Thursday, March 31, 2011

Film: "Unknown"

After the film, at quarter past ten last night I got the call from Rob McClinton at sciencefiction.com. This week's edition of their Internet TV channel is going to feature supersymmetry and the large hadron collider (my recent article for them) and this was the interview.

It's rather odd being interviewed via skypeout from Los Angeles ... it wasn't scripted and I had no advance notice of the questions. I had the Wikipedia article on the LHC on the screen (prudence!) and Rob's first question was "Could you explain exactly what the Large Hadron Collider is?" ... Phew!

Liam Neeson in "Unknown"

"Unknown", starring Liam Neeson starts with the hero and his wife arriving in Berlin for a biotech conference. Having mislaid a briefcase at the airport, Neeson's character has to return as quickly as possible to retrieve it. However en-route the taxi crashes into the river and the hero is thrown into a coma.

Four day's subsequently he checks out the hospital and attempts to rejoin his wife at the conference. But she denies ever knowing him and someone else is 'masquerading' as her husband under his name. Crazy or what?

We're soon into Jason Bourne territory: a heady mix of amnesia, spies, assassinations and hi-tech. Although the ingredients are familiar, the look and feel is distinctive and you are never bored. It is, however, high-class disposable flim-flam and there is no lasting impact.

Clare had that Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear on the TV this morning. Clarkson made one of his over-the-top comparisons of something or somebody to 'Brad Pitt'. Clare turned and confided to me: "I have no idea what Brad Pitt looks like." So here you are then.

Brad Pitt

We must have seen him in something, or was that Leonardo DiCaprio? It's so hard to tell them apart.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Up to London

A lunchtime meeting with a client today in central London; it's quite a trek from Wells.

Half an hour's drive to Castle Cary station (parking-ticket credit-card machine on the blink; ticket office and toilets locked due to 'staff-shortages').

One and three quarter hours train ride to Paddington. I was pleased to see the toilets were clean and that the seats all have three-pin sockets for laptop power.

Half an hour on the Circle Line to my destination. The scruffiness of the rolling stock is a disgrace.

The meeting was an hour and a quarter and seemed to go well.

Then the travelling in reverse.

Travel: Work = 4.4: 1 - ignoring hanging-around time at the various stations.

I tried to access the Internet on the way back from my PC, via the Vodafone GPRS/3G dongle. It only found GPRS connections and kept dropping those with no automatic re-connect. Hopefully this is due to ancient software but it did make Internet connection unusable.

AV is the PC choice

Forget the arcane mathematics of whose backup votes get transferred to whom. Just look at the personality types of the people lining up to vote for AV vs. FPTP. On the AV side we have arch-ENFP Ed Miliband; on the FPTP side ESTJ bruisers such as Prescott and Blunkett.

Political Correctness is a project ideologically championed by the metropolitan NF elite and enthusiastically cheered on by sentimental SFs everywhere. As we all know, it's characterised by a focus on affiliation (warm hugs for everyone) and the emphasis of values over interests. AV is aligned with this as it blurs the ideas of winners and losers and proposes that as many people as possible get involved in picking the "winner", one way or another. How inclusive could that be?

The opposite of Political Correctness I shall call Skeptical Realism. It emphasises interests over values and rationality over sentiment. It's championed by NTs (and in its most crazily-enthusiastic over-the-top form by neocons) and is cheered on by tough-minded, no-nonsense STs such as Prescott & Blunkett. It likes the ideas of winners and wastes little time for losers, suggesting they get their act together if they want to win in future.

Heres' the prediction: PC politicians will end-up, in the main, in the AV camp; tough-minded politicians will support FPTP. You'll have to guess which way I'll vote ...

NOTE: putting aside all this knockabout hilarity, the problem I have with AV is that it's set up to elect the least-disliked candidate. In my view, this tips the balance too far to the bland. The Wikipedia article has an interesting example: "Imagine that Tennessee is having an election on the location of its capital" which shows how this could work perversely in practice.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cecilia's Paintings

The owner of our holiday apartment in Fowey, Cornwall lives downstairs. She is an artistic lady and during our protracted attempts to get connected to her WEP WiFi - she is not technical, to put it mildly - she soon became my new BFF. Anyway, Cecilia's paintings adorned our apartment and like many amateur artists, the flaws are even more interesting than what she gets right.


I termed this "The City on a Hill". The sea-level is erratic at best; the moon is in the wrong place for the illumination. I think she does OK with capturing the moonlight but the treatment of shadows is hopeless.


Considered separately, both the background and the flowered foreground are not bad. Together it's hopelessly unbalanced. Revenge of the killer daisies, anyone?


This is the best picture, only marred by the idiotic boat in the middle.


You should really use different shades of blue for the sea and sky.


OK, it's cluttered: three boats - count them. But what on earth are the oranges doing there? The white grapes?

Back from our Cornwall Holiday

We returned home to Wells this morning after what felt like an early summer holiday in Fowey, Cornwall. Global warming? Bring it on!

Clare in the kitchen

This is the kitchen area of our apartment, where Clare feels particularly at home.

Mr and Mrs Gull

This photo reminded me of our broken sleep most mornings. The roof of the balcony was just outside our bedroom window, a spot for the gulls to engage in their amorous activities. The male bird has a high-pitched screeching sound while the female makes a lower, throatier response. Translating loosely from gullese, their 6 a.m. conversation went something like this.

Mr Gull: "YES?"
Mrs Gull: "maybe?"
Mr Gull: "YES!"
Mrs Gull: "er, maybe ..."
Both: "YES!" "oh yes!" "YES!" "oh yes!" "YES!" "oh yes!" "YES!" "oh yes!" ..

They kept this up interminably at full volume. Practically took our minds off sleeping.

Gerry and Mary: after-dinner at the Fowey Hotel

We were all replete after a stunning dinner at the Fowey Hotel, where Chef Mark worked his magic equally on presentation and taste. Recommended.

Our Amaryllis has grown!

Back home, and how our Amaryllis has grown from its humble earlier beginnings this month. Scarlet flowers.

Clare and Nigel on the balcony

So here we are on the balcony of our holiday apartment at Fowey, as snapped by Gerry.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cornwall: Lanhydrock; Truro

Today we visited the National Trust stately home at Lanhydrock, and then moved on to Truro.

Nigel at St. Catherine's Castle Fowey

We started the day, however with a walk along the coastal path to St. Catherine's Castle, built by Henry VIII to defend the harbour.

Fowey from St. Catherine's Castle

There's a good view from the castle back up the river to Fowey.

Mary and Clare at Lanhydrock

We then drove to Lanhydrock House, a National Trust property with extensive grounds. Clare was particularly taken with the kitchens and servants' quarters.

The kitchen at Lanhydrock

Here she is in the kitchen.

The Victorian Truro Cathedral

We then drove to Truro. The Cathdral here is actually late-Victorian.

A well-earned rest at the Fowey Hotel

Back to base and the bar at the Fowey Hotel, just next door to our apartment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cornwall: Heligan Gardens; Mevagissey

Having left the cat to the tender mercies of my cat-sitting mother (or vice-versa), we're off to Cornwall to enjoy unaccustomed sunshine in Fowey.

Hotel lunch on the way there

I took this self-portrait in the mirror of the hotel in Tavistock where we lunched on the way down.

Mary and Gerry on the balcony

The holiday was arranged by Clare's sister Mary and her husband Gerry, pictured above. This is the view from the balcony of our apartment.

Clare on the Boardwalk at Heligan Gardens

Today we visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan followed by a short detour to a pub in Mevagissey on the way home.

The pool at Heligan Jungle


Nigel enjoying the sun


The harbour at Mevagissey


Mevagissey town

Mevagissy is very attractive but the narrow roads are a nightmare: especially where they are not one-way through the town.

Monday, March 21, 2011

At the LHC: desperately seeking SUSY

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva is now up and running but instead of being delighted, many theoretical physicists are beginning to get worried. They see the fruits of their long and illustrious careers potentially turning to ashes. The reason? The LHC hasn’t found SUSY.

Alessandro Strumia, a theorist at the University of Pisa in Italy was quoted as saying “Privately, a lot of people think that the situation is not good for SUSY. This is a big political issue in our field. For some great physicists, it is the difference between getting a Nobel prize and admitting they spent their lives on the wrong track.”

Read the whole thing at sciencefiction.com.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (film)

A noon meeting with Pro4 at Reading to discuss a forthcoming client presentation, followed by an 'Upper Crust' egg roll at Reading station.

We walked down to the Reading Vue for the afternoon performance of The Adjustment Bureau. Based on a typically-paranoid Philip K. Dick story, this well-made film has Matt Damon's senator meeting the love of his life, Emily Blunt's Elise and then discovering that a mysterious organisation is set to keep them apart. The rest of the film showcases The Adjustment Bureau deploying threats and lies over the course of several years while Damon's character never quite succeeds in forgetting her.

Elise is classy-English, a talented modern ballet dancer who portrays realistic chemistry with senator Jason Bourne (oops, did I just say that? Does he always play the same character (except in True Grit)?). We spend a lot of time with Adjustment Bureau operatives as they deliver portentious lecture to the hapless senator ("Stay on the Plan, or else!"). We also spend a while at the end of the film being chased around New York.

The thing which makes this film shallow and disposable is the extraordinary banality of the plot. Ignore that it's far-fetched - of course it's far-fetched. But why, for God's sake, couldn't this alien Adjustment Bureau be more interesting than simply a bunch of grey-suited overseers poking and prodding to keep us from harm. This in loco parentis thing is just so wearysome.

The verdict: I was mildy diverted while Clare said it was 'tedious tosh'.

In the evening we were joined by Alex (after another hard day's programming) for a meal at a Nepalese restaurant in the Cavendish Road. I was starving and was well into my Chilli Chicken before realising just how lethally hot it was; Alex commented similarly on his Korma.

Back home in Wells, Clare was up in the pre-dawn looking for a pain-killer for a 'funny head' while I was feeling uncomfortably full this morning. My suspicion is that we had way too much salt and MSG last night. No doubt that's how the Reading natives like it.

My article on the search for supersymmetry at the LHC has been accepted at sciencefiction.com. I'll let you know when it's published.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review of BBC1's 'Outcasts'

BBC 1′s new SF drama series ‘Outcasts’ features a group of ‘courageous pioneers’ who have left a dying earth for a new beginning on the planet Carpathia. In BBC-speak “they are passionate about their jobs, confident of their ideals and optimistic about the future. They work hard to preserve what they’ve built on this planet they now call home, having embraced all the challenges that come with forging a new beginning … inevitably our heroes cannot escape the human pitfalls of love, greed, lust, loss, and a longing for those they’ve left behind.”

‘Outcasts’ was initially aired on Monday and Tuesday evenings in the primetime 9 pm slot, the first episode gaining 4.4 million viewers. However, through episodes two to four the audience dwindled to 2.6 million and as a consequence the BBC moved the four remaining episodes to the graveyard slot of 10.25 pm on a Sunday evening ...


Read the rest of the review at sciencefiction.com here.

Working Girls (BBC3)

Like the title, nudge nudge. This was an hour-long programme we caught last night on BBC's 'yoof' channel, BBC3. Two members of the chav class were featured, one beautiful and one a lump of a girl who both shared a common love of staying in bed all day and sponging off their relations. Neither had ever bothered to work: 'Don't wanna, 's boring, I can get money anyway innit?' Don't mention the 'B' word.

At vast effort the BBC arranged a week's internship for each girl with a top female fashion executive. As the programme pointed out, thousands of girls would have sold their souls for such an opportunity. Of course, our chavettes simply moaned, slept-in and generally acted sullen in the salons.

And then a miracle occurs! After days of being the centre of attention, the subject of intense and personal hands-on coaching from their CEO role-models, the girls perk up and show some enthusiasm. Result!

As the credits roll, we're told that the big girl has enrolled on a care assistant course while the pretty one is actively looking for a job (presumably hoping her conviction for assaulting a police officer will now be overlooked).

Wonderful life-affirming TV!

As another two girls will be featured next week, the BBC clearly has a Toyota-scale conveyor belt going on here. What we will never be told is how many girls fell off it and only made it to the cutting room floor. My guess? Around 80% of the candidates swore, fought and never turned up for their placement.

The BBC has a wonderful liberal conviction that every lost soul is capable of redemption, transformable into a thoroughly sound, tax-paying, 40-hour-working, responsible member of society. Who could disagree with the intention, but it's still old-time religion. If someone really is stupid, impulsive, lacking in conscientiousness, aggressive and selfish then their alignment to the BBC ideal-citizen model is always going to be slight.

I want to know what will be the fate, one year out, of the pretty one and the fat one.

Book Review: 'Leviathans of Jupiter' by Ben Bova

‘Leviathans of Jupiter’ is the follow-on novel from Ben Bova’s ‘Jupiter’. In that novel scientist Grant Archer led a team to research life-forms in Jupiter’s global ocean, hypothesised by the author to exist under the cloud belts. A malfunctioning and sinking submersible was rescued by a Jovian denizen of the deep, a huge Leviathan. Grant was convinced of their intelligence, but no-one seemed to believe him...

Read the whole thing at sciencefiction.com.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Time Flies Like an Arrow

I entered the damp steel chamber of the airlock, relieved to be out of the thick planetary atmosphere. Despite my status as a post-graduate researcher I was not exempt from patrols around the research station. I placed my heavy crossbow in its rack: with difficulties in resupply we had to hoard our small stocks of ammunition; besides, the cunningly-designed arrows were buoyed up by the dense air, and flew further.

I was here to research the huge, enigmatic time flies; alien insect-like creatures which moved through space and time in a manner tantalisingly different than ourselves. The time flies were differently shaped: some looked like bigger versions of the arrows we fired from our crossbows; others were more bulbous. In any event they were strange and threatening; we had had to kill more than one.

My supervisor, Professor Clare Youell, greeted me as I entered her time lab. My current project was tracking time fly trajectories but I was puzzled as to how best to go about it and where I might get the equipment. This was my chance to seek guidance and I seized the moment.

“Oh,” she said, pointing airily to the arrow ballistics department the other side of the corridor, “the best way is how the crossbow arrow research guys do it."

“You should time flies like an arrow," she continued, “You’ll find they have all the necessary equipment across there.”

I made a note to find out how the various designs of arrow were timed as they were fired from test crossbows. No doubt the approach could be adapted for my own research.

I was struck by a new picture hanging behind Professor Youell’s desk. It depicted the results of a patrol the previous week which had encountered a hostile time fly. The patrol had made short work of it and the picture showed the fly pinned to a native tree by a well-aimed arrow.

“Time flies like an arrow!” the Professor observed sardonically.

I summarised my latest thinking.

” In the almost-flat space-time around this planet, light cones aren't really tipped at all."

"To a first approximation here, time flies like an arrow," I added, "but the time flies seem to weave their own strange geodesics around it. It’s quite remarkable.”

I paused for a moment.

"The thing is, I don't know which sort of time fly to measure first - the spherical ones or the ones which look like arrows?"

The Professor looked at me strangely: “So you still haven’t found the fourth parsing then?”

I had no idea what she was talking about.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fukushima number 1 nuclear reactor

Let's hope they avoid meltdown. With Iodine and Caesium (fission decay products) detected in the surroundings there has clearly been some breach of the containment vessel. Whether this was controlled venting from earlier or an aftermath of the explosion this morning remains to be seen at this time.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, this disaster looks set to seriously damage the case for new nuclear power stations. Supporters (including myself) have made the point that since Chernobyl, no-one has died due to reactor malfunction anywhere in the world. In addition, coal-fired stations emit far more (natural) radioactivity in operation than nuclear stations.

The rebuttal has always been that a nuclear reactor contains many tons of extraordinarily dangerous material just waiting to get out. We now know from Fukushima that reactors are not fail-safe: in the event of a sustained power-outage the reactor is not stable.

It would not be surprising if the price for any further reactor build-out (if that's even politically possible) is that designs must in future be inherently fail-safe. However hard that might have been in the past, and Fukushima 1 is 40 years old, it must be possible now.

The Wikipedia article is being updated in near realtime. Here's a pictorial guide to the workings of a pressurised water reactor like that at Fukushima.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why we don't insure white goods

This lunchtime, as Clare was engaged in the time-critical cooking of an omelette, she inconveniently got a phone call.

'You have had the tumble-dryer for a year now so it's out of warranty; do you want to buy an insurance policy?'

We do have a policy for these things, and that's to say no. Here's why (click on image to make bigger).

We actually do possess about eight items in this price range: tumble-dryer, fridge, washing machine, oven, a couple of computers, TV, heater. The total of the "Expected cost to replace" column is exactly £120 (0.4 * £300). One year we might get unlucky but over a sufficiently large number, we're clearly ahead with no insurance.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Amaryllis Bulb: day seven

Clare has taken to calling it "The Triffid" as it grows so fast. Here's where it is today.

Today: day 7



Four days ago: day 3


Bulbs on our front-garden tree

For future review of climate warming - here's the state of the bulbs on the tree outside our front windows. The Blackcurrent bushes are beginning to stir as well.

Gotta stop now before I sound like Gardeners' Question Time!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Book Review: 'The Lost Gate' by Orson Scott Card

My review of 'The Lost Gate' has been posted here at sciencefiction.com. It's as well-written as all of Orson Scott Card's novels, but I'm a little tired of his concept of hero = teenage (or sub-teenage) boy.

We climbed up the hill to the top of the Mendips last night (around 9 pm) to see the stars. They're certainly brighter up there but the level of light pollution is still extraordinary. With Wells lighting up the southern horizon and Bristol - twenty miles away - illuminating the north it was impossible to see the Milky Way.

I took some photos but the phone-camera basically doesn't function in low-light so it just came out black: I haven't wasted your time with the result. Oh well, back to researching my article on the search for Supersymmetry at the LHC for sciencefiction.com ...

Monday, March 07, 2011

What if the LHC doesn't see SUSY

My question above posted at the Physics StackExchange has received a fair degree of attention. So much so that it managed to find a migrant home at LuboŇ° Motl's blog The Reference Frame as well ...

Meanwhile I spent most of today writing a TV review of 'Outcasts' (a flop on the BBC) and a book review of Ben Bova's indifferent 'Leviathans of Jupiter' for sciencefiction.com.

Update: these have now been sent to the website for future publication.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Amaryllis Bulb: day three

On my visit to my mother in Bristol on Wednesday, she bought us an Amaryllis bulb. This was duly planted Thursday morning and here it is on day 3 ... already beginning to sprout.


I am told that they grow faster than bamboo, so watch out for the scarlet flowers to come.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

At its heart this is a murder mystery. Local businessman, sensualist and buffoon Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov has three sons: impetuous army officer Dmitri by his first wife; atheist-intellectual Ivan and pious-novice Alyosha by his second. As both wives are deceased, the father spends his money on heavy drinking and fast women. As the novel starts he has set his heart on Dmitri's latest fancy, the young beauty Grushenka.

This rivalry in affairs of the heart, plus Dmitri's desperate need for funds will end up in the father's murder and Dmitri in court for the crime. All the evidence is against him, but is he in fact guilty?

So much for the hyper-detailed reality-TV strand. The second component of this immense novel is its 'philosophy', expressed in sequences such as: Ivan recounting his famous fable of 'The Grand Inquisitor' in which the Catholic Church is portrayed as in a strategic alliance with Satan; later in the novel, Ivan hallucinating a dialogue with the Devil himself, where that entity ruefully points out how necessary he is to prevent life from becoming completely bland - an endless church service. However, saintly Christian characters are also allowed a fair hearing - this is not a simplistic or overly partisan novel.

The third benefit of this novel, which Dostoevsky must have intended less, lies in the intimate acquaintanceship the reader develops with provincial Russian life of the time. The debates the characters engage in are remarkably modern: religion vs. atheism; the rights of women; the pros and cons of enlightenment values. In the 1860s serfdom had just been abolished in Russia and the regime was a Tsarist autocracy. But autocracy is very far from the later Nazi or Stalinist variants of totalitarianism, where state-surveillance was all-pervasive and everyone lived in fear of arbitrary denouncement, torture and death. In Dostoevsky's vividly-imagined town, no-one is in fear of the state. There is a background bureaucracy but the middle-class officers, doctors, lawyers, landowners, innkeepers and merchants just go about their routine business. People get drunk an awful lot and there are endless fights; it's like Saturday night Glasgow has morphed to become an entire country. The uneducated peasantry are barely part of society at all, constituting a semi-bovine underclass of ‘others’.

This much-lauded translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, runs to 776 pages. This much space allows Dostoevsky time to develop his characters organically in the miniscule details of their daily lives, conversations and interactions. The author has given life to a variety of different personalities and the plot develops by their (frequently headstrong) behaviours.

This novel has been described as the best novel ever written and it is superlatively done. Dostoevsky did not sit down and think he was going to write a classic, and no-one should be put off, thinking this book is inaccessible. It's fun, warm, witty, gripping and a page-turner. I'm a fast reader and it's taken me twelve days to finish it; it both needs and requires your extended consideration ... so make some space!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Three Stupid Things

The first stupid thing this week was that a black Christian couple of impeccable character were informed by social services that they would in future be ineligible to foster children because they believed that homosexuality was wrong. This is a common fundamentalist Christian view (and not just Christian).

As far as I am aware, there is no law in this country which proscribes such an opinion, much as one might deprecate such views: my thoughts turned to 1984 and thoughtcrime. As there is a shortage of decent people able and willing to foster, there is quite a serious price to be paid for this posturing.

The second stupid thing was that the European Court of Justice ruled that insurance companies could not charge different premiums to men and women as this was sexist. As a result women will pay more than the expected value of their claims, and men will pay less.

I await the brave soul who requests the Justices that young drivers should pay exactly the same premiums as their elders in order to avoid any hint of ageism. I guess I will then have to pay quite a bit more myself. This would be a subsidy of course, from lower-risk cases to higher-risk cases which is not only iniquitous but also leads to moral hazard (a person doesn't bear the full cost of their statistically-likely behaviour).

On BBC's Newsnight, anchor Emily Maitlis asked a woman who was unhappy with this judgement whether said woman would be comfortable with insurance companies asking young black men to pay more, if it turned out that their risk of accident claims was higher. To her credit, the woman pointed out that this was exactly what should occur.

Clearly there is a body of opinion (which Emily spoke for in her question) which assumes that any policy which takes account of actual ethnic, gender, age, ... differences is by definition racist, sexist, ageist or whatever. It all worked a lot better with our original understanding, which was the -isms were cases of the imposition of negative opinions/policies in situations where there was in fact no supporting evidence.

On the insurance issue, I was struck by the fact that precisely no important public figure articulated the overwhelmingly popular view that this judgement was illiterate nonsense. Why was that, I wonder?

And the third piece of stupidity? There are a number of minor candidates but nothing has yet forced itself to the level of my first two examples. It can only be a matter of time.

School Reports, Embarrassing Letters

Here are various school reports (PDF: 11 MB viewed via Google Documents) I received from my JM&I primary school and Bristol Grammar School.

And here is the embarrassing letter I wrote home to my parents in 1971 (click on image to make it readable).


It informs them, in a typically arrogant and supercilious way, that I have been chucked out of university but that really it's no big deal. And could I please have a car?