Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Mass of the Higgs boson in Old Money

Estimated mass of the Higgs boson = 125 GeV/c^2

1 GeV/c^2 = 1.0735 u

Therefore the mass of Higgs boson = 134 u, or roughly the same as a whole atom of caesium.

It looks like science may finally be able to answer one of the Big Questions that have fascinated mankind for thousands of years, namely "who ate all the pies?"

Friday, 9 December 2011

EU leaders agree "European Debt-Deflation Death Spiral Pact"

BRUSSELS - Triumphant EU negotiators are preparing to announce a resolution to the Eurozone crisis which absolutely won't be revealed to be half-baked within a week or so.

The European Debt-Deflation Death Spiral Pact, also known as the "European Suicide Pact", will commit all Eurozone members to a strict austerity regime that will plunge Europe into a deep recession, which will lead to higher borrowing requirements, which will lead to more austerity, which will lead to a deeper recession, and so on until Europe is torn apart by social unrest.

Speaking from her coronation as God-Empress of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the deal. "The horror of 1920's hyperinflation is burned on our nation's collective memory," she said. "So we must act now to replay the even more disastrous but somehow conveniently forgotten 1930's austerity policies of Heinrich BrĂ¼ning. Yes, it will lead the EU to its doom, but at least we'll get to wag our fingers at lazy southerners for a few more months."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy added, "I'm important too!"

Meanwhile in Frankfurt, European Central Bank head "Super" Mario Draghi expressed astonishment that his organisation should in any way help to prevent the collapse of the Euro. "Can't! Shan't! Won't! Can't make me! Wah wah!" he explained at a press conference this morning.

British Prime Minister David Cameron watched the events from a specially installed naughty step at Lille Loophole railway station. "We're well out of that one, aren't we, chaps?" he told bemused commuters. "But it's in Britain's interest to stand by Europe at this jolly difficult moment. That is why, despite having our own currency and the ability to borrow at the lowest rates since records began, we too will push forward with a deranged austerity programme."

Markets rallied at the news that they were at least going to agree something and you never know it might do some good.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

I'm pleased to confirm that Freedom is the masterpiece that everyone says it is, and don't have much to add except "If you like The Corrections ... you'll love this!".

Like The Corrections, Freedom is a family saga embedded in world affairs, with the Iraq war and environmentalism taking the place of the biotech bubble and post-communist Europe. The family is again from the midwestern American middle class, and again its centre of gravity moves east during the course of the book. The similarities and echoes might be tiresome if it weren't almost a decade since I read The Corrections. As it is, it feels fresh.

All this pigeonholing obscures the fact that the Berglunds are just as much a fully-formed and original a family as the Lamberts. The voices are if anything even more distinctive, though the decision to structure part of the book as an autobiography of one of the characters slightly undermines this. Patty's writing is so close in style to the narrator's that I regularly forgot that it was, in fact, supposed to be hers.

Freedom deals with the concerns of the Noughties just as well as The Corrections dealt with the Nineties. But rest assured, this is not an Iraq Book and does not suffer from the "9/11 problem" that so many recent weighty American novels are criticised about. Iraq is treated in a Goldilocks way, not quite in the foreground, not quite in the background, but just right. The main concern of Freedom, or at least of Walter Berglund, is the environment, and just as in The Corrections you wonder whether Franzen is anticipating the problems of the next decade as much as illuminating the problems of the last.

My only issue with Franzen's writing is that it sometimes comes across as a little too omniscient, a little too arch, so that you're left admiring how insightful it all is rather than just enjoying the ride. But this is a small price to pay for a book that pulls off a feat that very few authors appear to aim for, let alone succeed at: writing a novel that is both a work of art and a page-turner. The plot is expertly woven, the characters live and breathe like real people, the story is surprising and moving, and it tells the tale of our times. Just like the last one.

If you like The Corrections ... you'll love this!

by Jonathan Franzen
First published in 2010

See also Jonathan Franzen at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

Monday, 14 February 2011

I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth Discworld novel about trainee witch Tiffany Aching. The first three were marketed as trainee Discworld books for younger readers, but Midnight has the size and heft of a standard one. Observant cover-judgers will also note that it says 'A Discworld Novel' instead of 'A Story of Discworld'. Only the chapter divisions hint at its YA past.

I have to confess that I gave up on the Tiffany Aching series after the second in the series as it was a little too determinedly written for children. But the Doubleday marketeers apparently want me to think again and who am I to turn them down? I'm glad that I did so, as I Shall Wear Midnight is a great read that can stand tall among its peers. I have repented and will be buying Wintersmith at the earliest opportunity.

Maybe, though, it felt more grown-up simply because Tiffany has grown-up. She is now 16 and is the witch in charge of the Chalk region. That she is both recognisably the same Tiffany we have known since she was 9 and yet convincingly on the verge of adulthood shows what an excellent job Pratchett has made of her character development. It also gives him a chance to consider at length the difference between your numerical age and your age measured by experience. Tiffany often behaves in a much more grown-up way than you might expect from an average 16 year old, but having seen so much of the sharp end of life as a witch this is hardly surprising.

Midnight follows the familiar template of Tiffany fighting off a supernatural enemy, but this is a much darker tale than before thanks to the stench surrounding the Cunning Man*. Fortunately the Feegles (a race of little quasi-Scottish warriers) are still around to bring some light relief. It's also nice to meet the Lancre witches once again and to get reacquainted with another old friend from the witch books when Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork.

As with Unseen Academicals, this is a book full of satisfyingly rich detail. In the case of Midnight it serves to make a witch's vocation seem as real and necessary as a teacher or doctor. Arguably it does this better than any of the other witch books. It's also a tighter book than Unseen Academicals, with a lot more drive coming from the (admittedly simpler) plot. There is no doubt here that Pratchett is still at the top of his game.

* My one criticism of the book is that given his name, I thought it was strange that he doesn't exhibit much in the way of cunning. But he's certainly got serious children-scaring credentials.

I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett
First published in 2010

Sunday, 6 February 2011

When the Lights Went Out - Andy Beckett

Seventies Britain feels like another country, and not just because I wasn't born until the very end of the decade. Andy Beckett rightly complains that it has been too easily caricatured as a decade of decline and perpetual crisis, even though by several measures Britain has never had it so good, either before or since. Nevertheless, it was a time of dramatic changes. When The Lights Went Out succeeds in its aim of painting a complex picture of the times.

Beckett's book is an unashamedly political history. If you're looking to find out about the career of Brian Clough or the transition from prog rock to punk you'll have to look elsewhere (sadly). But as a guide to the three-day week, entering the EEC, the IMF negotiations or the Grunwick strike, it is excellent. Social concerns do make an appearance at times but only insofar as they are political, as when Beckett convincingly argues that the Seventies, not the Sixties, were the real decade of progress in areas such as feminism and gay rights.

One of the big strengths of the book is the long list of interviews Beckett has managed to obtain, including many of the big hitters such as Ted Heath, Jack Jones, Arthur Scargill, Denis Healey and so on. Beckett weaves their stories cleverly into his text and his keen observation of their mannerisms adds value. It's just a shame that not everyone from the era is alive to be interviewed. On the downside Beckett wastes a lot of time musing about his own feelings as he travels around, though he doesn't let himself intrude on the text quite as annoyingly as, for example, Anna Funder did in Stasiland.

When The Lights Went Out is undoubtedly a Guardian writer's eye view of the 70s, but Beckett does his best to be even-handed, with Heath coming out rather better than Harold Wilson's tired second administration. The unions, too, are portrayed in a balanced way, with the faults on both sides described in each of the industrial disputes we encounter. But there is no hiding that the unions have become drunk with power by the end of the decade. You have to cringe when they then proceed to shoot themselves in the foot with the Winter of Discontent, directly leading to their comeuppance in the form of Mrs Thatcher.

Mrs T inevitably hangs like a shadow over the second half of the book (yes, I was surprised she can cast one too). It's interesting though how marginal her wing of the party seemed before she got into power, even after she became leader. Even more interesting is the revelation (for me) that there was a modest amount of continuity between the 1980s and the Callaghan government. Callaghan declared that the post-war Keynesian consensus was dead as far back as his maiden speech as leader, and by Labour standards he was a social conservative. Nevertheless, at the end of the book you still are left wondering what might have happened had Labour still been in power when the North Sea oil started flowing in earnest.

When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies
by Andy Beckett
First published in 2009

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Just My Type - Simon Garfield

Christmas is a time for reading books you can dip in and out of between TV specials. My Christmas book of choice this year was Just My Type, a book about fonts.

My own interest in typography came from computing. Growing up in the 80s meant blocky 8x8 characters and dot matrix printers. Just My Type describes a mysterious parallel world of Apple Macintoshes, where letters came in many shapes and sizes. But my first encounter with this black magic had to wait until Microsoft cribbed their work in Word for Windows. OK, so it may not have the romance of the Mac, but there was the same intoxicating mixture of art and technology as the letters kerned themselves perfectly before my eyes. What could be cooler? (don't answer that).

My last literary encounter with the subject was an aside in The Art of Travel by the pop-philosopher Alain de Botton, who describes how the modernist lettering on an airport sign provokes the pleasurable feeling of being somewhere exotic. Just My Type is a whole volume devoted to such feelings.

In true Christmas book fashion it is divided into bite-sized chunks, each one focusing on a different aspect of typography. The main chapters cover everything from the history of the printing press to the outcry in 2009 over Ikea's decision to end their iconic use of Futura in favour of boring Verdana. They are separated by 'Fontbreaks', which are full of 'a-ha!' moments as you're introduced to the likes of Trajan (the Movie Font), Optima (the Perfume Font) and Cooper Black (formerly Dad's Army, now the EasyJet font).

This is also a book about people: the strange tribe of typeface designers. Naturally Garfield tells the well-known stories of Edward Johnston's work for the London Underground and Kinneir and Calvert's designs for the motorway system. But there are plenty of anecdotes I hadn't heard before, such as the bookbinder who drowned his own font in the Thames to spite his business partner. And you will never look at Gill Sans in the same way again after finding out what Eric Gill was getting up to while designing it.

The most enjoyable chapter in the book is, of course, the author's choice of Worst Fonts in the World. I was pleased to find that I'm not alone in my hatred of the 2012 Olympic font. Papyrus is unsurprisingly also in the bottom 10, although I don't agree with Garfield that it was a baffling choice for the subtitles in Avatar. It may be hackneyed elsewhere, but to my knowledge it's never been used at the movies and I thought it suited the hippy-drippy alien vibe very well.

There are a couple of minor niggles, such as the chapter that purports to explain the difference between legibility and readability but forgets to define either, and a few occasions where the font wrangling is either not obvious or has gone awry. But they don't detract at all from this lavish feast of a book. I recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in the printed world around them.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts
by Simon Garfield
First published in 2010