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.