Monday, August 31, 2009

Review: The Infinities – John Banville

John Banville is an Irish author who has written 14 previous novels including the Booker Prize winning The Sea in 2005. This latest novel will be supported, it appears, by a massive sales and marketing campaign in the autumn of 2009.

Adam Godley, noted mathematical physicist, has been brought to the family home of Arden (in Ireland) to die of a stroke. The novel charts the events of midsummer’s day as the family congregate to mark his passing. And what a dysfunctional lot they are.

Adam’s much younger wife, Ursula, is a frail creature, a secret drunk. His daughter by Ursula, 19 year old Petra is equally delicate and seems to suffer from a combination of Asperger’s syndrome and a history of self-harm. Adam the son (by elder Adam’s first wife, Dorothy – who committed suicide) is an immature puppyish giant of a man, lost in the modern world and unsuitably married to the beautiful but cold actress Helen.

The small cast of characters is rounded out by Roddy Wagstaff, dilettante-sophisticate and hollow man, who pretends to be Petra’s boyfriend in a manoeuvre to write the great man’s biography; and Benny Grace, sycophantic hanger-on to the elder Adam in the glory days of his groundbreaking research.

It is perhaps necessary to say something about the nature of Adam Godley’s mathematical work, at the risk of reprising Field and Stream’s infamous 1959 review of 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover '. The universe of the novel is not our universe, although this has no implications for the events of the novel. Godley has solved the problems of the infinities which plague unified quantum field theories and his paradigm-busting equations require the multiverse as well as less ontologically-demanding spin-offs including cold fusion. This is of course just whimsy.

Another thread of whimsy is that the Greek Gods actually exist and like a chorus, commentate on events as they occur, with the occasional intervention. This is a hard suspension-of-disbelief act to pull off but Banville succeeds.

What is this book actually about? Note the fine descriptive and atmospheric writing. Add closely-observed personal interactions amongst the characters - flashbacks in the case of the torpid elder Adam, finely tuned to yield telling observations of the human condition. What you get is a microcosm of insights which keep those pages turning. To tell you the truth, nothing much really happens, and based on how we come to know the characters the final, upbeat, God-given prognosis for all their futures seems exceptionally unlikely. But perhaps that’s also part of the message of this perceptive novel.

[Amazon Vine Review]

Relocation ...

Roy Simpson comments:

Relocation to another house seems so 20th Century. Some more inovative ideas (which would also help with the SF stories) would be:

(a) Relocate to space. The ISS or a future Moon or Mars base should be considered (travel Virgin Galactic).

(b) Relocate to Cyberspace. Second Life University would be a good place to start.

(c) Relocate to another Universe in the Multiverse. Might require some good quantum black hole engineering, but probably achievable.

(d) Relocate to another 3-Brane in the M-theory framework. This might only involve moving only a few millimeters from your current location, if you can find the curled up dimension involved and can squeeze along it.

So plenty of opportunities available....


I could add:

(e) Missing option. Take large quantities of psychotropic drugs. How will you ever know you didn't move?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Plots To Go

My first story is called “Nescience” and it features an Arabic woman mathematician, coerced by her country’s intelligence agency to go after the secrets of a quantum computer.

The second story, “Urban Warrior” tells the story of a retired police accounts clerk in a Northern town who volunteers to test personal defence systems for the cops. Needless to say, some don’t work and others work all too well.

Both of these are written in first draft at around 5,000 words and will need considerable polishing before they can face any kind of public.

I wanted the third story to be more conventional SF, and my first idea was this.

A small meteor lands in Africa, and soon a variety of ever more complex life forms are observed in the vicinity. Their purpose is unknown but they defy capture and expire rapidly if trapped. It is noticed that this strange ecology evolves new forms with precisely the capabilities required to defeat whatever agency has previously thwarted them.

A little more research indicates these creatures have organic radio transmitters in their brains, and each type has a typical identification code. As the humans use more and more sophisticated technology against this alien community, they just keep turning out more and more lethal variants.

As they fight earth’s finest to a standstill, it become clear that they’re building some kind of transmitter (Radio telescope? Gamma ray laser? Neutrino transmitter?). This is surrounded by military sensing equipment and when the message goes off, we pick it up. It’s simply a list of the IDs of the alien types which have successfully secured the area and built the transmitter. It turns out this is the optimal intelligence the alien home-base needs.

So, it’s an interesting idea – that from the biology of a super-organism one can reverse-engineer the ecology to which it’s optimally adapted. But I rejected it as a story idea. Why?

Because a story needs characters and plot as well as context. And the obvious storylines here are: (i) military SF – fighting an increasingly-capable alien ecology (Deathworld, anyone?); (ii) figuring out the transmitted message and what it means. Sadly, neither storyline interested me much – they’re both too predictable.

Context-switch: here’s my current idea. We have a scientist who’s been kidnapped off the street, never mind by whom. The action is set around his interrogation, but he doesn’t think he has a secret to tell.

But he has. Lot’s of opportunity to write descriptive prose around interrogation (everyone likes vicarious pain). And the plot hinges around the fact that an organisation may know – implicitly – something which no one individual of that organisation may know. But perhaps they will come to realise it under interrogation, and then what will happen?

So that interests me.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Spiders Out!

The estate agents are due on Tuesday to value our house, so today we've been sweeping away spiders' webs (and their constructors) and cleaning the detritus of a thousand fly-meals. We've always practised biological insect-control.

The garage was next. We flooded it with buckets of water and then Clare brushed the leaf-and-concrete slurry out-front where I shovelled it into bags ready for the municipal dump.

Then we took a walk in Penton Grafton to clear our heads and blow the dust off, and noticed that the harvest is in (pictured).

I have John Banville's new book, "The Infinities", to review from Amazon Vine. I knew this was a literary novel and vaguely appreciated that a major character is a mathematician. Skimming the pages, I was very surprised to see references to renormalisation, explaining the title. More later.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Clare and myself have been talking about it, on and off, for months. Today we decided to do it. Midday saw us in Andover visiting the first of three estate agents to put our house on the market. Appointments have been made for Tuesday when we will get three valuations, and then decide what to do next.

'So where will you go?' you ask. We have in mind a flight from suburbia: a new home with a walled garden; extensive grounds surrounded by unfarmed wilderness where you can walk in any direction. We'll be scouting prospective areas over the next few months.

We think it's a good strategy to sell first and buy later in the current economy. We can stay for a while at our son's flat in Reading, which on a longer term basis can serve as a base for home counties projects as and when they arise.

After an afternoon's labour, the house already looks tidier. More as events unfold.

For the record: Clare applied for her AA100 Arts Course with the OU today - the cheque is in the post, guys.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: "Amulet" by Roberto Bolano

The protagonist, middle-aged Uruguayan exile Auxilio Lacouture, is a poets' groupie. Not too bright, not too beautiful, she hangs around the young, impoverished versifiers of Mexico City and makes ends meet by odd jobs in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at Mexico University.

This bohemian lifestyle is shattered in 1968 when, at the behest of the right-wing Government, the army invades the autonomous university beating, arresting and torturing all and sundry. Auxilio hides for 12 days without food in the ladies' rest room on the fourth floor. Starvation brings her hallucinatory visions, vignettes of poets and politics: Arturito, the poet turned Chilean revolutionary; Ernesto, the gay poet in thrall to the King of the Rent Boys and how he escaped; the faded beauty Lilian Serpas and her son Carlos Coffeen Serpas, a mediocre artist drunk on Greek mythology.

Bolano writes like a painter, weaving imagery which flutters and darts in front of the reader. Beneath the unsettling web of allusions, the novel is powered by Bolano's cold anger at the repression, and its crushing of a generation of doomed youth. One can only marvel at his skill and passion.

[Amazon Vine review].

OU stuff

An email from the OU admissions people yesterday. What were the two credit exemptions they had awarded me for my first degree back in 1984?

So this goes back to events almost 40 years ago, when I did Maths, Physics and Engineering in my first year at Warwick University (1969-70).

My recollection was that the Warwick course was almost entirely useless. Large parts reprised work I had done in the sixth form at Bristol Grammar. Lectures were given by staff who resolutely faced the blackboard, inaudible to the 300+ students who had got out of bed at the (student) crack-of-dawn for a 9 a.m. start (the arts lectures were in the afternoon).

Seminars and tutorials were taken by graduate students who frankly didn't seem to know much.

I read in the Sunday papers exactly these criticisms expressed by students today, as if it wasn't always so.

Anyway, I was told in an email today that I should hear whether I have been admitted to the maths MSc programme by September 14th.

Monday, August 24, 2009


So what did today look like?

By 9.15 a.m. I was hunched over my desk writing up question 1 of the final Tutor-Marked Assessment (TMA) for my OU course SM358. To be precise, I was analysing an eigenfunction of the Coulomb model of the hydrogen atom. Then I completed question 2, which was about the use of perturbation methods for the hydrogen atom.

I stretched, noticed it was half-past eleven and that my motivation to hit question 3 (central-field approximation, excited states of the titanium atom) had atrophied considerably. I considered making a cup of tea when Clare hoved into view.

"Going shopping?" I said.

"Yes," she replied.

So there was my distraction of choice and off we went to Waitrose and Tesco in town.

This afternoon I moved question 3 on a bit, and at 4.30 determined to run.

As I left the house after my warm-up exercises a little rain (o summer!) lightly hosed my face. Something to counteract the excessive humidy of this warm, muggy day.

These days I run slowly, concentrating on minimal impact of the feet with the ground so as to spare my injury-vulnerable knees. I conduct a running conversation with my right knee:

'Are you telling me you have a slight twinge?'

'Here, I've changed my foot angle a bit. Has it gone away now?'

My knee responds as a pet would - non-verbally.

I get back to the house and lie on the recliner, exhausted and seriously glowing. I explain to Clare:

"In the ancient past, the only warriors who returned to their tribe hot, sticky, glowing but satisfied were those who had achieved a great triumph: brought down a mighty animal or killed a dangerous predator. Obviously prime mating material. So would you say you felt an enormous sexual attraction?"

She looks at me in disgust.

"Go and have a shower and stop polluting the room."

I have a new Amazon Vine book to review: Amulet by Roberto Bolano. I read his epic 2666 and gave it a good review so I am much looking forward to this much slimmer volume. Guess I'll start it this evening, unless BBC-4's Wallander tears me away.

Tomorrow: I'm hoping to finish this TMA and get it submitted (just the exam then, in October). This will free up some time to continue work on the stories I'm currently writing - hope to submit them to Interzone before Christmas.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Larmer Tree

Today was the hottest and brightest day of the year, so we drove down to Larmer Tree Gardens, a Victorian pleasure garden about ten miles southwest of Salisbury.

The gardens stretch a few hundred metres (see map at the bottom of this post) and are dotted with curious buildings in styles which include the Indian Raj and ancient Greece. Here are some pictures.

The Temple and Dell

Clare in the grotto

Peacock at the entrance to the children's playground

The author with a strange folly

Clare under a red sunshade - yes, it's hot!

Map of Larmer Tree - click to enlarge

When we emerged, the car told us it was 30° which soon dropped to a more reasonable 24° once we were moving. We put aside all our other concerns and spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing in the garden. Time enough tomorrow, when rain is promised.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Down to Bristol Monday to help my mother choose a replacement washing machine. She showed me the Bristol Evening Post review of "The Time Traveler's Wife" which framed it as a seedy exercise in paedophilia, with the adult Henry 'grooming' the child-Clare.

Yep, there are no facts out there independent of theories.

On my return in the afternoon, I did a 2.5 km run and tried to persuade myself that my right knee was not tying itself into cartilage-knots.

It's a bit early to have heard from the OU about my application for the maths MSc programme starting next February. Meanwhile the final chapters of the OU quantum mechanics course (SM358) apply QM to solids (e.g. crystals) - so much better than hand-waving popularisation even at this entry-level.

Those people following Clare's decision never to buy fish again so as to set an example against over-fishing may be interested to know that I persuaded her to buy a couple of M&S salmon preparations this morning. This on the grounds that (i) they are sustainably farmed and that surely M&S does not condone the kind of lice-ridden, polluting fish farming which we all dread (!?), and (ii) eating only chicken has surely become a wee bit tedious?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

After the long summer film famine, with a diet restricted to movies involving superhero guinea pigs, we finally got to see "The Time Traveler's Wife" last night down in Andover. As befits the late performance, I was expecting we would fight our way through gangs of drunken, unruly youths and their molls, throwing up in the gutters. But no, the town centre was almost deserted, as was the cinema.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" is a chick-flick. We shared the screen with eight others and I was the other bloke.

Here's a partial plot outline from Wikipedia .

The film tells the stories of Henry DeTamble (born 1963), a librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and his wife, Clare Abshire (born 1971), an artist who makes paper sculptures. Henry has a rare genetic disorder, which comes to be known as Chrono-Displacement, that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. When 20-year-old Clare meets 28-year-old Henry at the Newberry Library in 1991 early in the film, he has never seen her before, although she has known him most of her life.

Henry begins time traveling at the age of five, jumping forward and backward relative to his own timeline. He is unable to control his travels: when he leaves, where he goes, or how long his trip will last. His destinations are tied to his subconscious—he most often travels to places and times related to his own history. Certain stimuli such as stress can trigger Henry's time traveling, he cannot take anything with him into the future or the past; he always arrives naked and struggles to find clothing, shelter and food.

He amasses a number of survival skills including lock-picking, self defense and pickpocketing. Much of this he learns from older versions of himself.

Once their timelines converge "naturally" at the library — their first meeting in his chronology — Henry starts to travel to Clare's childhood and adolescence in South Haven, Michigan, beginning in 1977 when she is six years old. On one of his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary so she will remember to provide him with clothes and food when he arrives. During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will be married in the future. Over time they develop a close relationship.

And do they just. There is no child of theirs but she is "beautiful" (no she's not). Not five minutes pass without Clare and Henry smouldering with desire for one another, or exchanging passionate kisses. Everyone says "I love you" far too often.

Subtract the American schmalz and goo and an interesting story emerges. As the plot summary indicates, this is really the story of a nonlinear relationship, where Henry at various time points knows less and then more than Clare. This makes for a never-less-than-engaging plot, particularly when as the film progresses, Henry's time travelling circles around his own young death.

I'm sure there will be boring posts digging away at the physics of all this. In truth that's not the concern of the film at all, and no new ideas are introduced. Ignore issues of conservation of mass, how the universe knows where his body stops and his clothes begin, and his idiosyncratic ability to change events, or maybe not change them.

The concept of time which most inhabits this film is that of the 'block universe' - the idea that time itself is an illusion of consciousness and that all times: "past", "present" and "future" simultaneously co-exist.

This is most probably true.

Henry is a somewhat unlikely hero. Sensitive, cultured and unassuming, he rises bravely to the challenge when Clare's Republican, Cheney-like father suggests they go hunting together (ironically, the resolution of the plot depends upon a future Cheney moment).

So, I liked this most unusual film, subtracting the American ladled-on-with-a-trowel-emotionalism.

Clare thought it was a low-budget emotions-ladled-on-with-a-trowel film but was prepared to concede it had its moments of interest.

Go see it, you'll never want to go back to the guinea pigs.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Weston super Mare

Clare made a picnic using M&S's finest party collection and collecting my mother en-route, we drove down to Weston-super-Mare and laid out the goodies (pictured).

Beryl and Clare with the picnic

The beach was not especially crowded for the middle of August...

The beach at Weston super Mare looking north

... and soon the call of the sea was too much and Clare and Beryl, mutually supporting each other against the shifting sands and rolling surf, ventured down the beach and into the sea.

Back from the sea

The two videos below, which can surely be of interest only to close relations, show the intrepid explorers counted out and then counted back.

The paddlers venture forth

The paddlers return

After ice-creams, in the best tradition of seaside afternoons, we made our way home.

Monday, August 10, 2009

House of Suns - Alastair Reynolds

Just finished this latest SF novel by Alastair Rynolds. Plot synopis below from Wikipedia.

"House of Suns" has two major storylines: the main story arc is set roughly 6.4 million years from now. By this point, humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy, which appears devoid of any other sentient life. The galaxy is dominated by civilisations of humans and various posthumans of widely varying levels of development. Technologies that are available include anti-gravity, inertialess propulsion, force fields, and stasis fields. Also of note is the "absence"- the mysterious disappearance of the Andromeda Galaxy several million years before. It is originally unknown what caused the absence, although entire civilisations are devoted to collecting information related to the event.

Large-scale human civilisations almost invariably seem to fall within a few millennia (referred to as "turnover"), apparently due to the limits of sub-lightspeed travel making it too difficult to hold interstellar empires together. Consequently, the most powerful entities in the galaxy are the "lines"- organisations that do not inhabit planets, but instead travel through space, meeting at periodic intervals.

House of Suns concerns a group of people called the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers (in fact, every member is named after a different type of flower); 1,000 clones (or ‘shatterlings’), male and female, of an individual named Abigail Gentian. The clones travel the Milky Way Galaxy helping young human civilizations, collecting knowledge and experiencing what the universe has to offer. Every 200,000 years the clones meet up for a 1,000 day-long reunion ceremony before going their separate ways for another 200,000 years or ‘circuit’.

The novel starts slowly but picks up pace at the end where all the threads come together. This is classic SF in the correct use of the adjective - lots of big ideas combined with poor characterisation. Reynolds has certain tropes which recur in his novels: spacecraft chases, the physical melding together of beings and starships, an astrophysical canvas vast in space (intergalactic), time (millions of years) and spacetime architecture (wormholes, stardams, temporal stasis fields).

It is a major defect that all his characters have the same personality to a first approximation: detached, cerebral, droll. The reader doesn't empathise in the alleged emotional involvement of the two main characters, and the murderous intentions expressed towards the 'traitor' also fail to convince.

If I was being really cruel, I guess I would say this is a pretty good novel for an astrophysicist. But as a piece of ideas-and-plot-driven SF it's worth its price and will keep fans reading (but only fans).

A more elaborated review here.

Note: letter to OU sent this morning, supporting my application for the maths MSc course.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Farley Mount Country Park

This is just to the west of Winchester, about 20 minutes drive for us.

From one of the several car packs you walk through scrub (pictured) before entering woodland. The paths are clear and easily traversed, and the open areas ideal for picnics.

After our excursion this afternoon I applied on the website for the OU Maths MSc. Unlike the undergraduate courses, it's not simply pick 'n' pay. So this evening I'll be digging out the faded copies of my qualifications and composing a covering letter.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Done today

09.30-14.30. The SMXR358 summer school TMA completed at 15 pages and posted off to the OU. That's the last thing I had to do for summer school so done and dusted. What a relief!

15.30. Jogged about two and a half kilometres. Still easing up to fitness but measurable improvement over a few weeks ago. And it was hot out there, and I wasn't rained on.

16.00 - 17.30. Pushed our underpowered battery mower round the garden, despite the wetness of the grass and the density of the clover. We decided against buying a mains-powered flymo as we're trying to properly depreciate the current machine. Thank God we're not lawn-proud!

18.45. Read in The Economist that we're going to have massive power outages in the UK in a few years time, on account of decommissioning of coal and nuclear stations and no replacements.

19.00. Memo to self: our next house must be super-insulated, use stuff like heatpumps and solar energy and generally keep energy consumption and the bills right down.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Liverpool - Speke Hall

We were in Liverpool yesterday for a Mass to celebrate the centenary of Clare's deceased father's birth. Here's a picture of him and Clare's mother, Mag, on their wedding day. He died of a heart attack a young 53.

Frank and Margaret Youell

After the service, we walked around Clare's childhood haunts in Kensington, inner city Liverpool. The elegant housing is still in good condition and has transformed itself into flats and student lets.

Clare outside her childhood house in Adelaide Road

After lunch, we visited the famous and historical Speke Hall, near Liverpool airport and took some more pictures (below) before making our way back.

Speke Hall, near Liverpool airport

The entrance to Speke Hall

Speke Hall gardens

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Houghton Gardens

We'd visited Houghton Gardens, just south of Stockbridge in August 2006 and not much had changed. The walled garden was fully in flower with the butterfly bush a magnet for many different variants. We took the river walk through the grounds, alpaca-spotting on the way, and returned via the peacock garden.

Clare in the walled garden


The author at the butterfly bush

A sample butterfly

The Alpaca twins

The Peacock Garden

Houghton House

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Summer School Vignettes

Following on from my account of the OU summer school on quantum mechanics, here are a couple of episodes.

The Lovers

Thursday evening I arrived at the student cafeteria for my evening meal. It was late and the rows of tables were almost deserted. I carried my tray to an empty table and started to eat.

I now noticed a couple two tables up from me. A plump, rather dowdy middle-aged woman with black shoulder-length hair and clothes to match was listening to a man in his late thirties who seemed to me, frankly, rather seedy. Bad hair and teeth, pinched appearance, anoraky clothes in the height of unfashion, he was describing a novel he was reading.

“It’s about this balloon which gets swept away ... the hero gets out of his car and chases after the rope, along with some other people ... it gains height and someone gets killed ... later the hero is stalked by one of the other guys ... it’s brilliantly written, you don’t know if the stalker is real or the hero is having some kind of breakdown ...”

And meanwhile the plain woman is asking dumb questions, like ‘what d’you mean, a balloon?’

I recognise this book of course, “Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan. And the guy is right, it’s very well written. I continue to eat, curious as to where this conversation is going.

And now he’s saying “I hope you don’t mind me sitting here talking to you, you know, I do like you, it’s why I made a point of sitting next to you yesterday” and she’s demurring in a quiet, apologetic voice and he’s continuing in that whiny, insistent, passive-aggressive voice “you would have said if you were uncomfortable, wouldn’t you, but if you are, you only have to say ...”

At this point, to avoid vomiting into a bucket, I made a hasty departure.

The Odd Couple

I had noticed these two at the very first lecture six days ago. Sat two rows in front of me, the barrel-shaped 18 stone giant with the bullet head and CSI tee-shirt was impossible to ignore, unlike his thin and sleazy companion, with his receding hair, insurance salesman appearance, 1960s slacks and polyester shirt. What was it that bound this strange pair together? And why would the bouncer be studying quantum physics?

My curiosity deepened when I observed that the bouncer attended lectures only erratically. He was often late, and then he’d pop in and out. Perhaps he’s a confirmed smoker, I thought.

Friday morning is the last day of the school and the lecture room was sparsely filled at 9 a.m. for an optional problem-solving session. I was at the back when the big guy and his whippet partner came in and sat, as usual, a few rows in front. It was very quiet and I was surprised to hear the bruiser quietly giving instructions to his partner. “You’re to stay here, and after the coffee break there’s a lecture and wrap-up which you’re to be here for. When it finishes, don’t move and I’ll collect you.” The seedy guy absorbed this with a weary, resigned air and then the bouncer departed – no doubt to make ‘arrangements’.

Q. So what was all that about? Perhaps you might take a moment to speculate?

A. How about a guest of Her Majesty, let out to experiment under supervision from a bit of private muscle?