Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Too many large Christmas meals!

We we have decided to move decisively to the Mediterranean Diet from now on, hoping to lose at least a pound a week. Except for the subject of the picture above, who lives outside our bedroom window. She's eschewing carbs altogether and sticking with the Atkins Diet.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Love and Asperger's

A very interesting article about a couple trying it make it all work, each with Asperger Syndrome. It's worth clicking on the video links as you go along.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dancing Around The Xmas Tree

My nephew Chris is currently finishing his three year course in computer animation at Cardiff. This allows him to create the most wonderful art-pieces such as the following which arrived on Christmas Eve for our delight. Warning: the animation includes sounds of a high and screechy kind.

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!
To get the point, it helps to know that Chris reviewed this blog to extract pictures of wife Clare; sons Alex and Adrian; my mother and myself: these have been pasted onto the characters. I also used to play guitar, my mother not; Alex tells me he has not played the drums (unlike Chris who has and does).

Here is another echo of Christmas day, at the local Catholic Church Christmas Day Mass.

You were meant to be admiring the flowers in this admittedly rather poor shot.

Science Feature: The Neocat

"In the early hours I was awakened by paws, patting their silent way across my duvet. Claws slid across my cheek, encouraging my sleep-glued eyes to open. I awoke to behold the neocat as it sat, ghostly-green, on the pillow.

‘Caught-a-vole, caught-a-vole, caught-a-vole!’ it said in its high-pitched, breathless voice and patted me again with its claws extended.

I stumbled downstairs, half-asleep, while the cat swirled dangerously around my ankles, squeaking in self-satisfaction. In the kitchen, the puss was all high-energy, catching and recatching the hapless beast while evading me with practiced ease. For variety it would occasionally let it go then bat the catatonic creature from paw to paw.

‘Bip – bop, bip – bop, bip – bop,’ it sang eerily.

When Puss sat back and started to juggle the vole in the air, my patience finally snapped. I took the big kitchen brush and literally swept the poor rodent out of the back door – I think I saw it scuttling off into the night.

The cat was locked in the kitchen.

Continue reading at

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve at Priddy

Our last pre-Christmas shop this morning. Lots of footfall on Wells High Street but the Coop was manageable and well-stocked: croissants and crumpets for breakfast tomorrow.

After lunch we took my mother to Priddy (village green pictured) and had a drink by the fire in the New Inn. It was very quiet.

Priddy is interesting - perhaps the nearest village we know to the fictional Ambridge of The Archers. There's little to see there: two pubs plus a large green surrounded by farmers' houses - the picture above illustrates the idea. Yet there is an unceasing flow of highly-popular events taking place in Priddy: the summer fete (with sheep racing); the Priddy folk festival; the Fireworks Bonfire; another music festival - and so it goes on.

In my nightmare I end up living in Priddy and find myself forced by irresistible social pressure onto no less than than a dozen organising committees. As I said - Ambridge. By contrast, in the rather quiet part of Wells where we live the neighbourhood is low-key and private. We live a secluded life, mainly venturing out on business and into cyberspace.

I have a few more posts to come at but I have agreed with a somewhat reluctant management team that my articles are increasingly discordant with the media-event market positioning that the site has now evolved to.

The current branding successfully differentiates the site from its competitors in the SF fandom space, but it needs a fundamentally different kind of science article - shorter, less complex and more closely tied to the cycle of media events. Not really where I want to go and additionally I don't have access to the US media which mostly drives the site. I hope to continue reviewing books for them though.

All the signs are good to start a new telecoms consultancy contract in the new year, so watch this space.
App news: now using the free (30 day trial) The Times app. So far it's pretty good.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Bitterness of Pomegranate

Our afternoon was enlivened as Clare attempted to eat a pomegranate 'for health reasons'.

I'm guessing this is a food strategy with a limited shelf life: my mother is less than impressed!

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Parable about Orbital KE Weapons

"The Teacher stood at the mouth of the cave and gazed up at the midnight sky. Stars like jewels shone out over the freezing Afghan desert. Deep inside the caverns behind him, his followers were gathered around warm fires, talking quietly and preparing to sleep.

From beyond the memory of living man this land had been a waste land. Once again the foreigners had come with their killing machines and alien ways. In response the zealots, with their AK-47s and home-made bombs, led young men astray in a suffocating blanket of dogmatic conformity.

The Teacher had been ignored for so long, condemned as an apostate and a heretic. Yet recently the war-weary population had begun to turn to him, crowds gathered where he preached his message of charity, sharing and selflessness. Tomorrow he and his band of followers would go to the Capital, and perhaps the masses would choose his way.

The Teacher looked up and saw a bright meteor-trail in the velvet western sky. Unlike the sin and ugliness on the ground, in the heavens there was only beauty."

Continue reading at

You will not be surprised to discover that the meteor-trail is not entirely what it seems.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mass in B Minor at St. Cuthbert's

We strolled down in the biting north-west wind to St. Cuthbert's this evening to hear the Beaumont Singers and orchestra presenting J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor.

Here's a picture of the orchestra just assembling, about a quarter of an hour before the performance started.

The start of this work is quite spine-chilling, but unfortunately after that the performance fell rather flat. The chorus was repetitive (to be fair, this is a feature of the work) and the brass and wind sections were rather boomy. After an hour, Clare and myself felt we had sampled enough Bach and so we left at the interval.

Here are a couple of pictures of Broad Street and the High Street as traversed en-route to the pub. There, amidst the ripe Somerset accents, we enjoyed pints of Cheddar Ales 'Potholer' and a warm fire.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's Christmas

Internal Xmas tree assembled, lights strewn around it, sundry decorations affixed: check! External Xmas tree likewise sorted - check! Fairly lights adorning the perimeter of the kitchen and hall - done!

Just finishing Neal Stephenson's tech-thriller README. Fun, cute characters and a lively - if implausible - plot. What tends to mark out Stephenson's main characters is that if male, they're smart, wise-cracking and incredibly-accomplished intellectual types; his women are similar but feisty. As someone said about his Baroque Cycle, Stephenson knows his audience.

I hope to be reviewing some hot-off-the-press titles for soon. More later.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Vodafone SureSignal down today

All today the Vodafone SureSignal device (which was working yesterday to my premature amazement) has been down.

Five minutes ago it acquired synchronisation and I now have a 3G signal again.

I wonder why I'm not surprised.
Update Thursday: the 3G signal has now been up for 24 hours and seems stable. I'm guessing it took this long for Vodafone's back-office systems to sync up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Vodafone SureSignal

The Vodafone SureSignal box (pictured) contains a tiny 3G transceiver (a WCDMA femtocell) and an Ethernet port which connects to a broadband router. By registering your 3G phone number and USB 3G dongle with Vodafone, these devices can then connect to the SureSignal box and their traffic will be tunneled across the broadband network back to Vodafone.

So I now have a mobile base station in my very own home and consequently an excellent mobile phone signal, plus my mobile data service works too - which helps when BT is messing up access to the WordPress image-upload windows at

I had very little hope of this working. When the box arrived on Saturday the Vodafone site was down and stayed down until this morning. Once I had logged in, it proved impossible to navigate through the useless Vodafone layout to register the device: I was fored to make the 191 call-centre call. The guy there, three months into the job, fixed everything and after less than an hour of self-configuration everything now works!

I'm so not used to that.

Note: femtocell technology like SureSignal must be such a boon to the police. The mobile phone company can pin down my location to a resolution similar to that of GPS (they know where the SureSignal box is located, and they know I'm logged on to its short range signal).
All over the world physicists are glued to their computers, waiting for the CERN webcast (1 pm UK time) which will brief us on the updated Higgs story. I'll be checking the live blog here.

Update: the signals are consistent with a 125-126 GeV Higgs, but also with a statistical fluctuation in the decay products from other interactions. So we need to wait for more data in 2012.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our universe from nothing at all

"Many visitors to will be familiar with the timeline of the Big Bang, the idea that our universe started from some kind of ‘gigantic explosion’ some 13.6 billion years ago. But this is not the version of reality accepted by most cosmologists: their story is far, far stranger.

In the beginning (and probably way before 13.6 billion years ago) there was no space, time, matter or energy. All that existed was a totally empty geometry containing no points whatsoever – a particular solution to Einstein’s field equations. Quantum principles still applied though and the totally-empty universe was able to tunnel to a peculiar metastable state called the false vacuum.

At this point the new universe (at c. 10-52 meters) was 17 orders of magnitude smaller than the Planck length .

The false vacuum was permeated with a field called the inflaton field with a strange property: ..."

Continue reading at

An Urban Myth about Marines

After (presumably) reading my article on Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers' (where a similar incident occurs), my brother sent me the following article (click on it to make it larger).

Sadly, it's only partially true.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Starship Troopers (retrospective) asked me to write a retrospective on Robert Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers'. Here it is.

"With all the news about the ‘Starship Troopers’ remake, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit of nostalgia and decided to revisit the acclaimed book with some discussion.

Johnnie Rico jumps to the top of the tallest building in the neighborhood. He flips the snoopers up, looking for a target worth shooting at. There’s a tall building on the horizon. He lets the rocket see it and says “Go find it, baby” as the nuclear-tipped missile leaps away. Pausing only to fry a skinny popping up ahead of him, he jumps in long, easy strides towards the recall beacon as enemy slugs bounce harmlessly off his powered armor. It’s just another morning’s work for the Mobile Infantry

Continue reading at


I have been trying to work out what David Cameron's "veto" means for the future of the UK: The Economist blogs were particularly useful. The UK's political elite consistently underestimate how central the European project is to the mainland countries of the EU - they will not let the project, or the Euro, die. So all this talk of countries exiting the Euro is way off the mark.

One way or another the non-UK countries of the European Union are going to make Europe work. Their model is over-regulated, over-welfared and under-enterprised so it will no doubt take decades to get right. Our best UK hope is to be the Taiwan or Singapore, offshore to a less efficient monolith. But don't be thinking they won't retaliate.

Logically, we could have allied with the Germans and other North Europeans to help sort out the south and get the European project motoring. It surely would work a lot better with the UK pushing it along. But having lost an empire, I guess we weren't ready to be junior party to the Germans, in competition with the French :-).

Let's hope in twenty years time we won't regret it.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Cat with the Gozzy Teeth

A great title: one for my next piece perhaps?

He's been looking a bit down in the dumps the last few days so Clare decided we should take him to the vet this morning. I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and lowered him into the catbox: his flailing claws dug a hole in my thumb from which blood spurted like a new oil find.

The vet told us a dire story about a cat in pain, teeth breaking off, consequentially infected gums, and directed us to their main office at Wedmore (ten miles away). As I write the animal is there, recovering from a general anaesthetic and the loss of his wonky canines. I will be dispatched shortly to collect him and pay an amount which could buy us a whole new family of cats.

Clare has remade our bed upstairs "in case he's feeling low when he comes home."


I was at the dump shortly after dawn this morning off-loading a spare bed and what seems like a million Daily Mail free CDs dating back to the last millenium. Despite a clear-out of my mother's front bedroom, it seems we have only scratched the surface down there :-)

If the council worker was intending to go through the sack looking for priceless gems from Max Bygraves and Des O'Connor, he certainly kept his desires well-hidden. "Over there in the non-recyclable landfill," he said, and went back to his office.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

Good film with fine acting from an assortment of UK luvies. Marilyn was done well but I don't think her essential being can be replicated by acting, no matter how fine.

Colin Clark was another brilliant portrayal as the upper-crust ingenu besotted with M.

In the end, despite all the cleverness the film fails to be sufficiently involving, it's hard to say why.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Cogito Ergo Sum

"I first met René Descartes’ famous aphorism, “I think, therefore I am”, when I was a young teen. Naturally I wasted no time in deciding that the Great Man’s thought was trite and glib, a maxim whose proper home was surely the tee-shirt. Later, at university, I took philosophy classes and was surprised to discover that there were people who thought they’d refuted Descartes. How on earth was that possible?

Monsieur Descartes spent his youth as a soldier, seeing action in many battles. Later, when he became an academic, he used to stay in bed ’til noon thinking deep thoughts. Doubt plagued him: how can anyone be sure of anything? As you look around, the things you see, hear and smell could merely be a dream or a staged virtual environment."

Continue reading at

This article touches centrally on the research I did on "First Order Intentional Systems" for my Ph.D. An example again of how artificial intelligence can shed new light on old philosophical puzzles.
In other news, we successfully assembled the new Dyson vacuum cleaner (this was by no means a given!) and today Clare vacuumed the car with it.

I'm down to do a retrospective review of Heinlein's Starship Troopers so I'd better get back to re-reading it.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

New Dyson Vacuum Cleaner

Normally I wouldn't bore you with such domestic minutiae as the contents of the box shown below.

However, the person shown in the picture is going to have to assemble this after lunch and then push it through thick pile upstairs and downstairs to show off its superior suction.

I can't tell you how much I am looking forwards to this.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Science Fiction Personality Poll

I'm putting together an article about personality types and the kinds of people who tend to read hard science-fiction. This is also an excuse to play with polling software of which blogpoll seems to be the simplest (surveymonkey is more powerful but more complex). Anyway, please feel free to have a go.

The answers correspond to the Keirsey temperament types NF, SP, NT and SJ for those people who are into that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Newton's Collapsing Universe

"Sir Isaac Newton was possibly the greatest scientist who ever lived. But even great men can make mistakes – it’s just that their errors are more interesting than other people’s.

Newton’s law of motion (force equals mass times acceleration) is taught in every high school. Newton’s law of gravitation (the inverse-square law) is precise enough to be used by NASA for space mission design and was used by Newton himself to determine the motion of the planets. Given the wide applicability and accuracy of his theory, it was natural that Newton’s questing intelligence would turn to the question of the structure of the universe itself.

Continue reading at

Book Review: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

For most people, the arc of Steve Jobs’s career is defined by the Apple II, the Macintosh, Toy Story and other Pixar blockbusters, the iPod and iTunes, the iPhone and App Store, the iPad and iCloud. None of these would have happened except for Steve Jobs’s extraordinarily intense personality.

Biographer Walter Isaacson talks of ‘Good Steve’ and ‘Bad Steve’ but the latter was more frequently in evidence. Take the engineer who’d been working 80 hour weeks (how do you even do that?) for ten months and had the misfortune to meet up with Jobs one Friday afternoon for review. Jobs fell into a typical fury and began abusing the engineer, calling his work ‘shit’: shortly afterwards the engineer quit. This sounds terrible, and it is, but without ‘Bad Steve’ there would have been – nothing.

When engineers design a product it is typically efficient but clunky; over-functional and under-integrated. When accountants are in charge you get what the engineers wanted, but on the cheap. In most product companies, designers are humble artisans, serving up a ‘user-friendly’ wrapping over what someone else decided to produce.

By contrast, wherever Steve Jobs went the designer was in charge: Jobs was the super-user, the ambassador of the user experience. But when design is king, everyone else is required to move mountains to meet the central design concept. Naturally they consider this to be utterly unnecessary if not outright wilful.

Jobs’s reality distortion field denoted the triumph of ‘unrealistic’ design excellence over ‘good-enough’ engineering practice. Yet design is inherently subjective, there are no algorithms or equations that can tell you what Steve Jobs knew. The triumph of the apparently-arbitrary requires the power of a tyrant, yet that power was not (in general) wielded for personal reasons, but in the service of the design.

The design is not to be messed with. The Apple walled garden of total integration and control is the antithesis of the modular mix-n-match we associate with PC and Internet culture. But when the user (or the manufacturer) simply integrates a solution from market-available components there can be no over-arching design concept: flexibility, of necessity, breeds clunkiness. So which is best?

Everything in life is a trade-off. If you want a seamless, elegant and intuitive digital experience, then Apple will give it to you at a price, provided you stay within the Apple universe. Outside it you will have wider, cheaper and perhaps more innovative options, but the systems are uglier, harder to use and prone to odd failures. That’s what you get when there’s no adult supervision of the user experience.

Apple’s talented chief designer, Jony Ive, was dismayed by talk that Apple was (in the longer term) doomed to become just another company after Jobs’s death. ‘Many of the ideas were mine and I’m still here’ seemed to be his position; and with Tim Cook as the supportive CEO what was to stop the show going on? Just the missing ingredient of ‘Bad Steve’, the tyranny which breaks the resistance of all those reasonable voices from engineering and finance who can find a million excellent reasons for not entering the reality distortion field.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs , despite its door-stopping 600 pages, has been a runaway bestseller. Based on meticulous research (more than one hundred interviews) you get page-turning fly-on-the-wall access to the key episodes in Steve Jobs’s personal and business career. This is also an insider’s history of Silicon Valley high-tech from the dawn of the PC-age.

For several days while I was reading it I was boring my family by reading aloud amusing and frequently horrifying anecdotes of Steve Jobs’s behaviour, not all of which reflected badly on him. It’s highly recommended.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Tramp in the Church (redux)

We've been here before.

As Clare led the way into the church this morning, she spotted him occupying the pew just before the back one, the one where we usually hang out on the right hand side of the aisle.

"Where would you like us to go?" she whispered back to me.

"On the other side," I replied, meaning the other wing of the church, the one facing the Holy Land rather than the north-facing wing where we currently were.

Clare mistook my meaning and we continued to the rear pew on the other side of the aisle, where I was able to keep watch on the somnolent tramp from the corner of my eye. With no little schadenfreude I kept count of latecomers, who were forced by overcrowding into the empty pews in front and behind him.

During the service he stayed crouched down, occasionally turning in one direction or another. Finally we approached the part of the Mass where the congregation make the "sign of peace". I didn't think he would venture as far as me but I had prepared a little script involving bowing to him and whispering 'pax vobiscum' in a detached kind of way. Hopefully that would save me from having to use Clare's wet-wipes afterwards.

In the event, as the moment came, he enthusiastically shook his dirty mitt with the family in front and the young man behind, then he scuttled across the aisle and shook hands with a lay official of the parish, just in front of me. Like a wave which reaches its limits amidst the pebbles, this marked the culmination of his efforts and he retreated back to his lair.

"We dodged a bullet there," I confided to Clare.

During the sermon the priest, Father Philip, confided that Mass yesterday evening had been disrupted by a man who walked up to the altar, started swearing and disrobing, and claimed to be Jesus Christ. Apparently the services of burly parishioners - and possible the police - were required to restore normality.

The priest's take was focused on the virtues of taking your medication: I had no idea that such excitement occurred in sleepy Wells. I looked at the tramp again, this time in a wholly new light, excited by the possibilities.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

House Pictures

Here are some pictures of our house.

 Our house from the road 

 The patio at the side 

 The back garden 

 Clare in the kitchen 

 The living room 

 The kitchen-diner 

 Bird-feeders in the front-garden 

The owners on the couch

Wuthering Heights

We saw "Wuthering Heights" (2011) on Tuesday at the Wells Film Centre. The poster below is an accurate depiction of how dreary and tedious the experience was.

Given the ever-present torrential rain, the deep mud, leaden skies and howling winds it was immediately apparent that this movie had not been sanctioned by the Yorkshire Tourist Board. What really kills it, however, is that Heathcliff is played by actors so passive, charmless and lacking in any kind of sexual charisma that no conceivable woman could have been attracted to him.

The director has tried to make up for the zero chemistry between the leading players by all kinds of erotic imagery and Freudian suggestiveness: the risible awfulness of this unsubtle manipulation is the only thing which saves the audience from descending into the deepest Yorkshire depression.

Yesterday I was in Bristol visiting my mother, who was keen to show off her new coat, hat and gloves. One picture shows fine wares from Lidl while the other features M&S (which is which?). Both stores are apparently engaged in deep price-cutting: times are indeed hard.

Today I'm going to have a rest after I've fixed the wretched kitchen spotlight (there's a dodgy connection) which Adrian repaired with bluetack but which promptly failed again two days later.

And I feel impelled to write something about the superb Walter Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cat's Gozzy Tooth

The days go by and the cat's gozzy tooth refuses to fall out.

The one good thing is that as he frightens the voles so much, he never comes close to catching any.

Meanwhile, Clare has decided to study Freud (this, I think, from watching a surfeit of "Waking the Dead" - the more I see of Peter Boyd, the Trevor Eve character, the more I think his personality is pretty much identical with that of Steve Jobs).

Clare reading Freud
Dr Freud was a sex-obsessed control freak: I've made sure she also has access to the kinder, gentler and altogether more profound Dr Carl Jung.

Mind Reading

"Michael vectors the hidden camera to a wealthy-looking patron on his first course. A click on the joystick and the second screen lights up: this is the one that reads the client’s mind.

Mr. Rich-Guy seems happy enough according to the emotion-bar at the bottom of the display. It’s showing a lush, reassuring yellow with shades of soft green and pink. The main part of the monitor is interpreting the subject’s visual cortex: on the screen his mind’s eye view of the meal wobbles and occasionally morphs into something similar – the machine isn’t quite perfect. The prawn cocktail segues into a view of a tropical bay, a very long way from this rain-swept New York evening. The swirling yellows and greens show that this too is a pleasant association – the meal is still going well.

Michael wonders endlessly where his boss got all this stuff. As the lowest of the low in the restaurant hierarchy, he would never dream of asking though. From idle chat in the kitchen he’s discovered that the owner used to be in Military Intelligence. Somehow, some top-secret interrogation equipment managed to end up in his new venture. Behind the walls and above the false ceiling there are sensitive field detectors which can amplify the faintest swirls of an active brain."

Continue reading at

It would be very difficult to detect brain activity at a distance - I think current experiments require the subject to be inside a scanner. I have no idea whether the signal strength is sufficient for cortical activity to be reconstructed even in principle from detectors behind a wall.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Adrian back to Canada

By now Adrian should be at Sun Peaks, British Columbia, asleep after a 24 hour trip which started at Reading station yesterday in the morning rush-hour. Once Western Canada starts its day he'll be zooming around to get lift passes and other bits of documentation ... he could be teaching ski/snowboarding classes as early as tomorrow.

While Adrian was in the air, we were in Bristol yesterday paying an exorbitant £6 car park charge to shop in the Broadmead city centre complex. I now have some outdoor boots - comfortable as trainers and waterproof as only a Gore-Tex liner can make it.

Next we lost ourselves in the labyrinth which is IKEA and I emerged like some dusty refugee with a heavy yellow bag slung over my shoulder stashed with household goodies. At least the cushions weren't too much of a burden to carry...

Next, with my mother, we were off to Lewis's at Cribbs Causeway where Clare ordered four new rainbow-striped dining chairs, which may even arrive in time for Christmas. We were home by 4.30.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Has Greg Egan gone too far?

"Once upon a time, one of our most noted authors of ultra-hard SF wrote a novel about a bunch of aliens living in the interior of an asteroid in close orbit around a black hole. The author, Greg Egan, was so incensed by one of the reviews of this book – by Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons – that he wrote a detailed rebuttal on his website (Anatomy of a Hatchet Job)."

Continue reading at

This is another article which more repays careful reading than the oh-my-gosh appeal of an asteroid-impact piece. It segues from the style of literary criticism appropriate for science-heavy SF to the merits of exploring counterfactual physics. Mr Egan constantly stretches the link between the standard mechanisms of fiction and the conceptual intricacies of modern physics, inviting his literate fans to follow..

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wells Carnival in the rain

It was raining cats and dogs yesterday evening as we walked down our road, clutching out bag of 20p coins and our umbrella, to see the Wells Carnival go by.

This is what a float looks like, as it drives out of the town up New Street.

Africa girl here has already endured three-quarters of an hour of steady downpour, but she's still twirling.

This Spanish dancer, jiggling to thunderous music, at least has some cover. The float stopped opposite us; nearby, the rain-soaked teens from The Blue School were soon gyrating in time on the pavement.

These girls were from a care-home, I think. Is that a toilet I see, with knickers around the ankles? ... A fine example of rustic humour.

Pole dancing from the care-home cleaners.

What's this about? No idea.

Another brilliantly-lit float advancing through the rain.

This is Way-Out-West, a tableau.

The girl trapped in the shop is part of the tableau.

Welcome to the sleazier end of of the Wild-West!

Conditions were atrocious and it's no surprise that many of the dancers looked bored out of their minds. Can you imagine gyrating for an hour to the repeated tune of "We are the Diddymen"? Plus all the rehearsals? Plainly you would go out of your mind - that stuff dripping down their chins wasn't rain, it was drool.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Anonymous (film)

Well, what a busy day today! After a morning spent in arduous dialogue with BT (previous post) Clare and myself strolled down to the Wells Film Centre this afternoon to see "Anonymous".

The picture shows something you may have missed in your history lessons: specifically the 'Virgin' Queen Elizabeth 1st getting it on with the young Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who unbeknownst to her is also her illegitimate son. Wow!

The results of this coupling will be to produce another, incestuous, illegitimate son for our Liz, the future Earl of Southampton. The doomed Earl of Essex, Southampton's dearest friend, is another of Liz's illegitimate progeny ... while Rafe Spall reprises his semi-psychopathic joker persona as an uncouth, vicious and on-the-make William Shakespeare.

No expense has been spared in making the film but despite high production values, it ultimately disappoints: not because of the far-fetched thesis but because it's hard to separate out the times and the characters.

There's so much time-jumping between the generations that it's impossible to work out on screen which illegitimate son is begetting which. Not that begetting takes up a lot of screen time, but the confusing flashback sequences do.

We walked back in intense discussion as to who was Edward de Vere's father (we never figured it out). Then we went to the Co-Op.

BT Broadband Blues

At the end of October I received the following email from BT (excerpted):

Good news. We’re rolling out our faster broadband and we’ll be upgrading our network in your area on 31-Oct-11. This’ll make the things you do online quicker.

For the first ten days or so after your upgrade, your broadband might slow down or even stop now and again. That's normal and your speed will soon settle down. You can help it along by leaving your BT Home Hub on all the time and using your broadband as much as you can for this period.

BT's perception of incipient Good News was indeed prescient. All this month the Internet link has been randomly dropping, maybe three minutes downtime every couple of hours. More seriously, when I write my articles for I have to upload images to WordPress: mysteriously, their pop-up window for image upload stopped working.

Naturally my first thought was that this was a W7 laptop problem. I tried uploading with my business machine (W7 starter) and my old business machine (XP): nothing worked. Then I tried with my Vodafone 3G connection and the upload worked just fine. I had already checked that the problem was not with WordPress so it seemed clear that the failure lay with BT.

This morning I nerved myself for what I knew would be a tedious and difficult technical support call. The first ten minutes was spent trying to find a number. Like Amazon, BT make it extremely difficult to search out a technical help number. After five layers of IVR menus I eventually got through to the Indian call centre.

I explained that BT had put a new DSLAM or, as I believe it's called in BT-speak, an MSAN in my local exchange, probably upgrading to ADSL2+ and that I believed this upgrade was the root of the problem. I'm not sure the guy in India had a clue what I was talking about.

Clearly something which is not affecting general Internet access (layers 3 and 4) but is messing up session/application connectivity (layers 6/7) is going to be down to some kind of application-proxying appliance. I asked whether BT in its upgrade was perhaps installing new application-screening firewalls in response to the latest scare on adult content.

The BT guy was handicapped in that he had no access to network-upgrade data (how helpful is that?) but he dutifully took over my screen and we rehearsed together that the image-upload didn't work. Then he closed down the call saying he had no idea what was wrong.

I briefly tried the "Internet Chat" technical help facility, getting through to "Claire" with an initial message describing the problem. Nothing happened for a long while so I wandered off: when I returned the chat session had timed out with Claire's last response indicating that BT couldn't help with third-party issues such as Vodafone 3G.

Today, however, is the magical tenth day after the upgrade and this evening, while I was delving into the BT Home Hub firewall to see whether that could be the problem, I discovered that the problem had gone away.

So what's the answer? I think the BT engineers did indeed connect an appliance to the (upstream) link of their new DSLAM to monitor usage. And I think that this introduced some subtle effect that degraded the session link with the WordPress image-upload function. At close of business today the engineers took it away, and normal service was resumed.

Moral? There isn't one. Exasperation and wasted time? Off the scale.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Christmas Wonderland

The Almondsbury Garden Centre is already open for Christmas business - we lunched there today.

'Jane Austin' (sic)
I was taken by this black fur hat, which reminded me of the cat, so persuaded my mother to hold it up so that its label was clear. I imagine that Jane Austen would have spit in their eyes.

Just like we had in the States?
When we were in Virginia, we played kitsch by having an illuminated reindeer family in our front garden. I emailed Clare this photo and asked her whether she thought I should buy it. She emailed back: "No dear."

Santas and Beryl
Here's a bonus shot of my mother with the santas.

On our way back as we crossed the Mendips, close to the Castle of Comfort pub there was an almighty bang and the car pitched to the side. I stopped the car in the pub forecourt and Adrian and myself discovered that the driver's side front tyre was flat.

In the gathering gloom we searched for the jack (and eventually found it) and then were stymied by the locking wheel nut until we eventually found the tool for that. Thirty minutes later we had successfully changed the tyre and a few moments later Clare pulled up in the Saxo. We'd summoned her at the onset, when we weren't sure whether we'd be able to fix it, but our insurance policy wasn't needed in the end .

What heroism though! Clare had ransacked the house and shed looking for a jack (and failed), then she'd reversed down the drive in the dark without hitting the walls (big success). She thoroughly deserved the two chocolate bars we brought back for her and the two insect-and-berry bird food slabs!

Update Wednesday morning

I'm now £85 poorer but the tyre has been fixed by the excellent Wells Tyre Service. The problem was a tear in the sidewall, about half an inch from the tread. "Pothole," the man said, "Your wheel sank into a pothole and the rough edge punctured the tyre." Says something about the back roads across the Mendips.

After I came back I had my own 'Gorillas in the Mist' moment, as I precariously climbed the tree in the front garden to attach Clare's new 'insect and berry' suet-block feeder. It says on the packet, 'not for human consumption' and to be fair, the odour is a bit off ... must be the berries.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Live Forever

I was rather dubious about this current piece, just published at It's a complex argument requiring the reader to engage, not skim. Do I believe it myself? Sort of, although I'd like to hear what a pair of intellectually-minded twins thought about it.

"Petra was brought into my office. There is something about it being the last day of your life which modulates every emotion: Petra looked scared, resigned, even – against the odds – slightly hopeful – but most of all she just looked bone-achingly weary. I stopped the nervous adjustment of my robes, calmed myself and looked her in the eye with what I hoped was a friendly expression.

‘You didn’t ask to see me, Petra, but … it’s a facility our hosts here grant us. First of all tell me, are you a Christian?’

Petra shook her head. Young people seldom think deeply about religion in my experience, and all this had obviously happened far too suddenly for Petra to get around to revisiting her core beliefs. Well, that was partially why I was here.

‘So when they take you out at dawn tomorrow and shoot you through the heart, that’s it? A kick in the chest, a brief moment of pain followed by gathering blackness, and then you never get to wake again. Is that right?’

Continue reading at

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Party Girl

I found this photo of my mother, Beryl Seel, taken at Christmas time 1936 when she would have been thirteen and three-quarters.

I see a resemblance to one of the granddaughters.

The Mandolin is still around, I think. I practised guitar chords on its four strings when I was a similar age, before I bought my first guitar.

The Tramp in the Church

I spotted him straightaway, as we walked to the back of the church this morning. Elderly, burley, hirsute and down-at-heel, the mad tramp was slumped on the rear pew where we normally like to sit. Clare seemed oblivious as she led the way into the penultimate pew, just in front of him. Poor idea - far too close. As we sat down I could hear him mumbling to himself behind me.

I recalled the last time he'd visited the church, months ago, when he'd sat in the pew in front of us (where we were sitting now in fact). He had slumped and twitched and talked to himself, and occasionally to others during the service, and then at the moment when the priest had asked the congregation to show the 'sign of peace' to each other he had taken his chance. Scuttling like a crab, he had moved into the aisle and with a bobbing gait and malicious smile had thrust his dirty, squalid hand at everyone he could reach. Horrified parishioners were obliged to shake hands with him and then rue the lack of wet-wipes. Luckily he didn't look behind him at that time, so we were spared.

As the service progressed, I was fixated on what I would do when he tried this trick again. Could I get away with facing him down with a stony glare and a muttered "I an NOT a Catholic," or would social pressure force me to take the malevolent hand? And what about Clare, could I protect her from this unhygienic moment? Not my problem, I decided.

The fateful moment arrived after the Lord's Prayer. I nerved myself - they say you never know how you'll behave under fire until the bullets are whizzing around you - and the moment passed. The mad tramp had not stirred and had not bothered anyone this time around.

I am profoundly atheist so church services that work with pleasant, slightly ageing, middle-class congregations and don't work at all with the unpleasant are not an issue for me at all. I wouldn't want to shake hands with an unkempt,unwashed and deranged tramp under any circumstances: I hardly feel I'm alone in this. But I suspect that Catholics feel that Jesus probably would have: it all adds fuel to that legendary Catholic guilt.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fireworks Night

In past years we went to the fireworks celebrations in a field close to our house in Penton Corner, near Andover. We'd fight the frost by bathing in the radiant heat of the bonfire, munching a burnt burger and quaffing beer out of a polystyrene mug.

Priddy was holding the equivalent event this evening. We drove up the 'king of the mountains' route of the Old Bristol Road and turned left towards Priddy. About a mile out we saw a line of cars parked on the verge and families walking on the road. "This is ridiculous," I snorted, "We're miles away!" I kept on driving and we were soon snared in gridlock.

Half an hour later we crawled past a half-burned-down bonfire and a further ten minutes later we escaped from the far side of Priddy - and headed off home.

It could have been worse (at least we weren't trapped until the last person had left ).

Thursday, November 03, 2011


Clare and myself saw this movie yesterday afternoon but I'm almost too bored to write any kind of review.

It's not that the film itself was boring; it was mildly absorbing all the way through. The problem is that an exponentially-spreading virus, for which a vaccine will eventually be found after a lot of deaths, is not intrinsically very interesting. So you have to overlay it with 'people stories'.

There were quite a few: the hero-doctor who uses his privileged knowledge to help a relative; the evil conspiracy-theorist blogger who makes his millions with fraudulent 'cures'; the heroine-doctor (pictured above) who catches the disease; the immune husband whose dead wife had a fling with an ex; the daughter who's sick of being cooped up by her dad; the hoodies who raid the supermarkets, break into houses and kill. It's a long list of over-familiar tropes and we're not really engaged.

I look forwards to the Elizabethan swagger of "Anonymous" soon enough.

My previous post about the Greek Colonels making a comeback seems increasingly prescient. The media are reluctant to dwell on it, but in the 21st century an advanced capitalist country in Western Europe can indeed fall off a cliff.

Monday, October 31, 2011

God's Asteroid

One of the best descriptions of what you would see ... and the effects of ... a large asteroid hitting the earth.

"A three mile wide, billion ton asteroid hits Europe. This unimaginable catastrophe actually happened five thousand years ago, and astonishingly, there is an ancient eyewitness account, as well as the aftermath described in The Bible.

The “Planisphere” tablet was discovered in the ruined library of the Assyrian royal palace at Nineveh (Iraq). It’s a copy of the night diary of a Sumerian astronomer containing drawings of the night sky. But stars were not the only thing the ancient astronomer observed in that pre-sunrise of 29th June in the year 3,123 BC.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell analyzed the Planisphere a sector at a time, decoding the star signs and Sumerian commentary by matching constellations and planets against state-of-the-art programs which can reproduce the night sky from any location and at any time in the last few thousands of years...

Continue reading at

The biblical reference is a bit populist but seems to work with the predominantly American audience on the site.

This morning we shopped at Glastonbury and Street as drizzle infiltrated everywhere from a bland, gray sky. Morrisons were selling octopus: ("quite popular, we had a chinese lady in who makes a sauce from their ink. I'm more of a cod and chips man myself"). We followed his lead.

This evening I went with Clare to the Mass for All Saints. This is the Catholic version of Halloween and we left a big bowl of chocolate bars on the house step with the legend "Help Yourself - One Each". On our return it seemed undisturbed: (last year we had two or three troupes visiting - some quite large). We had carefully chosen confectionary we would be quite happy with ... probably we're good now through to Christmas!


We had the tree surgeons around this morning. They trimmed stuff in the back garden and in the front, and had to cut down the big tree to the left of our driveway entrance, down by the road, as it was completely rotten with fungal infestation. Their work coincided with next door replacing the fence they have in common with us: the tree surgeons were originally contracted to trim undergrowth next door by our neighbours prior to the fence replacement.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Contract ends a little early - back in Wells

No issues - as I've worked before with the client I was able to get the job done faster than they had budgeted. So the deliverable has been handed over after eight days rather than fifteen and I vacated the Reading flat yesterday.

In the evenings, after work, Alex and I could be found lounging in recliners under the glow of his John Lewis uplighters, discussing the affairs of the world. We mused on the condition of Greece: heavily indebted, ridiculously low productivity and falling farther behind Germany every day, the prisoner of powerful vested interests and corruption with no significant social forces to drive change.

What happens when the Germans eventually stop paying?

You could imagine that all sectors of Greek society decide to equitably take their pay cuts, pay their taxes, work longer hours (or show up) and retire much later ... or you could imagine that they will fight like dogs in a box to make sure that they get a disproportionate share from the now-merely-dripping tap. And when that happens we call it a breakdown of society. And the Greek Colonels will be back.

I wonder what the EU will do with a military dictatorship installed in one of its member countries? Send in the Bundeswehr?

Alex thought this eventuality had been under-explored in the media and urged me to write about it here: consider it done.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Terminal Decision

"The princess was beautiful but willful. It was entirely in character that she should wake in the pre-dawn glimmer and leave her chamber unobserved, to walk barelegged in the dew. And it was there, in the old meadows surrounding the chateau, that they took her.

They had been incredibly clever as well as resourceful and, perhaps most importantly, they had been lucky. Our security teams had unaccountably failed to detect their dragonship, hidden with perfect care inside the husk of an abandoned church. The Princess Irena, true to her contrary self, had decided to mark her first day in the newly-conquered province of Aquila by a solitary early morning excursion."

Continue reading ...

This article has been a while in preparation. In the course of researching articles on future weapon systems for I looked into missile guidance systems and discovered that missiles normally use a hunt algorithm called 'proportional navigation'. This basically steers the missile directly at the target no matter how it moves to evade.

Dragonflies do something smarter: they move in such a way that no matter what their target does, the dragonfly always stays stationary in the target's visual field - the hunter doesn't move sideways against the background. The only effect is that the dragonfly naturally looms larger as it homes in. This is call 'motion camouflage' - how cute is that?

So the story wraps up this concept in a little interplanetary adventure where the planet is in a stellar cluster so that space is really, really bright, rather than dark as it is with us. So 'motion camouflage' is quite important as a dark object moving against a bright background will really stand out.

Sadly, the story seems to have passed most people by, judging by the number of 'likes' and tweets it got.


Tomorrow I'm coming up to the halfway point of the current IL2 security contract. Reading is the polar opposite of Wells, being working class, multi-ethnic and home to a small ecosystem of rat-faced, shifty men who hang around in the back streets.

The town centre additionally boasts of swaggering young blokes who seem convinced that by jangling their money loudly as they walk by and then asking if you can 'spare 50p' they are contributing to the fabric of a good civil society.

I slew my glance away and answer with a languid 'No....'.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

An IL2 security contract

Not much activity here recently as I'm busy with a client, conducting an IL2 security review. The work started on Wednesday (Oct 19th) and runs through to November 8th.

As a consequence I'm staying during the week with Alex in his Reading flat. We have established a schedule which finely intermeshes, both in the mornings as we each get ready for work, and in the evenings as we each make use of the Microwave within minutes of each other. Alex has settled on Waitrose one-person meals; I am set up with M&S after a trip to their fine outlet in Frome this morning.

While I'm making money, has four of my articles stacked up:
  • A little story on smart missiles
  • An asteroid impact effects piece - 'God's Asteroid'
  • A new take on Buddhist ideas of reincarnation
  • A thought about reviewing Greg Egan's current 'Orthogonal' trilogy.
However, my continuing excursion into differential geometry and GR is on the back-burner till mid-November.

The clocks go back next week-end. I thought Mr Cameron was going to stop all that nonsense. I hold out little hope for the new 80 mph motorway speed limit either. These may be little wins, but they make a difference and it lowers morale when they're so cheaply and easily abandoned!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Vampire Mutation

I spent the morning putting together a security audit pack and a bunch of document templates. I was meant to be travelling up to Reading this afternoon to stay at Alex's apartment, ready to start a new security project with a client tomorrow. Skype, however, is silent, there are no texts, emails or calls. The project is in suspension - not yet approved.


I wrote the latest article a few weeks back. There's a lively constituency at who obsess with vampires. It was a challenge: write a science feature about them (the vampires, not the fans!). I thought about a sub-species of humanity with a penchant for lapping ... and came up with this.

They said the passenger pigeons were dense enough to blacken the skies. They said the bison on the plains were more than the sand-grains on a beach. But these were as nothing compared to the human cattle that walk the earth today. Never have there been such herds: so pleasingly available, so docile, so very tame.

There have been those who would eat you, consume your flesh, the real life Hannibal Lectors. But that’s a stupid and self-defeating strategy: you humans didn’t get where you are today by tolerating predators. Such ‘cannibals’ are swiftly hunted down and don’t get to reproduce their kind.

You’re much, much worse at spotting social predators. The psychopaths betray your appealing altruism, bedazzle you with their empty charms, cajole favors with intimidating smiles, and never ever repay. They take your money, your virtue and sometimes even your lives. Yes, I think they must have been some of my forebears.

Continue reading.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"We enjoyed it so much ..."

You enter the holiday apartment and idly pick up the comments book. You read entry after entry extolling the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the comforts of the apartment and what a wonderful time was had by all.

So here we were in the holiday cottage we were sharing with Mary and Gerry, my sister-in-law and her husband. The second day the boiler stopped working - we had no hot water for thirty six hours. Eventually the repair man arrived and power-cycled the boiler: miraculously it started working again. He scratched his head, "Maybe a relay's sticking?" On our last day it happened again.

We had been promised WiFi: there was no WiFi. I sat in the lounge with my smartphone watching bits trickle in from an erratic GPRS. If a cow moved in the adjoining field, the datalink collapsed.

The bathroom tap was so stiff that only the adult males in the house could move it (we had four children - Clare's nieces - staying over the weekend).

A previous occupant had managed to smash the shower door leaving shards of glass needles on the floor of the shower as my naked feet soon discovered.

Let me leave aside the fact that we slept next to the boiler, so that when it was working we cooked!

As we left we debated what to write. Into the book went the following words: "Wonderful accommodation and lovely countryside, many nearby sites of interest, we enjoyed it so much." In a separate note left for the landlord we itemised the points above. :-)

Actually we put all these issues behind us during our week there. We relaxed, visited Warwick Castle, Kenilworth Castle and the Black Country Living Museum and all in all had a great time. Some pictures of Clare and myself below.

Plus I got the Google sat-nav to work on my smartphone - brilliant!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Debt (film)

The Sunday Times gave it only two stars, saying it was neither thrilling nor intelligent: just more Holocaust-chic. Au contraire: this story of a botched Mossad operation to snatch a Nazi vivisectionist was both exciting and rather profound. Yes, we liked it.

We're off to Warwickshire for a brief holiday next week. I carefully checked the Vodafone coverage map to discover that our farmhouse is precisely located in a no coverage spot - we can only hope for a friendly diffraction fringe! In our absence, Alex, Adrian and the cat will be tending the house: I'm trying to work out which of them is the more carpet-safe!

Once back, I have a telecoms contract to work on, perhaps a sign that the economy is finally picking up, an extremely leading indicator.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Advance Decision

Imagine it. You've had a terrible accident or a stroke, or you've declined into mindless dementia. You're kept alive by nursing staff and machines. If you could make a decision, you'd wish you were dead - your relatives plead with staff to turn the machines off and remove the feeding tubes. But the Judge says no.

There have been too many cases like this, but there is something you can do. Sign an "Advance Decision" stating what you want to happen should you ever end up like this. Get it signed and witnessed and arrange to have copies deposited with your relations and your GP. Here's the version I used * [download it as a Word document].


To Health Care Professionals:

I, [YOUR NAME], of [YOUR ADDRESS], have the capacity to make the decisions set out in this document. I have carefully considered how I wish to be treated if, in the future, I lose the capacity to consent to medical treatment, or the ability effectively to communicate my refusal or consent.

Date of birth: [YOUR DOB]
National Insurance Number: [YOUR NI NUMBER]

To avoid any doubt, and unless stated to the contrary below, I confirm that the following refusals of treatment are to apply even if my life is at risk or may be shortened by virtue of such refusal.

In the event that I am no longer competent to make decisions on my own behalf, these are the decisions I have made in advance. If I lack mental capacity and also have an advanced disseminated malignant disease, advanced degenerative disease of the nervous system (including MS, motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s disease), moderate or severe brain damage due to injury, stroke, disease or other cause, senile or pre-senile dementia, severe difficulty in breathing (dyspnoea) that cannot be cured, or any other condition of comparable gravity, I refuse any medical intervention aimed at prolonging or sustaining my life.

In the event of any of the above conditions applying, I refuse all life-prolonging treatments, including but not limited to: cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, artificial ventilation, specialised treatments for particular conditions such as chemotherapy or dialysis, antibiotics when given for a potentially life-threatening infection, and artificial hydration and nutrition. I also refuse all life-sustaining treatments including but not limited to therapies whose purpose is to maintain or replace a vital bodily function and without which death would most likely occur as a result of organ or system failure.

I recognise that I am unlikely specifically to have included all possible current or future treatments for whatever health condition may lead to the applicability of this AD. Nonetheless I wish to refuse them. Furthermore I am unable to anticipate all possible circumstances under which this AD might become applicable but believe that any such circumstances would be extremely unlikely to alter my decision had I anticipated them. I am very anxious that new treatments or unpredictable circumstances might be used by my healthcare team to argue that this AD is not applicable and not binding. I wish so far as I can to pre-empt any such arguments.

I do consent to any medical treatment to alleviate pain or distress (including any caused by lack of food or fluid) aimed at my comfort. I do consent to palliative treatment for incurable vomiting or feeling sick (but not for treating any underlying condition causing these symptoms). I maintain this request even in the event that it may shorten my life.

Upon my death I wish to donate all usable organs and I consent to any treatment which is designed to make this possible and to optimise the process.

I have deposited this advance decision with:


Signed: ______________________ Date: __________________


Witness 1

Witness Name : _________________________

Address: __________________________

I witness that this advance decision was signed or acknowledged in my presence.

Signature: _________________ Dated: _________________

Witness 2

Witness Name : _________________________

Address: __________________________

I witness that this advance decision was signed or acknowledged in my presence.

Signature: _________________ Dated: _________________


* Original text from this website.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Decade On ...

This was the photo Clare insisted on taking for framing on the mantelpiece, as both Alex and Adrian were here this morning. (They have both since left to see their relatives in Liverpool and thence on to a walking holiday in the Lake District).

The setting exactly mimics a similar couch potato shot she took on Christmas Eve 2001 in our house in Vienna, Virginia, USA (above) when again, the two boys were visiting. What a difference ten years makes! But not much to the cat experience!

Here's the next photo taken on that same Christmas Eve. Clare substituted for me on the couch and the cat is even more spooked.

Push time back another ten years, to 1990, and above we see Clare at a chateau in the Loire valley.

We're now back to the mid-year of 1980 and the garden of our damp flat in Slough, next to the canal. I was working as a computer programmer and Clare was managing the infant Alex, about half-way through her pregnancy with Adrian. We had been married two and a half years.