Snoopers’ Charter

Just a short one – I finished my time in Okinawa on 31st March and have since made my triumphant return to the UK. Things have been remarkably hectic since then – I’ve been job hunting, house hunting, and everyone I know seems to be getting married and having stag parties. All fun and games, but my productivity has taken a serious hit… at some point I’ll get round to posting more neuroscience stuff. Possibly.

Before then, the Snoopers’ Charter is back in the news after the recent Tory election victory, with Theresa May yearning to gorge herself on our beautiful, private data. I wrote to my MP Steve Brine, though his parliamentary voting record goes against pretty much all of my opinions, so I don’t have much hope that I’ll make any difference. I can but try. You should too, it’s pretty easy: just follow this link, enter your postcode and mash your face into your keyboard for a few minutes. Here’s the text of my message:

Dear Mr. Brine,

Judging by your voting record we disagree on many issues, but I hope we can find some common ground here. I am extremely concerned about the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (aka Snoopers’ Charter). It appears to be a gross breach of civil liberties and an attack on our Article 8 right to privacy. This goes against the traditional Conservative stance against government overreach and conservative values of individual liberty, effectively making everyone a suspected criminal.

On a more practical note, I am unconvinced by Theresa May’s arguments that the mass collection  of our data is in any way necessary for our security, especially given the large cost of implementing such a system. The government did not make a compelling case for this when the original legislation was proposed a few years ago, and nothing has changed since then.

I urge you against support of the Charter in any form it might take, and ask that you clarify your own position on the issue.

If you would like further information on the Snoopers’ Charter, please visit www.reinst8.org/StopSnooping

Yours sincerely,

Dr Richard Tomsett

PhD done, moved to Okinawa

Hello everybody!

I realise I haven’t done a post since last September, which I believe is long enough to declare this blog legally dead. Fortunately I am trained in internet CPR and am able to kickstart the heart of this here blogging enterprise using my natural guile, expert medical training, and the WordPress “add new post” button. In my defense, I have been finishing off my thesis, which has now been submitted, scrutinised, corrected, resubmitted, re-scrutinised, and finally deemed worthy by the Powers That Be, which means I am now officially Dr. Richard Tömsett, PhD.

In more interesting developments, I have moved away from the City of Dreams to the wonderful island of Okinawa to start a 1 year postdoctoral research thingy at OIST (many thanks to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for moneys). I’m lucky enough to have been to Okinawa before, in 2011 when I did the Okinawa Computational Neuroscience Course. They have a beer vending machine. Insanity. Anyway, a big attraction of Okinawa is the beaches and sunshine, but of course it’s been raining pretty much since I arrived so far. The university itself is pretty sexy though.

There are already plenty of pictures of how sexy and nice Okinawa is so I thought I’d mainly post pictures of things that tickled me about Japan. Behold, the chewing gum that, when you put it in your mouth, gives you “special breath”:

Special Breath Chewing Gum

Your breath, it will be special

As I haven’t posted for ages, you get the bonus treat of the magical toilet that has a sink on top of it, so when you flush, you can wash your hands and not waste any water! Ingenious

Postgraduate students are rich

I used the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ “where do you fit in” calculator the other day, which, given your household size, number of dependent children, council tax and post-tax earnings, calculates your income in relation to the rest of the UK population. Though the standard research council annual stipend of £13 590 doesn’t sound much compared to what other graduates are expected to earn, it is income-tax and NI free, and as a student I pay no council tax. I also live in the City of Dreams, where the cost of living is not so high as other parts of the UK (though the calculator doesn’t look at this). What are my results?

I live with one other similarly-funded student, so I entered a combined household income of £28 000 (a few hundred extra each per year for teaching/marking), 0 children and £0 council tax. This means my household has a higher income than 66% of the population (red bar in image below).

UK income distribution histogram

UK income distribution

Not bad for students eh? If we had one dependent child aged 0-14, the calculator estimates we’d have a greater income than 52% of the population.

Other thoughts: If I lived on my own, my household income would be greater than 49% of the population. If I quit now, moved into a flat on my own and got a graduate software development job at, say £30 000 a year (pre-tax), depending on my council tax (I’ll assume ~£2 000) and assuming I was making full student loan repayments, my household income would be more than 68% of the population.

Conclusion

  • Research council funded PhD students are really quite well off
  • Children are expensive

Oh, those gays and their “marriage”

Following the wonderful and happy Xmas messages from Archbishop Vincent Nichols* and the Pope**, we have judge and founder of pseudo-charity The Marriage Foundation*** Sir Paul Coleridge weighing in on the same-sex marriage “debate”:

“So much energy and time has been put into this debate for 0.1% of the population, when we have a crisis of family breakdown.”

A few questions:

  • Since when was it considered a chore to grant people equal rights? We could reduce the expenditure of precious time and energy by ignoring the people that the changes won’t affect (i.e. everyone arguing against same-sex marriage rights), but perhaps that would be considered “undemocratic”. Or “Orwellian“.
  •  What is the threshold percentage population that we should bother with when discussing equal rights? 0.11%? 1%? 6%?
  • If Sir Paul Coleridge had actually looked up the number of gay people in Britain, would he have used this to inform his percentage estimate, or would he have continued to make shit up****?
  • If same-sex marriage were legalised, would The Marriage Foundation then take an official position on it?

Visit the Coalition for Equal Marriage.

 

* in which we discover that the head of the Catholic Church in this country thinks that granting equal rights to minority groups means that we are living in an Orwellian nightmare
** fuck the pope
*** seriously, have a read of their aims*****
****along with Archbishop Nichols – 7:1 against gay marriage my balls
***** legal disclaimer: I’m not saying the charity is fake; I’m saying that I don’t consider an organisation dedicated to pushing a narrow-minded moral agenda to be worthy of charitable status******
****** though private schools manage to keep charitable status, so it takes all sorts*******
******* I enjoy this asterisk lark, as you might have noticed

London Met international student ban insanity

Perusing the news this morning, I notice that London Metropolitan University has been banned from sponsoring non-EU foreign students because of its rather lax approach to visa enforcement, with 26/101 non-EU foreign students having no valid visa according the UK Border Agency (I also notice I’m a bit behind The Times, as they broke the story on 26th August. Shit, it’s almost September).

Firstly the timing of this, shortly before term starts, is ridiculous. The students that will be affected, legitimate or otherwise, now have a mad rush to find new courses before the academic year starts. Secondly, the general approach is all sorts of wrong. Why on Earth are legitimate, fee-paying students being punished for the failings of their university? Ashiqur Rahman nails it: the Border Agency could easily have banned the university from taking on any international students in the future, and allowed the current crop to finish their courses, thus preventing the massive upset to hundreds of legitimate students and the damage this may cause to UK higher education’s international reputation.

The government is setting up a task force to help deal with affected students, which is all fine and good and hopefully they’ll be able to do some damage limitation, but what a ridiculous waste of effort when the situation could have been avoided entirely by applying the rules with a little leniency and intelligence. Or am I missing something?

Woman’s bag

I went to the post office this morning to pick up my fabulous new shoes:

My lovely new shoes

A child there, who it seems was the son of the people running the shop, accused me of having a “girl’s bag”. This is my bag:

My nice bag

I would suggest that this bag could be worn proudly by someone of any gender, but apparently I am mistaken. Unfortunately I couldn’t say what I was thinking (“yeah, well you’ve got a girl’s FACE”) as his dad was there, and he looked significantly harder than me. I’m never sure quite how far you can take banter with seven year olds, anyway. I tried to assure him it was definitely a man sack but he was having none of it. “Hahah, girl’s bag, girl’s bag!” So picked up my parcel and left with my tail between my legs.

It could have been worse – his mum told me that last week he’d asked a lady posting a letter why she was so fat. Oh, sweet innocence.

On mud and blog titles

I was away this past weekend doing Tough Mudder in Scotland. It was fun, but I could barely move afterwards. We ran on Saturday and I’m still aching on Tuesday. Then again, I am very unfit. I would recommend it if you fancy a nice long run but find the thought of a marathon tedious, or if you are a masochist.

I’ll have something to post on our wonderful EURO 2012 league soon, complete with analysis of the non-linear complex scoring function, but I still need to make some graphs. In the mean-time, here’s a little something about autapses:  Massive Autaptic Self-Innervation of GABAergic Neurons in Cat Visual Cortex. It’s an oldish paper quantifying the number of connections that different types of neurons make back onto themselves (background: most current brain theories consider the brain to generate and process information in networks of neurons, which communicate by sending electrical and chemical signals to each other – more here. In most of the brain, neurons can be divided into two categories, excitatory and inhibitory, depending on whether they send signals that make other neurons more or less likely to send on signals of their own). The authors found that, in cat visual cortex at least, inhibitory (GABAergic) neurons made substantially more self-connections than excitatory neurons, meaning that when they “spike” and send inhibitory signals to other neurons, they also inhibit their own spiking, thus stopping themselves from sending out more signals. This provides another mechanism for inhibitory neurons to control their output, in addition to the inhibition provided to them by the many connections from other inhibitory neurons in the network, that is separate from the inhibition provided by these other neurons.

I’m unaware of how much work has been done on the functional significance of autapses, but they are a rather interesting concept and usually ignored in the kind of neuronal network research that I am involved in. More digging required.

Signs of the Apocalypse

Well, Bright Club went pretty well I think, some people laughed at least once, plus I received some surprisingly enthusiastic support from the two heavy metal fans in the audience who enjoyed my Kreator t-shirt. I will put up something about the science behind my talk later when I have access to a more reliable internet connection. Everyone else was fabulous, plus I have now experienced the joys of Stephen Friz Frizzle, comedy songsmith extraordinaire. See him if you get the chance – his next gig is in Newcastle at Bar Loco on Sunday 1st July.

Skeptics in the Pub were ready for further geek comedy in the form of Helen Arney yesterday. Her arrival sparked scenes of apocalyptic devastation in Newcastle, an unexpected intense downpour and rather spectacular thunder and lightning managing to cripple the entire North East’s transport systems in the space of about twenty minutes. As such we had a somewhat smaller than expected turnout, but Helen was very relaxed about the whole thing and took the opportunity to try out some new material on us. Sounds like her Edinburgh show is going to be a corker. Attend.

I am currently heading back dahn sahth for the weekend, a day later than expected because of the biblical storms, and may pop along to the Henley regatta. I have never been, because it sounds horrific, but with enough Pimms it could be amusing. We shall see.