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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Cutting out the middle men.

Just between you and me: you know all the big comedy stars on the UK circuit? You know who I mean. Gagging clauses in contracts prevent me from actually naming them, but go on- take a guess. (Nods head in encouragement.) Yes he’s one. And him. Yes, and her. And them as well. Yep, you’re getting them. Yes, she’s another.  Well like I said, for legal reasons I can’t actually name them, but you know who I’m talking about. Well guess what- what would you think if I told you that they don’t write any of their own material? That’s right, not a shred, word, jot. And how much are you paying for their DVDs and stadium tickets? A fortune, that’s what. Well here’s some other news. Who do you think does write all their material? Let me give you a hint. Imagine what criteria such a person would have to satisfy: prodigious work ethic; prepared to work anonymously; extraordinary powers of imagination; an ability to switch effortlessly from one comedic style to another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, without repeating themselves; regular volcanic eruptions of comedy output; extreme creativity; profound scientific and artistic insights; intellectual giant, and so on, and so forth. Ring any bells? Anyway, I’ve decided to stop doing it. And they can see me in court if they want. I can’t imagine they will, as that would just make the whole thing horribly public, and they’d have to admit that they’ve been fleecing you for years by passing off my work as theirs. But don’t worry; you won’t have to give-up your comedy favourites, because I’m going to do all the gigs myself from now on.  Keep watch on the blog for details.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Pope- meeting His Holiness

Coincidences.  I could write a blog about them. Take yesterday. I'd been in Valparaiso for a week, on business I couldn't possibly describe in a popular blog.  Sitting in the lounge at Benitez Airport, waiting for the flight home, I was leafing through 'The Mercury' looking for the Sudoku. The first few pages were dominated by pictures of Pope Francis in the streets, schools, and churches of Santiago at the end of his tour of Chile. Good for him, I thought. I'd known him as a young and somewhat light-hearted novice (him, that is, not me), at a seminary in San Paulo where I'd been lecturing on comparative theology. Anyway, I leafed through another few pages when blow me down wasn't the man himself coming through the automatic doors with his passport and tickets in one hand and a drink in the other. He recognised me at first glance, and came striding over with that lovely smile of his lighting up the place. I put the paper to one side, stood with open arms, and we met with a strong warm hug of genuine affection. The words that followed were more formal than the spontaneous gesture they affirmed:

'What an exquisite pleasure after all these years to meet your supreme holiness once again.'

I acknowledged them with a humble shrug.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The American Spying Outrage

Don't let Merkel's reaction fool you- that was all just for show. She's had the facts and figures of the American spying business for over a year. I know because I gave them to her. She thought I was pulling her leg at first (the price I pay for some earlier practical jokes at her expense), and when she realised I wasn't kidding it was all I could do not to blush at the resulting storm of uninhibited self-expression. You'd think she'd been a Hamburg docker in a former life. Fierce is not the word for it. Mind you, after she'd calmed down we had a few practical jokes of our own at Obama's expense. Spoof calls between her and me. Had she seen Obama on the news channel last night. Wasn't he the biggest ****. Did I know about Putin and Michelle. No, please explain in colourful detail. Didn't think Vlad went in for that kind of thing- good job none of it was videoed. Who said it wasn't. And so on and so on. It was a red-faced mumbling chief of staff who had the unpleasant job of introducing that particular recording to his supreme boss in the Oval Office. A nice surprise indeed.
I had a surprise of my own when I told Putin about his fictional affair. I'd expected him to laugh himself sick, as he's a demon for the practical jokes (click here). Instead he had a shifty guilty look. Who'd believe it?

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Snap-lock Golf System

Wolf-Garten is a company rightly famed for its ‘Snap-lock’ range of garden tools in which a variety of implements may be interchanged on a single handle at the push of a button. The EDSRF and Wolf-Garten are now pleased to announce the extension of this convenient idea to the world of golf, with the launch of Snap-lock Golf Concept.

Initially available only with Titleist D3 woods, the Snap-lock Golf Concept allows a single shaft to be used for a complete set of heads, interchangeable at the push of a button. Subject to the completion of IPR licencing arrangements, the concept is expected to be available from all major club manufacturers by the end of the year.
Aside from the obvious advantage of reducing weight in the golf-bag, the Snap-lock Golf Concept exploits a loophole in the rules governing the number of clubs that a player can use in competition. Under those rules, which are maintained by the R&A and the USPGA, a ‘club’ is taken to mean a head and shaft together, ie a single entity capable of hitting a ball. With the Snap-lock Golf Concept your bag contains, technically, only one club. With as many interchangeable heads as you please, you can assemble the club for any situation, and gain strokes on more-conservative competitors who insist on struggling with conventional clubs. Shorter shaft lengths can be effected by choking the grip to any degree.

The unique locking mechanism that holds the head firmly to the shaft is protected by world-wide patents, and has been thoroughly tested, both by leading professionals ‘on the course’ and almost a million swings by ‘Iron Byron’, the club testing robot.

To learn more about the Snap-lock golf concept, or to reserve a place in the queue for the first issue, leave your contact details as a comment below.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Return of Kierkegaard

Familiar as I am with Wrawsley's English translation and D'Aubin's French, I still found Kierkegaard's 'Either Or' a profoundly challenging work upon reading it today in the original Danish. I was reminded again of how difficult it is to achieve a true appreciation of great literature- particularly of its philosophical messages, its philological constructs, and its aetomorphic semiological inter-mutualities- when you can hardly make out a word of it. Happily there's a very liberal and human returns policy at

Oh ja, quite alright. Quite understand. Can't be easy if you don't speak Danish. Here's your fifty krone. Come back when you need more Lego. Passe og alle de bedste.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Exorcist

It appears that the NHS is now embracing 'alternative' medicine, although 'bizarre', 'ill-conceived' and 'counter-productive' would be more apt  if my experience today be representative. The GP phoned and left a message reporting results of recent routine physical with  practice nurse. Systolic BP up. Nothing to worry about. Quite normal in middle-aged gentlefolk of sedentary habits and gross epicurean tendencies. However, I should consider exorcising more.
Not the advice I would have given in far off days when still practicing medicine; but times move on. Old habits have to be purged. One has to accept, if only on a provisional basis, the new ideas and theories. Give them a chance, and so on.
To domestic staff were therefore relayed instructions concise and specific. And upon my return home the ritual robes and other exorcismal paraphernalia- the battered missal, smouldering incence burner, holy water in ancient thracian crystal phial, selection of crucifixes in a variety of materials and sizes, the matyr-teeth rosary beads, fragments of sacred wafer, and so on-  were found displayed in the dressing room ready for my immediate use; everything, I was pleased to see, that one might need for an exorcism.

Well not quite everything. It was after I had donned the robes, and brought the ancient thracian phial to the pursed lips in a text-book gesture of veneration, that the absence of any nearby consenting possessee interrupted my devout thoughts and immediate intentions. Bloody doctors. And there, in a nutshell, is the 'problem' with alternative medecine. There is simply not the infrastructure to support it. Had I been advised by gormless GP to conduct a double-blind clinical trial to take my mind off the pressures of life and thus provide a calmer mental equilibrium condusive of lowering BP, then a path would have beckoned trodden smooth straight and broad by $multi-billion pharmaceutical industry. Established database of volunteers. Ready supply of authentic placebo treatments. Vast international network of fellow professionals to peer review outcome of work, etc etc. But where the equivalent support infrastructure for the exorcist? Where the accepted ethical protocols? Where the established table of rates for the reimbursement of volunteer possessee travelling expenses? And so on and so on. What utter half-baked nonsense the whole scheme. Absolute madness from start to finish. No wonder NHS running out of money. I will have strong censorious things to say about this, you mark my words. In the shoes of the Secretary of State for Health I would not want to be when the next scorching post hits the blog.It makes my blood boil. So much much for lowering the systolic BP. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Higgs Boson

Peter Higgs is such a gentleman. It was so like him, I thought, to make that frank public acknowledgement of my crucial role in positing the existence of the particle that now bears his name. (I say nothing of the corresponding silence from Englert.) But while we celebrate Peter's triumph, a mood of introspective melancholy pervades the mind. Fame is so transitory, so ephemeral. Who now remembers dear old Bose, the man after whom all bosons are named?  Indeed, what tiny fraction of the public today would know the profoundly mystifying differences that set bosons apart from fermions, or would understand that we and the entirety of our universe are composed of just those two families of particles? I wonder what it says of our values, that we drum into the heads of our children random religious ideas, partisan interpretations of history, and all sorts of other nonsense, leaving them ignorant of the splendours of the fundamental properties of matter.

I am often asked whether 'Higgs-Sushing' would be the rightful name for the boson that has been so recently identified by the physicists at CERN. And always a plain 'No' is my inscrutable answer. I could explain further, but it's better leaving things as they stand, however unjust that might be. 'Sushing-Higgs' is such a mouthful.

Friday, 11 October 2013

That Snowden business

One of those head-scratching days today. The first call came before I’d even looked at the crossword. Sir David Omand for you, Professor.
Omand I met on a leadership course. I always tell my trainees they can call me any time, and some do. Like Putin and Obama, who've been driving me nuts (click here).  So after the usual preliminaries- how are his kids, shame about the fraud charges, sure the jury will see sense, count on me to help with an appeal if they don’t, and so on- I ask him straight what he wants, and poof it’s like a cork popping. And it’s all about Snowden. Snowden this, Snowden that, Snowden, Snowden, Snowden, Snowden. So I put him on the loudspeaker and look at the crossword for a bit while he rants on.
‘Some betting is corrupt and contemptible (11)’. Anagram of some betting obviously. Probably begins IN, or maybe MIS. Think a bit. Chew pen. Write the letters MISBEGOTTEN in the little boxes. Meanwhile he’s still ranting Snowden, Snowden, Snowden, Snowden. So I nudge him along a bit and he gets to the point: ‘Had I seen anything unusual in the China traffic?’  
I’ve made no secrets about my war of nerves with the Chinese government hackers. They’ve only got themselves to blame. A couple of years ago they tried that cyber attack on the website I do for the parish council, so I bring down one of their systems every now and again just to remind them not to be so stupid in future. I’ve also planted some eavesdropping code in their intelligence network, the output from which is what Omand means by the ‘China traffic’. No, I tell him. Nothing to suggest that Snowden’s leaks have set hares running in Beijing. So in the end he says thanks, I promise to tell him if I hear any news, and we sign off.
So far so good. Back to the crossword you’d think. But I’d hardly read another clue when the phone goes again. A Mister Edward Snowden for you, Professor.  For a minute I thought it was a wind-up. Unbelievable. Ok, put him on.

Introduces himself. Got number from Russians.  Needed someone with influence. Heard that might be me. Putin's suggestion. Had I seen Omand's comments.  Was it hopeless case. Could I oil wheels, open doors, smooth a way. Might bridges be built. Russians supportive. Would offer money, but know I don't need it.  Pentagon over-reacting. Public duty to expose truth. Guardian bungled. Dropped him in it. And so on, and so forth.
In the meantime I've got most of the top left corner of the crossword done. I tell him I'll see what I can do. Effusive thanks follow. I say it's nothing, least I can do, give regards to Putin, and so on, till the phone goes down. What is it with people nowadays? They all seem to think you've nothing better to do with your time than sort their problems.
Anyway. Third letter M. 'Spooner's misandrist prefers Eros to Narcissus (8,5)'.

Inventing the i-phone

Another conversation with Steve Jobs...

Diary Entry: 24 May 2001

Steve’s stopping for the weekend. He’s over for some conference and hates hotels so I’ve put him up. He’s a bag of nerves because he’s so stressed about Gatesy grabbing such a big share of the market, and he can’t stop fidgeting and interfering with stuff when I show him round the lab. A machine is coating glass with a semi-conductive film, the resistance of which changes with pressure. The process is unbelievably sensitive, with the machine fixed to a 9 ton slab of granite floating on pneumatic pillows to dampen vibrations from the floor, so when Steve clumsily yanks up its lid to see what’s happening inside I can’t stop myself walloping him. Of course he’s instantly winey and remorseful, which makes me feel guilty, so to compensate I say let’s go to the bingo. I’ve never figured out why, but Steve’s mad for the bingo, and we always go when he needs cheering up. On the bus he’s asking how I get the money for the lab, and when I tell him about the big grants he starts slagging-off governments for throwing cash at ‘pointless’ research, going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on, until in the end I’m glad we’re at the bingo even though it bores me to death. Steve’s hopping with excitement though, and when he gets a full card he screams ‘house’ and leaps up, knocking his bottle of Pepsi all over my crossword and his new Nokia 568. I mop up the mess and apologise to the other people nearby. Then it’s the end of the world, because Steve finds the dousing with Pepsi has broken his phone. We take it to the gents and hold it under a drier until the Pepsi’s all evaporated.  Then everything seems to work again until suddenly the ‘5’ button falls off in his hands. Steve’s inconsolable. ‘See’, I say. ‘That’s why you need research. That glass I’m making back at the lab- you could use that for a touch-sensitive screen on a phone, and if you’d spilt your Pepsi on that you could just wipe it off.’ Of course he’s so slow, I end up having to explain what touch-sensitive means. I love him, but sometimes he drives me nuts.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Bye bye Dr Who

This time-travel drivel has to stop. I can put up with the Doctor Whos, and the Back to the Futures, and all the other innocent fantasising, but a line has to be drawn when so-called ‘serious scientists’ start making fools of themselves.

I suppose I’ve the four-year-old granddaughter to thank for bringing the nonsense to my attention. She’d asked my opinion on two Wikipedia articles, respectively about the ‘grandfather paradox’  (appropriately enough) and the so-called ‘Novikov self-consistency principle’. Regrettably  I had no sphygmomanometer in contact at the time with any suitable portion of my body, but I would estimate that my blood-pressure doubled from my starting to read the first of the monstrous articles to my finishing the second. 

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the nonsense, let me just say that there are people whose free time is so capacious and whose intellect so in-capacious that they can happily waste both on misguided speculations on the nature of time travel. And what really lit my blue touch-paper was to see that even Hawking has been daft enough to join in. Go back in time, they say, and what is to stop you murdering your grandfather, or performing any one of a million other activities that might have changed the course of history to the point of preventing your own birth. There the supposed ‘paradox’.

Let me make it perfectly clear. Travelling back through time might or might not be possible. Who knows? I think it isn’t, but I might be wrong and that’s beside the point anyway. Let’s suppose it is possible. Let’s further suppose that you travel back to the 14th November 1858, or any other date you care to imagine. What do you think you will find? I can tell you: nothing. Because all of the stuff of the universe (grandfather included) that once existed on the 14th November 1858 is no longer there- it has gone forward in time to now; it is all still where you left it when you pressed the big red ‘go’ button in your time machine or held your nose and jumped down the wormhole or did whatever to trigger your reverse temporal transit.

There's nothing left back in 1858 for you to interact with, and so no paradox.

For those of you still struggling, perhaps a nice analogy will do the trick. Imagine the universe to be a cruise ship heading west across the illimitable ocean of time.  You jump into a helicopter on the ship and head back east a hundred years. What do you see? Nothing, because the ship’s still in the future where you’ve just left it.

So, I’ve had my say. You can carry on with the Doctor Whos etc but on the strict understanding that it’s made-up entertainment. I don’t want to read a single other ‘serious’ word about it.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

PQM Postbag

Readers' Letters

In last month's Practical Quantum Mechanics we showed readers how to use self-consistent LAPW calculations to diagnose problems with LED torches. That sparked a flood of letters with related queries.

Mrs Jane F from Dungeness writes:

Our local Woman's Institute is running a campaign against the extension of the operating licence of a nearby nuclear power plant. We've heard that the fuel rods at the plant are sheathed in zirconium, which is susceptible to embrittlement owing to the absorption of hydrogen at interstitial sites. We're running a series of coding bees to develop a suite of FORTRAN programs to perform LCAO band-structure calculations to model the risk of embrittlement, so that we can present persuasive evidence at a forthcoming planning enquiry. Do you think that the calculations need to be self-consistent? Also, how should we model the screening potential in the vicinity of the interstitial impurities?

Dear Mrs F,

We think it would be a picky planning inspector indeed who would insist on self-consistency for the type of calculations you have in mind, so don't bother with it. I'm sure your coding bee members will have enough on their hands as it is. A simple screened-coulomb potential should be fine for modelling the potential around the adatoms.

Lucasian Professor Stephen H from Cambridge writes:

Does it matter which way round the batteries go? I can't get the torch to work at all.

Dear Professor H,

Yes, the batteries need to go in a particular way, otherwise the electricity particles won't flow correctly. One end of each battery should have a pimply bit, and that goes where you see a little cross embossed in the battery compartment of the torch. If you get stuck, there should be people at the Cavendish Physics Laboratory in Cambridge who can help.

BANDIT- Ban Driers in Toilets

One of the many lamentable excesses of our so called 'civilisation' is the use in toilets of electrically powered machines to remove water from freshly washed hands. Research by the EDSRF suggests that the net environmental impact of this gross indulgence is an annual consumption of 9.3 terawatts of power, and the annual emission of 6.8 trillion tonnes of CO2, all to avoid the momentary discomfort of wetness on the hands pending natural evaporation.

I am today launching a new campaign to bring this shameful profligacy to an end: BANDIT, or Ban Driers in Toilets. While the initial focus of the campaign is the elimination of electrical driers in public toilets in the United Kingdom, its longer term goal is to eradicate drying accessories of any sort, including cloth or paper towels, world-wide. Of course, a regime of exclusions will be contemplated to cater for those with exceptional needs, such as registered aquaphobics, who are expected to represent less than 0.00037% of annual visits to washroom facilities.

My launch of BANDIT is, I freely admit, a measure I have adopted only as a last resort. I can reveal now that I have spent much of the last four years, on an entirely pro-bono basis, acting as strategy advisor to the World Federation of Washroom Facility Providers (WFWFP), at the plenary meetings of which I have used all of my considerable oratorical talents to urge moderation and restraint in the face of mushrooming consumption of washroom power. But all has been in vain, and I have washed my hands of them. Without subsequent drying assistance, I need not add.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Disorganised Crime

I hear today the announcement of a new 'National Crime Agency', heralding a changed emphasis in UK policing to focus upon 'serious organised crime'. Since the announcement the gormless media pundits have been spouting their inane opinions on the NCA while entirely missing the key question about this disturbing development: where does it leave the victims of risible disorganised crime?

Only yesterday I myself was a victim of such an outrage. Footage from the security cameras outside the leisure wing of my Belgravia pied-a-terre revealed a haphazard attempt at a break-in by a pair of bungling would-be burglars, showing all the comedic qualities of an early Laurel-and-Hardy film, as one was brained by a falling finial dislodged by the end of a ladder incompetently wielded by the other.  I can now hardly imagine the level of apathetic uninterest with which this evidence will be greeted at my local police station, where no doubt some locum civilian will take cursory details while the officers for whom they are substituting attend briefings about the NCA. I can scarcely believe what this is all coming to. You couldn't make it up.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Practical Quantum Mechanics

Project: LED Torch Repair

Difficulty: Beginner

Techniques: LAPW Band Structure Calculations, Muffin-tin Potential.

For this month's Practical Quantum Mechanics project we investigate poor performance of an LED torch. We'd bought the new Deben 'Huntmaster' torch from Amazon, and were disappointed to find that its beam was only just reaching 5m, when the product literature claimed 75m or better (See Fig 1). Given the significant disparity between the actual and expected beam-length, we decided some DIY diagnostics were in order.

The first step is to determine the theoretical brightness of the galenium-arseninde LED that features in the 'Huntmaster'. That depends on the density of states in the p-band of galenium, since the beam is formed when excited electrons drop back from the p-band to the k-band. For this you'll need an ab initio self-consistent band-structure calculation. We went for the tried and trusted LAPW method of Anderson, with an 'N=3' implementation. If you don't have time to write your own code, the University of Gotlingen has a suite of LAPW programs to download free.

The LAPW method considers a one-electron Schrodinger equation, with the effects of the lattice ions and valence electrons modelled as a background potential V(r). The 'self consistent' part just means that the output from one run of the LAPW calculations is used to generate the background potential as input for the next, and you keep repeating that until the calculations converge. But to kick things off you need a starting potential, and that's straightforward to produce using the 'muffin tin' model, where the potential is assumed to be flat in the interstices between adjacent spherical potentials of the lattice nuclei, just like in a real muffin tin (see Fig 2).

Again you can download a program to calculate a muffin tin potential. For galenium-arsenide use an HCP (hexagonal close-packed) lattice setting, with a spacing of 0.238 (using natural units).

Running the calculations will take about 2 solid years on an I-Phone 5, but you can speed things up by booking time on a supercomputer (check it's got floating-point acceleration capabilities). We used the cloud service provided by the Berkeley IT group, and finished all the calculations in an overnight run. Note that to start the LAPW program you might need to click the 'yes' option in a pop-up dialogue box as shown below...

If you've got things right the calculated energy density of states ought to look something like Fig 3.

To calculate the brightness of the beam, just integrate the number of states over the width of the P-band, and multiply by Avogadro's number and the mass of the LED in Kilograms. The result in our case was around 6,283,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Allowing for dispersion, that should easily give a 75m beam with an excitation current of around 50mA, which should be well within the theoretical capabilities of the three AAA batteries that power the torch. And therein lay the clue to the poor performance of our Huntmaster. A quick check with a multi-meter confirmed that its batteries were almost flat, so we inserted new replacements and the beam was every bit as bright as Deben's claims in the literature.

So the lesson here is that so-called 'new' batteries supplied with torches need to be checked.

New month we investigate annoying crackles in MP3 playback on an iPhone 5s. A loose headphone jack, perhaps, or could it be something more sinister? We'll show you how to run a self-consistent Hartree-Fock calculation to rule out the possibility of Block-wave scattering by evanescent phonons arising from interstitial impurities in the silicon lattice of the i-phone chip-set.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Common Touch

How dare he.

How dare he.


Teeth clench in rictus of rage. Head oscillates axially in frisson of unbridled wrath. All blood is squeezed from ivory fists by clenching spasms of  unparalleled umbrage. At last anger abates sufficiently to allow the resumption of typing...

I won't stoop to name the muck-raking, moronically opinionated, scumbag journalist who triggered the outburst; suffice it to say he is the supposed 'society editor' of the New York Times, on the cheap, sullied pages of which he this morning declared me to be 'out of touch with the common worker'. Me. Me, out of touch with the common worker. I... I... words fail me.

I know what you are saying. It's not like him. He's not himself. Why isn't he making a joke of it like he always does? And you are right to be shocked. Ordinarily, as you well know, I laugh at these things. Who are journalists, after all, but mediocre talents, tainted with resentment of real writers, typing whatever fanciful notions best serve their embittered fantasies of avengement. In my lofty and prominent station, the flaccid arrows of a spiteful press are an environmental constant, like the very air itself, and I am usually numb to them. However, this morning's poisoned barb has hit my one psychologically sensitive spot- my working class identity.

Was I not born of a poor family in the 'north end' of Mayfair, virtually the epitome of a working class community? Was I not driven to school in an old hand-me-down Daimler? Have I not reached my position of eminence by struggling against every disadvantage of class? Naturally, I am set apart from  'the common worker' in attainment, but in all other respects we are the same. Don't I rise each day at 6, just like the common worker? Don't I leave for work at 8, just like the common worker, after the shower, the swim, the sauna and the massage? Don't I do the Sudoku, just like the common worker, as I'm driven to work? Don't I stand patiently in my private lift, as I rise to my office, just like common workers in lifts and elevators across the world? Don't I suffer the same petty frustrations as the common worker- tedious clients, like Obama and Putin, the queried expenses for the fortnight in Acapulco.

Journalists. I sometimes wonder how they make it all up.