Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Accord by Keith Brooke

It's funny isn't it. You go for years without reading a novel set in infinite dimensional Hilbert space, then along come two at once.

It's interesting to compare Brasyl, reviewed here earlier, with The Accord. In Brasyl, the many worlds of the Everett interpretation simply exist and the characters can access them, although it's not easy.

In Keith Brooke's novel, Noah Barakh is the architect of the Accord, the virtual reality to which people can be uploaded after their death on this earth. The Accord soon migrates to some kind of superpositional quantum state (physics a bit dubious here) where it turns out that there will be many Accord worlds in the usual manner. A kind of 'many virtual worlds' interpretation of QM then.

The Accord is actually a love story: brain and brawn competing for the feisty Priscilla. The brawn is elector Jack Burnham, a 'big man' who is used to getting what he wants and utterly ruthless in his methods. What he mostly wants is to possess his wife Priscilla and kill the man she has become attracted to, Professor Noah Barakh. This vendetta moves from real space-time to the Accord virtuality and then through many alternative virtual worlds.

Initially I thought the writing was a bit self-consciously clunky, but the pace soon gets up and the novel becomes a bit of a page turner. Brooke's characters are never less than real and what a scary bunch they are. He has a real feel for the dangerousness of powerful, implacable men. And this is a well-imagined description of what virtuality could really be like.

In the end this is geek action-oriented SF, in the way that, say, Richard Morgan's work is man-of-action action-oriented SF. In Myers-Briggs terms, NT vs. ST fiction.

Great novel, I'll have to look out for other stuff he's written (Genetopia).

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A little parting gift

Who can resist the patter of little feet around the house?

Clare's niece's three girls, aged 4 years, 2 years and five months, were a central part of our life from Tuesday through Friday. The oldest one was imaginative and relentlessly questioning; the middle one was exuberant, vocal and boisterous; the tiny tot was charming, squirmy and active nappywise. Sibling rivalry was in evidence.

For three days we have been a kindergarten.

One of the almost forgotten (at least by me) traits of toddlerhood is the way that they are little reservoirs of infection. When the middle one first bounced into the room, extraverting at the top of her little voice, I noticed a veritable Niagra Falls of mucus running from both nostrils down into her mouth. Perhaps it was as early as that I became infected.

The symptoms kicked-in as they left, yesterday. First my voice went, then this morning the sore throat.

Oh yes, and my computer is still overheating.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Many Worlds

I was piqued by Brasyl into looking more into the Many World Interpretation of QM and found this useful, up-to-date survey by Max Tegmark - part of the soon-to-be-published book “Many Worlds? Everett, Quantum Theory and Reality”, S. Saunders, J. Barrett, A. Kent & D. Wallace (eds), Oxford Univ. Press.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Laptop problems

I bought my Advent 8212 Notebook from PC World in Basingstoke on October 16th 2007. That makes it 19 months old.

Yesterday afternoon the mouse cursor froze as I was doing some work and, as I felt around the machine in puzzlement, I discovered that the bottom of the notebook, next to the power plug, was too hot to touch. I immediately powered the machine down (hard stop via the power button being the only available option). I recollected that I had not heard the familar faint whine of the fan for a long while.

This morning I drove up to PC World at Basingstoke to see whether they could identify the problem and assuming I was right about the fan having gone, replace it. The PC World person at the "Tech Guys" counter was one of those slightly overweight thirty-something individuals of such mental slowness that one suspects catatonia. He reflected over the receipt I pushed in front of him for ten seconds or so and then went off to consult with his colleagues.

Three minutes later he ambled back and told me that to fix the machine, as it was now out of warranty, would cost £230. I must have stepped back with a half-strangled involuntary cry: I only recall saying in a shocked tone: "Excuse me?"

He moved with bovine stolidity to reassure me.

"If you had brought it in with a cracked screen, it would still be £230."

"The screen is not cracked" I responded weakly, "I think the fan's gone. It would probably cost £10 for a replacement and maybe ten minutes to fix it for someone who knew their way round the inside of a laptop. And it's Advent - it's your own brand, after all".

"Oh no" he said, pleased to see an opening. "We only buy them in. Someone else makes them. Your best bet is to look out for a fan on eBay".

I thanked him for his assistance but he had already lost interest, his gaze moving to the elderly gentleman who had been patiently waiting next to me, a man who desired above all else not to be the recipient of the same level of help that I had just received.

As I write this, I have just checked the bottom of the laptop and again it's too hot to touch. I have pulled out the power lead so we're on batteries now. I think that will keep it within its workable thermal envelope.

So it's a sad life from now on, pulling that power lead out and in ... remind me to get a Dell next time.

UPDATE: 17.45: It turns out that there are many companies out there on the web which will repair laptops, some for a fixed fee and others ... depends on the problem. There are even a few in Andover. None of them seems wild about getting Advent spares.

However, while I was searching, I was also unscrewing, to get the following picture of the fan subsystem together with its all-important serial number (click on image to make larger).



I'm currently doing a disk defrag with power on, waiting to see if the problem recurs.

UPDATE: 20.30: Having exposed the fan, and given it a bit of a clean, it now appears to be working again and the temperature of the casing has dropped to what I recall as normal. So much money saved! (At least for the time being).
_____

We currently have Clare's niece Jane staying with us, together with her three girls aged 4, 2 and some small number of months. I had forgotten the trail of debris which infants strew around behind them, not all of which is food.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

It's drowning in books time again. Having ordered a bunch of books from Amazon (previous post) I then got three books from the library, including Brasyl - the subject of this post - and then the Amazon Vine newsletter arrived, and I couldn't resist something about Trotsky and something else about D-Day, weather forecasting and the maths of chaos.

Anyway, back to Brasyl.

The Amazon.com readers' reviews are a linear roll-off from 5-stars to 1-star. The folk who hated it deride McDonald for pretentiousness, undelivered aspirations to literary styling and a plot development which they describe as soporific. Oh yes, and they also hate his abundant sprinkling of Portuguese words throughout.

I loved it.

Here's the plot summary from Wikipedia:

Brasyl is a story presented in three distinct strands of time. The main action concerns Marcelina Hoffman; a coked-up, ambitious reality TV producer in contemporary Brazil, a striving amateur capoeirista who transcends the cliches of luvvy television phony and becomes a full-fledged, truly likable person as we watch her embark upon a mad new project. Marcelina is going to find the disgraced goalie who lost Brazil a momentous World Cup half a century before and trick him into appearing on television for a mock trial in which the scarred nation can finally wreak its vengeance.

Another strand is set in mid-21st century São Paulo, at a moment when the first quantum technologies are reaching the street, which industriously finds its own use for these things. Q-blades that undo the information that binds together the universe, Q-cores that break the crypto that powers the surveillance state that knows every movement of every person and object in Sampa and beyond.

The final strand is a 18th century Heart of Darkness adventure in the deep Amazon jungle, as we follow an Irish-Portuguese Jesuit into slaver territory where he is sent to end the mad, bloody kingdom of a rogue priest who scours the land with plague and fire. He is joined by a French natural philosopher, who intends to reach the equator and discover the shape of the world with a pendulum.

Worth the effort of engagement and why hasn't it received a major award yet?
___

Note: Within the colourful cultural immersion of Brasyl, there is a central plot due solely to hard physics, inspired by David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality. There are nods to String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity (his character inclines towards the latter but it doesn't seem essential). However, the good guys do seem to require the non-information-loss solution to the black hole information paradox for plot resolution.

Did I mention that the ontology for the novel is the MWI?

Angels & Demons (redux)

So we finally got to see it last night, with its linear plotting, clumsily-telegraphed intentions, stereotyped, one-dimensional personalities, and tensionless direction.

On the positive side, there are some great shots of the architecture of Rome and the Vatican; on the negative side, we really must stop CERN making oodles of antimatter in short-battery-life containment vessels. And never trust an Irish priest who seems too good to be true.

As we left our seats, we waded through little piles of popcorn and discarded plastic cups to get to the aisle. In the lift going down, the demographic seemed to have enjoyed it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bunny handling

Just before lunch today Adrian spotted a "baby" rabbit hiding at the bottom of the stairs, next to the filing cabinet. Immediately all resources were marshalled to rescue it (we assume the cat brought it in early this morning).

I obtained a small towel from the bathroom while Alex moved the CD tower and the wicker basket we use to keep umbrellas and cricket stumps in. Adrian managed to envelope the rabbit with the towel, and he was dispatched to release it in the rabbit-ridden fields some 200 metres from our house.

I was puzzled by our collective response.

Rationally we had a number of choices. We could have left it there (but it would have made a mess and the cat would certainly have made a bigger mess later) or we could have killed it ourselves and maybe ate it. But instead we chose the compassionate route and rescued it.

I wonder how we would have behaved if baby rabbits were made out of chocolate?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Something for the Bank Holiday weekend

It must have been 6.15 p.m. when Clare popped her head round the door and said "Come and look at this ...".

"Another rabbit?" I said with resignation as I eased myself out of the chair, but she shook her head. I guess I should have realised she wasn't using her 'look-what-the-cat-brought-in' voice.

The ground-floor toilet ceiling had that curious dimple with which I'm wearisomely familiar, a kind of six millimetre three dimensional Gaussian with a small drop of water dangling from the bottom. Other ominous patches were visible in the surrounding plaster. Yes, we were in plumbing hell again.

I bounced upstairs, Clare following with a torch, to a rendezvous with the boiler, which is caged in a network of unlabelled copper pipes, gauges and valves which ongoingly taunt me with their vast incomprehensibility.

Squashed between the cylinder and the wall, as accessible as the fanbelt in a sixties mini, was a cone-shaped cutaway section of pipe. What looked like overflow water was gurgling and chuckling as it spattered down, stray drops running down the outside of the pipe and onto the sodden floor beneath.

To a first approximation, and speaking strictly as a layperson, prima facie evidence of a leak.

Nothing for it but to invoke our maintenance contract with British Gas. Clare got on with the job while I tried to deal with matters in my hopelessly impractical way, lodging a fan heater at an awkward angle to dry out the flooring, and shoving some kitchen roll in to catch further run-off.

Someone is apparently coming tomorrow afternoon.

And to that point, the day had been going adequately well. I spent a small fortune at the opticians on varifocal plus reading glasses, complete with differentially-hued photo-reactive lenses. Brown for general and grey for reading - matches the frames although this seems to have been by accident.

Then this afternoon: two solid hours of reviewing orbital angular momentum and spin, taking copious notes and trying to figure out whether the act of applying quantum operators corresponding to observables to state vectors ever maps, as such, into any procedure performed in an actual experiment.

As I understand it, the utility of the operator lies in defining eigenfunctions and eigenvalues which, so to speak, establish the set of possible observables when an experiment is 'subsequently' carried out. The operator then bows out, its job being done.

Experiments are all about computing the evolution of the state vector and then reading off amplitudes (leading to probabilities) in the basis of the chosen observable at the space-time locations of interest.

What a puzzle quantum mechanics is, and how much easier than plumbing.
_____

Update 9 p.m. The cat just caught a rabbit which, by dint of frantic chasing around, we have managed to let escape into the back garden. The cat is under house-arrest for twenty minutes. Clare is looking increasingly frazzled ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Result!

To our unfeigned and unparalleled delight, Adrian reported back this afternoon from Basingstoke that he had finally passed his driving test. Within minutes I was outside with the white spirit tearing the L-plates off the Toyota.

In an unrelated development, I have to visit the optician in town tomorrow to handle a situation where I can only view TV at 45° from straight ahead through my varifocals, and have to hold books and newspapers at arm's length from my reading glasses.

My 2005-prescription glasses have provoked one eye-strain too many as I'm forced further down the endless staircase of ocular decline. Ageing? You can keep it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angels and Demons

The wind had dropped, a beautiful setting sun was framed by a deep blue sky, flecked with high cirrus clouds. As 8 p.m. approached, we drove into town to the Reel Cinema to see "Angels and Demons". The anticipation of seeing the Vatican encounter a few grams of antimatter was further piqued by the knowledge that on Wednesdays it's half-price night. Yes, we'd get in for £3.50 each.

As we rolled into the car park, Clare ominously observed that it was unusually full. Could all these people really be shopping in the Asda store beneath the cinema? We took the lift to the ticket desk to be told that 157 seats were all sold out, as tout-Andover came out from days of rain for a little recreation. A testament to the price elasticity of demand.

Since Hannah Montana did not recommend itself as an alternative, perhaps tomorrow?

Amazon - Overflow - Painting

New arrivals from Amazon today.

Paul McAuley's book got an excellent review at Strange Horizons, here (Reynold's book "House of Suns" less so) while China Mieville's book has been seen as a return to form with a truly weird premise.

Miller is an up-and-coming evolutionary psychologist and his book has been widely recommended for its examination of the role of sexual selection in human cognitive evolution: I guess the title was Marketing's contribution.

Additionally to come

once Amazon has got hold of a copy of Weyl's book.

On the domestic front, there is some kind of overflow pipe from the heating system which emerges just outside our back door. It has intermittently dripped water for some years now: echelons of plumbers have scratched their heads, simulated competence and opined that they have no idea what is causing it but that it can't possibly be doing any harm.

Recently the flow has increased somewhat, and rather than expend a fortune in calling out yet another nonplussed plumber, Clare decided to channel the water to the flower bed. The two photos below show the hydraulic mechanism which has now been put into effect.




Meanwhile Adrian demonstrates those aerial skills which have so contributed to his snowboarding and skiing success (below), painting our windows from an elevated height.


OK, enough displacement activities. Back to quantized angular momentum and spin.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Surprise

On Friday, the condemned criminal - let's call him Pete - was told by the Governor that he would be executed either on Saturday or Sunday. But whichever day was chosen, it would be a surprise.

Pete then reasoned as follows. If Sunday rolls around, then I shall know that I am to be executed that day and it will be no surprise. So they have to execute me on Saturday.

Ah, now I know that, it's clear that when they come for me on Saturday it will be no surprise either ... so that means they can't execute me on Saturday!

Pete went back to his cell that Friday afternoon happy in his absolute certainty that he would not be executed this coming weekend after all.

Imagine his surprise when they came for him next day!
_____

Note: this well-known paradox indicates the slippery, multi-level nature of the concept of "surprise".

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Banks

Spent way too long on the phone today.

The NatWest bank branch in Andover failed to process correctly a cheque to myself paid in by Clare. Joint accounts being too hard for them to understand, they sent the cheque, the paying-in slip together with an aggrieved note to an RBS clearing centre (rather than to my bank branch, as clearly indicated on the paying-in slip).

The clearing centre, clearly believing we were criminals, sent the original NatWest aggrieved note back to us, and then proceeded to lose the cheque.

Just to explain, NatWest couldn't do this themselves because, despite being owned by RBS for years now, they have failed to integrate their IT systems and consequently didn't know our address. Yes, we bank with the RBS but as there is no branch in Andover, we have to deal with their adopted NatWest division.

Anyway, as a consequence, I have had to stop the cheque and get it re-issued - a process which may take up to a fortnight.

If there was one thing you would think a bank was capable of doing, you might imagine it was taking receipt of a cheque. In this case, the incompetence seems equally-spread between the NatWest and the RBS.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Star Trek

Star Trek on a sunny Monday evening in Andover.

What an excellent film this is. The key to understanding it is to recognise that we're back in the aftermath of the 2000 US Presidential election. The space-cadet hard-drinking, womanising, brattish James T. Kirk is the (ex-) hard-drinking, womanising, brattish Dubya; the cerebral, conceited, robotic Spock is Al Gore.

In the starfleet status game, Gore seems ahead on all counts, but the sheer animal spirit and bravado of James T. Kirk wings it.

Kirk/Dubya is haunted by the memory of his authority-figure, do-it-by-the-book father.

The Romulan enemy figure, Nero, is some composite of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden, seeking revenge for harm done to his people. Of course, most of us would get a little upset if our planet got to be destroyed through Federation negligence. What do they usually call it? Collateral damage?

A spaceship ramming a large structure completes the picture (albeit piloted by a good guy).

Star Trek is a reprise of Starship Troopers, another wonderful coming-of-age buddy movie with aliens and irony.

There have been a lot of science blog comments on the science in this science-fiction movie. C'mon guys, stop being so Vulcan about it! It's not about the science.

They play fast-and-loose with unimportant stuff, but they get the big questions right: the traversal through a Kerr black hole delivers the Romulan Nero (and a future Spock) back in time to another universe, not their own (NB Sunday Times critic); the collapse of the Romulan ship into a self-induced singularity would indeed create gravitational gradients which might affect the Enterprise's warp engines - assuming it wasn't torn apart by tidal forces, of course.

So, a lot for fan-boy chew-over!

Bottom line: good story - holds your attention. Go see it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Flynn Effect and IQ

There are a number of good articles in the current edition of American Scientist.

Charles Nelson III et al write about the effects of deprivation on the infant human brain, a study based in the orphanages of Romania. High-quality foster care can turn the damage around, but it still takes years.

We all remember the bet between the ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon in the context of the "Club of Rome" report on the 'Limits to Growth'. The economist won that round, but the underlying limits to the carrying capacity of the earth for humankind have not gone away. A review article notes that a critical parameter is the energy required to obtain each unit of energy we consume. The ratio has been steadily increasing. When it reaches 1, you can't afford to acquire the energy source and a limit to growth has been reached. Maybe nuclear fusion is the answer ...

I was perhaps most impressed by Cosma Shalizi's book review of "What is Intelligence" by James Flynn. Shalizi's remarkably level-headed review starts by describing how IQ tests are continually rebased year-on-year from a reference set of test-takers, used to normalise any new test at mean = 100, standard deviation = 15.

However, someone who got 100 on an IQ test in 1990 would only get 70 in 2000. This is the phenomenon of the secular rise in IQ of up to 6-7 IQ points per decade, which has been called the Flynn effect after its discoverer.

Shalizi knows that 'general intelligence', 'g', (considered to be what IQ tests are designed to measure) emerges from factor analysis. Is 'g' a physiological or merely a statistical reality? The evidence seems to suggest that it correlates with neural efficiency and is not a mere statistical convenience - I'm not sure that Shalizi agrees.

Shalizi's belief is that the dominant driver for the Flynn effect is the increasing abstractness of modern industrial society. This is training people to think in a manner whose competence is measured by tests such as Raven's progressive matrices. Such coaching effects are decisive and outweigh other factors such as improved nutrition, Shalizi believes.

Anyway, judge for yourself, his review is here. He is not, BTW, the first person to acknowledge that bright people have a problem with so-called 'culture-free' IQ tests in that 'what's the missing pattern/number/word' type questions seldom have a compellingly-unique answer. You get to have a measured high-IQ is you consistently think like Mr Raven!
_____

I was looking at some of the Masters courses in theoretical physics. Take for example the one year full-time/two year part-time MSc at King's College. This comprises eight taught modules of which at least five will be from the list:
  • Mechanics, Relativity & Quantum Theory;
  • Quantum Field Theory;
  • Lie Groups & Lie Algebras;
  • Manifolds;
  • General Relativity;
  • Supersymmetry & Gauge Theory;
  • Point Particles & String Theory.
The remaining modules can be drawn from the wide range of theoretical physics or pure mathematics MSc courses. Based on the amount of work in a single OU course, which lasts a year, this seems extraordinarily intensive.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Stourhead

We travelled the 40 miles to Stourhead this afternoon. Stourhead is a National Trust property comprising a Palladian mansion plus 11 km2 of carefully-crafted gardens and lakes. We were quite taken aback by the size and complexity of the estate - an order of magnitude greater than Dinton Park which we visited a few days back. In fact we'll have to visit again, as there's too much to see in one afternoon.

Here's Clare at the lower lake.


And myself at the next lake down.




As we were walking back through the wooded gardens, Clare spotted a truly enormous conifer, which seemed to consist of separate trunks pictured behind her, above.


Today happened to be "Voice of Music" day at Stourhead so everywhere we walked we would stumble across a choir singing from their repertoire. We encountered plainsong, gospel, barber-shop and Joni Mitchell.

video

Here's a view across the lake, showing the follies, bridges and temples which ornament the banks.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Of operators and observables in QM

I'm probably about 40% through the OU's first course on quantum mechanics and here summarise my present understanding of observables and operators.

Apparently, all observables such as position, momentum, energy, etc are represented in quantum mechanics by an operator which acts upon the wave function Ψ(r,t) representing any configuration of objects and fields.

A wavefunction itself may be written as the product of a space-dependent stationary state and a time-dependent coefficient (the probability amplitude).

When we apply the observable-operator to a stationary-state wavefunction, we find there are eigenfunction/eigenvalue solutions. So if A is the operator and ψn is a (stationary-state) eigenfunction, then

-- Aψn = αnψn where αn is the eigenvalue (may be different for various values of n).

So what the observable operator has done for us is to get us a set of eigenfunctions (the solutions to the eigenfunction equation above) together with the corresponding set of eigenvalues. None of this is yet connected with an actual act of observation.

The next stage is that we express the wave function corresponding to a particular experimental set-up as a sum of the eigenfunctions of the observable of interest. (One dimensional case below).

-- Ψ(x,t) = c1(t)ψ1(x) + c2(t)ψ2(x) + ...

The coefficient ci(t) of each eigenfunction ψi is the probability amplitude for that eigenfunction (or in vector language, the projection of Ψ onto that basis vector "axis") which will give - via the modulus squared - the probability that the observation measures the eigenvalue αi of that eigenfunction.

So to summarise. Given a wavefunction of a definite type (e.g. describing a particle of mass m bound within a harmonic well of a certain potential energy), an observable operator sets up the menagerie of a particular set of basis eigenfunctions together with their associated eigenvalues.

The modelling of the experimental situation requires the further step of defining its specific wavefunction and then projecting it onto that basis to read-off the probability amplitudes. These are then squared (well, the moduli are) to get the probabilities of the various eigenvalues which might be observed.

Anyway, that's what I figure for now.
_____

Note: the above describes the case of discrete eigenfunctions/values. We also covered, albeit more briefly, the case of continuous observables where the same general approach holds. Sums go to integrals; probability amplitudes go to density functions; we're into Fourier transform territory.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Strictly Murder -- Brian Clemens

To the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke this afternoon.

A superior murder-mystery by a great writer. At the interval, I said to Clare that what we needed was a great big paradigm shift just to change the framing of where everything seemed to be going. And of course, that was just what we got.

In the Loop -- Kindle

Michael Portillo was exactly right in his Newsnight review of "In the Loop", the film spin-off from TV's 'The thick of it' (mentioned here).


The plot was overfamiliar, linear and tired; the characterisation one-dimensional and the whole thing sustained by the conceit that 107 minutes of foul-mouthed aggression constitutes humour.

It was not without laughs: I chuckled (horrible word!) twice.

"In the Loop" was shown at Salisbury, clearly being considered too erudite for the Andover demographic. I am semi-looking-forwards to "Angels and Demons" more locally next week.

Evidently plotting to blow up the Vatican with CERN-derived antimatter is considered to be of central interest to the Ds and Es of my current hometown.

+++

I am, of course, fascinated by the new Kindle devices from Amazon, due to be released in the UK shortly I believe. Three concerns, nevertheless, present themselves.

1. It's kinda nice to have a library you can walk around in your own home, with bookshelves giving you immediate feedback as to what you've got. When it's all sitting in flash, the home looks ... well, barer, somehow.

2. So I finish this book and pass it along to you while I read something else. Oops, it's on my Kindle. So everyone has to have one until we're back to good ol' book sharing?

3. Someone's gonna nick it for sure. But then, they said the same about mobiles and iPods. Still, in its mode of use, the Kindle must be easier to grab.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Of Pigs and Flu

From here via BackReaction - click on the picture to make it bigger, if you can't read it.


Letter to New Scientist

I received the following form letter from Dominic Feltham, Publishing Director of New Scientist, enquiring as to why I had let my subscription lapse. (Click on the letter to read it).


Here is my reply, faxed off to them today.

Dear Editorial Team,

Reasons why I am not renewing my subscription to New Scientist

I understand the demands of a weekly publishing cycle and the requirements to seek a wide demographic to sustain your sales.

I believe this has led the magazine into a tabloid style with dumbed-down headlines, too many superficial and inaccurate physics articles, and an editorial approach which is both superficial and over-panders to the latest fuzzy, emotion-driven fad. While this may be necessary to financially support a weekly science magazine in the UK today, I find it too irritating to continue reading.

There have been some good articles on evolutionary psychology and biology, and computing & communications: not everything has annoyed me.

In terms of the popular press I think you’re somewhere between The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. My preference is for something like The Economist and the Financial Times. Perhaps I’m nearer my requirements with Scientific American and American Scientist?

Yours etc.

Recent Books

1. DC Confidential - Christopher Meyer

In which the British Ambassador to the United States during the Iraq war run-up recounts his autobiography plus gossip about Blair's and Bush's entourage. Chatty and indiscreet, his smouldering passion for his second wife Catherine burns off every page.

2. Too Beautiful for You - Rod Liddle

The Sunday Time's enemy of Political Correctness in an earlier incarnation (2003) as a writer of short stories. Full of the f- and c- words, sexually explicit (way too much information), these are the chronicles of alienated small-time folk in the metropolis. Genuinely insightful, macabre and funny.

3. Shadow of the Giant - Orson Scott Card

The latest 'final installment' in the Ender/Shadow saga. It's an easy read, a page turner, describing the process whereby Peter ends up as the Hegemon of a united world and the Battle School graduates are removed off-Earth where they can cause no more nationalistic trouble.

I tend to share the popular view that all multi-volume sagas exhibit a gentle decline of quality - each successive book being 30% worse than its predecessor. I'm not completely sure this applies here. Card says some interesting things about the religions of the world - in particular Islam. Published in 2005, the themes of this novel are quite contemporary about such matters and Card is clearly not impressed.

Anyway, the door has been carefully left ajar for a further novel in the series, as the woman with an implanted embryo leaves for a colony planet. Is it the monster Achilles as she believes? Or is it the missing ninth child of Bean?

4. Imperium - Robert Harris

Clare is currently reading this, so I have to wait my turn.

5. Narziss and Goldmund - Hermann Hesse (Narziss = Narcissus)

Best known for the stupendous Glass Bead Game, this is a precursor to some of the themes in that Nobel-prize-winning book. To be truthful I skimmed through it: it's a lesser work mostly devoted to descriptions of Goldmund seducing myriads of women - a 1930s soft-porn extravaganza. The novel contrasts a sensual, hedonistic (dionysian) lifestyle to the ascetic life of the mind. Right.

6. Spin

Perhaps I should mention Book 2 of my Quantum Mechanics course, where I've just finished the chapter on spin. Is this strange or what? The critical point seems to be to keep track of spin orientation in real space vs. spin eigenvectors in spin space. For example spin-up and spin-down directions in real space are at 180° to each other. Their corresponding eigenvectors - forming a basis in spin-space - are at right angles.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Little Clarendon and Dinton Park

Bank Holiday Monday and I started the day by running the mower over our all-too-wet grass. An hour later and I'm not finished, the mower's battery is flat and I'm staggering into the house complaining to Clare that "I've pulled a muscle in my back!".

It wasn't enough to keep us in, as the dreary, threatening morning turned into a dreary, proto-drizzling afternoon. Into the motor and down to Dinton via Salisbury and Wilton.

Our first call was Little Clarendon, a 15th Century house restored in 1902 by the Reverend George Engleheart and his wife Mary.

Little Clarendon - a 15th Century House

Dinton is a small village and appears to be without a Catholic church. Obviously George's Protestant zeal hadn't worked its magic on his wife because by 1921 she had become Catholic and had converted the small bake house next to Little Clarendon into a Mass centre - a small Catholic church, as pictured below.

Chapel of Our Lady of Pity (1921)



The altar inside "Our Lady of Pity"

We then drove the half-mile to Dinton Park, with stately home Philipps House. Due to a shortage of National Trust volunteers, they were only opening the house on the hour, and shepherding visitors from room to room in a controlled way. We were lucky to arrive at five to three and after a short wait got to see the downstairs -lots of portraits of Philipps ancestors in the 17th-18th centuries looking a lot like Johann Sebastian Bach. Pictured below a view of the house as we were walking up to it.

Philipps House in Dinton Park

What else have we been doing over the last few days? Yesterday, when we had some sunshine, we drive to Upper Chute and took a walk througth the local valleys and woods, emerging into the final field before the pub where we were surrounded by these impassive but curiously insistent sheep.

Clare and the ominous sheep