Saturday, November 28, 2015

How to Achieve World Peace (and Destroy ISIS, Save Refugees and Staunch Terrorism etc)

Here's my 2 cents, for what it's worth.

ISIS: The terrorist acts in Paris have galvanized desires for another multi-trillion-dollar war in the Middle East, but that is barking up the wrong tree. The main source of Islamic terrorism is young, disaffected kids in the West and their radical clerics, not ISIS. Moreover, a large NATO invasion over there is unlikely to achieve much. If successful, a ground war would eliminate all ISIS territory, but it would not reduce terrorism  in the West unless it were followed by stability in Iraq or Syria, for which there is currently no mechanism. So I think that, for the time being, the present strategy of military containment and diplomacy is the right one. In the end stability will have to come from within Syria and Iraq and from neighboring forces, with our strong encouragement. As for Assad, we may wish for his departure, but a stable society in Syria must be the initial and primary goal.

Terrorism:  The origin of of  Islamic (and other) terrorism is primarily at 'home', in the radicalized inhabitants of Molenbeek, Saint Denis and other areas of immigrant poverty in the West. It is there that our 'war' needs to be prosecuted. But to succeed it must be be a war of ideas and of policing, with more in common with the failed 'war on drugs' than with any military invasion.

We need to control the radicalization of young Muslims in the West. Easier said than done? Sure, but with more teeth than invading Syria or Iraq could have. Our schools need to effectively educate teenage kids that radical Islam is false and wrong.  But we need tougher stuff as well - I would advocate for an outright ban on Radical Islam in the West, even the non-violent kind. No preaching and no advocating it in any circles, even at home.  A ban on Wahabism and Salafism. A ban on associating political preaching within Islam. Is that hypocritical? Why not ban fundamentalists from other religions too? Well, simply because they are far less likely to become terrorists (although it has happened occasionally, including, recently,  here in Knoxville). Moreover, and here's another controversial step: I would suggest a kind of affirmative action in Muslim communities, offering significant financial and other incentives to people willing to provide names of radicalized individuals and 'cells' in their communities. Its not enough to say 'Muslims should be doing more to root out jihadists from within': they need to be incentivized. Radicals need to be identified with all means possible and, before they have had a chance to think of violence, reeducated. Laws should be passed permitting electronic tagging of identified radicals, and there must be  increased border security, preventing direct or indirect travel of anyone to or from Syria or Iraq until peace is reestablished there. Moreover, greatly increased electronic surveillance and interception will be needed. The downside of what I am thinking of is that it would presumably be hugely unconstitutional here in the USA, trampling all over liberty, free speech and privacy rights. It would involve moving towards a Stasi-esque, police-dominated culture in Western communities in which radicals are found, in which thought is controlled and community  members are encouraged to spy on and shop their own family members and friends. How sad! But it would be effective, I think, for now, and maybe not so draconian in the end. After all, Germany has had laws preventing home-grown Nazism for decades. Later on, when the threat recedes, the grip should be released.

The Refugees:  For a number of reasons I would not advocate the rapid settlement of large numbers refugees in the USA. However, fear of terrorism is not one of these reasons. The primary reason  is that any immigration should be driven by the economic needs of the USA, and another is that I'm generally not in favour of population expansion anywhere as goes against  my vision of what the Earth should look like. But we cannot abandon the refugees. We are not blameless here. We invaded Iraq, alienated Iraqi Sunnis, destabilized Syria etc. and this led in no small part to the present strife and the refugee plight. We need to help them, with immediate large, amounts of aid to them in the countries to which they have already fled, followed by controlled, slow immigration of some of them to the rest of the West. They are indeed our problem and we must not ignore them.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Peer Review - Do Away with It!

The peer review system in science, whereby prior to publication manuscripts are reviewed by anonymous peers, has come under recent criticism in a debate at the Royal Society, at which a case for its abolition was argued.

The concept that a piece of research should not be reviewed by other experts in the field is, of course, ridiculous. But I think doing away with peer review in its present form is feasible. I wrote about this in 2012, and reproduce what my ideas would be here, with some tweaks.

There are two major current problems: the cost of publishing and access, and the inequities of the peer review process. Both could be cured at once.

We need ONLY ONE, publicly-run, open-access scientific publishing domain to which ALL ARTICLES are uploaded for free, in whatever format wished for by the authors and without prior peer review. This domain would subsume all existing primary research publishing. After an initial, publically-funded development phase, the small costs of maintaining this domain could be obtained through discreet advertising revenues. The model thus obviates both the need for  charging huge amounts for access to  journals and the need to charge authors for each publication submitted.

Once an article is uploaded it will easily be able to be found by a keyword search, such as exists in PubMed or Web of Science. Reviewing would not be solicited but would be open and online, in the fashion of "comments" to a blog entry.  Any given article might thus receive many or no reviews. PubPeer goes a step in this direction. However, in my opinion no reviews would be anonymous: only registered reviewers who have revealed their identities would be allowed to post comments. 

Before entering comments, the qualifications of the commenter would be verified e.g. PhD in the field of the article. All may comment, even the unqualified, but their qualifications would be public. I would suggest separate comment threads for specialists and non-specialists. Many of the reviews, even from the specialists,  are likely to be incompetent, but the reviews would also be open to review, and ranking, as would the reviews of the reviews etc.. The paper itself would be continuously modifiable by the authors (as in Wikipedia), to add results or respond to criticisms etc.

In the above system there would be no need for a decision to be made a priori as to whether an article is "of sufficient general interest" before publication - this would all be decided by the readers afterwards: a points system could be devised whereby an article gains prominence depending on how many times it is accessed from different computers, cited later on, and on the reviews received. As an article rises in points, so would its visibility in the web domain. Extremely hot articles would be expected to very rapidly gain prominence.

Any objections?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Matt Ridley Gets It Wrong

Matt Ridley's a bright guy, who, apart from leading the bank Northern Rock into disaster and nationalization, has produced some entertaining stuff, none more so than "Genome", one of the best layman books on science I have read.

But now he is screwing up,  expressing opinions that, if they catch on,  could greatly set back the rate of technological progress. Here's what Ridley writes: 

"Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think. When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change.....The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.  " 

Well, with the X-ray statement Ridley has it stunningly wrong. X-ray crystallography has been behind many billions of dollars of  marketed technology, including drug discovery, biotechnology and materials design, but it absolutely was not developed in the wool industry. Leeds was the centre of the textile industry in Britain, and the university did a lot of textile research. I was an undergrad in the Astbury Centre for Biophysics in Leeds University.  The textile connection was important, and W.T. Astbury looked in the 1920s and 1930s at X-ray diffraction from wool and other fibres. And he was a real pioneer, indeed. But Astbury was a university professor, not an industry researcher. And crystallography was not 'developed in the wool industry' but rather earlier in Germany  by Roentgen and von Laue and then in Britain by the Braggs, Perutz, Crick and others. All were working in universities, doing basic research, and not in industry. Theirs was the work that formed the physical basis of modern X-ray crystallography and the 1953 DNA discovery. 

Now, as Ridley stresses, often trial and error does indeed play a large role in discovery. Indeed, we use it ourselves, sometimes, when searching for new drugs. But today's high-tech discovery is  no longer based on  "practical men tinkering around until they have better machines".  Any 'tinkering' these days is based on a solid scientific foundation, developed mostly by government-funded research.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

JCS versus the People's Car

Well, I have a VW diesel (a Jetta), that was fixed with a defeat device.  Shucks. Class action lawsuits are a result of this, and I have found myself as a 'named plaintiff' representing Tennessee owners in one issued by Hagens Berman, a Seattle law firm. That doesn't mean I would receive any more compensation than any of the other owners, nor that I would actually have to do much (apart from a possible half-day deposition). Moreover, the many anti-VW lawsuits may well be consolidated in the end. But what do I think VW should do for the owners? Hmm. Take our cars back and give us back the money we paid for them, maybe?  Pronto.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

TITAN - Taking Over the World.

Apparently Elon Musk is scared that our ORNL TITAN supercomputer might take over the worldThat might be fun, but as a variant - that us evil scientists use the supercomputer to seize control.

Now, TITAN is already a 20 petaflop machine, whereas the human brain is only 10 petaflops, so we already have the raw power needed to create superintelligence. A tad more programming could lead our little toy to controlled synthetic ultraconsciousness, with a brain the size of a planet, capable of talking the hind legs off an Arcturan megadonkey*. 

But just yapping and a monster brain are not enough - you need arms, legs, weapons etc. So we'd need to hook TITAN up to mindless robots that can see to our physical needs: huge, indestructible machines with infinite strength, precision and balance that never tire and prepare perfect sushi. 

Evilly-laughing, mwaha ha ha ha, we villainous plotters would then finally flip the switch that orders the supercomputer to make the robots kill all the little people and use the fruits of our dystopian Earth to serve us, only us, their masters, in any way we desire. my case that would require forming two robot soccer teams, one, that I would play in, being slightly better than the other.

*Acknowledgement: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Friday, September 18, 2015

Poet's Corner

A Scientist’s Lament

Cold cuts of truth. These are
Not scimitars bisecting wholes.
Sharp diamonds flashing by, unseen,
Tangential lances,
Silent glances,
Surpassing snug, benighted souls.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Live at Leeds

The Who, Live at Leeds
In the 1970s, during the day  the Leeds University Union Refectory, my undergrad cafeteria,  used to serve up the most awful garbage: exemplified by the insipid yellow matter custard of the Great British 20th Century Culinary Tradition. But at nights the Refec served us the best of pulsating 70s rock. You see, it was the  biggest concert hall on the thriving British college circuit,  holding over 2000, so we got all the big bands: The Stones, Led Zeppelin, the lot.  But no gig there was more famous there than The Who's Live at Leeds, recorded in 1970 and generally recognized as the best live album of all time. But, alas, that was  before my period of frequenting the Refec.

But we did get some real classics. Andy Kershaw, a fellow student, was the unpaid Entertainments Secretary of the Student Union: he spent all his time booking the bands and thus failed his degree. (Despite this  failure he was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate there, as he subsequently became a famous broadcaster.) He squeezed in some beauties.

In Freshers week in 1978 we had The Ramones and I twisted my ankle pogo-ing to Cretin Hop early on. Ouch! Then came The Stranglers, The Jam, UB40, Joy Division, George Thorogood, The Specials, Ian Dury etc. Surprising we got any work done, really. Kershaw himself  reckons the greatest gig there was The Clash in 1980. I was there too, but bored silly. Musical beauty - in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.