Friday, 9 December 2016

Captured by the Camera: Trapped in a trolly

Trapped in a trolly
The Tring Camera Club has just had a "Still Life" competition and I decided to have a go.  No w still life photography is not a personal interest but I decided on the above - as being something different - by getting away from the normal tabletop scenario.  The original idea (for an earlier competition entitled "lines and light") had led me to think about  different (and less obvious) locations where one might find lines - and then how to make use the lines to make a picture. One needed colour and interest and (because it was taken in March the fun thing to find in a shopping trolly were some chocolate Easter bunnies - which came in three different sizes.

Needless to say most of the other entries were artfully (and not so artfully) arranged table tops - often involving clever ideas and skillful lighting.  I am not sure where mine will be in the final ranking - but it created some interest and had a "fun" interest that I fell most of the others lacked.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Death in a box of cigarettes and the cost of my schooling

Woodbine Packet circa 1947
While I have never smoked, 70 years ago I would have been very familiar with packets of Woodbines - although I can't remember how much they cost. I was old enough to help my father in his tobacconist's shop and they were one of the most popular sales to our customers, many of who worked in a nearby railway engineering workshop. Sometime around this date I must have been diagnosed with "childhood bronchitis" - which I never grew out of  and which may have been due to secondary smoking, although I am now told it is asthma.

As a child a cough was nothing unusual - my grandfather coughed until he had a fall, and died of a chest infection in the days before antibiotics became widely available. My father had chest problems and smoking undoubtedly shortened his life. Many friends and relatives over the years have died prematurely as a result of smoking. Many tried, and failed, to give up their addiction to nicotine.

I never started. When we actually lived at the shop one to the taboos was taking the stock. Tobacco,and the sweets he also sold, were there to sell and not for our personal use. Later we moved away from the shop and I went to an unconventional school called Dartington Hall where the pupils made their own rules - except one of the rules is that we all had the same amount of pocket money which parents were not meant to top up.  There was no rule against smoking - so why the hell do it! In other schools you had to sneak behind the bicycle shed and have a quick "secret" drag and this made you feel you were doing something "grown up." But at Dartington there was no kudos from smoking. In four years I can only remember one occasion when anyone smoked in the common room - two girls came in smoking - and everyone laughed and grumbled about the smell. One teacher smoked Galois (a very strong French cigarette) in class - and when we complained he said we could smoke too. So the next lesson we all got something smelly to "smoke" - some had genuine cigarettes but I had some brown parcel string wrapped in paper. The air was thick when he entered the classroom and he never smoked in class again.

Postcard on ebay from circa 1910
By the time I reached university the campaign linking smoking with lung cancer was getting underway although the evidence was widely disputed by the Tobacco manufacturers, worried about their profits.  I recently came across this postcard from about 1910 and wondered how many people had realized the danger then. While surfing the web to try and get an answer I came across a recent figure that suggests that the current approximate cost-equivalent of a life in term's of the cigarette manufacturers is about $10,000. This provided me with a an opportunity to very roughly calculate how much my stay at Dartington cost in terms of whole-life equivalents.

Currently the top UK boarding schools charge about £30,000 per year and if I assume my father made a third of his income from tobacco (it could well have been higher) one is talking about at least one equivalent customer a year dying to fund my education.

So was my educationat Dartington worth it?  While I find the idea frightening I reassure myself that my father's customers (and my father, grandfather and many others) were addicted to nicotine and if my father had not sold tobacco someone else would have sold it. Whether I had gone to Dartington or not they would have died prematurely (often after years of discomfort) anyway.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

My "Evolution of Human Intelligence" model predicts the risk of considerable political instability

Over the last couple of months I have been working on a comprehensive document on my model of the evolution of intelligence, which has been delayed by domestic, health and other events but should be ready by the New Year. Trump's victory comes at the time I was drafting the section on what happened to make us "so much more intelligent" than animals and also explains some of the dangers of developing a "speed learning" brain on an animal brain foundation.

So how does my model explain the rise of Donald Trump. ...

Thursday, 29 September 2016

I find myself in a mobile medical box!

I have always been a workaholic with too many things in my rather disorganised in-tray, and as I have got older my ability to keep up with the flow of tasks has diminished. I decided I needed a break over the summer and try and forget the in-tray  for a bit = which is why there have been long gaps on this blog.

During September much of the time was involved with an Australian visitor who was due to return to Sydney in the evening. Everything was planned. Morning tea for the ladies at 8, with breakfast on the table, as I prepared a feast for lunch. Out for a walk in the woods at Ashridge at 10 followed by coffee in the Brownlow café, returning just before 12 to cook the already prepared food for the farewell feast at 1.30. A rest after the meal an d then taking our visitor to catch the coach to the airport.

As you may gather from the heading things didn't go to plan. After coffee we decided to take photographs and I suggested we move to a different part of the outdoor café to get better lighting and background.  I selected an empty table and my wife (who has mobility problems) found the seat a rather tight fit. and after the photo found she could not get up unaided.  I tried to lift her out of the chair and as she came up fell back with a crash, with her on of me. Putting my hand to the back of my head I found it covered with blood ...  Within seconds a café worker was on the scene and two other people helped my wife back to her feet. Minutes later two National Trust staff were in action with the site first aid box. On seeing the wound they called a Hertfordshire  ambulance and I was taken to Stoke Mandeville Hospital. I was treated swiftly and efficiently and as the wound was only superficial it was glued up and I was home in time to see our visitor onto the coach to Heathrow. All thoughts of the feast were abandoned - and at the time of writing we are thinking of who we might invite for a good meal later today.

So this blog serves as a thank you for all the people who helped.

Clearly at my age incidents such as this remind me that I could go "offline" at any moment - and I in planning the future I need to set priorities. I had discussed my research into the evolution of human intelligence with my visitor - and her parting words were that I should prepare something for publication soon - so I have decided that - now that my "holiday break" is over the top priority will be to follow up the ideas discussed in this blog.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Problem with Big Data based Machine Intelligence

I have rather neglected this blog recently, partly because of other distractions, including a stimulating FutureLearn course on the Hobbit (Home floresiensis), and partly because I am concentrating on writing up my ideas about the evolution of human intelligence. However I have just come across an article by Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis entitled "Eight (No Nine!) Things wrong with Big Data" which is well worth reading.

The issue I have with the big data approach to machine intelligence is that it is tackling the problem in a very different way to the human brain,

If we think about the evolution of the brain it started very small and incrementally became bigger over millions of years. And for each animal, including humans, the brains start with knowing very nothing apart from some pre-programmed instincts and its knowledge increases incrementally through life. The economics of evolution involve optimising the use of resources to maximise survival which will set limits to the size of the brain and the amount of time spent learning. In effect small amounts of "data" is beautiful as long as there is enough to be cost effective in the battle for survival.

Big data applications involve using vast amounts of data which is already available in digital form, such as the case of the Google language translator which uses million of document texts in different languages (so the data collection cost per byte is extremely low) and applies powerful statistical processes of a kind which clearly are not inbuilt into the human brain.

Of course in many cases the big data approach is invaluable in that it can do things humans are not be capable of doing. The important thing to realise is that the techniques used in processing big data can tell us virtually nothing about how the human brain works.


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Where is AI going?

 "In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level, and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable."

The above quotation appears at the start of an article "Will AI's bubble pop?" in the New Scientist of 16th July by Sally Adge. The significance of the quote was that it was made by one of the founding fathers of Artificial Intelligence, Marvin Minsky in 1970 - and it is quite clear that the prediction was wildly optimistic. The article goes on "When the chasm between Minsky's promise and reality sank in, the disappointment destroyed A.I. research for decades". One of the reasons given was that there was "a research monoculture focused on a technique called rule-based learning which tried to emulate basic human reasoning."

When, in the 1970's I was researching CODIL, a pattern-matching language that was based on observations about how clerks in a large commercial organisation thought about  sales contracts, almost all attempts to publish were blocked because the approach did not conform to the rule based monoculture, which was dominated by mathematicians implementing formal mathematical models.

As  a result of the article I have sent the following letter to the Editor of New Scientist, and if it is published I will add a comment below..

Re “Will AI’s bubble pop?” – News Scientist 16 July
A “blue sky” casualty of the AI monoculture of the 1970s described by Sally Adee (16 July. p16-7) was CODIL. This was a pattern recognizing language initially proposed in 1967 as a terminal interface for very large commercial systems. Later study showed CODIL could handle many very different tasks, such as solving New Scientist’s Tantalizers (21 August 1975, p438) and supporting an AI-based teaching package (New Scientist 24 Sept. 1987 p67). The “not invented here” reaction of the AI establishment contributed to the project’s demise.

I am currently reassessing the surviving research notes. In modern terminology CODIL was a highly recursive network language for exchanging messy real world information between the human user’s “neural net” and a “intelligent” robot assistant. CODIL’s versatility arose because it allowed tasks to dynamically morph from open-ended pattern recognition, via set processing to predefined rule-based operation. The experimental work concentrated on communication and decision making activities, but the inherent recursive architecture would support deep network learning.
It seems that CODIL mimicked human short term memory - an area where conventional AI has been singularly unsuccessful. In evolutionary terms the re-interpreted model suggests that early humans used an initially primitive language to transfer knowledge from one brain to another creating a cultural neural net now some 10,000 generations deep! A CODIL-like brain model would automatically show weaknesses such as confirmation bias and a tendency to believe the most charismatic leader without out questioning the accuracy of the information received.

Perhaps it is time to resurrect the project.

Having Trouble with Tantalizers?

During the 1970s I did a lot of work testing a heuristic problem solver called Tantalize - which was written in CODIL. The following news item was published in the New Scientist of 21 August 1975 and as I will be referencing this in the next blog post [insert link] I have decided to reproduce the original item.

For those who have trouble solving the Tantalizers that run each week in New Scientist, Dr Chris Reynolds of BruneI University has developed a computer programme.

How "Big Data" will try and put you into a Box

In 1967 I was involved in a design study which involved moving a magnetic tape based application onto direct access storage - and the file size was of the order of 100 megabytes - which was very "big data" fifty years ago. Things have changed and people are now talking of petabytes of data - and I decided to look into the current views on Big Data by logging into a FutureLean online course "Big Data: From Data to Decisions". The course is more about programming systems which use big data - which is not what I was looking for - but there has been some useful discussions on the impact of big data and how far it is can have the effect to feeding people's natural "confirmation bias" to selectively feed material which reinforces their views, and in effect make them more narrow-minded.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Trapped on Flores - Why did the Hobbit have such a small brain?

I have currently be doing a short online course Homo floresiensis uncovered, run by the University of Wollongong. This hominin was only about one metre high and had a disproportionally small brain. In terms of my own interest in the evolution of human intelligence  this raises the interesting question of whether a smaller brain means less intelligence.

Homo floresiensis
First some of the background. Flores is an island in the Indonesian chain east of Bali and the Wallace line which separates the Asian fauna and flora from the Australian fauna and flora. As such it lacked, (until Homo sapiens arrived about 50,000 years ago, on his was to Australia) any Asian carnivores, herbivores or primates - with the exception of a pigmy elephant, Stegodon. and the diminutive Homo floresiensis. The only native carnivore which could threaten the hominin was a Komodo dragon.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

A letter to my MP about the Referendum

The result of the Referendum has been very divisive and the sooner we all know where we stand the better, and it is important that our MPs make it clear to their constituents that they understand the  pros and cons of either leaving immediately - or standing back to properly assess how we can best move forward to a prosperous and more democratic society.

As a result I have written the following letter to my MP saying that I will support him in whichever decision he makes as long as he can assure me that he understands the risks involved.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Trapped by the Referendum It will be a disaster whatever the result

There is no escape. The referendum will happen and the result, whatever it is, will be a disaster, because it is addressing the wrong issue in a way that can only make the current situation more unstable.
from The Times, 31st May

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Australian Government is burying its head in the sands of the Great Barrier Reef

In 1990 I flew to Australia to work on a computer system to provide information relating to the possibility of climate change -see To Australia in a Box. Shortly after I arrived the project was cancelled, because it was clearly not considered a sufficiently important project to spend government money on it.

Coral in the Great Barrier Reef
Since then climate deniers in the Australian government have come and gone - and the temperature has continued to rise - with more and more highest temperature records being broken. It is clear that warmer seas made more acid by the increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide could have a serious effect on natural features such as the Great Barrier Reef.

A news item today reveals that the Australian section of the UN World Heritage site report on the effects of climate change has been axed. Apparently the Australian Department of the Environment still believes that burying one's head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away is the answer to the realities of climate warming. At least their attitude is clear - the whole world now knows that the Great Barrier Reef is not in safe hands.

We should not underestimate the Neanderthal Mind

3D reconstruction
Neanderthal "rock circles"

An article in Nature, reported on the BBC News Site, describe the discovery of circles of stalagmite fragments deep inside a French cave. they are dated to have been constructed about 175,000 years ago - long before Homo sapiens reached Europe - at a time when Neanderthals are known to have been in the area. We will probably never know what motivated the people who broke off and arranged these stalactite fragments  but it is clear that they had sufficient control of fire - for lighting - to travel more than 300 metres into the cave and were prepared to explore pitch-dark underground passages for a considerable distance and spend some time working there.

Looking Back over 50 years computing

Fastrand II
I entered the computer industry just over 50 years ago, and a purchase I have just made really brings home the scale of change over the years.

In 1966 my employer, Shell Mex and BP, was planning to move from a batch processing Leo 3 system involving the files of some 250,000 customers to a new computer which had direct access storage. In 1967 placed an order for a Univac Computer with FastRand drum drives. Each drive could store 100 megabytes of data  and cost about £100,000. It came in a large cabinet and weighed about 2,200 kilo.

This weekend I decided to reorganise all my computer files as part of a move from Windows XP on a rather tired desktop to a laptop under Windows 10. These files include historical archives going back some 25 years, and urgently need restructuring. I purchased a drive big enough to hold all my personal files from several generations of personal computers and separate hard drives. The drive cost about 30,000 times less than a Fastrand (adjusted for rise in cost of living), weights about 100,000 times less, and can contain about 20,000 times more data!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Brain - The Last Frontier
Brain - The Last Frontier by Matteo Farinella
Regular visitors to my blog know that I believe that thinking creatively "outside the box" is an important part of science. Recently I have been introducing many of my science posts with a short summary of the issue in the form of a limerick - because it is a challenge to get the essence of a scientific idea into a few human-friendly words. I also like photography and I am creating a record of the area where I live with occasional posts on my Remembering Tring blog - but like to include some of the more creative shots on this blog under the heading "Captured by the Camera."

However there is no point in giving me a pen or paintbrush  because any attempt to produce an attractive picture using such tools would be a complete waste of time - and I admire those who can combine artistry with science. I was therefore delighted to learn of Matteo Farinella's blog.

Matteo is a scientist who did a Ph.D. in computational neuroscientist - and then decided to become a freelance cartoonist. He has just become a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University with the goal of creating "a new paradigm for interdisciplinary university-sponsored research to advance understanding of mind, brain, and behavior, and the social foundations and consequences of new neuroscientific findings."

I wish Matteo well in his endeavours and will certainly be following his blog with interest.  My feelings are that much existing research in computational studies of the brain are so deeply involved in"fine science" and "sophisticated mathematics" that the human side is forgotten. Matteo's cartoons could bring in a welcome breath of fresh air.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Leo Computer Society Reunion

The Leo Computer Society committee line up for a photograph.
I spent a most enjoyable day at this meeting talking to old colleagues and came away with a lot of interesting ideas relevant to my research - which I hope to follow up on this blog over the next few weeks.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Link between Codil and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

The following notes have been prepared for the Leo Computer Society Reunion on April 10th. It is a brief summary describing the link between the original observations made of how salesmen understood complex sales contracts at Shell Mex and BP and later research in CODIL. It also outlines the recent reassessment which relates the earlier work to neural nets and the relevant to research into human intelligence. If you want to know more do not hesitate to contact me.

The Surprising Connection between the Leo III and Research into the Evolution of Human Intelligence
by Chris Reynolds
10th April, 2016

In 1967 I was asked to look in detail at the Shell Mex & BP sales accounting programs which ran on their Leo 3 computers at Hemel Hempstead. The aim was to see how they might be moved to the next generation of computers – which would have computer terminals. The result was a proposal for a computer with a user-friendly symbolic assembly language called CODIL (COntext Dependent Information Language). Nearly 60 years later it is possible to link my original observations on how salesmen though about contracts with a model of how human intelligence may have evolved. This note briefly explains the link and suggests that some way should be found to re-vitalize the research.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Captured by the Camera - Portrait of an Owl-Man

This picture was recently submitted to the Tring Camera Club competition for black and white prints. It was not selected as one of the top pictures - possibly it is not the kind of picture you would hang on your wall. Several people liked it and the only specific comment I got was that there was not enough contrast in the "face".

From my point of view its chief interest is that the picture says a lot about how the eye/brain combination works.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Environmental Limerick: Tasmanian Wilderness areas saved

The Threat!
From Tasmania I like the news
For its wildness has such great views
And will not now be felled
For the plans have been shelved
As the wild life they cannot abuse.

The Tasmanian Wilderness covers about a fifth of the island and is one of the world's last big temperate forests. The BBC news has reported that owing to protests from Unesco the plans to open the area up to logging have been abandoned,
My interest is that in 1991 I was working on a short term contract with CSIRO in Sydney and was asked to help set up a data base on a small area of the Tasmanian forest to demonstrate to Australian Heritage the advantage of digitising their records. Unfortunately it was considered unnecessary for me to actually visit the area I was documenting as I was "only a computer  expert." However in my own time I visited the Tasmanian section of the Botanical Gardens at Canberra and stopped off for a short time on the edge of the Great Otway National Park in Victoria, which is about the biggest bit of surviving temperate rain forest in mainland Australia. Should I ever have the chance to visit Australia again I would love to visit parts of the Tasmanian wilderness.

Are Artificial Intelligence programmes really so clever?

Lee Se-dol lost three games in a row
When he played against slick Alpha-Go
Well he won number four
But the program won more,
'Cause mere humans are really too slow.

Draughts was the first of the classic board games to succumb to the power of computers, then Chess, and now Go. So congratulations to all the people who have worked on the design of the Alpha-Go software and the computer on which it runs.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Environmental Limerick: The Warmest Febuary worldwide ever

Source ecosmart
Firm action should not be delayed.
We are warming too much centigrade.
With so much CO2
There's a lot we must do
Or in future the price must be paid.

Following a NASA report the papers world wide have been full of the news that February was a real shocker - see for example The Guardian (UK), New Zealand Herald, USA Today, The Indian Express, etc.

So have you made sure your political representative knows your views and is actually doing something positive about it?

Why Dartington was Different - No need for Sexting ....

Some people may think it was lewd
That as children we bathed in the nude
But at Dartington Hall
No one worried at all
About fashions we choose to exclude

An article recently appeared on the Dartington Hall School pages which had been written in French 'Life in the Sun' by a young English woman attached to UNESCO and a member of the 'Sun Club'. She recalls her life in a progressive school in England, where there is no equivalent in France.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Captured by the Camera: Ripples on a Duck Pond

When you get an interesting idea for a picture the  result may be as a resulty of some careful planning - or just a bit of luck. The challenge here was a competition where the subject was "Light and Lines" and I decided I would try and get a picture with "natural" lines. On the day this was taken there was a strong wind blowing causing rows of parallel ripples in the water reflecting the sky - giving rows of dark and light ripple lines if you got the angle right.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Do Chimps have a religion?
A Chimp stone pile
There's a Chimp by a tree with a stone
And he thinks that it ought to be thrown.
Does he think it's a shrine?
Is it action benign?
Or perhaps a behaviour unknown?

The "Pan-Af Project: The Cultured Chimpanzee" aims to gather information about chimpanzee tool use and other advanced chimpanzee behaviours, and understanding ape cultures is relevant to my own work on investigating the evolution of human intelligence.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Neanderthal man may have used a special fire lighter!

When Neanderthal man wanted fire
His methods will surely inspire,
For he used, if you please,
Some oxide (manganese),
And he then cooked his meat on the pyre.

How clever were our Neanderthal cousins? The more we discover about them the more intelligent they seem. The EvoAnth blog has reported on some research relating to the discovery of lumps of manganese oxide associated with Neanderthal sites. It had been thought that they used it as a black pigment - but in some cases the lumps were found more thane 250 km from where it could be found naturally.  But if all they wanted was a black pigment they could have used the far more easy to obtain charcoal.
However if you grind up manganese and sprinkle it over wood it is far easier to get a fire going, and the wood ignites at a lower temperature.

Environmental Limerick: Methane Gas in Siberia

In the permafrost ground is a crater,
Methane gas is the sole excavator.
As the temperature rises
There'll be more surprises
As threats to the climate gets greater.

Permafrost is found widely within on high latitudes in places like Siberia - the term indication that the ground is permanently frozen. In many areas the ground contains large quantities of methane, in the form a solid methane hydrate. If the climate warms the ground starts to thaw and the methane hydrate breaks up, releasing methane gas in the process. As methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide the effect could be to accelerate global warming and the fact that temperatures are rising in the arctic is a cause for concern.

The above picture shows a crater, photographed shortly after it formed in 2014, situated on the Yamal Peninsula of Northern Siberia. Subsequently more craters have been discovered. What is happening is that as the ground warms (but is still frozen) the methane hydrate decomposes and releases methane gas which cannot immediately escape. The pressure increases until it reaches a point where it causes an explosive outburst - producing a large crater.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Captured by the Camera - The Iron Birds fly off into the Sunset

The Iron Birds at College Lake
College Lake is a large nature reserve, near Tring, which is on the site of a very large chalk quarry excavated in the second half of the 20th century as part  of a large cement works (now closed and demolished).

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Peace in our time - Not with BRexit.

Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain holds high a worthless piece of paper in 1938
So we vote for a simple sound byte.
Is it Yes? Is it No? Which is right?
For our future depends
On electoral trends.
Should we leave? For we need to unite?

 At a global level we face some very serious problems. We appear to be on the brink of a very nasty religiously inspired war, where already large numbers of refuges are flooding into Europe and nowhere in the world is safe from the human bombs and guerrilla tactics of the enemy. Recent banking history also suggests that the world currency markets are not that stable and an economic crash could come at any time. In addition we have had month after month when the world’s average temperature has broken all previous records and there can be no doubt that climatic changes and rising sea levels will have major long term consequences for future generations. What history teaches us, is that when a society faces serious challenges there is a real danger that it disintegrates into warring factions who put short term self-interest before the long term collective interests.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Environmental Limerick: The Albatross

I admire the old man albatross
For he knows that his wife is the boss
So he waits on the nest
As she flies East and West
To catch fish 'neath the old Southern Cross

Albatross nesting on the Falkland Islands
A Barry Mead Photograph

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Could a Humanities approach to the Environmental Crisis work?

Are we clever – or is it just vanity?
Things are changing – we need more humanity.
If the sea levels rise,
It is nature that dies,
We must act - or the future's insanity.

I have just completed the FutureLearn course “Environmental Humanities – Remaking Nature” run by the University of New South Wales. This looks at the way in which the Humanities can temper the scientific and technological approach to the problem. The course highlighted the weaknesses in an overtly anthropocentric approach which looks for sophisticated technological solutions (which will probably not succeed) and which ignores the fact that we are part of the natural world.

To me the most important part of the course related to helping people to understand what is happening by using various storytelling techniques – which is why this post starts with a limerick. The course, coupled with ideas from other FutureLearn courses, also influenced my new mission statement, and the new approach taken in presenting posts on this blog.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Enterprise Shed (FutureLearn)

Do you have good ideas in your head?
Why not share them with others instead!
You can find a good source
On a FutureLearn course
In an entrepreneural shed.

A course called "The Enterprise Shed" run by Newcastle University started of FutureLearn this morning which sounds interesting. I am not sure I have time to do it, but there is no charge for joining so I have decided to dip my toe in the water and see what it is like and can report back here if it is of interest.

Captured by the Camera - Musical Reflections

A Reflective Tuba Player at the Xmas Farmers Market, Tring
When I am out with my camera I am always looking for reflective surfaces which might give an unusual picture and this one, of a tuba player provided one large and four small reflections of the euphonium player and the former Rose and Crown hotel.
Earlier reflective pictures show Tring Church Tower, while Bridge over Troubled Waters was taken on the Aylesbury branch of the Grand Union Canal.

How a very young baby sees the world

A new baby's brain is exact
It can see things you can't; that's a fact,
But its brain has to choose
What to keep, what to loose
And the key shapes it needs to extract.

Trying to find out what a very young baby actually sees would seem to be an almost impossible job, but a recent Scientific American article summarizing research by a team led by Jiale Yang of Chuo University, Japan, has produced some interesting results.

Friday, 12 February 2016

So what are Gravity Waves

Two black holes, when they met, cause a cavity
In the space time contin’um called gravity
And the waves, fast as light,
Prove that Einstein was right,
As the scientists claim, with audacity.

The science involves much complicated mathematics but a simple model will explain the basic idea.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Why were stone handaxes made in the same way for a million years?

Early man made some useful hand tools
And no-one could say they were fools
But the axes they made
They failed to upgrade
‘cause no-one could teach them the rules.

In considering the evolution of human intelligence there is uncertainty about when an effective language first emerged and there is also a mystery of the early stone hand axes, which were made to the same design for about a million years. If the early hominins who made these tools were really that intelligent one might expect that someone in more than 70,000 generations would have found a way of making better stone hand axes.

The Black Kite - A Bird that uses fire as a tool

An intelligent bird is the kite,
For a fire it knows how to ignite.
And some scientists claim
It can carry a flame
So its prey can be caught in their flight.

Yesterday the British newspapers were full of the news that Black Kites in Australia deliberately removed burning embers from a bush fire and dropped it on nearby grassland, setting the grass alight. The small mammals and lizards living deep in the grass would become visible as they tried to escape from the flames, and could then be easily caught.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

What trees should we plant to combat global warming

An old oak tree at Ashridge
Climate change is a fully proved fact.
Keep our woods and our forests intact.
But should we plant more?
Conifers I deplore;
Oak and beech are the trees that attract.

This limerick was inspired by today's news on the BBC web site "Wrong type of trees in Europe increased global warning." 

The Time Machine (and other "futures" short stories)

“Eureka” shouted the scientist as he completed work on the new super-intelligent computer which controlled an attractive looking robot. A little more work and we can all live like Greek gods, waited on by robots.

In the next lab another scientist was building a time machine and decided he couldn’t wait and used his invention to visit this idyllic Grecian future.

He landed in a wonderful garden where rather bloated but otherwise god-like figures feasted. He discovered they were called Eloi and marvelled at the success of his fellow inventor’s computer. "Surely this must be a living Paradise" he thought.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Environmental Limericks

On the FutureLearn site there's a course
(New South Wales is a source I endorse)
It's environmental
With  humanities (gentle)
Put over with plenty of force.

I  have recently been doing a number of FutureLearn courses, as they encourage me to think outside the box and the current one is on Environmental Humanities, put on by the University of New South Wales. As scientist with little formal training in the humanities I have found the discussion so far interesting- and the comments between the students on the course stimulating.

We are all trapped on a planet where the climate is changing and part of the course involved students suggesting a task area and relating it to the discussions. I though about how, through this blog, I could introduce more environmental posts to alert people of the issues by linking simple poetry to a topic - by resurrecting my limerick posts - although I do not promise one a week, which was the original idea.

Were there significant differences between Neanderthals and us?

Adam Benton, on Evoanth recently posted an interesting article "How similar were Neanderthals and humans?" which looked at the evidence and while there are definite differences it is not clear how significant they are -in deciding why they became extinct and we did not.

I responded:

It might be worth thinking about later encounters – when the Europeans discovered America and Australia. The Europeans came off best because they had the stronger cultural communal knowledge base, which enabled them to build more powerful weapons. It might be a complete accident of history that the discovery of how to make iron happened on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other.

Could we have done better than the Neanderthals because we had a better cultural knowledge base which gave us more advanced technology and allowed us to work together in larger groups, perhaps with some people beginning to take on specialist roles. At the time that language was first appearing the key to having a better cultural knowledge base would be having a more powerful language. Thus it may be that when modern humans first met with Neanderthals we collectively “knew more” – so we came off best – just as Europeans came off better in America and Australia – because they had better technology.

If we look at language as a self-modifying tool there were almost certainly some key “inventions” – such as being able to differentiate between the past, present and future, counting, etc.  Perhaps it was just an accident of history that one of our species, rather than a Neanderthal, made the first key technical advances which allowed language to develop and that Neanderthal brains were just as capable in that respect as our own.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Dogs have owners - Cats have staff

During some online discussions on the Futurelearn Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature course the question of domestication of animals came up and the difference between the domestic dog which we have domesticated, and the "parasite" cats which have domesticated us.

Lesley mentioned seeing a T shirt that summarised the position nicely and I have tracked down where it may be purchased.
For sale

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Direct Computer Links with the Brain

Implant in place
Bionic implant in the eye
Brian has drawn my attention to an article DARPA's Neural Interface Will Let Brains And Computers "Communicate" which raises some interesting points  as does the recent BBC news item about bionic implants in the eye and other work using nerve signals to help control artificial limbs.

The problem is that the interfaces are crude and it would seem that they work a bit like braille. For instance the brain interface uses the word "communicate" in quotes and describes the process thus:
Up to 100 implants or “channels,” each connected to tens of thousands of neurons, are able to record and encode information that a computer can recognize as representing specific neurological activity. However, this data is full of “noise,” and is frequently inaccurate.

It would seem that both it and the optical chip have a grid of active spots and leave the brain to interpret them. in the same way that the sense cells in the tips of the fingers can interpret the bumps of the braille and transfer the dot pattern to the brain to interpret them. This is a mechanism which clearly works whether or not you actually understand how the brain codes information internally.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Humans, dogs and intelligence

In my studies into the evolution of human intelligence it is becoming increasingly clear that the main difference between us and other mammals is that we have invented a tool called language which enables parents to teach their children a significant amount of cultural information. Better knowledge means better chances of survival. However in other respects animal brains work in basically the same way and you can expect them to have similar emotions.

Two pieces of recent research have caught my eye relating to dogs. One relates to their domestication and the other to their ability to recognise human emotions

The idea that wolves found scavenging human sites, and some became non-aggressive, to the point of eventual domestication seems even more likely when it is realised that wolves seem to be developing a similar friendly relationship with geleda monkeys.

The fact that we share emotions with dogs and there can be recognised both way across species suggests a kind of symbiotic relationship. Another factor which suggests a similarity between dog and human brains is the extent that dogs can be taught to carry out a range of useful activities. Because they do not have anything like human language wolves are limited in what they can teach their young. But humans have evolved to be very good teachers of human children - and dogs respond when positively taught in the same way.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

What explains the Rise of Humans

Why is language so important when discussing the reasons why humans are different to chimpanzees? This TED talk suggests that the difference is because we can work together in large groups by mutually agreeing fictional stories about the world. I like it and I think you will too.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

To Live and Die for the Table

I have recently been involved in discussions about nature and the environment which drifted into the treatment of farm animals.  In 1990 I wrote a piece for the New Scientist called "To live, and die, for the table" and for many years it was on the open pages of the New Scientist as an example of the kinds of controversial article that appeared in its opinion pages. When I came to link to it I found that copy had been removed  - so here is a copy of the original page.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Evolution, human intelligence & religiously inspired killings

The recent "Question of the Week" on the Richard Dawkins Foundation Web Site asked the question

“Is there an evolutionary explanation as to why some groups seem more particularly prone to take life and give their own lives in defense of their religion?”

I submitted the following response, in line with the evolutionary model of human intelligence I am developing on this blog.