Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gt. Chalfield Manor (NT)

A picnic today at Great Chalfield Manor (SN12 8NH). We arrived at noon and had tickets for the house-tour thrust into our hands by a breathless National Trust greeter. Weighed down by our picnic bags we were still in the first room, the Great Hall at 12.20 being lectured by a thespianish bloke resembling 'the jackal' in that film. Relentlessly cheerful, and a self-confessed lover of the sound of his own voice, he chatted on while we waited in increasing desperation for the move to room two - at which point we scuttled covertly for the exit.

We picnicked on a bench in the far corner of the garden where we consumed our salmon sandwiches and slugged bottles of San Miguel to the consternation and horror of other visitors. Luckily most were still trapped in the Manor House with their leader and guide.

We had planned to combine the trip with a visit to Courts Garden (BA14 6RR) a mile away. As it's Wednesday they were closed and, of course, we hadn't checked.

The Manor House and Church

The Moat

Career Planning

When I was in my twenties I was struggling as an ill-placed maths teacher. Desperate for a career change I found I didn't understand the structure of possible careers at all. Here is what I should have known.

Public Sector Employers

I know Robert Heinlein said harsh words about those who would 'stick their snouts in the public trough' but he was in favour of the military, wasn't he? Here are some public sector employers:

  • Civil Service Fast Stream
  • CPS (Crown Prosecution Service)
  • Police
  • HM Revenue & Customs
  • GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters)
  • MI5 (Security Service)
  • MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service)
  • Ministry of Defence (Army, Navy, Air Force)
  • Teaching
  • National Health Service

Private Sector Employers

Much more choice in the private sector.

  • Accounting, Auditors, Tax & Bookkeepers
  • Advertising & Public Relations
  • Agriculture Products & Services
  • Airlines, Aviation Services / Supplies
  • Apparel / Accessories / Textiles
  • Architecture, Planning and Design
  • Banking & Financial Services
  • Beverages, Alcoholic & Non-alcoholic
  • Building Systems / Materials / Fixtures
  • Business Consultancy & Advisory
  • Computer & IT Products & Services
  • Construction
  • Education & Training
  • Engineering and Technical
  • Entertainment & Recreation
  • Environmental Products & Services
  • Executive Search & Personnel Recruitment
  • Food Manufacturing / Distribution / Services
  • Freight Forwarders / Couriers
  • Gases, Natural & Processed
  • Hospitals
  • Hotels / Restaurants / Caterers
  • Insurance
  • Legal Practice
  • Manufacturing – Cars, Consumer, Electronics, Industrial, Chemical
  • Marketing & Communications
  • Petroleum & Petroleum Products
  • Pharmaceutical & Medicinal Products
  • Power & Electrical
  • Printing & Publishing
  • Property & Real Estate Services
  • Retail Consumer Products (Shops, Supermarkets)
  • Scientific & Medical Instruments
  • Security, Investigative Services & Products
  • Transportation & Logistics
  • Travel & Tourism

Horizontal Departmental Roles

Big organisations are specialised into departments which offer quite different work experiences (and suit different kinds of people). Here is a fairly comprehensive list.

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Consultancy (sales support)
  • Customer Engineering
  • Customer Relationship Management (includes call centres)
  • Research & Development
  • Design
  • Manufacturing
  • Operations
  • Logistics & Supply Chain Management
  • Procurement
  • Inventory
  • Billing and Payments
  • General Management
  • Public Relations
  • Government Relations
  • Project & Programme Management
  • Process Development
  • Quality Assurance
  • IT
  • Training
  • Internal Audit
  • Internal Security
  • Human Resources
  • Legal
  • Finance

If you know your Myers-Briggs personality type (on-line test here) then you can get career suggestions at this site.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The missiles will soon be flying ...

Hand-wringing aside, what is a rational case for a military strike against the Syrian government? Tony Blair, writing today in The Times, is both smart and well-informed. Surely if he can't make the argument, then nobody can.

He starts by talking about Egypt and I agree with every word.
" ...

Let us start with Egypt. To many in the West, it is clear: the Egyptian military have aborted a democratically elected Government and are now repressing a legitimate political party, killing its supporters and imprisoning its leaders. So we are on a steady track to ostracising the new Government. In doing so, we think we’re upholding our values. I completely understand why this view would be taken. But it is a grave strategic error.

The fallacy with this approach lies in the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. We think of it as a normal political party. It isn't. If you want to join the UK Conservative Party or the German Christian Democrats or the US Democrats, you can do so with ease and they will welcome you with open arms. And in all these countries, the basic democratic freedoms are respected by all parties. The Muslim Brotherhood simply isn’t like that. To become a member even at the lowest level is a seven-year process of induction and indoctrination. It is run by a hierarchy that is more akin to the old Bolshevik party system.

This is a movement. Read their speeches — not the ones they put out for Western ears, but the ones they actually believe, for their own ears. What they were doing in Egypt was not “governing badly”. If you elect a bad government, then tough — you live with it. What they were doing was systematically changing the constitution, taking control of the commanding heights of the State in order to subvert them and to make it impossible for their rule to be challenged. And they were doing so in pursuit of values that contradict everything we stand for.

So you can rightly criticise actions or overreactions of the new military Government but it is quite hard to criticise the intervention that brought it into being. Now all the choices that Egypt faces are ugly. The bloodshed is horrible and will shock all Egyptians. There are large numbers of soldiers and police among the casualties as well as civilians and, partly as a by-product of the fall of Gaddafi, Egypt is awash with weapons. But simply condemning the military will not get us any nearer to a return to democracy.

Egypt is not a creation of 19th or 20th-century global power games. It is an ancient civilisation stretching back thousands of years and is imbued with a fierce national pride. The army has a special place in its society. The people do want democracy, but they will be disdainful of Western critics whom they will see as utterly naive in the face of the threat to democracy that the Muslim Brotherhood posed.

We should support the new Government in stabilising the country, urge everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to get off the streets, and let a proper and short process to an election be put in place with independent observers. A new constitution should be drafted that protects minority rights and the basic ethos of the country, and all political parties should operate according to rules that ensure transparency and commitment to the democratic process."
Now we come to the heart of it: what to do about Syria? Blair continues:
"In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.

It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy.

... "   (my emphasis).
OK, great, but here's the problem. In Syria we see the Alawite ruling clan, a Shia offshoot battling with radical Sunni forces, some of whom are signed-up with Al-Qaeda. The majority population are surely less politicised and less relentlessly religious; still, it's the guys with the guns who'll end up running the place and setting the policies.

The people who want what we want - secular, western-oriented, progressive - are socially and militarily insignificant. Nothing we can do can either strengthen them or help them prevail (as they have not prevailed anywhere else in the Arab Spring). So sure, we can hit Assad and/or we can hit the Sunni fundamentalist armed units - but to what end?

Blair's arguments amount to no more than wishful thinking. The problem is that the stifled development of capitalism in the Arabic Middle-East has resulted in a flimsy and weak civil society: the people who want what we want won't exist in great enough numbers to call the shots until those economies have been totally transformed.

Neither the Islamists nor the generals have a great track record at sponsoring modernity so we can be confident that our grandchildren will be having similar outbursts of angst about the piteous and dangerous Middle-Eastern situation.

Note: I would be shocked, shocked to think that Tony Blair was being disingenuous - and that this was really all about Iran, and Russia.

Cloud Computing: some definitions

Cloud computing is a marketing rather than technical term. It refers to a way of delivering IT services, publicly or privately. To understand what's on offer take a look at the state-of-the-art technology stack in a modern data centre (diagram below). Starting from the bottom a provider can package layers, presenting a service and management interface to users. This is the cloud in operation.

IT Departments are interested in in flexible (virtual) servers (i.e. machines). The IT Department provides the operating system and all points north while the cloud provider supplies IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service: a virtualization layer (virtual machines, virtual networking, virtual storage) to host them.

Higher up the stack, application developers need their application development environment and other tools to be provided so that they can use existing applications and develop new ones: delivered from the cloud this is called Platform as a Service, PaaS.

At the highest level, users who are not in the IT development business need hosted applications which they can populate with their own data (e-commerce, CRM, billing, payroll, etc): this is called Software as a Service, SaaS.

Naturally to make this work requires that the cloud provider has automated the provisioning, configuration, operation and billing of these layers and has packaged functionality into a self-service portal for users. Many customers deploy a 'hybrid cloud' concept, where they use both their own data centres and rent services from a cloud provider, perhaps for extra capacity on demand.

The diagrams below illustrate the concepts.

The basic cloud technology stack

IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service (IT Depts)

PaaS - Platform as a Service (Developers)

SaaS - Software as a Service (end-users)

Cisco naturally has a soup-to-nuts cloud operating system; there is an open-source alternative: OpenStack.

'Elysium' (film)

Elysium: a Culture Orbital clone

Plot summary from Rotten Tomatoes.
In the year 2154, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the planet's crime and poverty, and they critically need the state-of-the-art medical care available on Elysium - but some in Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens' luxurious lifestyle. The only man with the chance bring equality to these worlds is Max (Matt Damon), an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission - one that pits him against Elysium's Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her hard-line forces - but if he succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well.
I recommended this to my wife and two sons and they won't let me forget it. Clare claimed the movie put her into a 109 minute light trance; Adrian claimed a 'micronap' then 'amusement'; Alex just told me it was rubbish and 'this was why he didn't go to the cinema.'

And me? I like to look at films forensically.

1. Is it engaging? Not really - the viewer is not exactly bored, but there is detachment as the film unrolls, a sense of time passing, you check your watch.

2. Does it suspend disbelief?  Not a chance: plot holes scream out as you repeatedly recite to yourself, 'that would never happen', 'they would never do it that way'.

3. Are the characters interesting or even convincing? No, they're stereotypes: evil corporate executive, evil politician, corrupt politician, warm and engaging Hispanic car thief, violent and impulsive Hispanic gang leader with MSc computer skills and a heart of gold, ...  Matt Damon.

The politics of bad-rich-people and wonderful-but-oppressed third world people is so infantile that it's hard to believe that extreme Democrats (Damon) and the film's South African director actually appear to believe it. One plot point revolves around the small, winsome child (naturally dying tragically of leukaemia) telling an uplifting fairy tale to the hero to inspire him to help her and the trodden-down masses. This childish story was an apt metaphor for the entire film.

I can find one good thing to say about Elysium: the CGI of the space habitat itself shows it to be a realisation of an Iain M. Banks' Culture Orbital (although too small to actually retain atmosphere or deal with the cosmic radiation ... to be geeky for a moment).

Bristol Pix

We were at Bristol yesterday to visit my mother en route to a viewing of 'Elysium' (review to follow).

Adrian and Beryl Seel with Mary Bear and Cindy

Alex, why is this amusing?

Friday, August 23, 2013

It lives in our raised bed ...

Is it just me that finds this 'little weed' in our garden rather spooky?

Here's looking at you, kid!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Priddy sheep fair

The Priddy sheep fair: one day in late August since 1348 (Priddy is a small village on the top of the Mendips close to Wells). We visited this afternoon.

There are four segments to the fair, three very much non-sheep. As we walked into Priddy from the car-park field we first came upon the horse fair. This was mostly Romanies with some Irish travellers trading their animals; on the other side of the road was a field with Romani pop-up shopping marquees.

Moving on towards the village itself a Wurzelish band was playing to an apathetic crowd at the Queen Vic, while to our surprise the other Priddy pub, the New Inn, had closed - a cider van fronted its boarded-up windows. The village green contained a fun-fair and eventually, at the back, we encountered the eponymous sheep.

So now it's picture time.

A mini-horse and Clare

Roma with horse and trap

Always chores!

Speaks for itself, really. Framed by garbage.

Bored in pink

The author indulges his inner narcissist

Order your caravan furniture here

Minding the stall

We do Wurzel covers at the Queen Vic!

The New Inn, Priddy has bitten the dust

These guys are mean shearers!

Clare wanders the sheep pens

That's all, folks!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is 'n' ought

A giant asteroid is hurtling towards the planet of technologically-sophisticated aliens. Physics allows us to predict the trajectory of the incoming rock as well as the effects of any possible mitigation attempts. But it doesn't recommend any particular course of action. Morality is out of scope for physicists.

Let's turn to biology. The aliens are survival machines: they respond to threats with countermeasures. The biologist predicts the aliens ought to deal with the problem. Morality has entered the building.

The aliens won't be calculating rationally what they should do to keep their genes in play (far too slow and unreliable in an open environment). They'll decide on their hopes, fears, sense of social cohesion and egalitarianism - all the stuff which worked over their evolutionary history. They'll encode these emotional norms as their morality.

Doubtless to get their advanced society to work at all (featuring capitalism, 'bourgeois democracy' and wars) the aliens will have to compromise their emotionally-grounded moral principles. They will invent hypocrisy and politics and muddled public intellectuals.

Evolutionary biologists will analyse all of this: no-one will be interested, however, in their rooting of morality in evolutionary science.

Note: Just to clarify. Formal moral positions are relative, not absolute - that's why they can change (this point is never understood by many in the media who confidently believe their own elevated moral positions are normative across time and space). But morality can never stray too far or too long from its basis in human biological values; while our morality is rooted in our emotional value systems these themselves are complex, can be in conflict and can generate different moral conclusions.

Example: suppose there is an activity which some people indulge in which results in little harm but causes feelings of disgust in most other people (drugs and certain kinds of sexuality come to mind). This could lead to a moral repudiation of such activities and indeed, the people themselves (hate the sin, not the sinner is a step too far for most people).

But the 'sinners' naturally feel stigmatised and rejected, which violates another of our values: social solidarity, fairness and egalitarianism. So the moral fatwa may be reversed and the deprecated activity abstracted and rebranded ('a lifestyle choice') to damp down the majority's natural repugnance. Intellectuals and libertarians, who rather naturally lead with their intellects, and idealists, who lead with visions of social solidarity and empathy, are often found in the vanguard of such rebranding.

Such people are often, of course, found in politics and the media.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The aura of theorem-proving

There is an aura around automated theorem proving within AI (indeed,  there once was a high-powered prover called AURA). It's seen as very sophisticated and technical with proven applications and results.

But there's a little secret at the heart of the subject. Once you've implemented the formulae,  the axioms and the inference rules you hit an exponentially increasing search space which kills you.

People write incredibly clever algorithms to speed up inference and search, host their provers on massively parallel hardware and deploy libraries of hopeful heuristics. Computational complexity is unimpressed, however,  and so automated theorem provers have failed to take over the world.

Humans do not solve problems - mathematical or otherwise - by constrained search through the problem space from first principles. Instead we get educated about the domain, and after study and practice we do the following.

1. Categorise a given problem/situation as of a certain type.

2. Select those results and techniques which have a bearing on this type of problem.

3. Apply the relevant results and procedures with intelligent monitoring of progress, which may cause a revisit to steps 1 and 2.

There have been attempts to match this knowledge-based approach to theorem-prover and automated planning system architecture but you seem to end up down the rat-hole of ad hoc design. The ever-increasing speed of modern computer systems seems to tempt researchers back to cleaner ATP architectures which directly leverage the available raw processing power.

Long-term though, it's not the answer.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Animal magic

I was in London yesterday for a 1 pm business meeting and had allocated four hours from Wells, Somerset to central London. We left at ten to nine in the morning and soon discovered congestion on the M4 - ('lengthy delays after Swindon').

We diverted to Swindon train station where I abandoned Clare and the car. At 10.30 I was on the platform waiting for the 10.40 to London Paddington, still in plenty of time for my meeting. The tannoy spoke: the train was subject to 15 minutes delay due to 'animals on the line'. Really!

Like nuclear fusion, it turned out that the delay in arrival was time-invariant. At 11 o'clock I caught another train which landed me in London seven minutes late (on a one hour journey) due to 'a slow train at Slough'. So in total, the rail network had delayed me by nearly half an hour on a one hour journey while the road network had basically given up.

I rather resent the fact that I have to build in something like 50% overhead just to travel up to London during a quiet Friday in the holiday season. And yes, I was on time - call me a pessimist.

Rant over. The cat has recently become voracious. Sachet after sachet is gulped down and he's relentless - he must have more. Clare speculated that he may have worms (this must be some kind of folk wisdom she has) but there is no real evidence of parasitization. Another explanation is that we have changed the sourcing of his food.

His surge in appetite coincided with the opening of ... Waitrose :-).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Data Centre

A modern data centre is a futuristic fusion of library, aircraft hangar and operating theatre. Assuming you could get past the stringent security, you would wander the tiled floors of a vast hall, bathed in air-con chill and calmed by the ambient hum of cooling fans.

Data Centre tourist view

The aisles of servers and network equipment you see above looks quite different to a normal office. Those dense racks may be powering Google searches, or storing billions of facebook pages or running some corporate intranet, but the fundamental design principles are just the same.

Data Centre architecture for web services

Most sufficiently-large networks are three-tier constructions. In the centre is a high-speed backbone - the core network - which is optimised for high-throughput of data packets and connects to the outside world: the Internet, other corporate sites, the Extranet.

Attached to the high-speed core is an aggregation layer. This concentrates the traffic from large numbers of smaller local area networks and provides a home for network services such as: firewalls, security systems (ID&P), monitoring systems, caches, SSL accelerators, load balancers and the like.

Finally we have the access layer: switches which directly connect to those masses of servers and provide their primary network connectivity. In a smaller network, the access and aggregation layers may be merged.

In a certain sense, the essence of data centre design comes down to the architecture diagram shown above.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Google's Schrödinger's Cat

A veritable superposition!

An amusing picture at Google this morning, marking Erwin Schrödinger's 126th birthday. The picture shows his eponymous cat in a superposition of alive and dead states. The cat-in-box wave function |ψ> shows the amplitude for each of these quantum states to be √(1/2).
|ψ> = (cat-alive + cat-dead)/√(2).
We now know that due to environmental interactions known as decoherence the superposition of these two orthogonal quantum states decays almost instantaneously into either the cat-alive state or the cat-dead state. What is not known is how the world decides between these outcomes (although quantum mechanics allows us to work out the probabilities = the square of the quantum amplitudes: in this contrived example 50% for cat-alive and 50% for cat-dead).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"And yet it moves"

Bygone taboos seem quaint, even risible:  consider the heresy of denying "The Earth is stationary and at the centre of things; the universe revolves around it." Yet in the Renaissance such views could be lethal: Galileo faced the Inquisition, and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake.

Today we ignore, vilify and fire people expressing dissident truths. Such was the fate which befell American researcher Dr Jason Richwine who was disgracefully abused before being sacked (The Economist to its shame joined the chorus). He has finally found a platform where he can answer his critics. Here is what he had to say (from Politico via Steve Sailer).
Why can’t we talk about IQ?
By: Jason Richwine
August 9, 2013 05:01 AM EDT

“IQ is a metric of such dubiousness that almost no serious educational researcher uses it anymore,” the Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox wrote back in May. It was a breathtakingly ignorant statement. Psychologist Jelte Wicherts noted in response that a search for “IQ test” in Google’s academic database yielded more than 10,000 hits — just for the year 2013.

But Cox’s assertion is all too common. There is a large discrepancy between what educated laypeople believe about cognitive science and what experts actually know. Journalists are steeped in the lay wisdom, so they are repeatedly surprised when someone forthrightly discusses the real science of mental ability.

If that science happens to deal with group differences in average IQ, the journalists’ surprise turns into shock and disdain. Experts who speak publicly about IQ differences end up portrayed as weird contrarians at best, and peddlers of racist pseudoscience at worst.

I’m speaking from experience. My Harvard Ph.D. dissertation contains some scientifically unremarkable statements about ethnic differences in average IQ, including the IQ difference between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. For four years, the dissertation did what almost every other dissertation does — collected dust in the university library. But when it was unearthed in the midst of the immigration debate, I experienced the vilification firsthand.

For people who have studied mental ability, what’s truly frustrating is the déjà vu they feel each time a media firestorm like this one erupts. Attempts by experts in the field to defend the embattled messenger inevitably fall on deaf ears. When the firestorm is over, the media’s mindset always resets to a state of comfortable ignorance, ready to be shocked all over again when the next messenger comes along.

At stake here, incidentally, is not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but also how science informs public policy. The U.S. education system, for example, is suffused with mental testing, yet few in the political classes understand cognitive ability research. Angry and repeated condemnations of the science will not help.

What scholars of mental ability know, but have never successfully gotten the media to understand, is that a scientific consensus, based on an extensive and consistent literature, has long been reached on many of the questions that still seem controversial to journalists.

For example, virtually all psychologists believe there is a general mental ability factor (referred to colloquially as “intelligence”) that explains much of an individual’s performance on cognitive tests. IQ tests approximately measure this general factor. Psychologists recognize that a person’s IQ score, which is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, usually remains stable upon reaching adolescence. And they know that IQ scores are correlated with educational attainment, income, and many other socioeconomic outcomes.

In terms of group differences, people of northeast Asian descent have higher average IQ scores than people of European lineage, who in turn have higher average scores than people of sub-Saharan African descent. The average score for Hispanic Americans falls somewhere between the white and black American averages. Psychologists have tested and long rejected the notion that score differences can be explained simply by biased test questions. It is possible that genetic factors could influence IQ differences among ethnic groups, but many scientists are withholding judgment until DNA studies are able to link specific gene combinations with IQ.

How can I be sure all of this reflects mainstream thinking? Because, over the years, psychologists have put together statements, reports, and even books aimed at synthesizing expert opinion on IQ. Many of these efforts were made in explicit response to the periodic media firestorms that engulfed people who spoke publicly about cognitive science. It’s worth reviewing some of those incidents and detailing the scholarly responses — responses that are invariably forgotten before the next furor begins. I’ll place my own experience in that context.

Let’s start 25 years ago, with the publication of The IQ Controversy, a book by Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman. The authors surveyed more than 1,000 experts in the field of cognitive science to develop a picture of what the mainstream really looks like. It was very similar to the description I've supplied above.

Snyderman and Rothman then systematically analyzed television, newspaper, and magazine coverage of IQ issues. They were alarmed to find that the media were presenting a much different picture than what the expert survey showed. Based on media portrayals, it would seem that most experts think IQ scores have little meaning, that genes have no influence on IQ, and that the tests are hopelessly biased. “Our work demonstrates that, by any reasonable standard, media coverage of the IQ controversy has been quite inaccurate,” the authors concluded.

In conducting the expert survey and contrasting the results with media depictions of IQ research, one would think Snyderman and Rothman had performed a valuable service. Surely public discussion of IQ would now be more firmly grounded in science?

It didn’t happen. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve was published in 1994, and real science was hard to find in the media circus that ensued. Herrnstein and Murray’s central claim about IQ differences shaping class divisions continues to be the subject of reasoned debate among social scientists. But non-experts in the media questioned whether IQ is even a valid concept. Intelligence research – psychometrics — is a pseudoscience, they said. The tests are meaningless, elitist, biased against women and minorities, important only to genetic determinists. And even to discuss group differences in IQ was called racist.

In short, the media did everything Snyderman and Rothman had warned against six years earlier. As a consequence, the interesting policy implications explored by Herrnstein and Murray were lost in the firestorm.

The American Psychological Association (APA) tried to set the record straight in 1996 with a report written by a committee of experts. Among the specific conclusions drawn by the APA were that IQ tests reliably measure a real human trait, that ethnic differences in average IQ exist, that good tests of IQ are not culturally biased against minority groups, and that IQ is a product of both genetic inheritance and early childhood environment. Another report signed by 52 experts, entitled “Mainstream Science on Intelligence,” stated similar facts and was printed in the Wall Street Journal.

“These may be harbingers of a shift in the media’s treatment of intelligence,” an optimistic Charles Murray wrote at the time. “There is now a real chance that the press will begin to discover that it has been missing the story.”

He was wrong. The APA report fell down the memory hole, and the media’s understanding of IQ again fell back to that state of comfortable misinformation that Snyderman and Rothman had observed years earlier.

So when Larry Summers, then the president of Harvard University, speculated in 2005 that women might be naturally less gifted in math and science, the intense backlash contributed to his ouster.

Two years later, when famed scientist James Watson noted the low average IQ scores of sub-Saharan Africans, he was forced to resign from his lab, taking his Nobel Prize with him.

When a Harvard law student was discovered in 2010 to have suggested in a private email that the black-white IQ gap might have a genetic component, the dean publicly condemned her amid a campus-wide outcry. Only profuse apologies seem to have saved her career.

In none of these cases did an appeal to science tamp down the controversy or help to prevent future ones. My own time in the media crosshairs would be no different.

So what did I write that created such a fuss? In brief, my dissertation shows that recent immigrants score lower than U.S.-born whites on a variety of cognitive tests. Using statistical analysis, it suggests that the test-score differential is due primarily to a real cognitive deficit rather than to culture or language bias. It analyzes how that deficit could affect socioeconomic assimilation, and concludes by exploring how IQ selection might be incorporated, as one factor among many, into immigration policy.

Because a large number of recent immigrants are from Latin America, I reviewed the literature showing that Hispanic IQ scores fall between white and black scores in the United States. This fact isn't controversial among experts, but citing it seems to have fueled much of the media backlash.

And what a backlash it was. It started back in May when I coauthored an unrelated study that estimates the fiscal cost of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Opponents seeking to discredit that study pointed to my dissertation, and the firestorm was lit. Reporters pulled the dissertation quotes they found “shocking” and featured them in news stories about anti-immigration extremism. Well-established scientific findings were treated as self-evidently wrong — and likely the product of bigotry.

The professional commentators eagerly ran with that theme. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post called me a “fringe character.” Will Wilkinson of the Economist decried my “repugnant prejudice.” The New York Daily News published an unsigned editorial describing me as “the most twisted sort of intellectual” who is “peddling offensive tripe.” The Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox, whose quote began this article, called me a “bigot” and a “more subtle and dangerous kind of extremist.”

As with all the past incidents, most reporters learned nothing about IQ and seemed indifferent to any lessons for public policy. The works of mainstream scholars designed to educate lay people — The IQ Controversy, the APA report, “Mainstream Science on Intelligence,” etc. — were nowhere to be found.

Not all the media coverage was divorced from real science. Journalists such as Robert VerBruggen and Michael Barone wrote insightful reaction pieces. And the science-oriented blogosphere, which is increasingly the go-to place for expert commentary, provided some of the best coverage.

But it’s difficult to have a mature policy conversation when other journalists are doing little more than name-calling. It’s like convening a scientific conference on the causes of autism, only to have the participants drowned out by anti-vaccine protesters.

For too many people confronted with IQ issues, emotion trumps reason. Some are even angry that I never apologized for my work. I find that sentiment baffling. Apologize for stating empirical facts relevant to public policy? I could never be so craven. And apologize to whom — people who don’t like those facts? The demands for an apology illustrate the emotionalism that often governs our political discourse.

What causes so many in the media to react emotionally when it comes to IQ? Snyderman and Rothman believe it is a naturally uncomfortable topic in modern liberal democracies. The possibility of intractable differences among people does not fit easily into the worldview of journalists and other members of the intellectual class who have an aversion to inequality. The unfortunate — but all too human — reaction is to avoid seriously grappling with inconvenient truths. And I suspect the people who lash out in anger are the ones who are most internally conflicted.

But I see little value in speculating further about causes. Change is what’s needed. And the first thing for reporters, commentators, and non-experts to do is to stop demonizing public discussion of IQ differences. Stop calling names. Stop trying to get people fired. Most of all, stop making pronouncements about research without first reading the literature or consulting people who have.

This is not just about academic freedom or any one scholar’s reputation. Cognitive differences can inform our understanding of a number of policy issues — everything from education, to military recruitment, to employment discrimination to, yes, immigration. Start treating the science of mental ability seriously, and both political discourse and public policy will be better for it.

Jason Richwine is a public policy analyst in Washington, D.C.

It's easy to check Richwine's claims: for example, "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns" is a report issued in 1995 by a Task Force created by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association, and its findings as regards 'group differences in IQ' are fully described here. A Google search will confirm that all subsequent studies have confirmed its views.

However, even a cursory application of the theory of evolution should convince you that a species which evolved to live off its wits in East Africa around 100,000 years ago was going to face more intellectual challenges as it expanded into Temperate and Arctic regions with their harsh winters; and then had to cope with planning and managing the organisational complexities of agriculture.

A further illustration is the recent evolution of Ashkenazi Jewish high-intelligence, well described in this Economist article, by a staff writer who did know what he or she was talking about.

It's interesting to consider why liberal opinion has created a world-view which is both under-informed and in denial as regards obvious evidence as to how the world works. I hope to return to this issue in a future post.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sunflower yellow, spirits dark

She only humours me when I try for these art-house pictures.

Clare with sunflower

"Making Games with Python and Pygame" (by Al Sweigart) arrived this morning. The first thing you do is go to the website and download Pygame, a piece of cake according to chapter 1: in my heart I knew better.

This explains the following couple of emails sent off to Mr Sweigart & currently awaiting reply. Start at the bottom and work up.
Clare Youell and Nigel Seel (
12:49 (49 minutes ago)
Subject: Fwd: Failure to get Pygame imported (a 64 bit OS problem?)

Dear Al,

From here: 

"It could be due to the architecture of your OS. Is your OS 64 Bit and have you installed 64 bit version of Python? It may help to install both 32 bit version Python 3.1 and Pygame, which is available officially only in 32 bit and you won't face this problem.  
I see that 64 bit pygame is maintained here, you might also want to try uninstalling Pygame only and install the 64 bit version on your existing python3.1, if not choose go for both 32-bit version.
Yes, I installed the 64 bit version of Python 3.3.2 as my machine is running a 64 bit operating system. Do I have to re-install Python in its 32 bit version to use Pygame? 
I am not sure the 64 bit binary mentioned above for Pygame works on Pentium T4300 dual core processors. 

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Clare Youell and Nigel Seel
Date: 10 August 2013 12:31
Subject: Failure to get Pygame imported

Dear Al,

Sorry to bother you but I can't even get started.

I'm using a Windows laptop with Windows 7. 
I downloaded
and ran the installer with C\Python33 as target (I'm using 3.3.2).

Typing import pygame into the Python interpreter produces:

Traceback File "<most recent call last>:
File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
File "C:\Python33\lib\site-packages\pygame\", line 95, in module>
ImportError: DLL load failed: %1 is not a valid Win32 application

I have no idea what this means or how to fix it. Help!



UPDATE: Saturday afternoon  (speaks for itself).
Dear Al,

Please disregard earlier emails. After a lot of messing around I discovered that the problem is incompatibility between the current Pygame and recent Python releases. The only thing which works with Pygame version pygame-1.9.2a0.win32-py3.2.msi is Python Release 3.2.5 -- which I have now installed.

I can see that it's a major headache trying to keep Pygame synchronised with the main Python development stream.

Best regards,


And Al replied: (Saturday evening).
Hi Nigel! I'm glad you got it figured out. Pygame for 3.3 is available, but for some reason they don't have it on the main download page. You can find it here though:

Friday, August 09, 2013

Proximate wildlife

Seen in our garden today.

Infeasibly large for a bird: a bat?

I was this close: very tame or very stupid

Update Saturday: Turns out that the tame dove (aka pigeon) is much loved: there was a poster on the telegraph pole outside our house this morning advertising its loss. We called the number when the bird re-appeared this afternoon and a much-distressed young woman and her husband turned up with a cat-basket. Via the loan of our step-ladder they coaxed it out of our tree (actually, he just climbed up and grabbed it) and with much joy the reunited creature was driven off.

I would have videoed the whole saga had I not been intimately involved in the retrieval.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Object-Oriented Programming

I remember when Smalltalk first came out, with its new programming paradigm. I even took a course (in Watford! ) but never used it for real. After  narrowly avoiding brain damage through use of COBOL at the start of my programming career, I was actually paid to write code in ML and Lisp - elegant functional programs which used recursion, had functions as first-class values and eschewed side-effects in favour of returning values.

I am finding it hard to get my head around OOP in Python. I keep expecting methods to return values (let's say I have a strong ethical bias that they should! ) but it seems we're mostly about changing the values of instance variables by side effect or assignment. I struggle to suppress nausea.

My attempts to rewrite my simple resolution theorem prover in an object-oriented style have foundered under such continuing mis-expectations: after two hours I've just managed to get the 'clause' class with its methods defined correctly. Many minutes were spent staring at the screen in plain bafflement.  Why is it doing that???

However,  I do buy into the superior modularity and encapsulation so will persist with objects till they come naturally!

One year of the 5:2 diet

It's been one year since Michael Mosley's Horizon programme on intermittent fasting; one year since I started a calorie-restricted diet two days a week. And here are the results.

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
10 11/06/2013 10 10.6 151 68.5 0 21.56
11 11/07/2013 10 13 153 69.5 -2 21.90
12 08/08/2013 10 13.2 153 69.6 0 21.93
I started at 13 stone 8 pounds and have finished at around 11 stone. Let's say a weight loss of two and a half stone. My BMI has changed from an overweight 27 to a healthy 22. My NHS markers for blood glucose and cholesterol seem good. So here are some of the lessons I learned over the year.

1. You will feel hungry

It's sad but true. It's impossible to lose weight - to fast - without feeling hungry. The body, looking on fat as insurance against lean times, prefers you to forage rather than draw down the fat reserves. Hunger is its message: ignore it - tomorrow you get to eat again.

2. Weight loss does not equal fat loss

A pound of fat contains 3,400 calories (you need about 2,000 a day to operate). If you don't eat a thing, you will burn - over a day - about half a pound of fat.

A litre of water weighs a kilogram, 2.2 pounds. If you drink you will gain weight; if you eat you will gain weight; if you go to the toilet you will lose (a little) weight.

After a recent holiday my daily weight fluctuated over a week between 11 stone 3 lb and 10 stone 12 lbs, a difference of five pounds (plus or minus one kilogram). Losing fat is watching that kind of interval steadily reduce in its endpoints.

3. The 5:2 diet is not a road to anorexia

Once the fat had burned off at the six month point, my weight plateaued at c. 11 stone and refused to stay much lower. On an eating day you would be frankly appalled to watch me at dessert.

4. Fasting and exercising

About half-way through the process last year, I joined the local gym and began hour-long workouts three days a week. I soon discovered that it's:

a. Not a good idea to fast the day before a hard gym session: no energy.

b. Not a good idea to eat nothing after a gym session: no protein repair.

So I schedule gym sessions after a day of eating. When I return home I have a protein-rich salad (c. 5-600 calories) if it's a fast day, eating nothing else. I estimate a gym session burns around 400 calories.

5. It's more about cell-repair than dieting

Best not to forget that Mosley's programme promoted intermittent fasting as helping to fight cancer and diabetes - fat loss was was a desirable side effect.

So, we carry on.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The perils of ageing fathers

A post "Paternal Age" published a little while ago over at West Hunter.
"Decode Genetics has a new report out in Nature that shows how mutations increase with age, by sequencing family trios. They found that women contribute about 15 de novo mutations, independent of age.

"Men contribute more (55 on average) , and the number increases rapidly with age. They found that the average 20-year old father passed on 25 mutations, while the average 40-year old passed on 65, an increase of about two mutations per year of paternal age.
To be precise: if you are a woman and you have a child with a husband aged 28, your infant will on average have 15 + 41 = 56 mutations. Wait another ten years and your unfortunate baby will be 76 mutations worse off. These mutations are unlikely to be good news for your new offspring.
"The researchers talked about the problems caused by these de novo mutations – things like schizophrenia and autism. We already knew that such risks increased with paternal age, but this work quantifies the mutations responsible. 

"Stefánsson opines that the higher mutation rate with older fathers is not that worrisome, since the absolute risk for schizophrenia and/or autism is still small (~2%) and since mutations are our friends: “You could argue what is bad for the next generation is good for the future of our species.
A piece of very sloppy thinking. It's true that mutations generating a very deformed worm, for example, might have ended up as pre-adaptations for limbs and a great future for ambulatory critters (not a great consolation to the ancestral worms if they valued wriggling but sadly went extinct).

Humanity's unique selling proposition is intelligence, a bio-engineered function depending on the exquisite coordination of thousands of genes. You can get more intelligence by mutations (we are, after all, smarter than monkeys) but you need pretty hard selection (i.e. lots of pre-reproductive deaths) to eliminate the overwhelming majority of useless/deleterious genetic changes.

Greg Cochran continues
"Well, not for the first time Kari Stefánsson is wrong. If mutations with large effects are more common with increased paternal age, mutations with small effects must also be more common. Those small-effect mutations are removed slowly by natural selection, and so they accumulate with time. This eventually results in a population in which everyone has a higher genetic load, not just a few unfortunate kids out of each generation.

"... more genes are expressed in the brain than in any other organ, meaning that the fraction of new mutations that will affect its functions is the highest.

"So, what is the likely consequence of a higher paternal age? Population B will eventually be significantly dumber and crazier than population A."
In a small and statistical way, that fate also applies to the children of ageing fathers today.

Brandeston Hall

Adrian is helping out with the management at Kids Klub Brandeston Hall, which has its own facebook page. Here he is with some of the current clients.

Adrian (on right) with the staff

They also put together a rap-style 'pirate video':
"The dread pirate Aidy has stolen our precious rum and that's just not good enough says Captain Becky! "All hands on deck" she cries to the new pirate recruits. Their mission is to follow the clues and find the pieces of treasure map which will lead them to the buried treasure and hopefully our beloved rum! Will they get revenge on the dread pirate Aidy who is cleverly disguised as a centre manager?? Follow our crew on their quest and the fun they had along the way!"
You can check it out by clicking here.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Reasons to be sickly

We try to keep an eye on the cat while we're away - our network of house surveillance cameras produces images like this one.

What the kitchen catcam sees

His food, already somewhat depleted, can be seen on the blue tray. He really doesn't like the hard tack and this may explain why he vomited so much of it up in our absence ...

The Economist has a feature this week on 'Neuromorphic Computing' - designing machines which faithfully replicate the neural design of the human brain. The principles of this new (and increasingly well-funded discipline) include:
  • low power consumption (human brains use about 20 watts, whereas the supercomputers currently used to try to simulate them need Megawatts); 

  • fault tolerance (losing just one transistor can wreck a microprocessor, but brains lose neurons all the time); and 

  • a lack of need to be programmed (brains learn and change spontaneously as they interact with the world, instead of following the fixed paths and branches of a predetermined algorithm).

The article concludes:
There remains, of course, the question of where neuromorphic computing might lead. At the moment, it is primitive. But if it succeeds, it may allow the construction of machines as intelligent as—or even more intelligent than—human beings. Science fiction may thus become science fact.

Moreover, matters may proceed faster than an outside observer, used to the idea that the brain is a black box impenetrable to science, might expect. Money is starting to be thrown at the question. The Human Brain Project has a €1 billion ($1.3 billion) budget over a decade. The BRAIN initiative’s first-year budget is $100m, and neuromorphic computing should do well out of both. And if scale is all that matters, because it really is just a question of linking up enough silicon equivalents of cortical columns and seeing how they prune and strengthen their own internal connections, then an answer could come soon.

Human beings like to think of their brains as more complex than those of lesser beings—and they are. But the main difference known for sure between a human brain and that of an ape or monkey is that it is bigger. It really might, therefore, simply be a question of linking enough appropriate components up and letting them work it out for themselves. And if that works perhaps, as Marvin Minsky, a founder of the field of artificial intelligence put it, they will keep humanity as pets.

It's not science-fictional to imagine that we might have a conscious computer system within a decade or so; within most of our lifetimes for sure. How do we ethically debug it - or turn it off?

Saturday, August 03, 2013

In which we travel and meet relations (pix and videos)

We arrived back this morning to the yowling of the cat which immediately threw itself at Clare's ankles begging for forgiveness. Inside the house we found the dried remnants of cat-vomit on:  our bed, the bedroom carpet (several), the back bedroom bed, the kitchen floor, and the new couch.

Our week had started in a cottage near Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire staying with Clare's relations. The picture below shows an approaching thunderstorm but in truth the weather was mostly good and we were able to take in the delights of Stokesay Castle and the indifferent attractions of Ludlow and Leominster.

The world divides into those who sing karaoke and those who would rather die: likewise charades. It's sometimes hard to predict who will jump into the cold water (Clare after a few drinks) and who will stay warm and dry at the edge and just take the video (me). Clare is trying to convey the word 'Karate' which she has confused with Judo.

Weather approaching our cottage near Tenbury Wells

Wednesday we were in Formby for lunch with more of Clare's relations and friends.

Lil Youell took this video of the meal. Mr Tarantino had better watch out!

Then we were on the road again to Clare's cousin in Chester, ending the day at the Premier Inn, Macclesfield.

Clare and the ascent of Mam Tor

Thursday we visited "Pemberley" (Lyme Hall and Park). Actually we got as far as the entrance drive with its tantalising view of a lake, to be told the house itself was closed that day: something about 'not too much light'. We spun the car and moved on to Mam Tor where we managed an ascent of, oh, I don't know, maybe 150 feet? (And never returned to P.).

The old Sheffield-Manchester road (built on shale)

In fact the dismal state of the old Sheffield-Manchester road is pretty impressive. Built on shale, it has slid off the mountain on numerous occasions and was finally abandoned as too expensive to maintain. Today it's even a challenge for mountain bikes.

Holly has these flowers - who knew?

Yesterday we took in the tiny but perfectly formed gardens at Hare Hill, followed by the enormous and wasp-ridden estate at Tatton Park.

Tatton Park - the Mansion

Deer at Tatton Park

Clare fretted about the famous deer all the way through, and we finally spotted them as we were driving out. In the evening we had dinner with my nieces and their partners at Sutton Hall, Macclesfield and returned this morning real early (6 am start) with the motorway still packed.

Good timing: as I write the thunder is roaring and it is chucking it down.