English: My parents.
English: My parents. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). No, not *my* parents. The artist’s parents!

Most people become parents at some time or other, and this is still true in spite of a supposed trend to childlessness in more couples. It is an ancient joke that the childless, in particular, the childless who do intend to have children at some time, don’t know how fundamentally life will change for them when they have children.

Father with child
Father with child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Childless couples, while not being selfish per se, are only responsible primarily for each other. Of course they are responsible for relationships with relatives and friends, but to such outsiders they appear as a single entity – John-and-Mary, Peter-and-Joanne, or maybe Mark-and-Andrew, or Lucy-and-Anna.

They become atomic, like the electron and proton of a hydrogen atom. We can’t press that analogy too far of course, as electrons tend to get shared around in compounds and that sort of relationship doesn’t work too well with humans.

Eadweard Muybridge's Phenakistoscope: A Couple...
Eadweard Muybridge’s Phenakistoscope: A Couple Waltzing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a child comes along, by natural methods, or by adoption, or by donor, or by less formal methods in some societies, everything changes. No longer is the prime focus of the relationship each other, but is now the third person.

Young couple with baby.
Young couple with baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The parents quickly become the support structure for the child, and the view of the world is now that they are ‘parents’ and not a ‘couple’. In the view of the world, the child’s needs are paramount. At parent-teacher meetings the sole topic is what is good for the child. Schools send notices to parents demanding money with menaces – there’s no softer way to put it – so that the child gets the laptop, the sports gear, the musical instrument that the child absolutely needs according to the school.

English: Three Children in the courtyard of Th...
English: Three Children in the courtyard of The Druk White Lotus School Shey, Ladakh. Русский: Трое детей во дворе Драконовой школы Белого Лотоса в Шей, Ладакх, на севере Индии. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the initial shock, and it is a big shock, a world-shaking shock, most parents adapt. Babies are designed to be cute after all. Super cute, so that the mechanics of nappies and feeding, the deprivation of sleep, and well, the loss of an independent life have their compensations.

There is almost certainly something instinctual here, some urge to protect one’s offspring, or indeed any small cute creature. How else can it be explained that couples allow their whole lives to be derailed by the arrival of a child?

English: Old School, Liversedge. The former Na...
English: Old School, Liversedge. The former National School is behind the photographer, the other side of Halifax Road (and being renovated at present), so it was surprising to find an ‘Old School’ next to the Town Hall. Possibly it was a small Board School to provide for children of parents who were not in the C of E (the National Schools became Church Schools, of course). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t overemphasise the oddness of this. Leaving aside the fact that couples don’t know in advance how world-shattering the change is, couples in the main seem to embrace the change once it happens. Many women plan to go back to work after the first few months have passed, and a significant number fail to do so, even in this day and age.

Parents at the Art and Crafts Exhibition at th...
Parents at the Art and Crafts Exhibition at the Parent Teachers Meeting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you talk to someone with a new baby, well after the first few tumultuous months anyway, it is usually a bit like switching on a light. Parents trumpet the amazing achievements of their children as if no other child has crawled, walked or said “Da-da” in the history of the human race. Prior to that point sleep deprivation means that any communication is difficult in the extreme.

English: Group portrait of the Maryborough Gir...
English: Group portrait of the Maryborough Girls Grammar School cricket team, 1915. The girls are in uniform, wearing shirts, striped ties and skirts. The group poses on the lawn in front of a school building and some other girls can be seen in the background. The back row stands and one of the girls is holding a cricket ball.The middle row sits in chairs and one of the girls holds a cricket bat. The front row sits on the ground and one of the girls wears cricket pads and has a bat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prior to the child’s arrival the pairs major preoccupation is strongly with each other. Of course pair bonds vary in intensity, but in couples the bond is usually strongly couple-centric. When the baby comes along, their major preoccupation is intensely with the child. In the first few months the child will be the topic of almost all conversation, except for the essentials of daily living.

A woman breastfeeding an infant.
A woman breastfeeding an infant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a few months, the child quickly starts to give back some of the attention. In fact most parents believe (as I do) that interaction between child and parents starts pretty much from birth, but the interaction between child and parents deepens as the child develops in the first few months.

original National Geographic article A BEDOUIN...
original National Geographic article A BEDOUIN MOTHER AND CHILD. The father of this little nomad may be a warlike bandit with a cloudy notion of property rights and other details of the civilized code; his mother a simple daughter of the desert with a childish curiosity and fondness for gaudy trinkets, but her babe has the divine heritage of mother love as truly as the most fortunate child of our own land. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Call it love, because that is what it is. It begins right after birth, and grows as the child learns to react to the parents, the feeding, the changing, the cuddles, the kisses. I believe that animals, at least those that bring up their young, in some ways feel for their offspring in the same way as humans. Heck, let’s just say it – animals that bring up their young must surely feel love, in a sense, for their young.

Indian Rhinoceros at San Diego Zoo's Wild Anim...
Indian Rhinoceros at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park in Escondido, CA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Certainly the higher animals do seem to feel something, as ape mothers carry around dead young, and elephants appear to grieve over their dead calves. Dolphins have been seen carrying their dead calves.

Baby bottlenose dolphin shannonry point 2006
Baby bottlenose dolphin shannonry point 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having survived the culture shock of the birth parents usually embrace the role. They pretty much dedicate their lives to their children, and if they are thoughtful people, will recognise why their own parents behaved the way that they did. Having railed at the restrictions put on them by their parents, they find themselves imposing similar restrictions on their children.

Indeed often they find themselves using the exact same phrases as their parents. It can be a great shock to realise that you are turning into your parents and that they turn out to have been right, justified and after all, reasonable. How did that happen?

Parents with child Statue, Hrobákova street, P...
Parents with child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In most cases parents quickly come to terms with their somewhat subordinate role, which is at times infuriating, frustrating and drives parents to the edge of despair. It is also immensely rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable. Parents feel more pride when their child achieves a milestone like learning to walk than they ever felt over any of their own achievements.

If their children shows promise at any sport or academic achievement a parent’s pride is immense. This extends to at least the second generation, as I can attest. It’s not that a parent’s life is subsumed by their role in bringing up their children, but child rearing certainly causes some of a parents activities to take a back seat for a while.

English: Kindergarten kids and parents on the ...
English: Kindergarten kids and parents on the back of a truck on Norway’s constitution day. ‪Norsk (nynorsk)‬: Barnehageungar og foreldre bak på ein lastebil 17. mai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a parent is so inclined the child can be incorporated into the parent’s preferred recreational activity, so we see parents jogging with purpose-built strollers or pushchairs, and children being carried in backpacks. Children may play in the crèches of educational institutions while one of their parents continues their studies.

Most people go into parenthood not knowing how their lives will be wrenched into a different course by becoming parents. Most parents quickly come to terms with the enormous shift in the emphasis of their lives, and most would not go back to pre-parenthood if given the choice. Parenthood is that rewarding.

Portrait of a married couple and their child b...
Portrait of a married couple and their child by Gerrit Donck. Oil on canvas, 65 x 48 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



The Start of New Year

an old post card
an old post card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to sources on the Internet, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere occurs at 10:51 am UT on 21 June (this year, 2014). That translates to 10:51 pm in New Zealand. Just as in the Northern Hemisphere the start of the year corresponds roughly to the winter solstice  there, I like to think that the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere corresponds to the start of the year in the Southern Hemisphere. I don’t think that I would get much support to the start of the year officially changed, though!

The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical)...
The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical) seasons as seen from the south and ignoring the atmosphere (no clouds, no twilight). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The year can be divided into halves by the solstices, the winter solstice marking the sun’s most negative elevation with respect to the South Astronomical Pole since the previous June. From that moment in time the sun starts to move higher into the sky until, at or around 21 December, when the summer solstice occurs.

Midway between the solstices falls a time when the day and night are roughly equal in length. Around this time the sun crosses the celestial equator, and this time is called an equinox. There are two in the year, one when the sun is apparently moving south in the sky (the vernal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere) and one when it is moving north in the sky (the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere).

The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Ear...
The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Earth : The green Sun is the one of the vernal equinox (march), it is followed by a summer solstice Sun. Then automn equinox and winter solstice. The ground plane (latitude 50°N) is green, the rotating ecliptic plane is blue. Also represented are the celestial equator, the two tropics and the rotation axis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each of these quarter points of the year is or was celebrated with a festival of some sort, some of which, particularly the winter solstice were supposedly characterised by “unrestrained revelry“. The summer solstice was comparatively restrained, the vernal equinox was a celebration of new growth, and the autumnal equinox was a harvest festival, a gathering in and celebration of bounty produced by the year’s hard work.

What I wasn’t aware of is that there were other events called “Cross Quarter moments”. These are moments halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, and they are known as Embolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain. The Cross Quarter moments. the solstices and the equinoxes are set out in order for 2014 in the chart referenced here.

English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals...
English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals and Quarter Festivals, Neopagan holidays: Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two of the Cross Quarter moments I have heard of, Beltane and Samhain. Beltane falls between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice and is roughly at the beginning of May, so corresponds roughly with May Day. It is astronomically the beginning of summer, but seasonal lag means that the season starts a little later than this.

English: Beer brewed during the night of Samha...
English: Beer brewed during the night of Samhain. Français : Bière brassée pendant la nuit de Samain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Children (usually girls) still dance around the maypole or maytree, but few of them, and probably few of the adults have any idea of the origins of this ritual. Although it probably is related to Beltane or the start of summer, the significance and symbolism of the maypole is still debated. Some of the possible suggestions seem dubious and far-fetched, and I don’t think that is wrong to suggest that they reflect the prejudices of the people that make them. In particular it appears that Puritan Christians may have over-emphasised some aspects of the dance and celebration to argue for its banning.

English: Dance around the maypole during the M...
English: Dance around the maypole during the Midsummer celebration, in Åmmeberg, Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morris dancing is also associated with a spring festival, usually Whitsun. It may possibly have been associated with Beltrane, but I don’t know the history of morris dancing, Whitsun and Beltrane or spring festivals in general well enough to assert this. There is a long tradition of ancient non-Christian rituals being adopted and given a Christian slant, so this may be possible.

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds o...
Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England — Exeter Morris Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Samhain also has a long history and probably pre-dates Christianity. It is associated with the beginning of winter and marks the point where all crops are gathered and animals prepared for winter. Once again the Christian church has adopted the festival and the roots of “harvest festivals” are to be found in Samhain’s pre-Christian traditions.

English: A Donjari float used in Saijo's fall ...
English: A Donjari float used in Saijo’s fall harvest festival. I took this photo in October 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian church adopted the festival as All Saints (Hallows) Eve or Halloween. I note from the Wikipedia article that I linked to that some people consider that Halloween has no relationship with Samhain, but considering the similarities of the two traditions which happen at the same time of the year, I think that this seems unlikely.

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bonfires form a great part of the Samhain festival, maybe as an attempt to ward off the coming darkness of winter. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there are still “celebrations” on 5 November, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day. An effigy of Guy Fawkes is burnt on a bonfire, in spite of the fact that Guy Fawkes was actually hanged.

All of the example above refer to the “Gaelic versions” of the various dates and festivals. It’s a bit simplistic to refer to a single “Gaelic version” as the dates and festivals have, naturally, changed over the years. Other cultures of course have their own versions of the various festivals. In the Tropics (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn the sun is overhead at least once in the year, an obvious time for a festival!

English: Vector version of a design from the B...
English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we have just passed the winter solstice, we can look forward to longer days and shorter nights from now until the summer solstice, which for us in the Southern Hemisphere comes around 21 December. So far this year winter has been fairly mild and a little wet. As we move towards the vernal equinox we still have the bulk of winter to come, as the astronomical year does not match the climatic year because of the seasonal lag.

English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerse...
English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerset. The most peaceful place on earth created from worked-out peat diggings. Excellent wetland habitat with characteristic reed beds. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless it is a time to look forward and one can understand why the winter solstice is a such a time. It is a time of feasting, of using up some of the stores put away at the time of the autumnal equinox, the salted beef and cured hams. It is a time to relax, for mending and repairing, and for staying out of the weather as much as possible, as the weather of winter means that essential tasks only will be undertaken and the rush of springtime is still ahead. While the end of winter may bring shortages , it is still near the beginning and the stores are still full.

Russian Celebration Zakuski
Russian Celebration Zakuski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




Is “schooling” an education?

School (Photo credit: Krzysztof Pacholak)

Well, schooling should be an education. It should prepare the pupil for life. has this as a prime definition of education:

The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgement, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for life.

Schooling doesn’t always do this – Greek history is probably of little use to a car mechanic and scientists are only interested in Greek history in so far as it has cool cast list of names and an alphabet from which they can plunder names for obscure fundamental particles or asteroids.

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on ...
View from one end of Eros across the gouge on its side towards the opposite end.(greyscale) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arguably, though, Greek history is a fascinating window into an early culture, and studying events in Greek history can provide insights into contemporary society and while it may not be of obvious direct benefit to the mechanic and the scientist, such studies can inform sociologists, political studies specialists and many others, and it is worth remembering that mathematics, science, logic, philosophy, politics and many other fields of human endeavour have their roots in ancient Greece.

Temple Statue of Poseidon
Temple Statue of Poseidon (Photo credit: greekgeek)

But back to schooling. Everyone has been bored at school, for a number of reasons. The subject could be more than the student can handle, or it could be too simple, or it may not be a subject in which the student has no interest.

One of the issues with schooling is that we are taught, well, “subjects”. Well, we are taught “maths” or “biology” or “French”, or “Woodworking” or whatever. We are taught “English”, which is about how sentences are formed and we are drilled in verbs, nouns, adjectives and more esoteric beasts of the English language. Then there is “English Literature”, which largely consists of forcing pupils to read and “study” relatively old English language texts ranging from Shakespeare to Dickens. Rarely anything more modern.

English: Literature
English: Literature (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a syllabus, specifying what we are to be taught. This is used to constrain the teachers and students, so that they can be set examinations to see, basically, how much the teachers have been able to force into usually unwilling minds.

writing/editing my environmental sustainabilit...
writing/editing my environmental sustainability cornerstone seminar syllabus at nabolom bakery in berkeley (Photo credit: davidsilver)

This all seems mechanical and soulless, but a good teacher will try to insert into the gaps and voids of the subject and the syllabus a little education. He or she will try to convey the beauty of the English language as used by Shakespeare and the other authors, he or she will try to make Romeo and Juliet into real people for the students, he or she will explain the societal background of the Dickens tales.

English: Title page of the second quarto editi...
English: Title page of the second quarto edition (Q2) of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet printed by Thomas Creede in 1599. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The good teacher will teach something more – how to look beyond the surface story to the people and the societal background, not just in the set books or any books, but in all the situations that life may throw at the student over the years.

"Good Teacher"
“Good Teacher” (Photo credit: MightyBoyBrian)

A study of literature can not only give the student the knowledge of what is in the books, and maybe an appreciation of the era in which the books are set but may also provide the student with the ability to look critically at the era in which they are living. For some, maybe more than a few of the students, this will provide them with the tools to examine sources like the media and consider such things as bias and veracity.

A book pile illustrating the theme of the fest...
A book pile illustrating the theme of the festival of 2005 “Education, why?”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A teacher of maths will try to not only enable the students to pass their maths exams but also to prepare them, a little, for life. The simple techniques of addition and subtraction may be all that they need, but sometimes they may need a bit more. Some of the students may go on to be mathematicians, to study the subject in its own right. But many more may acquire the tools to understand some of the numbers that surround us all in our daily lives.

Day 304: Problem Solving Strategies for Math
Day 304: Problem Solving Strategies for Math (Photo credit: Old Shoe Woman)

For instance, when a poll result is given on television, often they also quote a ‘margin of error’. A small but significant number of people will have some idea of what that actually means from some long ago statistics class. The vast majority doesn’t have a clue as to what it means, but the brightest might gather that it relates to how accurately the poll represents the wider population.

Margin of error-visual
Margin of error-visual (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another example of a mathematical tool that could be useful is contained in an episode of the British sitcom, “Please Sir!”. This is a comedy about an inspirational teacher and a class of pupils who are rejects from other classes. The teacher follows an informal teaching agenda as it is evident that his class is not going to pass any exams.

English: Statue of Sir Hugh Owen , A Pioneer o...
English: Statue of Sir Hugh Owen , A Pioneer of Welsh Education Sir Hugh Owen was a pioneer of secondary and tertiary education in Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He tries to instil some mathematics into his students, using as an example a bet on a horse race. He calculates the odds only for one of his students, the son of a bookie, to correct him. The teacher is astounded that the student can calculate the odds so accurately in his head, saying to the student that he didn’t know that the student was good with maths. The student replies that this wasn’t maths, it was “odds”.

At the bookies
At the bookies (Photo credit: Phil Burns)

Science, likewise, has ramifications beyond the bland and often boring stuff a student learns at school. While he or she may come close to disaster in a lab, he or she may take away the concept of analysis and the scientific method that may help him or her in later life. At least when one of the TV detectives grabs a scrap of clothing or a sample of blood or something and sends it for analysis, he or she may have an inkling of what is happening. Though these shows are an education of a sort in themselves.

Day 53 - West Midlands Police Forensic Scene I...
Day 53 – West Midlands Police Forensic Scene Investigators Lab (Photo credit: West Midlands Police)

So why is the educational system focussed on schooling rather than educating? Well, for one thing it is easier to measure schooling rather than education. Facts trotted out for an exam yield a measurable yardstick to judge both student and teacher. It’s altogether more difficult to measure education.

Seal of the United States Department of Education
Seal of the United States Department of Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s because an education is not about facts learned. It’s about facts learned and a deeper understanding of how the facts interrelate within the system, be it Greek history, English literature, maths or science. Nevertheless, the best teachers provide an education as well as schooling. They should be applauded for it.

English: Primary School in "open air"...
English: Primary School in “open air”, in Bucharest, around 1842. Wood engraving, 11x22cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Random musings

sigh-ness#1 (Photo credit: parth joshi)


My musings are pretty random anyway, so here’s some musings on randomness.

Most people have an inkling of what the word ‘random’ means, but if you try and tie it down, it proves to be a concept that is difficult to define. OK, let me start with a dictionary definition from

Lacking any definite plan or prearranged order; haphazard

That’s just one of many similar definitions of ‘random’ to be found at But hang on a minute – isn’t having no definite plan a plan of sorts. We can imagine Mad King Wotzit from Philopotamia talking with his generals. “Look, we don’t know where the enemy is, and we don’t know many of them there are, and we don’t know if they have muskets, so the plan is to go ahead with no plan and react to circumstances as they arise. Are we all agreed?”

Coup d'oeil #25
Coup d’oeil #25 (Photo credit: ryansarnowski)

I don’t think that definition is strong enough. We often proceed without a plan, but not randomly, and the obstacles in our way may appear haphazard but there will be a reason why every single one exists.

Randomness for a mathematician, a statistician or a philosopher is something deeper. Take, for instance, the tossing of a coin. It may come down head up or tail up and there are no other options (if we declare the case where it lands on its edge as a no throw). So a sequence of throws could go H, T, T, T, H, T…..


Commandant of the Marine Corps James T. Conway...
Commandant of the Marine Corps James T. Conway participates in the coin toss at the New Orleans Saints Military Appreciation Game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Louisiana Superdome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The critical thing is that any toss doesn’t depend on any of the previous tosses, so it has a 50% chance of being heads and 50% chance of being tails. If we have tossed the coin one million times we would ‘expect’ to get 500,000 heads  and 500,000 tails, but, if fact we may get 499,997 heads meaning we tossed a tail 500,003 times. The average number of heads we would get if we did this a number of times would be very close to 500,000, but it might, by chance, be several hundred away.

English: Five flips of a fair coin. Español: C...
English: Five flips of a fair coin. Español: Cinco lanzamientos de una moneda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Suppose we had thrown the fair coin a million times and we came up with 499.000 heads and 501,000 tails, and we continue for another million tosses. Should we expect more heads this time, so that the average comes out right? I believe that it is obvious that if the coin and tosses are fair, then we cannot tell before hand if the gap between heads and tails would close or get wider. The second million, like the first million will result in about 500,000 each heads and tails.

One-tenth penny coins from British West Africa...

One-tenth penny coins from British West Africa, dated 1936 and 1939. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless gamblers waste their money on the belief that the odds will even up over time. This is therefore known as the Gambler’s Fallacy.


English: Simulation illustrating the Law of La...
English: Simulation illustrating the Law of Large Numbers. Each frame, you flip a coin that is red on one side and blue on the other, and put a dot in the corresponding column. A pie chart notes the proportion of red and blue so far. Notice that the proportion varies a lot at first, but gradually approaches 50%. Animation made in Mathematica–I’m happy to give you the source code if you want to improve the animation or for any other reason. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But how do you know if a real coin, as opposed to a theoretical coin is fair. Well, you test it of course. You toss the coin, say 1,000,000 times and see if you achieve 500,000 heads and 500,000 tails. If you get 500,000 heads or near that number, you can say that the coin is ‘probably fair’. What you can’t say, of course, is that the coin is ‘definitely fair’ as the coin could be a dud, but still produce, by chance, the result that a fair coin would.

Shove ha'penny for charity
Shove ha’penny for charity (Photo credit: HowardLake) A coin, at a fair – fair coin?

In addition a real coin is subject to physical laws. Given the starting conditions of the flip, and given the laws of physics, a tossed coin behaves deterministically, resulting in only one possible outcome for the toss. So the toss is not random as people usually use the term. Calculating  what the result might be will likely forever be impossible though.


Uni Cricket: Captain PJ and the Coin Toss
Uni Cricket: Captain PJ and the Coin Toss (Photo credit: pj_in_oz)

Do things happen randomly? I don’t believe that real events can be random. If an event is truly random it cannot depend on events that have gone before, because otherwise it would be, in principle, be predictable from the earlier events. The real events that come closest to being unpredictable are decay events and other events at the quantum level, but even there the outcome is fixed, and only the time that the event happens is variable.


English: Simulation of many identical atoms un...
English: Simulation of many identical atoms undergoing radioactive decay, starting with either four atoms (left) or 400 atoms (right). The number at the top indicates how many half-lives have elapsed. Note the law of large numbers: With more atoms, the overall decay is less random. Image made with Mathematica, I am happy to send the source code if you would like to make this image more beautiful, or for any other reason. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Computer science requires randomness for various purposes, most notably for generation of keys for ciphers for encryption. However the numbers that are generated are not truly random, but involve some heavy computation with very large integers. Encrypted information requires decryption, which also requires some very heavy computational lifting. Often extra ‘entropy’ is added from mouse movements and key presses.


Thermodynamic system with a small entropy
Thermodynamic system with a small entropy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Computer and other physical random numbers can use physical sources such as cosmic rays or the decay of an unstable atom to seed the calculation of a random number. Both the cosmic ray count and the decay of an unstable atom appear to be random locally, but cosmologically both events are the result of the state of the universe and its history to that point in time which is deterministic and deterministic processes are the opposite of random.


Thermodynamic system with a high entropy
Thermodynamic system with a high entropy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I feel strongly that the universe is deterministic, and at a classical level this is almost indisputable, but at the quantum level things are not so clear and at our current level of understanding, I believe that it is correct to say that happenings at the quantum level appear to be only statistically predictable. I understand that this is not because of some aspect of quantum mechanics that is currently unknown. There are no ‘hidden variables‘. Some other way around this dilemma may be found, probably involving another way of looking at the problem.



Since the numbers generated by a computational process are not truly random, it is theoretically possible to crack the cipher and decode the message without the key. The numbers involved are so large that this would be extremely difficult and time-consuming using conventional techniques. Quantum computing techniques can theoretically be used to crack current classical encryption schemes.

Mathematical randomness is a totally different thing. Any finite number can be generated by many methods and if the method is known, then the number can’t be called random. This is the basis of a mathematical game where a sequence of numbers is given and the next number is required to solve the puzzle. I don’t like these games because it is possible that two different algorithms may produce the required answer, and an algorithm could be imagined that gives an answer different to the ‘solution’. In other words there is not one unique solution.


A roulette wheel.
A roulette wheel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This makes it extremely hard, if not impossible to decide if a ‘black-box’ algorithm (one where the working are unknown) is producing a random sequence of numbers. Beyond that point, I’m not going to go, as I do not have the knowledge, nor currently the space in this post, to make a stab at a decent discussion. Maybe I’ll come back to the topic.

Toledo 65 algorithm - 8 / 12
Toledo 65 algorithm – 8 / 12 (Photo credit: jm_escalante)


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Where sex came from

Sex (Photo credit: danielito311)

When I decide on a topic, I usually hold onto it in my mind, and maybe flesh out a few ideas mentally. I’ve mentioned this before. This topic suddenly came to mind for no good reason, and I haven’t thought of any significant lines of discussion. I wish I could snapshot the “Related Articles” that have popped up, but it looks like they will lead me to places I do not intend to go. An example is “Casual sex isn’t just for college kids”. Mmm. As if college kids a) invented it b) have a monopoly in it.

The Cool Kids
The Cool Kids (Photo credit: TheMarque)

But I digress. Sex. Most living organisms have it. Amoeba, the popularly held archetype of the simple single celled organism, was believed to reproduce simply by fission. I’m unable to understand much of the scientific literature about amoeba reproduction, and there doesn’t seem to be much material about it anyway, but fission, I believe, results in each child organism having half the genetic material of the parent cell.


Maybe nuclear genetic material is doubled before the split. Maybe each ‘individual’ is half an individual and needs to find another ‘individual’ in the same state to merge with? Merging has been observed in amoeba.

What is certain is the enormous size of the genome of an amoeba species. Some of them have genomes which are more than 200 times the size of the human genome. Amoeba are presented to us in school as possibly the simplest organism that there is. Based simply on the size of genome, this isn’t true.

human genome
human genome (Photo credit: vaXzine)

I can conjecture, based on little to no knowledge at all of the genetics of amoeba, that fission and fusion would enable amoeba species to mix and match their genetic material with much greater freedom than simple sexual reproduction.

So, amoeba splitting and merging could create an enormous genome, even in a simple organism. The size of a genome could be just a result of a less restrictive reproductive process than applies to more “advanced” multi-celled organisms (not to mention more “advanced” single-celled organisms.

Martin Krzywinski, Circles of Life - a compari...
Martin Krzywinski, Circles of Life – a comparison of human and dog genomes (Photo credit: chrisjohnbeckett)

If I’m correct or anywhere near close to correct about the amoeba genome and its reproduction, amoeba may represent an early stage of sexual reproduction. Amoeba were inventing reproduction, in a way. One can imagine that early organisms would absorb other weaker organisms, and in doing so, acquire their genetic material or proto-genetic material.

a haploid cell
a haploid cell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course in most cases they would simply digest it,  but in those days, the early days of life, when the chemical processes and genetic processes of life were shaking down into the rules that we know today, things would have been more fluid and the genetic material could have been incorporated into the organism’s own genetic material. Indeed, in the beginning the genetic material would probably not be distinguishable from other material in the organism. There wouldn’t have been a nucleus, as such.

English: In telophase, the nucleus of one cell...
English: In telophase, the nucleus of one cell is divided equally into two nuclei.It is the last stage of mitosis and directly proceeds interphase. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One can imagine that in the beginning, organisms just didn’t reproduce, by fission or any other method. They would have fairly quickly died out. Then organisms could have happened which just grew and grew until they split. Parts would have died off, parts would have lived.

The parts that survived would have been changed, modified by the environment, until the bits that would have earlier died, survived as new individuals. Maybe they couldn’t themselves reproduce, but eventually, the split off bits would have survived and been able to reproduce.

Diagram of bacterial binary fission.
Diagram of bacterial binary fission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In retrospect, it appears that the best way to be able to reproduce is to separate the reproductive materials and functions mainly into a single location, the nucleus.

Organisms can they reproduce simply by duplication of the genetic information in the nucleus, producing a clone of themselves, which they can hive off as a new individual. Some organisms bud off a clone of themselves as a reproductive process.

Production of new individuals along a leaf mar...
Production of new individuals along a leaf margin of the air plant, Kalanchoe pinnata. The small plant in front is about 1 cm tall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This doesn’t allow for change in environment though. A self-cloning organism can’t react to environment changes. However if organisms can exchange genetic material while creating a child, it may be that the child’s genetic make up may allow it to survive where its parents would struggle.

The process used by amoebas, that is to say the process of division and merging of individual organisations could be the first step in that direction. Of course, uncontrolled merging could result in possibly viable individuals with large genomes, which is what we see in some amoeba.

Immature and mature fruits of Cocculus orbicul...
Immature and mature fruits of Cocculus orbiculatus….Trái của dây Sâm, dây xanh, Mộc Phòng kỷ … (Photo credit: Vietnam Plants & The USA. plants)

There are two routes here. Either an organism would clone its nucleus including its genetic material, then split, producing two identical organisms. or it could halve its genetic material and merge with a similarly haploid organism, resulting in a diploid individual.

The advantages of the haploid/diploid cycle are obvious – genetic material is mixed so at least some individuals may survive an environmental change, because the expression of the genome in the individual (the phenotype) allows them to differ from their parents and survive the change.

English: Illustration of the chromosomal organ...
English: Illustration of the chromosomal organisation of haploid and diploid organisms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is less obvious is why organisms split into male and female sexualities. It’s possible that the difference is caused by the necessity of one set of haploid individuals to supply an environment in which the child organism can develop. The other set of haploid individuals merely supplies the other half of the necessary genetic material.

So the female supplies the support environment plus the genetic material, or egg (ovum) and the male supplies only the genetic material, the sperm. One can imagine that originally organisms would directly exchange genetic material by fusion and fission, like amoeba, but at some time it became more efficient to disseminate genetic material outside the organism.

English: Electron microscope image of sperm.
English: Electron microscope image of sperm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cells within multicellular organisms or possibly unicellular organisms developed the ability to create new haploid cells with a copy of half the genetic information leaving behind unicellular haploid organisms or haploid cells within a diploid organism.  In female organisms the haploid cell would be an egg and would have the support environment to create a new diploid individual, and in male organism the haploid cell would just have half the genetic material and be a sperm.

Description unavailable
Description unavailable (Photo credit: EYECCD)

There are some hermaphroditic animals, for example some snails and slugs, which produce both eggs and sperms and many plants have both male and female characteristics, but many, many animals have separate male and female individuals. (I’m not keen on saying the majority of animals display sexual differentiation, because I don’t know if it is true.)

English: hermaphrodite symbol
English: hermaphrodite symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, when life began it would have been simple unprotected self-replicating molecules. Growth would have been by accretion. At some stage the molecules would have evolved to the point where they developed some structure around themselves, maybe by rejecting some unwelcome molecules. Organelles, small biological factories would have developed as the organisms became more complex, all enclosed in a membrane that allowed the necessary chemicals in and unwanted ones out. This membrane would eventually enclose the nucleus of the cell. More complexity, more biological factories, and the cell would have formed an outer membrane, that enclosed all the necessary mechanisms that modern cells contain and require. (OK, I’m no expert so some of these conjectures may be wrong).

High magnification transmission electron micro...
High magnification transmission electron microscope image of a human leukocyte, showing golgi, which is a structure involved in protein transport in the cytoplasm of the cell. JEOL 100CX TEM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cells would initially have not had any reproductive mechanism. They would grow and then split when they got too big. When cells developed specialised mechanisms for reproduction they needed some way of passing on the genetic material. Some cells would have developed a method of creating haploid individuals and these would have then merged with other haploid individuals to create normal diploid individuals.

English: Male and Female Superb Fairy-Wren.Tak...
English: Male and Female Superb Fairy-Wren.Taken in Ensay, Victoria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or maybe so-called haploid individuals arose first and diploid individuals arose from the merger of two haploid individuals.  When multi-cellular organism arose, they evolved special organs related to reproduction. Such organs created haploid versions of the organism and a method of delivery to the outside world of these eggs and sperm.

Once individuals have evolved to specifically create eggs or sperm, they are sexual individuals. If an individual evolved to create a support system for their haploid genetic material, for example eggs, it would find it difficult to find similar individuals to merge with since eggs are not particularly mobile. Sperm on the other hand are specialised to be mobile, so are ideal for merging with the eggs.

English: Male and female Sockeye salmon (Oncor...
English: Male and female Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) specimens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once the individuals have sexual differentiating characteristics this would flow through to the phenotype (physical expression of the genetic material – the multi-cellular organism). And that is my guess, as a complete amateur in the field of genetics is where sex came from. So the above may make sense at some level, or not. Even it does make a sort of sense, I may well be wrong about the detail! But it has been fun speculating.

here comes life
here comes life (Photo credit: AlicePopkorn)







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