Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dice Man

Some random thoughts on re-reading Luke Rhinehart's book after forty years.
  • Like Stranger in a Strange Land and most of Philip K. Dick's output, this has a very sixties view of women, their sexual inclinations and proclivities. Also far from the truth.
  • The dice philosophy subverts all social relationships. You couldn't run any complex enterprise that way. I think George Cockcroft knows this.
  • The book was much banned. I am still not sure you would permit your wife or servants to read it.
The die made me do it
HT Adrian for parking this literary IED in our midst.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Painter at Work

I mentioned in yesterday's post that Clare was painting the path outside the back door in an exhilaratingly scarlet. This morning she applied the final coat - so if you want your house-painting done by an artist in her nightie just let me know!

Notice the professionalism of the new back step!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mozzie attack

Hear that whine? You tell yourself it's the boiler, or maybe a motorbike making its late way home this one o'clock in the morning. Except ... despite your dreamy state, you know in truth that you have company.

A mozzie looms: in the last second of its approach the whine spikes to a crescendo and by reflex your hand shoots out to flail the air. Doubly pointless - the mozzie is unfazed; moreover it treats the act itself as prey-confirmation. In any case a mozzie never eats your head off, ankles are a favourite and you'll never hear or feel it feeding down there.

It's so hot that it's impossible to keep the windows shut; impossible to keep the duvet on. The hours go by, whines recur at intervals, the duvet flaps on and off like a slow-flying bird. At 2 am I abandon the room to Clare, who is oblivious. Judging by the increased fly-by frequency, we seem to have acquired a flock (right collective noun? A swarm?) of the wretched creatures.

I retire to the back bedroom, close the window and door, lie on the bed with the duvet thrown off, listen sleepily to the boiler hum, listen again ... the light goes on and I see a tandem flight at the top of the wall. One is swatted in short order, the second eludes all contact, drifting in and out of view like erratic, wilful dust. Eventually I fall asleep: this morning I am bitten - around the ankle.

On our way back from the bird sanctuary at Ham Loop near Glastonbury today, we bought some RAID at Tescos. Tonight will be different, little guys.

The Tor from Ham Loop

A quick update on artisan work

1. My newly-constructed back step is complete and dry; Clare is currently painting the path around it with a spectacularly red masonry paint.

2. My attempts to stop the sporadic leakage of water from one of the toilet cisterns has been a partial success. I removed the plug/washer assembly from the bottom of the cistern (why is a hole there at all? What possible use is it?), cleaned and smoothed the entire area inside and out, checked the washers - no sign of wear, and replaced all screwing it up tight. Result? It still leaks briefly after the flush has been pulled. Why? No idea.

We'll live with it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mystic River

In Mystic River the local hoodlum is in for questioning. The sergeant says that he's clearly done time - you can tell from the tension in his shoulders.

The detective remonstrates: "He's just heard that his daughter has been murdered." The sergeant replies: "That you feel in the pit of your stomach; the shoulders - he's done time."

Our own stomachs have been assaulted by the realisation that our washing machine has packed up. Much random pushing of buttons finally got the door open: sludgy water still lies inside and the clothes are disgusting. We await the views of a repairman re: fix or replace.

After a morning cementing slabs outside the back door, I really expected a more rewarding afternoon. Clare, after a morning sanding window sills, likewise.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fighters over Weston-super-Mare

The second summer day here of a predicted four: temperatures were in the mid-twenties and there was not a cloud in the sky. Clare and myself took my mother to what we believed would be a pristine Weston-super-Mare to enjoy the sun, sea and sand. Approximately 7,000 other people had the same idea as the beach panorama illustrates.

The crowded beach at Weston today
The water was receding on an ebbing tide making paddling impossible: kinda irrelevant, as newspapers had reported that the water was contaminated with sewage. Alternative entertainment was provided from the air as a couple of Spitfires in their D-Day colours zoomed over the beach and did tricks - you can just see them in the picture below out at sea.

WW2 Fighters over the sea
After three hours watching the good people of Bristol showing far too much of their reddened, spherical bodies we decided to move on. I should mention that the two women I had brought with me were the most covered on the beach. They could not have exposed less flesh to the sun's eager ministrations if they had been zealous adherents to the third Abrahamic religion.

Thankfully, we were soon basking in the cool air of our neighbourhood Waitrose, that secular temple of middle-class modernity.

The steps before they're cemented
I might have mentioned that Clare is looking at me with unusual (even unheard of) adoration as I show off my artisan skills by building a step for the cat out of his cat-flap in the back door.

I pointed out to her that (a) I am a very poor artisan who had to look up the difference between cement and mortar, and (b) my intellectual achievements are to my manual skills as the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai is to a crème caramel. Yet this compelling argument counts for naught with the big eyes. Women - I will never understand them. But I do recall she is rather fond of the cat ...

Talking during ...

The Sunday Times had a front page science story about how a man's cerebral cortex shuts down during the act of sex. It's like they become this great sensual, passionate, carnal animal ... or so I like to think.

Women not so much.

So there you are girls. Try to talk to us in the throes and you'll either get an ignorant grunt, or the sand will hit the gear-box and the machine will stop in its tracks.

Sounds no-win to me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How popular is this blog?

At first sight it doesn't do too badly. Usually in excess of 70 views per day during the week. But look more closely: almost all of those people are looking at one post, which describes a UK Government security accreditation standard. My article is one of the few "out there" which explains how to go about getting accredited.

Subtract that one article and there's a smattering of hits on some articles I wrote on Myers-Briggs personality type theory and some hits on beauty-spot posts such as National Trust sites we've visited and Weston-super-Mare (sic).

The blogs I look at are aggregation/tutorial sites in arcane areas which interest me such as theoretical physics, economics and politics, genetics, science-fiction, etc. The people writing these blogs occupy positions where they know a lot more about what's going on and what's hot than I do.

So where's the expertise I have which is world-class and best-in-class? Doesn't exist, sadly. When I was working full time in the corporate world on public telecom networks and their architecture/design I could have put together a (maybe anonymous) technical blog. But I didn't.

So bottom line: unless you are a world-class practitioner plugged into the relevant community, it's unlikely that anything you write is going to have a truly mass appeal, even in a niche.

None of this should be surprising: I have just described the usual fate of all would-be authors.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Birthday Girl in video

Three videos of Clare opening her presents - best viewed in full-screen mode.The first box to be ripped to pieces is from Adrian over in Canada. Amazon worked its magic.

Clare opens Adrian's presents
Balancing precariously on a ladder I attached the bird box to a tree in the back garden this morning, and here it is - a show-home awaiting its first occupant.

The Alpine Bird Box in situ
Next was my present to Clare which is ideally suited to spying on the bird family in their Alpine nest box.

Lightweight Binoculars
Finally, but by no means least it was Alex's box. This is something which has been on Clare's mind a long time and she's delighted.

Alex's present
Videos best seen in full-screen mode.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Le Tour

Nice as it is to have a British yellow jersey and number two, I've been reflecting as to why the race has settled into something rather too tame and bland.

1. Wiggins and Frome are just too good for everyone else.

2. The race designers have screwed up: the stages structure is not incentivising head-to-head combat amongst the race leaders.

3. The race is now too clean. Absent the superhuman superpowers which the drugs enabled, we've been reduced to duelling between mere mortals.

OT: apparently dental braces used by top athletes are (or were) an infallible sign of the illicit use of human growth hormone. Google it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Your Sister's Sister (film)

We saw said romcom this afternoon in a cinema initially completely empty. Three women then arrived as the feature started and we were led to a cabin in the woods where Jack, Iris and her sister Hannah worked out their angst.

It's a slight film with an implausible, almost Shakespearean plot involving Iris (Emily Blunt doing her Kate Middleton impression) with her pining for 'best-friend' Jack while he is being manoeuvred into a sperm donation for baby-hungry Hannah (the square-jawed vegan lesbian sister). All boxes are ticked en route and the finale presents a very self-satisfied, smug and weepy love triangle.

Verdict: claustrophobic from Clare and girly from me.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This and That finally published my 'amusing' article on 'Higgs for Dummies', posted here some days back. I think its content jars with the comic-book, TV and film news pieces which now define the identity of the site. However, my post has attracted  an acceptable number of likes and tweets. Sufficient, in any event, to move my thoughts on to further articles.

Just read Ken MacLeod's well-written 'Intrusion', which extrapolates the current nanny-state to something like fascism carried out by well-meaning, cheery types who are convinced they are oppressing you in your own interests.

The plot centres around a perfectly ordinary middle-class couple who feel uninclined to take "the fix" which will rewrite and correct any non-standard genes in the wife's unborn child-to-be. How antisocial of them!

However, it turns out that the child may well be carrying a beneficial (and science-fictional) mutation so the state might not be, well, ... right about this.

MacLeod writes better than most SF authors and the book is both intelligent and a page-turner. It doesn't quite reach the bar as a literary work as the characters, though well-realised, never seem to offer us any psychological insight. The author is more interested in ideas ... but this is SF. He wears his Marxism lightly, in any event.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Weston today: a study in bleakness

Today we went to the seaside. July huh! The tide was in for a change: a brisk cold wind churning the water, stirring in sand till the sea turned brown. We walked on the beach, watching the kite surfers.

Our real reason for going to Weston was to shop at Waitrose. The Wells store is currently a hole in the ground: till next Easter then.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fifty Shades of ...

Erika Leonard James has some previous form as a screenwriter and TV producer. Some have described her oeuvre as of 'negligible literary merit' but I doubt that they have millions rolling into their bank accounts.

All literature speaks to the emotions. What's the difference between these two texts?

A. His healthy lifestyle was known to all but there was a wicked gleam in his boss's eye as she steered him to the fast-food restaurant. They were weary and famished after the long drive and has just checked into the cheap motel – business expenses had dropped through the floor.

She thrust the menu in front of him: burger and fries - how long since he had tasted such fare? So many years counting the calories, cutting back on the carbs and red meat, living with pulses and lentils. His resistance ebbed as the odour of freshly-cooked chips swirled about him. A last desperate thrust of conscience was repulsed with self-excuses: ‘Just this once’, ‘Can’t offend the boss’.

His mouth closed on the bun, teeth penetrating the sizzling meat with its griddled surface; the chips were as crunchy and delicious as he remembered. He closed his eyes in bliss, savouring the moment, all consequence fled.


B. His boss called him into her office. He was puzzled – her normally dominant, authoritative manner seemed to have altered subtly in recent days. She had been, well, looking at him and there had been an odd hesitation in her manner.

As he entered the room, an instinct led him to close the door behind him. Their eyes locked as she came around to the front of the desk and slowly slid off her blouse ...

Yeah, well, ... we could all go on from this point but I fear it's zero points for originality and I forfeit my million pounds.

What makes the second text so charged compared to the first? Could it be that males are typically well-fed but chronically deprived sexually?

If you tried to sell erotica to the well-serviced owner of a harem, demand would be slight ... while they say food-porn has an audience amongst the starving.

You would not have thought females were similarly deprived, but Ms James suggests I’m utterly wrong.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Home Alone

Clare is attending the cricket in Taunton today with my brother (South Africa are playing a two-day warm-up against Somerset). I figure it's good they should spend some time together as if I died he would have to bring her into his household and provide for her. Gotta love those traditions.

In her absence I have been swept into unaccustomed activity. So far today I have:
  • Installed the new ten-year smoke alarm
  • Taken the old alarm plus sundry printer cartridges, batteries and garden waste to the dump
  • Washed Clare's car
After dealing with my correspondence and such time-wasting displacement activities as writing this I have to:
  • Pay some cheques in at the bank in town
  • Do some shopping
  • Mow the lawn (except it's too wet)
  • Pin out the towels from the washing machine (it's too wet)
  • Finish my re-read of Frank Close's book on the theory of the Higgs (see previous post at the end).
If Clare was here I'd probably be slumped in front of the TV. What's the psychology of that?

The Higgs for Dummies

On July 4th 2012 it was announced by CERN in Geneva that the Higgs boson has finally been discovered. This blog can now answer your most important questions.

1. Will the Higgs boson help me lose weight?


2. I like the sound of this Higgs. Can I buy one for my friend?

The Large Hadron Collider cost $9.6 billion and produces ten Higgs bosons a day. Expect to pay at least $100,000 per boson plus you'll need to make your own arrangements for delivery as it only lasts for 10-25 seconds.

3. Is a Black Hole full of Higgs Bosons?

Over to little Saya to answer this one. Saya is President of her junior Physics club.

‘No silly! A black hole’s mass is a geometric feature of its spacetime curvature. General Relativity tells you how to unite mass, energy, gravity, spacetime geometry and dynamics. Mass is an input parameter and General Relativity does not tell you where it comes from. By contrast, the coupling of electrons, quarks and so on to the Higgs field is precisely where their mass comes from.’

‘Thank you Saya, how old are you?’


4. Where could I find this Higgs field? I swear I never saw one before.

Step on the scales, what do you see? Weight, right? Well, if all the particles in your body weren’t interacting with the Higgs field where you are right now, every bit of you would be weightless. Not so good, as your body would explode in all directions at the speed of light.

5. I read a science fiction story once where they changed the mass of the spaceship so it could go real fast. Is NASA going to use the Higgs like when it made those non-stick frying pans?

No-one knows how to predict or engineer the strength of the coupling of matter to the Higgs field. If the coupling of electrons was less, then quantum mechanics tells us that the size of atoms would balloon. That would screw around with all the stuff holding molecules together: it might get ugly.

Further Reading

1. Prof. Matt Strassler’s Why the Higgs Particle Matters is a good introduction to what all this Higgs stuff is about.

2. The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe by Professor Frank Close tells the story of how and why the Higgs mechanism was developed within theoretical physics by Peter Higgs and others - Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble - and how it came to be discovered in nature.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

An Isle-of-Wight Summer

I write this in the Priory Bay Hotel near Ryde on the Isle-of-Wight. The rain is pouring down outside and Andy Murray has just lost a crucial game: the English summer this year in miniature.

Tomorrow it's back to the mainland and I'll be writing something for on today's 5-sigma discovery of the Higgs boson - which ought to put everything into perspective :-).

Clare on our private beach
Nigel and Beryl Seel
Rooosevelt and Churchill in the hotel garden?
Clare reckons the unposed shots are better
Beryl and Clare
Murray is fighting back, but the omens - like the weather prospects - are not good.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

When you are very old

The house does not stand out from its neighbours: Victorian, two-storied, with perhaps 16 apartments. As you enter the hallway, stepping onto the fading pile carpet, it could almost be student digs.

First you are assailed by the overpowering smell of lingering food; then you notice that the narrow staircase ahead is further obstructed by a stairlift contraption bolted to the wall; finally you note that all the rooms are open, blocked by sitting, sagging old ladies while blue-uniformed young women flit between them like harassed bees on their rounds.

I'm not sure what is worse: to be slouched oblivious all day long, to persist in an angry eternal present when memory has departed, or to be a caged spirit in a clapped-out body.

We saw all three but sadly my mother's life-long friend was in the middle category. We could not stay long.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Island thoughts on the Higgs

Another day another ferry. In our four star hotel on a misty, drizzling Isle of Wight my thoughts turn to the Higgs particle.

Rumours suggest that the CERN press conference July 4th will announce a five sigma-ish discovery of the simplest Standard Model Higgs. Last year's bump at 125 GeV has apparently reappeared this year.

At one level this is an extraordinary triumph for theoretical physics. Quantum Field Theory, the most accurate theory physics has ever created, predicts the Higgs field as the mechanism by which ordinary matter acquires mass. Now you have a deep explanation of why you have weight - from first principles, you might say.

Quantum Theory's weirdness derives from the fact that it's not a theory of reality; it's a theory of what we measure when we observe reality. It's not crazy to imagine that the universe has some kind of structure - an ontology - which accounts for why Quantum Theory works. Corroboration of the Standard Model, awe-inspiring though it is, does not tear the veil of reality aside, however, nor does it help with Grand Unification (with General Relativity).

Let's just enjoy the success and the great game of deciding who now gets the Nobel Prize.

How to Eat Snails in France

How to eat snails in garlic butter if you're English in Brantôme, in the Dordogne.

Alex professed himself delighted: I had one and found it garlicky, buttery and chewy - I could not have faced 12!