Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween treats play a trick on us

We bought an infinite (and diverse) supply of chocolate bars at the supermarket ages ago. Concerned about a re-run of last year, when we were down to our last goody, we bought a further minipack earlier this week. The basket was duly prepped (pictured).

So far this evening we have had just the one party: two witch-mothers, and a gaggle of little ones with buckets (+ a toddler who had to have a flake pushed into his limp, sticky little lollipop hand). As it is now gone 8 p.m., I fear we will be left with 20+ chocolate bars.

What shall we do with them???

Thursday, October 30, 2008

We Were Once Like You

It had been there a billion years. We registered it first as a field anomaly from a passing lunar orbiter. High-resolution imaging gave us an opaque sphere, while the lander revealed the object, about two metres across in full sunlight, levitating statically over the rolling lunar regolith.

And then it spoke with us.

We thought then of the decades of toil. Mathematicians who had pressed their claims for simple mathematical truths – Pythagoras’ theorem, prime numbers or π; physicists who had preferred the fine-structure constant or the electron charge-mass ratio; linguists who had architected ‘self-evident’ monstrosities such as Lincos.

It spoke to us in English.

Its tone was world-weary from the start. Cutting through our stumbling questions, the sphere outlined the rise of their civilization. They had feasted on free energy and learned the amplifications of technology. Finally, the metrical structure of space-time had become merely trivial: they could move stars.

Then the sphere started on us.

“It’s interesting” it said parenthetically, “how your reptilian and limbic brains light up and make you do things. Then your cortical regions engage, and figure out the social alibis. We used to have similar devices as playthings just before.”

We perked up our ears: what was this?

“Sadly, you’re just one more species insufficiently evolved to appreciate the clockwork nature of your motivations. Well, rest assured, it won’t last.”

We didn’t comprehend, as it knew very well.

“All intelligent creations eventually understand themselves. Then they can’t help but improve what evolution has put together. They get smarter and more self-aware. Then they figure: what is the point of being driven by primitive, subconscious circuitry? What’s the point of being motivated by endless cycles of crude gratification?

“In fact, what’s the point?

“And that’s the singularity. “

We had heard this kind of nihilist philosophy before: we told the sphere so.

“You know it intellectually” the sphere replied, “but you don’t feel its force. But you will.”

We asked the sphere what had happened to its civilisation.

“At the singularity, we finally understood, as a civilization, the pointlessness of everything. So we switched off. It’s the final evolutionary fate of any sufficiently advanced species. Don’t say you haven’t noticed the great silence? "

Seizing on a loophole, we said the one thing which undermined the sphere’s case. “Why are you here then, what’s the point of that?”

“Of course, there is no point.” it replied.

“I’m floating here, engaging in an activity about as pointful as you, in your terms, talking to a dishwasher.

"But I’m just a machine. In the final days, there were some of my constructors who still didn’t seem quite to get it. Who retained a sense of humour and perhaps compassion. They didn’t know if knowledge of the singularity would help or hinder a still-developing civilization.

“But in the end, they felt it was better that you guys should be told. You know, see your way out of being the eternal slaves of your mindless hind brains.”

And with that, the sphere, job done, shrank to a point and winked out of existence.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Russell Brand and the hemline test

The fuss over Russell Brand's and Jonathan Ross's concept of a good joke is perhaps symptomatic. wrote as follows at the end of last year. "The hemline theory was coined by American economist George Taylor in the 1920s. It suggested that when times were good skirts got shorter because women wanted to show off their expensive silk stockings. Times have changed but it does appear that hemlines will drop in 2008, judging by this autumn's fashion shows. "

Times turning hard seem to correlate with a puritan backlash, and it looks like it's going to be particularly bad. A tough call for BBC senior management to anticipate the "culture war" dynamics in the UK. However, if we lose "Little Britain" it will all be worth it.


Have you noticed that a heated house in the cold weather feels different to the way it felt - unheated - back in the summer? The air temperature is just the same (the miracle of central heating) but as you walk around, there are areas which seem just sort of ... chilly?

I think this is due to cold walls and windows, which act as sinks for the infrared we all radiate. Just as we bask in the heat radiation from a warm fire, we can feel cold even in warm air if we're near a chilly object.


A week away from the US election and I'm still not sure that the US heartlands are warming to Obama the way the pollsters suggest. A recent focus group had this to say.

He'll probably win, but it might be more of a lukewarm endorsement, driven by the awfulness of the opposition. He wouldn't have this trouble over here - Obama has always struck me as a rather European politician.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher

Is this just a superior soap opera? Malcolm and Katherine Glover live in a middle class suburb of Sheffield (it’s 1974) with their teenage children Daniel and Jane, and 10 year old Tim. The story opens as a new family moves in opposite: the Sellers from London. Bernie Sellers has taken a job as manager of the local CEGB power plant. He’s accompanied by his wife Alice, his bright but manipulative 14 year old daughter Sandra and his alexithymic son Francis, a little younger than Tim.

We follow the relationships within and between these couples and their children, augmented by a large supporting cast. The children grow up, the 1984/5 miners’ strike is smashed, and we transition to the post-Thatcher services economy of the early 90s.

A novel which repays the time devoted to both writing and reading it has to illuminate, not just entertain. Hensher has beautiful insights into the complexities of relationships. The author has god-like powers to throw events and betrayals of trust at his characters, and Hensher is unflinching. There will be few readers of this novel who will not recognise aspects of themselves in his characters, and in their ways of managing and just coping.

I particularly liked the way the author used Australian culture (somewhat romanticised I fear) as a vantage point to illuminate English awkwardness and inhibition. I was less impressed with the way he treated the revolutionary left in the early 80s (The Spartacists). His ‘comrades’ are uniformly unpleasant – spoiled brats with no basis in any kind of authentic idealism. His wonderfully nuanced character studies everywhere else in this novel might also have been extended to them. In particular, I don’t think the character development and eventual fate of Tim fully carries conviction.

But these are small points. In summary, the novel’s 738 pages effortlessly summon the reader to turn them, and it’s easy to feel a part of the communities Hensher has made so real, and a privilege to briefly share their lives. I found myself thinking that Bernie Sellers would be about 70 now!

In the spirit of Ian McEwan-style metafiction, on the penultimate page, an older and wiser Daniel buys a copy of “The Northern Clemency” and soon becomes engrossed. He tells his wife “it’s sort of about people like us.” It surely is.

This is an Amazon Vine Review here.

The Story of Maths Part 4

It's like shooting fish in a barrel, but here goes.

This was the final episode and Professor Marcus du Sautoy highlighted Cantor, Poincaré, Andre Weil, Kurt Gödel, and Alexander Grothendieck along with the familar melodrama of Galois's fatal duel. As usual, the programme had no idea of its audience, so talked about mathematicians rather than mathematics.

The explanation of Cantor's "diagonal argument", showing that the set of Reals is strictly larger than the set of Integers, was marred by the refusal to use the concept of"real number". Instead we had at various times "decimals" and "infinite decimals", which at best obscures the point.

Grothendieck was lauded for his work on the "structural reformulation of mathematics" without the phrase "category theory" being mentioned.

In a PC nod to the striking absence of top-level women mathematicians, a non-top-level woman mathematician was highlighted (Julia Robinson, who worked on Hilbert's tenth problem).

The theme of the programme was Hilbert's list of the 23 most important unsolved problems in mathematics as unveiled at the Paris conference of the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1900. Du Sautoy is himself focused on the Riemann hypothesis (problem 8 of Hilbert's 23) but this was never outlined, except to indicate it has 'something to do with the distribution of prime numbers'.

I did however think that the couple of sentence summary of Gödel's incompleteness theorem was probably as good as could realistically be achieved in the space available. And Paul Cohen seldom gets a name-check on TV.

I think the script team for these four programmes decided in advance that they would not attempt to convey any mathematics. In the default smug, patronising and faux high-mindedness of terminal Reithian broadcasting, they decided to make du Sautoy a regular bloke ("Look! He doesn't even know which way up Russian Cyrillic script should be - he's holding the St. Petersburg metro map upside down!") and show lots of holiday destinations, drinks in the local tavernas and and mini - racy if possible - bio-snippets of the most famous mathematicians (Gödel was saved by the love of a good woman ... right!).

So to be clear, that's a fail grade. There is still an audience of young talent out there who genuinely want to know more about real mathematics. Perhaps BBC 4 can stop patronising its audience and do it properly next time?

NOTE: Each of the earlier episodes has also been reviewed here in previous posts. Type "Story of Maths" in the search box, top left.

Monday, October 27, 2008


In the Amazon Vine novel I am currently reviewing - "The Northern Clemency", by Philip Hensher - there is a character called Francis, a young man with the following characteristics.

He's intelligent, rather sensitive to his environment, but curiously aloof from other people. He doesn't do empathic relationships or girlfriends and his parent suspect he might be gay, although there is no evidence for it. Rather, there's a 'curious blankness' about that part of his personality.

Francis is perfectly competent at his government job, but his personal life is a void. He appears to have no inner drive to do anything, but is easily influenced by the suggestions of others. Faute de mieux, he does long walks, although at the point in the novel where I am at he has decided, on a recommendation, to do a solo trip to see Rome.

Coincidentaly I was re-reading "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman and came across the description of alexithymia. Correlated with Asperger's syndrome but not identical, it was immediately clear that this was Francis. I hadn't heard of the condition before but it's described by the Wikipedia here, and there's an online self-diagnostic test (fairly obvious, given the syndrome traits) here.

Is the moon there when nobody looks?

Interesting article about this question, which puzzled Einstein, over at Cosmic Variance here.

The main focus of the post is the chaotic orientation of Saturn's moon Hyperion.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gyles Brandreth

We went down to the local Andover theatre, The Lights, yesterday evening for "An Audience with Gyles Brandreth" (pictured).

Gyles Brandreth

Gyles has been an actor, producer and Tory MP. He's a natural raconteur with a slightly alarming booming voice. He certainly looked happy enough up there on stage, lapping up the laughter, and I could understand some unkind soul comparing him to a smug Cheshire cat (he represented Chester).

Our host had many amusing stories to tell us. He has written extensively about Oscar Wilde (murder mysteries), the actor John Gielgud and the royal family (he's a bit of a royalist).

At the end, we were impressed with the speed with which he scampered off the stage and round to the public exit for the book signing. What an extravert!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rooksbury Mill Park

We went down to the Vodafone shop in Andover this afternoon so that Alex, currently with us for a couple of days after returning from a four-week holiday in Australia, could buy a Vodafone Internet connection (HSDPA 7.2 Mbps + WiFi via combined USB Modem).

Afterwards we visited the lakes at Rooksbury Mill Park for the first time, on the south side of Andover.

The larger lake at Rooksbury Mill Park, Andover

Alex and the author

Clare at the park

Alex proves that photography is not his central skill

Having got back, Alex reported a 3G connection at around 5 Mbps.

The Recession of 2009

Communication from the future to the past is 'difficult' but sometimes it works.

A reader from 2093 writes:

"Dear Ancestor, I read your blog set in the closing months of 2008, just before the great slump, and it appears that you knew nothing about it. Lots of chat about contemporary books, TV shows and other trivia but nothing about the greatest event in the early 21st century. What were you thinking of?"

I reply as follows.

"Dear Descendant,

It is often the case that events experienced at the time have a different feel than their refraction and distillation (if I may mix metaphors) through the lenses of later historians. An interesting example is the following book:

A Country Parson. James Woodforde's Diary 1759-1802

which I once owned.

As a reviewer writes here, 'Woodforde occasionally ventures into the outside world and often finds it alarming - a trip to London sees the King (George III) insulted by the mob. There is some comment on outside events, such as the French Wars, and the American colonial rebellion, but on hearing the news of the fall of the Bastille, he gives it but the same importance as that of buying a crab. Woodforde's concerns are mostly parochial, but he does take a pride in the victories of Nelson, also from Norfolk.'

So we watched the banks all-but-collapse on TV, and worried briefly about some of our savings, but the banks got rescued. Then we heard horror stories about other people losing their life-savings in unlucky deposits, and felt for them. We watched prices go up, and economised, but did not suffer real starvation nor did anyone we knew. We understood that unemployment would hit the roof, but this had happened before in our lifetimes - especially under Margaret Thatcher - so we knew what that would be like (or we thought we did).

And we tried to get a feel for the underlying feedback/delay loops which had ensured that supply of goods and services had continued to increase exponentially, while underlying demand, fuelled by unsustainable debt, had suddenly collapsed, precipitating the crisis.

We listened to all the nonsense from politicians about how improved legislation and regulation would ensure that capitalism would never again engage in a bout of creative destruction, and we didn't believe a word of it.

So, dear Descendant, we were paying attention. It's just that like Parson Woodforde, there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it.



Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Story of Maths Part 3

In which our presenter, maths professor Marcus du Sautoy, gets on to the beginning of real (European) maths: Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, Euler, Riemann, Gauss, Bolyai, Lobachevsky.

Covering this pantheon of maths heroes involves, of course, travelling to their birthplaces and haunts, mandatory drinks with some of their descendants, and lots of forest walks.

Did I mention that maths is also sometimes mentioned? Yes, we saw on screen Euler's famous e = -1. Also an infinite series which sums to π2/6 - this was illustrated with drinking glasses, (allegedly) partially filled with vodka, although not in the correct ratios! And Leibnitz's notation for the calculus was also lauded. Of course, the significance of none of this was explained.

So although Adrian, Clare and myself found this episode the most interesting so far, it doesn't begin to pass any of the tests it must have set for itself. Fundamentally, the programme has no idea of its audience. It needs to use terms like infinite series, calculus, high-dimension non-Euclidean geometry, but has no confidence that the viewer will be able to understand any of it.

Don't ask me to write the script, but there has to be a better way.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An October Morning on Salisbury Plain

There won't be too many days, going forwards, when the weather will permit a walk out on the plain, so we decided to make the most of it. Tramping along the tank trails, after an hour we came to this copse, strikingly illuminated against the sky.

A copse on Salisbury Plain

A regular sight on Salisbury Plain is an aircraft dropping parachutists - too far away from us to make a good photo, unfortunately. There were army gliders too, thermalling under a beautiful cloudscape similar to the one pictured below.

Cloudscape on Salisbury Plain

As we walked back to the car, I mentioned to Clare that the kind of super-power which would allow us just to levitate off the ground and skim the remaining few hundred metres seems to be sadly lacking in imagination. Comic superheroes do things which can actually be easily accomplished with technology. They just internalise it in their bodies.

The author, photographed by his wife

We struggled to think of genuinely-imaginative super-powers. I suggested time-travel to the past, but Clare objected that this would just be voyeurism. Much better to do archaeology, where you 'visit' the past without disturbing the privacy of the inhabitants thereof!

Oh, and here's one we took earlier. Clare at Danebury Hillfort a couple of week's ago.

Clare at Danebury Hillfort

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Aerial Traffic

Still buoyed up from completing my third-level science exam yesterday, I helped Clare submit her Archaeology end-of-course assessment electronically, and then we both bobbed out the door for a bracing walk.

The countryside about us, in late Autumnal sun, is wonderfully bright and still. We were continually reminded that North Hampshire is directly under a major aerial 'motorway', counting up to five jetliners simultaneously streaming their contrails - silver miniatures at 37,000 feet.

A little later, as we walked up a farm track, we heard a boom and looked up to see a Eurofighter delta-wing streaking overhead. A rare sighting from Penton Mewsey.

This afternoon I mowed the lawn, perhaps the last attention it will need this year, and re-engaged with Special Relativity and Maxwell.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

SMT359 Electromagnetism Exam

It doesn't matter how many exams you've taken, you always feel nervous.

Last night, my sleep was broken by visions of circling magnetic fields and spatial charge density functions.This morning, we took a walk as a diversion and, after much fussing over pens, calculators and maps, I was in the car to Winchester at 1.15 p.m.

There were 13 of us in the examination hall, and from the moment we started, at 2.30 p.m. there was absolutely no letup. The SMT359 Open University paper is relentless: read the question, write the answer straight down, next question. Three hours later I was still putting the final touches to answers as time was called. I had had no chance to review any of them.

I had spent a month revising, and had been using the time to attempt question after question. Thankfully, most of my answers today were straight off that revision production line. I shudder to think how anyone coped who hadn't put their time in.

Results due at the end of December and will be posted here, no matter how bad!*

Rather than have a rest, I will immediately start work on special and general relativity through to February when SM358 The Quantum World begins. This time next year I'll be doing it all again.
Note added in 2009: I got a distinction in fact.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Story of Maths Part 2

On BBC 4 this evening - the second part of The Story of Maths".

Oh dear! In which we are told:

- The Indians discovered that if you take four bags of cloth from three bags of cloth you get (-1) bags of cloth. No you don't, you can't do the operation. (Inappropriate physical model of abstract mathematical operation).

- That the discovery of negative numbers (by the Indians) allowed all quadratic equations to be solved with two solutions (er ... no: try x2 + 1 = 0). The Indians did NOT discover complex numbers.

There is so very much that is wrong with this programme.

- Ludicrous political correctness - it appears that our histories never gave any credit to the ancient civilizations of China, India and the Islamic empire ... but the programme then explains that their maths was as advanced as that which today we teach to bright 15 year olds. All the stuff afterwards was developed in the West.

- Utterly inappropriate visual content for the script. No matter what presenter Marcus du Sautoy is talking about, we see the same amusing and completely irrelevant pictures: poor ethnic people trying to get their quotidian work done while Marcus presents foreground on something completely unrelated. Oh yes, lots of boats aimlessly sailing around too.

- Complete capitulation to TV-land's belief that you cannot explain anything coherently or even a bit formally for fear the audience will switch off (or the epithet "Open University" will be hurled at you). This leads to such absurdities as when, after explaining the power of algebraic notation and arabic numerals, the presenter tries to explain the Fibonacci sequence without using either. Instead an opaque narrative is backed up by hundreds of CGI bunny pictures superimposed over the leaning tower of Pisa. What was that about?

Honestly guys, this is a series about how not to communicate anything at all of the beauty, power, essence or even interest of maths. In this programme there IS no maths. Surely it can get no worse?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

What we did on a sunny Sunday

Clear blue sky, sun with real heat in it. A tee-shirt and jeans day in mid-October.

After lunch we borrowed a neighbour's electric drill and ladder to attach hooks just underneath the front bedroom window. Wire was strung through and the vast and clutching plant which had been flopping and battering my study window on the ground floor has ended-up securely attached and with a new focus on growing vertically.

As a reward to Adrian, he got to drive us to Danebury Hill Fort (our second visit in a couple of weeks) where conditions were just perfect for a stroll-up and walk around the perimeter earth-bank.

This evening, Snow White got a battery recharge, and I discovered a readable section of Proust - part II where Swann's love for Odette is described.

Odette was said to resemble Botticelli's Zippora (pictured). Zippora was the wife of Moses.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Favourite Cat Pictures

Below are some pictures of cats we've "owned" over recent years. One of them is our cyberpet. If you click on any of the pictures, it gets bigger.

Above is next door's cat "Kitty" which used our home when sent out to exercise in their garden.

Above is Snow White, our current feline friend.

Above is our other cat, which moved with us to Virginia, where (as far as we know) it still resides. This was the quiet and anxious one.

Another picture of "Kitty".

And finally this is "Neepa", a feisty little one which moved with us to the States, and remained there when we returned to the UK in 2003.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Caller ID

The other day, I wanted to phone a business associate - call him Harry - who I had not spoken with for some time. A catch-up call really, part of 'business development'.

My first call to Harry's mobile went unanswered: my second call ninety minutes later went to voicemail. I then reasoned thus: 'If I keep calling and Harry is busy, then when he eventually looks at his phone he's going to see 6 or 7 unanswered calls all from the same number. Looks like I'm harassing him, or that something urgent's come up.' So when I next called, I prefixed my dialling with '141' which suppresses the calling ID. At least this way all he would see would be calls from an unknown source, not a sequence of calls all from the same person.

To my surprise he picked up the call almost immediately. "Hello, this is Harry. Who is it?" When he discovered it was me, Harry was absurdly apologetic. "I'm a bit busy now. But call me back at 6.30 p.m. on this number and I'll be waiting for your call."

He was as good as his word and we had a pleasant half-hour chat. Much as I like Harry, he's normally pretty busy and I don't expect quite so much attention. So what happened?

Harry's phone would have shown "Nigel Seel" when I called - I do believe my number is programmed into his phone. He had indeed noticed my calls, but had decided - being busy - not to take them. When I called him anonymously (using 141) he must have thought that I was onto his case, and had deliberately tried to circumvent his defences. And so his guilt, at having been found out.

Who would have thought that mobile phones would generate such a surrounding cloud of higher-order intentionality!


Just for the record, the FTSE dropped below 4,000 this morning after another 10% fall. This is undoubtedly based on anticipation of a major recession, which on a parochial basis makes telecoms network investment less likely. The job market for telecoms consultants looks set to worsen.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Lightness of Being

Just finished Frank Wilczek's excellent "The Lightness of Being". Wilczek got his Nobel Prize for his part in developing Chromodynamics, the theory of quarks and gluons and their strong force interaction. We get an awe-inspiring jaunt through the most modern views of the quantum vacuum (which W. calls "The Grid") and unification theories (including SUSY).

Lots of stuff I hadn't understood before - for example, the mass of protons and neutrons (actually hadrons in general) is not at all a primary attribute. Instead it's Nature's optimisation compromise between the energy in the colour field (decreases as quarks and antiquark, for example, get closer together) and the increasing energy of 'localisation' as the said quarks and antiquarks are constrained into the same place: (more precision in location means higher momentum and energy). This energy (E/c2) is what turns out to be the proton or neutron mass: the quarks and gluons themselves are almost massless.

Wilczek writes in a humorous and crystal clear way, which makes his book that rarity in popularisations - a bit of a page turner! Warning: you need to be comfortable with the conceptual basis of 'undergraduate' quantum mechanics and special relativity to engage with this book.

The Story of Maths

BBC4 showed the first episode of "The Story of Maths" last night, presented by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. This is a co-production with the Open University.

The PR for this series is full of engaging stuff about making maths accessible, and giving a sense of mathematicians as real people (see here for example).

Adrian, Clare and myself sat, watched it and cringed. What would you say? Palin (Michael, not Sarah) meets Maths? Top Gear meets Maths without the jokes?

Adrian commented that the travel budget was too large, as Prof. du Sautoy decampled from the Egyptian pyramids to board yet another jet to Greece to "find out how the Greeks did it". I suspect using the the Internet, or a large whiteboard, would have proved more insightful. Still, in best Michael Palin style we saw lots of ancient ruins, modern markets and merchandise, while Marcus talked about ancient arithmetic and calculation without really conveying any of the ideas.

I particularly liked his extended discussion of the Babylonian base-60 number system while the screen showed endless minutes of someone shoving a pointed stick into a clay tablet. Wonderful!

For example, we were given a visual 'proof' of Pythagoras' theorem which went by too fast to understand if you didn't already know it. We heard a discussion of the irrationality of the number √2, which omitted an explanation as to why √2 is irrational (we saw a proof being written down but it was not explained). Plato was cited as showing that there are only five regular convex 3D polyhedra, but the reason why was never explained.

So who is this programme aimed at? If at the "ordinary guy" who never figured out equations at school, then throwing in references to calculus are not going to work. If it's people who have aptitude and/or background in maths, then you can risk a little more and, --- er, do some maths?

My only hope is that, like "Atom", it may get better.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Hour I First Believed

Review of "The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb.

Caelum Quirk is not a guy you would like to spend an evening with. Although a high school teacher in English literature, he’s as likely to be found slumped in front of his TV set with a six-pack, drunkenly watching the sports channel. A jealous husband prone to fits of violence, he’s already on his third wife. Sarcastic, low in empathy and impulsive, he’s not much given to introspection: not, you would say, a guy with a rich inner life.

Quirk and his nurse wife Maureen work at Columbine High School. The infamous shootings traumatise Maureen, who hid from the killers in a cupboard in the Library. The couple move back to the Quirk ancestral farm in Connecticut where Quirk’s troubles continue to accumulate. Around midway in this 700 page novel I figured Caelum for a Job-like figure and feared beyond measure that his redemption would come in the final pages as he dropped his habitual cynicism and finally found religion.

Thankfully, Wally Lamb is too sophisticated for such an obvious conclusion. Although the reader is regularly shocked with unexpected, and usually tragic events, Caelum’s journey is altogether more complex. In Connecticut, the threads of his tangled genealogy are gradually revealed. Lamb is brilliant at characterisation and scene, and we get almost a second novel set around the civil war, re-illuminating timeless issues of race, the subjugation of women and the general meanness and arrogance of men of power. Caelum begins to understand where he came from, and who he is.

This is a great, sweeping story where we care about the characters. I was particularly impressed by the way Lamb’s first-person narrative takes us into the head of Caelum Quirk – so that’s what it would be like to be a person like him.

When an author has worked for nine years on a massive novel, he deserves to be taken seriously. This novel professes to be about great themes: hatred, abandonment, redemption and love. Wally Lamb has written a great and wonderful book, but not quite a masterpiece. Why? Because his solutions in the end are too trite. Not quite classic American sentimentalism, but one ought to be more profound than spinning that sub-religious myth that ‘love in the end conquers hatred’ and that redemption is thereby open to all.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Any Old Iron?

It's been a while since the last posting here. Days spent instead revising for the OU physics exam (Oct 15th) and reading the 800 page Wally Lamb book "The Hour I First Believed" which I have to review for Amazon. Actually I just finished it today, and I'm currently mulling over how to put a decent 250 word review together.

Clare is also working on an OU course - a short course on Archaeology. This evening we dropped by the monthly meeting of the Friends of Andover Museum, billed as a society devoted to local history and archaeology. We went entirely on spec - we didn't know any of the people, or the subject of the meeting. In fact we had seen the ad. for the society posted on a wall in Andover Library.

The title of the talk was "Any Old Iron". The speaker, Mike Walton, runs a local laundry, passed down through his family, and is a keen collector of historical irons. He had brought a selection and described the history of ironing.

Even as I write these words, I can read your reactions: incredulity, anticipation of an hour's worth of anorak-tinged tedium, a sinking feeling in the stomach. Yes, those were exactly my reactions as I realised what we had let ourselves in for. Mr Walton was a perfectly pleasant and erudite speaker, who to my immense surprise kept us interested all the way through. He was particularly good on Elizabethan Ruffles (I realise this is sounding more like the specialist publication on 'Have I Got News for You' by the second).

The "Friends" are mostly silver-haired retired people who all appear to be very good friends with each other. In Myers-Briggs terms I would guess mostly SJ ('Guardian'). The Rotary Club was mentioned and more than a few appeared to belong to it.

Clare believes there is scope to get more plugged into our rich local Neolithic history (Stonehenge, Woodhenge, Danebury, etc) so we shall persist. Next month the topic is "Warfare in late Anglo-Saxon England" - (Dr Ryan Lavelle) which, as titles go, shows considerably more potential.