Friday, April 20, 2007

What to say to God

Having read Gödel, Escher, Bach as a teenager, and so being aware that Godel's incompleteness theorem proved that some things in mathematics are unprovable, I always imagined that, if I was very wrong and there is a god, I would stand before his throne on the Day of Judgement and say "So what is the answer to Fermat's Last Theorem then?", unfortunately it isn't unprovable and was proved back in the 1990s.

Being slightly less cocky now, I considered changing it to: "Who elected you?", unfortunately I'm sure that would bring the rather self-satisfied reply of: "No-one".

So perhaps the best thing to say would be: "You know what I'm going to say, so I shan't say it" - which I'm sure will leave me immensely pleased with myself as I while away eternity in Hell.

Don't die of ignorance

See James Randi's newsletter for a story that can be summarised as:
pneumonia, herbal remedy, death.

Not dissimilar to the story on the BBC which can be summarised as:
exotic travel , homeopathic anti-malaria remedies (indistinguishable from water), catch malaria.

What are your chances of being hit by a bus?

To highlight how dependent they might be on a key employee, businesses are often asked what they would do if that employee were run over and killed by a bus (e.g. the Bus Test) - and the answer would point out various problems for disaster recovery and business continuity planning issues.

So what are the odds of someone being killed by a bus? For the UK, we can look at the official statistics (Department for Transport).

For 2004, there were 121 accidents involving buses and causing a death. That doesn't quite mean that 121 people were killed by being hit by a bus as it would include any accident involving a bus where any number of people died (there's a table showing that 3 bus drivers and 17 bus passengers were killed).

This is expressed as a rate per 100 million vehicle kilometres of 2.3. So, on average, any one bus is involved in a fatal accident every 27 million miles of travel.

So, if we assume that there were at most 121 cases of someone being killed by being hit by a bus and if we assume that everyone in the UK (60 million people) has an equal chance of this happening then the odds are something like 2 in a million (per year).

Of course, anyone wandering around in China with their iPod on may have a higher chance.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The genes you inherit from your ancestors

You get half your genes from your mother and half from your father. How far back do you need to go until you have ancestors who did not contribute any genes to you?

Apparently (Science Magazine or Human Genome Project), humans have about 25,000 genes.

To get a number of ancestors higher than that, you need to take your family tree back 15 generations; whereupon you'll find 32,768 people as the 'terminal nodes'. How far back in time would that be?

Some branches of your family tree will be shorter than others e.g. there may be one route through the tree where the average generation is 20 years which would take you back 15x20 years = 300 years ago; other branches might have average generations of 25 years, making it 15x25 years = 375 years (presenting the possibility that, at that level in your family tree, some of them may be the grandparents of others at the same level and will therefore re-appear in your family tree at the 18 generation level).

So, there are people 300 or so years ago from whom you are descended but from whom you have inherited no genetic material. Theoretically, because of people marrying cousins (even very distant ones), many of the people in your family tree appear more than once and so are likely, even as far back as 15 generations, to have contributed more than the single gene that you'd expect.

What it all means, in effect, is that, once you've gone back enough generations, you're really not descended from individual people at all but from the gene pool corresponding to the cross-section of humanity that forms the nodes in the complicated graph that is your family tree.

Apparently (BBC News), we share 95% or more of our genes with chimps, which implies that only 1250 or less of your genes would matter in human terms, that would mean going back just 11 generations (2048 ancestors) - a couple of centuries.

So, if anyone ever tells you that they're descended from Nelson or Thomas Jefferson, just tell them:
"Perhaps you are, but not very much..."


One of the silliest ideas around in UK politics at the moment is that England should have a devolved parliament of its own just like Scotland has. You can see how silly this is by looking at the chart in this article in the Economist, which shows just how big the English population is compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Devolving government to the English regions along the same lines as we have for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland probably makes sense; but having a single English Parliament (covering well over 80% of the UK population] would make a nonsense of having a UK parliament.

Another idea floating around at the moment is that if the Scottish National Party win control of the Scottish Parliament then Scottish independence will inevitably follow. Perhaps, but I very much doubt that the Scots would vote yes to this in a referendum. Once it is realised how much money would be wasted in the process of divorcing from England (who gets which oil fields in the North Sea? how do you divide up the armed forces? who gets the nuclear weapons? how do you divide up the assets of the Bank of England and the national debt?) and once it becomes clear that Scotland would become a very minor European nation, people aren't going to be so keen on it.

From England's point of view, if Scotland left the UK it wouldn't make all that much difference. Indeed, even if the whole union of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England broke up, England would become the 4th most-populous country in the EU as opposed to the UK being the 3rd. Scotland would be 20th (EU member states).

What will happen? I doubt whether Scotland will get as far as choosing independence, but I strongly suspect that some form of regional government will happen in England. At that point people will have to get used to the idea that different parts of the country can choose to do things differently and that's how democracy works.

Personally, I think that devolved regional government like the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Major are good things. Politicians are rarely humble enough to admit that they don't have all the answers and the UK's centralised system allows them to impose their prejudices and mad-cap ideas over the whole country with little analysis or experimentation. Regional governments would allow different places to try out different policies, so we could then actually see what works.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Gordon Brown's big chance

On the 1st May, Tony Blair will have been UK Prime Minister for 10 years, unlike Margaret Thatcher (who, after 10 years as PM, famously made a speech about going on and on) Blair has already said he will go - presumably sometime soon after the UK local elections in May.

Gordon Brown will almost certainly become Labour leader after Blair goes. Most political analysts at the moment are concentrating on Brown's weaknesses; especially as opinion polls predict that Brown will lose to the Tory leader, David Cameron, in a General Election; but I suspect that they are underestimating the strength of his position.

Only twice in the last 40 years has a serving Prime Minister resigned mid-term. One was Harold Wilson in 1976 and the other was Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Wilson was replaced by James Callaghan who went on to lose the 1979 Election (to Thatcher); Thatcher was replaced by John Major who went on to win the 1992 Election.

I'm sure that Gordon Brown is well aware that the policy which made Thatcher so unpopular (the Poll Tax) was immediately ditched along with Thatcher, and was one of the reasons that Major got an immediate boost in the polls. The strength of Brown's position is that he will be able to ditch some of the more unpopular Blair policies.

The main issue that is sapping support for Labour is Iraq. If Brown pulls out of Iraq, then that issue is effectively neutralised and remains associated with Blair, in the same way that the Poll Tax was associated with Thatcher. I think that he'll also move away from the spin-doctoring that has been such a hallmark of the Blair government.

I wouldn't be too surprised if he drops expensive, unpopular policies such as ID Cards and concentrates on keeping the economy ticking over well enough for him to get some tax cuts in before the next election. Gordon Brown is canny enough to know that mid-term opinion polls mean nothing (Kinnock was way ahead of Thatcher when she fell, but still lost to Major) and that the Clinton slogan still holds true: The economy, stupid.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Striped Tops

I was surprised to see a group of cartoon robbers at the side of the road last night, but they turned out to be just a group of scally kids dressed in the new fashion of grey striped tops.