Sunday, 31 May 2009

Why don't scientists fear Hell?

A nice little video on youtube treating the subject of science vs organised religion.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Global Perceived Corruption Levels

Since 1995, Transparency International has published an annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ordering the countries of the world according to "the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians". The organization defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain".

The 2003 poll covered 133 countries; the 2007 survey, 180. A higher score means less (perceived) corruption. The results show seven out of every ten countries (and nine out of every ten developing countries) with an index of less than 5 points out of 10.

Data from 2007 are presented below.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir is an animated feature film written and directed by Ari Folman.

While in his late teens and doing his army service, Ari remembers that he took part in the Israeli operations in Lebanon during the '80s; But that is about all that his hazy memory can conjure up.

The film traces his journey as he seeks out old friends and acquaintances that took part in the war while he attempts to reconstruct his fragmented memories. The story is told in patches.

It's opening sequence involving 26 rabid dogs is a fitting preamble to the nightmares that follow.
Scenes, often surreal but always poignant maintain a safe distance from sentimentalism. The animation is impressive and the movement of the characters is very life-like.

All things considered, this is a very well done, powerful anti-war movie; but not for the faint hearted.


If it Be Your Will (Anthony sings Leonard Cohen)

If it be your will is a song by the Canadian lyrical musician Leonard Cohen. Below is a link to a starkingly beautiful cover version by Anthony Hegarty (lead singer of Anthony and the Johnsons) from the soundtrack of Lian Lunson's movie Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Editing multiple files with sed

Sed is a very useful stream editor for Linux.
A stream editor is used to perform basic text transformations
on an input stream, such as replacing a text string with another
text string. While in some ways similar to an editor which permits
scripted edits(such as ed), sed works by making only one
pass over the input(s), and is consequently more efficient. But it
is sed's ability to filter text in a pipeline which particularly
distinguishes it from other types of editors.

For example, if you want to replace the text "a rainy day" with
the text "a bright and starry night" in a text file containing
the sentence "It was a rainy day outside.", you can do it from the prompt
like this:

sed -i "s/a rainy day/a bright and starry night/g" textfile.txt

This command will have changed the text in your file to "It was a bright
and starry night outside.
". The nice
thing is that you can use it to edit
the same string in multiple
files at once. You can also use other
separators than "/". The
above command would have been equally valid
if it was written as:

sed -i "s|a rainy day|a bright and starry night|g" textfile.txt

All in all, sed is quite a powerful way to manipulate strings.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

5 centimeters per second (Byousoku 5 Centimeter)

"5 cm per second. The speed at which cherry blossom petals fall."
It looks like Makoto Shinkai has directed another little minimalist masterpiece. Bearing a distant resemblance to underground coming-of-age classics such as My Life as a Dog, 5 cm interweaves three short stories seen from the viewpoints of different characters. Each story revolves around a specific time period in the protagonist's life: his last days at primary school, graduating from high school, his early life as an adult.

Through the prism of an early sakura-blossom romance, the film primarily explores the themes of distance and loneliness, though it does so in a gentle way that is akin to recollecting your most beautiful sunrise memory rather than resorting to being dark and gloomy.

The music blends in very well with the movie, enhancing the emotional experiences conveyed, while passing almost unnoticed - as should happen in the best soundtracks. The animation is top notch and the quality of the drawings is just mesmerizing. You may often get the urge to pause the movie just to explore the richness of the tapestry.

If you can find it, it's well worth a watch - but be warned! See it in the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, not the cheesy English dub.


Thursday, 14 May 2009

Timing program executions on Linux

Linux has a useful command to do this: time

The time command runs the specified program command with the given arguments. When command finishes, time writes a message to standard output giving timing statistics about this program run. These statistics consist of (i) the elapsed real time between invocation and termination, (ii) the user CPU time (the sum of the tms_utime and tms_cutime values in a struct tms as returned by times(2)), and (iii) the system CPU time (the sum of the tms_stime and tms_cstime values in a struct tms as returned by times(2)).

For example, if your c-shell script is called blah.csh and takes two arguments (say, arg_1 and arg_2), you can find out how long it takes to run by executing it as:
> time source blah.csh arg_1 arg_2

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The industry of science research in Britain

Science research in Britain is now all about turning knowledge into business, rather than the beauty of exploration
George Monbiot - The Guardian

Why is the Medical Research Council run by an arms manufacturer? Why is the Natural Environment Research Council run by the head of a construction company? Why is the chairman of a real estate firm in charge of higher education funding for England?

Because our universities are being turned into corporate research departments. No longer may they pursue knowledge for its own sake: the highest ambition to which they must aspire is finding better ways to make money.

Last month, unremarked by the media, a quiet intellectual revolution took place. The research councils, which provide 90% of the funding for acad­em­ic research, introduced a requirement for those seeking grants: they must describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct. The councils define impact as the "demonstrable contribution" research can make to society and the economy. But how do you demonstrate the impact of blue skies research before it has been conducted?

The idea, the government says, is to transfer knowledge from the universities to industry, boosting the economy and helping to lift us out of recession. There's nothing wrong, in principle, with commercialising scientific discoveries. But imposing this condition on the pursuit of all knowledge does not enrich us; it impoverishes us, reducing the wonders of the universe to figures in an accountant's ledger.

Picture Charles Darwin trying to fill out his application form before embarking on the Beagle. "Explain how the research has the potential to impact on the nation's health, wealth or culture. For example: fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom … What are the realistic time­scales for the benefits to be realised?" If Darwin had been dependent on a grant from a British research council, he would never have set sail.

The government insists that nothing fundamental has changed; that the Haldane principle, which states that the government should not interfere in research decisions, still holds. Only the research councils, ministers say, should decide what gets funded.

All the chairs of the five research councils funding science, and of the three higher education funding councils (which provide core funding for universities), are or were senior corporate executives. These men are overseen by the minister for science and innovation, Lord Drayson. Before he became a minister, Paul Drayson was chief executive of the pharmaceutical company PowderJect. He was involved in a controversy that many feel symbolises the absence of effective barriers between government and commerce.

Drayson doubtless rubs along well with the chairman of the Medical Research Council, Sir John Chisholm. He founded a military software company before becoming head of the government's Defence Research Agency (DRA). He was in charge of turning it into the commercial company QinetiQ, through a privatisation process that was completed while Drayson was minister for defence procurement. During this process, Chisholm paid £129,000 for a stake in the company. The stake's value rose to £26m when QinetiQ was floated. A former managing director of the DRA described this as "greed of the highest order". Lord Gilbert, a former minister of defence procurement, remarked that "frankly the money made by the leading civil servants was obscene … They did not contribute anything to the turnaround of the company, it was the work of the research staff that made the difference." Chisholm remains chairman of QinetiQ. Is there anyone outside government who believes that these people should be overseeing scientific research in this country?

In March Drayson told the Royal Society that "the science budget is safe … there will be no retreat from pure ­science". A month later this promise was broken, when the budget transferred £106m from the research councils "to support key areas of economic potential": which means exchanges of staff and research with industry.

Science policy in the UK is now governed by the Sainsbury review, which the government says it will implement in full. It was written by the Labour donor, former science minister and former supermarket chief executive, Lord Sainsbury. The research councils, the review says, should "be measured against firm knowledge transfer targets" to show that they are turning enough science into business. They have been told to fund £120m of research in collaboration with industry. This has been topped up with £180m from the regional development agencies. The government is also spending £150m "to change the culture in universities: boosting the work they do with a whole range of businesses and increasing commercial activity". All this is another covert bailout, relieving companies of the need to fund their own research.

The economic impact summaries they now write ensure that all researchers will be aware that the business of universities is business. As the white paper points out, universities are already "providing incentives (for example promotion assessment)" to persuade researchers to engage with business. If your research doesn't make someone money, you're not likely to get very far.

Even judged by its own objectives, this policy makes no sense. The long-term health of the knowledge economy depends on blue skies research that answers only to itself: when scientists are free to pursue their passions they are more likely to make those serendipitous discoveries whose impacts on society and the economy are both vast and impossible to predict. Forced to collaborate with industry, they are more likely to pursue applications of existing knowledge than to seek to extend the frontiers of the known world.

Knowledge is not just about impacts. It is about wonder and insight and beauty. Much might never have an application, but it makes the world a richer place, in ways that the likes of Lord Drayson would struggle to perceive.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

High stakes, low finance

Chasing Alpha: How Reckless Growth and Unchecked Ambition Ruined the City's Golden Decade
by Philip Augar
272pp, Bodley Head, £20

Fool's Gold: How an Ingenious Tribe of Bankers Rewrote the Rules of Finance, Made a Fortune and Survived a Catastrophe
by Gillian Tett
352pp, Little, Brown, £18.99

Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed
by Paul Mason
192pp, Verso, £7.99

The Crash of 2008 and What It Means: The New Paradigm for Financial Markets
by George Soros
288pp, Public Affairs, £9.99

Gordon Brown will not think it, but in the politics of credit crunch he is a lucky man. His speech at the Mansion House on Wednesday 20 June 2007, days before he took office as prime minister, is one of the greatest political and economic misjudgments among postwar politicians. Yet very few have read or even recollect it. But then his political opponents, outbidding him at the time in their slavish praise of the City, have even more embarrassing quotes on the record. They are hardly in a position to attack him.

"This is an era that history will record as a new golden age for the City of London," Brown intoned. "I want to thank all of you for what you are achieving." Just weeks later the financial catastrophe burst, creating the "great recession" and leaving the UK taxpayer with a one-sided exposure of £1.3 trillion in loans, investments, cash injections and guarantees to the banking system, of which over £100bn may be lost for ever. Brown went on to hymn the City's "creativity and ingenuity" that had enabled it to become a new world leader. In language so purple it could make a cardinal blush, he praised London's invention of "the most modern instruments of finance" - the very instruments that were to bring it and the western banking system down.

Invoking Adam Smith, Brown declaimed: "The message London's success sends out to the whole British economy is that we will succeed if, like London, we think globally ... and nurture the skills of the future, advance with light-touch regulation, a competitive tax environment and flexibility." He even managed to boast that, after financial and accounting scandals in the US such as those that brought down Enron and WorldCom, which led the American government to introduce new regulatory reforms, "many who advised me, including not a few newspapers, favoured a regulatory crackdown. I believe we were right not to go down that road."

The boastfulness, the wholesale endorsement of the philosophy that was to bring the world to the economic edge and the sheer ignorance are painful to read - tribute to the way the bankers completely pulled the wool over the eyes of the political and regulatory establishment in one of the greatest heists the world has witnessed. The IMF now calculates that there are $4.1 trillion of losses in the world financial system, less than half of which has been formally written off. Without massive government support, the scale of the banking collapse that would have followed such losses would have induced a global depression. Even as it is, world trade will this year decline by 9%. Alistair Darling's budget has already passed into legend as the most depressing since the war. The credit-crunch-ravaged, post-recession British economy will be unable to shoulder the size of the current British state. In the most challenging decade since 1945, a way has to be found of shrinking its size while still finding new ways to grow and alleviate mass unemployment.

It is a disaster, or, as BBC Newsnight's Paul Mason would have it, a financial Krakatoa. It is the economic and financial story of our times, and he, the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett and financial author Philip Augar have all been inspired to write "crash" books. Each is gripping and revelatory, with sometimes breathtaking quotes or new facts, and each adds a different dimension to our understanding of the crisis. Their subtitles tell of greed, recklessness and catastrophe - and all three writers are as good as their promise. What has happened to finance and the financial system since London's Big Bang in 1986 is an astounding story of ideology, greed and lack of restraint - sanctioned by our politicians who, like Brown, marvelled at the apparent results without beginning to understand how they were achieved. Moreover, they built regulatory systems to suit the bankers' interests. You might have hoped that politicians of the left would have been savvier and more suspicious of the bankers' claims. One of the tragedies of New Labour is that the party leadership bought the story so completely - Brown becoming as much of a zealot for free-market financial innovation as the free-market fundamentalist neocon Alan Greenspan, whose knighthood he organised.

The books leave no doubt that it is the bankers and their greed who were the authors of the crisis. True, there were dollars spilling out of Asia and the Gulf in huge volumes in the 2000s, and low interest rates created an appetite for taking risks. But bankers seized the opportunity to lend unprecedented amounts on ever smaller amounts of capital, with the risk apparently abolished by the invention of new financial instruments and tradeable insurance contracts. This is Tett's original contribution. Her blow-by-blow story of how these were developed during the 1980s and 90s, and the motivations of those who did it, is an impressive piece of detective work. She pulls back the curtain on a closed, unaccountable world of finance - a "silo in its own right detached from society". My only cavil is that I wish she could have got as much access to top British bankers as she got to American ones, and in particular those in JP Morgan: her locus is too much New York.

That is made good by Philip Augar, a former investment banker who has made it his mission to reveal the systemic and destructive way that British finance works. He understands both the people and the processes - and Chasing Alpha is his best book yet. He even devotes a chapter to Brown's Mansion House speech. Together, he and Tett make it clear beyond peradventure that it was the structure of the financial system that created the havoc, and that it was firmly embedded in the intertwined London and New York markets from the 1980s onwards. Similar-scale dollar surpluses in the 1970s did not create such financial problems; but that was before the Thatcherite and neoconservative revolutions.

In 1933 Senators Glass and Steagall, prompted by Roosevelt, had sponsored the Glass-Steagall Act, prohibiting investment bankers betting deposits on the buying and selling of tradeable financial securities that can create huge losses. Banking and investment banking should be separate. For 50 years the act kept American banking honest. But after Mrs Thatcher decided in 1986 that banks could own stockbrokers and market-making stock jobbers in her new anything-could-go casino City of London - the "Big Bang" - American banks complained to the US central bank, the Federal Reserve, that they could do things in London not possible in New York. Paul Mason explains how in 1987 the Fed relaxed Glass-Steagall to allow 5% of a bank's deposits to be used for investment banking, further relaxed to 25% in 1996. The act's abolition in 1999, which opened the floodgates for today's financial catastrophe, was inevitable - even if it cost the banks $300m in lobbying fees.

Tett shows how the regulators rolled over in another core area. In the late 1990s they accepted the banks' argument that their alchemy in creating collateralised debt obligations (bundling up income-generating assets of varying quality into one security) and then insuring against the risk of default (credit default swaps) both merited the triple A credit scores the credit agencies were awarding and, crucially, needed less capital to stand behind them. By 2000 the stage was set for what was to follow: investment banks having balance sheets 30 times or more larger than their core capital, refinancing as much as a quarter of their trillions of dollars of liabilities every day from the so-called wholesale money markets, and lending/investing in a range of highly risky financial instruments. The system could not insure against its own systemic failure. It was an edifice built on sand: $1 trillion of sub-prime debt had been bundled into various categories of structured, tradeable debt; when American house prices began to crumble in 2007, the whole interlinked pyramid came crashing down.

Mason's first three chapters are a page-turning account of September and October of last year, when it did look as though the American and British financial systems were about to collapse - the fateful weekend in September when Lehman Brothers went bust and America's top insurance company AIG only survived courtesy of an $80bn loan, and later, in early October, when Britain's RBS and HBOS were hours away from implosion. Mason, I think correctly, emphasises the highly risky way some British commercial, and other, mortgage lenders had become reliant on the money markets to support their lending, so that RBS and HBOS were in an analogous position to the US investment banks Lehman and Bear Stearns, both of whom went bust. At the root of the crisis were the interaction of money market-financed balance sheets, too much consequential borrowing and the new "weapons of mass financial destruction".

Mason is refreshingly clear-eyed about the operation of today's finance-driven capitalism - and angry. It wasn't only that the banks and insurance companies campaigned to have the law changed to serve their interests with such disastrous results. Sometimes, as with AIG, they began to transgress the law. AIG admitted in 2005 that it had faked $500m of transactions to fool the auditors, and "misclassified" another $3bn to inflate its profits. I have no doubt that there are more instances that may never come to light. Britain has insured £585bn of bank loans. It is hard to believe that every penny of bad debt on such a scale was just honest misjudgment. Do we believe that the British were angels and the only frauds American?

George Soros, successful hedge fund entrepreneur and famous beneficiary of the pound's expulsion from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, has been trying for decades to explain that the axioms of free-market economics do not apply to the financial markets. Brown and Greenspan were always wrong to believe that free financial markets would tend to optimal outcomes. Rather, markets feed on themselves, so that financial values have a permanent tendency to swing between boom and bust - they are never rational. The crash of 2008, Soros explains, was an accident waiting to happen. Recovery will require regulation that compels banks to carry more capital and lend more judiciously. But until the international financial system is fairer to the less-developed countries on "the periphery", the core of the world economy will always be at risk of being flooded by hot money fleeing from that risky periphery.

This quartet of books indict modern finance. They cannot be read without wishing for something different. Yet even now I am not sure that the politicians and officials get it. The support for British banks is disgracefully one-sided. The taxpayer will lose at least £50bn, if not £100bn, but there has been no concomitant willingness on the part of the bankers to restructure their business model - or accept that their pensions, bonuses and pay should be seriously qualified. They want to get back to the glory days, and if once in every 30 or 40 years the rest of us suffer recessions and a £100bn bill while they make personal fortunes - so be it. It is not a fair bargain. These books set out why, and how it could be changed.

• Will Hutton is executive vice-chair of the Work Foundation

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Bill Maher on Swine Flu, Evolution and Texas

The guy behind Religulous. Funny as hell even though he usually goes for the easy targets.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Ken Wilber on Ray Kurzweil's Singularity

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". - Arthur C. Clarke.

As the gap between today and tomorrow is closing at a staggering rate, the future continues to become more and more surreal. A good example comes from the work of inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil, who often talks about a point sometime in the next few decades when our rate of technological progress begins to approach the infinite—an event he calls "the Singularity." This essentially represents the event horizon of our own technological evolution, beyond which we simply cannot imagine. Is there actually something to the concept of the Singularity, or is it just a sort of mythical Rapture for tech geeks? What are the implications of such exponential advancement of technology to human consciousness?

Philosopher Ken Wilber shares his thoughts on the subject