Marvin Minsky – I Sat Next To Him Once! :-)

Marvin Minsky was a giant of the 20th century – not just his own field, and especially for me.

He is credited, along with John McCarthy and one or two others, with having invented the term Artificial Intelligence in 1956 at that famous Dartmouth conference. (It seems the term was actually coined by 1955 – a suitable year for its birth, I’d say 🙂 .) Like other pioneers in the cognitive sciences (Freud: sex in eels; Pavlov: the basic mechanics of dog dribbling or something), Minsky did some early experimental work on animals – lobsters in his case. Minsky was bright, inventive and combative, and had a lot of interesting ideas in cog.sci (I was particularly impressed with his The Society of Mind published in 1986) but he also invented the Confocal Scanning Microscope. Funnily enough, at a taxonomy conference I attended once, two of his main involvements pervaded the proceedings: the CF microscope, and the notorious Perceptron. The two concepts, of Minsky and the perceptron, could not be themselves without each other!

The perceptron is a simplified concept of a nerve cell, with inputs to it from other neurons. If enough inputs are helping our neuron to fire, and not too many are inhibiting it, then it will fire and send outputs on to other neurons. Minsky (and his close associate Pappert) didn’t like the perceptron. But surely, if you had enough such units arranged together next to each other and in layers, couldn’t that do whatever a brain could do? Like many people back in the 1970s, my instinct was that it could, and my face betrayed this when Professor Sutherland informed us in our Perception tutorial that there was a problem with the perceptron’s abilities. In those days I didn’t argue with professors, especially those who weighed about 20 stone and had a half-empty bottle of Beefeater gin on their desk, mid-morning, and with no lid or glass in sight. But he was pretty perceptive himself, though exacting, taking care to do a good job and explain that when perceptrons are used in a single layer they cannot do certain things. They can’t separate areas of the input space into enclosed regions. That means that a perceptron with just two inputs, one representing the east-west position, and one representing north-south, could only ever be taught to say whether a point was on one side of a line, but not that it was in some kind of enclosed space.

Why people had to get so hot under the collar about this was never clear to me, since it was well known that if you stacked perceptrons in multiple layers, the outputs from one layer inputting to units in other layers, you could perfectly well judge whether a point was in an enclosed area (in 2D space with just two inputs, 3D with three, or “multidimensional space” for more complex real-life problems that needn’t have anything to do with space). But for some reason, Minsky and Pappert had this amazing ding-dong battle with the champion and inventor of the perceptron, Frank Rosenblatt.

Years later Minsky admitted it was “probably overkill” on his part. Well, just “kill” was bad enough, not just because shortly after that episode not only did Rosenblatt die, but also it became almost impossible to get funding on any project that involved neural nets (a perceptron being a unit in a neural net of course). In the UK, this was superimposed on the negative effects of the Lighthill Report which directed funding to be cut back because it thought there was no prospect of AI becoming a reality, or becoming even useful, in the near future (there doesn’t seem to have been a similar report for the prospects of the CERN experiments, but then some sciences take PR more seriously than others).

This damage to the AI effort, largely self-administered, is somewhat reminiscent of the zombification of palaeontology, but since AI isn’t packed with pompous ignorant blockheads the way palaeontology is, good work (on neural nets) did actually continue. In 1986 Rummelhart and McClellend edited their landmark two volume Parallel Distributed Processing, reclaiming the territory but carefully avoided the term neural nets wherever possible even though that was what it was about, and which included famous influential work by Hinton and Sejnowski. (1986, ’87 & ’88 were good years for publishing: in ’86: Society of Mind, Parallel Distributed Processing, The Dinosaur Heresies; ’87: my Idea For A Mind paper 🙂 , suspected of being influenced by PDP and SM, though I’d actually read neither by then; ’88: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, Science as a Process, Reconstructing the Past.)

The atmosphere in the conference chambers that hosted the perceptron rows was reportedly legendary. Long after, in about 2002, I attended an AI conference in Birmingham (not the Wham Bam Alabam one! – the “real”, though admittedly smaller one) which both Minsky and neural nets hero Geoffrey Hinton attended. I was a bit late since I’d had to drive round and round the campus finding where the meeting actually was, without notices posted anywhere nor anywhere convenient to park and check the map. By the time I got in, most of the seats where taken, but people seemed to have steered clear of the one next to Minsky, so I sat there. This time there seemed to have been some kind of maths challenge between Minsky and Hinton, and Minsky had his head down busily trying to do some complicated sums. All the while, speaker after speaker gave talk after talk unavoidably mentioning the major influence Minsky had had on first this area of AI and then that, with Minsky himself paying no attention to the repeated mentions of his name. He also paid no attention to an American lady in the middle of the room who didn’t seem to be tuned in much to the AI but was keen on cheerfully implying that she at least considered that she was a good friend of Minsky, while constantly rustling sweet wrappers. That was the first day I actually met Stan Franklin, a great chap, and very nice to me, whose time I feel I’ve terribly wasted. Stan was someone else Minsky never paid much attention to; a big mistake if you ask me, not to mention insult. Oh yeah – also there, in the back row, was that chap Push Singh. Now whatever happened to him, I wonder? Yup – suicide: becoming a standard AI fate, viz Turing, and including, I suspect, Michie! But anyway… there were echoes of the bad old days in the interchanges between Hinton and Minsky: calm, patient and slightly long-suffering from Hinton; somehow his manner and very long suit trousers reminded me of some representation of a good young father from a 1950’s film. He had studied under Christopher Longuet-Higgins (as Higgs the nuclear physicist had when he and C L-H had both been chemical physicists), so he’d had experience at dealing with big, demanding personalities. (C L-H seemed to bring his associates good luck! Freeman Dyson was at school with him.) Funnily enough Minsky paid no attention to me either, until I asked him “What would you say was the definition of science?” He turned slowly to me, regarding me with some suspicion, and said fairly patiently and apparently not for the first time: “I don’t know but I know when I see someone doing it.” I’ve never considered that a good answer. It doesn’t distinguish between animals snuffling about, non-scientists snuffling about, and people (or agents) explicitly seeking the models that best explain the observations… and to ignore the Popperian view without saying why or even acknowledging it… 😦

But I think I’ve worked out to my own satisfaction what drove Minsky to wage the perceptron war. At that time it was thought, wrongly, that you had to choose between the Symbolic Approach to AI (which was all about solid blocky concepts, LISP programming and languages), or on the other hand, the Connectionist Approach – i.e. neural nets. In fact, you do need lumpy concepts with subtle characteristics interacting complexly with different kinds and categories of other concepts, for their standard execution, as Minsky realised, but what he didn’t realise was that you can, and must, create (i.e. learn) those blobby concepts by neural net methods – more subtle and complex methods than we currently have – in the same way that strands of candy-floss (cotton-candy) are accumulated round the stick to form a blob. He didn’t see the perceptron as the simplest first example of an endless sequence of instantiations of neural net advancing into the future… and he couldn’t see this partly because of groupism – he was a symbolist – and partly because of a kind of arrogance that mathematicians (coughLighthillcough) often have, of thinking they’ve summed up everything about a concept and its future possibilities because they’ve demonstrated some isolated point concerning it. Paradoxically Minsky was one of the first to investigate neural nets experimentally (the “SNARC” – Stochastic neural analog reinforcement calculator) but he was hampered by trying it before the invention of the programmable computer. I think that because he couldn’t do it, it annoyed him to think that someone else could. But just because you can’t do something with a soldering iron, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There is a picture of the electronic box Rosenblatt constructed to investigate his perceptron instantiation of the neural net, and to my eye is looks like he’s been able to use wires that plug in and out of sockets to make connections. Just a simple technical advance like that can perhaps make all the difference!

When he was good he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid; but the concepts described in The Society of Mind would make a good list of features to be accounted for by an ambitious AI implementation.

What pleased me most about him was something he said in his main conference talk about John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument. Searle claims that if you have a room where slips of paper are passed in though one letter box with Chinese writing on it, and people inside the room busily follow various rules which eventually produces an English version which is passed out of the other side of the room, there’s nothing in the model that actually understands Chinese. In Minsky’s view, and mine, that is a claim that within any process that does something there has to be some sub-component that actually does the whole job.

I had wondered if his death would be reported on the BBC radio news. If it was I missed it, and if it wasn’t, I’m a bit peeved. [Ah yes – died Jan 24th; had nice feature on BBC Radio 4 Last Word Fri 12th Feb. A very notable student of his, Patrick Winston, gave a glowing talk on him, though missed out the controversy 🙂 .]

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The Dinosaur Wore Bubblewrap pt2 – Further Thoughts

[Continuing from my first posting on Duane Nash’s idea that some scales on some dinosaurs may have contained air (or at least gas), thereby providing thermal insulation…]

I think Duane has in mind hollownesses within nodular scales that were sometimes filled with air (or other gas) and sometimes with blood, or sometimes increasing or decreasing amounts of each:

“Through vasoconstriction[,] blood flow can be diminished to this layer creating an insulating, vacuum sealed layer of air visceral to the outer skin and which insulated dinosaurs from temperature extremes. Additionally, this layer could be vasodilated and engorged with blood to facilitate heat shedding or heat uptake into or from the environment respectively.”

But I think it’s important to remember that the “air” concerned probably wasn’t going anywhere in between hot or cold episodes, and also that it probably wasn’t possible to change its pressure at will, so you couldn’t just pump blood into the air-filled volume. Of course, if the mass of air remained the same but the temperature changed dramatically, then the pressure would inevitably change within an air-tight cell. I think blood supply changed when the animal was hot; it might have done what we do and just widened up the blood capillaries near the surface of the skin when it wanted to cool down, or perhaps it might have pumped more blood close to the surface of cells (through channels in the bone) only on the shady side.

But no blood in the central hollownesses. I’ve looked at the heat images of those sunbathing crocodylians (caimans) in Duane’s post, and because we don’t quite know enough about the circumstances, I don’t think it’s possible to say much, other than it’s not too surprising to see such images of “crocs” sunbathing, possibly still quite warm from the night before (the zoo was near the equator), with a slight breeze cooling the tips of the scales. That doesn’t mean the channels within stegosaur plates did not contain blood – perhaps they were internal arteries that fed exterior veins, but if so, those channels never contained air.

There is a big problem about how to get air into such hollow spaces within nodular scales. I suspect it is very difficult to produce air spaces without access to outside air. If it were easier, mammals would have air in the centre of their long bones that needed to be accelerated and decelerated the most (e.g. tibia/fibula). Birds can sometimes do it with some long bones (doubt if it ever gets below the knee) because they have outgrowths of their airsac system which can channel the air. But in order for birds to be born with air in their lungs they have to poke their nostrils into the airsac within the egg a day or two before hatching. The original liquid is drawn back into the membranes, and some evaporates, but outside air replaces it. I’m pretty sure hollow bones below the neck are never air-filled until after birth, and I don’t think even birds can just magic up bubbles entirely within the body… usually.

But if it’s true that Longisquama‘s feathers were in the form of long squashed balloons with seams down the middle, then air must have got in somehow! AND… not only would ornithiscian dinosaurs have presumably used the same method or at least achieved the same effects to air-fill what were in all likelihood homologous structures, but also, one would expect the method to be inherited from dino-ancestors with similarly primitive feather types. As I have explained at length, “dinosaurs” evolved repeatedly from small tree-living gliders, quite often from an ancestror with a slightly different feather type. Thus, troodonts and dromaeosaurs evolved from Archaeopteryx/Anchiornis-grade forms (powered flight by then, perhaps even Anchiornis to some extent) with modern feathers; Sinosauropteryx etc. evolved from animals with more primitive but already fibrous feathers; maybe there was an earlier descent of “theropods” earlier in the Jurassic, already with fibrous feathers of a slightly different sort… and before even that, there were dinosaur clades that came from types with non-fibrous feathers. That’s why we don’t see fibres in the same way and to the same extent on ornithiscians, but we may well be seeing some of these air-filled structures.

How did air get into these structures? Incidentally, air-filled structures may well have been part of the heritage of later fibrous-pellaged types, but presumably lost somewhere along the way when more modern feathers evolved. I have always supposed Portugese-men-o’-war can actually produce bubbles entirely internally – I think I’ve heard that claimed – and if so then it must be possible. I don’t see how Longisquama could have produced air-filled feathers by communicating with the internal pulmonary system, or to have inflated them with outside air. (Of course, it might well not be air as such but some other gas such as CO2 or O2.)

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The Dinosaur Wore Bubblewrap – Duane Nash’s brilliant SIGIL idea

The most frightening dinosaur fossil I ever saw was the South American sauropod hatchling with its hairless skin. All it had was nodules … but because its ancestors were obligate bipeds, they must have been warm-blooded… and therefore presumably the hatchling must also have been. Anyway the adult sauropods must have been warm-blooded for their own reasons.

How could they survive without fur or feathers? Did they rely on the warmth of their parents or of the climate? The problem was, it didn’t look like the skin of that hatchling was ever going to bear fluffy insulation, so it didn’t matter that some Protoceratops fossils seemed to show porcupine-style long spines, nor that some small ornithopods seem to have had some kind of fibrous integument.

But now, Duane Nash has had a brilliant idea on how unfuzzy species could still have had insulation: Bubblewrap! Or as he terms it: SIGIL – S.ubdermal I.nterstitial G.ridded I.nsulatory L.ayer(s)

People will be familiar with the nodule-like scales in the skin of some dinosaurs. What if some contained air?!? There are fossils that seem to suggest this. There are also fossils that seem to suggest unfuzzy dinosaurs lived in cold regions – in fact most if not all non-theropod types of dinosaurs seem to have representatives that did so, unfluffed.

Nash introduces Raymond B. Cowles as the worker from 60 and 70 years ago whom he believes edged towards the idea, and views his work partly through the eyes of Scott J. Turner, whom Nash also quotes.

Having read the excerpts he’s offered, I feel Nash needn’t have done so, since I don’t think either Cowles nor Turner really went much in the direction of suggesting sub-surface air insulation. Maybe Nash wanted to imply some support from earlier workers (a ubiquitous custom), perhaps even to let the others share some of the blame if things didn’t go well!

He need have no fear though, since it’s an excellent idea, even if it later goes bad – which I very much doubt. But Turner and Nash do refer to the way Cowles seemed to… jump to his theories. Whatever theories they were is of less interest to me than the comments on how Cowles arrived at them. We now know that theory generation is a highly creative process, and does not rely on the simple cranking of systems of rules and statements that we recall through Euclid’s geometry. That’s deduction – making rules work. Producing theorisation (i.e. making the new rules) is induction when we work out what happenS, or abduction when we work out what happeneD. Neither are what most would see as logical – or even “careful”.

The suspicion of the style of Cowles’ first steps that Nash shows on his own way to probably the most useful insight into ornithischian palaeontology so far this century, by no means indicates a flaw in the final product. The way in which theories arise must not be considered when judging the theory, since the worth of a theory depends only on how well it explains (or is consistent with) the evidence.

Much, much more will be written on all this of course. Here is the final sumarising paragraph of Duane’s blog posting:

Since the gradual and accumulating evidence for widespread endothermy or at least mesothermy in many dinosaurs it has become somewhat anathema to compare dinosaur thermal physiology to ectomthermic reptiles. While mounting evidence suggests the potential for widespread insulatory coats in many, if not all theropod lineages, such evidence is much thinner in many other dinosaur lineages and completely absent in several despite abundant casts and direct skin preservations. Research, thought, or even speculation has been lacking in terms of explaining how such naked skinned dinosaurs insulated themselves given wide distributions up into polar regions. Here is presented a novel hypothesis addressing insulation in such naked skinned species. An anatomical feature referred to as the subdermal interstital gridded insulatory layer(s) – or SIGIL – is outlined and referenced via several lines of evidence. Through vasoconstriction blood flow can be diminished to this layer creating an insulating, vacuum sealed layer of air visceral to the outer skin and which insulated dinosaurs from temperature extremes. Additionally, this layer could be vasodilated and engorged with blood to facilitate heat shedding or heat uptake into or from the environment respectively. This ability to control blood flow to the extremities is likely ancestral to all tetrapods and is a simple co-option of known capabilities in extant ectothermic reptiles. A novel ability to both absorb thermal energy from the environment and create internal heat is inferred for many dinosaurs via the efficient capacity for heat exchange and insulation through SIGIL. The extent of this dual functionality likely varied significantly across families and genera and offers potential insight into efficiently achieving gigantism and fast growth rates with minimal or non-existent parental provisioning of food and at rates much more efficient than other endotherms in terms of food intake. The intricate vascularized osteoderms of several types of dinosaurs are argued to represent the acme of this “dual functionality” and crocodylomorphs are inferred to have a congruent thermal function for their osteoderms as well as secondarily losing this “dual funtionality” in their evolutionary history that they once shared with their extinct archosaurian brethren.

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Wikipedia asked for my view on Wikipedia…

Recently I was invited by Wikipedia to tweet a comment about them; they offered some examples to inspire me. But I was “inspired” already! My views don’t quite fit into a tweet…

15th Birthday of Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is the toy of a power-freak who wanted to exercise world dominance in something, and chose an academic area to which he brings no care or expertise: knowledge management. (You can see his incompetence in his emphasis on “fact”, a term which delights and galvanises amateurs but which genuine knowledge technicians know to be an unreal idealism.)

He’s heard of a thing called the Hive Mind, and he wants to use it as an excuse for getting thousands of enthusiatic mutually supporting ignoramusses to over-rule those who take their area seriously enough to have dedicated years of study to it – that’s proper academic study where the tricky writings of those who went earlier are dwelt on until they’re understood. Instead, in place of discipline, dedication and open-minded research, subjects are driven by shallow gang-thinking, and hatred of outsiders – the very ones who have always done the scientific and inventive work. Far from the open-minded and neutral style that is claimed, Wikipedia encourages those who have no qualifications in anything, to treat those with qualifications, as simple-minded juvenile delinquents, so long as they can be outnumbered.

Now, anyone working in an area that the ignorant consider accessible, finds their job of propagating their insights to the world a thousand times more dificult. Hard subjects are largely immune, and many genuine experts each make occasional contributions in these areas, but Wikipedia is contributing to the continuing zombification of some e.g. historical disciplines.

Wikipedia’s growth curve is dropping because they’ve gone almost everywhere, but luckily the answers to simple questions are available elsewhere now, in places the young hooligans of Wikipedia can’t interfere. So to give the power-punk’s toy a fillip, they’re asking for more money, and advertising positive views from non-westerners. This is one area where the supposedly “balanced style” of Wikipedia does not appear, but instead we see the true, unbalanced and artificially distorted style. First, tens of thousands of people hate WIkipedia and their existence isn’t suggested in the adverts; and second, the vast majority of those who’ve climbed the greasy pole within Wikipedia are to an overwhelming extent white westerners (and male of course). And when they excuse their excesses with the chant “Freedom and Demoracy” it means they get the democracy and you lose your freedom.

The good news is that the Wikipedia guy has an awful lot of enemies. And he deserves to have.

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Homo naledi 1: Preliminary Posing

Before actually picking over the bones of the intriguing ancient humans under consideration, let’s consider the intrigues of some of their modern investigators and commentators…

Readers will know that the Homo naledi fossils were found mysteriously tucked away at the back of a hard-to-reach South African cave, and though impossible to date with current technology, they are triumphantly proclaimed to be a crucial link in the chain of our evolution – just like every other “ape-man” fossil discovery always is! This means, 100% of the time they will be right when it actually is a crucial missing link – like this time!

The Guardian article reported a number of disputes over what was said and done:

1: Some people, e.g. Tim White, complained that the fossils were just another example of Homo erectus, and that it was very wrong to suggest they were something new.

Well, a claim in science (i.e., a theory), might end up being less favoured in the end, but it’s central to science to put forward theories and argue about them! You can argue that the theory isn’t a good one, but if you’re complaining that just offering a reasonably plausible theory is some special kind of “wrong”, the theory has to be much worse than mis-assigning a fossil to “the” “wrong” “palaeontological species”. And that’s even if the critic White was right on his own assessment, which he wasn’t.

2: Some people say it’s absurd for the authors to suggest that the fossils were originally posted, as dead bodies, through a kind of letter-box into the underworld, by their kin.

The critics think it’s way beyond the cultural/cognitive capabilities of people that primitive to do anything that sophisticated? The critics are so sure about what is involved behind this kind of behaviour, are they? And they’re so sure that naledi wasn’t that far advanced? Have they ever watched primates carrying dead babies around for ages? They clearly don’t want to abandon them. Same with elephants, and maybe other species. H. naledi was almost certainly somewhat beyond the sophistication of chimps. It’s clear that many/most sophisticated mammals deal thoughtfully with dead of their species on occasion, and indeed much the same thing seems to have happened (fruitfully for us, whether to fellows or victims) in the Spanish “Sima de los Huesos” cave, with humans that might only be a million and a bit years younger. Are any of the critics any kind of psychologist? I don’t think so, and no psychology is harder than evolutionary psychology. What’s closer to certainty is that there was no other way in to the end chamber, and nothing bigger than a vole or tiny bird seems to have made in it that far, because returning from the very end without ropes and torches would have been practically impossible. Not even traces of bats were found at the end. So… none of the critics on this are psychologists, none of them have been into the end chamber and had a good look round, and none of them even seem able to remember the Atapuerca cave. Their ‘certainty’ is meaningless.

It is often said that ancient human remains are the rarest of rare. As I mention below, there seems to have been an especially odd gap in the tree at this point. Can this absence of fossils, and the apparent “disposal” of the dead (in this cave), be connected? It’s an interesting question. Remember also the amazingly firmly conserved cultures of stone tools (e.g. Olduvan style) which sometimes lasted a million years or more. These people may have come to believe that being ferociously, superstitiously stubborn with their behaviours was the best way of surviving. We think of humans as being distinguished by their intellectual flexibility, but it’s a truism that most people only really think when they’re desperate. Consideration must be given to the possibility that “disposing of one’s dead” is a human tendency with a high probability of occurrence and perhaps of being sustained, and may have started early. Alternatively the possibility that naledi was in Africa but usually not in the hinterland, must also be considered.

The cave was 90 metres from the exit. That’s a long, long way through a dangerous, dark, and very frightening 3D maze. You might guess that a creature like this wouldn’t have been able to use fire, but tool-makers like this would have created fire accidentally at least once a century. Don’t doubt that a chimp could use matches or even a flint and steel to make fire, if it only had the thumbs and sufficient training (and the steel 🙂 ). I bet you could even train one to kindle by rotating a stick using a bow, given time. For the naledis to light their way using a torch might well have been rare, and might have been frequently forgotten, but I guess it had happened at least once by 2mya; who knows – perhaps also cremation or burial at sea for all we currently know.

3: Some people, e.g. Tim White, complained the authors didn’t take enough years (or perhaps decades) to release the information, and that the report hadn’t been made to run a strict enough gauntlet past people like, say, him, so they could veto it and delay it further.

White says: “…making sure you have got things right is also of critical importance…” What does he mean, “right”? To claim that you can ever be “right” in palaeontology is to admit you aren’t a good scientist. In any case, who’s “you”, Berkeley man? There are other scientists out there too, and it’s a bit rude to imply everything ‘has to be completed by you’ before handing the finished product over to others to consider.

Here’s an idea: you dig things up taking complete care not to corrupt them or anything else down there, and you note their positions, and then make them and their images available to the world. And since time is always an issue, speed would be good. Just getting the shape of the bones out to the rest of the world is vital; getting ideas “right” is an aim but it’s ultimately unacheivable in science. “Just the facts, lady – just the facts” – and fast; and by “facts” is meant the bone shapes, where they were found… and that’s just about it. Everything else is opinion, even though science is actually just belief, i.e. opinion. Dating and chemical/genetic analysis of the bones can come along in their own time. And peer review has as much relevance to genuine knowledge husbandry as do black magic or politics.

John Hawks has for some time criticised those such as Tim White for delaying reporting of fossils (13 years for the Ardipithecus detailed report), and blocking access to them. This is something I fully agree with Hawks on. It would be amusing to compile a top ten of the most serious cases of fossil-squatting! I note that White is at my least favourite university: Berkeley. It would be amusing to compile a top ten of examples of the crassest arse-hattery coming out of that place. I’ve pointed out several candidates from time to time but it would be a big job to do… ‘properly and scientifically’.

But there’s this too, from the Guardian article:

‘…anthropologist Christoph Zollikofer – of the University of Zurich – disagrees. He was involved in the discovery of a series of early humans in Georgia, with findings that took more than seven years to publish. “There were things we simply did not understand, and we worked for years to verify our findings,” he told the journal California.’

…where mention is made of “verify”. Sorry Christoph – did we not tell you that use of the word “verify” was one of the 1001 ways of announcing you don’t know what science is? And, because you didn’t understand something, you had to delay for, say, five extra years? You didn’t understand… whether something was a piece of fossil or substrate? Because anything much beyond that is Your Opinion, and though that is part of science, your fussing over your conclusions is not an excuse for delaying delivery of the world’s heritage to the world. (Thanks for those fossils though – they were nice! And yes, they were difficult to understand, but even with the benefit of your diligent explanation, I find I still can’t quite grasp their true significance. Even after your verification.)


Before considering the significance of naledi and its position in the fossil tree in the next posting in this series, I’d just like to point out that was only in 2010 that Australopoithecus sediba was supposed to occupy a crucial position in the human family tree according to the authors, er…: Berger et al. who also found this latest one: naledi. Now I’m not going to be so churlish as to let slip a suitable opportunity to congratulate Lee Berger and his merry men (and in an anonymous comment whose style shrieks to me of Tim White, his rather too many women, if you please!) for digging up, sometimes actually finding, and reporting swiftly, these two important sets of fossils. But having said that, now he’s given us naledi, we know sediba, with its smaller brain, less impressive legs, and probably later date, isn’t really where it’s at, or was supposed to be at. But I have to say this because no-one else will and it’s important to know which mouths the smart money comes out of so as to know who to listen to next time, that I warned immediately that sediba was not on the critical path. Conversely, note also that he who dug it did not necessarily suss it. And Berger, and Hawks, who also thought naledi had a good chance of being on the human lineage, are also paid to get this right. Yet one more example of an armchair being the best location of your backside for getting things in the right perspective, so long as you’re one of the few people with your head in the right place!

And this is also another suitable opportunity to wheel in, once more, the Great Apparently-Invisible-3-million-Year-Old-Ancestral Gorilla In The Room… and simultaneouly to reveal the most scandalous skeleton in the cupboard: the 2 million year old apparently invisible chimp ancestor skeleton! NO THEORY THAT CLAIMS WE’VE FOUND NO CHIMP/GORILLA ANCESTORS BETWEEN 1 AND AT LEAST 4 MILLION YEARS OLD, CAN POSSIBLY BE ASSUMED CORRECT. I explain this and its significance in detail in my book, and I’ll highlight it more forcibly in due course, but it’s pretty straightforward. Because all the working palaeoanthropologists – all the usual suspects and everyone else too – make this mistake, neither they nor their theories can be taken seriously. And because, for example, I, made sure my theories do assign certain known fossils to the chimp/gorilla lineages, people such as myself and many others I’ll name in the next post, found we had a mysterious gap, so we were…












…somewhere in the 3 to 2 million year gap starting from Kenyanthropus plateops, or even, if plateops isn’t as important as we’d hoped, between 4 and 2 million years. That’s a brave gap to nurture (though not as brave as the missing chimp/gorilla gaps!) This isn’t just someone blowing their own trumpet; since science is all about conferring plausibility on theories, on methods of theorisation, and on theorists, claiming credit is not an annoying concommitant to the business, it is the business. And refusing to acknowledge and propagate the creditable is scientific fraud.

John Hawks, Razib Khan and Chris Stringer have, to my knowledge, failed, perhaps for decades, to adjust their theories to correct this gigantic anomaly, or to appear to make any effort towards its resolution, or even to ascribe any significance to it at all! The only reason every other working palaeontologist or prominent commenter on the field isn’t also on that list, is solely because I haven’t seen a high enough percentage of each individual’s output. But anyone happy with that rotting fish-head sitting in the middle of their keyboard while they type around it year after year, especially once it’s been pointed out to them, either can’t use the Popperian scientific principle or they have no real feel for stats in science.

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I Fry A Pie

Driven to distraction by the unbearable blandness of texture of the Co-op fruit pie pastry, I resort to extreme measures:raw pie 750x500 01 sharpened
pie in pan perked 750x500 04

If before frying the quality was say 4, after frying it was about 7, nearly. The texture was novel – like what you’d expect from that green unelastic sponge stuff for poking cut flowers into, called Oasis (very poisonous, they say). But a pleasant texture.

I was surprised that there was no spitting during the frying, but I kept my big glasses on anyway. I cooked both sides and used quite a high heat, finding that a slight blackening in certain areas, as used on the first, big slice, was best:
pie big piece

Naturally I had to replicate the experiment, and found with slightly less cooking the results weren’t so good. By the end of the second batch I’d eaten about 60% of the pie but I was wishing that I hadn’t used, with some addition, the original oil found in the pan, which had been used for repeated egg fryings, each time with a little supplement. Just before the end I also wished I hadn’t had the second helping.
pie bits 750x500 01

Nonetheless a worthwhile addition to the cullinary portfolio, if not quite a major one, and a significant improvement on microwaving or grilling those pies.

BTW, a few months ago I tried out a single ring ceramic hob. It cooked by applying the power for a few seconds, then turnng off, then repeating.

Although the ability to set a timer as well as the power setting, was quite nice, the power consumption was massive compared to cooking with electric rings and the microwave. Also it developed a habit of saying something was wrong, and stopping working. It now lives under the stairs. Permanently.

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Digging Up The Welsh

Got the word to go from Ian Thomas, My Man with all the gen on local happenings, and a few days later he dropped me off, up a hillside, wearing the wrong trousers. Would this archaeology thing involve strenuous treks uphill in the hot? It had last time, so I left my motorbiking trousers at home and went in jeans.

misty moor 1 smaller
Despite wet legs, I was soon wielding the geo-phyz machine like an expert. The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd had kindly invited local bods to participate in an exploration of traces of buildings in the mountains of the Rhondda, to see if they might be bronze age, or Roman, or medieval, or what. They had been dug by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1921, and before him in 1902.

me doing geophys smaller
The geo-phyz thing has three prongs, and you drop it into the ground from a height of a few inches, hopefully missing rocks and your toes, and it beeps thrice to show it’s measured the resistivity between each pair of prongs. Then you lift it, swing it forward, and plonk it down again half a metre ahead, and repeat until you reach the end of the field.

I know what you’re thinking; but you’re wrong! 🙂 It doesn’t just send a signal down prong A and pick it up at B, then down B and pick it up at C etc; there’s also two other divining rods involved, stuck in the ground at the other end of the field.

divining rods smaller
Those rods are connected by cables to the geo-phyzzer. I did ask why but I didn’t understand the first time, and didn’t ask again.

Here is the scan of the geo-phyz data we collected:

scan a smaller
Our bits were the bottom square and most of the next one up, as far as where it suddenly gets much lighter. Our section was darker because our day was wetter.

Also, there was Drawing The Rocks. Sophie did most of the explaining so I think she was in charge. As I’ve asked her to say that Stangetruther is a pleasant and sensible fellow, I’m happy to report that under her command everyone was busy, efficient and happy, and nothing went wrong 🙂 . She told me that sometimes, when you’re digging down into something soft, you draw a diagram, called a Section, of the wall of the pit you’ve dug. But when you’re only able to indicate the shape of the surface, as with this rock construction that might be the remains of an ancient cupboard, settee, chicken coop or who knows what,

Complex stone block feature with Sophie's nose alongside for scaling

Complex stone block feature with Sophie’s nose alongside for scaling

you suspend a horizontal line acros the top of it, and measure how far down it is to the surface, every ten centimetres. This is called a Profile.

Doing a profile.  The tape measure and the string alongside it are, contrary to appearances, horizontal, as controlled by the mini-spirit level almost half-way along the string.

Doing a profile. The tape measure and the string alongside it are, contrary to appearances, horizontal, as controlled by the mini-spirit level almost half-way along the string.

Here’s the one I drew:

my profile smaller
We had to use special plasticky graph paper that worked in the wet, and also pencils that worked in the wet. But it seems that so long as the paper works in the wet, ordinary pencils do too so we used them.

I didn’t do all the geo-phyzzing myself by any means. There were 3 or 4 of us doing it. However, even just taking my turn at it, converted me from “I’d like to know all about this site” to “If I had to do all the work, I’d be more than happy to put up with a lot of doubt.” I could easily get over it by writing a little poem to celebrate the glorious uncertainty of historical science:

“Back in the day,
Who passed this way?
Oh who can say!
Back to the cafe 🙂 .”

…and leave it at that!

The final thing we did on the hillside was to hold a “stick” vertically upright next to a stone, and register its position. We had the help of a bubble for uprightness, as seen in the top left quadrant of this picture:

bubble point plotter smaller
At the top of the “stick”, which was extremely expensive and not just because the shaft was of carbon fibre, was a very sensitive GPS detector. Despite being a consultant in multiple areas, Tim Young was happy to pose for me with the stick, which he’d trained me on.

Tim Young plus tool smaller
We had the benefit of a plan of the site:

dig map 2 smaller
You might ask, “Why are you doing a survey if you’ve already got a plan of the site?” to which I think I would say: ” ‘Aha’, said Piglet.”

The end of the day.  Sophie with some of the team of experts/locals.

The end of the day. Sophie with some of the team of experts/locals.

Some days later we met in a more natural environment for me – the local library. We were searching for records of the earlier digs of 1902 and 1921, and maybe others. We all found old books fascinating. I found the rules of a list of a local history society of about 1909, where rule 2 said women were to be allowed. We also found this rather tart 1968 exchange of letters between the Forestry Commission and the National Museum of Wales:

photo 2mwr

It says: Subject: Observers: Department of Palaeontology Your letter of 1st. August is hereby acknowledged and its contents noted. The duty of reporting "finds of major concnetrations of flints on Forestry Commission land" is not mine.  I am a forest clerk; the finds are made by the forest workers in the field.  Direction must come from my superiors, who will no doubt report as they occur. Following receipt of the record sheets and finds to date under separate cover later this week at your Department, please remove my name from your list of observers. I have no interest in discussing any further examinations of known or possible archaeological sites or finds within the Rhondda Forest or any other Forestry Commission areas.  A can add nothing to the reports submitted with finds to date.

It says:
Subject: Observers: Department of Palaeontology
Your letter of 1st. August is hereby acknowledged and its contents noted.
The duty of reporting “finds of major concnetrations of flints on Forestry Commission land” is not mine. I am a forest clerk; the finds are made by the forest workers in the field. Direction must come from my superiors, who will no doubt report as they occur.
Following receipt of the record sheets and finds to date under separate cover later this week at your Department, please remove my name from your list of observers.
I have no interest in discussing any further examinations of known or possible archaeological sites or finds within the Rhondda Forest or any other Forestry Commission areas. A can add nothing to the reports submitted with finds to date.

I began to be drawn in to the questions of The Source Of And Identity Of The Celts, which I’ve been wondering about for some time. I learned a couple of weeks ago that the closest languages to Welsh and the other Gaelic/Celtic languages, are Albanian and Armenian. I’d know for some time that Welsh split from French and German many years before French and German split apart. Someone has told me that personal names in Iraq are suspiciously similar to some in Wales. It is notes that a number of place names across the rest of Britain seem to be Welsh in origin, such as those containing Aber, which means confluence (in e.g. Aberdeen), either of two rivers, or of a river with the sea, and Pen, which means top of a mountain (literally, I think, “head”), hence Pen Y Ghent, one of the three peaks, in England, and, presumably, The Pennines. Talking to an Italian cafe owner in the Rhondda the other day, he himself mentioned how the name of the Apennines in Italy resembled the English Pennines – a similarity I’d noticed and ascribed significance to. In our researching at the library I found someone had said that some of the peoples in South Wales had been described as Brythians or some such, and lived in the valleys, while others who lived on the mountain tops, had been referred to in a term used in modern Welsh to refer to the Irish. Or maybe it was the other way round? Watch This Space 🙂 .

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