Everything in Coherence

Learning, consciousness and evolution.

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Rowing antiques in paradise: the 2022 World Pilot Gig Championships

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The colourful, charismatic and sea drenched World Pilot Gig Championships takes place annually over the May Day bank holiday weekend on the Isles of Scilly, England’s most southerly point and home to its highest concentration of beaches from which to launch rowing boats (probably). This year is the 31st WPGC, April 29 to May 1 2022, the first since 2019 with a reduced capacity of 120 gigs, down from the record 160+ gigs1 in the last event due to capacity and safety as opposed to plague or declining popularity.

For 3 days, the streets of Hugh Town, St Mary’s, are heaving with boats on trailers, crews making preparations and spectators searching for a good vantage point. The water is the scene of intense competition between rowers from across southern England and some of the rest of the globe. The islands’ supermarket, an excellent little Coop, is a bottleneck for the crowds, a lesson...

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Y'a d'la joie

ME    What’s that from?
DONNY   What?
ME    That tune you just whistled?
DONNY   Why, do you know it?
ME    Yes, it’s from an advert isn’t it? Wait a minute, it’ll come to me…

And so began a 6 year search for an earworm, a tune vivid in my mind, clear in the mind of my fellow PhD student, Donny, but apparently unknown to the rest of humanity.

The song, so far as I could remember it, was a cheerful, old-fashioned piece. There was no singer, but I remember a small band or orchestra backing a lead wind instrument, perhaps a clarinet or an oboe. To my ears it sounded like some light entertainment music from the 1930s or 1940s; of a style and age where the composer and performers would almost certainly be unknown to me.

After racking our brains thinking of when we’d first heard it (mid to late nineties we reckoned) and which TV commercial it might be from, we resorted to the web. This...

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I love running

My body is never so machine-like nor so precious as when I run. On leaving the house on a cold morning, in shorts and T-shirt, I’m like a freshly pupated moth emerging from my chrysalis. The outside world feels hostile; I’m uncomfortable and vulnerable. As I begin to run, my stiff limbs reluctantly do what they’re told, whilst the wind gets to work stripping any residual heat from the surface of my skin.

The first minute or so is a series of questions: do I really want to do this; which route should I take; have I gone off too quickly; when will I start to warm up? This is because my body is still in its rest state. I believe my body has different modes that it switches between: run, rest, eat, focus, sex etc. The switches are slow and analogue, but being in a given state makes that activity easier and more natural. It took me years to appreciate this. After a couple more minutes of...

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I’m only as good as my average

Everyone has good days. You’re focused and creative and the work you produce is great. That’s the work that best reflects you; it’s the way you want to be known and remembered.

Except, this is an illusion. It has gradually dawned on me that I can’t wait until I feel perfect before I start work on a particularly beloved or difficult project. The opportunity cost is too great. I must accept that I’m not as good as my best; I’m only as good as my average.

This is not to say that I don’t pay any attention to the way I’m feeling. I still chew gum and drink coffee to improve focus. I still look for easy tasks like filing, shredding and organising when I’m feeling particularly wretched. I still call it a day when struggling with a problem that only a good night’s sleep can solve. But I’ve stopped waiting for that perfect feeling and learned to just enjoy it when it happens. The key to...

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Foraging in space, data and mind

Optimal foraging theory has always fascinated me. It is an attempt to formalise and explain how animals allocate time and energy to best exploit the resources within their environment. Thus an animal judges how to offset the energy it loses whilst searching for and handling food against the energy it gains from consuming food. The basic assumption, as with all optimality models, is that the animal makes perfect decisions based on the information available. This assumption, along with the extreme simplicity of many attempts to model foraging behaviour, has led some to dismiss the theory as irrelevant. In terms of predictive power, it’s difficult to argue with this position: foraging is hard to quantify in anything other than the most simplistic and contrived of scenarios. For me, however, the beauty of the theory is not in its predictive power, but in the rich vocabulary it offers for...

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Parents as wisdom filters

It is sometimes said that children are the effortless, unencumbered philosophers that we wish we could be, delivering queries on free will, consciousness and the nature of time. But I have discovered their secret. For every intellectual jewel there’s a tonne of rubble to sift through: “Why do I have to wear trousers?”, “Are we there yet?”, “Would you like to eat my smelly socks?”. If children produce nuggets of wisdom, it is because parents are panning for gold.

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Initial Conditions

What John Conway’s ‘life’ teaches us about data compression, gene expression and the description of organisms

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The mathematician John Conway is responsible for a simple but thought-provoking game called ‘life’ that has become a popular tool for demonstrating how complexity can emerge from the simplest of rules. Life is not, strictly speaking, a game, rather it is a type of model – a cellular automaton – that comprises a two-dimensional grid and a set of rules which determine the status (‘alive’ or 'dead’) of each cell across successive generations. The rules are as follows:

  • Isolation: less than 2 live neighbours kills a cell
  • Overcrowding: more than 3 live neighbours kills a cell
  • Goldilocks: 2 or 3 live neighbours allows a cell to stay alive
  • Birth: dead cells with precisely 3 live neighbours come to life

Whilst most starting configurations result in patterns of activity that quickly...

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Tram tales

During the period from 2008 to 2014, I spent a great deal of time commuting into Sheffield on the Supertram. It was a reasonably long journey – around 40 minutes each way – which afforded plenty of time to think and observe, and after a while I got into the habit of writing tweets to pass the time. It was a bit like a game or a puzzle: I’d spot something interesting and attempt to distil what I saw into 140 characters. Tram travel is a fairly mundane affair, but I found that it holds its own unique and understated interest and I attempted to convey some of that in my tweets. At the time, people were kind enough to say that they enjoyed reading them and some people suggested that I compile them. For me they hold a certain sentimental value being as they are a record of my often dreary commutes through Sheffield: a city that for all its architectural mishaps has a special charm that is...

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Thinking outside the brain: problem-solving, hardware evolution and embodied cognition

In his 1999 book, the geneticist Steve Jones describes a problem with industrial soap production that he encountered as a young man. The process involved blowing liquid through a nozzle at high pressure in order to produce soap powder. Due to nozzle’s imperfect shape, it was prone to clogging and a better design was sought; however, designing a three dimensional shape that would work more efficiently and consistently than the original was beyond the skills of the engineers, such are the challenges of fluid dynamics. Despite this, a better nozzle was eventually created and the method employed in finding its shape neatly encapsulates the process of evolutionary problem solving:

Take a nozzle that works quite well and make copies, each changed at random. Test them for how well they make powder. Then, impose a struggle for existence by insisting that not all can survive. Many of the altered...

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A trip to the supermarket

Shopping on a Saturday night is a quiet affair; most people have better things to do. I don’t. I choose to take advantage of the calm conditions. On my way, I listen to loud dance music in the car. An old couple in the car park give me a wary glance and I realise that the bassy music is intimidating. As I emerge from the car, their anxiety melts away at the sight of my scarf and driving glasses. No danger here, just a head buzzing with reverse cymbal, a sound that is surprisingly hard to get out of one’s mind: reverse cymbal as I inspect the cauliflowers; reverse cymbal as I browse the tinned fish. Nobody notices the incongruity of my internal soundtrack in the sedate, brightly lit aisles, but I do. There’s no one to get in my way so I take my time and do a careful shop, and I start to grow attached to the contents of the trolley. What if someone made off with the trolley? I’d lose all...

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