Sunday, January 31, 2016

Do it for fun, but not for profit

Just a couple of choice selections from the cornucopia which is Jess Riedel's blog.


American drone for covert underwater warfare

Trident will be obsolete before the next-generation hits the water
"For half a century, big missile submarines, known as boomers, have been arguably the most decisive weapon systems in modern warfare – the queen on the strategic chessboard – because of their capacity to remain unseen until the critical moment, unleashing enormous destructive force without warning.

"Now that dominant position is under threat. A submarine can hide from a few noisily obvious ships and planes, but it is harder to hide from a swarm of small, virtually undetectable drones. The robots being developed here can potentially be made cheap and expendable, and capable of being deployed in large numbers to cover vast expanses of sea. Once fully developed, they could tilt the balance of power beneath the waves – much as airborne drones are already doing in the sky.

"It is unclear how far other countries have got with underwater drone technology; it is known that the Russian navy is working on it intensively."
I foresee an arms race where the ballistic missile submarine deploys a screen of 'drone fighters' to take out the enemies underwater surveillance drones. Good luck with that.


Propensity to exercise and increased lifespan are correlated but not causal
"Observational studies report a strong inverse relationship between leisure-time physical activity and all-cause mortality. Despite suggestive evidence from population-based associations, scientists have not been able to show a beneficial effect of physical activity on the risk of death in controlled intervention studies among individuals who have been healthy at baseline. On the other hand, high cardiorespiratory fitness is known to be a strong predictor of reduced mortality, even more robust than physical activity level itself.

"Here, in both animals and/or human twins, we show that the same genetic factors influence physical activity levels, cardiorespiratory fitness, and risk of death. Previous observational follow-up studies in humans suggest that increasing fitness through physical activity levels could prolong life; however, our controlled interventional study with laboratory rats bred for low and high intrinsic fitness contrast with these findings.

"Also, we find no evidence for the suggested association using pairwise analysis among monozygotic twin pairs who are discordant in their physical activity levels. Based on both our animal and human findings, we propose that genetic pleiotropy might partly explain the frequently observed associations between high baseline physical activity and later reduced mortality in humans."
What this is saying is that the same set of good genes are both encouraging higher physical activity levels and giving you a longer life. If you happen to have the good genes and for some reason you're not physically active ('monozygotic twin pairs who are discordant in their physical activity levels') you still get the long life.

This is not genetic determinism. Your genes give you a set point: a certain lifespan, body-plan, weight; your choices of diet and exercise will have a varying effect, but only around that set point - not arbitrarily.

Riedel comments, "Stunning if true. Think this will slowdown our culture’s obsession with exercise for health? Me neither."

Saturday, January 30, 2016

SSC SNP picks

er, ... no ... .

I mentioned in my previous post that you could link a SNP (eg rs4570625) to your own 23andMe results using a link like this:
Scott Alexander at the almost-always-reliable* Slate Star Codex wrote (November 2014) this amusing post "How To Use 23andMe Irresponsibly" describing his favourite SNPs.

Well, now they're my favourites too and I copy his (lightly edited) thoughts below, but with the SNP references switched from his choice - SNPedia - to my choice, 23andMe.

Quick reminder: most traits in life are quantitative, they come in degree, not kind. In the human genome they are polygenic - many SNPs are involved (and other genetic mechanisms too) .. so one SNP is hardly going to be decisive. In most cases.

--- How To Use 23andMe Irresponsibly - (from SSC)  ---
"rs909525 is linked to the so-called “warrior gene” which I blogged about in the last links roundup. People with the normal four or five repeat version of these gene are less violent than people with the three-repeat version, and people with the two-repeat version are massively overrepresented among violent criminals. ... Although this SNP isn’t the warrior gene itself, it’s linked to it closely enough to be a good predictor.

"This is on the X chromosome, so men will only have one copy (I wonder how much of the increased propensity to violence in men this explains). It’s also one of the minus strand ones, so it’ll be the reverse of what SNPedia is telling you. If you’ve got T, you’re normal. If you’ve got C, you’re a “warrior”. I’ve got C, which gives a pretty good upper limit on how much you should trust these SNPs, since I’m about the least violent person you’ll ever meet. But who knows? Maybe I’m just waiting to snap. Post something dumb about race or gender in the open thread one more time, I dare you…"

I'm T and my mother, Beryl Seel was (T;T), both .. normally unwarlike.

"rs53576 in the OXTR gene is related to the oxytocin receptor, which frequently gets good press as “the cuddle hormone” and “the trust hormone”. Unsurprisingly, the polymorphism is related to emotional warmth, gregariousness versus loneliness, and (intriguingly) ability to pick out conversations in noisy areas.

"23andMe reads this one off the plus strand, so your results should directly correspond to SNPedia’s – (G;G) means more empathy and sociability and is present in 50% of the population, anything else means less. I’m (A;G), which I guess explains my generally hateful and misanthropic outlook on life, plus why I can never hear anyone in crowded bars."

We're both (G;G) which makes us kind and empathic ... .

"rs4680 is in the COMT gene, which codes for catechol-o-methyltransferase, an enzyme that degrades various chemicals including dopamine. Riffing on the more famous “warrior gene”, somebody with a terrible sense of humor named this one the “worrier gene”.

"One version seems to produce more anxiety but slightly better memory and attention; the other version seems to produce calm and resiliency but with a little bit worse memory and attention. (A;A) is smart and anxious, (G;G) is dumb and calm, (A;G) is in between. if you check the SNPedia page, you can also find ten zillion studies on which drugs you are slightly more likely to become addicted to. ..."

Both of us are (A;G) which makes us average and average.

"rs7632287, also in the oxytocin receptor, has been completely proportionally and without any hype declared by the media to be “the divorce gene”. To be fair, this is based on some pretty good Swedish studies finding that women with a certain allele were more often to have reported “marital crisis with the threat of divorce” in the past year (p = 0.003, but the absolute numbers were only 11% of women with one allele vs. 16% of women with the other). This actually sort of checks out, since oxytocin is related to pair bonding. If I’m reading the article right (G;G) is lower divorce risk, (A;A) and (A;G) are higher – but this may only apply to women."

Both my mother and I are (A;G) which makes her a bit .. flighty?

"rs11174811 is in the AVPR1A gene, part of a receptor for a chemical called vasopressin which is very similar to oxytocin. In case you expected men to get away without a divorce gene, this site has been associated with spousal satisfaction in men. Although the paper is extremely cryptic, I think (A;A) or (A;C) means higher spousal satisfaction than (C;C). But if I’m wrong, no problem – another study got the opposite results."

I'm (C;C) as was my mother, Beryl Seel, which means .. probably nothing.

"rs25531 is on the serotonin transporter. It's Overhyped Media Name is “the orchid gene”, on the basis of a theory that children with one allele have higher variance – that is, if they have nice, happy childhoods with plenty of care and support they will bloom to become beautiful orchids, but if they have bad childhoods they will be completely screwed up. The other allele will do moderately well regardless. (T;T) is orchid, (C;C) is moderately fine no matter what. There are rumors going around that 23andMe screwed this one up and nearly everybody is listed as (C;C)."

For my mother and myself, 23andMe did not report on this one.

"rs1800955 is in DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene. It's overhyped media name is The Adventure Gene, and supposedly one allele means you’re much more attracted to novelty and adventure. And by “novelty and adventure”, they mean lots and lots of recreational drugs. This one has survived a meta-analytic review. (T;T) is normal, (C;C) is slightly more novelty seeking and prone to drug addiction."

I was not genotyped at this location and my mother, Beryl Seel was (C;T) which made her a little bit adventurous with lots of use of recreational sherry.

"rs2760118, in a gene producing an obscure enzyme called succinate semialdehyde dehydrogenase, is a nice polymorphism to have. According to this article, it makes you smarter and can be associated with up to fifteen years longer life (warning: impressive result means almost certain failure to replicate). (C;C) or (C;T) means you’re smarter and can expect to live longer; (T;T) better start looking at coffins sooner rather than later."

I'm (T;T) and my mother, Beryl Seel was (C;T) which makes me resigned to an early grave. She lived to 92.

"rs6311 is not going to let me blame the media for its particular form of hype. The official published scientific paper on it is called “The Secret Ingredient for Social Success of Young Males: A Functional Polymorphism in the 5HT2A Serotonin Receptor Gene”.

"Boys with (A;A) are less popular than those with (G;G), with (A;G) in between – the effect seems to be partly mediated by rule-breaking behavior, aggression, and number of female friends. Now it kind of looks to me like they’re just taking proxies for popularity here, but maybe that’s just what an (A;A) nerd like me would say. Anyway, at least I have some compensation – the popular (G;G) guys are 3.6x more likely to experience sexual side effects when taking SSRI antidepressants."

I'm (G;G) and my mother, Beryl Seel was (G;A) which makes me out to be some kind of bad boy!? I must remember to keep off those SSRI tablets.

"rs6265, known as Val66Met to its friends, is part of the important depression-linked BDNF system. It’s a bit depressing itself, in that it is linked to an ability not to become depressed when subjected to “persistent social defeat”. The majority of whites have (G;G) – the minority with (A;A) or (A;G) are harder to depress, but more introverted and worse at motor skills."

I predicted I would be (A;A) based on poor motor skills and in fact I'm (A;G). My mother, Beryl Seel was the normal (G;G) which is consistent with her not-bad motor skills (except at driving).

"rs41310927 is so cutting-edge it’s not even in SNPedia yet. But these people noticed that a certain version was heavily selected for in certain ethnic groups, especially Chinese, and tried to figure out what those ethnic groups had in common.

"The answer they came up with was “tonal languages”, so they tested to see if the gene improved ability to detect tones, and sure enough they claimed that in experiments people with a certain allele were better able to distinguish and understand them. Usual caveats apply, but if you want to believe, (G;G) is highest ability to differentiate tones, (A;A) is lowest ability to differentiate tones. (A;G) is in between.

Sure enough, I’m (A;A). All you people who tried to teach me Chinese tonology, I FRICKIN’ TOLD YOU ALL OF THE WORDS YOU WERE TELLING ME SOUNDED ALIKE."

Both of us test (A;G) so I'm sure we would have struggled with Mandarin, a daily requirement in Bristol.
So, just to reiterate, if you have a 23andMe account, click on the rs... links and see how you scored.


* If you care, I don't share his worries about the existential threat of the 'new AI'.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Linking a SNP (rs1234567) to your own 23andMe variant

You read about a new genetic discovery - some allele has some effect - and you wonder about yourself. Your genome (or at least the subset they sequenced) is catalogued in the 23andMe database and some sites let you check your own allele variant (SNP - 'snip') in just one click. How do they do that?

They use a link like this.
Gene variants for schizophrenia are just in the news. Now in the current report the relevant risk factor is number of copies of the C4 gene, something which is not assessed by 23andMe at present. But SNPs do have some predictive power for schizophrenia and other mental conditions - for example this (at Genetic Lifehacks):
rs4570625T is the minor allele and has been studied in reference to a number of psychiatric conditions. A recent study found that those carrying the T allele were more susceptible to major depression even when not exposed to “high-negative life events”.  A Chinese study in 2014 found that those with the T allele were more susceptible to paranoid schizophrenia.
When you click on the rs4570625 link above, you're taken to the 23andMe login page. After logging in, this is what you see (click on image to make larger):

I seem to be OK as regards that particular allele (one SNP is not going to make that much difference in what is a polygenic condition) - here's what SNPedia has to say about rs4570625 (for what it's worth).

Incidentally, I'm GG and my mother was GT. What can we say about my father? Well, I received one of those Gs from my mother, so I must have got the other from my father, so he was either GG or GT. Now, I didn't actually need my mother's sequence to deduce my father's options, but knowing she was GT means that the odds favour my father being GG.


In case you're wondering: what's with these rs1234567 things ...?
"A reference SNP ID number, or “rs” ID, is an identification tag assigned by NCBI to a group (or cluster) of SNPs that map to an identical location."

Thursday, January 28, 2016


A year ago I promised myself that I would continue chipping away at decoherence. During the last couple of days I reviewed "Demystifying decoherence and the master equation of quantum Brownian motion" by John King Gamble and John F. Lindner .. and I finally get the drift. My February resolution is to take up pen and paper and work through the details seriously rather than just superficially reading around it.

This is how Gamble and Lindner introduce their paper:
"The details of decoherence theory are sufficiently complicated to discourage students and physicists from other fields to pursue a basic understanding of decoherence. The available literature is aimed at an advanced audience and contains significant gaps for most physicists.

"In this paper we attempt to rectify this situation by making the underlying concepts associated with decoherence accessible to a more general audience. We begin in Sec. II by introducing the concept of a state operator, an object of central importance to quantum decoherence theory, through a simple example first developed by Bernstein. We consider a rudimentary universe consisting of quantum particles and an “environment” randomized by a roulette wheel, and show that this randomization leads to diagonalization of the state operator and the emergence of classical behavior."
Now that I have immersed myself in outer products, projection operators, density matrices and expected values, the wood is finally emerging from the trees.


My other resolution for February is to revisit "The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?" by Nick Lane. Universally acclaimed as groundbreaking and brilliant (which it is), this book is not an easy read and has defied concise summarization.

Nick Lane explains how the first cell might have got going from inorganic precursors. This involves a detailed review of the most elementary mechanisms of cellular operation: membrane metabolism, protein synthesis, bioenergetics and cell-replication. In computer terms, it's like microprocessor analysis at the sub-gate level.

I am determined to internalise it sufficiently to write a proper review.


Clare and myself walked to Wookey Hole this morning under bright sunshine and a pure blue sky, accompanied by a chilly wind. On arrival at an empty Wookey Hole Inn we asked for hot chocolate. In my case this is always more in hope than expectation: the drink almost invariably arrives lukewarm.

And so it was to be. The young woman who made the drinks was interesting: Barbie looks - very slim; tight trousers with tucked-in top; an over-made-up, rather pinched face. She made an art form of failing to meet my eye, studiously talking in a peremptory fashion to points adjacent to my head. I said to Clare afterwards, "I doubt she'll last."


The Amazon elves have done their work and a big parcel arrived this morning. After the Xylitol chewing gum, perhaps the smallest entity in the box was this.

Julian Barnes' new novel recounts how Shostakovich survived Stalin (review). The book is for Clare, who studied the composer during her OU arts unit.

By far the heaviest constituent was the package of six large jars of sauerkraut you see above. I had watched one of those cute medical programmes featuring that doctor who is a twin and who has that beard and who tries stuff out .. and sauerkraut is apparently a superfood for your gut biome. Well, we here just love our gut biomes and so I decided they needed a treat.

I am waiting for Clare's smile of delight once she gets in from the garden and has had a chance to absorb (sic) this addition to our already rather over-stuffed pantry. A side-dish of sauerkraut, anybody?


This Zika virus never used to be so bad; it might have mutated. I was all doom and gloom over Ebola and yet, thankfully, the epidemic burned itself out before it hit Europe. Let's hope we get lucky again.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Inquisition and Galileo (redux)

1633 – Galileo Galilei arrives in Rome for trial before the Inquisition

Just a couple of depressing stories for you today.

Professor Jonathan Anomaly (from Duke University) writes: (h/t Razib Khan)
"In the first half of the twentieth century, many public intellectuals made odious claims about the moral or intellectual superiority of men over women and of some races over others. Those claims—which were often couched in pseudo-scientific jargon—helped justify colonialism, discriminatory laws, and even the Holocaust (though the primary group targeted in the Holocaust, Ashkenazi Jews, were killed because of their “domination” of the sciences, medicine, and business, not because of their intellectual inferiority).

"As the twentieth century made clear, beliefs have consequences. So after the Second World War, many academics had an understandable fear of allowing themselves (or others) to believe that different groups have different average abilities or aptitudes.

"Although the fear is easy to explain, and in some cases justifiable, it has led to a widely shared and religiously held dogma in academic circles: that people are, in all relevant ways, biologically identical. Those who deny this dogma should be “educated” about their implicit biases, and made to recant their views, regardless of the evidence.

"After reading some recent work on the biology of group differences last summer, it occurred to me that as an ethics professor, I should write something about the moral upshot: if there are such differences, what are the consequences for how we should treat one another? Should we support policies that attempt to equalize opportunities only if they produce equal outcomes?

"My conclusion was modest: if there are biological differences between groups, and if, as Lee Jussim has argued, some stereotypes turn out to be accurate in part because of correct generalizations about biological differences, these facts should not undermine our commitment to treating one another as moral equals, or to increasing opportunity for all, regardless of group membership.

"But I had committed a sin in the eyes of the two referees who read and commented on my paper. I simply acknowledged the possibility of group differences while arguing that whether or not they exist, they should not matter. For having done that, the two journal referees used expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered. (Needless to say, the paper was not accepted for publication after such hostile comments.) "
Well, one swallow doth not a summer make .. but wait, what's this (from Henry Harpending)?
"Over a year ago Mike Weight (an undergraduate) and I posted a draft of a manuscript about using quantitative genetic theory to evaluate changes over time in traits. We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission. Many readers of our blog made helpful comments and, to our shame, found a large number of typos.  I shudder when I reread that old post.  It was written shortly after I had my temporal lobe bleed and the whole part of my brain that was capable of proofreading seems to have been knocked out.

"We thought we should submit it somewhere where social scientists would read it.  We got back, from a succession of three journals, a stunning set of ignorant and irrelevant reviews.  For example the first sentence of the first one we read said “this is really about race and it ought to be made clear”.  Another said “they are trying to push genetics where it has no place”.  The tone of all of them was like this, angry and scornful.  One reviewer told us that our views were outdated and discredited since epigenetics had swept the field!

"We had two and one half mildly sensible reviews, one about technical aspects of quantitative genetic theory and another by a reviewer unhappy with the level of detail and statistical aspects of the treatment of Amish test results.  Since we regarded the Amish data as a toy set of data, we made no changes. The other reviewers were all hostile and angry at what we had written, several convinced that the paper must be racist but they didn’t quite understand how or why.  We could only laugh at the collection of reviews because none of them had any idea what they were talking about.  None  made it so far as to read and understand the central point of the paper.  With the exceptions mentioned above, they were pig ignorant and proud of it."
I remember watching the Brecht play, the Life of Galileo:
"The Inquisitor represents the geocentric view of the church authorities: “They (the laity) have been assured that God’s eye is always on them – probingly, even anxiously – that the whole drama of the world is constructed around them so that they, the performers, may prove themselves in their greater or lesser roles. What would my people say if I told them they happen to be on a small knob of stone twisting endlessly through the void round a second-rate star?.. I can see how betrayed and deceived they will feel. so nobody’s eye is on us, they’ll say.”

"The authorities  are annoyed that Galileo writes his theories of astronomy in the “idiom of fishwives and merchants”.  They believe that if the peasants start talking about the “phases of Venus” they may even start to question the work of God.  They may not see God as responsible for all miracles. Their world view could change. “Have we got to look after ourselves, old, uneducated, and worn out as we are? Our poverty has no meaning: hunger is no trial of strength, it’s merely not having eaten: effort is no virtue, it’s just bending and carrying”.

"Ludovico explains the perspective of the landowners and farmers. They do not want the peasants talking about the change to the universe. They believe that it would disrupt their livelihood and the status quo. ..."
A commentator Dale wrote the following about Harpending and Weight's experience:
"My observation is that a sudden flash of incoherent rage in your interlocutor is a sign that you’ve violated a taboo. The wise person tries to discern exactly what the taboo is.

"You write, “We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission.” But of course that violates the anti-racist taboo because it considers possible that there is a cultural trait in humans that is genetically transmitted. And the core principle of anti-racism is to deny anything that has ever been used by racists in their arguments.

"The significance of all this requires analysis that has not yet been done. Of course, the human brain is an organ for survival and reproduction, not for discerning the truth, and in reality, academic disciplines are at best devices for the propagation of the cultures that nurture them, not for the discernment of the truth per se. With physics, discerning the facts helps our culture prosper (and out-compete others) by enlarging practical technologies … but also, our culture has gone through a lot of agonizing adjustments so that its activities aren’t discomfited by inconvenient physical facts. A few hundred years ago, those adjustments hadn’t been made and physics inquiry could threaten the social order.

"The social sciences are worse off. Partly because discovered facts can be used directly to argue for political positions, and those arguments may be directly harmful to our culture’s competitiveness by messing up the agreements, compromises, and distributions of power that make the culture run smoothly. And partly because the practical technology to be obtained from social science fact seems to be fairly limited."
It's been forty years since E. O. Wilson's "Sociobiology" proposed the reconstruction of social science on biological/Darwinian foundations. The social-sciences have since maintained their invincible, fortress-like ignorance .. but that could be about to change.

As Dale perceptively observed, it's technologies that make ideas matter in the real world, create options for societies to advance and remake the social-order.

Genomics and genetic engineering are the technologies that will empower the future Biotech Galileans against the Inquisition.

Let's hope they're more successful.

No more radar lock-on

The road from Wells to Dorchester undulates through rolling countryside and the occasional village. The speed limit flicks irregularly from 30 to 40 to 50 to 60 and back again. I might have been doing 35 through a 30 mile per hour zone when Clare said worryingly, "You just passed a speed camera."

Do they still flash? Was this one of the ones they turned off to save money (but they make money, don't they)?

How does anyone drive around in the UK today without rapidly incurring 12 points and losing their licence (not to mention c. £400 in fines)? After my recent problem (Speed Awareness Course next week) I am determined not to go down that route .. and as always, I look to technology to help me out.

Most camera detectors have very mixed reviews: many seem to break (yes, as in stop working), to not actually detect the cameras (although they seem to do a good job on supermarket automatic doors), or to require complex configuration. This one seemed the best of the bunch.

Aguri Skyway GPS/radar/laser speed trap detector

It's not cheap, but saving one speeding ticket basically pays for it. It's legal in the UK to use a device which directly detects the radar (or laser light) from a speed camera, as well as using a camera GPS location database. People complain that it's a charter for speeding idiots, but I doubt that. Impulsive risk-takers are unlikely to be conscientious enough to go to the trouble of acquiring and regularly using such a detector - they'll be more than outweighed by the rest of us who just need regular hints to be more cautious against these modern automated predators.

I'll let you know how it performs once it arrives.

If I can get it to work.


Update: Wednesday 27th January 2016. The Aguri Skyway arrived promptly this morning and it's now in the car as shown. Handy that I have a cigar socket doubler.

The Aguri Radar Detector joins the Sat Nav - click on image to make larger

It was not immediately obvious how to attach it to the windscreen - I was googling images to find an example - and configuration is as hard as it always is with multi-mode push buttons.

My advice to Aguri, as to all other vendors of small, configurable electronic devices, would be to add a configuration tool - basically an e-form - to be used when the device is plugged into the PC. It would make all the difference.

I did manage to update the speed camera database. The documentation said that this was unnecessary as the device ships up-to-date but (a) I never believe that, and (b) I wanted to know how it worked.

Whether the device works in the real world I have yet to find out. I guess I'll be doing a drive soon enough which takes me past a speed camera.


Update: (April 22nd 2016)

Yes, it works well. It picks up the radar from traffic cameras (and garage/supermarket automatic doors) and its database of speed cameras is useful. It's in regular use.


Update: (May 3rd 2016)

I received an email query from "Ann" and responded as follows.
Hi Ann,

Thanks for your note. Here are some answers,

I have recently had 2 speeding tickets - arrgh!! & would like a device to warn me when I forget or I'm chatting?  

"I have been using it for a while now and it's very useful.

"The built-in camera database warns about speed cameras, usually a verbal warning of the relevant speed limit.

"Most roadside cameras emit "K-band radar" and a polite female voice announces this, also with bleeping. Unfortunately, so do automatic doors at supermarkets and garages, so it's an annoyance you just have to put up with.

"Laser (lidar) is announced with a voice warning and a different tone - I've only had this once."

I would appreciate hearing your view as to its suitability for an older person.  I can use a computer IPad & mobile phone but find more complex things difficult. (Maybe upgrading would be problematic for me?)

"Like most things, it's a bit fiddly when it first arrives. You have to read the documentation carefully. But its default settings don't really have to be altered.

"There's a volume control on the side which is essential to avoid being deafened!

"The two rubber suction pads go on the windscreen and the metal tab is bent around so that the device doesn't slide off. The narrow end with the display faces the driver. The device is powered from a cable leading to the cigar-lighter socket. Worth buying a socket doubler if this is already used, for example for the sat nav.

"So yes, not a gimmick, a very useful tool if you basically drive at the speed limit but occasionally stray a little too fast. It should slow you down again and avoid those three points and a fine."



Monday, January 25, 2016

Visiting Durnovaria

A quick visit to Durnovaria (aka Casterbridge - modern Dorchester) by way of Sherborne. While the latter is well-heeled and full of mediaeval sandstone wonders, Dorchester has been painfully 'modernised'. Not to say that there aren't plenty of Roman relics scattered around the town.

The signposting is erratic. Trying to find the Roman Town House I was initially super-impressed by Google's ability to map a four minute walk from where we happened to be standing. Yet on arrival, the Town House was nowhere to be seen: it took a local to direct us to the entrance three hundred metres away.

The problem is that the Roman remains are off the road, just behind the Council Buildings. Google has the GPS for the ruins plus the street map; what it doesn't know is where the entrance is. It's a small but decisive failure at this release.

Just around the corner from our hotel was the ancient neolithic henge of Maumbury Rings, subsequently repurposed by the Romans. I tend to be underwhelmed by amphitheatres as they all look the same (pictured below); it's hard to imagine the ancient blood and gore. I anxiously await the first tourist release of Google Glass with augmented reality so I can enjoy the same authentic spectacle as a civis romanus in good standing.

We arrive (eventually) at the Roman Town House

Most of the rooms have mosaic flooring

Clare at the Roman Town House

The Amphitheatre (Maumbury Rings) at Dorchester

Sherborne Abbey
Trivia: Sherborne School, next to the Abbey, boasts as old boys Alan Turing, Jeremy Irons, Chris Martin and John le Carré.

The proximate reason for our visit was to view the Tutankhamun Exhibition, lavishly endowed with precision replicas of artefacts and mummies from the fabled tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Always good to see a God-King from an archaic state, but no photos allowed, I'm afraid.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Occupying the Embassy

The Chilean Embassy in London

In the early 1970s, the International Marxist Group had a serious crush on our cousins across the channel, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (French Section of the Fourth International). Initially just another French groupuscule, the Ligue had surfed les événements de mai 1968 to become a formidable Trotskyist force in left-wing politics, with perhaps 10,000 members.

The IMG had around 450.

The Ligue did serious stuff. It allegedly smuggled guns to the FLN in Algeria and occupied Embassies. Wanting a piece of the action, the IMG restructured its prosaic demo stewarding organisation to form the ‘Red Defence Force’ (RDF), and I was asked to head it.

Soon afterwards I'm enjoying a pint in a pub at King’s Cross, near the IMG headquarters in Pentonville Road. What's that I hear? It's the veteran working-class activist and IMG leader Bob Pennington referring to me derisively as the IMG’s Che Guevara.

In an uncharacteristic moment of moral courage I walk across to his table and confront him:
“It was the IMG leadership’s idea to set up the RDF, not mine. If you think it’s so stupid, take it up with them, not me.”
I like to think that’s when he first took a shine to me.


In 1973 the Chilean military overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende, which was then in the process of wrecking the Chilean economy. What was probably in hindsight the least bad option was nevertheless a messy and thoroughly cruel and repressive event. Naturally the IMG was signed up to all the London demonstrations against the Chilean coup.

So we have this enormous demo coming up on Chile, and an IMG leader takes me aside (was it Peter Gowan? I think it might have been) and tells me it has been decided we should occupy the Chilean Embassy on the morning of the demonstration. The demo will pass the Embassy and the IMG contingent will break through the police cordon and rescue us.

I have never heard of a more unlikely proposal in all my life: the police are quite used to our demos and we never manage to break their cordons.

Nevertheless, I have my instructions. Clearly someone has to reconnoitre the Embassy, to plan our incursion, and that person has to be me. At this time I'm a teacher-training student at Furzedown College in south-west London. I therefore concoct a story that I'm doing a project on education in Latin America, and specifically Chile. I call the Embassy and make an appointment.

I turn up - dishevelled clothes and long hair - and a security-goon escorts me up wide curving stairs into the sumptuous office of the junta's cultural attaché. We discuss Chilean secondary education, and somehow in the conversation it comes up that the whole Embassy is Chilean territory, that the guards possess guns and that they're authorised to use them.

I file this useful information away.

On the Saturday I brief my RDF team, carefully explaining about the guns, and we arrange to meet at a location about half a mile away from the Embassy at 8.30 the following morning. We all experience a rather troubled night’s sleep.

Sunday morning arrives, as it is wont to do, and I turn up a little early to check out the Embassy. I don’t get too close, just stroll in its general direction from the tube station until I have it in view. To my gathering unease there are way too many vans of the Special Patrol Group cruising the otherwise deserted streets while a large body of burly policemen block the Embassy entrance.

Returning to the rendezvous point, I gather my team together and tell them the operation is cancelled as we have no chance of getting in. We retire to the students union at UCL to debrief. I share my opinion that the police must have been forewarned about our mission; probably by an informer. Strangely, no-one seems that disappointed. I say that with one exception: when I inform Peter Gowan later that morning, he clearly expresses his view that I have messed up big-time.

We join the rest of the IMG contingent for the demo that afternoon. As we approach the Chilean Embassy we see phalanxes of police and mounted officers guarding it. Not in a million years would the IMG have got through that.

So I save the bacon of my fellow RDF comrades and myself - at the cost of showing yet again that we can't play in the league of the Ligue.


I once said to a senior comrade, “I don’t understand why they put me in charge of the RDF. I have no combat skills and I’m not at all aggressive. In fact I’m much more of a thinker than a doer.” The comrade smiled and replied, “Did you ever consider that that might actually have been the reason?”

The RDF didn't last long and performed adequately in its comfort zone of marshalling street processions and the odd agitprop street theatre. No more direct confrontations with the forces of the state!


IMG-related: A Mission to Prague and Red Lion Square.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Those loveable pop veterans

Bono (and some politician) at Davos

Rod Liddle writes:
"I was desperately worried that you hadn’t read or heard enough platitudinous drivel about David Bowie — and therefore felt compelled to weigh in with my own observations. In all honesty I haven’t heard so much repetitive, imbecilic guff since Mandela shuffled off this mortal coil. It was even worse than the confected sobfest that greeted the passing of the charming and likeable Lou Reed."
Yes, if ever there was a man who made a career out of being a nasty piece of work, it was Lou Reed.

Liddle then correctly observes that the key thing was that Bowie wrote and performed some memorable songs, but let's move on to his views on some other musicians.
"Paul McCartney. The rock press always adored John Lennon and rather despised McCartney. But favourite Beatles songs are almost all by McCartney. Lennon was loved for his supposed ‘edge’, for his fatuous political convictions (the attendant hypocrisy forgotten). McCartney just carried on writing tunes which had about them a sophistication and vast melodic range.

"Compare the melodies of two songs which, initially, have a similar chord sequence: ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, by McCartney and ‘Woman’, by Lennon. McCartney’s soars all over the place and then, just for fun, changes key — twice. Lennon’s sticks doggedly to the base note of every chord."
I was never a fan of Lennon, whose persona seemed to be mostly juvenile bully, leavened by a large sprig of self-righteousness, But McCartney is equally hard to love, with his platitudinous petit-bourgeois sensibilities. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out that calling your 2013 album 'Kisses on the Bottom'* underscores your toe-curling 'down-with-the-kids' insecurities.

Yeah, yeah, yeah; it's hard to love these ageing, narcissistic, preening pop veterans.

Luckily, we have their music.


* Yes, I know the reference and no, it's no excuse.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The idiot gatekeeper and why we can't do better

I had to call the Inland Revenue (HMRC) this morning. After the automated intro you connect to a speech-recognition system which asks you why you are calling:
"Tell me in a few words what you are calling about."
Naturally it's both useless and annoying. It recognises speech at the level of individual keywords and can't handle any conceptual complexity. Many of the pre-programmed responses tell you to check a website or call some other number - at which point it hangs up. It's very unwilling to let you talk to a human being.

After three calls and being disconnected each time, I found the right series of lies to allow this idiot-gatekeeper to connect me to a human being. At which point I was able to transact some complications in the management of the tax on my late mother's estate.

Why is it so hard?

When we speak a meaningful sentence, it's not hard to create a useful knowledge representation of what was said - AI researchers have known how to parse sentences and create meaning-structures such as semantic nets for ages.  'Understanding' means doing something appropriate with the resulting semantic net - either use logical connections to derive consequences, or load associated semantic nets for things like problem reframing or context management.

"How much tax do I owe?"
could be translated into this semantic net:
[Parameter(caller)] - owes - [Variable(tax-amount)]
along with a processing script which says something like:
1. Identify 'caller' and add this information to the query semantic net.
2. Add in missing contextual information, eg an implicit 'for the previous tax year'.
3. Compute the variable 'tax-amount'.
4. Compute a semantic net like this:

   [Parameter(caller)] - owes - [Parameter(tax)] - for - [Parameter(prev-tax-year)]

5. Construct an English language version of the above and play it to the caller.
Developing the 'scripts', which encompass a bunch of stuff like inference, abduction, induction, conversation rules, pragmatics, ..., is harder than the knowledge representation and database loading.

Still, like I said, question-answering systems have been able to do something like this in toy domains for decades, so why can't the HMRC get it right?

If you listened to transcripts of what people actually say when they call the tax authorities you would wonder how trained people ever get it right: the confusions, mis-steps, misunderstandings; the clarificatory questions needed to get an intelligible query out of the caller, the open-endedness of the topics which prompted the call ... .

After knowledge engineers spent thousands of hours trying to hand-craft ever-increasing databases of semantic nets (or their equivalents) capturing all the everyday world issues underlying lay-people's queries, it eventually became clear that the task never ends and that it's all way too expensive.


In case you think that the idiot-savant 'new AI' of neural net 'deep learning' is going to:

  • solve the world's problems 
  • steer the Google car
  • answer all our tax queries 

I refer you to the current MIT Technology Review, where we see the superficial strengths and deep structural weaknesses of contemporary learning and statistical methods as applied to human speech ("How an AI Algorithm Learned to Write Political Speeches").
"Valentin Kassarnig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, .. has created an artificial intelligence machine that has learned how to write political speeches that are remarkably similar to real speeches.

"The approach is straightforward in principle. Kassarnig used a database of almost 4,000 political speech segments from 53 U.S. Congressional floor debates to train a machine-learning algorithm to produce speeches of its own.

"These speeches consist of over 50,000 sentences each containing 23 words on average. Kassarnig also categorized the speeches by political party, whether Democrat or Republican, and by whether it was in favor or against a given topic.

"Of course, the devil is in the details of how to analyze this database. Having tried a number of techniques, Kassarnig settled on an approach based on n-grams, sequences of “n” words or phrases. He first analyzed the text using a parts-of-speech approach that tags each word or phrase with its grammatical role (whether a noun, verb, adjective, and so on).

"He then looked at 6-grams and the probability of a word or phrase appearing given the five that appear before it. “That allows us to determine very quickly all words which can occur after the previous five ones and how likely each of them is,” he says.

"The process of generating speeches automatically follows from this. Kassarnig begins by telling the algorithm what type of speech it is supposed to write—whether for Democrats or Republicans. The algorithm then explore the 6-gram database for that category to find the entire set of 5-grams that have been used to start one of these speeches.

"The algorithm then chooses one of these 5-grams at random to start its speech. It then chooses the next word from all those that can follow this 5-gram. “Then the system starts to predict word after word until it predicts the end of the speech,” he says."
Here's a sample (as boring and content-free as you would expect).
Mr. Speaker, for years, honest but unfortunate consumers have had the ability to plead their case to come under bankruptcy protection and have their reasonable and valid debts discharged. The way the system is supposed to work, the bankruptcy court evaluates various factors including income, assets and debt to determine what debts can be paid and how consumers can get back on their feet. Stand up for growth and opportunity. Pass this legislation.
Only good for filibusters, I would think.

Please don't anyone tell the HMRC.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Patrick Lee's 'Breach' Trilogy

Why write a breathless fan review of Patrick Lee's amazing trilogy when Andrew Salmon has already done it for you?
"In these days of over-hyped, over-marketed, multi-volume mega-series, it's hard to find a series of novels that truly justifies their existence. It's all about branding and stretching stories out to 1000s of pages for purely economic reasons is, sadly, the norm these days.

"Patrick Lee's incredible Breach trilogy is the exception to the rule.

"In three of the best edge-of-your-seat thrill rides this reader has ever had the pleasure to read, Lee gives us a New Pulp trilogy for the ages. The novels are The Breach, Ghost Country and Deep Sky and all three are lean, mean, thrill machines you do not want to miss.

"But enough hype. What is this rollicking trilogy about?

"In the first novel, The Breach, we are introduced to ex-con, ex-cop Travis Chase who is seeking to escape his past and find solace in the frozen, isolated wastes of Alaska as he tries to decide what to do with the rest of his life. That answer comes unexpectedly when he stumbles upon a unmarked 747 that crashed in the frozen wasteland just days before. To his surprise, no one has reached the wreck despite clear weather and the proximity of the crash to the nearest town.

"Added to this mystery is the discovery that the survivors of the crash have been tortured and killed, including the First Lady who has left a note providing the location of the torturers but also desperate instructions for whoever finds it to kill not only the torturers but also the two remaining surviving passengers. Chase heads to the scene but instead tries to rescue the two prisoners, a man and a woman. In a great action sequence, he fails to save the man but manages to save the woman who is critically injured during the battle.

"The woman, Paige Campbell, it turns out, is an agent of Tangent. Their goal is a simple one. They are trying to save the world. Not from a terrorist plot, or from some unseen enemy representing a shadowy, potential threat to the US or democracy. No, they are literally, trying to save mankind from ultimate destruction.

"Destruction by whom? Ah-ah. That would be telling. But I will tell you this: Tangent agents are trusted to guard, examine and study, The Breach, which is a form of wormhole that resulted when a particle collider was tested back in 1978. Since that time, items have been appearing on our side of the breach, items sometimes mundane, often unfathomable, and often deadly dangerous with strange properties and powers. Are they from the future? Another dimension? Are they the prelude to alien invasion? No one knows. Called Breach Entities, the good guys need to keep these items away from the bad guys.

"That's the set up and I'll leave the first novel here so as not to spoil the action. And there is a ton of great action in this first installment despite the novel being somewhat hampered by the need to introduce the above premise.

"The action picks up in the next novel, Ghost Country, which is the biggest and boldest entry in the trilogy. This one kicks off with the President's motorcade being taken out. Now such a sequence would normally be the climax of a great action tale but here Lee begins the tale with this breath-taking action. And it's an indication of the action that is to come.

"Paige Campbell, with mere seconds before capture, must get a message to Chase telling him to retrieve a Breach Entity similar to the one lost in the destroyed motorcade. Chase, who has left Tangent and Campbell for compelling reasons set down in the first novel, has no choice but to re-involve himself with Tangent and the Breach and sets out to find this second artifact.

"This device turns out to be a means for the user to jump ahead 73 years into the future - a future where mankind has been wiped out by a Breach entity. To reveal more would be to spoil the biggest, boldest, grandest entry in the series.

"Put simply, once you pick up Ghost Country you will not put it down. It is filled with trips through time, government conspiracies, action galore, heroism and sacrifice and enough left over to set up the third and final novel.

"Deep Sky is much smaller in scale and tone although the main mystery remains intact and there is still tons of action. Reading it after Ghost Country, however, may seem like something of a letdown because of this scaling back and, really, there is only one thing that can elevate the work: and that's the revealing of what the Breach is while wrapping up the various plot threads. The world is still ticking down to destruction and here the baddies are taking out anyone associated with the Breach and this is all compelling stuff.

"But it's the secret of the Breach that will either make or break the book after the compelling first novel and the exemplary Ghost Country. I, too, was somewhat taken aback by the approach in Deep Sky. Don't get me wrong, as a standalone work, it is an action thrill-ride but after Country the action paled somewhat even though I was still feverishly turning pages.

"This brings us to the secret of the Breach itself. No, I'm not telling. It would be a crime to spoil the fun for readers. Here Lee is faced with the problem of all mystery-driven fare: how to come up with an explanation that will wow readers who have had the time, over the course of the previous two novels, to theorize and come up with their own explanation for the ultimate secret. Obviously it is impossible to satisfy every reader in this situation.

"As for this reader, no stranger to this type of story, the reveal blew my mind. I never, in a million years, saw it coming and it truly surprised me. All in a good way. That said, and for the reasons stated above, your mileage may vary when Lee draws back the curtain. All I can say is that it worked for me and I was left in awe after reading the last page. Needless to say I've got an eye out for the next Patrick Lee book. The Breach trilogy is simply brilliant."
So I'm good with all that. One reviewer commented that 'Travis Chase' was a terrible name for an action hero; I'm not so sure, Chase is a kind of everyman hero (for values of everyman which include the ability to kill bad guys repeatedly without the slightest trace of remorse).

After a while you 'get' Patrick Lee's style. Like A. E. van Vogt, he sets up crises and cliffhangers every few thousand words; as Andrew Salmon intimated, the resolution is invariably unpredicted by the reader and takes the plot to a new place. But given the small cast of central characters, with which one is somewhat over-familiar by the end of volume 2, there is a sense of disengagement as one approaches the final volume. This crisis-fatigue is obliterated by an astounding plot-twist about halfway through (you will not see it coming!) which then locks the reader into a page-turning frenzy to the very last words.

Mr Lee's science extrapolations are pretty extreme, but never quite tip the book into fantasy. Like Mr Salmon, I'd have to say that this is the best pulp-fiction I've read for ages.

Feminist note (based on a sample of one): I think volumes 1 and 2 would work for non-SF female readers, although they may note the occasional data dump which slows the action, and the way in which the women (Paige Campbell and later Bethany Stewart) occupy subordinate roles to a much less educated and prepared Travis Chase.

I suspect volume 3, however,with its more science-fictional plot, may be just a step too far*.


* Unless, my sister suggests, Patrick Lee arranges for it to be shipped in a pink cover.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"A most inconvenient sitting room"

In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh observes (in conversation with Mrs Bennet at the Bennet's home):
"This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening, in summer; the windows are full west.''
I reflected on this as I basked in the sun this morning: the room was warm and the sitting room comfortable; in my mind it was late spring with light from an Italianate landscape streaming through the windows; the Mendips as the Tuscan hills.

It is possible to be on holiday at home.

We don't find it inconvenient at all.


[In other good news, the cat seems to be happy and the dentist fixed my broken filling].

Pretty in Pink?

Today The Times leads with: "Women charged more on ‘sexist’ high street" (yes, it's a slow news day).

Levi’s 501 jeans for women are ~46 per cent more expensive than men’s
"High street stores are charging women up to twice as much as men for practically identical products, an investigation by The Times has found.

"The cost of clothes, beauty products and toys for women and girls is higher than equivalent items marketed at men and boys, according to an analysis of hundreds of products. The “sexist” prices can be found at many of Britain’s biggest retailers, including Tesco, Boots and Amazon. In one case Tesco charges double the price for ten disposable razors simply because they are pink.

"At Argos, identical children’s scooters are £5 more expensive in pink than in blue. Levi’s 501 jeans for women are on average 46 per cent more expensive than the men’s version, even if they have the same waist and leg length.

"Retail bosses face being called to parliament to justify the price gap after the chairwoman of a committee of MPs called the practice unacceptable.

"Maria Miller, who leads the women and equalities committee, said: “It is unacceptable that women face higher costs for the same products just because they are targeted at women. Retailers have got to explain why they do this. At a time when we should be moving towards a more de-gendered society, retailers are out of step with public opinion.”

"Sam Smethers, of the Fawcett Society campaign group for women’s rights, said: “This investigation is really quite shocking. What we are seeing is a sexist surcharge. We need more gender-neutral options and an end to these rip-off practices.”
"Tesco said: “We work hard to offer clear, fair and transparent pricing. A number of products for females have additional design and performance features. We continually review our pricing strategy.”

"A spokesman for Boots said: “Our products are priced individually based on factors including formulation, ingredients and market comparison.”

"Argos did not comment."
Markets, huh?

There is so much joy in this article for anyone who has a smattering of economics or marketing. I'm not one to lecture - let me just give you the headings:

As a bonus we have the gender politics, like who is the bad guy here?

Do feminists think that women should pay the same unit price for pink razors as men pay for the equally-functional blue ones? So are we talking price controls?

Or do they think that women should liberate themselves from girly-pink and simply buy blue (which would successfully subvert the retailer's market segmentation and price discrimination), (after all, no one's stopping them)?

As long as women are willing in the mass to pay extra for pink, the market will helpfully arrange to charge them more for it.

I think the answer must be to market blue as gender-neutral.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Mission to Prague

Hradčany Castle, Prague

It’s London in the early nineteen seventies. I’m 22 years old and a senior member of the International Marxist Group. I’ve been invited to an unexpected meeting with a leader of the IMG, a member of the Political Committee.

I have no idea why.

We’re a Trotskyist organisation, as opposed to the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe as to the capitalist West. It turns out that the IMG has been running a secret project with the Czech opposition in exile; ‘subversive’ books are being smuggled to groups within the country. They need volunteer drivers – would I be interested?

The IMG’s part in all this is to provide a team of two to share the driving. I’m given the impression that my co-conspirator will be the blond, vivacious Anna, so I’m pretty keen. It later transpires that I’m to be paired up with a bespectacled, public school educated comrade I'll call 'Mark'.

I reflect: what happens if the secret police catch you? How would the interrogation go? How many years would you spend in jail?

Our mission starts with a visit to a Czech dissident’s mansion in Hampstead. The émigré organisation supports several groups with different political orientations in-country. Each group has its own tailored bundle which must be delivered correctly. On no account must any of the groups get the idea that other organisations are also being supported – each apparently believes they are the unique, chosen ones.

We’re shown the white transit van we’ll be driving. The rear has two benches along the sides: the packages will be hidden in secret compartments beneath them. There are boards and mattresses to assemble beds in the back. At the border this will create additional barriers to a thorough search. We practice assembling and disassembling the back of the transit, and commit to memory which package is going to which group, the rendezvous locations, procedures and codes. A cover story for colleagues and parents is concocted, as we’ll be away for two or three weeks (hopefully!).

A few days later we’re off, driving the transit from London to a ferry port, and then along the motorways of northern Europe towards the safe house in Vienna. Only two moments of drama occur in this initial phase of the mission.

Driving at speed along a motorway in the fast lane the bonnet of the van, which hadn’t been fastened properly, suddenly flips up under the force of the airflow, blocking my view (I’m driving). I don’t panic, use the wing mirrors to steer across the lanes and stop on the hard shoulder.

The second incident is much more serious. Mark and I realise we’ve forgotten which package goes to which group – as per instructions, we never wrote anything down. We find a phone box and make a call to the Hampstead house. A man answers and has to repeat – in clear – the detailed delivery instructions. He is deeply unamused. Whatever security this mission might have had, it is surely compromised. We proceed regardless.

A day or two later, we arrive at the safe house in Vienna in the late afternoon. The plan is that we drive north to cross the Czech border shortly before dawn, just before the shift changes. The concentration of the border guards should be minimal at this time (but don’t border guards ever see through this ploy?). Both Mark and I are making frequent visits to the toilet – we’re rather ‘apprehensive’.

We leave in the small hours of the morning. Mark is driving, we have the bed down and I’m in it – more cover. It’s been decided that Mark will be the one who deals with the security police while I pretend to be asleep. I think the mission organisers are placing a lot of trust in Mark’s accent and general breeding; it may help that Mark’s public persona is that of an upper class bumbling idiot. I am not wholly aware that Mark is carrying on his person a bunch of letters which need to be posted in-country: we are not privy to their contents.

The guards do what guards do. They come out of their warm control room – it’s winter and very cold – and open up the back of the transit. I do a convincing rubbing of the eyes, stretch and yawn. They poke around and consider our story – we’re students taking a vacation, en route to Prague. Bored, they let us proceed.

Mark, back in the driving seat, tells me that he’d put the secret letters in his underpants, thinking they’d be safest there. Unfortunately, while he was being questioned by the border guards, the letters had slipped out and fallen down his trouser leg. He’d been terrified they’d fall onto the floor but somehow the top of a sock had halted their progress.

We continue through the snowy wilderness of southern Czechoslovakia. Soon we have a problem: there is something very wrong with the engine. We have to stop in a small town and in some combination of English and German find a garage. We sip at sweet black coffees while the mechanics fix the gasket or whatever. We worry about the time, mindful of our rendezvous timetable.

Once we’re on the road again, we find a quiet spot. Mark keeps watch while I disassemble the back of the van, restoring the two bench seats and contorting myself to reach into the hidden compartments to retrieve the packages. They’re placed on the floor and covered with spare bedding. From now on, even the most cursory search will find them. Finally we reach Prague, where we have been told to check into a certain hotel. We’ll be rooming together, writing notes to forestall eavesdroppers.

Our immediate assignment is to meet with a teacher who is the first group's contact. She lives in a high-rise apartment a few miles west of the centre of town. We drive out early next day, well before the working day starts. Everything goes well: we find her and deliver the goods. Then she says, “It’s getting late and I have classes. Could you give me a lift?”

Having grown up with a juvenile fascination for tradecraft, I do a double-take at this. She joins the two of us in the front of the transit and we navigate the rush-hour traffic back into town. We drop her a block away from her school, just around the corner - very casual.

The next part of the mission is more complex because we have to split up. Mark has to take a train to meet his contact in a cafe-bar at the end of the line, far out in the suburbs. At the same time, I have a brush contact with someone at Hradčany Castle which overlooks the centre of Prague. We will meet back at the hotel (everything is timed).

I drop Mark off at the station and wend my way through the dense, narrow, inner city streets to park near the castle entrance. I have studied the layout: there is a cobblestone square near the castle walls. I am to sit on a bench with the bag. There is a recognition phrase and a required response.

I sit on the bench with the bag at my feet and shiver. It’s early and the square is deserted – no sign of surveillance. I see a man, mid-thirties, bearded and dressed against the cold shuffling towards me. He stops and says “Is that it?” I nod helplessly; no one had explained what to do if the person doesn’t use the right codes. He continues, laughing dismissively, “Sure it’s the one for me, not one for the other lot?” (So much for the groups being in ignorance of each other).

Without more ado he picks up the bag and walks off. I return to the transit and drive back to the hotel, relieved that the mission is almost over. I sit alone in the hotel room. The time allocated for Mark to return comes and goes. The clock measures out the slow hours; I’m in an agony of indecision. Surely Mark has been picked up? Again, no one had told us what to do in this eventuality but surely it’s madness to just sit here, just wait for the arrival of the secret police?

At last I hear footsteps in the corridor and the door opens. I fear the worst, curse myself for being an idiot, nothing like the resourceful heroes of espionage fiction. But it’s Mark. He was held up, he says, by his contact, who wanted to drink with him and regale him with stories. He just couldn’t get away. We have seen so much atrocious security that this does not seem impossible.

So now we’re done. Next day we leave Prague and eventually cross the western border into Germany. Mark turns to me and says something which strikes me as odd: “What a relief to be back in bourgeois democracy.”


In the decades since, I have had several thoughts.

I was, of course, sorry that I hadn’t been partnered with Anna (she tragically died in 2006).

I took so much on trust in my naiveté: were those packages really full of books, and books alone, as we were so convincingly told?

I was never sure about Mark: so many of his actions make just a little more sense if he was, in fact, working for MI5.

I guess I’ll never know.


IMG-related: Occupying the Embassy and Red Lion Square.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Cat Organ (kitsch)

From my sister, an intrepid explorer of the farthest dimensions of kitsch.

My emotions when I played this video? Introspection was limited as Clare and myself were rolling around on the sofa, tears of laughter in our eyes.


This chilly, frosty morning - a visitor

Friday, January 15, 2016


Apologies if you commented and it never appeared on this site. Due to a blitz of spam comments I had the filters set pretty high. I've now arranged you have to show some id to post a comment (and do that irritating word thing - sorry) but moderation notifications no longer end up by default in my spam folder. Thanks for your patience.

Surveillance Escrow - a new business opportunity

Here's a true story.
We're in the boy's toilets of a primary school. A kid has dropped a toilet roll into the pan and pulled the flush - what a lark! Somehow, the whole bathroom has flooded, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. The headteacher is incandescent, the miscreant can't be identified and so a new rule is introduced. All toilet rolls are removed: if a child wishes to use the toilet, they have to come first to the headteacher's room where they will be issued with the requisite strips of paper.
What a disaster.

The problem here is that there is no supervision. Cameras can't be put into the toilet facility because of the potential for abuse - you can see the 'paedophile' headlines right now. But there is a solution - surveillance escrow.

Put the cameras in to supervise the toilets and connect them, via a broadband link, to a remote server controlled by a third-party - let's say Surveillance Escrow Services (SES). There the imagery is encrypted and archived, but no-one looks.

If there is a problem, suitably-accredited individuals (not the school staff) decrypt and review footage to determine what actually occurred and execute the agreed procedures vis-a-vis reporting back to the client (this has been discussed in a similar scenario here).

A variant approach, similar to the way Google treats Gmail: AI systems review the sensor feeds (which might be video, image, audio, textual or some other kind of sensor-data) in real-time, looking for anomalies before encrypting and archiving. They deliver alerts and summary reports to SES management who in turn, in conformance with appropriate privacy legislation, report back to the client.

I can imagine a number of possible applications of surveillance escrow (care homes, hospitals, secure workplaces) and offer the idea to any entrepreneur or new product development manager who's interested.

“Why String Theory?” by Joseph Conlon (review)

Amazon link: this review is also posted there

The title suggests that Joseph Conlon’s book is a defence of string theory against its detractors; it is so much more than that.

He begins by reviewing the strengths and limitations of the Standard Model. The Standard Model is a somewhat ramshackle construction which, to the surprise of its constructors, has proven extraordinarily successful and resilient over the decades, culminating in the recent discovery of the predicted Higgs boson at the LHC. We know, however, that the Standard Model is wrong because it assumes a fixed spacetime (i.e. no gravity) - it has proved impossible to successfully quantise gravity within the framework of the Standard Model.

Conlon’s approach is historical. The first inklings of string theory came about through attempts to understand the strong nuclear force in the 1970s, where string harmonics emerged mathematically from observed scattering patterns. It later transpired that the ‘strings’ were an epiphenomenon of the correct quantum field theory – quantum chromodynamics – where the force lines did indeed tend to bunch up into strings. The glory years of QFT saw string theory relegated to a backwater.

The end of the seventies saw attempts to quantise gravity under the assumptions of supersymmetry.  It turned out that these ‘supergravity’ theories had severe problems which string theory seemed to solve in a very natural way. Suddenly people began to take notice and the string community rapidly expanded. These were the years of five different string theories, and the realisation that they were all different limits of one underlying theory – M-theory - an insight due to Ed Witten.

The author reviews quantum field theories, string theory and the AdS/CFT correspondence in his characteristically clear way. But after all this work, is there any direct experimental evidence for string theory? Chapter 7 is very short, consisting of this one sentence: ‘There is no direct experimental evidence for string theory.

Having got that out of the way, Conlon now explains how the complex and sophisticated toolkit of string theory has led to insights across physics. He discusses the use of string theory in facilitating calculations in quantum field theories in their strong coupling regime via the AdS/CFT correspondence; the modelling of heavy ion collisions; applications in mathematics (relating to ‘monstrous moonshine’); predictions of dark matter candidates such as axions; predictions of dark radiation resulting from the theory’s extra spatial dimensions; and of course the opportunity to model black hole microstates, entropy and spacetime topology changes in what is presumed to be string theory’s core competence, quantum gravity.

The author now moves on to mini-portraits of the main kinds of scientists he see in the community around him. We hear about the revolutionaries who wish to kick over the applecart (not so easy). We hear about the worker ants whose slogan is ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ – those researchers who kick the can of science up the road with their calculations so that experimentation can progress - little chance of glory but employment prospects are good. Under ‘Stockholm or Bust’ we meet the model builders, those hoping to call nature right and get to Sweden – and those who game the system. There are the super-theorists, like Witten, members of the ‘Most Sublime Brahminate of Princeton’, and those who appreciate that ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’ - who look for unfashionable areas which to their eyes show great promise and are able to deliver.

Conlon’s final two chapters address (in a fair and evenhanded manner) the well-known criticisms of string theory and provide rebuttals. He then explains why string theory remains so dominant in the field and hazards some guesses as to its future.

Understanding the state-of-the-art in fundamental physics is of course hard, the subject is inaccessible for most physicists let alone the broader community. Conlon writes (p. 198):
“Undergraduate physics is an unparalleled intellectual experience: it is a smorgasbord of the deepest and most powerful thoughts that have ever been thunk. You learn physics at a rate of a Nobel Prize a week, and the resulting frisson of the mind is at a level that is never experienced again. Four years takes you from Newtonian gravity through the laws of heat and energy, past Maxwell's synthesis of electromagnetism and into the laws of special and general relativity, from the basics of quantum mechanics to the Standard Model and quantum field theory. It is wonderful and magnificent.”
Sadly, beyond these well-explored paths there is the slog of the new, where progress slows to a crawl. In this book Professor Conlon has provided – as he promises in his preface - an astonishingly clear tour of modern physics. It is hard to think of a better, clearer or wittier review, and one which will be particularly useful to science undergraduates curious as to where their field is heading. School students who have done some reading around the subject (e.g. who have read books by Brian Greene) might also find this work of great value. It’s highly recommended.