Saturday, July 31, 2010

Donating to the library

Continuing my obsessional desire to declutter the house I packed another set of books and strolled down to Wells Library to dispose of them.

After all the book checkers-in and checkers-out had been dealt with, an attractive young librarian with a no-nonsense air about her approached to see why I had dumped a large orange bag on her counter.

She listened with a kind of fierce patience as I began to babble.

"This is Auction Theory by Klemperer, an absolutely excellent treatment of the subject, just the kind of thing a library should have. And here's Atomic: the Secret History of the Atomic Bomb by Jim Baggott. There must be sixth-formers from The Blue School and Wells Cathedral School who are doing economics, science or maths and who will find both these books fascinating.

"Here's The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller. It's really well-written. He makes a good case for human intelligence to be the result of sexual selection but I don't buy it myself.

"You probably heard of Lee Smolin's The Life of the Cosmos. It's his first book, the one where he argues that we live in a universe which has been selected for its ability to create black holes (which, he argues, spawn new universes). As a side-effect this makes it good for life as well. However it's just an idea, there's no maths which predicts it. But I'm sure those sixth formers would find it interesting.

"And this enormous tome here, Sarte's Being and Nothingness. I have to say that I have never seen the point of Sartre myself: an awful lot of words signifying very little but occupying way too much time. But I guess someone might want to check it out.

"Finally here's Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I checked and we actually had three copies of this on our shelves, so now we have just two."

The Librarian had said nothing during this rant and I sensed rather than saw her foot tapping impatiently. She now looked at me and said "We can't take this one," handing back the Jane Austen book, "It's in too poor a condition. The rest we'll look at and if we don't want them we'll put them on sale on the rack over there," and she pointed to the exit.

When I looked back she and the books had gone.


In a new phase of library usage we've taken to borrowing DVDs. The Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" was yesterday's choice which we watched last night. It concerns a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor humilated by his wife (running off with a local Jewish patriarch), his neighbour (a redneck Caucasian hunter who's encroaching on his land), his students (one is trying to bribe him for a pass grade in math), his brother (in deep trouble with the police), his kids (out of control and ripping him off) and his voluptuous Jewish neighbour on the other side whose husband is away a lot.

The professor ends up thrown out of his house, deep in debt with his tenure balanced on a knife edge. As the film closes he's being summoned immediately by his doctor to talk over the results of his X-rays. The three Rabbis he seeks advice from during the course of the film are patronising airheads.

OK, so this is a pretty ethnic-introverted film and there were no jokes to laugh at. But as a sardonic take on American Jewish life I was engrossed. Clare thought it a bit slow.

Anyway, on the strength of it we were in the library this morning where we took out:

- Moon - Duncan Jones
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona (written & directed by Woody Allen)
- A Rather English Marriage - Paul Seed. This was Clare's choice.

As I type this Clare is listening to the Michel Thomas Foundation Italian course. If she likes it she intends to enroll in the Open University's Italian Course which starts in October: preparation for our tour in Italy next summer.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ebbor Gorge

As we walked the bottom of the Ebbor Gorge this afternoon (pictured below) we speculated on how or whether we could survive the night in the open here like our mesolithic ancestors had to. How would we create shelter? How would we eat? The river has dried up - how would we drink?

With no machete, no flint axe, no bow and arrows and no wildlife in any direction (apart from a few birds and a proliferation of large flies) we concluded that our primitive ancestors probably couldn't survive here either were they to be transplanted to the here and now. Unless of course they followed our own course of action and walked back down to the Wookey Hole car park where we each bought an ice-cream.

Then we drove to Tescos.

The Ebbor Gorge

Clare looks for shelter and supper

Home for the night?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Montacute House

Day four of tourism in our own neighbourhood and we made our delayed visit to Montacute House. Built between 1588 and 1601 by Sir Edward Phelips, the house was the family home for the next 300 years. House and gardens are substantially as they were in the time of Queen Elizabeth the first (and Shakespeare).

Montacute House

Clare sorts her stuff out

After we had visited the house and gardens we walked around the perimeter in the fields where cattle graze and came upon this sculpture on a felled tree.

The Montacute Owl

Just one parting thought. One of the portraits in the house is of a strikingly modern Elinor Glyn, who died in 1943. I had never heard of her but she's in Wikipedia here, an early writer of women's erotic fiction. She gets to be on the wall by virtue of her long-lasting affair with a late owner of the house, Lord Curzon ... but by all acounts she preferred to be on a bearskin rug.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Our Tourist Week continued today with a visit to Bath (via the Park-and-Ride at Odd Down). Here are some pictures.

Clare at the Royal Crescent, Bath

Nigel at 1, The Crescent

Norfolk Crescent - listed but not so pretty

Bins and rubbish sacks are one of Clare's hot buttons but after the Royal Crescent, the listed Norfolk Crescent was an unloved, unkempt, neglected disgrace.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Learning String Theory (or not)

This is the best summary there has ever been on why theoretical physics is hard.

Click on "Step 1" and follow the sequence.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Cheddar Caves and Gorge

Tourists in our own backyard. This morning we drove to Cheddar and bought the "Cheddar Caves and Gorge" experience tickets for £17 each. It pays for upkeep of the Gorge and all kinds of eco-goodies ... according to the large tasteful placard attached to the rockface ("Who Looks After The Gorge? You Do! ...").

We started with the Cheddar Museum where we were welcomed by a "hunter-gatherer" in traditional costume. Clare soon struck up an animated archaeological conversation which was enlivened by his attempts to make fire the Ray Mears way (using a bow drill). It's harder than it looks and eluded our host. However, he's a dap hand at making flint tools from leftover bits of flint.

The Museum itself is child-oriented and full of gruesome sex and violence. Prominent exhibits describe eight varieties of cannibalism (practiced pervasively both by our remote ancestors and more recent plane crash survivors apparently). Gigantic "Venus figurines" showing enhanced female sexual characteristics are prominently displayed to frighten the youngest children. However, it's rare to see Museum exhibits being studied in awe by young boys so they're obviously doing something right.

We checked out the facts on "Cheddar Man" and then went to see where he'd been found in Gough's Cave. Only the immediate entrance to the cave was occupied in prehistoric times: given the darkness and dampness one is scarcely surprised. Now however there are concrete floors, handrails and strategically-placed uplights everywhere. Interestingly, areas of the rock face which are illuminated are covered in moss and small plants - apparently the bats bring the seeds in.

Clare listening to commentary in Gough's Cave

Our next stop was the "Crystal Quest" a little further down the Gorge. This is a 200 metre cave which has some pretty stalactites/mites and rock pools. Coloured lights accentuate the pleasing effect and as one traverses the cave one's ears are assailed by the plaintive wailing of new-age chanting. Some relief from this interminable shrieking is obtained finally in the last part of the cave where it becomes a sub-tolkienesque story of a fair princess and evil goblins under the control of a dark lord (manequins). In the final chamber it is possible to save the world by touching a crystal sphere (normally the youngest child in the cavern should do this). You are then permitted to leave.

Our next stop was the Gorge open-topped bus tour: pleasant although quite short. However, it was now lunchtime and pretty soon after eating we tackled the 274 steps to the top of the Gorge (formerly known as Jacob's Ladder - why did they drop this name?).

After much pathetic wheezing, bending over double and pretending to read the historical plaques positioned at resting places en route, often several times, we eventually attained the top. I was immediately impelled to the top of the Lookout Tower (pictured).

The Lookout Tower

Having bravely climbed to the top I took in the view and eventually spotted Clare "resting" below (see the red circle in the upper part of the picture below).

View East from the Lookout Tower

We were done for the day. We made our way back down and zoomed back home. That's Cheddar crossed off.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A walk around Priddy

What was meant to be a short walk to the north-east of Priddy this afternoon. We were soon walking along a track to the west of North Hill. We struck off towards the hilltop from where we got a good view of these Neolithic burial mounds. As you can see it was a bit windy.

Neolithic Burial Mounds

The OS map had a pathway going south back towards our car. Unfortunately the area is completely enclosed by farmers' fields with barbed wire fences. As we moved to the next field we saw a herd of cows in the distance and this sign.

Warning: bull in the field

We were chary enough to back off and take the long way round, eventually getting back to Priddy and the New Inn where we had a drink and moved across to the village green to watch the cricket.

Priddy Village Green Sunday Cricket

At the other end is a young girl in a white minidress and no pads. After she was hit on the leg by the second ball of the over, the bowler threw down wide after wide. However, when a ball did get near enough to hit she managed an impressive six.

Clare taking it easy

I'd like to say this was the level of Clare's attention to the match but this picture was taken a few days earlier when we were in Bristol, on my mother's lawn.

Well Cathedral as it might originally have looked

Pre-Reformation it was apparently a riot of colour.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Last week's Economist said it was a must-see film, the first truly intelligent film this year. The Sunday Times gave it 2 stars out of 5 and said it was all wrapping and no present.

Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio and some other people. DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, an "extractor" who enters the dreams of others to obtain information that is otherwise inaccessible. For various complex reasons he is hired to go further, to alter the intentions of a targeted individual by planting an idea through a manipulated dream: a dangerous procedure known as Inception.

The movie traverses levels of dreams-within-dreams in a clever and coherent way. Visceral thrills are not neglected as there is much semi-gratuitous Matrix-style combat plus crashes and explosions. There is even a romantic subplot, more central to the overall narrative, featuring Dom and his mysteriously-dead wife Mal (specifically a projection of her within Dom's subconscious, made manifest in manufactured dreams).

As we reached its ambivalent ending I muttered to Clare: "Spooky or what?"

I was more impressed by the cleverness and intricacy of the film than she was ... but my enthusiasm almost immediately began to fade.

Unlike The Matrix - a souped-up exposition of a credible philosophical position (reality is illusory: we live in a simulation) - Inception seems to have no big, transcendent idea. In the end it is more packaging than content but, hey guys, full marks for something which is still a lot of fun for grown-ups.


We saw the film after dropping my mother off home, at the Cribbs Causeway Vue cinema. We were surprised that at 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon the screen was almost full, and for a film already tagged as rather cerebral. Interestingly most of the audience seemed to be teens: I think they liked it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Perdido Street Station - China Miéville

867 pages of genius writing.

A garuda, a bird-man from the faraway desert land of Cymek, terribly punished for an incomprehensible crime approaches renegade scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin petitioning to have his flight restored. In his researches Isaac unwittingly unleashes five slake-moths upon the city of New Crobuzon. These unstoppable multidimensional predators suck the psyches from the city's inhabitants leaving drooling idiots ... and begin to breed.

The rest of the book coils subplots into an atmospheric tale of crisis resolution.

When Adrian finished it and I asked what he thought of it, he simply breathed "Remades". I had forgotten the ubiquity of these biologically-curdled human-machine hybrids, ordered by magistrates to fit the crime or manufactured from hapless victims by crime lords for their own specialised purposes.

Here is an excerpt (page 549).

The man approaching them was nude and horrifically thin. His face was stretched into a permanent wide-eyed aspect of ghastly discomfort. His eyes, his body, jerked and ticced as if his nerves were breaking down. His skin looked necrotic, as if he was submitting to slow gangrene.

But what caused the watchers to shudder and exclaim was his head. His skull had been sheered cleanly in two just above his eyes. The top was completely gone. There was a little fringe of congealed blood below the cut. From the wet hollow inside the man's head snaked a twisting cable, two fingers thick. It was surrounded by a spiral of metal, which was bloodied and red-silver at the bottom, where it plunged into the empty brainpan...

This is the avatar of the steam-powered AI construct which features prominently in plot resolution.

China Miéville's greatest achievement in this book is the invocation of the grubby vitality, squalor and corruption of New Crobuzon through layer upon layer of inventive metaphor and lurid description. Wonderful stuff.

Check out Miéville's "The City and the City" as well.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some family album snaps

Scanned in by Alex when we were at my mother's house in Bristol yesterday. Most of them will look larger if you click on the picture of interest.

Adrian and Alex as young teens

As far as I was aware, Alex was not actually on anything at the time.

All the Seel grandchildren

Alex in the foreground playing chess with Adrian.

Clare and Elaine (1980s)

Elaine and my mother (mid-1960s)

This is one of my favourite picture of Elaine - she won't agree, will you sis?

Elaine and Adrian at home in Bristol

Elaine in her superhero guise as "Geek Girl"

This has to be another of my favourite pictures of my sister. Watch out Sarah Palin!

Fred and Beryl Seel (mid-sixties)

This must have been the swinging sixties - at least for her!

Fred Seel and Beryl Porter get married

Note the demob suits back in 1949.

George Cook and Maisie Seel get married

Maisie is my father's sister - my aunt.

Nigel, Elaine and Adrian ... with a mirror

Those were the days of our youth!

Nigel Seel in 1969 (aged 18)

Not quite the Noel Gallagher of his generation but definitely looking for a rock band in which to play lead guitar.

Aunt Shirley, Grannie Porter, Beryl Seel and a young Elaine

Monday, July 19, 2010

Anti-missile lasers

Raytheon made some further announcements today about their laser system which can knock down UAVs and other aerial threats. It's rated at 50 kW and is controlled by the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (a rapid fire terminal defence gun system).

Ten seconds of thought suggests painting the attack vehicle with a transparent surface coating containing millions of tiny corner reflectors. These will reflect the beam exactly back on itself and so fry the original laser system .

The Tor - and Blaise Castle

Yesterday started cold and damp so we abandoned our plans for Cheddar and walked up Glastonbury Tor instead.

Glastonbury Tor

It's 580 feet above the Somerset Levels and quite steep. I noticed coming down that all the guys were racing up, wheezing slightly as if on SAS selection (me too!) followed at a slow-motion distance by their long-suffering partners. Those women climbing in groups by contrast were ambling up and chatting away with no sign of physical stress at all.

Clare finally reaches the summit

A Living-Room Chat

Today we visited my mother in Bristol and while she was at the hairdressers Alex, Clare and myself ambled in our desultory way to Blaise Hamlet (which we used to pretend were Hobbit Houses) and then on to Blaise Castle.

Alex at Blaise Hamlet

Alex and Nigel at Blaise Hamlet

Clare and Nigel at Blaise Hamlet

We encircle Blaise Castle

We subsequently persuaded my mother to come back with us and she's currently comfortably settled and waiting for the second Coronation Street of the evening to kick in (as I write).

Clare bemused

It used to be called "Grope Lane"

Who says we don't live in a deeply picturesque part of old mediaeval England.

Note to Adrian in New Zealand, who is sharing a 3G Internet USB dongle with four friends in their rented accommodation at a ruinous cost per Megabyte downloaded. As a consequence he only gets passed the means to Internet access every other day or so and when he does he has to turn off images on his browser. Sorry, Adrian, I guess you have to miss all these pictures (most of them are around 80 kB). Still, there's always the snowboarding.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Putting Alex to work

I mentioned in the previous post that Alex is visiting us to do some tiling. Here's more on what he's actually doing.

Alex working on the tiles in the kitchen

A better view of the tiles

So here's a mystery: what's this strange artifact Clare's got him constructing?

What could this be?

In fact it's a way to auto-water the plants beneath the car port.

Clare tests it out

... while the cat is underwhelmed

Tintinhull Garden (NT)

We had intended to dodge the showers and drive down today to Montacute House and Gardens, a very fine National Trust property which probably takes a full half day to properly appreciate.

However, we didn't get away until late morning and Alex is here to attach some tiles in the kitchen and Clare had promised him lunch ... so en route we switched to Tintinhall Garden, a nearby and much more compact NT property which we traversed in half-an hour. Clare took the snap below as I was framed between hedges at the end of the garden.

Tintinhall Garden (looking back to the House)

And here's Clare in the herbal garden.

Clare in the Herbal Garden

The last garden on the circuit has this intriguing Umbrella Sculpture.

Made from Unbrellas

Back at the house, Clare took it easy.

A Lady of Leisure

And a last view of the Tintinhall Garden showing a pleasant border.

Tintinhall Garden - a floral border

Just for the record, 22 miles each way and around 40 minutes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

House chores about finished

As I write the man from Hillarys Blinds is putting them in. So no more scuttling about from room to room bent double like Special Forces as we get up from our night's sleep and head off underclad to the bathroom!

The lead water sampling report came back this afternoon from Bristol Water. Current legislation states that the supply of lead in any water supply must be lower than 25 micrograms per litre (= 25 parts per billion). The highest of our three samples was 3.2 so I guess that's us safe from IQ despoiling.

Bristol Water included a flyer advertising solar panels (photovoltaic) for our roof with the inducement of generous sell-back rates to the National Grid. I'm semi-tracking the cost-curve of solar cells. I'm sure that one day as the volumes mount, the unit-costs fall and Clare's tolerance for more workmen round the house rises we shall arrive at a happy intersection and our house OPEX will decline further.

Let's hear it for more insolation - which is different to insulation which we already installed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Solar" by Ian McEwan

On pages 201/202 McEwan's protagonist, Nobel prize-winning physicist Michael Beard seduces his soon-to-be first wife Maisie Farmer while they are both at Oxford University by mugging up on her pet subject of John Milton in a week.

"Going after Maisie was a relentless, highly organised pursuit, and it gave him great satisfaction, and it was a turning point in his development for he knew that no third-year arts student, however bright, could have passed himself off, after a week's study, among the undergraduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard's colleagues. The traffic was one-way.

"His Milton week made him suspect a monstrous bluff. The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could be remotely construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily on his course.

"That very week of the Randolph dinner [with Maisie], he had studied the Ricci scalar and finally understood its use in general relativity. At last he thought he could grasp these extraordinary equations. The Theory was no longer an abstraction, it was sensual, he could feel the way the seamless fabric of space-time might be warped by matter, and how this fabric influenced the movement of objects, how gravity was conjured by its curvature. He could spend half an hour staring at the handful of terms and subscripts of the crux of the field equations and understand why Einstein himself had spoken of its 'incomparable beauty' and why Max Born had said it was ' the greatest feat of human thinking about nature'."

Thus Beard comes to the view that the oh-so-superior arts people are intellectual frauds.

"Many years later Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong who said, 'But Michael, you've missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end, the poets I mean, and synthesised your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English Literature. But don't pretend it's easy."

In Solar Ian McEwan takes easy pot-shots at ludicrous targets: post-modernists who think science, engineering and technology are all merely 'socially-constructs'; press hacks who label any scientist holding that men exhibit a broader distribution of mathematical abilities than women as neo-nazi.

McEwan more carefully hedges his bets on whether the latter proposition is actually the case (it is), or whether Theoretical Physics is actually harder than English Literature (it is), or whether runaway Climate Change is worth worrying about (a small amount of precautionary geo-engineering research is in order as is a tax to capture the negative externality represented by CO2 emission).

Still, criticising the novel on the basis of its portrayal of science is like reviewing Lady Chatterley's Lover on its Game Keeping accuracy (I know, it was done). Solar is knockabout fun, charting the rise and fall of a slobbish, self-centred, overweight and solipsistic scientist. A fun read (took me a day) and a triumph of style and general erudition over actually getting off the fence and saying anything truly daring.


With a broken filling I'm off to the dentist tomorrow morning: Clare is gloomily predicting I'll need a crown. As I write this the riders of the Tour de France are cycling up something to first approximation vertical in the Pyrenees (ITV4) while out of the window the low dark clouds drip lovingly over the southern slopes of the Mendips. .. "Good for the garden"...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Priddy Folk Festival + Milton Lodge Gardens

Priddy is a small village about three miles north-west from us at the top of the Mendips. This weekend it hosted its folk festival so we trotted along lunchtime to take a look.

Traders at the Priddy Folk Festival

Glastonbury-like, the village green is devoted to Marquees and Performances; on an adjacent field the traders were set up. I skipped the Thai Massage (£15 for 30 minutes) while Clare (pictured above) failed to clear the liquorice stall.

Some Music outside the Pub

Our lunch was hot dogs and a pint at the New Inn where genuine folkies were performing out front (above). They served to remind me that if you want endlessly repetitive solos improvising minutely around a theme pretty much devoid of inspiration in the first place it's so much better at 130 decibels and from an electric instrument with six strings. More folkies below in a slightly more structured performance setting. We didn't bother to go in.

The Band Plays On

We then drove the couple of miles to Milton Lodge and its famed gardens, beautifully positioned on the southern slopes of the Mendips. Today was the last time this year the gardens were open and here's the view from the house over Wells Cathedral (and I somehow managed to get Clare in the picture too for some human interest).

Wells Cathedral from Milton Lodge Gardens

The Stepped Garden

Clare is not the surrendering type (see previous post) so the shot below is quite unusual. It may of course be that she was just surprised to see me.

I surrender ... maybe ...

Here's a final shot of the gardens.

Milton Lodge Gardens

Have you noticed how it's become pointless to watch World Cup matches as the Psychic Octopus has already predicted the result? For example, as I write this the final has not yet kicked off, but we know in advance that (the Octopus predicts) Spain will win.

I wonder what it thinks about catastrophic global warming?