Excellence is about improving the best – not of mitigating the worst

September 14, 2017

” Excellence” is always about performance. It also always implies a measurement – not necessarily quantitative – of performance against a “mean” or a “standard” value for such performance. It is not merely about “doing your best” without also surpassing existing standards.   I hesitate to call this a definition of excellence but it is a view of excellence. Continuous improvement is inbuilt in this view of “excellence”, since every time an “average” performance is exceeded, the “average” must shift. Searching for excellence thus requires continuously improving performance whether for an individual or a company or for a society. “Quality” means having some attribute to a higher (improved) level than some standard. “Excellence” is thus closely linked to “quality”. A search for excellence often implies – but not always – a search for improving quality. A value judgement of what is a “better” performance or a “higher” quality is inherent when considering excellence.

image Aberdeen Performing Arts

What is often forgotten is that searching for excellence is all about improving the best, not of eliminating or mitigating the worst. This often becomes a political or ideological matter where resources are spent at the bottom end of the performance scale. That actually becomes a search for the lowest common level and not a search for excellence. It is not possible to search for excellence and simultaneously denounce the elite. Excellence requires an elite.

Evolution by natural selection is not primarily about excellence. The only “performance” factor involved is that of maximising the survivability of an individual’s gene-set. Excellence achieved of any other performance parameter or attribute is accidental. Natural selection, then, is effectively silent about excellence but is not necessarily a bar to excellence. Artificial selection – on the other hand – is all about excellence of some particular attribute or performance parameter (breeding for strength or speed or intelligence or some other genetic factor in dogs for example).

To search for excellence, whether as an individual or as an organisation requires all three of motivation, opportunity and capability. The search fails if any one is missing. It starts with motivation – the desire to act. It can be entirely an internal thing to an individual or it can be due to external events or forces. Without motivation, opportunities are invariably missed and capabilities wastefully unused. Opportunities however are not just random events. They may occur by accident but they can – sometimes – be created and then they can even be designed. Ultimately performance improves and attributes are enhanced by actions. And actions are always constrained by capabilities. The best possible performance is always constrained to be the best performance possible.

The most common, universal barrier is that motivation is lacking. Some performance parameter or attribute is not given sufficient value. Value may be given by peers or generated internally by the performer. Without value being accorded, any motivation to search for excellence of that attribute or performance then withers. By corollary, if poor performance is not a disadvantage, then deterioration is not discouraged either (unless perhaps some minimum threshold value is reached).

Schools must consider both the excellence of individual performance and that of all students as  a group and that of learning as a concept. There can be perceived conflicts of interest here. In most schools more resources are often spent on the weakest group to bring their performance up towards the average. Being close to the average then becomes good enough. The weak students are dragged up towards the average and the strong students – if not self-motivated – drift down towards the average. They often miss the simple arithmetical fact that improving the performance of the best students provides a far greater improvement both for all the individuals and for the group and for learning in general. Often they are hampered by ideological constraints.

In large groups of individuals, whether in commercial enterprises or bureaucracies or health care or sports clubs, excellence still depends upon motivation, opportunity and capability. Clearly, if the target for which excellence is sought is not clear then there is no excellence achieved. It is much easier for a commercial enterprise to define performance parameters or attributes in which excellence is to be sought. They have also the greatest freedom of action in providing motivation, creating opportunities or acquiring capabilities. Bureaucracies are often process keepers. Excellence becomes a very diffuse concept to define. It is difficult to even conceive of excellence when the only parameters which count are minimum level of service at lowest cost.

Excellence is about improving the best – not of mitigating the worst.



Hurricane activity IS linked to solar cycles

September 9, 2017
Hurricane activity IS connected to the solar cycle.
………. years with positive SSN anomalies featuring high peripheral month sunspot numbers but low in-season numbers have, on average, significantly more (79%) US hurricanes. The SSN anomaly was shown to be statistically significant in models for US hurricanes and US major hurricanes after accounting for the other climate variables.
We are coming to the end of Solar Cycle 24 (“low in-season numbers”) but are seeing some major solar storm activity. It would seem that the conditions for hight hurricane activity are again fulfilled.
In 2010, the hurricane image was remarkably like the one being currently seen.

2010 Vs 2017 Hurricanes (image Fox)

Even before the 2010 hurricane season, this article in the International Journal of Climatology found a clear connection with the Sea Surface temperature (SST) and the solar cycle.
The relationship between US hurricanes and solar activity is investigated empirically. First, a relationship between the probability of a US hurricane and the solar cycle is shown conditional on sea surface temperatures (SST). For years of above normal SST, the probability of three or more US hurricanes decreases from 40 to 20% as sunspot numbers (SSN) increase from lower to upper quartile amounts. Second, since SST is in phase with the 11-year total solar irradiance cycle but upper-air temperature is in phase with ultraviolet radiation changes on the monthly time scale, an anomaly index of SSN is constructed. The index is significantly correlated with US hurricanes and major US hurricanes over the period 1866-2008. The chances of at least one hurricane affecting the United States in the lowest and highest SSN anomaly seasons are 68 and 91%, respectively. A similar relationship is noted using hurricane records spanning the period 1749-1850, providing independent corroborating evidence linking solar variability to the probability of a US hurricane.
Right now we are approaching the end of Solar Cycle 24

Solar Cycle 22 to 24 (image Hathaway NASA/Marshall)

The Sun is the ultimate driver of climate. 
As the authors write in their conclusions
The evidence for a sun–hurricane relationship was further bolstered by showing that a similar relationship between the SSN anomaly and US hurricanes (years of high SSN anomaly have more US hurricanes) is detectable in an archive of Atlantic hurricanes dating back to 1749. ………. 

Some marvellous inventions that changed my world (and are now obsolete)

September 3, 2017

Marvellous inventions that changed my world and which are now obsolete. (Dates are when I came across the invention).

  • 1959 – My first fountain pen
  • 1960 – first biro (not quite obsolete yet)
  • 1961 – Kodak box camera
  • 1962 – birthday present of a Sony transistor radio
  • 1963 – My own book of log tables
  • 1964 – a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder (which I could play backwards!)
  • 1966 – a Faber-Castell slide rule
  • 1967 – allowed to use a Curta mechanical rotary calculator
  • 1968 – a Kodak Instamatic
  • 1969 – a casette tape recorder
  •  1972 – a Sinclair pocket calculator
  • 1974 – allowed to share a Hewlett-Packard 9100A desktop
  • 1975 – allowed to use a PDP-11 mini-computer
  • 1976 – using a Telex machine
  • 1977 – a Sony Betamax video player
  • 1978 – a Polaroid camera
  • 1980 – used a facsimile machine (G1)
  • 1983 – first PC (not obsolete yet)
  • 1984 – used a fax machine (G3)
  • 1989 – First Nokia talkphone (model now well obsolete)

image birmingham history

and the rest is still unfolding.


Early hominins left Africa 6 million years ago

September 3, 2017

A foot print found in Crete is probably that of an early hominid and was made 5.7 million years ago.

The single Out-of-Africa theory sometime around 70,000 years ago is already obsolete. It was more likely to have been multiple hominin crossings out of Africa into both Europe and Asia. The expansion of homo sapiens sapiens is more likely to have been in  at least two waves out of Africarabia.  Homo erectus appeared around 2 million years ago while homo sapiens appeared about 1 million years ago.  Homo sapiens sapiens then split from homo sapiens neanderthalensis around 600,000 years ago. So the footprint found is that of a human ancestor after the split with chimpanzees (c. 8-9 million years ago), after the beginning of bipedalism but well before homo erectus appeared.

image from physorg

The paper is

Gerard D. Gierlińskia et al., Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete? Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.006

As the Uppsala University  press release puts it:

….. Ever since the discovery of fossils of Australopithecus in South and East Africa during the middle years of the 20th century, the origin of the human lineage has been thought to lie in Africa. More recent fossil discoveries in the same region, including the iconic 3.7 million year old Laetoli footprints from Tanzania which show human-like feet and upright locomotion, have cemented the idea that hominins (early members of the human lineage) not only originated in Africa but remained isolated there for several million years before dispersing to Europe and Asia. The discovery of approximately 5.7 million year old human-like footprints from Crete, published online this week by an international team of researchers, overthrows this simple picture and suggests a more complex reality. …….

The new footprints, from Trachilos in western Crete, have an unmistakably human-like form. This is especially true of the toes. The big toe is similar to our own in shape, size and position; it is also associated with a distinct ‘ball’ on the sole, which is never present in apes. The sole of the foot is proportionately shorter than in the Laetoli prints, but it has the same general form. In short, the shape of the Trachilos prints indicates unambiguously that they belong to an early hominin, somewhat more primitive than the Laetoli trackmaker. They were made on a sandy seashore, possibly a small river delta, whereas the Laetoli tracks were made in volcanic ash. …….

…… During the time when the Trachilos footprints were made, a period known as the late Miocene, the Sahara Desert did not exist; savannah-like environments extended from North Africa up around the eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, Crete had not yet detached from the Greek mainland. It is thus not difficult to see how early hominins could have ranged across south-east Europe and well as Africa, and left their footprints on a Mediterranean shore that would one day form part of the island of Crete.

‘This discovery challenges the established narrative of early human evolution head-on and is likely to generate a lot of debate. Whether the human origins research community will accept fossil footprints as conclusive evidence of the presence of hominins in the Miocene of Crete remains to be seen,’ says Per Ahlberg.


We describe late Miocene tetrapod footprints (tracks) from the Trachilos locality in western Crete (Greece), which show hominin-like characteristics. They occur in an emergent horizon within an otherwise marginal marine succession of Messinian age (latest Miocene), dated to approximately 5.7 Ma (million years), just prior to the Messinian Salinity Crisis. The tracks indicate that the trackmaker lacked claws, and was bipedal, plantigrade, pentadactyl and strongly entaxonic. The impression of the large and non-divergent first digit (hallux) has a narrow neck and bulbous asymmetrical distal pad. The lateral digit impressions become progressively smaller so that the digital region as a whole is strongly asymmetrical. A large, rounded ball impression is associated with the hallux. Morphometric analysis shows the footprints to have outlines that are distinct from modern non-hominin primates and resemble those of hominins. The interpretation of these footprints is potentially controversial. The print morphology suggests that the trackmaker was a basal member of the clade Hominini, but as Crete is some distance outside the known geographical range of pre-Pleistocene hominins we must also entertain the possibility that they represent a hitherto unknown late Miocene primate that convergently evolved human-like foot anatomy.


Stealth technology causes blindness?

August 28, 2017

In 2004, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F Kennedy ran over a dhow in the Persian Gulf.

Nothing untoward then till 2017:

  • In January, the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay. There were no casualties, but eleven hundred gallons of oil were dumped into the water.
  • May 9th the cruiser U.S.S. Lake Champlain collided with a fishing boat off the east coast of South Korea. Again, no casualties.
  • June 17th the destroyer U.S.S. Fitzgerald collided with a Filipino container ship in the waters off Japan. Seven sailors were killed, three more injured.
  • On 27th August, the U.S.S. John S McCain collided with a civilian oil tanker near Singapore. Ten sailors are missing, presumed dead. Five more sailors were injured.

A natural consequence of stealth technology?

If you think nobody else can see you, then you stop seeing others.


Sunday morning blues

August 27, 2017

The world is a round hole and I am square.


Big Brother was an amateur compared to Google

August 24, 2017

George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949.

In his fictional world every citizen is under constant surveillance by the authorities, where everybody knows that  “Big Brother is watching you”.  And Big Brother is not worried. He says “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.”

In many ways, Big Brother was an amateur compared to Google.

But, not to worry.

Google’s heart is pure.



Safest drivers are aged 75 and the young are much riskier than even the 90-year-olds

August 20, 2017

Age discrimination against the elderly is widespread and institutionalised in Europe.

There are calls in some countries (including Sweden) for elderly drivers to be retested. Sweden does suffer from a youth fetish and the experience of the elderly is often wasted and replaced by younger incompetence. Yet, the statistics do not support these bigoted calls.


Above 80, the risk of causing a traffic accident increases. But those who call for testing of the  driving ability of the elderly have not studied the statistics. The risk of a traffic accident is least at 75, according to insurance claims statistics. ………. 
By a long way the really young have the highest risk of causing a traffic accident with their own car.  The risk that an 18-19 year old will cause a car accident is 3.5 times higher than the average. The risk then falls sharply down to around twice the average at the age of 30 according to the claims statistics of the insurance companies. These are statistically sound figures, largely confirmed by Folksam, taking into account, for example, that older people drive less. From around 40 to 80 years, the risk is close to the average. The lowest risk behavior is reached at 75 years, when the risk of having a car accident …. is about 20 percent lower than the average before it rises again and increases with age. …… 
But even though the risk increases at the end of the age curve, a 90-year-old is no more dangerous in traffic than a 35-year-old.  Last year, the Transport Agency initiated an investigation to see whether the regulations should change. One way to go is mandatory health checks at a certain age, another is an extension of the doctors’ reporting obligation. According to the Transport Agency, the investigation is expected to be completed sometime in spring 2018. But Tania Dukic Willstrand, who is studying the elderly in traffic at the State Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI), is doubtful. Other countries have introduced mandatory tests by elderly drivers. “And it has not shown increased road safety,” she says. 
Those over 80, just as younger drivers, pay a higher premium for insurance as a reflection of the risk. Even 40-50-year-olds have slightly higher insurance rate. “It’s the age when the youngsters begin to borrow mothers and dads cars,” said Dan Falconer.

Data from the US also shows much the same thing. The safest drivers are around 75 years old. But even at 90 years old they are much safer than the 18-19 year old drivers. (AAA study).


Counting on fingers leads naturally also to base-60

August 19, 2017

We have forgotten what it was like to count on our fingers. We have forgotten that counting itself was a mystery long before the mysteries of manipulation of numbers and the magic of mathematics. Yet the use of base-60 lies deep in our psyches. We still use it for time measurement and for geographical and spatial measurements. Attempts to use decimals for time and angle measurement have all failed miserably. Sixty still occurs in ancient Chinese and Indian calendars.

Today the use of 60 still predominates for time, for navigation and geometry. But generally only for units already defined in antiquity. A base of 10 is used for units found to be necessary in more recent times. Subdivision of a second of time or a second of arc is always using the decimal system rather than by the duodecimal or the sexagesimal system.

Usually the origin of sexagesimal systems of counting are traced back to the Babylonians (c. 1,800 BCE) and even to the Sumerians (c. 3,000 – 2,500 BCE). But I suspect that it goes back much further and that base-60 long precedes the Babylonians and the Sumerians.

I observe that twelve and then sixty come naturally from three factors:

  1. using fingers for counting,
  2. maximising the count with only one hand free, and
  3. the growth of trade and the need for counts of greater than 20

That five comes naturally from the fingers of one hand is self-evident. With only one free hand, a count to twelve using the thumb and the digits of the other four fingers is also self-evident. I saw my great grandmother, and my grandmother after her, regularly count to twelve using only one hand. Sixty comes naturally from a hand of five of a hand of twelve. Counting to five and twelve would have been well known to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It seems very plausible that a hunter would look to maximise the count on a single hand. So, it is not necessary to look for the origins of base-60 in the skies or in the length of the year or the number of its divisors or the beginnings of geometry. If the origins of counting lie some 50,000 years ago, the use of twelve and then of sixty probably goes back some 20,000 years.

The origins of base 60

I like 60. Equilaterals. Hexagons. Easy to divide by almost anything. Simple integers for halves, quarters, thirds, fifths, sixths, tenths, 12ths, 15ths and 30ths. 3600. 60Hz. Proportions pleasing to the eye. Recurring patterns. Harmonic. Harmony.

The origins of the use of base 60 are lost in the ancient past. By the time the Sumerians used it about 2,500 years ago it was already well established and continued through the Babylonians. But the origin lies much earlier.

hand of 5I speculate that counting – in any form more complex than “one, two, many….” – probably goes back around 50,000 years. I have little doubt that the fingers of one hand were the first counting aids that were ever used, and that the base 10 given by two hands came to dominate. Why then would the base 60 even come into being?

The answer, I think, still lies in one hand. Hunter-gatherers when required to count would prefer to use only one hand and they must – quite early on and quite often – have had the need for counting to numbers greater than five. And of course using the thumb as pointer one gets to 12 by reckoning up the 3 bones on each of the other 4 fingers.

a hand of 12 - image sweetscience

a hand of 12 – image sweetscience

My great-grandmother used to count this way when checking the numbers of vegetables (onions, bananas, aubergines) bought by her maid at market. Counting up to 12 usually sufficed for this. When I was a little older, I remember my grandmother using both hands to check off bags of rice brought in from the fields – and of course with two hands she could get to 144. The counting of 12s most likely developed in parallel with counting in base 10 (5,10, 50, 100). The advantageous properties of 12 as a number were fortuitous rather than by intention. But certainly the advantages helped in the persistence of using 12 as a base. And so we still have a dozen (12) and a gross (12×12) and even a great gross (12x12x12) being used today. Possibly different groups of ancient man used one or other of the systems predominantly. But as groups met and mixed and warred or traded with each other the systems coalesced.

hands for 60

And then 60 becomes inevitable. Your hand of 5, with my hand of 12, gives the 60 which also persists into the present.  (There is one theory that 60 developed as 3 x 20, but I think finger counting and the 5 x 12 it leads to is far more compelling). But it is also fairly obvious that the use of 12 must be prevalent first before the 60 can appear. Though the use of 60 seconds and 60 minutes are all pervasive, it is worth noting that they can only come after each day and each night is divided into 12 hours.

While the use of base 10 and 12 probably came first with the need for counting generally and then for trade purposes (animals, skins, weapons, tools…..), the 12 and the 60 came together to dominate the measuring and reckoning of time. Twelve months to a year with 30 days to a month. Twelve hours to a day or a night and 60 parts to the hour and 60 parts to those minutes. There must have been a connection – in time as well as in the concepts of cycles – between the “invention” of the calendar and the geometrical properties of the circle. The number 12 has great significance in Hinduism, in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam. The 12 Adityas, the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 days of Christmas, the 12 Imams are just examples. My theory is that simple sun and moon-based religions gave way to more complex religions only after symbols and writing appeared and gave rise to symbolism. ……… 

If we had six fingers on each hand the decimal system would never have seen the light of day. A millisecond would then be 1/ 1728th of a second. It is a good thing we don’t have 7 fingers on each hand, or – even worse – one hand with 6 fingers and one with 7. Arithmetic with a tridecimal system of base 13 does not entice me. But if I was saddled with 13 digits on my hands I would probably think differently.



Some realism returns to the Indian energy debate

August 18, 2017

There has been a demonisation of carbon dioxide which goes beyond the ridiculous. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere lags temperature amd man-made carbon dioxide emissions are largely irrelevant to climate. Allied to the bloated hype about renewables, this has led to an anti-carbon imperialism which represents politically correct dogma. India has also been overwhelmed – in public – by the new religion. Of course India managed to ensure that domestic coal utilisation could be tripled while still complying with the sanctimonious, but meaningless, Paris agreement (note that China can double its coal consumption under the agreement). Publicly, however, it was not acceptable to admit reality. Fortunately, there are some signs of reality creeping back into the public energy utterances in India.

The Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India has confirmed the importance of coal and criticised the “carbon imperialism” that is being religiously disseminated. The hidden costs of renewables are not to be ignored.

Arvind Subramanian slams carbon imperialism, calls for global coal alliance

Arvind Subramanian says coal will remain the primary source of energy for India in the short to medium term as it remains the cheapest energy source for development needs

Coal will and should remain the primary source of energy for India in the short to medium term as the fossil fuel remains the cheapest source of energy for India’s development needs, chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian said on Thursday.

Renewable energy, on the other hand, comes with hidden costs, Subramanian said in a lecture organised by think tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Subramanian called for setting up a global coalition for clean coal technology, mirroring the international solar alliance, which could find ways of sustainable use of coal in power generation.

“India needs coal in the short to medium term. Renewable sources must be part of the energy mix but they also come with hidden costs, which should not be overlooked in our headlong embrace with renewables,” said Subramanian.

India cannot allow the narrative of “carbon imperialism” to come in the way of realistic, rational planning for the country’s energy future, he added.

Subramanian’s call for caution in the adoption of renewable energy comes at a time when many state power utilities are forcing solar power developers to lower their power tariffs in a market where tariff discovered in subsequent auctions keep declining.

Although the solar power tariff keeps declining due to a fall in imported solar panel costs, renewable power projects bear the extra cost of power storage equipment. However, industrial consumers, which bear cross-subsidy for domestic consumers, find solar power cost attractive. This leads to reduced capacity utilisation of coal-based thermal power plants, adding to the stress in the power sector.

“Coal will remain and should remain. The time is ripe for creating a green and clean coal coalition mirroring the (international) solar alliance. That, rather than unconscionable calls to phase out India’s cheapest source of energy, will serve the cause of climate change and India’s development needs,” said Subramanian.

The chief economic advisor also said that policy decisions on coal and renewable sources of energy have to be taken jointly as these two are connected. Declining prices of renewable energy is threatening to upend the thermal power sector as prices are renegotiated by distribution companies, which themselves are in stress, Subramanian said. This renegotiation could transfer the stress in the power distribution sector to the renewable energy sector.

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, who was present on the occasion, said the country’s energy policy was forward looking and was adequate to achieve overall economic growth as it captures the linkage between economy, environment and social development.

India meets its Paris emissions commitments (which are measured per capita) not so much by reducing coal use but by increasing the proportion of nuclear and renewable stations.

Institute of Energy Research

Between 2006 and 2016, 139 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity was brought on-line. A record 21 gigawatts of new coal capacity was built in 2015, and almost another 18 gigawatts in 2016. The planned construction of an additional 178 gigawatts would make it nearly impossible for India to meet its climate promises. By developing all of the planned coal-fired capacity, India would increase its coal generating capacity by 123 percent.


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