Scrap of writing: Sustainable minds and relationships

I’ve just rediscovered a scrap of a note, which sort of still makes sense – throwing it out here in case it makes sense to someone else too!

“Differential” psychology orders people from clever to stupid (Nisbett et al., 2012; Spearman, 1904). Some have argued that instead of evaluating thinking ability, psychologists should instead study what it is that people care enough to think about and do (Raven, 1988). What might this mean? Perhaps we (social science, broadly?) should study:

  1. What people could think about;
  2. What people are thinking about, i.e., what they make an effort to think about and what thoughts come effortlessly;
  3. Why people don’t think about things that they could think about;
  4. What they can do;
  5. Why they are or aren’t doing things they can/could do.

The goal would be to shift studies of ability as a score to qualitative studies of the nature of what people think, feel, and do. This leads to an interesting set of problems. Let’s define a desired-action as an action which others’ want or need either to do themselves or to delegate to others and a desired-skill is what’s required to do those actions. Even with a qualitative model of thoughts, feelings, and actions, there remains the problem that:

  1. Some desired-skills are in more scarce supply than others.
    1. As a corollary, the abilities and motivations required for scarce desired-skills can be difficult to modify at the population and individual level (high gSpearman’s “general factor in intelligence” – is thought to enable desired-skills; attempts to increase it through, e.g., “brain training” have failed);
  2. Some desired-skills are more in demand than others.
    1. Another corollary: there may be no “good reason” for demand other than that a group of people have arbitrarily come to decide that they want something;
    2. In-demand doesn’t imply “useful” (in any sense) for self or society (see also ideas around social closure and opportunity hoarding; Wright, 2009);
  3. People are rewarded for doing scarce and in-demand desired-actions.
    1. This reward is currently often seen as financial, but there are other ways people can feel rewarded.

One possible conclusion (with a bit of an arm-wave) is that social scientists should be working out how to reduce the set of things that feel scarce. Perhaps it all comes down to human motivation (Maslow, 1943):

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualisation
  6. To know and understand

Another way to think about this is that needs are part of a psychosocial ecosystem. And, much like how – if we want to stop the destruction of the planet – we have to find ways to live in a more sustainable way in terms of the material resources we use, we also – if we want to stop the destruction of our minds and relationships – have to help each other manage our needs. Think about an example of material sustainability. Do we really need to have a new plastic bag every time we go shopping? Are some of our apparent needs which rely on scarce-actions just arbitrarily so?

[And the scrap fizzled out here… Over to you…]


Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2012). Intelligence: new findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist, 67, 130–59. doi:10.1037/a0026699

Raven, J. (1988). Toward Measures of High-Level Competencies: A Re-examination of McClelland’s Distinction Between Needs and Values. Human Relations, 41, 281–294. doi:10.1177/001872678804100401

Spearman, C. (1904). “ General Intelligence,” Objectively Determined and Measured. The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201–292.

Wright, E. O. (2009). Understanding Class: Towards an Integrated Analytical Approach. New Left Review, 60, 101–116.

Thick description

I love this on “thick description” (p.543):

“Thick description” of social actions promotes “thick interpretation” of these actions, which lead to “thick meaning” of the findings that resonate with readers (Ponterotto & Grieger, in press). I like to use the metaphor of a tree to explain the interconnection of these three concepts. The “thick description” constitutes the roots of the tree that nourish and feed “thick interpretation,” represented by the solid trunk of the tree, which in turn feeds the branches and leaves of the tree,which represent the “thick meaning.” It is the branches and leaves that most capture the viewers’ attention, as is the case with “thick meaning,” which grasps the attention of the reader of the study.

I think it’s fascinating how we use stories to evoke emotion, and stories are an important facet of social research, but this stuff on “thick description” reads (to me) like satire!


Ponterotto, J. G. (2006). Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept Thick Description. The Qualitative Report, 11, 538-549.

Critical realism

Everything you wanted to know about Critical Realism:


From methods to goals in social science research

Note. This is quite a ranty blog post – especially the first two paragraphs. Readers may therefore wish to read it in the voice of Bernard Black from the series Black Books to make it more palatable. You may also be interested in this short BMJ comment.



Many of the social science papers I read have long jargon-heavy sections justifying the methods used. This is particularly common in writeups of qualitative studies, though not unheard of in quantitative work. There are reflections on epistemology, ontology, and axiology – sometimes these must be discussed by doctoral students if they are to acquire a degree, especially in applied psychology. There’s discussion of social constructionism, critical realism, phenomenology, interpretation, intersubjectivity, hermeneutics. “But what is reality, really?” the authors ponder; “What can we know?” Quantitative analysis is “positivist” and to find or construct meaning you need a qualitative analysis (it is claimed).

Although I like philosophy, most of this methodological reflection bores me to tears. Am I alone in this?

I think many differences between methods (at the level of analysis found in empirical papers) are exaggerated, clever-sounding words (often –isms) are fetishised, grandiose (meta-)theories are used to explain away straightforward study limitations such as poor sampling. I bet some people feel they have to reel off fancy terminology to play the academic game, even though they think it’s nonsense.

But there are different kinds of research in the social sciences, beyond the dreary qual versus quant distinction as usually discussed. Might it be easiest to see the differences in terms of the goals of the research? Here are three examples of goals, to try to explain what I mean.

Evoke empathy. If you can’t have a chat with someone then the next best way to empathise with them is via a rich description by or about them. There seems to be a bucket-load of pretentiousness in the literature (search for “thick description” to find some). But skip over this and there are wonderful pieces of work to be found which are simply stories. I love stories. Biographies you read which make you long to meet the subject are prime examples. Film documentaries, though not fitting easily into traditional research output, are another. “Interpretative Phenomenological Analyses” manage to include stories too, though you often have to wade through nonsense to get to them.

Classify. This may be the classification of perspectives, attitudes, experiences, processes, organisations, or other stuff-that-happens in society. For example: social class, personality, goals people have in psychological therapy, political orientation, mental health difficulty, emotions. The goal here is to impose structure on material, reveal patterns, whether it be interview responses, answers on Likert scales, or some other kind of observation. There’s no escaping theory, articulated and debated or unarticulated and unchallenged, when doing this. There may be a hierarchical structure to classifications. There may be categorical or dimensional judgments (or both, where the former is derived from a threshold on the latter), e.g., consider Myers-Briggs (love or hate it) or the Big Five personality types. Dimensions are quantitative things, but there are qualitative differences between them. You can’t put Openness and Introversion on a dimension but both are themselves dimensions.

Predict. Finally you often want to make predictions. Do people of a particular social class tend to experience some mental health difficulties more often than others? Does your personality predict the kinds of books you like to read. Do particular events predict an emotion you’ll feel? Other predictions concern the impact of interventions of various kinds (broadly construed). What would happen if you voted Green and told your friends you were going to do so? What would happen if you funded country-wide access to cognitive behavioural therapy rather than psychoanalysis? Theory matters here too, usually involving a story or model (a deliberate simplification of reality) of why variables relate to each other.

What do you think?

Mental health funding FOI responses update

I asked Treasury:

Blame for insufficient mental healthcare funding has been passed around between Department of Health, NHS England, and individual Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), however, the source of funding is the Treasury. Although CCGs and other mediating organisations make decisions about how much funding mental health receives, this is as a proportion of budgets decided at Treasury level. Any budgetary planning at Treasury level must therefore take mental health into consideration, alongside other areas of healthcare.

I am writing to request:

(i) names of individuals at Treasury and above, including advisors by official name or function, who are responsible for decisions made in relation to mental health care budgets;

(ii) documentation on budgetary decisions made, including evidence of how, in calculating the total health budget, mental health needs have been taken into consideration.

To (i) they said they don’t hold the information. To (ii) they said they do, but wouldn’t share it, citing Section 35 of the FOI act.

(Full response here.)

I asked the Department of Health:

CCGs and other mediating organisations make decisions about how much funding mental health receives, but this is as a proportion of budgets decided at Treasury level. Any budgetary planning at Treasury level must therefore take mental health into consideration, alongside other areas of healthcare.

I am writing to inquire about advice provided by Department of Health to Treasury on mental health budgets.

1. Who in DH provides this advice?

2. What advice has been provided to inform the most recent budget allocation for health?

They also confirmed that they held relevant information but refused to share it, citing s35(1)(a).

(Full response here.)

I asked NHS England the same question:

[…] I am writing to inquire about advice provided by NHS England to Treasury on mental health budgets.

1. Who in NHSE provides this advice?

2. What advice has been provided to inform the most recent budget allocation for health?

They provided a response.

1. Who in NHSE provides this advice?

Paul Baumann, Chief Financial Officer for NHS England, has responsibility for the organisation’s budgets including providing advice on these budgets. NHS England is an Arm’s Length Body (ALB) of the Department of Health (DH), much of the advice the Treasury would receive on Mental Health would be coordinated by the Department.

2. What advice has been provided to inform the most recent budget allocation for health?

NHS England’s view of the overall funding requirements of the NHS were set out in financial analysis conducted for the Call to Action (July 2013) [see, especially, the technical annex] and the Five Year Forward View (October 2014), which have been shared with DH and Her Majesty’s Treasury.

This analysis projects “do-nothing” expenditure using assumptions about the three main drivers associated with current health care demand and costs: demographic growth, non-demographic growth (e.g. technological development and medical advances) and health cost inflation. Historic trends for these drivers were reviewed and an estimation of future pressures developed for six service level ‘assumption sets’: Acute, Mental Health, Specialised Services, Primary Care, Prescribing and non-activity based costs. This high level analysis thus includes assumptions related to cost and demand growth for mental health services as part of the overall modelling.

Detailed analysis and costing is completed by NHS England on specific initiatives, the output of these models are used to inform budget announcements and the planning guidance information. These costings are developed by the Medical Directorate and Finance Directorate working together.

(Link to response here.)

How I got started in amateur radio


Yaesu FT-60R

I’ve been into radio since I was knee-high, listening to pirate stations like Kiss 103.7 FM in Northern Ireland (when all my favourite stations were shut down I was a very sad 7 year old indeed) and dabbling in Short Wave Listening (I got some “QSL” postcards, e.g., from Russia and the Czech Republic, confirming signal reports). I first transmitted when I was a teenager using CB radio and there’s still the base of a 5/8 wave antenna rusted onto the side of my parents’ house. I also worked for a bit on an FM broadcast student radio station.

CB radio licences only allow transmitting on low power and on frequencies where relatively short range line-of-sight communication is the norm. Amateur (or “ham”) radio operators can use a broader range of frequencies, some of which allow radio waves to be reflected by the ionosphere and so travel long distances. They’re also allowed to use higher power and much more flexible operating modes (examples below). I’d wanted to get a ham licence when I was a teenager, but this requires sitting exams, and I was already doing enough of those!

I forgot all about ham radio until last year, when a friend of a friend featured on a blog by someone “photographing oddballs whom he found eccentrically wandering around London”. Here’s Oliver (M6ODP), radio ham — he’d been walking along the Thames with a handheld radio.


Oliver (M6ODP)

Ham radio still sounded like fun and I’d overcome my hatred of exams, so I Googled around and found that Loughton & Epping Forest Amateur Radio Society (LEFARS) were running weekend courses. I ordered the books, practised a spot of soldering and sums, and passed the Foundation exam on 21 Sept 2014, the Intermediate on 25 Oct 2014, and the Advanced on 8 Dec 2014. Since December, I’ve had a full licence, callsign MØINF.


Before I got my first radio I played with Echolink which is a bit like Skype for radio hams, with the additional feature of allowing remote connections to radio transceivers (combined transmitters and receivers) over the Internet. For example you can connect to a transceiver in the US, listen on whatever radio frequency it’s listening to and also transmit, so anyone using a radio nearby can chat with you. Commonly these are repeaters, transceivers on hilltops and high buildings which listen to signals on one frequency and re-transmit them on another, allowing conversations over longer distances.

My first ham connect was with OE1OMA on 4 Oct 2014. She was in Vienna, using the local OE1XUU repeater on a handheld radio. I dropped in via Echolink on my PC in London.

Very/Ultra High Frequency (VHF/UHF)

I got a handheld radio, the Yaesu FT-60R, which covers the 70cm and 2m bands used for local chat between hams (and lots of other things, such as talking to the International Space Station, but I haven’t got there yet…). I started using the GB3HR (Harrow) and GB3NS (Caterham) repeaters; more recently, GB3LW (London Sound Bank) has come (back) online, and gives great coverage around central London. Conversations vary from geeky talk about… wait for it… ham radio… to general chat with people in and around London who are, e.g., walking their dog across a hill, on a smoking break from a night shift, or driving home from the shops.

HF radio

Yaesu FT-450D with a WonderLoop

High Frequency (HF)

Radio hams tend to be most interested in international communication, for example on the 20m HF band. Done well, this requires large antennas and high power. I rent a flat in London and haven’t yet found a way to install an outdoor antenna which wouldn’t result in me being evicted. However, I discovered the WonderLoop range of antennas which work indoors on low power. There are several YouTube videos of people using them to make long-distance contacts so I thought I’d give one a go. I got a Yaesu FT-450D to transmit through it.

Surprisingly, the loop works — when conditions are good and when the other end has a decent antenna! My first contact was on 11 January to EC7WA in Spain on SSB. Since then I have spoken to people as far away as Russia and, thanks to particularly good conditions, even the US. I’m mentioned briefly in an American Radio Rely League (ARRL) update:

“Andy Fugard, M0INF, hadn’t heard anything on 10 meters before March 7-8 and using an indoor magnetic loop antenna he worked KI1G, W3LPL, 9A1P, YU1EW, N1UR, AA1K, NC1I and LZ4TX from his apartment in London. You can see the antenna hanging in his window on his page.”

Digital modes

Recently I got a SignaLink interface, a device for connecting my radio to my PC so I can send and receive data. There are many different ways to encode data so that a ham, similarly equipped with radio and PC, can decode it at the other end (hear example recordings of how they sound). So far, I’ve experimented with PSK31 and WSPR (pronounced “whisper”). PSK31 looks a bit like text messaging, with recognised abbreviations of common expressions related to calling and acknowledging message receipt. The furthest I’ve reached is Russia. WSPR is essentially lots of computers saying “Hello there!” to each other via the radio waves in a very robust way, so the signals tend to be detectable even using low power over long distances. If someone receives your message then it’s logged automatically on a central server so you can leave WSPR running overnight and see in the morning how far you reached. My furthest report was from New Zealand. Given my indoor antenna I was very surprised!


Map showing WSRP contacts for one (particularly good!) 24 hour period

What next…?

I’m only getting started. On the to-do list:

  • Experiment with outdoor “stealth” antennas, which won’t annoy the neighbours but are likely to work better than an indoor loop.
  • Analyse public data from WSPR. Can I predict how far my signal will reach based on reports from those around me? How does solar activity correlate with how far my signal reaches?
  • Relay signals using one of the amateur radio satellites
  • Moon bounce: reflecting radio waves off the moon!