Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thai Brides

We were watching “Thai Brides” on Dave, one of those Louis Theroux programmes (don’t ask!).

The 56 year old ex-serviceman with the swept-back orange hair, Alan Whicker glasses and moustache, PTSD requiring regular medication and the cheap flat in Yarmouth didn’t seem much of a catch. To every Thai woman he met in the Bangkok offices of the “Thai Brides” company he professed undying love (pointlessly as they typically spoke little English). He got lucky on the third date with a matronly woman who seemed to see something in him beyond his manifestly loser credentials and indeed agreed to marry him.

They separated eight days later.

I said to Clare: “He is such a creep that he can’t get an English woman; even desperate Thai women with no English can’t stand to be near him. What he needs is a state-of-the-art sex doll.”

Clare was less convinced: “Can they cook?”

Gentle reader, to save you delving into what must seem an unsavoury subject, let me give you the main conclusions. Technological innovation in this area is quite intense: current models look good, have realistic silicone skin, can actually converse with their “owners” and even understand their replies if they keep it simple (but remember what we’re talking about here).

There appear to be no issues in satisfying the primary requirements.

The 'RealDoll' is on the left

I am given to understand that all this technology comes with a weight overhead ... they’re difficult to move around and place back on their hangars when not in use. Also, the power-to-weight ratio of existing motors makes realistic movement something for future releases.

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma” Clayton M. Christensen described how new paradigms are often pioneered by small companies starting with barely-adequate products at the, er, bottom of the market. However, they do get some traction, and climbing the technology curve they take increasing market share until the previous product is rendered obsolete and incumbent companies fail.

Sex dolls will certainly do the same for prostitution and it’s wholly to be welcomed. The drug-addled wrecks plying the streets of red-light districts will be the first to go, replaced by purpose-built establishments housing far more attractive and sanitary life-like dolls in buildings which can’t even be classified as brothels. The up-market ‘escorts’ who can hold their own at dinner as well as in the bedroom may follow suit but not I suspect in this century.

“Thai Bride” companies, please do some proper screening. If the client is like Louis T. roll out the aspirant girls; if they’re scary losers have a heart guys and book them with the mail-order version ... please!

Friday, October 29, 2010

RSPB Ham Wall (near Glastonbury)

I think it was Autumn Watch (BBC 2) where Clare got the idea we should see a dusk sky shadowed with Starlings coming to roost. We have a suitable roost-site at Ham Wall about 7 miles from us (a mile south of Meare which is three miles west of Glastonbury). So on the way to the shops this lunchtime we dropped by to investigate. Here's Clare checking out a possible viewing location.

The sign below is where to call. My sister pointed out there might be environmental hazards to a million birds flying above one. I foresee a "Birds" scenario in which case I will arrange for Clare's body to come between me and their ravening beaks. Should buy a little time :-)

And here are some pictures of the landscape.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Back yesterday evening from a three day holiday at Aldeburgh, a pleasant and posh Suffolk seaside resort north of Felixstowe. It's so charming that the pub we went to on Monday night was next door to Ruth Rendell's house. Any celebrity called Chris (Tarrant, Evans) apparently either owns a property here or regularly vacations. The picture shows the sea-front and in the far distance along the "boardwalk" you may just be able to make out the Sizewell-B nuclear station.

The Sea-Front at Aldeburgh

We were staying in a large house arranged by Clare's niece, Jane, I guess there must have been around 15 of us at any one time: it was a kind of rolling week with people checking in for a couple of days and then moving out in time for the next set. The house itself was charmingly old, sprawling, comfortable and warm and here's a picture of Clare in the drawing room.

Clare in the Drawing Room

Monday we went to Sutton Hoo, a National Trust site a few miles south of us. This is the location of the Anglo-Saxon longship which was discovered and excavated in 1939 (we had already seen the treasure in the British Museum). There isn't so much to be seen at the site itself - it's mostly a chance to appreciate the topography of the site, indicating the difficulties they must have had dragging the longship from the water to the top of the hill where it was buried. However, the exhibition centre is quite informative.

Tuesday we drove to Sizewell B hoping to walk around the Visitor's Centre. At the gates there was a sign: "The Visitor Centre is Closed. Turn around and Drive Away": I guess not much room for ambiguity there. We then drove on to Southwold (pictured below) as the weather deteriorated, the wind began to gust and rain spat in our faces. We were thankfully soon back in front of the fire.

A rough day at Southwold

On our way home yesterday we lunched at Finchinfield (pictured). We took the scenic route back, stopping at two of our past houses.

Nigel at Finchinfield

We lived in Saffron Walden in the early 1980s and then moved to Sible Hedingham in 1986 where we stayed for nine years. Both houses have been extended/reworked (obviously) since then.

Where we used to live: Saffron Walden

Where we used to live: Sible Hedingham

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What would the Culture do?

The President apparently asked for options but his military kept presenting him with the same ruinous proposal dressed up in a thousand decorative variants: prop up the recalcitrant puppet regime and smash down hard on the insurgents. Along with everyone else the President was unconvinced but felt he had no other choice. And so the hopeless slide towards defeat continued.

At times like these we ask ourselves "What would the Culture do?". The Culture (prop. Mr Iain M. Banks) is a proxy here for a civilization of supposedly enlightened values with essentially limitless power. It's a way of asking whether even an America without resource constraints could prevail.

Option 1: If you've got it, use it.

The Culture has weapons technology to destroy stars: it would be a matter of milliseconds for the country concerned to be converted to lunar regolith. However, America has the nuclear capability to do that today as well and chooses not to do so. Why is that?

The Romans had a pretty good empire for hundreds of years. This is how they dealt with rebellious Carthage. "The Romans pulled the Phoenician warships out into the harbour and burned them before the city, and went from house to house, capturing, raping and enslaving the people. Fifty thousand Carthaginians were sold into slavery. The city was set ablaze, and in this way was razed with only ruins and rubble to field the aftermath." Apparently they didn't actually sow the fields with salt, but perhaps they didn't need to. [Wikipedia].

This level of ferocious ultra-violence works but only in a unipolar world where everyone else just gets more terrified afterwards. OK for the Romans, not OK in today's world.

Option 2. Hearts and Minds (involuntary)

The Culture would certainly be able to interfere with the "terrorists"' minds - twisting them so that they couldn't or wouldn't fight any more. This level of technology is beyond that available to America. However, targeted assassination is a less subtle variant and is already a minor feature of the current conflict.

The Culture would have a problem with this tactic though because it's unethical. It makes zombies, puppets of human beings. It’s not a solution.

Option 3: Heart and Minds (voluntary)

What the Culture would actually do (cf. Inversions, The Player of Games) is to infiltrate their society with Culture agents and try to steer the protagonists to a more enlightened world-view. The Culture does not believe in moral relativism, does not believe that mediaevalist societies with oppressive laws and beliefs are actually a good, tolerable or even valid option. So it would gird itself for the long haul, the long march to cultural transformation. The end of that journey is a non-oppressive society, not necessarily US-style bourgeois democracy.

America hasn't really tried that, but then again, it isn't the Culture. And it does have a short-term problem.


Note: I’m aware that I haven’t answered the question of what America should actually do. I think given that the West is not going to concede the Caliphate, Joe Biden probably has the nearest thing to a workable way forward.

Two Pix

We were in town Thursday afternoon. A storm front had just passed and the market square was illuminated by low autumnal sun against the departing cloud-bank.

The Market Square and Wells Cathedral

Yesterday we visited Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (good collection of French Impressionist paintings including an evocative minor piece, a village scene by Alfred Sisley and a Seawolf misile downstairs) and then we took my mother to lunch at "Frankie's and Benny's", a mob-style establishment so ethnic that they pipe Italian lessons into the toilets.

Mrs Seel and her cyberpets

Back at her home, Beryl Seel was re-united with her faux-animaux.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

CESG IL2/IL3 Accreditation (224 & 334)

This is an overview of the implementation process for a telecoms operator or service provider ("communications provider") seeking to acquire IL2 (224) or IL3 (334) accreditation. It is available as a PDF file here.

Version: 1.0 - Revision date: October 21st 2010 – First version


1. Introduction
Many people are aware of the ISO 9000 family of standards for Quality Management. The corresponding standards for Information Security (ISO 27001, 27002, 27011) may be less familiar but are steadily growing in importance as threat levels increase. The ISO 27k standards are neutral as regards technology and industry: they need to be specialised in each distinct case.

When the UK Government, specifically its information assurance arm the CESG turned its attention to accrediting providers of communications services it published a particular specialisation of the ISO 27k standards called “Security Procedures Telecommunications Systems and Services”. This is more informally known as the NGN Good Practice Guide.

Increasingly bids and tenders from UK Government Departments require products and services to be accredited to IL2 or IL3. These terms, Business Impact Levels 2 or 3, essentially require the telecoms operator or service provider to pass an audit based on ISO 27k as additionally extended by the NGN Good Practice Guide.

2. Business Impact Levels

The Business Impact Levels are correlated with the Government’s security classification hierarchy as follows.
• IL0 = n/a
• IL1 = n/a
• IL2 = Protect (= ‘Best Commercial Practice’)
• IL3 = Restricted
• IL4 = Confidential
• IL5 = Secret
• IL6 = Top Secret.

IL2, IL3, IL4 are also correlated with CIA values as follows:
• IL2 corresponds to 2-2-4
• IL3 corresponds to 3-3-4
• IL4 corresponds to 4-4-4

where Confidentiality (C) means that data cannot be eavesdropped or stolen, Integrity (I) means that data cannot be changed or corrupted, Availability (A) means that in the presence of certain kinds of attacks the system retains its ability to provide communications services.

IL2 is the security level which the UK Government believes that all service providers should be operating at and should be implemented across the organisation. IL3, with its requirement for enhanced data security (C, I) carries far more stringent and expensive requirements. Data, systems and processes need to be segregated, supported by secure IT systems and databases, widespread use of encryption, enhanced physical security and higher levels of personnel screening. As a consequence a product or service accredited to IL3 will usually be delivered via a special purpose overlay system.

3. The IL2/IL3 Accreditation Programme Framework

IL2/IL3 accreditation is the UK Government’s ‘Next-Generation Network’ enhancement of accreditation to Information Security Standards ISO 27001, ISO 27002 and ISO 27011. The “Bible” for IL2 accreditation, the CESG NGN Good Practice Guide with its 139 controls explicitly cross-references these standards. An IL2/IL3 accreditation programme should follow the ISMS Implementation framework as defined in the standards documents and should consist of the four phases described below.

Note what is being audited and accredited - it is not a piece of technology, or a collection of programs or people. What is being audited and accredited is a management system – specifically an Information Security Management System (ISMS), which has a defined scope and owner, and which identifies risks and the requisite controls/countermeasures to address them. The ISMS is the complete system of management processes and mechanisms which should be in place to assure the organisation against those threats which come within its scope.

Phase 1: PLAN

In the planning phase the ISMS (Information Security Management System) is established and scoped, risks are analysed, a risk treatment plan developed and the applicable controls (countermeasures) are identified.

In this first phase the documentation to scope the specific ISMS to be audited is specified, identifying the departments and key individuals who will participate in setting up and running the ISMS and in achieving accreditation. The NGN Good Practice Guide has a number of paragraphs (pp. 12 – 16) detailing the assets, users, staff, equipment, systems, utilities and physical sites which are required to be in scope. The target of the accreditation - the scope, assets, functionality and connectivity of the components making up the service slice to be accredited – also needs to be clearly defined.

As part of the planning phase it is necessary to conduct a Risk Analysis. ISO 27k does not mandate a methodology; it only indicates the areas a Risk Analysis has to cover. The NGN Good Practice Guide goes further (p. 10) itemising the threats, risks and vulnerabilities which the Risk Assessment must consider. The CESG has a preferred Risk Assessment Methodology of its own, IS1, which UK Government Departments are required to make use of. It is probably a good idea for a service provider to use this same methodology.

Phase 1 documents required

1. Phase 1 document set for ISO 27001:2005
• The ISMS Policy.
• The scope of the ISMS.
• Procedures and controls in support of the ISMS.
• A description of the risk assessment methodology.
• A risk assessment report.
• The risk treatment plan.
• Documented procedures needed by the organisation to ensure effective planning, operation and control of its information security processes and to describe how to measure the effectiveness of controls.
• Records required by ISO 27001.
• The Statement of Applicability (i.e. which controls are taken to be relevant and why).

2. IS1 Risk Analysis (typically produced by a CLAS consultant)

3. Detailed architecture/high-level system design with diagrams.

4. Relevant technical design documents for reference.

5. Detailed application/network design documents and diagrams. These will help in documenting those components in scope and will include:
• IT documentation showing all relevant IT systems and their interconnection
• Network documentation showing firewall, NAT, switch, router placement
• Network diagrams showing client and server applications for relevant IT systems
• Network and application protocols and end-to-end scope including diagrams
• The security architecture.

These will need to be cross-referenced to departments (people) and processes and will certainly include operations support systems and service management systems.

6. Geographical location of network devices and servers and security information relevant to physical/personnel security at those locations.

7. Table showing all the departments which are involved in all processes around the system (e.g. Provide, Operate, Assure, Bill, 3rd/4th line support, customer self-service, etc) and a designated point of contact in each.

8. Process charts documenting the processes at the level of detailed work-practices which are relevant to the NGN Good Practice Guide controls. An example would be the processes for granting, revoking and storing passwords securely.

9. Availability analysis for the system based in its design.

10. Availability Performance Documentation
• How this will be collected from Operational Measurements and how the calculations will be done.
• How root-cause-analysis of availability-affecting faults will be carried out and documented.
• In the absence of historical data, test plans and measurements must be provided.
• This relates to the NGN Good Practice Guide Chapter 3.

Phase 2: DO (Gap Analysis and Fix programme)

In the implementation phase we undertake the Gap Analysis, to determine for each relevant asset within scope which relevant controls are satisfactorily in place and which controls need further work. This typically requires that the NGN Good Practice Guide with its 139 controls should be checked for each of the relevant departments in scope where a threat/vulnerability has been identified. The Statement of Applicability (SOA) will need to be created to identify which controls are relevant to each department and asset. Note that the Mandatory Controls in the NGN Good Practice Guide must be included.

The NGN Good Practice Guide Controls are often stated at a high-level and may need to be cross-correlated with more operationally-oriented security procedures which will be specific to the operator/platform. These may have been defined already in a prior ISO 27k activity.

In this phase we may also conduct penetration testing to check for vulnerabilities prior to the audit (which will also test in this way). Testing may be carried out on a mix of live and suitably-configured laboratory systems.

The Gap Analysis may well identify areas where certain threats are inadequately countered due to some form of non-compliance. Costed proposals now have to be drawn up to fix these problems and a fix programme executed.

Once the fix programme has been carried out, an internal audit should be carried out both to check readiness and also to prepare everyone for the external audit. The internal audit should follow exactly the audit requirements as specified by ISO 27k and the NGN Good Practice Guide.

Phase 2 documents required

1. Security questionnaires distributed to each relevant department (and possibly work-shopped) based on the NGN Good Practice Guide Controls and/or (suitably cross-referenced) operator security policies. This process is controlled by the Statement of Applicability (SOA) to determine which controls apply in each case (note that the Mandatory Controls must be applied).

2. Collation of responses to questionnaires.

3. Formal Gap Analysis report.

4. Documentation of Costed Fix Programme (budget, project plans).


Phase 3: CHECK (the IL2 audit - preparation and implementation)

This phase starts with a preparatory engagement (stage 1) with the auditor to plan the audit, to check the completeness of the ISMS document set and to review the ISMS documentation set for clarity and conformance. Issues identified here will feed forward into the audit proper.

During the implementation (stage 2) the auditors will further inspect documentation and undertake interviews, site visits and the random sampling of information such as logs and security clearances.

Phase 3 documents required for the audit

ISO 27001:2005 Documents
• The ISMS Policy.
• The scope of the ISMS.
• Procedures and controls in support of the ISMS.
• A description of the risk assessment methodology.
• A risk assessment report.
• The risk treatment plan.
• Documented procedures needed by the organisation to ensure effective planning, operation and control of its information security processes and to describe how to measure the effectiveness of controls.
• Records required by ISO 27001.
• The Statement of Applicability (i.e. which controls are taken to be relevant and why).

Additional documentation from the NGN Good Practice Guide requirements
• Architecture/High-Level Design documentation.
• Availability Test Plan and Report.
• Availability Performance Documentation (not in an initial certification).
• Security Impact Analysis (not in an initial certification).

These documents should be assembled and reviewed by a team fully conversant with ISO 27001 and NGN Good Practice Guide standards and procedures.


Phase 4: ACT (the remedial programme)

ISO 27011 (and the NGN Good Practice Guide) require an ongoing process of continual improvement, corrective and preventive action. For a well-prepared organisation the most likely outcome of an IL2 audit is a conditional award of certification together with a list of issues which will need to be fixed, typically within six months at which point a follow-up supplementary audit will be carried out to check.

Phase 4 documents required
• Auditor Report.
• Documentation of Costed Remedial Programme (budget, project plans).

4. IL2 and IL3

As discussed above, the additional Confidentiality and Integrity requirements for IL3 (334) as compared to IL2 (224) create a significantly increased cost and workload to acquire and maintain accreditation. It should however be noted that IL3 is a superset of IL2 and any effort expended in acquiring IL2 accreditation also covers off issues which are in scope of the IL3 accreditation. It therefore makes sense to start an IL2 accreditation activity even if it is not entirely clear whether in the end IL3 will be required or not.


5. Further Reading

There is a large amount of material in addition to the ISO 27k standards themselves which can be purchased. Some material I have found useful:

1. The booklet “Implementing Information Security Based on ISO 27001/ISO 27002: A Management Guide, 2nd Edition” by Alan Calder is a short top-down overview of all the steps involved in an ISMS implementation and accreditation process, providing an invaluable map of the territory.

2. The handbook “Are you ready for an ISMS Audit based on ISO/IEC 27001?” by Ted Humphreys and Angelika Plate provides a detailed checklist for all the items auditors will be looking for. It lists all the controls found in the NGN Good Practice Guide although the latter also includes additional NGN-oriented guidance for many of these.

3. For a detailed walk-through of an ISMS implementation including examples of required documents see this free ISMS Implementation Guide.


If you have further queries about the IL2/IL3 accreditation process feel free to contact me at Interweave Consulting (


Nigel Seel.

Interweave Consulting
mobile: +44 (0)7940 800 564
© Nigel Seel 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review of: "Surface Detail" – Iain M. Banks

If you can create an immersive virtual reality indistinguishable from the Real then you can build Heaven ... or Hell. Inevitably some civilizations will build their own Hells, to punish sinners and encourage the virtuous. Equally inevitably, other civilizations will want to abolish these virtual arenas of unending torment.

In “Surface Detail”, Iain M. Banks’ new Culture novel, there is a war in progress on this very issue. Waged for decades in virtuality, the losing side is preparing to cheat and move the war into the Real. Suddenly this issue could drag everybody in.

This novel of 627 pages provides plenty of space for a multitude of story lines to develop and coalesce as the big picture comes slowly into focus. We start, mise en scène, with the tattooed girl Lededje fleeing her overbearing boss. We cut to the conscript Vatueil, part of a mediaeval army besieging a castle in an opaque war. We cut to an overwhelming ‘equivalent tech’ assault upon a Culture Orbital and meet Yime Nsokyi fighting in the last ditch. Not all of these events are happening in the Real.

It’s a challenge to write compelling descriptions of Hell: how many words for torment are there in the language? How many gruesome tortures do you need to describe? How can you get the reader to empathise with suffering? Banks’ solution is to apply a paced plot-driven structure to excursions into the netherworld: we encounter agonies from repeatedly unexpected directions.

Towards the end, as battle fleets assemble, the novel picks up pace and Banks has a lot of fun with the Abominator Class General Offensive Unit “Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints”. This is a ship which could probably destroy a whole galactic spiral arm without really trying and boy, does it waste the bad guys!

So: exuberant, satisfyingly complex, interesting characters, quite a few surprises and a weird echo of “Use of Weapons” on the final page. What’s not to like?

If all SF is really reflection on the here-and-now, what’s the issue being explored here? No-one is going to feel too surprised that Iain Banks feels that torture is wrong, that virtual reality Hells are a poor idea, that sociopathic plutocrats ought to get their just desserts. So where is the subversive take on received bien-pensant opinion? The nearest I could find is that sometimes being talented, high-ranking and self-important doesn’t make you the automatic centre of attention – a somewhat underwhelming truth.

So read it as intelligent, sophisticated entertainment: it’s worth the money.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Love at Dyrham Park

We visited the National Trust site of Dyrham Park, north of Bath this morning. This is a beautiful baroque mansion set in a square kilometre's worth of hilly deer park: the deer are remarkably tame.

After doing the house and formal gardens we arrived at the National Trust tea room at ten to one. The rather large room was bustling, every table filled with its quota of pensioners. Ahead of us in the slow-moving queue were the only two people younger than 50. He was in his late twenties, a hulking bespectacled fella in a Shaolin Temple sweatshirt, track suit bottoms and flip flops; she looked a few years older with auburn hair tied back in a pony tail, unfortunate teeth, a shell suit and her own flip-flops.

They were in love.

Clare said later that he looked liked someone who had never had sex in his life and had finally found a woman who would. She was a woman who had no problem being squeezed, hugged, patted, stroked and kissed in public by a bloke with the build and gait of a grizzly bear.

Our appetite was not entirely spoiled and the spiced pumpkin soup was excellent.

Formal Gardens at Dyrham Park

The author fronting a water feature

Clare and Stag

The Baroque Mansion

The Stag

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


"In English, "potpourri" is often used to refer to any collection of miscellaneous or diverse items."

So this morning I re-attacked Griffiths chapter 3, working through the examples and exercises on special relativity. I learned that in SR relativistic energy and the components of relativistic momentum are separately conserved and that if pμ is the energy-momentum 4-vector then the inner product pμpμ = (mc)2 which is handy for working out problems. Then I moved onto symmetries.

Lunchtime Amazon delivered two enormous parcels which like the particles I had been studying were mostly composed of empty space. The inventory comprised Clare's BBC Italian course, Iain Banks' two latest novels [Transition and Surface Detail] and two half-litre mugs for Clare with a cricketing-themed decoration.

This afternoon I made a start on Surface Detail but it's early days ... review to follow.

As I write this Clare is at college in Street 'talkin' Italian'. This followed her two-day exercise in self-sufficiency in our back garden as a result of which we now have a small allotment for growing potatoes and herbs.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mysterium - Robert Charles Wilson

A mysterious artefact is discovered in the Turkish desert. Lethally radioactive it does not appear to be constituted of normal matter. The small town of Two Rivers, Michigan USA is the site of the R&D establishment set up to study it under the direction of Theoretical Physics laureate Alan Stern. With the townsfolk we experience the night the scientists decide to bombard the artefact with high-energy beams, the night when everything within two miles of the lab is transported to a parallel universe.

Two River’s new world is one in which the Roman Empire never became Christian and Gnostic Christianity triumphed. It’s perhaps fifty years technically behind the world Two Rivers left. There is no America: an independent Anglo-French theocracy occupies the continent, warring with the Spanish empire to the south: the race is on for the first nuclear bomb. The Inquisition soon arrives in Two Rivers to purge heresy and investigate both the advanced technologies to be found there and the strange events which led to its incursion. The resulting conflicts drive the plot.

I wonder why Robert Charles Wilson wrote this book. It’s a reprint of something he did in 1994 so perhaps it was an apprentice piece? The characters are stock; the narrative lacks focus as we struggle to understand what we should be caring about while the resolution at the end is both contrived and unsatisfactory.

What stands out above the blandness are a couple of ideas. At one point one of the bad guys, a religious inquisitor comments on the practice of religion in Two Rivers: “Their theology is impoverished too. Like a line drawing of Christianity, all the details left out,” (as compared to Gnosticism – p. 287). Something interesting there which is never developed.

Earlier the novel’s guru, Alan Stern poses this question (p. 49, I have précised slightly).

“Think about Albert [the family dog]. He functions in every way normally, within the parameters of his species. He can learn, do tricks and recognise you. But despite all that, there’s a limit to his understanding. If we talk about gravitons or Fourier transforms he can’t follow the conversation. His mental universe can’t contain such concepts.

“We’re sitting here asking spectacular questions about the universe, how it began, about everything which exists. And if we can ask a question then sooner or later we can answer it; we assume there are no limits to knowledge. But maybe the dog makes the same mistake? He doesn’t know what lies beyond the neighbourhood but if he found himself in a strange location he would approach it with the tools of comprehension available to him. And soon he would understand it doggie-fashion, by sight and smell and so on. For him there are no limits except the ones he can’t comprehend. So what about us? Are there questions about the universe we can’t ask? Things we can’t know? Are there real limits to our comprehension as invisible to us as they are to Albert?”

This is a good question which deserves some thought but it’s not explored in this novel.

In summary this book barely kept my attention: it’s slow and sprawling; the characters are cardboard and we just don’t care about them; the plot is unfocused and unengaging. The best thing about it is the title and the cover art. Wilson has written better novels subsequently and has carved out a minor place in ‘literary SF’ so I’d recommend sticking with those.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


We sit under an inversion layer: particulate pollution thickens the air to several thousand feet. Despite dusty sunshine and gusty winds we decide to visit a country house this afternoon: Clevedon Court.

We travel the scenic route. As I drive through Burrington Combe for the first time we both mistake it for the Cheddar Gorge. An acrimonious argument develops as we discuss who is navigating (not the driver - obviously). The Combe itself is outstandingly beautiful and must be exactly what Cheddar Gorge would look like without the commercialisation. There are some good walks in the area (Beacon Batch) so we will be back.

Eventually we get to Clevedon and our destination. The gates are firmly barred and the sign says: 'Open again in April 2011'. The driver should have checked more closely in the National Trust handbook.

As a consolation prize we progress to Portishead to play the game of 'find the beach' - it's dramatically poorly sign-posted. Can anyone have ever envisaged a beach so desolately windswept, comprised in equal measure of shingle and mud? No surprise that they don't want you to find it. Clare fronts the evidence below, looking like Trinity in The Matrix.

Most of Portishead-proper shelters from the Severn estuary behind a line of coastal hills and seems well on the way to gentrification as a posh Bristol suburb.

Reclining in a pub overlooking the water I order a hot chocolate for Clare and it comes as a big glass full of hot milk plus a cube of chocolate on a stick. In a self-service moment Clare gleefully stirs in the chocy-block until it completely dissolves: delicious!


Ed Miliband's new shadow cabinet of 28 people includes 11 women, a much higher ratio than in the past. Does this enhanced gender ratio have no implications (on the basis that men and women exhibit no gender-differentiation) or does it mean the Labour Party leadership will now demonstrate a kinder, more consensual, less aggressive politics (on the basis that these no-doubt-desirable attributes are differentially brought to the table by women)?

I try but it's sometimes hard to keep up.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Friedrich Engels

The Wells Literary Festival is in full swing and Clare and myself swung by the Bishop's Palace earlier this evening to hear Tristram Hunt talk about Friedrich Engels. Engels was a bourgeois who used his family's cotton business to provide financial help to Marx in the struggle for communism. Tristram is an aristocrat with a conventional upper class background who was recently elected as a Labour MP: to manage capitalism as Engels would have wryly observed.

Tristram Hunt (arrowed) after his talk

In any event he gave a polished and amusing biographical talk and was available afterwards to sign copies of his book.

Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Palace

This was the first time I had been inside the Bishop's Palace and very impressive it is too providing a great view of the cathedral (above, with author).

A rather spooky monk

This view, through the archway, shows an interesting sculpture in the gardens.

On Thursday we're going to a second event, a talk by Christopher Andrew who's written a book about the spooks.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

QFT correspondence


Just out of curiosity I wonder how far you got into "QFT Demystified"? You were last seen entering Chapter 2 (about which I have a small issue on the varational equations).

Truth is that QFT is hard. My courses and textbooks introduced it as "Advanced QM": that is the final 2-3 chapters in a QM book, rather than as a separate topic/book itself. That was hard too mind you. So maybe you should look at your best QM book and have a look at its final 2-3 chapters before doing anything else.

A point to bear in mind is that many of the constructs in QFT are "updated/borrowed" versions of things in QM. A good example of this is the creation and annihilation operators. Their mathematical origin comes from a QM analysis of the Simple Harmonic Oscillator in my QM book (non-self adjoint operators a+ and a- moving up and down the eigenenergy ladder, a-0> = 0 etc.). Nothing to do with QFT as yet. Then as we remember from our early Zee quantum fields are meant to be filled with SHO components all waving about. So we have a field of creation and annihilation operators now. So the maths that is introduced really came from QM.

Also for mathematicians can be the question of how much of the maths is really rigorous. The corresponding maths in QM (or Solid State physics or where-ever the maths is borrowed from) tends to be (essentially) completely rigorous, but the "borrowed" version in QFT might leave more questions. Of course in learning this stuff it is useful to have become familiar with the more rigorous bits in other places. A QFT physicist would argue that the non-rigorousness here wasn't too much of an issue, as it's the physics that counts - or indeed that it's the "results" which count. However the rigorousness of QFT deterioriates as we move towards renormalisation and so on. I am guessing that the rigorousness question will bother you as it bothered me when I tried to learn this stuff.

So bits to concentrate on initially:

1. Creation and Annhilation Operators
2. Klein Gordon Equation
3. Dirac equation and its justification and issues

There is some disagreement about the best way to present spinors which will appear. You will have to muddle along with that one until it is vaguely clear: then mathematical alternatives (which might actually be easier to comprehend ultimately) can be presented.

I bet the Griffiths book is interesting though.



I pretty much finished chapter 2 of QFTD and skimmed the rest to see where it was heading. I have not at all abandoned it - there's too much to finish in any short period of time. I tend to work better when I have the key overview concepts in place - the large-scale map of the territory. Then I can make sense of the details. That's really what I presently lack about QFT (as earlier I did about QM, which was "solved" by the OU course).

I agree with all your points and wait with interest to get to a point where the overall framework seems to make sense or whether one is forced to conclude that it's just something kludgy bolted together. My strategy is one of multiple iterations looping through improving math at each stage.

I hear that even renormalisation is getting quite respectable these days!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


That is, Mystified in Italian.

Today was sunny and as my hearing and consequently my energy is slowly returning Clare and myself took a walk up to the top of the Mendips. Yesterday evening was Clare's first class in Italian (at Strode College in Street) and all the way up the hill I was accompanied by a monologue. First we had the numbers up to 20 in Italian. Then she asked herself her name in Italian and then spelled out the letters in an Italian pronounciation. Then we had a recital of our telephone number. Finally she asked me "Come stai?" - this means "How are you?"

As it was wet underfoot I had decided to wear some extraordinarily expensive Gore-tex shoes I had foolishly bought from a shop called Ecco at the beginning of the year. They have never fitted properly and I was experiencing frictional pain in both my heels. I guess it makes a diversion from the clog in the ears. At the farm I could bear it no longer and took off each shoe in turn as Clare applied plasters: I now have blisters.

So the answer would have been "Non è fantastico" had I any Italian.


Why is Quantum Field Theory so hard (as all agree it is)? I think it's because there's a step function from undergraduate maths and physics to get to grips with it. In particular you need a good, solid (not just an introductory) understanding of non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics. You need familiarity with the Lagrangian formulation of dynamics. You need to be really comfortable with the mathematics of special relativity including tensors and the Einstein summation notation; and Lie groups. Oh, and the Calculus of Variations which is used ubiquitously.

Once you have internalised all that, you can get started.

Naturally I was interested in the best textbook as a companion for this journey.'s webpage for "Quantum Field Theory" gives plenty of choices, starting like this.

1. Quantum Field Theory by Mark Allen Srednicki (Hardcover - Feb 5, 2007) Buy new: $75.00.

3. Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell: Second Edition by A. Zee (Hardcover - Feb 21, 2010) Buy new: $65.00.

4. An Introduction To Quantum Field Theory (Frontiers in Physics) by Michael E. Peskin and Dan V. Schroeder (Hardcover - Oct 2, 1995) Buy new: $80.00.

5. Quantum Field Theory by Claude Itzykson and Jean-Bernard Zuber (Paperback - Feb 24, 2006) Buy new: $39.95 .

6. The Quantum Theory of Fields, Volume 1: Foundations by Steven Weinberg (Paperback - May 9, 2005) Buy new: $59.00.

7. Quantum Field Theory Demystified by David McMahon (Paperback - Feb 29, 2008) Buy new: $24.95.

8. Quantum Field Theory by Franz Mandl and Graham Shaw (Paperback - May 25, 2010) Buy new: $55.00.

9. Quantum Field Theory by Lewis H. Ryder (Paperback - Jun 13, 1996) Buy new: $85.00.

10. Quantum Field Theory (Mathematical Surveys and Monographs) by G. B. Folland (Hardcover - Aug 26, 2008) Buy new: $89.00.

11. A Modern Introduction to Quantum Field Theory (Oxford Master Series in Statistical, Computational, and Theoretical Physics) by Michele Maggiore (Paperback - Feb 10, 2005) Buy new: $70.00.

12. Quantum Field Theory: From Operators to Path Integrals (Physics Textbook) by Kerson Huang (Paperback - May 11, 2010) Buy new: $130.00.

I spent quite a while reading the reviews, which were often contradictory. Some of the titles are apparently too computational while others are too advanced. Some are too uneven, others too unintuitive. In the end the book which seemed to best match my needs: beginner, need for conceptual clarity, modern mathematical treatment was none of the above. I ordered:

"Gauge Theories in Particle Physics: vol. 1: From Relativistic Quantum Mechanics to QED (Graduate Student Series in Physics)" by I.J.R. Aitchison and A.J.G. Hey.

That can sit on the shelf as a reference while I work through "Introduction to Elementary Particles" by David Griffiths. This is more of an experimentalist's account but by that very fact it's an accessible tour around the subject.

"Quantum Field Theory Demystified" by David McMahon, which I was working through is more mathematical but its very brevity means that the maths is highly unmotivated. Result follows result but the trees dominate the wood.

The various reviewers of the many books above are united in that QFT can't be acquired from one book alone and shortly I'll have four, counting Zee's "Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell". I wonder how much time I'll have to progress this?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Ear Drops vs. Olive Oil

From time to time I get a build up of wax in my ears - a product of some unfortunate genes. Strangely I have never really given this problem my full attention. I poke around with cotton-wool buds and often make matters worse. And so it was a week ago.

OK, I 'm finally taking this problem seriously. I googled "Ear Wax Removal" and was informed that cotton buds just ram the wax further in. Yes, that was my experience.

So olive oil is the answer, followed by syringing with warm water. OK, I've tried the oil now for a few days but my ears are still clogged. It's extraordinary how irritating and depressing it is to feel insulated from the world, to hear a kind of faint white noise all the time, and most of all to feel the pressure of something blocking the ear canal.

This morning we went down to Boots and bought ear drops. My thought was that this was probably pointless and that the olive oil treatment should just be continued. But actually the ear drop fluid is different in two interesting ways.

1. It's considerably denser and more viscous than olive oil (it's probably glycerine).

2. It contains carbamide peroxide which makes a fizzing sound in the ear canal.

My hypothesis is that the oxygen bubbles contribute to mechanically loosening the wax while the increased fluid density is intended to float the wax off the skin surface.

Any, after one application this morning there hasn't been a huge improvement so I'll just continue as the instructions suggest.

Take home lesson: no more cotton buds poked into ears!

I also got feedback from the Wells computer repair shop this morning. The fan in my Advent notebook computer is definitely broken - the bearings have gone. However sourcing a replacement is very difficult and Richard is now reduced to looking on eBay: I don't have much hope.

However, this is a lesson in shopping at the bottom of the market: Advent computers, PC World's own brand, have proved unreliable and poorly constructed. The keyboard in particular has not impressed. My next machine will be lightweight, compact and reassuringly expensive.