“I used to live in this room before I was a soldier”

tiffieI’m reading All Quiet on the Western Front and just got to the bit where Paul arrives home after a long time away at the front and suddenly, in my reverie, I was Paul, coming home from my first few months in the Royal Navy.

Paul’s journey home to Germany from the front in Flanders took several days
. When he arrived he felt foreign, like everything had changed though he knew that, deep down, everything else was the same and that it was he who had changed. His relationship with his family and his friends was different and would be so for ever more.

To be clear, I never went to the front. I was never in great danger during my six years in the navy. I did not watch my friends die. I was a sailor and not a soldier but, for a brief moment, I felt a bond across the 100 years and the cruel, ugly line that divides me from that German private soldier. A bond that connects everyone who has worn the uniform, even for brief time.

I came home after 10 weeks in the Navy for midterm weekend. It happened to be Speech Day at my school and I was going to be awarded a prize. I had been traveling all day to get home from my base in Cornwall and I knew I was slicing the time rather fine. No cell phones in those days but my mum was waiting for me as my train pulled into Sidcup Station and we raced down to the school, running into the assembly hall in time to see the last prize-winners crossing the stage. The Headmaster was already preparing to make his final remarks as rushed into the hall. After a 300 mile dash across the country, I had missed my brief moment in the spotlight.

Csgs_badgeLuckily Mr Hahn saw me striding down the aisle and was quick on his feet. In truth, it was hard to miss me as I was the only one in a navy blue uniform among a sea of purple. Mr Hahn recognized me, quickly grabbed the microphone and ad-libbedbut me.

“And the prize for mathematics goes to Kevin Lawrence.”

The Headmaster looked flustered and wondered why a sailor was walking across his stage until someone thrust a certificate into his hand to make him understand. “Congratulations, Lawrence” he murmured and shook my hand. As I made my way to the other side of the stage, I caught Mr Hahn’s eye and he smiled and nodded.

Coming home that weekend, I knew that everything was different now. My friends were still school kids but I was in the navy and no one understood what that meant but me.

30mm BMARC

Pssst. Wanna buy some junk?

When it was announced that Verizon was buying AOL, the NY Times had several articles about the purchase. They made it clear that the only reason anyone would want to buy AOL is because of their advertising know-how.

By layering AOL’s technology atop its 109 million wireless connections and growing cable television business, Verizon is betting that it can make billions of dollars by selling ads against streaming video.

NY Times DealBook

Oh great! Does that mean that Verizon is going to try to make me watch more ads?  Looks like I’ll have to find a new phone service. How did we get to the point where people think it’s normal to make money from advertising?

I grew up watching the BBC and listening to Radio 1, neither of which  carry any advertising. ITV had a few good programs but, even to a seven year old, watching anything with ads felt a little bit shabby. It was all shouting carpet salesmen and you-won’t-believe-how-great-this-salad-chopper-works plastic Ronco junk.

About one in a hundred ads was laugh-out-loud funny (“Heineken refreshes the parts other beers can’t reach”; “Then we smash them all to bits! For mash get Smaaaash!”) or made with such a fine artistic sensibility that you wanted to watch them over and over (Stella Artois—Reassuringly Expensive; Ruddles — Oooh! — Real Ale!).

Coming to America meant leaving quality advertising behind. It’s hard to comprehend until you get here just how much you are bombarded with advertising and, of course, Americans like to show all five of their well-made adverts on the same day in January. For the rest of the year it’s just dodgy loan companies reading their small print and razors with one more blade than the competition. Commercial radio is completely unlistenable.

It’s weird to me that people still accept this soul-destroying barrage of dross as though it were a normal thing.

Fortunately, I live in a time where it has again become possible to escape the vulgar marketplace and pay for the things I like instead of watching the crap that advertisers want me to watch. I can pay $10 for HBO without also paying for QVC. I can listen to the best radio stations on the planet for $4 a month (Pandora) with no annoying DJs or mattress salesmen. The Economist, Netflix, Rdio—these are all great services that I am delighted to pay for to stay out of the awful, awful cesspool of free, so-called commercial services.

Jeremy Paxman tells me that he doesn’t think the BBC licence fee will last much longer. I hope, if he’s right, the BBC figures out how to sell its programs to me directly. I’ll pay gladly.

I sometimes wonder if advertising was a just temporary blip in human culture. Before 20th century mass-media, products were recommended by word-of-mouth. The Internet has made word-of-mouth scaleable enough to be viable again. Perhaps we’ll be rid of mass-market advertising in the 21st century? I hope so… with a couple of caveats.

Point-of-sale advertising was around long before the 20th century and still makes a lot of sense. If I buy a flight to London and you offer me a car rental or a hotel, there’s a good chance I’ll take it. Similarly, if I am searching for a restaurant and you tell me about the wonderful tapas bar in the next street, I’ll be glad of the tip. But, honestly, spamming my inbox with cheap flights to London—after I already bought my flight, mind!—is just going to annoy me.

I’d also be delighted if advertisers would figure out how to get my attention with high-quality adverts. I don’t promise to buy your products, but I will watch your ads if they are entertaining. Luckily for me it is getting easier to avoid them if they are not.

The Terrible Mr Gooden

The line between a terrific teacher and a terrible teacher is a fine line indeed. So many of the very best teachers dance along the line with fancy steps on either side, changing the lives of students fortunate to be touched by their magic or cursed by their conceit. Mr Gooden was terrifying and a tyrant. He altered the course of my life more than any other teacher.

JK Rowling’s Severus Snape is the modern archetype of the terrific/terrible/terrifying teacher and Potter doesn’t know until the very end where Snape’s loyalties lie. The tyrannical teacher par excellence though is Miss Jean Brodie.


Jean Brodie: “Little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

Maggie Smith’s terrifying teacher, long before Professors Snape and McGonegall and long, long before The Dowager Countess, was a fascist and an admirer of fascists. Miss Jean Brodie was inspired by Mussolini and Franco and inspired her “gells” to great heights; moulding and shaping their lives but ultimately dooming them to tragedy, sending them off to war and worse. Miss Brodie wielded charisma and conviction and certitude as weapons to inflict scorn and shame on her students. Snape too. But Mr Gooden had them both beat with charisma and conviction in abundance and he directed scorn and shame like guided missiles against a Palestinian hospital.

pink_floyd_3_wallpaperMr Gooden was an evangelical Christian and ran our school’s Good News Club, a welcome refuge from a rainy winter’s lunch break. To those who didn’t know him well, he had a reputation as a ferocious disciplinarian. To those lucky enough to have him for chemistry, he was a magical storyteller, bringing his subject to life and instilling a love of science that has lasted a lifetime. Mr Gooden, the chemistry teacher would be a shoe-in for Teacher of the Year. Mr Gooden the form teacher would merit a different award entirely.

Time for a quick sidebar to explain some features of English schools for American readers. JK Rowling captured a great many features of the British Grammar School with surprisingly fidelity. The sorting of First Years into houses to foster competition and team spirit is spot on (give or take a Sorting Hat) and, while we didn’t have Quidditch, we did have regular inter-house rugby, cricket and track/field tournaments (Lester forever!). Ordinary and Advanced Wizarding Levels are essentially O levels and A levels—the exams you take at age 16 and 18 that determine your success or failure in life. One big difference between an English school day and my American kid’s day is that we all travelled from class to class in a herd, only occasionally breaking ranks to split up for Latin or German. Our herd travelled everywhere together including, in our case, ice skating every Sunday and the occasional trip to Margate on the train. American kids (mine at least) miss out on that camaraderie and have to work harder for their friendships. That’s one thing that my school got right. The “Form” system made it so easier to build friendships and many of my friendships from that period have lasted a lifetime.

The official name for our herd was a ‘form’. Each form had a Form Room and a Form Teacher who started and ended each day with a roll call and was responsible for the discipline and life lessons that didn’t fall under the rubric of the curriculum proper. Our Form Teacher was a prominent part of our lives (like Professor McGonegall was for Harry, Ron and Hermione) and could make those lives great or awful according to their tastes. Mr Gooden was our Form Teacher for my second and third year of grammar school (7th & 8th grade for ‘mercans).

My first day in Form 2P was filled with trepidation. Mr Gooden’s reputation as a tyrant loomed but, like many a dictator, Mr Gooden up close was quite personable; charismatic even. Our days began with laughter and inspiration and I was soon grateful for a teacher that took an active interest in our lives. We were lucky to have Mr Gooden for chemistry too and he was a born showman in the chemistry lab. How well I remember the zinc and sulphur explosion! What better introduction to molecules than the oil drop experiment?

A whining aside: American kids are really cheated by not having any real science lessons until very late in high school, long after they have already decided that they don’t like science but right when they need to take a science class to graduate. By the time an English kid finishes school—at my school at least—he would have completed 7 years of each of physics, chemistry and biology if he were so inclined. My kids weren’t allowed to take more than one science class per year and science in middle school is just a joke.

Mr Gooden’s active interest in the form room extended to encouraging us all to donate to his special charity collection every Tuesday morning. Mr Gooden’s class was consistently the most generous in the school and he made sure that we all gave until it hurt, publicly shaming anyone who fell short. He also made sure we “volunteered” for any extra-curricular project that required work. Character-building stuff, I am sure and, considered in isolation, something to be commended. But eventually the constant pressure to “volunteer” for good deeds and give money for good causes became oppressive. But it was on disciplinary issues where Mr Gooden really crossed the line.

I’ll confess right now that I was not the most well-behaved child at Chis and Sid. I had more than the average number of detentions. The average number was close to zero but, when the headmaster announced the detentions in assembly every Tuesday and Thursday, a handful of offenders were named over and over. It was rare that the list of miscreants did not include some combination of Monroe, Harding, Winch or Lawrence. Detention began with a certificate signed by the offended teacher and counter-signed by the offender’s parents. Other schools had a punishment called detention but it was a pale imitation of the elaborate ritual of shame that Chis and Sid inflicted on its naughtier students.

Mr Gooden rarely gave out the official sanctioned punishment though. Mr Gooden’s justice was primal and personal. It began with a barrage of scorn for anyone who did not live up to his lofty expectations. He had a way of focussing his ray of humiliation on a single student while making every other student feel that they to had let him down. Class punishments were common but it was the private discipline that provoked the most fear.

My first private chastening came after that episode in Ms Furey’s French class. I’ll confess again that I was often the naughtiest boy in her class. I spent much of third year French in the corridor outside Ms Furey’s classroom and far too many of my lunch breaks writing “Le silence aide le travail” 100, 200 or sometimes 500 times for some transgression or other. I wasn’t the only naughty boy in the class though and, on that particular day, far from the naughtiest. As I recall, on that terrible day, Martin and David were the instigators and at the peak of the mayhem most everyone in the class contributed to poor Ms Furey’s breakdown. I was, at worst, a part of the chorus, embarrassed by her tears.

When I received my summons though, I knew that evidence was not going to help my case. At roll call the next day, Mr Gooden said those dread words “Oh, and Kevin, I want to see you outside the Staff Changing Room at 12:15.” As anyone who has been on the receiving end of Mr Gooden’s wrath knows, the Staff Changing Room is where Mr Gooden kept his Size 14 Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls. The routine became depressingly more familiar with each punishment but the first time was special in its banality. First of all, the penitent (me) had to perform a series of stupid little tasks while Mr Gooden changed out of his track suit. Fetch me this. Bring me that. Deliver this thing. Next, you had to stare into those limpid pools of justice while he lectured you on the responsibilities and virtues required of a student at Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School. Finally, you had to take off your purple blazer, hang it on a coat hook and bend over to touch your toes while you waited for the Dunlop Green Flash to deliver the justice of the righteous Mr Goodedn. The first whack was almost hard enough to knock me off my feet. The second and third came with increasing force as Mr Gooden got comfortable with his swing. Just three swings this time.

I forget the occasion for my second visit to the Staff Changing Room but it obviously was not sufficient because, on my third visit, the Green Flash plimsolls had been replaced by a cane and not one of those swishy canes like they used in old movies either. This was the kind of cane that the rule of thumb was apocryphally named for and each swing resulted in a thud rather than a swish leaving a welt of pink on my stinging backside. At least I was allowed to keep my trousers on.


As far as I know, Mr Gooden’s extra-curricular punishments were entirely off the record and neither the school administrators nor our parents were ever aware of them. I certainly never told my parents and would not have received any sympathy if I had. Mum had too many stories of corporal punishment of her own to be impressed by mine. I often wonder if Mr Gooden would have got in trouble if anyone in authority had known what he was up to. The closest I came to telling anyone about it was when Paul Winch and I got to enjoy some double discipline.

I forget the exact crime this time around but Paul and I were kept back after class. I was sent to wait on the landing outside room 51 while Paul went in for the opening bout of punishment. I don’t know who started shouting first but their verbal missiles were soon joined by wooden ones as they began to curse and throw chairs at each other. First Paul would scream some obscenity and throw a chair or two then Mr Gooden would shout something back and throw more chairs. This continued for an eternity while I listened in terror, knowing that I was next. Mr Berry—Head of Chemistry and Mr Gooden’s boss— walked by just at that moment and asked me why I was still in school so late and why I was crying. I told him I was about to be caned but said nothing of the roar of Bedlam that continued above our heads. Mr Berry said something vaguely soothing, grabbed his coat and headed for home. I waited for my turn in the chamber of horrors.

Eventually the ruckus died down and Mr Gooden came down the stairs to tell me to wait by his car. Paul told me later that he had broken Mr Gooden’s cane. He must not have replaced it because I never felt its bite again and Mr Gooden switched to more psychological torments. Mr Gooden drove me home that day and made me wait in the car while he spoke with my mother. I’ve no idea what he said but, when I got inside, I told my mother “I don’t want to stay at Chis & Sid”. “I know”, she replied.

Not long after the chair-throwing episode, Paul went away to some kind of prison for young offenders.. By then I was totally disengaged from school and had vowed to leave at the earliest opportunity. I never did another lick of homework or took a another book home from school. In most classes, I did no work at all. No official work anyway. I read Homer under the desk in my Latin class and I coded in Basic in French class. Still I came first in my class every year. I need to explain that.

In American schools, most of one’s grade comes from the opinion of one’s teacher. In England of that era, one’s grade came entirely from how one performed in the end of year exams. End-of-year exams took three weeks and bore little resemblance to the pathetic little multiple choice tests that they do on this side of the pond. For each subject, there were two exams of three hours each. There was no “teaching to the test”, the bête-noir of American teachers. It was teach-teach-teach for most of the year then now-let’s-see-what-you-understand-you-little-fuckers.

I came first in my class at the end of the third year. I won a prize for the most improved student (last-in-class to first-in-class is hard to beat) and Mr Gooden was furious.

One of my teachers, Ms McDonnell was new to teaching and, frankly, not very good at it. She taught physics (my favorite subject) and she taught it very badly. I paid close to zero attention to her awful lessons and did less than zero of the work assigned. When the exam results were published, only two students in her class passed. I got 70% and John Burford got 57%. No one else got more than 34%. Mr Gooden made me stay in class for every break and lunch break until the end of term while I completed all the work that I had missed.

The last two years of Chis & Sid couldn’t pass fast enough.


I had nothing more to do with Mr Gooden but by then I had a deep seated contempt for all teachers, even the good ones like Mr Lewis. We had a Mr (chemistry) Lewis and and Mr (biology) Lewis (AKA “Basher” Lewis) and (chemistry) Lewis was a genius. An outstanding chemistry (and rugby) teacher, I’ll always remember the day that he sat in as a substitute for biology when Basher was out sick. He asked us “So what topic are you supposed to be learning today?” “Cell-division” we replied. Mr (chemistry) Lewis proceeded to give the lesson on meiosis and mitosis far better than Mr (biology) Lewis ever could. I really felt that I had let him down when he reviewed my chemistry exercise book and I had done only two pages of work in two years.

When ‘O’ levels came around I came equal first with three other students who all of whom went to Oxford and Cambridge. But I was already out of there, headed for life in a different colour blue. In my 16 year old head, I thought that the Navy would be more of a challenge than two more years of school and ‘A’ levels.

How stupid I was.


I did four more years of schooling in the Navy and the exams were just appallingly, trivially easy. I even did ‘A’ level maths in my spare time just to make sure my brain had not completely rotted (it took me six weeks and I got an A). I often wonder what path my life might’ve taken if I’d gone to Cambridge instead.

Thanks Mr Gooden. You changed my life.

HBO without Cable

Did you know that you can now subscribe to HBO at Comcast without paying for any of the other crap on cable TV? It’s true and it’s wonderful!

They have a few technical kinks to work out though. Comcast asked me for my feedback this morning and I happily provided it. I’m sharing it here in case any other Comcast subscribers are running into the same issue that I am.

Dear Comcast,

I have no need for a cable box as I only watch HBO online at Xfinity. I was sent a cable box automatically when I signed up for Blast Plus internet plus HBO. I returned the cable box about a month ago as I was not using it and had never plugged it into my TV.

After about a month, my HBO service became unavailable and I contacted your tech support staff online for assistance. They were very polite and courteous but none of them were able to explain why my service had ended so abruptly. One told me that I did not have a subscription to HBO (I do) another told me that I could actually watch HBO if I would just turn on my television (I could not). Another asked me to give him my password so that he could see for himself (I did not).

After 3 or 4 hours and several escalations one of your staff noticed from my records that I did not have a cable box. She told me that I could not watch HBO without a cable box when, in fact, I had been watching HBO for a couple of months already without a cable box. She suspected that the problem might have something to do with the digital transition (which I had previously heard of) and told me to request a new cable box. Instead I decided to cancel my HBO subscription.

After several more frustrating online conversations with your sales staff and one long telephone call, we established that I could not cancel my service (which, I remind you, was not working) on the weekend. I resolved to call and cancel on Monday but, when Monday came, my HBO service mysteriously started working again. Later that week, a cardboard box arrived in the mail. By a process of deduction, I concluded that the presence of that cardboard box was somehow associated with the availability of my HBO service. I must congratulate Comcast for inventing a technology that allows me to receive HBO WITHOUT EVEN NEEDING TO REMOVE IT FROM THE BOX! Your tech support representative was much smarter than I gave her credit for as she understood the association long before I did but I suspect she thought I would need to actually unpack the box and plug it in.

I am still wondering what to do with this box that I pay $10 per month for—a box that I do not use and cannot return. I wonder if there might be a business opportunity here somewhere. Perhaps I could provide a storage service to all the other Comcast customers that have boxes they don’t use. Perhaps we could build some kind of art installation out of unused cable boxes? Maybe Comcast could save some money by just having one single cable box that all customers share. You could still charge us $10 per month for it but you would save on shipping and manufacturing costs. You could display the One Box somewhere publicly and the people paying for it could visit occasionally and admire The Box That Does Not Need To be Plugged In.

Or perhaps you could let me return the box and stop charging me $10 per month for something I don’t need or want. Back in the last century, we needed to plug little boxes into our televisions to watch cable tv but in this wondrous modern age, it’s much easier to watch everything online through the internets. Please find a way to let me watch HBO without paying for this box or let me know so that I can cancel my subscription.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide you with feedback. I hope you find it useful.

Yours sincerely,

The Ragged Clown

My life in 100 words or less

Footscray. Council estate. Fancy grammar school. Parents divorce. First in class. Run away to sea. Engineering apprenticeship. Girlfriend. Falklands patrol. Girlfriend. Sonar engineer. Polaris submarine in Scotland.  Patrol North Atlantic. Midshipman. BRNC Dartmouth. Quit. Backpack (California, Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Raitaia, hitchhike Sydney->Cairns->Darwin, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Komodo, Singapore, Malasia, Thailand). East End. Poor. Girlfriend. Read The C Programming Language. City of London. Girlfriend dies. Malta. Girlfriend. Marry in Jamaica. Malta (again). Plymouth Hoe. Manhattan. Child. Wall Street. Silicon Valley. Startup (failed). Child. Startup (failed). Startup (failed). Portland (and back). Startup. Dog. Now.

Future. Success. Riches. South of France. Happy ever after. The end.

In Which Sturgeon’s Law Explains Everything

In 1951 Theodore Sturgeon was giving a talk about science fiction when someone in the audience noted that “90% of science fiction writing was crap”. Sturgeon shot back that “90% of everything is crap”.

This observation came to be known as Sturgeon’s Law.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon’s law is just as valuable when you are thinking about professionals as the old joke about doctors illustrates.

Q: What do you call a doctor who graduates at the bottom of his class?

A: Doctor

After years of pondering, I have come to believe that Sturgeon’s Law is more about the 10% that isn’t crap than the 90% that is. Forgetting the exact ratios for a moment, in every artform and every sporting contest, in every profession and every human endeavour, there is a distribution of quality in which a minority stands out as much better than the rest. We all know teachers who work that little bit harder to make their lessons interesting or the pharmacist who goes the extra mile to make sure that you understand your prescription. In my own profession—software engineering—only about 10% of engineers ever read a book about their craft once they leave college. This leads me to what I think is a more profound corollary to Sturgeon’s Law.

If you are a software engineer at the top of your game, you probably read books, attend conferences, study relentlessly to enhance your skills and engage in endless discussion on how to improve the state of the art of software craftsmanship.  Average software engineers do not do this but you are probably surrounded by the rare few who seek to be the best they can be. This is where the less obvious aspect of Sturgeon’s Law casts its insidious spell. When you meet people outside of your elite circle, they are more likely to be average than elite.

Most engineering managers have a similar disinclination to better themselves. The best of them are very good but most of them are not the best. Too many are merely average. When the very best of the software engineering profession looks at the competence of software engineering management, they sigh a little because most managers are not very good.

Oddly enough, the very best of software engineering managers have a symmetrical view of the engineers they manage. Most engineers are not very good either. This isn’t just true of software engineers and their managers; it’s true of QA engineers, product managers, and designers too. Most QA engineers think that most programmers suck at testing. It’s true. Most of them do. But most QA engineers suck at it too. To the best QA engineers, the average programmers seem like uncaring barbarians. And vice versa.

I should emphasize at this point that I am not suggesting that some people are better than others at everything. Even very great software engineers might suck at gardening or astronomy.

This corollary to Sturgeon’s Law pertains across so many domains where the best of folks surround themselves with other folks who are motivated to excel. The average person outside their circle contrasts poorly as a result. Consider a Kalenjin long distance runner from the Rift Valley in Kenya. He probably encounters other great runners almost every day of his life. Most of the people he runs with, eats with and loves with are also great runners. If our Kalenjin got on a plane to Helsinki, he’d probably be disappointed to find that most Finns are not great long-distance runners. Most of them are just average. Truth be told, most of the Kalenjin are probably average too but our guy doesn’t encounter them very often. He hangs with the elite when he is at home. Away from home he has less opportunity to be so picky. It was only when he went to Finland that he encountered so many people who were not elite runners. Finland has elite runners too of course (I fondly recall cheering for Lasse Virén at the Montreal Olympics) but you are not going to bump into them at the airport as you might when you are at the Kenyan School for Elite Runners.

It’s helpful at this point to remember that individuals are not statistics (The median is not the message in the memorable words of Stephen Gould). If you wanted to recruit a team of long-distance runners it wouldn’t be a great idea to fly off to the Rift Valley and round up the first 5 runners you came across. You’d probably have a very average running team. You’d be much better off choosing great runners wherever they hail from. Furthermore, if you had to choose between a Finnish runner and a Kenyan runner, there is no need to check their birth certificate or the colour of their skin when you decide which one should join your elite running team. You can actually race them and choose the one that runs the fastest. When you are dealing with individuals, you should concern yourself with their individual qualities, not with some arbitrary statistical correlation however accurate that may be. It might be true that the average Kenyan runs faster than the average Finn but—so what? You will never be in a situation where you have to choose between average individuals without some other evidence to inform your choice.

The insidious nature of statistical racism is magnified by confirmation bias. Once you have decided that Kenyans run faster than Finns, it’s all too easy to reinforce your prejudice by noticing all the data points that confirm your bias—Hey! There goes another fat, slow and lazy Finn!—and to overlook the occasions that contradict your instincts. There is a long, unfortunate history of people doing exactly this.

There’s a whole garden of isms that wither under Sturgeon’s steely gaze. My dentist (Hi, Dr Bobba!) has a lovely cartoon on the wall with a caption that says something like “Women will never make good dentists. Their wrists are too weak!”.

Put yourself in the perspective of a Victorian gentleman who just happens to be a very good dentist. All your friends are very good dentists. They all have a certain background in dentistry and very strong wrists. You probably have a quite distinct image of what a proper dentist looks like. The average woman of your acquaintance probably seems very un-dentist-like. She is probably very uninterested in dentistry and has very dainty wrists. If you had to choose a dentist based only on wrist strength, you’d be marginally better off choosing the dentist with the stronger wrists—in 1875. But in 2014, you can skip right past concerns about wrist strength and whether your dentist has the appropriate genitalia and just hire the one who is the best at dentistry. And Doctor Bobba *is* very good. Trust me on that.

More casually—in our everyday lives—we are surrounded at work by people who share a certain intellectual outlook on life. Maybe your colleagues are more interested in politics than the average citizen. Maybe your friends at the sports bar care an awful lot about the intricacies of the infield fly rule or exactly how many defenders need to be behind the ball before offside is called. They know more than the average Joe about sports and certainly more than the average wife. Does that mean that women don’t understand politics or sports? No, of course not. The median is not the message, remember? It means that the average wife—in fact, the average anyone—knows less about sports than the fanatics you hang out with at the sports bar.

Let’s try some more examples.

The average tourist who visits Paris from their friendly little town in Georgia will find most Parisians quite distant, abrupt and possibly rude. The literary Parisians that he encounters will surely conclude that tourists from Georgia know very little about French art and are quite uncultured.  If you repeat the experiment in the opposite direction and send a farmer to Atlanta from a little village in Provence I’ll wager the outcome will be identical. Repeat as necessary with Beijing, Nairobi, Melbourne and Rio.

The average kid who spent every evening of the 1970s browsing record stores for rare blues recordings is likely to be disappointed with the crap his kids listen to on The YouTube. And vice versa.

If you are really interested in US history, I bet you are disappointed with how little the kids of today know about your favourite topic. Guess what! They are disappointed in you too!

The average software developer who does not have a degree in computer science probably doesn’t know much about data structures and algorithms. Neither does the average CS graduate. Most of them slept through that class or forgot most of it the next day. More surprisingly, the average PhD is not very good at software engineering either unless they are working in their very narrow field of expertise. Of the best engineers I have ever worked with, only a few had a PhD or a Master’s degree in CS. Some had degrees in English or music and a good number had no degree at all. In fact, it’s quite amazing that many of the most famous people in software dropped out of college—or maybe that’s just my own confirmation bias playing tricks on me.

I expect the world would be a much happier place if people listened to their Uncle Sturgeon and relied on statistics and biases only when they prove useful. A statistical overview of a population can be helpful when you are deciding how to profitably market your new product or where to spend your campaign dollars or which college recruiting fair to attend. But if you are choosing an umpire for your baseball league or an anchor for your running team or a new hire for your software startup you’d do better to ignore the statistics and hire the individuals with the right skills for the job. To do otherwise is prejudice.

Songs Without Love

I was wondering what songs are about. Most of them are about love of course but what about the other ones?

Terry Gross had a dude on the other day who wrote songs about a bomb that went off his train carriage on the way to Machu Pichu. Abba won the 1974 Eurovision Song Context with a song about Waterloo. Are there any other songs about weird topics?

I haven’t done a fun science project for a while and I need to learn about the latest versions of Ruby & Rails & Elastic Search & D3 & Hicharts. I also want to dabble in some NLP stuff—sentiment analysis; classifiers; that kind of thing.

Here’s the TODO list:

* Grab every top 100 song since Al Martino in 1952.
* Grab all the lyrics to all the songs.
* Build a word cloud for each song.
* Build a word cloud for each week/year/decade.
* Do cluster analysis to find interesting topics.
* Write a classifier that can figure out what each song is about (love, war, bombs, whatever).
* Plot how that changes over time.
* Do sentiment analysis to see if songs are happy or sad.
* Plot how that changes over time.

The results will be here:


If you know Ruby (or want an excuse to learn) fork my repo and play along.


I need to get this finished by next year. The year after that at the very latest.

Moral Instincts Don’t Scale

Excellent idea that I never thought of before…

The first half of this bloggingheads video is about Paul Bloom experiments showing how very young babies have a well-developed moral sense. In the second half of the video, Paul & Bob discuss how well our moral instincts and emotions like justice, anger and empathy work in our everyday lives but how badly they scale up to interactions between nations.

No Apologies

I’ve developed a habit in recent years of getting so excited after reading the first few chapters of a book that I want to write a provisional review before I even really know what it’s about.

Two chapters into Unapolagetic, I was shouting yes! yes! yes! and couldn’t wait to capture my agreement in digital ink. I even, for the first time ever, used the highlight feature on my kindle so that I could accurately report all the many, many points that resonated with my own experience.

On one point in particular Spufford was singing my life with his words. When he described that transcendental moment when I meditate on the immensity of eternity – Spufford calls it ‘praying’ but, whatever – and I experience a little shimmer in the corner of my mind’s eye and suddenly everything makes sense and the whole universe lines up for my inspection and appreciation….  I didn’t know that other people experienced it too. I thought that was just me and I had no idea that some people called that shimmer ‘God’.

Seeing my secret thoughts in pixels, I was tremendously excited to document my assent to Spufford’s project which, as I understood it from tentatively supportive reviews by a couple of Christian bloggers that I follow, was to describe Christianity’s benefits in words that a non-Christian could identify with. I could get behind that project.

Real-life intervened though and the reviewable moment was lost. An emergency dash down to Santa Barbara later and the blogging window slammed shut. As I ploughed on through the next chapter on theodicy all my admiration fell away.

Spufford concedes that the problem of evil  is not a problem for atheists. It’s only a problem if you believe in one very specific kind of God: that is, a God who loves the world and is in full control of all the outcomes. There is no problem of evil if your God doesn’t care about children with cancer. Without love, there is no problem to be solved.

Likewise, there’s no problem with a God who cares an awful lot about you but is powerless to do much about it. That God would be lame and not much worthy of all the cathedrals that get built for him and he’d create all kinds of problems for his marketing department but he wouldn’t create any particular challenges for philosophers.

Since the God that Spufford worships is allegedly both omnipotent and benevolent, the problem of evil is a big problem indeed and Spufford absolutely demolishes all the usual excuses for why God allows evil to happen to good people. Let’s just say that if Spufford were in God’s marketing department, God would’ve fired him by now. Spufford works in mysterious ways.

I just went back to my Kindle to read over all the sections that I highlighted back when I thought  this was a great book. Spufford really is an astoundingly good writer. He wasn’t just singing my life; he was strumming my secret pain in ways that make me wonder if he isn’t in league with the NSA. I really want his project to succeed but chapters three and four make me despair for the whole liberal Christian project, cuddly new popes notwithstanding.

I’ll report back if I learn anything new.