Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Tech Moves

This is going to be a very subjective post. No careful thought here. This weather sucks! It's as cold as bloody February and we're coming up to the Easter weekend. At least I have a Columba from Lina Stores in Soho to keep me going, plus three Rivette movies I found in Fopp to keep up the cultural quotient.

Finally I upgraded my mobile phone. And not to an iPhone either. Far too many people on the Chav Express (the Waterloo to Reading train) are playing games, looking at photos, and maybe listening to music - not mobile blogging, sending literate texts and looking at interesting web sites. iPhones are toys that cost £40-odd a month.

I settled on the Sony Ericsson C510 - free with a 300 minute £15 24-month contract from Vodafone and I may go for the £5 Internet, which along with the Orange £5 broadband brings my costs to £25 a month. The C510 plays really well with Snow Leopard - get the downloads of Media Sync here and of the iSync drivers here - and they work just great. I have an 8GB memory card and a special adapter for the phone to a 3.5mm jack plug (from Carphone Warehouse) so I can use my Bose noise-cancellers. The media player is sharp and clear with decent bass - for a portable media player. The camera isn't quite up to my Canon A590 IS, but it's way better than I need for this blog. Oh, and as a phone it's a step up from my trusty Motorola V220. I think the iPod Mini from the mid-Oughties is about to be retired.

The other side of that acquisition is the Asus 1005P netbook. Windows 7 Starter 1GB RAM, 160GB HDD, 10-inch screen, 90% laptop-sized keyboard. It makes my 15-inch MacBook Pro look positively hefty. I downloaded Open Office, Firefox and Thunderbird and have been up and running for the past week or so. I am not going to use Office 2007 and have you ever known anyone actually use Microsoft Works? It's a nice little machine to use. It's not a Macbook Air, but it does cost about £270 against the Air's £1,200 or so.

The only thing left is a colour printer. It has to do photo-quality and be networked - wireless will do. Haven't settled on one yet, but I'll get there. Maybe.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Another Meaningless Feedback Exercise

Recently one of the team sent round a request for feedback about internal communications and how we could make our new office a great place to work. This hit a nerve and I sent this back...

I know this exercise is about posters round the office and stuff like that, but I'm going to hi-jack to get serious for a moment.

Comms in a large company is about management "delivering a message" to the staff. Whether we hear it or agree with it is irrelevant: the job is done when the words are spoken. We're a publicly-quoted company and Stock Exchange regulations mean that management can only tell is what they have already told the Stock Exchange. Unless it is has no market significance. I like (our senior manager's) weekly note, but the rest of the printed comms and the articles on the Intranet are internal PR and describe a world where everything is good and the sun always shines. Not the company I work in.

Can we make this a great place to work? Not when so many other people seem to be busy making it frustrating and irritating to work here. In the short time since the takeover, the bureaucracy has run completely out of control. I am far from the only person who feels this way. Here are just some of the irritations:

I have 10 passwords for internal systems from logging on to my laptop to making travel bookings. I could get more but simply don’t use the additional systems. The existing systems have out-dated organisation charts, names and job titles. Every time we want to use a new system, we have to tell it our details.

We have managers who have been in post for six months and more and are still not registered with the bureaucracy for their relevant sign-offs.

The data security measures come across as distrust. We are not the enemy, hackers and and organised criminal are, but we are treated as if we are going to steal and misuse data at every opportunity. The security is also at times farcical: we sat through a DVD about data security that told us to shred newspapers! We had internal comms written by someone who didn't know the very important difference between deleting and shredding a file. When I asked why the company had introduced lock-down on its computers, the answer was that most of the staff could not be trusted to use their computers sensibly.

We have an IT support desk that doesn’t know what software it supports. We have restrictions on the size of e-mail attachments but no company-wide way of sending large files to each other. We have no collaboration software – which you can get for free from Google Docs!

We have no documentation for the databases we use – even the Group Data specialists say they would talk to the person with product knowledge to find out which tables are the “good” ones. We have no official support from Group Data.

We have an integration process so out of touch with the business it was going to implement an unworkable solution to providing Brand information – until we found out by chance and raised hell. That's just one example and I have no doubt I will find others as I get more involved. Never forget that the grand plan dismisses the people now, but integrates the systems in two years' time. There is no world in which that is a sensible decision.

The Balanced Scorecard process took a senior manager two hours to complete, of which thirty minutes was spent on a helpline. He asked us to bear with it and fill in the forms. How about that he said that we were not to waste our time on it until HR made it useable? It shouldn't be as unthinkable as it sounds.

How many hours are wasted by all this? How many managers have decided that their job is simply to engage with the bureaucracy and have given up trying to do any productive work? How much goodwill does the company lose and how much morale does it damage?

These details add up to a feeling that won't go away because someone puts cookies out every day.

What it feels like to work here is that we achieve what we do despite the organisation, not because of it; it feels like we are here for the benefit of the “support” functions, not that they are here to support us; it feels like the organisation sacrifices productivity and morale for the appearance of compliance and it feels like we are not trusted. Above all it feels like any request to change anything will be denied because there are no resources, and any complaint will be spun right back as if it's a good thing. This is why the majority say they do not think that management will do anything about the results of the staff survey.

Could this be a great place to work? Let's get real - this will never be Google. Could this be a better place to work? Start by fixing the air conditioning before it gets to June and we're all sweltering. Get my managers the sign-offs they need so we don't have to keep going to other managers for signatures. Get us an official Group Data support person / mentor for six months so we can learn all we need to. And while I'm having dreams - make our procurement intranet as easy to use as Amazon. As for decoration? In my dreams we have a budget for some decent art - the Contemporary Arts Society can help there (hell, the guys at the Seven Dials Club did a good enough job) - otherwise I would prefer bare walls to point-of-sale posters.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Views From the Sixth Floor

Recently my part of The Bank's business moved up to the sixth floor. This has some rather good views over the West End. We're not going to be there for long - maybe another nine months - so I'm going to be snapping away whenever the light is good enough.

This little street behind an Odeon cinema looks a lot better in this photograph than it does from ground level...

And this is a view into an upper floor studio or store at Central St Martin's...

And who can resist - well, I can't - the sight of cranes silhouetted against an evening sky?

They moved into the space before they had a LAN wired in, so for about six weeks they were using ordinary BT broadband and VPN. For the first three weeks, they were using wireless to get to the broadband and even the colouring-in people noticed it was slow. Now we're all wired up and our Cisco VoIP phones are back on-line. So they're going to move the seats around again. Which really is moving deckchairs on the Titanic of morale they've made for themselves.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

My Brush With Algebraic Geometry

Sometime back in the mid-Ougties I decided that I would try to learn some Algebraic Geometry.  I did what anyone would do: I bought Hartshorne's Algebraic Geometry and Eisenbud's Commutative Algebra from Amazon and started reading. Some many months later, when I realised I had no idea what "divisors" really were, I ran across a simple explanation in Shaferavtich's book and bought that. Apparently many people have problems learning from Hartshorne's comprehensive but very abstract book. (A divisor, by the way, is a generalisation to higher dimensions of the idea of the roots of a polynomial.)

Modern algebraic geometry is not about conics and envelopes of curves and anything else you may recognise from A-levels. In the same way that Georg Cantor had to develop the theory of infinite sets to cope with zeros of Fourier series, Alexander Grothendieck developed vast swathes of category theory to cope with problems in algebraic geometry and frame it in a general setting. Of this approach, its high priest, Robin Hartshorne, says: "the person who works with schemes has to carry a considerable load of technical baggage... sheaves, abelian categories, cohomology, spectral sequences and so forth". Not to mention a hefty lump of commutative algebra. 

Why algebraic geometry? Isn't algebra one thing and geometry another. Well, here's how it works.  Descartes taught us how to take a curve and describe it with an equation such as y = 3x+4. This can be written in the form f(x,y) = 0 (y - 3x+4 = 0 in the example). In other words, a curve or a finite set of points is the solution to an equation: it's the set of points (x,y) such that f(x,y) = 0. Now let's take the ring of real-valued functions of two variables with real coefficients, R(x,y), and consider the ideal (f) generated by f(x,y). Factor R(x,y) by the ideal (f) to get the quotient ring R(x,y)/(f). Each one of these steps generates an unique object, so we can take a curve and associate it with a quotient ring. We can also associate the curve with a field of rational functions by looking at all the real-valued rational functions defined everywhere on the curve: this is the function field. It turns out that (roughly) the curves are equivalent if their function fields are isomorphic. So we can learn a lot about curves from these algebraic objects. But notice how quickly it went from something you did in school to something you can do an entire Maths degree and still avoid (commutative algebra).

The subject is cluttered with a lot of what's known in the trade as "machinery", which is one of those terms that mathematicians get and is difficult to explain. "Machinery" is needed for a number of things: one is using equivalence classes to mod out issues with specific co-ordinate representations of spaces or functions; another is to ensure that local representations of a part of a space or function are "glued together" in a coherent way; and yet another is representing a space or object by a set of ideals or filters.  The first piece of real machinery most mathematics undergraduates come across is a differentiable manifold or a fibre bundle.

The abstract spaces of algebraic geometry, called schemes, use all the machinery ever devised and then some more. A scheme is a locally ringed space such that every point has an open neighbourhood that is isomorphic to the spectrum of some ring. A locally ringed space is a topological space with a gadget called a sheaf that assigns a ring of functions (think of them as polynomials) to each open set. The spectrum of a ring is its set of prime ideals with the Zariski topology and a sheaf of rings defined in a manner so horrible not even Shaferavitch could simplify what's on page 70 of Hartshorne. When I first tried getting to grips with the definition I thought of schemes as like manifolds made up of locally patched Stone spaces (very "sort of").  As an example, the spectrum of the integers consists of: a) ideals generated by the prime numbers, b) co-finite subsets of the (ideals generated by the) primes and c) a set of polynomials which don't have a particular prime as a zero.

It's very good for stretching the brain. But in the end, I'm a logician and just not that interested in curves and numbers and other such things. I found Goldblatt's Topoi: Categorical Analysis of Logic recently and am reading that almost for light relief. It uses categories called topoi to construct alternative models of set theory. Toposes were invented by Grothendieck to solve problems arising in algebraic geometry. Hence my interest: toposes are used in mathematical logic and set theory to do all sorts of clever things, and second because algebraic geometry doesn't fit with the conventional foundational / axiomatic approach to mathematics. I will go on dipping into the books, but there are some things you really do need to study full-time, and algebraic geometry is one of them.

Monday, 22 March 2010

What's Your Myers-Briggs Type?

Someone at work mentioned that they had done a Myers-Briggs and been pronounced an ISTJ. They weren't sure they really liked it, but from what I know of them it was as accurate as any of these things can be. This made me look again and I decided I'm almost the opposite: an ESFP. That means I get energy from dealing with people or other stimuli, focus on details and facts, put personal and social criteria above "objective" ones, and prefer not to commit to an early decision but leave my options open for as long as possible.

How does this square with the fact that sometimes I will be very glad when a meeting gets cancelled so I can concentrate on some piece of programming or analysis? Isn't that very introverted? Extroversion, in the psychological sense, isn't about people, it's about your need for external stimulation (which back when these psychologists were getting going and there was no TV, You Tube or iPods, pretty much meant people). An introvert is scared of being overwhelmed, an extrovert is scared of being bored. Anyway, we can't like everyone and some people or situations with people in them are just not simpatico, so it's not about people, it's about the kind of people. If most people aren't your kind of people, you're not going to be seen around people much - but that doesn't mean you're not an extravert. It just means you are in a minority.

As for the details bit, well, that's me. Life is not a big picture, it's a mass of details, but of course what I know with experience is that implementation without strategy is blind, but strategy without implementation is empty. Where I work, we have neither.

As for the criteria, yes, I put personal factors first (is this what we want to be doing? how does it make me look? what are the other people we don't want to be confused with doing? how will it be taken?) but only because, again, experience tells me that you have to do the numbers first. The numbers tell me what to reject - too expensive, not profitable enough, takes too long, won't fit through the door, insurance is impossible - but not what to accept. It's the personal stuff that tells me what to accept after all the duff stuff has been rejected.

As for not committing? Put that down to the influence of the Rat in my Chinese horoscope. We Rats have to have an escape plan - and anyone with an out before they go in is not committing. My main decision criterion is: how much will this cost to reverse / undo / paint over / do another way? If the answer is, not much, then I'll go ahead with a decision. If the answer is, a whole lot, I will usually decide we have to do it another way, one that we can back out from. Anything with low entry barriers and huge exit costs is going to get a very wide berth from me - hence my never even thinking of marriage. I could no more consider marriage than a sailor could spit into the wind. So I leave as much undecided as possible, partly to give Fate and Lady Luck as many opportunities as possible, and partly because I prefer the process the French call engragement - whereby one eventually does something without ever actually having decided to do it. (I'm sure that word exists - I read it somewhere, but I've never seen it since.)

However, I bet that if I actually answered the questions (which I just did here) I would need to pay attention to the words. One of the questions is: after prolonged socialising, do I feel the need to get away for some peace? You might say yes if you've seen me on occasion, but you would be missing the fact that I was "socialising" with people or in a situation I didn't want to be with or in right from the start: I was being dutiful. Under those circumstances anyone would want to get away asap - and if I had somewhere with people to go afterwards, I would, but I don't, so it looks like I'm getting some peace and quiet.

I might be an ESPF but I very often live the life of an ISTJ. There's nothing that says the way you're living is how you want to be living, and looking at how you do live may be no guide to who you are. It's just a guide to the compromises you made.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Not Absolute, but Non-Negotiable

Moral relativism, the idea that there is no unique right answer to any given problem of what to do and how to behave, has for a long time been the very height of intellectual chic. Its proponents, when not wanting to simply scandalise, can appear worldly, travelled and perhaps even a little louche. To its opponents, it is the very depth of intellectual depravity, and very principled, upright and serious of purpose they can sound too. It's an argument that has been going on since the classical Greeks - who seem to be the first to notice that people did things different than they did in Piraeus and didn't seem to be any the worse for it.

The argument over whether there is always One Right Answer is irrelevant for one simple reason: the principle of rationality requires us to describe at least one set of circumstances under which we would give up that very answer even if we thought we had it. If you want to be a rational absolutist, you will have to describe any of your principles in such exquisite, counter-example defying detail, that it will never be usable twice. It will be perfect, and perfectly useless. But this debate seems to generate a lot of heat and is not going to go away on a technical point about rationality and practicality. This suggests that there is something else going on. It's not about moral epistemology, but something else. What?

There is always the psychological explanation: absolutists had strict parents or don't tolerate Others very well, relativists are easy-going and like variety. That may explain where some of the heat comes from, but it doesn't explain why the parents are strict. Where's the benefit? Strict is hard work and makes Jack a dull boy.

Moral absolutism has the same purpose as an idiosyncratic diet or the requirement to circumcise males: it stops one tribe mixing with another and thus maintains the authority of the priests, rulers and wise men. How, after all, can you in all conscience inter-marry with someone who worships false gods and has such barbaric ceremonies? How could you even sit at the same table with people who eat pork? How could anyone call themselves a man who let his daughter go around with whichever men she chose? These are, after all, serious matters, affecting our very identity and honour.

Or not, if you really need the people from that country across the Mediterranean to trade in your ports. Faced with the need to get spices, wheat, decent armour and other exotic goods, we can surely overlook the minor matter of which Gods they worship? Does it matter if they have two wives each, when what we need is a safe passage through their country? It is entirely possible that moral relativism was developed from a series of practical observations to a full-fledged theory by Greek intellectuals in response to their merchant economy's need for a theory to peddle to the xenophobic crowd.

The same principle applies to running an Empire. If what matters is getting the taxes and whatever raw materials and land you were after and being able to work and transport stuff safely, then do you really care if they worship a pagan fertility god and burn wives after the husband dies? It's about the oil, right? The European Empires started to go downhill once European women started to live in them and, of course, when the missionaries started converting the natives. It's one thing to steal something I didn't know was valuable, but entirely another to have some jumped-up woman from Surrey telling me I'm a savage. Especially when her uncle was having an affair with my daughter back in the day. (Think India, not Africa.)

That's what the relativism vs absolutism debate is really about. Absolutists are looking for reasons not to deal with Others, whereas relativists are looking for reasons to deal with as many Others as have something interesting to trade - provided they obey the basic rules of trade and communal life. Because while nothing is absolute, some things are non-negotiable: paying bills, delivering goods, honouring deals, keeping promises and neither killing, stealing nor holding to ransom. You want to trade in our country, you obey our commercial laws.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Lunch Places

Recently the gang from the office (or "me and the kids") have been sampling the local restaurants at lunchtime. Since we're but a stroll away from Soho and Chinatown, that gives us a decent range. It all started when I asked one of my young colleagues, a Japanese lad who likes his food, where I could get good Dim Sum. So he took me here...

... the Harbour City Restaurant on Gerrard Street. And very good the Dim Sum was too. I didn't get too adventurous, just up to Shark's Fin, but at least I now know what the fuss is about. This was after he had insisted I stop going to Itsu for my sushi and go to Yoshino on Shaftesbury Avenue instead...

They have a huge range, much wider than the Itsu's and Yo Sushi's, and it is half the price. It's not as homogenised as Itsu, but it is a lot tastier and way, way better than Pret. There's only one Yoshino though.

In return I mentioned this place that I read about in the excellent Londonicous blog...

... and immediately he said "you must try the bibimbab" to which I said "that's exactly what I want to do". So we gathered together the lads and off we went. And very filling and tasty it was too. The last one was suggested by one of the new starters last week, a Chinese lady who when asked for a good Chinese said with no hesitation that we should go here...

and so we did. Most of us had Dim Sum - and I tried a bit of Chicken Foot (it's cold, no-one told me it would be cold) - and one slightly more cautious young lady stuck with a chicken with vegetables. Again, all good. The real point is to get good advice: there are many indifferent restaurants on Gerrard Street. So I'm looking forward to what recommendations for an Indian our recent Indian recruit has. No Brick Lane (which is Pakistani / Bangladeshi anyway).

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Four Ways to Spend Money + One More

I ran across this on the 37Signals blog. It's a Milton Friedman thing:

You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.

You can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone.
Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.

I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch!

I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.

Actually he left out a fifth, but then he didn't know about outsourcing companies:

You can spend the client's money on them. When you do that, you spend as little as possible to keep the profits high, and you don't care what the client gets.

Friday, 12 March 2010

If Not Magic, Then Why?

There are many things decent people don't want to be made to think about and the sex life of people over about forty-five is pretty close to the proverbial one about how sausages get made. So since that's what I'm going to talk about, you may want to move right along now.

I'm not exactly sure when my libido decided to go to sleep, but it did. How do I know this? Because when I look at pretty girls or attractive women these days I never experience that urge to action, or the pain that comes when you know you're going to let another one get away. Everything still works. It's just that I don't get as motivated anymore.

Well, I am fifty-five and I do have grey hair and my face has got a little soft in the way that mens' faces do when the testosterone level drops. I look better for my age than most women my age do - I look better for my age than the majority of men ten years younger do for their age - but I don't think I look attractive to women any more. At least not the women I'd like to look attractive to. Some of it is about confidence.

Some of it is about having been in a long-term-relationship in which, for one reason or another, we never quite got round to having sex anymore, and even stopped sleeping together because my snoring was getting too loud. I had operations for the snoring but it made not enough difference. My girlfriend started getting self-conscious about her appearance - she wasn't svelte as she was when we started going out - and what with the work situation - one or other of us was always worried that we were about to lose our job, or I was out of work, or we were having hell with our bosses - the sex just vanished. I think it was when she bought a new single bed for her place  - we never lived together - that I started trying not to see the writing on the wall.

I look at pretty girls and attractive women and I see things like "high-maintenance", "married", "looking for a husband", "too much energy for me to keep up", "um, I would be twenty years too old for her", "bonkers", "needy", "looking to be paid for", "late thirties and no ring? Lezzy or damaged?", and so on. See what's happening? I'm seeing the downside straightaway. I've forgotten there's an upside.

That upside isn't sex, by the way. I was always better at that than my partners were and there was only ever one I could make love with and know I was going to finish in a satisfactory way. Making love otherwise was a lot more inconclusive. So maybe I've lost motivation: why would I chase after something that actually isn't that satisfying and maybe never was? Or maybe there's nothing like a long-term-relationship that fizzles out over a long time to disabuse a guy of the one thing he's got to believe to make the whole thing worthwhile: that women are magic.

I know, how romantic (dumb) is that? But if women aren't magic, then the whole thing is about economics: how much time and money do you invest chasing after her and what do you get in return? Remember, it's not me who has the fun in the sack - it's mostly her. So if women aren't magic, they are just work.

Or friends. But that's not what we're talking about here.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A Trip to the Countess of Chester Hospital: Part Two

When you're sitting in a hospital being ministered to by people who obviously Know Something Useful - from how to put that tube in your arm to whether you're going to live or die and what drugs to prescribe to prevent the dying part - and are Doing Good Things - like treating a teenage girl's black eye or sorting out a  schoolboy's elbow after it got whacked because he was fooling around, let alone Operating On Someone With Sharp Knives - it is easy to feel like you maybe chose the wrong career and are not the worthiest person on the planet.

The ward nurse for most of the afternoon was an attractive woman called Heather. She had come on at seven thirty and was going off at twenty-thirty - that would be a thirteen hour day - and had not had time to eat much, except some of the chocolates that my visitors brought. As she pumped the second dose of industrial-strength antibiotics into me, I found out that she visited Sierra Leone to do charitable work there every year, had also had a facial infection that made her look like a scary monster, had graduated the LSE with an M.Phil in Medical Policy, found Jesus, belonged to a local organisation that organised charitable work overseas, and a few years ago would have made me feel like a whinging useless twerp.

Except I don't feel like that now. I have no idea what she feels inside: you do good works to do good works, not to feel better about your life. Heather wore her religion lightly - you would have had to have listened fast to hear her talk of Jesus as "the absolute truth". We all have to do what we can - I have never had the memory for medicine or the organic sciences - and trust that at least a few times in our lives what we do matters in some way. The salesman who lands the big contract and the pricing manager who ensured that it was profitable kept a whole bunch of people employed and let them take their kids on holiday - that sounds like Good Work to me. Exactly how much reward is there in dealing with someone with Parkinson's who is going further and further into quarrelsome dementia? I'm guessing that's not the favourite part of anyone's job.

I find being ill gives me much more of a break than a holiday. On holiday I still have to fake it, when I'm ill all I have to do is just shut down, cope and wait to get better. I can still obsess about work on holiday, but not when I have a fever or am in reduced consciousness mode in hospital. That's the real rest. All I had to do that Friday was get breakfast and take the train home: nothing else. I didn't have to enjoy myself, put the washing on or think about work. Lunch. I had to get lunch. That was it.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Trip to the Countess of Chester Hospital: Part One

For much of this year so far, Thursday has been Chester day. Up at 05:30 to be sure of catching the 08:10 from Euston on which I have a cheap Advance reservation in First Class so I can get breakfast. At lunchtime we usually go to the Harkers Arms by the Shropshire Union canal. The Harkers has a menu running from a quality burger to an excellent suet pudding with red cabbage - I have to stop myself having apple pie and ice cream every time I go there.

Except last week, when I was sitting in A&E in the Countess of Chester Hospital, about to have a hefty dose of penicillin and flucloxacillin administered intravenously. The Registrar who saw me suggested that was the best course of action: I could carry on with the 500mg flucloxacillin prescribed for me the previous day at the Soho Walk-In Centre for what I thought was a nasty infected spot on my hairline that was spreading a little. Well, it did spread, right down to the fleshy bits around my eyes, which had blown up so that I looked like the Weird Guy in a 1960's spy movie. I first noticed it on the train up, found it more irritating as the morning went on, and then asked a colleague to take me to the A&E.

Where I had barely sat down after having my details taken before I was seen. Where the triage nurse had barely parked me in a curtain-icle when the Registrar saw me. After which I had my first treatment within about half an hour. I'm used to south-west London hospitals where it takes three hours before an actual doctor able to diagnose and prescribe appears. On one visit to Kingston Hospital, the nurses told my then partner with some perverse pride that there was only one doctor available and if he had to go into an operation, that was it: no-one in A&E would be treated for the rest of the day. At the Countess of Chester there were Consultants and Senior Doctors actually walking around, visible, amongst, well, the Common People! Some nurses in London hospitals have never in their whole careers seen a living Consultant.

I spent the day and a chunk of the evening in the "Five-Bedded Area" - because it has five beds - and had a shot at six in the evening. The plan was to review me at eight in the evening to see if the infection had stabilised and if it hadn't I was to stay in overnight with shots at midnight and six the next morning. The idea that anyone who walked into an A&E in London would get a bed, let alone overnight? In London, if you walk in, you are by definition well enough to be thrown out just as soon as the last train has gone, so you have to get a cab. I had however decided that I would rather not spend the night not sleeping in the A&E if possible, but felt pretty sure I needed another shot.

It was at this point that my Higher Power intervened. This is something we drunks have that you civilians don't. I'm not sure how it works, but it's about trusting that whatever happens is what you need to happen. I think it affects the way you interact with people: you do so in a manner that makes them want to help you rather than treat you as a pain-in-the-butt or a naughty patient who won't do as they are told. I was sent a nurse who knew how to play the system and understood that I didn't want to spend the night there if possible. She asked a consultant (in London, nurses can only talk to consultants when spoken to and certainly may not approach them) to review my case, because a consultant can over-rule any previous plan. I was seen by a pleasant, energetic middle-aged lady who looked at me, asked the usual questions and decide I could get a last shot at ten that evening and then be discharged with some really powerful specific antibiotics. All I had to do was find an hotel to stay in, which I did even though there was a Conference and all the usual ones were full. So I got a decent night's sleep, a cooked breakfast, and caught the first off-peak train back to London.

It only occurred to me just how scared I had been on Saturday morning.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Erik Verlinde's (Not Quite) Explanation of Gravity

Erik Verlinde is a String Theorist who recently proposed a theory of gravitation as an emergent entropic force, the entropy being a function of the information stored on holographic screens in higher-dimensional space-time. For the moment, just nod along. A lot of people don't think it makes much sense. According to Verlinde, gravity isn't a fourth fundamental force, it's a consequence of something else. The catch is that his something else is an extended metaphor rather than physics. To see why, we have to have a swift tour of some technical philosophy.

There's distinction between a physical property and a defined property. A physical property is one that exists even if there is no-one or nothing there to measure it: size, weight, mass, electric charge, velocity, being an oxygen atom. A defined property is one that someone needed to think up and define a way of measuring: temperature, decibels, lumens, colour, information, entropy. Many of our physical theories are there to link defined properties with physical ones. We have a theory of temperature as the movement of atoms and molecules, which causes our feelings of hot or cold and makes, amongst other things, thermometers work they way they do. Defined properties don't happen in the world if there are no measurers or definers. If there is no-one to feel the heat, is the kitchen hot? No, but it is full of molecules whizzing all over the place. If a tree falls in the forest and there's no-one there, does it make a sound? No, but it does create a pressure wave in the air (which would be a sound if there was someone there who wasn't deaf). Hold this distinction in mind for a moment.

There are laws of physics, nice-to-have-regularites, models and theorems with empirical content. A nice-to-have-regularity is the one about the speed of sound at sea level on a normal day, or how much effort it takes to cut a wire with a good set of pliers. It's what makes our world predictable and manageable - because you can have a chaotic world that obeys the laws of nature (the atmospheres of Jupiter or Venus, the surface of the Sun). Chemical reactions are nice-to-have regularities. A model is, for instance, Euler's equation for the bending of a beam (the only known instance of a useful fourth-degree differential equation). It starts with assumptions, draws a conclusion and when you measure everything, it works out. A theorem with empirical content is, for instance, information theory and thermodynamics: the terms are defined into existence, and methods of measuring them created to make sure the theorems are true: what you can't guarantee is that the results are useful and interesting. This leaves the laws of physics: these hold all the time, everywhere about everything, and for that reason, they are local and position-indifferent: most laws of physics are equivalent to an instance of the principle of least action.

The laws of physics have to be about physical properties - because they describe how the universe behaves everywhere and all the time, before anyone arrived to define sound, colour or entropy. Models, regularities and theorems with content can be about physical and / or defined properties. Nature doesn't give a hoot about defined properties - we do, cats do, but the dumb stuff that make up us and cats doesn't. Nature works on physical properties.

Verlinde is suggesting that gravity is not a fundamental force, but a consequence of other physical processes: like water pressure, which is a consequence of the mass and velocity of a large number of water molecules. Except his explanation doesn't involve any actual physical properties. Because information, entropy and holographic screens are not physical properties and processes.

Start with "information". As used in these contexts, this is -log(p(x)), where p(x) is the the probability of the event x. The lower the probability, the more information we have when it happens. Probability here is defined in the frequentist sense, as the long-run proportion of the event x happening. Here's where we hit a subtle point: frequencies are "objective" because the counts are a matter of fact, but they are not a physical property of any system, rather, they are the result of the physical properties of that system. The 50% chance of getting heads flipping a fair coin is not a physical property of the coin (and the flipper), it's a consequence of the fact that the centre of gravity of the coin is right in the middle (and of the fact that the flipper picks a random point to apply the force). Taking a mathematical function of a defined property just creates another defined property, so "information" is a defined property.

Entropy is as defined a property as you can get. Whereas the physical explanation of temperature is about the movement and vibration of molecules (physical properties), the physical explanation of entropy is as the proportion of permutations of the particles in a system that leaves certain properties (for instance, its energy and temperature) unchanged: the higher the proportion, the lower the entropy of that state.

The idea of an "entropic force" is that if we subject a system to a slight perturbation, there is a higher probability that it will return to a lower-entropy state than remain in a higher-entropy state. On the outside, this looks like a force - but it isn't. Because the system will remain in the new configuration unless an actual force dislodges it - and that force isn't Nature saying to herself "gee, there are more probable configurations than this one, so I'd better change to one of them". The force is something that, ultimately, will resolve down to lots of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism.

This doesn't mean you can't write down a bunch of equations to define an entropic force and then get gravity out of them - Verlinde does and there's nothing wrong with his maths - though you may find his assumption of some abstruse Black-Hole theory physics less than "first principles". It does mean that those equations might not describe actual physical properties and hence don't describe what happens in Nature. It's the difference between, say, Quantum Mechanics, which tells you not only what the properties of a system are but also why your measuring instruments work for that system, and thermodynamics, which describes the relationships between measurable properties of a system but does not describe what's going on in that system to cause those measurements.

That's what's wrong with Verlinde's paper: there's a lot of mathematics but no actual physics. You can't say "gravity is not a fundamental force, and to prove it I'm going to give you an explanation of it in terms of other things that aren't fundamental forces either". The cutest moment is when he cites the AdS/CFT correspondence and Black Hole theory as "evidence". Last time I looked, speculative physics was neither empirical nor true and so could not be "evidence".

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

I'm Just A Person On My Own

Would I ever think my life would be better with a drink? No. Do I feel better since I got sober? Yes. Do I feel even better since my blood sugar levels fell back below about six mmol / litre? Oh god yes. Do I feel randomly depressed, sad, unhappy, lonely and despairing like I used to? No. Do I feel happy, fulfilled, content, at peace, at one with the world around me and otherwise accepting of my fate and place in the world? Are you freaking kidding?

Actually, I don't actually feel anything, much. Aside from irritation at the incompetence, crassness and incivility of the world. This is partly because I have grey hair and less testosterone coursing through my system than I used to. It's also because I mind less about all the stuff I don't have, never did and won't be able to do. That isn't acceptance, it's just numbness.

Once upon a time I had a hole, a cavity, in my soul. Actually it felt like it was inside my torso. Some while ago, it stopped hurting and for a couple of years I thought it might have been filled, or at least that whatever it was that kept it empty had stopped. Then I began to suspect that what I feel can't be happiness, or contentment or anything else all the therapists say the normals feel, because if this is all there is, it's as real as white sliced bread.

That cavity in my soul is still there. It hasn't been filled up, though it isn't getting any larger. It's just been cauterised, so it doesn't bleed any more. It's covered in scar tissue and doesn't feel pain like it used to. It's still there. If it wasn't this song wouldn't make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and fill me with a kind of weird peace...

... and I would be able to sing the third verse  "Sober now, I'm cold, alone / I'm just a person on my own / Nothing means a thing to me / No, nothing means at thing to me" with quite so much relaxed force. Those word express exactly how I really feel when I'm not faking it to make it.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Samantha Morton's The Unloved

Samantha Morton is best known for her performance as the psychic in Minority Report and puts in a remarkable performance in one of my must-see films, Morvern Caller. The Unloved is her first film as a director: it's about a ten-year old girl (Molly) who is put into the care system after her father (Robert Carlyle in a powerful performance) beats her for losing his cigarette money. Molly shares a room with a sixteen year-old (Lauren) who is being sexually used by one of the care workers, tries to persuade her mother to take her in, gets taken in by the Police when Lauren is caught shoplifting, spends nights out of the home and at the end of the movie isn't even back in school yet. The film is cold and accurate without being bleak - a balancing act Morton and her photographer pull off throughout - and for me captures the way isolated moments - cleaning your teeth in the momentary privacy of the bathroom, gazing at a spider's web, looking at the town from a park hill - can provide brief moments of relief from being somewhere you don't want to be. The images contrast cold skies, sun and clouds with the tatty, industrial town that is Nottingham - a town that for many years was the violent / drug crime capital of the country.

The tone of the film walks another fine line, between isn't-it-dreadful sentimentality (which would have required Juliet Stevenson somewhere) and the fake street-life style of Kidulthood. It helps that Molly is not a broken soul - as shoplifting, trick-turning, gas-taking Lauren clearly is. Morton clearly decided to make the film as an aesthetic and dramatic experience rather than a polemical one (as Cathy Come Home was).  A polemic would have been difficult, because the fault with the care system isn't that it's heartless and staffed by abusers, but that it is smothered in denial.

The scene that says it all is the case meeting: Molly surrounded by her social worker, a care worker from the home, and a "senior social worker". The care worker has been seen feeding Molly toast and tea after she came back from running away, taking her shopping for clothes and trainers and generally being a kind young aunt. The meeting reduces her to inarticulate babbling, which is taken as normal speech by the social workers: their professional vocabulary simply doesn't allow them to say the things that we the viewers would say instinctively. Because, of course, Molly's vulnerability has nothing to do with Molly and everything to do with care system run by adults mostly seen doing paperwork.

The film was shown in May 2009 on Channel Four to an audience of two million viewers. I saw this at the ICA at 6:30 on a Friday. There were maybe fifteen people there. I don't know what it looked like on television, but it looked ten times better in the cinema.