Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bath Christmas Market video

Today is the first day of the famous Bath Christmas Market. Here's the video taken as I walked around early this afternoon, just so you get a feel of it.

The market runs from today, November 26th through to 13th December 2015. Here's their website. And here are some pictures.

Bath Abbey and the Christmas Market

Stalls at Bath Christmas Market

A Jane Austen pilgrimage in Bath

Alex, Clare and myself visited Bath today for the delayed Jane Austen pilgrimage, to visit the main houses where she lived. Here is a reference - and here are the pictures (click on them to make them larger).

This is 25 Gay Street, just south of The Circus

Gay Street looking north towards The Circus

The Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street - one of these is real

Jane's house at 3, Queen Square

Alex and the author at Queen Square

Alex and Clare at 13 Trim Street - not Jane's favourite abode

Trim Street from the western end - you can see why ...

27 Green Park Buildings

Clare and the author at Green Park Buildings

Bath Abbey and the first day of the Christmas Market

Stalls at the Christmas Market

The interior of Bath Abbey

I have a (two minute, 200 MB) video of the Christmas Market which I will post subsequently. In other news, I today upgraded this machine upon which I type from Windows 7 to Windows 10. Just left the process running while we were at Bath and it was mostly done on our return. Not as scary as I thought and the desktop looks familiar - not the tiles I was fearing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"From the Great Wall to the Great Collider"

Authored by Steve Nadis and Shing-Tung Yau, this book is a disappointment. It has clearly been written as a lobbying pamphlet for the successor to the Large Hadron Collider, directed at opinion-formers in the Chinese government. While there is nothing wrong with that, it does make for a somewhat indigestible read for a general audience.

Chapter 1 gives a potted history of particle physics starting with J. J. Thomson's discovery of the electron and continuing to the present. This is familiar stuff, albeit with an emphasis on the (very important) contributions made by Chinese physicists.

Chapter 2 is particle-accelerator-centric as we move into the search for the Higgs boson; explanations are layman-oriented and familiar.

The justification for the next big accelerator has to be new physics. In chapter 3 the candidates are discussed: the search for supersymmetric particles; deeper analysis of properties of the Higgs particle(s); the potential discovery of dark matter; extra dimensions. This chapter is the best in the book, written with some enthusiasm.

Chapter 4 ('China on Center Stage') is a review of current Chinese experimental high-energy physics and is plainly making the case for further Chinese government investment - an argument continued in chapter 5 which lobbies for a *big* collider (100 TeV collisions and 100 km circumference).

The final chapter itemises all the spinoffs from such a large, complex project: high-technology jobs, international cooperation, national prestige, high-speed computing, storage and communications, superconducting magnets, advanced instrumentation and so on.

In summary, this is a worthy book, let down by its bland and deadening prose style. It is, of course, somewhat interesting to read a high-level summary of the case for the 'next' LHC but in terms of the physics there are many, many popular books out there which do a better job of explaining the state-of-the-art and where it might be going.

LuboŇ° Motl has a somewhat more enthusiastic review on his blog, published on October 26, 2015.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The last four minutes

It must be a generation thing. I heard the newsflash of the Russian jet being downed by Turkish air defences and grimaced at Clare:
"Remind me, where's the entrance to our fallout shelter?"
I have few vivid memories of my early youth but I do recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when I was eleven. My parents were extremely worried (as was everyone else): we really thought we were all going to die.

I find it scary, too, contemplating a generation which has never experienced the visceral sense of immanent thermonuclear incineration.

There are some risks it really isn't macho to play fast and loose with.


There will always be another moonrise

A good few years ago there was another scare along these lines.
"On October 5, 1960, the North American Aerospace Defense Command's central defense room received a top priority warning from the Thule, Greenland, Ballistic Missile Early Warning System station indicating that a missile attack had been launched against the United States. The Canadian Air Marshal in command undertook verification, which after some 15 to 20 minutes showed the warning to be false. The radars, apparently, had echoed off the moon."
I remember Clare and myself discussing the latest 'worrying false alarm' with her practically-minded brother, James. He dismissed our worries about nuclear war by accident as in - 'it'll never happen.'

I thought he couldn't lose with this opinion:

'I hope you're right, because global thermonuclear war is a fearful price to prove you wrong!'

Monday, November 23, 2015

News today: robot cat; ultrasociety; yum-yum

Marginal Revolution highlights Hasbro's new 'companion for the elderly', the 'Joy for All' pet.

The linked Yahoo tech article continues:
“Joy for All” pets are robotic cats that “look, feel, and sound like real cats,” Hasbro claims on its website, which allows customers to choose from one of three varietals — orange tabby, silver, and creamy white. Noting that these pretend pets are “so much more than soft fur, soothing purrs, and pleasant meows,” the toy company claims that the robots “respond to petting, hugging, and motion much like the cats you know and love. This two-way give-and-take helps create a personally rich experience that can bring fun, joy, and friendship to you and your loved ones ages 5 to 105.”
Here's a gruesome YouTube video of the US$99 toy ...

... but it doesn't seem to do much more than Cindy and Daisy.


In other news I bought "Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth" by Peter Turchin (h/t Razib Khan).

Peter Turchin writes:
"We organize ourselves into communities of hundreds of millions of individuals, inhabit every continent, and send people into space. Human beings are nature’s greatest team players. And the truly astounding thing is, we only started our steep climb to the top of the rankings–overtaking wasps, bees, termites and ants–in the last 10,000 years. Genetic evolution can’t explain this anomaly. Something else is going on. How did we become the ultrasocial animal?

In his latest book, the evolutionary scientist Peter Turchin (War and Peace and War) solves the puzzle using some astonishing results in the new science of Cultural Evolution. The story of humanity, from the first scattered bands of Homo Sapiens right through to the greatest empires in history, turns out to be driven by a remorseless logic. Our apparently miraculous powers of cooperation were forged in the fires of war. Only conflict, escalating in scale and severity, can explain the extraordinary shifts in human society–and society is the greatest military technology of all."
You've got to have a soft spot for such refreshing enthusiasm for unremitting combat.

Peter has self-published this on Kindle and pleads for reviews to help it sell (rather as Linda Nagata did for her 'Red' Trilogy). I intend to help him along once I've finished the Great Collider book (about the Chinese proposal to build a successor to the LHC).


As Alex is visiting, we have had to initiate a parallel dietary thread of junk food. To this end we bought, this morning in Waitrose, a packet of yum-yums - the ultimate empty-calorie bomb ... .

Observing its unerring trajectory from fridge to mouth, I quip that we have here the world's first laser-targeted yum-yum ...

PS. Zena Skinner's Christmas Cake recipe has now been accessed 141 times.

... (update: Tuesday Nov 24th - 160 times).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Castle Hill/Maesbury Castle on a cold Sunday afternoon

We first visited Maesbury Castle (Castle Hill) - just outside Wells on the Old Frome Road - in October, (I wrote about it here). On a cold, sunny Sunday afternoon Alex, Clare and myself visited again.

Clare and Alex on the Neolithic camp ramparts

The author in a chill wind

Glastonbury Tor in the far distance

Afterwards in the Crown, Wells market square

I was waiting for someone to review "Hive Mind" by Garrett Jones, and finally Greg Cochran has done so here (comments are worth reading, too).

I don't think I will be buying it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christmas Reindeer

I have begged, I have pleaded .. all to no avail; I am accused of being a kitsch-junky.

It was all so different in our American house back in November 2001.

This is how it comes out of the box .. something only a topologist could love

Genius at work!

The creatures in their natural environment ...

A Christmas treat indeed - but quite modest compared to our neighbours!

The obligatory Internet cat picture - our two, who both opted to stay in America

These pictures have been shown before on this blog by the way, eight years ago.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The limited market for well-meaning and earnest

I try to write thoughtful, considered pieces intended to add value to the human condition. Does the world thank me?

My most popular posts recently:
and that great favourite,
which is just a pointless picture of the fuse box switches in our pantry.


* Update: 121 views by Sunday Nov 22nd - three days after posting.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Zena Skinner's Christmas Cake recipe

Zena Skinner is (apparently) a legendary TV cook from c. 40 years ago. Her rich and luscious Christmas Cake recipe was mentioned on BBC's Points West this evening - a few stalwart families have handed down the typewritten recipe over the years and still swear by it.

Zena's Christmas Cake comes in round and square versions of various sizes and is richer in fruit than customary today. Here is the link to her cookbook (PDF) - refer to pages numbered 60-64 (physical pages 62-66 if you want to print them) for the Christmas Cake recipe.

The cookbook is also (via resellers) available on Amazon.

The cake should have been made in October, to give it time to mature, so there's hardly any time to waste.

Clare is on the case - and here is her Zena Skinner Christmas cake straight out of the oven.

A Zena Skinner Christmas Cake

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening

As promised in my post of Oct 26th, I today attended to have my abdominal aorta scanned.

Invited to lie on the couch, pull up my tee-shirt and stare at the ceiling, I imagined that the nurse would be rubbing that cold jelly over my entire abdomen. In fact it's deployed in a north-south line tracking the aorta, incrementally lubricating the ultrasound probe. It's very quick and the nurse stares fixedly at the screen (which the patient can't see) the whole time, as in this picture.

When it was over, I has handed some kitchen roll and invited to 'clean-up'. As I was doing so, the nurse informed me that 'I had a very small aorta, 1.8 cm diameter'.

I was simultaneously gratified and slightly diminished.


Thus pronounced healthy, I was bid depart with the promise that my aorta would never be imaged again (in the UK it's a one-shot screening programme for those turning 65).

Monday, November 16, 2015

"How to Create a Mind" - Ray Kurzweil

As an active AI researcher in the 1980s I knew about Ray Kurzweil. He was into the nuts and bolts of speech-recognition systems with a sideline in AI-fantasising ('The Singularity'). I was much more interested in the formal theory of intelligent systems (modal logics with automata-theoretic models).

As I mentioned a few posts ago, classical AI is out and Deep Learning is the new thing. The world has rolled around to Kurzweil's front door and he has a plum new job with Google. Belatedly time to learn from the master?

Initially I was a fan of "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed" (which purports to be the blueprint for Kurzweil's work at Google). Early chapters give a good account of important brain structures (neocortex, hypothalamus, amygdala, etc); it's rather Reader's Digest, but written from a functionalist and computational point of view. He also gives a good elementary account of sparse coding, hidden markov models and genetic algorithms applied to the architecture of a number of real-world successful systems (mostly his own) .. but even, to an extent, that of IBM's Watson.

And then it all went so horribly wrong.

First off there's the vanity. Name-dropping, lot's of it, all with faux-humility. There's Famous Professor X (private communication), Famous Professor Y (who invited me in to discuss his work); there's damning with faint praise (Z's system isn't built the way I would have done it, it required hundreds of people working intensely for many years, with only modest results - but I give due credit for what it can do); there's a pervading essence of insecure self-regard, self-centredness and a need to control others.

All my instincts tell me this guy is a smart, huckstering salesman - a less-intense Steve Jobs.

Google, what were you thinking of?

The latter half of the book meanders into oversimplified philosophy (and there's an oxymoron for you). There's Kurzweil on consciousness, free-will and qualia. It's not so much that what he says is wrong - it's just unoriginal, unperceptive, bland, boring and padded.

Let me leave you with Professor McGinn, from Wikipedia:
"In a critical review of the book, philosopher Colin McGinn refers to "the hype so blatantly brandished in its title" and asks: "He is clearly a man of many parts—but is ultimate theoretician of the mind one of them?" McGinn calls Kurzweil's claim that pattern recognition is the key to mental phenomena "obviously false" and concludes that the book is "interesting in places, fairly readable, moderately informative, but wildly overstated".
I would add that despite the author's irritating self-presumption of omniscience, the book is littered with mistakes and misunderstandings (his grasp of physics is particularly wobbly).