Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time

For reasons that I can't quite recall, I came across The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin. RMU I only know because some idiot insists on puffing him up on wiki; but that did make me suspicious. LS, to me, is just a physicist of some repute.

So when in the CUP bookshop (one of the benefits of living in Cambridge) I spent perhaps 10-15 minutes browsing through it. For such a tome you will doubtless claim - or anyone supportive of the work would doubtless claim - that is far too short a time. Well, tough. I don't have all day.

The book is perhaps 2/3 RMU and 1/3 LS. The RMU section I found to be meaningless and thus worthless. I use those words literally; there was nothing of any value in there that I could find. Peter Woit reviews the book and says " I found the long section by RMU rather hard going and not very rewarding, and realized that I have a fundamental problem with this sort of writing. Arguments about physics and mathematics made in natural language leave me often unable to figure out exactly what is being claimed". Which I think is him saying the same, but more politely.

So let's move on to the LS section, without pausing to wonder - because the question is unanswerable - why LS is wasting his time associating with RMU. What I'm going to say - I promise - are my opinions, formed before I read PW. Also, in case you think PW is merely a professional rival of LS and dissing him, read his review of The Trouble With Physics (though he is less happy with more recent stuff).

I'm going to cheat though and copy PW's "three ideas" that LS has:

1. The uniqueness of the universe.
2. The reality of time.
3. Mathematics as the study of evoked relationships, inspired by observations of nature.

#1 is no multiverses. Well, meh. That's hardly a controversial viewpoint. Multiverse or not is a thing you can argue about, but there's no strong evidence either way. Quite how this fits together with his prior support for Cosmological natural selection, I don't know. I would have expected a section reconciling the two, but didn't see it.

#2 is also rather meh, in that to me it simply seems bleedin' obvious, and scanning of the book didn't reveal much in the way of deep insight from LS expounding his thesis. Somehow he hops from this to the idea that physical laws themselves evolve; as PW points out, this begs the question of what law they evolve according to. It would, I think, have been much better if anchored in experience: is there evidence, or conceivable evidence, for the truth or otherwise of this proposition? LS seems to have gone the string theory route of speculation without evidence.

#3 was hard for me to make any sense of. PW points me to a shorter essay which may be about the same thing, from which I quote "My aim in this essay is to propose a conception of mathematics that is fully consonantwith naturalism. By that I mean the hypothesis that everything that exists is part of thenatural world, which makes up a unitary whole... If, on the other hand, all that exists is physical reality then mathematical knowledgemust be an aspect of knowledge about physical reality...". That doesn't make sense to me. PW's comment is "In his essay, Smolin gives a discussion of mathematics itself which I think few mathematicians would recognize..." and you should read him for more if you're interested.

I poked around for some other reviews and found Goodreads.

* Manny: "I am a fan of Lee Smolin, so it pains me to say that this one was a major disappointment... even if it's wrong it asks so many interesting questions that it's absolutely worth reading. The problem is that most of it appeared in Smolin's last book, Time Reborn"
* G R Reader: "Roberto, why don't you come clean and admit what's as plain as day? You ran out of ideas; you tried to solve the problem by repeating yourself ad nauseam with minor stylistic variations; CUP refused to publish the result; Lee came in at the last minute and saved you by writing (more accurately, cutting and pasting) 150 pages in a couple of weeks; it was then accepted with very bad grace; the final product still stinks."

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Article 50 ruling: Courts should never have got involved in Brexit, says dissenting judge

From the Torygraph, the minority (3/8) verdict in today's case:
Judges should never have been allowed to rule on how Brexit should be triggered because it is a matter for politicians and not the courts, one of the Supreme Court Justices said.
Lord Carnwath, one of three Justices who sided with Theresa May, said the courts had taken “too narrow a view” of the issues at stake and should have left it to Parliament to settle its own affairs.
What's annoying me now is that I wrote much the same myself, and had a long argument about it, and now can't find it. Grrr. It might have been on facebook.

What I tried to say was that "giving" to Commons the "right" to vote on whether we should trigger article 50 is meaningless. If the Commons aren't strong enough to take action, there's no point in a bunch of men in wigs "giving" them their "right". And it seems I am likely to be proved correct: following today's verdict, the government will simply put forward a short simple bill saying "right, let's trigger article 50". And it will pass. Note that today's verdict does helpfully clarify some minor matters for the government:
The court also rejected, unanimously, arguments that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly should get to vote on Article 50 before it is triggered.
Also note that Gina Miller appears to be an idiot, but that's rather beside the point.

I also dislike the creeping law-isation of life. The courts butt into too much, and should do less. Unfortunately, there is nothing to control them; they don't make law but they interpret law; so whether they're allowed to inverfere is entirely up to them. As Hobbes said.

The original High Court verdict is worth reading, though.


Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges
Hayek vs Hobbes and the theory of law
Brexit means Brexit?
Post-referendum thoughts

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Obama's achievements

On my real blog I've just put up some comments on Trump; "predictions" for his term. But what of Obama? I don't want to spam that blog with politics, so I'll write here. Context: over there, I've just said "Trump will probably be minor". What might I have said before Obama's first term? I cannot now say. But, despite all the noise, I think I'd likely go with "overall, minor" as his record.

But what is his record? I'm going to (based on it looking moderately sensible and being a topish Google search) going to use Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments, Revisited, from, about which I know nothing. These are just quick reactions, not deep analysis.

1. Passed Health Care Reform: yes, but it was flawed, perhaps badly, and may not survive.
2. Rescued the Economy: yes. "Didn't do badly" might be better, but not doing badly in this context is indeed an achievement, many have fared far worse.
3. Passed Wall Street Reform: not really convinced.
4. Negotiated a Deal to Block A Nuclear Iran: yes, I think.
5. Secured U.S. Commitment to a Global Agreement on Climate Change: you know what I think about that stuff.
6. Eliminated Osama bin Laden: true; it happened on his watch. It's unclear how much he contributed. The article doesn't have the word "drone" anywhere in it.
7. Ended U.S. Combat Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan: this is mendacious. the US is still involved, and both places are still disaster areas.
8. Turned Around the U.S. Auto Industry: dodgy.
9. Repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’: I suppose that's good. Part of wider social progress.
10. Supported Federal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages: kinda the same thing.
11. Reversed Bush Torture Policies: yes, but failed to close Guantanamo; again, the article doesn't contain that phrase.
12. Established Rules to Limit Carbon Emissions from Power Plants: probably of some use. I'm not keen on govt fiddling like this. Establish a carbon tax instead.
13. Normalized Relations with Cuba: sensible. But things were heading that way anyway.
14. Put Medicare on Sounder Financial Footing: dunno.
15. Protected DREAMers from Deportation: dunno.
16. Established Net Neutrality: good.
17. Protected Two Liberal Seats on the U.S. Supreme Court: this is a rather weird one; it appears to be cheering partisanship on the court. Couldn't it have been entitled "appointed two competent judges"?
18. Boosted Fuel Efficiency Standards: stop fiddling. Carbon tax now.
19. Kicked Banks Out of Federal Student Loan Program, Expanded Pell Grant Funding: dunno.
20. Improved America’s Image Abroad: yes.

I got bored at that point. I assume they're in order; anything under #19 can't be important.

Overall: it's a reasonably solid record of careful work, but nothing major.

Brian disagrees with me.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Theatre review: An Inspector Calls

20170114_191332After AIC, the book, here's AIC, the visit to the theatre. E was doing it for English, and had been recommended to see the production if possible. And it seemed like a fun idea to go down to London and stay overnight. M found us Z Hotel, Orange street. This was very conveniently central, a few minutes walk from the National gallery and only five minutes from the theatre, and all very nice though the rooms are smaller than the bathroom we had at the Ritz last year.

But what of the play I hear you ask? Interesting, I reply. You've read my review of the book-of-the-play I hope. Actually watching the play, I came to realise, was a bit like having a conversation with someone about it: you got to see another perspective, and some fresh ideas, which you might or might not agree with.

The production is a revival of the landmark 1992 production and uses the same set, or so I'm told. This is, errrm, quite dramatic, which I suppose is the point: the dining room is inside a house occupying about half the stage and elevated by about six feet; and somewhat undersized, so the actors have to duck to get out of the door. This all is, I think, intended to give a feeling that the inside is all rather dolls-house, as opposed to the gritty reality of the outside world. Which is cute but facile: all the world is real; dinner parties just as much as gutters.

In the first scene the house is lit and the "understorey" is dark. As the play goes on the underneath comes clearer; and towards the end the house "falls down", and extras dressed in war garb for no clearly identifiable reason other than effect come on at the edges; so the effect is of a town ravaged by war. This fits into what I would call the "propaganda" aspect of the play, and of the staging. This clearly fits within Priestley's worldview: for him, Capitalism had caused WWI and WWII. And indeed some of the speeches within the play are intended to foreshadow this. However, there is no "evidence" for this within the play, so it all has to be done by innuendo instead; the "war" stuff is subtly mixed with the social-justice message, and by being persuaded of one (perhaps) you are insidiously lead to the other; which is why I call it propaganda. It is, effectively, dishonest; though doubtless Priestley believed it and meant well, as people always do.

Since it is a topic, I shall bang on about it some more: did Capitalism cause WWI? As already said, JBS (and many on the left) take it almost as a given, not requiring any form of evidence. The Economist disagrees; and so I think do I. In this, Old Man Birling is correct: business does not want a war, it would be bad for business.

After that, we;re back to the less arguable part of the Message: you should be nice to people and consider the effect of your actions on them. Put like that it is all very motherhood-and-apple-pie; part of the skill of the dramatist is then to wrap this idea up into some fresh garb to make you think about it again. And in a way you do... a bit. But then again, we come back to Old Man Birling. He sacks the girl, after she's asked for a rise, as the Inspector somewhat dishonestly sums up towards the end. Had he done that, he'd have been in the wrong. But he didn't: he sacked her after she'd lead a strike, which is different. So his behaviour seems excusable. If we turn to Gerald, his sins also seem weak: arguably taking advantage of a pretty young woman, but also providing her food, shelter and money and giving her a chance to recover after a difficult time. By contrast the Young Folk - Sheila and Eric - who we are invited I think to like at the end because they repent their sins - do seem to be the two characters with the most to repent. I ignore Mrs B, because she doesn't fit into my nice scheme.

On to the presentation of the play. When I read it through, it all appeared to be neat and tidy and to work well. It worked well in theatre, too. There was a slight awkwardness - to my mind - when after they realise he's not an Inspector, and that she's not one woman, it takes them ages to realise that she may not even be dead. That needs smoothing over, in my view. But that might be because I've recently read the book. Small note: was Sheila a catty over-privileged young cow who habitually dissed shop assistants, or a fundamentally nice young thing who made but one serious mistake? In the book, the latter, I think. In the play, the former: she delivers the line "I only did it once, and will never do it again" in such a way as to suggest the opposite. Such is the plasticity of language.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Book review: All Hell Let Loose

All Hell Let Loose is a history of WWII, by Max Hastings. One of the children had it; I read it; it wouldn't normally be my reading material. It is a thick book, with some illustrations. I thought it good.

Danger: spoiler alert: the Germans lose.

The main advantage of the book is it's sweep: it covers the entire war, in very rough proportion to the amount of death and fighting, and so covers the Eastern Front far more than the traditional English schoolboy education, that I received, ever did. It also, somewhat refreshingly, largely covers the actual fighting, rather than politics, or causes, or economics. It doesn't entirely ignore economics, of course - pointing out, for example, that pure weight of US industrial capacity doomed Japan from the start (so why did they fight at all? Because they were stupid enough to deceive themselves: they thought they could expand, and then offer peace, which the US would accept though being soft and reluctant to accept casualties).

Other "nice" things it mentions - again, an example from Japan-US - is that some of the land campaigns were strategically pointless. Not all; some tiny rocks captured for airstrips were valuable. But once the US had wound itself up, it's submarines and surface Navy had largely suppressed the Imperial Navy, and so large garrisons of Japanese troops on... the ?Philippines? - I recall the concept, of course, not the actual examples - were no harm to anyone. They could have been bypassed and dealt with after the war was finished. But all the obvious things - commanders who wanted to fight, an army that had been created and therefore had to be used, lack of will in the overall command - meant that a whole pile of mainly US troops would die pointlessly killing lots of Japanese troops.

Slightly to my disappointment he doesn't cover "what if"s much. The most obvious large-scale "what if" is perhaps what if the Germans had put up lesser, or even token resistance on the Western front and diverted resources to the Eastern (of which the "battle of the Bulge" would be only a part). Then the Western allies would have reached Berlin and parts East first, perhaps even in 1944, leading to much less misery for Germany but perhaps also a much altered post-war balance, since the Commies would have got to conquer much less of Eastern Europe. The answer to this is perhaps that Hitler was mad enough to think he was going to win - or felt obliged to claim this in public - and so couldn't adopt this as a policy; that would only have been possible if he'd been deposed by the generals, but in that case they'd probably just have surrendered, so we rapidly go off into "actually, it couldn't have been like that".

There are hints of other "what if"s: he suggests that the Africa campaigns were but a side-show and largely pointless; but also that better strategy from the Krauts might have cleared the British out of the Med entirely, in which case Egypt and so on might have gone rather differently.

Philip Hensher writes a review that promotes the "individual voices" in the book. And, true, Hastings does quote quite a few people, officers, men, and civilians. But I wouldn't count that as a major part of the book.

Another good bit of myth-busting (again, to this English ex-schoolboy) is how poorly our armies performed in the colonies in the Far East against Japan. There's a certain myth that though there were a fair number of blimps in charge the actual fighting men were good; but this doesn't really seem to have been true. Few of the British soldiers particularly believed in what they were doing, and so weren't good at it.

And, so it goes. Overall, he does a good jobs of grinding in the terrible destruction wreaked on hapless populations by the fighting going on over their heads, largely in the Eastern Front. And all so totally pointless.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Christmas 2016

A follow up to the immensely successful Christmas 2015. What changed?

Daniel didn't break up from school ages before Christmas, since he is now at university. Instead, he came down ages before Christmas. We didn't work Christmas Eve, instead  travelling to Marcham for a meal out with Si+B on the 23rd, who were off to Hayling Island for Christmas. We stayed in Marcham that night, and to Milton-u-W on the 24th after brunch, in time for afternoon coffee and a read of the paper before carols around the village tree.


This year I managed a half marathon on Christmas morning, somewhat slow at 1:48. We didn't finish the washing up before the Queen's speech. Otherwise, reassuringly like last year. E now has braces; L too is at university, Leeds.

Which I see I didn't finish, another fine tradition. After boxing day comes the Trip To The Panto, this year Jack and the Beanstalk at Cheltenham, followed by Bella Italia (why C, not Oxford? I'm not sure; it used to be O, before 2015). We will probably think of something else, next year, the children are rather old for panto nowadays. BI is felt to be better than Jamie's Italian. The next day was a rest day and little was done - a lunchtime walk to the pub (the Lamb) for some.

Then the xfer to Marcham, which is rather less traditionally Christmassy, as is traditional. The meal at SoJo was on New Year's eve, after which E and I walked along the canal to Christ Church meadow and around. It was a grey day be we had a pleasant walk and chat, and (since she ponders the possibility of going to Oxford) she got to see some of it with new eyes. Then a sit in Blackwells cafe, and home.

When back home (having stayed an extra day, so that E could watch the Sherlock on New Year's Day) we were sad to find Little Cat not there; nor did she return next day. This, too, is in some danger of being traditional, as it happened once before. But a day or two later M was phoned up; P had been found, phew.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

When we were very young

shiptoship1 Looking for something else (I'll tell you later) I found GeoCities and diaries on the early web (James Baker, ‘GeoCities and diaries on the early web (preprint, 2016)’, in Batsheva Ben-Amos and Dan Ben-Amos (eds.) The Diary (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2017)).

 More that two years ago (my how time flies) I wrote The dim and distant history of climate blogging, but that was about blogging. Since it was irrelevant - and I thought probably lost - I ignored my even more pre history, which was a - gasp - Geocities website.

 Aanyway, a wayback machine archive of that early site is here and to make assurance doubly sure there's an archive of that here (which will probably load faster). The photo (if you're wondering) is taken from a scan of my work pass. The picture of Miriam is on the other side of the Cherwell high footbridge in the University Parks.

The picture (don't click on it of you are of a delicate disposition) is re-used as traditional from the "dim and distant" post.