Wednesday, September 30, 2009
For the first ten miles on the A303 from Andover, I fretted that the previous intermittent manic squeaking from beneath the car had decided to vanish - typical garage syndrome. However, on the outskirts of Basingstoke the revenant banshee scream was drawing glances from pedestrians and setting my teeth on edge.
This has been going on for months. Driving through France in June I had been panicking about some vital metal strut being severed by resonant sawing, but due to its wretched intermittency I refrained from going to the garage. Recently it's been getting worse, so here I am pulling up at the Toyota dealers, Inchcape of Basingstoke.
They're very pleasant people. I get offered a cup of coffee and while away the time talking to a salesman about the RAV4. This is Toyota's four-wheel drive version of the landrover which I have come to believe is essential for the rural winter rigours of our new home-to-be in Wales.
The answer, when it comes, is reassuring. Not "I'm sorry, we can't find anything wrong with your vehicle" but a rapid diagnosis that the rear brake pad was faulty and was binding. All the brakes have been checked and the necessary replacement made. And it's covered by the warranty so I pay nothing.
On the way back to Andover the Auris is handling like a gazelle. I wonder if this brake pad has been binding for months now, slugging performance and guzzling fuel?
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
V - 3 hours. We are solidly in the mindset of viewers: tiles are mopped, the Roomba selectively spot-cleans, wastebins are emptied.
V - 2 hours. Spiders. You clean them out and within a day they're back, their favourite haunt the room corners, up at the ceiling. Our biological fly-catchers are harvester spiders (pictured).
These creatures have the power of magic. Catch them up with a duster or the corner of a tissue and they will sit on the encumbrance as you sweep them away, only to immediately abandon ship on a silken rope and then they ... vanish. You look on the floor directly below - no sign. A few hours later and they'll be back in their eyries.
Anyway, for the time being, we're despidered.
V - a few minutes. We're warm, spacious, airy and light-filled. The toilets are pristine and we've turned off all forms of noisy electronic entertainment. We simply sit primly awaiting the doorbell, a tableau of middle-class decorum and restraint.
Wait, they're buying the house, not us!
The first rules of sales: there is no difference.
I like that 'sunglasses pushed up we're at Cannes' look
She's always liked the sea
Yep, it's cold! Omigod something just bit me!
Quite relaxing here
Saturday, September 26, 2009
I was a couple of years into my new job at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, STL as it was universally known, working on formal methods for software specification. As the nearest thing anyone in Quaker Town knew as a scientist, I was invited to address the local CND on the subject of Star Wars.
I read up on the subject, misused STL resources to make OHP slides and dutifully turned up one evening at the local community centre to give my strictly factual talk. The twenty or so people in the audience confirmed my prejudices: a surfeit of beards, an aura of well-meaning and a quality of middle-class niceness suffused the room.
Undaunted I started my talk. Thousands of Soviet ICBMs launching from the steppes. At first stage ignition, SDI space-born infrared detectors would sound the alarm as orbiting Gigawatt radars initiated automatic tracking. Nuclear-powered X-Ray lasers would take out swathes of the missiles in their boost phase. The remaining Soviet rockets would soon be exo-atmospheric. Here Brilliant Pebbles would swing into action – orbital batteries of 40 kg mini-missiles accelerating into intercept trajectories. They would be augmented by Rail Guns: electromagnetic launchers firing terminally-guided kinetic-energy kill weapons accelerated at 10,000g to 24 miles per second.
Anything left would be taken out by the third wave: American ground-based antimissile missiles fired from silos in the Midwest. The Soviet first strike was defeated. America was unscathed and safe.
As I progressed through my illustrated talk, I was gauging the reactions of the audience. And I was amazed. They were panting, their mouths open, their eyes glistening. They were enthralled at this science-fiction Armageddon, this hi-tech battle space, this carnival of destruction. Pure war-porn.
After I finished, it took them a good five minutes to calm down, cool off, regain their dignity and recall that they were actually mean to be ... against all this stuff?
Friday, September 25, 2009
V1 liked the house but their own had only been on the market a couple of weeks and as they had received no offers they were in no position to offer themselves.
V2 thought the house was a little big for them.
V3 had not yet put their own house on the market so were just looking.
V4 asked probing questions and thought the house was 'surprising' but we have yet to hear further.
So all-in-all a slow start in a less than vibrant market.
We were in Basingstoke yesterday afternoon to see the Holcroft play "He's much to blame". It reminded me of 'Blackadder', adjusted for less wit and more raucousness. The setting is around 1790 in an English hotel where all the characters gather.
The plot relates to a young but penniless member of the gentry taken in by an English family in Italy. There he and the daughter of the house, Maria, fall in love while the absent-in-England brother falls for a society heiress called Lady Jane. The penniless one suddenly inherits a baronetcy and returns to England (abandoning Maria) to join high society and himself woo the Lady Jane.
You can see how it's all going to turn out. The schtick is that the personalities on display are either vain foppish hedonists, irresolute bores or irksomely conscientious, honour-bound boobies. Some happy medium is the playwright's take-home message.
The acting was excellent: all loud projection and knowing asides to the audience. The play was unfortunately all obviousness and stereotypes.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
-- 8,198 people took the placebo and 74 were infected with HIV during the trial.
-- 8,197 people took the vaccine and 51 were infected.
Now let's crunch some numbers.
Start with those people receiving the placebo, the unprotected ones. They suggest the probability of getting HIV during the course of the trial was p = 74/8,198 = 9/1,000.
A way of thinking about this is that each person had a dice with 111 sides, and they rolled it once during the trial. If it came up a '1' they were infected: any other number they were clear.
Now we consider the distribution of the total number of '1's obtained (i.e. the total number infected). It's a binomial distribution with number of trials n = 8,198, mean np = 74 and standard deviation σ = √(np) = √74 = 8.6.
Our null hypthesis is that the vaccine is useless, and so the fact that only 51 people were infected when using it was just the luck of the draw. How likely is that?
(74 - 51) = 23 = 23/8.6 std devs = 2.67 σ.
Turning to our tables of the normal distribution, the chances of getting this far out or beyond is only 0.38%.
So yes, they are definitely seeing something. But what?
Now we look at the vaccinated population. Their probability of getting HIV appears to be p = 51/8,197 = 6.22/1,000.
But how sure can we be of this? Perhaps the vaccine is not so good but we got lucky? Or maybe the vaccine is super-good but we still had a bad result by chance?
The random variable here is the chances of getting ill given you had the vaccine. Let v be the number of people who were vaccinated and then got infected. In the trial v was 51.
Now we ask, in what range could v have varied so that within a 99% confidence interval the value 51 might have occurred?
This is the range v plus or minus 1.96 standard deviations - note that the standard deviation σv = √(npv) = √v.
So we ask, for what values of v is it the case that:
1. v - 1.96 σv = 51
2. v + 1.96 σv = 51
It turns out that case 1: v= 67 and case 2: v= 39 as compared with the placebo group of 74.
So this is telling us that we can be 99% confident that after vaccination of 8,197 people, somewhere between 39 and 67 people could expect to be infected ... as against 74 infected without the vaccination. Pretty wide error bars!
How much better is the vaccine than the placebo? The published report said 31.2% better. They got this from the calculation: (74 - 51)/74 = 31.2%.
Sounds good. However, with 99% confidence we can only say that the vaccine is somewhere between (74 - 67)/74 = 9% better and (74 - 39)/74 = 47% better.
So 31.2% better? Or somewhere between 9% and 47% better?
You decide what to do next!
1. River of Gods - Ian McDonald
I came to this after reading Brasyl. McDonald is a very fine writer and this tale of future fissiparated India is richly inhabited by well-drawn characters including : the self-delusional gangster, the cyber-policeman and his unhappy wife, the perverted civil servant, the stand-up comic become CEO, various scientists and the nute. The link is provided by the desperate attempts of the three remaining "level-3 AIs" which are thousands of times smarter than humans to escape eradication.
The writing is literary brilliance, but the book feels to me overwritten. It's an effort to get through the dense metaphor, elaborate descriptive writing, atmospheric invocations of mood and just get on with the plot. Still, at 575 pages it's never less than a tour-de-force.
2. Nature's Blueprint - Dan Hooper
Subtitled "Supersymmetry and the search for a unified theory of matter and force", this was my attempt to penetrate the mystery of sypersymmetry. Not so much what it is - at some level a proposal to introduce a new set of particles - bosons get fermion partners and conversely. Since 'matter' is fermions and 'forces' are bosons' this is the promised unification.
But what I really wanted to know is why? What problem does supersymmetry solve? Here Dan Hooper is less forthcoming. The major motivation seems to be that the new particles allow the still-unseen Higgs boson to mass in the 100+ GeV range rather than 1015 GeV without supersymmetry. OK, that sort of makes sense. But Hooper never explained how supergravity worked, or the connection with string theory, so although I started out encouraged, by the end of this book I was deflated. It's well-written though, apart from the occasional bouts of puerile humour, and we do get some fresh anecdotes about Dirac.
The loose connection? The specifically-SF underpinnings of Ian McDonald's novel call upon the resources of the famous multiverse again (here different components of the landscape with different vacuum energies) and post-Witten "M-star theory" which purports to explain them.
We're off to Basingstoke later to see "He's much to blame", a 1798 comedy-satire in five acts.
Monday, September 21, 2009
I've been following live blogging from one of the participants, Sean Carrol. Check out: day one here -- day two here -- day three here.
Turns out that there are quite a few multiverses:
1. The 'pocket universes' of eternal inflation.
2. The 10500 different false vacua of the landscape resulting from variant 6-dimension compactifications onto Calabi-Yau manifolds in string theory.
3. The 'many worlds' in the MWI of quantum mechanics (Everett, David Deutsch et al.).
I think it's possible, and maybe even desirable to believe in all three of the above at once!
Here's the PDF briefing paper for the workshop.
Update: Apparently this workshop is being funded by The Templeton Foundation. Explains the otherwise mysterious intrusion of The Deity into the proceedings. I feel sorry for the mandatory Philosopher of Theology present: the physicists seem to have hijacked it ...
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey DeschanelThe New York Times review was excellent, applauding the rounded characterisation and real-life feel as Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) at the Greeting Card company where they both work. The pitch is that Tom is the romantic, looking for his soul mate while Summer is just interested in no-entanglement fun. The 500 days chart the parabolic trajectory of their relationship. After the final crash-and-burn Summer has found happiness (with someone else) while there are glimmers of hope for Tom.
Telling you this is not a spoiler, because it’s announced at the very start of the film. The tale is told non-linearly and the interest is not in what happens but in how. The acting is excellent: Tom is a smart but overly-passive introvert, who hardly ever takes the initiative; Summer is more dominant, extravert and altogether classier. It’s obvious to the older part of the audience that Summer is way out of Tom’s league and that the affair is doomed.
A slight problem, perhaps a little embarrassing to mention, is Zooey Deschanel’s age. Gordon-Levitt, playing Tom, is a young 28; Zooey is nearly 30 and a few lines are beginning to show around the eyes. Doesn’t alter the fact that she’s basically gorgeous, but her time for playing hot young chicks is fast running out.
500 days of Zooey is perceptive and occasionally cringe-inducing in its dissection of young love. Our young audience in Andover especially and vocally loved the cringe-stuff.
The roman-style kiln
Inside the kiln - this is where the molten glass resides
Using a modern "Glory Hole" kiln for working the glass
We're off to the movies later.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Gulp! So that got me thinking. What's the probability that someone viewing your house will actually buy it?
Looking for a simpler model, this is like throwing a coin over and over again until you get the first head (a throw is a viewing and a head is a sale). In this simple example, the probability of a throw resulting in a head is one half and the unknown is how many throws on average before you get the first head and can stop.
Expected number of throws before getting the first head:
1 throw = H: probability = 1/2 * 1 = 1/2
2 throws = TH: probability = 1/4 * 2 = 2/4
3 throws = TTH: probability = 1/8 * 3 = 3/8
4 throws = TTTH: probability = 1/16 * 4 = 4/16
You can see the infinite series this is going to create. I couldn't see any easy way to solve it*, so I messed around integrating x2-x from zero to infinity by parts (answer = 2.1) until I decided to check the Internet.
"Dr Anthony" has this cute recursive argument, I quote:
Let a = expected number of throws to first head.
We must make 1 throw at least and we have probability 1/2 of a head and probability 1/2 of returning to a, so
a = (1/2)1 + (1/2)(1 + a)
(1/2)a = 1
a = 2.
There you are: the expected number of throws before you get a head is just two.
So now we can adapt this argument for the estate agent. Let a be the number of viewings before the house gets sold (16 apparently) and let p be the probability of selling your house at each viewing. Then, following Dr Anthony,
a = p + (1-p)(1 + a)
So a = p + 1 + a - p - pa
and pa = 1, or p = 1/a.
What a simple result. Sounds like something I should have recalled.
So the chances of selling our house in 15 minutes time, when our first viewers arrive, is 1/16 = approx 6%. Wish us luck!
1. Write a(x) = 1/2 + 2x/4 + 3x2/8 + ... + nx(n-1)/2n + ...
2. Integrate to get a geometric progression with ratio (x/2).
3. Sum it to get x/(2-x).
4. Differentiate to get 2/(2-x)2
5. Set x=1 to get a(1) = 2.
This is the pedestrian way to match Dr Anthony's insight.
Monday, September 14, 2009
How often have you heard "Omigod I wish I was ----!" where the person might be the latest reality TV star, pop idol or maybe someone more eminently substantial, or at least rich and famous?
It's always struck me there's a touch of paradox about this wish, taking it seriously (as I imagine the utterers seldom do).
Let's call the wisher Courtney, and the person they would like to be - say - Madonna. As Courtney isn't currently Madonna, how do they differ as people? Let me suggest in five possible ways:
1. Intelligence (IQ).
2. Personality (say the 'Five-Factor Model').
3. Mental state (memories, beliefs, objectives, etc).
5. Physical traits (height, weight, etc).
Now we do a thought-experiment. An alien with incredibly advanced technology kidnaps Courtney and puts her into a special device which does human transmutation.
"Well, Courtney," says the alien, "who would you like to be?"
"Madonna," breathes Courtney in a husky, wannabe voice.
"Okeydokey ..." says the alien, and starts adjusting the knobs.
*1. The IQ knob is adjusted substantially up.
*2. The personality knob is adjusted for:
-- increased extraversion,
-- decreased agreeableness,
-- increased openness to experience,
-- increased conscientiousness,
-- decreased neuroticism.
(You understand I have a private model in my head for dear young Courtney).
*3. Courtney's memories of her life to-date are expunged and replaced by precise copies of those in Madonna's head right now; ditto for beliefs, objectives.
*4. Gender matches already so no need for surgery there.
*5. The alien now adds a lot more muscle and removes a great deal of flab.
"OK, done," says the alien. "How are you feeling, Madonna?"
"I want my agent right here right now!" she snaps, "and my lawyer!"
You see the problem? Courtney was a Madonna wannabe, and her wish came true and so she became Madonna.
Of course Madonna already exists, so in a sense Courtney's desire has already come true.
Perhaps I should ram the point home. You can be a wannabe, and if your wish came true you would cease to exist and simply be your hero or heroine. Since they already exist, all that remains therefore is to terminate your own existence.
You don't need the alien.
But you won't, will you, Courtney?
I wrote a similar piece some time ago (here) asking the question: 'How many people are there on the Earth today who are psychologically identical to you?" Identical means points 1, 2 and 4 above: IQ, personality and gender.
The reviews for this cookery-centric film have been uniformly good, with Meryl Streep in the role of Julia Child particularly lauded. Julia Child is credited with introducing French Cordon Bleu cuisine to an American audience and then featuring in an apparently legendary TV cookery programme. On this side of the Atlantic no-one has ever heard of her.
On the plus side, Streep certainly gets into the role of the larger than life (in many senses) diplomat's wife in fifties France. On the down side, the character is a bit of a pantomime dame, all wobbling, shrieking and hollering with a fixed grin on her face. Not a pretty sight (except in the eyes of her shorter, balding, minor bureaucrat husband). But who knows, maybe that was the real Julia?
Julie is much more recognisable as the 29 year old feisty blogger, failed writer and call centre worker, who lives with her husband above a Pizza shop in noisy Queens, NY. She blogs about her self-imposed task of cooking all of Julia Child's 524 recipes in a year, thus learning to cook. It's as difficult as it sounds but she's an attractive sight so that's all right then.
It's good, but not as good as the reviews say. Of the films we saw in the last week, Clare has the order (best to worst): 1. District 9 2. Coco before Chanel 3. Julie and Julia.
I'd say: 1. Coco before Chanel 2. District 9 3. Julie and Julia.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
She exaggerated: there were three other couples to watch this brilliant film, a vehicle for the talent and charm of Audrey Tautou (Amelie et al).
If you don't know anything about Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel - which we really didn't - you can appreciate this intelligent film in its own terms. It shows how a 12 year old girl, dumped in an orphanage by her apparently unfeeling father, can take life's opportunities to make herself a top couturier in the first decades of the twentieth century.
How did you do that in pre-first-world-war France? By latching on to powerful men and satisfying their whims, while leveraging what little freedom they grant you to discover and develop your true talents. In the process she has to submit to the aristocratic boor Etienne Balsan, and gets her heart broken by the sensitive though caddish Englishman Arthur 'Boy' Capel.
It's in French, with subtitles, but as usual you don't notice after a few minutes. Andover didn't know what a gem it was missing.
Friday, September 11, 2009
The evening was an unashamed book promotion for his recent autobiography, and his one hour talk was interleaved with readings from the book: horrors from the Balkans, military anecdotes and amusing political stories.
In the question period, he was able to give his views on a number of contemporary issues: the war in Afghanistan, the likely outcome of the coming general election and future military policy. I think it is fair to say that none of his opinions were surprising for a military man who is a current liberal Lord.
Having never seen Lord Ashdown in the flesh before, I was most interested in his character. He came across (in Myers-Briggs terms) as an engaging ESTJ with a well-developed inferior "F" function - necessary for a successful politician. He exhibited the classic ESTJ characteristic of personal vanity, with little asides about his success in learning Mandarin ('a very hard language - I got a first') and mastering Servo-Croat in the Balkans despite apparently having little native aptitude for languages.
A young 68, he's clearly finding retirement a real come-down. You're a confidante of Tony Blair, you're offered a job by Gordon Brown (and reject it), you almost become High Commissioner for Afghanistan ... and then you're addressing a half-empty hall in Andover on a Thursday evening, for God's sake.
Ephemeral, isn't it, position and fame.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
As we have driven all the spiders out of our home- regretfully - to make it more saleable, I briefly considered buying the entities shown below at £5.90 per pot. But I doubt they'd survive the turmoil of moving so perhaps later. We once tried to grow Venus Fly Traps from seed but nothing came of it, they seem quite delicate. (Click on pictures to enlarge).
My mother poked it with her finger ... yes, it bit her! Then she read the notice saying you were neither to feed nor tease them.
Sunday, September 06, 2009
The human fall-guy charged with resettling them to a desolate tent city hundreds of miles away enters the camp with his people to serve enforcement orders. He unwittingly imbibes some of the spaceship fuel the aliens have been patiently brewing for 20 years. Everything the prawns do is based on biology, even their rocket fuel: the guy starts turning into a prawn!
Tough destiny indeed, but it turns out that since he now has prawn genetics, he can fire alien exotic weaponry. The authorities want to vivisect him as his cells and organs have become multimillion dollar assets. The chase sequence has plety of thrills and keeps darting off predictable paths. Even the ending is not obvious.
This film is by parts amusing, exciting, yeuky and thought-provoking and engages attention throughout. Even the stereotypes are done ironically: the criminals are Nigerian, the fascistic special forces Afrikaans and the evil multinational force which aims to exploit the aliens is indistinguishable in livery from the UN.
A great movie, and could I please have the powered combat robot exoskeleton for Christmas?
How do things work with new physics?
My first thought was new fields. So I started to look at the inflation field of the early universe, or some of the new stuff in supersymmetry. This is still something I’m researching but I’ve come to believe they don’t really help. The coupling between new fields and the potential barrier would still be via energy so it’s another explosion - and I’ve no idea what a controlled local inflation field would do but it doesn’t seem very survivable.
A more promising approach is via the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics. For example, in chapter 15 of his book ‘The Labyrinth of Time’, Michael Lockwood describes a variant model involving an ‘actuality’ dimension, i.e. space-time-actuality, although this is probably just a fancy description of Hilbert space. So we have to imagine that alongside our hapless scientist there are an infinite number of his copies adjacent in actuality. ‘Farther away’ there are worlds where the prison was never built and it’s just prairie, or whatever, (the metric in actuality is related to probability).
What the story needs is a spherical volume enclosing our scientist, to put him in a quantum superposition across all the variants of actuality, and then adjust the amplitudes to zero for those worlds where the hero is presently incarcerated. Then his only copies will be free ones, and he can walk away across the prairie. His next step will be to reverse the process and dial his probabilities back to his original world. Reminds me of the “Infinite Improbability Drive”!
How can we do such ‘amplitude engineering’? Well, in a sense we do it already whenever we set up situations where interference can occur. But on this scale we really need some new science.
I think the answer lies in paradox. If we set up a paradoxical situation, then we will find the amplitude (and therefore probability) of that outcome is zero. And the best paradox is time travel. So what we need is a ‘worldline mirror’ which the prisoner can set up to reflect his worldline into the past.
What will actually happen is that his worldline will diffract into alternative worlds in actuality where the mirror doesn’t exist*. And a worldline mirror – a kind of time machine – requires space-time engineering: in other words quantum gravity. So maybe this is a fancy way for him to do some quantum tunnelling with non-vanishing probability.
So now we have it. The scientist makes a discovery in grand unified theory, and his colleagues on the outside build him a controllable worldline mirror hidden in an MP3 player. Twiddle some knobs, walk a few hundred metres, twiddle some more and he’s free!
* Arguably, in terms of CPT invariance, on time-reflection he will simply turn into antimatter and annihilate with himself!
Great Stonehedge CopseJustin was meant to come today to replace cracked tiles in the kitchen and utility - part of the pre-sale makeover. He called about 9.30 a.m. to confide that he had contracted swine flu. He'll call again when he's up and about to make a new appointment. We can only wish him well in the face of this new evidence that the mythic disease is actually all around us.
The estate agent is due tomorrow to take photos so let's hope the plague isn't spreading.
Friday, September 04, 2009
Adrian called us earlier today to give an update on the rain and gales which have been assailing Porters Ski Resort (map) near Christchurch, NZ recently. He should be back in the UK at the end of October prior to travelling for the new season in Canada.
The estate agent will be calling Monday afternoon to take photographs and measurements, and we'll put our house on the market at £350,000. We had higher and lower valuations, which signifies that there are not so many six bedroom houses near to Andover for sale to make a compelling price comparison. Things are not helped by the continuing volatility and sparseness of the housing market, although we hope for improvement there.
I have now paid my £480 for the OU maths MSc course while still waiting for formal confirmation that I'll be admitted to the course (response due by September 14th).
I'm afraid that jogging has once again been abandoned. Yesterday afternoon as I was turning back about a mile up the road at Weyhill, my left knee felt like an internal band around it had suddenly gone very tight. Very sensibly, I decided to walk back and there were no lasting consequences. I conclude that my knees are simply too worn out for the impact involved in running. Oh dear!
Clare buried a charming but very dead finch this afternoon. Blame has been attached to our feline although it would never stick in court.
I listened to these two CDs in their entirety but it took only five minutes to understand the nature of this spun-off compilation. England's recent victory in The Ashes was never assured and came as a delightful surprise to all but that is little excuse for this hastily assembled set of extracts, which seems to include Jonathan Agnew interviews from his TMS lunchtime chat spots.
The chronology was confusing and the status of the contributors was very mixed. On the plus side there was a balance between English and Australian contributions but overall it lacked the excitement that TMS generates so effortlessly. It must be said that not all the featured speakers can tell an anecdote that well, and some were in truth not worth telling. Had the interviews been interspersed with snippets from real-time commentary of highspots in the relevant test matches the result might have been more atmospheric.
Regrettably I will not be replaying this and would not gift it to anyone else.