Friday, August 27, 2010


A fascinating article in Prospect this month. Science's dead end. The basic point of the article is simply that we are facing the law of diminishing returns in science. Think about it. Newton, bright as he was, required only the apple to fall to work out gravity. He was of course wrong but the point was that he was able to match observations with his theories. Several hundred years on we have come a long way. But each step takes more and more money and more and more effort.

The article outlines some interesting stats. The journal of Biological Chemistry published 12,000 pages in 1980. In 2009 it published 97,000 pages. The answers we search for are harder and harder to find and the knowledge required to undertake that search becomes harder and harder. Each step requires more and more smart and educated people and the discoveries become less and less useful.

This is not to say that new big discoveries will not emerge (specifically we refer to science here and not technology) as that will be as closed minded as it comes. But those discoveries will have incrementally less and less relevance. Physics is already there. It has theories (string theory) which, while interesting, are largely untestable.

Its worth reading the article in full if you get a chance to pick up a copy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Its not often I respond to someone else's blog in my own. But this time I am forced to because his web site does not work (will not take comments).

GSCE results

A debate as old as exams themselves. Should you vary the scoring so that a % get As or leave as absolute and risk lots of As.

The first model risks someone who effectively scores, say, 80% getting a B when the following year they would get an A.

The second model though allows for variations in the difficulty of papers.

Would you deal with the scoring manipulation on a class by class basis, school by school, town by town, region by region or nationally?

What is clear is that in both models there are winners and losers.

Another point surely is that the result is not the exam result for GCSEs but an overall mark including course work. I would have thought that if I have an A* at the end it is not just down to an easy exam? Surely I must have done well for the 2 year course.

The media always make a play for this. I have to say I detest it. I think those who do well always get the negative feedback. Exams are too easy, dumbing down, change the marking scheme. What about all those who don't do well. Ah, yes, that's the schools fault or the parents fault. They cannot have it both ways.

I had terrible o-level results and we were the last year before GCSEs. So the blame was that they made the exams harder to make GCSEs look good the next year.

Maybe. Or it could be because I was a lazy bugger who did not do the work and had the attention span of a goldfish. When it came down to it I did not know the answers to the questions on the day. It was material covered in the 2 years ahead of my exam and I did not know it.

My fault.

So well done to all those who pulled their finger out this year and did well in their exams. Don't listen to the media or the negative so and so's who put your hard work down.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I remember early in my blogging that I wrote some god awful stuff, and many will say I still do (there, saved you the bother of adding a comment). But my motivation for starting was to help improve my writing skills and to help me slow down and structure my thoughts in ways that other people could understand. That is not to say that they are ground breaking thoughts but simply that I regularly failed to communicate even simple ideas to people. I still do fail in this way and the fault is all mine.

But in the same way that my early scrawling on ethics were amateurish and poorly structured (as I found out when I went to study it properly) my thoughts on thinking are probably the same when compared to formal psychology.

Over the last few weeks I have been lucky enough to get onto a project that could make a real difference. But the project is complex and has significant hurdles to overcome. What is nagging at me is that some of the people on the project have not stopped to think through what it is they are doing or why. They clearly believe that the vision they have is a good one but seem unable or unwilling to think through the what the project is trying to achieve. Action certainly do speak louder than words but action without thought is surely going to lead to change but possibly not improvement.

The reason I bring this up now is because I noted a parallel at a social event I was at. I rarely discuss religion with people for two reasons. The first is that it is an intensely private matter, the second is that many of the people who are religious have not thought through their beliefs.

That is not to say that there is or is not a god, or that religion is good or bad (although I do have my own views on the matter) but simply that people seem unwilling to think these things through. The few times I have been pressed to discuss religion with a few people who are (I normally refuse and get pushed to discuss) it nearly always turns out the other person gets offended. Not because I am rude or my views offensive, just that they have probably not rationalized their beliefs and when they do they run into difficulties. By this I mean that even the concept of unifying rational thought vs belief is hard even before you worry about what those beliefs might be.

The same reaction is happening on the project. They have their beliefs but have a blind spot to thinking about what they believe in. Because its hard. Yes we could think about stuff forever and never start (true of many projects and ideas) but that is not what I am proposing. I am saying that we need to get over the blind spot. People need to be more accepting of thinking through what is being done. Its like science. If we see that thinking something through and finding the idea is poor as a failure then we will never start. Success if science is about truth. It is as valuable to prove something as it is to disprove it. There is no such thing as a failed experiment.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I saw this and have to say it appealed to me

What is red and invisible?
no tomatoes


Government guy walks into shop to buy milk.

Gov: "I'd like some milk please"

Shopkeeper hands over a pint of milk.

Gov: "no no, this won't do. I'm fed up with buying milk by the pint. I always end up wasting some of it. What I want is to buy milk in 1/2 pint units"

Shopkeeper: "but nobody sells in 1/2 pint units. To do that I will have to repackage the milk, work out the pricing and that will cost me money"

Gov: "Yes but it will be less wasteful"

Shopkeeper disappears out the back of the shop and 20 mins later (having missed and annoyed a number of his other customers) he returns with a newly packaged 1/2 pint of milk.

Gov: "That's excellent. I'll take 2 please"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


As a purveyor of fine web sites :-> I understand the challenges of competing with the big guys. Google maps is one of my favorite sites (when I cannot get onto google earth). I was one of those guys who could easily amuse himself (stop it!) by picking up an atlas and flicking through the pages.

So for me, google maps is not just a practical tool but a sad way to pass time. I think there is a little of that in all blokes. Who has not looked up their house on the satellite view on google earth? Very very few of you I suspect.

What is more amazing given how good Google maps and Google earth is given they are free (sort of, ignoring the adverts which I always do) is that our old friend is still going.

It must be like trying to sell inferior fruit from a crappy stall outside a supermarket who permanently give away fruit and veg for nothing.

Streetmap was a leader in their time and I have no doubt how the CEO felt the day he saw Google launch their offering. But the fact that they are still going deserves a prize for stubbornness in the face of impossible odds. The King Canute of web sites.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All change please

I wonder sometimes whether change is good. We are starting to see the next round of transformational thinking in Gov IT. But the journey may not be worth it. The mentality that says what we have does not work so lets change it always perplexes me.

Any model can be done badly, any model well. So if you have a model in place and it is working badly then rather than looking at why it does not work and fixing it, change it. Seems daft to me.

If you can't make what you have work, then don't expect the new model to work either. The problem is not the model. Activity is not a substitute for thinking.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

RAG Status

If ever there was a reason to rethink pedestrian crossings it was this. I had just crossed the road outside Bow Rd Tube and had managed about 10m along the pavement when I head the screech of brakes and turned in time to see a bloke in his go faster Toyota twat plow into a Chinese girl. Mounted the bonnet and bounced her off the windscreen.

Managed to get to her immediately to keep her still and stop the Toyota driver reversing over he legs. She just kept crying and in between she kept saying 'green light' 'green light' over and over again.

Bow Rd crossing has seen has more than its fair share of incidents. Having lived there for over 12 years I know the dangers. Its a long straight rd with 30mph limit and 2 lanes in each direction. Sadly the drivers morning and evening treat it like a motorway. Probably 3 or 4 crossings per week cars will go through the lights when the go red and it is double that number when they rush straight through the flashing amber at the end of the crossing period.

Now I can make no judgment as I cannot say that I actually saw that the guy ran the flashing amber. But it strikes me that when lying on the tarmac with both legs broken and head having just cracked the windscreen of the car you don't rationally think of an alibi as to why it was not your fault. She was not thinking after the fact in hospital whether she crossed on green.

So here's what I suspect was happening. The Toyota (Asian kid with girlfriend in front seat and mate on back) was driving as they do down Bow Rd like a boy racer. Both his car and a white van braked hard as they went through the crossing in each lane. Neither was accelerating having stopped at the lights, they were already going and were doing about 30. Girl sees the green (not flashing) man and starts to dash across the road. I suspect that as she starts the green man starts to flash and the red light turns to flashing amber. The rest is, as they say, history.

It occurs to me that some changes to the lights might help. The whole idea of a flashing Amber (go if clear/pedestrians have finished crossing) is madness when you think about it. People do not think twice about going through amber flashing lights. Nobody goes through amber lights if they are not clear but the point is that a pedestrian can start crossing on green and be only 1m from the edge when the green man starts to flash. For 2 lane roads it leads to one lane sometimes moving on before they can see the pedestrian.

Mixing cars and people is just not sensible. At all. Think about it, we do not do the reverse. We do not have a flashing amber at the start of the lights sequences where the pedestrian is allowed to cross if the road looks clear of cars!

Why not have the lights changed as follows.

Traffic lights turn Red
Wait 3 seconds
Green man shows for (variable but say) 10 seconds (long enough to cross, so depends upon road)
Green man goes out and red man (do not cross) come on 10 seconds. Note that the red man time is long enough for a crossing to deal with the person starting on green and getting 1 step in.
the Amber traffic light flashes
Then Green traffic light.

The difference is that the Amber light does not start to flash UNTIL the red man has been showing for long enough for the person to make a crossing.

Yes, it means crossings will take longer and traffic will be a little slower. People may be kept and extra minute on their journey.

I reckon that Chines girl would agree that less accidents is worth a minute or two extra on your car journey.