Saturday, January 30, 2010

Citroen Saxo vtr

This morning found me earnestly searching the Internet for used car dealers in Reading. With Clare having to commute regularly down to Wells and me in Reading for my contract she has to have a car. "A small one," she suggested, "one I can get onto the drive in Wells."

With a long list of potential dealers, our first stop was Rose Kiln Lane which seemed to house a small cluster of them. We started with a visit to an establishment which confusing specialised in Nissan and Fiat cars (KJM Reading). But it was the part-exchanged Citroen Saxo (pictured below - not ours though) which caught Clare's eye.

The salesman, a good guy named Ruairi Ellis, assured us that although it was nine years old, the Saxo had barely done 30,000 miles with one careful lady owner. Amazingly he had the documentation to prove it. After a satisfactory test drive, it was ours. Clare collects it on Tuesday en route to our new home.

Getting established in Wells is going to be a lengthy process. When Clare and Alex were there last week, they tackled the downstairs bathroom which proved to be in a less than hygienic state. In fact when Alex returned to Reading on the Tuesday evening he was quite ill during the night having picked up a bug. The upshot is that we need the bathrooms fixed as well as the kitchen before we can consider moving our furniture in, so the builders will be busy over the next period.

Some time this weekend I will spend a couple of hours progressing the first chapter of the Calculus of Variations material in my maths MSc OU course. At this early stage it's just revision of standard calculus results but there are lots of examples which one is obliged to work through. Maple was also easier than I thought to start up although it again takes time to walk around the myriad of functions. It's fairly awesome to watch it effortlessly summing infinite series and integrating seriously heavy expressions. At the very least it will be great as a maths text editor for assignments.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Two days into the mission

As usual when I'm working on a contract, the number of posts here will be sharply curtailed. So still getting up to speed and working those traditional long hours. More in due course.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

New PC, new tax model

Well today has been busy.

Down in Wells Clare and Alex have been cleaning, screwing down loose floorboards, laying loft insulation and playing host to Chris from Carpetright who came to measure up; tomorrow they start painting. I'm keeping up via Skype messaging.

Back here in Reading I bought a replacement laptop (HP) from PC World to replace our broken one and added in all the usual stuff (AVG free, Skype) this morning.

This afternoon I ordered online a replacement Roomba 530 for my mother (the current one has packed up for reasons which are unclear, maybe the battery?). I then spent way too long working on my Interweave Consulting tax model for 09/10. The main issue here was to compute the closing balance and payments on-account over the right years - let your eyes glaze and the whole thing wash over you.

So now I'm taking a break to read the paper (and write this of course!) but conscience is nagging me to return to maths this evening...

Update (7.30 p.m.): Just had a hassle-free install of Maple. Too late to start playing with it though.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New year - new contract

So after a while in which my personal job market was a bit flat, I'm about to start a new piece of work with a client in the Reading area. This will have several consequences.

1. My maths MSc work (calculus of variations) will be squeezed into the nooks and crannies of my time. This reminds me of the situation two years ago when I started the OU course on Electromagnetism SMT359 (Maxwells's equations et al.) and then discovered I had to spend the next six months in Dubai. It all seemed to work in the end.

2. Clare ends up being home-alone in Wells with the semi-feral cat as I need to be in Reading during the week. All of a sudden we have to upgrade our own telecommunications and transport infrastructure about which you will probably be hearing more here over the next few weeks.

So it's good to be working on complex real-world problems again and good to be financing what looks to be a significant home-improvement project down there in Somerset.

Alarm in Wells

Yesterday we drove down to inspect our new house in Wells. That's Clare, my mother and myself. Everything was fine: we pottered around the cold, empty rooms, discussed the building alterations we're going to make and started the boiler.

As we were planning to leave to visit the carpet shop, Clare said innocently:

"What's that box under the window ledge, next to the front door? Look, it's got a funny red button at one end."

I took a look - it's certainly mysterious - and like an idiot pressed the button. There followed a hideous cacophony in which we couldn't hear ourselves think. Outside the house a siren blared and lights were flashing.

We had no idea what to do.

We looked at the alarm panel. There was no off-switch (obviously! Think of the burglars!). In desperation I remembered I had programmed into my mobile the number of the previous occupier's daughter who had been handling all their arrangements. Miraculously she answered:

"Yes, I can hear it. I'm sorry, my parents never used the alarm in all their years at the property. They would have no idea how to turn it off. I suggest you call the manufacturers. Best of luck."

Her amused tone merely added to my angst but her suggestion was nevertheless good. I walked into the heart of the auditory inferno and entered the alarm company's number into my mobile, trying to ignore the assault on my ears. By some miracle an engineer called back just a few minutes later.

"Basically I can't help you," he said, "but there is one thing you could try," and he gave me a four digit code, "That's the factory setting."

I punched it in: no "enter", no hash. The house went quiet.

The engineer was impressed. "It's amazing how many people never change the default setting," he commented, "Makes a mockery of the whole point of having one of course."

Yes, and how grateful I was.

All the time the house was screaming its pain into the neighbourhood not one single person came to investigate, not one prowler pulled up. So much for panic buttons.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

House Purchase - completion

Today we successfully completed on our house in Wells - tomorrow we pick up the keys and assess the magnitude of the renovation project to come.

Maple arrived today along with its bulky instruction manual. Word on the street is that it takes two to three weeks to get the hang of it, working through the text.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I wrote to the "Calculus of Variations" Course Team Chair as follows:

"I'm about to start M820 and I have a couple of questions about the Maple computer algebra package which I'm considering purchasing.

1. Do you think Maple would be an asset in visualising functions and checking algebra in M820?
2. If so, does the OU supply Maple - perhaps at a competitive price?"

The reply stated: "Is Maple useful for M820? The answer is yes, but it is not essential. I use Maple to check algebraic and calculus calculations." and the advice for acquiring it was to contact Adept Scientific.

So I called this morning and expect to receive a CD in the post over the next few days containing the student edition of Maple 13. Cost around £80.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

London tourism

Today we took time out to visit London engaging with cultural references from Clare's OU course. We started at the Royal Institution at Albermarle Street (Green Park) to see Faraday's original lab. This was down in the basement: small, poky and distinctly unimpressive.

Then it was off to Bloomsbury to the British Museum where we were able to view the bronze castings from the African city of Benin which were such a surprise to the Portuguese colonialists when they arrived in Nigeria. We also took in the recent Mercian treasure hoard found near Stafford, the Sutton Hoo exhibition and sundry material from Roman Britain. Then we timed out.

Today's view of Trafalgar Square

Finally we were off to Trafalgar Square where we first took in the National Portrait Gallery (Clare wanted to see the new painting of the Princes William and Harry) and then walked round the corner to the National Gallery where we mostly lingered in the Impressionist wing.

I was particularly impressed by the sheer luminance of "Les Andelys, the Washerwomen" by Paul Signac, using Seurat's recently developed technique of pointillism. The picture below really doesn't do justice to the painting's sheer brightness.

Les Andelys, the Washerwomen - Paul Signac

As an aside, the traffic in central London was dreadful: completely gridlocked along Piccadilly and awful along New Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Looks like the magic of the congestion charge has long since worn off.

Finally weary from repeated use of our Travelcards and with so much walking around, we took the last off-peak fast train out of Paddington and were back in our flat by 5 p.m.

Clare and Shadow

Here's a little memento of Sunday evening when the cat was showing his usual predeliction for maximum comfort.

Monday, January 18, 2010


In the Sunday Times on successive weeks, both AA Gill and Roland White have raised the question: who is the better Wallander, that Swedish bloke or Mr Branagh in the "English" version? I think it's clear that what the English have done is to switch Wallander's personality type.

Swedish Wallander is clearly a Myers-Briggs NT: very calm and cerebral, his emotions repressed until they overcome him in spite of himself. He's George Smiley.

English Wallander is clearly NF. He's all passion, ideals, wears his heart on his sleeve and breaks down into tears at the slightest opportunity. In fact he's Judge John Deed.

Chaos (BBC4)

Roy Simpson writes:

I have just discovered that Prof. Jim Al-Khalili has been on BBC4 again with the Secret Life of Chaos. I have just watched in on the IPLAYER although it might be repeated, if you have BBC4 in Reading.

Yes, I watched watched it on Freeview here in Reading. I thought it was good but they still don't dare to make use of equations. It's a shame: they display an equation, state that through some magic it "exhibits chaos" and then don't put the numbers in to actually show the effect (so easy with graphics).

What a missed opportunity to make the point.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Quelle joie! Le calcul des variations est arrivé!

We were in the apartment all day yesterday apart from mid-afternoon when we wandered through the fast-diminishing slush to Waitrose to restock. Of course the DHL people chose that precise moment to try to deliver a package: we found the card when we returned.

This morning we drove to the DHL service centre near the M4. The place was packed, the queue long and everybody had a story. One person, after queuing for three quarters of an hour, was told that his parcel wasn't there because it had been left with a neighbour.

"But it doesn't say so on the form!" he complained indignantly, pointing to the unchecked box. The assistant politely agreed and handed him a complaint form as he furiously vacated the premises.

We were similarly unsettled as the minutes went by, people behind us retrieved their parcels while we waited and waited. Finally a big parcel from the OU appeared. Yes, it was M820: Calculus of Variations.

The first assignment is due in early April.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In which we exchange contracts

Call from the solicitor this morning confirming that we have exchanged contracts on our property in Wells, Somerset with completion date next Thursday, January 21st. This has unleashed a flurry of activities:

1. Home insurance for the property booked as from today. We were surprised to find it quite a bit costlier than in Andover. Why? Wells is a very low crime area.

We concluded it's due to the age of the property: we bought our Andover house new; this one shares its birth-date with the two of us - c. nineteen fifties.

2. We put in calls to the three builders from whom we'll be soliciting quotes to knock the kitchen and dining rooms into a kitchen-diner and then remodel the kitchen. As is traditional with builders, not one of them answered the phone so that's three sets of voicemail left. [As I write this, one of them has called back].

3. I called BT to arrange for the phone service to be turned on at completion (Jan 21st). For reasons too complicated to explain, I had previously told BT to start the service on February 1st. The lady in the call centre was helpfulness personified as she explained that her "system" only allowed dates to be moved back, not to be brought forward. Genius!

Apparently the previous system was more flexible but ... there you are, you see.

So the schedule currently looks like this. Clare and Alex drive down at completion and immediately order carpets. Then they get the necessary equipment and begin to steam wallpaper off and start painting. During the following week, Alex starts making shelves for the pantry while Clare interviews the builders who by then should be sorted. What a good use of his holidays!

By popular consent, I am being kept well away from anything practical on the grounds I frequently have trouble working out which end of a screwdriver is the operational one. More opportunity to progress my String Theory book then ...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Road (from Cormac McCarthy's book)

The magic of Orange Wednesday let us see this film for £5.90 this afternoon at the Reading Vue. According to the Wikipedia article very little CGI was used: all the smashed, abandoned vistas were real examples of Americana.

At a superficial level this is the dark, wet, cold journey of the Father and the Son through a post-apocalyptic landscape as they seek some kind of dubious salvation at the coast. On the way they starve, repeatedly meet cannibal gangs which they escape by the skin of their teeth (!) and have sundry bad and unsatisfying encounters with drifters, thieves and the plain desperate.

View #1: it's all about the relationships

This is a story about a father and son pushed to the limit. Each deals with their desperate situation in his own way, but repeatedly the disillusioned Father finds himself learning from the more idealistic Son. I guess this is Clare's view: summary - the film is brilliant.

View #2: it's the ecology, stupid

Since everything non-human is dead, the intrinsic carrying-capacity of the land is zero. The only resources are detritus from previous civilisation like cans, and human beings (if you care to turn cannibal).

In this situation we're in classic cooperator vs. defector territory: the only way to survive is to be a defector-predator (like the cannibal gangs) or to join with other cooperators and build a new self-sustaining life-style.

The Father and the Son (more so) are "good guys", proto-cooperators. The film leaves it until the last few minutes to explore the dilemma of cooperator-identification and 'what happens next' in a cooperation strategy. ... Perhaps there'll be a sequel.

Unlike some of the reviews, I wouldn't call this a horror story: the fim is too intelligent to aim purely to shock. The audience didn't scream or groan at horrific scenes, they were content to absorb them as texture to the overall message. Verdict? Great film.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Feeding the Flock

After some days hibernating and watching the snow refusing to thaw, we ventured out to pay the deposit for our house purchase. Leaving the flat, we encountered this woman (pictured) feeding a scrum of swans with the occasional goose and duck trying to get a beak in. She apologised for offering goodness-denuded white bread but explained that the grain they were usually fed was getting lost in the slush.

Entering the town proper where the pavements were still only partially cleared, we spent a pleasant hour in Reading Museum. There is a gallery devoted to finds from Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum)as well as a beautiful replica of the Bayeux Tapestry woven in the nineteenth century. Reversing our steps on the way back, we were mobbed by hopeful swans, utterly tame. They were out of luck.

Tomorrow we plan to visit the movies ("Orange Wednesday"!) and Friday perhaps we'll make it into London and visit a few galleries.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Tau Zero (Poul Anderson)

Tau Zero was published in 1970 - I must have read it shortly afterwards - and tells the story of an interstellar starship, a Bussard ramjet, which suffers damage on its first interstellar voyage. As a consequence, the starship cannot slow down and the story explores the consequences as the speed nudges ever-closer to the speed of light and the crew's subjective time (the proper time, τ) tends to zero (hence the title).

So Tau Zero was lying around Alex's flat where we're currently staying, a library book waiting to be returned. As I re-read it, the most discordant thing was Anderson's shaky grasp of the science.

As the ship's speed approaches that of c, Anderson believes that the star ship gets ever more massive from the universe's point of view (correct) and that as a consequence it can 'punch through stars' with impunity (no way!). In reality, the starship’s impact with any kind of gas cloud would be the ultimate Large Hadron Collider run: the end-result a massive quark-gluon plasma trail.

Anderson’s plot requires an oscillating universe model with the universe collapsing back to a high-density state. In the story, this is not the collapse of space-time (and therefore something which happens 'everywhere’) but a collapse within a relatively unaffected space-time at a particular point. I think this misconception is necessary to the plot but it isn't right. As an additional error, he seems to think that the collapsed state is cold and arid rather than extremely hot and dense.

Does any of this matter? He gets lots of other things more-or-less right: the ship’s relativistic view of the universe (the 'starbow'); time-dilation and length contraction - although it's not directly visible as he suggests, and the staggering scale of the universe in both space and time. However, in science-fiction you are meant to get the science right so I think that's a down-mark.

The next thing I was interested in was his characterisation and descriptive writing. Here I was quite impressed (rather than, say, fantastically impressed). His main characters, Charles Reymont the constable or enforcer, and Ingrid Lindgren the empathic first officer are clearly drawn, recognisable types (ESTJ and ENFJ respectively). Chapter 1 introduces them amongst the sculptures of the Millesgården in Stockholm and the scene is convincingly and movingly drawn. Later on we meet other stock types, the bluff engineer, the semi-Asperger astrophysicist: the plot advancing through dramatic scenes which exhibit their psychological type dynamics.

As a story, Tau Zero is clearly plot- rather than character-driven. The characters are cleanly and plausibly moved around to meet crisis after crisis. Only occasionally does this create fracture lines in the narrative, where the reader wishes that some of the people described might display reactions more complex, ambivalent and nuanced - more real - than those merely required for dramatic tension and its consequent resolution. But hey, this is science-fiction we're talking about.

A novel where all concerned are confined for almost the entire duration of the novel to a spaceship is hard to keep interesting. Anderson's book is readable if not totally compelling and is chiefly notable - like most hard-SF - for the sense of awe its concepts induce. On my second reading, thirty five years after my first, that sense of awe is still there.

Poul Anderson died in 2001.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Snow in Reading

I'm now on Chapter 6 of "A First Course in String Theory" and surprised to find that string-theory strings are both like and unlike "normal" violin-type strings. They're alike in that the same equations involving mass per unit length and tension are used; unlike in that the points on a string (excepting the end-points) are not meant to be observationally-distinguishable. This will have consequences, but I haven't got that far yet!

I would get more out of this course if I had studied differential geometry. The text does not demand it but I know enough to recognise that the approach taken is suffused with its concepts. In my plan for the OU maths MSc course I get to differential geometry in the third year, 2012.

The other main foundation of the early chapters has been a central use of stationary values of the action to derive equations of motion. The mathematics behind this, also not explicitly signposted, is the calculus of variations which happily I am about to start.

While I was worrying through the math, Clare was listening to Shostakovich as part of her OU course (pictured below) and trying to work out whether the particular piece in question is in 4/4 time or not. I used to know such things but I've forgotten, and S. is not incredibly melodic which means that neither of us really know. This only matters to one of us though.

It's been snowing here again (as everywhere else in the UK) so here's the video.

Monday, January 04, 2010


It was minus four degrees C as we emerged at 8.30 a.m. this morning to scrape the ice off our two cars. Alex should have left for work an hour before but we were bound for Halfords to buy some jump leads.

We discovered last night that his car wouldn’t start, the battery being completely dead. Much discussion then followed as to the likely cause of this calamity (a battery problem? But it was relatively new. A short-circuit somewhere? But the car was only recently serviced. Aha, maybe that was the problem!). Then we moved to possible ameliorations (join the AA and get a man round? Buy a portable battery charger? See if the local garage would fix it?). In the end we decided on jump leads.

On our return we pushed Alex’s car out of its bay and onto the road adjacent to mine. The frost-covered car body was so cold it could strip your skin off. Both bonnets (hoods for our US readers) were raised and I set about looking for the battery in my Toyota Auris. In most cars this is pretty obvious but after spending ten minutes leveraging the cover off my first candidate I discovered that I had actually exposed the fuse system. OK, so where is the battery then? I found it under a plastic protector nestling against the front grill. Did I mention I have no mechanical aptitude?

There is a protocol to the order in which the clips need to be attached for jump-starting which we followed with pedantic rigidity. I then ran my car for four or five minutes to get some juice into Alex’s dead battery. At 10 a.m. I gave him the thumbs up and he turned the key. The starter motor fired and his engine started. As it did so the red jump cable leapt off his positive terminal and fell onto the road. How we failed to ignite a flaming arc of plasma will always elude me, the cable could have been carrying hundreds of amps.

Unblown-up, Alex departed for work a few minutes later.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


We sit, the three of us, in a living room approximately five metres by four. The walls are painted a Mexican-style terracotta red and our three recliners form an arc facing the window but more particularly the flat-screen TV in the corner. On the shorter wall, next to the TV, a laptop sits on the dining table where Alex is doing some work.

Clare is in the middle recliner happily informing us that Francis Wilson is claiming this is the coldest winter for 25 years.

The fourth member of our little entourage is the cat. Shadow has been here long enough to determine that the flat is effectively a giant cat-box. He has views over the Thames (Swans! Geese! Ducks!) and over the town on the other side (Feral youths with weapon dogs!). He senses there’s a world out there which he wants to be part of. His tiny brain can’t figure how to get from here to there (not that we would let him). His response is to howl a high-pitched mewling which would break a heart of stone.

Obviously we are quite unmoved.

Did I mention I am getting a cold?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Review: “Invisible” by Paul Auster

This review won't, unfortunately, make a lot of sense if you haven't read the novel (which is not recommended for those easily shocked).

This is a novel too complex to easily summarise, certainly without giving away all the essentials. It’s no longer a surprise to be entertained by lengthy descriptions of explicit sexuality, but when the couple are brother and sister there is still the capacity to evoke a visceral discomfort.

However scandalous or salacious this makes the novel, I don’t in the end see it as the main point. The great strength of “Invisible” is the way that each of the characters’ narratives are inconsistent with those given by the others. Perhaps the title refers to the truth, whatever that means.

My main problem with this novel is the motivation for the main character, Adam Walker. Walker clearly considers that his antagonist, Rudolph Born, committed a transcendental crime. It drives all his subsequent self-destructive actions. But I just didn’t buy it – the “crime” seems only mildly morally delinquent and in southern states of America would probably not even be illegal. I don’t know Mr Auster’s politics but Walker’s seem so cartoonishly right-on that my suspension of disbelief basically caved-in. I am prepared to believe there are people out there like that, but Auster didn’t quite convince me that Walker was one of them.

To summarise, “Invisible” is a master class in structuring, plot development, characterisation and description. I read it with increasing engagement and thoughtfulness. It falls short of a masterpiece only in the contrivance of its underlying dynamic.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Film Review: "Nowhere Boy" (John Lennon)

John Lennon's tortuous early life is not fully explained until the final third of this film. His birth-mother Julia Lennon seems to have suffered from something like bipolar disorder. Acted beautifully by Anne-Marie Duff (Fiona from Shameless) she is basically a hippy with periodic descents into supine can't-cope.

John was conceived with merchant seaman Alf during the war. In Alf's long absences Julia takes up with a series of other men, conceiving their children. Post-war, husband Alf emigrates to New Zealand wishing to take the five year old John Lennon with him. In the tussle which ensues, Julia's sister Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas from Four Weddings) "kidnaps" him to keep him in England. For the next ten years John lives with her and is subject to her frigid ways.

Actually I quite liked Aunt Mimi. When John wants her to retune from the Third Programme, she retorts "One does not change channel on Tchaikovsky”; later she reluctantly supports John when he forms his first skiffle band, The Quarrymen, muttering sotto voce "it's not exactly Bach, is it?"

So this is a film in which all the actors get meaty parts and throw themselves into relationships full of grief and angst. The world divides into those who kind of worship John Lennon (I would include Clare in this list). They will think that this film is truly magnificent.

Then there are those who while respecting his talents and drive think that JL was a deeply unpleasant person. As I am in this latter camp, and we had ample screen time with a cocksure, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, violent and offensive teenager (albeit troubled and with ample cause) I found it hard to empathise with him. So the film for me was interesting in a documentary kind of way but ultimately uninvolving. However, I know that Cosmo Landesman in the Sunday Times review confesses that he blubbed at key points of emotional turmoil so I take that to be the story from the "Lennon is God" camp.

The cinema was pretty empty (maybe 20 people) for this New Years Eve performance. Maybe everyone else was at a party or in a bar, or maybe this was Reading's response to a relatively "arty" film.

As we left I was expecting a town centre full of drunks beating each other up and vomiting on the pavement but it was eerily quiet and deserted. We were home long before the fireworks started in earnest.