The Future of Everything

March 13, 2013

V&A reviews Truth or Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — David @ 12:07 am

“The aesthetic principles scientists are devoted to would see them banished to the naughty step at a self-respecting art school.” From a review of Truth or Beauty by Benjamin Eastham in V&A Magazine.

January 21, 2013

Truth or Beauty review in Sunday Times

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — David @ 4:58 pm

Nice review of Truth or Beauty in The Sunday Times. “For centuries, scientists have believed the universe to be rational and ordered, and that the laws governing it must therefore be straightforward. In this fascinating book, the mathematician David Orrell argues that this wish to find cosmic order has been motivated as much by an aesthetic impulse as by a quest for truth.” Read more here.

November 26, 2012

Truth or Beauty – the page 99 test

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 9:09 pm

“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford

See the test applied to Truth or Beauty at The Page 99 Test.


November 25, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — David @ 12:51 am

Inaugural issue of Strike magazine (a descendant of the notorious anarchist mag International Times) is on the theme F*cked and has contributions from:

Ralph Steadman – Peter Kennard – Laura Oldfield Ford – David Orrell – Nina Power – Mark Fisher – Lindsey German – Squash – Climate Rush – Dead Philosophers in Heaven.

Read the issue online here.


October 4, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 3:04 pm

One of the hardest things for weather experts to predict, is the probability that a heavy rain will cause a landslide. One forecaster from the National Hurricane Center in Miami said that for every mudslide they got right, they were “going to end up screaming wolf maybe 10 times.”

In politics it’s even harder to predict whether someone will win an election by a landslide (unless it’s a one-party dictatorship). However I’ll give it a try.

Forecasting models used by political scientists typically take into account factors such as the economy (unemployment, inflation, stockmarket, etc.), the term in office for current president/party (after 8 years people want a change), and military conflicts (winning or losing). All of these factors are in favor of a Democratic president.

However the current economic crisis has changed the landscape of the campaign. Obama has commanding leads in key swing states such as Ohio, Nevada, and Michigan (where McCain recently gave up his campaign). The ground is shifting. There’s going to be a landslide.

And there’s a 10 percent chance that I’m right.

September 28, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 2:28 pm

The credit crunch is beginning to resemble the great electricity blackout of 2003, except in slow motion. On the hot afternoon of August 14 that year, a powerplant in Ohio went out of service. Demand for electricity was high, and the system couldn’t cope. A chain of failures began that cascaded through the network until over 100 stations had to be shut down. Some 50 million people in the North-Eastern United States and Ontario, Canada lost their power.

Just before the blackout, none of those people would have been aware that their electricity supply was at risk. When they plugged in their kettle or shaver, there weren’t any warning signs that something could go wrong. It was business as usual. They had no clue that they would be walking home from work that night in the dark, because traffic lights had failed.

Our current crisis involves another source of power – money instead of electricity – and another utility – banks instead of power companies. But the dynamic is the same. Until the summer of 2007, banks kept on churning out money and credit to anyone who wanted it. The housing market was getting hot, but no warning bells were going off. Then the market turned, prices dropped, foreclosures rose. Banks got nervous and started charging more for credit, which exacerbated the problem. Then the banks started to fall: the UK’s Northern Rock, then Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, AIG. Today’s headline is that the UK building society Bradford & Bingley will be nationalised.

As with the 2003 blackout, the credit crunch doesn’t really have a single cause, but was the result of a system-wide vulnerability. What is clear, though, is that the risk models used by banks and financial institutions to price risk, are fundamentally flawed. They assume that the future will resemble the past, and that risks are independent rather than closely coupled.

We might never be able to predict such crashes, but at least we can guard against them and reduce their severity by making the system more robust – for example by increasing bank reserves, and limiting credit. And maybe it’s not a bad thing when some banks get nationalised. Banks in the end provide a utility – money – which is created by the government. And when I deposit money in a bank, I don’t care about innovation, I just want it to still be there the next morning.

Where is the safest place to deposit money in the UK today? Northern Rock. It’s owned by the government.

September 25, 2008

Disaster socialism

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 6:32 pm

The U.S. has been accused of practicing disaster capitalism in other countries such as Russia and Iraq – i.e. they exploit social and economic disasters to impose an extreme version of free-market capitalism (see The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein).

At home, though, it apparently works in reverse. They wait for unregulated financial markets to blow up of their own accord, and then they nationalise the banks and insurance companies and risky assets. In other words: disaster socialism.

September 8, 2008

Women’s work

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 10:28 am

A fascinating statement at the Republican convention by Rudy Giuliani. Responding to Democrat criticism of the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, he said:

“How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be vice president. How dare they do that. When do they ever ask a man that question? When?”

Hard to imagine that being said in any previous election. The following plot (from The Other Side of the Coin) shows the response by Americans to the following yes/no questions, from General Social Surveys:

Do you approve or disapprove of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her?

Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men.

Tell me if you agree or disagree with this statement: Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women.

If your party nominated a woman for President, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job?

General Social Surveys.

Plot showing the changing attitude to women’s role in the workplace in the United States. Source: General Social Surveys.

Since the late 1960s, the number of people who would oppose a woman becoming the first female president in American history (diamond symbol) has decreased by a factor of more than four. Giuliani’s statement is a reflection of this historical shift.

August 28, 2008

Future of biology

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 1:44 pm

Just returned from the International Conference on Systems Biology in Gothenburg, where I presented a brief talk on chronotherapy (see this New Scientist article). For me the most interesting session was the last one which featured keynote talks by two founders of systems biology (or at least systems biology institutes): Hiroaki Kitano of the Systems Biology Institute in Japan, and Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. Kitano started with a summary of the environmental problems such as global warming and ecosystem collapse which he believes threaten our civilization. He then focused on the importance of ocean systems and particularly coral reefs as carbon sinks, and explained some of the systems biology of coral and their problems coping with rising ocean temperatures. Coral reefs support a huge range of biodiversity and also absorb a lot of carbon, so their loss would be a double blow to the health of the world system.

Kitano’s talk was fascinating, though I’d have liked to hear his thoughts about another species that is important for carbon exchange, namely ourselves. If systems biology can be used to analyse coral reefs or the growth of yeast, maybe we could use it to analyse our own economy. An earlier talk, for example, had shown that yeast colonies are more robust to environmental shocks when they are growing slowly – are there implications for our own pro-growth economy?

Hood’s talk was very different, and was about how new technologies that can scan a drop of blood for protein markers will revolutionise healthcare. The idea is that every six months we will prick our finger with a machine that will send the info for analysis. If anything is out of whack, we get a message outlining the problem and telling us to check with a doctor. The machines could, at very low cost, test for thousands of proteins that act as advance markers for diseases including cancer.

Of course, the idea that we can accurately predict health sounds a little ambitious, given that we can’t predict the weather or the economy despite having excellent data. However just as observational weather data help us spot the development of storms, it’s easy to imagine that this technology will help detect and diagnose serious health problems. It will also be useful for analysing how patients are responding to toxic drugs such as chemotherapeutic agents.

August 8, 2008

UK House Price Crash?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 9:59 am

UK house prices have now fallen by 11% in the year to July, according to Halifax. This is the first double-digit retreat since the Halifax index was started in 1984 (see this report in the Guardian). In recent months, prices have been falling at the annual rate of about 20%. When will they hit bottom?

Some believe that the severity of the recent falls means that prices will soon bounce back. An article in the Financial Times argued that pent-up demand means that “the market could change very quickly and this downturn could end up being short-lived compared with the five or six years of pain suffered last time.” Others such as are calling for a fall of around 35%.

As with any asset, house prices don’t follow a completely regular cycle, but it’s still instructive to compare with history. The figure below shows how prices have expanded in recent decades in real terms (annual data from 1975 to 2007, prices rebased to 1975).


UK house prices, rebased

UK house prices, rebased

According to this it look like prices have a long way to fall. But it’s a little misleading, because most people buy with a mortgage, and interest rates are much lower than at the peak of the previous boom, so houses are more affordable. The next figure shows how estimated relative monthly costs look, after taking interest rates into account.

Estimated relative monthly payments

Estimated relative monthly payments

The plot is only approximate because it makes assumptions about how costs scale with mortgages, but it shows that what is remarkable about the recent boom was not so much its magnitude, but its duration – it took a long time to get to the top. A similar phenomenon was seen in other countries. The OECD Economic Outlook No. 78 notes that until the mid-1990s, many housing markets tended to follow a cycle, expanding in about six years and contracting in about five years, but this pattern broke when the global economy entered a regime of low interest rates and inflation.

One interpretation is that these factors set a kind of timescale for the economy. When inflation and interest rates are high, we learn to expect sudden price increases, and value also decays more rapidly, so economic time seems to be moving faster (an analogy in biology is the decay rate of proteins, which affects the size and rate of fluctuations in its level due to stochastic effects). That would explain why prices took so long to get to where they are, but it’s less clear how things will move on the way down, because the dynamics are different – more like a sudden release of tension than a slow build-up of force.

Whenever there’s a bubble in asset prices, a story is always developed that makes it look plausible – for example, house prices are high because the UK is an island without enough housing stock. But just because a place is crowded, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s expensive. Apart from its slow speed, the recent boom isn’t much different from previous booms, and the fall won’t be too different either. Real falls of at least 30% from the peak in the next few years don’t look at all unrealistic.

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