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Nigel Seel (Wells, UK)

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A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
by Nicholas Wade
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.35

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven, speculative and mostly right, 15 May 2014
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Despite all you hear to the contrary, human evolution has continued up to the present: “recent, copious and regional” in Nicholas Wade’s words. This would appear to be of great scientific interest – what are the genetic differences between different races and what are they coding for? Unfortunately we have a ‘blank slate’ social-sciences establishment which denies even the existence of races and seems unwilling to admit to genetic input into such obviously inherited attributes as intelligence and personality. (‘Obvious’ means that everybody knows it really and that careful analysis, including twin studies, bears it out).

Is the author going to be sacrificed on the altar of ‘racism’? Wade is naturally keen to defend the scientific study of human racial differences from the inevitable charges of racism and eugenics. This is a difficult discussion and one the author approaches historically, showing how American ideas of Caucasian superiority and eugenics were eagerly picked up by the German National Socialists. But in the urge to be on the side of decency one has to be careful to reason accurately:

“By analogy with animal breeding, people could no doubt be bred, if it were ethically acceptable, so as to enhance specific desired traits. But it is impossible to know what traits would benefit society as a whole. The eugenics program, however reasonable it might seem, was basically incoherent.” (p. 27).

Well, it seems that intelligence, a generally pro-social personality and good health are pretty good candidates for traits which would ‘benefit society as a whole’ and later the author will argue that western medieval societies effectively bred for those traits over the last thousand years to our advantage. We do our own private experiments in positive eugenics whenever we seek out the best possible marriage partner.

Such sloppy argumentation is, sadly, not uncommon in this book.

Having got his defences out of the way, Wade now gives us some science -a comparison between chimpanzee societies and our own. Chimps are highly aggressive and promiscuous; humans not so much. In fact the key differentiator is our marked ability to cooperate. Wade has some plausible ecological suggestions as to how these differences might have emerged and can back up the behavioural stuff with genes coding for hormones such as oxytocin (increased trust within an in-group) and mono-amine oxidase (associated with aggression).

The gene which codes for the latter, MAO-A, comes in different alleles – the “two-promoter group” in particular is linked with criminal violence. In a large study, (p. 55), Jean Ship and colleagues found that African-American men had a 5% chance of carrying the “two-promoter” allele (these were predominantly the delinquents). In Caucasians the proportion was 0.1%. Clearly we are at an early stage in this research but the correlations are certainly thought-provoking.

The next few chapters reprise the story of the out-of-Africa human expansion and how this is captured in genetic sequencing. This will be familiar to anyone who has checked out 23andme or similar companies. The arguments for the objective existence of races are kind of obvious to anyone without an agenda, and are apparent in analysis of allele frequencies. Nevertheless, it remains true that in 2014 we know next to nothing about what most of these variant alleles actually do. Most cognitive, psychological and behavioural traits are under the control of hundreds or thousands of alleles, each of small individual effect, which accounts for the ‘bell-shaped curves’ we see in population intelligence and personality attributes. This is a central problem for a book which is trying to create a compelling connection between race genetic differences and the distinctiveness we see today in human civilizations such as in the West (America, Europe), the East (China, Korea, Japan) and sub-Saharan Africa.

Such differences clearly interest the author and drive the second half of the book - which he deems ‘speculative’. The author is particularly interested in how humanity made the transition from its default social model, kin-based tribalism, to states and empires. Citing Francis Fukuyama (“The Origins of Political Order”), Gregory Clarke (“Farewell to Alms”) and Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson (“Why Nations Fail”) we are taken on a multi-millennial tour of the great civilisations of the world. What was the evolutionary impact of these novel social environments on population psychology? His thesis is that of gene-culture coevolution – that people were selected for ‘tameness’ and prosociality as well, perhaps, for greater intelligence. There are good reasons for believing this is likely, but it has to be said that it may take a few more decades to get compelling genetic evidence.

The “IQ and Global Inequality” authors Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen get short shrift (p.191). They have demonstrated high correlations (c. 80%) between measurements of national IQ and GDP. Given the well-known strong genetic underpinnings of observed intelligence (in societies without widespread material deprivation) it’s surprising to see Wade backsliding into confusion here. By highlighting poor and outlying data he makes his doubts clear but it just reads like he has an agenda. Perhaps he thinks his book is controversial enough as it is.

The final chapters cover the astonishing intellectual success of the Ashkenazi Jews, citing the well-known work of Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending (written up in “The Ten-Thousand Year Explosion”) and further speculate about the reasons behind the rise of the West in recent history. Interesting but does not break any really new ground.

This is a readable book but one which lacks a strong sense of direction. Occasional sloppy reasoning and ideological argumentation can irritate. Gregory Cochran has identified some errors of fact (on the “West Hunter” blog) which highlight the limitations of the author’s genetics sourcing but this is not where Wade’s real interests lie. He is clearly infuriated by the assumption of human genetic uniformity in economics, history and public policy and is consequentially highly motivated to give an account of the world as if human and racial differences actually mattered. In the current absence of hard genetic results his views remain plausible but speculative and will probably be ignored by politicians and policy-makers for another generation, more’s the pity.
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Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe
Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe
by David Waltham
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A plausible solution to the Fermi paradox, 7 May 2014
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It’s been fashionable and perhaps even comforting to believe in the essential unity, benevolence and even environmental-competence of life on Earth. The Gaia hypothesis makes us feel good, but hard-nosed evolutionary biologists and planetary scientists crunch the numbers and just can’t get it to work. Forget the galaxy of a billion friendly alien civilizations, perhaps there’s just one: ourselves. Perhaps we’re just very, very fortunate. Here’s a much abbreviated summary of what David Waltham has to say in this lively and intelligent book.

Our very existence shows that the Earth has experienced life-friendly climatic conditions for billions of years. During this time the output of the sun has increased by 30% while early high levels of greenhouse gases such as methane, water vapour and carbon dioxide have been almost scrubbed from the atmosphere. These changes ought to have produced enormous and lethal climatic variation yet somehow, by some magic, the effects have largely cancelled out.

For some people, this shows that powerful negative feedback mechanisms are at work, stabilising the climate for life. Strange then, that such benign processes are so hard to pin down. The alternative view is that for most planets like the Earth, the climate did indeed transition to fire or ice, with the consequent destruction of any biosphere; the Earth is special and very, very lucky.

Of course, the fact that we’re here at all to make such an observation indicates that for the Earth it could hardly have been otherwise. This is called the principle of Anthropic Selection - to be contrasted with the Principle of Mediocrity, that the Earth is not that special in the universe.

David Waltham systematically takes us through the unique features of the Earth. Our star, the sun, is unusually large and bright – most long-lived stars are smaller and redder than ours. However, they are prone to stellar flares which are extremely harmful to the biosphere. The Earth has an astonishingly strong magnetic field which deflects the solar wind, which otherwise could split water vapour into hydrogen and oxygen allowing the former to escape into space – this is how a planet loses all its water.

Despite the early sun emitting only 70% of today’s output, the Earth remained suitable for life due to the immense greenhouse effect of the early atmosphere. As the sun heated up, the greenhouse effect reduced in tandem: carbon dioxide was washed out of the atmosphere by rain and locked up in sedimentary rocks, while methane was oxidised away as soon as early photosynthesis evolved.

The Earth did not experience a smooth, stabilised, homeostatic climate – there were episodes of great heat interspersed with at least four ‘snowball earth’ episodes where the entire planet became icebound. Thanks, however, to plate tectonics and volcanism, carbon dioxide was released back into the atmosphere to unfreeze the Earth and to allow early life to reboot.

Some people believe that this is an example of the Gaia principle – life stabilising its own environment. The author sees instead systems of climate dynamics that could so easily have sheared off into uncontrolled positive feedback or blundered into wild oscillations. In his opinion, this is exactly what happens to most planets like ours ‘out there’ - but as a consequence, they have no observers to later theorise about it.

Parenthetically, the author’s concerns about current anthropogenic global warming are consistent with his view of underlying instabilities. It’s not so much that increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere directly warm the climate; it’s more that they catalyse changes in more potent greenhouse gases (water vapour, methane) and it’s not at all clear that there are negative feedback mechanisms which could dampen their effects. The climate models are very complex and who knows if they’re either comprehensive or correctly tracking all the mechanisms?

Another climate-changing influence is the Earth’s axial inclination (currently around 23 degrees) and its orbit around the sun. Under the impact of the other planets in the solar system, the shape and tilt of the Earth’s orbit is continually changing on long-period cycles (69,000 years for orbital tilt and tilt-direction, 400,000 years for orbital eccentricity with other influences clustering around 100,000 years). These affect solar heating and drive the ice ages. The Earth also precesses on its axis every 26,000 years. We’re very lucky that these numbers are rather different because if they converged we would experience orbital resonances, and the inclination of the Earth’s axis would become unstable and chaotic (of the order of a few million years). This would trash the climate, leading to the extinction of all complex forms of life. How did we come by that luck?

It’s somewhat well-known that our large moon ‘spin stabilises’ the inclination of the Earth’s axis. What is less well-known is that as the moon continues to spiral away, the precession rate will slowly decay and in 1.5 billion years time resonance will occur with the orbital periods discussed above. At that point, the Earth will have an unstable spin axis. This is of academic interest only, as for reasons concerned with the sun’s increasing output, the earth will become uninhabitable for multi-cellular life within the next 500 million years. But, if the moon’s radius had been just 10 km larger and the early Earth’s day just ten minutes longer, the Earth would have an unstable spin axis today. What are the chances?

So why does it pay to have a large moon? The author suggests that a moon almost large enough to eventually generate axial instability also stabilises the spin prior to that, and in doing so allows the planet to have relatively mild and infrequent ice ages - another case of fine-tuning for intelligent life.

The author concludes that the chances of all these things coming together to guarantee a four billion year life-benign climate are so remote that the Earth is possibly the only planet with intelligent life in the entire visible universe: we are quite alone. This solution to the Fermi Paradox might be considered depressing, but it should increase our caution – “We may just find out the hard way that planets with nasty climates are quite easy to produce.”

The reader may be left with another thought: although few planets may experience multi-billion year climate stability, this is hardly a pre-requisite for interstellar colonisation, and there’s a lot of unoccupied real estate out there.

AURAGLOW 8w LED B22 Bayonet Light Bulb, Warm White, 60w Equivalent - DIMMABLE
AURAGLOW 8w LED B22 Bayonet Light Bulb, Warm White, 60w Equivalent - DIMMABLE
Offered by Safield Dist. Ltd
Price: 21.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good replacement for hot bulbs, 19 Mar 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The previous MR16 bulbs dumped 40 watts into the ceiling and were very unreliable. The electrician has today replaced them with eight of the Auraglow LEDs and we can't really tell the difference as regards light output. The transformers were also changed and we've seen no signs of the flickering which some reviewers have identified (we believe from older iron-core transformers). So far so good.

Personality: What makes you the way you are
Personality: What makes you the way you are
by Daniel Nettle
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.55

5.0 out of 5 stars Profound and accessible scientific review, 29 Dec 2013
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Suppose you ask people to rate their interest in such things as social activities, travel, competitive success and sex. Perhaps not surprisingly, their separate scores will correlate with each other (0.1 - 0.3). If you now ask them whether they ever feel depressed or `blue', or whether they have sought help for anxiety, their scores for these two items also positively correlate with each other. But the first four sets and the second two sets don't cross correlate at all. This suggests there are deeper traits at work. A technique called factor analysis identifies Extraversion as the common factor in the first set, and Neuroticism as the common factor for the second. These two factors are independent.

When a wide variety of personality-relevant items are rated for large samples of people, factor analysis reliably and repeatedly confirms that there are five underlying, independent personality traits: Extraversion and Neuroticism as already described; Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness. Each will get a chapter to itself.

The Five Factor Model of personality is often accused of shallowness, and of being atheoretic as the factors simply emerge from statistical processing (in fact just the same factoring procedure generates the g-factor - general intelligence - as measured through IQ tests). The great strength of Nettle's book is that he can link individual variation within each of the five factors to differences in brain anatomy and metabolism as captured by MRI scanners and then with genetic differences. The five traits seem to be capturing something real about genetically-determined brain variation.

Common observation confirms that we are surrounded by different personalities. If personality is heavily determined by our genes, as it appears, then why haven't we all converged on an ideal personality? You can, of course, ask the same question about any continuously-varying trait which still exhibits variation, such as height or intelligence. The answer seems to be a combination of environmental instability (rewarding different parts of the variability-spectrum in different circumstances) and frequency-dependent selection (as in the way a few rather nasty people can take advantage of the many nice-but-gullible). Nettle discusses this in detail - it will be a recurring point that all positions in personality space help in some circumstances but hinder in others.

The chapter on Extraversion, setting a pattern for those to come on the other traits, links the behavioural attributes of extraverts with brain imaging and genetic studies. Extraversion, it turns out, comes down to a strong reaction to positive emotions - those feelings we find rewarding; introverts just don't seem to care so much, conserving their energy. There seems to be a link between extraversion and genetic variation in sensitivity to dopamine.

Neuroticism, by contrast, relate to sensitivity to negative emotions: to score highly on this dimension is to be a worrier. The associated brain chemistry seems to involve the neurotransmitter serotonin: inhibitors such as Prozac seem to make us less worried about life's many sources of anxiety.

Conscientiousness, the third trait to be analysed, seems at first sight a pretty good trait to score highly on. It's the most reliable predictor of occupational success across the board. Conscientiousness is particularly valuable in structured, rule-based environments such as we find in advanced technological societies. Change the situation to one of unpredictable, fast-changing circumstance however, and the rule-bound are at a disadvantage. The army, for example, has a continual internal conflict as it needs both sorts, but they continually rub each other up the wrong way.

Agreeableness, the fourth dimension, sounds like a trait well-worth having. Who could fault being nice? Perhaps not so strangely, success in business correlates with low scores on this trait. Something about putting other people first and a degree of self-effacement doesn't sit easily with tough, mission-oriented leadership. This is the one trait where female and male scores are clearly distinct, with women scoring more than half a standard deviation higher in agreeableness. There is a ready evolutionary explanation in the pre-modern sexual division of labour.

The final dimension is Openness to Experience. This is a hard dimension to pin down. Some people equate it with intelligence, but the author is of the opinion that intelligence is a kind of whole-brain efficiency measure implicated across all areas of neural functioning including such non-intellectual tasks as pure reaction times. Nettle believes high-scorers on Openness are artistic, creative people capable of making associations between different - and perhaps surprising - kinds of things. Intellectuals on the science, technology, engineering and maths front don't look much like famous poets and acclaimed authors. Wherein lies the difference? For once the author doesn't have good answers, believing the key to excellence in these STEM subjects is more down to general intelligence. But clearly that can't be the whole story.

In the final part of the book the author reviews the evidence for `environmental' influences determining personality and finds they are few and hard to find. Family and parental input (if non-abusive) has been carefully measured to have exactly zero impact: you can't change your child's personality. Does this give people a deterministic get-out - my genes made me do it? In the final chapter Nettle carefully demolishes this view, showing that dispositions are one thing, but the life choices you make to go with or against the flow of your dispositions are something else.

In summary, this book is a wonderfully accessible and profound exploration of the concept of personality. Everyone will learn something about themselves from reading it and it conclusively takes us beyond the limitations of the Jungian approach as in Myers-Briggs theory. There is a short 12 item questionnaire which you are encouraged to take before reading.

Experiment 43
Experiment 43
Price: 1.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Weird, thought-provoking, unusual, 18 Nov 2013
This review is from: Experiment 43 (Kindle Edition)
Don't know if this is the author's first published work - it's generally well-written but with the odd awkward turn of phrase. Characterisation is adequate but perfunctory and not really the point of this novella. If you're tired of well-telegraphed, predictable SF then this whimsical take on consciousness, a North Korean plot to take over the world and Buddhism provides a welcome and amusing alternative.

Steel World (Undying Mercenaries Series Book 1)
Steel World (Undying Mercenaries Series Book 1)
Price: 2.05

4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, entertaining military SF - more please!, 9 Nov 2013
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B. V. Larson's "Steel World" is the hybrid offspring of "Starship Troopers" and John Ringo's "Posleen Wars". It's Heinlein sans the moral messages mixed with Ringo's duplicitous galactics.

The shtick is that the mercenaries of Earth's Legions can be revived after death: you fight, you die and then you fight again. This is not at all a gimmick, as some reviewers have suggested; it opens the door to interesting plot developments.

This ebook is highly recommended as a fun military-SF page-turner and it's to be hoped Larson writes a sequel.

Making Games with Python & Pygame
Making Games with Python & Pygame
by Al Sweigart
Edition: Paperback
Price: 13.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great entry to writing your own games, 23 Oct 2013
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With full Python 3 source code and many kinds of games to choose from, this is an ideal way to learn how to create your own computer games using Python. I don't think you could rely solely on this book to learn the language, it really isn't structured for that purpose, but there are plenty of 'introduction to Python 3' books out there to buy as companions.

Installing the Pygame module (by downloading from the Internet) may not be as easy as the book makes out - it's necessary to align the Python and Pygame release versions exactly (and 32 bit does not equal 64 bit!). A bit of Googling helps and the author can be emailed (and is very helpful) in case of difficulties.

Jane Austen: A Companion
Jane Austen: A Companion
Price: 3.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful but repetitious, 23 Oct 2013
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Josephine Ross is a fan and seems to have committed to memory full details of both the novels and correspondence of Ms Austen. She has also researched the culture and preoccupations of the Regency period (diet, fashion, household affairs, etiquette, politics, etc) as well as the literary works with which Jane was so familiar. In addition, the author writes intelligently and well.

The problem with this book follows, paradoxically, from the very thinness of Austen's output. The same quotes from Austen's novels repeatedly surface across chapters and the reader may feel a strong inclination to skim. Though much of the material here will be familiar to those who have absorbed previous Austen treatments and biographies, there are still insights which make it well worth acquiring.

Glo-It - The Glow In The Dark Paint and Medium 29.6ml
Glo-It - The Glow In The Dark Paint and Medium 29.6ml
Offered by Quickdraw Stationery UK
Price: 3.75

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't work well out of doors, 23 Oct 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I bought this to daub obstacles edging the path which runs along the side of our house (it's a hazard to get to the bins these dark nights). The paint has failed to fluoresce and is useless for purpose; however, the area doesn't get a great deal of light during the day. Other reviewers have noted it seems to work better indoors with better prior illumination. Finally, the bottle is rather smaller than it appears in the picture.

Quantum Computing since Democritus
Quantum Computing since Democritus
by Scott Aaronson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 21.43

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Witty and erudite - but still lecture notes, 17 Oct 2013
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If you're a computational complexity theorist, then everything looks like .. well, a problem in computational complexity. Scott Aaronson is astonishingly bright, on top of his subject and genuinely droll: this book gives you a fly-on-the-wall view of how he engaged with his students at the University of Waterloo.

We start with a tour of prerequisites. Chapter 2 covers axiomatic set theory (ZF); chapter 3 Gödel's Completeness and Incompleteness Theorems, and Turing Machines. In chapter 4 we apply some of these ideas to artificial intelligence, discuss Turing's Imitation Game and the state of the art in chatbots, and also Searle's Chinese Room puzzle. Aaronson invariably provides a fresh perspective on these familiar topics although already we see the `lecture note' character of this book, where details are hand-waved over (because the students already know this stuff, or they can go away and look it up).

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce us to the elementary computation complexity classes and explain the famous P not = NP conjecture. This is not a first introduction - you are assumed to already understand formal logic and concepts such as clauses, validity and unsatisfiability. Chapters 7 and 8 introduce, by way of a discussion on randomness and probabilistic computation, a slew of new complexity classes and the hypothesised relations between them, applying some of these ideas to cryptanalysis.

Chapter 9 brings us to quantum theory. Six pages in we're talking about qubits, norms and unitary matrices so a first course on quantum mechanics under your belt would help here. The author's computer science take on all this does bring in some refreshing new insights. We're now equipped, in chapter 10, to talk about quantum computing. Typically this is not architecture or engineering discussion; Aaronson is a theorist, and for his community, quantum computing means a new set of complexity classes with conjectural relationships to those of classical computation.

We now go off at a tangent as the author critiques Sir Roger Penrose's views on consciousness as a quantum gravity phenomenon. I think it's fair to say that no-one in AI takes this idea seriously, but the author has the intellectual resources to engage Penrose on his own ground here.

In chapter 12 we crank up the technical level to talk about decoherence and hidden variable theories. This is one of the most interesting chapters but is too discursive - really important concepts are touched on and then abandoned; for example the discussion of decoherence and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is set against a model of the multiverse, but it's never quite clear whether Aaronson is assuming the reality of the Everett Interpretation or whether he has some other, more purely mathematical model in mind.

Chapter 12 reminds us that a computational complexity theorist's idea of proof is a long way from that of a logician. We plunge into stochastic proofs, zero-knowledge proofs and probabilistically checkable proofs, all framed by a complexity analysis.

The next few chapters cover a series of topics in similar vein: quantum proofs (and their complexity classes), rebuttals of sceptical arguments against quantum computing (interesting and convincing), some technically demanding material on learning algorithms, and concepts of interactive proof.

The final few chapters are more philosophical: Aaronson applies his toolkit to topics such as the Anthropic Principle (via Bayesian reasoning); free will (he's in favour but has a highly-idiosyncratic view of what free will is); time travel (how closed timelike curves impact on classical and quantum computation); and cosmology (black holes, the information paradox, with firewalls bringing us up-to-date).

I have to say that I did finish this book - it didn't just sit on my coffee table, abandoned after the first few chapters, as the author rather fears in his preface. However, it has to be said that despite the author's undeniable enthusiasm, complexity theory remains a minority taste. There are plenty of insights and novel observations even for those of us less enthralled but I hope it's clear what kind of background the reader needs to get anything out of this volume.

To be fair, the book is already 362 pages long and to make the material less a write-up of post-graduate lecture notes and more a self-contained and smoothly-developed presentation of Aaronson's many original insights would seem to require an inordinate amount of time and effort, without substantially increasing the likely readership. I enjoyed it, but not without a degree of frustration.

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