Sunday, 25 November 2007

Universal disasters

Poor old blog's been a bit neglected of late, so it's about time for some more witty and incisive posts. I've been busy converting my website to deliver its media content with Microsoft's new Silverlight platform rather than, as previously, with Flash. Not a trivial matter - in its current release, Silverlight programming involves an untidy mix of HTML, Javascript and XML - but worth it, for me, because Microsoft is offering several gigabytes of free streamed media hosting. I've been nibbling into this to serve up the audio on my sounds page.

So, what's been happening while I've been away? Well, not a brilliant week for English football, quelle surprise. My memories of half a century of World Cups and European Championships are of variations on the theme of "England can still theoretically qualify if..." involving unlikely combinations of Sweden beating Italy by at least 8 goals and Portugal invading Scotland. Bring back Glenn ("I have a number of alternatives, and each one gives me something different") Hoddle, I say. And Eileen.

Not the best of weeks at HM Customs and Revenue, either. The coverage I've seen about the lost CDs seems to me to miss the real point. It was obviously daft to entrust such sensitive data to Mr Postie, but the problem apparently arose because HMCR couldn't create a filtered dataset (i.e. the limited data as requested by the National Audit Office, with no banking or address information) without commissioning expensive, additional work from Capgemini (who manage HMCR's IT systems, at an estimated 10-year cost of £8bn). This raises many questions. Firstly, why has HMCR handed Capgemini such control over the database that HMCR can't even do its own simple queries on the data? And how could it possibly be an expensive operation for Capgemini to service such a request? How much work can be involved in something that should be as simple as changing a command that extracts all data from a database ('SELECT * FROM ...' in SQL, a standard database query language) to a filtered extraction ('SELECT Name, NumberOfChildren etc FROM ...' in SQL)? And if it isn't as simple as that, why not?

Anyway, football and security failures hardly matter if a report in this week's New Scientist is to be believed. Under the less than reassuring headline "Have we just sealed the universe's fate?" we're told that the future of the entire universe may now be at risk, as a result of our enquiring too deeply into its workings. According to a paper by Lawrence Krauss (who I mentioned in a previous post for his criticism of Richard Dawkins as being too emotive in his atheism) and James Dent, we have looked upon that which it would have been better not to have looked upon. As if the destruction of our own planet wasn't enough, it seems that we may have inadvertently tipped the universe into a state where it is more likely to spontaneously vanish. Which would be a bit of a shock, and a disappointment, for its inhabitants.

There is, apparently, something called the quantum Zeno effect; whenever we observe or measure something at the quantum level, we reset a clock in the observed system that controls when it is likely to decay into another state. So when, in 1998, we measured the light from distant supernovae explosions, thus gaining evidence of the existence of dark energy, little did we imagine that we might, in doing so, have reset the clock in the universe's false vacuum back to a point where it is less likely to survive. The end of the universe, and to think I used to be scared of Boltzmann Brains!

It's very hard to think logically about this, and other arguments along the same anthropocentric lines ("the universe only exists when we observe it", etc). For example, what would have happened if, in the experiment to measure the supernovae light, a fly had landed on the telescope lens and intercepted the light with its multisegmented eye? Would the fly's 'observation' of the light have the same disastrous consequences? Or, suppose that the experiment had been outsourced to Capgemini, who saved the results on a database but then didn't allow the scientists access to it? Could we still be said to 'know' about dark energy, thereby risking the survival of the universe? Perhaps we can take comfort from the Many Worlds model, which says that, if a wave-function collapses with one result, e.g. the disappearance of the universe, it will also produce a parallel result in which the universe doesn't disappear. And, via the anthropocentric principle, that non-disappearing universe will be the one in which we find ourselves.

Barmouth beach, NovemberIt's all very confusing. Thank goodness for the simple pleasures of the beach, even if it's a little chilly at this time of year. More later, if we're still here...

Monday, 8 October 2007

Can you keep a secret?

An interesting article by Henry Porter in Sunday's Observer. He writes about how, hidden in all the froth of electioneering and policy stealing, the government has quietly introduced the extended Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Alongside its ID Card plans and CCTV surveillance, this act increases the government's Stasi-like control over our privacy. Under the act, the police and security services can tap any British communication channel, including post, telephone lines and internet accounts; the phone companies and ISPs are required to keep track of every electronic move we make.

So, can you still keep a secret? Well, you can, but, if you insist, you may have to be prepared to spend some time in prison for it. Part III of the Act, in force from the 1st October, gives the Government and its agents the power to demand that you hand over the keys to any encrypted data they find on your computer. Refusal to comply can result in a prison sentence of up to 5 years.

On my computer there is an encrypted folder where I keep all sorts of stuff - none of it illegal - such as my internet banking details. This is encrypted so securely that it is, in practice, unreadable unless you know the key I used when creating it. This key isn't written down anywhere; it only exists in my head. Or, perhaps more accurately, it exists only as a memory in my brain, and can only be accessed by a thought from that brain. Under RIPA Part III, it becomes an offence for me to have such a memory and not to disclose it when ordered under what is called a Section 49 Notice. The thought police have arrived.

Of course, if the disclosure of such a key were to prevent a terrorist incident, it wouldn't seem such a bad piece of lesligation, and this, along with the usual "nothing to hide, nothing to fear", is how the Government justifies it. However, the same law can be applied in a range of suspected crimes, including financial ones, although the maximum sentence for non-terrorism related thought-withholding offences is only 2 years.

It's all very worrying. As Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti says: "This underlines the uncomfortable fact that the British public are the most spied upon people in the Western world."

Monday, 17 September 2007

That's Life

I've never had particularly strong feelings either way about Esther Ranzen, harmlessly entertaining us of a Sunday evening, exposing the dodgy double-glazing salesmen, and Cyril Fletcher with his allegedly humurous odes. Until today, that is. Don't ask why I was watching the ad-breaks on daytime TV this afternoon; it's a long story, but there she was, microphone in hand, with a studio audience just like the old days, urging anyone with a slightly stiff neck, possibly after a nasty incident at work that they'd almost forgotten about, to phone the Accident Advice Helpline immediately. Their claim would be handled by a team of lawyers dedicated to ensuring that their convalescence would be lucrative.

This advert is bad on so many levels. All concerned should be ashamed of themselves for assuming that "people's champion" Esther Ranzen would lend credibility to a business that is... well, let's just say questionable. Ranzen joins my Hall of Shame for people lessened, in my eyes, by taking the adman's dollar. She'll be joining, among others: Jane Fonda (see this Dead Ringers parody of her Anti-Ageing Cream ad), Penelope Cruz (another Dead Ringers target, and, parodying himself, the once-legendary Rolf Harris.

It's enough to make you weep. As is (but in a different way) the following video - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performing the title track from the wonderful "Time (The Revelator)".

I was going to say something about the sale of 4.4 billion pounds-worth of EuroFighter Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, but I think that's probably a subject best left alone. I'm sure the people of the Middle East will be sleeping easier in their beds tonight. All I'll say is that those Typhoons fly over here sometimes, tearing the air as they hurtle down the estuary and out over Cardigan Bay. An impressive display of sight and sound. If I had a spare $50 million or so I'd have one myself.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Flogging a dead horse

No, not the latest Ebay scam, just me banging on about the sensational reporting of science again.

I wasn't the only person blogging about so-called Boltzman Brains (see, for example, John Ratcliff's blog), and they are the subject of continuing correspondence in New Scientist. Here are two more examples of what I was talking about. Both are research findings reported in New Scientist, although it should be said that in both cases the articles included a less sensational interpretation of the results than that implied by the headline, suggesting that the reader should have a large pinch of salt to hand while reading them. However, the experiments were also widely reported, salt-free, in other media.

In an article in the 18th August issue, headlined "Light seems to defy its own speed limit" [my emphasis], New Scientist reported an experiment by Günter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen which they (the experimenters) say shows faster-than-light-speed (superluminary) travel. When the experiment was reported later on BBC radio's 5Live, it had become a "scientists say time-travel is possible" story. It's not easy to describe the experiment without a diagram (there's one at Wikipedia here), but the superluminary claim is made because light appears to be travelling via paths of different lengths to arrive at a detector in the same time. Hence the light taking the longer path must have travelled faster than the light on the shorter path, which is assumed to be travelling at light speed. The important point is the nature of the extra distance that the light on the longer path is supposed to travel. This 'distance' was inserted into the path as a 1 metre long opaque barrier. The only way for light to penetrate such a barrier is by an effect called quantum tunnelling, whereby, as a consequence of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a photon has a (slim) chance of disappearing from one end of the barrier and reappearing at the other. This effect has been known about for 80 years, and isn't just theoretical (it's how transistors work). In the experiment, the time between the disappearance and reappearance didn't significantly contribute to the overall journey time for the light, hence the claims for superluminarity: the light going through the barrier travelled 1 metre further, in the same time, as the unimpeded light.

I'm a scientific layman and so not qualified to criticise the experiment (others are - see, for example, this from Chris Lee at Ars Technica). The results speak for themselves, but interpretations differ. Nimtz boldly says: "For the time being this is the only violation [of special relativity] that I know of". But then he made similar assertions nearly 8 years ago (see this paper from 2000, where he described a very similar experiment and claimed that "Photonic tunnelling violates Einstein causality"). Now where did I put that salt?

The second example of cosmic hype is in an article I read in the current (8th September) issue of New Scientist. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... well, half a billion light years away, and the galaxy is called Markarian 501... anyway, the galaxy flared up, sending out a burst of gamma rays (very high frequency light) across intergalactic space until, half a billion years later, it eventually arrived here and was detected by the aptly-named MAGIC gamma-ray telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands. That, in itself, is amazing; observing an event today that took place in Mkn501 at about the time that the Coelacanth first appeared on Earth. However, on examining the received signal, the MAGIC team saw that it could be interpreted as showing the high frequency component of the signal arriving 4 minutes behind the lower frequency components. Four minutes in half a billion years might seem close enough for jazz, but, if this interpretation of the measurements were shown to be feasible, (although, of course, it could just be that the higher frequencies were emitted later in the Mkn501 event, or that there could be another, simpler, explanation for the delay), it would pose some serious difficulties for Special Relativity, which says that (and explains why) all the components of the signal should arrive together (light of whatever frequency travels at the same speed). Not only would SR be violated by such a result, it would also (so the researchers say) throw a spanner into the works of the string theorists.

Again, I'm only a layman and not qualified to comment on the science of this. For a more informed view, see Peter Woit's blog entry here. (Woit is a critic of String Theory, mentioned in my previous post). However, even to the layman, it's interesting that, in both these cases, it seems as if a scientific version of cultural relativism is at work, and that Relativity is seen as a valid target, one among many theories, and ripe for toppling. Which strictly it is, of course; I know that any theory can be disproved, but Relativity has passed all its tests with flying colours so far. It seems to me that both sets of researchers have forgotten that one of the guiding principles of science is (or should be) Occam's Razor: "Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity". In other words, consider the simplest explanation first. Otherwise... well, watch out for my forthcoming paper: "Were MAGIC delays caused by a mischievous Boltzmann Brain?".

Friday, 24 August 2007

Not this, not that

Good old New Scientist magazine. I've read almost every issue since my school days, and it's one of the joys of my life. It does occasionally veer towards the somewhat loopy (see this criticism by SF writer GregEgan), but it can't be easy producing a weekly magazine that has to contain at least one article per issue of cosmological significance. When I say I've read every issue, I do tend to skip quite lightly over any article with a first sentence containing the word may, such as: "Scientists may have discovered...", because almost inevitably there'll be a letter the next week from an expert in the field explaining why they've discovered no such thing. I remember one article, many years ago, that was very excited about an experiment which, if true and repeatable, would have demonstrated the action of mind-over-matter, showing someone influencing the sequence in which a series of light-bulbs lit up, the sequence being otherwise controlled by the random decay of radioactive atoms. I waited in vain for the laws of physics to be rewritten.

The latest example of this seems to me to be the front-page article in the 18th August issue claiming that "cosmologists are afraid - very afraid" of something called Boltzmann Brains. These are supposed to be a consequence of the non-emptiness of empty space. The quantum vacuum is seething with virtual particles and, given enough space and time, these particles may configure themselves into a spooky conscious entity - a Boltzmann Brain.

Are you worried yet? It gets scarier (if you're a cosmologist with nothing more immediate to worry about). They are concerned that, in an inflationary universe (such as ours appears to be), there will be enough time (i.e. a few trillion years), for these entities to outnumber evolved consciousnesses (i.e. us), and then where would we be? The laws of physics depend on us being the typical observers of the universe, not these disembodied "brains" that would probably have a rather different take on what makes things tick.

Incidentally, for what it's worth, my take on the accelerating expansion of the universe, which physicists ascribe to the presence of "dark energy", is a bit different. My view is that the accelerated expansion is a result of an attractive force from whatever it is that our universe is surrounded by and is expanding into. You read it here first!

Anyway, I wouldn't lose too much sleep over Boltzmann Brains. This is a variation of the argument that, in an infinite universe, anything can (and therefore will, eventually) happen. Given enough monkeys with enough typewriters, paper and time... lo and behold, one of them will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Well, no they won't. There aren't enough atoms in the universe to make enough monkeys to create, by chance, even something as modest as this blog posting.

I have to be a bit careful mocking the infinite-monkey argument. Creationists deploy similar statistical arguments to "prove" that life could not have arisen purely by chance. Fortunately, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Blind Watchmaker, effectively demolishes this case for intelligent design. The monkeys produce strings of letters, and evolutionary pressure and a genetic mechanism select and preserve these (not a so-called intelligent designer).

Dawkins, incidentally, comes in for some criticism in the latest issue of New Scientist, taken to task by Lawrence Krauss for being too emotive in his latest "Proud to be Atheist" campaign. My only criticism of Dawkins is for not using humour more effectively. In his latest TV series (Enemies of Reason, Channel 4) he misses some golden opportunity to make more fun of his subjects. He lets the various astrologers and crystal healers off very lightly. And wasn't he tempted to ask the homeopath whether, in the case of a really really bad headache, he should take some water with that homeopathic "remedy" to further dilute it and make it even stronger?

Speaking of TV, is anyone else as annoyed as I am by BBC2's weather report format? Who decided that it would be a good idea to overlay the map with an opaque stencil of the channel logo, thus sacrificing screen estate and creating quite a disconcerting effect when the map moves underneath it? Talk about style over content...

You may have noticed that Song For The Day has disappeared from the sidebar. It'll be back soon, bigger and better.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

This and that

Sad to hear the news of Tony Wilson's death the other day. I'm sure other people are paying due tribute to him, so I'll just put a track by one of my favourite Factory bands in the sidebar. It's Bordeaux Sequence by The Durutti Column, from 1988. I'm sure they won't mind...

I've been neglecting this blog of late, having been busy getting my new website online. It's up now, in all its glory. Along the way I've learnt a bit about CSS design, and the problems of cross-browser compatibility. Also learnt that the convention that many programmers (including me) adopt, when giving names to things, of concatenating words but giving each one an initial capital letter has, itself, a name. So that 'PreviousMonthSales' is described as being CamelCased (as opposed to lower- or upper-cased). For obvious reasons I suppose, but it was NewsToMe; maybe it would be better described as caMel cased.

Also been keeping up with a very interesting discussion in New Scientist concerning the existence (or possibly not) of free will. This is based on experimental evidence from the quantum behaviour of entangled photons, seen from viewpoints where Special Relativity comes into play, in particular SR's blurring of the order in which things happen. This would normally be a discussion held in the darker reaches of sci.physics.quantum.cranks etc. I wouldn't feel qualified to join in in either forum, but I will say that, although I accept the physicist's assertions about time - that is that moving clocks run slow and that if moving clocks do, then so do moving people, and their DNA - nevertheless all this talk of relative time leaves a sense of something being not quite right.

What I'd like to understand is, given that twin A, who journeys into space and back while their twin sibling B... oh, all right, lets call them Sam and Amanda, and assume that Sam travels into space as part of a Big Brother task, while Amanda remains behind in the house, moving as little as is possible for a nineteen-year old. So, when the twins are eventually reunited (phew!), they find to their surprise ("I love it!") that Sam is, to a degree dependant on for how long and at what speed she travelled, younger than her sister.

So far so good; this is the same phemonenon that permits normally short-lived elementary particles to eke out their lifespans when they appear to us as fast-moving particles arriving from outer space. The paradox only arises if one mistakenly imagines that the twins' histories over the period of Sam's journey is symmetrical (which isn't the case, because only Sam experienced the acceleration when her spaceship turned round and headed back to Earth). When Einstein first described the effect he didn't see any paradox in it; rather, he presented it as a necessary, although curious, consequence of SR. However, this begs the question as to, in what sense, the reunited twins are still 'synchronised'. They are said to occupy differing locations in 'space-time' and yet they do not appear to each other to shimmer (except rather pinkly) in a Star Trek transporter kind of way. When they speak to each other they don't have to wait for an intervening passage of time for the sound from one sister to 'catch up' with the other. Apart from their differing ages, nothing has changed. They will agree on whether or not an eviction has taken place.

All very strange. Perhaps the twins are forever entangled, having at one point in space-time been together, and are destined forever to remain so, in spite of any cosmic journeys they may take separately. I don't know.

Meanwhile, I snapped this lovely ice-rainbow from my window the other evening:

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Black and white

The saddest thing I read last week was an article in New Scientist about the environmental damage being caused by AIDS in Africa, particularly in Malawi. I spent several very happy years in Malawi; it's a country of spectacular mountains, lovely beaches and friendly people. It was known then (and, I see, still is) as The Warm Heart Of Africa. Now, as if the direct human consequences of AIDS on people wasn't bad enough, the country's natural resources are threatened. The conservation workers and National Park staff are dying, and people who can't afford conventional treatment for AIDS are over-exploiting medicinal plants. And, in some areas, the forests are suffering as a result of the relentless demand for coffins.

While I was pondering on the unfairness of all this, happening in the country where my children went to school, there was an item on the news about the Beckams' arrival in Beverly Hills. And there, in all its staggering extravagence, was Victoria's new Bentley, being delivered on a trailer, resplendent with its monogrammed wheel rims. A gift, apparently, from charming neighbour Tom Cruise. That'll be the Cultinental model, then.

Gosh, it's a world of contrasts. Anyway, there's some appropriate Malawian music in the sidebar. It's a warning about AIDS from the Kasambwe Brothers. For more music from the still warm heart of Africa, visit Pamtondo.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

The Politics of Gravity

Not a classic helping of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue last night, but worth it if only for Jeremy Hardy singing the words from Radiohead's Creep to the tune of Grandma We Love You, and Tim Brooke-Taylor's alternative opening sentence for the Da Vinci Code: "Leonardo awoke with a sneeze, and realised he had a code."

I was reminded last week that it's now four years since Research Councils UK, the "strategic partnership" of the UK’s seven Research Councils, announced that the Councils intended to solve, within a few years, the problem of "What is gravity?"

The Save British Science campaign group said, in evidence to the Select Committee scrutinising the activities of RCUK: "It is absurd to propose that officials in Swindon can dictate that where Newton and Einstein reached the barrier of their genius, the Research Councils will nevertheless "solve" the question "What is gravity?" within the next few years. Whatever theoretical and experimental breakthroughs are taking place at the moment, it remains an extraordinary claim."

Not that being situated in Swindon is a bar to greatness (although Swindon's website only lists Billie Piper, Diana Dors and Melinda Messenger as being famous people from that town). But a little modesty would have been appropriate. Isaac Newton himself wrote: "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Anyway, I'm wondering how the Research Councils are getting on. I've just checked the website, and there's no indication there that an answer is imminent. I think we should be told, though; gravity is a weighty matter.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Here comes the flood

For those of you who've still got electricity as the flood waters rise, have a look at this video on YouTube.

Another week...

...and nearly time for another Prime Minister. I nearly missed it, what with my homepages problem, and trying to make sense of the news (to me) that the closest living relative of the hippopotamus isn't, as I'd always thought, the pig, but the whale.

So, a new PM (almost). He hasn't quite captured the public imagination yet, but it's early days, and he follows in a long tradition of uninspiring British PMs. Think of Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the like. I don't quite see why how he got his reputation for prudence, though. In 2003, when asked how much, as Chancellor, he was prepared to spend on Iraq, he replied: "As much as it takes". Well, that'll be about £7 billion so far then; how prudent is that?

[Just had to break off for this week's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. Very funny, as ever. Humph: "I've just noticed I came out with odd socks on... they're shaped like underpants."]

Is there something of the hippo about Gordon? How graceful is he under-water? I was in Ethiopia once, with my family, on a trip to see some hippos. The young boys who were (for want of a better word) guiding us, tried to provide us with more exciting views of the hippos, which were peacefully submerged, by throwing stones at them. I imagine that, in similar circumstances, Gordon Brown could get very angry. So I'll leave him alone... for now.

There's a new song in the sidebar. It's a live version of Blossom by Ryan Adams, recorded at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Technical note (again)

Oh what a tangled web... I just realised that my homepages problem also broke the links in the side panel Song For The Day. This is now fixed and, looking on the bright side, I've now got the space for a few more songs.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Technical note

In case anyone has noticed that my profile photo disappeared for a while, I've been having problems with my ISP (Demon), who decided to carry out a homepages enhancement program which resulted in my homepage being inaccessible for almost a week now. And this was where my profile photo was stored, along with all the other wondrous things that were available there. Oh well, worse things happen at sea.

Meanwhile, I've bought some server space and I'm setting up a proper site at Check back soon; fun for all the family!

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Are we not mammals?

There's been a lot of interest in the Government's proposed legislation to give women the right to breast-feed in public. It's quite astonishing that such a law is necessary. I heard a mother, on the radio, talking about her experience of being harrassed while feeding her baby in a popular high-street coffee shop. It does make you wonder what relationship the complainants had with the milk in their skinny lattés. Do they not realise that they are only a few processing steps away from suckling from a cow?

And just a very small point: in the same discussion I heard an expert talking about a 'quantum leap' for mothers' rights. Well, a quantum is the smallest possible amount of something, so a 'quantum leap' would be a very tiny leap indeed. Hardly detectable; not really what nursing mothers need.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The N-word

Whoops, what happened there, then? Seem to have nodded off during the last PMQs, and woken up in the midst of another Big Brother racism row. And in the meantime, it looks like the Cold War is making a bit of a comeback. Oh well, I think we must have been missing the old international tensions, and that comforting threat of imminent nuclear apocalypse. (Sorry if I've offended with the N-word.)

Putin must be secretly quite pleased to see the USA wasting billions of dollars on a missile interception system that, thus far, has proved almost totally ineffective at intercepting any missiles. As Bob Park says in his weekly What's New newsletter: "AntiMissile Test: Last Week's Test Was Very Realistic... the target missile never got off the ground. After all, what rogue nation, even one as nutty as N. Korea, would launch a missile at the dominant nuclear power? The return address is on the package. The nuclear threat today is from weapons in cargo containers, or assembled in a target country."

More puzzling is why the Czechs and Poles are willing to deploy such a system. If it were ever used (and if it worked), the result would be nuclear-armed missiles exploding over their countries rather than being allowed unhindered on their way towards London or Washington.

Anyway, I've just put a new song in the side panel. It's the queen of Malian griotte singers, Ami Koita, singing Wale Yuman from her 1995 album Carthage.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Going nucular

Someone once told me (in the days before it became possible to easily check whether this might be an urban legend) that the Spanish pronounce the letter 'c' as a 'th' sound because there was once a King of Spain (Ferdinand?) who spoke with a lisp, and his subjects duly copied him. Had this been true, it would have been an example of a change in language caused by what linguists call prestige borrowing, although I don't know if the Spanish subjects would have copied the lisp for prestige, or because they expected the Spanish inquisition if they didn't.

The other day, listening to the radio, I was surprised to hear a Government spokesman (whose name unfortunately I missed) speaking about the future for nucular power in the U.K. I don't think this mispronunciation of 'nuclear' is common here, and it sounded quite awkward coming from an otherwise well-spoken Englishman. Was he trying to borrow some prestige from that great nuculariser George Dubya? Or perhaps he's a fan of Homer "You know boys, a nucular reactor is a lot like a woman" Simpson.

Who knows? As Homer said: "English? Who needs that? I'm never going to England!"

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Parliamentary language (again)

Another Wednesday, yet another Prime Minister's Questions. P.M. Blair's favoured word today was absolutely, featuring a total of 11 times:

1 x absolutely vital
2 x absolutely right
1 x absolutely necessary
4 x absolutely clear
2 x absolutely typical
1 x absolutely essential

In my dictionary, this usage of absolutely (as an 'intensive') is disapproved of, but this goes further than bad usage. When the Prime Minister says that something is absolutely vital, he's saying it's not just very vital, or even extremely vital; it's absolutely, without question vital. The clarity of vision of an evangelising lawyer is not to be questioned, even at Prime Minister's Questions.

Anyway, there's a new Song For The Day in the side panel. It's a song about the war by Anaïs Mitchell (MySpace page here), from her fine album Hymns For The Exiled.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Cutty Sark: a nation mourns

The news in Britain today has been dominated by... a fire on an old boat!

Readers outside these shores may be as puzzled by this as I am. As boats go, it wasn't even especially old (built less than 150 years ago). It wasn't involved in any famous naval victories, didn't discover the North West Passage, it wasn't particularly good at what it did do (although more so than its fellow clipper, the Blackadder, which was dismasted on her maiden voyage). Cutty Sark travelled halfway round the globe and back, braving the seas around the Cape of Good Hope, to bring us our tea!

Oh well, time to put the kettle on...

Friday, 18 May 2007


If you haven't heard it already, have a listen to the Young Rapture Choir's cover version of Laura Veirs' "Magnetized".

Laura Veirs talks about the choir here.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

ID Cards: friend or foe?

There are many compelling reasons to be concerned about the U.K. Government's ID Card scheme, most of them presented (far more cogently than I could blog about them) on the No2ID campaign website. The spiralling costs, the unproven technology, the threat to civil liberties, the lack of any convincing argument to support the assertion that the cards will somehow protect us from terrorism and identity theft... the list goes on.

One objection that isn't often raised, at least in the media that I access, is what seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the Government's understanding of the significance of biometric identification - not just in terms of its accuracy or feasibility, but in a failure to grasp what the point of biometrics is.

I worked for a while for a Belgian company that developed biometric products. One way they promoted these was in the form of a biometrically equipped VW Beetle, which neatly demonstrated the potential of biometrics - the convenience of unlocking your car at the touch of a finger on the scanner controlling the door locks, starting the engine by voice command and, most importantly, not having to carry keys around with you any more; keys that can be stolen, lost or copied. The same idea can be (and is already, in places) applied to ATMs: build in an iris-scanner and there's no need for bank cards and pin numbers any more. The point is that biometric ID removes the need for keys and cards, which not only clutter your pockets but are easily compromised. You are identitified by your biology. The best biometric data, if it was conveniently checkable, would be your DNA profile; meanwhile, fingerprints and iris-scans are secure enough.

The Government's intention is to maintain a register of all persons who are entitled to be in the country, and to have the means to check whether an individual is recorded on that register. It might like to do more (in terms of tax collection for example), but I'm using the Government's own arguments as to the necessity for an ID card system (i.e. to counter identity theft and terrorism). It will do this by recording the biometric data of all its citizens, and storing it on a central database. This is all that is required for their stated purposes. No need for a card. The relevant authorities are equipped with biometric readers, and when they need to identify someone, it's a simple(!) matter of checking their fingerprints and iris-scans against the database.

But the Government proposes that this centralised data will be duplicated and stored on our individual personal cards. Functionally, this adds nothing to the system except an extra layer of complexity and cost, and potential security problems. Imagine the scene:

PC: "Excuse me sir, can I see your expensive and redundant identity card?"
X: "Certainly, officer, unless I've left it at home or lost it, or it's been stolen... No, here it is."
PC: "Mm, looks a bit dodgy to me. Would you mind just putting your finger on this scanner, and I'll check you on the central database..."

The card system is equivalent to having biometric locks on your car doors but still needing a key to open them. I suspect that the Government doesn't see the redundancy of the card because seeing it requires what might be called systems thinking. Long ago, when I applied for my first job as a trainee programmer, I had to take an aptitude test to see whether I had the mental "right stuff" to make a programmer. I'd guess that members of the Government might not score very highly in such a test.

I'd also guess that they have been impressed by potential suppliers of the technology required for their system. All of the biometric technologies (face and voice recognition, fingerprints etc.) are prone to error (see this report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation). After September 11, worried American airports carried out many trials of face recognition security systems. Results were, to say the least, disappointing. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a report: "Anyone who claims that facial-recognition technology is an effective law-enforcement tool is probably working for one of the companies trying to sell it to the government".

Perhaps the one consolation is that, given the story so far of government-sponsored IT, there is probably little chance of a working IT card system being implemented. Meanwhile, though, the estimated costs have risen sharply to £5.31 billion. Not quite as much as the Trident submarine programme, but about as useless, and give it time...

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Fire at Will's

Our contribution to global warming (although it's turned a bit chilly today). We enjoyed a day in a friend's garden on Saturday, ending with the traditional fire dance of The Burning Clippings.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Parliamentary language

Another Wednesday, another Prime Minister's Questions. Once again Blair brushed aside the questions with his usual bluster and statistics. Today's favoured word seems to have been immense. He used the word (or the adjectival immensely) at least seven times, and on three occasions, in answer to questions about MI5's anti-terrorism activities, he used it in a very odd way, e.g. "The committee went into immense detail" and "...looked into it in immense detail."

Well call me a pedant, but to me, details are tiny, not immense; a more appropriate phrase would have been "The committee went into the minutest detail". More worryingly, he also used the word believe seven times. Tony Blair's beliefs frighten me. They're usually presented in the form: "Yes, I've seen the evidence, but I still believe that..." followed by some bizarre assertion that e.g. invading Iraq was the right thing to do, or that ID cards are a good idea.

Which reminds me, I must have a good rant about ID cards before too long. Watch this space.

Hitting the high notes

There's a new Song For The Day in the side panel. It's a rather spooky recording of Alessandro Moreschi singing the Gounod/Bach Ave Maria, one of the many treasures to be found at the wonderful Live Music Archives. It must take a lot of balls for a man to sing like this.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Theories Of Everything: what's all that about then?

I downloaded Einstein's Relativity: The Special and General Theory as an eBook from Project Gutenberg. Written in 1916, Einstein's intention was to give the non-physicist what he called "an exact insight" into the theories. Using very precise language, with as little mathematics as possible, he shows how the theories arise, seemingly inevitably, from the consideration of experiments conducted purely in the imagination. The results of previous real experiments (e.g. those that determined the constancy of the speed of light) are used, but the theories are developed from imagined people and clocks, on imaginary trains and stations.

Einstein spent his later years in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to derive a 'Grand Unified Theory' that reconciled his theory of gravity with the emerging theories of Quantum Physics. These two key ideas of modern physics both appear to be 'right' (in the sense of making correct and very accurate predictions about the behaviour of things) but do not sit easily together in situations where they are both required (e.g. at the 'big bang', or in black holes).

So here's another thought experiment. Imagine that, somewhere, a writer is putting the finishing touches to a new book. When the book is published, to universal acclaim, Stephen Hawking says: "This is the end of science. There are no more unanswered questions." The book is translated into every world language (except Xam - see earlier post What's in a name?). The book provides answers to such questions as: Why is there something rather than nothing? How does that something work? What is consciousness? Quantum Theory and General Relativity are reconciled; the constants of cosmology and the masses of the elementary particles emerge naturally from the new theory. The distribution of the primes is no longer a mystery. The author is awarded Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and for peace, as well as the Fields Medal for mathematics.

Unless there's an inherent limit to what human thought might achieve, this is surely a possible scenario. I'm wondering what such a book would be like. Would it be the work of a physicist, or a philosopher, or maybe a religious scholar or a mathematician? Would it conform to Einstein's belief that "Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone", or would it be filled with such complex maths that a lay person would have to take it on trust that the book was as important as the handful of people who understood it said it was?

Which section of the bookshop would it be found in? Would it be a Richard & Judy Book Club recommendation?

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Will and Kate: A Nation Mourns

Blogging is suspended for today. With Britain still reeling from the shock news about William and Kate, well... it just doesn't seem appropriate.

[Readers outside Britain may wonder who or what Kate and Will are. Well, I had to check for myself, but it seems that Will is a leading member of a long-established cult called "The Monarchy". Kate had become ensnared by the cult, and was being groomed as a priestess. Fortunately, she managed to escape, but experts say she may need help in coming to terms with her experience.]

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Now those memories come back to haunt me...

From ifilm, with all the innocence of an E Street shuffle, this lovely Springsteen moment:

Friday, 13 April 2007

Song for the day

Not that this is becoming a music blog, but I've added a Song For The Day feature to the side panel. There'll just be one track, which will change every few days. If any of the featured artists object, I will of course remove the track immediately.

Today's song is from the album Heart Of Uncle by 3 Mustaphas 3 (check them out on Amazon here). Aj Zajdi Zajdi Jasno Sonce (The Girl Stood In The Meadow...) is a traditional song from Macedonia.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

So it goes...

Farewell then, Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007).

"I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other."

Kilgore Trout was 84.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

In at the deep end

I'm reading Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit, a physicist and mathematician (here's a link to his blog). The book is a critical assessment of String Theory. Woit argues that String Theory isn't science because it doesn't (and, if I understand him properly, can't) make experimentally testable predictions. It's taking physics up an expensive blind alley. Much of his argument involves mathematics far too difficult for me, but he does use, in support, the fact that Richard Feynman was also deeply sceptical of String Theory. Shortly before his death, Feynman said "I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction."

Well as far as I'm concerned, if Feynman thought String Theory is wrong, that's good enough for me. I know that he would say not to take his word for it, work it out for yourself, but I for one won't be wasting any more time trying to visualise10-dimensional Calabi-Yao spaces.

Michael Scott, the first president of Apple, tells the story of his first encounter with Feynman, at CalTech:

There were 183 of us freshmen, and a bowling ball hanging from the three-story ceiling to just above the floor. Feynman walked in and, without a word, grabbed the ball and backed against the wall with the ball touching his nose. He let go, and the ball swung slowly 60 feet across the room and back — stopping naturally just short of crushing his face. Then he took the ball again, stepped forward, and said: "I wanted to show you that I believe in what I'm going to teach you over the next two years."

[Children, do try this at home, but maybe start with something softer than a bowling ball, and be sure to just let go of the ball without giving it any extra push. Momentum is conserved.]

I'd be surprised if Professor Feynman didn't crop up again in this blog.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

That difficult third post...

When in doubt, tell a joke. Here's a philosophical one:

René Descartes takes a break from his work and goes to a party, something he doesn't usually do. The host says, "René, would you like a drink?" "I think not," he says, and poof, he disappears.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

In my estimation...

People are prone to confuse the usage of underestimate and overestimate. For example, today I heard an interview on the wireless with the charming and peace-loving* former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. Discussing the Iranian seizure of British sailors he said that " is impossible to underestimate the importance of their [the sailors'] mission."

Well, call me a pedant, but this man is listened to by those in charge of America's foreign policy. If you're going to invade another country you want to be very clear whether the repercussions have been under- or overestimated.

*Hard to believe, but Bolton really was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2006; almost as ironic as Kissinger's award of the prize in 1973.

Friday, 6 April 2007

What's in a name?

Being someone who by nature likes to keep a low profile, I thought about writing this blog under a pseudonym. Teaspoon Decosta is the name of my SecondLife avatar; hence the URL of this blog. I decided against this, but... it started me thinking about names. This is my first post, written proudly under my own name.

When I lived in Africa I was, initially, quite amused by the sometimes bizarre names of the Africans I worked with. For example, I remember meeting a man called Sixpence Banda. Then I found out the origin of these names. The following quotation is taken from Missionaries by Julian Pettifer and Richard Bradley:

As another missionary from Umtali wrote in a letter to the US in 1916: "Heathen mothers do not know much, but many boys and girls go to our schools now and are begging to read God's word and write and to take care of their bodies and be clean and dress like the people of America." These "heathen" boys and girls were also given "Christian" names like Kitchen, Tobacco, Sixpence or Bottle.

Given the tragedies that continue to befall their continent, I don't suppose these given names are a primary concern to many Africans these days. But Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, did say recently:

We have inherited an unbecoming legacy of racial and gender divisions and antagonisms. The majority of our people were victims of a colonial history that obliterated the Xam* and sought to deny the humanity of the rest. That history sought to deny that these masses had any history, culture, belief or value system of their own. It said the African people are but barbarians and savages with no names of their own except those that the civilised masters gave them, proclaiming them to be Christian names and therefore holy. Thus did Sipho become Jim, Nomsa, Mary and Kealeboga, Sixpence. These names were given to deny the very being of the African, to tell them that they had no identity except such an identity as they were given by the civilised master.
*Xam is an extinct African language, and the name of the people who spoke it. The word is correctly written with a preceding vertical bar, but for some reason the bar doesn't render properly in this editor. The bar indicates a clicking sound. With or without the bar, the pronunciation should only be attempted with great caution by non-Africans.