Friday, 3 September 2010

Plasticity in Darwin's Origin of the Species 6th Edition

Historical Sketch

Plasticity xv - He extends the same view to animals. The Dean {Hon. and Rev. W Herbert} believes that single species of each genus were created in an originally highly plastic condition, and that these have produced, chiefly by intercrossing, but likewise by variation, all our existing species.

Finality error xix - He {M Naudin} believes, like Dean Herbert, that species, when nascent , were more plastic than at present. He lays weight on what he calls the principle of finality.

The Origin

9 Any variation which is not inherited is unimportant for us. But the number and diversity of inheritable deviations of structure, both those of slight and those of considerable physiological importance, are endless.

22 The great power of this principle of selection is not hypothetical. It is certain that several of our eminent breeders have, even within a single lifetime, modified to a large extent their breeds of cattle and sheep.

62 Under domestication, it may truly be said that the whole organism becomes in some degee plastic.

106 The direct action of changed conditions leads to definite or indefinite results. In the later case the organism seems to become plastic and we have much fluctuating variability.

385 He {E Ray Lankester} proposes to call the structures which resemble each other in distinct animals, owing to their descent from a common progenitor with subsequence modifications homogeneous; and the resemblances which cannot this be accounted for, he proposes to call homoplastic.

Glossary 438 Plastic - Readilly capable of change.

The Luddite connection to Frank Herbert's Dune

In the Dune universe thinking machines - artificial intelligence is banned after the Butlerian jihad. Herbert was thinking of the 19th century philosopher and technophobe Luddite Samuel Butler who wrote the book Erewhon.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Schopenhauer Quote

If your abilities are mediocre, modesty is an honesty, but if you possess great talents it is hypocrisy - quoted in the Private Lives of Albert Einsten.

The Once and Future King

There would be a day - there must be a day - when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none - a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance they might come to reason.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Meaning of the 21st Century II

Chapter 14 A perfect storm
Small scale entrepreneurs in developing countries - storm of innovation. Amory Lovins Factor 4 double wealth and half resource use. We can do this now. We actually need to think of factor 10 this is for the innovation. Says this requires sweeping away government regulations - very right-wing capitalist.

Chapter 15 The vital role of corporations
I agree that corporations and business can do far more for a country than aid and charity, but it depends on the ethics and scruples of the companies. We need more Cadbury's and less Enrons. We need companies that see real costs and keep real balance sheets.

Chapters 16 and 17 Cultures crucible and The Counter-terorist world
Nonsense - he overplays the conflicts between religions and cultures. In the end we all want certain freedoms and liberal democracies but these do not specify Gods and cultures. The disputes are caused by anachronisms that are dying and having their last roll of the dice. In the 1580s protestants went on suicide missions against catholic priests.

The Meaning of the 21st Century

Chapter 1 - The Transition Generation
We are going through a time of very rapid change and there will be suprises and changes in paradigm (leverage factors) that provide large-scale changes in what we can do. The challenge is definitely staying alive.

Chapter 2 What got us into this mess
  • Too much complexity, a lack of appreciation of limited natural resources. Over-confidence in technology being able to surpass nature (this is ironic as this is Bjorn Lomborg's argument and Martin is guilty himself in later chapters). The tragedy of the commons with fisheries and factory fishing, the tipping point of pollution in the Black Sea. People learn from catastrophe first.
  • Worldwatch Institute $124 billion spent to catch $70 billion problem of subsidies which encourage over fishing.

Chapter 3 Rich kids and their trust funds
  • We are using up the environmental capital without any thought to the long term sustainability (I hate using this word). Gives a very false account of the cost of what we consume. GDP can rise so long as we keep using natural resources without factoring any real costs for them.
  • Norman Myers - list of perverse subsidies that total $2 trillion each year. More than enough to end the current financial crisis and to return the world to order. Roodman D Getting the signals right $73,000 a year per worker in the Ruhr to subsidise coal mining.
  • Dangers of spin - particularly by the government where vested interests mean they hide the truth e.g tobacco showing nicotine is harmless and non-addictive.

Chapter 4 Too many people
Leverage factor is education which dramatically reduces the population growth rate and in most cases reduces it below the replacement rate. Actually in the long term we need to hit the replacement rate if we do not want to become extinct but not go above it. Liberated women are the answer - women who can ejoy sex like men!!

Chapter 5 The giant in the kitchen
  • Water security - there is an issue of IEEE spectrum about this as we have to balance water and energy needs but if we can create an excess of energy the problem goes away as we can desalinate the worlds oceans. The loss of topsoil can also be managed with careful farming methods and west is not best no matter what Martin's inference. More trees, more addition of the right minerals (Australian soil doctor). Extensive use of hydropnics especially in cities can reduce food miles but these have to be well designed and computer maintained and also stretch water resources although in a closed loop way.
  • He is a strong proponent of GM foods - GM has a risk that evolution is necessarily slow so that the consequnces are less drastic and so we cannot understand all of the ecological consequences. GM has to be treated carefully, some is fine to make disease resistant bananas for example but the round-up crops are not essential and there is some evidence that organic pest management is possible and better.

Chapter 6 Destitute nations
Crippled business because of the lack of capital - no deeds or possibility of land transfer or business transfer and so there is a lack of assets that can creat mobile capital.

Chapter 7 Climate catastrophe
This is happening the ocean conveyors (evidence is disputed) and global warming and we need to take action. Fuel cells and hydrogen-economy is the answer - fine but this technology has yet to make a big impact. Solar could be used to charge the cells - Solar Living Sourcebook Astropower 120-watt photovoltaic panel vovering Nellis Air Force Base and Nevada Test site would generate all the power for the US, 1,858,850 panels per square mile  produce 425 million kwH/year.
Fourth generation nuclear power - pebble-bed reactors - gas cooled - small so locally produced - no loss from transmission

Chapter 8 Invisible mayhem
  • The effect of the agro-chemicals on sperm levels and genital mutations. They will be around for the long-term as we made them to not-degrade and so we have to live with this but we should make no more of them.
  • The Erice statement
Chapter 9 Genetically modified humans
Too much belief in understanding the genome

Chapter 10 Nanodeluge
Gives rise to massive computing and non-human like intelligence. The problem is does this type of intelligence create knowledge or anythign we can use/work with?

Chapter 11 Automated evolution
Goal directed evolution is not evolution in the Darwinian sense - that has a teleology and you might as well call it intelligent design and god. The problem is trying to keep evolution and the environment separate. As the two mix in an undivided whole you get the law of unintended consequences and the faster the "evolution" the more serious these become.

Chapter 12 The Transhuman condition
This is just silly. There might be a singularity but for once Baroness Greenfield is right - we cannot reproduce the compelxity of our minds. We cannot reproduce the idea of freewill. A computational intelligence does not have free-will, logic denies it, it denies emotion. We would end up with the Borg. If we do choose that then we can imagine going the whole way. Digitising ourselves completely - then no food shortages, no environmental concerns, space travel becomes possible and colonisation of the universe. Only entropy would stand in our way.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Meaning of the 21st Century - Values of the Future

This is chapter 20 and it is starting to get a bit repetitive with almost the same sentences being repeated from earlier chapters which described the challenges, but this time in the context of solutions. There is too much emphasis on the idea oh high culture and on the brain/mind altering drugs. There is much to be said of low culture - great movies need not be high-brow and not everyone loves Mozart. I dislike Impressionism and love Surrealism but there is no reason why you cannot hate art, or classical music or ballet - ask Jeremy Clarkson.

There is one really great sentence I wanted to quote.
Education for leisure will do more to improve quality of life than education for jobs.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

James Martin - The Meaning of the 21st Century I

The Awesome Meaning of this Century

The Skill/Wisdom gap is a serious problem. We have lost our ability to put things together. We have got deeper and narrower to an extent that we can no longer link ideas in an interdisciplinary way and this limits our reasoning and our "wisdom". It leads to isolated decision making that will always create unforseen consequences, at a time when we can least afford it.

The news today had an example which was the relationship between obesity and diet and exercise. The new research suggests that first you tackle diet and eating as if you focus on increasing acticvity and exercise you have limited success because once you have the extra pounds you are less keen to be active. This is when the foolish Secretary of State for Health says that diet should not be governed centrally but that people should take their own responsibility regardless of evidence showing legislation of the food industry in France and Denmark has reduced obesity. He also forgets the experiences of two world wars and particularly of rationing that improved the diet of millions of people, who had been almost starving before-hand.

The Perfect Storm

This chapter is focussed on his ideas about the need for non-centralised managements and the weaknesses of having a centralised government that uses a command-and-control structure which cannot plan for every eventuality. This does not allow for local corrections to problems that arise. The examples he takes come from the Nobel Prize winner Hayek. These have been confirmed recently by the result of complex systems analysis.

This seems to me analogous to the gaze heuristic. We do not calculate the trajectory of a ball, we look to guide it into our hands by minor corrections that bring us to the final solution. This means a much more pragamatic and localised structure to problem solving. So government only sets the strategic goals - the actual implementation is carried out globally.

There are also practical links with the problems we face in high throughput biology. We are losing the specialised "local" biological knowledge that we used to have in small-scale laboratory experiments, where people were very familiar with the genes they were studying and so there was lots of know-how that did not enter the literature. This was particularly important in the case of genome annotations and so the result was the creation of the DAS annotation system. Which never seemed to make the headway that was needed. Good idea but just too complicated to be used - this is a limitation of the semantic web and of creating perfect database schema. They manage knowledge perfectly but exclude the user and the requirements of the specifications change too often. We also need decentralised and more modular project managment/coding.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

God and Golem Inc. - Norbert Wiener

"I have spoken of the layers of prejudice which encumber our approach to those problems in the vital common ground where science and religion come together: we must avoid discussing God and man in the same breath - that is blasphemy. Like Descartes, we must maintain the dignity of Man by treating him on a basis entirely different from that on which we treat the lower animals. Evolution and the origin of the species are a desecration of human values; and as the earlier Darwinians found, to entertain these ideas is very dangerous for the scientist in a world fundamentally suspicious of science.
But even in the field of science, it is perilous to run counter to the accepted tables of precedence. On no account is it permissible to mention living beings and machines in the same breath. Living beings are living beings in all their parts; while machines are made of metals and other unorganised substances, with no fine structure relevant to their purposive or quasi-purposive function. Physics - or so it is generally supposed - takes no account of purpose; and the emergence of life is something totally new." p14-15.

"The learning of the individual is a process that occurs in the life of the individual, in ontology. Biological reproduction is a phenomenon that occurs in the life of the race, in phylogeny, but the race learns even as the individual does. Darwinian natural selection is a kind of racial learning, which operates within the conditions imposed by the reproduction of the individual" p21.

"Thus if we do not lose ourselves in the dogmas of omnipotence and omniscience, the conflict between God and the Devil is a real conflict, and God is something less than absolutely omnipotent. He is actually engaged in a conflict with his creature in which he may very well lose the game. And yet his creature is made by him according to his own free will, and would seem to derive all its possibility of action from God himself. Can God play a significant game with his own creature? Can any creator, even a limited one, play a significant game with his own creature." p24.

"However, even living systems are not (in all probability) living below the molecular level. Furthermore, with all the differences between living systems and the usual mechanical ones, it is presumptuous to deny that systems of the one sort may throw light upon systems of the other. One respect in which this may well be the case is that of the mutual convertibility of spatial and functional structure, on the one hand, and of messages in time, on the other. The template account of reproduction is manifestly not the whole story. There must be some communication between the molecules of genes and the residues to be found in the nutrient fluid, and this communication must have a dynamics. It is quite in the spirit of modern physics to suppose that field phenomena of a radiative nature mediate the dynamics of such communication. It will not do to state categorically that the processes of reproduction in the machine and in the living being have nothing in common.
Pronouncements of this kind often seem to cautious and conservative minds to be less risky than rash statements of analogy. However, if it is dangerous to assert an analogy on insufficient evidence, it is equally dangerous to reject one without proof of its inconsequentialness. Intellectual honesty is not the same thing as the refusal to assume an intellectual risk, and the refusal even to consider the new and emotionally disturbing has no particular ethical merit." p51-52.

"The orthodox Christian and the sorcerer agree that after the miracle of the consecration of the Host is performed, the Divine Elements are capable of performing further miracles. They agree moreover that the miracle of transubstantiation can be performed only by a duly ordained priest. Furthermore, they agree that such a priest can never lose the power to perform the miracle, though if he is unfrocked he performs it at the sure peril of damnation.
Under these postulates, what is more natural than that some soul, damned but ingenious, should have hit upon the idea of laying his hold on the magic Host and using its powers for his personal advantage. It is here, and not in any ungodly orgies, that the central sin of the Black Mass consists. The magic of the Host is intrinsically good: its perversion to other ends than the Greater Glory of God is a deadly sin.
This was the sin which the Bible attributes to Simon Magus, for bargaining with Saint Paul for the miraculous powers of the Christians. I can well imagine the puzzled aggrievement of the poor man when he discovered that these powers were not for sale, and that Paul refused to accept what was, in Simon's mind, an honourable, acceptable and natural bargain. It is an attitude that most of us have encountered when we have declined to sell an invention at the really flattering terms offered us by a modern captain of industry.
Be that as it may, Christianity has always considered simony as a sin, that is, the buying and selling of the offices of the Church and the supernatural powers implied therein. Dante indeed places it among the worst of sins, and consigns to the bottom of his Hell some of the most notorious practitioners of simony of his own times. However, simony was a besetting sin of the highly ecclesiastical world in which Dante lived, and is of course extinct in the more rationalistic and rational world of the present day.
It is extinct! It is extinct. Is it extinct? Perhaps the powers of the age of the machine are not truly supernatural, but at least they seem beyond the ordinary course of nature to the man in the street. Perhaps we no longer interpret our duty as obliging us to devote these great powers to the greater glory of God, but it still seems improper to us to devote them to vain or selfish purposes. There is a sin, which consists of using the magic of modern automisation to further personal profit or let loose the apocalyptic terrors of nuclear warfare. If this sin is to have a name, let that name be Simony or Sorcery." p57-58.

"I am most familiar with gadget worshippers in my own world, with its slogans of free enterprise and the profit-motive economy. They can and do exist in that through-the -looking-glass world where the slogans are the dictatorship of the proletariat and Marxism and communism. Power and the search for power are unfortunately realities that can assume many garbs. Of the devoted priests of power, there are many who regard with impatience the limitations of mankind, and in particular the limitation consisting in man's undependability and unpredictability. You may know a mastermind of this type by the subordinates he chooses. They are meek, self-effacing, and wholly at his disposal; and on account of this, are generally ineffective when they once cease to be limbs at the disposal of his brain. They are capable of great industry but of little independent initiative - the chamberlains of the harem of ideas to which their Sultan is wedded." p59.

"The gadget minded people often have the illusion that a highly automated world will make smaller claims in human ingenuity than does the present one and will take over from us our need for difficult thinking, as a Roman slave who was also a Greek philosopher might have done for his master. This is palpably false. A goal-seeking mechanism will not necessarily seek our goals unless we design it for that purpose, and in that designing we must foresee all steps of the process for which it is designed, instead of exercising a tentative foresight which goes up to a certain point, and can continued from that point on as new difficulties arise. The penalties for errors of foresight, great as they are now, will be enormously increased as automation comes into its full use." p68.

"It is unthinkable that all lives should be prolonged in an indiscriminate way. If, however, there exists the possibility of indefinite prolongation, the termination of a life or even the refusal or neglect to prolong it involves a moral decision of the doctors. What will then become of the traditional prestige of the medical profession as priests of the battle against death and as ministers of mercy? I will grant that there are cases even at present when doctors qualify this mission of theirs and decide not to prolong a useless and miserable life. They will often refuse to tie the umbilical cord of a monster; or when an old man suffering from an inoperable cancer falls victim to the "old man's friend", hypostatic pneumonia, they will grant him the easier death rather than exact from him the last measure of pain to which survival will condemn him. Most often this is dome quietly and decently, and it is only when some incontinent fool blabs the secret that the courts and the papers are full of the talk of "euthanasia."" p 72.

"No, the future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves." p74.

"Homeostasis, whether for the individual or the race, is something of which the very basis must sooner or later be reconsidered. This means for example as I have said in an article for Voprosy Filosofii in Moscow, that although science is an important contribution to the homeostasis of the community, it is a contribution the basis of which must be assessed anew every generation or so. Here let me remark that both the Eastern and Western homeostasis of the present day is being made with the intention of fixing permanently the concepts of a period now long past. Marx lived in the middle of the first industrial revolution, and we are now well into the second one. Adam Smith belongs to a still earlier and more obsolete phase of the first industrial revolution. Permanent homeostasis of society cannot be made on a rigid assumption of a complete permanence of Marxism, nor can it be made on a similar assumption concerning a standardised concept of free enterprise and the profit motive. It is not the form of rigidity that is particularly deadly so much as rigidity itself, whatever the form." p86.

"Here some recent work of Mandlebrot is much to the point. He has shown that the intimate way in which the commodity market is both theoretically and practically subject to random fluctuations arriving from the very contemplation of its own irregularities is something much wilder and much deeper than has been suppose, and that the usual continuous approximations to the dynamics of the market must be applied with much more caution than has been the case, or not at all." p93.

Written in 1963 at the height of the Cold War during a time when the threat of nuclear war hung over everyone.

Chapman and Hall, London, 1964.

The Thief of Time

This is a great book as it covers chaos and emergence and what it actually means in terms of life. How life breaks all the rules, how the order of life arises from the chaos of the universe and how as a consequence life exists on the margins of the possible as a fragile bubble of existence that vanishes in an instant in the universal scale of things. I don’t know if that is depressing or optimistic.

The irony of the auditors is that they represent the accounting of the universe that hates the untidiness if life but they also represent the extreme of reductionist science. Trying to understand art and beauty by taking it apart and examining it a molecule at a time. Sometimes science forgets that you need to look at the whole and that the whole is more than the sum of the parts even if it shouldn’t be as Susan realises.

Why Sex is Fun - Jared Diamond

"Becoming a male is a prolonged, uneasy, and risky venture; it is a kind of struggle against inherent trends toward femaleness." A. Jost quoted p46 WSIF

Chauvinists might go further and hail becoming a man as heroic and becoming a woman as the easy fallback position. Conversely, one might regard womanhood as the natural state of humanity, with men just a pathological aberration that regrettably must be tolerated as the price for making more women. I prefer merely to acknowledge that a Y chromosome switches gonad development from the ovarian path to the testicular path, and to draw no metaphysical conclusions. ibid p46

from evolution of mating systems amongst the primates he concludes;
"We thus conclude that promiscuity or harems, not monogamy, is the mating system that leads to concealed ovulation. This is the conclusion predicted by the many fathers theory. It doesn’t agree with the daddy-at-home theory." p89

What about mixed strategies aren’t these even better? Many fathers and daddy-at-home. Convince many that they may be the father and yet give one the strong belief that he can maintain monogamy by remaining at home in close proximity. The necessary falsehood of monogamy is the most useful strategy as both both parties have their cake and eat it. They both pretend monogamy is good while cheating like mad. The problem is the difference between perceived strategy as sensed amongst a populace or at least assumed and the real strategy which need not be the same.

Last year I received a remarkable letter from a professor at a university in a distant city, inviting me to an academic conference. I did not know the writer, and I couldn’t even figure out from the name whether the writer was a man or a woman. The conference would involve long plane flights and a week from home. However, the letter of invitation was beautifully written. If the conference was going to be as beautifully organized, it might be exceptionally interesting. With some ambivalence because of the time commitment, I accepted.
My ambivalence vanished when I arrived at the conference, which turned out to be every bit as interesting as I had anticipated. In addition, much effort had been made to arrange outside activities for me, including shopping, bird watching, banquets, and tours of arcaelogical sites. The professor behind this masterpiece of organization and the original virtuoso letter proved to be a woman. In addition to giving a brilliant lecture at the conference and being a very pleasant person, she was among the most stunningly beautiful women I ever met.

On one of the shopping trips that my hostess arranged, I bought several presents for my wife. The student who had been sent along as my guide evidently reported these purchases to my hostess, because she commented on them when I sat next to her at the conference banquet. To my astonishment, she told me, "My husband never buys me any presents!" She had formerly bought presents for him but eventually stopped when he never reciprocated.
Someone across the table then asked me about my fieldwork on birds of paradise in New Guinea. I explained that male birds of paradise provide no help in rearing the nestlings but instead devote their time to trying to seduce as many females as possible. Surprising me again, my hostess burst out, "Just like men!" She explained that her own husband was much better than most men, because he encouraged her career aspirations. However, he spent most evenings with other men from his office, watched television while at home on the weekend, and avoided helping with the household and their two children. She had repeatedly asked him to help: she finally gave up and hired a housekeeper. There is, of course, nothing unusual about this story. It stands out in my mind only because this woman was so beautiful, nice, and talented that one might naively have expected the man who chose to marry her to have remained interested in spending time with her. ibid p95-96

This is so sad she should ditch the fool - it is annoying when brilliant women are wasted on neanderthal man.

Now compare the reproductive outputs of men pursuing the two different hunting strategies that Hawkes terms the 'provider' strategy and the 'show-off' startegy. The provider hunts for foods yielding moderately high returns with high predictability, such as palm starch and rats. The show-off hunts for big animals; by scoring only occasional bonanzas amod many more days of empty bags, his mean return is lower. The provider brings home on the average the most food for his wife and kids, although he never acquires anough of a surplus to feed anyone else. The sho-off on the average brings less food to his wife and kids but does occasionally have lots of meat to share with others.

Obviously, if a woman gauges her genetic interests by the number of children whom she can rear to maturity , that’s a function of how much food she can provide them, so she is best off marrying a provider. But she is further well served by having show-offs as neighbours, with whom she can trade occasional adulterous sex for extra meat supplies for herself and her kids. The whole tribe also likes a show-off because of the occasional bonanzas that he brings home for sharing. p105

Physiology and molecular biology can do no more than identify proximate mechanisms; only evolutionary biology can provide ultimate causal explanations. As one simple example, the proximate reason why so called poison-dart frogs are poisonous is that they secrete a lethal chemical named batrachotoxin. But the molecular biological mechanism for the frog’s poisonousness could be considered an unimportant detail because many other poisonous chemicals could have worked equally well. The ultimate causal explanation is that poison-dart frogs evolved poisonous chemicals because they are small, otherwise defenceless animals that would be easy prey for predators if they were not protected by poison p116-117.

Consider SJ Gould and nipples the clitoris etc. and also Plato on levels of cause mol. biol. = material and evo. biol. gives another level of cause but probably not the level of final cause.

Sex, Science and Profits

This book is so full of mistakes that it lost all credibility by the end of the second chapter. For a start Khufu has become Khutu

The biggest mistake is confusing Science with Technology, when they are in fact two very different subjects. These are the differences between a biologist and a medical doctor, a chemist and a chemical engineer, a physicist and an engineer. As a “scientists” the author should know better but he is a clinical biochemist which means he is a medic who thinks he is a scientist and not a technologist. Scientists are not applied scientists; they do not make break-throughs that make money. Einstein did not make a fortune from relativity; the early experts on electricity did not make the same fortunes as Edison. There is a huge difference between laying the foundations and doing the work.

His arguments are even inconsistent he complains about the Bronze Age Empires and about how they prevented commerce and stagnated criticizing the Hellenistic Egyptians while praising the Greeks. Where does he think Hellenistic comes from? The most successful trading nation at the time was the Minoans who were successful because they were traders and traders who held monopolies have always been successful.

What weakens an Empire is arrogance and xenophobia. Racism and a belief in your own superiority creates enemies amongst the other nations and in the end they will destroy you. Even if you are strong sometime you will fall foul of environmental disaster and then if you have enemies they will fall upon you. However if you had allies that you had treated well they might come to your aid.

The sex is only there to try and get you to read the book, it serves no purpose. So take the example of the near naked women rowing the Bronze Age Pharaoh down the Nile. What is the point of that account? He is trying to say that imperial debauchery is the reason that Egypt stagnated. That is partly true but only in a very round-about way. Sex sells and incest destroys lineages but it does not cause civilisations to fail.

He talks about the Greeks mastering science, observation, induction, deduction and experimentation. He describes the work of Plato and Aristotle and then Archimedes for the experimentation. Now there is only one problem here that the Classical Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle disliked experiment and had a philosophy of science that did not include experiment, whereas Archimedes is from the Hellenistic period. Anyway these are all Iron Age Greeks and not Bronze Age Greeks who were the Minoans and Mycenaeans.

The Philistines did not invent iron – that came from Anatolia and the imperially debauched and innovation lacking Chinese had actually discovered pig iron making by 500 BC compared to Europeans only inventing it in the Middle Ages. The Hittites were the first people to exploit iron for the benefit of a single culture and it made Hattusa a powerful city.

Part of the problems with the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations was the Thera explosion which destroyed the Minoans and the Old Hittite kingdoms. This set-back to agricultural civilizations resulted in them being attacked by the remaining hunter gatherers who used violence to take over the weakened civilizations and to take what they would get. These "sea peoples" driven to raiding by lack of resources were a major threat to Bronze Age civilizations and the same effect would be seen in the Iron Age as the Viking Raiders attacked the Celtic Settlers (in fact history was repeated in the Western United States in the wars between the Native Americans, the Homesteaders and the Cowboys). When there is a lack of resources and some people have them then others will be driven to violence to obtain them. In the case of the Vikings they were finally civilized and integrated into the societies they had been raiding so that they became settlers. They adopted many of the traditions and ideas of the native populations and this integration finally stopped the cycles of invasion and resettlement that marked the period up to the Middle Ages in Europe. After this time agriculture was the norm and raiding, the last remnant of the hunter-gatherer, had finally disappeared.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Mendel's Demon

Bad book with rubbish ideas about complexity being related to genome size

I have started talking about 'easy' and 'difficult' evolutionary events. These words are really no more than metaphors for 'probable' and 'improbable' on the same concept of probability as before (where the probability of an event depends on the number, frequency and interaction of its causal preconditions)

Is this true?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Reshaping Teaching in Higher Education

The authors present their view that successful university education depends on having a strong connection between research and teaching. From a policy view this is founded on the opinion that at the university level students should have a curriculum based on an awareness of the current research. The authors then analyse the reality and see how in most cases research and teaching are funded and assessed by different bodies and that this results in a growing separation between the two aspects of a university. While they have looked at case studies from the UK, US and Australasia there is a clear UK bias in the analysis.

Here they have found that the RAE is a particularly devisive part of the funding equation. It is interesting to see this in the context of the most recent RAE which has split the funding much more equitably and also in terms of the new impact statements for future RAE's. The question is how will they value the impact of teaching as that is perhaps both the most immediate and the most long lasting impact that universities have.

They also have a good discussion of the question of whether teaching and research are in fact fundamentally linked as they are both concerned with the acquisition of knowledge. They refer to the literature that has applied Perry's epistemology to understanding how researchers acquire knowledge and how students can also acquire knowledge.

They look at how research and teaching can be brought together at the personal, departmental, institutional and national level. They find that at the personal level the connection is implied but that at the national level at least in the UK the current funding bias towards research through the RAE is pushing teaching and research further apart. One way they see of improving this connection is to strengthen subject specific pedagogy by developing scholarship and including this as a research outcome.

The book also considers the move away from teaching transferable skills to teaching research skills and knowledge acquiring skills which will become more important economically as we move to a knowledge based economy. Given the current economic crisis it is interesting to see how the "knowledge economy" has performed as countries such as the UK with a very heavy investment in the knowledge economy has not done as well as more traditional economies.

This book was written in 2001/02 and there was an expectation that the framework for the 2006/7 RAE (ultimately it was the 2008/9 RAE) would be altered to try and develop the nexus. The research councils have certainly changed the way they fund post-graduate education in the UK using the doctoral training centres in particular to strengthen interdisciplinary areas. So it would be interesting to see how the authors view the changes since 2001 and if they think that the situation has improved or deteriorated.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Brilliant Moral Insight

“The Patrician took a sip of his beer. ‘I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the banks of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining on mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’”

Terry Pratchett - Unseen Academicals