Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Science Fiction Personality Poll

I'm putting together an article about personality types and the kinds of people who tend to read hard science-fiction. This is also an excuse to play with polling software of which blogpoll seems to be the simplest (surveymonkey is more powerful but more complex). Anyway, please feel free to have a go.

The answers correspond to the Keirsey temperament types NF, SP, NT and SJ for those people who are into that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Newton's Collapsing Universe

"Sir Isaac Newton was possibly the greatest scientist who ever lived. But even great men can make mistakes – it’s just that their errors are more interesting than other people’s.

Newton’s law of motion (force equals mass times acceleration) is taught in every high school. Newton’s law of gravitation (the inverse-square law) is precise enough to be used by NASA for space mission design and was used by Newton himself to determine the motion of the planets. Given the wide applicability and accuracy of his theory, it was natural that Newton’s questing intelligence would turn to the question of the structure of the universe itself.

Continue reading at

Book Review: ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

For most people, the arc of Steve Jobs’s career is defined by the Apple II, the Macintosh, Toy Story and other Pixar blockbusters, the iPod and iTunes, the iPhone and App Store, the iPad and iCloud. None of these would have happened except for Steve Jobs’s extraordinarily intense personality.

Biographer Walter Isaacson talks of ‘Good Steve’ and ‘Bad Steve’ but the latter was more frequently in evidence. Take the engineer who’d been working 80 hour weeks (how do you even do that?) for ten months and had the misfortune to meet up with Jobs one Friday afternoon for review. Jobs fell into a typical fury and began abusing the engineer, calling his work ‘shit’: shortly afterwards the engineer quit. This sounds terrible, and it is, but without ‘Bad Steve’ there would have been – nothing.

When engineers design a product it is typically efficient but clunky; over-functional and under-integrated. When accountants are in charge you get what the engineers wanted, but on the cheap. In most product companies, designers are humble artisans, serving up a ‘user-friendly’ wrapping over what someone else decided to produce.

By contrast, wherever Steve Jobs went the designer was in charge: Jobs was the super-user, the ambassador of the user experience. But when design is king, everyone else is required to move mountains to meet the central design concept. Naturally they consider this to be utterly unnecessary if not outright wilful.

Jobs’s reality distortion field denoted the triumph of ‘unrealistic’ design excellence over ‘good-enough’ engineering practice. Yet design is inherently subjective, there are no algorithms or equations that can tell you what Steve Jobs knew. The triumph of the apparently-arbitrary requires the power of a tyrant, yet that power was not (in general) wielded for personal reasons, but in the service of the design.

The design is not to be messed with. The Apple walled garden of total integration and control is the antithesis of the modular mix-n-match we associate with PC and Internet culture. But when the user (or the manufacturer) simply integrates a solution from market-available components there can be no over-arching design concept: flexibility, of necessity, breeds clunkiness. So which is best?

Everything in life is a trade-off. If you want a seamless, elegant and intuitive digital experience, then Apple will give it to you at a price, provided you stay within the Apple universe. Outside it you will have wider, cheaper and perhaps more innovative options, but the systems are uglier, harder to use and prone to odd failures. That’s what you get when there’s no adult supervision of the user experience.

Apple’s talented chief designer, Jony Ive, was dismayed by talk that Apple was (in the longer term) doomed to become just another company after Jobs’s death. ‘Many of the ideas were mine and I’m still here’ seemed to be his position; and with Tim Cook as the supportive CEO what was to stop the show going on? Just the missing ingredient of ‘Bad Steve’, the tyranny which breaks the resistance of all those reasonable voices from engineering and finance who can find a million excellent reasons for not entering the reality distortion field.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs , despite its door-stopping 600 pages, has been a runaway bestseller. Based on meticulous research (more than one hundred interviews) you get page-turning fly-on-the-wall access to the key episodes in Steve Jobs’s personal and business career. This is also an insider’s history of Silicon Valley high-tech from the dawn of the PC-age.

For several days while I was reading it I was boring my family by reading aloud amusing and frequently horrifying anecdotes of Steve Jobs’s behaviour, not all of which reflected badly on him. It’s highly recommended.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Tramp in the Church (redux)

We've been here before.

As Clare led the way into the church this morning, she spotted him occupying the pew just before the back one, the one where we usually hang out on the right hand side of the aisle.

"Where would you like us to go?" she whispered back to me.

"On the other side," I replied, meaning the other wing of the church, the one facing the Holy Land rather than the north-facing wing where we currently were.

Clare mistook my meaning and we continued to the rear pew on the other side of the aisle, where I was able to keep watch on the somnolent tramp from the corner of my eye. With no little schadenfreude I kept count of latecomers, who were forced by overcrowding into the empty pews in front and behind him.

During the service he stayed crouched down, occasionally turning in one direction or another. Finally we approached the part of the Mass where the congregation make the "sign of peace". I didn't think he would venture as far as me but I had prepared a little script involving bowing to him and whispering 'pax vobiscum' in a detached kind of way. Hopefully that would save me from having to use Clare's wet-wipes afterwards.

In the event, as the moment came, he enthusiastically shook his dirty mitt with the family in front and the young man behind, then he scuttled across the aisle and shook hands with a lay official of the parish, just in front of me. Like a wave which reaches its limits amidst the pebbles, this marked the culmination of his efforts and he retreated back to his lair.

"We dodged a bullet there," I confided to Clare.

During the sermon the priest, Father Philip, confided that Mass yesterday evening had been disrupted by a man who walked up to the altar, started swearing and disrobing, and claimed to be Jesus Christ. Apparently the services of burly parishioners - and possible the police - were required to restore normality.

The priest's take was focused on the virtues of taking your medication: I had no idea that such excitement occurred in sleepy Wells. I looked at the tramp again, this time in a wholly new light, excited by the possibilities.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

House Pictures

Here are some pictures of our house.

 Our house from the road 

 The patio at the side 

 The back garden 

 Clare in the kitchen 

 The living room 

 The kitchen-diner 

 Bird-feeders in the front-garden 

The owners on the couch

Wuthering Heights

We saw "Wuthering Heights" (2011) on Tuesday at the Wells Film Centre. The poster below is an accurate depiction of how dreary and tedious the experience was.

Given the ever-present torrential rain, the deep mud, leaden skies and howling winds it was immediately apparent that this movie had not been sanctioned by the Yorkshire Tourist Board. What really kills it, however, is that Heathcliff is played by actors so passive, charmless and lacking in any kind of sexual charisma that no conceivable woman could have been attracted to him.

The director has tried to make up for the zero chemistry between the leading players by all kinds of erotic imagery and Freudian suggestiveness: the risible awfulness of this unsubtle manipulation is the only thing which saves the audience from descending into the deepest Yorkshire depression.

Yesterday I was in Bristol visiting my mother, who was keen to show off her new coat, hat and gloves. One picture shows fine wares from Lidl while the other features M&S (which is which?). Both stores are apparently engaged in deep price-cutting: times are indeed hard.

Today I'm going to have a rest after I've fixed the wretched kitchen spotlight (there's a dodgy connection) which Adrian repaired with bluetack but which promptly failed again two days later.

And I feel impelled to write something about the superb Walter Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cat's Gozzy Tooth

The days go by and the cat's gozzy tooth refuses to fall out.

The one good thing is that as he frightens the voles so much, he never comes close to catching any.

Meanwhile, Clare has decided to study Freud (this, I think, from watching a surfeit of "Waking the Dead" - the more I see of Peter Boyd, the Trevor Eve character, the more I think his personality is pretty much identical with that of Steve Jobs).

Clare reading Freud
Dr Freud was a sex-obsessed control freak: I've made sure she also has access to the kinder, gentler and altogether more profound Dr Carl Jung.

Mind Reading

"Michael vectors the hidden camera to a wealthy-looking patron on his first course. A click on the joystick and the second screen lights up: this is the one that reads the client’s mind.

Mr. Rich-Guy seems happy enough according to the emotion-bar at the bottom of the display. It’s showing a lush, reassuring yellow with shades of soft green and pink. The main part of the monitor is interpreting the subject’s visual cortex: on the screen his mind’s eye view of the meal wobbles and occasionally morphs into something similar – the machine isn’t quite perfect. The prawn cocktail segues into a view of a tropical bay, a very long way from this rain-swept New York evening. The swirling yellows and greens show that this too is a pleasant association – the meal is still going well.

Michael wonders endlessly where his boss got all this stuff. As the lowest of the low in the restaurant hierarchy, he would never dream of asking though. From idle chat in the kitchen he’s discovered that the owner used to be in Military Intelligence. Somehow, some top-secret interrogation equipment managed to end up in his new venture. Behind the walls and above the false ceiling there are sensitive field detectors which can amplify the faintest swirls of an active brain."

Continue reading at

It would be very difficult to detect brain activity at a distance - I think current experiments require the subject to be inside a scanner. I have no idea whether the signal strength is sufficient for cortical activity to be reconstructed even in principle from detectors behind a wall.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Adrian back to Canada

By now Adrian should be at Sun Peaks, British Columbia, asleep after a 24 hour trip which started at Reading station yesterday in the morning rush-hour. Once Western Canada starts its day he'll be zooming around to get lift passes and other bits of documentation ... he could be teaching ski/snowboarding classes as early as tomorrow.

While Adrian was in the air, we were in Bristol yesterday paying an exorbitant £6 car park charge to shop in the Broadmead city centre complex. I now have some outdoor boots - comfortable as trainers and waterproof as only a Gore-Tex liner can make it.

Next we lost ourselves in the labyrinth which is IKEA and I emerged like some dusty refugee with a heavy yellow bag slung over my shoulder stashed with household goodies. At least the cushions weren't too much of a burden to carry...

Next, with my mother, we were off to Lewis's at Cribbs Causeway where Clare ordered four new rainbow-striped dining chairs, which may even arrive in time for Christmas. We were home by 4.30.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Has Greg Egan gone too far?

"Once upon a time, one of our most noted authors of ultra-hard SF wrote a novel about a bunch of aliens living in the interior of an asteroid in close orbit around a black hole. The author, Greg Egan, was so incensed by one of the reviews of this book – by Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons – that he wrote a detailed rebuttal on his website (Anatomy of a Hatchet Job)."

Continue reading at

This is another article which more repays careful reading than the oh-my-gosh appeal of an asteroid-impact piece. It segues from the style of literary criticism appropriate for science-heavy SF to the merits of exploring counterfactual physics. Mr Egan constantly stretches the link between the standard mechanisms of fiction and the conceptual intricacies of modern physics, inviting his literate fans to follow..

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wells Carnival in the rain

It was raining cats and dogs yesterday evening as we walked down our road, clutching out bag of 20p coins and our umbrella, to see the Wells Carnival go by.

This is what a float looks like, as it drives out of the town up New Street.

Africa girl here has already endured three-quarters of an hour of steady downpour, but she's still twirling.

This Spanish dancer, jiggling to thunderous music, at least has some cover. The float stopped opposite us; nearby, the rain-soaked teens from The Blue School were soon gyrating in time on the pavement.

These girls were from a care-home, I think. Is that a toilet I see, with knickers around the ankles? ... A fine example of rustic humour.

Pole dancing from the care-home cleaners.

What's this about? No idea.

Another brilliantly-lit float advancing through the rain.

This is Way-Out-West, a tableau.

The girl trapped in the shop is part of the tableau.

Welcome to the sleazier end of of the Wild-West!

Conditions were atrocious and it's no surprise that many of the dancers looked bored out of their minds. Can you imagine gyrating for an hour to the repeated tune of "We are the Diddymen"? Plus all the rehearsals? Plainly you would go out of your mind - that stuff dripping down their chins wasn't rain, it was drool.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Anonymous (film)

Well, what a busy day today! After a morning spent in arduous dialogue with BT (previous post) Clare and myself strolled down to the Wells Film Centre this afternoon to see "Anonymous".

The picture shows something you may have missed in your history lessons: specifically the 'Virgin' Queen Elizabeth 1st getting it on with the young Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who unbeknownst to her is also her illegitimate son. Wow!

The results of this coupling will be to produce another, incestuous, illegitimate son for our Liz, the future Earl of Southampton. The doomed Earl of Essex, Southampton's dearest friend, is another of Liz's illegitimate progeny ... while Rafe Spall reprises his semi-psychopathic joker persona as an uncouth, vicious and on-the-make William Shakespeare.

No expense has been spared in making the film but despite high production values, it ultimately disappoints: not because of the far-fetched thesis but because it's hard to separate out the times and the characters.

There's so much time-jumping between the generations that it's impossible to work out on screen which illegitimate son is begetting which. Not that begetting takes up a lot of screen time, but the confusing flashback sequences do.

We walked back in intense discussion as to who was Edward de Vere's father (we never figured it out). Then we went to the Co-Op.

BT Broadband Blues

At the end of October I received the following email from BT (excerpted):

Good news. We’re rolling out our faster broadband and we’ll be upgrading our network in your area on 31-Oct-11. This’ll make the things you do online quicker.

For the first ten days or so after your upgrade, your broadband might slow down or even stop now and again. That's normal and your speed will soon settle down. You can help it along by leaving your BT Home Hub on all the time and using your broadband as much as you can for this period.

BT's perception of incipient Good News was indeed prescient. All this month the Internet link has been randomly dropping, maybe three minutes downtime every couple of hours. More seriously, when I write my articles for I have to upload images to WordPress: mysteriously, their pop-up window for image upload stopped working.

Naturally my first thought was that this was a W7 laptop problem. I tried uploading with my business machine (W7 starter) and my old business machine (XP): nothing worked. Then I tried with my Vodafone 3G connection and the upload worked just fine. I had already checked that the problem was not with WordPress so it seemed clear that the failure lay with BT.

This morning I nerved myself for what I knew would be a tedious and difficult technical support call. The first ten minutes was spent trying to find a number. Like Amazon, BT make it extremely difficult to search out a technical help number. After five layers of IVR menus I eventually got through to the Indian call centre.

I explained that BT had put a new DSLAM or, as I believe it's called in BT-speak, an MSAN in my local exchange, probably upgrading to ADSL2+ and that I believed this upgrade was the root of the problem. I'm not sure the guy in India had a clue what I was talking about.

Clearly something which is not affecting general Internet access (layers 3 and 4) but is messing up session/application connectivity (layers 6/7) is going to be down to some kind of application-proxying appliance. I asked whether BT in its upgrade was perhaps installing new application-screening firewalls in response to the latest scare on adult content.

The BT guy was handicapped in that he had no access to network-upgrade data (how helpful is that?) but he dutifully took over my screen and we rehearsed together that the image-upload didn't work. Then he closed down the call saying he had no idea what was wrong.

I briefly tried the "Internet Chat" technical help facility, getting through to "Claire" with an initial message describing the problem. Nothing happened for a long while so I wandered off: when I returned the chat session had timed out with Claire's last response indicating that BT couldn't help with third-party issues such as Vodafone 3G.

Today, however, is the magical tenth day after the upgrade and this evening, while I was delving into the BT Home Hub firewall to see whether that could be the problem, I discovered that the problem had gone away.

So what's the answer? I think the BT engineers did indeed connect an appliance to the (upstream) link of their new DSLAM to monitor usage. And I think that this introduced some subtle effect that degraded the session link with the WordPress image-upload function. At close of business today the engineers took it away, and normal service was resumed.

Moral? There isn't one. Exasperation and wasted time? Off the scale.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Christmas Wonderland

The Almondsbury Garden Centre is already open for Christmas business - we lunched there today.

'Jane Austin' (sic)
I was taken by this black fur hat, which reminded me of the cat, so persuaded my mother to hold it up so that its label was clear. I imagine that Jane Austen would have spit in their eyes.

Just like we had in the States?
When we were in Virginia, we played kitsch by having an illuminated reindeer family in our front garden. I emailed Clare this photo and asked her whether she thought I should buy it. She emailed back: "No dear."

Santas and Beryl
Here's a bonus shot of my mother with the santas.

On our way back as we crossed the Mendips, close to the Castle of Comfort pub there was an almighty bang and the car pitched to the side. I stopped the car in the pub forecourt and Adrian and myself discovered that the driver's side front tyre was flat.

In the gathering gloom we searched for the jack (and eventually found it) and then were stymied by the locking wheel nut until we eventually found the tool for that. Thirty minutes later we had successfully changed the tyre and a few moments later Clare pulled up in the Saxo. We'd summoned her at the onset, when we weren't sure whether we'd be able to fix it, but our insurance policy wasn't needed in the end .

What heroism though! Clare had ransacked the house and shed looking for a jack (and failed), then she'd reversed down the drive in the dark without hitting the walls (big success). She thoroughly deserved the two chocolate bars we brought back for her and the two insect-and-berry bird food slabs!

Update Wednesday morning

I'm now £85 poorer but the tyre has been fixed by the excellent Wells Tyre Service. The problem was a tear in the sidewall, about half an inch from the tread. "Pothole," the man said, "Your wheel sank into a pothole and the rough edge punctured the tyre." Says something about the back roads across the Mendips.

After I came back I had my own 'Gorillas in the Mist' moment, as I precariously climbed the tree in the front garden to attach Clare's new 'insect and berry' suet-block feeder. It says on the packet, 'not for human consumption' and to be fair, the odour is a bit off ... must be the berries.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Live Forever

I was rather dubious about this current piece, just published at It's a complex argument requiring the reader to engage, not skim. Do I believe it myself? Sort of, although I'd like to hear what a pair of intellectually-minded twins thought about it.

"Petra was brought into my office. There is something about it being the last day of your life which modulates every emotion: Petra looked scared, resigned, even – against the odds – slightly hopeful – but most of all she just looked bone-achingly weary. I stopped the nervous adjustment of my robes, calmed myself and looked her in the eye with what I hoped was a friendly expression.

‘You didn’t ask to see me, Petra, but … it’s a facility our hosts here grant us. First of all tell me, are you a Christian?’

Petra shook her head. Young people seldom think deeply about religion in my experience, and all this had obviously happened far too suddenly for Petra to get around to revisiting her core beliefs. Well, that was partially why I was here.

‘So when they take you out at dawn tomorrow and shoot you through the heart, that’s it? A kick in the chest, a brief moment of pain followed by gathering blackness, and then you never get to wake again. Is that right?’

Continue reading at

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Party Girl

I found this photo of my mother, Beryl Seel, taken at Christmas time 1936 when she would have been thirteen and three-quarters.

I see a resemblance to one of the granddaughters.

The Mandolin is still around, I think. I practised guitar chords on its four strings when I was a similar age, before I bought my first guitar.

The Tramp in the Church

I spotted him straightaway, as we walked to the back of the church this morning. Elderly, burley, hirsute and down-at-heel, the mad tramp was slumped on the rear pew where we normally like to sit. Clare seemed oblivious as she led the way into the penultimate pew, just in front of him. Poor idea - far too close. As we sat down I could hear him mumbling to himself behind me.

I recalled the last time he'd visited the church, months ago, when he'd sat in the pew in front of us (where we were sitting now in fact). He had slumped and twitched and talked to himself, and occasionally to others during the service, and then at the moment when the priest had asked the congregation to show the 'sign of peace' to each other he had taken his chance. Scuttling like a crab, he had moved into the aisle and with a bobbing gait and malicious smile had thrust his dirty, squalid hand at everyone he could reach. Horrified parishioners were obliged to shake hands with him and then rue the lack of wet-wipes. Luckily he didn't look behind him at that time, so we were spared.

As the service progressed, I was fixated on what I would do when he tried this trick again. Could I get away with facing him down with a stony glare and a muttered "I an NOT a Catholic," or would social pressure force me to take the malevolent hand? And what about Clare, could I protect her from this unhygienic moment? Not my problem, I decided.

The fateful moment arrived after the Lord's Prayer. I nerved myself - they say you never know how you'll behave under fire until the bullets are whizzing around you - and the moment passed. The mad tramp had not stirred and had not bothered anyone this time around.

I am profoundly atheist so church services that work with pleasant, slightly ageing, middle-class congregations and don't work at all with the unpleasant are not an issue for me at all. I wouldn't want to shake hands with an unkempt,unwashed and deranged tramp under any circumstances: I hardly feel I'm alone in this. But I suspect that Catholics feel that Jesus probably would have: it all adds fuel to that legendary Catholic guilt.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Fireworks Night

In past years we went to the fireworks celebrations in a field close to our house in Penton Corner, near Andover. We'd fight the frost by bathing in the radiant heat of the bonfire, munching a burnt burger and quaffing beer out of a polystyrene mug.

Priddy was holding the equivalent event this evening. We drove up the 'king of the mountains' route of the Old Bristol Road and turned left towards Priddy. About a mile out we saw a line of cars parked on the verge and families walking on the road. "This is ridiculous," I snorted, "We're miles away!" I kept on driving and we were soon snared in gridlock.

Half an hour later we crawled past a half-burned-down bonfire and a further ten minutes later we escaped from the far side of Priddy - and headed off home.

It could have been worse (at least we weren't trapped until the last person had left ).

Thursday, November 03, 2011


Clare and myself saw this movie yesterday afternoon but I'm almost too bored to write any kind of review.

It's not that the film itself was boring; it was mildly absorbing all the way through. The problem is that an exponentially-spreading virus, for which a vaccine will eventually be found after a lot of deaths, is not intrinsically very interesting. So you have to overlay it with 'people stories'.

There were quite a few: the hero-doctor who uses his privileged knowledge to help a relative; the evil conspiracy-theorist blogger who makes his millions with fraudulent 'cures'; the heroine-doctor (pictured above) who catches the disease; the immune husband whose dead wife had a fling with an ex; the daughter who's sick of being cooped up by her dad; the hoodies who raid the supermarkets, break into houses and kill. It's a long list of over-familiar tropes and we're not really engaged.

I look forwards to the Elizabethan swagger of "Anonymous" soon enough.

My previous post about the Greek Colonels making a comeback seems increasingly prescient. The media are reluctant to dwell on it, but in the 21st century an advanced capitalist country in Western Europe can indeed fall off a cliff.