Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The art of negotiating the rate

When you’re self-employed, one of the most difficult things you have to do is negotiate the rate for the job with a client. All books on consultancy have a section on this. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on this tricky subject.

1. Get yourself into this mindset before you enter the meeting: you must not care whether this negotiation succeeds or not. If it does, fine; if not, there are plenty of other clients out there. Hold that mental framework throughout.

2. During the meeting, postpone the money part of the discussion. Start by reviewing the job itself, deliverables, relationships, reporting structure and anything else you can think of. Make a list in advance as it will end up as part of your proposal/contract. The reason is to make sure your potential client invests time in the potential contract, creating momentum for a successful outcome which carries over into the commercials. This is exactly what all salespeople do.

3. You don't propose an exact number when the question of day-rate (or contract value) comes up. Say "I'm thinking of something in the range of £X - £Y per day." Don't worry about pitching the required range too high and don't mentally backtrack during the meeting. This is a negotiation, not a 'go no-go' single-shot duel.

4. The client will either agree, in which case result, or they will pretend to look surprised and say "We were thinking more in terms of £Z." If that's the reply, then recognise that £Z is not the client’s highest number, look disappointed and say sadly that something a bit higher than that might work, but it will need to be reviewed after six months. (Of course if it really is too low, thank the client for his time and politely exit ... and, who knows, you just might be called back!).

5. Generally, you should always point out to the client that the agreed rate will be reviewed after a certain period (six months, a year). By default the client expects that future contracts will always be at the previously-agreed rate so it’s important to nudge them out of that mindset, as well as giving you a new negotiation-point  in case it turns out you sold your services too cheaply.

The evolution of near-sightedness

A lot of people are short-sighted - have myopia. The prevalence in western countries is 30-40% and in asian countries as high as 80%. This is weird: evolution should have removed anything genetic which cause so lethal a disability.

This suggests we look at environmental causes. This scary paper,  An Evolutionary Analysis of the Etiology and Pathogenesis of Juvenile-Onset Myopia, uses data on hunter-gatherer societies which were westernised within the last hundred years to show that myopia went from near-zero to western levels in one or two generations. The cause? Not so much 'near work' (reading, writing and computer screens) as changes in diet.

The culprit is sugar, and in particular processed carbohydrates with a high glycemic load. Read the paper for the details but along with obesity and diabetes, we can now add short-sightedness to the ills of junk food.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Kindle 'Guardian'

Clare, in that Cherie Booth, proletarian, working-class way of hers, has finally rebelled against The Sunday Times. The last straw was a set of articles by columnists Minette Marin and India Night which, in their different ways, reflected on their times at their public schools. How elitist and metropolitan!

With great drama she exclaimed "That's the last time I will ever read The Sunday Times!"

In fact this heartfelt resolution will last up to this coming Sunday's Rod Liddle and Jeremy Clarkson, who make her laugh.

Anyway, she has decided to read the Saturday Guardian instead and I soon discovered that it's available (to mostly 5-star reviews) on the Kindle for 99p. The added advantage is that Clare has never learned how to read a broadsheet without destroying it (I am inclined to believe this is a skill which can only be acquired in childhood).

"The Cold Commands" - Richard Morgan

The second volume of the hard-edged fantasy trilogy, following "The Steel Remains". Morgan's swords and sorcery epic set in a far-future Earth deepens the mysteries around its central hero, Ringil Eskiath.

Some reviews on Amazon were uncomfortable with incomplete plot threads - notably the mission to the Kiriath island in the north: plainly an expedition will be launched in volume 3 for the denouement.

Meanwhile this is a well-written saga of everyday fighting folk - with lashings of sex, violence, torture, magic and derring-do. Fun, but not recommended for all the family.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Skyfall - James Bond film

The Vue, Cribbs Causeway, was full to capacity for the 12.40 pm performance - on a Sunday?!?

When we left at 3.30 the queue snaked out of the building. They were showing Skyfall at 30 minute intervals on 5 or 6 screens. I don't care what it cost - they are surely making a mint with this one.

You can no longer make Bond films merely out of mindless stunts and explosions, libertine sexual attitudes/practices and the odd joke. Standards have gone up: we're more serious, and locker-room male chauvinism seems so twentieth century.

The answer with this Bond is to give him some hinterland and personal issues without slumping on the stunts, which are extraordinary. Bond, it turns out, has childhood-trauma, while his antagonist has analogous angst: the film takes a Freudian view on all this.

Skyfall (the title is explained late in the film) also gives a nod to the perennial conflict between HumInt (the use of agents such as Bond) vs the use of signals intelligence/hacking as a pre-eminent form of espionage. M is forced to defend her use of such 'dinosaurs' as Bond against an unsympathetic government; it turns out Bond has his uses.

So half marks for deepening the Bond concept, but only half because the script doesn't really do this in any profound way. In the end the film is sophisticated candyfloss: delicious but insubstantial; very good but not great.

Still, it's better than 90% of the films you get to see, holds attention throughout and is loads of fun. Definitely worth it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fungus; Crampons-lite

This hairy thing, looking like a shock-jock's hair, was growing in our front garden. It's been relocated to the composting cage where it can mutate and consume at leisure.

My boots (borrowed from my son) are top of the range, heavy duty, completely waterproof, ankle supporting, blah-blah. But the rubber soles have eroded to slippery-smooth: traversing steep, stony paths is a walking-on-ice nightmare.

As a cheap and cheerful solution, I've bought some stretch-on crampon things, pictured. Made by Norwegians - and they're meant to know a bit about snow and grip.

I'll be back in the Brecon Beacons mid-November and who knows, maybe it will snow :-).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Hydrogen Sonata" – Iain M. Banks

A review of Iain M. Banks' latest Culture novel.

The Gzilt are in their final weeks before Subliming when a political crisis emerges. Evidence, rapidly suppressed, suggests that their whole culture is founded on a manipulative lie. If this becomes generally known, the whole Sublimation project may be in peril. The facts of the matter go back to the founding of the Culture, ten thousand years ago. An almost mythical Culture member was there, part of the negotiating team who seems to know the secret truth of the matter. But Ngaroe QiRia doesn’t want to be found.

Gzilt factions contend: one wants to suppress the facts and proceed with Sublimation; the other wants to discover the truth regardless. Inevitably the Culture itself is drawn in: weapons systems are soon in action. The heroine of this tale is Vyr Cossont, a Gzilt female musician who once met QiRia and was given a copy of his mind-state. Aided by the Culture ship “Mistake Not ...” the hunt is on.
Over the course of his Culture novels, Banks has systematically explored many aspects of his utopia. This novel is focused on the nature of Subliming, and how beings with Godlike powers (Culture Minds) can nevertheless have their actions constrained. Minor themes include the meaninglessness of life, the pointlessness of most political disputes and the self-parody of art.
Sublimation is like Heaven and how do you describe that? Banks has turned to String Theory (like some priests!) to locate the Sublime in the extra, compacted dimensions. To look back to the 4D of The Real from the Sublime is to imagine most of your senses and intellect to be switched off: sophisticated analogies are the best we can do and Banks spends time on this.
The Minds are very smart and one consequence of this is that they simulate possible outcomes of situations. In the simulation of political crises the potential actions of people are important. But once you start simulating people at a precision for accuracy, you’ve created people  ..  and that raises a cloud of ethical issues. So here we see a profound incompleteness theorem: the Minds can’t permit themselves simulations of sufficient power so will be surprised and get things wrong: the novelist still has a job to do.
The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is “T. C. Vilabier’s String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, MW 1211.” The later-invented instrument is the elevenstring (after the dimensional count of String Theory) and the Sonata encodes the elements of the periodic table, starting with Hydrogen.  Is it any good? A notable critic writes: “As a challenge, without peer. As music, without merit.” At its first performance the audience was divided: some hated it, the rest really hated it.
Iain M. Banks’ latest Culture novel retains the house-style of beautiful descriptive writing, character-led plot development interleaved with intelligent speculation on all manner of things. It’s also pretty exciting. The whole Culture thing evidently still has plenty of mileage in it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The iPad; Halloween

Here's my mother discussing her new iPad with grandson Adrian (click on the picture to make larger). And below our stock of goodies for Halloween.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wiki Weapon; Psychopaths in the Media

Wiki Weapon (google it). The project for an open-source weapon constructable by a 3D-printer. Download the schematic via the Internet and your plastic/metal-fabricating machine will build you a lethal weapon in your very own home.

No more buying dodgy firearms in slovenly pubs from murky thugs (at inflated prices); no more smuggling 'pieces' through the X-ray machines and skeptical customs staff. Encrypt the design schematic and distribute via BitTorrent or similar denizens of the DarkNet and you're pretty safe from the authorities.

Might as well start planning for this future as it seems to be unstoppable.


Television is a warm medium: it rewards emotion, charisma and ego over cool intellect. So think extraversion, charm, charisma, fearlessness ... and what do you get?

Looks to me like this is one area where the much-discredited 'precautionary principle' ought, in fact, to be applied.

What d'you say, Jimmy?

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Froggie came a-calling

A visitor found this morning in our recycling box, stored at the end of the garden (below). My brother wrote to advise it was probably a toad, however.

Clare and myself recently took Simon Baron-Cohen's AQ test. She scored 22 and I scored 28. The population norm is 16.4 and the Asperger onset point is around 32.

Assortative mating in action.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: 'The Explorer' by James Smythe

At last an excellent science-fiction book courtesy of the Amazon Vine programme. Here's my five-star review as posted.


First to die was Arlen, the jovial, paternalistic first pilot of the expedition: a stasis-pod failure, apparently. Then the team dogsbody, Wanda, some impossible suit malfunction while space-walking. The third was Guy, the German scientist - a heart attack, surprising in an astronaut. Next was Quinn, the second pilot - fell over and smashed his skull; so how did that happen? Emma, the team doctor seemed to go mad and is now sedated, back in her pod. So it's just Cormac Easton, the team journalist, wandering the ship and wondering if - as planned - the vessel is actually going to turn round and go home.

And so we reach the end of the first chapter!

James Smythe tells the story first-person, through a journalist with negligible scientific training. This imparts a dreamy, surreal quality to the mission: the location of the ship is unclear - sometimes it feels like it's flying between constellations although it's clear that the mission is actually confined to the solar system; communications with Ground Control are haphazard and plagued by interference - Easton thinks this is just what happens in space; the journalist doesn't really understand what happens when the engines go off - does the spacecraft lose its momentum, start to slow down?

In creative-writing classes they tell you that the problem with first-person narrative is that you don't easily find out what happens in scenes where the narrator is absent. Well, not here: through an ingenious science-fictional device, we get a second chance to review everything which has happened from an extraordinary angle. As we learn more about the characters' back stories and the training and selection process (told in flashback), the rounded, complex and bizarre truth of the expedition is gradually revealed. In the climax Easton is presented at last with a clear choice.

I wondered why the author wrote this book. Was he concerned with deceptive, manipulative institutions? Is he really concerned to analyse the sociological concept of 'exploration'? For me this is a book about the character of the journalist Easton himself. Smythe takes a typical, intellectual, easily-recognisable professional man and then proceeds to flay him bare and watch his reactions. The result is scarily true to life, not very flattering to those of us who can identify with Easton, but ultimately rather heroic.


Warning: the strength of this novel is anchored in the journey of the journalist Cormac Easton as he begins to unravel the many mysteries of the voyage. This is not a story where advance knowledge of the plot helps at all, and I would recommend the reader to avoid any spoilers (which are thus-named for good reason) in other reviews.

On Suicide

We always discuss suicide in a moral, legal or technical aspect. Should it be committed? Ought we to allow it? How do you do it?

To kill yourself is like two things simultaneously. First you walk out on everyone you know: your partner, if you have one; your children (ditto); parents; friends and colleagues.

Unilaterally, as if one day you simply booked a ticket on a train to nowhere and promptly took off.

Then, you turn yourself off in a more or less pleasant way.

In the fact it's the self-removal which is the more damaging; the people you walked out on are still there and have to live with it.

Suicide works better when one negotiates with family and friends about the exit. We've seen that with the terminally-ill. Still, it's always fraught with difficulties: if someone doesn't want you to go (and why should they?) how much of a veto do they or should they have?

I think Terry Pratchett must wrestle with this every day.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Madame Bovary - Flaubert

I see a lot of similarities between Clare and Emma Bovary. Obviously not the multiple adulterous liaisons, the financial extravagance and the dominating fantasy life .. but there is a certain Austenian Marianne (Sense and Sensibility) in young Emma that I also recognise in my spouse.

She, on the other hand, doth protest the comparison and points out that every girl, like Emma, wants to be a Princess.

I've been very late in getting to this novel; it's very good. They're not classics for no reason :-).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Matthew Parris at Wells Cathedral

Mr Parris was a featured speaker at the Wells Literary Festival this evening. His thesis was that the Leveson Inquiry would shortly deliver well-meaning restrictions on the press which would inevitably restrict holding to account the great and the 'good'.

The only criterion of journalistic merit, according to Mr Parris, is the truth. Not all journalists, however, are as high-minded.

Parris foresaw The Guardian sliding into bankrupcy within five years and the loss-making Times not surviving the demise of the elder Murdoch. Twenty five years will see print journalism dead he opined; what's left will be the wild, unregulated west of the Internet.

Wells Cathedral, in its looming and cavernous beauty, was home to several hundred of The Times and Telegraph reading classes and they were minded to be sympathetic. As the talk concluded the evening turned to torrential rain and we walked home, soaked, through rivers running off the Mendips.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trerice House; Watergate Bay

Yesterday we visited Trerice House, a National Trust Tudor mansion. Clare and Gerry pictured below. It's a medium-sized dwelling with an awful lot of clocks.

We finally put the cliff-top paths behind us and walked our local beach at Watergate Bay. The sands are flat and extensive in all directions. The British Surfing National Championships were getting underway as we started our walk: the wetsuited ladies were a hundred metres off-shore behind the breakers, lining up for their runs; blokes with giant binoculars on tripods were all set to judge.

It just reminded us that - at least from the shore - surfing is not a spectator sport.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chysauster ancient village

On a hill near Penzance lie the remains of seven iron age houses circa the third century AD (pix).

After wandering around we adjourned to a pub in Mousehole (harbour pictured below).

Why girls don't "get" SF

Here's the plot of a story. A near-future civilization perfects genetic engineering. Soon, everyone is smart, good-looking and perfectly socialised. Only a small, feral underclass preserves the unreconstructed genes of "wild humans". Then disaster strikes and we need psychopathic killers with little imagination and no manners. The hour of the chav has arrived.

To turn this from a scenario into a story we need characters - well-imagined people with hopes and fears and personalities. The better we do this, the more the technological plot elements fade away: how could they compete with real human relationships?

If you're a girl.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Witchcraft at Boscastle

Today we visited Padstow (touristy Cornish fishing port and home to Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant) and Boscastle (famously flooded Cornish fishing village and home to the Museum of Witchcraft).

We enjoyed the witch-fest. I especially like poppets - effigies of your enemy into which you stick pins and worse; I have always had a soft spot for sympathetic magic. Clare took to the Tarot cards.

To dine at Rick Stein's place will set you back 60-80 pounds per head. Our apartment near Newquay is a stone's throw from Jamie Oliver's "Fifteen" restaurant: similar prices.

I ask myself - who dines at these places at these prices? But they seem to be booked solid for months ahead.

Pictures of Mary and Gerry who are holidaying with us, the author chez the witches and Clare framing the route of the Boscastle flood.

Newquay, Cornwall

We're in Cornwall for a few days. Our beach has a large transient population of kite surfers. We saw them on the car park - all wetsuits, bare feet and "hey, dude".

It's cold and blustery, and we're multi-layered and Gore-texed. From the cliff path, overlooking the beach, we were given a master-class in kite-surfing tacking - on eight inches of shallow surf and an off-the-sea wind.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Three Bookshelves

They say you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their book shelves ...

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Quagmire on Mendips! The Singularity. WICS

On Saturday we walked around Cheddar for a bit, trying to find where the Cheddar Gorge walk starts and ends in the tourist mish-mash of caves; the Cheddar Cheese factory; fish and chip shops; trade outlets and cafes. We had an hour on our parking and just managed a very short walk where Clare got to see a slow worm (below).

 Clare at Cheddar Gorge with Slow Worm 

Today I walked from the woods of Stockhill up the Monarch's Way to the hills above East Harptree, returning via the Castle of Comfort (the fact you can't walk on the course of the old Roman Road means too much on-road coming back).

After days of rain, footpaths were a quagmire: in East Harptree woods the uphill path had become a fully paid-up stream which I tried to straddle rather than wade.

 Stockhill today (Mendips) 

 East Harptree Woods today 

I have been thinking a bit about The Singularity. This is the (US West Coast) idea that technological progress is accelerating, particularly in respect of our intellectual tools such as artifical intelligence systems. At some point positive feedback sets in, our tools are better at improving themselves than we are, and our civilisation suddenly sublimes into something unimaginable (even by Iain M. Banks). Thus The Singularity.

You're right to be skeptical. Where's the evidence? Fancy theorem-provers running on ever-faster machines soon hit an exponential wall and don't produce much of value; IBM's "Watson" won't take over the world.

But maybe we're looking in the wrong place. Consider the combination of neuron-system modelling on computers plus the genetic/neurological untangling of the structure and functioning of animal and human brains. This will give us the ability to engineer artificial brains which capture our detailed understanding of real ones. Once we get this right there's no reason not to build brains which are "better" (or at least different) than those we've met naturally. The Singularity is back on the agenda - but sadly not in my lifetime.

An ongoing and whimsical theme I have is that if I had lots of cash I would like to found the Wells Institute for Theoretical Physics. Like that BlackBerry guy did in Canada with the Perimeter Institute. Around 100 million ought to do it.

WITP is not, however, a good acronym and the Wells Institute for Mathematics and Physics is even worse. It's ironic - I can't get the project started because I can't get an acronym which works!

But now, on reflection, I see that theoretical physics has reached the point of diminishing returns, as theories outrun the possibilities of experimental support or refutation. In the light of the discussion of The Singularity above I have decided to refocus on the Wells Institute of Cognitive Science - which still needs some fine-tuning on the acronym front. Anyone got ten million to get the ball rolling?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Intermittent Fasting at +2 months

Date Stone Lb Pounds Kg Delta(Lb)
07/08/2012 13 8 190 86.4  
08/09/2012 12 13 181 82.3 9
06/10/2012 12 7 175 79.5 6

Two months ago I started the "intermittent fast" programme (two days a week eating just breakfast @ 500 cals) at a weight of 13st 8lbs. Two months into the mission and I am just over a stone lighter and about an inch thinner around the waist.

It's not a fast (sic) process, losing weight, but recall the main motivation for the programme: to improve the body's ability to repair DNA and reduce the various other unhealthy results of endless stuffing. According to various health charts, however, the optimal weight for someone of my age and height is about a further stone lighter (11st 6lb).

The guru here is Michael Mosely and his Horizon programme, now on YouTube.

Clare's actual weight loss started - IMHO - about the same time as I entered the programme and she has managed to lose 7 lbs over the same two month period (she's not fasting: just eating less and cutting out carbs).

Chilling Video "This Land is Mine" - Nina Paley

Watch the whole thing (three and a half minutes) here. From "Gene Expression".

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Cheddar Gorge; Velvet Bottom

There is a five mile "tour" around the north and south cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge. I managed no more than half a mile this morning - initially sliding around on wet rocks on the initial climb out of Black Rock, then traversing deep sludge and mud as the path levelled out. Days of rain have leeched all the easiness and fun from the route.

I diverted to the path up Velvet Bottom instead, a 'green road' still sodden and sloppy, but flatter, wider and just easier. Pictures below.

In Peter Hamilton's third volume of the Night's Dawn trilogy, one of his characters observes that if suicides knew how terrifying it was to fall an immense distance, they would never jump off bridges and cliffs. I recall a discussion on a physics website a while ago: if you jumped from a sufficiently-tall building you would never experience the impact - your head would hit the ground, killing you, before the nerve signals of impact had time to propagate to your brain.

Still, it's the anticipation of death which is always the issue, not the state of death itself which is beyond personal experience. Nothing to fear but fear ...

 The top of the Velvet Bottom path 

 Velvet Bottom 

 View SW across the Cheddar Gorge 

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


A procession of lows across the Atlantic: this translates to chucking it down on the Mendips. We have just splashed our way back from Bristol in our Toyota semi-submersible.

My mother has a kind of thing for handsome young men who can sing a bit. This genre includes people named Michael Ball and Alfie Boe, as I have now discovered. All available on iTunes now the credit card details have been entered.

For the record our proximate reason for the trip to Bristol (apart from a visit to IKEA which kinda goes without saying) was to buy some fabric for Clare to sew into a dress; rather paleolithic as it will be done just with a needle. My directions were: a fabric shop, in the city centre, over a bridge, near the shops.

Reader, we found it.