Say Bollocks to Cancer and Bollocks to Brexit

Join me, my family and friends and say Bollocks to Cancer.

Also please use your vote tomorrow to say Bollocks to Brexit.

Vote Liberal Democrat to say Bollocks to Brexit

The two requests are connected. The development of novel cancer therapies relies on close European and international co-operation. The vacuum left by a mad no-deal Brexit that Farage, half the Tory cabinet and their elitist chums want will kill the sick.

So vote for a genuinely pro-remain party. I recommend supporting the Liberal Democrats as they have the best chance of frustrating the Brexiters, but whatever. Just vote. Defeat the unpatriotic nationalist elites. And tell your family, friends and neighbours to do the same.

This is no time for our great country to become the twenty-first century equivalent of the GDR, isolated and poorer in an increasingly dangerous world.

A pants way of raising ovarian cancer awareness

Today is world ovarian cancer awareness day. This cancer is the 6th most common to affect women – currently around 33,000 in the UK have it.

7,400 more women are diagnosed with this cancer each year. My wife’s diagnosis was in April.

It can strike at any age, but more than 80% of patients are 50 or older. The next highest risk factor after age is a family history of the cancer.

The four most common symptoms are bloating, loss of appetite, stomach pains and an increased need to urinate. These symptoms are often mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome, but a blood test for high levels of a protein known as CA125 can indicate cancer. Ask your GP to perform this test if you’re worried, as early diagnosis helps.

More information and help is available from Target Ovarian Cancer and Ovarian Cancer Action.

Our Australian neighbours seem to have a pants way of raising awareness though …

Cancer: “Enough Of This, Thank You”

While I remain in remission from MCL, my lovely wife Jane now has her own battles to face. I’m still too numb to process her news properly. It’s a good job that others in the family are stronger than me. So Emily will be running the Cancer Research UK Race for Life – again – later this year. You can read why here.

Race for Life

Any pennies that you can send her way will be gratefully accepted and well-used in funding further vital research.

“Enough Of This, Thank You”.

Transplant +198: Maintenance Rituximab on not Brexit day

So today, at the fourth time of asking, success! And no, I don’t mean Theresa May getting her dreadful EU withdrawal bill through parliament, which lost for a third time, by 58.

On not Brexit day, my neutrophils were above the 1.5 mark (at 1.66) needed for the hospital to give me my first maintenance rituximab. It was a remarkably straightforward process – a subcutaneous injection, taking 10 minutes to administer. The nurse asked me to keep talking to her through the process. I happily spouted nonsense about Brexit unicorns, Gnu, electric cars and the A380 (the aeroplane, not the road).

Brexit unicorns. Every bit as likely as an electric Caterham 7. But less real.
Brexit unicorns. Every bit as likely as an electric Caterham 7. But less real.

Other than feeling a little bit woozy (probably from the chlorphenamine pre-med – a pill normally used to reduce hay fever symptoms) I’m fine. I’ve been told to watch out for fatigue over the next few days. There’s also a risk that my neutrophil count could drop very low again, so any signs of a problem and I’ll be straight over to the hospital.

I think this will probably be the last blog entry I’ll be making about the stem cell transplant and its aftermath. Naturally, I shall celebrate my re-birthday every 12th September and there will be cake. No unicorns, by request. But I feel that today symbolically marks the end of this phase of my life. I’m not sorry to leave the SCT behind me, but there may be plenty of challenges ahead.

Transplant +189: The International Day of Happiness

I’m fairly sure that every day is an international day of something or other. I suspect that there are so many, there are diary clashes as well. Anyway, today is the international day of happiness, and coincidently, I’m happy.

Today was hospital day. After the scare of a few weeks ago, my neutrophil count has now climbed back up to 1.9. That’s just a smidge below the lower bound for normal people. I’m also just in the normal range for haemoglobin and platelets. This should mean that it will be fourth time lucky when I return for my maintenance Rituximab next Friday. So to celebrate it was coffee and cake at the Bottle Kiln, followed by a short run in Gnu to Carsington Water and Middleton Top.

Me, in Gnu, with Gnu's gnu, at Middleton Top Winding House
Me, in Gnu, with Gnu’s gnu, at Middleton Top Winding House.

I’m writing this at 4.30pm. Not even the worst UK Prime Minister of my lifetime ever could spoil my happiness for the rest of the day.

Surely?

Oh.

Smart metering – 1973 style

46 years on since this quirky piece from Tomorrow’s World,12 million or so first generation smart meters are installed. Second generation meters are supposed to be ubiquitous by the end of 2020. But by January of this year, just 250,000 had been installed. The £11bn project is running years late and at least £500m over budget. It seems unlikely this target will be met. The “and then a miracle happens” graphs in this House of Commons Library article bears this pessimistic view out.

The forty pence per year to read each meter in 1973 is around £4.80 in today’s money. Assuming that there are 48 million domestic meters, the programme will cost at least £240 per meter. Break-even in 50 years – if meters were still read 1973-style and they were capable of lasting anything like that long. But at least you won’t find Michael Rodd rummaging through your cupboards.

Note: For the computer history geeks, the ‘small computer’ shown in the clip is a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8.

When Brexit nonsense hits manufacturing reality

A Brexit manufacturing timeline.

May 2016

Professor Patrick Minford, of Economists for Brexit, says of manufacturing:

Over time, if we left the EU, it seems likely that we would mostly eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech. But this shouldn’t scare us.

Transitional arrangements should be made, lasting around 10 years, to help industries such as car manufacturing adjust.

June 2016

Mid-Derbyshire MP Pauline Latham, writing in the Derby Telegraph, explains why she wants to leave the EU:

At the weekend I made up my mind that Britain will be better off leaving the European Union. It is a decision that I have not arrived at easily, having been genuinely undecided since the referendum was announced.

Our manufacturing sector ranks number eight worldwide. The language we speak, English, is the international business language. Our judicial system is consistently rated as one of the least corrupt anywhere and our contract law is regarded across the world as the best for business. We have a long history of innovation, especially here in Derbyshire from even before the industrial revolution.

… Britain has a proud history and we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy the chances and opportunities we have had. I think this is possible outside of the EU and we should be confident that Britain can once again can stand by itself.

(This article has been removed since it was published, but fortunately I kept a copy).

March 2019

Johan van Zyl, head of Toyota’s European operations, speaking at the Geneva Motor Show to the BBC:

Mr van Zyl said it was vital that there was frictionless trade with the European Union.

He said Toyota would overcome any short-term problems at its Burnaston car plant near Derby, such as logistics, caused by leaving without a deal. But preparation for no-deal has been costly, he said, and in the long-term things could be “very difficult”.

Could work at Burnaston dry up after the current production cycle comes to an end? “The long-term effect could be that if it [Brexit] is very negative, that outcome is possible.”

Constantly improving competitiveness is vital, he said, adding: “But if the hurdles are becoming so high that you cannot achieve it then of course you can’t avoid it [hitting investment].”

Many people probably remember Minford’s comment about exiting the EU “mostly eliminating manufacturing”. It’s easier to forget that he was also arguing for a 10 year transition period prior to the referendum. One presumes he must be horrified by the negative consequences of a no-deal Brexit with no transition period. If so, he seems to be keeping very quiet about it.

As for my MP, Pauline Latham, she clearly forgot about a key reason why UK manufacturing was performing so well in 2016. The frictionless trade provided by the EU single market and customs union and required by Toyota to make sense of their investment here. Had that fact not slipped her mind, I’m sure she wouldn’t have advised her constituents to vote to leave. Surely? It wouldn’t have been rational, given the difficulty she found in making her decision.

We may be at the eleventh hour and 58th minute before Brexit, but if Latham is a genuine champion of manufacturing in Derby, she needs to take Minford’s advice. Rather than the no-deal desired by her ERG colleagues, she must vote for an extension to Article 50. That way, her government may stand an outside chance of obtaining Minford’s 10 year transition period.

Alternatively, she could recognise that she was poorly advised in June 2016 by the Brexiter elite. It would be the mark of a principled politician to acknowledge that, after all, EU membership provides the best chance of giving our children and grandchildren the opportunities we’ve enjoyed since 1973. Voting to revoke Article 50 would be a start to repairing the damage of the last two years.

The chickens are coming home to roost. Waiting for a disastrous Brexit.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Waiting for a disastrous Brexit.

The brain is (mostly) not a computer

I recently had my attention drawn to this essay from May 2016 – The Empty Brain – written by psychologist Robert Epstein (thanks Andrew). In it, Epstein argues that the dominant information processing (IP) model of the brain is wrong. He states that human brains do not use symbolic representations of the world and do not process information like a computer. Instead, the IP model is one chained to our current level of technological sophistication. It is just a metaphor, with no biological validity.

Epstein points out that no-one now believes that the human brain works like a hydraulic system. However, this was the dominant model of intelligence from 300 BCE to the 1300s. It was based on the technology of the times. Similarly, no-one now argues that the brain works like a telegraph. This model was popularised by physicist Hermann von Helmholtz in the mid 1800s. The IP model of the brain can be traced back to the mid 20th century. Epstein cites John von Neumann (mathematician) and George Miller (psychologist) as being particularly influential in its development. His conclusion is that it is as misguided as the hydraulic and telegraphy models of earlier times.

If Epstein is correct, his argument has significant implications for the world of artificial intelligence. If humans are not information processors, with algorithms, data, models, memories and so on, then how could computing technology be programmed to become artificially intelligent? Is it even possible with current computing architectures? (*) There has been no successful ‘human brain project’ so far using such a model. I’m convinced (as both a computer scientist and psychologist) that there never will be.

However, I disagree with what I interpret as Epstein’s (applied) behaviourist view of human intelligence. The argument that we act solely on combinations of stimuli reinforced by the rewards or punishment that follow has been thoroughly debunked (+). There is a difference between explaining something and explaining away something. The behaviourist obsession with explaining away rather than attempting explanations of mental events is a serious blind spot to progress. As serious as the obsession with the IP model, to the exclusion of other possibilities, exhibited by many cognitive scientists.

Living together in perfect harmony on my bookshelf - some of the many psychological traditions.
Living together in perfect harmony on my bookshelf – some of the many psychological traditions.

Just because we can’t currently say how the brain changes in response to learning something, or how we later re-use this knowledge, doesn’t mean that the task will always be impossible. It certainly doesn’t mean that our brains don’t have biological analogues of memories or rules. Declarative and procedural knowledge exists, even if there isn’t a specific collection of neurons assigned to each fact or process we know.

Furthermore, the limits of our current understanding of brain architecture doesn’t invalidate the IP paradigm per-se – at least for partly explaining human intelligence. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all, blood circulates around the body – and brain – using hydraulics. This earlier model of how the brain functions therefore isn’t completely invalid – at least, at a low-level. It may therefore turn out that the IP model of intelligence is at least partly correct too.

Epstein finishes his essay by saying asserting “We are organisms, not computers. Get over it.” He’s right – up to a point. But the explanations (or explaining away) he offers are partial at best. Psychologists from all traditions have something to add to the debate about human intelligence. Discarding one approach solely on the grounds that it can’t explain everything that makes up human intelligence is just silly. And that’s something which Epstein definitely needs to get over.

 

(*) I asked the same question at the end of Brainchildren – Exploding robots and AI. I’m still not ready to answer it!

(+) For example, see Dennett’s essay Skinner Skinned in Brainstorms.