Friday, January 31, 2014

Surrender etiquette

I surrender ..

"Please don't kill me - I have a wife and children back home!"

Good answer: 

"I accept your surrender. Private Smith, you don't look too busy - guard this captive till relieved."

Bad answers:

1. "She'll get over it - find someone new. They always do ..."  (opens fire).

2. "You should have thought about that before now ..."   (opens fire)

3. "Yep, if I had the resources to guard you, and if I trusted you ..."  (opens fire)

Avoiding atrocities is a logistical nightmare.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Solar panels are go ..-ish

Yes, the bounty of the sky! 30W!

It was all over by 2 pm. Twelve solar panels securely fixed to our roof ("if the wind takes 'em, they'll be taking yer roof off too!") and an electricity generator's worth of new dials, meters and weird Wi-Fi stuff in our pantry.

It's late afternoon before I've managed to get into the portal, dug out the requisite Wi-Fi OWL monitor MAC number, created an account and finally turned up the display above.

At the moment in question we're consuming on the left 0.885 kW and producing from the sky - well .. 30W. So that's half a lightbulb then. I trust from an overcast January afternoon we can only do better.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Executioner

In response to our little mosquito problem, Clare has retrieved her Christmas present of The Executioner.

The Executioner

Powered by two AA batteries, this delivers of the order of 3,000 volts to any hapless flying insect and can also be used when they perch in casual fashion on the walls. A brief spark and they fry.

I wondered what would happen if you touched the grill yourself (it does say not to do this). Mindful of electroshock torture and tasers, I debated wimping out for a while before finally pressing the button and proceeding to zap the side of my hand (this guy was braver).

There was a bright blue spark and a sharp zapping noise - and I have to say it hurt a bit. More like a burn than an electric shock: but I wouldn't fancy prolonged contact.

Here's a guy ('Backyard Armory') showing you how to convert The Executioner into a stun gun.

This is illegal in the UK. Having watched the video I immediately noted some design improvements: the ends of the steel probes should be filed to points both to improve penetration and to increase the electric field (and therefore the applied voltage); also, his assembly is not very robust and would probably just break if used for real - the high-voltage circuitry should be embedded within a much more rigid container.

Well, we talk big but so far not a single flying thing has been harmed by The Executioner!

Mosquitoes in Somerset

Love that dopplered hum as you lie awake at 2 am. That intimate, penetrating whine as - invisible - it skims past your ear. Why doesn't it attack? There's an exposed wrist, an overheated ankle carelessly protruding from beneath the duvet. Surely it's hungry?

Silence now .. but you'll be woken again soon and it'll be lumps in the morning.

An unwanted house guest

A consequence of the mild weather and the flooded Somerset levels. The mosquito population has begun its exponential expansion and already here in the City of Wells our house has been invaded. Where's the spray?
I managed to leave my mobile phone at my mother's house in Bristol yesterday. So no calls or texts for a week: email, skype or the fixed line work.
UPDATE: 9.30 am this morning.

Splat! the flyswatter clobbers a big, juicy mosquito high up on our bedroom wall, leaving a blood-red smear. Clare's, not mine - and definitely not a room 101 situation ('do it to Julia, not me!!') ...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Weight Loss Ward (ITV)

ITV's Weight Loss Ward (about extremely fat people) has proved to be somewhat compulsive viewing. Take Doreen Thomas: age 56, height 4ft 11, and weight 31 stone. Doreen can barely move and has been living downstairs for ten months. Her glasses have been upstairs since March, apparently.

"She's tried losing weight in the past, but it's never really succeeded. If we don't do something now she probably will be dead," says her nurse.

Doreen Thomas orders treats (from Stoke Sentinel)

On-screen, Doreen comes across as crafty and manipulative. She lives on benefits, has a full-time paid-for carer and snacks incessantly on treats ordered online.

My puritan reaction is of course outrage: why are we paying this person to waste her life in this way? She even refuses an operation to insert a gastric balloon! What could possibly be the purpose of her parasitic life?

On reflection, how would it help if Doreen were transformed into a bland, everyday mediocrity? As a welfare monster she gives millions the pleasure of lip-curling moral superiority. In her own (thankfully) inimitable way she has entertained and instructed more people than many a C-list pop star.

Yes, "Weight Loss Ward" has entirely justified Doreen Thomas's life - short as it's likely to be.

Frack or Freeze!

Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times today.
"... we are now being told by experts on solar physics that we are heading into a period of exceptional inactivity on the surface of our local star — and therefore one of exceptionally cold temperatures.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Richard Harrison, the head of space physics at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in Oxfordshire told the BBC. And Yuri Navogitsyn of the Pulkovo Observatory is quoted along similar lines by Voice of Russia: “We could be in for a cooling period that lasts 200-250 years.” In other words, we need extra greenhouse effect if we are not to suffer countless more fatalities from hypothermia and permafrosted farms. It’s frack or freeze."
We're on the case for our little animal friends ...

Our house ...

Here's an excerpt from the BBC piece (emphasis added).
"During the latter half of the 17th Century, the Sun went through an extremely quiet phase - a period called the Maunder Minimum. Historical records reveal that sunspots virtually disappeared during this time. Dr Green says: "There is a very strong hint that the Sun is acting in the same way now as it did in the run-up to the Maunder Minimum."

Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics, from the University of Reading, thinks there is a significant chance that the Sun could become increasingly quiet. An analysis of ice-cores, which hold a long-term record of solar activity, suggests the decline in activity is the fastest that has been seen in 10,000 years.

"It's an unusually rapid decline," explains Prof Lockwood. "We estimate that within about 40 years or so there is a 10% to 20% - nearer 20% - probability that we'll be back in Maunder Minimum conditions."

The era of solar inactivity in the 17th Century coincided with a period of bitterly cold winters in Europe. Londoners enjoyed frost fairs on the Thames after it froze over, snow cover across the continent increased, the Baltic Sea iced over - the conditions were so harsh, some describe it as a mini-Ice Age. And Prof Lockwood believes that this regional effect could have been in part driven by the dearth of activity on the Sun, and may happen again if our star continues to wane.

"It's a very active research topic at the present time, but we do think there is a mechanism in Europe where we should expect more cold winters when solar activity is low," he says.

He believes this local effect happens because the amount of ultraviolet light radiating from the Sun dips when solar activity is low. This means that less UV radiation hits the stratosphere - the layer of air that sits high above the Earth. And this in turn feeds into the jet stream - the fast-flowing air current in the upper atmosphere that can drive the weather. The results of this are dominantly felt above Europe, says Prof Lockwood.

"These are large meanders in the jet stream, and they're called blocking events because they block off the normal moist, mild winds we get from the Atlantic, and instead we get cold air being dragged down from the Arctic and from Russia," he says.

"These are what we call a cold snap... a series of three or four cold snaps in a row adds up to a cold winter. And that's quite likely what we'll see as solar activity declines."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The Light of Other Days" - Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (2000)

Just finished "The Light of Other Days" by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, first published in April 2000. Here's the review at The SF Site by Steven H. Silver.
"The Light of Other Days" was the title of a classic short story by Bob Shaw, one of the lesser known stars of science fiction. One of science fiction's biggest stars, Arthur C. Clarke, and one of its rising talents, Stephen Baxter, have combined forces to pay tribute to Shaw with their collaborative novel of the same title. One of the features of the Shaw story was the idea of "slow glass," which would transmit light so slowly that it could be used to view the past. The comparative device in the Clarke & Baxter novel is wormhole technology.

"Hiram Patterson, a latter-day Ted Turner/Bill Gates, has found a use for wormholes to broadcast news as it happens from remote locations without the time and expense of transporting a live reporter and camera crew.

"He can create a temporary wormhole, point a camera through it, and capture the images from a home office, no matter where it is located. Patterson's development team, headed by his son, David, continues to push the boundaries of this new technology while Clarke and Baxter begin to examine its social aspects.

"The spread of wormhole technology seems to be based on the internet. Like the internet, it spreads rapidly and reasonably inexpensively. There can be no interaction between the viewer and the subject of their spying. Most importantly, it completely alters the fabric of society and brings the world even closer together.

"The changes to society are continuous, especially since what can be done with wormhole technology and its cost keeps changing. Used to spy on individuals, particularly once the ability to look into the past is discovered, wormhole technology supplants the internet as the primary time-waster.

"People can now not only discover what their neighbours are doing at the moment, they can also see what their neighbours were doing at any time. Privacy has ceased to exist as anyone can spy on anyone else, at any time, without any chance of detection.

"Although there are some noble endeavours, such as the project to completely document the life of the historical Jesus, most people use the technology for more voyeuristic concerns. Given the attitude Clarke exhibited towards organized religion in such recent novels as 3001: The Final Odyssey, the irreverence paid to religion in The Light of Other Days is very understated.

"The Light of Other Days is definitely a novel of ideas. In addition to the primary concept of the wormhole, the story opens with the announcement of the discovery of an enormous asteroid, called the Wormwood, which will impact the earth in 2534, causing the destruction of all life on the planet. The knowledge of the Wormwood inflicts much of humanity with a sense of malaise, adding to the public's need for a diversion like wormhole technology. The authors have also inflicted water shortages on the world which have resulted in several water wars. Many countries have become balkanized and, perhaps the least likely situation, England has become the 52nd state of the US.

"With many interesting ideas, few of which are fully explored, and a dearth of exploration of the characters and their relationships, The Light of Other Days feels more like a work in progress than a finished novel. If the authors wanted to pay homage to Bob Shaw, producing a more complete work may have been the way to do it."
This review is spot on as regards the style of the novel: it reads to me like a very late pulp novel of the nineteen fifties and sixties - the golden age of Heinlein, Asimov and, of course, Clarke. Though by content I suspect Baxter did most of the writing - Clarke's main contribution seems to have been the overarching plot, a reprise of "Childhood's End".

Looking back fourteen years, the novel is remarkably prescient in technological terms. In the novel the dominant global corporation is called OurWorld (a version of Google) with a megalomaniac CEO called Hiram Patterson (father of main characters Bobby Patterson and David Curzon). The characters travel around in automated driverless cars and are surrounded by flying servitor-drones (the novel is set some decades in our present future).

There are some stunning set-pieces, such as where David Curzon programs the "wormcam" to follow his female ancestors back through time (via a 'mitochondrial DNA tracker') - the reader is taken on a dizzying ride across 4.5 billion years.

As with all pulp novels, dazzling sense of awe and wonder has to be set against pedestrian and unconvincing characterisation. One really has to struggle to believe the interpersonal dynamics - particularly the love interest between journalist Kate Manzoni and Bobby Patterson (Hiram Patterson's cloned son and heir apparent).

Quantum wormholes have recently become all the rage too, now linked by some researchers to quantum entanglement in theories of quantum gravity. I was not so impressed with the authors' model of our own physical reality as exhibiting a unique present: a boundary between a frozen block-universe past and a quantum-uncertain and mutable future. We already know that can't be right as our universe does not have a unique observer-independent present . Dr Baxter, of course, knows this consequence of special relativity.

So if you like SF from the golden age you'll enjoy this, but you are likely to share David Curzon's qualms as regards humanity's final fate.

Wikipedia entry for "The Light of Other Days"

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Three Roads to Artificial Intelligence

AI pioneer Marvin Minsky once famously stated that “Artificial Intelligence is the science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men.”

Such an elegantly recursive cop-out!

I’m going to propose three, more operational models of intelligence: competence, search and creativity respectively. Which seems more plausible to you?

1. Competence

You meet an expert and watch them work at solving problems. A query comes in and instantly the correct answer rings out. You recall the old saying: “An expert is someone who doesn't have to think, because they know.”

This kind of intelligence is algorithmic. In principle you can write a program simulating the expert which delivers answers in a computationally well-behaved fashion (code for polynomial behaviour). In AI we call these programs Expert Systems.

This is intelligence-as-instinct: compiled, hard-wired expertise. I've met people like this and some I wouldn't call smart at all – the ones who are flummoxed by an unfamiliar problem.

2. Search

Some people have equated intelligence to controlled search. The paradigmatic example is playing games such as chess where there is no known well-behaved algorithm which can take an arbitrary game position and return the optimal next move. The best games programs create a look ahead tree using legal moves and assess the best of the future game-states. They then choose their next move as best-placed to get to that state despite the best attempts of their opponent.

A chess lookahead tree

Search can look quite intelligent because it’s flexible and adaptive. The AI program doesn’t know what you’re going to do next, but whatever you do it will adapt and continue “intelligently” towards its final goal of winning. I have the same feeling about my sat nav, which implacably directs me to my destination no matter what wrong turns and detours I make.

Search is powerful and adaptable (trading competence for bounds on space and time resources) but suffers from a fatal rigidity: it explores just the possibilities defined by the state-space and operations given to it. The chess program just plays chess.

Important as the distinction is in artificial intelligence, it’s not clear to me that in humans, search and competence are that much different. Humans are very bad at search, finding it almost impossible to hold a large number of possible future states simultaneously in mind. Trying to solve problems in such a way is pretty much the definition – in humans – of incompetence.

Experts differ from novices not by doing more search, but by having a more extensive, refined and sophisticated competency set (or ‘knowledge base’).

3. Creativity

The people I find truly, scarily intelligent are those who keep you off-balance by continually moving the goalposts in a way both surprising and opaque. You feel your every possible gambit has already been anticipated and that the activity you think you're conducting is actually embedded in a much more complex scenario being deftly manipulated by your opponent.

In “Tactics of Mistake’, Gordon R. Dickson describes an enemy force advancing down a river valley along its narrow flood plain; the friendly force is much smaller. A merely competent commander would presumably choose the best combat tactics commensurate with his poor hand – and would expect to lose. In fact Dickson’s hero places his troops in well-screened locations in the hills to the side of the valley, and then dams the river. As the water level rises, the flood plain floods and the enemy troops are forced into a killing zone. They are thus defeated.

How is this solution-approach different from competence and search?

The critical factor is that new elements have been brought in to create a larger ‘game’ – in particular the river, its flooding behaviour, the typography of the ground and the possibilities of damming.

Creativity thus requires an additional context, extra resources which can be brought to bear on the original goals of the game. In the real world, everything we do is embedded in layers of enveloping reality. For example, you might defeat the chess champion by doping his coffee so that he plays particularly poorly. You might thus win in the extended game where the player is also an active constituent, but a chess program has no access to this larger reality. More legitimate 'psychological tricks’ are regularly employed by human players.

This points to an important feature of creative intelligence. It requires a deep familiarity with the potential of embedding contexts of the proximate ‘game’ or problem – and the ability to select and refine additional operators which can be played back into a new kind of solution.

Most games are defined to explicitly abstract away all inessential contexts: you are allowed to do just what the rules say and no more (so no stealing your opponent’s king and declaring victory!). But this immediately rules out the kind of creativity we're discussing here, thereby impoverishing the model of intelligence which can be studied or deployed. I’m not sure AI research has sufficiently taken this into account.

In the real world there are no absolutely impermeable boundaries, so there are potentially no limits to the kinds of esoteric knowledge which can be brought to bear on a problem. And that’s what truly intelligent people do.

What is measured by IQ tests?

Test of crystallized intelligence (such as general knowledge) seem to be measuring competence which they hope correlates with ‘g’ as a proxy. However, the core of intelligence seems to be fluid intelligence, measured by test items such as Raven’s Progressive Matrices. These require the inference of new, compelling rules and patterns from presented data - which sounds a lot more like creative intelligence.

Let me make one more remark - about scientists and mathematicians. Some people are very good at rapidly and easily seeing the consequences of assumptions; they sign-up to the "shut up and calculate" school. Others seem more comfortable exploring different paradigms for situating a problem, other ways of thinking about it. Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin called these two types "craftspeople and seers", while Freeman Dyson preferred "Frogs and Birds". Perhaps there is a connection here with the intelligence-as-search and intelligence-as-creativity distinction?

Psychologist Daniel Nettle observed that intelligence is a kind of whole-brain efficiency measure implicated across all areas of neural functioning.  High-scorers on the personality trait of Openness are artistic, creative people capable of making associations between different – and perhaps surprising – kinds of things (Smolin's "seers") while those with a more "craftsperson" style are perhaps exhibiting the effects of high IQ per se.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Disappearing accountants

The Economist this week has a feature on the changing nature of work. Just as machines displaced agricultural workers in the fields and craft-artisans in their homes, so a new generation of smart computer systems are displacing middle-class intellectual workers.
"Even after computers beat grandmasters at chess (once thought highly unlikely), nobody thought they could take on people at free-form games played in natural language. Then Watson, a pattern-recognising supercomputer developed by IBM, bested the best human competitors in America’s popular and syntactically tricksy general-knowledge quiz show “Jeopardy!” Versions of Watson are being marketed to firms across a range of industries to help with all sorts of pattern-recognition problems. Its acumen will grow, and its costs fall, as firms learn to harness its abilities.

"The machines are not just cleverer, they also have access to far more data. The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale; in others it will allow firms to do more with fewer workers. Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories."
How likely is your job to be taken over by automation? The Economist article includes this chart.

Lose your job to a machine?

In previous rounds of automation, displaced workers were able to get an education and populate middle-class jobs (as clerks, and later as the famous 'computer programmers') which were pleasanter and better-paid than their previous jobs which automation had killed. But as the computers get smarter, perhaps a lot of people can't compete anymore - they're just not that smart or conscientious. And personal trainers, in general, are not fantastically remunerated.

The process of intellectual displacement is interesting. The machine systems are not, again in general, particularly good social actors (which explains the chart above). They can, however, automate large parts of the informational, computational and process-rich components of a middle-class job. A few highly skilled practitioners - expert accountants, if you like - can use these highly-capable tools to solve problems which used to be tackled by small armies of lesser-skilled accountants. Productivity has risen but those displaced 'average accountants' appear to have nowhere else to go. A life of benefits and endless video games beckons.

Oh, did I say automation hasn't produced good social actors? We progress one step at a time.

The elite of the Roman Empire didn't do a lot of work, manual or otherwise. They managed the great affairs of state, and slaves or lesser mortals did everything else. It raises a question of whether we should embrace or fear ubiquitous automation. The pessimists amongst us will recall 'bread and circuses'.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Quantum Field Theory - the big picture

Taken a first course in Quantum Theory and now interested in moving on to Quantum Field Theory?

Every QFT book you were ever recommended hits you like a suddenly-faced vertical cliff face after a no-more-than-vigorous scramble through those non-relativistic woods. You're used to solving the Schrödinger equation to: model the hydrogen atom; understand molecular binding forces; and chart the motion of (slow) particles in potential fields. Suddenly all that's swept away: you have weird new replacements for Schrödinger - the Klein-Gordon, Dirac and Proca equations .. and then jarringly you're into the alien landscape of Feynman diagrams, propagators and highly convoluted integrals.

Nowhere is the big picture ever explained. How does it all fit together?

At last a book which feels your pain:  "Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory - Basic Principles and Quantum Electrodynamics".
"With regard to phenomena, I recall wondering, as a student, why some of the fundamental things I studied in NRQM (non-relativistic quantum mechanics) seemed to disappear in QFT. One of these was bound state phenomena, such as the hydrogen atom. None of the introductory QFT texts I looked at even mentioned, let alone treated, it. It turns out that QFT can, indeed, handle bound states, but elementary courses typically don’t go there. Neither will we, as time is precious, and other areas of study will turn out to be more fruitful. Those other areas comprise scattering (including inelastic scattering where particles transmute types), deducing particular experimental results, and vacuum energy.

"I also once wondered why spherical solutions to the wave equations are not studied, as they play a big role in NRQM, in both scattering and bound state calculations. It turns out that scattering calculations in QFT can be obtained to high accuracy with the simpler plane wave solutions. So, for most applications in QFT, they suffice.

"Wave packets, as well, can seem nowhere to be found in QFT. Like the other things mentioned, they too can be incorporated into the theory, but simple sinusoids (of complex numbers) serve us well in almost all applications. So, wave packets, too, are generally ignored in introductory (and most advanced) courses.

Wave function collapse, a topic of focus in NRQM, is generally not a topic of focus in QFT texts. It does, however, play a key, commonly hidden role, which is discussed herein in Sects. 7.4.3 and 7.4.4, pgs. 196-197. "
And here is how the book begins - from chapter 1 (PDF):
"Before starting on any journey, thoughtful people study a map of where they will be going. This allows them to maintain their bearings as they progress, and not get lost en route. This chapter is like such a map, a schematic overview of the terrain of quantum field theory (QFT) without the complication of details. You, the student, can get a feeling for the theory, and be somewhat at home with it, even before delving into the “nitty-gritty” mathematics. Hopefully, this will allow you to keep sight of the “big picture”, and minimize confusion, as you make your way, step-by-step, through this book."

Best of all, the first three chapters (and a few more) are free and online (available here).

Thanks, Robert D. Klauber!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dave declares

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to my new blog,!  After a lifetime of systems engineering, it’s ciao to C, tara to Java and goodness knows what to Linux and Perl.

As I now have some time on my hands, I will be writing my thoughts on a variety of topics I find of interest. Politics and current affairs, science and technology of course, some personal details concerning our grandchildren and our occasional caravan holidays – just for family interest.

Please add your comments below. I will be moderating them for language of course.

Cheers and thanks for your interest,

Dave Hudson.


I’m playing with a steganography package. You can embed your thoughts secretly in a .jpg image and no-one will know. So now I can write a parallel secret blog, just for myself. I expect some supercomputer years in the future will be able to detect and break the code, so my thoughts will not be lost for ever.

I can confide here another reason for my new blog. If I die my dear wife Dorothy will be able to go back each day to the very same date while I was still alive and read my thoughts for that day. I think she'll find it very comforting.

My first secret entry will be embedded in an uploaded picture of my eldest grandchild, the one we call Muffin.


When I look back at how much material I have produced here I am amazed. And a lot of it is good stuff too. I don’t seem to get many comments though. I put it down to blogger’s useless interface. Having my old stuff hidden away in archive folders seems to turn people off browsing there. What a waste.

I have decided to make my blog much more interactive. It’s a project which will take a few months at least, but I'm’m going to link Google’s speech-interaction system to my blog entries with a semantic net written in JavaScript.

The result will be an agent interface, who I might as well call “Dave”. When you type in a question or comment, or talk via the Skype interface, “Dave” will answer, just like I would. I think it’s going to be a winner.

I think Dorothy will be happier with “Dave” if I were to pass away first. It’s just so much more real to have an interactive presence than reading what to her must seem like just old diaries. I haven't told her the real reason, but it will be interesting to see what she thinks once “Dave” is completed.


I am very disappointed in Dorothy. She’s really quite dismissive of all my hard work – told me that one Dave is quite enough, without having an echo on her computer. So this is where my thoughts are going. It’s not enough just to have a soft version of me running on a computer. No, it must be fully embodied.

Anyway, I've put an order in over the web, and it’s scheduled to arrive while D. is visiting her sister. I'll keep it locked away in my workroom and in my Will it will say to open the trunk and switch it on. Practical reincarnation, at least from her point of view! Apparently it’s damn heavy, so I hope I can move it without getting a very poorly-timed heart attack!


 “Embodied Dave” is now working - quite a handsome man! His mouth is oddly shaped, but seems to articulate speech quite well. It’s like I imagine a twin must be! I see Dorothy and “Dave” sat in front of the TV after I've gone, just as homely as we are today. She'll tell him how her day’s gone and he'll respond in that calm, orderly  and authoritative way that I always have.


Down to the auction today and picked up a slice of good luck for a change. A couple called the Hudsons I think, checked out in a weird caravan accident or something and their goods up for sale. When the doll came up I was blown away – who'd have thought? No-one else showed an interest, got it for a song. Looks like it’s never been used.


Can't be too cautious, that’s my watchword. Never know what evil stuff might be in something like that. Got the tech boys to take a look. They tell me ‘Dave’ is compliant, pretty much agrees with whatever you say and is up for anything – reasonable or not.

So it's ‘Hello sailors!’ – it’ll earn its keep in no time!


(c) Nigel Seel, 2014


Back to "Stories".

Friday, January 10, 2014

Kevin Pietersen: the Sherlock of English cricket

Simon Barnes has an excellent article in The Times today, one with resonance for anyone who has ever worked with unreasonable but highly-effective people.
"It’s a shame that Sherlock, the television show, changed from a brilliant and thrilling adventure based on the utterly exceptional qualities of its main character into a self-indulgent and self-referential soap-opera-cum-comedy based on one rather crude characterisation."
Yes, I noticed that too.
"It is an equal shame that precisely the same thing has happened with the England cricket team. The Kevin Pietersen story once again dominates the plot-lines of English cricket. Like Sherlock, it is a drama centred on a uniquely talented individual with questionable social skills.

"In the first half of the most recent episode, someone describes Sherlock to his face as a psychopath. He contradicts, not without smugness: “No. High-functioning sociopath.”

"Well, let’s not stick labels on people. Leave that to those qualified. An “anti-social personality disorder” often includes such traits as small regard for the feelings and welfare of others, inability to learn from experience, no sense of responsibility, lack of moral sense, no change after punishment, lack of guilt, pathological egocentricity and inability to love.

"Pietersen’s perpetually sticky relationships with his cricketing colleagues unquestionably go personality-deep. With my level of expertise I think we can confidently describe him as a high-functioning awkward bugger. And it has been widely reported that his relationship with Andy Flower, the England team director, has broken down disastrously.

"It has even been suggested that Flower will not carry on if Pietersen remains on board. Another version states that Pietersen can stay on board so long as he devotes himself to scoring runs in county cricket at the beginning of the new season, instead of playing in the IPL. Kev can stay, but it’ll cost him getting on for a million quid.

"Flower was a great coach for England until the trip to Australia this winter spoilt his record. His greatest achievements? Defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11 and defeat of India in India from one-down in 2012. How did these things come about?

"In Adelaide in 2010, Pietersen changed the series with an innings of murderous certainty in which he scored 227. In Mumbai two years later, England were batting on a turning pitch tailored for India’s needs; Pietersen scored 186, another classic momentum-shifter.

"Flower, like all coaches, is essentially Watson. Coaches, even if they preen like José Mourinho, are at base facilitators, enablers and sounding boards. They don’t solve the case: they are just helping out as best they can.

"Cases are actually solved by the Sherlocks: the high-functioning ones. It was Pietersen, not Flower, who solved The Case of the Prematurely Celebrating Australians and The Case of the Indians Hoist With Their Own Petard.

"We would all sooner deal with Watson, we’d sooner have a drink or a cup of tea with Watson and we save most of our sympathies for Watson, who is always in a perfectly intolerable situation. But if we want to solve the case, we need Sherlock.

The brutally-effective people I knew in business were more Steve Jobs than Sherlock. People who would call you at any hour of the day or night and calmly task you with impossible deadlines; give you jobs and then let slip that they had also asked some other people who had already delivered - so your efforts had been simply wasted (not that they cared or anything, or had bothered to mention this); people who, as peers, simply ignored your existence, wouldn't return calls or attend meetings. People who routinely shouted at people.

It was tough working for or with these people: the only protection was to be an acolyte, tolerated in some subservient role at their court - not being a posse person, I was never very keen nor good at that. The safest place to be was one or two management levels above them, where their destructive effectiveness could be leveraged in fulfillment of one's own higher-level goals. Every successful executive needs an enforcer or troubleshooter.

The choice is not solely between Sherlock or Watson. There are other kinds of talents which work in business and in the world - skills less abrasive which still add value. But we all have our Watson moments as we wonder how much punishment our pleasant, collegial organisation can or should take before we spit this person out. It's actually a genuine dilemma.

Further Reading

Bertrand Russell.
"Natural Killers" in the US Army by Major David S. Pierson.

"Ancestral Journeys" by Jean Manco

"Amusing review you wrote on your blog about Ancestors."


"That great tome you've been reading for days now. I read your review. It made me laugh."

"I haven't written a review yet."  (Baffled).

"Well, it was on the screen."


 "It was Greg Cochran's review you read, on his blog 'West Hunter'. I was reviewing it before writing my own thoughts."

I am of course immensely flattered that my wife might believe that a review by such an eminent population geneticist, polymath and all-round smart person could possibly have been written by myself. In her defence, she's not fantastically up on genetics or the deep history of Europe. She's right about the quality of the writing though: here's what Gregory Cochran had to say.
"Jean Manco has a new book out on the peopling of Europe, Ancestral Journeys.  The general picture is that Europeans arise from three main groups: the Mesolithic hunters (Hyperboreans),  Levantine farmers, and Indo-Europeans off the steppe.   It’s a decent synthesis of archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence. I suspect that her general thesis is in the right ball park:  surely not correct in every detail, but right about the double population replacement.

"It is a refreshing  antidote to previous accounts based on the pots-not-people fad that originated back in the 1960s, like so many other bad things.  Once upon a time, when the world was young, archaeologists would find a significant transition in artifact types, see a simultaneous change in skeletons,  and deduce that new tenants had arrived, for example with advent of the Bell Beaker culture.  This became unfashionable: archaeologists were taught to think that invasions  and Völkerwanderungs were never the explanation, even though history records many events of this kind.

"I suppose the work Franz Boas  published back in 1912, falsely claiming that environment controlled skull shape rather than genetics, had something to do with it.  And surely some archaeologists  went overboard with migration, suggesting that New Coke cans were a sign of barbarian takeover.  The usual explanation though, is that archaeologists began to find the idea of prehistoric population replacement [of course you know that means war - war means fighting, and fighting means killing] distasteful and concluded that therefore it must not have happened.  Which meant that they were total loons, but that seems to happen a lot.

"But the book could be better. Jean Manco relies fairly heavily on mtDNA and Y-chromosome studies, and they are not the most reliable evidence.  Not because the molecular geneticists are screwing up the sequencing, although there must sometimes be undetected contamination, but because mtDNA and Y-chromosomes are each single loci with an effective population size four times smaller than autosomal genes.  They are more affected by drift, and drift can deceive you.  Moreover, in some cases selection might affect the historical trajectory of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes,  which would add to the confusion. Now to be fair, we have more ancient mtDNA results than autosomal DNA,  and there is more published data on mtDNA and Y-chromosome than autosomal DNA in existing populations.  This situation is rapidly improving.

"Autosomal DNA has zillions of loci and a larger effective population size.  Most of it is neutral.  That’s what you want, for investigating past mixing and movement  – and autosomal DNA yields interesting hints using publicly available data and software.  For example, using the program ADMIXTURE, you find a West Asian-like component in almost all Europeans (from Spain to Russia, and at about the same level) – but not in Sardinians or Basques. Which must be telling us something.

"In addition, she’s not bloody-minded enough. She thinks that a fair fraction of the big population turnovers involved migrants moving into areas that had been abandoned by the previous owners. I can imagine that happening in a few cases.  Maybe the Greenlanders, living in an extremely marginal country for their kind of dairy farming, mostly left and/or died out  before the Eskimos showed up.  That is, in my dreams, because we know that the two groups fought. The Greenlanders may have been in trouble, but they didn’t just fall -  Eskimos pushed. The European colonization of the New World is closer, since there was a dramatic population collapse from the newly introduced Eurasian and African diseases, but even then there was a fair amount of fighting. I’m sure that there were serious epidemics in European prehistory, but  it seems unlikely they compared with the impact of the simultaneous arrival of  bubonic plague, diphtheria, leprosy, malaria, measles,  typhoid, and whooping cough on the Amerindians (with yellow fever and cholera for dessert).

"I mean, when the first farmers were settling Britain, about 4000 BC, they built ditched and palisaded enclosures.   Some of these camps are littered with human bones – so, naturally, Brian Fagan, in a popular prehistory textbook, suggests that ”perhaps these camps were places where the dead were exposed for months before their bones were deposited in nearby communal burials”!  We also find thousands of flint arrowheads in extensive investigations of some of these enclosures, concentrated along the palisade and especially at the gates.  Sounds a lot like Fort Apache, to me.

"There are some new and fascinating results about European prehistory that beg to be incorporated in a revised version of this book, for example the stuff about how the Hyperboreans contributed to the ancestry of modern European and Amerindians, but that info is so new that she could not possibly have incorporated it. Not her fault at all.

"Read it."
I'd classify "Ancestral Journeys" as a semi-popular book. Jean Manco's mastery of the details of populations and their movements across Europe, North Africa and the Near East across a time period stretching from 46,000 years ago to the early mediaeval is truly staggering - she seems to have absorbed and synthesised hundreds of sources. Somehow the clarity of her thinking and the organisation of her material saves the reader from being totally lost in the details.

The study of deep history is a fusion of archaeology, linguistics and genetics with the genetics becoming more important as more DNA samples - ancient and modern - are sequenced. What does this genetic information actually mean? The reader will need to internalise the historical evolution and mutation of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA to understand the resulting haplogroup trees which drive historical analysis.

Evolutionary Tree of Y-DNA haplogroups (from Wikipedia)

If you've not had a course in population genetics then you will be hitting Wikipedia hard (you could do worse than start here and follow the links to grasp the genetic concepts underpinning this book).

Trivia point: Jean Marco is based just up the road from where we live, in Bristol.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

"No Ordinary Life" by Peter Stokes

From the Amazon blurb.
"The true story of a father who, on his death bed, handed his son a dusty journal containing details of his secret past as a Second World War hero and founding member of the 2nd SAS. Just weeks prior to his death Horace Stokes asked his son Peter to return home as he had 'something important' to leave him, and presented him with a battered diary.

"Peter, himself a decorated military officer, said: "He wanted me to come home so that he could talk to me about his life growing up in the shadow of war and also about his part in some of the most famous raids during the Second World War; throughout his life he'd never revealed these secrets”. His secret journal, published now as a book, recalls daring missions behind enemy lines in France, the Mediterranean and Italy. It also documents his capture, escape and recapture in Italy and Germany.

"Stokey, as he was known to his war-time comrades, served with 12 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force and the SAS. This book tells the story of a modest man who epitomised a generation now nearly all gone, someone who lived no ordinary life."

Sometimes a personality-type leaps off the page. I have read several books by special forces people and they uniformly come across as practical, no-nonsense, self-starting, mission-oriented and lacking empathy. Touchy-feely folk they are not.

Ho-hum: no surprise. You would expect low openness, high conscientiousness, high extraversion, low agreeableness and very low neuroticism. And that's what you get.

This short book itself is a real page turner. Young Horace grew up in the 1920s, dirt-poor, in a flea-ridden Birmingham tenement. Bright enough to go to grammar school, he's soon working as a greengrocer's assistant to help make ends meet. The war rescues him and makes him a commando. Epic deeds follow as our hero raids France, invades North Africa and parachutes into Italy, causing mayhem wherever he goes.

At one point in northern Italy, having sustained a rupture after a parachute landing gone wrong, he ends up with "really bad boils in my groin which were going septic and I had also developed scabies." He continues, "It was clear to all of us that I was struggling."


He is so bad that his comrades have to leave him, miles inside German-occupied Italy. So he steals a bike and cycles by himself 230 km to the Vatican City in Rome (4-5 days) - which of course he succeeds in reaching - where just in time he gets life-saving medical treatment. After some months fomenting local subversion he is captured and tortured by the Gestapo.

Post-war and demobbed, Stokes drifts from one job to another: a confirmed socialist, he appears to have had a problem with mediocre authority. Eventually he becomes a publican and that seems to work for him - he later became chair of the Birmingham licencees union. 

Stokes senior died in 1986.

Thanks to Adrian for this gift.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Haplogroup Tree Mutation Map (from 23andMe)

See here for background to this entry which analyses my Y-DNA haplotype within the R1b haplogroup tree.

The call column indicates what was found in my sequencing (not all bases may have been tested for or derived, resulting in a blank); anc means the ancestral form; der means the derived form via the specific SNP (mutation) at this Y-chromosome locus.

My Paternal line (Y chromosome)

R1b1b2a1a2f* defining mutations
R1b1b2a1a2f defining mutations
rs11799226 (L21)GCG
R1b1b2a1a2 defining mutations
rs34276300 (P312)CA
R1b1b2a1a defining mutations
rs13304168 (L52)TCT
rs9785659 (P311)GAG
rs9786076 (L11)CTC
rs9786283 (P310)CAC
R1b1b2a1 defining mutations
rs9786140 (L51)AGA
R1b1b2a defining mutations
rs9785971 (L23)GA
rs9786142 (L49)ATA
R1b1b2 defining mutations
rs877756 (S3)CTC
rs9786153 (M269)CTC
R1b1b defining mutations
rs9785702 (P297)CGC
R1b1 defining mutations
rs150173 (P25)CA
R1b defining mutations
rs9786184 (M343)CA
R1 defining mutations
rs1118473 (P286)TCT
rs17307070 (P225)TGT
rs2032624 (M173)CAC
rs7067478 (P242)GA
rs9785717 (P238)AGA
rs9785959 (P236)GCG
rs9786197 (P234)CTC
rs9786232 (P233)GTG