Sunday, 17 October 2010

Strange (and Strangely Familiar) New Worlds

You may have seen in the news that the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has died, aged 85. Most people (myself included) don't know much about the mathematical significance of his work, but are familiar with the pretty pictures derived from the Mandelbrot Set.

When I was a child, I used to spend a lot of time messing around with home computers. You used to get magazines with programs you could type in, and several of them had fractal drawing programs. Unfortunately, home computers weren't anywhere near as powerful as they are today, and a single, relatively low-resolution picture could take hours or even days to draw. I was never that patient.

Fortunately these days you can download software that lets you zoom around the Mandelbrot Set and other fractal sets in real time. Here's a screenshot I took from the xaos program:

Mandelbrot's strange but beautiful world is made from relatively simple looking equations, which is funny considering how complicated some of the equations get which attempt to describe our more familiar surroundings.

Talking about familiar worlds, I've been watching the cult 70's British TV show Blake's Seven.

I vaguely remember it from the first time round. As with so many of these old programmes, I'm surprised that it doesn't look a lot worse. Some of the special effects are a bit ropy, as are some of the plots, but it's still enjoyable. When I was off work the other week with an incurable upper respiratory infection (otherwise known as a cold), I spent a lot of time groggily watching one of the box sets.

The story is about a group of rebels who are fighting the evil Earth Federation. They've got a super hi-tech alien spaceship called the Liberator which is equipped with a teleport device - something that the Federation don't have.

Most of the planets look strangely like Earth. To be more precise, they look just like quarries, beaches and forests that you'd find in Britain. All of the inhabitants of these planets speak with British accents. I'm sure that this has nothing to do with the fact that this was a low budget British TV production, but just that this is what you'd expect the future to be like.

The planets are generally inhabited by humans because they are part of the Federation's Empire. It's not unreasonable to assume that such an empire would start in Britain - after all, the British are historically the world's experts when it comes to empires. And it's not unreasonable to suppose that humans would settle on Earth-like planets, with temperate climates. Just like in Britain.

The implausible part of all this is the teleport. It's a bit like the Star Trek one - the crew teleport to and from remote locations by standing in a special device that beams their atoms around like radio waves. In Blake's Seven they have to wear teleport bracelets, which also have communicators on them.

I'd imagine that if scientists ever perfect teleport technology (and they are working on it), you'd have to beam from one teleport machine to another, a bit like sending a fax. The idea that you'd want to send your atoms to some random location seems a little dodgy. For starters, how do they get reassembled at their location without another machine? How do you make sure that you end up standing on something, such as the ground or a floor, rather than ending up in mid-air? And it gets worse. How do you avoid teleporting into someone's bathroom, or some other potentially embarrassing situation?

The other problem that the Blake's Seven lot have is getting themselves teleported back up in an emergency or embarrassing situation. They have to radio back to the Liberator, and then someone has to be ready by the teleport controls. This is fine in theory, but usually there's some problem on the ship which means that the crew are somehow unable to do this. Until the last minute, of course. So why don't their magic teleport bracelets have a "Shit! Beam me back up now!" button?

Anyway, if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to teleport back to reality and get something to eat. I hope you had a good weekend.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Driven to Drink

I haven't posted in a while, because I was too busy dying. Which I think you'll agree is a reasonable excuse. Or is it?

I tend to worry about my health, especially when anything happens that I can't explain. I don't visit doctors very often, but when I do, it's usually because I'm afraid that The End is in sight. I realise that this is irrational - after all, if I really am that far gone, they probably won't be able to do anything for me. Nevertheless, rationality does not play much of a part in my health worries.

I have been living a slightly healthier lifestyle after discovering that my blood pressure was too high. I've been walking more (though still probably not enough), and drinking quite a bit less. This all went out of the window when I started getting various aches and pains.

A quick look on Wikipedia confirmed my worst fears - it was almost certainly something major and life-threatening. So I started to get worried. I started to go through my DVD collection to work out which ones I needed to watch first, and which ones might be better viewed through a morphine-induced haze near The End (I'm saving the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 till last, having twice failed to get past the first 10 minutes). Staying at home reading blogs just made me more aware of my aches, so I went to the pub more.

When I finally got round to booking an appointment with the doctor, he was very reassuring. It was nothing major. I should avoid doing any heavy lifting, and stop worrying. However, he did take two armfuls of blood for a range of tests just in case. You might think I'm exaggerating, but they started on my right arm and it dried up before they had enough. Why can't the NHS be more like Star Trek where they just wave a whirring scanner over you?

The nurses' uniforms are better, too

My brush with death still wasn't over. I was told I'd have to go back to the doctor because some of the tests had failed. Or passed, or whatever. I arranged for a doctor to phone (it was a Friday), but I managed to miss the call. I spent the weekend nervously sorting through my DVDs.

I went in on Monday. "I hear you've got some bad news", I said. "I wouldn't say that. Have you been drinking too much recently?", was his reply. "Well, actually, yes." He told me to drink less and go back to have another armful of blood checked out in a few weeks time.

So, reassured, I'm back to my more temperate ways - ODing on lemon juice rather than alcohol, and just going to the pub once or twice a week. Hopefully the next blood test will reflect this.

However, during my brief period of daily drinking, the pub had a Jack Daniels promotion. I've never really liked JD, but you could win all sorts of great prizes, allegedly to celebrate Mr Daniel's birthday. I was only after a T-shirt, but I had to get through several doubles to achieve this, winning badges and a hat along the way.

Whether I succumb to a fatal illness next week or next century, this is quite possibly the only time you'll see me wearing a hat - I really can't stand them.

Have a good weekend.