Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bulge Brackets are no more

My learnings this week: I now know what a Bulge Bracket is, just as the species is about to go extinct.

As it was a warm sunny day today, we drove up to East Anton (NE Andover) where they're constructing a new housing estate. It's at the junction of the Portway and Icknield Way roman roads and there was a report that some archaeological test pits had been dug.

After walking around for a while, we failed to find anything less modern than a JCB, so drove down to Danebury Hillfort and had a pleasant stroll to the top (Clare pictured on the outer wall).

We are debating whether there is any photographic evidence here of the new low-carb, low-glycemic index diet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Click on a cartoon to make it bigger.

If you find this amusing there's a lot more here.

A fertilized human egg is a person

In November, the citizens of Colorado, USA, will be asked to vote on the following proposition, while voting for McCain or Obama.

"The Human Life Amendment, also known as the personhood amendment, says the words "person" or "persons" in the state constitution should "include any human being from the moment of fertilization." If voters agreed, legal experts say, it would give fertilized eggs the same legal rights and protections to which people are entitled."

The defendant is in court. A pharmacist who supplied a 'morning after' pill, she is accused of being an accessory to murder.

Defendant: (taking an earbud and rubbing it against the inside of her mouth: shows it to the court). "There, now I'm a mass-murder. All these cells have my full complement of DNA. This bud is chock-full of persons and they're all gonna die!"

Prosecutor: (who amazingly knows some biology). "You're trying to confuse the jury. Those cells are from your cheek. They've had key genes switched off."

Defendant: (thinks: 'thanks a bundle: that makes a difference?'). "Actually, some of them are stem cells".

Judge (summing up to the jury). "The state law leaves me with no choice. This is as bad a case of serial murder as I've ever seen. If you do your duty, the pharmacist will fry."

Friday, September 19, 2008


Shame about the LHC. And I believe losing a tonne of liquid helium will have hit the balance sheet too.

If I never hear the term "curiosity-driven research" again it will be too soon. Various rottweiler anchors such as Jeremy Paxman tried half-heartedly to suggest the LHC was a waste of money at £5 billion. Physicist-defenders who responded with:"curiosity-driven research" simply made it sound like long-suffering taxpayers were subsidising the selfish desires of a few self-indulgent particle physicists.

In fact politicians and policy-makers have been educated by radar, nuclear fission and fusion, and a hundred other technological innovations to understand that fundamental science is the driver for technological change, both peaceful/economic and military. They're not going to say no to the prospect of new scientific paradigms with those kinds of spin-offs.

A good Newsnight answer would be to recall Faraday's well-known answer to the question of what use is this new-fangled theory of electricity and magnetism.

Faraday made the famous retort 'What use is a baby?' To another, and more illustrious questioner, the Prime Minister, he made the prophetic reply: 'In ten years you will be taxing it!'

I for one would welcome an experimentally-validated theory which tied together electromagnetic/nuclear forces and gravity. It might lead to some technology which made climbing hills a bit easier!

Drowning in books

UPDATE: Saturday morning, Sept 20th

The Wally Lamb book arrived from Amazon this morning for review (pictured). What a tome! According to the introduction, it's centred around the Columbine massacre in the states.


Adrian has requested I read his copy of "War and Peace" (yes, that one) before he vanishes off to Canada with it in November. (Right!)

I have "The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces" by Frank Wilczek + Anna Karenina (yes, that one) coming the next day or two.

And the Amazon Vine e-newsletter arrived yesterday with some fresh book review options:- I succumbed to "The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb. A mandatory review will follow soon.

Meanwhile I am deep into the Lorentz force, cyclotron radiation and magnetic bottles for SMT359 revision + plus continuing client relationship management activities for my consultancy work.

Still found time to get to Tesco this morning, rejecting for the time being my brother's eulogy to Lidl's...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Other news from today

Despite the evidence of the previous post, it wasn't all shopping today.

Still in revision for my OU Electromagnetism exam (SMT359) on October 15th, this morning I was working through the D field. I realised I had never properly understood it: the key is to realise that it's a kind of invariant as electric fields penetrate dielectrics and get reduced by the resulting polarisation effects.

At each point, the sum of the local field ε0E dielectric and the polarisation field Pdielectric equals the D field. Handy for calculation even if it doesn't seem to physically mean too much.

Some client work found me reviewing the current state of SDH technology. I knew about VCAT and LCAS and it was interesting that the standards guys are currently contemplating 160 Gbps (STM-1024). When I was working on SDH network design at Nortel about 15 years ago, the engineers were sceptical that 40 Gbps could ever be made to work.

SDH as a multiplexing technology is pointless unless the link speeds are a lot faster than the tributary rates. As these continue their inexorable rise - 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps - the signature SDH rates just have to get faster for those operators who still need it.


Here in Andover we must be the most supermarketed market town in, oh, miles and miles.

Within a short car ride we have a Tesco superstore, a new Asda superstore, two large Sainsbury stores, a Lidl (not, of course, that we know too much about that one, even in these benighted times), a town-centre Waitrose and a new Tesco Metro facing off the old Co-Op across the road. It leads to conversations like this one (after a trip to Asda today).

"I thought you had given up on Scotch eggs?"

"No, just Tesco's. This is an Asda free-range Scotch egg. The meat is bound to be better quality."

So here is the reasoning. On the Asda shelf there were Scotch eggs, and free-range Scotch eggs. The average supermarket Scotch egg has a deservedly poor, downmarket reputation because of the shoddy plastic packaging partially obscuring the poor-quality, gristle-filled meat and indifferent eggs.

However, if Asda was making a brand differentiation with an up-market egg concept - 'free range' - for which it was charging more, then it would be unlikely to compromise said brand positioning by backsliding on the sausage meat.

And so it proved.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Way by Swann's

Adrian and myself have reached that point which was summed up notoriously by the editor Humblot in 1912, turning down "In Search of Lost Time" with the classic remark:

"... perhaps I am dense, but I just don't understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he rolls about in bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim! "

Undaunted, we propose to re-engage.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Duchess

Yes, as per previous post, we saw The Duchess this evening. A long couple of hours.

Lisp on Vista

I looked around for quite a while for free Lisp systems for Windows Vista. For example here.

But you get what you pay for. I finally downloaded the free Poplog system (University of Birmingham, here) which includes common lisp. Eventually I got the Pop11 programming environment running, but no luck whatsoever with lisp. The system is really aimed at UNIX and facilities under Windows are rudimentary, e.g. no command line options.

I have now uninstalled the Poplog system and will use instead Roger Corman's common lisp system which is specifically designed for Windows (and Vista). The $250 for the integrated development environment is my Xmas present!


My sister-in-law and her husband (M. and G.) have been staying with us the last couple of days. They left this morning en route to a weekend at the Isle of Wight. As I type, it's pouring with rain and thunder echoes around the countryside. "Things to do when it's raining on the I-o-W" - discuss. Adrian is doing some temporary work on the industrial estate the other side of Andover and as they finish at 5 p.m., I expect to see him anytime soon on my bike, bedraggled. November and a return to Canada to be a snowboarding/skiing instructor again can't come soon enough, I imagine.

We're going to see The Duchess tonight at the local cinema, faute de mieux.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Automated Theorem Proving

The book "Automated Theorem Proving: Theory and Practice" by Prof. Monty Newborn arrived a couple of days ago, and I had a quick flip through it yesterday. I'm most interested in the resolution theorem prover, THEO, which the book fully describes. The source code is included on the accompanying CD.

So I got to thinking: automated theorem provers (ATPs) are really fascinating. Insofar as we know how to theorise about intelligence, they're half of the answer. (The other half is creativity* - think Myers-Briggs NT, where N is creativity and T is logical inference).

But what could you do with a theorem-prover?

My first thought was some kind of virtual persona. There are already virtual pets, like Felix the cat, which wander around your desktop. Perhaps an ATP-powered virtual pet could be a winner, a kind of less-idiotic chatbot.

ATPs are optimised to build deep proof trees from rather sparse axiom sets. But the kind of commonplace reasoning which underlies chat is the opposite - shallow inference based on a large amount of shared contextual experience. "In the knowledge is the power" as the Expert Systems people used to say.

It's an endless task of knowledge engineering to try to manually enter 'commonsense knowledge' - that way lies madness and the Cyc project. Instead, one should either let other people do it for you, or create an embodied AI system (aka a baby) which can learn all this stuff by itself, through normal social interaction. That's a dream which has been around for a while.

So we come to the Internet. An agent on the web, with appropriate interfaces, can be 'trained' by all the people who care to interact with it. Just (non-trivially) filter out the dodgy stuff.

So we get to three key questions.

1. How good does a system like this have to be to get people to want to engage with it? Better, clearly, than a pattern-shuffling chatbot, but maybe not that much better. Most people seem to desire above all a good listener who seems to stay engaged.

2. How much effort would it be to program? I have no spare cash for hiring servers, so the system should run on the user's machine. Java applets is the model, but THEO is in C, and I prefer to write all this stuff in Lisp. We also need somehow to build a central knowledge-base.

3. How do we make money out of it? Charging for use is out of the question. There are two routes I can see: the first is to do some content analysis of the conversations and link up with Google adwords (as proposed for Gmail); the second is to sell the system to a cyberpet maker such as the 'Fur Real' people who sold us our cat, to spice up their interaction model.


* Creativity is not as mysterious as it looks. It seems to come down to the ability to see structural similarities between different kinds of knowledge (similar to metaphor) and then to map what is known in one domain into another through a kind of generate-and-test process. This kind of formula-processing uses many of the basic procedures, such as unification, found in ATP.

NOTE: This is all whimsical stuff BTW. If you look at the current state-of-the-art in all this, the level of sophistication is frightening. Like computer games, it's gone well past amateur stage.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

How many days to Xmas?

The rain continues to fall and the temperature drops. Here, for the record, is our first fire of the autumn.

Our cyberpet, Snow White, is similarly preparing for harder times.

Crime and Punishment

I can blame Adrian for pointing me to the great Russian novels. On his recommendation I read The Idiot and a couple of days ago I started Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky's novel engages on several levels. I am left with fanboyesque helpless admiration for his multiple skills in psychological exploration, character development and plotting. Most of us would find it difficult to imagine a personal psychological state in which we would carry out a premeditated murder. The St. Petersburg student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is someone 'like us' who does just that - so we do. The psychological aftermath is completely gripping - what a page turner!

The novel is set in set in the summer of 1865, when Marxist ideas were circulating around Europe. Dostoevsky was deeply hostile to socialist thinking and his characters offer startlingly modern refutations: (his own mystical and nationalistic alternative is scarcely more satisfactory).

Next stop: Anna Karenina (in the recommended translation!).


The Economist today carries a review of The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Frank Wilczek, which I will take a look at. This brings me to CERN.

I missed the BBC4 hour-long programme on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Thursday evening: we were watching Drowning on Dry Land at the Salisbury Playhouse, which I mentioned in a previous post. It's repeated this evening.

It's interesting watching the collision between the LHC and popular culture. BBC1's "The One Show" headlined with it yesterday evening with a jokey piece about LHC-created mini-black holes destroying the earth. Sir Patrick Moore was wheeled in to ridicule this most unlikely of outcomes.

Perhaps there should be a new competition (like the one William Waldegrave ran in 1993 for the Higgs boson). Write the best short summary for mass consumption as to why it's important to spend £5 billion on the LHC.

How hard can it be?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Drowning on Dry Land

Down to the Salisbury Playhouse yesterday evening for the preview of "Drowning on Dry Land" by Alan Ayckbourn. The play, described here, is a comedy/drama about the emptiness of celebrity. The hero, Charlie Conrad, has become a celebrity for being a complete failure at everything he does. The play observes his dysfunctional life and in particular his collapsing relationship with his "footballer's wife" Linzi. This soon leads to his moment of entrapment by Marsha Bates, children's entertainer (of meagre talent). Soon Charlie has fallen from grace at the hands of the tabloids, and Marsha is the new celebrity nonentity.

Although a slight piece in theme, the acting was impeccable. The play could almost serve as a textbook example of playwriting. Plotting, pace, dialogue and character seem perfectly formed and audience attention is sustained throughout.

Since the characters are very much archetypes, the actors are free to make them slightly larger than life, which contributes to the knockabout energy of the production. Charlie Conrad is perhaps the most difficult part, as the character is basically talentless: his celebrity being rooted in a generically bland 'niceness'. Stuart Laing carries it off beautifully though.


We had plans for microlight flying with Airbourne Aviation, Popham airfield on Wednesday (Sept 3rd). However, we got a call Wednesday morning confirming that the field was waterlogged so the whole thing has been cancelled for the duration. As I write, it's steadily pouring down again.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Review of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery. I was sent this by as part of the "Amazon Vine" programme, in exchange for reviewing it.

You are smart, but unschooled, a daughter of the poorest illiterate peasantry. Over the decades you have read your Marx and Kant, appreciated Mozart, immersed yourself in 17th century Dutch painting. You smuggle literature home in your shopping bag along with the turnips and cat food. You are Renee Michel and a concierge in a Left Bank apartment block serving the rich. You are an invisible drab, and no-one must ever suspect.

You are precociously intelligent but only twelve and a half. Your sister, studying for her Masters degree at the Sorbonne, is a ‘beautiful person’ of barren soulless talent. Your mother is a vacuous socialist snob while your father is a senior Government official hiding behind his role. You know from Dawkins and all the rest that life is just a pointless primate struggle to reproduce your genes. Surrounded by so much empty posturing and mediocrity, what is the point? You are Paloma Josse and you are determined to commit suicide on your 13th birthday.

A particularly loathsome apartment owner dies and someone new moves in. Wealthy, cultured and thoroughly civilised, perhaps Renee and Paloma, in their daily deceptions, have finally encountered someone they can’t hoodwink. Primary certainties are reworked as the story moves to its shocking conclusion.

This is a beautiful piece of work: erudite, laugh-out-loud humorous and tragic by turns. It can’t have been easy for Alison Anderson to capture in English the sophistication of Muriel Barbery’s writing, but she’s made a fine job of it. Recommended.

Review of SMT359 Electromagnetism

SMT359 is the Open University’s third-level undergraduate course on the classical theory of electromagnetism. Book 1 is a journey to Maxwell’s four equations, covering electrostatics (Gauss’s law), magnetism (the Biot-Savart and Lorentz force laws), Faraday’s law covering magnetic induction and the Ampere-Maxwell law covering magnetic fields due to currents and so-called ‘displacement currents’. There is also a hefty chapter on vector calculus for those who have forgotten their divs, grads and curls.

Book 2 puts the focus on electromagnetic fields. We spend a lot of time looking at electromagnetism in bulk materials (permittivity and permeability, D and H fields) and investigating the concepts of field potential and energy. The final two chapters take a detailed look at superconductivity in a classical context, and the unification of the electric and magnetic fields within special relativity (magnetism is a relativistic effect).

Book 3 is focused on electromagnetic waves. Maxwell’s equations may have resulted in the triumphal prediction of electromagnetic radiation, but it’s surprisingly hard to derive the specific equations for the radiation from an antenna. We then move on to consider dispersion and absorption of radiation in bulk materials. It turns out that mathematically this is the result of a complex (real + imaginary), frequency-dependent permittivity. The course closes by looking at plasma physics (think fusion reactors) and an essay on why the cornea of the eye is actually transparent.

SMT359 is a generally well-structured, solid, maybe even somewhat conservative course. It covers the core syllabus of introductory classical electromagnetism and doesn’t go substantially beyond it. Having now finished the units, I’m reading the Feynman Lectures in Physics, Volume II which address electromagnetism in a somewhat wider context and it’s pleasantly complementary.

In my opinion, this is not a course which can be skimmed. As you progress through it, it feels like a vast jigsaw puzzle – a lot of stuff has to be understood and be in your head before it has a chance to gel. I think, however, this is inherent in the structural complexity of classical electromagnetism.

I would have welcomed somewhere in the course a little peek ahead into what is covered both in more advanced treatments of classical electromagnetism, and in how Maxwell’s equations emerge as a limiting case from the quantum theory of electrodynamics. Perhaps a session on this might work at the summer school, SMXR359 ( which, by the way, it’s essential to attend to really anchor the concepts). Overall, SMT359 is an excellent course.

Monday, September 01, 2008

City at the End of Time

I very much wanted to like this book. It’s not easy to summon up a believable city one hundred trillion years from now. Greg Bear’s multiverse is collapsing into terminal degeneracy as the Chaos intrudes upon the last city – the Kalpa – on a twisted surreal earth.

In present-day Seattle, characters Jack, Ginny and Daniel possess “sum runners”, mysterious Feynmanesque stones which will eventually be found to code the innermost ordering principles of reality. But our heroes have lost all memory of their origins, and spend their lives flitting between alternative realities of the multiverse, in endless flight from ill-defined threats.

Ten to the fourteen years out, the male warrior Jebrassy and female explorer Tiadba are groomed to leave the Kalpa for a one-way journey through the Chaos to the mythical city of Nataraja – somehow this is the Kalpa’s last and best hope. Jebrassy and Jack, and Tiadba and Ginny, are psychologically linked through the Terayears and will physically meet at the novel’s climax, when the universe may, or may not, be cyclically renewed.

Bear has ransacked Greek, Hindu and Buddhist mythologies for this story, along with a light dusting of quantum mechanics. Typhon, the personification of Chaos, is the Greek Satan-like figure; Nataraja is the dancing posture of the Hindu God Shiva, lord of destruction/transformation; in Buddhism, a great kalpa is 1.28 trillion years long.

OK, so does it all work? I personally found it hard work. The book is dense with repetitious description of chaotic landscapes, which sap the reader’s patience. For much of the time the main characters are engaging in relatively mundane activities or trying to get from one place to another in situations devoid of much tension.

All this could be forgiven – there are plenty of hard-to-read books out there – if there was some subtle and profound point Bear was trying to communicate. I really struggle though. At the end, when identities are resolved and the threads of events have been drawn together, what have we learned that is deeper then simply another drawn-out fantasy-SF-action thriller? I fear the answer is nothing.