Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Monday, 19 November 2012

Rural Relaxation: At Weston Turville Reservoir

Yesterday was a lovely sunny November day and I decided to take a walk round Weston Turville Reservoir. The reservoir was built about 200 years ago to ensure a supply of water to local mills when the local stream was diverted to feed what is now the Grand Union Canal. It is now used by anglers who fish from the dam and from a path which runs below this viewpoint; by Aylesbury Sailing Club, and as a nature reserve managed by BBOWT. Wendover Woods cover the hill beyond, where I often used to take my dog Franki for a walk, and where I still go occasionally.

The walk was most enjoyable - although no birds (apart from gulls in the distance) were visible from the new hide. The only problem was the mud - particularly where the path is narrow behind the boating club clubhouse, so if you want to walk round be sure to have good shoes..

For other photographs I have taken of the area, including part of the Wendover Canal, see Geograph.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

I didn't put an X in the Box


Well the elections for the Police Commissioners are now over and on Thursday I did what I have done regularly over the last 50 or so years and trotted off to the polling station and made a mark on the voting form.

But this time it was different and for the first time ever I didn't put a cross into any of the boxes. For my reasons see below the fold.

Exploring the Tree of Life

Thanks to a mention on The Panda's Thumb I have discovered the OneZoom Tree of Life Explorer - which allows you to explore the was mammals and amphibians are related (more to come, including birds) - and when you get to a leaf (for a single species) a click will take you to the appropriate Wikipedia page. Most educational and most enjoyable!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Hi Mum - I know your name

When I was working in Sydney I spent a lot of my spare time watching birds, and taking photographs for record purposes. I enjoyed watching the fairy wrens - especially when the male got very angry with the impostor he could see in the car wing mirror.


I now find the birds had a verbal trick to enable them to discover when they have a cuckoo chick in the nest. The incubating female sings an individual trill to the eggs - different for each female. The in-egg chicks learn the call and when the eggs hatch they use a segment from the mother's individual song as part of their begging call. If a chick does not use its mother's "name" it must be a cuckoo imposter - and the nest is abandoned. [More Information]

Interestingly most of the publicity I have seen uses the brightly coloured male to illustrate the species - when the female, whose song was the subject of the research is just a harder to see LBJ (Little Brown Job)

Monday, 5 November 2012

Rural Relaxation - On Monument Green, Ashridge

The area immediately around the Bridgewater Monument appears deserted when I visited it today. However the Brownlow Cafe a few yards away was reasonably busy and I enjoyed the special of the day - a very acceptable Beef Bourguignon,
See some other of the other pictures I have taken on the Ashridge Estate.

Free Access to Royal Society Journals in November

The Panda's Thumb has drawn my attention to the fact that the Royal Society has provided online access to its journals during November. If, like me,you a retired or for some other reason locked out of many scientific journals by pay walls get busy checking what is there as there are bound to be a number of papers of interest. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Colossus at Bletchley Park

The Colossus 
A few days ago I did what I have been meaning to do for years and visited Bletchly Park to see the rebuilt Colossus - the world's first programmable computer. The original was built during the Second World War to help decode encrypted German messages. The Germans used a Lorenz coding machine which had different setting and Colossus scanned a paper tape of messages to find out what setting was being used. The machine was deemed so secret that it was destroyed - but has now been rebuilt and the fully operational version is in the National Museum of Computing.

The Bombe
Also on display was The Bombe which was designed by Alan Turing which was an earlier electro-mechanical to tool used to break the German codes.

The purpose of the trip was mainly to look at the code-breaking work that had been carried out at Bletchley Park and and I plann to make another visit to be able to do justice to the National Museum of Computing.

Welcome to Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke (1908-2004)
For many years I was a regular listener to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America which was broadcast by the BBC and which gave many people in the British Isles an insight into the the American way of life. I would really have enjoyed his views on the current Presidential elections - but as he continued to broadcast until shortly before his death in 2004, at the age of 95, this is of course not possible.

However the BBC has now put over 900 of his broadcasts online and I have just listened to his talk Online America, first broadcast on September 22nd, 1995, which was on the impact of computers and the questions we should ask about the introduction of new technology.

There does not appear to be a good search engine for exploring his talks for specific references - but if I find others relevant to the theme of "trapped by the Box" I will report them here.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Day the Mesozoic Died

I greatly enjoyed watching the educational film "How the Mesozoic Died because, although I already knew quite a bit about the research it provides a good introduction to the extinction of the dinosaurs, it also explains step by step how the story was researched. It is produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and can be downloaded here.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

What links Jimmy Savile, the Defamation Bill, and my research

What does the cigar look like?
Someone has obviously just
"Fixed It" for Jimmy Savile
Almost everyone in the UK knew about Jimmy Savile - he was a disc jockey who became a TV star with mass audience programmes such as Top of the Pops and  Jim'll Fix It, which arranged to make the wishes of  children and some adults come true. He did a significant amount of charity work and is estimated to have raised £40 million, particularly for Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He did voluntary work in Broadmoor mental institution for 40 years, where he had special access privileges, and as a porter at Leeds General Infirmary. There were links with the Haut de la Garenne childrens home in Jersey, and charities for the disabled. Now that he has died it is becoming apparent the Jimmy was a predatory sex offender who was very good at fixing it for Jimmy - obtaining access to a wide range of vulnerable people and abusing them. At the time of writing this the police are following 340 possible lines of inquiry and this has so far led to the identification of 40 under-aged or vulnerable victims - and it is likely the numbers will increase. 

Simon Singh
While new revelations were in the news every day I got an email from Simon Singh with a link to the House of Lord debate on the Defamation Bill - which is concerned with the threat of the libel laws to science, consumers and citizen. Simon is a scientist writer who wrote an article in The Guardian critical of certain medical practices and was sued by the British Chiropractic Association. He is now threatened with another action for making scientifically valid statements which criticize a fringe medical magazine. The problem relates to the weaknesses in the UK libel law which makes it easy for powerful organisations and individuals almost anywhere in the world to threaten cripplingly expensive legal action to crush genuine criticism into submission. Simon's email reportst that 60 international non-government organisations recently pointed out the severe limitations of the proposed bill:
English libel law has been shown to have a chilling effect on free speech around the world. We believe that the Defamation Bill will address this in part by tackling libel tourism, where foreign claimants have brought libel actions to the English courts against defendants who are neither British nor resident in this country. However, the Bill as it stands would not have prevented any of the libel cases that we have seen over the last few years against journalists, scientists, doctors and activists who have spoken out on issues that are in the public interest.
What do these two cases share in common with what happened to my own research project? The answer is the ability of the bully with power to take advantage of the vulnerable, while others  look on and don't want to get involved. 

As one of the patients assaulted by Jimmy Savile at Broadmoor has said - "Whats the point in complaining, I was mentally ill so if I complained about Jimmy, he was viewed in such high esteem that everyone would assume I was lying."  Years ago a 15 year old girl who had been a dancer on Top of the Pops committed suicide and left a diary describing how she had been "used" by celebrities (including Jimmy Savile) in the dressing rooms - and her account was dismissed as teenage imagination without being followed up. Within the BBC, the hospitals, and other institutions most people with little more than suspicions considered it diplomatic not to get involved because of Jimmy's status, and those who tried to whistle-blow seem to have been met with disbelief - "It couldn't be our Jimmy - and we don't want to upset him because he does so much good work".

What Simon Singh's experience has shown is that powerful organisations involved in fringe medical practices of dubious efficacy can use the current British legal system to try and silence informed whistle-blowers by threatening to bring the tremendously expensive legal cases, which would bankrupt the individuals concerned. 

Me
And what about my case? I was engaged in highly controversial research which was exploring the limitations of stored program computers - and was trying to build a "White box system" which could always tell the user what it was doing in the user's terms - as opposed to the "black box system". Extensive details of the CODIL approach and its history are given elsewhere on this blog and will not be related here. The important thing is that in 1986 I produced a prototype software version (in part inspired by a Jim'll Fix It programme) which ran on the BBC computer for use in schools and got rave reviews from a wide range of publications. In 1987 a paper describing the research was accepted by the top professional journal for computer research and the future of the project should have been rosy. If successful the research could have made a very significant contribution to the personal computer industry and computres would be much more human friendly. (In fact it now looks as if the research could be relevant to brain research - but that is another story).

However the project (and my career) ended abruptly in 1988. 

Why? Basically a bully with a lot of charisma and the ear of the Vice Chancellor became head of the university department where I was working. I was very vulnerable, having been bullied unmercifully as a schoolboy, and because my daughter Lucy had recently committed suicide as a result of significant suffering imposed by a bullying Criminal Justice system. A campaign of vicious bullying left me in a very week situation and I agreed to take early retirement - and having retired did not have the energy to continue the research on my own. Colleagues were either blinded by the charisma of the new head, or felt it safer to take a low profile. Friends in other departments did not want to interfere - until a few years later the bully was promoted to head of school and there were protests from those who had quietly watched from the sidelines, saying  nothing, who suddenly found he was now above them. A union inquiry showed that a lot of people had been bullied by him and to avoid a scandal he was given a year to find a new job (and victims?) elsewhere.

The point of this is that there are plenty of bullies in all walks of life who target the vulnerable - as victims or as gullible customers. Most other people sit back and say "Its none of my business" and the victims suffer. The current culture is that in practice whistle-blowers who stand up for the disadvantages against the establishment are usually ignored or turned into victims - despite all the "politically correct" guidelines on the subject. The current libel laws, and the proposed new bill, seem designed to ensure that those with power can use the courts to brow-beat the pesky whistle-blowers into submission.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Will the Arctic be Ice-free in my lifetime?

First became interested in global warming over twenty years ago (see Global Warming - to Australia in a Box) and I read the various reports in the scientific press with increasing gloom as we are trapped on a planet where the climate is changing due to our actions - and there is not a hope in hell of politician getting their heads together round the world to take sufficient action to do anything to halt the process. For instance as things get hotter and dryer in the U.S.A. I can see the demands to extract even more oil will go out in order to keep the air conditioning running.

This morning there was nothing further from my mind as I am trying to down-sized my library by selling off some books on ebay - until I picked up a copy of Tales of the Northern Seas, published in 1870 and came across this picture:
I shivered. It could only be a few years away that the North West passage will be ice free every summer. And while I will be 75 next year there seem to be a real possibility that the first summer when there is no ice cover over, or even near, the North Pole, will come before I die. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A Skeptical view of science.

Ilana Yurkiewicz has just written a piece The downside of politicians talking about science which includes the following passage:
That mentality just doesn’t work in science. Those who are new to a subject are intimidated from asking questions and afraid to disagree. Rather than reason through ideas themselves, they are pressured into accepting conclusions presented as settled and thereby indisputable. But the thing is, nearly everything in science is disputable. The nature of discovery means trying to find the absolute truth – and exposing inconsistencies, thinking through how to reconcile them, and critically analyzing data are all ways to get there. We can’t get very far when curiosity and open inquiry – the hallmarks of good science – are stifled. We are touting the bottom line while discouraging the very steps of the scientific method that get us there.
What we have to realize is that science and politics have fundamentally different goals, and it’s damaging to conflate them. In politics, the aim is to convince others that you are right. Scientists, ideally, should be seeking objective truths. To do so, they need to be receptive to dissent and open to the possibility of being wrong. Science thrives when diverse ways of thinking are welcome.

Monday, 6 August 2012

My Batty Past is in the Can

College Lake Reserve (more photographs)
At the end of July I went on an evening safari around College Lake (a nature reserve near Tring, Hertfordshire) the idea being to see bats (which have been hit by the unseasonable weather) and glowworms (which were reasonably plentiful). Then today I went again - but just for a day time exercise walk and a sandwich lunch.

Lesser Horseshoe Bat in Devon Cave
(Devon Wildlife Trust)
As I was about to leave one of the volunteers called over to ask how I had enjoyed the safari. I mentioned how interested I was in the electronic bat detectors - which had not been invented when I first worked with bats. This started some reminiscences  about some of my early involvement in research started nearly 60 years ago in Devon and my involvement in the foundation of the William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust. I also mentioned how I got involved in bat ringing with the pioneering work on Horseshoe bats in Devon caves with John and Winifred Hooper. John was also interesting in filming and I described the first attempts to film bats in Beer Quarry Cave, possibly in about 1956. These disused mines were chosen because they were easy to access - with a level floor - and the lesser horseshoe bats, which we planned to film, showed up well on the light coloured walls. My brother and I were filmed looking for the bats - as was the Hooper's young daughter - who was just starting to talk - and so one of her first words was "bat". A year or so later the film was shown by the BBC - perhaps on Blue Peter.

At this point the person I was talking to said that recently he had seen seen the film - as part of a number of early bat films shown to a meeting of the North Bucks Bat Group. The person showing it had made some comments about the youngest member of the party, pointing out that then no-one was concerned about Health and Safety legislation! 

So some of my early batty research is still "in the can."

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Black Hole in “The Believing Brain”


Some comments of Michael Shermer's book “The Believing Brain

How you react to this book, which has just been issued as a paper back, will depend on your own individual belief systems. In setting out to read it I felt it appropriate to identify places where the book reinforced my own beliefs and – more importantly – where there is a conflict – and why. As a result what follows is a personal commentary rather than a formal review. In particular it ends with a discussion on theories of how the believing brain works. It also looks at some of the reason why your believing brain might not accept an unconventional evolutionary model which suggests that the human brain is little more than an enlarged animal brain which is only more powerful because it has more neurons, has more synapses, a modified developmental framework and similar straightforward homologous changes. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

This House Believes that God is a Delusion


Across Hemel event site, Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead


ACross Hemel (an association of Churches in the Hemel Hempstead area) has organised a summer family event in Gadebridge Park. This included an evening debate, held yesterday, with the challenging title “This House Believes that God is a Delusion”, to be proposed by Richard Norman, a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, with the case against being put by Justin Thacker, chair of Across Hemel.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The National Trust fails to answer key questions

The National Trust decided to stop posts on the issue of the Giant's Causeway from appearing on its Press Room blog - and undoubtedly because of the complaints they got about this they restarted them again - but apparently introducing moderation - and then made no arrangements that moderation should be carried out reasonably quickly - which would clearly be essential if the re-opening of the posting facility was meant to be genuine. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The National Trust, Creationism, and the Giant's Causeway

Earlier this month the National Trust opens a new Visitors Centre at the Giants Causeway and a storm has broken out over a few words spoken in a display, and the way they have been misquoted by the Young Earth Creationists. I have not seen the exhibit and I am happy to accept that the main display gives an accurate account of the current scientific views of its origins, However there is a listening point where historical voices can be heard discussing historical theories about the origins of the Causeway.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Dennett's views on computers and the brain


Daniel Dennett

I have read Dennett's article A Perfect and Beautiful Machine with interest and I feel his whole argument is based on a false premise. Any mathematician knows that there are usually ways of building alternative mathematical models – and you need to select a model appropriate to the task in hand. Because Turing's model explains the success of the stored program computer Dennett makes the assumption that it must be the appropriate model for understanding the working of the brain. But let us look at the model Turing started with, as described by Dennett
He took human computers as his model. There they sat at their desks, doing one simple step after another, checking their work, writing down the intermediate results instead of relying on their memories, consulting their recipes as often as they needed, turning what at first might appear a daunting task into a routine they could almost do in their sleep.”
Come on. Lets be realistic. Several hundred generations ago we were all hunter gatherers and what is being describe has absolutely nothing to do with the way the brain evolved up till then, and there is no evidence that it has changed significantly in the last 10,000 years or so. A room full of human computers is a very artificial situation as only some people (not everyone would be good at it) could carry out out a highly repetitive and deadly boring task. To do it they have to behave like a zombie (because they could almost do it in their sleep) to a recipe (because they cannot be trusted to use their own initiative, so a recipe “creator” had to tell them what to do). The task is beyond their brains normal capacity (they write down information because they cannot trust their memories). In addition the overall effect of their labour is to carry out a well-defined and highly formal task which is related to some very narrow aspect of the culture of their society. Their activity is totally directed – while the whole point of evolution is that it is blind to the direction it is going. Put in this way it is hard to see why anyone should think that Turing's “human computer model” has anything to do with the environment in which the human brain evolved.

If we are really honest we must admit that the task that faced Turing was the design of systems which could quickly and efficiently carry out highly repetitive computational tasks, and he was employed to do this because humans could not carry out such tasks in a fast and reliable manner, even when given extensive training and very precise instructions. The Turing model is actually an extremely useful and powerful model of what humans cannot naturally do!!!  

Resurrecting the Software - 6


The BBC Computer

It is a year since I have posted anything about the BBC software on this blog – and during the intervening months I have thought about the matter frequently – especially as I now have a BBC computer sitting next to my P.C. and I can switch on the system, pull out the keyboard and run MicroCODIL without doing more than swivel my chair through 450.

So read on to find out why I have not yet transferred the software to a PC.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Trouble with our "Piggy" Banks (and our computers)



We are having serious problems with our banks. In recent weeks the bank that I use decided to make a change to its computer system, and got it very badly wrong. I was lucky, as I had no transactions going through during the crisis week. On the other hand a very large number of people found that their salary had not been paid, or could not withdraw desperately needed funds. For instance some people had house purchases collapse - leaving them homeless - because their solicitor could not transfer the payment. At least one person spent a weekend locked in a cell because the Court could not cash his bail cheque.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Early Humans eat bark – So what are the evolutionary implications?


Australopithecus sediba
(image Lee Berger)

One of the problems I have is as I no longer have open access to a university library and because of pay walls I have to depend on secondary reports in magazines like the New Scientist

The recent work on dental plaque of Australopithecus sediba published in Nature shows that, among other things, they ate bark, and had a diet different to most other hominins. The News Scientist article implies that this is a mystery – but surely in the light of other research on evolutionary pathways variations in diet between different hominins should not be a surprise. Everything points to different groups splitting apart and evolving independently for a time, almost certainly because they were living in different habitats and exploiting food sources in different ways. However they were still able to breed when they came together and it is likely that many of the genetic differences between us and apes may have come about in this way – with gene tic differences between us and our ape forebears having independently evolved in different sup-species.

If this is the case the more different environments our ancestors exploited, and the more different food sources they used, the greater the variety of gene-change options available for our own development. For instance in the past there had been theories that our early ancestors might have spent some time living in an aquatic environment. This seems unlikely if we restrict our thinking to a single descent path – but the new branching and recombining model of our ancestral tree may well end up include input from some yet to be identified sub-species which specialised in fishing!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Observations on Heyes' paper “The Evolution of Human Cognition”


Cecilia Heyes' paper “New Thinking: the evolution of human cognition” has just been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and is available online. It is the introductory paper to a special issue where the other papers are behind a pay wall.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

What are we waiting for?


Hearing Dogs for Deaf People
And why am I wearing
 a suit for the first 
time in years?

These dogs wait quietly at the feet of their owners 

And can that really be me wearing a suit and tie?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Carnival of Evolution #48 - An Open Letter to P.Z. Myers

Hi there P.Z.

I am writing to you because I see you as someone who is enthusiastic about debunking religion, is interested in evolution, feels strongly about academic freedom, and treats the establishment view of political correctness with the contempt it deserves.

I am also writing to ask why my submission to the Carnival of Evolution – An Evolutionary Model of the Brain's internal language – was not included in Carnival of Evolution No 48, as I would have thought that what I am trying to do was very relevant to your publicly expressed interests.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Step outside the box to understand the Evolution of Intelligence

Brainstorm 12

On the Earth, at least, humans are exceptional life-forms when it is judged by their ability to understand and control the environment in which they live. It seems obvious to us that we are more intelligent than other animals – but in saying this we are the ones who are defining what “intelligence” is – and if we are true scientists, we should start by asking how objective we are.

The purpose of the brainstorms on this blog is to look at the foundations of our so-called intelligence and to ask whether, at the biological level, our basic brain mechanisms really are significantly different to other animals. The approach I am taking is to assume that the thought processing mechanism in the human brain is virtually identical to our nearest animal relatives, and that our intelligence is due almost entirely to a larger brain capacity and culture, driven by language. ...

The New Scientist on the Gene Changes that make us Human.

As I am interested in looking at the possibility of an evolutionary model of human intelligence which assumes that the basic brain mechanisms in humans are little if any different to those our animal relatives I read the New Scientist article ”Lucky You: Evolution is a game of chance. Clare Wilson uncovers some of the winning mutations that helped us hit the jackpot.” with considerable excitement, as a check list to see if I had missed something important

Six areas were considered in the article.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Intelligent Birds – A Review of “Gifts of the Crow”


With one significant reservation I really enjoyed this book. I love watching birds visiting the feeders in my garden, especially the magpies, and knew that the crow family included some of the most intelligent birds. I am also, as can be seen by other posts on this blog, very interested in animal intelligence, and what it can tell us about human intelligence. This book contains some wonderful accounts of, for example, the ability of crows to recognise individual people, and the account of ravens surfing the Colorado winds makes one wonder what other things they can get up to which have not yet been documented. Details are brought together of many accounts of apparently intelligent behaviour, together with descriptions of well planned experiments, which combine to make you realize how smart some birds really are. For those who want to explore further there are extra notes and an extensive bibliography. If you are interested in animal intelligence or bird behaviour this book is a “must read”.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Did the Human Brain evolve to solve complex problems


The New Scientist of 26th May included an article entitles The Argumentative Ape contains some interesting ideas about persuasion but but I am unsure about the foundations of the article and as a result I have posted the following comment after the article on the New Scientist site:

Don't use the term "Bird Brained" as an insult


Two items in this week's NewsScientist caught my eye as being particularly interesting. The first was a study by Bhart-Anjan Dullar of Harvard University which has been comparing the shape and capacity of adult and juvenile dinosaurs with those of extinct and modern birds. He suggests that the bird's skull has features more like juvenile dinosaurs and suggests that by retaining juvenile features longer allows the brain to grow more, for the same reason that human skull development retains juvenile features to allow the brain to continue to grow after birth.  

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Real Innovation can leave you outside the Box


I recently found an old blog by Ron Bieber which quoted Niccolo Machiavelli in the context of being innovative:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

An Evolutionary Model of the Brain's Internal Language

BRAINSTORM 11
The purpose of this post is to suggest that the brain has a simple internal language for storing and using memories of objects and events, that this language is common to animals and humans, and as the capacity of the brain expands the language has sufficient power to support human intelligence. In particular it identifies two areas where changes in the learning/teaching mechanisms could have led to a tripping point where it became economical (in evolutionary terms) to develop a larger brain. It suggests that much, if not all, of what we consider intelligence is the result of cultural factors.

The following topics are addressed
  1. The Black Hole in Brain Research – bridging the gap between the neuron level and intelligence.
  2. Evolutionary Pressures on Brain Size – bigger is not necessarily better
  3. The Simple Brain Model – the minimum requirements of a learning animal – introducing “Memodes”
  4. A More formal Definition of a Memode
  5. Introducing CODIL - the history and references to this blue sky research project
  6. Why CODIL is relevant - and some factors to be considered
  7. Evolving More Brain Power - instructing and programming cultural information
  8. What Next? - Ensuring the ideas get followed up

Friday, 25 May 2012

Candles for Lucy


I pause at the computer and look out of the window and into the garden. The horse chestnut tree is in flower with more florets than ever. 
Memories come flooding back

Monday, 21 May 2012

We are all addicted to using more and more energy


A Talk on the wonders of Fusion Power
A few days ago I visited Culham to learn more about the research into nuclear fusion,, having followed developments since, as a Chemistry undergraduate I read the New Scientist accounts of the ZETA experiments in 1958. It was interesting to see JET (Joint European Torus) – or rather the control room and workshops associated with it, as the actual equipment is behind a strong concrete wall. I got no nearer to the newer and smaller MAST research tokamak as it was undergoing maintenance and of course the next generation system ITER is currently under construction in France as part of a major international cooperative project. As a result of the visit I feel I am more aware of the scale of the project and I also have a much better understanding of how a plasma at 100 million degrees can be stable (at least for a few seconds) in a solid container.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Academia suppresses Creativity

The Scientist has currently published an online article Academia Suppresses Creativity by Fred Southwick, which, together with some of the comments, is well worth a read. I have posted the following comment relating to my own experiences.
I read the article with interest as I have very much been the victim of the way that creativity can be suppressed.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The LEO Computer Society Reunion

Reunion Meeting of the Leo Computer Society
The LEO I Computer went operational on 17th November 1951 and is recognised as the first business computer to be working anywhere in the world. I worked with LEO III computers in 1965-67 and so was entitled to attend the reunion meeting in London earlier today. About 90 people attended and it was the first reunion I had attended. While I didn't meet anyone who had been working as a fellow programmer or systems analyst with Shell Mex & B.P. at Hemel Hempstead there were plenty of opportunities to talk with people who had done similar jobs for other employers. Gloria Guy spoke about the Oral History Project - and I have agreed to be interviewed about my experiences. Frank Land spoke of working on the LEO I and some the interesting applications it was used for - many undoubtedly for the first time that kind of work had been done on a computer. Kevin Murrell of the Computer Conservation Society talked about the work to build a replica EDSAC computer - which was the pioneering university computer from which the LEO I was developed.
Mercury Delay Line Memory from Leo II Computer
However there were several people I had known when I worked at English Electric Leo Marconi in 1967-70, including George Stern who had been my first boss, and Frank Land who later become Professor of Information Management at L.S.E. I also had a delightful conversation with a charming lady I had not meet before and had a deep understanding of the problems about trying to get unconventional research ideas established. Helen Pinkerton was the widow of John Pinkerton - who had built the LEO I computer and who later had been instrumental in getting the CODIL project funded. Several people were interested in the way the CODIL project was closed because it was supported by Basil de Ferranti at a time when Basil was being eased out of ICL. All in all a very enjoyable chance to share stories of the past.

More Pictures on the Leo Computer Society Site

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Limitations of the Stored Program Computer

Brain Storms - 10

I often get asked why I suggest that there is something special about CODIL and the easiest way to explain it is to discuss the use of models to represent real world information. My scientific training was in the field of chemistry – with a particular interest in the the theoretical prediction of chemical properties. As a chemist I was very used to having a range of modelling techniques to chose between.



None of the models did everything – and different types of model served different purposes. If you had a problem and found the model you were using was inadequate it was quite natural to look to see if a different model was available – or whether you could find a better way of representing the problem.


Instead of thinking about chemical compounds let us think of the problem of modelling the processing of information and what the options are. Of course computers allow us to build a great variety of information processing models – but all reduce to the same model at the “atomic” level. Normally this is described as an array of numbers (the data) plus a subset of which are interpreted as a program, which uses numbers to address the array. However there is one essential component is usually overlooked in theoretical discussions by which needs to be considered in the general case. This is the intelligent human designer who constructs the program. In many cases the resulting working model may also need to interact with other humans – who provide or use data operated on by the program. This post is concerned with information  models that include human involvement.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Working with Leo III Computers at SMBP, 1965-1967


What happened when I worked on the LEO III computers at Shell Mex & B. P., Hemel Hempstead, between 1965 and 1967 laid the foundations for the CODIL research project and it is worth examining what happened in detail, both in connection with CODIL, but also as an opportunity to put on record what computing was like at the time in a major commercial data processing centre.

The detailed account is below the fold – but please feel free to make comments or ask questions.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Bridging the Gap between Animal Brains and “Intelligent” Human Brains.


In drafting The Evolution of Intelligence – From Neural Nets to Language I was perhaps trying to get a quart into a pint pot – as I had a lot that I wanted to say which could not reasonably all fit into one post. First reactions show that I failed to clearly state how the whole fitted into an evolutionary model. So here goes ...

Basic Evolutionary Principles
  • All land vertebrates have basically the same body architecture
  • Some mammals have made extreme modifications to the basic architecture simply by stretching some bits and/or shrinking others.
  • To understand the changes in a particular case we need to understand
  1. the original organ that has been stretched
  2. The way it has been stretched
  3. the evolutionary pressures on it to expand or not
  4. Any special adaptations or trigger points necessary to explain the extreme stretching.
The Key Question
  • In the Human species something has expanded in the brain apart from its physical size. What is it and what factors would have been relevant in its expansion?
My Suggested Answer in General Terms
  1. All land vertebrate brains need to have a simple “trial and error” mechanism for classifying relevant features of their environment, remembering the past, and using these memories to suggest appropriate actions. This should include an accelerated ability to learn about dangers.
  2. This basic mechanism, with a few comparatively small modifications, is sufficient to explain what the human brain does given the right resources in term of physical brain size and time to learn. In behavioural terms most of what we actually see is cultural and need not represent any major changes in the brain's internal way of working.
  3. While it might seem obvious that being more intelligent is an evolutionary advantage in practice this is not the case. This is because a large brain is an expensive organ to run, the “learning” process is slow, and everything learnt is lost when the brain dies. Species which use their limited resources on other ways of staying alive are more likely to be successful.
  4. The more information that can be transferred from one generation to the next the more economic it becomes to expand the brain's information holding capacity. There are a number of potential trigger points where improving such communication significantly increases the advantage of being able to store and process more information. One such trigger point is undoubtedly the ability to name objects and actions by associating symbolic noises and/or gestures with them. Another could be the modification of the “learn about dangers quickly” mechanism that must be present in all animal brains to apply to information transferred from older members of the species.
My Specific Contribution to answering the Key Question
There has been much debate in the literature as to the validity or not of such models. My specific contribution to the debate is to show that a highly unconventional artificial language called CODIL can demonstrate significant information processing capabilities AND appears to be compatible with the very simple information processing model which all land vertebrates must have to some degree. I do not claim CODIL provides a perfect model of how the brain processes information, or the steps needed to get to where we are today. However it demonstrates possible mechanisms by which a basic animal brain could be stretched to support something approaching natural language and human intelligence.

If your reaction is to reject the CODIL approach because it was a byproduct of computer modelling I suggest you look at How many trucks will your helicopter pull?

Friday, 2 March 2012

How many trucks will your helicopter pull?

From clipart by clopartof.com and clker.com
Of course you wouldn't ask such a question - would you?

Are you sure? Imagine an inventor 150 years ago who was hoping for funds to build a helicopter. The idea of being able to move from anywhere to anywhere sounds exciting so any potential financier would need the idea to be approves by his transport experts who you will find at the railway station. They would ask questions such as "We have 10,000 soldiers who want to travel from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly - how much would it cost to send them by helicopter?" When the inventor replies that he would send them by train the conclusion will be that he has no confidence in his own invention. When asked "How do you ensure that your helicopter stops when the signals on the line are are red?" the inventor's repost that this is not a sensible question is taken as evidence that he is totally ignorant of how the great British transport system works. Needless to say the inventor would not get his invention funded.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Neural Nets or Networks of Neurons?


A comment on  The Evolution of Intelligence – from Neural Nets to Language. says:
I believe it is time we consider Post Neural Networks models, to overcome limitations of the NN model in such applications as natural language
I suspect that this was meant to be a criticism - but I agree (in the same general terms as the original comment) with the sentiment.

Part of the problem relates to terminology, the fact that I have been out of academic circles for over 20 years, and at 73 and with no east library access I am not in a position to absorb all the research in all area relating to the brain, its evolution, language, etc. carried out since I retired. As a result I will occasionally use words in a common sense "everyday" use when they also have specialist meaning to experts in one field or another.

As far as terminology goes I have used the word neural net to mean the network of neurons in the brain - and not specifically some artificial intelligence research mathematical model. There can be little doubt that the brain contains a network of neurons connecting the nerve cells - and they apparently play an important function in how the brain works - and I am sure we couldn't speak if all the neurons were suddenly removed. Thus any model of language MUST, in some way or another, depend on understanding how the neurons and nerve cells in the brain work.

One must also consider the problem of models in general and what they can and cannot do. As someone who graduated as a chemist, and did a Ph.D. relating to theoretical chemistry I am well aware that for some tasks you need multiple models. When I cook a meal I do not, for example, try to explain what is happening in terms of wave functions.

If we want to relate what the neurons are doing with natural language we need suitable models. If you ask whether a typical Artificial Intelligence Neural Net model could directly support natural language you are asking a question (in modelling terms) of whether one could use quantum mechanics to predict which sperm will fertilize an egg or whether a stored program computer's central processor could run a major air traffic control system without intervening software.

What I am saying is that if you are to relate what happens at the neuron level with the works of Shakespeare you will need intermediate models. Modern stored program computers work because they invoke a onion shell of models (called programs) between the electronic and the what the user actually sees and does at the keyboard.

So the question we need to ask is not "Can we go directly from a neural net to natural language?" - but rather "What intermediate models do we need to introduce to bridge the gap?"  CODIL was designed as a "white box" information processing tool to help people with a range of potentially open-ended tasks - and while it was not taken up commercially it has been demonstrated to be potentially very powerful. Because funding was not obtained to allow the research to continue it could well be able to support a natural language system. What I realised when I decided to pop my head up from retirement was that its architecture was compatible with at least some ideas about neural nets.

While I would be the first to agree that it may well not be THE ANSWER it at least looks as if it could provide the basis of a "first attempt" modelling of the brain's equivalent to a stored program computer's symbolic assembly language.

If this is what Post-Neural Research is looking for we are in 100% agreement.

I had a dream last night - how bizarre



 Dreams may often be bizarre – but what was bizarre about this one is I almost never have any dreams. I was walking a dog. I think it was my daughter's dog Kayleigh, somewhere (like most dreams the memories are fragmentary) and then I was taking some post cards out of a box to show someone, and when I came to put them back the box had vanished. A wild search followed, should I call the police, should I tell the university authorities, and where was Kayleigh?

London Bus with Picture Post Advert
However the subject of the dream really didn't matter. As a child I had vivid nightmares of a huge monster which prowled the streets and could eat you up. For anyone who lived in London during the war they would have taken the “monster” for granted, but as a 5 year old who had been brought up in rural Somerset I had never seen a double decker bus before – much less one with huge eyes. Perhaps this experience, at a formative stage, “convinced” my brain that dreaming (at least with visual images) was something to be avoided.

So why did I dream last night? It could have been that I took more exercise than usual (a 2 mile walk to the swimming pool (40 lengths) followed immediately by half a mile to the supermarket and half an hour pushing a trolley. Well I was tired but I don't think that was the main cause.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Evolution of Intelligence – From Neural nets to Language


Brain Storms - 9
An Information Processing Approach to the Evolution of Human Language and Intelligence
The aim of this post is to suggest that the way to understand the evolution of language and human intelligence is to start from the assumption that the human brain is no more than an animal brain in which some of the features have been stretched – in a way analogous to the giraffe's neck or the elephant's trunk. It notes how a very simple recursive architecture, demonstrated by an unconventional experimental computer language called CODIL, can actually be used to support a wide range of “intelligent” information processing tasks, and suggests how the approach could be extended to support natural languages. In particular it suggests trigger points where a comparatively small change could lead to an explosive increase in the potential information processing power of the brain.
Chris Reynolds

Monday, 6 February 2012

Trapped by the Ice - at College Lake

College Lake, near Tring
I wonder what the two cygnets are thinking - as they will never have seen anything like this before. Two adult swans - and this year's brood - are swimming round and round in circles in the only remaining small hole in the ice on College Lake marsh. Several other swans are on the ice, together with a number of black headed gulls (which do not have black heads at this time of year).
 The day after this was taken we had about six inches of snow, and there were continuous streams of birds coming to the feeders in my garden, and most of the berries on the bushes round the kitchen window have been consumed. 
If the cold spell continues for long there will be many casualties, and it would be interesting to know how far the ability for individual birds to survive is due to genetically inherited responses - and how far by the ability to adapt behaviour due to innate intelligence.   

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Is Language a Meme?

Perhaps the best way to think about language is that it is a very successful Meme because it clearly evolves and replicates - and most other memes depend on it.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Rainfall Crisis looming in Eastern England

Some of you may have heard that there has been so little rainfall in Eastern England in recent months that there could be a serious crisis next year - so I popped out with my camera and took a few photographs to record what is happening.
First I went to College Lake
And found a seriously flooded track (The sign reads "No Access")

So I then went to Startops Reservoir - about a mile away
It was even lower than when I saw it a week ago - and this is the time of year when reservoirs should be rapidly filling up. The stream feeding the reservoir had completely dried up.

So what on Earth is Happening???