Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Has Amazon lost its way?

We've leant fairly heavily on Amazon for the last few years. We aren't happy about their approach to corporate tax - though it's inevitable that a corporation will do what it's entitled to do to avoid paying more tax than necessary.

Incidentally, I think there's a way to fix this. At the moment, corporation tax is paid on profits. If a corporation that has the ability to declare income in different countries were to pay a lower level of corporation tax, and were to pay a sales tax (of say 1-2%), then I would have thought this would not discourage international expansion, but it would mean that it would be creating tax income in the country that it was earning money from. This isn't a thought-out idea - but I'm sure that there's something that could be worked on there.

Back to Amazon. Their sales operation has become more and more complex. They now offer fulfilment on behalf of other companies (where they hold and ship warehouse stock), they offer a sales front end for companies, and doubtless other mechanisms as well. The scale of the operation is such that they are probably using just about every shipping company that there is. Sometimes, this works incredibly well. For example, DPD are amazing. We get an email beforehand giving a one hour window in which the delivery will take place, and alternative delivery options.

But sometimes, and perhaps my imagination, but seemingly increasingly commonly, it doesn't work so well. This year, we've had a bunch of stuff that should have arrived next day which has turned up three or four days later. Several of the delivery companies don't have a tracking process, let alone one as good as that of DPD. One item was postponed on 23rd December to the 27th December, when it had been specifically ordered for Christmas delivery. Another item was picked wrong - somewhat incongruously, we got the French version of something.

None of these are that big a deal. I've little doubt that Amazon UK could argue that these are faults of contracting companies. But in previous years, I had the feeling that Amazon had all this stuff tied down, whereas now these things seem to be below their radar. Customer service is still exemplary, informative, polite and efficient. But when you find yourself needing customer service more regularly, you can't help but think that problems may be surfacing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wikipedia on Stephen Meyer

"Darwin's Doubt" is the latest book by Stephen Meyer. In it, he explains why the Cambrian explosion is a problem to a purely naturalistic understanding of evolution.

In the Wikipedia article on Meyer, this criticism is included:
In a review published by The Skeptics Society titled Stephen Meyer's Fumbling Bumbling Amateur Cambrian Follies,[40] paleontologist Donald Prothero points out the number of errors, cherry-picking, misinterpretation and misinformation in Meyer's book. The center of Meyer's argument for intelligent design, Cambrian Explosion, has been deemed an outdated concept after recent decades of fossil discovery. 'Cambrian diversification' is a more consensual term now used in paleontology to describe the 80 million year time frame where the fossil record show the gradual and stepwise emergence of more and more complicated animal life, just as predicted in Darwin's evolution. Prothero explains that the early Cambrian period is divided into three stages: Nemakit-Daldynian, Tommotian and Atdabanian. Meyer ignores the first two stages and the fossil discoveries from these two periods, instead he focuses on the later Atbadbanian stage to present the impression that all Cambrian live forms appeared abruptly without predecessors. To further counter Meyer's argument that the Atdabanian period is too short for evolution process to take place, Prothero cites paleontologist B.S. Lieberman that the rates of evolution during the 'Cambrian explosion' are typical of any adaptive radiation in life's history. He quotes another prominent paleontologist Andrew Knoll that '20 million years is a long time for organisms that produce a new generation every year or two' without the need to invoke any unknown processes. Going through a list of topics in modern evolutionary biology Meyer used to bolster his idea in the book, Prothero asserts that Meyer, not a paleontologist nor a molecular biologist, does not understand these scientific disciplines, therefore he misinterprets, distorts and confuses the data, all for the purpose of promoting the 'God of the gaps' argument: 'anything that is currently not easily explained by science is automatically attributed to supernatural causes', i.e. intelligent design.
To this, I added the following comment:

However, Bethell, writing in a review in The American Spectator points out that Prothero demonstrates in the criticisms that he raises that he hadn't read the sections of the book where Meyer had already addressed those criticisms.

Hardly a big deal, or an attempt to close down the debate, one would have thought. It did not, however, get past the gate-keepers (or at least one of them), who deleted it, commenting:
The referenced article written by Bethell is not a critical review of the book, rather an advocacy of Meyer’s philosophy. Given Bethell’s history of supporting fringe scienceAIDS denialismman-made global warming denial and intelligent design, I view his article as biased and should not be included per WP: NPOV Giving "equal validity".
So, basically, the review might be flawed, but criticism of the review is not allowed because the reviewer doesn't disagree with the author, and has some controversial opinions. Personally, I'd have thought that Wikipedia's NPOV (neutral point of view) policy ought to mean that neither side of the debate is favoured - and yet it seems that regardless of the negative review's provenance, it is allowed to stand unchallenged.

Unfortunately, there are many more naturalist gate-keepers than me, and this is a pointless battle for me to embark on. I do look forward to the day when the discussion of these books becomes focussed on science, rather than what seems to amount to political attempts to suppress fair consideration. But I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, if you are interested in an interesting, thought-provoking book on why the appearance of substantial amounts of biological information challenges a naturalistic understanding of evolution, and also some insight into the Kitzmiller vs Dover and Sternberg cases, then I'd recommend Meyer's book. Unfortunately, given how quickly any dissent to naturalism is struck from Wikipedia's pages, I can't really recommend those links ....

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Whilst we're on the subject of maths ...

Another thing that was never mentioned (as far as I can remember) was the interesting phenomenon in the multiplication square - you know, this thing ...

  X   1   2   3   4   5   6 ...
  1   1   2   3   4   5   6
  2   2   4   6   8  10  12
  3   3   6   9  12  15  18
  4   4   8  12  16  20  24
  5   5  10  15  20  25  30
  6   6  12  18  24  30  36


If you look down the diagonal axis from top left to bottom right, then you get a list of the square numbers - 1, 4, 9, 16, 25 ... What I noticed was that, if you go "northeast" and "southwest" from those numbers, you always get a number exactly one less. That is, if you take a number, and multiply the number one more and one less than it, then you get one less than the number squared. Or ...

(n - 1) (n + 1) = n2 - 1

It turns out to be pretty trivial once you expand out the expression, of course ...

(n - 1) (n + 1) = n2 - n + n - 1 = n2 - 1

But nobody ever bothered to point it out, and I felt a gram of so of smug when I proved it for myself.

There's actually a more general thing lurking here ...

(n - k) (n + k) = n2 - k2

... which means that if you look at the differences as you continue "northeast" and "southwest" from numbers on the diagonal, you are going to get another series of square numbers.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Happy Pythagoras Day

Not that this is a particularly well-known observance - actually, I just made it up, though it seems as though it did exist before.

We grown-ups have a kind of abiding folk memory of Pythagoras's Theorem - "For a right-angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square on the other two sides." In studying Maths O-level and A-level, we had thrown at us over and over again triangles with sides having particular ratios. Most noticeably, 3:4:5, because

32 + 42 = 52

Less commonly, we were also exposed to triangles with sides in the proportion 5:12:13 and 7:24:25, because

52 + 122 = 132,


72 + 242 = 252,

These are known as Pythagorean triples, and they form a fairly exclusive group. Conventionally (in the UK!) our shorthand for writing dates is dd/mm/yy. There are only two Pythagorean triples that in their lowest form, written from lowest to highest, encode a date - namely, 3/4/5 and 5/12/13. (Technically, 6/8/10 and 9/12/15 are also Pythagorean triples - but they don't really count, as they are multiples of 3/4/5). Thus, for the people who take nerdy notice of quirky numbers, 5/12/13 (ie. today!) is the last time we will see a date that is a Pythagorean triple for a long time. Hence Pythagoras Day.

I didn't have as much fun with this stuff as I might have done at school. (Yes, yes, I know that those of you who take pride in your mathematical ignorance will be appalled at the concept of maths being fun). I discovered for myself relatively recently that odd numbers form gaps between successive square numbers:

1 to 4 gap is 3
4 to 9 gap is 5
9 to 16 gap is 7
16 to 25 gap is 9

and so on. A series of Pythagorean triples can be built from this, as the squares of odd numbers are also odd numbers, and the gap between two square numbers is also an odd number, the sum of the two numbers:

The gap between 22 and 32 is 2 + 3
The gap between 32 and 42 is 3 + 4

So when the gap between two squares is equal to a square number, hey presto, you have a Pythagorean triple:

The gap between 42 and 52 is 9, which is 32
The gap between 122 and 132 is 25, which is 52
The gap between 242 and 252 is 49, which is 72

They were the ones I knew about - but then I could see that 9:40:41 would be a Pythagorean triple, as would 11:60:61 and 13:84:85. Pretty neat.

However, Wikipedia takes the sense of achievement away by introducing Euclid's formula, which permits us to generate all Pythagorean triples. It's even more neat, but a bit soul-destroying. I just wish someone had shown me this stuff when I was at school!