Monday, November 30, 2015

Arsenal's 14-minute flight

Photo: Damian Martinez: Twitter

So Arsenal took a 14-minute flight from London to come and play Norwich City yesterday. 14 minutes! The poor little darlings  couldn't face the thought of a 2-hour train ride.  Come on! I mean, they're footballers, not bloody Royalty. It's a pity that Norwich's notorious instantaneous fog didn't appear and get the plane diverted to Manchester.

Plane Stupid spokesperson Ella Gilbert said that she was a lifelong Arsenal supporter but preferred the team to wait until after the kick-off before humiliating their supporters. Well, Arsenal managed to do both. A few minutes into the game their defender, Koscielny came off with a bad back - presumably from being cooped up on that long flight.  Then Norwich pummeled the poor jet-lagged Gunners. It ended 1-1, but only because Arsenal got lucky.

I plan to go the other way, from Norwich to London, on Dec 26th to watch City play Spurs. Hmm....I wonder if that Embraer is for hire?

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.