Saturday, November 28, 2015

From China to Lambeth Palace

Lambeth Palace by night
Back yesterday afternoon from a largely unbloggable trip to China, though I did manage to sing in the English Language Choir of the South Cathedral.  After a couple of hours in the office, to Lambeth Palace for another wonderfully inspiring meeting of the Lambeth Partnership where Justin Welby updated us on his plans and progress.

He told us that the CofE was purposely going through a major period of upheaval, to reform and renew the whole Church, focusing on:
  • Discipleship
  • How we find and train people to lead churches
  • How we manage and use central money: the focus is now entirely on the poor and evangelism
  • How we develop and train senior leadership
  • Simplifying 520 years of legislation. Basically "anything that makes life more difficult for people is being abolished - except the Archbishop of Canterbury!"
He was refreshingly clear that these were not quick fixes: his experience in the Oil industry where things take 25 years has been helpful. And he was effusive in his praise for his fellow-bishops: this is not a question of the Hero Leader but of collective decision making.

He spoke inspiringly about the Community of St Anselm and it was great to have a number of the members present, two of whom gave short talks: a young woman from Kenya and a young man from NY.  He also spoke warmly of his recent trip to China and said he'd hope to return there soon.

Ken Costa also encouraged us to link to the banned cinema advert - almost 500k views so far.

There were deep and wise words about his work on reconciliation and on the progress behind the scenes of high-level dialogue with senior religious leaders from Islam and elsewhere. We finished as usual with Compline in the Crypt and afterwards I offered Justin and idea which had formed during the evening and solidified in prayer: he'll think about it: if it happens it will have global implications. We shall see.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

We need a scientific, epidemiological, study of ISIL

Simple infection model (F2 from Rasu 2014)
The terrible events in Paris really bring into focus the need to consider this ISIL phenomenon from a scientific and epidemiological point of view. ISIL is spread, to a significant extent, through social media and the internet is almost certainly used to coordinate attacks in the West.  The large Internet companies make their money by detailed algorithmic analysis of the information they have - and Google scans all the emails it its system. It's therefore high time that significant resources were devoted to the scientific study of the epidemiology involved and how to disrupt it.

As an start we can consider a six state path:
  1. Innocent
  2. Curious
  3. Sympathetic
  4. Radicalised
  5. Engaged
  6. Terrorist
  7. eXited (either dead or inactive).
We can write pij to be the probability per unit time of moving from state i to state j. For simplicity we might assume for the moment that only transitions between adjacent states are allowed.

Clearly if the only transitions are to higher states than unless p67 is very large indeed (terrorists give up or are killed very quickly) you will get more and more terrorists. Making p67 high is the focus of military operations, but if at any point in the chain we can get the flow going backwards and keep it there then the pool of Terrorists will decay exponentially. Even if we just have p43 greater than p34 then eventually (with a fixed population) the supply will decline. That BTW is why it is so important for ISIL to get women to come to their territory, because if they keep having babies then in 15-20 years ISIL will not be dependent on external recruits and be much harder to beat.

There is so much known about persuasion techniques on social media and otherwise that it should be very feasible to target people especially at stages 2 and 3 (C and S) and work hard to increase p32 and p21. At that stage people are, I think, using quite visible social networks (like Facebook) and it's pretty easy to see who they are, what they are interested in, and who they are following. Almost everyone has someone they will listen to, and a systematic, scientific approach could be made to figure out what are the most effective messages to send to each individual.

The Alan Turing Institute, whose launch I attended on Wednesday, would be an excellent place for such research. And the internet companies should fund it.

The ATI launch was an excellent event BTW. Andrew Blake, who I've known since we were undergraduates at Trinity, is truly world class and under his leadership the Institute will be. I also had the pleasure of meeting one of Alan Turing's nieces and one of her daughters (who read maths and is now a primary school teacher).

PS Interesting article in Knowledge at Wharton relates to some of this: talking about a coordinated soft-power campaign against ISIL.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance + Bob Shiller

Planted a remembrance poppy cross in memory of my great-aunt Susie Slade who was killed in the war flying a damaged plane back to the factory. It is thanks to her that we have the family house in Cornwall.

She and her sister Betsy (my grandmother) flew down in the 1930s (1936 I think) to stay with a friend who was also a pioneer aviatrix - daughter of the first man to win a VC in the air.  As they approached the landing field they saw a crashed plane and when they landed their hostess arrived with a black eye.  But the plane was made of wood and canvas and quickly patched up. My grandmother and her husband fell in love with the place, bought  a plot of land from the local farmer and built the house my mother now lives in.

Last night went to Bob Shiller to hear him speak at the British Academy about his new book Pfishing for Pfools . He said that this was the second book he and Akerlof had co-authored, despite the adage that co-authorship usually ends in divorce. He was particularly motivated to debunk the myth of a "utility function" and the "Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics". Pareto himself moved away from talking about "utility" and there is a lot of evidence that this just isn't how people think and work.

Bob said people are not very good at knowing their own pleasure, and mentioned the fact that people who are asked to hold their hand in a glass of iced water for 60s rate the experience as worse than those who hold their hand in a glass of water for 90s which is at the same temperature for 60s and then somewhat warmed. On the other hand this may rather be evidence that pleasure and pain are not simple opposites and are highly context-dependent.

They quite rightly rail against the evils of slot machines which are becoming more and more sophisticated. All the examples they quote are thought-provoking. But there is a continuum between the downright illegal and evil to the mildly questionable and possibly more could be done to disentangle the different cases. I'd love to have a dinner with Bob and Onora O'Neill!

He also said that he and Akerlof had cut lots of the book, and one important part that was left out pointed out that Pfishing scams were even worse in non-free market societies. People may get the impression that they are attacking the free market rather than pointing out the limitations of free market fundamentalism.

I asked him about Pfighting back and we discussed some ideas briefly, but I had to rush off so no time to chat properly.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Onora O'Neill on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression

I've been meaning to blog for a while about the great Onora O'Neill's fascinating Theos Lecture "Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression" which was given last month.

She begins by making the important point that there is "little point in shrinking the list of human rights to what are thought to comprise a minimally adequate set (and, of course, there might be a plurality of such sets). Given that each listed right is indeterminate, reduced lists too will be interpretable in multiple ways, and the real task of working out how rights are to be interpreted and  institutionalised will still need a lot of further thought and work, as well as legislation. In interpreting the abstract rights of the Declarations and Conventions we cannot proceed one-right-at-a-time. We always need to  frame institutions and laws in ways that allow for protecting, respecting and realising the range of rights." (my italics)

She notes that "many of the classical arguments were not about rights— let alone about universal rights—but about duties, and in particular about duties to tolerate others’ speech even if it was false or wrong, and even if others had no right to speak or publish in certain ways. (That, I suggest, is why the duty of toleration seemed so difficult in the early modern period, and also why we now find it hard to follow some of  the older arguments, and why some contemporary writing dismisses toleration as an easy duty, that requires no more than indifference)." (her italics)

Onora makes the rather subtle point that "‘freedom of self-expression’ and ‘freedom of expression’ are what are known as ‘false friends’: arguments that bear on one cannot simply be transferred to the other."

She also offers a very coherent argument that "There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others..Any supposed right not to be offended would founder on the fact that offensiveness is subjective, and would put others’ freedom of expression wholly at the mercy of the sensibilities of possible audiences, including audiences who may include some who are hypersensitive, paranoid or self-serving—or worse."

She points out that the "broad definition of belief currently being applied by the courts to freedom of expression and freedom of religion is unclear, and some rulings appear inconsistent with others." For example "It is puzzling to find opposition to fox hunting classified as a ‘religion or belief’, but support for fox hunting not classified as a ‘religion or belief'"

Her concluding discussion demonstrates that: "any adequate interpretation of and legislation for human rights (for a given society at a given time) has to take a clear view about whose action is required to respect and realise those rights, and cannot prescribe requirements that obstruct or undermine those rights. ...we have to ask not only which rights can consistently be held by all, but also which counterpart duties on others (themselves right holders) are compatible with everyone’s rights. It is not enough merely to assert or assume that everyone has each listed right: rights shorn of counterpart duties will be no more than rhetoric and gesture, and the fundamental task of justifying rights is to find an interpretation under which each person can coherently have all of a range of rights, and these rights are not mere rhetoric because they can be matched to and secured by a pattern of duties that would respect and realise those rights."

Yet another tour de force from someone who is surely our greatest and most influential living philosopher. And congratulations to Theos for hosting the event.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Vacuum fluctuations, modelling in systems biology, and overconfidence in economics

Fig 3 of Riek at al.  A: sketch showing lateral increase in
sampling cross section which leads to averaging over
noise patterns in circled areas. B: differential histograms
at various positions of the beam detector.
Three papers from Science catch my attention:
  • A fascinating paper by Riek at al called "Direct sampling of electric-field vacuum fluctuations" demonstrates direct detection of the vacuum fluctuations of electromagnetic radiation in free space by using tightly focused laser pulses lasting a few femtoseconds. This allows "an extreme time-domain approach to quantum physics, with nondestructive access to the quantum state of light. Operating at multiterahertz frequencies, such techniques might also allow time-resolved studies of intrinsic fluctuations of elementary excitations in condensed matter." The paper derives a theoretical 4.7% change in the total normalised noise bandwidth and then shows a 4% widening experimentally.  This is really exciting stuff - though once again I'd have liked to see a lot more data so that the uncertainly could be narrowed. Probably there is no significant difference between 4% and 4.7% but it would be very interesting if there were.
  • My friend Michael Stumpf and his colleagues have an nice comment paper on Systems Biology whose conclusions are well worth quoting Models are simplified (but not simplistic) representations of real systems, and this is precisely the property that makes them attractive to explore the consequences of our assumptions, and to identify where we lack understanding of the principles governing a biological system. Models are tools to uncover mechanisms that cannot be directly observed, akin to microscopes or nuclear magnetic resonance machines. Used and interpreted appropriately, with due attention paid to inherent uncertainties, the mathematical and computational modelling of biological systems allows the exploration of hypotheses. But the relevance of these models depends on the ability to assess, communicate, and, ultimately, understand their uncertainties.
  • In their remarkable "Peer effects on worker output in the laboratory generalize to the field" Daniel Herbst and Alexandre Mas compare peer effects on productivity (workers become more productive is their co-workers are more productive) from lab and field studies. By conducting a meta-analysis of published lab and fields studies they find that the relevant parameter is 0.15 (0.04, 0.26) in the lab and 0.11 (0.03,0.18) in the field, which suggests that there is probably one consistent value 0.12 (0.06,0.18) (the figures in brackets are 95% confidence limits). But what I find almost equally fascinating is that, as you can see from their Fig 1 below this lies outside the published "95% confidence limits" of 18% (2/11) of the lab studies and 48% (11/23) of the field studies.  Moral: these studies may be "accurate" but they are vastly overconfident.
Fig 1 from Herbst and Mas