Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Killing Star

Re-reading Pellegrino and Zebrowski’s book “The Killing Star”. The basic idea is that the earth is subject to a pre-emptive attack by unknown aliens who deploy relativistic kinetic weapons. The description of what would happen if a car-sized object travelling at 92% of the speed of light impacted the earth is well done. (It would look like a lance of fire from sky to horizon, and the impact of the photons themselves would be like a hard slap in the microsecond or so before you vaporised). In the attack described there are many, many such objects.

Considered as a novel, “The Killing Star” is mediocrity raised to a very high power. Characterisation is perfunctory, and the plot indulgently undulates and wanders like Chesterton’s rolling English road. The book is better seen as a concept paper on evolutionary theory applied to extra-terrestrial intelligence.

About a third of the way through there is an epistolary section, composed of purported emails between the likes of Isaac Asimov and Gregory Benford with NASA SETI scientists, set in the mid-80s. In the best Asimov tradition three ‘laws’ are proposed.

1. Any alien species we encounter will prefer its own survival over ours.

2. Any alien species we come to deal with will be the local top dog: smart and aggressive.

3. They will apply the same approach to us.

The authors draw a game-theoretic-like conclusion. In this situation, the strategy with maximum payoff is to wipe the other ‘top dog’ out while you still can, with as little risk to yourself as possible. In what might be called the ‘Pearl Harbour’ doctrine, it turns out that as soon as you detect an alien intelligence, you should hit them so hard, and then exterminate any remnants so that no representative survives to exact a genocidal revenge.

All stirring stuff, and a welcome antidote (as they themselves note) to the Carl Sagan school of galactic benevolence. It did spark a couple of questions.

Q1. Could evolution ever produce an intrinsic star-faring species in the sense that birds, insects and bats are intrinsic air-faring species while we do it with technology? This idea was explored in Brian Aldiss' book “Hothouse”.

Q2. There is something weird about human evolution. A basic principle of evolution is parsimony. A species has just enough capability to be optimal for its niche. Any extra (and superfluous) muscle, sensory capability or brainpower atrophies if not needed. Evolved creatures are optimised to their niche.

This was true also for human hunter-gathers (who do not traverse either the air or space). What seems to have happened was that the intelligence which was designed to optimise social hunting-and-gathering was applied (as if by side effect) to invent agriculture and pastoralism (domestication of animals).

The consequence was social surplus product: the ability to support classes which didn’t have to engage in subsistence labour, and who then drove an explosion of technologically-driven capability over 12,000 years. These capabilities of civilisation are based on a substrate of evolution (social intelligence) but are not the direct products of it.

On this basis, the answer to question 1 would be that - as in 'Hothouse' - it is possible to imagine a space-faring species which attained this capability through direct evolution, but such a capability would owe nothing to smartness and such a species would most likely not be capable of projecting the kind of threat Pellegrino and Zebrowski are concerned with. Most likely the bullies on the galactic block are just as smart, vicious and scary as they suggest. (So where are they, then?)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Rowing Machine

A recent post described my project to get an exercise bike. We duly went to the shop last Saturday and were soon persuaded by the sales person that a rowing machine was a better bet for whole-body aerobic exercise. I was duly sold and it arrived on Thursday (thanks, Adrian, for putting it together, an achievement of pure genius). Clare was soon set to check it out.

I personally tried for more of the inscrutable style of rowing.

It was a bit Xmas with the new toy ... to get the full flavour, check out the video, where Clare rows through the pain barrier. Somewhat embarrassingly, I was slower than Clare over a timed 10 minutes.

Interestingly, Google video wasn't accepting uploads when I tried, so perhaps Google has decided to migrate everyone across to YouTube.

"Atom" on BBC Four

BBC Four showed part one of its Quantum Mechanics documentary last night. There was a lot to like. The presenter, Professor Jim Al-Khalili of Surrey University, had an easiness of touch only slightly marred by his uncanny resemblance to Captain Luc Picard. A bit too much gesturing, Professor - but otherwise fine.

The target audience seemed to be BBC Two Newsnight Presenter: intelligent, arts-trained, people-oriented, only the haziest idea about physics. Communicating QM to such an audience is like explaining the principles of powered flight to New Guinea aboriginals who have never before encountered modernity.

Presenter: “At the beginning of modern flight there were the conservatives, who wished to emulate the familiar flapping flight of birds ...”

Shows picture of crude flapping ornithopter crashing into sea.

“... while the revolutionaries explored a wholly unintuitive concept of fixed wings and engines.”

Shows picture of Boeing 747 screaming into take-off.

“How did they stay up? The principles of powered flight were deeply mysterious to ordinary people who wished to visualise the mechanisms ...”

Shows blackboard with fluid dynamics equations, but doesn’t explain any of the symbols or what any of it means.

“... but it indisputably worked, so the revolutionaries won.”

So the viewer still hasn’t a clue about Quantum Mechanics, but does know some of the names of the protagonists in that great soap opera that was 1920s physics. Better than nothing ... roll on episode 2!

NOTE: I truly believe there is space for a programme which does try to communicate what the wave function is all about, Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model, while not being part of an Open University course. The old Horizon would have tackled it. Being as it’s BBC Four and doesn’t have to make concessions, could the BBC be brave enough to try again for those people who do know some science and maths?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Exercise bike

Off to the Powerhouse Fitness store in London today to buy an exercise bike.

I used to run a couple of miles three times a week or so. Being insanely competitive with myself, I would use a stopwatch and time myself to the second on every run - each time I must do better! I still have the complex Excel spreadsheet with its raw data and computed trend information ...

Then the knees and hip joint began to hurt rather and I had to stop. Next step was to buy a cycle, but that never really lifted off. Too much traffic, no convenient hills nearby and variable weather meant that I couldn't put a really punishing workout together. I relapsed to the muscular tension of a blancmange.

This was brought home to me recently when I was climbing the stairs to a meeting on the fourth floor at the BT High Holborn site. I couldn't believe I was panting. "This has got to be fixed!" I told myself.

The next catalyst was watching the TV footage of Tony Blair's furniture leaving Downing Street. Out came a wrapped-up exercise bike. "That's it" I exclaimed. "That's the answer - thank you Tony!"

A cursory search on the Internet showed that there are literally hundreds of different models at various price points. There are also two basic bike forms, upright and recumbent. It's impossible to understand this market via the web, so I will have to go to the store and try them out.

More later.

Note on the floods. I had to drive to a meeting in Slough yesterday- the journey back, in the afternoon, was very "interesting". With the M4 closed by a flood-induced landslide near Newbury, I was reduced to single track back roads around Bracknell, driving the car through floods so deep the water came up to the doors - a bit like a driving a boat! Water as high as that makes a curious swishing sound around the bodywork as you drive through it.

Compared to my sister, who had to wade five miles home, abandoning her car, and my niece, who had to spend the night in her workplace, which had become an island, I had it easy.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dordogne Diary

The exciting, amusing and occasionally poignant account of our nine days in the south of France, and the triumphs and disasters which befell us there, can now be experienced by clicking on the link here.

Back from the Dordogne

The Chateau at la Rochefoucauld

Back from a holiday in the south of France. I kept a diary of events which, together with more pictures and a video from our visit to the chateau above, can be seen here.

Clare took this picture as we returned to our camp at les Gorges du Chambon from mass at Montbron on Sunday. Very van Gogh, but as she walked along the edge of the field a very angry farmer was shaking his fist at her from his tractor and shouting "Non, non!" at the top of his voice. I cannot imagine what he thought she might be doing.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

OMG we’re old!

In 1986 we moved into our first detached house at the edge of a small development in Sible Hedingham, Essex. We were in our mid-thirties, with two energetic boys in primary school, Clare was teaching and I was a computer science researcher at STL in Harlow (now a Nortel R&D centre).

Our new neighbours on the left lived in a post-war bungalow which was as neat and tidy as the old prefer. They were both white-haired (we thought of them as grandparent figures) and tolerated our boys batting heavy objects over the fence and into their greenhouse. They also, to our initial surprise, played host to our cat when we thought it was out hunting, and had problems with our other neighbours when their son played his pop music too loud. We thought they were ancient, but affable enough.

Yesterday we attended the BBQ for the community of nine or ten houses making up our little development now. Our neighbours are mostly thirty-somethings with young children: toddlers and under-tens predominating. Most of the men work in hi-tech. We chatted about kids, cars and IT. However, there was some kind of subtle divide. What was it?

Afterwards I remarked to Clare “You remember when we used to live in Sible Hedingham? Well, you know -- we’ve turned into our neighbours!”

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Tax. So why the surprise?

For those interested: an explanation for the Inland Revenue's behaviour, and why I was caught by surprise (previous post).

If you are self-employed (as I am) and you turn out to underpay tax in a previous tax year (as I did in 05/06), then the Inland Revenue charge you tax in the 'current' tax year (06/07). This is "in anticipation" of your underpaying that year as well. It's called a charge 'on account', paid in two instalments: January and July.

If, come December, your business is not doing so well, you can apply to have these on account payments set to zero. I did this end of last year, not because my business was doing poorly, but because my BT contract had me paying PAYE through an 'umbrella company' (don't ask).

However, it turns out that I was still underpaying tax in 06/07 because my umbrella company had an incorrect tax code. Once the Revenue figured this out from my latest tax return in early June 07, they re-invoked the payment on account, backdated to January and with interest. Turns out, in the small print, they are allowed to do this.

I will admit it's an education ...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Those nice tax people

An unpleasant surprise dropped through my front door yesterday morning. I knew I had several thousand pounds to pay the Inland Revenue for the last tax year, but I thought this wouldn’t come due until next January. The letter begged to differ: I was already behind with the first instalment (for which interest had been charged) and the second instalment was due end of July. When I saw the amount, my eyes watered.

I called the Inland Revenue at lunchtime and the amount was confirmed - it was no mistake. I explained to the tax woman that I didn’t have that kind of cash just lying around. “You’ll have to call our payment help line” she said.

I dialled 0845 366 1204 and got to speak to a calm, assured young woman. I explained the situation and presented my proposal. Twenty percent to be paid at the end of July, twenty per cent at the end of August and the remainder at the end of September (when some savings became due). Doing it this way would be an administrative inconvenience to me of course, and expensive, as the Inland Revenue charge interest on the outstanding amount. Still.

Tax Woman: “What about your saving? On your 06/07 tax return you listed income from savings?”

“Those savings were transferred to my wife. I don’t have any taxable savings.”

“I see. When you discovered you owed tax, you transferred your savings to your wife?”

“Of course not! I only found out I owed tax this morning. My savings were transferred in 2006, when I finally appreciated I was being taxed first on my income, and then again on any interest on savings. Look, I don’t understand what your problem is. I’ve given you a perfectly reasonable repayment schedule - you’ll get all your money by September. Because you charge interest, what difference does it make to you?”

“So you will need to make a full statement of all your income and expenditure.”


“Call me again, and make sure you list all your monthly spending. Shopping, clothes, all utility bills. And I’ll also need a statement of all your assets: car, house, furniture.”

“Excuse me? You want me to put together a spreadsheet with all my assets, and every line item of income and expenditure? Even what we spend at Tesco?”

“We don’t need a spreadsheet and yes, we do need your shopping expenditure. Call me with all this information and we will decide what you can afford to pay us per month.”

At this point I was the very picture of middle-class exasperation and outrage. With voice crackling with emotion I tried one last time.

“ I don’t understand. I already told you I could repay this over the next few months. My proposal reflected the cash flow I actually have. Going through all this stuff will make no difference. In any case, since you charge interest, the present value of the amount you will receive is the same regardless. What is the purpose of this ridiculously humiliating process?

“It’s just standard procedure.”

“Look. Suppose I just ignore what you just said and make the payments I proposed anyway. What happens then? “

“In twenty eight days your case will be passed to debt recovery and legal proceedings will be taken against you.”

“By the time any of that works through, you will have been paid everything you’re owed!”

“I’m sorry, it’s just the standard procedure.”

We wrote a check for the full amount that afternoon, having raided our younger son’s piggybank (with his agreement).

I guess they’ll be exchanging quiet smiles in the office. Result!