Thursday, December 31, 2009

Orange Thursday

We eventually got out this morning to Reading town where I signed up with Orange (£10 per month with a longish contract).

I had spent most of the morning on the phone with BT who had managed to cut off the phone service to our prospective sellers at Wells.

When I suspended my existing phone/broadband service on our move day, Thursday Dec 17th, I had to give details of our next house (even though we hadn't exchanged contracts).

BT's systems don't admit the concept of a significant delay in moving so a notional move date (January 6th 2010) had to be entered. Even this didn't stop those over-keen engineers from turning off our sellers' phone service meanwhile.

They were furious.

It took most of an hour to semi-sort-out with five separate BT departments over two continents. Since this was a mistake by BT, there was of course no process to resolve it. I was told time and time again:

"They (our sellers in Wells) will have to apply for a new service. Then we can reconnect them."

"They don't need a new service. They've been with you for years. They just wish to have their service, you know, the one they're paying for, reconnected."

"Well,they'll have to call us. After all, we don't know why their service has been cut off. Perhaps they asked for it to be terminated?"

"They can't call you. Their phone has been cut off. By you."

And so it went on.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Safely back in Reading"

So after 540 miles we are "safely" back in Reading.

I called Direct Line (car insurance) to update my address to Reading, and was told I would have to pay a premium of £59 for the higher risks associated with the new address. Tell me about it.

Still no home buyer's survey for the proposed purchase in Wells in the mailbox - Connells and Christmas clearly don't work too well together. I finally got through to the Survey and Valuations call centre. If I'm real lucky I may get a PDF emailed to me oh ... any day now.

Carphone Warehouse's Fresh Mobile company is going out of business. They have sold the concern to Talk Mobile, another virtual network operator who as far as I can see plan to double the tariffs. I'm having none of this and called on Tuesday Dec 22nd for the PAC code which lets me transfer my number: Orange do a reasonable scheme.

Of course, I received no text message from Fresh, despite the "within 72 hours" promise so after I talked to the Survey people this afternoon I gave them a repeat call. The pleasant-but-bland woman who eventually answered explained to me that of course they had texted me the PAC code - on Dec 23rd.

I guess this is another case of the mysterious text which gets lost in the mobile network. Nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Fresh have a commercial interest in delivering their customer base intact to Talk Mobile.

So I carefully wrote the PAC code down and will be at the mobile store tomorrow.

I realise I'm sounding like one of those grumpy old men on TV, but honestly, what can you do? No-one does anything properly.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Eden Project

Today was the final day of our short Devon break and we visited the Eden Project with my brother Adrian and his sons Matt and Simon. It rained with that relentless drizzle which soaked our heads and dampened all our clothes as we made our way from the car park to the start of the experience. You start high with a good view of the site (pictured)

The rainforest and mediterranean biomes

Clare took this shot of the male members of our party in the rainforest biome.

L-to-R: Nigel, Simon, Matt, Adrian

And here's my mother posing in front of the waterfall.

Beryl Seel: the rainforest biome

I have no idea what the plant below is, but it seemed to represent my idea of something exotic under the blue perspex panels. A little desert world utterly segregated from the misty gloom outside.

A mediterranean/desert shrub

Below a much photographed set of sculptures of some kind of imagined classical Greek ritual.

Ancient Greek rites

We briefly met up with Adrian's wife Anne at the end of the day before the hour's drive back to the Plantation House Hotel.

We have eaten so much this holiday that we are collectively barely able to move. We're like we've ate the famous anaconda which had swallowed a pig. A serious family fast is in order the first day we're properly back in Reading (Thursday).

Monday, December 28, 2009

Kingsbridge + Slapton Sands + Dartmouth

This, the first full day of our holiday in Devon was devoted to tourism in the South Hams (the coastal area between Plymouth and Torbay). A bitter wind from the south kept excursions brief between trips to tea rooms.

Beryl Seel on the beach at Slapton Sands

Slapton Sands was the scene of a famous catastrophe. Rehearsals for the D-Day landings were ambushed by German motor torpedo boats with dreadful loss of life. It was all hushed up, the Sherman tank memorialised below a recent find dredged from the sea.

Sherman Tank memorial at Slapton Sands

Clare in the wind at Dartmouth

OK for people though ...

Clare at Kingbridge

Is this a seagull which I see before me?

... Tomorrow we do the Eden Project.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Oh Reading ...

I walked to the local garage this morning around 8.30 a.m. to pick up the Sunday paper. As I passed our car in its parking bay, I noticed that its neighbour (pictured) had had its rear window stoved in overnight. Reading, huh!

Most of today has been taken up with driving to the Plantation House hotel in Devon, just to the east of Plymouth. My mother, Clare and myself are here for a three night break.

There are good things and bad things. The good things include the friendly proprietor, Richard, the comfortable rooms and the free WiFi which brings you these words.

The bad things include terrible mobile phone reception and a TV set in our room which complains it's getting no signal. I have to say that my mother's TV in her room downstairs is working just fine.

Tomorrow we plan to visit some seaside towns. Tuesday is reserved for a trip to the Eden centre with my brother and his family.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day 2009

We got out today, perambulating through the slithering soggy slush to Poundland, near the railway station. There's something profoundly dispiriting about the west end of Reading town centre.

Here's a picture of Alex and Clare chatting beneath two examples of Clare's artwork.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day 2009

We were up bright and early at 8.15 a.m. for Clare's Christmas Mass. 9.30 a.m. found us sliding through the slush to the car to drive across Caversham bridge to the church of Our Lady and St. Anne. I was quite surprised, at 9.45 to see the church car park so full. Anyway, we walked in to find the church packed to capacity. I was amazed at how devout and well-prepared the congregation was for a Mass starting at 10.00.

After a few well-chosen words, the presiding priest uttered the immortal words "Now the Mass is over, go in peace," or something like that. I looked at Clare, a spontaneous smile breaking out all over my face. Yes, we had got it wrong once again.

So having missed the 9.00 Mass, we had a chance to sit in quiet contemplation before the advent of the 10.30 a.m. reprise. We spent our time admiring the bright Baroque colours of the walls and discussing Buddhism, the subject of Clare's next Open University assignment.

I have given myself ten days to turn Alex into a Buddhist. I pointed out to him this morning that he was wasting his time in samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth; the world as commonly experienced) when he could be seeking satori (awakening; understanding; enlightenment). The term nirvana (extinction or extinguishing; ultimate enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition) is, I think, much misunderstood.

I explained that correctly grasped, nirvana is the state of acceptance of things exactly as they are without self-deception and with a maturity not subject to the drives of unconscious passions. Achieving such harmony with reality does not mean that one instantly vanishes or something. Like the Buddha one can live one's life as a competent, assured individual and then die. The point is - you then don't have to come back and try again.

I believe he was very grateful for my advice. It's hard to tell with someone lying back on the recliner with their eyes resolutely closed simulating sleep.

My follow-up question was going to be:

"Is the reason you haven't asked me to explain quantum mechanics to you is that you feel it's intrinsically too complex for you to understand?"

But I decided not to bother.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Maxwell in higher dimensions

They said you couldn't teach string theory to undergraduates. They said that as string theory is a quantum theory of gravity, you had to learn general relativity first (as well as QFT). They said it was all too speculative anyway, a journey into a pointless cul-de-sac.

I'm most of the way through chapter 3 of "A first course in string theory" and in this chapter we've looked at the formulation of electromagnetism in two spatial dimensions (flatland) as well as its extension to spaces with an arbitrary number of spatial dimensions (≥ 2). This is enormously enlightening and really exposes the fundamental structure of the theory.

I finished today with a section entitled "Gravitation and the Planck length". Tomorrow, to end the chapter I'll be covering "Gravitational constants and compactification" and "Extra large dimensions". Seriously, I can hardly wait.

The approach is quite mathematical, with extensive use of raised and lowered indices and Einstein's summation notation. It would be accessible to a bright undergraduate who had mastered their modules on electromagnetism, quantum theory and special relativity.

Looking ahead, chapter 4 is entitled "Nonrelativistic strings" and focuses on string equations of motion and Lagrangian dynamics.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


As we walked down to see Avatar yesterday evening, this was the sight which greeted us at the inner ring road roundabout, Caversham Road.

Click to enlarge

Not a single car here is moving.

OU Quantum Mechanics Results

"Cool Paul" writes:

Hi ,

I do enjoy your blog, but when are you going to talk about your quantum physics exams result?



Hi Paul,

I received distinctions for both the Summer School and the main SM358 course.

Thanks for asking and your kind remarks,


Avatar - The Review

At two hours forty minutes Avatar is an epic fairy story. The plot is simple-minded in the extreme, a reworking of the wild-west from the point of view of the Indians. I confess to being mystified by the fondness of rich, liberal western film-makers for the stone-age lifestyle.

How many movies were recently produced by indigents in the Amazonian rain forests? The forests of Borneo? How many North American intellectuals recently trucked out of New York or San Francisco to savour their new aboriginal lives in the Australian outback?

Talk about biting the hand which feeds you ... give me a break!

Anyway, Pandora has valuable mineral deposits under the aboriginals' sacred tree. The expedition from earth, under the control of a mining corporation naturally, has a US marine force to give it some muscle. There is also a small scientific team to assuage the bleeding heart liberals back home and to gain valuable intelligence. The science folk use avatars looking like the natives which they remotely control from their couches.

The hero is a marine who has lost the use of his legs and who is drafted into the science team. Meant to report to the tough marine commander, he instead goes native as his avatar is inducted into the local customs by the chief's daughter, a warrior princess. Naturally and discreetly they become a mated pair in this 12A feature.

As even the pretext of negotiations fails, the marines pile in with gunships, troops and exoskeleton tanks against the natives defending their sacred ecology with spears and bows and arrows. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you would need a heart of stone not to whoop with joy as missile systems take-out and demolish the towering totemic tree.

If the message of this film is ludicrous, the effects are staggering. The 3D evocation of Pandora is stunning, the creatures and the ten-foot tall blue natives are almost there - a lingering cartoonishness showing the limitations of Cameron's technology. The horse-like things were a bit clunky but little else was at fault.

On the way back we were making jokes about the inanities of the plotting. Even the US air force of 1945 knew how to sterilise a city-sized area without the least resistance. As in the film Starship Troopers, it is here advocated that the right way to take on primitive natives is on foot with Vietnam-style body armour and 20th century machine guns.

(Of course this is so that the aboriginals have a prayer of any kind of fight back).

In the end, the natives won this round for their version of Gaia and the remaining earthlings were dispatched back to Earth. Amazing: I could have done better with one Apache gunship. The film neglected to mention that the earthlings will be back next year with a few nukes.

Great spectacle! Watch and enjoy!

1. Alex mentioned that on the net this film is know as "Dances with Smurfs".

2. One plot-line I will give credit for is Cameron's solution to how his disabled marine hero can lead the Na'vi resistance while actually lying inert in a coffin: so easy to unplug! But Cameron manages it: respect!

3. One more thing. Cameron's film invites the audience to empathise with people on the receiving end of American certainties. This is surely positive for parochial Americans if not for everyone else.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate Change: thinking like an economist

Following on from the debacle of the Copenhagen conference, just some thoughts.

1. Both the US and China are sitting on vast coal deposits which can provide energy at a tiny fraction of the cost of all the non-CO2-producing alternatives. So how likely was that, then?

2. There is nothing stable or even particularly significant about the pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere: what was it, 280 parts per million? Plants like a lot more.

3. I see no proper inventory of the economic advantages vs. disadvantages of x degrees of climate warming across the countries of the world. For the US, Canada, Russia, northern Europe and maybe parts of China, a measure of warming is probably beneficial.

4. The real concern is "runaway climate change" where global mean temperatures might increase 5-10 degrees in a"short period", say 20-50 years. As I understand it, there are a number of technologies including stratospheric aerosol insertion and atmospheric CO2 reclamation which would address this problem, if it were economically beneficial to do so on a time scale faster than the runaway change would take place.

There are other issues such as ocean acidification and a projected rise in sea level (not a fast process if caused by thermal expansion). However, these are also amenable to technology if a business case exists.

5. Such a shame that no economic/technical studies seem to exist which review these possiblities in a rational way. And what about this?

There, not a single wry remark about the recent weather.

Avatar - the prequel

Alex and myself were meant to go see this yesterday evening at The Vue, Reading. We duly rolled up on a cold Sunday evening at 7 p.m. to be told it was sold out. Really? Anyway we bought tickets for tonight, Monday night (Clare is not interested).

I write this at 4 p.m. The snow has been falling continuously since just after lunch. Nevertheless the intrepid duo are still intent on going. More later on what we thought if and when we get back.


We were due to set off at 6.30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. start. I had just put on my heavy coat, scarf and gloves when we received a call from the new owners of our house in Andover. The power fuse was tripping, plunging the house into darkness. Did we have any idea of the cause?

The subtext of all of these post-sale interactions: "Is there a terrible problem with the house you didn't disclose to us?"

I had only the faintest memory of a similar problem so couldn't help.

We then walked down to retrieve the car from its four inch snow burial. Eventually, the clock ticking away, we drive through the gates of Alex's little gated community by the Thames to see the roundabout ahead gridlocked. Nothing was moving.

I spun the car - not a problem on that ice - and we reparked and took to our feet. Nothing like a bracing one mile walk through the centre of Reading watching the roads packed with stationary cars and wiping the snow from one's eyes.

On the way we dallied to help a motorist whose car had stuck on the ice. This consumed another ten minutes.

Finally we arrived at the Reading Vue. The time was 7.25 p.m. and we were resigned to missing the start of "Avatar". Screen 4 was surprisingly two thirds full (I had thought that the cinema might even have closed) and the film started about ten minutes later. We had arrived at the ideal time.

Our views about the film will be reported later. At the end we walked home, the inner ring road dual carriageway to Caversham was still completely blocked.

I received a text message: "Problem solved, the fault was with the refrigerator light, now sorted."


Friday, December 18, 2009

Snow in Reading + bad writing

We awoke this morning to snow in Reading - pictured view of the Thames.

Click to enlarge.

It's not often I genuinely cringe with embarrassment, but I stumbled upon this wonderful parody of bad SF writing and thought of the rejected story I submitted to Interzone. Oh for a hole to hide in!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Moving Day

Well, we did it!

My first act on arrival was to unpack the coax and retune the digital TV. My second act was to turn my computer on. So let me start properly ...

I write this via the Vodafone 3G connection from Alex's flat overlooking the Thames in Reading. We seemed to be carrying half the house in the car when we left - strange how that happens when we'd already managed by proxy to fill a vast Pickford's pantechnicon.

You will want to know first about Shadow. He was placed in the utility while the removal men did their good work and in an act akin to putting toothpaste back into the tube, we eventually (three of us) managed to get him into the cat box.

Our ride to Reading was accompanied by sporadic mewling noises but he has adjusted rapidly to the new two-bedroom accommodation. Clare periodically picks him up and rubs his little paws through the litter in the kitchen: to-date without result.

I have a Christmas meal tonight with the folk at Pro4 so while I brave the arctic north wind and fine powdery blizzard for turkey with all the trimmings, Clare will stay in the warm and have an excellent opportunity to ... unpack.

I hope to get the survey results on our prospective purchase in Wells at the weekend. If it works we could complete by the third week in January. Add a month for building modernisation and I guess we'd be moving on in February (a great month they tell me for house moves).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moving day minus one day (Boxes)

Yesterday afternoon, following the arrival of the boxes (see below) I started work as a one person box factory. If you seek evidence of my work, circumspice - or more accurately take a look at the photos following.

The boxes arrive into our living room

Packed boxes colonise the hall

Clare's paintings don't seem to fit

Not much of a study

Around mid-morning it began to snow: the fine, powdery stuff which makes a hissing, sizzling sound all around you as you walk the garden path to the garage with empty preparatory boxes in your hand.

Did I mention that as the light was fading, we found that our front drain was blocked just outside the kitchen window, facing the driveway? The plumber has been ordered for tomorrow morning, where he will have to dodge the removal men.

The next time you hear from me, all this madness should be behind us and we should be camped in Alex's flat in Reading.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Moving date minus 2 days

I hear the cries of you out there who don't care about physics. "Write about something more interesting," you call. I feel your pain - well, sort of.

It's now two days before we move from Andover to our temporary home in Reading and we have been panicking about various things. First it was the non-arrival of "the boxes" from Pickfords: no pack no move. However, I received a phone call this morning asking how many boxes we needed. Since the caller didn't specify how big the boxes were, I let Clare handle it (she said: "lots please").

Meanwhile the home-buyer's survey on our prospective property in Wells is going ahead tomorrow. I have just succeeded in paying for it over the phone so it may even arrive in our Reading mailbox by the weekend. If it's OK we're very close to exchanging contracts there.

So we continue to live in a half-dismantled house ... we burned the last of our coal yesterday. As we descend further into refugee status I will try to remember to take some pix of our sorry state.

Interruption: the door bell just rang and as I type this the guy is bringing the boxes in: result!

Oh, did I mention I've just completed the second chapter of "A First Course in String Theory"? I now know about Orbifolds ...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Deep Impact? Relativistic Collision part 2

This is a continuation of yesterday's post which attempted to analyse the effects of a relativistic object impacting the earth. Yesterday we considered things from the point of view of energy, and we failed to answer the most interesting question which is how deep does an impact go?

Today we are going to do momentum.

Take a look at the diagram below (click on it to enlarge).

The impactor (as yesterday) of mass m hits the earth with velocity u m/s and immediately becomes a plasma. As it meets earth material (we assume molten rock) it shares its momentum with the new material. The result is a growing cone of tunneling material as shown in the diagram below. The semi-angle of the cone is α, its depth is d metres and its base radius is r = d * α.

Multiply the resulting volume by the density of molten rock ρ which is 5.5 tonnes per cubic metre and decide the final velocity v at which we believe further tunnelling will stop. Perhaps 10 metres per second?

Click to enlarge

Since γmu = ρα2d3v by conservation of momentum,

d = (γmu/ρα2v)1/3.

Now for some numbers. For the 1 kg impactor at 0.999c considered yesterday, with α = half a degree and with a final plasma velocity of 10 m/s, the crater-depth d = 1.2 km.

This 1.2 km deep crater is nothing like the journey to the centre of the earth we speculated about yesterday. If we increase the cone angle for a wider dissipation - say 2.5 degrees - then the depth decreases to only 400 metres.

Suppose we increase the mass of the impactor to a cubic metre of ice weighing one tonne, at the original half-degree spread angle? The penetration depth d is now around 12 km. Notice that the increase of mass of a thousandfold has only increased the penetration depth by a factor of ten. This is because of the cube law we see in the equation above.

What would get us to the centre of the earth? A million tons (109 kg) at 0.999999c would dig a crater 3,700 km deep. I reckon this would make a bit of a mess of the earth.

Here's the spreadsheet to play with (includes yesterday's).

A relativistic impactor is like a nuclear detonation

How does this compare with nuclear weapons? An approximate formula for the crater diameter d (km) of a nuclear explosion of M Megatons is simply:

d3 = M.

So a 27 Megaton detonation would produce a 3 km diameter crater. A rule of thumb states that the crater depth is around 1/5 of its diameter, so for the 27 Megaton device, the crater depth would be around 600 metres.

This is almost identical to the result given by the spreadsheet for a 1 kg impactor at 0.9c (kinetic energy = 27.84 Mt).

According to the Wikipedia article on the Orion spacecraft (powered by nuclear detonation) the initial plasma velocity of a 1 Megaton bomb is 10,000 km/sec. The velocity seems to scale linearly with the bomb yield suggesting that a 30 Megaton bomb might create a plasma shockfront expanding at a speed close to that of light. When this hits the ground, it might be indistinguishable from a relativistic impactor and therefore the cratering effects could be very similar.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A relativistic object impacting the earth

What would happen if an object hit the earth at relativistic speeds?

This could be the result of an attack on the earth (The Killing Star) or even an accidental collision from an alien relativistic spacecraft. It is remarkably difficult to model the effects.

Firstly, the sheer speed of a relativistic impactor is hard to grasp:

- to travel from the earth's surface to its centre (6,400 km) at the speed of light takes only 22 milliseconds

- to decelerate from ~ light speed to zero in that distance is a deceleration of 70 million g

These are hard numbers to visualise.

So here is a very simple model. Let the impactor be a square tile of ice, one metre by one metre by one millimetre thick. This weighs a kilogram. It will hit the earth flat at relativistic velocity.

Assume that it carves out a 'tunnel' of plasma through the earth with a cross-sectional area one square metre. As it's going so fast, in this model there is no time for significant sideways spreading.

[Note: that's not a very good assumption. You may wish to skip the rest and go to the next post which has a considerably better treatment of the 'depth problem'.]

We now think of the impactor as the piston of a long tube, compressing the plasma in the tunnel beneath it. As the impactor sinks into the earth it compresses and heats the plasma ahead of it. Eventually all of the original kinetic energy has become thermal energy and the impactor-piston stops moving. The tunnel has now become a core of superhot superdense plasma.

We want to know things like: how deep? how hot?

When I did the model* featured below I was surprised that the impact depth is not a consequence of the model, it's an extra assumption. The reason is that if you assume it doesn't go too deep, then there is less material to compress, but all that energy still gets soaked up and so the final compressed plasma is really hot and occupies an extremely dense state.

If, however, you let the impactor have a deeper tunnel to stop in, then it gets more material to compress but it's correspondingly less dense and less hot.

Here are some numbers from the spreadsheet. First consider the 1 kg impactor coming in at 0.9c (approximately 270,000 km/sec). The gamma factor here is 2.3 and the kinetic energy of the tile is equivalent to 28 Megatons of TNT. This is a hefty hydrogen bomb.

According to the model, if we permit the impactor to tunnel the 6,400 km to the centre of the earth like a thermic lance, then the entire material of the tunnel would end up as a 34 cm core at the earth's centre at a temperature of 4.3 million degrees Kelvin.

But perhaps 0.9c is not relativistic enough for you? Let's try 0.999c which is only 300 km/sec slower than light itself. Gamma is now 22.4 and the impactor KE is 460 Megatons or ten times the largest H-bomb ever tested.

For the same tunnel length of 6,400 km to the centre of the earth, the final stationary core is now 1.25 millimetres thick at a temperature of 72 million degrees. This is five times hotter than the centre of the sun.

At these sorts of densities, one is tempted to ask whether there is any danger of the formation of a black hole? The Schwarzchild radius of a segment of the earth one square metre in cross section and 6.4 million metres long is thankfully only 9.5 * 10-24 metres so we are nowhere near that danger.

A sufficiently massive, sufficiently fast object could conceivably create a black hole but most likely it could not be stopped within the earth. To create a planet-swallowing black hole would require multiple impactors from opposite directions timed with exquisite accuracy.

Click on image to make larger

The spreadsheet allows different tunnel distances to be explored. With shorter tunnel lengths the compression and final temperatures get corresponding greater.

How realistic is this model? The impactor would rapidly transform into a plasma disk which as it progressed through the atmosphere and into the earth's surface would begin to spread out. Due to its extreme velocity the angle of spread would not be too large: rather than a straight tunnel all the way down consider a cone with a small apex angle.

This dramatically increases the degree of coupling to stationary earth material as well as decreasing the pressure at the plasma-earth interface. At the moment, however, I can't think of a simple approach to get a quantitative answer to the final depth question.

My guess though is that it would go deep, especially if it were more massive.

UPDATE: It turns out that considering only energy, as we are here, is not sufficient. To get a handle on the depth of the impact crater we have to turn to momentum. In the next post you will see the surprising result as the depth question is finally answered with a less toy model.


* The model here is incredibly toy. I treat the plasma as an ideal gas undergoing adiabatic compression for example. I treat the tunnel as full of water rather than molten rock. Still, you learn something from even very simple models.

Where the Wild Things Are

Boy named Max has row with sister, mother and her boyfriend. Boys runs away and sails to an island populated by "Wild Things". Unaccountably a wide-scale police search fails to materialise. The Wild Things seem to be Jungian projections of the boy's mind. All his schemes to achieve harmony in the land of the Wild Things fail and he returns home where he falls upon dinner as his mother stares dreamily into his eyes.

This afternoon I have been thinking about exactly what would happen if a relativistic projectile impacted on the earth (this is the plot of "The Killing Star"). For example, how deep would it go? In its favour, "Where the Wild Things Are" barely impacted on my reverie so I guess phrases such as "interminable" and "tedious beyond belief" might suitably describe my view of this film.

Why on earth did we go? Nothing else on, guv.

Clare thought it might scare the very youngest children. My own fear is that they might grow so bored that they would run around the cinema leaping over seats and throwing popcorn at all and sundry.

I'm sure there's a plot idea in there somewhere ...

PS: Max seems to be suffering from ADHD. Could I suggest Ritalin?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Intellectual Arrogance

One of my less appealing traits is intellectual arrogance: I tend to believe that most things are pretty easy and that with little effort I could easily master any of them. In this I am invariably wrong.

Take learning to play the piano, which I started back in June 2007. I will be entirely honest with you – I thought of piano-playing as being essentially the same as programming a computer in assembly language with each key corresponding to a machine instruction.

I was good at assembler programming. Write the correct sequence of instructions and you have a program, execute it and problem solved. Press the piano keys in the right order and out comes a Bach fugue: problem solved.

Turns out it’s not quite so easy. First thing was the extraordinarily awkward way the music scales map to the piano keys. Each musical scale in its key: C, G, E, F# etc. uses a different pattern of white and black keys to make up the scale. All these patterns have to be learned separately and locked into the motor neurons.

Then there was the fact that the right and left hands have to do different things. How natural is that?

Ultimately piano-playing is not an intellectual exercise; it’s a performance skill. You would have thought I would have had sufficient insight into myself to recall that I have always been clumsy. But no, that fact passed me by, as consequently did any success in piano playing.

Take writing. I mean the writing of good-quality fiction. I have always written technical material (including my book) and I believe the view has always been that the results have an enviable intellectual clarity. What could be easier than to write fiction?

While we were cleaning out prior to our house-move a couple of days ago, I chanced upon some material from a novel I attempted back in 2002. It was ghastly! The dialogue was completely artificial, people “speaking” as if they were reciting from a scientific paper. It’s clear I have no ability to inhabit someone else’s head and give their character the power of life and speech.

Over the last few evenings we’ve been listening to Alan Bennett’s monologues repeated on BBC4. The man is a genius: through homespun dialogue he unveils the secret desperation of ordinary folk. How does he do it? Any local segment of dialogue appears quite mundane, but somehow a compelling picture emerges with inexorable force. Genius.

Why would I have ever thought I could do that? I’m notoriously poor on observation (‘head in the clouds’ they say). I have far more interest in abstract ideas than the plight of my fellow human beings. No-one would contradict you if you said ‘Nigel is sadly out of touch with his emotional side’ - or inner child, or any other icon of the psychotherapeutic pantheon which might correlate with the workings of the human limbic system.

No, I am the last person who should be writing literary fiction with rich characterisation and deep insights into inner life. And what other kind of fiction is there these days?

It’s sad isn’t it? I’m actually looking forwards to my Maths MSc course due to begin in February. We start with the Calculus of Variations.

Enough said.

A reader acidly remarks: "Even when you're self-critical you're self-satisfied."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Things we did today

Seven days time and we are out of here!

In preparation for our move to Alex's flat in Reading, we drove across there this morning with an initial load of clothes, plants and the flat-screen TV: all items which won't be going into store.

The solicitor called to confirm that our worry about nearby 'extension' building work to our prospective house purchase in Wells, Somerset was not in fact an issue. On the strength of that we authorised a 'buyer's survey' which should be completed before Christmas.

Our thoughts then turned to what is to be done in the event that our purchase in Wells proceeds to a satisfactory conclusion, sometime in January I would guess. The property needs some work and after the completion date Clare and Alex will zoom down to Wells and start by removing wallpaper followed by painting and putting up shelving. Further work is also planned - here's Clare's to-do list.

Tomorrow we'll visit the solicitors to formally sign the Title Deed transfer on our current property which completes the formalities on our sale.

Our house is already looking a little odd with the absent TV leaving a vacant space and stuff piling up in the spare rooms awaiting the arrival of the Pickfords removals boxes.

The cat is wandering around looking quite spooked.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

An outing to Wells, Somerset

We spent today with my mother in Wells, Somerset. Partially for a day-out but also to check the ambience one more time as our house purchase there proceeds, and to take a closer look at the immediate area of Milton Lane and the surrounding roads.

Beryl and Clare: Wells Cathedral

Lunch in the marketplace

The Wednesday market was in full swing and we were also treated to a splashy display by the swans on the moat around the Bishop's Palace.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Contracts exchanged at last

A flurry of phone calls with the solicitor this morning and we have finally exchanged contracts: the house is definitely sold. Our completion date, the date we move is Thursday December 17th.

I then spent the morning working down the change-of-address list. So far all the changes have been accomplished online or by telephone or in one case by email: no physical letters written at all. Such a change from the last time I did this in 2003.

Since we're still in process of acquiring the property in Wells, all these transactions relate to our hopefully-temporary sojourn in Reading.

It will all have to be done again in January.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Box (movie)

As this movie got a one-star rating from The Sunday Times and numerous reader-pannings in the New York Times Movie Review section, you can understand why I was cautious about going to see it.

James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as 'the couple'

However, the NYT review itself was more nuanced and the premise is intriguing: you're an American middle class couple (husband an optical engineer at NASA, wife an English teacher) a little short of money when one day you are visited by an enigmatic stranger. He hands you a box with a big red button on top. If you don't touch it, nothing; if you press the red button someone in the world who you don't know will die and you will get a million dollars (this was set in 1976). You have 24 hours to decide.

Obviously Cameron Diaz is going to press the button otherwise there's no story. But I thought they would string out what little tension there was for the whole 2 hour movie - all the button-pushing action and inevitable consequence would constitute the denouement.

I couldn't have been more wrong: the button gets pushed early and we're whirled into a fantastical trajectory of alien ethical judgements on humanity, altruism tests, advanced technologies, NSA conspiracies, life as purgatory and terrible personal dilemmas.

The plotting is a mess: it's like all the plot points I just itemised were put into a blender and then delivered to the scriptwriters: go write! But it was just weird enough to keep me interested. Clare thought it was rubbish, BTW.

Afterwards I remembered where I had last seen Ms Diaz: wasn't she that hot chick in Starship Troopers back in 1997? (Answer: no, that would be Dina Meyer).

A Year of Shadow

Yes, it's been a year.

Hat tip to Roy Simpson who wrote:

'Records show that it has been one year since the cat showed up.

I am frequently told that cats attach themselves to properties rather than to people. Fortunately an experiment on this will be conducted soon when you move, as one will then know whether Shadow will stay and become a house guest for the new occupants. If so I might suggest getting a kitten and training it in the new Wells house?

As far as Shadow's food behaviour is concerned here is a quote from the Wikipedia:

"One poorly understood element of cat hunting behavior is the presentation of prey to human owners. Ethologist Paul Leyhausen proposed that cats adopt humans into their social group, and share excess kill with others in the group according to the local pecking order, in which humans are placed at or near the top.[125] However, anthropologist and animal scientist Desmond Morris, in his 1986 book Catwatching, suggests that when cats bring home mice or birds, they are teaching their human to hunt, or helping their human as if feeding "an elderly cat, or an inept kitten".

I guess that Shadow is subconsciously wanting the Fundamentals of QM to be sorted out (in which cats may have some mysterious unexplained role) just like some of us physicists do more consciously. '


I reply: trust me, the cat is coming with us - the vole-life of Penton Corner has suffered enough. The box awaits ...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Amazon reviews as satire

Apropos of the previous post on 'Home Energy Saving' and the useless book I got from Amazon on the subject, Roy Simpson writes:

"Your Amazon review is now in a "side by side" contest with the most favourable review (currently only the two). Both on the same page - I hadn't seen Amazon reviews like this before."

Wayne Redhart who wrote the first review is a real hoot. He's got himself Amazon top-reviewer status by purporting to order the most unbelievable crap then writing subtly-satirical reviews which seem to praise them to the skies.

His reviews are here, but be warned, some of the stuff is so disgusting that I don't want to even mention them. Sheltered life that I lead, I couldn't begin to believe there really are published books on this topic, or this or this?

Naturally he's got the top voter ratings on each of the above from his posse of enthusiastic fans.

I also enjoyed his 'Beatles' review (Postcards from the Boys) which is a triumph of the surreal and his rant against Polanski (The Pianist - towards the bottom of the page). Great stuff.

Roy continues:

"Doesn't the OU also offer a "Creative Writing" course? Maybe that's another to sign up for ... or maybe you could write a story about a local Creative Writing class ...? "

I'm hoping if and when we make our move to Wells there might be a local writing group. The OU does courses on creative writing and they look good. You're exercised in the arts of first, second and third person stances; descriptive vs. character vs. plot-based narrative development and all the other elements of the author's toolkit.

I don't knock it at all but there are only so many hours. The maths course, which starts in February is my main priority and of course every now and then a contract comes along and I have to earn some proper money!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Home energy saving

The Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings arrived in the post this morning. I was hoping to learn all about loft insulation, multiply-glazed windows, solar power options ... turns out the book is American, I so wish had made this clear before I purchased it. Check the link for my one-star review to join the five-star joke review already there (should be up by Friday).

Our house moving seems stalled at present: issues down the chain have impeded exchange of contracts so it's 50-50 whether we move out to Reading before Christmas. If the purchase of our intended house in Wells, Somerset goes through, we'll have a modernisation job to do on a fifty year old detached house. Hence the book.

Hi Adrian in Canada if you can hear me? We didn't hear from you in a while, I reckon you're busy with your classes on the slopes while Clare inclines to the view you lack Internet access. Just to let you know I'm still working on that story you so effectively critiqued before you left.

Actually, returning to it the last couple of days - and reinforced by reading your Chekhov short stories - I was horrified by the crimes against literature I had committed.

- Poor to zero characterisation of the Sally and Danny characters.

- Lazy, superficial descriptive writing - especially a lack of scene anchoring in place and time. Characters were also inadequately described both physically and in temperament. The perils of being mindlessly plot-led.

- A totally unconvincing motivation for the actions of the main character Harry. He would have to be mentally disturbed to carry out the violent, depraved acts he does, and so he has become.

So I'm somewhat happier but there's still a way to go before you get another version to review. I suspect it's not really Interzone material so I'm treating it as an exercise piece.

I have something else in mind for the SF magazines which I'm starting shortly ...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The cult of failure in education

Writing in the Sunday Times today (Ofsted's hidden cult of failure) Harriet Sergeant describes contemporary ineffectual teaching practices and collusion in the shape of useless Ofsted inspections. The only thing that's changed since I was doing teacher-training back in 1973 is the discourse of political correctness that’s now used to justify such failures.

Back then as a student-teacher at college, one of my set books described secondary-modern teaching. An evocative picture was drawn of languorous days in the classroom. Flies buzz at the windows, the bored, indolent teacher at the front of the class chalks and talks into the air while the rejects of the 11+ do anything but learn: some read comics under the desk, others day-dream or look out of the windows, there’s a steady undercurrent of gossip and low-level rowdiness at the back of the class. This was school as dustbin or open prison - keep them off the streets.

In my time as a student teacher, secondary-modern failure was at least recognised as a problem. Bright, shiny comprehensives together with the abolition of the 11+ were going to make quality education available to everyone, even the ‘late developers’.

So began the long rise of political correctness with its denial of human nature, the dawn of the collective denial of the bell curve of children’s abilities and personality features. The ethos was one-size-fits-all education and even if this was never fully implemented, the ideology is not only still with us but is still being actively promulgated.

My teaching practices were eye-openers. First off was the inability of both myself and my fellow students to effectively control the classes in our working class comps. We wanted to teach but we were amazed to find that they didn’t want to learn: such a change from our cosseted grammar school experience.

Secondly, the teachers whose classes we sat-in on were pedagogically useless. They practised class control by diverse strategies: intimidation, mind-numbing rote-copying or the live-and-let-live mediocrity I had read about in that secondary-modern school book. All wasted time and opportunity from the child’s point of view.

I survived in teaching just a few years before escaping to the better-paid and infinitely more civilized life of a computer programmer. I believe the haemorrhage of intellectual talent from teaching has been a constant feature of ‘the profession’ for many years now. The stability of failure points to intractable causes which I put down to the refusal to engage with the intrinsic diversity in children’s aptitudes and attitudes.

It would surely be possible to create a palate of diverse approaches, but something which proved largely impossible even when it was an explicit public policy goal in the old tri-partite days is hardly possible in the current ideological climate.

But perhaps the elephant in the room is that we have too few niches in a modern economy anyway for people who are both stupid and unreliable ... if I'm allowed to say that?

Perhaps I could rephrase the point: what happens to people on the left-hand-side of the bell-curves for IQ and conscientiousness? (Answer: disproportionately unemployment, crime and/or benefits).

One last thing. In my first teaching practice after I had made a complete hash of class control and was at my wits’ end I had an interview with my supervisor, the deputy head. He sat me in his office and said gravely, “Nigel, you will never be able to intimidate classes by the force of your personality. You will succeed as a teacher only if they like you.”

At the time I thought this was both profoundly depressing and extraordinary insightful.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Farewell baseball hoop; hi WiFi dongle!

The clear-out of our house proceeds. On Wednesday two guys from the YMCA and their transit van arrived to remove surplus standalone shelves, computer seats and a clothes stacker. They wouldn't take our two tables (actually the main reason we had contacted them) on the grounds they were too old and decrepit (the tables).

In the afternoon we disassembled them and dropped the tables off at the dump.

Today a pleasant chap called Steve responded to our small-ad in The Andover Advertiser and brought his van around. By 9.30 a.m. we had seen the last of our American Basketball Hoop and Stand, which we had in fact never assembled. We have been lugging it around since we bought it in Vienna, Virginia in 2002.

The post brought an update from our solicitor. Negotiations have started to acquire our new property in the Cathedral city of Wells, but we have still not managed to exchange contracts on our current property: delays in the chain to be sorted hopefully any day now.

A small achievement: Clare has moved her laptop upstairs where she is working on her OU course - currently an essay on Cleopatra since you ask. I ordered a WiFi USB dongle from Amazon at the low price of £6.50. It arrived this morning and installation was just as trouble-free as the Amazon comments had suggested. Brilliant! Clare is now networked.

The said machine, a Toshiba laptop, was bought on a budget after we returned from the States in 2003: having left Cable & Wireless Global in its slide into bankrupcy, I need to restart my Interweave Consulting business. It still just about works six years later although it has a disk capacity of only 18 GB and its real memory can't cope with the latest XP load without spending half its life paging. The letter "L" on the keyboard is also broken.

Normally I would put it out of its misery, but this WiFi dongle has given the Toshiba a new untethered mode and as it continues to do the job - just! - it will be permitted to live a while longer yet.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nuclear arms race as a thriller

This is an Amazon Vine review of: “Atomic” by Jim Baggott.

Most people have opinions about the world’s first atomic war. Was it really necessary to atom-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did the Nazis really have a credible A-bomb programme? Could the Soviets really have built their A- and H-bombs without spying on the Americans?

Relying on newly opened archives, recently declassified material and compendious research, science-writer Jim Baggott addresses all these questions and more. Covering the ten year period from 1939 to 1949, Baggott introduces us to a cast of more than 300 characters: Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, Russians; scientists, politicians, spies, military men and assassins.

In lesser hands this could have ended up as 492 pages of hyper-detailed indigestible stodge: instead Baggott has made it into a thriller. He deftly cuts between the opposing camps as the race to achieve detonation moves from crisis to crisis. The result is a real page turner.

Here’s another thing I liked about this book. It’s conventional to portray the Los Alamos scientists under Oppenheimer as saintly, far-sighted humanists fighting an unwinnable war against the evil representatives of the US military-industrial complex. Baggott carries a refreshingly small amount of such ‘bleeding-heart liberal baggage’, pointing out the naivety of such positions and the disasters which would have occurred had the US administration actually bought into the scientists’ proposals. There is an extended epilogue which brings the story right up to 2008.

Readable it may be but the level of detail makes this book of interest chiefly to those with a special interest in the political struggles and organisational challenges attendant upon the transition to the atomic age. Such readers will be richly rewarded.

Storm cat vole

Apologies to those of you who visit this blog for the latest thinking on string theory, tensor calculus, evolutionary psychology or agent theory. I fear we must return again to the cat.

Last night I decided that Shadow must once again be put out for the night. I want you to picture the situation: the front door with its cat flap, the three-foot vestibule with its harsh lined carpet, then the inner glass door opening out to our hall. The cat is in the vestibule, tucked away in its basket abutting the glass door which is firmly closed. There is a plate of cat food next to the front door to the left of the cat flap for his midnight snack.

We retire to bed.

At 1.30 a.m. last night I am awakened by a violent storm. Rain is lashing the windows, the wind is buffeting the house and making that low moaning sound which betokens serious weather. My drowsy thoughts naturally turned to the sleepy moppet so harshly condemned to these atrocious conditions. I made my way downstairs in the dark and turned on the hall light. There he was, curled up in his basket (aaah!) as the wind swirled through the cat flap. I opened the glass door and retired to bed: shortly afterwards the cat scampered upstairs and settled on our bed.

Cue forwards to 4.30 a.m. and we are woken by the whooping sounds of cat triumph. The repetitive cries start quiet then get steadily louder as the cat climbs the stairs. I poke Clare "Get up, he's got a vole!". Barely alive, she replies "And what am I going to do about it?"

Events overtake us as he dances into the bedroom. We both leap from the bed - our apparel will be lightly passed over - and one of us turns the light on. Yes, the cat is back to vole-juggling!

Swift as a vole herself, Clare grabs the cat and glares at me: "Sort it!".

I chase the vole, trying to prevent it escaping under the bed. I corner it and it runs up the wall - astonishing! It makes two feet, three feet, four feet without falling off. I make a cage of my hands and scoop it off, its tail flicking my wrist.

I make my way downstairs holding the wriggling rodent in front of me like a water diviner as Clare turns on lights and opens the front door. The vole is cast into the outer darkness in the general direction of the bushes. They can fly, can't they?

Now wash your hands! We retire to bed and the glass door is closed again: this time with the cat on the inside. "He won't want to go to the toilet now," Clare says confidently.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Juggling Cat

Yesterday evening after nine the cat brought a vole into the hallway. We've been here so many times before and Clare had intentionally left the hall light on. The cat was swiftly ushered into the house while the vole was shooed outside. Another life saved.

As a consequence, we decided Shadow would be put out that night despite the forecast of Monsoon weather. Who says we're all heart here? When I got up this morning - it was lashing down - I could faintly hear his little cries outside. He flipped through the catflap as I entered the hall and I let the sodden creature in, dripping a trail of water behind him.

I rubbed him down with kitchen roll - no sense in him soaking the furniture - and he scampered off for his breakfast. That reminded me that I wanted to tell you about his recent vole-juggling.

Yes, Shadow has taken to juggling the voles he catches. He sits in the hall, usually at the bottom of the stairs and flips the vole from paw to paw, cocking his head alertly as he strives to keep it aloft. Meanwhile the vole adds to the circus atmosphere by squeaking at the top of its little voice.

Normally I would go for a video of this performance, but with Clare shrieking "Save the vole!" I am normally too busy trying to catch the little rodent pursuant to releasing it safely outside. So no video, but I have put together the little simulation pictured below.

In deference to vole protection laws and to preserve its privacy and anonymity, the vole has been whitened out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Once upon a time there was an elderly woman (who we shall pretend was not my mother) who answered the phone to a plausible caller claiming to be conducting a security audit. Believing him to be from the local police and anxious to improve her home arrangements, this woman answered the caller's detailed questions and found herself agreeing to a home visit from a representative. To further sugar the arrangement, the visitor would bring the gift of a free shredder (!).

The appointment was fixed for yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m.

Naturally once the phone had been put down, the lady smelled a rat. She dialled 1471 to get the caller's number but BT's talking robot informed her that the number had been withheld. So she called the local police.

They were helpful and reassuring. Yes it was almost certainly a scam and no, he probably wouldn't come. Lock the door, put the chains on and don't answer.

As it happened, I was in Bristol yesterday to visit this lady and I was sure he would come around. If your business is conning your way into old people's homes to steal stuff, the business model does depend on making the home visits.

I arrived shortly after 2 p.m. and hatched a plan. When the 4 p.m. caller arrived I would ask for his business card (DNA evidence!) while filming him on my camera phone. If he made an excuse about not having a card on him ('They're at the printers, I ran out. Sorry mate!') I would hand him a pen and notepad and ask him to write the details so we could check (DNA again!).

I would then say we weren't interested and close the door. If he resisted - how could he get past the chains? - we would call the police and nab him red-handed.

As a plan, it seemed not only foolproof but also one with a high probability of obtaining a conviction. Our nervousness increased as we sat chatting in a desultory fashion, watching the clock approach 4 ... and pass it.

He never showed up.

Previously around 3 p.m. there had been a knock on the front door. I pulled it a scant three inches open on its chains to see a freckled youth in an Oxfam bomber jacket waving a collecting tin. Seeing the chains he did a big double take and said

"It's only Oxfam, mister. Not the gas or electricity!".

No doubt he regularly sees people in mortal fear of the debt collectors.

"Not today, thank you," I said and sent him on his way.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This and That

1. We were in Wells yesterday viewing a house and this morning we made an offer. We're waiting to see if it is accepted.

2. Cheque for £40.25 sent to our solicitors for a duplicate copy of the NHBC booklet which we cannot find in our files.

3. Clare's first TMA came back (AA-100) and she was thrilled to get 72%.

4. Our move-date is still scheduled for December 4th, which is two weeks away. This is now beginning to affect daily life. We're running down food (leading to some curious meals) and debating how much of our furniture and other household baggage should be taken to the dump.

5. My story "Entanglement" was rejected by Interzone. I'm disappointed but not surprised as rejection comes to everyone. Clare loyally reckons it's because the story is not sufficiently SF: I rather believe it's because it's not sufficiently well-written. So, all failure is a growth experience, right?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"If God is dead ..."

Prior to the Neolithic revolution, it is believed that traditional hunter-gatherer societies had proto-religions whereby animals, plants, rocks, the wind, the moon, the sun were all seen as having a spirit-aspect. It was in the nature of such societies that they were small kinship groups managed by a charismatic leader: the social function of such religions was really ‘magical environmental management'.

The advent of the Neolithic revolution in both its farming and herding aspects introduced the problems of scale. Populations rapidly grew beyond the scope of traditional, organic leadership where the leader was able to know everyone. This required the codification of law, ritual and morality. But how to make such impersonal social rules stick?

Make them the dictate of a supernatural super-chieftain, with an earthly bureaucracy-priesthood as enforcers. Thus the pastoral civilizations of the Middle-East created the Abrahamic religions (‘The Lord is my shepherd') while the more settled farming communities of South and East Asia produced the rigidities of Hinduism and Confucianism. Even Asian egalitarian reactions such as philosophical Taoism and Buddhism soon became encrusted with the priesthood-bureaucracy and attendant rituals.

This says something important about the role of religion as a necessary and effective social glue. In the unequal societies of feudalism (and Asian variants) such glue was all-important and came with real and bloody social sanctions. Latterly with capitalism, with its dissolution of traditional social relationships and increasing living standards, the social glue aspect has come to seem less important (the United States with its ethnic diversity and individualistic ethos as usual being the exception).

It is relatively easy, Dawkins-style, to prove the absurdity of a supernatural agency, given the lack of any direct evidence and the inconsistencies of the revealed sources. The decline of a religiously-based code of acceptable conduct is harder to manage. At the bottom of an atomised, depersonalised civil society tribal 'gangs' spring up, defining everyone else as 'other'. Who wants to live where 'everything is permitted'*?

Life under the yoke of a ‘monopolistic’ authoritarian religion can be pretty benighted and oppressive. Life in the absence of common standards of decency is pretty nasty. Perhaps we need diversity, competition, a market in religions?

Er, isn’t this pretty much what we have in the US today?

Well, maybe with more regulation then!

And did you mean just for the underclass?

* cf. "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevsky.

Off to Vancouver

Adrian (in the hat) and his friend Graham left for the winter skiing and snowboarding season at Sun Peaks in Canada this morning. The Vancouver flight takes off at 1.25 pm from Gatwick and it's then ten long hours before arrival at 3 pm local.

The winter season ends next April.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bath and Wells

Yesterday as projected we did Bath (184 mile round trip).

My never-very-high hopes for Bath subsided further as we navigated the dense traffic to a very expensive car park at The Podium next to Waitrose (it passes that test of course!). A traul through the estate agents confirmed we are officially too poor for Bath. To live in the city would cost £millions, while a home in the surrounding villages carries all the commuting freight of the traffic congestion and parking difficulties.

OK. So we went to Wells. And what a difference!

Wells Cathedral

Wells is small - human-scaled, quiet and utterly beautiful. The Cathedral, shown above in bright sunlight, abuts to the market square below.

The Market Square at Wells

Then there's the old palace with its moat which we barely had time to register. We looked at one property three minutes from the Cathedral which would have been wonderful except for the constraining interior layout: a near miss. We're back later this week to view another property so at least we have the location we wanted.

And if we lived there such delights as pictured below would be just a few minutes walk away.

Mass in B-minor

Friday, November 13, 2009

Disappointing Dorset

Yesterday saw us in Dorset in the latest round of our search for a new home. This now has added urgency as our moving date looks to be somewhere around December 4th.

We started in Crewkerne, a pleasant Georgian market town with a Waitrose at its heart. A Waitrose! Surely the mark of where we would like to live. We decided to adopt the Waitrose house-search strategy - check locations in the South-West where Waitrose has stores and search around there.

Sadly, Crewkerne came to naught. The problem is the usual one we have seen elsewhere – location. Out-of-town properties sometimes look OK in the brochure, but inevitably they are placed in a broader landscape of strip-development along too-busy roads. Or they’re a claustrophobic inset in a new estate-development incongruously abutting something much more ramshackle and agribusiness-oriented. Or else there's an auto-racing stadium half a mile away, mostly used for banger racing which the estate agent unaccountably failed to mention.

As the weather turned and the rain lashed in we drove on to Lyme Regis. One of the estate agents there told me that in the Lyme area there were few properties corresponding to our requirements (three bedroom detached with garden and somewhat secluded location). “Most of the housing stock is either small terraces in the town, one or two bedroomed,” he said, “or much larger estates in the country. Out of your price bracket I'm afraid." Yes, they had some good stuff for £1.5 million but nothing at all for us.

On the way back, driving the A35 in the hills towards Dorchester we saw the oddest weather phenomenon. A ferocious wind from the south was battering the car while overhead the clouds scudded like smoky locomotives. We were on the southerly side of a deep valley: high overhead a black, jet-stream-like cloud-tube assembled and stretched the miles over the valley to our left before seeming to touch-down on the far-off hillside. It was very spooky.

After more than 200 miles of fruitless driving, we finally got home exhausted at 4.30 p.m. to prepare for a pre-booked evening play at the Andover Lights. "Under the Greenwood Tree" by Thomas Hardy is a slight work and Dorset Corset were playing it for laughs. The rustic characters were complete imbeciles – not wholly plausible - while the romance between one of them and the comely and educated school mistress Fancy Day seemed especially unlikely. We didn't stay for the second half.

Clare's new plan is to look for a property in the delightful Georgian town of Bath. Something will have to give, I wonder if it will be the garden?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


An early departure tomorrow morning to Crewkerne (mentioned in Jane Austen's Persuasion I think) as a base for Dorset house-hunting. Clare has finally seen some properties we like enough so tomorrow will also be our first viewing ... we have hopes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Early December move date

Down to Stockbridge again this afternoon to see the solicitor. We expect to exchange contracts on our house perhaps ten days time with the move tentatively estimated for the first week in December.

We're somewhat resigned to a stay of some duration in Reading as little of interest turned up in our house hunt trips to Wales and south Somerset. Meanwhile Clare continues to search online.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Holland & Barrett (Omega-3)

After days spent either cowering indoors against the rain or driving fruitlessly around the west-country in search of our new home, today we ventured out on foot. The unusual sight of calm blue skies tempted us to exercise so we walked the four miles to town and back, ostensibly to buy Clare some vitamin-A tablets and pop into the library.

We should buy shares in Holland & Barrett. I think we all know H&B sell nothing but new-age self-indulgence, yet somehow it is irresistible. Clare got her vitamins and I bought bottles of "triple strength omega-3 fish oil, 950 mg of active EPA/DHA per capsule". This on the strength of The Economist recommendation here.

At the library I took out a Paul Auster book (Travels in the Scriptorium) as well as something by A. S. Byatt. I saw the review of Auster's Invisible on Newsnight Review yesterday evening and decided to order a copy from Amazon: as I've read no Auster before I thought I'd do a little preliminary reading although I now see that the Amazon reviews of my new library book only amount to an overall two-and-a-half stars.

[Postscript at 8.30 pm: it took only a couple of hours to finish the 129 or so pages of Travels in the Scriptorium. It's a curious piece of metafiction, supremely referential to the author's prior work so impossible for me to adequately assess.]

We finished up in the BlueOnion, a local and superior version of Starbucks which served an excellent hot chocolate for Clare and green tea for me. Nice to be in a place where the staff enthuse about their work and the tables and floor are spotless. Another business to invest in if only they were publicly quoted.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

So much for South Somerset

A tiring day.

Making an early start we drove down to Yeovil: a charming town although clogged with traffic. This resulted in eight candidate houses from the town's collection of estate agents. We dutifully drove through miles of single-tracked country roads in order to eliminate the lot of them.

What was wrong?

- Appearance: the bungalows in our brochure collection reminded me of WW2 nissen huts and actually looking at them redeems them not at all.

- Location: this is the real killer. Many of the houses were OK in themselves, but the estate agent had carefully cut out of shot the derelict house/garage/high-density estate abutting the property. It takes a trip to discover the truth.

- General environment. One or two properties might have been OK if they had not been surrounded by the monotonous sodden fields of the Somerset levels. I know some people like this: we're more hills kind of people.

We did find one picture-postcard village, revealingly called Montacute but the house in question was some way away next to the main road.

Then it was off to Taunton where we arrived into dense traffic at 2 p.m. almost fainting from starvation. Nothing for it but to embrace a Burger King. The things one does!

Then we did the rounds of the local estate agents again - our spiel is now practised and terse - but only two properties survived a brochure review back in the car and they didn't survive the drive-by. Home by 6 p.m. and 210 miles covered.

Lesson learned - properties in a ten miles radius of major regional conurbations are not what we really want. Clare now has a mission to look more in the depths of the country in Dorset and Devon and we shall be off again pretty soon.

Exhausting though.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

VAT cancelled

My VAT registration has been cancelled from close of business October 27th 2009. This is due to the decrease in Interweave Consulting revenues resulting from the recession.

Story sent off to "Interzone"

Entanglement, a story of high-tech espionage set in the Middle-East was sent off to Interzone today. We shall see.

Getting this into shape has somewhat derailed my systematic study of "A First Course in String Theory" by Barton Zwiebach. His first chapter is a general - and excellent - overview of string theory: where it came from, its intellectual history and what problems it's trying to solve. The second chapter gets down to it, straight into tensor notation.

I know that's vital for GR, which is the real driver for string theory anyway so I'm detouring to work on tensors. The notation is very compact but to really unpick it in your head you do need to have done the homework and worked through lots of examples. Unfortunately, it's not that intrinsically interesting...

We had a couple of removal people come by yesterday to assess our house-moving-and-storage task and quote for the job: the third candidate is due with us in about half an hour. Meanwhile our search for a new abode continues tomorrow when we'll be checking out the estate agents in Yeovil, Dorchester and Chard (time permitting).

Clare's desire for a large garden she can work on seems to have trumped all her other requirements. Yesterday she said to me demurely,

"How would you feel about a Victorian semi? They have particularly large gardens."

"I'd rather die."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

House-Hunting in Wales: conclusions

We looked at a variety of properties centred around Rhayader, Builth Wells, Brecon and Llandovery. We saw village new-build properties, mountain cottages accessible only after steep climbs on single-track roads and houses next to rivers or down muddy, tree-shrouded tracks.

We found nothing we remotely liked.

Broadly speaking most of the traditional properties are thirty to forty years old, smaller and darker than we wanted and generally in need of a complete modernising makeover.

The new properties were invariably clumped in little developments offset from existing villages, or were an insert into a gap.

The estate agents all tried to talk the market up but in our view the properties were grotesquely over-priced. One estate agent told us that the local attitude to selling was completed 'relaxed': "they're prepared to wait maybe three or four years around here. Their attitude is that when we get a buyer we'll move - till then they're perfectly happy to stay put."

No wonder they're not very price-sensitive.

Ignoring the market towns which didn't interest us at all, the housing stock is either in villages - fairly tightly clumped, or on the sides of the hills with small gardens. There are houses with land but this is usually for farming purposes.

So in the end we found nothing really which worked for us at any price in central Wales. Perhaps we'll have more luck in the south-west of England.

House-Hunting in Wales: part 3

This morning we awoke in The Lion Hotel, Builth Wells for our last day of house-hunting in Wales. Pictured below is the Northern Ireland-style mural visible from our breakfast table.

Breakfast view from The Lion Hotel, Builth Wells

Our usual trawl of the High Street estate agents garnered a haul of only three possibles, which we filtered in the car to just one, two miles north of Builth Wells.

Approaching past the station and under the railway bridge we drove through a familiar landscape of overgrown tufted grass, abandoned oildrums, rusting equipment, derelict caravans, gravelled and puddled driveways fronting nissen huts of indeterminate function and ... well, you get the picture. Eventually we found the driveway to the oasis of arcadian loveliness as described by the estate agent. I at least was prepared to navigate the pond outside the driver's door and look down the driveway. Clare had meanwhile lost the will to live.

We turned around and came home, a journey illustrated by the pictures below.

The M4 Severn crossing

Welcome to England

Five hundred miles and perhaps twenty properties seen, none of which was remotely suitable. Our new target to search is the area north of Lyme Regis.

Exasperated in Llandovery

Elaine always claims to find the commentaries more amusing than the video. Here was how we reacted when we discovered yesterday that the estate agents in Llandovery, along with most of the town, close up for lunch.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

House-Hunting in Wales: part 2

We hit the Brecon estate agents soon after 9 a.m. this morning and armed with a sheaf of property details, we were soon driving around main roads and mountain roads. Some of the properties were next to A roads (no thanks). Some of them were in new developments (no!). Some of them were suitably inaccessible, up single track roads with hedges higher than a double-decker bus and no passing places (and even then we failed to locate one such property).

Near Brecon: no garden and another house right behind

We next migrated to Llandovery, where we had been told suitable properties were cheaper. To our surprise, the estate agents all closed for lunch so we bided our time and after collecting another bundle of properties we were soon off again. One property was down a rutted, puddled, muddy track next to a river: we rejected a future life of dampness.

The A40 running through Llandovery

Another was high in the Black Mountains National Park with a view of surpassing loveliness. However, it was old and backed into the sodden hillside – damp-fed moss and fungus coloured the rear walls while the front of the property was too small to support a walled garden, which would have blocked the view.

Great view, shame about the damp cottage

We have ended up in Builth Wells (The Lion Inn) and will tomorrow do a similar exercise in this area before moving on to Hay-on-Wye and home. We are beginning to draw some conclusions about the nature of properties in mid-Wales and I guess we will share our thoughts with you tomorrow or Friday.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

House-Hunting in Wales: part 1

Having sold our current accommodation (subject to contract), our plan is to buy a house which sits on some high plateau in magnificent isolation, with ample grounds and mountain views and country walks outside our gate.

So far, our search in mid-Wales has proved a mite disappointing.

Rhayader looking south

We arrived in Rhayader at 12.45 today (three and a half hours driving from Andover). After lunch in one of the attractive pubs, we did the two estate agents and after a brief tourist drive to see the reservoirs of the Elan valley (very scenic - don't buy downstream) we took a look at five properties.

To be honest, none of them was particularly inspiring. They were either mini-developments in a nearby village (no 'splendid isolation') or rather undistinguished bungalows fringed by barbed wire in a rural sheep-farming landscape. Somehow it didn't quite capture our dream.

We didn't go for the cottage with this view

Mid-afternoon we abandoned the picturesque, tourist-friendly but tiny Rhayader and drove to Llandrindod Wells, a pleasant Victorian town around 12 miles away which somewhat resembles Georgian Bath. It is however surrounded by valley farms, another house-hunt disappointment. We therefore proceed straight down to Brecon across the mountains, where we saw groups of soldiers being put through their paces. There was a heavy military presence above 2,000 feet.

Clare in this evening's Brecon Chinese restaurant

Brecon has a good feel about it, pleasant shops and restaurants and a cheerful occupied street life. Half-term probably has something to do with it. We ate at the local Chinese which was good, and we're currently ensconced in the George Hotel. Tomorrow we'll be checking whether there are properties for sale nestled in the Brecon Beacons.