4aug03 Are you irked by Auntie’s abject inability to substantiate its summertime schedules with more than trite trivia that leaves Today ticking over until its toadying resumes when the politicos resume after their well-earned recuperation paid by poor old Percy Public’s purse? Today’s Today exemplified the wanton waste with its ludicrously limp lampoon of London loonies in sandals ~ Islington idling at its most irritating and also paid by poor old Percy Public’s purse! Well a year ago I was irked enough to waste my own working time on words that were never noticed of course but they made me feel a bit better, though only a tad! Here they just in case anyone with any influence might be interested enough to consolidate the cudgels and campaign against the Beeb’s pathetically posturing portrayals, especially its caricatures of scientific significance in promotion of public policy by politicos and punditry by their fellow-travelling poseurs.


13aug02 Today’s today@bbc.co.uk > quality vs quantity > principles vs perspectives > more?

> Essentially the same fence between quality vs quantity in A-levels divides proponents of quantitative vs qualitative content in degree courses, also broadly demarcates sympathisers for technology vs ecology as well as advocates for artisan vs arty educational emphasis. Whilst the spinners (of course) have been happily creating and consolidating chattering careers from all this contrived contention over the past decade or more, substantial numbers of traditional teachers have been sacrificed on the altar of accessibility for all. The truth remains that tough topics cannot be avoided in sourcing the scientific skills that convey capabilities to conduct independent analyses driven by primary principles rather than passive perspectives. Achieving this end rapidly, reliably and routinely for resonantly receptive kids was surely the most striking strength of our traditional approach to advanced / higher education until a decade or two ago.

The undeniable obstacle to universal acquisition of this crucial capability is simply ability ~ only the top echelon in any generation is fortunate enough to experience the necessary environment from cradle to campus. This situation will not be changed simply because politicos assert it can be changed ~ it’s no coincidence that the Blairs endure brickbats as price well paid assuring educational excellence for their own kids. I don’t know for sure what the studio “experts” teach / taught but I bet the advocate of access-for-all concentrated on concepts a deal simpler to convey than those I taught (take a look via the net link below). A rapid runaround his webbits suggests his emphasis nowadays may be not so much teaching as tech transfer but this also apparently at the soft end of the spectrum separating interfacing infrastructure and inventive implementation.

Unlike him, I confronted this challenge at the sharp end for over a decade only to be rewarded with termination of my academic career for executive effrontery at my presumption in striving to span from academe to business. The other “expert” advocating access-on-ability sadly seems to have ceased academic activity at his affiliated institution ~ anyway, his absence from the academic sharp end is symptomatic of the spinners’ scary success for their counter-correctness culling culture.

> PS As afterthought I offer the following simple illustration of the power of even primitive principles over passive perspectives. This week’s apocalyptic announcement of an Asian Brown haze was a neatly timed release for media manipulation in the run-up to Jo’burg’s sustainability summit. Apparently the outcome of many 100s of scientist-years funded by the UN (total cost? ~ no doubt measured in $10Ms all told), the bottom-line conclusion was notified as if it was a breakthrough finding that would never have been achieved without all that sophisticated international collaboration. However on first hearing about it as a radio news item, it needed only a ten-minute thought experiment to confirm plausibility as follows.

Assuming the haze enveloped the Pacific Rim countries I took 10000 km as extension scale. Guessing it was coastally engaged within the fetch of diurnal sea-breezes I took 1000km as the migration scale and 1km for vertical confinement beneath the inversion layer. Guestimating a billion population indicates an air volume of 10GL pp (per person) and adopting popular knowledge of ppm mass concentration for air quality concern takes you to 10kg particulates per person (density measure 1kg/L say), perhaps a bit high seeing as regulators nowadays worry about sub ppm levels. As plausibility check consider a car consuming 1000kg pa fuel (10000km, 10km/L, 1kg/L) dumps ppm volume levels via exhaust gas (1g/L say), indicating 1kg particulate mass and so suggesting maybe a few kg pp pa from all sources as European average.

To compare these figures (up to 10kg Asian haze hold up and a few kg pa European average) we need also an indication of residence time for the Asian stuff ~ a little fancier but still simply done in terms of a dispersion coefficient associated with breezes to a few m/s under an inversion height less than a few km, say a few 10s in units of m2/s. Okay knowing that bit needed an elementary course of the sort I used to teach (or easily sourced on the web), also to show that it in turn indicates the layer is vertically well-mixed after residence of a month or so.

Two main implications follow from this 10 minute reflection ~ 1. Asian practices apparently generate particulates at most a few 10s of times European rates ~ 2. Reduced generation would clear the haze within a matter of months. Both (I think) agree with the main bits produced from the multi $M UN investigation and judging from news reports I don’t think the study delivered much more than these bits as essential conclusions. Oh yes, a third implication is that globe-trotting apocalyptic politicos will probably double their annual injection of atmospheric particulates in flying Jo’burg return for the sustainability summit. Indeed, junketers doing more than 10 or so such flights annually probably cause a bigger burden than any impoverished Asian ~ indeed, maybe it takes much less than 10 if you believe recent environmental pronouncements that high altitude flights have far more significant (harmful?) impact on atmospheric (bio) chemistry than ground level pollutants!

> NB (14aug) Did you spot the deliberate mistake made in my anti-junketing point scoring above? My “third implication” incorrectly assumed car and air fuel-distance rates are comparable whereas I should have taken fuel-time rates, shown simply by another application of primitive plausibility principles as follows. No point doing the car sums because most people know 50kW is a reasonable guideline figure for engine power ~ probably worth remarking that for a reference speed 25m/s (100km/h say), this is equivalent to a drag force of 2kN corresponding to a drag dimension 2.5m which is pretty close to geometrical dimension meaning drag factor close to unity. In similar spirit for the air sums, then, adopt capacity of 500 passengers at say 100kg standard plus 100kg fuel giving 100T weight (= lift) and implying10T drag or so, about 200N pp and hence the same power per person because reference speed is 10 times higher (1000km/h) and drag force is 10 times lower. Worth noting that 50kW pp times 500 passengers corresponds to 25MW, in the right ballpark for aero-engines rated to 50MW or so, cruising on 25% power ~ it’s close considering the crude closures.

So with comparable fuel-time rates and presuming particulates going mainly with power, it’s not distance so much as time that counts ~ meaning that junketers might feel they can justify maybe as many as 10 but at least a few Jo’burg trips pa before feeling too guilty about burdening the environment more than impoverished Asians! But don’t lose sight of my main message here ~ that Plausibility Principles provide powerful platforms for people to test for themselves the truths of policies driven by politico-commercial incentives / imperatives ~ in contrast to so-called Precautionary Principles which in reality are never more than Personal Perspectives or ad hoc / amateur assertions masquerading as rational reasoning!


7aug02 Today’s today@bbc.co.uk > pesticide perils > ethnic electorates > playground perils > more?

> Your top stories on pesticide residues provided yet more free media mega-mileage for career advancement by yet another ambitious but hitherto anonymous amateur from the ranks of FoE, undoubtedly the most manipulative of all apocalyptically opportunistic political pressure groups.

Why did John Humphries let the FoE nerd off his hook by failing to ask the key question on the real reason for chemical applications to crops? It is not attributable to the hidden agenda of some politico-commercial conspiracy as she was pleased to imply by inference that FoE was the only barrier between farming practices and public poisoning. No it is simply to assure the provision of food at competitive retail prices ~ meaning the only prices that are accessible to the vast majority of families on less than the national average disposable income.

Money is spent on chemicals only because there is net saving in reduced wastage and guaranteed quality, not because farmers like having their hard-pressed capital tied up in expensive sprayers or are keen seeing upwards 30% of their sale prices squandered on these activities. Admittedly this point finally materialised in a last minute interview with a man from the ministry’s advisory agency but the Beeb well knows that listenership in the last half-hour counts for nothing against the earlier top spots. >

> In striking contrast to his softness with the FoEer, JH really hacked into the zealous politico who was on to promote a policy imposing ethnically predetermined electoral representation. Of course he was right to do so and all the more so for the politico’s frightening insistence on her entitlement to see this gerrymandering imposed despite it’s inevitable denial of due democracy for the majority ~ yet another manifestation of the distortion driven by contemporary obsessions with focus follies and correctness compliance. Full marks to JH here then ~ but zero marks for having failed to dish out similarly strong stuff to the FoEer, indeed so starkly different that I felt he failed to suppress his personal predispositions.

> Distracted by a long phone call the third one slipped from my mind so I checked the Beeb’s website but failed to find anything to provide a prompt. However I was horrified by what I found there relating to 1/3 above ~ namely << How much of the food we buy in supermarkets contain some residues of posonous pesticides? DEFRA has relised a new league table listing the worst offenders. >>. The typos are disappointing of course especially from what was formerly an institutional paragon of language polish but that is sadly an inevitable reflection of declining standards everywhere.

What really jarred was the appalling misrepresentation of this summary ~ the words could have been (were?) taken verbatim from the mouth of the FoE nerd without suggesting so much as even a hint of the more balanced opinion provided by the ministry man who pointed out that residues were always and everywhere at least two magnitude orders (hundredfold) smaller than sensible thresholds for concern. Applying FoE’s scaremongering ad hoc amplification to other arenas would leave nothing deemed safe enough for pursuit ~ travel for example would be as hazardous as frontline soldiering in WW1. Pretty much nonsensical by any sensible standards!

> PS Just remembered what my 3rd item grouch was ~ disappearance of kids’ playground socialising due to removal of gear deemed unsafe by silly-billy busybodies. JH got this one right also with his disdainful dismissal of the bureaucratic braindeads whose legislation caused this collapse, even identified the key issue of net benefit (what if any has been shown and if none then most probably negative) but failed to press home the point and even tolerated the pandering pundit’s appeal to the “precautionary principle” (the contemporary correctness catchall copout) to pass without comment despite its misnomer: there is no such “principle” (not even an unproven one) ~ it is merely a “perspective”.

> PS’. Refer to PS mine 22/7.


22jul02 Today’s today@bbc.co.uk > mindless models > artisan vs academic > cultural collusion > campus coercion

> Naughtie’s interview of the F&M academic allowed (encouraged even) naïve degeneration of this item into a crude advertisement for “modelling” as an allegedly powerful forecasting aid for policy projections. Modelling works providing its driving correlations remain valid ~ meaning it cannot ever be reliably extrapolated beyond the horizon of the events it purports to describe. Point is that the event horizon collapses in presence of embedded attractors masked by noise and forecasting confidence likewise should the unknown attractors contribute significantly to outcome.

The challenge with F&M was not characterisation of localised spreading (trivial as modified diffusion fit to data) but capturing extensive jumps and that cannot be done in principle without tracking the locations of all movements either as real data or estimated data but definitely not by modelling at least not in any real sense of the word and even then not as epidemiological modelling! It’s the same thing with oil slicks at sea ~ you need to input real data on wind and currents which together drag the stuff around before having any confidence in modelling localised dispersion which again is an almost trivial exercise by comparison. The same is true of the weather and we all know about reliability of weather forecasting other than as localised interpolation exercises in space and time. So don’t get carried away with modelling ~ it really is only as good as not only the driving data but also the renewal intervals.

The really big danger here is politicos using fancy models for post hoc defence of their actions ~ the fancier models can return just about any answer that’s wanted depending on how they’re set up and implemented. This caution is particularly pertinent in relation to the Met Office’s retrospective modelling of F&M pyres initiated before it dawned on decision makers that pyre plumes would disperse not only any F&M residues but also any BSE residues ~ my guess would be that’s probably why they stopped the burning, not because of public complaints about smoke and ash!

PS There are schemes around that routinely test for localised confidence in projections and methods to detect emergence of hitherto unrecognised attractors embedded in noise, even as adaptive trackers to carry real time forecasting through essential bifurcations. This issue is a generic one and (as you might imagine) the most obvious applications have been military ones from the WW2 days of radar window to recent cold war gizmos for masking submarines (reread Tom Clancy) ~ but also limited civilianisation, for example, in fancy process control of fast-fermented cheap lager when the biology undergoes rapid metabolic switches that need to be detected and matched by equally rapid nutrient switches for a halfway decent drink!

> Naughtie’s interview of the politico paired with the IoD lady failed to pick up on the point that more media graduates are being employed merely because there are more of them in the pipeline ~ he should have asked whether employment rates (per graduate) look as rosy and the answer (I imagine) would be emphatically not. Once again then we had to endure hearing a nicely rounded arty interviewer stumped when it comes to asking the right questions relating to straightforward scientific / statistical evaluations.

Perhaps add that it’s also a matter of commonsense experience that there really is a desperate shortage of artisans around nowadays and that the quality of service in fault-fixing really has collapsed as a result of the politico’s determination to engineer a graduate generation at the expense of quality in both the artisan and academic arenas. It’s a matter of fact (not opinion) but the IoD lady omitted to mention that her call for educational segregation was reversionary not visionary ~ of course she did because nowadays careerists cannot afford to be seen as simply sensible, they have to appear to be innovative!

> Naughtie’s interview of the academic paired with the businessman included a remark that thinking time has always been important at least for people engaged in art / cultural activities, thereby betraying yet again the Chelsea Chatterers continuing collusion to sustain CP Snow’s cultural divide. In reality of course this disease has deepened in the past five decades and nowadays a fair fraction of the science budget is assigned to academic activities that must appear to accommodate a cultural connection. Take a look at DTI’s latest gee-whiz initiative styled “Next wave” and targeted on e-gizmos as an “architectural revolution”.

However, on the question of thinking time I was prompted to recall the late great George Batchelor’s remark to me the last time I saw him that his will to live had evaporated with the collapse of his capacity to concentrate in formulating and fixing complex mathematical models in his head before committing anything to paper. Of course Naughty won’t have heard of him because GKB FRS was only Head of Applied Maths in Cambridge for twenty or so years, protégé and many would say seminal son of GI Taylor FRS who in turn many maybe most would agree was the founding father for modern understanding of fluid mechanics (likewise unknown to Naughty)!

It’s intolerably insulting that scientists have to suffer an endless daily diet of naïvely ignorant prejudices and criticisms from people who have no agenda beyond today’s headlines any more than they have any understanding of what science is really all about ~ witness three examples above taken from less than an hour of radio time!

> PS How come I have got time to key this diatribe on what should be a busy Monday morning? Well take a look via the links for insight into the demise of a campus crusader who taught sound sums inspirationally enough to lure year-on-year top performing engineering undergrads into underpaid PhDs against all odds from accountancy etc. I got shoved for striving to span that other persistently pernicious cultural divide, the one between academe and commerce ~ my initiative went well, very well indeed (see via links), for the first few years whilst I was inspired and protected by a visionary VC and his rugged Registrar but it ended in tears within a year of their departure for prettier pastures.