Thursday, May 21, 2015

Classic pix: cat blanket (Dec 28th 2002)

Clare finds a whole new meaning to the term 'cat blanket'

And now, children, it's time for sleep ...

We abandoned these cats to local care when we left America to return to the UK, saving them months of onerous quarantine restrictions. Where are they now?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Land drones

The Iraqi army has collapsed again in the face of a few hundred ISIS insurgents: what you get when you seek to impose a western-style military model on a faction-riven clan/tribal society. Understandably, the Americans don't want to put their own troops in harm's way.

I wonder what the Pentagon would say if you offered them land drones? I have in mind a small tank, about the size of a Toyota saloon. It would come with Google car autonomous navigation, with strategic direction from some guy in a carrier a few hundred kilometres offshore.

With high quality video fed into the operator's VR headset and a rich weapon set this must be virtually isomorphic to Quake or any number of FPS games. I would add a big, built-in explosive device: if captured or immobilised we'd get a drone suicide bomber.

Why don't we see land drones in action already? Well, it shouldn't be long, but I would bet the big problem is logistics. Keeping the devices fuelled, weaponed-up and maintained in hostile terrain seems to be the hard problem here.


A further thought. With a network of drones (reconnaissance, assassin, applied lethality) it becomes possible to develop a detailed realtime model of the battle space. The controlling tactical AI then becomes a critical systems element - the chess grandmaster of force deployment.

On our side, at least, war is just another game.

iPad 2

I bought my mother's iPad 2 from her on the off chance I could make something of it. Stranded at IOS 4.3.1 it had long since given up accepting new apps. That release is so old it won't even auto-update.

I had no idea how to proceed.

Much googling followed. You have to download iTunes to a PC and then connect the iPad. I was browsing Amazon for USB connectors before realising that the iPad charging cable is also, secretly, a USB connector. After that, the OS upgrade was just fiddly and slow, around 40 minutes.

I've now populated the tablet (16 GB at IOS 8) with apps: The Times, The Economist, BBC News and Weather, Zoopla, RightMove, Sudoku, the Wells Film Centre. Clare is delighted.

Parenthetically, the level of security messing around (ids, usernames, passwords) to get a tablet into service ab initio is just overwhelming, especially if you use two-factor authentication: and why wouldn't you? You end up re-entering the same Apple-Ids, Google account passwords over and over again. In the end I was fantasising about an AI, a personal security agent, which would just be authenticated and activated once, and would then just sort it out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Down to Primark in Broadmead, Bristol yesterday to buy jeans. A year after it had become necessary, I finally downsized my trousers from 36" waist to 34" waist; an end to looking like a silent comic.

For fun I tried on an 'ultra skinny' pair - could barely get them on - and in the mirror saw an older version of a very garrulous comic.

But no, I am not Russell Brand's embarrassing dad: they went back on the rails.

As we walked around Cabot Circus, I remarked to Clare that something very strange is happening: almost none of the shoppers we saw were fat ...

Monday, May 18, 2015

My mother's fox

For reasons not unconnected with 'noticing' we suspected a rat in my mother's back garden. The BadgerCam was duly deployed as a putative 'RatCam' - but we misnamed it: FoxCam would have been better.

The fox returned on several nights and there were also visits from the perennial cats. The rat, however, failed to make an appearance.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Suburban Fox Preview

A teaser for tomorrow's post

Fixing Labour

Mark Mardell wrote an intelligent piece on the BBC website, pointing out that the conventional wisdom as to why Labour lost the election has congealed out as follows:
"Step back from the angst of supporters, and it may not be that hard to see why Labour failed. An economic recovery, hailed by independent organisations as the result of government policy, undid a party that had loudly proclaimed for five years that the coalition's policies would lead to economic disaster. Combine that with an uncharismatic and uninspirational leader, then you might argue no further debate is necessary. Fat chance of that.

Defeat breeds resentment, and this one has opened up old divisions. A chorus of Blairites, led by the man himself, has declared that Ed's problem was ignoring those with aspiration and ambition, failing to appeal to those running business."
This is an incredibly superficial diagnosis, which fails to capture the diversity of trends which undercut Labour's simplistic message during the election. Mardell continues,
"The Scottish wipeout is Labour's biggest problem. Fail to solve it, and Labour can forget ever having a comfortable majority again. It is hard to argue Labour were wiped out in Scotland because the SNP outflanked them to the right with their appeal to the business community and the ambitious and aspirational. But it is true the SNP drew in to people from left, right and centre, just as the modernisers say Labour should. It was the politics of economic self-interest, but cast in a very different light. Tribally sneering at "the reactionary ideology of nationalism" as Mr Blair does, will not reach the central belt of Scotland, the middle ground of Midlothian."
Lenin and Trotsky were quite aware of the anti-imperialist power of nationalism, and certainly didn't reduce it to economic class interest. Nor, by the way, did they consider it reactionary. Below Marxism's radar lies the indisputable dynamic of ethnic social solidarity, perhaps the most powerful emotional motivator in the mass.

Then we come to the second, and quite different fissure - UKIP:
"The increase in votes for Nigel Farage's party wasn't translated into parliamentary seats, but, although it is early days in terms of research, it probably hurt Labour a lot. If we believe - and I do - Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, authors of Revolt on the Right, these voters are often former Labour supporters - older, less educated, those left behind on the tides of globalisation, stranded on the shores of post-industrialisation. They may have had too many disappointments to feel much ambition or aspiration. They are a challenge for Labour, and any new leader will spend a good deal of time thinking how to deal with the concerns of Europe and immigration.

Whether to share their fears, or confront them will be a big decision."
The third driver of Labour's defeat is paradoxically the very element which informs so much of Labour's own leadership, the trendy-leftism of petit-bourgeois radicalism and the aristo-liberal wing of the party:
"Those members who still proudly call themselves socialist. This is not about Old Labour - they are more likely to be baristas or barristers than boilermakers. It is easy as an outsider, as a journalist, to treat politics as an intellectual game about how best to win power - but many people, particularly the foot soldiers, particularly after the death of purely tribal loyalties, are in it because they passionately believe in winning power to do something specific. Many of them are suspicious of the later incarnations of New Labour, not because it reached an accommodation with wealth and business, but because it seemed to worship at the same altar, to regard the party's core beliefs in redistribution and equality as childish fantasies from a past age.

Perhaps to Mr Blair, they are the problem, people who may equate "ambition" with greed. They might point out that a man who claims to be worth "only" £20m may find it harder than most to squeeze through the eye of a needle to understand their point of view. Most successful Labour leaders will confront the left at some point, but the concerns of this group go to the existential question "What is the party for?"
Mark Mardell is as baffled as the rest of us as to the putative 'new direction for Labour'. I agree with his concluding thought, that these centrifugal dynamics are:
" a reflection on the complex conundrums that will face any new Labour leader, the tearing apart of the old alliance that made up a Labour majority, and so the political need to satisfy groups with very different, indeed, contradictory demands. But looking for a Social Democratic universal theory of everything may be missing the point. What the party desperately wants is a leader who can pull the disparate threads together and articulate them as common purpose.

Whether she or he exists is another matter."
Good luck with that then.

"Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is to resign next month, he has announced. It comes despite Mr Murphy narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence at a meeting of the party's national executive in Glasgow. Mr Murphy said he would tender his resignation alongside a plan to reform the party. He lost his seat in last week's general election as the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, leaving Labour with a single MP in Scotland. Mr Murphy said he wanted to have a successor as leader in place by the summer, and confirmed he would not be standing for a seat at the Scottish Parliament in next year's election."
Apparently Jim Murphy was far and away the most competent senior leader in the Scottish Labour Party. His departure at the hands of the left further weakens the 'come back' strategy, not just in Scotland but in the whole of the UK.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Clare makes bread

Clare is making bread again. As usual, the trigger was discovering a large packet of wholemeal flour which had been overlooked for .. well, let's just say .. way too long. A belated thanks, Adrian, for your gift.

Clare makes bread
Clare tipped it into a large, clear-plastic tupperware box and we examined it minutely. After some minutes there was no sign of movement, so we determined that the two months over the "use by" date didn't matter. And as you can see, it has breaded up beautifully (I have just eaten the slice you see on the plate above).

The loaflettes
Three loaves in all plus a host of little loaflettes, pictured above in the oven.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Google fembot

The Times reported yesterday on Google's guiding principles.

Google rules

Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, while holding true to their unofficial slogan “don’t be evil”. They wrote this list of “ten things we know to be true” when Google was just a few years old.

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow. 
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well. 
  3. Fast is better than slow. 
  4. Democracy on the web works. 
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer. 
  6. You can make money without doing evil. 
  7. There’s always more information out there. 
  8. The need for information crosses all borders. 
  9. You can be serious without a suit. 
  10. Great just isn't good enough. 


Once upon a time in the near-to-middle future, Peter was eating his organic, wholemeal muesli when his glance fell upon his wife, leaning over the sink. A soup├žon of lust briefly possessed him - and in that moment a Google fembot appeared, slipping through the kitchen door (how did it - she - know?)

A Google fembot

A furtive Peter followed where she beckoned and his breakfast fantasies were sated. His long-suffering partner did her best to ignore the whole sorry proceedings, a part of her breathing a sigh of relief.

Walking down his drive to the Google car, which had appeared as if by magic as he left the house, Peter pondered on the fembot's last silky words, breathed in his ear as she prepared to vanish.

"I can recommend an excellent book on HyperJava for you. Would you like me to order it?"

How had she known?

In his cubicle at the regional Googleplex, Peter was code-hacking when his team leader breezed by. She smiled as she passed, leaving a trail of perfume, pheromones and charisma. Peter felt an unwanted stirring in his loins but before he could suppress it, a beautiful fembot shimmied across wearing little more than a tee-shirt. Peter had no real alternative; it was corporate policy that all extraneous impulses must be purged - nothing must be allowed to get in the way of concentration.

An exhausted Peter stumbled back to his terminal. The fembot's last words echoed in his head as he sat down and wondered - what on earth would he do ... with his spare copy of HyperJava?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cheddar Gorge walk

Wednesday finds us walking the south side of the Cheddar Gorge. The sun is out and we're harvesting vitamin D.

Clare communes with Nature

The author fronting the Cheddar reservoir with Brent Knoll in background

The Cheddar Gorge walk - south side
A view across the gorge

Some pagan thing we do here in Somerset ...
Another little secret: we were doing a Fast Day on Wednesday - encouraging our cells to enter repair mode, take a holiday from all that digestion and stuff. Didn't stop a Coors Light for Clare at the end of two hour's walking; and, 'Butcombe Bitter is a moreish Mendip masterpiece' so 120 Calories didn't stand in the way of a pint for me either.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The genetics of marriage

Marriage is about procreation, as the Catholic Church carefully explains. We all have a eugenic interest in our children so it would not be too surprising that married couples might show some interesting genetic correlations. We already know about assortative mating for intelligence, but could there be more?

A recent study, 'Genomic Assortative Mating in Marriages in the United States' discusses
"genome-wide genotype data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS; number of married couples = 989) and Health Retirement Survey (HRS; number of married couples = 3,474), this study investigates genomic assortative mating in human marriages."
The paper was published six months ago; their main result:
"Overall, our data suggest a degree of genomic assortative mating at the allelic level in married couples who were born in the first half of the 20th century in the United States. Apparently, this degree of genetic assortment averaged over the human genome is much smaller than the 0.20 Pearson had conjectured based on the observed correlations in height and arm span between husband and wife. As alluded earlier, certain genetic variants such as those underlying height are likely to be heavily assorted; however, the level of overall assortment in the genome seems much less.

However, a genomic correlation of 0.015–0.02 with married couples, estimated for the “positive” assorting SNPs in HRS, can represent an important genomic assortment for at least two reasons. A married-couple correlation may be compared with genetic relatedness among biological relatives. A genomic correlation of 0.015–0.02 is close to the average genomic correlation (0.0312) among second cousins (or the genomic correlation [0.0312] of an individual with his grandfather’s grandfather). While an individual passively and unselectively inherits half of his or her genes from each of the two parents, married individuals consciously or unconsciously assort on genes that play a strategic role in their reproductive marriages."
A genomic correlation  of 0.03125 = 1/32. According to Richard Dawkins,
"For relationships as distant as third cousin, 2 x (1/2)8 = 1/128, we are getting down near the baseline probability that a particular gene possessed by [an individual] will be shared by any random individual taken from the population."
Dawkins is referring to an ethnically-homogeneous population, as in the phrase 'old English stock'. The GWAS research above proposes that, on average, husbands and wives are more closely related by a factor of four than random members of the population. Assortative mating indeed.

Expect much more on this down the line.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I was a terrible teacher. All my interest was in teaching those secondary-modern kids maths. This was not, however, their interest; they needed a lion-tamer, not an intellectual. After my Head of Department's nervous breakdown I headed off. The Civil Service seemed uninterested in hiring a member of the International Marxist Group; KBS Computer Services was less picky and so I became a COBOL programmer.

They say COBOL damages the brain - but I speak as a survivor. After some years of commercial programming I made my escape into a research environment (STL) and programmed in the world's best language, LISP.

Alex is a Java developer and has been doing an assessment of various programming and scripting languages. He treats LISP with the utmost disdain, a response I consider unfathomable. To mention the lambda calculus would go right over his head - 'how many transactions per second?' would be his mindset.

I am thinking of playing around with Prolog. Its power and economy are legendary, and there's a neat online guide to writing expert systems in the language. In the past I struggled to conceptualise its depth-first, backtracking execution model. With LISP I could generally figure out what a succinct program was going to do; with Prolog, not so much. But this could change - there is a powerful free system, SWI Prolog to play with.

I have ordered a book which I will use to torment Alex. Sheer professional pride will surely force him to master the unification algorithm and resolution refutation in Horn clauses before the inevitable rejection of the language*.


* I don't mind the technical nitpicking - execution speed and memory management, etc; it's the moral disapproval - like 'what kind of idiot would you have to be to prefer this to Java?'