Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Murder Detectives

The title does not refer to some fictional characters but rather to real-life murder detectives who are depicted in the three part documentary which won a BAFTA in 2016. The 'story' is as follows: 19 year old Nicholas Robinson is stabbed in the stairwell of his block of flats in Bristol; he staggers out into the road and dies of his wounds. There is an eye witness to the stabbing which happened out of the range of CCTV but no identification could be made; whilst the presumed assailant can be seen entering and leaving the building, dressed in hoodie and revealing no features, there is no footage of the act.

Fairly quickly, the detectives find a glove on the scene; they extract DNA which gives a match on the database, so they are able to arrest a suspect. Unfortunately for the police, the suspect gives an alibi which they are able to match from more CCTV footage, so they have to let him go.

A knife is recovered from a drain.

Word reaches a community policeman that Luchiano Barnes was responsible; when the police check, 18 year old Barnes had abruptly left Britain the day before on a flight to New York.

The police try to build a case but don't have much concrete evidence which could link Barnes to the murder so they have to wait. Eventually he returns and is arrested at the airport. Throughout his interviews he responds "No comment".

After a few months the case comes to trial; Barnes is convicted and sentenced to serve a minimum of 23 years. His parents are also convicted of abetting a criminal and receive custodial sentences. A good description/review/reflection of the documentary can be read here.

So much for the story. As a long time reader of police procedurals, I have many questions which were not answered in the documentary. First off, how come the entire investigation was filmed? Did they have a film crew hanging around, waiting for someone to be murdered, or was the whole thing reconstructed? Judging by what was shown, it was filmed in real time, which begs the question about the film crew at the beginning.

Nothing is ever shown about the defense, apart from a statement issued a few days before the trial begins in which Barnes admits to being in the building but that the stabbing occurred in self-defence. Very much an own goal. I would love to know what was in the defense council's mind for as far as I could see, the evidence was circumstantial.

The glove: more than one person's DNA was found (including Barnes'). What was it doing in the flat? How come more than one person had worn it? The DNA match was only partial for Barnes.

The knife: after it is filmed being found, this presumably vital piece of evidence is never mentioned again. Did the pathologist check to see whether it would cause wounds compatible with those of the victim's? Were any fingerprints or blood stains found? Maybe the water in the drain washed these off.

Red stains were found on the first suspect's shoes: were these checked for being blood? If so, whose?

What was the motive? The deceased's girlfriend told a story about how he was supposed to acquire a gun but presumably failed, for which he was killed. One might say that this is hearsay; no proof was offered - at least in the documentary - which might have upheld this motive.

The point of the documentary might well not have been the same as a novel's in that the fictional police have to show why their suspect is guilty; it might only have been to show how the police really work. The reality is not too far removed from the fiction: developments occur more slowly and many more people are involved than the two to five officers in a DCI Banks novel. The real police seem to be very dependent on CCTV.

Whilst this three part was initially engrossing, I later found it to be too long and somewhat disappointing.

Incidentally, BBC Entertainment are once again showing the early episodes of the DCI Banks dramatisations. 'Playing with fire' was very annoying, but 'Friend of the devil' played fairly close to the source material - although why give the story away in the very first scene. Otherwise, my original criticisms are still valid: age has not mellowed me.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


A mention of this non-essential amino acid in a recent blog by Jeff Duntemann sparked my interest: his blog linked to this article, which mainly discusses theanine in conjunction with caffeine. Another site - apparently written by a teenager who doesn't know the word "you" (too much Prince) makes all kinds of claims. After some research, it seems that theanine is quite well known in life-style circles but hasn't made the leap to front page news, despite the fact that it appears to have hard proof about its positive effects on the human body.

As far as I can establish, l-theanine (the d-enantiometer appears, like many organic compounds, to be less active), a natural compound isolated from green tea, appears to increase the occurrence of alpha waves in the brain, leading to relaxation, and helps with anxiety, blood pressure control, mood, and cognition (wikipedia). I certainly don't have a problem with cognition and I'm not normally anxious, but it seems that this supplement can make a difference to my life. Other abilities which have been attributed to theanine are a reduction in headaches and in perennial colds; basically it seems that it can generally improve one's well being and reduce all manner of irritants. As someone who suffers from these mild complaints, any improvement will be greatly appreciated.

One of the articles which I read mentions suppliers; one of these is Solgar, which to the best of my knowledge is an Israeli company (there are shelves devoted to Solgar products in the food supplement section of the local pharmacy). I couldn't find theanine on those shelves, and discovered that Solgar don't market the supplement in Israel. No matter; I found a supplier in America who ships the Solgar product to Israel, and about ten days after ordering, a bottle of 60 capsules, each 200mg, arrived here. The cost was a mere $26 plus $4 shipping; a local company is selling imported capsules here at at least twice the price, but they have run out of stock.

As at the moment I'm interested in improving the quality of my sleep, I have been taking one capsule about an hour before going to bed. Here are my notes:
  • Friday: first capsule. Very intense dreams during the night. I awoke with a slight headache.
  • Saturday: woke at about midnight in an attempt to free myself from a 'dream loop', in which I dream about the same thing over and over again. Sleep through till the alarm at 5:30. Again, a slight headache.
  • Sunday: nothing special about the dreams. I awoke feeling refreshed, no mild headache. It seems that the remark which I read  about the body needing to adapt to the new stimulus is true: I am adapting and now the theanine is doing what it is supposed to do.
  • Monday: no apparent effect
The scientist in me is pleased that there are three measures which I can use to establish whether theanine has a positive effect on me; two of these - blood pressure and weight - are fairly weak measures as they can be affected by many factors, but one - sleep apnea - is easily measured and should be a very good test of whether the quality of my sleep is improving. Sleep quality is considered to be very important with regard to general health, and all the good things which theanine is supposed to promote - lowered blood pressure, reduced weight, higher immunity to viral infections - all derive from improved sleep quality.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Two films

Over the past few weeks, I've seen a couple of interesting films, both coincidentally starring young British actress Rosamund Pike.

The first, 'What we did on our holiday', was exceedingly enjoyable and I would recommend this to anyone who shares the same tastes as I. Blessed with Scottish highlands scenery, the events of this film take place over a weekend and seem somewhat realistic (as do all British films). Apparently much of the children's dialogue was improvised, or at least based on improvisation.

 I am less sure about the second film, 'Hector and the search for happiness', about which I find it difficult to form a concrete opinion. Whilst the film discusses a very important topic, it does so in a very facile and fairly unbelievable manner. The film is enjoyable on a surface level, but falls apart when one starts to probe under its surface. The photography itself is stunning but the activities depicted in this globe spanning film are very white, middle class, Guardian-reading, biased. The film is based on a French book, so I imagine that many faults derive from the book.

It is noble that the eponymous Hector, a psychiatrist, wants to find causes for happiness in order to help his patients improve. No doubt that this is the impetus behind real life psychiatrist Martin Seligman and his search for happiness (or more accurately, his search for the causes of happiness), but Seligman goes about it in a somewhat more orderly manner. Even I have written about this search.

Somehow I doubt that anyone who is unhappy is going to learn very much from this film.

If this blog's opening paragraph mentioned Rosamund Pike, then I should close by noting that her character in 'Hector' is another thing which leaves me somewhat bemused (I'm not writing about her acting which is fine enough). Supposedly a marketing star for a pharmaceutical company, she has enough time to mother Hector in their very large flat. One of her Skype conversations with Hector is very strange - she's preparing to go out, but there's no mention about where she is going, with whom or with why. I thought that maybe she was moving on and meeting new people instead of staying faithful to the globe-trotting Hector, but no. That scene - at least, to me - is somewhat ambiguous and could easily have been left out.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Second version of intermediate thesis submitted

Today I sent the second version of my intermediate thesis to the research committee. I've been very quiet about it here, primarily because there hasn't been much to write about. After getting over the shock of the first review (the shock was not passing but rather the tone and extent of the comments), I then entered the twilight months of February and March, when I was ill with flu with complications and found it difficult to accomplish anything which required thinking.

Since then, I've been working steadily on the thesis, adding a great deal of background material, whilst extending the discussion of data acquisition and analysis (which is mainly statistics). There was a short detour for a month or so when I tried to include a graphical model and material about moderating variables, but my advisor advised me to drop this.

The advisor - or at least, the advisory process - is another reason why it has taken seven months to create a new version. The turnaround between me considering that a version is worthwhile submitting to the advisor and getting it back with comments can vary between two to four weeks. This time period seems to be fairly constant, regardless of the amount of new material, so it can be fairly frustrating when removing material (the moderating variables) takes a few weeks for a response.

That's all water under the bridge now. As the research committee meets only once every seven weeks and the next meeting is in a month's time, I won't get any feedback until late September. Hopefully this time the intermediate thesis will be accepted, allowing me to get on with the actual research (sending out questionnaires and tabulating the results). 

I think that the time scale of the doctorate - around four years, not including the primary courses - is not sufficiently emphasized when candidates begin. One needs a great deal of patience!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Turning a corner?

I don't think that I've written about this here, but since the beginning of April, I have been putting on weight - so much so that I was 3 kg above what I should be. This may not seem like a large amount but it does make a significant difference to my well-being. The most obvious expression of this extra weight comes from the CPAP machine which has been showing at least 20 'events' every night - far too high! These events impact my sleep which then affects my general sense of feeling well, or rather, not feeling well.

I decided to take things in hand two weeks ago. I had been eating a small snack bar at around 9:30 in the morning, as this is when I start feeling hungry. Even though these bars contain only 60 calories, they can be cut out. But more importantly, I stopped eating blackcurrants as if they were calorie-free sweets; although the currants do have an anti-oxidant effect, they are also full of sugar and I'm fairly sure that they were the prime cause of the weight gain. Result: after a week, my weight dropped by half a kilo. The next step was to stop drinking three glasses of chocolate milk every morning at work (10am, 11am, 12am) and replace them with lemon cordial. Result: another week, another 500 grams lost.

Yesterday I took the dog for a long walk in the morning; I then swam 24 lengths in the pool (beating my previous best by 4 lengths) and in the evening I speed walked 3.5 km. Maybe none of these activities on their own are world beating, but the important thing is that I am exercising and getting rid of the excess weight. Swimming is a good activity but I find it extremely boring. Sometimes I can think about programming problems which help me counter that boredom and allow me to swim further, but that doesn't always happen. The evening was humid; when I returned home after walking, the sweat was running into my eyes and my shirt was wringing wet. I bought some vests especially for this purpose; I shall have to dig them out of the cupboard.

Today I am replacing the lemon cordial (40 calories per 100 ml, which means that the drinks are contributing about 300 calories per day) with some diet apple cordial, which supposedly has only half of the calorific value. I am also going to try to resume my old habits of walking every evening; I'll start with the attainable distance of 3.5 km before increasing that to 5 km. 

I will also check the CPAP machine to see whether the last week's activities have had any effect. In order to do so, I have to extract the memory card from the machine then insert it into the computer via a holder; this isn't a problem but adds overhead which I could do without. I also want to see whether increasing the machine's pressure has made a difference: increased weight means that a higher pressure is required to achieve the same result.

I have to admit that I woke up yesterday after what seemed to be the best night's sleep for a long time. I think that leaving the air conditioner on all night (Friday) in the bedroom also helped as this reduced the humidity. It didn't seem to have so much of an effect last night (Saturday) but maybe Friday night was especially humid. Again, it will be interesting to see whether there is any difference in the CPAP results between Friday and Saturday night; Friday night traditionally always has high levels, almost certainly due to eating a full meal in the evening.

I should note that about a month ago I finally found on the Internet the instruction manual for the CPAP machine which explains how to change the pressure. This is not something which the casual user is supposed to do! One explanation which I have seen is that the pressure is set following standard tests and is akin to a prescription; a user should not change the number or strength of pills that he is prescribed and cannot change the lenses in his glasses. So a user should not change the pressure! But the last time I gained weight (a few years ago), the technician told me not to worry and showed me how to change the pressure. In the following years, I forgot how to do this so it's good to now have the official manual.

Thursday, August 04, 2016


AMC broadcast an eighth episode of 'The Night Manager' last night! Due to the air conditioner in the lounge not working since last Friday, I haven't had the time or inclination to watch any more episodes. I am still sticking to my theory that AMC simply took the raw material and repartioned it.

Before devouring once again the book version of TNM, I started rereading the new DCI Banks novel. There were a few points which raised my sixth sense the first time around, but I didn't remember them when I wrote the connected blog entry. Rereading the first few chapters reminded me: until now, Banks has always drunk his tea black ("as it comes" is normally how author Robinson puts it). This time, he drinks with milk and sugar; hardly a hanging offence, but nevertheless uncharacteristic.

But one other mis-characterisation really stood out: it is implied that Banks once had an affair whilst he was married; this might have been a one-night stand after some office party. Such philandering has strongly been denied in the previous books; whenever Banks looked back on his marriage, it was always with either regret or pride that he did not have any extra-marital sex. So this snippet should have been removed from the book - in any case, it has no bearing whatsoever on the story. As it happens, it is connected to something which Robinson did get right - Banks' sometime colleague Burgess appears once again, and the bad blood between Burgess and Cyril (pub owner) is mentioned; this was due to Burgess 'having a tumble' with Cyril's wife in the third book of the series, many years ago.

Yesterday was my 60th birthday, I hung one more year on the line (thank you, Paul Simon). I had only modest expectations from the day: no headaches (I had a terrible migraine the day before), no arguments with people at work (there was one on Monday) and getting the air conditioner fixed. I am pleased to say that all three expectations were fulfilled. On the other hand, I spent two hours in an acrimonious meeting in the evening which I could have done without (I was only an observer, not a participant). The granddaughter came over for an hour, accompanied by her parents, so that was my birthday present.

Today is very humid; I have a small headache and a slight stomach ache, which are my normal reactions to the humidity. I hope that they don't develop into anything more unpleasant.

Jerry Donahue, guitarist with Fotheringay and Fairport, had a stroke a few days ago. From what I understand, he is slowly recovering. Get well soon, Jerry! We met in the summer of 1988 and had a pleasant conversation. I also wrote to him about a year ago, asking who played what on the Fotheringay song "The pond and the stream"; he replied that he would give a full answer when he had some time (he was probably touring at the time). Now it seems that I will never get an answer, selfish me.