Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Friday 27 March 2020

Virgo Virtual Visuals

Stuck indoors ? Of course you are. You bloody well should be, at any rate. But are you going stir crazy ? Are the walls closing in ? Do you long for the boundless freedom of the great outdoors ? Well, I can't take you outside, but I can show you a view of space you may never have seen before.

The Virgo Cluster is everyone's favourite galaxy cluster, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. As the nearest major cluster to us, we can survey it with extremely high sensitivity in great detail. And with clusters being the densest type of galaxy environment, there's nowhere better to watch the life and death of galaxies. Kind of like Big Brother, only less voyeuristic and more gassy.

A very long time ago I made a map of Virgo using optical images of the galaxies to make a nice pretty picture :

I also did some more sciency-visuals by selectively plotting different galaxies, which was quite fun to look at in 3D. I even made a 3D flythrough :

Later, I massively expanded this to show the whole ALFALFA survey of over 30,000 galaxies in VR. It was the most complex thing I've ever rendered. So with Virgo already covered in quite some detail, and an even larger data set shown in the most immersive format possible, what more is there to do ?

Like everyone else, I'm stuck at home. This has given me the chance to learn something new : interactivity.

I won't labour the details because there's not really any point. The Blend4Web addon is really very nice indeed, and just works. With largely minimal adjustments, I can easily convert my files into standalone HTML web pages that work in an ordinary browser. It even offers a VR mode, without any of the hassle of setting up special cameras and re-rendering the blasted thing. So now you don't have to see whatever I choose to render for you - you can fly around for yourself.

Click here to open the interactive version. It's a 90 MB file so may take a while to open. Works on mobile devices but is best enjoyed on a PC.
The controls are simple : left button drag to rotate, wheel to zoom, middle button drag to pan around. And there are some options at the bottom for headsets and full screen and so on. But what exactly are you looking at ? That's where the buttons in the upper left come in. Time for a crash course in galaxy clusters !

Galaxy types

"ETGs" and "LTGs" refer to early-type and late-type galaxies. This extremely stupid nomenclature was devised by the fiendish mind of Edwin Hubble, apparently for the sheer joy of confusing the heck out of people.

Basically, early-type galaxies are smooth, structureless, largely red objects consisting mainly of old stars. All their hot bright blue stars have long since died, leaving only the faintest but most enduring stars behind - they're often said to be "red and dead". They've usually run out of gas, so they're probably doomed to spend the rest of eternity fading into nothingness.

Late-type galaxies, however, are where it's at. They've still got loads of gas left and are actively forming hot, bright, blue stars, and usually have lots of interesting spiral and irregular structure. The day may come when they too will cease star formation, but it is not this day.

The definitions are easy enough, but why these bizarre terms ? It's often said that Hubble thought that galaxies evolved from one type to the other, but this isn't true. In a footnote in a paper he explicitly denies this, saying he's just referring to how complex the structures are, not the chronological sequence. Which makes total sense, because everyone refers to simple-looking things as "early" and complex-looking ones as "late"*... or more likely Hubble just had a mad moment. Regardless, the stupid terms (like many others in astronomy) have unfortunately stuck.

* As in, "look at this early-type fish tank" or "this late-type roof garden".

He didn't do himself any favours by arranging them in this famous "tuning fork" plot, with early types on the left and late types on the right. I mean, who could possibly mistake this left-to-right plot for a chronological sequence ? Clever people being stupid again...
Anyway, if you toggle the ETGs and LTGs on and off, you might notice something called the morphology density relation. This just means that late-type galaxies tend to be found in less dense regions, and early-types prefer dense environments. Late-types are newcomers to the party, bringing in plenty of fresh booze but still themselves sober and hanging around cautiously on the periphery. Early-types are already utterly wasted and are buried deep in the throng.

(Or, if you want a really disturbing analogy, the youthful blue spirals are forever falling into the corpse pit of dead giants at the centre. Lovely.)

 You can just about see this in the interactive display, but it's a bit clearer here :

Early types in red, late types in blue.
Just why this should be is a matter of intense controversy. Does the environment set what sort of galaxies form or does it alter those that happen to fall in ? Or is it a bit of both ?

We don't know. Certainly, though, the effects of the cluster can be very powerful. Just as Big Brother is a great way to spy on people but doesn't give you a typical view of human behaviour*, so too are clusters hardly typical habitats for galaxies. Your average galaxy instead prefers to live in isolation, or perhaps a small group of a few or few tens of galaxies - not the thousands-strong hordes of a big cluster.

* Hopefully.

Truly isolated galaxies are frankly as dull as hell. Small groups, on the other hand, are surprisingly interesting. Their interactions tend to be slow, as the gravity is from only a few other galaxies. But this gives it a long time to do tremendous damage, so group galaxies often show spectacular streams of stars and gas flung out into extragalactic space.

Galaxies in the NGC 7448 group. At radio wavelengths the whole thing, along with many other systems in this region, is embedded in a massive "common envelope" of atomic hydrogen.
Clusters are different. With a much greater total mass, galaxies move very much faster relative to each other, meaning that gravity has little time to do any damage. But clusters also contain something else : gas. This is not shown in the interactive tool, at least not yet, but it fills most of the cluster. Galaxies moving through this very hot, very thin intracluster medium can lose their gas through ram pressure stripping. So although long stellar tails are pretty rare in clusters, tails of gas are more common. Ram pressure can completely strip even a massive galaxy, killing its star formation and, perhaps, eventually turning a late-type spiral into a red and dead elliptical. Well, maybe.

Subclusters and structures

Virgo isn't just one big group of galaxies - it's several different groups which are still in the process of assembly. I haven't shown all the groups here, just a selection of the major ones taken from this paper.

The main body of the cluster is imaginatively known as subcluster A. It's about 17 Mpc (50 million light years) away from us, while subcluster B is more like 23 Mpc (75 million light years) and the W cloud is considerably more distant at 32 Mpc (100 million light years). The distance circles in the interactive page are shown for the main cluster, so are obviously wrong for the more distant regions.

The other sub-groups (sometimes called "clouds") are much smaller than the main A cluster, but they're still large enough to have their own gas. They're effectively mini-clusters being gobbled up by the big one.

Measuring these kinds of enormous distances is tricky, and this is the main weakness of this visualisation. We can directly measure how fast a galaxy is moving towards or away from us with really quite astonishing precision, to within a 1 km/s or so. When Edwin Hubble wasn't inventing daft terminologies, he was busy quantifying how distance relates to velocity - and this seems to work very well in low-density environments. But not, unfortunately, in clusters. Here the enormous gravity overwhelms this "Hubble flow", so the velocities we measure don't bear much relation to true distances.

There are other ways to measure distance, but they're much harder and only available for a far smaller number of galaxies. So what I did here was to use the velocities as a proxy for distance and scale them so that the cluster has approximately the correct depth. This gives broadly correct results, in that you can clearly see the different clouds, but each individual galaxy is usually wrong. For example there's a famous pair of galaxies which are clearly interacting :

The big red elliptical is NGC 4649 while the distorted spiral is NGC 4647.
But you won't see this in the visualisation. Both of them are present, but the velocities of the two are quite different, making them appear much more widely separated than they really are.

Individual galaxies

The labels I chose based on some of my personal favourite galaxies in the cluster. If you click them, you'll get links to more detailed information (public outreach articles where possible, academic papers where not). Mainy of them refer to tails of gas, which I might try and add at some point in the future.

There's a total of 774 galaxies shown : 386 early-types and 388 late-types. This is a bit of a misleading view, because in reality there are a lot more ETGs than LTGs. But most of them are pathetically faint and don't have velocity measurements, so we have even less of an idea as to their distance.

Actually, it might not be so bad as that by now. I'm using the same data set as for the map I made years back, so by now we might have new data. But showing each galaxy isn't a trivial task. A lot of time and effort was spent in manually adjusting them images to make sure their size was correct and annoying artifacts and foreground stars were carefully removed. That's not a process I care to repeat, though most of the new galaxies probably wouldn't suffer from this (but, being so faint, it wouldn't make that much difference to the overall appearance of the thing anyway).

The size of the galaxies has been exaggerated by a factor of five. I wanted to make this an interactive feature where you could set the scale for yourself, but this proved difficult. Maybe I'll find a way to do this and update it as I learn more about Blend4Web, but for now, this scaling seemed to give the best balance between realism and the need to make a pretty picture.

Galaxies are also, as you can tell, rendered in the style of classic video game sprites that always point towards the camera. It should be possible to overcome this for many galaxies and give a more accurate 3D view, but I leave this for version 2.0

So that's all for now. Have fun exploring Virgo, and let me know if I've missed anything vital. There's lots more to do (more galaxies, higher resolution textures, colour correction to show the spirals better, add gas), but as a first effort I'm pretty darn pleased with this.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Which Telescope Is The Best Place To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse ?

In these troubled times, it's important to consider the big questions. What's the meaning of life ? What is consciousness ? Where is all the toilet paper ? And, of course, which observatory is the best one to run to in the highly likely event that COVID-19 mutates and turns everyone into zombies ? I dunno, but here's my top five (and one honourable mention).

5) The Very Large Array, New Mexico

At first glance this seems like a really dumb choice to hole up in the event of a zombie outbreak. The telescopes are small and the on-site facilities are highly limited. There's only one way in or out of each dish, but at just 25m diameter, it would be easy for the shuffling hordes to build World War Z style human towers and climb on, probably collapsing the dish in the process.

The one advantage is that the site is remote and the population of the nearest towns is absolutely tiny. So it's going to take days before any zombie wanders in, and then they'll be in such low numbers that you could easily hold them off for a good long while until a full horde arrives.

VERDICT : POOR. Acceptable as an emergency stop-off - you could hunker down inside one of the tiny telescope instrument rooms and the zombies would probably never know you were there. But after that you'd want to get to safety pretty fast.

4) The McGraw Hill 1.3m at Kitt Peak, Arizona

This dinky little telescope sits atop a mountain some considerable distance from Tucson, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's not going to be at all easy for the zombies to reach the site, and most of them will hang around in Tucson anyway. Fifty miles is not that far, but the population density is still pretty low and the zombies wouldn't be able to scent anyone so high on the hill.

That's the good news. The bad news is that when the zombies eventually make it there, the site is poorly defendable - even worse than the VLA. Especially the 1.3m telescope. The building is small, one storey, and has easy-access. There's nowhere inside good to hole up in, and a minimum of hardware to play with. Yes, you could blast the zombies with some liquid nitrogen from the storage tanks, but that's not going to last very long. And with so many telescopes up there, it's pretty likely someone will already be carrying the virus, so you may not have as much time as you think to prepare.

VERDICT : POOR. Better than being down in the city, but too easy to get trapped in. You'll have more supplies than at the VLA, but a less defendable site.

3) The IRAM 30m Single Dish, Granada, Spain

Now we start to get serious. Although not much bigger than a VLA dish, the telescope is considerably more defendable and the site extremely well-equipped : being snowed in is nothing unusual here. Inside the main building you could live very comfortably, but your best bet would be to grab the wine and food and hole up inside the telescope itself. Not so much comfort, but very easy to stay hidden.

The uncertainty comes from the site and when the outbreak occurs. In winter, the shuffling hordes are going to have absolutely no chance of making it up the hill - without crampons, even a fully-functioning human would find it difficult. The problem is it's on a ski resort, so the number of potential zombies nearby is going to be high. So when you eventually need to get back down, you might have a problem. And in summer there will be hikers, so sooner or later you're going to have to deal with the zombies and not just hide from them.

VERDICT : Decent. A great place to survive the winter, but you'll have to escape come the spring thaw.

2) The Green Bank 100m Telescope, West Virginia

The gargantuan GBT is a massive edifice that suffers from being too big to photograph properly. Access to the top of the telescope is by lift only, making it difficult for the zombies to reach. And even if they somehow stumble against the "up" button, they'll only come in limited numbers. The instrument room at the top wouldn't be luxurious, but you'd be able to hold the site against indefinitely large hordes. Plus, it's West Virginia, so getting guns won't be a problem.

The remoteness of the site is another big asest. Your only real limit is going to be the limited storage space at the telescope for food. And if that lift breaks, you're screwed.

VERDICT : Excellent. Get up quick and the zombies won't even know you're there. Only the space limitation restricts this from being a long-term way to ride out the apocalypse. You might be able to make it work, but you'd need some serious preparation time.

1) The Arecibo 305m Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico

As long as you come prepared, this one might be hard to beat. The site isn't as remote as the others but it's not bad. The telescope platform, however, is just about as defensible a site as you could ever hope to find. At the top, it's easy to disable the cable car so that the zombies can't even bring it back accidentally. Take out a few of the catwalk panels and that route is denied to them too. All you need do is put a few obstacles on the top of the catwalk and even that becomes impassable to the clumsy corpses.

Unlike the others, the interior of the telescope doesn't have much in the way of space restrictions. You'll need to disable the radar in case it gets accidentally activated and fries you, but this is easy. And being so far above the ground, the zombies are not going to be able to sight or scent you, so the chances of them even attempting access is minimal. If you prepare in time, you could rig up a zipline to the ground which the zombies wouldn't be able to use.

What about the case of an all-out attack ? The towers are too difficult for zombies to climb and the cables too strong to break. Should the zombies decide to build a human pyramid to reach you, it'd take hundreds of thousands - maybe even millions - to reach the platform -  a sizeable fraction of the population of Puerto Rico. Basically, that isn't going to happen.

The real risks come from perfectly natural disasters. The telescope has its own power generator, but who knows how long that will last without maintenance, so you're gonna be roughing it. A really big earthquake or hurricane might bring it down, but those are few and far between. Still, without maintenance, eventually enough of those cables are going to break, but this would plausibly take decades.

VERDICT : A solid choice. Needs some serious preparations, but less than the GBT, and potentially an ideal permanent residence for self-isolation.

Honourable Mention : The Sphinx Observatory, Switzerland

Doesn't make the list because it's not a functioning astronomical telescope, but still worthy of note. Virtually inaccessible except by train, permanently snow-capped, and hugely well-equipped for tourists so totally laden with supplies. A far more comfortable place to ride out the apocalypse than any of the others, but since it's a major tourist attraction the site may already been crawling with zombies when you get there.

VERDICT : Wildcard. If you reach it before the zombies do, you can live in indefinite luxury above the clouds. If you don't, you'll have a lovely view shortly before the brain-dead tourists rip you limb from limb. Oh well, at least you'll die somewhere scenic.

Thursday 12 March 2020

A Handy Guide To Being A Supervillain

Why do seemingly clever people sometimes do really stupid things ? There are a host of reasons, not least of which are the networks in which people live. It doesn't matter if you're super-duper intelligent : if you're unfortunate enough to only know people who only ever talk about the latest drivel from Kayne West, then chances are you're going to believe a few crazy things yourself.

But a much more fundamental reason is that there are different kinds of intelligence and stupidity - or at least, different aspects of each. We tend to mistake mathematical, technical brilliance for a much broader sort of wisdom, as though anyone capable of assembling IKEA furniture without the instructions must also be a dab hand at international diplomacy. This, of course, is not the case. As the philosopher Epictetus said :
'But I'm a scholar who understands Archedemus !' You can understand Archedemus and still be an adulterer and a cheater, a wolf or an ape rather than a human being, what's to stop you ?
For a more recent example, look no further than the case of a lesbian professor of philosophy who sexually harassed a gay male student. People are indeed very, very strange and complicated beasts.

So what is this "wisdom" we're interested in, and how is it different from the regular kind of intelligence ? This is something that's bothered me for a while. Some people call it "critical thinking", others might call it "skepticism", but perhaps Ian Malcolm said it best :

That's a pretty decent definition of a clever idiot : sometime who has to work tremendously hard solving lots of complex problems in order to accomplish a really, really stupid task. Which in this case results in a bunch of dinosaurs eating everyone, making it something of a self-limiting problem.

So intelligence compromises many different cognitive skills. What I've suggested* is that this sort of critical thinking is the ability to overcome bias. Someone who's really good at thinking critically is concerned only with the truth, and is prepared to accept whatever the evidence says regardless of any other concerns. They'd be equally comfortable in declaring that the evidence says, "kill all the ginger people" as they would in saying it says, "give all the ginger people a billion dollars and a big bowl of ice cream". Whereas a bullshiter doesn't care about the truth at all, a really good critical thinker merely doesn't care about what the truth is - but does care a good deal about actually knowing the truth, whatever it may be.

* At least, I make a throwaway statement to that effect in the link, but I honestly don't remember if I had a moment of inspiration or read it somewhere else.

So let's go with this idea of two different kinds of intelligence. Analytic intelligence is about solving problems. Critical intelligence is about being able to accept whatever the evidence suggests, regardless of personal preferences. Doubtless there are more kinds of intelligence than this, but if we stick with just these two, we can make a nice chart.

But why bother ? First, charts are fun. I like charts. They give simplified descriptions that are useful in getting a handle on the messy complexities of reality. But more importantly, lately I've seen a misconception floating around in the left-wing UK media. Perhaps it was always there, but it's become much more noticeable in the last few months.

Specifically, the Guardian, Independent, Mirror and the like are full of headlines about how the right-wing political leaders are most certainly doomed. Whether through their own stupidity or an awakening on the part of the voters, just like the scientists who build Jurassic Park, they're permanently assumed to be on the brink of becoming a self-limiting problem. This is exemplified by this article in the Guardian which says that evil geniuses are a myth; that evil is always stupid and stupid is always doomed to fail. Never mind that a lot of damage can happen in the process, I think that's just plain wrong. So without further ado, let me explain why by means of a handy chart.

The Evil Genius Chart

Let's go through this quadrant by quadrant, because it's fun to pretend that people are so simple they can be divided into four big blocks. Note that the labels are intended to represent quite large areas. As for individual people, they can be found all over the chart : a scientist might be fantastic at thinking critically about the causes of muscle diseases but absolutely insistent that the English cricket team is the greatest force for good in human history.

The ideal scientist

Obviously the ideal case is pretty rare in practise.
As is very nicely explained on the blog Wait But Why, a perfect scientist cares a lot about how they reason and whether they're being honest. They don't care a fig what their conclusions are, just so long as they're as accurate as possible.

Your typical scientist doesn't necessarily reach the extreme top right of the chart, having maximum critical and analytical intelligence. Most mere mortals do have some biases they just can't shake off, but for your typical scientist this is not so much that they cause any serious difficulties. Being by definition more educated than laymen, they know better tricks for solving specific problems and understand the nuances better than most keen amateurs.

Really obsessed people, be they professional or amateur, might achieve incredibly high analytic scores, but unless they're in a professional environment, they might not do so well in terms of critical thinking. For that, you need other people telling you "you're wrong !" to keep you honest.

Of course, every scientist wants to reach the top right corner. They want to be able to solve every problem, no matter how complex, with the best solution possible. Sherlock Holmes is something pretty close to this ideal, but as we'll see later, his creator Arthur Conan-Doyle gives an interesting contrast.

Ignorant students

From the amazing they can talk webcomic. I will be a spoilsport and point out that neither children nor animals are really "born scientists" as it's popular to claim - the resemblance is superficial.
We've all got to start somewhere. Young children and various animals are really, really good at accepting reality as it is, or at least the evidence as presented to them. If a dog finds a ball under the couch, it doesn't get confused if it thought the ball was previously on the table. It just accepts reality and moves on. It may not have the slightest idea how the ball got there, but it damn well knows that is is.

When it comes to more advanced stuff, a lot of people are vaguely interested in something but aren't dedicated viewers - the difference between a Star Trek devotee who never misses an episode and has every stardate memorised and one who tunes in to ogle Seven of Nine from time to time. If presented with different possible solutions, the casually interested might be able to figure out which one is correct, but isn't likely to come up with either on their own. They just don't know enough of the subtleties to make the necessary connections, or understand the interrelated parts sufficiently well to work out what would happen in a new situation. Likewise for the uninterested : they may tell you which option is more likely, but they wouldn't ever stop to analyse the situation themselves.

Having a reasonable level of critical thinking but not analytic intelligence has another weakness. Being able to assess what the evidence suggests is a different from being able to understand if the evidence is itself correct. Children are extremely vulnerable to manipulation because they'll believe pretty much anything you tell them - they don't have the mental skills to asses statements on their own. Tell them that Santa exists and they have no problem in accepting that... but also tell them that fat people can't fit down chimneys and they'll spot the difficulty right away.


From the wonderful xkcd, of course.
A.k.a. the Great Unwashed, nice-but-dim. To borrow an example from Wait But Why, a sports fan does care about reality, but desperately wants it to go their way. If things don't, they have enough skill to work out all kinds of complicated (and not so complicated) reasons why it didn't, but ultimately they do accept it.

Politicians - at least the current bunch of morons - seem to be even more tribal than sports fans, partly because that's their professional role. They're supposed to be tribal, that's how the system works (and why it doesn't). Analytically they're certainly more sophisticated than sports fans, for the same reason. The region that the label for politicians represents is probably the largest of all groups : some reach very respectable levels of both kinds of intellect, others... don't.

At the lower left we have the extremes : the people so stupid they're barely capable of thinking at all. They accept whatever anyone they happen to like tells them without question, confusing their trust in the person with trust in what they're claiming. Left to themselves, they're largely harmless. Their danger lies largely in their participation in democratic systems which require a fair degree of skepticism. Without this, anyone appealing to the lowest common denominator has an easy time getting these people on board.

The evil genius

Finally we come to potentially the most dangerous realm of all : people who can figure things out, but use their skills only to justify their existing preferences. They don't really investigate, they rationalise.

This isn't necessarily dangerous, mind you. Arthur Conan Doyle presents a particularly nice example. Most famous for creating the ruthlessly logical and brilliant Sherlock Holmes, he himself believed in fairies. Frickin' fairies, for God's sake ! Even when a very obvious hoax hit the headlines, he saw it only as evidence for his beliefs. A decent scientist would never do that, or at worst would have to suffer the eternal shame of other scientists and quickly shut up about it.

But Doyle's fairies hardly led to any serious direct harm to anybody. Likewise, believing in the Flat Earth doesn't necessarily do anyone any actual physical harm. Even so, while the sheeple of the lower left are the most at risk from manipulation, it's the potentially evil people of this upper left quadrant which are the most likely to do the manipulating : when things go bad here, they can go very bad indeed. The people on the other side of the chart care too much about the truth to deliberately mislead anyone, but the people over on this side care more about getting their own way than anything as pesky as "facts".

This takes different forms. The "angry people in pubs", on on the internet, are often what we might call armchair bigots. They won't, unless strongly pressured, ever take physical action against people they dislike. But they are all too willing to vote on policies which harm other people. They care just enough about the truth to have the decency to be embarrassed (even if only unconsciously) by their opinions, but they're all too happy to absolve themselves of responsibility and let other people do their dirty work*. This is a very dangerous aspect of democracy, in that it makes villainy much easier by making it far less personal.

* We might be more sympathetic to armchair heroes, who want good things but aren't prepared to take any action further than signing a petition or, dare I say it, writing a blog.

It's said that to err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. In other words, the more analytic intelligence someone has, the greater their potential for damage if they don't also care about the truth. Hence the scientists of Jurassic Park were hardly what anyone would call evil, but they made a catastrophic mistake (at least according to the movie). At the more extreme end, while many Flat Earthers belong much lower down the chart, at least a few are capable of some serious mental gymnastics to rationalise their beliefs. They are not necessarily stupid, but dear me they're not the slightest bit interested in the truth.

And lawyers ? This is another excellent example courtesy of Wait But Why. A lawyer on their own has to be good at justifying any position, because that's what their professional role entails. By definition, they're not supposed to care about the truth, or only to the bare minimum necessary to formulate a defence of their client. Their interest is only in defence, in rationalising. The hope of the judicial system is that when such people operate in a system, doing the same process both for and against a client, a neutral observer will be capable of getting at the truth. Thus a lawyer acting in defence of a serial killer isn't evil, given the context in which they operate.

Whether this really works or not is an interesting question. On the face of it it sounds a bit daft*, so I propose an experiment : present a series of carefully staged scenarios to a bunch of scientists and a court and see which does best. We take it for granted that both courts and scientists are good at establishing facts, but the two systems are very different. Scientists criticise each other, yes, but the adversarial process is quite different to the courtroom situation. So when Captain Picard says :

* Get two people to make the cleverest, most persuasive arguments for and against a position ? Knowing how persuasion works, and knowing that people of the jury will lie all over the above chart, this seems like a very weird idea.

... we should wonder if a) this is really correct and b) whether there isn't a better way of doing things.

Conclusion : yes, you can be an evil genius, but please don't

To really describe the evil genius, we'd need to add malevolence as a third axis. As I said, lawyers aren't necessarily evil or doing evil things, and they certainly don't go home at night to cackle away in their creepy dungeons. Probably. But they do exemplify the kind of thinking that can be described as evil genius in the right circumstances. Sure, the people who fit all three criteria (highly biased, highly analytical, and highly malevolent) are rare, but they're also disproportionately dangerous.

This realm of uncritical, highly analytical intellect is what the British left-wing media is either refusing to believe in or doesn't realise is possible. It's why, as Stephen Pinker eloquently put it, "things that can't go on forever can go on for much longer than you think". It's how people can have absolutely lamentably, horrifically stupid goals but then set about accomplishing them in amazingly sophisticated ways. It's one way - only one way, mind you - by which people can become locked in to a course that goes directly against their own interests.

Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories of the evil-lizard-men ilk is that we want to believe someone's in charge, even if they're not very nice. It helps us make sense of a messed-up reality. But saying that an evil genius is impossible, that anyone bent on a course that seems to be obviously self-destructive will in fact self-destruct, is also a mistake. Yes, eventually they may come crashing down in a big ugly heap, but the British media seems to think that every minor difficulty for them poses an insurmountable challenge - even as they keep on succeeding. This is to misunderstand how genuinely clever such people can be : just because their goals are those of lunatics does not mean they don't know some incredibly astute methods to accomplish them. To say that the evil genius does not exist is, I'm sorry to say, little more than wishful thinking.