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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com

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!