Edinburgh Trams: Perception vs Performance

Edinburgh’s Trams may yet provide the ultimate test of perception over performance. I walked the entire route (by nearest footpath) on launch day, then rode the tram back. I preferred the walk. Continue reading “Edinburgh Trams: Perception vs Performance”


A history of violence. There’s progressively less, as the “better angels of our nature” increasingly bias humanity away from our natural inclination to kill one another. Just watch a toddler. And, to be brutally honest, by using the word nature twice in that sentence, I doubled the theological content in a supposed theological lecture. I don’t even disagree with the conclusion, rather the trite Americanised method of its presentation: Graph after graph after graph, all purporting to display the same conclusion, mesmerising its audience into a correlation, like a preacher conveying an incontestable truth.

Unsurprisingly, the Vice Chancellor bounced in gushing admiration of such a wholesome validation of his raison d’etre: The absence of hierarchy, anarchy – the most fundamental threat to the mere notion of university – had been proven to be a lynch-pin of violence. The analytical method and absolute clarity of language – the epitome of organisation of knowledge over freedom of thought – had left none in doubt. And to top it all off, delivered by a celebrity, someone able to appeal to modern society in a way most academics cannot. I swear I heard him say, “Listen kids,” – that’s PhD students – “this is how to do it, if this institution is going to survive.”

I don’t begrudge him this – quite the opposite – he’s doing his job exceptionally well. And a wry smile creeps over my face when I consider the progression of disciplines that have been appointed to his role – from clergy through scientists to modern psychologists – everything changes and everything stays the same. But he might be right.

I have thus already acquired the endless and untroubled income stream of an Australian mining magnate, and have procured a yacht. Not just any yacht. Size isn’t everything, since if it can’t dock at Monte Carlo, it doesn’t count. So I’ve opted for 99 metres of pure bling: A solid gold yacht. The Midas poses a challenge to naval engineering that I have overcome by employing top-class scientists, who have placed a large turtle under the yacht’s keel, thus keeping all the bling visible. Which is, after all, the most important thing. Upon the yacht there are no other people, merely anonymised objects, lest the fantasy complicate itself with actions beyond my control. And I should perhaps leave the rest to my imagination.

Yet this is wonderful. So simple. Such a relief. There I was, searching for a utopia, and it transpires that I was living around it all along! Of course I can’t open my eyes, and the bird song can be distracting, and those random pains in my stomach – I wonder if I can get a pill to fix that – but those are all practical objections: The principle is flawless. I have none of the pseudo-empathy that seems commonplace – either I am at one, or I am one, no half measures. As such I should be able to easily abstract myself into my world, a world in which everyone else is a mere object – a tool to first construct, then confer status upon, my golden yacht.

There’s just one problem. This requires belief in knowledge, since if one has the audacity to think, one undermines – well – one. I understand entirely why the finest minds are instructed to juggle numbered balls. And as much as I want to pity their blinkered-ness, their pragmatism at least confers their survival, which, entirely logically – being themselves, they rate highly. But they are still living much the same fantasy as I am on the Midas: Just as I must keep my eyes shut, they must close off some of their senses to live in their pragmatic world. The only difference is that they don’t know they’re doing it.

Fantasy. Right. Now, bring me that horizon!

Saving Synapses

I wandered along to listen to Seth Grant talk about synapses, the widgets in the brain that process neuron (for example, sensory) information. With upwards of a thousand proteins in each, these widgets are now regarded more as molecular computers than transistors. Overall each of us has more processing capability than all the man-made computers on earth. That being the case, one can’t help but think we are under-utilising these organs. Continue reading “Saving Synapses”

Revulsion to Cake

“It’s going away cake,” she said. “Aren’t you coming?” “Here, have another piece.” For now she eats cake. Delicious, delectable cake. And I wish only to be ill.

It’s still dark. A blessing in disguise. Too early for reflection. In the gloom, the wrong toothbrush. Or rather, the right toothbrush, for the wrong person. Beyond, the Bioshock entrance. A grainy, distant radio blasts out the Beatles’ “She love you,” “yeah, yeah, yeah,” the intended audience having long since drunk themselves unconscious. I can’t stay here.

Outside is as before, only shuttered and empty. Every bus is the airport bus, but I don’t want to fly, don’t want to go. There’s a dead pigeon in the Meat Market, 1884 to 2009, but I’m not hungry. I turn a corner, and my heart sinks: Are they taking the crane away? No, comes an explanation in Polish-accented English, “we’re just moving it.” Only once outside, can the roof be put on. Perhaps we’re not going so far after all.

Morningside, watching the street lights go out. Endless suburban twilight, but where are all the people? East, it seems. A legion of joggers. Some athletic, some merely walking in tracksuits. A little too much cake, perhaps. They don’t see me, I’m not in their world. I imagine I look as silly to them as they do to me, waving their arms around on their Portobello promenade.

Midday, Musselburgh, a familiar turning point. Do I want to have my cake and eat it? Of course. So I still feel ill watching someone else eat cake? Evidently. Can I survive without cake? I doubt it.

Scottish Tram Financing

Transforming Travel... or not. Edinburgh Tram's optimistic route plan.
Transforming Travel… or not. Edinburgh Tram’s optimistic route plan.

Some Edinburgh City councillors already privately refer to the city’s tram project as the problem that “cannot be named”. Much as actors refer to Shakespeare’s tragedy as “the Scottish play”, superstitions of bad luck now bedevil the production. A dramatic shift from the optimism that initially characterised the development of the Edinburgh tram, towards pessimism.

That which cannot be named is no longer just the failure of a flagship local transport policy. The issue has engulfed the City of Edinburgh Council, and now risks destroying local politics completely: Not only the existing administration, but public trust in local government decision-making.

Political heavy-weights, who normally shy away from the minutiae of local governance, are now offering parental guidance in public: Alistair Darling (local Member of Parliament, and former United Kingdom Chancellor and Secretary of State for Transport) described the option to borrow £231 million ($370 million) to complete the city centre section of the tram line as “absolute madness” – the local population would be saddled with vast debts. Days later, Graham Birse (chief executive of the influential Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce) called the decision to not complete the city centre section, “bonkers” – far fewer passengers would use a tram that did not serve the city centre adequately. Even Alex Salmond (Scotland’s First Minister) has become directly embroiled, struggling to contain calls for an immediate public inquiry to identify who is responsible.

Burn the witches! This Scottish tragedy is rapidly descending into farce. That would be unfortunate, because this particular local difficulty goes to the heart of the Scottish nationalist agenda: A desire for greater devolution of public funds to local level. More localised independent entities have fewer financial resources, so are less able to manage expensive, risky projects. Consequently policy ambitions also need to be scaled back. Such scale isn’t necessarily a problem – small can be beautiful. The problem lies in pretending to be big, when not.

This article introduces the concept of risk in tram (and similarly large public transportation and infrastructure) projects, chronicles the decisions that lead a relatively small local authority to need to find hundreds of millions of pounds to support a single project, and explores the implications for future policy-making, especially in the context of a more devolved Scotland. Continue reading “Scottish Tram Financing”

Behind a Royal Wedding

Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.
Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.

The marriage of the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, to Rugby player Mike Tindall has been widely reported, especially by the celebrity press. It has been referred to as “the other” royal wedding, for its stark contrast with the marriage of William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) a few months before.

That contrast isn’t just in the status of those getting married – Zara being 13th in line to the British throne, William 2nd. William and Kate’s wedding was a public spectacle, with all the pomp and ceremony of state, while Mike and Zara’s was a “quiet” family affair. Unfortunately the later wedding still generated significant public interest, and the result was a bizarre clash of family and celebrity, privacy and publicity. Continue reading “Behind a Royal Wedding”

Simon Kirby: The Language Organism

Language is a method of sharing thoughts. It is uniquely human: Many species communicate using pre-specified techniques, such as markings on a flower to direct bees, or gestures between mammals – but only humans have the flexibility of language. Language is, perhaps, the key evolutionary advantage the human race has over everything else on planet earth.

So how have we come to develop this trait?

That’s the question Simon Kirby has spent the last 21 years trying to answer, now assisted by one of the world’s leading research groups on the topic. Their research suggests that Darwin’s model of natural selection is not a terribly good explanation. Indeed our culture actually shields us from natural selection, making our genes progressively less important to language as we develop. Simon goes on to speculate that domestification (being buffered from purely survival instincts) is a key condition of the emergence of language.

Kirby’s evidence is especially interesting because, unlike Chomsky, he does not propose an innate underlying structure for the development of language. Such a dominance of unbounded cultural transmission would be both liberating and terrifying: Liberating because it suggests unrealised flexibility in language, especially forms enabled by future technology. Terrifying because (certainly from a relativist perspective, but arguably more widely) shared thought through language is what defines our very being.

This article is based on Simon’s well-attended inaugural lecture to the University of Edinburgh, presented on 22 March 2011. Continue reading “Simon Kirby: The Language Organism”