Saturday, June 30, 2007

Piano tales

My first piano lesson this morning. My teacher, Suzanne, was playing one of Bach's preludes and fugues as I arrived - a most encouraging start. My take-away assignment after the lesson is to work on articulation (legato, etc), dynamics (piano, forte) and balance between left and right hands (accompaniment, melody). Also scales.

Alex reports that he has accepted a job offer from Accenture Technology which will see him leaving LogicaCMG. Seems like he’s getting a good salary increase too. These are troubled times at Logica so it sounds like a good career move.

I just finished Dawkin’s The God Delusion. It’s a brilliantly well-written book which had me laughing out loud on several occasions. I can never resist the well-aimed sardonic barb skewering stupidity and nonsense. I rather lack the energy right now to write any kind of formal review. However, to avoid accusations of complete uncriticality, he could have made more of the following point.

Putting aside all the hypocrites, child abusers and parasites, there are men and women of religion who are genuinely wise, caring, humble - anchors to their communities. If religion is not to provide a social framework for such roles to exist, then what is the mechanism to replace it? A secular order of humanist nuns and monks? It would be good to hear whether Dawkins thinks this is possible. Recall there were a number of proposals around the end of the nineteenth century to invent secular ‘religions’ as vehicles for humanist ethical and altruistic praxis. Where did they go in the Darwinian clash of ideas and social organisms?

The other point is that his final paean to the scientific world view is curiously flat and uninteresting as compared to all the preceding repartee. I wonder why that is?

Having said that, I have now come round to the view that what Dawkins has written about here needs to be said, and needs to be read. He’s a brave guy and it would be great if politicians were brave enough to put The God Delusion on the national school curriculum to start ‘our kids’ off properly.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

One week later

One week ago I was at the local authority conference mentioned in the previous post. Friday I noticed the first symptoms of a stomach upset I rapidly associated with the preceding day’s buffet, and it has taken a week to really shake off the effects.

I am told appropriate survival techniques include ‘don’t touch meat/ham sandwiches’ and ‘prefer fruit’ which should be washed first. Hot food (provided it hasn’t been cooling for ages) is also a better bet. I had an opportunity at apply these techniques at a BT internal event at the Grange Holborn hotel on Tuesday which included a finger buffet. Not a sandwich made it anywhere near my plate!

The last time I was in the Grange Holborn was back in 2003, the dog days of Cable & Wireless Global. I was still employed in the North American organisation but about to be made redundant as the organisation slowly toppled into bankruptcy. While Clare remained to sell our house in Virginia, I was in London ostensibly to help the product management organisation in those final days, but I think also as a favour, to help me secure further employment over here.

At the time, I was still studying the T’ai Chi form (the long sequence of rather slow martial art moves) and my hotel room was too small. I used to practice in the large ballroom in the basement first thing in the morning. As I was moving through the sequence, sometimes hotel staff would pass by. It was, as Iain Banks would say, an ‘outside context problem’. They had no idea what I was doing, why I was doing it or even who I was. The simplest thing was to mentally delete me from the scene and ignore me completely, which is what they did. I found it rather embarrassing.


My contract with BT officially expires tomorrow. I’ve been told unofficially that it will be renewed as part of a new work-stream. It’s all been signed off, apparently, but of course, it’s not real until my agency confirms they’ve received the contract. As of this moment, I’m still waiting. One consequence of the BT work continuing is that my plan to write a book on ‘The Mobile Internet’ will be put on hold - you can read the proposal here (PDF).


Just a final observation on global climate change. I don’t subscribe to the Jeremy Clarkson comic view that Global Warming is the best thing which ever happened to England and we should welcome it! Any change in mean temperature, warmer or colder, inevitably creates transition effects (new crop opportunities and failures; new tourism opportunities and flood/drought damage) with the global costs typically outweighing the global benefits, at least in the short to medium term. This is because our current arrangements are, of course, optimised around the current climate. I do agree, however, that the UK and Canada are likely to disproportionately see the benefits.

Historical records show that climate is not a constant but a variable, and it’s pointless to pretend that the status quo of today is sustainable. Industrial greenhouse gas production is surely having some effect, although it’s debatable the extent to which it is the sole, or even main driver of the changes we’re currently seeing.

While in general it may not be a good idea to gratuitously heat the planet, the alternatives cost. Stopping development costs; buying pollution-abatement equipment costs; closing polluting capital plant costs. It can be more cost-effective to alleviate some of the consequences of transitioning to a warmer world rather then spending on too-drastic alleviation of greenhouse gas production which probably won’t even address all of the underlying drivers. Always remember, we’re currently in a non-stable interglacial period!

One of the nice things about the quasi-religious ecology movement is that their material (TV programmes particularly) are routinely and conspicuously sign-posted with the words ‘save’ and ‘planet’. Since we all know the planet has no need to be saved for at least the next five to eight billion years, we can easily avoid such tendentious material without a qualm.

Friday, June 22, 2007

This week's specialist journal is ...

I was at a local authority conference yesterday and received material in the welcome pack which included the latest (14th June) issue of "Surveyor" magazine, the journal for local government highway engineers. Jane Austen's cultural domination is obviously complete given the following quote from page 13.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a highway authority in possession of a newly decriminalised special parking area must be in want of a CPZ ."

A CPZ is a controlled parking zone, and yes, sadly, I do know what this all means!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Longstock Water Gardens - Hampshire

This afternoon we visited Longstock Water Gardens, Hampshire - just north of Stockbridge (website here). These private gardens are only open the first and third Sunday afternoon every month during the summer. Here are some of the pictures we took.

Across the lakes

A rather unusual plant

The general effect of the layout of the gardens is rather reminiscent of a Japanese garden. The difference is the lack of fine-grained design and thematic structure - Longstock is sprawling and higgedly-piggedly in the English fashion.

View across the lakes

After we had spent an hour walking the lakes and the woodland behind, we exited the gardens into Longstock Park. A fifteen minute walk through the parkland brought us to the top of the hill and the nursery and tea-room. Clare ordered a flowering tree for the autumn, and then we took tea in what was apparently the greenhouse.

The very English tea-room

A civilised outing. Now I'm back home I recall I have 30 minutes piano practice to put in - enough diversions!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Re: Fermi paradox/virtuality

Roy Simpson tartly comments:

"So in summary the Aliens will prefer a local internet to all that travelling. Maybe they will have found a way to connect to our internet? That way, with the right IP address, we can log into the Alien cyberworlds. Now that would be a killer App for the Internet!"

Greg Egan got there way ahead of the rest of us with his "polises" in Diaspora. The problem with virtuality, as Mr Banks observed in Excession, is that the universe is basically not the ideal data centre - too much random stuff going on.

There has been a suggestion that the Internet should be searched for signs of alien presence - maybe the aliens think that the Internet (or the www) is actually the form of intelligent life on earth, God help us! ...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fiction is better!

People who write non-fiction are at the bottom of the literary caste hierarchy. There, I’ve said it. The nasty little secret shared by those of us who have had a factual book published (or to use a more precise phrase due to my brother - ‘incomprehensible tome’).

Writers of fiction invent believable characters, wrestle with the intricacies of plot development, elaborate descriptive prose and fundamentally seek to engage the interests and emotions of their readers. To succeed requires a mastery of all these skills in isolation, together with their synthesis into a consummate reading experience. No wonder the successful author is lionised throughout the world. By contrast, we humble explainers are consigned to niches. We apparently engage the intellect alone, and hopefully even that without baffling our rather specialist readership.

So here is what puzzles me. As I read novels which dissect with forensic skill failing relationships, brutally explicit scenes of betrayal, violence and torture, lurid sex (well, not often!) and character assassination, I wonder a lot about the author’s nearest and dearest.

Do they marvel at the disgusting, unsettling imagery evidently all-too-present in their beloved’s mind? Do they wonder if their conversations, personal foibles, intimate conversations and actions are now being exposed to public appetite? Do they wonder: ‘if this is not about me, then who’?

Concretely, how does Richard Morgan get away with it?

The Fermi paradox and virtuality

The Fermi paradox is the well-know problem that the galaxy should be full of alien life. Once one civilisation masters adjacent-star interstellar colonisation (hard but not impossible) it’s only a few million years to colonise the whole galaxy. So where are they? Why aren’t they here? Why does the galaxy seem devoid of artificiality through the best telescopes public funding can buy?

Books and books have been written about this, though the Wikipedia article here has a pretty good overview. Broadly speaking there are three layers of explanation.

1. Alien life is not out there at all - the evolution of human-equivalent intelligent societies anywhere else is just too unlikely and hard.

2. Yes, there is intelligent life out there but they don’t want to do interstellar migration.

3. They do want to, but star flight and terraforming is, despite appearances, just too hard.

4. They do want to, and it would in principle be possible, but some covert predatory entity destroys them when they try, so they’re all keeping whatever passes for their heads down.

To be honest, I don’t really buy any of the above. Despite his meandering and autodidactic style, I think John Smart has the right idea here. Recast in plain language, this is what I think he’s getting at.

Reflecting our evolutionary and cultural past, we are quite comfortable with moving our bodies around to meet various biological requirements - foraging and the like. Technology has recently given us movable caves (cars, ships, spacecraft). As we assess the future we see bigger and better interstellar space-caves taking us to the stars, and we wonder why we don’t see the dust of the space-caves of earlier alien migratory hordes moving into our bit of the space-prairie.

A more fundamental reality than all this primate-wanderlust-stuff is the brain functioning which makes it all possible. Our brains themselves know nothing of geography other than the simulations they compute from diverse sensory inputs. All those expansionary actions and desires are themselves the conscious enjoyment or otherwise of sub-conscious perceptual, effectual and emotional brain processes helpfully designed-in by evolution.

Once we have a good theory and technology for replicating all this as well as impossibly-sophisticated virtual environments, (surely only a few hundred years away), we will henceforth turn our backs on the raw universe.

I mean, let’s get real: what a crummy desert the basic universe is! Most non-geeks (i.e. people) would be interested in being on any non-Earth planet for all of, well let’s say 90 seconds. Living in virtuality will be so much more entertaining and fulfilling, as Iain Banks so accurately predicted in Excession, with the Land of Infinite Fun.

So if it was me, I’d start with a good place to unobtrusively and securely site the computing clusters, with lots of redundancy and backup (Mercury might be a good idea - lots of solar energy and not much climate) . Then I’d have a bunch of robots with powerful manipulation and defensive capabilities just to run operations and technical support, keep underlying physical reality under control and surveil the neighbourhood. Then let a quadrillion civilisations bloom in virtuality!

I might send out some pretty discreet, stealthed probes for research purposes, but galactic empire building? What would be the point?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Why wasn't the big bang a black hole?

My apologies to people out there who are about to sigh "OMG physics again". Skip over this post - the one below has a real cute video of an ant-hill ...

Anyway, I was idly browsing and came upon the following piece: "Are there upper and lower limits to temperature?". Well, we all know the answer to that one - the coldest you can get is absolute zero. And then we get into zero-point energy and so on.

But how hot can you get? Temperature is particles zooming around, and if you have a bunch of particles getting faster and faster, then relativistically they're getting more and more massive. At some point, they will implode into a black hole and that must be the upper limit of temperature (see note below).

And then I thought, surely if you ran time backwards to the big bang, that's exactly what would happen - at some point in the early universe, the energy density would be so great the universe would implode into a black hole. So, running time the correct way again, if all the matter in the universe started in a black hole, how did it ever get out? Or do we live inside one?

Luckily, physicist John Baez has answered this question here. I will just quote an extract.

"Sometimes people find it hard to understand why the big bang is not a black hole. After all, the density of matter in the first fraction of a second was much higher than that found in any star, and dense matter is supposed to curve space-time strongly. At sufficient density there must be matter contained within a region smaller than the Schwarzschild radius for its mass. Nevertheless, the big bang manages to avoid being trapped inside a black hole of its own making and paradoxically the space near the singularity is actually flat rather than curving tightly. How can this be?

The short answer is that the big bang gets away with it because it is expanding rapidly near the beginning and the rate of expansion is slowing down. Space can be flat while space-time is not. The curvature can come from the temporal parts of the space-time metric which measures the deceleration of the expansion of the universe. So the total curvature of space-time is related to the density of matter but there is a contribution to curvature from the expansion as well as from any curvature of space. The Schwarzschild solution of the gravitational equations is static and demonstrates the limits placed on a static spherical body before it must collapse to a black hole. The Schwarzschild limit does not apply to rapidly expanding matter."

So there - worry over :-)

NOTE: Apparently even the idea that an object moving sufficiently rapidly will collapse into a black hole is wrong. Professor Baez explains that one here. See also "Does mass change with speed?".

Sunday, June 10, 2007

New Forest (2)

This is either fascinating or completely tedious. Saturday evening we took a walk through the woods behind our camp site at Hollands Wood, near Brockenhurst .

As we soaked up the tranquil atmosphere of woodland glades I was struck by this ant-hill, seemingly constructed from conifer needles. If I was hyping it, I would say I barely escaped the video capture without being eaten alive!

New Forest (1)

It’s been a while since the previous post, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s been happening. For commercial reasons it’s difficult to go into the details at the moment but I prepared a proposal for a second book, provisionally entitled “The Mobile Internet”. I discussed this with the publisher (Auerbach) and received the go-ahead. So what’s the issue?

In a word - time. There is a reason academics take a sabbatical to write a book - it’s very, very time-consuming. For a consultant, there are three reasons to write a book:
  1. It is a useful marketing tool.
  2. It can be an excellent way to get out more and network.
  3. It can be done in conjunction with some paid consultancy work.
It's not a useful way to get revenues by way of royalties. Technical books do not sell massive volumes and several weeks consultancy would earn more than a year’s worth of book sales.

How this relates to me is that I can’t get to the contractual stage with Auerbach until some other business matters are sorted out. Watch this space.

We were camping in the New Forest in southern England this weekend, as the weather was pretty good. We were amused by the way the free-roaming horses and cows of the forest are totally unintimidated by cars, naturally assuming they have right of way (which they do). Watch the video, which was taken in Brockenhurst.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Heechee and the Piano

I have finally acted on my resolution to learn how to play piano. A lesson has been booked with a local teacher for the end of June, and I am working through the basics of scales and sight-reading through gritted teeth. I write this to remind myself that remembering which note on which stave-line corresponds to which finger on which key is - at time of writing - a monumental challenge. I look forwards to the Grade 1 exam ....

I romped through Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon pretty rapidly, and I'm currently in the middle of Heechee Rendezvous. Some reviews have it that after Gateway it was all downhill (they say the same thing about Dune) but I haven't found it so: it's all four-starred on Amazon too.

The fourth volume, Annals of the Heechee, by contrast gets 2.5 stars, and of course, I have that too (although judging by the reviews, this might have been a mistake)!