Monday, March 30, 2009

Save the Children

Peter Singer was on the radio this morning, arguing we should all be giving a substantial part of our income to charities such as OXFAM.

His logical argument was that we would not hesitate to incur material loss (e.g. ruining our clothes) if we saw an unrelated child drowning in a pool -- we would just jump in. Logically, the fact that similar children are preventably-dying thousands of miles away, children who could be saved by our shelling out some of our income, ought to evoke the same reaction. Prof. Singer himself donates around a third of his salary, and states that he is still 'comfortably off' (so why not donate two-thirds then, Professor?).

Singer is a sophisticated thinker with a utilitarian calculus to fall back on, and personally brave - his talks are routinely, violently disrupted. So his views should be treated with care. However, the whole formalisation of morality* seems to me to be an edifice built on sand.

Let's suppose you have an incorrect theory of gravitation and mistakenly believe you are exempt from its effects. Your prediction of what happens when you step off a cliff will be rapidly disconfirmed. This is the essence of science: you are not free to believe what you like; nature will falsify incorrect beliefs.

Now, suppose you breach an ethical "law", what happens?

The worst outcome is that people get extremely upset (possibly including yourself). The reason is clearly that we evolved as social creatures with built-in emotional drivers to reward pro-social behaviour, and punish (shame, guilt, disgust, outrage, ...) behaviours deemed to be anti-social.

There is quite a gulf between generic, broad-brush, blunt-instrument emotions and delicate, complicated, shades-of-grey social dilemmas. Into this gap pour lawmakers, vigilante groups and Professors of Ethics. None of them are authoritative.

Most people do not emulate Professor Singer in this matter of donations to "save the children". How do we scientifically refute his position? We hardly need to, as it's based only on emotion.

If we understand our emotional drivers as evolved triggers for behaviours which promote our ability to become ancestors, then saving the children of adults to whom we bear no close genetic relationship is not a particularly smart thing to do. Recall that for most of evolutionary history, other human groups were correctly viewed as murderous competitors. Goodness, how times have changed!

I suspect that most people feel sympathy with the plight of those far-away and genetically-distant children but have no intention of spending significant effort, time and resources in an attempt to ameliorate the problem. You are allowed to disagree with me (and the universe will not care either way) but could I ask for your credentials first? Are you giving away a greater proportion of your money to Oxfam than Peter Singer?

The ethical "terms-of-trade" between tough-minded 'social-realists' and tender-minded 'social-inclusionists' tends to depend on how threatened a social group or society feels itself. In times of placidity, the inclusionists have the terrain mostly to themselves and the values of 'generalised-niceness' together with attendant hypocrisies reign supreme. No-one on the radio show this morning challenged Professor Singer's views at all.

* You can have a mathematics of morality or ethics: you can have a mathematics of anything if you write down useful axioms with interesting and relevant consequences. However, you can't have a science of morality or ethics, because morality and ethics are epiphenomena of their underlying social communities deriving from social boundary conditions.

The real science is sociobiology, which by making the boundary conditions explicit, derives optimal moralities for different social contexts. In the jargon, thinking that the correct analytical level is that of ethics/morality in the abstract is an act of reification.

Nigel Seel: about me


Nigel Seel: about me

v3. February 2017

I was born in Bristol, in the West of England in January 1951. My father, Frederick Stanley Seel was a welder (and later lecturer in that subject) and my mother, Beryl Joan Seel (née Porter) a housewife (and later teaching assistant). I was the eldest, with younger brother Adrian and even younger sister Elaine.

At primary school, another child confided: ‘The difference about you is that when we get a newspaper, we all turn to the sports pages, while you read the front page.’ The paper of choice on the Henbury council estate was the tabloid Daily Mirror. At junior school, I would on occasion hide in the school library rather than go down to the playing fields with the other children. What a delight to read about science in peace and tranquillity!

Aged 11, I passed the 11+ exam and went to Bristol Grammar School where, as a working class child, I entered an establishment modelled on the public school system. The adjustments were difficult and I developed an anarchist and libertarian frame of mind.

Entering Warwick University in 1969, I studied maths, physics and engineering in the first year but found it very tedious, reprising work I'd already covered in the sixth form. I spent most of my time playing lead guitar in a band and then joined the Socialist Society. Fascinated by Marxism, I changed course at the end of the first year to Philosophy and Politics, but then spent most of my time in political activism. The inevitable result was exam failure at the end of the second year. Exiting the university, I moved to London, a member of the International Marxist Group (IMG) in the struggle against Thatcherism.

After a string of temporary jobs, I was persuaded by my then-girlfriend, Val, to become a teacher, entering Furzedown College, Tooting in 1972 and graduating with a Teacher’s Certificate in 1974. In 1976, I moved to Liverpool at the suggestion of the IMG and taught mathematics at Ormond High School in Maghull. It was here that I was encouraged to enrol with the Open University as it was clear teaching was becoming an all-graduate occupation.

Teaching didn't suit me at all. Some years later, my Head of Department at Ormond (who had to retire with a nervous breakdown) said of me: “Great with mathematics, really knows his stuff, but lousy with the kids.”

The problem is rooted in my personality: in a working-class comprehensive, the optimal teacher is ‘leader of the pack’ - stern but fair with a genuine liking for adolescents. My interpersonal style is transactional and ideas-based, good for tutorials and with those eager to learn; not at all effective for crowd-control and ‘lion-taming’.

Becoming disillusioned with teaching and with left-wing politics, I resigned from both in 1976-7, entering a government training scheme in computer programming (punched cards on an IBM 360).

In 1978 I married Clare Youell, a fellow ex-teacher and we moved to London where I taught COBOL programming (much easier than secondary maths!) as part of the same Government scheme. In short order we moved out of South London to Windsor, and then to Slough as I became a programmer with Kienzle Data Systems on the Slough Industrial estate. Shortly afterwards Alex was born, and then Adrian.

After some years programming and bug-fixing, I became more interested in the problems of specifying software and in 1982 was offered a job at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories. STL was one of the five worldwide research labs of IT&T and I joined the formal methods group at Harlow. This was a huge learning curve, as I was still finalising my undergraduate degree, not awarded until 1984. The new job required learning functional computing languages (LISP, ML) and becoming somewhat-familiar with abstract algebra, logic and category theory. At this point we relocated to a semi in Saffron Walden. A few years later in 1986, we moved to our first detached home in Sible Hedingham, Essex.

In the mid-eighties, Artificial Intelligence suddenly became high-profile and I was granted funding to work in the area. I was able to combine this with a PhD programme jointly with Surrey University, supervised by Professor Bernie Cohen who had been a colleague of mine at STL before moving into academia. The PhD was awarded in 1990 for a thesis entitled “Agent Theories and Architectures”.

Times were now hard for STL and the lab was acquired by the Canadian company Bell-Northern Research (BNR), the R&D arm of Northern Telecom and Bell Canada. The more speculative research programmes were closed down and I was forced to make a career change to public telecommunications network design, learning my trade as a carrier architect. This was another steep learning curve, involving much travel as Nortel sought business with the newly privatised operators in the emerging markets of Eastern Europe.

I also found time in the early 1990s to become a qualified hang-glider and paraglider pilot. Many Sundays were spent at North Weald airfield, near Harlow, being towed to 800 feet to spin and glide the paraglider back down to earth. The long-suffering family back at home were less impressed.

In 1995 we moved to Maidenhead, the centre of Nortel’s activities in the UK and in 1998 I was appointed technical architect for a major outsource programme whereby Nortel would rebuild Cable & Wireless’s UK national network. For the next 18 months I was based in Bracknell leading a team of 30 architects skilled in transmission and optical networking; ATM, Frame Relay and IP data networking; circuit-switched voice and intelligent network engineering and network management systems. I couldn't help but notice that the consultants I had employed in these roles were earning three times as much as I was.

As 1999 came around, the Internet boom began in earnest and I left Nortel to become a freelance network architect; my company was called Interweave Consulting Ltd. After a slow start in the autumn of 1999, business rapidly became very lucrative with contracts with a British Gas start-up called 186k and further work with Cable & Wireless.

The boom was beginning to falter as 2000 came to an end and in January 2001 I joined Cable & Wireless Global as Chief Architect. Soon Clare and I were relocated to the United States based in Vienna, Virginia. A frustrating period followed as C&W Global failed to rise to the challenges of a rapidly deteriorating market, culminating in its bankruptcy. We were relocated back to the UK in April 2003 living first in Merstham, Surrey and then buying a property close to Andover, Hampshire in October of that year.

I immediately restarted my consultancy but after some initial contracts times were difficult. I was offered a job at the management consultancy Mentor Technology International in April 2004 and worked there until January 2006 when that too descended into administration. (During my time at Mentor, I wrote my book).

Again restarting my consultancy, I found contracts with a number of companies including Sky, BT with its public WiFi ‘Wireless Cities’ project, and with the Dubai World Central airport city project during the first half of 2008. However, the major recession of 2008-2010 again made consultancy life difficult although subsequently things picked up a little, particularly in the telecoms security area.

Meanwhile I was still finding time to revisit my original preoccupation with theoretical physics. In 2008 I enrolled in the Open University third level physics course on Electromagnetism, and in 2009 studied the companion course on Quantum Mechanics. In 2010 I started the Open University's Maths MSc course but had to abandon the first module (the Calculus of Variations) when a security contract presented itself with the usual travel and long hours. During this period we also moved house to Wells, Somerset: our new home needed a major (and expensive) makeover.

I have taken the Myers-Briggs personality inventory on several occasions, scoring consistently INTP (Clare scores INFP). More precisely, my scores indicate a moderate degree of introversion (I), which is capable of simulating extraversion for consultancy purposes. I score very highly on intuition (N). My engagement with the world is definitively rigorous in thought rather than fuzzy touchy-feely (T) while my P score is moderate (i.e. close to the P-J boundary) indicating a fluid, adaptive personality rather than a prescriptive one.

Most people have found me to be slightly withdrawn and self-contained on first contact. I don't really indulge in the more traditional forms of "rugby club"-style male bonding and as is often the case with INTPs, it is alleged that I have little small talk.

As can be gathered, I have never been that interested in sports. Team games like football, rugby or cricket bore me rather although I was keen on cross-country running at school and have jogged at intervals. My other sporting interest was martial arts: as a teenager I was an active judoka, passing through the junior grading system. As an adult I flirted again with Judo and also with Karate and Aikido briefly. In America and shortly afterwards Clare and I practiced T’ai Chi to the improvement of our sense of balance and memory.

I like writing and my book “Business Strategies for the Next-Generation Network” (PDF) was published in 2007. This had strong autobiographical threads in its survey of the technical, economic and human dimension of the transition to Internet-based public networking. I have also tried my hand at fiction which is far more difficult than technical writing on account of that you have to write intelligently and perceptively about people rather than systemic abstractions. You can see where I'm going with this.

During 2011 and the first half of 2012 I was a contributing writer at, providing weekly articles on science topics and science-fiction book reviews (here). This was not well-paid, and I packed it in when the ownership changed and the site went off in the direction of computer games, SF films and TV shows.

On March 26th 2014, with carrier investment in new networks still woefully limited, I decided to close Interweave Consulting and retire. Subsequently I’ve spent more time keeping fit at the gym and engaging with interests including physics, genetics, artificial intelligence, economics and history. Most days I get to blog on these issues at “Wading Through Treacle”.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bee Home erected

The Bee Home is now in place, put up this morning with a couple of judicious nails and some wire, as shown above. The intended inhabitants are red mason bees (Osmia Rufa), solitary bees which build their nests in the spring from mud. They are particularly notable for pollinating apple orchards, apparently.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cruel and Unusual

I am a warrior for the cause.

I used to be a Masters student in the nuclear engineering faculty. While I worked on reactor design, my brothers were being shredded and burned by the invaders of our lands. I volunteered as a common soldier, training with weapons, but the brotherhood was smarter than me, my recruiters too aware of my skills. I was soon working with tools more potent than Kalashnikovs.

And then one night, out of the blackness, insect-eyed storm troopers came into our compound and lifted me out. Blindfolded and trussed. Out and into the sky.

They say I was badly knocked around in the extraction. But soon I’ll be better.


I woke up naked, on a surgical bed, my arms and legs strapped down. The upper part of the bed was tilted, so I could see ahead. I was in an operating theatre: there were unknown instruments above on cantilevered arms. Bright lights shone upon me, but the rest of the room was in darkness, and there was no-one around.

Gowned and masked persons approached from either side. Firmly, and not roughly, goggles went over my eyes and headphones covered my ears. A boom mike extended in front of my mouth and I was left alone again.

The questions started at once, quiet and insistent through the headphones.

“What is your name?”

“Your occupation?”

“What have you been doing?”

I said nothing of course, but watched in dreadful fascination as a robot extensor emerged from the nest of equipment above, and snaked across my abdomen. As the questions were gently repeated, the scalpel began its work.


This is day two, they tell me. I awoke to a fine morning in this well-furnished student-style apartment. The male nurse, charming and courteous, told me I was making excellent progress. I mentioned the fresh bruising on my arms and legs, and he assured me that this was often a delayed effect of physical trauma, but that I would soon be fully recovered.

There doesn’t appear to be a heavy schedule today, which is just as well as I feel extremely tired.


It is three o’clock in the morning. The detainee has been given a short-term anaesthetic in his room and transferred to the interrogation suite here in the basement. He lies naked, strapped to the surgical frame, his head cocooned by the virtual reality helmet.

A matrix of fine wires, acupuncture probes, descends from the ceiling and inserts itself directly into every exposed region of his skin. Each probe can deliver thousands of volts to its dedicated nerve fibre. The shock pattern is computer-correlated with the surgical CGI fed to the goggles.

This is state of the art in the virtual reality of pain. We’re proud of it. It works and leaves no physical marks - apart from the bruising that is, squirming being a necessary part of the process.

After an hour of the most excruciating agony, the patient has told us what we wanted to know. He was working on a plutonium cache and we now know who, what, why and where. We just need to check it out.

Time to administer the Rohypnol.


Day three and I awoke late again, feeling like I’ve been doing rounds with Mike Tyson. My medical friend reassures me that this is to be expected, it’s perfectly natural and that the symptoms of my extraction will soon begin to subside. Apparently I will be released soon.

This good news ought to make me delighted, but I feel curiously empty, emotionally numb. Like deep inside, I’m silently screaming?


Yep, it all checks out. We’ve got the stash, captured the team and demolished the site. Job done! Tonight he’s getting the “play nice” treatment. He gets to visualise carrying on with his warrior friends (bad news!), or instead he could be back at university working on something a little more benign than nuclear engineering - and then the pain stops.

It’s been a couple of hours and he hasn’t screamed for a while, so I reckon we chalk up another result here.

Time for the injection.


They say I can go! To be honest, I can’t remember much of what’s happened over the last few days: everything seems a bit hazy. PTSD they say, although I don’t seem to recall that much stress. Anyway, I think I’ve done my bit on the front line. We’ll never win just by endless small arms fire and the odd atrocity.

No, the answer is we have to out-think them and out-grow them. I’m back to university and I’ve decided where the future lies - I’m changing my Masters to investment finance ...

© Nigel Seel. March 2009.

Bee Home, and the decline and fall of Hard SF

Last week in New Scientist, on the back cover where they do queries, there was a piece on Bee Homes.

There, I said something positive about New Scientist.

At the time, Clare had a hunt around and found some bamboo canes, but they were only half the required size - only 4 mm in diameter. Today, however, in Sainsburys we were able to purchase the Bee Home pictured below for a modest sum. It will go up in a south-facing kind of way over the weekend. Come on, Bees!

Bee Home-to-be

Dmitry Portnoy wrote the following as part of his 5-starred review of Neal Stephenson's book "Anathem".

"Anathem" is a work of Hard SF, meaning that everything that's weird or new in it is a rigorous extrapolation of science, mathematics and philosophy. It's the kind of book Arthur C. Clarke used to write in the 40's and 50's. He wrote about rockets and satellites because scientists were working on rockets and satellites.

Most (I would argue all) recent Hard SF, however, is about "rockets" and "satellites." Science Fiction has become an exclusively literary genre, with books inspired less by new scientific research than by previous science fiction books, and, regrettably, movies. Ideas turn into tropes, and instead of extrapolation, we get variation: of the generation star ship, the space alien, the artificial brain, the parallel universe.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Writers like Ted Chiang and Gene Wolfe write brilliant books by breathing new literary life into these old tropes. But their concerns are ultimately moral. They're not interested in New Ideas About Everything as much as in the problems and choices those ideas pose.

In the last thirty or so years, the only sub-genres of Science Fiction willing to take on new science and technology have been cyberpunk and its cousin ribofunk (addressing respectively info- and bio-tech.) But recently, both these sub-genres have been petering out because, I would argue, real-world progress in both those areas has been both too fast and too gradual: fast enough to make most writing obsolete shortly after, or even before, publication; too gradual to produce anything truly transformative for the long view (we're still waiting for AI, immersive VR, and genetically modified humans.)

(This is probably why Stephenson left the field.)

There were, however, too many negative reviews to persuade me to buy it. Maybe the library will have a copy.

However, Dmitry's points about the collapse in new ideas in SF seem to me to be spot-on. As fundamental science has either stagnated or gotten too speculative and far-out (string theory/landscape theory/brane theory anyone?) so the old awe-inducing excitement seems to have evaporated, the paradigms just mined-out.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Standing Wave

We’re doing Mach 2 fifty metres over the Amazon jungle. I address the pilot.

“Hey, Juan, are we gonna come out of this?”

“Sure Peter. Stories to tell your grandchildren. We’ll be bragging over cold beers tonight. They’ll be lapping it up.”

I call for a second opinion from the navigator.

“Hey, Louis, we gonna make it?”

“I estimate that we have a greater than 20% probability of making it home. And that’s based on the assets currently supporting us.”

Great. So who would you rather believe?

As we race towards the alien base on the altiplano, still an hour away, our supporting assets do their good work. Our path is illuminated by orbital radarsats; hypersonic RPVs will enter the target area before us deploying total sensory coverage; high-resolution spy-craft image everything that moves from thousands of miles out of harm’s way.

Below us, the shock-cone from our B7 stealth bomber flattens the jungle in a parabolic corridor, growing at 2,200 feet per second. Flatten is too gentle a word: our shock front smashes the trees, animals and aboriginal humans below like a spade slammed onto a helpless bird. We travel at twice the speed of sound – they die and die and never hear us coming.

It’s a shame the aliens landed, set up their base and ignored us. Now look at what they’ve made us do.


The lead drone, piloted out of Austin, TX is about to overfly. We have real time video on the B7. My job is to do the weapons, and I’m very, very interested in what the drone is about to show us.

As the drone climbed the foothills of the Andes maintaining a constant 50 metres altitude, it began pulling some serious g. Not surprising given it was doing in excess of 3,500 mph. Played havoc with the forward video. Now however it’s on the high plateau and the enemy base is no more than forty miles away.

About half a minute, then.

I stare intently at the screen as a bright star resolves to a slowly growing spherical shell. Looks like one of those science fiction force-fields - impossible to see inside. The glowing dome now fills the screen, a shining wall looming as the drone sprints the remaining distance and ...

OK, we lost the signal. I hear voices on the command channel murmuring. Words you don’t want to hear: ... “pulverized” ... “completely destroyed” ... “Doppler anomalies”.
The radio link goes quiet and we hear our controller.

“Abort right now. The mission is cancelled.”

Come home.


We sit in debrief with other aircrew, technical staff and sundry hangers-on, listening to the reports. Adrenalin-wash adds to the fatigue of hours in the cockpit: we can barely concentrate.

Here is what happened to the drone.

“At 13.23 local time the drone hit what looked like a spherical force-field of radius 1.72 km centred around the alien base. The drone was travelling at just over 2 km/sec at that time. Detailed examination of the alien force-field shows that it was of the order of 1.5 cm in thickness, and that within this spherical shell Gigahertz gravitational forces were fluctuating chaotically with amplitudes in the thousands of g. The drone was torn apart at micron granularity, friction between adjacent debris pieces leading to material vaporisation.

“The effects of this force-field on the atmosphere account for why it appeared to be shining.”

No wonder they ordered us back.

“The consensus of the science team was that this does not represent a weapon deployment on the part of the aliens. Instead, it is believed that what we saw here was an automatic mechanism for dealing with incoming ‘space junk’ - for which purpose it would clearly be most effective.

“So, as far as we can tell, although this demonstrates the aliens’ understanding of spacetime physics and technologies, there is absolutely no evidence that the aliens are taking any cognizance of our own existence or reacting to us in any conscious way.

"So we are still pretty sure that the aliens will not be able to deal effectively with a proper full-on assault.”

As we sat and absorbed this optimistic intelligence, the air in the briefing room suddenly cooled and deadened: I was absurdly reminded of noise-cancelling headphones. Around me, I sensed the first inklings of confusion on the faces of my crewmates. In the centre of the room a dark mist congealed. From its icy stillness a throbbing bass tone assembled itself into words, clearly and starkly:


I can’t wait for the full-on assault.

© Nigel Seel, March 2009.

Hangin’ with the Cousins

A highly-unusual space-time anomaly deposited a copy of The Economist for September 18th – 24th 2010 on my desk today. I was particularly taken with their report of the recently concluded Iraq War Enquiry, promised back in March 2009 by the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband. It’s entitled “Hangin’ out with the Cousins” and reads as follows.

Playing the long game as ever, David Miliband must have realised 18 months ago just how damning this report was going to be. As someone too junior in 2002/3 to be much involved, he could have anticipated that the report would prove the final nail in Mr Brown’s coffin, propelling Miliband to the illustrious position he now holds, even if it is in opposition.

The Iraq War Report is astonishing in its candour. This is the story that everybody knew but no-one would admit. Its conclusions may be summarised in the following five points.

1. The Blair Government was well-aware back in 2002 that the Bush administration was determined to execute the neocon dream of a remade Iraq, making the middle-east safe for western interests, predominantly the supply of oil. The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) was also well-aware that the US Government harboured completely unrealistic fantasies about their ability to reshape an essentially artificial country, ethnically-riven and thoroughly tribalised.

2. The Government knew in advance that the invasion would succeed in the short term but then turn into an unmitigated disaster, with Sunnis fighting Shia, and everyone fighting the Americans.

3. The Government, reflecting on the UK’s vast investments in the US and the extra clout in world diplomacy the UK possesses by dint of being America’s bagman, decided that its own strategic interests were best served by allying with the Americans come-what-may and taking the hit in terms of popularity.

4. The ever-so-clever FCO figured out that while the Americans would get totally bogged down with the Sunnis in the north, the Brits in the exclusively-Shia south would be seen as purely liberators. No hard hats for us! In the eventual outcome, our middle-east posture would even be enhanced, and our ever-devious relationship with Iran could be established on a new basis.

5. Obviously none of this great-game, power-politics stuff could be exhibited in public as a casus belli: something else would have to be concocted. So all the nonsense about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” had to be dangled in front of the media and political circus. As red herrings go, it was conspicuously successful, diverting attention even to this day from what was really going on. Of course, the sheer stupidity and vacuity of the premise damaged all those engaged in either promulgating the myth or trying to puncture it, Dr. Kelly being the most extreme example of the latter.

So in summary, this is a rare case of an enquiry where the truth was actually aired - although to any observer who has been paying attention to world affairs over the last decade, none of its conclusions will be particularly surprising.”

Monday, March 23, 2009

So farewell 'New Scientist'

The very last copy of my subscription to New Scientist came through the door last Saturday. I shall not be renewing.

It has become a truism in the scientific community that New Scientist has turned into a trendy, faddish, superficial mag with inaccurate tabloid headlines and mistake-strewn articles. Some of us reflect back through dewy, nostalgic spectacles to the New Scientist articles of the 60s, 70s and 80s where there was a genuine project to bring rigorous scientific thinking to a generation of budding scientists. And BBC's Horizon used to be good, too.

Has New Scientist really dumbed down so badly, or is this merely old-fogey sentimentality and selective memory? I could go check the archives and do a comparison but it's not so easy, and besides there's another way to think about it.

Back when I was a lad, we had the Tripartite System of secondary education. Only ~25% of state-educated children went to Grammar School, the rest went to the - often sink-schools - called 'Secondary Moderns'.

The Grammar Schools were often only partially-selective, taking fee payers as well. Of that 25%, only slightly more than half were in any sense academic (i.e 14% of the total population).

Looking at the bell curve above, with IQ having a population mean μ of 100 and standard deviation σ of 15, the 86% population point is just above +1σ, with IQ of 116. So that academic 14% would have had IQs of at least 116: these were the people who were potential buyers of New Scientist at school, university and beyond. In the 1970s just 14% of school leavers went to University.

In today's era of mass education to graduate level, where around 40% of 18-30 year olds go on to university, it's clear that the IQ threshhold for doing a degree course has dramatically lowered (The 60:40 split occurs at +0.25σ = an IQ of 104). This of course has two effects - it increases the market-size for a science-based journal enormously, but only if it's dumbed down.

I think we see the results, but I guess we have to be realists. New Scientist gets no subsidy and still has to pay the bills. And what a treadmill - how much new, interesting science really is there on a weekly basis?

I may have sympathy for New Scientist's commercial plight, having to cater to the fashionably-green, the emotionally self-indulgent and the fuzzy-thinkers, but I don't have to read it any more. I currently subscribe to Scientific American and American Scientist.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Flooding at Penton Grafton

A few weeks ago, after a period of very heavy rain, we did a circular walk and came out, near our home, at Penton Grafton only to find the way completely blocked by flooding.


Today, after a week of blue skies and pleasant weather we strolled down the green lane bridlepath to Penton Grafton en route to the White Hart pub in Penton Mewsey (I know this is beginning to sound like an episode of The Archers). To my surprise the water has receded not at all.

I think what we're seeing here is not a flood, but a river which comes to life in wet winters, as rainwater is drawn off from the surrounding chalk hills.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The 10,000 Year Explosion

Just finished The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. The thesis of this book is that the changing environments encountered by human populations since the original excursion out of Africa ~50,000 years ago - and more recently through the introduction of agriculture, have led to substantial and differential genetic changes in various human populations. Therefore, to understand the deep history of humanity, we need a combined cultural-genetic analysis in which each component couples to the other.

Key ideas include:
  • The evolved disease-resistance of Europeans + their diseases effectively destroyed the Amerindian populations of North and South America, which led to a relatively easy colonisation by quite small forces. Compare the European inability to colonise Africa, rich in its own diseases to which the indigenous Africans were far better adapted: they didn't die off.

  • The spread of the original Indo-European speakers from their Pontic-Caspian Steppe homeland was, the authors argue, driven by a lactose-tolerating mutation which allowed those nomadic invaders to consume milk. This is a far more efficient energy source than slaughtering cattle, supporting five times as many warriors per square kilometre.

  • And then the explanation of the superior intelligence (~0.7 std. dev.) of the Ashkenazi Jews due to strong selective pressure in their taxation, money lending and management niche over the last thousand years in northern Europe ... and the price in genetic diseases of the nervous system they pay for their IQ-boosting mutations.
I suspect the enemies of applying evolutionary theory to human development will have to die-off before the paradigm gets decisively shifted, but to an honest evolutionist, the approach of this book cannot be faulted.

We are at the earliest stages of differential genetic analysis, and I expect that the bubbling ideas and historical scenarios outlined in such a clear and entertaining way in this book will be substantially developed and refined in the coming years.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell did it here in literature and music; let's try it in Lisp.

Let (p1 p2 ... pn) be a story with first part p1, second part p2, ..., nth part pn. Don't worry about where the breaks occur, maybe chapters and maybe not.

Most books are structured (p1 p2 ... pn) but not Cloud Atlas. Let's start with the sections/parts.

(setq A The-Pacific-Journal-of-Adam-Ewing)
(= A '(a a'))

(setq B Letters-from-Zedelghem)
(= B '(b b'))

(setq C The-First-Luisa-Rey-Mystery)
(= C '(c c'))

(setq D The-Ghastly-Ordeal-of-Timothy-Cavendish)
(= D '(d d'))

(setq E An-Orison-of-Somni~451)
(= E '(e e'))

(setq F Slooshas-Crossin-an-Evrythin-After)

(setq Cloud-Atlas '(a (b (c (d (e F e') d') c') b') a') )

It remains to be said that each of the stories is intricately researched, and both exciting and thought-provoking in its own right.

As the story-recursion steps forwards, time jumps in 50-100 year steps, with each episode re-emerging as a text in the subsequent one. The styles of the embedded stories are all very different.

There's a certain amount of back-flipping through the pages to catch the back-references, and renew acquaintance with the earlier parts of later stories. Mitchell doesn't forget the advice that if a revolver is to be part of a scene, then by the end of the play it must be used.

The underlying theme - and there is one - is the eternal uphill battle against the human version of entropy: ultimately self-defeating selfishness, cheating and savagery. Civilization is always bought dear and is always unstable.

Who could disagree.

The scariest thing

... is not a re-energised Russia, nor a nuclear Iran, and certainly not a superpowered China. All these things could be lived with and accommodated.

You can't, BTW, go around blowing up every state which looks to acquire nuclear weapons - that's what Teller and von Neumann wanted to do back in the late forties, when the USSR went nuclear. And no, a nuclear Iran will not blow up Israel - they're not prepared to 'martyr' their entire country, which would be the sorry consequence. Remember MAD?.

No, none of the above is truly scary. But how about that thin secular-Islamic political class in Pakistan fracturing and dissolving in a vortex of fundamentalism, and the Taliban getting hold of sixty nukes?

Now that's scary.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gulp! Where is he?

As usual, I checked for voles in the front vestibule (none) and moved his basket into the hall. I pulled back the curtains and waited for him to notice and come shooting through the cat-flap.


When Clare got up, I said casually "Your cat's missing". She dutifully went out to search the local highways and byways, with no result. She fell to musing about the number of cats we've had which have vanished, over the years. I think she counted four.

We then fell to speculating? Was it roaming more widely than usual in the current clement weather? Had it decided belatedly to return to its ancestral home in Hastings? Had it been taken in by a kindly farmer, and allowed to sleep in the barn? ... Or was it a squashed bundle of meat and fur on the A303?

Our thinking began to incline towards that final possibility, and I was instructed to throw the remnants of its food onto the garden for the birds.

This afternoon, about quarter to five, it nonchalantly strolled through the cat-flap without a care in the world.


I had considered writing a nostalgic piece from my time at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow back in the 1980s, when I was studying denotational semantics. Having got a job at the lab without the right mathematical training at that time, I was always hitting new material without having studied the necessary prerequisites. So it proved with the meaning of programs. I was thrown into continuous lattice theory before properly understanding what the problem was.

Eventually I realised that we were adopting a deliberately ignorant view of the text of programs written in some programming language (e.g. Algol, C).

We were trying to do for these texts what truth-functional semantics does for logic, namely find a domain of entities where the elementary terms of the programming language could find objects which could constitute their meaning, and where the syntactic rules for compilable programs could be matched by compositional semantic rules which would assemble an entity which would be the meaning of the overall program.

The problems included:
  • in programming we can do the equivalent of applying a function to itself (breaks set-theoretic cardinality rules);
  • we can assign different values to identifiers writing, for example, x := x+1 (this statements, with := interpreted as equality, is simply false);
  • we can explicitly modify the 'flow of control' with inherently dynamic constructs (e.g. GOTO).
When I got the idea of denotational sematics I finally understood that workaday programming languages were an unholy mix of conceptually-clean computational concepts and messy 'drive-the-CPU' engineering optimisations.

Denotational semantics led to the development of super-powerful functional programming languages replete with specification-capability and logical clarity. To run functional languages such as Lisp, ML and the numerous derivatives, we even had hardware (Lisp Machines et al.), meant to take us beyond the unholy Von Neumann compromise.

As I said, I had planned to write about this, but as I was planning the memo I looked up continuations at Wikipedia, which caused a conceptual stack overflow, so I decided not to bother.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Clare and myself took my mother down to Clevedon today. The day was as good as you get in March: 17° and a slight but chilly wind from the north-west.

The Pebble Beach at Clevedon

As you can see, the tide was out. The beach was pretty deserted, but we did see one sixtyish man lying in a rocky suntrap with his shirt off, guarded by a black dog.

We paid the money and entered the Pier

I was initially reluctant to pay what was actually quite a modest fee, but Clare shamed me into parting with some change.

Clevedon seafront from the end of the Pier

Our view of Clevedon was generally positive. We're more than used to the typical English seaside town: full of litter, tacky shops and vaguely menacing youths with way too many piercings and unnaturally-sculptured hair. None of that here - the general ambience was quite genteel and we had lunch in a very pleasant up-market restaurant, Murrays of Clevedon.

The end of the Pier

As we left, a bunch of fishermen arrived with their gear. My mother reminded me that an interesting feature of the pier is that each of the planks on the walkway has a small brass plate with the name of a sponsor. There are also brass plates on the sides of the pier, above the benches. They're a little too small to be seen on the picture above.

The author and his mother

Afterwards we drove on to Portishead. Again, we were impressed with the prettiness and up-market character of the place. The roads were jammed however, and the signage poor. First time round we completely failed to find the beach and almost arrived back in Clevedon. We eventually found it, but it wasn't worth the effort. No sand and danger signs everywhere.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Drinking in Cornwall

My brother, Adrian, has a letter in The Times today (here). It reads:


I regret that the Chief Medical Officer has got it wrong on the pricing of alcohol if the experience in this area is replicated elsewhere. Most of the alcohol consumed by young people in these parts is shoplifted rather than bought. Cost is in this case quite irrelevant as displayed by the fact that most of the bottles smashed on the roads and pavements, or littering local gardens are of premium lager brands.

The local youth, both male and female brag about their prowess at distraction thefts, often from supermarkets at night or early morning with only skeleton staff in attendance and intimidation theft at convenience stores where only one, often young, female shop assistant is in attendance. These are often unreported as owners are reluctant to bring the spotlight of the enforcement agencies down upon their premises.

Surely the solution is to limit the sale of alcohol to those premises that have secure alcohol storage facilities and dedicated staff to supervise them, rather than every corner shop and even the local petrol station.

Adrian Seel
St Blazey, Cornwall

It reminded me of the situation in the states, where liquor is sold in special shops with the appearance of armouries.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Kinda blends in, dontcha think?

This is the reason ...

... why we're sometimes nervous of sitting down in the evening. (Click on the picture for a clearer view).


I had thought the offices would be rather genteel in Winchester, but they share a building with the Inland Revenue and the Probation Service and had the usual admonitions about assaulting staff, and the usual toughened-plastic barriers with a buzzer.

The Commissioner was a classic Representative of Authority, but friendly enough, and when I asked to affirm he slid back the Bible, retrieved the form and carefully crossed out the word "Oath": I then repeated the necessary mantra.

Less than ten minutes in all, and I should get the formal award at the end of the month.

Clare had claimed I looked "inauthentic" in my business casual attire for the Probate Court. On returning home I was soon back in those 'long shorts' which terminate just below the knee, and a red tee-shirt emblazoned with "ENGLAND": apparently this passes the authenticity test. We proceeded to the Andover Municipal Dump where we 'let go' an old bike and plenty of garden waste. I have never seen a dump busier, and blame the first good weekend of the year just past.

I've started "Cloud Atlas" which for some unaccountable reason I failed to read first time around. And for completeness, I've reached "Probability Currents" in my QM course.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Depressing Outlook for the Ummah

Review: Stranger To History – Aatish Taseer

Some facts about the author Aatish Taseer. He was the child of an affair between a leading Pakistani politician and an Indian journalist from an upper class family. He was educated at the prestigious Kodaikanal International School and then at Amherst College in Massachusetts (which did not impress him). After graduating he had a “largely clerical” job at Time magazine and later became a journalist working for Prospect magazine in the UK. His interviews with British radical Muslims after the London bombings start this book.

Aatish’s father, Salmaan Taseer, is a controversial member of the elite in Pakistan. Briefly a minister in the Pakistan caretaker government in 2007-2008, he is at time of writing the Governor of the Punjab. Taseer père has an estranged relationship with his son.

Aatish Taseer’s book is an account of his travels through the Muslim crescent of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan as he strives to learn the theory and practice of Islam. By such immersion, he hopes to find a basis to re-engage with a father who has to-date mostly treated him with indifference if not hostility. So what does he learn?

The most obvious trend he picks up on is the ubiquitous rise of fundamentalist Islam. Taseer’s western-educated sophistication has no trouble picking holes in what he takes to be a simplistic literalist version of the faith rooted in Arabian desert culture, an ideology which can only reject new ideas and which obsesses on trivia and victimhood. He rapidly learns that no amount of rational argument can change the mind of adherents to a totalising world-view. Worryingly, this ideology includes the objective of establishing its dogma over everyone else by force.

Pakistan itself also worries Taseer. He sees the forced removal of the Hindu middle class after partition as having locked down a dysfunctional, feudal, faction-ridden, lawless semi-failed state which seems to be in even further regress. Most western analyses of Pakistan say similar things, but it’s interesting to get a personal, tourist-eyed view.

Taseer is a good writer, and sometimes communicates more than he intends. After all, he’s a smart, handsome young man in his twenties with fantastic connections in the subcontinent, and good connections in the West. His adventures inevitably exemplify a certain youthful self-confidence and naivety about how the world actually works. By some miracle he parties across the Islamic world and comes to no real harm.

He never makes it up with his father and fails to understand why. Given the precariousness of his father’s political position, he must see his son as a young bull in a china shop. I am not the least surprised that Salmaan Taseer wants to keep him at a safe distance.

To read this book is not to experience any very profound insight, but as a travelogue it sparkles. Let Aatish do the hard work of travelling in some truly awful places so that you don’t have to.

4 stars.

Pumped Up

Pumped up the two sets of tyres, and oiled the chains and gears. By the time Clare came back from Mass we were good to go.

Our first bike ride of the season was to the Garden Centre at Weyhill. Many of the potted plants were dead, or sitting in dry soil. An education as to how labour-intensive running a garden centre is. I guess this early in the season they hadn't budgeted for it - there were few customers. Still, if you can't keep your stocks alive, there's something wrong with the business model.

We cycled back through Amport and Monxton, disturbing rabbits, ducks and swans at the last moment. A bike is great for getting up close to wildlife as it's fast and relatively silent.

Collateral damage:
  • One set of recently acquired chinos in the wash due to oil smeared over the legs as the bikes were turned right-side-up after oiling.

  • Black stains on the path - I should have oiled them on the grass.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Practical Magic

Sitting at the computer this morning. Running the QM simulation of an electron hitting a potential barrier. Real and imaginary components of the non-existent wave function shimmer and spike, the reflected front-parts interfering with the still-oncoming rear-parts. They settle down into two diminished sets of waves - one moving onwards, the other retracing the previous path. Neither set of waves is the electron.

I tick the Ψ2 box and watch the two wave packets: the probabilities of finding the electron in that position with that momentum in an experiment. Practical Magic.

In fact, take a look.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I'm now registered for the OU summer school "Quantum mechanics: experiments, applications and simulations" at Sussex University this summer. Mindful of my experiences at the "Electromagnetism: experiments, applications and simulations" summer school last year, when I did no special preparation and was consequently all-at-sea in the Q&A sessions, I have determined to be better prepared this year.

Accordingly I have ordered the book "Quantum Mechanics" by Albert Messiah as a supplement to the course - hopefully it should arrive tomorrow. It looks quite a tome, but was recommended by the OU course team and seems a weighty, thorough and authoritative 1,152-paged textbook to reinforce the conceptual impetus of the excellent OU units.

This morning, I was finishing up chapter 6, where I learned about the momentum amplitude A(k) as the Fourier transform of the initial wave function Ψ(x,0).

This afternoon, we got out for a walk around Quarley, Grately and Georgia Down. Following last night's heavy rain, the public footpaths were sodden-to-impassable. Taking a small short cut down a private road (private even for walkers?) we were stopped by a lady in her passing estate car and told in polite terms to 'get off her land'. Perhaps she finds walkers transiting her farm an endless irritation? Anyway, we said we were lost, which was somewhat true.

I have just finished reading Iain M. Bank's short story collection "The State of the Art". This pretty much completes my collection of Banks' SF works. "The State of the Art" consists of stories mostly written at the end of the 1980s, when we were still in Margaret Thatcher and Cold War territory. It seems rather quaint now reading his fears about nuclear armageddon, although his other concerns: famine, genocide, tyranny, stupidity, trash-culture are of course as fresh as ever.

Many of the stories are a judgement of the human race (from the viewpoint of The Culture). Banks is a good enough writer to lift his familiar critique above the soppy hand-wringing which was so tedious in the hands of people like the late Harold Pinter, Ken Loach et al.

I wonder, however, whether an older and wiser Banks, who has surely by now studied some economics and evolutionary psychology, might have rebooted his morality filters past their first Trotskyist incarnation? Please!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Unremittingly Bleak

Review of The Vagrants by Yiyun Li - posted on Amazon.

Gu Shan, a 28 year old former Red Guard, is executed one spring day in 1979. After her years of fanaticism, including the denunciation of her own parents, her crime is to have confided doubts about Communism to her boy-friend – who promptly turned her in for career reasons.

It’s two years after Mao’s death and China is taking a deep breath. There’s a Democracy Wall in Beijing and a power struggle as to how to respond. In the little provincial town of Muddy River, where Gu Shan meets her end, pent-up frustrations cohere sparking a mini protest movement in response.

Yiyun Li, the author, was born in China in 1972 and grew up in the society she describes. She has created a set of beautifully realised characters to etch out a picture of small-town life, people we get to know well and to care about. Gu Shan’s death and the spirit of the times creates a fault line, which is illuminated in the responses of each of her characters in the immediate aftermath.

We know from the blurb that it’s all going to end shockingly badly and as opinion hardens in Beijing, the crackdown impacts upon Muddy River like a tsunami, brutally cutting down both real and imagined enemies of the revolution.

I thought at first that not one of the characters at the end of this novel had emerged with any shred of fortune or dignity. But on reflection I except Old Hua and his wife, the beggar couple who had asked little of the world and had experienced all of its tragedies. Perhaps they alone left the scene with their self-respect intact, the product of a properly Taoist survival strategy.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Saturday, March 07, 2009

QM at Southampton

Down to Southampton University this morning for the first OU tutorial for SM358 Quantum Mechanics. There were eight of us plus the tutor: seven men ranging in age from mid-40s to 60+ and one woman. Amongst the men there were three Nigels - I consider this statistically significant.

The tutorial was Schrödinger equation-centric. At one point we discussed the wavelength of a neutron travelling at a certain speed (kms per second): it came down to a few nanometres. I raised as a discussion point whether the neutron wavelength has the same physical significance (as a parameter within the Ψ function) as more physically obvious wavelengths, as for example those seen in radio waves, where we commonly talk about quarter-wavelength antennas and so on.

This example mixes up quantum and classical descriptions and I suspect I am just a bit muddled. However, we have not yet got to the part of the course where the classical description of an electromagnetic wave is recast as an ensemble of photons described quantum mechanically. Indeed, this may be out of scope of a first course entirely, so my sense of being on somewhat shaky ground is perhaps justified.

Clearly at some level neutron wavelengths have quantitative observables outcomes, as in diffraction by crystal lattices. However, I think my question was more fundamental than that.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Young Victoria

We went to see it this evening, joining a mass of 'elderly' cinephiles together with a small gaggle of teens for what is mostly a royal rom-dram with a little rom-com.

To be fair, The Young Victoria is a superior film, telling the somewhat familiar story of Victoria's accession to the throne amidst the intrigues of the various people trying to manipulate her, not without success (you know who you are, Lord Melbourne).

The characters are three dimensional, and Victoria herself comes across as more stubborn than smart. Albert is the rational strategist, who would be her greatest asset if only she could see that. Luckily at the end of the film she's sorted.

There is room for a sequel (The Old Victoria?) but it's not clear whether it will happen.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Don't Disturb

Teleportation was never going to work. Forget wormholes, stargates and matter transmitters, the actual road to instantaneous travel was virtual – a combination of telepresence, teleoperation and animatronics.

The earliest steps were uncannily-human robot dolls. Some people think it was all driven by the “adult” market, but a primitive ‘Albert Einstein’, which had the full gamut of emotional responses married to an ‘Asimo’ body, was demonstrated as early as 2009 (see the video below).

As wireless broadband became ubiquitous, it became possible to teleoperate a humanoid form which could be configured to look just like you.

This is how it worked. You climbed into a capsule in your home office and closed the lid. The device would deliver clear visual and auditory input from the remote mannequin, while sensors would transmit movement to the remote humanoid to speak and make gestures. The illusion of remote presence was complete, both for the user and the local audience.

There was only one difficulty. At the end of a meeting, there was usually a “comfort break” in which the people who were actually there would repair to the washroom. Back home, this was also an opportunity to leave the capsule, but what happened to the avatar meanwhile?

People took to providing benches in an alcove near the washrooms where the avatar would be sat down while its operator decamped. To show a lack of ‘occupancy’, there was a special orientation shown below: this was called “Thinking”.

An unoccupied avatar

When an avatar was in a temporary vacant mode, people would say ironically, “Oh, Peter’s thinking”. This really caught on, and became a bit of a joke. People would adopt the posture when they didn’t want to be disturbed.

Funny really. When the whole cumbersome technology became obsolete, that one gesture survived. We still do it today when we want to chill out: face drooping forward, fist under chin ... I’m thinking.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Muddled thinking about religion

Well, I hear you comment about the title above, when was it ever otherwise?

It has always struck me how the Myers-Briggs classifications tend to work better with 'exceptional people' than with those clustered around the mean. So, for instance:

Tony Blair is evidently ENTP
Gordon Brown is INTJ
Barack Obama is ENTJ.

With George Bush II, he's evidently ST, but it's less clear which of the S, T is externally-oriented and which is dominant. In other words, how extraverted is he, and is he more P than J?

Cherie Blair née Booth seems to me to be ENFJ.

She presented the last programme in Channel 4's season on Christianity. Ms Booth is a high-profile lay-Catholic, and also well-known for championing human rights and fighting discrimination against women.

Her diagnosis was that the institutional church is failing in Europe, while participatory Christianity is alive and flourishing in America. We should look to American phenomena such as megachurches to revitalise Christianity in Europe.

On the basis of the hour-long programme, the megachurches seemed to be bottom-up enterprises built and led by a charismatic chief executive. They are defined, like a start-up, by a market opportunity and the alpha-male characteristics of their leader. As described in "Good To Great", the characteristics which lead to tribal leadership seem to fit rather poorly with the Christian ideal, but are rather better aligned with cult-domination.

The European churches are defined by doctrine - laws if you will. The holders of ecclesiastical posts are not required to be larger-than-life and may sometimes even be spiritual. Unfortunately, the mass-market opportunity for spiritual seems to be rather smaller than that for boisterous, sing-along, primary-coloured, entertainment-cultural-social-welfare religion.

In another context, wasn't it stated that it was better to be ruled by laws than men? If I was the UK Catholic hierarchy, I would be wanting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to have a word with Cherie.

Oh yes, revenons à nos moutons, ENFJs are noted for conviction-leadership, but not necessarily for clear-eyed logic.

Cherie has the last word: You have the soul of a gimlet-eyed, stony-hearted bureaucrat.

Rowing machine finally departed

Thanks to the very helpful assistance of a kind neighbour, the rowing machine has now been taken away to a home where it will be used more intensively. We feel a sense that the room has now been reclaimed, and the roomba is clearing out the dust which had accumulated beneath it even as I type.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Yes, the cat has now moved on to birds.

Downed Bird

From our back garden this morning.