Wasting Away: The Truth About Anorexia, Channel 4, 10pm

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http://www.channel4.com/programmes/wasting-away-the-truth-about-anorexia

My mind went blank and I started to type Alzheimer’s into the search box of Channel 4’s programmes. In a way that’s instructive. You can just start again, wipe out what went before and retype. We are learning about Alzheimer’s. I can throw in phrases like amyloid plaque. Perhaps do a simple drawing of what it means in a cave of dendrites. But I don’t really know what it means, not yet, although my mum had it. In a way the truth about anorexia is a lie, because it assumes there is a simple truth based on subjective experience. The smoking gun is, as with Alzheimer’s the resources we allocate to the NHS and, in particular, the cinderella Mental Health services, which traditionally has been the poor man of the care sector, both in terms of the money spent on it and empirical outcomes.  Mark Austin uses the analogy (which I’ve frequently used myself) if you break a leg you phone an ambulance and get admitted to hospital. The analogy breaks down when the surgeon comes round and says something along the lines of things they (might) say in mental health services: ‘we think we’ve fixed your broken leg. You might need to hop a bit, and it might be sore, with one leg shorter than the other, but that’s the best we can do. Don’t call us back and expect miracles of mobility’. In other words, empirical outcomes in the mental health service are, at best, dodgy, but it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

We need somebody to tell us this is a very bad thing. Who better than his Royal Highness Prince William with his stiff upper lip, wobbling slightly. No common man need mention American socialite Wallis Simpson, of you can never be too thin, or rich, fame. And the truth about anorexia is there is no common man here, no one truth, but lots of fake news. Jeremy Hunt, who favours privatising the NHS, but is Secretary of State for Health, for example, tells us there’s ‘no quick fix’ but by 2020, 95% of young people with mental health issues will be able to see a professional (psychiatrist, presumably a British psychiatrist, and not one of those foreigners we’re trying to exclude) within four weeks and within a week if there case is urgent. I thought every case was urgent, but what do I know, I’m not a health-care specialist. We see here, as we see everywhere else, cases being flipped and weighed and found wanting and parents travelling hundreds of miles, where their daughter or son, finally finds a place in some private hospital in Edinburgh. I wish somebody would explain that truth to me. How it profits rich folk to take care of sick folk, but it still works out cheaper for us all.  Poorer folk with, in modern parlance, mental-health issues always find somewhere closer to visit. It’s called Her Majesty’s Prisons.  We’ve got Princess Diana the godmother of anorexia, looking pretty chic in culled archive images. The largest epidemic in every sense is, of course, the flip side of anorexia, obesity. The poor man’s disease. No need to mention Stephen Hawkin’s criticisms of Tory privateers and implicitly Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of our NHS.  Now we can start talking truthfully about black holes.

Ask yourself a simple question, if I stopped eating tomorrow, who would notice and who would care? Does it matter? Do I matter?

Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is a better place to look for questions of toxic imagery and culture than this programme.

‘Every body has a story and a history’.

‘The story of my body is not a story of triumph. I don’t have any powerful insights into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites. Mine is not a success story. Mine is simply a true story.’

Upper, middle-class, ITV newsman, Mark Austen and his daughter Maddy go on a journey in which they seek to explore the boundaries of anorexia and the health service, postcode lottery, in the less than United Kingdom, but only take us to NHS Theresienstadt.

 

 

Aliens: The Big Think BBC 4 10pm and BBCiPlayer

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0788q6m/the-big-think-aliens

‘If ET is not out there, the earth is some sort of miracle.’ This isn’t a Uri Geller soundbite but a quote from  Senior Astronomer for the SETI Institute and former Director of Center for SETI Research, Seth Shostak. Here we have Professor Martin Rees, former astronomer royal, looking at the evidence for alien life on other planets, but we don’t mean primordial slime, we mean intelligent life, but not as we know it captain, startreking across the universe. The numbers don’t add up.  Two Billions of stars in the galaxy similar to our sun (the number keeps growing as our apparatus becomes more sophisticated) but some of them two or three billion years older than our sun, the Fermi paradox suggests the high probability of circling planets with intelligent life, but with little or no hard evidence of it yet. Perhaps not only in the wrong places, but in the wrong way. Poets and physicists help you to see things anew.

To think about aliens is to think about our place in the universe. The Big Bang or the Bounce. The Goldilock zone (fresh air theory).  From single cell organisms, phagocytes and primitive life on our planet. The past walks with us. Every organic creature in our planet is made out of stardust. Out of this structure intelligent life was formed. Stephen Hawkins aphorism, ‘I believe intelligent life is quite common in the universe. Less so on earth…’ holds true.

With the moron’s moron leader of the most powerful and technocratic nation on earth a case in point. Communication with aliens and morons is the key. Everything is very very in the moron’s world multiplied by good or bad.  The stupidest thing the moron’s moron did, or did not do, was sign the Paris accord on global warming which will trigger very, very, very bad things, with tens of millions dying. What this programme shows quite clearly is that burning fossil fuels is to live in the past. The future is green and harnessing the power of the stars. That’s what physicists are looking at, fluctuations in energy, which may or may not show that something, possibly robotic, possibly an advanced civilisation may have been doing that. Certainly Dr Ander Sandsberg was able to show that spikes in planet KIC 8462852  radiation couldn’t be accounted for. One hypothesis was something massive and non-cylindrical had passed in front of it. Aliens?

Intelligent life on our planet will be artificial intelligence with non-organic parts. That’s the same kind of mixing and matching as Fermi. But it’s happening now. Sometimes we don’t see what’s in front of our eyes. Any good alien knows that. But it’s the bad aliens we’ve got to worry about. The cuckoos breeding in our nest.  I’m more worried about slime Trump ending intelligent life on this planet, but I’ve never claimed to be intelligent. Is there intelligent life out there. Yes, I think there is. Vast distances between planets makes communication difficult. And technology tends to destroy its creator. The rise and fall of a planet technologically in a few thousand years is infinitesimally small in terms of the universe. Compare this with the growth of our planets technology which has given us the capability to look at other planets with any detail in the last 20 or 30 years. Not only is life on earth a miracle. Our technology is a minnow. If other technologies find us they will have the capacity to swallow us up. Stephen Hawkins used the analogy of white men meeting native American Indians or perhaps aboriginals. But that’s just a guess. Nobody knows. Not even Stephen Hawkins. No evidence means very very very small results have very very very big implications, like global warming.

 

 

Martin Ford (2015) Rise of the Robots

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Robots are pattern-recognition machines who have grown arms, legs and visual awareness. Each time we take a step, for example, we are continually falling. Robots face the same problem, but they have not had tens of millions of years of evolution to solve it. Moore’s Law comes into effect here. Computing power which provides the software for computer hardware; robot’s arms and legs and eyes (these are anthropomorphic attributes) doubles every eighteen to twenty-four months. Software engineers are coming up fast against the physical limitation of the materials used to encode machines. With the development of quantum computing that problem seems –temporarily- to have been solved, but few people can explain the mechanics. Martin Ford’s analogy of driving speeds highlights where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Imagine you’re in a car he says, driving at five-miles-per hour (mph). Drive for a minute. 10mph. fifth minute, 80mph. Imagine you’re on the twenty-seventh minute. We’re approaching the speed of sound. Then the speed of light. That’s Moore’s law. That’s where we are.

Another way of looking at it is to think of the brain power at Los Alamos around 1944 when plans were being developed to develop the first atomic bomb. Most of the great Western minds of maths and physics were working on the probability of different scenarios and outcomes. Unless you were a future Nobel winner, you were probably working in the canteen. Now that kind of mathematical grunt work could be done by a ten-year old boy or girl with an iPad. What direction are we going in? Think in terms of a continuum.

Where we are now, I’d guess is similar to the place where the Crow Indians were in Jonathan Lear (2006) Radical Hope: Ethics in The Face of Cultural Devastation; a place and time before the white man came, before around sixty million migrating buffalo were indiscriminately killed,  and with the mass cull went their food source and way of life. Lear writes of the Crows, but he might as well be writing of the Greek, the Roman, the Holy Roman, our own sense of the possible and the impossible: ‘The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture’.  Martin Ford suggests we are at endgame and the chess analogy is appropriate.

Graphic evidence comes from games. It was no great surprise when IBM’s software Deep Blue beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov over a six-game match. While the possibilities in chess are quantitatively enormous, we tend to think of it being on rails. Daniel Kahnerman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow uses the example of a chess master looking at a chess board, and intuition will suggest the best move for him or her to make. That’s thinking fast, but it takes years of training. Software such as Deep Blue travels all the lines of the board at speeds faster than human thought. Speeds that we think of as simultaneous.  And if it makes a mistake it learns from it. Software does not forget. Given such enormous computing power it seemed inevitable that the machine would beat the man.

IBM’s success on Jeopardy! was a different level of success. Deep Blue had been taken off the rails. The brute force of computing power was competing in a general knowledge quiz with idiosyncratic questions and an idiosyncratic format. Computers don’t do spontaneity or intuitive thought over a wide range of subjects. Yet Watson, IBM’s software, triumphed in two televised matches over Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in February 2011.

At one end of the continuum humans become grey gloop. Nothing is wasted. Eric Drexler one of the leading proponents of this theory suggests the combined effect of nanotechnology and increasing computer power to develop their own heuristic, and innate ability to shape the world in their own image, human will be little more than feedstock. If this sounds a bit corny (pun intended) then the co-founder of SunMicrosystems, Bill Joy, article in 2000, ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ runs through the existential dangers of cross fertilisation in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Nobel winner Stephen Hawkins has also signalled his belief that this is a real danger. And Nick Bostrom (2014) in his New York Times Bestseller, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues the future is already here. We’re nurturing artificial intelligence and like a cuckoo’s egg it will outgrow the nest, feed on the hominoid family, and colonise space in its search for perfection.  These Jeremiah voices seem more science fiction than science fact. But look around you. Self-driving cars, drones and rocket back packs. Not in the pages of comic books, but on our roads and buzzing in the air.

Ford identifies other trends that any moderately sophisticated pattern-recognition software would immediately identify. One of them is climate change. He talks about the declining price of solar panels, technological innovation and government innovation. Or what the British Prime Minister called ‘all that green crap’ while withdrawing funding in the areas we really need to invest in.

Money flows unevenly from the rich to the poor. The only place it sticks is with those with money or capital. That’s another trend or pattern. Ford suggests the evidence points to a longer-term trend in which  the five percent who claim ownership of the world’s wealth, and in particular the moneyed-class in the richer nation, those who have cannibalised the wealth of the other ninety-five percent, then the one percent will cannibalise the wealth of the other four percent. Winners take all. Losers take the fall.

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”
― Karl Marx

Marx was wrong of course. Let us look at the data.  Losers are not sold the rope, only leased it and have to pay economic rent for their funeral. The triumph of capitalism is it is the only game in town. Communist China and Russia, for example, mirror the inequalities of the West. Martin Ford offers sobering statistics. An Oxford University report published in 2013 suggests 50% of US jobs will be automated. And a parliamentary report in the House of Lords in 2015 estimate 35% job losses in the UK. The flight to higher education with the promissory note of a well-paid job at the end of it is the same sort of myth building as, from a different era, Tony Benn’s ‘white hot heat of technology’ changing and modernising society. Thirty percent of employees are currently overqualified for the job they are in and while wages have declined in the last thirty years, the cost of education has more than doubled from £22 billion 2007/8 to £46 billion 2012/13 and that trend looks to continue.  This is one form of credit poorer members of society have access to and they are signing up in record numbers, both in the UK and the US. But not only is their grade deflation, but those printing presses we call universities, some of which  are more equal than others, can demand a premium for their gilt-edged qualification, in a race which our leading universities largely exclude the poor from entering. It would be interesting, for example, to look at what Oxford University defines as those in need of such a leg up. But this is hardly surprising when social housing is defined as costing up to £450 000. And our public-school educated Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, boasts of conducting ‘the most sustained squeeze on public spending for one-hundred years’. Back in 1918 the upper classes contact with the working class was likely to be a master and servant relationship, and as an employer. Those that owned the land owned the people on the land.  But in a contemporary global market as Ford notes, if cognitive ability follows the usual bell-shaped distribution curve, and India and China’s top five percent of intelligentsias adds up to around 130 million, almost double the population of the UK. Technology, based on deep neural learning models makes the universal translator inevitable. See, for example, Megaphoneyaku digital megaphone developed by Panasonic in 2014, which translates whatever language is bellowed into it according to the setting required.   If the offshoring of university graduates and teaching programmes move online, as they are likely to do, then the current crop of graduates will find it even more difficult to find paid work commensurate with their education. Software such as Geekie, launched in Brazil in 2011 because of a shortage of teachers, delivers the whole high-school syllabus, monitors pupils and designs courses based on individual responses and aggregate scores. A movement into higher education and universities with their expensive living costs seems inevitable.  It also seems to me likely that health care assistants will be the add on element of general health care practices with all the heavy lifting done by machines designed like Geekie to have the knowledge element built in and modified and upgraded with each interaction.

A trumpet it a wind instrument. It has the highest register in the brass family, which brings us nicely to Donald Trump and Trumpetism. We’ve had the bit player and actor whom Betty Davis called little Ronnie Reagan getting to play the role of US President. Then we had George Bush senior and then junior getting on the same horse. Anything is possible in the good old US of A. It’s dressed up in frontier ideology and the analogy of a rising tide of wealth lifting all boats. But as Chrystia Freeland says in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, ‘the super-rich don’t like to talk about rising income inequality’. The rising tide lifting super yachts that leave the rest stranded in their wake. They like to talk about the Kuznet’s inverted U-curve, how as societies become more complex and productive, high inequality peaks at the top of the U and falls. Wealth generated by a nation’s better-educated workforce is able to get a bigger slice of the national pie in terms of wages is proven to be a short-lived myth. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, using historical data going back to the eighteen century from twenty countries showed that the thirty years following the Second World War was a golden age in which wealth re-distribution did take place, but it took two catastrophic world wars for that to happen. Piketty and Ford both suggest the fallout from the golden age is toxic for all but the gilded few, and aligned with climate change and the rise of the robots it’s a good time to be rich. For the rest of us…man the lifeboats.

Sixth Lesson: Probability, Time and the Heat of Black Holes.

stephen hawkins

The problem of heat was one that perplexed mid-nineteenth century physicists. One way of understanding it was to think of it as a kind of fluid, ‘caloric’ fluid. I guess that’s where we get the term calorific value. Food equals a certain amount of energy. But in the mid-nineteenth century there was thought to be two kinds of heat: hot and cold. Wrong, of course, but not for the reason we think. James Maxwell and the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann showed that heat moves in a gradient from hot to cold because atoms when heated oscillate more rapidly and are therefore more likely to collide with each other and create and lose energy. A cold teaspoon placed in a hot cup is therefore more likely to become hot. In quantum physics this is not fixed, but more highly probable than the alternatives, which are also in flux.

Heat changes the past and the future, but where does time go if it cannot flow? The answer is it does not go anywhere. It remains a position, a function, a variable, a location, a quantity. It is coterminous with space, having the same boundaries as space. Space equals time. But it also deictic. Sharing common but not the same boundaries, in the same way that Scotland and England share boundaries. And although you can heat up space, how can you heat up time?

See you next Thursday is dependent on context. Speak so I can hear you. Think of the Big Bang. Time and Space simultaneously radiating in the now. But what is now? A collection of forces interacting and pushing against each other in the Big Bounce and creating the probability of the Big Bang. Reductio ad absurdum. Einstein suggested that the distinction between the past present and future is nothing but a persistent, stubborn illusion.

Contrast with the more familiar idea of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger with the emphasis on ‘dwelling in time’. Physics becomes for some of his more extreme follower a discipline that is incapable of describing reality.

Let us look back and forward to the idea that heat is god. There is only a detectable difference between the past and future and different states when there is a flow of heat. Probability is king. But some of his subjects are subject to revolt.

Quantum gravity is a blurred vision of physics. But Stephen Hawkins has demonstrated that black holes are always ‘hot’. Hot space creates time in flux. The quanta of space, the vibrating ‘molecules’ that heat the surface of the black hole and are heated by the black hole generate change. Time in flux. Flux in time.