Thursday, September 30, 2010

David Gerrold

David Gerrold is a cult science-fiction author. For people who care about Star Trek he has written episodes and is the author of the book "The Trouble with Tribbles". For fans of military SF he wrote the four books in "The War Against the Chtorr" series - we have been waiting twenty years for the final volume(s).

And then there is his time-travel novel "The Man Who Folded Himself". Gerrold is a career-acolyte of Robert Heinlein: "The War Against the Chtorr" series is explicit homage to "Starship Troopers" while "The Man Who Folded Himself" parallels exactly Heinlein's classic "All You Zombies".

So what to make of it?

Gerrold starts promisingly in the style of "The Catcher in the Rye". Danny is the truculent, bored adolescent orphan being paid $1,000 a month by his 'Uncle Jim' to attend University. As he observes: "An apartment, a car and a thousand a week for keeping my nose clean."

Soon however Uncle Jim dies and Danny is left with a timebelt, a personal time machine. Now Gerrold leaves his promising story development to spend 7 technophilic pages describing this device to no advantage to the underlying narrative whatsoever. What did his editor think he was doing?

We soon revert to old-fashioned story-telling as Danny and his one-day-advanced doppelgänger go to the races and clean-up. Cue another techno-excursion into multiverse-ontology as Gerrold presents his solution to the obvious paradoxes: plot development stalls and dies at this new irruption of fan-boy geekdom. Eventually the story resumes although with less élan as Danny meets a female version of himself (Diana) from a remote alternate timeline and they produce a male boy. Well, you can see where it's all going to end up.

Somewhere between here and there Danny ends up fancying himself rotten and Gerrold devotes some pages to explore homosexual relationships. In his afterword Gerrold makes a big issue about his dilemma as to whether to include this topic and his difficulties in writing it. However this all seems to me ridiculously self-indulgent. The question is whether the gay sex episode is consistent with and necessary to character and plot development. In fact it's gratuitous and contrived.

Gerrold is basically a good writer and an intelligent man: I am still waiting impatiently for his final book in the "Chtorr" series. But he takes his own opinions and his own sexuality far too seriously and this self-centredness detracts from his literary accomplishments. So if you want to see the difference between 'mere science-fiction' and literature then here it is in the nutshell. There was a good novel trying to get out here but Gerrold strangled it by gratuitous techno-info-dumping and gay-rights-prosletysing. He may believe this is a strength of genre-writing but it isn't.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Friday is a Fast day

Clare tells me that on Friday we are to fast - apparently it's for CAFOD (The Catholic Agency For Overseas Development). So now I'm getting worried:

"We don't get to eat on Friday? How long is that then? When's the start and finish of the fast period exactly?"

Clare is uncertain but breezily confident.

"Twenty four hours."

I can't believe that.

"During Ramadan Muslims fast but it's between sunrise and sunset only. So we get to eat after 7 pm, is that right?"

She demurs: "We're not Muslims."

Now I'm on the case. Straight to Google to look up "Catholic Fast". Here is the Wikipedia definition of a Catholic Fast Day.

"Current Canon Law requires that on the days of mandatory fasting, Catholics may eat only one full meal during the day. Additionally, they may eat up to two small meals or snacks, known as "collations". Church requirements on fasting only relate to solid food, not to drink, so any amount of water or other beverages - even alcoholic drinks - may be consumed."

"So," I proclaim triumphantly, "we have one collation in the morning, commonly called 'breakfast' and another collation at lunchtime, normally called 'a light lunch'. Then in the evening we'll have a proper dinner, known as a 'full meal'.

"I'm beginning to warm to this Catholic notion of fasting. Looks like we do it every day!"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

QM => QFT: interpretation?

Roy Simpson writes to me:

Hi Nigel,

I hope that you are progressing with the QFT book: the equations should start to be familiar as you see them in more and more books. One quote that I noticed from this book in Chapter 1 which you have read is very true and very revealing:--

"In fact, there is no wave equation of the type we are used to from non-relativistic quantum mechanics that is truly compatible with both relativity and quantum theory."

This point lies at the centre of trying to conceptually understand QFT, based on a student familiarity with just QM. The fields that QFT introduces are very physical, but it all somewhat leaves poor old Schrödinger and Ψ somewhat out in the cold. The book will have more discussion of this point from a QFT perspective, but where does it all leave QM Interpretations?

I wouldn't blame that book for not resolving this, but this central point seems to leave something to be explained, like a kind of "lessons learnt from QFT" in reinterpreting Ψ.

Also in thinking about Quantum Gravity as "Quantum General Relativity", what hope does such a theory have if we cannot really have a "Quantum Special Relativity"? Hopefully you are interested in these conceptual issues as well.



Hi Roy,

Certainly the ontological/interpretational aspects are the most interesting. My favourite reviewer of all this stuff is arpard fazakas and he is impressed by"A First Course in General Relativity" by Bernard F. Schutz so maybe that's worth looking out for.

Still, one step at a time and who knows, I may get a new contract soon and all this will have to go back on the back-burner ...


Monday, September 27, 2010

Sticker Shock

An American term for what you feel when you see the bill - or the quote in my case.

So it was down to the Wells Accident Repair Centre this morning shortly after 9 a.m. Now I would finally discover what it would cost to fix the scratch I had made in the car door a couple of weeks ago. (When we made our driveway wider we should also have made it straighter.)

On returning home I said to Clare: "What do you think they quoted to knock out the dent and repaint it?"

She thought for a moment and said "Eighty quid?"

Yes, that had been the upper end of my estimate too as the thin guy with the round glasses finished inspecting the damage from all sides and had then spent a further minute silently checking me out and thinking about it.

I waved the slip of paper bearing the quote.

"It says: £363.07 including VAT."

As I had made my way out of the Reception area aghast, the guy had muttered defensively: 'Well, you won't find anything cheaper around here.'

"So Clare," I continued, "what do you think? Can you do it?"

An hour later found us in the local Halfords parting with £10 for a bottle of Barcelona Red. And then the home-repair operation was in full swing.

Clare's cost-efective accident repair work

It's already looking better

Original Damage

After my sticker-shock experience I walked across to the computer-repair shop and handed in my thermally-challenged business notebook computer. We powered it up in the shop and set it going on something disk-intensive and heat-generating: a full AVG scan. After a while the shop person, Richard, scared me by saying 'I can hear the fan I think'. No, it was just the hard drive. I really don't need my machine to play nice just when it's in for fixing.

Today is a kind of holiday as I have essentially finished my contract. Just a quick visit tomorrow to attend a final meeting and hand back the computer. Then a meeting with one of the companies I contract with, Pro4, to discuss some future work opportunities.

I therefore wasted no time in getting down to stuff that's been parked for a while. The Amazon Vine book which Clare reviewed "AD 410 The Year That Shook Rome" needed to be finished and I was just as impressed as she had been. Two things stood out: the Roman aristocracy were incredibly arrogant, snobbish and detached from reality and made avoidable mistake after mistake. And secondly the empire did not suddenly implode in AD 410 when Rome was sacked by the Goths. In fact only a few years later Rome had recovered but was then sacked twice more, in 455 (the Vandals) and in 547 (the Ostrogoths).

What happened overall was a slow-motion implosion in which former regions of the empire were taken over by "Barbarian Kings" from the outside-in until the last Roman emperor died in AD 480 and there was no remaining social base capable of supporting a successor. It had now become the Byzantine empire in the east vs. the Barbarian kingdoms which were rapidly developing into early feudal states in the west.

I also picked up "Quantum Field Theory Demystified" which seems just the right level for me as I still recall the OU QM course I took last year. The reviews generally praise it for what it is and point out there are numerous typos. This is disastrous in a self-study guide but luckily one of the reviewers made a long list and I transcribed his corrections into my copy. Onwards to Chapter 2 and the Langrangian.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dead right about Ed!

Yes, I predicted that Ed would win back in June! True to form Labour has retreated to its 1970s comfort zone when the brothers were united in tribal solidarity against the wicked witch of the South-East, Margaret Thatcher. It all feels about as retro as flares.

Today was a day of small accomplishments. Ever since scraping the side of my car, the red Toyota Auris, against the side of our artfully-curving drive in the pre-dawn about ten days ago, I have been meaning to get it fixed. As my current contract is now basically over (one last meeting Tuesday morning) I drove down to the Wells Accident Repair Centre on the Glastonbury Road this morning to get things moving.

Despite claims to be open till midday, at 10.30 a.m. there was no-one at home and it was all locked up. The helpful mechanic from the next door garage offered that the owner (no doubt sole-proprietor, receptionist, painter and chief metal banger all-in-one) had gone off to the bank. "He owes me some money," the overall-clad one informed me in a melancholy voice.

As I was hanging around I spotted a computer repair shop opposite and on a whim decided to pop in and enquire what they could do about a cheap PC World Advent notebook wherein the fan has given up, leading to random thermal shutdown. A tiny bit embarrassing for the hotshot consultant.

"Yes," I was told. Bring it in Monday and for a small charge (as compared with buying a replacement machine) we can fix it for you. I spent some time this afternoon locking the machine down. All Windows password-remembering turned off, all data encrypted, cache files emptied. Alex, who's visiting, checked it this evening and found a Restricted document in the un-emptied recycle bin. Oops!

The other project this afternoon was to replace the non-working security light overlooking our driveway with a new one. B&Q provided a marvellous LED spotlight array with a thermal trigger and after much effort it's up and running.

I am so useless at practical things that I was unbearably pleased to get the mains lead correctly and robustly connected to the lamp. It then turned out that the now-tethered light wouldn't reach its wall attachment which I had previously drilled and screwed into place. I sat and buried my head in my hands ... and gave up.

Alex fixed the problem after a further hour of systematic work: measuring, optimising, redrilling, moving the wall-frame and then screwing the lamp to it. So now it works: phew!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Maisie Cook's Funeral - 23rd September 2010

A brief flurry of rain swept across Canford Crematorium, Bristol yesterday afternoon as Clare, my mother and myself stepped out of the car for my aunt's funeral.

I didn't get to see Maisie much if at all in recent years. She didn't get out and I had long since lost the routine of my childhood visits with my father. However I do remember her sharpness and her world-weary sardonicism which I always found attractive.

Here's a picture of her on the happy occasion of her marriage to George Cook. George died 38 years ago of cancer and the minister observed that he had also conducted the service at George's funeral.

John, the youngest of Maisie's three children read the details of his mother's life, his voice breaking with emotion. Jacky, Maisie's eldest, read a poem.

The reception afterwards, organised by Georgina, Maisie's middle daughter, was held at BAWA. Here's a picture of Len's widow, Joyce Seel at the reception: (Maisie's two older brothers were my father Fred and eldest Len).

Maisie Cook died September 12th. Donations to Dementia and Alzheimer's charities.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

AD 410 The Year That Shook Rome

This is another of Clare's reviews of an Amazon Vine book. This one she liked and gave four stars.

--- Not the Rome beloved of history teachers ---

What a page-turner this is! My immediate reaction on finishing was that I needed to read it again in order to really anchor the central characters and to order my impressions. However my second thought was that these impressions, as imprecise as they were, should be savoured for their remarkable vividness.

The action is set during the implosion of the Roman Empire in AD 410 with barbarian invaders camped outside the city of Rome. The description of the stranglehold the Goths were able to maintain by the single act of cutting off food supplies is chilling with accounts of disease, starvation and even cannibalism. The Roman influence in Britain as portrayed at school omitted this Achilles' heel of urbanisation, focussing on the positive aspects such as rule of law, road building, the amenities of a rationally laid-out town and the luxuries of villa life.

The Empire’s problems stemmed from its very success: its expansion. Rule from Rome became infeasible and a single authority was replaced with two emperors and two assistants,(who would in theory ultimately replace the emperors) establishing bases in the east and the west. Divided authority within the empire however invited ambitious generals to test the strength of their own claims and gave rise to internal strife.

This fracturing of the power structure opened the way to all manner of barbarian invasions and the eventual invasion of Italy itself. In AD 410 the absent emperor Honorius, based in Ravenna, could have saved Rome with a treaty providing a homeland for the Goths had he been more insightful and respectful of the motivations of his enemy. Instead he vacillated and finally goaded Alaric, the leader of the Goths, into sacking Rome.

The other strand of the book was the establishment and survival of the Catholic Church during these turbulent years. Despite the fall of the city occurring under the auspices of Christianity rather than paganism, the faith and the church retained its place in the Vatican. This was in no small part due to the scholarly expositions on the misfortunes of the empire as a part of God’s plan by Saint Augustine (The City of God).

In conclusion this is a dense but delightful read which would benefit from a leisurely revisit if time allows.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Structure of Amber

"Amber is the one real world, casting infinite reflections of itself -- shadow worlds that can be manipulated by those of royal Amber blood. But the royal family is torn apart by jealousies and suspicion; the disappearance of the Patriarch Oberon has intensified the internal conflict by leaving the throne apparently up for grabs.

"In a hospital on the shadow Earth, a young man is recovering from a freak car accident; amnesia has robbed him of all his memory, even the fact that he is Corwin, Crown Prince of Amber, rightful heir to the throne -- and he is in deadly peril."

Hence "The Chronicles of Amber" by Roger Zelazny. The princes can move between the shadow worlds, such as the one you and I live in, and possibly - with difficulty - find their way back to the true reality of Amber.

Suppose each world was a one dimensional line (say the Real line) and the infinity of shadow worlds was modelled by stacking them side by side to make a two-dimensional plane. At first sight this looks like R2 but that doesn't capture the fact that inhabitants of each shadow world are forced to remain within it (unless they're a prince of Amber of course).

So rather than R2 the universe of 1D-Amber is better modelled as:

I x R

where I is an index set 'counting' the worlds. We could arbitrarily say that 0 ∈ I indexes the true world of 1D-Amber itself.

While ordinary shadow people have to stay within their one-dimensional world-line the princes of Amber also have freedom to move within Index space, I, to visit other shadow worlds and Amber itself.

OK, now let's move up to 4D. Any shadow world (and Amber itself) we may now assume to be normal space-time. What about the Index set? Zelazny offers few clues: a throwaway remark about the MWI of QM doesn't really count - fantasy's homage to SF.

So let's make the Index set infinite, open, bounded and maximally symmetric (and 3D while we're about it to improve navigability). Amber is in the centre.

A suitable candidate is:

I = {(r, θ, φ) such that r < positive-constant}.

That's a ball without a boundary.

The universe of Amber is than I x R4. Perhaps hard to visualise and it raises questions as the princes move around I. Does an infinitesimal move between neighbouring shadow worlds result in infinitesimal moves in time and space, assuming there is a similarity relation between the worlds?

Zelazny seems to suggest that shadow worlds that are 'close' to each other are very similar, but that in 'far away ones' time and geography can behave very strangely.

Enough universe-building for today. Alex has given me his cold.


PS. If I'd made I six dimensional we'd have a novel interpretation of String Theory. How prescient would that make Roger Zelazny?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Life on the VPN

Alex returned from his European holiday with a bad cold. Last weekend it turned into bronchitis: given my susceptibility I decided to keep well-away.

Yesterday he was off-work and in-bed; today he worked from home (pictured). Like the slippers.

The Sick Programmer at work

Turns out you can get a lot done without interruptions on the VPN, even when you're ill and you're forced to work in Groovy (a weird scripting language about 30% as efficient as using straight Java).

I was with a client this afternoon talking about security and focused on staying healthy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Maisie Cook

My aunt, Maisie Cook died last night in Bristol Royal Infirmary. She was 79 and had suffered a massive stroke.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park [one star]

This review was written by Clare who seems to have yawned her way through an entirely different book to the one reviewed here by the majority of readers.


Bletchley Park is synonymous with the brilliant work of a dedicated group of clever men who broke the German wartime military codes and in so doing helped defeat Hitler. The subject matter is indeed potent. Unfortunately the treatment in this book suffers from two related flaws: firstly, being published some sixty five years after the event it lacks freshness in the telling; secondly, it is based solely upon the recollections of the few surviving staff.

Unfortunately most of these are women who had relatively mundane roles in the establishment. This is not to denigrate the women, rather to acknowledge that they were not the ones chosen as code breakers: but only those people could really tell the tale which is so central to the Park.

Those women, who were translators and apparent insiders to crucial intelligence, recall little that is sensational. Repeatedly they emphasise the separation and isolation of functions which fragment their narratives. Even after sixty five years the total emphasis on secrecy impressed upon them still lingers - their reminiscences focus on practical matters of feeding, accommodation and relaxation rather than shedding any light on how the codes were tackled and the role of the proto-computers.

What the book does offer is an insight into the demands of war work. The hours were long and in shifts; separation from family and the comforts of home meant that loneliness and tedium were the norm with homemade entertainment such as theatrical and musical shows, dancing and sporting exercise being the chief respite. How introverted types must have loathed such a diet of regimented jollity!

In the end the story this book tells is insubstantial and like the lives of many who served their country at Bletchley Park, often tedious. It captures the mundane while the secret thrills of code breaking elude it.

Elementary Mathematics from an Advanced Standpoint

When I first started at the STL research labs I came across a book entitled "Elementary Mathematics from an Advanced Standpoint" written for high-school teachers by the celebrated mathematician Felix Klein. This treated the stuff of sixth form mathematics (calculus, algebra, arithmetic, geometry) using the tools of advanced mathematics. There's a brief overview of the book here.

So here are some recent episodes of ordinary life treated from an 'advanced' standpoint.

On Thursday evening in the flat in Reading I re-experienced the joy of a tepid shower. Alex's boiler had broken again and the backup immersion heater had also failed, buried as it was under the encrustation of years of limescale. At 10 p.m. I discussed this matter with Alex who was looking forwards to a kettle and bowl experience the following morning. Was it worth getting the boiler and archaic plumbing system completely replaced and/or the immersion heater repaired? We briefly discussed the marginal benefit of such an investment over the period in question vs. the opportunity cost. Then we returned to our discussion of Java vs. scripting languages. I think he won't bother and will just fund an opportunistic fix (Tuesday apparently: - I look forwards to Monday night).

Our Roomba practically died trying to clean our new deep-pile carpets in Wells. In Alex's flat, its new home, it illustrates the ergodic theorem. Wherever it starts it eventually tunnels into the back of one of the recliners where it completely vanishes in the narrow space under the seat and gets completely stuck. So its trajectory phase space eventually gets arbitrarily (and sufficiently) close to every trap in the room. There are workarounds.

I was listening to music tracks on my mobile phone (loudspeaker mode - sounds crazy but the quality is not so bad and the volume OK in a quiet room: goes well with a whisky). I began to wonder about shuffling algorithms. Suppose there are ten tracks. You don't want to listen to them in the same order every time, but nor do you want to listen to the same track too often. So imagine a window of three tracks at the front of the queue. After you have heard a track it's put at the back of the ten-place queue. The first three tracks are randomised and the first one then gets played. It gets placed at the back and the process repeats.

Suppose you started with the tracks in order one through ten. Would this procedure end up eventually in randomising the whole sequence? Seems hand-wavily obvious but how would you show it? I figured out a cute answer as I was driving down to Wells yesterday evening but now I've momentarily forgotten it. Any vitamin B12 out there?

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Thoughts from Wells and Reading

1. I write this on Sunday evening from Alex's flat in Reading: I've just driven up from Wells, ready for another hard week on my current contract. My inbox has more than 400 unread emails; I have 24 voice-mails yet unlistened to and all this stuff has to be transformed into orders to be entered into a slow and brittle computer system. So it's another week of real early starts.

Where is Alex I wonder? I thought he'd be here. He's been wandering the continent the last two weeks from Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin to Heidelberg and then we think to Herculaneum, Pompeii and Vesuvius. Mostly by rail.

Anyway, he's got work in London tomorrow so I assume he'll be showing up here at the last minute.

2. Adrian must also have an adventure to tell as he's snowboarding in NZ South Island based near Christchurch. That would be the epicentre of the recent earthquake then. Still, I guess there are more important things to think about than emailing home.

3. Clare's sister Mary and husband Gerry were staying with Clare down at Wells last week. I caught up with them Friday night and we had a pleasant Saturday, dining at a recommended pub The George Inn, Croscombe. The food was every bit as good as promised. Yesterday evening I got some much-needed exercise by walking up to the top of the Mendips, Clare snapped the picture.

The author north of Wells

4. You may have seen those (American) vehicles being driven around simulated towns by computer - it was a Department of Defense challenge. The automated chauffeur is a promised spin-off "soon".

Not so.

A useful test is this. If you can do a task so automatically that your mind can drift off to a quite different topic while you're doing it, this means that the task has been automated in the subconscious neural machinery. Athletes talk about being in the zone or in the flow; they're not consciously thinking about what they're doing.

I think these kinds of accomplishment are amenable to automation because they're closed condition-action solutions.

Driving can be like that a lot of the time - we sometimes go off on a train of thought and several miles have passed on a familiar route. Yet over a longer period inevitably your attention is brought back to some road problem you have to think consciously about. Someone has done something strange, or there's decision to make which plainly depends on what you assess other drivers are likely to do. Then all of a sudden the task requires your full attention.

That's what will trip-up the proposed automation. Just watch progress - you'll see success after success in semi-realistic, controlled environments. But in the real world it will all fall apart once in a while - and that's enough to rule it out.

The real answer is to re-engineer the roads themselves so that they're electronically readable and semi-smart. Then the open nature of today's driving experience can be engineered to be closed. More like the railways which are surely more amenable to driverless solutions.

5. My take on this is that the jarring, isolated, international jet-set life of a theoretical physicist can be profoundly incompatible with the balanced life evolution equipped our bodies for. I wish her the best with her reassessment and sympathise with the existential dilemma she faces.