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The fruits of the earth (1)

… and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth … replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over … every living thing that moveth upon the earth … I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. [Gen, Ch 1 v26-29, KJV]

The single biggest time sink in my life has been software.

By that I mean that software is the activity which has given me the worst return. The best ballpark number I can come up with is several thousand hours (spread over several decades) for negligible useful result.

Of course, it all depends how you group activities. Most of us waste a quite alarmingly large number of the available minutes. There are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, or 8760 hrs/year. Well, if you make the basic Julian correction of adding in a leap year every four years, that is 8766 hrs/year. But accuracy is unimportant, because we have to deduct sleep. Allowing for a few other activities which are hard to combine with others, we might deduct a third giving us 5840. Let’s round that down a little. Each of us has the same basic resource: 5,000 hours of time every year.

These days most people work 40 hours of less for 48 weeks or less, which is 1920, call it 2,000 hours a year. Those who are making a serious effort to get to the top of their field work double that. I have occasionally worked more than 80 hours/week. I remember a corporate finance transaction in my thirties when I worked 120/hours week for the two weeks before “impact day”. I then collapsed into bed for a day.

When I was in the Treasury, I noticed that to be Chancellor or Prime Minister it definitely helped to thrive on 5 hours sleep a night. Maybe those kind of people can work over 100 hours/week for long periods. I certainly cannot. Perhaps I should caveat that. Mercifully, I have never experienced wartime. Certainly there are plenty of autobiographies of people working long hours in wartime for periods of a few years. Whether such conditions allow everyone to work harder, or just bring those with the right genes to position where they later write autobiographies, I am not clear.

Also, of course, it depends hugely what kind of work you are talking about. Or maybe not. I am not sure about that.

In any case, 5000 hours is surprisingly high. There is far more time available than most of us think. What do we do with all those hours? I remember some email exchanges with a guy in New York a few years back. He was incredibly well-read in literature. And he hadn’t just scanned it quickly. He had interesting and thoughtful things to say about it. So how, I asked him, did he find time to read all this stuff. Well, he explained, he always had a book with him and was ruthless about reading it every spare moment.

Even so, my software time sink really bugs me. Part of the reason is the quotation at the top. I looked up the first Chapter of Genesis, because my memory of it is always somewhat garbled. I tend to remember it simply as: God gave us dominion over the earth; He gave us the fruits of the earth.

But the gift was well wrapped up. The idea was that we would only gradually discover how to harvest those fruits. For that, science was key. There is no time here to go into the gross misrepresentations of the Catholic Church’s attitude towards science in any detail. Suffice to say that one appealing feature of the Catholic Church is that it is deeply rational, as well as deeply mystical. Indeed, it can reasonably claim to have been a major proponent of science and other rational activities through the millennia.

Of course, it has many flaws, because it is staffed by people and all of us have many flaws. Things like the crusades and its attitudes to women or to temporal power for much of its existence are hard to defend.

It is certainly true that the bout of reform kicked off by John XXIII has some way to go. Benedict XVI, one of my favourite popes, did a masterly job of postponing the new Catechism until emotions had cooled a little, and he was one of the best papal theologians of all time, but there is still a major reform agenda. Maybe Francis is intending to carry it out; he certainly looks cannier and more thoughtful than most people seem to think.

I suppose my dream is tied up with Teilhard de Chardin and building the new Jerusalem. That is the concept that heaven and earth are not two entirely separate places, linked in a mysterious way by an interface mainly noticeable in the Eucharist and private prayer. Instead, part of the Church’s role is to build the New Jerusalem here on earth. We do that by gradually acquiring the mastery over material things that God bequeathed us.

On that I am passionate. We have barely scratched the surface with molecular biology, electronics and software. Well, those are the clear-cut cases; no doubt many more will emerge as the project gradually progresses.

What is completely clear is that there is abundance. But figuring out how to pull the levers (science and engineering) is only part of it. The other part is the great project of learning to cooperate and to curb our selfish urges.

Better communications have made a big difference. Our television screens and newspapers give ample detail of life in far-away places. The young often react with an idealistic urge to sort out the great North-South divide.

Unfortunately, the whole business is much more subtle than many of the most persuasive advocates seem to think. It is easy to focus too much on a detail and miss essential background, and too many people make too little effort to look closely at their own motivations. It is easy for most of us to spot cases like Ron Hubbard, but many leading figures in the environmental movement might look a little more closely at their prejudices and objectives. I am tired of the nonsense on nuclear power and global warming and saddened by the misdirection of youthful energy and altruism.

What is one to make of Tony Blair, now that the dust has settled? I mention him partly because of the accounts of how his diary in Number 10 was kept in blocks of 5 minutes. Life as PM is hectic with little time for reflection. Should the verdict of history on Blair be entirely negative, or does he deserve some credit for helping Dubwa to lead the US into yet another major foreign policy blunder? Did he mean well? Even if he did, can such a smart guy be forgiven for ignoring all the advice on the stupidity of invading Iraq? Did he actually believe the nonsense about weapons of mass destruction? Or maybe making better use of all those minutes is trickier than it looks.

What about Big Pharma? Is there anything to be said in its defence, or is it largely evil? Or does the blame lie with all the corrupt and lazy politicians who have assisted it in peddling overpriced, overhyped drugs? Or with spineless regulators?

God is the ultimate teacher. He gives us challenges, both individually and collectively, that are within our capacity, but only just. He is constantly stretching us to the limit. It is easy to say that is because he wants us to learn to rely on Him, not ourselves. That is certainly part of it. Examples of people who start well and then go off the rails are everywhere (take E-ba-gum as Carrington called him); that is why the Church is constantly urges us to beware of pride. But God is also trying to show us that we can be far, far better than we imagine in our wildest dreams.

[It is hard to believe that this started as a rather detailed article about the infuriating mess that successive third-party package managers have made to some aspects of my iMac desktop. I am now on my third attempt to sort out /usr/local and get ruby, git, brew and a few other things working properly. My attempts to put things in perspective have already driven me well over the usual thousand word guideline.]

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Teacher-pupil sex


It has been amusing to see the flurry of comment after a married religious studies teacher (age 44) was “let off” with a suspended sentence after sex with a 16-year old girl at his school.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides:

s16(1) A person aged 18 or over (A) commmits an offence if –
(a) he intentionally touches another person (B),
(b) the touching is sexual,
(c) A is in a position of trust in relation to B,
(d) where subsection (2) applies, A knows or could reasonably be expected to know of the circumstances by virtue of which he is in a position of trust in relation to B, and
(e) either (i) B is under 18 and A does not reasonably believe that B is 18 or over, or (ii) B is under 13.
(2) This subsection applies where A –
(a) is in a position of trust in relation to B by virtue of circumstances within section 21(2),(3),(4) or (5), and
(b) is not in such a position of trust by virtue of other circumstances.
(3) Where … it is proved that the other person was under 18, the defendant is to be taken not to have reasonably believed that that person was 18 or over unless sufficient evidence is adduced to raise an issue as to whether he reasonably believed it.

(5) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable … (b) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years.

s21(1) For the purposes of s16 to 18, a person (A) is in a position of trust in relation to another person (B) if –
(a) any of the following subsections applies, or
(b) any condition specified in an order made by the Secretary of State is met.
(2) [detained in institution by court order]
(3) [local authority care homes etc]
(4) [hospitals etc]
(5) This subsection applies if A looks after persons under 18 who are receiving education at an educational institution and B is receiving, and A is not receiving, education at that institution.

So the teacher manifestly fell under s21(5) and had no hope of escaping under s16(3), because as a teacher he had easy access to records showing the pupil’s age as 16. So if s16(a) he touched her intentionally, s16(b) the touching was sexual, and s16(5) he was indicted for the offence and convicted, then he was liable to a sentence of imprisonment up to 5 years.

The judge in the case was Judge Joanna Greenberg QC.


She was formerly at Charter Chambers, but had evidently decided six months ago to get a minor judgeship whether because it was less stressful, or because her career at the bar had gone into a decline, or maybe for some other reason.


The Sentencing Manual provides


and gives a summary of this relevant case


So at first sight the sentence looks distinctly on the lenient side. But the judge said that the girl had stalked and “groomed” the teacher so that a suspended sentence was more appropriate.

Cue for immediate outrage. This was transferring the blame to the victim when teachers had a legal duty to reject pupils’ sexual advances no matter how enticing and no matter that the pupil was over the age of consent (sex with a child age 15 or younger is always illegal, although rarely prosecuted if both participants are under 18). has 222 links to the story as I write this. Groups I had not heard of before, got in on the act:


All kinds of people demanded that the Attorney General immediately get the sentence reviewed by a higher court. It turned out that in this case he did not have the power to do so. So the NSPCC apparently demanded an immediate change in the law, although they have not yet figured out how to get such important things onto their website in a timely way. Meanwhile the Judicial Conduct and Investigations Office has been asked to make an inquiry into Greenberg’s fitness to be a judge.

The teachers’ unions have not surprisingly pointed out that the law is anomalous and that even if sex with a 16 year old pupil was not illegal, it would still be a gross disciplinary offence.

But the most interesting comment was on a teachers’ website recalling the history of s16. The offence was apparently introduced as a sop to the anti-gay lobby who were concerned about bringing down the age of consent for gay sex to be the same as that for heterosexual sex. This provision was apparently necessary to appease that lobby and get the lowering of the age of consent through.

I have not yet checked that out, but it certainly sounds plausible.

In any case, much of the reaction is pure knee-jerk nonsense, typical of the paedophile hysteria that has gripped the UK for the last decade or more. Clearly, it is wrong to abuse a position of trust. There may even be a case for making sexual touching by a teacher with a 16 or 17 year old pupil a criminal rather than just a disciplinary offence. But making out that it is the same as non-consensual sex is ludicrous.

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Global warming

Idly browsing, I came across a Horizon programme (still available on iPlayer) in which Paul Nurse bemoans the lack of public trust in science, basing his discussion on the case of global warming. I seem to have written about global warming only peripherally – Climategate and wind energy). So perhaps it is worth summarising my views.

My major conclusion is that the debate about whether human output of CO2 is significantly raising global temperatures is a waste of time.

For the first 20 years or so that people focussed on global warming, there were two major problems. Theoretically, it was obvious that CO2 emissions were likely to raise global temperatures. The snag was that for a 30 year period (1940-1970) we had rapidly rising emissions accompanied by slight global cooling. The second problem was that all the data prior to the satellite data (which only became available in the second half of the twentieth century) was riddled with problems. Going back in history over the last couple of thousand years it was almost impossible to get data which was remotely accurate enough. The claimed effect is measured in small fractions of a degree per decade averaged over the globe, so to test it one needs highly accurate data for a large fraction of the globe. Such data was simply not available prior to the satellites.

These difficulties were compounded by three factors. The first was that, going back further into history, it was clear that the climate had been subject to large variations before there was any question of a human effect. In particular, we had had the ice ages, followed by massive melts. So it was clear that the climate was far from stable. It was capable of large changes without any human intervention. Then each particular source of data seemed to have its own complexities and reasons why it might be an unreliable guide. Finally, it was disconcerting that so much of the climate work seemed to take the form of elaborate computer projections that were clearly based on an inadequate understanding of how the climate actually worked.

The effect of all that was to make the whole thesis highly speculative. Unfortunately, many campaigners and many scientists made light of these difficulties, insisted that human actions were causing global warming, and abused those who disagreed or reserved judgment as “deniers” or worse.

That changed when the period of rapidly rising emissions accompanied by slight global cooling was explained. It turned out to be due to human sulfate emissions which had a substantial cooling effect. Those emissions were controlled (because of other adverse effects, notably acid rain) and we got several decades of significantly rising temperatures. So the basic theoretical prediction (CO2 emissions should cause rising temperatures) was now confirmed.

Meanwhile the public debate has been almost entirely about how to reduce human output of CO2. That seems to me completely daft.

There are three problems. One is that it is completely unrealistic to expect people to reduce their energy usage significantly. Even if those in the developed world could be persuaded not to increase, or even to reduce their per capita usage, those in the Third World are determined to increase their usage in order to gain the same standard of living that they see in the developed world. Plus world population is remorselessly increasing.

The second problem is that there is only one technology available for roll-out on a large scale with low CO2 emissions – nuclear. Unfortunately, that has historically been seriously mishandled by politicians, scientists and engineers. Despite being a reasonably safe and reliable method of generating electricity, they politicians failed to grasp that the inevitable association in the public’s mind with nuclear weapons was going to result in quite different standards being applied to it. The current situation is that we now have largely unnecessary, but hugely expensive, gold-plating in the form of regulations on disposal of nuclear waste, coupled with poor reactor design which makes the plants less safe than they could be whilst they are operating. This lack of safety is not bad enough to kill people in significant numbers, but it is bad enough to cause periodic scares which force up operating costs.

The third problem is that even if we immediately stopped all human CO2 production, the CO2 remains in the atmosphere for so long that temperatures would continue to rise for another hundred years. In other words, even action far more drastic than that envisaged by the most optimistic campaigners would not do much to ameliorate the effects of too much CO2.

What we need is to shift our focus to coping with the effects of global warming, rather than trying to stop it. There is clearly substantial scope for such action – the Netherlands dike building programme was effective and not prohibitively expensive. Of course, it is also worth continuing to develop alternative energy sources and to research climate mechanisms. But it will take decades to develop new energy sources and more decades to roll them out on a large scale, whilst the effects of more research on climate are unpredictable.

In passing, I find Nurse’s programme irritating. He is just bleating that the rest of the world is not treating scientists with more respect. But in this case scientists have hardly deserved it. In the early decades they hopelessly over-egged their case. Moreover, much of the work was shoddy and made life easy for those who disagreed with it. More recently, they have too readily lent their support to such manifestly daft projects as switching from gas power stations to wind power.

I also find it amusing to find him complaining about amateurs forming opinions irrationally, paying attention to fashion or emotion, instead of carefully reviewed data and carefully analysed arguments. Has he not noticed that scientists frequently do the same! Take a field with which I am reasonably familiar – cosmology. It is rife with highly speculative theories, which are widely supported simply because they are fashionable.

He concludes by demanding that in this case we focus on the science. By that he seems to mean his view of the debate with those who believe that human CO2 emission is not causing global warming. But that debate is irrelevant. What we need are practical solutions that will help to deal with the consequences of global warming.

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Supernova 1987A


This supernova was in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy rotating slowly around our own galaxy, the Milky way. Such nearby supernovae are rare. It is estimated (by counting supernova remnants) that there is a supernova in the Large or Small Magellanic Cloud about every 300 years.

Supernovae are exploding stars and it is not unusual for the supernova to outshine its galaxy for a brief period. Nonetheless, most of the energy released in the explosion comes in the form of neutrinos. Neutrinos, however, are extremely difficult to detect. It is estimated that about 1058 were released in the 1987A explosion, giving about 1015 per square metre at the earth. The largest neutrino detector, Kamiokande II, observed just 12 of these. Another large detector managed 8.

Curiously, a third detector (the LVD detector under Mont Blanc) claimed to see 5. But (1) calculations based on the detections by Kamiokande and its own characteristics suggest it should only have seen 1, and (2) it detected them 5 hours too early.

Now an online paper has been published by James Franson, Univ Maryland, in the New Journal of Physics (Apparent correction to the speed of light in a gravitational potential), claiming that this curiosity means that the speed of light is actually slower than we thought. In other words, he thinks that (A) the Mont Blanc detection marked the supernova, (B) the far more sensitive Kamiokande detector failed to detect it, (C) the later detection by Kamiokande was either some kind of glitch, or it was caused by another event which Mont Blanc failed to detect because of some glitch.

This seems wildly unlikely. Unfortunately, it is difficult to disprove his idea that the speed of light varies according to the gravitational potential. If true that would mean that all astronomical light reaching us from all directions would have travelled slightly slower than normal light-speed for most of its journey, but detecting that slow-down would be difficult, because events like 1987A where we have something else travelling from the distant object to compare with the light are extremely rare.

But unlikely or not, the 1987A event provides negligible evidence for its truth. It is overwhelmingly more likely that Mont Blanc messed up and recorded an non-existent influx of neutrinos.

I mention all this because I find this kind of science coverage (by the Mail) extremely irritating. An implausible speculation is presented as if it had a serious chance of overthrowing a major physical theory.

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Brian Greene

The idea that fundamental physics is explained by the multiverse is one of those ideas so obviously bad that I can only watch in absolute amazement so many smart people supporting it.

By comparison string theory (Greene’s area of specialism when he is not popularising) seems relatively innocuous. Its problem is that it is prediction-free. That is not necessarily fatal. Good theories sometimes take decades to devise and elaborate to the point where they can be effectively tested. Einstein’s general relativity is a good example. It took decades before effective computational techniques were found to work out exactly what it predicted in most practical situations, and in parallel it took the experimenters a similar time to devise apparatus which could measure the mainly tiny differences from Newtonian predictions.

Having said all that, I was amazed by a TED talk by Brian Greene, which he apparently gave two years ago in April 2012.


Here is his explanation of why we must believe in multiverses. The 2011 Nobel prize for physics went to three physicists who used improved techniques to detect supernovae in distant galaxies. The idea is that one particular type of supernova (type 1A) is a “standard candle” so by finding a large number and plotting their apparent brightness against redshift one can detect whether the rate of expansion of the universe is changing with time. The claim is that the data shows the rate of expansion is increasing.

As it happens, the Nobel Committee notwithstanding, the data for this claim is exceedingly flimsy:


The various dotted lines represent some widely different assumptions on the variation in the expansion rate. The red dots denote supposed type 1A supernovae. Note that the error bars on each one are substantial. Moreover a good many dots have been eliminated as being unreliable for various reasons. It is in fact a classic “small effect”.

It you want to believe the conclusions, then you have to believe that: (1) the explosion mechanism for type 1A supernovae is well-understood; (2) we can accurately distinguish type 1A explosions from other types; (3) we have correctly removed aberrant data and only aberrant data.

Personally, I don’t have much faith in any of those points. I am particularly sceptical of our ability to distinguish 1A supernovae from others. Wrongly including 10% of the red dots and wrongly excluding another 10% would easily be enough to convert a decreasing rate of expansion into an increasing rate.

But suppose for the moment that the Nobel Committee did not make one of its rare errors. Suppose the data does show an increasing rate of expansion. So what?

Well Greene finds it hard to explain. That is unsurprising. Most basic physics is replete with consequences. If we take Newton’s laws of motion or Maxwell’s laws of electrodynamics we can use them to explain countless natural phenomena or engineering marvels. But the kind of explanation that theorists dream up for an increasing rate of expansion typically explains nothing except the increasing rate of expansion.

Unsurprisingly, the usual explanation has a free parameter. By adjusting that free parameter you can get essentially any increase you want for the rate of expansion. So how do we explain the value of the free parameter that is needed to fit the data?

That would seem to be hopeless. Take the closely analogous of ordinary gravitation. That has a free parameter – the gravitational constant G. How do we explain its apparent value of 6.67 x 10-11 in SI units? Well, we don’t. Knowledge has just not advanced far enough. But that constant was discovered hundreds of years ago. The case of the expansion parameter is far worse. Even if the explanation is broadly along the right lines, it clearly needs a good deal of further development to give us any insight into where its value has come from.

But no! Greene can tell us! There are actually untold zillions of universes (together comprising the multiverse), each with a different value of that parameter. We happen to be in the one we are in, so that explains why we find the value we do!

I find it deeply mysterious why anyone should think this kind of nonsense explains anything. But if you want a more measured response, the problem is Ockham’s Law. Explanations are supposed to be economical. It is hard to conceive of a less economical explanation than the multiverse. We are proposing the existence of zillions of universes about which we can know absolutely nothing in order to “explain” our own. It is also a disconcertingly “all-purpose” explanation. One can use it to explain absolutely anything no matter how bizarre.

Why the applause? [20m21s on youtube]

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