Thursday, April 30, 2009

Brean Down

A trip down to see my brother Adrian and his family, holidaying at Brean Down, near Weston-super-Mare yesterday. A bright day but with a bitter wind. The beach at Brean is very flat, with closely-compacted fine sand. When we strolled down, the tide was way, way out.

As usual, click on a picture to make it larger.

Elaine, drawn by the sea

The Beach at Brean Down

Elaine meets a Pole - hmmm...

Adrian holding on against the wind

Beryl Seel

Monday, April 27, 2009

State of Play

We took in the late performance of "State of Play" Sunday evening (poster below).

For once, Clare had us go early to make sure we got a seat at what would surely be an extremely popular film. In fact we bought the third and fourth tickets for the show. I think the cinema had an occupancy of around seven people as the film started.

Overall a good two hours entertainment. Helen Mirren as newspaper boss was as unconvincing as the critics had suggested, and thankfully an ageing (but still gorgeous - Clare) Russell Crowe was spared a liaison with his pretty-but-youthful blogging sidekick Rachel McAdams, having to settle instead for the ageing-but-still-blonde wife of the errant congressman.

It was fun: enjoy.

The Flu Exponential

Let's make some back-of-the-envelope calculations (just for fun).

Swine flu is starting its exponential increase in most advanced countries in parallel, from a small base. So it suffices to consider England. Assume that we start with 16 infectious cases today and that the number of infected individuals doubles every day.

Then in 10 days we have 16,000 cases; in 20 days we have 16 million cases and the "whole population" is infected at day 22. That's comfortably by May 19th.

Since the global population today is closely connected both by air transport and in dense conurbations (starting with Mexico) there is no evolutionary advantage to the virus to hang around in the host. The ones which trash the human victim to reproduce as rapidly as possible will have most offspring. So expect the virus to get more virulent.

We were in the supermarket this morning and noticed neither extra shoppers nor a run on canned food. It will be interesting to see the situation in 10 days time.

Note that if it gets really serious, then essential services such as water and power may also be interrupted so the idea that one can just stock up, ease back from socialising and catch up with a backlog of reading or TV-watching seems unduly optimistic (not to mention callous).

So far it's a dress-rehearsal for the putative future bird-flu pandemic, but we shall see.

Jokes about Swine Flu.

“Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany

A review post on Amazon here.

Alaa Al Aswany is an Egyptian novelist, journalist and activist who trained at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and subsequently worked as a dentist (faute de mieux) in Cairo. He has previously written two novels: "The Yacoubian Building" set in Egypt where he worked, and "Chicago", exploring the experiences of Egyptians in the US and set at the University of Illinois where he studied. Aswany is also a founding member of Kefaya, the modernising political opposition in Egypt. "Friendly Fire" is his third book consisting of the novella "He Who Drew Close and Saw" and a further nine short stories.

In some ways I found the novella to be the most disappointing item of the collection. It tells the story of Isam, an Egyptian intellectual from a poor family who experiences considerable alienation both from his own family and from the society around him. We learn about his father, a talented artist who gets nowhere because of his 'lack of charisma' and who surrounds himself with other mediocre failures, and the other members of his family – all portrayed in an unflattering light. Isam gets a job at a research institute where no-one does anything, and the director sexually abuses the cleaning women. Isam finally has an epiphany: it’s western culture which provides salvation - all progress, innovation and new ideas have come from that one source alone.

Isam then meets a German woman, Jutta, in the German Cultural Centre and, improbably for such a timid and antisocial soul, makes a successful pass at her. After a torrid night of passion he arranges to meet her the next day only to find she has completely vanished, as has all evidence that she ever existed. Allegory or madness?

Aswany’s writing almost always holds interest, and there is meaning on many levels. My main concern here is just the structure of the plotting which seems loose and in the end confusing.

The nine short stories are a varied collection: snapshots and vignettes both of specifically Egyptian life and of the human universals of family life, career and relationships. There are several school-based stories which in each case feature an outsider (a disabled person, a fat-boy and an upper-class foreigner) with a theme of collective cruelty and betrayal.

My favourite two stories were “An Old Blue Dress and a Close-fitting Covering for the Head, Brightly Covered” and “The Kitchen Boy”. In the former, the young man Salah seduces a poor girl, gets her pregnant and funds an abortion – and persuades himself that she is at fault and is probably trying to manipulate him into marriage; in the second half of the story, we jump forward to Saleh’s infatuation with a ‘very religious’ girl with a very different outcome.

“The Kitchen Boy” is especially disturbing, recounting the fate of a very bright boy Hisham who finds his intelligence of no use whatsoever in Medical School. In the end Hisham’s miserable fortunes change as he discovers and accommodates the Chairman of the Department of General Surgery’s peculiar ‘moral’ preferences.

In summary, this fine collection illuminates the many facets of a society with endemic corruption, hypocrisy and the myriad cruelties inflicted by those in positions of power. Unfortunately, there is little hope given here of change any time soon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hinton Ampner House

When we went to Avebury a few days back we joined the National Trust. This was mostly to get our £3 car parking fee back, but we also thought we might be taking trips to some of their other assets. And so it has proved.

Today Clare and myself drove down to Hinton Ampner House, dodging threatening cumulus clouds and braced against a chilling wind. Access to the House and Gardens we found to be free at the point of use, as intended.

I was not especially motivated to take any pictures - the house/garden view below is from the Internet. However, as we walked the surrounding fields, Clare encouraged me incessantly to snap this and that engaging group of sheep. I have therefore selected the two best sheep-shots of my over-ample collection, realising that this is really only a specialist interest.

One, I hasten to add, that I fail to share. Enjoy, sheep-lovers out there (you know who you are!).

Hinton Ampner House

Sheep families - note absent fathers

Clare thought this one was cute ...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

This and That

Adrian became the third person to read my short story and - how shall we say? - not necessarily get the author's intent. The format - an epistolary structure based on blog entries - seems to me to be at fault and I think the answer is to remake the underlying story in a more conventional form.


Reading my forthcoming SMXR358 Summer School material, I came across the following method of estimating uncertainty when counting randomly occurring events (I quote).

If the number of randomly occurring events counted in a given period is N, the uncertainty in this count (i.e. the likely difference between N and the mean that would be found from a long series of repeated experiments) is √(N).

Example: if the mean is 100 counts, 68% 0f experiments will produce results within 90 and 110 counts i.e. +/- √100.

So where does that come from? I asked a tutor last year and we had an inconclusive discussion about Poisson distributions which seemed beside the point. Anyway, I reviewed it again and came to the following conclusion.

Suppose that there is an underlying binomial process with very low probability p of producing an observable event, and high probability q = (1-p)≈ 1 of not producing an observable event in a given time period. Radioactive decay would be an example.

Let T be the total number of underlying events (observable and not) which occur during the course of a single experiment and let Tp be the expected number of observable events. The average of the counts N which are measured would tend to this value over a number of experiments.

The standard deviation σ of the distribution is √(Tpq) = √(N *q) ≈ √N, as q is nearly 1.

So using the normal distribution approximation, 68% of measured values of N will lie within +/- 1σ of the mean, Tp, which is +/- √N as stated. Note that we use measured N as a best estimator for Tp.


I could have got to this more elegantly. The p ≈ 0 and q ≈ 1 condition and the large number of trials T is the condition for the Poisson distribution to apply. And in the Poisson distribution, the variance = the mean N, so the standard deviation is the square root of the mean = √N.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Heale Gardens

Visited Heale Gardens just north of Salisbury this afternoon. Pix below.

Heale House (not open to the public)

Adrian, myself and Clare

Adrian checking out a feature

"Yes, those are the trees I meant"

Adrian and Alex

"Was this the original Triffid?"

And cream teas to finish the day.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


What I would write if I had a Twitter account.

Thursday evening around 11 p.m. during Newsnight.

We heard the catflap bang open, followed by a dreadful squeaking. Yes, Shadow had caught his first baby rabbit of the season. With great effort the poor damaged thing was detached from feline jaws and deposited in the undergrowth 200 metres away, the predator being meanwhile held in restraint.

Friday afternoon.

I completed a possible short story for submission to Interzone. The tale has a subtle twist in the tail which proved so subtle that neither Clare nor Alex could make head nor tail of it. I am consequently persuaded of the need for a trifling adjustment.

Saturday afternoon.

Captivated by the warmer weather and a hint of sun, Alex, Clare and myself ventured out to the New Forest, near Ringwood. We proceeded to get hopelessly lost, completely failing to find our target car park to commence The Walk.

Instead we found a pub and had lunch. After restoring our bearings we completed a reasonable circular tour (c. 3 miles) and repaired to the house to find that Adrian had returned in our absence. So now we are four.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A small kindling of the vanities

Just completed the third computer assignment, iCMA53, for SM358 - Quantum Mechanics with the Open University.

I began yesterday and after a promising start got stuck on two questions. What does stuck mean? I calculated the answer, typed it in and got the response "You are incorrect". An unwanted hint followed, plus a deduction of three scoring points. I tried again. Still wrong. So I left the two problem questions, moved on, got some more right, and then abandoned the exercise for the day.

This morning I completed the rest of the assignment with no problems and returned with a fresh eye to my two problematic questions.

The first requested a numerical value which I had entered as 0.76 to 2 s.f. The correct computation is 0.75 to 2 s.f. There followed a small period of self-laceration as I called myself a complete, careless idiot for failing to accurately truncate what I had read off the calculator screen.

The second question was about the time evolution of a wavefunction in a harmonic well. Given a specific wavefunction (a superposition of the 2nd and third eigenfunctions) at t =0, what was the wavefunction half a period later (π/ω0)? Iworked this out with exquisite care and entered my response ... only to get "Your answer is incorrect" to the point where there were no more hints. I had flunked it! I was advised by the system that I needed to spend more time studying the principles of wave packet superposition. Yeah, right.

I looked at their model solution - how had my answer been out by a factor of i?

Ah, I see it now. In the question, one of the eigenfunctions had i as a coefficient, which in my careless way I had entirely missed. Standard bug: misread the question.

I was so irritated with my carelessness, and with the rigidity of the computer system's misdiagnosis of my problem that I hastened to vent my indignation here. Oh vanity.

Perhaps I should get out more.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Interzone Subscription

Today I took out a 12-copy subscription to the SF magazine Interzone. Once I have figured out the house style, I hope to submit some publishable stories.

It only remains to settle on some strong, believable characters the reader can identify with; to develop a plot with early hooks, some non-obvious twists and a surprise ending; to add texture and audience-immersion through rich and picturesque descriptive writing; and to power it all with those awe-inspiring ideas without which no SF story can truly fly - tropes such as hi-tech weaponry; trans-human-level AI; synthetic personalities indistinguishable from their human templates; human cloning; augmentation implants; well, you know that stuff .... oh, and short sentences. Naturally one will use a setting of tomorrow to illuminate the great unspoken-of and unresolved issues of today in a novel guise, as SF has always done.

I can hardly wait to read it myself.

Why such aggression towards male homosexuals?

Throughout recorded history male homosexuals have been persecuted. All the major Abrahamic religions abhor homosexuality, often prescribing draconian punishments. Similarly, male homosexuality has until recent times been illegal in most states, with severe sentences (recall Oscar Wilde). Male homosexuality has never been an ordinary crime, like assault or theft. Underpinning legal deprecation there seems to be a visceral, vigilantism-inducing, macho hatred of male homosexuals, captured in rich and varied epithets (faggot, queer, sod being more pleasant examples).

Why the emotionalism? Why the hatred, applying almost always only to male homosexuals? This seems a key puzzle for evolutionary psychology, complementing the problem of the very existence of homosexuality for evolutionary theory itself.

I see very little research addressing the issue, so in the worst tradition of armchair, speculative, just-so storied evolutionary psychology, let me air a hypothesis. Here are the three points.

1. Most (all?) non-human social primates live in a dominance hierarchy, maintained by aggression and submission. A classical symbol of submission is to be mounted by a more dominant animal.

2. Human males normally structure themselves in dominance hierarchies. There are other hierarchies too (intelligence, craft or artistic skills, value-leadership) which reflect the increased sophistication of human sociality and the human mind. Nevertheless, anyone who contemplates the police, the army or prisons is in no doubt of the bedrock primacy of testosterone-fuelled, masculine, violence-driven hierarchical ordering. Explicit male-on-male sexual activity is notoriously part of this at the coarser level(prisons and showers, anyone?). This stuff is not unknown in business and politics either, more talk than action usually and thankfully.

3. Research seems to show that male homosexuals are often lower in aggression and higher in affiliative relationships. This automatically places them low in any masculine dominance hierarchy.

My conclusion is that macho-type men who consider themselves at the top-end of an aggression-sustained dominance hierarchy will consider male homosexuals to be both easy victims to be punished, reinforcing their position; and by virtue of their sexual preferences, to be subverting the hierarchy itself (affiliative sex vs. dominance sex). This leads to feelings of contempt and disgust, which can fuel both further violence and the institutionalisation of the view that male homosexuality is transgressive.

In support of this view I would note that dominant men typically show little disgust or antagonism against lesbians, who are typically viewed by macho men as amusing, arousing or as a challenge. Women historically have never been part of male dominance hierarchies*.

I don’t think my speculations above are particularly compelling although I think the methodology is consistent with a sociobiological approach. I merely hope to see more recognition that the phenomenon is indeed quite an important issue to be explored within an evolutionary (sociobiological) framework.

* Note that bringing women into organisations structured as male dominance hierarchies is always problematic. Either the women have to emulate masculine dominance behaviour (try to be as alpha as possible), or they are shunted into some parallel organisation leaving the male hierarchy intact, or the male hierarchy adopts a publicly hypocritical stance of non-dominance and the hierarchy itself goes underground.

To destroy the hierarchy in favour of something else – more affiliative? – would of course destroy the organisation. If we believe we sometimes need organisations structured as male dominance hierarchies, this would presumably not be a good outcome.

I am trying, all the way through this, to adopt a scientific, evolutionary methodology – not some normative, liberal, post-enlightenment, standard social-science approach. If human males across the world spontaneously form dominance hierarchies and apparently always have done, as do our close evolutionary relatives, then there must be some environmental features which select for this. In terms of efficiency of social action in conflict situations, I don’t feel personally we have to look too far to see why that might be the case.

What is more interesting is the way that individuals typically low in inter-personal aggression (perhaps some intellectuals) can nevertheless be promoted to elite positions. It seems to me that they’re mostly tolerated there for utilitarian purposes, and that in human affairs, alpha-male dominance in the end trumps everything. You should read the news through your own perspectives of course ...

Engine Management

Galactic North is a collection of Alastair Reynolds short stories, set in the Revelation Space universe. In the story “Weather” we have a light-hugger interstellar spacecraft under pursuit amongst the stars, with its Conjoiner engines acting up. Luckily the crew have a refugee Conjoiner woman on board who agrees to examine the (super-secret) engines. She explains the difficulty.

"I can't reveal the detailed physical principles upon which the drive depends, but I can tell you that the conditions in the drive when it is at full functionality are enormously complex and chaotic. Your ship may ride a smooth thrust beam, but the reactions going on inside the drive are anything but smooth. There is a small mouth into hell inside every engine: bubbling, frothing, subject to vicious and unpredictable state-changes.”

“Which the engine needs to smooth out?”

“Yes. And to do so, the engine needs to think through some enormously complex parallel computational problems. When all is well, when the engine is intact and running inside its normal operational envelope, the burden is manageable. But if you ask too much of the engine, or damage it in some way, that burden becomes heavier. Eventually it exceeds the means of the engine, and the reactions become uncontrolled.”



Could be a metaphor for relationship management in general, but maybe that’s an NT speaking.

Note: here's a cute, cynical, sadly accurate site for personality type descriptions.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beryl Seel in the White Hart

So it's not all hard work and no play staying with us, then.

My mother in the White Hart, Penton Mewsey

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Shadow and his care team

A special Easter picture showing the happy feline in the bosom of his care team.

Clare in the community

Not really into posing

Alex and Adrian left shortly after nine this morning en-route to Edale. As I write I anticipate they are somewhere near Mam Tor.

Meanwhile at lunchtime, Clare, my mother & myself visited the Hatchet Inn, Lower Chute.

The meal was promptly delivered, hot and of excellent quality, marred only by the payment process. The landlord offered his machine for my card, which showed £30.00 to pay. No breakdown was offered, and it seemed churlish to demand one (especially as I missed the one psychological moment when it might have been possible).

Was this a fair price for three pub lunches and three drinks? Or was I somewhat overcharged? I struggled to get up to that amount, and the landlord's body language was not encouraging.

This is not the only pub which omits the itemised bill, and I strongly deprecate it: even the suspicion of duplicity mars the experience.

Friday, April 10, 2009

LinkedIn and an STL backstory

I'm on LinkedIn here.

For a long time I treated this pretty passively, but as LinkedIn is, apparently, the 'thinking person's FaceBook', I decided to treat it a little more seriously and so gave my profile a makeover.

One of the consequences was that I decided to try to add to my network some of the colleagues I used to work with back at STL in the early eighties - Will and Paul, Mike and Jill, Bernie and Mel. This is not the place for a memoir, but let me outline the background.

I had moved to STL from a systems programming job in 1982, and suddenly found myself in a first-rate research environment, tasked to develop part of a software support environment for 'formal methods' such as CCS, Z and VDM. My first assignment was to develop a term-rewrite system using Lisp (on a VAX 11/780).

My real interests however lay elsewhere, and having done my software engineering apprenticeship, I was able to set up a funded team to work on formalisations of Artificial Intelligence. This was the subject of the parallel Ph. D. programme I did at Surrey University between 1984 and 1988, supervised by Professor Bernie Cohen.

Sadly, following the takeover of STL by Northern Telecom/Bell-Northern Research, all this blue-sky stuff was terminated, and I had to re-launch my career in telecoms as a carrier network designer. I recall Professor Cohen being distinctly irritated, to put it mildly, that what looked like a promising field of further research had been so abruptly terminated. Perhaps a small explanation is owed to him here.

Bernie, at the end of my thesis I concluded that if we were going to understand human mental architecture (which includes concepts such as emotion, personality differences, intelligence and consciousness itself) we had to understand what specific environmental conditions held back there in the Pleistocene, such that human cognition was the appropriate consequential evolved response. I did some preliminary exploration, but there was almost no academic research to draw upon.

It must be a feeling familiar to physicists today. There were many, many directions which could be mathematically explored, but in the absence of experimental real-world feedback there was no ability to prune the cul-de-sacs and focus on the most promising directions.

The feeling that my research programme had stalled has been vindicated over the years. Subsequently there was the explosion of work in sociobiology (E. O. Wilson et al.), and the further development of evolutionary psychology with all its manifest strengths and weaknesses. AI research meanwhile stultified, while sociobiology continues to be the area I would work in, if I could restart my research programme today.

But we still don't understand enough about the ecological drivers of human cognition over the last 100-200,000 years. In fact this whole area, at a conceptual level, is subject to enormous contemporary debate.

It was Richard Feynman who said that if you can't construct it, you don't understand it. A very profound thought of course, and a pointer to the fact that the falsification of our best, speculative evolutionary psychological theories requires we can build agents effectively mimicking humans in social interactions. Sadly, that's a generation away though, showing what we have here is a genuine research programme, not simply a problem to be directly addressed and solved.


A house full at present with my mother staying, and Adrian arrived back from Canada yesterday for a while. Alex brought him here from Gatwick, and they're off to the Derbyshire Moors near Edale tomorrow for a few days. As usual, they have been ransacking my wardrobe for wet weather gear and laughing at the girth of my trousers. The word 'clown' has been used.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Literary SF and its discontents

In between bouts of quantum mechanics, I have been resting my tired mind by re-engaging with the science-fiction delights of the Andover Library, and specifically with literary SF.

In the good old days, SF was about excitement combined with awe-inducing new ideas. As Kilgore Trout cynically observed in Timequake, SF writers don't do characterisation and to think they oughta betrays a lack of understanding of the genre.

Of course, a sullen resentment of SF's genre-ridden underdog status has moved us all along from that particular understanding. You can't go near an SF book these days without discovering that the author has a Ph.D. in literary criticism from Cambridge University and that his writing is textured with high-quality descriptive writing and deep character studies.

Exhibit 'A' for your examination is Gradisil by Adam Roberts. Yes, Adam writes well and his characterisation would get good-to-excellent marks in a writing class: I can distinguish his characters even if I can't remember their names. The book was abandoned one third of the way through due to the fact that the plot held essentially no interest whatsoever, while the premise of an orbital hobo space community inhabiting pressurised tin cans circling the earth in defiance of all major powers seemed devoid of any possible suspension of disbelief.

My next example is Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard. This describes an interminable jungle war in central America where the SF interest is that there are psionic soldiers who can control other people with their minds. The hero - really an antihero - is drug-addled and deeply unpleasant. The descriptive writing is excellent - you feel the damp heat, the shanty towns and the mosquitoes - and the characterisation is believable. This book was abandoned half way through because the action proceeded at a dreary pace to no good end, and the plot appeared both opaque and pointless. Oh, and it's a love story.

I think the rot probably started with Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Another booked lauded to the skies for its high literary style but actually terminally boring.

I am still searching for the Kingsley Amis quote where towards the end of his life he resolutely turns his face against literary fiction and states that henceforward he will read only novels where a revolver is mentioned in the first few pages and is used shortly thereafter.

There is room for something which combines tight, page-turning plotting; jaw-dropping intellectual shock-and-awe; fine characterisation, and descriptive writing. Perhaps Iain M. Banks is somewhere in this space, but where is everybody else?

Double slit experiment (electron)

I used to wonder exactly how Quantum Mechanics models the phenomenon of a single electron encountering a double slit and then being detected at a point which ends up as part of an interference pattern.

I'm now aware that solving the problem analytically is complicated: the electron has to be modelled as a suitable wavepacket, and the double slit as a potential barrier with gaps. However, the java applet here shows it all wonderfully.

The best setting for me is with a small slit-size (10) and with detector distance 50. Note the reflected part of the wavefunction is symmetrical with the transmitted part.

We're not seeing the wavefunction itself, but the modulus squared - the probability wave (mod(Ψ))2.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Down to Salisbury Playhouse this evening to see "Restoration", a play adapted from the book of the same name by Rose Tremain, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 1989.

The book must have had something going for it, but we found the play unbearably tedious, and left in the interval. Something to do with a lack of any kind of tension. We just didn't care about any of the characters or where the plot was meandering to.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Review of "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

This review, jointly created by Clare and myself, is posted on Amazon here. (3 stars).


Five hundred years ago, in 1509, the 17 year old Henry VIII and his new Spanish bride Catherine ascended the English throne. Catherine managed to produce the future Queen Mary in 1516, but subsequently failed to provide a male heir. By 1532, after great difficulties Henry had finally managed to have his marriage with Catherine annulled, and went on to marry Anne Boleyn, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth. Anne also failed to produce the necessary male heir and was executed in 1536 in favour of wife number three, Jane Seymour.

Henry’s desperate attempts to extricated himself from Catherine – efforts involving Pope Clement VII and his captor at the time, Emperor Charles V - were mediated by his top advisors: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his later replacement, Sir Thomas More, and his successor, Thomas Cromwell (in 1532).

‘Wolf Hall’ spans the period from the removal of Cardinal Wolsey from the court in 1529 to the eclipse of Anne Boleyn after 1534. The machinations of Anne in her endeavours to become Queen are central to the book, Henry appearing only in cameo. Our conduit into the court is Master Thomas Cromwell, a loyal servant of Cardinal Wolsey and his right-hand man and confidante. He has been apprenticed to a master tactician and when Wolsey dies, Cromwell transfers his skills to aiding Henry in achieving what Wolsey had failed to deliver, a divorce from Catherine and a legal marriage to Anne.

The first tranche of this book enchanted me as I was wholly transported to Tudor London. The description of Cromwell’s family and work-life is rich in detail and characterisation. The scourges of the age, which touched his domestic life, are treated with poignancy but not over-dramatised: there is much here to value. Wolsey’s persecution is movingly evoked, but with his death the energy and pace of the novel slacken and when the action moves to the court and begins to focus on Anne, the essential tautness is lost and the book disappoints.

The potential for revelation of Anne Boleyn’s character and motivation is a missed opportunity. Her portrayal is two-dimensional: her ambition and vindictiveness unleavened with redeeming characteristics. In common with Henry she wants a son to settle the succession, her daughter being despatched into the country to the care of courtiers. She is really too bad to be true.

As a counterpoint to her awfulness, Cromwell is painted as a superman figure: linguist, international merchant and financier, deploying intelligence, diligence and humanity as far as is compatible with being Henry’s enforcer. He coaxes and cajoles Queen Catherine, her daughter Mary and Sir Thomas More with advice to submit to the will of the king. This good advice is never acted upon.

To please his monarch he fleeces vulnerable members of the aristocracy before turning his attention to the clergy. Cromwell grows in influence and wealth while nature thwarts Anne. Of course, he eventually gets his comeuppance (executed in 1540).

The historical facts underlying this novel are well-outlined in this competent novel, but a proper exploration of the complexity of Anne Boleyn could have made the basis of an outstanding book.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The steepness of SM358

I was going to do the third computer assessment for my QM course yesterday (iCMA 53). However, the course website was down for an upgrade, so I went into revision mode instead with the course book 1. Boy, I was glad I did.

The conceptual ramp-up in SM358 is quite severe and it's amazing how much you don't get at first reading. Yesterday I revised stationary solutions in square wells and today it's the following chapter on harmonic oscillators and ladder functions. The final chapters are on wave packets, motion, scattering and tunnelling and I expect new revelations as I review this material.

The iCMAs are challenging to one's self-esteem. There are 8 multiple choice questions, which invariably require pen and paper calculation. If you make a wrong choice, you are deducted 3 marks (you start with 100) and are given a hint. This process recurs through the whole test and once lost, marks cannot be regained. So far, I have never gotten through with 100%.

Only you and your tutor can see your marks, which are not assessed for the overall course, so the damage resulting from errors is only to your reputation. Naturally, I find this stressful.

On a complementary theme, I was surprised today by another copy of New Scientist flopping through the door - I had assumed my subscription to be well-finished by now. The main feature concerned the development of the brain through life.

I naturally turned to the final section, the ageing brain, where I discovered the secular decline of IQ with age, specifically fluid intelligence - the kind measured by culture-free IQ tests. Sadly this stuff is essential for tackling conceptual material like Quantum Mechanics.

The only potential bright spot was that at least the emotional response to this decline can be partially offset by the consumption of chocolate.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Functional Analysis for Quantum Mechanics

Note to self. Found this on the web which seems to get good reviews on Amazon.

Methods of Modern Mathematical Physics, Vol. 1: Functional Analysis

Noted here if and when I take a course on functional analysis. Proximate reason - I am today revising book one of SM358, the Open University's course on QM and I was just checking that position eigenfunctions were in fact delta functions.

Still at the point of scratching my head a little for a rigorous derivation as to why this is the case, although the OU text has a perfectly OK hand-wavy and intuitive motivation using approximations to delta functions they call 'top-hat functions'.

Roy Simpson writes:

"Yes Reed and Simon is the classic text on this topic. However I think that it will be a major study course itself to go into this, partly because Functional Analysis has to deal with the many infinite structures in QM.

For example the Hilbert space is infinite dimensional, so what are the definedness and convergence properties of the operators (like the Hamiltonians you will be generating) on infinite dimensional vector spaces? You will be glad just to write down a correct Hamiltonian (for the square well, etc), never mind proving that it has the correct infinitary properties!

The Dirac Delta "function" is the simplest of another kind of mathematical entity known as a Distribution. Distributions D are dual to functions:

D: Fn --> Real -- (where Fn is: Real --> Real).

My short book on Distributions is by Schwartz and is quite readable (on a second attempt!). It all relates to complex numbers too. Looking at Wikipedia I see that the Dirac delta can be formed into a "comb" and used for Digital Signal Processing."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The George Inn, Thruxton

We cycled down to the George Inn, Thruxton for lunch today (beef lasagne with garlic bread & salad for her and homemade turkey curry for me).

I can report that the food was hot, promptly served and of excellent quality.

Stranger in a Strange Land

... or STrANgER IN A StRANgE LAnD as the title has it.

This is not Obama in London (today for the G20) but Robert Heinlein's novel first published in 1961 and then republished in 1991 at 220,000 words with all the cut bits restored.

Not wholly wise.

The plot concerns a child of the first Martian expedition, brought up by the Martians after the death of all the adults. The second expedition brings the child, Valentine Michael Smith, back to earth as a 25 year old man, heir to an immense fortune and legally perhaps the sovereign of Mars.

Smith is a classic literary type, the smart but totally innocent stranger in a strange land. Heinlein has a lot of fun using him as a mirror against American society. After an early thriller-sequence whereby Smith is extracted from Government control, he ends up at the ranch of another of Heinlein's stock characters, the elderly sage Dr Jubal Harshaw. This man: rich, a medical doctor, a top lawyer, an author and someone incredibly well-connected, is Heinlein's mouthpiece for his philosophy.

Like all Heinlein's novels, SIASL is incredibly didactic. His editors never seemed to have enough power to tell him to cut those 'tell-not-show' sections where Heinlein sounds off. The novel got into trouble on publication mostly for its attack on organised religion, the effectiveness of H.'s critique being that he simply tells it like it is: the true nature of charismatic cults; the viciousness and self-contradictions of The Bible; the gullibility of the marks, sorry, believers.

My main problem is not the religious critique - which I agree with, or even the way the Islamic character Dr. Mahmoud gets to be called "Stinky" (yeuk!). No, the problem is sex. Heinlein, although altogether in favour of science and technology, never thought to apply evolutionary thinking to people. In his mind, we are all blank slates written upon by an oppressive and strait-laced Abrahamic culture.

Remove this overlay and what do you get? An idealised society of love, bonded by unrelenting on-demand sex between all parties, without reluctance and certainly without jealousy. As the 'Man from Mars' eventually gets the hang of ('groks') the wrong nature of earthly society, his solution is to set up his own church-like outfit where the inner core get to learn to speak and think in the Martian language and have sex with each other all the time Bonobo-style*.

Nothing is described particularly graphically but that's not the problem. It's just that there's something particularly unsavoury about having to share in Mr. Heinlein's voyeuristic fantasies. I hate to use the term 'dirty old man' but there you are. Both wrong and distasteful.

It all ends with a bit of a laugh, as it it turns out that the afterlife exists after all, and that Valentine Michael Smith is the Archangel Michael, working alongside sundry other cult leaders who have been rubbished in the main text. Perhaps this is the final meta-satire.

Heinlein could certainly write, and for me his best book was Starship Troopers, still overly didactic but at least he confined his evangelism to the conditions of citizenship, where he was on safer ground.

* Apparently Bonobos don't have sex all the time for social bonding purposes - another myth shattered.