My summer reading

June 25, 2017

So summer is upon us once again. In Madrid that means temperatures of around 40 degrees. But it is also a great time to catch up on reading. This will be my last post until early October, so I thought I would share some of the books I plan to read over the following months. I am a non-fiction guy and I think I am pretty clear about what I want to read. I have doubts about the fiction I have chosen. Many of the books on this list are not new, but I just haven’t got round to reading them yet.

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death   Mark O’Connell

I have been meaning to blog about the subject of the Singularity for a while now. So this book should give me some ideas. Journalist Mark O’Connell meets some of the leading Silicon Valley types who think that they transcend human existence. I am drawn to the wacky characters that O’Connell visits, but it is an opportunity to reflect on the ethical dilemmas that this brave new world raises.  Having said that, I am sceptical about many of the claims made by figures such as Ray Kurzweil.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Rick Perlstein

I have blogged about Goldwater before. He may have lost to LBJ in the 1964 election, but he was a pioneer of the Conservative revival, which would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was the target of the famous Daisy ad in that election.

Before the Fall Noah Hawley

I love Fargo, both the Coen brothers’ film and the TV series. The later was created by Hawley, so I couldn’t resist his foray into the world of suspense. I don’t know much about the story, only that it involves a private jet flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York that plunges into the ocean.

Belichick and Brady: Two Men, the Patriots, and How They Revolutionized Football Michael Holley

I am not a big fan of Tom Brady’s lifestyle brand, as I pointed out in a post a few weeks ago, but what a quarterback the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL is. And Belichick is surely one of the greatest coaches in any sport. No head coach-quarterback pair has been more successful in NFL history than these two. I will be interested to discover the ins and outs of their relationship.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver

A number of colleagues have recommended this book to me. I have already read Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and am looking forward to reading this tale of the causes and consequences of climate change. Dellarobia Turnbow is a 28-year-old housewife who lives with her family on a farm in rural Tennessee. She is going on a hike and is planning to meet a telephone repairman who she is going to begin an affair with. She discovers millions of monarch butterflies in a nearby valley. I have been told that it begins slowly, but that it’s worth sticking with.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari

I love this kind of big sweep book which looks at our history from around 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. How did these savannah-dwelling primates become the dominant force on the planet, beating out six other competing hominid species?  I also want to look at his second book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which takes our story into the future.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA Tim Weiner

I have read Weiner’s Enemies: A History of the FBI and now want to look at his book about the CIA, a controversial organisation if ever there was one.  Is it the last line of defence against America’s enemies, or an evil conspiracy to promote American imperialism? It is probably a bit of both with a lot of incompetence and delusional thinking added to the mix. Weiner’s is a critical account so perhaps I ought to look for amore favourable one too.

Summer House with Swimming Pool Herman Koch 

I have already read the Dutch author’s novel The Dinner, which was pretty macabre. This one seems to be in a similar vein. I’m not very sure about the plot about Dr. Marc Schlosser and a patient of his, actor Ralph Meier, who winds up dead. I do know that it will not be a feel-good book.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World Sharon Weinberger

Founded in 1958 amidst the American angst after the launch of Sputnik, DARPA’s original mission was to create “the unimagined weapons of the future”. The threat of nuclear Armageddon led to massive investment in computer networking and the creation of the Internet. They were also behind or had an influential role in GPS, Agent Orange, driverless cars, the first stealth prototype aircraft, drones and the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. There is the wacky stuff such as building a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons, draining the Great Lakes to power a missile-destroying particle beam and tens of millions of dollars spent on psychics to test ESP.

Have a great summer and I will be back in early October.


Language corner: drinking the Kool-Aid

June 4, 2017

Last week in my piece about the prevalence of pseudoscience in the world of professional sport I used the expression drinking the Kool-Aid. I was going to put an asterisk after the expression, but I forgot. This was probably a good thing as it has lot to unpack – this will be the subject of this week’s blog.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as to “demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty to someone or something.” They also furnish us real-world examples

…his real ire is directed at the news media for drinking the Kool-Aid and not being tougher on the president

In other words: everyone had drunk the New Economy Kool-Aid.

If you can’t see the bias in almost every news organization, then you’re probably drinking their Kool-Aid.

Kool-Aid is a brand of flavoured drink mix manufactured by Kraft Foods. Invented by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, it is usually sold in powder form, in either packets or small tubs. Working out of his mother’s kitchen, Perkins was able to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, a liquid concentrate. The resulting powder was much cheaper to ship, and so Kool-Aid was born. This powder is generally mixed with sugar and water and served in a pitcher. Kool-Aid has other uses too – dyeing your hair and cleaning pots and pans, washing machines, silverware and toilets.

I have to say it doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but how did it become associated with following blindly? This is where the story takes a dark turn. It is to events to in a jungle in Guyana nearly four decades ago that we need to go. The terrible happenings are known as The Jonestown Massacre. I am currently reading The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. The author also wrote an excellent biography of Charles Manson, which was the basis for the You Must Remember This podcast series about the cult leader. I am still on the early part of Jones’s life.

The Reverend Jim Jones, a communist and an infrequent Methodist minister, who founded his own church in the late 1950s, the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, which was generally shortened to the “Peoples Temple.” He had a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity, Marxist dogma, racial integration and paranoia. The latter led him to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse, for which a specified a date July 15, 1967, after which there would be a socialist paradise on Earth. This didn’t happen, but this is not usually a problem for cult leaders and their followers.

Concerned that the Peoples Temple might lose its tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. and paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community, Jones moved the Temple to the South American nation of Guyana. One of the reasons it was chosen was because its socialist policies. They had been building a settlement there since 1974. Jonestown, AKA the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project occupied nearly 4,000 acres. Many members of the Peoples Temple believed that Guyana would be a paradise or utopia. But, it was not a great place to establish a settlement. It was isolated, the soil was of poor quality and it had limited fresh water. By 1978 the population was around 900, many of whom were African-American.

In November of that year U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat, visited Jonestown to investigate alleged human rights abuses at the Temple. Accompanied by members of the media and concerned family members, Ryan met with a number of Temple members who sought to leave. Eventually the entire Ryan party and the Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip to board the planes that would get them out of this hell-hole. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members, known as the Red Brigade to prevent this. They opened fire killing Ryan three members of the media party, and one of the defectors. Eleven others were injured and fled into the jungle.

The murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones immediately called a meeting, of which there is a chilling audiotape. Jones suggested that the settlement would soon come under attack from U.S. intelligence agencies. He offered Temple members these choices:

  1. stay and fight the invaders,
  2. escape to the Guyana jungle or the USSR,
  3. commit “revolutionary suicide” (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest).

They had already tested the third option in the past. He had given members small cups of liquid, which supposedly contained poison. They followed the orders. Jones then revealed that there was no poison in the drink, but one day there would be. He has, indeed, been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. Now the Temple members were creating a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine and chloral hydrate (both sedatives), and Flavour Aid — a grape-flavoured drink similar to Kool-Aid.

First mothers squirted poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. They were given their dose. Eventually 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown. These were residents who were away on errands or when playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place. Jim Jones did not drink the poison, preferring to shoot himself. He would have seen the horrible deaths, which involve foaming at the mouth and convulsions. Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills leaving their assets to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Curiously, it was Flavour-Aid and not Kool-Aid that was used to make the deadly cocktail. I suppose that it is the most famous brand.  Be that as it may many people object to the use of this expression. One such person is Jackie Speier, then a 28-year-old aide to Congressman Ryan. Having been shot five times, Speier lay bleeding for 24 hours before she was discovered by rescuers. She now holds Ryan’s seat in Congress. She is not a fan of this expression:

“There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.”

 Last night in London we saw another example of murderous psychopaths who use religion as a justification for their perverted ideologies. Will we never learn?

_______

On the Mental Floss website they mention Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a non-fiction account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they drive from California to New York in their party bus. The stoned hippies want to promote the use of LSD and they make a cocktail of acid with Kool-Aid.  This is the acid test of the title. The book’s description of one man’s bad acid trip is perhaps the first negative use of the expression:

… There was one man who became completely withdrawn … I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all … he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town … he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did … and it was very bad.”


What Google search tells us about ourselves

May 21, 2017

Discovering what people really think has often proved elusive. Just ask those pollsters who assured us that Donald J. Trump had no chance of becoming the 45th president of the USA. I am fascinated by the gap between what people say and what they really think or do. Sometimes we lie to ourselves – we really do have good intentions, but we do lack self-awareness. Other times we hide what are socially unacceptable views. What social scientists need are ways to get around these biases. I have already blogged about big data and its potential. One key area is Google search. The omniscient Google is our friend, confidante and confessor. We have all googled something that we wouldn’t dream of asking somebody in the flesh. Such search queries are anonymous, or at least that’s how we feel. Every time we type in a search we reveal something about ourselves. It is like a societal x-ray of our collective hopes fears and desires. In particular, Google’s anonymous, aggregate data can also tell us about the dark sides of our thoughts and behaviours. This tool is the subject of a new book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz created a map of racism based on searches with racial slurs and racist jokes. He then studied how this affected voting across the United States. He used it to analyse how it affected voting in the 2012 presidential election. What he discovered was that in those areas of the country with the highest number of racist searches Obama’s results were markedly worse than those of John Kerry, the unsuccessful white Democratic candidate in 2004. This variable was far more relevant than education levels, age, church attendance, or gun ownership was. Although Obama won, the effect was important. Obama lost roughly 4 percentage points nationwide just from explicit racism. He was, however, able to get back 1% or 2% from higher African-American turnout. In 2012 the conditions were favourable the the Democrats. But this data is also germane to what happened in 2016 and the rise of Trump. According to Nate Cohn, the biggest predictor of Trump support in the Republican primaries was the racist searches. We need to be careful – correlation is not causation. Nevertheless it does provide a partial explanation of the Trump phenomenon.

What can Google tell us about Sex lies and videos? One revealing fact is that in 2015 2.5 billion hours of porn were seen on Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the Internet. To put this number in perspective, it is more than the entire history of our species on Planet Earth. And in surveys 2.5% of men say they are gay. But Google tells another story; 5% of male porn searches are for gay porn. There are more gay searches in tolerant areas, such as California, than in places like Mississippi. But the difference is not that high 5.2% compared to 4.8%

We parents do tend to want to project things onto our kids. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old…” the most common next word is “gifted.” We like to think that as parents we have equivalent expectations and dreams for our sons and daughters. But the abovementioned question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” They show similar biases when using other phrases related to intelligence. Stephens-Davidowitz asks if the parents are simply picking up on legitimate differences between young girls and boys. In fact, at this age girls tend to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11% more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Nevertheless, parents seem to find that their male progeny are the gifted ones. With their daughters their concerns are more about appearance. “Is my daughter overweight?” is googled approximately twice as much as is “Is my son overweight?” this is despite the fact that whereas 30% of girls are overweight the corresponding figure for boys is a little higher- 33%.

A team of researchers from Columbia University and Microsoft analysed data from tens of thousands of anonymous users of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. They coded a user as having recently been given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer based on unmistakable searches, such as “just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer” or “I was told I have pancreatic cancer, what to expect.” The researchers wanted to discover what symptoms were strong predictors of a diagnosis. They examined the searches that had been made before the actual diagnosis, comparing the few who were finally diagnosed with the cancer to those who weren’t. Here’s how Stephens-Davidowitz explains what were remarkable results:
“Searching for back pain and then yellowing skin turned out to be a sign of pancreatic cancer; searching for just back pain alone made it unlikely someone had pancreatic cancer. Similarly, searching for indigestion and then abdominal pain was evidence of pancreatic cancer, while searching for just indigestion without abdominal pain meant a person was unlikely to have it. The researchers could identify 5 to 15 percent of cases with almost no false positives. Now, this may not sound like a great rate; but if you have pancreatic cancer, even a 10 percent chance of possibly doubling your chances of survival would feel like a windfall.”

In Everybody Lies Stephens-Davidowitz talks about the digital truth serum. The truth about what we think is so hard to find that we need every tool at our disposal. As a sceptic of opinion polls and surveys I like the idea of using proxies. However, as I pointed out in my post about big data there is a danger of finding spurious correlations, with cherry picking on an industrial scale. Nevertheless, I do feel that this book has hit on something.


Time is on their side – how authoritarian rulers love tinkering with clocks and calendars

April 30, 2017

On August 15th 2015 North Korea went back in time. The government decreed that the clocks be turned by half an hour. So now North Korea has its own time zone, but what is the point of all this fuss? It has to be said that the Pyongyang regime has form in this area. It already had its own calendar – the Juche calendar, whose years are counted from 1912, which was the year in which its founder and “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung, was born. 1912 in the Gregorian calendar became Juche 1 in the new calendar, and we are now in Juche 106. The calendar began to be used on 9 September 1997, which is the day on which the Republic came into being. Curiously there are no pre-Juche years and the years before the Glorious Leader came into the world are based the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used calendar around the world.

I just want to on a quick digression about the Gregorian calendar. It takes its name from Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. Britain maintained the Julian calendar, which was 11 days behind for another 180 years. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with the majority of Western Europe. The introduction was not straightforward; 1751 was a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March, New Year in the Julian calendar to 31st December. The year 1752 then began on 1 January, but it was necessary to synchronise the calendar in Britain with that of Europe. It was necessary to correct it by those eleven days. It was decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. This led to civil unrest with rioters demanding “Give us our eleven days”.

As we shall see such temporal megalomania is not new. There is long historical tradition of rulers adjusting clocks and calendars as a way of demonstrating political power. King Canute is said to have wanted to turn back the tide. That was impossible, but surely there is no better way for a leader to leave his imprint on the world by altering what is such a fundamental aspect of our daily lives. This is controlling time itself.

The French revolution upended many ideas and it certainly had a significant impact on time: the years, the months and the days of the week were all reformed. Year I, written in Roman numerals began on 22 September 1792, the beginning of the “Republican Era”. The twelve months were each divided into three ten-day weeks called Décades, with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest. That makes 360 days, so five or six extra days, known as complimentary days had to be added at the end of each year. The Republican calendar had the following twelve months, whose names were based on nature, especially the typical weather in and around Paris.

Autumn:
Vendémiaire in French (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”)
Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”)
Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”)

Winter:
Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”)
Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”)
Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”)

Spring:
Germinal (from French germination)
Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”)
Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”)

Summer:
Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”)
Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”)

The title of Émile Zola’s novel Germinal comes from the revolutionary calendar and the seafood dish lobster thermidor may well have been named after the 1891 play Thermidor, set during the Revolution.

The ten days had more prosaic names:

primidi (first day)
duodi (second day)
tridi (third day)
quartidi (fourth day)
quintidi (fifth day)
sextidi (sixth day)
septidi (seventh day)
octidi (eighth day)
nonidi (ninth day)
décadi (tenth day)

The Décades were abandoned in Floréal 1802.

The Soviet reform of the Gregorian calendar was very different from the French Revolution’s reforms. They did not do away with the Gregorian calendar. This was probably a good thing as the Gregorian calendar had only been introduced after the revolution. This is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. A lag of 13 days had now accumulated in the Julian calendar. On 24 January 1918 the Council of People’s Commissars issued a Decree that Wednesday, 31 January 1918, was to be followed by Thursday, 14 February 1918. I don’t know if there were any riots, but I suppose they had more important things to worry about. Although if there had been any protests, I am sure Trotsky would have had them all shot.

In May of 1929, Yuri M. Larin proposed a radical change to the week. He eventually got Stalin’s support. On August 26, 1929, the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) decreed that all productive enterprises were to transition from the traditional work week interrupted by a weekend, to a continuous production week. The idea was simple divide all workers into shifts. The uninterrupted week, the nepreryvka, would apply not only to factory workers, but to retail and government employees too. With factories and stores open and producing 24 hours a day, every day of the week, productivity was bound to soar. Alas with so much in this planned economy, it didn’t turn out that way, and On June 26, 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet restored the seven-day week.

On 16 March 1940 World War Two was in the phoney war stage. In Spain General Franco had been in charge of the whole country for less than a year. On this day at 23:00 Spain changed from Greenwich Mean Time to 00:00 Central European Time. Two years later the change of time zone was made permanent so as to be in line with what had become Nazi-occupied Europe. So thanks to the Generalissimo’s affinity with Nazi Germany Spain has been in the wrong time zone for seven decades. It is the farthest West of all countries on CET, a time which they share with countries as far east as Poland and Hungary. This has created the Galicia problem. For example one day in mid-December the official sunrise time is 8.56am, which means that children begin their school day in complete darkness. Curiously, Spain’s Iberian neighbour Portugal adopted CET under the Cavaco Silva government in 1992. It was a fiasco with negative effects on academic performance, sleep habits and insurance companies reported a rise in the number of accidents. To add insult to injury, there were not even any savings on energy. In 1996 the experiment was abandoned.

India and China have something unusual in common. Despite their size, the each has a single time zone. In comparison, the United States, a country of similar geographical area to China, has four major time zones, each separated by an hour. What I understand is that people just have different schedules. After independence in 1947, the Indian government established IST (India Standard Time), which is five and a half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT is now considered another time zone, whereas UTC is not a time zone, but a time standard that is the basis for time zones worldwide. No country or territory officially uses UTC as a local time.

For nine years Venezuela enjoyed Chavez time. In 2007 the darling of the left, Hugo Chavez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone. According to the Economist it was to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensured that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with its great foe, the United States. Like North Korea, Iran Afghanistan and Burma have their own time zones.

And then we have Turkmenistan. On August 10, 2002, the government of the central Asian country passed a law to rename all the months and most of the days of week. The names come from a number of Turkmen national symbols. These are described in the Ruhnama, the Book of the Soul, a bizarre mixture of autobiography, self-help and dodgy history. The names were chosen according to, as described, a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president for life.  Wikipedia has a handy summary: The months include

Türkmenbaşy (January) Meaning: “The Leader of Turkmen”, the adopted name of Saparmurat Niyazov, president of Turkmenistan

Baýdak (February) Flag – the Turkmenistan flag day is celebrated in February on Niyazov’s birthday

Gurbansoltan  (April)– The name of Niyazov’s mother.

Ruhnama (September) Niyazov’s book, defined as a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation.

Niyazov also changed the days of the week, but he  died in 2006. and two years later the cabinet of Turkmenistan restored the old names of the months and days of week.

This is the end of my brief tour of how autocrats have sought to leave their mark on time. I hope you enjoyed it and I will be back on 18 Floréal CCXXV or Dynçgün the 7th of Magtymguly if you prefer.


Hell is other people under a dome

March 19, 2017

I am a big fan of the American writer T.C. Boyle. In fact, I talked about a previous novel of his, When the Killing’s Done in a previous post, A few rabbits can’t do any harm.  The 2011 novel looked at the battle between conservationist, Alma Takesue and animal rights activist Dave LaJoy. The former is on a mission to preserve endangered ecosystems from invasive species, whereas the former disagrees with the notion that humans have the right to choose which animals will live or die. This reflects a couple of common tropes in Boyle’s work. One is the environment and how we interact with it. He is also interested in fanaticism, the dynamics of cults and failed utopian projects. In previous works he has looked into the worlds of John Kellogg, Alfred Kinsey and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In his sixteenth novel, The Terranauts, Boyle transplants us into the ecosphere, an artificial ecosystem located in the Arizona desert. His inspiration for the story came from an experiment from the early 1990s known as Biosphere 2 (Biosphere I is Planet Earth.), in which four men and four women were sealed inside a three-acre glass structure in Oracle, Arizona for two years. The two men behind Space Biosphere Ventures were the wealthy Fort Worth Texas oil heir Edward P. Bass and eccentric ecology guru John Polk Allen. In turn, Allen was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome. The biosphere was a mixture of high-minded science, New Age bullshit and American hucksterism. Curiously, one of the people involved at one point in the Biosphere 2 project was a certain Steve Brannon, Trump’s Campaign CEO and now White House Chief Strategist. The man behind Breitbart News had very different views on the environment back then:

A lot of the scientists who are studying global change and studying the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2’s atmosphere is today. We have extraordinarily high CO2, we have very high nitrous oxide, we have high methane. And we have lower oxygen content. So the power of this place is allowing those scientists who are really involved in the study of global change, and which, in the outside world or Biosphere 1, really have to work with just computer simulation, this actually allows them to study and monitor the impact of enhanced CO2 and other greenhouse gases on humans, plants, and animals.

Now owned by the University of Arizona, the Biosphere is still in existence. Here are some facts about it I found online:

 

The research facility

7,200,000 cubic feet under sealed glass; 6,500 windows

91 feet at highest point

sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner

40-acre campus

300,000 sq. ft. of administrative offices, classrooms, labs, conference centre, housing

Elevation is 3,820 feet above sea level

Over 3,000,000 visitors since 199

Over 500,000 K-12 student visitors since 1991

Biomes under Glass

Ocean with coral reef

Mangrove wetlands

Tropical rainforest

Savannah grassland

Fog desert

Biosphere II was a kind of Noah’s Ark for plants, animals, and humans. The crew was accompanied by 3,800 species of plants and animals.  It was the first two-year closure of a projected fifty. Closure was meant to be absolute and the sphere was expected to be self-sustaining, with its own food crops (bananas, papayas, sweet potatoes, beets, peanuts, rice, and wheat etc.) and domestic animals pigs goats. Alas it would not turn out that way. The original crew had to break closure on several occasions and there was a complete collapse of the experiment six months into the second closure. This was when Bannon was on board. The place was overrun by ants and cockroaches. What’s more two of the members of the first team vandalised the project from outside.

This is the setup for Boyle’s exploration into the complexity of maintaining an environment and living in a fishbowl.  Boyle begins the book with two epigraphs. The first is from the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The second is from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people.). I think the second one is more germane to what happens in the ecosphere,

The terranauts are constantly being watched both by Mission Control and the tourists who come to gawk at them as they go about their daily lives. I would have thought that this would make a great idea for a TV programme. It’s amazing that no one has ever thought of it.

The story is narrated by three first-person narrators, Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothoorp, who are both inside the dome and Linda Ryu, who is working on the support staff, with the promise of being included in Mission Three. What unites them is being unlikable I do use books which use the device o having different narrators and these ones are most definitely unreliable. In the novel the ecosphere remains unbreached. But there are plenty of other problems: power cuts, decreasing oxygen levels and poor crop yields to name but a few. But the real drama is interpersonal with all the conflicts you can imagine with eight people trapped in a confined area for two years. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but it is safe to assume that there will be lots of friction. It may be a scientific project, but it is being carried out by humans with their egos, jealousies and foibles.


I was reading that Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, will be the producer of a TV version of The Terranauts. I am looking forward to it.


All Out War : the first draft of the Brexit story

February 26, 2017

all-out-war

I have to admit I have become a bit disengaged from politics over the last few years. But after the political earthquakes of 2016 I felt I had to get back into it. The book I chose was All Out War by the political correspondent of the Sunday Times, Tim Shipman. This job seems to have been given access, going back for years, to most of the major figures in this story, except perhaps to Team Corbyn. Subtitled “The full story of how Brexit sank Britain’s political class“, it is a chronicle of the campaign that would lead to Brexit. It was well worth reading and has drawn plaudits from both sides of the debate. In fact, it is necessary to talk about all sides as what this book makes clear is that both “Leave” and “Remain” were coalitions of rival forces which at certain stages, as Shipman chronicles in exhaustive detail, seemed to spend more time  attacking factions on their own side rather than against those of the opposing campaign. If you like tales of bitter political infighting, this is the book for you.

Let’s take a look at those in favour of Brexit. The official campaign group for leaving the EU was Vote Leave, with its big rival being Leave.EU. There were other groups too such as Grassroots Out, Get Britain Out and Better Off Out, but Shipman focuses on the first two. Vote Leave was created in October 2015 by political strategists Matthew Elliot and Dominic Cummings. It was conceived as a cross-party organisation. Its two most prominent advocates were Conservatives Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who gave it more respectability. They tended to play down immigration and highlighted global trade liberalisation instead. Leave.EU, which was originally called The Know, The campaign was co-founded by Bristol-based businessman and UKIP donor Arron Banks and property entrepreneur Richard Tice. They were The Bad Boys of Brexit” as Banks called his diary of the campaign. Their mantra for the campaign was immigration, immigration, immigration. In the end this double punch was effective, but there was a lot of hatred and there were even coups within Vote Leave.

Opposing them were the Remainers. Their principle figure was of course the PM. David Cameron felt that he had to promise a referendum in order to stem the tide of defections to Ukip, and lead a united party in the 2015 election. Not expecting to lose, Cameron made a number of tactical errors as he was outmanoeuvred by the Eurosceptics in his party. For example Remain fought the campaign with one arm tied behind their backs as Cameron wanted to avoid avoiding direct “blue-on-blue” attacks on fellow Tories. After the successful deployment of scaring the voters in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, it was decided to repeat the strategy. It stressed the economic risks of leaving. There were messages from the Chancellor, the Governor of the Bank of England, Christine Laggard of the IMF and even Barack Obama who said that Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for trade deals if she left the EU. They may have overegged the omelette, but Remain generally won the economy debate. But this did not prove the decisive factor. Maybe with a sympathetic press it would have proved more effective. But little attempt was made to paint a positive picture of the European Union and Britain’s place in it. After three decades of Euroscepticism, this was always going to be a hard sell.

And then there was Jeremy Corbyn. They say that the problem with political jokes is that they get elected. Corbyn may have been elected as Labour leader twice, but he surely has no chance of ever being PM. I can’t be the only one who thinks that if the Tories had planted someone in the Labour party twenty years ago, he couldn’t have done a better job for them than Corbyn has.  The chapter called Labour Isn’t Working is about how Corby and his aides effectively sabotaged Labour’s Remain stance. Shipman portrays Corbyn as a puppet in the hands of shadow chancellor John McDonnell and chief of staff Seumas “Stalin wasn’t so bad” Milne. Lacklustre is the most positive way to describe Corbyn’s strategy of disengagement. McDonnell is said to have refused to travel on his party’s designated battle bus because to do so would have been “too New Labourish”. They were graduates from the Tony Benn school of anti-EU agitation, and many believe that Corbyn actually voted for Leave.

All this meant that Remain came across largely as Tory-run. Given the chaos of the campaign, 48% almost seems like a good result. They lost by 4% or 1.2 million votes. If Remain had won, we would be talking about the chaos that was Leave. It is interesting to compare these results with referendum held on 5 June 1975 in the United Kingdom to gauge support for the country’s continued membership of the European Communities aka the Common Market. In this case Yes won 67% of the vote. For such a transcendental decision I think there should have been a 60% threshold. Alas no such measure was in place, so we now have to accept the result.

 


Michael Lewis and The Undoing Project

January 22, 2017
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

I have to admit I wasn’t sure whether to read Michael Lewis’s latest offering, The Undoing Project. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a devotee of Lewis. He has had three films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards for The Blind Side (2009), Moneyball (2011) and The Big Short (2015). He has knack for finding hidden treasure that other writers have missed. He often features mavericks or people who are not normally in the spotlight. His book Liar’s Poker (1989) described bond trader Lewis Ranieri, who revolutionised Wall Street in the 1980s with securitisation. This product was to play a massive role in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and onwards. Moneyball (2003) featured baseball manager Billy Beane, a pioneer in the use of sports analytics. But the book goes beyond sports; Lewis was foreshadowing the rise of the quants, the experts at analyzing and managing quantitative data, who would also be involved in the GFC. Another sporting book, The Blind Side, set in the NFL, featured not a glamorous quarterback, but an offensive left tackle. This may be an unsung position, but it is vital for the protection of the quarterback. The player Lewis chose was Michael Oher, who has won one Superbowl and appeared in another one in his eight seasons as a professional. The Big Short dealt with main players behind the creation of the credit default swap market that was a massive bet against the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bubble. They would end up profiting from the crisis, but I would definitely not blame them for what went down – they had spotted flaws in the system. This is a common theme in Lewis’s work.

The Undoing Project looks at the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who are also interested in human failings. The reason I had doubts about reading this book was that I was already familiar with their work. Indeed, I did a post about Kahneman and his book Thinking Fast and Slow: The irrational world of Daniel Kahneman. I should have had more faith in Lewis. The Undoing Project is a fascinating read. I thought I knew most of their story, but Lewis has found a way to produce an absorbing book about an arcane subject. Lewis has a real gift for explaining complex ideas, but what I liked about the book was the human element. The author provides the human story to the two men who revolutionised the way we think about how people think.

Born in Tel Aviv, British Palestine in 1934, where his mother was visiting relatives, Daniel Kahneman grew up in Paris, where his parents had emigrated from Lithuania in the early 1920s. He was a child of the Holocaust. Between the ages of seven and eleven he and his family were hiding out from the Nazis in southern France. He watched his father die because he couldn’t seek medical treatment for fear of being captured by the Germans. Lewis recounts how at the age of seven Kahneman had been playing with a Christian boy and was caught on the streets after curfew by an SS soldier. He had turned his brown sweater inside out so the man didn’t notice the yellow star. Instead he hugged little Danny and, full of emotion, showed him a photograph of another young boy. Then he gave the boy some money and sent him on his way. Kahneman recalled being fascinated by the complexity of humans.

Amos Tversky was born in Haifa, British Palestine in 1937 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and Russia. He had a happier childhood than Kahneman. His father, Yosef, was a veterinarian and his mother, Genia, was a member of the Knesset from its establishment in 1948 until her death in 1964. What is most striking from his life was his distinguished service in the Israel Defence Forces. Tversky was an officer in the paratroopers, an elite unit. He eventually rose to captain and served in three wars – 1956, 1967 and 1973. It was in 1956, in a border skirmish, that he was awarded Israel’s highest honour after saving the life of a young soldier who had frozen after having lit the fuse of an explosive charge. Tversky, who was a few metres behind him, rushed forward, dragged the young man a few yards away, and then dived to cover him, taking the shrapnel into his own body. The other soldier emerged without a scratch while Tversky had metal in him the rest of his life.

According to Lewis, the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky was as intense as any marriage. And like a marriage, their relationship could be fraught at times. They have been called the Lennon and McCartney of the academic world. Kahneman was the ideas guy, whereas Tversky was the analytic one, able to provide the academic rigour for Kahneman’s ideas. Tversky was once asked if their work had any bearing on artificial intelligence. His reply: “I’m much more interested in natural stupidity than I am in artificial intelligence.” The psychologist Richard Nisbett had a simple one-line intelligence test: “The longer it takes you to figure it out that Amos Tversky is smarter than you, the stupider you are.”

These days Kahneman and Tversky’s views of human psychology have found widespread acceptance. But when they began in the 1970s in the backwater of Israeli academia their theories were new and controversial. The academics would eventually find posts on American campuses. And it was the charismatic Tversky rather than the introspective Kahneman who got much of the fame. Their ideas about human biases are both illuminating and eminently practical. I explore them in detail in The irrational world of Daniel Kahneman.

There is no doubt that Lewis admires the two men and believes they are right about everything important. Someone who has written books like Liar’s Poker, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity., The Big Short and Flash Boys is not likely to be a cheerleader for rational economic man. But this is no hagiography.

The younger Kahneman is portrayed as a depressive. He is unsure of himself and rather needy. We also see him as envious of all the attention his partner was getting. Tversky, on the other hand is more of an intellectual bully contemptuous of many academics and not one to shy away from an academic spat. Despite their different personalities, they had a fruitful relationship. They would sit together in an intellectual back-and-forth, switching between English and Hebrew.

Like many marriages or Lennon and McCartney, they would endure a painful break-up. They did, however, make up after Tversky was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. In the end, after many years spent complaining that Tversky was getting all the plaudits, it was Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The award cannot be given posthumously.

I too am a fan of their work. I am fascinated by human decision-making and how we can all go wrong. Perfection in choices is impossible, and uneconomical, just as, in a world of scarcity, developing a perfectly safe automobile is impossible—and uneconomical. We need to take short cuts. If we look at the world, we can see the fingerprints of irrationality everywhere. If I am sceptical, it is about psychology experiments. How accurate are laboratory settings at recreating the information and incentives of real market situation. The story of Kahneman and Tversky’s intellectual love affair is beautifully and vividly told by Lewis. However, I would be surprised if this were made into another film.