Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

September 24, 2016

Blowing Your Mind -- as Promised by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

About a year ago I told you that Donald Trump would change far more than politics. I predicted that he would change your understanding of the human condition and your role in reality.

Back then, I couldn’t explain what I meant. You didn’t have the mental framework to hold this new idea – unless you were a trained hypnotist or a cognitive scientist. The ideas were too radical. 

Until now. 

I saw this situation developing last year. The Master Persuader opened a crack in the universe so we mortals could – for the first time – understand the nature of reality. At the end of this short blog post I will link to an article that will blow your mind.

But first I will describe the mental framework you need to accept this new vision of reality. The framework goes like this:

1. Smart, well-informed people disagree on nearly all major issues. So being smart and well-informed doesn’t help you grasp reality as much as you would hope. If it did, all of the smart, well-informed people would agree. They don’t.

2. Trump says lots of things that don’t pass the fact-checkers’ tests. His supporters don’t care because facts don’t influence decisions. Humans decide first, then rationalize their irrational choices with cherry-picked data. You see this all the time with the people who disagree with your brilliance. Just remember that they see the same irrationality in you that you see in them.

3. So-called “news” outlets are literally inventing news and peddling it as truth.

4. We learned that voters don’t actually pick the Democratic candidate. The party picks the candidate. Democracy in the United States is largely an illusion.

5. Every candidate looks good until we learn more about that person’s past. Then every candidate looks terrible. But is it possible that only terrible people run for president and get to the final rounds?

6. We all noticed – this year more than ever – that political polls are skewed by bias. 

7. You watched as I used the Master Persuader filter to accurately predict the outcome of the presidential election up to this point. In so doing, I ignored forecasts from all the “experts.” I also ignored policies, experience, and facts. None of those things help you predict the future.

8. Many of you have started reading from my Persuasion Reading List, and by now you understand that humans are not rational creatures. We are creatures who believe we are rational.

Now you are ready. 

Read this to forever alter your understanding of reality.

Welcome to the third dimension. The Master Persuader has been waiting for you.

You might love my book because it tells you how to use this new understanding of your reality to achieve happiness and success.

How to Know an Election is Over by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

In the 2D world in which most people live, Clinton and Trump are polling about evenly, and either one could win. The 2D world is all about facts and policies and common sense. In other words – all the stuff we think we care about but really don’t. 

In the 3D world of persuasion, however, the election is already over. There is still some mystery about how large the margin will be, but Trump is already the President of the United States unless something big happens in the next few weeks. How do I know that?

Listen to this clip in which Clinton asks why she isn’t leading by 50 points. Ignore the content of what she says, because no one cares about content. Just feel it.

And see the future.

In other news…

You might be wondering if Trump made mistakes this week when he mentioned both profiling and “stop and frisk.” Persuasion-wise, both comments are mistakes, because they work against his outreach strategy that has been effective. But these are minor problems because the news is providing the best-possible context for Trump’s comments. 

On some level, everyone knows the government of the United States is already profiling, and will continue doing so. We just call it something else. No one believes that the U.S. checks Swedish immigrants as thoroughly as Syrian immigrants. Clearly we already profile – not just for race, but probably according to a dozen other variables. (And Islam still isn’t a race.)

Trump’s “stop and frisk” comment will haunt him for a few weeks, but it comes in the context of outrage about an African-American policeman killing an African-American citizen. According to the pundits on TV, that changed the frame from a problem of white-versus-black to a question of police training. And even Trump is asking why the police shot a man in Tulsa who appeared to be surrendering. 

Trump is consistent in staking out whatever is the most bad-ass sounding position on all matters of security. Later, following his well-observed pattern, he negotiates down to something that doesn’t violate the Constitution so much. So I wouldn’t worry about “stop and frisk” becoming a thing. States will figure out that stuff on their own.

You might love my book because it loves you.

Checking My Spooky Predictions by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

Check out my blog post from August 10th on the “surprises” that could cause Trump to come from behind and win. At the time, Clinton was well ahead in the polls, thanks to a convention bounce and the Khan situation. I noted at the time that the likely “surprises” favored Trump.

How’d I do?

From August 10th:

You might enjoy my book because my neighbor Kristina did.

Assessing the Risk of Trump by Scott Adams (Dilbert)

For over a year now I have been blogging about Trump’s talent for persuasion, and that gives people the impression that I prefer him as my president. That is not the case. I’ll tell you why at the end of this post.

The best choice for president depends on the types of challenges ahead. And the future has a habit of surprising us. We have no way to predict whether Clinton or Trump would end up being the right match for an unpredictable future.

That said, let’s talk about assessing the risk – to the country – of Trump versus Clinton. My observation of their histories and their personalities suggests that Trump offers America an entrepreneur’s profile of risk, whereas Clinton would be more like investing in a CD at your bank. Which is better? The answer for you probably depends on how old you are, how selfish you are, and how much money you have.

If things are going well for you and your family, you probably don’t want to rock the boat. In that case, Clinton is a good choice for you. But if you are young, or things are not working out well for you and your family, it would be rational to accept higher risk with the hope of getting a bigger/faster improvement.

But how big is the Trump risk to the economy and the country in general? Let’s talk about how Trump has managed risk in the past. That’s the best way to predict how he will do it in the future.

Diversification: Rule #1 for an investment portfolio is diversification. Trump probably wasn’t sufficiently diversified early in his real estate career, but now he has his name on about 500 entities and he has succeeded across multiple fields. He understands diversification. That’s good.

A-B Testing: One of the best ways to manage risk is to try things on a small scale and only double-down if the test is a success. We see Trump trying out different Linguistic Kill Shots to see what sticks, changing campaign staff as needed, and employing different campaign strategies depending on the situation. We observe him being decisive when things don’t work (firing people) and we watch him pivot quickly based on what he learns from testing. That suggests a “systems” type of mind, as opposed to a “goal” mentality. You can read more about that distinction in my book, which you might enjoy because it has pages. The summary is that systems-thinkers manage risk better.

Licensing: A big part of Trump’s business involves licensing his name. I know a lot about licensing because I have done if for years with Dilbert. Licensing is a great way to manage risk because I get paid in advance even if the product that Dilbert’s image is licensed to adorn does not work out. Trump does the same. He gets paid even if the project with his name on it fails. That’s good risk management.

Likewise, Trump almost certainly negotiates for a lump sum advance payment from publishers for his books. Trump gets paid even if the publisher loses money. That’s good risk management.

Likewise also, The Apprentice probably paid Trump a guaranteed minimum no matter the ratings. And if the show had failed, Trump would not have any personal investment in it. He only had upside potential.

Two Ways to Win: We often see Trump choose strategies that have two ways to win and no way to lose. That’s the best risk management of all. For example, when Trump warned that Iran should release American prisoners before he gets elected, he created two ways to win and no way to lose. If the prisoners were released (and they were), Trump could claim his threat was effective. (He did.) If Iran kept the prisoners, Trump could say the United States needs a bad-ass President like him to deal with Iran. 

Bankruptcies: When the general public hears that Trump had several bankruptcies (out of hundreds of projects) they think that means he did something wrong. Business people see a different picture. They see a diversified portfolio of projects that are wisely siloed into their own corporate entities so some can fail without taking the others with them. That’s good risk management because one would naturally expect several failures out of hundreds of projects.

Marriages: Trump is married to his third wife and still has good relationships with his exes. Apparently Trump had good prenups, and good lawyers. He managed the risk of divorce better than 90% of the people I know.

Alcohol and Drugs: Trump has never had a drink of alcohol or an illegal drug, because of the risk. If you have ever consumed alcohol or taken illegal drugs, you have a far higher tolerance for risk than Trump. He removed those risks from his life. And those are some big risks.

Seeing the Future: One way to reduce risk is to predict the future better than those around you. We know that Trump went all-in on his run for president this time, but in prior election years he dropped out early. Apparently he made the right decision this time because he could see himself making it all the way.

We have also witnessed Trump using unorthodox campaign strategies that almost everyone else in the world thought would fail. But apparently Trump predicted the future better than the pundits. His methods have worked.

Trump hasn’t predicted the future correctly every time. As noted, several of his projects did not work out. But evidently he expected there could be some losers among his projects because he set them up as separate entities that could fail on their own without dragging down the rest.

Listening to Advice: One of the criticisms we heard about Trump early in the campaign is that he wouldn’t listen to experts. But now we have lots of examples in which he has done exactly that. His entire campaign has transformed in the past six weeks. We watched Trump assess the changing election dynamics, take advice from advisors, adapt his approach, and spike in the polls. 

Trump is also good at firing people. The smartest person I know told me that the most important skill of a leader is firing, not hiring. No one is smart enough to hire the right people every time, so firing is the more valuable skill. Trump apparently has that skill. Consider how hard it was to fire his longtime friend Corey Lewandowski, and later Paul Manafort. Trump pulled the trigger both times. And both moves proved to be helpful.

Trump’s Ego: Trump’s showmanship and branding comes off as ego, and narcissism, and that can be scary to the public. You want to know your President is making decisions based on what is good for the country, and not what is good for the President’s ego. But Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon went a long way toward changing perceptions about his ego. Trump let Fallon mess up his famous hair on TV, and it humanized Trump. We watched Trump put his ego aside with no real effort.

We also see Trump doing more outreach to the African-American community, toning down his rhetoric (mostly) and generally doing what the public has been asking him to do. That suggests a candidate who has control of his ego. He listens to the people and gives them what they want. 

In my personal situation, things are going great for me, so that suggests Clinton would be a safer choice in terms of managing my risk – both financially and physically. Change isn’t necessarily good for me. But I’m also at a point in my life where I’m focused on providing some public good before I check out of the computer simulation we call life. So if my American teammates prefer a Trump-like risk – because they think change is needed for their own benefit – I’m okay with that. Pick the president you want and I’ll work with it. I’ll be happy either way.

Banking by Sym Roe

Of course what should actually happen is that a bank should put itself in a position where it can iterate it’s public facing offering based on research and testing. It shouldn’t listen to relatively well off white middle-class men like me.

That being said, it would be hard to do worse than the recent offering by ‘Smile’ (“The internet bank”), so I’ve written some mostly unevidenced anecdotes about what I would like from a bank, in 2016:


Banks see personal banking as a business interaction with little emotion. Their customers will often see banking as a very emotive interaction. The emotional reaction someone has to being overdrawn (either once, or ongoing) is in sharp contrast to the cold reaction the bank will have.

This is understandable, but banks should anticipate that their customers might be in a very emotional state when interacting with them. This should be understood at the core of banks, by being baked in to their design principles.

Banks have many ‘levers’ for helping people, from budgeting advice and tools to loans. I don’t know enough about what might help in a given situation, but if a bank used it’s own data wisely then I expect they could start testing interventions against pattens of spending that would genuinely make banking feel helpful, not scary. As a start, they could try to calculate available funds, taking direct debits and regular payments in to account. Some banks do this already.

Information access

Banking is one of the few areas where the public take security seriously. That is, I expect that more people care about their bank log in than, for example, their email or PayPal log in, even though it’s possible that the impact either being attacked could be the same.

This fear mixed with often bizarre log in and authentication rituals makes social engineering attacks easy, as customers are used to giving up a lot of personal information to assert their identity.

At the same time, people are often encouraged to share a “statement of transactions” for the last 3 to 6 months. This happens as a crude way to assess the wealth of potential tenants, mortgage customers and borrowers. The information contained in these statements could be highly sensitive, however they are often send over email to small offices, as a PDF downloaded from a web site.

Banks should rethink the pattens of authentication and authorisation in a way thank puts control firmly and clearly in the hands of the customer. An excellent example of this is the DVLA ‘single use access token’ patten that replaces the paper counterpart, used for checking endorsements when, for example, hiring a car.

Smart authorisation could help 3rd parties too, by answering the actual thing they want to know when asking for bank statements. For example, “Has this person been able to make regular payments over £100 for the last year?”, “How many times has this person been overdrawn in the last 6 months?”. With good information sharing interfaces, banking customers would be able to share this information, verified by the bank themselves, and without exposing all of their transactions.

Rule of Separation

Interfaces should be different from the business logic of banking (making ad receiving payments, storing money, overdrafts, ATM access, etc). If authentication and authorisation above are done well, the full functionality of the bank account should be controllable by 3rd parties.

We see early examples of this in read-only interfaces at the moment, but we should move away from banks tightly coupling their interfaces to their accounts.

This would allow for budgeting tools to do things like automatically sort income in to different ‘pots’ of money for savings, bills, etc (why we currently need different “accounts” to do this? Can bank accounts have folders and tags please?), or for whole new open source interfaces to be developed.

This could allow all sorts of interesting new ideas, like tools for helping more than one person manage an account. For example bank accounts could be “owned” by a shared house (set up by the estate agent) for group bill payments, or ad-hoc group buying Co-Ops that need capital and accountability from all the members.

Movable account numbers

One of the things that makes changing bank accounts hard is having to change bank “account numbers” and “sort codes” everywhere.

Banks should charge for a fixed identification number that acts as a routing code to the deposit account desired, in a similar way that DNS resolves domains to servers.

Fabric: pointless victim of the War on Drugs by The Leveller

Most people will be personally unaffected by iconic London nightclub Fabric’s closure. They will not lament the opportunity to stand wide-eyed among a swathe of sweaty, gurning teenagers, paying £10 for a double that realistically, they’ll be reacquainted with in the near future at the bottom of a toilet bowl. It is unlikely that they will lose sleep over all of the thwarted chances to stand in a queue, intoxicated, only to eventually reach the front of it with a Bambi-on-stilts swagger and be refused entry. As for the dance music, well, it’s all just noise anyway, right?

As a society, we are blighted by our propensity to eradicate something before we truly understand it

But then, the existence of Fabric was never intended for the masses. The emergence of club culture in the 80’s was borne out of opposition to the mainstream and when Fabric opened in late-1999 in Farringdon, it promised a haven for clubbers from all over the world. Fabric, along with nightclubs all over the country were, and are refuges for a generation of young people struggling to stave off the homogenization of culture and escape from the increasingly bleak outlook for their adult lives.

On the surface of it, the closure of the club seems like an open and shut case. Two drug-related deaths in as many weeks doesn’t make for great PR. So when the mainstream media inevitably paints a mental image in their reader’s minds of a wholesale, free-for-all drug den, providing the general public with an honest, practical assessment of the challenges a club faces is next to impossible. It is easier to determine that the venue with a face is the culprit, than it is to blame it on an abstract web of societal issues.

As a society, we are blighted by our propensity to attempt to eradicate something before we truly understand it, and the drug problem in the UK is no exception. The ‘war on drugs’ has been an embarrassing failure for the Western world – not only failing to reduce drug-related crime and deaths, but creating a climate of innovation within a thriving black market that has seen the advent of new psychoactive substances or ‘legal highs’, which were attributed to 88 deaths in the UK in 2014 – up from 22 in 2010.

The club spends more than any other venue in the UK for when drugs get past security and things go wrong – they have a fully-equipped medical room with two medics on-site

You need only travel back in time for a relatively short period to witness the inherent failings of prohibition. In 1920 the United States of America banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol under the 18th Amendment and then spent over a decade dealing with the fallout. Aside from the natural explosion of crime and the drastic economic damage, poisoned, bootlegged alcohol was thought to be responsible for over 10,000 deaths until the law was repealed in late-1933. President Herbert Hoover famously called prohibition ‘The Noble Experiment’ – perhaps its nobility lay in its value as a cautionary tale.

The deaths in Fabric weren’t isolated incidents. In 2010, club classics MDMA and ecstasy were attributed to only eight deaths. In 2014 they were responsible for 50. The government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs claim that it’s not uncommon to find ecstasy pills containing around 250mg of the active ingredient MDMA at festivals this year – a big increase from the 100mg usually found in the rave scene glory days of the late 90s.

The drugs that tragically killed Ryan Browne and Jack Crossley this summer weren’t manufactured in Fabric nightclub. They were manufactured by an unregulated, criminal entity as opposed to a regulated, taxed one. If they were, it would be safe to assume that they would contain non-lethal doses and come with adequate safety information.

Fabric was probably one of the safest places in the country to take drugs

The suggestion that Fabric as a venue is directly responsible for any drug related deaths is absurd. The club spends more than any other venue in the UK on security to help prevent drugs getting in, and for when they do and things go wrong – they have a fully-equipped medical room with two medics on-site. This is not the behaviour of an institution guilty of neglect, but one that understands the need to address a complex problem from a number of angles.

The great irony of the situation is that Fabric was probably one of the safest places in the country to take drugs. In contrast, there were an estimated 170 illegal raves planned in response to Fabric’s closure. Illegal raves are traditionally held in abandoned buildings or more remote outdoor spaces such as fields in the countryside. The very nature of an illegal event can often prevent organizers from accessing the same high standards of safety and security that a legal one is able to benefit from.

According to one event promoter who used to host illegal events and has since become strictly legal, ‘the safety of the people is of utmost importance. Whenever we did an event we had security (searching for weapons, not drugs), private paramedics with ambulance on site and we always checked the building had running water (unless held outdoors). Unfortunately, that is not the case with all event organizers. I have seen some situations in which somebody would overdose or even get attacked by others and there hasn’t been security or anyone to deal with the situation accordingly. That said, people also overdose and fight at licensed events as well…’

Several breaches of licensing conditions highlighted by officers were tenuous, and failed to find any hard evidence of drug-taking

He goes on to explain how an illegal setting offers certain freedoms that licensed venues don’t: ‘a lot of clubs these days can make you feel as if you are constantly being watched and can’t fully relax and feel free and comfortable to do whatever it is you want to do. Oh and you can’t take drugs freely at a licensed venue.’

Islington Council, the body responsible for the revocation of Fabric’s license, knows this. The basis of the claim that the closure was in response to the issue of drug-taking was largely derived from an undercover police report from July 2016, wryly named Operation Lenor (think fabric softener). Through witness statements from undercover officers placed inside Fabric, Operation Lenor highlighted several tenuous breaches of licensing conditions, such as the lack of staff intervention in the case of several clubbers who were ‘sweating profusely and were staring into space, their eyes were glazed and red and they were drinking water’, but failed to find any hard evidence of drug-taking.

In fact, conversely, Fabric has often gone above and beyond the call of duty to comply with zealous licensing regulations. The club have unwaveringly attempted to implement a string of measures imposed on it since a review in 2014 of its license, including a brief period where it was required to place sniffer dogs outside of the venue for at least 50% of the night – a security measure not seen in most airports. Interestingly, the use of dogs ceased to become a requirement after a court ruled that it could jeopardize the club’s ability to confiscate drugs under its search policy. In a bitter twist, there were reports from clubbers that the presence of the dogs encouraged people to take all of their drugs at once before entering the club, rather than risk trying to get past them with anything on their person.

Freeing up prime real estate in the center of London is almost certain to attract investment from hawkish property developers

If Islington Council were genuinely concerned with public safety, then perhaps it would have been wiser to keep open a club which a judge had branded ‘a beacon of best practice’ a mere matter of months ago. Instead, the council did little to resist the media furor around the deaths of six patrons in 17 years – a figure taken wildly out of context when you consider the fact that 6 million people passed through its doors during that time. It alternately chose to cease to devote any further time, resources and funds to the dynamic response necessary to tackle the many-headed Hydra that is the UK drug problem.

But then, who could really blame Islington Council for trying to conserve time, resources and funds in any way it can after having its government funding cut by an astronomical 50% since 2010? In line with Conservative Party policy, Islington has been forced to make £150 million in efficiency savings over the last six years – a move that has seen it scrambling to protect frontline services such as child protection, housing and policing, let alone nurture an ailing, controversial nightlife scene.

It’s important to note that Islington Council has no direct financial interest in the site – it does not own the building. At the same time, freeing up prime real estate in the center of London is almost certain to attract investment from hawkish property developers, eager to make a quick buck in the explosive luxury housing game. The prospect of a new wave of wealthy, desirable residents, perceived as unlikely to become a drain on vital resources, must surely be an attractive one.

The number of nightclubs in Britain has almost halved since 2005

The social acceptability of the next residents of Fabric, a former meat packing warehouse, will be telling. It’s a familiar phenomenon in the UK today to witness your local scrappy pub or club replaced with an unfeeling glass façade devoid of character. It is not unusual to see old commercial spaces on your high street transformed into trendy new coffee shop chains selling almond milk lattes and making pretend airs of independence. It is unlikely that you’ll notice an explosion of licensing applications approved for venues that cater to the types of people that mainstream society considers unpalatable.

The number of nightclubs in Britain has almost halved from 3,144 in 2005 to just 1,733 in 2015. The steady decline brings with it a nagging feeling amongst dance music lovers that the UK authorities have nothing but disdain for the counterculture movement. Poetically, on the same day Fabric’s license was revoked the notoriously exclusive trance music venue Berghain in Berlin was awarded a status of cultural importance by the Cottbus court – allowing for much more favorable rates of taxation. As European cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin continue to thrive as bastions of emerging culture, the willingness of the UK government to show any meaningful sign of intervention is far from apparent.

Already, the deliberate decimation of the UK’s artistic landscape is becoming a self-defeating exercise. The illicit underground rave scene across Europe shows no sign of slowing down, and as access to regulated space diminishes, it’s inevitable that it will remain underground – far away from the prying eyes of the very people who are so eager to supervise.

Among the voices heard in the case against Fabric were one undercover police officer who suggested that ‘light color finishes on walls and ceilings should be used’ and one councillor who requested that if the club were to remain open then it should play music with a lower BPM. Aside from the bizarre set of circumstances that allow for the interior design and key curation decisions of a cultural landmark to be dictated by an officer of the law and a civil servant, it’s important to recognize that this sentiment is not shared merely by a killjoy minority, but by an increasingly contemptuous many.

Electronic music is a staple of counterculture in the UK that largely exists outside of the sphere of government funding – it doesn’t need propping up by the state

To the layperson, it is difficult to comprehend how wiling away a night rubbing sweaty shoulders with a bunch of strangers is a rite of passage with value. But speak to any seasoned raver and they will undoubtedly tell you about the lifelong friendships that have been forged on a dark, dingy dancefloor where people of any sexual orientation, race, gender or background can come together. They will laud the opportunity to build real life networks of like-minded people from all over the world that they never would have otherwise had an intimate cultural exchange with. In an increasingly digital age, it’s imperative to cherish those authentic, offline moments and protect the spaces that facilitate them.

When government budgets are tightened, funding for the arts is often the first to be axed in an environment riddled with economic short-termism. After Arts Council England examined government data, it found that local government arts spending fell by 11% amid overall budget cuts of 40%. Even if you consider this an unintended consequence of a necessary reshuffle of our nation’s finances, the fact remains that a generation of young people will now grow up with less outlets for their creativity than their predecessors. It would be remiss to ignore the overwhelmingly positive effect the arts can have in tackling the general malaise of a profoundly alienated youth.

Like it or not, electronic dance music has become a staple of a thriving counterculture movement in the UK and it’s one that largely exists outside of the sphere of government funded institutions. Nightclubs like Fabric don’t need propping up by the state. What they do need is the freedom to operate within a reasonable set of guidelines and support from the state in the form of a less ludicrous drugs policy. What they require above all else is an elevated level of respect and tolerance from society as a whole.

Young people are watching their cities degrade into cultural wastelands

The significance of any club during its era is determined by the strength of its community – and the Fabric community has miraculously thrived in a hostile climate. Far from admitting defeat, Fabric and its worldwide following have launched the #saveourculture campaign, raising over £100,000 in four days. Legendary underground music internet TV channel Boiler Room hosted a panel discussion on 20th September with Goldie, Emily Thornberry MP, the mayor of Amsterdam, the owners of Fabric and other recently closed club owners among other veteran DJs and Fabric enthusiasts – the subject is the future of club culture.

What is ultimately most treacherous about the trajectory of the UK dance music scene is the implication for the wider creative community. Dance music doesn’t exist in its own cultural sphere – all art, music, film and design are interwoven elements separated by only a few degrees of separation. The origins of electronic dance music can be found in blues, jazz and soul to name a few, and undoubtedly it will continue to morph as DJs and producers continue to experiment and innovate. With each wave of ingenuity brings a new movement – bringing with it a surge of originality in every cultural aspect from cinema to fashion.

If the legislation that determined that Fabric should close sets a precedent, these are ominous times for license holders across the country. While councils are free to revoke licenses on the basis of a failure to adhere to unworkable legislation, young people will continue to see their cities degrade into cultural wastelands. As a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain struggles to reconcile its differences, perhaps the unifying space found in our country’s nightclubs is space that is simply too valuable to lose.



Image: Maja Walker

The post Fabric: pointless victim of the War on Drugs appeared first on The Leveller.

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Toronto: Growing a Great Startup Ecosystem by Albert Wenger

Yesterday evening, Allen Lau from Wattpad helped me organize a small casual dinner with other entrepreneurs and investors in Toronto. We have three existing investments in Toronto: Wattpad and Figure 1 in the city and Kik in Waterloo. Toronto has all the makings of a great ecosystem for tech startups and I am sure over time we will be finding more exciting companies here:

1. There are schools with excellent engineering programs, including the world renowned Waterloo and University of Toronto (the latter was until recently the home of Geoffrey Hinton who pioneered deep learning).

2. There have been some big exits, including of course Blackberry (despite is later struggles) and more recently the spectacular IPO Shopify, as well as a many midsize exits, such as the acquisition of Kobo by Rakuten for $315 million. Exits provide both liquidity to local investors and create a base of angel investors.

3. There is a terrific entrepreneurial network in which more experienced second and third time entrepreneurs help each other as well as first-time entrepreneurs who are just getting going.

4. The cost of talent is still affordable and people are loyal to their companies, which provides resiliency when startups hit the inevitable rough patch. Quite a few people have done a stint on the US West Coast working in tech there.

5. There is more and more capital available at all stages. At the seed level there are local firms such as Golden Venture Partners, Real Ventures has an office here now, and Version One has made investments. There are accelerators such as OneEleven. There is Omers with its deep pools of capital. And US venture firms have been active, including many of the top names.

As a New Yorker all of this is particularly exciting because Toronto is just a short distance away and has a similar feel. I am looking forward to spending more time here and having more dinners like the one last night. Thanks Allen for organizing and thanks to everyone who came for a terrific discussion.

Uncertainty Wednesday: Limits on Observations (Resolution) by Albert Wenger

Today Uncertainty Wednesday continues with limits to observations. Limits to observations are — along with limits to explanations — the key sources of uncertainty that we face. Following the discussion of foundational limits to observations from last week, next up is observational resolution (this is a category I forgot in my initial list).

Last year we went on an amazing trip to India. One of the many highlights was a visit to the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. Right in the middle of the city are huge sundials and other astronomical instruments. Here is a picture I took showing a mid size sundial in the foreground and the largest one in the background


A sundial is used to measure time based on observing the position of the sun in the sky. Why would you want to build ever larger sundials? Because by increasing the size you can improve the “resolution” of your observation. I am using resolution in exactly the sense one might for a digital camera. A better camera has a higher resolution which gives you a more detailed picture (meaning you can zoom in and see details that would otherwise be lost). Similarly a larger sundial gives you a higher resolution on the angle of the sun. You can think of this as to whether you are just getting the degree of the angle or also the minutes (and possibly even seconds). Incidentally here is the historical connection for why we use the terms minutes and seconds in describing fractional units of degrees. 

As it turns out the largest sundial in the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur has a resolution of minutes of time. So what does this mean? It means no matter how well you use it, you cannot observe the angle of the sun more precisely than one minute of time. This limit on your observation results in uncertainty. How much uncertainty and whether that matters is something we will get to later, for now let’s just note that all observations have a limit on their resolution and that this limit introduces uncertainty. This will be true as long as the underlying reality is more finely subdivided than the resolution of your observation.

The only way that resolution of observation will not introduce uncertainty is if the underlying reality is quantized and the observation can happen at that resolution. If the reality in question for instance is a Minecraft World, then block size resolution is lossless and introduces no uncertainty. If I tell you there are 1,128,960 blocks in a particular Minecraft world that number is precise. But keep in mind that — and this was the topic of last Wednesday — while there is now no uncertainty about the number of blocks that number itself is still very much a summary of the underlying reality as it says nothing about the location of the blocks, type of block, etc.

In summary then, the resolution of an observation will almost always be lower than the granularity of the underlying reality which limits our knowledge and thus introduces uncertainty.

I am Voting for Hillary by Albert Wenger

The 2016 Presidential race is not a typical election between two candidates based on the merits of their positions on key issues. Instead, it is a stark choice between Hillary Clinton, whose positions you may disagree with, but who is firmly grounded in the democratic and scientific tradition that has made America great, and Donald Trump, a candidate born from reality television who is an autocratic demagogue willfully ignoring science and intentionally trashing any rational discourse.

At a time when democracy and rationality are under attack around the world, whom we elect here in the United States matters more than ever. What do you want to say to your grandchildren about what you did in the run up to this election? Do you want to meekly say “I told my friends privately how awful it would be for Trump to be President”? Even public warnings about the dangers of Donald Trump — including ones I have written — are unlikely to diminish the fervor of many of his supporters and may in fact strengthen it. And every mention is free publicity.

So what is to be done? There is only one answer: help elect Hillary Clinton. Saying you dislike her also and will not vote is not a strategy. It is not the moral high ground some people seem to think it is. It is a capitulation instead and exactly how Trump becomes president. In the United States system — whether you like it or not — if you are not actively voting for Hillary Clinton, you are helping Trump get elected. Plain and simple. It is therefore time to put aside any negative feelings you may have and start to declare that you will vote for Hillary Clinton and why you will do so.

The great news is that once you focus on the issues of science and rationality it is easy to take a principled stand for Hillary. Here is mine:

I, Albert Wenger, am voting for Hillary because she understands that climate change is a defining issue for the 21st century

Now to make it easy for you to take a similar stand, Susan and I have created a website. Go to and record your own 10 second video, then share it on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and email it to your friends.

Go and turn out the vote for Hillary in a big way! Be able to tell your children and grandchildren that you stood up against a return to a pre-scientific and pre-rational dark age.

Also, if climate change turns out to be a pivotal issue for you, the one where science and rationality will play the greatest role, then you might also want to share the following site on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and email it to your friends

Our children and some of their friends — all of whom cannot yet vote but will live with the consequences of climate change for longer than any of us — have created it.

Chelsea Bomb Explosion by Albert Wenger

Yesterday evening Susan, our older son Michael and I had just returned from dinner at a nearby restaurant when we heard a very loud boom and it felt like the windows and floor briefly shook. My immediate thought was that this was an explosion. The sound of sirens shortly thereafter confirmed that something bad had happened. 

I quickly checked Twitter and searched for “explosion” – there were many other people from our neighborhood on Twitter already asking questions. I then stepped out into the street and saw a lot of people looking around. All I had to do was go to the corner of 22nd (where we live) and 7th Avenue to see that the activity was concentrated around 23rd and 7th. I saw a neighbor and asked what had happened. He told me that it was an explosion on 23rd between 7th and 6th Avenues. I then called two of our children who were out in the city to make sure they were OK and alert them to what had happened.

Here is a clip from the NY Times that combines some footage from bystanders and security cameras:

Before going to bed I made sure our two kids who were out were back safely and also sent a note to my parents in Germany to let them know we were OK – I assumed they would get the news their time in the morning and be concerned. I woke up to a ton of text and email inquiries from friends asking if we were safe. Thanks everyone for checking!

I don’t know anything other than what has been reported. As of 3pm this afternoon 23rd Street was still closed between 6th and 7th Avenues and the police had very carefully marked each fragment on the road. It will be interesting to see what their investigation reveals.

Juno and Marble Movie update at Apojove 1 by The Planetary Society

Juno is on its second of two long orbits around Jupiter, reaching apojove (its farthest distance from the planet) today.

Where to find rapidly released space image data by The Planetary Society

Interested in playing with recent space image data? Here's a list of places to get the freshest photos from space.

Five things we learned from our #RocketRoadTrip by The Planetary Society

We're back from our #RocketRoadTrip through four states with NASA field centers involved in the agency's Journey to Mars program. We'll be sorting through our material for quite some time, but meanwhile, here are five key things we learned.

Some beautiful new (old) views of Neptune and Triton by The Planetary Society

Beautiful new amateur work with 27-year-old Voyager data.

Promise, Transition, and Transformation by The Planetary Society

After 10 days, four NASA centers, two contractors, and hundreds of miles, Casey Dreier shares his initial reflections on the state of NASA's Space Launch System rocket and its future.

September 23, 2016

Evolver by Charlie Stross

I'd like to give you a happy fun thought experiment to chew on.

It's 2016. And it's been a bad year. Let's imagine that it's about to get infinitely worse for everyone, and by December 31st, 2016, the human species is extinct. Cause: something minimally disruptive to the rest of the biosphere. (A very tightly targeted human-specific military bioweapon gets out and proves to be unexpectedly deadly: say, an IL-4 expressing poxvirus that goes above and beyond.)

Earth abides, of course, and without humans life goes on.

Let's ignore the immediate aftermath (1-1000 years). Nuclear reactors scram automatically, grids shut down, there are various nasty industrial accidents from unattended plant, and then the atmospheric carbon pulse continues and is joined by large-scale outgassing from the Siberian tundra and possibly a crash in hard-shelled ocean dwelling species due to acidification. Global mean temperatures rise by roughly 4 degrees celsius (hey, we're not pumping any more CO2 out!) leading to considerably worse weather events and various ecosystem changes: the ongoing mass extinction event continues to coast on momentum during this period as more specialized species fail to find new niches.

(Noteworthy exceptions: rats, cats, dogs, pigeons, grasses, and probably goats are almost everywhere, thanks to human activity. So are a bunch of other species, but sheep, cattle and horses are less prepared to go feral if you abruptly remove all human intervention. Nevertheless, there will probably be new ovine and aurochs subspecies in the wild in places far from their original point of domestication by the end of the 1KYa marker.)

So, let's look to the long term.

Vertebrate life on Earth dates back roughly 525 million years. Our sun is gradually brightening, and over the next 200 MYa - 2GYa period the increased UV flux will split water vapour in the upper atmosphere into hydroxyl radicals and hydrogen ions—and the latter are sufficiently fast-moving to be lost into space via the solar wind. Over time this will dehydrate the surface and then the upper lithosphere, baking the planet into a cooler, more massive version of Venus. It may take a couple of billion years for the last life forms to die out, but extinction beckons.

However, between the end of the human epoch and the end of a biosphere capable of supporting vertebrate life there stretches a span of time considerably greater than the span separating us today from the first dinosaurs, 241-243 MYa ago.

Continental drift is going to play a role in large-scale evolutionary trends; geologists speculate that between 50 and 200 MYa from now we can expect the Arctic Ocean and Caribbean Sea to close, resulting in a fusion of the Americas and Asia centered around the north pole into a new supercontinent, Amasia. An alternate model proposes the formation of Pangaea Ultima around 250MYa hence. It's very unclear which supercontinent model will prevail, but we do know that roughly every 250-500MYa the Earth's continental plates drift into a single mega-continent configuration, and then subsequently drift apart.

Megacontinents have implications for life because their interiors tend to be arid and often cold—they correlate with large scale glaciation and the interiors are not hospitable. Formation of supercontinents also seems to correlate with large-scale changes in atmospheric oxygen levels. It's also worth noting that the maximum size of vertebrate species increases with the size of the biome accessible to them—the converse effect (island dwarfism) of reduction in size of large animals living in small/constrained areas, such as islands, is clear, and it is noteworthy that the sauropods and titanosaurs (the largest land animals ever) flourished between 240 and 66 MYa ago, originating on the supercontinent Pangaea and continuing as it split into the large continents of Laurasia (which later split into North America and Eurasia) and Gondwana (Africa, Antarctica, South America, Australia, Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent): in other words, huge land masses.

So: 50-200MYa hence, we can expect supercontinents to emerge, and with them, really big land animals. Possibly countering this is the issue of atmospheric partial pressure of oxygen; if it hits 30% (it's currently around 21%) even waterlogged organic tissue will burn, so forest fires resulting from lightning strikes can be expected to devastate surface level ecosystems. (Dinosaurs proliferated in a less oxygenated environment because they had highly efficient lungs, like birds; no surprise there because birds are, in effect, our surviving micro-dinosaurian neighbours.)

But what else is going on ...?

Over the past 200-odd MYa we've seen a couple of arms races driving vertebrate evolution. The first of these was the development of venom; for example, in snakes, venom originated roughly 170MYa ago; tetrodotoxin mutualism (in puffer fish, blue-ringed octopi, and other species) is probably more recent. Many species not routinely thought of as being venomous may indeed poison their prey by biting; for example, the common house cat is well-known for "cat scratch fever" and for bite wounds becoming infected—this may play some role in predation, and I'd speculate that as resistance to toxins emerges over time, so too will more potent venoms be selected for (both by predators, and by edible/prey species that rely on poison to injure or kill predators).

The other arms race is, of course, theory of mind. A predator that can model the behaviour of its prey species is one that can hunt more effectively; and a prey species that can anticipate likely predator strategies is one that can avoid being eaten. We can't know much about dinosaur hunting strategies (and, based on observations of contemporary birds, it would be very unwise to assume that small brains mean low intelligence), but those contemporary species that put lots of metabolic energy into adapting limbs and dentition for killing seem to be less reliant on general intelligence (specialized, saber-toothed big cats have a smaller encephalization quotient than more generalist feline species). Either way, encephalization quotient seems to be slowly increasing over geological time, and we can suppose that predator activities may also be becoming gradually more complex and sophisticated.

So what is the world going to look like in 50MYa?

In the sea, I'm not sure the bony fish are going to recover from what we've done to the ocean food chains any time soon: they may be replaced by cephalopodia (and jellyfish at the invertebrate end). If so, expect some radical new cephalopod forms to show up as they radiate to occupy the niches vacated by the big fish. (Cephalopod plankton filter-feeders like basking sharks? Giant, aggressive fast-swimming squid replacing schools of tuna? Who knows?)

Birds (dinosaurs) and mammals are going to survive and be the main megafauna on land. (Big flightless birds, less so—the need to lay eggs, and the limit on egg size imposed by needing a large surface area to volume ratio for O2/CO2 gas diffusion, puts them at a disadvantage when trying to raise a clutch in an environment full of egg-stealing mammals; it's worth noting that the extinction of the Phorusrhacidae (Terror Birds) in South America coincided with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and the arrival of mammalian predators.) Supercontinents mean scope for larger apex herbivores, in the extreme scaling up to the size of titanosaurs: a higher atmospheric pO2 may allow mammals to become nearly as large as the larger dinosaurs, although poorer lung performance works against that. But supercontinents also mean poor weather and possible large scale glaciation events.

I'd expect to see more and more species employing venom to hunt their prey, and toxins (often obtained via mutualism/symbiosis from bacteria, like TTX today) to poison their predators: if you see something harmless, fearless, and furry, like a skunk, you should probably avoid eating it if you don't want to die in convulsions.

And we're going to see theory of mind everywhere. Think in terms of bears building fish traps in rivers and pit traps on land. Wolf-analogues coordinating their hunting drives by stationing individuals at high points to relay signals. Raccoons ... shudder.

What am I missing?

Trolling. by Feeling Listless

Film Being slightly too old to care at the time, I never did own a troll, the only kind I really encountering as a child being the monstrosity that menaced the three billy goats gruff in a Ladybird book. So the fact of a film based on The Trolls entirely passed me by until this morning when a friend sent me a link to a cover of Lionel Richie's Hello sung by Zooey Deschanel (Spotify).

Like The Lego Movie soundtrack, it's a franchise album which punches well above its weight in talent and material thanks to having Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake as Executive Producers.  Mostly covers of really cool songs, there is some original material including an "I Want" song from Kendrick (Spotify), which has a chorus which sounds like Price Tag and a Millennial Whoop.

Collider has an interview with Justin and Anna about the production process:

"TIMBERLAKE: So, my job for that was just hopefully to put our own spin on it, make it sound unique, and make it sound like it belonged in the scene, much like musical theater, almost. And then, I also wrote four original songs, specifically written for the movie. I’ve never done anything like that, either. Some of the music does sound very ‘70s. Overall, you’ll feel that a lot of the music definitely has a little bit of ‘70s funk to it, so that was definitely an inspiration for “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” as well. You get to see some of the animation and what they’re working on, so you get to see how big a moment is. When you finally get to see where the Bergens live, you hear The Gorillaz. You just want to sonically complement that."
Sadly this film itself looks like a fairly perfunctory quest narrative but you can't have everything.  [Thanks Talia!]

September 22, 2016

Life Props: Hillary Clinton Tim Kaine 16 t-shirt. by Feeling Listless

Politics A friend in the US has been kind enough to send me a Clinton/Kaine 16 campaign t-shirt.  As well as actually wanting to register my support from across the atlantic, it was also prompted by seeing a "Dole/Kemp" t-shirt in a documentary and deciding it might be nice to have a historic or historical item for the future depending on which way the election goes.

You might have noticed me tweet a photograph the first time I wore it.

This was the day I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and although I wasn't unaware enough that it might attract some attention not to include a spare t-shirt in my backpack.  In museum, and entire family passing by me in the railyard at the back kept their eyes fixed on my chest as I walked towards them. There were also comments. One of the invigilators said that she liked the t-shirt and another older woman who'd stood next to me during a presentation explained that she "admired my fashion statement."  Both were American judging by their accents.

In the days I've worn it since, the attention is always there.  The odd glance as I pass by, people reading my chest.  I've been pointed at from a car a few times.  I assume it's because of the t-shirt.  I hope it isn't something else.  Part of me wonders if I should wait until after the election before wearing it again when it becomes a blue t-shirt with words on.  But I genuinely want Clinton to win and wearing the t-shirt is a tiny way of showing that even if it probably has zero chance of changing the minds of any random US tourists who might notice it on their rounds about the city.

September 20, 2016

Soup Safari #71: Tomato and Pepper at The Bakery. by Feeling Listless

Lunch. £3.50. The Bakery, Atkinson Art Gallery and Library, Lord St, Southport PR8 1DB. Phone: 01704 533333. Website.

September 18, 2016

My Favourite Film of 1928. by Feeling Listless

Film Unlike some directors, and actors, Martin Scorsese is unafraid to give interviews. The IMDb lists three hundred and fifteen appearances by the man as "self" and that probably barely scratches the surface of how many time his opinion's been sought on a range of film related subjects which doesn't include the occasions when he's publicising his latest picture.  Search for him on YouTube and you could spend the next month just watching him talk about this and that and you'd probably come out the other end having had as decent a film education as those of us who went to college to do the same.

All of which is pre-amble to explain that although I have a snatch of an interview with him in my head, I can't remember where he said it.  My guess is it was either during an episode of Mark Cousins's Scene By Scene series or a South Bank Show from roughly the same time, either publicising the release of Kundun or Casino.  Or both.  In other words, I'm paraphrasing a memory which has been lodged in my braincells for a couple of decade but which had a profound effect on my attitude to film going forward.  Yet I can't remember the details of how it happened.  Was he sitting opposing Bragg or Cousins?  Nope, don't know.

He was talking about directing Sharon Stone in Casino and how she was having difficulty getting to grips with her role as hustler and former prostitute who marries Robert De Nero's Casino manager and how his strategy was to ask her to watch La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and specifically the famous close up of lead actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the moment when Joan recants her testimony, which is one of the great masterpiece of silent acting.  Stone's performance is equally extraordinary in different ways and is one of the reason I prefer Casino to Goodfellas (although it's worth adding that I much prefer Martin's non-gangster pictures in general anyway).

But Scorsese's delivery service was more interesting.  Apparently at around that time he was amassing an archive of films for just this occasion, the main plank of which was on VHS, his methodology being to task his assistants with recording as many films as he could from television.  There wasn't much detail about this, that I could remember, but it was so that, if he did want to screen some segment or a whole film for a cast or crew member to prove his point he could just pull it from the shelf.  Note this was just before the advent of DVD and as is still the case now when there's still plenty of material which isn't purchasable.

Many things struck when I heard this.  Firstly how big an archive he must have.  Having collected lots of television on VHS even at that stage and knowing how much room all of those tapes filled in my room, just how did he have the space to put them all?  What about the cataloguing process?  If he's on set and decides that he wants to show Joe Pesci a scene from a William Wyler directed poverty row drama like Dead End, he's going to want that sharpish is everything simply stored in alphabetical order or was there a card catalogue.  How did he know what had been recorded?  Did the interns send him a weekly report?  Did he send them his picks from the newspaper.

But above all it was "that's so cool" and so began my collecting obsession and for the next twenty years as I set about amassing films.  Lots and lots of films.  Certainly more than I'll ever get around to watching.  If you're a long term reader and I mean really long, you'll have read about this when explaining how they're catalogued in 2009 (and yes, I'm still using chronological by year in which they're set) and when there was a near catastrophic disaster, which I explained in the review for the opening of Liverpool Biennial 2010.

Notice this was before I had home broadband and although Lovefilm existed and I was latterly receiving discs from them, like I said, not everything is available for rental plus purchasing can be very expensive.  But charity shops are charity shops and sales are sales and PVRs exist so it's actually relatively easy to amass a collection especially if you're diligent about it and prepared to the put the hours in.  Which I was and have.  It's possible to become very obsessive about collecting.

How often did watch?  Well ... like I said there's only so many hours available in every human life.  Although for a while I'd check the BFI's monthly listing for suggestions as to watch to watch next, utilising the Lovefilm subscription and the collection to simulate their seasons in my own home, obscurity and availability eventually led to this petering out.  Plus I'd have runs of really quite depressing films.

Plus then we did get broadband.  Which begat Lovefilm Instant, what's now Amazon Prime.  And Netflix.  And NowTV.  And mostly lately MUBI.  Catalogues of streamable films mostly in HD, mostly with better sound and picture quality to dvd.  Although there's some seepage, not everything is available all the tome, poor in some areas, there is still more than enough to keep anyone busy.

So lately I've stopped collecting as much.  Been more specific in what I'm looking for.  What's the point in buying all the blockbusters if they're available at the push of a button, especially if they're only going to be watched once?

Has Scorsese done the same?  Does he simply subscribe to the dozens of streaming services available in the US now, which also includes TCM and HBO?

Mores to the point what's happened to all of his VHS tapes?

Liverpool Biennial 2016: The Walker Art Gallery. by Feeling Listless

"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do!"
-- The Doctor, "Survival"
Art Here we are then the final destination for my TARDIS in the official Biennial at the Walker, the final venue for so many of these projects.   As ever the main contribution is the John Moores Painting Prize and as ever I spent a lot of time shaking my head, rolling my eyes, sighing and wondering what the judges were thinking.  After the generous selection of portraits and landscapes and illustrative paintings, in 2016, we're back to swathes of abstraction interspersed with dashes of melancholia and nihilism.  Having come to terms with the fact that I'll never be entirely happy with the selections in these biannual exhibitions and least of all with the chosen winner, let's excavate what I didn't find unattractive.

One of the key connections between many of the works is control and attention to detail.  Gemma Cassey's Halves II (Continuum), the painting I chose for the people's vote, has minutely rendered wavy lines in acrylic so close together that it's almost impossible to see how they might be kept separate.  Not just horizontal; by cross hatching them with vertical lines, she'll able to create two tones intersected in the middle.  It's fascinating.  On a much larger scale but with similar restraint is Alex Rennie's Totem, in which splodges of black paint against a salmon coloured background somehow create a three dimensional space filled with columns with perspective, the seemingly haphazard stroke choices being nothing of the kind.

There are some landscapes.  John Stark's Beasts of England II shows pigs being reared in a wet, muddy field offering an apocalyptic farming vision.  The always good Nicholas Middleton is back with Figures in an Arch, a much smaller, simpler work than usual depicting a group of shabbily dressed people and a chest of drawers on the edge of a darkened tunnel looking into the unknown.  Mandy Payne returns too with another of her paintings of a derelict tower block, No Ball Games Here, an austere image of a concrete balcony over looking more concrete balcony albeit painted in pastel colours.  The overall impression you gain from this collection is far from optimistic.  Gathered together it's entirely apocalyptic.  Thank goodness the Doctor will always be there to save us.

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Updated using Planet on 24 September 2016, 04:48 AM