Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Deference Engine

As every fool knows, if you want to write a letter to the Queen, you start it with

May it please Your Majesty

And on the envelope, the first line of the address should read

Her Majesty The Queen

If, on the other hand, it is the Prince of Wales who is to be the beneficiary of your insight and advice, you should open the letter with a straightforward Your Royal Highness, while addressing the envelope — HRH The Prince of Wales.

So far, so good. The complications come when wishing to petition some of the more exotic species to be found amongst the English aristocracy. For example, let us imagine for a moment that you are the tenant of a marquess and that you wish to write him a letter begging to be relieved of some feudal obligation. 

You might start the letter with My Lord Marquess and address the envelope: 

The Most Hon The Marquess of Whatever

OR, alternatively  

The Most Hon The Marquess Whatever

But only one of these is right and it depends on some obscure rules. While attempting to clarify the matter you might unearth the following guidance:

It (the ‘of’, that is ) may be omitted in the form of Marquessates and Earldoms and included in the form of Scottish Viscountcies. It is never present in peerage Baronies and Lordships of Parliament and always present in Dukedoms and Scottish feudal Baronies.

All of which — let us admit it — is as clear as mud. Get it wrong however and your carefully crafted letter is likely to find itself cast, unopened onto the fire.

In the case of the marquesses it seems there is little alternative other than to work your way, one by one, through the entire list in order to discover whether, in your particular case, the ‘of’ should be included or not. 

Which is precisely what I was assigned to do during one of the more unusual jobs I did ‘back in the day’. Having been taken on by a small, one-man company contracted to construct the mailing lists for DeBretts Peerage and Baronetage (available from all good booksellers — £100), my job was to work through all the names and addresses in order to ensure that, in the automatically generated mailshots, begging letters and so on, the recipients would find themselves addressed as befitted their station. 

However, as is well known, computer programmers are reputed for their laziness. Rather than spend half a lifetime verifying the correct form of address for the entire aristocracy, not to mention the upper ranks of the armed forces, members of the judiciary and senior clerics, it struck me that the entire process could be better done by an algorithm. After all there are rules and a set of rules is all that is needed in these cases. 

Nevertheless, some of the rules are fairly complex. Take this, for example:   

If the definite article is not used before courtesy peerages and The Hon Elizabeth Smith marries Sir William Brown, she becomes The Hon Lady Brown, but if she marries the higher-ranked Lord Brown, a courtesy Baron, she becomes only Lady Brown. If this Sir William Brown's father is created Earl of London and Baron Brown, as a result of this enoblement, his wife's style will actually change, from "The Hon Lady Brown" to "Lady Brown". It is important to note that while the style may appear diminished, the precedence taken increases from that of the wife of a knight to that of the wife of an earl's eldest son.

And quite right too, I say. 

However, when the time came to embark on implementing my project, it was sadly one of those cases where the anticipated volume of sales (paltry) was unlikely to justify the projected development effort (significant) and I had no alternative but to set it aside. 

All the same, it was worth it just for the name: The Deference Engine

Monday, June 15, 2020

Three questions concerning the future

Have we forgotten how to imagine the future - or at least one that we would be happy to live in? 

I have been thinking about this in connection with the climate emergency. There is a broad acceptance that urgent action is needed if we are to avert climate disaster, yet it is matched by an equally broad reluctance to relinquish familiar — if increasingly fragile — comforts and securities. If the necessary changes are to be undertaken in time, we need a positive vision of the kind of world we would like to live in - not simply a dread of the kind we hope to avoid. 

Of course, as far as nightmare versions of the future our concerned, our culture has proved itself capable of delivering a wealth of examples. In film: the Hunger Games, Blade Runner and Mad Max; in books: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Children of Men - to name just the ones that immediately spring to mind. 

Far from goading us into action, these dystopian visions can have the effect of scaring us into a state of anxious inertia. We might watch the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It appears horrifyingly plausible. We hope that things won’t come to that, so we try to get better at recycling and we consider buying a smaller car. 

We will need to do better than this however, if our children and grandchildren — along with countless other organisms — are to have any sort of future. We need to recover our ability to imagine a future we would be happy to live in — one capable of motivating and shaping our decisions. 

Making progress on this — if it is to be remotely realistic — will call for serious scientific and engineering insight but it will depend equally on an attitude of mind similar to that of an artist. 

As Brian Eno puts it:  

”I’ve always thought that art is a lie, an interesting lie. And I'll sort of listen to the 'lie' and try to imagine the world which makes that lie true... what that world must be like, and what would have to happen for us to get from this world to that one.”

With this in mind I have come up with three questions. How to answer them is something I am thinking about a lot right now. 

Question 1: Using the technological capabilities available today, is it possible to envisage a sustainable ecosystem capable of supporting the current world population?

I might have added the words “along with other organisms”. However. as it is widely accepted that biodiversity is essential to sustainability, I have chosen not to make this explicit. 

I might also have chosen to omit the part about sustaining the current world population. Certainly the view that there are simply too many people is a popular one amongst those who acknowledge the reality of climate change but who secretly consider that a mass cull of the poor might be the only way for the wealthy to survive it. Quite apart from the fact that it is ethically dubious, this is simply too easy an answer. Since it is broadly accepted that unchecked climate change will give rise to a catastrophic decline in the human population, this view amounts to little more than an acceptance of a future that is — in Thomas Hobbs’ words — ‘nasty, brutish and short’. 

That said, I believe that the answer to the first question is yes. I believe it is possible to conceive of a sophisticated ecosystem capable of accommodating a human population of 8 billion alongside the animals, plants and processes with whom we share the planet. It would inevitably depend on highly sophisticated, closed-cycle technologies, compared with which our present poisonous, waste-encumbered efforts would appear recklessly primitive. 

If we can’t answer yes to this first question then there is little point in troubling ourselves with the other two.

Question 2: Assuming a future sustainable ecosystem is possible, is there a way to transition to it from where we are now? 

We might be able to envisage a sustainable future but it might not be possible to reach it. The steps required to shift methods of energy generation, construction, transport etc. can in themselves entail the release of significant quantities of greenhouse gas. For example, in the UK, homes account for over 40% of energy consumption, of which over half is used for space heating. If we were to replace our present housing stock with modern, highly-insulated alternatives then we could achieve major reductions in CO2. However, if we take into account the energy and CO2 cost resulting from demolishing millions of homes and building new ones the picture is nowhere near as rosy.

So there is a time dimension involved in answering this question: do we have the time to undertake the steps necessary to transition to a new, sustainable ecosystem before the negative consequences of both our present and our transitional arrangements threaten to catch up with us and overwhelm us?  

It is like the Marx Bothers film, Go West in which the passenger train they are on is running out of fuel. Harpo is sent back through the carriages with an axe and begins chopping up the train and carrying the pieces forward to feed the boiler. Of course, the question is: will the train get to its destination before it has been completely demolished? 

Nevertheless, as far as the answer to second question goes I have to answer yes again. That said, figuring out how to transform almost every aspect of our industrial and agricultural ecosystem is decidedly more difficult than dreaming up a hypothetical future — so it has to be a cautious yes.

Question 3. Assuming a ‘yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, how can we muster the political will to embark on a program of action that has any hope of success? 

Present strategies for tackling climate change tend to focus on mitigation or, to put it another way: we have identified the processes and patterns of behaviour that are bringing about the present crisis and therefore the general consensus is that we should stop doing them.

This is all terribly negative however and, with the exception of a privileged minority who have chosen to adopt a variety of green measures as a lifestyle choice, most people find the privations necessary to reduce their carbon footprint distinctly unattractive. Governments meanwhile, attempting to burnish their green credentials, are quick to take advantage of any method of accounting that can portray CO2 reduction statistics in a favourable light. Meanwhile, one only has to take a look at the rate of global heating, sea-level rise and instances of extreme weather to see that our headlong race toward the abyss continues unabated. 

It is a chilling thought that, of the three questions outlined here, it is the immediate one,  the one we face right now, that is the hardest to respond to positively. It is becoming increasingly clear that the response from both governments and individuals is falling sadly short of what is necessary. This is leading a number of people to resort to an ideology termed Deep Adaptation, as outlined in an influential paper by Jem Bendell: Deep Adaptation — a Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. 

As the abstract to the paper puts it:

"The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable nearterm social collapse due to climate change."

Or, as Rupert Read, one of the spokespersons for Extinction Rebellion states: 

“Deep Adaptation means adaptation premised upon collapse.”

These people may be right, and they certainly have the weight of evidence on their side. All the same, without detracting from the force of their argument, I am inclined to take an optimistic view.

So I intend to work with others on developing positive visions of the future. These don’t even need to be entirely plausible — at least not in the first instance. As a species, we are susceptible both to imagery and to stories. Maybe it is time we allowed our imaginations the space to explore them again.   

Monday, June 08, 2020

Climate emergency, cultural emergency

There’s a cultural dimension to the climate emergency and for the last 50 years we have been playing it all wrong. Ever since the Ecologist magazine published its Blueprint for Survival in 1972 it seems there have been people warning of imminent environmental collapse and others inclined to dismiss them as alarmists, killjoys and prophets of doom. The scales may have tipped in the intervening years but the cultural attributes of the two sides have hardly changed.

The problem with the activist side is that the message is essentially negative: we face extinction or, at best, serious environmental, economic and social breakdown unless we significantly reduce the rate at which we are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. We can help to do this by eating less meat, giving up the second car, flying less and so on. It is a familiar picture.

Of course, for that significant fraction of the world’s population who can see little beyond the daily struggle to provide food and shelter for their children, such concerns risk appearing somewhat academic. For the rest of us it boils down to a matter of managing guilt - either through reparation or denial.

There is nearly always an element of guilt - mostly on account of the fact that, faced with the prospect of climate change, most of us find it difficult to give up enough to make a significant difference. Many choose to do as much as they can and quietly rank themselves according to the extent of their self-assessed virtue. Others, finding themselves culturally at odds with the whole green lifestyle, prefer to hold out for action at government level. While they might be worried about climate change, they don’t feel there is much they can (or wish to) do about it. A common view is that there are others whose responsibility for the problem is far greater than their own. Why should they give up their own hard-won, yearly holiday when there are others boasting about reducing theirs from three to two?

But let’s not fool ourselves: despite the fact that they would have us believe we’re all Green nowadays, there really is another side - namely the side that would have us all wander over the cliff edge, just so long as there are profits to be had on the way. There is little point in identifying the individuals who seem intent on taking us down this path. The momentum dragging us inexorably towards disaster is locked-in to the structures, customs and practices that make up capitalism and its variants. Individuals might grow weary of serving this machine but there are always others eager to replace them. Meanwhile the algorithms continue to do their work.

When it comes to opposing and belittling climate activism, the opposition finds itself with a wealth of targets. Those advocating radical change are variously described as: naive, privileged, middle-class, egotistical, disruptive, unglamorous, unrealistic fantasists. Many of these labels resonate even amongst sympathisers. As so much of Green ideology appears to focus on self-denial, Greens are easily portrayed as ardent killjoys - despite the colourful clothes and the drumming. It’s like those happy-clappy evangelists; they might look like they’re euphoric but deep down you suspect they’re not actually having much fun.

The problem with programs for addressing climate change is that they focus on the steps we need to adopt to transition from where we are now to a green and sustainable future. Of course there is nothing wrong with this from a scientific point of view but in terms of presentation it is a disaster, principally on the grounds that the measures advocate abandoning the familiar and embarking on a voyage into the unknown with no clear destination in sight.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Here is what I think we should do.

Firstly, we should focus more energy on developing a vision for the future that describes how humans and other creatures can inhabit the earth in a sustainable way. Sustainability is the key concept here, in as much as it refers to the ability to co-exist with nature and the environment in a way that is ongoing. Far from representing ‘back to nature’ fundamentalism, the future global ecology will depend on highly sophisticated closed-cycle technologies, compared with which our present poisonous, waste-encumbered efforts will appear recklessly primitive. Such ecologies will draw on environmental energy flows, as opposed to fossil fuel extraction and there will be a natural tendency in favour of geographic dispersal, based around small communities and towns, where both energy and resource flows will be predominantly localised.

Secondly, we should turn the tables. At present, the environmental movement appears willing to participate in a scenario in which it is cast as the alternative to a mainstream which is manifestly broken, and yet it is the environmental side that is obliged to explain itself. This is all wrong. We should be putting the difficult questions to apologists for the status quo; they are the ones from whom we should demand answers. In all our communications we should rebrand the environment-despoiling, fossil-fuel burning, climate change deniers as the Opposition - for that is precisely what they are. 

I have no doubt whatsoever that a future sustainable ecology using known advanced technologies is 100% feasible. What is less clear, of course, is how to make the transition from where we are now. That said, we should not be apologetic about the fact that we don’t have immediate answers. Without a destination it is difficult to plan the journey.

Instead, we should demand that the Opposition explain exactly where it is they think they are taking us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Accelerating Pace of Change

Attentive readers will recall that my April 1st post – Books was originally intended as part of a collection of vignettes on turn-of-the-century technology companies. The only other part of that long-abandoned project that managed to get itself written is the following parody on the culture of innovation and its consequences. It is more authentic than you might imagine. 

As everyone knows, in the World of Computers things are getting faster and faster all the time. This is known as Moore's Law and is Fundamental. To keep up with all these changes it is essential to stay constantly on the move as far as skills and competences are concerned. As soon as you get the merest whiff of some new terminology or language that you haven't heard of before, you have no other alternative but to check it out immediately - either by snuffling around magazine articles, grazing on-line tutorials or buying a fat book on the subject.

There is one crucial point to remember however and it is this: on no account must you be tempted to allow curiosity to grow into a Technical Skill – for the simple reason that you might be foolish enough to put it to practical use. Quite apart from the fact that you will undoubtedly discover the subject to be far more complicated than you first thought, the real mistake arises from the fact that you simply haven't got the time. To use your new-found skill today is to renounce the possibility of acquiring a much better one tomorrow.

Go on, admit it – you are sceptical about this. "Yes, very witty." you snort. Alright, let's look at a practical illustration.

On Monday, Bob and Alice both read an article about a new computer language called Goo. They nose around it's features, add a few keywords and acronyms to their technical vocabulary and learn just enough to contribute to a respectable discussion with the average marketing executive (which – let’s admit it – is not that much).

But, now Bob is lured down the Path of Error. He decides that Goo is just the thing he's been looking for to build his latest app and he embarks on, what we computer types call An Implementation. 

Ah, foolishness and folly. By Wednesday he's fully immersed in the inner workings of Goo and discovering that it's not all easy going; but all the same, he confidently expects to have the job done by Friday.

Alice meanwhile, has her sights firmly fixed on bigger things. On Tuesday morning, whilst browsing an obscure technical website, she discovers Goo++ a far superior version of yesterday's language and spends the rest of the day familiarising herself with its features. On Wednesday she applies her new-found knowledge to the same project that Bob is working on and, because of The Accelerating Pace of Change, is all done by Thursday and takes Friday off, but not before thoughtfully emailing Bob to tell him he's wasting his time.

Except, of course, she does no such thing.

Ah, you sharp-witted reader; I see you've spotted the flaw. No, Alice – our wise protagonist – spends Wednesday dining in a fashionable eatery with Ted, the Chief Technical Officer where, over a dish of fresh mussels, she extols the virtues of Goo++. Ted listens admiringly while she recommends that they suspend all ongoing Goo development, retrain the personnel involved and assign them to a new Goo++ project group, in which, under her direction, they will toil on the treadmill of implementation until they are completely burnt out.

The moral of the story being: Never let today’s reality blind you to tomorrow’s potential.

Attentive readers will have observed a curious implication of this principle.

For Moore's Law, which  can be more precisely stated as:

"What you don't do this week you'll do in half the time if you put it off for a week and a half"

implies that sometime around next October a state will be reached where the Leading Edge will be moving infinitely fast and computer expertise will consequently cease to progress any further. The corollary, of course, (I see you bursting with eagerness to beat me to it) being that all computing tasks will potentially be complete by the same date had they been undertaken - which of course they weren't. So the Perfection of Computing Expertise occurs at precisely the same time as all further development ceases.

Of course, the reality is a little more mundane. We are saved from this fate by the simple fact that the Wheels of Change are mired in the inescapable Mud of Practicality. People insist on do things with their knowledge and consequently slow things down just enough to ensure life carries on,

And a good thing too, I say.

Monday, May 11, 2020

A Prisoner in Paradise

I sit out on the deck after midnight. In past years we had parties out here - often in the pouring rain. There would be people sitting, swathed in blankets, shoulder to shoulder on the sofa whilst others shifted around on the edges, trying to avoid the torrents of water falling from the roof.

Tonight though, it’s just me and the full moon. The boards at my feet are like a silver raft floating above the half-lit lawn that slopes away to a drop, where it abruptly ends. Beyond this, the dark mass of the woods looms up, quiet and silhouetted against a radiant sky in which the moon hangs like a dazzling jewel.

It’s strange how, in moonlight, the brightness of things diminishes with distance. This gradation of light, from the clarity of the foreground all the way to distant shadows, brings with it a sense of calm immensity in which the flow of time itself seems subdued.

Earlier, I took my permitted quota of exercise by walking in the woods. It’s a route I often follow and which I never grow tired of. Where the wood ends there is a old stone stile guarded by two trees - ‘the gate of the wood’ as I call it. Just in from here is where the wild garlic is thickest. The path I take back winds itself through a froth of white flowers, climbing slowly to the higher ground before quitting the wood for a high, open field where, on an earlier occasion, I once met a hare. Beyond here the path descends slowly down through green pasture. There’s the church tower - it’s base and the church itself are hidden by trees.

Except for two brief trips to the local town, I haven’t left the village in weeks. There’s a shop, staffed partly by volunteers that is suddenly thriving. Along with the usual essentials they have fresh trout, green vegetables, sausages and cheeses — all locally sourced. Only two people are allowed in at any one time and we are asked to wash our hands before entering.

Back home, I divide my time between staying in touch with people by email and Zoom and keeping on top of our domestic accounts, housework (some), cooking (lots) and gardening. I am reading, both in the true sense of the word and by listening to recordings on Audible. From time to time I release a new post on my blog; I play Pokemon with the grandchildren and read them stories by means of a cunningly mounted phone that permits them to see the book. I am trying (unsuccessfully) to find time for my artwork; I need to develop some designs for the spare bedroom. Down in the cellar, the 3D printer is churning out protective visors for distribution to local hospitals and care homes. Most evenings we watch things on television: Twins, Hidden, Normal People, Succession, Have I Got News For You, Newsnight. Time flies by at an astonishing rate. If it weren’t for Thursday evenings, when we briefly step outside — ostensibly to clap for the NHS but as much out of a desire to say hello to our neighbours — I would be constantly having to remind myself what day of the week it is.

What is the point in telling you all of this? You no doubt have something similar going on — that is assuming that, like me, you are in reasonable health, unstressed, financially secure, light on responsibilities and not prone to boredom.

Of course there are others who have something totally different going on — though, let’s admit it: they’re unlikely to be reading this. For a start, many of them will be too busy — like the people who are keeping the whole show on the road: doctors, nurses, ambulance and delivery drivers, care workers, police, people working in food production, on supermarket check-outs, maintaining water supplies, power and data networks. Many are on low pay. All are arguably at higher risk than those of us who are confined to our homes.

And not all those who are locked down are having a party either. Many are suffering poverty, ill-health, loneliness or depression. Others will have been laid off. Some households - chaotic or abusive at the best of times - will be in crisis. To think that the long, hard years of austerity should have come to yield such rotten fruit.

We hear little or nothing of this world. First hand accounts of life under the pandemic are mainly confined to the experiences of well-resourced, middle-class people.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the very same restrictions that are causing serious problems for so many are helping compound inequality and intensifying social division. Just when we should be starting a broad-based conversation across all sectors of society, we instead find ourselves increasingly confined to our silos, some cushioned — mostly not.

But what is really shaming is that, for many of us, all of this literally doesn’t bear thinking about. So — and here I must speak solely for myself — I persuade myself that the problem is too big and that, in any case, the pursuits that I follow: the walks in the woods, my reading, writing this piece — are all, in some mysterious way, helping bring about a better world.

Of course, this is no more than wishful thinking.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Brian Cox on Hardtalk

Last night I watched Brian Cox (the actor, not the physicist) being interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC's Hardtalk.

He was speaking from his home in Upstate New York and I have to say that — out of the hundreds of domestic settings we are becoming used to seeing on our screens — this has to be one one of the nicest looking.

But it was the interview itself that was inspiring. He is a thoughtful and compassionate man. Watch it if you have the time — though you might want to start at the 9 min mark:


Saturday, April 11, 2020

Excuses, excuses

Following my last piece, a number of readers have written in, offering …

Wait, wait. What’s this stuff about readers? Is that the right term? Can you lot really be described as readers, or is there a better word for what you are - and furthermore, one that you will be happy to answer to?

Maybe it would be more accurate to refer to you as subscribers - but that’s not quite right either. Being a subscriber implies some sort of contract and — let’s be honest — getting sent ‘New blog from Omnivorist’ emails every other day is not something you ever signed up for.

How about devotees? Now there’s a word with a nice ring to it.

All the same, there’s the undeniable fact that while devotees might be nice to have they’re not always so nice to be, besides which, having devotees — tending them, nurturing them and so on — sounds like an awful lot of work. In any case, I really can’t see the people who read my stuff being happy to think of themselves as devotees — however much they might enjoy it. Might as well go the whole hog and call them disciples while we’re at it.

Followers might work — it is very popular and has a wide currency on social media. It is still not quite right though. To describe someone as a follower suggests a dull-witted, bovine compulsion to munch-up whatever is placed in front of them — something which certainly can’t be said of you lot. It’s difficult enough even to get you to click on the link.

I wouldn’t really have a problem with the readers thing were it not for the fact that it reminds me of those lamps: the very expensive and incredibly bright ones, designed for the kind of old people who are flattered to be classed as Serious Readers.

Of course the very term Serious Reader implies there is another sort, namely the non-serious reader or the flippant reader — you know, the kind of person whose reading of Jane Austen’s celebrated opening line, might go something like:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be ........... whatever !”

No the serious reader is one who approaches the written word with a degree of quiet determination. The first sentence is read, then the second followed by the third. Then the third sentence is read again and then the fourth begun … until the eyelids droop and the chin sinks slowly onto the chest. An unseen hand flicks off the lamp and the room is silent save for the sound of gentle snoring:

xorghf, xorghf, xagagagakkk

So where was I ?

Yes, that was it: following my last piece, a number of readers have written in, offering all sorts of excuses as to why they still haven’t bought a copy of The Wisdom of Wormwood.

Here are just a few of them, starting with the paltry ones:

I won’t have the time to read it
   Be honest - that’s not really true right now is it?

I don’t like being pressured into buying things.
   Go away, come back later and pretend you found it all by yourself.

I fear that buying a copy will only encourage you to write more.
   There is always that risk.

I don’t want to spend £2.99 without being absolutely sure that it’s any good 
   Let me assure you: it is very good indeed — better than you could possibly imagine. 

I’ll do it tomorrow
   Yeah, yeah.

And then there are the legitimate excuses:

I don’t have a device capable of running Kindle. 
Having vowed to renounce Bezos and all his works, I refuse to buy things on Amazon.
I have never really liked your stuff anyway.

Fair enough

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

A piece of shameless self promotion

You may think you have seen this before and you'd be right but the fact is, if you haven’t already got yourself a copy, you NEED to get one NOW

“But where can I get one?” I hear you ask.

The answer is, you can get one here

And it is no use coming up with excuses: that you haven’t got the time, have too many other things to do and so on, because — sorry — but it just won’t wash.

During these difficult days [add phrases invoking wartime spirit etc etc], we should give ourselves the time to smile or even to surrender to a hearty belly laugh — you know, the kind where you rock back and forwards in your chair, slapping your thighs, while throwing your head back and emitting gales of full-throated laughter.

So if you find yourself thinking:

“I’d like some of that — it sounds just the ticket.”

Then you NEED to click here and get yourself a copy of

The Wisdom of Wormwood 

That's right — do it NOW

Wednesday, April 01, 2020


Looking at all the bookshelves appearing in people’s webcams reminded me of something I wrote some years ago that was going to form part of a larger collection called ‘HTML and all that’, which is unlikely to be brought to completion for the simple reason that it was rooted in the time I spent writing computer software and is now somewhat dated. This chapter is about building a technical library. I was thinking of modifying it with the intention of giving it wider appeal but, life being too short, I decided to leave it as it is. 

So you have to buy some books. Notice I say 'buy', by the way, and not 'read' or 'borrow', for  this is an important point - you  must own them. In fact I can safely say without exaggeration that owning the book - or more precisely - taking possession of its content is the very essence of what we're talking about here. Bringing the book home, taking it out of its little bag and making a special space for it on your shelf - this is what it’s all about. Now (already), to all intents and purposes, you have appropriated the knowledge it contains. Think of it, if you like, as a sort of long-term storage. Your own memory, the bit you carry round with you inside your head, is a precious resource and should not be treated as a mere shopping bag in which to lug around all sorts of arbitrary information. No the proper place for that kind of thing is on your bookshelf, or on the disk of your computer, both of which can be thought of as extensions of your own intellect, holding information ready to be loaded up the moment you require it.

But I am running ahead of myself; before you can buy the book you must select it from amongst all the others in the shop. How do you go about doing that? In this piece I will give you a few guidelines which, if followed, will guarantee satisfaction.

So there you are, in the bookshop confronting an enormous set of shelves on which is arrayed the most magnificent collection of books. Let me acknowledge right away that at this point it is not unusual to suffer a kind of dreadful premonition in which you see the selfsame books stuffed, dog-eared and slightly mildewed, in cardboard boxes outside some depressing second-hand bookshop, tagged with a handwritten label announcing '15p each - 5 for 50p' Should this happen - and it is inevitable from time to time - there is nothing else for it but to leave the shop immediately. Go and do something else; this isn't the right time.

But today the books are looking pristine and inviting. Where do you begin?

Well, you have to narrow down the choice and this should be done in the most efficient way possible - that is with your hands in your pockets. The first selection criterion is a simple one - thickness. You are looking for books that are between 1 and 2 inches thick. Less than that and, I guarantee, it's going to be heavy going. It's difficult to explain - but there's a certain quality of meanness about a thin book. You can be sure the author considers himself very clever and is somehow justified in receiving a small fortune for the privilege of parting with a few pages of incomprehensible gobbledegook. The only exception to this rule applies to those cases where the title alone is so enigmatic and impressive that it might be worth acquiring the book for it's spine alone. Tastes vary but something along the lines of In Defence of Failure or Cloud Geometry would be strong candidates for my own shelves.

The very opposite can be said of thick books. Though it is a somewhat arbitrary threshold, anything over 2 in thick has to be considered distinctly suspect. There's an increasing tendency in this direction with books of 4-5 inches thick regularly on offer.

Who are these authors who can say so much on a subject that only a month ago was completely outside the sphere of human knowledge? The suspicion is that these books are not so much written as generated. For some reason only known to the publishers they are invariably red and have titles that are either boastful: The Guru's Guide to Goo or simply enigmatic: FffD Secrets. If you were to heave one of these tomes down from the shelf - and be warned, this can be dangerous - you will be presented with a photograph of the author while, at the same time, your fingers unconsciously trace the outlines of a CD glued into the back cover. In case 900 pages is not enough, you are offered a 600 Megabyte memory dump of the author's own personal computer.

Only now, having narrowed down the field somewhat, should you give serious attention to titles. Titles are important. When you are interviewed on the Horizon programme in a few years time you will be filmed against  the backdrop of your bookshelf and, however clever you sound, the impression is going to be seriously compromised if titles such as The Beginners Guide to Basic or First Tottering Steps in Computer Programming  are clearly visible over your shoulder. Avoid these books like the plague. They serve no purpose whatsoever. As long as they remain unread they will only serve as a source of anxiety, causing you to wake up in a cold sweat the night before you are due to address an international conference on Image Recognition Architectures with the unshakeable conviction that there was something in Fun Pictures on your PC in 3 days that you completely overlooked. If you do choose to read them (and as we shall see later, this should be considered a strategy of last resort) then you will want to heave them out of the house as soon as possible.

So you have eliminated about half the books on the shelves without touching any of them  and now you're left with books between 1 and 2 inches thick with good, dependable titles - like Comprehensive C++, A Lisp Primer and so on. Even so there are still an awful lot to choose from and, there's nothing else for it, this is where you're going to have to reach up and handle them.

First thing to look for is the front cover. It’s difficult to state hard and fast rules here but a few simple guidelines can be stated.

Animals are good. If the book has an animal on the cover it is definitely worth looking at more closely. So keep that book with the picture of the amphibian on the cover for further consideration. Another good indicator is the cover illustration that looks like it might have been painted by the author - you know the kind of thing: a wizard or suchlike, floating awkwardly against a background depicting badly painted castle walls with maybe a medieval maiden in a wimple. Is that the right word? You know, one of those conical hats with a bit of gauze draped from it. The whole composition is enough to make you feel sick of course, but let's try to understand this. The author, being some arch-nerd, has thought it a really Great Idea to provide his own cover illustration and the publishers (shrewdly) have the insight to appreciate that Like Attracts Like (or some other such principle) and, ignoring the protestations of the art department, have gone along with it. The guy must have something about him to be worth flattering in this way and the publishers have no doubt calculated that the nerd-market alone is going to be sufficient to bring in a healthy return. No - put aside your understandable distaste and keep the book on one side for further consideration.

The cover illustrations to reject are easily recognisable. Anything that looks vaguely technical - flow charts, circuit diagrams and the like - these go straight in the reject bin. There's no safer indication than this that the book has been commissioned by serious business people. It is going to be boring. No, worse - it's going to be deeply depressing. Don't take my word for it though. Go on, open it up, turn to the Preface or Introduction or whatever it is that immediately follows the horribly long and turgid Acknowledgements. Read the first sentence. It starts: "In today's dynamic business environment … "  doesn’t it? Need I say more?

To go any further, you're going to have to open the book and look inside but don't despair - a glance at the dedication is sufficient to eliminate a good 50% of the volumes remaining. What you're looking for is something distinctly quirky like:

To Annette for feeding the marmosets

A dedication of this sort should be readily distinguishable from the more pathetic:

To my wife for her patient and selfless support.

In the first case, we're talking about someone who is clearly deeply in love with the author. Even though Annette is clearly somewhat afraid of the small animals, doesn't like touching them, let alone changing their soiled bedding, she willingly does it simply to be occupying the same space as her brilliant partner, who spends every evening hammering out his life's work on the PC.

The second dedication, on the other hand, speaks of an abandoned and resentful woman whose selfless support consists of nothing more than a willingness to tolerate, endless lonely evenings patiently explaining to the children how their father is very busy earning the money to pay for their riding lessons. See the difference? You don't want to spend good money on a book written by someone so uncaring.

So now, finally, we come to the part where you must delve deeper. This doesn’t need to take as long as you might imagine. Raise the book to your nose and riffle through the pages. Does it smell right? Tastes differ but you’re looking for something like new-mown grass or the smell of rain on stone paving after a long dry spell.

If you follow the principles outlined above you will find yourself with a technical library that not only provides you with the comforting assurance that you have a vast body of knowledge at your fingertips but will also be the envy of others.

Books undoubtedly have a number of additional qualities that I might have touched upon. There are some individuals, for example, who are passionate about the contents of the book – specifically by the detailed way in which the words are grouped into sentences, paragraphs and chapters. This is something of a specialised topic which I do not propose to embark on here and is one that, in my own experience at least, I have not felt the need to trouble myself with.

Contact tracing

Since I first posted this piece late last night, discussion of contact tracing appears to have gone viral (as the saying goes), partly in response to the rumour that the UK is about to launch something very similar to TraceTogether (first developed in Singapore and described below). I was going to add some links but you can find them everywhere. So, by all means skip the piece below; it adds very little to the general discussion. I do however recommend taking a look at the Youtube link at the end - if you haven't see it already. 

There appears to be a growing consensus that the only effective way to manage (and eventually eradicate) the Covid-19 pandemic is through a rigorous program of testing and contact tracing. This is the policy advocated by amongst others: the WHO’s Bruce Aylward and the UK former Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt. The merit of the approach is supported by evidence from SE Asian countries — most notably Singapore and South Korea — where testing and contact tracing were adopted from the outset with a measurable degree of success.

So how does it work? At the simplest level, public health bodies identify people either testing positive for the virus or showing symptoms and then, by means of interviews, ask them to remember with whom they have been in close contact. These people would be followed up in turn and offered testing and advice on limiting further spread.

It doesn’t take long to see the impracticalities of this method. For a start, people are unlikely to remember all of their close contacts and would be unable, in most instances, to identify individuals - for example, after travelling on a bus or visiting a supermarket. Also the resource requirements involved in tracking down and interviewing a widening network of contacts would be considerable.

So how was it done in Singapore and South Korea?

In South Korea the government texted people to let them know if they were in the vicinity of a diagnosed individual using location data from mobile phones. In any case, it is an approach that would be unlikely to gain acceptance in the UK on account of the privacy implications. It is also difficult to see how this would help trace contacts of asymptomatic individuals who later tested positive.

The method adopted in Singapore is more interesting. Here they encouraged people to install an app on their phones called TraceTogether. Each app was assigned a unique ID and the Ministry of Health maintained a database linking each ID to the user’s phone number.

The way it works is this: every time you come into close contact with another person with the same app installed on their phone the apps communicate (via Bluetooth) and each simply stores the ID of the other contact together with the current time. If you remain free of the virus there is no need for you to pay attention to the data being collected - in fact, it is virtually meaningless, consisting simply of a number of timestamped numerical IDs. If you test positive for the virus however, you are encouraged to contact the Ministry of Health and allow them to access the data stored on your phone. The Ministry is then in a position to inform those contacts whom they deem to be at risk and advise them to be tested.

Although this still requires the involvement of a government ministry, the TraceTogether app is designed in such a way as to reassure users with regard to privacy. In essence it is little more than a streamlined version of the contact tracing approach described earlier, the main advantage being that it does not rely on individuals being able to recall (or identify) the people they have been in contact with.

Before I heard about the TraceTogether I found myself thinking about something along similar lines. As it turned out, this was very similar to TraceTogether except for the fact that, in my own scheme, the records would be uploaded to a central body which would, as a consequence, be in possession of the data necessary to construct a detailed representation of contacts across the entire population. Not only would this allow those at risk of infection to be identified and contacted but it would also enable the co-ordinating body to evaluate the effectiveness of social isolation directives as well as assessing the consequences of contacts involving key workers (emergency services, medical staff etc.)

It is the sort of idea that seems wonderful for a while, until one realises it could also be a nightmare.

Many of these issues are discussed in a recent article by Jon Evans. In it he makes the observation:

More generally, at what point does the urgent need for better data collide with the need to protect individual privacy and avoid enabling the tools for an aspiring, or existing, police state? And let’s not kid ourselves; the pandemic increases, rather than diminishes, the authoritarian threat. 

The whole article makes very interesting reading. You can find it here:


The author comes to the conclusion that Apple and Google are capable of constructing a near-complete contact model within the time frame necessary to bring the virus under control and that furthermore they can be trusted more than governments not to misuse the information obtained.

I am not inclined to comment further other than to point out that such a proposal would be — at the very least — controversial.

Finally though, you should take a look at the following short presentation. It shows what is presently possible using location data from mobile phones.

It is a bit of an eye-opener.