Francis's News Feeds

This combines together on one page various news websites and diaries which I like to read. See also: Francis is (my own blog)

September 17, 2014

The referendum question by Charlie Stross

(I've been under the weather due to a chest bug picked up in Dublin, so haven't had time to write the lengthy article I promised a while ago. Here's it's truncated summary version. Please don't bring up the referendum debate in discussions under other blog posts, okay?


"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

I have a postal vote. I already voted "yes".

For what is probably an unusual reason ...

Forget all the short term arguments advanced by both sides about what currency Scotland will use, about whether we'll be economically better or worse off, the nature of post-independence Scottish defense policy, whether we remain a monarchy or become a republic, what passport we'll carry, and so on. That stuff is all short-term and will be resolved within a generation.

No, seriously: 95% of the discussion in the referendum debates and on the street has been about short term issues that can be resolved one way or the other in the coming days and months (occasionally, months or single-digit years). There's a remarkable amount of FUD—fear, uncertainty, and doubt—flying around. Many folks seem to think that if Scotland opts for independence on September 18th then on the 19th they'll be stripped of their existing British citizenship, armed border checkpoints will show up on the M76 and A1, and the Queen will be given the boot by the end of the month. (Needless to say, none of this is going to happen.)

In making my mind up, I looked at the long term prospects.

In the long term I favour a Europe—indeed, a world—of much smaller states. I don't just favour breaking up the UK; I favour breaking up the United States, India, and China. Break up the Westphalian system. We live today in a world dominated by two types of group entity; the nation-states with defined borders and treaty obligations that emerged after the end of the 30 Years War, and the transnational corporate entities which thrive atop the free trade framework provided by the treaty organizations binding those Westphalian states together.

I believe the Westphalian nation-state system isn't simply showing its age: it's creaking at the seams and teetering on the edge of catastrophic breakdown. The world today is far smaller than the world of 1648; the entire planet, in travel terms, is shrunk to the size of the English home counties. In 1648 to travel from the south of Scotland (from, say, Berwick-upon-Tweed, the debatable walled border city) to the far north-west would take, at a minimum, a couple of weeks by sea; to travel that distance by land was a harsh journey of hundreds of miles across mountains and bogs and through still-forested glens, on foot or horseback. Today it's a couple of noisy hours on board a turboprop airliner. Distance has collapsed under us. To some extent the definition of the Westphalian state as being able to control its own internal territory was a side-effect of distance: a foreign army couldn't rapidly and easily penetrate the inner lands of a state without fear of retaliation. (Tell that to the residents of the tribal provinces in Pakistan.)

Moreover, our nations today have not only undergone a strange geographical implosion since the 17th century: they have exploded in population terms. The population of the American Colonies in 1790 is estimated at roughly 2.7 million; the United States today has over 300 million inhabitants. In 1780 England and Wales had around 7.5 million inhabitants; they're now at 57 million. So we have a 1-2 order of magnitude increase in population and a 2-3 order of magnitude decrease in travel time ... and possibly a 3-5 order of magnitude decrease in communications latency.

Today we're seeing the fallout from this problem everywhere. Westphalian states can't, for the most part, control their own territory to the extent of keeping intruders out; just look at the ghastly situation in Ukraine right now. Non-state actors play an increasingly huge role in dictating our economic conditions. And it seems to me that something goes badly wrong with representative democracy in polities that grow beyond somewhere in the range 5-15 million people; direct accountability vanishes and we end up with what I've termed the beige dictatorship. Beige isn't the worst colour&dashsome of the non-beige contenders are distinctly alarming—but their popular appeal is a symptom of an institutional failure, a representational deficit: many voters feel so alienated by the beige that they'll vote for the brownshirts.

My feeling is that we'd be better served by a group of much smaller nations working in a loose confederation or treaty structure. Their job should be to handle local issues (yes, this is localism) while compartmentalizing failure modes: the failure modes of a gigantic imperial power are almost always far worse than those of a smaller nation (compare the disintegration of the Soviet Union with that of Czecheslovakia). Rather than large monolithic states run by people at the top who are so remote from their constituents that they set policy to please lobbyists rather than their electors, I'd prefer to see treaty organizations like NATO and the EU emerging at consensus after discussions among numerous smaller stakeholder entities, where representatives are actually accountable to their electors. (Call me a utopian, if you will.)

Yes, this is also an argument for Wales, the North of England, and London itself all becoming independent nations. But they aren't on the ballot. So Scottish independence is a starting point.

One final note: what about left-internationalism? Isn't nationalism the enemy of the working class? (And to the extent that all of us who aren't in the 0.1% are "working class"—if you have to work to earn a living, you're working class, even if you're a brain surgeon or an accountant—the enemy of all of us?) Well yes: but the kind of nationalism that brought us the Great European War (for the Second World War may best be viewed with the perspective of long-term history as simply a flare-up of the war that began in 1914, after the combatants time out to breed a new generation of cannon-fodder) is pretty much dead. As dead as the Westphalian states that had territorial integrity they could defend, because getting from one to the other still took days or weeks by railway or steam ship, and invading another from the one took days or weeks of marching infantry divisions. Nor is the working "class" still obviously an entity you can point at, with which people share a strong sense of solidarity: where is the solidarity between lawyer and street-sweeper, nursing home care worker and robot designer? Yes, capitalism and the crisis of capitalism is still with us: but the continuing and ongoing recomplication of the world around us makes the traditional movement of masses one of questionable relevance. We need better structures, it's true. But I don't see them emerging from the kind of monolithic, territorially hegemonic state that thinks its place in the world is best secured by building bigger aircraft carriers. Firepower doesn't build external stability, as the past decade in Iraq demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt. We need consensus, and we need a finer granularity of constitutional decision making. Hence smaller nation-states.

Drink Me: The Horror Hotel Story, and Where Ideas Come From by Charlie Stross

The questions I never want to hear again: what are your influences? Where do your ideas come from?

I'm staying at a horror hotel here in Cleveland tonight while attending an ad writing conference. Oh, it's not a horror hotel on purpose. The first sign of trouble was when I pulled up to the front of the hotel to find six valets ready to whisk away the car. Who needs six valets? When I walked into the polished reception area I saw nearly a dozen people hanging out behind the front desk, many of them staring intently at the screens in front of them while just four or five guests seemed to be taking an awfully long time to get checked in.

I glanced at the sitting area near the front desk and realized the artfully arranged stack of books wasn't actual books but just replicas of books all glued together in a stack. They were just decorations. Like someone's idea of what would be on the table at a fancy hotel. When I finally made it to one of the dozen people behind the front desk, I was told I couldn't charge my corporate card, which I'd entered online, because the system hadn't retained the number, and they couldn't give me my key because they had to "go upstairs to make it," as if they were going up to forge it in Mount Doom.

I knew, then, exactly what I was getting myself into. I burst out laughing.

I had entered hotel hell.

BxC9CzqCcAAsU8u.jpgThe weirdness piled up. I waited twenty minutes for a key they never showed up, and used that time to explore my creepy hotel room, which had an empty glass bottle that said "drink me," a bizarre pencil-sharpener-looking decoration sitting alone on a shelf that turned out to be a bookend, of all things, and three eerie paintings of nude, headless women with waves of blood emanating from their creepy headless bodies. One of them was right next to the toilet, so you could watch these blood beads of sweat rolling down a disembodied naked back while you took a crap. It was the choice of art, even more than the dark colors, the too-tall sinks, the red plush chair with the footrest, and the halls that looked like something out of a Kubrick film, that made me realize this was likely the pet project of some rich privileged guy who had never run a hotel before. It was like a hotel built for the protagonist of American Psycho. It was the most incredibly out of touch hotel to have adjacent a convention center that I've ever seen. Contrary to popular belief, not all business people are dudes from American Psycho.

But the absurdity of it was so grand it made me laugh. I noticed all the weird little details. I delighted in the absurd horror of it. I returned to my room after dinner to find the door ajar and nothing stolen, per se, but the contents of the mini bar had been totally removed. All the drinks, the snacks, everything, like someone downstairs had suddenly realized that they hadn't put any prices on anything. The poor bellhop had the guts to ask me what I thought of the hotel "so far." And I haven't even told you about the elevators.

The truth is that I will remember this hotel experience more than any other generic hotel experience because it forced my brain into the surreal dream like state where everything becomes new again. We run through the routines of our lives so often that the brain often runs on auto pilot. Yes, I've been to a hotel a million times, swipe the key, give me the card, say the little pleasantries, I retire. That's it. That's the end of the story.

But there was that thrilling moment when the hotel desk clerk said, "I'm going to go upstairs and have this key made for you," and then discretely led me over to the bellhop and showed him the room number so he could escort  me up that my brain woke up. It said, "Oh, this is something different. I need to pay attention." And suddenly I entered a heightened state of awareness.

This is pretty basic survival 101 stuff, and I understand why it happens. We don't need to be hyper aware of everything all the time. We move through much of our lives, especially as we get older, incredibly quickly. Hours bleed into days bleed into weeks bleed into seasons, and suddenly summer is over and we wonder where the time went. As children, time feels much slower because everything we experience is new. Our brains are constantly working to absorb and categorize new information. As adults, there is less and less new information, and with less new information to take in, the brain doesn't have to work as hard. Time flies by.

When we speak about creativity, or coming up with creative ideas, I often think of it like I'm trying to force myself into this state of increased awareness. I'm trying to wake myself up from the routine, the mundane, the "yeah, I've seen that all before." I want to force my brain out of its comfortable notion of what the world is and explore what it could be.  

What if nothing is at all what we expect it to be? What if cats gave birth to rats and we used viruses to power cars, and what if a "family" had a minimum of six spouses and what if it was a grave crime to touch someone without consent?

I'll hear folks, often, saying they have an inherent resistance to some of the ideas in my books. Like, bug magic? Vegetarian cannibals? Parallel universes in an epic fantasy? But I've found that much of that resistance is the simple resistance we encounter when we haven't seen a thing before.  When we have gone so long seeing particular types of technologies (warp drive! Teleporter!) that we accept them whole cloth, however impractical, because they are familiar, then it seems odd to point and say that merely being unfamiliar makes something less plausible.  Funny enough, it is the unfamiliar, even in science fiction and fantasy novels, that gives us greatest pause, even when we say that's what we really want. Our minds have a resistance to it, a moment of pushback. "But wait! I don't have a box for this! It's a new thing! It can't be real!" We wake up. We interrogate. We fear.

Yet this is what I do all day as both a novelist and an ad copywriter - I look for ways to bust down preconceptions. To cut through noise. To disturb routines just a little bit so that people look at the world in new ways. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes horrifying. Sometimes delightful.

When I look out at the world, I'm looking for ideas that disturb, delight, amuse. And I bring all those back with me and recombine them into something else. That's why asking what my influences are, or where my ideas come from, is such a meaningless question.  Where does thought come from?

It all comes from the same place: it comes from the weird hotel, the out of place object, the ill-timed phone call, the story of a grandmother's war time exploits, the canary that ended up in the baked beans and made you wonder... holy hell how did that happen? It's about constantly working to make sense of the world, even and especially when it is absurd.

About Kameron Hurley 

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God's War Trilogy, comprising the books God's WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear's Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

Wag that puppy by Charlie Stross

In my first post of this series I said I would talk about the depiction of personal combat in contemporary media. What I find most interesting here is the tendency to conflate stage-fighting with real fighting, and I am particularly impressed by the foolishness of movie-makers--who are themselves illusionists--when they are tricked by the illusionism of the martial arts into thinking they are showing something 'real' when in fact they are showing a martial art with only a tangential relationship to fighting

This is what I saw happening in Batman Begins with the use of Keysi, a modern Spanish system chosen for its claimed 'streetfighting effectiveness'. The style caught the filmmakers' attention because they needed something that looked convincingly combative but also that they could show being formally trained as a personal practice in Bat Gym. 

Nothing in any of the Keysi material online resembles a real fight to my eye. It is far too stylized. And I can't figure out what's so 'new' about it--the so-called signature enclosed-cover entry and elbows are nothing new, that's for sure. Nothing about these moves suggests they were born in the nightclubs of Spain; they're performed just like the techniques in Indonesian, Filipino, and Chinese martial arts with a sprinkling of Systema--none of which systems are centred around full-contact fighting in the modern day, though they would have historical roots in the fight.

But thanks to the Hollywood endorsement, Keysi received a rush of new students after that movie came out. If Batman does it, that shit must be good.

Here's a real fight with lots of guys against one man who happens to be a boxer. It ain't nothing fancy.

I'm going to leave old school movie kung fu alone. That'd just be shooting fish in a barrel. But look at this clip. I know a lot of people love this movie, but I find this scene incredibly annoying.

Here is Holmes doing some strange mash-up of Wing Chun and pugilism in a routinely silly way when suddenly he acquires the ability to rationalize and control combat like a boss! Apparently, if you are a genius and a lady is watching and someone spits on you, you can not only emotionally detach, but you can orchestrate several moves in advance as though solving an algebra problem. Who knew? The whole sequence plays as though born in the fevered imagination of a wannabe who has never been near a real fight. It may have huge nerd appeal but it's horse shit.

In a high-stress situation where a lot of sensory information is coming in very fast, the visual cortex can't keep up. The brain has to make a guess about what's going to happen next based on your opponent's position and the early 'cue' at the beginning of a movement. This guess is informed by your past fighting experience; the more fighting experience you have, the better the guess.  To my knowledge, the current understanding is that the myelination in cortical areas dealing with sensory information and motor response are only layered through specific experience, and there's science suggesting that with increased practice, visual tracking will still take place after the response is initiated, enabling an expert to deal with a late correction. This offers some explanation for how a great tennis player can return a seemingly impossible serve.

But the point is that all of these responses are happening below the level of conscious thought; in fact, conscious thought would interfere with the sensorimotor response. A fighter may have a general plan, and metacognitively they may be watching themselves in action--and they will surely be anticipating their opponent moment-by-moment based on what is known about how the other fighter has behaved so far. But fighters don't set up and run an extended series of moves like this any more than Federer looks at Nadal and says to himself, 'There can be no emotion. Place service so that opponent returns ball three inches from the line on left side of court. Be waiting there for return of serve.  Return opponent's forehand, run to net sticking racquet out at angle of 60 degrees to hit line shot into back left corner.  Dive across net to meet return and cunningly place ball six inches out of reach.' Just no.

Of course I'm exaggerating. A little. The thing is, this scene isn't just some fluff used in a movie for fun. It's representative of the way self-protection and martial arts are often taught, with a 'you do this, I do that' approach that centers on pulling the correct technique out of a hat in answer to an incoming technique, often in series. A fight is too holistic and it changes too dynamically to reduce it to a game of playing cards. The approach is misleading and movies like this only serve to reinforce the misinterpretation of what's going on in a fight.

I'm going to share with you a link to a video produced by the Eugene, Oregon police department. There are some things about this video that make me uncomfortable when it comes to the meaning of a snap decision in light of racial profiling, and I hesitate to post it in light of recent events in Ferguson. That is a huge subject and I really do not want to open up all that pain. With that said, I want to draw your attention to the opening minutes in which police behavioural consultant Alexis Artwohl says, of assessing what happened in officer-involved shootings,'We were expecting these events to defy the laws of physics. We were expecting officers to defy the limits of human performance, we often expect them to have a perfect memory and make perfect decisions when in fact research clearly shows that human beings are not capable of either one of those things...the training and judgement of police officers was frequently based on myths, assumptions, and personal opinions that necessarily may not be's a difficult thing trying to explain these events to the world at large who have been trained by Hollywood rather than what really happens.'

Some of the remarks made here strike me as a sober reminder that we live in a time and place where movie reality is wagging the puppy.  I sometimes feel like martial arts onscreen and on the page have become one big giant Philip K. Dick story. We are in a simulation of a reflection that games the idea of a trick inside a shadow under somebody's wishful thinking.

 On a lighter note,I don't know if this next clip is hilarious or just pathetic: here's  Steven Seagal giving 'lessons' to world class fighter Anderson Silva.

AYFKM? When this came out, people were taking this seriously. Guys were running around the martial arts forums saying that Seagal must be good if Silva was taking lessons from him--that's how much some people really believe in cinema warriors. The fact that Silva agreed to the whole charade says to me that as a culture we have lost the plot. I can't imagine what Silva was thinking but the idea that Steven Seagal has anything to teach him can only be a joke.

I will now take myself off somewhere to recover from the trauma of looking at that last one. In my next post I'll talk about fictional depictions of fighting that I can get behind, credibility-wise. Yes, they do exist!

But before I go I have to cleanse my palate. If you look at only one clip here, look at Ernesto Hoost. Here's what a real fighter does. See that towel fly into the ring.

NASA Kicks Off a Private Space Race Between Boeing and SpaceX by The Planetary Society

Boeing and SpaceX have won multi-billion dollar contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Comet Siding Spring Mars encounter: One Mars Express plan becomes two by The Planetary Society

The Mars Express Flight Control Team at ESOC have been actively preparing for the flyby of comet C/2013 A1/Siding Spring on October 19. Initial estimates gave the possibility that Mars Express might be hit by 2 or 3 high-speed particles. Happily, additional observations by ground and space telescopes have shown the risk to be much lower – and perhaps even as low as zero. In today's blog post, the team explain how this (happy!) real-life, real-time development is affecting their preparations for fly-by.

Themistocles' SWOT by Simon Wardley

The battle of Thermopylae (the tale of the three hundred) and the clash between the Greeks and the mighty army of Xerxes has echoed throughout history as a lesson in the force multiplier effect of landscape. Themistocles devised a strategy where the narrow pass of Thermopylae would be used to hold back the Persians whilst the Athenian navy would block the straits of Artemisium.

The tale is a lesson on why understanding the environment (situational awareness) and exploiting it is critical in combat and why maps of the environment are powerful military tools.

Alas, it turns out that this tale is wrong. Recently discovered archaeological evidence has shown that rather than using awareness of the environment, Themistocles had no situational awareness at all. Instead, the troops were roused not through cunning strategy but the use of a SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunity and threat) diagram which was presented to the troops in 28 pt Arial on parchment. The original Greek document has now been translated and is provided below.

Themistocles' SWOT

Please note, the next time someone turns up with a strategy document which has no map of the landscape but instead either a business model canvas or SWOT diagram masquerading as strategy - I will laugh mercilessly at you until you go away.

Both Business Model Canvas and SWOT diagrams are perfectly useful communication artefacts of the process of scenario planning but they are post event. Without a map, even an imperfect map then you have no strategy. Well, certainly not anything I'm going to take seriously.

Oh, and btw ... I ran strategy for Canonical in cloud between 2008 and 2010. I mapped the environment and with others we learned where to attack, knew where to not get in the way of others, used what was there to our advantage and exploited the inertia of competitors. With a small team and paltry resources (tiny fractions of our competitors) then in two years we took Ubuntu from a bit part of the operating system market to around 70% of all public cloud. Mapping helped me enormously to explain to others and to determine where to attack. Fighting Red Hat was like stealing candy from a child ... I felt guilty over how ridiculously easy it was to walk in and help myself.

Now, maps are imperfect and I'm no Thermistocles or miracle worker but if someone like me can waltz into a market and take it over through the use of a map then I have to say the strategic play in the world of business is pretty poor. In fact, I already know it is.

Going to the source by Charlie Stross

You guys have listened to me go on for quite a few days now. I'm almost done! The material I've been talking about through this series of posts is all stuff that I was thinking about a lot during the time I was writing my novel Shadowboxer, which I began in 2008. These days I'm doing a physics degree that leaves me virtually no free time, but back then I was immersed in watching fights on You Tube and also looking at training footage from around the world in connection with my work with Steve.

But when it came to actually writing Jade, I was daunted. I had never fought in a cage. At that time I wasn't even doing fitness training. I was still recovering from a series of pregnancies. I had a gaping hole in the connective tissue joining my abdominal muscles that limited what I could do physically, I was breastfeeding, and I was feeling very soft because having small children to look after made me unusually empathetic. I saw threats to their safety everywhere; I was cautious. In that state, how on earth was I going to create a credible representation of a fighter--let alone a loose cannon like Jade?

When I brought it up with Steve he just shrugged. 'Look at fights,' he said. 'That's all you need.'

So that is what I did. But I didn't just look at any fights. For example, in the book Jade is an MMA fighter but for several chapters she is forced to fight Muay Thai, which has a more restricted set of rules that keeps the fight on the feet. So for that part of the book I studied Muay Thai bouts. In all cases I picked matches in which one of the fighters was a bit like Jade in terms of weight, reach, and overall style relative to their opponent. I did this because there is an immense variety of strategy and tactics that different fighters will use depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses, and what works for one person or situation can fail miserably for another. I tried to preserve tactical context sensibly and to think about the implications of different individual styles. Of course, the fights I chose always ended up being man-on-man because at the time there just wasn't enough footage of women to choose from. But that really didn't matter much in terms of the internal logic of each fight.

I then wrote down what I observed. Generally I lifted only short sequences at a time, but in the case of Jade's epic battle against Gretchen I took big chunks wholesale out of an incredible MMA fight that I'd watched on You Tube.

In one or two cases I set up a series of moves on purpose. There is a scene where Jade's trainers notice that her opponent has particular advantage and they are shouting to Jade from the corner what she needs to do to neutralize it. Jade is losing and she's too flustered to take in the information. Finally she is able to connect a tactic they'd worked in training to an opportunity that her opponent gives her in the heat of the moment. In this case I picked on a tactical problem that is common and easy to see. I sourced a solution to the problem that can credibly be shown to work. I found out a way of training the solution that Jade and her coaches could have worked on. Then I put it all together. I made everything as dramatic as I could, but I did not make any of it up out of my imagination. Everything I worked with is grounded in actual practice.

When I was working on the fight scenes I only took material from primary sources. Someone said to me that Shadowboxer reminded them of the movie Girlfight. I didn't watch it. I didn't watch Beautiful Boxer until after my fight scenes were written--I was looking at it for its culture and psychology. I avoided Million Dollar Baby also because it was a fictional representation. I wanted to make sure I was working as close to life as possible, because it's too easy to pick up on other creators' versions of events that are already exaggerated, and to exaggerate them further. And for the kind of book that Shadowboxer is, there was no need to do that. The resources existed; I just needed to understand what I was looking at.In the end, the fight scenes turned out to be the easiest parts of the book to write. I was more or less taking dictation from what I could see on the screen. It was a breeze.

I wish I could offer advice to other writers on how to deal with combative sequences without introducing excessive distortion. Obviously, in fantastic literature and cinema there is often no need for realism--in many arenas, artistic excesses are part of the package. But often we see a mixture of realism and fantasy, and then we want the realism to be as sound as possible. For most other areas of specialist knowledge the advice would be to talk to the experts; if you are writing a scene where paramedics do something, you read about paramedics and talk to paramedics, etc. The problem with fight scenes is that the people you'll want to go to will be martial arts teachers and self-protection 'experts' - but what you need to know is that their credentials aren't the equivalent of a professional credential in other fields.

Anybody can set up a self-protection or martial arts business and call themselves an expert. Large martial arts organizations hand out certificates and titles all the time, and people are creating their own organizations all over the place. Worldwide there are widely respected classical systems that claim lineage to ancient fighting traditions. Irrespective of the truth (or not) of these claims, remember that their grades and certifications are only meaningful for performing the art as it has been handed down or reinterpreted--usually this is without full-contact fighting and therefore devoid of reality checks. There are newer systems that are associated in some way with the military, police, or other security work and they generally offer grades and teaching licenses for having studied a syllabus of self-defence techniques--no fighting or front line experience required to become a teacher. There are systems that are totally made up out of hot air. And there are systems where the combat theatrics are purely aesthetic--hopefully you can spot those but sometimes I wonder!

Also, dodgy stuff goes on. There's a lot of political back-scratching. Sometimes grades can be bought over the phone, or certifications given in exchange for attending an expensive series of courses that offer a canned syllabus which is in itself fairly meaningless. Sometimes there is outright fraud. I remember here in the UK several years ago a prominent self-protection expert had been making good money for decades teaching people to defend themselves based on his experience in SAS, until someone did some digging and it came out that SAS had no record of him. Fraud can happen in any field, but in the self-protection business it's easy for someone to masquerade as an expert. They aren't going to have to perform open heart surgery; they just have to know some moves that seem plausible and present them with a lot of front. There are plenty of instructors out there making money and giving advice. As a writer, personally I wouldn't ask most of them to be my consultant. It's your call.

That's why I don't know what to suggest other than going to a fight gym and talking to the people there. You could do worse than make You Tube your friend. There are plenty of videos of street fights, including fights that involve multiple participants. These will give you an idea of the overall dynamics and flow of what happens and how people behave. I wouldn't recommend watching instructional videos, because skills are usually broken down and rehearsed in ways that don't resemble what really happens in a live situation. The one thing I can say is that fighting is chaotic. It shouldn't read like a planned sequence. Don't be Holmes.

So, this brings me to the conclusion of my time here. I would like to thank Charlie again for generously opening this blog to me, and I'd also like to express my appreciation to everyone who read and commented. Reading all of your responses has been immensely stimulating for me, and although I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I've said, I do hope that some of you have found a few points to think about along the way. Thank you so much for reading.

China mobile ad spending will triple to over $20 billion by 2017. by Resonance China

resonance_china mobile ad rev

This chart from iResearch’s recently released 2014 China Mobile Advertising Report tracks the impressive trajectory of the country’s still emerging mobile advertising industry. Mobile ad spending is estimated to grow 76% from last year to reach $4.45 billion by the end of this year and eventually triple to $20.81 billion in 2017. While mobile ad spending in the U.S. is projected to cross $47 billion in 2017, it would not be surprising to see Chinese consumer’s rapid adoption of smartphones and mobile commerce see these estimates drastically revised over the next three years. [iResearch]

份由艾瑞iResearch最近布的2014中国移广告调查,示中国仍在持的移广告行业动态。手机移广告的开销预测会在今年底比去年增76%,到40.5亿美金,而在2017年会增加到208.1 亿美金。尽管,美国移广告的开销预计会在2017年到470亿美金,然而中国消智能手机以及手机交易的迅速适,不看到在接下来三年内可能会改预测结果。[iResearch]

Our Moon, the Cosmic Ray Detector by Astrobites

Title: Lunar Detection of Ultra-High-Energy Cosmic Rays and Neutrinos
Authors: J.D. Bray et. al.
First Author’s Institution: University of Southampton

A great mystery in particle astrophysics today is the production of the so-called ultra-high-energy cosmic rays. In general, cosmic rays are produced in a variety of contexts (see this recent Astrobite for more on that), but astronomers have measured a few to have almost unbelievable energies. The first observation came in 1962 at the Volcano Ranch experiment in New Mexico where Dr. John D. Linsley measured a cosmic ray to have an energy of 1020 eV or 16 J. Another ultra-high-energy cosmic ray, discovered in October of 1991, was dubbed the “Oh-My-God Particle”, which had an energy of 3 x 1020 eV (50 J). To put that into context, 50 J is the kinetic energy of a baseball traveling at 60 miles per hour.

The name ‘cosmic ray‘ is something of a misnomer. The word ‘ray’ makes it sound like it’s some sort of light, like gamma rays. But, that is not the case. Cosmic rays are simply protons that have been accelerated to high energies by some astrophysical mechanism. The mystery of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays lies in that acceleration. Nobody is sure exactly what is accelerating these cosmic rays to such high velocities.

Unfortunately, they are also very difficult to study because they have a relatively low flux here at Earth. The arrival rate of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays are approximately one per square kilometer per century. The Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina is an array of cosmic ray detectors that spans an area of 3,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Rhode Island or Luxembourg), but despite their impressive detector size they still only detect 15 ultra-high-energy cosmic rays per year. Today’s paper by J.D. Bray et. al. explains how to use the Moon as a cosmic ray detector to increase the collection area far beyond that of the Pierre Auger.

When cosmic rays smash into things, a shower of various particles is produced. At Earth, this usually happens in the upper atmosphere, and it is actually those secondary particles present in the shower that are detected by observatories like the Pierre Auger. Those particles are often charged, and their rapid movement through a dense medium, like the atmosphere, causes them to emit a very brief pulse of light in the form of radio waves (Figure 1). The authors hope to use these characteristic radio emissions that occur when cosmic rays strike the Moon’s surface to study the cosmic rays.

Figure 1. Caption goes here...

Figure 1. Left: Radio waves are produced at an angle relative to the direction of the particle shower. The radiation pattern is dependent on the frequency of the produced radio waves (two examples are shown in blue and green). Right: The red line represents the radio pulse that would be detected at Earth.  The pulse is very short, only lasting for several nanoseconds. [source: Bray et. al, figure 1.]

Radio waves cannot travel very far through the Moon’s interior, which means only cosmic rays skimming the Moon’s surface will produce radio pulses that can be detected here on Earth. That notwithstanding, the Moon will still make a truly impressive cosmic ray detector. The authors estimate that it will be equivalent to a 33,000 square kilometer (roughly the size of Maryland or Belgium) cosmic ray detector on Earth. That’s 10 Pierre Auger observatories! With a detector of that size, the authors expect to see up to 165 ultra-high-energy cosmic rays per year.

There is still one issue for the team, though: a radio telescope array that is sensitive enough to detect the faint pulses produced by these cosmic rays does not exist yet. Fortunately, astronomers are about to build the highly anticipated Square Kilometer Array in South Africa and Australia, which will provide the sensitivity necessary to put this lunar technique to use. Once the array is complete, we may finally learn something about the origins of these ultra-energetic cosmic rays.

September 16, 2014

Public Art Collections in North West England: Manchester City Art Gallery. by Feeling Listless

Art Right then, the penultimate venue. Hello Manchester Art Gallery! Or rather, hello again Manchester Art Gallery because even though I’ve been purposefully ignoring your permanent collection for seven long years since the beginning of this project because I decided early on that you’d be next to last in the list of visits, you’ve not been a stranger. Your temporary displays have often been one of the reasons I’ve travelled over to my second favourite city in the country (sorry Leeds but London is third) and I especially liked the Kylie one. Now if you don’t mind I’m going to change out of this open letter format because I’m not sure it’s worth sustaining over the next however many paragraphs this is going to take.

The visit itself took about four hours, not because it couldn’t have gone on longer, because I now realise there was a whole display section I forgot to go back to, but because as I’ve discovered on the occasions when I’ve visited the larger displays (see also Tullie House in Carlisle), there’s only so much looking a person can do, or at least this person can do. Even with a soup and coffee break between the third and sixth rooms there’s only so much intense scrutiny of paintings and information labels that the eyes and brains can entertain without tiredness setting in at least the way I do it which is to look at every painting and object for a few minutes each before moving on. Lawks knows what I’d do at a national.

Much of this fatigue of course has to do with the quality of the collection. Only now and then, here and there are there signs of, for want of a better description “filler”. Every wall is filled with paintings the visitor could spend whole hours, hours and hours looking at. Now that I do know what’s there, when I do return for the temporary displays, I’ll definitely be walking through the other galleries and stopping at some of these to see them again and look again. Now I wish, back when I was working in Manchester, that I’d spent some of my hour long lunch times sitting in these rooms, though obviously after I’d eaten my sandwiches. Thank goodness that line hasn’t been crossed yet. Visitors taking flash photos in the gallery is bad enough.

In his book, Public Art Collections in North-West England, Edward Morris spends eight and a half long pages describing the history and collections and the history of the collections of Manchester Art Gallery. The summary is pretty much the same as all the collections in the area, a mix of interested artists and industrial philanthropists providing the initial idea and funding, early exhibitions giving way to the forming of a collection which is ultimate displayed in a building, then another building then yet another building with various bequests across the years fattening up the collection into the knock-out it is now. What is different is the time period. The process began earlier than most, in 1823, even before the city had a local council.

As Edward notes, this longevity led to the collection’s reputation developing to such an extent that when bequests came, they were even from outside of the city because Manchester was considered to be the premier collection in the north, a reputation no doubt aided and abetted by The Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887. Though he’s also pretty quick to notice that Liverpool has the upper hand in terms of chronological breadth and purchasing power (some of which I’ll only really understand when I read the Walker’s entry). Manchester’s display at least very much focuses on a period which begins at the collection’s inception in the 1800s, only really dipping earlier within their displays of Dutch art which begins in the 1600s.

If all of this is short on detail, it’s because as the history tangled, and for the purposes of this blog post, I’m not sure how interesting you’d find it. Edward’s final paragraph is worth comment. He notes that for all the richness of the collections, their displays aren’t as adequate as they need to be. He’s writing at the turn of the century and notes the gallery’s extension into the Royal Manchester Institution next door in 2001. That’s all completed and has had over a decade to bed in but as has often been the case when I’ve visited these regional galleries it still doesn’t seem like enough. Your Paintings suggests the collection contains 2,132 oils. There must be an exponential number of other objects on top of that.

Manchester’s strategy is to augment its permanent displays, clustered themselves around thematic points, with semi-permanent exhibitions. So amid the 18th century, early 19th century, pre-Raphaelites and Victorian displays, there’s Natural Forces: Romanticism and Nature, A Highland Romance: Victorian Views of Scottishness and Channel Crossings: French and English Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and it works. It means that more corners of permanent collection are seen, clustered around thematic connections and the gallery also has extra destinations for locals who may feel that they’ve otherwise already seen the display. If you don’t mind me jumping ahead, this is exactly something the Walker in Liverpool should be doing right now.

In the midst of all this, how do I even begin to start choosing highlights as is customary in these non-reviews? Usually it’s been pretty easy, small displays, small collections, mostly local artists but city art galleries can’t be approached in that way. Half of Edward’s pagination makes a good job of it and although I agree with most of his suggestions, especially John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs which I had on my bedroom wall at university. The best idea, probably, is to arbitrarily choose a theme and talking about some of the objects which are about that theme. How about Shakespeare? The collection has at least a couple of renowned paintings related to his works. Yes, that will do.

The first ever purchase for the collection, back in 1826 was Shakespeare related, James Northcote’s portrait of the actor Ira Aldridge playing Othello. Amongst his many portraits, Shakespeare was one of Northcote’s key subjects. He was one of the artists commissioned to produce work for the ill-fated Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London which was to simultaneously create an exhibition and book illustrating his plays. This Othello was not one of them. Instead, this shows the Moor of Venice in a style that might suggest it was the character that commissioned the portrait, Aldridge not shown in any of the usual cliched “jealous” poses, instead presenting the noble, gentle figure that Desdemona originally fell for.

The other renowned object (which I also have as a postcard on the wall above my desk here) is Arthur Hughes’s Ophelia. Painted when he was just nineteen, it also depicts a very youthful noblewoman with elfin features. The painting and the frame are of equal importance, Gertrude’s description of the scene depicted inscribed into the gold leaf, the edges carved with vines. The overall effect is biblical. The garland of herbs crowning her head, not just indicating a succession which would surely have come with Hamlet Jr as her husband but also a crown of thorns. She’s sitting it seems, but there’s an inevitability to the moment. As she glances down to the water, we're catching the moment when she realises her fate.

William Bromley’s Catherine of Aragon is perhaps the most theatrical but the lengthy description at Your Paintings doesn’t indicate that there’s any particularly famous actors from a production of Henry VIII, a scene from which this illustrates. I love authority with which she addresses the Cardinals even though she’s sitting, her hand up in defiance. Unfortunately within the gallery, the whole thing’s rather ruined by the glaze which covers it and the rather odd circular mark in the top left hand corner where the man is standing holding open the curtain. A similar mark appears on the glass frontage of James Archer’s otherwise remarkable La Mort d’Arthur. Right in the middle, destroying the composition.

When I saw it on the Archer I asked the invigilator what it was. He explained it was the high impact sucker which was used at some point in its transport which has left a stain on the glass, concentric circles about the size of the base of a coffee mug and presumably went unnoticed when the picture was hung. I asked him if there were any plans for them to be repaired. He said that it would be, to boil down what he said less diplomatically, too much hassle. To which I replied that this was rubbish and that there wasn’t much point in displaying the painting in this condition. Or words to that effect. Really, Manchester Art Gallery, this is a terrible way to treat these ancient paintings and no state to leave them hanging.

The rest of the paintings on display illustrate some of the so-called minor works. There’s William Frederick Yeames’s Prince Arthur and Hubert, the latter having been tasked by King John with killing the boy (as per Act IV, Scene 1). The accompanying text says a reviewer at the time “found the painting trivial and anti-heroic” which it really isn’t, as we see in Hubert’s face the turmoil of the choice he has to make and trying to hide that emotion from his potential victim. There’s Winter Fuel by John Everett Millais, an image of survival within a harsh landscape which was accompanied by a line from Sonnet 73 on first display, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

There may be more Shakespeare related works in the archives, but the Your Paintings search only works if items have been tagged manually and I haven’t the time (at the moment!) to go through the couple of thousand images there. Suffice to say this is just a snip of what’s there though it’s worth checking which galleries are open beforehand.  The contemporary and main temporary spaces were both closed for rehangs. But like I said way up above, I’d probably well and truly seen my fair share by then. Anyway, there we are then, Manchester Art Gallery, tick. Just the Walker Art Gallery to do and it’s the collection with which I’m most familiar. Why am I so nervous? Ends of projects. Ends of projects.

Mars Orbiter Mission prepares for Mars arrival by The Planetary Society

The countdown for the crucial and nerve-wracking Mars orbit insertion of India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on September 24 has kicked off. At ISRO's telemetry, tracking and command network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore, the mood among the scientists is right now a mixture of optimism, excitement, and nervous apprehension.

Mars Orbiter Mission arrival timeline by The Planetary Society

Mars Orbiter Mission's fated arrival day is approaching fast! Here is the timeline of orbit insertion events, converted from India Standard Time to Universal, European, and Pacific time zones, and corrected for the 12.5 minutes it will take signals to reach Earth from Mars.

Apply to Write for Astrobites by Astrobites

Astrobites is seeking new graduate students to join the Astrobites collaboration.

Please share the information below with your graduate student colleagues. Applicants must be current graduate students. The deadline for applications is 15 October. Please email if you have any questions.

Application Details

The application consists of a sample Astrobite and two short essays. The application can be found and submitted at

Goal: Your sample astrobite should discuss the motivation, methods, results, and conclusions of a published paper that has not been featured on Astrobites. Please do not summarize a paper of which you are an author, as this might lead to an unfair advantage relative to an application where the applicant is not involved with the paper.  If there are any concerns or ambiguities regarding this point, do not hesitate to seek guidance:

Age of paper: We suggest you choose a paper that is at least 3 months old. Astrobites articles published during the author selection process will focus on newer papers, so you do not need to worry that your chosen article will be covered on astrobites.

Style: Please write at a level appropriate for undergraduate physics or astronomy majors and remember to explain jargon. We encourage you to provide links to previous astrobites or other science websites where appropriate. Links may either be provided as hyperlinks or as parenthetical citations. We suggest you read a few Astrobites posts to get a sense for how posts are typically written. You might use them as a guide for your sample post.

Figures: Your sample post should include at least one figure from the paper with an appropriate caption (not just the original caption). Figures may either be embedded in the text or placed at the end of the sample, and need to include appropriate citations to their source as well.

Length: Please keep your submission under 1,000 words including the figure caption(s). As we have received numerous applications for previous cycles, we unfortunately do not expect to be able to read beyond this limit.  Importantly, typical astrobites are usually between 500-800 words, so successful applications will demonstrate the ability to explain their chosen papers concisely. “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Dates and Decision Process

The deadline for applications is 15 October. The Astrobites hiring committee will then review the applications and invite new authors to join based on the quality of their sample Astrobite and two short essays as well as on our needs for number of new authors. All applications will be reviewed anonymously in the interests of fairness. Applicants can expect to be notified by the end of November. If you have questions about the application process or responsibilities of Astrobites authors, don’t hesitate to get in touch at


A Flambient update, now with gradients and Russia by Dan Catt


Recently I've updated Flambient, and sadly not on GitHub as I'm trying to move away from hosting code on there. "Flambient" was a way to stylistically use small images (or even thumbnails) on larger screens. Originally for a 2nd screen Guardian Headline experiment, you can read more about it here, and the effect looked rather like this...


...the effect has also been used over at thisismyjam as the Dizzy background.

Side note: Each thisismyjam background theme is named after a music artist, Dizzy is named after Dizzy Gillespie for his track "The Eternal Triangle" which I've enjoyed in the past, and I think triangles are a very Jazz shape.

Anyway, it's also been used by PaperLater again as a useful way to make a potential small image fill a large space in an abstract fashion.

For a long time I've been meaning to update the code, but you know busy! However a couple of weekends ago I managed to find the time and ended up with this...


...and this...


From a technical point of view, I'm now dividing "tiles" into quarters to determine which way to diagonally split them, deciding based on opposing quarters with the highest contrast then hue difference. The new part if once that's chosen using the neighbouring quarters to dictate which direction the gradient should go in.

From an art point of view it's because I really liked The Woodcutter by Kazimir Severinovich Malevich which I studied while doing art (Goole Image Search)


A pioneer of geometric abstract art and the originator of the Suprematist movement, " art movement, focused on basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors."

Flambient clearly isn't that, but the Woodcutter has stayed with me all this years and was definitely one the main reasons for this next small evolution in design.

So here we are, one last image, and this one based on another thisismyjam background, Kurt & Love...


...the orginal image can be found here

DO YOU 'LIKE' THE SUN? The Content Casino vs. the Long Game by Charlie Stross

I've been at a marketing conference the last few days, and underneath all the sales funnels and ROIs and synergies and native advertising and value-add content, there was a lot of talk about storytelling... and how we've forgotten how to tell stories in our endless quest to create MOAR CONTENT.

There's no doubt that since the rise of the internet, much of the job of "marketing" seems to be to fill the internet with crap. Content, any content, as long as it appears regularly and is stuffed with the requisite amount of keywords, has come to dominate what many firms consider "marketing on the internet" for a decade now. But as anyone who's tried to find relevant content on the internet, or sifted through their spam email knows, we've developed very good filters for sorting through BS for actual valuable results. And when we start having problems curating all that noise, places like Google and now Facebook, do it for us, with (in Facebook's case, especially) dodgy algorithms that decide what we're actually interested in and what we should see.

The widespread hatred of what's happened with Facebook, in particular, is a constant gripe not just for users (I finally deleted my personal Facebook account, and kept only the fan page) but also marketers, who have developed huge followings that they now have to pay to reach. But as was pointed out by a speaker at the conference, this is all the fault of myself and my colleagues:

"We're the problem! We broke Facebook. They had to switch to promoted content because we were spamming people with garbage. 'Here's a picture of the sun! Do you YOU like the sun? 'Like' this picture of you like the sun!' WE ARE THE PROBLEM."

All that daily editorial calendar garbage we're spewing out to clutter up the web has given both us and everyone else who uses it information fatigue. Data overload. It's added to the noise in the world. It's made it harder to find valuable, relevant work.

With Google changing its algorithm to increase the ranking of content not just on clicks, but also by time spent on the page, there was a lot of chatter about what this new shift in the algorithm and the information overload was going to do to the types of work we produced to share in online spaces. Some brands and agencies already understand that if you concentrate on just putting out a few big pieces of entertainment, good stories, valuable information, you can cut through the noise, and they're putting out less junk. Others are still stuck spamming you value propositions and bullet pointed lists, hoping something will stick.

When I come home from the day job, I write novels. I talk to a lot of writers. And I couldn't help but notice how these two approaches - lots of content you hope will connect with someone, versus focusing on a few quality projects - mirrored the career strategies of many novelists. There are two schools of thought, generally: you write as much as possible, in as many genres as possible, writing three, maybe even four (or more! Many romance authors write more, and self-published authors often write a dozen or more novella length pieces a year to make a living wage), and hope one of them hits it big (the casino approach). Or, you write your book a year or every three years and you slowly build up a small but passionate audience over time, hoping that by investing in just one piece at a time, that in twenty years or so you'll have enough money through writing to live on.

The reality is that for many authors, the casino approach is simply the only way to make a living. They can't afford to wait to "maybe make a living writing novels" in twenty years. This is often how I see myself in my role at my day job. Shareholders aren't here for a ten-year return. They get quarterly reports. They must, at all costs (even and especially jobs) see growth, a return on their investment, from year to year. That means everyone must produce work, lots of work, to justify their existence, hoping that some of it, any of it, will hit. Most corporations are like this, investing heavily in busy work, in everyone working hard, without sitting down to strategize or prioritize. But the checks come on time (which is far better than I can say for publishing!).

The longer game, the exhausting game, and the game that has less of a likelihood for regular checks, is the long game of relying on building a career on fewer pieces. You may be able to invest more time, energy, and thought into them, but the reality here is that there's less chance of writing something that will connect with readers at the right time, in the right place. If publishing is a gamble, then the more pieces you write, the more tickets you've bought, the better chances you'll have, right?

In truth, I see merit in both of these approaches. Spam works. I see it work everyday. So long as spam works, we are still going to see a lot of spam. Junk posts also work. Some people really like the sun, and they will be happy to like your post all fricking day long. But investing in the longer game, the big tentpole pieces, the novel that took five years or seven years to write, can be just as good an investment.

What I suspect most writers, and marketers, will end up doing in future is a mix of both of these approaches. We'll always have a lot of junk. People like candy. But in talking about how he schedules content on his blog, one of the speakers this weekend pointed out that some candy on Monday, candy and spinach on Tuesday, a big thinky roast piece on Wednesday, candy and spinach on Thursday, and candy on Friday isn't a bad way to schedule content (I think that's a little too much candy for me, personally, but you get the idea). You give folks some happy junk AND a nice chewy piece that makes them think, and then you're not just adding to the junk on the internet, you're providing some value and variety.

This is how I look at using online self-publishing platforms versus traditional publishing sometimes, too. Self-publishing or digital-only is ideal for small fun pieces in universes like the one in my God's War books that are fun slash-and-hack post-apocalypse stories with bad ass heroines and bug tech. Traditional houses can get the newer, chewier, more complicated stuff that gets people excited on a different level, like The Mirror Empire novels. And having a diversity of work also means that I lessen reader burnout. It's not just all the same tired thing.

I'm a marketing nerd, fully aware of its dangers and its potential for inciting positive change. And I admit I look forward to the end of the internet garbage era of marketing, or at least a reining in, a tactical deployment of candy vs. roast, instead of an endless sea of endless suns.

About Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God's War Trilogy, comprising the books God's War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year's Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

Who let the dogs out by Charlie Stross

So far I have talked about where I'm coming from when I talk about martial arts and the Philip K. Dick-like uneasiness I feel about the relationship between Hollywood and reality as I observe it play out in martial arts circles. Today I want to talk about representations of personal combat in popular media that I love. There are two examples that I want to share with you because I think they both exemplify the sincere effort to bring the live animal of the fight to the screen.

Beautiful Boxer is director Ekachai Uekrongtham's film about the life of Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol. There are many wonderful and fascinating aspects to this film, which is based on the true story of a person born in rural Thailand with male genitals and the psychological identity of a girl. As a young person in a male body she fought as a professional Muay Thai fighter so as to help her struggling family, eventually becoming the very successful adult fighter Nong Toom. While transitioning, she continued to fight men, with the prize money ultimately going to sex reassignment surgery so that Parinya Charoenphol could finally live life as herself; sadly, as a woman she was no longer permitted to fight on the professional circuit. I recommend Beautiful Boxer as a moving and involving piece of cinema.

What I love about the film from a martial art point of view is how the director cast professional fighters as actors--including the lead. He didn't choreograph the fight scenes, of which there are many. He allowed the fighters to go at it and filmed what happened.

When you look at this trailer, for the purposes of this discussion please disregard the synchronized, romantic displays of Muay Buran in the forest; look instead at the fight scenes that start around 1:15 to see what I mean. These scenes have been edited out of a real mix of two fighters going full throttle. This is not to say that nothing here has been planned--my guess is that they have been given a bit of general direction. The fights look maybe a little flashier than average. But the performers are real fighters and it shows. These are good fight scenes because they are real.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh's Haywire has fight scenes that appear meticulously choreographed, but the result is still effective because the choreography has been mostly pulled from actual fights and its performance is naturalistic. The clip below is an extended sequence in a hotel room, and it makes use of a variety of moves typical of what you'd expect to see a trained fighter use against another trained fighter--which is OK in this context because both people are understood to be agents schooled in hand-to-hand combat.

Some parts of the sequence are more believable than others (I think the exchange of blocked hand blows near the middle is shaky) but one thing that I find consistently believable is Gina Carano. This is because Carano came to the film on the heels of a successful Muay Thai and mixed martial arts career. Soderbergh offered Carano the part immediately after her defeat at the powerful fists of Cris Santos in Strikeforce. You're looking at a real athlete in Carano. Whether she's throwing, punching, kicking a guy through a door, or choking him out she's doing it just like she would do it in the cage. This makes for great cinema without chucking realism out the window.

Talking about Gina Carano brings me to the topic of women fighters. It can be no surprise to anyone at this blog that fighters get far less money, opportunity and attention if they are women. Not even ten years ago, a google for 'MMA women' revealed mostly pictures of 'hot ring girls' much like a google for 'science fiction women' revealed mostly hits about 'hot babes of sci fi TV'. (I know because I keep an eye on these things. If you google 'science fiction women' today you'll see 'kick-ass women' and 'Women Destroy SF' and stuff like that--but it hasn't been that way for long).

Maybe the 'hot ring girls' mentality explains why Gina Carano got unprecedented attention when she broke in as a mixed martial arts fighter--people talked as much about her looks as about her abilities. I want to make it clear that Carano is a great fighter. But to get attention as a woman it always helps to be eye candy, too. I believe that Carano helped to raise the profile of the women's game by both her talent and her marketability. It's the usual double standard.

In the last couple of years something has begun to change. In 2012 women were allowed to box in the Olympics for the first time. The UFC (the biggest MMA organization in the world) allowed women to fight for the first time in 2013 after having said in 2011 that it would never happen. It has taken a very long time to overcome deep prejudice, but finally we are seeing women fighters in the spotlight. And you know what? What a lot of resistance over nothing. Women fight just like men do.

All this time I've been talking about the screen. This is because I find the verbal descriptions of fighting that I've read in a lot of genre fiction to be far-fetched, but as a writer myself I know how difficult and challenging this work is. I don't want to pick on anyone's book in particular. The problems are broadly the same as you see in cinema: exaggerating certain features for effect without understanding the fundamental principles of live combat.

In my final post I will talk about how I approach fight scenes as a writer. Specifically, I'll discuss my novel Shadowboxer, which centres on a young woman who fights MMA. Early readers have said that the fight scenes are the best parts of the book. They were actually dead easy to write, and I'll tell you how I did it.

Baidu and Alibaba captured 56% of total online advertising spend. by Resonance China

resonance_q2 digital ad spending

This recently released chart from iResearch breaks down advertising revenues for China’s key players in Q2 2014. Overall, online advertising growth continued its torrid pace with total spend increasing 29.4% quarter-over-quarter and 48.7% year-over-year to reach RMB 38.15 billion. Among publishers, Baidu and Alibaba captured the lion’s share of the market with 73% of all advertising revenue among the top ten players with annual growth rates of 59.2% and 43.5% respectively. With advertising on Baidu and Tmall/Taobao currently providing the most transparent channels for ROI, it will be interesting to see which platforms will emerge from the pack to capture market share with premium video sites like iQiyi (131.4% growth) already showing encouraging signs. [iResearch]

这份由艾瑞iResearch最近发布的表格,显示了中国2014年第二季度广告行业收入的各个主要来源。总体来说,在线广告依然炙手可热,并保持着29.4%的季度增长和48.7%的年度增长, 达到了380.1亿元。相较其他公司,百度和阿里巴巴依旧是市场的领头羊,占据了前十家公司的73%的广告收入,并且分别拥有59.2%以及43.5%的年增长率。 以投资报酬率来说,百度和天猫/淘寳提供了目前最透明的平台。接下来也好奇哪个平台能够脱颖而出, 像爱奇艺(网络视频播放平台)一样有着131.4%高成长率 。[iResearch]

September 15, 2014

At least I think I was. by Feeling Listless

Life I was mistaken for a celebrity at lunch time. At least I think I was.

My latest project is to never eat in the same place again as a way of forcing me to eat in some of those cafes, restaurants or bistros which I'm always walking past without entering of which there are plenty in Liverpool.

 I'm also only ever eating the soup at lunchtime. This is as a special sub-project.

At today's cafe, which will remain nameless to save blushes, but feel free to ask me in real life, I stumbled up to the counter and ordered the soup and a glass of water.

The waitress looked at me, and looked at me again and kept looking at me to the point that I wondered what she was looking at.

Not actual me obviously, my self-esteem wouldn't allow for that.

Was it The Adventures of Tin-Tin t-shirt I'd decided wear for the first time since it was bought for me about ten years ago now that it actually fits? That had already received a few glances on the bus into town.

I sat down.

 Then I sat down again when I moved to a table in the window.

 The waitress, as she cleared the table, still looking at me, still grinning, asked if I'd moved.

 I replied that I had, that I wanted a window seat. She nodded and grinned again, but again not in that way that you tend to have to in the service industry as I know.

She brought me the soup but not the water. I went back up to the counter to ask for the water. She said she'd bring it over.

I sat down. I ate some soup. She brought the water. And then she said, "You look just like Massabi."

I'm guessing the spelling. I don't even really know what she said. But I do know I didn't know what to do with what she said.

"Oh. No."

"Do you know Masebi?"

"No. I'm not him. I'm from here." I don't know why that was important information. "I was born in Speke." I wasn't actually born in Speke. I was born in town.

"Well, you look just like him."

I smiled. She returned to work but every now and then I caught her still looking over, not completely convinced.

I finished my soup.  I left.

When I was at school one classmate thought I looked like Rowan Atkinson.  Another Patrick Moore.  At I knew who they were.

What I should have asked was "Who is that?" but I was so entirely thrown by the encounter, she seemed nervous, that it went out of my mind.

I don't know that it was a celebrity.  It could have just been a friend of a friend.  But there was just something about the encounter.  A niggle.  A feeling.

I've googled.  Without a spelling I can't find anyone resembling me.  There's a lot of people and things in the world with a name similar to that.  Any ideas?  Do I have a celebrity doppelganger?

A landing site for Philae, but it's not going to be easy by The Planetary Society

This morning, the European Space Agency announced the selection of a landing site for little Philae on the head of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Although a primary site has been selected, landing Philae successfully is going to be tough, and the mission is now working to manage people's expectations.

Rethinking the Planet Formation Deadline by Astrobites

Stars start their lives surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. After several million years, the gas and most of this dust will dissipate, marking the end of the opportunity for gas giant planets to form. This timescale places strong constraints on our theories for how gas giants must form. The authors of today’s paper take a closer look at how the observations of disks around young stars have been carried out, and they find that many stars may actually retain their disks for far longer than previously thought.

Stars are not born on their own; rather they are born in clusters. The typical lifetime of protoplanetary disks is measured by first looking for disks around the stars in a cluster, and then comparing the fraction of stars with disks among different clusters of different ages. Such results are presented in Figure 1, which shows that 50% of stars lose their disks after 2 or 3 million years and 90% have lost their disks by the time they are 6 million years old. The author’s of today’s paper critique these results by identifying several selection effects that plague cluster observations.

The standard picture showing how quickly the fraction of stars with disks decreases with age. The lines show a linear and exponential fits to the data.

The standard picture showing how quickly the fraction of stars with protoplanetary disks decreases with age. The lines show linear and exponential fits to the data.

The core problem is that shortly after they form clusters will begin to expand and dissolve as the stars near the edges of the clusters are expelled. By the time clusters reach an age of 10 Myr, only 10-20% of their original stars remain. Clusters quickly expand beyond the field of view of most telescopes, so observations of older clusters are dominated by the stars that started in the cluster’s dense central region. The disks around stars in the central region are easily disrupted by gravitational perturbations from nearby stars as well as photoevaporated by the light from nearby bright massive stars. (For more on how cluster environments affect protoplanetary disks, see these astrobites.) In older clusters, the bias towards sampling these central stars may severely under-predict the disk fraction, resulting in an inferred disk dispersal timescale that is too short.

Additionally, star clusters vary considerably in their total mass. Because clusters expand and become more diffuse, low mass clusters cannot even be detected after a certain age, so the observations of older clusters are biased towards massive clusters. This is evident in Figure 1 where massive clusters (>1,000 solar masses) are shown in filled circles and less massive clusters are shown in open circles. The disk dispersal process may vary with cluster mass. Basing the disk fraction of older stars only on those in massive clusters is not ideal–especially considering that the majority of all stars may actually form in less massive clusters.

The authors attempt to correct some of these effects, and in Figure 2 they present an updated version of Figure 1. They added measurements of stars from the outer parts of clusters, and they added disk fractions for sparser clusters. These adjustments increase the disk fraction for older stars and lengthen the average disk lifetime. However, these corrections are not easy to make. The ages of sparse clusters are difficult to determine, and including stars at the outer reaches of clusters runs the risk of including stars that are not actually members of the clusters at all. These interlopers are likely much older and disk-free, so including them would artificially lower the measured disk fraction. For these reasons, the authors note that their updated values are still lower-limits on the true disk fractions.

In the end, the authors estimate that between a third and a half of stars may still host disks when they turn 10 Myr old. Perhaps we need to extend the deadlines we’ve placed on planet formation.

An updated version of Figure 1, now showing a longer protoplanetary disk lifetime (red line) when sparse clusters and stars at the edges of clusters are included. The authors note that this is still an underestimate of the disk fractions and of the average disk lifetime.

An updated version of Figure 1, now showing a longer protoplanetary disk lifetime (red line) when sparse clusters and stars at the edges of clusters are included. The authors note that this is likely still underestimates the disk fractions and of the average disk lifetime.

Martial arts and the cycle of bullshit by Charlie Stross

Hello, everyone. Charlie has kindly invited me to post here because I am a science fiction writer. But for the next four guest posts I'm going to be talking about fighting, martial arts, the media, and women. I have a lot to say. In this first post I'll give you an idea of where I'm coming from when I'm talking about fighting.

So you need to know that I started martial arts training when I was thirteen because as a young woman I was always being told I was a potential victim; I wanted to move past that. It was kind of ironic how at sixteen, studying karate in Okinawa, I was singled out for 'special training' by one of the higher ranks, who then felt me up liberally and eventually propositioned me in front of his wife. She was translating for him!

But don't worry--we won't be going there.

I just want to establish my background. I was kicked out of my first school for insubordination because while preparing to test for black belt I refused to train with the women and children, but other than that I was well-behaved. I dabbled in various arts off and on throughout my teens and twenties. When I was 28 I started training with Steve Morris, who is known in Britain for his deep knowledge of fighting and its training methods. Steve taught me to hit. Hard. Eventually we hooked up and we are still together. Through sixteen years as Steve's website administrator, camera guy and partner I have learned a lot about martial arts from a technical, historical, political and personal perspective.

Most people think of martial arts and fighting as being more or less synonymous. I see them as a Venn diagram of two sets that overlap by a tiny margin. This is because most martial artists don't fight and their training isn't directly based on what happens in a fight.

There are reasons for this. The problem of training for a fight is a tricky one. If an instructor puts students in an actual fight (as opposed to highly controlled drills with restricted moves), they might get seriously hurt. But if instructors can't create an accurate representation of a fight in the gym, trainees will never really be tested. To make up for the lack of fighting, martial arts typically focus on displays of fake combat that illustrate the combative moves that have been passed down through history. They may have non-contact or light contact fighting, but this only tests your ability to touch the other person with the techniques you have been taught--not your ability to hurt them for real much less take a beating yourself.

Most people who study martial arts study a system. Whether the system is historical (like kung fu and karate) or modern (like Systema and Krav Maga) the techniques are taught formally, with ranks, with semi-compliant drilling between members of the same school, and with a heavy dose of hierarchy that keeps everybody in their place. With a few exceptions (Gracie Barra jiu-jitsu is one system that grades predominantly through hard competition) the idea of all-out fighting is a theoretical one, kept well in the background.

But fighting is chaotic. It's often unpredictable. It doesn't systemize well and it's difficult to pass on as a body of knowledge. What people don't realize is that no matter how effective the founder of a discipline may have been in his (or in the case of Wing Chun, her) day, unless the practices of that system involve rigorous testing in realistic fighting conditions against non-compliant opponents from outside your system, you can never really know whether you can make their moves work for you.

It's not a big leap to get from martial arts to religion. To a greater or lesser degree, you are expected to take what's being taught to you on faith.

There are a lot of problems with this, but perhaps the most offensive to me is the fact that a person can rise to high rank and great influence without possessing any fighting ability whatsoever. Thus is born a cycle of bullshit. You have someone teaching you (allegedly) to fight, but they have no fighting experience themselves let alone the know-how to help you. If you go along with this long enough, you can aspire to turn around and teach others one day. Ad infinitum; ad nauseum.

I've been a part of that cycle. When you realize what's going on, it's disheartening. And the more heavily you are invested in the hierarchy, the deeper the disillusionment, and the more difficult to throw away your investment. Even if your investment turns out to be shite. For years, even after I saw karate guys biting the dust against trained grapplers in the UFC cage, I believed that the great karate masters from my former school's lineage had some special combative power that was too dangerous for the UFC. I thought that if they weren't fighting in these contests it must be because they were too spiritual--not because they'd be shit-scared to try.

This is what happens when you have a powerful imagination. Fundamentally, I'm a nerd. And I swallowed a lot of bullshit because I wanted to be a part of a warrior culture (groping notwithstanding). I later learned that many people have made the same mistakes that I did.

By contrast to me, my partner was an athlete and street fighter from a very young age. In his youth Steve was kicked out of Kyokushin Kai for excessive contact so he moved to Japan, where he trained so hard he earned a third degree black belt from Yamaguchi Gogen within a year. When he got back from Japan he ran a martial arts club in central London for many years while researching global fight training methods and their history. Around 1973 Steve started an 'anything goes' fight class where all methods and techniques were allowable--it was a kind of proto fight club. He told me that the immediate result was that the white belts started beating up the black belts and the black belts fled the club in droves.

Steve's not famous, but people in the know are aware of him and what he does. Over the years a lot of higher ranks have walked through his door looking for guidance, and I personally observed any number of black belts come undone under even mild pressure. They realized painfully that their system had failed them.

Many made an initial effort to change. A few threw away what they'd learned and worked very hard to start over with a fight-centred approach. These guys did improve massively, and they developed self-reliance and self-respect--one became a successful professional MMA fighter. Some quit the martial arts. Many others--I'd say the majority--soon realized how hard it was going to be to deal with the challenges of fight training, and went back to their systems. They seemed chagrined, embarrassed--but not enough to let go of their status in a recognized hierarchy. Some of these guys are quite highly ranked teachers with respected credentials.

I could never understand this last response. Before I realized I was crap at fighting it was maybe understandable that I placed faith in my karate training. But once you see something, you can't very well un-see it. Unless you are an ostrich. Or you run a dojo.

Which brings me at last to the parallels between science fiction and the martial arts. Over the years I've formed the opinion that both are most commonly used as means of escape from reality. Nothing wrong with escapism as a thing--you need to be honest about it, though, and martial arts tend to fail big in that department.

Of course, science fiction doesn't only have to be a way out--it can also be a way in. For me, both martial arts and science fiction are the most rewarding when they engage with reality in all its depth and complexity.

But what does engaging with reality even mean? That's a question for next time, when I'll talk about personal combat as we see it depicted in popular media. Headsup: it's usually absurd.

Crib Sheet: Neptune's Brood by Charlie Stross

One of the problems with writing novels for the trade publishing business is that you're not just writing for your readers; you have to keep one eye on the internal structure of your publisher's business. Prior to the 1980s, trade publishing ran on much the same lines it had in the 1880s; small family-owned or run businesses where editors acquired and edited books, then sent them down to the production department to be typeset and then printed and bound and warehoused. But a wave of corporate take-overs up-ended the entire game board in the 1970s and 1980s, and these days the internal logic of publishing bears little resemblance to the business in days of yore. Any part of the pipeline that can be outsourced has been outsourced for decades: and while editors still edit, their job is now tightly integrated with marketing, and they can't (usually) buy books that they can't convince the marketing department are commercial propositions.

So when you've written a successful novel, the first thing any editor says to you is, "that was great! Can you write me another book just like the last one, only different?" By which they mean something that is easy to explain to the marketing folks without requiring them to read the entire manuscript (because marketing are responsible for selling maybe 2-3 new titles a week, and they just don't have time).

Back in 2007 I wrote "Saturn's Children", thinking that it was a one-shot: a late-period Heinlein tribute novel. And indeed, there was no way I intended to go back and write about Freya ever again. (She's one of the most annoying protagonists I ever came up with. Alternately chatty and whining, a vacuous underachiever, traumatic origins or not: it was a pleasure to push her out of my head when I finished that book.) But some folks seemed to like it, and when Jonathan Strahan came along and asked me to write a story for his new hard-SF anthology, Engineering Infinity I came up with an idea that only made sense in the context of Freya's universe and it's rather primitive starships. Hence Bit Rot.

Having written "Bit Rot" it seemed to me that there was some scope for exploring what happened to the Freyaverse some thousands of years after the events of "Saturn's Children". But there things rested until 2010.

Now, in 2010 I signed a new three-book contract with Ace and Orbit (Ace for North American rights, Orbit for UK/Commonwealth rights). The original contract was for a Laundry Files novel (The Apocalypse Codex), an unspecified space opera (as light relief between Big Jobs), and a third near-future Scottish SF police procedural to follow "Rule 34" and "Halting State". That novel, "The Lambda Functionary", failed to take off: firstly because I got too ambitious, and then because I ran into the Scottish political singularity. (It may yet get written, in drastically different form, after the fallout from this month's referendum settles. But it can't be published for at least three years due to other books that are already locked into the production pipeline.) Instead, I hastily wrote a quick Laundry Files knock-off that turned out slightly better than expected: The Rhesus Chart.

What about the book in the middle?

The book in the middle was meant to be a light-hearted space operatic caper. I'd established a much-slower-than-light universe in "Saturn's Children", and posthumans who could survive the harsh environments and protracted time scales implied by it. How about sending a protagonist on a tour of known space?

Well, at the first step, my suspension of disbelief broke. Because space travel is so hard in the Freyaverse that nobody in their right mind would do it, unless the stakes were unbelievably high—and they had a very low estimate of their own self-worth. In fact, come to think of it, space colonization was itself a ludicrous idea; how on earth could it pay for itself?

Nevertheless, I persisted. I realized that I needed an economic framework, otherwise the whole idea collapsed at the first hurdle, leaving me with only religious fanaticism as a plausible motive for space colonization. And while religious fanaticism features in "Neptune's Brood" (the Church of the Fragile are what you get after 5000 years of uncritical acceptance of the nonsensical "we can't keep all our eggs in one basket"/"what if life on Earth is wiped out?" arguments advanced by would-be space colonists today: our robot offspring are going to ensure that humanity spreads to the stars, kicking and screaming and dying in large numbers), religious fanatics aren't terribly engaging characters in a work of fiction.

And that's when the idea of different speeds of money hit me.

In the late-period Freyaverse, money comes in three kinds: fast, medium, and slow. We are all used to fast money; it's what we use today. It's a medium of exchange of value and it correlates with economic velocity: the hotter/faster an economy is moving, the more money circulates. You can't meaningfully transfer fast money between star systems (or even sub-systems in orbit around a common star, such as the separate moon systems of different distant gas giants) because the economies are not directly coupled: no physical goods are actually worth shipping across such distances. (I'm putting a lower threshold on the cost of a single starship mission in the Freyaverse of roughly one year of GDP for an entire solar system; in today's terms, if we had the tech to build one, that would be around $50Tn, or 5-6 times the annual GDP of the United States.)

In addition to fast money, there are long term instruments that act as reservoirs of value. Real estate is not terribly liquid—you can't take a thousandth of your house to the supermarket and use it to buy provisions—but it's still recognizably valuable. And it persists; real estate investments may hold value for decades or centuries. And because they're interchangeable with fast money, at what is effectively a wildly skewed exchange rate, these properties can act as buffers against fluctuations in the fast money economy.

The Freyaverse recognizes this by denominating investments of this type (not just houses but pyramids and space elevators and planetary terraforming projects) in a currency of their own: medium money.

But starships in the Freyaverse are slow—typically cruising at 1% of lightspeed. At this speed, Alpha Centauri is nearly 500 years away; stars with known planetary systems may take millennia to reach. Communication is a lot faster: colonized star systems use modulated laser transmissions to beam data back and forth, including the uploaded, serialized minds of people who want to travel. But what kind of currency (even for a species as long-lived as our posthuman mechanocyte-based successors) can possibly be used to intermediate exchanges of value across interstellar distances? Or to settle debts amounting to the cost of building a new colony, when that kind of sum is equal to entire years of economic productivity?

Slow money is a digital currency backed by debt—the debt incurred by constructing a new interstellar colony. To exchange slow money tokens requires something like (but not identical to) David Chaum's Digicash; all transactions need to by cryptographically signed by a trusted third party. With slow money, rather than relying on a "banker", each party can operate as a banker—but bank A can't sent cash to bank B without getting the transaction irrevocably notarized by bank C. By putting the third party in another star system, both participants in the exchange can verify that they're not being scammed, because to get your digicash packet countersigned by your banker you need to literally aim your laser communicator at their home star system. And wait. And wait a bit longer, because this whole process takes ages—slow money (thanks to requiring notarization/acknowledgement) travels no faster than a third the speed of light.

So, setup: I generated a character (subtype: girl with a mission; sub-subtype: as utterly unlike Freya as I could make her, which is why she's a middle-aged accountant), put her in jeopardy (trying to get from a highly dubious space colony to a water world, she signs on board a damaged vessel crewed by religious fanatics for a working passage), and sent her off to have adventures.

Then, midway through the first draft, this book fell on me.

The book in question was Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber, and it was to 2011 pretty much what Piketty on Capital is to 2014. Short version: Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist. His thesis is that to the extent that economics is the study of how we allocate resources, this is essentially within the domain of anthropology: and some of the central narratives of economics are inconsistent with our understanding of how human societies operate. (If you read no other part of the book, look for his demolition of Adam Smith's account of the emergence of barter among primitive peoples. Barter, Graeber points out, isn't something that emerges, and that acts as a precursor to the development of money: rather, barter is what we get in atomized societies when fiscal systems collapse and nobody trusts their neighbours. True primitive tribal societies run on interpersonal debt and/or honour systems: everybody knows what their neighbours owe them, so there's no need to provide an immediate exchange for items of value received.)

But anyway: "Debt" gave me a critical tool to look at the economics of interstellar colonization in the Freyaverse. And a tool for thinking about why colonies might be founded. Colonization is expensive, so to create a colony mission incurs a huge amount of debt, denominated in slow money (because this is the only currency that can survive the gulfs of time and space involed). The easiest way to obtain the slow money with which to pay off your star system's debt of instantiation (and interest) is to grow rapidly and send out your own colonies, in turn, which allows you to issue cash instruments redeemable against their debt, much as banks today use lending as collateral for generating new money.

Voila! Just add banking fraud, murderous matriarchs, alien space bats, talking squids in space, a water-world and the worldbuilding thereof (see also part 2), and you have a parable for our times about the banking crisis and the spiralling growth of debt that is rapidly enslaving us to a floating pool of transnational financial instruments that nobody really understands or owns.

"Neptune's Brood" was simple, really: just a light-hearted space opera that accidentally turned into an exegesis on how to design an economic system to answer one of my earlier core criticisms of the proponents of space colonisation: who's going to pay for it?.

Two final notes.

Firstly, the ending isn't up to snuff. I'm sorry. I tried to do it justice, but I ran out of time. I had twelve months of wall-clock time to write the book, but throwing half of the first half out and re-doing from scratch after bouncing off "Debt" cost me a couple of months, and then I realized that I just didn't have time to spend an extra year or two polishing it. So I gave it the best ending I could, but to this day I have the nagging feeling that somewhere out there in memespace the real ending to "Neptune's Brood" is floating around, waiting for me to have the time to haul it back in for a Director's Cut re-release with extra found footage.

Secondly, "Neptune's Brood" was shortlisted for the Hugo award in 2014 ... and lost, by a wide margin to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which made an extraordinary clean sweep of the SF field awards in a manner that probably hasn't happened since William Gibson's "Neuromancer" swept the boards in 1985. Ah well: congratulations to Ann, who seems to have somehow single-handedly relegitimized space opera (it needs that to happen every decade or it stops being "new", or something like that)!

... And a third and final thought: this universe isn't dead. I drove it into a lamppost with that ending, the bumper's crumpled, the radiator's leaking and the transmission is making an ominous whining noise, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to take it out for another spin one of these years, unlike the Eschaton universe. Unfortunately it may be a long while; I seem to be writing only near future SF and urban fantasy these days ...

The Ferguson Question by Charlie Stross

(Note to visitors: I am not American and this is not an American blog. Please check your cultural assumptions!)

I’m on a work/vacation road trip, but I’ve been unable to avoid the bad news coming out of Ferguson. And thinking about the wider societal questions that it raises.

How many of these fundamental principles of policing (emphases mine) are the police in Ferguson still following, either in practice or even just to the extent of paying lip service?

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them*.

It seems to me that if they’re not committed to the Peelian principles, then they’re not a police force: they’re something else. And the mind-set of a gendarme is not the mind-set of a police officer; it’s the mind-set of a soldier at war.

(Footnote: Yes, I am aware of the role of racism in determining the unadmitted objectives of American policing, and I believe I know what current events in Ferguson are really about (warning: dark humor alert). But what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander and even if you’re not a member of one of the cultures on the receiving end of the jackboot today, the fact that the jackboot exists means that it may be used against you in future. Beware of complacency and apathy; even if you think you are protected by privilege, nobody is immune. See also Martin Niemoller.)

Shop Open by Dan Catt

Colourful Swords

"Shop Open" comes the call from the top of the house. The signal for all of us to rush and grab a hand-drawn bargin.

I enjoy this when it happens, which is every other month or so. There's a morning of silence as plans are hatched and good are drawn. We're not allowed to see what's going on until the shop is officially open.

Today it was a sword shop...

Shop sign we gather, 5p, 10p and 20 pences in-hand, buying up all the goods until the store is empty and the children run away a little richer.


China’s mobile internet users outnumber PC users for the first time. by Resonance China

resonance_china mobile usage

This infographic from Caixin visualizes the results of CNNIC’s (China Internet Network Information Center) latest report representing data from the first six months of this year. At the end of June, China had 527 million mobile internet users (91% of which were smartphone users), growing 5.3% in the six-month period, and representing a larger user base than PC internet users for the first time in the country’s history. In terms of usage, mobile transactions saw the most growth across the board with payments (159.2%), m-commerce (168.5%), banking (153.1%), group purchasing (226.4%), and travel booking (115.8%) all experiencing triple-digit increases.  [Caixin]

这张来自新网提供的信息图,展现了由CNNIC(中国互联网信息中心)提供的2014上半年报告数据。截至6月底,中国已经拥有了5.27亿的移动互联网用户(91%来自智能手机用户), 在上半年已经增长了5.3%,同时也是中国第一次移动互联网用户超越PC网路用户。而手机交易类别增长最快的则为手机付款(159.2%),移动电商(168.5%),银行交易(153.1%),团购(226.4%), 还有旅行预定(115.8%), 这些类别全部都在以三位数飞快增长。[Caixin]

September 14, 2014

Rev Dan Catt Experimental Audio Diary - Episode 005 by Dan Catt

The new Audio Diary podcast is out, which can be subscribed to from iTunes or listened to on SoundCloud.

This time I'm down in Brighton for a not-conference, instead taking a trip down the beach, along the pier and to "Eat Street" containing far too many people for me to deal with.

The Audio Diary is an experiment to capture snippets of everyday life backed a little with an ambient soundtrack, small audio time capsules for the future.

Listen. by Feeling Listless

“Zagreus sits inside your head, Zagreus lives among the dead, Zagreus sees you in your bed and eats you when you're sleeping ...”

TV Nursery rhymes have always had a queer effect on the Doctor. Usually it's when he’s up against it with The Celestial Toymaker but in the Big Finish fortieth anniversary audio, Zagreus, it led three and a half hours of Disney crossed with Hammer crossed with Asimov leading to Eighth absorbing more anti-time than his constitution should have really and marooning himself in something called the Divergent universe for a few years until the revival of the television series prompted his return or something like that anyway. The point is that if you want to see Doctor Who when it’s at its most experimental, there’ll usually be a sinister nursery rhyme in there somewhere.

I’ve never had the under the bed dream. I did once think I saw a ghost at the end of the bed, that looked like my Dad, in pain, which isn’t really the kind of hallucination you want to have when you’re six years old. Under the bed to me is the place where I keep all my cds, Doctor Who fan videos and episode 3 of The Underwater Menace on VHS. It’s where I look as the place of last resort when I’ve searched everywhere for a television remote control, keys or my right shoe and where I invariably find all of these items along with various other burton coggles, plimlico, ballycumber and recently replaced nottage. I’m a bit of a worksop, truth be told.

But I can understand fear of the unknown. I spent a whole year at university worrying about utility bills which failed to arrive at our shared student accommodation. After a while we’d assumed we’d in fact moved into one of those places where the landlord picked up the tab, but were still in the situation in which we didn’t want to ask him in case he actually wasn’t or indeed contact the utility companies to find out if that was the situation either lest they backdated the whole lot. So I spent most of that year white with fear that something terrible might happen in relation to money. I attribute my current, unceasing tiredness to those sleepless nights. But I digress…

Since I’ve been neglecting it in previous weeks, I should probably say up front that I’m a Yes voter on the quality of the episode. Every now and then, Doctor Who becomes magical, surprises you and throws you so completely for the loop to the point that even if you’ve seen or heard every television story and read those old articles about structure in last decade’s Doctor Who Magazine and think you know how one of its stories will go, you have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go. For all the, well yes, obvious structural similarities to some of writer Steven Moffat’s previous escapades, I had absolutely no idea what he was going to do with them next.

Which of course as you’ve probably already calculated creates a complication for me because I haven’t the first clue how to write about the thing. Back in the Behind The Sofa days for me and when Steven Moffat just wrote episodes for someone else I always had the perennial problem of them being of such high quality I didn’t know how to review them which led to such masterpieces as this and this. Since he became showrunner I’ve largely managed to put all that to one side, mostly because he’s been stuck writing the arc stories. Now here he is back in stand-alone mode and here I am with no idea how to proceed. Apologies for the following nonsense.

Let’s get the apparent “problem” out of the way first then. Complaining about recycling in Doctor Who, even from the same writer, is a bit like losing your temper over the council turning up to collect the blue or green plastic box outside your house every fortnight. Pretty much every script Terry Nation wrote for the programme and even the ones he didn’t, tell roughly the same Dalek story to the point that it’s always a disappointment now when at least one character in every episode isn’t called Tarrant. Doctor Who in total only has about three genres and they’re all about alien invasions and time travel. It’s what it does.

So yes, Listen has a similar structure as The Time of the Doctor with Clara’s adventures with the Time Lord happening in and out of a significant life event, in this case her first date rather than Christmas lunch. Yes, it’s also about her visiting significant people across their timeline, in this case various shades of Pinky and the Brain and making an important contribution to their lives. Yes, at one point it seems to be offering us a variation on not blinking and turning our back by advising the opposite. Yes, there’s the element of a companion not telling the Doctor something important which will presumably become important later.

Except I think Moffat knows this. He’s a good enough writer to know when he’s recycling and mores to the point that we’ll know he’s recycling too. He knows we watched The Time of the Doctor, not least because he referenced what seemed originally like an insignificant detail in Deep Breath. He also knows we’ve seen The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor which are also referenced. As well as the titles, what those three episodes all share is that they’re significant moments for Clara and specifically Clara helping the Doctor to overcome his fears. He’s servicing the franchise as an entity by crystallising one of its and his earlier thought processes.

If the episode is about how fear drives the Doctor, when Clara drives the TARDIS she’s taking him to a pair of what would otherwise be considered “short trips”, mini-adventures which would otherwise be just the thing to appear in a Virgin Decalog. Or Dualogue if you like. In other words, he’s gleefully reversing the rules of Blink here for the benefit of a passing alien who has no less importance in the grand scheme of things than the Sinister Sponge. When he finds the chrononaut in the far future that’s all it really is. It’s to illustrate that it’s the Doctor’s fear that connects them together, just as it’s the Doctor’s fear that helps him to fight.

True both adventures are also tied together by the other significant character whose now nudging towards the same plot point status which some people think marred Clara’s first year, but that might explain why he had all of that narrative agency in episode two of the kind which they hoped would carry over from Souffle Girl and Christmas Clara but didn’t due to them being completely different characters. Now that they’ve realised their mistake, possibly also after having watched the first five episodes of Dollhouse, they’re trying to do it differently this time. Notice how much agency Pink even has here with all his Ross-like table interaction.

Why hasn’t Clara been up front about the identities of the watchful Rupert, (Mork calling) Orson and Danny Pink? Now that is something which will become significant later, when the Doctor does finally meet the ex-soldier leading to much “just another stupid ape” conversation, assuming like Amy’s Schrodingers he hasn’t already figured it out. As ex-soldiers will they instead find kinship or is there something else underlying his recently more emphatic dislike of the army? Real world interviews are providing breadcrumbs, though as we’ve discovered over the years, lying isn’t just the Doctor’s rule. Quite right too.

The problem is, there is no second, I don’t know what else you want me to say. Listen is not actually like any other Doctor Who story we’ve ever seen. Ever. Bits of it are or as we’ve already discussed, maybe, but seriously, given all of that, is there another Doctor Who story which is anything like this? No, no there isn’t. Isn’t that good? Isn’t it good that even if you think the opposite to me, that you didn’t think that it worked, that at least it didn’t work brilliantly? That it wasn’t at least like anything else you’ve seen lately even on television? This year? In the sci-fi genre? In a world where hairy old, stolidly disappointing Extant exists?

Douglas McKinnon’s direction is superb. Noticing the new style of scenes filled with dialogue he fought against the natural tendency towards loads of unnecessary camera and character movement and instead was happy to simply film the performances in that way which judging by the first three episodes is the new post-nuWho style. Once again, just as in Deep Breath we have the Doctor and Clara simply talking, the camera resting to take in the scene (albeit sometimes with a slight camera shake to create some kineticism). There’s an intimacy too, close-ups that capture the emotion of a point and not just when scares are the objective.

The performances are superb. Peter is now fully relaxed into the role, seems to know how to play it which is as we’d hoped essentially nerdy Malcolm Tucker with a moral compass but without the swears. He might say in interviews that he isn’t and in the first couple he’s clearly fighting against it, but just as Tennant eventually realised his best strategy was Casanova in the TARDIS, so here he is being entirely unapproachable until he realises he has to be and when he’s not doing that he’s remembering his own childhood and giving us some good Tom (especially when the script calls upon him to do exactly that).

Once again Jenna’s a revelation. Her scene with Rupert, just as I think it’s meant to, is resonant of Matt and his various encounters with kids, especially in A Christmas Carol and Night Terrors. Clara’s been a nanny of course in various lives, so she’s supposed to be able to talk to children (see also The Rings of Arkadian) but she brought an extra level of poetic reassurance which is very much like Eleventh. During the week I had a slightly bonkers five minutes when I wondered if the twist would be that she is somehow the Doctor in waiting ala the Watcher and would play the Time Lord next year until I realised it was slightly bonkers.

To slightly bust open one of the episode’s jaw dropping moments, how did the TARDIS land in Gallifrey’s past? Isn’t the Time War locked, including the Time Lord home planet’s history as per Engines of War? Will the TARDIS’s sudden newfound ability to visit the planet’s past become important again later? Is Gallifrey the Promised Land? Or is this, like The Doctor’s Wife simply a stand-alone event, in this case Moffat trying to prove to himself that he can still write stand alones, that not everything has to be about story arcs? Clearly not in relation to Danny Pink, but still it would be nice if this was never explained.

All of which rambling is essentially me filling in words and paragraphs so this actually looks like I made an effort. A couple of thousand words should be enough I think for tonight. At various points during the last three series of Sherlock, I’ve asked myself and others, why Doctor Who isn’t that interesting sometimes, willing to take risk with itself and its characters. Now here we are with an episode which did just that and slap bang in the middle of Saturday night between Tumble and The National Lottery. I wonder if those of us born a decade too late finally understand now what it must have been like to see An Unearthly Child in 1963?

September 13, 2014

Three of my favourite taunts of business - adoption, egosystem and SWOT. by Simon Wardley

Every now and then, I find something in business so ridiculous that it tweaks my sarcasm gene into overload. I normally respond with a graphic on the subject. I have many of these little gems scattered in my blog but my three favourite are ...

1) The Enterprise Adoption Cycle

A comment on the state of inertia within organisations.

2) Ecosystem vs Egosystem

A comment on strategic play exhibited by some companies in the cloud space

3) Thermistocles' SWOT

comment on the artefacts we often call strategy in business.

The Films I've Watched This Year #34 by Feeling Listless

TV Here's a paragraph about Matthew Collings's The Rules of Abstraction on BBC4. In The Rules of Abstraction, Matthew Collings, who is himself an abstract painter talks about the history of abstract painting over the past hundred years in ninety-minutes.  As Matthew Collings himself points out, to talk about abstract painting as a single thing is a ludicrous idea, but he attempts it anyway.  He is very good at introducing artists just outside of the mainstream and explaining the use of colour and how it creates harmony and chaos across the canvas.  But there is the problem of not really being able to explain abstract art in its purest sense, other than to suggest that the more work that's put into a painting the more profound it probably is.

A Year In Burgundy
Gangster Squad
The Purge
A New Kind of Love
I Really Hate My Job

Darling Lili
And Now ... Ladies and Gentlemen...

I Really Hate My Job is a London entry into the service worker genre (see also Clerks, Late Night Shopping and Empire Records) which has Anna Maxwell Martin managing a rat infested Soho bistro with waitresses and kitchen staff played by the eclectic cast of Neve Campbell, Shirley Henderson, Alexandra Maria Lara and Dana Pellea, battling against their shared neuroses across a single evening. Shot almost entirely on one set, it mostly feels like filmed theatre but with a sharp script, funny performances and sub-Withnail sense of human wreckage dealing with failed potential, it’s never boring. Cleverly director Oliver Parker always keeps the customers out of focus or out of shot putting the viewer right within the point of view of his cast.

Not having much of an idea of its origin, throughout I had a general sense of unease throughout of this being a period piece. For one thing, everyone's smoking inside.  It’s a measure of just how ingrained the illegality of that is now that I flinched the first time Shirley Henderson’s character lit up. Kate Nash’s first album’s on the soundtrack, plus everyone looks younger. Glancing at the supplied inlay (I received this as a preview) I realised it was shot way back in 2007, but it’s just  now creeping out direct to dvd, having only previous been seen in this parish (according to the imdb) at the Inverness Film Festival. It even reached the US sooner with a shiny-disc release in 2008 and originally saw light of day at the Transilvania International Film Festival in 2007.

There are plenty of stories about British films which fall through the cracks.  This seems to be one of them. Although it’s far from a commercial film, given the cast and the director it certainly would have had a decent release at least fifteen years ago (see the three films bracketed above) but we now seem to be in a situation, so unlike France actually, in which even this kind of material can’t get a decent release or at least couldn’t back in 2007/8 when if the Wikipedia lists are anything to go by there were already about five or six tent pole UK releases and a bunch of also rans (Lady Godiva: Back in the Saddle?). Let’s hope it’s some reason other than politics, this being a film written by a women, featuring a cast made up entirely of actresses. It can’t be this which has led to it being forgotten can it?

Most of my #francewatch "choices" were or are utterly bonkers.  Claude Lelouch's  And Now ... Ladies and Gentleman ... has Jeremy Irons as an amnesiac, disguise wearing jewel thief blacks out whilst on a round the world boat trip and ends up in Morocco where he meets Jazz singer Patricia Kaas who spends most the duration singing songs from her Piano Bar album, including Piano Bar.  Blake Edwards's Darling Lili has Julie Andrews as a German spy during World War I romancing Rock Hudson's fighter pilot and feeding his intel back to the Keiser (oh and it's a musical because of course it is).  Melville Shavelson's A New Kind of Love features Joanne Woodward as a fashion designer who after Paul Newman's sports columnist mistakes her for a man decides to gussy herself up and pretend to be a prostitute for some reason to win him over.  It's rubbish.

Actually on reflection, make that all, because you have to imagine that only in France would Populaire, a 50s retro romantic comedy about the international typewriting championship would be greenlit and have Romain Durais and Déborah François (who was the pupil in The Page Turner).  It's actually pretty magical in a similar way to Peyton Reed's underrated Doris Day film pastiche Down By Love even if now and then it slips over into unnecessary Todd Hayne's Far From Heaven in terms of deliberate tonal changes.  A Year In Burgundy is a ninety-minute documentary about wine production that's what you'd expect though none of the wineries features were prepared to give up their secrets about how the stuff is actually turned from grapes into the plonk.  Each of them have their own secret method and theft and piracy  is rife in the industry.

Neither of the US films I watched this week is any good.  The Purge takes a potentially decent dystopian idea, that that to keep crime down once a year for twelve hours there's a killing spree then uses it as a pretence for a relatively standard home invasion story that ultimately amounts to Home Alone with guns.  Excellent performances from Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey keep the morally ambiguous parents largely sympathetic, the general sense of low budget make-do is disappointing.  Gangster Squad is The Untouchables for teenagers crippled by insufficient Emma Stone who's stuck in the role of the traditional moll.  It's disappointing that four years on from Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer (and her!) have turned out such generic tosh.  It's not unenjoyable and it's good to see Josh Brolin in a lead, but throughout you just keep wondering why the characters don't go after the accounts.  They should always go after the accounts.

Curiosity update, sols 727-747: Beginning the "Mission to Mount Sharp" by The Planetary Society

A lot has happened behind the scenes on the Curiosity mission in the last few weeks. The mission received a pretty negative review from a panel convened to assess the relative quality of seven different proposed extended planetary science missions. Then, just a week later, the mission announced big news: they have arrived at Mount Sharp.

September 12, 2014

An Updated List of NASA's Commercial Crew Partner Milestones by The Planetary Society

Ahead of NASA's CCiCap partner selection, here is an up-to-date list of each company's milestones.

OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Passes First Major Qualification Test by The Planetary Society

The development of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft continues to make great progress having recently completed static load testing.

The Impossible Star by Astrobites

Title: KIC 2856960: the impossible triple star
T.R. Marsh, D.J. Armstrong, and P.J. Carter
First Author’s Institution:
University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
Status: Accepted to MNRAS

Binary stars are extremely common in the universe, and many of them further reside in triple star systems. Further, because of the close orbits of many binary systems, they are often observed to eclipse, which gives astronomers extremely detailed information on both stars. However, third stars in triple systems tend to be at longer orbital separations, lessening the likelihood of all three bodies eclipsing. But thanks to Kepler’s continuous coverage, a number of multiply eclipsing triple systems have now been observed. KIC 2856960 is one of them—or is it?

KIC 2856960 was first identified as a binary system in 2011, with the main pair eclipsing every 0.258 days. But in 2012, a secondary, deeper dip was found, which lasts about one day every ~204 days. This “dip” is actually the complicated series of dips seen in Figure 1, as the close binary passes in front of some other object. These dips could have been caused by a planet orbiting the binary system, but in 2013, a different group proved that the third object must be a star. They did this by finding variations in the orbital period of the binary, variations caused by the changing light travel time as the binary orbits a third star.

No one had attempted to model what the orbits, masses, and radii of these three stars could be to match the observed light curves from Kepler, and so the authors of this paper dove in.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 1.22.26 PM

Figure 1. Kepler light curves shown in black, both panels. Models are shown in blue. The small variations on the edges are the close binary’s eclipses, while the larger dips in the middle are due to a geometrically complicated scenario where the binary crosses a third star. The left panel shows the best fit triple star model, which is a poor fit. The right panel shows the same basic model, but ignores Kepler’s laws. This produces a much better fit, but has the unfortunate drawback of breaking the laws of physics. Credit: Marsh et al., 2014.

Because the binary eclipses so many times, yielding extremely precise data, the authors focused only on the binary’s orbit at first, ignoring the large dips. They explained that they hoped to lock down as many parameters as possible for the binary system, leaving less parameter space to explore when they moved on to the triple. They were able to improve on past work, partially due to the accumulation of more data as Kepler continued to observe, but mostly thanks to short cadence Kepler data unavailable to previous groups. They strongly confirmed the earlier findings that the binary is in orbit around a third star.

The authors next attempted to model a triple star system, but found that even their best fit is quite poor (see Figure 1, left panel). It is also astrophysically impossible, yielding a radius for one of the stars of 1.29 R (reasonable), but a mass of 10-5 M (impossibly small density; this star would completely overflow its Roche lobe). The authors did manage to achieve a statistically good fit (Figure 1, right panel), but only if they ignored Kepler’s laws. This is, of course, also physically impossible, but they argue that this “solution” allows them to qualitatively investigate the problems with the triple star solution. Specifically, it shows that the data requires a longer binary separation than is physically possible in the three star model, especially to explain the double dips labeled B-C-D in Figure 1, and repeated at roughly 1119 on the x axis. Put very simply, the dips last too long for any physically possible three star system.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 12.56.44 PM

Figure 2. Three different orbital modes considered in this paper. In all cases, the observer is located at the bottom of the figure and plus signs indicate the center of mass of the system. The lower panels are a 10x magnified view of the dotted box, centered around the close binary. In the left two panels, the orbit of the center of mass of the close binary is shown by the solid ellipse. In the left panel (triple system), the orbit of star 3 is shown by the dashed ellipse. In the middle panel (double binary), “star 3″ is a second binary, and the dashed ellipse shows the orbit of the center of mass of that binary, with the red circle showing the orbit of “star 3″ around a fixed point on the ellipse. The right panel shows a hierarchical system, where the close binary (orbit given by the tiny red circle in lower panel) orbits a third star (orbit given by the large red circle in lower panel/red circle in upper panel), and this triple (moving on the solid ellipse) in turn orbits a fourth star, (moving on the dashed ellipse). Credit: Marsh et al., 2014.

A way around this problem is to introduce a fourth star into the model. Either “star 3″ can be replaced by a second binary, or the first, close binary can orbit a third star, and that triple system can in turn orbit a fourth star. This second method is called a hierarchical quadruple. Both models have the effect of slowing the relative speed between the close binary and the more distant star, allowing the long transit time seen in the Kepler lightcurves. See Figure 2 for a representation of these different model scenarios.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 1.49.48 PM

Figure 3. Best fit quadruple model plotted in blue over black lightcurve data. This model additionally allows the epoch of the close binary to vary, which improves the fit, but results in the close binary model eclipses arriving too early compared to the data. Credit: Marsh et al., 2014.

These quadruple models yield reasonably good fits to the data, and are physically possible, which is an improvement over the triple model! The double binary model provides slightly more reasonable results than the hierarchical model. But the authors caution that there are still unresolved problems. First, the models yield uneven radii for the stars in the close binary (2.5-4x difference in radius). This is a problem because the lightcurve depths indicate that the two stars must be of similar brightness, so it is hard to imagine a scenario where these two unevolved, low-mass, main sequence stars end up with such different radii. Another problem is that even the best quadruple model fit is not a great fit to the data. By opening up more parameters (remember that the authors originally fixed the close binary’s orbital parameters based on data excluding the big dips), they achieved a better total χ2, but at a cost: the close binary’s model eclipses now arrive too early when compared to the data (see Figure 3 for their best fit, though the scaling means the eclipse timing offsets aren’t really visible on the plot).

The authors admit that even their best model cannot tell the whole story of this system. But it’s a pretty interesting story so far!



Free T-Shirts. Contributions Welcome. by Feeling Listless

Fashion Recently, I lost a lot of weight, so much so that most of my clothes, especially my t-shirts are now way too big for me.

The easy answer is to buy more t-shirts which I have.

 But having also spent the past thrumpty years stuck wearing items without logos (because they looked silly), I've decided to start wearing t-shirts with logos.

Again, I could buy some which I have.

But I also thought it might make for a [insert adjective here] blogging or art type project to see how many free promotional t-shirts I can collect from companies or organisations.

If you are a company or organisation reading this and think you might like to send me something, email me at

But usually, I'm going to send a tweet or email with a link to this blog post just see what happens.

 Hello if that's why you're reading this now.

If this is something you're interested in do please let me know how best to contact you.

Since I know nothing is free here's what will happen if you send me a "free" t-shirt.

(1) I'll post a photo of it in a subsequent post about the free t-shirts.
(2) I'll include a link to your website or whatever you request.
(3) I'll wear the t-shirt. The whole point of this is to get some free clothes.
(4) I reserve the right to refuse or ignore if its not something I agree with or interested in.

As you'll notice I'm doing this without any secret agenda and with all the cheek I can muster.

I forgot to mention a size. XL or XXL, whichever's best for you. As I've discovered, some XLs are nothing of the sort.


You can take your "bookbook" and ... by Feeling Listless

Technology That's all very well and good Ikea (which I seem to have been mispronouncing all these years) but it's a pain in the rectum for tech support:

September 11, 2014

What I have done for me lately. by Feeling Listless

Life  Just for a change...

(1)  I've just totted up the number of films I've watched so far this year and it's currently standing at two hundred and fifty-two (252).  I don't know if this is average although I know it's above average for someone for whom it isn't their job.  It averages out at one film per day and would be higher if it wasn't for the weeks when I was reading instead or travelling out to the Lake District to look at some paintings for five minutes.

(2)  This afternoon I travelled out to the Lady Lever Art Gallery to look at some drawings for about half an hour as I finally reached their Rossetti's Obsession : Images of Jane Morris exhibition.  Rossetti's never, whispering, really been my favourite of the pre-Raphaelites, his figures always having a slightly vacant look and that's certainly true of some of these drawings of Morris.  The real benefit of the exhibition is being able to compare his draftspersonship with photographs of his model and the way it simply and sympathetically charts their relationship across the years, saying as much as it needs to across the three rooms about their connection and William Morris.   If anything it feels too small.  A much larger exhibition in a greater space would have room for his paintings (assuming they could be loaned) and a greater sense of chronology with the works put in the order of the date of their creation rather than, as here, how they work best aesthetically.  Nevertheless I was very pleased to have visited before it closed (I really have to stop leaving these things too late) and it has added an extra complexion of understanding for me about his work and his muse.

(3)  Yesterday I wrote about visiting Tatton Park

(4)  On Tuesday I visited Tatton Park

(5)  Monday I wrote about visiting Tullie House.

(6) The Tour of Britain began on Sunday with eight laps passing in front of my house:

I'm on the telly #tourofbritain
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) September 7, 2014
After having watched the start of the race and first lap on television I rushed down and stood on the side of the road for the next pass. As I expected this amounted to the roar of police motorcycles, then the first lot of support cars, then the four leading cyclists, then a gap, then the peloton then what seemed like a hundred more support cars with television cameras in between, then nothing.  I clapped all the way through and wore a bright green Kelly Services t-shirt which hasn't fit me for twenty-years (originally given to me when I worked at Headingley cricket ground clearing rubbish from the terraces in the mid-90s) so I could spot myself on the television playback as all of this whooshed past.  But in general it was about as I'd thought, which is that watching a road race from the side of the road is a rubbish way to watch a road race.

(7)  On Saturday afternoon, Matthew Sweet quoted me in his Sound of Cinema programme about Memory on Radio 3 from the tweets I sent him about John Brion's score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  You can listen again here or download the podcast.  He mentions me about about five minutes before the end.

(8)  Saturday night was Doctor Who night and we're all caught up.

New Rosetta views and first science on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko from EPSC by The Planetary Society

At the European Planetary Science Congress held this week in Portugal, the Rosetta team showcased some early science results from Rosetta's mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Recovery. Peak. Collapse. Planetary Science from 1990 - 2014 by The Planetary Society

The history of planetary exploration repeats itself starting with a resurgent program in the 90s and 2000s that launched a new fleet of planetary spacecraft. Like our first story, this great success rewarded by deep budget cuts.

Expedition 40 Crew Returns Safely to Earth by The Planetary Society

NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev are safely back on Earth following a five-and-a-half month stay aboard the International Space Station.

September 10, 2014

"I have been fielding a lot of questions like this lately" by Feeling Listless

Film The Art of the Title has a useful interview with Erin Sarofsky, who created the post-credits sequence for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Amongst the artistry she's asked:

"There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Marvel’s lack of representation of female heroes. If you could design a title sequence for a film about a female Marvel superhero, who would that be?

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I have been fielding a lot of questions like this lately.

For now, I am hoping that Black Widow gets her own movie. I think it would be an interesting film, because she’s such a complex character. Exploring that angle in a main title would be really fascinating.
Well, exactly.

Public Art Collections in North West England: Tatton Park. by Feeling Listless

Art Turning out of Knutsford railway station onto the main road yesterday, the last thing I needed to see was one of those brown tourist signs pointing in the opposite direction with the information, “Tatton Park, 4 miles”. Having been here almost this time last year for Tabley House and knowing how long that walk had taken it, hadn’t occurred to me, largely because I’d not bothered to look at the maps (spoilers) that I’d also have to walk some to get to the mansion in the park but there it was. Four miles. Which might not seem very far to the seasoned rambler, but as I discovered the other week in the Lakes, I’m very far from being a seasoned rambler. Not one bit.

Actually, I’m being slightly over dramatic. Amid the scenery, the blue skies and well cared for road, the walk through Tatton Park wasn’t that awful. Cyclists and pedestrians travelling in the opposite direction all greeted me and I greeted them when they didn’t. I even think that I saw Laura Trott passing by on wheels though it could have been my mind filling in the blanks when I caught half of a face in the corner of my eye. Unlike the Lakes, the mammals aren’t fenced but roam freely so I was amid the sheep and deer rather than with them just too far away. I wonder how often they’re actually bothered by tourists or if they’re hopefully just left to be.

Tatton Hall has had a messy history in architectural terms. The estate was acquired by the Egerton family in 1598 and although they lived in the Old Hall which is still on site for the next hundred years, by 1716 they’d moved into the new building which as the official catalogue describes was originally a “three-storied rectangular block of seven bays”, but later augmented into a neo-classical building with sections designed by Samuel Wyatt in 1780 and Lewis William Wyatt in 1813. The Egerton family stayed there, right through to the final owner Maurice Egerton who left it to the National Trust.

In his book, Public Art Collections in North West England, Edward Morris devotes his four text pages to describing who amongst the Egertons were the art collectors. In 1729, Samuel Egerton was an apprentice clerk for the picture collector Joseph Hill and it’s through this connection he acquired the two Canalettos. But the most important collector was apparently Wilbraham Egerton, Samuel’s great nephew whose interest in Dutch painting led to the purchasing of the Van Dyck, Stoning of St Stephen but it’s clear that everyone in the family across the years had a hand in.

All of which said, as art collections go, it’s a bit disappointing. You’d think after all this time, finding two Canalettos and a Van Dyck in the north west under these circumstances would be exciting for me, but they’re disappointing Canalettos, early schematic views of Venice which are interesting from a historical perspective in capturing the city but otherwise flat and uninvolving. The Van Dyck is difficult to appreciate in this setting due to the way the light from the windows hits it so its impossible to see the whole work without some reflections on the canvas.

But throughout I had to keep in mind that this is the National Trust (and Cheshire City Council who provide their funding) presenting the house and grounds as a glimpse into the past and the history of the Egertons, not an art gallery. These walls filled with portraits are the ancient equivalent of an iCloud so shouldn’t really be judged on their artistic merits, even though now and then there also happen to be some fabulous paintings. Similarly, the many “schools of” and “manner of” paintings are the Egertons bringing into the old Masters the only way they could.

Currently in the process of restoration, a process being carried out in public, is The Cheshire Hunt with Wilbraham Egerton of Tatton (1781–1856), and His Son William Tatton Egerton (1806–1883), 1st Baron Egerton of Tatton by Henry Calvert (its space on the wall in the entrance hall currently filled with a pretty convincing from a distance digital reproduction). I’m mentioning it because it seems important to mention it, but it’s really off the edge of my subset of interests, my brain not quite able to divorce its capability as a painting with what it depicts.

Much more in that subset is the oddball anonymous portrait of Elizabeth I, which is frankly easier to link to than describe. My first reaction was quite a dirty laugh, which echoed throughout the hall in which its hung. How did that happen and judging by the dating, during the Queen’s reign? My experience has been that contemporary portraits tended to offer something akin to fantasy in relation to Gloriana especially in her later years, yet here she is unflatteringly in full HD, the skin hanging from her skull. Did the artist survive this? Was this unusual?

Alice Anne Graham-Montgomery (1847–1931), Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos and Countess Egerton of Tatton by Frank Dicksee is currently difficult to see because it’s in the middle of a wall in a dining room which is cordoned off at the very end to create atmosphere, but even from there her golden gown shimmers and the sheer ostentatiousness of the setting with its fir lined chair which I’m sure for years people assumed was how these people lived in these big houses but on reflection must have been an affectation of the artist’s studio.

Across the project Frank Dicksee is a name I’ve seen in a number of the collections and as I remarked to the attendant, because I do that sort of thing, that painting would have had pride of place in one of the regional museums, noting how the women’s portraits by known painters mostly seemed to be in less prominent, inaccessible positions whereas the more unremarkable portraits of men by relatively unknown artists are in full view. She replied that status overshadows artistic merit in these circumstances (which is a reflection I suppose, of our historically patriarchal society).

Which is presumably why one of the collection’s other great portraits Lady Gertrude Lucia Egerton (1861–1943), Countess of Albemarle by the Italian painter Michele Gordigiani is in the middle of a stairwell just before the visitor enters the cellar. There’s a bright, airiness to the image and a sense of freedom, of someone having been caught in a private moment by a photographer who isn’t a total stranger. Gordigiani’s is the image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for her work in the future.

But opposite there is my favourite picture in the collection, Hilda Montalba’s Onion Seller, partly because it’s like nothing else in the painting collection. After walls of dull portraits and mediocre Dutch copies, this awoke me from my mid-afternoon torpor with all kinds of questions about why it was acquired, about the artist, about why it was on show, like the Gordigiani, so close to the exit and in a place where it would be easy to overlook as the visitor is leaving. Which of the Egerton’s bought it and where did it originally hang?

Neither the guide book or Edward have any answers. The usual source says that the artist was one of four daughters of the Swedish-born artist Anthony Rubens Montalba and Emeline (née Davies) and that she and her siblings were regular contributors to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition during the 1870s. Perhaps the painting was exhibited there and impressed one of the Egertons enough for a purchase. What impresses me is how it seems to merge the discipline of the still life in the onions with the more formal elements of the portrait with certain aspects of reportage.

The attendants on the whole were pleasingly honest.  The person in the dining room noted that you could see which paintings had been out on loan and by inference are the most important) because they'd been cleaned and restored and it's worth noting that most of the paintings I've mentioned certainly have signs of that.  They are often also asked why some of them are in such murky order (loads of the paintings are dirty with very yellow varnish) and it's usually because the cost of restoration would cost more than the painting is worth.

If all of this has sounded disappointingly cynical it may be because I’ve reached that point of mission creep so many of these projects have had. I look back at my visit to Dunham Massey and it’s certainly true that in comparison on this occasion I wasn’t able to quite simultaneously concentrate on the art and the house, so really didn’t get a sense of the building’s history as I walked through the rooms my eyes darting around looking at the paintings. My reaction on seeing a room without tended to be to move on.

Plus in concentrating on the kinds of works within the field of interest of Edward’s book, I certainly didn’t spend enough time looking at the large collection of lithographs in the servants work spaces or the display dedicated to final house owner Maurice Egerton’s ethnographic collection. An old school adventurer, as well as being a pioneer aviator, automobilist and radio enthusiast, he fought in both wars and travelled the world. There’s a page here featuring commentary from people who work at house and studied his life about his reputation.

As I began the long walk back I decided to try and thumb a lift, something I haven't done in years and as I sheepishly put out limb as a car passed it stopped and was given a pleasant ride back to gate by someone I gathered was a staff member.  He'd noticed how long I'd been there, though I didn't ask if that was unusual, though given the speed with which I'd seen other visitors walking around I suspect that it might.  So it wasn't as much of a long walk as it could be and I was back in Knutsford quicker than I expected but not quick enough to properly look around what looks like a very nice place.

Perhaps I’ll visit again. Perhaps I will. But with a historians eye, to look at the house and grounds as a glimpse into the past and the history of the Egertons, not an art gallery, not itching to pull out my moleskin book every five minutes and make notes in preparation for this ensuing blog post, review thing. Just two venues left, Manchester and the Walker, both art galleries and I’ve no idea how I’m going to react to those with all of their paintings. It took me three hours to get around Tatton Hall and I know that I didn’t see everything.

Clothing and travel top Chinese consumers’ online purchase plans. by Resonance China

resonance_online purchase intentThis chart from a recently conducted Nielsen survey polling 30,000 internet user from across 60 countries shows how Chinese consumers have embraced ecommerce not just as a research tool but as a primary purchasing channel. Based on the results, China was the most mature ecommerce market in the world with over 50% of respondents planning to make a purchase online in the next 6 months, compared with averages of 35%-46% in the other countries. In terms of product categories, clothing (74%) and travel (69%) showed the strongest purchase intent among consumers while they were most reluctant to buy computer hardware online. [Campaign Asia]

Nielsen根据来自全球60个国家的30,000 个网络用户调查得出,统计显示中国的消费者们已将电商作为他们的主要消费渠道,而不单单只是一个调研工具。 根据统计得出,中国是当今电商发展最成熟的国家,有超过50%的受访者计划会在将来的六个月内,在网上消费购物,相较之下,其他国家只有35%-46%的受访者有此意愿。在众多产品的类别中,消费者们最有可能购买服装类(74%)以及旅行类(69%);而最没有意愿在网上购买电脑硬件类设备。[Campaign Asia]

September 09, 2014

Instruments selected for Mars 2020, NASA’s latest rover by Astrobites

NASA is sending another rover to Mars in 2020, imaginatively named “Mars 2020.” Earlier this month, NASA announced Mars 2020’s scientific payload: seven instruments, costing roughly $130 million, all of which are, to use a technical term, super rad.

Mars 2020 is basically a souped-up version of Curiosity, the car-sized rover currently exploring Gale Crater. Copying elements of Curiosity’s design—particularly the entry, descent, and landing system—saves a lot of money and lets engineers take advantage of proven technology. (Mars 2020 will have sturdier tires than Curiosity.) If you parked Curiosity and Mars 2020 next to each other on Mars, most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Well, “most people” can’t tell Mars from Arizona (there’s a strong resemblance!), but you get my point…

However, despite their physical similarities, Mars 2020 represents a completely different philosophy of planetary exploration. Whereas Curiosity is studying Mars in situ, the primary goal of Mars 2020 is preparing a cache of samples for eventual return to Earth. Curiosity aims to determine whether environments conducive to life ever existed on Mars (they did); scientists will analyze samples collected by Mars 2020 in sophisticated laboratories on Earth, which might allow them to discover whether life or its precursors actually existed on Mars.

Planetary scientists agree that sample return is crucial to answering pressing questions about Mars. But planning a sample return mission involves potential pitfalls worth knowing about.

Sample Return: Go Big and Go Home

Every ten years, the planetary science community comes together to write a report, called a decadal survey, containing a prioritized list of missions and programs for the next decade. The last decadal survey, released in 2011, went all in on Mars sample return, endorsing a rover that would prepare a sample cache (then known as “MAX-C”) as the highest priority, large-class mission—but did not recommend any alternative medium- or large-class missions to Mars.

A caching rover is only the first part of a sample return campaign. Another mission is required to pick up the cache and launch it into orbit around Mars. We’d need yet another spacecraft to bring this precious cargo back to Earth—not to mention all the specialized facilities we’d construct here to handle and analyze the samples! All of this could take ~30 years and cost more than $10 billion.

Policymakers are reluctant to commit to hugely expensive research projects that won’t yield scientific results for several decades. This is always true, but especially now given our dismal fiscal climate and the cost and schedule overruns associated with JWST and, to a lesser extent, Curiosity. However, the decadal survey offered no Plan B for Mars exploration. NASA would either need to commit to sample return or smash the crown jewel of its own exploration program. Maybe this was a strategic attempt to force NASA to commit to a more ambitious plan than they’d otherwise undertake.

Initially, it looked like this strategy, if it was a strategy, would fail. The Obama Administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 gutted Mars exploration, slashing hundreds of millions of dollars relative to the 2012 budget. NASA pulled out of a planned collaboration with the European ExoMars program.

Congress reinstated funding for Mars exploration after a loud outcry from planetary scientists and enthusiasts. With this funding, NASA announced that Mars 2020 would happen and, later, that Mars 2020 would indeed focus on preparing a sample cache.


Figure 1: Example sample cache. Each sample tube is about as big as a half-used No. 2 pencil. The details of how many samples the cache will actually hold, etc. haven’t been figured out yet. (Image credit: NASA.)

Mars 2020’s Instrumental Payload

Now that we’ve discussed the overall goals and philosophy of Mars 2020, let’s admire the instruments it’ll actually use:

SuperCam — an upgrade to Curiosity’s meme-worthy ChemCam, which will analyze the chemical composition of surface material, including organic material, from afar using a laser.

Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) — an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager to map samples of surface material in fine detail.

Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) — like PIXL, will map surface material at high-resolution, but using laser Raman fluorescence spectroscopy.

The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) — ground-penetrating radar that can map geologic layers up to roughly half a kilometer below the surface, at 5-20 centimeter resolution, contributed by Norway.

Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) — a weather station that can measure temperature, wind velocity, pressure, relative humidity, and dust characteristics, supplied by Spain.

Mastcam-Z — two super fancy cameras that can zoom and take movies (hopefully of Mars bears or something) in twelve different wavelength bands in the visible and near infrared parts of the color spectrum.

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) — an engineering demonstration experiment that will produce oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide, which future missions would find exceedingly helpful, since oxygen is part of rocket fuel and, err, breathable.

Figure 2: Diagram of the Mars 2020 with the locations of the instruments and supporting hardware. (Image credit: NASA.)

Figure 2: Diagram of the Mars 2020 with the locations of the instruments and supporting hardware. (Image credit: NASA.)

Planetary Science Gets Its Day in Congress by The Planetary Society

Watch Planetary Society President Jim Bell testify before a congressional subcommittee on Wednesday, September 10th.

Apology by Charlie Stross

Seems I bought a case of con crud home with me from Dublin; the first server software upgrade went off okay, but then I spent the rest of the week dying of Ebola man flu rather than working. This puts me behind schedule and means that I'm going to be busy for the next few weeks playing catch-up—I have a novel to redraft and deliver by mid-month (the sixth Laundry Files book, "The Annihilation Score"), and another novel to redraft and submit in final form before the end of the year (ideally before the end of November: "Dark State", book 1 of a trilogy that really needs a better title than "Merchant Princes: The Next Generation").

I am hoping to lay on some guest bloggers in the next couple of weeks (all being well we should have visits from Nicola Griffith and Kameron Hurley). And I'm still going to see if I can frame my thoughts on Scottish independence coherently. However, that last one is going to have to wait until after I finally exorcize the shoggoth that's currently haunting my nasal sinuses.

So Close and Yet So Far: Why isn't Siding Spring going to sandblast Mars? by The Planetary Society

Comet Siding Spring is going to make a very close approach to Mars in October. Any comet dust that reaches Mars has the potential to inflict significant damage on the spacecraft orbiting the planet. As it turns out, however, Mars and its orbiters are likely to see very few, if any, impacts. Why?

Income inequality, growth and mobility. by Simon Wardley

Income inequality is a useful tool for encouraging competition and progress. But, with income inequality there comes privilege through access and opportunity (i.e. better education for children) and a tricky issue that wealth tends to gravitate towards wealth (i.e. the return on capital depends upon how much capital you have).

However, a fairly high range of income inequality appears supportable as long as there exists opportunity and such opportunity is expressed through social mobility. The thorny issue is that those who have amassed wealth tend to want to reduce social mobility i.e. they want to maintain it for them selves and their offspring. They don't say this directly, they believe in opportunity but they just don't seem willing to accept that such opportunity for everyone means that they or more importantly their children must also be exposed to failure. So wealth has a tendency throughout history of concentrating within a privileged elite.

From a competition perspective, some inequality is good as long as you have social mobility. You not only want to encourage people in a society but give them the opportunity. Governments have to play the role of rebalancing the desires of the elite with the overall interests of the nation and this is nominally achieved through taxation and investment. Of course, the elite would want you to reduce the state and taxation despite most innovation in a society being government funded. More often than not, the elite have the power to do this.

So, rather than ending up with the most able people, we tend to end up being run by those born into privilege. In the pursuit of maintaining privilege and wealth, we often reduce taxation and thereby innovation in our society. The masses are left watching a society where income inequality grows, growth stagnates and opportunity declines. Overall, the state of competitiveness in a society reduces and this process then continues until a death spiral causes societal collapse. Everyone loses, especially the elite.

This has happened numerous times in history. Decline of a nation is normally preceded by decline in social mobility and excessive concentration of wealth in an elite. On the other hand, the most prosperous times for a society, the points of 'growth' are usually associated with high levels of social mobility and somewhat more moderate income inequality.

Why do I mention this? Well, when I look at China (both inequality and mobility) and compare to the US then there's only one conclusion I can come to. The US is a train wreck about to happen. Ruled by an often inherited elite (an oligarchy) that is quite happy to run the society into the ground to maintain their own position? They probably don't even see it this way. Maybe they think it's just how the market works or maybe they just don't think? I know some are questioning the wisdom of this - the pitchforks are coming - but the inertia to change is building and becoming embedded. 

It can only be a matter of 10-15 years before this becomes generally apparent, that China will dominate technology and Silicon Valley will decline in importance. This isn't happening overnight, by my reckoning then 2025 - 2030 is when the wheels start coming off the tracks. There is almost nothing you can do about it or certainly will be allowed to do about it. In any case, the US and Silicon Valley have both had extremely good innings. Of course, for some it will be a great shock - they've become habituated to the idea that the US dominates as though this is some sort of steady state, alas competition and the role of nations is much more fluid over time.

Could the US fix the problem? Of course. Will it? Of course not. The very things you need, higher taxation and re-distribution through government investment are the very things the elite and their media machines are dead set against. Of course, everyone in a position of power is going to agree that we need competition and opportunity. They'll all agree that we eventually need to solve the problem of inequality. Magic thinking will abound 'lets make everyone rich' as if wealth was an absolute rather than a relative. The problem is self interest. With mobility what they need is a solution that doesn't effect them, alas they are the "problem".

So, the only real question for me is whether China gets the crown or whether we in Europe can nick it in time. Obviously I'm hoping for the latter and the next decade will be crucial for this.

New guest bloggers: Tricia Sullivan and Kameron Hurley by Charlie Stross

This week, I'm lending the soapbox to two extremely talented award-winning SF/F writers—Tricia Sullivan and Kameron Hurley. Kameron has been here before: since then she's won two Hugo awards, most notably for this essay).

Tricia Sullivan is the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning author of Lightborn and Maul. A New Jersey native, she now lives with mixed martial arts trainer Steve Morris and their three children in Shropshire, where she studies physics as an undergraduate with the Open University. She has a six foot Muay Thai bag in her shed. On a bad day she can hit it pretty hard.

I first met Tricia's writing with "Maul" back in 2005, which had the most memorably mind-warping opening sequence of any book I read that year; she's one of the most interesting new SF authors to arrive on the British SF/F publishing scene this century (and I'm looking forward to her new novel, Shadowboxer, which comes out next month).

Growth. Peak. Collapse. Planetary exploration from 1959 - 1989 by The Planetary Society

The first three decades of planetary exploration tell a story that sounds all-too-familiar to modern day space advocates. Growth, peak, and then collapse of hard-earned capability. This is the story of planetary science for the first half of its existence.

Chinese tourist shopping slowing with luxury sales falling 40% in Hong Kong. by Resonance China

resonance_china travel spending decline

This revealing chart from the Wall Street Journal shows how the Chinese tourist shopping boom in Europe and Hong Kong has seemingly gone cold almost as quickly as it emerged. Growth rates for tax refunds in Europe have dropped 4X from their highs in 2010, while jewelry and luxury sales in Hong Kong are experiencing negative growth this year dropping by 40% in April. What makes this trend puzzling is that Chinese outbound tourism has continued on its impressive trajectory with online travel bookings growing by 19% YoY for Q2 2014. There could be any number of reasons for this drop – from the government’s anti-corruption campaign, to Chinese tourists shifting focus to South Korea and the United States, to increased pricing pressure that now sees many luxury items carry the same price in Hong Kong as on the mainland. But what is clear is that retailers will need to evolve beyond Chinese New Year window displays to capture the spending of an increasingly sophisticated Chinese traveler.  [WSJ]

份由尔街日报统计的表格示,中国游客在欧洲和香港的物狂潮来得快去得也快, 欧洲的增退税率与2010相已下降了接近4倍,与此同,珠宝以及奢侈品牌在香港的售量截止到今年四月也下降了40%。 而人困惑的是,中国境外旅游也在2014第二季度的在线旅游预订较去年同期增了19%. 当然也有其他因素可以解释这象 – 中国开始施行的反贪污政策,中国旅客开始着重前往南以及美国旅游,以及常年的物价致香港奢侈品牌的价格上到中国内地的价格水平等等。但是不可否的是,除了布置农历橱窗内的节庆摆设以外,零售商需要一些更引人眼球的西,来吸引到经验丰富的中国旅客去消。[WSJ]


September 08, 2014

Searching for Galaxy Clusters with the SZ Effect by Astrobites

Title: Galaxy Clusters Discovered via the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich Effect in the 2500-square-degree SPT-SZ survey
Authors:  L. E. Bleem et al.
First Author’s Institution: Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago

As the name implies, galaxy clusters are gravitationally bound collections of up to thousands of galaxies. These clusters also contain copious amounts of intracluster gas, which exists as an extremely hot and diffuse plasma. The plasma is heated to extremely high temperatures through adiabatic compression (under its own gravity) and as a result emits X-rays through bremsstrahlung emission. This X-ray emission lends itself easily to searches for galaxy clusters. Galaxy clusters can also be found by looking for overdensities of galaxies in the optical or infrared.

Even though one can search for galaxy clusters through their emission in various wavelengths, there is another approach of doing so using the Sunyaev-Zeldovich (S-Z) effect. The S-Z effect is an interaction between the hot plasma in a galaxy cluster and the photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Basically, the high energy electrons from the ionized gas scatter the CMB photons and give them a slight energy boost. As a result, there is a measurable difference between these boosted photons and the original photons from the CMB. The CMB is known to have a nearly perfect thermal blackbody spectrum, whereas photons scattered from the S-Z effect show a spectrum that deviates from this.

It is possible to take advantage of the S-Z effect and use these spectral distortions in the CMB across the sky to search for galaxy clusters. This method is unique in that it is independent of redshift, whereas traditional searches using optical/IR/X-ray are flux-limited (i.e. only clusters up to a certain distance/redshift can be detected before the emission becomes too weak). However, the S-Z distortion to the original CMB photon spectrum is very small (on the order of a few micro Kelvin, whereas the average CMB temperature is ~2.7K), so this signal is not always easy to find.

The authors in this paper describe their results from searching for galaxy clusters using S-Z effect measurements from the South Pole Telescope (SPT). The initial search was based on existing optical and IR images of the sky, from which the authors identify overdensities of galaxies. The final result from searching 2500 square degrees of the sky using SPT yielded 677 galaxy cluster candidates, of which 516 were confirmed to be clusters with optical/IR follow-up imaging (for example, Fig. 1).

Fig. 1:

Fig. 1: An example of one of the galaxy clusters discovered via the S-Z effect (optical image on left, infrared image on left). The contours represent the strength of the S-Z effect.

The measurements were made of the sky in three different frequencies to pick out the unique CMB spectral signature induced by the S-Z effect. After being detected using this method, half of these cluster candidates were further confirmed using follow-up imaging. This was done using relatively small optical telescopes for low redshift clusters, while high redshift clusters were identified using data from Spitzer and WISE.

Even though the authors have successfully identified these clusters with the SZ effect and confirmed their observations with additional imaging, there still are a number of clusters in the survey that remain unconfirmed (i.e without corresponding optical/IR data). It is likely that these “missing” clusters are at a sufficiently high redshift such that they have not been detected using traditional methods, so deeper photometry is probably needed to find these. The abundances of galaxy clusters are highly sensitive to initial conditions in large scale structure formation, so the depth and coverage of this sample of clusters will be useful for testing cosmological models.

On Co-Creation ... by Simon Wardley

Co-creation is an extremely useful technique but it should be remembered that it's not suitable across the board. When I examine a map of the landscape then I tend to advocate its use in particular circumstances.

However when creating the novel and new (i.e. the genesis of an activity), it's actually better to get everyone else to create it for you and to exploit their creations to identify success. This is more You CREATE and I EXPLOIT and there is little collaboration to it.

An example of this is the ILC (innovate-leverage-commoditise) model which I've talked about extensively in the past. The model starts with a company first creating the industrialised services that you build upon (what is often called a platform) and then growing an ecosystem of companies consuming those services. 

The technique is incredibly powerful (it's a force multiplier in competition). If correctly used then my apparent :-

1) rate of innovation i.e. how much YOU are creating for me to EXPLOIT
2) rate of customer focus i.e. how much I'm EXPLOITING creations YOU made to give to others
3) rate of efficiency i.e. how much I take advantage of economies of scale by all YOUR use.
4) stability of revenue i.e. volume of predictable industrialised services I'm providing to all of YOU.
5) ability to maximise opportunity i.e. how much I am able to spot future success from YOUR experiments.

... all increase, simultaneously with the size of the ecosystem.

Spotting a company using an ILC like model is fairly easy. Whilst the company might grow in terms of physical numbers of employees, it's apparent rate of innovation, customer focus and efficiency all seem to accelerate at a faster rate (because it's growing with the size of the ecosystem). Worse, this seems to happen all at the same time (counter to the old ideas of you can focus on one).

A telltale signal is when people & other companies start grumbling that this company has just trampled all over their business models. Words like 'eaten the ecosystem', 'bully' tend to get mentioned a lot. At the same time, customers (i.e. those not being trampled on which can include other companies) benefit from the net effect of an increasing number of useful services. This tends to act as a magnet and the model is therefore reinforcing with plenty of network effects.

Anyway, more information on ILC can be found from reading the above post (linked here also).

So, why do I mention this? Well, first of all the ILC technique has been in operation for almost a decade. Hence, to anyone who is recently discovering the force multiplier effects of ecosystems - can I suggest that something is going terribly wrong with your horizon scanning. 

The second reason is someone just asked me whether I thought Amazon was a good example of co-creation. Oh, you're kidding right? Seriously?

Public Art Collections in North West England: Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. by Feeling Listless

Art Hello Carlisle. Finally. Of all the destinations in Edward Morris’s book Public Art Galleries in North West England, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery has always felt like the most remote even though oddly it’s only a couple of hours journey from Liverpool by train. That swiftness was explained when changing from my usual train at Preston onto a tilting Virgin Pendolino on its way to Glasgow, Carlisle being the penultimate stop. Apart from completely misunderstanding how the reservation system works (to the dismay of the passenger who’d booked my original seat) the journey was uneventful. I spent most of it looking out the window at more incandescently beautiful countryside pierced by what I’m sure was the Ribblehead Viaduct (glances ominously at his copy of Bradshaw’s).

Edward really likes Tullie House, devoting four and a half text pages to its collection and I can see why because it’s utterly marvellous. Having spent the best part of a few years within this project visiting houses and tiny museums with very focused collections, there’s something quite disorientating to pitch up at a municipal in which almost every object on display demands the attention, where there’s very little, for want of a better description, “filler”. Much of this has to do with its size. Although the main museum is in a huge, recently refurbished space, the art collection is presented in its original venue at the back, in actuality Tullie House is relatively tiny, smaller even than Sudley. It’s the kind of place so tight for space it has to display its Stanley Spencers in the stairwell.

The road to the museum is a familiar story. After a number of local art exhibitions across the 19th century, the local council eventually bought Tullie House, originally built in 1689 and in 1890 opened it as the local museum and art gallery, with an extension added through public subscriptions for the local library and a school. Both of those have since moved out and the museum filled that space and a further extension completed in 1990. But the collection didn’t really begin to flourish until the 1930s when Mrs Maud Scott-Nicholson, the daughter of Sir Benjamin Scott, whose fortune through his company Hudson Scott & Sons Ltd, was made as a box and packaging manufacturing, proposed the introduction of a proper purchasing scheme (always a philanthropist).

In turn Sir William Rothenstein, the principal of the Royal College of Art was appointed, with a budget of £100-£200 a year, to amass a collection at his discretion from as Edward describes “work by young and little known artists” which he did until 1942. The scheme continued through various successors until 1975 when it was abolished presumably in favour of a more traditional municipal purchasing policy. The collection was also boosted when Rothenstein’s friend, poet and dramatist Gordon Bottomley bequeathed his collection to Carlisle in 1948 and it’s fair to say, judging by Edward’s description that a large proportion of the display are from these additions. But there are also still plenty of recent purchases and gifts, creations from right up until the present day.

A quick user guide. If you do visit the museum and you’re alone, bring music and headphones. From what I can gather the venue also houses some of the office space for the staff of the museum and has a downstairs meeting room and at the time I visited people were walking through all of the time which was just about ok when I was in the gallery space but made the experience of looking at the art in the stairwells abysmal. My usual choice of Preisner’s music helped to drown out much of the noise of people clomping about but all of the business of moving refreshments in and out of that meeting room and people marching around the building was, I’m afraid, horrendously distracting and particularly problematic given that the gallery has an admission charge (albeit one covering the year).

Of course the counter argument is that there were visitors too, and in London galleries you can barely see anything for the crowds. But there’s a big difference between visitors shuffling about looking at art and staff members who already know the space marching through and us having to get out of the way for them (which happened on a couple of occasions). Note this isn’t about the on hand attendants who were really helpful and offered some useful points about how to navigate the space and where to look in the main museum for other sections of their permanent art collection. Plus it’s not really the staff’s fault. They’re just going out to lunch. It’s the original policy of putting their offices in the top and meeting room at the bottom of this building, small enough to swing a small mammal.

Nevertheless, I did see some extraordinary art which is presumably all that matters. My notebook contains thirteen pages of notes, titles of works and notes and I scarcely know where to begin. Half of the wall space is dedicated to Bottomley’s pre-Raphaelite collection, mostly watercolours and drawings but some oils. There’s a woman’s head by Rossetti, startling for its similarity to modern comic art and cartooning in a way I don’t remember seeing from him. For the Shakespeare collection is his The Death of Lady Macbeth, a nihilistic scene showing Lady M wringing her hands as exhausted servants stand nearby unable to cope much more. Through a window her husband leads his army into battle with the artist able give as much detail in pencil to them as is usual in his paintings.

Around a partician from there, with a dozen other pieces I could mention in between is Burne-Jones’s Voyage to Vinland the Good, a sketched design for a windows of a private house in Newport, Rhode Island which the internet tells me was built by hardware and tobacco heiress Catherine Lorillard Wolfe on Ochre Point Avenue but sold in 1937 to the Cohen Brothers of Baltimore. As you can see, the curve of the ship is submerged in the cure of the sails almost to the point of abstraction and in the pencil version without the pigmentation, it’s not quite clear in places where the sky, sea and ship begin and end, exactly what it was like to navigate the globe in those old boats. Also remarkable is how the artist manages to communicate the fear of the figures within so little space for expression.

Leading up from this room is a stairwell filled with portraits, self and otherwise from various eras including this curious self portrait by Peggy Fitzgerald which Your Paintings says is the only oil work by her in public ownership. The shaping reminds me lot of Magritte, especially the way she’s holding that branch. Whatever could it mean? On the window ledge halfway up the stairs is a marble sculpture by Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo (though not Donatello). Mike holds a piece of machinery, Rapha a miniature Venus and Leo and book and the way they’re arranged makes them look like they could be three incarnations of Doctor Who (if you’re Peter Capaldi, the Doctor to the rest of us). It’s hollow, I think, accounting for the marble’s translucent quality, glistening in the sunlight.

Upstairs and into the long room and arguably the business end of the collection. It’s here the pre-Raphaelite oils are kept, including one of their star pieces, The Rift within the Lute by Arthur Hughes, the quintessential example of the form with its beautiful woman wearing a richly-coloured dress and cloak, lute and Tennyson connection, loosely based on Alfred’s The Idylls of the King. Next door is his Madeleine, originally titled The Casket in which his wife provided the model for a young in an intimate moment looking at jewellery. Both of these paintings, for all their late Victorian trappings have that magic and sense of fantastical otherworldliness which I know repels some but I adore. There’s a melancholia in both. a sense of the story hidden behind the story.

Which is also true of my absolutely favourite painting on display, The Farewell by Frederick Cayley Robinson. A young woman in straw hat is shown embraced by a taller figure whilst leaving a simple white house, what me must assume is her luggage being carried away by an adult couple, a man and a woman and we might think this was in biblical times were it not for this being a chest and the clock tower in the background. The information nearby offered little clue to context. We don’t know the story. Who is she? Who are they? Why are they pointing to the sky? Where is this? The same building reappears in his Reminiscence which is at Lemmington Spa Art Gallery. Are they parts of the same story? It’s the not knowing that makes this so alluring. I stood looking for well over ten minutes.

Which is something I did a lot walking around, wanting to take everything in, much too much to really talk about here though I will just quickly mention the two massive paintings by Robert Forrester, commissioned it seems for illustrative purposes for the museum, two massive works Borrowdale in the Ice Age, about 20,000 Years Ago and Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick, about 1500 BC, painted in the mid-sixties when the fashion for landscapes had well moved on but seem to have been upheld in these epic images. This is widescreen, technicolour painting that recalls the pre-Raphaelites but depict historical reality rather than myths and fantasy. Having recently spent some time in the wilderness (somewhat) this is exactly how I’d imagine it would be in winter, though I fear it may not be now.

The whole business took about two and half hours and with a train to catch within a few more not enough to actually see the rest of the museum properly, or Carlisle Castle just across the road. Instead I decided to visit the Cathedral, which judging by its website has esteem issues: “It may not be the best known medieval Cathedral in England, it is certainly not the biggest, but it delights its many visitors.” Which it did having amongst its many fixtures, the Brougham Triptych, a rapturously beautiful carving originating from Antwerp in 1520 and has ended up in Carlisle via St Wilfred’s Chapel, Brougham where it was brought for decoration in the 1840’s by Baron Brougham and Vaux. It’s impossible to put into words and these images barely capture its beauty. Not the first time I’ve said that about something lately.

All of which now means there’s just three venues left to cover in the project and since I’m forty at the end of next month I’ve decided I’m going to try and complete this project by then. Back to Knutsford tomorrow for Tatton Park all being well and then Manchester Art Gallery followed by the Walker in the coming weeks. After that, perhaps some revisits. Blackpool was closed when I visited and Stalybridge didn’t have its permanent collection on display. You may remember I saw Oldham’s collection while it was in storage and I’ve just had Abbot’s Hall recommended to me and its six years since I’ve been to Kendal. But we’ll see. Like I said, Bradshaw’s is glaring at me from the shelf and now that I’ve been to Carlisle Cathedral, there’s handy list of the others on the Wikipedia. It’d be a reason to visit Guilford, finally.

Service update by Charlie Stross

I'm home. Two weeks on the road, 1300 miles driven, two international car ferries, two large SF conventions (the worldcon and the eurocon) and about six business meetings later ... I'm home. So normal blogging will resume once I catch my breath, work my way through the washing pile and the correspondence car-crash, and get time to think.

(Meanwhile. Some of you might have noticed that we're now into the last three weeks and change of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, and a major political debate took place yesterday. I wrote about the Scottish political singularity a while ago; I can write some more, if you want me to—or I can keep the blog a Scottish referendum free zone if enough of you yell at me. Opinions in comments, please!)

Data points for mapping ... by Simon Wardley

The mapping technique I describe (known as Wardley Mapping) is not widely used, in fact usage is quite rare. However, seeing that I made the technique creative commons many many years ago - I don't actually know how many people are using it.

Of those that I do know then I have numerous examples on impact e.g. :-

1) Estimated reduction in cost of an entire project by 30%

2) Reduction in cost of individual project transactions between 99.3% and 99.6%.

3) Identification of new opportunities and successful funding of new business to exploit this (around $70M raised in total).

4) Increase in market share in an emerging field from 5% to 70% with minimal (sub $1M) investment.

5) Identification and removal of project risks for large scale projects (in excess of $100M).

The problem of course is that "numerous" isn't the vast number of examples I need. Even the examination of high tech companies on strategic play (see figure 1) only covers 160 high tech companies.

Figure 1 - High Tech companies, Strategic Play vs Action

Now mapping has a reasonably solid base in terms of the research on evolution. But unlike the evolution work, it lacks the many thousands of data points that I require to confidently say (to my satisfaction) what the impact of mapping is to most organisations. The signs all look encouraging but that's not enough. I like my work to be backed by large volumes of supporting evidence as opposed to handfuls or a few hundred. I'm not into the "this company did A and is successful, so you should do A too" world of backward causality.

I don't obviously expect to get this data anytime soon - it'll be a very slow road (i.e. 10 -15 years). However, if you are using mapping then please take a short amount of time to jot down the impacts (positive, negative and no impact) and ping me.

So ... by Charlie Stross

I, um, appear to have won another Hugo award.

Things have been kind of hectic this past week (it's a worldcon: I also threw a large birthday party—I turn 50 in about 8 weeks time—and we drove 450 miles to get here), hence the lack of blogging. I'll try and say something coherent in the next day or two, but tomorrow I've got to drive another 300-odd miles, en route to Dublin for the Eurocon.

In the meantime, my thanks to everyone in the WSFS who voted for "Equoid". And we had an excellent set of results last night.

Hiatus by Charlie Stross

I am off to Loncon 3 tomorrow morning, by road. Stopping overnight in Leeds, then proceeding to London on Wednesday; I hope to be at the Angry Robot/Titan Books mass author signing at Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, this Wednesday evening at 6pm.

How luxury brand preferences differ across China’s city tiers. by Resonance China

resonance_brands & cities

A revealing infographic from Smith Street China takes a look at different fashion brand preferences based on a survey of 300 luxury consumers in Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, and Xi’an. In a major first-tier city like Shanghai, consumers showed the broadest adoption of both niche and major logo brands – reflecting their exposure and education through retail and travel. In emerging second-tier cities like Chengdu, established brands were mixed with affordable luxury brands, which speaks to the vast potential of rising consumers outside of coastal cities for brands like Coach, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade. Further down the line we find consumers choosing fewer but more established luxury brands, which may be due to lack of awareness or lack of retail exposure. [Smith Street China]

斯密街中国SmithStreet的信息图说明了,中国各省市的奢侈品牌的不同偏好。如在奢侈品展成熟的一线城市,上海例,消者近几年不断挖掘出一些独特的品牌,像亚历山大•麦昆Alexander McQueen,黛拉•麦卡妮Stella McCartney,依Chloé 等,均在最受迎的榜上,反映出一线城市消者的较频繁旅行划及良好的教育背景; 然而,在奢侈品消于起步段的城市,如西安,最受迎的牌子是相普遍且受普的路易威登Louis Vuitton, 寇Coach等,差异化的可能原因或许为第三、四线城市发达境有关。[Smith Street China]

September 07, 2014

On D&D vs Ant Battles - a Question of Strategy by Simon Wardley

Recently I posted on the question of "Dungeons & Dragons vs the Art of Business Strategy" and received this wonderful riposte to the same. I do like a good joust and much of the response is perfectly reasonable.

Now, whilst I don't view D&D as a teaching tool itself, I do view it as a remarkable comparison between how a gaming environment and business operates. The premise that I proposed is that business can do better if they understand their environment, their capabilities and roles, improve their team play and prepare (i.e. scenario plan and train).

The impact of the first of these premises (the necessity of situational awareness) is demonstrated in the following graph (figure 1). This examination of 160 high tech companies showed that those with poor situational awareness tend to have a negative market cap growth over a seven year period. It seems that situational awareness is important to all endeavours of competition whether business, military or D&D.

Figure 1 - Examination of Strategic Play vs Action

In business we often have no form of competitive maps but instead rely on what should be artefacts of scenario planning. In the worst cases those artefacts (business model canvas, SWOT, kaplan strategy maps) become the primary source of awareness and the scenario planning required to create them isn't even done. This is my primary issue and why I made the comparison between D&D because such a basic element of strategic play shouldn't be missing from business. But alas, it more often than not is.

This absence often shows itself in the 'strategy' of a business being little more than a tyranny of action (how, what and when) with operational, implementation, purchasing and tactical choices.  This is opposed to situational awareness (where and why) being dominant. 

The 'why' itself can often be reduced to the copying of others on a premise of backward causality.  If A does B and A is successful then we too should do B. Hence many companies have identikit strategies covering topics like cloud, big data, social media, IoT but little awareness of why or the context they exist within. I have poked fun at this before. It is depressingly common.

Whilst I agree that strategic planning is complex especially over a considerable period of time, the basic premise of understanding your environment appears to apply regardless of time or complexity. Whether within Government or commercial settings, I have witnessed first hand the devastating effect of understanding the environment. Now, I do not propose that companies simply copy the actions of others but instead understand their environment before acting. 

We often like to think that business is like a game of chess. The reality is more akin to a game of chess with competitors that rarely look at the board before moving. I'm not being disingenuous when I state that D&D groups often have far greater situational awareness over their environment than a business does over its - that often appears to be the case.  I wouldn't also compare business to military because the level of strategic play within the military far exceeds anything I've ever witnessed in business, even in the most high tech of companies. 

This alone is why I often smile when I hear people ask how do we make the military more like a business? My normal response is - "Take away any maps, don't allow people to understand an environment before engaging, remove scenario planning and training, add in poor communication and replace combat strategies with a vision and some nice stories - once done, you'll be just like most business".

Now obviously, the scopes are different and business is a continuous and draining act of competition. However, it's for these very reasons that I strongly suggest we learn the basics from other competitive groups because we appear far behind them in terms of play. There are exceptions and there are companies such as Quid and Palantir that are trying to change this. But I do recommend that we should be realistic about business and not to be lulled into believing we're some bastion of strategy.

Instead, what we normally are is - an organisation with communication, management and control issues competing in an environment over which we have little to no situational awareness nor mechanisms for learning nor understanding of basic principles of change but in which we take action. 

Our saving grace is our competitors are normally in the same boat. In competition it's ok to suck as long as everyone else does.

The Films I've Watched This Year #33 by Feeling Listless

Film Anyone else feel a certain geographical dissonance watching the Paris episode of Dr James Fox's A Tale of Three Cities (or The One Show for adults)? If you'd visited the Mondrian show at Tate Liverpool you certainly would as Dr Fox is one minute on the streets of France's capital and the next walking through gallery four and into the replica of the artist's studio which is currently there until the 6th October.  The visit was unheralded - no onscreen caption or anything - and so some viewers may have suspected that this recreation was in Paris itself.  The Mondrian he stood in front of is in the exhibition too, I think.  The studio sequence is on BBC Four's website and admittedly you can just see the Pier Head through the gallery windows.

Café de Flore
The Chronicles of Riddick
Thérèse Desqueyroux
Bruc. La llegenda
The Lego Movie

Between The Young Victoria and Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée directed Cafe de Flore and there aren't that many filmmakers who're capable of this kind of gear change between heritage cinema, scorching indie and in the middle a Kieslowskian bit of art house in which the stories of 10s Montreal DJ and the mother of a down syndrome child in 60s Paris cross cutting with one another for ambiguous reasons.  It's the latter which are most involving, a near perfect recreation of the city's New Wave era surrounding an unrecognisable Vanessa Paradis in a extraordinarily brave performance as her character fights for her son's acceptance which overshadows the colder present day love triangle though that does at least have Evelyne Brochu, Delphine from Orphan Black as the "other woman".

Having spent the past week watching my way through all of Anita Sarkeesian's perception widening Feminist Frequency YouTube series, I now have the language to explain just what's wrong with the ending of The Chronicles of Riddick.   Essentially arguably the best character in Pitch Black, recast and renamed to more closely resemble Hollywood's narrow expectations (even if it is Gwen from Angel), is Damselled and Refrigerated in a way which would fit right in with the montage of computer game shots in the second Tropes vs Women video.  Which is a pity because the film does have some virtues in regards to Guardians style epic science fiction, hilariously straight-faced Macbeth plagiarism and Judi Dench as Obi-Wan Kenobi.  But none of that is an excuse for the adherence to the Smurfette syndrome.

As well films made in France, my serendipitous Lovefilm list also contains cinema which is about France out in the world and how the world views the country, so here we are at Legend of the Soldier, a Spanish western set within the Napoleon's campaign against the Spanish in which a cell of Boneparte's army rip through the countryside and villages searching for a drummer who near singlehandedly defeated them in the Monserrat mountains.  The film's most notable for its flashback sequences which appear to utilise 3D cameras but shift the shape of the image through a 2D frame to dizzying effect and might explain why some critics missed a major twist which otherwise makes a gear change about an hour in seem entirely ludicrous.  It really isn't.

The Lego Movie is awesome.  Sadly my viewing of it was disjointed, crappy experience as I had my first experience of seeing something through Blinkbox on the Chromecast.  Tesco are closing their Clubcard TV service which hasn't had nearly as much usage as they were expecting it seems, which isn't surprising given that the only way to see it through a television was by plugging a laptop in the HDMI socket, there not being any apps available.  As part of the announcement I was sent a voucher code for their Blinkbox service and having realised quickly it wouldn't cover a new release, I chose The Lego Movie and unlike all the other apps, the stream quality was appalling and kept buffering.  Eventually I watched the last hour on my tiny iPad screen.  Sigh.  I've added the film to my Amazon wishlist nonetheless....

Maps are imperfect but that's ok ... by Simon Wardley

The mapping technique I use (commonly known as 'Wardley map' - see figure 1) is imperfect. These maps are simply a representation of the problem but the act of making a map has some profoundly useful effects.

Figure 1 - A Wardley map

The useful effects are :-

1) It encourages you to think about USER needs. The map starts from the visible user needs and moves through the components necessary to make that need happen.

2) It encourages you to think about COMPONENTS. Rather than treating a system as one thing, mapping encourages you to break down complex systems into components and understand that a complex system is in fact many things.

3) It encourages you to think about METHODS. Rather than treating a system with one method, mapping helps people to understand that as a component evolves then its properties change (from uncharted to industrialised) and hence the methods you use are different. Use of multiple methods (Agile, Lean, Six Sigma) in a single system at the same time is appropriate. Hint: you can co-ordinate a mass of different components using different methods (agile, six sigma and lean) through a scheduling system such as a Kanban board.

4) It encourages you to think about CHANGE. Evolution is not static, the components evolve due to competition. Mapping teaches you that how you treat something today is not the same as tomorrow.

5) It encourages you to COMMUNICATE. One huge advantage of a map is that other people can read it and obviously compare to other systems. Having maps is extremely useful in identifying common components between systems, to avoiding duplication and for sharing plans and strategic direction.

6) It encourages you to CHALLENGE. If you can read a map then you challenge the assumptions made especially by comparing a map to the outside world. Is CRM really at the stage of custom built or are we custom building what is in fact common and ubiquitous and suitable for commodity provision?

7) It encourages GAMEPLAY. Once you have a map, you can ask questions about how to change it e.g. using open approaches to drive to an activity, practice or data (all can be mapped) to more of a commodity or slowing this down with dark arts, constraints or regulation. Manipulation is at the heart of strategy.

8) It encourages you to PLAN.  Once you have a map, you can test various scenarios and examine the probability of effectiveness of one scenario over another.

9) It encourages you to LEARN. With a map, you examine the effect of a given play before and after. This helps in learning what plays work, how economic forces change the landscape and how force multipliers (e.g. ecosystems) can be used.

10) It helps you to MITIGATE risk. Examining different scenarios, breaking down complex systems into components and effective communication are all necessary mechanisms for mitigating risk.

11) It helps you to COMPETE. Mapping can equally be applied to competitors to discover points of weakness, inertia to change and tactical plays (e.g. Tower & Moat) that you can exploit against others.

12) It helps you to find OPPORTUNITY. Understanding that the uncharted space is all about differentials and the industrialised is all about operational efficiency enables you to identify potential areas for improvement and how to exploit it.

13) It focuses on CAPABILITY and ORGANISATION. Once you have a map it becomes fairly easy to identify what aptitudes (skills) and attitudes (pioneers, settler and town planners) are needed for each component.

Now, if competition, strategic gameplay, opportunity, communication, risk mitigation, capability, scenario planning, challenge, organisation and user needs are not important to you then you probably don't need a map. If however the above is important for you then a map - even an imperfect map - will help you. The beauty of maps is of course that they can be shared and it is this act that improves them.

Maker / Culture. New talks on Wednesday 17th of September, 2014 at @MakersCAFE London by Vinay Gupta

Maker / Culture
Wednesday 17th of September, 2014 at @MakersCAFE London


Examining the fertile borders where the Makers touch the world

The team that brought you TRUTHANDBEAUTY at Hub Westminster and Big Picture Days at Limewharf is delighted to present a new event at MakersCAFE, a new fabrication venue in the heart of Shoreditch.

The Maker / Culture night will present different views, experiences and stories of places where Maker culture comes into contact with other movements, cultures and pools of capability. The talks will pack a lot into a single night, so expect an evening that will enlightened and entertain.

Our speakers are

6:30PM Leo Dearden: Maker / Fashion
Leo is a designer, 3D printer engineer and software engineer working on new generation printer technologies which have particular application to making clothing, soft furnishings and other body-contact materials. He’ll give a tour of the current state of the art, and discuss the future of Makers and fashion.

7:30PM Vinay Gupta: Maker / Aid
Vinay is the designer of the hexayurt, a refugee shelter design which has escaped into Burning Man and become an integral part of life on the playa. He’ll talk about rapid prototyping, cultures of experiment and failure, and how empowering people through design and prototyping can change the world ™.

8:30 PM Jay Cousins: Maker / Analogue
Jay is the catalyst behind innovative Maker projects like MakerPlatz in Berlin and ICECAIRO in Egypt. He is a designer, but most particularly he is an activist looking to find political empowerment through people being able to make their visions of a better world real as built artefacts. Jay will be talking about Digital and Analogue cultures, conflict and collaboration.

Each talk will last for about half an hour, leaving space for discussion and drinks between sessions.

flattr this!

Robot of Sherwood. by Feeling Listless

TV Just over ten years ago, your writer, not longer after watching the director’s cut of A Californian Archer in the Sheriff's Court decided to visit Nottingham and “do the Robin Hood” thing. Even on the six hour train journey down, or down and across, a bit, he didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect other than to see perhaps the castle. Thanks to the sheer longevity of this blog you can read about the whole thing here (I’ve now been writing this for a third of my life) including the visit to said castle where, after some haggling over guide books and what was their lack of interest in selling me one, the clerk behind the counter informed me that Robin Hood didn’t exist.

Luckily, opposite the station I found a Tales of Robin Hood tourist attraction in which the visitor was taken on Yorvik Viking Centre like chair ride through scenes from the stories, through Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff’s banqueting hall. At the end of that you were shown a video in which, as the younger version of me describes, saw “a Raymond Chandler style Private Dick visiting a contemporary Nottingham trying to find out if Robin Hood was indeed real. His findings were inconclusive and that it's pretty much a matter of opinions.” Ironically now the Tales of Robin Hood itself doesn’t exist having had to close because they couldn’t make enough rent to pay their landlord Tesco, which is doubly ironic given the topic I suppose.

Even after all of that I'm still not sure if Robin Hood really existed. A bit like Clara in Robot of Sherwood (paragraph three, will wonders?), I’ve always sort of hedged my bets on it, or found a sweet spot somewhere between there having been some kind of historical outlaw figure, a Pandorica-like fairy story and the idea that illiterate outlaws used the name Robin Hood as a kind of John Doe substitute. He’s mentioned in As You Like It and in a way, which suggests Shakespeare wasn’t convinced either way. The Two Gentlemen of Verona features a passage in which Valentine falls in with a band of outlaws which practically screams “this play would be in production more often if it was just about Robin Hood”.

The BBC itself has had some previous with the Hood (Troughton!). Twitter was soon abuzz with deluded notions about this being less funny than Maid Marian and her Merry Men as though it’s a fair comparison given they’re trying do different things but the most obvious contextual point is Robin Hood, the first bit of genre family entertainment broadcast in Who’s slot after it changed Saturday night television forever (by essentially remaking Lois & Clark apparently). The first version of this review blog post thing was going to be a meta-jokeoid about the resurrection of a previously cancelled but much loved drama series with different actors but I realised that as a meta-jokeoid it wasn’t particularly funny.

Within the Whoniverse he’s been pretty well established as a character. The (well alright if you say so) Twelfth Doctor forgets that in his first incarnation he met Robin and tussled with the Sheriff in Jonathan Morris’s brilliant Short Trip, The Thief of Sherwood (revealed through fictitious excepts from a Time Team in Doctor Who Magazine, Radio Times, Doctor Who: A Celebration, The Television Companion and Target Books "novelisation" of the serial). A later “Trip” by Joseph Lidster placed Polly in that exact story as Maid Marion. He’s also met Iris Wyldethyme, in his time. A version of him also appeared in an episode of the K9 spin-off, which the TARDIS Datacore has decided is canonical, so there you are.

There’s plenty more supposition and intrigue on the designated Wikipedia page but the point is, as Mark Gatiss has realised in crafting his script, in writing a story featuring one of Britain’s oldest mythic figure, it’s best to treat him as being just as relevant and as respectfully as the man (or potential Romola Garai) who constitutes our newest. To make as many jokes as he likes about the veracity of the existence of Robin Hood but to in the end realise that the best way to deal with him within the mechanism of Doctor Who, to keep our franchise’s ineffable magic intact, is to follow the lead of Ben Aaronovitch in integrating Camelot in Battlefield (and Jonathan Morris in his short prose) and make him as real as the Time Lord.

With a brief thought as to whether Sherlock Holmes would have received similar treatment under different show runners and not ones with all-consuming fires elsewhere this makes the episode immediately rewatchable because we now want to enjoy this characterisation without the nagging doubt that he’ll turn out to be a phantasmagoria with all the veracity of one of The Androids of Tara. With the knowledge that he’s “real” (or at least “real” within the structural scaffold of this fictional construct), his gag reflex and the fight sequences all gain a completely different complexion, a weight. All aided, of course by Tom Riley’s portrayal which stays just the right side of pantomime theatricality.

Not that the episode in any way stays away from pantomime theatricality. It’s a romp, a good old-fashioned romp, of a kind I’m not sure we’ve seen since, well I’m not sure. I’ve just asked Twitter, and suggestions include The Lodger and Closing Time both of which feel like more like homage to the sitcom rather than a Carry On film (though I appreciate the distinction is wafer thin). The Unicorn and the Wasp? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship? Perhaps there wasn’t one in nuWho. Perhaps we haven’t been here since City of Death in the 70s, which is odd considering Gatiss suggests in DWM that all of nuWho up until this point took its lead of City of Death and we’re all watching The Horror of Fang Rock now. Time will tell.

As befits a romp, the story isn’t that complex and probably would have easily graced The Sarah Jane Adventures back in the day, which is no way a criticism. One of the tendencies in nuWho has been to pile on more stuff and incident whereas this keeps things on the relative low-low. The pacing too is expressively slower than in previous series, as per Deep Breath, though with some detectable cross cutting but notably only generally to paper over the elements like the cutting of the manacles.  I could be of course be imagining all of this and if I was to do a scene length study across the Gatiss episodes, there’s no change at all.  But since I barely have enough time to think about where to buy a new bed even though I know it'll end up being John Lewis because it always is, that seems unlikely.

What did change is the ending. Understandably, given current events, although it’s fair to say this isn’t usual with Doctor Who, I don’t think, we discovered the other day that a beheading was cut from the finale. My first reaction was “a beheading in Doctor Who”? I mean I know it was supposed to be taking a darker turn but that’s ridiculous... But my second was, yes, probably a robot. Weeelll. Now that the episode has aired, this blog reveals, presumably after having read the leaked script, that this is indeed what it was, Ben Miller’s superbly Ainley-like Nottingham (if only we’d had this rather than Keith Allen’s interpretation) having been revealed as such in the middle of the final fight, extraordinarily so considered the King's own demons.

If this is reinstated for the blu-ray and streaming services (and we have to imagine it will) it’ll do at least three things. (1) Even without some tonal foreshadowing at the opening of the episode and taking Dinosaurs on a Spaceship into account, Nottingham’s tumble into the vat of gold is tough within the context of modern Who which tends to champion the life of anyone, even villains. Now that we know he’s an android it feels less, well, less. (2) It gives context to some of his more excessive behaviour not least during the Clara interrogation – he’s giving it some Zaroff because the robots have put him back together slightly wrong because (3) they’ve presumably based him at least on the stories in their databanks.

It also explains why the Doctor and Clara don’t seem like particularly active participants in that section of the denouement, just standing around and watching a lot. They weren’t originally. Unless the Doctor’s mind was turning over why some of this seemed strangely familiar given that the creation of printed circuits in ancient lands for a spaceship which has every potential of exploding and destroying the local population has been seen by his face before. No, I don’t think his “Why this face?” line from Deep Breath is a coincidence. I hope it means we’ll get an episode where the Doctor will meet the doppelganger he saved from Pompeii, or at least that the two are tied together somehow.

What was I saying, oh that’s right, Mark Gatiss is an equal opportunities writer, at least in terms of myths. Just as many Who tropes were skewered (arrowed?) tonight, not least the propensity the Doctor has for using his sonic to get out of scrapes. There’s also the small matter of the Time Lord’s God-like decision making which has been reduced somewhat, not that the show’s been afraid to present him as a slightly pathetic creature, from the sonic-off in The Doctor Dances to bringing the full power of his speechifying to bare on a bunny in The Day of the Doctor. But the sheer level of befuddlement in the cell tonight as pride gets the better of him is a welcome change, especially since it's treated as just that, not some malevolent secret plan.

Our acceptance of this is, of course the writing, but also the wicked chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman. The former is finally hitting his stride. On rewatching Into The Dalek, I noticed that he's far more comfortable in the scenes at the school and in the TARDIS indicating they may have been shot in a later production block (a contrast similar to Jenna in Hide last year) (or rather the year before) and if the Ben Wheatley material was shot first, then its clear here Peter’s had a chance to think about who his Doctor is, his accent baseline posh unless he’s shouting or desperate (and imagine if Tennant had been allowed to do this), the line readings much more comfortable (if only he could have gone back and redone the “bolt hole”).

Since we’re dwelling for a moment, notice too how much of an action episode this is for him or at least for this incarnation. In the pre-season discussions and especially during the transfer window, the expectation was that Twelfteenth would be cutting down on the exuberance and Danny Pink was being brought in as the action hero as well as the love interest. On the basis of tonight’s episode there’s a danger he’ll end up like Harry Sullivan. The Thirwelfth Doctor brought it, either through Capaldi himself or (if his comments in Extradential are any indication) some very good doubles, with spoon duelling and Venusian Aikido) (height!) (hait!) (howeverthisisspelt!).

My reservations about the treatment of Clara in the previous episode and how it might have been a blip are largely dealt with here by his carer largely having narrative agency throughout most of the episode even when the apparent lead is in full bloom. Jenna’s nothing less than extraordinary in this episode. Notice how, during the interrogation scene with the Sheriff she subtly also poshifies her accent apart from during the asides, suggesting she’s revealing to us her true nature. Meanwhile, this episode confirms she was born in Blackpool (Jenna’s own home town) and given previous dates, a year later than Lucie Miller. There’s nothing much to that, other than how the franchise’s connection to the town continues. Freeze frame.

Not really, because as we discovered eighteen months after that fateful freeze frame, the best legends continue. As Robin says of him and the Doctor, “Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end … and remember Doctor, I’m just as real as you are.” A slightly less poetic, more portentous version of “Aren’t we all?” but the message is clear. Except of course when Robin’s legend surfaces, it’s the same story interpreted again and again in different ways, whereas for the Doctor and the miracle of Doctor Who it’s all one story and in Robot of Sherwood, I at least have confirmation after a shaky start, that he’s still my Doctor, it’s still my favourite series, and there are few things more real to me than that.

September 06, 2014

The first discovery of a Thorne–Żytkow Object? by Astrobites

Title: Discovery of a Thorne-Zytkow object candidate in the Small Magellanic Cloud
Emily M. Levesque et al.
First Author’s Institution:
 Center for Astrophysics & Space Astronomy, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA
Status: Accepted to MNRAS

As all who study astronomy know, one of the most incredible things about the universe is the never-ending potential for wonderful discoveries that sound more like fiction than fact.  With this paper, the authors are pushing the boundaries of fiction into fact with the potential discovery of a new exotic object, known as a Thorne–Żytkow object (TZO).  First predicted in the 1970s by Kip Thorne and Anna Żytkow, these bodies occur when a neutron star in a binary system with a red supergiant (RSG) merges into the second star.  This merger creates an unusual system where there is a neutron star surrounded by a large, diffuse envelope of material.  The system still produces most of its energy at the core of the material envelope through thermonuclear energy, and a smaller amount (about 5% of the total energy) from the gravitational accretion of material onto the neutron star.  Eventually, after several hundred years, the core of the envelope and the neutron star would merge, resulting in either a larger neutron star or a black hole.

TZOs are fascinating objects in a special state of a binary system’s evolution, and there is a lot of new physics that can be learned from such a system, but there has been one problem with them until now: they are identical in appearance to typical red supergiants.  There are a lot of normal red supergiants no matter where you look, and knowing if a RSG is a TZO is only possible when you look in detail at the stellar spectra for the over-abundance of lithium and other specific heavy metals.  Finding a TZO is definitely a “find the needle in a haystack” kind of observing problem!

HV 2112 spectra

The ratios of various elements found in the sample of RSGs, where the dark gray line is the theoretical model for a RSG, the lighter grey shows a three sigma deviation from normal, and the black points show the observed ratios for the sampled stars. The red, however, are the ratios observed in the TZO candidate HV 2112- indicating some elements are present at ratios far from expected.

Luckily for science, the authors successfully found the needle.  They did this by conducting a survey of stars in the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds from previous stellar surveys where effective temperature and photometry data indicated a RSG.  The authors then took the stellar spectra of the 62 stars in their sample at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and the Magellan telescopes in Chile, and then analyzing the spectra for the ratios between elements in order to see whether there were any anomalies.  In one case, for a star known as HV 2112, in the Small Magellanic Cloud, and found it had unusually high concentrations of lithium, molybdenum, and rubidium.  These elements, especially in the amounts found in HV 2112, are indications the star is not a RSG at all, but rather a TZO.  Some spectral features were also observed that are not predicted in TZO models, but the authors aknowledge that available TZO models are older and do not take into account some recent advances in stellar convection modeling.

This TZO discovery, if confirmed from follow-up theoretical models, is exciting because HV 2112 would be the archtype of a whole new kind of system.  But beyond being a scientific curiousity, a TZO can provide a new environment for answering several questions, such as a new fate of massive binary systems.  Further, because this is a completely new kind of stellar interior, we are also looking at a different kind of stellar nuclear synthesis process for heavy metals than anything previously observed.  It is like being handed a new laboratory in which to test astrophysical ideas, and to distinguish the fact from fiction.

September 05, 2014

Robots vs Intelligent Software Agents by Simon Wardley

When examining potential points of future change, I use a very purposeful distinction between robotics and intelligent software agents. One is a component of the other.

Robotics is rapidly heading towards a state of early generic robotic platforms (as per Baxter) which over time promise greater commoditisation of this space (often associated with human physical effort). As we all hopefully know by now, it's never the first innovation of something that overhauls our society but commoditisation of pre-existing acts. Robots have existed for sometime, generic and hence more commodity robotic platforms haven't.

However, those generic robotic platforms are limited in scope to the system in question because the "intelligence" behind them is targeted to that scope. When you examine medical systems or self driving cars or SIRI or any number of environments - the intelligent agents are specific. There is no generic intelligence agent ... yet.

But there will be (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - map of robotics.

Today's "intelligent" agents are still in relatively early stages. But in the near future the "intelligent" agent needed to drive your car will be no different to the one that flies a plane, delivers your coffee or undertakes your cosmetic surgery. Obviously those "intelligent" agents will be trained for the task in hand and some will be trained for multiple tasks. But this "intelligent" capacity will be very much a commodity.

So what's with the distinction here? Why bother?

Well, as things evolve they go through the stages of wonder, peace and war. It's never the wonder but the war stage (where things become commodity) that impacts society widely depending upon how well spread the activity, data or practice is in other value chains. 

Hence in this case, then in the first instance we will see disruption and change caused by the introduction of generic robotic platforms but because these will have targeted intelligent agents they will be generic to a specific area - the intelligence behind self driving cars will not be the same as the intelligence behind your surgeon. Hence to some extent the impact will be constrained. Much of the disruption will start in robotics manufacturing and existing industry users. These targeted systems will tend to be adopted by other industries hence the self driving car will be a feature differential of high end vehicles and not a destroyer of the automotive industry.

Alas, there's a later stage when the intelligent agents become commodity. At this point we will see truly commodity platforms in robotics and numerous other fields. This in turn will drive commoditisation in those sectors. Every car, every airplane, ever railway, every truck, every 'doctor' will be a 'self driving' and intelligent machine based upon the same intelligent system. The once benign feature differential of high end cars becomes the commoditising force behind the entire industry.

So why mention it? Well, I've summarised this in figure 2.

Figure 2 - Impacts of War

In the first wave (2020-2025) we should see rapid introduction of generic robotic platforms for different activities based upon targeted intelligent agents. Expect commercial high end self driving cars, increased use of robotic platforms such as Baxter. The impacts of this will generally be adopted by various industries from automotive to transport to healthcare. Disruption will tend to be fairly minimal or localised to existing users and robotics industry.

In the second wave (2030-2035) then you should expect to see the rapid introduction of generic intelligent agents. The agent that drives your car, pilots the plane, automates your house will be the same. This will rapidly spread impacting and commoditising multiple industries. Every car will be self driving - not that you will own a car anymore, you'll just pay for the use of the journey through an Uber like service. The entire transportation system will change. Many will be disrupted.

Now whether the timings are right here is highly questionable. The overall transition to commodity depends simply upon competition but the timing depends upon individual actors actions - this is always unpredictable (see Hayek and the pretence of knowledge). There is also constraints such as power and impacts such as Jevon's paradox to consider.

I would suggest however, that before people claim doom to humankind and our role in society due to the introduction of generic robotic platforms that they consider there are two waves approaching. The later is unquestionably the more dangerous in terms of social policy but it also allows for the greatest possible number of recombinations of higher order systems and hence the creation of unimagined roles today.

In much the same way the gas lamp lighter could see their job going but no-one could tell them that we'd have radio producers, television personalities and computer programmers - then the Barista maybe worried by a robot but find themselves later on as a counsellor to a neurotic intelligent agent. Can you honestly say that intelligent machines aren't going to need psychologists? Have we forgotten that the best chess computer in the world can beat a human BUT an average chess player with an average chess computer can beat the best chess computer?

So, will everything be rosy? No. But the real threat to society is not so much the machines but other humans and self interest. I'll leave that post to another time - fortunately by my reckoning then we still have quite a bit of it left.

Pretty pictures: Vesta's dark material by The Planetary Society

More masterful processing of Dawn Vesta images by Björn Jónsson, including Aelia crater and some mysterious dark splats near Fulvia crater.

Public Art Collections in North West England: Wordsworth and Grasmere Museum. by Feeling Listless

Art Last Friday’s trip to the Wordsworth and Grasmere Museum felt more like a holiday, albeit one which lasted about five an a half hours not including watching the view from the train or bus whilst travelling. Some of this had to do with being able to spend five and a half hours in the place not as concerned about needing to rush back for the train. Much of this had to do with the sheer effortlessness of the time I spent at the Wordsworth Museum (as it is now), where the staff are knowledgeable and helpful, the exhibition itself well designed and I genuinely felt very welcome and had one of my happiest afternoons in quite some time (and said as much to the person in the shop as I was leaving while I was buying some postcards and a copy of the guide book). If ever there was a model for how a museum visit should be, how it should go, it would be the Wordsworth Museum.

Having been pretty monogamous in my appreciation for British poets, I didn’t really have much of a clue about Wordsworth beyond Daffodils and not having read, as usual, the paragraph in Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England beforehand (spoilers) hadn’t realised that Dove Cottage which is adjacent to the museum and conserved by the Wordsworth Trust had been place where he’d written that and all of the very best poems he was famous for. To stand outside there and look down the street, is to see the very landscape which inspired some of, as it turns out, greatest poetry in the English language. On the way to Windermere that day I did listen to a couple of preparatory In Our Times, about his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude which gave me some idea of what to expect, just enough to be wowed as I stepped off the bus into the grounds.

The Trust’s art collection is split between three buildings, Dove Cottage, the museum and the archive building, The Jerwood Centre. After paying the entrance fee, the visitor is given a timed ticket for a tour of the cottage, limited to around fifteen people. Although there are some paintings in the dwelling, the tour really considers Dove Cottage as domestic residence and an example of housing in the period with the artwork, some real, some reproductions, utilised to illustrate the occupants of the period. The first painting you see is an anonymously created portrait of his dog Pepper, a gift to the family from Sir Walter Scott (the dog not the painting) who bred the animals and named them after herbs to save time. Dove Cottage is tiny though that must not have bothered Wordsworth, who lived there for just under ten years and received guests.

The most curious aspect is the Newspaper Room, a small space at the back on the top floor which it’s thought was primarily used as the children’s bedroom or later a guest room. It lacks a fireplace, so would have made it very cold in the winder but in her papers, Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s wife said that she covered the walls in newspaper to offer some insulation. Having deteriorated, these have still been replaced with pages from the same period and the effect is to walk into something akin to an art installation or a piece of set design from a Gilliam or Tarkovsky film. My fellow visitors and I immediately began reading the text, mainly from The Times, a mix of advertising and court reportage. Not that it is easy to read being old enough for the letters f and s to be interchangeable, something which I’ve never quite mastered instinctively even after all these years of looking at Shakespeare facsimiles.

From there it’s straight into the Museum. As Edward explains, this was opened in 1981 to help illustrate Wordsworth’s story, Dove Cottage itself having previously, as the Trust’s own website describes, previously been housed in a barn from 1936, with the books and manuscripts held from 1950 in a converted cottage nearby. The motive of the exhibition is to give some scope of both and also to illustrate the lives of both Wordsworth and Coleridge primarily during the period the former lived in Dove Cottage as well as necessarily before and after. In this it neatly strikes a balance between serving the uberfans and newbies and although I’m still firmly the latter, I came away with an intense understanding of Wordsworth’s importance within the history of English literature and that some really useful stuff was written after 1616. I have much to do.

Both of these sources are a bit short, and this is unusual for Edward, on the origins for much of this collection, but I’m going to guess that it’s a mix of bequests and later purchases. The landscapes are illustrative of the area and how it was around the time Wordsworth was writing, an oil of Ullswater by Joseph Wright of Derby, Elterwater by Francis Towne with as Edward observes its “schematic, block-like forms” and Peele Castle In A Storm by Sir George Beaumont. But the collection also includes examples of how later painters have interpreted the area, like Percy Frederick Horton’s post-impressionistic A Corner of Ambleside really captures how its possible for humanity’s houses and this landscape to co-exist to picturesque effect. I like the way he contrasts the smudgy brush strokes utilised to create the trees and fawner of nature with the clean lines of the man-made houses.

The rest of the exhibition features images of the key people in Wordsworth’s life, his friends and critics including, surprisingly life masks of him and Coleridge, white plaster faces which demonstrate the accuracy of the surrounding portraits which are mix of works from the Trust’s own collection and loans from the National Portrait Gallery. There’s Wordsworth himself proudly illustrated by Frederick Richard Pickersgill, clutching a pair of gloves and as a younger man, meaning fully clutching his forehead by Richard Carruthers. There’s James Henry Leigh Hunt, a usual arch critic who called Wordsworth the Prince of Bards and is depicted by Benjamin Robert Haydon as a rather heroic figure with bushy eyebrows and an open face. There’s James Northcote’s famous painting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his prime just as he would have been when concocting Lyrical Verses.

At around two-thirty, I attended a tour of the third of the buildings on site, The Jerwood Centre, given by the curatorial assistant. The centre opened in 2005 to house Wordsworth’s papers and related materials and as the office site explains, contains 90% of Wordsworth’s known verse drafts as well as Dorothy’s notebooks. It’s a superb study space, the interior a contemporary office environment, the exterior the same dry-stone walling as the rest of the site, the only concession being its cylindrical shape. If you do happen upon the Wordsworth Museum, it’s well worth taking time for this since it’s also the place where the A-List artworks are kept and while in the inner area of the archive, one of the volunteers surprised us by turning one of the otherwise hidden paintings to reveal a Turner recently purchased by the trust, his Ullswater, Cumberland (which is pictured on the Art Fund’s website).

After the museum I walked out into the landscape that inspired Wordsworth, and just like the view from Brantwood it’s so expressively beautiful photography can’t really capture it (not that I didn’t try) (I've repaired my camera). I may well have said to a pedestrian as they were passing me gaping at the horizon, “Isn’t this gorgeous?” and they may have said, “Yes, aren’t we lucky.” That may have happened. I may also have phoned someone to babble down the receiver at them about all of this, gesticulating wildly before realising and then marvelling at the fact I was standing in the middle of that once wilderness and able to get a perfect mobile phone signal. I may have done that too. I may also have thought of that scene in the film Contact when Jodie Foster’s character looks into infinity and says, “They should have sent a poet…” before reminding myself that thank goodness on this occasion, “they” did.

A New Blog and a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival. by Resonance China

Dear Internet, welcome to our new company blog.

And for our first post, we’re going to take this opportunity to wish you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

We’ve been in Shanghai since 2005 and though over the years we’ve come to appreciate the general density of mooncakes and the strength required to eat them, this year we decided to take a change of pace and sent forth into the ether these macaroons to be enjoyed by our awesome clients.

resonance mooncake macaroons

Want one too? Well then. You know what you’ll need to do (hint hint)

Why a new blog? Well on this blog we’ll cover company news, case studies, products, and company culture, so it will be different than our curated insights blog you may already be familiar with. We’ve got a few interesting things in the pipeline we’ll announce here soon, so keep an eye on us.

And above all else, have a happy Mid-Autumn Festival, dear netizens, and for those in China, enjoy your weekend respite.


September 04, 2014

Standard Markdown is now Common Markdown by Jeff Atwood

Let me open with an apology to John Gruber for my previous blog post.

We've been working on the Standard Markdown project for about two years now. We invited John Gruber, the original creator of Markdown, to join the project via email in November 2012, but never heard back. As we got closer to being ready for public feedback, we emailed John on August 19th with a link to the Standard Markdown spec, asking him for his feedback. Since John MacFarlane was the primary author of most of the work, we suggested that he be the one to reach out.

We then waited two weeks for a response.

There was no response, so we assumed that John Gruber was either OK with the project (and its name), or didn't care. So we proceeded.

There was lots of internal discussion about what to name our project. Strict Markdown? XMarkdown? Markdown Pro? Markdown Super Hyper Turbo Pro Alpha Diamond Edition?

As we were finalizing the name, we noticed on this podcast, at 1:15 …

… that John seemed OK with the name "GitHub Flavored Markdown". So I originally wrote the blog post and the homepage using that terminology – "Standard Flavored Markdown" – and even kept that as the title of the blog post to signify our intent. We were building Yet Another Flavor of Markdown, one designed to remove ambiguity by specifying a standard, while preserving as much as possible the spirit of Markdown and compatibility with existing documents.

Before we went live, I asked for feedback internally, and one of the bits of feedback I got was that it was inconsistent to say Standard Flavored Markdown on the homepage and blog when the spec says Standard Markdown throughout. So I changed them to match Standard Markdown, and that's what we launched with.

It was a bit of a surprise to get an email last night, addressed to both me and John MacFarlane, from John Gruber indicating that the name Standard Markdown was "infuriating".

I'm sorry the name is so infuriating. I assure you that we did not choose the name to make you, or anyone else, angry. We were simply trying to pick a name that correctly and accurately reflected our goal – to build an unambiguous flavor of Markdown. If the name we chose made inappropriate overtures about Standard Markdown being anything more than a highly specified flavor of Markdown, I apologize. Standard does have certain particular computer science meanings, as in IETF Standard, ECMA Standard. That was not our intent, it was more of an aspirational element of "what if, together, we could eventually..". What can I say? We're programmers. We name things literally. And naming is hard.

John Gruber was also very upset, and I think rightfully so, that the word Markdown was not capitalized throughout the spec. This was an oversight on our part – and also my fault because I did notice Markdown wasn't capitalized as I copied snippets of the spec to the homepage and blog post, and I definitely thought it was odd, too. You'll note that I took care to manually capitalize Markdown in the parts of the spec I copied to the blog post and home page – but I neglected to mention this to John MacFarlane as I should have. We corrected this immediately when it was brought to our attention.

John then made three requests:

  1. Rename the project.

  2. Shut down the domain, and don't redirect it.

  3. Apologize.

All fair. Happy to do all of those things.

Starting with the name. In his email John graciously indicated that he would "probably" approve a name like "Strict Markdown" or "Pedantic Markdown". Given the very public earlier miscommunication about naming, that consideration is appreciated.

We replied with the following suggestions:

We haven't heard back after replying last night, and I'm not sure we ever will, so in the interest of moving ahead and avoiding conflict, we're immediately renaming the project to Common Markdown.

We hope that is an acceptable name; it was independently suggested to us several times in several different feedback areas. The intention is to avoid any unwanted overtones of ownership; we have only ever wanted to be Yet Another Flavor of Markdown.

  1. The project name change is already in progress.

  2. This is our public apology.

  3. I'll shut down the domain as soon as I can, probably by tomorrow.

John, we deeply apologize for the miscommunication. It's our fault, and we want to fix it. But even though we made mistakes, I hope it is clear that everything we've done, we did solely out of a shared love of Markdown (and its simple, unencumbered old-school ASCII origins), and the desire to ensure the success of Markdown as a stable format for future generations.

Edit: after a long and thoughtful email from John Gruber – which is greatly appreciated – he indicated that no form of the word "Markdown" is acceptable to him in this case. We are now using the name CommonMark.

[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.

Mars Orbiter Mission to test-fire main engine before orbit insertion by The Planetary Society

According to a report in the Times of India, ISRO is deciding today whether to test-fire Mars Orbiter Mission's main engine to make sure it will work for their all-important orbit insertion maneuver on September 24. Both ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA's MAVEN are in good health and on track for their arrivals in three weeks.

Latest Rosetta NavCam images reveal jets on Churyumov-Gerasimenko by The Planetary Society

ESA released another set of NavCam images of the comet today, and lo and behold, there are jets! We knew they were there, from an earlier OSIRIS image, but it's tremendously cool to see the comet behaving like a proper comet should.

Most Stars Form in Discs by Astrobites

Title: Geometry of Star-Forming Galaxies from SDSS, 3D-HST and CANDELS
A. van der Wel et al.
First Author’s Institution: 
Max-Planck Institut für Astronomie, Königstul 17, D-69117, Heidelberg, Germany
Status: Published in Astrophysical Journal Letters

The shapes of galaxies provide the biggest clues into the process which shaped  their formation but you cannot form a galaxy without forming some stars first. How, when and where stars form impacts greatly on the subsequent morphology of a galaxy and therefore the morphology we observe today. Such studies of the shapes of galaxies and the inference of past formation histories are abundant for local galaxies, however are scarce at high redshift, leaving us with an incomplete picture of galaxy formation.

What the authors attempt in this paper is to complete the first description of the full geometric shape of star forming galaxies over a large redshift range. They measure the projected axis ratios of galaxies (i.e. the shape the galaxy appears because of the line of sight angle we observe it at) in a mass range of 10^9 - 10^{11} M_{\odot} from a large sample compiled from the CANDELS, 3D-HST and SDSS surveys. The authors use a modelling technique to convert this projected axis ratio into a 3 parameters describing the three dimensional shape of the galaxy by modelling it as an ellipsoid (a 3D ellipse; with 3 axes lengths described by parameters A, B and C in order of decreasing length). These parameters then define the ellipticity,  E = (1-C), and triaxiality, T = ((1-B^2)/(1-C^2)), of a galaxy and consequently whether a galaxy is disc (A ~ B > C), elongated (A > B ~ C) or spheroidal (A ~ B ~ C) in shape.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 14.00.51

Figure 1: The ellipsoid modelled triaxiality and ellipticity of the sample of galaxies from van der Wel et al. (2014) in five redshift and four mass bins. The filled box shows the mean, the open box the standard deviation and the 1σ uncertainties on both the mean and standard deviation are shown by the error bars. A smaller value of T corresponds to a more disc dominated galaxy. A smaller value of E corresponds to a more spherical shaped galaxy (Figure 3 from van der Wel et al. 2014).


Figure 1 provides a visual summary of the conclusions of the work. Firstly, for local galaxies in the lowest redshift bin the low values of T and large values of E suggest most of the galaxies are very thin and oblate, i.e. disc-like in nature. We can see that this is also does not change significantly with increasing mass. Toward higher redshifts however, galaxies become less disc-like. This is especially apparent in the lower mass bins in Figure 1, which can be seen to increase the value of their T with increasing redshift. A population of spheroidal galaxies is therefore increasingly prominent amongst galaxies at z > 2. We can also see that the  ellipticity has little to no dependance on mass or redshift, which is viewed as an oddity by the authors – why should the ratio of short-to-long axis hardly evolve? The authors suggest further analysis is necessary to fully understand this.

The authors therefore conclude that star formation in the local universe currently takes place in the disc components of galaxies. However the authors suggest that due to the high value of T of low mass galaxies at z > 1 this implies the shape of a galaxy is not disc-like but elongated at early stages in it’s evolution. In other words, star forming disc galaxies in the present day universe don’t necessarily start out life as a disc. This suggests that the Milky Way may also have had such a morphological history, therefore using the previous estimates of the mass evolution of Milky Way-like galaxies as a function of redshift  and the above results, the authors estimate that the Milky Way gained a substantial stellar disc at z \sim 1.5-2.

This investigation provides the very first geometric evidence of mass dependent redshift evolution of galactic structure.

Cassini's awesomeness fully funded through mission's dramatic end in 2017 by The Planetary Society

Last year, rumors swirled that NASA may be so pinched for dollars that the agency might end the Cassini mission early. Today, Cassini received the welcome news that it has formally been funded through the planned end of its extended-extended mission in 2017. A huge congratulations to the Cassini mission!

September 03, 2014

Public Art Collections in North West England: Ruskin Museum. by Feeling Listless

Art To the Ruskin Museum. On Wednesday, I wasn’t as lucky with the bus from Windermere, waiting until its usual scheduled time at half past twelve but due to traffic delays and country roads didn’t arrive in Coniston until around two o’clock (around half an hour later than scheduled). On both of these days I did at least enjoy the slightly dangerous, epic nature of the bus journeys in the Lakes as the Stagecoach vehicle pondered along roads in no way wide enough for them and certainly not wide enough for two of them if they happened to be driving towards one another, or any other wide vehicles, especially caravans. Minutes at a time spent pensively watching, knuckles white clutching handles as the bus edged forwards or in reverse just inches away from the side of a lorry travelling in the opposite direction. The Brodie Avenue school run looks positively pedestrian in comparison.

Ruskin Museum is the other half of the trust’s work and where most of his collection is on display. Its fruition was much the same as many of these regional art museums. On Ruskin’s death in 1900, his long term assistant W.G. Collingwood and his friend Arthur Severn (both of whose paintings were mentioned last time) organised an exhibition at the local institute (an educational institution which had been paid for by Ruskin for the benefit of the village which was built on copper mining). The sale of paintings, including some of Ruskin’s own, paid for the setting up of a permanent Ruskin Museum created as an extension to the institute. A century later the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled the redisplay of the collection and its this exhibition which greets the visitor now, dedicated to displaying works from all three men and charting their unusual friendship across the years.

The museum implies in its accompanying text that all you need to know about their relationship can be found in two portraits of Ruskin by each of the other two men. The Collingwood, from 1897 a few years before Ruskin’s death is a loving portrayal of an elderly gentlemen, an old face with young eyes, something verifiable thanks to the reproduction of the Hilliard painting of the painter when he was three years old nearby. The Severn, painted the same year is of, the museum proposes (I’m paraphrasing), a severe, frail figure due in part to a fissure within their domesticity created when the painter married Joan Ruskin Agnew, Ruskin’s cousin and heir. My interest is in whether both paintings were produced during the same sitting but from different angles. Ruskin is sat in the same chair in the same position in front of the same bookshelves.

Your Paintings offers images of the eight oils in the collection. The bulk of the paintings on display are watercolours and of these I much prefer those Ruskin painted during his travels, during his early life and his grand tour of Europe later. There’s a loving illustration of his rooms at Christ Church in Oxford where he matriculated beginning in 1936 and of balcony and arches in Pisa in 1882 which he had toured during book research in the 1840s (his Fountain in Rome must also have been from that trip). All of them are intensely detailed and steady creating symmetrical shapes in what must have been freehand. But as Edward Morris describes in Public Art Collection in North West England, it’s “Collingwood’s portrait of Ruskin at work at his desk in Brantwood with lake and mountains visible through the window” which is one of the great icons of late-nineteenth century British art.

But the Ruskin Museum isn’t just about the eponymous painter now. There are three displays. A much larger room houses a general museum in tribute to Coniston covering much the same territory as any town museum, beginning with pre-history and local geology through a account of the copper mines through to artefacts from its more recent history. One of the unexpected pleasures is the rowing boat that inspired Arthur Ransome whilst writing Swallows and Amazons. One of the more sobering displays, as large as the other two rooms put together is about Donald Campbell’s fateful land speed records including part of the K7 positioned on the ground in the middle of a plastic sheet showing where it would have fitted in the vehicle. Campbell is commemorated with an impressively naturalistic resin and copper statue created in 2009 by the artist Graham Ball.

An hour and a bit later I wasn’t quite ready to leave but had a feeling it was about time. After stopping outside to look at the model village created by the late stone mason John Usher in the grounds which is notable because it replicates in miniature the stunning dry stone walling from which most of the buildings and walls in Windermere seem to be constructed and visiting the aforementioned institute which is now an antiques and collectables showroom of the kind which turns up near tea time on BBC television I strolled into town. A couple of gift shops later I noticed a fair queue had built up at the bus stop and wandering over discovered the schedules 3:20 bus had been delayed so thought it prudent to wait for it. The bus arrived half an hour late and after terminating in Ambleside leading to much confusion and getting on a further bus I eventually pitched up in Windermere having missed the train.

Two things on all of this. (1) The same bus queue mayhem from Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool also happens in Coniston. Or at least it did that day. As we’ve discussed before, the bus stop on Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool doesn’t have a shelter so people either tend to just stand in an amorphous clump outside a Boots or else form a random queue heading away from the area and up the street or as is usually the case, both. Which leads to much shouting and needling when a bus arrives as the self appointed queuers brim with righteous indignation as the rest of us simply head for the doors. Having beed there enough times I know exactly where to stand for the doors to open and I can’t imagine why no one else bothers not least because it can’t be a first time event for them either.

When I reach the bus stop at Coniston I notice that a few of the people there had been on the same vehicle as me from Windermere and ask around for the information which I’ve already carelessly revealed to you above sapping this of any tension (though as listeners of This American Life will know route talk is one of the seven things you’re not supposed to mention in polite company anyway). I stood on the side of the road and phoned home to check on this and that and so forth and happened to be standing near the bus stop. At the end of the conversation I went to stand on the kerb only to be told by an older man, “You know there’s a queue here.” I looked. There was undoubtedly a queue consisting of a family and him and his accompanying person who may be his wife then, yes an amorphous clump of people sitting inside and outside of the shelter with some more tourists joining just in the middle. Harumph.

We all fitted on anyway and the benefit of missing the train back at Windermere was (2) that it afforded me some time to walk into Windermere to find something to eat, which I did at The Little Chippy (which oddly enough is exactly how I felt as I was standing in the bus queue at Coniston after the verbal altercation). These fish and chips more than made up for the night before when I sat eating a Ginsters pasty in the Pumpkin Café on Preston Station which was too hot to handle so I ended up eating with one of those wooden coffee stirrers snapped in half doubling as knife and fork because they don’t supply cutlery, picking up each tiny piece of excess potato and meat from the open wrapper with the pointed end. If there was a low point, certainly the loneliest point across the three days in the lakes it was that. Wordsworth Museum next.

Standard Flavored Markdown by Jeff Atwood

In 2009 I lamented the state of Markdown:

Right now we have the worst of both worlds. Lack of leadership from the top, and a bunch of fragmented, poorly coordinated community efforts to advance Markdown, none of which are officially canon. This isn't merely incovenient for anyone trying to find accurate information about Markdown; it's actually harming the project's future.

In late 2012, David Greenspan from Meteor approached me and proposed we move forward, and a project crystallized:

I propose that Stack Exchange, GitHub, Meteor, Reddit, and any other company with lots of traffic and a strategic investment in Markdown, all work together to come up with an official Markdown specification, and standard test suites to validate Markdown implementations. We've all been working at cross purposes for too long, accidentally fragmenting Markdown while popularizing it.

We formed a small private working group with key representatives from GitHub, from Reddit, from Stack Exchange, from the open source community. We spent months hashing out the details and agreeing on the necessary changes to turn Markdown into a language you can parse without feeling like you just walked through a sewer – while preserving the simple, clear, ASCII email inspired spirit of Markdown.

We really struggled with this at Discourse, which is also based on Markdown, but an even more complex dialect than the one we built at Stack Overflow. In Discourse, you can mix three forms of markup interchangeably:

Discourse is primarily a JavaScript app, so naturally we needed a nice, compliant implementation of Markdown in JavaScript. Surely such a thing exists, yes? Nope. Even in 2012, we found zero JavaScript implementations of Markdown that could pass the only Markdown test suite I know of, MDTest. It isn't authoritative, it's a community created initiative that embodies its own decisions about rendering ambiguities in Markdown, but it's all we've got. We contributed many upstream fixes to markdown.js to make it pass MDTest – but it still only passes in our locally extended version.

As an open source project ourselves, we're perfectly happy contributing upstream code to improve it for everyone. But it's an indictment of the state of the Markdown ecosystem that any remotely popular implementation wasn't already testing itself against a formal spec and test suite. But who can blame them, because it didn't exist!

Well, now it does.

It took a while, but I'm pleased to announce that Standard Markdown is now finally ready for public review.

It's a spec, including embedded examples, and implementations in portable C and JavaScript. We strived mightily to stay true to the spirit of Markdown in writing it. The primary author, John MacFarlane, explains in the introduction to the spec:

Because Gruber’s syntax description leaves many aspects of the syntax undetermined, writing a precise spec requires making a large number of decisions, many of them somewhat arbitrary. In making them, I have appealed to existing conventions and considerations of simplicity, readability, expressive power, and consistency. I have tried to ensure that “normal” documents in the many incompatible existing implementations of markdown will render, as far as possible, as their authors intended. And I have tried to make the rules for different elements work together harmoniously. In places where different decisions could have been made (for example, the rules governing list indentation), I have explained the rationale for my choices. In a few cases, I have departed slightly from the canonical syntax description, in ways that I think further the goals of markdown as stated in that description.

Part of my contribution to the project is to host the discussion / mailing list for Standard Markdown in a Discourse instance.

Fortunately, Discourse itself just reached version 1.0. If the only thing Standard Markdown does is help save a few users from the continuing horror that is mailing list web UI, we all win.

What I'm most excited about is that we got a massive contribution from the one person who, in my mind, was the most perfect person in the world to work on this project: John MacFarlane. He took our feedback and wrote the entire Standard Markdown spec and both implementations.

A lot of people know of John through his Pandoc project, which is amazing in its own right, but I found out about him because he built Babelmark. I learned to refer to Babelmark extensively while working on Stack Overflow and MarkdownSharp, a C# implementation of Markdown.

Here's how crazy Markdown is: to decide what the "correct" behavior is, you provide sample Markdown input to 20+ different Markdown parsers … and then pray that some consensus emerges in all their output. That's what Babelmark does.

Consider this simple Markdown example:

# Hello there

This is a paragraph.

- one
- two
- three
- four

1. pirate
2. ninja
3. zombie

Just for that, I count fifteen different rendered outputs from 22 different Markdown parsers.

In Markdown, we literally built a Tower of Babel.

Have I mentioned that it's a good idea for a language to have a formal specification and test suites? Maybe now you can see why that is.

Oh, and in his spare time, John is also the chair of the department of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. No big deal. While I don't mean to minimize the contributions of anyone to the Standard Markdown project, we all owe a special thanks to John.

Markdown is indeed everywhere. And that's a good thing. But it needs to be sane, parseable, and standard. That's the goal of Standard Markdown — but we need your help to get there. If you use Markdown on a website, ask what it would take for that site to become compatible with Standard Markdown; when you see the word "Markdown" you have the right to expect consistent rendering across all the websites you visit. If you implement Markdown, take a look at the spec, try to make your parser compatible with Standard Markdown, and discuss improvements or refinements to the spec.

Update: The project was renamed CommonMark. See my subsequent blog post.

[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!

Curiosity Rover Science Plan Slammed by NASA Review Panel by The Planetary Society

Senior review recommends continuing all major planetary exploration missions, but not without some changes.

LightSail Radio Update: New Answers, New Questions by The Planetary Society

Two weeks after radio anomalies scrubbed LightSail's day-in-the-life test, the team continues to close in on the source of the problem.

Talking about our Research by Astrobites

Some of you are very good at talking about your research. You can explain your summer research project to your history professor in 20 seconds. You can put your research into context for your grandmother. This essay is not for you, unless you’re too good at it; in that case, you should really have a read.

When I was an undergrad, speaking about my studies or my summer research project to people outside my field was scary. Now, believe it or not, a decade later, it’s still scary! Here are two conversations I’ve had again and again:

I’m meeting someone and he asks, “So you’re studying astrophysics. What specifically?” I say, “Well…have you got five minutes?” No actually, I’ve never asked this before. I always mean to, but instead I find myself five minutes deep into an explanation, realizing he’s lost and I’m embarrassed.

Or I’m relaxing at home with my wife and she asks, “So what’d you do today?” I say, “I checked on my simulation with the LS220 equation of state. It crashed last night. I started a few test simulations, trying different atmosphere treatments, but I don’t know. Oh, and I wasted a whole bunch of time with git trying to retrieve some commits from a branch I’d deleted last week. That’s so freaking hard!” No actually, I’ve never gotten this far, because Darci interrupts me and says, “I want to know more about what you just said, but I don’t even know where to begin, what to ask.”

How do you share your research life with people who want to know?

These are scary conversations for me because sometimes…well, they just go badly. Not always, mind you. Sometimes there’s a thrilling connection, a courageous effort by some friend or family member to learn about what I’m learning; sometimes I walk away with a new, enriching perspective on my studies. But when it does go badly, it’s really uncomfortable for me. I feel intellectually lonely. I wonder if I really understand what I’m doing after all.

But these conversations aren’t just scary for us scientists. They’re probably scary for our interlocutors too. It’s intimidating to talk to a specialist. Think of asking the car mechanic to explain what’s wrong with your sedan, or of talking to a pro athlete about a sport you don’t know, or of asking an artist about his work. It’s scary.

From Dr. Seuss's 1961 classsic,

From Dr. Seuss’s 1961 classsic, “What was I Scared of?”

One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories tells about a furry little creature with cute little feet and tapered fingers having repeated frightful encounters in the wilderness with…a pair of pants! Aagh! The tension builds and builds, and believe me, it’s horrifying, until a few pages from the end, the creature discovers that the pants are also afraid of him! They’ve been running away from each other. With their vulnerabilities revealed, they share a warm hug and become fast friends.

I think conversations about our specialties are the same. Let’s remember to stop for a second, maybe share a warm hug with our conversation partners (okay, a handshake if you just met). They’ve been courageous to ask us “what do you do?” or “what did you do today?” It would be a fine thing for a little vulnerability to show through on our side too.


From “What was I Scared of?”

It’s not all that bad to be ignorant about parts of the world; we all are. Our conversation partners are ignorant about our fields of research. And we’re ignorant about…well, really about the same thing. Our summer research topic is vast, we’ve been struggling with it for months. The class we’re taking is only the tail of the elephant. We’re still learning from our advisors, our teachers, from papers, from fellow students, even from the guy we just met, from our close friends. In fact, learning is our specialty. Our research field is a field of ignorance. We’re here to listen and learn. It’s fun!

My wife recently told me, “I understand so much more of the context of what you’re doing today than I did last year. It’s little bits, little conversations that build that.” And also, “It’s intimidating talking to you about astrophysics, yeah, even you! But it really helps when it’s clear that you’re struggling to explain or understand something.”


Mars Exploration Rovers Update: Opportunity Suffers Unwanted Computer Reboots, Hunkers Down for Reformat by The Planetary Society

After setting the new off-Earth rover distance record in July, Opportunity roved on in August, driving south along the eastern edge of Endeavour Crater's western rim to Wdowiak Ridge on its journey to the next big destination, Marathon Valley.

Alipay processes 265% more payments than Paypal. by Resonance China

resonance_3rd party payment

resonance_3rd party share

This chart from iResearch captures the explosive growth of third-party online payment in China – with total transactions crossing USD $299 billion in Q2 2014, representing growth of over 64% year over year. Fueled by ecommerce, mobile transactions, P2P payments, and everyday items like taxi cab fares and convenience store purchases – third-party payment plays a central role in the everyday transactions of Chinese consumers. In terms of third-party payment platforms, Alipay remains the dominant player with 48.8% market share followed by Tenpay at 19.8%. That translates into over USD $146 billion in payments handled by Alipay, which overshadows the USD $55 billion in total payments that Paypal processed during the same period. [iResearch China & Paypal]

在艾瑞出版的中国第三方支付行年度监测报告中揭露了,第三方支付行的蓬勃展。以64%的年增率,在今年第二季度,中国第三方的支付金已接近了3千亿美金,仅仅与中国物的强势发展有密切关,且与中国人日常的食衣住行也密挂勾。以支付宝几乎占有半壁江山的状来看,其与线下便利超商的合作惠价格或快的打的支付折扣功能, 都支付宝的交易到了一千四百六十亿美金, 几乎是美国PayPal的三倍之多。[iResearch China & Paypal]

Submit Predictions to Fly in an Asteroid Time Capsule by The Planetary Society

You have four weeks left (until September 30, 2014) to submit names to send to an asteroid, and now you can also separately submit space exploration predictions or images to send in a time capsule to and from that same asteroid. Both sets of information will fly etched on microchips on board the NASA OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

September 02, 2014

Dawn Journal: From HAMO to LAMO and Beyond by The Planetary Society

Marc Rayman updates us on the Dawn mission, its plans from high to low altitude mapping orbits at Ceres, and what the intrepid spacecraft will pursue next.

Just how far away is the Pleiades? by Astrobites

The Pleiades is one of multiple nearby open clusters of stars that can be seen with the naked eye from most places on Earth. The Pleiades have a long and rich history with mythology, marketing, and pop songs. For such a famous, bright cluster, you would think astronomers know how far away it is, yes?

Determining distances in astronomy is difficult. For other nearby planets such as Venus or Mars, astronomers can use radar to determine their distance. For relatively nearby stars, astronomers can measure parallaxes. Parallax is the apparent motion of other stars as the Earth orbits the Sun, changing our viewpoint. Variable stars such as RR Lyrae and Cepheids can be used for even the nearest galaxies. At the furthest distances, Type 1a supernovae are the only clue astronomers have to determine distance. Astronomers are still working on other options for determining distances. A few more are detailed in Figure 1.

The Pleiades is close enough that parallaxes can be measured for the individual stars in the cluster. Most studies have placed the Pleiades just over 130 parsecs (pc) from us. However, the Hipparcos satellite, which measured parallaxes for over 118,000 stars gave a distance around 120 pc. Many of these results have sufficiently small error bars that these two distances are discrepant, as can be seen in Figure 1. Since those results came out in the mid 1990′s, there has been much debate in the astronomical community over the actual distance to the Pleiades. If the Hipparcos result is incorrect there would be concern over the other parallaxes it measured. If Hipparcos is correct there would be much consternation over what caused all the other results to be so wrong. This paper presents new results indicating the Pleiades is indeed just over 130 pc away.

The authors used the Very Long Baseline Interferometer to measure the parallax of four different star systems in the Pleiades, each containing a few stars. An Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) happened to lie close enough that it could serve as a reference point. This AGN is so far away that is has no observable parallax, allowing the authors to use it to determine how far the stars appeared to move over the course of 1.5 years.

Figure 1: Distance to the Pleiades as measured in many different methods.

Figure 1: Distance to the Pleiades as measured in many different methods. The new result presented in this paper is in red labelled VLBI. The Hipparcos results are labelled in blue. Isochrone fitting matches the observed colors of many stars to that predicted by modeling the evolution of stars born at the same time. Trigonometric parallax is the apparent movement of stars as the Earth revolves around the Sun. Orbital modelling compares the effective temperature and surface brightness of two main sequence stars that orbit each other in the cluster. The moving cluster method relies of measurements of the proper motion and radial velocity of many stars in the cluster.

Of course, the Pleiades is not a two-dimensional thing. It has depth to it, so the measured distance to each star system is slightly different. To account for this uncertainty, the authors used an approach where the depth of the cluster depends on the angular size of the cluster. This uncertainty is then added to the overall uncertainty for the VLBI measurements. In fact, this uncertainty regarding the depth of the cluster dominates the final result.

The authors determined the Pleiades cluster distance to be 136.2 +/- 1.2 pc. As can be seen in Figure 1, this results aligns with many of the previous results, with the primary obvious outlier the Hipparcos data. This result is especially comforting to those astronomers who model stars. As Figure 1 explains, many of the previous distance measurements have heavily relied upon stellar models. If these models were incorrect, leading to incorrect distances, it would have large ramifications in all areas of astronomy.

Hipparcos is still the most precise astrometric mission to date. The recently launched Gaia mission will surpass the precision of Hipparcos. Gaia operates in a very similar mode to Hipparcos, but will survey nearly one billion objects during its five year mission. But these results do urge some caution with regards the Hipparcos data. It is not immediately clear why Hipparcos came up with a much closer distance to the Pleiades than other approaches, though the data analysis is the first suspicion. This is most concerning when it comes to discussing Gaia. If there is an error with Hipparcos, the same error could manifest itself in the Gaia results. Many teams are now working to resolve this controversy, especially since Gaia has just recently started taking data. There will certainly be more to come on this issue.

Public Art Collections in North West England: Brantwood. by Feeling Listless

Art Having moaned for years about the difficulty of having a day trip to Brantwood via public transport (day trips being one of the unwritten rules of this project), last week I decided to simply visit Brantwood via public transport anyway. Or rather I decided earlier in the month to go last week because that’s when I bought the North West Rover ticket which allows for unlimited train travel on four designated days within eight (for £70) which is how I would manage to afford to visit three locations in the Lake District and then Carlisle (saving myself about £50). Even as I was ordering the ticket, I had considered staying over somewhere but the Summer prices in that part of the world for hotels and guest houses are frankly astonishing (plus the unwritten rules, the unwritten rules).

Here is what do if you want to visit Brantwood as a day trip. Forget it.  One of the exceptions of the ticket is that you have to travel after 8:45 in the morning, I took the 9:28am train from Lime Street to Preston then changed to a train to Windermere which departed at 10:45 which gets there for 11:40, just after the bus to Coniston has left. Luckily last Tuesday (at least for me) that bus had been delayed and it turned out that rather than as originally advised by the internet of having to walk for 2.5 miles from Coniston to Brantwood, I could be dropped off at the end of the road, 1.5 miles away instead. But it still takes an hour by bus to get there and another half hour to forty minute walk to the house where I arrived at 1:45pm. Due to needing to get the 3:40 bus back to Windermere, I was there for just over an hour.

But what an hour! Actually if you include the walk to and from the house, which is important for reasons that will become clear, more like two hours. To some extent, the whole j-word was a bit like having all the hassle of going on holiday without actually being on holiday, something which would be in sharper relief the following day when I ended up in Coniston with its gift shops and cafes and no time to really enjoy those. Except there’s no denying that this visit to Brantwood changed my art appreciation forever and so was entirely worth the ten hour round trip from home (including bus into town and taxi home at the end). Having spent years wondering why Edward Morris included the venue in his book Public Art Collections in North-West England, I’m now very pleased that he did.

As Edward explains in the single paragraph he dedicates in his book to the venue, Brantwood was painter and poet John Ruskin’s final home which he bought, sight unseen, from the wood engraver and writer William Linton for £1500 in the late 1860s and would become his main home. Over the next few years he moved to Brantwood his “remarkable collections of books, illustrated manuscripts, minerals, Turner watercolours and Pre-Raphaelite paintings as well as his own watercolours and drawings” which were sold on after his death to the collector John Howard Waterhouse who’d in the 1930s buy the house from the subsequent occupiers and open it as a museum to Ruskin, returning much of the collection back into the place and original positions.  He then set up a charitable trust to administer all of this.

Not a large dwelling by any means, it’s smaller than Sudley House, I think.  A large portion of the ground floor is consumed by the admission counter, shop and a video room showing a short documentary introduction to Ruskin which looks like it was produced in the 80s with its Anton Rogers voiceover and spot music which sounds like something Paddy Kingsland might have produced for Doctor Who in the period. That begins with Ruskin’s death which prompted the person sitting next to me to remark “that’s a grim way to begin”, which it is. Other than that each room serves a duel role of showing its original domestic utility as a study or parlour whilst simultaneously including exhibits explaining who Ruskin was and the sorts of things you might more readily expect to find in the Ruskin Museum itself (and do).

Not knowing much about Ruskin before visiting, purposefully because I wanted to test just how much Brantwood and the Ruskin Museum would work their magic, other than his connection to the pre-Raphaelites, I hadn’t realised just how embedded he was in that period of Britain’s cultural life. His contribution in defending the early work of Turner is huge. Like Whistler later, he was ahead of his time in fighting against artistic convention and the expectations of how a painting should be, what it should include and the extent to which an artist should simply be replicating what came before or experimenting. Most of the displays in Brantwood include quotes and commentary from his many books including this from, The Stones of Venice, his three volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture:

“Understand this clearly: you can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.”
It’s impossible to read this quote and see how it explains the difference, for example, between commercial and art cinema and how familiar tropes have led to the death of creativity in both.

As an inevitable glance at Your Paintings collection reveals, the collection doesn’t stretch much beyond the work of his closest friends and himself. Joseph Severn was a joint resident in the house and so its natural that there should be many of his paintings here, watercolour and oils.  Sitting on the wall behind the piano, his Ruskin's Garden at Brantwood, which unlike the image on the BBC website (which seems to have been punched up in reproduction) has a much moodier atmosphere of a closed, private space not letting in much light through the tree tops to the muddy pathway below. There’s also a very good Burne-Jones preparatory sketch on the wall in the lounge of a woman’s head in brown chalk on paper.

Since the museum opened there’s been a much greater effort to try and hang the walls much as Ruskin did when he lived there by including reproductions of paintings that are now in other collections. The wall above his bed has prints of Ruskin's own paintings now owned by Wolverhampton and York Art Galleries, The British Museum and Bolton Abbey. They’re also making further purchases including two very nice still lifes painted at Brantwood by Lawrence Hilliard newly on display. There are also loans. The collection includes a portrait of Ruskin’s mother Margaret in 1825 and there’s also a portrait by Hilliard of Ruskin himself painted three year’s earlier when he was just three years old (Ruskin not Hilliard!) that is currently on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

If that discussion seems lighter than usual on considering the point of my visit, it’s because for a fair proportion of my hour, not including the fifteen minutes spent watching video, I couldn't stop simply looking out of the window, because Brantwood is built in one of the most, most, most places of natural beauty I’ve ever been. When Ruskin first moved there, his first reaction was to build a turret on the south-west corner of Brantwood so that he had panoramic views of this glorious place in all weathers. On the way to Brantwood, I stopped to take some photographs and found the memory card on my camera was broken (which is why my own photo doesn’t appear above) but even a photograph could in any sense capture the unalloyed magnificence of the view.

As these superlatives demonstrate the experience of seeing this both walking to and from the house and from inside the turret had a very profound effect on me. Having lived in cities and three cities in particular all my life, I haven’t really had a chance to see nature in this form, to be dwarfed by a mountain across the calm still waters of a lake, surrounded by the sounds of sheep and as was the case that afternoon the deep blue sky. Even living as high as I do in my tower block, the mountains are still remote places across the Mersey and obscured by the fog of the urban sprawl. Here I could see the shadows created by crevices as sunbeams splattered across them creating new colours and shading, purples, browns, blues and greys across the afternoon contrasting with the greens, oh the greens of the fields.

It’s in walking to and from the house and standing inside that turret that I finally understood landscape painting or rather how it can be misunderstood. There’s a single painting of the area in the database which is part of Brantwood’s own collection, William Gershom Collingwood’s Brantwood from the Lake and it’s a reverse angle, showing the house in the landscape as seen from the very place at which I was looking, but it’s a fairly typical example of the kind of work I’ve previous overlooked or at least failed to be enthused by simply because it just seemed like it was trying to capture the landscape without embellishment. For all my love of portraits, I’ve never really understood, unless there’s something outrageously huge or indeed humanity included, the love of this kind of representational art.

Standing in front of that view from Brantwood I finally understood – there’s nothing especially representational about any art or rather that there’s a wide difference between what a painter can capture in a landscape and the photography which ultimately led to it being rejected by artists and the contemporary art market. As the light changed within moments across that landscape, I began to appreciate the skill involved in trying to capture that and more particularly the amount of interpretation involved and how a figure like Constable or Collingwood isn’t simply painting a hill or a tree but making very specific choices, choices which will be entirely different depending on their tastes. To put it in cruder terms, not all landscape painters or paintings are the same and its not about how precisely they're able to copy what they see.

To which there’ll be a fair few people who’ll say, well, yes. Plus there’ll be photographers, especially artistic photographers of the kind you have their work turned into greetings cards, who’ll note that they have to make decisions too. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s a crime and act of historic cultural vandalism that taste has led to landscape painting as a discipline to have fallen out of fashion, for contemporary artists to be somewhat forced by taste to produce abstract work when there’s still much which can be said or at the very least implied through pre-Impressionist (for want of a very description) landscape painting and that there’s a strange kind of double standards at work which means that historic landscapes can sell of thousands of pounds but their contemporary cousins are treated marginally.

If the experience of that painter featured on the BBC who submitted a remarkably detailed landscape painting to the Royal Academy only to be given a knock-back for the fiftieth year running is anything to go by, fashion has other ideas. It’s almost as though Ruskin’s hope as featured in the quote above has gone, at least in artistic terms, to the point that even landscape painting as exemplified by Turner who was subverting the form within the format would find working impossible. I suppose what I’m saying is that it would be rather good if the Tate or Royal Academy had an exhibition of contemporary landscape paintings demonstrating where this ancient, traditional form is now.

All of which strays off the point of my spiritual and visual awakening. In the coming days, I’d see more epic landscapes and more epic landscapes as paintings and whereas before I might have overlooked them (unless they were at sea because paradoxically I’ve always rather liked sea paintings) now I can see the profound efforts of the painters and artists in choosing the angle for their work, how it’s framed, the pallet and even how their decision on the given weather conditions represents his thoughts about that landscape. Which isn’t to say they’re all brilliant, but at least now, oddly, given how long I’ve been looking at paintings, I can see the difference between a poor and good example of a landscape painting. If I gained anything from visiting Brantwood, it is that.

Rough guide - use cloud, build cloud or micro-services? by Simon Wardley

A quick and rough guide.

First, map your environment. Remember that the rate of innovation of novel and new components (i.e. higher order systems) is exponentially related to the level of industrialisation of the underlying components (an effect known as componentisation).

With this in mind, then ...

Figure 1 - using cloud.

Figure 2 - building a cloud service.

Figure 3 - How to build? Micro services or not?

First, I'd like to note that every node in your map is a component and ideally would be built as a 'small' and relevant component (see USAF FIST) for the activity that the component represents. Hence, for the activity of computing infrastructure then in the past we used product components such as servers though today we tend to use utility service components such Amazon EC2. Not breaking things down can cause all sorts of issues - see ASPIRE

From the above example, it should be clear that how a component is delivered depends upon how evolved the activity is. In some cases the component can be provided as a product, in other cases (when the act is less evolved) you have to custom build it whilst in others (when the act is highly industrialised) you can use utility services or commodity components. The type of component you use to deliver an activity will also change over time (as the act becomes more evolved).

HENCE don't rush to build a micro-service for a novel act because it will rapidly change (evolve) in both code base and interfaces. Let me emphasise, the interfaces are anything but stable. Hence an 'experimental' code base with objects in a code repository is more than enough at this stage. Don't enforce its rapidly iterating schedule and changing interfaces on other consumers in your organisation. Let them choose the version they wish to use.

However - word of warning - ask yourself is this really a novel act? Just because it's the first time you're doing something doesn't make the act novel. For example, user object, security permissions, financial transactions are anything but Novel. So, check with the market and find out how evolved (i.e. ubiquitous and well defined / understood) something is.

Assuming the act is novel then as it evolves and the interfaces start to become more stable then by all means start to consider providing it as a common library and then as a micro-service to others. Yes, everyone using other versions will have to refactor a bit for use of the new micro-service. 

For the more industrialised components, if you're not using utility services or your own micro services (in an ideal world the service would be both) then please ask yourself 'why?'

The above was brought to you with experience of building large and complex environments for millions of users with micro and some not so micro services between 2003-2006. It's a rough guide and not a substitute for thought.

Consumers in fourth-tier cites are China’s most devoted online shoppers. by Resonance China

resonance_ecommerce spending tiers

This graphic from GroupM’s recently released “China’s Herculean E-Commerce Market,” captures the state of the country’s online shopping boom based on a mobile survey conducted by Decision Fuel from 1,500 smartphone users across city tiers. In terms of online shopping spend as a percentage of income, consumers in fourth-tier cities were the biggest shoppers with 27% of their spending going towards ecommerce. This makes sense as fourth-tier cities typically lack the retail infrastructure to access the brands and products that are available on Tmall and, but it also speaks to China’s adoption of ecommerce as a primary purchasing channel that established itself before brick and mortar shopping. [GroupM]

在GroupM 群邑近日出的商大代影片,明了中国网的快速蓬勃展。以网占收入比例来看,第四线城市的购买力不容小,有超四分之一的收入支出在商平台上,充分体了第四线城市缺乏线境的情况。尽管如此,中国消对电物的大量需求及高衷度,可能境开前就已成熟了。[GroupM]

September 01, 2014

Putting Awesome into words by Zarino

Last night, walking back from another ‘Awesome’ evening at Leaf on Bold Street, I started writing a tweet:

“Love being part of @awesomelpl @awesomefound – tonight was crazy, hectic, gruelling, but so SO worth it—”

And then I realised what I wanted to say couldn’t possibly fit into a tweet. So here’s what I really wanted to say, and why you should get involved with Awesome, wherever you are.

Awesome began in 2009 when a guy called Tim Hwang clubbed together with a few of his mates to micro-fund cool little projects in their hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. They each paid a hundred dollars into a pot, and local artists, entrepreneurs, and crazy people applied to receive the whole lot, to fund their own pet projects. The first winner? A team building the world’s largest portable hammock.

The Big Hammock Project, in Boston

That was almost exactly 5 years ago. Since then, 71 more chapters of the Awesome Foundation have sprung up around the world – literally from A (Australia) to Z (Zambia).

Awesome Liverpool

In January 2013, I met three friends—Francis, Ross, and Simon—for breakfast. Ross and Francis had heard about this thing called the “Awesome Foundation” with chapters all over America, and we thought – well, Liverpool’s awesome – why don’t we have one?

So we set one up. Awesome Liverpool.

By February we were searching for six more trustees, willing to pay £50 a month, to join Simon, Francis, Ross, and me. I gave a talk at Ignite Liverpool about what we were planning, while the others raided their contact lists for potential partners. By May 2013, we had 10 trustees on board, and on 1st June 2013, we held our first gift night, awarding our opening £500 to an awesome grass-roots bed-and-breakfast initiative in the Liverpool suburb of Anfield.

Since then we’ve awarded no-strings-attached £500 prizes to 16 local projects. We’ve funded ukulele summerschools for kids, a festival about beards, coats for homeless dogs, and a chap hand-building Yurts in his back garden.

Francis Irving investigating part of a musical kite – one of our Awesome finalists in July 2013

We generally call our £500 prizes gifts, because that’s what they are. The word “gift” has lovely connotations about it – gifts are precious, and personal; you look after them, treasure them; and they often bestow the donor with as much joy they do the recipient.

And that’s what Awesome is about. I don’t think any of the trustees are here just to donate £50 to a good cause. Awesome is way more involved than that. Some of us love reading the (sometimes genius, sometimes completely bonkers) applications people send in. Others enjoy voting and debating. Our gift nights are always great fun, and even once they’ve finished, the connections we make between ourselves as trustees, between the other applicants, and our wealth of contacts around the city, is priceless.

Early winners at Awesome Liverpool were given intricate banknote vouchers like this - now we have a chequebook, and sign it live on the night

All the best gifts are priceless. Saying we give away £500 or £1000 is a good way to get people hooked, but Awesome is really about giving away joy. The awesome thing about joy is, the more you give it away, the more you get.

That’s what I was trying to get to with my tweet, last night, on the way back from our first £1000 gift night. We had seven truly awesome finalists, crammed into a hectic, two hour pitching slot. We even had some of our earliest winners come back to play their ukuleles and fill us in on what happened with the money we gave them last August. There were props and videos and cakes and monstrous welded frankenstein bikes…

Awesome trustees Jim Noakes and Bridget Waters standing next to one of Paul Pembleton’s ScrapTallBikes

It was an awesome night. In the end, after some hard deliberation, we awarded the £1000 to a local photographer who wants to start a community dark room in Liverpool and lower the barrier to traditional, touchy-feely photography.

What’s more, as well as the money, our winners also get access to the trustees’ contacts and experience. And, as a contact point they can always depend on, we also assign them a mentor – usually one of the trustees who has an interest, or experience, that’ll come in handy for the winner.

And in last night’s case, that was me! I can’t wait to start working with Emma to promote her Dark Room, and maybe make Liverpool a little bit more awesome along the way.

If you’re based in Liverpool and you have an awesome idea that just needs a little help to get off the ground, apply for our next gift night! This month in particular we’re trying something different, and encouraging entries to do with food. Whether that’s growing it, cooking it, or eating it – if you’ve got an idea to do with food that’ll improve people’s lives in the Merseyside area, apply now!

The Awesome Liverpool trustees debate who should win the prize

Even if you’re not in Liverpool, you can still make your own corner of the world a little more awesome, by finding your local Awesome chapter, or even starting your own.

Being an Awesome trustee is truly one of the best things I’ve done in my life – not only did it introduce me to a whole heap of incredible people who I’d probably never have met otherwise, but I also owe my ukulele habit to Awesome (it was our August 2013 winners that got me hooked!) as well as dozens of hilarious organiser breakfasts and gift nights.

Nicola and Zarino, trustees, at the September 2014 Awesome Liverpool gift night

I also owe a big thanks to my Awesome Liverpool co-founders: Francis, Ross, and Simon – as well as our whole roster of later trustees: Leon, Bridget, David, Dave, Wayne, Lee, Kate, Graham, Charles, Nicola, Oli and David, and our two newest trustees, who I look forward to getting to know, Jim and Nathan.

Awesome Liverpool: 14 months in, and still Awesome. Can’t wait to see what the next year brings!

Join us for the ride, at @awesomelpl.

ESA invites amateurs to produce portraits of comet 67P by The Planetary Society

After a pause of about a week in daily image releases from Rosetta, ESA has begun sharing four-image sets of photos of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko and invited the public to help produce pretty pictures from them.

Taking a Gap Year – Part 1 by Astrobites

This is our first installment in a series of posts that will discuss the option of taking a gap year prior to starting graduate school. While many students choose to go to graduate school right after finishing up their bachelor’s degree, taking some time away from school before starting a PhD program is becoming an increasingly popular option. However, this is still somewhat of a non-conventional route, and there is a large amount of uncertainty and doubt about what to do and what to expect for those considering taking a gap year.

Fortunately, several of our authors here at Astrobites have taken a gap year prior to starting graduate school, and we’d like to share our experiences and advice with our readers. Even though we are speaking from an astronomy background to other astronomers, our gap year experiences are diverse enough such that students in other fields might find this information helpful as well.

Several of our authors spent their gap year working on a research project at their undergraduate institutions. In this post, we will share our experiences with being a “pseudo-grad” student (i.e. having the research responsibilities of a graduate student, but without being formally enrolled at an institution and having to take classes, teach, etc.)

It Actually Is Rocket Science! (Anson Lam)

Anson (top center) and the CIBER group in front of our rocket at the White Sands Missile Range.

The CIBER group in front of our rocket at the White Sands Missile Range. (Anson at top center, and P.I. Jamie Bock at bottom left)

When I started my senior year at Caltech, I wasn’t terribly motivated to apply to grad school. Even though I wanted to get a PhD at some point, I also wanted a break from the endless cycle of classes and problem sets. I still enjoyed doing research though, so I sent a bunch of emails around the astronomy department asking if anyone would be willing to take me into their group for a year. It took a number of tries until I was successful, but I ultimately ended up working on the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment (CIBER) as a full-time research assistant. Even though I had a lot of experience doing other types of research as an undergraduate, this project was quite a unique experience. For one, I had an opportunity to work on instrumentation, which was something I had never done before, nor had I really considered as a research option. I also had the opportunity to go on a month-long field deployment at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where I was helping out with assembling and launching the CIBER rocket.

Even with doing research full time, it was still easier to finish up my graduate school applications and GREs without the usual craziness that I had to endure as an undergraduate. I don’t think I would have fared as well if I had applied during my senior year. My graduate school visits were more relaxed as well, since I didn’t have to worry about classes. In fact, a number of graduate students I had met during my visits mentioned that they wished they had taken a gap year too, so I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

My gap year wasn’t all work though, and I still had opportunities to do fun and interesting things outside of research. We had a number of visiting graduate students from Japan and Korea in our research group, and it was fun getting to socialize and mingle with collaborators from different cultures (I’m Chinese-Canadian-American myself). I even started learning Korean as a foreign language just for fun. I also enjoy endurance sports, and I spent a considerable amount of my free time doing a lot of distance running and racing in various triathlons. I didn’t always have the time to do these sorts of things as an undergraduate, so it was definitely a cool way to spend time before starting graduate school.

Other gap year tips:

When Life Gives You Lemons, It’s Okay to Ask Around for Some Sugar Water (Korey Haynes)


Graduation is so much more awesome when you know what you’re doing next.

When I was finishing my senior year of undergrad, I had limited research experience and–I will own this–terrible Physics GRE scores. I got into one graduate program I regretted applying to at all (I had done an REU there and knew I could get in, but didn’t actually like any of their active research areas), and so I had a sit-down with my adviser to discuss my options. I was debating whether to enter a program I didn’t like just so I could keep moving forward, or move back in with my parents and either change career paths entirely (and I had no idea what to do with a B.S. in astronomy), or wait tables for a year and attempt the subject GRE again. My adviser came through for me in a huge way by offering funding for a year to do full-time research with him. My college didn’t have a graduate program, so the idea of getting this kind of position hadn’t even occurred to me. I wasn’t even aware this was a possibility without graduate experience, but I jumped at the chance.

That was the year I learned how to be an astronomer. I had limited programming experience up until that point, so I taught myself IDL that year, as well as finally getting comfortable with DS9, IRAF, and general Unix scripting. I learned a whole new portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (my experience so far had been visual or radio data, and I spent the year doing infrared spectroscopy), learned how to run an independent research project and collaborate with other scientists, presented my work at that year’s AAS, and by the time I left a year later, I had a first author paper in press and offer letters from multiple graduate institutions. It was the most scientifically productive year I’ve had yet.

My advice? Do talk honestly with your adviser. I still feel incredibly grateful to have had such supportive mentors, and my experience, time and again, has been that astronomers really do want to help each other. Talk to your adviser, talk to other professors. Mine was a bit of a special case, so if you’re planning on finding a research position, you should look around 9-10 months in advance. But don’t assume that just because it’s late in the year (this all fell into place around the end of April for me) that you’re out of options.

Work and play: the benefits of extra time (Elisabeth Newton)

In my senior year, I was faced with the endless circuit diagrams and oscilloscope drawings of my work-intensive electronics lab and the challenge of teaching for the first time. Midway through fall, I had given no thought to graduate school or the GREs and so I was quick to decide that grad school could wait another year. Many of my classmates were making similar decisions, so I never felt that taking a year off wasn’t an option. Not having to worry about applying to graduate school gave me the time to spend my fall semester learning electronics, teaching astronomy, and fencing with my club team.

Like Korey, my undergraduate thesis advisor offered to keep me on as a full-time research assistant after I graduated, which is what I eventually chose to do. I also had the option to teach full-time at our University’s tutoring center, continuing the teaching I’d been doing. Both opportunities opened up in March. I don’t remember why I chose research over teaching, but in retrospect I see both as having been wonderful opportunities. One thing I did learn from being a researcher is that I enjoy being a full-time astronomer; knowing this was a good source of motivation during the grad school application process.

For me, there were two very big benefits to taking a year off. First, I was able to devote a significant amount of time to my graduate school and NSF applications. Because my position was flexible, I could take the time I needed, and because I was immersed in a supportive academic environment, I also was never far from advice. Second, I was privileged enough that after working for part of the year, I was able to take time off. Encouraged by my advisors, I spent the remainder of the year really taking a break: I traveled both in the US and abroad and spent much-needed time with family and friends back home.

Chinese consumers on pace to spend $22 billion on global ecommerce. by Resonance China

resonance_tmall haitao

This infographic from TMall shows the online purchasing habits of 5,600 consumers who shop through the cross-border platform. Known as Haitao, Chinese consumers are able to make purchases through a network of logistics and marketplace providers who faciliate direct shipping from global brands and ecommerce websites. Although these items typically take longer to reach consumers, the total market for cross-border ecommerce is expected to double in size this year to more than USD 22 billion, with Chinese consumers opting to purchase more predictable items through these channels such as beauty (31%) and baby care (17%) products. [Tmall via CIW]

天猫抽了5,600位在天猫国物的消者,不出意料地,美(31%)及母用品(17%)是大部份海淘用的首要购买。尽管,消者需要等比久的时间才能收到, 但从境外国品牌端到天猫国站所建立的渠道,却可以大大地足中国内地的消欲望。预计这波海淘潮,将会大幅快速增,交易金并期望到两百二十亿美金。[Tmall via CIW]

August 31, 2014

A Broom. by Feeling Listless

Music Right then, time for another one of these. On Digital Spy (where else?), Amelle talks about the chances of "Sugababes" reforming. She's still up for it (of course she is) but she's sure Jade isn't and Heidi's "half and half". Then there's this:

"If it doesn't happen, it's not meant to be," she continued. "Obviously everyone talks about the Sugababes name and what is happening with it, but I'm very easy-going.

"If we don't use it and regroup, I'd quite happily give it someone else and let them take the reins. Whether it be MKS or another three random girls, or three little babies we're training right now in boot camp!"
The bootcamp reference is to Tumble, I suspect, which is the thing everyone watches waiting for Doctor Who to start. Three things on this:

(1) If I was MKS I wouldn't touch their old name with a mile long stick. Too much history, plus it'd mean whatever they finally come up with in terms of an album would be stuck after Sweet 7 in discographies and on Spotify.

(2) The three random girls thing is probably the way to go and especially in keeping with the history of the Sugababes. In fact, given that history it should probably be Amella and two other people. Probably Jenny Frost replacing Heidi in yet another girl band now she's homeless.

(3) Anyone else wonder if an earlier Doctor to Capaldi, probably Tennant, would have used the Sugababes instead of a broom as a reference point during that scene in Deep Breath?  No?

Hayabusa 2 complete, ready to begin its journey to asteroid 1999 JU3 by The Planetary Society

The excitement is building for Hayabusa 2! The spacecraft is now complete and ready to be shipped to its launch site. JAXA unveiled its next interplanetary traveler to the media in a special event on August 31.

Into The Dalek. by Feeling Listless

TV Blimey, I mean yeah, ok. Yes. I mean, well … Frankly I’m flummoxed and although it’s not the first time that’s been the case with the global franchise entity that is Doctor Who, it’s quite some time since I’ve watched the credits role and really not known what to make of it. Even though Into The Dalek (thought I’d get the title  in early this week) is doing everything you’d expect from an episode of the global franchise entity that is Doctor Who, at a certain point it dislodged itself from my attention and just sort of seemed to be happening without my involvement because I was spending so much time trying to work out the implications of this, that and the other for the programme.

Such things are a natural reaction when elements have been re-engineered to this degree and so many elements in so many ways. It’s rather like when you move house or change jobs. You’re discombobulated because although there are some familiar elements like everything that is you, you have to discover everything else all over again from where to get the best coffee, where to have lunch and how the photocopier works, not mention who amongst the dozens of fresh colleagues which ones you don’t think are unspeakable. My insta-reaction to tonight’s episode will be the viewer or let’s face it fan equivalent of that. So for the purposes of the next twelve paragraphs its best to stick to a single inevitable question. Was it good episode?

Despite being the first “ordinary” episode in over eighteen months and only the second featuring a new Doctor it had much to do which is presumably why it fell back on a few old standards and greatest hits as a way of showing how the new Doctor’s reaction differs to his predecessors. Moffat’s strategy here is to mesh together the central ideas of Eleventh’s first two “ordinary” episodes, an “anatomy” tour including digestive gunge scene (ala The Beast Below) and Daleks, or more specifically the Doctor turning a Dalek which seems to have become essentially benevolent evil in order to prove the point that Daleks are essentially evil (Cf, Victory of the Daleks. Frankly it’s amazing that the soldiers here aren't clerics.

My guess is there’s no great scheme to it, no, even given Moffat’s own dislike of The Beast Below, attempt to re-engineer the thing and do it properly ala John Hughes and Some Kind of Wonderful. The original version of this paragraph attempted to construct some comparison but I couldn’t make it work because, in fact, they probably didn’t even notice. Which is fine. Miniaturising people and having them climbing around the interior of a Dalek hasn’t been done, as far as I can remember and is just the sort of thing to fire children’s imaginations, the production design the stuff of the cross section from The Dalek Book amongst other sources, the biology of the mutant itself still in keeping with that established in Dalek.

It’s nine years since Rose gave a Dalek compassion and eleven since the release of Jubilee, so giving a pepperpot compassion has a newness. Interesting that it was also the Doctor’s companion’s touch then, which opened up the Dalek to new possibilities, to begin to hate its own existence. Then it committed suicide. On this occasion it rejoined its fleet in order to do who knows what. But like I said I don’t think there’s a scheme to it, unless there is to be discovered later. What is notable is how joyfully ruthless the Daleks are allowed to be again here and the complete lack of the new paradigm in any sense, doomed almost as soon as Mark Gatiss voiced his concerns about the hump on his Victory of the Daleks commentary.

Except the notable difference between both those episodes and this is that love doesn’t conquer all. Like Ford Prefect that time he attempted to convince a Vogon not to throw them out of an airlock by singing him a few bars of Beethoven’s 5th and was thrown out of the airlock anyway, the Dalek stares into the Doctor’s soul, a Doctor who thinks he’ll find just as Grandfather did in The Rings of Thingy some exciting grand narrative about hope, instead finds himself glaring contemptuously at him. Which is also pretty depressing for the viewer because at the end of The Day of the Doctor, the Time Lord seemed to have found some inner piece and a sense of purpose and a couple of episode later, albeit with a thousand years of Christmas in between, that’s all been forgotten.

The Doctor. In this month’s magazine, you know the one, the authors on the first three TDAs, 12DAs or NDAs or whatever we’re calling them notes how they were watching or reading this episode and there was a line which made them think, “Oh that’s new.” That’ll be the one about the dead soldier’s remains then. That’s dark, the darkest thing I think we’ve heard a Doctor say in relation to the death of a human, certainly since the series returned. Gone is the man who apologised to the deceased for not saving them. Not that he isn’t challenged about it. He just doesn’t seem to understand compassion himself (which foreshadows the end of the episode but nevertheless).

This is dangerous, solidly, properly dangerous and perhaps that’s one of the elements which threw me at the end of the episode. I’ve always said that one of the reasons the television version of the Sixth Doctor doesn’t work and one of the reasons I largely have issues with the Third is that they’re not nice for pretty much of the time. Twelfth isn’t quite full on Mindwipe, but there are moments here when I just simply, flat out, didn’t like him and I wonder how that’s going to play with families. I think of the kids running around screenings and conventions in their fezzes with their sonics and wonder how they’ll react to someone purporting to be the same man letting a man die and not seeming to give too shits afterwards.

As an adult it’s thrilling. There’s nothing better than an unpredictable Doctor because it creates unpredictable stories and like I said last week, The Waters of Mars is sinister as is the Eleventh Doctor’s manipulation of Amy in The Almost People but they were exceptional moments for what were essentially benevolent figures. Twelfth it seems is forever looking at the big picture even to the point of not being able to see the wood for the trees or as was the case here the cranium for the Dalekanium (with Clara on hand to smack him around the face) (the post-nuWho equivalent of a kiss presumably) or to complete my original point that there are individuals involved that may be worth saving. He doesn’t give a shit even if you are having chops for tea.

Welcome Danny Blue. Structurally the episode’s fascinating, with a slightly tricksy editing configuration at the beginning in which the temporal and narrative order attempting to create the same sensation as the soldiers in dealing with how the Doctor appears to them, by mixing his encounter with the Dalek and, as about ten or so people have joked on Twitter chunks of Waterloo Road-style mayhem. Part of me wonders if this might not have benefited from something rather more straightforward given the introduction of what seems like is going to be an important Chesterton, I mean John Watson, I mean character but that’s the part of me which gets up at 6:50 every morning even when he’s not working because he prefers the routine so he doesn’t deserve an opinion.

The choice of colour in this new character seems significant too, not least because Clara noticed Zawe Ashton’s Journey Blue shared the commonality.  We’re also clearly supposed to find his tear significant given the close-up (cf, The End of the World) (not that I’m reading that much into it) (unless it is that war he’s referring to) (keep an eye out for pocket watches). Samuel Anderson’s an instantly likeable presence which is somewhat helped by the way he’s given some narrative agency from the off in a way that Rory had to wait whole episodes for and Mickey didn’t really enjoy for a season and a half. So far he seems to exist purely as a cantilever against the new Doctor’s cantankerousness.

His existence also has the odd effect of sapping Clara of a bunch of her own agency. After last week in which she became the viewpoint character for much of the time, here she seems reduced to being the Doctor’s taste arbiter and Danny’s potential object of affection. Indeed there are scenes played from the point of view of the brilliant Zawe's Journey. Jenna Coleman’s performance is as superb as its ever been and of course, we’re still in the business of defining the new Doctor which needs time and these things oscillate.  But it is interesting that it wasn’t about her being introduced to the new person.  Not that we didn't learn something new about her.  She's a Guardian reader.  Quite right too.

One bit of business not covered here last week is the new title sequence and music.  Well, I like it and have done since it was originally uploaded to Youtube.  The imagery is stranger than the usual time vortex, more literally demonstrating the TARDIS's passage through time whilst retaining the moment when she hangs in space.  The music's another fun interpretation too, less EPIC than Murray's mixes for earlier series, more consciously evoking the classic era by doing for the Delaware arrangement what his series one orchestration did for the TV Movie.  Notice how the font is oh so similar to the one used by the unified merchandising plan from the late 90s and appeared on cds, videos and novels.

All of the elements are there and thanks to Ben's direction it is certainly very chilling especially with some of the old school Troughton period visual surrealism as the characters passes through the eye stork and the Doctor mentally connected with the Dalek (and far more successfully so in terms of visuals than the still accurately named Nightmare in Silver). Like reticence, like Clara to the Doctor in places, is because, like I said I’m still trying to get used to things which is why these post episode reviews can be dangerous, in a way. My guess is that just like last week, when I watch it again, my appreciation will increase. So in the end, to answer my original question is it a good episode? I don’t know. But I think it tries to be and I think that’s probably the point.

Recommended reading list on strategy. by Simon Wardley

I keep on being asked what business books I'd recommend about strategy and gameplay? First, you need to understand that I've been using mapping for almost a decade and generally I find most companies' gameplay is awful. Contrary to popular belief CxOs aren't generally playing some complex game of chess but instead picking moves in the dark with no idea of what the board looks like. 

Alas, this isn't entirely their fault. I blame the endless gibberish on strategy, leadership and organisation that seems to be commonplace. I used to suffer from this overload of nonsense when I was a CEO. For my sins, I now own several hundred business books on strategy. This doesn't mean they're all bad, many have neat ideas though admittedly the vast majority are tripe.

However, are they good? I have one set of criteria for a good book. To be a good book then in my opinion, you need to comply with the following rules :-

1.   Don't have concepts dressed up as theories.
2.   Have some form of data / experience rather than just anecdotes.
3.   Don't use backwards causality. 
4.   Don't have poorly researched ideas.
5.   Understand and explain causation and not just any correlation.
6.   Don't have endless buzzwords with little or not substance.
7.   Don't promise the world but fail to deliver anything of use.
8.   Provide a mechanism for me to understand and learn from my environment
9.   Provide me with something I can concretely use.
10. Be an easy and enjoyable read.

The honest truth is of those several hundred business books that I own, well not one book meets that standard. I don't have a "good" business strategy book to recommend because ... there aren't any that I'm aware of.

Oh, wait ... there is one ... Sun Tzu, the art of war.  So that's my recommended reading list, it might be short but it's useful. It also happens to be a military book that has been co-opted by business.

August 30, 2014

Business Model Canvas ... the end of a long road. by Simon Wardley

I'm currently hitting a road block with the latest memes around business model canvas and it's driving me nuts. First, let me be clear, I find business model canvas an extremely useful tool but it's not the beginning but the end of a long road.

Whenever I look at doing something in business, the first thing I do is map out the landscape focusing on the user needs. In figure 1, is an example map (an old early draft) from a section of the security industry.

Figure 1 - Security Industry.

The next thing I do is look at WHERE we can attack i.e. the various plays open to us. This usually is an intensive process of discussion. In figures 2 & 3 are two example plays from a dozen odd potential plays in the map in figure 1.

Figure 2 - Play 1 - a commodity play around Identity.

Figure 3 - Play 2 - Trust as a Service

The map usually provides immediate cues as to what is risky, what has potential now and what has potential for the future. I then normally look at what steps we can use to make the plays happen (see figure 4) looking for supporting and complimentary approaches.

Figure 4 - Potential Steps

I then take these multiples WHEREs and examine the outside market, looking at competitors, inertia they have, inertia we have, what we can exploit, what capabilities are needed, where we can build ecosystems, what constraints exist, buyer / supplier strengths, likely economic effects - an example of a small part of very old map in a different field is provided in figure 5.

Figure 5 - Comparison to outside

I then normally pick a few of the most attractive WHERE's which we can influence highly (either through open approaches or use of dark arts) and have beneficial properties (constraints we can exploit, potential for ecosystems, poor strategic play by competitors) and run a few scenarios looking for how things are likely to evolve, potential for co-evolution, impacts of points of change, predictability of change, what's likely to emerge, what we should discontinue or sell elsewhere etc e.g. see figure 6 - from another industry.

Figure 6 - Scenario comparison

At this point, I normally have multiple WHERE's, the user needs, the potential impacts of changes, what we can influence, target markets and information on how to play the game. This can take a lot of effort, for a reasonable size business then you could be talking a few days work or even a week or so of hard graft. But at the end of this process then I'm at the point of saying WHY we should attack one space over another or WHY we should attack multiple points. I'll normally have a map and the background info to demonstrate this in a way that everyone in the organisation can understand, discuss and input into.

It's at this point we can develop our chosen point of attack - I can usually state all the activities , practice and data involved, how we should attack, what the user need is (and what we emphasise on), what components we need, where the constraints are (and how we exploit), what markets to focus on, our revenue models, how we should manipulate (e.g. open approaches) and estimate the likely cost structures from the components. I have a good idea of how to play the game, cope with competitors, who we should acquire and what to watch for. I'll have a pretty decent idea on how to play the game to our advantage.

I'll even have a decent idea of how to manage and organise around this, what we need to build, what techniques to use, where to differentiate, where to copy and what we need to experiment on etc (see figure 7)

Figure 7 - Managing a system

At this point, I'll have ALL the information I need to fill out a business model canvas (see figure 8).

Figure 8 - Business Model Canvas

I prefer just to use the maps since the business model canvas is an artefact of the process. However, it's a neat summary of the bits of the map (or maps) that I want us to focus on and hence I do find it can help. The map however provides the greater context and situational awareness is key with strategic planning.

Oh, and just for your info, mapping is the stuff I used when I was CEO of a Canon subsidiary and when I ran strategy for Canonical. I would never hand this off to some other company or agency. Mapping was important in understanding how to play the game which is what we would do next. Let me emphasise - WE played the game which meant WE had to understand the landscape that WE were competing in.

So, given I think Business Model Canvas is a useful technique then what's my problem with it?

I'm starting to get companies asking me what do I think of their Business Model Canvas which is all good. BUT, I normally respond with "can I see your map or some other expression of situational awareness, the plays, comparison to market / competitors and your scenarios examined?"

A disturbingly frequent response is "we don't have that but what do you think of our canvas?"

Let me be clear to everyone. I think you're foolish to even consider committing one cent to an idea expressed on a business model canvas without any situational awareness of the competitive landscape or scenario planning. The business model canvas is not where you start, it's at the end of a long road which could take a week to travel. Ok, it's better than the even more crazy ideas of not even expressing what you're planning to do in a clear form but the canvas is all about the 'how, what and when'. You really do need to answer the 'where' and then 'why' before you start using it. The canvas is the end of a journey and not what you fill in at the beginning!

Don't get me wrong. The business model canvas is an extremely useful tool BUT if you think that filling it out has anything to do with understanding strategic play then you are sorely misguided. Yes, you may well still be successful but you're not looking at the environment and that's a bad move on average as you're leaving more stuff to chance than necessary.

The Films I've Watched This Year #32 by Feeling Listless

Film It's a long story which involves a lot of this:

Details soon.

La stratégie de la poussette
From Paris With Love
The Brothers Bloom

The Stroller Plan/Strategy (the anglaise title depends on where you are in the world) is a pretty typical example of why I've decided to watch all of this French cinema.  The tendency with national cinemas that are not your own is just to see the award winning material distributed by boutique labels or studios whereas to properly understand the structure of a national cinema you really need to see everything and that includes the pretty generic, mainstream romcoms.  In The Stroller Plan, a freelance artist attempts to win back his girlfriend who split with him because he didn't want to have children with her by pretending to be the father of a baby who's tumbled into his hands after a neighbour has an accident.  She happens to own a nursery having given up her job as a pediatrician and hilarity ensues.

Actually no it doesn't.  I laughed once, not that I can remember why .  It's a series rote comic situations that much better writers and comedians could probably make something of, a French studio reaction to Apatow by producing a movie length sub-plot from What To Expect When You're Expecting which is less vulgar than both.  The leads are all perfectly fine but they're given nothing to work with.  All of which said, it's still fascinating to see all of this playing out against historic architecture rather than the modernist steel and concrete of US films (unless they're brown stoning) and the credit sequence is really nice idea as the many floors up to their apartment each illustrate part of their initial relationship from the couple's first drunken night together after a party through to the break-up when they reach the top.

Six years after District 13, and two years after Taken ("I will find you..."), here's From Paris With Love another of Luc Besson's action productions which all pretty much have the same story of a mismatched couple destroying half of France through cars and heavy weaponry in order to do a thing.  Unlike Taken which was more akin the US-style in narrative and characterisation terms, this strings together a series of barely replated set pieces (something to do with a counter terrorism operation related to drug lords) (I think?) (it's a bit like Quantum of Solace in that it seems as though there's a whole scene's worth of exposition that's gone missing in the middle) and gives Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Travolta characters which barely stretch beyond their wardrobes.

Mostly it's the kind of this liked by the kinds of people who like this kind of thing.  In comparison to District 13 it feels a bit restrained and dirgy like John Woo's US films, as though a director is reigning in their abilities either due to time or needs of the mainstream marketplace.  The action sequences are nowhere near as balletic and impressive as District 13 or indeed any of the Besson related material in production in the late 90s to early 00s.  Much of the time it's nearly impossible to understand the structure of some sequences, just sets filled with squibs and bullet holes.  There's also a really depressing running gag about Travolta referencing past film glories that just seeks to remind us how good he was during his revival and how far he's fallen since.

The Films I've Watched This Year #31 by Feeling Listless

Film Surprisingly bijou list below considering there wasn't haven't been spending hours watching athletes and achievements (however tempting that was after seeing the Nanjing Youth Olympics opening ceremony. Instead this week was filled with going on Tuesday night with friends, watching the television version of The Girl Who Played With Fire and two documentary series, Andrew Graham Dixon's Art of China and David Olusoga's The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire which as the deleted scenes which turned up during the Commonwealth Remembrance coverage indicated shows that even in relation to the so-called Great War, our general understanding of who fought who over what and who died is astonishingly simplistic.  For years I used to watch a documentary first thing in the morning.  Not sure why I stopped.  Begun again now.  Oh and Doctor Who.

Short Term 12
The Kings of Summer
Chronique d'un été
À bout portant
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Banlieue 13

You will have noticed the appearance of French in this week's list.  In the middle of the muddle of trying to decided what to watch but wanting to have some continuity to what I'm watching, I realised that since I actually do quite like watching French film and films set in France, I should watch some French film and films set in France.  So I've decided to work through all of the French cinema available on Netflix and Amazon Prime and assigned one of my Lovefilm by-post disc allocations to a massive unruly list of everything available as a kind of serendipity engine as well as adding in the material I haven't seen made by other countries but set there.  It's entirely unmetered and I've avoided reviews.  I want to be surprised and lose myself in another nation's cinema and this seems like the way to do it.

A bout portant, English title Point Blank, is a tight actioner (only 80 mins) about a trainee nurse whose wife is kidnapped by hoodlums and finds himself on the run for a crime he didn't commit.  The crime itself is a major shock so I won't spoil it because this is well worth tracking down.  As the set-up suggests director Fred Cavaye has in mind to offer Hitchcockian twists for the 24 generation and it works, partly because lead actor Gilles Lellouche has the perfect face for romantic comedy but compellingly finds himself dealing with murderous gangsters and police officers.  It's a bit like casting Adam Sandler in a Tony Scott actioner.  Expect this to gain an extra half hour when it's remade in Hollywood which it undoubtedly will be.  Starring Mark Wahlberg.

Throughout District 13, I was distracted by just how much it seemed to be a French remake of a US film featuring Paul Walker and Vin Diesel sans cars and sure enough the film has actually been remade in the US with Paul Walker, the final film he was working before the tragedy.  Having seen neither Escape from New York or Ong Bak, I can't comment in its similarity to those.  It's a very functional film in narrative terms, essentially three long set pieces but it's quite aware of this and happy to simply offer some spectacular parkour stunts amid some one dimensional social commentary, the majority of it created without the aid of CGI or wires which in retrospect makes it something of a successor to the old silent slapstick, to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, but with more frequent cutting.

The advertising for Short Term 12 is a bit misleading.  My impression, admittedly based on the poster and Kermode's review was of an unremittingly grim investigation into the US care system full of heartbreak, pain and not much in the way of levity, one of those Ken Loach or Mike Leigh pieces which essentially reminds us that our society remains broken.  It is full of heartbreak and pain, but it's also incredibly warm, funny, has depthful characters you can really become attached to and utterly lacks the slightly (slightly?) judgmental tone which can marr my appreciation of both Loach and Leigh, presumably because writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has worked in this very system and has an insider's appreciation that isn't just a enunciation of class.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is an enunciation of class and a great deal more.  Felicity Jones is back in period as a young woman who realises she's about to marry the wrong man but is held back from what she really desires by social convention and the needs of her family.  Based on a novel published by the Woolfs in 1932 and the only really prominent work by its author Julia Strachey, as filmed it's essentially a Poirot mystery without a body and the ensuring Belgian detective (an impression underscored by an appearance by Agatha herself, Fenella Woolgar) (it's a Unicorn and the Wasp reunion).  There are secrets and conspiracies, hearts are broken but no one dies.  There's a notable use of colour timing changing the hues of the image to denote the flashback sequences which I've not seen before too.

The Kings of Summer was released last year when I was in the midst of my hernia horror and so I decided to save it for the following Summer, planning to watch it on a nice warm day.  It rained.  But it didn't matter because I'd entire misjudged the content which is essentially Stand By Me without a body and not The Inbetweeners US (which is a function of me sometimes ignoring everything about a film bar the poster).  It rains in the film too, the dreamlike montage sequences seem to flashforward and suggest how these boys who build a house and emancipate will memorialise this summer, the details which will offer a nostalgic glow when they chained to a desk in an office or teaching kids the ages they were, themselves ready to go out and manufacture similar memories.

One of my guilty pleasures is the Teenagers React To series in which The Fine Bros introduce a piece of 80s or 90s technology or ephemera to people born in the following decade and film the results.  Some of the kids offer quite wise assessments usually in the order of knowing that when the Gameboy was first released it was cutting edge and their predecessors would have found them just as exciting as tablet computers are now. Inevitably:

Rewatching Scream this week, which is now eighteen years old, for the first time in over ten of them, through this lense, is like glimpsing an alien world.  Randy works in a video shop in a pre-dvd era and Tatum has to visit to bring a film for her and Sidney to watch.  The sheriff questions the fact that Billy Loomis has a cell phone (which must make teens now guffaw) and it takes them a day to request the records.  Plus these teenagers wouldn't phone in their threats so no scary voice.  The whole thing would be conducted over snapchat or some such and victims could simply block them.  Sidney does her homework on a DOS based programme which looks like some early version of WordPerfect.  Oh and nothing about the film would work in a world with a proliferation of CCTV cameras.  Other than that it hasn't dated at all.

Service announcement: upcoming outage(s) by Charlie Stross

Tomorrow morning (UK time) we will be updating the operating system on the server this blog and website runs on. Service may be intermittent as we're going to have to reboot it at least once. (In case you're wondering it's on Debian Stable, but an old release thereof—so it's time to blow off the cobwebs and bring it up to date.)

[this stage is now completed]

Some time in October the server is going to be switched off and spend about six hours overnight in the back of a truck as it is moved to a new hosting centre. I'll give you some more warning in the days before the move. Note that this is "overnight" in UK time, so it'll be an afternoon outage for most of you.

Next, Google have (un-)helpfully announced that, in an attempt to drive the internet onto SSL (to reduce third-party snooping) they are soon going to begin down-ranking search results from non-encrypted web servers (i.e. results obtained over HTTP, not HTTPS).

Now, speaking personally, this is an inconvenience to me. My blog is public, and if you post a comment on it you are posting it with the expectation of it being read by all and sundry. I don't need a secure server for what I do on the web: I'm not running an e-commerce site.

However, I'm all in favour of reducing corporate and government snooping on the open internet. And I'm all in favour of my blog still featuring high in the search results when you hunt for my name.

So, once we've done the operating system upgrade, we will be adding a multi-homed SSL-capable web server to this system. Once we're done you will be able to find the blog via as well as (We'll probably make some other changes, too, including allowing you to leave out the www prefix. Shocking, I know.)

However. This machine provides web services for multiple domains, and in order to provide a secure web service for multiple virtual hosts with only one IP address (they're in short supply) we have to use a server-side extension called SNI. SNI is not supported by some older web browsers, notably Internet Explorer 6 on any operating system, or IE running on Windows XP, or Safari on XP.

Let me emphasize that the site will remain fully accessible and functional via unencrypted HTTP, just like you're using right now. However, if you want to thumb your nose at the NSA and for some reason insist on running Windows XP, you'll need to grab a copy of Firefox or Opera.

August 29, 2014

The Pivotal Discovery You’ve Probably Never Heard Of by The Planetary Society

Karl Battams highlights the historic discovery, by an Air Force satellite, of a sungrazing comet.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise and Fall) of Planetary Exploration Funding by The Planetary Society

NASA has explored the solar system since the 1960s, but it has rarely been the top priority for the space agency. Jason Callahan breaks down how planetary science has been funded over the years within NASA's larger budget.

Subscriptions (feed of everything)

Updated using Planet on 18 September 2014, 05:48 AM

Francis's page