Friday, November 30, 2007


So the teacher did not get lashed, but instead was sentenced to what today's headlines describe as "15 days in hell", though others claim that was not enough When she gets out and gets home, what will she say? Three possibilities:

1. I have realised the true error of my ways and converted. I now accept that xxxxx (whoever) is the one true messenger of god. All other supposed messengers were deluded.

2. I apologise sincerely. I did not mean to cause offence. I fully respect all those ancient laws. Islam is a religion of peace and understanding, and I did not understand.

3. What a bunch of fascist cowards. Is their religion really so pathetic that it can't take a bit of criticism? Or a joke. Are punishment and suppression their only responses to dissenting views?

I wish her well, but I predict she'll do a number 2.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sorry Brian!

We could discuss the news. But I'll stay personal today.

I used to have a pet snail called Brian. Well, he was not really a pet, but I did see him a few times sliding across my patio.

Maybe giving him that name was a mistake. But I can honestly say that I named him after the main character of the Magic Roundabout and not after the supposed prophet. I appreciate that some people may believe that Brian was a divine messenger whose every word should be obeyed. I used to think those people were gullible fools, but I realise now that only they know the true meaning of life.

Apology done. Now I'm off to get lashed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Going for Gold

Original content is more important than original style here. But I regularly refer to the form that I consider to be ideal for a daily blog. This entire site is an attempt to demonstrate that. I often say what it is. But here is what it is not...

This is not a document of my daily routine. This is not a personal message to anybody. This is not a place where I just post links that I find interesting or entertaining. This is not a place where I develop long and complicated arguments. This is not a place where I review books that I have read or films that I have seen. There are (I hope) only very few exceptions.

But, here's the rub, even though I strive for that ideal, I am thankful that you do not. The blogosphere would be rubbish if every single one was like this one. I want you to follow different rules to me. I want you to carry both very long and very short articles. I want to read about your life. I want to see your pictures. I want to look at all of the links where you point me. I want you to post more than once per day.

So even though this blog strives for perfection, I am so glad that others do not aim for it in the same way. Delight in diversity.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Brian May Not Like This

Two recent news stories about the sea have been the resumption of whaling and the wastage of cod. Both were referenced in last Tuesday's musing/raving by a well known astronomer, physicist, guitar-maker, animal-rights activist and rock legend.

I share his disgust regarding the slaughter of whales. There is no scientific research that justifies it. Whales seem to have an intelligence, a compassion and a "conscience" that corresponds to that shown in many human societies. The care and attention that they show for society members, as with humans, goes way beyond personal survival. Weaker animals who would never survive alone are nurtured and defended by others. Youngsters are taught, praised and punished. They develop customs over time and over generations. And those who have lost family members can behave with what appears to be genuine grief.

But cod are completely different. There are various technical definitions of pain, but I would expect extreme stimulation of nerves to elicit withdrawal responses in any animal. Yet fish generally do not care for their colleagues or even for their offspring, although those species that have survived evolution tend to be those who tend not to eat their own, whether by migration or instinct. An individual fish seems to have little objective in life except to reproduce.

Dr Brian May remains an icon, my all time guitar hero. I am sure he knows the difference between a fish and a whale. Only an ignoramus could confuse the two.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Big Title

Why did I name all this Common Sense in the first place? Because I maintain that even the most complicated developments usually follow very basic statistical rules, and it is only ignorance, delusion, cowardice or psychotic denial that fuel nonsensical models of reality. But although the phrase may have been original and accurate in 1776, today it has been over-used to the point where it is losing impact. So what else could I have called this?

Rana's Gently Holistic Detection Agency - accurate, and it reflects the "fundamental interconnectedness" of everything here, but it's possibly too derivative and too personal

I Don't Believe in Ghosts - well that would have been the unusual title for my newspaper column or book if I had been a famous footballer

Uncommon Sense - nice, but it seems that many others already think they own the phrase.

Simple Answers to Complicated Questions - I like that, it is what we strive for, and it also echoes Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Hmm, I'm ok for now, but it's never too late to change ...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Maradona and Statto

I usually play football twice per week. One of those games involves a group of us who have been playing at the same time each week for nearly a decade. The sides vary, but we have records of the match results, and also on how often each player wins. But in today's lesson on how stats can mislead, a reminder that win ratio does not correlate to talent or ability.

It should be obvious, but to help understand why, assume that one player (for the sake of argument let's call him X) is much better than everyone else. Fair enough, X would be expected to have a decent win ratio. But look at the effect on everyone else.

When we are choosing sides before the games, we make a conscious decision to balance them. And if we have said that X should expect a high win ratio, then those players who are almost as good will naturally have a correspondingly low win ratio. Yet we have just implied that they are amongst the best players that we have!

Common sense? Or just an excuse for poor results?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Stay indoors and shut the windows

This week the government recommended that a small village to the west of London should be erased and the volume of air traffic at Heathrow should be nearly doubled. Now I am not trying to speak for a thousand residents of Sipson. But I am trying to speak for a million people who live under the flight path.

The Baa-brigade say that planes are getting quieter. True, but a big plane is still bloody loud. And the number of those planes is increasing. And they want to scrap the runway alternation agreement that spares people from being under the landing path for half the day.

But are the current noise guidelines really acceptable? Should we really aim for a city where so many people do not open their windows or relax in the gardens? The standard of air pollution required today is not the same as 50 years ago thanks to the clean air act. It did not freeze the regulation at "this is today's level, don't get worse". It tried to make lives better. Where is the equivalent for noise?

It's obvious, but the electorate needs to evaluate "quality of life" as well as the simple claims of national GDP effects. Sorry, does that sound too green? Then let us build a new hub somewhere else.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Should people be persecuted for what they write?

What triggered this? The Forum is angry about a "feminist writer". Critics say she called for the Koran to be changed to give women greater rights. Shocking isn't it.

The BBC seems to neither condemn nor condone the unruly behaviour. The article merely asks the question that titles this note.

I am not writing an answer. But if you suggest that certain thousand-year-old middle-eastern dictates should have no place in the modern world, then perhaps you should be persecuted too.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Moving Information

In terms of effort, what is the difference between tactical marketing and loyalty marketing?

When someone is asked to produce a file for a one-off purpose, then the quote returned is often just as small as anyone visualising the information movement would imagine. That is, you pull the data from here, you match it against this, you split it like this, then you move it to there. Easy.

Yet when asked to produce the same file, but supplied regularly, that is often not just a little harder, but sometimes orders of magnitude more difficult. Because the supplier is not being asked to produce a particular product, but instead asked to produce a process. It is the difference between asking for a widget or asking for a widget factory.

But increasingly, as the lost customer data proves, even the one-off request is going to need a full process. The world is going to slow down.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Calm Down

Each note relates to the one before. I predicted the bandwagon but not the subject. I should call this thing anti-hysteria rather than common-sense. As with the little notes about urban myths, this is just a case of trying to stay rational in the face of mass delusion.

Of course everybody in the UK has heard of the missing 25 million customer records. It is undoubtedly a very serious and possibly criminal offence.

And as a practitioner of interactive marketing, CRM, one to one marketing, Pepper's Ghosting, whatever we call it, I must know the confines of our national data protection laws and work within them every single day.

But is it cause for mass hysteria? Looking at any individual customer record, was there really anything there that no-one else would ever know? Did the files contain the passwords and PINs to access your bank accounts?

No. Somebody could try to imitate you, but they cannot take anything from you unless some organisation further down the chain screws up badly. We need to watch the banks here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fuelling national hysteria

As I've just written on speed cameras, I may as well get this out of the way before the tabloids start encouraging the selfish bastards to start blockading roads again. So time to spell out the same basic economics.

Yes, taxes make up a large proportion of fuel price. But if we are to reduce tax, then we have a choice between lowering tax most for those who earn the least, or lowering tax most for those who generally drive the most expensive vehicles.

Taxing fuel rather than other things has other secondary effects such as discouraging urban sprawl and encouraging high street rather than mall shops, reducing traffic congestion while encouraging walking and cycling. Sorry about that.

There are winners and losers in every choice. But we should choose wisely.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Life on Earth

The BBC have been looking for a successor to the legendary Sir David Attenborough as he gradually slides towards retirement, while one of the cable documentary channels has been playing his classic series back to back all weekend.

Now it would be sacrilege to criticise him, many feel that he is a national treasure and candidate for greatest living Englishman. And for once I agree with the many. But I never write here to echo them. For I have a criticism. Not of the man himself, of course.

However, I was struck by the tone of some of those early programmes. It was all done with courage, enthusiasm and knowledge. But they had little sense of history or of future - they seemed struck by the wonder of now. The tone often seemed to be to describe how "ideally" adapted all these amazing organisms seemed to be. The wing on a sycamore seed was "perfect" to carry it far from the tree. The teeth of carnivores were "perfect" for tearing flesh and bone.

But that is not quite true. All the evidence around us is of organisms that are barely better than competitors. There are some genetic patterns that are replicating well and others that are not. Within us, within nature, there are countless examples of things that do not work very well, that could work better. Some "species" are always doing a good job of dying out regardless of human intervention.

I still think diversity is good. But remember there is no "ideal" in nature.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Speed Cameras

It is an easy topic. There are very obvious rants here. Everybody seems to feel so strongly about this.

Half of you seem to hold the top gear view. Speed cameras are evil. The maximum safe speed is rarely the set limit. It is not necessarily safe to drive at 54 and dangerous to drive at 58 down an open dual carriageway. It is the arbitrary application of the offence (this law does not apply to foreign drivers, unlicensed cabs, fleet operators, diplomats, joyriders) and the disproportionate penalty (a quarter of your license). Worst of all, they always seem to be set up just so that they can get the maximum revenue instead of really to save lives.

And half of you seem to hold the green view. Speed is dangerous. It is unarguable that hitting an animal at 40 is more likely to kill it than hitting one at 30. So the cameras are a necessary evil. And if you don't want to lose your license, then just obey the laws.

But as usual, the reason why I write here, I think you are all wrong! Well actually all the points above are true, so maybe you are all correct ...

Because even though I broadly subscribe to top gear, I think the authorities should have the courage to admit (even encourage) the revenue raising functions. The money should go to those who most need it.

The faster that you speed, the more environmental damage caused, the more you should pay. I say fair enough. It is only going above a different speed that it is dangerous, dependent on the pictorial or witness evidence of traffic and pedestrian and weather conditions. That different limit could be higher, could be lower. But it depends on the conditions, and points should only be taken if driving is shown to be dangerous.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Apples and Pairs

Within the last week, two friends have gone to New York from London, and each of them received a copy of my dual map.

The reaction of others to that little piece of artwork always seems really positive (unlike to much of the other material here). But although it is either obvious or perceptive to spot the similarities and it requires either local knowledge or research to match the particular areas, we should ask the same question for any disparate alignment - is each of the models just following a blind pattern based on simple evolutionary rules, or is it really a striking coincidence?

You know the answer. So the map was common sense. It has faults, but I'm still proud of it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nature should know better

There appears to be a regular stream of articles about the latest "hybrid species" to be discovered. Even reputable science journals seem to regularly dig them out with continual expressions of surprise.

Interspecies hybrids are usually sterile. Because chromosome pairs need to be reasonably close to align and transfer DNA. But the key word is usually it is not always. For those who insist on species-ism, new ones are continually being formed in front of our very eyes. It is evolution in action right now.

A species is only a group of organisms that tends to interbreed at a point in time. There may well be an ideal mate for each animal, but if the first choice is not available, then some do "choose" to mate across our specious divides. There are some weird individuals around :)

OK, it is probably useful to think in terms of species if you are categorising the diversity of life at this moment. But when looking through the eons of history then that model of nature is not so useful, it is more instructive to think of the transmission of molecular patterns rather than species.

Thirty years after the the publication of The Eternal Gene, surely Nature should know better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I am not referring to promotions in the sense of variable marketing offers, I maintain that those are basically worthless.

However the other sense of the word refers to the improvement in responsibility and salary that appears to be the periodic objective of the typical manager in a large corporation.

There is usually significant competition for promotions within the management tiers of the organisation. I have no comment on specific cases, but these are eventually resolved by some combination of past performance results and future performance potential, external directive laws and internal directive guidelines, justified personal loyalties and unjustified personal prejudices.

As a consultant running my own business, the whole concept is irrelevant to me. A good performance may result in a new contract for a new piece of work. A poor performance means no pay. That's it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I don't usually post links here ... usually I attempt original thought. However, today's newspaper has something that is just so funny, such a magnificent ridiculous spoof article that I can't take anything seriously at the moment:

An apology for homeopathy

Again, I apologise for using a link, but I'm still laughing. The only thing that can possibly compare is this. No apologies for this link, it has to be played, but it is sheer genius:


Monday, November 12, 2007

Not Rocket Science

Jet exhausts get very hot. We need turbines in the exhaust to power the compressors. How would you stop the turbine blades from melting?

That was the strange question that greeted my eighteen year old self in the interview for college. I can't remember exactly what I answered, but it was enough to get me in the door.

There were two tutors doing the questioning. The professor was my main tutor through the course and after a long career as an expert in thermodynamics he finally retired this year. The young research fellow, after a year of continually stressing the importance of our department, left to pick up big City bonuses. I have learned that sort of thing happens a lot in business.

And why did they ask that question? After so many years, Rolls-Royce Aeronautics are still sponsoring the Engineering fellowship at my college.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Flight of the Phoenix

We watched a movie this weekend. To be more precise, one of the freeview TV channels finally showed the 2004 remake of the classic 1965 film. The plot is familiar, a group of survivors crash land in the desert and build a new plane out of the wreckage.

And while watching, I asked myself: could I do that?

Now I don't think that I would survive many days in searing heat and biting cold with minimal food or water. However, given time and tools and materials, I think I could build a working flying machine.

After all, it's not rocket science.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Who hid the elephant?

A few days ago I said that a good magician must be a good actor. Today I discover there is a film in production about a great magician.

Yet many historians do not rate Harry Houdini very highly for magical technique, though they concede his skill as an escape artist. They seem to have a mental image of the ideal magician as someone who must be tall, elegant, debonair, eloquent.

Eric Weiss was not like that at all. He was short and bowlegged and awkward and he spoke with a jarring accent. Yet I rate him the very best.

Because he really pushed the boundaries of what the human body could do and what the human mind could comprehend. His illusions often involved genuine danger. His escapes included real police shackles and real prison cells.

And unlike many who exploited the bereaved and vulnerable, he bravely spoke out against the cheats and fraudsters who claimed supernatural powers. He knew that they were all just evil vultures. They still are.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Tort for the Day

Yesterday I noted that my drive home often spans the 6:30 pm comedy slot on Radio 4. On this special day, it is worth noting that my morning drive also spans a comedy slot. 7:45 am.

Staying holistic, the Agency has many of the qualities of the mighty religious tomes. It is full of strange imagery and weird anecdotes that could easily be quoted out of context to justify almost anything. It suggests how life started and how it could end. It has an elusive "hero" whose background is mysterious but whose achievements are legendary.

However it just missed out. To become a great sacred text rather than a great novel, the book needed only two more sentences within it:

1. Everything contained herein is true - it is divine revelation and absolutely not a work of fiction

2. Thou shalt propagate this message - attempts to resist or mock are blasphemy and will not be tolerated

And then find some monks or monkeys who would fall for those lines. If only DNA had included those instructions …

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Wholy Book

My drive home from the client often spans the 6:30 to 7 "comedy" slot on BBC Radio 4. For the last six weeks, concluding yesterday, they have been playing the adaptation of, in my opinion, the finest novel ever written.

But the adaptation did not really work for me. The hero sounded more like a Harry Enfield character than the mysterious East-European that I remembered from the book.

The book is inexplicable anyway. It is a murder mystery, a ghost story, an exercise in philosophy, an English textbook, a discussion of religion, an historical novel, a magical tour. It covers the history of the world from the primordial slime of 4 billion years ago through Coleridge and Bach to quantum physics.

But I hope the novel is just a tiny bit like this blog. It is about detection. It is about finding incredibly simple answers to incredibly complicated questions. It is about a thousand different subjects. But somehow they all tie together. Just like the methods used inside it, the book itself is holistic.

However, unlike Dirk Gently, this blog is not going to save all life on this planet. And if it were to, I would invoice a lot more than he did :)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why Germany Lost the War

Shock Horror Exception - one of those circulating email pictures is posted here …

And though I just received the email, and was pleased to receive it, this joke has probably been circulating in one form or another for about sixty years.

Excuses. Firstly, it has been a very long time, months, since the last image posted here. Secondly, maybe it's more effective distribution to be viewed on a site like this rather than individually sent out to lots of people. Thirdly, I can see there might be generic socio-political points to be drawn from it. Fourthly, it just tickled me.

And the value added, what I think it needs is a conclusion…

so I suggest that Stone beats Scissors … Fight the Power :)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Language of IT

As should be perfectly clear from much of the material here, I do not abide by many of the common distinctions between the business world and the world of information technology.

Many in the business do not delve into the information technology that supports us, perhaps because they think that they cannot understand the language. There may be a lot of data to absorb, but the principles are all common sense.

But as with natural languages, things that initially appear incomprehensible can usually be explained very simply - not by a thorough memorisation of extensive vocabulary, but simply by recognising how the language is built up - the basic components of grammar and a general understanding of how things evolve.

There may appear to be major differences. For example, in our daily interactions, someone who knows the vocabulary and syntax of more than three or four languages is quite unusual in the English speaking world.

But for those who work in computing, it is quite normal to be able to write fluently in far more than that. However the non-technologist would counter: compared to German or French or Russian, the language of computing is usually exceedingly simple, with very limited vocabulary and very few rules of syntax …

… and that is exactly why everyone should be able to understand it.

Monday, November 05, 2007

It's a kind of magic

I like magic. Depending upon the scale of the illusion, a good magician is a good actor or a good director.

The actual mechanics of tricks are usually fairly obvious to anyone who thinks through them like an engineer. They rely on science and common sense. I am not going to explode the Magic Circle if I say that various combinations of sleight of hand, drapes, mirrors and misdirection account for most illusions. But we do not need to dissect every one in detail, because instead we can just enjoy the show.

Those who claim that their magic is powered by supernatural or paranormal ability are not magicians. They are cheats, liars, fraudsters, and worse. Those who claim to communicate individually with your dead relatives are not only liars but evil vultures.

But an honest magician is just putting on an act. And the good magician, like the good actor, can make you briefly forget about reality … or make you think that the marketing message was really targeted just for you.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Size matters

At one time, every large human group was a small human group. What are factors that could have made it grow faster than other groups?

While in a minority in a region, it could encourage isolation from competing ideas. Within families, the group could discourage contraception and encourage large numbers. It could encourage conversion into the group.

It could discourage dissent. Alternative groups could be suppressed by removing competing ideas or by removing competing individuals.

But total numbers in the group will not rise if people leave at the same rate that they are joining. So it could be made difficult to leave the group. Once any group has taken control of land and business, there will inevitably be social pressure on others to conform. Or penalties for leaving the group could be made even more explicit.

Many of these factors could apply to any group that is growing. But does the fact that something is growing mean that we should encourage it?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Common Sense

Yesterday I got a comment from another blog with a similar name to this. It was no surprise to discover that there are plenty of other publications out there already called this. This blog is honoured to claim direct spiritual ancestors since at least 1776.

On the back of empirical evidence, any scientist knows that even apparently crazy theories should be reduced to common sense, it just takes an acceptance of statistics. I believe that everything here is eventually obvious (these posts should be generic discoveries not personal pictures) unless you prefer to ignore the data or prefer to fall back to narrow minded anecdotal or religious arguments.

But to explain concisely why I do this, I will conclude by quoting the complete (two line) eponymous poem by the late great Ogden Nash:

Why did the Lord give us this agility
If not to evade responsibility?

Friday, November 02, 2007


This is a blog for common sense (and for unnecessary puns) - not for discussion of metaphysics or formal philosophy.

In a detective story, the initial diagnosis may look like it is causing a paradox. But once you have watched or read through to the end, it is always the case that there was no paradox, just an incorrect deduction.

In my example yesterday, we had two conclusions, one drawn from each line of data. Those two were fair enough. But it was then just lazy or presumptuous to draw another conclusion from those two conclusions, instead of from the data.

So once we understand the data then there is no paradox.

That only leaves quantum theory ...