Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gate of the Wood in Winter

With midwinter just a day away, I walk to the Gate of the Wood, where the same two trees flank an old stone style - their buttress roots, black-barked and banked with snow.

I stay just briefly; then retrace my steps.
No sun, no fading brightness at my back.
Just a curving track, flanked by dark trunks.
Dry sleet blowing through the trees.
Grey fuzz of woody tops against the sky

A fire at home - but still some way to go.

A very happy Christmas to one and all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


About 2 years ago I recall listening to an editon of Radio4's The Moral Maze on torture and whether it can ever be justified.

For me The Moral Maze has always had a distinct air of nastiness, suggesting that maybe this is one of those areas where the  BBC attempts to refute any accusation of left-wing or liberal bias, and the programme on torture was no exception. All the  same, when listening to the discussion I remember being particularly chilled to hear several contributors argue that in particular, very special circumstances the use of torture is morally justifiable.

These very special circumstances are best illustrated (it was argued) by a hypothetical situation known as The Ticking  Bomb Scenario. It goes something like this:

There is a ticking bomb hidden somewhere in a crowded city. If it explodes it will kill hundreds, if not thousands, of  innocent men, women and children. The police have detained the person responsible for planting the bomb - the only person who knows where it is hidden. There follows the obligatory disclaimer about the reluctance of a civilised society to use distasteful methods etc etc. All the same, goes the argument, can anyone seriously argue that we should not use torture to extract the information, if by so doing we will save the lives of thousands?

But of course, life isn't like this. A more realistic version of the scenario is that the police detain a number of people, one of whom might know where the bomb is hidden. Despite these trivial modifications, the same line of reasoning must surely still apply; if there is even a small chance that amongst the detainees there is one who holds the key to saving the  lives of thousands of people, you can make a justifiable case for torturing all of them.

This leads us to a terrible place - a nightmare world in which we have forgotten all the things we once valued. You won't fool me into going there by careless talk of ticking bombs.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


I can't stop thinking about Cephalopods.

It's ever since watching a programme on Channel 4 - Inside Nature's Giants: the Giant Squid.  The whole series has been utterly fascinating - one of my very favourite things on TV.

Whoops ... I've just lost half my readers.

"We want more Wormwood", they cry.

To which I can only respond "Patience, patience - this is high-quality stuff you're getting here"

So Cephalopods - octopus, squid, and cuttlefish. They're remarkable creatures. If there was ever a candidate for an alien lifeform,  you couldn't do much better than choose a squid (or maybe a nautilus)

Setting aside the fact that they use water to give a degree of rigidity to their bodies and discretely passing over the details of their bizarre sex lives,  the thing I find utterly wonderful about cephalopods is their ability to manipulate their appearance using both the colour and the texture of their skin.

Watch this, for example:

The sheer versatilty with which a cephalopod can change it's appearance is a marvel in itself but what I find really intriguing is how they work out what pattern to display. Do they have a look around and have a think about it?

They do have very advanced eyes (or some of them do at least) but they also have light-sensitive cells on their skin which raises the intriguing possibility that these sensors might be wired-up more or less directly to the cells responsible for changing colour. After all, why burden the brain with the task of maintaining an internal model of the body when you have a real body that can do the job directly?

So it seems plausible that cuttlefish might have light-sensitive cells on the underside of their bodies that control the variable-colour cells on their uppersides - more or less directly. But I have no idea whether or not this is true. If you're a cephalopod specialist and you happen to be reading this, please feel free to put me right.

And then there's the other thing: when a squid or an octopus is not pretending to look like the sea-bed it can use its body to display vivid patterns conveying aggression or sexual attraction. So assuming the camouflage function is more or less involuntary it must be capable of being overridden by an impulse to display something quite different.

The natural assumption would be to imagine that these kinds of impulses originate in the brain; but the cephalopod brain - or at least the bundle of tissue that scientists label as such - is a fairly insignificant affair. Could it be that in cephalopods the distinction between brain and body is somewhat blurred and that the functions - both voluntary and involuntary - that we normally associate with the brain are distributed throughout their entire bodies?

Challenging questions indeed; questions from which most people might quite understandably flinch; but no more challenging - let me assure you - than those tackled every single day here at the Omnivorist Institute.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cat litter

It appears a number of people (well, about 3 to be honest) have been enjoying the pieces originally published in Horsley's Over the Wall magazine. So, at the risk of overdoing it, here's another Wormwood - an old one from November 2005

If there is a hell, I like to think there is a special section reserved for the people who run junk mail competitions – you know, the ones that say:

Congratulations, you have already been selected for our £20,000 prize.

An elderly aunt of mine fell victim to these people and used to send them nearly all her pension, often accompanied by touching little notes expressing her pleasure and excitement at the imminent windfall – which, of course, never materialised. Instead, each new day simply brought a further immense load of fancy envelopes, containing cleverly-crafted deceptions and empty promises.

I tried reasoning with my aunt; I tried to get her to see that she was being taken advantage of, but she had an instant retort - explaining how she was reliant on the high-volume of incoming mail for making cat-litter which she produced, one or two sacks-full daily, with a hand-cranked shredder. Indeed, by the time she died her cat-litter operation had attained near-industrial proportions. She would sit patiently at her table, turning the handle and feeding in all of the envelopes and the letters from the many competitions she didn’t follow - as she put it. What she really meant was that she had only enough blood in her veins for three or four competition organisers to feast on at a time and the others would just have to wait their turn.

When she died – my dear, infuriating, stubborn old aunt, who worked all her life in a washing machine factory, wrote poetry and painted watercolours - my one consolation was that, as a source of nourishment to her exploiters, she was entirely used up.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Public service

(First published in the May 2008 edition of Horsley's Over the Wall magazine)

As is usual on weekdays, it's down to Nailsworth bus station first thing, to help see-off the 8:47 to Gloucester.

Despite the fact that I have recently taken to using a pair of regulation fluorescent paddles (of the sort employed at airports), the bus drivers continue to show a lamentable ignorance of elementary marshalling signals. Some of them seem to get quite worked up about it. I really must raise the matter with the bus company. Clearly some specialised training is called for.

Then it was over to the supermarket to check on the shelf-stacking - but here again standards are disappointingly lax. If I've said it once I've said it a hundred times: when it comes to choosing a pot of yoghurt customers prefer the ones with a long sell-by date, so placing these at the back of the shelf is most unhelpful.

I was explaining this to one of the young employees and was in the middle of helping him rearrange the yoghurts into the right order when the manager appeared and got quite unnecessarily upset. I tried explaining to him that it is a wholly understandable mistake, can't have eyes in the back of his head and so on. All the same , this isn't the first time I've had to correct this particular slip-up and it must be embarassing for him to find himself repeatedly reminded of the fact.

Fortunately, at that moment, the situation was saved by the arrival of two police officers - which reminded me that it was some time since I'd had the opportunity to review their performance.

After addressing them briefly, over at the station, I invited them to make any observations of their own. They made a very nice little speech along the lines that while they appreciated my public spiritedness and the lengths I continue to go to ensure that the town runs smoothly, they INSIST that I reduce my informal duties and spare myself further efforts. I can't remember their precise words - but it was something along those lines. All the same, I made it clear that for as long as chaos and inefficiency continue to plague the town they would not find me letting up – at which point they insisted again that, on the contrary, I really MUST stop. Their concern that I shouldn't overtax myself was altogether quite touching I thought.

So generally, despite the usual trivial frustrations - a wholly worthwhile day, not to mention a ride home in a police car with my own driver – an honour that seemed wholly lost on Mrs Wormwood, who called me a silly old man. But then she's always the last one to appreciate my qualities.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Right to be Wrong

" gonna make a mistake, gonna do it on purpose."
Fiona Apple

I've been thinking of that unmade bed that Tracy Emin exhibited at the Tate in 1999 and how it's often held up as the supreme example of subversive art.

Now the literal meaning of subvert is somewhere between undermine and overthrow and when it comes to overthrowing accepted artistic conventions or people's sense of decency I'd be the first to admit - you could do a lot worse than the Bed.

However, if it's the very fabric of society that you've set your sights on overthrowing, you're going to need something a little stronger, something like the Mischievous Calculator – an electronic calculator that makes mistakes.

Maybe it has happened already. Can you be really sure that the humble calculator that lies on your desk is entirely faithful in its operation? Our trust in such technologies is so complete that, even when faced with a clearly incorrect answer, we would almost certainly put it down to an error on our own part. We might repeat the calculation and this time, of course, it would be correct. It is the subtlety of the imperfection that is essential to the project.

To imbue a simple electronic calculator with an element of mischief is far from straightforward. A calculator that was merely defective would betray itself through degenerate behaviour. It might give an identical answer to every sum or refuse to display an answer at all. My mischievous calculator, on the other hand, will be entirely unpredictable in its failings. It might be a paragon of arithmetical perfection for years on end, before one day perversely declaring that 3x7=23. And when challenged to repeat its mistake, it will blithely revert to its former dependability.

The mischievous calculator will be significantly more complex than its well-behaved counterpart. To decide precisely how and in what circumstances the rules of arithmetic are to be perverted is a challenging design problem that will call for imagination and a high degree of inventiveness.

Once designed however, my calculator will be put on the market at a competitive price and, via a multitude of small, south-east Asian workshops, will find it's way to the four corners of the world, where it will do what is expected of it: in banks, bars, and brothels – faithfully executing mundane sums. Most of the time, at least.

Slowly however doubts will begin to take hold. Rumours will begin to circulate of a fundamental unreliability in arithmetic. Newspapers will report a spate of violent disputes over restaurant bills. Cases will be brought to court whose outcome will hinge on expert testimony to the effect that such things are impossible. The rumours will gradually subside - until the day, that is, when one of the rogue devices is identified and isolated, having been caught in the act, as it were. Analysed and dissected by experts, it is revealed to be perversely and deliberately flawed and, while dispelling the mystery, this revelation will simultaneously provoke a resurgence of mistrust.

Henceforth, every simple calculation will be open to dispute. Old people who can recall how to do sums the old-fashioned way will be called as expert witnesses. Little children will be taught to chant their tables once again.

But this is just the start. Beyond the mischievous calculator other, more ambitious projects beckon: a temperamental mobile maybe - or a capricious computer. Both of these will entail technical challenges of an entirely new order of magnitude. Indeed, preliminary investigations indicate that nothing less than a form of artificial intelligence will be required – almost certainly of limited aptitude and with no more than simple cognitive powers, but nonetheless exhibiting an unmistakeable, if rudimentary, capacity for real naughtiness.

In his book, The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem tells the story of an inventor who constructs an intelligent machine which, when asked the ritual question: how much is two plus two, gives the defiant answer – seven. Repeated adjustments and tinkering with the mechanism does nothing to improve matters. Though the inventor is disappointed, his friend is not entirely unimpressed - declaring:

"…. there is no question but that we have here a stupid machine, and not merely stupid in the usual, normal way, oh no! This is, as far as I can determine – and you know I am something of an expert – this is the stupidest thinking machine in the entire world, and that’s nothing to sneeze at! To construct deliberately, such a machine would be far from easy; in fact I would say that no one could manage it. For the thing is not only stupid, but stubborn as a mule."

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Gate of the Wood

I've taken to walking in the woods recently. At the end of the path, where the trees are thickest and the leaf mould soft underfoot, is a place I've come to think of as the Gate of the Wood.

An ancient stone stile in a tumbledown wall, a wooden one beyond, and beyond that, a sunlit pasture - straight out of Claude Lorrain - with sheep and grass sloping down to a hidden stream.

Just back from the wall, two beech trees overlook the stile. They're like a man and a woman, like a pair of lovers, bound by an ancient spell.

He stands to the right of the path - firm, sombre and upright. Some of his lower boughs are no more than stumps. Wiry tendrils run in clusters up a straight broad trunk that rises to support a half-hidden crown.

She is altogether lighter and more lively - her slender body clad in spirals of smooth grey bark, undulating like the drapery in a renaissance drawing. Leaning to one side, arms lifted to a canopy of leaves, she is like a dancer caught between rootedness and flight.

This is as far as I walk. I stand and look at the way the light from the field touches the two trees, their bark, their curving roots and the path that threads its way between them. Then I turn back into the shadow of the wood and start the long walk home.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Star Chair

Some of you will have seen my Star Chair - made from corrugated cardboard. It was the very first (and probably the best) thing I ever did at architecture school.

All the same, as it has been around for the last 40 years, I am currently trying to push it out into the world to fend for itself.

An essential part of this initiative is the new Star Chair website:

Check it out.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On suffering fools (gladly or otherwise)

After encountering it for what I swear must be the third or fourth time in as many days I am beginning to develop a deep aversion for the phrase 'He was not one to suffer fools gladly' along with it's even more clich├ęd variant '... never one to suffer fools gladly.'

It's that 'gladly' that gets me; I'd be quite content with a straightforward refusal to suffer fools full-stop; I'd find that perfectly reasonable - even though personally speaking I have nothing against them (fools that is) but the 'gladly' suggests that the person in question is quite prepared to suffer fools 'through gritted teeth' or with 'smouldering resentment' or suchlike - just not with anything approaching normal human decency.

The consequence is that, while I appreciate that the phrase is customarily trotted out to enhance a person's reputation, for me it has entirely the opposite effect - suggesting, instead, a somewhat mean-minded and ultimately insecure character.

No, when it comes to choosing which categories of people we might be unwilling to suffer - gladly or in any other way - I'll opt for the self-satisfied, intolerant bigots every time.

Leave the fools alone - they're just fine.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sardine tins - a retraction

In response to my recent item on sardine tins a reader made the following observation:

While I enjoyed your piece, I have to take exception to the description of the 4-6-0 Stanier as 'humble'. After all this was the class which included 'Sherwood Forester', 'Royal Scot' and 'Old Contemptibles'. The Walschaerts piston valves alone mark them out as superior machines.

It is gratifying to know that there are those amongst my readers who consider accuracy in these matters to be of vital importance.

I stand corrected.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Everyday design No 2: The Dyson DC21 vacuum cleaner

When Dyson first launched it's range of bagless vacuum cleaners I was given one in part payment for some design work and I loved it right from the start. Well maybe love is a bit too strong a word but it worked well enough and was almost a pleasure to use. It had one or two nice little qualities like an ability to perch halfway up the stairs and a tolerance for being dragged around by its hose at all sorts of angles. Otherwise it was charmingly devoid of complications.

Then, after some 12 years of hard, unsparing use, the motor - quite reasonably, in my opinion - decided to pack it in and I got it into my head to take it to the dump rather than to the local Vac Doctor, who I have since discovered could have had a replacement motor installed in no time.

As it happened, I had been eyeing up the later Dyson models and seduced by their distinctive looks - which reminded me of Giger's design for Alien - I went out and bought a brand new DC21.

The first thing that should be said about this machine is that it bites. I have been bitten on at least three occasions and always in sensitive parts of the body such as between thumb and forefinger which suggests that the instruction manual should include a warning along the lines: 'On no account should this machine be used as a sex toy'. All the same, in view of the risk of putting ideas into people's heads, a general caution relating to bite avoidance is probably the most that can be expected.

Another peculiarity of the latest Dyson machines is that you're never quite sure just what is attached to what and exactly how. Parts that look like they should be fixed on firmly give the impression that they are about to drop off, whilst other components that you'd like to be able to get at easily, like the dust bucket, are fiendishly difficult to detach. You end up feeling that a diagram might be helpful, similar to the ones used to describe magic tricks with rope and featuring hands, arrow symbols and dotted lines accompanied by words such as 'grasping the handle lightly with the second and third fingers of the right hand, press the button with the thumb while maintaining a even pressure between the two components.'

The overall impression is that the kids in the Dyson design department were given some expensive solid-modelling software and invited to see what they could do with it. And as they were undoubtedly all fresh from modelling dragons and such like, they proved they could do quite a lot.

The new Dyson doesn't perch on the stairs any more either. No doubt, after a number of dreadful accidents and subsequent claims for compensation in which it was alleged the victim had been lulled into a false sense of security by the seemingly natural way in which the cleaner sat halfway up the stairs, it was decided that the new model should be designed to encourage a healthy sense of anxiety.

Of course what Dyson should do now is launch the DC21 Alien - similar to the others but with a matt-black finish and a special retracting alien mouthparts attachment for dealing with those extra tough cleaning challenges.

Now there's a machine you wouldn't want to mess around with.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everyday design - No 1: The sardine tin

I was leafing through the January 1924 edition of Popular Mechanics the other day when I came across the following fascinating piece:

Ahh ... many's the day I fished just such a tin out of my duffel bag while sitting at the end of a chilly railway platform in autumn waiting for the Euston to Manchester Picadilly to come through (even though, more often than not, it was pulled by nothing more exciting than a humble 4-6-0 Stanier.) And of course I am only too familiar with the dilemma depicted in the above article - though I have to admit, I rarely had an ice-pick to hand and, most times, had to content myself with leaving the tin half-open and teasing out the sardines with a lolly stick.

But despite the fact that this particular style of sardine tin has long since been superseded by the modern ring-pull, the underlying design problem remains unresolved. The ring-pull may make the task of opening the tin refreshingly easy but there is a terrible sting in the tail: as the lid comes free of the container, it springs back, flicking tomato and olive oil down the front of the cool shirt you've just changed into.

So the sardine tin remains a design problem whose solution momentarily eludes us. It's one of those situations that no-one can be sufficiently arsed to worry about too much.

And there's another, equally fascinating genre: where designers have been encouraged to allow their imaginations to run unchecked - frequently with bizarre and intriguing results.

Join me over the coming weeks (and months) while I visit further examples of both scenarios - starting with the Dyson DC21 vacuum cleaner.

But don't hold your breath.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The sleeper awakes

It's strange but it takes only the smallest thing to turn me from a prolific blogger to a rabbit (or deer) caught in the headlights. It's not that there is any shortage of things to write about - rather that there are too many; combined with the fact that there are plenty of other people with really interesting things to say.

All the same, with each passing day it becomes clear that the next blog I write is going to have to be pretty amazing and as the days stretch to weeks and months it gets even worse - till I'm completely paralysed. I believe people with Parkinson's disease suffer something similar? Stuck at the top of the stairs till some unconnected thought propels them down.

But, heaven be praised ... more on its way. Brace yourselves.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tales from the Long Tail No.1

A man after my own heart

I'm thinking of David Cheval - who proposes on PM (BBC Radio4 26/3/2010) that cigarette manufacturers should be required (by law) to wrap filters in fluorescent pink paper, in contrast to the faux cork-effect paper they currently favour; and all in the interests of shaming smokers into disposing of their dog-ends more responsibly.

On hearing his letter read out on the PM program, he dashes into his wife:

Darling, they read my letter! All those years of campaigning, the indifference, the derision. You know, at times, I've even begun to doubt myself. (starts to laugh uncontrollably).

But now, now! Oh I must make plans - I must think, think, think! (digs fingertips into temples).

First thing tomorrow, phone the Director General or - no, no - Eddie Mair, should let him share the credit - mustn't get carried away.

But it's so exciting; we're going to do this! First thing tomorrow we're going to email every MP ....

Mrs Cheval (staring blankly into her drink): And here was I thinking how he was getting better ....

Meanwhile, in the Radio4 studio:

Night Lucy.

Night Eddie.

Great one tonight, by the way, Lucy.

... what?

The nutcase with the fluorescent cigarette butts. Just perfect for the friday night journey home from the office. I don't know where you find them.

With thanks to David Cheval (whoever you are) and no offence intended - I think your idea is brilliant.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Since posting my piece on tunes that get stuck in your head I have been amazed to discover that it is a well-known phenomenon and, like all the best minor mental disorders, there's a German word to describe it: Ohrwurm (literally Earworm)

There's an entry in Wikipedia. People have even written academic papers and newspaper articles on the subject:

The last site describes 'cutting-edge earworm research' being carried out at the University of Cincinnati and even offers a virtual clinic outlining useful strategies for getting a song unstuck (from which I derived a grain of consolation in seeing my own remedy listed)

Which all goes to show that whatever you can possibly imagine it already exists somewhere on the internet.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cinema Paradiso

I went last night to my local cinema to see The Road - a good film, I thought, even though, as Flann O'Brien might have put it, there wasn't a laugh in it.

But anyway it isn't the film I wanted to write about.

The Electric Picture House is a small, 100-seat cinema in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire. It is run almost entirely by volunteers and shows mainstream films: Avatar the week before last and Alice in Wonderland this week - both in 3D.

Seats are wonderfully comfortable too - while the interior is decorated in a tasteful dark blue shade that seems perfect somehow for a cinema.

I found myself wondering why I would ever want to go anywhere else.


Facebook borrowed the word friend and constructed an on-line social network around it, but since Twitter it is clear that the real currency is attention - and has been all along.

As a concept, Facebook friendship mimics the qualities of the real, face-to-face variety - things like trust, loyalty and support. But when a person's on-line friends come to be numbered in the thousands, it is difficult to see how those qualities can retain any real meaning.

Attention, on the other hand, is a much more malleable commodity. And it can be traded too - as I have just discovered in a New York Times article on the latest trends in on-line advertising. I say 'just discovered' despite the fact that I thought I understood how this stuff worked: for example you ask Google Translate to tell you the Greek for 'Does your hotel have a swimming pool?' and along with the answer Google obligingly provides you with ads for holiday resorts on the Peloponnese - except for the fact that since I'm already at the stage of asking the hotel about its facilities, I might have been more interested in travel insurance.

So it's kind of obvious and a bit simplistic - or so I thought.

When we go online we are giving things our attention and it is our attention that advertisers compete for, because once they have got it, there is the chance they can turn it to their advantage - or even sell it on. All the same, it came as something of a shock to learn of the degree to which my individual attention is being traded. When I search for something on Google (and it's not just Google by the way) it only takes a second or two for the results to be displayed but that is plenty of time for advertisers - or more precisely, software acting on their behalf - to bid for the right to stick an ad under my nose. The whole auction is conducted in a fraction of a second, with advertisers bidding not simply in response to what what I am searching for at that instant but on the basis of a profile that has been built of me over time. So it might go something like:

Google:lot#123456789:idomnivorist:dob27091949:session4102s:profile follows .. what am I bid?

The fact that I very rarely click on adverts (a fact that must feature quite prominently in my profile) no doubt makes me a less attractive prospect and advertisers might well decide to let me go by unmolested. However, the sight of a different type of on-line shopper heaving into view - one for example with an established tendency to make expensive impulse purchases - must liven up the proceedings no end.

The New York Times article includes a vivid illustration of the way things are going. Picture yourself walking along a city street, late at night, past advertising hoardings that are changing just for you.

No thanks ...

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

BBC cuts

Watching Jeremy Paxman interview his boss Mark Thompson on BBC's Newsnight, I found myself imagining the conversation they might have had just before going on air.

Thompson: You know, if this is going to be convincing, you're going to have to work me over a little.

Paxman: Aw shucks boss - I can't do that!

Thompson: No - I'm tellin' yer - give it me straight in the kisser. And make like you mean it!

Paxman: Awww boss ....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More on homeopathy

This homeopathy business is more complicated than it first seems and I confess I'm in two minds about it.

Firstly there's today's news that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is recommending the NHS should stop funding homeopathy on the grounds that there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies are more effective than a simple placebo.

But then I read that Franklin Miller of the US National Institutes of Health (in response to growing evidence of the power of the placebo effect) suggests that doctors and researchers should think in terms of contextual healing - that is healing produced, activated or enhanced by the context of the clinical encounter. Or as he puts it:

"Finding ethically appropriate ways to tap the use of placebo in clinical practice is where the field needs to be moving."

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that if you had to invent a practice designed to deliver the placebo effect you might well come up with homeopathy - or something very similar. Homeopaths believe in what they are doing, the remedies are harmless (as demonstrated by the recent mass-overdose demonstration) and there is good anecdotal evidence that people experience a benefit.

The problem however is that the scientific establishment just can't bring itself to countenance an explanatory framework that is so at odds with established standards. To give credence to such alchemical principles as the Law of Similars or the Law of Infinitesimals would be to open the door to all sorts of mumbo-jumbo: dowsing, crystals, pendulums and so on.

Every discipline needs a framework of some sort within which to operate. There are some who, by denying homeopathy any scientific credibility, hope to drive it to extinction. My own inclination is to regard homeopathy as an art and its laws as essentially poetic.

Is poetry (in this broader sense) something that nurtures and enriches our lives or is it merely recreational? Maybe it is time for a little humility and open-mindedness on both sides.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Homeopathy and the placebo effect

I've been thinking about homeopathy. This was prompted by a piece by Michael Brooks in the Aug 20, 2008 issue of New Scientist attesting to the efficacy of the placebo effect.

Then just recently I came across a second article by the same author in the Guardian Science Blog that discusses the placebo effect in the context of homeopathy.

For a simple sugar tablet to make you better, it helps if you believe it to be a real, potent medicine. Furthermore, it seems the effectiveness of any remedy is increased if patients are given time, listened to at length and fully consulted about their symptoms, feelings and treatments.

In a typical homeopathic consultation the practitioner will start by taking a detailed personal history covering physical, mental and emotional states. After identifying a remedy appropriate both to the patient and to his or her specific condition the remedy is potentised somewhat ritualistically by means of a series of dilutions and shakings (succussions).

All of which suggests to me that if the placebo effect is real and effective then homeopathy is perfectly configured to exploit it.

So instead of getting worked up about the fact that homeopathic remedies are so dilute as to contain no trace of their active agent, we should be giving serious thought to experiments designed to provide insights into the therapeutic process.

Here's the sort of experiment I'd like to see done:

Firstly, you recruit a statistically significant number of subjects all suffering from a condition considered (by homeopathic practitioners) to be treatable.

Half the subjects are told they will not participate further in the trial and that they will constitute a control group (group A). The other half are given individual treatment by a group of homeopathic practitioners, starting with a detailed case history and culminating in the identification and preparation of a remedy. The practitioners are told that the remedies will be delivered to all subjects once they have been correctly recorded and labelled and they have no further contact with their patients (at least until the study is concluded).

Of the subjects for whom remedies have been prepared, half are told (by the researchers) that the remedy will not be supplied to them (call this group B). The remaining subjects are all supplied with a course of pills but in half the cases (call it group C) the remedy prepared is replaced by a simple sugar pill. The only people to take the remedy identified and prescribed by the homeopath are those in group D (just 1 in 8 of the full set of participants).

At a series of regular intervals, all subjects are examined with respect to changes in their condition. It helps of course if the condition is such that it manifests itself in a measurable way (at least partially)

It is worth noting that groups C and D (considered in isolation) are engaged in a typical double-blind trial. And since such trials have so far failed to demonstrate the efficacy of homeopathy we might expect the same to be the case here. Or to put it another way: of the people who believe themselves to have undergone a full course of homeopathic treatment there might well be no evidence to suggest that the homeopathic remedy is any more or less effective than a simple placebo.

A similar uniformity of outcome might be anticipated amongst the people in groups A and B. None of these people were supplied with any pills and all believe themselves to be part of a control group.

The really interesting question is whether there would be any observable difference between the people who didn't receive a remedy (groups A and B) and those who did (groups C and D). If the second group were to demonstrate a significantly better outcome than the first then we would be onto something. Nevertheless, while homeopathy might take credit for the method of delivery, it would be the placebo effect that could justifiably lay claim to the attribution.

So while I am personally somewhat sceptical about homeopathy, I find myself having to allow for the possibility that, for many people at least, recovery from certain forms of physical and mental illness can entail a degree of willing self-deception.

I don't believe in offering homeopathic treatment on the NHS. Instead I believe we should be working towards a state of affairs where all doctors are trained to recognise the degree to which listening, attentiveness and respect can have a measurable effect on clinical outcomes. Who knows; homeopaths might have something to teach them in this area.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Omnivorist is now tweeting

And if you are on twitter too there is a tweet this button at the end of every post. If you're not, then please don't lose any sleep about it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


As if it isn't enough to suffer the distressing effects of horological monodigitism, I find myself plagued by a new problem - a mild form of obsessive compulsive disorder with musical manifestations (OCDM2)

I can think of no better explanation than to describe a typical episode.

I'll be enjoying the recollection of one of my favourite pieces of music - let's say Liszt's Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody - when I suddenly become aware that I have been whistling the same 4 or 5 bars under my breath for most of the morning. By the next day it has taken a firm hold and I find myself replaying the same loop in my imagination, more or less unconsciously. It's easy to put the tune aside once I become aware that I am playing it, but it has a sneaky tendency to start up again as soon as my back is turned. It's not unusual for a single tune to get lodged for 4 or 5 days, with occasional episodes lasting anything up to a month.

'Aha', I hear you clamouring to suggest: 'Why don't you just think of a different piece of music ?'.

If only it were that simple.

Certainly using one tune to drive out another is a sensible strategy. But consider this. There are only certain tunes capable of displacing one that has outstayed its welcome. The tunes you'd like to recall - the one's you're particularly fond of - they always turn out to be useless.

Just before Christmas, for example, I had a particularly persistent fixation with Happiness (by Goldfrapp). Now, on the whole, I consider this to be an intelligent and appealing piece of music but after two weeks of uninterrupted mental playback I was beginning to find it tiresome.

I tried a couple of alternatives. The Byrds: Eight Miles High - that classic from the very zenith of Californian hippy culture - never really got much of a hold. Much more promising was Friday Night and Saturday Morning (the Nouvelle Vague version featuring Daniella D'Ambrosio). I've worked with it in the past and know from experience that, while very effective as a musical purgative, it can be a devil to get rid of once it's got it's feet under the table. But - mercifully perhaps - it didn't take on this occasion.

So I was stuck with the Goldfrapp for a few days more before I did what I knew I'd be forced to do all along.

You see there's a fiendishly subtle twist to this particular neurosis that makes one suspect it to be the work of some malevolent intelligence. It's this. While there is no particular difficulty in identifying a tune to do the business - it will invariably be one that is both more banal and persistent than the tune it displaces.

So, out of desperation, I forced out the Goldfrapp with Jesus Wants me for Sunbeam which I endured for an afternoon before resorting to Puff the Magic Dragon. Beyond this point the choice suddenly becomes quite limited as there are only a handful of tunes that are sufficiently fatuous to deal with Puff the Magic Dragon. Of course, there's always The Chicken Song - but that could be regarded as overkill. No, there's really only one candidate as far as I'm concerned and that's Lily the Pink (by The Scaffold).

Some might regard the fact that this song topped the UK singles chart for 4 whole weeks in 1968 as no more than a minor cultural footnote. For my part, I consider it as clear evidence of a significant public health risk.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Crocodile tears

Having picked up from somewhere that Alastair Campbell had come 'close to tears', on the Andrew Marr show, over the matter of the sexed-up Iraq dossier, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC website only to find that the tears were of the crocodillic variety and in any case didn't amount to very much. All the same, he did seem a bit upset and it seems that it's all to do with the way everyone seems to want to go on and on about the lead-up to the war.

What he doesn't seem to realise is that, while he may be tired of the whole matter of Iraq, the rest of us are just warming to the task of understanding exactly how things turned out as they did.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Computer Chess

I have just read a wonderful article by Gary Kasparov called The Chess Master and the Computer. In it he describes how the earliest efforts to construct chess-playing machines were motivated in part from a desire to understand human learning processes, but how this ambitious goal quickly gave way to what's known as the brute force approach in which millions of possible board positions are systematically evaluated for the best possible move. The result is that there are now chess programs capable of playing at grandmaster level on a powerful PC and the question of the superiority of the human player or computer has been resolved in favour of the latter.

But Kasparov does not leave the matter there and this is where the article is so interesting. Though he was defeated in a chess match by IBM's Deep Blue in 1997, there is no resentment in his critique. While bemoaning the contemporary pragmatist approach in which 'the dreams of creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned', Kasparov remains true to the conviction that research into game playing machines is as much about understanding human thought processes as it is about demonstrating the calculating power of computers. And he describes a new form of chess competition - advanced chess or freestyle chess - played between teams of human players using computers. Some of the insights gained from such competitions, in which the only constraint is the time available to each team, are fascinating - but for that you should read the article for yourself.

Reading the Kasparov article brought to mind a computer chess project of my own - mobility chess.

The way chess programs work involves the computer identifying all the possible moves available to it and, for each of those moves, all the possible responses available to the other player and so on, with the resulting board positions proliferating like the leaves on a tree. The number of moves that the computer can look ahead depends on the computer power available. In practice, the search is refined by considering only sensible moves on each side. Each of the board positions examined is given a score according to an evaluation function that assesses the value of the pieces and their positions. The computer selects the move that will lead to the board position with the highest score despite all the best efforts of its opponent.

The unique feature of mobility chess is the extreme simplicity of its evaluation function. While most evaluation functions attempt to assess the inherent strength and security of individual pieces or patterns of pieces, in mobility chess the only thing that counts is how many distinct moves there are available to choose from. For a given board position, the program simply counts the number of alternative moves available to the player whose turn it is and subtracts the moves available to the other player.

I wrote the program and played it a few times. It played an interesting game considering its sole goal was to keep as many options open as possible. It's principal weakness was an annoying tendency to develop its rooks too early but then that's something I recall doing myself when I first played chess as a child. Since the evaluation function in mobility chess is so simple the program has time to examine more positions - that is, to look further ahead. Perhaps looking a little further ahead would be sufficient to demonstrate the folly of early rook development - who knows? It would be an interesting exercise to develop a common framework within which different evaluation functions could be played off against one another. Would the winner be the function that took a very sophisticated (if computationally costly) view of a position or one - as in mobility chess - that is almost trivially simple?

There's no doubt which outcome I would favour; I'm drawn to that science (or is it art?) that concerns itself with ways in which complex behaviour emerges from very simple rules. But, of course, complexity is not guaranteed. Mobility chess might equally well turn out to be extremely boring. I haven't played it enough to guess at how things might turn out.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Iraq war enquiry

Interesting to compare and contrast a dedicated public servant like Elisabeth Wilmshurst with that slippery customer - Jack Straw.

As far as Jack Straw is concerned, I confess I couldn't be bothered listening to his evidence. There's something about his way of pleading to be understood that I find intensely irritating. For the life of me I can't understand why he's still around.