Friday, December 22, 2006

Winchester Cathedral Carol Service

Down to Winchester Cathedral last night for the 6.30 p.m. carol service. The mediaeval cathedral looked magnificent, lit up as it was in the freezing, foggy night. After queuing in the cold for about 20 minutes, we entered, looking for seats. Alas, there were so few, and those taken by the early entrants. We were reduced to stone benches in the side chapel, without a view. 2,000 people had crowded in, apparently.

The choir was breathtakingly beautiful - state-of-the-art plainsong. Competing with the soaring harmonies was a crying baby. A random thought came to mind: “tonight, the crying baby Jesus was ejected from Winchester Cathedral for spoiling the performance of the choir.”

Listening to elderly, distinguished and grown men reciting in portentous voice the advent myths of Judean peasants, as embellished in the early gospels (“this is the Word of the Lord”) I was reminded of Edward Wilson’s remarks about the innate propensity of the human mind to sanctify, endowing all kinds of arbitrary stuff with the aura of unchallengeable authority.

‘How can people say this stuff, or believe it?’ is a kind of category error when faced with religious dogma.

Rabbitcide at Penton Corner

Imagine the shock and horror in the local population when this appalling sight greeted the early riser yesterday.

A possible suspect hove into view shortly afterwards, powering through an open window like a genuine thief in the night.

Investigation sources report that the violence done to the victim seems beyond the capability of the prime suspect: perhaps Mr. Fox had something to do with it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Books in the in-tray

An Introduction to Radio Astronomy by Bernard F. Burke, Francis Graham-Smith.

I find it amazing that it is possible to image the disks of other stars such as Betelgeuse (image here) using synthetic aperture techniques. This book is going to tell me how it all works (albeit in the radio domain, but the theory is the same).

From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith by L. Michael White.

Having read Dominic Crossan’s books about the historical Jesus (sociological and rooted in the Judaism of the time) I’m interested to see how the flimsy oral legacy became transmuted into a movement with momentum in the face of overpowering Roman repression. The later makeover by Constantine following AD 312 is another story.

The Classical Style: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart by Charles Rosen. A highly recommended book on the transition from baroque to classical to romantic.

Consilience by E. O. Wilson. After his brilliant ‘On Human Nature’ I couldn’t resist checking out his other major book.

Oh yes, I travel a bit (trains, planes) ...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Category Theory and Physics

I first met category theory in the early 1980s. I had joined a team at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories (STL) in Harlow, Essex (then part of IT&T) which was developing a computerised system for formal software engineering.

Most systems designers have met abstract data types, the specification-equivalent to ‘objects’ in object-oriented programming. Mathematically, an abstract data type is an algebra: a collection of constants and functions together with equations which determine how the functions work. There are algebras for sets, lists, trees, directed graphs, to name just a few of the building blocks of formal specification.

When we design a system, we compose these basic definitions to create more complex data structures (e.g. lists whose elements are trees). This is where category theory comes in. The objects in category theory are mathematical structures such as sets, lists, trees, vectors, real and complex spaces, etc. The operations of category theory are those which compose and project these spaces. So in a sense, we were building a category theory machine for universal algebra.

I was still studying undergraduate mathematics at the time, finishing my degree. I had a superficial understanding of the kind of thing category theory was, but it was impossible to penetrate to the underlying motivation. Category theory, which emerged from algebraic topology, abstracts from the deep properties of a number of apparently unrelated mathematical structures. Consequently a deep feel for a lot of mathematics is needed to understand what the theory is trying to achieve. The reward is the profundity of mathematical insight which then emerges.

Although I knew from reading the books by Woit and Smolin that category theory was at the heart of much of the reconceptualisation in physics today, it was not until I stumbled across “A History of n-Categorical Physics” by Baez and Lauda (cached here) that I got a sense of what that meant. The category theorists believe that their discipline is the right framework for structures that the theoretical physicists have been groping towards for decades.

Some interesting points from the paper.

When Heisenberg developed his famous ‘matrix mechanics’ version of quantum theory in 1925 he had never heard of matrices. It was his thesis advisor, Max Born, who had to gently break it to him that he had reinvented matrix multiplication.

The idea of elementary particles (electrons, photons, etc) comes out in the maths in an indirect way. Extending the Lorentz transformations of special relativity with translations (+ some extra QM magic) gives what is called the Poincaré group. The ‘strongly continuous unitary representations’ of this group with positive energy can be built up from irreducible representations, with parameters interpreted as mass, spin etc. It turns out that these are the elementary particles. (I don't pretend to understand this!).

Current work in string theory and loop quantum gravity is investigating mathematical structures where categorical thinking is very influential. This is outlined in the latter part of the paper, where I am way, way out of my depth.

Doing things in a mathematically rigorous way gives a sense of security that you really know what you’re talking about. Physicists pride themselves on being rough and ready: if some complex series expansions is getting the right results, who cares whether it’s always convergent or whether the underlying theory is consistent (or even exists). They say that the mathematics of string theory is so complex that it takes years just to master it. Without yet more years studying the width and depths of pure mathematics, I don’t see how one could master category theory so as to wield it as a creative tool. No wonder Smolin complained that category theory was the hardest thing he had had to study.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Xmas house (redux) and thoughts of Iraq

Clare complained that the previous picture of the house didn't do justice to the latest round of Xmas lights. So here is our house at dusk.

And here is what it looks like as the sun vanishes.

Perhaps not as impressive as some of the lighting emporia we have seen!

We were debating how the Romans would have handled the present Iraq situation. The American game plan seems to be to push the Shiite leadership into concessions which could bring the Sunni Baathists on-side, isolating the Islamic fundamentalist who could then be crushed.

The problem is that the assumed political middle ground doesn't exist. The Shiites hate the Sunnis for past wrongs, and those sentiments are reciprocated by the Sunnis big-time. The politicians being pressurised by the Americans are themselves detached from the militias, the tribal and religious groups who are carrying out the violence.

The New York Times carried a report that the Saudis threated the Americans that if they pulled out and the Iraqi Sunnis were then involved in a civil war with the majority Shias, the Saudis would intervene militarily on the side of their Sunni kinsmen. The Saudis stated that they would also increase production of oil to halve the world price, thereby bankrupting the Shia Iranian regime, currently flush with oil revenues.

The standard Roman response to this kind of situation would be to build a wall around Iraq to seal the borders, then send the legions in to destroy all resistance and disarm the local populations. The fact that this would involve genocidal levels of killing would not deter them.

However, this option doesn't seem open to the Americans, not simply due to modern moral scruples, but because of the fact that none of Iraq's neighhbours could passively observe such a scenario without being drawn in. The consequences of the subsequent global Islamic radicalisation can also scarcely be imagined.

As far as I can see, whether the Americans get out over the next year or so, trying to manage a resolution of the situation along the natural fault lines, or whether they 'surge' another 30-50,000 troops into Baghdad to 'freeze' the situation for a while is hardly decisive. The eventual outcome is no longer under their control as their political project is no longer realisable. A sufficiently slow-motion resolution along the natural fault lines may (and only may) avoid a hot regional conflict.

This could have been, and was, predicted at the very start of this adventure by just about everyone who knew anything at all about the region.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Stanza as heard today in a BT building in London

At the end of a poorly-lit corridor
a woman tries resisting doors
complains to her companion
"Why would I want to be contactable, day or night, anywhere in the world?" ....

Monday, December 11, 2006

Discussion on “Remembering the future”

Some emails resulting from the posting earlier. Roy Simpson worked with me at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the late 1980s on AI topics. His background is physics. As usual with email, read from the bottom up.



On the issue of the physics - QM (quantum mechanics) link and the branching aspect of time, an interesting gap appears in QM as discussed in Penrose's Road to Reality. Accordingly the area is "Multi-body Relativistic QM" - it sounds a mouthful, but the reason it hasn’t been developed is because it would seem to introduce multi-dimensional time -which no-one can make sense of.... and yet this area needs developing..... For various reasons I begin to think that there is a "Worldview" issue involved here. Worldviews are essentially psychological so maybe there is a connection here too.

Thus it seems likely that the psychological aspect of time will be closely linked to AI and also to the physics of time (and its perception). All these components need to converge on a good explanation.

___________________________ wrote:


I was more interested in the 'psychology' of time-past and time-future. I appreciate your point and the arguments work I think with directed graphs in general. The concept of 'time' comes in with the idea of an order relation on events, I suppose, but it doesn't have to be a total order. Note the diverse models of the various modal logics which have been applied to time modelling - forwards and backwards branching time as well as linear time.

The underlying physics would be the real boundary condition, but it's not clear to me that you get a good answer. The ontology behind QM is completely obscure (there are no classical events, only amplitudes). Since classical (Einsteinian)physics is effectively time-reversible, then I guess you have a total order. But perhaps it all breaks down again at the Planck length or something, where space-time meets quantum effects.

The piece was really a note to self, and would need a fair bit of work to reach conference paper standard, even if there was a place to put it. I DO think that the 'AI level' has something to add to the discussion of the 'psychological arrow of time', especially given the inadequacy of the treatment given by physicists who normally write about this stuff and who lack AI-based formal models.


----- Original Message ----
From: Roy Simpson
To: Nigel Seel
Sent: Sunday, December 10, 2006 10:52:10 AM
Subject: Recent Blog on Time Asymmetry


I am not clear whether the article notes that there is a distinction forward and reverse in Turing Machine operation.

If we consider a TM obeying function f so that e.g. f(1)=5, f(2)=6,f(3)=7,f(4)=5, ... then we can film a (any) sequence of inputs and the corresponding outputs. We run the film in reverse to observe the non-functional relation g. Non-functional since g(5)= 4 and g(5)=1.

So there is an asymmetry between f and g. To restore g to being a function (and so the reverse flow looks behaviourally like the forward flow) it is necessary to introduce another parameter - the Order - into the type and description of g. So f: Nat --> Nat, but g: Nat X Nat --> Nat, but g is now functional.

Arguments like this might suggest that the origin of temporal properties is fundamentally a computational one rather than a physical one, as commonly assumed.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Remembering the future

Why do we remember the past and not the future? A saloon-bar response is that the future hasn’t happened yet, but this is to glibly avoid all the real issues. Yesterday morning I failed to remember yesterday afternoon - but, from my vantage point now, yesterday has ‘happened’ in its entirety: I remember both the morning and the afternoon. So what was my problem yesterday morning? .... more.

Coming home to this?

As Clare came back from the shops lunchtime, she noticed this. Not our wall, but a neighbour's, around the corner. A certain amount of forensic camera work identifies the muddy tyre-tracks of the lorry which reversed into the wall - now long gone.

The police may make something of the paint samples left behind, and let's hope the insurance company doesn't try to weasel out of it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Xmas House

Our Christmas House

In America, our house had an illuminated reindeer family to shock and awe passers-by. Back in England, we have more modest objectives: our lit-up bush cheers walkers down our dark street.

You have no idea of the engineering resources which went into this. We have no outside electricity socket, so we planned to feed the outdoor lights from the garage. This is about 30 metres away at the bottom of our back garden. We had no wiring long enough, so we had to go to the hardware shop and buy outside extension cabling. Then there were issues in getting this cabling from the inside to the outside of the garage.

When we (read Clare) put the lights on the tree, we discovered the lighting flex was so thin that it easily goes between the kitchen window and window frame and into a power point in the kitchen.

Next year we may run to a small illuminated hedgehog ...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Homage to 'Permutation City'

You are in a dark, silent room. Lying back in comfort, you see, hear, smell, taste and feel absolutely nothing. Suddenly there is a sharp pain in your thumb. Ouch! You feel the pain and wonder what caused it. Meanwhile, five seconds pass.

Assume a space-time view. Your brain is circumscribed by a cube with sides, say, 15 cm. Using the speed of light as time-into-space translation, 5 seconds = 15 x 1010 cm.

So that five seconds of conscious experience is encompassed by a block of space-time measuring 15 x 15 x 15 x 15 x 1010 = 5 x 1014 cm4.

Now, neuron simulation models typically sample at a time resolution of 100 microseconds. That five seconds of painful experience comes down to 50,000 brain-state samples. Through advanced engineering, whilst you were in that room experiencing that brief pain, your brain was being sampled non-invasively: that five second experience is now all on disk.

Note that the four dimensional hypercuboid which circumscribed your brain during those five seconds has now been spread out in space as 50,000 ‘instantaneous-brain-state’ cuboids (mapped into storage), each invariantly ‘travelling through time’ at its own behest.

Here are the questions.

1. If we load brain-state samples [1 ... 50,000] into a computer, in sequence, in real time, is there - within the simulation - your feeling of puzzlement and pain. In other words, have we recreated your conscious experience as described at the start of this note above? (Think of it like a movie).

If you think the answer is no, why not exactly? After all, we are reproducing every single neuron of your brain in its exact behaviour: what else could there be to your experience?

2. If we load the sequence [1 ... 50,000] slower (or faster) than realtime into the computer, does the conscious experience of the simulation change? If so, why? The brain has no internal clock which is different than the firing of neurons.

3. If we run the sequence out of order, does that change anything? Each sample is independent of all the others. When it runs, it ‘doesn’t know’ which sample was previous and which will be next. No sample, after all, is changed in the process.

4. Suppose we don’t ‘run’ the sequence at all, but merely leave it on disk. Does the conscious experience still happen? And then in what order or all at once? The point here is that deceptive word ‘run’. When we ‘run’ a particular sample ‘on the computer’ we are doing nothing special - we’re simply copying the sample-content from one piece of storage (on ‘disk’) into another piece of storage (in the computer RAM). How does this meaningless, low-level act, change anything?

5. In the original space-time hypercuboid of your brain in five seconds of real time, all those instants continue to exist as space-like slices through that specific volume of space-time. Does this mean that the discussion around Question 4 also applies?

I would like to think that all these points are original - what they imply about consciousness is scary - but they were all anticipated (and more) in Greg Egan’s book Permutation City.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Book about to be published ...

My book will now be published (in the UK) on Wednesday Dec. 6th.

Cover of my book

Successful authors have launch parties with the glitterati: Clare and myself may raise a glass in that cosmopolitan centre which is Penton Corner. You can buy it, of course, here.

We were hit by 80 mph gales last night, and as is traditional, the fence gave way.

Fence blown down (and cat)

Here is another view.

Another view of the demolished fence

Apparently more of the same to come this evening.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Istanbul shoe-shine scam

As mentioned in the previous post below. For the benefit of future travellers, this is how it works.

Walking back to our hotel, we have just entered a park on the southern bank of the Golden Horn when a slim, wiry fellow overtakes us. About 5 yards ahead he appears to drop a brush.

"Excuse me! Excuse me! You've dropped something" ... how very English.

The guy turns around, asks where we come from ('ah, you are Ingleesh?') and - as he is a shoe-shine guy - invites me to the edge of the path, beckoning me to have my shoes done. I'm confused, is he offering a free shoe-shine in gratitude? Hesitating, I am lost and off we go.

Another guy, who he introduces as his 'brother', joins us and sets up stall a few feet away: Clare is beckoned across to have her sandals done.

My shoe-shiner doesn't have much English, but he is very insistent about the children he has to support - I am given the impression that he has to do this rather menial work so that his children can go on to better things. Which of us has not had similar thoughts about his children?

Actually, he does a rather good job on my ancient walking shoes. We now get to payment time. Still thinking I was getting a favour, I was prepared to give him 5 Lira (about £2) 'for his children'. But now he suddenly becomes a very unhappy bunny. 'Change!' 'Change!' he shouts. We have got used to this cry in Istanbul, indicating the amount is far too small.

"How much?" I asked, in continuing confusion. 'Twenty five Lira' comes back (£10).

Excuse me? At last the worm turns. "Too much!" I exclaim firmly. In the end I was prepared to give him four Lira for myself and four for Clare (around £3.20 in toto)and we just walked away. I guess I was overcharged by a factor of 5-10.

As we walked away, with a bad taste in our mouths, I said to Clare "I bet he dropped that brush deliberately, just to get us into conversation."

"No" she said, "he wouldn't risk the tools of his trade like that."

Back at the hotel we recounted our experience over dinner. It turned out that two other couples had had exactly the same experience that day.

Scams in Istanbul

We were in Istanbul last week (Nov 14th - 20th), a holiday organised by Andante Travels with guide lecturer Professor Trevor Watkins. Trevor is a retired archaeologist from Edinburgh University.

We were pleased to see the usual sights: the AyaSofya Museum (Justinian's great 6th century Byzantine cathedral) and the Blue Mosque (pictured) as well as the great vaulted underground water reservoirs built by roman engineering.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed)
We also took the coach to see the Byzantine land walls constructed on the orders of Theodosius II in 413.

Clare at the Theodosius II land walls
The other great Mosque on the Istanbul skyline is the Sulaimaniya, built by the great 16th century architect Sinan. The interior is similar to that of the Blue Mosque, but feels rather 'warmer'.

The interior of the Sulaimaniya Mosque
The Topkapi palace is the other 'must see' in central Istanbul, and as the residence of the Sultan with his harem and Janissary elite troops, it was the centre of the Ottoman empire. Now you can walk around it freely. Here is a view from the palace looking across the Bosphorus to the Asia side.
The Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace
Our general feeling about Istanbul was of great classical architecture - beautiful and monumental - embedded within what is still a poor country. Most of the population live in crowded apartment blocks, there is a lot of rubbish in the streets (and feral cats) and the pavements are in poor repair.

Three feral cats around a fish cart
It seems that the whole population is out to fleece what they take to be wealthy western tourists: we were routinely overcharged in shops, harassed in bazaars by shopkeepers desperate to entice us, and subject to a shoe-shine scam. We did not find the 'retail experience' pleasant.

Still, we were informed that the country has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years.

Monday, November 13, 2006

John Mayall + Chicken Shack

Sunday evening at The Anvil, Basingstoke to see Chicken Shack and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. The Anvil is a large theatre and it was not quite a sell-out. A slight preponderance of men in an audience mostly of couples, but more interesting was the age-homogeneity: this was an audience of fifty-somethings which had grown up with Mayall in the late sixties - like me. Wherever young people are getting the Blues, it was not here, not with these people. (At least not in Basingstoke).

I was underwhelmed with Chicken Shack. An anonymous bassist, drummer and rhythm guitarist overshadowed by the ego of Stan Webb, who presents as an alpha-male working-class rough diamond. Repartee with the audience and a vaudeville feel. This is a band without sparkle doing a workmanlike performance they have done a thousand times before.

The Bluesbreakers were a league above, in terms of crispness, talent and impact. John Mayall came across as a thoroughly nice, somewhat unassuming guy (but so old!) and made a fuss of the band members, especially his new protege Buddy Whittington (click here) who follows in his celebrated line of guitar-heroes (Eric Clapton notably).

Mayall is impressive on keyboard and harmonica and can still sing. Whittington has tight, incisive guitar which sounds a little Claptonesque, although without his inspiration.

Even so, I found my attention wandering some of the time. The Blues is quite a restrictive format, and it's hard not to fall into the rut of overlong improvisations on a predictable bass line.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Human Nature

I'm reading Edward Wilson's excellent book "On Human Nature" which really marked the start of the research programme today called evolutionary psychology. (Wilson still prefers the term he coined - sociobiology).

Wilson would have loved a recent example of his thinking. On the BBC nature programme 'Planet Earth' the film crew 'broke the rules' on non-intervention to save the life of an Emperor penguin chick which had become trapped in an ice-hole. Viewers were invited to comment on the ethics of this - of course, overwhelmingly they were in favour. Who could not want to save this cuddly chick? (See picture)

So why the reaction? Do we love all animals so unreservedly? Or do those chicks look awfully like ... human babies?

Suppose the camera crew had been filming a nest of enormous black, slimy, blood-sucking leeches slithering around, and one had come a little too close and fallen into a hole. My vote would have been with the guy with the petrol can and matches!

Interweave Consulting news: Wireless Cities in Newcastle

My current client assignment is with BT as a project manager for the Wireless Cities project, rolling out public WiFi across cities in the UK. My own cities include Newcastle, which went public on Thursday. The local press reported it -- click here.

Public WiFi networks depends on Radio Access Points, (RAPs), similar to a home wireless broadband router, installed on lamp posts. This is how we put them up (not me! I took the photo ...).

A 'cherry picker' putting up a RAP

And this is what they look like when they are up.

RAP mounted on lamp post

The Radio Access Point is larger than a home wireless router because it's housed in a weatherproof container. These are US devices and are hardened against hurricanes and shotgun blasts. Obviously not necessary in Newcastle!

Close-up of RAP

On the current plan, at this stage not a single operational device has been installed, so from a project point of view, this is all work which has to be done over the next few months.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fireworks night at Penton Grafton

It's been frosty the last couple of nights, as Autumn belatedly made its appearance. Tonight we went down to the nearby village of Penton Grafton for the annual fireworks display. The enormous bonfire was a magnet for the 200-odd people who turned up.

Bonfire at Penton Grafton fireworks display

Here's a shot of Adrian and Clare basking in the heat, just before the fireworks display started.

Coffee and sausage-in-a-bread-roll

My camera phone wasn't much use for the fireworks themselves, so you have to imagine those.

Talking of the camera phone, my 4 GB memory card finally arrived and I now have more music on it than you could shake a stick at. Shame I can't use it on planes ...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Salisbury Plain October 29th

A sunny Sunday afternoon, 14 degrees C, as we revisit the MoD training grounds on Salisbury Plain. It's absolutely windless, and amazing that even as the clocks went back today, we can still walk around without coats. Almost, in the case of Clare.

Clare as we start our walk

As the picture shows, we've recently had a fair amount of rain, and the tanks have chewed up the ground. At various points small growing copses are fenced off to allow new growth, with signs keeping trucks and tanks out.

Keep Out!

Below was the farthest point of our walk. On the way back we saw strings of parachutists emerging at around 5-6,000 feet and doing violent turns on the way down. In this manoevre, the parafoil tips vertically and the pilot is swung round horizontally, as if on a fast carousel. You come down very fast.

The farthest point of our walk

Contrasting views of J. S. Bach

Just finished reading Christoph Wolff's excellent "Johann Sebastian Bach".

Bach led a relatively uneventful life in personal terms, moving between various appointments in what is now Southern Germany. Wolff's thorough and detailed biography succeeds in sketching the social and political environment in which JSB and his family lived and worked, which helps put the music into some kind of historical order. The 'BWV' catalogue is thematically organised, not historical and gives no help in understand the development of Bach's thinking, nor the circumstances under which he performed and composed.

So, reading Wolff was really useful, and prompted me to get a couple more works I was missing: specifically BWV 548 (Prelude and Fugue in E minor for Organ) and BWV 1014-19 (6 clavier trios).

Wolff consistently talks Bach up, even when he is at his most obsessionally obnoxious. He seems to have been an overpowering figure, and relentless in disputes. Nevertheless, his personality remains opaque (ENTJ?).

I had formerly reviewed "Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment" by James R. Gaines here (scroll down the page). Having now read Wolff, I think Gaines goes to the other extreme, exaggerating the ups and downs of Bach's career. When some of the favourites for the post of Cantor at St. Thomas School and Director of Music in Leipzig, had dropped out, leaving Bach as one of the few remaining candidates, it isn't obvious that when one member of the selection committee said: "As the best are not available, I suppose we must take one of the second-rate men" (p. 164) that he meant Bach. Wolff has the quote referring to someone else, who was not in fact chosen.

And although Bach's beloved second wife, Anna Magdalena, died an almswoman ten years after him, it is unlikely that she had been abandoned to dire poverty. The Leipzig social network was in all probability still working according to Wolff (p. 456).

Wolff does confirm, however, that audiences of the time found Bach as challenging as people do today. He was writing for the Saxon elite in Leipzig, and made few concessions to the mass market.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

Book given to me by Adrian, so I can speed-read it before he looks it over at his own pace. It's a kind of first-century blog - a collection of aphorisms as fresh now as when Marcus Aurelius crafted them in AD 170-180. I think the observations couldn't be bettered: any progress we have made is perhaps in understanding more deeply why the human experience is like that.

Random thought: isn't "Robin Hood" (BBC-1) just 'Spooks' in tights? Insouciant attitudes, fast cuts, snappy dialogue, contemporary references, lots of action?

Article in the Daily Telegraph today condemns the current dumbed-down BBC against top programmes made decades ago ('The Ascent of Man', 'Civilization'). Actually, guys, most of the output was always pretty low-brow.

There are very few stupid people involved in TV. Producing TV for the C1, C2 masses (say, IQ 85 - 105 with low 'Openness to Experience') is like producing tabloid newspapers. Bright people simulating ordinariness. In common with the author of the Telegraph piece, I find this boring, synthetic and depressing, but the target audience doesn't seem to have a problem. And that fact is actually quite interesting.

I am reminded of how Soaps are like 'ordinary people's' lives - with enhanced community, all the tedious bits cut out, and the emotionally-charged episodes massively highlighted. The primates gather round in fascination and awe, to see these super-primates in action. It's to normal social life as cheesecake is to normal fruit /milk ( a comparison due to Stephen Pinker).

I am sure Marcus Aurelius would have had something profound to say about that.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Letter to Basingstoke Council

Last night we went to see 'Blue on Blue', a play at the Haymarket Theatre in Basingstoke. At the end of the performance, the actors explained that the Theatre was about to close due to the withdrawal of funding by the local Council. They pleaded with us to write to the Council's CEO to reverse the decision at the Cabinet meeting the end of this month. Our letter follows.

Mr. Gordon Holdcroft
Chief Executive
Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council
Civic Offices
London Road
Basingstoke RG21 4AH

Dear Mr. Holdcroft,

We are writing to ask you to reconsider your decision to cease funding the Basingstoke Theatre Trust. We believe the consequences of the Theatre closing for an extended period, and then coming under the arm’s length management of the Anvil Trust would be to diminish the arts in Basingstoke.

It seems unclear that a financial case has been made. In all likelihood, the incremental savings would not be large. But the effects in community terms will be significant.

Basingstoke is in competition with a number of neighbouring towns which have a higher cultural profile: Salisbury and Winchester in particular. Basingstoke needs to provide its citizens with a facility which actively sponsors innovative writing and performance, and which nurtures talent. We believe that the Haymarket Theatre under its current management achieves this.

Art has always required public financial support, which recognises the positive community benefits from a thriving cultural landscape. We believe continuing to support the Basingstoke Theatre Trust would be squarely within this tradition and would ask that Cabinet reconsider its decision.

We would be grateful if you could copy this letter to all Councillors (including Cabinet members).

Yours faithfully,

Clare Youell and Nigel Seel

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Taoist take on death

"Chuang Tzu's wife died.

"When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. 'You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,' said Hui Tzu. 'It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing - this is going too far, isn't it?'

"Chuang Tzu said, 'You're wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter.

"'Now she's going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate. So I stopped."

The above is from Chuang Tzu. I agree with it. The 'tub' sentiments are perhaps a little over-the-top, for emphasis. It recalls the famous (and similarly over-the-top) assertion of Lin Chi: "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" (ref), which is meant to oppose both the cult of personality and any appeal to authority over reason.

Chuang Tzu is perhaps best known for the following text.

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."

But striking though this imagery is, its philosophical insight seems to me to be less than the initial reflection on the significance of death. Note that in its sense of the positioning of a finite life in the great space-time sweep of the universe, Chuang Tzu's position is not dissimilar to Einstein's view here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What is ‘Character’?

Remember the days when a person’s ‘character’ was important, and the English public schools were devoted to ‘character-building’? Those days of Empire are long past, and somehow the building of character seems less important, now that we have no perilous missions to undertake, at great personal risk.

Character seems to be different than personality. It has a stronger normative feel - ‘a person of good character’ - and we seem to think it can be trained (character-building) in a way that personality just seems innate.

In my metaphor of the mind, I rather sign up to the ‘triune brain' concept, founded on the evolutionary layering of the human brain on successive reptilian (hind brain), mammalian (limbic system) and human (neocortical) ‘platforms’.

Since all these systems retain a degree of integrity and run in parallel, they each compete for control of the body and consequent expression in overt behaviour. We are intuitively quite familiar with these concepts. We talk of ‘animal lusts’ when primitive satiative drives take over, and ‘panic’ when fear/avoidance impulses seize control. These are all hind-brain functions.

Limbic system dominance manifests itself in cloying sentimentality or over-emotionality. Psychologists talk of the ‘neurotic personality’.

Neocortical dominance surely expresses itself in the over-controlled and emotionless ‘Spock-like’ behaviour of the stereotypical detached intellectual.

My thesis would be that none of the above, one-sided developments of ‘character’ are taken to be ideal by the great systems of the world which meditate upon the perfectibility of man. Philosophical Taoism for example is in essence a series of allusive prescriptions for ‘the perfect man’ (prescriptions understood as genderless, of course). The great religions also have this focus as one of their centre points and objectives.

If there is to be a concept of the optimal or harmonious interworking between the elements of the triune brain to express the best or highest form of character, then there has to be a ‘specification’ of what that perfect model should be. Where would we expect to find that specification?

I think in the theory of optimal social organisation. All the complexities of the human brain and human behaviour emerge from the conflicting demands of the human body per se, and the demands of the social organisation without which no human can survive. In the 'environment of evolutionary adaptedness', that is the tribe, of course.

Looking at optimal social roles, it seems unlikely that there is exactly one superior character type. Perhaps we should start with the temperament model empirically documented by theorists such as Keirsey. Consider his taxonomy of Guardian, Artisan, Rational, Idealist and try to understand the balance of internal drives which would allow each temperament to operate in its own way, as an ideal-type.

So, taking the Rational temperament as an example, we would ideally prefer intellectuals (neocortically dominant) who had sufficient warmth (a limbic function) to create social bonds and influence people effectively, and who were still sufficiently in touch with their reptilian-level drives that they could use aggression and fear constructively, rather than either repressing those drives or succumbing to them in mindless capitulation (cf. the Jungian ‘shadow’). So there’s a possible recipe for an intellectual with a ‘good character’.

I guess you could do a similar exercise for the other temperaments. Should be a Ph. D. thesis in there for someone.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Act of Creation

Portrait of the artist working on a large canvas.

Notice the concentration Clare brings to the task.

This snow-scene is destined for the elder son's flat in Reading.

Sign of the times: The Economist today has an article about loop quantum gravity.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The next book: "On Interstellar Warfare"

Inspired by Herman Kahn's classic "On Thermonuclear War", read when I was a teenager, I am considering "On Interstellar Warfare" as the next book topic. Read the outline here. Feel free to email me with comments - (I truly believe there is a gap in the market in this intersection of evolutionary psychology, advanced telescopes and weapons theory ... trust me, it would sell!).

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Audit 'du jour' (... a la Bridget Jones) ...

State of health.

Still recovering from bad cold (like half the world). What is it about Autumn?

State of exercise.

Poor. The bicycle project is still-born. This was the idea to buy a new bicycle and to exercise using it vigorously two or three times a week. I had to abandon jogging, which I did do regularly, on account of leg and knee pains. Result: bike bought but not much used. Reason - I guess the current consulting assignment just leaves no time for it.

Books to buy.
  1. Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion
  2. Rupert Smith's The Utility of Force
  3. Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics
  4. Edward O. Wilson's On Human Nature
Still some books from the previous Amazon round to finish first, though.


Revisit Chuang Tzu and Tao Te Ching for some insights on contemporary events. Factor in E. O. Wilson's remark (reported in today's Sunday Times) that the basic fact about humanity is that 'We are all tribesmen really' - a remark motivating evolutionary psychology (vs. the 'standard social science model' - ref). There is then something interesting to say, from that vantage point, about Taoist philosophy.

Note 1: how could Taoism either be rooted in, or consistent with, evolutionary psychology?

Note 2: I leave religion per se out of this. See Richard Dawkins.

Film to look forwards to.

'Becoming Jane' - due out next year. Biopic of Jane Austen.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Salisbury Plain in late September

This afternoon we drove to Everleigh and walked on Haxton Down. This is at the centre of army armoured vehicle training, and we mostly walked on the tank trails. Military aircraft were doing circuits above us, and parachutists dropped in the distance.

It was a remarkable late September day. Low twenties and a warm wind - still jeans and tee-shirt weather. Above our heads the clouds were laid out in cloud streets (see picture) and it was the classic Salisbury Plain ‘big sky’: like you could see for miles in all directions, and the universe filled half a dome above.

No-one makes much of the positive effects of global warming, but for England, let’s not pretend they’re not there.

Why we didn’t go to the Cinema tonight

A previous entry described our recent visit to the Vue cinema at Basingstoke. The film which attracted us then was the Internet-fuelled smash, ‘Snakes on a Plane’ - click on the link to see my review.

In the event, that movie started late due to projector problems and we were handed a couple of ‘free tickets’. Clare suggested today that we use them to go see the Helen Mirren fuelled smash called ‘The Queen’.

Look closely at the ticket. The front says we can go to a Vue cinema to see a performance of our choice. The back says that the ticket can be revoked at any time, and can’t be used to get a reservation.

I imagine some bright economics-trained marketeer at Vue decided the ticket could be used as a bulk filler where seats could not be sold anyway. The marginal cost to serve an additional customer at the cinema is essentially zero, and a seat which would otherwise be empty earns no revenue anyway.

The problem with undergraduate economics is that it misses the human factor. The implicit licence to renege makes the cinema look like a cheat. Clare said that she doesn’t much like cheats and that her chances of going to the Vue again are slim.

So there you are - they might have been better just to stick with saying sorry (or giving us a genuine ticket).

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Archaeology at Woodhenge

Sunday afternoon, it's a cloudless sky and 26C, so we visit the rather beautiful Heale gardens and then drive on to Woodhenge.

Just a little to the north of the better-known Stonehenge, Woodhenge is around 4,300 years old. Concrete posts mark the old timbers in concentric ellipses as shown in the picture below (Clare to right).

We were interested to see that in the next field there was a full excavation going on. A researcher from Bournemouth University explained to us that soil from the encircling hill had built up a layer approximately 1.5 metres deep. The neolithic soil level was about an inch above the basal chalk layer, and they were excavating a neolithic round-house with poles around its perimeter (picture). About 4,500 years old.

Somewhat to our surprise, we saw Phil Harding, from the TV programme "Time Team" with a group of archaeologists to one side of the dig (he's the big guy in shorts with the hat in the centre of the picture).

We manage to make it off the site without asking for an autograph ...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Falling by the wayside is also OK

“The old man rose from his hard-won seat and offered it to the old lady. A tiny recoil - repressed suspicion - was followed by a grateful look as she took his place. The ”yoofs” thought it was hilarious.

“Is that the best you could get off with Granddad?” was one of their more printable remarks. The oldster was imperturbable. “Courtesy to others is how we nourish the bonds of our community” was his short response. This irritated the pair - they did so hate to be patronised. “Eff-off, you f***er” was delivered with real menace as their mood turned.

Not to be intimidated, he replied thus. “I do not address your present selves, for I see that you are beyond considering what I am saying. I speak only to plant a small memory for your future.“

At this, they eased themselves from their seats and roundly kicked the living sh*t out of the senior. As he lay on the floor of the train, clutching his ribs and spitting blood he choked out: “We get crushed by falling rocks and judge it an accident of fate. Perhaps you two are only an accident of fate. I spoke to you as one does not speak to rocks, because there may, now or in the future, be something human in you. But I could be wrong: some seeds are cast by the wayside. It is a possible outcome, and not to be complained about.”

Whether the old one died or not is immaterial. He had come to terms with all possible consequences of his situation.”

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Samuel L. Jackson on a plane (with snakes)

Went to see "Snakes on a plane" last night in Basingstoke (Timeout film review here).

It is mildly interesting to speculate why this film is still watchable, despite a plot with so many holes that it resembles a fisherman's net; cardboard characters cut from the book of standard aircraft/police-movie stereotypes; and a lack of any viewer-involvement with the fate of anyone in this film (not excluding the snakes).

I must admit I thought the most moving moment was right at the beginning, when the upside-down-suspended public prosecutor's head becomes the target of a baseball bat wielded by the chief bad guy, in Hawaii. I thought he was quite noble (the former, I mean).

No, on reflection, I believe the film kinda works because the director so doesn't care about any of the standard stuff. He just wants to (a) showcase lots of snakes doing Freudian things with generally well-turned-out-but-frequently-only-semi-clad young people of both sexes and (b) showcase Samuel L. Jackson giving a cool masterclass in the art of being the man.

These two objectives are enough to keep the film flying at about the same level as the South Pacific aircraft itself in the latter stages of its journey.

The film is also recommended if taking your best gal, as she is likely to gasp, with her hand over her mouth, and hold onto you tightly at some of the more gory serpent moments. Perhaps that accounts for the Internet hype. Two hours of CGI-fuelled intermittently-pleasurable nonsense out of your life.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Review of 'Deep Down Things' by Bruce Schumm

Review posted at here.

Fed up with useless metaphors which equate the Higgs particle with hangers-on at a party slowing a celebrity’s passage? Exasperated at continual references to Lie algebras and gauge theories, which are never explained?

In Peter Woit’s recent book ‘Not Even Wrong’, he comments (p. 205) that relativistic quantum field theory is not even studied until the second or third year of graduate school. For the rest of us, there is ‘Deep Down Things’.

Schumm’s objective is to take us on a conceptual tour of the Standard Model of quantum mechanics, without requiring a mastery of the technical apparatus. The first half of the book introduces the four fundamental forces, wave-particle duality and the wave function itself. The approach is historical and visual - plenty of Feynman diagrams - and Schumm assumes the reader is happy with complex exponentials. By chapter 5 we are deep in the eightfold way, and the classification of quarks, leptons (electrons, muons, neutrinos) and bosons (the force quanta).

Chapter 6 begins the process of diving deeper with a discussion of Lie groups and Lie Algebra, motivated by plenty of examples. A Lie group is defined via: (i) a continuous set (i.e. a real or complex manifold such as R^n or C^n) with (ii) operators which are continuous functions over the manifold. Chapter 7 introduces Noether’s theorem: ‘to every differentiable symmetry generated by local actions, there corresponds a conserved quality’ and this is linked with symmetries under transformations by the Lie group operators (such as rotations in isospin space which interchange protons and neutrons).

Introductory quantum mechanics courses talk about the physical irrelevance of the phase of the wave function when it comes to the calculation of probabilities of observables. We thus have the concept of global phase invariance. However, this is unphysical - we cannot have the universe adjusting phase by the same amount everywhere at the same time. Yang and Mills in the mid-50s proposed to force the wave function to be invariant under local changes of phase: it turns out the only way to achieve this is to add a new term of the form gA(x)psi(x) where g is a charge parameter associated with the particle, psi(x) is the wave function and A(x) is a new term which turns out to be the field potential function for the relevant force field (electromagnetic in chapter 8). The freedom of choice in choosing the function A is called a gauge freedom, hence gauge theory.

Choose a fundamental particle. Write down its wave function. Identify the spaces in which the particle participates (space-time, isospin, ...). Identify the Lie group which rotates the wave function (state vector) in each of these spaces - U(1), SU(2), SU(3). By the principle of local phase invariance, adjust the original wave function with gauge terms gA(x)psi(x) as above. From making this work mathematically, out pop the corresponding force quanta (= the number of generators of the corresponding Lie algebra above). As the chapter heading puts it: ‘Physics by Pure Thought’!

Chapter 9 explains how the standard model assigns a mass of zero to all force-field quanta. Any attempt to add mass destroys the local phase invariance that we just discussed. The only way to retrieve the situation is to assume the existence of a new field (the Higgs field) which somehow pervades the universe and which interacts with non-zero-mass force quanta (via the weak force) in a ‘screening’ way which gives them mass. The Higgs field is also responsible for the masses of quarks and leptons. If this is true, there should be a Higgs particle within reach of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in 2007.

This is a really excellent book. If you dimly recall how to solve a differential equation, and are unfazed by the notion of an abelian group, then this book is accessible. By book-end you have the sense that you ‘get’ the big picture of the standard model and its remaining conceptual weaknesses. I would say that if you were an undergraduate interested in theoretical physics and wanted a tour d’horizon, this is the one book which will give it (Penrose’s ‘The Road To Reality’ is still too difficult for this purpose).

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Newsnight opens the door a chink

Professor Robert Pape, who has analysed the motives of hundreds of suicide bombers, said on Newsnight (BBC Television news analysis show) that their motives are not religious. Instead, the bomber harbours a deep resentment that the country he or she is attacking has an unwanted and unjust presence & influence on the land with which the bomber emotionally identifies.

Professor Pape said this view was not popular with western leaders, but was compellingly supported by his reseach (he has a book - link here).

On another recent Newsnight programme, a speaker from the radical muslim group Hizb ut Tahrir unreservedly condemned alleged british suicide bombers, but agreed that his organisation stood for the restoral of the caliphate across the middle-eastern Sunni community.

Recall that Osama bin Laden's original justification of al Qaeda attacks was the American military presence in Saudi Arabia, home of two of the sacred sites of Islam.

Thought experiment. The west gets its tanks off the lawns of the Sunni umma in Iraq, Afghanistan and ceases support for regimes in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi etc. What is the likely outcome as desired by radical Islam?
  1. An (oil-fuelled and very rich) caliphate built along Taliban lines adhering to Wahhabi doctrines across the middle-east.
  2. An exterminatory war against Israel, which could go nuclear.
  3. A powerful force polarising muslim communities in every European country with sizeable muslim populations (at least England, France, Spain, Italy) and bent on imposing sharia law locally.
  4. Secularised Turkey is in real trouble.
  5. Spiralling Sunni-Shia antagonism leading to wars of religion.
Perhaps the west, which had the benefits of the renaissance and the enlightenment (which were absolute, and not relative advances for humanity), has some responsibilities not to let this outcome occur by default, even putting aside the material interests of the economics of oil and those of national security?

I think I'm saying that the easy option to let these guys have what they want is worse than the current policy (flawed as it is due to over-reliance on hard power; incompetent execution; and the wilful disregard of the need of Palestinians for a viable state, regardless of the concerns as to who would end up running it).

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Balloons over Basingstoke

This afternoon to Basingstoke for the balloon festival.

Here is a picture of the most risque balloon.

The event, at the War Memorial Park, was hard to find through Basingstoke's one-way system, but after we had parked-and-rode, the first thing we saw was a parachute display team - you can see it on the video here.

[10.6 MB in .wmv format, keep watching at the blank section in the middle].

The balloons launched en masse after 6 p.m. Here is a picture of me in front of one of the balloons. The joke goes that you are meant to figure which is which.

We had a good afternoon, and on the way back to the car we were over-flown by three paramoteur pilots (paragliders with back-mounted engines to keep them up) . Sounds like fun.

The video, BTW, has a few seconds of black in the middle - don't have too much time to edit well. Stay with it for the second half, where the launching balloon's basket collides with a nearby balloon: cue gasps from the audience at this near tragedy ...

It's 28 centigrade this evening and humid - I just knew this Greenhouse Effect would be double-edged ...

Monday, July 31, 2006

Isle of Wight

First of all a big hello to my brother Adrian, who occasionally checks out this blog on Wednesdays with his student. I hope this one isn't too touristy!

Sunday we went to the Isle of Wight, about 50 minutes drive and an hour's ferry (via Southampton) from where we live. Our first tourist encounter was with Osbourne House, Queen Victoria's former residence on the island. Here's a picture of Clare in the wonderful gardens, with a view looking back towards Portsmouth.

Later we upped and migrated to Ryde, which from the pier reminded us curiously of the equally-touristy Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco (in a little way of course - and we bore you here as experienced world-travelers ... *).

Then we came back via Cowes. Consequent upon it being Cowes Week, the place was full of yachties. We had a competition to count the number of burley, middle-aged nautical types with gorgeous young things hanging off their arms. I got three in 25 minutes, so I guess I wasn't paying attention ... (go figure!).

* No, we are not showing off - this is called irony ...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

"On interstellar warfare"

As I wait for the page-proofs of my soon-to-be-published book (see opposite), my thoughts turn to writing a second book. No more on telecoms though!

I have two thoughts.

I could do something on personality theories. There is a gap in the market to look at the Myers-Briggs approach vs. the academic 'Five Factor' model vs. evolutionary psychology + the results of recent brain-imaging research. I can think of a number of powerful ideas and insights from combining these disparate schools of thought and I think the results would sell.

My other idea is reflected in the title of this piece - inspired by the famous "On Thermonuclear War". Briefly, my proposition is that any alien civilization we discover will be exceptionally aggressive and dangerous (a good self-description, don't you agree?) and that we should aim to wipe them out immediately. I will look in detail at the new hyper-telescope technologies (link) which may give us the same view of alien planets as orbital satellites give us of the earth today. I then survey methods of planetary extermination including:
  • asteroid bombardment
  • relativistic weapons
  • flaring the star
  • biological weapons
  • sociological weapons.
Finally I look at options for interstellar travel, so that we can inspect the resulting wreckage and then colonise. (I also analyse our losing options).

Does this sound extreme? I think a civilization which could absorb The Simpsons is ready for my book, and I would expect it to sell by the shed load.

Joking in bad taste aside, you are invited to read the Book Proposal by clicking here.

Enjoy (expecially if you are a prospective publisher)! And actually, I think the one book could cover both of my ideas, via 'exopsychology'.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Inflation and deflation

Friday evening we packed up the car and in the blustery heat of a July evening, departed for a campsite at the little seaside town of Swanage, in Dorset. A morale-lowering sequence of events then followed.

The campsite itself was OK-ish, just that little bit down-market (no defined pitches, poor washing/WC facilities). The ground itself was stony, a nightmare to get the tent-pegs in. A warm wind was gusting and rocking the tent, so I cared more than usual about this.

8 p.m. and Clare was urging me to get in the car and drive to the Swanage beach front so we could get to eat. I then noticed that my air-bed had deflated: yep, it had a leak. I guess I wasn't the most sparkling dinner companion at that not-entirely-perfect Italian restaurant; my mind kept anticipating a night on the car seat. After the meal, we wandered the high street and came across a shop - just closing- - which sold beach paraphernalia. Hearing our tale of woe, the store owner was prevailed upon to sell us a Lilo airbed for £2.99. Not ideal, but better than the stony ground for the night to come.

I guess it must have been 2 a.m. when I realised that the Lilo had also developed a leak and had deflated under me. As the tent shook around me, I found that sleeping on your back is best in situations like this - the hip then doesn't dig into the hard surface.

We spent Saturday on the beach at nearby Studland. Crowded but pleasant. I watched the wind-surfers being blown over by the gusts to the complex sound-symmetries of the 'Art of Fugue' on my MP3 player. We abandoned our second night camping, however, and stopped off at Corfe Castle on our way home. An ancient (William the Conqueror) castle blown up by the parliamentarians after the civil war.

Clare standing in front of the Keep, fenced off as it's unstable.

This is the view of the village of Corfe Castle from the Keep (and myself).

Former Prime Minister John Major made a good point on TV this morning about the current Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. To paraphrase his argument (addressed to the Israelis): "Can you kill them all? No? Then you will eventually have to cut a deal with them. Does the current campaign make sense in that context, regardless of how good it feels?"

A comment of my own: I am mindful that it takes two to negotiate.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Einstein's view of death

Albert Einstein wrote the following, in a letter of condolence to the sister and son of his long-time closest friend, Michele Besso, upon his death, four weeks before Einstein's own (18th April, 1955).

"Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

Thinking of oneself four-dimensionally is challenging. We think the phrases 'past self' and 'future-self' are metaphors, but actually they are literally true. Somewhere 'up-time' is the future you and me, just as real as myself at this moment of writing, or your moments of instantaneous reality as you read these words.

My past self-slice can communicate with a future self-slice through use of media. If I read this blog later, that's exactly what will happen. I try to imagine that future self, but it's hard. It's not a dialogue: my future self can't answer me back.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Exercise and Ed Witten

Having spent six months running a couple of miles three times a week, and then stopping in February due to recurrent knee, thigh and hip pains (too much weight in the middle!), I have finally re-converged to slobdom. It feels bad.

I have therefore determined to buy a bike, and do 30 minutes of serious biking three times a week as a non-impact aerobic thing. I am inspired (only a small amount) by 'Le Tour' of which Clare is an avid fan. Round to the bike shop, then, on Saturday.

Reading 'Not Even Wrong' one is struck by the sheer, sustained brilliance of Ed Witten. This puts whatever intellectual pretensions one might have completely in their place. And that's from a distance - whatever must it be like for his close colleagues?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Kafka - the computer game

I am reading Kafka's The Castle at the moment. The hero, K., is a land surveyor who, through bureaucratic error, has made the long and difficult journey to the Castle. He is marooned in the village, where he meets all kinds of bizarre people in his doomed attempt to either visit the officials in the Castle, or get any kind of sense out of them. As is usual in Kafka, there is a sense that the hero is living in a wakened dream.

Genre literature (thrillers, hard SF) is susceptible in a more or less crude way to computer gaming even today. If the focus is depiction of physical reality, plus crude behaviours of game-agents which speak to our primary impulses (kill it!) then the technology is good enough.

How would you 'do literature' as a computer game? The point of Kafka's work is the crazed environment combining local sense with systemic irrationality made manifest through K.'s conversations with everyone else. This is coupled with K.'s reactions, both his immediate mood swings and his cumulative reaction to events through the novel.

Kafka, being a genius, could script all this, but if the game player is to be K., then the game agents have to be human-level personalities with back stories, personalities and roles.

This is why there is a yawning gulf between computer games - interactive media - and literature.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A conversation with Danny

"Danny showed me his video parser. I gave him a .3gp video of my son, newly arrived back from snowboarding in Canada. The video, from my camera-phone, was tiny and grainy. Danny's program read frame after frame, displaying each magnified pixel map. It was incomprehensibly to my eyes.

"The program does standard things like edge-detection, object-inference and finally scene-reconstruction. It's based on the detailed models of people and objects stored in its object-database. The parsed result is a high-resolution 3D animation model similar to those we use to generate video games. We can then invert the process and render this model at any resolution we choose."

Danny showed me his processed video based on my original postage-stamp movie, but it was now rendered on a high-definition TV screen. And it was perfect.

"You do realise the implications, don't you?" Danny said. This cinematic version of your video is a reconstructed reality, a kind of 'informed hallucination' based on your original coarse and tiny video. And that too was a kind of hallucination of reality, formed from pixels illuminated by your camera lens.

"And as you sit there looking at me, your brain is doing just the same thing" he continued. "You have no access to the 'real me'. Your 'view' is entirely reconstructed from retinal images on the back of your two eyes: tiny, noisy and upside-down neuronal 'bit-maps'. It looks like you're seeing the world, but you're hallucinating a view based on retinal image processing."

He grinned. "Intellectually you know it, but you don't really believe it, do you?"

Miffed, I replied. "You're sitting there looking at me and being amused. Consider this - the 'you' being amused is just the activity of 100 billion neurons doing their thing behind your eyes. 'You' are no more than the sum of their activity. How does that work, d'you think? And do you really believe it?""

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Some 'Learnings' (sic)

In the sense of Vernon God Little.

1. Be a 'yes' person.

Trade little favours with other 'yes' people (in the sense of the 'Favor Bank' in 'Bonfire of the Vanities'). 'No' people are both high maintenance and incur too-high transaction costs to get them to do stuff well. 'Yes' people get the world's work done.

2. You can look stupid talking to lay people

How many times have you discussed something technical with a bright person who knows nothing about the area? As you run an internal translation system to filter acronyms and too-hard concepts, and work on generating appropriate metaphors on the fly, your conversational partner thinks you can't really understand this stuff all that well.

You are then joined by someone else who is also an expert. You switch gear - now you are motoring! Your original conversational partner is amazed: they now have no idea what you are talking about, but they see you flying rather than crawling. Your reputation is back.

I have been on both sides of this divide.

3. Building your reputation takes time.

How many times have I fallen into the trap of wanting to impress someone, and therefore hitting them with a lot of intellectual firepower - kind of hosing them. Although it's a truism, it is also true that less is a lot more. Understated competence allows people time to assess the evidence and to make their minds up. After a week or ten days, they may start to trust you and you may acquire a reputation. Attempts to short-circuit the process fatally undermine it. Patience and the Tao!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lyme Regis

This week-end we camped close to Lyme Regis. This little seaside town on the English south coast dates back to Saxon times - today it looks rather Georgian, like Bath.

At the west side of the enclosed harbour is a seawall about twelve feet high called 'The Cob' (see picture above, where I'm standing on the uneven surface).

It's been there for a long while.

Jane Austen was in Lyme in 1804 and her later novel, Persuasion, had the dramatic scene where Louisa, one of the female characters jumps off the top of the Cob, supposedly into the hands of Captain Wentworth, the male lead character. Missing, she sustains concussion and the event helps to precipitate the happy ending whereby Wentworth gets to marry the heroine Anne.

Clare, pictured above, shows steps leading to the top. We took our courage in both hands and climbed up using this route. A fall from the top would really be no joke.

Our banal camping movie is here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Why big companies are more competent

As Adam Smith noted, the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. There are not many specialist rocket scientists, brain surgeons or carrier network architects who can make their living within the economic confines of a small town.

But one could equally state that the division of labour is limited by the extent of the company. A large company making economic profits can afford specialists and can allow them to work with some autonomy - freed from the immediate need to make the next dollar, euro or pound. This is not just a complex way of describing traditional R&D: large companies also do better with large scale product development as well as support services and systems integration, if they are in a somewhat competitive market.

The smaller company may enjoy freedom from group-think and an incentive to innovate, but it is the large company which brings the innovation to the mass market. A number of possible causes have been proposed for this phenomenon, but look to Adam Smith’s insight for the real reason.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Laptop problem (cont.)

The problem reported a few days back recurred in a different way recently. At random intervals, the laptop would freeze as the CPU was taken over by an unknown process. Using ctrl-alt-delete to open the task manager was no help at all. Various tasks such as iexplorer were flagged at 98-100% of CPU but stopping them (eventually) did not solve the problem.

Too many times, I would have to kill the machine dead by holding down the power button.

I rather feared that the spectre of a full XP-reinstall would be forced upon me. But I decided instead that the problem was with the Microsoft Indexing Service, via cidaemon.exe. This was, after all, exactly where I had had the problem before.

I therefore turned the service off using the control panel (administrative tools - services - indexing service => disabled). I use Google Desktop to search for local files anyhow.

Postscript: no sooner was I celebrating 24 hours of the problem apparently being cleared when it recurred! I have noticed, though, that whatever process is grabbing 100% of the CPU then releases it after a few minutes. So I walk away from the problem, get a green tea, come back and restart the machine. Seems to work provided life is not too urgent!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Video old and new

Clare has managed to push my family tree of male ancestors back to a John Seel, born in Oldham, Lancashire, in 1847. We have no idea what he looked like.

A while ago there passed away the last generation of which this could be true. Consider the .wmv movie of Adrian Seel, here. As I was taking it, I was conscious that despite the poor resolution and 2D technology, it is easy to anticipate a future technology - based on 3D modelling - which could transform this video into a high-resolution 3D object: all the information required is either there, or can be extrapolated.

Technology forecasting: take something which would be good to do, and where in principle we know it can be done. It will happen - 10-20 years max.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Paradise Lost

Back to infrequent posts here - the commute to London for the BT 'Wireless Cities' project takes up a great deal of time.

Down to the Salisbury Playhouse this afternoon to see 'Paradise Lost' (John Milton) adapted for stage by Ben Power. Press release here.

The first half has Satan and cohorts planning their future strategy, having ended up in hell after losing a power struggle with God. Cue lightshow and loud music.

After the interval, we are in the Garden of Eden with a naked Adam and Eve on stage, about to be tempted by the serpent-disguised Satan. The play ends with A. and E.'s expulsion from the G. of E. following the apple incident.

Although 'highly-aclaimed', we were not unduly impressed. The language is sub-Shakespearean, and the acting - although technically competent - seems to lack conviction. The central problem, however, is with the plot. The dilemma facing A. and E. is to eat the apple, get knowledge and take charge of their destiny (but incur God's wrath for disobedience), vs. obey God's arbitrary injunction not to eat it and continue to wallow in brain-dead luxury.

Since there is no rational reason for God to have forbidden the apple to be eaten, or at least no motive which the script identifies, there is no interesting central dilemma for the characters. And hence no dramatic tension.

Confession: we both almost fell asleep in the first half, and we did not find the nudity arousing in the second. Looks like the naturists are right after all.

Monday, May 22, 2006

BT Wireless City project

Attended a meeting in London earlier today where I signed up for BT's wireless city project. This will roll-out municipal WiFi in a number of UK cities, in a pattern previously seen in San Francisco and Philadelphia. I will be managing roll-out in a couple of the cities (yet tbd) through my company Interweave Consulting.

Just as well that I shipped the book manuscript to the publisher on Friday.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Really finished this time!

Over the week-end I really blitzed the last chapter (12) on 'spoken dialogue systems' and produced 5,000 words, which is OK. This is now out for review - it's titled 'Machines Who Talk'.

My other major task was to incorporate the anonymous reviewer's comments, which mostly involved adding material about GMPLS, Grid Computing, SONET and a review of current 'Internet2'-type systems.

I am now just fine-tuning and rewriting the odd point here and there, and tomorrow I will review again the last three chapters. Once comments are back from the various people who are looking at material, I think this is about ready to ship :-)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Data Bombing

Something weird affecting my laptop.

It has an 18.6 GB hard disk, with 5.3 GB free. However, Monday evening (May 8th) I got a message that the disk was full. Yep, only a few Megabytes left. When I checked folders very carefully, I found that the WINDOWS/TEMP folder was filled with files like this:

AcrF4.tmp, AcrF5.tmp, ..., AcrFF.tmp, Acr100.tmp, Acr101.tmp, ... etc. Counting up in hex.

Each file was around 4 MB in size (just under, just over, it depended) and they were being written into the folder around four times a minute, although the rate was also variable. Windows marked the application as unknown, and when I opened a file in Notepad, it was binary.

Aty first I suspected BOINC, the distributed science application platform. But I stopped it, and the problem continued. I checked the active processes, and nothing seemed amiss. It's a shame there is no disk access logger with XP though.

In desperation I have re-installed the McAfee antivirus program (I had some suspicions) and have used System Restore to back up to last Sunday. As of this time, the Acr files have stopped arriving. More later (if the problem recurs).

UPDATE: Thursday morning, May 11th 06

End of last evening, the problem had not gone away. This morning, I started by closing down systematically all my user processes (via the task manager) - checking at each stage whether the demonic file-writing would stop. It did not.

I then downloaded the freeware program: mst IsUsedBy, a utility which opens a window, into which you can drag a file. The program then tells you which process is using that file. It told me that the culprit was the Microsoft indexing program cidaemon.exe. Surprising, because although this program can apparently be a CPU hog, it is not flagged as dumping data.

I tracked it down to C:WINDOWS/system32 and renamed the process (prepended an 'x'). This may have cured the problem. However, re-checking in this folder, I see that Windows has put it back! Still ...

I also took the precaution of organising all my data, collecting my executables together, listing the programs I continue to use, and backing everything up to my external HD. This, because the next step is a full Windows XP re-install on the assumption that I have a piece of malware here. It has evaded McAfee antivirus, spybot S&D and Lavasoft ad-aware so it's pretty pernicious.

A re-install from Toshiba's 2003 CDs looks like an all-day operation (SP2 download all over again, etc) so it really is a last resort...

UPDATE Friday May 12th 9.00 a.m.

Now 24 hours without any reappearance of the problem. I guess we can say fixed. What seems to have happened is that the cidaemon.exe process appears to have gone 'rogue'. Whether this was a bit error, or some corruption of a config file or debug setting is completely unknown.

However, Windows recreated the process, presumably from a clean source, and the problem has gone away. By side effect, it did force a clean-up of my data and an audit of what I have as well as rehearsing the complete recovery process - which has value. Still, what a waste of time, overall.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

New Toy

The Sony-Ericsson K750i camera phone I bought a few days ago (see previous blog) is proving pretty addictive. It's just too easy to take quick home movies, although the resolution is very poor. The subsequent process is slightly messy.

1. The movie is transferred to the PC, emulating a USB drive - in .3gp format.

2. I then map it to .avi using the tool I bought (previous post).

3. I then import this into Windows Movie Maker, which allows the weird multi-clip format from the camera phone to be smoothed out into one movie, with title if required. This is saved in .wmv format (no choice! That's why Microsoft develped the tool for free).

And then the home movie is inflicted on anyone I misguidedly believe might be interested. Strange that you can know this, and still do it.

By putting the movies on my website (a minute comes in just under 5 MB) at least I send a link rather than the file. And Windows Media Player buffers and plays on download, rather than waiting for the entire file to be downloaded, so it's almost like streaming ...

No, I can't resist ... our visit last week-end to Wardour castle, destroyed in the English civil war - here at 1.8 MB (30 seconds).