2016-11-18

Get Over It: a response to John Rentoul Chief Political Commentator at The Independent and Stephen Kinnock MP



Brexiters who tell remainers to "get over it" are people who think losing the referendum is like losing at football or having your favourite celebrity voted out of a reality TV programme. Brexit is an economic catastrophe in waiting (how big a catastrophe depends on some decisions within our control and many without our control, but there will be a great deal more red tape and a relative, if not an absolute, reduction in real UK living standards). More significantly – at least to those directly impacted like my own family – Brexit represents an assault on the rights and freedoms and lives of millions of people in the UK and the rest of Europe.

True democracy has checks and balances. It is not a system whereby a majority of those who vote can impose any whim – no matter how damaging – on the rest of the population. I rather doubt that that Messrs Rentoul and Kinnock would be quite so sanguine over a majority vote to (say) permanently banish all MPs and journalists from anywhere south of Watford Gap – unless they applied for special papers.

If the vote had gone other way: 52% remain 48% leave, I should have been relieved but still deeply dismayed that 48% despised other Europeans to an extent that they were prepared to reduce their own living standards in order to prevent those foreigners coming here. (Let us not kid ourselves, cries of “we want back control and sovereignty” were just a more politically correct version of “send them back!”.) Moreover, Farage and his ilk would have never “got over it” (as he made perfectly clear before the vote) if it had gone the other way and he – and his fellow travellers in the Conservative party – would have carried on stirring up hate and division and fighting to leave.

There are approximately three million EU citizens here in the UK and approximately two million British citizens living and working in the EU – with families and loved ones – who are absolutely terrified as to what the future holds. We will use any legal and democratic means to thwart the plans of the Brexiters. If (and you may scoff but it has happened often enough before in history) they begin rounding up families (who came here legally) and interning them and forcibly deporting them, I personally would support civil disobedience to protect the deportees. In fact, I should argue that civil disobedience was a moral duty.

We are never going to “get over this”. We are going to keep fighting for our values of internationalism and tolerance - and for whatever rights we can salvage from the mess of Brexit – as long as we draw breath.

2016-06-18

The bitter taste of Apple

I'm old enough to remember entirely command-prompt computing on DOS and UNIX systems. Then along came the XEROX/PARC work on GUIs. I remember seeing "GEM" running on an old BBC and could instantly see the enormous potential.

When our lab got its first Macintosh 128K, I was blown away. As things worked out, I next got a new job in an entirely UNIX workstation environment. Powerful machines (at the time) but the SUN GUI was primitive compared with what the Mac had to offer & we had shelves of manuals 5m long whereas the Mac offered an intuitive interface that required no manuals.

We then moved to PCs running Windows 95 (or "Mac 89" as people joked).

Thereafter, PCs (usually at least) got better and better and easier to use with each new O/S and I always naively assumed the same was happening at Apple. Certainly the Apple hardware got better and better.

Then last Christmas my wife needed a new phone and laptop and decided to go for a 4s and a MacBook Air. I assumed – as a computer programmer with nearly 30 years’ experience and fond memories of how easy to use Apple Macs used to be – I’d find it child’s play to help her. How wrong I was. I quickly discovered that Apple had apparently spent the past 27 years making their interfaces as counter-intuitive as possible and hiding as much basic functionality away from the user as possible.

Whereas, in the old days, a UNIX or DOS user required all sorts of arcane knowledge to perform basic computing functions, it is now the Mac user who has to learn all the secret tricks.

It begins when you full-size your first window and the resize, minimize, and close buttons disappear from the screen (one of many situations where the user is led into a cul-de-sac from which there is no obvious escape or way back). You try to scroll, and again you need to know a secret trick. You try in vain to accept predictive text suggestion on the phone until, once again, you are let in on the secret – using the space key (why didn’t I think of that?). Right clicking, deleting forwards – things which are entirely obvious on the PC – require esoteric actions on the Mac which have to be discovered and learned.

I could go on and on …. but let me jump to the very worst aspect of the Mac …..

The DOS and UNIX operating systems were built on the idea of a file tree. A highly intuitive metaphor for what actually goes on on a computer disc – which isn’t really organized at all like a tree. Because the idea of a file/folder tree is so intuitive, it was (conceptually at least) easy to navigate files and folders - even in the days when all we had was a command prompt.

Then we got GUIs with icons for different computers and their drives and for the flies and folders on those drives and with drag and drop so you could see exactly where your stuff was and where you were putting it or moving it to.

Why oh why oh why did Apple abandon a paradigm so intuitive and easy to use in favour of vague notions like “libraries” and “synching” and “sharing” and “streaming” and try to “flatten” trees into lists, and different locations into textual descriptions of actions? Most of the time, the user has not the foggiest idea of where his/her stuff is, or where it is going, or which copy of his/her stuff is having a particular action performed on it.

Trying to set up and use iCloud or iTunes is a nightmare. I need to know exactly what file (versions) are in which place and what’s going to happen on my various devices or on the central repository when I click “OK” in a dialogue box. It is impossible to find out except by trial and error, and an error might result in the loss of all my data.

The worst application, by a million miles, on the Apple desktop is “Finder”. OK this works as a search tool – something that has never worked well on the PC (though many 3rd party tools did and do) – but is utterly utterly hopeless for browsing and reorganizing your files. How on earth did Apple's GUI designers take something as intuitive as a UNIX file-tree and come up with something as opaque as Finder? It defies belief.

Please can Apple go back to the days when they tried to make life as easy as possible for the end-user rather than as difficult as possible?

2016-05-25

Lost in France

Driving almost anywhere in the UK has become a nightmare, but driving along the D roads of France is a pleasure I have always treasured - and one that is still available even today.

France has a wonderful system of roads – all numbered in a highly logical way – and wonderful (again, highly logical) Michelin maps to help you navigate your way around.

Unfortunately, there is a catch. In fact there are several catches. If you drive through the back roads of France, you will frequently get lost (and often hopelessly so.).

As a Francophile (and general nerd) I have spent many years thinking deeply about why this is the case. Here are the results of my internal deliberations:

The arrows of outrageous foredoom

Wittgenstein once wrote:

How does it come about that this arrow points? Doesn't it seem to carry in it something besides itself? — "No, not the dead line on paper; only the psychical thing, the meaning, can do that." — That is both true and false. The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.[1]

And here, he is making the point (as part of his discursive theses on language and rule-following –which need to detain us here) that there is nothing intrinsic to an arrow that forces us to react to it in any particular way. After all, what would you say to the person who looked at the arrow and then walked left? You could, perhaps, say “no, that means go that way” pointing to the right with your finger. But your eccentric observer might then reveal that he or she interprets pointing gestures by walking from the tip of the pointing finger towards the elbow of the pointer. In the end, Wittgenstein argues, we are left with the facts of “what we do” when presented with pointers and arrows.

Though (or perhaps because) the French were never great fans of analytical philosophy, they seem to have taken it upon themselves to reify Wittgenstein’s remarks on a grand scale.

Let me explain:

If you walk footpaths in the UK, you encounter signs like this:

[2]

These work perfectly well for walkers. I approach the sign from Malham and I only need to turn my head slightly, as I walk by, to see that I must continue in the same direction for ½ a mile in order to reach Malham Cove. The sign points in the direction I have to go.

Signs like this are useless for driving however. If we were concentrating (as we ought) on the road ahead we should miss them. Instead we have, by and large, adopted the convention that road signs should function like a map held vertically in front of our eyes:

[3]

The two arrows on the right of the sign do not mean “ascend vertically”. They mean “drive forwards at ninety degrees to the direction I am pointing in” ie North (And who, of course, would wish to go in the other direction?).

The French, though this is now slowly changing (see for example the cartoon at the start of this post), never really took to this convention as they established their highways infrastructure. Instead, the French adopted the convention that a sign pointing at forty-five, or even ninety, degrees to the direction of travel should be used to indicate “straight on”:

[4]

Which is clear enough in a situation like this. Unfortunately, the French also retained the convention that a sign may actually indicate the direction of travel.

The end result is that you reach a junction littered with signs - some of which are pointing in the direction you actually need to drive in order to reach the destination indicated on the sign and many of which are pointing at some almost arbitrary angular displacement to that direction.

At complex junctions, with many roads radiating out from the junction at many angles, towering helixes (that would put Crick and Watson to shame) of road signs are constructed with each sign actually pointing along the road prior to the one intended:

I have only shown the main signs (for clarity). The sign post will also have dozens of signs pointing to lesser destinations such as the local l’Hotel de Ville and La Marie. Some of these lesser signs will actually point in the direction of l’Hotel de Ville and La Marie or whatever it is. Others will, like the main destination signs, follow the convention of pointing at forty-five degrees to the intended direction. It all comes down to the whim to the person who erected the sign post, and how many glasses of vin ordinaire he or she had for lunch beforehand I suppose.

The chances of a non-native selecting the correct road in this situation are exactly zero.

Having selected the road-pointed-down at this junction rather than the road-intended, your problems have only just begun. The French have set far deeper traps for the unwary navigator ………

The French have never quite grasped the function of road numbers

Let me set the scene ……

You have just driven through the moderately sized town of Le Chatméchant and made the fatal mistake of driving in the direction that one of the road signs was pointing. You now find yourself heading along a beautiful country road but in the general direction of the Alps rather than the Mediterranean. You pull over and check the map. Rather than turning around and heading back to Le Chatméchant - where you will almost certainly be led astray again - you realize that you can simply carry on, take the next fork right on the D996 towards the little town of Uncheval. Continue through Uncheval on the D996 and you will soon re-join the N666 (the road you should have taken out of Le Chatméchant) and be back on your way heading south.

You drive on and soon reach a fork in the road. There is no mention of D996 or of Uncheval. Instead there is a sign (pointing at some arbitrary angle but apparently indicating the road forking to the right) which mentions the name of a place you are quite unable to locate on your Michelin map (without consulting the index). Nonetheless, you conclude this must be the correct turning and you bear right.

You are soon reassured. Every hundred metres, as you drive along, there are little concrete signs informing you that you are still on the D996.

[5]

Since there are no turn-offs or junctions, this seems a trifle redundant, but I suppose it helps those with poor short term memory.

You then arrive in the centre of Uncheval. There is a lovely town square, a Hotel de Ville, and a Marie and a dozen roads radiating out from the central square.

Which one to take?

All mention of the D996 has now ceased. You are presented with lots of signs (all of them pointing at entirely mysterious angles) which list all sorts of places you might love to visit if you had time but bear no relation to any of the places which (you have noted from the map) lie along your intended route.

Now you have two choices:

  1. You try each of the radial roads in turn until you exit Uncheval and encounter a concrete waypost bearing the rubric “D996” … or not.
  2. You pull over in front of the Patisserie (nipping in to buy a surfeit of Tarte aux mirabelles) and once more consult the map.

Craning your neck and then getting out of the car to get the view from the other side of the peuplier tree you draw up a list of each of the dozen or so indicated place names. You look each one up in the atlas index and then try to locate them on the map. Eventually, you suppose, you will find a place name that lies on the D996 and be able to choose the correct road out of Uncheval.

But the French have one more trick up their sleeves ..... well not really a "new trick", more a further illustration of the fact that identifying roads (rather than destinations) is essential to navigation:

The Mornington Crescent problem

Imagine, if you will, that you are travelling from Belsize Park (perhaps after a bit of “loving on the floor”) and wish to get to Mornington Crescent.

Imagine further that you are entirely unfamiliar with the topology of the London Tube system and that, once you get down to the platforms, no information whatsoever is provided. All you get is trains arriving and leaving declaring their final destinations as “Edgeware”, “Mill Hill East”, “High Barnet”, and Morden.

(Actually, this is more or less the situation you always find yourself in when trying to use the Paris Metro; but I am using this as an analogy for navigating roads using only direction signs.)

The destinations of the trains are not going to help you find your way to Mornington Crescent.

Now imagine you are provided with a map. You realize that you must catch one of the trains going to Morden rather than one of the others. But which train going to Morden?

Let us now imagine that the illuminated signs on the fronts of the trains and on the platforms announce not just the final destinations, but some of the intermediate destinations. Thus:

MORDEN
Via Camden Town, Euston, Kennington, and Balham.

That is still not going to help you get on the right train.

What is required (and what Transport for London – in their wisdom – provide) is some way of distinguishing between the two lines (the line that goes through Charing Cross and the line that goes through Bank). And that is, in fact, how TfL do it. The train signs announce “Morden via Charing Cross” or “Morden via Bank” (or more often “Kennington via ~” ….. but let us stick to the point).

I have often thought it would be clearer from a navigation standpoint if the Northern Line were split into two lines (as it once was: City and South London Railway and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway) but I do not suppose they will take any notice of my views here. At least TfL do provide a way of distinguishing the different routes and you can (if you look on the map and find out where Bank and Charing Cross are) figure out which train to get on to reach Mornington Crescent.

In the analogous situation on a French country road, you have a much chance of reaching your intended destination without getting lost as you have of arriving at Mornington Crescent by driving down the D996.

In short, responsibility for signposting in France should be taken entirely out of the hands of the French and handed over to us. They could take over our cooking and cheese production (except, of course, for Wensleydale).

Still, there are few finer places on the planet to get completely lost than the back roads of France.





[1] Philosophical Investigations, trans Anscombe. p454
[2] https://www.contours.co.uk/inspiration/challenging_or_iconic.php
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield_and_the_North
[4] http://www.cotedazurcollection.co.uk/touring-holidays-south-of-france.htm
[5] http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/road_milestone.html

2016-03-04

Making sense of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

Now I'm not a lawyer and you should take any legal conclusions I reach below with a pinch of salt. But I am good at modelling (or at least I make a living from it) and I thought I'd have a go at trying to represent the drug-law framework as a Venn diagram so that we can all understand it better:

So ..... from the top:

Substances

There are lots of different substances in the world. Some, like (say) plutonium, are rather dangerous and should probably be illegal on account of their dangerousness. Some are more benign - like say water (though even water will kill you if you immerse yourself in to for too long or even if you drink a few litres too quickly) - and quite useful so should probably be legal. I have an open mind on some things .... like "pop-tarts" and copies of the Daily Mail.

Psychoactive substances

A "Psychoactive substance" is "capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it" and "a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state". [ref]

Hmmm. I suppose that makes sense so far .... though it covers a rather broad range of substances - many of which have yet to be discovered. And it, in effect, makes all those substance (apart from those in a new list of "Legal psychoactive substances" that come along with the new bill) illegal .... but also (logically) legal by virtue of not being in the set of "Illegal psychoactive substances". Some of these substances - legal or illegal (or perhaps in a quantum superposition of legal and illegal) - may or may not be very bad for people, but I've never been quite sure why we ought to punish people for doing themselves harm (and in addition to that harm) by imbibing such substances. By the way, I suspect that breathing in the fumes from dry-wipe pens could be especially bad for your liver and brains if you overdid it and it's probably best to stick to the water-based ones - though they are not as good as the old smelly ones for writing on (or cleaning off) white boards.

Anyway, onward and downwards ....

Legal psychoactive substances

... listed by the new Act

I suppose the first thing to point out is that washing down codeine tablets with whisky will probably kill you - as will whisky on its own if you drink too much of it all at once ... or even over an extended period if you overdo it. If you buy your codeine over the counter from the local pharmacy it will come with paracetamol and you will die particularly horribly if you take too much.

But all that aside ...."Legal psychoactive substances" are already (from a logical point of view) legal by virtue of not being in the "Illegal psychoactive substances" set. So I suppose putting them in a "legal" set makes them super-double-plus legal ... or something.

Illegal psychoactive substances

... listed by the old Misuse of Drugs Act

If you take heroin you will get terrible constipation. It is also nearly as addictive as nicotine - one of the legal (and also not illegal) highs. Also, because it is illegal, any heroin you buy will probably come mixed with all sorts of things that are really bad for you - especially if you inject them.

As with dry-wipe pens and tobacco and lots of other things, it's probably, on balance, not a good idea to take heroin .... but should it be illegal?

The logical problem here is, again, that "Illegal psychoactive substances" are already illegal by virtue of not being in the set of "Legal psychoactive substances". So I suppose, again, putting them in an "illegal" set makes them super-double-plus illegal... or something.

In short, I have the impression that whoever dreamed up this legal framework must have been completely off his (or her) face.

2016-01-25

A letter to my MP re Nicky Morgan's heroic attempts to prevent integration

Letter to my MP @NazShahBfd re @NickyMorgan01's latest bizarre moves sent using writetothem.com - please feel free to use as a template for a letter to your MP.

Dear Naseem Shah

You were recently reported in the Guardian as saying that the poor standard of English among many women in our constituency was a “huge barrier to integration”.

I agree.

David Cameron (whatever you think of his proposed solutions - and I don't think very much of them) has expressed similar views - suggesting that the Government too is in favour of better integration of our communities and that the Government also thinks that the failure of integration helps promote extremism.

In view of this it seems all the more bizarre that more and more school children are being segregated along religious lines in *state funded* "faith schools" and "schools with a religious ethos" (which are apparently not considered "faith schools"). Far from promoting integration, such schools promote division and discrimination (both against the children themselves and in the recruitment of staff) that would be illegal in any other walk of life.

Even worse, many (most?) such schools do not even fully stick to the limited laws and rules which are in place to try and mitigate the divisive effects of faith based admission criteria.

Against this already dismal background, I was particularly dismayed to learn that Nicky Morgan is going to further "protect" faith schools from campaigners against religious discrimination - who, as a minimum, want faith schools to be compelled to abide by the existing rules.

I realize you are a member of the Opposition not the Government, but you are (I understand) in a position to ask questions of the Government and expect an answer.

Please could you ask Nicky Morgan why integration of adults with different religious backgrounds is regarded as a good thing whereas the integration of children with different religious backgrounds is regarded as a bad thing?

Yours sincerely

Michael A Ward (Dr)

2015-12-14

Unicorns

Charles Arthur (@charlesarthur), reacting to a question from a ten year old, posted the following tweet:

Which turns out, like many “silly questions” to be a rather profound one … and one which I certainly struggled to answer (if you have any more answers or object to any of my reasoning or claimed facts, please comment below).

The initial pedantic responses to the question from various geeks like me (and indeed – in one case - from me) pointed out that rhinos don’t have true horns (their “horns” comprise matted hairs) and that they do usually have two horns (one behind the other). But neither of these observations (relevant though they are) do anything to diminish the force of Charles’s question.

As Charles responded to one claim that rhinos don’t have horns: “let’s impale you on one and see how that goes”.

Lots of creatures have horns, antlers, tusks, swords etc, which I shall generalize to: Pointy Things Sticking Out Of Their Heads (PTSOOTHs). Swordfish, walruses, elephants, deer, narwhals, rhinoceroses, and many others spring to mind in this context.

Ptsooths may be composed of bone, cartilage, hair, skin, or tooth enamel. Ptsooths start out, in evolutionary terms, as small bumps that confer some tiny advantage, and evolve from there. They may serve (or have served in different phases of evolution) various purposes which include: protection from predation, hunting weapons, digging tools, and sexual signalling devices.

The term “sexual signalling devices” covers a multitude of sins here. Huge antlers may signal “don’t mess with me” to rival males (and may be used to actually fight rival males) and “please mess with me” to females. In this kind of situation, runaway sexual selection often occurs and – as with the peacock’s tail – we can end up with ptsooths that are far too big for the purpose for which they originally evolved and that may actually be an encumbrance for the ptsoothholder – at least in its non-sexual life.

But to get back to the real topic here, all vertebrates have basic bilateral symmetry[1]. The symmetry is not absolute. Most men have unsymmetrical testicles and while we usually have two lungs and two kidneys, humans only have one spleen, one penis/clitoris, and (timelords aside) one heart. Our single heart does not, however, offend the basic symmetry of the body as much as many imagine:

[2]

The spleen does:

[2]

But these are soft tissues. Vertebrate skeletons are far more symmetrical and (save for the backbone itself and a few other bits) contain two of everything. In particular, the skull (or at least areas of the skull from which ptsooths grow or could grow) develops (embryologically speaking) from two symmetrical sets of bones that fuse together.

[3]

You can see the join!

Jaws (mandibles), foreheads (frontal bones), crowns (parietal bones) are all made from two symmetrical halves with a join (suture) down the middle. Even “single” skull bones – like the occipital bone at the back of the skull – are formed (earlier on in embryo development) from two (or four) initial symmetrically arranged sites.

So to really come to the point (pun intended) animals with ptsooths generally have two or four or six – ie even numbers of ptsooths – because they grow ptsooths from bits of bone that come in pairs and not from the joints between them.

So this could be why there are no unicorns …… but (to go back to Charles’s initial question) what about rhinos? (Let’s just consider the long front horn or consider Asian rhinos which do only have one horn it seems[4]).

Well because the rhino “horn” is essentially a modified tuft of hair, it was free to start evolving wherever on the skull it wished to. After all, many of us have tufts of hair between our eyebrows or on our noses (which many of us pluck out in order not to further enhance our rhino resemblances). Both single or double ptsooths could be useful and the rhino went for a tandem (or single) arrangement because it could[5].

It should be noted that both rhinos and deer still have bilateral symmetry – if Damien Hirst sawed either in half down the middle he’d end up with two pieces that were essentially mirror images of each other. (By the way, I wonder what he did with the other half of his shark?)

”But what about narwhals (the ‘unicorns’ of the sea)?” I hear you all cry.

Well this is where it starts to get really interesting! (So I hope you’ve persevered this far.)

The narwhal[6] “horn” is in fact a tooth – a left canine tooth to be precise. It grows very long and in a helical fashion. The socket for the tusk has migrated very close to the line of symmetry of the narwhal and grows straight forward – providing the unicorn-like appearance:

[7]

– but narwhals are actually slightly asymmetrical:

[8]

Very occasionally, narwhals grow two tusks, but they never grow a single right tusk or reverse the handedness of the helical twist of either tusk.

Unicorns also have a twisted horns and it is often claimed that depictions of unicorn horns were based on observations of narwhal horns.

[9]

Unicorns, however, twist both ways:

[10]

There again, so does DNA – in its depictions! In real life, DNA[11] only goes one way – the opposite way to the narwhal horn.

The ancestors of modern deer also had tusks[12]. Later they evolved horns and their tusks withered away as their horns grew. I see no reason – in principle – why deer or antelope (or other ungulates) could not have evolved to grow (say) only their left horns and why that single horn could not (with a slight asymmetrical deformation in skull development) have moved over towards the centre of the head. Such a “unicorn” would not be quite symmetrical but, given that they have helical horns, unicorns aren’t really symmetrical either.

In fact, thinking about it, I don’t really see why – if the horn were composed of two fused halves (like the swordfish “bill”) – we couldn’t have had a “unicorn” with a single symmetrical untwisted horn.

Moreover, if the frontal and parietal bones of the skull withered away and the occipital bone filled in for them (stranger things have happened in skull evolution) why couldn’t a single horn develop from the middle of that bone in roughly the right place for a unicorn style horn? I know not.

In conclusion then, I have no idea why there are no unicorns …… perhaps there are!



Postscript: Since writing the stuff above, Rab Austen (‏@RabAusten) has reminded me that the triceratops also had a (front) horn on the midline of its skull. This was a "real" (bony) horn and would - as Paolo Viscardi (‏@PaoloViscardi who has forgotten more about bones than I shall ever learn about them) kindly confirmed - have been formed from the fusing of two symmetrical elements - like the swordfish bill. I'm not sure whether a horn formed like this could then grow with a helical twist (though as Paolo also points out, stranger things happen at sea) but Rab's insight certainly lends support to the claim that there is no reason - in principle - why a horse-like creature could not have evolved a bony horn in the middle of its forehead.


  1. Invertebrates often have bilateral symmetry too. Even starfish - which superficially have radial symmetry - have a complicated and interesting way of forming that involves bilateral symmetry. Other invertebrates - snails and sponges spring to mind - break the "rule" in other ways.
  2. http://keckmedicine.adam.com
  3. http://http://fineartamerica.com
  4. Thank you to Steve Jones (‏@TheEulerID) for this information
  5. http://news.bbcimg.co.uk
  6. Please note that evolution does not work in the way I talk about it (metaphorically) in this post. Evolution has no plan, intent, or purpose. It's all natural (or sexual) selection acting on random mutations, It is, however, often easier to describe what happens in evolution using teleological language - as long as we don't forget that it's just a metaphor! OK?
  7. I'm getting all my information about narwhals from Chris McManus's excellent Right Hand, Left Hand which I urge you all to read.
  8. https://cdn-images-1.medium.com
  9. http://www.mermaidsrock.net
  10. http://http://kristell-ink.com
  11. OK I'm talking B-DNA not Z-DNA ... pedant!
  12. Deer Antlers: Regeneration, Function and Evolution by By Richard J. Goss esp p72 et seq


Also published at Pulling on the corkscrew of life

2015-11-13

Homeopathy: Can we believe what we hear?

Homeopathy: Can we believe what we hear?

The BBC Radio Four Today programme interviewed one Dr Peter Fisher (Clinical Director and Director of Research at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and a Fellow of the of the Faculty of Homeopathy) this morning (2015-11-13 beginning at 01:33:39).

When pressed on the scientific evidence for homeopathy (the subject of the interview) Dr Fisher had this to say:

"The most recent analysis of all clinical trials of homeopathy conducted by the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at the University of Glasgow came to a clearly positive result that was published last December."

I thought I might take a look at this paper, so I tweeted Dr Fisher:

Dr Fisher kindly got straight back to me:

I think if I were going on the wireless to cite a scientific paper I should have grabbed hold of a copy beforehand - just to be on the safe side. But perhaps Dr Fisher has a better memory than me. Let us see.

I am still waiting for Dr Fisher to dig out his copy of the paper and send me a link or a reference so I thought I might try and track it down myself.

First port of call The Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at the University of Glasgow. No publications there at all concerning homeopathy - in 2014. So I checked 2015 and 2013 just to be on the safe side. No joy.

I tried another tack and googled "Robertson Centre for Biostatistics" Homeopathy. This led me to this page of the British Homeopathic Association which cites a "Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy". This page and my google search both pointed to the paper below - all roads lead to Rome it seems.

Randomised placebo-controlled trials of individualised homeopathic treatment: systematic review and meta-analysis Robert T Mathie1*, Suzanne M Lloyd2, Lynn A Legg3, Jürgen Clausen4, Sian Moss5, Jonathan RT Davidson6 and Ian Ford2

* Corresponding author: Robert T Mathie rmathie@britishhomeopathic.org

Author Affiliations

1 British Homeopathic Association, Luton, UK

2 Robertson Centre for Biostatistics, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK

3 Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK

4 Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung, Essen, Germany

5 Homeopathy Research Institute, London, UK

6 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA

This paper is dated 2014 December and refers to the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics, University of Glasgow and is a meta-analysis of homeopathy studies. I'm sticking my neck out and assuming this is the paper which Dr Fisher referred to ..... but just to be on the safe side I tried to double-check:

So far I have not been vouchsafed a reply. If I do hear from Dr Fisher I shall be more than happy to revisit what I say below - should this prove to be the wrong paper.

Assuming it is the right paper, let us list the claims made for it (each in turn):

  1. This paper analyses "all clinical trials of homeopathy".
  2. The analysis was "conducted by the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at the University of Glasgow".
  3. This paper "came to a clearly positive result".

Does this paper analyse all clinical trials of homeopathy?

No. It analyses some clinical trials of individualized homeopathy. In other words, it does not analyse clinical trials of the homeopathic remedies that the vast majority of people who avail themselves of this type of product consume. It analyses a small subset of trials which involve homeopathic prescriptions individually specified by dedicated homeopaths. We might note here that it is intrinsically more difficult to conduct large scale blinded randomized trials on groups of patients receiving individualized treatments than it is when all patients are receiving exactly the same treatment - especially when that treatment is in the form of tablets. But let's defer judgement on the trial itself. (please see note [1] below)

Was the analysis conducted by the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics at the University of Glasgow?

No. The paper is not listed by the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics as one of its publications. The paper has six authors, one of whom - Suzanne M Lloyd (a statistician) - works at the Centre. The copyright for the paper is actually held by Robert T Mathie of the British Homeopathic Association. Mathie is also the corresponding author.

Oh well, perhaps Dr Fisher just got his words a bit muddled. I probably would if I had to appear on the wireless first thing in the morning. Let us ask the most important question:

Did the paper come to a clearly positive result?

You be the judge:

Conclusions

  • There was a small, statistically significant, treatment effect of individualised homeopathic treatment that was robust to sensitivity analysis based on ‘reliable evidence’.
  • Findings are consistent with sub-group data [klaxon alert!] available in a previous ‘global’ systematic review of homeopathy RCTs.
  • The overall quality of the evidence was low or unclear, preventing decisive conclusions.[my emphasis]
  • New RCT research of high quality on individualised homeopathy is required to enhance the totality of reliable evidence and thus enable clearer interpretation and a more informed scientific debate.

A "clearly positive result"? (Even before we analyse whether the evidence presented really supports even these highly tentative conclusions - something I'd like to do later if I get time.[1]) I think the man on the Clapham omnibus would probably conclude that this question deserves a resounding "no" too.

Over to you Dr Fisher!






PS If you listen to the clip you'll hear Dr Simon Singh (@SLSingh) putting the case for science (on behalf of The Good Thinking Society @GoodThinkingSoc) and I should urge anyone not familiar with the arguments surrounding so called "alternative medicine" to read the excellent "Trick or Treatment?: Alternative Medicine on Trial" by him and Prof Edzard Ernst (@EdzardErnst).

[1] Alan (please see comment below) has drawn my attention to this discussion of the paper cited by Dr Fisher which is well worth a read and saves me having to fillet this particular fish myself. And this discussion is followed up with a more definitive analysis of flaws in the paper by Prof Edzard Ernst here: HOMEOPATHY: proof of concept or proof of misconduct?.

2015-09-24

Should we renationalize the railways?

Should we renationalize the railways?

(or The Mighty Diamonds and why this leftie didn’t vote for Corbyn [1])

Since everyone else (well Rod Liddle at least [2]) is using music, drugs, and East Germany to illustrate their views about Corbyn, I thought I’d do the same.

I’m not actually going to answer the question I pose – for reasons that will become clear. I simply wish to use trains as vehicles for subjecting Jeremy Corbyn’s views to a bit of scrutiny – pon the lef-hand side[3].

Scroll back to 1982 and, whether you were passing the Dutchie or (more likely) the Kouchie you would probably have (assuming you considered yourself “upon the left-hand side”) agreed that privatization of British Rail – which began in that year with the selling off of British Rail’s publicly owned catering and hotel businesses – was a “bad thing”.

Public ownership or “socialism” (at least on some definitions of the term) was, pon the other hand, a “good thing”.

But our notions of “good” and “bad” here are problematic – even before we analyse them in any detail. We are already potentially conflating what is (or is not) morally superior with what is functionally superior (whatever our definitions of “superior” in these contexts). Economists on both the right (see eg Friedrich Hayek) and the left (see eg Karl Marx) are guilty (in very different ways) of the same conflation.

Approaching from the right or the left, I think we have to concede that the system of economic organization which is best at generating the most wealth may or may not be best at generating the most happiness for the most people[4]. Of course left and right wingers will care differently about human wellbeing and wealth, but even left-wingers may have to concede that there may, even in a mythical “perfect world”, be a trade-off between what is fairest and what is best overall – a subject which has been analysed in probably the greatest depth by John Rawls[5].

When we do analyse, in more detail, whether socialism is better or worse than capitalism the issues become even harder to disentangle.

Most distinctions between socialism and capitalism can be placed into one of two categories: the ownership category and the control category.

Under capitalism, the means of production, distribution, and exchange are, as we erstwhile socialists all learned, under private ownership. But were they then, and are they now, and what does this even mean?

Some businesses – like the joinery firm I use - are owned by sole traders – as some were in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or “East Germany” as it was more often known (a “socialist” economy which I happen to know something about). Some businesses – like the shopping chain John Lewis – are workers’ cooperatives – a form of ownership also found in the GDR. Some – like the Coop shopping chain and your local building society - are consumer cooperatives (owned by their members) – see again the Konsum chain in the GDR. Some – like your local Spar – are cooperatives of private businesses – see farming in the GDR. Many UK businesses (very few today) were, back in 1982, still state owned. British Rail for example. This was the rule rather than the exception in the GDR. At one stage British Petroleum (BP) was a wholly state owned enterprise and later (for a while), even after it had gone “public” (ie private), most of its shares were still owned by the UK government. These days, nearly all larger industries in the UK are privately owned, which is to say that they are owned by their shareholders. But who are the biggest shareholders? In many cases these are pension funds that invest in industry and which are, essentially, owned collectively by everyone who has a private or company pension.

So ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange is a rather complicated subject – even though I have hardly scratched the surface.

What about control?

During the War (which resulted in the division of Germany and Europe into “socialist” and “capitalist” halves) both sides planned and controlled almost every aspect of production, distribution, and exchange – even though many industries and businesses continued to be privately owned. Even today in the UK, the High Speed Rail link – if it goes ahead – will be centrally planned and controlled by bureaucrats and elected politicians but executed by private firms.

“Central planning” has a bad name, but clearly has a crucial role to play when it comes to a national rail network (and many other areas). What did for the GDR (and similar economies) was not so much the presence of planning but the absence of market forces. Right-wingers ascribe all sorts of magical powers and foresight to capitalists, but I strongly suspect that the main advantage of capitalism is that it employs market forces to control the economic system in an essentially Darwinian fashion and makes competing firms that make the “wrong” decisions at any time extinct. Those “decisions” might as well be – and probably often are – made entirely randomly[6]. As Marx pointed out, capitalism constantly revolutionizes the means of production. Socialism didn’t and was left behind.

So control is complex too and, to a surprising extent, independent of ownership. You could, in theory at least, have state capitalism[7] or, at the opposite extreme, market socialism.

So what’s the best way to run a railway?

I have no idea; nor, I suspect, has Jeremy Corbyn.

I do, however, suspect that Jeremy Corbyn and I both want the same outcomes: a reliable, thriving, efficient rail network that is responsive to social, commercial, and environmental requirements and which treats its own staff well and pays them good wages. I further suspect that many on the right could not give a shit about most of the items in this list.

It is the outcomes we wish to see (I submit) that really (or really ought to) divide left and right in today’s world rather than how we best achieve those outcomes.

Perhaps renationalization of the railways is the best way to achieve those outcomes. Perhaps it isn’t. But that is an empirical question rather than a moral or philosophical question and even if a nationalized railway were better than a private one, I rather doubt that the same would apply to, say, car manufacture or grocery distribution.

Nothing I say above is particularly novel or insightful but Jeremy Corbyn shows no signs whatsoever of having ever considered the issues I raise or having matured his political outlook at all in the years since 1982.

I do not say all this because I have abandoned my left-wing principles over the years. I want the same things that Jeremy wants and that I always wanted: a fairer and more prosperous world. I still don’t want a world where a few people are allowed to shovel money into their own pockets in return for contributing little or nothing to the general good. What I have abandoned is many of the beliefs I once held about how best to get there.

Sometimes you have to “pass the knowledge from the right-hand side”. [8]



  1. I am not a member of the Labour Party but had a vote through my Trades Union.
  2. You won't believe this story about my friend, Jeremy Corbyn and the owl The real disgust wasn’t about the pig’s head. It was about the awful band Supertramp
  3. Pass the Kouchie
  4. A vaguely Millsian statement of moral superiority. Other brands of moral superiority are available.
  5. A Theory of Justice
  6. A train of thought I explore here.
  7. In a true rather than an SWP sense.
  8. Pass the Knowledge

2015-03-01

Our notions of "race" and Wittgenstein on "family likenesses"

[Our] craving for generality is the resultant of a number of tendencies connected with particular philosophical confusions. There is- [....] The tendency to look for something in common to all entities which we commonly subsume under a general term.-We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term "game" to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. [....]

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, pp 17, 18.

There's an excellent piece from Dr Adam Rutherford in in today's Observer: "Why racism is not backed by science"

in it Adam writes:

We now know that the way we talk about race has no scientific validity. There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people, no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone. This is not a hippy ideal, it’s a fact. There are genetic characteristics that associate with certain populations, but none of these is exclusive, nor correspond uniquely with any one group that might fit a racial epithet.

Claims like this seem surprising and counter-intuitive to a lot of people, but the science tells us unequivocally that they are true.

As far as I am aware, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein never wrote directly about the biology of "race", but he did have a lot to say about our use of language and the kind of thinking that underlies our use of language. As ever, I make no claims to do justice to his legacy here, but one of his themes has always struck me as being particularly relevant to our confused notions of "race".

Wittgenstein argued that particular instances of things to which general terms - such as "game" - apply, do not necessarily possess any one feature in common but form a group in much the same way as members of an extended family do when considered with respect to their physical appearances - a shared chin shape here, a shared idiosyncrasy there.

[So here we're going to be using a biological metaphor to illustrate a sports metaphor in order to illustrate a general point about our use of language concerning an apparently biological phenomenon, but please bear with me :-)]

If Wittgenstein is right, then it might be possible (in principle at least) to quantify the extent to which "family likeness" is shared between different particular cases. If we were to label the various features of particular cases of a general term with letters of the alphabet we might come up with something like the following (this is my example not Ludwig's):

  1. ABCKL
  2. ABCDF
  3. ABCGE
  4. ABHDE
  5. ABCDE
  6. AICDE
  7. JBCDE
  8. ABMNE
  9. AOPDE

These nine entities form a group, from which (given no further information) we should almost certainly exclude an entity such as "VWXYZ", and yet these entities have no one feature in common. Entity number one shares three features with three other entities, two features with four other entities, and one feature with one other entity. Entity number three shares four features with one other entity, three features with six other entities, and two features with one other entity. By counting the number of other entities with whom a feature is shared, and adding these numbers together for each entity it would be possible to calculate a "coefficient of shared features" for each entity. In the example provided, the coefficients would be as follows:

  1. 18
  2. 23
  3. 24
  4. 24
  5. 29
  6. 23
  7. 22
  8. 19
  9. 18

It now becomes clear (as could probably have been guessed by simply looking at the example presented) that entity number five shares its features more widely than any other member of the group. If the entities in question were games, then number five might be cricket (which has most features we normally associate with games) and number one might be frisbee (which has players and equipment, but no formal rules, no competition, and no winning or losing*). Whether playing frisbee should be called a "true" game is the kind of issue over which we could imagine disputes. An activity such as cricket (some other examples would serve equally well) is not only secure from such controversy, it actually belongs to the very heart of the concept of game playing**. In the same way, entity number five enjoys a distinct centrality within the family of entities to which it belongs. (Conveniently, in the above presentation, entity number five is also centrally positioned). It is number five which we should choose if asked to pick one example from the above group to serve as a paradigm.

Analysing general terms in this way sheds light on why we have concepts of "racial groups" and think we can describe paradigm examples of members of those "groups" - a "typical negro", a "typical caucasian", or whatever - even though there are no genes which are unique to people we would tend to classify as "black" or "white" or "asian". Even the outward indicators of race: curly or straight hair, dark or light skin, eyes with or without epicanthic folds etc (let alone the complex genetics that underlie such traits) are spread across many different population groups that are often seen as distinct "races".

Let us give Wittgenstein the final word:

There is a tendency [....] to think that the man who has learnt to understand a general term, say the term "leaf", has thereby come to possess a kind of general picture of a leaf, as opposed to pictures of particular leaves. [....]

Instead of "craving for generality" I could have said "the contemptuous attitude towards the particular case".





* This may have changed of course, but it was true in my day :-)

** Even though I have no idea whatsoever what is going on when I watch a game of cricket.

2014-12-10

The Monstrous Secrets of Quantum Physics

My ramblings here were inspired by Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s wonderful (and wonder-full) new television series “The Secrets of Quantum Physics” which I urge you all to watch.

As a small child I visited Loch Ness with my parents and during our stay I remember visiting a small shop whose mission was clearly to sell piles of kitsch to passing English tourists. One item caught my eye and seized my attention – sparking trains of thought that have remained with me throughout my life. It was an “ornament” - or perhaps five ornaments – designed to represent the eponymous monster. Something like this:

picture source

Except the one I saw had three U sections and was rather more baroque in appearance – if not rococo. Even as a small child I could see that it was the last thing on earth my parents (who prided themselves on their good taste) would want on their mantelpiece.

But even more striking than the astonishing ugliness of the artefact I saw was the fact that, at first, I could see no sense in it. I had grown up fondly believing – on the basis, I suppose, of my dinosaur books – the Loch Ness monster was a Plesiosaur – stranded in the Loch since the late Triassic:

picture source

The five elements of the ornament I saw as a child were not arranged in a nice line (as in my first picture) but randomly scattered around on a display surface. This confused me still further.

Then I twigged.

The five sections were sections of a serpent-like creature and the implication was that there were four more sections hidden below the surface (which represented the surface of the loch) which connected the pieces I could see together and which made sense of what I could see. Except that those sections were not actually hidden, they did not exist at all – aside perhaps in the fertile imagination of a small child admiring the monstrous creation.

The confusion that I experienced before the moment I twigged is exactly what I feel when I consider the various experiments that have established modern quantum theory ….. except that, if anything, I am even more perplexed by quantum theory. Imagine that, instead of an ornamental monster, it had been a toy monster that moved around on the surface in the fashion of a real serpent but that not only (never having seen a real serpent) did I find myself unable to even imagine any kind of connection between the various parts, but that I had also been assured that there were no hidden parts or connections or strings or magnets involved. What I saw was all I got. This is not a bad analogy (though please remember it is only an analogy) for where we are with quantum theory – or at least where I am.

Jim Al-Khalili gave an excellent demonstration of the two slit experiment – which you should take a look at so I don’t have to explain it to you. This is an experiment that you could (just about) perform on your kitchen table - using photons produced by a table lamp.

It is weird enough that, as this experiment clearly shows (especially in its more sophisticated modern versions), that small things behave in some ways like waves and in some ways like particles – if you are not flabbergasted by this, please explain to me what a beach ball and a water-wave (not the water in which the wave occurs) have in common. But it gets weirder and weirder.

This experiment has been done with electrons and even bigger things like “bucky-balls” - which you can actually “see” as fairly discrete things using a scanning electron microscope. Such entities can be fired one at a time through the double slits (as Jim demonstrated) and they hit the screen behind just as single particle might be expected to but, over time, the hits build up into an interference pattern. So the trajectory of each individual particle seems to be influenced by what the other particles fired before and afterwards did or will do.

And it gets weirder still……

If you close off one of the slits, the particles start to behave exactly as you would expect them to do. So this implies that, in the two slit experiment when the particles are fired individually, each particle passing through one of the slits “knows” that the other silt is open and that it could have gone through that slit if it had “chosen” to.

Explain that then!

I find myself imagining that each electron (or whatever) has a semi-attached travelling companion – rather like the dæmons in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. Pullman’s dæmons (which take animal forms) are physically separate from their human hosts but intrinsically bound to their hosts.

I also think (in this context) of my cat meeting me in our hall on my way to the kitchen. She will accompany me through the same door (if one door is open) or rush round through the other kitchen door (if both doors are open). Once inside the kitchen, my cat/dæmon will try (with varying degrees of success) to lead me in the direction of her food bowl.

Like many other analogies, this one works in some ways and fails in others. It certainly needs more work. But how reasonable is it – given the bat-shit craziness of what we are trying to explain – to come up with such bat-shit crazy thoughts?

One of the problems with the apparent craziness of quantum science is that all manner of fruit loops, charlatans, quacks, and mystics think it gives them licence to promote belief anything from extra-sensory communication with aliens to homeopathy ….. and perhaps dæmons and Loch-Ness monsters too.

It doesn’t!

The crucial thing that such crazy people overlook is that, in the end, science has to come up with the goods in terms of providing hard experimental (or, at least, observational) evidence. Whether it’s dark matter, multiverses, string-theory, the conditions that gave rise to the “big bang”, or hidden variables that explain what’s really going on in quantum theory, the apparently crazy speculations of scientists count for nothing unless they eventually yield proposals for real world tests that will yield real world results.

Like Jim Al-Khalili (though he didn’t put it like this himself) I yearn for some kind of Loch-Ness-monster-in-the-shop moment whereby the hidden (and testable) mysteries of the two-slit experiment and quantum theory are all revealed to me. Until that moment comes, Jim, and all of you, and I will just have to live with the fact that the theory works and makes highly accurate and testable predictions about what we see going on in the world but makes no sense whatsoever.

Your anguish at this realization may be lessened or increased (or both simultaneously) by watching Jim next Tuesday (2014-12-16) at 21:00 on BBC four.