Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Twitoutrage, Blogs and Context.

Chris Evans just made a comment about women and football on Radio 2 and then had to interrupt a song to say he had not meant it and that it was a response to something his female co-presenter had said about Boys and Games rooms.

This is the problem - unless you see the whole conversation then often you can fail to understand what is actually happening. Now the two worst places for getting the wrong end of a conversation are Twitter and Blogs. Twitter with 140 characters gives little freedom for discussion and so the Twitosphere often descends into Twitoutrage. Blogs are also misleading because they are edited and personal. They are not objective and so the author can edit the comments of others to fit the context that they want to present them in.

Lets say I was trying to campaign against sexism at the BBC I could now take Chris Evans' comments completely out of context and write a Blog. It would say - look this is an example of the disgusting sexism that needs investigating with an independent inquiry. Blah Blah Blah - this is political and points scoring. It is obvious in this case that there is nothing there but there are many more cases every day where Blogs are written like this and it gets harder and harder to distinguish the real from the politicised.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Page 3 Girls would you take them home to meet your mother?

There is a big campaign against page 3 saying about how it objectifies women and how this leads to violence against women. I think that this is confusing cause and effect but I have other concerns about the campaign.

For me another question is which is a bigger danger to women page 3 or the idea of "that's not the type of woman you would bring home to meet you mother"?

For me it seems that the second is the real danger to women. This is the kind of social stigma that is for me much more dangerous. That is saying that that kind of woman is beneath your level, that they are not fit to be part of the family. Once you think they are worth less than you then abuse suddenly is not abuse, because they are not really a full person. Why should they have the same respect? This is when men are encouraged to think in negative terms about women.

What is important is respect for others and how they live their lives, but this is difficult in this tabloid world. For me the Mail with its shaming campaigns is much more dangerous than Page 3. Why do I care that a woman goes into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot with a tattoo or nose piercing? People should be allowed to live their lives as they wish and that means allowing women to express themselves as they wish, if that means not being a "lady" (as defined by certain journalists) then that is how it should be.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The evolutionary ratchet

In an earlier post I said that evolution was not progressive. By this I mean that there is no intent or objective of evolution and it is not trying to achieve a goal. There is however an appearance of progress and this is because of natural selection discovering novel solutions to problems.

Once one of these novel solutions becomes available then this can open up a completely new direction for evolution that was previously inaccessible. It is these breakthroughs that create the picture of punctuated equilibria. One of these changes was the production of oxygen and the changes that this brought about in the atmosphere driving the anaerobes from the Earth's surface. Another example is the creation of multi-cellular life.

Once these possibilities have been accessed then short of massive world wide extinctions that eliminate all of the organisms that have exploited these new variations then they will remain part of the evolutionary repertoire. So evolution has a ratchet that does not allow apparent progress to be forgotten, much the same as we cannot forget that we have created nuclear weapons and other inventions we wish we had not discovered.

But this does not mean that some of these steps are not actually more than historical accidents that may actually lead to the long-term extinction of species that utilise them. Oxygen consumption might not be the best solution for the long run, but we are stuck with it while the atmospheric composition remains at its current levels. Trees are a good solution at current levels of carbon dioxide, but they are less successful at lower levels where grasses become preferred.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

4 Million Bulgarians

The Sunday Express ran a story about 4 million Bulgarians wanting to move to the UK. The problem is that this is over 54% of the Bulgarian population. This would leave Bulgaria almost empty. I had thought that it was the usual non-sensical story where the author was unaware of the population of Bulgaria and had just picked a figure out of thin air, but I looked up the story and he is acutely aware of the population statistics. So why do I still think the story is nonsense?

I think it is wrong because of the sample that the story is based around in biased. A sample size of over 4000 is enough to make a reasonable conclusion, but not a sample of 4000 people living in the worst and most impoverished conditions. If you asked 4000 unemployed people from a deprived part of the UK if they wanted to move to place X to get a job you would get the same and perhaps an even higher response. The poll was actually carried out by BTV and there is no idea of the question, nor any idea about who completed it. So I would expect that it is a telephone or online poll. This is self selecting and not representative. This is going to be a survey of those who want to emigrate and it is not an unbiased sample.

Even if the sampling were correct there is still the problem of reality. As people leave the circumstances and opportunities change. Bulgaria has a strong technological manufacturing sector and also the beginnings of a tourist industry. With people moving there might be a reduction in unemployment and poverty. But the reality is that we just don't know what will happen. What we do know is that this story is scare-mongering and that it does not represent the reality.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Invisible Invisible Hand

Economists often talk about the invisible hand of the market. This fictitious and rarely spotted phenomenon is supposed to make sure that a freely flowing market will come to some sort of optimum. This need not be the global optimum and it might be time dependent, but this is there argument against regulation as the system is self-regulating.

The problem is that this invisible hand has some pre-conditions for it to work.

The market has to be transparent. Everyone has to have the same amount of knowledge or ignorance about how the market is going to move. Anyone who has preferential knowledge can fix the market. This is why insider trading is illegal to prevent those with insider knowledge using it to their advantage. But the general case will be that people will try to get ahead in their knowledge compared to their opponents and so in this arms race there will always be a leader (although usually temporary). So there is never a level playing field and there is always some aspect of "insider" or preferential knowledge.

Secondly the market has to be free. This means free from regulation, free from influence of special interest groups, free from subsidies. Now these are a lot of frees that rarely if ever exist. Protectionism and national interest mean that governments interfere not only through regulation but also through subsidies. The EU has its famous farm subsidy the CAP. The US has protectionist policies for steel and agriculture through subsidies and preferential agreements. All of these influences are further supported by the policies of the World Bank and the WTO through the international trade agreements. These agreements make sure that there is an imbalance of power in globalised markets.

So unless some clever economist can show that there is a genuine free market that is free from any inequality of trade or knowledge then I will not expect to see any invisible hands for the market making an appearance in the near future.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Progressive Evolution

People who talk about positive selection annoy me because from my view evolution is never positive it is always winnowing out failure. There is no pat on the back and yes there is a good gene, there is just an indifferent pursuit of any weak members of the population. I need to explain this view and why some might feel it pedantic.

I was reading The Selfish Gene when I came across a description of the progressive nature of evolution. If Dawkins had read the controversies regarding Darwins's theory of natural selection carefully he would know that this idea of progress was the heart of the problem. Darwin denied progress in the creation of random mutations. Any kind of appearance of progress is an accidental gratuity from the survival of the fittest and that only applies to that ecosystem in those particular set of conditions. Popper from a philosophical view was also damning of any view of progressive evolution, which he called the "Poverty of Historicism" and his main argument against Marxism and the view that the Communist Society was going to inevitable triumph. This progress smacks of Teleological thinking and ideas like those of Teilhard de Chardin who tried to reconcile his Catholicism with the evolution of complexity.

The reason for this is that the material that is mutated is a different material to that on which selection applies. Mutations occur in DNA at the genotype level, but selection occurs on the cellular or organism level in the phenotype. Some parts of the genome are more "fixed" than others because changes are likely to lead to an unviable phenotype that most likely will not even be born (sex is useful for filtering out these mistakes without wasting an entire organism). Many proteins have cores or active sites that cannot allow mutations. Often these are hydrophobic regions represented by synonymous codons. Then there are parts of the genome that are largely unregulated and in which a considerable amount of probably neutral mutations can occur. These are often in the surface loops of proteins and these are often hydrophilic amino acids. This bias in the way the codon table has evolved makes it hard to use the simple statistics of looking for sites where there are different numbers of synonymous and non-synonymous mutations complex because it does not mean a site is immutable, it just means that some have a low probability of achieving that change even if it would create an organism that benefits in natural selection.

What they mean by positive selection is a change that makes the organism better than the current one. The way natural selection is working is now the optimum shifts from the organisms of the past to the new variety and so the old variety is less fit compared to the new. Whether this is "progress" or not we cannot know as this might be a step to a dead end. Extinction does not care about progress, only we care about it because we want to make ourselves the culmination of this progressive evolution, but we forget that actually bacteria are more evolved than we are. They have experienced more generations than we have, they have undergone more rounds of natural selection.

So for me "positive selection" is one of these phantom ideas. It exists because of the way we look back in time but it is an illusion, it is an accident. Unlike Popper I do not completely disregard historicism as history plays an important role. Some parts of evolution we can understand as responses to physical and chemical laws (long necks to eat leaves from trees, eyes for seeing)and evolution often converges on these solutions, but some parts of evolution are frozen accidents. Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen coined the terms universals and parochials for the things we can say will happen from the "laws of evolution" and for the serendipitous products of chance. This is the same as the different types of information in the ideas of complexity of Murray Gell-Mann's the Quark and the Jaguar. If we ignore history then we ignore these chance effects that CANNOT be described by any theory. These effects will always remain phenomenological and so the hope of biologists to achieve rigorous laws analogous to those of physics and chemistry is IMPOSSIBLE in the field of evolution. We simply never can know what will happen next, but we can make up some nice "just-so" stories to explain what has happened in the past. That is what Richard Dawkins does best.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A Little Bit of Woo

I was reading Joanne Harris' book Runelight when the mad old woman character was talking about the old stories and how they had been corrupted. She was talking about how the land of Roast Beef was a corruption of the land of Bif Rost the land beyond the bridge (p229). She also talked about the world serpent curled with its tail in its mouth (p220). It was one of those moments when I felt inspired and I realised that perhaps we always need a bit of woo to inspire us and give us intuition.

One of my heroes of science Conrad Waddington used the symbol of the snake swallowing its own tail in an article in Towards a Theoretical Biology. But he was not thinking of the Norse Gods, he was thinking of the Egyptian, then Greek and Gnostic legend of the Ouroboros. Then that connects in my mind to Red Dwarf. So Waddington definitely had a few woo ideas.

I had also recently read a Schumacher Briefing by Meyer on Contraction and Convergence and then I went to the website of the GCI the organisation that he founded. Just look at the publications page for the worst case of inappropriate woo I have seen in a long time. This geometrical craziness undermines the sense of the contraction and convergence arguments, but the author felt the need to make the connection. Why did he do that?

This got me thinking. Newton was obsessed by alchemy, Einstein believed that God did not play dice, Lovelock's Gaia has too much association with Earth goddesses, Bohm was also a very spiritual physicist. There is a need for a bit of woo in many scientists because they want it to make a great story and to be at least a little poetic and illogical.

In film Terry Gilliam makes this argument against the pure logic and reason of the "Enlightenment" in both Baron Muchausen and The Brothers Grimm (Jonathan Pryce gets to play the evil forces of reason in both cases). Stephen King makes the same attack in The Stand where Randall Flag is the force of blind science and inhuman reason while Mother Abigail is the earthly ecological spiritual leader for good. In Star Trek we all prefer Captain Kirk to Mr Spock because too much logic makes hus inhuman.  We do not live by pure reason.

All of these stories can also be connected to the story of King Arthur and the Holy Grail - of the Hero with a thousand faces and the Masks of God by Joseph Campbell (another inspirational book I read as an undergraduate). These in turn were the inspiration for George Lucas to write Star Wars and to create the character Darth Vader - the one who balances the force. This is the Yin and Yang the dragon swallowing its tale again.