Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Trapped on a warming planet

Trump fiddles while the world burns
The news on the BBC web site this morning was not good. Hurricane Maria is tearing up the West Indies only weeks after Hurricane Irma. More lives will be lost, homes and livelihoods will be destroyed, and the worsening climate will claim more victims.

On another page there is a report that this winter in Australia has been the hottest ever with over 260 heat and low rainfall records being broken - suggesting that there could be a record number of bush fires in the summer.

At a less serious level the last patch of snow is about to vanish from a location in Scotland where normally it remains all the year round.

These events come as no surprise to me. In July 1990 I joined the CSIRO in Australia for a year, based in North Ryde, Sydney. My first job was to look through a pile of research papers - and the first one was explaining why, as the world warmed under a man-made blanket of carbon dioxide, we could expect bigger hurricanes. The idea was to set up an information system which followed the latest climate change research, and mad the information available, in an easy to understand way, to the politicians and government of Australia.

A Postcard from 1908
"Did the system you produced have beneficial effects on the world's climate", I hear you ask. In fact the problem is that Trump was not the first climate denier (just the most dangerous) and I had only been working for a couple of months when the project was deemed unnecessary and I was moved to produce a prototype environmental data base for Australian Heritage.

So is there any good news? A recent scientific article published in Nature Geoscience concludes 
limiting warming to 1.5°C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation.  
What this actually tells us is that hurricanes are going to get even bigger, Australia will get even hotter, and many other major changes will take place. However if everyone (including Trump and the USA) took the challenge seriously things will not be quite as bad as they would have been if we did nothing. In effect we (and our children and our children's children) are all going to suffer because politicians worldwide didn't take the issue seriously enough 25 years ago.

What is happening to General Practices in the NHS

Over 50 years ago the family moved to Tring, and for all this time we have been registered with a practice run by a single doctor who we got to know and who got to know us. But the NHS is changing and on October 1st the practice we are registered with will be merged with the very large surgery at the other end of town. Having been on a number of health committees are a public representative I understand the pressures on the NHS and the knock on effects on patients.
I was therefore delighted to see that one GP practice had produced an excellent video of what is actually happening to General Practice in the NHS.
http://ivygrove.org.uk/home.html
Click for full video
 
 

Thursday, 14 September 2017

My personal battle between complex and complicated systems

I recently decided to drop into a FutureLearn course "Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World" by the University of Groningen. The opening section really made me sit up as I realized that I had never seriously thought about a formal definition that clearly distinguished between complex and uncertain systems and complicated  but predictable ones. Of course I was well aware of the difference in practice but having a definition clarified a number of issues relating to how my research into a human-friendly computer (CODIL) started, why the research came to be abandoned, and why there is now renewed interest in the subject.
Fossil Elephant Tooth

Monday, 11 September 2017

CODIL & Cognitive Load

I have just started on a FutureLearn Course "Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World" run by the University of Groningen - and this has led to some interesting conversations. This will be the first of a number of essays on some of the issues which relate to my work on CODIL.

Cognitive Overload?
CODIL and Cognitive Load

A big thank you to Bruce, who drew my attention to the idea of Cognitive Load and the work of John Sweller and others. It is not surprising that I was not aware of this during my original research on CODIL as John's paper was not published until June 1988 and the CODIL project effectively closed down in September of the same year.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Evolutionary Steps towards Human Intelligence


Humans are vain creatures and we like to think we are very clever, and concentrate on what we can do. However to understand how our intelligence evolved we actual need to look at our in-built mental weaknesses.

The reason for this is that the Blind Watchmaker of evolution does not plan ahead and often the results seem to be far from optimum. For instance the nerves in the human eye are at the front of the retina and mean that there is a blind spot in our vision. Our vagus nerve takes a roundabout route rather that taking the shortest path – and this becomes ridiculously long in an animal such as the giraffe.  
Similar defects apply to our minds. The short term memory is surprisingly small while our long term memory is unreliable. We think more slowly when processing negative ideas, and suffer from confirmation bias. Unless taught our logical skills have limitations, common sense is not always the most appropriate answer, and we are bad at handling numbers and even worse with more abstract mathematical concepts. We are also too keen to follow charismatic leaders without stopping to check whether their rhetoric makes sense.

The important thing to realize is that these limitations are caused because we are using our “animal brains” in novel ways and defects which were minor at the animal level have started to become significant.

The following draft notes suggest the main steps involved in the evolution of human intelligence starting with the simplest possible animal brain, and how what happened millions of years ago has put restraints on what our brains can do.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Trapped by the Mental Health System

Recent news relating to the mental health provision has been bad. Because of shortcomings in social support provisions some mentally ill people have been trapped in mental hospitals for as much as three years despite the fact that they could be discharged back into the community once suitable accommodation has been found. The fact that they are trapped in this was will not only demoralise the patients, but also the staff who want them to be able to life a more satisfactory life, and also the bed-blocking means that places are not available for others that need them.

In addition staff are demoralised by lack of pay and other negative factors affecting the way that the NHS is being run and how the mental health area often appears to be at the bottom of the pile. As a result recent news also revealed that there is a very large number of unfilled posts, putting more strain on the staff who continue to work in the mental health field. European workers in the NHS will have seen their pay fall compared with their home country as the effects of Brexit start to become apparent and the "We hate foreigners" feeling underlying the policy of a so-called Christian Prime Minister will discourage others to come to work in the NHS in future. Of course the Government has responded with a long term promise to train more mental health staff - which will not help the rapidly deteriorating current situation - and I suspect that like most such promises in the past this will involve some form of robbing Peter to pay Paul

However what really made me feel ill was the Judge going public about a seriously mentally ill young lady, who was kept in a strip cell because she might use any furnishings to kill herself, and for whom no place for proper treatment could be found.

This links to my logo - as such cases are nothing new - and when I was drawing up my logo I had vivid memories of my daughter Lucy in a cell in the "Muppet House" in Holloway Prison - the "hell hole"where all the desperately mentally ill prisoners were held. In effect what happened to Lucy caused me to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder - and abandon my University Research.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Are you snowed under by the data explosion?

This blog has been rather quiet recently, in part because I have been distracted by external health, social and political issues - an found the social media pretty depressing when considering the effects of Brexit and Trump. Another problem was that in trying to write up my research into the evolution of the brain I have been snowed under with new ideas. 
 
Looking back over recent years I have come to the conclusion that I was most productive when I was doing a Futurelearn course (even if it was not directly relevant to my research) because discussing issues with other students helped me to think more creatively. As a result I am joining the course "The Data Explosion and its Impact on Fraud Detection" as it is clearly relevant to the way humans , and information about them, interact with modern computer systems. As the course is only scheduled for three weeks, and has ambitious aims, I suspect it will be rather superficial - but I am sure that I will find the interactions with other students stimulating.

So far I have introduced myself to the other students as:
I was working on how to interface humans with computers as early as 1967 and by the 1980s was interested in the potential privacy implications of exchanging information online in the context of the scientists attending an international conference, where the organisers lived, and had computers in different countries with different data protection regulations. Now long retired I am interested in keeping in touch with developments that I could never have imagined when I started work. In retirement I am still very interested in the ways humanity has become "Trapped by the box" (my website is trapped-by-the-box.blogspot.com) and I am interested in modelling the evolution of human intelligence.
I will post comments on how I find the course later.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Trapped by inadequate building Regulations

I am sure that I am not the only person who has had nightmares after this horrific event - and am reminded of an earlier disastrous fire in which burning plastic made in the town where I live resulted in 55 deaths. As our M.P., David Gaulke, was only 2 years old when it happened I decided to write to him to remind him of the earlier event, caused by plastic made in his constituency:-