Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Breakfast Vole

I was eating breakfast in the kitchen at half past eight this morning. It was very quiet - Adrian had long since left for work at the cheese factory and Clare was still asleep upstairs, as was the cat in the back bedroom. My eye was caught by a small furry ball ambling nonchalantly into the kitchen (below).

For a moment our eyes locked as I imagined what a tiring night the vole must have had being chased around the house and juggled by the cat. I slowly got up and unlocked the kitchen and patio doors to let the poor thing escape. When I returned to my cereal the vole had hidden somewhere.

Five spoonfuls later my curiosity took control. I wandered over to the computer equipment to see if I could find the poor thing. There it was, snuggled up on top of a warm power supply block. I poked it - it wouldn't move. So I leaned down and picked it up; it still didn't move a muscle. The vole was deposited on the grass outside, and was last seen scuttling into the bushes.

You may infer a certain degree of non-verisimilitude in the above images. To be honest, I was a little too occupied to play around with the camera, so this was what I believe is called in CSI-speak a 'reconstruction'?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Trip to the Seaside

It hit 25 degrees this afternoon with no wind and clear blue skies. We decided to explore the north end of the beach at Weston super Mare and take a look around the headland to Sand Bay.

The next two pictures are from the pub at Anchor Head looking back towards Weston beach.

After a cream-tea lunch and a brief sunbathe we were back home late afternoon.

Here's Adrian explaining the finer points of his high-spec digital camera to potential bird-photographer Clare. The feeders are all set up, hanging somewhat forlornly in the front garden. We just wait for the weather to signal to the birds that it's Autumn - time to feed artifically, little guys!

A cheap gibe from Clare - "Are you finding the maths too difficult?"

"Einstein's General Theory of Relativity - honestly, how hard could it be?"

In truth the book has stayed resolutely closed this last couple of days not due to the inherent difficulty of the maths or the rather dry material I'm currently ploughing through. A session just needs a couple of hours of focused concentration and ... yesterday we did a day-trip to Bristol and today it was the seaside. We're going to have three more hot days this year so expect no further progress in GR until next week.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday = Chores

Despite the two posts already uploaded today - a review of 'The Black Madonna' and an article about those FTL neutrinos in Italy - I have not in fact spent the day writing. Those pieces were in fact written over the last three days. This morning I was actually hard at work sweeping out the kitchen, hall and downstairs toilet. Sounds relatively painless until you count the amount of furniture which has to be lifted onto tables or relocated outside - I felt like a removals man.

Next it's vacuuming. We have an ancient hoover thing - acquired from Alex - which weighs a ton and which tends to lock up on thick pile. I persuade myself it's valuable exercise as I attempt to push this through the bedrooms and the downstairs living room. All I know is that when they did this in the fields of old, they called it ploughing and used oxen.

With my brains scrambled by unaccustomed exercise, we walked into town to buy some bread rolls. Clare had repeatedly asked me, "Do you have money?" and a couple of my spare neurons indicated assent. In fact I had omitted to bring my wallet so we had to put the rolls back on the Co-op shelf and come home empty-handed. So it was soup and stale bread for lunch.

I have just done a pile of washing up and finally I can tell all to you here. This isn't work is it?

[To be fair, it's actually displacement activity from getting on with my General Relativity book].

Update: just had a chat with Rupert Taylor from Pro4 and as a consequence I have some more work to do on a security white paper. GR is going to have to wait.

Faster Than Light

"Despite the hubbub – the journalists jostling for that final refill of wine, the smoke, the noise and confusion – I couldn’t help noticing how Professor Randall kept stroking the explosives pack strapped to her astonishing piece of equipment.

It was a balmy evening here at CERN, scene for one of the most momentous press conferences ever. They had decided to hold it on the Press Center Balcony, overlooking Lake Geneva. The final rays of the setting sun cast a pale fire upon the mountain tops, while in the deep indigo sky the first stars were coming into view.

‘Ladies and gentlemen of the press,’ Professor Randall began, ‘tonight you will see the most astonishing confirmation of superluminal communication, a journey which began with the discovery of neutrinos travelling faster than light here in CERN back in 2011. Over the years we have improved the equipment and I can announce today that we have achieved practically instantaneous communication over interplanetary distances.’"

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This article sketches a scenario of faster-than-light communication and shows how it translates into 'backwards-in-time' communications. This doesn't lead to paradox - it's possible to construct the relevant spacetime diagram which I do in the story. But for the scenario as a whole to work, blatant violations of the second law of thermodynamics need to occur - on a par with watching a smashed egg on the floor reassemble and fly back to a pristine state on the kitchen table.

As has been noted by many authors, the direction of time is linked to the direction of increasing entropy.

Review of "The Black Madonna" by Peter Millar

This is an Amazon Vine review of "The Black Madonna".

Palestinian archaeologist Nazreem Hashrawi is Sophie Neveu, the dynamic one of the pair who drives the plot along. South-African Marcus Frey is Robert Langdon, the academic who specialises in arcane historical lore and has been dragged into a mystery he barely comprehends. They are chased around London, England; Altötting, Germany; various locations in Spain; the French railway system; and finally back to London for the denouement. Rather than Opus Dei, their stereotypical antagonists include Islamic fundamentalists (led by an Osama Bin-Laden figure), American Evangelical Fundamentalists and various factions within the Catholic Church.

The subject of all this running around? The mysterious and thoroughly ancient `Black Madonna' unearthed by Nazreem in the Gaza Strip: each of the sects has their own reasons for wanting this seminal piece of `idolatry'. Oh, and there's an on-off sparkle of potential romance between Nazreem and Marcus. And did I mention that all this is occurring under the benign surveillance of the British Intelligence Services?

This is a well-executed `bad book'. Echoing Dan Brown, the writing is clunky, formulaic and over-adorned with cliché. It seems that every corner turned is an excuse for one of the characters to indulge themselves (and us) with an undigested chunk of historical exposition. I was prepared to be quite irritated by all this when I realised that author Peter Millar just doesn't care. I'm sure his writing style is totally tongue-in-cheek, the saving grace being that all the rushing around and clumsy plot twists do in fact engage the reader's attention; and with Nazreem Hashrawi, the author's dream girl becomes, in part, the reader's too.

So this is a somewhat enjoyable exercise in pastiche and will fill a long train journey more than adequately.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

To the movies yesterday with Clare and my mother to see the John Le Carre adaptation.

Reviews have drawn attention to the gritty, dark rendering of the movie - seedy, run-down settings like a succession of under-funded secondary schools. The atmospherics are well done but there is a problem with plot-development: the four suspects are so thinly drawn that it's impossible to come up with a founded view as to which is the mole.

Smiley occasionally comes up with an insight but he never shares it with the audience, so there's little involvement with the search per se. Still, the ride is fun: probably more so if you didn't see the BBC TV series. Clare and myself knew the plot to death, though, so there were no surprises.
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I've been working hard on my general relativity book this morning, chewing through one-forms and general tensors.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Super-Earths and Binary Suns

My latest piece for sciencefiction.com, as suggested by editor Ze, is on newly-discovered planets "out there". Here's how it starts:

A planet orbits a faraway star. Although it’s light it tugs on its parent sun, so that sometimes the star is pulled slightly towards us, and sometimes pushed away. How can we tell? That tiny orbital-wiggle creates a slowly-oscillating Doppler shift in the frequency of the starlight we see.

It sounds like a tiny effect and it is, but HARPS (the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) can measure stellar radial velocities to an accuracy of 1 meter per second – and that’s enough for some new discoveries. HARPS has just found 16 super-Earths, exoplanets with a mass not much higher than our own.

The most promising of the newcomers is the planet HD 85512 b, around 3.6 times the mass of the Earth. Its surface gravity is estimated to be around 1.4 g and its climate similar to the south of France, although some observers suggest it’s a trifle muggy. It’s the best exoplanet yet for the prospects of habitability and at a mere 36 light years away, it’s practically in our backyard.
... more.

I find that the documentary-style science narratives don't go down particularly well with the audience, as measured in "Likes". I have 500 - 1,000 words to play with and the most "liked pieces" tend, not surprisingly, to be about topics which plug into the topical interests of the readers and which have a story-telling element. But any dramatist could tell you that!
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The weather has continued to be uniformly dreadful: warm enough but with gloomy overcast skies and frequent showers. We've been hibernating with just forays out to the shops. Last Friday was exceptional, as noted in recent posts, when we were chasing the Tour of Britain cycling race around our local area. Clare is generally getting stronger although she dips out in the afternoons.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tour of Britain Stage 6

We've spent most of today rushing around the byways of the Mendips, intersecting the course of the Tour of Britain. Midday found us sat on an old stone wall at the top of the Cheddar Gorge. About ten minutes before the race proper arrived, fourteen menacing police bikes flashed by with just a few seconds separating them. They were low and fast, with their blue lights flashing and the intent seemed to be to clear any obstacles. Afterwards there was a hush and no more traffic on the road.

Next came an announcement car, its loudspeaker telling us that there was a small leading group about a minute ahead of the main Peloton. Three silent, determined cyclists soon came into view, bookended by more motorbikes and team cars: how we clapped like mad!

After what seemed less than a minute, the main contingent arrived and we clapped some more. None of them took time to wave to us - I guess they had other things on their minds. After the stragglers quiet returned for a moment, but we walked back to our car, about a mile up the hill, the road was suddenly filled with thousands of amateur cyclists tracing the route of the Tour elite (but not quite so fast).

We immediately drove through Priddy to the top of the Old Bristol Road for our next Tour rendezvous (we could get no farther as the motorcycle cops were there, clearing the road). Soon enough an identical procession but this time I was snapping (below) not clapping.

I tried to get a shot of the TV relay helicopter but it was too far away.

After much reversing in the narrow road and having to avoid millions of cyclist we drove home the Ebbor Gorge/Wookey Hole way and strolled into Wells to see the finish. Sadly we were late by maybe five minutes - we could see the helicopter over the southern bypass as we were entering town.

We consoled ourselves with paninis and tea in Coffee 1.
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UPDATE

We're on TV! The two of us captured from our TV screen at the top of the Old Bristol Road (ITV4 programme). This is the kind of thing they do in the Bourne films :-).

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Here's a better picture of Clare, from August after her treatment was finished, but while she was still feeling pretty weak.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Metrozone Trilogy: Simon Morden

It’s London, England after Armageddon. Europe has been nuked by Christian fundamentalists, Russia’s a criminal kleptocracy, and America is in the hands of the extreme religious right; Japan has copied Atlantis and has sunk beneath the waves. It seems that every last refugee in the world has found their way to London, every park remade as a container-favela while the streets are an impenetrable tide of the dispossessed, desperate, and merely criminal.

Samuil Petrovitch is a Russian doctoral student (high-energy physics) who dwells in the shanty town where Clapham Common used to be. It’s just another morning as he shuffles down the stairs, carefully so as not to catch anyone’s eye en-route to his desk at Imperial College. He has survived the mafia wars of St. Petersburg by not getting involved but that’s about to change.

By happenstance he’s at the scene of the attempted kidnapping of a young woman. Reacting fast, he helps her escape and is soon being pursued by the Ukrainian mob, the neo-Yakuzas, and Detective Inspector Chain of the Metropolitan Police. Luckily he has help – from an armored, tooled up Catholic nun. And did I mention that Petrovitch has a heart problem – it keeps stopping?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jane Eyre/alien parasites

Clare, my mother and myself checked out "Jane Eyre" this afternoon. A competent piece of work and the actress playing Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) is a star. Sadly, Mr Rochester is played with the emotional range of a wooden plank; his emotional relationship with Jane never veers far from indifference and carries no conviction on screen at all.

My latest piece on sciencefiction.com, alien parasite, was, I thought an equally competent piece of work. 'Funny', 'quirky' and 'surreal' would have been the adjectives I would have chosen. Sadly the readership did not agree with me and the piece appears to have sunk without trace.

Coming up I'll be looking at Greg Egan's new 'Orthogonal' trilogy, which explores a universe where the spacetime signature is (+,+,+,+). You'll need to stick around if you need to know more, although Egan has a starter pack here.

As a consequence I'm seriously digging into my General Relativity book (Schutz).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Fate of Cheese

Congratulations to Alex who next month will be working as a java developer in the IT department of a bank in Reading. New job, walking to work; what's not to like?

I was talking on the phone to my sister, mentioning that every afternoon when Adrian came home from his work in the cheese factory in deepest Somerset (very Archers!) we have the same conversation.

"How was work today?"

"OK."

"Any interesting events?"

(Thinks) ... "Not really."

and so on.

But yesterday was different. It turns out that he'd been given the job of scraping mould off the cheese. For a while I didn't understand exactly what he meant but eventually I got it. The cheese (cheddar, hard) comes in large slabs - several kilograms, and they often have some mould around the edges: apparently this is a normal part of the cheese-making process. But today there were a couple of palettes which were pretty far gone. Worst, apparently, is the rather disgusting liquid which runs off.

"You threw the rotten cheese away, I presume?"

"No, we cut off the mould and the cheese continues with the process."

"And then you throw the mould away?"

"No, that's valuable too. We package it up and it's used for further processing. It's what they use to make processed cheese - you know, like for cheeseburgers."

A gasp goes round the room as we all make a private vow never to touch processed cheese again.

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Clare is making steady progress towards restoring her strength. Today she told me she can shower without using a stool to sit down on. She plans to make a further attempt to attend Mass this evening, before the predicted hurricane hits us tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Movie 'One Day'

We were originally going to see 'Apollo 18' and then I was going to write a piece about it for sciencefiction.com. Both Clare and my mother acquiesced to this plan with varying degrees of conviction.

But the reviews were transcendentally awful; 'mediocre' being a common adjective. So we took the quality route instead and this afternoon ventured to see 'One Day' at the Cribbs Causeway Vue.

None of us had read the book so we were able to view the film entirely upon its own merits, and a very moving film it is too. There is a problem compressing twenty-plus years, a year at a time, into a 108-minute show and certain trajectories were under-illuminated.

Emma went to London with a head full of dreams and was reduced to working as a waitress in, not a cocktail bar but a dive of a Mexican restaurant: it would have been good to have followed her fall. Any final redemption of leading-man Dexter was similarly trying hard to find space to explain itself.

Still there are enough twists, turns and surprises for this everyman's and everywoman's modern coming-of-age experience to ring horribly true. Go see it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Three in a bed with Pillowmena

Clare was having such a comfy time snoozing on the couch in the living room, to a whispering soundtrack from the TV. She put it down entirely to the fact she was supported on one side. This immediately initiated a cascade of ideas about bringing a similar solution to the bedchamber.

We discussed putting a slab of wood at the edge of her side (but how would she easily get out?) and then debated pully arrangments and sliding door technologies. Eventually she fastened upon a simpler, lower-tech solution.

I was initially suspicious of the 'three in a bed' idea. "I can see why you might like to sleep between two blokes, but what's in it for me?"

My doubts were extinguished when she announced that her companion would be 'Pillowmena', 'Pillowma' for short. That's her in red below.

While I don't get to sleep with Clare on one side and Pillowma on the other, it is recorded that she's a success, despite her lack of weight and tendency to slide if pushed.

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Adrian got a call first thing this morning and is now back at the Cheese Factory in deepest Somerset for the next month.

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My piece on "The Perils of Mind Uploading" now up at sciencefiction.com.