Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day ...

Family stuff.

Beryl Seel is puzzled by this creature ...

Clare and peanut butter milk chocolate ... (and cat mat)

Elaine won the 'weird present' competition with this foolish game (streaming video).

Beryl Seel acquired an addictive but annoying dependent (streaming video).

Fun and games with the new toys (streaming video).

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve ...

A couple of days ago Alex, Adrian and myself got to see the DVD of "Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow" featuring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. A bit smarter than the usual shoot-em-up; we liked it.

Then we saw the wonderful B-movie "Johnny Mnemonic" featuring Keanu Reeves and that chick from "Starship Troopers" Dina Meyer as his bodyguard. Neo gives a more lively performance

Neo and Starship Troopers chick
than his usual passive-aggressive schtick as he's chased around dystopian hi-tech slums by a bunch of Yakuza after the 320 GB of stolen Big-Pharma data in his head. Love the cross-bows. From William Gibson's somewhat slight prequel-novella to his rather superb "Sprawl" trilogy - this works better as a film.

Tonight we got around to watching the inscrutable "Primer". We knew we had fallen off the edge by the last twenty minutes but we actually lost contact 15 minutes in. We never realised that the narrative has nine parallel time-lines of which seven are featured on screen.

Afterwards I spent as much time again trying to find out what was really going on from Wikipedia, Sparknotes and movies.stackexchange. I now know the difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, at least as regards the plot. Loved it.

Here are some Christmas precursors. More will be revealed tomorrow.

Someone is going to adopt a little friend ... God help them!

Alex with another perfect gift - haw haw!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Paddington (film)

This afternoon we watched a film about a penniless immigrant of no discernible skills who enters London illegally from South America, and who inveigles himself into the home of the charmingly-eccentric, upper-middle-class Brown family.

Paddington Bear with posh family Brown
Once ensconced, the Bear (for it is he) proceeds to trash the place.

The Bear creating havoc in the Brown's posh London house
Fortunately, an evil (but beautiful and swishily-attired) taxidermist known as Nicole Kidman is on hand to dart the bear and whisk him off to the Natural History Museum to be stuffed.

Nicole Kidman wants to stuff you, bear!
Sadly, this public-spirited act is subverted by the hopelessly-liberal Brown family, and finally love conquers all, including the all-important public policy issues.

The kids present laughed out loud and the adults present seemed to much enjoy it too. Little ones (and UKIP members) might find some of the scenes a bit scary.

Christmas card kitsch

In this season of Christmas cards, my mind wanders again to the wonderful concept of kitsch.

Roger Scruton's recent essay on kitsch does not deserve to be lost in obscurity. He quotes Milan Kundera's classic depictment of the essence of kitsch:
"The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation*. "Kitsch," he wrote, "causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!"

"Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this - it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, "Look at me feeling this - how nice I am and how lovable."

"That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens's most sickly death-scenes, said that "a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell".


"Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all."
Scruton criticises much modern art as superficial anti-kitsch: an attempt to shock, rather than pamper the emotions of the audience. But shock alone is not art - and neither is shallow irony:
"Take Allen Jones, whose art, currently on display at the Royal Academy, consists of female lookalikes contorted into furniture, dolls with their sexual parts made explicit by underwear, vulgar and childishly nasty visions of the human female, the whole as frothy with fake sentiment as any simpering fashion model. Again the result is such obvious kitsch that it cannot be kitsch. The artist must be telling us something about ourselves - about our desires and lusts - and forcing us to confront the fact that we like kitsch, while he pours scorn on kitsch by laying it on with a trowel. In place of our imagined ideals in gilded frames, he offers real junk in quotation marks.

"Pre-emptive kitsch is the first link in a chain. The artist pretends to take himself seriously, the critics pretend to judge his product and the modernist establishment pretends to promote it. At the end of all this pretence, someone who cannot perceive the difference between the real thing and the fake decides that he should buy it. Only at this point does the chain of pretence come to an end, and the real value of this kind of art reveals itself - namely its money value. Even at this point, however, the pretence is important. The purchaser must still believe that what they buy is real art, and therefore intrinsically valuable, a bargain at any price. Otherwise the price would reflect the obvious fact that anybody - even the purchaser - could have faked such a product."

I find the concept of kitsch quite hard to pin down. There is the element of emotional manipulation, which may even be self-manipulation as described by Kundera, where vanity and self-satisfaction perfuse the primary emotional response.

There is also something of the judgement made by the smart and cultured about art which pleases the lower orders. Suppose that those three ducks on the wall are genuinely appreciated by the dim and uneducated whose tenements they adorn. When our lips move into a smirk and we mutter "kitsch", are we condemning the taste of those who decorate their meagre habitations thus, or are we demonstrating our complicity with those cynical capitalists who fabricated the wretched birds in the first place, intending on an unsophisticated and blindingly obvious emotional response?


The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Adrian Wooldridge on Torture (Sunday Times)

Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist’s management editor and Schumpeter columnist. Today he wrote an op-ed in The Sunday Times entitled  "Dick Cheney is wrong about torture, but for all the right reasons".
"Since the Senate committee published its torture report last Tuesday, Washington has been engaged in a full-scale civil war, which has pitted Democrats against Republicans and the CIA against liberal institutions such as The New York Times.
"But the most interesting battle is not partisan or institutional but philosophical: the battle between soft hearts, who think that torture is an offence against fundamental moral principles, and the hard heads, who think that it is justified if it saves lives. The soft hearts say that good people don’t torture, full stop. The hard heads say that that is self-indulgent pap."
Good to hear someone taking the issue seriously.
"Is this distinction between hard heads and soft hearts correct? The torture report poked some holes in it. On the basis of a detailed study of 20 cases, the report argues that enhanced interrogation played no role in disrupting terrorism plots, capturing terrorist leaders or finding bin Laden.

"But the more I reflected on the report, the more it struck me that conventional wisdom is upside down. Hard heads such as Cheney were motivated by a mixture of outrage over what happened on September 11 and fear of something worse: Cheney’s friends have repeatedly argued that 9/11 changed him fundamentally and transformed a measured figure into a warrior. But there is also a hard-headed case against torture.

"The classic hard-headed argument in favour of torture — the ticking timebomb — is less convincing than it sounds. Imagine that a nuclear bomb has been placed in the heart of London and you have half an hour to extract the necessary information from a jihadist before the device goes off. Will he really give you the right information as you apply the electrodes? Or will he waste your time by giving the wrong leads and then rejoice as you are all blown to smithereens?"
This is sophistry - the specious argument of the inutility of torture. Any interrogation of the nuclear-bomb jihadist is going to be met with initial silence or obfuscation. Suppose torture is the only way to make the jihadist say anything? Suppose you can rapidly check answers and persist until you get the truth? Suppose you have a scanner which can reliably detect the act of lying (so keep applying the current until the subject gives the right leads)?

In other words, suppose torture does in fact work - does that make it OK, Mr Wooldridge?
"Public opinion has been so thoroughly focused on the CIA report that the revelation that last month alone jihadists killed more than 5,000 people passed almost without comment.

"It is precisely because the stakes in this war are so high that we should avoid using torture. The war is fought on the home front: you have to keep the people on your side in a world where patience is limited and the enemy can disappear for long periods of time. Torture divides serious people and gives succour to the frivolous looking for an excuse to argue that “we” are not so wonderful and “they” are merely misunderstood."
"Torture divides serious people ...". Of course it's not alone in that, you could make the same case against drone attacks.
"The most interesting thing about the terrorism report is what it reveals about the internal state of the CIA. Torture took a toll on morale: in August 2002 some officers in a black facility in Thailand found torture so harrowing that they petitioned for a transfer. It created internal divisions: in January 2003 the CIA’s chief of interrogations sent an email to colleagues saying that “enhanced interrogation” was a wreck “waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens”. It forced the agency to engage in endless lies and cover-ups — not just to Congress but even to the more sympathetic Bush White House."
Again, there are many cases where military exigencies clash with liberal ideals. Pacifism and unilateral disarmament have durable and vocal constituencies. Not a slam-dunk reason to desist from doing what states sometimes have to do, even against their own public opinion.

But Wooldridge has a final argument.
"Democracies that have given in to the use of torture — Britain in the Cyprus emergency in the 1950s, the French in the Algerian War and the Americans in Vietnam — have always come to regret it deeply not just because they lost the moral high ground but also because torture has a peculiarly corrosive effect on democratic institutions.

"It is easy for people who take the war on terror seriously to dismiss the terrorism report as a charade. The Democrats who are baying for the CIA’s blood this week were as one in demanding tough action in the wake of 9/11. They will be as one in condemning the CIA for negligence if jihadists mount another attack on the West.

"But this temptation should be resisted: the West must do what it can to ensure that the dubious decisions taken in the wake of 9/11 are not repeated — for hard-headed reasons rather than soft-hearted ones. Eschewing torture is not just the right thing to do morally. It is the right thing strategically as well."
What it comes down to, I think, is Wooldridge's statement that "torture has a peculiarly corrosive effect on democratic institutions". There is something uniquely unpleasant about torture, not just that it's horribly painful (many battlefield injuries are also agonising), but that the pain is inflicted with intent.

As social and moral creatures we have always made the most profound distinction between bad outcomes which just happen, and those carried through with full forethought and intent. It's the difference between manslaughter and murder. We have a horror of the psychopath, the malevolent person who literally doesn't care about the welfare of others - no conscience and no remorse; pretty much our definition of evil.

I think that for populations with a high degree of empathy, (arguably European populations), there is a profound disinclination to write a blank cheque for the application of unbearable pain by state employees. As a consequence, torture cannot be legitimised in policy or law.

That is not to say (as 'Andy McNab' wrote in The Times last week) that torture isn't (or shouldn't be?) used tactically by troops in battlefield situations (they keep quiet about it). Equally, other cultures which displayed less empathy seem to have had less angst about their states using torture (I recall few protests in the Roman Empire).

So while Adrian Wooldridge's article is full of logical flaws, in the end our inbuilt sense of empathy prevents us from ever legitimising torture, while we should be aware that it's a tool which may never be completely dispensed with in practice due to its sheer utility.


I'm sorry if this seems a cop-out, but you've got two principles in contradiction with each other, each with its own domain of compelling applicability. Some degree of hypocrisy is inevitable. Ask the Christian church if it agrees with killing people.

There are no accidents in careers

Someone once told me that there are no accidents in life (he meant in career trajectories actually). Where you end up does indeed correspond to your innermost potential.

Many people believe that they are under-rated by their colleagues and that their inner worth is not (or not yet) appreciated. In particular, they wonder why they have not yet been promoted. Yet if you ask those very same people how they rate their workmates, they will give you a devastatingly accurate account of their strengths and weaknesses. It's really rather astonishing how quickly people can come to an accurate view of others' potential.

I've had a number of reasonably senior management positions over the years and we frequently had to dip into the available talent pool to try to fill a management vacancy. Invariably it was hard work: most people are, by definition, pretty average and only a few sparkle. On the rare occasions where we happened to identify a junior with genuine talent, it was noteworthy how rapidly they subsequently progressed through the ranks. Everybody wants a star. This is perhaps clearer to observe in entertainment, the media and in sports.

Of course, I had the privilege of working in meritocratic organisations not blighted by nepotism or corruption; and not packed with mediocre place-holders fearful of being shown up or being made to feel uncomfortable.

Back in 2001 when I was VP for systems architecture in Cable & Wireless Global (the title was Chief Architect) my nickname was 'the professor'. My then-colleagues in the industry are still beavering away now in a variety of C-level jobs, building their empires and their pensions. By contrast I'm retired and getting my head around genetics, quantum theory and differential geometry.

You know, they wouldn't be at all surprised.

A Garden Visitor

I'm a squirrel - I eat off the floor
As seen in our garden this morning.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Under the title "This racist, sexist genius deserves no pity" Times 'science correspondent' James Whipple writes today about an interview he did with the legendary bio-scientist James Watson.
"James Watson, one of the world’s greatest living Nobel laureates — joint discoverer of DNA, titan of 20th-century science — leant in closer. “I’m really missing him,” he said. He was talking to me about the death of his friend, mentor and co-laureate, Francis Crick. I nodded sympathetically. “The existence of Francis was very important,” he said. Another compassionate nod. Why was Crick’s existence important? “Now that he’s dead,” Watson explained, “I think I’m brighter than anyone else.”

"To be clear, he meant “anyone else in the world”. And, suddenly, I felt a little less sympathetic.

"It has been a bad decade and an excellent week for James Watson. Since claiming in 2007 that people of African descent are less intelligent — or, as he puts it, being “outed as believing in IQ” — Watson says he has been shunned by the scientific community. He has lost positions on boards, lost income and been made an “unperson”.

"So, citing penury, he sold his Nobel.Things began to look up: not only did he get £3 million for it but its buyer, Alisher Usmanov, part-owner of Arsenal FC and the richest man in Russia, gave it back to him. Watson may get Usmanov’s sympathy. He doesn’t get mine."
Watson is an incorrigible joker - surely he couldn't have been mocking the earnest, bien-pensant Tom Whipple?

Tom Whipple - Times science correspondent

We, of course, have our own decorations.

Modelled after Stourhead house

Straggly maybe; it normally lives on the porch


Here is the piece I did after the disgraceful 2007 attack on James Watson which started all this nonsense.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A colonoscopy experience (Dec 9th 2014)

On the afternoon of  December 9th 2014 I had a colonoscopy at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton. The referral was based on family history, as my father had colon cancer in his forties, and again in the last years of his life.

The process starts with food restriction to empty the colon, but they give you a laxative preparation to make absolutely sure. And so the evening before, I downed the first litre of MoviPrep, with further in store the following morning.

MoviPrep One (evening, Dec 8th 2014)

17.30: Clare and myself mix sachet A (the active stuff) and sachet B (the citrus flavouring) in a large jug and add a litre of water, stirring to dissolve. I then retire to the spare bedroom next to the toilet where I spin up the St Matthew Passion on my phone and relax in the recliner. I have an hour of drinking ahead.

17.40: I start on the first 250 ml. On the net, some reported that the stuff was so foul that you had to hold your nose to swallow it. Not so: I'm pleasantly surprised to find it tastes like a cold lemon drink from a rubbish supermarket. Quite drinkable but crass.

18.15: Halfway through. No effects whatsoever (except I've been to the toilet to deal with the vast reservoirs of liquid I'm ingesting). I pause to reflect that there are others out there who right now are working their way through a litre of laxative and wondering like me about their proximate future. Then I return to sipping, and more of the Leipzig choral baroque.

18.40: An hour into the mission and it's all drunk. The stuff seems to get thicker and more gelatinous towards the end and the taste way too repetitious. However, it's still quite doable. But now what? Feeling no effect whatsoever.

19.05: OK, just got a feeling. Yep, it's off to the toilet - not in a rush but .. you know .. when it's time .. . Over the next 45 minutes I'm back five times and the results are steadily more liquid. Of course, I haven't eaten properly for a couple of days but I suspect I'm losing the last of my friendly bacteria. I feel an odd sense of shame. I'm betraying them.

19.45: It's over. Much shorter period than I thought. It's just over two hours since I started the process. I give it another hour or so and then head for the shower.

MoviPrep Two (morning of the next day, Dec 9th 2014)

I thought I was done by mid-evening last night but the process doesn't really stop completely. A trip to the toilet just as I was going to bed, and also a little activity as I got up (05.30 since you ask). Definitely worth wearing those underpants in bed for, as they say, peace of mind.

05.55: The solution is made up and I start to sip with a hot green tea chaser. Glenn Gould's Prelude in C major tinkles softly from the mini-speakers as I wonder whether this session will be a repeat of last night's. After all, I now have the chemicals in my body, don't I?

06.45: God, I am so sick of lemon!

06.50: Yep, it's started. Much more quickly than last night!


8.20: To sum up, the whole process is not as bad as I anticipated. Everyone's experienced diarrhoea after food poisoning. This is a little like that, but sanitised and safer, with no abdominal pain. Still, I'm glad it's over - I crank up Boston's 'More Than A Feeling' to celebrate.

The Colonoscopy (later)

Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton on a chilly winter's afternoon. The staff seem to expect me to sedative-up, but I'm determined to stick to 'gas and air' (Entonox). They insert a precautionary cannula in my hand regardless.

In the procedure room, the doctor splashes some jelly onto the relevant area and off we go. The whole thing takes about half an hour and for almost all this time I'm alert and watching the monitor. The doctor is standing at my waist manipulating this tube with what seems alarming physical force: I mostly don't feel a thing.

There is an odd moment when he seems to have a little trouble getting around a corner and a pain grips my abdomen like someone squeezing my guts in a vice. I suck madly at the Entonox nozzle and the pain eases up, or maybe it just goes away naturally. I really don't like gas and air, it makes me feel dizzy and 'out of myself'. Luckily after that one spasm of pain I never needed it again.

So again, nothing like as bad as I had anticipated and I didn't regret missing the sedative at all - I remember the whole thing! Perhaps I got lucky or the doctor was particularly skilled. It reminded me of the dentist: mostly it doesn't hurt .. but you're always a little tensed up in the expectation that the next moment it might.

Result: I had a small polyp removed (no pain receptors in the gut!) which will be biopsied. If there are any issues with it (3-5 weeks to find out) they'll probably get me back in three to five years for another look. Otherwise I'm off the hook for colonoscopies.

My colonoscopy report

Update: you may believe that once you've had the procedure it's all behind you, so to speak. But think: to prepare your colon you flushed away all those symbiotic gut bacteria. It will take a week to get your colon back to the status quo ante (keep taking the Yakult!). Till then you will feel your abdomen to be quite queasy, maybe a little sore and certainly not in a restful state.


And the NHS letter with my results.

Friday, December 05, 2014

"A Land Fit For Heroes" - Richard Morgan

From the Kirkus Review of the final part of the trilogy, The Dark Defiles:
"Homosexuality is anathema in the world where swordsman Ringil Eskiath, a weary, gay, middle-aged war hero, lives and fights. With his friends Archeth, last of the immortal Kiriath race, and Egar the Dragonbane, he sets off to find the Illwrack Changeling, supposedly the evil-sorcerer scion of a powerful race, the dwenda  or Aldrain, that once ruled the world.

"However, the instructions given by Anasharal the Helmsman, a grouchy and supercilious Kiriath robot, are irritatingly imprecise. If the rumors about the Changeling and the return of the dwenda are correct, Ringil will need to develop his understanding and control of the ikinri ‘ska, a demonic magic powered by otherworldly glyphs. Even worse, the dwenda possess an irresistible weapon, the Talons of the Sun—though nobody knows what it might consist of.

"He soon becomes separated from Archeth and Egan, who locate a Warhelm, an ancient Kiriath combat installation that seems to have had much of its programming and capabilities purposefully damaged—by Archeth’s father. This time, Morgan’s ultraviolent narrative, while still crackling with intensity and expletives, bloats up into doorstopper territory, with a corresponding loss of focus.

"Still, for the most part the prose remains atmospheric and highly textured, complete with subtexts and sexual interludes. Add on a conclusion that contrives to be both enigmatic and less than fully satisfying, and maybe doesn't even add up—yet such is the quality of Morgan’s vision, and few readers will feel short-changed or disappointed."
With so many back references to volume 1, The Steel Remains, and volume 2, The Cold Commands, the complete trilogy should be read in just a few sittings to keep the whole thing in your head.

Morgan writes in mosaic style - that is, the writing focuses on the day-to-day adventures of his protagonists (he prefers multiple parallel narratives in alternating chapters). Consequently, the overall plot-line remains background and emergent. This makes for wonderfully naturalistic prose but does force the reader to work a little to infer the larger picture. Plus you're kept tantalisingly short of information.

Morgan's densely-imagined world is one of clans, tribes and their kinship/tribal bonding and blood-debts; the impersonal bureaucratic state of modern capitalism barely exists. Society has reverted thus to its 'default social form' following a catastrophic war some thousands of years ago which destroyed the moon (giving the Earth a new ring system - the 'band'), a war which wrenched gaps between universes of the multiverse, wherein magick now resides.

One set of magical beings, the Dark Court, has some familiarish names: Takeshi Kovacs reappears cryptically as the Dark Court God Takovach (or Dakovash) while Dark Court Goddess Kelgris, (or Quelcrist) might remind you of Quellcrist Falconer. These strange back-references sort of make sense in the final revelations.

The trilogy title is of course ironic: all the heroes are messed-up outsiders who attract the attention of various power-elites who want to manipulate them. They've got tough choices to make and never quite enough information: sometimes it's gotta be gut feel all the way.

Here's Richard Morgan's world-view condensed down to a paragraph.
"Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses."

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Stourhead @ Christmas

Today we visited Stourhead to see the Christmas-bedecked house. It was coooold, with a northerly wind and clear winter skies.

Stourhead in the winter sunshine

The house is decorated for Christmas

The Christmas-themed drawing room

A Jihadi training camp in progress - who knew?

Real bad hijab from the new Jihadi bride
Hey guys, I know this post was flagged by ECHELON on account of keyword hits but .. seriously, it's a joke, right? We are allowed still to joke? You guys have a sense of humour? No, wait, ...

Kevin the teenage geneticist

"All this nonsense about designer babies, what's so bad about modifying human genes?  - It's just organic chemistry innit?"

"Twins are the space equivalent of yourself in time. Geddit?"

"If human clones are so bad, why allow twins, triplets and the rest? Track 'em down and execute 'em for their inherent evilness, why don't we?"