Friday, July 29, 2011

How Much Does Badger Culling Pay?

I have now reached that point in my cold where my voice is hoarse and ragged; the point where people think you are very, very ill. In my experience the voice bit occurs just past the point where you actually feel worst: that must have been about 2.30 a.m. this morning when I was awakened by a relentless sore throat and impelled downstairs for a cup of green tea.

Three a.m. found me working on my latest science feature which deals with the recent excitement in finding the Higgs boson (will be published on Monday). I was expanding the bit where I deal with the shape of the Higgs potential and spontaneous symmetry-breaking when the cat-flap banged and in came Shadow. I kind of ignored him, working away as I was, until his nipping of my ankle could no longer be endured, at which point I went to get him some food.

On the kitchen floor, next to the cat-flap was a large furry vole, quite dead. I threw this natural delicacy out into the bushes and gave him some kitty junior chicken instead, which he wolfed down, if that's the right metaphor. I sometimes think that cat is spoiled.

Apparently the Government is going to invest in a widespread badger cull to avert bovine TB, alleged to cost farmers a fortune every year. The approach will be to have sharp-shooters lurking in the midnight countryside, dressed head-to-foot in camo with high-powered sniper rifles. The targets will, of course, be free-ranging badgers.

This got me thinking. Will they pay by the night or is it per-badger? Do they transport you to the area or must you make your own way? Is the kit provided or do you have to buy your own? So many questions.

I reminded Clare that I was a marksman on the Lee-Enfield 303 when I was in Army Cadets back in school, and I did pretty well on the longbow at a camp we attended once. Should be a shoo-in: I get to write during the day and cull during the night, with pay for both. What's not to like?

Excuse me, why are you all looking at me like that?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review of 'Embassytown' by China Miéville

Most authors deal in plots; China Miéville, by contrast, deals in settings. Perdido Street Station and the follow-up Bas-Lag novels gave us thaumaturgy and Victoriana; The City and the City was sociological science-fiction – the social construction of reality; in Embassytown, the exotic ingredient is language itself.

We are placed in the far-future, where the Terran origins of humanity have been almost entirely forgotten. The worlds of humanity – there are many – are ruled by different fiefdoms and connected by Immerships which traverse a dangerous, opaque and eternal subspace called the Immer (German: ‘always’), with a wildly-different connectivity from our normal spacetime.

The planet of Arieka is at the Immer frontier under the suzerainty of the distant planet Bremen. Arieka is inhabited by an intelligent alien race, the Ariekei, who resemble large winged insects or perhaps crabs. The native air is unbreathable for humans but the Ariekei (often called the Hosts) have used their bioengineering skills to create an enclave, the Embassytown of the title.

Continue reading ...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bowley's Garage

Very pleasant people at Bowley's Garage. The receptionist, Donna, has a Toyota Auris just like us.

We renewed our acquaintanceship with the Bowley team today as the rear lights cover had to be replaced on our Auris. A little problem Clare had in parking at the hospital in Taunton - the bays are quite narrow and we don't have a bumper at the right height to intersect the metal strip running along the back of the bays. I'm not let off, however, having scratched the car yesterday on my mother's gate when trying to get the car onto her drive. My error has cost us some touch-up painting (which we do ourselves, but not well); Bowley's are the better-off by £149: some sort of Toyota monopoly on the formed plastic light covers.

Did I mention that both Clare and myself have contracted colds? She has a sore throat while I'm more 'heady', whatever that means. Seems a strange correlation between visiting the hospital and acquiring these minor, but irritating infections.

Still, on the bright side at least the plumbing seems behind us, and it was even sunny this morning before it all clouded over again.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Don't Bring me Back!

With DNA sequencing getting cheaper and cheaper, and virtual reality environments getting more and more lifelike there's a dangerous confluence round the corner ... which I explore here at

Alex is back to work in London and Adrian is working as instructor at a summer camp in Suffolk so we have the place to ourselves. While Clare was at her daily radiotherapy at Taunton this morning I wrote a review of China Mieville's recent novel Embassytown which should appear at later this week. It's another big-idea novel, but a little colder and more emotionally-remote than usual, which I note has put some readers off.

I see results trickling in about possible Higgs boson detection at the LHC. My next mini-project is to write a small piece which tries to answer the question: 'Right, we found the Higgs - so what?'

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Presents ...

Flowers - thanks Cathy!

This chiming clock has given the house a new aural character, says Clare.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Of pipes and tax ...

The skies are leaden and the rain comes down; the grass grows lush and can't be cut; Clare goes to Taunton for radiotherapy.

Yesterday I completed my self-assessment tax return for 2010-11 and was gratified to see that my own tax model was pretty close to what the Inland Revenue computer demanded. As usual, I was confused as to whether the IR would re-assess my July 31st Payment-on-Account for tax year 10/11, which had previously been set at 47 pence. I called them and they did not. So nothing to pay until January 2012.

That's a relief as the bill arrived this morning for the replacement water supply pipe under our front garden. This took two days of labour for two men, with the burrowing mole repeatedly getting stuck in rock (pictured: one of the men has dug a pit in our driveway to free the jammed device; its silver top is shown with the arrow).

Our total bill is in excess of £1,500.

My brother Adrian was lauding the 3G Kindle which his elder son bought him as a present. Great for those long coach journeys, easy to read in the sun (how would he know?); relatively cheap novels. I teeter on the edge of a decision: books can easily be shared and look nice on the book case. But Adrian points to seductive features: the Kindle can read to you in its mode as a female robot; the font size can be dynamically changed for easier reading.

This morning was devoted to paying bills, dealing with Bristol Water and uploading my next article which will be published Monday afternoon UK time. It's about the VR version of the multiverse concept, but told as a little fable. The style on seems to be settling down into a breezy, slightly tabloidy style and I'm happy to accommodate and learn the skills of this mode of writing.

Monday, July 18, 2011


I have been trying for ages to get the term "exopsychology" into popular circulation - in analogy to the existing term "exobiology". Naturally it's hard to develop a discipline (the psychology of aliens) when there is no subject matter.

Here's my latest attempt at

As I write I hear the thump of the air-compressor of the company engaged to lay a new pipe from the main water supply in the road, up through our garden into the house. The old pipe is completely corroded.

The two workmen are digging a well in the flower bed, trying to retrieve their 'mole' which has got stuck in the subterranean rocks again. The mole is a long, metal, cyclindrical device with a piston for a head which makes the tunnel along which the new pipe will follow. I wish!

The weather is overcast and squally, and quite cool ... enough at any rate to force the heating on. Clare was down at Taunton this morning for radiotherapy and received information in the post about her brachytherapy next month at the Bristol Royal Infirmary.

I have to do my tax return this week. Might as well get all the gloom in place concurrently.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The pitfalls of writing

I have two articles currently up at The science feature is "Nuking Ourselves" and is a piece about the application of Bayesian Inference.

The other piece is a review of Dan Simmons' recent novel "Flashback". The editors have, for once, not made it a featured article so it languishes in obscurity and will soon vanish.

It's my own fault.

Simmons' novel is provocatively anti-PC. The message is unfashionably libertarian and has some harsh things to say about the third Abrahamic religion, at least in its most extreme form. This alone might make any editor nervous as my review naturally mentions this.

But that was not, I believe, my real crime. In the version I posted I was so keen to defend Simmons against his liberal critics (American use of liberal) that I fell into the trap of partisanship myself: I sounded like an advocate. Poor writing and poor reviewing.

As soon as I saw the downgrade, I looked at the piece with fresh eyes and immediately saw the issues. Naturally I attempted to fix the problems and I believe the version now posted is a whole sight better. Too late for fame though.

Clare went to her first radiotherapy session yesterday at Taunton hospital. The usual lengthy wait but the treatement itself was uneventful. She now has daily visits for a further 24 sessions + three sessions of brachytherapy at Bristol. Still, the end of treatment is in sight which does wonders for the spirits.

The replacement of our front garden water pipe, corroded beyond all recognition, is scheduled for early next week from an alternate supplier, Masters PipeLine Services Ltd, who marginally won the quote wars.
Somebody wrote that there are few things more repulsive than the British Public in full moral fervour. And so to the News International/News of the World phone hacking scandal.

A world-weary author writes: all power corrupts, all institutions grow lazy and dishonest, the sun also rises. Every so often you need a bit of moral fury to impart enough energy to smack the institutions and individuals smartly. Let's not kid ourselves that anything uniquely unusual is going on here though.

And to Yates of the Yard my sympathies. The Met isn't a garden of roses - far from it - and very little of what they deal with is squeaky-clean. If Yates had tried to run a big investigation back in 2009 when he reviewed the evidence (in the absence of public outrage at that time), he would have been rapidly put back in his box by his superiors and told to concentrate on fighting terrorism. Can't win, can you.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The End of the Space Age

The last shuttle goes up on Friday of this week. After that, no more manned flights on US platforms for an indefinite period. But really, where is there to go?

The Economist argued in its most recent edition (July 2nd) that we have at last reached the end of the space-age, defined as exploration, manned or otherwise, outside of geosynchronous orbit.

At I found it hard to disagree.

"So Beautiful"

When I was a teenager I read a pulp science-fiction short story that ended with the whimsical sentence: "The girls were so beautiful that year."

Of course, there was a reason, and here is what it was.


For all those following the story of our water leak (my future self, I guess) the status today is that the leak has been stopped and a blue plastic pipe now runs from the cut-off end of the existing supply pipe near the back door, along the side-path, round the back corner of the house and into our external tap in our back garden. This is the route by which we're currently supplied with water.

I'm awaiting a quote from Aquamain (I already have one from another company) to schedule a complete replacement of the pipe under our front garden. Clare foresees widespread devastation to the trees and flowers: we'll see.


I'm currently reading Dan Simmon's latest, "Flashback", which paints a grim dystopian picture of 2030's America, structured through a noir murder mystery. A quick look at the Amazon reviews (two at one star) indicate he's lost his liberal constituency. I think it's great!