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 30, 2014

Planetary Society President Testifies Before Congress by The Planetary Society

Society President Dr. Jim Bell provided expert testimony at a September hearing on the state (and fate) of planetary science.

Brief mission update: Hayabusa 2 has a launch date! by The Planetary Society

JAXA announced the launch date for their Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return mission today: November 30 at 13:24:48 Japan standard time (04:24:48 UT / November 29 at 20:24:48 PST)

Amazon generates 10X more revenue than Alibaba. by Resonance China

resonance_alibaba vs amazon

Smart Intern recently released this infographic comparing the two largest ecommerce platforms in China and the United States to coincide with Alibaba’s initial public offering. Not surprisingly, the Chinese juggernaut compared well against the U.S. online shopping pioneer, but we can see some unique differences in how the companies do business. Of particular interest is the discrepancy in revenue as Amazon generated $74.45 billion compared with $7.95 billion for Alibaba in 2013. This is because Alibaba functions more as a marketplace (Taobao) and makes most of its revenue from transaction fees and on-platform advertising for the $248 billion in transactions it handled last year. But while these revenue figures may appear to paint an unfavorable picture, the streamline nature of Alibaba’s business model allows it to enjoy 50% profit margins while Amazon makes less than one percent. [SmartIntern]

Smart Intern 近日公佈的這張信息圖對比了在阿裏巴巴在首次公開募股之前中國和美囯最大的電子商務平臺。中國電商平臺完全不輸給由美國開創的在綫購物,但是我們可以借此看到兩國電商公司在商務運作方面的不同之処。首先引起人注意的是在收入方面的差異,亞馬遜在2013年的盈利為$74.45億而阿裏巴巴的則為$7.95億。這是因爲阿裏巴巴更多的是為消費者提供一個市場交易平臺(淘寳),在阿裏巴巴去年$248億的交易中,其大部分的盈利都來自于交易費以及在綫廣告平臺。 儘管在盈利上這一數字顯得不盡人意,但是阿裏巴巴流綫型的商務模式讓其獲得了50%的利潤率遠遠超過了亞馬遜僅不到1%的利潤率。[SmartIntern]

September 29, 2014

A brief, bitter quiz by Charlie Stross

Let's take a trip down memory lane to understand what the USA, UK and others bombing IS in Iraq is really about, starting with a quiz:

  1. What started on December 24th, 1979?

  2. What was Operation Cyclone?

  3. Who was Abdullah Azzam and what was the name of his young protege and follower who continued the organization he founded?

  4. Who did Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad originally pledge allegiance to, and what did that organization change its name to on October 17th, 2004, and then in 2013/14?

TL:DR; Your answer is that IS are the renamed, rebooted, latest incarnation of the Al Qaida in Iraq franchise. (Same flavour of ideology, still tastes like shit to western tongues.) They got their doctrine from Azzam by way of his sidekick Osama bin Laden, and Azzam got his training and experience in running a big chunk of the insurgency in Afghanistan, with guns and ammo from Pakistani military intelligence (the ISI) bankrolled by the CIA.

It's not hard to follow: the chain of mergers, name-changes, leadership switches, and loyalty goes all the way back to Sayyid Qutb. IS is simply Al Qaida staging a coup in the wake of civil war, and applying Leninist praxis to overthrowing the tenuous grip of Ba'athist nation-building in order to create a revolutionary Caliphate. The only reason our media aren't calling them Al Qaida is because (a) the last administration cried wolf several dozen times too often, and (b) the boil has turned into full-blown necrotising fasciitis and they don't want to scare the horses.

It has not escaped my attention that Al Qaida has effectively grown from a bunch of student radicals sitting around in a basement talking smack about islamist politics, through the same phase of bomb-throwing and bank robberies that Lenin's followers went through in the 1890s and 1900s, to an army with mobile artillery that controls several million people and a bunch of oil wells. There is an ontology to the growth of revolutionary organizations and AQ — or IS as we're now meant to call them — are following the same curve as Mr. Ulianov's vanguard party and drinking society, which snowballed from a bunch of exiles clogging up central European cafes in 1914 to a full-scale government (firing squads, army, secret police and all) by 1918. As with Lenin, idiot western governments who thought they could use the beast for their own ends fed it until it grew big enough to bite the master's hand ... and now we're all supposed to panic and write these same idiots a blank check.

(Parenthetic digression: obviously the CIA didn't directly intend to train and arm these aforementioned dangerous assholes: if they'd known where it would all go they'd have been horrified. But in the 1980s they didn't have a clue about Qutbism, so they handed an open chequebook to ISI, who in turn doled out cash and guns to anyone who would inflict grief on the Soviets in Afghanistan, and perhaps if Zbignew Brzezinski's state department had been slightly more forward-looking and clear eyed they might have pondered where all these angry young men with leet bomb-making skillz were going to go once the Soviets were defeated ... but that's all water under the bridge. Or is it? One thing's certainly true: western governments' track record in picking proxies to fight their wars for them are generally so disastrous that it's almost as if they were looking for rabid dogs. Hmm, time to re-read Chomsky.)

And you know something else? If George W. Bush hadn't had such a raging hard-on for Saddam Hussein, if he hadn't railroaded everyone into invading Iraq, this needn't have happened. Al Qaida have grown into a full-scale scary government-shaped object with a revolutionary ideology because Bush created a power vacuum for them to expand into. (And Obama helped, by not actively propping up the weak Ba'athist regime in Syria — who are bastards, but at least they're not trying to destroy western civilization for a hobby.)

It is to weep. But we've made our bed and now I suppose we must drop bombs on it.

Curiosity update, sols 748-763: Driving and Drilling at Pahrump Hills by The Planetary Society

The biggest news on Curiosity of late is that the rover has drilled her fourth full drill hole on Mars! Drilling happened at a site called "Confidence Hills" on sol 759. But before she did that, she took a long series of amazing photos of rock formations at Jubilee Pass, Panamint Butte, and Upheaval Dome.

Shutting off Star Formation in Galaxies by Astrobites

TitleThe Mass Dependence of Dwarf Satellite Galaxy Quenching

Authors: Colin T. Slater, Eric F. Bell

First Author’s Institution: Dept. of Astronomy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

Paper Status: Accepted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters

Galaxies can’t form stars forever! At some point in its evolution, a galaxy will consume all of its star forming fuel (cold, dense gas). Exactly when this occurs, however, isn’t a simple question of taking the amount of gas present and dividing by the star formation rate. There are a host of processes that can stop gas from cooling and condensing (as is necessary for star formation), thereby “quenching” star formation in a galaxy. One such process, called ram-pressure stripping, occurs as galaxies fall into galaxy clusters (or as dwarf galaxies orbit larger galaxies), and removes gas that would otherwise have cooled and fueled star formation. Another process is supernovae, which can heat up and eject gas. Galaxy-galaxy interactions like mergers can have a similar effect. This occurs most frequently in galaxy groups and galaxy clusters, where galaxies are relatively close together.

Although we have a good understanding of what processes can stop star formation, there still remain many unanswered questions, including how they work in a given galaxy, when they occur, which processes are dominant, and how all this may vary for different galaxies. The authors investigate these problems by examining how the fraction of quenched galaxies (those with star formation shut off) varies with galaxy mass for all galaxies within 3 Mpc of us. They also examine the role of galaxy environment, differentiating between satellite galaxies (such as those around our Milky Way), and those that are isolated (usually referred to as “field galaxies”). Armed with this information, they construct models to constrain some key parameters of the star formation quenching process.

Picking out Galaxies

The authors use a selection of galaxies from SDSS and the NASA-Sloan Atlas of galaxies (NSA). A galaxy here is classified as star forming if it contains young, hot stars and cold gas; this is not a perfect metric for all galaxies, however, and the authors take this uncertainty into account. The largest source of uncertainty here lies in determining whether or not a given galaxy is a satellite galaxy or an isolated galaxy. Galaxies are considered satellites if they lie within a specified redshift interval of another, more massive galaxy. The redshift is identified by the Doppler shifting of light from the observed galaxy. However, this is subject to projection effects, as the sometimes large peculiar velocities of galaxies can cause shifts in their redshift measurement that can cause them to appear as a satellite to another galaxy, contaminating the sample. The authors determine the likelihood of this occurring by conducting mock observations of a cosmological N-body simulation (the Millenium simulation), where the actual galaxy positions are known, and comparing the observed satellite count to the actual satellite count.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1: The fraction of quenched galaxies at a given galactic stellar mass (total mass of stars in the galaxy). The solid lines show, for a host galaxy of a given stellar mass, the fraction of its satellites that are quenched. The dashed lines show the fraction of isolated galaxies at a given mass that are quenched. The black lines denote SDSS galaxies, while green lines denote galaxies taken from the NSA sample. Due to the low values and large errors in the dashed lines, the authors consider these points consistent with zero. (Source: Fig. 1 of Slater and Bell 2014)


Their final results are shown in Fig. 1. For a galaxy at a given mass with satellites, the fraction of quenched satellites is shown with solid lines, while the quenched fraction of isolated galaxies at a given mass is given with the dashed line. Galaxies from the NSA sample are shown in green, SDSS in black. Their results show that a substantial fraction of all satellite galaxies are quenched, with nearly all at low stellar masses. Towards higher stellar masses, there is an obvious decrease in the quenched fraction until about 109 solar masses, where the quenched fraction begins to increase again. Due to the low quenched fraction of the field galaxies (dashed) and the large errors, the authors consider the quenched fraction of field galaxies to be consistent with zero.

 Improving Our Understanding of Quenching

The authors use their results to produce a better understanding of how long after a satellite galaxy reaches the point of closest approach (called pericenter) to the host galaxy does star formation cease. This model is somewhat akin to saying that once a satellite passes pericenter, it starts a fixed clock that counts down to its ceasing star formation. The authors do this by examining satellite galaxies in the cosmological N-body simulation called Via Lactea II. Looking at z = 0 in the simulation, they examine the distribution of times since pericenter passage for all satellite galaxies and show that, in order to reproduce the observed quenched fractions, star formation quenching must occur quickly for low mass galaxies, within 2 Gyr of pericenter passage. However, this clock is different for the higher mass (green in Fig. 1) galaxies, roughly 6-9 Gyr. This suggests that satellites of different masses respond differently to whatever effects will ultimately end their star formation.

The authors conduct a similar analysis using the maximum ram-pressure stripping force (which is related to the density of stars and dark matter in a galaxy, and the galaxy’s velocity) experienced by each satellite galaxy. They argue that, if ram-pressure stripping is the dominant source of quenching, that at least 50% of galaxies must experience forces of 10-12.8 dyne cm-2 or greater, and 90% must experience forces of 10-14.8 dyne cm-2 or greater. In addition, satellite galaxies, regardless of mass, appear to experience very similar ram pressure forces. Because of this, the authors argue that there must be a dramatic difference in how galaxies of different masses respond to ram-pressure stripping.

Improving our understanding of the galaxy quenching process requires work on multiple fronts. Here, the authors use observations to better understand quenching in our Universe, and construct models based upon those observations to constrain the various mechanisms posited for quenching. In future work, these observations and models can be used to constrain detailed computer simulations that attempt to directly reproduce the observed distribution. In the end, these all work together to advance our understanding of how galaxies evolve.

The morning after by Charlie Stross

So: the referendum is over and the count is underway. I'm about to go to bed; when I wake up there should be a result. The final YouGov opinion poll today (not an exit poll) gave No a 54/46 lead, but earlier polls suggest the outcome is within the margin of error; I'd be very surprised if that final poll reflects the final count. In Edinburgh, the turnout was around 89.7% of the electorate, with voter registration running at 97% overall and more than 95% of postal ballots returned.

One thing is sure: even a "no" victory won't kill the core issue of the delegitimization of the political elite. (It has become not simply a referendum on independence, but a vote of confidence on the way the UK is governed; anything short of a huge "no" victory amounts to a stinging rebuke to the ruling parties of the beige dictatorship.) With that level of voter engagement we're seeing, and turn-out—probably setting a new record for the highest turnout in a British election—the number of "yes" votes is likely to exceed the number that would normally secure a landslide victory for the winning party in a general election: this will have serious repercussions in the long term. In event of a "yes" vote, negotiations will open over the terms of separation, and in event of a "no" vote, well ... promises were made by the "no" campaign in the last week that amounted to a major concession on Devo Max: will the Westminster parties keep those promises in the wake of a "no" vote on independence?

Anyway: I'm not staying up for the count. (I'm tired, boringly middle-aged, and the count will happen whether or not I'm glued to the internet feeds into the early hours.) Instead, I'll update this blog entry when there's a result tomorrow ... and in the meantime, open the discussion comments for a single question:

What comes next?

UPDATE: Final results: Yes, 44.7%, No, 55.3%, Turnout: 84.5% (setting an all-time record for a UK election—voting is not compulsory, and at the last UK general election, in 2010, the turnout was 65.1%).

UPDATE 2: First Minister Alex Salmond has resigned. (NB: it'll be utterly astonishing if his successor is anyone other than Nicola Sturgeon.)

Mars Orbiter Mission delivers on promise of global views of Mars by The Planetary Society

Ever since I first learned about the capabilities of Mars Orbiter Mission's small payload of science instruments, I have been anticipating one type of data in particular: global color views of Mars captured in a single 2000-pixel-square frame. Just days after entering orbit, Mars Orbiter Mission has delivered on that promise.

Jack and the Beanstalk at St Helens Theatre Royal: Press Launch. by Feeling Listless

Theatre  It's lunchtime on the 29th September and I'm sitting in a meeting room at the Hilton Hotel in Liverpool listening to Wizzard. One row back from the front of a phalanx of seats, in an isle chair, in front of me is a temporary stage and I'm waiting for a short introduction to the cast of Jack and the Beanstalk, this year's pantomime at St Helens Theatre Royal.  Even though this isn't the kind of press event I usually agree to visit, it's a chance to finally have a reason to walk through the giant glass doors at the front of this complex and also we have the enticement of enjoying one of their cream teas afterwards.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more likely  to get me to attend a press launch of anything than the promise of a meal afterwards

As what feels like the third key change in the Mull of Kintyre winds onwards, a compilation of Christmas music is being played to get us in the mood, I try to remember the last time I attended a full panto.  My guess is that it's not since school and the Blue Coat's production of Jack and the Beanstalk.  There's no particular reason for this, other than that I don't have family and reputationally it's generally something which families do.  Growing up, my Auntie would take her cub pack to see the rocking pantos at the Everyman and I sometimes went along and very much enjoyed those, part fairy tale, part musical education.  That may be the first place I heard The Twist.  Luckily Disney films exist to fill in the gap, though they've never done a feature length Jack which is an oversight.

Before long, John and Yoko fade out and we're greeted to some jingling bell sounds as the presentation's compare, Radio City 96.7's Claire Simmo bursts onto the stage from a side door.  She's playing The Fairy in the production and dressed fluffy pink costume and all in sparkles, even her skin which twinkles under the stage lights.  The energy level in the room increases exponentially.  After talking up the theatre and having us applaud someone I think is the producer, anticipation builds.  Simmo's actually very good, slipping seamlessly in and out of character.  Finding the right tone with these presentations must be a difficult business.  It's not the whole panto and it's not really the kind of audience they can expect on a usual work night.  There's only one child.  Apart from me, but maturity age doesn't count.

In turn The Fairy introduces us to the cast.  Here's the theatre's resident Dame, Simon Foster as Dame Dotty, to provide a musical and dance number.  Here's panto and Shakespeare veteran (Black Box Theatre Company) Liam Mellor as Simple Simon accompanied by the all important cow.  Here's Kurtis Stacey from Emmerdale as Jack.  Coronation Street's Nick Cochrane as King Charles.  Abby Mavers from Waterloo Road as Princess Jill and finally Linda Nolan as the show's antagonist Mrs Fleshcreep, who heralds in the Giant through a backdoor, a fifteen foot tall cartoonish costume.  Each in turn introduces themselves and their fate in the story.  We clap, we boo, we jeer, we laugh and participate as much as a room full of nervous people whose inhibitions have been firmly inhibited after years of experience will allow.

Before long it's over and we retire to the round tables at the back of the room for the cream teas.  The Hilton's cream teas are shelved affairs.  At the bottom assorted sandwiches.  Next up, carrot cake, chocolate, cheese cake, victoria sponge and lemon sponge.  Top shelf a couple of scones, clotted cream and a raspberry meringue, augmented by a cup of earl grey.  Three of these were brought to the table and reader, I devour one of them all to myself, apart from some of the sandwiches (don't get along with egg mayonnaise, not a fan of prawns), one of the scones (not enough clotted cream) and the bottom half of the meringue (too sweet, too crunchy).  I shall not be eating dinner tonight.  Or the rest of the week, I suspect.  Apart from some possible soup.

Meanwhile, the real press are interviewing cast members who in between their refreshments have their picture taken with each other and with guests.  One of the attendees I speak to says she takes a group of children every year and had booked tickets for the Christmas Eve performance as soon as they became available even before she knew what the content would be, because it's such excellent value every year.  The relevant information is here.  Some shows start at 10am which must be when schools attend and there are three shows a day at the weekend which must require a fair amount of endurance from the cast and crew.  Not sure I could do it, especially if it requires the amount of emotional energy we saw in just this brief presentation.

Fab day @hiltonliverpool with launch of Jack & the Beanstalk @TheatreRoyalStH #rollonchristmas

— clairesimmo (@clairesimmo) September 29, 2014

Paradoxes of Organisation by Simon Wardley

I've just seen Dave Gray's post on the paradoxes of organisation. Oh, this is a wonderfully rich area and something I'm looking forward to reading.

Over the years (based upon evolution), I've noticed several patterns from conflicts (innovation vs efficiency, agile vs six sigma) to misunderstandings to paradoxes. From Ashby's to Jevons' paradox to the impacts of componentisation then there is lots of interesting material.

Four of my favourite paradoxes in business (with each argument described by a scale from 0 to 1) are :-

Predictability (of what) + Predictability (of when) ≈ 1 (i.e. we can often say what will happen but not when or when stuff will happen but not what)

Potential for future value + Certainty of value  ≈ 1 (i.e. the more something has potential, the less certain we are about it. If we're certain about it then so is everyone else and the value is correspondingly smaller)

Simplification of management + Effectiveness of management ≈ 1 (impact from Ashby's law of requisite variety i.e. the more we pretend management is simple, the less effective it becomes.)

Organisational focus on survival today + Probability of survival tomorrow ≈ 1 (impact from Salamon & Storey i.e. survival today requires coherence, co-ordination and stability whilst survival tomorrow requires 'innovation' and hence a replacement of those values)

WeChat is the most popular messaging app in the world. by Resonance China

resonance_global messaging apps

Global Web Index’s recent chart of the day captures the global popularity of messaging apps among mobile internet users aged 16-64. While recent MAU (monthly active users) figures still place WhatsApp ahead of WeChat, GWI’s data from mobile and tablet users across 32 countries and places Tencent’s chat app firmly ahead by 10 percentage points. Although it is important to note that WeChat is perhaps the least global messaging app in the group with WhatsApp leaping to first place with 39% of global popularity when China is excluded from the survey. [GlobalWebIndex]

市場調研機構(Global Web Index)最近公佈的每日數據表格摘要了1664嵗的平板以及智能手機用戶對於全球移動互聯網通訊apps的普及程度。儘管近日的MAU (每月用戶活躍量)仍舊是WhatsApp領先微信, GWI(市場調研機構)的數據更著重並且詳細的列出了32個國家和地區的移動互聯網用戶, 顯示了騰迅的通訊app(微信)足足領先了10%。不過值得注意的是如果將中國排除在數據統計外,WhatsApp將會以全球39%的普及率躍到通訊app排名的第一位,而微信則有可能墊底。[GlobalWebIndex]

September 28, 2014

Lazy Links. by Feeling Listless

The weird afterlife of the world's subterranean 'ghost stations':
"In 1920, construction began on what was to become an important new transportation system for Cincinnati, Ohio. Local voters had given near-unanimous support to a $6m (£3.7m) municipal bond, and despite wartime restrictions and shortages, the project began. Little did the city’s officials know that the system they were building would never carry a single passenger. [...] Five years later, the money had run out, the federal government refused to help and construction was halted. Today, there is an entire six-mile subway system abandoned underneath the Cincinnati streets."

Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t know how to say “penguins”
"Why has the BBC hired an actor who can’t pronounce the word penguins to voice a documentary about penguins?"

Rogue Is Restored In A New Cut Of X-Men: Days Of Future Past:
“It’s a big chunk, a substantial part of the movie,” writer/producer Simon Kinberg said about Paquin’s storyline in an announcement on Thursday. “We want to give fans the fullest picture of the film – behind the camera, and in front of it. Every movie has scenes that are cut out, but not every movie has scenes cut out with such a beloved character.”

Waters Close Over Kashmir:
"On the evening of September 7th, I was trying to reach my family in Srinagar, the largest city in India-controlled Kashmir. Automated messages thwarted me: “This number is out of coverage area”; “The number you have called is not available.” At a certain point in the night, my father willed a call across the Himalayas. “We are home,” he said. “It is all right here.” His voice belied his words. I wanted to check if he had the medicine he needed for his heart condition, but the call dropped. [...] It had rained nonstop for the past week, and the Jhelum river, which spools like a paisley through the valley of Kashmir before crossing over to Pakistan, in the north, had been swelling. For stretches, on its way to Srinagar, the Jhelum runs parallel to the lone highway from the Indian plains to the valley. By September 5th, the river and its tributaries had inundated hundreds of villages—modest homes destroyed, apple orchards sundered, and fields of saffron and rice wasted."

Top 10 films of our lifetime #5: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World:
"There's something irresistible about the structure of Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Learn the life lesson. Beat the boss. Level up. Repeat until you win the girl or you take a pounding. There's no greater purpose at play here other than to pick up speed, make some noise and have some fun. Saying it's the perfect movie for the ADHD generation is perhaps selling it short, but the fact is Scott Pilgrim doesn't give you a chance to be bored – it's a film that dishes out rewards small and often, like a videogame that's desperate to keep you playing. It might be a line, a gag, a musical cue, a transition, a graphic – Wright fills his films fuller than is strictly sensible, cramming his cinematic suitcase with treat after treat. When unsuspecting audiences open up his boxes of delights, they burst open violently as if spring-loaded with entertainment. It can be overwhelming. It is never not interesting."

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.

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.

Touching base by Charlie Stross

The lack of blogging this week has two roots: firstly, it was my parents' diamond wedding anniversary on Monday (which called for a road trip to visit them), and secondly, I'm still up to my elbows in the final draft of "The Annihilation Score", next July's Laundry Files novel. No, I can't say for sure when it'll be finished; probably early next week, but there's no guarantee. (I can say that this draft is 20% longer than the previous draft, which probably explains why it's taking so long ...)

In other news, some of you may have heard of this new-fangled social network called Ello. You can find me on it as @cstross, the same handle I use on twitter. Not much is happening there as yet (it's still in beta) but for now it looks a lot more interesting than Facebook (ack, spit).

Normal blogging will, I hope, be resumed early next week: or when I find something I feel compelled to rant about that won't fit inside a novel. In the meantime, watch the skies!

The Caretaker. by Feeling Listless

TV What kind of unholy hour is this to be writing about Doctor Who? Actually this is just the time I am usually writing about Doctor Who on a Saturday night but I’ve tended to have about an hour’s head start (two hours a year ago) and would be about four or five paragraphs in if I actually have an opinion. Yet thanks to the vagaries of scheduling and the BBC not wanting to receive nasty press from its rivals about god forbid scheduling a talented show opposite another talent show, here we all are having seen the first fifteen minutes of post-watershed Doctor Who since the broadcast of the TV Movie back in 1996 (barring Torchwood) (Updated: and well yes ok John McKerrell, Deep Breath). All of which should be seen as an apology for the upcoming ramble. I’m drinking coffee. This may have ill-advised side effects later.

Is there anything about The Caretaker that fitted the time slot? The first killing is pretty grim though the frazzled limb which drops into shot isn’t any less horrible that the charred remains of Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle in the U-rated Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, which as the BBFC case study notes, was for it’s “universal appeal and adventurous tone” and in the good old days when Han shot first in cold blood. Other than that the general action tone is akin to The Sarah Jane Adventures (cf, 50% of its writer) and for all the shouting no swearing. Like Our Zoo (so far) this is television out of time which will probably been seen by the majority of its audience on catch-up (not least because for its entire duration it was being broadcast opposite the aforementioned talent show).

Now hold on a minute while I think about how I’m going to structure the following. I think I have about four things to say but I’m not sure which order to put them in. No, wait, I know what I’m going to put out fourth, it’s the other three I’m not sure about. It’s that sort of episode, the kind which is itself doing about three or four different things and somewhat compartmentalises them until they end up smacking into each other like Raston Robots on a stag night. As with all of these previous episodes, they’re character studies masquerading as epic sci-fi action adventure which are supposed to tell us something about the life of a Time Lord or the life of the companion or the life of someone on the outside viewing all of that, in which the alien threat is nothing more than a mcguffin to give the Doctor a reason for being there.

The life of a Time Lord, then, or rather this Time Lord. Having had a couple of successes with the Doctor does domestic format, here’s Gareth Roberts in the familiar ground of The Lodger and Closing Time is how many of the reviews will have it as they entirely forget School Reunion and Human Nature existed. As with his earlier episodes, it’s about dropping this alien presence into the mass of humanity and making fun of his inability to really understand them, his innate alieness. As expected the best parts of the episode are this Doctor’s eyebrow raising misunderstandings of just who these people are that he’s supposed to be protecting and quite why they don’t seem to think on his wavelength. But in relation to this Doctor the results are far starker.

Future fan theorists may consider how previously when the Doctor infiltrated the school it was as a teacher but here he’s a caretaker reversing the power dynamic of those previous stories where Rose and Martha found themselves in the utilitarian roles. Which should put him in the same realm as the Eleventh Doctor in Roberts’s previous two stories ingratiating himself with humanity except he doesn’t. He’s not interested. The Caretaker is about telling us the person who was interested in the details of people's lives (“Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home.” “Chops and gravy.”) utilising them as symbols of hope is gone. This new model still cares deeply enough about humanity that he wants to risk his life to save them but doesn’t seem to care about their feelings.

On the one hand this does indeed lead to some very funny scenes, but on the other it makes him an unpleasant shit to spend time with, the asshole who everyone in the office really hates but you tolerate anyway because you have to. This is were I reveal the rather interesting revelation I had this morning after finally getting around to watching the Extradental about Time Heist (an inertia which speak volumes). I like Peter Capaldi. I bloody hate his Doctor. There, I’ve said it. Phew. Which means that I can really enjoy his performance and I do, a lot, but he just doesn’t feel like he’s playing my Doctor. It’s difficult to describe but it’s almost like the Doctor is absent. The closest he’s come, for obvious reasons, is in Listen and possibly Robots of Sherwood, but apart from that, sheesh.

The Caretaker is the epitome of this absence of the Doctor syndrome. When he mentions River, I don’t believe for a second that he’s the man who met her which I know is in stark contrast to Graham’s Russian doll metaphor in his review of Deep Breath in DWM. When he’s in the TARDIS tinkering it doesn’t feel like his space. Clearly you’ll dismiss this as the usual problem of holding onto the past, of missing Smith, but honestly it’s not that and like I said it’s not necessarily about Capaldi whose working really much better with his line readings. But it’s definitely something. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. I have Pertwee and C. Baker issues too and the Doctor’s very specifically being steered in that direction away from the benevolent alien figure. It could just be that.

But it goes much deeper than that. It’s the feeling that I’m watching a series called Doctor Who, which is doing all the things that Doctor Who does and is, but there’s an emptiness that wasn’t there before. Compare The Caretaker to any of those previous storyalikes and it feels superficial, lacking in scale. Arguably, deliberately so in this case, but in making the new Doctor a grumpy reclusive personality utilising extrovertedness as a prop, the show has done the same. This could just be me reacting to the tonal change Mark Gatiss notes, of the shift from City of Death to the Horror of Fang Rock, but the sheer preponderance of corridors over exteriors is really, really obvious, especially when you consider the detrimental running order changes caused by the fear of such in season six.

Plus the threats are less impressive. In the drive to create new monsters, we’re in the realm of the early production teams chasing the new Daleks but not really since these one episode wonders deliberately don’t have the legs, literally in this case. There’s a thread right through Who of the incidental monster or alien in operation to remind us that we’re watching Doctor Who, but The Caretaker’s offering is an especially weak example especially in comparison to something like the Krafayis from Vincent and the Doctor or the ingenious creations that appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures when Gareth Roberts was the writer. Unless I missed something due to being half asleep, the Skovox Blitzer is simply a thing to be destroyed. His thematic resonance is zero.

Perhaps I’m like Clara, holding on to what we have because of what used to be there. The teaser to The Caretaker is the final five Amy & Rory episodes in microcosm, the Doctor dropping in on a seemingly daily basis to take Clara on an adventure before dropping her off in time for a date. If only the TARDIS could have travelled with this accuracy when Rose was on board, her Mum wouldn’t have worried as much because she’d always be home for tea. That also grounds the show somewhat. One of the glories of the 60s series was that it was as much about being lost in time not knowing if you’ll see your own planet again whereas Clara is shown these wonders then seems perfectly able to continue to conduct her life back on Earth. It’s as though the life of the kids in the attic has be absorbed by the main series.

Jenna Coleman remains superb incidentally. In this three-hander, she’s the one who holds the episode together and is the audience’s point of view character. Despite everything I said, her and Capaldi sparring is purely pleasurable especially when she’s essentially acting now as his ambassador to humanity, caring so that he doesn’t have to, as he says. You see how conflicted I am on this? Making her a teacher at Coal Hill School suggest perhaps that Moffat et al are in fact trying to suggest what might have happened if the First Doctor had been in full control of TARDIS, allowing Susan to attend school and travel the universe, saving the planet now and then with the aid of a couple of her human teachers (assuming he hasn’t dropped them off on Vortis or wherever in order to preserve the secrets of his magic box).

What to make of Danny Pink’s reaction to all this, and please believe me when I say the caffeine’s just kicked in, I really don’t care because the gender politics of the episode are horrendous. Before I really go for this, here are some of the necessary qualifications. There’s a genuine attempt at interestingness in the approach to the companion/boyfriend dynamic which as is always the case stems from an attempt to contrast what’s gone before. Whereas both Mickey and Rory were dropped right in it from the off, Clara’s been keeping Danny in the dark, perhaps in an attempt to compartmentalise or shield him from it all, in a way which isn’t entirely unlike the approach taken by Martha and indeed Donna with their loved ones in previous series all of whom also reacted in a negative way after the revelatory moment.

The dynamic we’re being presented with of Clara seeking the Doctor’s approval of her boyfriend and seeking her boyfriend’s approval of the Doctor is a potentially psychologically richer concoction than what we’ve seen previously, perhaps trying to indicate the difficult choices some young women sadly do find themselves enduring even in this decade and the mention of Jane Austen earlier in the episode is perhaps supposed to suggest of how centuries old literature can still be utilised as a touchstone in these situations. In having Clara say she loves Danny so specifically, so romantically and contrasting this with her complicated feelings for the Doctor, it uncouples her totally from the ambiguity that dogged Amy time in the TARDIS and Rory’s esteem issues. As Dan says at The Guardian, "It’s a brave version of Doctor Who, where everybody is written so honestly and as brutally flawed..."

With all of that said, for goodness sake Doctor Who, are you fucking kidding me? It’s fair to say I have a deficit myself when it comes to relationships and an understanding thereof, but how is it we now have a companion, again in this decade who not only feels like she has to seek the Doctor’s approval of her boyfriend and seek her boyfriend’s approval of the Doctor? Why isn’t she asking what business it is of her friend who she goes out with and on the other hand what business it is of her boyfriend who she’s friends with? A companion (and yes I appreciate the irony of that term in this context) who is then effectively shamed and made to feel guilty in both directions by, for the purposes of this, a controlling father and a controlling boyfriend, just the sort of thing we’re supposed to be fighting against now.

The whole aspect of making this part of the Doctor’s character gives me the hoojibs. True, the Doctor’s been seen to give his tacit approval to the partners of companions across the years, usually when they’re leaving the series and with someone they only met four episodes before. The Time Lord usually offers a gruff acceptance that he’s up against humanity’s doings (“Aha.”) before driving off into darkness or a residency at Nest Cottage. The Green Death was partly about Jo replacing him with a younger version. Now we have a scene in which he actually seems quite pleased about it (even if by a strained misunderstanding its not actually the case), in a way, which makes the whole Russ/Ross business in Friends look like a comic masterpiece. Making Danny an actual Matt Smith clone is about the only way this could be worse, I suppose.

As with so much of this episode it could be that I have a disconnect between my own experience and real life, but what is all of this “you can tell a lot about how a person feels about you from the lies they tell” bullshit? Is this supposed to be a Doctor Who spin on Chasing Amy and if it is, shouldn’t Clara’s reaction be the same as Alyssa Jones sending Danny to the kerb because he doesn’t approve of her lifestyle choices? Similarly shouldn’t there be some measure of trust on both sides? But apart from all that, why the hell am I even going here at 23:43 (time check) in the evening after having watched Doctor Who? Well, because as the titles rolled I was genuinely feeling pretty good about the episode, then the gender politics processors in my brain overclocked and all I could see was the blue screen of death.

Perhaps as I intimated in my many qualifications earlier this is the show's writers trying to offer a more granular psychological depth than previous seasons or providing the alternative of actual soap opera to the perceived soap opera of previous seasons. Danny’s whole alpha male “you come and tell me if he doesn’t treat you right” (I’m paraphrasing) speech that she lovingly reacts to is just repellent. If the idea is that we're supposed to feel that way, it's worked. If I’m completely misreading all of this do please set me straight in the comments. The several reviews I’ve seen haven’t had this reaction at all seeing the Doctor and Danny’s behaviour as endearing protectiveness making the title literal, and perhaps it is, but I just didn’t see it that way at all. Clara’s behaviour here is weirdly written.

All of which post-midnight meandering just leaves room for Chris Addison’s cameo at the end and the introduction of a big white corridor, which is whichever writer on much safer ground. Since the policeman’s body is a cinder we’re now left to wonder how he’s able to exist in this space whatever it is. A reconstruction of a version of the Gallifreyan Matrix perhaps? The afterlife? The Restaurant at the End of the Universe? It’s a measure of how much I like Capaldi’s performance in the face of not liking his Doctor that I can’t wait to see him and Addison up against each other again. Perhaps I’d simply prefer this whole thing to improvised and shot on steadycam. Perhaps I wish that it had made full use of its timeslot. Perhaps I’ll look back at this post, as I do so often and wonder what I was on about. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

A necessary capability but an unnecessary role - CDO. by Simon Wardley

Any widespread examination of corporate strategy will quickly demonstrate the prevalence of backward causality and the copying of others. 67% of companies have an "enterprise mobility strategy" ... do you? If this wasn't the case, my strategy template wouldn't have touched so many nerves.

Depressingly less than 30% of large companies have any form of scenario planning and of those less than 4% have any formal means of situational awareness. The majority are playing chess without looking at the board which is why techniques like SWOT or Business Model Canvas or single size debates like Agile vs Six Sigma become rampant. This is why it's so easy for someone like me to walk into an industry and help myself - I'm no genius, I just understand that looking at the board (even an imperfect representation) in a game of chess is actually a sensible thing to do.

By understanding the basics of competition, we know that organisations evolve and a new phenotype appears. We know how (competition), we know the causes (co-evolution plus punctuated equilibrium plus inertia), we understand the cycle and it is even predictable, testable and this has happened. I can even give you a list of the modern phenotype (from 2011) - see figure 1. We can trace the process back through hundreds of years of history from the Web 2.0 to Fordism to the American System.

Figure 1 - Next Generation vs Traditional

We know that strategic play is not uniform between companies, even in the high tech sector. We know the economic impact of poor situational awareness - see figure 2.

Figure 2 - Strategic Play vs Action

We know our organisations have difficult coping with change, we normally bolt on new roles and new departments to cope with the change. But this is not a sensible course of action but instead a symptom of a non adaptive structure - we bolt on because we cannot simply absorb the change. Given however that few can see the landscape and predictable changes heading towards them, this is probably no surprise.

However, be under no illusions that improving situational awareness and creating adaptive structures is complex, it's not simple, it doesn't fit into a neat 2 x 2. Inherently a map is more complex than a SWOT.

So, yes we are undergoing changes, many of which are predictable and we need to adapt. Since our organisations are not designed to do this, we've often bundled those phenotypic changes into roles - we hear the clarion call for Chief Insight Officers, Chief Data Officers, Chief Ecosystem Officers, Chief Digital Officers, Chief Open Source Officers, Chief Disruption Officers and on and on and on. 

It should be no surprise that the justification given is usually because "others are doing this" - backward causality and the search for simple answers remains as strong as ever. The words of wisdom I will leave you with belong to Phil Rosenzweig. 

When examining the marriage of convenience between business and the academic / consultancy groups that surround it, Phil concluded - "Managers are busy people, under enormous pressure to deliver higher revenues, greater profits and ever larger returns for shareholders. They naturally search for ready-made answers, for tidy plug-and-play solutions that might give them a leg up on their rivals. And the people who write business books – consultants and business school professors and strategy gurus – are happy to oblige. Demand stimulates supply, and supply finds ready demand. Around and around we go” 

Ah, the merry go round continues. All hail the new priesthood. Today's version appears to be the Chief Digital Officer. Tomorrow's will be something else. One day business will learn the lessons of the military from two thousand years ago and start to understand the landscape we compete in. Until such time, expect tomorrow endless calls for "Chief Ecosystem Officers, well HBR's got an article and 67% of other companies are hiring one" etc etc etc.

Learn the capabilities, they should be absorbed. Try to avoid building structures you're going to simply dismantle later on. The capabilities of a Chief Digital Officer are needed, as for the role itself - well, maybe as a transitional structure to force change in an organisation that is unwilling or maybe there's a specific need (assuming you know what you're doing). In all likeihood most will be hired because 'other companies are hiring one'.

Just remember it is the capability not the role that is important.

Dawn Journal: 7 Years of Interplanetary Travel by The Planetary Society

Marc Rayman gives us an update on the Dawn mission, heading to Ceres, on the 7th anniversary of its launch.

September 27, 2014

The TEDx Liverpool Experience. by Feeling Listless

Life It's the 20th of July at about 8:30 in the morning and I'm standing outside the newly opened Everyman Theatre on Hope Street in Liverpool, looking through a glass door at a table with a sign on it which says TEDx Liverpool. The event doesn't start until nine o'clock, but such is my excitement at actually seeing in person something which I've only previous glimpsed in online videos, I've arrived super early. I'm chatting to a fellow visitor whose travelled across the pennines from Ilkley to be here. He's something of a fan. This isn't his first TEDx.  This is mine.

TEDx, like its parent has an odd reputation.  Some simply dismiss them as a kind of hipster school in which the holier than thou preach to the unholy, filling in the gap for some who aren't fulfilled by evangelical teaching.  That is evident in some of the more airless talks, its true.  But that's just one genre.  Like their shorter spiritual (sorry) cousins, the Ignite talks, at their best they can be a concentrated way of learning about a subject you might not otherwise have thought about from an expert you've never heard of.  As I was about to discover.

09:00 Registration

Having missed previous events due to work, I knew I had to turn up to this one, at least to see what they're like, to see what happens.  Plus I wanted to experience the new theatre without the hustle, bustle and scrum of a play.  I certainly got that, although when the door finally opened at a little after nine o'clock and I was the first through, there was still the sense of wanting to be in the right place to get a good speck even though we wouldn't be entering the auditorium for at least an hour.  I was beaming as I gave my name to the volunteer behind the counter, beaming as I picked wrote my ID badge.

Cue networking in the upstairs bar area.  Or as is usually the case trying not to embarrass yourself in front of a stranger (with the slightly nervous handing over of the ostentatious Moo card with this blog's URL on it), the door opened and we filed in.  Or rather the doors opened while I was in the toilet which left me with a mad dash into the auditorium to find a seat.  As is always, always the case with these things I installed myself at the front in an empty seat so that I don't have to dodge the head of another human being and have a clear view of everything.

Then the ten minute wait for something to happen, punctuated by a further bathroom visit.  If you're on your own these events are always a bit, well, lonely, because the people on either side are always in a group, either because they met someone outside or its some kind of long term friendship commitment.  I did manage some small talk with my neighbour, telling her about the Ignite talks at Leaf.  Oh and passed on another ostentatious Moo card with this blog's URL on it.  Do people bother with these I wonder?  Do they, like me have bowl full on their desk?  Are you that person?

10:00 Session 1

Herb Kim of Thinking Digital Ltd, is our host and after the above introductory video, he wanders onto the performance space and welcomes us to the event.  I'm very excited.  The various speakers are all lined up on chairs to the side like contestants on Whose Line Is It Anyway? some of whom I recognise, and not just because I recently followed them on Twitter.  Everything looks just as it does in the YouTube videos.  I glance around the audience and there are grins aplenty, contagious bliss about being a room with a big red TEDx sign.  Let's begin.

Adrian Hon is an old friend of the blog.  He wrote about his year for Review 2005. This is in the inspirational speaking genre of TEDx talk and was a fine way to start the day because of that, because it's everything that people expect a TEDx talk to be.  For more of his work, he still has a blog, and also writes on Medium.  If you look closely enough you can see me in the reverse shots.  It's during Adrian's talk that I convinced myself that I might want to join the 21st century and buy a tablet computer soon.

Aha, TEDx immortality. Given how unlikely it is that I'll ever be invited to speak at a TEDx, at least I'm a participant. During the talk, Professor Solomon asked the audience for ways in which viruses can be transmitted and after all the expected mentions of human contact, I suggested the cash machine, entirely forgetting for a split second that this was being recorded and would eventually end up online. The audience thought it hilarious and it gave the Prof a decent feed line. In my defence there was a story back in 2011 about cash machines being as dirty as toilets and even earlier Japan was providing cash points to customers that were easy to clean.

The new Everyman is a very, very nice theatre. In the round like the Globe and the various theatres in Stratford now, there's an intimacy to the space which wasn't always the case in the old building, especially when performers were up stage. There are chairs throughout rather than the old benches up the side. But it still retains the feel of that space with the brick walls and furniture, a conscious decision, as Bodinetz says in her talk.  None of which is to say that like the whole rest of Liverpool (ish) I don't miss the old basement Bistro.  Nowhere else is quite the same.

Rivetting. Not all TEDx talks are talks. Sometimes they're interviews and in this case a useful choice for the end of the first session with the audience's concentration flagging and perhaps not quite able to hold their attention through something with a more complex structure. Ward's an excellent communicator and Kim simply lets him speak, acting as the verbal equivalent of a prompt sheet.  The anecdote about the public meeting is shocking, but there's nothing about it which feels like it couldn't and doesn't happen now somewhere (cf, this recent This American Life).

The event also included these musical interludes. Three items which have nothing to do with the music. Firstly, the YouTube comments which are essentially an argument about what instrument she's playing. Secondly, the number of phones and ipads immediately held up by audience members recording the performance. Thirdly, the event photographers who moved around throughout the performance taking pictures, which was a bit distracting and now seems to be the norm at these kinds of events.  This happened during the music but hardly at all during the talks (as far I can remember).  Thank goodness there's this HD video for posterity.

11:45 Lunch

Lunch was a bit of a shambles.  In the run up to the day the organisers asked that we pre-order a lunch from the Everyman at the cost of five pounds, choosing a sandwich.  I chose cheese, expecting it to be a plated affair of some description.  At the end of the session I went straight to the toilet (again) and thence to the room where the lunch would be picked up to find brown paper bags on a long table with our names pinned to the side.  Shrugging, but still full of the TEDx mojo I picked up my bag which as I walked away promptly bottomed out, a bottle of water, apple, packet of crisps and packet of sandwiches falling to the floor.

I shrugged again, telling the volunteers, that it was ok, it was fine, all very stereotypically British.  Except, pathetically, it wasn't ok, it wasn't fine, not least because I'd been stuck with cheesy crisps and an apple which had been on the floor and a wet packet of sandwiches, the condensation on the cool water bottle having gone all over everywhere.  Plus glancing around the bar area I saw that others had been given a banana (which I would have prefered) and flavours of crisps I might actually have liked.  So I did what I rarely do, I went back and told them all ,the while wondering internally if it wouldn't have been logistically possible to have everything but the pre-booked sandwich available separately.

Yes, that was mistake too.  The volunteers had rather been stuck with the whole thing.  One of them went to ask a manager with me following, only for us to be told that we'd be seen to when they'd finished with whatever they were doing.  The volunteer apologised.  I told her it was fine again, because it wasn't her fault and she'd rather been stuck with the whole thing.  Then I told her it wasn't because it wasn't, because everyone else seemed to have got their lunch without any bother.  So she took me downstairs to the main restaurant where I was able to swap this soggy food, for food I might actually enjoy, like a banana and a packet of ready salted crisps.

13:00 Session 2

Shuffling in for session 2 it became apparent that unlike nearly every such event I'd been to, seating was an every person for themselves affair in which your original spot was of little interest to anyone.  Nevertheless I dashed down the stairs like a character from a Wes Anderson film, barged my away through the front row and managed to grab my original seat along with a couple of my original neighbours who then asked me to take their picture with the giant teddy bear.  Unless this happened at the beginning of the second session.  Either way, I also took a picture of the bear as you can see. I don't think I got his best side.  Not sure why everything is so red.

Here's another classic example of TEDx talk, the twenty minute lecture.  Baffling but brilliant.  Best moment is about three minutes in when this Professor Shears describes something which is amazingly complicated then says, "So, so it's quite simple really..."  The laughter speaks volumes.  But notice how as the talk continues she's essentially modifying the content because she's realised the level of knowledge within the room isn't quite what she expected so elucidates much more simply.  This seems to be a much truncated version of a talk Shears gave at the Royal Institution last year, the whole hour of which is at their YouTube channel.

Even though I couldn't attend the food festival at the weekend due to work (not doing things due to work at the weekend happens a lot), I was brought home one of Lunya's Catalonian Scouses for tea, with its spicy sausage and more tomato and peppers. Gorgeous, although the accompanying bread went a bit soggy in the box. But otherwise, I like Lunya, just as I like all of the shops in the city centre which provide an alternative to the many hundreds of Tescos. Though as this talk reveals, not being a supermarket can be difficult even if what you're offering is this special and unique.

I visited Homebaked during the Liverpool Biennial 2012 (nostalgic sigh) so this was an unexpected and useful update on the project as well as some background to what happened during the festival (nostalgic sigh again).  Now the ambition is going well beyond the bakery into regenerating a larger area which is all to the good.   By this point the audience seemed to have adjusted to the slightly random nature of the talks and relishing what would come next.  Although it's also fair to say that even after all the lunch, both of these talks made me feel very hungry again.

Aha Graham, if only, if only. For years I said that if I ever did win the lottery, I'd travel the world. Turns out you "only" need about thirty thousand pounds. Considering what he's done and where he is, Hughes manages to remain relatively humble, entirely appreciative of the ludicrousness of the whole thing.  Unfortunately the sound on this video is horrible, not picking up the auditorium audio from the Skype feed clearly. As an alternative, Graham actually turned up to TEDx Salford last year and gave a similar talk.

More music. More photography throughout. The video thankfully doesn't pick up the ever present beep of one of the camera as each shot was taken.  I persevered through my hyper-awareness of other humans.  How much does this bother others?  Did any of the audience members find this distracting or do I just have an inherent lack of concentration?  Perhaps there's a TED talk about this somewhere and if there isn't, it should be.  I have the same problem with books.  I can barely read tie-in books on noisy buses whereas other passengers seem to be able to pile through literature.

In all of the networking before the show, whenever I asked someone why they were here, and even when I didn't ask but they ventured the information anyway, they said it was to see Sir Ken Robinson. To which I replied that I hadn't heard of Sir Ken Robinson. To which they gave that look, the look I would assume would be something along the lines of that given to anyone who turned up for Glastonbury last year and asked who The Rolling Stones were.  But I'd missed this 2006 talk and the ensuing fall out, largely because I was still on dial-up at home and couldn't watch videos easily.  One person told me it entirely changed their life.  If only I could have afforded broadband back then.

From what I heard and now seen, I think that Sir Ken has managed to become something of a prophet by stating a piece of common sense which most others had overlooked.  With charisma.  Notice how he assimilates the talks he's heard so far into his answers and utilises them as aids in communicating his own message.  Luckily, it's a good message of the sort which might have saved me no end of trouble early on, and even though I don't think seventeen is an age when anyone should be making decisions about their future, I can't also blame the younger version of me for my current inertia.

14:45 Break

The coffee scramble.  The several giant flasks of coffee, hot water, tea bags and milk all stood next to each other in the middle of a counter which would have been fine for a few beverage hunters but with several hundred crowded around a complete mess as everyone had to first get a cup, then move along to the coffee and then to the milk, except there was no sense of order as is so often the case at these sorts of events.  I did manage to get some black coffee in the end, which was nice and strong even if sheer luck meant that some of it didn't spill over.  This was scary.

15:15 Session 3

For the third half, Sir Ken assumed presenting duties, beginning with one of my favourite Guardianistas and a message which I wish I paid more attention to on a long term basis.  I brazen it, ala Pyramids of Mars quite a bit, but that's not quite the same thing.  Harriet Minter's profile is here and her most recent column is about the reaction to Emma Watson's UN speech and the grotesque misogynistic fallout.  She's interviewed Arianna Huffington.  This is the Women in Leadership section (which looks rubbish in the beta version of the website - the classic version is much more distinctive).

"Awe, doesn't that nearly make you like Facebook." Tough speech this and I think Dan's relaxed approach kept the audience on side. As Apple have noticed over the past few weeks, you can think you're the most user friendly company on the planet, think you're doing everything you can to help the user, but if you do anything which they're not expecting or which is entirely outside the bounds of their taste like give them a U2 album they didn't ask for or a software update which destroys the usability of their phone, they'll hate you.

By this point, I'll admit, I was getting a bit tired. As you can see from some of the reverse shots the target time for each of these talks is twenty minutes and the concentration of them all in the same day was pretty challenging. At home, you have the luxury of being able to watch a couple before moving on and of clicking away if it's not something you're that interested in.  The ambition of this is spectacular but I wonder how many of us could safely accomplish the same feat especially with the commitments we might have back home.

Hello Adrian and poor Adrian for needing to correct Sir Ken right at the beginning about his origins. It's fitting that Adrian appeared at TEDx Liverpool given that he helps organise the Ignite meetings and Social Media Cafe, both of which have also featured versions of this talk but with less of his CV, most of which I was entirely unaware of, especially in regards to early mobile browsers.  Back in 2009, his Bubbalino appeared at an earlier TEDx Liverpool and can be memorably seen in action during Alison Gow's talk.

Which is what it is. The audience participation at the end was an awkward moment (not least amongst the speakers still sat the edge as you can see) in which a couple of people stood right up, then a few more, then some more, then me, then there were some walk outs.  These sorts of interactions always depend on the crowd and their level of enthusiasm.  As you can see from the video people did seem to get into the spirit by the end.

The day ended with this final wrap up from Sir Ken which reiterated some of the points from his interview and his original 2006 TED and was an inspiring way to end the day.  One of his key messages, that you shouldn't be afraid to say you don't know about something if you're also willing to learn.  Apart from team sports featuring balls that aren't Netball, this is something I've always tried to live by and if TEDx Liverpool proved one thing, it's that this is generally a good thing.  If only everyone, especially in leadership and political positions believed it too.

17:00 Informal drinks at the bar

Though not for me.  The crowd had thinned quite a lot and there is always something inherently difficult about networking after an event because you either end up meeting someone new you wish you'd spent the day with or else the ad-hoc groups have well bonded and its difficult to make contact, none of which I was in the mood for.  Plus I was still hungry after the foody double bill.  Strolling up Hope Street towards the bus stop still beaming, still happy, I was certain that this had been a day well spent, vowing to put some of the maxims and messages into practice.  I'm still trying.

September 26, 2014

Using Lasers to Lock Down Exoplanet Hunting by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society is launching a new collaboration with Yale exoplanet hunter Debra Fischer and her team, the Exoplanets Laser project. We will support the purchase of an advanced, ultra stable laser to be used in a complex system they are designing to push radial velocity exoplanet hunting to a whole whole new level.

In Pictures: A Busy Week at the International Space Station by The Planetary Society

This week, the International Space Station received a new crew and a welcomed a SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle. Here are a few photo highlights.

The Films I've Watched This Year #36 by Feeling Listless

Film  Yesterday's post about TEDx Liverpool wasn't meant to be as cynical as it ultimately became.  That is a side effect of having waited so long before putting words to screen.  If I'd written something that night, every  word would have included a smiley face between.  But I wanted to wait until all the videos had been posted to YouTube and that took months.  I did genuinely enjoy the day and came away feeling like I could change the world, until the reality set in as usual.  The idea of the post was for someone to be able to sit and watch their way through the talks in sequences as they happened on the day, which was quite a complex process because TEDx Liverpool's website's own running order changed on the day and my memory had failed so I had to scour a Twitter search for that chunk of time and piece together the chronology.  Or at least I did until I realised that all needed to do was look at @tedxliverpool which posted photographs of each of the speakers and performers in turn...

The Conquest
The Words
The Players
Taken 2
On the Road
The Grand Budapest Hotel
La Piscine

The film of the week is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which may well be Wes Anderson's masterpiece.  Considering his career this is quite some achievement. As purest a distillation of the director's style as we've seen so far, almost a live action version of what he achieved in The Fabulous Mr Fox.  The production design is as deliciously detailed as the cakes which the fictional bakery makes within, looking utterly ravishing on blu-ray once you've adjusted the aspect ratio of the television the opening title card ordering me to change the setting to 16:9 taking a couple of attempts before entirely convincing me.  Of all the toys and tools which filmmakers have access to but ignore, Budapest reminds us of the strength of the Academy ratio with its ability to force the viewer to concentrate on particular aspects of image and sense of dimensionality without artificial stereoscopy.  Oh and the whole thing is damned funny, especially when it breaks out the swears.

A typical example of Hollywood's loss of nerve can be found in the extras on the Taken 2 blu-ray which include a complete alternative version of the final half hour of the film.  In this iterration, Liam Neeson is able to save both his wife and daughter and return bring them to the embassy before deciding that the only way to really confirm their safety is embrace a version of the Bush Doctrine and find and kill the vengeful father or as we see in the released cut, at least offer him the choice.  In the preceding caption the director, Oliver Megatron, says that he prefers the theatrical with its differing motivation, but that version is an inherently weaker, more generic film with its further damselling of Famke Janssen. Comparing both versions is however a demonstration of how a narrative can be substantially changed with the minimum of reshoots and clever editing around existing footage, with Janssen being removed from the back seat of the car chase scene and inserted into the climactic fight.

Rotten Tomatoes shows that the critics went open season on The Words, with a collective score of 22% and splats everywhere, though its noticeable that the "top critics" were kinder, suggesting they, like me, were more understanding that a film which is about literature is deliberately utilising some literary devices.  Utilising a layered structure featuring narrators within narrators, fictions within fictions, flashbacks within flashbacks in order to explain how it is one writer would or even could plagiarize the lost work of a predecessor.  A decent comparison would be Six Degrees of Separation with its Russian doll structure, though a bit less complex.  Stonking performances from an ensemble cast which includes Dennis Quad, Olivia Wilde, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons and especially Bradley Cooper who demonstrates that he's always at his best when he's understated and introspective.  It's currently on Netflix and well worth a couple of hours of your life, if your in the mood for something more demanding.

All of the films I saw this week had some kind of French connection.  Here are the three which were in the French language.  The Conquest is a fictionalised account of Nicholas Sarkozy's rise to power, which is nowhere near as entertaining as you'd expect because it can't decide if it's supposed to be drama or satire, oscillating wildly between something akin to Peter Morgan's Blair trilogy and The Comic Strip Presents.  The Players is a horrific anthology piece in which the usually very good Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche mug through a string of adulterous cretins in misogynistic and entirely unfunny situations which ends on a potentially homophobic note.  There's a pretty good  Alan Partridge knock-off in the middle though.  La Piscine is Jacques Deray's anti-thriller from the late-60s in which Alain Delon lazes around a sun drenched villa lusting after a young Jane Birkin, whose father, Maurice Ronet is rekindling an affair with Delon's girlfriend played by Romy Schneider.  Suspicion, sex and random acts of violence ensue.

Philae's landing day announced as Rosetta swings to comet's dark side by The Planetary Society

ESA announced today that Philae will be landing on November 12, 2014. What time the landing occurs depends on which landing site they use. If they go to the prime landing site, "site J," Earth should receive word of the successful landing at 16:00 UTC (08:00 PST). If they go to the backup site, "site C," news will reach Earth at about 17:30 UTC (09:30 PST). Mark your calendars!

Three Stars in a High-Energy Dance by Astrobites

Stars: steady-burning nuclear flames that pierce the darkness of space. Except when they’re not. The star known as HD 181068 is bright, but it’s no standard candle. On closer inspection, this well-studied system is actually home to three stars locked in a complex cosmic dance. Two stars similar to our Sun orbit each other, and together they orbit a giant three times more massive and at least ten times as large. This type of arrangement is called a hierarchical triple.


A not-to-scale sketch of HD 181068. Sun-like stars Ba and Bb are separated by about 5 solar radii. There are some 90 solar radii between giant star “A” (left) and the Ba-Bb pair. Fig. 8 from the paper.

Today’s paper looks at the family dynamics of this star system. The authors use several different sets of observations to piece together a more complete picture than previous studies. This includes Kepler light curves, X-ray images, and an optical spectrum. But none of these show HD 181068 like the figure above. It is far too distant, and the stars much too close together, for a telescope to resolve individual stars. Its secret identity as three stars was deduced based on a pattern of eclipses that repeats every 227 days.

From time to time, HD 181068 flares up and gets significantly brighter. But without more information, it is impossible to know where to place the blame—which star is responsible for the flares? The verdict comes from eclipses in the light curve: when the giant star blocked our view of its companions, and a flare was still observed, that settled it. In addition, the flares are several orders of magnitude more energetic than anything the two smaller stars can produce. The giant star must be the temperamental one.


Image of HD 181068 in X-ray light, from the XMM-Newton telescope. This image was taken while the giant star blocked our view of the other two stars. Fig. 1 from the paper.

In fact, the telltale flare was only observed as it died away, and then only in X-ray light. X-ray telescopes are an engineering marvel, and let us observe invisible-to-the-eye, energetic photons that can’t penetrate Earth’s atmosphere. Most stars aren’t particularly bright in X-rays. The X-ray flux attributed to the giant star in HD 181068 tells us that it has a very energetic corona with lots of magnetic activity.

Combining eclipses, X-ray images, and flares reveals an active giant star living in a chaotic—but not unprecedented—environment. The system is classified as a type of binary called RS CVn stars, in which the main star is characterized by its star spots, flares, and energetic corona. However, the authors find that having a neighbor pair of stars affects the giant star in subtle ways that a single companion would not. In particular, the orbital motion of the binary induces a unique pattern of oscillations in the giant star’s atmosphere.

Perhaps the most interesting part of HD 181068′s unfolding story is its utility as an exoplanet system analog. Imagine scaling this family down from giant star + binary pair to Sun-like star + double planet (or planet with moon). The gravitational force of HD 181068′s smaller stars on the surface of the giant is similar to that of a “hot Jupiter” planet tugging on its Sun-like host star. As it turns out, the most interesting aspects of stars arise when they are anything but steadily-shining celestial beacons.

Field Report from Mars: Sol 3790 by The Planetary Society

After a stand-down of activities to reformat its flash memory, Opportunity has re-commenced the long climb up this high and steep segment of the Endeavour crater rim.

September 25, 2014

A Deeper Look into the Atmospheres of HR8799 c and d with GPI by Astrobites


Fig 1: Keck observations of the four planets orbiting HR 8799.

Fig 1: Keck observations of the four planets orbiting HR 8799. (Credit: NRC/HIA, C. Marois, and Keck Observatory)

HR 8799 is a popular system for astronomers interested in exoplanets. It was the first system in which an exoplanet was detected with direct imaging*, and in fact, three exoplanets in HR 8799 were found at the same time! (The planets are labeled with the name of the star and lower-case letters, starting with ‘b’.) A fourth planet, HR 8799e, orbiting closer to the star, was imaged more recently. This plethora of large, bright planets makes HR 8799 a great laboratory for studying exoplanet atmospheres.

However, measuring the spectra of the planets’ atmospheres is tough, because they are extremely dim compared to their star. The previous spectral observations we do have seem to indicate a strange lack of methane (CH4) in the atmospheres of planets b, c, and d, which may be due to heating caused by thick clouds. Also, atmospheric models have trouble predicting realistic planet radii based on the near-infrared observations.

So when the authors of this paper wanted to test the new Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), built on the Gemini South Telescope in Chile, they decided to tackle the challenge of observing the spectra of HR 8799c and d. GPI is an integrated field spectrograph (IFS), which means it can take a spectrum of each pixel in an image. This allowed the authors to measure the spectra of planets c and d separately (planet b was outside their field-of-view and planet e was too close to the bright star). Despite the poor observing conditions on the first night of observations, the spectra of the planets had a moderately good signal-to-noise. The authors found good agreement between their spectrum for planet c and the spectrum previously obtained by Konopacky et al. (2013). They also noticed that the spectrum for planet d has a different shape than planet c’s spectrum, indicating that planets d and c are not as similar (in mass, temperature, etc) than previously thought.

Fig 2: Comparison of model spectra with data for planets c and d. The different data sets are shown in green, red, and blue (which indicates the GPI data). The best atmospheric cloud model is shown in black. The best model fit with a varying planet radius is shown in magenta.

Fig 2: Comparison of model spectra with data for planets c and d. The different data sets are shown in green, red, and blue (which indicates the GPI data). The best atmospheric cloud model is shown in black. The best model fit with a varying planet radius is shown in magenta.

The authors added their new spectral data to previously-measured spectra and attempted to reproduce all the data with atmospheric modeling. Unfortunately, no single atmospheric model fits all the data. The modelling challenge is to include enough clouds to warm the atmosphere and keep the methane levels sufficiently low to match our observations, without being so thick that they block the emission we see from lower layers of the atmosphere. The authors realized that for both planets, if they used a planet radius based on evolutionary models, they could not fit the observed spectrum. If instead they allowed the radius to vary as a parameter of the model, they could fit the spectrum much better. However, the radius predicted for each planet with this technique was too small, based on what we know about planet formation and evolution.

The authors point out that this radius problem could be solved if each planet had a massive core surrounded by an envelope of hydrogen and helium, but they believe this scenario would require unrealistically massive cores. Instead, the authors suggest that we just need better models that can handle the complex chemistry and heat transfer in these atmospheres.

Theorists (including myself) often complain jokingly that data only ruins our perfectly nice models. Hopefully the exciting new Gemini Planet Imager will be smashing our predictions for years to come, forcing us to develop newer and better models to explain all the weird new exoplanet atmospheres GPI will observe.


*Although direct observations of Fomalhaut b were announced the same day!

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.

Five More Faces. by Feeling Listless

What would the Five Faces of Doctor Who look like today? #DoctorWho
— Doctor Who Visual FX (@WhoSFX) September 24, 2014

TV The Twitter feed @WhoSFX usually spends its time posting images that generally disprove the still popular if incorrect notion that the production design on the classic episode was cheap amateurish crap. At present it's working its way through the stories which featured in the old Five Face of Doctor Who season which is when many of us first saw the first three Doctors in action and many other realised how devestating the junking process had been to Troughton's era (The Krotons? Really?).

This morning it posted the above photoshop marvel and immediately I began to think about which five stories you would choose for this lot if you wanted to run a homage to the season in the Eggheads slot on BBC Two (though less face it, BBC Three's more likely to replace their usual repeats of Doctor Who with it).  Clearly this should be done next year for nuWho's Tenth anniversary, when it might actually make some sense.  In an ideal world it'd be the various visages but even after the pretty good ratings for An Unearthly Child last year, BBC Four's was still more interested in reruning Richard Briers.

Some logistics.  The old season ran for weeks and weeks and weeks because they "stripped" the various stories across the Monday to Thursday which is why the chosen stories were all four-parters.  Logistically, my guess is they'd give this a week.  Five days, five Doctors will be the thinking.  Which is fine as we'll see.  The next thing to do, much as it pains me, is to jettison McGann.  Other than running the audio of one of his Big Finish stories with a title card there's not much else you can do.  The TV movie doesn't make sense in this context.

Anyway, here are the choices:


The old Five Faces began with An Unearthly Child and this is a sort of homage to that.  But it's also a good distillation of the Ninth Doctor with the mixture of goofy humour, poetry in the "turn of the world" speech and someone else saving the day at the end.  Plus the whole of the Tyler "family" feature.


Choosing a Tennant story for this context is surprisingly difficult.  So much of his era was tied up to arcs or multi-part stories that there's relatively few true stand alones.  Blink's generally thought of as his best installment and he's hardly in it but its still very much of and about his era.  Luckily another choice, further down the list, gives him a bit more screen time.

The Doctor's Wife.

The crowning achievement of the Eleventh Doctor era.  Utterly peerless and a good choice for also having some decent scenes for Amy & Rory.

The Day of the Doctor.

Obviously.  The original season had The Three Doctor of which this is an extended homage, plus it has the War Doctor making up numbers.  You could run Night of the Doctor beforehand too I suppose to make up the numbers for people who don't believe Hurt counts.  But if we're really going down that road you'd have to run two Tennant stories from before and after The Stolen Earth since he's apparently a different incarnation played by the same man or something.  Which obviously means he's only had one face so that's still five faces.  Oh sod this.


Which is a placeholder for now though even at this early stage, Listen feels like its going to be the episode everyone remembers from this run if not the whole of the Capaldi era.  Unless there are some swears in the last fifteen minutes on Saturday.

What do other readers think?

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).

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 ...

September 24, 2014

LightSail Sails through Day-in-the-Life Test by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft passed a major system test in which its solar sails were deployed for the first time in two years.

Furniture. by Feeling Listless

About You will have noticed that I've moved some of the furniture around on the sidebar of the blog. Creative Tourist has rejigged its arts & culture blog awards thingy so it didn't seem right to keep that big yellow block unless by some remote chance I'm not the list again at some point.

 So I've hopelessly moved the "support feeling listless" box up so that it's more visible. Wishlists and the like used to be quite the thing back in the day (about ten years ago) so I thought I might try and give it a go again.  Not that it's ever worked much for me.  I've had a link to a wishlist for the whole of those ten years and only ever received one thing.

MAVEN returns first images of Mars' atmosphere by The Planetary Society

On Sepember 22 at 02:24 UTC, Earth received word that MAVEN had ended its orbit insertion burn on time, completing its journey to Mars. Today MAVEN has released some of its very first data, taken by the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph just eight hours after arrival.

Reflecting on the success of Mars Orbiter Mission by The Planetary Society

Mars Orbiter Mission successfully arrived at Mars on September 24, 2014, India's first interplanetary mission. What does this mean for India?

All That is Known About Bennu by The Planetary Society

The OSIRIS-REx Design Reference Asteroid (DRA) document is now available to the public. The DRA is a compilation of all that is known about the OSIRIS-REx mission target, asteroid (101955) Bennu.

The Crawling Terror, Silhouette & The Blood Cell. by Feeling Listless

Books BBC Books have been pretty quick off the shelf with these three, published just a couple of weeks into the new series, well before views had become comfortable with the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi and written well in advance of much of the season having been written. Given just how different this Time Lord is to his predecessor, this must have been something of a challenge for the chosen authors akin to when Christopher Eccleston was in charge. As then, the publisher hasn’t taken the easiest approach of matching him with some familiar antagonists and so as I read through these in the past three weeks I was very keen to see how they coped and how accurately they managed to portray a character still in his screen infancy.

Mike Tucker’s approach in The Crawling Terror is to go full on rural with the Doctor and Clara pitching up at a village in Wiltshire that’s being menaced by science in the form of giant insects apparently being generated by the strange industrial plant on the outskirts. There are stone circles too, which may have something to do with it. Oh and there’s a full on military presence already investigating though not UNIT because the Brigadier’s in Geneva or the modern equivalent. With references to a “growning wheezing sound” and attempts to find a modern alternative to teeth and curls in the descriptions, Tucker has in mind to offer a loving homage to the TARGET novelisations. If only the format allowed for illustrations.

In this he largely succeeds. All of the ancient UNIT family have analogues, especially Colonel Dickinson who has all the hallmarks of having been written in because Nicholas Courtney’s agent couldn’t make the deal in time. There are moments when the Doctor and these military men are fighting against giant mosquitoes in which you can almost feel Malcolm Hulke taking the opportunity to fill in the CSO gaps, oh so obvious on screen. There’s even a put-upon mad scientist shackled to some disembodied voice sapping his will, the voice behind the face both which provide something the Doctor hasn’t had on screen for some time, a proper nemesis he can say nasty things to.

There are a couple of tonal issues. Throughout Tucker’s pop culture references are well above the proper target audience of the book (even though obviously there’s a chance that target audience has naughtily watched some of that stuff anything). The treatment of Clara is also potentially a bit too trad. She’s largely in character but isn’t a particularly strong part of the story, largely existing to have exposition shouted at her before being put in peril, which seems at odds with how she’s being portrayed on screen where she’s almost the brains of the operation. It’s one of the risks of these early releases, it’s impossible for the author to quite know what’s going to happen in the television series because as I said earlier, they’ve had to finish before broadcast.

In Silhouette, Justin Richards similarly decides to put this new Doctor in a familiar setting, taking leaf from Moffat’s datacore and returning Twelfth and Clara to the Victorian setting and the Paternoster Gang, investigating curious deaths, a carnival and a mysterious anachronistic power source. As anyone who’s familiar with Richards’s Devil in the Smoke Kindle short will know, as well as revelling in the atmosphere of the period, his characterisation of the gang is fabulously accurate and he takes particularly pleasure giving Strax plenty of stratagems involving multiply-consonanted weaponry (which Dan Starkey will take great pleasure rolling his tongue over if he’s given the opportunity to read an audio version).

If Tucker deliberately evokes the Pertwee era, Richards gives off an Eighth Doctor vibe, particularly the novels in the late era when he’d somewhat come to terms with his amnesia but still had the knotty problem of an arch enemy. Through a camera obscura, the novel’s villain Orestes Milton’s plan could just as easily be transposed and carried out for different motives by Sabbath, with the work of his various charges carried out by Trix early in narrative arc. There’s also a prop reference which made me cheer.  All of which makes me the more desperate for BBC Books to go back to that era somehow and bring us yet more stories of the McGann model.

As well as the regulars Clara’s especially well characterised too and she’s still an active participant despite the much larger cast of characters. There is one moment which doesn’t quite seem like something Jenna Coleman could comfortably reproduce but other than that her passage through the story doesn’t seem like it could easily be filled by another companion. The carnival’s a bit of a cliché but that looks to be a deliberate choice due to the low pagination of these young adult novels which in attempting to evoke a television story always tend to use a certain amount of shorthand in their world building. If anything some of those old Eighth Doctor novels became too baggy for the opposite reason with their tiny text.

James Goss does his first person narrative thing. James Goss is one of my favourite writers precisely because I can’t remember an occasion when he’s just written something with a straight third person narrative. He’s always aware of the medium within which he's writing.  The Blood Cell is the journal of a prison governor in the style of the tired 70s sitcom administrator whose had the misfortune of being landed with the Doctor as an inmate. Having been stuck with the usual routines for years, protocols from on high, here’s this tall stranger and his big-eyed shorter friend to entirely ignore them in a fight to convince him that something has gone terribly wrong in the prison and he really needs to start paying attention.

Prison drama is one of the more oddball of spin-off genres, extrapolating the Doctor’s usual classic episode or so in a cell into full blown narratives, from The Monster Inside to The Infinite Quest to Interference not to mention a few audios with the Doctor’s captivity the ultimate sanction for a person who usually has his freedom in all of time and space. Now we have another reinvention with Goss pressing many of the usual genre tropes about prisoners escaping and causing general mayhem into service on a story which is really all about the enlightenment of a single individual, the narrator and the very person who in these kinds of stories is never enlightened with the Doctor showing every sign of wanting to be there.

As Goss himself said in the previews to the novel in Doctor Who Magazine, if his Twelfth doesn’t sound quiet right he has the narrator’s memory as an excuse. While its true that just now and then he offers a few instances of a Tennant-like "Brilliant", what we have here is Capaldi’s bruiser, the odd inconsistencies an obvious result of the governor’s oscillating trust. When he and Clara speak it’s almost like reading script pages, the infamous café scene from Deep Breath an obvious template. Most of the other characters are just the sort of figures you’d find in prison films, and like Richards’s carnival members, that’s a deliberate choice due to the shorter pagination of these young adult novels.

How well do these authors portray the new Doctor and what clues it might give us for how he’ll appear on screen going forward?  Goss also says in the preview for these novels that “there’s definitely a moment early on in Episode 2 that made me go, ‘Oh, well, that’s different’”.  Tough he doesn’t elucidate on what that is, my guess is when they’re in the Dalek’s stomach and cruelly suggests the other soldiers might want to say a few words over the remains of the colleague they’re currently standing in. It’s dark stuff in which the Doctor’s alieness comes to the fore looking at the bigger picture of everyone’s safety rather than individual feelings. They’re almost the reverse of Pertwee’s moments of charm when his gruff arrogance melts.

Well, in The Crawling Terror, there is a scene in which the Doctor could intervene but for various reasons doesn’t in which we get the feeling that The Waters of Mars or similar situations wouldn’t have been quite as much of a moral dilemma (are the consequences of his previous incarnation’s actions the reason he has that face?). The Twelfth Doctor of Silhouette is a rather more benign presence, generally just a bit rude and grumpy. He’s also pretty amiable in The Blood Cell, until the business of things because apparent and there’s a moment when he screams at Clara as a representative of humanity and its failings which is pretty full on. The Doctor will be your very best friend until you cross him, or someone from your species does.

In all three cases there’s rarely a feeling that we’re hearing some generic Doctor of the kind Russell T Davies cautioned against when receiving the scripts for his first year and which turned up early on in the Eighth Doctor novels. The dialogue would seem to fit Capaldi and it’s difficult to imagine Tennant or Smith doing much of it, almost as though this incarnation has taken to heart the Hurt Doctor’s protestations. As I say, if anything he’s closer to the classic incarnations, notably Tom, which as we know shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since that’s who the initial television writers were told to work with initially. But as we’re seeing on screen the Twelfth Doctor is developing into a very distinctive new incarnation and that’s reflected in these books.

All three are out now from BBC Books, priced £6.99 each.  Review copies supplied.

Astro Data Hack Week by Astrobites


"If I multiply Fernando by face, I get a higher number than if I multiply him by cat" – @profjsb on deep neural nets #AstroHackWeek

— Astro Hack Week (@AstroHackWeek) September 18, 2014

Astro Data Hack Week was one of the most valuable weeks of my PhD so far. This wasn’t a week of watching; it was a week of doing.

The 'active learning space' being put to good use

The ‘active learning space’ being put to use

Jake VanderPlas organised the five-day workshop, beginning September 15th, 2014, and held at the University of Washington in Seattle. Around 40 participants – students, post-docs, astronomers, ex-astronomers, (one surgeon!) – all with an interest in data science, occupied an ‘active learning room’ in the UDub library. Each morning, one or two experts in data science, statistics or machine learning delivered a lecture to the group. In the afternoons, unreserved hacking began.

First of all, what is hacking? Hacking can mean deconstructing something that already exists, ‘hacking’ into it and modifying it to fit your purpose. Or it can mean building a tool as quickly as possible, not fussing over details, just getting something working, exploring and experimenting as you go. We mostly did the latter. Our language was Python and our data sets ranged from galaxy images to stellar light curves.

The lectures: ipython notebooks, Gaussian processes, random forests, FML

The first morning’s lecture was delivered by Fernando Perez (UC Berkeley), creator of ipython. ipython notebooks are excellent tools for teaching, demonstrating and exploring ideas. After Perez’s talk, I coded in a notebook for the rest of the week. Especially cool notebook features: slider widgets! You can control a parameter with a widget and watch a function change in real time as you manipulate it by hand. After a coffee break, VanderPlas delivered a great lecture on effective computing with numpy (check out the notebook here). If you’re a python user interested in machine learning there are loads of useful tools available in the Scikit-Learn python module (another VanderPlas notebook here).

Hogg gets philosophical

Hogg gets philosophical

Stripped-down stats was Tuesday’s theme. We went back to basics – Daniela Huppenkothen (Amsterdam/NYU) gave a great lecture on classical statistics. On Wednesday morning David Hogg (NYU) got extremely philosophical, discussing Bayesian stats.

The scientific community is Bayesian, individual people aren’t” – Hogg discussed the idea that each scientist lies somewhere on the Bayesian-frequentist spectrum and you can think of each person as being like a sample from the giant posterior PDF of Bayesianism.

We talked about whether you should ever compute the evidence, or Fully Marginalised Likelihood (FML). Hogg says no – you should use cross validation instead. The evidence is a normalisation constant that appears in Bayes’ theorum. For most inference problems you don’t ever actually need to calculate it, because you don’t care about proper normalisation. You only care about normalisation when you have to compare different models: e.g. are your data best described by a universe with or without inflation? In practise, the evidence calculation is extremely computationally expensive and can be sensitive to the choices you make (what kind of sampler you use, what kinds of priors you apply, etc). Cross validation is also used for model comparison but is way easier and may have fewer hidden pitfalls. It involves simply training your model on one subset of data and testing it on another.

“Great intro to machine learning for Astronomy by @profjsb. Covered lots of astro-specific ML caveats #AstroHackWeek” – @AstroHackWeek

Joshua Bloom (UC Berkeley) talked about classification problems on Thursday morning. In particular, he recommended random forest. Random forest is a type of classification algorithm that uses a collection of decision trees to assign labels to data. Given a set of data (instances) with characteristics (features), you can train your algorithm to classify them. This is supervised learning: you have a set of training data for which you know the correct label. You train the classifier on a subset of the data, whilst holding some back. Then you test the classifier on the remaining data to see how it did. There are a few different types of classifying algorithms out there, but it turns out that random forest almost always performs well for most problems. Random forest fever gripped the group and a load of (very successful) random forest hacks were implemented on Thursday afternoon, including an awesome hack by James Davenport (Washington) who used random forest to produce a periodogram! On Friday morning, Zeljko Ivezic took us through super-useful examples from the AstroML book; the book that a lot of the week was based upon.

#AstroHackWeek: @ivezic is crunching through many examples of improved data analysis recipes derived from probability theory. BUY HIS BOOK

— Phil Marshall (@drphilmarshall) September 19, 2014



The rules of hacking are simple:

1) Work with someone (whilst you can hack alone, it’s far more productive to work in small groups or pairs).

2) Be experimental (“fail fast”!).

3) Take advantage of the expertise in the room (there’s always someone who knows more than you in certain areas).

4) Offer help when needed (there’s always someone who knows less than you in certain areas).

Some participants arrived with clear hack ideas already laid out and some were happy to learn something new by contributing to other people’s hacks. Small groups and pairs formed immediately and everyone got to work. Michael Gully-Santiago (UT Austin) pitched a great idea: he’s taking all the figures that appear in the astroML book (for which the source code is available here) and making them interactive. A large group hacked on this for an entire afternoon. See some of the results here. Other hacks included using Gaussian processes to model time-series, multi-pixel hierarchical SED modelling, adding custom cell macros to the ipython notebook, and more. Check out the hack pad for a (incomplete!) list. An eerie outsider’s-view on the hacking process was provided to us by data science ethnographer, Brittany Fiore (Washington) who observed us across the week. Her field notes offer a fascinating insight into the world of hacking and the behaviour of astronomers from a different perspective. Her most shocking observation was the air of imposter syndrome that seemed to hover over the group…

My hacked ethnographic fieldnotes from #AstroHackWeek! @AstroHackWeek

— Brittany Fiore (@BrittaFiore) September 20, 2014

“Afternoon breakouts starting: here’s @exoplaneteer leading a session on Probabilistic Graphical Models #AstroHackWeek ” – @AstroHackWeek


These were without a doubt my FAVOURITE part of the week. ‘Break-outs’ were encouraged throughout the afternoons. These were short sessions (between half an hour and an hour) where an expert in the room delivered a class on a topic requested by participants. They were informal yet informative, with the teachers barely given an hour’s warning, so often completely raw. Sometimes the ‘experts’ were just the people in the room with the most expertise, trying to teach topics that they were also learning. I’ve actually found that these can often be the best learning environments. When there is no ‘expert in the room’, there are no stupid questions and everyone tries to learn together. Dan Foreman-Mackey  (NYU) delivered at least four break-outs, including his extremely popular Gaussian process tutorial (slides available here). Other break-outs covered hierarchical inference, nested sampling, probabilistic graphical models, Cython, Julia, neural networks and more.

I really think we should “Hack” more as a community. When you sit down with a collaborator, don’t just talk, test out ideas together and see if you can get something working in an afternoon – ipython notebooks are super useful for this. Why not organise a hack day in your department? It’s a really good way to encourage cross-disciplinary communication. You might find out that a cosmologist uses the exact same methods as you, and you’d have never found out otherwise. Also – why don’t more conferences have hack sessions? We’re starting to see it at conferences like AAS, SPIE, .astronomy and NAM, but it should be the norm, not the novelty. And whilst the conferences mentioned above usually concentrate on outreach and web site building style hacks, that doesn’t need to be the only focus of a hack day. Seriously useful scientific tools were built at the astro data workshop. Why stop there?

Each day ended with wrap-up and presentations (always very entertaining!), before we were kicked out of the ‘active learning space’. Hacking didn’t end, however! We just relocated to a pub and continued hacking well into the night, with beer for lubrication.

What’s the future of Astro Data Hack Week?

I really hope we see another of these hack weeks soon. Hack days at AAS and .astronomy  are wonderful, but short. Having an entire week makes a huge difference to the amount you can achieve. Follow the Astro Data blog for updates and to see hacks as they get posted. Fingers crossed for a repeat next year!

Fried after amazing, stimulating and productive #AstroHackWeek. Thanks @jakevdp @davidwhogg @Tiana_Athriel @MooreFound @SloanFoundation!

— Fernando Perez (@fperez_org) September 19, 2014

And we're done! Thanks everyone for a great #AstroHackWeek 2014. Watch the website for updates, and (tentatively) see you at NYU next year!

— Astro Hack Week (@AstroHackWeek) September 20, 2014

More links:

Hogg’s blog

mpld3 – matplotlib figures in the browser.

Seaborn - beautiful statistical plotting package.

Pep8 - make sure your python code is properly formatted.

10 reasons why Alibaba may still be undervalued. by Resonance China

resonance_10 reasons long BABA

This infographic from Saxo Group’s paints a bullish picture for Alibaba’s future prospects in the wake of the China internet giant’s record-breaking IPO last week. Beyond focusing on the current scale of Alibaba’s operations, this investment analysis focuses on the still relatively early-stage development of China’s enormous population with domestic consumption only making up 36% of GDP compared with 67% in the United States, and digital penetration only reaching 46% compared with 82% in the U.S. While the current numbers are impressive, Alibaba is ideally positioned to benefit from the continued rise of the Chinese consumer over the coming years. [TradingFloor]

這個由盛宝银行集团旗下tradingfloor.com製作的信息圖展示了阿裏巴巴繼上禮拜發佈了中國互聯網史上最大IPO后接下來的看漲走向。除了集中在阿裏巴巴現有的業務上,這份投資分析報告還著重對比了仍在發展中的中國龐大人口數目,在本國消費只佔據36%的GDP,相較之下美國的本國消費卻佔有67%的GDP, 而數據遍佈率在國内只有46%相較之下美國卻達到了82%。儘管現在這些數字仍引人關注,阿裏巴巴正處在一個理想的處境並在接下來幾年會因持續增長的中國消費者而繼續受益。[TradingFloor]

September 23, 2014

A moment of silence for the iPod by Zarino

With all this month’s hoo-hah about U2 albums and phones the size of your head, it’s easy to miss a silent void in the gadget world. The iPod, Apple’s breakthrough device, passed away quietly, in its sleep, on 9th September 2014.

It’s the iPod we have to thank for our entire modern ecosystem of pervasive audio and video content, for the rise of the single, the death of the album, and for those iconic white earbuds that have come to signify a whole generation.

2nd Generation iPod

I got my first iPod in Christmas 2002.1 It replaced a much-loved Sony CD Walkman. The magical feeling of a shiny silver disk whirling around in my palm was replaced with the even more magical feeling of a tiny hard drive, clicking and whirring, beneath a seamless shell of chrome and acrylic.

The radial touchwheel was at one and the same time the most alien and most intuitive device I think I’ve ever used. I spent a few confused moments beside the Christmas tree, swiping upwards and sideways on the wheel, as if it were my iBook’s trackpad, until the radial nature—well—clicked. Apple had somehow made the trackpad even simpler: clockwise, anti-clockwise, that’s it.

Long before the direct manipulation of “pictures under glass,” the iPod clickwheel physically connected you with your music, turned the iPod into an extension of your arm, and your music into an extension of your mind. It was physically, technologically, and conceptually magic. Unlike anything before, and anything since.2

I spent hours looking at the hairline crack between the chrome backing and the transparent acrylic front, wondering how the thing held together. In a world of gaudy plastic CD players, the iPod was like a piece of alien technology, delivered, from the future, in a divinely symmetrical cuboid box.

And the sound it made when the disk spun up! I will never forget that sound.

Even the two iPods I eventually replaced it with—an iPod Photo in 2004 and a matte black iPod Classic in 2007—were little more than minor tweaks to the original design. Apple hit the mark first time round. How can you improve on perfection?

iPod, 2001–2014. You will be remembered.

  1. A 2nd Generation iPod. You could tell the 2nd Gen from the 1st by the captive plastic cover on the FireWire port, and the touch-sensitive wheel. The 1st Gen had an actual piece of plastic that rotated. 

  2. Yes, even now. There was a playfulness to the iPod clickwheel – a dialogue, between content, device, and operator – that you just don’t get with an iPhone touchscreen. You spun through your music with centrifugal force, the iPod clicking maniacally, like you were tickling its sensitive bits. 

A Tour of 67P... by The Planetary Society

Stuart Atkinson takes us on a stunning guided visual tour of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

How I will be watching Mars Orbiter Mission's arrival by The Planetary Society

Here are a few links to what will hopefully be working video feeds watching India's first-ever attempt to place a spacecraft into orbit around another planet. Begin watching in just a few hours, at 6:15 IST / 00:45 UT / 17:45 PDT for an orbit insertion burn scheduled to begin at 07:30 IST / 04:00 UT / 19:00 PDT!

My viewing habits ... 100 hours by Simon Wardley

Out of curiosity, some time ago I started to record my viewing habits. Out of the last 100 hours of "recreational video" that I've watched then approximately :-

2% on Terrestrial TV
2% on 4OD
2% on Amazon Prime
4% at the Cinema.
9% on BBC iPlayer
34% on YouTube [highest volume]
47% on Netflix

A Glimpse Into NASA's New History Archives by The Planetary Society

NASA's immense reference collection got a makeover at its Washington, D.C. location recently. Jason Callahan gives you a glimpse behind the scenes as guests made their way into the new rooms while enjoying good conversation and, of course, Moon Pies.

45th Binghamton Geomorphology Symposium Report by The Planetary Society

The 45th Binghamton Geomorphology Symposium, usually focused on terrestrial studies, shifted this year to planetary science. Ted Stryk gives us an overview.

Welcome to Mars, MAVEN and MOM! by Astrobites

This week is an exciting time to be a Martian. On Sunday evening, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite successfully entered orbit around Mars. Not to be outdone, this evening (tomorrow morning in Europe and Asia) the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will do the same. You may be wondering why we need two send two more missions to Mars, when it’s already inhabited entirely by robots. Today let’s look at each of these missions and their scientific goals to see what we’ll learn about Mars from each of these orbiters.

MAVEN: Where’s all the water?

For more than 100 years, there have been claims of water on Mars. In 1877, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli observed a series of lines on the surface of Mars, which he described as canali, or canals. Two decades later, Percival Lowell published a book describing his observations of these canals and his belief that they were built for irrigation by an advanced civilization. This claim was very controversial among the astronomers of the era, and was discredited when spectroscopic observations of Mars found no evidence for significant water vapor in its atmosphere.

Recently, the idea of water on Mars has returned, although not quite at the level Lowell believed. Data from the Mars Phoenix Lander suggest that the north polar ice cap has as much as 30% of the total water content of the Greenland ice sheet. In fact, if all the surface ice on Mars were melted, it is believed that Mars would be inundated with an ocean more than 100 feet deep! The current best estimate is that the total water content on Mars, including the water tied up in clay and other rocks, is somewhere between 6 and 27 percent of the total water content on the Earth.

There is also evidence that billions of years ago, Mars had considerably more water than it does now. Meteorites from the red planet that have landed on Earth appear to have been exposed to liquid water, while there is also geological evidence for lakes, rivers, and deltas that may have existed 2-4 billion years ago.

An artist's rendering of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. Earth NOT to scale.

An artist’s rendering of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. Earth NOT to scale.

Now that we’re pretty sure there was water, what happened to it? This is the question that MAVEN is trying to answer. MAVEN will test the theory that Martian water was lost as the planet’s magnetic field disappeared, allowing the solar wind to push away the planet’s atmosphere and water vapor. With eight instruments, MAVEN will probe the upper atmosphere of Mars and its interaction with the solar wind over the next Earth year. Combined with observations from Curiosity from the ground, scientists will be able to project the observations backwards in time to when Mars had a significantly thicker atmosphere to understand if the solar wind is entirely responsible for the removal of Martian surface water.

MOM: A First for India

The first successful mission to Mars was Mariner 4, which reached Mars in 1965 and took 21 images during its flyby. Since then there have been many successful Mars missions—15 by NASA, 3 by the Soviet space program and 2 by the European Space Agency. Tonight, India hopes to join this list with the arrival of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to the red planet.

MOM contains five instruments which will study Mars. Three are designed to probe the upper atmosphere, while one maps the temperature of the surface of the planet and one takes images of the surface. These instruments will collect data for six months, complementing the observations taken by MAVEN and Curiousity.

While the data will be valuable, MOM’s main purpose is as a “demonstration of technology,” showing that India is quickly becoming a significant player in the field of planetary exploration. This mission comes only six years after the launch of the Chandrayaan lunar orbiter. MOM isn’t the end goal of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) either: it is the beginning. If successful, ISRO plans to launch a second Mars orbiter between 2017 and 2020, this time with a larger science mission planned.

An Artist's rendition of the Mars Orbiter Mission near Mars. Hopefully, this is what the satellite will look like tomorrow!

An Artist’s rendition of the Mars Orbiter Mission near Mars. Hopefully, this is what the satellite will look like tomorrow!

This is an exciting time for the scientists who study Mars. Opportunity is still rolling along 11 years after landing on the surface. Curiousity joined Opportunity in 2012, and there will be at least three more landers on the Martian surface in the next ten years. The addition of ISRO to the worldwide planetary science community is great for scientists both inside and outside of India. Together, MAVEN and MOM present an intriguing look at the current status of Martian exploration across the world; data from both and their successors will paint a picture of a Mars long gone, perhaps with massive oceans and a thick atmosphere.


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.

Sweetex. by Feeling Listless

Music So So Gay offers a pretty good defence of Sweet 7, the "Sugababes" album which is widely thought of as killing the project:

"Believe it or not, Sugababes were coming for the Pussycat Dolls’ sound. It was out with the quirky-yet-accessible pop the group were known for with monumental records like ‘Push The Button’ and ‘Hole in The Head’, and in with auto-tuned vocals, guest rappers, and well-exhausted lyrics about getting crunk in the club.

"The result wasn’t actually altogether as woeful as the eventual album sales and chart position would indicate. Even though Sweet 7 peaked at #14 in the UK and was branded a catastrophic flop, it still charted higher than the first Sugababes album, One Touch, (which hit #26). Where One Touch earned Sugababes a mostly favourable comparison to All Saints, Sweet 7 eerily echoed the cursed reception of Spice Girls’ final studio album Forever. Did the British public catch a nauseating case of déjà vu? Oh, not another well-loved English girl group posing a little too hard for the American pop-R&B market."
I mean it's not good enough for me to want to go and listen to the thing again, but it's worth reading for how it notices that the creative forces have had much success elsewhere and that to some extent, it's promotional mismanagement which hampered its success.

"fewer than one third of all speaking roles went to women" by Feeling Listless

Film Film industry perpetuates gender discrimination, says UN-backed study:

"The report, details of which were revealed yesterday by the actor and activist Geena Davis, found that fewer than one third of all speaking roles went to women, who were also largely absent from positions of power. Only 22.5% of the overall fictional big screen workforce was shown to be made up of female employees, and fewer than 15% were portrayed as being employed as business executives, political figures, or in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics."
As you will have noticed this is something I perpetually mention in my weekly round-ups, the number of roles taken by men in films which could equally and potentially more interestingly by played by women, usually in positions of power.   It's disheartening to notice how, despite the success of Lucy, despite the audience's obvious interesting in seeing it, a Black Widow film still hasn't been green lit or at least been scheduled with due courtesy to Scarlett Johansson's maternity leave and that MARVEL are more interested in filling the potential slot with a Doctor Strange film.

The massive impact of celebrity scandals on brand endorsements in China. by Resonance China

resonance_KOL scandal KK

resonance_KOL scandal index

resonance_kol scandal purchase intent

A fascinating study released by Millward Brown breaks down the seismic shift in consumer sentiment towards Kai Ko (Ke Zhendong) in the wake of his involvement in the recent drug scandal with Jaycee Chan. After winning the Golden Horse for Best New Actor for his breakout role in 2011’s 那些年,我們一起追的女孩 (You are the Apple of My Eye), Kai Ko cemented his status as a rising star with lead roles in the Tiny Times blockbuster franchise and endorsements with 19 major brands including Adidas, KFC, Nivea and Canon. But after peaking in Millward Brown’s celebrity marketability index in July of 2014, Kai Ko has seen seen his brand value plummet across all metrics with Chinese consumers now preferring not to buy products associated with the embattled star. [Millward Brown via Kantar]

Millward Brown發佈了令人震驚的研究調查詳細分析了消費者們在近日柯震東與房祖民的吸毒事件發生之後對柯震東態度的巨大改變。2011年, 柯震東憑藉“那些年,我們一起追的女孩”而榮獲金馬獎最佳新演員之後一炮走紅。之後,柯震東在風靡全國的小時代系列電影中擔任主角以及與十九個大牌子(包括阿迪達斯,肯德基,妮維亞和佳能)的廣告合作鞏固了他崛起新秀的地位。 然後在2014年7月達到了Millward Brown的明星市場潛力指數的巔峰后, 因吸毒事件,柯震東的品牌價值隨即一落千丈,並且中國消費者們表示不願再購買由受人非議的明星代言的相關產品。[Millward Brown via Kantar]

September 22, 2014

SHARAD: Delving Deep at Mars by The Planetary Society

Some of Mars' most important secrets are hiding beneath the surface.

Mars Orbiter Mission test firing successful; all ready for orbit insertion by The Planetary Society

There was celebration in the Mars mission control room in Bangalore on Monday following the success of the crucial four-second test firing of the Mars Orbiter Mission’s (MOM) 440-Newton liquid apogee motor. MOM will now go ahead with the nominal plan for the Mars orbit insertion on September 24 at 07:30 IST (02:00 UT / September 23 19:00 PDT).

If Wardley mapping is so powerful ... by Simon Wardley

... why isn't it more commonly used?

For over a decade I've used mapping to startling effect having outwitted much greater foes and reduced waste in existing environments. From many hundreds of millions in new opportunities, cost savings and raised funds. For those few who use mapping in earnest, the smorgasbord of management doctrine feels outdated and current popular tools simple artefacts of a deeper process. Lessons such as the use of multiple management methods become ingrained, tactical gameplay around ecosystems becomes second nature and strategy takes on a new meaning. There is no turning back when you start mapping.

To contrast today's thinking with mapping then I'll return to the battle of Thermopylae (the tale of the three hundred) and the clash between the Greeks and the mighty army of Xerxes.  The great general 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 (see figure 1).

Figure 1 -  Battle of Thermopylae

Now, imagine a universe where Themistocles had no situational awareness e.g. no map and no understanding of the landscape. Imagine on the eve of battle, if the troops had been called together and Themistocles had tried to rally them with a strategy not based upon the environment and context of battle but instead based upon the presentation of a SWOT diagram (see figure 2).

Figure 2 - Themistocles' SWOT

Now compare the two figures. What is more useful in battle - a map or a SWOT diagram? Now ask yourself, what do you more commonly see in business?

Had it been the normal practice to base a strategy upon a SWOT as opposed to situational awareness then I doubt we would have ever got the legend of the three hundred, the Greeks would have lost to the Persians and things would be very different today. On the bright side we might have avoided a very dodgy Hollywood film. Fortunately, Themistocles was well versed in situational awareness.

To be honest, I find teaching situational awareness hard in business because few CxOs have a military background and understand its importance. The best text on business is still a 2,200+ year old manuscript (the Art of Warfare) which very few understand. However, 'Wardley mapping' - as it has been nicknamed - continues to show its usefulness and is slowly gaining traction. 

For those wanting to know how to map - the key is to start (imperfect maps are better than none) and a simple step guide is provided. I occasionally hear strategy consultants tell me that they do something similar, well let us be clear - that appears to be prattle. In a decade I've seen no evidence of any kind whatsoever of a similar technique. Fortunately the technique is all creative commons, so have a go yourself. You don't need strategy consultants, they are generally a waste of time and money giving you little more than copying others.

Which leads me to the question of why don't more companies use it? Well, the technique might be ineffective and the observed benefits just simply coincidence. There are many examples of positive use and whilst it seems unlikely that this is just fortuitous chance it cannot be discounted. However, more likely is that change in management practice is extremely slow. Given this assumption then it'll take 15 to 20 years before mapping makes any kind of dent (assuming it continues to demonstrate positive effects and isn't superseded by something else). That's just the way things are.

However, there's another problem. Take a look a figure 1 and figure 2 again. When using a map Themistocles could have decided to defend around Athens or Thebes or any number of 'wheres'. The why was a question of why here over there. In the end, a strategy was devised to take advantage of the landscape and to funnel the overwhelming forces of Xerses into the hot gates. This process of strategy is inherently more complex than a 2 x 2 matrix. It's more reactive, requires greater understanding and flexibility. The 'Keep it Simple Stupid' mantra would argue for the use of a SWOT and abandoning any form of mapping.

I suspect that this complexity will be the real problem with maps and why adoption will take a very long time (more like 30 years) regardless of benefits. It's the same issue behind our love affair of single size approaches - outsource vs insource, push vs pull, agile vs six sigma, or hierarchical vs network. We like simple.

Maps, like life, are by nature more complex than our desire for simple answers.

Historically, approaches which change our way of thinking and shift us from a simple view of life - whether Boyd's OODA loops (1973), Business Relationship Management (Ernst & Young, mid 1990s), Cynefin (Snowden, 1999) or Scrum (Takeuchi et al, 1986) - take a long time to spread. Mapping has a long and slow road ahead of it in which (despite its apparent usefulness) it will have to stand the test and rigours of time. I am under no illusions regarding this.

However, on a positive note then this also has a considerable upside. Uncommon use will mean that mapping will retain for many years any ability it might have to create a significant competitive advantage over others. I still expect in a decade's time to be able to understand and map an industry, then play the game and take over an entire market with a fraction of resources of competitors. I still expect to be playing chess against competitors who can't see the board well into old age. I expect by then, I'll be an even better chess player.

I'm ten years into this journey but as Lao Tzu would say "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". There's a long long road ahead but it looks like a pleasant journey.

Void cosmology by Astrobites

The distribution of matter in the Universe has much to say about its constituents and evolution. The authors of this paper challenge our view of the large-scale structure of the Universe by studying the counterpart of the distribution of matter – the distribution of cosmic voids.

The matter and energy content of the Universe, and its evolution, are encoded in the spatial distribution of galaxies. Primordial fluctuations in the gas that made up the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang collapsed by gravity to form the first stars and galaxies. Galaxies clustered, forming a network of walls, filaments, clusters and voids, that we know as the large-scale structure. This clustering is usually measured through the correlation function of galaxies, which gives the excess number of galaxy pairs as a function of separation, relative to the expected number if galaxies where distributed at random. Alternatively, one can think of the correlation function as giving a characteristic scale for the separation of galaxies.

In 1979, Alcock and Paczynski devised a test that would give information on the properties of the Universe. They proposed that any spherically symmetric structure in space should have the same dimension on the plane of the sky and along the line of sight. This applies in particular to the characteristic separation of galaxies. This scale should be the same if measured from the angular separation of galaxies in the sky, or from their separation along the line of sight (or redshift). This test is useful for constraining the expansion history of the Universe and the nature of the mysterious dark energy. One drawback of the Alcock and Paczynski test is the fact that galaxies are not at rest. The measurement of their position along the line of sight is actually subject to distortion due to the component of their velocity in that direction. The novelty of this paper is the idea that there is a characteristic scale of separation between cosmic voids to which the Alcock-Paczynski test can be applied and that is not subject to the velocity uncertainty.

Adapted from Figure 1 of Hamaus et al.

Figure 1. The correlation function of galaxies (left), voids and galaxies (middle) and between voids (right) from numerical simulations of the Universe. The x-axis is the separation on the plane of the sky and the y-axis gives the separation along the line of sight. The correlation between voids shows more symmetry between the two directions because voids are not affected by velocity distortions. Adapted from Figure 1 of Hamaus et al.

The authors use simulations of the Universe to demonstrate this in Figure 1, where they compare the correlation function of galaxies, the cross-correlation of voids and galaxies, and the correlation between voids. The correlation function is shown color-coded and contoured as a function of separation on the sky (x-axis) and along the line of sight (y-axis). The contours look more symmetrical for the correlation between voids (right panel), while the correlation between galaxies or between galaxies and voids are subject to distortions due to the velocities of galaxies. On large scales, galaxies tend to fall towards overdensities, squashing the correlation function along the line of sight. On small scales, the velocities become much larger and harder to predict, smearing the correlation (although this effect is harder to see in Figure 1 because of its resolution).

The authors study the sensitivity of the ellipticity of the contours shown in Figure 1 to changing the properties of the Universe. They find that void correlations can provide a cleaner result for the Alcock and Paczynski test at redshift of ~1 and only if compared to the distribution of galaxies on large scales. At lower redshifts and on smaller scales, galaxies continue to provide better constraints on the expansion history of the Universe. A combination of both methods should be explored. With the advent of deeper and larger galaxy redshift surveys in the upcoming decade (such as Euclid and WFIRST), voids might claim a role in precision cosmology.


Last Chance to Fly Your Name to Asteroid Bennu by The Planetary Society

You have just until September 30, 2014 at 23:59 Pacific time, to submit your name, and to tell your friends and family to submit their names, to fly to asteroid Bennu and back on board NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

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.

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!)

Chinese fashion brands dominate sales on Taobao and Tmall. by Resonance China

resonance_tmall menswear

resonance_tmall womens

resonance_tmall mens shoes

resonance_tmall women's shoes


resonance_tmall luggage


These charts compiled China Internet Watch tracks brand sales for the month of July on Taobao and Tmall for women’s shoes, men’s shoes, women’s clothing, men’s clothing, and bags & luggage. By in large, Chinese brands dominated the charts without a single international brand making the top ten in women’s shoes, and with Playboy and Seven Wolves leading men’s shoes and men’s clothing respectively. One of the few foreign brands to lead a category is Korean women’s clothing brand SZ, which has capitalized on the exploding popularity of Korean celebrities and dramas. [China Internet Watch]

China Internet Watch搜集了七月所有有品牌的女鞋,男鞋,女裝,男裝,以及包箱,在淘寳以及天貓上的銷售量。大致看來,沒有任何一家國際品牌入選至女鞋銷售的前十名, 全部都是中國本地的品牌, 而Playboy以及七匹狼則分別領先了男鞋和男裝的銷售量。唯一一家領先女裝的國際品牌則是是韓國女裝品牌SZ, 而該品牌則是利用了韓國人氣明星以及韓國偶像熱潮。[China Internet Watch]

Elizabeth Wurtzel on getting married. by Feeling Listless

People Oh, well, congratulations. Writing in The New York Times:

"I DID not expect to fall in love at 46, and I did not expect to plan a wedding at 47. Except that I always expect to be surprised.

I would love to say that I don’t know why I never got around to this until now, but that would be a big fat lie. I never got married because who would want to? I was the worst girlfriend ever. And yes, I am the crazy ex-girlfriend you hear about. I had no regard for time of day or time of year or time at all. Perhaps I just had no regard. It’s not like I called boyfriends at 2 a.m. because something was wrong: I did it because I liked to talk in the dark when there was nothing good to watch on TV anymore."

September 21, 2014

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.

MAVEN orbit insertion timeline by The Planetary Society

Today's the day that MAVEN enters orbit at Mars, bringing the number of Mars orbiters up to four. So far everything looks good. The orbit insertion burn should begin tonight at 18:50 PDT / 01:50 UTC. I'll be on stage with Mat Kaplan and Rich Zurek at Planetary Radio Live, keeping up to date with the latest news from the spacecraft; here is a timeline in PDT, UTC, CEST, and IST to help you follow along.

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.

Time Heist. by Feeling Listless

TV Decades from now when Doctor Who Magazine has a few pages to fill between the interview with Christopher Eccleston on the occasion of him finally agreeing to record for Big Finish and The Time Team’s review of Alien Bodies (because there’s no stopping them), a successor to Steve Lyons will be tasked with trying to explain the ingredients for what makes a middling episode or clutch of episodes. Having scanned through the franchise’s seventy five year history, no mean task considering by then, hopefully, television and everything else is all treated on equal footing, the author, pushing a deadline will start to make a list of episodes which don’t quite come off, which are nice ideas, pretty well executed without the wow factor then begin their analysis.

Creating such a list won’t be easy because as we all know, Doctor Who is amazing even when it’s rubbish or as is the case for the purposes of this article being crafted in the future, middling. There’s a general consensus about amazing episodes and stories. There’s a similar consensus about utter rubbish. Our hack in the future will no doubt have a recent poll available in order to help filter those out. It’s to the middle of the table he’ll be glancing, to the stories which are just sort of there, which tend to find themselves watched by fans who’re working their way through everything in order but no one bothers to watch out of choice. Perhaps within the next twenty odd years there’ll be a fair few more middling adventures. Perhaps and let’s finally get to this, Time Heist is so middling, so inoffensive, so bland that it simply gets overlooked.

At the risk of pre-empting the task of this journobot, let’s try and break down exactly what constitutes a middling episode (and for the purpose of this I’m going to use “episode” even though I agree that it’s incredibly annoying when its done in relation to the classic series – but this isn’t the classic series). In short, a middling episode is one which has all of the elements of a Doctor Who story (Time Lord, companion, hijinks) but leaves you feeling nothing at the end and not quite knowing why. Amazing episodes make you want to punch the air. Rubbish episodes make you angry and not a little bit appalled. Middling episode make you think, "oh is that it". But I thought... Oh, nope, that’s it. Which in it’s own way is also appalling but because you can see that someone was at least trying you can’t be too angry.

Which is where I was as the Doctor wandered his empty TARDIS in the final scene having just dropped everyone off. Due to dematerialisation montage, I was expecting something else, some extra twist in which it turned out he’d found something else in the private vault, something which made the whole thing more worthwhile than what the actors apparently describe as a Moffat loop but then we’re into next time, a Matt Smith lookalike in a staff room, Capaldi wearing Tennant’s brown coat and no inadvertent Eccleston reference at all. “Oh. is that it?” I wondered out loud as I sighed and went off to the kitchen to fill the water reservoir on my Tassimo machine. How am I going to review that? As I loaded the Kenco coffee pod into the top, a mug underneath and pressed the button on the front, I thought, what would Graham Kibble-White do? Then realised I had no idea what.

Presumably you’re expecting me to give examples of other middling episodes. In the classic series, it’s The Savages. It’s The Dominators. It’s The Mutants. It’s Meglos, Terminus, The Mark of the Rani and nothing in the McCoy era because everything is either amazing or rubbish. In nuWho terms, it’s The Long Game, 42 and Night Terrors. Of course the problem with this process in relation to older episodes is that we’ve probably passed through them enough times to be able to set aside the flaws in favour of the gems (even The Mutants – “It’s…..”) so it’s easy to forget the initial reaction of the shrug, the “oh well that was, wasn’t it” and “well they can’t all be as good as…” and “could have been worse, could have been Fear Her…” The Doctor Who fan, probably Frank Skinner, equivalent of justifying a goalless draw.

How in the case of Time Heist do we get to “oh, is that it?” Genuinely, I think, in this case, a large proportion of it, ooh 60% at least, is because the twists aren’t strong enough. The notion of the Architect gives every impression of being some higher power, so even though from the opening scene he’s already our default notion, because we’re watching a show that’s generally clever than that, we’re expecting something less obvious, that the Doctor’s chain being yanked by some higher power ala The Scream of the Shalka and for their identity to be left dangling at the end, presumably to be revealed as being Missy or some such. When the Doctor realises that he’s giving himself instructions from the future it's incredibly disappointing. It’s another Moffat loop. It’s The Big Bang (amongst many other things). Again.

It’s a rescue mission rather than a bank heist. Fair enough, that was a surprise, but is it good enough? The idea of monsters being nothing of the sort and simply wanting to be free really is getting old, isn’t it? We’ve had one nearly every season in the Moffat era, from the congregation of limbs in Hide to the Minotaur in The God Complex. The surprise here would have been if the Doctor’s been hoodwinked into freeing the two of them and they decided to go on a murderous rampage anyway as revenge for their captivity. Plus The Teller (everyone is a definitive article in this episode) is an example of a mono-trope monster who offers more questions than answers about their phylogeny. As they head off to repopulate their species, what exactly do they eat without memories and brains of others to feast on?

Same the reveal that Ms Delphox is a clone of her own boss. Well of course she is. You don’t hire Keeley Hawes under these circumstances to play the lackey. It’s the Doctor Who equivalent of a murder mystery series having a pretty decent actor in amongst a bunch of unknowns. The surprise here would have been if Karabraxos had turned out to be played by someone else or a recognisable character under an assumed name. As the scene began, I thought as I always do that it’d be Davros. Then, with Absolom Dark glimpsed earlier in the episode for about three seconds as they entered the private vault I even thought it would turn out to be an annex of the Braxiatel Collection and we’d find Jenna’s Titanic co-star Miles Richardson sitting in the chair. Instead I was in the criminal position of being disappointed to see Keeley Hawes. Again.

Of course they’re not dead we don’t care enough about them yet. Even for Doctor Who, Psi and Saibra’s characters are so minimalist, the script notes for them must have been written in haiku. Well I call shenanigans. I bet when the Pixley special’s published, we’ll discover that each of them had originally been gifted with an extra introductory scene, which went south either in the filming or editing. True, it’s a trope of the heist genre (and placing the Doctor in this kind of story is an idea so good Big Finish have their version discounted this weekend) that some of the protagonists are reduced to their ability (safe cracker, explosives expert), but as was also the case in Voyage of the Damned, when you try and force functional characters into the structure of a series which tends to be richer in that regard it never works. Compare this to The God Complex. Now imagine The God Complex with all of the character’s introductory scenes left out.

Which means that after their ten or twenty minutes of screen time when Saibra’s “killed off” despite the Doctor’s reaction, and to be fair all of the other actors really try to sell it, we’re not convinced she’s dead. She’s simply not had enough screen time. Same Psi when he makes his sacrifice. The surprise would have been if indeed they’d stayed dead, but the tone of the piece, however much it was trying to be Hustle with the lights off, doesn’t allow for it. When the Doctor and Clara are finding their rewards in the vault that just confirms it because there’s no particular reason why they should expending so much screen time over the search unless the items will turn out to be important later and the only reason they could be important later is if the people they’re meant to be for are going to be around to use them.

All which looks, very, well, very in hindsight and a lot of me trying to suggest how clever I am for working all of this out ahead of time, but the point about this is, I didn’t work all of this out ahead of time. The point about these twists is that none of them are especially surprising even though the suggestion is that they’re supposed to be. In his DWM editorial this month, Tom Spilsbury bemoans the fact that the media previews of these episodes contain “a big friendly notice” which ironically contains the very spoiler that they don’t want to the previewer to mention before the episode goes out. As he says, “it’s like being hit over the head with an irony stick”. You can imagine what these spoilery spoiler warnings are for the first four episodes. Whatever it is for Time Heist, it really can’t be anything like as good.

What of the other 40%? That’s the little things. The niggles. Like having the Doctor and his companion watch as The Teller kills someone for the purposes of showing how The Teller kills someone even though it’s entirely out of character. Well, we say it’s out of character. The obvious argument against is that this new Doctor’s a bit, dark and dangerous so won’t step in because it’ll break his cover, but don’t for a second think Clara wouldn’t and that she didn’t diminishes her character. There are other ways of achieving this. Other episodes have shown this sort of death outside of their field of reference with the Doctor then knowing the methodology anyway later. Even as it stands, I’m sure it would have been possible to produce a version in which the Doctor or Clara save the guy and are still able to carry on.

That scene also includes a weird piece of direction in which The Teller walks in slow motion (abetted by the soundtrack) while the other characters are standing and talking in normal speed. If they too hadn’t also walked into the room in slow motion for no reason other than because Hustle (again) we might have imagined this was going to be part of The Teller’s physical presence within the space and that for the rest of the episode every shot of him would be slow motion which needn’t look as silly as its sounds done carefully. Indeed, it could have been that is disappeared when he was reunited with his kin. That would have been an exciting way to go. But as Michael Bay fans know dramatic walking in slow motion is just dramatic walking in slow motion unless it has a point and when it doesn’t it’s the very definition of middling.

None of this is as easy as saying, well, it’s a Steve Thompson episode, what do you expect? Both his previous episodes were middling too and also, now that I come to think of it had “they’re not really dead” twists of one form or another. One of them had a Moffat loop too. But it’s co-written to some degree by Steven Moffat who, it’s clear from the Phil Ford interview in DWM had a pretty hands on role in rewriting the scripts for this opening six episodes in a way that Russell T Davies did during his entire era. With that regard until we see a similar explanation from him we can’t entirely level the middlingness with Thompson this time. It’s Moffat’s own middling The Beast Below which offered the notion of the hero having their memory wiped.

When, in the future we look back at Time Heist because it’s on the blu-ray between Listen and The Caretaker, what will stop us from simply skipping it? Capaldi’s really in his stride now and the same director who brought us slow walking, still knows exactly how to make him fill that space, with his face distorted by domestic appliances, an entirely alien presence in that house in comparison to his predecessor who was completely at home in a kitchen. Jenna Coleman’s predictably good even if she’s given less to do this week and does her very best to justify her position in the aforementioned scene even if both hers and Capaldi’s lines sound as though they’ve been recorded later and stuck on because the production team have noticed that there’s a hitch.

Indeed all of the performers are treating it as the best job they’ve ever had, and if we have any empathy for Psi and especially Saibra its because of Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner’s instant likeability. Hawes is called upon for panto and that’s exactly what she offers us though the approach to the character in and of itself is very obvious, very middling. Compare her to Ms. Foster in Partners in Crime or Diana Goddard in Dalek for examples of how not to be obvious or middling. Because both of those had a drop of humanity their ultimate fates, negative and positive had weight. Keeley is predictably proficient, but because Karabraxos is effectively a new character in that final scene, then having us care about her regrets is a really, really hard sell.

Where does this leave the journobot of the future? Pretty dissonant. Beyond “oh, is that it?”, middling episodes don’t really have transferable rules, for the same reason that amazing episodes can still have rubbish monsters (magma beast) and rubbish episodes can have amazing performances (Maurice Denham). It’s intangible, a feeling, a sense, it’s “oh, is that it?” The journobot will probably have no choice except to contact the editorbot and suggest something about androids, Thirteen Doctor Romola Garai or the current state of the omnirumour instead. At which point I’ve probably stretched the whole “sending the idea for an article from the future into the past” review idea well in excesses of being interesting (assuming it ever was) causing this whole blog post to be pretty middling too. Sorry about that.

September 20, 2014

Liverpool Biennial 2014: John Moores Painting Prize 2014: The Result. by Feeling Listless

Art Things and stuff in the end meant I didn't attend the announcement of the result but here's the news you've probably heard already. It was on the Today programme this morning. I don't remember that happening to the John Moores Painting Prize before.  Press release as follows:


80-year-old artist scoops £25,000 first prize, sponsored by David M Robinson

Rose Wylie was announced the 29th winner of the John Moores Painting Prize today at the Walker Art Gallery where the Prize was established almost 60 years ago.

Rose was awarded the £25,000 first prize, which is sponsored by David M Robinson, for PV Windows and Floorboards, selected from more than 2,500 entries.

The painting, which features four disjointed female figures set in a linear white gallery space, is typical of Rose's work. Often drawn from protracted memories, the compositions of her paintings appear as dream-like sequences, in which details are imperfectly recalled and sketchily represented.

Director of Art Galleries, Sandra Penketh, said: "PV Windows and Floorboards is a striking painting and a worthy winner of the John Moores. Rose's work instantly demanded attention when it entered the judging room and it was clear from the start it would be one of the highlights of this year's exhibition. The painting achieves an interesting balance; containing bold colours and form but also a sense of mystery and an unfinished story.

"Rose's personal story is very exciting. At 80 years old she happens to be double the average age of previous winners. Her style is fresh, unpredictable and cutting edge, and is everything we’ve come to expect from the winner of the John Moores."

The name Rose Wylie now joins an impressive lineage of UK painters who have been awarded the prize. From David Hockney (1967), Mary Martin (1969), Peter Doig (1993) and Sarah Pickstone (2012), who announced this year's prize, the John Moores’ 'back catalogue' of winning paintings (most of which reside in the Walker's permanent collection) represents over half a century of British Art; featuring Kitchen Sink realism, abstraction, pop art and figuration.

Rose will be giving a free talk at the Walker Art Gallery on Saturday 20 September at 1pm.

The four shortlisted artists who each receive £2,500 are:

Sometimes I Forget That You're Gone by Rae Hicks
Vinculum by Juliette Losq
Brutal by Mandy
Jessica by Alessandro Raho

A major part of the Liverpool Biennial, the John Moores Painting Prize is a free exhibition which runs until 30 November 2014. Fifty paintings (including the prizewinners) were selected for exhibition from more than 2,500 entries.

Dubbed the 'Oscars of the painting world', the Prize, organised in partnership with the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition Trust, has been keeping its finger on the pulse of contemporary painting for almost 60 years.

The 2014 judges were Tim Marlow, Director of Artistic Programmes at the Royal Academy and artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Zeng Fanzhi, Chantal Joffe and Tom Benson.

The John Moores Painting Prize is part of National Museums Liverpool's Modern Masters series, part funded by the European Union - the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

It is also supported by our exhibition partner Weightmans and sponsor Investec.

For a full list of exhibiting artists:

Twitter: @johnmoores2014 #jm2014


The John Moores Painting Prize with Alexei Sayle is aired at 7pm on 21 September on BBC 4. The programme, which examines the history of the Prize as well as its place within contemporary art, includes interviews with this year’s five shortlisted artists as well as Sir Peter Blake, Peter Doig and Jake Chapman.

September 19, 2014

More jets from Rosetta's comet! by The Planetary Society

Another lovely view of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko contains jets. Bonus: Emily explains how to use a flat field to rid these glorious Rosetta NavCam images of faint stripes and specks.

Apply to be an Astronomy Ambassador by Astrobites


Do you think outreach is an important part of our jobs as scientists? We hope so! Do you want to learn more about how to effectively communicate science with the public and work with people who can teach you how to have a real impact in your community?

The AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program is now accepting applications for a workshop at this winter’s AAS meeting! We’ve discussed the Astronomy Ambassadors program before: check out Zack’s argument about why this program is so important, and if you’d like to learn more about what to expect, you can read Meredith’s and Allison’s accounts of the things they learned when they participated in the inaugural workshop.

The Ambassadors program is particularly seeking early-career astronomers who are interested in outreach but not necessarily experienced. So, don’t be discouraged if you haven’t had many opportunities to share science with public audiences. This workshop is perfect for you.

Read the official invitation from the AAS below, and click here to apply!


Astronomy Ambassadors Workshop for Early-Career AAS Members

The AAS Astronomy Ambassadors program supports early-career AAS members with training in resources and techniques for effective outreach to K-12 students, families, and the public. The next AAS Astronomy Ambassadors workshop will be held 3-4 January 2015 at the 225th AAS meeting in Seattle, Washington. Workshop participants will learn to communicate more effectively with public and school audiences; find outreach opportunities and establish ongoing partnerships with local schools, museums, parks, and/or community centers; reach audiences with personal stories, hands-on activities, and jargon-free language; identify strategies and techniques to improve their presentation skills; gain access to a menu of outreach resources that work in a variety of settings; and become part of an active community of astronomers who do outreach.

Participation in the program includes a few hours of pre-workshop online activities to help us get to know your needs; the two-day workshop, for which lunches and up to 2 nights’ lodging will be provided; and certification as an AAS Astronomy Ambassador, once you have logged three successful outreach events. The workshop includes presenters from the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Pacific Science Center.

The number of participants is limited, and the application requires consent from your department chair. We invite applications from graduate students, postdocs and new faculty in their first two years after receipt of their PhD, and advanced undergraduates doing research and committed to continuing in astronomy. Early-career astronomers who are interested in doing outreach, but who haven’t done much yet, are encouraged to apply; we will have sessions appropriate for both those who have done some outreach already and those just starting their outreach adventures. We especially encourage applications from members of groups that are presently underrepresented in science.

Please complete the online application form by Monday, 20 October 2014.

The Films I've Watched This Year #35 by Feeling Listless

Film Here we are then in the brave new future of exactly the same.  Which feels good either way.  No one likes uncertainty and certainly this unit didn't enjoy the uncertainty of what was going to happen his it's beloved BBC should Scotland have gone independent.  With ever plan to stay awake all night and sleep all day, when it became apparent, even after for announcements we were witness a forgone conclusion, I dragged myself to bed at about half past three, awakening about three and a half hours later for the confirmation.  The television presentation itself, at least on One was the now customarily boring efficiency presided over by Huw Edwards with all the surety of purpose of John Harriman at the helm of the Enterprise-B.  The revelation of the evening was Sarah Smith, whose razor sharp, tactical interviewing style demolished contributors left and right, giving every impression she should have been presenting the thing instead and probably Today or Newsnight in the future should she want to.

Killer Joe
Stake Land
The Sword and the Rose
Promised Land
Le chant des mariées

One of those rare weeks when I don't really have much to say about any of these films.  The most fun I probably had was this lunchtime watching Non-Stop, with its many twists, turns, Neeson channeling his inner Qui-Gon in places and Michelle Dockery in the 90s Sandra Bullock role.  Oh and Julianne Moore elevating all the material just by being there, though I'm bound to suggest that there's not one element of any of this which wouldn't have been even more interesting if her and Neeson's roles hadn't been reversed.  Stake Land's vampire road movie's the other purely generic piece on the list offering not a single moment which hasn't been seen elsewhere, essentially cross matching the DNA of Daybreakers and Zombieland but with less levity.  Both made me rather nostalgic for the old Blockbuster days when you'd walk into the air conditioned shop full of anticipation of what was on the new release wall, see hundreds of copies of both, that evening's entertainment well provided for.

Killer Joe and Promised Land seem like odd bedfellows but they're both attempting the same trick of having the audience sympathise or at least identify with a morally dubious character.  Of course they couldn't be any more different, Emile Hirsch's misguided hick and Matt Damon's shill for the fracking companies, and their story arcs similarly drift in opposite, if inevitable directions.  But there's a moment in each when their plans go south that we feel genuinely remorseful.  The essential problem in both is that the viewer also realises how they're being manipulated, patronised almost, so ultimately lose their sympathy with the filmmaker instead.  Yet both stay watchable because Matthew McConaughey's eponymous Joe is so damn charismatic and Damon's so likeable even though the twists in both are entirely obvious.  Perhaps they're supposed to be.  But I'd worked out both within seconds of the merest whiff of the related characters appearing on-screen and I really wish I hadn't in both cases.

This week's two French language films are also thematically connected, about young women being emotionally manipulated by their partners.  Structurally Suzanne is a female counterpart to Boyhood presenting snatches from a girl's life until she gains her independence, though shot with different actors, in a much shorter schedule and with a darker tone.  It's involving but structurally problematic because it can't decide if it should focus on Suzanne's life of crime or her family's reaction.  The Wedding Song follows Jewish and Muslim friends torn apart by family and politics in Tunis during World War II, at a moment when the Nazis are pretending to be a benevolent force in Arab lives.  Five years later Lizzie Brocheré who plays the Jewish girl here turned up in The Hour as Freddie's wife Camille and is an astonishingly powerful presence especially in a scene when she's being painfully "prepared" in the "Oriental style" for her oaf of a husband.  Ugh.  My French cinema "serendipity engine" continues to offer its surprises.

September 18, 2014

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.

NASA's Global Reach: Pakistan by The Planetary Society

Nagin Cox, a systems engineer and manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory currently working on the mission operations team for Curiosity, tells us about a trip she took to Pakistan as an ambassador for science and technology.

Mid-Week Links. by Feeling Listless

Links Since I know some of you don't use Twitter, you lucky people, I thought it would be a good idea to bring back these old link posts so that you can have access to all the longer pieces I've lazily shared there:

References, Please:
"Almost twenty years ago I wrote a much longer, more elaborate academic book, Translating Style. On that occasion the job of adding the citations took a whole week and was extremely laborious. But I do not recall feeling irritated about the effort at all. It was obviously necessary. There was no way readers could access a literary quotation and check the work I had done if I didn’t provide them with adequate references. They needed to know the edition and the page number because there might be different page numbers in different editions. However with this new book I was acutely aware that one reason I was preparing the references more swiftly than in the past was precisely because rather than going to my shelves to pull out the various books I was using Google. So any reader could do this too, and my careful notes were completely unnecessary."

I want fewer walls and barriers – and to be wonderfully, quirkily British:
"Whenever it was, it has been undeniably difficult and rubbish being a no supporter throughout the referendum debate, even if we prevail on Thursday, which I rather think we will. The yeses, though have clearly had all the fun. As a wishy-washy liberal who holds fast to the two great central political tenets of our time, as expressed by David Mitchell of this paper – "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that" and "it just goes to show you can't be too careful" – I am used to being on the side of … well, hopefully, kindness, doing the right thing and everybody getting along. With a side-order in hand-wringing. I am also a terrible coward on social media. If there's an argument to be had on the internet, I am not in it. (Unless it's about dance-trained stage-school brats taking part in Strictly. Come on!)"

my journey to my referendum decision:
"walk up the street"

A 90-Second Guide to Determine if Your Internet Cause Is BS:
"Hey there, Internet person about to click "post" -- did you know that just because you're extremely passionate about a cause, it doesn't mean it can't be, well, super dumb? After all, even your uncle who thinks Barack Obama is a crab-monster from Alpha Centauri is convinced he's on the side of righteousness. Luckily, we've put together a short questionnaire to help you figure out where your post stands. It shouldn't take much time!"

As If: the teen show that set the tone for youth dramas:
"For a time, As If, the Channel 4 show that followed six friends as they navigated their way through their college years in London, was essential viewing. In the best possible way, it was what you watched when slumped in front of the TV on a Sunday morning when you were too hungover to reach for the remote. But despite running for four seasons (between 2001 and 2004) and getting a US remake, it has been largely forgotten. Last week, Jemima Rooper, who played Nicki in the show, suggested that it might be time for a reunion episode. But how does As If look now, 10 years on?"

Rutherglen writer resurrects sixties Doctor Who foes:
"Andy, who retires from the police this week, said: “It just started from an email from David Richardson, saying, ‘We’ve got a new range coming up, the Early Adventures. I was given a couple of original cast members from the earliest episodes of Doctor Who with Carole Ann Ford and William Russell, and the Voord. I came up with a handful of ideas, one of which involved the TARDIS landing on a ship amidst a massive flotilla, with all these ships travelling across an expanse of ocean, and just took it from there."

He's back and it's about 8:30pm. by Feeling Listless

TV All in the title and this month's edition of the part newsletter apparently.

Due to scheduling mayhem largely related to the Karaoke Sauron's annoyance at unfair competition (as in a dance programme which is more popular than his music programme) the BBC have thrown Doctor Who the latest into the Saturday night schedule than its ever been with The Caretaker, which I think is episode six, being shown at 8:30 in the evening in the UK.

Only the TV Movie and Torchwood have been broadcast later. Two things:

(1) This is just a scheduling decision. Judging by the BBC's statement on The Guardian's version of the story about Merlin and Atlantic it seems to be.

(2) There's a content issue. There's something within the episode which really is so dark it can't be scheduled to go out earlier for some reason.

(3) Three things sorry. Yes. At 8:30, it's well past the main target audience's bedtime. Which is bold.

The upshot for me is, I'm now in the position I was with Torchwood of having to start writing my reviews even later. This should go well.

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.

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.

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

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.

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!



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.

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Updated using Planet on 30 September 2014, 05:48 AM

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