Monday, 30 March 2015


I very much liked this paragraph from here, re a "religious freedom law" in Indiana but relevant to the UK:
To our LGBT friends: with the astonishingly rapid-dawning first opportunity to marry in our country’s 225 year history, try extending some grace to others who have religiously informed objections to same-sex marriage; and if the baker or florist does not want to provide you a cake or flowers, move down the street and give your business to ones who will. To our conservative Christian friends: with religious liberty protected in this country like no other place in the world, try loving your LGBT neighbors (not even talking about your enemies) unconditionally, and understand that providing them goods and services in the marketplace is an act of hospitality, but it does not indicate approval of their nuptial decisions or their sexual orientation. It seems to me this is a better way for good citizens and good Christians to resolve conflict in the public square.
Urban myths that begin "studies show...."

blasphemous thought

UKIP and the Greens are mad. The SNP want to break up my country. The Lib Dems are inane. How about a grand coalition?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The humanities

Interesting Guardian article on "the war against the humanities".

Steve Jobs was a famous defender of the humanities and liberal arts. The bandwagon for STEM subjects may be an overcorrection.

But. Think of humanities and you perhaps imagine learning an appreciation of art, or reading a life-changing novel, or understanding a region's history - what the Romans called becoming cultus, cultivated. Alas, modern academics in the field often seem more doctus than cultus: learned, in a pejorative, dry-as-dust sense. Publishing articles unread beyond their subfield, greatly citing Foucault, writing turgid prose full of words like "intersectionality" and "discourse":
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows....
Guess what? Undergraduates are unkeen to suffer  three years of such stuff with no prospects of a decent job at the other end.

Plenty of humanities courses not like this. For example (plug) the creative writing master's degree at UEA has produced some of the best recent UK novelists. That kind of teaching surely has a bright future, because no matter what the pay gap, not all young people will want to be engineers, or even economists.

Saturday, 28 March 2015


Was there ever a Little Ice Age?

"... a Europe that is getting older and poorer is starting to find that moral stands in foreign policy are luxuries it can no longer afford." Nick Cohen.

The proportion of women in a country's parliament can be predicted by average male and female digit ratios in that country. (Robert Trivers is on the paper.) I am not absolutely convinced of the exogeneity here but it is in any case a very interesting result.

Sounds of the Bodleian.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Open source mapping, Renaissance edition

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.
The Theatrum was... speedily reprinted several times...

Lloyd A Brown, The Story of Maps, cited in Elisabeth Eisenstein The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe


The evolution of bankspeak. Really interesting, not just for laughing at World Bank bureaucratic newspeak - the point is that text analysis is now a powerful empirical tool for doing "cultural studies".

Is the United States of America a conscious being?


Pseudomarkets don't work: American kids edition. Most terrifying quote: “There is this experience of breaking the sound barrier together....” Great, we are putting millions of children through an (ironically) untested system because of a jet pilot/engineering metaphor.

The BBC mapped the Big Five personality traits in the UK. The Big Five list (OCEAN - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism), is like the "proper science" version of all that INTP crap, and deserves more publicity. Heh... London's level of agreeableness is the lowest possible. Figures.

Mark Duggan: "the best lack all conviction"

Here is the Independent Police Complaints Commission report on the death of Mark Duggan which sparked the 2011 riots in the UK.

I have just listened to his brother being interviewed on the Today Programme, attacking the report and the IPCC.

My first feeling was sympathy for a grieving brother. My next was: "Mark Duggan was a gangster - perhaps his family are no better...." Do I know Mark Duggan is a gangster? Several newspapers have said so. And then there is this photograph:

This photo is devastating - the kind of picture a defence lawyer would hate. The staring eyes, the ring and chunky bracelet, and of course the gun gesture, are all worth a thousand words. Plus, the fact that the subject is black. (Did that affect you? No? You sure?)

All of this activates a whole bunch of stereotypes in my brain. Those stereotypes then get transferred by association to Mr Duggan's family.

None of this seems like an ideal way to make a difficult judgment.

But what alternative do I have? After all, my thoughts on the other side are equally stereotypical. "You can't trust the investigation - the Metropolitan police are notoriously corrupt." How does that idea in my head link to the true level of corruption in the Met, which is - almost by definition - more than nothing but less than total?

Knowing a little of the psychology of belief makes me think that Yeats quote, "the best lack all conviction," is best read as a definition. The surer you are of yourself, the likelier you are to be wrong.

(I haven't read the report either. It's 500 pages long!)


Now I want to check out Lil Wayne.

The Gulf Stream might be slowing down because of the melting Greenland ice sheet... making Britain colder. :-(

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


Basically unchanged by most invasions. A priori that is weird to me. What did the other invaders get - material resources to exploit? (I also love the FAQ: "Are some regions of Britain inbred? No." NB, I live in Norfolk.) Here is the original paper, which has more amazing data and pictures: there are more distinct genetic clusters in the Isle of Orkney than in all of the South-East and central England combined.

There's also a unique Welsh borders cluster :-)

Update: the Guardian gives its perspective.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

On being close to the land

Benny himself was conscious of the long history that tied him to the land where he lived... I was with him in Britain when a Jewish man asked him how long Benny's family had lived in Israel. He mishread Benny's reply and said "A hundred and twenty-seven years? That's a long time!"... "No," said Benny, "127 generations."

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms ch. 5: Samaritans.

Monday, 16 March 2015


I heart Nick Cohen on free speech in universities.

Robert Putnam has a new book out on the rise in inequality of opportunity in the US. I bet it will be good. I wonder that nobody has mentioned Michael Young's name. (He is an unsung hero of mine.) Young pointed out that while the arbitrary inequality of a traditional society was unjust, the inequality that comes from meritocracy can be more harmful, embittering and persistent. In a meritocratic society, the people who end up poor are not just unlucky - they have also less talent and skill than those who end up rich. But since many aspects of talent and skill are passed down from parents to children, this can perpetuate cycles of inequality where the poor know that they have no hope of ever rising up in society. Hardly the American Dream. I still don't know of anybody who thought more seriously than Young about this.

Sunday, 15 March 2015


Identity and power 

A thoughtful article on English identity by Paul Kingsnorth, with this great quote:
Sometimes, when I look at history, I think that identity is the root of all evil. Sometimes, when I look at the present, I think that we will be lost without it.
He is perhaps too keen to dissociate Englishness from the bad old British empire:
A case could be made, in fact, that the English were the first victims of the British empire: without their conquest, that empire could not have been built.
Not really. And:
... listen to an English folk song. Listen to enough of them, and you begin to realise how many are laments.
This might be selection bias: folk singers since the sixties, like the great Fairport Convention, have sought out the songs of class conflict and injustice.

To me Britishness and Englishness are, how to put it, "essentially confused concepts" - that is, confused with each other. The English accepted Britishness in the 18th century only because they thought it was just an extension of Englishness - and indeed, the English were the dominant force in the Kingdom. In Whisky Galore, set in 1940s Scotland, a colonial baddie talks about "England... I mean, Britain". As a child I thought the same way - only recent experience has taught me to make the careful distinction. And many Europeans still use Angleterre, Inghilterra or whatever, as a shorthand for the UK.

I also think that English-British identity, like the identity of many European nations, is intrinsically bound up with the exercise of power. That is not surprising or in itself wrong. One good definition of a nation is an ethnic group that has got, is getting, or wants to get its own state apparatus. Political institutions from Magna Carta to the Houses of Parliament are part of English identity, and so are our kings and queens. Despite the bitterness of class conflict in our history, the English qua English have never been an oppressed minority. Here I think the author is sweetening the pill for Guardian readers: nationalism is OK, because we have grievances too!

But in general I am glad that people are thinking about this issue, even if the ideas are not very clearcut.


Another theme in the essay is the link between identity and place, especially the country. I feel this too and it is not easily explicable by most social scientific theories of identity. Perhaps humans naturally attach not just to other humans, but to the places they grew up. Even when they are not so beautiful:

George Shaw's picture of Tile Hill in Coventry

Which reminds me of this lovely song by Dominique A.

Nationalism and Europe

Having said all of that, let me push the argument forward. Identity is not just a consumer good. It is a tool that helps a group act coherently to further its ends. That is both why national identities must be flexible enough to accommodate new people, and why state action must foster - and spring from - a collective national identity: why a state that is forced to act as neutral arbiter between many identity groups will fail in the long run. Good institutions are not enough: under the pressure of history, institutions must constantly be renewed, and the renewers must act with the collective spirit and the collective support of a nation.

In this sense, I am very chary of "English identity", because in 2015 only Europe is the right size actor to defend the collective European interest. It is no coincidence that Putin has been sponsoring both European nationalists and Left-wing loons. I sympathize greatly with Mr Kingsnorth's dislike of globalized placelessness. But while I do not wish to live in a shopping mall, I also do not wish to live in a museum.

I would love to persuade our countrymen that England/Britain - the confusion is deliberate - must now be a player in the European team. But, on the evidence, for most people a renewed sense of Englishness goes along with anti-Europeanism. And they may be right, because it is not clear that in identity terms one can "serve two masters". Here, for example, is a syllogism which I fear is true.
  • You cannot have a strong Europe without an integrated economy.
  • You cannot have an integrated European economy without freedom of movement.
  • You cannot have freedom of movement without large scale gross migration into and out of Britain.
  • You cannot have large scale gross migration into and out of Britain without drastically weakening English identity.
The last point here is the most controversial one. After all, isn't there a strong Yorkshire identity despite many centuries of free movement through Yorkshire? But I do not think that Yorkshire identity is quite as strong, or the same, as Englishness. It is perhaps closer to English identity as Mr Kingsnorth pictures it: localized, powerless and a bit chippy, "little", in fact.

If the syllogism is true, then the Europe question truly is an existential choice, which cannot be fudged away (whatever Cameron says). And if so, then I think I would rather lose my Englishness and be part of a strong Europe. But I will not be surprised or angry if many people here disagree, and I am not optimistic about the strength of a Union whose individual parts have such a long history of going their own way.

Update: Gordon Brown chips in.

Central bankers

A speech by Alice Rivlin on rethinking the role of central banks.

Should central banks be concerned with inequality? Traditionally, that is the domain of elected politicians. In fact, the crisis has seen a further blurring of the responsibilities of central bankers. Since the 1970s, monetary policy had been seen a highly technical area with a single instrument (the interest rate) and a single goal (controlling inflation). So it was natural to hand it over to officials.

The crisis has forced central bankers to expand their toolkit, and to make a much wider range of decisions – some of which have distributional effects. (So did interest rate hikes, but this used to be quietly ignored.)

Many Renaissance Italian city-states had a form of democracy. This democracy declined when the states began to hire experts as “city managers” - signori or capitani del popolo. Often these managers were from outside the city itself, rather as central bankers like Mark Carney are hired on a global market. As outsiders they could get things done in a way the squabbling democratic parties could not. But their rise hollowed out democratic power. Eventually, democracy became the “dignified”, not the “efficient” part of government.

Friday, 13 March 2015


Deborah Orr parses "till death do us part".

The government wants to force universities to ban extremist speakers from campus. Because students aren't grown-ups - they're children who could be "drawn into extremism". The only thing missing from this idiocy is someone using the word "groomed".

The CEP evaluates austerity

Whatever interpretation is made of the policy stance, it is clear that the coalition government’s austerity programme was front-loaded between 2010-11 and 2011-12, involved significant public investment cuts and was less than initially planned.

This sounds to me like our old friend the political budget cycle: cut after the election, and create a "boom" before the next election. Independent central banks were supposed to do away with this. But now we're at the lower bound, fiscal policy matters more.

Here is the original document.

Seems harsh

A man who kills a dog is required by the Avesta to perform a list of penances eighteen lines long. One of the penances is to kill ten thousand cats.
From the book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms. The Avesta is the holy book of the Zoroastrians.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Humanity rotating in 3 dimensions

  • What is this? 
It's a picture of the first three principal components of the DNA sequences of people from around the world. Each dot is one individual.

  • What are the colours?
They represent ethnicity. The orange ball is East Asian. IIRC, red is African and blue is European. The remaining two (forgotten which is which, sorry) are South Asian and South American.

European - blue
African/African American - red
East Asian - yellow
Latino - green
South Asian - brown
  • What do these dimensions mean? 
DNA is like a huge list of letters: ACGTGGCTAT... and so on for about 3 billion letters. Obviously people's DNA can vary in billions of ways from each other. But in fact a lot of this variation has some structure: if two people differ at one location, they probably also differ in a predictable way in many others. You can represent this by a "principal component score" which is a kind of shorthand for many many variations that all go together. This shows the first 3 principal components. There's nothing special about 3 - there are many more - but only 3 can fit on a picture.

  • OK, so these are like genetic differences. What are they related to in the real world?
Everything and nothing, ha ha.

Long answer: for example, they are related to whether the individuals use chopsticks. Obviously, this is not because there is a genetic propensity to use chopsticks. These genetic differences come from groups' ancestry. But ancestry also affects other things, such as culture. So, it is more or less impossible to tell what these broad-sweep genetic differences actually cause.

That doesn't mean that some of the underlying differences don't have real world effects. We just can't tell what they are. To do that, you have to look at individual SNPs, or individual genes, and hold these principal components constant or control for them in some way.

The correlations can be quite amazing. The best known example is this picture of the first two principal components of a European population. It fits rather accurately on to a map of Europe, with people mostly shown quite close to their country of origin.

  • Why are the East Asians so separate?
I am not sure, and I think noone knows for sure. It may represent that they are "really more genetically separate" from the other groups, but it may just be a technical artifact: DNA sequencing is quite a tricky science.

  • What does this picture tell us?
Genetic diversity between human groups is a matter of overlapping clusters, not of discrete buckets. Also, modern genetics is cool.

  • Who made it?
Monkol Lek. Thanks for letting me use your graph, Monkol!

Things I learned at the Boulder workshop on statistical genetics

  • It is quite straightforward to "edit" a mouse's genome during the critical half hour when the (unborn) mouse is unicellular. Theoretically this would be possible for humans too.
From chatting to someone at lunch. Scary!
  • The cool guys at Genes for Good are collecting data from the general public for scientific use, in exchange for a free reading of your genome (typical cost at 23andme: $100). They'll tell you about your genetic ancestry, and give you your data. You will need a Facebook account and to live in the US. 
The US makes it hard to give people information about their genomes for some reason (regulation? liability law?) but you can probably get this info from somewhere outside the US.
  • GWAS studies have actually been very successful in discovering SNPs* associated with diseases and other traits
There was a period when things didn't look good, and this was reported in the mainstream media. Basically, it turns out that many traits are caused by lots of genes with small effects, which means you need a large sample size to detect them. Now people are working together to share data and create these large samples, and many SNPs have been detected. For instance (IIRC) about 30% of variation in height and 10% of variation in IQ is caused by a specific set of genes.

* Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, i.e. a place where people's genomes differ by just one "letter"
  • Most behavioural traits are probably affected by many, many genetic variants acting together, each with a tiny effect on the trait.
Partly as a result:
  • SNP arrays (1 million independent variables per individual) are too easy. The cool new thing is sequencing data with billions of independent variables per individual.
The difference is that SNP arrays just store a few informative bits of someone's DNA - like an index to a book. Sequencing data gives you the whole book, and the cost of sequencing is coming down, right now it's at about $2000 per person. Yes, there are serious computational difficulties in doing statistics at this level. No, I won't be using sequencing data (not brave or smart enough).

The workshop is here and if you want to learn statistical methods for genetics it is an absolutely awesome event.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


A Democratic congressman investigated climate scientist Roger Pielke for not toeing the Obama line on climate change. He responds.

A controversial thesis on politicians' incentives for reform.

A long long article about income inequality, regressing changes on changes (and explaining why that is a good idea).

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Defending Rozanne Duncan

(This post is tagged NLUWDC, for Nobody Likes Us We Don't Care, i.e. it takes a view which is likely to be unpopular.)

Rozanne Duncan, a Thanet councillor for UKIP, was expelled from the party for saying: "The only people I do have problems with are negroes. And I don't know why. I don't know whether there is something in my psyche or whether it's karma from a previous life ... But I really do have a problem with people with negroid features."

So, Mrs Duncan used the words 'negro" and "negroid', and she said she had a problem with people with negroid features. It is not surprising that a party which wants to shake off accusations of racism booted her out. But I am not sure she deserved it.

She did not say, for example, "I have a problem with negroes because they are all violent criminals!" She said she had a problem because of something about herself. That is being honest, not racist. An Asian friend who works for an anti-racism charity in Birmingham told me: "Before I worked here, I used to be really scared of black people". If you think you are better, try taking an Implicit Association Test.

All the ethnic groups of this country have to live together: not just side by side, together. If we attack people who admit - not in public, but while being secretly recorded - that they have feelings about other groups which they think they ought not to, this will not make anyone less racist. But it will lead to pretence and hypocrisy, to a society where everyone wears an anti-racist mask.

Next, is the word "negro" racist? Probably: it is a cognate of, and in many European languages identical to, the N word. Mrs Duncan defended her vocabulary, like the policewoman in the 1990s Lawrence enquiry who used the word "coloured", on the grounds that it was what she knew. The issue is not clearcut. The main African-American civil rights organization, founded in 1909, is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In his I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King used the word "negro". The book The Mis-education of the Negro was an early civil rights classic: Lauryn Hill borrowed the phrase for the title of her first album.

Like swearwords, racially derogatory terms are insults just because they are. You probably should not use either of the words "coloured" or "negro", as they might cause offence. But standards change. Unsurprisingly, not all councillors in Thanet are up to date. This looks suspiciously like an old British tradition, word-snobbery. Black is to coloured as lavatory was to toilet for our parents. Again, this may show off one's cultural awareness, but it is unlikely to help fix racial divisions.