Sunday, March 31, 2013

Clocks, clocks!

Skipping through the manual in the cold car, repeatedly pressing the "disp" column on the dashboard for a measured set of seconds - this was the final act of an orgy of clock-visiting, where each seems to have its own, idiosyncratic method of being advanced an hour.

It struck me that this is the last generation of such twice-yearly idiocy. Already the clocks on the smartphones, computers, TV and radio are networked: they're smart enough to know what time it is. I imagine the prototypical clock of the future: the face is like the Kindle's e-ink, no moving parts, with a backlit display for night-time, and it has built-in WiFi so it can talk to the Internet. It never gets the time wrong.You can buy e-ink wristwatches right now and, for a price, there's ...

Update at 10.30 a.m.: the cat just caught its first vole of 2013: I saved it.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Queen Victoria, Priddy; population genetics

Cecy and Russell at lunch with us in the Queen Victoria, Priddy, today. Cecy is recovering from some kind of bronchitis and we had to ferry her carefully from warm home to warm pub through the frigid Mendips.

Russell and Cecy

"Bill" Hamilton

I'm about a third of the way through "Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W D Hamilton" by sociologist Ullica Segerstrale - (Hamilton: 1 August 1936 – 7 March 2000). Hamilton put the theory of evolution on a sound footing by his post-WW2 development of population genetics. The biography is fascinating about Hamilton's character (he sounds Asperger's to me) but is science-lite.

Population genetics is, however, fascinating; here is what Wikipedia has to say about it.

 "Population genetics is the study of allele frequency distribution and change under the influence of the four main evolutionary processes: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene flow. It also takes into account the factors of recombination, population subdivision and population structure. It attempts to explain such phenomena as adaptation and speciation."

I'm looking for a book at the right level - not too populist, not too advanced.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Genes as destiny

Interesting that genes are the larger part of destiny when it comes to dreaded diseases such as breast and prostate cancer. Less so, somehow, when it comes to intelligence, where numerous studies show heritability c. 80%.

I wonder how received opinion will respond when the decisive genetic markers for IQ have been identified. Just a few years now ...

Renegotiated my mobile phone contract from twenty to 10.50 pounds per month today, based on limited network usage these days. It's a consequence of unlimited WiFi most places I'm at, plus a good landline deal.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

International Rescue

I think we both had the same thought - doesn't David Miliband look exactly like 'Brains'? You heard it here first.

What does it mean? Expect a torrent of commentator opinion over the next few days. They will converge on the view that the public-sector unions allied with the bien-pensant Hampstead left has now definitively won control of the Labour Party. We've finally got our own domestic version of President Holland and his socialists to vote for in 2016.

Quelle joie!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gosh, it feels cold!

Lubos Motl posted this extraordinary video on his site - ultra-high-speed cameras show the sub-orbital speed of the detonation wave in "Prince Rupert's Drops". You can skip the ad after a few seconds and also the chat at the end.

It's very cold at the moment, even in a centrally-heated house. Touch the exterior-facing walls or the double-glazed windows. They have a c. 20°C thermal drop across them - naturally they're quite cold even with the insulation. Despite the warm air in the house, you still feel quite chilly.

OK, let's try again, why is that exactly? The second law of thermodynamics tells us that heat flows from hot objects to cold ones. More operationally, your body radiates in the infra-red to its surroundings and your surroundings radiate in the infra-red back at you. But if they're colder than you, there's a net imbalance: you're doing most of the radiating at the walls and windows, they're not returning the favour. So you feel the chill.

How does this work at the level of individual molecules, how does this infra-red radiation actually occur? Only quantum mechanics can tell us. In a typical house at c. 20°C (infra-red radiation) energy transitions correspond to random changes in the vibrations of molecular components: it's like the atoms are connected together by bouncy springs as they thermally bash into one another.

In quantum mechanics this reminds us of harmonic oscillators and their energy eigenstates spaced at the order of ℏω - which at infra-red values of ω are pretty finely spaced. Throw in some Doppler smearing and you've got a continuous black-body spectrum.

So that's why we feel just a tad uncomfortable this week.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"The Book of Illusions" - Paul Auster

"The Book of Illusions" by Paul Auster is typically stylish, but somehow failed to sustain my interest. Probably there are all kinds of allegorical and/or self-referential motifs to be pondered and mulled over, if only I could be bothered. Here's the Guardian review by Anthony Quinn - he seems to agree.

"The title of Paul Auster's new book makes it sound less like a novel than a compendium of magic tricks -which, in a way, is what a novel amounts to. The Book of Illusions bristles with switched identities, vanishing acts, sudden feints and flourishes which the author plays off against one another in an elegant though often sombre narrative. It is the kind of dexterity that has been delighting Auster's readership since his acclaimed 1987 debut The New York Trilogy, and this oddly enfolded book is one of its most accomplished demonstrations. It is a story about a "dead" man who comes to life, and a living man who wishes he were dead.

David Zimmer, a literature professor in Vermont, has been traumatised by the loss of his wife and two children in a plane crash. Stewing in alcohol and daydreaming of suicide, he has let his life run away from him until one night, watching TV, he happens upon a clip of a forgotten comedian of the silent era named Hector Mann. The cleverness of his slapstick makes Zimmer laugh and in doing so reminds him that he hasn't hit rock bottom; he proceeds to trawl the archives for the 12 two-reel comedies Mann made in the late 1920s before he walked out of his house one morning in January 1929 and vanished from sight.

Zimmer becomes absorbed in the screen persona of Hector Mann, resplendent in his trademark white suit and expressively twirly moustache, a nimble prankster who dazzles "with his backpedals and dodges, his sudden torques and lunging pavanes, his double-takes and hop-steps and rhumba swivels". He writes a book about Hector's work, and some months after its publication receives a startling letter from New Mexico; it is apparently written by Hector's wife, Frieda, who says that Hector has read his book and would like to meet him. Is this a hoax? Could Hector Mann, missing, presumed dead for over 50 years, still be alive?

Auster keeps us guessing, and in the meantime dispenses a précis of Hector's penultimate film, Mr Nobody, a tragicomic tale of a man who is tricked by a perfidious colleague into drinking a potion that makes him disappear - makes him, to all intents and purposes, dead. The film's themes not only prefigure its star's actual disappearance but chime with Zimmer's own feeling that he too is a nonentity, "a dead man".

At this point the novel seems to have reached an impasse. Raymond Chandler famously wrote that, when in doubt, a writer should "have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand". Auster tweaks the advice ever so slightly: he has a woman come through the door with a gun in her hand.

It's not an entirely convincing appearance, in truth, but it does get the plot back on track. The woman, Alma, turns out to be the daughter of Hector's leading lady, and has been compiling a biography of him for the last six years. Now she wants to take Zimmer to the New Mexico ranch where Hector, unbeknown to the world, has been making his own movies. And they have to be quick about it too, because Hector is close to death, and the terms of his will stipulate that the movies are to be immediately destroyed.

As Alma recounts Hector's "missing years" to Zimmer during their cross-country trip, the book comes to resemble one of those literary quest stories which have enjoyed such a vogue. In the way it raises questions about art and its putative ownership one may be reminded of AS Byatt's Possession, with Hector Mann's unseen movies an equivalent to the lost correspondence and nuttily inspired fairy poems of the Victorian lovers.

Auster sounds the life-art resonances in a tricksier post-modern key; echoes, parallels and doublings keep nudging the reader along. The one Hector Mann film Zimmer manages to see is called The Inner Life of Martin Frost, which unfolds the tale of a writer and a philosophy student whose chance relationship enigmatically spirals towards a vanishing point - a destination that the novel itself appears to be heading towards. Figuratively and physically, most things go up in smoke.

Auster's echo-ridden style may encourage you to look for meanings that aren't there. On considering the names of the two central characters (Zimmer-Mann) I spent some time trying, in vain, to spot buried references to Bob Dylan. The Book of Illusions is a highly artful performance, which is both to praise it and to express a small misgiving as to its impact. While its sleights of hand are admirable, it is not quite so absorbing as to be difficult to put down. Like most legerdemain, it is diverting and clever and something to wonder at, but you take your leave of it with no feelings of regret."

Saturday morning

Clare likes to listen to Test Match Special on Radio 4 in bed. Obviously just while she awaits my presence ... Anyway, so long has her small, portable radio been centred on 198 metres long-wave that something inside has eroded. The test match commentary has been replaced by crackles (all other stations, and FM, are fine). So purchase number one this morning was a beautiful objet d'art which handles FM and DAB, from John Lewis.

My second Internet purchase was one kg of granular Xylitol, a guilt-free replacement for sugar on cereals, in cakes and in all other areas of cuisine. I bought a decorative new sugar bowl from The Factory Shop in town to store it in.

My final task this morning was to get my mother's "emergency use" Nokia mobile phone re-activated. Three months of non-use and O2 had closed the account. Matt from Phones4U explained that the motivation was O2 being 'green'.

Right. That's a couple of kilobytes freed up in O2's back-office systems then. Planet sorted.

A new pay-go SIM card later - and a new number - and we're on-net again. I've configured the phone for occasional, emergency use: contacts limited to the emergency call-list, voicemail turned off, font set to large ...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The worst deficit in the West

Take a look at the graph "The Worst Deficit in the West in 2015" (graph 4). Currently the deficit is a lot worse even than the 6% predicted then. I am reminded of the famous Eurocrat lament: "We all know what has to be done, it's just that we don't know how to be re-elected afterwards."

Matthew Parris wrote in The Times that the Chancellor's Budget presentation was like a man adjusting his suit and tie to make the very best impression. As we zoom out, we see that he's in a lift (elevator) and that the cable has snapped - he's plunging to his doom. Parris asks: why aren't we showing the necessary signs of panic and desperation?

Because the turkeys are still not voting for Christmas. Contempt for the Tory state of denial is pointless - they still have residual hopes of getting re-elected in 2015.
Homework question. At the moment the cable snaps, does the Chancellor still feel weight or is he instantly floating in free-fall?

Answer: At time equals zero, the cable is intact and the Chancellor feels weight. At any time t greater than zero, the cable is unattached and the Chancellor is in free-fall. So the onset of weightlessness is instantaneous.

In the real economy the process has been more gradual, but the eventual outcome will be not less painful.

Women, Men and Microaggression

It's sometimes believed that political correctness is a characteristically feminine perspective - above all, don't hurt people's feelings. But the 'theory and practice' ranges more widely, as Steve Sailer's recent article on the new American concept of 'microaggression' points out.

From an American liberal arts college statement on 'microaggression':

"When you see or hear racist, heterosexist/homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, ableist, sexist/cissexist speech etc., please submit it to us so that we may demonstrate that these acts are not simply isolated incidents, but rather part of structural inequalities."

Sailer comments:

"The cult of microaggressions is not something that either sex could have developed wholly on its own.

Granted, the role of women is readily apparent in the obsession with propriety, with feelings over logic, and the dislike of impersonal principles. Yet on their own, women are less interested in logic, which makes their likes and dislikes more idiosyncratic. A woman can only be pregnant by one man at a time, so women normally put a huge amount of effort into thinking about individuals.

In contrast, these long, airless lists of identity-politics categories appeal to the Aspergery male systemizing mind more than to the female empathizing mind (to use Simon Baron-Cohen’s terminology)."
Despite anything you may have heard to the contrary, you will have observed that men and women do tend to think differently.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Best place in the wintry cold ...

We had a thunderstorm - with hail - and he hid behind the chair: much better by the fire.

Today I was looking at Lagrange multipliers (M820 - calculus of variations) which I had thought were difficult, was pleasantly surprised to find easy until I then checked the Wikipedia article where such naivity was painfully exposed.

I persevere with "Consistent Quantum Mechanics" (Griffiths) which in these earlier chapters is still a tour around the toolkit. Today I was looking at operator matrix representations for the tensor product of Hilbert spaces. This is not as bad as it sounds, but the reader ends up writing down a whole lot of complicated matrices, unpacking the chapter's compact notation. Like so many things, you feel better when you're done.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Genetics of Intelligence

If you have an hour or so (and some headphones - the sound is a bit quiet) you will learn a lot from Steve Hsu's lecture (below) on current work (at BGI in China) identifying the genes which code for intelligence. If you're reading this, you will surely understand most/all of it. He starts from first principles ..

Cyprus and WW1

Straws that break the camel's back - like the June 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Apparently trivial actions, which unlock mighty forces previously cloaked behind an apparently-manageable surface normalcy.

Cyprus, or something like it, could be the spark. The populations of the 'Club Med' countries are increasingly tired of endless, depressing gloom and resentful of the (perceived) 'so-superior' Germans.

When enough of them feel they have suffered enough, watch out!

"Lucky Jim" - Kingsley Amis

First time around, decades ago, I gave up on this c. 1951 portrayal of redbrick university life because I loathed both the hero and the ambience. The novel is peopled by mediocre grotesques, the atmosphere is grubby, as provincial as the setting, and the characters' views and objectives are small-minded and trivial.

I was after more heroic stuff.

I have just read it properly and of course it's a classic. I had entirely missed the satire: the forensic dissection of a post-war rising working-class morphing into middle-classness, hopelessly trying to challenge the hegemonic Oxbridge old-boy network.

And then there is the quality of the writing: I offer the complex character of neurotic lecturer Margaret - established through masterful dialogue.

They say it's a comic novel, but its largely situational humour is really propelled by the author's fury at the idiocy encountered by his protagonist Jim Dixon.


I have just bought "Nature's Oracle" by Ullica Segerstrale. This covers the life and work of W. D. (Bill) Hamilton, the scientist who refounded Darwinism on genetics.

One of those super-influential people that no-one has ever heard of outside of biology .. until perhaps now.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The fat extravert in the gym

It was early - 8.25 a.m. - and I was already on the rowing machine. I've been drifting earlier to the gym to avoid the nine o'clock crowd, who tend to hog the bikes with much desultory spinning and tedious recreational chat. My companion was one other early-morning guy, intently working out on the right-hand exercise bike.

In comes this large, flabby fellow in shapeless shorts, who climbs onto the cross-trainer next to bike-guy and starts up a slow, unstressing rhythm. Immediately he violates rule number one of the British gym: no unsolicited conversation.

"Cold, isn't it," he observed to his neighbour, "Think it's going to rain?"

Amazingly, the cyclist's natural politeness led him to a non-trivial reply. There was silence only for a moment as fat guy resumed with a cheery "Any plans for the weekend, then?" Maybe he was a hairdresser.

This time the reply was more of a grunt as the cyclist vacated his equipment to go exercise someplace quieter.

It was now time for me to go thrash the bike (ten minutes, with two intense one-minute bursts - cadence in excess of 110: I'm serious).

I chose the bike furthest from the somnolent yet garrulous cross-trainer .. mentally rehearsing gnomic zen rejoinders in case I was engaged in unwanted conversation. I made no eye contact, worked hard .. and was mercifully spared.

Ten minutes later I had finished, had changed and, as I was leaving the premises, saw fat guy in his awkward shorts exiting the fitness suite.

He did not look out of breath.

Friday, March 15, 2013

"Open Secret" - Stella Rimington

Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth", recently reviewed here, was surely much influenced by Stella's autobiography. McEwan's Serena Frome is a kind of anti-Stella, someone born on the right side of the tracks but without Stella's grit and commitment.

Two things stand out: there was, and is, so much misogyny out there (the Met are the worst); and Stella has had the worst luck with her accommodation - decades of living with the builders, flooding, burglaries and freezing cold.

Getting this book published was a nightmare, but it's been a few years now and the controversy over this security-wise anodyne book now looks completely overwrought. Sadly, its very discretion sucks the life out of the text - the truly interesting aspects of Rimington's life are just those things she couldn't mention.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Richard III" at the Tobacco Factory Theatre

Southville, in Bedminster, Bristol is old Victorian inner-city - now populated by Guardian-reading fifty-somethings with fashionably-long silver hair, leather-jackets and purposeful walking. Also detox shops, the odd ex-hippy and a non-oppressive sense of high-street community. Buy now while it's still affordable.

Don't know how much this gentle gentrification is down to the Tobacco Factory project but we ate at their student-union-style cafe (mezzas since you ask) and watched their extraordinary-accomplished "Richard III" this afternoon. Here's a picture of the small, intimate theatre just before the play started.

The Tobacco Factory theatre

"Richard III" is one of Shakespeare's earliest (and longest) plays, a fast-moving thriller with a notable villain in the eponymous ruler- who shares his murderous plans in multiple asides to the audience. The cast were uniformly excellent and the archaic language was hardly noticeable. It helped to have studied the Wikipedia articles on the historic king and the play beforehand - the family and royal connections are intricate.

So we really enjoyed it and plan to visit again soon for their next production.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mary Bear and Cindy

Beryl Seel and her performing troupe: Mary Bear on vocals and Cindy on disdain ...

It can only be a matter of time before this goes viral ...

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Euler-Lagrange equation

This derivation can be found in all Calculus of Variations textbooks, the Internet, and just about everywhere. But I needed to write it out today, and perhaps for the first time really understood and believed each step!

Sex and the Fast Diet (5:2)

So much on the web about the Fast Diet: intermittent fasting, two days a week, improves your health and just rolls the pounds off. The word on the street is that it also impacts your sex life: some typical comments.

"Arthur, you used to crush me with your bloated mass, it was like mating with a walrus. But after a few months of the FastDiet, it's like making love to a puppy!"

Er, yes.

"Ouch! Henry, will you stop poking me with your ribs - you never used to have them - I can't concentrate. Ouch! Your hip is bruising my thigh ..."

How the fat does roll off!

"Omigod Charles, it's been 45 minutes .. (sighs) .. you're so relentless."

Increased stamina also depends on adding exercise to the mix, I'm told.

So there you are, the Internet doesn't lie. One more reason for you chaps out there to get with Michael and Mimi!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Sweet Tooth" - Ian McEwan

Product description:

"Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services.

The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency."

Serena seems a strange recruit to "Five". She has a third from Cambridge, where she took maths under her mother's formidable influence (she'd wanted to study English at Leicester) and she's emotional, naive and immature.

This is 1972 and women in MI5 toil in menial clerical jobs. But Serena is attractive and a novel-junkie, so who better to liaise with suitable up-and-coming authors in a covert MI5 funding operation (Sweet Tooth) fighting the communists in the culture wars. But for Serena, everything is personal: there is no way this is going to end well.

Ian McEwan has written another inspired novel. It's not le Carre - not an intelligence-insider's novel - but the atmosphere is similarly insecure, no-one's motives can be taken at face-value.

McEwen effectively evokes the dysfunctional feel of the 1970s, when everything was going pear-shaped, but his most effective skewering is of the stupidity of the intelligence agencies themselves.

Oh, and the twist at the end is completely brilliant.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Off the leash ...

While Clare was watching Cook and Compton frustrating the New Zealand bowlers (with a 12 hour time delay) I ventured out alone to Wells High Street.

The library is now automated. I remembered to put Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" into the large post-box front of the robot librarian and its inner smartness checked the book as 'returned'. I found another Barnes ("Arthur and George") as I'm now an official fan, and added Mr Amis's "Lucky Jim", something by Paul Auster plus a Jo Nesbo in large print for the cricket fan. Literary taste has come so late to me!

Then on to the Co-Op where my id was allowed full rein.

1. Three tubs of terrine for the cat. Terrine is a kind of junk-food paste with God-knows-what inside it. The animal is perfectly prepared to reject beautiful chicken, fresh salmon and even cheddar cheese to fall upon terrine. You'd have to say he's almost human.

2. What would you say to 3 Aeros, 4 Turkish Delights, 5 Crunchie bars, 4 Wispas and assorted Cadbury bars. These are empty calories which kick-in a damaging insulin spike. Why did I buy them and carefully hide them in the fridge?

3. Shortbread biscuits and the cricket fan's favourite, Caramel Thins. See 2 above. Hidden in the pantry. What was I thinking of?

So plenty of ammunition for those who think I should never be let out alone.

Brent Knoll (450 feet) - the Mount of Frogs

From the Wikipedia article:

"Brent Knoll has seen human settlement since at least the Bronze Age. Brent Knoll Camp is an Iron Age hill fort, with multiple ramparts following the contours of the hill, broken only by the main entrance on the eastern side.

Before the Somerset Levels were drained, Brent Knoll was an island, known as the Isle (or Mount) of Frogs, that provided a safe haven from the water and marshes. According to legend, Ider son of Nuth, who was one of King Arthur's knights, came to the Mount of Frogs on a quest to slay three giants who lived there. The fort has been claimed as the site of the Battle of Badon."

The route (or Way, or El Camino de Brent Knoll) starts at a public footpath to the right of St. Michael's Church, Church Lane (TA9 4DG gets you near enough). The path is always obvious (it's uphill) but the clay was rather slippery in places this morning, after a night's rain. The view from the top would have been spectacular had we done the walk this afternoon (it's bright sunshine as I write this). For us though this morning, things were suitably murky.

We parked at the village hall, where a bazaar was in in progress (tea, coffee, cakes!) at 11.20 am. We were debating whether to inflict our muddy selves on our return at 12.30 pm but they had closed at noon. The last volunteers were loading the remains of the morning into their waiting car.

Clare on the way up

Girl on top (the trig point)

It's a neolithic hill fort

A view of the A38 and the Garden Centre

The author in the mist

Intermittent fasting: month 7

So here we are, seven months down the line and I am still running a 4:3 diet, with restricted calories Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Strange then how my weight has plateaued in 2013: January, February and March weights are within an interval of two pounds .. less than a kilogram.

Since the end of December, I've been working hard one-hour sessions at the gym Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I like to think that this has developed some muscle - which has got to weigh something.

Date Stone Lb Pounds Kg D(Lb) BMI BMI-new Height (m)
07/08/2012 13 8 190 86.4 27.20 26.49 1.782
08/09/2012 12 13 181 82.3 9 25.91 25.23
06/10/2012 12 7 175 79.5 6 25.05 24.39
08/11/2012 11 12 166 75.5 9 23.76 23.14
08/12/2012 11 6 160 72.7 6 22.90 22.30
08/01/2013 11 2 156 70.9 4 22.33 21.75 Waist
10/02/2013 11 1 155 70.5 1 22.19 21.61 34.5 inches
09/03/2013 11 0.4 154 70.2 1 22.10 21.52

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Results preview

The blog "Backreaction" is two months ahead of me at 23andMe. Sabine has her results, while I was emailed today that they have my sample.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The bath tub

Our larger recliner died; a bolt sheared cascading bits of metal and oil onto the carpet. Today we bought a replacement three seat motorised reclining sofa from those nice people at Furniture Village, Cribbs Causeway.

The leatherwork and materials for our new piece of furniture have a five year warranty. The electric motors and mechanisms have a two year warranty with an option to extend for a further three years - for 30 pounds.

The sales consultant (his term) was happy to explain the bath tub concept. If there are defects with the electrics, they'll manifest themselves in the first two years - covered by the warranty. After that you should be ok, which is why the 30 pound extension is so cheap.

OK, I buy that but what can we conclude about the expected lifetime of recliner automation? I don't think we should assume that in year 6 we hit the upward slope of the bath tub's other end. I think the failure probability is about the same (10 pounds worth per year) but the marketeers decided that higher insurance figures - 40 or 50 pounds for longer periods - are just off-putting. My guess is that the mean time to fail is nearer 8-10 years.

It's so irritating if the motors on your reclining sofa actually do fail, so we decided to pay the bath tub bottom price, for three years of "peace of mind".

My mother now has two animated companions (below) ... live action soon.

23andMe: my genes get to California

I'm not yet logged on the 23andMe computer system but my spit-sample has definitely arrived at the front door!

23andMe also invites you to complete around 50 surveys (questionnaires) put together by the many researchers who are working with them to tease out the genetic component to so many things (diseases, drug reactions, sports injuries, personality, ancestry, ...). So far I've diligently completed just over half - most are  five minutes of choice selection.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes (1984)

A review of "Flaubert’s Parrot", Julian Barnes (1984) - as recommended to me (via the Canadian public library system) by Adrian.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it, - slightly edited: I think their review is a little superficial.

The novel follows Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widowed, retired English doctor and amateur Flaubert-scholar as he visits France and  Flaubert landmarks in the vicinity of Rouen. While visiting various sites related to Flaubert, Geoffrey encounters two incidents of museums claiming to display the stuffed parrot which sat atop Flaubert's writing desk for a brief period while he wrote “Un coeur simple”. While trying to determine which is authentic, Geoffrey ultimately learns that either/neither could be genuine and Flaubert's parrot could be any one of fifty ("Une cinquantaine de perroquets!", p. 187) that had been held in the collection of the municipal museum.

Although the main focus of the narrative is tracking down the parrot, many chapters deal in Geoffrey's reflections, such as on Flaubert's love life and how it was affected by trains, and animal imagery in Flaubert's works and the animals with which he himself was identified (usually a bear, but also a dog, sheep, camel, and parrot).

One of the central themes of the novel is subjectivism. The novel provides three sequential chronologies of Flaubert's life: the first is optimistic (citing his successes, conquests, etc.), the second is negative (citing the deaths of his friends/lovers, his failures, illnesses etc.) while the third compiles quotations written by Flaubert in his journal at various points in his life. The attempts to find the real Flaubert mirror the attempt to find his parrot – an exercise in apparent futility.”

Prerequisites to reading this novel: (i) Read “Madame Bovary”; (ii) Check out Flaubert’s bio at Wikipedia; (iii) know some French.

Julian Barnes is deeply familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s life and works, but their meaning and significance is hardly uncontested. Flaubert seems to me to emerge as a more sedentary DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) – sexually predatory and manipulative: key differences – Flaubert was actively bisexual .. and a literary genius. He treated his women badly: there is an excellent imagined take on Flaubert (chapter 11) from his long-time associate/mistress Louise Colet - illustrious in her lifetime but now somewhat forgotten - which seems compelling.

Barnes comes at his subject from every angle: a mock examination paper (chapter 14), a pastiche of Flaubert’s own pastiche of contemporary received-wisdom (chapter 12), a skewering of dry-as-a-stick critics who observing the trees of Flaubert’s output, completely fail to understand the wood (all over). One can only marvel at Barnes’ erudition, playfulness and sheer intelligence.

Strangely the character of Geoffrey Braithwaite jars a little. Plainly a representation of the author in his views and researches, the intended parallels with Charles Bovary are hardly lost on the reader. The meditation on grief and infidelity (chapter 13) is extraordinarily insightful and moving, but Mrs Braithwaite – Ellen – isn’t quite Madame Bovery. The Geoffrey Braithwaite back-story seems to me a little forced – I didn’t really understand what it added to the Gustave Flaubert tour-de-force of the rest of the novel.

I now know quite a bit about Gustave Flaubert, his life, times and associates. He comes across as rather infuriating.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The commie robots are coming!

The Economist Blog has a post, Real Robot Talk, which asks what we do when the approaching army of cheap, smart robots makes it not cost-effective to employ the left-hand side of the bell curve.

Suggestions include legislating (in a Luddite manner) to ban such technology, or just accepting that masses of people will never find a productive job .. and simply pay them an entitlement wage - humans as pets.

Of course, as AI programs like IBM's Watson suggest, it's only a matter of time until the right-hand side of the bell curve faces a similar prospect. What on earth are we all going to do then?

I even remember having these discussions in the 1970s as a young marxist, when Ernest Mandel wrote that a society with 100% automation could not be capitalist: no work so no one got paid and there was no demand. Communism via automation not revolution.

"Nightrider" - David Mace (1985)

From "Nightrider", page 30.

"The crew were Nightrider’s helpers, were decision counsellors and tactic teachers, were mission book components second only in importance to Nightrider itself. Without Nightrider, of course, the mission book stalled. 

Apart from the Lander team’s small arms, Nightrider currently had only one weapon. The main hull was completely enclosed in a girdle of huge expendable pods containing thousands of tonnes of deuterium-tritium propellant feed pellets. Four of the pods were nothing more than propellant tanks, four more were propellant tanks with through-flow fusion reactors mounted — four monstrously powerful rockets that could exert a continuous 10g thrust. 

Such high-gee manoeuvrability might prove to be as valuable tactically as the drive invisibility on target approach was strategically, but that was not the purpose of the fusion boosters. The combined plasma jet, a searing flood of charged ions and massive neutron flux and sheer sun heat, was a weapon trailing torching kilometres of absolute lethality. 

Nightrider was the first of a new class, the first ever purpose-built war machine of space."

Earth is picking itself up after the long collapse under its new Pragmatic Rationalist government. It's about to take space back from the Outsiders - the space colonists of the asteroid belt, the gas giant moons and Hel, an earth-sized planet orbiting the Sun's binary partner Hades, a nova-remnant way outside Pluto's orbit.

It’s known that the Outsiders have a new base on Hel and Nightrider's mission is to utterly destroy it prior to Earth colonising the system itself. Nightrider has a "graviton drive" which delivers 0.25g continuous: its entry into the Hades system should be unobservable. The plan is to slingshot round Hel, line up on the enemy base and take it out with fusion fire. Drop the Lander to mop up if necessary and retrieve Intel. What could possibly go wrong?

As Nightrider enters orbit, it's pinged by a 2 millisecond burst of scanning radar. Somewhere in the vicinity is an armed Outsider ship and Nightrider's just been detected. Suddenly the mission is in peril.

Nightrider is a highly autonomous AI system with a 'psychostructure' built around the Mission Book. The only reason for the presence of the two pilots, Sandra and Shapir, is to train Nightrider to think more creatively as regards mission tactics. The other five crew: Akira and Yasmin, the soldiers; Kim, Samson and Ali, the technical specialists, are there to fly and crew the Lander - an opportunistic and ultimately disposable mission segment. But who is ultimately in command - the human crew or the Nightrider AI?

This classic SF novel starts, like "Alien", with a deceptive languor. The pilots wake from long sleep, check their entry into the Hades system, review the equipment, chat and make love. Gradually, things start to happen and the complex battle begins. Like all David Mace's work, behind the manifest plot lurks the presence of a malign military-industrial complex, a bureaucratic force which trusts machines and does not trust humans to behave as proper mission components.

I don't understand why this excellent, gripping novel has not had the enthusiastic reception it so clearly deserves. It's well-written, exciting (once the action begins) and Mace's grim message, the bankruptcy of the "Pragmatic Rationalism" which the crew mostly sign-up to, is shown not told.

This book, along with the author's "Fire Lance", deserves to be on every SF reader's bookshelf - rather than out-of-print.