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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jumping Lions!

For my American readers who watching the London NFL game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions it may amaze you to know that I was there - along with several of my friends. I discovered that work was organising a trip and decided on the spare of the moment to throw my name into the hat.

Accidentally I ended up supporting the winning team - not knowing anything about either of them - because the Lions wore blue (my favourite colour), they where from Detroit (so Northern like me) and where therefore (presumably) from a predominantly working class culture - like me. Of course at half time my friends decided that I deserved some serious ribbing for picking the wrong side (I wore a newly purchased Lions baseball cap throughout) but I had the last laugh with the final kick and the final score. Needless to say we'll be back at Wembley next year for another game (though we don't know who will be playing yet).

Kind of crying out for a caption really..............

Monday, October 27, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Domesticated Brain by Bruce Hood (FP: 2014)

What is it that makes humans such social creatures? Why do we care what other people think? Why is shunning and being ostracised one of the worst things you can do to anyone? Why is solitary confinement a worse punishment than torture? Why are human brains so sophisticated for their size?

These are just a few of the questions that the author considers using brain physiology, the fossil record, evolutionary speculation coupled with primate studies, child development work and much else besides. With fascinating breadth, incisive in depth observations focusing on step-by-step physical development and a scattering of witty anecdotes the author shows what it is to be human, immersed in a social environment which forced our ancestors to put themselves in their neighbours paws and feel as they felt – to anticipate when an attack might come or when a sexual advance might be rejected (or accepted) by another males ‘partner’. Our brains became the powerhouse we know them to be by being required to cope with complex and overlapping social situations. When mistakes can get you killed – either in straight-up combat or being ejected from the group into a hostile environment without anyone literally watching your back – it most certainly paid to get along with the rest of the tribe and being able to do that, being able to learn and maintain that, effectively made us human. Consciousness, thinking, planning, identity, putting yourself in the minds of others, judging the moral content of actions, attributing agency to others – even other non-humans – ‘reading’ people and situations, memory, spatial awareness and a million other things (slightly exaggerating here) grew from that need – the need to domesticate ourselves to increase our chances of survival in a world where most other creatures appeared (at least on ‘paper’) to be far more dangerous than we were.

Almost every page turned resulted in a raised eyebrow or an exclamation of ‘so that’s why X happens’ and resulted in numerous conversations with some of my team members about their children’s development and those points where something has clearly ‘clicked’ into place and an ability suddenly manifests itself (the latest thing from a colleagues 1 year old daughter was suddenly understanding how pointing works – resulting in her pointing at everything!). This gem of a book is full to the brim with those sorts of things relating not only to cognitive development but experiments which show developmental stages in moral as well as ‘technical’ reasoning – from a surprisingly early age.

This book was a delight to read and I’m pleased to discover (yes, I really have so many books I don’t always realise that I have several books by the same author) that I have another book by this author to look forward too. This also reminded me that I really should be reading more up to date works of science (popular or otherwise) to keep up with things. I’ll certainly try to do more of this in future.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Soundtrack to My Life

It would be an impossible choice. Luckily it’s highly unlikely if I’d ever be called upon to make it – the choice between Music or Books. Those who know me, or read this Blog regularly, will know my passion for books. If you bump into me at any point you’ll probably find me in a book shop or sitting somewhere book in hand. If I’m stuck in traffic or waiting for someone or something to start I’ll be reaching into my back-pack for whatever I’m reading at the moment. Not only is my house groaning under the weight of the books I’ve accumulated to date but I keep accumulating more each week. I’m sure that a coroner someday will have to write an odd cause of death: buried under a pile of apparently unread books.

Fewer people know about my love of music – probably because I listen to most of it at home (a 70’s compilation double CD at the moment) or on headphones so they can’t hear what I hear, and although my CD stacks aren’t quite as high as my book stacks they are slowly getting there. I’ve said before that I’m interested in almost everything – hence my book mountains – but I’m also at least initially to listen to almost any kind of music. There is my tried and tested core favourites but I do try to listen to things outside my natural comfort zone – Jazz being a case very much in point. I’ve tried over the years to like Jazz but have failed to do so. I can listen to the odd CD but it doesn’t have anything like the appeal of my favourite genres.

Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s in Liverpool means that, no matter what, I’ll always have a soft spot for the music of The Beatles and the lesser examples of Merseybeat. But I think my early love was Progressive Rock (I don’t know if it’s still called that) exemplified by bands such as Pink Floyd. I think this love stems from my older brother and his friends listening to such things and me hanging around and generally being annoying as younger brothers tend to be. I think my younger brother also introduced me to The Rolling Stones in the early to mid-70’s and the love of that band continues to this day. Of course the 70’s (the decade that style forgot) through up a whole host of music types some of which I still enjoy listening to: Disco, Motown, Glam-Rock, New Wave, Punk. I still remember who my brother’s musical tastes changed almost overnight from Sister Sledge to Souixie and The Banshees and The Boomtown Rats. Those where definitely exciting days for a late maturing teenager! It was the 80’s, as I’ve mentioned before, that turning out to be my favourite decade for music. I was introduced to U2 in 1983 when I went to University and my Punk friend Ron introduced me to the likes of Ian Curtis who I still think was fantastically talented. Those where the years of collecting cheap vinyl 45’s and becoming reacquainted with bands such as Tomita.

Of course having a job comparatively soon after leaving Uni and being in employment now for 26 consecutive years (gulp) has allowed me to accumulate a great deal of music over the years. I try to listen to as much of it as I can as often as I can. Since I reduced my TV watching to almost nothing I’ve listened to a great deal more and, with my TV presently ‘off-line’ I’m listening to even more. I do find that it’s a very pleasant way to wake up in the morning – if you pick your music carefully!

As to my favourites? That’s difficult. Although I do have preferred artists I’m more a fan of types or genres. If I had to plump for one favourite it’d probably have to be rock music (I do believe that the electric guitar is probably one of mankind’s greatest inventions) very closely followed by The Blues which I absolutely adore. You should already know of my love of the female voice in all its incarnations and that covers a very wide area. I still do love Punk for its energy and, to be honest, anger and although looking back it is crude and largely unformed it was symptomatic of the time and I can’t help but be fond of it still.

Finally I have to mention Classic music which I have a slightly odd relation with. Classical music as always had an elitist feel about it. I wasn’t exposed to it very much growing up on working-class housing estates and about the only time we heard it was on TV adverts and in movie soundtracks (one reason why I still love Rollerball – the original please!) for introducing me to Tomaso Albinoni. I still have no idea why it is so but Baroque music stirs something deep, deep down inside my ‘soul’ and I could listen to it all day turned all the way up to 11. Likewise I love piano music especially by composers such as Rachmaninov. Funnily I often feel inadequate when I think about Classical music being, as it where, self-taught. I don’t really know what it supposed to be good and what it considered kitsch but then another part of me says that as long as I like what I’m listening to then why should that matter. Apparently my Classical music collection would be considered to be ‘obvious’ and ‘uninformed’, you might even call it ‘working class’, which, of course, amuses me to death. But, no matter what, I love my music and would struggle a great deal if I ever had to live without it. It has helped me through the bad times, kept me sane and lifted my spirits when they needed lifting. Long may the soundtrack to my life continue rolling on.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

They Live!
Just Finished Reading: Robotics – A Very Short Introduction by Alan Winfield (FP: 2012)

Tis was the last of my ‘Christmas’ break VSI books I took to my Mum’s house to get me through the day. Although it certainly covered all (or most) of the bases found it to be rather….. bland. Maybe it was the fact that the author spent too much time with what is being produced in labs today rather than looking forward? It is, obviously, and understandable viewpoint. Given as assessment of the present state of robotics research is a good start but I think he spent too much time there. The two other themes explored in this admittedly short book (only 132 pages) was humanoid robots and swarm bots and their applications both on Earth and in space exploration. Again, interesting as far as they went but (again) lacked a certain something from my point of view – thinking about it, maybe this introduction was just too much of an introduction and I actually needed something a bit more in-depth. This book was definitely not badly written nor was it boring, too technical or too simplistic. It just didn’t, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, float my boat.

A few things did intrigue me – a robot designed to generate power by ‘digesting’ slugs as an ideal self-running (and green!) garden assistant and the idea, which I’ve come across before, of the Uncanny Valley where humanoid robots become disturbingly human but not quite – sending shivers down peoples back whenever they encounter one. Obviously this could be a real problem in human-robot interaction when your mechanical partner literally gives you the creeps!

The book focused almost exclusively on civilian robots – in exploration, disaster recovery, medicine, construction, manufacturing and all those areas we are becoming familiar with – with hardly a mention of military applications (which I suppose have been done to death elsewhere) so I found it a little on-sided as things go. But my overall disappointment was, as you can probably tell, rather tenuous. A good start if you know little about robots but what you might have seen briefly in a handful of SF B-movies. But if you have a good idea of the technology I’d try something a bit more substantial.