Feeling that experts aren’t right

Posted on July 3, 2016. Filed under: All, life | Tags: , , , , , |

A little thought provoked by an exchange on Facebook. This is a slightly expanded copy of what I wrote in that exchange and is by no means complete.

The most dangerous phrase I’ve ever heard is “I feel”. Few people seem to believe or decide anything any more, they always seem to “feel”.

I wish more people would challenge any apparent decision that begins with “I feel” or “I felt” (or that other weaselly phrase “I’m passionate about”). It may be a correct decision, but arrived at entirely by accident. It’s like trying to navigate from London to Adelaide by always following the prettiest or easiest road – it might get you there eventually, but it makes it a lot harder, takes longer than it should and probably leads to a lot of dead-ends and backtracking that others already knew about. We don’t accept “gut instinct” or “feeling that he’s a wrong ‘un” in the criminal justice system these days, so why should we accept it elsewhere?

Evidence is hard work. Thinking and rationalising is harder. Emotions are easy – go for the one that generates the warm fuzzy “feeling”. But then, when scientists are so often portrayed as being on the autistic spectrum (cf Sheldon Cooper), it makes it easy for those who are not in that world to claim that scientists and other experts just don’t understand the things that matter to them. The truth is, we often do understand them – but we can see other options and points of view clearly too.

“Shoulders of giants” is a bloody good metaphor – but needs to be explained a bit more clearly. The view’s pretty good from up here.

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Electric vehicles

Posted on April 8, 2015. Filed under: life, motoring | Tags: , , |

I’ve had a long-standing objection to electric vehicles, based on the way I use my car. I frequently have to travel long distances at short notice.

My problem with EVs is that they either lack range, or take too long to recharge, and I’ve been struggling to reconcile this, but I’ve been thinking

What if the range was shortened to, say, 100 miles or so – that’s about 90 mins. to 2 hours of driving on average. It would mean less battery to carry (reduced weight and cost), and less to charge, so could a reduction in range help to solve the charging time problem too ? As long as 100% charge could be done in about 5-10 minutes every 2 hours, I could live with it.

A break at around the 2 hour point, to refresh the driver, is sensible anyway.

Of course, it doesn’t solve the initial electricity generation and distribution problem, but it would remove an immediate hurdle for many like me who need a vehicle which can move them long distances in a fairly short timespan.

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Posted on March 12, 2015. Filed under: life | Tags: |

It’s nearly 30 years since I first met Terry Pratchett. In fact it’s nearly 30 years since he first slept in my bed.

Back then, I was playing at being a student in Edinburgh and had somehow ended up as President of the Science Fiction Society. Terry was invited, after several hours hard work in the Appleton Tower persuading a Macintosh to produce a decent-looking invitation, to be guest of honour at one of the first Freshercons (are they still running ? ). He wrote back and agreed to do it in return for a bed for the night and a chinese meal. No fee, no expenses, just an apparent sense of wonder that someone who had produced a couple of parodies (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) of lesser-known and thoroughly unfashionable fantasy books was thought good enough to be invited to something like that.

I still have fond memories of the chinese meal. It was in the Chinese Home Cooking restaurant in Edinburgh and a small group of awe-struck nerds were thoroughly entertained by his tales of his latest idea – something to do with Shakespeare and some witches, but he was struggling to find a decent familiar for the “wet” one.

Goodbye Pterry, we’ll miss you as much as , or maybe even more than, we still miss Douglas. And I’ll keep telling people that Terry Pratchett slept in my bed.

Now, how do I get a blue plaque erected in Edinburgh ? “Pterry woz ‘ere”.

P.S. – I slept on the sofa in the living room. What did you think was going on ?

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Why I try not to engage in “political” debate on (anti)social media

Posted on March 7, 2015. Filed under: life | Tags: , , , , |

Lots of people posting, lots of belief systems, lots of agendae, lots of complaints – but nobody actually proposing well-considered solutions to any  of the perceived problems. Politics has become as bad as sport or religion, it’s degenerating to tribal belief systems. Mainly because social media gives people a voice, but it’s one that nobody listens to. It’s easy, it’s quick and it has no real impact, except to show which of the groupings you belong to.

I’ve learnt, the hard way, that challenging beliefs, asking questions and trying to engage in reasoned debate is now a sure way to lose friends – so I try not to do it any more.

The same goes for the politicians – I have no time for anyone who says “it’s all their fault”. i don’t care whose fault it is – I want to know what the problem is and what YOU are going to do to make it better. If you won’t tell me those two simple things, I have no interest in the rest of your words.

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I don’t believe in equality

Posted on March 4, 2015. Filed under: life | Tags: , , , |

But I do believe in fairness.

Equality is based on the concept that differences don’t matter or don’t exist. Fairness accepts that differences do exist and should be allowed for and accommodated when they matter.

Just a thought.

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Words cannot be unread – but I sometimes wish they could.

Posted on September 12, 2013. Filed under: All, Education, life |

The proof is not in the pudding, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

One does not “go direct”. Go to gaol. Go directly to gaol. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200. Take the direct route if you wish, but go directly.

Mr. Clarkson, if something is 4 times greater than 1, it is 5, not 4.

I of haveten thought that Terry Pratchett’s least useful contribution to the literary word lies in the abuse have “of”.

There is too much loose use of “loose”. I fear we may lose the correct meaning.

Little Johnny went to the shops and brought some pies. I wonder if he bought them or was taking them there to sell ?

Clothes may be made of cloths.

They’re, there, their. It’s all better now.






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Posted on August 12, 2013. Filed under: life, motoring | Tags: , , , , , , |

I spent a lot of time on the road last week, probably more than was good for me, but it led to a small moment of clarity.

On Friday, I was trying to get home from Brighton. That involved, notionally, driving around the M25 and then up the M1 to the north-east of England. There are other routes, but when you’ve committed to meeting someone part-way up the M1, it pretty much locks you into that. (And yes, I know that trying to drive away from London on a Friday is always a bad idea because all those who work there do exactly the same).

As expected, within a few minutes of joining the M25, it was gridlocked. Average speed was about 5 mph, it seemed. I couldn’t do anything except sit in the jam, edging forward little by little, watching my ETA increase until, eventually, after an hour-long delay, the jam magically cleared in front of me and allowed me to get off the M25 onto the M1 and to my meeting.

After the meeting, I rejoined the M1 – to see another jam. Now, I had a choice – I could sit in the jam and hope it cleared, I could get out the maps and plan another route, or I could drive in vaguely the right direction to find another good road north and hope that the SatNav would work out what I was up to.

I chose the third option. I had no need to stick to a planned route any more. I just wanted to get on the move and feel like I was making progress towards my destination.

The revelation – a lot of the time, this is how I run my business. I don’t like to have plans that are too well-formed. I need to keep some flexibility because things change, usually unexpectedly and in interesting ways.

I like to feel like I’m making progress, even if it’s not in the way I had planned. I do start with an outline plan, and I always know what my goals are, but exactly how I achieve them is quite loosely defined. It works for me, but it causes problems too.

Right now, I’m stuck on a couple of projects because I made two mistakes. Firstly, I decided to use a large organisation as a sub-contractor and secondly, I trusted them to deliver their contracts on time.

The organisation is so large, and so beset with a mindset that tells it that all risks can be managed, that it’s got stuck in drawing up the contracts. It simply can’t cope with a situation which is flexible and which requires elements of doubt and uncertainty to be accepted.

Unfortunately for that organisation, I’m preparing to take a different route – I can see a promising little side-road up ahead and it looks interesting.

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Finishing that journey means that you have to keep moving, no matter what obstacles get in your way.

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Posted on March 10, 2011. Filed under: forensic, life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Just recently I’ve been having discussions about possibly becoming a contractor for a little while and it’s thrown up a question that’s haunted me ever since I started examining other people’s computers.

I’m a fan of open-source software and I really do believe that one of the benefits I offer as a consultant is the fact that I don’t use the same examination kit as everyone else. It means that when I check their results or they check mine we are using significantly different tools, and mine are open for anyone to scrutinise at the source-code level. So, if we find a discrepancy we can dig deep into at least one the tools, if necessary, to find the reason why. It’s proper dual-tooling, or as close as we can get for now.

Now, in the past I’ve had to explain this (because there are two or three tools that everyone expects to see and eyebrows are raised when I don’t mention them ) but it has never stopped me getting an expert witness job. The critical word there is “expert” – in that role I am supposed to exercise my judgment to select the best tools and methods for the job.

However, a contractor is different creature – if I do get offered this job, I have to fit into someone else’s working environment and do things their way with their tools. I can do it. In my academic life I had to learn new skills, tools etc. very quickly and be able to teach them to other people. It’s a knack that a good lecturer picks up soon, or they don’t survive in labs. for long. The question is, will the client believe I can do it or will they wait until they find someone with the right piece of paper instead ?

My argument, for what it’s worth, is that I can learn the tool quickly and, because I have a background in computer science and am used to creating little ad-hoc tools whenever I need them, I can check the tool’s results in a way that someone who just know the program might not be able to.

We shall see.

Meanwhile, in the world of standards and regulation things have gone quiet in the Regulator’s office. His contract has been extended for another 3 years, but I rather think he’s suffering from budget cuts elsewhere. No matter, plans are well underway for the next ISO meeting in Singapore where we will be trying to get some new work approved to go beyond the current ISO/IEC 27037 and ensure we have guidance for a complete process from planning through acquisition to analysis, with proper validation all the way through.

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Writing for a living ?

Posted on February 2, 2010. Filed under: forensic, life | Tags: , , , , , , |

Well, it seems that at least two editors have been fooled into thinking I can write things that are either interesting or controversial. They might even pay me (a little) to do it.

Keep an eye on them :

* Digital Forensics Magazine (DFM) for my IRQ column ( This issue is about triage and whether or not it has a role in digital forensics.

* The Investigator Magazine for my series (Tech. Note) on how technology is involved in crime (

It’s an interesting experience being paid to have opinions – something which was actively discouraged in a former life 😉

The main topic for this week, apart from devising fiendish exam questions for my students at Ulster, has been preparing a presentation for the Forensic Science Regulator’s conference next week. I’ve been asked to speak some more about the issues related to software validation. Interestingly, there’s another session on method validation. Given that software, by its very nature, has to embody method, I think I may overlap a lot. However, the results from the workshop I arranged back in December will fit into this nicely and should provoke some discussion.

Here’s hoping that from the arguing we can reach a consensus about the way forward – ideally one that will work!

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New year, new technology

Posted on January 31, 2010. Filed under: 1, life | Tags: , , , , , |

Well, not strictly new technology for the new year since I actually got the latest toy back in November.

It’s a Palm Pre to replace my venerable Palm Centro which finally succumbed to one too many attempts to fix the keyboard problems I was having with it (took ages to break it properly 😉 )

The Pre is a bit of revelation for someone like me who usually travels with at least one laptop so I can check e-mail and write on the move. As a challenge, I took just the Pre and a notepad on a trip to London a couple of weeks ago. Apart from the battery taking a hammering and dropping rapidly on the train due to low signal strength and too much checking of e-mail and web while listening to Led Zeppelin (yes, iPhone fans – the Pre MULTI-tasks, it really can do several things at once) – it performed pretty much flawlessly. GPS worked well and Google Maps allowed me to find BCS HQ in London without any problems – no wrong turns, no drama. E-mail worked well on GPRS, 3G and in-train WiFi. Phone calls were made by clicking on numbers found on web pages and in e-mails.

This is the device I’ve been waiting for. Finally, smart-phones make proper sense to me. Now, if only they could sort out the battery life issue it would become a device for road-warriors. As it is, for someone like me who tend to stay behind a desk it works well as a portable cloud access device. The Touchstone inductive charger means I can just drop the Pre onto it’s little stand whenever I don’t need it in my pocket and it’s always ready to go. I’ve even found myself using it to stream radio (Motel California on Accuradio mostly) and play video (The Italian Job) in preference to using one of the big boxes that live under the desk.

Roll on WebOS 1.4 which is supposed to improve battery life, enable the GPU for 3D gaming and faster screen access and bring Flash to the mobile world at last.

Now, if I could just control it from my car stereo the way we can with Shirley’s iPod nano…

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    This is the weblog of Angus M. Marshall, forensic scientist, author of Digital Forensics : digital evidence in criminal investigations and MD at n-gate ltd.


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