Monday 30 September 2013

Venusian scintle-feeders go crazy

I knew I’d picked a doozy when the Aldebaran transport docked thirty minutes late and a batch of slakers went missing from my cargo of Venusian scintle-feeders. I’d been banking on them to shift enough creds through my dinky little bank on Phobos - but no dice.

Okay I could have slipped a few protoblanks on the blind side but I’d done that before and the Bleak Ones were catching up with me. Must have been my age. I had to find Jorasta – and fast. She’d know what to do, or she’d know how to make things a little better before the bad times came rolling in again.

Maybe Jorasta would even sympathize a little after bawling me out like a berserk flame weaver over a few gourds of xlith – eventually...

I just made that guff up of course. To a science fiction reader of the old school it slips through the fingers and onto the keyboard like a Venusian silthstopper making hay before the dwindle bugs get too jittery.

Crikey... I can’t stop... It’s a disease!

Actually I’ve been reading fifties and sixties science fiction on my Kindle, the stuff churned out before everybody and his slughound knew about the searing heat of Venus, the lifeless wastelands of Mars and the world became just that little less imaginative.

The stories are a trip down memory lane for me and some of them haven’t worn too well, but they stir some nostalgic reminders of how optimistic and outward looking we once were even when a little obsessed with the possibility of endless war or nuclear annihilation.

I’m sure we’ve lost something since those days, apart from a pile of made up words, impossible technologies and a style of writing we’ll probably never revisit. Not this side of a Slivonian eon at any rate.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Car registration plates

Having an extraordinarily wide range of interests, my wife and I found ourselves talking about car registration plates the other day. We both agreed that we hadn’t seen many of the new ‘63’ plates but went on to admit that we probably wouldn’t have noticed them anyway. 

To me, a car with a ‘53’ plate rarely looks ten years old so I tend not to notice its age. Yet once upon a time most ten year old cars would have looked their age and some would have been real heaps. Maybe things have changed.

Better quality bodywork - less liable to rust.
Better quality paintwork - keeps its shine for years.
Static exterior design – cars have been rounded boxes for years.

I think the third point may be significant because who can tell the difference between cars these days? So why bother with new plates every six months - do people still notice? Did they ever?

Saturday 28 September 2013

Errors in the field

Some years ago I investigated errors generated by people collecting environmental data while out in the field. In those days we had computers and databases back at the lab, but field data was collected manually.

I’d written a range of error-trapping routines to pick up errors during data input at the lab so all I had to do was link errors to people. The survey included several hundred field workers and hundreds of thousands of items of data. These were not major errors by the way, but they had to be corrected.

I suppose I was most surprised at how many errors were being made and how consistent each person’s error rates were.

Firstly, line managers working in the field to keep their hand in. They tended to generate more errors than anyone else. Many should have been locked in their offices and never allowed into the field under any circumstances.

Secondly, there were a few people who were extremely meticulous, making a very small number of errors day in day out, but there were not many like that – maybe five or six at most.

Thirdly, there were people at the other end of the spectrum who routinely made a large number of errors.

So – not particularly surprising really, but what did strike me was the difference between the best and the worst. The worst field workers regularly made at least twenty times as many errors as the best.

Yet that did not mean that the worst couldn’t care less about the work – far from it as far as I could see. People doing environmental field work tend to be interested and conscientious.

I don’t know what became of the survey in the longer term, because I moved on. My reports were greeted with surprise and not a great deal of enthusiasm, but I always remember just how consistent people are when it comes to making mistakes in largely routine work.

Also posted at Broad Oak Magazine

Thursday 26 September 2013

The Game

Imagine a board game rather like chess, but with a vast number of interconnected boards. Not only that, but all the boards are different with different shapes, different numbers of squares, different pieces and different rules.

The squares aren’t all square either, but triangular, pentagonal, hexagonal and irregular. Not only that, but some pieces can move from board to board. Sometimes these inter-board pieces take their rules with them onto another board and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the piece and inter-board rules.

This is the Game where the consequences of any move, tactic or strategy are so complex that no human player has a hope of mastering all of its ramifications. Unfortunately there are other difficulties too.

Game Officials
Game officials control how the Game is played and oversee its development. Among many other duties, some of which are secret and most of which are mistakes, they add more boards, amend rules and invent new pieces.

Game Rules.
Some Game rules are also secret, known only to Game stars and certain Game officials. This is obviously a problem for ordinary players and a dwindling band of Game officials still trying to make an honest go of it.

Game Fees.
Some Game rules may be amended or suspended for a fee. There are many possibilities and many and varied are the fees applying. Fees may even depend on a player's personal appearance, parents or accent. Naturally the scale of fees is secret which may be a problem for ambitious players unable or unwilling to be bound by the fee structure.

Game Pundits
Game pundits provide a running commentary on the personal lives, tactics and strategies of Game stars. However Game officials do not allow Game pundits to use inside knowledge of secret rules and fees, so pundit commentary tends to be somewhat disingenuous. It is not a guide to the state of the Game, although often mistaken for exactly that. In fact there are no guides to the Game apart from low cunning.

Game Stars 
Game Stars are those players willing and able to afford the fees and with personal qualities (see reference to low cunning above) suited to the discovery of secret rules and the friendship of Game officials.

Even so, a large number of non-star players manage to master one board or even a few interlinked boards to play local versions of the Game with varying degrees of success. Professionalism flowers while Game pundits pick over the personal life of Game stars.

So we have a popular Game with a defined structure and partially defined rules, but only Game stars are able to play it in anything other than a limited and rather uncertain manner. Some admit these limitations and some don’t because that is human nature.

Wannabe stars must cheat, make up their own rules or take advantage of the secret rules and secret fee structure. There is of course a complex fee structure for cheating.

The Game is merely an analogy of course, but an analogy of what?

Sunday 22 September 2013

Not cool

From PaulR

Tory Communist

I hate individualism; it’s ruining England. You won’t find better cottages, or better farm-buildings anywhere than on my estate. I go in for centralisation. I dare say you know what I call myself — a ‘Tory Communist.’ To my mind, that’s the party of the future.

Horace Pendyce, a character in John Galsworthy's novel The Country House (1907). 

Saturday 21 September 2013

How are we doing so far?

Now the grisly tedium of the party conference season has descended on us like a urine soaked blanket, it may be worth thinking about... oh I don't know... about systems of government?

Sadly, all political systems are corruptible because people are corruptible so institutions and systems are corruptible, however well designed.

Maybe our best defence against corruption is transparency – in many ways our only defence. Sound political systems are transparent simply because transparency allows feedback. Our present UK system may have numerous deficiencies but that wouldn’t matter too much if we had transparency. Unfortunately we don’t – we have complexity which reduces transparency.

Of course some political systems are prone to promote corruption while others are less prone, so systems can help – a necessary but insufficient condition one might say.

Anyone may easily compile their own list of basic standards for assessing any system of government, it isn't the slightest bit difficult. Here’s one I cooked up earlier after a good, solid thirty second think :-

A well-written constitution.
Constitutional safeguards.
Transparent government.
A fair and transparent tax system.
A plebiscite system for major issues.
Free speech.
Unbiased news media.
Strong local government.
Secure borders.
A well-educated electorate.

How are we doing so far?

Friday 20 September 2013

Yoga paper

Not me
We went to sign on for a yoga course recently. My wife has been doing yoga for a while, so I thought I'd have a go. I enjoyed it too, but the paperwork we had to fill in beforehand - ten sheets of A4 including copies.

We had to fill in our name and address twice, which considering they already had it from when we paid for the course seems a little over the top.

What is it with local authorities?

Yes I know they are merely creating work for themselves, but don't they find it boring? Doesn't it lead to dissatisfaction? You know what I'm getting at of course - they should enrol on their own yoga courses. Maybe then we'd be better served.

Temperature trickery

During the late seventies and early eighties our lab looked after a small weather station on behalf of the Met Office. We logged rainfall, snow, temperature, sunshine hours and every now and then a chap from the Met Office would collect the data.

All data was hand written of course and ever since climate change came to be such a hot topic I’ve often wondered how reliable it was. In my view those far off days have something to tell us about historical data and the fact that it was collected and transcribed by people, not automated instruments. Historical protocols and historical behaviour – a minefield of unknowns.

To record daily maximum and minimum temperatures, we used a simple max/min thermometer housed in a wooden Stevenson screen. Every day someone from the lab would read the two temperatures, write them down and reset the thermometer.

If we missed a day, which happened occasionally for a variety of reasons, then the Met Office chap would nag us about it when he collected the data, look up a temperature record of the nearest station to ours and insert the readings into our record. He once told me that this was standard procedure – they didn’t accept incomplete data.

Yet at the time the data was fit for purpose, although that doesn’t mean it was fit for a far more tightly specified purpose dreamed up decades later.

In those days nobody knew that such temperature records would one day be used to justify global political decisions on energy policy. Nobody knew that long term temperature changes of less than one degree centigrade would acquire such dramatic significance.

Not that our station was ever likely to figure in these games I hasten to add. It closed some time ago. I’m merely dredging up some memories to highlight the tricky nature of historical temperature data. Stripping off some of the gloss you might say. There is a lot of that in climate science.

For example, our thermometer was never recalibrated. I’m sure it was checked before being installed, but even simple thermometers change over time and today it would be regularly calibrated against a certified standard. Ours wasn’t - ever.

Apart from the unknown condition of the thermometer, how many errors were made by people who took the readings and wrote them onto sheets of paper come wind, rain or snow?

In my experience, scientists are reluctant to take cognisance of human error even for highly uncertain factors such as historical and somewhat loosely defined protocols. Yet the historical global temperature record and our evidence of recent warming relies on such data.

Were the protocols and equipment used my lab capable of detecting a small temperature rise over a century?

One degree? No.

Two degrees? Doubtful.

Three degrees? Maybe.

Of course this is merely my opinion. I don’t actually know and neither does anyone else. Nobody can go back and calibrate our thermometer, review the protocol we followed and audit the way we followed it. There are some things we could do such as comparing our record to the record of nearby thermometers, but is that sufficient to detect small long term changes?

Taking the wider view, are we able to estimate such changes from long historical records based on protocols not designed for that purpose? Always assuming written protocols were used of course - and what about calibration facilities? How many were calibrated against the equivalent of NPL standards? Some? A few? None?

Yet in terms of time span, manual surface temperature records derived from a range of old and possibly dubious measurement protocols account for at least two thirds of our surface temperature record for the past century.

Note – this post gives an excellent insight into the pitfalls of temperature measurement.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Numb arm

Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert has written an amusing post on nocturnal arm numbness.

Do you sometimes wake up with what feels like a log attached to your shoulder, only to find you have been lying on your arm again? I do quite often.

Unlike Scott Adams, I don't worry about it coming back to life again, although I always give it a shake in case a finger falls off and there might be time to rush into A&E and get it fixed back on again.

Well you never know.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Line of demarcation

If cleanliness is next to godliness, it is a matter of unceasing wonder that, having gone to the extreme limit of the former, so many people manage to stop short exactly at the line of demarcation.

Monday 16 September 2013

Communing with Nature.

 One evening I sat on a heavenward hill,
The winds were asleep and all nature was still, 
Wee children came round me to play at my knee, 
As my mind floated rudderless over the sea. 
I put out one hand to caress them, but held 
With the other my nose, for these cherubim smelled. 
I cast a few glances upon the old sun; 
He was red in the face from the race he had run, 
But he seemed to be doing, for aught I could see, 
Quite well without any assistance from me. 
And so I directed my wandering eye 
Around to the opposite side of the sky, 
And the rapture that ever with ecstasy thrills 
Through the heart as the moon rises bright from the hills, 
Would in this case have been most exceedingly rare, 
Except for the fact that the moon was not there. 
But the stars looked right lovingly down in the sea, 
And, by Jupiter, Venus was winking at me! 
The gas in the city was flaring up bright, 
Montgomery Street was resplendent with light; 
But I did not exactly appear to advance 
A sentiment proper to that circumstance. 
So it only remains to explain to the town 
That a rainstorm came up before I could come down. 
As the boots I had on were uncommonly thin 
My fancy leaked out as the water leaked in. 
Though dampened my ardour, though slackened my strain, 
I’ll “strike the wild lyre” who sings the sweet rain!

Saturday 14 September 2013

Friday 13 September 2013

A lone piper

Every now and then, in a lay-by not far from our place, we see a chap in a kilt playing the bagpipes. He parks his car, takes out the pipes and gives them an airing amid the constant roar of the A38.

He's being considerate I suppose, although I like the pipes myself. As far as I'm concerned he can parade up and down our street with them. Stirring stuff that would be.

Maybe he's a beginner though.  

Thursday 12 September 2013

Flywheel energy storage

Beacon Power has updated the old idea of short-term energy storage via flywheels:-

Continued at Broad Oak Magazine.

Snow on the pashminas

Asia Times reports:-

CHANGTHANG, India - The famed pashmina shawl that keeps the cold away - in style and at a price - could itself have become the victim of winter. Thousands of goats whose fine wool is woven into pashmina have perished in extreme cold being associated with climate change.

Monday 9 September 2013

Honey traps

I like honey, so I tend to notice honey-related stories and it is surprising how much skulduggery there is in the world of honey. Take these comments from the head of a Derbyshire supplier.

Continued at Broad Oak Magazine

Saturday 7 September 2013

Ends and means

Ambrose Bierce - from Wikipedia

While a man was trying with all his might to cross a fence, a bull ran to his assistance, and taking him upon his horns, tossed him over. Seeing the man walking away without making any remark, the bull said: “You are quite welcome, I am sure. I did no more than my duty.”

“I take a different view of it, very naturally,” replied the man, “and you may keep your polite acknowledgments of my gratitude until you receive it. I did not require your services.”

“You don’t mean to say,” answered the bull, “that you did not wish to cross that fence!”

“I mean to say,” was the rejoinder, “that I wished to cross it by my method, solely to avoid crossing it by yours.”

Fabula docet that while the end is everything, the means is something.

Ambrose Bierce - Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874)

Thursday 5 September 2013

Belief in experience

I’m not a close follower of Santayana’s philosophy, not making much use of his ideas on modes of being for example. Yet I greatly admire his wisdom, his elegant insights into the human situation.

Continued at Broad Oak Magazine

Unintended consequence

Our street leads onto a busier road heading out of town. There are no lights at the junction, so our exit is usually a case of patient waiting for a gap in the traffic. Not a big deal in a small town like ours, but sometimes parked cars and vans have tended to obscure the view of oncoming traffic from both left and right. Not a huge problem - until recently.

Recently double yellow lines were painted near the junction to prevent cars and vans parking too close to it. Good idea one might have though. 

Not so – human behaviour has stepped in.

It has become obvious that cars and vans now tend to park nearer to the junction than before, obscuring the view quite badly. The lines are taken as explicit permission to park right up to them.

Before the yellow lines, most people used their common sense and apart from a few niggles tended to park well away from the junction. Now the situation is noticeably worse.

What next I wonder? I bet the yellow lines are never erased.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Seen from the bus

Car tootles along with wardrobe roped to roof rack.

Pedestrian crossing lights turn red.

Car brakes sharply.

Wardrobe slithers down front of car onto road.

Car can't stop in time - runs over wardrobe.

Driver and passenger leap out - hastily pick up wardrobe fragments.

Driver and passenger notice car is parked on most of the fragments.

Much hilarity among bus passengers.

Spotted by DR