Thursday, January 31, 2008


The "Wonderland" series last night profiled people who get romantically linked-up on Second Life. The main pair comprised an American woman in a failing marriage, who had developed a serious Second Life relationship with a UK Geek who lived in a slummy tower block somewhere. Their avatars were of course gorgeous.

The whole situation reminded me of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in the film The Hours. The American wife was obviously an Idealist (NF) married to a steady-as-you-go Guardian (SFJ) type. She was going out of her mind with the lack of intellectual stimulation while he responded with dogged love and frustration, comparing himself embarrassingly to Forrest Gump. The British Geek, while smartish, had no social skills to speak of and when they met in that tower block it was as cringe-inducing as you could possibly imagine.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Health update - and more important things

My back is 95% OK, showing I didn't seriously damage it last Sunday. I do however have a nasty streaming cold (too much information!) and consequently feel terminally tired and a guest in my own body.

Tomorrow is the last day I have to make the Canary Wharf trip - Friday I'll work at home and then this particular assignment ends. I do find the commute deeply unpleasant for all the usual reasons, mostly summed up in the phrase 'cattle truck'. However, I am mindful that the Andover station platform at 7.00 a.m. (and 6.30 a.m.) is crowded with daily commuters. They obviously all have the right stuff.

Managed to get a glimpse of BBC2's Horizon last night as I cowered in front of the fire (did I mention the central heating is still out of action?). This was presented by "particle physicist and ex D:Ream keyboard player Dr Brian Cox" (here), an experimental physicist.

Dr Cox has fantastic TV presence, and told us absolutely nothing about pop-gravity which hasn't been mentioned (better) in other popular science programmes such as Atom. But before we get too snobby about experimentalists, it's worth recalling that the absolutely fantastic "Deep Down Things" was written by one of them, Bruce Schumm - the best intro ever to the Standard Model (here).

Note to TV producers. If you want to make a programme which gets past your dumbed-down cul-de-sac you could do worse than take a look at the latest, February 2008 edition of Scientific American entitled "The Future of Physics". Using the catalyst of the imminent boot-up of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, theoretical physicist Chris Quigg has written a truly insightful article called "The Coming Revolution In Particle Physics" (here).

I noticed on the train coming back that a fellow traveller (how innocent, nowadays) was reading an Iain M. Banks. Something beginning with "M". A quick look on Amazon and I see he has a new one called "Matter" which has excellent reviews (here). One click later and it's on its way.

BTW, I sit here at 8.40 p.m. sipping a LemSip which Clare thoughfully made for me. Strangely, it seems to be 90% whisky!

Maybe some old Liverpool/Irish folk remedy?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sweeney Todd

Yesterday evening in Salisbury. Much better than last week's "I am Legend". Excellent acting, interesting plot and excellent grey-scale lighting/CGI. Let down slightly by the songs, which weren't memorable.

On the domestic front, half an hour ago the coldness of the house finally registered on my consciousness, and I realised that the central heating had failed. I decided to light a fire, and emptying a heavy coal bag in the shed, I managed to wrench muscles in my lower back. Clare made the fire before departing for church, and as I type this I can hear the kettle whistling in the kitchen. I wonder whether I will be able to stand up and make the tea?

-- Update: I move around gingerly - 'coulda bin a lot worse' - hope it's better tomorrow: the Jubilee line beckons.


Under the impact of long work hours and a 2 hour each-way commute (when not hoteling locally), piano practice has gone to the wall. My OU course (SMT359 Electromagnetism) can't be dismissed in such a cavalier fashion and I am slightly ahead of the schedule, just finishing a revision of vector calculus. A little more to do this morning.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I Am Legend

Here is the summary plot for "I Am Legend", featuring Will Smith, excerpted from the imdb.

"Robert Neville is a scientist who was unable to stop the spread of the terrible virus that was incurable and man-made. Immune, Neville is now the last human survivor in what is left of New York City and perhaps the world. For three years, Neville has faithfully sent out daily radio messages, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But he is not alone. Mutant victims of the plague -- The Infected -- lurk in the shadows... watching Neville's every move... waiting for him to make a fatal mistake.

Perhaps mankind's last, best hope, Neville is driven by only one remaining mission: to find a way to reverse the effects of the virus using his own immune blood. But he knows he is outnumbered... and quickly running out of time."

This is a useless film - unengaging hokum. The star is the CGI-enhanced backcloth of a deserted, weed-and-wreck-strewn New York. Will Smith, the heroic military doctor, looks like an actor doing a good job of acting a man driven half to madness by guilt and solitude.

Interesting film feature. Despite months having elapsed of no people around, the electric power and water supplies are working just fine.

Towards the end of the film, Will Smith - Dr Robert Neville - rages to a supporting actress: "This virus has killed 5.8 billion people -- there is no God."

In an American film, after a character says something like that, you just know that (a) he'll come to a sticky end, and (b) the plot resolution will emphasise redemption, and that there is a God after all. -- And so it all came to pass.

Clare unaccountably had a more positive impression - I put it down to kids and pet animals (one of each). My summary review? "Yeah, so?"

Friday, January 18, 2008

DLR Days

There was a report in the free newspaper about a woman who had fought off a gang of 9 on the Docklands Light Railway, and managed to retain her bag.


I was riding in the front carriage yesterday evening, where you would expect the driver to sit. Great views as we swooped along the concrete track: past hotels, over and under roads, round bends, paralleling docks and passing London City Airport. I believed for a while that, in a miracle of modernity, the trains were driverless. No, there is an inconspicuous chap whose job is restricted to occasionally pressing the odd button. Seems the epitome of mindlessness to me: sometimes he sits at the back and faces the wrong way.


Tuesday evening I bought a return ticket from Canary Wharf to my hotel at the end of the line, Beckton. Wednesday morning, pre-dawn, en-route back to work, an inspector checked my ticket.

“This says January 15th.”


“Today’s the 16th.”

I explain that I had bought a return ticket the previous evening, and was now in fact returning.

“You can’t travel on a 15th ticket on the 16th.”

“That’s crazy, you can see the time I bought the ticket - 7.14 pm. I’ve paid the return fare and now I’m returning.”

“You can’t travel on a 15th ticket on the 16th. That’s the regulations.”

I should add that the DLR doesn’t do manned ticket offices – it’s only machines.

“Nowhere on the ticket machine does it say that a ticket has to be used on the day of issue.”

“I agree, sir, and I’ll let you off this time. But be aware, if the London Transport audit people check you, they won’t take any excuses. It’ll be a £20 fine on the spot.”

Secure in my moral righteousness, I have to say I was not reduced to a butterball of fear by this final threat. Nor, as it happens, did the LT inquisition haul me in. (By the way guys, if you’re reading this – I just made it up – it isn’t real!).

I do understand the reason for this apparent idiocy – it’s just a mechanism to make ticket evasion harder, as they have uncontrolled access to the platforms and trains. However, this is one case where to understand all is not to forgive any of it.


Due to the Boat Show at the Excel Centre which has filled all adjacent hotels, I’ve been in the Beckton Premier Inn this week. Plain fare, but clean and comfortable. I struggle to get used to the girl – yes, it is a girl, who takes orders for food – terminating every sentence she speaks to me with “darling”. I’d be the last person to understate my own charms, but really! This morning, as I left the hotel for the last time, I crunched out over broken glass – great!

Next week it’s back to Business Class and the Ramada.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dr Hamid Lesan

Roy Simpson wrote to me as follows:

"I have just learned that Hamid Lesan died suddenly at his village in Sheering, Essex in August 2006.

There are a very few internet references to him. After leaving STL/BNR he went to Lloyds Register who were a RAISE partner at the time. There are a couple of internet references to work done there on Standards. I wasn't in touch so I don't know whether he had retired yet.

He was obviously active in his local community, but I am guessing that he wasn't too active Internet-wise."

Hamid, an Iranian refugee from SAVAK, joined my AI research group in the mid-1980s, when we all worked at STL in Harlow. He was a logician, and the only person I ever met who confessed to me that his entry into programming had been via the lambda calculus. I think his view was that it was impossible to understand programming by any other route!

He also introduced me to Montague Semantics for natural language processing and was a fan of Situation Semantics in its earlier and more popular days. He developed a fancy natural language interface with successive drop-down menus being used to select an english sentence expressing a valid query. The guys from Cambridge University were pretty impressed when they saw it, and we published a paper.

Hamid was a low-key kind of guy - quiet, friendly, helpful, deeply-erudite and someone who seemed to live most of his life in abstract spaces, through which all of 'real life' was filtered. He wasn't at all conventionally ambitious, and the collapse of programmes at STL at the time of the Nortel take-over in 1990 must have been daunting. I went into telecoms and Hamid stayed in software engineering and left the company. So our paths deviated.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Personalised ringtones? No, if you were to call my Sony-Ericsson K750i mobile phone, it would ring like an old-fashioned circular-dial telephone. That is, until now.

I was working away on some project firefighting at Canary Wharf when the Prelude in C Major from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1) sounded out. You might have heard Catherine Zeta Jones' character playing it in Entrapment, with Sean Connery: listen here.

A tough, trouble-shooting colleague of mine, Vince, noticed my glance of recognition, and looked meaningfully at his mobile phone. No words were spoken, but I knew it was show-time.

OK, well I have a personal favourite as well - the Fugue in D Major nine tracks further on - listen here. It's Glenn Gould, by the way, and I have to not-answer the phone a long time to get the full value of this beautiful piece.

I have to say the K750i manual seems to have been written for another device entirely - it took me ages to discover how to get the Fugue mp3 file to work as the ringtone. But I figured it out eventually.

Inspired by my success, I decided to review and improve my voicemail greeting. I managed to turn the pin function on by accident (I have of course forgotten the pin) and as a consequence, I can no longer access voicemail on my phone.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My assignment: one week in

I've been too busy to do anything in the evening - so goodbye fantasies of piano playing.

The state of London Transport is shocking. I know everyone knows this, but Thursday morning the Jubilee line packed up in the morning, so many people on the project were an hour late. Didn't affect me however, as I was in a nearby hotel and came in on the Docklands Light Railway, the DLR.

However, that night I was going home. At Canary Wharf, the Jubilee line was still broken. I got my suitcase and myself across to the DLR station where they were twenty-deep on the platform: the few trains to Bank which eventually did arrive were full. I therefore got a bus north to Mile End and transferred to a tube to Waterloo. En route I heard that the Circle line was suspended due to unforeseen staff shortages, the Picadilly line was out of action due to a defective train and the District line had severe signalling problems! My two hour trip had turned into three hours.

How does anyone survive a daily commute into London?

The Merchant of Venice

We rolled down to Winchester last night in the rain to see the "Tribe Theatre" present "The Merchant of Venice" at the Theatre Royal. It was the third performance of four, but some of the cast were still having problems with their lines - reflecting the half amateur, half professional nature of the Company.

The play is said to be controversial because 'it's antisemitic'. In a PC-age, some of the opinions expressed by characters are rather shocking. However, the play is not antisemitic, it exhibits antisemitism, specifically of the Venetian middle class.

Shylock has good lines to express the racist discrimination heaped upon Jews and his personal humilations: he has ample grounds for rage. The play also differentiates between generic Jewish resentment and Shylock's personal rigidity (even if most of the characters don't). But above all, the play celebrates its female characters (Portia and her maid) who are the smartest and most proactive characters around. Great performances.

There are amusing comedy scenes, particularly some of the lamer suitors, choosing between caskets for Portia's hand. The obligatory 'clown' scenes - a staple of Elizabethan drama but not, apparently to Shakespeare's taste - are well-done but rarely amusing.

Overall, an excellent production much enhanced by atmospheric acoustic guitar between scenes. The local paper's review is here.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Easter Bunnies

"I do think it's so sad that children today don't know the real meaning of Easter."


"For example, what do Easter Eggs signify? How many kids know that?"

"Hmm - so what do Easter Eggs signify?"

"Well, it's the birth of Christ, isn't it."

"Right ..."

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Roll-up Pianos

The roll-up piano - a product category, the existence of which I had hitherto been completely unaware.

Contemplating a typical evening-to-come in a London Docklands hotel room, I imagine that having already spent an hour on my OU material (SMT359 Electromagnetism) my thoughts might turn to the possibilities of playing a little piano? But how? Moving to my mini-suitcase, I carefully pull out a rolled-up piano ...

Argos sell a possible candidate (here) for £19.99 but it's clearly a novelty gadget, a dance mat for the fingers. The American Hecsan product, although it looks similar, seems to be altogether more grown-up. Daniel Rutter, an Australian journalist and product reviewer, contributed a detailed review here.

The Hecsan website (here) has more background, including videos. The device apparently will operate on 4 A4 batteries so would work over here (the 110v adapter obviously wouldn't). It's not clear whether there's a UK version at this time. The price seems to be around £100.

A site which seems a bit more organised is here. I'm still looking through their website.

And here's a guy playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue on a roll-up piano ... not bad!

Bottom line: despite my fascination with new tech, I think I'll hold off for a while. It may turn out that I have no time in the evenings at all, as part of my global team will be working in North America.

Helicopter Parents

Helicopter parents - the five most common kinds.

The Agent
Operates like a footballer's agent: fixing deals, arranging contracts, smoothing out local difficulties. It's the Agent's job to represent his or her client at events which, for whatever reason, the client feels are simply too tedious to attend. Having an Agent helicopter parent is like having Max Clifford working for you round the clock. For free.

The Banker
Accessible online, face to face or via personal hotline, the Banker is unique in the world of financial services for charging no APR, asking few if any questions, expecting no collateral, and being psychologically inclined to say 'yes' no matter how illogical or poorly articulated the request. The Banker is also resigned to never seeing loans repaid.

[Yeah, that's us]

The White Knight
Imbued with an almost semi-mythical status, the White Knight parent appears at little to no notice to resolve awkward situations. Once resolved, the White Knight will fade anonymously into the background. Intervention is accomplished silently and with minimum fuss.

The Bodyguard
The primary function of the Bodyguard is to protect the client from a range of embarrassing social situations - such as cancelling appointments and soaking up complaints on behalf of their client. Particularly skilled in constructing elaborate excuses. When not protecting life, limb and reputation, doubles up as a chauffeur and personal assistant.

The Black Hawk
Named after the military helicopter, and dreaded by teachers and educational administrators, the Black Hawk is unique among helicopter parents due to their willingness to go to any lengths - legal or illegal - to give their offspring a positional advantage over any competition. Particularly lethal when elected to parent-teacher associations.

[From Dr Paul Redmond, head of the careers & employability service at Liverpool University here].

Adrian called us from Sun Peaks, Canada to update us on his snowboarding instructing. Apparently he spends most of his time teaching skiing, as this is where the demand is. He has taken to storing his spare skis and snowboards with his friends' parents ("they have big homes").

This is an example of what we call The Chinook variant of helicopter parenting - using someone else's parents as well as your own.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New assignment

Tomorrow I start a new contract with "a large UK carrier" which promises to last for some months. The location of the work is London docklands, which is a two hour door-to-door commute. As I don't intend to live my life on trains, let alone survive on four hours sleep, I have elected to spend several nights a week in a docklands hotel.

This has had impact on other things. First I had to call my piano teacher to let her know that piano is suspended - no opportunity or time to practice during this contract. Then the music theory class got cancelled - a refund has been requested.

The OU will go ahead, studying in a hotel room.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Study Programme

The material for this year's OU course - SMT359 Electromagnetism - arrived in the post just before Christmas and I've begun some preparatory maths revision: vectors; matrices; line integrals; div, grad and curl. I'm using the excellent "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences" by Mary Boas, which I first bought back in 1984.

My onward study plan is rather languid and goes something like this.

2009: the quantum world (SM358). Basic quantum mechanics.

2010: waves, diffusion and variational principles (MS324). Diffusion processes, calculus of variations, Lagrangian formulation of mechanics.

2011: space, time and cosmology (S357). Introduction to special and general relativity.

Then a move to the maths MSc programme, concentrating on mathematical physics modules.

2012: applicable differential geometry (M827). For general relativity.

2013: functional analysis (M826). The OU's nearest thing to a treatment of Hilbert spaces for quantum field theory.

One of the irritating things about the OU's maths MSc programme is that it's almost perversely unsuitable for students of quantum mechanics. I quote from a student review and faculty reply on the M826 website here:


"I didn't enjoy this course at all, and spent most of it having no idea what was going on. I chose it because I'd read (in Gowers' "A Brief Introduction to Mathematics") that Hilbert Spaces are one of the most important things in mathematics. I now more or less know what one is but don't know why they're important. "


"Perhaps the problem here is that M826 is not meant to be a course on 'Hilbert Spaces and its applications'. Indeed, most of the course concentrates on linear spaces that have quite a general topological structure. Only at the very end does the course focus its attention on Hilbert Spaces.

Inevitably there is by then little time to do more than define a Hilbert Space, examine its structure (in cases where it is separable), and characterize its dual spaces. In particular no attempt is made to examine the rich structure of the spaces of linear operators acting on a Hilbert Space, nor is any attempt made to describe the many applications of such spaces (e.g. to quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, optimisation, partial differential equations, etc.).

Clearly anyone who studies the course hoping to learn all about Hilbert Spaces and its applications could be disappointed.

The work in M826 is quite challenging and requires a good working knowledge of basic set theory, vector spaces, analysis and topological (mainly metric) spaces. It is also necessary to have an aptitude for following proofs and understanding how they relate to the result being proved. Anyone whose preference is for less abstract mathematics may find some of the work difficult to follow.

Perhaps they will have had a change of heart by 2013.