Friday, December 31, 2010

Prediction is difficult ...

... especially concerning the future, as Niels Bohr is meant to have said.

I have been thinking about what could have been predicted in the past. If you had asked Isaac Newton in 1710 to predict life in 2010, what could he have got right and what would he have missed?

I don't believe, by the way, there was much of a concept of future extrapolation back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The idea that the future will be different to (better than?) the past depends on the idea of relentless technological innovation, a uniqely capitalist phenomenon. It was only in the nineteenth century that the concept of permanent capitalist progress became clear, both to K. Marx and to H. G. Wells.

Still, based on what Newton knew I think he wouldn't be too surprised by cars, modern apartments and even radio and TV. Atomic energy meanwhile is based on principles unknown to Newton but today it's an embedded technology and in its utilisation behaves like a super form of exothermic chemical reaction. (That's probably an indictment of our lack of imagination).

On the other hand, I think ubiquitous computers would be a genuine paradigm-level mystery. What kind of thing are they and what are they for? I think David Deutsch almost uniquely got it right when he asserted that a computer is a way of constructing virtual realities: of animating rules of behaviour which need bear no connection to the laws of this physical universe. Getting an unbounded virtual reality machine to work using parts firmly grounded in this reality requires some really sophisticated engineering as you will fail to fully comprehend if you open your laptop (unless you have electron microscope eyes).

So predicting the computer is, I think, the one area of modern life which would have been a paradigm beyond Newton. Also of Leibnitz, despite his dreams of mechanical calculators (a mundane extrapolation).

As we look into the future on this last day of 2010, what could we realistically predict?

The first issue is that every possible extrapolation of currently-understood reality has already been worked on by SF writers.

* We have scenarios which encompass the entire history of the universe factoring in extra dimensions and various species of multiverse.
* No aspect of artificial intelligence or virtual reality has been overlooked.
* In fiction we have colonised not one but billions of galaxies, terraformed worlds and transformed utterly our physical and psychic selves.

Never in the history of humankind have we been more active in anticipating the broad forms of every conceivable future. So in a sense, it's impossible to be surprised (at a sufficiently coarse granularity) by any conceivable scientific breakthrough.

* A future unified field theory in physics? So we get to manipulate gravity.
* Brain uploading and stardrive? We get to colonise the galaxy.
* The aliens show up? We beat them, they beat us or we nod along uneasily.

I can refer you to titles discussing these and half a dozen other big ideas.

If you're still interested in surprises, the place to look is where the greatest gap exists between the phenomena, the science and the engineering. I would cautiously flag two areas.

1. Materials (or condensed matter physics). There is so much work going on at the moment in areas like high-temperature superconductors, metamaterials and the applications of new kinds of nanoscale-structure stuff that our physical environment seems set to alter in fascinating and unimagined ways.

2. Artificial Life. Today, we and our pets are smart and our environment (roads, houses, cars, myriads of artifacts) are almost entirely cognitively-inert: that is going to change. In the future, the best metaphor for our artificial environment, our created infrastructure will be that we are surrounded by artificial creatures. Some will be more adept at urban living than ourselves. Wow, that's going to be interesting.

Now, I wonder what I've missed because I just don't have the concepts?

Things not to say ...

... to your wife as you groggily wake up.

"Oh, there's a woman in my bed.
"Do you come courtesy of the hotel?"


[Too much film noir over the break]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Kindness of Very Strangers

I have never believed in the kindness of aliens. In any case, the question is the province of evolutionary exobiology rather than the extrapolation of problematic values of human decency. Stand aside, heart-on-the-sleeve SETI astronomers and stop transmitting to the aliens!

Of course, there is one bunch of aliens actively hunting for signs of life out there: namely ourselves. It's believed that within a century we will have orbital telescopes able to image the details of extrasolar planets just like spy satellites. Of course, our intentions towards any aliens we find will be nothing short of benevolent, won't they? (I think it was a year ago I was watching that 3D epic Avatar about Pandora).

However, we don't need any such hi-tech observatories to detect alien life: a simple spectrum of the extrasolar planet's atmosphere showing oxygen absorption lines would suffice. How hard is that? Just a few decades away.

Take the earth. It intercepts 0.75 * π * (6 * 106)2 kilowatts from the sun, and with an albedo of 0.3 reflects 30%. That's around 25,000 Terawatts if you work it out. If you can detect that from light years out, you have your spectrum and you know someone's at home.

By comparison, the Arecibo telescope in its radar mode emits 1 Megawatt (I know it's collimated and coherent). Still, if you're sufficient light years away and you can detect Arecibo I reckon you can also detect earth's spectrum. Add us to the list.

So I still think it's a bad idea to holler to those aliens out there: it's capabilities not intentions that you have to worry about. But until we start using Exawatt lasers I agree it just doesn't matter.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review: "Before I Go To Sleep" by S. J. Watson

This is an Amazon Vine review.

Christine Lucas wakes up each morning believing she is a young woman. So who is this middle-aged man sleeping next to her? And why, when she looks in the mirror, does she see the lines, sags and wrinkles of a 47 year old?

Whatever Christine learns during the day, when she sleeps it will all be erased. Every morning is the same: reset.

She asks questions and is told narratives: about herself, her past, her accident. She was run over; she has a special kind of amnesia; she was a writer. But what she hears from her doctor and her husband don’t cohere - one or both of them are lying. She starts to keep a journal, building multiple explanations for her predicament. Each diverse account makes sense but none of them are grounded. In all the narratives she appears to be safe, so why does she feel so terrified?

This is an extraordinary book by Steven Watson. Written from Christine’s point of view, the level of suspense cranks up in the first few pages and never subsequently abates. It’s that rare thing, a genuine page-turner and one with endless surprises.

The plotting has a family resemblance to the Christopher Nolan film Memento (2000) but the storyline diverges. It kept me completely engrossed and I strongly recommend it. My mother, aged 87, read it over Christmas and could not tear herself away: it clearly appeals to multiple demographics!

A final point: Christine Lucas’s point of view is so authentically sustained that I was sure “S. J. Watson” was a female author. Mr Watson thereby exhibits his profound insight in addition to the other virtues of this excellent first novel.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pix: Christmas lunch

Some pictures from lunchtime today. We had Internet radio from Kamloops running on the PC to remind us of Adrian over in Sun Peaks, Canada (where it was 6 a.m.).

Alex, Clare, Beryl at lunch

Beryl Seel

Alex with the contents of his cracker

Nigel Seel

Beryl and Nigel

Blinded by the light

Christmas Eve, 11.30 p.m. and we're preparing for bed when there's a flash and all the lights go out. Clare and I sit in the living room, faces bathed in residual candlelight and try to absorb it. Has the main fuse gone?

I walk to the window and pull the blinds aside: an icy vista lit by moonlight. OK, it's everyone then. In the distance, I hear the sound of house alarms. Then I realise, my mother is up in her room: 87 years old, in a strange house, in complete darkness. I race to the kitchen and in the gloom retrieve the torch. Now more surefootedly I go up the stairs and knock on her door and enter. She is trying to escape and is in the process of exiting via the wardrobe.

Alex rushes around trying to find further illumination; he unearths a camping light and we all go to bed.

At 12.30 a.m. I am awaked by the interrogator's glare in the face. Groggily I figure it; the power has been restored and we left the bedroom light on. I hear Alex returning from downstairs where he has switched off other lights. I go down myself to check all is well, not fogetting the cat who now has his heated cat-basket restored to use: it's chilly out there.

This morning, Christmas Day, it's bright and clear. Here's a beautiful picture of the sun rising over Wells Cathedral.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wells Cathedral Carol Service

We walked on the road, mostly. The pavement was a skating rink, a thin film of water spread onto compacted black ice. I said to Clare: if you fall try to crumple and relax otherwise you'll surely break a leg.

Thankfully we were let straight into the Cathedral. If we had had to queue there would have been frozen corpses on the Cathedral Green - snowfield that it now is, -8° plus wind-chill.

A reading at the Carol Service, Wells Cathedral

The Cathedral choir sing very beautifully (they've just won an award as "the best choir in the world"!). At the beginning and end of the hour-long service they paraded along the aisles, fronted by tall, bulky, impassive men wearing secret-police robes with the inscrutable air of secret vices. I must confess I find men in frocks incanting nursery rhyme nonsense deeply creepy: what are they really in it for?

The altar showing scissors arches, Wells Cathedral

The architecture here was, I believe, deeply innovative in its mediaeval day, preventing the walls imploding under the weight of the superstructure.

The Higgs Particle

In 2008 I was at the Open University’s Quantum Mechanics (QM) Summer School. Over coffee I confided to one of the tutors that I was pleased I would be completing the course just in time for new science from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This was of course before the accident with the liquid helium which set things back by a year.

The tutor rubbed his chin sagely, trying to think of any overlap between what is covered in a first course in QM and what the LHC was all about. He failed.

This note is the shortest possible explanation of what extra you need to know to understand the main professed objective of the LHC, namely to find and determine the properties of the Higgs boson ...

[Note: the text has been superceded by an improved version here.]

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A vole in winter

My mother said on the phone it was sad that we shut the cat in the kitchen overnight. "Poor little freezing thing, it's not as if there were any voles left."

Good point. I said to Clare: "All the voles have either died off or they're buried under a foot of snow. We haven't seen a vole in weeks. You know the cat hates the snow and only goes out when he must. I reckon it would be OK to let him relax overnight in the comfort of the living room, don't you think?"

Clare would have none of it. "We know he goes out at night, we've seen the paw-prints. So we'd have to leave the kitchen door open and then we'd all be frozen in the morning."

So Shadow was duly exiled to the kitchen last night. Lunchtime I was summoned by a shriek from the cooking zone: the vole was scampering along one wall, behind the computer. It was lively and hard to catch: Clare has put cunning obstacles at skirting board level to prevent little rodents from vanishing behind the sink, freezer, refrigerator, tumble-dryer so we never quite lost sight of the varmint.

Finally it was herded to the French windows and out into the snow. At vole-scale the back garden is like those hilly things skiers bounce over (moguls!) and the poor little mite threw itself over the snow-humps like an infantryman fleeing under fire: it made it to the bushes.

I believe it was -8° last night and it's been below zero all day. At these temperatures the very walls suck heat from your body like the cold of outer space.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Clare had decided to join the church-cleaning brigade this morning: a yearly rite before Christmas. As we had eight inches of snow last night I decided to accompany her - can't have her getting buried in a snowdrift and dying of hypothermia.

After ten minutes of tentative walking we arrived at the Catholic church. At the entrance the old Catholic priest was just leaving, helped by someone a little older than me who I learned was called Peter. The old Catholic priest, a heavy, thickset man who must be in his eighties, can barely walk and was being assisted to his electric cart (or whatever they call those things) prior to making his way home. Given the depth of snow this seemed to be a challenging prospect so I volunteered to help Peter.

We pushed this thing down Chamberlain Street like a miniature snowplough. Things took a turn for the worse as we moved into Union street, the small thoroughfare which leads down to the Library. As I pushed through the packed snow (Peter having gratefully ceded the task to me) my breathing became laboured and exhaustion began to kick-in. After 80 yards of this we both had to turn the cart and push this heavy contrivance up the driveway to the priest's house. With both of us shoving and the electric motor engaged we finally managed to manhandle him to the ramp, which was itself buried in snow. I think it was at this point that I felt incipient backstrain. Great!

Peter now returned to the church to get a spade to clear the ramp. In the spirit of lateral-thinking I meanwhile pushed the snow off the ramp with my trainers. With considerable effort I finally got the priest into his house, helped by his motor.

Now, none of this would be remarkable ... just a bit of neighbourly helping-out in the inclement weather ... except for the remarkable ingratitude and arrogance of the priest. As we turned his mobility cart towards the upward slope leading to his front door he imperiously ordered Peter and myself: "Push me up here!" A little later it was "Clear the snow off that ramp"; then, looking at me, "Push me up the ramp." No 'please', no 'thank you', not even a requestful manner. This is exactly how I imagine the aristocrats of the eighteenth century talked to their peasant serfs. But we don't talk to people like that these days, do we?

I spoke to Clare afterwards about this 'prince of the church'. "Oh yes," she explained, "all the old ones are like that."

I returned to the church where Clare was vacuuming. Afterwards, we all met up for coffee in the back room kitchen where charming Peggy and organised Pam tried to inveigle Clare into joining the Catholic Women's League ("Just once a month at two o'clock, here in the church.").

Clare and the cat hunker down

... and this is why

Returning from church...

... it's another winter wonderland for the author

A driveway in winter

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Winter Wonderland

We awoke this morning to a winter wonderland and fought our way to town through a genteel snowfall (we have no other kind in this part of the world: Christmassy, palm-sized, fluffy snowflakes floating through motionless air to earth). Still had to clear the driveway and rock-salt it though. Here are some pictures of Wells in the snow.

Wells Cathedral in the snow

The Market Square

Wells Cathedral with Reindeer

Back yesterday from Reading and the Pro4 Christmas dinner at the Malmaison on Wednesday evening (15th). This afternoon it's preparation for a client meeting in the new year on IL2/IL3 accreditation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A vision of woodliness

Not just a designer of telecoms networks; not just an amateur student of theoretical physics: no, he also sculpts in wood. How manly is that? I agree these rather mundane shelves don't totally close the deal.

Shelves (obviously!)

However, the rural craft piece shown below, a chic table, surely shows an under-appreciated native genius (at least in not wasting off-cuts)?

A certain rustic charm

Let's not discuss the exposed screws; the raw woodchip ends where the contiboard was inexpertedly sawed; the inexplicable failure to glue the top to the sides before screwing; the over-enthusiastic use of the screwdriver attachment to the drill, resulting in surface fracturing in one corner (now messily glued).

On the strength of this Clare has suggested I might like to branch out into some kind of "totem pole" tree-trunk sculpture for the back garden. I have currently (in my mind) budgeted around £1,000 worth of workshop cum tools to get me started.

He's at it again!

It's cold here again today and the cat has reverted to his time-worn ways.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Beryl Seel's engagement photo (c. 1947)

In Bristol today doing a number of inconsequential tasks (yet another shelf from B&Q; a supermarket sweep through the M&S Food Hall) plus some rearrangement in my mother's house from whence this rather cute picture taken on the occasion of her engagement, c. 1947.

Beryl Seel engagement photo (c. 1947)

Move over Catherine Middleton!

Added later: here's another of my mother's engagement pictures. Click on it to enlarge.

On aiming too high

Apropos the final paragraph of my previous post - my purchase of "Cosmology" by Steven Weinberg, Roy Simpson observes:


The expressions are "bitten off more than you can chew" and - perhaps more appropriately - "eyes larger than stomach" (I blame the Amazon science marketing department myself who really need to know your level of expertise and interests - I have looked at the Amazon entry for the book.) The problem here is that Weinberg has already written a book:--

Gravitation and Cosmology (1972)

which introduces gravitation and applies to cosmology.
[Note: costing £120!]

The 1972 book takes about 150 pages to reach Einstein's equations and about 400 pages to reach the Robinson-Walker metric with which your current book begins. So the present book is a "what happened next" - an update 35 years later. So the basics are in the 1972 book which he didn't repeat, although there is an equation summary of that book in Appendix B.

The present book is about things like inertial anisotropy (i.e. irregularities, perturbations from the symmetric Robinson-Walker metric) rather than the core theory. I suspect that this book is for experts in particular contemporary subfields to get hold of specific derivations and data rather than a "read through".

Furthermore I see that the present book (and the 1972 book too I think) are about mainstream Cosmology. This is OK for the purposes above, but if a reader wants some Cosmological excitement in their life, they may have to look elsewhere. One day, for example, in amongst all these Tensors you might learn about something called Torsion.

Torsion is a spin-like property of Tensors which is set = 0 by Einstein (so it is a little bit like the more famous Cosmological Constant Λ, also set = 0 initially). A theory was later developed as a generalisation of Einstein's equations including Torsion, but I cannot see a reference to Torsion in the Index to the 1972 book - when the theory was a live minor alternative to GR.

You can check the present book just in case he refers to it here, but studying what I can of the equations on Amazon I don't see the reference where I would expect it to be.

So I just hope that you have substantially more free bookshelf space than me!



Yes, I wanted something which talked about the topology of the universe as well as the big bang and inflation. "Cosmology" does discuss all these questions, it's not so "bitty" as you imply, but at a sophisticated level. It's billed as a graduate textbook (which is where I take myself to be: beginning-graduate student) but on scanning it last night I don't think Weinberg intended it for self-study.

I intend to treat it as a target, something the other side of all that differential geometry, tensor analysis and GR. I find that quite motivational, actually.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bath Christmas Market

To Bath today to visit its celebrated Christmas Market. Our first port of call was the Park and Ride which we reached late morning. Despite its thousand places, it was completely full, with cars bumped up on the kerbs all around the outer perimeter. We chose a spare piece of kerb ourselves.

Transiting via M&S (purchases £90) we finally happened upon the market (pictured below) nestling beneath the flying buttresses of Bath Abbey: a shanty town of timbered shacks, the favela of Bath.

Clare confided over dinner: "The Bath Market was awfully girly, didn't you think? All those trinkets and jewelry, ceramics and posters, arts and crafts? Not a gun in sight."

Yep: no rifles, pistols or semi-automatics; no netbooks or tablets; no smartphones or SatNav. She was spot-on.

"Cosmology" by Steven Weinberg finally arrived, confirming I have seriously bitten off more than I can chew: we hit the Einstein field equations on page 4 (of 563). If only that had been on sale at Bath Christmas Market!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Snow on the Mendips

We took a walk this morning through Walcombe to the countryside surrounding Pen Hill. There is still snow on the top and the temperature did not exceed freezing point. We spent the early afternoon moving a pile of tree branches from the side of the house into the car and then off to the dump (two car trips). Unlike George Bush we failed to find such brush-clearing particularly relaxing, except insofar as it's a relief to have got it done.

Pen Hill with TV mast

Snow on the Mendip plateau

Clare and Nigel feeling the cold

Just finished a re-read of Iain M. Banks' "Use of Weapons" and marvelled yet again at Banks' sheer confidence as an author; his mastery of description and multi-threaded plot development. And did I mention the subtlety of his writing? Yeah, he's good, and to rub it in, it seems effortless.

I also finished "The Two Million-year-old Self" by the renowned Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens. This short book comprises essays linking Jung's thought (centred on his concepts of archetype and the collective unconscious) with more recent thinking from ethology and sociobiology. It may be the case that Jung got there first, and deserves kudos for standing firm against the "blank slate" paradigm which has trashed social science for the last hundred years. Still, there seems little interesting new research being done within the Jungian tradition per se.

The conclusion I drew was that Jung's intuitions were spot-on but only technological advances, especially in brain scanning, can be relied upon to shed more light on the underlying mind-brain conundrums.

Stevens' thoughts on the way in which modern societies violate the psychological "environment of evolutionary adaptation" are interesting and pertinent. His clinical examples are compelling enough although I suspect that agrarian societies have accomplished a little more evolution in the psychological space than he admits: we used to be hunter-gatherers but that was a while (and a fair bit of adaptation) ago.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Superfast rural broadband

The Government outlined today its plans to roll out "superfast broadband" to rural areas, which the operation of the market continue to undersupply. The obvious problem is that rural population density is low, so that long runs of cable are needed to connect to households. If that cable is copper, attenuation will be so extreme that "broadband" will in reality become narrowband - dial-up modem speeds.

The answer in principle is fibre: to, or near-to the home; but this is very expensive to deploy. An alternative is to use wireless (e.g. 3G Broadband or WiMAX) but again the cost-economics to deploy the necessary base-stations are poor: how often do we fail to get even a 2G mobile signal in rural areas?

Satellite has been mentioned but geostationary satellites are 22,000 miles up and this introduces terrible latency for interactive services such as Skype. Also, due to such distances the equipment is expensive.

So, as usual, it all comes down to cost and therefore subsidies. We are still waiting to see who gets the contract to run this programme on behalf of the Government. My name went forward in November as part of one consortium but unfortunately we were not selected.

After the weekend thaw it's become frigidly arctic again and the cat is increasingly desperate to find warm places to sleep. Mostly he lies out next to the warmest radiator he can find ...

... but walking into our bedroom this morning I was surprised to discover this under the duvet.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Feels warmer

Fourier's law for heat conduction says that if:

- ΔQ/Δt is the rate of heat loss by the house (in watts);
- k is the average heat conductivity of the house (in watts per metre per °K);
- A is the surface area of the house (square metres);
- ΔT is the difference between the inside and outside temperatures (°K = °C);
- Δx is the average width of the walls in metres;

then ΔQ/Δt = -kA ΔT/Δx.

Wrapping k, A and Δx into one constant c we have

ΔQ/Δt = c ΔT.

We tend to keep our house a toasting-warm 23°. When it was absolutely freezing a couple of days ago it was -5° outside giving a ΔT of 28°. Today, however, it's a balmy 2° outside giving a ΔT of 21°.

The ratio of (heat-lossfreezing)/(heat-lossbalmy) is therefore 28/21 = 4/3.

So to keep the house the same temperature, we're using 25% less power today. No wonder we had to turn the heating down.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The electric cat

When Alex bought an electric cat-basket for Shadow how we laughed! Well, we're not laughing now.

Shadow has turned into a hibernating creature, curled up in his basket day and night, basking in the electric heat from its base. Occasionally he'll pop out for a snack or to have his ears rubbed or back scratched.

Back in the Egyptian neolithic, 12,000 years ago, the cats had a discussion with their cat-deity: "Shall we stay wild or shall we pretend to give up our independence and throw in our lot with the humans?" they asked. As Shadow peers through the double-glazing at the birds, shivering on their frozen branches, he silently concurs with the way that turned out.

Review "May 1812" by M. M. Bennetts

This Amazon Vine review is of the novel "May 1812" by M. M. Bennetts and was written by Clare.

A surfeit of romance and soft furnishings: not much decryption [2 stars]

It is a cliché that a book should not be judged by its cover, but the blurb on the back did whet my appetite with the prospect of a historical thriller involving decryption and high-level intelligence operations. However, this novel sheds the light on code-breaking that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” lavishes on game-keeping; it would rather sit comfortably alongside the Mills and Boon catalogue in content, but might well be rejected on grounds of style.

It’s an overly long telling of a highly implausible love story. The beautiful and handsome couple are beset with misunderstandings and, in the case of the hero, the demands of work (French translation with a smidgeon of code-breaking). The heroine is a perfect, long-suffering and accomplished eighteen year old whose response to neglect and character-assassination at the hands of her husband’s set is to cry and cry, whilst her husband is an emotional child. The tears came so thick and fast in the second part of the story that I felt that the author had been set a challenge to beat some record for their inclusion and was indulging him or herself at the reader’s expense.

In its favour the portrayal of Georgian society in London is credible and entertaining and a counterpoint to the country life portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels. Indeed, this book would perhaps find a place on the shelves of some latter day Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey).

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Why I am not a plumber

A covering of snow last night and a chance to check our loft insulation (below). Compared to some of the other houses, our roof appears happily snow-clad.

Our roof from the south

Our roof from the north

The driveway

I don't have to drive out today. If I did I'd be leaving a trail of ice on the rather steep driveway. We do have some rock salt though.

Drips in the kitchen

Yesterday lunchtime Clare notice rivulets of water running down the kitchen wall by the back door (above). After poking around a bit I came up with an ingenious theory concerning boiler overflows (the boiler is directly above in the back bedroom) and frozen, bursting outlets (below).

Of course we called the builder.

The culprit?

Pete Hutchinson (PAC Construction) came late in the afternoon and investigated. Turns out the problem is with a stuck air-pressure relief valve in the boiler cupboard: nothing whatsoever to do with the cold weather.