Monday, December 31, 2007

Trey Smith

Trey Smith, who was CTO of Cable and Wireless International back in 2001-2, and my boss there, died of lung cancer in September. I have only recently discovered this as we had not remained in touch.

Trey Smith

Here is the obituary notice from the Rappahannock Times.

"Died September 27, 2007

Theoren P. "Trey" Smith III, 53, of Great Falls, a physicist, died at home Sept. 27. He had lung cancer. Friends may call Oct. 5, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the family home.

Services will be held Oct. 6 at 11 a.m. at Reston Bible Church in Reston. Burial will be in East Aurora, N.Y. Dr. Smith was born Sept. 1, 1954, in Denver, Colo., to Kitty Smith and the late Theoren P.L. Smith. He held a Ph.D. and worked for a science and technology company.

Survivors include his wife, Kathy Smith; three daughters, Kristen, Julia and Kimberly Smith; a son, Theoren Smith; two brothers, Mark Smith and Nate Smith; and a sister, Susan S. Kranz.

Memorials may be sent to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Trey and Kathy Smith Lung Cancer Research Endowment, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, 401 N. Broadway, #121, Baltimore, MD 21231 or online at

Arrangements are by Adams-Green Funeral Home of Herndon."

Trey had been headhunted into C&W from the US Internet company Roadrunner, where he had been CTO. His style was avuncular and 'presidential' in the US executive sense. His public persona was extravert, gregarious and 'in charge' and he looked a million dollars in a smart suit. He was Republican through and through, and had been a navy submariner, of which he was very proud.

What Trey was not good at was the kind of machiavellian corporate politics which some English companies excel in, including C&W. Although appointed CTO, the job in reality was to fix the IT which had been outsourced - in a mess - to IBM. Trey could never accept his de facto role as CIO and fought continuously to acquire the network technology organisation. This was never going to happen.

I was VP for systems architecture reporting into Trey during this period, and along with my colleagues found it was not easy trying to do our jobs against the background of such a bitter turf war. And then as C&W International turned into a slow-motion train wreck, we got to spend most of our time downsizing the Office of Technology from around 2,000 people to less than 300. Not the most pleasant experience of any of our lives.

Trey left C&W before it collapsed into Chapter 11 in 2003, the Office of Technology being abolished. He moved on to various senior roles in the US R&D organisation SAIC, from whence this recent interview (here).

He was a very generous man, and both Clare and myself were shocked to hear of his death.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


We're just back from a three-day break in the Cotswolds, staying at the Grapevine in Stow-on-the-Wold. Not entirely clear what a "Wold" is.

The hotel was classy - featured in Signpost - and the restaurant was excellent, as was our room. What rather let it down was the bed: I still have the outline of bedsprings imprinted upon my body.

Yesterday we struck out to Warwick to visit the castle. Both Clare and myself had spent years as students in the area, and of course neither of us had ever visited the place. The castle has been completely 'touristified', with proper historical tableux and very lifelike models, plus the funfair in the courtyard which you see below.

Warwick Castle - within the walls

In the grounds there is an ice rink and a conservatory, near which peacocks brave the chill air. They appear to subsist on crisps and there is a never a shortage of (human) feeders.

Clare and the Peacock

Inside the castle, the rooms are furnished in the manner of a stately home of the 17th century - the banqueting hall shown below.

Nigel in the Banqueting Hall

Now we're back and the next job this afternoon is to put the Christmas decorations back in their boxes for another year. And to let the roomba out to play.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Roomba's first outing

It was the day after Christmas. I should be upstairs, practising my piano, but the Roomba got there first. Even as I write this, it's working away, vacuuming under the bed, hopefully not getting stuck.

We did this video of its very first outing, as we tried to figure out how to turn it on, and then how to have it not run over us!

Our other geeky toy is a pair of BT Freeway walkie-talkies. I could, perhaps, just justify these as a business expense - experience in push-to-talk. They operate in the 400 MHz band and have a 3 km operating range, apparently. They certainly work in the house!

Mostly they function as FM radios. Then you press "talk" and we're into "over", "roger", "wilco" and the other accoutrements of 1940s war movies. Great!

Update: the Roomba has finished upstairs, and has now been set to zoom around the downstairs. It's buzzing away in the background as Clare stares at it, fascinated.

Further update: after an hour's hard work, the power indicator went from green to red and we've had to put it on feed.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Carols at Salisbury Cathedral

Yesterday evening, Alex, Clare and myself motored down to Salisbury - through the sporadic fog - to attend the Christmas Carol Service. You get to queue in the quadrangle (there's probably a better name for it) outside the main Cathedral, from whence this picture was taken.

Inside the cathedral it was pretty cold, and we were forbidden to take pictures, so the snap below was covert. It shows the altar and crib with an angel suspended from the ceiling.

The carols were mostly traditional, except for an atonal "Deep Midwinter" by Judith Bingham (b. 1952). The choristers, girls and men, were of course, superb.

We returned to hot crumpets and Top Gear's Richard Hammond doing a programme on Evel Knievel.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The 'Chavtivity' or 'The Xmas Reindeer'

Very amused to see this modern nativity scene, known as the 'Chavtivity' or the 'Chav Xmas Card' (see story here).

From The Argus:
"In the picture Mary and Joseph are a pair of tracksuit wearing teenagers slumped in a battered bus shelter with their baby in a pushchair and a Staffordshire bull terrier on a chain. They are being greeted by three wise chavs, who are presenting them with gifts of booze, cigarettes and a stolen car stereo. Mary is chain-smoking and there is a Crimestoppers' poster of Joseph behind his head."
We also had our chav moments back in the US in 2001. Impressed by our neighbours' luminous displays, we went to WalMart to pick up some front-garden accessories of our own. As I pushed the huge boxes around on an outsized trolley, I heard a storeman exclaim 'Oh my gawd, it's the reindeer family!' - and so it was.

Our first problem was that it was self-assembly. I naturally delegated this problem to Clare, who was unamused.

However, she performed miracles and was delighted by the result.

We duly installed our two reindeer in the front garden. They were not just pretty lights - they had little motors so that their heads went up and down, and turned around in an attentive way. We were utterly pleased with this aesthetic effect, as Clare showed posing with the reindeer family in the gloom.

However, they only truly came alive after dark.

After a while, the motors failed so they remained stuck in one position, like sufferers from an obscure medical disease. We have never risen to such heights of Christmas exuberance since.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

SA: hell in a handcart?

The Scotsman has an article today "Chaos on way as ANC hands Zuma top job" (here). The depressing prognosis for South Africa is illustrated by reader comments following the article. One, by "Media 1 - capetown", reads as follows (link here).

"Prior to 1994 South Africa was one of the safest nations on Earth. The suburbs were clean, the roads were good, the electricity never went out, the water always flowed from the taps, violent crime was something you saw on a movie screen, sanctions inspired innovation, invention and growth, school children were safe, the laws on the roads were strict and people adhered to them, ministers were held accountable for their actions, problems were solved and people both black and white were divided by a racist government.
Today: South Africa is the most violent nation on Earth, 52 000 rapes per annum, almost 40,000 murders, the lights are beginning to go off more than once per week, which leads to millions lost in business and chaos on the roads.
The rivers and dams are becoming contaminated, the municipalites are incapable of managing the problems, and the budget money is always stolen. The roads are chaos, and the metro police who are supposed to manage them are corrupt and inept. There can be a traffic jam consisting of hundreds of cars due to a power outage, and the metro police, instead of assisting the situation, will hand out fines to motorists who edge over a white line without completely coming to a standstill. It has become so bad that local business has had to train pointsmen to alleviate the problems on the roads.
The head of the metro police is up on drunk driving charges, he rolled his car on the motorway and even had his blood samples stolen from the hospital. He may never be charged (incidently, he was a former ANC activist who blew up McGoos bar, killing many during apartheid).
The Chief of the South African Police, Mr Selebi, is up on corruption charges, although he probably won't be forced to stand trial.
The Chief Whip Tony Yengeni defrauded parliament, got 5 years and was out in 4 months.
The Health Minister is an alcoholic who was given a liver transplant before others on the list. She is still drinking, never in parliament and drawing a massive salary

South Africa is a kind of laboratory for African abilities to run a complex modern, capitalist economy and state. The black majority inherited a functioning entity. And like Zimbabwe, it appears to be falling apart.

James Watson, referencing empirical research by a number of authors, identified the issue as IQ. I am not so sure: a functioning, scalable capitalist economy seems to additionally require personality attributes in the mass of the population such as:

  • high empathy (contra impulses to random violence against strangers - team player),
  • high conscientiousness (maintain essential processes even without immediate reward)
  • low neuroticism (maintain a level-headed reaction to interpersonal & other issues).
These, of course, are particular values of three of the factors from the famous five-factor model of personality (Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism). They are also the qualities employers tend to look for when recruiting. The other two factors are 'Openness to Experience' - positively correlated with IQ, and Extraversion.

Richard Lynn, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Ulster, wrote an article here about racial differences in personality, which makes depressing reading.

I hope it doesn't all end in tears.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The 'Now' Calculator

One of the strangest results from special relativity is that a distant spacecraft moving away from or towards the earth at the present moment will consider that what is happening 'right now' on earth (according to the spacecraft crew) are events which to us are either in our past, or perhaps more surprisingly, in our future. For example:

1. A spacecraft in the Andromeda Galaxy moving away at 300 km/sec, at a time 'right now' according to us, considers the birth of Jesus to be happening 'right now'.

2. A missile at the distance of the moon (~400,000 km) and travelling towards us at 225 km/sec considers 'now' on earth to be one millisecond ahead of when we do.

3. An alien in a very distant galaxy, ten billion light years away, can move its 'now' for the earth plus or minus a human lifetime (70 years) simply by walking away from or towards the earth at 2 metres per second (4 mph). And we can do the same for it.

I have put together a small (25 kB) Excel online calculator here.

Input the event in the future (or past) you want to think about (the next election?) and the distance of the assumed spacecraft - typically some number of light-years. The calculator will then tell you how fast the spacecraft would be moving so that its crew - right now! - think that your event is happening 'right now', from their point of view.

Sobering for any of us who still think the future 'doesn't exist' because it 'hasn't happened yet'.

Piano diary #4: intervals key to sight-reading

Sight-reading! Tell me about it ... ! I've got three months (until the Grade 1 exam in April) to get it right.

I started by trying to learn the notes under each finger. Put your right-hand thumb on D, and then the fingers touch E, F, G, A. If the sight-reading test starts on D, and you are asked to put your thumb on D, then you can read the next note on the score and, if you know which finger is above that note, just play it. (You don't have to move your hands at Grade 1).

Two things subvert this approach. Forgetting the sharps and flats of the black notes, there are seven possible positions for the thumb to be placed, A-G: the pattern of notes under the fingers obviously varies with each. That’s 7 * 5 = 35 patterns to learn.

But of course you can’t ignore the sharps and flats - because they’re everywhere. And of course, they are built into the key signatures themselves.

And in non-test music, as bar follows bar, you are frequently told to move your hand position, which throws everything off. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the procedure is utterly ponderous:

- see the next note on the score - suppose it’s “a”
- name it to yourself (A)
- recall where your thumb (“1”) currently is (D)
- recall that in that position, A is under the little finger (“5”)
- depress the little finger.

There is a better way.

A few months back, the book I was studying made a big fuss about intervals (2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc). You were meant to look at adjacent notes and “by inspection” say what interval encompassed them. For example, a “D” followed by an “A” is the interval of a fifth. At the time, I had little idea of the point of this. But ...

With a little practice, it is possible to read the pattern of intervals straight off the score. We all spontaneously do it for 2nds, where the notes follow each other up or down the scale. If you can internalise the fingering of an interval (thumb to little finger typically spans a fifth, for example) then playing intervals is pretty direct. The new algorithm is simply this:

- identify the interval between current note and next note
- shape the fingers to encompass that interval and play it.

Much faster and permits controlled look-ahead.

In a certain sense, you have to know everything - including which note your finger is currently depressing. But moving to an interval-based approach to sight-reading really unlocks it for me.

The obvious metaphor is differential calculus. With intervals, playing the score is really like computing:

f(x + dx) = f(x) + f’(x)dx*,

so that next-note = current-note + interval.

* Or more correctly, difference equations. The key point is that the interval approach is invariant as regards differences in key (subject to managing accidentals - sharps and flats - correctly), pun unintended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

World's funniest joke

Can't resist it.

Two hunters are out in the woods in New Jersey when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed.

The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps 'My friend is dead! What can I do?' The operator says: 'Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.'

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says 'OK, now what?'

More funniest jokes here.

'Electromagnetism' with the Open University

Two days before the end of course registration, I finally made up my mind and enrolled with the OU for SMT359 - Electromagnetism (course description here). I quote:

"This course is concerned with the electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation that pervade the world around you. It shows how the main ideas of electromagnetism can be encapsulated in the famous Maxwell’s equations."

Maxwell's equations constitute one of the pinnacles of classical physics. I see the course as a rehearsal, mathematically speaking, for the OU's course on quantum mechanics (SM358 - here) which is not available until 2009.

I am mindful that even that is two steps away from the frontier. After basic quantum mechanics comes quantum field theory, and beyond that (for most researchers), string theory. Both seem inaccessible to mere mortals, but I recently discovered books covering each at advanced undergraduate level.

I have ordered "Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell" by A. Zee for Christmas (thanks, Alex!) and have my eye on "A First Course in String Theory" by Barton Zwiebach, for later. They both get pretty good reviews on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Just back from the dentist, where I had an old filling removed and replaced - lower left seven, as you ask.

As I lay on the fully-reclined couch, with two masked operatives advancing with instruments towards my face, I thought of a BBC website report I had read earlier today (here). I quote:

A retired CIA agent has said a top al-Qaeda suspect was interrogated using a simulated drowning technique, but that he believes it was justified. John Kiriakou told US broadcaster ABC that "water-boarding" was used when his CIA team questioned suspected al-Qaeda chief recruiter Abu Zubaydah. He said it might be torture but that it "broke" the detainee in seconds.

Mr Kiriakou said the day after water-boarding was used on Abu Zubaydah, the detainee told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to co-operate. "From that day on, he answered every question," the retired agent said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

I don't know about Allah, but as the high-speed drill whined ever-closer, I also felt a strong desire to co-operate!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ofcom's 2.6 GHz auction

Come mid-2008, Ofcom plans to auction thirty eight lots of 5 MHz spectrum between 2500 and 2690 MHz. (There will also be an auction of 15 MHz of spectrum between 2010 and 2025 MHz, which will not be further discussed in this note).
In the CEPT band plan for the 2.6 GHz spectrum block, twenty eight blocks (14 x 2) are reserved for 3G operators using WCDMA in paired slots (FDD - frequency division duplex). The remaining ten slots are intended for TDD services (time division duplex), most likely for mobile WiMAX - see figure 1 (click on picture to enlarge it).

Figure 1: The CEPT band plan for 2.6 GHz

To launch a national WiMAX service would probably require a minimum of two adjoining 5 MHz slots - the ten TDD slots could support five WiMAX operators in this way. A WiMAX channel could use up to 20 MHz for higher bandwidth, and an operator could deploy multiple WiMAX frequency bands. For example, three WiMAX ‘channels’, each of 20 MHz, would require 60 MHz or twelve 5 MHz slots. Adding in competing WiMAX operators might require even more TDD slots. To accommodate this, the Ofcom plan is to auction generic lots, which can be assigned later to 3G/FDD or WiMAX/TDD usage depending upon the winning bidders’ desires.

Value for Money?

Ofcom are experts in the area of spectrum auctions and in the broader issues of the telecoms industry. They are unlikely to have made obvious errors in either the objectives of the auction or its design, particularly when their work is carried out in public and is under the scrutiny of the industry as a whole. So any assessment of the auction and its possible outcomes should focus on more subtle effects.

a. The ‘market’
Ofcom has made much of the inherent lack of knowledge of the regulator, and how the ‘market’ will know more about the utility of this spectrum. While this is certainly correct, we should look more closely at the market structure which obtains here. In textbook discussion of the superiority of markets over, say, centrally-planned economies, there is a presumption of competitive markets, maximally-responsive to customer needs.
However, in mobile wireless, for well-understood reasons, the market structure is oligopolistic. Perhaps the most likely outcome of the 2.6 GHz auction is the existing five 3G operators (O2 - Telefónica; Orange - France Telecom; T-Mobile - Deutsche Telekom; Vodafone; 3 - Hutchison Whampoa) owning some of the spectrum, who will then square up to one or more WiMAX operators (perhaps BT, Craig Wireless Systems, Inquam Broadband). The ‘knowledge of the market’ then reduces to the vector sum of the interests of these players, whatever that may be.

b. Post-auction market structure
How many providers can there be in a mobile wireless market? Consider a very simple model where the cost of rolling out and operating a significant (quasi-national) network is C and the total revenues available in the market are R. Then there can be no more than (R/C) distinct operators, as the revenues are not great enough to support any more.
Since mobile wireless voice networks already exist in the current GSM and 3G networks, we are talking about residual revenues in a distinctive wireless broadband data market. These are hard to predict and unlikely to be large, at least in the early years. The result is to raise some questions.

(i) If too many bidders acquire WiMAX spectrum, is this likely to inhibit all or most of them from investing, on the grounds that the cake will have to be split too many ways?

(ii) As Ofcom has proposed no requirements either as regards timescales to deploy or extent of geographical coverage, wouldn’t successful WiMAX bidders without deep pockets simple cherry-pick the centres of large cities and other high-valued locales? Doesn’t this then undermine the business case for more extensive deployment from operators with more capital resources?

There are probably good answers to these questions, but the issues seem under-discussed in the Ofcom discussion document (here).

c. Uncertainties in spectrum utilisation via new services
Ofcom seems unsure about the uses to which the 2.6 GHz spectrum could be put. Their report simply reiterates a list of services commonly used by consumers on their fixed broadband links, via PC.
In fact the business case for public wireless broadband services today looks fragile. Engaging with likely revenue possibilities requires a detailed review of location-based services, the specific needs of early adopters such as emergency services, councils and governments - as well as consumer requirements (which are heavily device-dependent).

High-bandwidth services such as mobile CCTV will surely be additional early drivers for these services. Ofcom could argue that it is not their concern to do such analysis - this is down to the bidders. However, taking an accurate, forensic view of likely services roadmaps, relevant vertical markets and early adopter requirements might help both in shaping the process and in estimating the likely benefits of various outcomes.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

How many ancestors? (Part 3)

I guess I'm finally able to have a stab at this - how many ancestors did I have living in the mid-sixteenth century? I expect the answer will work for most people in England, of English ancestry. To save working through the stuff below, the answer I come up with is around 30,000, which is about 1% of the English population of the time (see note below).

My parents are from Bristol, which has had a large population for a considerable period. According to the Wikipedia article, Bristol had a population of 66,000 in 1801, and around 12,000 in the sixteenth century. Other provincial cities such as Manchester were probably similar. Pushing the family tree exponentially backwards, these numbers set upper limits.

In a city, out-marriage from the extended family is likely so I am comfortable that there isn't complete coalescence of the family tree back to, say 1700. Since that's ten generations, and factoring in some coalescence (50%), let's say around 500 ancestors in the tree in the oldest cohort.

From 1700 back to 1550 is another six generations. In this period, many people lived in rural villages, with significant inbreeding. On the male side, this is shown by localisation of surnames and also by genetic analyses.

Probably my 500 ancestors in 1700 can be traced back to villages surrounding Bristol and Oldham (Lancs), where my father's side came from. However, 500 ancestors will certainly include many emigres to Bristol (or Oldham/Manchester) who had come from all over the place. Let's guess the 500 ancestors came from 200 different villages, so each village gets on average 2.5 people.

In the six generations from 1700 to 1550, each villager will have 64 ancestors of the oldest generation. Assume a village size of around 128. Suppose several of my 1700 ancestors came from any particular village: they certainly won't each have a different set of 64 ancestors in that village; in fact the overlap will be extreme (see the paper referenced in the previous post here). Let's say they will share the same 80 ancestors of the oldest generation in 1550. In fact, let's use the figure 80 anyway, taking account of villagers who had come to the city and entered my family tree subsequently (post 1700).

So in 1550, over 200 villages, there would be 200 * 80 = 16,000 ancestors.

Now, we need to move this up a bit, as some of my ancestors would have stayed in the cities, which even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a lot larger than villages and where inbreeding would be less. It's hard to estimate how many we're talking about here, as outside of London, most people - prior to the enclosures - lived off the land. The result, however, would be less inbreeding, so let's move the oldest cohort of ancestors up from 16,000 to 20,000, as a rough estimate.

Then the total number of ancesters alive in 1550 would be no more than 20,000 + 10,000 + 5,000 = 35,000. Say 30,000 allowing for more double-counting due to family tree branch coalescence. This compares with the figure of 458,752 computed from simple backwards doubling over 16 generations - see the first post on the subject here.

According to the human genome project, the total number of genes in the human genome is around 30,000. Some of these are not variant, being highly conserved because they do something essential. However, genes are long sequences of nucleotides and typically differ between people at a number of different sites. So you could argue that each of my 1550 ancestors probably contributed on average less than one gene (allele) to me!

Finally, a graph showing the population of England in the mediaeval period. Click on the picture to read the text.

Note: Based on the paper (which assumes random mating) referenced in the previous post, How many ancestors? (Part 2), there are 14 generations between an ancestral tree covering 1% of the population and one covering 99%. On this basis, everyone who lived in 1200 AD in England and who has descendants today is an ancestor of everyone of English ancestry living today. Or using another result from the paper, my family tree includes 80% of everyone living in England in 1200 (the remaining 20% did not leave any descendants alive today).

Monday, December 03, 2007

How many ancestors? (Part 2)

It appears the statistical physicists got there ahead of me, I quote:

"On the genealogy of a population of biparental individuals

Authors: B. Derrida, S.C. Manrubia, D.H. Zanette

(Submitted on 7 Mar 2000)

Abstract: If one goes backward in time, the number of ancestors of an individual doubles at each generation. This exponential growth very quickly exceeds the population size, when this size is finite. As a consequence, the ancestors of a given individual cannot be all different and most remote ancestors are repeated many times in any genealogical tree.

The statistical properties of these repetitions in genealogical trees of individuals for a panmictic closed population of constant size N can be calculated. We show that the distribution of the repetitions of ancestors reaches a stationary shape after a small number Gc ~ log N of generations in the past, that only about 80% of the ancestral population belongs to the tree (due to coalescence of branches), and that two trees for individuals in the same population become identical after Gc generations have elapsed.

Our analysis is easy to extend to the case of exponentially growing population."

Read the entire paper (PDF, 15 pages) here.

Note: Here's another really interesting paper on the most recent common ancestor to humans living today - here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

How many ancestors? (Part 1)

I was thinking some more about computing how many ancestors I, or anyone else, might have had in 1559 - see the "Fight between Carnival and Lent" post here.

The obvious, simplistic approach is to double the number each generation back, say every 25 years. Two parents, four grandparents, etc. Then assuming a three generation overlap, add the last three answers together to get a total ancestor population.

1951: me + 2 parents + 4 grandparents = 7
1925: 2 parents + 4 grandparents + 8 great-grandparents = 14
1900: 4 + 8 + 16 = 28
1800: 64 + 128 + 256 = 448
1700: 1024 + 2048 +4096 = 7,168
1600: 16,384 + 32,768 + 65,536 = 114,688
1550: 65,536 + 131,072 + 262,144 = 458,752.

Call it half a million. A simple Google search indicates that the population of England during the 16th century was around 3 million. Surely my ancestors (or anyone else's) wouldn't have been one sixth of the entire population?

It appears that rural populations were pretty static until comparatively recently. This probably means that villages were pretty inbred. If we assume that a village was constituted of 100-150 people (the hypothesised upper limit of organic human communities) then for a number of generations, this was probably the limit to the number of ancestors as we push the family tree backwards.

The arrival of a stranger in the village would introduce new genes into the local gene pool, but it would take a number of generations for that person's genes to propagate throughout the village.

Working out a revised (and lower) number of ancestors, I think it's difficult to estimate plausible parameters and solve this analytically. I therefore decided to write a simulation. To do this would involve my favourite programming language, LISP.

To my surprise, it has proved quite hard to find a free download which would work on Windows XP and Vista. Eventually I found "LispWorks Personal Edition" with a download site here.

Nest step is to install the system (not tonight!).

Friday, November 30, 2007

So who funded the secret donor?

According to press reports, the Labour Party enquiry into David Abrahams is also investigating where Abrahams himself might have acquired the money. Two thirds of a million pounds is a fair sum, even over three or four years. Is Mr Abrahams really worth that much?

The British journal The Spectator published an article here entitled " Britain's Goebbels moment". The first paragraph reads as follows:

"What is the explanation for the deepening funding scandal that is currently engulfing the Labour party? Why, it’s obvious! With a man named Abrahams at its heart it must be the World Jewish Zionist Conspiracy, of course! This was revealed to us this morning on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. It published a picture of Abrahams shaking hands with Israel’s former ambassador to London, Zvi Heifetz, last year.

"This, we are given to understand, is supposed to be incriminating — so much so it merits front page splash treatment. A Jew shaking hands with an Israeli, eh! Hmnn, must be dirty work afoot!"

At this point it's not clear whether anyone "stands behind" Mr Abrahams. An empirical matter for the police investigation to determine, right?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

Clare has just bought this poster by Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, who put it together in 1559. There's a Wikipedia article (here) suggesting it's an allegory on the Reformation, contrasting earthy life around the Inn on the left with religious observance (the Church on the right).

I'm trying to figure out how many ancestors I had living around this time. Without a doubt they were peasants much like here - what a horrible life!

On a more mundane point, it was the dentist today. Two fillings to be replaced over the next couple of weeks, and it's not cheap either!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The case for torture?

Michael Levin, Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, wrote a very elegant article entitled "The Case for Torture" (here).

His arguments are irrefutable, but they will never be enacted into public policy or law. How could we preserve our self-image as humane, compassionate, empathic individuals? That's why God invented hypocrisy, for goodness sake.

BBC4 marked the 50th anniversary of Hugh Everett's Ph.D thesis, introducing the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, with a touching one hour film. Mark Everett (singer & guitarist in the Eels) tried to come to terms with his remote father and even more remote work.

Despite the artifice of TV, there was something real about Mark's journey. On the science side though, was it really necessary to call Dr Everett a quantum mechanic??? And I really don't think we equate taking cognitive decisions with quantum events forcing world-splitting, do we?

Note: it's still possible to download this programme via BBC's iPlayer if you are in the UK (and read this soon). Click here and look for "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives".

I have a cold. My stuffed-up head is irritating me immensely, and I have suddenly noticed on TV endless ads for cold remedies. How do they know?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Professor Edward M. Miller

Always good to come across insightful papers from a really smart guy. I was impressed to read papers on the evolutionary origins of homosexuality (here) and a careful analysis of male life-history strategies in the sub-speciation of early humanity (here).

So where did Edward M. Miller, Professor of Economics and Finance at the University of New Orleans go after the year 2000? He completely vanishes from the reach of Google. Perhaps he retired? Anyway I can't find him.

Addendum: apparently not absolutely everyone was blind-sided by the Professor Watson affair, as this article in SLATE magazine indicates - here. Full marks for William Saletan, the author.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A bit of home DIY (kitchen shelf)

As the world's least competent and most unenthusiastic DIY person, I felt justifiably pleased with myself at having turned the made-to-measure plank we acquired yesterday (previous post) into a horizontal and supported kitchen shelf this morning.

Clare posing with her new shelf

Below, you may observe the combination of pride and weariness on my face!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Clean out

We spent most of the day today doing chores. First we drove into town to buy a couple of new paving stones for the garden path, replacing those I had stupidly cracked whilst cutting wood. Next we moved onto the municipal dump, where we unloaded a number of obsolete technical books which I cleaned out yesterday. Remember SET - the "Secure Electronic Transactions" protocol? It's well on the way to being pulped.

Then we zoomed from shop to shop seeking somewhere which would cut Clare a length of wood for a shelf in the kitchen. in the end we found an excellent little workshop (Weyhill Timber Products) in the depths of the countryside next to the Hawk Conservancy. The joy of putting it up has been reserved for tomorrow.

Finally, looking through old files, I found this 1954 photo of myself at three years of age, with my maternal grandfather, William Porter. I have no recollection at all of this being taken - somewhere in Bristol, no doubt.

Music theory tonight.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adrian departs for Vancouver

Adrian left from Gatwick this morning, en route to Vancouver. He'll stay a week or so with friends before moving on to the resort where he'll work as a snowboarding instructor over the winter.

As usual, he was carrying so much weight he could barely move: snowboard, skis, boots, helmet, clothes, books, laptop and so on.

We may get to see him again next summer, depending on his visa requirements and his summer work plans.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Sabine Hossenfelder has this interesting post on Backreaction about the Casimir effect here. She speculates that the effect will be manifest in carbon nanotubes. Her other thought is that the energy density (effective mass) within the nanotube would be negative -- so how would this couple to gravity? Would there be an antigravity effect?

Lacking a proper theory of quantum gravity, it appears difficult to work this out. I wonder whether a similar effect could be expected in the lattice of a metallic crystal?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

E8 and Garrett Lisi

Garrett Lisi, snowboarding instructor, surfer dude and math-phys guru, is made much of in the media today (Sunday Times). He has, apparently, discerned in the 248-dimensional E8 group the much-sought-after unification of physics. Words like "new" and "Einstein" are much bandied about, frequently in close conjunction.

However, our much-loved string-theorist-rottweiler Lubos Motl disagrees, in his customarily-amusingly invective-strewn manner, here.

The Wikipedia has an article about it here, as does New Scientist here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Enduring Love

Dear Sis,

Thanks for your recommendation to read Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. The protagonist, science writer Joe Rose, is relentlessly pursued (or so it appears) by a stalker, Jed Parry. Rose comes to the view that Parry is suffering from a rare form of erotic fixation called de Clerambault's syndrome. Or perhaps it's Rose who is delusional. Either way, it's breaking up his marriage.

One of McEwan's special skills is to illuminate the inner life of his characters. Several times, I had that jaw-dropping recognition that Joe Rose's thoughts, feelings and behaviours were exactly those which I would have had in his situation too*. Scary.

McEwan keeps us guessing even to the end. Was Enduring Love a novelisation of the real-life psychiatric case, reprinted as Appendix 1? Or did he make that up as well? One clue on the penultimate page settles it.

Thanks again,


* Except for the illegally-acquired gun. I would have done that somewhat differently ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Visions of the Future: The Biotech Revolution

We just watched this excellent programme from BBC4 on the laptop, using the BBC’s iPlayer video-on-demand technology (see here). In this second programme of the series, theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku looks at the revolution in genetics, which promises health and longevity but also raises ethical questions (from the blurb).

“Supposing there was a gene sequence in males which invariably caused the carrier to execute brutal murders. Anyone who had this gene sequence would carry out these deeds.”


“And suppose that in a few years time, we routinely genetically profile every newborn infant for medical and diagnostic reasons. Little Tommy over there has the killer sequence - what shall we do?”

“We fix it - change the genes so he won’t grow up a murderer.”

“No problems with his civil rights?”

“Overruled by the rights of his potential victims.”

“But those genes have survived culling by natural selection. Perhaps they provide some evolutionary advantage to the human race. After all, not all adaptively-successful behaviours are necessarily pleasant.”

“Doesn’t matter - cut them out.”

“So perhaps you want to feminise the human race - cut out all the aggression, the rough stuff?”

“Can’t come soon enough - perhaps then houses would be designed properly and we could get at the plumbing.”

“Why not get rid of men altogether? Just reproduce women by cloning?”

“Works for me.”


Despite the generally high-falutin' character of this online diary, sometimes I am forced to examine the seamier side of life: to wit - sludge.

The shallow angle of the drainage pipes from our ensuite and the second bedroom (currently occupied by Adrian) conspires to make it easy for a toxic mix of hard-water deposits, hair and soap to obstruct water flow. The showers back-up and flood.

The first time this happened, we had to call in a bloke from Dynarod. He sawed through the drainage pipe and put in a connector. Now, once a year, we have the ritual of unscrewing the connector and brushing out the resulting, disgusting, mess.

One minute of the seamier side of life - click here.

Note: 1.4 MB, .3gp format, playable in the browser, or with Real Player or QuickTime. Right mouse on the link and choose 'save target as' to download the video to your desktop and - using one of ther aforementioned players - you can magnify the small image and get the full benefits.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Strictly Civil Engineering

Apparently the best celebrity dancers are being voted off the Strictly Come Dancing show on account of that the public vote for the celebrities they like best. This has apparently infuriated the judges, who actually know something about ballroom dancing, and who were under the misapprehension that this show was something about talent.

I have an idea. Celebrities are paired with architects in a competition where the winner will design a tower block. Welcome to Strictly Civil Engineering.

Pre-order your penthouse apartment now!

Monday, November 12, 2007

On getting older (again)

I'm 56. Well, until January, when I will be 57. The impact of ageing on the body is both subtle and cumulative. I saw an ad on the TV this morning advertising laser eye treatment. It reminded me that a few days ago, I got a letter from the optician which said, in effect:

Gosh, how time flies! It's been two years since you had your eyes tested! Our eyes can deteriorate, you know, and you really should come back and be retested!

Or something like that. And yes, I notice that my glasses don’t work quite so well as they used to. So how would that work with the laser treatment then? Go back every two years and have more of your cornea blasted away?

And take the rowing machine. I am perfectly able to thrash this machine for 15 minutes (I’ve been practicing). But I notice that my right knee aches a little afterwards, and there’s a rather unsettling click behind the kneecap sometimes, as if something is popping back into place! Do I want to wreck my joints or should I just be easing off a little?

They tell me it will get worse rather than better …

Why is so much social science rubbish?

Richard Feynman’s father used to tell him as a child that “it isn’t science unless you can write it down mathematically”. Some people think this is physics chauvinism, although biology, chemistry and economics also come with mathematical models.

I would even like to invert the point. Human groups are so prone to prejudice and the well-named ‘groupthink’ that it is a miracle that any opinions which defy a convenient orthodoxy ever get established. Truths which are inconvenient seem to me to be most likely to surface under the following conditions.

1. They are irrelevant to interest groups. Hard sciences such as astronomy used to be threatening, as Galileo discovered. But particle physics and cosmology today are so esoteric that they threaten few, so limitations on progress come mostly from other causes (see below).

2. It is possible to do well-defined experiments. Social science often falls at this hurdle, with positions being advanced with no thought of testing them through rigorous experimentation. Particle physics currently has an experimental problem as discussed by Peter Woit, Lee Smolin.

3. The inability to frame hypotheses in a precise, i.e. mathematical form. Without clear and unambiguous hypotheses to test, experiments cannot be properly designed and results are inconclusive. Feynman’s father was right.

Much social science doesn’t implement the dialogue between hypothesis and experiment, which drives convergence to truth. In this respect it is not ‘science’. In the absence of empirical correction via the scientific method, such work is prone to capture by activist interest groups. The results we know as political correctness, the erection of taboo areas and arguments from authority.

I think people who have been trained in a scientific tradition often don’t understand that their social science opponents are not actually operating in that paradigm. Unfortunately, the rhetorical styles of ‘appeals to common sense’, arguments from authority and even abuse are closer to everyday social discourse. They often have resonance with a lay audience, while the scientist flounders.

The New York Times gets 'race realism'

The New York Times published a piece yesterday on genetic differences between racial groups and implications for social policy - "In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice" (click here).

While not perfect, at least the issues get an airing. It certainly made the blogger Half Sigma, mentioned in the article, a happy bunny (here)!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Music: Piano Diary #3

I managed to fumble my way through the “Menuet in G Major” (BWV 114) from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook yesterday at piano lesson. I've been taken off it for the time being and given two new (grade 1) pieces, which will enlarge my experience of rhythm: Calypso Joe and In The Pink, which is a jazz piece.

Yesterday afternoon I was sat in front of the piano, picking out the right-hand melody line and trying to recall how to mutate 4/4 time into something approximating a calypso beat. Couldn't fathom it. I was reduced to searching on YouTube for calypsos, with only moderate success.

As regards In The Pink, I had more success, finding a performance from this tot here.

As usual, I am humbled!

Othello at the Salisbury Playhouse

We saw Othello Friday evening. I had prepared in advance by reading the Arden Shakespeare book which introduces the play and provides the script. The plot line is more direct than some of the Shakespeare plays we have seen and easy enough to follow even if you haven't read the play in advance.

The Arden editor observed that the lead role is contested between the characters of Iago, the eternally scheming trickster, and Othello, who descends from nobility to duped, banal evil. The Iago role is a joy - a clever, manipulative, bad guy who pulls the strings of every other character.

Othello seems to me more difficult: the actor needs to project enormous authority and charisma at the start of the play, as befits a senior, experienced military leader. As the play progresses, Othello needs to convincingly 'buy' Iago's web of deception and internalise a set of beliefs which make the 'honour-killing' of his wife, Desdemona, convincing to the audience.

The problem with this performance was that Othello was played more as a senior bank manager than any of the above, which kind of left a hole in the proceedings. Everyone else was pretty good, though.

The Economist: deluded or dissembling?

No journal can afford to get too far ahead of its readership. I remember being surprised back in 2003 that The Economist was so gung-ho for the Iraq war. My personal view was that the UK had little choice but to go along with the Americans, being the client state it is. However, anyone with the slightest savvy could see that the adventure would have a disastrous outcome.

The whole Sunni-Shia thing was well-understood at the time, and the "export of US-style democracy" - to be welcomed by all shades of 'Iraqi opinion' was as delusional prior to hostilities as subsequently. However, none of this obvious analysis made its way onto the pages of The Economist, and looking at its sales figures in the US, it's obvious why. There are client journals as well as states.

When it comes to science there ought to be less scope for nuance - sometimes arguments are just right or wrong. The issue of race and intelligence (and indeed systematic race personality differences) is just as socially explosive as the Iraq war. It's perhaps the sharpest line of conflict between the growing corpus of results emerging from the application of evolutionary theory to human origins, and the political theories of essential human identity which emerged from the enlightenment and underpin all our liberal political concepts as well as our attempts at social cohesion.

This collision, which will eventually require a new synthesis, is so controversial that it breaks the career of any scientist who publicises the results of scientific work in this area. Watson was the latest, but researchers such as Professors Jensen and Lynn have been personally abused and their work vilified (although not refuted scientifically).

This is a real problem in that it impedes the current revolution in evolutionary psychology, human genetics and evolutionary neuroscience. Something will eventually have to give, as too much work is now going on in these areas for the obsolete 'standard social science model' to endure - but it's going to get ugly.

It's perhaps too much to ask The Economist to be in the vanguard of working out the necessary political and public policy implication of the new science. But we could at least ask it to refrain from actively supporting the reaction with fallacious arguments (see previous post). Sometimes silence really is the best policy.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Economist gets evolution wrong


In “The nature of nurture” (Science and Technology November 10th 2007) you state:

Making stupid comments about the second question (racial differences in intelligence) can be a career-killing move, as James Watson, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, recently found. He suggested that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours [presumably he meant white people]—whereas all the testing says not really”. Such remarks are not merely offensive, they are scientifically weird. If the term race has any useful scientific meaning, then Africa, the continent where modern humanity began, is the most racially diverse place on the planet.”

On this argument there could only be dark-skinned humans on the planet, as there are no light-skinned Africans. The mistake is to ignore adaptations subsequently forced on those early humans who left Africa to colonise colder climates, whose descendants survived the ice ages. The existence of adaptations in physiology, intelligence, and/or personality traits in non-African populations is a matter for empirical research, not an eventuality ruled out in principle.

Later in the article you state “Natural selection should have pushed intelligence genes as far as they will go, so all variation should be environmental. That it is not suggests there is some unknown countervailing advantage—at least in reproductive terms—to being less than averagely bright. It is a nice irony, given the traditional association of the naturist position with eugenic arguments, that if variation in intelligence really is caused by underlying genetic variation, then the dull are as evolutionarily fit as the clever. But that is the logical conclusion.”

In fact it is quite unusual for environmental selection to create a completely uniform genotype, especially when the trait is as complex as intelligence. One might as well wonder why human beings are not all exactly the same height genetically, with all variance being down to ‘nurture’ (e.g. diet).

IQ measurements are standardised on European populations with mean 100 and standard deviation 15. This means that 68% of the population will lie between IQ 85 and IQ 115. In this context the 6 IQ points difference found in the differing genetic response to breastfeeding is well within average.

Yours etc,

NOTE (Nov. 14th 07): I doubt the short version of this letter I did actually submit to The Economist will be published, but I received a friendly letter from their science editor conceding I was correct.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

La Vie en Rose (Pas)

We drove down to Salisbury in the autumnal dark this evening to see "La Vie en Rose", the Edith Piaf biopic. You would have thought that Salisbury on a Tuesday evening, a film already out on general release back in June - there would be ample space. But no, all the seats were taken and we were shown the door. So much for 'just-in-time' film-going. Upside: we were back by nine and Clare got to watch 'Spooks' ...

Just finished "The Indian Clerk" by David Leavitt. This lengthy novel (478 pages) is an account of Ramanujan's encounter with Trinity College, Cambridge via the top English mathematicians of the day, G. H. Hardy and J. E. Littlewood.

Although there is a mathematical obsession at the centre of the novel, the search for a proof of the Riemann hypothesis, the story is centred around the characters of the people involved.

The narrative mostly belongs to Hardy, although we get vivid portraits of Littlewood, Russell, Wittgenstein, Keynes and other luminaries of the time: Ramanujan, I think it is fair to say, remains a mystery.

The coterie of 'the involved' centres around the Cambridge Apostles, the mostly-homosexual secret society. Leavitt pulls few punches, and Hardy's sexual orientation drives much of the action briskly along.

These are real people and the 1st world war look-and-feel is convincingly drawn. Of contemporary authors, Leavitt rather reminds me of Ian McEwan - also scientifically literate.

You don't need to know any maths to read this book, but if you are aware that Newton was active in Cambridge two and a half centuries before the first decade of the twentieth century, you will be irritated by the mistake on page 22.
Now reading Othello prior to seeing the play soon (back to Salisbury again, but we've booked this time!).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Another music milestone

Finished the Grade 1 Music Theory workbook this evening. I think this brings me up to par with the average 5 year old. On the practical side, I have a deadline of Saturday November 10th to perfect the Minuet in G (BWV 114) at which point I'm to be retargeted at a Spanish syncopated rhythm number from the Grade 1 set pieces (think primary school again).

The Menuet is difficult because the left and right hands are doing complex, different things at the same time. To program in the correct movements just needs drill - endless repetitions. This process of building up an inventory of standardised fingering sequences is really what learning piano is all about so I don't really resent it.

The Menuet is more of a vertical cliff face, though, than the gentle gradient of pieces at Grade 1.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dust Settles on Watson

As the dust settles on the James Watson “racism” affair (see entry for Friday Oct 19th) what conclusions can we draw?

1. There was no stomach in the scientific community for a fight.

Dawkins and Blakemore had to respond, as well-known ‘public defenders’ for science. Their response was to denounce the witch hunt and insist that there are no questions off-limits to science. However, they did not initiate any further debate on the substantive issue nor refer to any of the research in psychometrics or evolutionary psychology which underpinned Watson’s statement. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them: they have careers and reputations and mortgages too.

2. The “Standard Social Science Model” is far from dead.

Those scientists who were brought out to denounce Watson were from the social science community justly attacked by Pinker in The Blank Slate. These are people who will willingly subscribe to evolution in the abstract, but who will not apply it to their own discipline - New Scientist had one such last week. It was similarly dispiriting to hear Craig Ventnor – who should know better – parroting that classic of the SSSM “race is just a social construct” - on Newsnight. Still, we all know his attitude to Watson dating from the Human Genome Project, and he’s perhaps more salesman than scientist.

3. Decision-makers do know where the truth lies here.

In “The g Factor” Arthur Jensen explained carefully the emergence of a ‘general intelligence’ attribute from factor analysis of batteries of tests measuring different facets of cognitive abilities. IQ tests are useful insofar as they strongly correlate with g, and g itself is important insofar as it strongly correlates with performance in cognitively demanding tasks. Otherwise, why are we bothering?

If one is not allowed to use IQ tests for political reasons, one can create ‘highly g-loaded’ proxy tests which one can pass off as task-specific aptitude tests. This is how the US military (and others) screen soldiers who are too dim to fight in a modern army. Racial differences in ‘aptitude’ emerge here too, as Jensen observed.

Screening in other public policy areas (e.g. immigration) through qualifications or vocational quotas is another way of proxying for intelligence and perhaps certain personality attributes. Interestingly, one would expect such filters to preferentially select people of Ashkenazim or east-Asian descent – tough on the Caucasian chauvinists.

Finally, I just love this “race is a social construct” thing. We’re quite similar to hamsters genetically, so probably 'species' is a social construct. The evolutionary argument is that humans, as they geographically dispersed out of Africa, radiated into subspecies with distinct adaptations, some of which included intelligence and personality adaptations. On top of these well-defined biological differences cultures have erected social categories which determine how they understand and treat representatives of such different races, not all of them pleasant. How hard is that to understand?

Driveway (Sept 11th update)

On Tuesday, September 11th I discussed the poor state of the driveway, and Mark's proposal that we should collectively invest in 10 tons of chippings to resurface. The lorry arrived on Saturday and here is the result.

The previous state of the driveway is shown below.

We were all hard at work after the lorry departed, shovelling and wheelbarrowing and raking. I had to take a break halfway through - without the rowing machine I would probably have died!

Friday, October 26, 2007


Previous post: The new Roman Empire?

"Fox points out that a number of 'first citizen's (as Emperors called themselves for the fig-leaf of legality) were assassinated in the name of freedom - Julius Caesar, Caligula and many subsequent."

"It should be subsequently"
"You mean I put an adjective where it should be an adverb? "
"It's a mistake."
"Actually there are two parses of that sentence. There's the one you mention. But in my parse there's a subsequent elided word, namely Emperors. That's why it's OK to use an adjective."
"You're arrogant too."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The new Roman Empire?

It's commonplace to identify America today with the Roman Empire.

I've just finished Robin Lane Fox's wonderful "The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian". Fox points out that a number of 'first citizen's (as Emperors called themselves for the fig-leaf of legality) were assassinated in the name of freedom - Julius Caesar, Caligula and many subsequent. In each case it proved politically impossible to restore the Republic. Augustus proved the point by dallying away from Rome until the senators called him back in desperation to sort out disputes.

Fox is less analytic as to why this might have been the case, but it was surely a function of the lack of senatorial legitimacy amongst the plebs, and perhaps more importantly, the legions, each of which needed a champion to secure their wages, and colonisation land once they had finished military service.

In a patronal society (one we would today call deeply corrupt) a hierarchy centred around one individual seemed to be optimal in managing power and resource relationships.

Which major power does this sound most like today? Russia.


A man says to his Freudian psychotherapist:

"The phrase 'the square root of minus infinity' keeps popping into my head."
"And what is that?"
"Infinity i."
"And graphically?"
"A tall, vertical, erect axis."

Monday, October 22, 2007

TrueCrypt (+ rowing machine)

I had a backup problem: six Gigabytes of technical, client and financial data which needed secure storage. I have a very big flash drive, which I can store off-site, but the data needs to be encrypted.

I thought Vista might come with an encryption program. Microsoft Office 2007 has effective (AES) file-level encryption these days, but Vista has nothing which works on folders, Gigabyte or otherwise.

A quick web search led me to TrueCrypt. This is a great freeware product which allows you to set up encrypted 'volumes' - stored as files - on your hard drive (it does other stuff too). The 'volume' looks like another disk or flash drive when you use it and is very securely encrypted. Once past the password, data can be accessed and copied as from any other data store. The advantage is that the data is encrypted on the hard disk itself - great if the laptop were to go missing - and the volumes can be copied straight across to USB drives. This I have now done.

I made a donation and after finishing this, I'll go read the manual.


The engineer called lunchtime to fix the Oxford II rowing machine. The trip-computer/console had been behaving erratically and basically not functioning for a while. Replacing the unit had not fixed the problem. The engineer determined that a cable had been crimped when the horizontal aluminium rail (on which the seat slides) had been moved to its vertical 'park' position. I reckon it's a design flaw. Anyway, it works now so no excuses.


Seen at Salisbury last night, Stardust is a knowing fantasy fairy story for “children of all ages”. As a fan of The Princess Bride I thought it was great. Clare was underwhelmed – I think any film with a unicorn in it rather raises her ire.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Minkowski diagrams

In special relativity we hear a lot about length contraction - objects such as spacecraft and the ubiquitous 'rigid rod' 'get shorter' as they approach light speed. People don't get this. Does the rod 'really' get shorter or not? It seems to depend on the observer, defying Aristotelian logic and common sense.

An excellent Wikipedia article on Minkowski diagrams clears the whole thing up. The problem is with our use of language. When we say 'spacecraft' or 'rod' we are making a spacial statement - the object considered at a 'now'. But that immediately invalidates special relativity.

Instead, we have to consider the space-time object extended in space and swept out over a defined time. This extended space-time object at a particular 'now' is viewed differently by differently-moving observers because their 'now's are differently-oriented. Specifically when you view an object travelling fast past you, the spatial slice you measure as being the length 'now' is rotated as compared with the 'now' length measured by an observer travelling with the rod. And the rotated view is shorter. It's made clear in the diagram below, with explanatory text pasted in from the article.

Notice, by the way, that this has nothing to do with the time taken for light to get to you from different parts of the object at your 'now'. Your length measurement has to correct for those effects, and after the correction you compute that the 'length' is shorter.

"Relativistic length contraction means that the length of an object moving relative to an observer is decreased and finally also the space itself is contracted in this system. The observer is assumed again to move along the ct-axis. The world lines of the endpoints of an object moving relative to him are assumed to move along the ct'-axis and the parallel line passing A and B respectively. For this observer the endpoints of the object at t=0 are O and A. For a second observer moving together with the object, so that for him the object is at rest, it has the length OB at t'=0. Due to OA being less than OB the object is contracted for the first observer."

* Excerpted from the Wikipedia article.

The point is made more clearly by the following thought experiment in the diagram above. Suppose, according to the 'blue' observer speeding by, that the rod flicked into existence 'all at once' for a millisecond along OB, then vanished again. The 'black' stationary observer would not see a rod at all, but would calculate a thin slice of material which sprang into existence close by and seemed to move away much faster than light (although it would visually appear to be slower than light due to light propagation delay from more distant parts of the rod). The 'spatial' rod would, in fact, have been rotated a little into time from the stationary observer's viewpoint.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Another witch burned

From the BBC website here.

The Science Museum has cancelled a talk by American DNA pioneer Dr James Watson after he claimed black people were less intelligent than white people. Dr Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, was due to speak at the venue on Friday. But the museum has cancelled the event, saying his views went "beyond the point of acceptable debate".
Skills Minister David Lammy said Dr Watson's views "were deeply offensive". He added: "They will succeed only in providing oxygen for the BNP. It is a shame that a man with a record of scientific distinction should see his work overshadowed by his own irrational prejudices."

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was essentially ambushed by the Sunday Times into saying something controversial. His remarks have been met by a torrent of hostility and abuse, most of it directed at Professor Watson himself. The BBC piece above is one of the milder reports.

Not a single response has addressed the possibility that Watson might actually have been correct. In the Sunday Times article, Watson expressed dismay about the prospects of economic and social development in Africa, given that testing has shown that the mean IQ of sub-Saharan black people is around twenty IQ points below the global norm of just under 100.

Here are some questions: just say no to any of them to avoid the conclusion.

1. Do people differ in intelligence?
2. Can intelligence be measured?
3. Did humans evolve from less-intelligent ancestors?
4. Does humanity consist of groups with slightly different evolutionary histories? (Usually classified at top level as African, east-Asian, Caucasian).
5. As well as the well-known physiological adaptations to climate and environment (skin colour, body size and shape, tolerance to milk, etc), could there have been similar brain adaptations bearing on personality and intelligence?

So there you are. If you said “NO” to any of the above, you are committed to:

1. Everyone has exactly the same intelligence.
2. Intelligence differences, though they may exist, have no measurable consequences.
3. There is no evolution.
4. There are no identifiable human groups.
5. Intelligence and personality are in principle invariant across human populations, despite the evolution of diverse physiological characteristics.

Once we agree there might be intelligence and personality differences between human groups based on differing evolutionary history, the scientific response is to try and find whether they actually exist, through empirical research.

Although few people seem aware of it, this work has actually been done. See “Race Differences in Intelligence: An Evolutionary Analysis” by Professor Richard Lynn. This is a scholarly tome by the head of the department of Psychology at the University of Ulster. Follow the link for a review of the book’s conclusions and user comments (here).

I suspect it was this work which Professor Watson was referring to.

Human group differences in personality are mentioned in passing in MacDonald’s fascinating paper "Personality, Evolution and Development" here.

The existence of racial differences in intelligence and personality is logically possible on the basis of evolutionary theory - and according to well-founded scientific research they do seem to exist.

Just as acknowledging that men and women are different does not make one sexist, and that noticing that some people are quite old does not make one ageist, acknowledging that intelligence and personality differences between defined human groups really exist does not make one racist. In particular, these are results about group statistics, not about individuals.

However, in matters of public policy, such aggregative facts make a difference. In a world of wishful thinking, such problems would not exist, but sadly, we don’t live in that world.

Humanity has a habit of demonising those who acknowledge inconvenient truths. Please let's defend such brave individuals - after all, it's so much safer and easier just to duck down and let a delusional consensus persist.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Laptop -- update

I knew it was too good to be true ... here's the note I've just emailed off to technical support.


I today bought an Advent notebook computer at PC World Basingstoke running Vista Home Premium Edition.After installing a few programs (Office 2007, Frontpage, etc), I am now getting a window saying:

Microsoft Visual C++ Runtime Library
Runtime Error!
Program: C:\Windows\explorer.exe
abnormal program termination

Shutting down and restarting hasn't removed the problem. If this error window is closed, or the OK box clicked, the window vanishes, the desktop icons vanish and Vista seems to go back to the final part of its power-up sequence. Then the wretched error window comes back again.

Any ideas?



PS: It turns out that this is a frequent symptom of an incompatability of Vista with an old program. In my case, my old encryption program. I've uninstalled it, and the problem has gone away.
The tech guy on the phone was confident he could solve this problem, and took great pains to steer me to the one minute automated quality assurance feedback after he'd finished. I, of course, gave him 5 out of 5 for helpfulness, accuracy, courtesy etc.
So that's how they manipulate their scores!

New Laptop - Oct. 16th 2007

With several possible work leads in sight, I decided I had to have a new laptop. My BT laptop, which I've been using for work the last 16 months, went back to BT a couple of weeks ago. My 'other' laptop, a Toshiba which I bought back in 2003, is showing worrying signs of ageing. The sound card occasionally gives up entirely, and the erratic functioning of the PSU has led to heartrending bleeping noises from the almost-drained battery on too many recent occasions.

So off to Basingstoke PC World this morning with Adrian, where we were helped by a charming young Polish tech guy with an unnerving grasp of the equipment choices on sale and their respective pros and cons.

So -- I'm typing this on an Advent laptop with 1.8 GHz dual core processors, 2 GB memory, 120 GB HD, 802.11g WiFi and of course Vista. To be honest, Vista was a calculated risk, but so far it's proven remarkably intuitive and has also successfully loaded several of my XP programs without complaint. I have a few more to install, it being an all-day job to get a new computer into usable shape ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Interweave Consulting Autumn Newsletter

My autumn newsletter sent out today, featuring a Q&A about the experience of working in BT's Wireless Cities programme.

It's a PDF (120 kB) and you can take a look here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Oryx and Crake

I did get to finish this (previous post) and it's a good book. Most of the excitement is generated in the episodic back story, while the main narrative crawls along in mundane, survivalist mode leading to a final existential crisis, left unresolved at the close.

Take a look at the Saturday August 18th 2007 post (not so long ago) on the Army of Dude blog here. Aren't you glad you're not Alex Horton, recently returned from infantry duty in Iraq? This blog has been referenced in the LA Times and in the current edition of The Economist. Tells it like it is, I reckon.

Today: personal paperwork updates (Will etc) + piano practice + music theory (cadences, phrases, scales) + getting a replacement computing console for the rowing machine (erratic display). Not enough hours.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Buried by Books

Last week was pretty busy.

On Wednesday I was in Swindon meeting the MD of a solutions consultancy to discuss a possible assignment. Thursday I was in London returning my equipment to BT following the completion of my Wireless Cities contract. Friday I was updating the Interweave Consulting accounts.

I also drafted a Q-and-A on my Wireless Cities experience. This is currently with BT so they can feel comfortable I haven’t breached any commercial confidentiality. When it comes back, it will be an asset in my Newsletter - part of my ongoing marketing campaign.

Meanwhile I am inundated with books!

1. My music theory class Thursday evening brought me “The AB Guide to Music Theory” which covers grades 1-5. I’m working through this as a priority.

2. On Saturday I had my piano lesson, where Suzanne has me focused on Grade 2 scales and the “Menuet in G Major” (BWV 114) from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook (made famous by The Toys' 1965 hit single "A Lover's Concerto").

Suzanne is into the mathematics behind the musical scales, and has lent me “Music - A Mathematical Offering” by Dave Benson. The mathematics which Professor Benson (Aberdeen University) has in mind includes Fourier analysis, Laplace transforms and group theory. Suzanne has expressed an opinion she might appreciate some help. I’m currently at chapter 2 (Fourier Theory).

3. Clare and myself both read the ancient Greece part of Robin Lane Fox’s “The Classical World” and ran out of time as we reached Julius Caesar. But it’s too good - we must continue!

4. I bought “The Indian Clerk” by David Leavitt after a rave review in the New York Times. This is a novelisation of the relationship between G. H. Hardy, feted Cambridge mathematician, and Srinivasa Ramanujan, unknown Indian clerk and mathematical genius. The basic story is quite well-known, but the novel delves deeper into the mysterious Cambridge Apostles, and other strange goings-on in the Cambridge high society of the first world war.

5. On the strength of several recommendations (and after reading “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach”) I bought Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”.

6. Enthused by our recent archaeological trip to Greece, I bought “The Iliad” (Homer by way of a great translation from Stanley Lombardo).

“Rage: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage, black and murderous, that cost the Greeks incalculable pain, pitched countless souls of heroes into Hades dark, and left their bodies to rot as feasts for dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.”

Good first line, right?

7. I have Peter Hamilton’s recent SF blockbuster lying untouched on my shelves for several months now (“The Dreaming Void”).

8. Also a biography of Cantor I’ve had for years and would like to read properly.

9. Clare also has Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” out on loan from the library, and I’m halfway through that.

Atwood is literary, so when she writes ‘science-fiction’ it’s ‘speculative fiction’. Put-downs aside, there does seem to be a real difference. The literary approach is to focus on people, personalities, character, motivation. These are real people in believable settings, and plot emerges from the interpersonal dynamics and is not the primary driver (although it’s there of course). Still it can be done well or badly and I’m not yet sure about “O & C”.

Most SF by contrast is plot/concept-centric with characterisation either perfunctory, or subordinated to whatever is necessary to keep the plot or grand ideas moving along. Easier to tap into the primary emotions of the reader that way (at the expense of enlightenment?).

It also pays better, as literary writers never fail to remind us.


My old reading glasses had made the transition to ‘computer’ glasses and a few days ago made the further transition to ‘out-of-the-way-drawer’ glasses. It’s really shocking the rate at which the eyes deteriorate as you get older.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Symmetry and the Monster (book review)

A review of "Symmetry and the Monster" posted on

According to the blurb on the back, the American Mathematical Monthly described this book as "truly a page-turner". I have to say it is not.

Mark Ronan's task is to take us through the history of group theory culminating in the recently-completed project to classify the finite simple groups. This has taken decades of work by large numbers of highly-skilled mathematicians, with proofs so long and abstruse that there is a genuine concern that no future generation of mathematicians will be able to comprehend them.

How do you communicate this to a lay audience? The key decision for the writer is to gauge his audience. Ronan's view is a readership which knows no group theory. He therefore can't even define a simple group: "a simple group is a group which is not the trivial group and whose only normal subgroups are the trivial group and the group itself" - Wikipedia.

The reader, lacking help in engaging with the subject matter, is instead entertained by concise and amusing mini-biographies and anecdotes about the many participants in the quest. Ronan is a little dry as a writer, but in general this works well enough, although he is too indulgent of such monstrous personages as Sophus Lie. The final milestone in the classification project was confirmation of discovery of the mathematical Monster, the largest of the 26 sporadic groups. This was big news even on conventional news outlets, such as the BBC.

In conclusion, this book will work for mathematicians who know some group theory and who like the historical context spelled out. I don't think many people not educated in mathematics will make it through to the end. With this in mind, Ronan could have profitably added a chapter at the beginning (or even an appendix) where he took the reader through normal subgroups, quotient groups and on to simple groups. He would then have been able to use correct terminology (his own merely irritates) and the journey would have been a lot more satisfying. Perhaps for the second edition?

Review of my book

The Publisher sent me the review below from Book News Inc. (June 2007) yesterday evening.

Business strategies for the next-generation network
Seel, Nigel. (Informa telecoms & media; 4)
Auerbach Publications, ©2007 298 p. $79.95

"Think way back, all the way back to the 1980s, to the birthing of the "Next Generation Network" (NGN) concept, when designers were building the future from what they could scrape from the past. The result was NGN all right, but also decidedly assembled from dead body parts. Consultant and experienced practitioner Seel reviews the failure of previous attempts to start fresh with such concepts as broadband ISDN, covering the net, TV and IT systems.

He also describes efforts by carriers to build newness in and transform themselves into enterprises without legacy systems, which leads to the business and technology issues of maintaining the idea of NGN, if not the reality. He then focuses on business strategies for both old and new players as they attempt to win over the consumer market. The result is both absorbing and alarming, if we still believe in NGN."

(Annotation ©2007 Book News Inc. Portland, OR)

Monday, October 01, 2007


Clare picked up a bug - she thinks it was on the flight home from Athens. Jetliners are notorious for not keeping the cabin air-filters clean, so that they become a repository for the bacterial load of passenger coughs and sneezes.

She claims the fever broke at 6 a.m. this morning. To tell you the truth, I was asleep at the time and couldn’t possibly comment. As we know, horses sweat, men perspire and women glow - I rather gather that someone was glowing like a pig here this morning.

Just in passing, what a delight to read the diary (here) of John Baez, who works in mathematical physics and category theory. His latest posting includes:

  • Comments on the reintroduction of Pleistocene megafauna into North America (here) - this has been extensively discussed in recent issues of Scientific American.

  • A Google video of a young lady talking about Monads (here) which I could follow for the first twenty seconds.

  • Some cute cat pictures (scroll to the bottom of the page here).

A few other random thoughts. Pretty impressive to see the Buddhist monks in action in Burma. I occasionally discover that various leading academics turn out to be Buddhists, which always seems to strike their colleagues as faintly exotic. There’s much which is admirable about the Buddha’s teaching, so it’s a shame there is so much baggage as well: reincarnation; the six realms with their hungry ghosts, the Asuras (jealous gods) etc.

I have previously waved the flag for Taoism - philosophical Taoism that is - cf. the Tao Te Ching - not the magical, god-riven debasements. The Chinese communists used to denounce Taoism as fatalism. I suppose it is fatalism to try to learn how to play a musical instrument rather than smash it, or to work with a group of people to creatively find a consensual solution rather than simply order them to do what you want on pain of violence. I guess effective Taoism requires its practitioners to be alert, intelligent, empathic, creative and persuasive: but you are allowed to use lethal force when all of the above falls completely on deaf ears.

The problem of Taoism is that it lacks the symbols, dogmatic doctrine, organisational hierarchy and processes which lesser philosophies rely upon to organise their adherents. I don’t know if the concept of a “Taoist monk” (in the correctly understood sense of Taoism) is even possible. An educated Taoist community certainly.

And just a final thought. So much political theory is based around the model of the idealised rational citizen. This may have worked great post-enlightenment, but in the era of evolutionary psychology, with the relevant traits (intelligence, personality-factors) normally-distributed across the population, treating “citizens” as political and moral clones is a very poor approach. Is anyone out there thinking of better models which don’t fall straight into the trap of elitism, eugenics and all the rest?

Anyway, back to work mode. All this is very interesting, but it’s a well-recognised diversion from getting down to write my white paper on lessons learned from the recent WiFi deployment I was involved with!