Wilkommen, Bienvenu, Welcome... Sziasztok!

Welcome to The Lotus Position, an intermittent collection of extempore navel gazings, ponderings, whinges, whines, pontifications and diatribes.

Everything is based on a Sample of One: these are my views, my experiences... caveat lector... read the Disclaimer

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter
Ponder, Scribble, Ponder (Photo Erdotahi Aron)

Guest Nutter/Kindred Soul: Bill Bailey


Tuesday, 22 December 2009

It's done DONE

Well, at long last (and it's a very long last - nearly four years since I pitched up in Budapest just to "finish IT off") - and despite the many, many impediments presented by a cold December Monday yesterday, the book, "IT" was finally uploaded to the printers and the order emailed.

It is done: the text, the design, the illustrations - all of it.

Except for the bits that aren't, whatever they might be: there's bound to be something.... for example, recent tribulations included (but were not limited to)
  • Complete lack of internet chez nous (until Monday evening... "That's not a valid IP address..." [Thinks: but you gave it to me by DHCP!!!] "... I'll update/reset the database..."
  • Death of the headset microphone when I finally got to Castro and could get online
  • A typographic miscalculation by the printers in a page count
  • Complete failure of printer's FTP site to be accessible to any browser (Firefox, Chrome, IE8)
  • Unexpectedly appalling costs of hand binding (eschewing which then negated considerable expense and effort in attempting to productionise a "burnt in" title..."
  • Und so weiter, und so weiter, und so fort...
But, it IS done.. all 720pp large pages (Royal Octavo... sort of - 234 x 156mm) of it (a few blanks to round things up nicely) - though I have admit that whilst certain bits still make my spine tingle the bulk of IT is just Stuff That I Did. (hmmm... if Stuff were more interesting that could make an interesting title for an autobiography).

So... in about a month's time it should turn up in hard-copy, at last...

Notice has been given on the apartment and so the last day of occupation should be 24th March 2010... home beckons (see thoughts on Home in "IT" for an explanation of that that feels like).. and then some new adventure... Soon it will be farewell to Budapest - a lovely city, hot in summer, cold in winter but always invigorating - and Hello England! again.

I'm not sure it's actually sunk in yet... perhaps when I have a volume in my hands. Now all I have to do is find an agent, get the car sorted for returning to Blighty, sort out immigration stuff, fix up my LinkedIn profile, get revenue generating (= "a job") and so on... but first I think I've earned a bit of a break - all I have to do is work out what do with it.

But that's just Stuff. Old Stuff. Coming soon - New Improved Stuff... with extra Stuffness.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

It is done...

The proof-read. Only took 16 weeks (from 29th June to 20th October 2009). Just a bit more reading aloud (a bit behind with that - have been doing that in parallel) to catch up on and then it's all spell and grammar check, typesetting, printing...

When will it be finished finished? Pretty damn soon. Then home. I'm exhausted; I'm tired & broke, and I need a holiday. Nearly there....

But, if I say so myself, it's beautiful.

Shared the last of the cognac (left over from the great drunken celebration of completing the narrative) with Orsi, Reka and Janette to celebrate and now....?

Stuff. Just stuff.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Phew! Wot a Scorcher!

The basic problem with electron microscopy is that it's no good for looking at living things - it just fries them with electron radiation.

So, of course, someone is looking for a way around that problem - they might be onto something.

However, what really caught my eye was the analogy used to explain just how nasty it would be to find oneself in an electron microscope.
The radiation dose received by a specimen during electron microscope imaging is comparable to the irradiation from a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb exploded about 30 meters away.
Yeah... last time that happened to me I couldn't get my hair to comb flat for a week, but at least I got a nice tan.

Hot Stuff!

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Big Bang Conspiracy & Baryogenesis

Did you know that those amazing maps of the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background were produced by a webcam placed inside a painted sphere in a studio in Pasadena? Just another put-up job like the moon landings!

No? You mean you actually think the Big Bang - or something rather like it - actually occurred about 13.7 billion years ago?

Good - we can proceed.

The conspiracy I was actually alluding to was that of the scientific writers and science popularisers who state blandly that in order for everything we see in the universe to be ordinary matter - as opposed to a mixture of matter and anti-matter) the universe had to have been created with a slight excess of protons over anti-protons from the very beginning; "slight" being here about one in a billion, i.e. for every 1,000,000,000 anti-protons there were, there were 1,000,000,001 protons. [My preferred "popularisation" of this issue is given at the end]

The "reason" for this "necessary" excess is that particles and their antiparticles annihilate: if the numbers had been exactly equal there would be no matter at all, just radiation, since every particle would have had a corresponding anti-particle to annihilate with.

The problem is that it is obvious after a moment's thought that there is another possibility - and one which is actually more coherent than positing the slight imbalance referred to above ex nihilo: we know that (yes we do, don't quibble) there are symmetries in physics and that symmetries are often broken, so why not assume that the numbers of particles and anti-particles were in fact equal at t~=0 and that the ratio then drifted away from 1:1 owing to some broken symmetry?

Ever since that thought occurred to me (as a solution to the problem of Baryogenesis - i.e. where all the baryons - things like protons and neutrons - came from, how and in what proportions, etc.) I had wondered "Well, why not?"

Well, you can go this way. In fact Andre Sakharov worked it all out in 1967 - but being then in the Soviet Union his work wasn't seen for quite some time, and it was left to Susskind and Dimopoulos to independently suggest exactly the same thing to the West in about a decade later.

Having subsequently read up on Sakharov's work, I rather thought, OK... it can work that way, but I didn't really see how neatly and simply it could be put together until I saw Susskind's Lecture 6 on Cosmology - thank you Stanford and Prof. Susskind for putting your excellent lectures on YouTube, and thank you to whichever student asked precisely the question I wanted to ask.

I'll try to restate his answer here, and add one tiny observation of my own on why the alternative (the magic of an ab initio imbalance in numbers) is in fact doubly improbable...

Caveat - if we were to do properly we would, like surgeons of old, very quickly be up to our knees in the full gore of particle physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, so following Susskind's lead I'll just talk about electrons and protons and neglect the fermion/boson, hadron/baryon/lepton/etc. distinctions, and all the other gristly bits.

All you really need to know to get the hang of this is:
  1. E=mc2, and
  2. the mass of the proton (mp) is about 2000 times the mass of the electron (me)
E=mc2 is from Einstein's Special Relativity and says in essence that from certain quantity of energy you can create a certain quantity of mass - e.g. a high energy photon can turn spontaneously into particles - and vice versa.

Once upon a time the universe was very small, and thus rather a lot hotter than it is now. In fact the temperature increases without limit as you approach t = 0 (this is the problem for modern physics: how to get rid of such unpleasant infinities by some clever theory that subsumes both general relativity and quantum mechanics) .

Temperature being just a measure of energy, it's not too hard to see that when things are hot enough, light (which is just energy in the form of photons) can create pairs of electrons and anti-electrons (they come in pairs because electrical charge has to be conserved). And when things are even hotter - remember, mp is 2000x me, so it takes 2000x as much energy to create a proton as an electron - even more energetic photons can create protons and anti-protons.

OK, the stage is set... Fiat lux! It's started - space and time are now up and running and the microscopic fireball is seething. For a while after Fiat Lux there is just FLUX as mass and energy inter-convert, but as the universe expands, the fire cools. Now it just so happens that the expansion at the relevant time is relatively slow - sufficiently slow in fact for the fireball to be in thermodynamic equilibrium, which means that reactions have time to "go to completion"... in other words, if there are 1,000,000,001 protons and 1,000,000,000 anti-protons, there is sufficient time form them each to find their anti-particle and annihilate.

If there were an initial imbalance in the number of protons and anti-protons, the period in which energy and mass inter-converted would not have affected the imbalance because every photon that became particles would become a pair of particles (charge conservation)... adding equal numbers of protons and anti-protons, or if the reaction went the other way, removing a matching pair.

But, the universe is expanding, and as it expands it cools and there suddenly comes a time at which the photons cool to the point at which they don't have enough energy to make protons & anti-protons any more; they can still create lighter particle pairs for a while, but that will stop too eventually. The same thing will occur for the electrons and positrons as happened for the protons & anti-protons - they will annihilate until either there are none left or the remainder of an initial imbalance is revealed.

And there's the odd thing: the universe is electrically neutral - the numbers of electrons and protons match perfectly. Now, if by fiat there was an imbalance in the number of protons & anti-protons, it takes another fiat to create a perfectly matching imbalance of electrons and positrons.

The most logical inference is that some process is creating equal numbers of electrons and protons, indeed we may suppose that at some extremely high energy photons can create not particles and their anti-particles but any pair of particles as long as charge is conserved. The only problem with this is that there is no such process in the enormously successful Standard Model - which is why most physicists agree that there is physics beyond the Standard Model to be discovered.

The Standard Model does not "allow"an electron and a proton to be created from photons because that would violate the so-called law of baryon number conservation. Protons have a baryon number of +1, and anti-protons have a baryon number of -1, so it a pair is created the baryon number doesn't change, but if an electron and a proton were created the baryon number would increase by 1. But this "law" is just an empirical observation thus far: we have just never seen baryon number change in any of our particle accelerators - or other experiments (such as filling giant tanks with water and watching to see if any protons decay - anything that can be created can be destroyed; we haven't seen that either and the half-life of the proton is now estimated to be at least 6.6x1033 years... which is about a trillion trillion times the age of the universe)

Supersymmetry is I believe the extension considered to be the solution to the problem as it contains processes that allow the individual baryon (and lepton) number to change... as long as the baryon-lepton number total doesn't.

There's a nice review paper on baryogenesis on arXiv here (it's for experts... I just look at the pictures...)

And the preferred "popularisation" of the Big Bang baryogenesis issue is: Given the observed facts that the universe if made of matter and not a matter/anti-matter mix and that there are about a billion photons for every proton we can see, at some point very, very early in the history of the universe not only were there about a billion and one protons for every billion anti-protons, there were also a billion and one electrons for every billion positrons, and rather than call this a monstrous coincidence of not only ratios but absolute numbers, it is preferable to consider this as evidence for new physics that would allow the so-called "law" of baryon number conservation to be broken at sufficiently high energies and for electrons and protons to have been created together and equally in slight preference to positron and anti-proton creation.

Watch the lecture - it's better than a blog posting.

Fiat Stuff - et Stuff Erat.

Thursday, 27 August 2009


Writing, as I do - more than I usually care to admit (which I am nonetheless obliged to on this occasion) - somewhat parenthetically, I have perceived, in the course of writing IT, some apparent deficiencies in English punctuation ( in addition to a lack of words for certain things and other minor irritations* with the language as a whole).

I am therefore pleased to note that I am not the only one to suffer in this way...

Here's a lovely sentence from the article A cooler way to operate atomic clocks (American Physical Society)

"Since only the phase difference of the two sidebands is detected, length fluctuations of a cavity that has a free spectral range, such that it is resonant to both sidebands, do not deteriorate the measurement."

Written here in shorter lines, the problem is not quite as apparent as it was when I first read it, but on first (and second) reading the clause "length fluctuations of a cavity that has a free spectral range" completely threw me. Reading ahead to the "such that it is resonant to both sidebands" didn't help because the un-nesting only occurs in the next clause.

I wondered whether a dash would have helped in place of the first comma... no that doesn't help. Eliminate the second comma? Possibly, but the "such..." clause should be set off somehow.

And so, at last, we come to the need for something like a double comma which serves to structure the sentence without creating a parenthetical aside as a dash would do. Here it is, re-punctuated

Since only the phase difference of the two sidebands is detected,, length fluctuations of a cavity that has a free spectral range, such that it is resonant to both sidebands,, do not deteriorate the measurement.

Much clearer! It's a pity though that ",," is so ugly. We need (at least!) one other punctuation mark.

Any ideas what it should look like - or be called?

I doubt it would catch on though - much as the "rhetorical question mark" has rather failed to gain much acceptance (who even knew there was one?)

* Why don't we have a word meaning back of the hand? Or one for the inside of the elbow? (Yes Mum, I know it's the Cubital Fossa but that's not "a" word.) I could go on, but I would have to look things up (notes etc.) and I don't have the time right now...

?~=",," Stuff?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Hats off to Hungary

(Click the photo to go to the photo's page on Flickr)

August 20th is the anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state and traditionally the fireworks begin at 21:00 and the rain begins at ~21:10. But this year - no storm this year!

These were the best fireworks I have seen in ages... the line of green, red and white (the colours of the Hungarian flag) are nicely presented along the Buda side of the Duna (Danube)... in that place, earlier in the display a line of pure white jets had played earlier, leaving a drifting swarm of sparks dangling in front of a smoky background that made the far side of the river look for all the world like a close-up of the Milky Way.

It was an excellent display - more elegant, creative and spectacular than in previous years: the colours and patterns seemed somehow more thoughtful. Of course, the bangs are always loud. Fortunately the Pest bank of the Duna is only about a 5 minute walk from the flat so not only was it easy to get to the Pest side of Lanchid (Chain Bridge - Lanc-hid) it was no great detour to get to Godor for a beer on the way back.

A cheap and spectacular night out!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Update on IT

Narrative finished 12th May; unresolved issues finally cleared up by 17th June; miscellaneous comments, potential improvements etc. in the Scratch column finally cleared up on the 29th June.

Now "all" I have to do is re-read it from the beginning and polish it up.

The recession will probably be over by then... so I ought to be able to find gainful employment after that!

Progressive Stuff

Friday, 26 June 2009


That is, four hours, thirty three minutes of non-stop Michael Jackson.

And now... Johnny Cash singing "A Solitary Man" - is that just coincidental commentary?

Ah... normal programming has been resumed - at last.

It's going to be a long day...

Yes, I will finish & post the entry (with pics! see what real darkness looks like!) on caving, but for now I simply wanted to share my pain with you...

Michael Jackson is dead...

and since I arrived at 11:00 (it's nearly 2pm now) that's all that's been played in Castro Bisztro.

I fear my appreciation for the late Mr Jackson may have taken a turn for the worse by 6pm if this keeps up.

You do feel my pain, don't you? You are sharing my suffering too, aren't you?

PS No more need for zombie make-up for Mr J... (Tasteless Stuff)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Down, Down. Deeper and Down.

Well, that was quite a weekend! Dean arrived Friday (12th June - need to put that it now it's been so long) and we did the usual - a few beers at Godor and then... not quite sure now - but eventually we ended up a restaurant nearby that - purely on the name, to whit The Marquis de Salade - Noémi and I had been meaning to visit for ages. It's not a glorified salad bar it is in fact an Azerbaijan restaurant about which good things have been written.

What a disappointment. They didn't have what Dean ordered so without a by-your-leave they substituted something else. The Azerbaijan bread plonked on the table turned out not to be complimentary at all, and my lamb dish was 80% bone and fat. Noémi enjoyed her steak though, but we shan't go there again.

However, Saturday was the day! The day for leading Dean up the garden path. He'd been told to bring old clothes and sturdy boots, but didn't know why. I offered clues. I squeaked; he guessed a visit to the Budapest sewers (I think there are Parisian sewer tours but I don't think I'd want to see Budapest's) Later, I bought a packet of M&M's, put on my best Morpheus shades, and combining The Matrix with a reference to his recent Across India by Auto-Rickshaw expedition under the team name "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" gave him the old Blue Pill, Red Pill spiel...

You take the blue pill... the story ends. You wake up in bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Anyway, by the time we got "there" he had just about worked out we were going caving. (The clueful squeak had, of course, been the sound of a bat - transposed down a few octaves for the hard of hearing post-teenager... which reminds me... I was sort-of attacked by a bat when I was a teenager, but that's a bit off topic for now...)

So here is the caving news - and some pictures. Group photo first, all (except for one couple for whom there wasn't quite room in one pic) nicely arranged on a little stone bridge. This one was taken near the end of the expedition, and as you can see we are all mellow and, more to the point, not flat, which was nice.

I don't know how far we went because the cave system runs for miles and we only spent a couple of hours underground, but it was most excellent. I had thought (having seen someone else's video of a recent visit) that it was all rather scary - not that I'm claustrophobic, but just as I feel a little bit uncomfortable when a tall building sways - even if it's been standing for years - so I thought I would be preoccupied with the thought of thousands of tons of rock waiting to come down on my head.

As it happened, I wasn't - even when crawling through some very tiny spaces. Our guide for the afternoon - Helga - had by far the best helmet light: a good old fashioned acetylene lamp (a.k.a a Carbide Lamp) fuelled from the grey cylinder in her hands in which water sloshed against the Calcium Carbide to create the acetylene that fuelled the devilish flames with a very satisfying whoosh! when she shook it. They also give a nice light that the little LED lamps we had completely failed to live up to.

Naturally anywhere one could actually stand up was called a "room" and most are named (e.g. "The Library") but, when you don't know how big the cave system is (and this is a big system) you're probably not prepared for the sheer quantity of nouns your need to pack. Consequently, the names quickly become rather prosaic... think "the big room", "the little room", etc. etc. However, we were speleologists for the day (rather than speleolinguists - eh? - well, it exists now) and rather more interested in just being underground and what underground actually looks like. Are there interesting formations, fossils, dwarves, goblins, orcs...?

Interesting formations? Well, nothing truly spectacular but there were two named features - The Ghost (rather more gargoyley than ghosty if you ask me, but no one did), and Winnie the Pooh (see below). There was however also some odd, unnamed flooring (if that's not an odd way of describing a cave floor in itself) that looked rather as though someone had set a load of large round pebbles into a bed of concrete - and a few in situ fossils (fossiliak in Hungarian - had to learn that specially) - all sea-shells. And that about wraps it up for objets of interest, as such.

Here you can see yours truly completely failing to pass through the hole called Winnie the Pooh (because it would be all to easy to get stuck, with or without additional hunny load). I did manage to get my head and both shoulders through with a bit of effort but thought that there was a good chance of getting stuck if I tried to pass my chest through it to... so I retreated gracefully (well, as gracefully as one can with Helmet Hair)

Noémi however fared much better - indeed she passed right through.

Just before we came out we stopped and turned out all the lights. Total darkness is a very rare sight - so I took a picture of it for you. There it is - complete darkness. And it wasn't at all scary - even when we all stopped speaking/sniffing/shuffling and sat in silence too. Though Helga did say that if you sit in the complete darkness for about 45 minutes you start to hallucinate, we didn't stay that long.

So, there you have it.. them... Caves: big holes in the ground that contain varying kinds and quantities of interesting Stuff and a whole lotta dark.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Supernova Theory

Science Daily reports a potential Type Ia explosion remnant in the Small Magellanic Cloud (see here for the original Chandra report) with unusual characteristics: this remnant is lobed rather than circular.

Now, it's probably a naive thought but a simple axplanation occurs to me: since Type Ia supernovae are the result of accumulated hydrogen from a companion star detonating, the variation in morphology could be explained by the nature of the companion and consequent disparities in angular momentum.

Consider a white dwarf rotating and accumulating mass from a large, nearby companion; I would expect it to be tidally locked in its rotation and thus to have relatively low angular momentum. Consequently, upon detonation the equatorial matter would spread easily. Now consider another white dwarf whose companion star is farther away/lower mass... it might not have been spun down and so might possess considerably more angular momentum (even though it would probably take longer to accumulate the necessary critical mass) so when it does eventually go bang equatorial matter experiences a smaller deflection, perhaps leading to confinement and more effective channelling of the explosion towards the poles.

What does the companion to this star look like? Don't know... unfortunately. However this is at least a testable hypothesis.

If you object to this line of reasoning please say so!

Banging Stuff

Update 21st Feb 2010... More recent work suggests the majority of Type 1A's are caused by the collision of white dwarfs... see here for details.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Red Tape

'Er indoors is trying to get a new passport... I am annoyed as only an Englishman can be that they want my life history before she can get a passport. However, more to the point, the consular staff concerned specifically required my identity document - that piece of paper that says where I live - and no, my passport would not suffice.

I said the British have no such paper; when that was passed on there were (implicit) howls of derisive laughter. The British Embassy offered to speak to them, but they wouldn't call and get it from the horse's mouth. I rang the other country's consular department at the embassy in London and they, of course, agreed. However, Mr I-Am-The-Expert here insisted that there was nowhere in the world where one didn't have such a piece of paper. He did however agree to call his counterpart in London - if he could use my mobile phone! - and was eventually persuaded by someone he knew.

"Interesting" was the full extent of his acknowledgement. All I have to do now is produce letters with my address on e.g. bank statements (it's just like renting a video really it seems...)

As to why I don't want my life history stored left, right and centre you only have to read the latest story from the UK in which the RAF has admitted about 500 DV (Developed Vetting) reports (required for high security clearance) have been stolen. Bloody hell... if they can't keep that stuff secure!

Oh - and YOU - see the reply to your last comment on Piggies!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

This little piggy...

By implicit request ("popular" would be an overstatement)

Questo porcellino andata al mercato
Questo porcellino restata sui casa
Questo porcellino mangiata rosbif
Questo porcellino non e mangiata niente
Questo porcellino urlato... ui ui ui ui (ad libitum...) tutte le strada di casa

Corrections welcome...

And as a bonus...

"Si six scies scient six saucisses, six cent six scies scient six cent six saucisses"... which even the French have trouble saying/hearing

The arch-duchess's shoes are probably dry by now...

Tongue Tripping Stuff

PS "a Czech cricket critic"

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Cliff Wherefrom I Hung

So, what did happen just as I was about to complete "IT".

Well, there I was, approaching the dénouement at last - I had perhaps an hour's more work to do - when it suddenly occurred to me that the screen on my laptop seemed a bit dim... this usually happens when it has switched to battery power and I thought that the power lead must have become unplugged.

But it hadn't! (can you feel the tension building)

I looked down at the power supply and saw - to my horror - that the little green light was no longer shining bright. This was my worst fear - death of the power supply!

Oh dear. Still under Rock's excellent 3 year warranty (thank you Rock for sending for the replacement hinge a while back) but it would take several days at least to get a replacement.

And then it dawned on me that the lights had gone out in Castro. Ah! A fuse has blown.

But, as it turned out, it must have been a very big fuse, because it wasn't just Castro that was affected... the rest of Madach ter seemed strangely dark... there was no sign of artificial lighting anywhere... it was quiet... too quiet.

It seemed that someone was trying to delay the completion... if necessary by darkening a substantial part of Budapest - though why I can't fathom. I struggled on on battery power (well, the laptop struggled on battery power, I struggled on on nervous excitement and tension... would the battery last?) hoping that the aged Lithium battery could hang on long enough that

a) I could finish
b) I could actually save the finished document before the laptop died.

I couldn't... I managed to shut the system down securely only seconds before it would have died, but IT was not yet finished. How long would it take for power to return? There was no way of knowing. I could only wait...

So I waited, the power came back on less than an hour later and I finished about five minutes after that (~14:22)... and then got very, very drunk and eventually (~21:00 and almost a whole bottle of cognac later) had to be helped home by Csaba. Don't really remember that.

As to why it was necessary to delay the completion for ~1 hr I guess I shall never know... maybe someone was just building the tension... by removing the tension (ha ha!).

Electrifying Stuff


Thanks (tak?) to anonymous for posing the perfectly cromulent question (in a comment to "IT'S DONE") "Can you recite Jabberwocky in German whilst standing on those stilts?" (what stilts? Perhaps these?)

The answer is, no. Because I don't recall Jabberwocky in German. (or French...)

MY question is: who is anonymous? There are very few people with whom I have discussed translations of Jabberwocky... one is Swedish, if I recall correctly (and if my senescent brain is taking up the mantle of perfect recall, was the conversation in Cambridge? Did I refer to Douglas Hofstadter's book Godel, Escher, Bach?)

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009


Castro Bisztro and the author are pleased to announce the completion of IT - the book - the book you never thought would be finished. Yes I still have to correct and proof it but the story is complete. All 306,000 words of it.

I am now going to enjoy several very large cognacs.

And then a few more.

And later I'll tell you what happened just as I was about to finish (we call that a cliffhanger in the trade).

Satisfying Stuff!

Monday, 11 May 2009

*Nearly" Done

Yes, "IT" is nearly done (watch this space, seriously) - but I mean the story, not the whole project (still have corrections and proofreading to do but it will be the first time there has been an end-end story). However this post is not so much about literary achievement as nerdulent smugness...

As part of the aforementioned forthcoming proofing process the book will be checked for various, grammatical, syntactic, rhythmic, stylistic and other infelicities - such as over use of certain phrases and words and the use of words just too obscure to be easily digested.

To this end I wrote some concordance code - i.e. a program that works through the whole text and accumulates lists of all single words, all double word pairs and all triple words combinations and links them to the source text, which lists are then sorted alphabetically and placed in a spreadsheet (which links back to the text so that I can inspect individual occurrences).

Now, when I wrote the code, the sort algorithm was very simple - and slow. So I improved it with some cool tricks that sorted all three groups at once and did a few other neat things, but since I didn't really investigate sort algorithms even the improved code was slow - just not quite as slow as it had been (it's running in VBA as well): there's a note in the code to the effect that "by the time the book reaches 100,000 words this will be soooooo slow."

Now the book is >300,000 words. I started a concrodance running Saturday morning on the old, old 1.4GHz Athlon powered desktop PC knowing it was going to take an age, but even I was shocked. Eventually I discovered the sort alone took over 29 hours to finish (and tabulating the results into Excel took a further 8 hours or so), but even while it was running it seemed desirable to rewrite the code.

I'd found and implemented a QuickSort a long time ago, and decided to rejig it for the present purpose. It took a couple of hours, but after some preliminary testing (and still the other PC was chugging away, indirectly consuming gigatonnes of CO2 even as it performed a glacial sort) I was ready to try it out on "IT".

Everything sorted in about three and half minutes! Direct comparison showed that the new sort was 500x faster, but after allowing for the fact that the new code was running on my Core 2 Duo laptop and that the laptop was about 5x faster than the desktop, that's still a 100x improvement!

Result: QuickSort really is quick, even with very large arrays.

However, interesting results from perusing the 80MB of concordances generated were that the vocabulary of the book seems quite limited and there weren't as many outrageous words as I had thought.

There are about 15,000 words unique words, which number comes down to about 9,000 once the roots of the words had been identified so that "decay", "decays", "decayed", "decaying" etc. are considered as one item of vocabulary (I used Porter Stemming code I found somewhere and ported to VBA). So, maybe it won't be quite as linguistically challenging as I had feared... at least vocabularistically.

That's all for now - have to Do if it will be Done.

Marathon Stuff.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Yes! You (will have) read it here first! (If you keep on reading)

During an interview with the BBC broadcast today on BBC World Service "radio" (re Seal culling), Stockwell Day, Canadian Minister of International Trade, accidentally revealed the TRUTH about sheep farming (at least in Canada).

"Sheep are killed for their wool."

(Honestly, that's what he said. I don't know whether the broadcast "The World Today" can be downloaded rather than streamed, but if it can and you don't believe me check for yourself.)

And there I was thinking wool was a renewable resource.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Web 2.0

Well, when even the BBC gets round to ridiculing "Web 2.0" it's time to make a comment...

Yes, maybe it did achieve what Tim O'Reilly wanted but... ugh... and everybody wants to now what's next because, y'know, "Web 2.0" is like, so, legacy.

Unfortunately the answer is that you are already using Web 2.700.1.237 (alpha) Build 591 LITE.

Please try to keep up.

Personally I think the way forward is to prefix Web - as in flatWeb, actiWeb, dynaWeb, ubiWeb, uberWeb, and when we run out of intensifiers just at more b's at the end...

Actually, maybe we had The Web... then the Webb, and soon (?) theWebbb.

but I'm hanging out ffor the stuffffWebbbb.

(Wasting-my-time- stuff)

Friday, 3 April 2009

Thanks for the fish?

Exciting news - a large population (6000+) of Irrawadday dolphins has just been discovered.

This is particularly noteworthy because:
"Each discovery of Irrawaddy dolphins is important because scientists do not know how many remain on the planet"
Eeek! When, where, and how did they leave? Maybe Douglas Adams was right.

Squeaky Stuff.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

An answer to the problem of Identity.

I'm not quite sure what A. C. Grayling was seeking to achieve in his latest piece for New Scientist Brain science and the search for the self because after a beautiful build-up he suddenly stopped and enjoined his readers to head off to the review of The Ego Tunnel on page 44, which lack of a proper conclusion to his own piece was a bit of a let down: I want to hear what Grayling has to say in Grayling's column - if I also I want to read a book review I can do that too.

Grayling has been writing for New Scientist since 2007, when he and Lawrence Krauss became columnists. Krauss, being primarily a scientist, has reaped the wrath of the readership on more than one occasion (see e.g. The free lunch that made our universe) for apparently taking the relaxed forum of a popular science column a little too lightly (notwithstanding the fact that New Scientist has described itself as a magazine "of ideas" rather than a science magazine), but Grayling has generally fared better. However, just as Krauss was rightly upbraided for posing the question "Why..." - the very posing of which implied a newly discovered answer of revelatory significance - then ditching "Why?" in favour of "How..." - whose answer was far, far less interesting, Grayling also needs a gentle rebuke for leading the readership up the garden path (although it was a very pretty walk).

OK, wrist slapping over, let's return to what Grayling actually wrote. The issue was the problem of "personal identity", which first came to prominence in Western philosophy in the work of John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the chapter Of Identity and Diversity.

The question of the continuity of identity - and personal identity in particular - has been a constant irritant ever since, and, as philosophers are wont to do they have constructed a number of "problem cases" to highlight the difficulties. Such cases include The Ship of Theseus and Bernard Williams' consideration of the apparent duplication of Guy Fawkes (but in passing, let me also say how much I have appreciated Peter Unger's work on personal identity), but to skip ahead (I'll come back to the problem cases later) the whole point of this post is to suggest an answer (and another perspective on the questions "Who am I?" and "Who are you?")

And that answer is: given the numerous criteria that might be applied for determining personal identity and the usually conflicting answers obtained by applying them, the decisive factor in determination of personal identity should be the intended application of the answers obtained, i.e. the choice of criteria to employ (and hence the utility rather than validity of the answers) should be dictated by what we intend to do with the information obtained.

For example, let's consider the Guy-Guy, Fawkes-Fawkes problem - I'll restate the general idea in my own words rather than follow Williams' original presentation.

Suppose that we are presented with two people who both claim to be Guy Fawkes, the infamous expediter of the Gunpowder Plot episode of English history. Now having died in 1606 (apparently having escaped the disembowelling and quartering parts of his sentence) his reappearance over 400 years later presents significant challenges (to understate the position ever so slightly) for our understanding of biology, physics... well, for our understanding full stop I suppose. But let us suppose that, regardless of how improbable it might seem, we decide to determine formally whether either of the two likely pretenders is in fact Guy Fawkes.

Both men look like Guy Fawkes; under questioning by scrupulous historians, both are equally accurate in their apparent recollection of their past lives; DNA testing, using a lock of (the dead) Fawkes' hair as reference shows not only are both men genetically identical, they are also indistinguishable from the original Guy Fawkes where the original DNA was sufficiently well preserved to permit comparison. If there had been only one of them, it would have been almost unreasonable to deny his identity, the obstacle to identification in the case as stated is the duplication.

Had the death of Fawkes not been well attested and the conundrum was being addressed in say 1609 rather than 2009 (therefore of course neglecting the DNA evidence) we would almost certainly have said that one of the two men was Fawkes and the other was an imposter. But after 400 years of gentle mouldering, being unable to conceive how such a thing could be, we would be reluctant to identify either man as Guy Fawkes - however, even if we did allow the possibility that he had somehow returned, they can't both be Guy Fawkes: a central element of our consideration of personal identity is that of uniqueness. And yet all the evidence says otherwise... how are we to resolve the issue?

Firstly, if we can't understand how one Fawkes could reappear, our manifest ignorance should at least allow us to shrug and say, "Well - if one, why not two?", but that does not answer the question as to whether the two men are Guy Fawkes. To which the simple answer I wish to suggest is that they were both Guy Fawkes while at the same time making it explicit that I have no idea how to characterise who they are now: we simply don't have the concepts or language to describe the evolution of personal identity because it is counter to the fundamental concepts of uniqueness, continuity, and so forth. All references to "who we are" point to the past.

But if we accept that they were Guy Fawkes we could learn a lot from them - their complete DNA could be examined for genetic indicators of a disposition to violence, for example, or for genealogical purposes that the damaged DNA recovered from the dead Fawkes might not have supported; we could fill in the gaps of our historical understanding of events at the turn of the 17th century and so on.

But suppose now (Scenario B) that upon examination of Guy-Guy, Fawkes-Fawkes we find that one is apparently genetically identical with the original but remembers nothing of Fawkes' past, while the other is genetically unrelated and yet has incontrovertibly accurate knowledge of Fawkes' life and times.

Physical sameness (if not strict continuity) would suggest we should accept the former as Fawkes and dismiss the latter as an imposter, but continuity of identity through memory etc. would suggest the reverse. Which, if either, "is" Guy Fawkes?

That really, really irritating question "Who are you?" - as magnificently irritatingly as it was posed by Jack Nicholson (as Dr Buddy Ryell) to Adam Sandler (as Dave Buzni, the neurotic in need in the film Anger Management) - is the heart of the problem. The exchange is something like this....
Buddy: So, Dave... tell us about yourself. Who are you?
Dave: Well, I am an executive assistant... at a major pet products company.
Buddy: I don't want you to tell us what you do. I want you to tell us who you are.
Dave: All right. I'm a pretty good guy. I like playing tennis on occasion....
Buddy: Also, not your hobbies, Dave, just simple: Tell us who you are.
Dave: I just.... Maybe you could give me an example of what a good answer would be.
Buddy: What did you say? You want Lou to tell you who you are?
Dave: No, I just.... I'm a nice, easygoing man. I might be a little bit indecisive at times.
Buddy: Dave, you're describing your personality.
and so on. What's the right answer to the question "Who are you?"?

I suggest you make up your own (my own answer involves violence and is not to be recommended); the question is - if taken literally - unanswerable, so you might as well please yourself. (Ditto "What's the difference between a duck?" and "Why a mouse when it spins?"; there is however an answer to "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" - but that also involves violence).

The legitimate uses of the question are to place the person questioned in a context that the asker might recall, recognise - the personhood, life history, inner musings, etc. are irrelevant.

Useful, sensible, normal:
Knock Knock.
Who are you?
The pizza boy!
Unhelpful, disturbing, and more like me on a bad day
Knock Knock.
Who are you?
The man who as a child liked to weld glass with the electric arc produced by a salvaged Extremely High Tension power supply from an old television, who, through a sequence of events that need not concern us now, is currently employed as a pizza delivery boy and has the pizza he has reasonable grounds for believing you recently ordered.
Thus the question, "Which of our pair is the real Guy Fawkes?"should be seen as meaningless - there is no is-ness in identity, there is only was-ness.

Which brings us back to the Ship of Theseus (random Athenian trireme illustrated); to quote from Wikipedia the origin of the paradox:

According to Greek Legend as reported by Plutarch,

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Plutarch, Theseus[1]

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. As a corollary, one can question what happens if the replaced parts were used to build a second ship. Which, if either, is the original Ship of Theseus?

Since no two things presented to us are or could ever be strictly, exactly, precisely identical - two otherwise identical apples presented to us necessarily differ in their position - we implicitly address identicalness in terms of unstated criteria. The question of identity is usually that of identity across time - is this the same tree as yesterday, for example - in which case we are unable to compare the two instances "side by side". We must accept the imperfection of our knowledge of the state of yesterday's tree and rely on certain proxies, for example trees don't move from place to place and therefore, all other things being equal the tree here today is yesterday's tree.

In the case of the Ship of Theseus we are however presented with explicit alterations - the replacement of rotten timbers - that are merely the unavoidable changes of life (the shedding and the growth of hair, skin; the flow of water and other materials through out bodies) writ large. But if we are explicit about the criteria of identity the problem disappears.

To the archaeologist who unearths Theseus' barque, the timbers will show the shape, the design, etc. but they would not allow him to determine precisely when the ship was first built. Theseus' ship as preserved is the Ship of Theseus in this significant way, but it is not identical with the ship at the time of launch. If all the replaced timbers could be collected together again and re-assembled the result would also "be" the Ship of Theseus. And just as we objected to Guy-Guy, Fawkes-Fawkes both being "Guy Fawkes" on the basis that there cannot be two things the same as one previous thing (which we might characterise as the Principle of the Conservation of Identity) we are also obliged to ask which is the real ship or to state that neither is.

The answer is of course that they both were the Ship of Theseus - and now they are something else. Such duplication just cries out for a new label, so let us refer to instances of an entity as an Incarnation. Given two Incarnations of Theseus' ship, neither "is" The ship, but the two incarnations may equally lay valid claim to having been The ship. Ditto Guy-Guy, Fawkes-Fawkes - what we need to do in expressing identity is to be clear about the relevant characteristics... for the purposes of X, A & B may be identical, but for purpose Y they could be non-identical.

I think that's enough for now.

... The Same Old Stuff

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

No cigar

Not even close! But no surprise there.

The results of the FQXi Time Essay competition are now in and as expected the luminaries shone bright. Julian Barbour's essay won the (well deserved) first prize; Ellis and Rovelli and other recognisable names also scooped prizes but there was also recognition etc. for many other interesting submissions from researchers I was previously unfamiliar with (I particularly liked What Makes Time Special by Craig Callender)

The only downside here (well, I say the only downside... $$$ would have been handy!) is that I am still none the wiser about whether the issues I perceive with wormhole time machines are valid or not. That's actually a double-bummer really.

So... should you be a random relativist unexpectedly suckered in by a Google search for FQXi, Julian Barbour, etc. and have a few minutes to spare do feel free to disabuse me - I would be very grateful.

They do say it's the taking part that counts, but if no one can even tell you whether you completed the course...

Obviously I have unresolved issues.

[And to coin a neofranglaisism, a propos pantological science essays... "Le tat, c'est moi!"]

A bientot, Stuff Seekers!

Friday, 6 March 2009

Curate me gently...

Oh dear! - and yet, Oh my! How wonderful!

Once upon a time there was a great little company called Walton Radar Systems, a.k.a WRS. I joined Walton straight from university (having, I thought, learned some electronics and programming in the course of my 3rd year cosmic ray counting project - how wrong I was!) and stayed for just over twelve years, progressing slowly from "Test Engineer" to the useless position of Business Development Director (not my idea, that last step) at which point we finally parted company; I never did get on with the MD Mike Jones as well as I had with his father, who he succeeded.

So what's all this moist-eyed retrospective in aid of? Well, Walton did all sorts of wonderful Stuff - radar video recording systems, data storage and display systems for nuclear power, mag tape systems - some of which might even still be in use (we always did make Robust Stuff).

Alas there is one system that is clearly no longer required - the secondary radar data recording system designed and built for the UK CAA and previously residing at the London Air Traffic Control Centre (LATCC) at West Drayton, but it seems that part of it - and thus a little part of me - has ended up in The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC).

I spotted the news release about "IRIS" (Independent Radar Investigation System?) on The Register and thought - "Hey, I remember that! Where's the actual recording equipment that WRS supplied in 1990?" (the five racks of equipment in the picture left - three racks for recording, one for replay... and obviously another one whose purpose I can't recall at the moment).

Those were the days when the 2x 2.3GB tape drives in each rack were, like, y'know, Wow! Over two gigabytes? Nowadays of course I wouldn't even look at a memory stick with that little storage, but for its day this system was a marvel - multichannel, instant access, intelligent digital data recording with touch screen interfaces - that replaced a clumsy, analogue reel-reel tape recording setup. You could even do Instant Replays from disk - just in case something fell out of the sky and you couldn't recall exactly where it was last seen... for instance. [The recording systems we did for the Royal Navy recorded all sorts of interesting Whizz Bang Stuff - alas I would have to log all your IP addresses and come round and shoot you for reading this blog if I said any more]

But those were the days when I was genuinely a world expert in something (as opposed to being merely a Doer of Stuff now)... and whilst I might still aspire to be again, looking at Sun-Tzu's description("Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible") I think it's time to admit I am rarely inaudible and shall not pass that way again.

Anyway, I was put in touch with Ben and Peter at TNMOC and they said, Yes! they did in fact have the "RARE" system (RAdar Recording Equipment) we had developed for LATCC.

So, after all these years, time again to say - with Frank Admiration - well done to everyone who worked on that project. Poor little Walton - a marvel of a company for quality, competence and creativity. It is alas no more. It was one of those companies where everybody knew what they were good at and did it excellently, which is why, although I wasn't that bad as engineer (I could only really do digital Stuff, and Geoff Allan was a hardware wizard at analogue as well) I drifted off into other Stuff... [What happened to Walton? A sad tale for another time - but in short: sold, micro-mismanaged by the new US or Canadian owners, then dumped for not being allowed to do what it did well when it had been allowed to get on with it.]

RARE was my baby - I conceived the digital recording system, I bid it to the CAA (competitively) and we won... and then a pair of brilliant engineers turned the specs and concept into reality - with their usual verve. I was PM - and did all the documentation as well as far as I can recall, which makes it slightly embarrassing that I don't seem to have copies of any of it... though it could still be on the old Macintosh Quadra I still have (though not with me in Budapest). If I find anything when I get back to Blighty I'll pass it on to TNMOC. It was a great project - delivered on time, to budget, and worked first time.

Unfortunately, TNMOC only seems to have one set of tapes - and given that I wrote the tape handling procedures I can't help thinking that either the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (or someone else) still has some safely tucked away - or that someone wasn't following procedures...

But enough of that! I wonder what else WRS did is still out there somewhere?

Geoff Allan (that's Geoffrey "Chainsaw" Allan in case of confusion), Eddie Richardson, Andrew Beattie, Dave Williams, Dave Bunce... and the rest of the Walton crew where are you know?

Nostalgic Stuff.

Well, well, well...

From the OED

Care (noun 2)... 15th Century... obsolete... "a kind of stuff"

Nuff said!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Book

Yes, I am nearly at the end of the 2nd draft (which will be the first time the story has been complete, end-to-end) and we've just reached 280,510 words... only a few pages of the marked up 1st draft left to process but they are being pushed backwards by new narrative.

It's going quite nicely at the moment - thought I might have finished Draft #2 last week but the Q was "... and what sing will the fat lady sing?" to which, until recently, I hadn't the faintest idea. But now I do.

After that it will be a review of the (many but hopefully minor) issues I've noted en route and a complete re-read and then... well... we shall see.

So that's it really. You will find me at Castro Bistro, Madach Ter, Budapest from 11-18:00 local time, Mon-Fri (or, in local parlance Hetfotol-pentekig - plus a few accents that Eng. blogging doesn't support)

Long winded stuff (condensed)

Friday, 30 January 2009

God Agrees With Darwin, Immodest Deists damned

Very recently, New Scientist (one of my daily science reads) headlined "Darwin Was Wrong"" on the cover. Inside, the article "Why Darwin was wrong about the Tree of Life" explained, quite reasonably that the simple evolutionary relationships between organisms implied by the tree structure that Darwin envisaged was rather more complicated.

Now that DNA sequencing is a standard tool of molecular biology we are able to examine the genomes of an extremely wide variety and great number of organisms. We can inspect the plasmids of bacteria, the chromosomes (and plasmids) of yeast, the circular DNA of of mitochondria or any other organelle (such as the photosynthetic chloroplasts of plants) that contains genetic material, and having done so we find that bits of DNA have moved around rather more than can be explained by simple "vertical transfer" from parent to offspring.

The existence of an alternate route - "horizontal gene transfer", or HGT - should come as little surprise: the very existence of organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts points to a "Tree of Life" with hidden convergences in its branches: what are now organelles are descended from once independent organisms that were somehow absorbed. Such endosymbionts (internally symbiotic organisms) are however only the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks to the publicity concerning the possibility of an Avian Flu pandemic we are all aware that viruses are not necessarily limited to infecting a single host species - they can "jump" species. DNA replication, although remarkably accurate is not perfect: shit happens, genetically speaking, from time to time. When errors occur, they may be so disastrous that nothing works properly at all, but they may be more subtle, allowing an organism to survive but with some new capability (such as antibiotic resistance) or they might be a minor variation on a theme that nonetheless allows previously inaccessible niches to be exploited.

If two or more viruses happen to infect an organism at the same time there is considerable potential for genetic information to be well and truly shuffled between viruses. For example, something lethal could be transferred from a virus that can't easily infect people to another hitherto innocuous virus that we all live with without worry, thereby creating a dangerous and infections new virus. In the case of Avian Flu the fear is that although it is difficult for a human to be infected with native Avian Flu, it can happen through, for example, a cut; if this should happen in an individual also infected with human flu something very nasty could happen indeed.

HGT is therefore a "very real" factor in our consideration of evolution. The New Scientist article gives many more specifics, but the upshot is that Darwin's nice neat Tree of Life isn't so neat any more.

Unfortunately - and this is where I think New Scientist somewhat lost the plot in pursuit of journalistic celebrity - not even trees are trees. The simple branching tree is an ideal, our concept of tree embodies the idea of branching stems that, having parted, remain apart. Nature is not so constrained by idealism. After a bit of digging, I found the correct name for the phenomenon I knew existed: the merging of branches within and between trees - even between trees of different species occasionally; it's called inosculation.

Thus with a greater appreciation of the many and varied ways in which genetic material can migrate between organisms, we should see that Darwin's Tree of Life is in fact more truly tree-like than ever before.

But no, "Darwin Was Right! Tree of Life Truly Tree-like!" isn't going to create the brouhaha that "Darwin Was Wrong!" does. So what everyone sees at first, and even at a second unthinking glance at New Scientist is simply: Darwin Was Wrong!

Oh dear. Darwin was wrong? Consternation all round necessarily arises since all such assertions are necessarily true (I think you'll find I am at least self-consistent there), especially when they are printed - or vomited all over the internet. It follows logically from the premise that Darwin was wrong (if you use the correct sort of logic) that anyone who disagreed or disagrees with Darwin must have been or is right! This obviously includes creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design; ID'ers - the covert operatives of Creationism trained in the use of pseudo-scientific camouflage.

Intelligent Design attempts to appear scientific in promoting or defending an unscientific world-view, and so I thought it would be fun to be if not wholly scientific at least as scientific as I could be in a short blog piece, and to examine the whole Darwin and Evolution thing from the theistic, Creationist and Intelligent Design perspectives - making explicit the implicit axioms and reasoning reasonably from them with logical logic to see what we might reasonably, logically conclude.

In other words, I'm going to take the idea behind Creationism and Intelligent Design as givens and see what follows. The conclusion is surprising.

Firstly though, let's deal briefly with the questions What is Science? and What does it mean to be Scientific? Of course there are whole library sections devoted to philosophy and the philosophy of science in particular, so don't expect this to be exhaustive, complete or perfect.

Science is an art - the art creatively explaining the world as it presents to us. Science is axiomatically founded on data, observations, evidence - what we can describe and measure of the world. Scientists seek to explain their findings - they theorise, they hypothesise and then they ask"what if...?" and follow up on their ideas with predictions based on them, predictions that they can then test by gathering more data.

In doing so practicality plays an important role: Occam's Razor is an expedient, it says not that the simplest explanation is, or is mostly likely, to be right, merely that the simplest explanation is to be preferred, since if it turns out to be wrong the next simplest explanation can be examined and least effort is wasted. Science multiplies entities when it is necessary so to do. But in addition to practicality, logic and usually mathematics apply. This is not the place to discuss the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" in the sciences (though I will comment in passing that it should be less of a surprise than it seems to be) so we shall accept pro tem the idea that mathematics can tell us a great deal about the world - even when it appears at first sight to be at best tangential.

At which point I should like to introduce Algorithmic Information Theory (AIT) and the work of Gregory Chaitin (discoverer (?) of Chaitin's Number)...

Chaitin's work is essentially about randomness, undecidability and unknowability in mathematics. The fundamental idea of AIT is that a program is "elegant" if it is the smallest possible program that produces a particular output; such a program is elegant because it cannot be compressed - it contains all the information necessary for its particular and no more. An elegant program is a very paragon of mathematical beauty. Alas proving a program to be elegant is not, if I recall correctly, possible - but in principle there must be such a program... and it should be a characteristic of a perfect omnipotent being that they would write only elegant programs.

Let us now consider a complex, multicellular organism. All cells are derived from one original; they share the same DNA. The DNA may have been "modified" by e.g. methylation, but the DNA is very highly conserved. Thus in information terms, such an organism contains a lot of redundant information, it should be highly compressible, indeed one could look upon embyrogenesis and subsequent maturation as the great unfolding of a highly compressed "program".

And finally I can introduce God (God this is my reader, reader this is God) as I think he might be seen by the devout monotheist, particularly one who is committed to the literal truth of the Bible. The monotheist's deity is omniscient and omnipotent, he is the alpha and omega of geekdom. He can create anything with a word. Right first time.

Let us assume that he did so. Fiat Lux! Et Lux Erat! God created the world, placed every atom, subatomic particle, every photon in its proper place and then rested. The evidence of great age seen in the rocks is illusory because He mixed His isotopes just right to give the appearance of radioactive decay over billions of years; the fossilised bones of long dead dinosaurs were created as they were found, they aren't fossils at all - they were never alive. There may be suggestions of the passage of geological time, but Darwin misinterpreted them as signs of evolution, not as he should have done - as signs of divine potency.

God is great. His work is beautiful. We are - apart from being beloved of him and created in his image - insignificant. We cannot understand the mind of God; to attempt to do so would be at best hubris, to claim to have done so would be blasphemy. So I think the devout ought to reason.

Yet creationists - and ID'ers have done precisely this, and in doing so they make their of their belief a vanity beyond compare, they vaunt and flaunt their ignorance and they choose to turn their backs upon the very questions they themselves raise

Even if the Bible is taken literally, and the world was created in six days (whatever limits should be placed on the extent "the world"), how do we know how long a day of God is?

How can an omnipresent being "move upon the face of the waters" anything other than metaphorically - unless there was some place that he was previously not, in stark contradiction of our assumption of omnipresence.

The interpretation of a story that cannot possibly be exact, being necessarily only a part of the truth, is take as the one thing it cannot be: the literal, exact and complete truth. The sin of pride is everywhere in fundamentalism of any hue.

But the key point is this: if God is, by definition, perfect and infallible, and his works of paramount beauty, why would he have created the world in such a plodding way, placing each component part individually in the places we find them? Of course he could have done; he may choose to move in mysterious ways as he pleases - he may have created in infinite multiverse in which each variation of creation was played out. The question is: should we not consider his design in the terms that it is presented to us, on the basis that, if he wanted to present something else he would have done so.

And if it is not miraculous to consider the creation of a universe and fully formed creatures ex nihilo, would it not be miraculum mirabile to to create everything from the least possible, the most informationally dense "seed"? It might be complex to create a great oak tree, but would it not be even more demanding to see how to encode the form of the tree into a seed and to let time effect the transformation. And since God has the freedom to choose, why would he not choose the most beautiful, elegant approach, which would be to start with some microscopic seed encoding everything that should spring forth without redundancy. And where in the Bible does it say that this is not how it was done?

And as if creating a single seed were not marvellous enough, consider creating the conditions in which a rocky planet would come to be, a planet on which conditions would so combine as to create life and allow for the whole biosphere to unfold, for life to emerge from lifeless matter.

And then consider the universe, and a Big Bang from which everything comes to be. How could such marvelry be exceeded! If the religiously inclined truly believed in being humble before God they would look upon science as the tool by which our preconceptions, misunderstandings and pride are progressively stripped from us.

This was the inspiration of the Renaissance, the idea that examination of the world was the way to the fullest possible appreciation of the beauty of God's creation - and hence to inspired worship of Him.

Every new discovery brings awe, every failure to understand demonstrates the incomprehensible richness of the world, every theory and hypothesis, being merely our latest attempt to make sense of the evidence, is destined to be refined and ultimately replaced by a better idea; and does not knowledge of our inability to perfectly comprehend creation do anything other than laud and magnify the creator?

Apparently not. The course of human history is the history of intellectual humiliation, yet still humility escapes us. The Earth was the centre of a limited universe, and around it circled the sun and the planets. And then they didn't. Copernicus demoted Earth from pride of place to being merely another planet circling the sun. Then the stars of heaven were discovered to be not fixed to some perfect crystalline sphere but scattered through space like dust. We discovered our galaxy, and we are not at the centre of it: our sun is undistinguished in kind or place without our galaxy. Our galaxy is but one of billions we can see; our universe may be only one in infinity.

But, if out location and matter is not special, at least humanity remained special. We were separately created. But then we find that we share much with primates, a lot with apes, plenty with mammals, reptiles, birds, fishes, insects, sponges, amoebae... in fact all life is interwoven. We are not special. Over the course of history our self-appointed privileges have been progressively stripped from us by scientific progress; science should be the believers' hair shirt or lash - let them take it up and bear the contumely of creation.

The one thing we can still do that, as far as we know no other entity can, is think. Of all the things that supposedly distinguish us, mind - the capacity for reason and free will - remains unchallenged - yet the fundamentally inclined seem ungracious in their refusal to apply their God given gifts.

If the the creationists and ID'ers claim to believe in a creator God of unsurpassable power whose works are necessarily possessed of beauty and elegance forever beyond our capacity to fully appreciate and our limited appreciation of those works can only gro - and grow without limit - are we not proud, vain, disrespectful if we turn our backs on them? If we choose to believe that the world came to be in 4004 BC pretty much as it is, are we not underestimating God's power to efficiently encode his creation in the most elegant way possible?

To create man, in his own metaphorical image or not (for would not a God of human size and form be a diminishment), God would have relied upon evolution.

God created evolution - and in doing so he would knew he would be giving us Charles Darwin to enlighten us as to the beauty of the process.

What we have instead of a continuation of the Renaissance is an incipient De-naissance, the celebration of ignorance and a hubristic reluctance to seek understanding.

Yes, believe that God made the world, but don't you dare claim to know how he did it, and don't you dare disparage the powers of mind he gave us to investigate it.

Evolutionist do not claim to know everything - evolution is "just" a theory, but it's not "just a theory"; the details will change, the theory will grow and we will understand more and more - and learn how much more we have yet to learn... and that's the beauty of science and the world.

God and Darwin in perfect harmony... there's got to be a musical - a song at least - in there somewhere.

Amen (Theological Stuff)

Monday, 12 January 2009

Google Desktop Review

I finally got fed up with Vista's built in indexing and thought who better to index my files than the Masters of the Search Universe, i.e. Google.

So I installed Google Desktop (5.8.0809.23506) and what an eye opening experience it has been.

I was aware of potential security/privacy issues and so made very sure not to enable the "Search Across Computers" option that transfers my data to Google so that it can be accessed elsewhere - if if only ostensibly by me. I also very carefully avoided enabling
the "
Enable Enhanced Content Indexing" check-box: all I wanted was basic content indexing, not the "backup and view previous versions", web-history search "and more", or thumbnails of images. Just the basic index my data files stuff please Mr Google.

I was surprised at what wasn't found... and then I discovered that unless "Enhanced Context Indexing" is enabled Google Desktop doesn't seem to index at all! On Vista it uses the built in (if enabled) Microsoft Index - so, of course, when I turned off Vista's indexing I got nothing at all! Even when it was on I would get results like this...

I searched for "LQG" and got 10 results; by summary at the top they were described as "1 email... 1 file... 1 other... no chats... etc.", but looking at the list itself it showed 10 items which by icon were: 1 pdf, 2 zip, 7 emails... despite the fact that I had told Google Dekstop NOT to index emails. In other words, when it's not doing its own indexing it doesn't know which way's up.

Because I couldn't find files I knew existed, I of course referred to the online help. Here it says:

But look at the prefs...

Do you see an item called "Enable content indexing..." No, of course not. They can't keep their Help (sic) aligned with the application. No wonder I couldn't find the right thing to enable to actually get my files indexed.

But do you also notice that I said don't index C:? You can tell Google Desktop not to index certain locations - and you can specifically tell it to index others.

But what is not clear is that the Don't overrides the Do... so when I wanted to index only Documents, which has been relocated to another partition (say, X:) I said "don't index X:" "do index X:\Documents" - and of course got nothing. I then had to specifically NOT index lots of other folders on X: to leave, by omission, only Documents. Not clever.

However, I did in the end enable "Enhanced" indexing. But now I discover so many other things that are inadequate to appalling I am going to remove it, but I thought you should know the (further) gory details.

Firstly, if you want to rebuild the indexes you have to Uninstall and Reinstall Google Desktop. Yes, that's what it says here. That's mind bogglingly antediluvian for starters.

I also have lots of very long documents - in the case of "IT", the book, currently running to over half a million words if you include all the annotations etc. - but does Google Desktop index them properly? Does it hell! "Up to 10,000 words" - usually less "to save space" are indexed. That is utterly useless. I have the space, I want an index! Do I get a choice about trading space for completeness? No. Obviously they've taken a leaf out of Microsoft's book and decided that's not a choice I could sensibly want. Unfortunately, the limitation on document sizing is buried in the Help (sic) file so I doubt that many people are aware of just how incomplete their searches might be. Thanks to Mark Russinovich for bring the partial indexing to my attention, but since his blog entry was written in 2005 I thought I'd check - and the answer is still the same. Three years later, storage getting cheaper and bigger every day and still Google Desktop does not do what it says on the imagined tin.

With regards to the privacy concerns etc., Google Desktop does apparently have some sort of facility to encrypt the indexes but the check-box doesn't seem to be enabled and there's nothing here about why that may be. Anyway, I have cunningly redirected (using Tweak GDS, or a simple registry hack) the Google Desktop index location to place it on a TrueCrypt encrypted drive... taking care of course that the encrypted drive is mounted before Google Desktop starts - otherwise it reverts back to its default location without any notification or "please locate" dialog.

However, while trying to work out why Windows Defender is suddenly taking so long to scan the system I looked in C:\Users\Me.MyMachine\AppData\Local\Temp and found gigabytes of what looked like temporary ZIP extractions. Yes, I had told Google Desktop to search Zip files but I didn't know it was going to dump the contents back onto disk (and not delete them when finished) in what I suspect is an unencrypted location even if Index Encryption could be turned on.

Other miscellaneous shortcomings:
  • There's no filename option, so you can't restrict your search to documents of known name.
  • There's no "OR" or "NOT" operator for boolean searches, though you can prefix a search terms with "-" to exclude it
  • oh, I give up, it just isn't good enough
In other words, unless you just want to index lots of personal type emails and you're not concerned about privacy don't waste your time with Google Desktop: it only does partial searches, you can't filter by filename, its not well documented, and for a "product" now several years old and, strangely for Google no longer in beta, it still feels like an early beta product.

Google Searching on the Web: Hero
Google Desktop Search: Zero

I wonder if that old Outlook add-on... what was it called... LookOut is still around? I actually used that on a TB RAID server at work a few years back and it indexed EVERYTHING (that it could read)

Google Desktop: Time Wasting Stuff (the time I spent downloading, installing, trying to configure, debug, test, etc. etc. etc. before giving up.)