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Saturday 30 November 2019

Science And The Free Market

Politics is pretty shite, isn't it ? Whether you're a left-leaning kale-munching vegan anarchcic panpsychic hipster who hates the idea of "rules", or a right-wing "lock 'em up and throw away the key if they so much listen to jazz music" type, I suspect we can all agree that politics is about as much fun as an unexpected brick to the gonads.

Science, on the other hand, is very much not shitty. Most of the hardcore, truly anti-science "it's all subjective and everything is made of wishes and moonbeams" brigade are largely confined to the realm of the internet. Admittedly the sort who think science is great except for this one thing (vaccinations/GM food/global warming/whatever) are rather more numerous, but that's another issue. Most people, having the common sense to realise that computers wouldn't work and planes wouldn't fly if our basic scientific theories weren't at least on to something, accept that science more or less gets it right in the end. It's an ongoing struggle to explain the finer details, but this fundamental point seems to be widely accepted.

So why is this ? Why does science seem to be high performance whereas so many other institutions seem to be at best dysfunctional, at worst outright harmful ? How does science manage to establish objective truth so well while politicians seem to prefer to actively ignore it ? Why do scientists actively enjoy having their theories overturned while a politician would sooner walk off a cliff than admit to any imperfections ? Surely, if we could only apply these lessons from science to other aspects of society, we would do nothing except make the world a happier, nicer place.

A confession : this post is a sort of preamble. When I thought I was about to finish, I suddenly realised that I had all the tools to forge a better political system starting me in the face, and I could hardly let that go. So in this post I'll look mainly at the contributing but less important factors : the people involved and the networks they live in, why science has some intriguing similarities to the free market so beloved by conservatives, and I'll emphasise that not everything in the world is quite so bad as it seems (though it is pretty bad).

But mainly this post only exists because it was necessary to write it in order to figure out part two, which is much more interesting. There I'll look at what really makes science work and present a proposal for a parliamentary system designed to Make Politics Work Again. My limitation here is that I'm going to focus on the scientific/political processes within their own systems, not within the wider context of the public/media perception. These are important, probably more so than the systems themselves, but in fairness restructuring the whole of society is a wee bit much to bite off in one go.

What is it that science does well ?

There's a nice, very tongue-in-cheek chart in Niall Ferguson's broken masterpiece on societal networks :

I particularly like the one for Microsoft, where lots of different departments are pointing guns at each other. It's very silly, but it makes a serious point. In any organisation, not only is it important which individuals interact, but the nature of that interaction is also critical. People can see each other as peers, rivals, underlings, authorities, casual acquaintances, sex objects, doormats, etc. They can also assess each other as competent, stupid, unprofessional, hilariously smelly, moronic, reliable, and a host of other weird and wonderful personality traits.

Both the structure and behaviour of scientific institutions matters to their success. Key to this is that mistakes are absolutely integral to the process - it is literally true that it's not research if you know what you are doing; failure is always an option. I also spit in disgust on the notion that progress is driven by lone revolutionary geniuses; no man is an island, and while there are certainly geniuses, virtually all of them stand on the shoulders of people of about average height, who often go around doing really dumb things.

Yet because, rather than in spite of, this apparently perverse predilection to accept mistakes with good grace, science is astonishingly successful - within certain limits. When it comes to analysing the data at hand, the consensus viewpoint seems to be feckin' awesome at accepting the best, most rational viewpoint the current data and methodology suggests. That sentence has been delicately phrased : to change one's mind based on new evidence is no bad thing, and once upon a time it was entirely sensible to consider the Earth to be flat and genuinely brainless to suggest that it was round.

I call this the efficient consensus hypothesis. That is : the current consensus gets pretty close to (though rarely actually reaches) the most rational conclusion currently possible. For today's exercise, that's how I shall define truth, rather than using a more absolute standard; strictly speaking science does not describe truth, if there even is such a thing. I shall ignore deeper philosophical questions as to what we mean by rationality and whether it's always a good thing. It's anyway clear to anyone with an ounce of sanity that politics is not nearly rational enough, and that's my main target for reform today.

Let me break that claim down, just to be even more emphatic. I apologise to anyone who thinks I'm labouring the point, but I've learned that the internet is full of unnecessary pedantry and the wilfully stupid, so it pays to be clear.
  • Scientists are good at doing science. They are not necessarily also amazing basketball players or fashion designers or zookeepers, although some of them are. They're good at analysing the data and solving the problems put before them : I will here make no claims regarding their broader critical thinking skills whatsoever. I will not even comment on their abilities as predictors, only their capacity for analysing current data - not for accounting for how conditions and circumstances may change in the future and how different factors may interact in novel ways. 
  • The scientific consensus is strongly, though not perfectly, robust against conclusions which defy the current evidence and analytical methods. It does not preclude individual researchers from being lunatics (indeed, some have it that a consensus without any dissent is a sign of systemic, groupthink bias). It's the capacity of the group to establish truth I want to look at here, not the individual elements.
  • The consensus view generally changes rapidly and correctly in accordance with the available evidence. It is imperfect and incomplete, but ultimately successful. For example, there was a time not so long ago when science was able to show how an aeroplane flies while simultaneously having nothing much to say about how to design a nuclear bomb.
The key thing to remember is that I'm simply claiming that modern science (say, as done in the last couple of centuries or so) rapidly accepts the best conclusions currently possible, not that it never makes mistakes - in fact it can't advance at all without making mistakes. In my view, whenever one looks at just about any claim that scientists could have done better, one finds that this is nonsense given proper context. Science continuously improves not just its findings but its methods as well - finding mistakes in those methods is part of the process. I think it is rare indeed that the scientific consensus has ever been at odds with reality when there was good evidence / better methodology staring it in the face, at least for any significant length of time.

How, then, does science accomplish this amazing feat ?

It's because scientists are just better people than everyone else, obviously

"I'm, too snooty for my shirt, so snooty it hurts..."
This is the hope of those wanting to see more scientists in politics. I previously went on an extended rant about this, concluding that this wouldn't work without wholesale change to the system (next time I'm at last going to at last suggest what sort of wholesale change that might be).

But I suppose in principle it could be that scientists are all innately more curious and interested in the truth than other people - maybe the network stuff is just an emergent consequence of scientists' natures rather than a cause of it. But even then, there would have to be something about academia that does an outstanding job of selecting such people in the first place, so there would still be valuable lessons to learn. And the network structure would still matter, since in order for opinions to change rapidly, there must be efficient communication between all interested parties.

But I don't find selection a terribly convincing explanation. Scientists have diverse personalities and interests, even if there is (maybe) a greater tendency to prefer staying in binge watching science fiction shows and avoid talking to anyone more lively than a cactus. I've met people who are genuinely interested in the truth and others who, methinks, doth protest too much, who clothe their agenda by loudly insisting on how wonderfully unbiased they are. There are those who are exceptionally, almost unbelievably well-informed about the entire state of their field and others with more limited knowledge. And outside of their field of expertise, plenty of scientists have some damn fool ideas about the world.

Moreover, the desire to keep learning can be found in people of all walks of life. It's not only scientists who like documentaries or read the news or change their minds. True, some people only enjoy learning things which they're already prepared to accept, but still many non-scientists can delight in learning things which contradict what they previously believed. At least in some circumstances, at any rate.

On the other hand, I should also mention that I simply don't buy the popular suggestion that everyone is a natural-born scientist and the education system drums it out of them : I think all youngsters are curious simply because they don't know very much and know they don't know very much. They've no choice but to be curious, otherwise they wouldn't learn anything and natural selection would quickly take over. So it seems to me that selection plays only a limited role. Scientists don't have a monopoly on reasonably-minded people, nor are they exclusively sensible themselves : sensible people enter, endure, and are perhaps created by other networks besides science. Something else is going on.

Maybe it's more about the system scientists operate in than the people themselves

After all, it's easy to be a saint in paradise. Unfortunately no-one has yet extended this to the logical extreme of giving everyone MOAAARR PUPPIES.
I've mentioned this before a few times, most explicitly when comparing science to politics, and why we shouldn't expect scientists to fare very well as politicians. There are many different reasons for this. For one, scientists are trained to analyse the facts when forming a conclusion, without regard for people's feelings - if they did account for how people would perceive the facts, they'd be lousy scientists. Well, except for the social sciences, obviously.

But scientists also exist in an environment which supports this process. In contrast, partisan political systems are explicitly designed to give people a choice regardless of the facts, so the opposition parties criticise the government almost regardless of what they do (and the media constantly attack literally everyone as though they were worse than Hitler). There's no reason at all to think that scientists would do especially well in that kind of atmosphere. This is also, perhaps, why ex-military figures traditionally don't do well in politics either. I've also described how the routine, ludicrously extreme criticism by the media renders political bullshitting all but inevitable - no matter how honest and well-intentioned any politician may be to begin with.

Another perspective is to consider how science arrives at a consensus. That is, it doesn't hold a vote and decide, "right lads, we'll assume this is true and move on.". Rather the consensus is the emergent majority viewpoint : it's what most people happen to believe after quasi-independently examining different ideas, but at no point is a vote required or taken.

This sort of quasi-independent examination appears to be rare indeed in politics. Politicians are not even allowed to express their own thoughts, much less pursue investigations at their own direction. If a scientist says something unpopular with other scientists, they'll have to fight to defend their idea but that's about the extent of it; if a politician says something voters and/or their party machinery disapproves of, they're liable to lose their job. There's a much, much greater constraint for a politician to say things people already want to hear and do what the rest of their party tells them. The scientific network is a lot looser, far less threatening, and deliberately more tolerant of dissent than political entities.

A balancing act

The balancing act often fails when it comes to individual scientists, but, as we'll see a bit later on, not for the system as a whole. 
Tolerance of dissent and a loose, fairly egalitarian network make it easy to explain why science doesn't fall victim to a false consensus - that is, a majority viewpoint held simply because it's already the majority viewpoint, not because the evidence is actually compelling. As well as individual freedoms (not afforded to politicians) I've suggested that this is avoided because of the competitive collaborations that make up scientific institutes around the world. Each has a vested interest in disproving the other, with the consensus emerging from both collaboration and competition between different groups.

Individual researchers experience two competing motivations. On one hand, they try and publish as many papers as possible because this is good for their career - which naturally tends to encourage salami publishing of very incremental, mediocre results of little importance and controversy. That tends towards at best slowing progress, and worst stalling it. But on the other hand, researchers need to publish papers which are as radical as possible, because if they can convince people they've made an astonishing new discovery then that's a) innately interesting and b) very good for one's career indeed.

Fortunately the whole thing is tempered by the oversight of peer review, which prevents authors from making wild, unjustified claims about the healing power of pugs or whatever. Peer review acts against the tendency to publish radical, breakthrough results, whereas the need to amass high numbers of publications and citations pushes back against this - and peer review pushes back again by saying, "nope, that result is just too dull". By and large, papers are published which are not such tiny incremental advances as to tell you nothing at all, nor so radical as to be purely speculative and unsubstantiated. Like everything else, it's a highly imperfect system, but it functions sufficiently well to accomplish its main goal. More on peer review later, and especially in part two.

Science : a Libertarian dream ?

"Let everyone do what seems best to them" is not something that one normally associates with science, but the comparison is not completely crazy.
But hang on, all this is quite remarkable. "Competitive collaborations" describe just about anything. Farmers collaborate on their own farms but compete with each other. Tech companies collaborate internally but compete with each other. Bankers, fishermen, politicians*... it's pretty much the same across the board. And yet science avoids the perils of monopolies that plague the free market without having to resort to external regulation; it also largely avoids the destructive forces of tribalism that can obliterate sensible decision-making in politics. How in the world does it do this ?

* With strict caveats - more in part two.

Well, first, let's not go nuts with the criticism of non-science organisations. Many other institutions do also accept and discover at least some fundamental truths; some aspects of virtually all systems are successful otherwise they wouldn't last very long at all. The point here to highlight the differences between what works and what doesn't : scientists don't act scientifically when they go for a poop or cuddle a kitten; bankers don't act with ruthless self-interest all the time. Probably.

Certainly individual scientists and institutions can be persistently belligerent and foolish, yet the scientific system as a whole is robust to effects that seem - at least on occasion, definitely not always - to cripple other institutions. Or perhaps it is not so much immune as it is disease tolerant, when infections still spread but their effects are rendered impotent. That would be quite an elegant explanation as to why scientists often seem like perfectly normal people - with all the imperfections that implies - but the edifice of science as a whole produces results far greater than the sum of its often deeply flawed parts.

Still, science does have an uncanny resemblance to a Libertarian Utopia. Very few scientists indeed ever interact with government officials, and in any sensible country it's scientists who set their own agenda, not the government. As far as research goes scientists regulate themselves : peer review is a fantastic example of self-regulation that actually works. Of course the tremendous irony is that most research is government-funded, and wouldn't happen at all but for taxation. So perhaps the true Libertarian ideal is one where the government shuts up and gives people money.

This is not to say that scientists operate in complete ivory-tower independence. Different institutes operate in markedly different ways. And of course there is an interface between scientists and government, with research councils acting as buffer to prevent direct government interference. But there's little enough direct government meddling in most day-to-day research operations.

If I had to sketch out the global scientific network, I'd probably say it's something like this :

A rough concept sketch. Some institutes have very different external and internal connections, though most universities tend to be similar. Of course, the connections depend on specific research field for each institution.
Individual institutions, in my (both direct and second-hand) experience, can function quite differently to one another. Major research facilities tend to be extremely hierarchical, with strong top-down control. This is fine if your goal is to examine one single thing in one single way, e.g. CERN's search for the Higgs Boson. Smaller facilities, and most universities, tend to be more chaotic "small world" networks, where lots of people know each other, but not so much as to enforce a single viewpoint. This is much better for creativity but worse for converging on a single solution (which is precisely what gives the consensus such value - it's very hard won !).

On larger scales, connections between different institutes tend to be sparse but important; usually there are a few key individuals (older, established professors) with enormous networks, though only the most junior researchers will have no connections to other places at all. I suggest that this too is dense enough to facilitate rapid communication, but not so tightly-knit as to enforce a global consensus.

Mind you, this can only be an intuition-based sketch. Whether there are significant differences between how science and other societal institutions are organised is something I cannot properly address, though I'd very much like to see someone with network analysis experience tackle this properly. At face value it would seem that this "competitive collaboration" model isn't enough to explain why science works while other areas are dysfunctional. So I shall say no more about the network structure : it probably does matter, but it may not be the key to success. The network, I think, is in this case more a consequence than a cause of the methods scientists have adopted.

The end is not yet

We should also recognise that while other systems have problems, we should not think they are doomed. The liberal, social democracies of the West have endured enormous turbulence. While I think it's credible to suggest they're under threat, it would be a mistake to pronounce the death of any unstable system. And it's taken tremendous pressure even to bring them to their current crisis. Similarly, rumours of the death of capitalism have been perpetuated since at least the 19th century, but it's still not dead. It too has endured plenty of crises yet no credible alternatives have ever really been devised.

But it's not so much that any of these systems might be on the verge of collapse that's interesting so much that it is that they have problems which science simply doesn't. Problems of market forces creating monopolies, price fixing, and, more chronically, enormous wealth inequality and skyrocketing prices, are all real problems but solvable through regulation. No sensible person would say that the free market means it should be anything other than free in the sense of freedom under law. Democracies have problems of voters making astonishingly stupid choices; the free market of the media has led to comically absurd levels of polarisation and often outright hatred.

The point is that while economics and politics both seem to need continuous management, a guiding and hardly invisible hand of the state, science doesn't. Why ? And in particular, is the popular "efficient democracy hypothesis" even credible ?

I'll suggest on this latter point that no, it isn't. It's true that "everything's getting worse" is a popular fallacy, and by many statistical measures things are getting progressively better. Fair enough, but it would be stupid to then presume that politics must be doing anything remotely like close to optimal given the available options, let alone that the current crises are mere aberrations. I'll be blunt : anyone still supporting Brexit and/or Trump is an idiot, and most of those who supported them to begin with (especially Trump) were idiots anyway. The major reason voters didn't make such stunningly awful choices in the past is simply because they weren't given the opportunity to do so; let's not forget, of course, that politics has made mistakes the like of which modern science could scarcely believe.

And I'll also add that politics might in some way be a victim of its own success. In the past, when there were clear and present external dangers, nations have often rallied to defend themselves (though by no means always with success). But when a country is prosperous and perceives little external dangers, it falls into complacency. Bereft of outside enemies, the system has a horrible tendency to create new ones of its own people.

Okay, rant over. What has all this preamble taught us, if anything ?


Science does seem to do pretty well at selecting people who are able to do science. Since that does require some degree of both critical and analytical thinking, it would be a mistake to say that scientists are a good representative sample of the population. But it would be foolish to say that this is the only or even main factor at work : plenty of other people are intelligent, rational, and all-round good eggs. Lots of people enjoy learning and even being wrong, but other sectors seem to have problems that science doesn't.

The network also seems to be an important contributing factor but it can't be the whole story. Science balances competition and collaboration very well, but other areas try and do this but often - but by no means always - either fail or cause everyone massive problems. That's not to say that science and technology don't also cause problems too (the Industrial Revolution transformed the economy but also wrecked the planet), but those, for the most part, would seem to be a result of improper use rather than innate problems of research itself.

Make no mistake : individual scientists can be thick as shit. Yet the overall consensus always seems to do pretty well given the evidence available, whereas politics struggles to see the blindingly obvious. As for unchecked market forces, it's not that they never do anything good so much as they don't seem to give a damn about some pretty horrific side effects.

If it's not the people, and it's not the network, where else could the secret be hiding ? My guess is it's the methodology scientists have adopted. Next time I'll look at that in detail and try and see if we can apply this to other areas.

Monday 18 November 2019

Government Reloaded

I know I haven't been active here much lately, although things on the other blogs are in a bit better shape (though I do have a series of philosophy posts in draft and almost ready to go). I've been seriously stressed out about the whole Brexit thing and the possibility of becoming an illegal immigrant, so I've been throwing myself into writing code instead of blogs, which is a more effective distraction.

Who should I vote for ?

Since the three month extension all but guarantees my secure residency status, it's time to look at how the heck I should vote in the oh-so-exciting forthcoming election. Back in 2017, I felt dissatisfied with the traditional web-based questionnaires that assess who you should vote for based on stated party policies. So I wrote a little spreadsheet that takes into account other factors, like whether I trust the party to implement policy and/or adjust their priorities based on changing evidence. For example, I like some of the current Tory party policies (who couldn't like more public investment after years of austerity ?), but I wouldn't trust them as far as I could spit on them.

Here's the result from last time :
The "policies" score is based on the results from isidewith, which is pretty objective. All the other parameters are my own subjective judgements.

Two years later, have things changed ? Well, yeah, a bit. Not all that much though. For some reason isidewith doesn't give the results for Plaid Cymru any more, so I used the results of last time. Nothing was given for the Brexit Party either*, but they're not worth bothering with anyway. Also I included a weighting factor for each property in terms of how important it is to me (this turns out not to make much difference, at least when the differences are this stark), and give a percentage of the maximum possible score as a slightly easier way to compare the final results.

*I gave UKIP slightly different scores this time not because I felt sorry for them or anything, but just because I whimsically decided that a value of 1 is good enough to denote "utter crap" and it wasn't necessary to use smaller values. The main point is the final relative ranking anyway, not the absolute numbers.

You can see that this is a much better way to distinguish between parties when their policies aren't all that different : my scores from isidewith are basically equal for the left and centrist parties, with a huge polarisation against the right. That the Tories and UKIP respectively reach 45% and 30% in terms of policies demonstrates that choosing by policy alone is a lousy idea - sure, I agree with them on some basic issues like being in favour of the judicial system and not torturing children, but that's not a sensible reflection on who I'm gonna vote for. For all the problems of polarisation, when it comes to making a decision, it's the differences that matter, not the similarities. I mean, I agree with Nigel Farage that oxygen is generally a good thing, but that doesn't make me any more likely to vote for him.

Anyway, the Lib Dems are still clear winners, but everyone scores lower than last time - nobody scores above a few percent. Most parties have one or two areas in which I agree with them to at least a reasonable degree, but none of them perform well in everything. Overall, given that things are so dominated by Brexit, I'm glad the opposition have rallied to try and stall things. I'm rather less happy that they can't agree on a damn thing besides delay : they missed their golden opportunity to chuck out Boris on a vote of No Confidence; all their talk of refusing pacts and alliances annoys me intensely. The very inability of anyone to compromise is precisely what's led the current paralysis*. Hence no party has come out of this unscathed.

* There is no contradiction between wanting more compromise and wanting Boris removed. Compromise is only possible between the reasonable and reasonably consistent, not with fickle nutcases.

(For those wondering, though I'm fiercely opposed to Brexit in any form, I have set out the sort of compromises I could accept here, and I'd probably be willing to go further than that, if pushed).

I will never for the life of me understand why Parliament didn't do the feckin' obvious thing of going back to the people. Fair enough that Theresa May decided to act like a traditional majority leader at first, but after losing a vote by the largest amount in history, it should have been obvious that a radically different strategy was necessary. At a minimum, the Brexit negotiations should have been cross-party, because this is an issue that effects everyone. More realistically, a second referendum would have been a decisive way to break the deadlock.

While I've never seen a second referendum as anti-democratic, I've always accepted that those saying this is potentially voting again until you get the right answer have an entirely valid point. This was because I lacked the general criteria as to how to judge when a second vote is legitimate and when it's not. Very helpfully, Bercow provided the answer of substance and circumstance. Repeatedly asking people an identical question in identical circumstances is not democratic, hence he chose not to allow the government to bring back a bill within 24 hours of it being shot down. That these criteria have actually been used to prevent repeated votes makes them especially appealing - no-one can say that you can apply them to get repeated votes whenever you feel like it, because you can't.

A second referendum would be clearly different in both circumstance and substance. Circumstance we need hardly bother with, that is obvious. But in substance too the difference would be clear. The original question simply asked us if we'd like to leave or not. The new question would be a choice of staying in or going out under very precise conditions. That's like asking someone, "wanna go out tonight ?" as opposed to, "wanna go for a cocaine-fuelled orgy where everyone dresses up like farmyard animals, or stay in ?". Those questions are fundamentally, undeniably different. Yes, they admittedly share one common option, but the other options are not the same at all.

But I digress. None of this helps me decide who to vote for. The Liberal Democrats get extra bonus points here because of the candidate they're fielding in the constituency I vote in :

The problem is that Cardiff North is traditionally a Labour-Tory marginal, so my vote is potentially very influential. So my conscience says "VOTE LIB DEM !", adding, in a loud shouty voice, "HIS NAME'S LIKE MY NAME !". But my brain says, "err, well, are you sure... ?" rather more quietly while biting its lip and looking worried. I'd rather have the Lib Dems over Labour, but in Cardiff North that doesn't look like a realistic choice (my ideal choice is, as it has been for some years, a Labour-LibDem coalition). Am I handing victory to the Tories by voting for a third party in this case-? I don't know - I'm going to have to wait and see how thing develop. First time for me that a campaign could actually change how I'll vote.

Had this been another case of May-vs-Corbyn, I would have chosen the Lib Dems without hesitation. May and Corbyn were and are about equal but different varieties of awful, so choosing between the two made no sense - I might as well vote according to my principles, which I did. But now it's Boris versus Corbyn, and that's rather different  Is Corbyn awful ? Oh my yes, but Boris, to me, is unquestionably worse. If Corbyn is like eating a shit sandwich, whereas May is like eating a shit hot dog, then Boris Johnson is more like being raped by a bear. It's a whole other level and kind of awful. Corbyn's weakness is that he never changes his mind; Boris' that he doesn't have one. With Corbyn, policy-wise one knows what one is getting - with Boris it's equivalent to putting one's hand in a lucky dip that contains some boiled sweets, and old sock, and a nest of scorpions.

Well, yay.

What fresh hell comes next ?

As Plato says, we shouldn't just examine issues in isolation but also consider consequences. There are all kinds of possible outcomes to whatever happens next - I don't want to guestimate probabilities, but just to set out possibilities for a roadmap of what to do in each eventuality.
  • A Tory majority. Even if this is only small, the only likely outcome is a ratification of Boris' deal. It might, perhaps, be amended, but ultimately it'll go through. That still carries with it the effective risk of No Deal at the end of 2020 if they can't agree on trade policies and refuse to extend the implementation period.
  • A Labour majority. This potentially results in a softer Brexit and a referendum on the result, assuming the EU grants the necessary extension and is willing to renegotiate. The former seems unlikely to be rejected, since it would by definition be the absolutely final extension possible. The latter, despite recent protestations, also seems credible given that Corbyn's earlier proposals were already endorsed by the EU. Getting us to stay in the Custom's Union cannot really be a complicated issue, given that May's deal allowed for this eventuality in the backstop.
  • A Liberal Democrat majority. Brexit is revoked, though this is incredibly unlikely.
These are all obvious. More complex possibilities open up with a hung Parliament. Here things get very tricky indeed.
  • The balance of power favouring the Tories, but not their Brexit policy. Say, in which the Tories plus right-leaning but Brexit-opposed independents just outnumber Labour, Lib Dems etc. This would essentially continue the current paralysis. The Tories might form a workable minority government, but BoJo's sheer cack-handeness would render it useless because the man refuses to compromise on a damn thing. This continues the current state of flux, with nothing happening until the very last days of January - probably ramming through BoJo's deal, but perhaps compelling a vote on extending the transition period beyond 2020. But after January the government would likely collapse and yet another election would be needed. 
  • The balance of power favouring Labour, but not their Brexit policy. This might be even worse. If Labour formed a minority government but could not guarantee that they'd get Parliament to agree to either their own deal or a second referendum, it's hard to assess what the EU would do. It's possible that they'd refuse an extension even with a Labour majority, but a second public vote is a very much a final, nuclear option on the whole thing, so that's unlikely. But if Labour can't actually guarantee that would happen... things get messy.
No numerically viable coalition looks workable in practise at this point. If politicians have any sense, they should start asking the EU right now what they'd do in these scenarios. Asking at the last minute, presuming that an extension will be granted, is bloody stupid. The French strategy of continuously appearing threatening and then acquiescing at the last moment every time is a good one, and perhaps that's their whole game plan (but equally they might be really getting sick of the whole sorry thing). But there's no guarantee that applying pressure to a totally deadlocked Parliament would actually help - it could well result in Parliament simply doing nothing, and crashing out without a deal through default. Even if the EU tried to save us from ourselves by strongly encouraging a second referendum, there's no guarantee that a poorly-hung Parliament would actually do it.

To my mind, in the event of a hung Parliament a second referendum offers the only way forward. But then, it's obvious to me that Boris Johnson is a dangerous buffoon, whereas apparently this - astonishingly - isn't the case to almost 40% of the public, something I cannot for the life of me understand. So what the hell would it take to force Parliament to make a bloody choice ?

The biggest problem with our electoral system is that it's incredibly limited. When I vote for a candidate, I don't specify if I'm voting for them or their party. I may or may not be choosing to put that party in power : I may want them to be in a coalition government; I may only want that specific individual in charge of my constituency; I may not even care about the candidate and just want to vote nationally. There's no way of knowing. There's no perfect solution to this and I have no revolutionary idea. I just want people to start thinking about ways to vote for things we actually want, rather than voting against thing we don't. But I expect such a vision is just too darn Utopian. Ah well.

Sunday 10 November 2019

Cologne Cathedral Calculations

Every year there's an "all hands" meeting for anyone who's even so much as accidentally glanced at ALMA data management in Europe. This year's was in Koenigswinter, near Bonn. Having fretted like you wouldn't believe about the possibility of a No Deal Brexit, the extension meant I could go to this without worrying about having to get back into the Czech Republic afterwards.

Instead the issues were all about getting there, not coming back. I signed up at the very last minute, being convinced that I'd done this months ago. Then it turned out the hotel was full, so I spent a frantic couple of hours searching every other hotel in the vicinity only to discover they were all bloody full as well. How that happens I'll never understand - apparently the demand to see miles and miles of generic rolling forested hillside is extraordinarily high. Fortunately there was a last-minute cancellation so a room became available after all. Hooray !

Getting there wasn't much fun, though, since I had an absolutely stinking cold and it was a seven hour drive. I mostly sat in the back feeling utterly wretched and sniffling. At least there was a nice sunset to look at.

We missed the opening buffet dinner but I didn't really mind since I very soon collapsed. This was quite rejuvenating and I woke up no longer feeling like I wanted to make zombie noises every time I shuffled along, or had any particular inclination to vomit at people.

It must be said that ALMA meetings are distinctly corporate in flavour compared to other astronomy conferences. In the past, they've nonetheless been quite lively as people have rather strong opinions about how to do things. But now things have reached a steady state where everything is ticking over nicely and no-one is likely to spit in anyone's eye or start a protracted blood feud over how many proposals got accepted. They've found a formula, and it just works.

There are only two things of note about the meeting. The first is this spectacular Lego ALMA model :

The pedantic reader will immediately note that there are neither the correct number of antennas nor do the models have realistic designs. Well, sunshine, you're gonna wish you hadn't noted that, because the model is interactive and stupendously cool. Each antenna can be placed on specific pads, where some electronic equipment registers its presence and alters a virtual array in real time. What this does is simulated how real data would be processed by an interferometer of that exact configuration, and you see the result on the screen above the model. Interferometry - and I can't stress this enough - is hideously complex, and if I had my way I'd make it illegal, but this model does the damn thing in real time using bits of Lego. That's like building a microwave out of a yogurt pot and a dead bat. Yes, alright, and a PC running in the background, but you get the idea.

Anyway, this is a very nice way to illustrate how the layout of the antennas really matters; if all your antennas are far apart from each other, you'll see fine details but no large-scale structure; if you only have antennas close together you won't see any details at all. Only by having a mixture of different antenna spacings can you see something close to reality. The model lets you choose which image you want to view (a galaxy, a simple preset model, or a live feed from a camera) and how long to simulate the integration time. Obviously, I don't need to wax lyrical about how tremendously impressive this is. Suffice to say that every home should have one.

The other thing of note about the meeting is that some poor soul decided to arrange karaoke, from which I excused myself from on the grounds of not wanting to collapse on stage and/or frighten the neighbourhood cats by singing with a sore throat. This event was conducted with far, far too much sobriety, but the landslide winners (the UK group) managed - and I kid thee not - to start a mosh pit with "Anarchy in the UK" ("Anarchy for the U.K. / It's coming sometime - JANUARY 31st !").

Yes, really, that happened.

The social excursion was probably my favourite of all the ALMA meetings so far : a trip to the massive Cologne cathedral. And it really is massive. I tried to resort to panorama mode to get it all in, but it didn't work. Instead I only succeeded in chopping someone's leg's off.

There was also time to wander round a bit before exploring the cathedral, so I went across the bridge with is emblazoned with hundreds of A4 paper sings instructing readers to "Fuck Theirry Jaspart". Who's Theirry Jaspart ? I looked him up, and it turns out he's a rubbish artist trying to attract attention. And I'm not going to back down for calling him rubbish because a) he is and b) he clearly spent ages on a lame publicity stunt. I'm not going to even give him a link. Fuck you, Theirry Jaspart. Stop sticking signs on things !

Back to the cathedral. As I said, it's very, very large.

It also claims to house the mortal remains of the Three Wise Men in a shiny golden reliquary.

Entirely plausible, I'm sure. More interesting was the tour of the roof. 45 metres is really, really high, and that's still a full hundred metres or more below the peak.

They started building the cathedral in 1248 but soon got bored when they realised they hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of ever finishing the thing, probably because there were only ever about 60-80 people working on it. Only the lower levels, for the most part, are actually medieval, since the builders decided to take a quick 300 year break while they worked out what to do next. Then better construction techniques came along and they got on with it, finishing it off in the 19th and 20th centuries though sticking to the original medieval plans (which fortunately they still had). This means the interior of the roof looks extremely unusual.

Personally I thought this was great - modern materials and techniques but with medieval styling. One particular tower - which marks the exact centre of Cologne - is particularly weird, looking normal from a distance but "like the Chrysler building" (as our guide put it) close-up.

All this finally ended in a very nice sunset over Cologne, and then everything went back to normal again.