorama: the look and feel of an English beach afternoon in summer.

Friday, August 25, 2017

What the Owl said to Lenin and Trotsky

The previous post discussed the theoretical limitations of the Corbyn movement and its analogues in other countries. Here I consider the real prospects for capitalism.


The Owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering, Hegel famously observed, meaning that philosophy comes to understand a historical condition just as it passes away.

The Owl visited Lenin and Trotsky a hundred years ago in 1917 (from the indeterminate future).

She whispered,
"You believe in the imminence of the world proletarian revolution. Yet over the next century there will be no proletarian revolutions. Your Russian success will lead to a bureaucratic-collectivist regime - non-capitalist to be sure - which will collapse and revert to capitalism. There will be ethno-nationalist and inter-capitalist conflicts for sure. But nowhere will capitalism transition to a superior mode of production.

"All the progress that the masses will enjoy will be pioneered by reformist parties which do not challenge capitalism's existence. Even the capitalists will agree in the end that those reforms were in their own best interests. Despite different political traditions and histories, America, the countries of Europe and East Asia will all come to look rather similar."
Lenin and Trotsky will hear the Owl out and ignore her. The Communist and Trotskyist movements they inspire will have no clearer idea of a way forward a century hence.


On its way back to the future, the Owl stops briefly in 2017. There are no big revolutionary leaders to talk to here. She merely mumbles, unheard, on the Internet.

This is what she says.
"Capitalism is still nowhere near having exhausted its ability to develop the productive forces. It will not end until it has completed its task of removing messy human labour from the processes of production and exchange, replacing them by cheaper automation.

The capitalists are unaware that in so doing they will destroy the very mechanism of surplus value which underpins their mode of production. Some of them do have a faint intuition that the expulsion of all human workers from the economy would remove all demand. Which, although merely a symptom, is nevertheless equally terminal for their system.

Amazon link

But disregard the AI boosters. Their current success is based on harvesting low-hanging fruit. As Mercier and Sperber imply in their recent book, "The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding", automating the totality of social competences seen in modern work-practices effectively means automating being human.

"The wheel will spin around and capitalism will die trying to reintroduce (artificial) slavery. But this is technically very hard.

I'll be back in 2117 to update you on how things are going."

I have discussed this likely trajectory of capitalism in my series, "Marxism and HBD". There is some scope for further analysis as regards the precise failure mode of capitalism under total automation and the genesis of its successor - I hope to return to the topic soon.