Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snow in Wells

Just a couple of pictures taken from the front bedroom.

By this afternoon when we strolled into town the snow was gone.

Two emails

This morning, as drifting powder snow made Wells a winter wonderland I found two emails waiting for me.

The first was from D. O. Dodd, the author of the novel "Jew" which I reviewed yesterday. Here is what he had to say, together with my reply.


"Nigel Seel:
Thank you for the highly perceptive review of my novel, JEW. It was encouraging to read a review with writing of such high calibre.
Best regards,
-D.O. Dodd "

I replied as follows.

"Yes. I was very surprised by the low quality of the reviews on Amazon. Seems like most of them hadn't actually read the book carefully, let alone engaged with it. None of them appeared to approach understanding.

It's quite dispiriting when you have spent months applying all your thinking and intelligence into a creative work only to have it received with indifference and intellectual shoddiness. What you're doing here is what writers ought to do: engage with universal issues, challenge received shibboleths and do so with art.

I hope your novel gets the wider audience it deserves and has the impact you intended. If so, it's bound to be controversial so I wish you strength with that. "


Moving from writing about atrocities to the real thing. Clare makes a small financial contribution to a Catholic Creche in Brazil run by a Father Murphy (in the tradition of Irish missionary priests). Here is what he wrote in his email this morning.

"Hello Creche sponsors,

Carlos Andre Pereira Barros and his brother Carlos Alexandre were both reared at the Creche beginning around 1981, both leaving in the mid-nineties. Carlos Alexandre has a daughter, Carla in the Creche while he lives by selling fruit or flannel towels at the busy road intersections around here.

Carlos Andre had a job with a nearby big car agency, Fiori, which deals in Fiats until last Friday when he was dismissed and paid-off with a lump sum. He had been living with his mother till about a fortnight ago when he decided to rent a place for himself and a male companion on the far outskirts of Reciffe.

That night his place was broken into and he was cruelly killed: his eyes were gouged out and they put one in the sink, the other in the toilet bowl. Only three days later was his disappearance discovered when his companion returned from a visit to the hinterland to his family.

Perhaps his sexual orientation contributed to his being so cruelly killed. May his soul rest in peace.

Frank Murphy (Fr)"

Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: "Jew" by D. O. Dodd

This is an Amazon Vine review of "Jew" by D. O. Dodd.


This novel seems to have acquired the reputation of atrocity-porn. Not too surprising as the protagonist (it seems quite inappropriate to call him the hero) comes to consciousness naked in a heaped pile of dead bodies. He escapes, and lethally disposing of an officer in a nearby hut, he dumps the body onto the heap, steals his uniform and car and makes for the nearest town. Trauma has wiped his memories: he has no idea who or where he is.

In town he wanders into a coffee-house to the consternation of the clientele – is this a case of mistaken identity? The occupying soldiers soon steer him to his role as commanding officer where he is soon acquiescing in the most brutal atrocities. Thankfully we are spared the most explicit descriptions.

The new commander, as he now is, orders the original heap of bodies to be brought into town. In an eerie recapitulation sequence a naked man crawls out and is promptly captured. Yet the prisoner insists he is the real commander.

The war is now going the wrong way, the occupiers are forced to withdraw and there is a confrontation, followed by an final ironic change of allegiance.

“Jew” is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. First the puzzle. It becomes clear during the course of the narrative that this is a religious war. Somehow the Jews and the Muslims are involved. But who are the occupiers and who are the occupied? To which faith or ethnic group does the protagonist (the new commander) belong and to which the prisoner who claims to be the real commander?

The writing is deliberately obscure and clues are scattered but it is essential for the reader to get this straight. It helps to know that a Mu’min is an Arab Islamic term meaning a true believer in Islam (p. 134) and that Elohim is the Hebrew term for God (p. 132); to recall the mistaken identity previously alluded to (pp. 29-30); and to realise that the Coalition forces which enter the scene at the end are retreating, not advancing. Anyway, no spoilers here – spend the time and work it out.

The enigma is to fathom what on earth the author is getting at – after all, we already know that soldiers engaged in inter-faith and/or inter-ethnic disputes can behave with unparalleled viciousness. The writing is beautifully allusive conveying a dreamlike quality focusing on the main character’s lack of affect. Motives are never clear, the protagonist seems to be a detached observer of his own actions and of those around him, events which are often deeply symbolic but whose meaning remains elusive. The reader is forced to the conclusion that in the bleak reality of this novel, all honourable courses lead to death and all survival strategies require multi-layered betrayal.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas Oratorio - J S Bach

Wrapped up like a spaceman against the searing cold, I was fifteen minutes early for Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St. Cuthbert's, Wells last night. Just as well - I got a front seat.

The Oratorio comprises six cantatas, of which four were played last night. The orchestra and Beaumont singers (below) were excellent, despite having to perform in the unheated church.

Highpoints: the violins swooping and gliding over the cello and double-bass; Cressida Nash on cello who never seemed to stop working; the astonishingly high and pure voice of countertenor Simon Clulow.

After the interval a smartly-bearded, black-tied man addressed us from the pulpit.

"Cheapskates! Pennypinchers! Oh you who would cut all funding to the arts!

"No, not you ladies and gentlemen. The sentiments of Johann Sebastian Bach addressing Leipzig Council as they further reduced the stipends available to pay university students to fill in the vacancies in the church orchestras."

The man then read a ten-page memo written in 1730 in which Bach itemises the poor quality of the singers and instrumentalists at his disposal (naming names!), his lack of funds and his resentment at the incessant sniping he's receiving from the Council. All good knockabout stuff, typical of the man and eerily presaging contemporary concerns.

And then it was back to Cantata III and the glittering roller-coaster of baroque counterpoint.

Dynamics of Personality Type

This is a "problem-solving" review of Linda Berens' self-study booklet "Dynamics of Personality Type". To view all diagrams below full-size, click on them: preferably open them with a right-click in a new tab so as not to lose the text.

By way of introduction, many people first learn about their Myers-Briggs "type indicator" (MBTI) through taking a 'personality assessment' and getting a code: example, my MBTI is INTP.

There is a "boxy" way of understanding this. Psychological type defines a four-dimensional personality space and each type is a vector within it. If you proceed in this manner you get a good correlation with academic psychology's "Big-5" five-factor model (FFM) and it's common to hear that the MBTI is the FFM without the "Emotional-Stability -- Neuroticism" dimension.

But to view psychological type like this is to take the snapshot when you could be getting the movie. In the Jungian view, personality is about the active interplay of psychological functions or processes. Jung and Myers talked about the Dominant, Auxiliary, Tertiary and Inferior hierarchy of processes (each of which could appear as introverted or extraverted).

Subsequently Beebe, and later Berens, proposed extending the model with explicit consideration of subconscious processes (itemised as 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th). The priority-ranking of the processes for an INTP are shown below: only the 1st to the 4th are conscious.

The eight functions for an INTP

So what does this mean? My dominant function is Ti which means an orientation to theorising, modelling, looking for patterns, spotting inconsistencies. You don't see this because it's interiorised, introverted, but ask yourself: why else am I writing this stuff?

The Ne is extraverted iNtuition which you do see ... as the generation of creative new ideas in response to here-and-now stuff: present situation, conversation etc.

The tertiary Si is introverted Sensation, corresponding to memories, past experiences and stored knowledge. This is less central in driving my interior life but forms a backcloth to the Thinking function. Again, you don't see it directly.

The Fe is extraverted Feeling which you do see: a kind of rather unsophisticated cameraderie used in engaging with others. Let's not short-change myself here: there is a certain amount of warmth but it's subservient to stronger internal masters.

So what this amounts to is that the interior Ti provides the hidden core of my personality-processes, backed up with Si, while the external public form or wrapping is provided by an ideas-oriented, affable persona NeFe.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

The functions 5-8, my conscious orientations operating in their non-preferred way, are both weak in influence and unconscious.They are collectively called "the Shadow" and might manifest themselves in my behaviour if I lost control of myself. People might say things like "He behaved totally out of character," and it's a possible defence in a court of law (let's hope it never comes to that).

The prioritised functions for the 16 types

If you know your own Myers-Briggs type you can read your process hierarchy above (click on the image to make it larger). If you don't know it yet, discover your type by taking the assessment here.

Description of the Perceiving processes

Here is a more structured description of what the process-letters mean, first for Perceiving functions ...

Description of the Judging processes

... and here for Judging functions.

INTP talks to INTP

Now Beren's analysis starts to get really interesting as she considers communication and relationships between types. When any type meets their type-counterpart - someone else of the same type - then all their cognitive preferences are aligned. They often become friends because communication seems so natural.

So for example, in the diagram above, when an INTP meets another INTP they have a shared interior life of systems building and theorising. They both delight in the generation of ideas and the exploration of consequences, and they both share a general affability. The arrows go across horizontally.

They may enjoy a chat but do they care much about each other as people? No, not much. That Fe function is the inferior function and is not much of a driver in the psyche.

INTP talks to INFP

INTP with INFP: these two types are close to my heart as Clare is INFP. Her dominant process is Fi which in plain English describes a drive for positive ethical outcomes, harmony and spirituality.

Note where that is in my list! And note where Ti is in hers!

So the model predicts that we have common ground in ideas, concepts and shared experiences. But if my logical analysis and her moral values come into conflict we're never going to resolve things. And neither of us is much driven by Se which you can read as either a lack of concern for the minutiae of the world around us, or as no common sense whatsoever. In the conversational domain, Se equates to smalltalk and we both conspicuously lack that.

INTP talks to ISFP (or not)

Here's a relationship where meaningful communication is "interesting". I mention this because my mother is ISFP. The combination of SeFi, the latter dominant and introverted can be glossed as a strong orientation to moral values wrapped up in a common-sense reference system, robustly delivered (inferior Te): not however very susceptible to analytic disputation.

ISTJ talks to ISFP

Of course, with Linda Berens' instruction you can do this with your own relationships and those of others. Above is my diagram for ISTJ - ISFP, only showing those interactions where both parties are using their conscious processes (there are some more lines you can draw but if an arrow lands on one party's subconscious process communication is very difficult). My late father was ISTJ so it's an interesting exercise to translate this diagram into plain English.

To read more about Myers-Briggs Type Theory and brain architecture click here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: The Manticore – Robertson Davies

In Fifth Business, the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy we learned the story of Boy Staunton, obnoxious youth who became the foremost tycoon in second world-war Canada before dying mysteriously in an apparent suicide.

In this second volume, The Manticore, attention shifts to his son David Staunton. The story opens in Zürich where David Staunton is starting a course of psychotherapy following the death of his father. He believes he is going mad.

As the therapy progresses we examine in detail Staunton’s relationship with his mother and step-mother, his sister Caroline, nurse Netty, schoolmaster Dunstan Ramsay (the narrator of Fifth Business), David’s first girlfriend Judy and centrally Boy Staunton himself. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that David Staunton has been psychologically overwhelmed by his dominant father. In a classic love-hate relationship David has judged everyone else through the distorting lens of his own idolised view of his father while simultaneously trying to distance himself in his own life and career.

As the narrative advances through a recapitulation of David Staunton’s biography we see him gradually re-evaluating his relationships under the skilful hand of his therapist. In fact this book is a wonderful advertisement for the Jungian approach. In a final escapade in the Swiss mountains (in the reunited company of Dunstan Ramsay, Liesl Vitzliputzli and Magnus Eisengrim) David undergoes a symbolic “rebirthing”: we leave confident that he can progress the rest of his life developing his new-found maturity.

I am now looking forwards to the final volume, World of Wonders, where we learn more about the magician Magnus Eisengrim.

A Manticore, by the way, is a mythical being with the face of a man, the body of a lion and a stinging tail. It is the image David Staunton’s unconscious chooses for himself.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Computing the weather

On 24 November 2010 19:24, Roy Simpson wrote:

I have just noticed a Met Office link on your blog (scrolling down, on the right), so I think it must have been added recently? Maybe there is now an increased interest in weather details down there in Wells? Looking at the site I would estimate that the atmospheric pressure at Wells is about 1009 right now, which is a slight low.

Maybe this link also presages some blog items on weather science: here is a quote from that site on their current Global Unified Model to get this started:

"The latest version of the atmospheric model uses non-hydrostatic dynamics with semi-Lagrangian advection and semi-implicit time stepping. It is a grid-point model with the ability to run with a rotated pole and variable horizontal grid. A number of sub-grid scale processes are represented, including convection, boundary layer turbulence, radiation, cloud, microphysics and orographic drag. It can be run as a global model, or a limited area."

I will have to explain later what this means ... unless you get there first on a Blog item ...


Sadly my knowledge of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) is just about zero so I'll have to wait for further enlightenment ... Nigel.


Well I have spent some time on CFD and Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) - and an interesting journey it is...

Firstly NWP isn’t really CFD at all. Perhaps it could be, but NWP is a slightly different discipline at the moment, as it involves modelling global weather phenomena explicitly: this gives rise to thermodynamic equations as well as fluid equations. Furthermore the Navier-Stokes equation (around which CFD is aimed) gives rise to phenomena which are local (and which would interfere with final significant global solutions). So the Navier-Stokes needs to be simplified out. In fact many phenomena need to be simplified out. A good example I found was the question of wave height prediction (in windy conditions). The wave height is really determined by the tides on a multi-hour basis, but the instantaneous values of the waves on the shore provide no clue to any theory of predicting the wave height over the day. So these "high frequency" components need to be removed from observation and theory.

You have read the book about Fry Richardson (Turbulence), who made a prediction that pressure would rise by 100 mb in 6 hrs, which was wrong because similar "high frequency" components (of pressure changes) in his calculation were irrelevant.

Anyway, down to explaining that paragraph from the Met web site (which is a very good site). So let’s introduce the fundamental issue - the grid.

The model will include a discretized grid of 3D space points plus of course a time step. Call the space distance ΔX and the time step ΔT, then we notice the following.

ΔX/ΔT has dimensions of a velocity. It turns out that this "velocity" is key to much of the validity of using the grid successfully. In particular it is necessary that any physical effect (such as the speed of sound 300 m/s) < ΔX/ΔT. This principle is known as the CFL theorem.

However CFL has the unfortunate consequence that if we have such a grid working successfully and we wish to double the resolution so that ΔX' = 1/2 ΔX, to preserve the validity of that equation (in 3 dimensions) we would need to decrease the time step by 8. This results in 8 times more computation - and so a solution has to be found to bypass the CFL theorem. More below....

Now we shall parse the Met Office NWP statement:

The latest version of the atmospheric model uses non-hydrostatic dynamics

Given a model atmosphere a "parcel of air" will exert pressure up and down. In hydrostatic dynamics the pressures between neighbouring parcels are equal:

Pressure(N) up = Pressure(N+1) down + gravity(N+1).

So there is no net vertical flow and the system is in equilibrium. This is the model which works for large scale objects like the global atmosphere. In fact the pressure decrease that this implies is a negative exponential of height as discovered by Laplace / Pascal.

This approximation breaks down as we approach smaller grid scales (ΔX). In particular at the 10 km level (mesoscale) convection-like effects start to appear - resulting in rising/falling air, and so to incorporate these the model needs to be non-hydrostatic.

with semi-Lagrangian advection

Advection is the transport of properties (like heat) along with a fluid flow (wind flow). The advection equation is a square root of the wave equation. There is a problem with solving it numerically however: that CFL condition mentioned above. So the solution has been to introduce the distinction between an explicit solution (using the grid and time-step) and an implicit solution. In an implicit solution the value of a quantity T= N+1 is a function of the solution at N and also N+1. Hence the equation is implicit and might be solvable directly as is possible with advection equations. This sort of bypasses the CFL problem which really only applies to the time step grid approach (where T’= N+1 is calculated from T = N), but at the price of a false rendering of fast moving phenomena. So the trick is to do both explicit and implicit in the same calculation hence:

and semi-implicit time stepping.”

Semi-implicit means do the sensitive bits explicitly and directly and do the less physically important bits implicitly. This somewhat bypasses the CFL theorem and has allowed a speed up so that in most NWP systems a time-step of 2 minutes has been extended to 15 minutes.

It is a grid-point model with the ability to run with a rotated pole

The grid formulation is itself a large topic. The problem again is that CFL theorem and that fact that a standard latitude-longitude grid would all converge towards the North and South Poles. This results in a need to vary the ΔX parameter near the North or South Poles which then runs into the CFL theorem again. So the solution is simple: move the poles out of the way so that the earth region you are modelling has no poles and the grids are of uniform size here.

and variable horizontal grid.”

This means that you can "zoom in" to a sub-region. So you have ΔX at 1000 km for the wider region and 10 km for the area of interest. Of course this is also needed to solve the "boundary condition" problem when modelling a region. If you just had a model for Wells area then how does the weather get into Wells? You cannot use the same micromodel for the rest of the world here (and it would be time consuming) so the ROW is modelled by these larger 1000 km cells.

A number of sub-grid scale processes are represented, including convection, boundary layer turbulence, radiation, cloud, microphysics .”

Remember the grid size ΔX? Well the best UK model is called UK4. This means that ΔX is 4 km in that model. Good but not great. Some weather phenomena (such as cloud formations) are actually at the 1 km scale. And we want to model clouds don’t we? Until we have a 1 km model (under research at the Met Office if you check the page) we still have to account for 1 km physics. That is we cannot allow "under the radar" phenomena to affect our weather model (otherwise it would be like a telecoms company missing IP technology because it was under the radar). The under-the-radar phenomena (listed there) are called "sub-grid scale processes". They are accounted for by so called fixed parameters which adjust values in each cell to make it more "realistic" than otherwise.

and orographic drag.”

Orographic means surface bumps like mountains and hills. So orographic drag is obviously the air friction effect of any mountains/hills in that particular cell.

It can be run as a global model, or a limited area."

An interesting bunch of slides on NWP is


Every major country in the world believes that their model is the best. Still the Met Office does put out a good research programme.

It is ironic that the research frontier for these models is the 1 km level at which clouds form: because Cloud technology is just where IT systems theory is at too ... and don’t ask about Grids :-)

Another question that has occurred to me is how much of this has been applied to planets like Jupiter and Venus? Global waves can be very non-intuitive with the phase velocity going in a different direction to the group velocity and so on. Apparently Europa is like that ... and maybe the Earth's core too (called inertial waves).


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wearyall Hill

A walk to the top of Wearyall Hill south-west of Glastonbury this morning - before we hit Morrison's. It was a bit hazy but the views were spectacular.

Glastonbury Tor from Wearyall Hill

Looking out over the Somerset levels

Glastonbury west

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Humidity Control

My "tfa humidity meter 20-99% rH" arrived this morning (pictured) and my first act was to put it outside the front door. It took 40 minutes to converge to a static value showing the temperature as 9 °C and the relative humidity (RH) as 84%. That's damp.

I then took it into our living room which I have been religiously humidifying this last few days (but not this morning), full of anticipation as to how much unsupportable dryness it would show.

Here are some facts about relative humidity (RH).

  • RH below 30%: too low - leads to dry skin, sore eyes, sinus trouble.

  • RH 30% - 40%: some people like it; a bit on the dry side.

  • RH 40% - 50%: OK, comfortable.

  • RH 50% - 60%: OK, comfortable but the dust mites like it too.

  • RH greater than 60%: damp, encourages mould, drains you of energy.

I was hoping for a target RH of 40% - 50% then. After an hour and a half of acclimatising, this is what the meter told me: temperature 22 °C and RH 49%.

So that sounds pretty good, but then I wondered: so was the humidifier actually adding any value at all? After all, it hadn't been on during the morning, had it?

Now there's a rule of thumb which states: "the relative humidity will drop by a factor of 2 for each 10 °C increase in temperature (assuming conservation of absolute moisture). For example, air at 20 °C and 50% relative humidity will become saturated if cooled to 10 °C, its dewpoint. Air at 5 °C and 80% relative humidity warmed to 20 °C will have a relative humidity of only 29% and feel dry." This means that for each drop in temperature of 1 °C, the new RH is 2-0.1 = 93.3% of its previous value.

So taking the outside air at 9 °C and 84% RH, and heating it to 22 °C (13 °C increase) one would expect to decrease the RH from 84% to around 34%. The air in our living room was comfortably more humid than that and I credit my recent acquisition.

Equally on a cold, dry day with an RH of around 60% (forecast for later this week) a temperature increase of, say, 15 °C would decrease the RH to 1/2√2 = 35% of its previous value (i.e. to around 20%) and that would be way too dry without my little humidifier doing its bit.

Find below an (edited) more detailed story on relative humidity.


The ideal indoor humidity level is either 35% to 45% or 40% to 50% depending on who you ask. Thankfully, the human body is quite flexible and you do not have too aim at an exact figure. The important thing is to avoid extremes. Living indoors is not entirely natural. The artificial environments that we create for ourselves can sometimes cause extremes of humidity to occur. For short periods of time this is nothing to worry about, but the long term effects can be quite unpleasant.

If the humidity level regularly exceeds 50% you are likely to experience a rapidly increasing dust mite population, which will affect allergy sufferers. Permanently damp rooms tend to have a musty smell. The damp air is a perfect breeding ground for mold, mildew and fungus, which can cause serious health problems. Where ever possible the cause of such conditions should be removed, but it is not always that simple and a dehumidifier may be required. A modern dehumidifier with built in humidistat can be programmed to maintain a humidity level below 50%.

Consistently low humidity levels are also bad. This tends to occur when the weather is cold outside and we turn up the heat in our homes. The most noticeable effects are a sore throat and sinus pain, symptoms that are common in modern society at certain times of year. You can also get dry skin and itchy eyes. The solution is to buy a humidifier that will put moisture back into the air.

If any of these symptoms sound familiar, maybe you should buy a hygrometer (humidity meter) and take some readings to find out if humidity is the cause. With modern technology at your disposal there is no need for your health to suffer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lobster lunch

Could not resist sharing these pictures with you. The first surprise was that Lidl was selling lobsters at all. The second was the anatomical purity of what came out of the defrosted packet. It has such cute little eyes ...

We are about to eat this poor thing for lunch.


Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s withering contempt? Let me tell you, it’s easier to accept if it’s unjustified.

In the early 1990s I was working at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Harlow, Essex. At the time I spent many Sundays flying paragliders at North Weald airport nearby. I wrote an article about this in the STL magazine, naturally playing up the more lurid aspects.

“As you come into final approach, at around one hundred feet, you may hit turbulence causing a canopy collapse. At that low altitude recovery is impossible and you will smash into the ground. Another failure mode is when being tow-launched at a speed of around 60 mph. Under the enormous tension of the tow-rope the canopy is unstable and can enter a condition known as ‘lock-out’ where it begins to dive sideways, finally arcing into the ground. This situation is unrecoverable and the jeep driver in the towing vehicle carries a sharp knife to cut the rope - just in case.”

A colleague read the article and came up to me. “Do you really do this?” he asked. I nodded. “And you have a wife and children?” he replied with complete contempt, spinning on his heels and walking away.

In fact flying paragliders is about as dangerous as riding a motorbike, and I never had an accident.

The second time was when I joined Cable & Wireless as VP for architecture in 2001. A colleague asked me what I had been doing before. I replied that I had run a consultancy, Interweave Consulting Ltd - he had clearly got the impression this was a sizeable concern, employing perhaps 20-30 people.

“So what did you do with your consultancy when you joined C&W?” he asked.

“I shut it down,” I replied.

Contemplating such selfish callousness his expression told it all. He just turned and walked away.

In fact Interweave Consulting Ltd had just two employees: myself and my wife. But I didn’t disabuse him.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Soufflé success!

According to The Telegraph today, "users are turning their backs on shoddy user-generated content - home-made YouTube clips and facile personal blogs." So here is our contribution to today's collection of facile personal blogs.

Clare's long search for blackcurrent bushes ended yesterday at the Almondsbury Garden Centre where she bought two. They went in this morning.

The Blackcurrent bush goes in

In other news, the Kenwood electric whisk we bought at Weston the other day was given its first outing this morning ...

The Chef hard at work with egg whites

The Electric Whisk in action

... with Clare choosing to make that hardest of savoury puddings, the soufflé.

The soufflé and the chef

As you can see it was a triumph, not collapsing at all.

Finally a pastoral shot.

The Robin who owns our garden

Tomorrow you may expect further breaking news on Relative Humidity and our domestic attempts to increase it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The humidifier arrived this morning and is currently in the living room puffing out mist even as I write. Our centrally-heated air was so dry that I've felt no discernible difference yet. It's rather cute in action. It can be set to go continuously or in a one-minute-on-x-minutes-off mode.

There's also an ionizer setting if you want those wonderful negative ones in the room with you.

The vapour plume is so fine that it doesn't feel wet, just cool. The box says that it's formed by an ultrasonic transducer but I haven't researched how that could work. As you can see, there's plenty of water in the container.

So this morning was like Christmas, as Clare got to open the Kenwood electric whisk we bought yesterday at the Weston-super-Mare Argos. The new things on our menu which this enables are apparently: (i) fairy cakes; (ii) soups; (iii) pancakes; (iv) fluffy omelettes; (v) soufflés.

The arrows point to our new purchases.

The Shape of Inner Space

Review of: The Shape of Inner Space – Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis.

This book, from a mathematician, covers the period from the first proof that Calabi-Yau spaces actually might exist to their current central place as a preferred model for String Theory’s extra dimensions. Shing-Tung Yau is the Fields Medallist godfather of the eponymous manifolds and Steve Nadis had the unenviable task of writing it all down so that the rest of us could have a prayer of understanding it. He also did the interviews and fleshed out the physics side. The best way to review this book is just to explain what it says chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1: The universe is a big place, maybe infinite. Even if its overall curvature suffices to close it, observations suggest that its volume may be more than a million times the spherical volume of radius 13.7 billion light year we actually see. The unification programme of theoretical physics doesn’t really work, however, if it’s confined simply to three large spatial dimensions plus time. It turns out that replacing the point-like objects of particle physics with tiny one-dimensional objects called strings, moving in a 10 dimensional spacetime may permit the unification of the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces plus gravity. Well, today it almost works.

We see only four space-time dimensions. Where are the other six? The suggestion is that they are compactified: rolled up to be very small. But that’s not all, to make the equations of string theory valid, the compactified six dimensional surface must conform to a very special geometry. That is the subject of the rest of the book.

Chapter 2: Yau was born in mainland China in 1949. His father was a university professor but the pay was poor and he had a wife and eight children to support. When Yau was 14 his father died leaving the family destitute: Yau’s destiny seemed to be to leave school and become a duck farmer to pay his way but in a flash of inspiration he decided instead to become a paid maths tutor, teaching as he was learning. Yau’s astounding talent led him from this humble background to the University of California at Berkeley by the time he was 20. As well as autobiographical details, this chapter also outlines the idea of a metric on curved spaces, introducing Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Chapter 3: Yau’s early work at Berkeley was in the area of geometric analysis, used in the proof of the Poincare conjecture (1904). This conjecture states that a compact three dimensional space is topologically equivalent to a sphere if every possible loop which can be drawn in that space can be shrunk to a point without tearing. The conjecture was proved in 2002 by the controversial Russian mathematician Grisha Perelman. Work in this area set the scene for Yau’s celebrated proof of the Calabi conjecture: that what subsequently became known as ‘Calabi-Yau’ (CY) spaces actually exist.

Chapter 4: The Calabi conjecture is simple to state if not to understand: it asks whether a complex Riemann surface (conformal, orientable) which is compact (finite in extent) and Kähler (the metric is Euclidean to second order) with vanishing first Chern class has a Ricci-flat metric. All these concepts are explained in this chapter. One of the more interesting features of a space satisfying Calabi’s conjecture (if it existed) was that it would satisfy Einstein’s vacuum field equations automatically.

Chapter 5. Yau initially didn’t believe the Calabi conjecture and at a conference held at Stanford in 1973 went so far as to give a seminar “disproving” it. Calabi contacted Yau a few months later asking for details and Yau set to furious work, the argument slipping out of his hands the harder he tried to make it rigorous. Yau concluded that in fact the conjecture must be correct and spent the next three years working on the problem. In 1976 he got married and on his honeymoon the last piece of the puzzle dropped into place. The conjecture was proved correct.

Chapter 6. What Yau had proved was a piece of mathematics but he was sure there must be applications in theoretical physics. However, nothing happened until 1984. Parallel developments in string theory (ST) had determined that ten dimensions were needed to allow sufficiently diverse string vibrations to occur to capture the four fundamental forces and to induce ‘anomaly cancellation’. The search was on for a six dimensional compactified space to complement four dimensional space-time. The chapter describes how physicists came to CY spaces via supersymmetry and holonomy.

CY manifolds within ST are very small (a quadrillion times smaller than an electron) and are riddled with multidimensional holes (up to perhaps 500). The way strings wrap around the CY surface, threading through holes, is intended to reproduce observed particles and their masses. This has proven a fraught task as it requires a very special CY manifold to even get close. Yau has estimated there might be 10,000 different manifolds but no-one really knows.

The chapter closes with a discussion of M-theory, Edward Witten’s framework for uniting the five different string theories developed in the 1990s. M-theory is defined in 11 dimensions and includes ‘branes’ of anything from 0-9 dimensions. Apparently the universe could have 10 and 11 dimensions simultaneously but the mathematics (via CY spaces) works better in 10.

Chapter 7 discusses a challenge to the applicability of CY spaces due to the quantum field theory requirement for conformal and scale invariance. The CY metric doesn’t (without tweaking) allow for this. This research led to a concept called mirror symmetry which associates CY manifolds with distinct topologies with the same Conformal Field Theory (CFT). This proved important for calculation.

Chapter 8 talks about the success of ST in deriving the Bekenstein-Hawking formula for (supersymmetric) black hole entropy. The very large number of required black hole microstates are constituted by wrapping branes around sub-surfaces of a CY manifold to build the black hole. The chapter ends by extending these ideas to the celebrated AdS/CFT correspondence.

Chapter 9 notes that ST has yet to reproduce the Standard Model (SM) and recounts some of the attempts being made. Yau’s favourite is E8 x E8 heterotic ST and the technique is to break the many symmetries of E8 down to the 12 required by the SM [SU(3) with 8D symmetry, 8 gluons; SU(2) with 3D symmetry, W+, W-, Z; U(1) with 1D symmetry, photon]. We are not there yet.

Chapter 10 talks about mechanisms to keep the compactified dimensions small when energetically they would prefer to be large. The CY manifolds are stabilised by quantised fluxes. Suppose there are 10 values (0-9) for a flux loop and 500 holes in a CY manifold then there are 10 ** 500 different stable states. This extraordinary crude estimate has been widely publicised as “The Landscape Problem” for those who were hoping that there would be exactly one CY model for the universe. Yau is unimpressed, never having believed in such uniqueness in the first place. Chapter 11 continues the theme of ‘explosive decompactification’ and recommends not being around if and when it happens.

Chapter 12 surveys the search for hidden dimensions. They may be visible ‘out there’ for telescopes to pick up. Alternatively there’s the LHC. Chapter 13 is an essay on truth and beauty in mathematics.

The final chapter raises a deep question. CY manifolds are solutions to Einstein’s gravitational field equations in a vacuum. But Einstein’s theory is classical – smooth all the way down (except for rare singularities). However, the QM view of space-time at the Planck scale is anything but smooth: the term ‘quantum foam’ has been coined. What kind of geometry – quantum geometry – could model this?

Yau’s view is that at present no-one has much of a clue although he describes some ideas exploring CY topology changes via singularity introduction – the flop transition –which could shed some light on what quantum geometry could look like.

In summary this is not a book for the faint-hearted. It gives a mountain-top view of the research area which is Calabi-Yau theory and its application to String Theory. One never forgets however how much inaccessible mathematics and physics lies behind Steve Nadis’s persuasive and fluent writing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Weston-super-Mare on such a winter's day

The radio announcer teasingly mentioned the forthcoming happy event. "What royal marriage you ask? You'll have to tune in at one o'clock!" Of course it could only be Kate and Wills, immaculately scheduled for maximum cheer in our debt- and gloom-mired times.

Weston-super-Mare is delightful in the late autumnal sunshine. Clare, pictured below dosed with an anti-migraine pill, soaked up the rays from our very own celestial fusion reactor in what was otherwise a rather chilly day.

Clare on the front

One reason for visiting Weston was to check out the new pier: though if you subtracted fish 'n' chip bars, donut outlets and arcade machines, to be honest there wouldn't be a lot left - apart that is from the Edwardian Tea Room at the very end of the pier.

Nigel at the pier entrance

The beach at Weston-super-Mare

The Edwardian Tea Room at the end of the pier

The town itself was a bit crowded. Weston is gradually hauling itself up the path of gentrification but its restaurants have a way to go. We checked but rejected quite a few, including the M&S cafe: usually acceptable for a snack but not here though. So it was back to the motor and onwards to Axbridge which we had not visited before.

The Mediaeval Square at Axbridge

We had lunch (Clare: Ploughman's with Pate; Nigel: Chicken Salad) at The Lamb in the square: quality and quantity excellent. Then back home.

The Museum at Axbridge

While we were out the delivery people came with my humidifier, they will try again tomorrow. I sat down with the latest (Dec 2010) issue of Scientific American and found yet another piece on how geometry is the answer in fundamental physics ("A Geometric Theory of Everything" by A. Garrett Lisi and J. O. Weatherall). All roads lead, it seems, to differential geometry.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Starlings at Ham Wall (nr Glastonbury)

At around ten to four this afternoon the warden, a young man with a Jesus beard and flowing locks, said "They're late tonight". We waited a few more minutes as the sun set and it got colder. I murmured to Clare "We've had more starlings around your feeder in the back garden."

Shortly after four what looked like black smoke trails on the horizon resolved into the first incoming flocks. They are truly a super-organism of the skies, some impossibly-agile fish or eel. After performing at speed over the tree-tops they dived into the rushes where they'll overnight. Wave after wave followed.

As we packed up to go the warden said "That was one of the best ever. I'd say nine out of ten."

Friday, November 12, 2010


Last Friday, as Adrian and myself watched David Attenborough's "First Life" on BBC-2, Clare had crawled away to bed. This evening hibernation grabbed her even earlier and she retired during the Elgar feature on BBC-4, at 8 a.m. (where she slumbers as I write).

This is monumental incompetence on both our parts as it turns out that this evening is the Wells Carnival, prepared for over many a long week. Endless floats were passing the end of our street only an hour ago: we had completely forgotten.

For the first time this year the weather has turned cold, with gales and driving rain. The central heating keeps the house warm but lowers the relative humidity leading to 'dry air'. The result for me is dry skin and sore eyes. I have draped wet towels on the radiators and placed a tray of water in front of the gas fire but any amelioration is slight. Another annual ritual around now is that I start to vainly scour shopping sites for humidifiers.

I'm three quarters of the way through Shing-Tung Yau's book "The Shape of Inner Space". The author is the Yau of Calabi-Yau spaces, a Fields medallist and he writes a fascinating account of the birth and evolution of string theory. Excuse my bias but it all makes a lot more sense when you hear it from a mathematician. I intend to write a careful and thorough review when I've finished. Watch this space etc.

By the way, Hi Adrian if you're reading this. I hope you're now settled in at Sun Peaks and that the snow will be deep, permanent and soft.

Short Story: Mercedes and Lancia

Back in my own flat I frantically scrabbled for my pad, called up Mercedes and Lancia. The image of those two old ladies formed within a window. Mercedes, the older one wore her vintage clothes and pearls, her crinkly hat with its veil-edging and only came up to the shoulders of her companion. Lancia, equally the old lady seemed somehow younger than her miniature companion. They both stared at me with fixed, inane grins.

“I’ve just come back from my exam,” I told them.

And my mind went back to that other, sprawling room with its office and desk in the raised section and the bedroom in the lower. I had lain on the bed and carefully written the answer to question one in black felt pen on the duvet. It had been a multi-part question and I had covered most of the surface with my answer. Now in horror I realised that there had been four questions on the paper and time was ticking away.

I immediately rushed out of my apartment and ran back to the examination hall, feeling a molasses-like resistance all the while. I took a short-cut up a steep, grassy bank and felt the stalks ripping from my fingers as I fought for grip, purchase eluded me.

Finally I was back in that room again. This time I sat at the desk, a vague thought troubling me: where was the invigilator? The office area was littered with papers, so where were the examination questions? A frantic search located them and I immediately set to work on question 2.

Soon I had finished, and made my way back to my flat. I called Mercedes and Lancia again. They reappeared in exactly the same pose. I started to explain when I realised to my dismay that I had only answered two of the four questions. And would they accept an answer written on a duvet? Would they even notice it?

It was too late, the exam time was up. ‘This is ridiculous’ I though, ‘It was a GCSE exam, absolutely trivial. I could do those questions in my sleep.’

And then I thought to my horror: ‘Is it possible I might fail?’

Monday, November 08, 2010

HSBC: our new PINs arrive

We succeeded in getting our new joint bank account set up at the HSBC branch on the Market Square here in Wells. Our cheque book arrived and our two debit cards. How anxiously we were waiting for the PINs so we could start withdrawing our money!

This morning was our lucky day. Two envelopes arrived (one for Clare, one for me) and with mounting excitement I opened mine. The instructions were as shown below: pull the flap to expose the shaded area; place on a light surface to see the PIN.

It all worked perfectly. The cover came off exposing the hatched area shown above.

Do you see a PIN? I tried holding it against the light. Then I tried shining a bright torch on it. Finally I resorted to working away at the surface with a screwdriver. No PIN.

I called Clare and persuaded her to open her letter. She followed the same procedure with the same result. We looked at one another with a shared thought: security gone mad.

"Call HSBC," she said "and tell them they've made a terible mistake in printing off the PINS." I was more in favour of strolling down to the Market Square.

Adrian (whose penultimate day in England this is before he flies off to Canada) then strolled by. He rubbed at the hatched area for a while and then said: "What did you do with the covers you tore off?"

Humouring him, I retrieved them from the bin and handed them across. He picked one up and held it against the light. Then wordlessly he passed it to me.

OK, so even highly-educated people can make a mistake. Now I wonder: which one was mine and which one was Clare's?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Wells Bach Society at St Thomas's

Walking from our home to the St. Thomas Church after dark is like a stroll through the campus of Wells Cathedral School. All the lights are on in the great Georgian mansions, students wrapped up against the mist dart from house to house while there is much gossiping and giggling around the secluded, arched front doors.

Around 100 people attended the St. Thomas's Bach concert yesterday evening (pictured).

We started and ended with choral works, Motets, which seem to be funeral pieces (although in the Lutheran theology these are joyful sendings off). The new Wells Bach Society Chorus did a good, competent job but they are still settling in and I didn't get any spine-tingling moments.

Jane Finch played the Oboe, the lead role in Geminiani's "Sonata in E Minor for Oboe and Basso Continuo" and a tuneful and melodic work it is. The electric organ (played by Christopher Tambling, pictured below in preparation) in harpsichord mode was perhaps a trifle too loud.

The most impressive piece of the evening was Cressida Nash playing solo cello in Bach's "Suite No. 3 in C Major" (BMV 1009). This is a Prelude followed by dance variants (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, 2 Bourrees, Gigue) requiring enormous speed, endurance and precision: Cressida played her heart out.

We have the Christmas Oratorio to look forwards to at St. Cuthbert's on Saturday Nov. 27th, 7. 30 pm.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

First Life - David Attenborough

Shown on BBC 2 at 9 p.m. last night.

This was the first programme in a series about the evolution of life and constituted a masterclass in how to do popular science on TV. The hour-long episode covered the period from the first life on the planet about 3.5 billion years ago, to the Cambrian explosion around 530 million years ago which originated the basic body plan of virtually all animals alive today.

TV lends itself to 'show, not tell' and Attenborough visited fossil beds around the world to make his points. Around fifteen minutes in he set up the first puzzle: for three billion years life was just single cells floating around in the sea - what on earth caused the sudden emergence of multi-cellular creatures leading to the complex life-forms we see today?

The answer is snowball earth. During an extreme ice-age 650 million years ago the entire earth froze with single-celled life hanging on only at the margins. But as the ice retreated (due to volcanic carbon dioxide emissions) nutriments flooded the oceans and a new wave of photosynthesising, oxygen-generating bacteria flourished. Oxygen allowed new proteins such as collagen to be synthesised, vital for glueing cells together.

The first round of multi-cellular creatures, the Ediacarans were a dead-end, never developing a complex body-plan. However soon afterwards there developed an array of species from which we ourselves are descended (this event is termed the Cambrian explosion).

The program was big on big ideas and skirted over all the details plus the many controversies underlying this simple narrative. However as a roadmap for this period of life's history it could hardly be bettered: I do hope they show it in America.

Next week it's the invasion of the land.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

At The Mall

We missed Babs Windsor switching on the Christmas Lights at the Bristol Cribbs Causeway Mall this afternoon by four hours. Adrian and my mother, Beryl Seel, tried in their own way to strike a pose (below). Click on any of the images for the full size version.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Starling Hunters

Four thirty this afternoon found us back at Ham Wall to see the starlings. As dusk began to fall the intrepid hunters gathered in wait.

Clare and Adrian: the intrepid Starling Hunters

The RSPB Warden eventually told our waiting group that 'the starlings have landed!' to our general dismay. As it was gloomy and drizzly they had apparently roosted early, and in the reed beds.

Can you spot 300k starlings in the reed beds?

They were certainly a noisy bunch and occasionally a group would launch and flock low over the trees. But no vast, black amoeba of the skies.

The long wait ...

We lingered as the gloom intensified and then left. Apparently in January and February the numbers increase to five or six million (!).

We'll be back.

Transition, Fifth Business

I was going to write a review of Iain Bank's novel Transition. This is meant to be a crossover book, mainstream fiction (no 'M.') but using the SF apparatus of multiple worlds. A secret organisation 'The Concern' runs a policing operation across the infinite universes, intervening by any means up to and including assassination and torture.

The hero is an accomplished assassin who begins to have doubts about the motives of The Concern. He is wooed both by the leader of The Concern's council and by her rebellious antagonist. There is much sex.

Who has right on their side? Which way will the hero jump? How will it all end up? The novel starts in typical Banks fashion: bottom-up with numerous story lines which make no sense. There's plenty of back-story for the main characters, much of it told achronologically. Yes, it's an intellectual puzzle to read this book and it only really gets exciting towards the end.

Many reviewers disliked the book, feeling it was shapeless, self-indulgent, arbitrary and perhaps pointless: I disagree. Transition certainly demands quite a lot of the reader to internalise events and bios whose significance won't become apparent until much later, but it rewards the effort. As you reach the last page, turn immediately to the first chapter which you will now understand.

I particularly agreed with Bank's views on torture. He's too intelligent not to know that torture sometimes works. But he also sees how corrosive judicial torture is on any civilized society. So his minor character who 'successfully' tortured a terrorist (and was lauded for it although the details were hushed up) has a conscience-induced breakdown and demands to be prosecuted for his crime, stating that if torture is ever used, even to prevent a great crime, its use is nevertheless also a crime and it must always be punished. I think that's probably the SIS view too.

As I said, I was going to write a review but I found it just too difficult.


No such intellectual contortions with "Fifth Business" by Robertson Davies. I had never heard of either title or author but Adrian got it out of the library and recommended it. I asked him how he manages to find intelligent, well-written stuff to read and he admitted he cheats: Penguin Modern Classics is the hint.

Dunstan Ramsey has spent 45 years as a school-master at a famous Canadian school and has taken umbrage at the flippant tone of the piece in the school magazine writing up his retirement do. He takes it upon himself to write to the Headmaster giving a truer account of his apparently dry-as-dust life and that account is the 'autobiographical' novel.

It's impossible to summarise the complexities of character, relationships and events which this book encapsulates. Dunstan grows up in the rural village of Deptford, an intelligent and imaginative boy surrounded by pioneering folk with the sensitivities of oxen. He runs away to the first world war and is terribly injured, acquiring a compensatory VC. He returns and takes up school-mastering, developing a life-long interest in saints (hagiography). His closest relationship is with a fellow villager (the local rich boy) who grows up to become an incredibly successful man of the (Canadian) world. Somehow the youthful crime which starts the book comes to haunt and shape the destinies of all concerned, coming together in a shocking finale.

This is beautiful writing. Deceptively simple, homespun-even yet every page carries psychological depth and moral consequence. Both Adrian and myself devoured it. I have now ordered the second and third books of The Deptford Trilogy, "The Manticore" and "World of Wonders".

Monday, November 01, 2010

Liberal Sensibilities

Charles Murray ("The Bell Curve") is one of my ideological heroes. He has a recent article - in process of conversion into a book - which examines the social isolation of much of the American liberal elite. We're talking here of the high-IQ offspring of professional parents who inevitably end up at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and then effortlessly morph into the lawyers, academics and lawmakers who define American policy. Murray observes that the world-view of what he calls the "New Elite" has little in common with ordinary Americans. Of course, the members of this elite are to-a-person right-on Democrats.

There has been the smallest move in the British 'quality press' to admit that the American 'Tea Party' movement is not the bunch of right-wing crazies of "New Elite" mythology. Shorn of the decorative wrapping of Sarah Palin and her clones, what we actually see is an inchoate, emotional cry of anguish lamenting the loss of the classic liberal values of low taxation and an enabling small state in favour of the present high-cost interventionist big one. It doesn't help that in the States such views are often expressed through the distorting lens of native religiosity, which confuses us foreigners. What the Tea Partiers need is an intellectually well-founded script and who better than David Cameron's Big Society team to provide one.

Here's a question. Do (or should) cuts affect everyone, rich and poor, equally? So much time has been wasted on this idiotic paradigm, it's remarkable.

In simple language, what Governments do is redistribution: they take from people who have money and give it to people who don't. In many cases this is a desirable outcome due to positive externalities (roads, defence) while in other cases it creates perverse incentives for poorer people. Naturally cuts will mean that poorer people get less money transferred to them ... but that money came from the richer people in the first place. So in general cuts will inevitably affect poorer people more than richer people, how could it be different? Of course, once you start to raise taxes (paid by richer people) all such bets are off ...

It's a familiar point (probably to do with kin selection) that countries which are ethnically homogeneous are far more prepared to tolerate welfare transfer payments (such as socialised medicine and housing) than countries which are not. This by itself may account for American exceptionalism in this area Tea-Party-wise.

Some European competition directive has required the competent retail banking arm of the Royal Bank of Scotland to divest its English branches to Santander, which has a very different reputation. We have a meeting with HSBC tomorrow to move our account.