Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Smell of Danger: Another study of the Blindlingly Obvious

I had an odd sense of deja vu when reading the headline Human noses 'can detect danger' . Didn't Gospodin Ivan Petrovic Pavlov work all that out all that stuff about conditioned/conditional reflexes back in the 1890/1900's?

So I looked at the abstract on the Science web-site to see if I could learn something new…

Learning to associate sensory cues with threats is critical for minimizing aversive experience.

OK, that makes sense…

The ecological benefit of associative learning relies on accurate perception of predictive cues, but how aversive learning enhances perceptual acuity of sensory signals, particularly in humans, is unclear.

Why is it unclear? Isn't that just the negative part of what Pavlov did – he could have rung his bell (or not, according to your version of history), and taken the dogs dinner away…

We combined multivariate functional magnetic resonance imaging with olfactory psychophysics to show that initially indistinguishable odor enantiomers (mirror-image molecules)

Ah, it's “enantiomers”, is it?

become discriminable after aversive conditioning, paralleling the spatial divergence of ensemble activity patterns in primary olfactory (piriform) cortex.


Our findings indicate that aversive learning induces piriform plasticity with corresponding gains in odor enantiomer discrimination,

Yeah, well, like, totally, dude…

underscoring the capacity of fear conditioning to update perceptual representation of predictive cues, over and above its well-recognized role in the acquisition of conditioned responses.

I hear the sound of hairs being split. Can the neurons tell the difference?

That completely indiscriminable sensations can be transformed into discriminable percepts further accentuates the potency of associative learning to enhance sensory cue perception and support adaptive behavior.

(eerie silence, wind whistles, tumble weed rolls by)

Oh, you've finished, sorry, I was doing something else whilst you were talking.

I just checked the Fog index which says that the abstract is only fit for somebody with an astonishing c.29 years of education. To be fair though, the bowdlerised version for us mere mortals on the Science magazine site is only 17 Fog units…

So what's new? Well nothing much as far as I can tell, maybe they've just painted in a tiny crack in the universe of knowledge – where possibly a simple inductive proof might have been sufficient.

It would have been much more interesting if they had managed to demonstrate that smell is the contrarian sense doesn't work like all the others. Then we can only imagine what the headlines would have been…

Easter Snow: Devant le Deluge

First an earthquake, now a White Easter, if I were superstitious, I should be expecting some further meteoro- geo- or otherological event to be coming up soon.

The snowy countryside is certainly pretty…
..but maybe it could presage the inundation of the low-lying lands by the rising seas.

In that event, the Lincolnshire Wolds where I live (ringed in yellow on the map below), would become an island off the east coast of South Yorkshire.


Almost serendipitously, I read that the Met Office launched its new “traffic light” severe weather warning system, which was rushed out a day early to announce the snow-storms over the weekend.

I am sure that traffic light afficionados, highways engineers, and railway signalling engineers all over the country will be grinding their teeth because it really is nothing like a proper traffic light at all. It does have the good old red and green, which do not work for the one in 10 red-green colour blind men in the population, but bizarrely, it has both yellow and orange aspects, just to confuse the other 90% of the population. Very democratic, but not very ergnonomic.

My wife and I have been telling the neighbours for some time that we are going to build a jetty at the end of the lane and park a boat there ready for the floods. So in anticipation of the Deluge, and our future status as island dwellers, it seems an appropriate moment to take a leaf from the Met Office book and create a localised version of the Severe Weather Warning System, below. The legend is helpfully mostly coloured blue…


20-20 Hindsight: who needs it?

I have recently been reading “Plundering the Public Sector” by David Craig and Richard Brooks, and now halfway through have been getting more and more irritated with the adversarial tone of the book, and its tendency to shower blame everywhere in unequal amounts.

UK Public Sector projects are usually particularly large (Connecting for Health is quoted as being the largest civilian IT project ever), and inevitably have all the challenges you might expect, and more of them after that.

When discussing the risk profile of projects, I usually use a 2D chart that expresses the two primary dimensions of Work Complexity and Business/Organisational Complexity, a framework drawn from my experience of programme management in large organisations.

The usual chart looks like this:


The Work Complexity dimension registers risks like complex technology, logistical scale, dynamic market environment, whereas the Organisation/Business risk dimension registers such factors as poor communication across fragmented, stove-piped structures and populations, divided loyalties, parochial viewpoints and so on, that arise in any large organisation (driven in the main by human nature in all its forms).

However, for monster public sector projects, I would recast it like this:


The black area represents the terra incognita where overall risk is extermely high due to the sheer size and people complexity, and other factors which have rarely been experienced before.

Blame-shifting and adversarial attitude are not helpful in the context of programme management, especially when exercised with 20:20 hindsight.

However, agile development methods show the way things can be if they are done right. These methods are rooted in the early insights of people like Barry Boehm, a god of software engineering who brought us this…


and this…


Iterative risk managemnt approach embedded methods can also be applied to business projects as well as pure development.

Maybe the book will get better and more evenly balanced as I read further, and maybe even propose some solutions, but, for now, having incurred my ire, it has been relegated to the bottom of the pile in the throne room where

From Antiques to Comedy Electronics

Horncastle in Lincolnshire is quite well-known for its antiques shops where you can filch through piles of broken crockery, dusty books, rusty buckets and dead peoples sheets.

It is less well-known as a venue for comedy electronics. However appearances can be deceptive, as indeed I discovered when wandering through the town centre in the vain hope I might find a shop selling something less than ancient.

I was actually looking a phono-to-3.5mm jack convertor cable, but when I saw this…
…I had to have it.

No chance of losing this one down the back of the sofa!