Monday, April 14, 2014

Slugs ...

The cat approaches the alien nest ...

The vile creature hatch their plans for world domination ...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"A Talent for War" - Jack McDevitt

'Literary Science Fiction is boring.'

There's just a little truth in this proposition, especially if your internal dials have been set by John Ringo. But relentless, shoot-em-up action palls after the second or third volume in the series and you begin to hanker after more intelligent, considered writing, which challenges you to reflect rather than just react.

"A Talent for War" indeed rewards thought. The plot is intricate, unveiled through back-story by unreliable narrators. Here's a summary from the Wikipedia article.
"A Talent for War is a science fiction and mystery novel by Jack McDevitt, the story of a search by Alex Benedict, the protagonist, to discover the nature of a mysterious project Alex's uncle had been working on at the time of his death. This investigation leads deep into the history of a war between human civilization and a neighboring alien civilization and challenges the foundation mythos of the current human government."
Critic John Clute observed that the author "wrestles valiantly with the task he has set himself: that of imposing an essentially contemplative structure upon conventions designed for violent action. He comes, at times, close to success."

The story consciously revisits the epic struggle of King Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae. I enjoyed it a lot and therefore decided to get the next in the series, "Polaris".

A novel of similar style is the intriguing "A Bridge of Years" by Robert Charles Wilson.

I also finished up the second of the Sprawl trilogy, "Count Zero" by William Gibson - another novel with complex plotting and a deeply-imagined hinterland. Naturally I now have to hand the final volume, "Mona Lisa Overdrive".

Friday, April 11, 2014


First warm day today, a pathetic excuse really to break out the summer gear. Your author is 11 stone 2 this morning, so just as well it's a fast day (not too mention skiing and gym this morning!).

Hunger is fat leaving the body

Ski Friday

Wednesday I crashed again. The details don't matter of course: travelling too slowly, weight too far back, the ski jams and it's the famous downslope wipe-out. The snowboarding instructor asked if I was OK and I gave him the thumbs up. The only real damage was where I'd fallen on the pole handle, and that was just a rib-bruise.

They know me now at the Mendip Snowsport Centre. As I walked up the steps to reception this morning a bearded instructor clocked my presence and casually greeted me by name. Later, at the button lift, a young woman instructor smiled and asked whether I planned to crash today. I replied I was trying to restrict myself to one crash per week; she smiled knowingly.

Today felt good, to be honest. The skis were moving smoothly and I was getting in the turns even when technique wobbled. If you didn't know much about skiing and saw me coming down, you might even be impressed, although surprised at how slow and hesitant I can be. The way I figure it, technique is the thing. Get the turns right and locked in, then think about speeding up.

The slope opens at 9.30 am and that was when I arrived, all booted up, with helmet, skis and poles. I was surprised to see three skiers already at the lift - normally it's pretty quiet at that time. It turned out they were Level 1 Ski Instructors on the staff, and they were about to be appraised by an outside assessor - a gentleman dressed all in black with a clipboard. He soon had them doing novice-type stuff like snow-ploughing down from the first lift-bump, directing them left or right and making cryptic notes on his board.

I was initially under the misapprehension that he was training them and, after a while, I took the opportunity (as his charges queued for the lift)  to cheekily ask him for any hints for improving my own performance. He took pity on my naivety and gently explained that he was actually conducting an exam.

 I promised to get out of his hair and on my next descent slid across to the exit. It all looked stressful enough without a random punter sliding erratically into the centre of things at random intervals.

Here's a video showing a descent of mine a week ago, taken by Adrian.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Gloucester Mini Break

A short break to see the sights around Gloucester. We started with the old docks (Gloucester Quays - sorry, boat trips only available Sundays) and then moved on to our hotel (Mercure Gloucester, Bowden Hall Hotel "Your bathroom fan doesn't work? Sorry, it only comes on in the mornings and after 6 pm" .. er, no actually, it was broken and this was the second room we were offered where the fan didn't work).

Gloucester at first sight looks like many small English towns: way too many pound shops and betting parlours; the odd drunk hollering from a bench; badly-mixed architecture - some concrete-hideous which only Jonathan Meades could love; a general air of shabbiness. However, there were positive signs: some decent new houses going up adjacent to the town centre and some signs of middle-class colonisation. Perhaps the direction is up.

The next day we drove to Chedworth Roman Villa (which we had in fact visited before), then proceeding to Chastleton House near Chipping Norton. In fact we had a sparse lunch in Chipping Norton, looking out for Jeremy Clarkson's house (surely a blue plaque?) and wondering if we'd see any evidence of David Cameron or other denizens of the 'Chipping Norton set' (badgers?). It all looked quite ordinary though, albeit more prosperous than Gloucester.

Chastlelton House is a Jacobean country house which apparently needed a fortune every generation to keep intact. Such fortunes not being in evidence, it failed to upgrade over the centuries and thus preserves its original appearance and furnishings as they were in Shakespeare's time - what a gem!

Back to Gloucester then for the Museum and The New Inn, an Elizabethan Coaching Inn on the Northgate where standards of service have not much advanced ("Earl Grey tea? Sorry, we do do fruit infusions.")

This morning we returned via the pretty "Westbury Court Garden" - a water garden rescued from terminal decline by the National Trust. Smug and twee it may be, but such good work has to be done Mr A. A. Gill! 

Here are some pix - eat your heart out, dear reader!

Clare at Gloucester Quays

The author at Gloucester Quays

Clare gets down with the sheep at Chastleton House

Our hotel - the breakfast was quite good

Chastleton House - a Jacobean Manor (NT)

The Water Garden at Westbury Court (NT)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Moat at The Bishop's Palace, Wells

The Moat at The Bishop's Palace, Wells

Our first 'Mr Whippys' of the year .. it may be even warmer tomorrow.

UPDATE: (Sunday): we visited the 'Exploratorium' and planetarium @Bristol this afternoon. Here's a video of Clare and Adrian on the hamster wheel. It powers a bucket chain which pours water into an elevated tank (for some unaccountable reason). And yes, it was truly balmy.

Friday, March 28, 2014

"The right to buy weapons is the right to be free"

A Google Nexus 10 will shortly be winging its way from Amazon's vaults as I've finally succumbed to mass tablet-hysteria. I'm motivated by two things - I do a lot of reading of the digital newspaper plus sundry eBooks: my Galaxy S3 is too small and my Kindle too obsolete. The second reason is that Microsoft are apparently going to release their Office suite for Android at some point, which finally saves me from having to consider a Microsoft tablet or another clunky PC. Now if only Amazon would support Amazon Prime video streaming (films, TV) to generic Android devices .. . Read my lips, guys, I am not going to buy a Kindle Fire.

Amazon have been reformatting some of the A. E. Van Vogt 'Golden Age' books for Kindle. The plots are clunky, the science lamentable and the attitudes dated, but they do pass the test of page-turning excitement! I started with "The Weapon Shops of Isher" and "The Weapon Makers". From Wikipedia:
"The Isher/Weapon Shops novels are very rare examples of Golden Age science fiction that explicitly discuss the right to keep and bear arms, specifically guns. Indeed, the motto of the Weapon Shops, repeated several times, is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free". Van Vogt's guns have virtually magical properties, and can only be used in self-defense.

"The political philosophy of the Weapon Shops is minimalist. They will not interfere with the corrupt imperial monarchy of the Isher government, on the grounds that men always have a government of the type they deserve: no government, however bad, exists without at least the tacit consent of the governed. The mission of the Weapon Shops therefore is merely to offer single individuals the right to protect themselves with a firearm, or, in cases of fraud, access to a "Robin Hood" alternative court system that judges and awards compensation from large, imperial merchant combines to cheated individuals. Because the population has access to this alternative system of justice, the Isher government cannot take the final step toward totalitarianism."
Other great van Vogt novels are "Slan"; "The World of Null-A" and "The Players of Null-A" (both ordered); "Empire of the Atom" and "The Wizard of Linn" (both featuring scientific genius Clane Linn in a post-apocalypse barbarian age). Treats for the scientifically-inclined intellectual teenager of any age.

Van Vogt used to say that he always engineered a cliff-hanging crisis every 800 words: critics were divided
One early and articulate critic was Damon Knight. In a chapter-long essay reprinted in In Search of Wonder, entitled "Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt", Knight famously remarked that van Vogt "is no giant; he is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter". Knight described The World of Null-A as "one of the worst allegedly-adult science fiction stories ever published". About van Vogt's writing, Knight said:

"In general van Vogt seems to me to fail consistently as a writer in these elementary ways: 1. His plots do not bear examination. 2. His choice of words and his sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive. 3. He is unable either to visualize a scene or to make a character seem real."

About Empire of the Atom Knight wrote:

"If you can only throw your reasoning powers out of gear - something many van Vogt fans find easy to do - you'll enjoy this one."

Knight also expressed misgivings about van Vogt's politics, noting that his stories almost invariably present absolute monarchy in a favorable light.

On the other hand, when science fiction author Philip K. Dick was asked which science fiction writers had influenced his work the most, he replied:

"I started reading sf when I was about twelve and I read all I could, so any author who was writing about that time, I read. But there's no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt. There was in van Vogt's writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null A. All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction."
In fact van Vogt was treated disgracefully by the US SF establishment.
The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 14th Grand Master in 1995 (presented 1996). There had been great controversy within SFWA regarding its long wait in bestowing its highest honor (limited to living writers, no more than one annually). Writing an obituary of van Vogt, Robert J. Sawyer, a fellow Canadian writer of science fiction remarked:

"There was no doubt that van Vogt should have received this honor much earlier — the injustice of him being overlooked, at least in part because of damnable SFWA politics, had so incensed Harlan Ellison, a man with an impeccable moral compass, that he'd lobbied hard on the Sci-Fi Channel and elsewhere on van Vogt's behalf."

It is generally held that the "damnable SFWA politics" concerns Damon Knight, the founder of the SFWA, who abhorred van Vogt's style and politics and thoroughly demolished his literary reputation in the 1950s.
Read his stuff and judge for yourself.

The robots are coming .. rather slowly

The Economist has a special report this week about robots. Apparently with advances in engineering, simulation environments and ever-increasing computer power we are in the early take-off period of robotech. Money is beginning to flow into the sector, Google has made acquisitions and intriguing new products are emerging.

One area of application is healthcare for the elderly. The "Domestic Service Robots" article has this to say:
"Robots may also make it possible for old people to stay independent in their own homes for longer. Mr Angle says this is iRobot’s “long-term guiding star”, towards which the Roomba is a small step. Mr Gupta at the NSF thinks that general-purpose home-help robots would be a big advance which, given a push, could be achieved in a couple of decades (though that, he stresses, is his own view, not the foundation’s). Mr Thrun reckons it could be done more quickly.

"Mr Ng points out that if you get a graduate student to teleoperate a PR2 robot, it can already do more or less everything a home-help robot might be required to do, so all that is needed is better software and more processing power, both of which are becoming ever more easily available."
Comparing this with other transformational technologies, we're 10-20 years from such products becoming affordable and widely available. A teleoperated home-care robot is a kind of household drone. One could imagine an operator controlling maybe twenty of them (one at a time, mostly). Sure they'd be expensive, but compared to what? Care homes? Even without full autonomy this could happen sooner than you'd think.

This is bound to have an impact on cost projections for the future care of the elderly from, say, 2025 out. No doubt the Japanese will lead the way, hopefully in time for me!

As a youthful trotskyist, I was told that in the future economy of post-capitalist abundance, robots would do all the hard and dreary work, leaving humans to lives of creative leisure last seen amongst the Greek and Roman aristocrats. Perhaps within another generation robotech will indeed bring about that scenario - in the sense of automating human slavery. Is this a good outcome? Economists worry about mass unemployment of all except the most highly skilled. Those remaining in work are infuriated to contemplate an ever-increasing, unproductive fraction on welfare.

Leisure for all or welfare for all? Michael Gove was apparently channelling Wham! yesterday in a school visit, The Times helpfully reprinting the lyrics of the rap song he was reciting:
Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)

Hey everybody take a look at me
I've got street credibility
I may not have a job,
But I have a good time
With the boys that I meet down on the line

I don’t need you
So you don’t approve,
Well, who asked you to?
Hey, jerk, you work
This guy’s got better things to do

Bring on those robots, Mr Gove!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Interweave Consulting' closed down

Today I completed the online form to HMRC to close down my consulting company Interweave Consulting. Date of closure: 26 March 2014.  Here's the reply.
Thank you for email to tell us you have stopped your self-employment.

This message confirms that we have successfully received your form and we will now confirm your information to ensure the security of your personal details.

We will look at your National Insurance account and if needed we will issue a bill for any NICs that are due up to the date your self-employment has stopped. The period covered by the bill will be clearly shown please check the dates carefully.

If you have overpaid Class 2 National Insurance contributions, we will send you a refund claim form which you should sign and return to us by post.

If for any reason we are unable to deal with your request, we will email you or send a letter to let you know.

Please do not reply to this email; this address does not accept incoming mail.
My work has mainly focused on the design of public telecom networks, usually for new or alternate operators who don't maintain in-house network design specialists. The 2008 economic crunch closed down most of the big capital programmes and new projects have been slow to emerge, so business has been poor the last few years.

Once one is past sixty it's fair to say that many aspects of telecoms consultancy somewhat lose their attraction - I am especially delighted to say goodbye to getting up at unearthly hours, driving vast distances to meet with clients, and lengthy commutes standing in crowded trains and squashed in the London tube.

As a busy person it's possible I could stumble upon a future revenue-generating activity: writing and software are somewhat remote possibilities. It's easy to set up as a sole trader, however.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Things to regret about being dead

People point to a pleasing symmetry about life. No one cares that billions of years of eventful history occurred before they were born - why care about the billions of years following our relatively-imminent deaths?

An obvious difference: asymmetry of information. I used to think about how sad it would be to die without knowing how the unification of quantum physics and general relativity would eventually be accomplished. But on that happy day only about 500 people in the world will actually understand it - everyone else will be wandering around in the illusory swamps of metaphor  (B-mode polarisation and primordial gravitational waves, anyone?).

Another popular hankering is to see if humankind gets off this planet and colonises the universe. Of course we know a lot about the universe - its galaxies, stars and planets and frankly it's not that exciting unless you're a scientist in a relevant specialisation. And don't get me started about exciting future civilizations amongst the stars. What we know about the 'drama of everyday life' - in any time or place - is that it's bland, banal and boring. That's why we always prefer to watch drama - contrived scenarios which stimulate our hyper-developed limbic systems.

So much for the worldview of a misanthropic curmudgeon, you say. In my jaded way I reply: "So surprise me then."

Friday, March 21, 2014

My Apps

Dear sister,

Now you have a smartphone people will tell you correctly that you need apps. Here are some of those cute little bundles of smartness to be found on my phone.
  1. Maps - from Google
  2. Le Monde - I get to practice my French every now and then
  3. BBC iPlayer
  4. Vue - check out the local films
  5. Assistive Light - turn your phone into a torch (strictly a 'widget')
  6. IMDb - is the film actually any good?
  7. Clock - make sure the alarm can ramp up in volume gradually
  8. Antivirus - I use AVG
  9. infoCycling, cricinfo, Eurosport, BBC Sport
  10. Amazon and Amazon Kindle
  11. The Economist - I have a subscription
  12. The Times - I have a subscription
  13. LinkedIn - the working person's Facebook
  14. BT WiFi, The Cloud FastConnect - for those cafe hotspots
  15. Realcalc - I have the paid version of this scientific calculator
  16. Google Sky Map - how do they do that?
  17. National Trust - map based and essential when travelling around
  18. BBC Weather and The Weather Channel - (I toggle these to get the best forecast!)
  19. Wikipedia
  20. Google Calendar
  21. Google Chrome - much preferred over the Galaxy-supplied browser
  22. BBC News - a rather addictive app
  23. Gmail (and the POP3 email client 'Email' for business email)
  24. Fast Balance - the HSBC app to check my account
  25. Skype
  26. DropBox (I use camera upload to automatically transfer pix to my DropBox account)
  27. WhatsApp - yes, please install this early to avoid MMS charges!
  28. iChing - I like to hear the advice of The Sage before big decisions!
  29. London tube map - good to be there when you need it
  30. Google Translate - with French dictionary downloaded for offline use
  31. YouTube
  32. Chess - I rarely play and never win
  33. Heathrow Airport Guide - for checking arrivals/departures

Like any toolkit, these apps have been added (and others deleted) over many months. What a zoo! I cannot imagine how many hours of my life I will never get back!

Thank you for your fond wishes that I not break a leg; in fact you are the fourth person to express such benevolence. This morning I traversed the entire length of the Mendip Snowsport Centre slope (which in fact consists of three linked slopes of varying gradient) from top to bottom, multiple times, with linked parallel-ish turns and without crashing!

A parabolic mike would have picked up my mutterings: "crouch and weight forward on balls of feet; feel the boot-pressure on the shins!"; "drop and turn the skis - push up out of the turn!". Through such mantras I am somewhat grimly getting down in one piece and avoiding limb fractures. I expect in a few sessions time my subconscious may even come to believe this is not insanely dangerous!

Checking my records, I had my first ski lesson on Saturday February 8th ("this is a ski boot - here's how you do it up; this is a snow plough, see if you can get down this six feet of slope") and my final lesson two weeks later on Sunday, February 23rd (my instructor that day, Bernadette, shakes me by the hand afterwards to congratulate me on some sliding madness which in her wisdom she recognises as the precursor to a parallel turn).

Since then I have revisited the slope a further ten times - I guess ten hours of practice - and as a result I kind of get it, with concentration, most of the time. A long stretch of practice lies between here and making all this stuff reliable and second nature.

Anyway, one day, when I think I can do it and survive, I may shoot a video of my descent - and send it to you via WhatsApp!

Best wishes from your brother.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Human Brood Parasite

How we laughed!

"Consider the ludicrous sight of the tiny Garden Warbler standing atop a cuckoo to reach the mouth of the gaping parasite." (p. 68). To feed it, right?

Dawkins goes on to observe: "The cuckoo is descended from a line of ancestors, every single one of whom has successfully fooled a host. The host is descended from a line of ancestors, many of whom may have never encountered a cuckoo in their lives, or may have reproduced successfully after being parasitized by a cuckoo. "

Reading "The Extended Phenotype" one reflects that at least people would never lavish care and resources on a child-substitute from an unrelated species - a human brood parasite ..

Would we, puss-puss?

Interesting news from the Antarctic Cosmic Microwave Background telescope BICEP2. The detection of faint B-mode polarisation in the CMB is evidence of spacetime quantum fluctuations during inflation and gives for the first time an energy estimate for the inflation fields (enormous) as well as observational input into theories of quantum gravity for the first time. This is a big deal.