Wednesday, February 29, 2012

June in February

A couple of weeks ago it was into the garden with the boiling water to unfreeze the birds' drinking bowl - scooped-out ice-domes sat unthawed for days. Today it was like June: we walked up the West Mendip Way and marvelled at the mellow warmth: Clare snapped the author in his fetching blue-grey teeshirt.

Here's Wells cathedral from our high vantage point.

Math and the hunter-gatherer

People used to marvel at how Einstein might have survived in the environment of our hunting and gathering ancestors (or, more likely, not).

But there were no people like Einstein in those times - sophisticated hyper-abstract intellectual skills didn't evolve until agrarian civilisation. Only structured societies create niches where Einsteins can flourish.

The essence of maths and physics, exploring the deep conceptual consequences of a few assumptions, is useless when dealing with life in the wild. There's too much that's unknown or ambiguous, and things keep changing faster than you can theorise.

I was thinking about this as I re-engaged with the algorithm for a scoring spreadsheet I'm working on. I finally realised that what I was doing was computing the dot product of the score and weight vectors.

By the time I had figured this out I would have been eaten, if spreadsheets were more predatory.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Something Blue

Clare included her gloves in the wash today. Everything white has turned blue, including the underwear and two of my teeshirts.
Still, we planted a tree in the front garden this afternoon (my contribution was to hold it upright while Clare filled in the hole she'd already dug). I quoted some Shakespeare to her: "neither a gardener nor a lender be."

My forthcoming article on links Ender's Game, ansibles and Prof. Brian Cox. I'll let you know when it's published.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tea Dancing

Clare has bought a fetching tan dress and I was inspired to take a few steps with her in the hall. As I interpreted her instructions I recast them in military drill terms: left, right and come to attention; right, left and ... well, you get the idea.

In fact once upon a time, back in our Essex years, we attended dance classes and the waltz was not totally unknown to me (it's all gone now).

As the evenings lighten, I understand we'll be checking out the dance classes here in Wells.

A balmy day today for February and we took a walk at the Ham Wall RSPB reserve near Glastonbury. Not much wildlife but we did find the tea shop for the first time.

I'm now down as a "contributor" at and it's really time I penned them an article - perhaps inspiration will strike when I'm with Clare at Mass tomorrow morning :-).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: "Resurrection" by Arwen Elys Dayton

This is an Amazon Vine review.

Science-Fiction in pastel colours

Eight light years from Earth the Kinley civilization is struggling to recover from a devastating nuclear war which has almost obliterated them. And now they have intelligence that their enemy has plans to eradicate them for good. However, four and a half thousand years ago, just before the war, they sent a survey ship to Earth using a new faster-than-light technology, a breakthrough which has since been lost. If they can only recover the secret then perhaps they can prevail. An elite soldier, Pruit, is sent to Earth using a fusion-powered spacecraft and hibernation equipment, to see what can be recovered.

The Kinsey survey team arrived on Earth in Egypt, in 2607 BC. With their FTL ship destroyed in an earthquake, they are marooned yet treated as Gods by the locals. They build their own hibernation pods in a secret location and await an eventual rescue team from Kinley.

After an eighteen year flight, Pruit arrives on present-day Earth and is soon tangled up with archaeologists, an enemy sent to covertly track her and a surprising enemy here on Earth. The complex plot turns into a thriller as all parties hunt for the secret of the lost technologies to give them an edge in the war to come.

This is a Young Adult book, with good characterisation and an exciting finale. There is an essential ‘niceness’ to most of the characters – this is a novel which leans over backwards to be fair – giving the book a comfortable and reassuring feel: it’s the antithesis of ‘edgy’.

The plot has as many holes as a sieve: we are endlessly asked to believe that an advanced civilization can’t do many obvious things. Pruit’s lander is destroyed on arrival but her ship, out at Jupiter, apparently can’t be remotely contacted to come and collect her; Pruit has a ‘fullsuit’ with amazing diagnostic and healing qualities, but it’s apparently unable to notice a ball-bearing size tracer stuck in her back by the enemy; and the Kinley were surely careless to lose all references to their super-important FTL breakthrough.

We can forgive all of this though for an interesting story well-told.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Quantum Thief

I mentioned I was reading this in a previous post. There have been lots of reviews: inventive hard SF; hard to understand due to an extreme policy of show-not-tell - these are typical comments.

I think it almost works - it's not quite a page-turner even for readers who are happy with all the post-humanist tropes and jargon. The fault lies, I think, with the plotting. It's too stop-start and disconnected so there's not a clear good-guy side you can empathise with and cheer on.

Putting it another way, the novel is too much a cerebral puzzle and not enough of a quest.

Volume 2 of the trilogy, The Fractal Prince, is out in September.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Diverse Seas

I think my position is closest to the "Sea of Faith" community. A formalised religion is an institution organised around a set of strategies, heuristics and norms for social living, underpinned by a supernatural authority. There are many ways of living in a socially-civilised manner, and so many religions.

The paradox is that although the "authority", God, is made authoritative by being supernatural, the referent of the word 'God' is really just the religion's dogma. I suspect that most religious people believe this but fear their religion would collapse into schism and indifference if people 'owned up' to the essentially conventional foundations of their beliefs.

'Sea of Faith' is about as near as you can get to admitting this basic truth in public, and only the C of E, I suspect, would permit its adherents to live.

But we are better off with organisations committing their adherents to social solidarity and baseline ethics surely? Even if their cohesion is sustained by an appeal to magic?

Another kind of sea is the morass of virtual particles which constitute classical entities such as the electric, magnetic and gravitational fields. The concept of a virtual particle is a hard one: they're strangely evanescent, seem to emerge from the mathematical tricks of perturbational quantum field theory, yet still have real effects. The weirdness of the virtual particle concept is explained by Prof. Matt Strassler thus: the concept is in fact rubbish.

Professor Strassler shoots down another common (mis)understanding of the amateur physicist: that protons are little white ping-pong balls inside of which two up quarks and a down quark rattle around: that's the 'old quark model'. LHC results wouldn't make sense unless the proton is actually the name we give to a fuzzy cloud of an unbounded number of quarks and gluons as explained here.

Meanwhile the extraordinarily-smart Greg Cochran ("The 10,000 Year Explosion") returns to his old theme that homosexuality is caused by a pathogen. It's not so much that there is a significant amount of positive evidence for this hypothesis as that all the other explanations don't work: the search for a 'gay gene' is hopelessly compromised by the fact that there is zero evolutionary advantage in fitness terms by being gay. Read what he says here.

There is no research into this idea: it is frighteningly politically-incorrect. Not so much that gay people become the victims of a disease rather than simply an example of nature's rich diversity. No, the problem is that if it's a disease, how would it spread and would we want it to?

The elemental abhorrence of homosexuality in all civisations and religions (thus the reason why liberal thinking has to work so hard) would make a lot of sense if the condition did in fact develop as a disease at the dawn of the Neolithic - allowing time for an instinctive, 'gut-reaction' to evolve. Anyway, it's a hypothesis which is chewed to death in the 126 comments (at time of writing).

Today we decided to tackle our holiday plans for this year. We've scheduled a trip to the Isle of Wight in early summer and a visit to Croatia in late summer. More seas.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


As you drive into Axminster, which lies between Cheddar and Weston super Mare, nestling at the foot of the Mendips, you are struck by the usual dreary, rural council houses.

But within 100 yards of the mediaeval square the approach road enters a cavern flanked by old, old terraces: maybe Victorian three storied houses, maybe older.

We are in The Oak pub and restaurant, quite upmarket and featuring coast-caught fresh fish. The only down-mark for me was the dessert cheesecake, which featured a gelatine topping which I doubt the chef put on personally.

This after a morning putting the final touches to a number of documents for the client.

I'm currently reading "The Quantum Thief" by Hannu Rajaniemi. Its imagined future civilization, trans-humanist worlds out past Jupiter, is beautifully realised and pleasingly opaque (I made full use of my new Wikipedia app - there's an article).

The plot is equally elusive but I can be easily pleased by a chick who can deploy smart nanomissiles in 10 milliseconds and call down steel-burning laser fire from her stealthed orbital spacecraft!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Weighting to score

I was putting together an evaluation matrix today. This is like a marking scheme for an exam: for each question, you allocate the maximum number of possible marks; in the next column you allocate space to enter the actual mark obtained.

So far, so good. But there's a refinement. Not all questions are equally important so with each question we associate a weight, a number like 1, 2 or 3. Now, what do we do with the weights?

It's obvious: you multiply the actual scores by the weights ... but in so doing you mess everything up: the total changes and when you sum the weighted scores the answer becomes  arbitrary, depending on your choice of weights.

I sat and thought about this: what was the right algorithm ... no, what would even count as a useful solution?

I decided that my inability to instantly solve this problem was obviously diagnostic of incipient Alzheimer's. Finally, after some playing around, inspiration struck.

Multiplying by a set of weights is a kind of local gauge transformation on the answer vector. Scores of zero and 100% need to transform invariantly while other scores are moved around by the differential action of the weights. Following the local gauge transform there is a final scaling to remap the scores into the original range (or any other range of choice).

Easy to implement in Excel - so who says QFT is without a wider significance :-) ...

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A pre-birthday party

My brother Adrian, sister Elaine and myself took my mother out for lunch today to pre-celebrate her 89th birthday (there, I said it!). Afterwards we repaired back to the house where she got a cake - immortalised by the video here which is of interest only to close family members.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Warm air - cold air

We slid down to the church this morning on a road glazed with black ice. No further priestly revelations to the half-full church.

I left warmish, fully-defrosted Wells around 2 pm en-route to Reading. The warm air transitioned suddenly to cold just east of Swindon (7 deg. to 3) as I entered a world of murk and ground-lying snow.

Meetings in Reading and London tomorrow.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Snow in Wells

Started at 2 pm: the view from our front window.

I'd have scattered some rock salt except that it's forecast to turn to rain this evening and all wash away.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Einstein - Walter Isaacson

Isaacson wrote the bio of Steve Jobs: on the strength of that I bought his Einstein biography. It's good, with plenty of focus on his personality and personal life. Apparently his ophthalmologist wandered by the autopsy room after Einstein's death and pocketed the great man's eyeballs (p. 640).

Wednesday, February 01, 2012


The opposite of euphoria, since you ask. I normally have the same delusion as Dr Sheldon Cooper: that my mood floats effortlessly, calm and serene, over life's fretful trivialities. Right!

Yesterday afternoon I took Clare's car for a short spin to charge the battery in these freezing times. Mid-afternoon today, Clare asked where the keys were. I looked in the only places I could conceivably have left them (the shelf and her handbag): they weren't there. The trouble is that putting keys down is an automatic act: it leaves no memory-trace.

So now I was seriously worried. I searched high and low, and racked my brains for ever more unlikely scenarios as to where the wretched things might have ended up. My spirits sank like a deflating balloon - we have no other key: what do you do when you have a locked car on your driveway and no key? Call in some kind of car-thief-capable locksmith?

My depression lasted for some hours until Clare searched her handbag properly and found the keys tucked away in a corner.

My emotional state instantaneously resumed that normal state of equanimity I mistakenly believe I always exhibit. Although just for a moment I experienced an unaccustomed feeling, best described as ... relief?

'The Big Bang Theory' and the Singularity

Curtis Hox wrote a guest post over at reflecting on the character of the lead protagonist, Dr Sheldon Cooper, of The Big Bang Theory. Here's how his piece starts:

"The multi award-winning show, at first glance, is about four university science researchers and their lives as supreme dorks. Sheldon, Leonard, Rajesh and Howard are character types: ultra educated techno-geeks. They fail to impress most women, and they couldn’t beat up a fly (even if they teamed up). They love science fiction and fantasy, computer games, comic books, collectibles, etc. Star Trek, Star Wars, The Flash, The Green Lantern, etc., all provide the language we must learn to understand them.

At their center is Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist who hates mixing with the inferior Muggles he encounters in the real world. Sheldon cringes when someone tries to hug him, consistently fails to understand sarcasm, refuses to call Amy Farrah Fowler his girlfriend (until a very recent episode). He can’t stop obsessing about where he sits or how many times he knocks on a door. Sheldon’s character, though, is interesting beyond the expertly acted comic performance by Emmy award winner Jim Parsons because he challenges key categories of what we consider normal human behavior.

Sheldon, in essence, isn’t human.

Continue reading

I confess to being a closet fan of the series, tho' I only catch it from time to time: see my comment at the end.

Young Soldiers

Take three young working-class men and put them through state-of-the-art infantry training with the British Army. Next, follow the results to war in Afghanistan. “Young Soldiers”, shown on BBC-3 last night, was a highly-effective recruiting film for the army.

The lads were serious people with visible and caring parent(s), but trapped in dead-end jobs. The first had an older brother who had been a soldier and had gotten himself blown up, losing a leg and part of one hand. The psychological shock eventually surfaced and our new recruit quit.

The second never seemed to get comfortable with fixing his bayonet and shoving it into a wheezing, bleeding simulacrum of a human being: too much imagination, I guess.

The third guy was steadier and seemed to have less “issues”. When told he was assigned to the 1st Rifles, and thereby destined for immediate deployment to Afghanistan he had a wobble but was straightened out by his mum. Footage in theatre confirmed that war is terror interspersed with boredom, but the lad did well as a superlative ‘point man’, the guy who leads the patrol and spots the IEDs lying in wait. At the end of his six months he seemed pleased to be home, and pleased with what he had become.

This was a classical rite of passage, an exemplification of the Jungian archetype of ‘the hero’. The two lads who had left prematurely seemed haunted by their decisions and in the closing scenes they both indicated they’d be reapplying to the army.

There’s an aphorism that ‘the best soldiers are the worst citizens’ and all three boys were good citizens. Many evolutionary psychologists have observed that the transition to agriculture in the Neolithic was accompanied by a ‘domestication’ of the population. Interpersonal aggression, impulsiveness, lack of conscientiousness, lack of empathy were all negatives in a densely-populated sedentary existence where teamwork and preparation were vital.

It seems to take a lot of training to make the average person an effective killer on command but the army can’t just recruit natural-born killers. Most of the time the army is just a complex logistics organisation and it needs its recruits to have those Neolithic personality traits, otherwise it would just be a mob.

I don’t know whether the officers have it easier. Officially the job of the officer is not to kill people directly; it’s to manage his troops in a calm, rational, educated and effective way: another case of Neolithic virtues.

David Pierson, an American army psychologist, recommends a scattering of psychopaths in the combat divisions. They’re a pain in the neck in ordinary command, but invaluable in contact.