Monday, May 30, 2011

The "Myth" of the Evil Aliens

In which I take Michael Shermer of Scientific American to task.

Read more here.

Goodbye Orange ...

For months now I have been eagerly anticipating getting an Internet-enabled 3G smartphone. I've had good service from my Sony-Ericsson K750i but it's time to move on.

As my 18 month contract with Orange terminates in exactly one month today, I took the opportunity to cancel. I'm going to move to Vodafone as they have a better 2G network (900 MHz rather than Orange's 1,800 MHz - the lower frequency propagates farther and penetrates buildings better) and a more extensive build-out of phone masts for both 2G and 3G. I believe European roaming is probably cheaper and easier as well.

I had visions of endless problems cancelling the service: interrogations from someone at their call-centre paid to retain me, failure to actually do as I asked leading to endless charging in the future until I cancelled my direct debit at which point they would sue me for non-payment ...

In actuality it has so far gone well. I said that my reasons for moving supplier were private, and this was accepted. I have now got my PAC code by text, to transfer my mobile phone number, and I will be down to the local Vodafone shop tomorrow with a full list of requirements.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Concatenated SMS

Just thought you'd like to see a picture of "Sister Nobili, based at the monastery, who became famous for performing her modern Holy Dance" (Pope shuts down 'unusual monastery').

Clare is now in the recovery phase and is experiencing all the usual delights of the post-operative condition. This morning she was wandering the house at 5.30 a.m. searching for Ex-Lax or equivalent. Apparently we have a "second brain" - the enteric nervous system - which controls the gut, and this is knocked sideways by anaesthesia.

In exchanging long and amusing text messages with family members, it finally percolated through to my consciousness that the mobile operators have now implemented concatenated SMS, which means you can send text messages of enormous length which are segmented into 160 character messages in the system and reassembled into one long message for the recipient.

We were doing that in IP decades ago.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Clare's operation a success

UPDATE: (3 pm): Clare now arrived back home & asleep in own bed.
We were at Taunton hospital for 7.30 a.m. yesterday morning although Clare was not admitted to theatre until 2.30 pm. The surgeon called me at quarter to five to indicate that the operation had been successful. I finally met up with a drugged but calm Clare in Ward 5 at around half past six. I'll check in an hour - it is possible she may be back home even this afternoon.

The badger emerging from behind the shed

As I was making breakfast yesterday morning at 6 am, prior to leaving for the hospital, I noticed we had a badger in our back garden. He was exploring behind the shed so I grabbed my camera-phone.

The badger on our patio

This is the money shot, as he ambles along our patio. Definitely time to get the cat-food out overnight. (The kit-e-kat cans rejected by Shadow who prefers stuff with some measurable level of meat in it).

Rumours it was slithering have been denied

This, served up before Clare went into hospital, is a challenge to you. Have we gone all French, or is there a more benign explanation?

A strange bird in our front garden

Here he is again, playing with the birds.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

'The Tunnel' by Ernesto Sabato

Juan Pablo Castel is an Argentinean painter and a very, very strange person. We meet him after he has been convicted of the murder of Maria Iribarne Hunter, a crime he has freely admitted to. “The Tunnel” is Castel’s account of the events leading up to the crime and the reasons which impelled him to do it.

Ernesto Sabato’s short novel, written in 1948 and now re-issued in English translation (Margaret Sayers Peden, the translator, has done superlative work) is a brilliant account of a certain mind-set: alienation; over-intellectualisation; introversion – blended into insanity by an unchecked desperate need for love and an all-absorbing jealousy.

Castel first sees Maria absorbed by his painting “Motherhood” at an exhibition. She seems transfixed by an apparently minor feature of the painting: a remote beach and an isolated, lonely woman staring at the sea. It seems to Castel that Maria is the first and only person, apart from himself, who has really understood his painting, and by extension his inner self. Maria leaves shortly afterwards and Castel’s social maladroitness ensures that he passively lets her go.

There now follows a protracted stalking of Maria by the obsessed painter. They finally meet up and somehow a jagged and often violent relationship follows. Castel’s hopeless jealousy and suspicion will be familiar to anyone recalling their first teenage love affairs (but Castel is 38).

Whereas most of us learn trust and empathy, and have at least the minimal social skills to match, Castel can never make human contact. He flips between unbounded aggression and virulent self-loathing while the complex and damaged Maria seems to passively collude. We already know, of course, how it will end.

Sabato has accomplished an extraordinary portrayal of someone with, I suspect, something like Asperger’s Syndrome together with Neuroticism turned up to 11. Castel’s extremism makes perfect sense in its own terms and all of his utterly self-defeating actions ring horribly true. We cringe in recognition of our own similar relationship-disasters which thankfully were not so extreme. At 140 pages this beautifully written and translated book can be read in an afternoon: you might try reading it aloud to your significant other – if you dare!

Out and about in the Mendips

Here's a view of Wells Cathedral from the lower slopes of the Mendips, taken a day or two ago.

Wells cathedral from Milton Lodge

Adrian and Clare at my mother's house
Taken just before we left for Weston. Clare has Adrian's new camera.

Clare above the Somerset Levels
We took a stroll this morning near Priddy and the Ebbor Gorge, above the Somerset Levels.

The author

We are currently discussing a small family issue about which I can say nothing. Perhaps the answer is on Twitter?

Friday, May 20, 2011

A family day out in Weston-super-Mare

After days of rain and gloom, yesterday was warmish and sunny so Adrian, Clare and myself took my mother to Weston-super-Mare. Beryl Seel has long cherished the goal of walking Weston's newly-made-over pier, to compare it with her memories of the war years when as a teenager she used to promenade with the Yankee soldiers billeted in the nearby woods. Actually, she denies the last bit while knowing far too much about them.

Clare in the Greenhouse
First we had to do some chores in Beryl's back garden though. Here's Clare in the greenhouse, the site of an epic battle on Wednesday between my mother and a trapped pigeon, in the course of which Beryl was rocked off her feet by the frenzied bird. Peace and quiet today, though.

Beryl and Nigel with UFO
It could be a UFO; it could be a frenzied pigeon back for another pass.

The Grand Pier
Clare to right of shot, Beryl and myself strolling up the pier centre.

The end of the pier
This is the legendary Weston view when the tide is out. Somewhere, there is the sea otherwise you could wallow in mud all the way across to Wales. We speculated what would happen if you jumped off the pier: would you simply vanish into the treacherous quicksand? Despite dares there were no offers to test this hypothesis.

Adrian wanted this snap of Weston beachfront lifestyle.

En route to Weston we stopped for lunch at The Star Inn, Congresbury. While Clare and Beryl sat at their table of choice to peruse the menu, Adrian and myself went to the bar to order. Two halves of lager and lime and two pints of EPA.

The barman was hopeless. The minutes went by as he haplessly fumbled with the electronic till. Eventually the female deputy manager came by and tried to help him. "Two cokes" he mumbled. The woman looked suspiciously at the two half pints and I helpfully said "Lager and lime - two halves."

She shook her head and redirected his trembling fingers. Adrian, trying to lessen the strain on the hapless fellow said to me: "Shall I take these across?"

I couldn't help myself, honestly, it just came out. I replied "You might as well, they're dying of thirst over there."

The woman glared at me as if I was abusing a kitten. "He's just a trainee you know, it's his first day ..."

Later when we ordered our meal, the first-day trainee had been put to manning the only working food till. As I arrived I was directed immediately by the deputy manager to the till in the bar where someone else took my order.

And when it arrived, the bread was stale.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Visual Guide to Special Relativity

When you first study Special Relativity you meet the strange phenomena of time dilation, length contraction and the 'twins paradox'. While it's true that the equations of the Lorentz transformation give the right answer, they may fail to provide insight into what's really going on.

The true meaning of special relativity is visual and geometric. R. S. Zimmer wrote a wonderful book called "Getting the picture in special relativity" but it is sadly out of print. However, he also wrote a shortened version for the Open University course "Space, Time and Cosmology" (Block 2) and this covers the main ideas in a beautifully clear way.

Download his ten page article here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: 'All the lives he led'

My review of Frederik Pohl's new novel here at

Good news today that Adrian's Canadian Visa has arrived. Hopefully his job applications will be successful despite the lateness of the summer season over there.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tesco Value

Seen in Tesco this morning. At this level of "value" one can only speculate on the effects on your gastro-intestinal system of a slap-up value curry meal on a Saturday night!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Relativistic Weapon Impact

The logistic computer calculates that we have about a 62% chance of success, should we attempt to destroy the enemy base. Unfortunately, we would have only a 30% chance of survival – as some of the scenarios leading to success involve ramming the portal planet with the Anniversary at light speed.” So speaks the unfortunate starship commander in The Forever War (Haldeman, 1974, p. 110).

An attack by highly relativistic impact weapons is a military planner’s nightmare. The first problem is that the incoming weapon is highly superluminal: it appears to be travelling much faster than light. Suppose such a weapon was launched from interstellar space towards the earth at a velocity of 0.99995c (i.e. 99.995% of the speed of light). Its apparent velocity as observed from the earth is 20,000 times the speed of light (the speed-up factor is c/(c-v) which tends to infinity as the object’s speed approaches that of light). Suppose our military first spot this incoming object out at Jupiter’s orbit, 35 light minutes away. How long do we have before impact? Less than one tenth of a second: there is simply no time to react.

... continue reading at

Why we have an avian lodger problem

Clare has long been mystified as to why birds haven't colonised her bird-box in the back garden. She is convinced that despite his longtime vole habit, the cat is temperamentally uninterested in birds. This afternoon I caught the following sequence - what do you think?

Yes, I do predate birds

Any little ones home?

On my way down - nobody noticed, right?

Clevedon Court

Yesterday we visited Clevedon Court, near Clevedon. I had imagined it as a large stately home in extensive gardens but actually it's quite compact.

Here's a shot from the gardens behind the house, which rise steeply for a 150 metres or so.

Adrian has caught Clare (partially hidden) and myself at the front entrance to the house.

This picture, and the one below are the same frame. The picture is painted on slats which run top-to-bottom and at right angles to the picture surface. So from one direction you see a girl ...

... and from the other direction a bird. By painting also on the surface of the canvas it's possible to create three images - as seen on another picture in the house which we didn't photograph.

And here is a spooky young Miss in one of the bedrooms.

Afterwards we visited the Wai Yee Hong Chinese Supermarket near IKEA in Bristol. That gave us the ingredients and IKEA gave us a couple of cheap Woks. This evening, Clare and Adrian celebrated by cooking something with minced pork and peppers which we all agreed was the worst-tasting meal we have ever had in this house.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review: 'Essential Quantum Mechanics'

My review of Gary Bowman's fine conceptual overview of quantum mechanics has just been published at

"Quantum mechanics is everywhere in science fiction but in some ways a passing familiarity with the weird phenomena can even detract from real understanding. You have to buckle down, do the hard work and study the subject thoroughly – but even this may not be enough.

You could take an undergraduate-level course in quantum mechanics (QM), be able to do the questions and even pass the exam but still have very little idea of what quantum mechanics actually means as a coherent mathematical theory. Everyone agrees that QM is hard but the hardness is not really in the difficulty of the mathematics involved; it’s rather in trying to understand how all the unfamiliar QM concepts fit together and how they connect to what we experience in the familiar classical world.

You can’t learn QM from scratch with Gary Bowman’s book. But if you are midway through such a course, or are revising for the exam, or just trying to make sense out of it afterwards, Bowman has written this book for you

Continue reading at

Stourhead Revisited

Clare's operation has been postponed for a week she was informed yesterday evening (due to an "emergency" admission). We are not best pleased at having to wait until the week after next.

Despite the indifferent weather we drove the twenty-odd miles to the wonderful gardens at Stourhead today and Adrian got to use the camera. The Temple of Apollo provides the vantage point for the picture above of the lake and gardens.

We then drove around the back of the estate to King Alfred's Tower, which as you see is frighteningly high (Clare and myself pictured). Adrenaline levels do not subside when you step inside and contemplate the spiral stone staircase which claustrophobically winds to the very top. Clare elected to sit this one out while I impressed myself by getting to the top without stopping.

Adrian took this picture from the top showing Clare as a tiny dot below.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Frame Dragging and 'Gravity Probe B'

My article on the just-announced results from 'Gravity Probe B' has been published.

"A rotating black hole can generate huge amounts of energy for a sufficiently high-tech civilization. Outside the spherical event horizon lies an ellipsoidal region called the ergosphere – within this region spacetime is being dragged around the spinning black hole faster than light. In 1969 Roger Penrose showed that an object projected into the ergosphere can be made to escape with vastly increased energy while slightly slowing the black hole’s spin.

The dragging of space-time around a rotating mass is called frame-dragging (think honey around a twirled spoon) and is predicted by General Relativity. But is it real? A seven year NASA experiment called ‘Gravity Probe B’ has just reported in and it seems that, as usual, Einstein was right.
" ...

Continue reading at

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Seduced by ideas ...

We're all feeling somewhat relieved this morning following Clare's encouraging diagnosis yesterday at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton. However, this post is on a different topic.

If, as the polls suggest, the vote goes against AV today then there will be lots of media talk about how conservative the British public are and privately, how self-defeatingly stupid. Liberal (small 'l') media types such as Fry, Izzard and Firth will castigate the undoubted lies and distortions of the 'NO' campaign.

But in their attachment to abstract ideals of 'democracy' and 'harmony' they miss what non-intellectuals have easily grasped. AV means more Liberals in parliament and most people want no part of that.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Delayed by cows

How rustic is Somerset? On our way to see Clare's consultant at Taunton this morning we were stopped in our tracks by a herd of cows being moved betwixt fields by wizened, elderly cowherds. Can't keep the young on the land!

We were not late, and gratified to hear that Clare is in the least severe category. I neglected to ask the consultant for a copy of her CT scan for my USB drive - it certainly looked neat on his monitor as he scrolled through her body :-)

An op in a couple of weeks is scheduled.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

CT Scan

To Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton this morning for Clare's CT scan (X-rays, not MRI).

As Clare sipped the 600 ml of water she was required to drink prior to her scan (the nurses have a category - they call them the 'water-drinkers'), we listened to a thickset man with a disabled son talking loudly to his friend. After getting to know way too much about the disabled young man's condition, conversation turned to his daughter.

"She was at college studying hairdressing, but her friends decided to drop out and so she dropped out too. I told her she was being stupid."

"What's she doing now?"

"Working in the garage at Sainsburys."

While this narrative of feckless working class youth unfolded, I idly studied the wallchart shown above. Computed tomography; the manipulation of quantum-mechanical spin in MRI; the production and imaging of therapeutic ultrasound. Thinking of the theoretical sophistication and awesome engineering deployed just a few feet away I wondered how it can be possible that we all belong to the same species.

No results yet: Clare will see a specialist tomorrow.