Sunday, November 30, 2008

True Romance

Back in the nineteenth century sea-going navy, it was the custom for captains to take their wives along. I know this from Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. The other ranks had to settle for Mansfield Park's ‘rears and vices” unless they had the privilege of escorting female prisoners, or happened across more-or-less willing natives. Later on, the world got smaller and even more dangerous, and sailors had to cache their women in each port of call.

The space navy is traditionally broad-minded about things that don’t impinge on duty. We’re not short of energy or resources, and the same technology that can send our minds to the stars can provide us with a partner. So the navy doesn’t care if an officer (or rating for that matter) gets themselves the clone body of a suitable partner, and uploads a mind. Our cabins are certainly big enough. Some people’s partners consent to be scanned, and in this manner ‘they’ can accompany their loved one. But not everyone wants to be in a bigamist marriage with themselves.

And so we get to the unsavoury solution. Why not an artificial personality? Men finally get what they say they want, and it can be turned off when not necessary: a misogynist’s dreambot. So yes, it’s done – and strangely, the men aren’t proud of it. Does it feel too much like prostitution? Or maybe, despite every woman’s belief, men do want something more than a sexual relationship with a biomechanical toy.

We call them dolls, by the way.

I confess that when I joined the navy, I was not in a relationship. My interests were high-flown, theoretical. I was careless of the real world, uninterested. I didn’t lack desire – far from it – but somehow the magical words didn’t come.

I observed and theorised. Women, despite the best wishes of adolescent boys, are not primed to mate at all times. Most of the time they seem to exhibit merely a social, getting-along type persona. Somehow a different sub-personality has to be in the ascendancy before they’ll consent. It might be romance, it might be lust, but it has to be unearthed, located, brought to the surface, and laid out for consumption.

It’s strange that words and body language are sufficient tools for the job. I used to watch what I would call unskilled labour addressing the task with conspicuous success in clubs, discos and bars. How did they do it? The words seemed to me to be nonsense; the actions guaranteed to get a slap and a flounce if I were to try them.

I pride myself I’m good with mysteries. I’m fast on the uptake, can apply what I tell myself privately is a staggering intellect, and have an unerring sense of the feel of a good solution. But women: why I couldn’t penetrate that mystery was itself a mystery that my inability to solve was yet another mystery to me.

Shortly after joining the navy, in a relatively senior position, I felt I could justify experimentation so I went right ahead and purchased a doll, naming her Zeta. As I examined the personality construct which shipped with the product, I was amazed at how primitive it was. It appeared to be functionally modelled on a reptilian brain: lust incarnate. Pretty much any approach behaviour on the part of its imprinted male caused a number of augmented physiological arousal responses. Her – its – arousal profile seemed perfectly matched to the target male response. The manufacturers had clearly done their homework, no doubt basing their profile on the typical sex-starved rating on a long, lonely voyage.

Well, no doubt it pleased the sailors, but I considered myself a higher form of life: cultured, educated and a whole lot smarter. I wanted a relationship, not just physicality. I knew that in humans, the higher emotional responses are mediated by the limbic system – functions which in Zeta were currently non-existent. However, state-of-the-art limbic models did exist and I availed myself of an easy-to-hack freeware system.

Soon whenever Zeta saw me, her eyes would light up and she would run across, put her arms around me and sob in a piteous, but curiously arousing way, “Darling, I’ve missed you so much!”

You know, I really thought I had cracked the problem except for two things. First, my technique of inducing her evident desire for me obviously would not generalise to other females; second, I was getting rather bored. What on earth was going wrong?

I decided reluctantly that some higher cortical functions were also necessary. It was a simple matter for me to build a client program for Zeta which could communicate with the ship’s main computing engines- in fact, Zeta could even function as a substitute interface.

Many were the days when we would lie cuddled up in bed together, as I outlined some interesting problem in quantum mechanics or hyper-curved space-time. No sooner had I described the problem then she would gently breathe a solution into my ear. What a babe!

Fun though that was, I still had to figure out a way for raw cognition to switch out and be replaced by raw passion, as and when I desired. I dithered for a while: should it be a trigger phrase, a hand signal? In the end, I decided that a combination of a suggestive remark and a little smile- just so - should be the means to bypass her icy little cognitive head and enter her oh-so-passionate heart.

I’m not surprised that the average rating has no need for the kind of psychological sophisticate my Zeta has now become. But a note of caution: however good my modelling, I’m obviously still missing something.

Things still don’t work too well with regular women.


Back to "Stories".

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Goodworth Clatford

Continuing the ISTJ strand of this diary (see here), we drove to the parking space at the junction of the Romsey and Winchester Roads (just to the south-east of Andover) to take a walk by the Anton river this lunchtime.

A footbridge over the river Anton

The car had told us it was 3°C. Undaunted we crossed the Romsey road and walked down the grass trail towards the river. As my ears began to freeze, I made a note to myself to get a spare scarf and make it into a cap-comforter for any future winter walks. Clare suggested that in this case I would be going for walks by myself.

Turning left at the bottom we walked past the Sewage Works (malodorous and looking like a building site) and turned right through a small copse to the footbridge over the river Anton (pictured above).

Clare well-wrapped-up against the cold

Here's Clare, seemingly oblivious to the restful vista of the gentle, laminar flow of the cold river.

We then walked back towards Goodworth Clatford (best-kept village in Hampshire, 1992, I thought I saw) along the track pictured below.

A country track

Back in the car, after an hour and twenty minutes, Clare reckoned what we each needed was a refreshing, warming cup of cocoa, so we detoured back via the Co-Op with the result pictured below.

Hmmm ... Cocoa!

Friday, November 28, 2008

My DNA lineages - from Oxford Ancestors

I had my Mitochondrial (maternal line) and Y-chromosome (paternal line) DNA analysed by Oxford Ancestors (OA) some while ago.

Here are the results (click on any of the images to make them bigger and more readable):
  • mtDNA = haplogroup H -- which OA call 'Helena'
  • Y-chromosome gene group = R1b -- which OA call 'Oisin'.

    Maternal Line - Helena

    As mentioned in the previous post, I'm most likely Celtic on both sides. On my mother's side, I think the 'Helena' story is reasonably secure. The 'Helena' clan were the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain after the last ice age.

    We now look to the paternal side.

    Paternal Line - Oisin

    In Bryan Sykes' book, "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland" he's more specific about how the 'Oisin' clan got to England. He says we were 'descended from Iberian fishermen who migrated to Britain between 4,000 and 5,000 BC' and that we 'Oisins' are 'now considered the UK's indigenous inhabitants'.

    Oxford Ancestors provided an overall classification chart, shown below.

    suggesting that if you were 'Oisin' and lived in England, then there was a 75% likelihood you were Celtic. (Obviously there were also Anglo-Saxons and Danish Vikings who were also part of the 'Oisin' clan - it would need a more refined analysis of genetic markers to distinguish those from the indigenous British 'Oisin' Celts). So that's the slightly more tentative basis of a Celtic ancestry on my father's side too.

    How did we get here? Take a look at the two following 'out-of-Africa' migration maps. As before, click on a map to make it larger.

    Migration of maternal clans

    Migration of paternal clans

    For close relatives, the paternal story applies to my father, brother and sister, and two sons. Also my brother's sons.

    The maternal story applies to my mother, brother and sister. Also my sister's daughters and son.

    My own sons get their MtDNA from Clare, who is Irish - and we believe thoroughly Celtic - on her mother's side).

    Next Post: the Origins of the British

    Previous Post: the language of my ancestors

    The language of my ancestors

    My 'Y-chromosome' male lineage and my MtDNA female lineage both signal celtic ancestry back to the original inhabitants of Britain. (As distinct from Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman, Roman or anything even more exotic).

    My ancestors spoke the language which has now become Welsh. I speak English, an Anglo-Saxon invader language, because the celtic Britons of western England were defeated and assimilated. Perhaps it's time to look again at the language of my ancestors? - As I write, I have in front of me the book 'Speak Welsh' that I bought ages ago.

    It reminds me of the American gibe about the second world war: "We're the reason you guys aren't speaking German."

    The response is that you Americans are speaking German, a descendant of one of the Saxon Germanic languages spoken there in the dark ages. If the Britons had won, Americans would be speaking Welsh.

    Next post: results of my DNA testing from Oxford Ancestors

    Thursday, November 27, 2008

    Review: Four Christmases

    A trip yesterday evening to the 6.30 showing of "Four Christmases" at the Andover cinema. The theatre was almost completely full - Wednesday is cheap night, but that may not be the entire explanation - and the audience 95% young female for this romantic comedy.

    Plot summary (from Wikipedia). Not really spoilers as there is little suspense.

    "No one more enjoys the holidays than Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon).

    Every December 25th, this happily unmarried, upscale San Francisco couple embark on a holiday tradition they have shared every year since they met-ditching their crazy familes for a relaxing, fun-filled vacation in some sunny exotic locale. There, slipping margaritas by the pool, they toast the season, knowing they once again avoided the chaos and emotional fallout of their four respective households: divorced parents, squabbling siblings, out-of-control kids and all the simmering resentments and awkward moments that are the hallmarks of every family Christmas.

    But not this year. Shorts and sunglasses packed, Brad and Kate are trapped at the San Francisco airport by a fogbank that cancels every outbound flight. Worse yet, they are caught on camera by a local news crew, revealing their whereabouts to the whole city... and to their families. With no escape and no excuses, they are now expected home by Brad's Father (Robert Duvall) and Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen). And Brad's mother (Sissy Spacek) And Kate's father (Jon Voight).

    Four Christmases in one day.

    As they brace themselves for a marathon of homecomings, Brad and Kate expect the worst-and that's exactly what they get. But as Brad counts down the minutes to their freedom, Kate surprisingly finds herself tuned to the ticking of a different clock. At the end of the day, each will gain a new perspective on where they came from... and where they're going. Getting to know themselves and each other as they really are could finally give them a chance at the kind of love they've only been playing at."

    Clare reckoned it was thin gruel, but I did catch her laughing out loud more than a few times. There was a particularly amusing serial gag of various babies projectile-vomiting over the unfortunate Kate (I guess you had to be there).

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008

    Einstein and Eddington?

    My brother, Adrian, emailed me, noting no review of the BBC-2 play last Saturday.

    I replied as follows:

    "On the Einstein and Eddington thing, yes, I thought about reviewing it but I just couldn't summon up the energy. I've somehow lost track of the rules about historically-based dramas - the extent to which you can distort history and just make stuff up. There were so many inaccuracies I DID know about (may I mention the missing Marcel Grossman?) that I just got very suspicious of all the other stuff.

    Otherwise it passed the time agreeably enough and Tennant is a fine actor."

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    The Typealyzer

    Typealyzer, a site mentioned by BackReaction here, claims to work out your (Myers-Briggs) personality type from your blog.

    I entered the URL of this blog and out popped (the accurate) INTP. Is that amazing or what?

    Obviously no-one who writes a blog is now safe!

    UPDATE: I typed in my blog URL again to show Clare, and this time it came back with INTJ!

    Why the change? My hypothesis is that the system is only looking at the most recent post (namely it's now looking at this one!). To explore further I typed into Typealyzer a very different URL (here) -a post where I described - with photos - a country walk we did a few days back. This time my blog was ISTJ!

    So the orginal INTP was for my previous post to this one, which was a long, theoretical article about agent theory. I suppose I should have guessed that there was really very little magic involved with Typealyzer ...

    Monday, November 24, 2008

    The Deception Theorem

    The following describes something I believe to be correct, but would need some work to make really rigorous.

    “The Deception Theorem states that a First-Order Intentional Agent can never know it has been deceived. First we explain the theorem, then we sketch the proof.”

    “What’s an Intentional Agent?”

    “Put simply, it’s an entity which we can describe in terms of its 'beliefs' and ‘wants’. So when we see an ant dragging a dead aphid back to the nest, we can say that the ant believes that the aphid is a useful ant-resource (food), and wants to get it back to the nest.

    "A First Order Intentional Agent - call it a FOIA – is an agent which may be accurately described in terms of its beliefs and wants. What makes it first-order is that the FOIA doesn’t itself take account of any beliefs and wants of intentional agents in its environment. Specifically, an ant doesn’t operate as if it thought that you had any beliefs and/or wants relevant to it. Of course, it could be mistaken about that.”

    “So you’re saying insects are FOIAs? What about higher animals, mammals for example?”

    “Well, humans are certainly capable of a “theory of mind” – the recognition that other entities out there have points of view (another way of expressing beliefs and wants). People with autism perhaps excepted. I think most of us assume that cats and dogs, for example, operate as if they believe we have beliefs and goals they can manipulate. Hard proof is more difficult!”

    “OK, so perhaps now you could define ‘deceive’?

    “Right. First we define a Higher-Order Intentional Agent (HOIA). This, as you would suspect, is an entity which can indeed ascribe to other entities beliefs and wants, and which can actively work to alter them.

    "Naturally in order to be a deceiver, you have to be a HOIA - a FOIA can’t deceive as it has no concept that other entities have opinions in the first place, so it can’t conceive of manipulating them.

    "So if X is a HOIA and Y is any kind of intentional agent, we say as a definition:

    X deceives Y if:

    1. Y doesn’t believe something (at some point in time)

    2. X wants Y to come to believe that something, even though it isn’t true

    3. X executes a plan by which Y comes to believe that thing, even though it isn’t true.
    Y has now been deceived.

    We can say it more clearly in symbols.

    X deceives Y iff

    1. ~B(Y, φ) and

    2. W(X,◊[B(Y, φ) and ~ φ]) and

    3. Executes(X, plan(B, φ)) → ◊[B(Y, φ) and ~ φ].
    where B=Believes, W=Wants, ◊ = eventually, φ is the false belief. The purpose of X executing the plan is to generate a set of sensory impressions in Y so that Y comes to update its beliefs (falsely) in the way X intended.

    Now we can sketch the proof of the Deception Theorem. We suppose that the deceived agent, Y is a FOIA.

    1. The FOIA Y believes it is surrounded by objects which behave in essentially self-contained, purely reactive ways. Note that we’re talking about intrinsic behaviour here. If an ant kicks a stone, the direction it moves clearly depends on the ant's opinion as to where the stone should go. But the stone’s behaviour is not caused by the ant’s opinion per se, but by its foot: a well-defined reaction out of physics.

    In more technical language, Y has a non-intentional understanding of its external environment.

    2. Now Y can certainly make mistakes – it has limited perception, after all. If its subsequent perception indicate it has misread a situation, and fallen into error, it will experience cognitive dissonance. For example, the ant drags the fly but an unobserved sharp stone snags it and drags it out of the ant’s grasp. What a surprise!

    In such a situation Y will apply whatever repair mechanism its design specifies: could be repetition, random behaviour, avoidance or something else. Whatever the mechanism, the design intent is to get back on track to securing whatever is now Y’s primary ‘want’.

    3. Assume X now tries to deceive Y. The mechanism of deception – according to our definition above - is to provide sensory input which generates belief change in Y in a false direction. It may or may not work, but if it does, to realise you have been fooled you have to accept that there is some agent out there fitting the definition of an agent of deception above.

    Specifically, Y has to come to believe that there is a X such that:

    X wants Y to come to believe something even though it isn’t true, i.e.

    ∃X.W(X,◊[B(Y, φ) and ~ φ])

    "This is a statement of higher-order intentionality, which a FOIA – by definition – cannot conceptualise.

    4. So a First-Order Intentional Agent can never know it has been deceived. QED.”

    “Can you give me an example?”

    “Consider a simple wasp trap: a jam bottle with a little jam and water in the bottom, and a small hole in the lid. This contraption sends a signal to the wasp 'there’s good food here which is safely obtainable'. The wasps follow the odour trail into the bottle, but can never get out. They drown, deceived, but never know that they have been deceived."

    "Well, that's maybe not very convincing. No-one thinks wasps are particularly smart anyhow.”

    “They've managed to get by for two hundred million years so they obviously know something. But as another example, you could equally deduce that an autistic person can’t tell when they’re being deceived. Is that a big enough deal for you?”


    Professor Michael Wooldridge at Liverpool University is a leader in agent theory here in the UK. For more, see his website here.


    NOTE: if you got this far, you may believe the result to be quite trivial. I partially agree with you, although I would claim in defence that the sight-seeing during the journey more than makes up for the attractions of the final destination.

    The motivation for writing it is that I need this result for a plot device in my current fiction writing here.

    Saturday, November 22, 2008

    South of Monxton

    We drove down to Monxton, a couple of miles south-west of Andover this afternoon for a country walk. We took the track called Hook Lane which runs between fields down to the railway. On the right we saw a beautiful tree, standing by itself in a field marked with those chalk fragments which intermix with the soil around here.

    Sarson Wood from Hook Lane

    As we turned around, Clare saw this pigeon lying dead in the leaves at the edge of the track. It seemed a recent casualty from the flocks wheeling and screeching a few hundred feet overhead.

    Recently-deceased pigeon

    We crossed the main Salisbury-London railway track and turned onto a new track called Dunkirt Lane. The sun was now behind us, but the arctic wind continued to fight its way through our layered, but merely autumnal clothing.

    Dunkirt Lane, looking west

    Finally we gained the Abbotts Ann to Monxton road, crossing over the railway bridge (pictured below) where I disturbed several enormous, overfed bunnies as I manoeuvered to get the picture below.

    The London-Salisbury main railway -looking west

    Took us a couple of hours.

    Total Eclipse

    Is it just me who thinks this ad is absolutely brilliant?

    Sorry about the product placement in the final frames ...

    Thursday, November 20, 2008

    New Scientist unsaveable?

    In September 2006 SF writer Greg Egan (Quarantine, Permutation City, etc) wrote the piece here questioning whether New Scientist's descent into shoddy, tabloid reporting could possibly be arrested. Given the size of its readership, he argued that it was in the interests of all scientifically-literate individuals to push, at this last ditch, for a change in course. Of course, nothing whatsoever happened.

    The New Scientist of today - fashionably-green, woolly-minded, sensationalist, muddled, politically-correct, contemptuous of the educated portion of its readership, missioned to increase sales at any price rather than understanding - is far removed from the Reithian journal of my youth. On almost a weekly basis I ask myself whether my subscription should get junked this time around or not.

    At time of writing, renewal chances are not good, particularly after reading the gibberish of the cover story this week: 'Time Wars'.

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Job advice

    A colleague ("Jo") from a recent consultancy assignment wrote me an email. She's received a job offer from a competing organisation - should she go or should she stay?


    Hi Jo,

    What a dilemma! I can't tell you what to do, of course. Just indicate some of the things you should think about.

    1. Which is the most pleasant working environment, best management, etc?
    2. Which is the most interesting work?
    3. Is there the ability to develop a career, wages etc in the future?
    4. How easy is the driving to/from work - the commute?
    5. What does your family think?

    After you have thought about this, if you are still unsure, you should throw a coin. I am serious!

    You should say: "Heads I go, Tails I stay" and throw the coin. Then, when you see the result - a decision has been made. Now you have to listen to your heart. Do you agree with the coin? If not, then you have, in your heart, already made the decision the other way. You can over-rule the coin!

    Let me know what you decide and the best of luck!


    Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    This & that

    A stroll out this afternoon - just a three mile circular walk from our home. The winter sun is so low in the afternoon - the pre-sunset over Quarley Hill was beautifully-coloured: a sight I lamentably failed to capture in this picture.

    The view to Quarley Hill

    This morning, as I was writing chapter 2 of "Exopsychology" (it won't be on the web for a while yet) the new Roomba arrived (pictured below, feeding at its docking station).

    The Roomba 530 preparing to work

    After an initial battery charge, it's trundling around the bedroom as I write.

    More GR news. I knew about frame dragging, but hadn't realised that it can be thought about within the paradigm of gravitomagnetism: an analogy to the way magnetism arises from electrostatics + special relativity. What a great concept! And an intriguing experimental result here from Martin Tajmar.

    Monday, November 17, 2008

    Easy Virtue

    We took in this film, using the pensioners' slot (judging by the attendance), at 4.20 p.m. this afternoon.

    Short plot synopsis from Wikipedia. A glamorous American widow marries a young Englishman in the South of France on the spur of the moment, they go to England to meet his parents: the mother-in-law takes a strong dislike to their new daughter-in-law, and a battle of wits ensues. However, the American girl has a dark secret in her past, while the father-in-law finds her a breath of fresh air.

    Based on the 1924 Noel Coward play, the action moves along briskly enough: we sense at the end that all the right guys/gals get their gals/guys - or at least have a fighting chance; while the plucky, modern, American beauty gets one over those stuffy twenties English aristos.

    Something for all of us then.

    American beauty and father-in-law

    Colin Firth, playing the father of the all-too-juvenile English aristo-husband, is at that awkward age: too old now for the lead romatic hero, while not aged enough to properly inhabit the previous generation. I guess this alone explains why he gets the best outcome of all in the final reel.

    The Cinderella effect

    Dominic Lawson, writing in the Sunday Times yesterday (here) about the case of 'baby P.' drew attention to the elevated propensity of step-parents to abuse/kill their step-children.

    He cited the report (Daly and Wilson) here, which identifies an elevated risk of abuse (above that perpetrated by a genetic parent) of more than one hundred times.

    Two points of interest.

    1. What has to be explained is why a step-parent would have any interest in caring for a step child at all (zero genetic relationship). The authors suppose that it's a necessary down-payment for the benefits of a relationship with the child's other natural parent.

    2. Is the effect identical in traditional, hunter-gatherer societies? The paper present research which shows that the nature of the step-parent - step-child relationship is identical, with significant lower levels of care given to step-child by a step-parent in such societies.

    I think it's the continuing pernicious influence of what Steven Pinker called The Blank Slate theory of social behaviour (the theoretical basis for much political correctness) which prevents the public policy implications of all of this being drawn out.

    Logically speaking we either accept that these children are going to be abused all-too-frequently by step-parents, or we set the abuse-threshhold much lower and move the step-children out at once to live permanently with adopting parents.

    It's another story as to why adopting parents might be trusted not to abuse. Something to do with the elective natue of adoption, combined with - as motivation - the 'failure of discrimination' mentioned by Daly and Wilson at the start of their paper.

    Saturday, November 15, 2008

    Our Roomba died

    Today is rather a sad day, robotically speaking.

    Our Roomba was never the same the fourth time it was dropped on its head. We blame Adrian for this latter catastrophe - a few weeks ago he lifted it up by its removable dust box and the machine 'fell out'. I really should have explained to him about the Roomba's handle.

    Afterwards, it often refused to start despite much pressing of the power button, and its motions were erratic. Today it started to make a weird grinding noise, and then stopped vacuuming altogether.

    Clare decided to take it apart (pictured)

    Inside was a mess of dust, which had worked its way into all parts of the interior. This was the Roomba 2 variant, a few years old now and not really designed for home maintenance.

    We cleaned it up and put it back together again - after a fashion - but although it did start up again, none of its fundamental problems had been solved. It sort of squeaked, and then died.

    We ordered a Roomba 530 this afternoon.


    Note: the Roomba pops up in some unlikely places ...

    Proustian Insights

    You know when an author writes something which jumps out of the page? You think – ‘was he talking about me’? So it was, when I read about M. Legrandin, a friend of Marcel’s semi-fictional family at Combray (near Paris).

    We first hear about M. Legrandin in complimentary terms thus:

    On our way home from mass we would often meet M. Legrandin, who, detained in Paris by his professional duties as an engineer, could only (except in the regular holiday seasons) visit his home at Combray between Saturday evenings and Monday mornings.

    He was one of that class of men who, apart from a scientific career in which they may well have proved brilliantly successful, have acquired an entirely different kind of culture, literary or artistic, of which they make no use in the specialised work of their profession, but by which their conversation profits.

    More 'literary' than many 'men of letters' (we were not aware at this period that M. Legrandin had a distinct reputation as a writer, and so were greatly astonished to find that a well-known composer had set some verses of his to music), endowed with a greater ease in execution than many painters, they imagine that the life they are obliged to lead is not that for which they are really fitted, and they bring to their regular occupations either a fantastic indifference or a sustained and lofty application, scornful, bitter, and conscientious.

    So isn’t that me a bit? Working as a telecoms consultant, but really interested since primary school in theoretical physics?

    Marcel’s grandmother was astonished at:

    “the furious invective which he was always launching at the aristocracy, at fashionable life, and 'snobbishness -- "undoubtedly," he would say, "the sin of which Saint Paul is thinking when he speaks of the sin for which there is no forgiveness."

    However, we soon find that M. Legrandin has an unpleasant characteristic. Marcel has occasion to ask him, in later quiet conversation, whether Legrandin has ever met the local aristocracy – the Guermantes. Recall Legrandin thinks that snobbishness is the greatest crime. Here is what happens.

    But, at the sound of the word Guermantes, I saw in the middle of each of our friend's blue eyes a little brown dimple appear, as though they had been stabbed by some invisible pin-point, while the rest of his pupils, reacting from the shock, received and secreted the azure overflow.

    His fringed eyelids darkened, and drooped. His mouth, which had been stiffened and seared with bitter lines, was the first to recover, and smiled, while his eyes still seemed full of pain, like the eyes of a good-looking martyr whose body bristles with arrows.

    "No, I do not know them," he said, but instead of uttering so simple a piece of information, a reply in which there was so little that could astonish me, in the natural and conversational tone which would have befitted it, he recited it with a separate stress upon each word, leaning forward, bowing his head, with at once the vehemence which a man gives, so as to be believed, to a highly improbable statement (as though the fact that he did not know the Guermantes could be due only to some strange accident of fortune) and with the emphasis of a man who, finding himself unable to keep silence about what is to him a painful situation, chooses to proclaim it aloud, so as to convince his hearers that the confession he is making is one that causes him no embarrassment, but is easy, agreeable, spontaneous, that the situation in question, in this case the absence of relations with the Guermantes family, might very well have been not forced upon, but actually designed by Legrandin himself, might arise from some family tradition, some moral principle or mystical vow which expressly forbade his seeking their society.

    "No," he resumed, explaining by his words the tone in which they were uttered. "No, I do not know them; I have never wished to know them; I have always made a point of preserving complete independence; at heart, as you know, I am a bit of a Radical.

    “People are always coming to me about it, telling me I am mistaken in not going to Guermantes, that I make myself seem ill-bred, uncivilised, an old bear. But that's not the sort of reputation that can frighten me; it's too true! ...”

    I did not understand very clearly why, in order to refrain from going to the houses of people whom one did not know, it should be necessary to cling to one's independence, nor how that could give one the appearance of a savage or a bear.

    But what I did understand was this, that Legrandin was not altogether truthful when he said that he cared only for churches, moonlight, and youth; he cared also, he cared a very great deal, for people who lived in country houses, and would be so much afraid, when in their company, of incurring their displeasure that he would never dare to let them see that he numbered, as well, among his friends middle-class people, the families of solicitors and stockbrokers ...: in a word, he was a snob.

    Of course he would never have admitted all or any of this in the poetical language which my family and I so much admired. And if I asked him, "Do you know the Guermantes family?" Legrandin the talker would reply, "No, I have never cared to know them." But unfortunately the talker was now subordinated to another Legrandin, whom he kept carefully hidden in his breast, whom he would never consciously exhibit, because this other could tell stories about our own Legrandin and about his snobbishness which would have ruined his reputation for ever; and this other Legrandin had replied to me already in that wounded look, that stiffened smile, the undue gravity of his tone in uttering those few words, in the thousand arrows by which our own Legrandin had instantaneously been stabbed and sickened, like a Saint Sebastian of snobbery:

    "Oh, how you hurt me! No, I do not know the Guermantes family. Do not remind me of the great sorrow of my life." And since this other, this irrepressible, dominant, despotic Legrandin, if he lacked our Legrandin's charming vocabulary, showed an infinitely greater promptness in expressing himself, by means of what are called 'reflexes,' it followed that, when Legrandin the talker attempted to silence him, he would already have spoken, and it would be useless for our friend to deplore the bad impression which the revelations of his alter ego must have caused, since he could do no more now than endeavour to mitigate them.

    This was not to say that M. Legrandin was anything but sincere when he inveighed against snobs. He could not (from his own knowledge, at least) be aware that he was one also, since it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar, and what we come to find out about our own can be no more than what other people have shown us.

    Upon ourselves they react but indirectly, through our imagination, which substitutes for our actual, primary motives other, secondary motives, less stark and therefore more decent.

    Never had Legrandin's snobbishness impelled him to make a habit of visiting a duchess as such. Instead, it would set his imagination to make that duchess appear, in Legrandin's eyes, endowed with all the graces. He would be drawn towards the duchess, assuring himself the while that he was yielding to the attractions of her mind, and her other virtues, which the vile race of snobs could never understand.

    Only his fellow-snobs knew that he was of their number, for, owing to their inability to appreciate the intervening efforts of his imagination, they saw in close juxtaposition the social activities of Legrandin and their primary cause.

    At home, meanwhile, we had no longer any illusions as to M. Legrandin, and our relations with him had become much more distant. Mamma would be greatly delighted whenever she caught him red-handed in the sin, which he continued to call the unpardonable sin, of snobbery.

    So, I also feel the force of this. And what does that say about me?
    All text from "In Search of Lost Time" taken from here - "Swann's Way".

    Friday, November 14, 2008

    Geometric Algebra

    Reminder to self: take a look at Geometric Algebra for Physicists by Chris Doran in a few years time.
    Hat tip: Roy Simpson.

    Connecting a laptop to the Internet

    My brother-in-law, a Roman Catholic priest, wrote to ask me how to connect a laptop to the Internet when travelling - for example in someone's home. (He's somewhat new to the concept of portable computing). I replied as follows.


    There are several ways.

    1. If the person has a home router with Ethernet sockets, (and an Ethernet cable) then you can just plug the Ethernet cable into your laptop and you are good to go.

    2. However, the more usual situation is when the person has WiFi (i.e. they have a broadband router which provides WiFi throughout the home). Make sure your laptop has its WiFi switched on - there's usually a small switch somewhere.

    Windows Vista will automatically detect the WiFi signal and will put up some dialogue windows which are pretty obvious, to allow you to connect. If the WiFi is encrypted (which it should be, but not everyone does it), then one of the dialogue windows will ask you to input the correct password or pass phrase. The person who owns the network should be able to tell you if they trust you!

    3. Alternatively, you may be able to find a WiFi hotspot at a hotel, cafe, airport or station. Again, Vista can detect this. Usually what happens is that when you start the browser, it goes directly to the hotspot provider's 'landing page' and you will be asked to buy some time. The rate is usually around £6 per hour and you can use a credit card; in a hotel it may go on your bill. It's OK as this bit of the process is encrypted. Full instructions are always provided.

    You should note that public hotspots are not encrypted for general Internet usage which would be a security issue if you were planning on sending anything truly confidential.

    In general, WiFi is now pretty ubiquitous and I have not had too many problems when travelling around (at least in first world countries!). The main thing is to make sure the WiFi on your laptop is actually switched on! WiFi on a laptop can be a bit of a power hog so it's advisable to switch it off when running on batteries - also on planes they like you to turn it off.

    Best of luck!



    My brother, Adrian, emailed me to point out I had forgotten a very obvious way to solve this problem. I therefore sent the following supplementary note.

    I omitted to mention that it's possible to connect to the Internet from a laptop via the mobile phone network. It works best if there's a 3G network. Probably too expensive an option if you're roaming, unless you're doing a quick email check, but if you're in Peru for a while you could maybe get a Vodafone-type data connection (it just plugs into the USB socket). The issue may be with length of contract.

    It's also possible via a mobile phone itself - you could check if yours can do it.

    General Relativity

    As part of my personal campaign to ramp up physics as fast as possible, I determined to study special/general relativity in this winter period, after having finished the OU’s Electromagnetism course in October, and before starting their Quantum Mechanics course this coming February. I therefore bought the middle two ‘blocks’ of the Open University’s “Space, Time and Cosmology” (S357) third-level physics course over the summer (through Amazon) and have now completed them.

    Space, Time and Cosmology” has a reputation for being light on maths but heavy on the conceptual foundations. I have found it wonderful for its clarity – particularly General Relativity (GR) – while I wish they had felt able to put a little more maths into it.

    Here is the OU roadmap for what GR is all about.

    Necessary ingredients

    • A description of spacetime curvature (the Riemann curvature tensor – with 20 components)

    • A description of mass-energy distribution/flow at a point (the energy-momentum tensor Tμν – with 10 components).

    • The Ricci curvature tensor Rμν which is a sum of above-mentioned Riemann tensor components. The Ricci tensor is zero in regions without a source term (zero mass-energy) although spacetime may still be curved there. (Nowhere in the universe is truly energy-free).

    • The metric tensor, which shows how spacetime intervals are computed within the relevant coordinate systems (gμν– 10 components).

    Einstein’s 10 field equations are then (without the cosmological constant):

    Rμν- (1/2)gμνR = -8πGTμν

    where G is the gravitational constant and R (unsubscripted) is a spacetime function called the curvature scalar.

    Given a mass/energy distribution, from the field equations one can compute the metric tensor gμν.

    Once we have all the gμν components we can slot them into the metric expression to finally compute geodesics. These are the paths bodies take under gravity, formerly computed using Newton's laws of motion.

    This is just as complicated as it sounds, so there was general surprise when Karl Schwarzschild produced an exact solution for the curved spacetime metric around a non-rotating spherically-symmetric mass, in 1916. See here for details.

    The Kerr solution, for rotating objects (most notably black holes with angular momentum) was not developed until 1963.

    I'm now going to take a brief look at Wheeler's book on GR, which I think is at the same level as the OU text, and then take a look at Sean Carroll's lecture notes on general relativity here.

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    What recession?

    A shopping trip today in the rain, to buy clothes and a new pair of shoes amongst other things.

    We were amazed at the midweek bustle in Basingstoke's mall. All the shops we visited were crowded, and even finding an empty slot in the car park was a not-entirely-trivial task.

    While Toys R Us was not crowded, the couple doing early Christmas shopping ahead of us spent almost £200 on a succession of big boxes covered with excitingly militaristic imagery.

    Perhaps this is the last gasp of the consumer boom before everyone dives into a hole in January, to spend the next twelve months paying off their credit card bills.

    So much for maintaining the level of demand in the economy.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2008

    Adrian back to Canada

    After spending some months of the summer with us, Adrian has just departed the UK to return to the Sun Peaks resort in Canada, where he'll be teaching snowboarding and skiing this winter.

    I drove him and his friend down to Gatwick airport this afternoon, and at time of writing they will be over the north Atlantic en-route to Vancouver. They'll arrive shortly after 6 a.m. our time, but it will be 10.10 in the evening for them. Their plan is to get to Whistler for some pre-season boarding, before continuing on to Sun Peaks and the start of instruction. Adrian also intends to work on more advanced ski instructor qualifications this season.

    Next April, when the Canadian season ends, Adrian's current plan is to follow the snow to New Zealand and continue to instruct. Then back to Canada next Autumn. So it'll be a while before he's back in the UK.

    Adrian's presence has not had a huge impact on our household. The major effect of his departure will be that we will lose broccoli as a regular shopping item, and there will be less viewing of "Match of the Day". We will also be under less pressure to ready enormously-lengthy Russian novels.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2008

    Price Drop TV

    This morning, in a spirit of viewing randomness, I caught "Price Drop TV", a shopping channel. Or it might have been "Bid TV". Or maybe it's just sad.

    The format is that the presenter shows and briefly describes some artifact: a collection of ceramic cooking bowls; a set of jewelry-encrusted rings. There is a job-lot of the things, 100 ceramic cooking bowls, 15 rings, and a starter item price appears on the screen.

    As you watch, people are phoning in, and whenever the number left stalls for a while, the price reduces ("Price Drop TV"). Eventually, the lot is sold out, and then everybody gets their product at the final price shown.

    At first sight, this should be required watching for all economics students. The item price-quantity variable slides down the demand curve until we eventually reach the market-clearing price where supply (the total job-lot number of items for sale) = demand (the total number of telephone orders placed).

    But wait. Doing it this way is not at all in the interest of the seller. To show this consider the following example.

    Solar-Powered Santa comes in a lot of 100 items with initial price £10. As this price flashes on screen, we see just one taker. The price then reduces in steps, prompting more callers to phone in with their orders. The last santa goes when the price has reached £1 (100 are now sold). Everyone gets the final price so total revenue to the supplier = £100.

    We have enough information here to work out the linear demand curve showing the number which would be sold (Q) at any price (P) between £10 and £1. It's

    P = 101/11 - (1/11)Q

    Suppose the auction had stopped at P = £5. Then 55 solar-powered santas would have been sold at a price of £5 each, for a total revenue of £275. It sure beats £100 even if you have to chuck the remaining 45 santas into the skip.

    Welcome to the concept of the monopoly price.

    So what do they really do? Compute the demand curve from the early part of the auction process, work out the monopoly price and then stop the auction there, while faking a final 'countdown to the skip' sell-out on-screen?

    Feel free to confide if you happen to know.

    Sunday, November 09, 2008

    Dorset Corset at The Lights

    To The Lights theatre, Andover, yesterday evening to see the quaintly named company, Dorset Corset, performing Jane Austen's Northangar Abbey.

    The set, pictured above, was minimalist and with DC's six actors having to take all the parts, the magic of acting made it hard to figure out who was doing which doubling and trebling up.

    The production and acting were fantastic, and a great time was had by all. Audience male-female ratio? 2:3.

    Saturday, November 08, 2008


    I've had the intention for a while to write a linked sequence of short stories under the title of "Exopsychology". I have got so far as to write the first story in the collection - around 2,000 words - and it starts like this.

    “I could’ve made a mistake with Vine” murmured Admiral Wallax. He was mostly talking to himself but I sashayed over anyway, to show interest. “He’s formally qualified, but I sometimes wonder, has he got the imagination, the sheer IQ for this level of mission?”

    I ran my hands slowly through my hair as his eyes caught mine.

    “Tina, do we have any updates on intentions, capabilities or dispositions?”

    I shook my head and answered “Still black blobs the other side of the moon. We won’t really know anything better till Vine gets some kind of contact.”

    But of course, he already knew that. ... more

    As well as the more direct reference to human motivation, the title also refers to an automatic theorem proving technology which finds its way into the latter part of the story.

    Let me know if you think it works: it all motivates me to spend time developing the characters and plot.

    Friday, November 07, 2008

    The GO Codes

    The new president had always been calm under pressure; a preternatural, even supernatural calm. They had said he would be tested in his first few months of office and, as I looked around that Cabinet table, I knew we were in the presence of the mother of all crises.

    Iran was intransigent, tuning Hezbollah for further incursions into Israel. North Korea was reneging on all the half-deals we had winkled out of them. The Pakistanis were arming the Taliban to the north, as well as hawking their nuclear technology to half the bad guys on the planet. Gaza was exploding, the Russians were restive while the Chinese were playing their long game of no-good with trademark poker faces.

    What would America do? As Official Historian, I knew the words I was about to write would be the stuff of textbooks for the next hundred years.

    As the PowerPoint flashed and the crises were summarised, the president seemed, if anything, even more relaxed. I believe that no-one in that room could see any way out: the world had boxed America in. All eyes turned to the president.

    He slowly swept his gaze around the room, caught everyone’s eye, and in that mellifluous voice which had captivated millions he murmured a list.

    “Tehran, Pyongyang, Islamabad, Damascus, Gaza City, ....”

    He gestured forward the uniformed officer who always stood beside him – a man invisible to us through his very ubiquity.

    He held out his hand: “The GO codes” he said.

    Thursday, November 06, 2008

    Wrestling with Proust

    As I started “In Search of Lost Time” – at part I: Combray – I was immediately intimidated by its apparent lack of pace, the intricate coiling of reference and the sheer denseness of description. I completely didn’t ‘get it’.

    Skipping whole passages, I moved on to part II: A love of Swann’s, which is a self-contained novella – Swann’s back-story. Now I began to understand Proust’s technique. I rapidly finished part III: Place-names, devoted to the proposition that memory creates a heightened reality never matched by quotidian sensation, and I then returned to re-read Combray.

    So now I begin to get it. I have some context, and so the sheer depth of Proust’s insights begins to hit home. Proust is not for everyone: it’s art which demands a significant engagement from the reader – an engagement of a certain imaginative and persevering kind. Even for me to describe what I think Proust is doing is probably somewhat inaccessible – so here goes.

    For Proust, states of mind, perceptions, motivations, events themselves are delicate and complex; suffused with emotion-laden associations. How, he thinks, can his trove of psychological treasures be captured and communicated?

    As the Buddhists and Taoists have always understood, words are clunking, coarse bricks for the transmission of an ethereal, subjective reality. Proust uses words-as-collage, phrases-as-pointillist-dots, an emulation of impressionism. It’s the literary equivalent of tomography – the creating of a multi-dimensional reality from myriads of snapshots from different directions.

    It works if you can buffer the endless stacks of allusion. Like an interference pattern constructed a photon at a time, only patience and memory can permit Proust to form in the reader that delicate appreciation of spirit he so intensely feels in every lettered encompassment of his memory of an imagined life.

    Wednesday, November 05, 2008

    The speed of light

    “What are you reading?” she asked me idly in the kitchen.

    “I’ve just finished the unit on special relativity and I’m starting on the general relativity unit.”

    “Didn’t I see in your latest ‘New Scientist’ that Einstein was wrong about that?”

    That tabloid headline had already caused irritation out there in the physics blogosphere. The subject was the role of the speed of light, c, in the Lorentz transformation of special relativity. Generations of students have wondered what the connection is between space-time topology (Minkowski space) and the propagation speed of electromagnetic radiation.

    It has been known for many years that the Lorentz transformation requires a constant β in its transformation matrix. This implies a maximum velocity, as explained in the physics blog Backreaction here. It’s then a subsequent piece of inference (from Maxwell’s equations) to identify that velocity with the speed of light (β = v/c). Even the 1996 Open University text I’m studying has a section clarifying this two-step argument.

    So it was ludicrous hyperbole for New Scientist to pretend that this thought was new.

    “Yes, but it’s a bit of silliness they put in to sell newspapers. Do you remember special relativity?”


    I am already doubtful about this, but I launch into a simple version of the discussion above, as she carries some washing out into the utility room. I get to the bit about the Lorentz transformation being a parameterised orthogonal transformation in Minkowski space.

    “Why are you following me around?”

    “Well, I was just getting to the crucial bit of the argument – why the New Scientist hype was nonsense.”

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Do yourself a favour. Just stand in the kitchen and continue talking. I really won’t mind.”

    Obama wins

    So where were you when Obama got elected as the 44th US President?

    We were watching the grin being wiped off the face of Fox/Sky News.

    The results came slow at first. The BBC had gravitas plus the annoying Jeremy Vine, with the stupidest computer graphics ever seen. Every time he focused on another obscure precinct in some random midwest state, we switched to Sky News. Here, the presenters look like members of the mafia, and McCain results were called immediately while Obama calls came slow and late.

    Around 2 a.m. the BBC added Simon Schama (US-based Brit TV historian) and John Bolton (ex US ambassador to the United Nations) to their Washington panel.

    Schama is the classic intellectual (INTP) - slightly diffident and transactional. Bolton looks to me ENTJ, but very tough-minded and very judgemental. What the Myers-Briggs typology doesn't wholly capture is Bolton's offensiveness- he's often accused of being a bully. In Schama's world, ideas are discussed on merit, and personal assertiveness should be set aside; in Bolton's world, the alpha male dominates his opponents and wins by personal aggression.

    Bolton had a shouting match with the BBC reporter Katty Kay, who argued that selecting Palin had been a mistake. Kay was right, but Bolton treated her with arrogant disdain and steamrollered her. She was last seen on the monitor, red-faced, spluttering a response as she was cut ... enough of that. Schama was like a deer in the headlights, sat next to Bolton, as the latter treated him with undisguised contempt.

    As an INTP myself, I really felt for Schama.

    Adrian and myself had a brief nervous moment when it looked like Virginia was moving the wrong way. Pennsylvania reassured us, while Ohio finally gave us the confidence to turn in, just after 2.30 a.m.

    Clare had left us before 10 p.m. with serene confidence that Obama would make it. She appears to be entering her winter hibernatory mode.

    Tuesday, November 04, 2008


    The sound is of a swirling flock of baleful banshees. The wall-shaking, tooth-grinding roar of Rolls-Royce RB211 engines thrusting a 747 along the runway, pushing it into the sky.

    Clare is now the proud owner of a 780 watt Black and Decker Dustbuster (pictured), which gets to the parts where our wonderful robotic Roomba falters.

    Yes, the stairs are once again fit for human traversal.

    The instructions are, as is traditional, utterly opaque. It turns out that the thing comes with 14 shove-in attachments for either orifice. Yes, you can both suck and blow with this thing, although you are warned to keep yourself well away. We eventually figured out the minimal subset of functionality we actually needed. Here's the product spec.

    In other news, America is meanwhile getting on with the job of electing a President ... and I'm about to return to Proust.

    Sunday, November 02, 2008

    Quantum of Solace

    We saw the new James Bond film this afternoon. Our expectation was that a 3 p.m. performance on a wet and overcast Sunday afternoon would be to an almost empty theatre. It was in fact so crowded that we ended up sitting in different rows - one behind the other - rather than side-by-side.

    The poor reviews have rather missed the point. This is not at all a tick-the-boxes, formulaic JB film. It's clearly the middle film in a trilogy, with the focus on Bond himself: a human being torn by grief and battling the twin urges of revenge and duty. Daniel Craig does a fantastic job in filling out the Bond persona - this is a new departure: the first three-dimensional Bond.

    The plotscape is nondescript - just another cardboard megalomaniac corporate villain. In an obvious homage to Reservoir Dogs, all the bad guys are colours. Mr White escapes in the early part of the film, presumably to reappear in volume three.

    The action and dialogue is pitched just faster than the unaided senses can follow. A critical plot point is flagged by a muttered remark easy to miss; pans and cuts are so fast that you lose track of which blurred body is Bond, and which his current antagonist.

    This probably means you can watch it all over again on DVD.