Month: August 2015

Review of Val McDermid’s “Forensics: The anatomy of crime”

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Val McDermid, apparently an author of some standing as a writer of untrue crime novels, has written a true crime walkthrough of forensics topics interweaving real-life cases and comments. The fine selection of topics has no overall progressive narrative to such an extend that most of the chapters may have been permuted without loss of coherency. If there is a base for the book it is a fascination and awe for modern forensics. She is a good writer. Perhaps her crime novels has trained her in writing clear prose. She delves not into academic technicalities that could perhaps have been interesting.

She has based her book on other books as well as a good number of interviews with a broad range of forensics experts. A few of these comes from the University of Dundee: Forensics chemist Niamh Nic Daéid and forensics antropologist Sue Black.

I find McDermid view of the fallibility of forensics balanced drawing forth cases where presumed experts lack self-critique. Bernard Spilsbury and a U.S. ballistic expert Thomas Quirk are critized. For Roy Meadow, McDermid presents aspects of the tragic Sally Clark case that I do not recall having read before: The appeal was not prompted by Meadow’s evidence but by Pathologist Alan Williams that had failed to disclose blood test results. I do sometimes find popular science writing lack an appropriate level of critique to the material. McDermid is one of the better writers, but I do find one case where she oversteps the confidence we should have in science. Here is what she writes on page 164: “We already know, for instance about the existence of a ‘warrior gene’ – present mainly in men – which is linked with violent and impulsive behaviour under stress”. When I read “We know” I get mad, and when I read ‘warrior gene’ I get extra mad. Behavioral genetics is a mess full of red herrings. Recent meta-analysis of the warrior gene polymorphism MAOA-uVNTR and antisocial behavior (“Candidate Genes for Aggression and Antisocial Behavior: A Meta-analysis of Association Studies of the 5HTTLPR and MAOA-uVNTR“) reaches a 95% confidence interval on 0.98-1.32, while, interesting a very low p-value (0.00000137). The strangeness of difference between confidence interval and p-value is discussed in the paper and presently walks over my head. What seems reasonable certain is the loads of between-study heterogeneity. Any talk of warrior gene needs to acknowledge the uncertainty.

There are certainly more elements to forensics than McDermid presents. A Danish newspaper has recently run a story about cell phone tower records used in courtroom cases. A person carrying a powered cell phone reveals his/her location, – but only with a certain exactness. Cell phones may not necessarily select the nearest cell tower. From my own experience I know that my cell phone can select cell towers in other countries from where I am located, e.g., my cell phone in Nordsjælland in Denmark can easily select a cell tower in Sweden 15 to 20 kilometers or more away and my cell phone in Romania switched to a Ukrainian cell tower perhaps 20 kilometers or more away. U.S state Oregon has seen the case of Lisa Marie Roberts that on her bad lawyer’s advice pleaded guilty in 2004 because of critical important cell tower evidence. In 2013 she was freed.

I was struck by one of the stories presented that originates from the book of criminal lawyer Alex McBride. A surveillance camera records a case of apparently straightforward violence, but McBride is able to get his client off by threatening to use another part of the camera recording showing a policeman mishandling a person in a case of wrongful arrest. The prosecution dropped the charge for the original case. It does not seem fair to the victim of the original crime that the criminal can go free just because another crime is committed. To me it looks like a kind of corruption and extortion.

(Review also available on LibraryThing)

Review and comment on Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence

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Back in the 1990s I spent considerable computer time training and optimizing artificial neural networks. It was hot then. Then around year 2000 artificial neural networks became unfashionable with Gaussian processes and support vector machines taking over. During the 2000s computers got faster and some engineers turned to see what graphics processing units (GPU) could do besides doing computer rendering for computer games. GPUs are fast for matrix computations which are central in artificial neural network computations. Oh and Jung’s 2004 paper “GPU implementation of neural networks” seems to be the first according to Jurgen Schmidhuber describing the use of GPUs for neural network computation, but it was perhaps first when Dan Ciresan from Politehnica University of Timisoara began using GPUs that interesting advances began: In Schmidhuber’s lab he trained a GPU-based deep neural network system for Traffic Sign Classification and managed to get superhuman performance in 2011.

Deep learning, i.e., computation with many-layered neural network systems, was already then taking off and now broadly applied where the training of a system for computer gaming (classic Atari 2600 games) is perhaps the most illustrative example on how flexible and powerful modern neural networks are. So in limited domains deep neural networks are presently taking large steps.

A question is whether this will continue and whether we will see artificial intelligence system having more general superhuman capabilities. Nick Bostrom‘s book ‘Superintelligence‘ presupposes so and then starts to discuss “what then”.

Bostrom’s book, written from the standpoint of an academic philosopher, can be regarded as a elaboration from the classic Vernor Venge “The coming technological singularity: how to survive in the post-human era” from 1993. It is generally thought that if or when artificial intelligence become near-human intelligent the artificial intelligence system will be able to improve itself and once improved it will be able to improve yet more, resulting in a quick escalation (Verge’s ‘singularity’) with the artificial intelligence system becoming much more intelligent than humans (Bostrom’s ‘superintelligence’). Bostrom lists surveys among expert showing that the median time for the human-level intelligence is estimated to be around year 2040 and 2050, – a share of experts even believe the singularity will appear in the 2020s.

The book lacks solid empirical work on the singularity. The changes around the industrial revolution is discussed a bit and the horse in society in the 20th Century is mentioned: From having widespread use for transport, its function for humans would be taken over with human-constructed machines and the horses sent the butcher. Horses in the developed world are now mostly being used for entertainment purposes. There are various examples in history where a more ‘advanced’ society competes with an established less developed: neanderthal/modern humans, the age of colonization. It is possible that a superintelligence/human encounter will be quite different though.

The book discusses a number of issues from a theoretical and philosophical point of view: ‘the control problem’, ‘singleton’, equality, strategies for uploading values to the superintelligent entity. It is unclear to me if a singleton is what we should aim at. In capitalism, a monopoly seems not necessarily to be good for society, and in market economy societies put up regulation against monopolies. Even with a superintelligent singleton it appears to me that the system can run into problems when it tries to handle incompatible subgoals, e.g., an ordinary desktop computer – as a singleton – may have individual processes that require a resource which is not available because another resource is using it.

Even if the singularity is avoided there are numerous problems facing us in the future: warbots as autonomous machines with killing capability, do-it-yourself kitchen-table bioterrorism, general intelligent programs and robots taking our jobs. Major problems with it-security occur nowadays with nasty ransomware. The development of intelligent technologies may foster further inequality where a winner-takes-all company will rip all benefits.

Bostrom’s take home message is that the superintelligence is a serious issue, that we do not know how to tackle, so please send more money to superintelligence researchers. It is worth alerting society about the issue. There is general awareness of the evolution of society for some long term issues such as the demographics, future retirement benefits, natural resource depletion and climate change issues. It seems that development in information technology might be much more profound and requires much more attention than, say, climate change. I found Bostrom’s book a bit academically verbose, but I think the book has quite important merit as a coherent work setting up the issue for the major task we have at hand.


(Review also published on LibraryThing).

Edinburgh Fringe 2015

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The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015 began Friday 7 August and I went the first weekend and the first Wednesday to see a few of the many thousand shows. Here are the votes of the Dane’s jury:

Friday 14 August 2015

We did not get inside to the The Outsider at first. Technical problems delayed the start. Eventually inside, The Outsider was as Finnish as possible: Technical and mute, – and involving a mobile phone. A silent otherworldly clown character enters and starts interacting with two man-sized vertical flatscreens showing prerecorded video of the clown himself as twin copies with the “real” clown “entering” the video and appearing in another part of the set. This interaction between the live theatre performance and the prerecorded video requires very precise timing and only a couple of times was the performer, Janne Raudaskoski, half a second late. It shows what preciseness can be achieved with careful planning and rehearsal. The recording and the live were similar lit. On the stage you could see the difference between live and video, but in a recording from 2011 which conveys aspects of the show well it will not be clear to you what is the live character and what is the precorded character. Indeed an interesting concept, the story of the show, however, was meager, the overall message I got was: just do soap bubbles and everything will be ok.

Milton Jones, apparently a name in the UK with some TV appearance, performed at a large venue with the audience queueing early and filling the seats. That means if you queue up late you will get a seat quite far from the performer. While Jones can pour many-a-good absurd one-liners the show was a bit too UK-centric for my liking. I was behind in laughs compared to the rest of the audience. A problem with UK comedians is their reliance on British or English-speaking topics for some of the jokes. I did not know the word spinky/slinky so a joke on Milton Jones’ depressed uncle was lost on me. Last year I saw a British-Pakistani female comedian, Shazia Mirza, that was marked ‘U’ for a universal audience and even that stand-up show contained some UK-centric material. Perhaps it is a good recommendation for an international audience to steer free of big UK acts. At 18.50 Pounds the Milton Jones ticket was also the most expensive one. On the other hand if you are a connoisseur of absurd one-liners and a good word pun Milton is worth considering.

Céilidh Friday night yielded a sweaty two-hour journey back to Rosenkilde School of Dancing in Ørum. Totur til Vejle (Two-trip to Vejle) and the popular Trekant (Triangle) is what I remember. They were popular and requested more than the “traditional” Quickstep, English Waltz, Foxtrot or Chachacha. Blending in his own jokes, some kind to his wife Bente, blackmailing us with candy, our dancing instructor made a popular appearance each Friday in the Winter months. I recently googled Rosenkilde and found him still alive near 90. He lately have been mentioned in news media after heading a request for a monument for one of the leading men of the Danish resistance movement during the Second World War: Tholdstrup. Rosenkilde himself was as a young man member of the resistance.

Why is traditional dancing not more widespread in Denmark now? For the Scottish ceilidh the room was so full that both an inner and an outer circles had to be made to accommodate all dancers and there was a good age range. The old dance melodies seems more appreciated here than in Denmark.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Old Jewish Jokes” was a collection of good classic jokes delivered without a microphone and wrapped with a small personal story by Ivor Dembina. As such he distinguishes himself from the classic stand-up comedian where the jokes are autofictional. The stories told where often set in the Jewish family (husband/wife, mother/son) with a misanthropic or at least pessimistic mood. Almost all where new to me. I have heard one in a non-Jewish setting before. Dembina modulated his voice well almost whispering at times and with no microphone he could gesticulate freely. The microphone-free approach did, however, had a back side. The venue was a closed room in the back-end of a bar and the noise from the bar and his at times low voice could make it strenuous to hear some parts.

Ivor Dembina’s act was at the Free Fringe, that is, the part for the Fringe where there is no entrance fee. I was not completely aware of what that meant, so I thought it better to buy a beer at the bar in case that was expected of me. In the end Dembina would tell us what Free Fringe meant: You pay a courteous exit fee with an amount of your own liking. Dembina was kind enough to let us know what an appropriate amount would be: He was looking for a “silent contribution” – that is to say “no coins”. Wonderful Jewish humour. He got 5 Pounds from me. The fully packed room had an audiences of 43 with a few standing. With three weeks and working 7 days a week an average of 5 Pounds will only make around 4’500 Pounds. Not much. He practically have to live on the street in August’s Edinburgh to afford the Caledonian Sleeper back home to London.

Can I start again Please” was a two-actor piece by Sue MacLaine running in the Summerhall venue where the art-sy theatre plays run. Having a first row in the remote Red Lecture Theatre gave a relief from the bar noise of Dembina, – necessary as half of the play was silent with one of the actors – Nadia Nadarajah – doing her lines in sign language. The other actor was Sue MacLaine herself speaking with a distinct clear voice, – a trained actor I thought. From the notes in the Fringe program it was not clear what the play was about and on the surface level it appeared as a discussion on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy particular criticizing his quotation “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Another concept put up for commentary was “silence means consent“. Obviously these statements are highly questionable if you cannot speak because of a handicap. Unfortunately, another issue that went over my head during the play was silence in connection with childhood trauma. We were given the clue after the play. I think it may give the audience a better appreciation of the play if the clue was given in advance. I saw the play as mostly a learned critique of Wittgenstein. Given that I am already a bit of anti-philosophic and think not highly of Wittgenstein I did not see that the play added much.

I am thinking that MacLaine perhaps did not want the audience to know the “solution” to the play in advance but keep the secret as a meta-comment to the play itself: the play remains silent about its own core content and reveals only the surface plot.

I am reading “Forensics: The anatomy of crime” by Val McDermid. In this true crime book McDermid tells the story about a 14-year-old girl allegedly abused by her father (I am reluctantly using the word “allegedly” here) and recording it on video. On page 185 McDermid tells us that the jury went with “not guilty” “because they didn’t believe the girl – she hadn’t cried enough”! Surely, it seems that the behaviour of children experiencing trauma may be seriously misunderstood, whether the child does not cry or – as put forward by MacLaine – remains silent.

Devoted Westlife fan Danish London-based Sofie Hagen had her ‘Bubblewrap‘ Fringe show premier at the Saturday night. Something went wrong with the venue and the dates so people had apparently met up Friday for her show and the venue wasn’t finished. She got booked in a comparatively large venue that according to rumour could seat 500 people for a rock concert. I suppose that Sofie Hagen was afraid that she would be playing in a large mostly empty room. One day in the Fringe 2013 she performed for just two people according to her excellent Danish report on the Fringe. For the Saturday opening there was no problem and her show was quite well-attended with the room that didn’t feel too big. And with a five-star review rolling in on the show from Skinny and four-and-a-half from Chortle (though a mingy Scotsman only find three stars) it shouldn’t be a problem getting people to the venue.

Sofie Hagen has been spinning jokes around her physical appearance for some time, indeed she is a self-declared body activist according to a Danish news paper interview. Now she is moving on to her teenage years as an insecure boyband fan. For those who think that she just made it all up she has been keen on uploading an old tv-program showing her as an all-absorbed teenage fan and a recent radio Westlife encounter. You’ll also be able to find radio interviews about it from British Comedy Guide. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find some of her Westlife fan fiction. I still haven’t been able to find the juicy fan fiction presented in Bubblewrap. Her time as a Westlife fan provides her with unique material that she effortless recounts with the punchlines well-timed and well-wrapping callbacks. There is more personal storytelling than quickly forgotten one-liners. Westlife will be proud of their fan and Denmark has yet another Sofie making a mark in Edinburgh. (the first one being Sofie Gråbøl’s theatre performance in Edinburgh last year). Sofie Hagen got 10 Pounds from me. The show is surely worth it, not just for the comedy but also as a document of teenage fandom. The best comedy I have seen so far at my two years on the Fringe.

It is recommended that you should only do 4 shows a day, so the last show I saw Saturday was too much. A puppet show around tv-crime (yes the Sarah Lund sweater was there) sounded funny and was at times. At other times I was behind in laughs compared to the other audiences. The puppeteer did a good job but the material was too thine for my liking. The banter may cater to a UK audience, but this Dane was too tired.

Sunday 16 August 2015

The Danish Bagpipe Comedian Claus Reiss delves into a classic Danish act scheme of one man, one musical instrument and some jokes. Internationally recognized Victor Borge and one of the best Danish sit-down comedians Niels Hausgaard have excelled in this scheme. Claus was scheduled early and this should tell you something about the ambitions in the show. I had my expectations set low and they were fulfilled. He is an excellent piper, but his stand-up material and delivery was not fully in shape. His interaction with the audience was at times somewhat out of tune. One should think that a bit of technical comedy consultancy from Sofie Hagen could benefit. Hagen recounts that she was given advice from a fellow comedian who did not like her show: to film all her gigs. That might help on Reiss’ movements on stage which seemed both unplanned and staged. An indication that his material probably stems from a Danish show was an explanation of a Danish word pun, that had to be translated back and forth to English, – all too elaborate. Reiss is on the Free Fringe so there is no harm in watching his show. After all, Pipe’n’comedy could be a classical Edinburgh mixture bound to be a success if he hit the right comedy note. He already handles his instrument effortless. He got 5 Pounds from me.

A sidenote: I do hope that the firemen look into the venues and no Danish comedian gets burned alive. It seem to me that particular Espionage was a labyrinthine maze of rooms and walkways with a complex escape route. And what appeared to me to be an emergency exit seemed locked.

Tubular Bells for Two” had made it all the way from Australia, – again. It is a well-established act on the Fringe. On YouTube you find good and not so good renditions of Mike Oldfield music. As a follower of the music of Mike Oldfield I was interested in this, but had not set that high expectations for the performance. In a packed room in the venue at Pleasance with perhaps 400 audiences the performance was not at all bad. They managed to render Mike Oldfield’s classic quite close to the original album and the rock part on side two was a powerful performance. They supported themselves with loop machines and a mouth piece that I hadn’t seen before. It seemed that they deliberately made it look hard, – probably because it was hard. Well done, Aussies. Surely a must for an Oldfield fan.

BLAM! provided no intellectualism but a quite start on a bad day at the office. Packed with 500 to 1000 (or more?) audiences with a broad age range, the wordless but not noiseless drama built steadily up to a grand great finale. Quite a physical feat I was genuinely afraid that they might hurt themselves and wondering whether their stage will survive to the end of August. The performance has minimal story but that hardly matters in this physical theatre play’s joyful application of non-pretentious theatre violence. Here is a toast for the fine entertainment and a hope for the survival of the four actors. If you missed it this year it will probably be there next year.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

The classic play, The Cherry Orchard, from the beginning of the 20th Century was shaken up by 3 young women from South Korea. Taking the parts of the mother Lyubov and the two daughters Anya and Varya they made a highly stylised and physical performance. The pretentious, abrupt, extreme and peculiar acting repeating lines made my think to music videos such as Psy’s videos, – one of my very few references in Korean culture. Or a talkative modernisation of pantomime. Good and Artsy. More South Korean than Russian.

Ivor Dembina had two shows on the Fringe 2015 and based on the his show Saturday I wanted to see his second show, New Jewish Jokes, which was billed at the The Stand, – but I came late. Last year I saw a good ol’ fashion late night stand-up show in what I remember to be The Stand. This was a bar where there was no problem for a late-comer blending in once you paid the entrance fee and grabbed a beer. But The Stand has multiple venues along the street and at this particular venue with Ivor the Jew it seemed inappropriate to late-come.

Standing in the street outside The Stand I was handed over a small flyer for Silky, an entertainer with a guitar, a singing voice and a pack of humorous anecdotes. Professional but also somewhat casual entertainment in a small room with perhaps 40 seats and with an audience of 25. Apparently, he changes his show every evening. He straightforwardly interacts with the audience adding their names to his songs. Friendly entertaining which seems to have no high aspirations. I cannot help comparing him with the Danish guitar-playing Niels Hausgaard. Hausgaard seems better at establishing a stage persona and establishing expectations in the audience as the show goes along.

With the title Scotland’s Pick at the Fringe you should think that you got the creme de la creme of Scotland’s stand-up comedians at the Beehive in Grassmarket. I spend some time trying to buy a ticket to the show, but this was only possible at the door. The second floor around 50-seater room had perhaps an audience of 30 lending an ear to four stand-up comedians and Gus the presenter. The ‘pick’ seems to have been just a random one with a varying quality, – one on open mic level or just having a bad day. The UK-centric issue was not that much of a problem. A Welsh young women was perhaps the best although relying on somewhat stereotypical stand-up material.

Science unliteracy

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The Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation was commented on in Discovery. A direct link to the report is here. The public knowledge of science was surveyed across countries. You were supposed to answer yes or no to the around 12 scientific questions and if people gave the right answer they were declared “science literate”.

It is interesting to turn the head around on the survey and ask whether the ground truth answers are actually correct. It is dangerous to be too dogmatic in science as great paradigmatic changes may go against established “common wisdom”. Here is my attempt on answering the opposite of the supposedly correct answer:

  1. “The center of the earth is very hot.” This answer is supposed to be true, but what does “very hot” mean? My oven is very hot when it is above 200 degrees. Wikipedia states presently the inner core temperature to be around 5,700 K. This temperature is not “very hot” compared to temperature at the sun center. It is also important to note that it is not a necessary truth that the earth is hot. In the future as the natural radioactivity of the earth will decay then the center temperature will gradually decrease. The center could become very cold. But note that the life of the Sun has some effect of the temperature of the earth. According to Wikipedia the Sun’s luminocity is increasing and will make the surface temperature hot, perhaps “very hot” depending on the definition.
  2. “The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move”. This is supposed to be true, but does, e.g., Eurasia move or Antarctica move? It seems mostly so based on a NASA image, though some areas in the Antarctica does not move very much. There is no natural law saying that the continents are supposed to move, so there are no guarantee that they will continue to do so. Given that we will see a gradual cooling of the Earth should we not at one point expect the continents will freeze to their position and no longer move? So should the answer should be false? Yes?
  3. “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” The answer is supposed to be “earth around sun”: A classic fallacy. You can put you coordinate system at the Earth center and the Sun will go around the Earth. Of course as the Sun is heavier than the Earth you will have a tendency to say that the Earth goes around the Sun. Introducing the barycenter in the question may be better.
  4. “All radioactivity is man-made”. (False) The default answer is hard to refute.
  5. “Electrons are smaller than atoms.” (true). Wikipedia tells us that for the atom “the boundary is not a well-defined physical entity”. The classical electron radius is 2.82×10-15 m. Wikipedia claims the “size of an 11 MeV proton” is less than that value. With a bit of stretching you could say that a hydrogen atom is smaller than an electron. I do not know much about physics at that level, but my impression is that you should be careful when using classical physical concepts at atomic levels.
  6. “Lasers work by focusing sound waves.” (False) Usually lasers do not work by focusing sound waves. It is interesting to wonder whether it is possible to produce a laser this way. For a start read about Sonoluminescence. I am not knowledgeable enough to say it cannot be done, but your next reading could be Laser sonoluminescence in water under increased hydrostatic pressure or single-bubble sonolumnicescence.
  7. “The universe began with a huge explosion”. (True) Most scientist would say that the Big Bang happened at some time, but you can read “The pre-bang universe has become the latest frontier of cosmology” in Scientific America. You can also read “Sir Roger Penrose has changed his mind about the Big Bang. He now imagines an eternal cycle of expanding universes where matter becomes energy and back again in the birth of new universes and so on and so on” in an introduction to a documentary. It should certainly not be written in stone that “the universe began with a huge explosion”.
  8. “The cloning of living things produces genetically identical copies” (true). Do they? I suppose not necessarily. I guess you could genetically engineer the clone with new genes. I do not know much about cloning but I imaging that something could go wrong in the transcription proces, e.g., you can read “clones created from somatic cells will have shortened telomeres and therefore reach a state of senescence more rapidly” in one random article I found. This sounds to me as clones are not identical copies.
  9. “It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl” (true). “Decides” is a word that in my eyes indicates agency whatever that is. I hardly think that the gene has any cognitive capabilities to engage in a process of selection. “Determine” may be a better word. And “decides” no. It may also be worth reading the Wikipedia article “temperature-dependence sex determination” starting off with “Temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) is a type of environmental sex determination in which the temperatures experienced during embryonic development determine the sex of the offspring.” Another article worth reading is “Female foeticide in India” with “MacPherson estimates that 100,000 abortions every year continue to be performed in India solely because the fetus is female.”
  10. “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do” (false). That is hard to refute. I suppose that with treatment (gamma rays, heat?) you can kill genes in tomatoes.
  11. “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria”. (False) This is not necessarily false. You could easily imagine antibiotics that was also engineered to kill viruses. With opppurtunistic infections you could say that antibiotics kill viruses indirectly. There are scientific experiments that examine whether antibiotics has an effect on virus diseases, see, e.g., “Antibiotics for bronchiolitis in babies“. It could very well be dangerous to ignore the possibility that antibiotics could be involved in fighting a virus disease.
  12. “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (True) Yet again we have a issue of words: “Developed”? “Evolved” is probably a better word. “Develop” may entail some form of agency. It may also be worth mentioning that certain aspects of the human society and being human being seem to have been created de novo by humans, e.g., humor, clothes, music, …

Overall the survey creators did not get many answers correct. Better luck next time.