Thursday, August 30, 2007

“On Chesil Beach”

There have been many reviews of this most recent book from Ian McEwan (for example here) so I won’t add another, just some observations.

If “Atonement” was writ on a large canvas, this, by contrast, is a miniature. The central dynamic is formed around the wedding-evening progression towards first sexual consummation. Florence and Edward are minutely-observed characters of their time (1962) - deeply repressed, inexperienced and in Florence's case, carrying baggage (more below). See the YouTube video featuring Ian McEwan reading from the novel here.

How to write about sex: physicality whose significance is in thought and emotion, participant and reader? How to avoid pornography, gratuitous sensationalism or the bad sex writing award?

How to avoid the fate of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose book "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" (which explores an elderly man's desire for sex with a teenage virgin) was widely reviled as a work of paedophilic voyeurism, casting an unpleasant window into the elderly writer's personal fantasy world? (Later reviews have been kinder).

McEwan has a great mastery of character and description-of-place. The slow-motion train-wreck of the evening and its shocking outcome is rendered through a series of episodes, each accompanied by flashbacks to establish the back story of how we got to this point. Florence's sexual inhibitions have roots which are signposted by McEwan with extreme subtlety. An reviewer, Lindy, writes here:

“I just finished listening to the audio book and in the interview after McEwan comes out and says that she was abused. It's supposed to be there for the readers, although never blatantly stated, but it's something that Edward never knows. McEwan originally had a sentence in the book after the explanation of Edward's not reading the paper (when he doesn't read about Florence's quartet's success) that he also wouldn't have read about her father's arrest for raping a 12 year old girl aboard his boat, but decided to leave it out.

"I think the lack of recognition of the abuse speaks to the time the book takes place in that such things just weren't talked about. It's more of a subtext that as readers today we can pick up on. In a way the book is just as much about the damage done by abuse that isn't dealt with as it is about the sexual repression of the characters, both of which are a product of the time.”

At the end of the novel, we zoom out to the rest of the lives of our two characters - fundamentally reset through one night’s actions, misunderstandings and failures to communicate.

Sarah, this little novel says so much about so many things, why were you disappointed?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Mystery of “Atonement”

Atonement” is clearly going to be the biggest film of the autumn. The BBC carried interviews with stars Keira Knightley (Cecilia) and James McAvoy (Robbie) - together with film clips - on the news this evening (trailer below from YouTube).

I wonder how you get the BBC to advertise new films? I guess mention top British literary author Ian McEwan plus the prospect of Oscars.

Atonement” is viewpoint layered within viewpoint. Take the question of whether Cecilia and Robbie actually consummate their suddenly-surfacing passion for each other in the library. (Warning: multiple plot spoilers to follow).

1. The text of pages 135-138 suggests that in an act of tantric delay worthy of Sting himself, Robbie heroically holds off, until the disastrous arrival of Briony makes the whole thing moot -- so no consummation.

2. It is, though, revealed much later that the description of the library encounter is not ex-cathedra from McEwan, but is the imaginatively-reworked narrative of Briony herself as a much older woman. But as explained on pages 123-4, Briony not only never really gets a good look as she enters the library, but at 13, she is dramatically misinterpreting what she does see. And the adjustment of clothing she mentions is minimal. So probably nothing much really happened.

3. However, given what we, as adults, know of the likely behaviour of a couple of repressed kids carried away by sudden, overpowering passion for each other, the tantric scenario would surely require a lot more self-possession than anyone in their situation would be likely to possess. Besides which, both party’s subsequent behaviour suggests that a deeply significant, literally life-changing act of emotional commitment had occurred.

4. But given Cecilia’s and Robbie’s lack of prior romantic experience, wouldn't a passionate embrace have been enough, particularly in strait-laced 1935?

Conclusion? I think it’s impossible to say. Ian McEwan has woven the ambiguity expertly - as he has in so many other parts of this excellent book.

What’s the betting the film will be nothing like so coy?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Living Rainforest

We visited this attraction today. Here are a couple of photos.

Tropical Butterfly

Cute Chameleon

Spent about two hours there. Not too crowded, definitely value for money. Also tortoises, turtles, a crocodile, a bird-eating spider, monkeys, toucans and some snakes which we couldn't quite see.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Articulated lorry crash

Our guess is that he had been stuck behind something slow for far too long and had mistaken the right-hand turn-off lane to Penton Mewsey for the start of a dual carriageway.

The next thing he would have seen was the upcoming grass of the central reservation as that lane ends, which forces you further right, onto the opposing carriageway.

Something extreme has to happen next. A few months back, someone trying the same manoeuvre slammed into the steel girders protecting the pavement on the right of the picture above - and was duly ambulanced away in neck braces. This guy just managed to overturn his ride. Thankfully there was no-one coming the other way at the time.

Looks like the local road traffic engineers need to do some more thinking on layout. It used to be dual carriageway in both directions (and people really cranked it up) but after a motorcyclist got killed just at this very spot trying to make a right, they changed it to single carriageways via the signs and cross-hatching which can be seen in the picture. But I think it still confuses people.

Nice weather for the late-August Bank Holiday right now. Taking it easy and recovering from my piano lesson this morning. No matter how much I have practiced, Suzanne always manages to raise the bar that little bit further ... next challenge, the Minuet in G Major from Anna Magdalena's Notebook (usually attributed to Christian Petzold) mentioned in a previous post.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Jottings from the wedding

We were up at Lincoln over the weekend for my nephew’s wedding. Here are some random observations.

The presiding vicar was a calm, articulate self-assured young man who had an effortless command of his audience. His conduct of the service was a beautifully-paced mix of humour and good advice anchored by his religious faith.

As an exercise, I tried to see him through fundamentalist catholic eyes: ‘Here is a self-confident young man, in fancy dress, parodying the service of the true faith. He commits the sacrilegious crime of imposture, having no authority.’

I was reminded of the barbed remark that when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, meets the Pope, Williams thinks that two major wings of Christianity are in communion while the Pope think he’s talking to a deluded pious academic.

By the way, in case you should believe this is gratuitously anti-catholic, recall I'm non-theist. To me, they're all blokes in ritualised middle-eastern wear. Having said that, we need ritual and dressing up is part of it.


After the evening disco, some of the squaddies went out on a tour of Lincoln nightspots through to dawn. Apparently wherever they went, the bouncers were more than friendly, ushering them in past queues of punters. Says a lot about opinion on the street towards the army right now. And that’s without mentioning the drinks they had bought for them.


I took some videos at the church and afterwards, at the reception, of the cake-cutting and speeches. Sunday evening after returning home I dutifully put a little web-page together with links to the seven videos and some humorous one-liners.

A few hours later I reflected: no-one at the event had asked for their antics or presentations to be put on the public Internet. Some of them were in the military and perhaps would value the publicity even less. So I pulled the material. It’s easy to forget just how public material on the Internet actually is.

Piano Diary #1

I started learning piano the last day of May, 2007. Three days later, on Saturday June 2nd I was, of course, already an expert, as you can see from this clunking “performance” which Alex captured while visiting. (.3gp, 5 MB).

Nearly three months later and there has been a genuine improvement. I’m spending time on “Sheep May Safely Graze” - which requires the right hand to move around the keyboard in ways I find hard to control - while my next project will be the “Menuet in G Major” (BWV 114) from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, made famous by The Toys' 1965 hit single "A Lover's Concerto." The sheet music is freely available on the Internet here.

Although both these pieces are attributed to J. S. Bach, it appears that the latter was actually written by Christian Petzold.

So how am I finding piano? I understand intellectually there is a process by which one internalises the music from the score and gets the fingers to play the right notes, in the right order, and at the correct tempo. And then come the finer points of style and movement and speed and volume and smoothness. And as all that becomes automatic, the end result is interpretation and finally music.

As we reach the three month point, I am almost entirely at the very first of these multiple stages. To prove it here is the video of my ham-fisted efforts on the aforementioned minuet (.3gp, 1.3 MB) click here.

Suzanne, my piano teacher, is however, doing wonders - focusing me on legato, and timing and style when all my focus and effort is just to play the damn notes! Unaided, I am pretty much blind to the other things! I also have to thank her for the scales and finger exercises, the bread and butter of eventual competence.

“Patience, Perseverance and Practice” she advises, and warns me that no-one should attempt to master “The Well-Tempered Clavier” until grade 7 or 8. Apparently the “Inventions and Sinfonias” (BWV 772-801) are a precursor to the WTC and can be done earlier: maybe even grade 5 or 6. So four years away? Patience!

So meanwhile, I try for 40 minutes per day, and probably hit around four to five days per week. And I’m really looking for an increase of the Reward/Pain ratio while doing it! I must say that practice is more fun than the anticipation of practice.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Gauss gambit

Mr Darcy gloomily surveyed his grounds. Pemberley basked under the sultry heat of a long August afternoon. Imprisoned at his desk, flies buzzing at the window, he longed to be outside: riding, hunting, walking in his little wilderness ... anything but this wretched office work, work which required a studiousness to which he was neither accustomed nor well suited.

Elizabeth had specifically requested the hedging be of a wavy design. She said that it would remind their mutual friend, Admiral ---, of the sea. All that remained was to give the gardener precise instructions on the length of hedging required. The gap to be filled was one hundred yards wide, and the sinuous shape would surely only ever be properly visible from the guest room on the second floor. But, as Elizabeth never failed to point out, this was precisely the room which the Admiral would be occupying.

Darcy returned to his calculations. All his time at Oxford had barely equipped him for this task. He had finally reached the point he had feared. Unaided, no further advance would now be possible.

“Elizabeth, my dear” he called.

“Yes, Mr. Darcy?”

How he hated it when she called him that, burned by the naked flame of her insolent superiority. How many times had he pleaded with her “Please call me Fitzwilliam?” But in these moods she never would.

“Elizabeth, please, what’s the line integral of sin(θ) from zero to 2π”?

“It’s not a line integral. It's called the arc length, and it's 7.64, silly.” she replied with practised condescension. "Just one wave will do, dear. I think you'll find it's about 122 yards."

For the thousandth time, Darcy swore to himself. If he had only known that Miss Elizabeth Bennet had been for many years the secret mistress of famed German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, he would never have married her.


Back to "Stories".

Dust Theory for beginners

I guess there are lots of things dust theory could be about: household dust and its ability to find hidey-holes resistant to all attempts at cleaning; galactic theories of stellar dust clouds and planetary accretion; the so-called ‘smart dust’ of military science-fiction, an extended, self-organising sensor-computing network. But Dust Theory is none of these things.

There are some concepts which seem strange beyond imagining, yet are difficult-to-impossible to refute.
  1. The idea that the whole universe began one second ago, with everyone’s “memories” pre-built in.
  2. The idea that time doesn’t flow at all, that all times simply pre-exist and that each of our conscious thoughts of “now” are simply cross-sections of that greater space-time bloc-universe.
  3. The ontological argument, which proves that a God-like being must exist.
  4. The Doomsday Argument, which uses statistical reasoning to show that the great age of human civilisation is drawing to an end quite soon (e.g. within 10,000 years).
The Dust Theory we are going to talk about is like one of those...

... continue reading here.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

"The Idiot"

Just finished Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”, plot summary here. Why this rather Austenesque novel of social and personal relationships hasn’t been given the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ treatment of an English-language mini-series escapes me (there is, however, a Russian-language 10 part edition).

Dostoevsky breaks from describing the tragic trajectories of his main characters to outline his views on ‘original’ and mediocre people (Part IV, chapter 1). Here is an edited version of what he had to say.

"There are certain people of whom it is difficult to say anything which will at once throw them into relief -- in other words, describe them graphically in their typical characteristics. These are they who are generally known as "commonplace people," and this class comprises, of course, the immense majority of mankind. Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself.

But for all this, the question remains -- what are the novelists to do with commonplace people, and how are they to be presented to the reader in such a form as to be in the least degree interesting? They cannot be left out altogether, for commonplace people meet one at every turn of life, and to leave them out would be to destroy the whole reality and probability of the story.

To fill a novel with typical characters only, or with merely strange and uncommon people, would render the book unreal and improbable, and would very likely destroy the interest. In my opinion, the duty of the novelist is to seek out points of interest and instruction even in the characters of commonplace people.

For instance, when the whole essence of an ordinary person's nature lies in his perpetual and unchangeable commonplaceness; and when in spite of all his endeavours to do something out of the common, this person ends, eventually, by remaining in his unbroken line of routine --. I think such an individual really does become a type of his own--a type of commonplaceness which will not for the world, if it can help it, be contented, but strains and yearns to be something original and independent, without the slightest possibility of being so.

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be "not stupid," kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one's own -- to be, in fact, "just like everyone else".

Of such people there are countless numbers in this world -- far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can -- that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.

To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving.

Many of our young women have thought fit to cut their hair short, put on blue spectacles, and call themselves Nihilists. By doing this they have been able to persuade themselves, without further trouble, that they have acquired new convictions of their own.

Some men have but felt some little qualm of kindness towards their fellow-men, and the fact has been quite enough to persuade them that they stand alone in the van of enlightenment and that no one has such humanitarian feelings as they. Others have but to read an idea of somebody else's, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The "impudence of ignorance," if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases; -- unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.

The class of "much cleverer" persons, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the "clever commonplace" person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair. (As a rule, however, nothing tragic happens; -- his liver becomes a little damaged in the course of time, nothing more serious). Such men do not give up their aspirations after originality without a severe struggle, -- and there have been men who, though good fellows in themselves, and even benefactors to humanity, have sunk to the level of base criminals for the sake of originality.”

[Excerpted from here].

Which of us feels immune to such a savage characterisation?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The ecology of stellar civilizations

Just a few notes I may come back to.

Ecology in the animal kingdom relates to niches - opportunities to obtain free energy by a biological mode of existence - inhabited by species. The concept is more complex for a technological civilization because it can interpose a layer of technology between its biology and 'nature' so as to operate successfully in multiple niches.

For example, tropical-savanna evolved humans can live almost anywhere on the earth by using technologies to shelter, acquire food and so on.

Interstellar space is so discontinuous from planetary environments that it seems that (almost) only technological civilizations could colonise it. So does this mean that interstellar space is in principle a monoculture of the first species to achieve it, or is there ecological room for different ways to do it, ways which could avoid conflict, or even create the possibility of symbiotic collaboration?

Just checking on the Internet, I found a couple of interesting sites.

Centauri Dreams is a grown-up discussion of these kinds of things, and it pointed me to George P. Dvorsky's Blog which is focused on the much-discussed-on-this-blog Fermi Paradox.

Dvorsky had an amusing attack on a clearly must-have book which I had been hitherto unaware of. I quote:

"This is the most ridiculous book I've seen in quite some time: An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion by Travis S. Taylor et al, described by the publisher as follows.

'This book describes a serious look at defending the planet in the event of an extra-terrestrial invasion. Travis Taylor, et al, have written the definitive book on the defense of earth against a potential alien incursion. Whatever your beliefs on the subject...the book also serves as an important primer on the potential future of warfare on every level. It is tightly grounded in current day realities of war and extrapolates thoughtfully but closely about future potentials. It should be on the reading list of anyone who is serious about national security and the future of war.'"

Dvorsky continues "There is so much wrong with all this that I don't know where to begin." ... but of course, begin he does.

More later, maybe.

Friday, August 10, 2007

"Atom", BBC4, part 3 of 3

The final part of “Atom” was shown last night on BBC4, presented by the estimable Professor Jim Al-Khalili of Surrey University. We started in the 1920s with Paul Dirac’s relativistic theory of the electron, which predicted antimatter (or at least the anti-electron, the positron), which led to Feynman’s and Schwinger’s quantum electrodynamics, the first fully-fledged quantum field theory.

This was extended by Murray Gell-Mann’s theory of quarks, leading to the hyper-accurate Standard Model of quantum mechanics. We briefly digressed to the quantum vacuum and its validation by experimental measurement of the Casimir force (recently in the news again as researchers at St. Andrews University propose to use it for repulsion - in a theoretical study).

Professor Al-Khalili then took us right up to the ‘measurement problem’: what exactly is quantum mechanics telling us about how the universe really is? We heard from David Deutsch (many worlds), Roger Penrose and a representative of the Copenhagen interpretation (impossible to know ... just be happy the calculations turn out right and predict the results of experiments). Jim turned out to be a closet realist, like most of us.

This was, I think, the best programme of the three. The script-writers had more confidence they could leverage the first two programmes so although still super-oversimplified, the programme definitely gave a flavour of the real issues. Congrats to the team.

Just before “Atom” I caught the last hour of “Copenhagen”, the play-turned-into-a-film about the wartime meeting between Werner Heisenberg (of the uncertainty principle), then head of the Nazi atomic research programme, and Niels Bohr, Godfather of quantum physics.

What was the point of the meeting, what were the motives of the two men, what actually took place at all? The programme spiralled around these questions, shaving layers of deception and self-deception. The metaphors of quantum mechanics - superposition, uncertainty - were deployed sensitively, intelligently and appropriately.

Truly a superior piece of work and one which did not talk down to the audience (such a rarity for science-based material on TV).

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dangerous Knowledge

The Sunday Times loved it, making it the Pick of the Week (BBC4, Wednesday, 10.05). “There is no space here to describe exactly what was so tricky about the work of Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing but this fascinating documentary describes how trying to solve the biggest problems in maths or physics drove the four men to their deaths.” Right.

Ninety minutes to cover transfinite set theory, entropy, the incompleteness theorems and non-computability is a tall order. The programme settled for not really explaining the great men's work in any detail, focusing instead on the thesis that it was the radical and unsettling nature of their theoretical contributions which drove them to insanity and/or death.

There is evidently a problem with this thesis. At any one time thousands of students are studying all of these concepts, in mathematical logic or physics courses. There is no evidence whatsoever of a corresponding widespread inclination to mental illness or suicide.

A more likely, although less telegenic theory is that each of these individuals was vulnerable/mentally-unstable, and each was subject to unbearable social pressure from unsupportive colleagues (and in the case of Turing, state repression). Unsurprising they buckled, as many people do.

Cantor was said to have been driven to schizophrenia by his failure to prove or disprove the continuum hypothesis. The programme failed to explain to its audience what this hypothesis was and I was irritated. This is really pretty simple stuff. After the programme, and over her objections, I explained it to Clare.

“The problem here is to work out the size of various sets of things. For example, the size of the set {apple, orange, pear} is three, because we can create a rule which assigns 1 to apple, 2 to orange, 3 to pear. Then we run out of new things to count so the size of the set is 3.

“If we think of the set 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, this is called the natural numbers and we can call its size, for the time being, 'infinity'. OK so far?” (Yes, it’s still working).

“Counting infinite sets is more difficult, but more interesting than with finite sets. Take the set of even numbers {2, 4, 6, 8, 10, ...}. We can create a correspondence like this:

1 <-> 2
2 <-> 4
3 <-> 6
n <-> 2n

Every even number is somewhere on the list, and this shows that the size of the natural numbers and the size of the set of even numbers is the same. It’s the same infinity, right?”

Shuffling in the chair and a nod to continue.

“Now we come to the fractions. At first sight it seems obvious there must be many more fractions than natural numbers. After all, there is an infinity of fractions between 1 and 2. But appearances can be deceptive.

“Imagine a big grid or spreadsheet with the numbers 1, 2, 3, ... along the top and also down the side. In each cell, write down the fraction with the fraction-top being the top column number and the fraction-bottom the side row number. So, if you go three along and four down, in that cell you write 3/4. Do you agree that every fraction can be found in this infinite spreadsheet somewhere?”

She thinks about it. “Yes.”

“Right, imagine an ant starting in the top corner 1/1. The ant walks diagonally backwards and forwards, visiting each cell and unspooling a tape measure with squares marked 1, 2, 3, 4, .... As the ant visits each cell, she writes down the fraction in that cell. After a little while, the start of the tape measure looks like this.

index <-> fraction as written by the ant
1 <-> 1/1
2 <-> 2/1
3 <-> 1/2
4 <-> 1/3
5 <-> 2/2
6 <-> 3/1
7 <-> 2/3

“Do you agree that the ant will eventually meet every fraction (some multiple times, as for example 1/1 = 2/2 and so on, although we could delete copies if it mattered)?”

“Yes, that’s quite clever.”

The ant will take an infinite amount of time to complete her tour of the spreadsheet, but when she’s finished, we pick up the tape measure and let it hang. There’s the list of all the fractions, each lined up with a number from the list of natural numbers. So despite the infinity of fractions between any two natural numbers, and indeed, between any two fractions, the total number of fractions is just the same as the total number of natural numbers. It’s the same infinity.”

Here it all starts to unravel.

“No, that can’t be right. You’ve got a fixed gap between any two natural numbers, like 2 or 3, but you can always fit in more fractions.”

“Yes, that’s true, but the way we set the ant to work, that doesn’t matter. We always get to any fraction eventually, and then it’s position is fixed on the list. I agree, the list is out of order, but that’s inevitable.” (Given that the fractions are dense - but I didn’t say that).

“No, I don’t agree with that way of counting.”

I pause for breathe and continue.

“OK. Think of the set of natural numbers, {1, 2, 3, 4, ...}. Now consider a new set - call it the ‘Clare Set’. This is the natural numbers with just the number 10 deleted. It’s {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, ...}.

"Now is the ‘Clare Set’ bigger than, the same size as, or smaller than the natural numbers?”

“It’s smaller. Obviously. It hasn’t got 10 in it.”

“But both sets are infinite. So, is your ‘Clare Set’ infinity a bit smaller?”

“That’s why no-one wants to be a mathematician. You’re always hair splitting and inventing stupid rules. I wouldn’t do it that way.”

“But that’s the way that it works - you have to make some assumptions to analyse infinity at all, and this is the most natural assumption - it’s a simple extension from the finite case.”

“You’re so conventional. Try thinking for yourself, not just parroting what you read in books.”

So there you are: game over.

I never got around to the famous diagonal argument, to show that the Reals are uncountable and therefore a ‘larger’ infinity. I wasn’t able to explain the power set construction, whereby from any set (finite or infinite) you can always create the power set of strictly greater size. So I couldn’t finally get around to the continuum hypothesis - the suggestion that the size of the Reals (which is equal to the size of the power set of the natural numbers) was indeed the ‘next infinity up’ from the countable infinity of the natural numbers, rather than there being any further 'interpolating' infinities between them.

And the great mathematical drama whereby it was shown that the continuum hypothesis is undecidable within standard set theory also remained unexplained. This is the reason Cantor couldn't prove or disprove it.

I concluded that it’s just naive to think this stuff can be packaged for even an educated non-mathematical audience ‘out there’.

And to think that Clare used to come round to my flat before we were married for maths lessons. How I have failed her!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hayling Island

It was the click I really liked. The guy was caning his Yamaha 750 along the hot and dusty road, misleadingly called Sea Front. He would languidly spin it round at the traffic lights, then gun the throttle. As he roared past me he shifted up - there, that click from the gear-change mechanism. He hit the brakes, spun the bike and did it all over again in the opposite direction. Occasionally a family car would trundle along, which he would treat with contempt, whizzing around it as if it were stationary.

Sun-blasted, I was walking along behind two skinheads. Wearing just shorts and boots, their pale legs and pasty upper bodies would have been ridiculous in other circumstances. I ambled along, chewing gum, trying to look hard. I wished my hair was shorter.

Reaching the pub, I noticed the big screen and asked the barmaid. “You showing the match this afternoon?” “No, it’s on Sky. You could see it at the West Ham.” “Where’s that then?” “Just across the park.”

I walked up and down Sea Front. A hundred yards back Mr Moto was still cranking it up, backwards and forwards. No park, just a road called Stamford Avenue. Well, a bit London then.

I retraced my steps to the beach. You can’t actually see the sea until you get there, if you see what I mean. Some grass scrubland then the ground rises as a kind of natural sea wall, about twenty feet, and then you’re at the top, looking down at stepped shingle towards the waves. Through the distant mist, that low-hanging dark smear of cloud reveals itself as the Isle-of-Wight.

I, of course, had less than zero interest in Chelsea vs. Manchester Utd, but Adrian and Alex wanted to watch. I gave them what information I had and a little later they departed to find the “West Ham”.

What kind of dialect can make “Town” sound like “Ham”?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

"Atom" part 2 of 3

This evening saw a brisk canter through the discovery of the proton and neutron, nuclear fission and the development of the atomic bomb ("physicists have learned sin").

We then moved to fusion and stellar nucleosynthesis and the super-stable role of iron. Finally we explored the creation of primeval hydrogen and helium via the conflicting big-bang vs. steady-state cosmologies of Gamow vs. Hoyle. This is a programme which likes to personalise.

I think I have sussed this programme out. It's nuclear physics and cosmology pitched for the intelligent 16 year old. No equations or overly technical language and super oversimplified concepts, but if the aforementioned 16 year old had a talented teacher and a decent syllabus and course material ...

Professor Jim Al-Khalili was even better tonight - he's a real natural and TV-land should definitely use him again.

Thoughts from the station

Down to London three times this week, so quite a few minutes in the early morning sunlight at Andover station waiting for the train. The subconscious is especially near-to-hand so soon after sleep, sparking the most curious thoughts.


Last night I had the option of ice-cream with my selection of fruits for dessert. My heart (or rather, stomach) was rather enthusiastic, but my sugar-conscious head sternly forbad it. I had exercised willpower -- or had I? Suppose that I did. How would this magical act of willpower have looked at the physics level?

Option A: my decision was completely consistent with the underlying laws of physics, which determined the actions of the neurons which produced my decision. Those laws pre-determined the outcome *. My ‘free will’ was illusory.

Option B: my decision could not have been predicted at the physics level. The transition from my initial to final neuronal state may well have violated physical laws. Gosh, I’m an anomaly!

I’m not sure how much people appreciate that if you believe in free will you have to disbelieve in physics.

* Subject to the vanishingly-irrelevant probability options of quantum mechanics. We might as well live in the Newtonian world of computer simulations as far as neuron-level outcomes are concerned.


As the weather has improved, we’re plagued with houseflies. They all seem identical (and identically irritating). Especially as compared to the diversity of, say, people, with their very different behaviours (and gradations of irritating!).

I think it’s true to say that houseflies are much more alike than people **.

It does require quite a lot of cortical capability to be interestingly different.

** Houseflies are undoubtedly much more genetically-diverse than humans, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.


I wonder how much of my recent ‘free choice’ to learn piano was stimulated by the BBC programme showing various celebrities trying to learn an instrument (Jo Brand heroically trying to master the organ and play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in front of a large audience at the Albert Hall - how did she ever have the nerve?!).

All part of the Reithian mission. People have argued that there is no such mission any more, as we live in unstoppable eddies, swirls and flows of freely available ‘culture’. Still, in an atomised society, there is perhaps an obligation on the elders and institutions to show leadership and execute off an agenda: BBC-1 -- economists-0. Another triumph for evolutionary psychology over homo economicus.