Thursday, May 29, 2008


Just back after a few days on Dartmoor. Here's Clare admiring one of the more unusual signs we saw on a farmer's gate.

Today we did a couple of tors (Hay Tor and Hound Tor) although neither is particularly high nor more than half a mile from the car park. Beyond Hound Tor we encountered the remains of a mediaeval village, barely visible in the middle distance of this shot.

Finally, a picture of the author auditioning for a role in the forthcoming production of The Hobbit. Perhaps a minor warrior?

It rained mostly continuously, and when rain ceased the mist came down. Still, the hotel was comfortable and had WiFi, and the meals were excellent. And the moors give value-for-effort even in the absence of sun.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Four billion years of life-force were crammed into its little body. As it hopped in front of us with green-feathered prettiness, the fledgling great-tit seemed to have no clear idea of what to do with any of it.

Too young to fly properly, too confident to feel fear, it bobbed and turned as we watched. It was a bird acting the part, in a world where simulation is never enough.

We continued with our afternoon walk – an initial stroll to the edge of Dartmoor, up to Hay Tor.

An hour later we walked back down the narrow lane with its high-sided hedges. We were pressed into spiky greenery by a prowling silver Jaguar, the width of the road. Even then, I noted the thickness of its road-slick tyres.

Clare was looking as we approached the hotel but I was the one who spotted the two-dimensional press-out on the roadway. Clare said it was the legs and feet which were the giveaway, somehow shape and texture were perfectly preserved.

Some would say evolution in action, but the world can be harsh to the perplexed and indecisive.

Afterword: we drove up that lane today, but a night of heavy rain has washed away all traces.

Monday, May 26, 2008


The Sunday Times News Review has stories on Evolutionary Psychology on both its front and back pages. In the humour section at the back, Bruce Chorlton of Newcastle University is gently ridiculed for suggesting it’s not surprising that universities disproportionately recruit from the upper and middle classes, as on average these are more intelligent. Gosh, Dr Chorlton, how positively stone-aged!

Rod Liddle, in the main paper, knows that ‘lawyers are more intelligent than the guys who hose blood off the abattoir walls’ but thinks that this doesn’t say anything about the intelligence or otherwise of the wives. Wake up Rod! Assortative mating!*

Of course, it is well known that in any society with meritocratic tendencies, higher social class and IQ are correlated - as you would expect. However, the population classified as underclass + working class + lower middle class is larger, so we can’t really draw conclusions about the absolute numbers of gifted individuals from different social strata without further empirical research. Perhaps Dr Chorlton pointed this out in his remarks, or maybe he didn’t. The ST doesn’t tell us, in its ignorant superiority.

The front page article purports to demonstrate that evolutionary psychology supports infidelity. It’s the usual argument about men seeking to have more offspring via indiscriminate mating at low cost to themselves, while women apparently try to mate surreptiously with alpha males, producing alpha children who their unsuspecting husbands then bring up.

I think we can all do plausible-sounding scenarios. How about this? Consider ancestral groups where teamwork was a matter of life and death. Specifically in cold climates around the ice ages where male team hunting was the only source of food in the plant-free winter months.

In such a team environment, individuals who mate with other men’s wives are cheating not only on their own wives but also on their cuckolded team-mates. I suspect they would have ‘accidents’ or at the very least, team cohesion and effectiveness would suffer.

In a similar manner, women who strayed and were then rejected - for good genetic reasons - by their cuckolded husbands would not survive too long without a new hunting provider. These outcomes generate strong selective pressure for fidelity, plus social disapprobation for the unfaithful, which you would expect to see exhibited most strongly in the most cold-adapted populations.

So which story do you prefer? I prefer the one backed up by empirical research.

* “An interesting finding from genetic research, which Mackintosh mentions, only in passing, as posing a problem in the estimation of the heritability of g, is that there is greater assortative mating for g than for any other behavioural trait; that is, spouse correlations are only ~.1 for personality and only ~.2 for height or weight, but the correlation for assortative mating for g is ~.4.” From a review of “IQ and Human Intelligence”, by Nicholas J. Mackintosh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 - here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Diminishing Deception

Some rather trite thoughts unfortunately, but it is the end of the week.

Still studying the behaviour of the electrical E and magnetic B fields through my OU course SMT359 - Electromagnetism. With great relief I sent the second assignment off to my tutor yesterday.

As I mentioned previously, the final chapter of the current booklet explains that the conceptual separation of E and B is an artefact. In special relativity it is shown that there is really only one entity, the electromagnetic tensor.

I also just finished Richard Feynman's little book "QED - the strange theory of light and matter". There are no fields, B, E or otherwise. There are virtual photons being exchanged between charged particles according to complex amplitudes. In the large, coordinated quantum behaviour can look like classical fields, which explains why those wrong theories appear to work.

It certainly reinforces the 'toolkit' view of physics, where we have no idea what is really happening 'out there'. Just different theoretical frameworks to bring to bear.

Maxwell would have thought all these 'spinning little arrows' Feynman described to be quite weird. His heuristic version of empty space contained deformable spinning cells with channelled electrical balls between them. The only reason for taking it seriously is that it agrees very precisely with experiment. It's when the experiments stop, because the equipment is just too expensive, that the physics stops too.

Roll on the LHC switch-on.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Back from Dubai, I'm working hard to complete my second OU assignment for SMT359 - Electromagnetism. Seems like no sooner is one finished and dispatched than the next one hoves into view. The current set of questions are not all calculations - there are also essays like the one I am about to inflict upon you, which asks the student to describe the microscopic and macroscopic reasons for different kinds of magnetic materials. Here is my answer.


When current flows around a closed circular loop, it creates a magnetic field which is similar, at a distance, to that from an electric dipole. The current-carrying loop is therefore, by analogy, called a magnetic dipole.

The magnetic dipole moment (MDM) is defined as m = IΔS, where I is the current in the loop and ΔS is the area enclosed by it; m is a vector oriented normal to the area ΔS in a direction determined from the current direction by the right-hand rule.

Atoms (and molecules) can also be magnetic dipoles, with MDMs. Classically, these MDMs derive from two sources: the orbital motion of the electrons around the nucleus, and the spin of the electron around its own axis. (The contribution from the spin of nucleons is far less and can be ignored).

Permanent Dipole Moment

The MDMs from orbital motion and spin add vectorially, and may reinforce each other, or cancel to zero. Atoms and molecules with non-zero intrinsic MDMs are said to have a permanent dipole moment. The permanent dipoles tend to align with any applied field, reinforcing it.

Induce Dipole Moment

When an external magnetic field is applied to an atom, it creates a distortion in orbital motion, effectively an induced current which by Lenz’s law, tends to oppose the applied field and reduce it. The induced electron orbital current persists as long as the field is applied and creates an induced magnetic dipole moment.


The magnetization of a material is a vector quantity M which gives the total magnetic dipole moment per unit volume. Its definition is M = n<m> where n is the number of magnetic dipoles per unit volume and <m> is the average value of the dipole. Because the MDM is a vector, if individual atoms or molecules have their MDMs oriented randomly, the average value will be zero. An applied field can tend to align atomic/molecular magnetic dipoles - (parallel to the applied field for permanent dipoles, and anti-parallel for induced dipoles), but the field has to contend with random thermal collisions which tend to disrupt such alignment. Typically M tends to be proportional to the applied magnetic field and inversely proportion to the absolute temperature.

Magnetic Material Types

Diamagnetic materials are materials with very small to zero permanent dipole moments. When an external magnetic field is applied, induced magnetic dipoles are created which resist it. The magnetic field close to, and within the diamagnetic material is therefore weaker than the applied field.

Paramagnetic materials are constituted from atoms or molecules with permanent magnetic dipole moments. These tend to align with an applied magnetic field, thermal jostling permitting, reinforcing it. The magnetic field close to, and within the paramagnetic material is therefore stronger than the applied field.

Finally there is the special case of ferromagnetism. Normally magnetic dipoles close to each other, like bar magnets, will not align in the same direction. The lower energy configuration is to align anti-parallel. However, for quantum-theoretic reasons, in ferromagnetic materials the optimal configuration is for the dipoles to align in the same direction, at least within small volumes called domains. An applied magnetic field can align the domains themselves to the direction of the applied field, and this alignment can persist after the field is removed, a phenomenon called permanent magnetisation. The magnetic field close to, and within the ferromagnetic material is significantly stronger than the applied field.

If the temperature is increased in a ferromagnetic material past the Curie temperature, (~ 800 degree C for iron), thermal energy will disrupt the quantum-mechanical coupling between adjacent dipoles and the material reverts to being paramagnetic.


I have failed to get this down to 40-500 words: it's just over 600.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


For once, our arrival at Heathrow had been uneventful. Virgin had not kept us waiting for an hour on the aircraft, the handlers had not misplaced our baggage. Even the rail transfer bus was reasonably prompt at the Central Bus Station and its hasty traverse to Reading unimpeded by Friday afternoon traffic.

So here was the deal. Clare would take the ten minute walk to our elder son’s flat, where we had left our car, and I would guard our suitcases and hand-baggage and wait for her to come back and pick me up. We found a bench backing onto the wall of the station, overlooking the bus station and taxi ranks, and off she went. “Don’t get mugged!” was her merry parting shot.

Compared to the pristine environment of The Greens, where we had been staying in Dubai, Reading station is a sorry space. I was sitting amidst litter – discarded gum, paper wrappings and a disquieting stain on the pavement just to my right. I had placed our bags in a careful ring around it.

If I ran this station, my thoughts went, I would hire cleaners to regularly patrol this whole area with zero-tolerance for filth (exactly what they do in The Greens). The Greens also employs uniformed, bereted security guards who patrol their blocks, keeping an eye on things. No sign of that here.

My musings were interrupted by two shaven headed thirty-something men who weaved unsteadily up and lurched down onto the bench to my left.

“Don’t mind if we sit here, do ya mate?” asked the one who had pushed his beer bottle into my shoulder.

I did that ignoring thing, looking into the middle distance. I wasn’t that worried, they were drunk and unpleasant, but not as big as I am. I begin computing how long it would take for Clare to come back.

“Where ja come from mate?” asked my new friend, in that insinuating way street thugs talk to their marks. I waved my hand in an aimless, detached, warding kind of way, and said nothing.

“Don’t want to talk, do ‘ee” said his friend, “I fink he came dahn from the Isle a Wight.”

“Come dahn from the Isle a Wight , didja?” my friend remarked.

“I saw bags like that in prison,” his friend remarked. “Don’t seem more than a coupla months, does it?”

He paused to reflect.

“Nice throat on ‘im. Could just see where t’ cut that, don’cha think?”

This happy thought provoked an animated, slurring conversation between them.

I guess it was then that some kind of line must have gotten crossed in my subconscious. I pantomimed that my bus has just arrived. Exaggerated glance, yes, look again, check, yes that’s it. In an unhurried way, I got up, pulled all the bags together, and made off, dragging the two large suitcases, to jibes from behind me. I didn’t stop until I had left the station area and was on the main road, 400 yards away, from where Clare picked me up five minutes later.

You know, there was nothing unusual about this experience, except perhaps that I wasn’t actually harmed.

Trust me, it wouldn’t have happened in Dubai.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Friday - back to the UK

Tomorrow it's up at 6 a.m. local time and off to the airport, where Virgin will fly us back to the UK. We had dinner this evening at the Lebanese Grill, one of the many restaurants at The Greens Village complex about 10 minutes walk from our apartment. Like everyone else, we dined in air-con.

Walking back in temperatures the wrong side of 30 degrees, and in high humidity, we wondered how we would feel in 24 hours time: rain and 14 degrees.

Tomorrow will be a long day.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Kurt has passed on, and the world is marginally a better place.

In a world of tough senior managers, Kurt was terrifying. Grown men would furtively enter the washroom to throw-up before his legendary 8 a.m. reviews. The only relationship he tolerated from his subordinates was abject submission. To offend him was to organisationally die.

I first met Kurt on assignment with his corporation. We had spent a while developing a complex relationship with the client which was showing results. When Kurt turned up, it was apparent he had spent no time getting briefed and was only concerned that the project get back to his deadlines and budget.

After horrifying us all with his stupefying ignorance, Kurt then proceeded to lay the law down to the client. ‘Shape up or die’ was his message. I have rarely seen a bunch of people visibly shaking with anger after a meeting.

The next day Kurt breezed past my desk as I was talking to the project manager. In 300 milliseconds of complete stupidity I allowed my feelings to show. “Hello,” I said, in that jocular way which indicates you don’t take the person particularly seriously.

There is a way a reptile looks at a small mammal which, in a spirit of overconfident impetuosity has deigned to pop up in front of it. It is a mixture of massive, overwhelming contempt, a tiny admixture of amazement at such squeaky impertinence, and the lazy aggression of the supreme carnivore in swat mode.

His eyes shifted back to the project manager as he was wafted away to do Kurt’s bidding.

I never worked for that organisation again.

Richard Lynn

Professor Richard Lynn is a leading authority on the evolution of human intelligence and personality. In a world of social science which ignores evolution, his views are very controversial - see a summary on his website here.

I wrote to Professor Lynn with a "bright idea" I had coming to work a few days ago. I guess he gets a lot of idiotic letters and has refined to high art how he responds.


Dear Professor Lynn,

Most theories of the evolution of costly human intelligence struggle to explain how ancestral human-level intelligence arose on the African savannah in the first place. After all, every other species survives there without it. The argument that ancestral IQ fuelled a "generalist hunter-gatherer strategy” only takes you so far.

Is there a view in the research community that perhaps cold-adaptation drove all of the IQ levels we see today - including within Africa?

ANSWER: No because equatorial Africa never got cold.

The argument is that ancestral proto-humans repeatedly left Africa to the north, encountered differential selection for intelligence and increased cooperation as they encountered tougher ecologies,


and then re-entered Africa displacing the earlier, less intelligent hominids?



Sunday, May 11, 2008

Opera UK in Dubai

Friday evening we visited the Burj Al Arab 7-star hotel (pictured) with some friends on the Unisys team who had stayed there.

They had arranged reservations in the cocktail bar which is located 700 feet up on the Arabian Gulf side of the building, at the helipad level (to the left of the picture).

The night time view over the Dubai coastline was quite spectacular with the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai visible as a vertical streak of light in the far distance, as you can see, top centre left.

Clare and myself with the Burj Al Arab as backdrop

Saturday evening we attended “A Night at the Opera” where a performing company, Opera UK gave us something like 20 opera highlights (Nessun Dorma was the close). It was more accessible opera than a chocolate box “Opera Greatest Hits”. Well done and we enjoyed it, although I doubt we shall be attending any full performances in the near future. Clare said that the English National Opera sings only in English, which would obviously help.

Talking of slow, veering to retrograde progress, I see that the Vatican now has a news website in Latin (Sancta Sedes). There is a part of me which secretly applauds this – the part which genuinely admires millennia-old authoritarian secret societies I guess.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

More Dubai pictures

Here's a picture of Clare from her recent visit to Dubai, taken at the Madinat Jumeirah just as the sun was setting.

The picture below, showing the writer, was taken earlier in the day at The Greens where I work. In the distance is the next "city" along the road to Abu Dhabi, near Dubai Marina. It's still under construction.


It was 43 degrees here in Dubai a couple of days ago. Today, however, it is merely 40. The humidity is down too. I am promised that in July/August the temperature reaches 48 degrees and relative humidity gets to 100%. One can only survive in air-con.

The local paper, Gulf News, is full of reports about people contracting asthma and flu-like respiratory complains caused by dust in the air. People are generically recommended to wash their hands, but proximate activities are left unmentioned.

As I walk to work around 7 a.m., it’s already hotter than the warmest UK summer day. I have to say that 40+ degrees takes you to an alien place. A colleague compared it to opening a hot oven and the feeling as your face is bathed in heat. The walls of the buildings do that to you.

Another pointer. At midday, when I walk to the local supermarket for lunch, the shadow of traffic-sign poles on the pavement is just a few inches around their base: the sun is nearly vertical (it will be vertical at the summer solstice).

We had a few minutes of light rain the day before yesterday. It made the papers.