Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Book of the Month: Existential Physics

The tagline 'A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions' grabbed my attention and made me buy this book by Sabine Hossenfelder, whose day job is studying quantum gravity at Frankfurt University.

The questions covered in Existential Physics are a mix of hard science (How did the universe begin? Are humans just bags of atoms or something more?) and speculation (Is the universe conscious? Do copies of us exist in a multiverse?) with some extra stuff that is a bit of both - hard speculation, if you will. 

Along the way, there are some very interesting summaries of what we can say for certain, and some ideas that scientists advocate for that are, at best, ascientific, meaning there is just no way, now, to know. 

The chapter on death and dying and how, on a human level, it illustrates entropy provided a me with a new take on the subject. Although there is no evidence for an "afterlife", and no workable scientific theory for one, the impression individuals make on the universe as "information" is never truly lost - unless it ends up in a black hole. Versions of us sort of might continue to exist, which is weirdly comforting.

I got a bit lost in the discussion about free will and determinism, which cropped up in a couple of places. I can accept that our universe is almost entirely predictable, if an observer had access to enough data and in that sense 'free will' as understood by most people doesn't actually exist. It's not a very intuitive way to approach things though - and Sabine acknowledges this and addresses the issue of holding people to account for their actions, whether those actions are pre-determined or not. There are a few similar diversions from physics into ethics throughout the book.

There is a small section of one of the later chapters that is probably the best precis I have ever read about artificial intelligence at this stage in the development of AI (pp207-210). Sabine outlines what is currently known about trying to create thinking machines and presents a convincing case that the first true AIs will be fragile and will struggle to survive.

"...artificial intelligences at first will be few and one of a kind, and that's how it will remain for a long time. It will take large groups of people and many years to build and train artificial general intelligences. Copying them will not be any easier than copying a human brain. They'll be difficult to fix when broken, because, as with the human brain, we won't beable to separate the hardware from the software. The early ones will die quickly for reasons we will not even comprehend."

That actually made me feel sad for the creations we might bring into being. Sabine also points out that these AIs will most likely be owned by people who are already rich and powerful and will reflect the ethics and interests of their masters. It's a very good point that I've not seen mentioned in other discussions of AI.

Another superb section is the interview with Zeeya Merali, which discusses whether it would be possible to bring another universe into existence. It's certainly doable in theory if beyond human current engineering ability in practice. But if a universe was created then it would separate off almost immediately, and develop detached from our universe. It could expand infinitely and sentient beings could evolve there and we would almost certainly never know, unless we discovered a way to observe other universes (which we can't do now, making the concept of a multiverse ascientific even though lots of scientists talk about it as established fact). 

This leads to a discussion of ethics and morality - what responsibility would the creator(s) of that universe have towards any beings that lived in it? That's an ethical conundrum in its own right. It also opens up the possibility that if it's theoretically possible that we could create universes, then this universe may also have been created in a similar fashion. Not that there is any need for a creator based on what we observe about our universe, but a universe created in a lab would probably look the same as ours from inside

Consciousness is a topic that crops up throughout the book. Trying to explain why humans have consciousness is really difficult - it's something that seems to be more than the sum of our parts (our constituent atoms) and if I understood what Sabine was saying, the observations of consciousness in complex combinations of atoms isn't something that could be predicted by just looking at those individual atoms. So, something currently unexplainable is going on. 

The final section of the book is about whether there is any purpose to everything. Sabine concludes that the desire to understand the universe is a meaningful purpose in itself, and I found that a satisfying way to end the book. 

I have read several 'popular science' books over the last few years. I found this harder than any I've read previously. The scientific terms come at the reader quickly and there were several occasions when I needed to re-read paragraphs. Some of the early chapters were particularly hardgoing, but I'm glad I powered through - either I got smarter as the book went on (unlikely) or the concepts were less bound up in mathematical theory so were easier to convey in words that a reader like me could grasp. 

As a plus point, though, Sabine includes a 'Brief Answer' at the end of every chapter which summarises all that has been said before into three or four sentences. I found that very helpful clarifying what I had just read. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

New philately phocus - pangolins

On Saturday 8th June I went to the annual general meeting of the British Thematic Assocation - the stamp collecting organisation I've belonged to for almost 15 years now. It was held in Swindon at an annual stamp fair called Swinpex, attended by several stamp traders and collectors.

Along with the usual AGM business, I saw a presentation about Sudan - in this case, not  the country! Sudan was the last known male Northern White Rhino whose death heralded the practical extinction of his species. The presenter, Jan, used a range of philatelic material to tell Sudan's personal story (he spent most of his life in Czechoslovakia after being captured as a calf in Sudan) and the story of how his species was hunted into extinction. 

This inspired me to make good on an idea I had to develop a presentation about a creature I've developed a fondness for - pangolins. I visited a dealer's stall and found some nice, inexpensive stamps to start a new collection. 

Pangolins are the only mammals with scales. They are also the world's most trafficked animal because their scales are used in "traditional medicine". Poaching levels are therefore high and pangolins are endangered as a result.

This sheet of stamps from Macau shows the Asian pangolin, which tends to be a tree-dweller. The pictures include a pangolin using its prehensile tail to hang off a tree branch.

The other stamps were from a mix of African countries and show the ground-dwelling pangolins that live on that continent. 

Rio Muni was the name given to Equatorial Guinea when it was a Spanish colony. The stamps show a chameleon and a pangolin. The other small set was used across French West Africa when they were colonies too. The Tanzania sheet includes a rhino on one stamp and a giant ground pangolin, that walks on its hind legs. 

I bought the nocturnal animals sheet because that's an important aspect of pangolin life. And Namibia is another country where pangolins live. (Also it had cool hexagonal stamps.)

I'm going to try and acquire some more stamps that explain a bit more about these fascinating creatures. 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Baseball in London - watching the MLB World Tour

A few weeks back my friend Gawain asked me if I'd like to go with him to a game in the Major League Baseball London Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets. Naturally I leapt at the chance to a) see some live baseball, and b) spend a day hanging out with Gawain! So off I went for the Sunday game in the series.

I saw the Mets play the Phillies a long time ago, way back in 2007 (and in the very early days of this blog! Here's my write up, which omits the most memorable part of that game, which was Art Garfunkel singing the National Anthem!)

I was in Swindon on the Saturday, so had driven on to Reading in the evening and stayed the night there. In the morning I caught a nearly empty train to London Paddington before swapping to the Elizabeth Line to Stratford station near the London Stadium, which was hosting the series. 

Train selfie

I was repping the Padres for the day. That's a thing at these games - everyone wears the shirts of the teams they support. I saw most of the MLB teams represented, a few minor league teams, and also some shirts from British teams including Cardiff Merlins, Sheffield Bruins and a guy with 'Telford' emblazoned across his shirt. I also saw an Expos cap - repping a team that disappeared almost 20 years ago when the franchise was relocated from Montreal to Washington and the team became the Nationals. Gawain was unique in his Cuba international shirt.

I visited Stratford station a few times during my time working a conference at the Excel Centre back in April. I had also visited the London Stadium in April to watch a football match - the playing area was quite different this time, however. It took me a while to work out where I stood in the stadium last time. But I got to see more of the stadium this time as we were able to wander around quite freely. 

We went and stood behind the Mets bullpen to watch the starting pitcher warm up, then meandered around to find some free seats.

We ended up sitting with the Mets wives and girlfriends, who all had very natty jackets with their names on the back. I imagine this was a road game where they all wanted to join their husbands and partners. We were joined at this point by Jamie, a Mets fan from the UK.

Cinnamon pretzel!

Philadelphia fan Rob McElhenny was there with his wife Kaitlin Olsen. He was introduced as the co-owner of Wrexham AFC. He was meant to be throwing the ceremonial first pitch and turned it into an even bigger "look at me" moment by changing it to "the first ever ceremonial double play!!" Later he and Kaitlin led the singing of 'Take me out to the ball game' during the seventh inning stretch

The Wrexham co-owner wasn't the only link to Cymru. Katherine Jenkins sang God Save the King before the game. She did pretty well to make that terrible tune listenable. But unfortunately she followed Marisha Wallace who sang The Star Spangled Banner with incredible force. I hadn't heard of Marisha before - she's a Broadway star apparently - but she had some pipes on her!

We also had some pre-game entertainment with songs from Jess Glynne. I don't know the names of the songs she sang, but I recognised them all when she sang them. She was pretty good and managed to sing without getting distracted by the mascots, Phillie Phanatic and Mister Met bobbing and weaving around her as she performed. 

Unfortunately I wasn't able to get near to the Phillie Phanatic and had to settle to watching his antics on the big screen. 

I got some relatively good photos of Mister Met though, as he came over to our section. 

As to the game, it took a while to get going. The pitching was atrocious. They had so many pitching changes the game ran over 3 hours. 

Both closers got relieved midway through the final inning. That was where the game lit up. The Mets were trailing 4-3 at the start of the ninth and were 3 outs away from a sorry defeat. Somehow they scrambled 3 runs from a mix of poor pitching and errors. The Phillies got a run back but couldn't tie the game and lost on a weird double play which involved the catcher tagging home plate before throwing to first after Nick Castellanos broke his bat swinging for the fences.

Some local knowledge from another UK based Mets fan, John, got us into Stratford Station without getting stuck in massive queues (like the ones I was in after the football match in April). From there it was another trip on the Elizabeth Line back to Paddington and then on to Reading and a drive down the M4.

Talking to Gawain, we concluded that many (maybe most) of the Mets and Phillies fans had come over from the USA to watch their team. This is probably what makes a series in London viable as both teams have large fan bases. There are baseball fans in the UK, and many are really into it, but there probably aren't enough to fill a stadium without being augmented by traveling support. 

The European series was meant to be in Paris next year but has apparently been pulled, so there probably won't be another opportunity to watch MLB this side of the Atlantic until 2026 at the earliest now. 

Saturday, June 08, 2024

"It's a little bit Nineteen Eighty-Four...

...when it feels like every book on the shelf is Nineteen Eighty-Four!"

What's your favourite cover?

This photo was taken at TK Maxx, where the shelves are groaning under Orwell's books at the moment. TK is where I bought the book about Nineteen Eighty-Four and a copy of Homage to Catalonia that I reviewed last year. 

The book is out of copyright so any publisher can produce a copy. There must be a vibe in the zeitgeist that's making so many publishers send this to the printers at the moment. 

Friday, June 07, 2024

Snack of the Month: Moomin choccy biccies

Lidl had these in for their 'Scandinavian week'. Cathy bought me a box as she knows I'm a fan of the Moomins and also a fan of chocolate biscuits. 

The packaging is adorable.

There's a line up of the characters on the top of the box. One of them is chocolate side up so remains anonymous until you open the packaging.

Turns out it was Moomintroll's best friend, Snufkin (bottom left).

The six characters are Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden (Moomintroll's girlfriend), Moominpappa, Moominmamma, Snufkin, and either the Mymble or her sister Little My. The Mymble would make more sense as she is the same height as the other characters whereas Little My is comparatively little (as her name implies). 

Biscuit-wise, they were very nice plain biscuits. They weren't too sweet. The milk chocolate was decent quality and enhanced the biscuitiness of the biscuits. 

The box contained a decent number of biscuits so it lasted a few days. (I showed more restraint than Moomintroll would have.)

Thursday, June 06, 2024

More freebie football stickers

My friend Gawain, who normally sources me baseball cards, sent me some freebie packets of Topps official Euro 24 stickers that he had picked up at a trading card show. These are different to the free ones I got in M&S last month.

There were three stickers in each pack - with no shiny badges or rarer variations included. Fair enough, they were free after all.

The stickers themselves are interesting. Players for England and France have only their faces shown whereas players for other teams are shown in full kit. I suspect this is due to licensing as Panini are doing an England sticker collection, for example, so they might have exclusive rights to showing the kit.

The Germany players might also be "heads only" - but Bastian there was the only Germany player I got in the packets, and he is a "Legend", not a current player. There are three marked spaces for legend stickers on the Germany pages and Germany seems to be the only team to have them.

There are other stickers too, including illustrations of the stadium and the official ball designed just for this European championship. Every country has a double-sticker of landmarks and architecture representing it. I got both halves of the Slovakia picture.

The double stickers give a choice of lining up the design or the edges. I've made sure the red border lines up here which shows just how off centre the stickers are compared to each other. It's only about a millimetre, but it's very noticeable.

I am resisting the urge to start buying these stickers, especially as I really enjoyed opening these free packs. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

My 2023-24 Futbology badges

I use the Futbology app to record which football matches I see. Sometimes when I check in to games I hit a milestone and get a 'badge'. Here are some of the badges I collected in 2023-24.

First the biggie - completing a league! (In this case the Cymru Premier on the very last match weekend of the Cymru Premier season.)

My 500 game milestone came early in the season.

My personal records date from the start of the 1992-93 season. So this milestone is games since then. It doesn't include the games I went to as a kid. 

Just before the end of the season I reached 550 games recorded on the app.

While my 500th game was a regular league game, the 550th was the promotion play off game to decide which second place team in the third tier of the Cymru leagues would get promoted to the second tier. 

I visited my 125th football ground in May as well.

And some more big numbers - 200 games with Shrewsbury and 100 games with Barry.

And some smaller milestones with other clubs

According to Futbology, I'm currently the number one Cardiff Draconians fan using the app - so I know this badge is unique and nobody else has a 25 game badge with the team.

Plus, I got a badge for going to a Europa League game

I picked up a couple of other badges during the season as well. Checking in to a game on the birthday of a Ballon d'Or winner results in a badge. I did get a few of those. But these milestones are the ones that made me feel most happy when they popped up on the app.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

End of season review - football 2023-24

Going to the Wales women's international at the very end of May marked my last live game of the season. So, so here is my review of the year. The Futbology app gives a useful summary:

65 games is a new personal season record. I wasn't expecting to set a new record at the start of the season and the achievement was unintentional. That's more than a game a week, and a bit silly really. 

However, my number of new grounds was lower than previous seasons. I achieved a decent geographical spread, though. (Map from Futbology)

On my season round-up, I listed Barry's away win at Caernarfon as my favourite game of the season. It was a game with 5 high quality goals including a late rocket shot that settled the game in Barry's favour. It was also my debut as a radio commentator. 

The game with the most goals - Swindon Supermarine v Poole Town - was right at the start of the season. Former Barry defender Luke Cooper was playing for Supermarine who unfortunately conceded seven. 

I didn't see any games with more than ten goals this season (unlike 2022-23) and my overall goals total was noticeably lower than the previous season, despite going to more games. 

My stand out memories are Shrewsbury taking the lead against Leeds at a packed Elland Road, being in with the Leverkusen fans at West Ham, the Caernarfon and Supermarine games I've already mentioned, completing the Cymru Premier at Colwyn Bay (with my nephew Zac), Shrewsbury's hilarious three goals at Notts County, and Truro City playing a "home" game in Gloucester against Torquay United. I was also in the crowd at a sold out Meadow to see Shrewsbury renew rivalries with Wrexham for the first time in 15 years, after they were drawn together in the FA Cup.

There weren't many matchgoing disasters, although getting on a train at Cardiff Central to go to a Newport County game and then discovering the next stop was going to be Reading was stressful!

So, it's been an enjoyable 11 months! Roll on next season!

Monday, June 03, 2024

Football recap of the month - May 2024

And so to what will probably be the final monthly recap of a season that started on 1st July last year. (I say probably final, I have no plans to go to any games in June, but I will be watching the European Championships on TV!)

It's been a long, yet very enjoyable season. A full season recap post will follow soon! But in the meantime, these are the games I went to in May.

Game 61: Coventry City 1-2 Queens Park Rangers

My friend Steve drove us to Coventry for this game, which was the last game of the season for both sides. It was my first QPR game since before the pandemic and a new ground for me. Before the match we met up with Kieran, who was in a youth group I used to help with several years ago. He's now chaplain at Coventry City and doing some tremendous work supporting young people through a charity focused on sport. All three goals were in the goal the away fans were standing behind so we got a good view of them all. 

Game 62: Blaenavon Blues 1-1 Caldicot Town

My friend Paul joined me on a sunny day up the valleys for a game in the "heritage town" of Blaenavon. This was Caldicot's last game of the season and the first time I had seen them playing an away game - my second new ground in a row and my 125th ground recorded on Futbology. 

My friend Ben was playing centre back - it was his 33rd game of the season and he scored! I hadn't seen him score before and it took him to a career high total of nine goals for the season. Although, I don't know how much he knew about it really, because the ball looked like it pinged off a couple of players in the box and hit him last. They all count, though!

Game 63: Penrhiwceiber Rangers 3-0 Seven Sisters Onllwyn

Penrhiwceiber needed to get at least a point to become Ardal South West Division champions (overtaking Cefn Cribwr, whose season had already finished). They won without ever really being pushed by Seven Sisters, who only conceded half the number of goals that I saw them concede against Cardiff Draconians last month. 

Steve came with me from Cardiff and we met Sara and Leanne and their twins there. Sara's dad, Nigel, also came to the match. They used to live in Penrhiwceiber, so it was a bit of a homecoming for them. There was pyro to celebrate at the end of the game and we also got to watch the trophy presentation. The twins were rapt watching grown ups spraying each other with prosecco. 

Game 64: Newport City 2-1 Cefn Cribwr

This was the play-off game to decide who would take the other promotion place from the Ardal Leagues. Newport had finished second in the Ardal South East, and Cefn Cribwr had been overtaken by Penrhiwceiber the previous week. The game was held in Penybont's stadium, and given the proximity to Cefn Cribwr, it felt like most of the crowd were supporting them. However Newport scored two good goals to take a commanding lead and despite a late rally it will be Newport in the Cymru South next season. 

It was very hard luck on Cefn Cribwr, who had lost a cup final the previous Saturday, while Penrhiwceiber were taking the championship and promotion spot off them. 

Game 65: Cymru 1-1 Ukraine

And so to my very final game of the 2023-24 season - a women's European Championship qualifying game at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli. This was a new ground for me and my third new ground of the month. Cymru conceded after two minutes due to a diabolical defensive lapse and then struggled to get back into the game. They seemed really out of sorts with wayward touches and misplaced passes aplenty. Overall, it was a very frustrating watch, which made it a bit like watching the men's team!

One nice note was a special presentation before the game to Jess Fishlock, marking her 150th cap for Cymru.