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 ...