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Friday, January 17, 2014 / Duncan Forgan

Dear Better Together: I was going to vote No to Independence, but you’re pushing me away

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When the referendum was announced, I felt quite strongly that Scottish independence was a silly idea.  I’m hardly a fan of the current UK Government, but I believed in the Union as something that, on balance, Scotland benefited from, and contributed positively to.  Yes campaigners may be quick to point out that statistic about how many Westminster election results bore no relation to Scottish voting data, but I’m fairly sure that I could find more than one Scottish-sized sample of voters in the UK who were “irrelevant” in the final tally.  Anyway, with such a poor voter turnout, how can any of us complain that British politics has stopped being representative? And how would an independent Scotland do any better? Would rural communities be in thrall to the Central Belt, as the UK seems to be to the South of England?

So I was moderately certain of my answer: I didn’t want to see a positive relationship binned because of some recent, admittedly moronic decision-making.  As the Scottish Government announced their policies in dribs and drabs, I scoffed along with the Better Together campaign.

Then the Yes campaign’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, was released.  At over 600 pages, it’s a fairly large time sink to go from cover to cover, but given my major complaint against voting Yes was a lack of facts or answers to policy questions, I felt that I should listen to what they had to say.

Most of the facts in the document refer to the present, and rightly so – facts pertaining to the future violate the laws of physics.  It is easy to criticise it as

a) an SNP manifesto (because parts of it are), and

b) as a “wishlist” for Scotland’s future political framework, predicated on negotiations with bodies like the UK government and the EU, apparently because people seem to have forgotten “wishlist” is another word for manifesto.

All political decisions are based on uncertainty – it seems to me the Better Together voices are hooting about uncertainty after independence, without dealing with the uncertainties about where the UK is going.  I believe that Scotland and the UK as a whole should remain in the EU, but that is potentially subject to an in-out referendum in the future.  Any ballot is embedded in uncertainty, regardless of which way you vote (and even if you don’t vote at all).

The thing that bugs me most about the whole debate so far is its depressingly predictable trajectory of positive and negative campaigning.  The whole situation is admittedly biased from the start (“Yes” being a positive word and “No” being a negative word), but it seems to me like Better Together have accepted their fate, and much of their campaign appears to be deconstructing the Yes campaign’s White Paper.  While the Yes campaign have dedicated pages and pages of positive copy to Scotland’s Future (with a healthy side of negative jabs at Westminster), all I could find from the Better Together side was a few paragraphs on a website.

The White Paper is a vision for the future of Scotland.  You might not like aspects of it (I found parts I wasn’t sure of), some parts may simply not stand up to the evidence, but you may like some parts of it.  One thing I particularly welcomed was the discussion of a written constitution for an independent Scotland.  It’s all well and good to point out where the numbers don’t add up, but the Yes campaign can point to this paper (plus its supporting documents on fiscal and defence policy) and say to the No campaign: “where’s yours?”

At that point, it doesn’t matter if the White Paper is made of congealed pixie dust – its mere existence shows the electorate that one side is more engaged than the other.  Better Together need to produce a vision for the future of Scotland inside the UK.  Given their cross-party membership, they probably need to produce several.

At the beginning of the debate, the electorate were hungry for facts and policies, so that they could make an informed choice.  The Yes campaign have made their case well, couched in the language of hope (and hope used well is a powerful political tool).  There is a growing feeling of malaise and distrust towards politicians, and a sense that any figures can be massaged to look better or worse.  Exchanges like this, between Yes Prime Minister’s PM Jim Hacker and Cabinet Secretary Humphrey Appleby, are practically aphorisms:

Hacker: The statistics are irrefutable…

Humphrey: Statistics? You can prove anything with statistics.

Hacker: Even the truth.

Humphrey: Yes… No!

Thirty years later, TV’s most famous Scottish political animal is the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, which does not really help matters.  My laboured point is that the electorate don’t care about the details, mostly because they don’t trust them.  They care about the message that the Yes campaign is sending – that an independent Scotland would move away from unpopular policies, stash its vast oil money in an Energy Fund and become an affluent Nordic clone, with mountains of free childcare, bus passes, university degrees and puppies.

The No campaign needs a message of its own.  Do you want a written constitution? Let’s discuss it at UK level, I suspect there are a lot of people who might like the idea.  Tuition fees? Let’s find a better solution.  Rural broadband and 4G distribution are not problems unique to Scotland.  Improvements to the distribution of Common Agricultural Policy rebates? Of course that’s a good idea.

In short? Better Together, stop scoring own goals, and give me some powerful reasons to convince me that the UK is the place to be long-term, not simply reject something that doesn’t yet exist.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 / Duncan Forgan

Are we in for a Really Bad Winter? Or how does long range forecasting work?

Duncan Forgan:

If you haven’t been following Research the Headlines, where Young Academy of Scotland members investigate how research is portrayed in the media, then check out one of my recent posts on weather forecasting. I’m managing their posts this month, so feel free to suggest any stories or topics you want us to cover!

Originally posted on :

At this time of year, the media is full of dire predictions for the upcoming winter.  The Daily Express’ recent headline stated that the Winter of 2013/14 was forecast to be ‘the worst in 100 years‘, with record snowfall and below-average temperatures from November onwards.  This headline came from long range forecasts given by Vantage Weather Services and Exacta Weather, private companies that generate forecasts independently from the more familiar Met Office.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013 / Duncan Forgan

What if Civilisations Act Like Parasites? Implications for SETI

The parasitic alien civilisation in Independence Day

The parasitic alien civilisation in Independence Day

We have no way of knowing how an alien civilisation will act.  This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  After all, it’s very easy to explain away the lack of contact with alien life (Fermi’s Paradox) by simply saying “well, they don’t want to talk to us”, or “they’re not allowed to because of the Prime Directive“.  These sorts of arguments are the weakest solutions to Fermi’s Paradox, because they rely on knowledge we don’t have.

So how do we solve this conundrum? Sadly, we can’t – at least until we make first contact, that is.  So in the meantime, we are forced to play let’s pretend, and speculate on how alien civilisations will behave.  But we can still be sensible, and rein in our wilder ideas.  Ideally, our educated guesses should have a basis in something biological – not too Earth-centric, but in processes that we think must occur regardless of where life arises.

So Jonathan Starling and I turned to the concept of symbiosis.  Symbiosis describes the relationship between two different species.  These relationships can be broadly categorised as

  1. Parasitical – one species (the parasite) uses the other (the host) to its own advantage, having a negative effect on the host.
  2. Mutualist – both species benefit from the interaction.
  3. Commensalist – both species interact, and one benefits, but the host is not affected positively or negatively

We decided to model the interaction between a civilisation and its host planet in the same way, using my computer models of civilisation growth in the Milky Way, to see how this would affect the number of communicating species in the Galaxy.  Our simulated civilisations can either feast on their planets, destroying it as a deadly virus kills its host, or they can work with their environment, in a slower but more rewarding growth.

But what happens when the virus can jump from one host to the next? If a deadly virus has plenty of new hosts within close distance, it can kill its host and jump to the next without killing itself.  But if there are not enough new hosts, then the virus will die.

We added interplanetary and interstellar colonisation into the model to see how different species behaviours are transmitted into the Milky Way at large.  Does it pay to be a parasite, sucking your planet dry and moving on? Or do better behaved, less aggressive civilisations win the day?

The number of hosts/planets available to a civilisation will depend on how “near” they seem, which depends on how quickly the civilisation can travel.  A fast ship will be able to cross larger distances and “infect” planets more easily.  We ran the model several times, increasing the maximum colonisation speed from Voyager’s velocity, 10x Voyager’s velocity to 100x Voyager’s velocity.

These top speeds we are setting for these colonising species aren’t particularly high: Voyager is currently travelling at about a hundred thousandth of the speed of light.  A clever probe might be able to use gravitational slingshots to boost up to nearer a hundredth of the speed of light.

We found that if the civilisations can only colonise slowly, then it doesn’t pay to be a parasite.  As you can see from the graph, mutualists (blue) tend to do better than the parasites (red).

The number of civilisations in the Galaxy with time.  The red line shows the parasites, the blue the mutualists, and the black line is the total.

The number of civilisations in the Galaxy with time, in our model. The time parameter is scaled so that 1=the present, and 0=the Big Bang.  The red line shows the parasites, the blue the mutualists, and the black line is the total.

As we increase the velocity, we increase the number of available hosts, making it less costly to be a deadly parasite, until at 100x Voyager’s velocity, parasites dominate the Galaxy, colonising and destroying planets that would have hosted benevolent civilisations, before the good guys could even pick up tools.  This is analogous to invasions of species on Earth – sometimes, a species will enter a local ecosystem from outside and simply out-eat and out-breed its competitors.  In the UK, the grey squirrel’s dominance of the native red squirrel is a classic example.

Colonising at high speed allows the parasites to leave the mutualists behind and conquer the Galaxy.

Colonising at high speed allows the parasites to colonise mutualist planets before they develop civilisations, and conquer the Galaxy!

So what does this mean for the real world? Sadly, not as much as we would like.  This work is a speculative exercise in civilisation behaviour, a somewhat contrived numerical gedankenexperiment in a sandbox.   It doesn’t solve the problem of our ignorance of other civilisations’ behaviour.  It describes a (most likely fictional) Milky Way where civilisations develop one behaviour type very early in their existence, and don’t learn from their experiences.  The survival of the human race has depended (and will depend) on our ability to understand and move on from our mistakes!

But, the message of this experiment is important.  Once a parasitical civilisation passes the technological barriers to interstellar colonisation – at a speed that is relatively modest – then it will make its presence felt very quickly.  In this scenario, we must solve Fermi’s Paradox with one of the following possibilities:

i) Interstellar travel is impossible or very difficult;

ii) Parasitical civilisations have a very short lifetime – they either destroy their host and themselves, or they change their behaviour and stop being parasites

iii) Parasitical civilisations are not that common in the first place

Ultimately, Jonathan and I wanted to use this experiment to reflect on humanity’s relationship with the Earth.  Are we parasites, commensalists or mutualists? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

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