Thursday, April 30, 2015

At last a badger!

The laughed when we called it the BadgerCam; well, they're not laughing now! The badger walks up to the left of the car and has a wander around ...


... and here's a still of the badger just before it leaves.


We have one further video of the badger shuffling away - not so interesting, so not shown here. Of the other 48 videos, about one third show cats, about the same number show nothing at all and then there are a couple of videos of birds .. plus two of me bringing stuff out to the bin!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Classic pix: spot the murderer

More pictures from before this blog got started, back in 2005.

2005: Even then the author tried his family's patience

How am I getting on with my Christmas present, "Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur"? Thanks for asking. You see, QFT is like a big jigsaw puzzle where each of the pieces is itself pretty incomprehensible. You spend a long time delving into Lagrangians (that's a piece of the puzzle), quantum simple harmonic oscillators (another piece), calculus of variations and the Euler-Lagrange equation (another), and so on, without much sense of overall direction.

Gradually, the individual pieces themselves begin to make sense (you grasp enough of the trees to see the local wood) .. and with enough pieces under your belt, you can begin to assemble them to get a picture of QFT as an entirety. (Also see this interesting piece from Sean Carroll).

You see why the big picture of quantum field theory is so inaccessible. I'm about a third of the way through the book, currently looking at quantum (operator-valued) fields. It would be a pretty special amateur to get through the whole of this book, that's for sure.

Meanwhile, Clare is preparing a new hat for me, to update the one in the picture above. Seems to feature the letter 'D' ...

---

2004: working on a contract with Samsung

I was assigned to help Samsung with their bid into BT's 21st Century Network (their transition to a multi-media IP network). My task was to help them both with understanding BT's idiosyncratic ways and with the phrasing of the English response-text. As usual, on the last day we pulled an all-nighter. Young Samsung engineers were out for the count, lying on desks and flopped over chairs. I was busy till dawn when the Samsung VP approached me in surprise. "We were told that all you westerners were decadent; that you all went home at 5.30 at night. We were the ones who worked till we dropped!"

It was clear that that Samsung executive had never worked in consulting - nor experienced a Western corporate bid team in action!

---
One is en vacances, the other is an author with a penchant for murder (2004)

Click on the image to probe further ...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Something Coming Through" by Paul J. McAuley

Here's a synopsis:


"The aliens are here. And they want to help. [...] The Jackaroo have given humanity 15 worlds and the means to reach them. They're a chance to start over, but they're also littered with ruins and artifacts left by the Jackaroo's previous clients.

Miracles that could reverse the damage caused by war, climate change, and rising sea levels. Nightmares that could for ever alter humanity - or even destroy it.

Chloe Millar works in London, mapping changes caused by imported scraps of alien technology. When she stumbles across a pair of orphaned kids possessed by an ancient ghost, she must decide whether to help them or to hand them over to the authorities. Authorities who believe that their visions point towards a new kind of danger.

And on one of the Jackaroo's gift-worlds, the murder of a man who has just arrived from Earth leads policeman Vic Gayle to a war between rival gangs over possession of a remote excavation site.

Something is coming through. Something linked to the visions of Chloe's orphans, and Vic Gayle's murder investigation. Something that will challenge the limits of the Jackaroo's benevolence ..."
Remember Oasis? A Mancunian scruff band: semi-criminal, unemployed and so-angry. They produce two desperately-great albums (Definitely Maybe, (What's the Story) Morning Glory) and get rich and famous. Then it all falls apart -  they're going through the motions.

The same thing happens to writers, Greg Bear being a case in point. I loved McAuley's Fairyland for its sharp evocation of the counterculture in a dying civilization. The author was clearly loving it, even if the ending did rather squib out. Many books later, McAuley is an established SF writer, churning them out. He ticks all the competence boxes: he can create characters, settings and plot. But (yawn) his heart isn't really in it. And if he doesn't really care, this rubs off on the reader.

Let it be said I really wanted to like "Something Coming Through". I put up with the endless police-procedural chasing around and jumping through hoops (to little apparent purpose) in the hope there would be a big reveal. But no, all that will be reserved for future volumes of what promises to be an interminable saga. Sorry mate, life is way too short.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Classic pix: Washington DC - August 2001

More pix from before this blog started. Here it's summer in Washington DC, three months before the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Clare and Adrian fronting the White House - how American they look!

The author and his wife - it's August 2001

Clare is doing that 'dubya' thing .. I think ..
When the planes hit, I was in a meeting in Vienna, Virginia. We had another C&W office a few hundred yards away, and in its basement car park was MAE East* (1919 Gallows Road). Would it be a terrorist target - to close down the global Internet? We didn't know but Craig Stenberg and myself zoomed down there, fast-talked our way past an officious guard, and got the C&W people out.

Then most of us went home and watched it all unfold on TV**.
___

* MAE East: the American east coast Internet hub (Metropolitan Area Exchange, East).

** Cable & Wireless, like other major telecommunications companies, played an important role in restoring communications in New York and Washington in the aftermath of the incident.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Homo Sapiens 2.0

It's been observed that the Germans would make a much better job at running Greece than the Greeks do. Some reactionaries have even been heard to observe that the British Empire made a better fist at governing its colonies (particularly in Africa) than the post-independence Governments.


At a technical level, these thoughts are certainly correct. They leave one factor out, however. The efficient Northern Europeans ran these countries in their own interests, not those of the indigenous populations. That's why the Greeks prefer their domestic leaders, incompetent and/or corrupt though they may be.

Genetics-aware commentators have been speculating for a while that we're on the verge of reprogramming our children with optimised alleles for health, athleticism, beauty, personality and intelligence. There's no technical reason why this shouldn't be reliable, safe, effective and possible in the next few decades. Sounds like the salvation of the human race - we can bootstrap ourselves to the next screen. Here's an update on work-in-progress.


But what of the parents and the broader community - do they think their own interests will align with those of their super-children? Hands up how many of you want to vote for your own extinction.

Every pre homo sapiens sub-species experienced this reality. The new guys are in the area and they're smarter and more competent than we are. We're gonna be toast. In the greater scheme of things, should we be happy about that or should we wipe out these upstarts while we can (if we can)?*

FWIW, my vote is in favour of letting the new guys have our space. But then, I always wanted humanity to get to the stars.

---

* They say all Internet discussions eventually bring in the Nazis - this was precisely the argument National Socialists used against the Jews.

Rod Liddle

Rod Liddle

"What were his parents thinking of, calling him Rodney?"

"Maybe they hated him, it's pretty much a revenge for life."

"There are so many Biblical names they could have chosen: Matthew, Mark, David. They're all classy."

"No-one ever seems to be called Goliath: 'Hey there, Goliath, stop hitting little Pamela!'"

A DNA-Generated Face

A 23andMe mailing mentions that the police are now using suspect facial profiles generated from scene-of-crime DNA. Remarkable. Only a small number of alleles bearing on likeness have been identified to date, but genetics is obviously central. Just think of identical twins, the clue is in the name.

Some of the DNA facial reconstructions put together by researchers seem quite accurate; others not so much (see article).

One of the better ones? Ms. Spangler’s ancestry is half Korean and half northern European. Top right image is from the DNA; bottom right, was adjusted for age, weight and height.

The police use of this technology seems at present to be grasping at straws. The picture of a suspect below was characterised by one critic as showing simply a 'generic young black man'. Since the perpetrator has not yet been caught, however, we have no idea as to its accuracy.

Sketch of a possible suspect based on DNA left at the crime scene

However, like most technologies that we know in principle will work, this is going to be big.

Predictions using a DNA analysis tool compared with photos of the actual people

Just to recap, here's the current state of the art (above). They seem not too bad to me, although they probably chose their best ones for this publicity shot.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Two Part Invention

Just bland things today, I'm afraid. My thinking processes, heightened by two days of fasting led me to two wonderful inventions I'd like to share with you.

1. The Skype Mannequin

In his celebrated novel, "The Milkman in the Night", Andrey Kurkov has a middle-class, middle-aged widow in the Ukraine embalming her deceased husband - I think 'plastification' might have been the technique - so that he would continue to keep her company and perhaps scare off the bad guys (that old silhouette at the window trick). I assumed this was a satire on the well-know garrulousness of Ukrainian menfolk.

Still, it got me thinking. Perhaps a mannequin could be made of me. Equipped with a speaker in the mouth, microphones in the ears, cams in the eyes and a decent WiFi link I believe it could give an excellent impression of me doing small-talk. A small motor for the odd arm gesture would complete the illusion. I was thinking of installing it on the couch at my mother's house for those days I don't visit in person.

Please let me know if you want to fund this. (I am also contemplating an AI control system).

2. The Lethal Net Curtain

The Executioner has long been a favourite in our house. Powered by two AA batteries, solid-state circuitry in the handle boosts the voltage to some low number of kilovolts. This is fed to a grid of cross-hatched wires in the form of a tennis bat. Zap! Watch those mozzies explode!

The Executioner

We could reverse-engineer these components and feed the volts to a net curtain, where the net was fine wire. We all like to open our bedroom windows as the summer approaches but we hate the insects. In America the houses come with insect screens but in the UK, not so much. My bug-zapping net curtain is exactly the answer we've all been looking for.

Let me know, etc.

---

Would you like to see a cute Two Part Invention? Here's J. S. Bach's Two-Part Invention Number 4 in D minor (Bass Guitar Accompaniment). Sorry about the five-second intro Ad, skip it and you get to the earnest fat guy: and he rocks!


---

The new Badger Cam was reset to stills + video and when I checked this morning, 249 Megabytes of the camera's 8 GB SD memory had been used for 8 + 8 pix/videos. The new location was the barbecue stand, overlooking the back garden. I'm now understanding better the concept of wildlife photography: you get to watch a lot of uninteresting videos.

To cut to the chase (you see what I did there?) here's the best of the crop. Our little black cat arrives from next door and finds an interloper already in our garden ...




Riveting, wasn't it? The movies were cats all the way down: as Clare observed, not wildlife at all.

The BadgerCam in action

The trail camera arrived and after the usual configuration issues I got it to work. We strapped it to a tree in our front garden and placed a bowl of old dry cat food about five feet in front of it (which you can just see at the bottom of the image below). The camera was set on a timer from 9 pm to 8 am. This is what we saw,

Showing the field of view of the BadgerCam


The cat approaches ...


At 4.06 am, the cat turns his nose up at the ancient dry stuff

The camera is a bit too high, and I really meant it to be taking both still pictures and videos, but only still pix were in the folder. Must revisit that menu item. Now we know it works I think we'll maybe relocate the camera - after all, still no badger!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Badger hunting with a trail camera

We "know" we have a visiting badger: strange holes dug in the garden; a large polythene bag of bird seed on our porch torn open a few days ago; even pictures from a few years back.

The badger emerges from behind our shed

The badger steps daintily along the patio

I have today invested in a cheap trail camera. Choosing was, btw, a nightmare. Simpler cameras record to SD cards (which you have to keep removing to see if you've got anything); more expensive ones use SIM cards and upload, but configuration seems to be a nightmare. The best ones are way, way too expensive. In the end I decided to go for the cheapest one which had enough favourable reviews - the Little Acorn 5210A 940nm Wildlife Trail Camera with 8GB SD-Card.

Just hope all those three star reviews mentioning the flimsy hinges on the battery compartment don't make me look an idiot. Don't want you to think sibling rivalry has anything to do with it, but .. here's what my sister sent to me recently.



A living, breathing badger tempted by dry cat food will top that, don't you think?

Update: her bird now has eggs.

The Blue Tit has done it

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fasting back on the menu

Jenni Russell writes an opinion piece in The Times today.
"In the last ten months my life has been transformed. I didn't write a book, move house, have children, find a faith or change my job. Instead, I have gone from being an exhausted person with a lifelong and incurable illness, kept alive by four drugs, to a currently healthy and energetic one. This remarkable difference has been brought about by a therapy that’s simple, free and overlooked by the NHS: fasting.

I tried fasting because I was desperate. It’s two decades since I developed a serious autoimmune condition which has often left me sleeping 12 hours a day and sometimes kept me in bed for months at a time. It was made worse by chemotherapy for cancer five years ago. I was told after that I could never live without immune-suppressing drugs; when I tried to, I was rushed to hospital as an emergency admission and spent several days on drips."
---

"That was when I came across research from the University of Southern California. Valter Longo, a leading biogerontologist who had been studying the effects of fasting on mice for 20 years, had discovered that if mice were starved for three days, their immune systems started to regenerate.

Starvation forced the bone marrow to create stem cells, replacing the faulty immune response with a normal one. Intermittent fasts over six months created steady improvement. This therapy might, said Longo, prove remarkably effective for anyone with an autoimmune condition or whose immune system was deteriorating with age. He cautioned that nothing was proven until human trials had been done.

I had nothing to lose by trying it, except my temper and a little weight. I started the first fast on a boat journey on a stormy sea. It was made a lot easier by the fact that I’d lost my appetite anyway, and that I wasn't required to do anything except lie in a bunk and read. Still, it was very boring to have nothing to look forward to but hot water, cold water, fizzy water; black tea, green tea, mint tea. I got fiercely hungry, and sometimes dizzy, but the sensation would pass. I lasted two and a half days and thought nothing could come of it. On the fourth day I woke feeling better than I had for years.

Since then I have fasted three more times, most recently for four days. It’s no fun. I couldn't do it while working, or cooking for anyone else. You need to be free to crash out whenever your indignant body complains. You also need distractions to look forward to when you remember, gloomily, that there isn't a meal ahead; books, films, the company of partners and friends.

I only do it because the results have been so dramatic. I am off every drug, and for the first time since getting ill I don’t have to ration my energy and time. I can’t know if it will last, but I have become a quiet evangelist. Fasting, as one doctor said recently, may be the panacea that western medicine forgot.

In the last few years diabetes researchers have found that the disease can be cured by a daily 600-calorie diet for eight weeks. Longo’s own earlier research indicates that fasting is as effective as chemotherapy in treating cancer. Combining the two, fasting just before and after treatment, increases the efficacy of chemo by up to 40 per cent while minimising side-effects. Cancer cells cope badly with being simultaneously poisoned and starved. But normal cells gain protection, because fasting closes the pathways that let toxins in. Since a fifth of all cancer-related deaths are due to the effects of chemo, this may be a major breakthrough."
Clare was so impressed that she has decreed a two day fast for the pair of us, effective immediately. I will next be fed Saturday morning.

I will let you know how we fare.

The Ebbor Gorge

Do flies bask in the sun? On Tuesday every illuminated surface was covered with a motile layer of the vile black creatures. Here are some pix of the Ebbor Gorge.

Clare's first rest of the day

A strange thing in the woods .. and a boar sculpture

The path to the top

and the view from whence we came

From the Viewpoint, overlooking the Ebbor Gorge

In the far distance, Glastonbury Tor

On the top - a wrecked woman
There is also a video I did about half way up - (not one of my better ones).

Clare had an operation for endometrial cancer back in May 2011 (about four years ago). Part of the post-operative treatment was an intensive course of abdominal radiotherapy which, she reckons, has left a lasting physical weakness. We fervently believe her mitochondria got shredded, denting their efficiency. So it was a benchmark that she got to the top - the view point - although she swears it's the very last time; in the final picture above she's dizzy and feeling sick.

She perked up later in the Wookey Hole Inn.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Breakin' and ent'rin'

I could tell from his voice the moment the locksmith lost interest. The shed door was locked and the key was lost; worse, there was also a padlock and no key for that either. In the house the filing cabinet (locked) was also in want of a key. He quoted his rates, sure that the job was both too small and totally cost-ineffective.

I put the phone down; I was on my own.

I had however watched this forty second video.



How hard could it be?

Armed with my trusty nail-clippers and a motley collection of tools, I decided to start with the outside shed. The first thing to do was unscrew that metal thing the padlock connects (pictured below), a task within my limited competence. I now gazed helplessly at the freshly-exposed shed lock. I decided to ask the neighbour whether the key to their shed might by some miracle solve my problem.

J showed me into his back garden and demonstrated how the lock actually worked: just a small rectangular metal box in the frame of the door into which the lock-bolt slid. We returned to the scene where naturally, J's key didn't fit. I asked helplessly whether it would help to ... unscrew the barrel of the lock? ... or maybe I should drill it out?

"Boot it," he said.

I raised my eyebrows and looked confused.

"Though shoving it might work better," he continued, and seeing as how I just stood there he said,

"Shall I?"

J is a burley, sixteen stone man and when he shoves ...  two goes and the door burst open. J smiled in quiet satisfaction as I handed him a requested hammer. The lock was banged back into the door - tap tap - and the distorted doorframe box knocked back into shape.

J departed for a second and came back with a heavy duty grinder. "Stand back," he said as he applied the spinning edge to the hardened steel of the padlock. He stood like a warrior in a cloud of red hot sparks, one of which hit me as I stood well off to the side. It hurt.

Ninety seconds later, the padlock fell to the ground. "Don't touch it," he warned, "it's red hot."

"I am in the presence of the master," I said in awe.

The power of applied violence
"You should padlock that again, just to keep the local bad boys out," were his parting words.

Flushed by my success, albeit at second hand, I repaired upstairs to the filing cabinet where I mentally reviewed that YouTube video and for a good fifteen seconds poked and twirled the nail-file around in the lock. Naturally, nothing at all occurred.

Twenty seconds of whining, a spray of steel shards and the lock was drilled out. The filing cabinet was still locked, however. Finally, I took a large screwdriver and levered the frame up so that the drawer with its upward-protruding metal tab could be pulled out. Tap-tap and the tab was rotated anticlockwise to its unlocked position. The filing cabinet was open and would never lock again.

Just a bit bent .. maybe
This has taught me such a valuable lesson in life.

"Never waste time thinking when a judicious application of brute force will do the job?"

No, when it comes to the real world, try and get the help of someone who's good at it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Quirky Quantum Concepts" by Eric L. Michelsen



You've taken a first course in quantum mechanics. You know your way round Schrödinger’s equation, eigenstates and eigenvalues, and you've thoroughly explored the hydrogen atom. But deep down you’re confused.

You read about Schrödinger’s Cat and that you don’t see superpositions ‘in real life’ because of ‘decoherence’, but what’s that? Populist accounts talk airily about the 'leakage of phase information into the environment', but that sort of hand-waving hardly adds clarity. The technical literature discusses the exponential decay of off-diagonal terms in the density matrix ... but what’s physically going on?

You read about the various interpretations. Is the wave function part of reality? Is it just a subjective statement of the experimenter’s state of knowledge? So much ink discussing the significance of Schrödinger’s equation: and of course, that eponymous equation isn't even correct. The road to the truth about quantum mechanics must run through its relativistic cousin, quantum field theory. But what a chasm separates you, the student, from that towering intellectual achievement. No-one can explain in accessible terms what QFT is, the map of the territory. Saying baldly that 'at each point in space and time there are an infinite number of simple harmonic oscillator modes (with creation and annihilation operators) for each type of fundamental particle'  ... doesn't really do it for most people.

What you need is a book in which these concepts are discussed via simple models, mathematically clear but at a level accessible to people who've completed a first course in quantum mechanics at undergraduate level (and understood it). Eric Michelsen has admirably succeeded in this book, which is a natural successor to Gary Bowman’s Essential Quantum Mechanics. In both cases the texts are meant to be read alongside a traditional textbook, but focus on conceptual clarity – what is the maths really saying? – and a careful linkage with what’s observed in reality.

Quirky Quantum Concepts covers many other topics.  There are fine reviews of wave mechanics itself; scattering (barely touched on in most elementary classes); matrix mechanics and density matrices; angular momentum; and the QM treatment of multi-electron atoms. But for me the clear treatment of loss of coherence and the very introductory but rigorous and comprehensible guide to QED/QFT were the high points of this excellent book.

(Note: as a bonus, the PDF is available on the Internet. I bought the book not just through guilt – it’s easier to flip to and fro in hard copy).

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Birds

Some pix from before this blog got started in 2005, chosen for their avian amusement index, mostly.

This is Birdworld in Surrey


The Hawk Conservancy Trust, Andover


Flamingos at Birldworld

Tomorrow we may go for a picnic at Ebbor Gorge where, no doubt, a giant Roc will swoop down and carry us away ... .

Dubito ergo sum


I have this on the wall in my study.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Amazing Hibernating Cat

Scene: Sunday afternoon. Clare is reading the Saga magazine of summer holiday cruises, focusing on a pleasantly indolent two weeks on the Greek islands.

"Fourteen days with plenty of time to ourselves; it's one out of three on their 'hectic' meter. I'm beginning to think that Saga knows me."

"You mean, like IKEA and Waitrose 'know' you?"

"Of course, we couldn't do it until the cat goes."

Note: although the cat can theoretically live for an indefinite period in our absence, subsisting on a mound of dry cat food, in practice it tends to panic and go neurotic if left more than three days by itself. Plus occasional dribbling and vomiting, decaying vole corpses, the odd bird ...

"You're possibly not aware that the animal is a creature of many surprising talents. I was planning on dropping him into one of the freezer compartments. Then he'd be no bother at all."

A glare.



"In fact it's a shame we don't have a microwave, as a gentle defrost would be just the thing to bring him round, once we're back."

"You spend too much time with your mother's robot pets."

---

How's that hedgehog gene-splicing thing going? I'm in!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Alien Galactic Engineering in The Economist this week

Interesting piece in The Economist this week.
"A spacefaring civilisation, even one relying on craft travelling at far below the speed of light, would be able to colonise the entire galaxy in a few hundred million years. It therefore follows that if intelligent, technologically capable life forms had emerged elsewhere in the Milky Way, they would probably have done so long enough ago that they would, by now, be everywhere — which evidently they are not. This line of reasoning suggests humans really are the only intelligent life in this particular galaxy.

"Perhaps, therefore, the search for aliens is looking in the wrong place. The calculation that intelligent life will rapidly colonise its entire home galaxy — first made by Michael Hart, an American astrophysicist, in 1975 — suggests it is not other solar systems which should be scoured for little green men, but other galaxies. And this is just what Roger Griffith, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, has done."


...

"Dr Griffith reasoned that a galaxy inhabited by Dyson-sphere-constructing aliens would have an unusual, infrared-rich and visible-light-poor spectrum. With the aid of an American space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, he searched 100,000 galaxies for such spectra. What he found, as he reports in the Astrophysical Journal, is tantalising.

"No galaxies appeared to host civilisations that were using more than 85% of the available starlight as a power source. Fifty, however, were red enough to be hosting aliens gobbling up half or more of their starlight. Since even the most enthusiastic colonists would not, presumably, set up shop around every single star, and also because realistic versions of Dyson spheres would not totally enclose a star, these galaxies might indeed be the empires of individual alien species.

"Power-hungry aliens are not, sadly, the only explanation for the spectra Dr Griffith has found. More prosaic things, such as vast clouds of interstellar dust, might produce a similar signal. Nevertheless, these 50 unusual galaxies (and also 95 more which had spectra that were weird in other ways) might repay further study. The odds are that Dr Griffith’s discovery will have a humdrum explanation. But it is just possible he has answered the age-old question of whether humanity is alone."
Dr Griffith has checked out a large number of galaxies, but there are at least one hundred billion in the observable universe so he's sampling at a ratio of one in a million. If there are aliens with super-powers anywhere in the universe, this approach - scaled up - seems an effective way of getting the evidence in.

---

Look at this from the viewpoint of physics, not biology - or 'life-sentimentalism'. What we call life (or more properly, biological ecology) is an exponential process of environmental self-reconstruction. Inorganic-stuff turning itself into ever more life-stuff. A chemical self-organising diffusion process powered by free energy.

Ignore all the fine-grained details of 'intelligence', 'technology' and endogenous 'lofty aspirations'. From a sufficient number of millions of light years away, the galactic spread of free-energy-exploiting alien life is indistinguishable from the runaway infestation/transformation of a sterile, pristine galaxy by 'grey goo'.

---

There are people who rather like galaxies as they are now. Should we call them misozoic (after this and this)? You read it here first.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Genius

Outside the conference room my manager congratulated me. As usual, I had sat quietly through the first part of the meeting, absorbing the atmosphere and soaking up the arguments. The client had come, as usual, mob-handed and opinionated: their technical team had been sold on a centralised solution by our competition – sweetened with easy payment terms. Our own kit was smaller, more distributed and our presentation was not going well.

I asked a few questions, probing their likely go-to-market strategy; the rate of uptake of their product-set in today’s challenging economic conditions. As usual, I saw that people began to pay attention to what I was saying; it usually takes about ten minutes. Carefully I outlined the CAPEX profile of our offer – its greater flexibility and enhanced alignment with their future revenue streams. I could see they were taking it on board.

As our customers were led out of the sleek boardroom through plush front offices, I exited into the warren of dingy corridors and flickering fluorescents which bore witness to our own struggle for margins. The coffee machine was next to Anna’s desk at the entrance to a cluttered, open-plan office. Anna was a manager in HR, mid-thirties and quite tall with a short blonde bob – I found her rather attractive. She was talking to some female underling, a dumpy woman with long, mousy-brown hair. Anna caught my eye as I came in but turned away. I heard her quietly confiding to her companion, “We’ve been having meetings about him,” indicating me with a small nod of her head.

The mousy one gave me a side-long glance as Anna continued to whisper to her, “Some of the stuff he’s written. It was quite a lot of trouble clearing up after him.”

I felt I was not really meant to be overhearing these remarks so I ignored them. The coffee was now ready – I prevent scalding by always using one plastic cup inside another – and I walked past Anna, quite struck in a way by her appearance.

“Anna, you’re looking really great today,” I said with a smile. My remark was measured and honest and I was sure she would be pleased to hear it. I swept from the room, followed by her impassive gaze.

Next day I was sufficiently concerned to obliquely raise the topic with my boss. He was a solid kind of person, about ten years older than me, and although he in no way sparkled, he seemed to fit well into the management hierarchy. At least he kept all the logistics out of my hair. Sometimes I wanted to go to some of his meetings – I was sure I could sort out the endless confusions and stupidities he was prone occasionally to remark upon – but to my minor irritation I never seemed to get invited. “You need to spend your time on the important stuff,” I was told, “Leave the routine meetings to me, that’s what I get paid for.” Somewhat mollified, I would return to my online manuals, research papers and computer models.

So I broached the subject with him when I next passed him in the corridor.

“HR seems to be having meetings to discuss ‘my case’. Any idea what that’s all about?”

I had intended the question to be ironic or droll but his eyes slid obliquely past me and for some reason he seemed a trifle uncomfortable.

 “Well, you know HR. They’re paid to calm people down. I expect those rather lengthy emails you sent recently explaining the weaknesses of our current product line might have caused a stir. Some of the senior executives aren't exactly used to direct contact from the technical staff, and some of them are a bit conservative.”

I was prepared to be stroppy about this news - idiots! - but since my manager seemed to share my views ... . And besides, he was still talking.

“And of course we value your customer-centeredness; the customer is at the centre of everything we do. I’m sure we get added value and future credibility when you frankly point out to them some of the weaknesses in our current product set. Still, you can see that some of the sales execs might get a bit over-excited.”

“What do they know,” I snorted derisively.

“Yes, well. And no-one has ever formally complained about your dress-sense in front of clients – obviously you don’t look like a salesman, but your suit sort of fits, the shirtsleeves aren't unacceptably short, and no-one is going to be looking at your ankles anyway.”

I checked my current apparel. Today I was relaxed, just doing my normal job, no outsiders to worry about. I was wearing a faded pair of denim trousers, comfortable if a little washed-out; yellow suede desert boots (which I also used when working in the garden at home - there were residual cement stains); a checked shirt - rather worn around the neck; and a green coarse-wool pullover with shrunken sleeves which, as usual I had rolled up. It was the outfit I used to think with.  I sniffed:  hmm, perhaps I should have showered this morning.

I gazed back at my manager with a degree of annoyance. Wasn't he paid to keep those annoying bureaucrats and managers off my back?
___

Ⓒ Nigel Seel, April 2015. 

I'm currently preoccupied with the concept of "biting the hand that feeds you" - something I see everywhere at the moment. So amusing where it occurs. I'll leave it to others to gauge how much of the story above is autobiographical.

Previous story: Phytocide.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Maunsel Lock (TA7 0DH)

Nice day today so we took a picnic to Maunsel Lock, on the Bridgwater-Taunton canal. If the tsunami ever comes, the Somerset Levels will be scrubbed clear, so admire this charming Somerset construct while you can!

Maunsel Lock

The author at his favourite haunt: the Maunsel Tea Shop

Notice the pillbox machine-gun emplacement on the right; me neither ...

Jupiter
At Maunsel Lock you are in the centre of the famous Somerset Space Walk, (so famous I had not heard of it until today). The sun is located (scaled down a little) near the tea shop; the planets are marked canal-side at their appropriate distances and to scale. One pace equates to about 400,000 km (Pluto is 11 km away).

Ambling along at three miles an hour (8 paces in five seconds) I calculated we were walking at just over twice the speed of light. Light is real slow, you know, for getting around the solar system.

---

Trivia: I'm re-reading Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City. I'd forgotten how intricate and cleverly constructed this novel is. While slow to get started, it's gradually becoming somewhat addictive.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Clare's paintings

During our sojourn in the States back in 2001/2, Clare had a fair amount of time on her hands while I was participating in Cable & Wireless Global's stately descent into terrain (Chapter 11 in 2004). She took up painting and here is her gallery from that time.

"Flames"

"Freesias"

"Planes over Wolftrap"

"The Matrix"

"Steel Tooth"

"Wolftrap Theater in the Woods"

A Cable & Wireless colleague once asked to buy "Freesias". She said she had always liked the "Primitive" style. I smiled demurely and declined her offer; I never had the nerve to tell Clare.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The World's Top Fifty Experiences (yawn!)


Another glossy magazine pops through our door, listing the world's top fifty experiences (and sponsored by Fred Olsen cruises). Typical delights:
  • Afternoon tea at Raffles, Singapore
  • Dance with a local tribe in Kenya
  • Climb Sydney Harbour Bridge
  • Discover the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal
  • Learn flamenco in Seville
... and so on for another forty five achingly-familiar tourist jaunts which feature on everybody's bucket list (except for me, apparently).

Here are my top five experiences.

1. Discovering how to solve an equation like x2 = 5x - 6. Look, x occurs on both sides but no adding or subtracting can get x on one side and a pure number on the other. The revelatory secret is to factorise the equation as (x-3)(x-2) = 0 and realise that of all the possible values for x, only two can make this equation true.

2. Getting calculus. The magic of moving effortlessly between distance, velocity and acceleration; the solving of maxima and minima problems; the secret to working out mysterious stuff like the area of a circle and the volume of a cone from first principles.

3. Finally understanding the phrase "the collapse of the wave function" and then realising the deeper mystery as to how in the world this could happen (if it does).

4. Realising that the structure of our universe is not determined by lengths as we measure them with a ruler (Euclidean distance) but by the strange pseudo-metric of special relativity.  We really live in Minkowski space-time which is very different from the illusion of space we see around us, but I can't visualise it, even in lower-dimensional analogues. Frustrating.

5. Comprehending the architecture of intelligent agents like chess-playing machines or autonomous robots - how to design machine systems which really can solve problems in the world (this is not obvious).

So these are my top life-enhancing experiences, none of which involve crowded airport queues, cramped aircraft seats and losing your luggage.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Classic pix: Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Mountains

A couple of days ago I was reminiscing about our brief residence in the States back in 2001/2002. Having shown you pictures from Miami, New York and San Francisco I thought I would add some from our trip to Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, in November 2001.

Clare on Skyline Drive

The Blue Ridge Mountains

This is how I thought Virginians dressed at that time ...
Clare was recovering from a hip replacement operation at this time - Skyline was much-needed therapy.