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.