Saturday, May 26, 2007

Visit to Woodhenge and Avebury

We visited Woodhenge and Avebury this afternoon before the Bank Holiday was finally washed-out by rain. We had previously visited both sites so this was mostly for Alex's benefit.

I recalled that on our last visit to Woodhenge - Sunday September 10th 2006 here about two thirds down - there was a great deal of excavation going on, and Phil Harding from TV's Time Team had been there. However, it has all been beautifully restored to naturalness and long grass and you could never tell.

Here is the video - I have to say that both Clare and Alex rapidly scuttle off whenever I begin to speak to my camera phone - they must be so embarassed, the poor dears! Or, ...

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Waste Land

I have been considering The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot (click here). The Wikipedia article (here) describes it as “a highly influential 434-line modernist poem” and you may be sure that this is an indication that it is going to be hard going. Why?

The Waste Land is certainly extremely referential. Some of the voices are taken from Dickens, whilst the title of the third section, “The Fire Sermon” relates to a famous oration of the Buddha. Classical Greek references abound, whilst it helps to know Italian, German and Sanskrit.

I sometimes think of The Waste Land as a spider which sits within a vast web of literature, spanning countries, cultures and historical time. Only if you are deeply familar with this web can you truly understand what Eliot is communicating. Another metaphor: the poem is a vast instrument, or machine. It can be used to ‘invoke culture’ through the act of reading and appreciating it, but it can only be used if you have already internalised the vast cultural resources to which it connects.

I think that any mature cultural accomplishment is like that; it leverages the insights, structure and complexity of what has gone before - truly the artist stands on the shoulders of giants. The consumer needs to stand there too: only in egalitarianism is there true communion - the artist prays for a sophisticated audience.

The Waste Land curiously reminded me of Category Theory: elegant, sparse, a new meta-paradigm straddling mathematics. How much mathematics does one need to know intimately to appreciate the true subtlety and power of the categorial approach?

Anything really good is inaccessable to the laity - there’s a frightening thought. I recall a long time ago reading about the history of any new art form. It starts out as the shockingly new; brave, iconoclastic, dangerous, rebellious but so appealing to sections of the jaded masses.

After a while all the obvious, fresh, in-your-face things have been done, and we enter the second generation, that of variation. Now we see what exalted forms we can wreak out of that raw material of the new. Vaulting towers and spans are created, still somewhat popular, but only to an educated sub-mass.

The third generation has nowhere to go but onward. Populist rules are broken and the art-form evolves to counter-intuitive esotericism. It takes an expert to appreciate what is going on here, but do even they really like it? The masses fall away, disenchanted, bored ... Somewhere, a young rebel is brooding, with an exciting new idea ...

The moral: if you want to produce work of astonishing creativity and power, yet at the same time be accessible to the masses, (unbounded esteem and royalties shall be yours), start something quite new which captures the Zeitgeist.

This works for music, literature, the arts in general. In the case of maths and science you can forget the royalties - it's all too far from mass culture to really catch on big-time any more. The big bucks are with the unregarded popularisers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Amazon shopping

"Black Man" Richard Morgan; Paperback; £11.99.

Richard Morgan astounded us all with his special-forces mercenary Takeshi Kovacs in the dystopian world of "Altered Carbon" and its successors. Let's see what vision he's come up with this time.

"The Acceptance World: Vol 3 (Dance to the Music of Time 03)" Anthony Powell; Paperback; £6.39.

"A Buyer's Market: Vol 2 (Dance to the Music of Time 02)" Anthony Powell; Paperback; £5.99.

Clare is working her way through the 12 volume cycle. This is a birthday present (so don't tell her!).

"Atonement" Ian McEwan; Paperback; £5.22.

I was impressed with "Saturday" - and the film of "Atonement" comes out in September so I thought it was time to get further into Mr. McEwan's back catalogue.

"The God Delusion" Richard Dawkins; Paperback; £5.38.

I fought with myself not to buy this book, on the belief that Dawkins couldn't be saying anything I didn't know already (and yes, I studied the 'Ontological Argument' at University). My position crumbled under the weight of approving reviews, and I guess this is one book one just has to read to stay up with literate culture. And now it's in paperback.

Monday, May 21, 2007

WiFi probably stains your teeth too

Still fuming after watching this evening's BBC-1 Panorama programme about the alleged dangers of WiFi, especially in schools (our kids!).

I remember when Panorama used to be a worthy, if rather dull programme on BBC-2. A kind of current-affairs variant of the old Horizon science programming, aimed at the Radio-4 audience of educated grown-ups.

Its current thirty minute incarnation as red-top tabloid journalism provides us with: whining commentary; pinched-faced commentators self-righteously crusading against government conspiracies and sinister industry lobbying; strange ‘sensitive’ women who live in houses covered with tin-foil (and who can detect Gigahertz radiation via induced headaches in tests two times out of three!); one-sided scaremongering; a few talking-head 'scientists' and science-administrators who seem sincere if not convincing - and no evidence worth a damn.

The 'precautionary principle' was much deployed: a high-sounding phrase for being too scared to do anything new in case something bad were to happen. How absolutely worthless it is as a guide to action: it would stop all innovation in its tracks if actually applied. I'm about to wash my hair with shampoo, but I honestly have no idea if it might cause cancer in thirty years time due to some unknown and unsuspected chemical side-effect. I guess I should give it a miss then, on the precautionary principle.

The only evidence which was alluded to (not described) was that Gigahertz radiation might cause non-thermal biological effects, specifically chromosomal damage. A quick Google search on "chromosome damage non-ionizing radiation" throws up quite a few hits, but it's all scare stories. Couldn't see anything resembling a proper scientific study identifying radiation dosages, methods, results and causative mechanisms. Gigahertz radiation has a wavelength of around 30 cm, which just doesn’t couple to biological molecules in non-thermal ways.

Oh well, don't get me started!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dr Brian Stableford at The Lights

Clare and myself went to see Dr Brian Stableford at 'The Lights' in Andover yesterday evening: the title was something like Science Fiction: the Junction of Science and Literature. Stableford has published more than one hundred books, apparently.

Before we went, Alex and Adrian, who are currently staying with us, had many a laugh at our expense predicting the 'weirdos' who would turn up for this talk. A large attendance was not to be expected for such an arcane topic, and the talk was in a side room. The main auditorium, we discovered, was being used to host an 'Elvis' concert. The fans were out in force, and I believe successfully out-weirded anything Dr. Stableford could attract.

I did take the following video in the bar, just before the Elvis hordes emerged, so you can check out the w-quotient for yourself. (Clare is in-shot at the start of the clip).

Perhaps I should briefly mention his talk. Brian came across as a rumpled, rather shy man in his late fifties, with a self-deprecatory air. His talk was, I gather, based around his creative writing classes and covered the development of science-fiction writing from the earliest years.

Most of the early authors seemed to be French, and the first one I had heard of was Voltaire, with Candide - the satire on the Leibnitz thesis that 'we live in the best of all possible worlds'. Stableford had gotten as far as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells when his hour was up and we took the break above, shown in the video.

It would have been interesting to hear his view about modern SF, but we only got fragments in the Q&A. There are interesting issues of how 'science' per se can infuse literature. Much SF simply provides a backcloth (spaceships and lasers rather than wagon trains and revolvers) and seems to add nothing to literature. The best SF uses the non-obvious, counter-intuitive insights of, say, physics, biology, evolutionary psychology, to say something new about how we live and understand our lives - the function surely of literature?

I felt the speaker was coasting it rather, happy to tell anecdotes on the assumption his audience was not that challenging. I wish he had shifted gear.

Clare bought one of his books afterwards (we understand the economics of these events!) - Sexual Chemistry. Someone in the audience thought this was pretty amusing, so maybe the weirdness quotient was registering after all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jane Austen's prayer at St. Nicholas' Church

In response to requests from folk who couldn't quite see the text of the prayer on the video.

Text of Jane Austen's prayer on the wall at St. Nicholas' Church, Steventon, Hampshire.

"Give us grace almighty father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art everywhere present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.

May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil.

Have we thought irreverently of thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, to save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity.

Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference. Hear us almighty God, for his sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray. Amen"

Taken from a website which has the details here.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bridge To Terabithia

Set in the rural United States some years ago, this "children's story" is about the developing friendship of a shy talented artistic boy and the equally talented daughter of two writers who moves in next door. They both attend a school dominated by bullying redneck children and find solace in a constructed fantasy (Terabithia) in the woods behind their houses. These children are pre-adolescent and their relationships are those of late childhood.

Reviews on the Odeon website were highly bi-modal. Those who gave it 1 out of 5 wanted many more special effects. Those who gave it 5 didn't care about the special effects, but saw it as a touching story of the struggle of talented children to survive and grow in an arid social and intellectual environment.

I guess the right audience for this would be 'art house young adult'. The film was well-made with non-stereotypical characterisation and genuine plot momentum, plus some surprises. We liked it a lot. Reflecting its 'young adult' focus, the plotting and individual motivation of supporting characters were a little linear. And all American films like this suffer from the tendency to wallow in sentimentality, but here the film remained within the envelope of acceptability.

It reminded me a little of the infinitely darker and more heavyweight 'Pan's Labyrinth', reviewed earlier here. Worth seeing.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer visited “The Lights”, Andover, yesterday evening to speak to a 150+ audience: mostly women and mostly devotees. GG is a living embodiment of the Myers-Briggs classification scheme at its most successful: a classic NF (ENFJ?) - like Clare Short (and like our local Clare). I will try to avoid the standard NT response, which is to skewer the NF person for their lack of logical consistency and multiple category errors seasoned with lashings of moral outrage.

GG opinions where I squirmed.
  • Critique of ‘Vernon God Little” on the basis that the hero was a misogynist. Yes, he was a 15 year old boy - they often are. As a novelist, you are allowed to write about misogynistic characters, even if their attitudes are hateful. No Germaine, this is not lit.crit.

  • Criticism of the war in Iraq on the grounds that it is (a) horrible and (b) a war. The case for pacifism has never been satisfactorily made and was not made here. It’s just lazy - the assumption that the case against the war is incontrovertible and that there was, and is, no case for the UK Government having made the decision to launch the war. Lazy and self-indulgent moralising.

  • Corporations are ethically bad, discriminate against women and oppress men too. Oh, please!

GG was more interesting about her forthcoming book on Anne Hathaway, wife of Shakespeare. Her reinterpretation of Anne makes her a strong-minded business woman who married a younger guy with no prospects for love, and who provided a model of competent and assured womanhood for the subsequent plays. GG also thinks Ms Hathaway funded the First Folio. Sounded promising.

My impression is that Ms. Greer is best thought of as a force of nature, whose opinions are erratic but often have something of value if you’re prepared to do the work. She would probably condemn bloodless intellectuals, content to analyse, but who don’t get around to actually caring about anything. I’m prepared to concede it takes all sorts.

Note: I am not sure GG believes in the theory of evolution. If she does, she has not factored it into her feminist thinking which seems all over the place. (Gender equality as an objective is so wrong; there is a case for a feminine ideal of domesticity; male power structures need to be challenged by a new generation of feminist social theorists). Maybe you can get something coherent out of all this.

    Failure or Mismatch?

    Tuesday evening we drove up to Cambridge, where I had an interview the following day with a consultancy company. I have to say I did not have a good night: the bed was small and lumpy, and the sheet did not properly keep the blankets off - when will hotels get their act together on duvets? Strictly speaking it was not an interview - I was to turn up the next day at 10.30 to take two screening tests. I whiled away the time in the hotel lounge after breakfast listening to ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and feeling increasingly nervous. I was not expecting these tests to be easy.

    ... more

    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    Climate change as a 'normal' problem

    Of course we can fix climate change. How? Well, what's the difference between the way we live now and scraping a living hunting-and-gathering? The answer is technology.

    Looks like it's getting too warm? Take a look at the following (from the Guardian, here).

    "Stephen Salter, the innovative Edinburgh University engineer, (known best for his invention of Salter's duck - the 300-tonne floating canister designed to drive a generator from the motion of bobbing up and down on waves) thinks he has the key.

    "We need to atomise seawater and throw tiny droplets into the air," he says. The idea is that this fine mist of sea-spray evaporates, leaving tiny particles of sea salt that get sucked up into marine stratocumulus clouds on rising currents of air. These little particles act as centres for extra droplets to form. "Clouds become more reflective if you increase the number of droplets in them," explains Latham. A bonus of filling the clouds with smaller droplets is that they tend to last for longer, reflecting more sunlight back into space, before they disperse.

    To produce this fine mist of sea spray artificially, Salter envisages thousands of unmanned yachts zigzagging across the sea, carrying equipment to make very choppy waves, known as Faraday waves. A high-frequency ultrasonic generator would spin seawater around inside a grooved drum, producing tiny waves that are thinner than a human hair. "It looks a bit like a cup of coffee on a rattling train, but it would be nearly vertical," says Salter. Once the waves are steep enough, drops of water are thrown up from their crests. "All we need to do is try and get these fine droplets into the first few metres of air, and meteorology will do the rest," says Latham.

    To remain truly environmentally friendly, the yachts would be driven by wind acting on the spinning drum, like a sail. Movement of the boat through the water would drive propellers acting as turbines, to produce the electrical power for spinning the drums and driving the ultrasonics. Meanwhile, satellites would direct their movements, placing the yachts in the areas of ocean where the most effective stratocumulus clouds could be modified.

    But would it really work? If calculations and computer models are to be believed, then yes, the physics of this idea is sound. Working together with Tom Choularton, of Manchester University, and Mike Smith, of Leeds University, Latham has done extensive calculations to make sure he has got his sums right. In addition, they have tested the idea using the Meteorological Office's Global Climate Model and shown that increasing the droplet numbers in marine stratocumulus clouds could have a significant effect. "Modifying an area covering around 3% of the Earth's surface produced a cooling that more or less balances the warming from doubled carbon dioxide levels," says Latham."

    Assuming that the current round of global warming is actually CO2 driven, and is not affected by other factors, such as solar activity variability, this seems like a good investment to me. And more likely to work than Kyoto round two. Especially if there is an additional cause beyond the CO2.

    I'm personally more concerned about the next ice-age (well, intellectually-personally, not personally-personally of course). Can technology solve this problem, as the glaciers march south through Scotland?

    Imagine a concrete wall a mile high. A gigantic V with the point facing north, prising the encroaching ice apart and shoving it into the Irish and North seas. The wall is kept warm, lubricating ice-flow, by embedded heating from our fusion power stations. Cheap fusion power keeps things balmy in the rest of England (probably using He3 mined from the moon - ref here).

    I like to think Hadrian would have approved!

    NOTE: for readers growing tired of the relentlessly frivolous and depressingly jaunty tone of recent posts, I would confirm the serious point of the above to be simply this.

    Climate change is certainly a problem of some priority for humanity. This would seem to suggest we employ the usual rules for problem qualification, solution generation and assessment, and economic ('business case') underpinning for whatever we intend to do about it. Hijacking the issue in moralistic, quasi-religious terms is just about the stupidest possible response, in the technical sense of using the most primitive parts of our brains to address the issue...

    Sunday, May 06, 2007

    The Painted Veil

    Not much written here recently as I was up to my eyes with a bid response.

    Yesterday evening we went down to Salisbury to see “The Painted Veil”, the film set in 1920s China from the novel by by W. Somerset Maugham. Movie synopsis here. We though it was pretty good, but Edward Norton (Dr. Walter Fane) seemed miscast. He played the studious intellectual without warmth or social skills to such a degree it was hard to think of any woman falling for him, and especially not his hedonistic wife (excellently acted by Naomi Watts).

    There was a trailer for a forthcoming film - ‘Atonement’ - from the novel by Ian McEwan, which we will definitely go to see. By coincidence I had just finished reading his novel “Saturday”, which follows an especially eventful day in the life of a successful neurosurgeon.

    Henry Perowne, the main character, lives in a house on a well known square in central London, where McEwan now happens to live.

    I thought “Saturday” was absolutely brilliant, with its depiction of Perowne’s rich, intelligent inner life. My quibbles were just tiny, jarring ones. Jets do not fly at 500 feet per second, it’s more like 800; London is not moving at around 1,000 mph due to the roation of the earth - that’s the equator. At London’s lattitude it’s more like 700 mph. And I thought that Perowne’s complete lack of recognition of any modern poets was completely unrealistic. Doesn’t he read ‘The Culture’ section of ‘The Sunday Times’?

    Quibbles aside, the characterisation, texture and momentum just took my breathe away. I have to say that Clare’s reaction was quite different, and I will have to draw a veil over her reaction to McEwan’s trademark long descriptive passages.

    Other news. Currently nursing the onset of a cold undoubtedly picked up on Thursday when I travelled by train into London. This coming week a trip to Cambridge for business development. And Salisbury was remarkably calm and peaceful for a Saturday night. Andover, where the local squaddies come for R&R, normally has phalanxes of tooled-up cops lurking in side roads around the town centre at chucking-out time!