Monday, February 28, 2011

The Implications of Watson

IBM's Watson system recently won a televised Jeopardy contest in the States against two human champions. This achievement has brought real-time natural language question answering to a whole new level of competence. Read my assessment at

We went to see Brighton Rock at the Wells Film Centre this afternoon. After a gushing interview with Helen Mirren (it was Mirren - who plays Ida - who was gushing) on Radio 4 a few weeks back, the interviewer remarked sotto voce "I found it quite uninvolving."

Graham Greene's book is action-packed and menacing. In the film this translates to 'rather slow'. Mirren is as good as she always is, but the lead character of Pinky Brown, the juvenile gangster, is played as one-dimensional menace.

In the book Pinky is a sexually-repressed and possibly homosexual sociopath, with lingering Catholic conditioning. Such psychological complexity has been lost by Director Rowan Joffe.

Seel and Porter Family Trees

The first family tree shows my parents (Fred and Beryl Seel) together with my father's siblings, parents and grandparents. Click on images to make larger.

My paternal family tree

The second family tree, below, shows my mother's siblings and her parents and grandparents.

My maternal family tree

Notice that my mother's grandparents are "on the wrong side" of the photo of her parents. Follow the surnames.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hot Fuzz

Flipping idly between the scheduling last night we happened upon the British indie film "Hot Fuzz". Wow! It was filmed in our very own city of Wells! How we thrilled to shots of the market square, the paper shop, the co-op!

In this spoof movie Wells is fictionalised as Sandford, run covertly as a rural-fascist enclave of English pastoralism by a hooded coven of murderous local worthies (including the local police chief).

Actually Wells isn't much like that; we do, however, have our quota of unsightly beggars. In the local paper it was revealed that one lives in Weston-super-Mare but regularly travels to our beautiful city as the pickings here are so much better. So much so that he's bought a car with the proceeds to-date which eases his daily commute.

A few weeks ago, we were walking down the High Street when we passed a middle-aged woman playing the recorder execrably for donations; I squeaked less when I was eight years old at primary school. A very posh lady gave her some coins and drawled (it being cold):

"My dear, do you have somewhere to go tonight? You're not homeless, are you?"

In an equally upper-class voice, the beggar assured her that yes, she was perfectly situated for the night's lodging, but thank you so much for asking."

If that's the worst we can do, there is little need to bump them off and leave their mouldering corpses in the sewers beneath the Bishop's Palace.

Friday, February 25, 2011

First Vole of 2011

This the scene as I entered the kitchen this morning.

We buy a wide variety of foods for this creature: poultry, rabbit, beef, fish ... I have never seen a packet of Prime Vole. I wonder why?

Note: please don't write and tell me: I know that cats don't buy cat food.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Walk around Wookey

This afternoon a pleasant stroll south of Wookey.

Camping in February, hens and all

Clare checks the hills

Your humble correspondent

Ben Knowle Hill from the SE

As we worry about extracting British oil workers from the Libyan desert, it's tempting to think that a nearby carrier would come in handy (we won't have any soon). Trouble is, they take an age to get there, and against any hostile power more ept than Libya is right now, you need a full battle-group to protect it. That costs. And right now we have Malta.

What you really want for this kind of operation are Chinooks for the extraction and fighter aircraft or drones for close-in air support. I would hope, BTW, that the skies above Tripoli are currently black with Predators. If Gaddafi shows himself, a hellfire missile launch would be awfully tempting. Would save God knows how many lives.

Previsions of Hell

I'm currently reading The Brothers Karamazov, where there is much angst-driven discussion between two of the brother, the atheist Ivan K. and monk Alyosha K. on how to reconcile cruelty and suffering on earth with the injunctions of Christianity to forgive all. This set me imagining the following discussion with a fundamentalist priest (we have such here in Wells).

"Do you believe that terrorists such as Al Qaeda bombers will go to Hell?"

"Yes, they certainly will."

"And do you believe that they will suffer there eternal torments?"

"Such is stated in The Bible, the Word of God."

"And will such torments be worse than waterboarding?"

"We cannot know, but the fire is surely worse than we can imagine."

"So it cannot be wrong for the Americans to subject such a one, destined for Hell, to a little preliminary torment, especially where it's in a good cause - information to help preserve the innocent?"

"Such torture is evil and morally unjustifiable. The Church condemns it."

OK. Got that then.

Mobile Network Operators ponder WiFi

The recent explosion in smartphone usage has created a major dilemma for mobile network operators (MNOs). Not only do smartphones drive huge increments of broadband demand, they also come with built-in WiFi creating an expectation that the network operator should provide ubiquitous WiFi hotspot coverage wherever the customer feels the need for it.

In response, O2 recently announced it was setting up a nationwide free WiFi broadband network to compete with BT and The Cloud. This is clearly intended to address the increasing demand for mobile broadband access to services such as Facebook, YouTube and video calling, some of which in any case only work over WiFi in the current generation of handset.

O2’s new network will not be ubiquitous, far from it. The plan is to work with partner restaurants, shops and high street retailers across the UK. Nor are O2 planning a massive capital investment: their strategy appears more focused on a tactical choice of locations and ensuring good-quality service where their revenues opportunities are maximised. The issues however are complex.

1. The Business Model. It has proved difficult signing customers up to a public WiFi hotspot service which is subscription based. Part of the problem is a disinclination to pay for episodic use in advance; a deeper problem is that business demand is more robust and there is a greater willingness to pay; a lower consumer tariff would undermine business revenues and an effective market segmentation strategy has proved hard to find. On the other hand, advertisement-funded, "free at the point of use" models have foundered on low rates. At the moment, a bundled strategy seems most appropriate, which really means some form of cross-subsidy.

2. Network Deployment. Where should WiFi Access Points be placed? Public locations such as lamp posts require complex liaison with Councils and incur extra obligations and costs. Interior locations such as restaurants and coffee shops are an order of magnitude cheaper but cannot meet all the coverage requirements. Residential solutions such as BT FON tend to be in the wrong place.

3. WiFi vs. 3G/4G. The costs associated with WiFi do not scale well with increasing coverage. This is due primarily to the low power constraint on transceivers, the high frequency and the limited number of channels. The selective deployment of 3G picocells/femtocells has always seemed an attractive alternative to mobile operators, although WiFi will always be part of the mix. Future strategies are made more complex by the superior performance of LTE, to be deployed in a few years time in the UK.

Most mobile operators believe that WiFi is fundamentally a distraction - the 3G/4G technology roadmap is already sufficiently complex! However, given the lack of an affordable, small-scale, high-bandwidth solution within the cellular stable, WiFi it has to be. In any case, the handset suppliers, Apple in particular, have forced their hand. So expect the MNOs to cherry-pick the highest-value locations with their own WiFi hotspots (as O2 is doing) and/or to make the necessary deals with existing public hotspot providers. Their true strategy still lies with 3G to 4G evolution (using LTE) together with tactical picocells and femtocells. However, with WiFi hegemonic in offices and in the home, the uneasy coexistence of cellular with WiFi looks set to be with us for the duration.

Note: the battle between LTE and WiMAX seems to have been well and truly won by LTE, WiMAX having been consigned to developing country ghettos. This says more about the market dominance of the MNOs and the cosy relationships with their suppliers than about cost or technology, in both of which (mobile) WiMAX seems to have had the edge.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: "Deep State" by Walter Jon Williams

This techno-thriller is about a popular revolution in an Islamic country, aided by all the resources of modern hi-tech comms. How likely is that?

Read my review here at

True Grit (film review)

To Bristol and the Cribbs Causeway Vue this afternoon to see the Coen Brothers latest, "True Grit". Matt Damon's acting talents were on display as we failed to recognise him as Jason Bourne. In any event, as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced cringingly as "La-Beef"), he's a less than sure shot with his Sharps rifle.

Actually it's a great film with a strong moral centre and dialogue as sharp as the rifle. To be honest I was struggling a bit to follow the conversations: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn) is so laconic that he's capable of sucking a whole sentence into his beard. Still, the stuff I could make out was witty, deadpan and amusing. The Coen brothers have caught a rather polite, mannered mode of address which is enchantingly strange from the lips of uneducated roughnecks (Mattie excepted).

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the 14 year old heroine, is clearly a star in the making. This is presumably why her name is omitted from the poster.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dealing with inflation

Click the picture to make it larger; Clare pictured on our walk out this afternoon.

The mechanism by which interest rate rises dampen inflation is through cutting household demand. Most households have debts: mortgages, credit cards, loans; or they wish to borrow to fund future purchases. As repayment costs increase less money is available for household purchases while some future loans become too expensive and so are never applied for.

In any event, demand is decreased and suppliers end up with excess stocks. They have to reduce their prices to the new market-clearing level (taking a hit on their profit margins in the short term) and price-inflation is thereby reduced.

According to BBC's Newsnight a few days ago, of the current 4% inflation rate around 2% is UK domestic while the rest reflects the VAT increase (which will drop out in a year), rising world commodity prices and rising imports prices due to the weak pound. The Bank of England could get inflation back to its target of 2% if it really wanted to, just by bearing down savagely on the domestic side of inflation (that significant interest rate rise again).

It won't though. An increased bank rate has other consequences: in particular it increases the cost of borrowing for companies, raising their internal project costs. This hits at their expansion plans and so delays recovery. There's also the downward pressure on profits already mentioned which also tends to drive away investment.

In short, the BoE should tough it out and wait until/if there are genuine signs of domestic inflation getting out of control. If their nerve holds, inflation should drop back to target within 12-18 months and we will still be best placed for recovery.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bullying? Here?

Just looking through my folder of old pictures ...

It's not so much the oddity of this sign in the washroom, it's the implied problem.

I have now completed my reviews of the books sent me (The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card and Deep State by Walter Jon Williams). Neither has appeared on the site yet, I guess they are spacing their reviews out.

In the meantime I bought a couple of books by Milan Kundera which I've been meaning to read for decades: The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Just to get in the mood I've begun The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky) which I won't be finishing anytime soon (I can barely lift it ... the phrase 'great Russian novel' didn't exactly come from nowhere).

Brian Greene's earlier book The Fabric of the Cosmos is also on the 'to be read' list so it's not like I'm gazing around and twiddling extremities in boredom or anything.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Palace of Illusions

[This post is dedicated to my nieces.]

A feminist writes about the computer game The Sims, I quote:

"Why do liberals play computer games like conservatives?

By Monica Potts

I eventually got the hang of The Sims, the best-selling computer game in history, and my Sim self became productive and happy. She always reached the top of her career, her children always did well in school, and she always had enough money for a comfortable simulated life. Another pattern emerged as well, one that I feel powerless to stop: My Sims are conservative. I'm in complete control of them, but for some reason their lives aren't anything like the life I consider ideal in the real world. I'm a feminist graduate of an all-women's college who has vowed to never change my name or end my career to raise children full time--though I would never undervalue the work that many women do in their home. By contrast, my Sims rarely remain single long into adulthood. My wives always take their husbands' last names. They don't just have children; they bear lots of them. And they leave their careers to take on the lion's share of care-giving duties.


I blame some of my right-of-center leanings on the structures of the games themselves. Having children has the added bonus of extending game time in The Sims, because I get to continue to play the same family as the generations roll by.

Modern capitalism provides so many interesting and productive niches. Wonderful opportunities, so much more attractive than traditional family-rearing for smart young women. Such a shame, therefore, that the genes which make them so smart, creative and interesting won't be around in future generations. Hey, you out there! Listen to the wisdom of The Sims!

Hat tip: Steve Sailer.

Ethology is Microeconomics

Ethology is the study of animal behaviour. Animals are interested above all in survival and reproduction, so have to make choices about how to optimally expend their efforts. Rational choice in the presence of resource scarcity is, of course, the business of microeconomics and many examples of animal behaviour (for example foraging strategies, mate selection) are in fact applications of marginal economics.

However, animals (including humans) are not the pure rational actors of axiomatic economic theory. The new field of Behavioural Economics looks at the consequences of factoring in human attributes such as overestimation of one's own abilities and a preference for short-term gratification over long-term self-interest. Interesting and enlightening stuff.

Here's a topical application of the theory to the problem of welfare reform (hat tip: Nick Shulz).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

My review of "The Hidden Reality" by Brian Greene is now posted at - click here to read it.

Valentine's Day on Glastonbury Tor

The misery of uninterrupted rain mercifully ceased. Today dawned bright and clear so it was down to Glastonbury and up the Tor for exercise. Clare's idea - she has decided she has to lose seven pounds by summer: I'm happy to be the accompanying spouse (not in the weight loss programme, you understand).

Coincidence? Prominent from the top was this view of a large heart for Valentine's Day. It's just possible, looking to the horizon, to see the Hinckley Point nuclear power station. We're suitably downwind ...

Looking back towards Wells it's just possible to see the Cathedral (flagged) and to its left St. Cuthbert's. The Mendip TV transmitter stands on the skyline. The pictures get larger if you click on them.

I sent a 1,600 word review of Brian Greene's excellent The Hidden Reality to on Saturday. I expect it to be on the site tomorrow. Meanwhile I have finished Deep State, a techno-thriller from Walter Jon Williams which they were kind enough to send me and I have written a first draft of a review (560 words), which I'll send off tomorrow.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Goldinches at the Niger seed feeder

Niger seed, very small seeds deployed in a feeder with very small holes, ideal for goldfinches.

And here we are, at the limits of the camera resolution, Mr and Mrs Goldfinch taking a snack (centre left).

Surveillance in place.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Motorbike test

Alex unfortunately failed to pass his "big bike" test yesterday (lane discipline). He's thinking of hiring a 125 for further road practice and retaking in ten days.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Way Back" (film)

Went to the matinee performance of this Gulag-based orienteering film this afternoon. It's WW2 and a bunch of political prisoners in Siberia, a few hundred kilometres north of Lake Baikal escape and head south. One of their number is a convict who brings the vital resources of a knife plus murderous resourcefulness.

To cut a long story short, they make their way from the camp past the lake to the Mongolian border. To their horror, they discover that Mongolia is also communist so they keep going to Tibet. Shedding people as they go (death by cold in the Siberian forests; death by thirst in the Mongolian desert) plus the odd defection or two, the diminished company finally makes it to India and freedom.

There is a contrived storyline whereby the leader, a Polish idealist, is betrayed by his wife in the opening scene, following her torture, and is impelled to find her again and forgive her ... which he does decades later after the fall of communism as the final credits roll. There isn't a damp eye in the house.

So, great film if you like to watch an ecologically-unconvincing saga of human fortitude. Or if you like to empathise with people trekking for months through unforgiving terrain without food, water, tents or essential equipment.

Puts the trials and tribulations of Glastonbury in their place.

A visit to the hospital

Bristol Eye Hospital is a four-storey Victorian building in the heart of Bristol's traffic congestion. I was accompanying my mother for a routine eye check which started with a taxi drop-off at the narrow entrance (nowhere nearby to park).

We entered a world akin to old-style soviet shopping: first you queue for a ticket; when the ticket is called you go to another desk to get your files; you then walk to the second floor where you queue to see the nurse; after my mother's history was taken and eye-drops administered, we waited some more for the doctor. In all this hanging around I had ample opportunities for practical sociology.

First off, the place was crowded and slightly shabby. Not the massively-undercapitalised shabby of threadbare carpets and peeling wallpaper, more the shabby of thin, past-its-best business carpeting, utilitarian corridors and standardised seats. I guess it's not bad for a public institution but it would never be acceptable for a modern office building.

The patients were in their fifties and up, dressed Daily Mail poor. That is to say, cheap shoes or trainers, jeans or low-cost trousers, teeshirts and casual jackets. I fitted right in because that was exactly what I was wearing. However, I was the only person who pulled out a laptop and via the Vodafone dongle just managed to get an Internet connection.

The staff were in their twenties and thirties, better looking on the whole and considerably more smartly dressed. The ambience was quiet and restrained, interupted only by the regular summoning of this or that person for treatment: completely non-threatening as you would hope and expect.

Actually I was impressed. We arrive around 2.15 pm and we were out of there at 3.30.


By my watch Alex has just taken his "big bike" (500 cc) driving test down in Swindon. We await news.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Book Review: Halo: Cryptum by Greg Bear

My first review for has now been posted there.

Greg Bear, if he reads it, will not be happy but the quality of his novels has been in sad decline over the last few years.

Bear’s writing career has been defined by the taxonomy of hard sciences: Nanotech in “Blood Music”; General Relativity and Cosmology in “Eon” and “Eternity”; Quantum Mechanics and the Fermi Paradox in “Moving Mars” and “The Forge of God”; Jungian Psychology and AI in “Queen of Angels”; Evolution and Genetics in “Darwin’s Radio” ... and then, suddenly, all the boxes were checked.

Ever since, Bear has been going through the motions: his technique is still there, he can turn a good sentence but the writing has turned clichéd and lazy. I fear this latest book is too tired, unoriginal and frankly boring to be a success.

A negative letter from the NHS

This rather welcome letter arrived this morning (click on it to enlarge).

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Exiting the Stack

I am beginning to lose interest, sadly, in the Physics StackExchange. All my questions have been answered, I have a respectable reputation (for no good reason) and the incoming questions are mostly silly or so technical I don't understand them. In any case nothing substitutes for the slog of actually learning physics (previous post).

Roy Simpson helpfully sent me this link for learning General Relativity (video lectures from Stanford here).

Watch it on Academic Earth


The first book I have to review for arrived today while I was in Bristol visiting my mother and seeing The King's Speech again with her ... it's just as good second time around.

The book is Greg Bear's Halo: Cryptum and the review should appear on their site shortly (obviously once I've read the book and prepared the review).

[On my mother's council estate in Bristol there's a house where someone spits from the bedroom window (no doubt some medical condition). I was interested to observe that the stains on the wall form an upside-down Gaussian distribution. I may exhibit a photo one day if I feel brave enough to take it :-)].

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Isomorphic to communism

Unrest in Tunisia; paralysis in Egypt. The common political structure across the autocratic middle-east is the strong, western-oriented state on the one hand and the Islamic masses on the other. In the centre is a more-or-less squeezed proto-bourgeois civil society: secular, modernist and Internet-using.

Something like this has always been the story in underdeveloped countries. Up to now the ideology of the masses has been some combination of socialism and communism. It has finally dawned on people, however, that the 's and c' route is simply a recipe for stagnation and corruption. Islam as a theocratic political force will come down to the same thing in the end (cf. its present Iranian form).

The path out of poverty lies with the increasing growth, power and influence of that thin bourgeois segment: it will have to win its own battle for civil institutions against the strong-state. Hopefully the Islam of the masses can make an evolution similar to that of bourgeois Christianity. There are precedents.

Between the Scylla of Autocracy and the Charybdis of Theocracy we can only wish the twitterers the best. It will be hard in Egypt.


So first there was the Physics StackExchange from which I continue to learn a lot. Then I discovered there is a science-fiction version: I haven't dared invest any further time on that or I will be glued to the computer.

At the moment I am reviewing the quantum mechanics I did a couple of years ago, just reminding myself of how atoms and molecules are modelled and going a bit beyond (mixed states). Then I plan to take another look at quantum field theory where I need to understand better things like how forces are modelled, and how the Higgs field works. Beyond that I have a book on general relativity which seems at the right level (Einstein's field equations come at the end rather than the beginning!).


Today the weather has warmed up and its damper. We're off to the library later. It's apparently escaped the cuts.