Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Food physics

Whilst the physics of the atom, and the chemistry of food, have been rigorously explored over the past century, very little attention has been paid to the physics of food. I therefore took the opportunity recently to conduct my own cutting-edge experiments into the structure of food.

The first step was to modify an abandoned particle-accelerator I found at work, converting it into a circular food-antifood annihilator. After some trial and error, I found that the best technique was to create counter-rotating streams of pasta and antipasta. Collimating the bruschetta beam was particularly difficult.

At the point where the pasta and antipasta meet, they mutually annihilate, and transform into pure gastronomic energy ('gastrenergy'). The pure gastrenergy is then capable of transforming into other combinations of food: a bunch of bananas and a plate of sauasage and mash, for example. After performing numerous runs, I think I've been able to infer a number of conservation laws. For example, the third power of the sum of the amount of fat and sugar is always conserved in these reactions. I hope to publish my results soon.

Monday, January 28, 2008


JG Ballard reports that his notorious novel Crash, was inspired by a belief in the existence of a "strong connection between sexuality and the car crash, a fusion largely driven by the cult of celebrity." Perhaps this extract does Ballard a disservice, but there is nothing here to support such a belief. The two primary human instincts are the survival instinct and the reproductive instinct, and these instincts explain why so much of our culture revolves around violence and sex, respectively. But it seems reasonable to think that car crashes are associated with violence and death, rather than sex. I'm not really sure what Ballard's argument or evidence is to support his assertion, but it seems to be that there was a bit of a fuss when he organised an exhibition of crashed automobiles, and hired a topless model to be in close attendance. Curious, but hardly convincing...

Saturday, January 26, 2008


The best Quality Streets are undoubtedly the purple ones. Shaped rather like drumlins, those obscure geomorphological landforms of dubious existential status, biting into one accesses a region of the multi-dimensional gustatory-experience space spanned by the chocolate, caramel and walnut taste vectors. If Quality Streets were musical instruments, then the purple ones would be the French Horn: rarely lauded, but quite exquisite.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Formula One's Nuclear future

Formula One stands poised on the brink of a new, environmentally-friendly era of hybrid engines and kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS). There is, however, little reason to believe that fuel cells will be able to match the power of the internal combustion engine in the near future. It seems inevitable, then, that Formula 1 cars will become nuclear powered.

Each car will be powered by a small fission reactor, rather like those in nuclear submarines, but lighter and smaller. Whilst some might argue that a nuclear pile in the rear of a 200mph projectile is a recipe for disaster, nothing could be further from the truth. The neutrons emitted by the fission reaction can be absorbed by a material such as boron, and the gamma rays can be absorbed by a shield made from a high atomic number metal, such as tantalum. The only remaining hazard then arises from the fission products in the reactor, and the danger of releasing these products into the environment in the event of a crash. To mitigate against this, nuclear fuel-cycle pit-stops will become necessary: mechanics donned in full protective clothing will remove the fuel cells from the car, insert a new batch, and send the car on its way. The pits and paddock will, of course, need to be decontaminated and decommissioned after every Grand Prix, but this is a small price to pay to infinitesimally reduce global CO2 emissions.

Formula One's Nuclear Future

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kevin Keegan

Newly re-appointed Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan has, at various times, been accused of being:

1) A dreamer.
2) A quitter.
3) Tactically inept.
4) Honest to a fault.

For all these reasons, I like and empathise with Keegan. I too would buy lots of strikers, play all-out attack, and then quit when the going got tough. I too would admit my faults, even though those same faults are shared, but denied, by most other managers. And I too am in love with my dreams, but not with making those dreams become reality.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The probability of God

The Notices of the American Mathematical Society features a twin book review this month: Stephen Unwin's notorious 2004 work, The Probability of God: A simple calculation that proves the ultimate truth, and Steven Brams's more recent work, Superior Beings: If they exist, how would we know?

Unwin's book uses Bayes's theorem to calculate a 67% probability for the existence of God! One popular form of Bayes's theorem is the following:

P(H|E) = P(E|H)P(H)/(P(E|H)P(H) + P(E|~H)P(~H))

H denotes a hypothesis, ~H denotes the negation of the hypothesis, E denotes a piece of evidence, P(H) denotes the prior probability of the hypothesis, P(~H) denotes the prior probability of the falsity of the hypothesis, P(E|H) denotes the conditional probability of the piece of evidence E given the truth of the hypothesis H, P(E|~H) denotes the conditional probability of the piece of evidence given the falsity of the hypothesis, and P(H|E) denotes the conditional probability of the hypothesis given the piece of evidence E.

The numerator on the right-hand side here gives the probability that the piece of evidence could be explained by the hypothesis H, while the denominator gives the probability that the piece of evidence could be explained by anything, (in fact, the denominator is the same as P(E), the unconditional probability of E). The ratio of these two values gives the posterior probability of H, given the piece of evidence E.

The basic idea is that the prior probability of the hypothesis P(H) is updated to P(H|E) in light of new evidence E. The process is iterated for each new piece of evidence. In the case of interest here, H is the hypothesis that God exists. Unwin begins by assigning a 50% prior probability P(H) that God exists, and a 50% prior probability P(~H) that the hypothesis is false. It seems, then, that any questions over whether the hypothesis is even meaningful, are not to be considered.

Unwin then considers six pieces of evidence, and plucks, out of thin air, conditional probabilities P(E|H)/P(E) for such evidence given the existence of God, relative to the unconditional probability P(E) of each piece of evidence. Unwin specifies that for E = the existence of goodness, P(E|H)/P(E) = 10; for E = existence of moral evil, P(E|H)/P(E) = 0.5; for E = existence of natural evil, P(E|H)/P(E) = 0.1; for E = intranatural miracles (prayers), P(E|H)/P(E) = 2; for E = extranatural miracles (resurrection), P(E|H)/P(E)= 1; and for E = religious experiences P(E|H)/P(E) = 2. Given that the denominator from the expression of Bayes's theorem above is the same as P(E), Bayes's theorem simplifies to:

P(H|E) = P(H) × P(E|H)/P(E)

By iterating this calculation six times, for each piece of evidence, Unwin updates the probability for the existence of God to 67%. Michael Shermer assigns alternative values to the conditional probabilities, and uses Bayes's theorem to calculate that the probability of God is 2%.

As Shermer comments, "all such scientistic theologies are compelling only to those who already believe. Religious faith depends on a host of social, psychological and emotional factors that have little or nothing to do with probabilities, evidence and logic. This is faith's inescapable weakness. It is also, undeniably, its greatest power."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Abolish traffic lights II

A year or so ago, I featured Martin Cassini's stimulating argument for the abolition of traffic lights. Echoing Cassini, I suggested that traffic lights reduce the capacity of the road network, lengthen journey times, increase pollution, and cause accidents. This week, BBC's Newsnight programme, perhaps more interested in the environmental facets to Cassini's argument than the libertarian aspects, gave Cassini the opportunity to put his case in a fascinating film, which you can see here.

As before, I remain unconvinced that the universal abolition of traffic lights would be a good thing, but I accept the thrust of Cassini's argument, that the imposition of traffic lights should only be acceptable in special cases, if the peculiarities of particular junctions require it. In no way should traffic lights continue to be regarded as a standard solution.

Abolish Annual Reviews

It's that time of the year again for many people: the annual review. The corporate motivation behind this often frustrating and time-consuming process, is presumably to reduce the level of subjectivity in the evaluation of employee performance. Whereas in the past, your manager may have used his or her own criteria to determine salary increases, the annual review now ensures that there is a system, with objective rules, substituted in place of such independent judgement.

Unfortunately, such systems tend to have a number of detrimental effects. Firstly, it is common for such systems to place the onus on the employee to demonstrate the degree to which they have satisfied certain performance criteria. The effect of this is to favour those prone to self-promotion, and to discriminate against those of a more humble nature. Secondly, annual reviews often revolve around a list of specified objectives, which were determined at the beginning of the annual review year. The consequence of this is that, during the year, employees tend to focus only on their specified objectives, and often prove reluctant to provide assistance to their peers on matters not covered by those objectives. Thirdly, because the onus is on the employee to demonstrate competence and performance, those managers of a more lazy disposition will often take a less active interest in judging an employee's performance and ability during the course of the year.

Does this represent a net gain over the pre-annual review world? I'm not sure that it does.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Table for two?

Richard Williams reveals that the two most interesting people of 2007, Max Mosley and Ron Dennis, recently had dinner together at the Poissonnerie de l'Avenue, a seafood restaurant "a stone's throw from the president of the FIA's Knightsbridge pad."

Presumably Ron had the turbot.

"I had him to a little dinner at that table," Mosley volunteered...pointing across the restaurant, "and I said, 'Ron, you've won the world championship, you're very rich, you've got a lovely wife and family, you've got everything that anybody could want - and yet you can't relax and enjoy it. Just chill out.' But he can't. And probably that's one of the reasons why he's successful."

Of course, in suggesting that Ron should 'relax and enjoy it', Max wanted to suggest that Ron should retire from the helm of McLaren. Perhaps, then, the conversation proceded as follows, with Dennis answering:

"I will, when the time is appropriate, when doing so would be in the interests of McLaren, and not necessarily in my own interests or the interests of those who seek to damage McLaren, implement a successful and transparent transfer of responsibility within the McLaren organisation."

The right-corner of Ron's mouth curled upwards as he paused, glancing briefly out the window, before turning to fix his gaze on Mosley once more. "I trust, Max, that as the President of the international automobile federation, you will also appreciate the importance of long-term planning, and you will also be in the advanced stages of preparing your own succession plan. I trust that, just as Martin Whitmarsh is already my anointed successor within the McLaren organisation, you are also able to inform me of the name of your anointed successor?"

"Oh come on, Ron!" Max poured himself some more wine, and tipped the bottle towards the glass of his dining partner. Ron flicked out his fingers to refuse the offer, but kept his eyes fixed on Mosley. "One of the advantages of the FIA," continued Mosley, "is that it's a democratic institution, unlike an ephemeral trading company such as McLaren. I simply couldn't name my successor, even if I wanted to. And besides, I'm enjoying this. Why would I want to retire now, in my prime?"

Ron mulled this over in silence for a moment, delicately rotating the wine glass between his thumb and fingers. "As democratic institutions go, I would say that the FIA often seems to act in a manner which cannot easily be perceived to be consistent with the exercise of democratic principle. Given the number of global international business stakeholders in Formula 1, Max, and the amount of money they have invested in the sport, it would, I think, be to the benefit of all those stakeholders if they could perceive that there is a plan in place which offers the prospect of a new transparency and impartiality to the mechanics by which the FIA governs the sport."

"Dear old Ron, I would say that from the evidence of this last year, the lack of transparency within McLaren needs addressing with somewhat greater priority."

And so, perhaps, it went.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Why are men on top?

Helena Cronin makes an interesting point about the statistics of male and female ability. Whilst mean ability is approximately the same amongst men and women, the variance in male ability is considerably greater than the variance in female ability. As a consequence of this, the highest achievers tend to be male, and the lowest achievers tend to be male also.

Cronin points out that "discussions standardly zoom in on the means and blithely ignore the tails. So sex differences are judged to be small. And thus it seems that there's a gaping discrepancy: if women are as good on average as men, why are men overwhelmingly at the top? The answer must be systematic unfairness — bias and barriers. Therefore, so the argument runs, it is to bias and barriers that policy should be directed. And so the results of straightforward facts of statistical distribution get treated as political problems — as 'evidence' of bias and barriers that keep women back and sweep men to the top. (Though how this explains the men at the bottom is an unacknowledged mystery.)"