Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Razor's Edge

Razor Addendum

How good is this! No sooner do I finish spouting off about one of my favourite gripes concerning human evolution than the scientists have come to my aid!

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston discovered that most of us lead predictable lives. Who'd have guessed it!

Our travel arrangements are not very adventurous. By studying mobile phone data they found out that people rarely strayed from a six-mile radius. 70% of the time we can be found in our most visited location.

At Work? At a friends? Visiting John Terry's girlfriend's house?

They are hoping that the data will shed light on the spread of diseases. “We are all in one way or another boring,” said Albert-Lazlo Barabasi who co-wrote the study.

My point was and is that we are not very different (if at all) from our ancestors. What drives us would drive them.

Science may have some convincing evidence for the spread of human populations, but it has no answer to explain why people would up stakes from a sparsely populated and environmentally secure place and wander off to the freezing nether regions or worse.

This may be the Occam's Achilles. Seems like it to me.

Fancy a Close Shave?

Occam's Razor

No, this is not a Gillette commercial.

Rather it is a comment on Occam's Razor: first to Wikipedia -

Occam's razor (or Ockham's razor[1]), entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, is the principle that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" and the conclusion thereof, that the simplest explanation or strategy tends to be the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English logician, theologian and Franciscan friar, William of Ockham. Occam's razor may be alternatively phrased as pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate ("plurality should not be posited without necessity")[2]. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae (translating to the law of parsimony, law of economy or law of succinctness). When competing hypotheses are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selection of the hypothesis that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities while still sufficiently answering the question. It is in this sense that Occam's razor is usually understood. To quote Isaac Newton, "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, so far as possible, assign the same causes."[3]

Clear? I thought not. In layman's terms what it means is that given a choice between a simple and a complex explanation to a problem, always choose the simple one. It's probably correct.

This is fine, as far as it goes. Problem is is doesn't go very far.

Some examples. Why is there always a quantity of lost coins down the back of your settee/couch? Where do chickens roost in the desert? What did pre-historic man use for toilet paper? The list is long. The list is fairly endless.

But, is it correct?

I think not.

Let's take one of my favourite examples. One that has perplexed me since first I learned of it when I was (say) 12 or 13. Cro-Magnon man fascinated me. They were, as far as we can tell, modern humans. They would not be out of place walking down a street in London or New York. Yet for 25 to 30 thousand years they wandered about Europe and apparently achieved nothing. It took about that long to invent a wheel.

If, as we are led to believe, they were essentially us, what were they doing all that time? Back to Occam's razor. Occam would have us believe that the simplest explanation is the best and most accurate. They were just killing time. Fossil evidence says they were goofing around for thousands of years, getting nowhere. And the fossil evidence is always right. Right?


Let's back track a little. Our Cro-Frenchie pals were relative latecomers to Europe. Originally we were all Africans. The DNA tells us so. Out of Africa is all the rage.

According to both genetic and fossil evidence, archaic Homo sapiens evolved to anatomically modern humans solely in Africa, between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, with members of one branch leaving Africa by 60,000 years ago and over time replacing earlier human populations such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus. According to this theory, around the above time frame, one of the African subpopulations went through a process of speciation, prohibiting gene flow between African and Eurasian Human populations.[citation needed] The recent single origin of modern humans in East Africa is the near-consensus position held within the scientific community.[1]

So, if Wiki says so, it must be so.

What no-one really deals with is the why. If Occam is correct and the simplest explanation is the one the Our of Africa makes sense – doesn't it?

Not really.

If our ancestors wandered out of Africa about 60 000 years ago and got as far as Australia by about 45 000 years ago, what I want to know is not how, but why.

Assuming modern humans are the same as our African ancestors then what is interesting is not whether they wandered about all over but why they would bother. Who, for example, would voluntarily “vacation” on the snowy steppes of Siberia when you could just stay put on the warm, verdant coastal strips of India and Southeast Asia?

No-one deals with this. The DNA and fossil evidence says it is so; therefore, it is so. Full stop. Occam's Razor. I'm not convinced.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Butch and Sundance

Escaping Responsibility

Butch and Sundance, two little porkers, also known as the Tamworth Two, were the ones who escaped from their lorry on the way to the abattoir and were reprieved, not turned into pork pies and chipolatas. This was in 1998 – but they are, as I read not long ago, still alive and porking on the pounds at an animal sanctuary near Ashford in Kent. Good on ya, piggies!

Seriously, they captured the nation's pity, sympathy and admiration for their flight from certain death. Their reward? A long life (for a pig) of relative ease.

Not surprising, therefore, to find that the common herd are just as sentimental and nonsensical about animals today as they were 12 years ago.

How do I know? See The cyber-fascists slaughtering a decent teacher in the Sunday Times today, 14 February.

The Head Teacher at a small school in Kent (same county as the Tamworth Two) decided to do something practical to educate children about where food comes from. Seems a worthwhile thing to me.

From the Sunday Times( with Rod Liddle's by-line):

Marcus, as a rather yummy (and fashionable) salt-marsh Romney lamb, was hand-reared by the staff and children of Lydd primary school, on Romney Marsh to show the kids where our food comes from. There was a survey out recently which showed that 10% of schoolchildren think we get cheese from rats.

Surprised? I'm not. On 29 March 09 I blogged on this very subject. Look it up on Blogspot! The Head is exactly right. Children, and many, many adults in the UK have no idea where food comes from or how it actually gets into the shrink-wrapped packets at Tesco.

More from the Rod Liddle:

There were plenty of other things the kids didn’t know about food, and where it came from, quite apart from the rat-cheese misapprehension thing. There is a general view that children these days are a bit ignorant about what they eat, divorced from the process which brings KFC Zinger Burgers and micro-chips to their plates. Lydd primary school tried to address this problem, with the help of Marcus. Which is where it all went wrong.

Right on Rod! So, what's the problem? Yep, you guessed it – it's those folks who are the worst people to have children – the parents.

Marcus was hand-fed and then there came the day when he was looking especially plump and juicy and the headmistress, Andrea Charman, decided it was time to electrocute him down at the abattoir and divide him into chops. That, after all, was the point of Marcus. To be served lightly grilled, pink inside, with asparagus spears and Jersey Royals and mint. But then all hell broke loose, even before someone — maybe mice, who knows? — had made the gravy.

The kids’ parents — or some of them — demanded that Marcus should be allowed to live, because he was a nice sheepy. Rightly, Charman refused, saying: look, this is precisely what we need the children to learn; this is how the world is, especially here on Romney Marsh. Sheep are food. So Marcus was zapped and quartered, as sheep are.

Key point: the Head was trying to show kids where lamb chops come from. This is an important bit of info to learn in life, really. It's not clear whether the Head was proposing to have said Marcus chops on the school menu.

It was at this point that the endlessly hyperactive, bone-headed online fascists got involved and last week, Charman, who had been hand-picked to turn round this hitherto failing school, felt forced to resign from her job for “personal reasons”. Some 2,500 cretins started an online petition calling for the beleaguered head teacher to be sacked. It is entirely possible that none of them whatsoever had any connection to Lydd primary school. However, the campaign of vilification and vituperation had begun.

Another Facebook site was set up by 650 similarly sad, lifeless, drongoes, demanding not merely that Charman be sacked but — and I quote — to Ban Andrea Charman From Teaching Anywhere. Can you imagine the sort of people who would associate themselves with such a cause?

I can. Maybe you can. Rod can. Can anyone else? Particularly, anyone in a position to do anything about it?

Apparently not.

It was at this point that the endlessly hyperactive, bone-headed online fascists got involved and last week, Charman, who had been hand-picked to turn round this hitherto failing school, felt forced to resign from her job for “personal reasons”.

Charman’s local MP, Michael Howard, bemoaned her departure and said that the internet campaign “had implications for the future of society”. Too right. Charman’s resignation is obviously a defeat for education and rationality, seeing that she was trying to educate the kids as to how food appears on our plates.

So, who's to blame? What's to be done? It's a tough one. There are, evidence would seem to point to, a lot of fairly stupid people in Lydd. This is (fortunately, or unfortunately) not a crime.

I'll take the unpopular view, Michael Howard should have insisted that the Head be persuaded to stay. The Head should have refused to be bullied. The “hyperactive, bone-headed on-line fascists “should have had their bluff called.

You don't expose ignorance by pretending it doesn't exist.

These people need educating. So do their children. Sounds like Lydd and the country have lost a good teacher.

Serves them right.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Super Bowl or Toilet Bowl

Before I stick my neck out and tell you who will win this year's Super Bowl, a short trip down memory lane is in order.

The greatest betting coup in modern times was not, as is usually thought, some Irish punters gamely trying to nobble some nag at Punchestown; but, instead, my idiotic and grotesque offer of the Chiefs and 16 points versus the Vikings for Super Bowl IV in 1970. I know, because I was in Norway at the time and the queue outside my door was so long and so unruly the MP's had to be called in to keep order.

Even though it was foolhardy, I really did think the Chiefs would win. The rest is history. Except it's been 40 years and we've not been very close since!

I think it was the last time we were in the play-offs – we faced Peyton Manning and the Colts at Arrowhead about 3-4 years ago. And, I had it all figured out.

Indianapolis were running the same offence then as they bring to Super Bowl 44. Manning gets to the line of scrimmage, surveys the defence, audibles the play and they kick butt. My mistake at that time was in gleefully predicting that playing away in KC none of that nonsense was going to be in the frame.

It was so logical to me. The “chop-till-you-drop” brigade would make so much noise that the Indy offence would just not be able to function. Chiefs would win. Easy.

Needless to say my previous form in predicting a Chiefs Super Bowl win against all the odds counted for nought. My plan looked good on paper, but in reality it was pants. Manning did whatever he felt like and the Chiefs were murdered.

Of course, things move on and the Colts are not the same team. Their defence is not as good. The offence lacks a power runner. They don't dominate possession. They have some rookies that they rely on to make big plays.

Nevertheless, they will win, and win big.


Simple. Payton Manning.

It really wouldn't surprise me if he could walk on water.

The only really surprising and almost non-existent possibility for a New Orleans victory would be if he had a real stinker. Interceptions – incomplete passes – sacks – fumbles. He may well do any or all of the above, but it won't matter because he will still win. That's what he does.

It's good to see Nawlins in the big show. I'd like to think they have a chance. They do. The same chance Wild Bill had when he was dealt aces and eights.