The men who stare at Jon Ronson

A fake Twitter account satirises a world in thrall to robots.

I'm writing because I have just watched this Jon Ronson video. In it, Ronson tracks down a trio of academics who have created a piece of computer code that samples and mimics some of his stylings, and then tweets nonsense as Jon_Ronson.

Ronson is incensed by this - rightly or wrongly - but his exploration of their motives ends with them revealing themselves as making a postmodern, or perhaps post-ironic (who the hell knows or cares?) statement about the world being in thrall to the decisions of robots.

The video is interesting. I like these people (I don't think Ronson does). I like the way they sit in a row on the sofa and absorb his exasperation. And what's more, they have a point.

In May 2008, I met a very senior mathematician who told me we might be about to encounter a massive financial meltdown. The problem, he said, was that "about 80 per cent of all moves made in financial transactions are the results of decisions taken by black boxes - the dealers just do not know what they are doing any more."

I wrote the story for New Scientist, and - for very boring reasons to do with timing and news pegs - it got spiked. Six months later, we were in the global financial crisis. At least I can say it's not my fault.

The black box models used in financial trading are not some value-free piece of mathematical truth. According to Professor Yuri Manin, now retired, but director of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, they stretch the logical truths of mathematics to breaking point.

The accuracy of the computers' analyses of the markets was being taken on trust, he said - especially when dealing with "virtual" commodities such as hedge funds and derivatives.

In scientific disciplines, such as theoretical physics, the performance of such models would be judged on whether they reflect the real-world behaviour of the process being modelled. But the closed nature of the models used for virtual transactions, where nothing is actually bought or sold, means their accuracy is uncheckable: there is no "real world" aspect to the process.

In such systems, the values of commodities can flip wildly, Manin said, growing exponentially or collapsing at the stroke of a key. Because the traders have no idea what the parameters of their models are, they are powerless to stop this happening.

It's the point that Dan O'Hara, a lecturer in literature at Cologne University (and part-time Ronson-baiter), makes in the video. "I want to understand those algorithms, and furthermore I want to help other people understand those algorithms," he says. "I want to make people aware of these... bits of code that are having really important effects on our lives."

Sadly, if no one listened to a professor of mathematics, who will listen to a lecturer in literature? Really, though, it doesn't matter: as long as it remains acceptable for traders to gamble away other people's pensions in games whose rules they don't even understand, someone's got to keep shouting. Sorry, Jon. But you'll probably get over it.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange minutes after the Federal Reserve announcement. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise.

Photo: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
Show Hide image

We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.