Saturday, March 31, 2012

St. Fagans, Barry Island, Caerleon Roman Fortress

Taking advantage of the summer-like weather (today it's vanished!) we decided to visit our nearest foreign country (Wales -- Cymru) two days ago.

Our overseas jaunt started with a traversal of the 'wider-than-the-Mersey' Severn to start our mini-break at St. Fagan's National History Museum just west of Cardiff. This is an open-air site where numerous historical buildings have been lovingly and carefully rebuilt. We started in the Celtic roundhouses where Clare had a chance to question a native (below) about the central heating (pictured).

Clare talks to a Celt about their housing
Next we moved on to the late-mediaeval Catholic Church.

Clare at the entrance to St. Teilo's mediaeval Catholic Church

The Ascension - rather NASA-like

Icons of things you can't do on a Sunday
A collection of pictures showing the brightly-illuminated wall decorations was the subject of the previous post.

Clare at St. Fagan's Castle gardens
We then walked across to the other side of the site to visit the "castle" (a 1580 Elizabethan Manor House) and its charming gardens.

Then it was off to Barry island, home of the famous "Gavin and Stacey" where we both paid homage by eating chips on a litter-strewn beach. The white item stranded on the sand in Clare's picture is an item of feminine underwear: don't ask!

Clare ("Stacey") at Barry Island

Nigel ("Gavin") at Barry Island
After the sophisticated delights of Barry island (which we both enjoyed) we drove to the Premier Inn near Newport where we were able to note how the Beefeater chain has moved noticeably upmarket.

Special Effects at the Caerleon Roman Bath House
Friday we took in the Roman Legion Fortress at Caerleon. We started in the Bath House, and then moved on to the Amphitheatre and the Barracks.

Clare charges a predator in the Caerleon amphitheatre

Clare welcomes the troops to the Caerleon barracks
On our way home we decided to visit Leigh Woods, overlooking the river Avon. Have you ever encountered a National Trust site worse signposted? By trial-and-error, much driving in circles and exploring anonymous side roads we eventually found where to park and had a pleasant walk.

Someone has invested in new parking facilities, how about a sign on the A369?

A late-Mediaeval Catholic Church

We visited St Fagans National History Museum just to the west of Cardiff on Thursday. This is an open-air museum with many period cottages, shops, mills, chapels brought from other locations and painstakingly rebuilt on this site.

A particular joy was St. Teilo's Church, originally at Llandeilo Tal-y-bont which has been reconstructed as it would have appeared in 1530 in all its pre-Reformation coloured splendour.

Clare welcomes you in

Jesus on the Cross

The Ascension - it's rather NASA

"Don't Touch Me"

Jesus Leaves The Tomb - note the Tudor knights

Jesus Brought Down from the Cross

Jesus on the Cross

Icons of things you can't do on a Sunday

"Behold Man"

Easter Scenes

Jesus is spat upon

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Car trap at Croscombe

We were in Reading Monday and Tuesday; I had client meetings in London. The cat was left to manage our property and subsist on dry food Iams. He seemed none the worse.

Anyway, back last night and Clare finds two traffic violation letters in the hall. A little while ago she was trundling to Frome through Croscombe and a covert police radar caught her doing 35 in a 30 mph zone. All oblivious and returning from Marks and Spencer's a couple of hours later, they got her again, this time doing an insane 36 mph. I am naturally shocked, shocked!

She has written offering to take the "speeding driver awareness workshop" (80 pounds) rather than the two times sixty pound fine and 6 penalty points. If they ask her to take the same course twice though, she's inclined to save money and pay her debt to society directly.

It's kind of spooky to be under the same roof as a habitual criminal ...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Infinite Improbability Drive

“Suddenly, a Vogon Constructor Fleet appears in the sky and destroys the Earth. Ford Prefect saves himself and Arthur Dent by hitching a ride on a Vogon spaceship only for the two of them to be discovered and thrown out of the airlock. By some infinitely improbably coincidence, they are immediately picked up by the starship Heart of Gold, piloted by Ford’s “semi-half brother” Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy.”

When I first encountered Douglas Adams’ great work, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, I was particularly impressed by the Heart of Gold’s engine, the ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’, which exploited Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. According to the Guide, the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveler is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there,” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly.

What a great idea! Why is NASA spending billions on underpowered chemical rockets when quantum theory offers us the stars? What on earth is stopping us?

Put the Heart of Gold starship to one side for a moment and consider a humble electron, stationary in deep space. Let’s suppose its position can be localized to a precision of one millimeter. How uncertain would its position be after, say, an hour?

You’re probably thinking of that electron as a tiny, lonely, charged point hanging out there in space, all by itself between the stars: but that isn’t what the math says. According to quantum theory that tiny electron is a highly localized wave, like that spike of water which shoots up after you drop a ball-bearing into a pond. What that spike is going to do is to spread out – after an hour, our electron-wave is a sphere one kilometer in diameter which would take you ten minutes to walk across.

The electron hasn’t become an enormous blob in space. The math is telling you that if you now check its location, the electron will be found somewhere within that one kilometer bubble (at a definite location of course). Note that this has nothing to do with it drifting on account of some initial velocity – the electron started out classically stationary; it’s a purely quantum phenomenon.

A kilometer in an hour doesn’t sound much: that isn’t going to take us to the stars. But perhaps the Heart of Gold can do better? As a starship, it’s obviously a bit heavier than an electron: let’s suppose it weighs in at 100 tons. And we could certainly fix its position better than a millimeter… Given the thermal vibration of its constituent particles, let’s suppose it could be localized to within the diameter of a hydrogen atom, one Angstrom Unit. (Heisenberg tells us that the tighter we fix the position, the faster the wave spreads out).

So how far could the Heart of Gold’s wave-function spread in, say, a year? We put the numbers in and the answer is… less than 1.6 x 10-22 meters, one ten-millionth of the diameter of a proton.

The final nail in the coffin of the Infinite Improbability Drive is a phenomenon known as decoherence, the bane of quantum computing. Due to interactions with the environment such as the Cosmic Microwave Background, the spherical wave for the Heart of Gold would collapse in 10-19 seconds. Forget about even that whole year for wave-spreading: our ‘starship’ is going absolutely nowhere.

I guess that’s why NASA are staying with their rockets.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Telegraph => Times

Last night I was reading an article (on Osborne's Budget as a matter of fact) and I forgot the site whence came the piece. I remember thinking: 'This is a little bit intelligent for The Telegraph' and then I recalled - I was reading The Economist blog.

So there and then it was settled. Today I cancelled my Kindle subscription to The Telegraph and instead enrolled with The Times (my proxy for a daily Economist).

I had previously been reading The Times when my free subscription ran out. It was very messy (on a smartphone) trying to sign up to the pay version - The Telegraph by contrast exploits Amazon's legendary easiness-of-use.

Anyway, today I signed up to The Times on my laptop. it was only moderately hard to disentangle the maze of offers and prices: I have settled for the £2 per week web edition which delivers The Times to my PC and to the phone.

I had been worried about downloads to the PC which wouldn't transfer properly to my HTC and all that kind of stuff but in the event my fears were groundless. The laptop process gave me a Times account with user-name and password, and that's typed into my existing Android Times app to grant access.

It's a shame the process is so off-puttingly opaque, though.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A failed glamour shot

I'm very busy at the moment preparing a client assignment (trip to London on Thursday). However, I had an opportunity to take a "glamour" shot of Clare this morning before starting work.

Sadly, I was fought off.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The psychopathic garden

Provided the garden keeps off the driveway, I'm prepared to live and let live. Clare is almost as laissez-faire: she wants a garden in her own image, wild and free.

Still, you can get too wild and too free, like impenetrable. So she's been trying to hack her way into the depths while I've been dragged away from more intellectual pursuits (mostly involving reading stuff on my phone) to wield a saw on tough branches.

Last night, when pulling some foliage out of a tree she was hit by a rebounding branch. The lump was impressive - only the speedy application of ice saved me from wife-beating accusations at Mass this morning.

In a second round of garden surgery I myself received an uppercut this afternoon. I survived.

We now have a small mountain of greenery which somehow has to be got to the dump. And we can see the street for the first time.

My heart goes out to all those people out there who can't get their new iPad to power up. You know who you are :-).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"How To Make A Big Bang" (review)

Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ came out in 1726 and was an immediate best-seller. Gulliver, a surgeon and master mariner, encountered a number of bizarre races on his travels: the tiny Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians and the uncouth Yahoos. These weird, early science-fictional encounters were actually satires on the now long-forgotten politics of the day.

Time, therefore, for an update. In the Flambaum’s ‘How to Make a Big Bang: A Cosmic Journey’, the latter-day Gulliver is Alice (the ‘Wonderland’ reference is hardly accidental) and here is how the book starts ...

Continue reading at

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Back already!

We were driven back by the cold and returned home from Devon this evening.

Our home from home at Hidden Valley

After our one and only night in the tent above, an aeon spent cowering from the icy drafts and slowly sliding off the end of our air-bed (amazing what even a slight incline can do), Clare decided to call time.

Clare at Croyde Beach: a picture of frozen

We started the morning by driving down to Croyde, south of Woolacombe, and taking a walk along the coastal path. The picture above will give you a clue as to how balmy it was.

The author at Woolacombe: it's brightened up

By the afternoon we had moved on to Woolacoombe where we strolled in the improving weather. At last the sun!

Blonde, shades: could be the Bahamas!

We had not visited Woolacombe before and were amazed at its broad, deserted beach, so flat and long you could land a plane on it. We did not, however, venture onto Woolacombe International Airport, contenting ourselves with a brief cliff-top walk.

We drove back through the centre of Exmoor. Quite disappointing: most of it is farmed and fenced, and for miles the view from the road is obscured by picturesque but high hedging. There's a wild part just before you get to Simonsbath but Exmoor certainly isn't Dartmoor.

So cute (this morning after breakfast)

I swear he did this himself.

Camping in Devon

Here we are, camping at 'Hidden Valley' a few miles south of Ilfracombe. The temperature last night was around four degrees C. Naturally we are the only people here camping (there are warm, heated mobile homes and caravans).

We have plenty of bedding; the thing about sleeping in a refrigerator is not so much the chilled air, it's more that everything is difficult.

We asked for an electric point but failed to realise that a special connector is needed. So our extension cable is useless and we can't use the electric kettle (although Clare forgot the cups so we're redundantly useless).

Anyway, it's just past 8 am and I'm in the car, ostensibly charging my mobile phone upon which I write these words. The heater is firmly on.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"John Carter" (film)

Clare and myself went to see the new science-fiction film "John Carter", which is an all-too-faithful rendering of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first Barsoom novel.

Dave Taylor did the review over at and I added my thoughts in a comment at the end. I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Patrick Moore goes on for ever!

In recent years Sir Patrick Moore (pictured below) has grown increasingly more immobile and, dare I say it, hard to understand. His sidekick, the youthful Chris Lintott, (pictured at bottom) has looked increasingly hungry to take over the show's top spot and give 'The Sky At Night' a much-needed revamp.

Sadly, news has reached me that Dr Lintott's long wait in the wings looks set to continue. After Dr Moore's eventual physical demise, the BBC plans to ask skilled animatronic engineers to create a replica version of Sir Patrick indistinguishable from the real thing. Advanced speech synthesis (which can already authentically mimic a person's conversation) will complete the effect.

Sorry about that, Chris - you'll still be needed to take those tedious plane flights to the conferences, but Sir Patrick is destined to anchor that show for ever!

If only I had been good at the guitar!

When I was at Bristol Grammar School I had a friend called Alan Maddocks who was brilliant at Blues guitar. I really, really wanted to be a lead guitarist and did play briefly in a band at Warwick University but I really wasn't that good (I joined the Socialist Society instead).

But Alan was good and he contacted me again recently. Here's a video of the band: he plays lead guitar and his solo is at 2:04.

A Wedding Party

We have been invited to a wedding party in April. Accompanying the card was this charming and honest poem.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A Talking Bore

Saw "A Dangerous Method" this afternoon. Lots of chat between Jung and Freud about the correct foundations of psychoanalysis, but it's all just jargon-ridden opinion signifying not very much.

This leaden dead-time is enlivened by Jung's involvement with Sabina Spielrein, one of his patients, who has a spanking fetish.

Watching Jung beating poor Keira Knightley across the bed was pretty amusing. The slap of the whip on artfully-occluded bare-flesh was embellished by our Keira/Sabina almost falling out of the thin white summer dress she was almost wearing. She has a great way with the facial grimace: it was hard to keep a straight face.

So that's 90 minutes we won't be getting back.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Interstellar Command: The Ansible

Brian Cox has had a rough time on the Internet: various influential science blogs have taken him to task for his BBC-2 Christmas show, where he explained quantum mechanics to a motley collection of celebs. His sin was to suggest that a slight change in electron energy levels in the studio (Brian rubbing a diamond) would cause instantaneous changes to electrons across the universe.

The level of personal abuse in physics blogs can be astonishingly high. This is an example of Sayre’s law – ‘academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.’ The converse is Heinlein’s maxim that ‘an armed society is a polite society,’ but it's too soon to propose that we arm all physicists.

I've had a bit of a break writing for I've been busy with my current client assignment and I wasn't sure the weekly science features were getting much purchase with the site's target audience. I'm now writing 'contributions' and book reviews.

Read the article discussing Brian Cox's talk over at

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Economics of Immigration

Most abilities of interest to employers: intelligence, conscientiousness, agreeableness, are normally distributed in the population. This means that once you’ve hired the brightest and the best, you’re into the diminishing marginal utility of the remaining labour force.

If the labour market is expanded with smart foreigners, then you can carry on recruiting the people you really want to. This is the business case for allowing immigration (at least of high-quality people).

Still, those left-hand-side-of-the-bell-curve people haven’t gone away. The may be semi-employable at best but they still need to be fed and housed. There are three possible responses to this conundrum.

a. Tax the economically-productive and use the proceeds to support the incompetent in their non-working state.

b. Restrict the immigration of competent people. Subsidise employers to take on less-employable UK people to compensate for their disutility (this corresponds to lowering their cost as seen by the employer). This works provided the UK person can actually do the job to some level of quality; it won’t work for the truly incompetent.

c. As option (b) but force employers to take on inferior-to-incompetent staff by legislation. Or the Government could be an employer of last-resort in some form of coercive workfare (note that this still involves ongoing taxpayer-funded transfer payments *).

None of these are good answers from the point of view of economic efficiency but what other choices do we really have?

Since no-one likes either running or using a business with sub-standard employees, the sad truth is that option (a) might even be best, provided all the paid-through-taxation unemployables don’t occupy their time by imposing further negative externalities on everyone else.

Perhaps that’s the reason why conventional wisdom is converging on option (b), to keep these people off the streets. The moral view, however, that it's actually better for them to be in some kind of work than hanging around in social exclusion does seem to carry some evolutionary psychological weight.

* Because of the gap between what you have to pay to keep someone alive and the actual net value of what - in their incompetence - that person can actually produce. In a competitive market their wage might even be negative.