Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Late Summer Bank Holiday

Saturday: Weary after a week of toiling over hot phones and gridded spreadsheets the wrong shape for my eyes I took the George Bush approach to therapy. Spent the morning sawing down some very tall woody plants at Clare's direction (they have a name but it escapes me) before transporting half a car's load of foliage to the dump.

What did we do in the afternoon? Read a bit from our new Amazon Vine books (hers: the romantic inside-story of Bletchley Park; his: the collapse of Rome in 410 AD) then we drove down to Morrisons, Glastonbury to buy provisions. Triumphant purchases included a plum and apple lattice pie and a blackcurrent cheesecake. Thanks God the weekends are a refuge from healthy eating!

Sunday: For the last time this year I accompanied Clare to 9 a.m. Mass clad in those just-past-the-knee trousers and a tee-shirt. This is a clothing point, not an accompanying point. The wind was arctic, gusting from the north and we shiveringly returned home from whence we did not stir.

Monday: The sun was out and soon so were we. Uniquely in our neighbouring cluster of villages and small market towns we hadn't explored Pilton (think Worthy Farm, Glastonbury Festival). Drove the 5 or 6 miles but there's nothing really there apart from strip-developed mediaeval prettiness. Drove on to Shepton Mallet and discovered some charming old byways and paths to the north-west of the town ending up in a walk through the Cemetery. In the sunshine it was as nice as a park.

In the afternoon we walked down to the Bishop's Palace in Wells and watched a very low-key Moat Race between teams on rafts made of painted oil drums. Lots of tourists and the nearby recreation field was full of inconsequential stalls.

Then we came home and I hovered the lawn while Clare prepared crumpets with jam and tea.
Looking back to this time last year (end of August 2009) we had just engaged estate agents to pop round and value the house in Andover. So there you are: one year on and we are still relieved and delighted to have finally got the house in Wells where we wanted it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Torrent of Humanity

As I write this the sun has set on another soggy, drizzling Reading day. When I drove to work this morning at 7.30 a.m I was amazed to see a clumped line of straggling anoraked refugees toiling with their backpacks up the main road to the Caversham bridge. So early!

The park to the left of the bridge, by the Thames, is the site of the Reading Festival which starts tomorrow.

This evening the same main road had become an extension of the Festival itself - pavements clogged with a two-way traffic of young humanity. Makeshift stalls had sprung up further blocking the pavement while the Plaza Hotel at the roundabout had an improvised sign on a blanket saying "Cheap Parking - £40 a Night".

My jaw dropped.

It's been quiet actually. Through the double-glazing I looked down to the towpath by the Thames to see festival-folk staggering under the weight of multipack cans of lager. Others were pushing provisions and each other in murkily-acquired supermarket trolleys. Will they get their pounds back? Do they care?

The raucousness has been focused at the Henries on their passing riverboats.

I shall be out of here early tomorrow, then off to Wells, returning Tuesday after work. The Festival will be over and packed up by then and I expect only a debris field of empty beer cans and discarded chip wrappers.

The music? I'll catch it on BBC-3.

The Evolution of Increased Intelligence

Evolution doesn't much like intelligence. It much prefers the economy of instinct - simple neural condition-action reflexes: nature loves Beetles. The evolution of metabolically-expensive brains pushes uphill: only selected for when generalised problem-solving delivers a competitive advantage.

When human ancestors left the constant equatorial climate of Africa ~70,000 years ago to spread around the planet, the first challenge some of those groups faced was cold seasonal climate - no gathering of ready-to-hand plants in the winter months.

This put a premium on a number of new behaviours: mandatory hunting in the winter; enhanced collaborative-working; tighter male-female bonding (women were now reliant on their hunting menfolk in the winter months); conscientiousness, preparedness and forethought as more things could lethally go wrong; generalised problem-solving and technological skills. These IQ and personality traits therefore underwent a round of selection.

Around 12,000 years ago in the Middle-East agriculture developed and spread. Another round of challenges involving the ability to live placidly in much larger groups (less interpersonal aggression conferred an advantage) plus the ability to live in a society of abstractions (laws, personal planning, markets and money, education, bureaucracy). So more selection, again for IQ and also for the traits of 'domestication' such as greater 'agreeableness'. This was analysed in Cochran and Harpending's "The 10,000 Year Explosion" reviewed here.

So which selective force had the greater influence on IQ? We have the natural experiment of different human groups where extensive measurements have been made (reviewed here).

** The Chinese have lived in agricultural societies for more than 6,000 years and evolved in a cold climate with cold adaptations.

** The Inuit have even more extreme cold adaptations but lived a pre-agricultural hunting lifestyle until the last century.

** Hot climate Sub-Saharan Africans have practiced agriculture/herding for perhaps 2,000 years.

** Australian Aborigines live in a hot climate and are hunter-gatherers.

So here's the matrix. It looks like climate (cold and seasonal) is the main driver with agriculture/pastoralism less important.

Contribution of climate and agriculture to intelligence increases

Note: agriculture (farming crops) is sedentary, scalable and leads to "civilizations". Pastoralism (herding animals) is nomadic, creates violent "honour cultures" in defence of easily-stolen goods and leads to "barbarians". However, in history there has been much gene flow between the two kinds of post-Neolithic societies and the numbers have always been with the farmers.

Note: surely you don't think I consider this any kind of substantive analysis? With so many confounding variables? No, I think the evolutionary account is plausible but the two-by-two matrix is only suggestive at best.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I write this from the flat in Reading: night has fallen and the wind gusts over the Thames outside. It seems that Autumn has already arrived.

Hoving into view behind me is the Roomba, skeetering like an adolescent gazelle over Alex's thin carpets - it was made for this life. Back in Wells it visibly struggled through the thick pile carpets, trundling erratically, losing direction and flashing brilliant red in premature burn-out. Belatedly Clare checked the operating instructions: it deeply doesn't like the thick shag pile. I will now take Alex's best Hoover (he has two?) back to Wells this weekend and we'll reluctantly revert to manual.

My project involves transferring hundreds of staff from one system to another. I have to send them emails to elicit information that will move them through the process.

One third of the hundreds of people I have bulk-mailed actually sent back the right data [I have laboured for hours and days in a Dickensian stoop to transfer all this to a gigantic spreadsheet].

One third sent me back ingenious, humorous and sometimes intemperate reasons why it's a poor idea; telling them why they have to do it anyway and still getting the right info off them takes aeons.

The final third don't respond at all: I have spent the afternoon doing telesales; cold-calling person after person trying to persuade them to read the email in the first place: I get to talk to plenty of voicemail.

Oh, and quite a few are on holiday heedless of our deadlines.

Consultancy is sometimes jobs tourism. It's a real eye-opener doing this on contract, doing something people spend their lives on.

Clare and myself finally caught up with Memento (Christopher Nolan) on DVD Saturday night. This on the basis of Inception, his latest. Wow!

I was waking her up at 2 a.m. saying "The reason she looked surprised to see him was because he was driving the car and wearing the clothes of her drug-dealing boyfriend he had just killed." Reflecting the hero's loss of short term memory, the film is presented in short sequences set backwards in time, interspersed with forward sequences from the start of the narrative. It needs to be seen again ... or you can read this analysis from Salon.

Last night as I was lounging around after a shower I was bitten on the ankles by a (presumed) mosquito. I seached obsessively but there was no trace of the pesky critter so I detoured to Tesco this evening to buy heavy-duty Raid. The flat has been nerve-gassed to a thick fog while I was showering this evening and I hope that's the last of it. The carpet was not leaf-littered with dead insects for the voracious Roomba afterwards so it was not as bad as it could have been ...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ngô Bảo Châu wins the Fields Medal

Ngô Bảo Châu is a Vietnamese mathematician (recently naturalized french) who currently works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Ngô is best-known for proving the fundamental lemma proposed by Robert Langlands and Diana Shelstad, an achievement which was selected by Time as one of the Top Ten Scientific Discoveries of 2009. Here is how his work was described in the citation.

"The path to Ngô’s achievement began in 1967, when the mathematician Robert Langlands had a mind-bogglingly bold vision of a sort of mathematical wormhole connecting fields that seemed to be light-years apart. His proposal was so ambitious and unlikely that when he first wrote of it to the great number theorist André Weil, he began with this sheepish note: “If you are willing to read [my letter] as pure speculation I would appreciate that; if not — I am sure you have a waste basket handy.” Langlands then laid out a series of dazzling conjectures that have proven to be a roadmap for a large area of research ever since.

The great majority of those conjectures remain unproven and are expected to occupy mathematicians for generations to come. Even so, the progress on the program so far has been a powerful engine for new mathematical results, including Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and Richard Taylor’s proof of the Sato-Tate conjecture. The full realization of Langlands’ program would unify many of the fields of modern mathematics, including number theory, group theory, representation theory, and algebraic geometry.

Langlands’ vision was of a bridge across a division in mathematics dating all the way back to Euclid’s time, that between magnitude and multitude. Magnitudes are the mathematical form of butter, a continuous smear of stuff that can be divided up into pieces as small as you please. Lines and curves, planes, the space we live in, and even higher-dimensional spaces are all magnitudes, and they are commonly studied with the tools of geometry and analysis. Multitudes, on the other hand, are like beans, discrete objects that can be put in piles but can’t be split without losing their essence. The whole numbers are the canonical example of multitudes, and they are studied with the tools of number theory.

Langlands predicted that certain numbers that arise in analysis – specifically, the eigenvalues of certain operators on differential forms on particular Riemannian manifolds, called automorphic forms – were actually a code that, if unraveled, would classify fundamental objects in the arithmetic world.

One of the tools developed from the Langlands program is the “Arthur-Selberg trace formula,” an equation that shows precisely how geometric information can calculate arithmetic information. That is valuable in itself, and furthermore, is a building block in proving Langlands’ Principle of Functoriality, one of the great pillars of his program.

But Langlands ran across an annoying stumbling block in trying to use the trace formula. He kept encountering complicated finite sums that clearly seemed to be equal, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to show it. It seemed like a straightforward problem, one that could be solved with a bit of combinatorial fiddling, so he called it a “lemma” – the term for a minor but useful result – and assigned it to a graduate student.

When the graduate student couldn’t prove it, he tried another. Then he worked on it himself. Then he consulted with other mathematicians. At the same time as everyone continued to fail to prove it, the critical need for the result became increasingly clear. So the problem came to have a slightly grander title: the “Fundamental Lemma.”

After three decades of work, only a few special cases had yielded to proof. The lack of a proof was such a roadblock to progress that many mathematicians had begun simply assuming it was true and developing results that depended upon it, creating a huge body of theory that would come crashing down if it turned out to be false.

Ngô Bao Châu was the one to finally break the problem open. The complicated identities in the Fundamental Lemma, he realized, could be seen as arising naturally out of sophisticated mathematical objects known as Hitchen fibrations. His approach was entirely novel and unexpected: Hitchen fibrations are purely geometric objects that are close to mathematical physics, nearly the last thing anyone expected to be relevant to this problem in the purest of pure math."

I wish I understood this stuff.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another contract starts

Started a new contract yesterday which is due to run till middle-to-late October so as usual will be based in Reading during the week. Again as usual I am wrestling with a whole bunch of unfamiliar processes, documents and systems under tight time pressure.

So don't expect a lot here over the next period.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Burnham on Sea

Some random pix from today's outing to Burnham on Sea, 16 miles and 35 minutes from our home in Wells.

Burnham has sand: when the tide's out, as today, lot's of it. The beach at Burnham really fronts the estuary of the local river which is why you see the water: then there are endless sand and mudlflats right across to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. The ocean (really the Severn estuary) is not in sight.

We park ourselves on the beach

Here's a look along the prom. Despite being a Sunday in early August, where on earth is everybody? Maybe they're up the coast at Weston.

The Prom at Burnham-on-Sea

Rescue Hovercraft

Eventually the clouds piled thicker than before, the sun surrendered to a gathering gloom and the wind became chill. We packed up to go home and as we walked up the jetty the rescue hovercraft was being towed to the beach.

Everything was happening so lackadaisically however that we predicted we'd be home before the craft would be unloaded, fired up and eventually froth the water. Perhaps it was just an exercise, a Sunday afternoon excursion to buy some donuts across at Barry.

Birds like fatballs: amazing!

When we got home. They adopt camouflage so they're hard to see, but if you look closely...

In the Groove

One creature with a potential interest in the previous picture was actually hors de combat. Notice how he's slipped into the groove between the footboard of the bed and the end of the mattress. Does he care?

Friday, August 06, 2010

I have Sindh

Terrible floods in NW Pakistan, including Sindh province ... I know one thing about Sindh, I thought to myself, "Peccavi".

So quoting from Wikipedia, here's the story.

General Sir Charles James Napier GCB (10 August 1782 – 29 August 1853) was a British general and Commander-in-Chief in India, famous for conquering Sindh province in present-day Pakistan.

In 1842, at the age of 60, he was appointed as Major-General to the command of the Indian army within the Bombay Presidency. Here Lord Ellenborough's policy led Napier to Sindh (Scinde), for the purpose of quelling the Muslim rulers of the region, who had made various hostile demonstrations against the British government after the termination of the First Anglo-Afghan War. His campaign against these chieftains resulted, after the victories of Meanee (Miani) and Hyderabad, in the complete subjugation of the province of Sindh, and its annexation to eastern dominions.

In doing so, he contravened direct orders; he was sent only to put down the rebels, not conquer. Napier is supposed to have despatched to headquarters a short, famous message, "Peccavi" – Latin for "I have sinned" (a pun for "I have Sindh"). The pun later appeared in a cartoon in Punch magazine in 1844 under a caricature of Sir Charles. Later proponents of British rule over the East Indians justified the conquest thus: "If this was a piece of rascality, it was a noble piece of rascality!"

As I recall the area of Pakistan currently flooded has another mode of existence - as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, being a centre for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Christian Science Monitor recalls:

"how US aid to Pakistan after an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 changed perceptions of the US military, which delivered provisions on Chinook helicopters.

“The Chinooks became known then as ‘angels of mercy,’ ” says Inderfurth, now director of the graduate international affairs program at George Washington University in Washington. “We need to dispatch those angels again.”

Pakistani officials said Monday that their government had indeed requested Chinook helicopter assistance for the relief effort

This would indeed be a case of the Christian turning of the other cheek.

Here's General Napier's views on how to deal with insurgents:

General Napier put down several insurgencies in India during his reign as Commander-in-Chief in India, and once said of his philosophy about how to do so effectively:

The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed.

He also once said that "the human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear."

An implementation of this theory would be after the Battle of Miani, where most of the Mirs surrendered. One leader held back and was told by Napier:

'Come here instantly. Come here at once and make your submission, or I will in a week tear you from the midst of your village and hang you.'

The reason he felt brutality was necessary for the proper conquest of rebellions may have been his opinion that "so perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to be misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another."

Whatever the reason for his views on fighting insurgencies, the fact remains that he was one of Great Britain's most effective generals at doing this in India, often facing well-armed fighters.

-- Postscript: another reason to like General Napier --

A story for which Napier is famous involves a delegation of Hindu locals approaching him and complaining about prohibition of Sati, often referred to at the time as suttee, by British authorities. This was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The exact wording of his response varies somewhat in different reports, but the following version captures its essence:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."


A snapshot of a discussion between Roy Simpson and myself (in progress) ...

OK. So I now read your stuff with some care, reminding myself as I went about spaces Hausdorff, compact and oriented which I studied in my topology course years ago. I recognise some of the discussion, particularly the interchange between time and space directions within the event horizon but I'm sadly not competent to add value to your interesting remarks.

I wasn't really aware of Cramer's Transactional Interpretation of QM, although I had vaguely heard of it. He's spot on with this:

"Many (including me) have declared, with almost the certainty of a mathematical theorem, that it is impossible to distinguish between quantum interpretations with experimental tests. Reason: all interpretations describe the same mathematical formalism, and it is the formalism that makes the experimentally testable predictions. As it turns out, while this "theorem" is not wrong, it does contain a significant loophole. If an interpretation is not completely consistent with the mathematical formalism, it can be tested and indeed falsified. As we will see, that appears to be the situation with the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds Interpretations, among many others, while my own Transactional Interpretation easily survives the experimental test."

from here: http://www.analogsf.com/0412/altview.shtml

Unfortunately one has to work through the maths to really be sure that the TI now has the edge over Copenhagen and the MWI. I think it's a bottomless pit for me!

However, one would like methodologically to have an observer-free account of the universe so your example at the end of your note points out the uncomfortableness of the Copenhagen interpretation. Like Einstein's "Are you really saying the moon's not there when no-one's looking?"

I'd almost wish the MWI to be the right one because it's so interesting!

Reverting to space-time geometry, did you see this? With Hawking's imaginary time all the intervals become Euclidean -- now if we only knew what imaginary time actually was!

Next book on my list: "The Shape of Inner Space".

Monday, August 02, 2010

A Walk to Wookey Hole

I dragged myself away from David Gerrold's staggering series "The War against the Chtoor" - I'm on book 3 (more about this later); Clare dragged herself away from Michel Thomas and his Foundation Italian course CD. We thus started the long Mendip trek up from our home across to our destination, the pub at Wookey Hole. Here are some pix.

Clare at The Blue School (on the way back)

Our way back - a Mendip view at Milton

Nigel (and Wells Cathedral)

The Bandstand (Wells Recreation Ground)

Why do brass bands churn out endless Sunday afternoon kitsch: The Entertainer, Humpty Dumpty, For Your Eyes Only ...? Why not something a little bit more sophisticated?

Shadow getting the cream

We spoil that animal. This morning down at Morrison's in Glastonbury Clare skipped the shelves groaning under Felix and Whiskas to select the most expensive sachets (40p a throw) on display. "At this rate," I groaned "he's costing more per month than my mobile phone."

In response I received only a glare.