Archive for culture

Dark Horizons for Blue Skies

Posted in physics, science with tags , , , , on September 11, 2008 by Philonous

I read and listened today to David King, Chief Scientific advisor to the British government from 2000-2007 saying that there is no space in scientific funding for so called ‘blue skies research’.

Blue skies research is essentially research for curiosity’s sake, trying to gain greater understanding of some part of the nature of reality. As such, it generally has no immediate applications at its conception, although it is responsible for the theories that lie as the bedrock supporting applied science, engineering and economics.

One example of blue skies research is into discovering the very nature of physical interaction in the universe, be it on the grand scale of cosmology or the minute scale of particle physics. The Large Hadron Collider which was switched on yesterday at CERN is a good example of the blue sky. David King bemoaned the spending of 500m pounds on the LHC, saying

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial.”

Coming from a leading scientist, this comes across as patently ridiculous and rather confusing. Ok, so I might be a little biased being a pure mathematician (how much more blue sky can you get?) and feeling as if we’re getting very little funding already. This application driven point of view seems ridiculously closed minded and incredibly short sighted. Particle physics has so far produced such (presumably useless according to DK) devices as the transistor, the computer display, radiotherapy, x-rays… In fact, most of the major advances that characterise the 20th century are due in no small part to spin-offs of particle physics experiments.

Science in the UK seems hopelessly doomed when Chief scientific advisers can be so incredibly anti-science. Given this, it was incredibly gratifying to see David King (above right) berated by Brian Cox (above left), the poster boy of UK particle physics (and a Professor in the High Energy Physics department at Manchester) on Newsnight last night. He put forward the remark that on the one day in which fundamental scientific research is actually covered in the media, it was ridiculous for the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to be pouring cold water on the achievement.

If you’re reading this Prof King (haha!), I suggest that you quit your job as chief scientific advisor to UBS and spend all of your time tackling climate change before suggesting that blue sky researchers should change their focus and jeopardise modern science in the process.

Check out:

Seminars…

Posted in academina, culture, maths with tags , on August 31, 2008 by Philonous
Paul Baum (USA) giving a seminar

For those of you that didn’t know, I’m a grad student in mathematics these days. My two advisors are from the Russian school of mathematics, specifically Moscow State University back in the Soviet days. It seems that the culture of mathematics in Russia and the Soviet Union is/was completely different to that in the west. There is a much greater emphasis placed on examples and simplicity of exposition as well as a much smaller divide between pure and applied mathematics.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in seminars in Russia and in the UK. British seminars normally last for an hour and consist of a speaker talking about some part of their current research to an audience of academics who are invited at the end, if there is some time left, to pose some questions relating to the talk. Because of the time constraints, it is rather difficult to ask questions throughout the talk for fear of putting the speaker under time pressure towards the end. Perhaps as a result, there is a terrible risk at any given seminar of being completely lost before the seminar has begun. For instance, suppose the seminar begins

‘Let S be a category fibred in groupoids over a topological space X…’

If you are not familiar with one or more of these words, there is a good chance that the remainder of the seminar will be spent counting water stains on the ceiling, doodling and trying not to fall asleep.

In contrast, my impression of Russian seminars is that they have no fixed end-time. This means that foolish questions from people not completely acquainted with the specifics of the topic at hand are welcome. It seems that these seminars may last up to four or five hours, with tea and snacks served throughout. There is therefore an expectation that attending a Russian seminar, one will understand something or other by the end.

Of course this leads to difficulties when Russian and western mathematicians meet at seminars. Russian mathematicians expect to have learned something by the end while western ones are content with the possibility of being bored witless by a string of incomprehensible phrases, knowing however that it will be over in an hour.

No seminar I have attended has resulted in the following chaos, taken I think from a (sociology?) seminar in the US.  I think sitting through this would be much more excruciating, if less soporific than an hour of incomprehensible maths.

Urban Nomad

Posted in culture, internet, Manchester with tags , on August 21, 2008 by Philonous

Cruising the internet as I’m apt to do, I just came across a Mancunian Generation X of a blog about the joys and emptiness of living in the city centre. RenterGirl lives in Dovecot Towers and writes of a fairly lonely, natureless existence pockmarked by the odd Eastern European gang murder and a constant barrage of early morning wake-up shouting courtesy of students returning from some club or other. Is this the legacy of Manchester’s recent building boom? Block after block of ‘prestigious’ (?!) new developments going up unfeasibly fast only to be filled with twenty-something serial tenants, paying off student loans and rattling around their open plan living spaces bedroom mezzanines. It smacks of a souless distopia.

Perhaps I’m being pessimistic in my sudden horror that indeed, all city centres might be like this and those of us somehow drawn to city living are doomed to the RenterGirl experience.

Check out:

Giant dog turd wreaks havoc at Swiss museum

Posted in art, culture with tags , on August 13, 2008 by Philonous

No comment necessary, but here’s a quote (to read, click on the title).

A giant inflatable dog turd created by the American artist Paul McCarthy was blown from its moorings at a Swiss museum, bringing down a power line and breaking a window before landing in the grounds of a children’s home.

Philonous: Here’s a picture of the offending installation:

Man on Wire

Posted in art, culture, film, movie with tags , , on August 7, 2008 by Philonous

Le Fox and I on Monday went to see Man on Wire, the story of Phillipe Petit who today in 1974 walked a tightrope strung between the then newly built World Trade Center towers. The film tells the story of the meticulous planning involved, the setbacks, the triumphs. It is a sort of documentary mixed with an action adventure movie with some original footage and other parts acted out with interviews with the main protagonists in the background.

Petit is a French nutcase of the highest order, endowed with the classic one-slice-short-of-a-loaf eyes and the odd maniacal twitch. The footage of him on the wire is truly breathtaking and incredibly beautiful. He even comes across as rather eloquently poetic, if a little bat-shit crazy. Tying the whole thing together are his partners in crime; it was after all illegal as is made clear at every possible opportunity. Ever present is his long suffering and slightly obsessed lover who he seems to have plucked from a life more ordinary aided by his incurable zaniness. With Alistair Darling like hair/eyebrow colour disparity is his rather more sensible friend whose role it was to provide the sanity, though I would argue he fell somewhat short.

It promised to be a gripping and breathtaking thrill ride. It wasn’t. The film felt bloated, self obsessed, melodramatic and completely overdone with a ridiculous soundtrack of pretentious semi-ethereal music for which Michael Neimann presumably went to the considerable effort of taping Smooth Classics at Seven. Rather than wasting the cartilage in my fingers, I think I’ll leave it to the following scathing review posted on IMDB.

Utterly Pathetic, 3 August 2008,

Author: nickclarkel99 from Ireland

I went into this movie with an open mind but fascinated to find a character who so completely encapsulated everything that i hate. Phillipe Petite and sycophantic friends disgorged their version of events as if they had discovered a cure for aids/cancer/death. I found their admiration of this glorified clown confusing in the extreme, only surpassed in intensity by Phillipe’s admiration for himself. Petite manages not only to blow his own trumpet but also the horn, tuba and saxophone. This event seemed primarily concerned in stroking the ego of Phillipe and his desperate aching and repulsive need for approval, probably motivated by a childhood lack from his military father. I eventually felt sorry for Phillipe, though he seemed perfectly happy continuing on, riding even now the wave on his perceived greatness. Though this is like pity for a dog one thinks has a boring life – pointless, Petite is bizarrely fulfilled and to reveal to him the irrelevance of his deed would surely crush his fragile and childlike mind. 1/10

Philonous’ verdict: Man on Wire = Crap on Film

Check out the following links if you must:

Note: This post may or may not have been deliberately provocative. Let’s just say that Le Fox seems to enjoy this movie.

Magnetic Movie

Posted in art, culture, film, physics, science with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Philonous

This video is a project from NASA’s artists in residence, Semiconductor. As you may imagine (although it took me a little while to realise) all of the magnetic fields drawn in the picture are computer generated rather than physical streams of particles. Having something of an interest in science myself, I wonder what the aim of this artwork is supposed to be, if indeed it has one. There can be no doubt that these magnetic phenomena are incredibly beautiful in many ways, as is most of physics, but is producing such a movie slightly underselling the real science behind these pretty images? Perhaps not. I must admit being a cynic of the first water, but in my mind, this reminded me very much of videos I’d been shown at school in physics lessons or perhaps on BBC2 as part of Open University programmes. There’s no doubt that this film is diverting, but in this light, it seems slightly odd for Semiconductor to have been elevated to the status of ‘artist’. But then I’m a cynic.

The Poles and Catholicism

Posted in culture, religion with tags on July 25, 2008 by Philonous

One of the most unbelievable sights to greet me in Warsaw was that of the devout Catholics at all times of the day and night. The churches are so full of the faithful that despite their cavernous interiors, that a significant proportion of those attending services spill outside onto the street, often hearing (and saying) mass after dark bathed in the sodium yellow of street lamps. Christmas and Easter services often fill British churches to capacity with casual believers and those craving tradition, but never have I seen anything quite like this. The congregation peer in through the open door, straining to see over those on the steps and kneel on the cobbles at the appropriate moments. The priest’s singing is piped outside through loudspeakers.
Poland seems to have acquired something of a reputation as a religious country. Certainly from what I’ve seen over the last couple of days this is certainly true. Wandering along some street or other, I noticed a cyclist who crossed himself as he passed a church. People in restaurants regularly say grace. If this wasn’t enough, at around midnight in Warsaw airport, the departure lounge was filled by what looked like a school party. Having moved the furniture to suit their purposes, I supposed that they would either catch a flight or bed down for the night. In fact their unrolling of sleeping mats was to construct a makeshift altar.I was eyed with a certain degree of suspicion so decided to take a photo somewhat incognito (and therefore badly framed) – check out the massive golden cross on the left. I must say, I was slightly taken aback by the whole thing. I’d never seen so much devotion in a public place before and I was impressed.

Roots (disambiguation)

Posted in culture, film, Food, history, literature, maths, music, science with tags , , , , , on July 23, 2008 by Philonous

In Euclidean Space:

Let V be a finite-dimensional Euclidean space, with the standard Euclidean inner product denoted by . A root system in V is a finite set Φ of non-zero vectors (called roots) that satisfy the following properties:

  1. The roots span V.
  2. The only scalar multiples of a root α ∈ Φ that belong to Φ are α itself and −α.
  3. For every root α ∈ Φ, the set Φ is closed under reflection through the hyperplane perpendicular to α. That is, for any two roots α and β, the set Φ contains the reflection of β in the plane perpendicular to α.
  4. (Integrality condition) If α and β are roots in Φ, then the projection of β onto the line through α is a half-integral multiple of α.

In view of property 3, the integrality condition is equivalent to stating that β and its reflection σα(β) differ by an integer multiple of α.

The rank of a root system is the dimension of the Euclidean space V in which it resides. Here are examples of rank 2 systems.


In the Plant Kingdom:

In vascular plants, the root is the organ of a plant body that typically lies below the surface of the soil. But, this is not always the case, since a root can also be aerial (that is, growing above the ground) or aerating (that is, growing up above the ground or especially above water). On the other hand, a stem normally occurring below ground is not exceptional either (see rhizome). So, it is better to define root as a part of a plant body that bears no leaves, and therefore also lacks nodes. There are also important internal structural differences between stems and roots. The two major functions of roots are 1.) absorption of water and inorganic nutrients and 2.) anchoring the plant body to the ground. Roots also function in cytokinin synthesis, which supplies some of the shoot’s needs. They often function in storage of food. The roots of most vascular plant species enter into symbiosis with certain fungi to form mycorrhizas, and a large range of other organisms including bacteria also closely associate with roots.

On TV:

Roots is a 1977 American television miniseries based on Alex Haley‘s work Roots: The Saga of an American Family, his critically acclaimed but factually disputed genealogical novel.

Roots was made into a hugely popular television miniseries that aired over eight consecutive nights in January 1977. Many people partially attribute the success of the miniseries to the original score by Quincy Jones. ABC network television executives chose to “dump” the series into a string of airings rather than space out the broadcasts, because they were uncertain how the public would respond to the controversial, racially-charged themes of the show. However, the series garnered enormous ratings and became an overnight sensation. Approximately 130 million Americans tuned in at some time during the eight broadcasts. The concluding episode was rated as the third most watched telecast of all time by the Nielsen corporation.
The cast of the miniseries included LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Leslie Uggams as Kizzy and Ben Vereen as Chicken George. A 14-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979, featuring the leading African-American actors of the day. In 1988, a two-hour made-for-TV movie, Roots: The Gift, aired. Based on characters from the book, it starred LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Avery Brooks as Cletus Moyer and Kate Mulgrew as Hattie, the female leader of a group of slave catchers.

In the Charts:

Roots is the sixth studio album by Brazilian thrash metal band Sepultura, released in 1996 through Roadrunner Records. It was the band’s last album to feature Max Cavalera. The majority of the themes presented on Roots are centered on Brazilian politics and culture.

The inspiration for Sepultura’s new musical directon was two-fold. One was the desire to further experiment with the music of Brazil, especially the percussive type played by Salvador, Bahia samba reggae group Olodum. A slight influence of Northeastern Brazil‘s native music is also present in the guitar riffs, especially baião and capoeira music. Another innovation Roots brought was the inspiration taken from the (then) cutting-edge nu metal sound of the Deftones and KoЯn – especially the latter’s debut, with it’s heavily down-tuned guitars.

Roots was released in February 1996 and received with unprecedented enthusiasm. Even the popular press, that usually doesn’t pay a lot of attention to metal records, halted the presses to appreciate the unusual rhythms mixture of Sepultura. American newspapers like The New Times, the Daily News[disambiguation needed] and the Los Angeles Times reserved some space for the Brazilian band: “The mixture of the dense metal of Sepultura and the Brazilian music has a intoxicating effect”, wrote a Los Angeles Times’ reviewer. The Daily News went even further: “Sepultura reinvented the wheel. By mixing metal with native instruments, the band resuscitates the tired genre, reminding of Led Zeppelin times. But while Zeppelin mixed English metal with African beats, it’s still more moving to hear a band that uses elements of its own country. By extracting the sounds of the past, Sepultura determines the future direction of metal”.

Acknowledgements: This post would not have been possible without the untiring effort of all of those kind folk at Wikipedia who are up at all hours of the day and night writing entries.

I’d also like to thank they keys Ctrl, C and V

Warsaw: From the Stare Miasto to the Pałac Kultury i Nauki

Posted in culture, history, travel, warsaw with tags , on July 20, 2008 by Philonous

The lover of mind has landed in Warsaw. This city is extraordinarily beautiful, green and without blemish. From the old town which was rebuilt after having been destroyed during the second world war, to the grandiose 43 storey stamp of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki, one can’t help but be impressed by it all. I’m staying in a very lovely hotel just south of the city centre next to a grand park and all of the various embassies. From there i was advised (by folk in the know) to go to the old town (Stare Miasto) to have a look at all of the lovely old (new) Polish buildings. During the second world war, Warsaw was essentially gutted. Most of the historic buildings were completely destroyed and the old town centre was rebuilt from scratch.

Wandering around European cities, one becomes accustomed to the sight of buildings which if not exactly crumbling, show all of their three hundred or so years. Here everything comes across a little bit Disney. The entire old town is so incredibly pristine that rather than being 300 years old, most buildings look as if they have travelled through time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole Stare Miasto was injection moulded in one piece from fadeproof plastic in a Detroit factory and shipped over as part of some covert Marshall plan. It’s a great shame that so much of this great city was destroyed in the carnage of 1939-45.

Still imposing upon the skyline is Stalin’s great stamp of authority, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki-a full blown propaganda factory mass producing and distributing Soviet pronouncements in the form of films, books, plays and exhibitions. Now though, the huge tower is somewhat eclipsed by the skyscraping testaments to Poland’s new legacy. Viewed from one side, the Stalinist face of hard nosed totalitarianism is still there to be seen. Viewed from the others, the huge Carlsberg parasols, the brightly coloured advertisments and the various other skyscrapers peer over Stalin’s long-dead message. Perhaps even more ironically, underneath one face is a massive skate park full of teenagers humming Green Day and periodically rescuing their trousers from the ever present clutches of gravity. If you look carefully at the right hand photo, you might just be able to see on the left the massive cuboid of the Intercontinental along with various other skyscrapers belonging to foreign banks. The man of steel would turn is his grave.

Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog

Posted in culture, film, internet with tags , , on July 19, 2008 by Philonous

It seems that the internet has spawned a great number of heroes of the 15½” screen. Here are a few examples of folk whose fame is in no small part due to the internet:

Eventually, ornery folks like me decided to get in on the act and start blogs detailing the minutiae of their humdrum existences from their fury at milk having gone sour to diatribes on the meaning of Pokemon. Various actors and artists have quickly siezed upon sites such as YouTube as conduits for expression and more recently, actual famous people have started using the internet and its inherently viral mechanism (and small world properties) to further promote themselves. Here are video blogs from (in order) Chris Crocker, lonelygirl15, P.Diddy and Imogen Heap.

This seems to me to typify the transition from the internet as a means of distribution of traditional media to a medium in its own right, with the production of film solely for internet transmission. Joss Whedon (of Buffy fame) along with various less well known collaborators is the latest fairly big name to have dipped his toe in the water with the low-budget, three act musical video blog Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog. This foray into internet television is a direct result of this year’s writers strike which left Whedon twiddling his thumbs for a few weeks. It is designed primarimy as an experiment on the financial viability of online media. The show itself is divided into three parts, with a staggered release throughout this week. The last of these will be released on Saturday at which point all three may be watched back to back and for free. After Sunday, they become available as a DVD and at a premium. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out (though I suspect Whedon has nothing to worry about since it is already topping the iTunes chart). Check out the trailer below.

If you do see the full production, have patience – it takes a while to get going…