Thursday, July 29, 2010

Broadly Favourable Review of QoT

A broadly favourable review of QoT in Reviews in Religion and Theology. I would quote:

"an accessible format... another great strength ... lies in its ability to introduce many (if not most) of the hotly debated issues in science and religion in succinct detail."

The reviewer makes a number of criticisms:

For all of the book’s wonderful strengths, there are still some significant weaknesses in it.
  • Although Questions of Truth is written for beginners, the reader will not come away from this book with an understanding of the other orthodox alternatives that are available to them. Indeed, this text is primarily written for students who want to understand Polkinghorne and Beale’s views – not other viewpoints from other major players in the field.
  • Moreover, it can be frustrating for the serious reader who will want to read about the authors’ positions in more detail. These readers will be left guessing about the fine nuances that are almost always involved in these knotty discussions. At times one of the authors will say a couple of sentences in response to a single question!
  • Lastly, at times Polkinghorne and Beale quote or reference certain thinkers (Darwin, Einstein) but do not cite the sources where they get their information from. One would hope that footnoting would be a part of a book like this so that beginning readers can easily remember where most of these profound and memorable quotes come from.
Of these criticisms, the first is all very well, but if QoT had attempted to be a comprehensive compendium of every "orthodox" view it would have been enormous and pretty well impossible to write. On the second, clearly we have to work within the limitations of the form, but the reviewer might have mentioned the appendices which do develop some of our points in very considerable detail, and the suggestions for further reading. We tried to avoid footnotes in the main text, though there are plenty for the Appendices, but I've asked the reviewer if there are any particular quotes that he'd like sourced, and at least we can put them on the website.

QoT still in the top 100 in Science and Religion on both and - and should be in its 4th printing about now. The publishers have promised to correct the errata and to revise the cover. Let's see how it turns out.

Vince Cable, and a lesson from Kathron

Interesting talk by Vince Cable at the IoD on Monday. The room was packed, and Cable disarmingly admitted that when he had agreed to come, many months ago, he expected to plug his book and make a few indiscreet remarks about politics, neither of which are possible now.

A good 20 min talk was followed by a 45 min Q&A: very competent and engaged. On the coalition he remarked how well it was working at a personal level: it was very striking to him that although the LibDems and Conservatives didn't know each other well and had barely socialised together, the working and human relationships were excellent. Whereas the previous government, who had all been part of the same tribe since university or before, had poisonous and quite dysfunctional relationships: as Mandelson's book has made abundantly clear. These things matter - it is almost impossible to run a large organisation competently if the people at the top have bad relationships.

He also remarked that the whole process of campaigning, then 5 intensive days of coalition discussions, and then suddenly having to run enormous departments without any prior experience, had been really exhausting. They will certainly need, and deserve, their summer breaks.

There was discussion about the problem of SMEs getting finance from the banks. I wonder whether the IoD can help here: by providing expertise to "peer review" business plans so that government loan guarantee schemes can identify the viable ones. My colleagues at the meeting seemed to think so, and I have written to the head of policy suggesting it.

Working v hard on my Nowak/May paper and making some new and interesting discoveries. Have got it down to 4pp of typescript, and now pulling together the revised figures. Bob Pollack has come back with improvements to our draft paper, though this will have to be looked at second.

Piano lesson with Kathron last night, working on the wonderful Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in B Minor. I have been playing them rather as if they were Bach, but this is all wrong and I have to be more pianistic. It is so inspiring to be taught by her. She told me how she first played the Shostakovich Cello Sonata to Rostropovich - he began by turning the pages and then sat back to listen, making useful comments. Suddenly, just after she played a twirly bit high in the right hand, he sprang up, expostulating. "What have you done?!? That is all wrong! Why have you played that?" She was rather taken aback, showed him the score. Boosey and Hawkes had forgotten to put in a clef change. She thinks it is corrected now.

Which reminds me, I need to chase our publishers because the 4th printing of QoT is meant to be out soon, with the errata corrected. When it is I must get some more copies. It is still usually in the top 100 in Science and Religion on and .com

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sturrock, Shoreham and St Mary le Bow

Friday to hear Kathron Sturrock's wonderful ensemble Fibonacci Sequence play the Beethoven Horn Sonata, the Brahms Op 117 Intermezzi and a rarity by Herzogenberg - Trio for oboe, horn and piano. Listening to Kathron's playing is of course the chief joy, but watching her accompanying - playing such exquisite and difficult music without making it look at all difficult, is also a delight and an education.

On Saturday went to Shoreham hoping for a long sail, but the wind got up and we had a short blast - really challenging conditions and one boat had to come in with a snapped mast. Stayed the night and on Sun joined a pursuit race. Very light airs on the long downwind leg but the breeze got up to a lovely force 4 and we zoomed back at about 15 knots, with my very experienced new crew on the trapeze and giving me expert tips to improve my helming.

Before the race went to 0800 Communion at the Church of the Good Shepherd - a delightful service with a warm welcome. After the race, a quick change, cycle to the station, and cycle from Victoria to St Mary le Bow where our neighbours' daughter Emma is being christened - strictly BCP. Whatever one thinks about the theology - and I very much support it - the language is so compellingly beautiful. "Out of Zion hath God appeared, in perfect beauty",

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Saling, and Philsophy

Lovely day sailing - first solo races. Tricky but good experience, and I didn't capsize!

Really interesting articles in Philosophy, which I read on the train coming down and back.
  • Rupert Read agrues cogently against Rawls in his mordant "On Philosophy's (lack of) Progress: From Plato to Wittgenstein (and Rawls)" suggesting that Rawls' "Original Position" begs the question and suffers from the critique of Euthrypo - do the "gods" in the Original Position choose certain positions because they are just, or are they just because they are (hypothetically) chosen. Interesting common ground with Sen - though Read is "radicalised" and I think quite strongly anti-capitalist.
  • NML Nathan proposes a modern version of the Cosmological Argument.
  • Michael Morris Reviews "Works of Music: An Essay in Ontology", by Julian Dodd. I used the existence of the Mass in B Minor to demonstrate the existence of non-physical objects in my RI talk and as a lifelong musician (and improviser) I find this all very interesting, though I don't find Dodd's arguments (as summarised bby Morris) very convincing. The idea that works of music are not composed but discovered is, IMHO, logical-sounding but bonkers.
Wish I had time to read more of these, or to blog more about them...

Beethoven, and Hospitals

Went with Son to part of the "Beethoven-athon" by the Salomon Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Described as "london's leading non-professional orchestra" they were playing all Beethoven's symphonies (apart from the Battle) in a single day. We heard the 4th and 5th - surprisingly good, but decided to quit while we were ahead and went back home before the 6th. At home sung the first 7 songs of Dichterliebe.

I've been reflecting on the NHS. Much frothing in the Guardian etc.. about Lansley's plan to give commissioning power to GPs. But this is essentially restoring GP Fundholding which was the one really successful reform of the NHS. It is becoming clearer, BTW, that the Major government was in many respects one of the best we have had in a long time. Sorted the economy, a sound reform of the NHS, and the first Iraq war was, in many respects, an exemplar for how these things should be done.

It seems to me that there are a cluster of related problems with the hospital system that could perhaps be dealt with.
  1. The best UK hospitals are amongst the best in the world, but the worst have been described, no doubt with some exaggeration, as "war zones" and have far worse outcomes. This is partly due to quality of staff but also because in hospital medicine practice makes perfect: places which do hundreds or thousands of a given procedure a year get much better at it, and are both more efficient and safer. (I've just found this article which is relevant)
  2. Most patients in hopitals are either Elderly or Very Elderly. And in many cases they remain in hospital simply because there is nowhere else for them to go. In other, more civilised countries families do a much better job of looking after their elderly relatives, but we are where we are.
  3. There is a grave shortage of high quality management in the NHS, and far too many who are mediocre or worse.
So we need fewer hospitals and more nursing homes. The natural solution would be to turn the lower quality hospitals into nursing homes but closing hospitals is politically unpopular and in fact probably sub-optimal. Local hopsitals could also offer NHS "walk-in" and out-patient treament for simple conditions. They could even have "A&E" provided anyone who was really ill was taken to a real Hospital by the ambulance. In effect we need something like a hub(s) and spokes system. The spokes could also share management and medical records with the hub(s) so that patients could be seamlessly transferred between them without care drop-offs.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Comedy of Errors

Delightful production of The Comedy of Errors at the Open Air Theatre. It was threatening to rain around 7pm as we had our picnic but then turned into a fine, if slightly blustery, summer evening.

All the cast were very good - though I'd single out Anna-Jane Casey as The Courtesan, Sophie Roberts (as Luciana) and Veronica Roberts with the small but wonderfully-spoken and authoritative part of The Abbess. The play has more plot-holes than any other Shakespeare AFAIK: one of them being that both the Dromios and Antipholuses have to be dressed the same as well as being identical twins. This makes some sense if set in classical times, as per the source.

I'm not at all sure how much we should read into the depth underlying the comedy. Certainly there are some pretty barbed reflections on the relationships between masters/servants, husbands/wives and can we see Dr Pinch as a satire on Dr Dee I wonder? It is also quite bold having an Abbess play such a major role. Must ask Elder Daughter about all this some time.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A day in Cambridge

To Cambridge yesterday to consult the great Mike Powell about an optimization problem. He kindly took us to lunch in Pembrooke and offered me beer out of a silver tankard - I took cider. We then walked to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and with his brilliant advice solved the problem. I was able to code the solution in 10 mins in Matlab but sadly didn't have the Optimization package installed on my Laptop so unable to test it (worked fine when I got back).

Then went to see John Polkinghorne where we signed presentation copies of QoT for Queens', Trinity and the Royal Society. John had just got back from the ISSR conference which was to a large extent in his honour for his 80th birthday, and enjoyed it very much. He kindly drove me to visit my grandchildren and met the two younger ones.

Beat Elder Grandson at chess (increasingly difficult, he plays for Cambridgeshire) and then he wanted me to play cricket. Elder Granddaughter came to join us and we taught her to catch the ball from the bat - she had never done it before but managed to get the hang of it. Such fun.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

John Major, and The Unconscious Will

Fascinating dinner last night with Sir John Major as the speaker, who gave an intriguing tour d'horizon of various key aspects of Foreign Policy . I had met him once before, at a Private View of Sarah Butterfield's, around the time the "the Election that Never Was". I had said to him then that he should encourage the new leadership to keep their nerve: he said kindly that it was "nothing to do with him" but a few days later gave a speech criticising Brown for playing politics with the troops by visiting Afghanistan during the Tory conference, and I'm sure this helped spook Brown out of calling an election, which he would probably have won*. He told a lovely, and perhaps apocryphal, story about Yeltin visiting Chequers.

Interesting Review Article in Science about The Unconscious Will. This is basically arguing that goal seeking does not always, or usually, require consciousness. The thesis is, or ought to be, uncontroversial: self-evident to any improvisatory musician for example. But they cite with apparent approval The Illusion of Conscious Will and I think want to position their work as part of the big movement on denial of freewill. More work needs to be done on this: Hava is back in action at Amherst so I hope things will go forward. I have to finish the papers with Nowak/May and Pollack and the co-edited book before I can do anything much.

QoT still selling well - in fact sales are now increasing since a low in Jan and my exponential model breaks down because the exponent is positive. Suggests that Word of Mouth is working for us. The book is going into a 4th impression and they will correct the errata and redesign the cover so that you don't need a magnifying glass to see "Nobel Prizewinner in Physics".

* of course I am not suggesting that my conversation with Sir John played any role in events!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Trinity and Applied Maths

To Trinity Benefactors Garden Party on Saturday, in the Fellow's Garden. Martin Ress was of course on fine form, a short encouraging speech and many interesting discussions. Met Stephen Bragg whose mother Lady Bragg was our neighbour when we first were married living in Cambridge in Gilmerton Court, and indeed was I think the first non-family member to babysit our son.

Dr Bragg was reminiscing about the early days of Rolls-Royce with another Trinity Man: it seems that at the beginning Rolls was very reluctant to employ graduates, and indeed someone they both knew was interviewed by a panel and at the end they said "well do you think we really could employ another graduate?" since this would mean that they had two. Apparently McKinsey advised them to move from a department-based organisation to a project-based one which was an excellent piece of advice early on in McKinsey's London practice.

Also met Eric Watson who was a contemporary of my father at Trinity, and became a distinguished applied mathematician based in Manchester. He recalled that I had applied to Manchester as a fall-back when I applied to Cambridge, and he said he saw my name and suspected I might be Martin's son.

Sailed with Daughter yesterday, which I enjoyed much more than she did since it was surprisingly choppy and windy. Made some progress on my paper with Bob Pollack and I have now sent him what I have as a working draft. Will I think be pretty interesting when he has finished with it: some nice ideas now but needs quite a bit of work.

Starting to use Fortran again after about 35 years. The language has advanced considerably (it was Fortran V when I used it) but it is striking that, for manipulating large arrays, it seems to be about 600 times faster than Matlab.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In vivo sensitivity of neural networks to perturbations

A collaborator draws my attention to a paper in Nature called "Sensitivity to perturbations in vivo implies high noise and suggests rate coding in cortex" which demonstrates that small perturbations in neurons in rat barrell cortex are indeed amplified (so that one extra spike produces an average of 28 others).

It's very frustrating that I simply haven't had the time to work on delay amplification, esp with a willing collaborator in Germany. I should perhaps email one or more of the co-authors (they are at UCL) and see if they would have any interest in taking this work forward. It is also tempting to see whether the Innocentive system might be used for finding a suitable collaborator who can take this forward.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Sen on Reducing Global Injustice

Excellent talk last night at the RSA by Amartya Sen about Reducing Global Injustice heavily based on his brilliant book The Idea of Justice. He was in dialogue with Matthew Taylor and the evening was chaired by Lord Wright of Richmond: and and Amartya are patrons of a charity called Bookpower which provides textbooks to people in developing countries.

Some questions from Taylor that allowed Sen to give an outline of his basic ideas, in particular the distinction between Niti and Naya - roughly between ideally just arrangements/institutions and just outcomes. Taylor was pushing the RSA's vision of building on Enlightenment values, and Sen was being characteristially nuanced: he is a great admirer of Adam Smith as a social philosopher - specifically his Theory of Moral Sentiments for which Sen wrote a new introduction on its 250th anniversary. Smith uses and develops the notion of the Impartial Observer as opposed to the (very dubious) Social Contract approach.

There were questions from the floor. I said I very much agreed with and admired the book, and thought his focus on making things "more just" rather than identifying "perfectly just institutions" had amongst other things the great advantage of protecting from one of the darkest sides of the Enlightenment a tendency towards radical "utopianism" in which the sacrifice of millions of lives is a small price to pay for the advance to a "perfectly just society" which of course never arrives. Sen charmingly began his reply with "I totally agree with what you said" whilst adding that slogans have their uses, provided they do not become basic theory. He also recalled one of his teachers at Cambridge telling him that "in this department, no-one will rest until a theory as been turned into a slogan".

We spoke briefly afterwards. He knows Elder Daughter from their time at Trinity and she shares a name with his Daughter-in-Law, who has also recently presented him with a grandchild. And I now have my copy of The Idea of Justice signed and dedicated.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Dales, young offenders, the PM etc..

Long-ish weekend in the Peak District with C's parents and all their descendants except Elder Daughter and MJoy (who is too young to travel). Not a part of the world I know well, but beautiful and enjoyable.

Then had to dash back to London for a reception at Lancaster House celebrating the work of National Grid with young offenders. For many years they have been training and employing young offenders, helping them get onto a good path. This scheme has now been rolled out to other prisons (it started in Reading Gaol) and other companies.

Went on to the Conservative Summer Party - great to see David Cameron again and to meet Samantha and George Osborne. Sat next to a minister who I very much like, and it turns out that his son and my daughter are at sister-schools and will be going to the same college in Cambridge - subject to A-level results. Cameron has always struck me as a very nice and genuine man, who sincerely wants to do the best for the country. He is also a very skillful motivator and speaker, meticulously polite: it's great to see a job so well done.

Ed Balls is making a fuss about discrepencies between two lists of which schools are impacted by the closing of the "Building Schools for the Future" scheme. I have posted this comment - if it gets through moderation:


I think we can conclude from this that the officials whom you appointed are not wholly sympathetic to the aims of the coalition. You know perfectly well that these discrepencies are the work of officials - not the Sec of State.

Given your unique leverage over the Treasury under the last government, it is quite easy to maintain that irresponsible commitments were made with Treasury approval. The point is not whether "procedures were followed" but whether the results were responsible. In the judgement of the elected government, with the support of 60% of the electorate, they were not. That's democracy for you.

We shall see..