Archive for September, 2015

Samantha’s first birthday

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 | Life

As my friends and I get increasingly old, it’s nice to remember that some people are still young guns with hopes and dreams. Mini-Gijsbert, better known as Samantha, is one such person.

It turns out that it is really difficult to buy a present for a one year old. Even soft toys are often come with a two plus years age rating. As one of my other friends pointed out, I should probably have just got a present for Gijsbert and Weili. Like a large bottle of gin for example.

I have some nice photos. However, I am not posting them because I do not know what percentage of the people who read this blog are pedophiles. So instead, here is a picture of the birthday cake.


It is made by Maxi’s Chinese restaurant. Apparently they are a good place to get a cake made as they only require 24 hours notice.

LCT humorous speech contest 2015

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015 | Life, Public Speaking

Earlier this month I competed in the Leeds City Toastmasters 2015 humorous speech contest. Even though it was only club level I was quite nervous. Perhaps because it was at club level, which is not a level I want to go out at. Mostly though because I has not competed in a speech contest in 18 months due to my year as Area Governor.


Lukcily I managed to take victory with my speech “Hell in High Heels”. I will be posting the video after the whole contest is over.

Raspberry trifle

Monday, September 28th, 2015 | Food, Photos

Cookbooks often come with chapters on breakfasts, desserts and sides. I usually ignore them. Not on purpose, but I usually work through the recipes for dinners, so they just do not get scheduled. For lunch, I’m normally eating whatever I cooked last night.

To correct this, I’m making an effort to try a few other recipes. Such as this raspberry trifle.


They may not look quite the same as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, but they did taste good.

My Life in Science

Sunday, September 27th, 2015 | Distractions, Science


Recently Richard Dawkins spoke at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He is flogging his new book, My Life in Science, which is a second book of memoirs. It was ably chaired by my friend Chris Hassall, who made a natural choice as a biology lecturer at the University of Leeds.

The format was a 20-30 minute conversation in which Dawkins told a few anecdotes and read a few things out. Some of them very funny, though Elina felt the obscurity of the subject made them less enjoyable. The second half was Q&A which eventually drifted off religion but was mostly a bit dull.

Overall, the event was enjoyable though it could have been a lot better. Some of it was a bit boring and Dawkins actually taking about something interesting rather than re-hashing anecdotes and answering unimaginative questions would have been a lot better.

Great British Bake Off: Week 8

Saturday, September 26th, 2015 | Distractions

Aww no, not Paul! Weeks and weeks and bakes and bakes after and we all still remember the lion. Eliminating Paul was the wrong decision in my opinion. He definitely had bad days. However, on the good days he showed real flare, creativity and skill.

Here are my power rankings for week 8.

1. Tamal

Tamal did not do the double for Star Baker this week, but he was up there. He soon recovered him his shaky start to put in another consistent performance with excellent flavours throughout his bakes. So for me, he still maintains his number one spot.

2. Nadiya

Obviously an excellent for Nadiya willing Star Baker, so moves up one place from last week. Now is the time to get hot, so things are looking good for her.

3. Ian

Only a week after I said Ian does well when he goes bold and not-so-well when he doesn’t, he goes bold with his two different kinds of pastry and things do not go well. Whether he did this deliberately to prove most pundit predictions are nonsense, I do not know. he needs another consistent weekend to secure him a place in the final.

4. Flora

Flora’s bakes are consistently boring. They might have a lot of fancy touches on them, but the core bake cannot match the flare of the other bakers. She also achieves consistently mediocre results. Lovely as she is, can you honestly imagine her winning Bake Off? I can’t, which makes her an obvious candidate for elimination.

The Naked Sun

Friday, September 25th, 2015 | Books

The Naked Sun is the second novel in Issac Asimov’s Robot series. It follows on from The Caves of Steel.

It sees Elijah Baley travel to Solaria to investigate a murder. He is once again accompanied by R. Daneel Olivaw, though he does not play a huge part. On Solaria they find only 20,000 inhabitants who have a taboo against seeing each other (though “viewing” using a 3D video call is fine).

It was an intriguing tale, and one I was loosely familiar with from the Foundation series. I found it a little unbelievable, though. Baley being scared of the outside. Solarians being scared of seeing and touching other people? That just does not seem human.

Of course, taboos can be strong and if you have lived with someone your whole life, you will be conditioned. However, I think the human urge to get together and have sex is a pretty strong one. And studies show that even city-dwellers find the savanna landscape in which we evolved homely, even if they have never been there.

Part of reading science fiction is, of course, suspending your disbelief. However, it felt to me like there was a difference between accepting we have spaceships that travel to other planets and a fundamental change in the human condition without much explanation. At least Brave New World attempted to explain how deep the conditioning went, and even then they had to pack plenty of humans off to the islands.

If you run with it, though, it becomes an interesting thought experiment and an enjoyable read. It also takes another step in building the Asimov universe; another jigsaw piece falls into place.

The Naked Sun

Intelligence: All That Matters

Thursday, September 24th, 2015 | Books

In Intelligence: All That Matters, Stuart Richie presents a a succinct overview of intelligence research and where we are today.

I first met Stuart when we travelled up to Edinburgh for a national conference on how we could organise student humanist societies better. That is showing my age because he is now a fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Over the years he has spent much time trashing anti-intelligence articles and I have often thought “he should probably stop moaning and write a book about it”. Now he has, and although I’m bitter about not receiving a signed copy, it is a good read.

It comes across with a relaxed, somewhat “man down the pub” style. Though I should add that as most of my friends now have PhDs, the man down the pub is a very-well educated individual who just happens to be in a casual environment. Not someone who spouts nonsense without citing the relevant reference papers.

Richie challenges a lot of the new ideas that have come out in recent decades. Are there different kinds of intelligence for example? No, there is just one. There is no such thing as musical intelligence or football intelligence, there is just regular intelligence. There is some conciliation to emotional intelligence, but it should be noted that it does not correlate with success factors the way proper IQ does.

Intelligence also correlates with itself. If you do well in one area of an IQ test, you are likely to do well in the all. You can game it by practicing, to an extent, but who really has time to do that when you are mostly cheating yourself? Also, it will only affect certain areas of the test, which will be brought down by the rest.

IQ correlates with everything. Good health, good mental health, high earnings, education, liberalism and atheism all correlate. This surprised me as I had believed that high IQ correlated with poor mental health. Indeed, I have always comforted myself that I worry too much because I am clever, not because I am an idiot. Thanks for that. IQ correlates with leadership and creatively as well, though far more loosely than other traits.

There only seems to be one drawback of high IQ – it also correlates with short-sightedness. It is not understood why, though it may be because high IQ children read more. Just to be safe I am going to ban my kids from reading. If I have read Steven Pinker correctly, which I almost certainly have not, they will be fine anyway.

As we age our intelligence drops off a little. Bad news for me already being past my mid-twenties. This is seen in certain areas though. Crystallised intelligence (Wikipedia defines this as “the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience”) continues to rise while fluid intelligence (problem-solving) gradually drops off. Leading an active lifestyle can help maintain this.

50% of IQ can be accounted for genetically. It is polygenic, that is to say, no one gene accounts for it – there is no smart gene. The rest is environmental, though this is not really understood as, to reference Pinker again, parenting does not account for it. We are also seeing intelligence increasing at approximately three points per decade. This is known as the Flynn effect, but it is not obvious because IQ tests are regularly normalised.

This fits in neatly with what Michael Shermer writes in The Moral Arc about the expanding moral sphere being due to our increased intelligence, education and understanding of the world. Indeed Shermer also discusses the Flynn effect.

Unfortunately, there is no much you can do to increase your IQ. Any product telling you that it can is unlikely to be making an evidence-based claim. The one proven factor that does work, however, is education. A study in Norway when they extended mandatory schooling by two years, IQ went up. As they introduced it region by region, it was as close to a control as you can get, so suggests there is a causative link there.

The final section of the book looks at some of the implications and political debates surrounding intelligence research. Overall there are no differences in IQ between genders. Neither is smarter than the other. However, a 2014 paper by Miller and Halpern, looking at data from the Scottish government, suggests that males have a wider standard deviation (bell curve). This would explain why there are more men in higher academia and winning Nobel prizes, and also why there are more men of low intelligence (and as a consequence living on the streets, on Death Row, etc). Males are more likely to be at one extreme or the other.

In summary, IQ is important because there is only one kind of intelligence and IQ tests measure it pretty accurately. This correlates with health, wealth and happiness so is a worth topic for research.


As a bonus, Stuart appeared on my podcast in November 2008. It was a live conference podcast involving a dozen guests and intelligence is not discussed (or apparent) at any point during the show. However, for those who were at the conference, it is a reminiscent listen.

The Moral Arc

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 | Books

In his 2015 book The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer sets out to explain how science and reason have guided moral values throughout history and continue to do so to this day.

The arc represents the expanding moral sphere. Historically, on an evolutionary timescale, we would have mostly been concerned with ourselves and our offspring. As time goes on, this expands to our family, to the wider community, to all humanity, and now to all conscious beings.

As Shermer correctly points out, it is going in the right direction. We live in the safest time to be alive – even if it doesn’t always feel that way! There are less wars, we are wiping out slavery, homicide rates are at an all time low, rape is outlawed in the west and torture is illegal. Violent crime goes down year on year. Traditionally many of these things were common, and even legal!

One of the reasons for this is a better understanding of the world. If you think one of the women in your village is a witch, and that she is causing your crops to fail, the rational thing to do is to burn her. It’s horrible, but it is a mistaken fact about the world, rather than people being moral. Of course the causes of the witch trials were numerous and complex, but Shermer argues that this contributing role, which can be seen throughout history has a large impact, and explains why we become more moral as we gain a better scientific understanding of how the world works.

Slavery is a good example of this. Much of the slave trade was supported by the claim that black people were not humans. Now, with out understanding of evolution and generics, this view cannot be supported by evidence, so the moral argument for slavery (and a moral argument did used to be made in favour of it!) collapses.

Another reason is increased intelligence. Shermer claims that our IQ raises approximately 3 points every decade (though IQ tests are normalised so the actual number remains consistent). This and better education allows us to conceptualise other people’s feelings more and more, and thus expand our moral sphere to today where we can consider how a factory-farmed chicken might feel.

Interestingly, some studies show that reading fiction can improve your ability to empathise. Maybe all that time is not wasted after all.

Morality is a survival technique. It allow us to act altruistically while punishing freeloaders. As humans, we survive better when we work together for common good. However, to stop people taking advantage of this, morality evolves to stop people taking advantage of this.

The book discusses expensive signalling. For example, pirates. Why would a pirate ship fly a pirate flag, telling everyone they are pirates? Surely that increases the chance of the navy spotting them and gives ships a warning when they approach? Shermer suggests the answer is that they wanted people to be scared.

Pirates are not the drunken disorganised ramble you imagine. They were very well organised, had strict rules, a chain o’ command and even constitutions! Why? It was the only way they could run a ship and turn a profit. However, by creating this false impression and being so bold as to fly a pirate flag they convinced many ships to surrender without violence. This was good for everyone as the pirates did not really want to fight – that cost lives!

Another example discussed is the nuclear bombs deployed in the Second World War. Often viewed as morality questionable decisions. However, when considered in the cool light of rationalism, probably made sense. When the Allied Forces took the first Japanese island all but 200 of the 21,000 soldiers and civilians fought to the death! Invading mainland Japan would have seen massive casualties on both sides. In fact the conventional bombing of Tokyo that would have proceeded a land invasion would have taken more lives than the nuclear bombs. Deploying the nukes waa a demonstration of our ability to choose between the lesser of two evils then.

As another interesting aside, Shermer notes that almost all businesses suffer during the war, and therefore it is not often in the oligarchy’s interest to go to war. Whether that stretches as far as Halliburton though, remains to be seen.

Increasingly today we are seeing non-violent campaigns come into play. These work even better as they are more representative of society (violent uprisings tends to be primarily composed of young males). Non-violence has a higher success rate, especially if it reaches a 3.5% share of the population, which Shermer argues is the critical mass.

The idea that we used to live more ethical, greener lives is also challenged. It is not that traditional societies felt a moral duty not to damage the environment – they just did not have the power to do it! The reason Native Americans used every part of the buffalo is that they had to to survive.

Political ideas are also challenged. Shermer quotes data showing conservatives give the most to charity even when controlled for income. Liberals on the other house treat tax as a proxy for giving. Of any social group it is the working poor that give the most.

He suggests that men are always trying to control women’s reproductive rights because they have the most to lose from it. Some studies suggest infidelity rates could be 10-20%, or even as high as 30-50%. Women can know with 100% certainly that the child they give birth is their own, whereas men have less certainty, so it is of evolutionary advantage to ensure their partners are being faithful.

The idea of teaching abstinence is also challenged – not that anyone could really think it was a good idea anyway. However, according to the Chapel Hill Study (I think that’s what the name was) showed 1/200 pregnant women reported virgin conception. Gay rights are also discussed in the politics section. Apparently New York law used to require people to weather at least three items of clothing “befitting their gender” whatever that means.

Shermer also talks about the improving moral attitude towards lab animals. In a very honest section of the book he discusses his uncomfortableness with having to gas the lab animals they were using after being told it was illegal for him to take them up to the woods and let them free. Thankfully they are no longer disposed of in this way.

He also discusses the Holocaust which has a lot of crossover with his book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Were the soldiers just following orders? Group pressure is certainly an issue. Studies show that if two people try to convince you of a deliberately wrong answer in a test, you will probably fight your ground. However, when four people do it, you are more likely to agree with an answer you know is clearly wrong. Non-conformity is traumatic experience. However, research suggests that you have to actively go along with, thus anyone just following orders is complicit.

The book finishes with a look into the future. There is speculation as to whether nation states would be superseded by a world government (unlikely and undesirable according to those quoted) or city states. How capitalism should be reformed and how an advanced civilisation could take place with cheaper energy.

Overall, this book is a great read. It is pretty random at times. It’s trips through politics, speculation of the future and the organisation do loosely fit into the idea of describing a moral arc, but make for a very winding path. The core message is an important one: morality is a survival trait that is evolved into us and will continue to do so as we pursue a rational, naturalistic, empathetic (Humanist) view of the world.

The Moral Arc

The Caves of Steel

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 | Books

Having done some background reading I made a start on the first of Isaac Asimov’s Robot novels, The Caves of Steel. It is set in the semi-near future where positronic robots have been developed and 50 other planets have been colonised.

I came into it thinking there was no way it could be as good as the Foundation series, which is amazing. However, as I go on, I’m less sure. Asimov once again shows why he is the master of science fiction. Blending future technologies with the troubles we all encounter every day he creates a half-exciting believable vision of the future.

Already having been familiar with R. Daneel Olivaw from the Foundation series, it was interesting to go back to his roots. Elijah Baley is a cool character too, walking a nice line between identifiable good guy and man who can get things done.

Definitely worth a read for all science fiction fans.

The Caves of Steel

How To Drive

Monday, September 21st, 2015 | Books

In How To Drive Ben Collins, formerly The Stig, gives you some practical advice on how to drive better, supported by anecdotes of how he used the same techniques at several times faster than you are ever likely to reach.

It is packed with practical information. He discusses some theory, especially on weight transfer, and then elaborates this into techniques for different parts of driving.

He makes the driving instructors cry. Rejecting the 10 and 2 hand position, he advocates 9 and 3. No passing the wheel round – It keeps you balanced and tells you how much steering lock you have one. I’ve been trying it out and it does feel better than my traditional gearstick and 3, if only because I can pretend I am a racing driver.

One of his main points is to take your time. Do not rush changing gear for example. Do it smoothly, rather than quickly.

Is your lane merging? Merging at the last minute is quicker for everyone because it reduces the size of the bottleneck. I already knew that, but it would be nice if everyone else did so that I do not have to feel guilty as I drive past a few queue of early mergers.

He claims that driving on the left hand side of the road is safer. Most people are right eye dominant, so it makes more sense to have this eye in the middle of the road. Hence why we do. Unfortunately, the French ruined it for two thirds of the world.

Controversially, he even challenges the idea that males have more accidents. Men drive more, so when controlled for time on the road, the figures do not suggest women are such safer drivers.

Off the road he even advices on diets. It’s best to drive when a little hungry, and definitely not after a large meal. Plenty to drink as well (non-alcohol drinks of course). Power naps are recommended too – but no more than 10 minutes. If you have half an hour, you go into a sleep cycle and end up feeling worse.

There is a whole section on when things go wrong. For example, if your breaks fail – pump them. Which is basically taking them off and then on again. Invest in good tyres. They stop a lot faster especially in the wet. In Leeds, we’re on the border of it being worth running winter tyres the whole year round.

When it comes to water, the best thing to do is slow down. Serious aquaplaning only happens at over 50mph, so if you are doing below that, you will probably be fine. When it comes to fording rivers, go for a paddle first. Ideally it won’t get over 15cm.

That is quite a random collection of facts I picked up on. Basically I learned to steer like a racing driver and then missed everything else out about better driving. I remember thinking it was useful at the time though.

The book is engaging written. He describes one lorry overtaking another as like turtle sex. Something to have a giggle over next time the bastards are taking up two lanes and you are in a hurry.