Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Censoring Climate Change

 
Having worked on early climate change publications when I was in Australia I have tried to keep up with developments ever since and been very impressed with the amount of excellent research origination in the United States.
 
There is no doubt that humanity is "trapped" on this planet and the changes we are making will have serious consequences on future generations. As such I find the recent article, Censoring Climate Change,  in New York Times about how the Trump administration is trying to bury the results of climate change research very disturbing.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Alice in the Cuckoo's Nest

Photo copyright www.librariantheatre.com
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
The Librarian Theatre is currently touring the UK from November with a play Alice in the Cuckoo's Nest which imagines the original story in the settings of a mental institution. "We're no shying away from the darker sides of the subject matter, but nor will ther ebe overly explicit content which would exclude younger audience members."
One has only to look at today's news about the domestic political crisis surrounding Brexit, the troubles in the Middle East, and the acres of poppies being prepared for Remembrance Day to feel that we all live in a mad world. In fact humans are pretty resilient and survive most of life's pitfall - although most of us get depressed on occasions, and a lot are badly affected in one way or another at some point in our life.

However the real problem is that those who are troubled with the most extreme forms of mental illness are not understood and are often shunned - which only makes their problems worse. As a result I welcome plays such as the above because they can help people understand what is happening and support those who need support and friendship in their times of difficulty.
.
In fact plays that treat mental health issues in a responsible manner are always welcome. When my daughter Lucy killed herself we were delighted to be able to work with small theatre group. The idea for the play Out of Sight came from when David Kester read an article Welcome to the Muppet House by Nick Davies in The Observer, about C1, the psychiatric wing of Holloway Prison. They researched the events relating to Lucy's time on remand in Holloway and the play illustrated why it was wrong to lock people up because they were mentally ill. It showed with a great deal of humour, the strength of, and need for human contact. We were particularly delighted that, in addition to the stage performance, the group also visited an number of schools and preformed to groups of six former pupils, followed by a discussion on the mental health issues raised.

[The stressful effects of Lucy'e illness, inappropriate imprisonment, and death had a serious effect om the family  Post traumatic stress disorder was one of the reasons why I abandoned the research into CODIL (seee other posts on this blog) and lead me to spend over 20 years doing mental health charity work at both the local and national level. There are also tragic links between Lucy's arrest and what happened after her sister Belinda was inappropriately arrested in the same police station some fifteen years later.]

Monday, 23 October 2017

CODIL, Complexity, evolution and Intelligence

I have just been following a FutureLearn course

Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World

It was run by the University of Groningen under Professor Lex Hoogduin,. While I have been concerned with complex systems all my life I have never done even an introductory course on the subject and it has proved very useful in stimulating ideas about how I might write up my work on the evolution of human intelligence.  I felt that the information presented by Pier van den Berg on natural evolutionary dynamics and that presented by Franjo Weissing on social systems helpful as while much of what they presented was known to me their presentations help me to clarify my ideas. s a result I have posted the following closing comment (limited to 1200 characters) on the course




 
This course is proving a great help in research into the Evolution of Human Intelligence.

In 1967 research started on an unconventional “computer” with a user-friendly symbolic assembly language (CODIL). The aim was that humans and the system could work as partners on complex but mathematically unsophisticated tasks. Extensive research was done and a small package was trial marketed and got very favourable reviews. It was abandoned because of incompatibility with conventional computing technology. In retrospect a key problem was that the underlying theory had not been adequately explored.

In theoretical terms conventional computers process numbers in deterministic array of numbers while in CODIL concepts (ideas named by the human) are activated in a highly recursive network. While the original CODIL system was designed to process complex clerical-type information the recursion in the theoretical model suggest an evolutionary pathway from simple decisions at the neuron level up to the exchange of cultural information in human society. The CODIL research showed how the human brain could tackle complex tasks.

Interested to know more – see my blog www.trapped-by-the-box.blogspot.co.uk

I will be actively following up the ideas this course has generated, with various leads to follow up, and an enhanced enthusiasm for properly writing up my own research.

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:-

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Why our brains are shrinking

A letter in the current New Scientist (April 22) asks the question "But why have we never filled up a brain?" and wonders why we appear to have evolved brains with spare capacity. I have just posted the following reply:


There are good evolutionary reasons why our brains are bigger than we need to survive. About 100,000 years ago the rate at which we invented new tools started to increase and as our tool-making knowledge increased we might have expected a significant increase in brain size. The opposite is happening and our brains are now slightly smaller than our immediate ancestors.

An ongoing re-assessment of an unconventional research language called CODIL suggests the reason. The original research looked at how humans and computers might work together on complex tasks and the current analysis suggests a direct relationship between the brain’s neural nets, language and intelligence. Animal (and early human) brain size is clearly limited by the time spent on trial-and-error learning in a single lifetime. However, once a self-modifying language has been invented (no need for a change in brain size or structure) a major tipping point is reached. One generation can now pass information to the next generation as abstract concepts, reducing trial-and-error learning times.  High level generalizations learnt in this way also need less neuron storage space and the savings increase as language became more sophisticated over the millennia.  In addition modern civilization allows us to call on shared knowledge (other people, books, etc), and so we no longer need brains as big as those of our pre-language ancestors in order to survive, and are actually left with some spare capacity to enjoy science, the arts, and the world around us.

Of course one is limited in what one can say in a short letter (New Scientist letters are rarely more than 250 words long) and it is worth saying a few words here to expand the above point.
 
Bottom up learning by neural net is an expensive business and brains cost a lot to run, and have to compete for resources with the other organs of the body in the evolutionary struggle to survive. But normally everything an animal learns in its lifetime is lost when it dies, so there is a practical limit on how much time an animal spends learning useful patterns rather than eating, breeding and evading predators. Different species have adopted different strategies and one, adopted by the primates is to concentrate on a small number of infants, and protective parents, to maximise learning time.
 
Early humans found simple tools helps survival and needed to pass on their tool-making skills to their children. So a slightly longer learning time helped and over some five million years our ancestors brains very slowly grew bigger allowing them to make somewhat more sophisticated tools. However the more steps it takes to make a tool the harder it becomes to learn how to make it by trial and error copying.
 
This is where CODIL comes in. CODIL was designed to allow humans to "teach" computers in a way that can be related to neural nets - and can be considered as a model for early human language as a means of making tools, with language itself being a taught tool, which can morph from processing patterns (normal animal learning) into set processing (handling abstract ideas and generalizations) and on to rule building (instructions for making tools).
 
What appear to have happened is that until about one and two hundred thousand years ago humans brains could be considered as little more that animal pattern recognising systems which learnt by trial and error - including trial and error copying of their parents using a simple language. Then language developed to a point where it allowed more complex tools. This meant that having language allowed each generation to make more powerful tools, including a more powerful language, which in turn enabled even more powerful tools to develop. A tipping point was reached which as equivalent to an auto-catalysed chemical reaction which, once it has started, proceeds at an every increasing rate.
 
The process also means making more and more powerful generalizations, which can be stored more efficiently in the neural network of the brain. (For instance learning about "mammals" and their key differences uses less memory than learning about a large number of species bottom up.) As long as our ancestors still lived in family-sized hunter gatherer groups most of the brain would still have been needed for survival. However once people started living in larger communities specialization would have started - and survival would depend on the skill mix of the community rather than individual skills. In fact the more we depend on others, including knowledge in books, etc., the less general survival skills we each need - and this allows our brains  - which evolved to learn as quickly as possible - to spend time on creative mental activities which have no obvious survival value!
 
 
 
 

Friday, 7 April 2017

Has Trump been fooled by "Fake News" over Syria

So Trump has seen the horror of an incident in Syria and sent in 59 cruise missiles because he is the sort of person who acts impulsively without thinking through the implications - forgetting that he is always saying that the media pump out "false news"

I am quite prepared to accept that there has been yet another dreadful incident in Syria in which people of all ages have been killed. In part I accept this because we have been repeated told this for years and I have repeatedly seen pictures of unnecessary death and destruction, which I deplore.

Trump will also have seen such earlier pictures and yet only a week ago the message from the White  House was that he could work with Assad. What has changed his mind is not that people are being killed by military action (as that happens almost every day in Syria) but how they were killed.

But how the hell does he really know how they were killed. He is always saying the news media fake the job and we know from Iran that the intelligence media get things wrong - so I guess he is reacting violently to the site of dreadful violence as displayed on the box because that is the way his mind works.

As a trained scientist I like to consider the evidence and it would seem that there are many different factions who hate each others guts  I can't see why Assad should use poison gas when he has control of the air and is regularly using conventional means of killing Syrians.  All the other groups hate Assad and know that if they could provoke Trump to act impulsively against Trump by generating "Fake News" it could be to their advantage. Quite simply when Assad is dropping bombs it could grab the world headlines if you release poison gas very close to where one of the bombs has fallen.

Of course I don't know that this is what happened - but what the incident will have taught every terrorist group in the world is that if you can make it look as if your enemy used poison gas there is a good chance that Trump will loose his cool and start attacking your enemy before there has been time for anyone to discover what really happened.

I  am sure that as a result ISIS will be busy planning new and different ways to cause Donald Trump to loose his cool.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

My Limericks aren't as dead as a dodo

The poor Dodos extinct so goodbye
For of course the poor birds couldn’t fly
And the men in their boats
Preferred fresh meat to oats
All that’s left are some bones, very dry

A recent email has reminded me that a year or so ago I regularly posted a limerick illustrating a scientific topic - in part because it encouraged me to think outside the box.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

I have been trapped in a loop of unproductive activity


Tap


I continue absorbed in what I am doing at the computer.

Tap,   Tap.

I look to my left and about four feet away there is a long-tailed tit apparently looking at me through the window, Have I forgotten to top up the bird feeders - but no - and there is a tasty fat ball only inches from his perch.

Suddenly he rapidly flies up the window and there is another tap. Back down to the perch, another flurry of activity ending with another tap on the glass.  He did the same yesterday ... and the day before.

I then realise what is happening. He can't see me, only feet away, because I am in a dark room while he is in the sun-lit garden. What he can see is another long tailed tit invading his territory that won't go away when he attacks it. He is attacking his reflection in the window only inched from the perch. He is trapped in a loop, driven by instinct, and may well continue in this useless activity for days.

I stop and think.
A comic post card featuring the Saucy Little Bird, published in 1908
One of the reasons this blog has been rather quiet recently is that I have been trapped in a very different loop by a saucy little bird who is lurking inside my computer. Because of the tragic deaths of my daughters Lucy and Belinda I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The chief problem is that to avoid becoming over-stressed to the point of a panic attack or becoming very depressed I need to find activities which help me relax. The danger is that as pressures mount I spend so much time relaxing that things that need to be done get put on one side till they become an additional source of stress.

Since retiring I have found historical research is a good way of relaxing and my web site Genealogy in Hertfordshire has grown to over 1 gigabyte, and has over a quarter of a million visitors a year. However the software is out of date and was never designed to support such a large web site. I find managing it has become hard work, and while visitors have donated many thousands of pounds to mental health over the years donations have almost entirely dried up. What had started out as an excellent way of relaxing has become stressful and the lack of donations makes it hard to justify  spending too much time on it.

Then last year I was horrified when the UK voted for Brexit - and having spent some time professionally working on climate research I was further distressed when climate change denier Donald Trump was elected as president of the USA. My stress levels rocketed, I became more depressed, and work I was doing on the evolution of human intelligence via this blog was pushed to one side.

One of the comic cards by Karaktus
published in St Alban
s
However one history research project, linked to a St Albans post card publisher provided a good way to relax. The task was to track down the comic post card artist involved - and this has proved more interesting, more complex, more difficult and much more time consuming than I has expected. The research means selectively searching through the many millions of comic postcards advertised on ebay and other web sites. Every day new questions present themselves. For instance Was the set of comic cards published in the USA in 1908 relating to a saucy little bird drawn by the same artist who was working for the failing London View Company in 1907 and publishing cards in St Albans in 1909? The trouble is that currently I get perhaps 40-50 emails a day warning me of cards that have come up for sale which may be relevant ... ...

One of the comic cards by "F S"
published in St Albans
Of course it is fun trying to find out more about the artist who painted the saucy little bird post cards but knowing the answer is not really that important and the activity is a time wasting distraction which will get me nowhere - just like the activities of the long-tailed tis at the window.

I have decided that I will cut right back on this post card research and return to this blog - exploring both how human intelligence evolved and also the various way we find ourselves trapped by the box.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Berners-Lee , Fake News on the World Wide Web, and transparent communications

In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web - which has expanded in ways which I am sure no-one would have predicted and which, via social networks, is very much affecting how people in the more advanced cultures now live their lives.

Tim has now spoken out about the abuse of personal data and "Fake News" and the problems these can cause, He is proposing a 5 year strategy to try and tackle the problems cause by his invention, See BBC Report.

Part of the problem is a result of the lack of transparency in how the World Wide Web works. This related straight back to the lack of transparency of the stored program computers on which it runs. What we have now is a massive black box system which contains a vast number of very attractive digital goodies, but there is no easy way of understanding the underlying mechanisms as to how the information got there or how reliable it is. Problems range from the misuse of personal data through to fake news and political manipulation - with the Sunday Times today reporting that GCHQ is concerned about Russian use of the network to try and influence the political system in the UK, and almost certainly in Europe, as they may have already done in the USA.

Could we have had a more transparent system which made it easier for people to understand the sources of the information, and the way it is being (mis)used? Perhaps?

In 1980 (9 years before the World Wide Web came into existence) I was involved in a British Library project called BLEND which was about the online publishing of scientific papers. This was based on very conventional stored program computer technology and I decided to see how my research system, CODIL, which was a transparent system for human-computer interaction, could tackle the same problem. I set up a number of different papers using CODIL and linked them together to show that they could not only exchange text, but also working programs (written in CODIL) and supporting data files. All this information would be written in the transparent CODIL Language, so it would be hard to hide underhand information processing -  which is the weakness of the world wide web., The work was written up for a conference in 1983, and included in a publication of BLEND papers, but the idea was not followed further due to lack of funds.

Could CODIL have been the answer? We'll never know. The big difference between CODIL and HTML (the language of the Web) is that CODIL concentrated on the meaning of the information being transferred while HTML is concerned with the formatting of data for transfer and display and is unconcerned with the information content. As such they are not equivalent approaches. However comparing the two approaches highlights the fact that as long as the World Wide Web depends on a black box approach it will be impossible to stop the less desirable activities being hidden by the unscrupulous.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Inside the "Infinity Box"

 Yayoi Kusuma has a exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C, which includes a room of accurately placed mirrors which clains that it gives the nearest impression of infinity one is likely to experience.  Unfortunately I have no plans to go to Washington to see it - perhapos it will come to London!

Monday, 27 February 2017

A Cat trapped in a box



I was most amused by the following story in this week's New Scientist:

An Indian science textbook has been recalled after complaints that it gives details of how to kill kittens. The offending passage read: "Put a small kitten in each box. Close the boxes. After some time open the boxes. What do you see? The kitten inside the box without holes has died."
An important lesson on the proper storage of air-breathing mammals - but how very Newtonian! As any quantum physicist will tell you: the kitten can survive indefinitely as long as you don't open the box.

Takes me back to my time as a student having to learn about quantum mechanics - and was interested enough to do a Ph.D. in Theoretical Organic Chemistry.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Is this what "America First" really means ...

From Muslims against Isis

This political cartoon from 1941 sums up my feelings about Donald Trump's attitude to refugees and the rest of the world. I had not realized that the slogan "America First" comes from a 1930's U S movement that supported Adolf Hitler or that before Pearl Harbour the US was reluctant to take refugees from Nazi Germany.

One of the reasons this blog has been quiet recently is that a combination of things - including health issues - have left me rather depressed - and work on a paper on the "Evolution of Human Intelligence" has been delayed - perhaps because one of the conclusions is that humans aren't really that intelligent and that the inherent weaknesses of our brains predict serious failures in societies which fail to fairly share resources between their members.

This cartoon makes me realize that I will get nowhere if I try and hide from the political reality of the world around me. I have therefore decided that while I must get back to my research I need to let off steam about the way we are all trapped by political boxes which are beyond our control.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Academic Snakes

I was most interested to see the article "The Snake Fight Portion of your thesis defence" by Luke Burns - mentioned in a post on the Pharyngula blog.

On a number of occasions I have acted as the "snake" - i.e. and external examiner - and it can be difficult when the problem is, in part, due to poor supervision. I remember being asked, many years ago, to look at a Ph.D, thesis which consisted of little more that a computer program to index books and papers and which would have only got a middling grade as an undergraduate project in the University where I worked. Not only was there very little supporting library work but the student had not even looked at the operational system in the department's own library. In discussions it was clear that the supervisor (who was not a computer expert) was not aware of how trivial the program was compared with real working systems ...

However "snakes" can occur in other areas of academic life and I added the following comment to the Pharyngula post relating to my own experience as a victim:
Snakes can turn up anywhere – and perhaps some of the nastiest are the nameless snakes that block you publications and grant applications. In the 1970s I was working on a human-computer interaction model based on observations of how sales staff viewed the problems of complex sales contracts in one of the most advanced computerised system of its time. A colleague suggested that perhaps what it was doing had a link with Artificial Intelligence – and gave me a recent Ph.D. thesis to read. I quickly realised that much AI problem solving applications involved tiny closed systems with single solutions – while my work was aimed at complex open-ended tasks where the goal was not known in advance. But, I thought, simple closed tasks are a simple subset of complex open-ended tasks and I quickly showed that my “commercially inspired” approach could match (or even out-perform) most of the published AI problem solvers in the recent literature. But as soon as I tried to publish I was repeatedly blocked by anonymous snakes. Typically a paper describing my problem solver and giving details of how it solved a range of recognised AI problems would came back as “too theoretical ever to work.” By the time it was realised that the 1970s research on chess playing and simple logical puzzles had taught I had given up the research in disgust. Some 40 years later retirement allow me to do genuine “blue sky research” and it turns out that what I had in the 1970s was an crude neural net model which concentrated on the transfer of information between neural nets (the brain of the human and a computer) – bypassing much of the need for trial and error learning which dominates most current “Big Data” neural net research. Perhaps my research could still be of interest – but at nearly 80 years old, with an 1970s albatross of rejection round my neck, the modern snakes will automatically dismiss the ideas as I don't have a prestigious institution behind me so I must be wrong.
I have, of course, also had to deal with a "snake" when I had my on Ph.D. viva in 1963. In fact it was not too bad - but one of the big problems I had was due to supervision problems. The Ph.D. thesis was in the field of Theoretical Organic Chemistry and my supervisor was interested in the theory and really only wanted Ph.D. students to act as laboratory technicians - making chemical compounds that interested him, and measuring their properties to fit onto his graphs. However I was really interested in the underlying theoretical models and went off in my own direction - without his guidance - coming up with far better theory/observational matches than he had been getting ...