Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dorothy L Sayers and the Creative Imagination

Reading Letters to a Diminished Church - a collection of brilliant essays by Dorothy L Sayers, which seem to have been written during the 2nd World War. Amongst the many things she is good at, she points out (in line with her excellent book The Mind of the Maker) if God is Creator then we need to think in terms of His creativity. She points out that novelists generally create a back-story for their characters, so from a Creator's PoV the idea of a false fossil record is not so absurd. She doesn't seriously advocate that God did this, but points out that "Where you have consistent imagination at work, the line between scientific and poetic truth may be very hard to draw." She is also very good on the power of words, and how scientists can under-estimate them. "The demagogue who can sway crowds...are equally dangerous whether they are cynically unscrupulous or...have fallen under the spell of their own eloquence and have become victims of their own propaganda." I think Dawkins is somewhat in this category.

She is also very good on the popular ignorance about what Christianity actually teaches. Her spoof Catechism "God the Father? ... rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary" "Faith? Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact" is sadly spot-on.

PS Apparently Lord Evans of Temple Guiting is also leaving the government. And an (unnamed) Labour Minister is quoted as saying: "All successful prime ministers have a coalition. Thatcher got Basildon Man to vote Tory, Blair reached out to Worcester Woman, Cameron has the environmental lobby and the youth vote, but Brown is doing nothing to build a coalition. Perhaps we need a period in opposition. There comes a point when a party has been in power long enough." Quite.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Awaiting the 5th Resignation

Friday evening celebrated Elder Daughter's birthday with a quiet family meal in a Thai Restaurant near where they live. Son-in-law had flown in from California that day. Sat celebrated a friend's PhD, taken in his late 40s.

Latest opinion polls show a slight reduction in the Conservative lead - the Weighted Moving Average is now 40:33:17 compared to 42:32:16 a month ago. However the wheels are so clearly coming off NuLab that these minor fluctuations shouldn’t worry the Tories at all. AFAIK every single economically literate commentator has condemned the latest Northern Rock bodge (Katetsky in The Times most of all) and the demise of Hain makes the claim of “competence” look increasingly threadbare. I thought this was the 2nd resignation from GB’s Government in just over 2 months but it is in fact the 4th, and with Alan Johnson now joining Harriet Harman under a cloud for dodgy donations, Lord West a laughing-stock, Lord Jones now having Shriti Vadera as a colleague, and the Attorney General publicly disagreeing with the 42 days policy it can’t be long before the 5th.

Insightful pieces by Andrew Rawnsley ("Both [Stephen Carter and Jeremy Haywood come] with high reputations, but you can't help but notice that their twin appointments also exemplify the underlying problem. Told that he needs to appoint a mighty chief of staff to make it unequivocally clear who is in charge, Gordon Brown decides to have two chiefs of staff.") and Patrick Hennsey.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

NuLab's incompetence - and happy anniversary

Anatole Kaletsky and Libby Purves sound the death-knell in The Times on NuLab's reputation for economic competence and "tough on Crime, tough on the causes of Crime" respectively. Jackie Ashley rightly points out the dangers of the ID Register. And Guido Fawkes shows how Brown's stunt of visiting Iraq during the Tory Conference and promising 1000 troops home by Christmas was a blatant lie. Equally troubling, NuLab's reaction to Brown being caught in startling innumeracy claiming that "nearly a billion people, over a third of the world's population" spoke English is - to delete the ludicrous clause from the report on the 10 Downing Street website. Very much in line with the deletion of a Minister's "bollocks" from Hansard.

I find I've been blogging for over 3 years. I've no idea how many, or more accurately how few, people read this. It's far from deathless prose, and almost certainly too much politics. But to any who do read - happy anniversary.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Great Harvard Trip - and progress on QoT

Back (yesterday) from a fantastic 3 days in Harvard, working with Martin Nowak and three of his colleagues. Took two colleagues from the UK, and I also caught up with John Campbell (whom I was at school with), John Quelch and, briefly, Sarah Coakley.

We had David Laibson come in and spend 1.5 hours with the team on Thurs and John Campbell came in on Fri, so in addition to the stimulus of working together we had the input from two very bright and delightful world experts.

We're all tremendously excited with the progress made. It's a heady mix of science and economics and the team is gelling really well. We have a tremendous diversity: 5 nationalities and 6 basic disciplines in a team of 7, yet a real common purpose and enthusiasm and we can all speak eachother's language.

At the end we shared a magnum of a (minor) Rothschild wine which seemed very appropriate, while Martin played Mahler III on the hi-fi. Thence to dinner and to the plane - leaving far too early alas, and the plane was late as well.

John Polkinghorne has sent the crucial Chapter 2 of Questions of Truth, and I have at least started a draft of Chapter 1. Meanwhile Wang-Yen will soon be sending drafts of Chapters 3-8 based on collating the responses we have given to the questions on the website, so progress is really encouraging on that front. More hours in the day please!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Too much legislation - pass 1 repeal 2

On Tues evening went to BCS Thought Leaders discussion at the Royal Society on "the sharing of personal information". Met Onora O'Neill who is thoroughly good news as I had expected. She rather likes my long-held idea that a law should be passed that "for each page of legislation enacted, at least 2 shall be repealed, and we hereby repeal the following 2 pages". More realistic might be to require at least 150% because legislation can't exactly be repealed by the page so at least 150% might mean 180% in practice. There are far too many laws and they are far too complex. This of course is one reason why, when legislators and, worse, cabinet ministers, are caught breaking the law they should resign and receive exemplary punishment.

PS Having a crash at Heathrow just as the PM is off to China is close to "you can't make it up" territory. Has there ever been a more accident-prone PM? (Is it possible that ATC was focusing so hard on the PM's departure that they lost concentration on the incoming flight. It seems unlikely.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

House of Lords dinner for the Mahdi, and Hain's Pains

Fascinating dinner at the House of Lords organised by KidsForKids in honour of HE Saddiq Al Mahdi (former Prime Minister of the Sudan, Leader of the Umma Party, Immam of the Ansar) who is their Honorary President. It was hosted by Lord Cope and Lord Ahmed was also present - sadly Sayeeda Warsi was unable to join us. Saddiq Al Mahdi is a wise and impressive man, and much of what he said chimed with Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion. Neither he nor Lord Ahmed had come across this, and were most interested. We should try to get them together when Saddiq is next in the UK. The general goodwill, cross-party collaboration and sense of the Upper House makes one wonder whether government might not be improved if the Commons were abolished.

Blair Unbound continues to fascinate, and throws an interesting light on why the present government is so dysfunctional. Labour MPs and the Guardian are now calling for his resignation, and Guido Fawkes, who has been leading the charge in exposing Hain's dodgy donations, points out that, apart from anything else, corporate donations can only legally be made by companies trading in the UK, and that the "Progressive Policies Forum" shows no evidence of having traded at all. The rather pathetic attempts to smear George Osborne with the same brush don't seem to be gaining traction - all the donations in his case were declared promptly to the Electoral Commission (Hain's were not, which is a criminal offence) and they were told by an official for the Register of Members Interests "The register deals with donations to a member's constituency association and not to central offices. Sorry."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Son, Polkinghorne, and more Gordon Brown fiascos

Thurs went to Royal College of Physicians for son's presentation of diploma on passing his MRCP Part 3. Almost exactly 50% of the recipients were from visible ethnic minorities. I don't think BTW that this is positive discrimination - just a function of focus.

Sat to Cambridge for the first working session on the book with John Polkinghorne and Wang-Yen who is acting as a consultant to us pending work-permit related developments. Made an enormous amount of progress: provisionally picked the 47 lead Questions and have a Chapter Plan and Word/Page Budget. We hope we can get a Nobel Prizewinnner to write the foreword. Full steam ahead!

Politics continues to be almost beyond parody as Brown bounces from one banana skin to another. The Hain fiasco is dreadful: they actually had the temerity to try to run the line, from Hain, that "Tory Sums don't add up". BBC reporter suggests that Brown can't fire Hain (for breaking the Law, blatantly) because he'd then have to let Harman and Wendy Alexander go. Ironically, Brown dislikes Harman intensely and probably doesn't like Hain much, but Douggie Alexander is one of his Best Buddies. of course the longer he clings on to Hain the worse it gets for him. Tant pis. At least he seems to be backing away from ID cards, but as usual can't make up his mind.

Meanwhile the Northern Rock fiasco rumbles on. As Saturday's FT explained, NR's fundamental problem is that it has a mortgage book which, best case, yields 6% and it cannot obtain funds at a cost of less than 7% (and then only from the Bank of England - no commercial lender would lend it money at any price). It is therefore a non-viable business, and the only way it can be made viable is by someone offering it enough of a subsidy for its cost of funds to be lower than the net yield on its loans. All the rest (Virgin, Olivant etc...) is just smoke and mirrors. And the £100M fees paid for by the taxpayer are just a face-saving device.

The only reason the shares as trading at more than 0p is that traders suspect that, having wasted £100M in fees and put £55bn on the line, this Government will be prepared to pay another few £100M of OUR money to avoid further embarrassment. And, alas, they may be right. Meanwhile Police are cheated out of their independent pay rise, the Armed Forces are starved of necessary equipment, and funding is cut for adult education.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Beethoven and Siem - wow!

A wonderful evening last night. Ruth Palmer and the brilliant young composer Sasha Siem came round and we played the first movement of Sasha's 2007 piece Crowhurst, Majesty, Molash, Beauty and Monkey Puzzle for Violin and Piano (the first UK performance I think!) and the whole of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No 7. Because of delays on the tubes Ruth and I didn't have time to rehearse the Beethoven (although we had played the 2nd and 3rd movements before) and Ruth was, as usual, playing from memory. Nevertheless they were both convincing performances, by far the highlight of my playing life. One of our guests, who arrived late from a 3-line-whip at the Commons, told us that there was a neighbour who was standing outside to hear the performance.

Very convivial dinner afterwards with excellent sirloin and Ch Haut-Batailley 1999. Despite the slighly implausible mix of guests (2 tax accountants, 2 lawyers (one an MP), 2 musicians and a film-maker, plus the 3 of us) everyone got on well. Lots of exciting plans: Ruth is going to record the Bartok solo sonata and the Bach Solo Partita No 2; Sahsa has projects with the Royal Opera House and Aldeburgh.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Catching up on Nature - Quantum Uncertainty directly impacts on Neurons

Catching up on Nature. I'm delighted to see that Martin Nowak's cover paper on the evolution of language is also selected as one of the "papers of the year" for 2007. Also a fascinating News & Views from Seth Lloyd (20 Dec 07, p 1167) discussing a paper by Wojciech Zurek in Phys Rev A replacing the QM postulate that "Measurements go into an Eigenstate" with the more intuitive postulate "Two measurements taken at once will yield the same result". There is still a lot to be done on the foundations of QM, and an interesting book on Decoherence is reviewed in the Jan 8 issue.

I also find a fascinating paper by Sun et al (Nature 450:676-682) that shows, amongst other things, that asynchronous release of neurotransmitters in a neuron can be triggered by the binding of just two calcium ions to a sensor. Since calcium ions are certainly small enough to be subject to Quantum uncertainty this shows one rather direct mechanism by which the intrinsic unpredictability of QM leads to intrinsic unpredictability of the brain. In any event, any complex system with 1011 interacting elements will be unpredictable, but this is the first time I have found direct evidence of Quantum Uncertainty directly impinging on the firing of neurons.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Drawing the Thing as he sees it, for the God of Things as they are.

Back from a brief trip to Paris, manly to take grandsons to Eurodisney - though we did get most of a day in Paris as well incl. lunch just of the Champs Elysees. At the hotel found delicious almost-forgotten Kipling, from The Seven Seas – his poem In the Neolithic Age tells of a bard who killed 2 of his rivals
“For I knew my work is right and theirs is wrong” but
“my Totem saw my shame: from his ridge pole shrine he came
And told me in a vision of the night
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right!”

Also the only poem I've come across in praise of engineers
“Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers
With the rank and pay of a Sapper.”

And the final Envoi looks forward to the time, after the General Resurrection when
“...only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame
And no-one shall work for the money, and no-one shall work for the fame
But each for the joy of working, and each on his separate star
Shall draw the Thing as he sees it, for the God of Things as they are.”

This BTW went through 28 editions in the 18 years between publication and 1914.

The Huckabee/Obama result of the Iowa Primaries is interesting, if perhaps predicable. A nice idea that this would be the contest - if a trifle worrying that two people with such little experience of foreign affairs could be the contenders. But if they have the right character, they will listen to their advisers. Presidents shouldn't try to be their own Secretaries of State.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Tsunami of faith, and the brain working towards reality

Happy New Year. Went to Son and Daughter-in-law for first part of New Year's Eve party, came back with Grandsons who we have for a few days. So sadly couldn't be at the Watchnight service, which is a wonderful way to start the New Year. Son had worked first day in his new post, with one of his former colleagues archly calling him "boss" throughout.

Came across this fascinating speech by the Bishop of London, in which he suggests: "The shrillness of the new attacks on God and the smearing of people of faith as fools or knaves – these are among the signs of a great sea change. The tide on Dover Beach which Matthew Arnold viewed as a symbol of the Sea of Faith has gone out unnaturally far. One girl on a Thai holiday beach read the sign correctly and shouted to her family to run because such a dramatic recession of the tide is one of the signs of an approaching tsunami. "

Simplistic "question" on Edge produces some interesting responses, including one from Stanislas Dehesne praising the work of Karl Friston (UCL) who has presented two extraordinarily ambitious and demanding papers in which he presents "a theory of cortical responses" which apparently rest on the premise that the brain optimizes a free energy function, which measures how closely the brain's internal representation of the world approximates the true state of the real world. Fascinating idea.