A theme to develop

Reading again about digital data collection whistleblowers:

War on whistlelblowers and journalists

I had to comment:

For me the insanity of the NSA et al data collection is that criminals will infiltrate the agency. I have no doubt that criminal organizations are investing in putting people into top universities, like Stanford, in order for them to get jobs in the digital spying agencies. Once they understand the backdoors built into proprietary encryption software, so that the NSA can decrypt on the fly, all financial services will be open to huge fraud; probably we would not know about it – the criminals would not want their work hampered. But, at some point the world could literally be held to ransom. Of course not just financial services would be in jeopardy. Edward Snowden is the good guy, we will not know about the bad guys till something awful happens.

Natural Life and Natural Death, not Life or Death

I found the Mortality statistics in England and Wales a wonderful insight on how we view death. On the chart every death has a cause, some labelled disease (almost). There are a few Unknown causes and a slight hint in the use of the word Senility, but that death might be natural is not part of the classification. We would be immortal if only we could get rid of disease. I am not criticizing these statistics they are important in deciding priorities in health care.

A more realistic view comes in a book The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I have not read the book yet though I will do so soon, However, there is a summary in an article by the author Cancer: The new normal?. He is presenting cancer as something not to be conquered (because maybe that is not possible due to the very processes that keep us alive) but something that we can live with if we focus on medications that limit or postpone the damage that cancer does. This reminds me of a similar suggestion about malaria that we might be able to make it a less malign disease and live with it.

One of the most beautiful books I have read in the past few years is Final Exam, A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, by Pauline W. Chen. In the book she shows how in our aversion to acknowledging our mortality we fail people in that last period of life when body systems fail. I will extend my comments after reading Mukherjee’s book.

Science, humbling and inspirational

I sometimes visit the Science Museum in London to ponder some of the exhibits and find myself humbled by what has been discovered and invented in the past. I have marvelled at the James Watt steam engine that looks so crudely made and obvious now, yet required a big thought transition to conceive and build. Here is something from over 2000 years ago. It has precision gearing to do complex calculations: The Antikythera Mechanism. There is a link to the article in Nature Ancient astronomy: Mechanical inspiration that you might as well read instead as it has more detail. I did know about this device from articles a few years ago but at that time the 3D analysis with X-rays had not been done and I didn’t follow up the details. Now the details of the contruction of the device are so refined that we can appreciate the immense knowledge and skill in making it, and fully understand its function.

Notes after a year of blog

The blog is notes to myself that might sometimes be picked up by others who may find some useful insight.

I write things down to clarify and consolidate thoughts because I find that it is easy to have the illusion that you have a view or opinion which turns out not to be so when you try to articulate it. I have still not resolved what I should write about, though not things that are about my main activities. Probably there is 10% of general interest material that I would like to comment on, but where is the lifetime?

If I wanted to write about my main activities in depth I would have to start dedicated blogs, and how does one get the right balance of doing things and writing about the doing?

I marvel at the reams that some bloggers manage to post. Maybe are more talkative people than me.

I realise how little people read of what one writes because I read some other blogs and note how little I read, and I know how little my own friends read of what I write. It is worth giving thought to this to optimize one’s activities. I may start the optimize-blog blog.

A remarkable and inspiring person

Clara Schumann was my pianist heroine for many years. Now I have another: Alice Herz-Sommer. At the time of writing this she is aged 107. I read the biography because I came across a video Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer playing piano and then searched for more information.

There are several valuable things to learn from Alice. The most immediate for me was the dedication to keyboard practise. I have always fancied being able to give a good rendering of the Chopin Studies but have always muddled along because I did not put in the time; for now I have faith that if I do the work I will get to something competent and my target is one year – at which point I will try to avoid feeling I have wasted a lot of my lifetime in doing things half-way.

The next crucial lesson is to shun bitterness and bad feeling about people and the past; this must include oneself as many self-help books say.

My criticism of the biography is that I assume it was written from her reminiscences but tends to read like a docu-drama where many conversations are made up to set a tone. I would have preferred Alice’s own notes. Although not without some interest because I hope that they reflect Alice’s emotional view of the Chopin Studies the digressions on each of the studies should really have been an appendix. Finally, the latter part of Alice’s life was rushed through with most focus on the bad years during and immediately after the German occupation of Prague.

Whetever, it must be a great privilege to know Alice Herz-Sommer.

Delightful and impressive creative thinking

These two bits of scientific thinking impressed me a lot: Dark energy and flat Universe exposed by simple method and Cosmos may show echoes of events before Big Bang with links to the original papers that I like to have explicit rather than search for. The first, as the article title suggests, is a method to determine the large-scale geometry of space-time. Is it flat (so we can use Euclidean geometry) or is it curved (so we have to use a non-Euclidean geometry). What impressed me is the simplicity of the analysis. There is an assumption that the inclination of orbits of binary galaxy systems that we observe has no bias for any angle, but from that the flatness of space-time and the proportion of dark energy in the overall Universe mass is obtained. My ‘lay’ question on this is that we need to know what theories that amend general relativity to avoid the existence of dark energy would predict.

The second report is of work done with Roger Penrose, a very creative thinker. I had always assumed that if the Big Bang theory is really the way our world came into existence we would have no way of knowing anything about what was before the Big bang. This is so if you take the conventional view of the event, but Penrose does not like the instant inflation that current models need (the Penrose view suits me) and has a model of the Universe where the Universe preceding ‘this’ one produces the effect that inflation in the conventional model does. The papers author’s find non-uniformities in the microwave background radiation that can be related to the previous Universes and Big Bangs. We need alternative models in a similar way to test the ideas in the first paper mentioned above.

Beautiful, informative novels

I have been reading novels by Tracy Chevalier after a recommendation from a friend who lent me the first I read.

The first novel I read was Girl with Pearl Earring. I have always admired the paintings of Vermeer so this setting for the story suited me. What I liked most about the work was the lack of a plot in the sense that many modern novels have a bullet-like plot-thread. Tracy allows one to look around and come to know the characters as though they are people you might meet rather than means to show how clever the author is. Towards the end Tracy clearly felt the need for closure and a small plot emerges that allows her to wind up the story.

The second book I read was Remarkable Creatures. I would make the same comments as above, but also add the shame I felt for not knowing about Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. The names of the male palaeontologists of the time were familiar to me. Thanks to Tracy I not only got some biography from the novel but also read more about them thanks to Google.

Robert Fisk

I heard Fisk in person for the first time yesterday, after reading his books and articles over the past 20 years. He speaks as crisply as he writes. I find him one of the great reporters of the past decades. I did not learn anything new of his opinions, but there was one interesting comment. His driver in Lebanon is a Sunni Muslim who wishes him “Happy Christmas” in late December as honestly as Fisk wishes him “Eid Mubarak” during the Eid festival. Fisk’s comment was just what I also say to people; why are we so afraid of offending people in the multicultural UK by playing down Christmas celebrations as though people cannot tolerate the festivals of others. I hope to keep gaining a better understanding of Middle East matters from Fisk’s articles for many years still.

If only

I am trying to get started on some techie problem I want to solve and finding it difficult to start. The result is the blog notes. Recycled Island gave me such hope, yet somehow it does not seem feasible and maybe misdirected. The plan is to collect plastic waste in the Pacific Gyre to build an island of about 10000 square kilometres. The only attempt at explanation of how does not mention how the waste will be collected from up to 15,000,000 square kilometres of plastic polluted ocean. How long will it take? How much energy will be needed for the work? Would the island be tethered or would the gyre keep it in place? What about those super storms and waves that happen from time to time? Surely the effort should first be into stopping plastics getting into the ocean.

I don’t know the estimates of proportions but I think a lot of the plastic waste is already in microscopic particles throughout a considerable depth of water that will be impossible to collect. If one is going to collect stuff from over 15,000,000 km2 it does not seem much more effort to take it for land treatment; maybe we could use huge wind-powered robot-guided barges that have most of their bulk under water to minimize storm damage that could even filter the water of plastic particles that are bigger than plankton in size.

Trust evolution -part 2

Some months ago I was struck by the benefits of running barefoot, and here is further argument on the same issue but for children: Why barefoot is best for children. There is similarity here with the arguments in the Michael Pollan book on food I commented on a few weeks ago: first check with our evolution and past, then think if what we are doing is a good plan. Climate change raises a similar problem in that everything evolves and changes but the rate of change has to be limited if we are to survive.

I am not against intervention with scientific understanding. An example would be arguments for Vitamin D deficiency being treated with oral supplements. In the past when people spent a lot of time outdoors the amount of Vitamin D synthesized in the skin was large by the scale of recommended supplement tablets; something like 50 to 100 times the amount you would get in one tablet from the pharmacy. I am sure we were not creating that amount of Vitamin D just to throw away, so if we are not getting much sun we should not be surprised if we have health problems if we do not take vitamin D supplements. Even with this we should be thinking what else might have been happening with sun exposure that oral supplements do not provide.