Friday, May 31, 2013

A Blue Tit fledgling leaves the nest

Clare was pretty excited today as the fledgling Blue Tits she's been observing for weeks now finally left their nestbox (at least, the one we saw did).

The fledgling leaves the nest

... and takes flight.

Back again.
Here's a link to my DropBox folder - a video of Clare talking through the fledgling's first flight (in the spirit of SpringWatch).

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Force of Nature" and the MBTI

Back in 2002 I was learning about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  I asked psychotherapist Dee Ann whether there were any attributes of personality which were not captured by it. She replied that pathologies (such as schizophrenia) were outside the scope. But in fact the limitations of personality classification schemes arise in quite ordinary circumstances.

Compare person A who is widely seen as a "force of nature" with person B who is polite, civilized and restrained to a fault. In Freudian terms we can say the first person has an ego strongly dominated by the id with relatively weak superego control. For person B it's the reverse. Interestingly, A thinks B is inauthentic and over-compliant;  B thinks A is impulsive and under-controlled.

In more modern language,  we talk about subconscious drives emanating from the limbic regions of the brain and cortical regulatory inhibition.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator does say something about the interaction between subconscious/id, ego and superego;  it's framed as the contrast between the persona and the shadow.  The paradigm is not, however,  that of Myers-Briggs type distinction per se but the breakdown of the normal typological presentation of self mediated by fatigue, stress and the like.

Note: Adrian Raine's book 'The Anatomy of Violence' is extremely informative about the connection between brain functioning and behaviour (and not just criminal behaviour).


Engifugue:- the state of sitting in your house while an engineer operates on it.

I am currently in a state of engifugue, characterised by nervous excitement and enforced passivity as the Sky engineer drills holes in our walls and brandishes his dish. Later,  the Anglian engineers will be installing double-glazed doors and windows for most of the day, so engifugue is set to persist.

Yesterday we were at Brean, near Weston super Mare, visiting my brother and his family. It's half-term and the caravan sites and funfairs were bustling - heroic really given the mist and chill wind. As we left at half past five it began to chuck it down.

Adrian's major concern was the lack of Internet access for his kindle fire. One day 3G or better will be pervasive: in its absence the cleverest smartphone wifi hot spot function is useless.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Kathy and America - Simon & Garfunkel

The lyrics of America have colonised my mind for weeks: the Germans call it an 'earworm'.

And who is Kathy?
When Paul Simon moved to England in 1964, he met Kathleen Mary "Kathy" Chitty at the first English folk club he played, The Hermit Club in Brentwood, Essex, where Chitty worked part-time selling tickets. She was 17, he was 22, and they fell in love. 
Later that year they visited the US together, touring around mainly by bus. Kathy returned to England on her own with Simon returning to her some weeks later. When Simon returned to the US with the growing success of "The Sound of Silence" Kathy (who was quite shy) wanted no part of the success and fame that awaited Simon and they split up.

She is mentioned by name in at least two of his songs: "Kathy's Song" and "America," and is referred to in "Homeward Bound" and "The Late Great Johnny Ace." There is a photo of Simon and Kathy on the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook.
Here she is: nice-looking girl.

Paul Simon with Kathleen Mary "Kathy" Chitty
The lyrics to America are poignant and enigmatic.
"Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together"
"I've got some real estate here in my bag"
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

"Kathy," I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said "Be careful his bowtie is really a camera"

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America.

And here's a video of Simon & Garfunkel performing the song.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Biologically Bad

King's Castle Wood, an ancient iron age hill fort reserve, is a peaceful haven packed with wild flowers in spring and summer and just a walk away from the beautiful historic city of Wells, the smallest city in England. We were there this afternoon in the sunshine: it could have been early summer.

Clare enjoys the sun at King's Castle Wood near Wells

From The Times today.
"Brain imaging should be used to guide parole decisions for murderers and violent offenders, according to a leading British criminologist.

Adrian Raine, who is based at Pennsylvania State University, said that recent research had proved, in principle, that brain scans could help to assess the risk of reoffending, creating a powerful argument for using these techniques when deciding between custodial sentences and probation, and eligibility for parole.

In one study, published in the journal PNAS, scientists analysed the brain activity of 96 male prisoners, who underwent MRI scans shortly before they were released and were followed up four years later. The team showed that men with lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain area linked to regulating behaviour and impulsivity, were 2.6 times more likely to reoffend than those with higher activity.

The brain imaging data was as much as 4.5 times as helpful as standard variables, such as age, psychopathy or drug use, which are currently used in the UK and US to predict the risk of recidivism."
Prof. Adrian Raine has written a book, The Anatomy of Violence, on this topic.
A common politically correct response  is to deny that brains, biology and anatomy could have anything to do with penal policy. So later in the same article we have the following idiotic remark:
'Vaughan Bell, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, said: “This study was good science, but to suggest it could be even slightly useful in the real world is an exaggeration."'
For those of us who inhabit the real world, the issue is what to do with this information. Biologists interested in the way environment channels gene-directed development use the concept of a benign environment. This is an environment with adequate food, shelter, affection, care and lack of traumatic stress so that the individual's genetic potential has full developmental capability. In benign environments, the differences between people are largely driven by their different genetic programs (for those traits under genetic control).

In a non-benign environment, even people with a good genetic endowment can grow up stunted and wrong: a childhood steeped in starvation, neglect and abuse would be an example.

Criminals tend to exhibit low IQ, poor impulse control, lack of planning, aggression, inability to hold down jobs - all traits which tend to result in a non-benign environment for their children. So it's difficult to decide how many of the results Adrian Raine sees can be put down to genes and how much to a pretty rubbishy upbringing. Still, studies can be designed which separate out these factors.

Back to social policy.

1. If a non-benign upbringing leads to brain changes associated with criminality, then more aggressive adoption ought to be considered.

2. If criminals present with 'criminal brains' then on release they need to be more closely monitored than their 'more average' counterparts. If you had to release an unreliable and dangerous machine amongst the public you would do no less.

3. 'My brain made me do it' is not a criminal defence because it's a truism. We all secretly knew that anyway.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rated People (the good and the bad)

We had an electrician in this afternoon to install an extra phone socket close to the tv, ready for the Sky installer next week. We found Clive through Rated People and he did an excellent job.

Clive told us how much he resented a poor review he'd received a few weeks back. He'd been delayed at a customer and was forced to call the next client and apologise for a delay. That client got someone else in and Clive got his poor review.

This story confirmed that Clive reads his reviews carefully and by implication nudged us into writing a positive one (we were happy to do so).

Clive also warned us against bad guys who arranged with their accomplices to post fake reviews on Rated People  and then fleeced their deceived customers.

I am not sure that Rated People is so easy to game over the number of months which most trades-peoples' reviews span. It's certainly true that both client and tradesman start from a position of mutual uncertainty and distrust which only the rating system can address.

So far it's worked for us but it's never been less than somewhat stressful.

Our other chore of the day was Church cleaning at six. This twice-yearly activity (for us) nicely exhibits a mini tragedy of the commons. The vacuum cleaners had not been emptied and had little pulling power. At the end of  our cleaning we did the right thing :-).


Four days after Clive did the job we found we couldn't call out - dialling wasn't being recognised at the exchange. At first I thought it was an exchange fault, but after belatedly calling BT the fault was located to the house. 

On Friday May 31st a BT engineer called and fixed the fault: Clive had mis-wired the socket. This will cost us £90 as the call-out fee so I was not pleased. Clive found himself down-rated to two stars on Rated People (he did a good job on the physical wiring) and my review comments were updated appropriately. He should have stuck to what he knows, high-voltage electrics, and not bid for something beyond his competence. Rated People is not good at warning users about this.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bird-watching in comfort

I recently posted about the process of installing a WiFi surveillance camera (the D-Link DCS-930L). Here's what it's being used for.

Clare watching the blue-tit fledglings

Clare reports that the blue-tit fledglings are just showing their cute little faces through the bird-box entrance: she then scampered upstairs to watch through the window herself. Thankfully I have not been asked to install a camera in the bird-box!

The Biology of Religion

A review of "In Gods We Trust" by Scott Atran.

All societies at all times have exhibited religions but it is hard to really understand why. Scott Atran characterises a religion as ‘a community’s costly and hard-to-fake commitment to a counter-intuitive world of supernatural causes and beings’ (p. 264). Why would natural selection have permitted the evolution of such costly and pointless behaviour? Many theories have been advanced and Atran devotes substantial space to rebutting most of them and advancing his own rather compelling idea.

A community sincerely practising religion certainly obtains benefits. These include: social solidarity, lowered economic transaction costs (due to increased trust), political clout through group cohesion, intellectual closure (of a kind) on life’s intractable mysteries and emotional solace.

But why do people feel able to believe in the supernatural in the first place? The author looks to folk psychology and the innate human propensity to see agents everywhere: in a shaking bush, in a face in the clouds, in dream imagery. It appears easy for humans to believe that agents can exist which are insubstantial and incorporeal, and all religions are populated by myriads of these (think of angels and demons in Christianity).

So if believing in supernatural entities is hard-wired into our nervous systems, how do we deal with the apparently nonsensical fairy stories of theology? Atran argues that sacred texts are different from secular ‘theories’ in one crucial regard. Secular writing is authored by specific people with personal intentions to convey their message, whether it be political, scientific or dramatic; such texts are in principle rebuttable by future work or are known to be fictions. Religious texts, on the other hand, are authorless, timeless and true by definition (authorless means that the actual writer was inspired by the divine). Consequently, believers do not attempt to assess the real-world credibility of religious text: it is, after all, assumed to be true. Where the text is ‘difficult’, the problem believers actually address is to work out what it must ‘really mean’.

An overarching supernatural world of superior and controlling agents, built on irrefutable foundations delivers important advantages. Humans are unique in living in social groups larger than close kin. This means that there is always the danger of your exploitation by someone unrelated to you. How do you know whom to trust when surveillance of behaviour can only ever be partial? Atran argues that the kind of expensive commitments shown in the practice of religion (time spent at collective worship, the expenses of sacrifices) are a costly demonstration of non-selfish commitment to the community. The sincere believer also accepts that they are under the surveillance of God even when no-one else is present. Religion is being considered here as an underpinning for ‘reputation’ within the paradigm of reciprocal altruism.

In summary: humans have a propensity to see agency everywhere in the natural world via the mental module of folk-psychology. This easily leads to stable beliefs in a pantheon of spirits which, although supernatural, are all-too-typically human-like in their beliefs, desires, intentions and interactions with human-kind: they can be placated, asked for help and thanked. Once religion has become somewhat institutionalised it delivers a number of social benefits which can be leveraged for morality, economics, politics, social-cohesion and war. It also delivers personal benefits in dealing with life’s existential dilemmas of grief, loneliness, loss, sickness and death. Religion is therefore part of the human condition and attempts by scientific rationalists to debunk it are entirely beside the point and speak only to unbelievers: sacred texts by definition are irrefutable by rational analysis.

Now, putting aside the entirely interesting message of this book, its actual reading is difficult. ”In Gods We Trust” is an academic book, assuming familiarity with a number of relevant disciplines including language syntax, semantics and pragmatics; anthropological theories; cognitive science; cognitive psychology together with some neuroscience thrown in. The author is keen to refute many other theorists and to this end discursively summarises competing positions at length in order to then pursue a leisurely demolition: it’s easy to get lost. He’s diligent in buttressing his arguments with plenty of hard data, so we get many pages of description of his fieldwork (he is an anthropologist) and his university research on transmissibility of counter-factual beliefs. Although Atran is immensely scholarly and well-read, he has his blind spots. I didn't recognise, for example, his cavalier dismissal of the concept of IQ (he seems unaware of the critical role factor analysis plays in the definition of the g-factor and his negative remarks are quite wrong-headed – p. 298).

This is an important book to read if you have a broad background in the fields mentioned above,  if you are prepared to wade through the lengthy digressions and if you are prepared to do a lot of the work to reconstruct the main lines of his argument yourself. The central problem with this book is that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

WiFi surveillance camera (D-Link DCS-930L)

D-Link is based in Taiwan and seemed to have the best reviews for WiFi surveillance cameras. That's not to say much as these self-contained WiFi cameras uniformly carry a reputation for being very difficult to install and to get working. I bought it from Amazon.

The camera itself, in action, has a short power lead (about a metre) and communicates its video over a WiFi link. It doesn't need to be plugged into a computer so it can be put anywhere near a power socket.

I found the installation lengthy and fraught but finally got the thing working. Here's a picture of its current raison d'etre, spying on the bird box in the back garden - which is inhabited.

Spot the bird box - the occupant is too much to hope for!

Installation (via a Windows 7 HP laptop) is entirely driven by the Wizard on the CD. It starts in a straightforward fashion: the camera is attached to the router by a supplied Ethernet cable and is powered up. The camera gets to know the router and its front light turns green.

The first hitch came when the installation program repeatedly failed to find an Internet connection to D-link's servers in 'the cloud'. This problem was resolved by restarting the BT hub router (I find the BT home hub often unreliable and benefiting from restarts). Success at last.

The next problem was an out-of-date version of Java: D-link require the latest version if you're running Chrome. After manually uninstalling the previous version I finally got the latest Java version to verify.

After that, I was able to get on to the D-link website and see the camera images for the first time. I then downloaded the Android app to my Galaxy S3 (this is straightforward from the website) and it worked.

My second laptop had to go through a similar (and messy) Java install before it was able to access the D-link website and get real-time images. I had saved the D-link URL to the Chrome tool-bar which Google helpfully syncs between machines.

So now everything works. There is a camera manual on the CD which has a lot more info than appears in the set-up Wizard - in particular it tells you how to configure more advanced functions such as motion detection and email notifications.

My first impression is that it's a rather basic device: the video-resolution is fair at best and the sound seems crackly; set-up was too technically-demanding and brittle. This seems to reflect the state-of-the-art, i.e. it's early days. Looking at some of the reviews of other cameras, I'm just grateful it works at all.

The ultimate camera function is pet-surveillance, when we go on holiday.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tosca at The Tobacco Factory

Opera at The Tobacco Factory in Bedminster, Bristol last night. Here's the description from the website:

Following their fresh and wildly successful production of La Bohème here in July 2012, Olivier award-winning OperaUpClose returns to the Factory Theatre with another Puccini masterpiece – Tosca.

In a new English version by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, with a new orchestration by Danyal Dhondy and design by Nina Fransson, we are transported to 1989 East Germany. Tosca is sensual, powerful and vulnerable. Living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, she is the toast of the GDR elite, until her lover Cavaradossi helps a political prisoner to escape, putting Tosca at the mercy of Stasi chief Scarpia.

Puccini’s tautest drama is given a radical yet affectionate re-working, set in the dying days of the East German regime and stripping the story to its most essential elements. A cast of just five singers and a trio of piano, clarinet and cello brings OperaUpClose’s trademark intimacy and immediacy to this tale of love, lust and the corrupting influence of power while retaining all of the emotional impact of the original.

Floria Tosca - star of the show

The setting at the Tobacco Factory is small and intimate and the theatre was packed. It's utterly astonishing how much power the operatic voice can generate:  like being in a hangar with a 747, engines at full throttle. More melodious, obviously.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

So farewell, BT Vision

BT Vision loses another customer.

I received the letter below from BT Vision this morning. From 12th June they're going to move Sky Sports 1 and 2 from the terrestrial broadcast channels to broadband delivery. Also, in the side-box, you will only be able to watch/record one of these channels at a time (due to bandwidth restrictions).
My letter from BT Vision

Now, here in rural Wells, Somerset we have never been able to get BT Vision replay or on-demand services: they stutter and die.  I get c. 20 Mbps down my copper line, but the exchange is just a few hundred metres away. The exchange access equipment is surely dimensioned for intermittent Internet browsing, and can't support high-speed video streaming. This new Sky-over-broadband proposal will trash the main reason I signed up to BT Vision in the first place: cricket, tennis and cycling on Sky Sports.

I called them.

The Indian call centre was just as rubbish as usual. They seemed to believe the letter was a mistake as I'm not in a 'BT Infinity' fibre optic roll-out area. I asked to cancel and got transferred to the Scottish people.

Carol told me it was all a mistake and I'd continue to get over-the-air Sky.

"That's not what the letter says."

She checks. After an inordinate amount of time she tells me "Yes, you're going to be switched, because the technical team has determined your line rate can support it."

I'm weary. The technical team don't understand that with copper, the line rate is hardly an infallible guide to real-time high-speed service delivery which can be screwed up by contention, DSLAM capacity limits, upstream fibre line-rate issues - lots of things.

I have cancelled: the last day of service is Friday 14th June. It's off to Sky now, and BT - this was an own goal, guys!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In Birmingham

Yes,  I'm at Birmingham today attending a client meeting. As usual, acronyms densely adorn the discussion and I am always relieved to understand most of them. The dilemma of the consultant: you are expected to be an instant expert in every aspect of your field of work - it's quite amazing how close you can get to this ideal in practice.

I'm waiting for my final meeting of the day as I write. The rain beats against the windows and the evening traffic is beginning to assemble. The drive home will certainly take three hours: this too is part of consultancy.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Intermittent fasting: month 9

The protocol is now that I fast twice a week (normally Monday and Friday) and eat very little those days, typically an apple and a small piece of cheese (carbs, fructose, protein and fat in miniature!). I think this works a lot better than eating up to some limit such as 500 calories.

I also have three gym sessions per week (total 180 minutes), about 50-50 weight/resistance and aerobic (rowing machine, static bike) with some high-intensity minutes on the bike. (Is this necessary? - One hour lecture).

So here are the results at month nine.

Month Date Stone Lb Pounds Kg Δ(Lb) BMI Height (m)
0 07/08/2012 13 8 190 86.4 27.20 1.782
1 08/09/2012 12 13 181 82.3 9 25.91
2 06/10/2012 12 7 175 79.5 6 25.05
3 08/11/2012 11 12 166 75.5 9 23.76
4 08/12/2012 11 6 160 72.7 6 22.90
5 08/01/2013 11 2 156 70.9 4 22.33 Waist
6 10/02/2013 11 1 155 70.5 1 22.19 34.5 inches
7 09/03/2013 11 0.4 154 70.2 1 22.10
8 09/04/2013 10 12.2 152 69.2 2 21.79
9 11/05/2013 10 10.8 151 68.5 1 21.59 34 inches

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Home, pursued ...

Home, pursued by a storm front. The cat,  which had been entrusted with guarding the house,  was fine: my gym bag had been dragged along the floor and there were vole droppings in my gym shoe. We failed to find the vole.

The cat had carefully avoided the living room where I had set up my surveillance camera. He slept instead upstairs on our duvet which was covered with a thick layer of fur and garden detritus. I had to hoover the mess before stripping the duvet cover. At times like this my mind turns to cost-benefit analysis and then to plastic bags.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Tram driver

Not a recapitulation of a childhood dream of train-driving. Instead a commentary on the English seaside's ability to drop ten degrees in a day (pictured).

The electric tramway from Seaton to Colyton takes you from Tesco to the Colyton gift shop in twenty minutes. Today it was noisy and a bit cold.

The gift shop was amusing:

"I have child-proofed my house but still they manage to get in."

But we left without our quota of kitchen-kitsch coasters.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Fossil hunters

The beach east of Lyme Regis is renowned for fossils. You walk the pebbles and the fossils just leap into your hands. Just as well as your eyes are fixated on the cliffs above, which are poised to collapse on top of you.

Gerry and Clare (pictured) had some success,  but no ichthyosaurus.

Monday, May 06, 2013

In the fog

A biologist measures the bacteria count on a pair of jeans after a week's wear. The same painstaking measurement is then repeated after three months continual usage - same jeans. The bacterial count is just the same. The biologist is amazed and concludes that washing jeans is pointless.

(Reflect upon the bacterial carrying capacity of jeans).

The five second rule is tested. This piece of folklore states that if a piece of food falls on the floor,  you have five seconds to pick it up before it gets contaminated. Be quick and you can still feed it to baby!

The TV scientist takes swabs from a slice of bread (and other diverse food items) which have been dropped on the floor and then swiftly retrieved. The swabs are applied to culture dishes for incubation. After several days you see vast bacterial colony-circles expanded out from those initial dabs.

Mums, if baby drops its food discard at once, don't put back in its mouth!!

No swabs were taken from food which had not been dropped on the floor.

(Exponential growth can suggest many spurious things about initial conditions).

Humid air over a cold sea is a recipe for sea fog. And so it was at Beer today (pictured). But as I write, it is beautifully sunny over the hills of Lyme Regis.

Sunday, May 05, 2013


I get credit for doing the driving but it's quite unwarranted.

"Surveillance cameras at 200 yards, slow down;  turn left in half a mile,  then turn right; feel the force ..."

Driving the Dorset coast roads under automated instruction from satnav Yoda feels like flying a combat mission in an SF movie.  What's not to like?

Today: the Swanage steam railway (featuring a three course lunch);  Durdle Door (that sea-eroded arch at the Jurassic coast); the Maiden Castle neolithic fort (with a view of Prince Charles's modern equivalent ... Poundbury); a view of Chesil beach.  Mostly pictured below.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Lyme Regis

We're enjoying the sunshine on the Jurassic coast :-).