Saturday, February 28, 2009

Morality in the time of Climate Collapse

This is a review of Far North by Marcel Theroux, posted on Amazon.

The future as imagined by James Lovelock. The great heat has come and global civilisation has crashed. The utopian-religious back-to-nature settlements in the Siberian arctic, the setting of this novel, were over-run by refugees from the south, followed by arctic winter depopulation. The protagonist, Makepeace, guards a frozen, deserted town with guns at the ready.

This novel explores a journey across the continent which encompasses pitiless ethnic tribes, slavers, labour camps and a general assortment of intrinsically unpleasant characters and decent people gone bad. The character of Makepeace is the moral centre of this story, but morality has been reduced to the correct choice of tough, lethal decisions.

The book held my attention all the way through, while not being quite a page-turner. If the author’s targets were the general nastiness of the human condition without the framework of a functioning state, and the bankruptcy of pacifistic religions, then I think we can agree that the case here is closed. But these are not difficult targets.

My other quibble – it is no more than that – is that the plotting seems to depend on too many unlikely events: suspension of disbelief did waver a few times.

In summary, I think Far North is fine as a library book, but I’m not sure I’d recommend buying it.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Beware the fury of a patient man

The BBC-2 film "Margaret" yesterday evening was excellent.

At one point Margaret Thatcher (Lindsay Duncan) sees members of her cabinet in tight conversation across the room. Correctly suspecting them of plotting against her, she comes across to publically humilate each of them.

Finally, she turns to Geoffrey Howe and says "Geoffrey, could you bring me my shawl".

This is not a question.

He hesitates for a moment, blinks and then dutifully goes off on his errand.

"Beware the fury of a patient man" observes one of the onlookers.

If the leader of the party had been male, and had said to one of his subordinates "Bring me my coat" this would have plainly been a humiliating and demeaning request made by an alpha male to reinforce his superiority.

Said by a women not in a position of power, and in a non-dictatorial way, "Could you bring me my shawl?" could be considered flirtatious.

Said by Margaret Thatcher in the scene described, it was frankly terrifying.

Incidentally, the origins of the quote are apparently from here.

"Quotation from Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer of maxims in the 1st century BC.

In the 17th century, British poet and dramatist John Dryden used it in "Absalom and Achitophel", generally considered to be the greatest political poem in the English language:

Must I at length the Sword of Justice draw?
Oh curst Effects of necessary Law!
How ill my Fear they by my Mercy scan,
Beware the Fury of a Patient Man."

This was clearly a period when the scions of the Tory party still had a classical education.

Council threatens elderly widow with eviction!

My father passed away on January 18th 2009, and since then we have been managing the settling of his affairs with more or less success.

Recently my mother has been receiving increasingly unpleasant letters from Bristol City Council suggesting she is in rent arrears. Calls to the Housing Office Rent Management Department, although handled sympathetically, seemed to have proven powerless to halt a computerised juggernaut which seemed set on evicting her for alleged non-payment of rent.

Needless to say, not a single rent payment has been missed in 53 years.

It reminded me of an excellent short story called "Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon R. Dickson, reprinted here, which I first read as a child. Its relevance has never gone away.

By reverse engineering my mother's experience, it would appear that Bristol City Council are running at least four separate computer systems in this functional area.

1. A database system which associates council houses and their tenants.

2. A billing system which processes direct debits from named tenants.

3. An accounts-receivable system which sends threatening letters and orchestrates a debt-recovery process, culminating in eviction.

4. A system which sends rent payment information details to tenants, which continues to this day to send information to my deceased father.

Bristol City Council were somewhat aware of Mr F. S. Seel's death, but this information has not progressed to system (4) above, and did not stop system (2) from continuing to extract rent via direct debit.

The Council were also able to process a change in tenancy, to add my mother to the tenant database. However, system (1) was not aware that my mother and father both occupied their council house, so the council were not able to associate the existing direct debit with the change in tenancy, and so finally registered my mother as not paying any rent. Hence the threats from system (3).

The latest stage in the saga is that they have promised to refund the overpayment on my father's account, and to send a direct debit form for my mother to complete for the new tenancy arrangement. We shall see if they are competent enough to get this done.

I have been in communications and IT for more than 25 years and this is a classic example of stovepipe systems architecture. We usually advise Enterprise Applications Integration via messaging middleware, short of introducing a root-and-branch SOA.

I wonder how much continuing distress as well as wasted time is caused by Bristol City Council's IT department failing to get the basics right. We were that far from taking this story to the newspapers, and it still hasn't ended.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Don't Look Now

Clare and myself visited the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke this afternoon to see a matinée performance of "Don't Look Now" -- (the link is to the film version).

We thought the acting was excellent, but the play is a slight thing, driven - if that is the word - by a tedious and insubstantial plot embodying elements of the occult and implausible coincidences for which disbelief cannot be suspended.

What could Daphne du Maurier have thought was the point of this piece of work?

Another review here.

The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke

An emulation of twittering

I am not signed up with Twitter, but if I was, it would look something like this (today's Twitters).

Nigel is:

* Delighted that for the second day there are no voles in the house [8.30 a.m.]

* Sorting out more details from his father's Will [9 a.m.]

* Working out his latest VAT Returns [10.15 a.m.]

* Talking via Skype to his mother about disposing of used printer cartridges [10.35 a.m.]

* Discussing a camping holiday in the Pyrénées this summer with Clare [11.03 a.m.]

* Rewriting the conclusions of his Open University essay on Quantum Measurement [11.30 a.m.]

* Writing about Twitter in his diary [11.44 a.m.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Seels in Saddleworth (1834)

I had previously tracked the Seel line to John Seel, a hatter who was born in 1847 in Oldham and who later moved to Bristol where his male descendants lived through to my father.

Now, an accidental search on the Internet turned up the following (from Mossley Association Football Club here) showing a cluster of Seels in the area.


A) Info from Pigot's Directory of 1834.

This contains details of "Professions and Trades of Saddleworth" as follows.... (see map at the bottom of this post).

Thomas Seel: blacksmith, Mossley.
James Seel: cotton spinner (and doubler), Quick Mill, Mossley -- possibly the owner of the business.
Abraham Frost: butcher, Seel Fold, Mossley.
James Smith: butcher, Seel Fold, Mossley.
William Schofield: joiner, Seel Fold, Mossley.
William Schofield: machine maker, Seel Fold, Mossley.
Abraham Frost: taverns and public houses, Highland Laddie, Seel Fold, Mossley
-- assumption is that Abraham Frost had two occupations and possibly carried them both out at the same premises as did William Schofield.

B) On the Internet, some history is given about the Rising Sun Public House which refers to Samuel Seel being the tenant (publican) of the establishment from 1890 until 1911. He was the first tenant for Wilson's Brewery at that address.

(C) On the Mormon site (Family Search), there are various Seel families in Mossley/Ashton-under-Lyne in the 1881 Census.

There were 20 persons with the surname, and residing in Mossley were three separate households.

1) William T. Seel (aged 55), a widower born in Mossley, a bricklayer, was resident at Seel Fold, Mossley (no door numbers or specific addresses). Resident with him was his father, John Seel (78) a widower born in Mossley, a retired smith & c (cartwright?).

(2) Samuel Seel (58) born in Mossley, an ironmonger and resident with his family at Stamford Road.

(3) Thomas Seel (31) born in Saddleworth, a coal agent labourer and resident with his family at Back George Street, Mossley.

There were two Seel households in Ashton-under-Lyne. In the census, Seel Fold is adjacent to Market Street. There are 15 households recorded at Seel Fold plus one house is uninhabited.

Included in the Seel Fold households, one head of household is described as a grocer and one head of a household, Mary Buckley (61), is described as an innkeeper and resident at the Highland Laddie.

Next to Seel Fold is Fox Platt but with only one household and the head of the household was a farmer (Fox Platt was originally the name of a farm).

After Fox Platt comes West Cottages. There are several households here, including John Mayall (70) who is described as retired. After West Cottages comes Mayall Street. (could this John Mayall have been one half of John and George Mayall who, in 1834, had been cotton spinners of Bottoms Mill, Mossley?).

In the same 1881 Census, in Saddleworth there are two households with the surname Seel

(4) Jerry Seel (52) born in Mossley, a retired cotton minder and resident with his family at 24, Archer Street.

(5) Thomas Seel (62) born in Mossley, a blacksmith resident at Grasscroft.

(D) The football club had taken over a disused cricket ground at Seel Fold. On the website it states that this had also been the site of a former tip and that the football club moved there in about 1912/1913. The ground was renamed Seel Park in 1930.

(E) On the Ancestry website, at the 1891 Census, the distribution of Seel families is highly slanted towards Lancashire with 189 out of an England/Wales total of 372 (51%). The next highest counties are Yorkshire with 58 families (16%), Cheshire 54 (15%) and London 29 (8%).

My estimation is that, although the word "seel" may well have links with our ancient history/crafts/farming etc. as in rope and birds, I am inclined to say that in the case of Seel Park (or to give it its original name, Seel Fold) the name is derived from a Seel person or a Seel family.

There were plenty of them around in Mossley at the time of the 1834 Pigot's Directory and also the 1881 Census (and even Samuel Seel the landlord at the Rising Sun straddling the turn of that century) to convince me that the family name is its true origin.

I imagine that the houses at Seel Fold were built by a Seel person (James Seel owned (?) Quick Mill and certainly owned a business as a cotton spinner/doubler in 1834 so could well be the person who built the original houses at Seel Fold).

But what happened to those houses? There were 16 at the 1881 Census and the Highland Laddie pub was one of them. Where have all the Mossley Seels gone? Not one in Mossley now according to the telephone directory although a couple in Oldham.

Research by Trevor Rowley.

Saddleworth in relation to Oldham and Manchester

Mossley can be seen in the map above between Oldham and Saddleworth, to the south.

A Cat-Flat

Last night as we were preparing to go to bed after BBC-2's Newsnight, I saw a flicker of motion in the hall. The cat had started his night's hunting early, and a young and highly active vole had been released to rush around the skirting board in a blur of motion. As I leaned forward to try to grab it, it slithered under the door into the room we use as a library-cum-'exercise' room.

Where it vanished.

With the cat safely locked down, we turned that room upside-down. Eventually the vole was tracked down by dint of the little scratching noises it was making behind the Scrabble box. After much chasing it around behind various pieces of furniture, I eventually captured it in a plastic cylinder normally used as part of a blank CD-ROM container. The creature was put outside at midnight, leaving the room a shambles as pictured below (the capture device is shown ringed).


We then had a big discussion: Something Had To Be Done. We eventually decided to put the cat in the small vestibule behind the front door and close the interior door, so that it could only get out through the cat-flap. It would therefore be barred from the rest of the house all night, hopefully sparing us any more house-voles.

This morning, when I got up, I checked the entrance hall and there was only one small, dead creature which I duly threw out (pictured below)

The haul from last night

There was also no cat. Omigod, I thought, the cat has taken offence and upped and left us. But it was not to be. As the kettle moved to the boil, I heard a sharp slap from the vestibule and the cat came through the cat-flap horizontally at approximately 40 miles per hour. I guess it was pleased to be allowed back into the house.

Clare, meanwhile, had developed a further inventive solution to the carnage-problem: a little vole-refuge.

A Vole Refuge

The refuge is to be placed, as shown below, in the new cat-flat.

The New Cat Flat

Meanwhile, the protagonist of all these adventures calmed himself down, took a little light breakfast and then retired to lick his paws and doze.

R&R after a Hard Night

We hope we finally have a solution to our daily vole problem, although I believe Clare's secret project is to teach the cat to adopt a Buddhist attitude to voles altogether.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Green Door

Encouraged by the balmy weather (for February) Clare has painted the front door green.

The Proud Artist

I have a vision of waking up tomorrow to see voles stuck to the paint with epicentre the cat-flap.

None this morning, BTW, although we had one dead and one scurrying in the hall yesterday morning.

Everyone knows and no-one says

This is a review of "The Earth Hums in B-Flat" by Mari Strachan, published on Amazon.

According to Wikipedia, an ingénue is “a girl or a young woman who is endearingly innocent and wholesome”. She is generally accompanied, as foil, by a vamp and there is often a romantic subplot featuring a young man just as innocent as the ingénue.

On this template, Mari Strachan has constructed a beautiful story set in a small Welsh village within sight of Snowdon in the late 1950s.

The ingénue is Gwenni Morgan, poised at the very end of childhood, who is bright, imaginative and therefore considered “odd” by her stolid peers, mother and sister. Her Kindred Spirit and Best Friend, Alwenna, is the knowing vamp, who has just discovered boys. Gwenni’s ‘romantic interest’ comes towards the end and is hardly that, a merest precursor for what is to come.

It is a truth universally understood that remote rural villages are hotbeds of illicit relationships overlaid with secrets and lies. The death of one of the villagers leads to an investigation and Gwenni is determined to play detective. Her relentless, innocent “childish” questions directly challenge the protective hypocrisy all around. It’s scary stuff.

Ms Strachan has a wonderful feel for poverty in the 1950s. Her descriptions of the Morgans’ domestic life: bed-sharing, paper thin walls, freezing cold, disgusting food, baths in front of the fire, a relentless lack of privacy, draw one into a life before this one. I am old enough to remember this the first time round and it certainly felt horribly authentic.

The plot is carefully handled, and the book rapidly becomes a real page turner. The intelligence in this book is that even as the reader reaches the end, and has the momentary illusion that all loose ends have been definitively tied up, there comes a realisation that all of what we think we know is in fact ambiguous. We may hope that Gwenni has finally come to a complete understanding, but she does have a habit of putting the best complexion on things.

The first person narrative style and linear development make this a suitable book for the ‘young adult’ as well as adult market. It was also serialised on BBC Radio 4’s “A Book at Bedtime”. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Donation of Oxford II Rowing Machine

I have finally come to the view that my days of virtual exercise are over. Stepping over this rowing machine as I retrieve a book is not sufficient exercise to justify the space it takes up.

Andover Leisure Centre will be the first organisation to be offered it, as a free donation. If they don't want it, I guess it's the small ads. Here is the accompanying text.

Being surplus to requirements, this machine, which was bought new in July 2007, is free to anyone who cares to bring a van round to collect it. Contact Nigel Seel on the email address below right.

More Vole News

Yesterday evening we were in Winchester to hear Professor Barry Cunliffe talk about "Roman Rural Settlement on the Hampshire Chalklands".

As we arrived at the Winchester Guldhall, we saw a long queue outside. I looked closely at the guy nearest me, who was wearing a slightly worn and somewhat-stained cardigan. "Excuse me," I said, "what are you queuing for?"

"The wrestling, mate." he replied, "If yer for the lecture, you can go right in."

I thanked him politely and we were directed to the main lecture hall, which rapidly filled to capacity with a sea of grey-haired men and women, not one of whom appeared to be younger than 55.

About half-way through the one hour lecture, as the Professor was describing excavations only a few miles from where we live, we began to hear hear excited, amplified shouting faintly through the walls, followed by muted thumps and groans.

Earlier that day, Clare had devoted deep thought to the Vole Problem. We discussed dying our black-furred cat a shade of fluorescent green to give the endangered local voles some warning, but I pointed out that cats - unlike humans - lick their fur incessantly, so Shadow would probably die a horrific death by poisoning.

Instead, she bought some aromatherapy Peppermint fluid and this was sprinkled on to Shadow's collar. I remained silent about the propensity of the hunter to hunt upwind.

We returned home from the lecture to find one dead vole in the living room, and another one scurrying around in the kitchen. After much effort, I finally caught the latter and threw it out the back window.

This morning, the cat was sniffing around the fireplace when I got up. I looked and rejected. Surely any vole in the ashes would be baked. Don't say the cat had finally learned to cook its food!

Eentually I decided to clear the ashes out. Yes, cowering in the back corner with its nose sticking up through a hole in the grate was a little twitching bundle of fluff.

The vole, covered in ash and heavy-metal residue, was duly transported to the front garden, from where I feel we shall shortly meet it again.

Any bright ideas, do let me know. Clare has taken to silently mouthing the word "muzzle" so you can see where this is going.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dumbed-Down Physics Sci-Am style

How do you get copies of New Scientist flying off the news stand? Put one of the following in large font on the cover {Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Cosmology} and stir in "Why Einstein was wrong about ...".

The relentless tabloidisation of New Scientist has unfortunately spread to Scientific American, with "Was Einstein Wrong?: A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity" emblazoned across the current edition.

In best NS tradition, the piece says absolutely nothing new about Einstein, quantum entanglement, EPR, special relativity or cosmology and resolutely declines to answer its own question.

The only silver lining is that Professor Albert and assistant Professor Galchen do give a good, simple tutorial on the essentials of both entanglement and EPR.

Andover Down

A stroll through the woods at Andover Down this morning, starting at The Middleway. Quite balmy for February at 9°C.

The Path through Old Pound

We came back along the Test Way, breaking off to use the Disused Railway as a shortcut back to the car.

Following the Disused Railway

Clare ended up next to the dead deer below, almost without noticing it.

Dead on the Track

The final part of the circular trip was back along The Middleway, where we saw further early signs of Spring.

The Author amidst the Snowdrops

As mentioned in the previous post, the cat has taken to sloughing off its bell-collar. So we drove to "Pets At Home" to pick up something more robust, one which can cope with the cat''s ever-increasing ingenuity. Here's Clare attaching it.


Looking at the picture below, I'm not sure that Shadow has necessarily bought into Clare's pacifist project.

Hey voles - I'm Good-to-Go

The IQ of the Cat

Last night I was in the kitchen around 9 p.m. when I heard the catflap rattle and the cat entered, bearing an enormous vole in its mouth. As usual, the vole was released to be a plaything, and as I approached it was cowering in a corner.

With one swift grab I had it in some kitchen roll, and voley was deposited outside to squirm around in the undergrowth for another day. It was drizzling outside, and I took the damp animal to Clare, observing that it had lost its elastic collar and bells.

A new collar was duly constructed and affixed to the lethal feline's neck.

This morning, as I was pulling back the curtains in the living room, I noticed a small, quivering speck of furriness on the floor. Barely alive, it was duly transferred outside to the front garden.

A few minutes later, a very dead vole was discovered next to the fireplace. This was chucked out of the kitchen window into the back yard.

About ten minutes later, I thought I would take some pictures for this journal. The vole ejected into the back garden had gone! I was surprised that our garden birds move so fast - the Andover vultures, no doubt.

In the front garden, the formerly barely alive creature had been reduced to the currently fairly dead vole pictured below (click on it to make bigger).

The cat, I then noticed, was without its collar and bells. It has clearly learned how to remove its collar in order to hunt more efficiently.

It's scary living with a cat which is visibly getting smarter every day. I'm getting concerned about leaving my Open University course books on Quantum Mechanics lying around, in case it gets to read about Schrödinger (here): God help us if it takes to delocalising.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Power from Fusion

Good Horizon programme last night on BBC 2, presented by Professor Brian Cox. The subject was the prospects for power production from controlled nuclear fusion: we saw Tokamaks in Oxfordshire and Korea; a laser-initiated fusion system in California; and the Z-machine at Sandia - which looked like the Victorian laboratory of Dr Frankenstein, using stupendous electric currents to drive a magnetic-field-driven implosion normally used for hydrogen bomb research.

I wish the programme had said something about how power might be extracted from a working fusion reactor, but as the researchers themselves believe commercial reactors are more than 20 years away, perhaps there's no rush. See the Wikipedia article here for more details.

One of the more interesting facets of the programme was the great gap between the power we can currently supply and the requirement. Brian Cox set a target of 5 kW per person (considerably less than the per capita power currently used in advanced countres). Assuming a gobal population of ten billion, which I believe is the projection for mid-century, the total power required is 50 Terawatts.

According to the Wikipedia article here, in 2005 global power production was only 16 TW.

Looks like we'll be building a lot of reactors, of one kind or another.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Feel free to click on the image for a closer look.

I wouldn't call it spoiled, or anything. But it has three variants of hard food plus vacuum-packed sachets of moist food plus a twelve pack of cans.

Today Clare brought a special comb into the living room, to groom it while it watches TV.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Books To Go

My bookshelves were more than full, so time to do a garbage-collect. Clare volunteered to check the charity shops in town to see if they would take 'used' books

"Yes, they do" she told me on her return.

"Which one?"


I said nothing, disappointment clear on my face.

She looked at me quizically ... waiting.

"I'd prefer cancer."

"So, to be clear, you want to keep heart attacks, and do away with cancer?"

"Yep, heart's quicker."

Here are the books ready to go (click on image to make bigger).

Books to go

And here, by the way, are some books which survived the cull (click on image to enlarge).

Books to keep

Saturday, February 14, 2009

2666 - The Heart of Corruption

This is a review of Roberto Bolano's "2666", posted on Amazon.


On a recent trip through Manchester airport I was amazed to see copies of 2666 piled high in the departure lounge bookstore. Who did they think the target audience was for this lengthy literary novel?

Part 1, The Part About The Critics, tells a mostly self-contained story about a quartet of academics who specialise in the obscure German author Benno von Archimboldi. Each of the four gets their own back-story, and we follow their quest to find the author, a trail which leads to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (based on Ciudad Juarez). The story has highly stylised 'magical realism' sections (do academics ever beat up taxi drivers?) and appears to end inconclusively – perhaps a meditation on the strange paths of love, or the fickle ways of women? Or Santa Teresa’s powers of deflection.

At this point of my journey, I’m wondering where this story gets us, noting that not a whole lot has happened, and that I’m only on page 159 of an 893 page novel.

I grit my teeth and continue.

The shorter Part 2, The Part About Amalfitano, takes a minor character from the first part – a Chilean literary academic at the University of Santa Teresa and his daughter Rosa - and fills out their back story, mostly concerning the runaway wife, Lola.

Part 3, The Part About Fate, describes an American reporter, Oscar Fate who is sent to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa. While there, he gets involved with the local narcos and meets Rosa from part 2. Oscar by some miracle manages to escape Santa Teresa with his life. In this part we begin to circle around the increasing numbers of sexually-violated and murdered young women found in deserted parking lots, isolated ravines, abandoned buildings and the desert: crimes which the police seem unable to solve.

Part 4, The Part About The Crimes, takes us directly into the unending horror of underclass life in Santa Teresa. This is by far the longest novel in the collection. We meet the police: uneducated, casually violent, brutally chauvinistic and content to tiptoe around the atrocities of the powerful. We meet the suspect, a German businessman banged up for years while the crimes continue. And we discover the private lives of the narco lords: drug and sex-fuelled parties in their desert ranches with no inconvenient witnesses afterwards.

Part 5, The Part About Archimboldi, takes us back to the mysterious German author who was the subject of the quest in part 1. We now learn his life story, his wartime exploits and why, in his late life, he finally found himself for the first time in Santa Teresa.

In the Notes to the First Edition at the back of the book, Ignacio Echevarria, Bolano's literary executor, tries to account for the title. He looks to an earlier novel of Bolano, Amulet, where a seedy, downbeat avenue at night in some Mexican town is described as like a cemetery: “not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

Santa Teresa may be the physical centre of this interlinked novel-set, as Echevarria observes, but it is also a symbol – a submerged, carnivorous, tentacled thing that draws in the powerless and horribly consumes them. Omnipresent corruption, where the powerful use ordinary people for their money or their bodies, then dispose of them with casual, lethal brutality. The murderous events depicted in 2666 actually occurred in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 400 women have been the victims of sexual homicides.

These five novels are five journeys into the heart of corruption, starting from afar and gradually taking us closer to its centre. If anyone thinks a corrupt society is just about the venal sin of taking bribes, this novel will make them think again.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Execution of the Will

I have to say that as executor of my father's Will, the process is a lot more complex than I had imagined.

In fact I had never imagined it at all. If I had thought about it, I guess I figured it was about no more than fixing the funeral and maybe cancelling some memberships.


The reality is that you have to actually become the deceased person in terms of their social persona. My spreadsheet, itemising all the entities and institutions with which my father had some formal relationship, gets bigger by the day.

I have to complete his tax form - which requires me to be familiar with all his income streams and expenditures (where are the P60s?).

To handle his savings I have had to apply for grant of probate (something I was barely aware of a few days ago): for this I will have to be interviewed in Winchester some time in March.

I emphasise that none of this is conceptually difficult. It's mostly endless form-filling and navigating the menus of endless call centres.

This morning, for instance, I called the AA to cancel his membership. We have not been able to locate his AA card.

After two levels of automated responses at the call centre, wasting five minutes of my life, I got the response "all of our operatives are busy at this time responding to emergency requests. Goodbye." and the line went dead. So what was the purpose of the voice options, purportedly navigating me to the correct back-office function which doesn't deal with emergency response?

Allegedly if I was an SJ personality type, I would be enjoying this ... but somehow I doubt it.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Hurstbourne Tarrant

This afternoon the snow had melted sufficiently for us to take the air, so donning our recently-much-used arctic gear, we headed off to Hurstbourne Tarrant, about 5 miles north of Andover.

Clare climbing out of Hurstbourne Tarrant

Our circular walk started along the Test Way, walking uphill out of the village to the south.

Hurstbourne Tarrant from Wallop Hill Down

As we climbed to the tree line, we had this wonderful backwards view of the snowy village beneath us.

Nigel in Doles Copse

Soon we entered the woodland (Doles Copse) at the top of the hill.

Doles Copse

Most of the woodland is privately-owned, and someone was out shooting - very close. I had visions of us both diving for cover into the snow, but we managed to exit the woods without seeing the mysterious hunters, and unscathed.

Clare descending Dolomans Lane

Crossing the A343, we walked towards Windmill Hill before turning right down Dolomans Lane. At one point, the droveway opens out into a field, covered with untouched snow.

We finished with pints at the George and Dragon pub, where we were closely-questioned by the locals as to what we had been doing in their village.

The Shadow of Schrödinger

Roy Simpson writes to me as follows:

The key questions here are twofold:

(a) Did Schrödinger's cat bring in voles?

(b) Will Shadow meet the same fate as Schrödinger's cat?

I answer as follows.

(a) Schrödinger's cat was confined in a 3D infinite square well, and had zero amplitude to be anywhere where voles tend to hang out. Shadow's Ψ function tends to diffuse towards voles ... and therein lies the difference!

(b) Schrödinger's cat was in a superposition of states, while Shadow prefers to be in his lowest energy stationary state. More technically, we should call it the duvet state.

One interesting attribute Shadow shares with other cats is a violation of Bohr's correspondence principle. As I go down the stairs first thing in the morning, Shadow exhibits profound non-locality in its position, managing simultaneously to be in front of me, behind me, and under my feet!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Snow - Voles

Our back garden after the latest snowfall this morning.

Yesterday evening, after watching the Terry Pratchett programme on his Alzheimers, I noticed a curious, disgusting smell in the room. After much searching, lying on the floor looking under things, and eventually overturning furniture, I discovered a decaying vole on the front runner of one of the recliners. It was instantly flung out of the front door into the snow-covered bushes.

About 3 a.m. this morning, Clare misguidedly opened the bedroom door to the carpet-scratching cat. A few minutes later there was the sound of screeching and jumping: the cat was having the time of its life as it brought a new and lively vole in to play with us.

I lay still feigning sleep (not too difficult) as Clare chased the cat out, took it downstairs and locked it out in the hall, next to its catflap. I have to say our subsequent sleep was troubled, knowing we were sharing a room with a frightened vole, capable of almost anything.

I found it this morning, curled up next to the Roomba. I grabbed it by the tail and picked it up: it promptly bit me. It was then propelled out of the window and down into the soft snow, where after a moment to collect its wits, it scampered off.

Clare has a theory that the voles live in our refuse pile in the back garden, so later this morning - apparently - the stack of branches and grass cuttings is going to be taken apart and pulled into the garage.

If this creates a vole diaspora, then logically Shadow is going to move onto birds. A pigeon in the house? Don't let's go there!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

My father's funeral

Just back from my father's funeral in Bristol. So many things to go wrong and thankfully none of them did.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Update as we start February

My contract has now finished, and to celebrate I've started the first book of the OU's Quantum Mechanics course, SM358. With no messing around, we're straight into wave-particle duality, 'collapse of the wave function' implying 'spooky action-at-a-distance', and probability amplitudes.

I was a tiny bit irritated by a throwaway reference in the text to the Mach-Zehnder Interferometer, where it was baldly stated that the quantum-theoretic interference effects were consistent with a classical (Maxwellian) interference story.

The OU diagram: Mach-Zehnder Interferometer

However, the over-simplified diagram in the book (above) gave no clue as to the mechanism for classical interference. In reality, it depends upon the details of phase-changes on the two paths, associated with reflection and transmission through the half-silvered and regular mirrors: not entirely trivial, as explained here.

A more useful diagram

Note that in this diagram we can see the construction of the mirrors, and whether light goes through the mirror-glass before getting reflected at the back-surface or not. Unfortunately, these details exactly determine the overall phase change: if they are ignored the resultant effect is incomprehensible.

Also started 2666, which I have to review as an Amazon Vine book. So far it's interesting, the characters are well-defined, and it's stylistically baroque. But still a long way to go.

We await the tidal wave of snow promised for tomorrow ...