Sunday, May 28, 2006

Not so beautiful

After reading Sylvia Nazar's A Beautiful Mind recently, I thought it would be good to catch up with the film version, which I missed at the cinema.

Oh dear. The film never really gets beneath the skin of its subject. There is no very convincing account of how brilliant he is or why it's important when he discovers something new in game theory, so that you don't know why anybody should care when he goes mad, or understand why he should get a Nobel prize. This is a pity, because I found the background about Princeton in that era to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Princeton in the late 40s was like Paris for artists in 1900. I was rather hoping the film might show the occasion when Nash met Einstein, the result being "You should learn more physics, young man". Somewhat peripheral perhaps, but it would have been a scene that told us a lot about the brashness of Nash, the milieu in which he found himself, and the fact that he was treated seriously.

I suppose the main idea of the film was to show Nash's delusions as real, and I think this aspect works somewhat better than the rest. Ultimately though, it's an excuse to insert some bits of a crappy espionage thriller into a film about a mathematician's struggle with mental illness. It distracts from the main point.

The ending is particularly unsatisfactory. The implication is that he just hung about the library being eccentric but basically likeable until one day he was offered the Nobel prize. In fact, his behaviour was probably a good deal more odd and hard to deal with, and he actually got better after about 1990-a controvertial statement, since you aren't supposed to recover from schizophrenia. The fact that his son also had schizophrenia was excised, as was his divorce from Alicia, and his other illegitimate child.

I wonder what the Mike Leigh version would have been like?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Held up

A woman behind me on the bus this morning shouts into her mobile: "I'm held up in traffic!"

I suppose she does this because it sounds better than "I'm a bit late".

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Flickering lights in a dark cave

Sometime, I should really post something longer about barbeques and why the hell we bother with them in this country, but for now this will have to do.

An hour or so ago, the tenement across the back from me attempted to have one. Since it was raining at the time, they lit it just inside the close. From my window, this appeared as a dark cave with some flickering flames in it. A group of people with umbrellas stood round the door watching. It looked like a metaphor for the futility of the human condition.

After a while, they stopped. Hopefully, sense prevailed, and they went out and got chips.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Poor farmers

One unanticipated advantage of my current job is that I can now see at least some of the flaws in the rants about the state of farming that are regularly published in the press. One of my favourites is the ideas that subsidies such as those handed out by CAP produce lower food prices within the EU. In fact, subsidies have exactly the opposite effect. We pay twice to support farmers; once through the general CAP budget, and once through the elevated prices produced by the intervention system. Given our country's attitude to food price (basically, sod the animal welfare as long as its cheap) I'm surprised that this point isn't made more often.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Why won't it just work?

Spent a fair bit of this afternoon trying to work out how to use a piece of GIS software. An odd feeling for an unfrocked technical author, as I have divided loyalties. Like all users, I want to be able to make the thing work NOW, and no, I'm not bloody going to read that carefully crafted section entitled "About ArcMap". On the other hand, I can tell as I crack their shiny spines that they have been quite nicely done. They've taken the trouble to say "want" not "wish", and the steps in the procedures actually make sense. I've written "About ArcMap" and its friends quite a few times myself. Maybe I'll read it some time to express my solidarity to a brother scribe.

At one point C. gets an ex-boyfriend of hers from upstairs to come and have a look as he supposedly used to work with this stuff. Yes, that does sound weird, doesn't it? He can't answer my question and instead spouts a lot of bullshit. He comes over as a right arsehole, claims that what I want can't be done, and takes ages to go away.

A bit later I discover there's a GIS support group, phone up somebody, and ask the same question. I get a correct and helpful answer within about 30 seconds.

Friday, May 05, 2006

2 billion dollar's worth

I recently finished Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and never has an 880 page hardback seemed so compulsive. It was an impulse lift from the popular science section of Edinburgh's Central Library. However, rather than putting it down again because it was (in every sense) too heavy, I recognised it as a work Roger had pressed on me some time ago, and thought it was worth a punt. It was.

Richard Rhodes has done vast amounts of research, and takes a long run-up to the subject. We are eased in shortly after 1900, and given a deft introduction to a rapidly changing field, peopled, it seems, by a cast of brilliance. I'm familiar with a lot of the physics and the characters though my degree, but I still learned a lot about this era. It's well written too. The better sections read like a novel, and as in a good novel, some well-placed anecdotes enliven the book and stick in the mind. What about Fermi running along the corridor of his lab so that he can measure some short lived isotope? Or Otto Frisch coming close to a critical assembly by leaning over his workbench, thereby reflecting the neutrons with his body? Or a younger Frisch working out fission with his aunt (Lise Meitner) on a Christmas skiing trip?

And it all cost 2 billion dollars.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


At lunchtime today I saw the kingfisher. It's one of those experiences you can't describe without resorting to some tired old cliche. A flash of electric blue above the babbling stream - that kind of thing.