Slow and steady

I remember old sci-fi stories, where the colony ship would take generations to turn up in a new system, they’d take a brief look from orbit, land, and get overwhelmed by monsters / bacteria / natives / whatever exciting thing the author had thought up. And the obvious question was always: well, why didn’t they spend a bit longer checking everything was all right? And the answer of course was that would make the story too boring.

But the contrast with Curiosity is fun. BA reports that because they’ve seen one odd little thing, everything is on hold until they’ve figured it out.

Thomas Hobbes: Fascist Exponent of Enlightement Science?

Yes really, complete with miss-spelling of “enlightenment”. Don’t stop reading just because its about Hobbes, though :-). Its really about the LaRouche nutters, I think (the connection is via the Schiller Institute). My source is Brian Lantz, from the Spring 1996 issue of FIDELIO Magazine, found in the course of trying to work out the relationship between Hobbes and Francis Bacon (was he a pupil of, or just secretary to?). But moving on from that, we have a cornucopia of delights including

Over the past century, for geopolitical purposes, the British oligarchy has orchestrated a true Hobbesian “war of each against all,” bringing about two world wars and innumerable regional conflicts including, most recently, the horrors of Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia


Like his homosexual lover Francis Bacon and fellow British empiricist John Locke, Thomas Hobbes was deployed by the then Venice-centered oligarchy against the ideas of the Golden Renaissance, which had been set in motion under the influence of Nicolaus of Cusa at the 1439 Council of Florence.

After pausing, briefly, to note that the article does state that Kissinger was correct in identifying the axiomatics of British foreign policy as “Hobbesian,” which is in its favour. But mistaken; the most Hobbesian foreign policy is clearly that of the USA); I ought to note some oddities about the circle-squaring stuff:

For example, Cusa discovered why it was impossible to “square the circle” through algebraic methods, thereby discovering what we know today as the transcendental numbers. Why? Because a linear approximation of curvature is never curvature; circular action is not reducible to straight-line action.

This isn’t true; certainly the wiki article doesn’t mention him; and indeed the task wasn’t proved impossible until 1882. The reference to “algebraic methods” is odd, too: Cusa would have been concerned with geometrical ones. But this does touch on Hobbes, who was also interested in squaring the circle. Unfortunately he decided that he had managed to prove this, which was a futile waste of time as well as prestige. Ah well, a warning that however eminent you are in one field, that doesn’t necessarily transfer across; and that learning maths by yourself is Hard.

But enough from the article: doubtless everyone will find their own favoured bit of nonsense in there. I’ve now heavily hacked the [[Nicholas of Cusa]] article. Here is a before-and-after difference and here is the old version. I am (obviously) no expert in this area, so if anyone out there reading this is, please comment here or edit there.

[Update: How Not to Square the Circle by Tony Phillips provides some interesting detail on N of C’s circle-squaring activities. If you believe that, then the LaRouche nonsense I started from gets it totally wrong: N was actually trying to square the circle and failing, not trying to prove it impossible (and failing). That article also points to an interesting parallel between Hobbes and N: both were attracted to the rigour of maths, both were amateurs, and both tried to use it to prove philosophical points (unsuccessfully, of course).

However, it gets worse, because the LaRouchies provide On the Quadrature of the Circle, 1450, Nicolaus of Cusa which (perhaps unwisely) I’ll trust them to have reproduced accurately. That appears to be internally contradictory to me; perhaps the attempt to translate from the language of 1450 to present day has proved too hard. This may provide some further clues; or perhaps N was muddled himself.]

Pop, pop, pop

nuke Nukes in Japan are going off like badly-racked champagne bottles, and the only thing fiercer than the radiation levels is the press circus (I liked that as a sort of simile-thingy, but actually at the moment the radiation levels aren’t desperately fierce). How do you folks without blogs manage to bottle up your excitement without writing stuff? Perhaps you actually talk to people, how last-century. Anyway, taking advantage of a brief surge of SB uptime (still dunno what is going on, some people don’t see any problem, but it was down for me all last night):

Some people are using the disaster to stick the knife into nukes. Like Roland Nelles in Der Spiegel. These people are clearly just using the disaster to push their own agenda, which is reprehensible but unsurprising.

But even those pro-nuke are saying that the situation has changed now: what was formerly trivial (in terms of radiation release) is now unclear (Timmy makes some good points about the radiation just outside the plant (what from, exactly) and the possibility of garbling). But, depending on how this pans out, Timmy may have been talking bollocks about the Grauniad talking bollocks. Or maybe he was right. It is too early to tell.

But… suppose what we actually cared about in all of this, was saving people’s lives, in the future (obviously that *isn’t* what people care about: there is a frenzy of axe-grinding and entertainment-disguised-as-news going on, mostly). Then, we’d look at where all the dead people are, now: washed up on various beaches it seems (in Japan, of course; and this may even be one of those very rare disasters that kills more people than car accidents do. If we were actually looking at saving people globally, we’d feed-the-poor, or educate them, or stop their own governments killing them. But that makes the problem too complex, so lets restrict ourselves to Japan). In which case, the clear answer is: people should live in high-rise concrete blocks, not in cute traditional wooden houses.

As to “The earthquake in Japan is emerging as a decisive turning point in the history of nuclear technology” I am beginning to hope that may well be true: that people will see that the plant survived rather well against a quake 7 times bigger than it was built to handle [note: see comment: this has been challenged], and after the hysterical over-reaction (in which wazzocks like Roland Nelles completely blow their credibility) maybe a counter-reaction will set in.

[Update: the SB downtime looks to be some kind of incompetent medical-spam attack from Turkey and Qatar, according to internal feedback. There are rangeblocks put in place to prevent this, that may have unintended targets -W]


* Radiation falls at Japanese plant – the story at 5 pm.
* Transcript of what John Beddington said (via PW)
* Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste (SciAm) ”By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation”

The Great Lettuce Famine

Apparently we’re all going to die because The Spooky Face means all that healthy foreign-grown lettuce and fine green beans can’t be flown in. Or so said the radio this morning; I wasn’t paying too close attention because I was sleepy, they may have phrased it slightly differently. However, when I got to Waitrose I was disappointed to find no panic-stricken queues – indeed it was quite quiet – and plenty of vegetables. Still nothing at all to see in the sky – well, other than the moon and so on, which remain perfectly clear.

DSC_4355-phoebe While I’m on the misc stuff, I warn you I’m going to blog about our trip to Amsterdam when I get round to it. And the HORR. And I’m going to tell you that I went sculling today for the first time in ages. Andy N had the grace not to shout out to me until I was on the water, otherwise I would have stuffed up taking Joy out. Up to the lock and back, glorious sunshine, I was slow and rubbish (arms-only most of the way) and I’ve rubbed the skin off one thumb, yummy.

Also, we have a cat! I’ve fought against a pet for years but eventually succumbed. She is called Phoebe, say hello, you can look forward to loads of rather poor quality pictures of her sitting on various bits of the house. Also, I warn you, we have a Roomba.

Chasing God, or Margaret Thatcher

BBC R4 had an interview this morning with two prof-types, prior to the LHC startup, and in a nod to the science they were asked for an analogy about how the Higgs particle (wot I don’t believe in) produces mass. So they said (apparently this is a familiar idea): its like a cocktail party; if someone famous, for example Thatcher, moves through the guests, they get slowed down – given mass, effectively – as the guests, the Higgs, congregate around them. “Ah thank you”, said the science reporter. “And good luck in your search for Margaret Thatcher”. “”The guests, actually” said an aggrieved prof. Demonstrating that the science reporter hadn’t understood a word of what they were saying. All he had understood is that Thatcher is famous, so is the Higgs, so they must the analogous bits.

Hackers & Painters and The Charterhouse of Parma

These were part of my reading matter for the summer. They contrast somewhat; the former is by Paul Graham and is a collection of essay about the software world; the latter is a classic novel by Stendhal. But they do link together, vaguely, in this sense:
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