Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Sexism watch

A prison. Or possibly Barad-dûr.
I am highly averse to sexism in any form. I confess I tend to watch out particularly for sexism that influences men, a) because I am a man, and b) because there are far more people ready to highlight sexism aimed at women.

There is still work to be done in worming out existing sexist rules and regulations. But what I can't understand is why anyone would possibly introduce new sexist regulation.

It has just been announced that from November, male prisoners in England and Wales will be required to work harder for their privileges. What about female prisoners? Well, 'Officials are still working on possible changes to the privilege scheme for women prisoners.' I'm sorry, that's not good enough. What I find hard to believe is that the BBC doesn't comment on this, or that it can arise in the first place.

There is no excuse for any new policy being discriminatory. There should be no exceptions. As soon as anyone suggest a policy that specifies only one sex it should immediately be thrown out. Surely it wouldn't be hard to have this as a legislative protocol?

Of course there will be circumstances when something will have to be done to the rules applying to one sex to bring it into line with the other - that is desirable from the point of view of defeating sexism. But there is no way that something new and discriminatory should be allowed to go forward.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 29 April 2013

Triple dip recession? Dip schmip.

The only kind of triple dip that matters
In my new book, Dice World, one of the subjects I cover is the way that statistics are misused by the likes of politicians and the media. For instance, the way that a politician can get all huffy about a policy having a negative effect on families with just two average earners - without pointing out that having two average earners puts a household in the top 25% of the country. Or the way the media can make a big thing about a statistic by using percentages, where the actual change is negligible. So, for instance, we might hear that pickpocketing has risen by 100%. Outrageous! Sack the chief constable! But if you hear that the number of incidents has gone up by one compared with the previous year (because there was only one instance of pickpocketing last year), the statistic has a rather different flavour.

A rather more subtle statistical misuse comes with all the fuss about whether or not the UK was about to enter a triple dip recession. As it happens we didn't - so the Chancellor could make all sorts of positive political noises about how his policies are correct. If we had, then no doubt the Shadow Chancellor would have jumped in yelling that this showed how bad the government's policies are, and how the country was going to the dogs. Yet either interpretation (and getting all excited about it being a triple dip) is another misuse of the statistics.

To respond this way to these tiny quarterly shifts is similar to sitting on a beach trying to decide whether or not the tide is coming in. A wave splashes onto the beach. 'The tide's coming in!' You cry. Then the sea recedes a little in the post-wave lull. 'No, the tide's going out!' Then the next wave arrives. 'The tide's coming in!' And so on. Very soon you would arrive at a triple tide afternoon.

Any data of this kind has both underlying trends and noise, the noise being random movements that do technically have a reason - but the reason is so complex, a messy mix of factors, that you might as well just regard it as chaotic noise and ignore it. Tiny shifts in GDP from quarter to quarter are just such noise. And should politicians or journalists choose to make much of these 'dips' or 'recoveries' (I was pleased to hear the BBC's Stephanie Flanders avoid this trap on the radio the other day) they are either deluded or trying to mislead us.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Friday brain stretching


There's no day like Friday when we're more in need of a little assistance to get the brain going. So here's a little mental challenge to get you going for the day.


A man stands in the centre of a large field. There four horses in the field, one at each corner - a bay horse, a chestnut horse, a white horse and a black horse. For reasons we needn't go into, the man has to kill his horses.

If he must remain at the centre of the field, the horses stay at the four corners and he is a perfect shot, how can he make sure that none of his horses remain alive using only three bullets?

Don't read any further until you've attempted an answer. If you get one quickly, there are at least three solutions - try for another.

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Last chance to consider your answer.
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One solution is that only three of the four horses are his, so he only needs to shoot three to make sure that none of his horses remain alive. A second is that one of his horses was already dead of the terrible disease that was about to claim the others - hence his need to shoot them. A third is that the white horse was a chalk carving and had never been alive. There are more possibilities too.

Apart from the creative exercise in coming up with a solution, there is an interesting lesson here. We are conditioned from an early age to expect a single right answer to a problem. Often in reality there are many potential right answers, something that those whose careers depend on creativity forget at their peril.

Any thoughts on other solutions to the problem?

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Pounding the Scots

'Is there enough cash in here?'
It's not often I agree with George Osborne. In fact counting on the fingers of one hand would probably leave a couple over for a rude salute. Yet I have to say that I have some sympathy with the UK government's recent observations on what would happen to an independent Scotland when it came to currency.

The SNP was quick to point out that the Osborne observations were little more than campaigning for a 'no' vote in the upcoming referendum (which I still think should be open the all of the UK, not just Scotland), and they were probably right. And yet I am all in favour of Scottish independence, but I can still see Osborne's point.

There seem to be four options available:

  • Go into the Euro
  • Keep the pound in some kind of 'Sterling zone'
  • Use the pound without official sanction from the UK 
  • Set up a separate Scottish currency
Of course until recently the Euro appeared to be the desirable option to the SNP (if you set aside the possibility that Scotland might not have been accepted) - but it has become a poisoned chalice. No one wants that anymore. The 'Sterling zone' is the SNP's new idea, but I really can't see why the rest of the UK would want it. All the evidence is that currencies across multiple sovereign states produce serious problems. Scotland could go for the unofficial pound, just as Panama uses the US dollar, but I suspect this is considered beneath the SNP's vision of a proud, independent Scotland. As for a DIY currency, the SNP is rightfully wary, because Scotland is sufficiently small for this to be a risky approach indeed. Even so, it may be the only real option.

What I was fascinated by was Alex Salmond's rather petulant 'If you won't go with a Sterling zone, we won't accept our share of the deficit.' It made me wonder just how that would work. Given a national deficit isn't like a building society loan, split after a divorce, how would it work? Who would decide who gets what if both sides are saying 'I don't want this bit'? It's an interesting conundrum.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

3D without the headaches

I am not a great fan of 3D movies. The 3D glasses are a pain when you wear your own specs, and the effects generally give me a headache while rarely seeming convincing. You won't see me rushing to buy a 3D TV any time soon either.

However there is a very different side to 3D that I think has huge potential - 3D printing. When I visited the Dyson research centre with BBC Wiltshire one of the outstanding aspects was the way they made trial spare parts for their vacuum cleaners using 3D printers. But it is a very new area to most of us, which is why I appreciated having the chance to take a look at Chris Winnan's book. This provides a detailed overview of the state of play of 3D printing for the rest of us (as opposed to the Dysons of this world) and gives some very interesting thoughts on the way this market will develop.

Winnan suggests, I think absolutely correctly, that at the moment we are in the same state with home 3D printing as they were with the 'homebrew' microcomputers before the mass market off-the-shelf products - first the likes of Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum and now the ubiquitous PCs and Macs - came along. So yes, at the moment, domestic scale 3D printers don't look like real products - but I have little doubt that they will and standards will arise.

Something else Winnan spends a lot of time on is how these printers can be used for fun and profit. After all, there is no point having a printer unless you need to print something, whether in 2D or 3D. This is an area that really gets the reader thinking. Some users will be designers using the 3D printer to produce artworks and models (one big example Winnan uses is all the miniatures bought by sci-fi enthusiasts), just as digital artists print their products now - but this is not the mass market. For the rest of us it is much more likely that we will print spare parts to replace broken bits (yes, even of Dysons), and will print new items other people have designed - so, for instance, instead of waiting for an object to come from Amazon in the post, you would download it to print, just as you now download an MP3 file. I suspect we would also print from scans, whether professionally done or cobbled together from phone camera software, just as phone can now generate quite sophisticated panoramic photos. (Imagine, for instance, a 3D model of your child's hand as a baby, complete with those tiny fingernails. Not my cup of tea, but I suspect it would be quite popular.)

As an ebook, 3D Printing has pros and cons. There's lots in it, and it really makes you think - but it's rather messily put together and you will probably find that you need to skip through pages of detail that aren't necessary to get the message. Having said that, though, the book is extremely well priced and very informative.

A few years ago I would have said 3D printers were valuable in R&D, but wouldn't find their way into the home any time soon. Chris Winnan has persuaded me otherwise and I, for one, can't wait.

Find out more with the book 3D Printing: the next technology gold rush available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

You can fool some of the people...

As featured in here
And now for something completely different! It's... Monty... Hall's amazing problem. (If you aren't old enough to remember Monty Python, ignore that bit.) I have mentioned the Monty Hall problem before as a great example of the way our brains struggle with probability, but in researching my latest book Dice Worldin which it inevitably features, I was lucky enough to be given some new information by my mathematical/computing friend at Oxford University, Peet Morris.

The problem (of which more in a moment) gained worldwide fame when it featured in the 'Ask Marilyn' column in Parade Magazine in 1990. The column was written by Marilyn vos Savant, whose claim to fame was appearing in the Guinness Book of Records as the person with the highest IQ in the world.  (She was born Marilyn Mach, but despite appearing to have a phoney attempt to get the word 'savant' into her name, vos Savant was her mother's surname.) What was remarkable about the problem was that  so many people - some of them mathematicians and professors - got it wrong. It is fascinating now to look back and see some of the letters published in Parade saying what a terrible mistake vos Savant made.

If you already know the problem, you might like to skip the next bit. It is based on the game that ended the quiz show Let's Make a Deal, hosted by Monty Hall. In the version described by vos Savant, the winning contestant is given a choice of three doors. Two have goats behind them, one has a car. It's a purely random choice, so when the contestant picks a door - say door 2 - there is a 1 in 3 chance they are right and a 2 in 3 chance they are wrong. The game show host now opens one of the other doors and shows a goat. Finally the contestant is given a choice. Would they like to stick with the door they have, or switch to the other unopened door? The question is, should they stick, should they switch, or does it not matter (probability wise) which they do?

The vast majority of people can see this is very simple. There are two doors available (because we can discount the one the host opened with a goat behind it). One has a goat, one has a car. So it's 50:50 which will be right. This means it doesn't matter if you stick or switch.

The vast majority of people are wrong. You will double your chances of winning if you switch.

Here's one explanation of why. Remember at the start, there was a 2 in 3 chance the car was behind one of the other two doors. All the game show host does is show you which of those two not to choose - but there is still a 2 in 3 chance the car is there. So you ought to switch. This only works because the game show host has information you don't. He selected a door he knew to have a goat behind it.

If, despite this argument, you don't find it convincing you are not alone. I remember when the problem was first publicized many of us wrote little computer simulations to prove the outcome. And it's right. Switch and you have a 2 in 3 chance of winning. But, as I mentioned, the most fascinating thing were the irate letters vos Savant received and reproduced. Here are some of my favourites (I have replaced names with initials to avoid any blushes). I particularly love the last one:
I'll come straight to the point... you blew it! [repeats the problem] Let me explain: if one door is shown to be a loser that information changes the probability to 1/2. As a professional mathematician, I'm very concerned with the general public's lack of mathematical skills. Please help by confessing your error and, in the future, being more careful. - R. S. PhD, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.
You blew it, and you blew it big! I'll explain: After the host reveals a goat, you now have a  one-in-two chance of being correct. Whether you change your answer or not the odds are the same. There is enough mathematical illiteracy in this country, and we don't need the world's highest IQ propagating more. Shame! - S. S. PhD, University of Florida
I have been a faithful reader of your column and have not, until now, had any reason to doubt you. However, in this matter, in which I do have expertise, your answer is clearly at odds with the truth. - J. R. PhD, Millikin University
May I suggest you obtain and refer to a standard textbook on probability before you try to answer a question of this type again? - C. R. PhD, University of Florida
Your logic is in error, and I am sure you will receive many letters on this topic from high school and college students. Perhaps you should keep a few addresses for help with future columns. - W. R. S. PhD, Georgia State University
You are utterly incorrect about the game show question, and I hope this controversy will call some public attention to the serious national crisis in mathematical education. If you can admit your error, you will have contributed toward the solution of a deplorable situation. How many irate mathematicians are needed to get you to change your mind? - E. R. B. PhD, Georgetown University
You're wrong, but look at the positive side. If all those Ph.D.s were wrong, the country would be in very serious trouble. - E. H. PhD, US Army Research Institute

Monday, 22 April 2013

Take yer picture, guv?

Image from Memoto
When I was in my twenties I was a great photography enthusiast and though it was impractical with my usual SLR, I always had the intention (never fulfilled) of getting a pocketable camera which I would have with me at all times to capture those unexpected moments.

Now, of course, most of us have this capability in the form of camera phones. Being able to take a photo at any time is a given assumption. When I broke my shoulder a couple of months ago, apart from asking after my well being/should they call an ambulance, the thing passers-by said most often was 'You should take a picture [of the paving slab]' - the assumption was that of course I would have then means to do so about my person.

There is a more extreme possibility, though - so called lifelogging. Take, for example, the soon to be available Memoto camera. At a mere $279 this is a tiny camera you clip onto yourself and it takes pictures every 30 seconds, which are then uploaded to an online store/memory structuring site.

My knee-jerk reaction was that this would be rather good - not really in the sense of lifelogging (who would really want to record '4 hours sitting in front of computer with occasional visit to the loo and to get a coffee'?), but rather so that those occasional moments when you do want a picture, you wouldn't have to do anything about it, it would just happen. But then reality set in. What are the chances that the thing you desperately wanted to capture would be in the 30 second gap, or that the ideal snap would be a) covered up by your jacket or b) taken at angle of 27.6 degrees?

So I probably won't be going down that route. But something inside me still desperately wants one...

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Friday, 19 April 2013

Chemistry in bad taste

I have something for a fondness of the old school science fiction of the 1930s and 40s when new elements were invented at the drop of the hat.

Probably the most familiar is kryptonite (it was later redefined as an alloy, but started off as a classic 'element unknown to Earth science'). This is why I just love the sound of denatonium benzoate. Surely denatonium must be stronger than any known material, or has tendency to leave superheroes weak at the knees? But no, this is a compound that makes things taste extremely unpleasant - and it's the subject of my latest podcast for the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Wash your mouth out and hurry over to the RSC compounds site to see more on this incredibly bitter product that has the capacity to save lives. If you'd like to listen straight away, just click here.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Real men don't use tablets

Yesterday I spent an enjoyable day in London, with an interview at the Guardian newspaper in the morning and giving a talk at Westminster School (thankfully well after the Thatcher funeral was our of the way) in the evening. In between I had a few hours to spare, so equipped with the mobile office that is my iPad and a few books I decamped to the RSA House in John Adam Street which has a pleasant library (with free wi-fi) for us privileged Fellows to work in.

So there I am in a largish room with quite a few of us working at tables, mostly on laptops, a couple using the traditional (and rather clunky looking) PCs provided and two of us on iPads.

Taking a look at this scene, I wonder if I see the reason why the iPad, despite its obvious superiority for many mobile tasks, has not conquered the macho business world quite as quickly as it should have. Because even though I can type almost as quickly on the iPad screen as a traditional keyboard, the curious hovering way your hands move over a touchscreen look remarkably... camp. I really can't think of a better word to describe it. Comparing my fellow iPad user's gestures with those on a butch laptop, it just wasn't the same. Your fingers flutter in a way that is very different from a conventional computer.

Don't get me wrong - tablets are making big inroads in business, and will continue to do so, but I do wonder if this effect has slowed down their uptake.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

News and bombings

Apologies for having two news media posts in the same week (and I write this on my phone on the way to Grauniad Towers to record a podcast interview) - it's events, dear boy, events.

I was struck by a letter in today's i newspaper moaning about the heavier coverage of the Boston bombings than those in Iraq. 'Are American lives so much more newsworthy than Iraqis?' asks the writer. The simple answer is yes, for two reasons. (Note this is newsworthy, not valuable, a totally different question.)

Firstly it's a matter of the nature of news. The unusual is more newsworthy than the usual. 'Sun does not rise,' would make a better news story than 'Sun rises.' Bombings are relatively rare in the US.

Then there's the matter of closeness. A death in your family is more newsworthy than a death in the UK, which itself is more newsworthy than a death in a remote part of the world. Forget the global village, that's the way it is. And like it or not a bomb in Europe or America is culturally closer to most in the UK than one in Iraq or China.

To expect otherwise is simply naive.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

You got it wrong, BBC

Unlike some, I am a great fan of the BBC. I naturally think nice things about them. I think they do great work and are a national treasure. Some of my favourite programmes are from the BBC, and I don't resent paying the licence fee. But they got it horribly wrong over the recent North Korea documentary scandal.

In case you haven't heard/are looking at this through the mists of time when the incident is long forgotten, the BBC sent an undercover team along with a student visit to North Korea arranged by the LSE. The university and many academic bodies are protesting that the broadcaster put the students at risk, and undermined the ability of academics to be considered neutral, safe people to have working in dangerous areas.

Two things strike me about this. One is a very small one, but curious. I have heard at least ten reports on this on the BBC news, and not one of them has mentioned a very pertinent fact that was in the Independent on Sunday. It seems that one of the LSE academics leading the trip was the wife of the BBC reporter John Sweeney at the heart of the furore, and he was travelling as her husband. This doesn't have any bearing on whether or not the BBC was right or wrong to do this, but it seems very strange that it has not been mentioned.

The main one, though, is why I think the BBC did get it wrong. My knee-jerk reaction was to side with the BBC against the LSE, an organization that usually gets my back up, especially when its spokesperson sounded like an archetypal plummy over-priveleged whining academic. After all, the BBC needs to be able to do investigative journalism, and this was a rare opportunity to get into this secretive country. But when I actually thought about it from the viewpoint of the students, I realized just how wrong this whole thing was.

The BBC's defence was that the students were all adults (18 or over), they had been warned there would be a journalist with them, and about the accompanying risk in advance, and they had been told there were actually three journalists with them when the were in Beijing on the way to North Korea. What they have not said, though, is what choice the students were given.

Thinking back to my 'adult' student days, it would not have been an easy position. Okay, we didn't have physics field trips, but I assume from the students' viewpoint, this trip was a contributory part of their course. If they said they wouldn't go, presumably it could have a negative influence on their degree, or whatever they were studying for. Seen in that light it was totally wrong to say that the students were given a clear choice, if, as I suspect, the choice given to them was either go or don't go. The only honourable choice the BBC could have offered them was 'If anyone is uncomfortable with this, the BBC will not go with you, the trip will simply go ahead as originally planned.' To expect students to weigh up the risk of having BBC personnel along against the risk of damaging their qualifications was too high a price to pay.

As soon as you look at this from the students' viewpoint, it is clear that the BBC got it wrong.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 15 April 2013

Periodic puzzle

I'm drinking my coffee from this mug today
Last night's episode of Endeavour, the prequel to Inspector Morse, in which we see a young Detective Constable Morse learning his trade, featured one of those fiendishly complex puzzle-based clues that I am sure real-world detectives never come across (but are still fun for the viewer).

Morse spotted that the set of hymn numbers on a hymn board in a church (which we had earlier seen the soon-to-be-murdered vicar putting up) were strange. The numbers were 74, 17, 18, 19. I was slightly pleased with myself to spot that this was an unusual collection of numbers and probably meant something, but kicked myself for not spotting the clues the writer had carefully provided us for doing the decoding.

We knew that the vicar loved puzzles, had been a cryptographer during the war, and previously had been a chemist - there was even a framed periodic table on the wall of his house.

What Morse spotted, but I kicked myself for not doing, was that if you write out the chemical symbols of the elements with the atomic numbers the vicar put up on the board you get:

W ClArK

And low and behold, the murderer was one W. Clark Esq. Clever, eh?

What struck me since is that I could not do the same for myself. I could do a rather mangled B ClErGe, which might give you a clue, but without an E or a G, it's a bit of a mess. And that led me on to wonder just what the people who devised the chemical symbols were smoking (or inhaling in their fume cupboards). 

It all starts well with a simple rule that seems to be 'use a single letter for the first instance and a two letter variant for subsequent ones.' So in the first couple of rows of the table we get the single letters H, B, C, N, O and F, with He and Be for the next instances. But why is lithium, the first L, Li instead of L? Why is magnesium, the first M, Mg instead of M? You might assume that they decided not to use any more single letter names. Only we later come across P, S, K, V, Y, I (not even the first I) and W.

It's totally bonkers.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Chinese boffins should know better

Ceci n'est pas une superordinateur
I generally rather enjoy the slightly anarchic view of technology news provided by website The Register, but I have to confess that one of their recent articles got my dander up, though to be fair to El Reg, more because of what I presume was in a Chinese press release than because of the way it was reported.

'Chinese boffins predict iPad-sized supercomputers' screams the headline. Now, I ought to point out  for those not familiar with it that The Register has a house style of using ironic labels, so Apple lovers are usually 'fanbois', iPads are usually (though not here) 'fondle slabs' and scientists are always 'boffins'. But what I dislike here is the use of tenuous leap from an interesting bit of science to a vapourconcept (if I can generate my own Regism).

What the Chinese scientists have done is observe the quantum anomalous Hall effect (yes, as I pointed out recently, physicists aren't very good at catchy names) in the lab. This is one of those long-predicted but elusive quantum effects and has the potential, in principle, to enable electronics to be made more compact than they currently are (which is saying something) because it may be possible to overcome the tendency of electrons to generate unwanted heat from electrical resistance.

So basically what we have is a first demonstration of a hard to produce effect, in a lab, in conditions that couldn't possibly be duplicated in mass production without radical changes that may well stop the effect working. Yes it is just possible that it might result in faster computers... but it may well not. And the idea of an iPad-sized supercomputer being the outcome is a bit like saying 'We have now built Voyager 1, which due to special relativity has travelled 1.1 seconds in the future. This technology may mean we will be able to build Back to the Future style time machines.' Okay, it's possible, but it's a big leap.

According to the article, team leader Xue Qikun is quoted as saying 'The technology may even bring about a supercomputer in the shape of an iPad.' Mostly scientists are getting the idea that making predictions for the technology that could be produced from their science based on extreme extrapolation  is simply a mistake that results in reduced public trust in scientific pronouncements. But clearly some have still to learn.

You can read the Register article here and see the paper (if you subscribe to Science) here.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

A dose of salts


In need of a dose of salts? At one time, the obvious thing to do would be take yourself off to Epsom. But magnesium sulfate, the compound behind those foul tasting waters, really could have health benefits when added to your bath - and it's the subject of my latest podcast for the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Hurry along to the RSC compounds site to see why bath salts shouldn't just be for granny and much more about Epsom's most famous product - or if you've five minutes to spare now, click to to have a listen to my podcast on magnesium sulfate.


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The naming of names

I gather from the BBC that Peter Higgs gets rather irritated when the Higgs boson gets referred to as the God particle. Leaving aside those who get miffed that Higgs himself gets the sole glory of the name, I think this is very short-sighted.

Dr Higgs' objections are twofold: a) that he is an atheist and b) 'I know that that name was a kind of joke. And not a very good one I think.' To be honest, I think it might better if we had more God particles and less of the kind of names scientists tend to come up with left to their own devices.

Let's get those objections out of the way first. So what if he is an atheist? Does that make the word 'god' disappear? Irrelevant. (And 'god' is used illustratively by plenty of atheists and near-atheists - Einstein and Steven Hawking to name but two.) As for the second, well yes, it was a sort of joke. But what's the problem with that? A touch of taking-self-too-seriously perhaps? According to Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist behind the name when he wrote a book with that title, he really wanted to call it the 'goddamn' particle, but the publishers wouldn't let him. (To be fair, the publishers were probably correct. 'The God Particle' is attention-grabbing. I have a book called The God Effect, a direct reference to this name, and having the G word in the title of a book does no harm to it.) For that matter 'big bang' was a sort of a joke too, but though there were a few moans early on, it has generally been comfortably accepted.

The fact is, there are three kinds of scientific names. Probably the best are the simple ones that are catchy and get the point across. Think electron, positron and photon, for instance. These are the ideal, but they are few and far between. Then there are the occasional jokey but memorable ones. God particle and big bang apart, we have, for instance, those interesting proteins like sonic hedgehog, pokemon, seahorse seashell party, dickkopf, R2D2, Homer Simpson, glass bottomed boat and, my favourite, abstinence by mutual consent.

Unfortunately we also have lots of dross. Either words with no real mental handles that require rote learning and don't really put anything across (think boson, fermion, lepton etc.) or even worse convoluted terms that if anything mislead. Gauge theory would be a good example - it sounds like it's about measurement, but actually it is, of course, (to quote Wikipedia): a type of field theory in which the Lagrangian is invariant under a continuous group of local transformations. That makes it nice and obvious, doesn't it children?

I think when scientists moan about populist names some are in suffering from a problem that goes back to medieval times. I am very fond of the thirteenth century proto-scientist Roger Bacon and he was a great believer in communicating science. He had to be, bearing in mind the book proposal he first wrote was 600,000 words long. However he didn't believe knowledge should be shared with common oiks like you and me. He was very much of the 'pearls before swine/cabbages before goats' theory. Knowledge was only for the cognoscenti, and I think some scientists actually resent anything escaping from their ivory tower world.

The other reason some dislike these names is the feeling that they trivialize - but that misunderstands the whole point of making something memorable. Which is more likely to stick - big bang or gauge theory? Black hole or eigenvector? If you want to communicate, you have to think about the words you use, and all too often the words that are enshrined in science are a mess.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Privatization worked

There will be much said positively and negatively about the late Margaret Thatcher over the next few days. But whatever your opinion of her policies and what they did for or to the country I have to say that, from the inside, the impact of privatization on at least one company was wonderful.

I joined British Airways when it was a nationalised industry. It wasn't an unpleasant place to work - far from it - but, frankly, it was fairly low energy. I had an interesting job and I enjoyed it, but the overall feeling was of a company that had little unity and more interest in the status quo (down to the separate 'officers' mess' style management canteen) than, for instance, its customers. In the entire time I was working for a nationalized company I only saw a board member once, and that was in the run up to privitization.

Privatization changed everything. There was a dramatic new energy - it really felt like somewhere exciting to be working. More to the point, the majority of people working there went from being enthusiastic about planes or technology to being proud of working for British Airways. There was a dramatic new focus on customer service - suddenly, customers mattered to everyone. I got significantly more exposure to board members, apart from anything because they were spending considerable amounts of time with the staff, rather than squirrelled away in Buckingham Palace Road in London. Without any doubt whatsoever, the airline became a much better place to work, and provided a much better experience to the flying public. I honestly believe that this could never have happened without privatization.

I'm not saying it was perfect, and those who still work for the airline may well say it isn't now what it was back then. But those who look back at a golden age of nationalized companies are living in cloud cuckoo land. Privatization was right for BA - there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind.

If you are a supporter of Mrs Thatcher's work, don't take this as wholehearted praise. There were other things her government did that were disastrously handled or simply misguided. But if you are of the demonizing camp, frankly you do your intelligence a disservice. Everything the Thatcher government did was certainly not bad, as I can testify. Back then, you might well have had reason to see things through rosy tinted spectacles or coloured by the flames of hatred. But now we have the chance to employ 20:20 hindsight and should accept that both bad and good things came out of that period.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 8 April 2013

Mind bending shoes

One of the key points in my new book Dice World is something of a truism in the scientific world - and yet it's something that constantly trips people up (in the case of the example we've got here, literally). It's all to do with the way we interpret numbers - something that is crucial to science, but that we also do frequently in everyday life. And there we hit a problem. We interpret the world around us through patterns - and all too often we see patterns where they don't exist. If, for example two numbers move in a  similar way (they are correlated) we tend to assume that there is a cause that links the two (causality). And its very easy to forget the scientists' mantra 'correlation is not causality.'


It isn’t just the person in the street who can confuse correlation with causality. In 2004 a Swedish scientist called Jarl Flensmark published an academic paper titled Is There an Association Between the Use of Heeled Footwear and Schizophrenia? What is disturbing is that despite apparently asking a question in the title of the paper, he presents the hypothesis in the text as if it were a statement of fact: ‘Heeled footwear began to be used more than 1,000 years ago and led to the occurrence of the first cases of schizophrenia.’ Flensmark then shows a parallel between the growth of heeled shoe production and an increase in the prevalence of the disease.

We are told that the first known examples of heeled shoes were in Mesopotamia, as were the first institutions for mental disorders. A whole string of European royals are listed as possible victims of schizophrenia and who were also known – or at the very least thought – to have worn heeled shoes. Flensmark notes that it is the upper classes around the world that typically wore heeled shoes first – and it is the upper classes who were more likely to report symptoms that would now make doctors suspect the existence of schizophrenia. The pattern, Flensmark suggests, is simple. After heeled shoes are introduced, the first cases of schizophrenia appear, and as wearing of the shoes grows more popular, so do the frequency of attacks of the disorder. Simple cause and effect.

Flensmark comes up with an ingenious, if rather intricate explanation for why walking in such shoes could have an influence on the brain. But there are so many opportunities here to confuse correlation and causality. Heeled shoes have, as he suggests, typically first been taken up by the upper classes, because they are impractical, and the appeal of impracticality usually only develops once you don’t have to worry about where your next mouthful is coming from. Wearing such shoes also will tend to increase as society as a whole gets wealthier and more sophisticated. Yet the trappings of class, wealth and sophistication are also more likely to result in more reporting of illness, mental or otherwise. If life is a constant struggle, you either die or you get on with existence despite any illness. In a primitive society like medieval Europe, there is no medical safety net. Being seriously ill and staying alive is a luxury only available to those who can afford it.

What seems to be recorded here are two separate causal links, which when combined result in an unrelated correlation. It seems entirely reasonable that wealth and being of a higher class cause the increased wearing of heeled shoes. And it also seems likely that wealth and being of a higher class produced increased reporting of the symptoms we associate with schizophrenia. But there is no reason to deduce that the shoes caused the mental illness. In fact if there were a causal link, the more obvious one might be that schizophrenia caused sufferers to be more likely to wear heeled shoes, which are hardly a rational piece of footwear. There are, no doubt, many other potential causal structures as well, but the point is that an academic has made an assertion of causality despite there being absolutely no real grounds for making it. Humans – even academics – need their patterns.

Whenever someone tells you on the news, or even in an academic paper, that A causes B, make sure they have clearly identified the causal link. Otherwise get yourself a significant pinch of salt.

Find out more about Dice World.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Goths and hate crimes

You shouldn't be attacked for looking like this
- or any other way
There was a wonderfully cringe-making piece on the often glorious Channel 4 News last night, covering the move by Greater Manchester Police to consider attacks on goths, emos, bikers and goodness knows what cultural groupings as hate crimes, putting them on a par with racist attacks. The cringe-making part was Jon Snow saying he would like to dress like a Fearless Vampire Killers band member who was one of his interviewees - but the interesting point was made by a journalist present. He was doubtful about this move because it was making an artificial distinction - and I think he was spot on.

The thing is yobs (as the journalist labelled them (and, no, he wasn't from the Sun, it was a broadsheet)) will attack anyone for looking different. It all depends on context. No one is going to attack someone for dressing like a goth at an a concert for a band that has that particular look. But they might have trouble if they turned up in a suit and tie. When I was at school I was twice attacked for wearing my school uniform. Not just verbal abuse (there were plenty of examples of that) - once a punch to the jaw on a crowded railway station (no one took any notice) and once having stones thrown at me in a quiet suburban street

The fact is that literally anyone can be attacked for looking different. For their age, the way they dress, the way they look, the way they behave. For having red hair. This is as old as the hills. I'm not saying it is acceptable - of course it is to be abhorred and punished. But to single out particular groups as a 'hate crime', implying that somehow attacks on other people for exactly the same reason are less significant is a serious mistake and should be avoided at all cost.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Alea jacta est

I'm delighted to say that my latest book, Dice World is now available for sale. Subtitled 'science and life in a random universe', it's about randomness (well, duh), probability and statistics. It explores how the ‘clockwork universe’ imagined by Newton, in which everything could be predicted given enough data, was disproved bit by bit, to be supplanted by chaos theory and quantum physics. This is a world in which not only is accurate forecasting often impossible but probability is the only way for us to understand the fundamental nature of things.

Where else do you get a chance to meet Maxwell's Demon, Schödinger's cat and take part in an experiment using Bayesian statistics to see how a mug on my desk alters the probability of my owning a golden retriever (no, really)?

I've really enjoyed writing this book, and I hope it will be of wide interest. If you fancy buying it, it would be ideal if you could use the links below (or from my website). (Apologies if you've come here for a chance to win free books - this was on the launch date, 4 April only!)

You can see the paper version here at Amazon.co.uk and the Kindle version here at Amazon.co.uk. The paper version is expected any moment on Amazon.com here (there are already some Marketplace sellers), but the Kindle version is already there on Amazon.com.

Ooh, er, I'm all excited!

Forget the clockwork universe. Welcome to Dice World!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Google the reader killer

Feedly in a browser
I am not feeling the love for Google at the moment.

I suspect the problem this behemoth of IT has, even more than Microsoft did at its zenith, is that it really doesn't care about its customers, because it gets its revenue indirectly from advertising. So it has no problem with messing its users about.

Like many people I read feeds from many blogs and the like using an RSS reader - specifically the Google Reader. I don't use it direct, I use a front end app on my Mac and phone/iPad - but behind these are the Google engine. And the big-I-am has decided to pull the plug. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensues.

I had hoped to stay with Reeder, the Mac-based app that I use most, as they announced pretty quickly that they would find a new back end. And they have - but it's a paying service, and that's something I am reluctant to do for this kind of facility. So it's time to head off in a new direction.

I've tried out several alternatives before settling for Feedly - it doesn't have a Mac app, but it does have a plug-in for Safari and other browsers, plus iOS (and Android) apps. It is free, quick, rather elegant and promises that it will seamlessly transfer over from the Google back end to its own when then time comes. Another essential for me - the Safari plug in has a 'save to Pocket' option, which is the captured info app I use from my reader.

It's not perfect as a replacement. With Reeder the app sat at the bottom of my screen with a little counter, showing me how many new posts there were to read. Now I have to go into Feedly from my browser before I find out. However I used to have iGoogle as my home page on my browser (something else they're giving the chop), so I've now switched over to Feedly. It's certainly a whole lot better than being dumped in the ditch by the ungrateful Google.

You rotten lot.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Has the time boldly gone?

While I loved the original series of Star Trek, for me the ultimate was Star Trek, the Next Generation. With better acting, more depth of characters, much better visuals and some excellent storylines it was a transformation of the Star Trek theme. I mean, come on, Patrick Stewart as captain? What's not to love?

So I was rather excited to have a chance to review a book called On Board the U.S.S. Enterprise by Denise and Michael Okuda, which is a detailed exploration of the NCC 1701-D, both in the pages of the book and on an accompanying CD-ROM with a graphic reconstruction of various parts of the interior.

I suppose I should have realized I was setting myself up for disappointment. Part of the reason for this is that if you watch an STTNG episode now, frankly they can be a bit creaky. So it's not entirely surprising that the same applies to the book. Just as graphically the TV series now looks rather fuzzy, badly coloured and crude, so do the images, mostly taken from screenshots, in the book. Yes, we are told quite a lot about the ship - but there's nothing there you wouldn't have picked up if you hadn't watched the series. And if that was the case, you wouldn't want to read the book. It really doesn't extend what was there already. It's not enough, for instance, to tell me about dilithium crystals - I want to know where they come from, how they work...

Similarly, the graphics on the CD-ROM are quite good, though at each location you are limited to viewing from two or three places in the scene, but the end result is strangely empty feeling, rather like those graphics you want to skip through on DVDs that come before you choose an episode.

My biggest problem with this book is who it's for. An STTNG fan will not get anything more than a whiff of nostalgia - there's certainly nothing new here. Perhaps the best person to buy this book for is a youngish person, discovering the series for the first time and not yet immersed in the Star Trek universe.

I'm sorry not to be more positive - of course if you are the kind of total fan that collects everything to do with STTNG you will want this. But for the mild fan who hasn't got the complete boxed sets but enjoyed it very much at the time, this was a let down. Do, however, feel free to see for yourself. The book is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.