Saturday, April 28, 2007

Jeremy Hardy

We went to see Jeremy Hardy at the Andover Lights on Thursday. It’s taken me a few days to figure out how I felt about his performance. Jeremy Hardy is a forty-something stand-up comedian and BBC Radio 4 personality. He’s known for his intelligence, atheism, left-wing views and I guess social commitment. Read his biography here and see that more than once he has put his money, his job (and his life) where his mouth is.

It takes a real skill to do two hours of monologue in front of a mike and keep an intelligent audience amused with wry asides and smart social commentary - jokes, too sometimes. So what was my problem? I think Jeremy was a bit on auto-pilot. Like, being here tonight is just a job. Yes, it was just a job, but prophets don’t do jobs, do they?

The second problem is that I mostly don’t agree with his positions (although respecting, of course, his right to have them). So the sense you get that he knows that his views are morally correct, whilst the people he attacks are bad (or doing bad things) irritates. As Marx said: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

This explains why certain institutions and behaviours exist, and wishing it were not so does not make it so. His deviation is ‘individualism’.

In the spirit of Jeremy Hardy, here are some rants of my own. You know that pretentious Keats poem:

“On first looking into Chapman’s Homer“

MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

I want to do a version about YouTube, comparing it to an infinite plain of cars, all with their boots open, offering rubbishy bric-a-brac. Yes, we have seen the future of user-generated content, without the elitist mediation of editors, and it’s rubbish.

Here’s my other rant. Too many people have got stuck on the Enlightenment as the pinnacle of human development. ‘Oh my God! We have to defend the E. from the Islamists!’

OMG no! The Enlightenment brought us a ‘blank slate’ identical-clone model of humanity, as if we were all off the same production line. I know it’s easier to fit things like equality and ‘human rights’ off such a model but, listen up, it’s wrong!

Here’s progress. Keep the deeply humanist model of treating each other as if we were human beings and worth something; recognise humans come in genders and races which are not identical. That people differ profoundly in personality and IQ, and that one size does not fit all. That it is profoundly wrong to lock up 90% of kids in the prison camps known as schools all day - no wonder they rebel. The other 10%, the smart, intellectual types, like it of course.

Phew, it will take another generation at least to get this right. Come on Jeremy, shake off that lethargy!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Physics at the OU

When I was 10 I wanted to be a theoretical physicist. At age 18 I went to Warwick University to study theoretical physics but was repelled by course content which seemed to replicate the worst of A-level experimental physics and I was then waylaid into the worlds of politics, philosophy and then maths, computer science, psychology and artificial intelligence.

Over the years I read the popularisations of quantum mechanics, relativity and cosmology, and even skimmed the textbooks. But particularly in theoretical physics, there is no substitute for actually studying the material and getting into the calculational details with colleagues.

I am therefore seriously considering signing up for most of the Open University’s third level physics courses. In 2008 this would mean doing Electromagnetism (SMT359) and Waves, Diffusion and Variational Principles (MS324). In 2009 I would do The Quantum World (SM358) and Space, Time and Cosmology (S357).

These constitute four out of the five third level physics courses, (counting MS324 as physics really). The remaining course is about stars and galaxies: interesting, but maybe for later.

Do I know this stuff already? Yes, at some conceptual level, like anyone who is educated in one area and who takes an informed interest in another. But at the level of being a practitioner, no.

Since physics, like maths, is highly incremental, thinking about the more advanced formulations of quantum mechanics and general relativity depend upon a substantial internalisation of mathematical tools, concepts and techniques at an advanced undergraduate level. So yes, this would be a lot of work, but precisely because of that, it would be worth it.

The diplomacy theory of male homosexuality

Since male homosexuals, by definition, leave fewer offspring than male heterosexuals, the genetic basis for ‘gayness’ should rapidly be eliminated from any breeding population. Since the incidence of male homosexuality nevertheless seems stable and significant, around 5%, there appears to be some kind of paradox here.

It has been suggested that gay men make better uncles than straight men, thereby facilitating straightforward kin selection. But there is little evidence for this. So here is my proposal.

1. Gay men tend to exhibit more relational competences than straight men. Evidence: the prevalence of gay men in service professions; the discussions about the ‘feminised brain’ of male homosexuals.

2. In the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA), the foundational basis of group dominance in primate species, including man, is typically aggression. This comes down to the leader’s ability to physically dominate others by violence and intimidation.

3. Leadership by the physically most intimidating is counter-productive where intelligence is at a premium, as in human evolution. The ‘wisdom of crowds’ applies. There is a requirement to negotiate points of view, insights and buy-in across the group.

4. Gay men bring particular interpersonal skills to group problem-solving and group cohesion. Groups with such functions out-perform groups which operate only on a hierarchy of fear, where the powerful leader cannot be contradicted. Note that due to the sexual division of labour, women cannot perform these functions.

5. Since all competing human groups in the EEA were extended kin groups, genes for male homosexuality had some use after all and so were conserved.

In fact, in today’s more complex societies exactly the same points apply.

Experimentally testing this idea would involve comparing problem-solving competences (in novel environments) for stable groups contrasted in temperament as typically found along the straight-gay axis. The prediction would be that maximal effectiveness would be exhibited by groups in the straight-gay ratio of around 19:1. An alternative would be ethnographic analysis of groups looking at roles played by gay men.


1. Due again to the sexual division of labour, it seems this analysis is not at all applicable to female homosexuality.

2. A possible difficulty with this suggestion is that there are plenty of men around who seem adept at diplomatic skills without being gay. The term 'metrosexual' seems to have been coined for this group! However, perhaps there is a continuum effect, and gay men are simply the most effective in these kinds of roles, sufficient to offset their lack of direct 'fitness'.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Wild Hogs

This, I hasten to add, was Clare's idea. "Lighten-up," she said, "enough of these art-house movies. Let's go to something played just for laughs."

I wish.

John Travolta is the best known of four middle-class men in a collective mid-life crisis. Well, three of them are middle-class and white, while the fourth is black and a plumber. They decide to get on their big bikes and head out on the road to the Pacific, as you do, and proceed to encounter various comic adventures on the way. To stay in touch with what passes for a plot you have to believe, amongst other things
  • A comely female diner owner could fall for a wrinkly, wimpish sixty-something computer programmer (William Macy, that car-salesman guy out of Fargo).
  • Four middle-class bikers could collectively stand up to a 45-strong outlaw biker gang in an extended fight sequence, without becoming mincemeat with bone and gristle.
  • Said biker gang could be stood-down and run out of town by the biker gang leader's ageing father, who turns out to be a good sort.
And about a dozen similar bits of nonsense. None of this would have mattered in the slightest if the film had been amusing.

Clare is properly chagrined and I guess it's back to art-house - or we pick frivolous better!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Maps of Physics

Studying science (physics) it's easy to get lost in the detail. Somehow 'they' never seem to give you an overall map of the territory. Richard Baker, who studied postgrad physics at Cambridge, published the following useful maps on his website here.

NOTE: click on the pictures to make them larger and more readable.

The picture above tells the story of the history of discovery. However, what is really useful is the relationships between and conceptual structure of the present set of foundational theories. Richard helpfully provides this picture.

The only advice I would give Richard is to re-examine this absurd obsession with Iain M. Banks and The Culture!

Sunday, April 15, 2007


We saw this film at the Salisbury Odeon this evening. The Sunday Times called it a thinking person's SF movie - whereas I am wondering how I might get my money back.

The threadbare plot starts from the unlikely premise that the sun is about to go out. A mission - Icarus 2 - has therefore been sent, behind a giant sunshield, to launch a restorative payload into the heart of the sun and reignite it. Right.

Seven years previously, Icarus 1 had been launched on an identical mission but had never been heard of again, while the sun had not deviated from its route to extinction. Naturally the two missions are destined to meet up, and all questions and issues will be resolved.

So what does a thinking person's SF movie look like in the case of "Sunshine"? Stereotyped bickering, a plot with more holes than an asteroid-punctured sunshield, and a serious inability to answer the question "what was the point of that?"

There - no plot spoilers. I left with a smile on my face, but that's how I do disdain, I'm afraid.

Jane Austen's Church at Steventon (video)

Here is the video mentioned in the previous post, in a more convenient form.

Edited in Windows Movie Maker.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jane Austen’s Church at Steventon

We passed Jane Austen’s home village of Steventon, Hampshire this afternoon and popped into St. Nicholas’ Church. Jane used to attend this church - she was baptised here - and her father, the Rev. George Austen, was the minister.

Here’s a picture of the front of the church (more information here).

St. Nicholas’ Church

We took a walk inside the church, it’s really quite small, and filmed it in a video downloadable as a Windows Media file here - (9.5 MB). Afterwards, we walked around, it was 24 degrees today, almost summer temperatures, and the graveyard was quite beautiful.

St. Nicholas’ Church graveyard

We were the only people around, which shows how much Steventon is off the beaten track for the worldwide Jane Austen community. In fact Steventon has utterly failed to capitalise on its most famous daughter: there is no trace that she ever lived there - no visitor centre or museum - and the Rectory where she lived has been razed to the ground. All that is left is a fenced-off and ruined pump in a field populated by ruminating cows.

I predict that someone, some day, will purchase the old Rectory site, build a restoration based on the most accurate records available, open it as a visitor centre and watch the crowds pour in. Such an investment would surely be repaid many times over one feels, to the undoubted irritation of the locals.

Why were we there at all today? We had driven up to Basingstoke where we were shopping around for a new car. The new Toyota Auris caught our eye.

Toyota Auris

You can tell we live in that dual universe, you know, the one orthogonal to where Jeremy Clarkson lives!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter at Gliffaes

We spent Easter at the Gliffaes Country House Hotel (website here). This attractive period building is set in its own grounds on the banks of the Usk. Here was the view from our window.

Grounds at Gliffaes

The first afternoon we explored down by the river, and Clare captured this tourist shot.

Banks of the Usk

Another tourist shot of both of us by one of the giant conifers which rather reminded us of Californian Redwoods.

The ‘Redwoods’

On Saturday we climbed up Table mountain, overlooking Crickhowell. It’s more a scramble, although we were tired enough. In the afternoon we looked around the fourteenth century Tretower Court and Castle. Sunday was mostly catching up with newspapers, while on Monday we detoured via Cardiff Bay on the way home.

Clare at Cardiff Bay

So, nice hotel, friendly staff, a relaxing time.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Quantum Dot

Here is where the mystery begins. Imagine the smooth flat surface of a black granite slab. Just in front of you there is a circular pit, about 20 cm wide, maybe twice as deep. It could be used for storing a stack of small dinner plates.

This imagined reality has been magnified one hundred million times. My circular depression is a quantum dot, two nanometres in diameter. And in the centre, I am going to trap an electron.


There he is again. Second day on the job and he still hasn’t a clue. ‘Spread some of that hardcore’ he was told. Gave us a blank look like he’d never heard of hardcore before. Next thing I knew, he was on his knees, pushing half bricks around with his hands. What an idiot.

The lads call him Prof. He’s some kind of student. Imperial College. No idea what he’s studying. He says he can’t explain it, we wouldn’t be interested. Well most of them wouldn’t be, but at least he could make the attempt, couldn’t he?


Even magnified one hundred million times, an electron has no measurable size at all. Analogies with things like marbles just don’t work. If I want to start with a motionless electron placed at the centre of my circular depression, I will have to heap up the electron’s ‘quantum amplitude’ at that point. I have to make a wave which is high in the centre, and pretty much zero everywhere else.

I think back to dropping a sugar cube into a cup of coffee. The cube hits the surface and makes a hole. The coffee rushes into the gap from all sides, collides in the middle and surges up in a tall splashy column. That’s what I want in the centre of my quantum dot.

I remind myself that whereas the coffee column immediately falls back and is lost in concentric ripples, I would like my electron wave, as far as possible, to stay put in the centre of its quantum dot home. The symbol for the electron’s wave is y, a function of position and time - y(x, y, z, t). The value of y at a place and time is a complex number, which can’t be easily visualised. The textbooks tell me to square the modulus of y, and even that isn’t meant to directly represent a part of physical reality. The value of ‘y-squared’ at that place and that time is just the probability of observing my electron there. But we might equally find it somewhere else instead if we cared to look.

In my imagination, the y wave is like a crystalline needle in the centre of the pit. It seems to shimmer through different colours as it begins to evolve. But look, the peak is dropping, the base of the needle filling out. And now it has completely collapsed, the y wave just slopping around at the bottom of the depression, like water in a child’s inflatable swimming pool on a sunny afternoon. The slopping y wave means my electron has become delocalised. It could be anywhere in the quantum dot.


Today it was concrete spreading. We put the steel grid down and then the mixer backed up and the wet concrete came down the chute. The lads had to work fast before it set. It has to be spread around with the shovels, making sure it fills all the cavities. Don’t want any bubbles or spaces to cause weakness later. Prof was put at the back where he just had to level the stuff out. The lads are experienced, they know where to poke, pat and direct it. But even that he messed up, breaking the rhythm of the work. He’s a liability. It’s only we’re desperate for labour during the summer.


Why did my well-placed electron spread out? To make that initial needle-like y wave at the centre of the depression, I had to add together waves of many different wavelengths. They then constructively interfered to heap up in the centre, and cancel everywhere else. But the shorter, more jagged waves correspond to higher momentum ‘options’ for the electron (that’s just the way the maths works).

Only if my electron had had zero momentum would it have stayed in the centre, but unfortunately that’s impossible to realise, because the wave which delivers zero momentum is hardly a wave at all: it has infinite wavelength, so it potentially exists, probability spread thinly, pretty much everywhere.

No, to get my electron tightly localised, I had to use some very high frequency, short wavelength y waves and these gave the electron significant momentum. Once the clock started ticking, the wave started to spread and my sharp needle collapsed. Since my electron doesn’t have enough energy to classically escape the quantum dot, its wave function is just smeared around: small-scale choppy, large-scale pretty much flat - in configuration space, that is.


The lads joss him rotten. Big busty page three girls are thrust at him. ‘Like a bit of that, eh?’ they roar, rejoicing in their wit. He seems to smile sheepishly, trying for the words to deflect them until they tire of the effort. In truth he’s little enough game, more an object of contempt, as is anyone who can‘t hack the job. I don’t know why he puts up with it. He answers evasively, needs the money, he says.


So here is the mystery. In that real quantum dot, two nanometres wide, what exactly is happening? It’s far too small to take a look with a microscope. And shooting energetic photons at the dot would smash up the delicate thing we’re trying to understand.

It’s tempting to say this weird y wave really is sloshing around, but the maths makes that difficult. To start with, the wave is almost always just doing its slopping thing, it very rarely goes back to being a needle. But if we do any experiment, that’s what we seem to see: an electron at a definite place. There’s a name for this - the collapse of the wave function - but the maths gives no reason for such a collapse back to a needle to occur.

And then there is the problem of entanglement. If two electrons interact, the y function going forwards is a function of both their attributes - y(x1, y1, z1, x2, y2, z2, t). This can’t in general be reduced to separate y waves for each electron, each propagating cosily in our comfortable three dimensional space. In the maths, the y wave exists in something called Hilbert space which is not our normal universe at all - in fact it has an infinite number of dimensions. In Hilbert space, the wave function y is called the ‘state vector’.

Each point coordinate (x, y, or z) in our real universe becomes a dimension, or axis, in Hilbert space. For example, there is an axis corresponding to exactly x = 27.3 light years from earth in the direction of Andromeda. The y state vector has a projection of its amplitude onto this axis, as to any other, a projection which might be zero, or might not, depending on the energy I gave my electron and its ability to tunnel out of my quantum dot.

But the y state vector can equally be projected onto other axes, representing specific values of observable quantities like momentum or energy, rather than location.

The state vector turns effortlessly as time advances, projecting different amplitudes onto its infinity of axes. And these amplitudes give the probabilities (via squaring) of the particle being at that location, having that momentum, being in that orientation, possessing that energy.

In fact the y function doesn’t even know it’s an electron! It’s gloriously agnostic as to what kind of entity it is, because that is set by the parameters of its initial conditions and its time-evolution equation.

So here is how I see it. The y wave (or function, or state vector) for my electron is like a bookkeeping spreadsheet file. It describes all the options my electron might have: position options, momentum options, energy options, orientation options; all of which are time-indexed, and might also depend on what other ‘particle spreadsheets’ contain. And for each option, it tells me the probability that the electron might exhibit that value if it was measured (via the complex amplitude). But I shouldn’t mistake the spreadsheet for the real electron itself. What that might be is a complete mystery.


I don’t see many students. I thought they spent all their time drinking and partying. I can’t imagine Prof partying, he’d be stuck against a wall with his goofy smile thinking ‘deep thoughts’. I’m not, what is it, ‘anti-intellectual’. If they’ve got brains, why not use them? But if his kind of brains makes him the sort of misfit he is, better of without them I say. The lads reckon he’s bloody useless, more trouble than he’s worth. Even after a few pints at lunchtime you still can’t get inside him, can’t figure him out.


I think the problem is that we’re trying to understand the universe with caveman perceptions and concepts. It’s like if we tried to understand Bach in terms of bashing different sizes of dried hollow fruit gourd with old bones. We could get a rough theory by asking what kinds of gourds and bones explain the Brandenburg Concertos, but it’s pushing the envelope a bit.

I wonder if down at the Planck Length (1.6 × 10−35 metres) there isn’t some kind of hazy, shimmering reality, continually throwing up resonances and ephemeral stabilities. Quantum foam in the multiverse. On a scale billions and billions of times greater, we macroscopic creatures see a world of apparent particles, the elements of cabbages and kings. But it’s all illusion, just gourds and bones. But contemplating the ultimate reality, I risk straying into mysticism, and that’s an indulgence best taken in small measure.


Prof left yesterday. We were glad to see the back of him, truth to tell. We know what we need here and he’s just not up to it. In a crueller world, he wouldn’t survive, and we’d sure as hell have to pay a lot less taxes to support him.


Note: an illustration of this story can be seen here.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Municipal WiFi

There is a new white paper on my website looking at the prospects for rolling out WiFi across the towns and cities of the UK. It will be an uphill struggle for all concerned. Here is an excerpt from my conclusions.

“Outdoors public space WiFi is a difficult business in the short-term, with the classic problems of lack of capability (coverage, products and services, user devices); lack of effective demand (what’s it for?); and a too-high cost base (hard to cherry-pick coverage areas and market segments the way The Cloud, BT Openzone and T-Mobile, can, for example, do indoors).

While the addition of WiMAX to the portfolio can get coverage and costs in roughly the right place, a new supplier will face its own competitive problems as it forces the Mobile Operators to finally take it seriously.

Councils in the main will not return major, significant revenue streams any time soon. This is the stark evidence of 2006/7 across the world if one cares to take the experience seriously. Tailoring wider-scale coverage to the needs of specific early-adopter departments is probably the best tactic, as well as an acknowledgement that Councils repeatedly talk big (for PR purposes) and then fail to deliver their side of the bargain and drag their feet. “

The full paper is here.

Monday, April 02, 2007


ITV completed its round of ‘nouvelle Austenia’ last night with Persuasion. Beautifully done, I have to say. Anne struggled throughout with the pangs of a love long-repressed, while Captain Wentworth made a wonderful transition from initial resentment for that long-ago rejection through to the realisation that of course he had always loved Anne and always would.

The worthy Captain was played by that hunky-but-sensitive all-action MI5 agent from Spooks. All the women in the house (well, Clare) went dewy-eyed every time he came into view - his knee-length leather boots looked particularly fetching.

The ending was too gooey - Captain Wentworth would never have been able to acquire Kellynch Hall from Sir Walter Elliot, and all that dancing on lawns would surely have been a bit too racey for Ms Austen’s taste. Nine out of ten, though.