Thursday, January 31, 2013

Michael Mosley on 'Exercise' (Horizon)

Repeated on BBC2 yesterday evening from early 2012, Horizon's examination of the benefits of exercise repaid a second viewing.

The programme featured a distinctly chubby Dr Mosley (these were the days before Intermittent Fasting and the 5:2 diet). His novel message was that three minutes of high-intensity training per week was sufficient to turn your flabby body around.

We saw Michael on his exercise bike: 20 seconds cycling to exhaustion, a rest, then repeat and repeat - one minute in total. Do it three times a week.

This one minute of high-intensity workout depletes muscles of their glycogen stores (glycogen is the precursor of glucose, which fuels our muscles). The body concludes it's under stress and improves insulin-processing performance and maybe (genes permitting) the cardiovascular system. Perhaps in as short a time as one month.

The other key idea is to keep active - walking around - on a regular basis rather than spend hours slumped in a chair in front of a TV or computer. This stops the body from sludging up (Mosley was a little more technical).

Mosley argued that gym hours surely add value - strength, cardiovascular - but you can get good results even without it.

My feeling is that the human body is complex and the research reported tracked relatively few variables. So I think the programme may have under-rated the additional benefits of working out.
Some thoughts on intermittent fasting, based on five months experience.

1. On a fast day expect to go to bed hungry. You have had no more than one quarter of your required calories (if you weren't cheating), what did you expect?

2. If you are going to exercise on your fast day (I usually do), have enough carbohydrates the previous day/evening. If you start exercising with glycogen-depletion, then you'll hit a wall pretty sharpish, and this undermines the benefits of exercise.

3. Don't eat too much on the non-fast days. Binge-eating, especially junk food, undermines the process.

4. The point of intermittent fasting is not primarily dieting, it's to give a shock to the body to stimulate cell-repair mode, protecting against cancer and heart disease. There has to be a shock - see 1 above.

5. If you are seriously working out you will be building muscle mass. This - on the scales - will counteract continuing loss of surplus fat. So be prepared to plateau weightwise, for a while.


After a canter through differential equations and partial differentiation (chapters 1 and 2), I'm now in the chapter 3 foothills of the calculus of variations proper (M820, part of the Open University's maths MSc).

I am very impressed by its subtlety. Richard Feynman said that you haven't understood a topic until you can explain it - briefly! - to an untutored audience. I have been considering how you would explain the CoV to someone without a mathematical background: it's not so easy.

My own understanding is something like this. You start by considering all the different paths to get from some point A to another point B. Each path has some value of a property of interest: it might be the length of the path, it might be the time for an object to slide down from A to B under gravity, and so on. The problem is to find the path which minimises/maximises the value of the property you're interested in. So we might want to find the shortest path, or the least-time curve.

That sets up the problem. The CoV then allows you to explicitly determine the path you're looking for. I haven't figured out how to explain the process explicitly; suffice it to say that the method is a combination of magical, ingenious and deeply non-obvious. To internalise what's going on requires building a whole new paradigm in your head.

And that brings me to quantum mechanics. In parallel I have been revisiting Gary Bowman's excellent "Essential Quantum Mechanics" as preparation for Robert B. Griffiths' "Consistent Quantum Theory" (available in PDF on the web).

Griffiths presents an accessible introduction as to how consistent histories and decoherence can provide an interpretation of quantum mechanics which is less mysterious than the workmanlike Copenhagen interpretation, less nonsensical than consciousness-induced wavefunction collapse, and less extravagant than 'many-worlds'.

I'm quite excited by the prospect!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Treats from Amazon!

How the post-person must have staggered up the driveway! Our Amazon delivery this morning included:

1. Nightrider by David Mace. I wrote a few days ago about the strange case of of vanished science-fiction writer David Mace: Nightrider is my second favourite book by this author after Fire Lance.

2. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons (a T. S. Eliot reference). I'm currently immersed in Endymion, so almost three quarters through the four volume Hyperion sequence (this is my second reading), but The Hollow Man is new to me. Look out for a review in due course.

3. The Way (DVD). This is a film about the legendary Christian pilgrimage in North Spain - to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (el Camino de Santiago de Compostela) - Saint Iago is St. James. The film was made by Martin Sheen's son, Emilio Estevez who was inspired by his own son's experience on 'The Way'.

Estevez's son Taylor (at the time 19 years old) and Martin Sheen (whose The West Wing TV series was in hiatus) took part in the pilgrimage route, driving the length of the Camino. On the way Taylor met his future wife, so that thereafter the Camino held special meaning for him. After the trip a series of discussions started between Sheen and his son for a movie about the Camino de Santiago.

We saw this film at the cinema and it made an impression - so now we get to watch it again.

4. Peppersmith Chewing Gum (12 packets). This is the legendary Xylitol chewing gum which is so good for your teeth, gums and maybe even ears! Another month's supply. We also have xylitol mints and dark chocolate.

And not from Amazon. The NHS wrote to tell me that two years have passed and I'm invited again to the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme. My kit should arrive in two weeks: don't ask.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bargains! Bargains!

Nothing is more tedious than the journal of other people's shopping. Suffice it then to say that we visited Broadmead in Bristol this morning, Clare bought a Gore-Tex jacket for 144 pounds (with YHA discount) from Berghaus, and I bought three pairs of jeans (pictured below, one pair exhibited) for 8 pounds each at Primark.

Waist 40" replaced by waist 36" since you ask .. and trying reasonably hard not to be smug!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Glucose, Cholesterol, BMI ... blah, blah!

The nurse couldn't have been more complimentary: BMI down from 27 to 23 in two years, pulse rate excellent, blood pressure fine, no problems with cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

"Whatever you're doing, keep on doing it!" she concluded.

I hadn't mention the intermittent fasting three days a week, so I guess she put it all down to the three gym sessions per week. Anyway, below was the take-home message, click to enlarge.

I may have had a smile on my face but Clare, whose appointment immediately followed mine, had less to cheer about: BMI 28, somewhat-elevated level of "bad cholesterol" and a recommendation to do something about her 'moderately inactive' exercise regimen.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Public Choice Theory and Torture

Public Choice Theory accounts for the behaviour of politicians, bureaucrats and state institutions as if they acted in their own self-interest. Stated like that it seems obvious, but it is surprising the number of people - especially media pundits - who believe in the essential neutrality or even benevolence of institutions.

Everyone who has not had their brain curdled by political correctness knows that torture frequently works, provided you ask the right questions and check the answers for accuracy. We therefore don't abhor torture for utilitarian reasons, but for reasons of public choice theory.

In the many countries where torture is routine, the police and security services use torture to get easy convictions, frame political opponents and terrorise dissenters.

None of this is in the public interest, and the only way to avoid such outcomes is to delegitimise torture altogether. We all know that torture will still occur where the absolute need to get information trumps the political costs of keeping its use absolutely covert.

There, what was so intellectually difficult about that?

The collapse of an SF writer's career (David Mace)

Many SF fans would really, really like to be SF writers. The joy of seeing your ideas in print, your work enjoyed by hundreds of thousands, your role in changing perceptions, stimulating an interest in science, the universe and everything.

We wannabe authors worry endlessly about the basics: how to write high-quality prose, getting enough words down (at least 110,000 for a novel), finding an agent and publisher.

Surely once these mountainous obstacles have been surpassed, our career will take off and we'll be the next Peter Hamilton or Iain M. Banks?

Let me introduce you to David Mace.

David Mace had a background not unlike Peter Hamilton's. He never engaged with a conventional career - he only wanted to write. Here is what he says about his start in life (writing in the 3rd person):
"David's only British educational distinction was to drop out of the same year of the same architecture course twice in succession. All he'd really ever wanted to be was a writer. In those days David read masses of stuff, mostly science fiction. The one that "did" it for him and set the rocky course of his life was Arthur C Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END. He's since discovered how many sf readers had the same epiphany with the same book. It's something to do with the scope, scale, mysticism and tragedy. The revelation of sympathetic aliens was pretty important, too. (The xenophobic kill-it-cos-it's-different attitude wouldn't be for him…).

The last thing that happened in Sheffield was DEMON-4, which David wrote just before leaving. After that it was an exciting new life in Freiburg, Germany. Seven wonderful years in the most beautiful place he's ever known - during which time he graduated from hamburger cook to mature student, obtaining an M.A. in linguistics."
Mace's 1984 book Demon-4 was science fiction of the dystopian kind. Demon-4 is a military submersible drone controlled by an onboard biological neural net, the shard of a human being. In SF, such shards often develop qualms - and Demon-4 is no exception.

In 1985 Nightrider was published. This described a duel between the advanced military spacecraft of the title and an enemy warship, circling a contested planet orbiting a dead star. It was a forensic analysis of deceit, duty and doom.

Then in 1986 Mace published his big one: Firelance. Here's a summary.
"‘Firelance’ (1986; 314 pp) is a near-future military SF novel that takes place nine weeks after a nuclear war between NATO and the Soviet Bloc. The resultant devastation - billions dead, cities little more than mounds of ashes - is compounded by the advent of ‘Nuclear Winter’, with essentially the entire surface of the earth gripped by perpetual darkness, freezing temperatures, strong gales, and snow.

"Nonetheless, elements in what remains of the US government are determined to continue the conflict and to do so, the ultra-modern battleship ‘Vindicator’ is dispatched to cross the Atlantic and loose volleys of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto the Soviet mainland.

"The Vindicator is a 56,000 ton ‘Nemesis’ class ship, with advanced electronics gear for navigation, self-defense, and missile targeting; it comes with a complement of F-28 ‘Skycat’ VTOL fighters to repel enemy air attacks. In short, it’s the ideal ‘Doomsday’ weapons platform and needless to say, whatever remains of the Soviet armed forces are intent on sinking it before it reaches the cruise missile launch point in the North Atlantic.

"The main plot line follows the Vindicator as it sets off on its mission and faces threats from Russian submarines, aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, with at-sea operations hampered by the abysmal weather and the knowledge that there are few, if any, allied forces left to offer assistance.  ... The narrative shifts from one character to another as a plot device to inform the reader on various aspects of naval combat, post-apocalyptic political manoeuvring  the meteorology of nuclear winter, and the moral and ethical implications of committing what is essentially racial suicide."
Firelance is a huge favourite of mine and many others: it looked like Mace's career as a leading SF writer was assured. Here's what happened next.
"Early in the 1990s there was a sharp and very nasty recession. Publishing was hit. Hodder and Stoughton, David's publisher, fell into predatory hands. Like all the other mainstream houses, they shed authors in panic. David lost two commissioning editors in rapid succession, and his agent also went into stasis. His next agent started very well, but became seriously ill. Trying to find another, it was too late. Mainstream British publishing had been bought by the big corporations and had changed. He'd been missing for almost two years, and they told him he had no track record. Seven published novels no longer counted. And the agencies? All he got was offers to take ten percent of the contract after he'd secured it unaided. Apparently agents no longer read manuscripts or promoted authors. Everything had changed."
He managed to establish himself as a translator. Turned out he was quite good at it. Trouble was, translation wasn't what he wanted to do."

So what is David Mace doing today? It's not clear: his website shows little after 2006 - he could be doing anything.

It's a hard old trade, being a writer.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

SciAm - no thanks!

The heavy white clouds occlude the sky; it can't decide whether to sleet, rain or snow. In any event, snow is predicted overnight.

I am in receipt of ever more strident letters from Scientific American begging me to resubscribe and promising enticing gifts if I so do.

In fact I'm going to let SciAm go, along with their less-than-attractive bribes. The quality of the articles seems just a touch dumbed-down these days while only a minority are actually of interest to me. But perhaps the biggest irritant is that SciAm has followed New Scientist down the path of Guardian-style stance-taking. I'm in the market for the latest theories and results. I don't need SciAm's smug moral exhortation on climate change, biodiversity or any other fashionable but ultimately value-driven cause.
I last read Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels back in 2002 and have thankfully forgotten the details. This has made rereading the first two volumes a delight.

Hyperion starts slow, as we gradually learn about the Shrike pilgrims and their back-stories. Soon we are deep into the epic struggle between the Hegemony worldweb and the 'barbarian' Ousters, subtly orchestrated by the sinister Technocore.

Brilliant characterisation, stupendous world-building, a supple and unpredictable plot, multiple storylines and an underlying transcendent theme, slowly revealed.

What's not to like?

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Theory of Constraints

For the last couple of weeks, I've been racking my brain trying to recall a management concept I first encountered back in 1999, when I was working as a consultant in Cable & Wireless.

This theory had a small band of evangelising adherents who were trying to introduce it into C&W and I was one of the senior managers proselytized. In fact I was sceptical and confused: the new fad had baffling jargon (Drum-Buffer-Rope) and seemed fluffy and hard to pin down. I then discovered that its inventor, a guy named Eliyahu M. Goldratt, had written a novel - 'The Goal' - to expound and illustrate his theories. I bought and read it, finding it informative though not compelling as a story. In any event, I failed to convert. Time moved on, the Theory of Constraints never achieved purchase in C&W, and I forgot all about it.

Lately I've been thinking about novels - what makes them meritable and successful. Characterisation seems key, and this set me thinking about the validity of the novel of ideas .. I dimly recalled a novel written to promote a management methodology. What on earth was it?

Synchronicity: this morning a book catalogue flopped unbidden through the door. It was mostly about six-sigma, Lean Processes and The Toyota Way. I idly skimmed titles till my eye was caught by a volume describing the Theory of Constraints. A flag went up in my subconscious, Wikipedia was consulted .. and so it all came back.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Diary: gym + fasting + cricket + 'Dune'

No snow overnight, but no thaw either - I called the sports centre at 9.15 not knowing whether they'd be open or not.

10.15: Just a couple of other folk in the fitness suite: both in their sixties. The woman asked the man to change from the (default) music video channel to the cookery programme; he then left and by arrangement I lowered the volume from 100 to 45 and returned to my resistance machine less deafened.

Yesterday was a fasting day and I don't normally go to the gym the subsequent day (the snow!). The results were apparent: I was definitely low on energy, abandoning the rowing machine half way through about an hour in. Glycogen stores depleted.

PM: England were slowly destroyed by India at the cricket ODI over there. Really it was Clare who grieved in front of the Sky coverage; I was distracted by the greater number of birds in Somerset alighting in our front garden and reducing levels in the feeders at a rate comparable to bath water emptying down the plug hole. Later in the afternoon, I was once again out in my cold weather gear, replacing fat-blocks, insect pellets and sunflower heart seeds.

Watching the news, I was reminded of the legendary science-fiction novel 'Dune'. The desert warriors and their families - the Fremen - were often captured by the Empire to be held as hostages for future good behaviour: it never worked. An Imperial officer tells our hero, 'Anyone we capture they simply count as dead and hold the appropriate funeral rites.'

I believe the Algerian military take a similar view to the Fremen and given the nature of their adversary, they might be right. There's going to be a lot of naive, liberal hand-wringing, but it's best ignored.

On Current Affairs

(On Mr Cameron's Amsterdam speech): If you really think that the EU is over-regulated, uncompetitive, in hock to vested interests, overspending on welfare, and bloated in its state expenditure .. and therefore will inevitably decline against China and other nascent Asian powers, then why would you believe it can self-reform? And if it can't, shouldn't we leave so we can get our own house in order?

Just a question.

(On Matthew Parris in Cuba): He writes of meeting a middle-aged Cuban in Havana who understands the dysfunction and imminent demise of Cuba's 'communist' project, but nonetheless regrets the loss of that egalitarian vision.

I notice that convinced Catholics (and no doubt Buddhists and other religions) share, by virtue of their faith, a life-project which they believe to be ethically progressive and which gives their lives meaning. (Only in that sense is secular Marxism 'like a religion').

Parris bemoans that Conservativism, the politics of getting capitalism to work properly, is devoid of any vision which speaks to the heart. As we used to observe on the revolutionary left, 'No-one ever died for IBM.'

The anomie and alienation of capitalism is a known bug, or feature. At best, this most dynamic mode of production merely provides a playing field or a theatre for those human causes, ideals and projects which do come from the heart - anything from stamp-collecting to science to environmentalism to religion to jihad.

For good or ill.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The snow has arrived

The traditional snow photo (below). I guess around five inches, which has closed The Blue School and the gym. Yesterday's sand and salt created a slush layer below the snow which makes it easy to clear with the sand remaining to give grip.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Anticipating Snow

Snow due overnight - we're ready.

The Anticipation of Snow

Matt, the gym manager warned me yesterday: we might be closed on Friday, there's a forecast of ten inches of snow.

The TV is full of it: so, eager to enter into the snow-spirit, I'm about to strew sand and rock salt onto our steep driveway. See next post.

It must be that time of the year but an astounding number of our relations have recently been in hospital, for operations or serious infections. Adding in parents, siblings and nephews/nieces I count four separate and ongoing cases. Their NHS experiences have been excellent to awful with points in between.

As well as hanging out at the gym (pet beef: bunnies who chill on the equipment chatting to their mates, failing to show my own obsessional dedication to work-rate) I have also been working through the Open University's M820 text (Calculus of Variations).

I'm still in chapter 1, a review of standard calculus - as I'm not registered, this doesn't count towards an MSc, my motives include a self-diagnostic for Alzheimer's.

So far I can report my concentration falls off a cliff at the one hour point, but it was ever thus.

Monday, January 14, 2013

So much smartness gone to zero

On the desk was a thick volume describing the "IP Multimedia Subsystem" (the architecture and design of voice telephony in carrier Internet Protocol systems - it's as complicated as it sounds). It was surrounded by books on DNS (Domain Name Service), Internet Security, MPLS VPN Design, Broadband Access Architecture .. so on.

The Library didn't want any of them. They hesitated over a fat biography of Oppenheimer ("American Prometheus") and were up for the odd science popularisation ("Not Even Wrong"). With no little embarrassment the rest were pushed away.

So 90% of my 'donation' was repackaged into my shopping bags and off I trundled to the charity shop. What would the British Heart Foundation make of sophisticated books describing the engineering of the most advanced and complex system in the world today (possibly excepting the LHC), namely, the public Internet?

The lady on the counter took possession of my pile indifferently. I apologised, saying it was unlikely they would get much interest on her shelves.

"Doesn't matter," she replied, "We have a bookman who comes and collects."

And well they might, but I fear these erudite volumes will still end up as pulp.

I know how much time and effort goes in to writing a technical book (I have written one). The checking of facts, history and protocols; the writing and rewriting to make arcane technical stuff as interesting and comprehensible as possible. Within five to ten years, it's all obsolete and the value of the work has discounted to zero. (But it was not wasted).

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Meaning of Life

Sean Carroll's blog today features Owen Flanagan's thoughts on how a materialist can introduce meaning into their life. His book is called "The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World" and Carroll includes in his discussion the following quotation:

"Believe none of the theology or metaphysics. But be a cultural or ethnic Catholic (the way many Jewish atheists are). Go to Mass, meditate and pray in a Catholic way if you wish, consult the right saints depending on your needs, have fun, etc. 

"This is a reasonable way of affirming your identity, you can find wise moral guidance in places, and you can drop all the hocus-pocus stuff. That stuff is silly, unbecoming to thoughtful souls, and can be dangerous."

I was sufficiently interested to download a sample of Flanagan's text to my Kindle but I was soon disheartened by his philosopher-ese. After the usual statements of adherence to science and specifically Darwinism, Flanagan is soon fishing in the murkier waters of religions ancient and modern.

All these guys write in a very repetitive and meandering fashion: they have one idea and take hundreds of pages to drip it out.

If you are a Darwinian, then the purpose of life is to facilitate reproducing kin (children or extended family):  textbook stuff of course. For a smart, self-aware, social mammal, this central biological purpose throws up a more sophisticated issue: the significance of one's life - its meaning.

In the West, we live in comfortable societies with few natural predators, where food and shelter are in good supply. To create this rather high-quality environment requires the efforts of a global civilisation, the coordinated labour of millions of people. By contributing to this civilisation and its greater capability we improve the environment for our kin at many degrees of relationship. Our efforts to do so give meaning to our lives. (Different people may draw the circle of what counts as kin at different radii: for some people it's the whole of mankind; for others, merely their extended family: civilisation only works when most people incline more towards the former view).

Given that Darwinism provides the only framework for addressing this issue, it's pleasing that the stories of religion can be readily understood as historically and ethnically-constrained efforts to convey exactly the same point.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Of cats and nice warm fires

High-maintenance he surely is, but on a cold, windy day he stops whining endlessly for food or hassling like a chugger for a warm lap and a scratch behind the ears, settling instead for a welcoming hearth and a bit of auto-grooming.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Chandelier; bulb; DIY

Bulb gone in the chandelier above the stairwell. Obvious danger of falling onto the stairs and thence to Casualty or worse.

How do the bulbs come out? Pull, twist, unscrew, push in and turn? No idea? Access is, in any event, difficult.

A long and intrepid story cut short. The bulb pulls out and the new one pushes in. It's not smooth 'n' easy. You probably don't need to unscrew the surrounding shroud-thing first.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Alien Psychology Part 2

OK, I admit it. Part 1 was an impressionistic mish-mash of ideas: so let's try to add some precision here.

If the aliens are inscrutable, then I think that means that we fail to come up with what is technically called an intentional description of them. This means we can't seem to model the alien in terms of coherent beliefs, goals and plans.

Note that this doesn't mean that there are no such consistent intentional descriptions. Arguably without such the aliens wouldn't count as agents - intelligent entities - at all. The aliens may in fact be perfectly aware of their own goals, beliefs and plans. The fact that we can't conceptualise the aliens in this way is what makes them incomprehensible to us.

In fact we may recognise the aliens as intentional without any understanding of what their goals, plans and beliefs are either in general or in particular cases. If we don't recognise the aliens as intentional at all, our only recourse will be to classify them as some unpredictable and exotic 'natural phenomenon'.

Now let's move to the universality of OCEAN. I suspect that the issue of alien personality is rather beside the point as regards their comprehensibility, for the reasons already discussed above .. but let's persevere.

Openness dimension: this measures interest in ideas and a more general neophilia. It correlates with IQ. Any entity which can handle symbolic thought and doesn't live in the eternal present, like an insect, is surely somewhere on this dimension.

Conscientiousness: all entities face difficulties along with the option of perseverance or cutting their losses and doing something else. Complex projects extend in time as well as space and do not reward a heavy discounting of the future. If our aliens are worth worrying about, they'll be on the 'C' end of this scale.

Extraversion-Introversion: biology knows this as 'approach vs avoidant' behaviour. Enough said.

Agreeableness: the biological default between two animals is (i) indifference if their niches don't overlap; (ii) fight or flee if they do. Warmth and affection, affiliative behaviour, is a mammalian kin-nurturing trait which has been leveraged in social animals such as humans. If the aliens work together they'll be on this scale. (And if they don't they'll be a lot less scary).

Neurotic-Stable: this captures the superego-ego-id trichotomy which Freud discussed. People who score stable successfully inhibit, in socially-acceptable ways, the moment-by-moment impulses of the unconscious; neurotic people less so. Only if the aliens have our sort of layered brain will this dimension apply.

So it seems that the universality of the five-factor model is reasonably well-founded. But it's slightly beside the point when considering the sheer otherness of incomprehensible aliens.

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula LeGuin

You read something first when you know nothing. Thus in my youth, when I first encountered 'The Left Hand of Darkness'. How was I to know that Ursula LeGuin was Taoist, and that the ForeTellers of Gethen/Winter continued in the ancient tradition of Lao-Tzu, as did the Ekumen of Known Worlds?

Genly Ai is the Envoy to Gethen from the 83 planets of the Ekumen. In mediaeval Karhide he tries to persuade the king to join his nation to the stellar alliance but his patron at court, Estraven, falls foul of court intrigue and is exiled. Ai barely understands the swirling politics about him and soon he too finds himself in the neighbouring police state of Orgoreyn, where Estraven has washed up.

If Karhide is a backward, hearty, mediaeval kingdom mostly constituted from independently-minded clan kin-groups, Orgoreyn is a bureaucratic, stalinist society where people are 'units', allowed no possessions. Again, Ai understands nothing of the machinations of the power elite and ends up a political prisoner in the frozen north.

His escape across the glaciers with Estraven is the final epic section of the book. His mission, however, is in tatters: it seems that none of the rulers of Gethen see their interests furthered by recognition of the existence of the Ekumen.

This is a novel deeply infused by the ethos of feminism: life-affirming, welcoming diversity of experience, warmly optimistic, with a horror of violence and war. LeGuin is too smart not to recognise the dualities of real life (her poem in the book: 'light is the left hand of darkness') yet the masculine principle barely registers. Her male characters could as well be female: there is a certain, predominantly male characteristic of vigorous, analytic and interests-driven brutality which is entirely absent from this novel.

The beautiful writing in this novel doesn't entirely hide the structural flaws. The Envoy is astoundingly stupid, unempathic, bull-headed, incurious and under-trained for his assignment. While his endless errors and misjudgements are needed to drive the story along, it cannot be imagined that the Ekumen would have sent such a one to such a vital assignment.

This was the second book Adrian bought me for Christmas. Two out of three isn't bad but Neal Asher's 'The Skinner' will be a forthcoming library donation as I find that author unreadable.

Alien Psychology Part 1

My favourite SF stories concern aliens so different from ourselves that they are incomprehensible - not least because this will probably be true. The gold standard here is Stanislaw Lem in his books Solaris and His Master's Voice.

I'm interested in how we could understand the nature of such alien incomprehensibility. The standard model of personality is the five-factor model with the acronym OCEAN (*).  This model has been applied with some success to animals and although it's somewhat atheoretic and definitely not rooted in evolutionary psychology, one can sort of see why a social animal of our sort (not as social as ants, not as selfish as, say, polar bears) would have its personality space structured along those five dimensions.

One way to design the alien would be to move their personality somewhere else in the OCEAN space, somewhat removed from the locus of human occupancy. So the aliens might be very 'Open': smart and enquiring; intellectual, cool and detached but still kind of benevolent. Or we could work on their 'Agreeableness': they can be super-friendly and trusting, or super-aggressive and suspicious.

But I'm more interested in the really alien aliens, ones so different that they don't classify in the OCEAN space at all. These aliens are going to come out of a radically non-terran ecology.

One example: there are chess programs that play perfect endgames based on storing optimal-play trees built via exhaustive search. In endgames of the order of 50-100 moves, there's no theory underlying the program's play - it's just empirically optimal.

Playing such a program is profoundly unsettling. The program evades or subverts any attempt to assign it plans or subgoals as it has none (more accurately, the structure of said endgames does not lend itself to such a decomposition); the program moves perversely yet with ruthless efficiency. It is devoid of intentionality: truly alien.

Another route which we sometimes encounter here on Earth: our opponent has objectives we profoundly don't understand. We keep ascribing goals, beliefs, plans and intentions based on our hypothesising as to what it's after: we're always wrong, always wrong-footed, always mystified. But here the alienness is not in personality but in motivation. Not the same at all.

Read Part 2.
* OCEAN: Open, Conscientious, Extravert, Agreeable, Neurotic .. are the five dimensions.

A Martian Anthropologist writes ...

A Martian Anthropologist writes:

You are a species both physically and psychologically dimorphic but you don't admit it.

You created a society full of interesting ways of spending time. Echoing an ancient hunter-gatherer division of labour, your males now play rough corporate team games while your females manage relationships in the caring public sector (I over-simplify, but not by much - look at the statistics).

Middle-class life opportunities: what joy for both sexes as compared with dreary family rearing! And then you invented contraception, so that the instinct for sexual intimacy was decoupled from reproduction.

Didn't it occur to you that similar methods were very successful in exterminating certain species of mosquito? I'm thinking of writing a paper for the Martian Journal of Evolutionary Psychology entitled 'Terran Capitalism as an Extinction-Level Event'.

Intermittent Fasting: month five

During December I managed to lose four pounds only. This was either the Christmas effect or diminishing returns. Here's the record so far (I started Dr Michael Mosley's intermittent fasting regime after his Horizon programme August 2012).

Date Stone Lb Pounds Kg ChangeBMI
07/08/2012 13 8 190 86.4  (lb) 26.19
08/09/2012 12 13 181 82.3    9 24.95
06/10/2012 12 7 175 79.5   6 24.12
08/11/2012 11 12 166 75.5   9 22.88
08/12/2012 11 6 160 72.7   6 22.05
08/01/2013 11 2 156 70.9   4 21.50

My waist measurement was 40 inches back in August; it's now down to 36 inches which is still too much (apparently, your waist should be less than half your height - in my case this means a waist of 35 inches or less). Looking at my abdominal region I see the signs of flabbiness still there. I have, or had, the worst kind of barrel or apple shape, like my father. This is an indicator for internal fat around the viscera, which is not good.

So policy remains three fast days a week. I usually have just a salad lunch those days with plenty of leaves with fish, chicken or egg .. plus some fruit to follow. As my cold is almost over, I expect to restart gym visits any day soon as I could do with some muscle mass!

Monday, January 07, 2013

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Christmas present from Adrian, a book I first read a long while ago.

The novel is Walter J. Miller's account of a new Dark Age, the aftermath of global thermonuclear warfare with the Catholic church the sole repository of stored knowledge.

Inevitably, as the sterile centuries roll on, there comes a painful new Renaissance. More centuries spin by till two thousand years have passed: we enter the time of starships and fledgling colonies around other stars. On Earth, the antimissile missiles power up as ICBMs curve their long trajectories again.

As the Vatican's final mission to the stars launches, the cycle of history closes - the abbey starting the novel succumbs to the force of a nuclear shockfront.

Miller was a USAF crewman in the second world war and participated in the infamous assault on the historic hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino, obliterated by 1,400 tons of allied bombing. It seems this experience marked him for ever.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

A Perfect Curry

How do you feel about curry? I'm for hottish with an interesting rice; chicken preferred.

There are three curry restaurants in and around Wells and they all disappoint. They have a McDonald's attitude to feeding the ignorant, ethnic English. The taste is delicious in an obvious, in-your-face kind of way; the flavour concentrated in heavy, creamy, fat-thick sauce. The raging thirst when you get home, plus indigestion and bloating, confirm that the chef's preparation binged on salt and MSG.

I wish I could eat the curry the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis prepare for themselves. However, we have a recipe from the Internet and Clare has acquired the fresh ingredients - spices and all - so I'm looking forwards to a superior curry dinner tonight, something approximating the Platonic curry ideal.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

A Sports Emporium

Is it SportsDirect? That sports emporium nestling close to PC World at the Cribbs Causeway Mall?

I love these places next only to bookshops. Outside there are young women, parked in cars, spaced on ennui. Inside, the racks of sportswear are as dense as a jungle: men in tracksuits insinuate themselves between the gaps.

There is the most enormous sale on at the moment. The pavement billboard reassures the regulars - we are not closing down, we just took over some other chain, we're disposing of excess stock.

I manage to acquire half-price soft-leather training gloves at less than six pounds, and a weathered soft-leather gym bag for no more than twice that. I had to drag myself away.

B&Q was nothing like as much fun.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Donating to the library

The shopping bag dumped on the library desk, the startled librarian: "Some of these books look like they've never been used."

I nod sagely, "Reference books. Tell me, do you actually want technical stuff like 'Routing in the Internet'?"

Yes, apparently. They can be sent to a bigger library such as Bridgewater (sic).

I intend to donate the bigger portion of my telecom books. It's not altruism - I know this stuff and it dates so fast that an Internet refresher is the only way to get current.

I value the newly-empty shelf-space and have a, possibly naive, vision of some earnest eighteen-year-old studying BGP intently from my donation and henceforth devoting their life to network engineering - to the greater good of humanity.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Sea - John Banville

Banville's novel won the Booker prize in 2005. Art historian (special subject: Pierre Bonnard) Max Morden returns to the small seaside village where he once holidayed as a child. Suffering recent bereavement, he has been drawn back to a scene of ancient trauma.

In that long-ago summer, he had befriended the Grace children - working class 'townie' boy meets up with wilful Chloe and her mute twin brother Myles. Childhood cruelty and the first fumbling stumbles of attraction are followed by unimaginable tragedy.

Max tells the intricate, complex, self-aware story linking those first glimmerings of adulthood with his later marriage to Anna and her protracted death. A profound analysis of the truth and limits of relationships, and the impact and depth of loss.

I read 'The Sea' a few years ago and did so, I'm afraid, rather literally. I am persuaded that Banville's highly metaphorical and self-referential writing almost demands a second reading.

'The Sea' delivers on literature's deepest promise: to tell you more about human experience and the human condition than is possible to one's unaided introspection.

I have on my table yet another Banville novel I've already read: 'The Infinities'. The title, amusingly enough, refers to the infinities in quantum field theory which were finally tamed by renormalisation theory. Naturally, for the erudite Banville, this is yet another metaphor.

Pining for the gym

What's the noun from 'pine'? Whatever - I'm suffering from gym-pining. My voice is roughened, my head stuffed and my body suffused with lethargy. I am probably surrounded by a penumbra of germs. No, going to the gym would be a bad mistake.

I caught part of a stupid Channel 5 list programme, something about dieting fads. Number forty-something was going to the gym and catching MRSA or similar from the sweat-drenched handles of a weight machine or exercise bike. I was furtively looking up 'cotton gym gloves' when Clare discovered me and I was roundly abused as a 'Jesse': the shame.

In 'The Fast Diet' Dr Michael Mosely links obesity to cancer. The population statistics are compelling but what's the mechanism? Apparently, fat doesn't just sit there inertly, it causes chronic inflammation. This suppresses DNA repair processes which facilitates the production of cancerous cells.

Then, in a further twist, the immune system response we call inflammation is recruited by the tumour to improve its blood supply and even to facilitate metastasis. It's so not good to be overweight (he said with the zeal of the convert).

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Fast Diet - Mosley & Spencer

At last the paperback on Intermittent Fasting from the estimable Dr Michael Mosley and science journalist Mimi Spencer.

This is basically the book of the famed Horizon programme, with extra background both on the thoroughly positive bodily effects of intermittent fasting and on how best to do it. It's an easy read - including recipes for those 5-600 calory fast days - and you would indeed be foolish to ignore the messages here.

I was particular struck by the experience of "Nora", diagnosed with breast cancer and embarking on chemotherapy (which aims to kill rapidly-growing cells).

During fasting, normal cells (in particular those of the gut) go into repair mode and don't divide; cancer cells, however, just carry on replicating. Result: fasting during chemotherapy, as Nora did, remarkably alleviates the awful side effects, in particular the debilitating sickness.
Oh, by the way, I have deactivated my Facebook account. I never post there and its performance and usability is rubbish.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year

The Christmas lights which inaccessibly adorn our rather high front-garden tree inexplicably went dark a day or two ago.

I struggled with possible explanations. A bulb gone (they're LEDs!!)? Damp in the plug from this interminable rain? A fuse blown?

Today it finally stopped raining so I ventured out to take a look - and try stuff. Result? The lights still don't work but I am completely convinced that I now have no idea at all as to why.

Oh, and I have a cold coming on ...