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

What did he really mean?

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 my self 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. Why is that?

Take a look at this picture.

Assume the object in the picture above is a neuron in your brain. Then it can only be affected by other physical objects within the light-cone which is centred upon it at t=t0. All the relevant fields propagate <= lightspeed. Even the brain itself taken as a whole does not exist within a shared present. This is a problem with supercomputers too - the separate logic circuits have to deal with the finite speed of light across the processor fabric.

My knowledge, and sense of present-self, is encoded in the present state of my brain (encoding my personal history) and it gets updated by events within the cluster of lightcones centred on the set of neurons in my brain. Unfortunately, all the lightcones 'point backwards', or more specifically, define a direction. There aren't any which start at my future self and arrive back at my present self.

No dialogue, then.

I'm still there, though, up in 2010. I hope I'm in one piece!**

* 3D slice of a 4D object.

** But even if not, my reality at this point, [July 4th 2006], is unaffected.

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.