Friday, October 31, 2008

Frankie Boyle, Emily Maitlis, and an unusual Halloween haunting

As Frankie Boyle pointed out this week, the controversy over the comments Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left on Andrew Sach's answerphone, just go to show how much people love Fawlty Towers: "The guy who wrote Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, I could go and kick his windows in; nobody would care," said Frankie with characteristic perspicacity.

Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, however, has now sought to broaden the discussion to issues of general comic decency, and has done so in a manner which can only be considered an attempt to gain Youtube immortality. On last night's programme, Emily asked BBC director-general Mark Thompson to consider an already notorious Frankie Boyle line from Mock the Week. And just in case the director-general wasn't sufficiently embarrassed, she then repeated it:

Only two things are certain: sales of Russell Brand DVDs, and sales of Frankie Boyle DVDs, will be massive this Christmas.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The transistor model of investment banking

It struck me today that a modern investment bank can be modelled as a transistor. Specifically, an investment bank in a state of liquidity corresponds to a transistor which is switched on, and an investment bank in a state of bankruptcy corresponds to a transistor which is switched off.

A pnp transistor consists of two p-type semiconductors sandwiching a narrow n-type semiconductor. One p-type region is the 'emitter', the other is the 'collector', and the filling in the sandwich is the 'base'. A terminal is attached to each. A voltage Vcc is applied across a circuit which contains the emitter-base-collector as a component, and this voltage places the emitter at a higher potential than the collector. A smaller second voltage is placed across the emitter-base only. The voltage across the emitter-base is the input voltage Vin, and the combined result of Vcc and Vin is a voltage across the emitter-base-collector, which is the output voltage Vout. There will no current across the emitter-base-collector until the input voltage is increased to a critical value, at which point the current is switched on, with a corresponding voltage Vout across the emitter-base-collector much larger than Vin. Hence, by this means, a transistor acts as both an amplifier and a switch.

A modern investment bank made long-term investments using some of its own capital, but mainly by using loans taken from other financial institutions, whom we can refer to as the primary lenders. These loans were typically paid off with a combination of returns from the long-term investments, and loans from other financial institutions, whom we can refer to as secondary lenders.

Now, I propose that the investment bank corresponds to the base in a transistor, the investment assets correspond to the emitter, and the primary lenders correspond to the collector. The flow of money back to the bank from the long-term investments, and on to the primary lenders, corresponds to the flow of current between the emitter and the collector in a transistor. The flow of money back from the long-term investments, and on to the secondary lenders, corresponds to the flow of current produced by the input voltage across the emitter-base in a transistor. As long as the voltage across the emitter-base is above the critical threshold value, a current will flow from the emitter, through the base, and on to the collector. Similarly, as long as the secondary lenders have sufficient confidence in the flow of money from the investment assets back to the bank, and on to themselves, they will lend money to the investment bank which enables the bank to pay off its primary loans. The voltage across the emitter-base corresponds to the level of confidence the secondary lenders have in getting a return on their loan. However, if their confidence drops below a critical threshold, they will cease lending the bank money, and there will be an insufficient flow of money from the long-term investments alone to pay off the primary lenders. At this point the investment bank becomes bankrupt. In effect, the transistor switches off.

One of the remedies proposed in the wake of this year's global financial collapse, is to improve the mathematical models of systemic risk within the financial industry. If this transistor analogy has sufficient validity, then perhaps one could model an entire financial system as an integrated electronic circuit board, and one could model systemic risk in this manner.

Just a thought...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Aviation's nuclear future

Some time ago, I predicted that Formula 1 cars will eventually be propelled by nuclear reactors:

Each car will be powered by a small fission reactor, rather like those in nuclear submarines, but lighter and smaller. Whilst some might argue that a nuclear pile in the rear of a 200mph projectile is a recipe for disaster, nothing could be further from the truth. The neutrons emitted by the fission reaction can be absorbed by a material such as boron, and the gamma rays can be absorbed by a shield made from a high atomic number metal, such as tantalum. The only remaining hazard then arises from the fission products in the reactor, and the danger of releasing these products into the environment in the event of a crash. To mitigate against this, nuclear fuel-cycle pit-stops will become necessary: mechanics donned in full protective clothing will remove the fuel cells from the car, insert a new batch, and send the car on its way. The pits and paddock will, of course, need to be decontaminated and decommissioned after every Grand Prix, but this is a small price to pay to infinitesimally reduce global CO2 emissions.

This idea wasn't carried as a news story in The Times, but it seems that the only thing my idea lacked was the authority of a Professorship at Cranfield University. Ian Poll, a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the latter institution, suggests passenger airliners powered by nuclear reactors:

Professor Poll said the big challenge would be to demonstrate that passengers and crew could be safely shielded from the reactors.

"It's done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings," he said.

"The risk of reactors cracking open in a crash could be reduced by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes."

He said that, in the worst-case scenario, if the armour plating around the reactor was pierced there would be a risk of radioactive contamination over a few square miles.

"If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel without hindrance from environmental concerns, we need to explore nuclear power. If aviation remains wedded to fossil fuels, it will run into serious trouble," he said.

Jettisoned nuclear reactors parachuting down to safety! Genius.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What is the Universe?

There still appears to be no clear answer to this question, and, to be honest, it's becoming a little embarrassing. The possibilities touted so far include:

• A concentric set of crystal spheres
• A clockwork mechanism
• A reversible/irreversible heat engine
• A billiard ball system
• A bubble
• A work of art
• A living organism
• The mind of a person
• A smooth geometry containing a fluid (general relativistic cosmology)
• A sponge
• A computer
• A computer program
• A wave function (quantum cosmology)
• A fluctuating foam (quantum gravity)
• An ecosystem
• A fractal
• A mathematical structure
• A musical symphony of vibrating strings in 11 dimensions (superstring theory)

Take your pick. You're unlikely to be proven wrong.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Burgess, Moore and The Standard Model: A Primer

Whenever I inform a fellow scientist that my PhD was in the Philosophy of Physics, the reaction often takes the following form:

What's that? I didn't know you could have a philosophy of physics!

To explain the distinction between physics and philosophy of physics, my pat response has typically been along the following lines:

Well, most physicists want to use physics as a calculational instrument to explain, predict and control the physical world, whereas the philosophy of physics aspires to understand what the physical world actually is.

On reflection, however, this is slightly misleading, because the default instrumentalistic philosophy used by physicists, is itself a tenable interpretational position in the philosophy of physics, and many physicists also aspire to understand what the physical world actually is. Nevertheless, as a crass simplification of a blurred distinction, it works quite well. In fact, I purchased a book this week which highlights the dichotomy. The Standard Model: A Primer, by Cliff Burgess and Guy Moore, is a fine book, but it has to be said that it is very much the anti-book to The Structure and Interpretation of the Standard Model. If the two books were ever allowed to come into contact, they would mutually annihilate, releasing a humungous amount of energy.

The synopsis of the latter asserts that "Rather than presenting the calculational recipes favored in most treatments of the standard model, this text focuses upon the elegant mathematical structures and the foundational concepts of the standard model." In contrast, the synopsis for Burgess and Moore's book states that "The book concentrates on getting students to the level of being able to use this theory by doing real calculations."

Moreover, Burgess and Moore fail to acknowledge any distinction between the first-quantized and the second-quantized Standard Model. This is partially because of their desire to merely equip the reader with a calculational competency, but is also a reflection of a general neglect of this distinction within the physics literature. This is a huge loss to the field, because the second-quantized theory is incapable of representing interacting fields with anything else other than a so-called perturbational approach, which treats interactions as brief collisions between particles which approach the state of free particles to the past/future of the interaction. In contrast, the first-quantized Standard Model provides a tractable representation of interacting fields (albeit not an empirically adequate one), and the structure thereof. Derdzinski's 1992 text, The Geometry of the Standard Model of Elementary Particles, emphasised this point, and The Structure and Interpretation of the Standard Model is, in part, an attempt to publicise Derdzinski's approach.

Alas, I suspect that the message will continue to fall not so much upon deaf ears, as outside the audible range of the physics community.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Rachel Sylvester, God and politics

Rachel Sylvester complains in The Times about the "creeping secularisation of politics", and concludes that "politicians in this country have abandoned belief - at the very moment that the people need hope." She echoes Ruth Kelly's comment that "Religion is seen as something a bit strange, in the margins. Politics is much the poorer for that because you want people who believe in things to go into politics."

We certainly do want people who believe in things, but the problem is that we really don't want people who believe in things which don't exist. Rachel and Ruth both use the familiar religious ploy of attempting to conflate religious beliefs with moral and ethical beliefs, so one moment they appear to be speaking about religious 'faith', and its absence in modern politics, the next they're speaking about moral beliefs as if the two are equivalent.

The secularisation of politics, like the secularisation of society in general, is extremely healthy because it amounts to a process in which moral and political beliefs are formed by thinking rationally about justice and opportunity and human suffering, rather than the derivation of dogmatic beliefs from religious scripture or the 'divinely-inspired' pronouncements of the priesthood.

Rachel agrees with a claim from the Archbishop of Canterbury that politicians are becoming ever more interested in subjects that have traditionally been the domain of religion, such as euthanasia, abortion, embryonic research and science education, but the truth is that these subjects have always been of general rather than exclusively religious concern. The point is that those people who hold dogmatic, bigoted opinions on these issues, often hold them because they derive their opinions from their religious beliefs.

Rachel complains that "politicians, of all parties, have never been more fearful of faith," but it is quite justifiable to be fearful of something which is so capable of engendering dogmatic and destructive moral beliefs. Rachel herself provides the perfect example of why we should be fearful of religion, when she points out that:

There has been a believer in Downing Street for the past 11 years. Tony Blair, the first prime minister since Gladstone who slept with a Bible beside his bed, once said that his Christianity and his politics "came together at the same time."

It's no coincidence that George Bush and Tony Blair both hold deep religious convictions; the delusional nature of these individuals was notoriously evident in their destructive decision to go to war in Iraq. One can only speculate on the combination of motives involved, but Blair's belief in the existence of an imaginary friend, with whom he presumably chatted prior to the invasion, was particularly manifest when he declared on Parkinson that God would judge his actions as Prime Minister.

When the religious claim that other humans don't have the right to judge them, then they reveal most clearly why we should be fearful indeed of them.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Near rationality and the financial collapse

The global financial collapse of 2008 was not only predictable, but actually predicted by numerous individuals.

In 2003 Warren Buffet warned that the trade in derivatives posed a "mega-catastrophic risk," capable of causing a "spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown." And, as far ago as 1998, a popular article on the mathematics of finance noted "the perils of twentysomething computer whizzes concocting 'financial hydrogen bombs'. Some businesses and local governments have excluded derivatives from their portfolios altogether; fears have even emerged about a meltdown of the financial system." The statistical assumptions underlying the 'value-at-risk' technique for calculating the expected maximum loss on an investment, came under scrutiny in the same article:

Like other modeling techniques, value at risk has bred skepticism about how well it predicts ups and downs in the real world. The most widely used measurement techniques rely heavily on historical market data that fail to capture the magnitude of rare but extreme events.

So, if the financial collapse was eminently predictable, and even predicted by certain luminaries, why did the collapse nevertheless occur? Classical economics notoriously assumes that the actions of economic agents are 'rational', in the sense that such agents are taken to maximise their self-interest, hence one might expect self-interested agents to heed the warnings of collapse, and to change their financial practices accordingly.

The reason this didn't occur is the near rationality of human behaviour, and, in particular, the application of near rationality to the interpretation of financial statistics.

The classical economical assumption that agents act to maximise self-interest, neglects to take into account that an agent's self-interested decisions are only taken relative to the information available to the agent. Hence, there is something of a distinction between enlightened self-interest, and non-enlightened self-interest. Moreover, actions can serve an individual's short-term self-interest, or serve their long-term self-interest. Various research indicates that most economic agents, most of the time, act not with perfect rationality, or with maximally-informed long-term self-interest in mind, but with something called near rationality, in which the agents use only easily accessible information to make decisions which are only in their short-term self-interest. The evolution of the economy is determined by the collective effect of numerous individuals making decisions borne of incomplete information and short-term self-interest. Hence, the collective effect of these numerous self-interested decisions is capable of taking an economy into a recession, despite the fact that a recession is not in the self-interest of any of the agents.

A crucially important special case of this near rationality is the interpretation of the statistics and mathematics of derivatives and financial risk. As Mary Poovey pointed out in 2003:

people tend to believe that numbers embody objectivity even when they do not see (or understand) the calculations by which particular numbers are generated.

Financial managers making investment decisions will typically treat numbers such as the value-at-risk as objective facts. Such numbers constitute the easily accessible information on which nearly-rational financial managers base their decisions, whilst the calculations which generated those numbers, or the assumptions underlying the statistical models, constitute far less accessible information.

The unstable state into which the world financial system fell, where large amounts of debt and risk were hidden by various financial instruments, was a consequence of the application of near rationality to the mathematics and statistics of finance.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yom Kippur and the credit crunch

The Yom Kippur war of 1973 caused the credit crunch and collapse of the world financial system in 2008.

Let me explain. The Yom Kippur War was initiated on 6th October 1973, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when Syria and Egypt jointly attacked Israel. It was only the support of the United States, which sent $2 billion of arms, that enabled Israel to repell its assailants. However, the support that the United States provided to Israel triggered OPEC, the Arab oil-production cartel, into raising oil prices and cutting oil production, and this caused the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-1974.

Prior to the crisis, the average rate of economic growth in the West had been around 5 percent; after the crisis, growth reduced to zero, and inflation rose to around 10 percent. The late 1970s, then, was an era of stagflation, and its consequence was to destroy the Keynesian economic consensus, with its belief in the importance of government taxation and expenditure. In its place, as Thatcher and Reagan came to power in 1979 and 1980, were the economics of Milton Friedman, with its emphasis on low taxation and the unregulated free market. This belief in the unregulated free market permitted the growth of financial derivatives capable of hiding debt, and this ultimately led to the collapse of the world financial system in 2008.

And the role of sub-prime mortgages in the USA? Well, the problem with the growth of financial derivatives is that they created an unstable system, and as Professor Peter Cox pointed out in High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos, when an unstable system collapses, the particular eddy which causes it to collapse is not really relevant, it is the instability itself which is the culprit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The smith's son

When the warmth of the year had waned, and the ground was carpeted with the innumerable corpses of Summer foliage, the smith's son packed his belongings, and climbed into the mountains high above his home.

As the gradients steepened, and the cold deepened, he clasped his sister's broach to his chest, and marched onward with resolve unyielding.

Snow and hail battered his cloaked figure as the days turned to weeks, and seldom did a rocky recess provide respite from the bitterness, but eventually he reached a high desolate ridge, capped with ice, its flanks denuded of vegetation. Scrambling across the scree, he crossed the shoulder of the ridge, and there found a dark stone house, built into the side of the mountain. Its windows were opaque, and black as midnight pools. At the front of the house he beheld an oak door, and beside it a raven perched on a stone pedestal.

The smith's son paused.

Then, striding forward, he loosened his cloak, and as it fell to the ground he unsheathed his sword, clove the raven in twain, and scythed the door into a thousand splinters.

"My sister," he declaimed through gritted teeth, "I have come to avenge you." And then his figure was swallowed by the darkness inside.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Nationalisation of F1?

The commercial rights to F1 are owned by a private finance company called CVC. When CVC purchased these rights they did not, of course, do so with their own money, but with money lent to them by other people. To be precise, they borrowed £1.4 billion from Lehman Brothers and RBS.

In 2007, CVC's F1 holding company, Delta 3, made a loss of £235 million, which included £130 million in interest payments on the loan. Only £47.4 million of the loan itself was paid off.

The fate of Lehman Brothers is well-charted, and it seems that RBS will be nationalised today. If CVC defaults on its debt re-payments, then F1 will fall into the ownership of the lending banks once more. Only this time, at least some of those lending banks will be owned by the taxpayers of the United Kingdom.

Which, you'd have to say, is a somewhat unexpected eventuality...

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Copernicus Center

I first met Michael Heller at Balice airport, Krakow, in 2006, where he was holding up a sign to greet me with the Hartle-Hawking creation ex nihilo wave-function of the universe:

Ψ0fff) = K(∅ ; Σfff)

This May he was awarded the Templeton Prize at Buckingham Palace, and pledged to invest the $1.6 million in establishing the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Study in Krakow. The Center opened last week, and its mandate is absolutely salivating:

Research at the Copernicus Center will focus on mutual relations among theology, science, and philosophy, including astronomy and cosmology, biology, mathematics, physics, and the history of science. The Center will organize course lectures, public lectures, and seminars, and publish two monograph series and a yearbook, For Philosophy and Science, in English and Polish.

To date, research teams established within the Center include:

• Copernican Group;
• Science and Religion;
• Philosophy of Cosmology;
• Mathematical Foundations of Cosmology;
• Generalized Geometries and their Applications in Physics;
• Philosophy and History of Physics;
• History of Mathematics: People, Ideas, Philosophical Aspects;
• Neurobiology;
• Methodology and Philosophy of Science;
• Analytical Metaphysics;
• Polish Philosophy of Nature in the First Half of the 20th Century; and
• Naturalized Normative Sciences.

The Vat

A flash of lightning illuminated the dark grey firmament from the direction of the Vatican. A pause. Then thunder rippled from right to left. Across the bridge before us, the sound ricocheted from the historic centre of Rome. Amplified and focused by the complex network of narrow alleyways, the shock wave was spat out across the Tiber with a frighteningly explosive BANG!

God was angry. But he was too late, because I'd been to the Vatican, seen the Sistine Chapel, seen the Pope, and escaped before he even realised I was there.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Kobayashi, Maskawa and Quarks

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics has been jointly awarded to Yoichiro Nambu, (for his work on spontaneous symmetry breaking) and to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, for their 1973 prediction that there are 3 generations of quarks. This prediction was intimately related to the violation of CP symmetry in quark processes involving the weak nuclear force.

A CP transformation is the combined operation which swaps positive charges and negative charges (Charge conjugation), and swaps right-handed particle states and left-handed particle states (Parity reversal). Given a left-handed, negatively charged particle, the corresponding antiparticle is a right-handed, positively charged particle. CP-violation occurs when particle processes are not invariant under a CP transformation.

At the time of Kobayashi and Maskawa's work, it was believed that there were 2 generations of quarks. The first generation of quarks contains the up and down quarks, the second contains the charm and strange quarks. However, Cronin and Fitch had already discovered in 1964 that quark processes involving the weak nuclear force violate CP-symmetry, and it transpired that if there were only 2 generations of quarks, then CP-symmetry would be preserved. Ergo, there must be more than 2 generations of quarks. The quarks in the third generation, the top and bottom quarks, have now been experimentally detected.

Note carefully, however, that the presence of 3 quark generations is merely a necessary condition for CP-violation. Weak force interactions permit something called quark mixing, which enables quarks of one generation to transmute into a quark from another generation, (accompanied by the emission of a W gauge boson, the so-called 'interaction carrier' of the weak force). The amplitudes of the various quark mixing is specified by something called the Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Maskawa (CKM)-matrix, an array of nine numbers. If all the numbers in this matrix can be real numbers, then CP-symmetry is preserved, but if some of the numbers must be complex numbers, then CP-violation occurs. With 2 quark generations, the numbers can always be real, but with 3 quark generations, there is no such guarantee. The experimental detection of CP-violation entails that complex values unavoidably enter the CKM-matrix in our universe, but the mere presence of 3 generations does not itself entail this.

I note at this point that my own book, The Structure and Interpretation of the Standard Model, can now be found on Google Books, and those wishing to develop a deeper understanding of the Standard Model could do far worse...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


An excited hubbub fills the Piazza di Trevi. The air is cool, and suffuse with the smell of water. Beneath a dusky skyline, digital camera flashes reflect from the facade of the surrounding buildings. Some people hang in shop doorways, licking a gelato, others throng the steps down to the side of the basin, tossing coins and making wishes. Some wishes are trivial, others are borne of love and longing. More tourists flow into the square from the narrow alleyways, and asian salesmen mingle with the crowd, selling roses and ornaments. If the weather turns, minutes later they will be selling umbrellas. And there, like a mythic magma flow, the Trevi Fountain grows geologically outwards from the masonry of the Palazzo Poli.

This, then, is Rome. And it is fortunate indeed that modern Rome has inherited a history, archeology and architecture sans pareil, for Romans themselves are rude and arrogant, and their city is a manic, ill-tempered pit. Those who may feel disenchanted with their own locale would be well-advised to make the journey to Fiumicino aeroport et al, if only to be reminded of just how pleasant and tolerant their homeland really is.

I was ostensibly in Rome attending the 6th Eurachem Workshop on Proficiency Testing, and whilst I met a number of pleasant people from around the world, many of the delegates seemed unaware of the concept of manners, and I lost count of the number of times I was barged into, or my greeting was ignored. Eventually you begin barging back.

But the archeological remains are indeed remarkable. All the landmarks are intimately secreted within the very structure of the city, and the urban geometry is one of short-range interactions between the alleyways, piazzas, shuttered apartments, and historic remnants. The Colosseum cannot fail to impress, although as I gazed upon the scene of Russell Crowe's career highpoint, I was entertained to hear an amateur saxophonist playing I did it my way on the boulevard outside. A trip to the Vatican was also obligatory, and the panoply of illustrated rooms and corridors preceding the Sistine Chapel is most impressive. In the Chapel itself, however, I was surprised to see just how small a part the famous image of God reaching out to man plays in the overall frescoe.

On exiting the Chapel last Saturday morning, and walking round to the front of the Vatican, we were met by a motorcade of some sort, driving towards the Palace. A small crowd had gathered, and we laughingly suggested how remarkable it would be if it was the Pope. And, blow me down, it was the Pope! Old Ratzinger 'imself glided past in his Pope-mobile, a brolly held aloft to protect the Pontifical head from the highly materialistic drops of rain falling upon it.

But Rome, I was glad to leave.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Mock the background radiation

Is it just my imagination, or does the background for Mock the Week not mimic the iconic map of the temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation, detected by the COBE satellite in the early 1990s?

It's also disturbingly noticeable that the studio sets for Would I lie to you resemble the anisotropy in the background radiation detected by the WMAP satellite in 2003.

Thus, rather than lauching the Planck satellite in 2009 to further refine our understanding of the background radiation, perhaps we should simply analyse the Never mind the Buzzcocks studio sets...