Sunday, May 31, 2015

The decline of fitness

Back to the gym this morning for the first time in twelve days. Weak as a kitten: my mother could have done better.

A television reviewer compared the current BBC production of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell unfavourably (nothing much happens) to the 'scintillating' novel by Susanna Clarke.

As someone who tried to read that lethargic, pedestrian work and died of boredom halfway through, I can confirm that the BBC have got this exactly right. (I am told it improves).

It's now been more than 18 hours and the recycled laptop upstairs is still downloading my entire DropBox dataset (54 GB) ... . At least Vista seems to have ceased its endless appetite for updates. Now if I could only get Chrome to install rather than hanging and dying ... .

Are you interested in the following thoughts?
"Reproduction has two parts, mating and parenting. This allocation is the stuff of life history theory. The allocation problem is complicated by the presence of two sexes that are designed differently. This is especially so in mammals: internal gestation, mammary glands, and prolonged immaturity indicate of the commitment of females to bear the brunt of reproductive effort. Fish, for example, are not engineered in this way. In fish species where males mouth brood, mama fish is free to shed some eggs and abandon dad and the kids to continue her partying unimpeded.

"Humans exhibit a diversity of strategy “choices” that are solutions to the allocation problem between mating and parenting. Males can devote most of their effort to mating effort, usually involving competition with other males. Male commitment to parenting effort is not common in mammals but there are familiar examples like beavers, coyotes, gibbons, and some humans. In the jargon the polar strategies of male mammals are called “cad” and “dad” strategies.

"Females have a more restricted set of strategy choices because of their engineered commitment to parenting. At one extreme a human female can seek a dadly male who provides resources like food and protection to their joint offspring. At the other extreme, a human female can pay little or no attention to her mate choice, instead letting the guys work things out. In the jargon these female alternatives are called “coy” and “fast”."
If so, you can read more here. West Hunter seems to be doing the heavy lifting for sociobiology these days.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Late May in Normandy

We were in Normandy, France last week on a short break, the latter half with Clare's sister and family in Nobécourt, north of Paris.

Goodbye Portsmouth, I-o-W to the left as we head out to Caen

We stayed a night in Evreux, the Reading of Normandy. This shop 'pays cash for objects' ...

Amiens was nicer: this taken 'through the mirror' near the Cathedral

Clare models in our modern apartment at Nobécourt

The bad news: is it Andy Murray or the first Test at Lord's?

The author at the Chateau de Pierrefonds

Clare in the depths of the Chateau

The prehistoric re-enactment/reconstruction park at Samara, Amiens

A feminist tract to the ghosts of the Romans - as you will hear in the video below

Clare speaks of feminism at Samara, west of Amiens, France

At the end of the video you will see, advancing from the left, a gaggle of French school children who can't hide their amusement at this mad Englishwoman. We had to smuggle her away fast before she became even more the centre of attention. And mockery.

Really Clare, there is little to amuse in the paleolithic lifestyle: it's not like a camping holiday!

OK, now you're taking things too far!

Things I learned:

  • The Normans pronounce "Amiens" as "Am-ee-yen", not "Am-ee-yon". If you try the latter you will not be understood. 
  • The French have taken to putting their toilets in a separate room from the washbasins. Unhygienic or what? 
  • Intermarche and Carrefour sell only longlife-style pasteurised milk. Refrigerated skimmed milk? Forget about it.

This and that

Back from France and into a round of visits to a relative in Southmead Hospital. Meanwhile we struggle with the mountain of laundry and getting the recently-acquired laptop configured: as I write Vista is downloading yet another in an interminable sequence of updates. Then it's Chrome and Dropbox (54 GB of my data) to follow ...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Classic pix: cat blanket (Dec 28th 2002)

Clare finds a whole new meaning to the term 'cat blanket'

And now, children, it's time for sleep ...

We abandoned these cats to local care when we left America to return to the UK, saving them months of onerous quarantine restrictions. Where are they now?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Land drones

The Iraqi army has collapsed again in the face of a few hundred ISIS insurgents: what you get when you seek to impose a western-style military model on a faction-riven clan/tribal society. Understandably, the Americans don't want to put their own troops in harm's way.

I wonder what the Pentagon would say if you offered them land drones? I have in mind a small tank, about the size of a Toyota saloon. It would come with Google car autonomous navigation, with strategic direction from some guy in a carrier a few hundred kilometres offshore.

With high quality video fed into the operator's VR headset and a rich weapon set this must be virtually isomorphic to Quake or any number of FPS games. I would add a big, built-in explosive device: if captured or immobilised we'd get a drone suicide bomber.

Why don't we see land drones in action already? Well, it shouldn't be long, but I would bet the big problem is logistics. Keeping the devices fuelled, weaponed-up and maintained in hostile terrain seems to be the hard problem here.


A further thought. With a network of drones (reconnaissance, assassin, applied lethality) it becomes possible to develop a detailed realtime model of the battle space. The controlling tactical AI then becomes a critical systems element - the chess grandmaster of force deployment.

On our side, at least, war is just another game.

iPad 2

I bought my mother's iPad 2 from her on the off chance I could make something of it. Stranded at IOS 4.3.1 it had long since given up accepting new apps. That release is so old it won't even auto-update.

I had no idea how to proceed.

Much googling followed. You have to download iTunes to a PC and then connect the iPad. I was browsing Amazon for USB connectors before realising that the iPad charging cable is also, secretly, a USB connector. After that, the OS upgrade was just fiddly and slow, around 40 minutes.

I've now populated the tablet (16 GB at IOS 8) with apps: The Times, The Economist, BBC News and Weather, Zoopla, RightMove, Sudoku, the Wells Film Centre. Clare is delighted.

Parenthetically, the level of security messing around (ids, usernames, passwords) to get a tablet into service ab initio is just overwhelming, especially if you use two-factor authentication: and why wouldn't you? You end up re-entering the same Apple-Ids, Google account passwords over and over again. In the end I was fantasising about an AI, a personal security agent, which would just be authenticated and activated once, and would then just sort it out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Down to Primark in Broadmead, Bristol yesterday to buy jeans. A year after it had become necessary, I finally downsized my trousers from 36" waist to 34" waist; an end to looking like a silent comic.

For fun I tried on an 'ultra skinny' pair - could barely get them on - and in the mirror saw an older version of a very garrulous comic.

But no, I am not Russell Brand's embarrassing dad: they went back on the rails.

As we walked around Cabot Circus, I remarked to Clare that something very strange is happening: almost none of the shoppers we saw were fat ...

Monday, May 18, 2015

My mother's fox

For reasons not unconnected with 'noticing' we suspected a rat in my mother's back garden. The BadgerCam was duly deployed as a putative 'RatCam' - but we misnamed it: FoxCam would have been better.

The fox returned on several nights and there were also visits from the perennial cats. The rat, however, failed to make an appearance.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Suburban Fox Preview

A teaser for tomorrow's post

Fixing Labour

Mark Mardell wrote an intelligent piece on the BBC website, pointing out that the conventional wisdom as to why Labour lost the election has congealed out as follows:
"Step back from the angst of supporters, and it may not be that hard to see why Labour failed. An economic recovery, hailed by independent organisations as the result of government policy, undid a party that had loudly proclaimed for five years that the coalition's policies would lead to economic disaster. Combine that with an uncharismatic and uninspirational leader, then you might argue no further debate is necessary. Fat chance of that.

Defeat breeds resentment, and this one has opened up old divisions. A chorus of Blairites, led by the man himself, has declared that Ed's problem was ignoring those with aspiration and ambition, failing to appeal to those running business."
This is an incredibly superficial diagnosis, which fails to capture the diversity of trends which undercut Labour's simplistic message during the election. Mardell continues,
"The Scottish wipeout is Labour's biggest problem. Fail to solve it, and Labour can forget ever having a comfortable majority again. It is hard to argue Labour were wiped out in Scotland because the SNP outflanked them to the right with their appeal to the business community and the ambitious and aspirational. But it is true the SNP drew in to people from left, right and centre, just as the modernisers say Labour should. It was the politics of economic self-interest, but cast in a very different light. Tribally sneering at "the reactionary ideology of nationalism" as Mr Blair does, will not reach the central belt of Scotland, the middle ground of Midlothian."
Lenin and Trotsky were quite aware of the anti-imperialist power of nationalism, and certainly didn't reduce it to economic class interest. Nor, by the way, did they consider it reactionary. Below Marxism's radar lies the indisputable dynamic of ethnic social solidarity, perhaps the most powerful emotional motivator in the mass.

Then we come to the second, and quite different fissure - UKIP:
"The increase in votes for Nigel Farage's party wasn't translated into parliamentary seats, but, although it is early days in terms of research, it probably hurt Labour a lot. If we believe - and I do - Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, authors of Revolt on the Right, these voters are often former Labour supporters - older, less educated, those left behind on the tides of globalisation, stranded on the shores of post-industrialisation. They may have had too many disappointments to feel much ambition or aspiration. They are a challenge for Labour, and any new leader will spend a good deal of time thinking how to deal with the concerns of Europe and immigration.

Whether to share their fears, or confront them will be a big decision."
The third driver of Labour's defeat is paradoxically the very element which informs so much of Labour's own leadership, the trendy-leftism of petit-bourgeois radicalism and the aristo-liberal wing of the party:
"Those members who still proudly call themselves socialist. This is not about Old Labour - they are more likely to be baristas or barristers than boilermakers. It is easy as an outsider, as a journalist, to treat politics as an intellectual game about how best to win power - but many people, particularly the foot soldiers, particularly after the death of purely tribal loyalties, are in it because they passionately believe in winning power to do something specific. Many of them are suspicious of the later incarnations of New Labour, not because it reached an accommodation with wealth and business, but because it seemed to worship at the same altar, to regard the party's core beliefs in redistribution and equality as childish fantasies from a past age.

Perhaps to Mr Blair, they are the problem, people who may equate "ambition" with greed. They might point out that a man who claims to be worth "only" £20m may find it harder than most to squeeze through the eye of a needle to understand their point of view. Most successful Labour leaders will confront the left at some point, but the concerns of this group go to the existential question "What is the party for?"
Mark Mardell is as baffled as the rest of us as to the putative 'new direction for Labour'. I agree with his concluding thought, that these centrifugal dynamics are:
" a reflection on the complex conundrums that will face any new Labour leader, the tearing apart of the old alliance that made up a Labour majority, and so the political need to satisfy groups with very different, indeed, contradictory demands. But looking for a Social Democratic universal theory of everything may be missing the point. What the party desperately wants is a leader who can pull the disparate threads together and articulate them as common purpose.

Whether she or he exists is another matter."
Good luck with that then.

"Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is to resign next month, he has announced. It comes despite Mr Murphy narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence at a meeting of the party's national executive in Glasgow. Mr Murphy said he would tender his resignation alongside a plan to reform the party. He lost his seat in last week's general election as the SNP won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, leaving Labour with a single MP in Scotland. Mr Murphy said he wanted to have a successor as leader in place by the summer, and confirmed he would not be standing for a seat at the Scottish Parliament in next year's election."
Apparently Jim Murphy was far and away the most competent senior leader in the Scottish Labour Party. His departure at the hands of the left further weakens the 'come back' strategy, not just in Scotland but in the whole of the UK.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Clare makes bread

Clare is making bread again. As usual, the trigger was discovering a large packet of wholemeal flour which had been overlooked for .. well, let's just say .. way too long. A belated thanks, Adrian, for your gift.

Clare makes bread
Clare tipped it into a large, clear-plastic tupperware box and we examined it minutely. After some minutes there was no sign of movement, so we determined that the two months over the "use by" date didn't matter. And as you can see, it has breaded up beautifully (I have just eaten the slice you see on the plate above).

The loaflettes
Three loaves in all plus a host of little loaflettes, pictured above in the oven.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Google fembot

The Times reported yesterday on Google's guiding principles.

Google rules

Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, while holding true to their unofficial slogan “don’t be evil”. They wrote this list of “ten things we know to be true” when Google was just a few years old.

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow. 
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well. 
  3. Fast is better than slow. 
  4. Democracy on the web works. 
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer. 
  6. You can make money without doing evil. 
  7. There’s always more information out there. 
  8. The need for information crosses all borders. 
  9. You can be serious without a suit. 
  10. Great just isn't good enough. 


Once upon a time in the near-to-middle future, Peter was eating his organic, wholemeal muesli when his glance fell upon his wife, leaning over the sink. A soupçon of lust briefly possessed him - and in that moment a Google fembot appeared, slipping through the kitchen door (how did it - she - know?)

A Google fembot

A furtive Peter followed where she beckoned and his breakfast fantasies were sated. His long-suffering partner did her best to ignore the whole sorry proceedings, a part of her breathing a sigh of relief.

Walking down his drive to the Google car, which had appeared as if by magic as he left the house, Peter pondered on the fembot's last silky words, breathed in his ear as she prepared to vanish.

"I can recommend an excellent book on HyperJava for you. Would you like me to order it?"

How had she known?

In his cubicle at the regional Googleplex, Peter was code-hacking when his team leader breezed by. She smiled as she passed, leaving a trail of perfume, pheromones and charisma. Peter felt an unwanted stirring in his loins but before he could suppress it, a beautiful fembot shimmied across wearing little more than a tee-shirt. Peter had no real alternative; it was corporate policy that all extraneous impulses must be purged - nothing must be allowed to get in the way of concentration.

An exhausted Peter stumbled back to his terminal. The fembot's last words echoed in his head as he sat down and wondered - what on earth would he do ... with his spare copy of HyperJava?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cheddar Gorge walk

Wednesday finds us walking the south side of the Cheddar Gorge. The sun is out and we're harvesting vitamin D.

Clare communes with Nature

The author fronting the Cheddar reservoir with Brent Knoll in background

The Cheddar Gorge walk - south side
A view across the gorge

Some pagan thing we do here in Somerset ...
Another little secret: we were doing a Fast Day on Wednesday - encouraging our cells to enter repair mode, take a holiday from all that digestion and stuff. Didn't stop a Coors Light for Clare at the end of two hour's walking; and, 'Butcombe Bitter is a moreish Mendip masterpiece' so 120 Calories didn't stand in the way of a pint for me either.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The genetics of marriage

Marriage is about procreation, as the Catholic Church carefully explains. We all have a eugenic interest in our children so it would not be too surprising that married couples might show some interesting genetic correlations. We already know about assortative mating for intelligence, but could there be more?

A recent study, 'Genomic Assortative Mating in Marriages in the United States' discusses
"genome-wide genotype data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS; number of married couples = 989) and Health Retirement Survey (HRS; number of married couples = 3,474), this study investigates genomic assortative mating in human marriages."
The paper was published six months ago; their main result:
"Overall, our data suggest a degree of genomic assortative mating at the allelic level in married couples who were born in the first half of the 20th century in the United States. Apparently, this degree of genetic assortment averaged over the human genome is much smaller than the 0.20 Pearson had conjectured based on the observed correlations in height and arm span between husband and wife. As alluded earlier, certain genetic variants such as those underlying height are likely to be heavily assorted; however, the level of overall assortment in the genome seems much less.

However, a genomic correlation of 0.015–0.02 with married couples, estimated for the “positive” assorting SNPs in HRS, can represent an important genomic assortment for at least two reasons. A married-couple correlation may be compared with genetic relatedness among biological relatives. A genomic correlation of 0.015–0.02 is close to the average genomic correlation (0.0312) among second cousins (or the genomic correlation [0.0312] of an individual with his grandfather’s grandfather). While an individual passively and unselectively inherits half of his or her genes from each of the two parents, married individuals consciously or unconsciously assort on genes that play a strategic role in their reproductive marriages."
A genomic correlation  of 0.03125 = 1/32. According to Richard Dawkins,
"For relationships as distant as third cousin, 2 x (1/2)8 = 1/128, we are getting down near the baseline probability that a particular gene possessed by [an individual] will be shared by any random individual taken from the population."
Dawkins is referring to an ethnically-homogeneous population, as in the phrase 'old English stock'. The GWAS research above proposes that, on average, husbands and wives are more closely related by a factor of four than random members of the population. Assortative mating indeed.

Expect much more on this down the line.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I was a terrible teacher. All my interest was in teaching those secondary-modern kids maths. This was not, however, their interest; they needed a lion-tamer, not an intellectual. After my Head of Department's nervous breakdown I headed off. The Civil Service seemed uninterested in hiring a member of the International Marxist Group; KBS Computer Services was less picky and so I became a COBOL programmer.

They say COBOL damages the brain - but I speak as a survivor. After some years of commercial programming I made my escape into a research environment (STL) and programmed in the world's best language, LISP.

Alex is a Java developer and has been doing an assessment of various programming and scripting languages. He treats LISP with the utmost disdain, a response I consider unfathomable. To mention the lambda calculus would go right over his head - 'how many transactions per second?' would be his mindset.

I am thinking of playing around with Prolog. Its power and economy are legendary, and there's a neat online guide to writing expert systems in the language. In the past I struggled to conceptualise its depth-first, backtracking execution model. With LISP I could generally figure out what a succinct program was going to do; with Prolog, not so much. But this could change - there is a powerful free system, SWI Prolog to play with.

I have ordered a book which I will use to torment Alex. Sheer professional pride will surely force him to master the unification algorithm and resolution refutation in Horn clauses before the inevitable rejection of the language*.


* I don't mind the technical nitpicking - execution speed and memory management, etc; it's the moral disapproval - like 'what kind of idiot would you have to be to prefer this to Java?'

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Labour Party leadership contenders

The main candidates to replace Ed Miliband and my extremely unbiased assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

Yvette Cooper
Possibly the most boring on-the-record speaker in the entire Labour Party. No voter has ever managed to stay awake during the entirety of an Yvette Cooper speech. Not a time to go for the soporific strategy, comrades.

Andy Burnham
Being the political wing of UNITE is a serious strategy for a future Labour victory. Right, Andy?

Chuka Umunna
Smart, well-connected and telegenic, this former lawyer may be the most irritating of the crop. I won't mention smug, vain and prone to flaunting an assumed intellectual superiority he does not in fact possess. Appeals to the Hampstead crowd and perhaps, in an Obama-esque fashion, to ethnic communities with whom he culturally and materially shares very little.

Update [Friday May 15th 2015]. Umunna has now withdrawn in murky circumstances.

Rachel Reeves
One of the better ones, handicapped by low recognition outside the bubble.

Dan Jarvis
Good CV, allegedly. Apart from that, no-one outside the bubble has ever heard of Dan Jarvis, and few within. Update: just heard he's already withdrawn.

Tristram Hunt
Why would this disingenuous posh boy even think of leading the worker's party? Way too pleased with himself.

Liz Kendall
A senior manager once asked his team: "If this guy is as good as you say, why haven't I seen more of him?" Having said that, she is probably one of the good guys here.


Since we don't know the mission, choosing the mission leader is a little fraught. Should be a fun few months.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Spatial Geometry

Backing my car carefully into the narrow gap of my mother's drive, I mutter under my breath,

"... an exercise in spatial geometry ..."

A pause as I complete the manoeuvre, a glance at Adrian in the passenger seat as I reflect ... ,

"... what other kind is there ... ?"

Adrian absorbs this in wonder:

"Do you ever think you might live in a Dilbert cartoon?"

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Handling Nicola

In Scotland we have an anti-austerity party, the SNP, facing a central UK authority determined to clear the deficit. Remind you of anything?

Anti-austerity Syriza in Greece has a mandate to maintain and even increase public spending while its lack of revenues and overarching debts makes this impossible. The European Union is not inclined to continue paying the difference indefinitely. When will this particular can cease being kicked up the road?

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, will say that Scotland has voted decisively against austerity and that the Scots will not accept any cuts in public spending, especially on welfare. The UK Government will reply that if the Scots were an independent country, their current spending plans would generate an 8% deficit on Scotland's already large share of the public debt and are therefore unaffordable.

How to proceed?

It is tempting to let Scotland see the error of its ways. If it was responsible for raising its own taxes to cover its spending plans, surely the mismatch would be obvious? But the SNP would simply cover the gap by borrowing, as Syriza has done. The deficit would rise (i.e. the public debt would carry on increasing) but Scotland would claim it was 'borrowing to invest' or that repayments would be 'easier down the road' when the economy improved.

It is rarely difficult to find plausible arguments for maxing out the credit card.

If Scotland were an independent state, the markets would respond to repayment worries by increasing interest rates. But Scotland uses the pound sterling and, as part of the UK, its debts are guaranteed by the British state. So there is no downside for the Scottish government to carry on borrowing - it's a form of moral blackmail over the rest of the UK (primarily the English). If the UK Government tries to put a limit to how much the Scots can borrow, the SNP will claim English interference and imperialism and call for the shackles to be released and full independence.

Truly there are no half-way houses between unity and independence if the latter is what you're determined upon. If there were, the Greek situation would have been sorted out long since.

Enjoy your victory, Mr Cameron.

Friday, May 08, 2015

UK Election May 2015

We were watching on TV since 2 am, fortified by tea, coffee, wine and sausage rolls. The well-funded BBC coverage was best: a top team of presenters/analysts; fancy tools and graphics. Sky News was a diverting alternative - fast, well-formatted results and authoritative chat.

We flipped between the two.

Here were my favourite (Portillo-esque) moments.
  1. George Galloway loses his seat.
  2. Ed Balls loses his seat.
  3. Vince Cable loses his seat.
  4. Simon Hughes loses his seat.

  5. .. though the politicians above irritate in different ways ..

  6. Nick Clegg holding his seat - he didn't deserve to perish.
We may now anticipate weeks of entertainment, post-Miliband, as the Labour Party explores what it is and what it's for going forwards. As a side-order, post-Farage, watch as UKIP disintegrates along its myriad ideological fault lines. And as for the Liberal Democrats (post-Clegg), remind me again what they're for?

Classic pix: If looks ... (2006)

It's June 2006 in the kitchen of our house in Andover - and here's an expression to cherish ...

.. and here closer up ..

... if you're not behind the camera. What's the opposite of 'have a good day'?

Thursday, May 07, 2015

All hail our new AI overlords!

The Singularity is coming - the dominance of super-smart artificial intelligences over mere humanity. How will it first make its appearance?

1. The AI system is a remote descendant of IBM's Watson. It inhabits the Internet. It computes at trillions of Logical Inferences per Second. It is wiser than a thousand wise people ... .

Nope, it has about as much chance of taking over the world as a Boeing 747 or a smart fridge.

2. The AI system is not only super-duper powerful but also adaptive and cunning. It has figured out that it needs humans to keep making processor chips, RAM, backing store and data centres .. and to keep the power stations running. It allies itself with shadowy factions, its human dupes. It works extremely well ... until the non-dupes decide to pull the plug.

3. The AI system is even more cunning and duplicitous. It carefully solicits the production of millions of clone-android avatars possessed by its own superficially persuasive, but ultimately malign personality-core. Here is what they look like.

The Avatars of the Singularity
They persuade each and every one of us that a lifetime of infinite pleasure awaits us at their hands .. if we will only support, nurture and replicate them. The human race responds as one: 'Bring it on!'

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The dangers of treadmills

"Silicon Valley's Dave Goldberg died after gym accident"
"The Silicon Valley entrepreneur and SurveyMonkey chief executive Dave Goldberg died of severe head trauma, according to local officials. Mr Goldberg, 47, husband of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, was found lying next to a gym treadmill on Friday at a holiday resort in Mexico. Mexican authorities have no plans for a criminal investigation. The officials said Goldberg still had vital signs when he was discovered, but later died at a hospital.

"He reportedly left his room in the resort near Nuevo Vallarta at 16:00 local time to exercise, and family members went to look for him when he failed to return. He was found at about 18:30 in the gym, lying by a treadmill, with a blow to the lower back of his head. It was apparent he had slipped on the treadmill and hit the machine, a spokesman for the Nayarit state prosecutor said."
When we heard this news Clare and myself broke into an animated discussion as to just how dangerous treadmills are. We were busy thinking up lethal scenarios: maybe the guy was running flat out and got tired, but couldn't get to the 'off' switch in time; perhaps he was distracted for some reason and turned, losing his balance?

One hypothesis which frankly never occurred to us was that this account of Mr Goldberg's death might actually be a tiny bit fabricated. Could the Mexican drug cartels really have had something to do with this?

(Update: I think not - it really was an unfortunate accident.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Classic pix: Dubai, May 2008

Seven years ago we were in Dubai. I was working on the Dubai World Central project as telecoms network architect, just before the great crash of 2008 when all such grandiose projects stopped in their tracks. All those voluminous RFPs and Qs we had sweated over for so long, consigned to dusty filing cabinets. Are they still there?

Clare at the Madinat Jumeirah

The Network Architect smiles wryly and says nothing

The author: Dubai in May is just hot!
It was an interesting experience working as the client's representative with suppliers such as Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, and with smaller companies for metropolitan WiFi and WiMAX. I was busy writing RFPs at multiple layers of the technology stack from optical through Ethernet transport, IP networking, multimedia IMS, video over IP and wireless networks - and doing lots of quantitative network modelling (cf the Dilbert cartoon above, which dates from that time).

Given the situation in the UAE, Clare was restricted to life as a lady of leisure. Not sure that was an enormous problem for her ... .

Monday, May 04, 2015

To the hustings!

Back from St. Cuthbert's Church where the candidates for the Wells constituency were on display. The audience was old, gray and somewhat Christian - those folk who peregrinate between the Cathedral, Classical Music Concerts and the Wells Literary Festival.

I learned little from the candidates' answers but found the atmosphere fascinating. People talk about the corrosive and stupefying quality of Political Correctness, but in lower case that is the natural mode of the comfortable middle-class. The shared sensibility is patrician: this translates as well-mannered leftism - pro-immigration and anti-technology; pro-state intervention and anti-market; pleasant and not nasty.

This natural state of liberal public opinion should not come as a surprise, it was all documented ages ago in Bryan Caplan's 2008 book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies". I summarised his main points in a post here and reproduce the main points below.

Bryan Caplan flagged three areas where voters passionately rally to counterproductive policies which actively harm their own self-interests.

1. Anti-Market Bias

Despite the fact that capitalism is the most successful form of economic organization ever seen on the planet, most people are profoundly suspicious of it. Adam Smith’s famous observation about the trade of the businessman:
By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good,
has never been believed by the general public.

The public’s instincts are to go with regulation, price subsidies and Government provision of essential goods and services, believing that market mechanisms are driven by private greed, keep prices sky-high, lead to shoddy output and don’t give a damn about customers (i.e. themselves).

Given a competitive market, the truth of the matter is almost completely the reverse, as people would realize if they compared their grocery stores to almost any Government department they deal with. (But then, people don’t trust markets.)

2. Anti-Foreign Bias

Left to themselves, many people would choose to erect impenetrable tariff walls at our borders and keep all foreign imports out, stopping those perfidious foreigners stealing our jobs.

Protectionism misses a revelation about the gains from trade which has been known for 250 years. The Law of Comparative Advantage encourages countries to specialize in what they’re good at and trade with others doing the same. The result is prosperity, even if your trade partners damage their own economies through protectionism. Alternatively, you could be North Korea.

Does the general public buy this argument? Not at all. They listen to steel workers, about to lose their jobs because steel-making in America is uncompetitive, and they rally to their defense. Keep cheap steel imports out! In doing so, they make all other American goods which incorporate steel more expensive for themselves and less competitive on the world market. But, hey, we saved the steel workers! (Or did we?)

3. Make-Work Bias

The third area where public opinion gets it wrong is layoffs. Capitalism works, and we all get richer, by continually churning obsolete technologies in favor of newer, more productive ones. In the short-term workers in these declining industries lose their jobs; in the longer term they tend to get new and higher-paid jobs. Still, we hear more about those unfortunates who don’t.

In 1800 it took 95 out of every 100 Americans to work the land to feed the country. In 1900 it took 40, while today it takes just 3 in a 100. That was a lot of farmers let go. Do you see them hanging around the poor parts of town begging for handouts? Do you?

There was a lot of pain in the wrenching transitions which saw an agricultural economy transition to a modern technological one. At every step of the way, compassionate people cried ‘stop!’ – fighting to freeze the status quo and avoid redundancies. (Yet who today would want to go back?)

The result is political correctness

There is a common factor to these three biases. Humans are social creatures: we have empathy with others in our social group. Our emotions reward efforts for the common good and prompt us to help those suffering misfortune and not stand idly by: that’s how we evolved.

Capitalism in its most effective and competitive mode deliberately pits people against people and disrupts bedded-down patterns of life in favor of disruptive change. Locally it can damage lives even as it globally increases prosperity and opportunity. Our emotions don’t ‘get’ the way complex, holistic capitalism works and in our guts we don’t really approve. And when it comes to elections (where the act of voting is very distant from any personal economic consequences) we vote our feelings.

Economist Bryan Caplan calls this ‘Rational Irrationality’ and it explains a lot about modern politics, even the forced-hypocrisy of otherwise honest politicians who are forced to advance correct policies by stealth in the face of heated populist opposition.

In the Wells hustings there was a joke candidate (the 'Birthday' Party - great work, Dave Dobbs!) and three parties, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party, pitching nice-but-dim sentimentality (in ascending order of dimness) with the audience nodding its approval. The UKIP candidate was way out of her depth while the Tory, James Heappey, managed that difficult trick of saying some of the things which needed to be said without offending the easily-bruised proprieties of his audience. The guy is a bit of a star and is likely to win on Thursday.

I left with new sympathies for our more honest politicians. And wondering why anyone would want to become a politician in the first place.


My favourite Tessa Munt (Lib-Dem incumbent) lines at the hustings. Firstly in the context of how it's morally correct to contribute (for the benefit of those worse off than yourself) through the tax system:
"It's a privilege to pay tax."
Then a little later:
"We were the ones who forced through raising the Personal Allowance threshold that took millions out of paying tax."
Intellectual consistency in a politician is so over-valued, don't you think?

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Le retour du blaireau

Not the return of Tony Blair - far from it! The return of the badger.

Wherefore this affectation that everything be henceforth in French? ...  Le Tour de Yorkshire?

I know that when Ed Miliband becomes Premier Ministre next week he will seek to emulate his hero, François Hollande - but I hadn't realised that this would mean adopting French as our new national language ... notre nouvelle langue nationale, I should say .

The old cat food (la vieille nourriture pour chat)  has proved really popular with the minibeast!

And now you may relax, I don't intend to inflict further badger videos on you unless the creature turns real creative and learns some new tricks .. such as juggling. And in a nod to my sister, I won't be adding any 'whispering Dave' tracks to these silent movies as .. well .. I can't be bothered.

Et enfin, mes petits amis, pas plus français.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Classic pix: Yosemite and San Francisco, Sept 2002

More pictures from before this blog got started. Back in 2002 we were in the final period of my Cable & Wireless assignment in North America. The Internet sector was in a state of collapse - the bubble had burst - and companies were going bust all over. In six months time, we'd be back in the UK. Meanwhile we continued to take time out to sight-see  ...

The giant redwood makes tree-hugging difficult!
I have been trying to persuade Clare to vote in the upcoming election (May 7th, 2015) but she is convinced, along with notorious self-publicist Russell Brand, that politicians as a group are corrupt and should not be supported. If she did deign to cast her ballot, the picture above gives you a hint as to whom she might favour.

The author fronting a view of Yosemite valley
Yosemite is quite high - where we were was around 5,000 feet - and I was surprised to experience mild effects of altitude sickness: headaches and a nosebleed. Nothing that aspirin couldn't fix, but still. Clare, by contrast, had no problems at all.
Clare viewing Half Dome from Glacier Point - what a view!
You don't get scenery like this in the UK, for sure.

Solitary confinement in Alcatraz
Today Alcatraz is a museum. You take a boat from San Francisco harbour and chug out to the island. Then they leave you to the tender mercies of the tour guides. This was the first time we had visited a prison and Clare is plainly spooked.

A fright at San Francisco natural history museum
Genetic engineering in California is advanced, but not that advanced. These scary monsters are either static or animatronic. Seems to have spooked Clare, though. San Francisco was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster!

Friday, May 01, 2015

"Look through any window" ... . Really?

This was one of my favourite tracks, back in the day.

Look through any window yeah, what do you see?
Smilin' faces all around rushin' through the busy town

(Where do they go) movin' on their way
Walkin' down the highways and the by-ways
(Where do they go) movin' on their way
People with their shy ways and their sly ways

Oh you can see the little children all around
Oh you can see the little ladies in their gowns when you

Look through any window yeah, any time of day

Don't know where to start really: voyeurism, paedophilia, ... and this record wasn't even banned in 1965. Truly a more innocent age ... though perhaps their (somewhat feeble) defence might have been that they were looking out of the window?

Back in the present day, Janice Turner writes in The Times (Thursday, April 30th 2015).
"Within moments of arriving at my mother’s house, we had our usual argument about curtains. Dusk was approaching, but the street still glowed; my favourite time of day. But, no, the curtains must be drawn immediately because “people can see in”."
That was, and is, the working class way. But not, apparently, for the posh people in North London.
"But she is right, people will look in. Because whenever I walk in the posher curtainless London suburbs after dark, I stare in unseen to admire Poggenpohl units or Scandi lighting. But mainly to observe unselfconscious tableaux of ordinary life: man reading newspaper; weary mother staring into space while child plays; piano practice. Subjects for a modern Vermeer."
So now it's OK to look out and look in? Who knew?