Number of the Month

August 2013

Games people play

Continuing from last month, it seems to be the theme of this year’s silly season; the confusion between computer models and the real world. As the news editors get more desperate for fillers in their pages, so the examples get more bizarre. The recent attempt to relate a model based on games theory to the progress of evolution is positively weird. We are told that “They used a powerful computer model to run hundreds of thousands of games…” Oh well, it must be right then.

In the early seventies we created a neologism to explain a new rash of examination failures: we called it computeritis. Some students became so obsessed with the new toy that they totally neglected their proper studies. It was fortunate that a few thoughtful people harnessed this enthusiasm to create a rigorous form of computer science, but most computational activity, especially modelling, is still disorganised and irrational. Real computer scientists concern themselves with important problems (such as, for example, conducting secure transactions) but the modern successors to those exam failures are firmly entrenched in academic departments, offering the products of their playtime.

The Prisoners Dilemma is a long-established artificial paradox that has exercised the minds of many theoreticians. Some of us, however, are a bit slow on the uptake. What, we ask, has all this to do with evolution or for that matter the price of fish? Games theory is a respectable branch of philosophy and mathematics. It might have some relevance to some aspects of human intercourse, such as the corrupt US legal system, but is not applying it to general biology and particularly evolution highly questionable? Organisms do not indulge in human-style cerebrations to make decisions that affect their survivability, any more than cheetahs use the human invention of the wheel to achieve their speed over the ground. They may have competitors, predators and prey to contend with. What they do not have is strategies. They undergo random mutations, most of which are unhelpful to survival, but a small fraction are otherwise.

Admittedly, the original published paper is an impressive production, with a delightfully opaque abstract (which, as it happens, contains the word strategy nine times) and lots of probabilistic equations. The relevance of a mathematical model, however complex, is conditioned by its founding axioms. The fundamental axiom here is that a human-generated mind game is an accurate analogue for the process of evolution. Unless this is fully established at the outset, they are building their elaborate house on sand.

Elsewhere, we have listed the main hazards of computer modelling. They might or might not apply here, but the two quotations that headed that piece certainly do.

These modellers like to use the word “evolution” but they pay little regard to its nature. For example, they seem to fail to understand (or ignore) the vital concept of ecological niches. Some species (e.g. cuckoos) successfully exploit the solitary niche; while others (e.g. ants) thrive in the community niche. Most find their place between these two extremes. It does not help to apply to them terms laden with a baggage of human emotions, such as “selfishness”. In fully socialised colonies the vast majority of members are sterile and their individual survival or destruction does not affect the gene pool. Survival depends first on successful fertilisation of the ovum, through care (if any) of the immature, then via a great variety of hazards back to the beginning of the cycle. Evolution is an unemotional process that is oblivious of the huge wastage of individuals (e.g. salmon fry). Sometimes we observe convergent evolution (e.g. the swallows and the swifts). They compete for food, but are not engaged in mind games.

Never mind, the news editors are happy.


Attack of the killer watermelons

 Western politicians have allowed the watermelons to steer their nations into an economic cul-de-sac, haunted by energy poverty. No record is worse than that of the UK. We used to say that people are going to die (the first time exactly a decade ago and on nine further occasions since): now we can say that people are dying. The sheer cold-blooded inhumanity of it all is nothing short of breathtaking. The establishment media share the responsibility.

It is often observed that headlines in the print and web versions of the Daily Telegraph are dramatically different. The printed version carried a giant dominating version on the front page that read – Fracking is ‘spreading fear through the countryside’. The web version was a little more temperate and discreetly placed. Both are quotations from one politician, an ex-minister, of little account. It is a curious symptom of the confusion at the Telegraph that it allows Louise Gray to use its columns to act as recruiting sergeant for the raggle-taggle army of professional protesters. Under the guise of reporting the carefully choreographed disturbances, she gives a list of the kit that “campers” will require: not exactly an exemplar of detached reportage. We have also frequently remarked on her part in the downfall of the Telegraph as an honest source on environmental matters (first, only five years ago). The threat of fracking to the murderous status quo established by the environmental movement has certainly caused a stir among the usual suspects. As ever, hyperbole is to the fore: rare vibrations, equivalent to a passing heavy vehicle, become earthquakes; equally rare alleged examples of contamination of the water table become a universal threat etc.

The previous occasion on which we were moved to mention fracking was in March 2012 in a piece entitled The enemy within, USA. Fortunately, in the UK we do not have an equivalent of the EPA, a powerful secretive body beyond the control of Congress, which successfully pursues a dogged watermelon agenda largely based on junk science. We do, however, have a thriving Rentamob; a roving bunch of hippies, ostensibly informal, though in practice readily marshalled to swell a progress at points of dissension about realistic (as opposed to renewable) potential sources of energy. The local nimbies, exercising their inalienable right to defend their local environment from what they see as threats, find themselves swamped by an unwelcome swarm of general purpose protestors. Some of the sponsers are known, but the sources of subsistence for the majority (apart from unemployment benefits) are not.

Fracking is an awkward and inconvenient business, ironically only made viable by the success of the watermelons in cutting off other supplies of reliable energy. If you make such energy (the greatest essential for modern civilisation) scarce then its price rises until other sources become competitive.

The green establishment is easily able to frustrate Stuntman Dave’s aims to speed up fracking exploration, while also bypassing the Government's policies to give locals a say on wind farm locations. That underlines the essential difference between sources of reliable and unreliable energy, as far as the establishment watermelons are concerned. Dave and his Westminster clique would be well advised to bone up on the old proverbs, such as “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon”.


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Of celery, meat and the wonders of science

As regular readers know, we no longer pay attention to those fillers in the news columns that are little more than frivolous essays in fantasy epidemiology or cod psychology. Your bending author could not, however, suppress a chuckle at the one that claimed that celery prevents cancer. It made the Telegraph printed version but not, apparently, the online one.

It brings to mind a review more than a decade ago of the book that launched the career of The sceptical environmentalist. I compounded the felony later, in 2005, at one of the two conferences (the scientific one, not the political one) by accusing that author (to his face) of sailing under a false flag. I suggested that, far from being a sceptic, he was in fact a serial believer; citing as an example his repetition of the claim that celery causes two percent of all cancers. That was just one small step on my road to unpopularity.

Not so much a filler, more a way of life: the red meat zealots successfully climbed onto the current silly season bandwagon. You could hardly ignore the giant headline Too much red meat may raise Alzheimer’s risk, scientists warn. Trouble is the actual story below this had nothing to do with the consumption of red meat, other than a highly conjectural chain from this to the actual object of the study, which was ferritin, a protein that happens to contain iron. Iron is a vital component of the healthy diet, being at the functioning heart of the haemoglobin molecule, which conveys essential oxygen to all parts of the body. Red meat is not the only source of dietary iron, just the most efficient. By bending towards zealotry, the authors have converted what might be a useful minor observation relevant to a tragic disease into a foolish essay in propaganda. Still, that was in California: they do things differently there.


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The zombie theory

Despite our determination to avoid being dragged into becoming a single issue site, Global Warming continues to dominate correspondence received. In response, here are two simple statements that summarise the state of a dead theory that just won’t lie down.


1. The observational evidence for the occurrence of global warming ground to a halt at the time that the collection and processing of temperature data began to come under close surveillance. There have been many exposures of fiddling the books, ranging from the pioneering work of John Daly to the sordid scandal of Kiwigate. The main question about Global Warming is not the alleged “pause”, but whether it ever started in the first place.

2. The climate models are inherently unstable owing to the inclusion of positive feedback effects. It is clear from the recorded literature that the modellers were almost exclusively intent on inventing such effects. It is also clear, from the remarkable equilibrium of the world weather system, that in the real world stabilising negative feedback dominates. Climate models are therefore predetermined to ramp up the predicted temperature, regardless of the inputs, while the earth sails on serenely in its elliptical orbit. Random extreme events, which seem so dramatic to us creatures crawling about on its surface, are just noise in the operation of the heat engine that we call the weather system.


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England’s green and pleasant land

There are two environments. The real one comprises the land, the sea, the air and all those plants and animals that inhabit them. The imaginary one is dominated by the alleged threat from a rare atmospheric gas, which is in fact the source of all life on earth. The imaginary one has been adopted by politicians and powerful lobbyists, mainly of an authoritarian socialist leaning, who find it indispensible in persuading the populace to accept diktats and impositions that would otherwise provoke riots. Those white satanic mills, for example, litter the landscape, wreck the smooth operation of the energy supply, impose fuel poverty on the poorest citizens by means of grotesque stealth taxes, while lining the pockets of landowners and entrepreneurs on the make; yet they are nothing more than giant religious icons, worse than useless, but standing as symbols of political power: look on my works ye mighty and despair.

The current threat to build over what remains of Britain’s precious landscape, which is inducing despair in the lovers of that diminishing resource, is just another manifestation of the same tendency.

The driving force is excess immigration. This has two primary sources. The first is the determination of the Brussels Soviet to crush national characteristics and boundaries, by methods that are less violent but quite as effective as those practised by Stalin. The second is the largely unspoken discovery by left wing politicians in the West that mass importation of people of low educational attainment gives them a significant electoral advantage. They prevent any rational discussion of this policy by uttering shrill cries of “Racism!” directed at anyone who attempts it; irrelevant but highly effective. The open door policy during the New Labour decade in Britain was thus imposed without ever being aired publicly. The results have left gaping wounds in the social and economic structure of the nation. The dire shortage of homes is just one of the many consequences.

Earlier politicians had been largely constrained by their parties in these respects, but over the last three decades or so the Westminster cliques have more and more bypassed the party structures, the result of which is reflected in the extraordinary decline of party memberships (not a phenomenon unique to Britain). Instead, the leaderships have increasingly relied on donations from people who have control of large amounts of money. Thus the rich, the trade union leaders, the EU and the lobbyists have become the powers in the land. One of the most influential lobby groups are the land developers. An earlier and wiser generation of politicians had introduced green-belts to prevent ribbon development along main routes and the subsequent filling in.

A consequence of the loss of the moderating influence of party members has been the development of what we might call a thuggish tendency among politicians – to ride roughshod over the interests of ordinary people in pursuit of their own, often ill-conceived, political whims. It is a feature of upper echelons of all the parties, revealed when they get into government.

The doyen of the thuggish tendency was Professor Lord Prescott. He it was who was sent, as our leading physicist, to America to convert the primitive natives to the new religion. As Deputy PM he had responsibility for the environment. He certainly made his mark.

Your bending author does not have to go far to see Prescott’s mark, it just needs a glance out of the window. We knew that a development was planned before we moved into our little retirement house in the West Country. Having been caught out by planning blight before (we lost all the equity in our home when the Stansted Airport expansion plan was re-announced, just as we needed to emigrate to Hampshire) we visited the planning offices three times to study the plans before committing ourselves to purchase. How naïve we were! The detailed design had been developed by the Duchy of Cornwall. It comprised a fine group of houses built round a village green, a tasteful addition to a small rural town.

Enter the Prescott gang. The new government imposed a housing density requirement that was way beyond what had been conceived. The proposed village green disappeared and the houses were packed in like toy bricks in their box. Give the developers their due: they did their best to provide pleasant, well-constructed and various buildings, but the rooms were poky and some of the back yards were of such a derisory size that there was barely room to stretch out and sunbathe, let alone welcome wildlife. It was a disaster for the real environment.

That was not the end of it, however. Opposite our front door was a short road leading to the main road into town. It was an accidental bit of rural paradise, a boon to the community, with a stand of mature trees being host to many birds, small mammals and insects. But Prescott had invented what came to be known as “garden-grabbing”. Someone bought the corner cottage and easily obtained planning permission to build two houses in the garden, naturally cutting down the trees first. They had no land and were so close together that maintenance work of the adjacent external walls would be impossible. He then put all three up for sale. Meanwhile another householder added a fourth to the row. Not only the trees but the bird song and the graceful butterflies are all but gone.

But Prescott was not unique. The new Conservative Minister of Planning says “we should build on boring fields”. What a thug! There is no such thing as a boring field to someone who is not a total ignoramus. They are all teeming with life of all kinds. The meadows that provide winter food for our cattle, for example, are a priceless preserves of our real environmental heritage. They are home to increasingly rare wild flowers and the butterflies and other insects that depend on them.

The pusillanimous politicians and bureaucrats, who are desperately trying to cover up the extent of the great human immigration disaster that their kind have inflicted on our little island, are set on taking the easiest path out of this mess. There is plenty of blighted land that can be developed, but the developers prefer to exploit easy and (temporarily) attractive options, and they are a power in the land.

Number of the month – 2

This is to celebrate the fact that building on green-belt land has doubled in a year.

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Note: apologies for late posting; caused by another incident of haemarthrosis. 


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