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)

August 20, 2014

Hotel listings on Asian travel sites far behind global averages. by Resonance China

resonance_hotel reviews

This chart from L2′s Prestige Hotels 2014 Digital IQ Index, compares user reviews on regional OTA (online travel agencies) websites for 66 global luxury hotel brands. Surprisingly, only 65% of the prestige hotel brands analyzed were listed on APAC travel booking sites compared with 86% in the U.S. and 73% in Europe. This comparatively low percentage jumps out even more when considering the fact that Asian travelers wrote nearly twice as many reviews for prestige hotels than their western counterparts. With travel from Asia, and China in particular, still in the early stages of a global boom, brands must be proactive in securing listings on OTAs to capture the word of mouth that often dictates the planning decisions of regional travelers. [L2]

在L2的Prestige Hotels 2014 Digital IQ Index报告中,其分析66家精品酒店在线上旅游代理商的评价一览。出奇的是,亚太区用户贡献了将近两倍的精品酒店评价数,而其评价列表中的精品酒店数竟仅有65%,美国及欧洲则分别享有86%及73%。在中国旅游人数急速增加的同时,精品酒店也许应该想想怎么样在线上旅游业者的评价功能里,表现出色。[L2]

August 19, 2014

So ... by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

A corporate strategy guide to taking a holiday. by Simon Wardley

Today, I announced to my partner I had devised a corporate strategy for taking a holiday. 'What' we were going to do was take one and 'How' we were going to do it was 'By Plane' and 'When' - next week!

Sam, gave me one of those steely eyed stares, followed by the question 'Why?'

Quick as a flash, I responded 'Because 67% of other people have holidays!'

'And where are we going?' came the reply.

'No idea' I exclaimed, adding 'But I've got the why, how, what and when sorted. I've even created a story for this, would you like me to explain?'

Copying others is not a strategy!  Why is a relative term i.e. why here over there. If you don't have an understanding of where you can go, where you can attack then everything else - no matter how well crafted the story is - is basically pointless. 

Of course, understanding where requires some form of map even if it is one that has become embedded in our consciousness. If I had said, 'Where should we go on holiday - Tuvalu or Transnistria?' then I'd suspect a few alternative 'wheres' would have been suggested after which we'd end up discussing 'why' one over another. 

Whenever someone produces a strategy document you should first ask them to explain the 'Why?' of the strategy BUT before they start, interrupt and say 'Before explaining the Why we chose one set of options over another, can you first explain where we had the option to attack?'

If you're feeling evil, ask them to show you a map of where you could attack and where you currently are.

Curiosity wheel damage: The problem and solutions by The Planetary Society

Now that a Tiger Team has assessed the nature and causes of damage to Curiosity's wheels, I can finally answer your frequently-asked questions about what wheel damage means for the mission, and why it wasn't anticipated.

App store annoyances by Charlie Stross

(Popping back in briefly: Nicola will be back again with a new essay on Thursday.)

I have a heavy iOS habit. And (you're not going to be surprised by this) I also have a couple of Android devices. My first real smartphone, back in 2003, was a Palm Treo 600; I switched to the iPhone 3G after Palm jumped down the rabbit hole in 2008. So I have a lot of legacy apps that run on mobile devices, and I thought I'd indulge in a little rant about the most annoying facets of the app store lifestyle.

Let's leave aside the issue of the creeping commoditization of software and the fact that these walled gardens are driving us to rent, rather than own, some of our most intimate moments. Smartphones are the third stage of the personal computer revolution, taking personal computing into the pockets of billions of people who don't even know they're carrying around sophisticated network-connected supercomputers with online access to the sum total of human knowledge (and in turn accessible online to the sum total of human computer criminals).

The fact is, we're increasingly coming to depend on these pocket wonders to keep us in touch with our friends, locate us when we're lost, to do business, to schedule our lives. And it's probably necessary for them to be locked down and centrally provisioned, because most of the folks who own them don't have the faintest clue about network security and, more importantly, don't have the time or energy or brain cells to learn how to defend themselves. This brings us to the app store model for curating software configuration: the Google Play store on Android, the iTunes Store on Apple devices, and various half-assed attempts at building proprietary company stores from Kindle, Nook, Windows Mobile, Samsung, and any other company who think they can hold their users to ransom.

For most mobile apps I use iOS. This is not an accident. Firstly, walled gardens may be prisons, but the bigger they are the less you notice the walls: also, Apple has always had a focus on design aesthetics that the rest of the CE industry has never understood. Simply put, the best iOS apps are pretty, and if I'm going to be interacting with a device from dawn 'til dusk I do not want it to offend my eyes every time I look at it. The flipside is that the Android ecosystem has, until iOS 8 ships, been more flexible: there are things Apple simply won't allow in their store, and if you want them you're going to have to look outside the walls.

But now for my main gripe. I've been using iOS devices since the iPhone 3G (not the 3GS), and I have to say that the App Store has usability flaws that are becoming crippling.

I'm not going to gripe about it being part of iTunes. iTunes has morphed from a CD-ripping and MP3 playing tool in 2000 into Apple's content and media store. But the iTunes app store offers virtually zero library management and curation tools.

Yes, you can view your app purchases by platform (iPhone/iPod Touch, or iPad, or Universal) and you can check for updates. But most of the development effort seems to go into how to sell you new apps, not manage the ones you've got. So my app library is slowly sinking under a pile of ...

* Abandonware. Many apps simply aren't updated. The developer gave up on them (often due to paltry revenue) with the result that they're rotting and no longer work once iOS retires one framework too many.

* Take-overware. Some apps are abandoned because the developer sold out to another company who wanted them for the staff, not the product. Big visible examples of this are QuickOffice (once a stand-alone office suite for phones, it's now being rolled into Google Drive as a bunch of editing tools) and Stanza (once the best ePub ebook reader on iOS; then Amazon bought the company for their ebook development expertise and left the apps to rot). Documents to Go may be joining QuickOffice soon—the developers were bought out by Blackberry, and although it's still occasionally updated the update tempo has slowed right down. In fact, since Apple focussed so intently on building out the iWork suite as a cloud-based cross-platform tool, most of the rival cross-platform office suites have withered on the vine, aside from Microsoft Office (perched lonely like a Microsoftian colonial outpost in the hinterlands of iPad-land, requiring an Office365 subscription to work). There are plenty of text editors, and a couple of fine document processors (Textilus, I'm looking at you) and some day soon Scrivener is promised on iOS. But I'm a bit peeved that over the years products I've spent good money for have been pulled right out from under my fingers and shut down without so much as a by-your-leave.

* Forced upgrade-ware. This is an increasing problem. Time was when software was expensive and came in boxes and you expected a new version every year or three, for which you would pay. Then the app store model cut the feet out from under the expensive boxed software industry. Now, if you want powerful software, it takes a lot of effort to make the stuff. So it's no surprise that some of the better apps in the app store cost rather more than the £0.99 norm—OmniOutliner, for example, is US $29.99. GoodReader, the best PDF reader/annotator I've found for iOS, is $6.99. These apps aren't cheap and maintaining them costs money, and it shows. But because the Apple app store only allows for a one-off purchase, the developers eventually see sales tapering off. So they run on forced obsolescence. Support and upgrades for an old version stops, and a new one comes along that you have to buy afresh—OmniOutliner 2, or GoodReader 4. The trouble is, the old version sticks around as a zombie in your iTunes library: I'm now looking at about three or four versions of Marvin, my ebook reader of choice, three versions of GoodReader and two of OmniOutliner. All of which insist on residing on any Mac I have registered with my Apple ID, sucking up valuable space.

* Get-out-of-my-face-ware: I just saw an app update today, for the Croatia Travel Guide I bought a couple of years ago when I visited Croatia. I am glad it is still being updated but I am less than charmed to be bugged about it, because I will not need it until the next time I visit Croatia, and while Croatia is charming this isn't likely to happen in the next couple of years. There is a lot of stuff like this in my iTunes library—cruft downloaded once out of curiousity and never touched since (many games, for example), or stuff used once but no longer of interest, or stuff purchased and immediately regretted because it didn't do what I needed. Many SF conventions publish their program guides as apps, so I've got about half a dozen bespoke apps for conventions long past gathering dust in my filesystem: then a couple experimented with commercial conference guide packages (which offered free entry-level versions of their software) until those products priced themselves out of the fan-run convention market. And they still keep updating on me.

* Excessively-updated-ware: I still have my old iPhone 3G. It sits on a stand on my bedside table, sans SIM card, as an alarm clock. (I can reach out in the night and hit the button to see what time it is without being kept awake in-between by a glowing display.) It doesn't update to anything more recent than some version of iOS 4. There are apps on it that claim to have updates pending ... but they won't install or run on it.

I have about 33Gb of apps in my iTunes library, on each of the three SSD-based Macs I use and have registered to that account. I estimate that at least 10Gb of these apps are unwanted. Some of these apps are big—games, mostly, clocking in at over 1Gb each. But there are 350 .ipa installer packages, the oldest date to 2008, and a bunch of them are basically trash that I can't delete without the store persistently trying to make me re-download them.

Apple, the iTunes app library is broken from the point of view of anyone who uses it intensively over a period of years. But I think you can probably fix it. Here are some features that I think would make life easier for people like me (of whom I believe there are some millions):

* I want to be able to create my own lists and "playlists" of apps, link them to folders ("all apps in this list go in such-and-such a folder") and tag these for downloading/synching on specific devices ("a folder containing playlist named 'Office apps' goes onto all iPads except iPad 1 but not iPhones or iPod Touches").

* I want to be able to lock some apps to never update, regardless of what the developer thinks. Or to retain a given old version for one specific iOS device that can't update—an iPhone 3G, or an iPad 1, for example. ("This app is needed in an iOS 4 compatible flavour for my old phone, and in the latest available version for every other device.") You don't need to support the old devices: just don't wreck my ability to restore them by trashing the last version of an app to run on them.

* I'd like to be able to tag apps for updating based on priority. Sometimes I'm on the road or on a train or in a hotel with limited wifi, or roaming on 3G data. When that happens, I want to update the apps that are important to me first. For example, security patches for DropBox or Pages are always going to be more important than some random game that can wait until I get home from a business trip. And I want my devices to know this so that I can leave the process of downloading app updates on automatic.

* I want to be able to "un-buy" an app. Not necessarily to be given a refund, but just to delete the waste of money, brains and disk space from my library forever so I'm never bugged to update it again and it doesn't spawn endless useless space-consuming copies across every Mac I own.

* I want to be able to link two apps so that iTunes knows that one of them supersedes the other. That way I wouldn't "un-buy" GoodReader 3, but iTunes would nevertheless stop insisting that I install it or update it, because it would be flagged as superseded-by GoodReader 4.

* Better still, Apple should offer developers the option of in-app purchases for updates. Limit it to no more than once per year, to prevent a forced-upgrade treadmill, and allow users to decline to update—but at least stop spamming our iTunes libraries with never versions of apps that relegate old versions to the state of abandonware.

* I want to be able to create views of my iTunes app library that hide some apps without deleting them from the database. (That "playlist" feature? Give me a special playlist called "hidden". Sort of like the undeleted items in the trash can. I can dive in and rummage for something if I find a pressing need for it, but otherwise it shouldn't clutter up my view of my iOS lifestyle.)

Final note: this is a gripe list for the Apple iTunes app store for iOS. However, you can come up with a near-identical list for the Google Play store. I'm pretty sure a similar but disjoint set of gripes exist for the Windows Mobile app store. It's an inevitable consequence of the app-ification of our lifestyles. App stores were designed for cheap, simple devices. But iPads and big Android tablets and Surface RT tablets aren't simple devices: they're about 80% of a personal computer, and within the next 2-3 years they will, to all intents and purposes, be the curated personal computing platform of choice for most people.

Over to you folks. What do you acutely feel the lack of in these curated app collections?

Gods and genre by Charlie Stross

I hadn’t intended to start blogging here until next Thursday, when my novel Hild comes out in the UK, but, hey, I saw the news about Marvel’s Thor and couldn’t resist.

So: Thor is now a girl. This changes everything. Sort of.

Let’s ignore the fact that Thor is a god, and mere mortals shouldn’t expect gods to behave like us, because if you take that thought train too far we end up wondering why gods are identified as one sex or another in the first place. And then we have to get into a long and complicated discussion of how religion works and next thing we know the wheels have come off. Today I’d rather stick to the notion of Thor as entertainment. (I can’t speak for tomorrow…)

Entertainment—just like religion—reflects culture rather than leading it. You could make a different argument, perhaps, about Art with a capital A but, again, for today let’s avoid those derailing possibilities and stick to entertainment. And comics, and the films based on them, are first and foremost entertainment.

Traditionally comics were supposed to entertain boys and young men, though girls and women have always also read them. Girls, though, were basically ignored as a demographic by creators and powers-that-be so comics were designed with the sensibilities of boys in mind. At least this is what I used to think until reading Saladin Ahmed's Buried Badasses: The Forgotten Heroines of Pre-Code Comics. Go read it. Women—and people of colour—were catered for, and advertised to, in comics until the fifties and America's moral panic over, well, everything. But in the last sixty years, and now, not so much. (This is currently true in much entertainment media. See, for example, women in film or women in literature stats.)

The results are apparent in the art. The bodies of comic book characters of both sexes are anatomically impossible. And women are ridiculously sexualised. If you have no clue what I’m talking about go read Jim Hines’ Cover Posing posts—be sure to click through to the group pose wherein our own Charlie Stross bares more than most of us would probably like.

So will Thor be drawn differently? The writer of Thor, Jason Aaron says. "This is not She-Thor. This not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe."

The preliminary art isn't terrible: the new Thor shows no cleavage, no bare midriff or thighs. But if her breasts get any bigger they will overbalance her. And I would like to have seen her posed in action mode instead of in a pose that takes up little space. The armour, of course, could be better--but it could be better in almost every comic I've ever read, where improbable isn't a glitch it's a feature.

So what if Marvel really means it? What if the new Thor behaves exactly like the Thor we know?

Call me wary. Old habits are hard to break, and these particular habits run deep in the f/sf genre in every medium. Genre—like gender—is a reflection of culture (and etymologically they come from the same root).

Think for a moment about the terms Hard SF and Soft SF. Or, actually, to save you effort, here’s a short (and deliberately provocative, sorry1) snippet I wrote for Science Fiction Studies five years ago:

Hard Takes Soft, Still

SF as a genre is terrified of the body. As a result, its depictions of physical pleasures are rare. Historically, writers and readers seem to prefer their characters to pop nutrition pills rather than delight in a gourmet meal, dwell 24/7 in sterile environments rather than wander through a wood, and jack into virtual sex rather than touch another human being.

When SF does dare mention sex, the focus is on the intellectual and emotional aspects of the experience. SF still subscribes to Cartesian dualism: the mind is pure, adamantine, and noble, the body bestial, soft, and squicky. (I have talked about this at length elsewhere: see my essay “Writing from the Body.”) Even a hint of body-to-body sex can be enough to earn an sf novel an Approach With Caution warning—that is, categorisation as soft SF.

In this regard, the world-view of the SF Old Guard has a lot in common with that of the cultural guardians of Old Iceland. Embedded in the Icelandic sagas is that society’s tendency to divide the world—politics, intelligence, gender, sexuality, the physical properties of objects—into hvatr (hard) and blauôr (soft). Hard equates to bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive; soft to weak, powerless, dull, moist, and yielding.

Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.

Guess which kind of SF, hard or soft, is privileged critically.

For the Old Guard, a novel’s hardness depends to some degree on the biological sex of bodies entwined. Women are perceived as literally and metaphorically softer than men. If the viewpoint character having sex in an SF novel is a woman, the squick factor is doubled. If she’s having sex with another woman, the Old Guard passes out.

Consider reviews of my second novel, Slow River (1995), in which much real estate was devoted to denouncing (I’m paraphrasing) the “exclusively and explicitly lesbian sex.” The thing is, there’s plenty of heterosex; reviewers just couldn’t see past the (to them) Othersex. Given the way they carried on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was porn. Certainly many dykes read the reviews, thought “Woo-hoo, one-handed reading!” and bought the book. Then they sent me pissed off emails: Where’s all the sex??

Consider, too, a well-known experiment: put ten engineers in a room, three of them women. Ask observers how many are female; they will say “half.” The Other blots out the Norm. (Yes, this experiment is ancient as these things go—dating from the 1960s or 1970s, I think. No doubt observers in today’s brave new world would require as many as, gasp, four women to qualify as “half.”)

This is as true now as it was then. It’s the twenty-first century, yet still I have never seen Slow River—a novel stuffed with shiny hardware, chemistry, and extrapolations about the future—labeled as hard SF. The Old Guard still rules.

Given my brief Hard Takes Soft was a necessarily simplistic argument—in the real world nothing is uniform. But what's interesting to me, five years later, is that it already feels a little out of date. For starters, I’d change "is privileged critically" to "was privileged critically." Now I'd say, on balance, that the automatic privileging of hard sf over soft is no longer something to bet on unthinkingly. The world is changing. Again. A look at history shows many pendulum swings—each accompanied by much agitation from the peanut gallery ranging from complaints of the established citizenry to the destruction of civilisation, never mind all-white, for-boys comics—and I think this is one such. Notions of gender are undergoing a seismic shift—see, for example, my recent post about the word Wife—and the genre is moving with it. The great boulder is rocking in its cradle.

My hope is that soon it’ll be thundering downhill, unstoppable. My hope is that we can look back in five years and see the Thor news as a twitch in the seismograph. But so very much depends on how the artists draw her.


1 It was for the symposium, Sexuality in Science Fiction, a "mosaic of position papers" edited by Rob Latham and the brief was that we be pithy and provocative.

Introducing new guest blogger: Nicola Griffith by Charlie Stross

I'm going to scarce around here for a wee while; I'm one of the guests at Edge-Lit 3 in Derby this Saturday (which also involves spending most of Friday and Sunday on trains), and then I've got to get my head down and finish volume 3 of the new Merchant Princes trilogy before setting out in mid-August on a road trip to Loncon 3, the World Science Fiction Convention in London (and the following weekend, Shamrokon, the Eurocon in Dublin). (Note: I will not be driving to Dublin—I'm delegating the watery part of that journey to P&O ferries.)

Anyway, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Nicola Griffith as my next guest blogger. I've known Nicola for close to thirty years, and she's one of the under-appreciated treasures of the SF/F field: possibly the strongest LGBT voice of our generation. Here's how Nicola describes herself:

Like Charlie I was born in Leeds. In fact, that's where we met, in a pub. But now I live in Seattle with my wife, writer Kelley Eskridge. I'm a dual UK/US citizen.

I've written six novels, a handful of short stories, and edited three anthologies. I've also written a multi-media memoir (scratch-n-sniff cards!) and some essays. Between them these works have been translated into 10 languages, won the Nebula, Tiptree, World Fantasy and Lambda Literary Award (six times) as well as things like a BBC poetry prize and the Premio Italia. I've also been on a few shortlists, too (some more than once): Locus, Hugo, Seieun, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, etc.

My latest novel, Hild (just out in the UK from Blackfriars/Little, Brown), startled me utterly by being shortlisted for five awards in fields I didn't expect. Now I'm working on a second novel about Hild. You can find me at my blog, on Twitter, and on my research blog.

(In addition to her own blogging, I'm hoping to organize a blog roundtable in which LGBT SF/F expert and fan Jane Carnall will interview Nicola about Hild and other aspects of her work. Watch the skies!)

You can buy "Hild" from: Amazon (UK), Amazon (US), Waterstones, and Google.

Competition Redux! by Charlie Stross

The Laundry HR competition is now closed, and I have some winners to announce!

I make no apologies for this announcement being a couple of days late. There were a lot of entries, and while some of them were easily eliminated, others were much harder to wrap my head around. How, for example, do I judge the epic multi-author thread, amounting to a story in its own right, that started here and sucked in half the next 200-odd comments?

Administrative note: I am still waiting to receive a postal address for:

Nils Bruckner, Grant Privett, Mark Draughn, and the entities known as rk.radiohill, BigJay2K

(I can't mail you prizes if I don't know where to send them! Please email me!)

Also, there's just one of me and after reading 500+ entries my brain kind of melted. Trying to pick ten winners out of that many entries is hard work. So I used my initiative to throw a bunch of what I considered noteworthy entries—about 30-50 in all—at my long-suffering editor and marketing person at Orbit to see if they could help, especially in light of their experiences of meetings with HR being much more recent than mine. What follows is therefore mostly my fault, but with an [in-]sanity check by others (who shall remain nameless, both to spare the guilty and to reduce the risk of gibbering apprehension and dread among the readers of this announcement). I'm also favouring those who got their entries in first: it's always hardest to come up with an idea when working in a partial vacuum, so I'm rewarding the folks who shouted into the void first.

Note: Publishing folks aren't generally software startup veterans, so Haskell type system jokes tend to fall flat. I have therefore exercised my whim of steel to pick a couple of hardcore techie-only entries.

What follows is an unadorned list of 12 (rather than the original planned 10) winning entries. The first five will get signed copies of "The Rhesus Chart" by mail; the others will get ... something or other, via Zazzle. (I'll work it out when I recover from judging the entries.) If you're the author of one of these squibs, please send me an email via this link with the subject "competition" (and your username on this blog) so I can get in touch about where to send your prize!

The winners for the Laundry's worst workplace disciplinary problems follow below:

  1. koprivicamarko

[CENSORED]'s manager failed to realize that the employee in question took a day off from work for their grandmother's funeral on 13 different occasions.

Grandmother finally neutralized after a pitched battle with [CENSORED].

  1. rk.radiohill

Unacceptable number of bees.

  1. Anaxagoras

Upon review of security footage, former mainframe technician Galvin Galbraith was discovered to in fact be a chicken under a Class 4 Glamour. Mr. Galbraith was instructed to report to the commissary for debriefing.

  1. windypundit

"Two Girls One Cup" is NOT surveillance video of a demonic entity exchange between possessed persons. Please stop telling the new employees that they have to watch it as "training." It wasn't funny the first time.

  1. BigJay2k

The "Abyss Staring Contest" posted in the break room last week has been cancelled. Any attempt to reschedule it will result in offender(s) being reassigned to "Human Resources" staffing.

And now for some runners-up who I judged to be just slightly too meta, technically involute, recondite, or just downright squid-in-mouth to hit the same laugh-out-loud sweet spot, but whose sterling service to Human Resources horror stories will be memorialized in the shape of an official Laundry health and safety (or Magic Circle of Safety public information awareness) mug:

  1. danoot:

Stored a small but inconveniently curious extradimensional entity in the bitcoin blockchain.

  1. FaustHDr

At this point (159 comments so far) the management would like to remind staff, that copying one's own or co-worker's workplace disciplinary problems, then posting it on a public accessible blog in order to win trivial merchandise in a competition organized by a so-called author, who seems to know just a little bit too much, is not an appropriate use of time and resources.

  1. Jay

BILLION CORPSES is not an acceptable project codename. Please choose a less accurate one.

  1. flippac

Proposed a variant of Roko's Basilisk on LessWrong which induced a number of members to knowingly form a cult. Said cult attempted to perform a summoning to engage in acausal computing. All known members have subsequently been institutionalised after their ritual merely left a mysterious glyph behind that appears to read "YHBT".

  1. Ian Mackenzie

Appeal denied.

The tribunal strongly reaffirms its previous ruling that screaming "Fuck! Nyarlathotep! Run!" at a departmental SportsBall game without an objectively valid reason to do so is in violation of laundry policy not only due to Naming an Old One, but also inciting unnecessary panic. Even if your side is losing.

The Auditors want it emphasised that anyone found responsible for causing an objectively valid reason to scream "Fuck! Nyarlathotep! Run!" - whether or not at a SportsBall game - will receive their intense and hostile attention.

  1. Grant


This is your final formal warning.

  1. Randolph Carter

Strategically arranging Residual Human Resources on sidewalks so the Google Street View vehicle mounted cameras pass by and record "the world's largest lemon party" is unacceptable.

Additionally, the Liaison Officer from the Black Chamber reports that Google has purged the related images from all of their servers and backups.

Final repetition: if you're the author of one of these squibs, please send me an email via this link with the subject "competition" (and your username on this blog) so I can get in touch about where to send your prize!

Shakes It All. by Feeling Listless

Keynes vs Hayek by Simon Wardley

The problem when looking at economic change is that predictability is not constant. By predictability, I mean our ability to assign an accurate probability that an event will occur. As activities evolve they transition through different economic states - one of peace, one of war and one of wonder. Those different states have different types of predictability.

For example, in the peace state (the time of products and rental services), we know that evolution towards more of a commodity will occur because evolution is driven by competition which depends simply upon the aggregate actions of all players. There is a high predictability [P] of what will occur. The problem is, that evolution involves stepwise changes which depends upon the actions of individual actors and hence the predictability [P] of when the change will occur is low.

So, let us take an activity (I've drawn this in figure 1 below). A[1] is an act that is evolving through competition and has various stages from A[1] to [A4]. We can often say what will happen (e.g. it will become more of a commodity), just not when. Keynes is right, we can predict macro effects e.g. the P[what] but so is Hayek, those changes depend upon individual actors actions, hence P[when] is low.

Figure 1 - Predictability and the economic cycle.

Now, as the act evolves from A[4] to A[5] and becomes more industrialised (normally represented by either commodity or utility services) it initiates a state of war in that industry. This has known effects including disruption of past vendors stuck behind inertia barriers, co-evolution of practice forcing changes to organisation and a rapid increase in novel activities (e.g. B[1]) leading to a state of wonder. Now this 'war' phase is usually reasonable predictable in terms of what will happen and through weak signals also when this change will occur i.e. P[what] and P[when] are moderate.

The state of wonder however has high P[when] i.e. we can often quite precisely say when it will occur. However what will appear? Well that's another matter. The P[what] is low as the novel activities are uncertain by nature, they have the navigational characteristics of uncharted spaces.

So with electricity, as with computing, as with many industries, the P[what] of the act itself becoming a commodity (e.g. A[5]) are quite well known and we can literally reel off the standard effects. But the P[what] of any new higher order systems (e.g. B[1]) built upon this commodity component is low. 

We can say what the effect of computing becoming a utility is likely to do but not what magical wonders will be built upon it.

Now, here is the fun part. When you start to examine predictability e.g. P[what] & P[when], you can categorise different areas of change. It's not all the same - see figure 2.

Figure 2 - P[what] vs P[when] - draft, incomplete, changing

Furthermore when you start to examine multiple points of change, you discover that various aspects of the economy are not in the same economic state - see figure 3.

Figure 3 - Economic state of various points of change - draft, incomplete, changing

Then, when you combine the different points of change plus what is and what isn't predictable with the value chain of different industries, you start to discover that changes themselves can be simultaneously sustaining and disruptive to different industries - see figure 4.

Figure 4 - Impacts of changes on various industries - draft, incomplete, changing

So, this leads me back to the whole issue of Keynes vs Hayek. Our economies aren't in one state but different parts are in multiple states, varying between industry in how they're being impacted by multiple points of change at different stages of evolution. In certain circumstance this can manifest itself as larger business cycles but the application of a single method to a market by treating the market as one thing is fundamentally flawed. 

I'm not pro Keynes or pro Hayek, I'm pro both. I view it is necessary to use multiple methods simultaneously based upon deep situational awareness. It's no different to agile vs six sigma, insource vs outsource or push vs pull. With any large complex system, it's never one but both - see figure 5.

Figure 5 - multiple methods on a single large complex system - an old map of High Speed Rail IT.

I strongly view competition as the key element of ... competition. This requires the use of both free market and Government interference for reasons of market failure which includes market under investment, inertia to change etc. The effective use of Government force (the guiding hand) however depends upon good situational awareness. But where better to gain good situational awareness of changes from the market itself?

Alas when you examine the technology industry, then you find situational awareness (as exhibited by strategic play) is not uniform but varies from the good to the fairly atrocious - see figure 6.

Figure 6 - Market variation in strategic play in high tech industry.

But beyond often poor situational awareness, what you quickly learn is that when companies become large and successful then the one thing they don't appear to like is change. Organisations are not good at managing change, they are generally not designed to do so and they become enamoured of their existing business models and practices. Even the financial markets exhibits rampant inertia to change. Many would act in ways to limit competition, forming oligopolies or monopolies where possible, using everything from lobbied regulatory barriers to intellectual property to establish a steady state. 

This resistance to change, these attempts to limit and undermine competition have their counterpart in our social structures where those who have amassed the greatest wealth and income inequality attempt to maintain that position. Whether social or industrial both effects if left unchecked have the same consequence, the limitation and eventually stagnation of competition. Alas, the market exists beyond one nation and such stagnation can only lead to collapse. All nations are in competition and if you allow yours to stagnate either through social or industrial inaction don't expect another nation to return the favour.

There is a fundamentally important role of Government in maintaining competition and interference where necessary. The libertarian ideal of a rampant free market is as much of a fantasy as the centrally planned system, ignoring the importance of inertia and competition combined with the gravitational effect of wealth (it tends to accumulate) and human nature. Both systems will tend to inhibit competition through the establishment of an oligarchy.

However, I don't believe we've seen yet seen the most effective forms of Government organisation. Certainly China seems to exhibit signs of high situational awareness and gameplay. Others tend towards more dogmatic and singular methods. At some point in the future, I suspect we will all learn that multiple methods are needed to manage an inherently complex and evolving environment. But managed it must be, both in terms of industry and society.

In the meantime, when it comes to Hayek vs Keynes - I agree with both.

P.S. Don't confuse this with agreement with Friedmanism.

Burberry’s copycats disappear with the opening of a Tmall flagship store. by Resonance China

resonance_tmall brands wsj

A fascinating graphic from The Wall Street Journal reveals some of the unofficial reasons that might be driving premium brands like Burberry and Estee Lauder to open official flagship stores on Tmall. While many industry watchers were left scratching their heads as to why Burberry would risk its exclusive brand position to open a store on Tmall when they already operated a brand ecommerce platform - analysis from YipitData paints a more interesting picture showing the disappearance of over 98% of gray-market products in just three months. This is a very attractive incentive for brands and it looks like we may be seeing more and more premium flagship shops opening on Tmall, but it will be interesting to see how Alibaba balances the inevitable sales shortfall between full-price products and discount gray-market goods. [WSJ]

近日,华尔街日报发布了一项调查,说明奢侈品牌进入天猫开设旗舰店的可能原因。在多数市场及产业观察专家摸不着头绪时,YipitData点出了一项惊人的发现。以博柏利(Burberry), 雅诗兰黛(Estée Lauder)跟倩碧(Clinique)为例,有将近98%的高级仿制品在品牌高调进入天猫旗舰店的行列时消失不见,这项发现将可能会大量地刺激奢侈品牌蜂涌至天猫,以断绝假货盛行,届时阿里巴巴的高仿奢侈品收益来源可能将会面临巨幅缩水。[WSJ]

August 18, 2014

Income inequality, growth and mobility. by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could the US fix the problem? Of course. Will it? Of course not. The very things you need, higher taxation and re-distribution through government investment are the very things the elite and their media machines are dead set against. The only real question for me is whether China gets the crown or whether we in Europe can nick it in time. Obviously I'm hoping for the latter and the next decade will be crucial for this.

Hiatus by Charlie Stross

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

"and Steven Moffat" by Feeling Listless

TV In an surprising move, the BBC's official Doctor Who site has released this complete episode guide to the new series. Previously fragmentary lists have appeared in Radio Times, and it might well me that something similar will be published tomorrow which is why this is up tonight so that people who don't want to fork out their £1.60 don't feel like there's content out there they won't be privy to (even though it's being copied and pasted elsewhere as we speak) (seriously, it's already up on the Wikipedia). Either way, it makes for intriguing reading.

For one thing it means that none of these titles offer spoilers of the magnitude of "Bad Wolf" or "The Wedding of River Song" a couple of notoriously omitted titles of the past. Part of me wished I'd not seen any of them but boy if a couple don't make me giggle. I'll not actually say which ones just in case you want to keep entirely spoiler free.

I think I'm safe highlighting that three of the episodes directed by women which is all to the good. I would have been even happier if some of them were actually written by women, for goodness sake, but it seems Helen Raynor remains unique, at least in nuWho terms, in that regard.

The other headline of sorts is the number of writing credits Steven Moffat has.  In previous seasons he's written about five or six episodes himself - and if you count Deep Breath as two (which most people seem to be on the strength of its duration) then this year it's five.

But he also has a number of co-writing credits, on Phil Ford, Gareth Roberts and Steven Thompson's episodes.

As anyone who's read The Writer's Tale will know, Russell T Davies extensively rewrote other writers, even Mark Gatiss.  Some of them come across as near page one rejigs, knocked out at 3pm amid emails to Ben Cook.  But only rarely did he take a credit for himself; in my memory its only the 2009 specials were that was the case.

So what's the jig here.  Did he present an outline which they completed or did he redo their material and take a credit because its as much is voice as theirs?  What was the division of labour here?  It doesn't matter that much, especially if the episodes turn out ok, and we don't know who really wrote what in the last few years anyway, it's just interesting to see Moffat's name as well as theirs and with authors who have previously worked on the show, not with newbies.

Five sleeps, everyone, five sleeps, then deep breath and ...

What Vinay Did Next: “Insight Culture” – can we do this? by Vinay Gupta

So I thought I’d kinda-sorta got my direction set for a few year – steady, reasonable job doing a variety of things in a think-tank setting. Irreconcilable differences over IP caused a parting of the ways, and I’m back on my own account again.

That’s all gone now. And I’m glad; every time something burns down I think really hard before rebuilding. Sometimes people accuse me of spending more time thinking about what to do than doing it; yes, I could be a lot more productive, but not necessarily make more progress. Measure twice, cut with a single blow.

So here’s what I want. I want a space, a big space for people to live and work together, and it has to be in London. The space is on the same general template as Hub Westminster or Limewharf. I’ve worked with both of these spaces in their inceptions, producing TRUTHANDBEAUTY and Big Picture Days respectively. These events were explicitly meant to form strong intellectual communities around the new space, but neither one was able to properly embed: the somewhat abstract and analytical nature of the networks I was building were perhaps a poor fit for a straight social enterprise or art, science and social innovation framing. We did great talks and workshops, created insights of real value, but could not fit those perspectives and those networks into these ongoing projects.

I want to fix that: I want to build an Embassy for the Future in London, not as futurism, not as a predictive model, but as a real ongoing effort to produce transformative cultural innovation. I want to build the future.

But you know that. What’s the exact mechanism? What is “Insight Culture.”

Insight Culture is an attempt to directly address the gap between the facts we have and how we communicate to each other and act. A sample fact: “methane is starting to be released into the atmosphere, triggering potentially catastrophic global warming.” Now the gap: we’re doing very little about climate. The day to day state of consciousness we cultivate and the social discourse which supports it takes these vital facts and makes them socially difficult or impossible to act on. We pretend nothing is wrong to each-other, particularly with people we do not know very well, and this basically fools our monkey minds into thinking nothing is wrong. The inertial of society prevents us from panicking when it is appropriate, as in this instance.

Insight culture is not about fear. Insight culture is about emotional realism. It is about taking the facts we have in front of us, fact about how the world works, and what science tells us about the cosmos, and making them real in our narratives to each-other and in the lives we lead. It is about squaring what we know with what we do. Insight culture is about building social integrity as a path to personal integration. To live in a way which is congruent with all our knowledge about the world and about ourselves, starting with getting the stories we tell each-other to be fully congruent with the facts. There’s a lot of stuff that I know that I can’t really act on because I’m part of a society which minimizes those truths: we can change that, together.

Why does Insight Culture need its own space? It needs a “temple”, it needs a place in which the social rules alter as soon as you walk in the door, and change back when you walk out. Without that container, the effort will simply dissipate: there’s no social context like this that can operate without its own grounds. In this sense, insight culture is very much an embassy – an altered jurisdiction, a place where the rules are not the same.

So how might all this work? Here’s what I imagine happening: somebody wants to run a workshop on a fact they know that they are having problems socially integrating into their lives. They get together some people to participate, with the group’s goal being to square the facts and their own actions, to find an integrated position relative to the non-socially-integrated truths.

Let’s take something simple: “smoking kills far more people than heroin, but the government isn’t really helping people stop smoking.” That fact hits hard: every time I see a talented young friend with a cigarette, I want to scream. I suspect some people feel the same way when they see me with a hamburger: that’s life. Nobody is perfect. So we do a workshop: people who are into smoking, who know prevention, speak. They explain the facts, so we are fully informed. And then we talk, and think, and talk, and think. We whiteboard, and we express, and we write down. Map the hypocrisies, in our societies and in our lives, deal with the emotions, tell our stories, change the narratives, and integrate a new social reality within the room, within the group that we are in: “we understand smoking and smoking prevention in a new way, and we really feel it.” Inside of the room, inside of the workshop, the narratives shift and people’s emotions shift into a natural integrated congruence with the facts on hand. New stories emerge about smoking and our relationship to it, and some of those stories might reach far outside of that workshop and into the wider world.

Change the world through changing yourself.

This kind of thing has been tried a couple of times before. Less Wrong is perhaps a less group process and integrative psychology based, but it’s got the same impulse: squaring our actions with what we know from science. Shintaido performed a similar process for the martial arts in 1965 – a multi-year retreat called Rakutenkai in which they broke down the martial arts and built them back up again for a new age. You could call these things Temples of Truth, Embassies of Free Inquiry. They’re places and spaces where people strive to tell the truth to themselves and each-other, as a way to change what is happening.

I want one like this in London, and I want it to work in a new way.

This is a big ask. It’s a proper Crazy Idea. It’s financially unrealistic, indirect, and generally completely off the map of the possible. So let me address some of those objections.

I have no idea how to make this thing real. A prototype of this vision was floated for this building in Woolwich but we couldn’t get the team together and there were shadows over the residential angle. Fundamentally, we didn’t have enough money to do this.

Option one: I make the cash by doing straight commercial stuff, and hope it works well enough to leave enough of a resource base to underwrite this.

Option two: somebody has a bead on financing this that comes from a politically aligned and ideologically motivated source, not a funder that will constrain us to working on polite problems and thereby getting nothing at all done.

Basically I want to scale the process that results in phrases like “collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee“.

I think I know how, and I think it’s worth doing. But today, all I can do is tell you what I want, and what I think is important.

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Herschel’s View of a Neighboring Planetary System by Astrobites

Tau Ceti has long captured our imagination, and is featured in many science fiction books, movies, and games (e.g. Figure 1). This star has similar mass and luminosity as the Sun and is only 3.65 pc away, making it the second closest G type star to our own (after Alpha Centauri). To fuel the imagination of sci-fi enthusiasts even further, in 2013 five planets orbiting close to the star were tentatively detected with the radial velocity technique. Additionally, astronomers have known since the 1980′s that Tau Ceti hosts a debris disk. The authors of today’s paper take a closer look at this debris disk with the Herschel Space Telescope.

Figure 1: A Tau Ceti Video Game from 1986. Image from Wikipedia.

Figure 1: A Tau Ceti Video Game from 1986. Image from Wikipedia.

The dust in the Tau Ceti debris disk emits only in the far-infrared and the sub-mm wavelength regimes, meaning the dust is fairly cold and relatively far from the star. This makes a perfect target for Herschel, which is sensitive to long wavelengths. The Herschel observations resolve the disk at 70 and 160 microns, constraining the outer extent of the disk.

The authors fit model disks to the Herschel images (see Figure 2) and to the spectral energy distribution (SED) of the disks emission. They find that the disk is very broad, extending from somewhere between 1 and 10 AU out to around 55 AU.

Figure 2: The Herschel images (left column), best-fitting disk models (center two columns), and residuals (right column) of the Tau Ceti disk. The top row is at 70 microns and the bottom row is at 160 microns. From Figure 6 of this paper.

Figure 2: The Herschel images (left column), best-fitting disk models (center two columns), and residuals (right column) of the Tau Ceti disk. The top row is at 70 microns and the bottom row is at 160 microns.

The authors then use the inferred properties of the debris disk to study the planets in the system. The radial velocity method can only measure the minimum mass of a planet, as only the radial component of the planet’s orbital motion can be detected and the inclination of the orbit is generally not known. In the case of Tau Ceti, however, the inclination of the debris disk can be determined from the Herschel images, and it is a decent bet that the star, planets, and debris disk all rotate in the same plane. The author’s find that the system inclination is 30 degrees, and the planets have masses of  4.0, 6.2, 7.2, 8.6, and 13.2 times the mass of the Earth on orbits of 0.11, 0.20, 0.37, 0.55, and 1.35 AU, respectively.

We know that planets will perturb and sculpt a debris disks, as well as scatter each other gravitationally. Is this model of Tau Ceti’s planetary system stable? The authors test this by running dynamical simulations of the planets and disk (see Figure 3). They find that the five planets are very stable (as long as they have relatively low eccentricities) and that debris can exist as close to the star as 1.45 AU, with an additional stable region between the two outermost planets.

Figure 3: Results of the author’s dynamical stability analysis of the Tau Ceti system. Black lines are the initial orbits of the five planets, and gray lines show how the orbits vary over the course of the simulation. Orange lines show the regions where debris particles are stable. From Figure 8 of the paper.

Figure 3: Results of the author’s dynamical stability analysis of the Tau Ceti system. Black lines are the initial orbits of the five planets, and gray lines show how the orbits vary over the course of the simulation. Orange lines show the regions where debris particles are stable.

Future observations of this disk at higher resolution (with ALMA, for instance) will better constrain its inner edge. If the edge is farther out, there may be additional planets in the system with larger orbits, but if the edge is found to be within 1.35 AU, the existence of the original five planets (which were only tentatively detected) would be in question. Science fictions fans will have to wait a little longer to learn the truth about one of their favorite planetary systems.

New Postcards from Mars by The Planetary Society

The latest snaphots from the "Mars Webcam" include something special.

Field Report From Mars: Sol 3753 – August 15, 2014 by The Planetary Society

Opportunity just completed its first drives upslope on its long journey toward the crest of the highest rim segment of Endeavour crater, “Cape Tribulation.” Larry Crumpler gives us an update on what to expect next from the little rover that could.

Amnesty Local. by Feeling Listless

Politics The one occasion I gave in to a chugger was outside the old Blockbuster Video on Allerton Road. It was a rainy day, I was in a fresh, romantic mood and she was working on behalf of Amnesty International and needed to do the bare minimum to convince me to hand over my debit card details. I'm not sure what good my £5 does each month but I always like to keep an eye on what Amnesty is doing.

Now they're in Ferguson, Missouri. The situation in Ferguson, Missouri is now such that Amnesty International observers have moved in. From Buzzfeed:

"Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty who is a part of the team in Ferguson, said the use of the “cross-functional team” — which she said included community trainers, researchers, and human rights observers — was “unprecedented” within the United States for the group."

WeChat hits 438 million monthly active users. by Resonance China

resonance_wechat q2 MAUsThis chart from TechinAsia tracks the official number of monthly active users (MAUs) on WeChat as reported by Tencent through the most recent quarter (Q2 2014). WeChat continued its impressive growth, adding over 40 million MAUs, although the downward trend in annual growth rates may indicate a saturation point as most netizens are already using the app. With WhatsApp currently at 500 million MAUs, it will be interesting to see if the China-centric messaging app will take the top spot this year. But with expansion plans ramping up in Southeast Asia and South America, Tencent appears to be shifting its focus to growing those markets outside of the mainland.  [TechinAsia]


August 17, 2014

Attention, toilet door is not locked! by Zarino

Every few weeks, my work at mySociety sees me travelling down to London to meet clients. The Liverpool to London train link is actually very good,1 and it’s run by Virgin Trains, who are, as far as I can tell, one of the more switched-on British rail providers.

I typically book far enough ahead that I get a table seat so I can get stuff done. Even when I don’t get a reservation, I’m usually lucky enough to find space somewhere, often crammed into a two-seater with a person who’s trying as hard as me to pretend—in that most British of ways—that the guy next to them doesn’t exist.

A mid-20th century train carriage full of passengers reading news papers

Today however, dear reader, my cosy schedule was turned upside-down. I not only booked too late to get a reservation, but also turned up to the platform to find every man and his dog was on the 10:47 to London, and un-occupied, un-reserved seats were pretty much nowhere to be seen.

Vultures, dragging wheely suitcases and folded waterproofs, scoured the aisles, while great agglomerations of baggage collected in every spare corner of the train like fat in an over-stressed artery.

On my second pass through carriage D (the unreserved coach) looking for any spaces I might have missed before, I suddenly realised the two seats everyone was ignoring. Quietly folded in the corner of the walkway between the coach D toilet and the doors, was my unassuming throne for the day.

And I mean that with only a hint of sarcasm – by typical standards these seats are actually pretty good. There’s nice air flow from the carriage doors and air conditioning (which is more than could be said for the stuffy, sweaty coaches), lots of natural light, and a good metre or so of leg room (except for when people occasionally wander past).

Folded seats in the Coach D corridor, on a Virgin Pendolino train

As soon as I saw the seats, I wondered whether sitting on them would break some sort of rule. Were they just for people waiting for the toilet? Surely not. Maybe disabled seats, since they're the closest to the door? Not as far as I could tell. They were odd little things, but I figured, if I left it any longer, the vultures would get them. So I sat myself down, and waited for the train to pull away.

It didn’t take long for me to realise the seats also come with a comedy soundtrack for your journey: the sounds of the toilet next door – from people entering, flushing and washing, to the vocal declarations of the door locking system.

Virgin Pendolino toilets, in case you’ve never visited one, are a curiosity of toilet-based over-engineering.

Vaguely pear-shaped in plan, with the toilet bowl, mirror, and miniature sink squished up into the smaller end, the larger, rounded end of the cubicle houses a ridiculous revolving door. This must have seemed like an obvious solution to the train’s designers: doors require space to open into, especially wheelchair-friendly doors, but space is at a premium on a train, so how about a door that slides round? Genius.

“But while we’re at it,” the designer must have said, “let’s make it a game to actually get into the thing. Let’s remove the door handle, and replace it with a button that’s positioned off to the side, so it looks like it opens the carriage door to the right instead.”

Button for opening the toilet door on a Virgin Pendolino train

“Genius!” says a second, “They’ll love that. It’s quirky!”

“And when you get in, let’s present them with three inscrutable buttons to close it again.”

“But won’t that cause embarrassment?” asks the account manager.

“Nah! We’ll paste a little user manual to the wall explaining how the buttons work, and in case they miss that, we’ll add in a stern but calming female voiceover that tells them what they’re doing wrong.”

It feels a bit like a scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But it’s true. You walk in and you’re faced with this:

The door lock controls on a Virgin Pendolino train

If you’re foolish enough to miss the middle button (perhaps mistaking it for a light, or assuming this space-age toilet must lock itself, given the lack of a manual lock on the door) then after a few seconds the toilet detects your mistake and shouts:

Attention, toilet door is not locked! Attention, toilet door is not locked! To lock the door, press the padlock button.

From my spot outside the cubicle, I imagined hilarious scenes of occupants taking their place on the toilet, trousers around their ankles, when this voice echoes around them, “THE DOOR IS NOT LOCKED!” and like rabbits in the headlights, they themselves suddenly picture someone opening the door on them at that very instant. They dive across the cubicle, half naked, to press the padlock button, desperately attempting to counteract the buffeting of the train, lest their finger over-reach and press the “open door” button, barely an inch lower, instead.

I mean, why on earth are there two buttons, one for closing the door, one for locking it? When does anybody ever want to just close the door, without locking it?2 They obviously realised the little red light above the padlock button wasn’t clear enough, so they added a honking great padlock light further up – but I speak from experience when I say, even with the second padlock light, you have absolutely no trust that the door is actually locked.

Anyway, once you actually lock the door (accompanied by another stern announcement of “TOILET DOOR LOCKED”) and lift the loo seat, you’re greeted by this sticker on the inside:

Sticker on underside of toilet seat, advising you not to flush hopes, dreams, or goldfish down the toilet

For maximal embarrassment factor, a voiceover announces the monologue while you stand there, unsure of whether to start your business, or wait until she’s finished.

Please don’t throw nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams, or goldfish down the toilet.

Somebody at Virgin obviously had fun writing that. And on the train back later that day, I heard a lady chuckling about it as she returned to her seat. But not much in life prepares you for having a toilet speak to you while you start using it.

Even the toilet flusher is over-designed. Why go the easy route and have a handle like every other toilet in the world, when you can instead hide a push-button marked “F” down behind the loo seat?

“What if people leave the loo seat up, or don’t spot the button?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll stick a big sign up, telling them where it is and what it does. People love reading stuff in toilets.”


Sign above toilet flusher, telling you about toilet flusher

The thing is, toilets are the sorts of things you want to operate on auto-pilot. We’re all trained, from a very young age, on how to use toilets. And with a few stylistic alterations, 99% of the toilets we see in our daily life look pretty much the same. The doors either lock with a sliding bar or a rotating latch. The toilet flushes with a lever in the top corner, or a push-button, top centre.

When you encounter, then, a different toilet, those years of practice go out of the window. At the very moment you have only one over-bearing goal in your mind—relief!—you’re instead forced to analyse a panel on the wall and re-learn how a door works.

How hard would it have been for them to put a manual lock on the door? Or even an electric lock that looks like a manual lever? And the toilet flusher – yes, reusing the same button as in the door controls elsewhere probably saves money, but why on earth position it bottom centre of the toilet backplate, where exactly zero people will expect it? To force me to close the lid? Surely there are less confusing solutions.

As a designer it’s often tempting to reinvent the common stuff, to come up with some new take that’ll make your work stand out. But the answer is almost always just to go with what people expect.

Nobody’ll thank you either way, but at least if you build on their existing experiences, they won’t be left fearing indecent exposure while using your toilet.

  1. My previous colleagues at ScraperWiki, who commuted fairly regularly to government offices in London, would regularly joke that their 1h45 commute from Liverpool was quicker and more comfortable than many of their counterparts theoretically “living in London,” out in underground Zone H or something, two hours from the centre. 

  2. My colleague, Mike, suggested the split closing/locking system might be in there for parents who want their children go to the toilet unaided, but don’t want the kids to lock themselves in. Which is fair enough. But during my journey, every single parent who arrived with a child went inside the cubicle with them, rather than waiting outside. 

Rumour Has It. by Feeling Listless

Music As well as watching the extraordinary performance of the Team GB athletics people at the European championships this afternoon, I was having one my regular clear-outs of Twitter people, the followed, because having reached the two thousand limit I can't really justify keeping an eye on anyone who's only tweeted a couple of dozen times or once a month.

Manageflitter was a pretty decent aid in this, with its many sorting option helping to ferret out feeds that I'd followed after having met a person at a thing five years ago but who hadn't tweeted since or who'd been part of someone ongoing news story the context of which I'd forgotten.  Managed to lose a good hundred and fifty, though I with I could just follow more than two thousand people.  That would be easier.

In the midst of all this I was reminded I was following Adele (official), whom it ranks as "inactive" and "quiet" but who in a rare moment tweeted the following news which I'd entirely missed and has been widely interpreted as the singer suggesting a new album is imminent:

Bye bye 25... See you again later in the year x
— Adele (@OfficialAdele) May 4, 2014

Doctor Who's back on Saturday and as you might know I usually review whilst listening to Adele's first two albums. Lately, I've been straying and had the Haim album on in the background because my familiarity with 19 & 21 and meant they'd lost their creative potency.  But there's only one of that and the utility of the Adele albums is that I know that I can usually write a whole review within their duration and if I'm still writing in the middle of Someone Like You, I've gone on too long.  25 could be just the thing.

August 16, 2014

Down tools by Charlie Stross

So I just sent an email to my agent and editors containing [private] Dropbox links to the first draft of a vaguely trilogy-shaped thing. And I am exanimate. The trilogy-shaped thing, even in a rough first-draft form (which will expand as I stuff various left-over bits of plot up its arse, at my editors' prompting) is the longest first draft story I've ever written. In fact, I am thinking of changing my name to Mr Earbrass and emigrating to a land that has not yet discovered paper, never mind semiconductors.

Lessons learned?

I try to live my life by several simple rules, starting with "1: Don't Die". (If you violate rule 1, all the other rules become irrelevant.) Somewhere in the top 5 rules is "Never try to eat anything bigger than your own head", and I think I just broke a literary tooth on it. The longest first draft of a story I ever completed before this was the first draft of something called "A Family Trade", which ran to 156,000 words. It got edited, expanded, edited again, split into two books ("The Family Trade" and "The Clan Corporate"), published, then redrafted and recombined and republished as "The Bloodline Feud", in which form it runs to 195,896 words (I got down on my hands and knees and counted them). That was in 2002, before my arteries hardened and my memory softened.

This juggernaut weighs in at 303,397 words and can be expected to prolapse to around 330,000 before it's published (in not less than 12 months' time—it needs editing, redrafting, cursing at, ritually foreswearing, and then submitting to the production pipeline). And you should take it from me, it's quite challenging trying to hold the equivalent of an 800-900 page story in your head long enough to make sense of it and not randomly forget or confuse things like the main protagonist's age and gender, which of their relatives you killed off at the end of the previous series, and what time of year it's supposed to take place in. Or even what it's about. (I keep chanting "this is my big fat post-Edward Snowden near-future panopticon security state dystopia with parallel universes", but it isn't helping. I know: it's about badgers. Or the impossibility of badgers. Something to do with set theory, maybe.)

Part of what let me hold it together was Scrivener. I've praised Scrivener's virtues before; suffice to say, if you want a metaphor and you're used to writing software, if Microsoft Word is a text editor (probably some kind of cut-down crappy proprietary Emacs clone without the GNU functionality), then Scrivener is an Integrated Development Environment like Eclipse or XCode, only for books or other long compound documents. I've been slinging around a Scrivener project containing close to 930,000 words of prose—the current and new Merchant Princes series, in one handy cross-referenced hierarchical compound document with twiddly bits.

Another thing that helped me hold it together was Handeze orthopedic gloves, because near-fifty-year-old hands and this sort of word count do not make for pleasant bed-fellows.

Finally, I owe my sanity to having kept my attention focussed on the next-but-one novel in the pipeline. Because nothing gets you through the sucking swamp of despair that is the book you are writing right now like the bright, shining lure of the next-but-one book waiting just over the hill of optimism at the other side of this slough of despond.

But back to lessons learned: I humbly asked my agent to do me a favour. "Yes, what?" "Next time I express an interest in writing a manuscript more than 140,000 words long, would you mind hitting me in the face with a baseball bat until I return to sanity?"

She said yes! (My agent has my best interests at heart: letting my drive myself insane would be bad for her bottom line.) Anyway, just remember this, folks: it may be big, but it ain't clever.

PS: On another note: Now the Hugo voting is closed, I can let my arse-length hair down and vent, very diffidently, about my reviews. Specifically, reviews of Equoid (which is finally available in hardcover).

Yes, some of the reviewers spotted the odd pop-cultural reference in the novella. Many of them even realized it featured H. P. Lovecraft (gasp!) as a character. But honestly, does nobody read Cold Comfort Farm these days? Or grow up watching Trumpton, or reading about the adventures of the girls at St Trinians, or remember this sketch from Not The Nine O'Clock News? Critics! What is happening to your cultural literacy these days?

August 15, 2014

Interstellar Dust Grains Found by Stardust@home by The Planetary Society

Seven possible interstellar dust grains have been found by Stardust@home, a citizen scientist project that The Planetary Society helped out early on. The dust grains would be the first ever examples of contemporary interstellar dust.

The OCO-2 First Light Spectra by The Planetary Society

Dr. David Crisp explains how NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) works, and what its first light spectra tells his team about the spacecraft’s performance.

Finding my way around comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko by The Planetary Society

Rosetta has nearly completed its first funky three-cornered orbit in front of the comet. Each day we're getting views of the nucleus from more directions. I step you through Churyumov-Gerasimenko's geography.

The Films I've Watched This Year #30 by Feeling Listless

Film Heavily abbreviated list this week (and a bit back catalogue at that) because I've been catching up on Veronica Mars, The Honorable Woman (which is storming towards a pretty marvellous conclusion), Extant (which frustrates beyond measure) and the European Athletics Championship which is a potent enough drop of methadone after coming down from the Commonwealth Games. The clear highlight's been the mascot, Cooly, far more visible on screen than usual, and the commentators reaction to his existence. Their befuddlement at his or her sheer energy and athletics skills clearly has them wondering just who is behind the mask, though after this monumental bit of hurdling the other day, they probably know full well.

It Rains On Our Love
Bright Young Things
John Dies At The End
The 6th Day

Some people don't like Bright Young Things.  The machinations of "society" people are an acquired taste.  Bbut I think Stephen Fry works hard to magnify the satire in Waugh's book (not that I've read Vile Bodies) but also to make the characters sympathetic enough that we understand that there was just as much human wreckage at the top of the society as to the bottom, especially at this nexus point in history between the two wars when many such families lost everything.  I was interested to hear on the commentary that Waugh set his book in the future ending it in a world war.  So many other narratives seem to suggest it wasn't inevitable, that we had seen the war to end all wars.

The other reason to watch, especially if you're of a certain disposition, is that it's simply easier to list the people who haven't been in Doctor Who.  Tennant's in there of course and Fenella Woolgar plays a character called Agatha for goodness sake.  At a certain point in this rewatch I joked that Mark Gatiss would probably wander through, not suspecting for a minute that he'd actually turn up about ten minutes later.  It was the screen debut Stephen Campbell Moore and he's remarkable and if we had a proper film industry would have gone on to bright young things himself.  Unfortunately for him Toby Stephens exists in the world and probably snaffled what could have been some his perfect roles.

John Dies At The End is fine, but you can see that something as mega as Guardians is just at the edges if only the filmmakers had been working with a massive budget rather than the coppers which led to whole sequences being played out against green screen and cgi settings less convincing than early period Wing Commander or Red Alert cut scenes.  Bits of it are fabulous, and there are dozens of interesting ideas and some funny jokes not least in relation to Paul Giamatti but there's an incoherence which doesn't quite work in its favour.  Comic films are always less funny when the action is undermotivated or the storyline poorly explained which is odd in this case when you consider how much of it is narrated.

The 6th Day was genuinely simply a round to it; for a while Columbia/TriStar dvds (I think) had the same advertising booklet within and this was about the only film on it I hadn't seen.  It's about what I expected, Arnold thrown into a sci-fi concept (cf, Total Recall) and dealing with the consequences.  Apart from the way it dancing around the fringes of "Religion good!  Science bad!" without quite committing to either, is how back in 2000, there was no concept of a future with tablet computers (despite the preponderance of PADD on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and their lack is strange, especially in the remote control helicopter sequences which seem bizarrely antiquated now.

A white dwarf eating a debris disk by Astrobites


Figure 1. Artist’s impression of a debris disk around a white dwarf. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and G. Bacon (STScI)

White dwarfs are dense stellar remnants, roughly the mass of the sun and the radius of the earth. They’re the hot core of a star left over after nuclear fusion has stopped and the star has expelled its outer layers into a planetary nebula. They are also odd but interesting places to learn about exoplanets. In this case, the authors were looking not at a planet itself, but at a debris disk around the white dwarf J0959 0200, which was likely formed from tidally disrupted planetesimals.

The authors were comparing WISE and Spitzer IRAC infrared observations of white dwarfs, and found an infrared excess. This extra infrared emission is most likely caused by dust in a debris disk around the white dwarf absorbing the light from the white dwarf and re-emitting it at infrared wavelengths. This data was from 2010. Looking to learn more, they obtained updated Spitzer measurements in 2014. They found that the source had decreased in brightness in the 2 IRAC bands at (3.6 and 4.5 microns) by almost 35%. They also had J, H, and K band data from 2005, so they obtained updated measurements in 2014, and found that the source decreased in brightness in the K band (~4 microns), while remaining unchanged in J and H bands (~2 and 3 microns, respectively). This is consistent with the results from Spitzer, and it means the cooler, dusty component of the system is decreasing in brightness, while the hotter white dwarf itself remains unchanged.

So if the disk has decreased in brightness, what does that mean? Well, the infrared excess is due to a disk of dusty material around the white dwarf. How much infrared excess you see depends on the width of the disk (the radius of its inner and outer edges) and its inclination. If you have a disk that is edge-on to the line of sight, then you don’t observe much of the disk, or therefore much infrared excess. But if the disk is face-on to the line of sight, you see the whole disk, and lots of infrared emission. And obviously the more surface area the disk covers–the closer, or smaller the inner radius and the bigger the outer radius–the more excess you see.

For the data taken in 2010 and earlier, the observers measure so much infrared excess that the disk must be face-on and have a very narrow inner edge (only 10.5 times the radius of the white dwarf, which itself only has a radius about that of the earth!), so that it is thoroughly heated by the white dwarf. The outer edge is less well constrained, because it is cooler and best constrained by 8 micron observations, which were not available for this project.

What then, accounts for the drop in flux observed between 2010 and 2014? The model that best describes the observations and makes sense with the 2010 observations is that the inner edge of the disk moved out from 10.5 times the white dwarf’s radius in 2010 to 14 times the radius in 2014. Essentially, the disk was destroyed from the white dwarf’s side. See Figure 1 for details. But what can cause this? The authors offer two suggestions.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 3.21.40 PM

Figure 2. SED fits to the observations. The blue line is fitted to the data prior to March 2010, and the red line to data taken after March 2010. The only difference between the two models is the inner disk radius, which increases from 10.5 to 14 times the radius of the white dwarf. Credit: Xu et al. 2014.

The first is that an asteroid could have impacted the disk and disrupted it. But it would have to be an anomalously large asteroid to cause the large increase in the inner disk radius observed. The other explanation relies on the fact that prior to 2010, a very hot inner disk temperature was required to explain the observations. Such a high temperature makes the inner disk unstable, and dusty/rocky material could interact with the viscous gas and cause sudden events of high rates of accretion onto the star–high enough to dissolve something like 3% of the disk’s mass within ~300 days, in a disk that would otherwise stick around for roughly a million years. If this second case is what happened, that level of accretion will be observable similar to a nova event. The authors advise observing the star on shorter timescales in order to catch a future such event in action and answer definitively what’s going on around this dusty–now slightly less dusty–white dwarf.

Four things that annoy me with strategy. by Simon Wardley

On Disruptive Innovation.
There are two major forms of disruption.

The first form is disruption by unpredictable change such as product to product substitution. This is tough to defend against because of inertia that we might have to the change (due to past business success etc) and because the speed at which change happens. Such disruption is a classic case of Innovator's dilemma.

The second form is disruption by predictable change such as product to utility substitution (e.g. cloud). This is easy to defend against because of the timespan and because inertia is solvable given time. However, companies still get disrupted because executives often have poor situational awareness and can't protect against the clearly visible storm despite getting warning notes ten years before its arrival. Disruption here is not a classic case of the Innovator's dilemma but instead a classic case of "the CEO is a muppet". 

The two are not the same. Calling everything disruptive innovation might make the execs feel better but there are two forms - classic innovator's dilemma and the CEO is a muppet. Don't confuse the two.

CEOs Playing Chess.
We all know that activities evolve but you'd be horrified to discover how shockingly poor strategic gameplay is in some companies. Ok, I'll spill the beans - beyond UK & some other Govs, some high tech and other large organisations then I rarely see an organisation that has a clue what it is doing. Some don't even know their users' needs. Of course, a company will have a large strategy document but generally those documents are hopeless. Situational awareness? Forget it, why do you think so many companies are being disrupted by predictable changes like cloud? 

I usually laugh out loud every time I read HBR (Harvard Business Review, a hopeless rag IMHO) and someone proclaims that companies are moving beyond playing chess. It's utter tosh. Most companies can't even see the board. Why do you think someone like me can walk in, take over the entire cloud market for a couple of $100K and steal the future from a company worth billions. That's exactly what I did with Ubuntu vs RedHat and every other operating system out there. Oh, and by the way - RedHat is a much better player than most companies in their industry. CEOs Playing Chess? A few definitely but most aren't. 

I happen to use a mapping technique based on user needs to visualise the environment (a talk and slideshow on this from OSCON 2014 can be found here), though there are other techniques out there. It's almost a decade old (circa 2005) and I developed / refined it with a good friend of mine James Duncan.

Oh, people often say aren't I being rude to CEOs here? I created the technique when I was CEO of a high tech company (acquired by Canon) because I new full well that our strategy was just made up horseshit albeit with a lot of common memes for the time. We had no way of visualising the environment. We weren't playing chess. No-one was.

Most of my counter parts knew their strategies were just as bad. We've all listened to endless twaddle by strategy consultants and read endless gibberish on management strategy. The simple truth is that if you can't visualise the environment then you're not playing chess, you're simply shooting in the dark.

The mapping technique is all creative commons licensed and is being used in UK Gov and other places. Oh, if you want to know what a 'map' is, then I have a post for you.

Figure 1 - A Map

Have you heard about the new Platform play?
We all know that as activities evolve to more of a commodity they become suitable for provision as services as part of a platform play. Platforms are simply the tool by which you grow and exploit ecosystems and in certain industries it's no longer businesses that compete but ecosystems. There are many different methods of exploiting ecosystems from 2 factor markets to ILC methods and the use of ecosystems as future sensing engines. Oh, if you want to know what the diagram below means then I've a post on understanding ecosystems.

Figure 2 - ILC.

These games were being played pre 2003 but somehow the concept of 'Platform' is becoming 'new' again. Guessing there's a bunch of bored academics / consultants wanting to make a name for themselves. 

Ok, a piece of advice. If the following concepts :-

1) Using a platform to build and exploit an ecosystem in order to sense future changes.
2) Using open as a means to manipulate the market.
3) Using IT as a weapon

... don't fill you with boredom then get a broom and apply for a job as a janitor. If any of these concepts seem vaguely interesting or new, as opposed to well rehearsed, well repeated tactical plays then please don't attempt to do anything with the word strategy in it. Did you just decide fifteen years ago that you would stop learning? Because you're not a strategist, you're a laggard, a dinosaur and so far behind the curve that you should not endanger your company any more. 

We should be a composable enterprise.
If the idea of building an enterprise with components in a 'composable' fashion in any way seems new then please read more ... seriously, I mean read more books. If you've somehow missed this idea over the last twenty years then you've probably missed an awful lot of stuff. Switch off the TV, read more. However whilst the concept is old, the timing over the last five years is about right and so examples of good practice should start to emerge.

Jennifer Lawrence's Cinematic Crush. by Feeling Listless

"I met Bill Murray once and I was like can't even can't get started, I can't talk to you."

August 14, 2014

Data From the Rescued ISEE-3 Spacecraft Have a New Internet Home by The Planetary Society

"A Spacecraft for All" is a new website by Google Creative Labs that will host citizen science data from the ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: My So-Called Life. by Feeling Listless

Composed by W.G. Snuffy Walden
[from: 'My So-Called Life: Original Soundtrack', 1995]

Music  There is something gut wrenching about the cancellation of a favourite television show, especially a drama. Over the period of broadcast the viewer invests a certain emotional interest in the lives of the characters. So when these characters are left in the middle of story arcs or plotlines we are denied something which he rightly expect in real life. Closure. One show in particular was a particular pain.

For some reason I keep coming back to ‘My So-Called Life’. Every year I get the shows out and watch them again. Every year I see new things. I understand more. I'm twenty-eight now. What's going on?

When you're a teenager, and you have those problems, and you know your friends will make fun of you if you tell them, you look to film, music and TV for answers. Living in England, honest to goodness teen shows are pretty thin on the ground. There's 'Byker Grove', 'Grange Hill' and hints of 'HollyOaks' and that's about it. The trouble is that none of them quite has the audacity or time slot to cut to the heart of what its actually like to be a teenager. Most of the time you have to look to US shows like 'Dawson's Creek' or 'Buffy: The Vampire Slayer'. But standing above them all was 'My So-Called Life' a television programme that answered all of our questions. When the show was transmitted on our Channel 4 in 1995 it was stupidly popular.

No one had seen anything like this. Suddenly you knew what to do about that older boy or girl you fancy. Or if you have feelings for the girl next door. Or if you weren't sure about your sexuality. Or if someone loved you but you couldn't return their feelings. Or if you got handcuffed to a bed. Your heart was broken by it week after week, but you came back for more because you knew it was doing you good. A free hour of therapy.

Even if you didn't want to admit it, you were one of them. You were Rayanne Graffe, afraid of the world and overcompensating. Sharon Cherski, searching for your own identity beneath the expectations of others. You were Ricki Vasquez unsure who you were but quietly finding an equilibrium. You were Jordan Catalano torn between your friends and something else. You were Brian Krakow, the romantic with so many high expectations of people. You were Danielle Chase, always being kicked out of different rooms. You were Patty Chase fighting to keep your family together. You were Graham Chase fighting to keep yourself together. And you were always Angela, your world falling apart around you, every choice being wrong, every moment a battle, but somehow slowly working it all out.

Then, after nineteen episodes, it was gone. Replaced, I believe, by a rerun of 'Matlock'. The show should never have been cancelled. It wasn't fair goddam it. And not on that cliffhanger. But perhaps it had the right end. The perfect ending. The only ending this show could have had. Making a choice then watching in pain the road not travelled. So like life. So-called Life.

This year we would have had its sixth season. All of the contracts would have been up for renewal. The teenagers would have been twenty something. Characters would have gone, new characters brought in. The writing teams change. But it would not have been the same show.

The show I keep coming back to.

[Commentary:  One of my many, many obituaries this was originally posted to the IMDb on 27 October 2000 where it sat on the front pages for many, many months.  Since the series wasn't released on dvd for at least another two years, the above was written from memory and multiple viewings of the final episode, the only episode I managed to record on original broadcast because I happened to be home from college that week (I think).  We've probably talked enough about this in the blog's history, though there's always something new, like discovering this track by The Ataris which probably sums up how most of us feel about Claire Danes, even now.]

August 13, 2014

Mars orbiters plan for their October encounter with comet Siding Spring by The Planetary Society

Now that we have reasonable confidence that our Mars orbiters will be safe from the close passage of comet Siding Spring, we are free to be excited about the opportunity that the encounter represents. At a community workshop on August 11, representatives from Mars missions shared their plans for great comet science.

Migrating Super-Earths vs. Terrestrial Planets by Astrobites

Title: Terrestrial Planet Formation in the Presence of Migrating Super-Earths
Authors: André Izidoro, Alessandro Morbidelli, Sean N. Raymond
First Author’s Institution: University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, CNRS, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azure, Labratoire Lagrange
Paper Status: Accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal

Super-Earths: Not So Earth-Like

Of all the kinds of planets we’re finding around other stars—hot Jupiters and mini-Neptunes and those dubiously called “Earth-like”—super-Earths orbiting close to their stars are among the most abundant. About half of sun-like stars are thought to host planets with radii one to four times that of Earth’s, with orbital periods of less than 100 days. While planets so close to their stars are poor candidates for habitability, they are important to understanding the possibility of other habitable planets in these seemingly common systems.

There are two theories for the formation of close-in super-Earths: they either formed in-situ (where they are), or they formed farther out and subsequently migrated inward. This paper discusses several flaws with the in-situ formation model: it presupposes an extraordinarily massive and dense protoplanetary disk, and it assumes that orbital migration isn’t influential in planet formation. In fact, there is a very strong case for orbital migration being nearly inevitable. Thus, the authors work on the assumption that super-Earths form farther out in the disk and then migrate inward. (This means that super-Earth composition is likely to be higher in volatiles than terrestrial worlds are; in other words: not rocky.)

Super-Earths vs. Terrestrial Planet Formation

It is thought that, in our system, the big gaseous planets formed more quickly than Earth and its rocky compatriots; it’s reasonable to think, then, that super-Earths will also form more quickly than terrestrial planets in their systems. So a migrating super-Earth, forming out past the habitable zone (HZ) but migrating through the zone to its tight orbit, has the potential to wreak havoc on the formation of Earth-like planets in the HZ. The super-Earth will be fully formed and migrating in while the material that will come to form terrestrial planets—rocky worlds in the HZ—is still in debris, smaller planetesimals, and larger planetary embryos.

So we’ve got a super-Earth migrating in from beyond the HZ to a point closer in to its star, basically barreling through the band of material that could come to form Earth-like planets. Is that a problem?

A big variable is how quickly the super-Earths migrate. And this ends up being the deciding factor in the fate of rocky planets around super-Earths. When super-Earths migrate inward quickly, they do little to disturb the protoplanets and planetary embryos that go on to form terrestrial planets (see figure). However, slow-moving super-Earths push and pull much of that rocky planet fodder with them into their close-in orbits, depleting the areas where terrestrial planets could form.

Some Simulations

The authors of this paper came to this conclusion through a range of situations, with varying migration speeds for the super-Earths and distributions of protoplanetary material in the terrestrial zone. They also tested systems with multiple super-Earths migrating inward in sequence, inspired by the Kepler-11 system, which is home to six super-Earth-type planets.

The simulations had of two phases: The first phase began with a disk of planetesimals and planetary embryos orbiting within the habitable zone, and one or more migrating super-Earths starting farther out; the outcome showed the super-Earth’s effect on the protoplanetary material. Then, in the second phase, the researchers simulated the evolution of the remaining protoplanetary material to see if, after a few million (simulated) years, the habitable zone had enough material left to form any truly Earth-like worlds.

Snapshots of the dynamical evolution of protoplanetary bodies in the presence of a migrating super-Earth. In this case, a fast-migrating super-Earth does no major damage on the distribution of protoplanetary bodies.

Snapshots of the dynamical evolution of protoplanetary bodies in the presence of a migrating super-Earth. Black dots and outlined circles represent protoplanetary bodies; the big gray circle is the super-Earth. The x-axis measures distance from the star and the y-axis indicates orbital eccentricity. As the super-Earth moves in, the protoplanets remain well-distributed in distance from the star, and only get shaken up into slight eccentricity.  So in this case, a fast-migrating super-Earth does no major damage on the distribution of protoplanetary bodies.

They found that the mass of the migrating super-Earth made little-to-no difference on the outcome. What mattered was the speed. A super-Earth that took a mere hundred thousand years to migrate in from 5 AU to 0.1 AU scattered or accreted the planetesimals and embryos in its orbit, but the debris didn’t scatter far. Once the super-Earth had made its way through the HZ, 75% of the initial rocky matter had survived, and the subsequent simulation showed the familiar pattern of terrestrial planet formation from that material.

A slow super-Earth, on the other hand, does much more shepherding of planetesimals, dragging them with it inward toward the star. The slow migration allows for much of the rocky protoplanetary material to be captured in orbital resonance with the super-Earth, and in toward the star they spiral together. Any migration timescale over a million years leaves much less than one Earth mass of material in the neighborhood of the habitable zone, so much less that in some simulations the HZ was effectively cleaned out.

But What About Us?

If super-Earth migration is so common, why are all the big planets in our Solar System so far out? Super-Earths are sometimes called mini-Neptunes, too, after all, and our own Neptune is nowhere near a hundred-day orbit. Saturn and Jupiter may have served as buffers, impeding Uranus and Neptune from migrating. This paper suggests that our Solar System may be atypical. The chance for abundant terrestrial planets in other systems may largely depend on how quickly or slowly those not-so-Earth-like super-Earths migrate.

Mobile optimized websites attract 60% more smartphone users in China. by Resonance China

resonance_ADI best practices apac long

This infographic from the Adobe Digital Index’s “Best of the Best Benchmark” report for the Asia Pacific region, quantifies the benefits that brands employing best practices in digital are enjoying in their regions. Analyzing data from 120 billion visits across 16,000 websites, the report shows performance gaps between the top 20% of websites when compared to overall averages based on smartphone visits, tablet visits, stick rate, visits per visitor, minutes per visit, and conversion rate. Of particular interest is the share of smartphone visits to mobile optimized websites, which outperformed the average by more than 60% – which highlights the importance for marketers to create native experiences across all digital platforms. [Adobe Digital Index]

在Adobe Digital Index 所布的Best of the Best Benchmark告,分析太区各大品牌在互网上的表。此告采一万六千个网站上的一千两百亿访问量, 根据来自智慧型手机及平板的流量、每次访问停留时间、独立访问时长、及购买转换率,有将近20%的网站表出色。另有比平均高出60%的访问,偏好于从智慧型手机到移化网站的访问,这说明品牌在手机端网站的相容性及化程度,能够大大提升访问的比例。[Adobe Digital Index]

August 12, 2014

Three Major Volcanic Eruptions Observed On Io in the Span of Two Weeks by The Planetary Society

Jason Perry brings us a report on recent ground-based observations that shed new light on the most powerful of Io’s volcanic eruptions.

LightSail Prepares for Its Day-in-the-Life Test by The Planetary Society

LightSail-A's radio system has been fixed, and the spacecraft is now preparing for its August 20 day-in-the-life test.

How shoppers in New York and Shanghai research luxury purchases. by Resonance China

resonance_luxury consumer journey

This graphic from Contact Lab’s Luxury Digital Behavior report takes a closer look at the differences between luxury shoppers in Shanghai and New York when seeking information for future purchases. The study compared 922 individuals aged 25-54 in New York (69% having made one luxury purchase in the last 12 months) against 975 individuals in Shanghai from the same demographic (80% having purchased one luxury item in the past 12 months). Not surprisingly, Chinese shoppers based more of their decision on word of mouth with advice from friends/family/colleagues representing the most popular source of information (67%) and online reviews coming in fourth place (58%). Magazines were the most popular information source for New York shoppers (52%), tied with brand websites (52%) which also ranked high as an information source for Chinese luxury shoppers (66%). [ContactLab]

Contact Lab在所发布的Luxury Digital Behavior报告中,点出生活在纽约及上海的奢侈品消费者差异性。样本采样介于25岁到54岁的年龄区间,在上海及纽约分别抽样975位和922位受访者,其中有69%的纽约受访者,在过去一年中,有过购买至少一件奢侈品衣物的经验,而有80%的上海消费者有过相同经验。而在购物资讯来源排名中,纽约消费者偏向在杂志上获取资料,而上海受访者则偏向家人朋友间的口耳相传,品牌官方网站则位列不同消费族群的亚军。[ContactLab]

August 11, 2014

Peeling apart a neutron star by Astrobites

Title: Properties of High-Density Matter in Neutron Stars
Authors: F. Weber, G. A. Contrera, M. G. Orsaria, W. Spinella, O. Zubairi
First Author’s institution: Department of Physics, San Diego State University

Neutron stars are the remnant cores of massive progenitor stars, and contain the most extreme states of matter detectable in the Universe. While much effort has been expended on examining matter at extreme densities and temperatures in terrestrial environments (e.g. experiments such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, LHC, etc.), neutron stars offer us a rare glimpse in how these states of matter occur in nature.

At the extreme densities found inside neutron stars, atoms are so densely packed together that new states of matter can exist. While neutron stars are extreme environments in themselves, it is possible for matter to transform into something even more exotic through an increase in density. The main example of this is quark deconfinement, in which fundamental particles (e.g. electrons and neutrons) break down into their constituent quarks. Quarks normally don’t exist as free particles, but this can happen under the extreme temperature and densities at which quark deconfinement occurs. In the strange quark matter hypothesis, a quark star could result if quark matter is more stable than ordinary matter (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: The predicted structures of a quark star and a neutron star.

Neutron stars usually spin at high rotational frequencies (which we observe as pulsars), and this rotation can also induce interesting changes in its structure. A large rotational velocity can alter a star’s core density through centrifugal forces (i.e. a faster spin leads to a decrease in density). This change in density can lead to a phase transition between baryons and their constituent quarks. The resulting transformation in the state of matter will change the star’s moment of inertia. A different moment of inertia will subsequently affect a neutron star’s spin rate, causing a spin up. Normally, neutron stars spin down over time, and thus their central densities increase slightly owing to a lack of centrifugal forces. If this scenario occurs, we should be able to observe a sudden increase in a neutron star’s spin rate, an effect known as “backbending”. By examining the braking behavior of pulsars over time, it might be possible to detect signs of quark deconfinement occurring within the core.

The structure and composition of neutron stars can also be affected by their magnetic fields. Neutron stars are likely deformed into oblate spheroids due to the extremely strong magnetic fields they produce. This resulting oblateness can increase the maximum mass of the neutron star that can be supported by neutron degeneracy pressure.

While lots of theoretical work has been done in modeling the structure of neutron stars and quark stars, much of this is yet to be observationally verified. Future data from telescopes like such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory and  ground based detectors such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will provide insights into the physics of these extreme objects. If the strange matter hypothesis holds true, the transitional state between a neutron star and quark star (known as a quark nova) could explain the origins of gamma-ray bursts, production of certain heavy elements, and anomalously luminous supernovae.

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

Art Having studious attempted to ignore seeing much of the exhibition at the press event, today I had the opportunity to see the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition in full and my overall impression is that it’s the best show in some years. In recent times there’s been an overall lack of balance between the abstract and figurative, the former overtaking the latter by quite some margin which hasn’t always been to it’s favour. In 2014, there’s a startling number of people on the walls, walking, working, living, sleeping and although there are works in which the absence of us is the point, often it’s the results of their interference with the landscape which is.

Admittedly the most eye-catching imagine in the largest room is an expression of the very worst of humanity. Reuben Murray’s Sister Is That You? shows us a young woman’s swollen, beaten face, her eye covered haphazardly with bloodied bandages hiding goodness knows what painful horrors beneath. The title indicates that her treatment has been so severe her sibling doesn’t even recognise her. But it’s the scale which creates a confrontation with the viewer, this face at the height of an average person, always in our peripheral vision as we walk around the rest of the room, and no matter what else we might see here, it’s this face we’ll remember.

On the opposite wall, in People 69104, Frank Pudney reduces his people to the size ants and renders them across his canvas like point on a map, in various shades so that collectively, looking at the entire composition, they resemble a topographical map, or is it a cloudy alpine mountain side, or even the detail of a pencil drawing of human anatomy? There’s no accompanying notes, but we have to expect that there are 69,104 tiny people here or close to, a staggering painting achievement in and of itself? What is that statistic? The population of the country? Is this the map of that country? There are other examples at his website.

But these are the extremes. Between we find Robin Dixon’s abstract teenagers beneath Estuary Bridge. We find the naked form of Frank As Androcles, Robert Fawcett’s photorealistic investigation of the mature form. We find Nicholas Middleton’s Black Bloc, in which hooded figures, scarves across their faces prepare for a fight. The void behind them accentuates the deliberate blankness of their identities, “black bloc” being the choice of clothing which makes it near impossible for authorities to prosecute them or is supposed to. Anarchism ironically utilises conformity for its own ends.

There’s also a void in the painting I chose for the people’s vote, Charlotte Hopkins Hall’s A Private Space. A women in a purple checked blouse is side on to us, her face obscured by shoulder length straight blonde hair. Like the anarchists she’s lost her identity but on this occasion we’re not sure why. Is the blouse a uniform, is this some shop worker on her break trying to find some space to herself, the void her attempt to block out the outside world or some far simpler reason? What’s striking is the fine detail of the painting, each individual strand of hair distinct from the others, the squares of her clothing. But not photo-realistic. We’re always aware it’s a painting.

Which isn’t to say it’s my favourite painting. My favourite painting is Juliette Losq’s Vinculum, but that’s already a prizewinner so I decided to send my love elsewhere. The internet tells me that a Vinculum is an overline horizontal line used in mathematical notation, but it’s the English translation which is most resonant in this context, "bond", "fetter", "chain", or "tie". As we look up at this massive watercolour, were looking down some precarious stairs into an overgrown garden covered in weeds and ivy, graffiti and bin bags, perhaps a shared garden at the back of ancient office spaces or shared housing. What of the barred windows?

As with many of the paintings in the exhibition it’s the massive scale which draws the viewer in, as well as the detail, and the mystery. But it’s also the perspective, the sense of looking up and down at the same time, the three-dimensionality. Judging by her website its typical of Losq’s work, to emphasis those spaces created by us but almost relinquished to nature. Her installation work often combines similar images together with furniture-like sculptural pieces almost to remind us that man or woman still retains some control over space, that we can never quite abandon it. Which now I come to think about it could be a theme which underscores most of the paintings here.

Liverpool Biennial 2014: St. Andrew's Gardens. by Feeling Listless

Art Ridiculous. Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. This is ridiculous. How ridiculous? I’ve just spent an hour this afternoon sat on couch in front of a plasma screen in the housing office at The Bullring, sorry, St Andrews Gardens watching a stupifyingly boring art discussion programme from Belgium in the late eighties and when I had finished, after I’d been to the onsite toilet and photographed a copy of the accompanying explanation in the booklet sat on the coffee table in the space, said my goodbyes to the very kind invigilator who’d begun the screening over again especially for me right from start, all I could think was why? Why had I done this?

Apart from the existential realisation, not in a good way, that I’m currently in the place in my life when I can spend an hour on a Friday afternoon sat on couch in front of a plasma screen in the housing office at The Bullring, sorry, St Andrews Gardens watching a stupifyingly boring art discussion programme from Belgium in the late eighties, I have few answers. As the final venue on my tour of the official Biennial exhibitions, the A Needle Walks Into A Haystack cluster, it’s at best anti-climactic. But as I discovered at the last Biennial when I did the venues in numerical order based the figures selected for the map in the official booklet, they’re not meant to be done in numerical order based the figures selected for the map in the official booklet. It just sort of happened that way this time around.

The idea of bringing a curated collection of work by Belgian television director Jef Cornelis isn’t unsound. At least as a student of television history, there’s something potentially enthralling for me about seeing any television from the continent, especially arts television, because it’s something which hasn't been broadcast much in this country. When histories are written and documentaries are made about the history of art television, it’s always from a British perspective and we simply don’t get to see or hear about the Beligian or French or Spanish equivalents of Kenneth Clarke, Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob, Caroline Wright or Humphrey Burton.

As the Biennial booklet and website indicates, when Jef Cornelis worked at VRT (the Dutch-language Belgian public broadcasting corporation), he made over 200 films and here we have the ability to dip in and see this voice and see how a different culture reflected back on itself through its own programming. Like a one man Arena, across the decades, which oddly mirror the period "classic" Doctor Who was on the air, not that this is important but is on my mind for some reason, he covered a similar range of topics across many disciplines and titles which stand out from the list of works here in the booklet, including “Things that aren’t mentioned: Alice in Wonderland”, James Lee Byars: The World Question Centre” and “Landscape with Churches”.

Yet despite all of that, my own intellectual justification for why this is relevant, as I walked away from the display, I still asked myself, what is the point? Partly it’s the delivery. There’s no particularly connectivity between the Bullring and Jef Cornelis’s work other than perhaps the deliberate incongruousness of it, in which case to choose this venue in which we’re asked to concentrate on a television recording while the housing office quite rightly goes about its daily, noisy business, is, like I said, ridiculous and doesn’t do the work any favours. If this hadn’t indeed been necessarily subtitled I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of following any of, let alone the miniscule amount I did latch on to.

On top of that, I’d also ask how we as an audience are supposed to interact with it. If I was following the rules of my own project which was to watch all of the video art on display the Biennial I’d be spending the best part of the next two months at the Bullring working my way through this stuff. I will not. Apart from the fact that we’re in the grey area of whether this is art or commentary on art or both, I can’t imagine the Biennial's curators expects us to either. It's worth asking how much of it they've seen themselves given that the show's been curated by Koen Brams, the director of the Jan van Eyck Academy instead. So how much of this do they expect us to see? Across the hour I was there, I saw three other visitors, a couple and someone on their own and they each stayed for about five to ten minutes, not much of which was spent sat on the sofa or accompanying armchairs watching the programme.

What did they make of it? What did it do for them? You can’t legislate for the reactions of every audience member or visitor but I wonder how many of them have also sat and watched a whole programme, or sat in the back room and watched one of the other documentaries and do they realistically have the time? I’d be genuinely interested to know if anyone reading this has either (through through usual channels please). If all the visitors are doing is wandering through, glancing briefly at a snippet of a seventy-five minute fashion documentary (or whatever), reading the information boards then heading off to another venue, it’s worth asking exactly what the point was in specially subtitling all this material in the first place. What’s it all for?

Container 3: Heine’s Paper Crane (Jef Cornelis, 1989)

The work is being displayed through a weekly screening selection on that main screen and through headphoned screens in a room at the back so it really depends on when you visit as to what you’ll see. This week it’s the turn of the third episode in the producer’s ten part philosophy discussion programme which began broadcasting fortnightly in early May of that year as a way of giving the a voice to the intellectuals of Flanders, who he thought at that point had no particular tradition in that regard. Two regular moderators and two guests hashed around a topic and in this third episode the participants read and discuss the relationship intellectuals have to history as a construct through letters by the likes of Goethe, Marx and Schopenhauer.

Which sounds pretty run of the mill and the sort of thing which might turn up on Radio 4. It’s not that much different to In Our Time. It killed Cornelis’s career. As the accompanying notes describe, “the Flemish press could not find a single good thing to say about Container” and the reason it only lasted ten episodes was because the VRT ended it. It’s not hard to see why. Ridiculously (there’s that word again) the Container of the title is an actual container, designed and built especially for the programme by Belgian architect Stephane Beel. Throughout there are cutaways to outside of the container with these four intellectuals sat around the table inside which entirely tip the viewer out of whatever point is currently being made.

It’s just the kind of experiment that Channel 4 might have carried out in its early days when they were allowing anyone to make programmes and which would later show up being sneered at by Mark Lawson on the A-Z of TV Hell or parodied by Adam & Joe. It’s After Dark filmed on the set of Network 7. And boring, so, so boring. The problem is that unlike In Our Time or After Dark, there’s no attempt to bring the viewer up to speed. Like turning up in the middle of an Oxbridge seminar, we’re expected to know who all these figures are and why their centuries old words are interesting. I would say I managed to follow about ten percent of it (see below), but the rest, what I could concentrate on amid the bustle of the office, was a fog.

The bit I did latch on to at about the twenty minute mark (I could keep an eye on the duration thanks to the massive screen showing BBC News on the wall nearby) concerning the notion of history not existing or rather what we think of as history actually being something cobbled together by academics and politicians, the winners, through the prism of their concerns and interests. This reminded me of the coverage of the World War One commemoration on Monday which included packages about the contribution the then British Empire made to the war, and how the native peoples of the areas of the world participated and died defending the very people who’d conquered them.

Having written this stinging criticism, again I ask myself what it’s for, what’s the point? Container 3: Heine’s Paper Crane won’t in any way be representative of Cornelis’s work and can’t be if he managed to previously carve out a thirty year career at the station it was produced at, like assuming all of The West Wing is like Disaster Relief. If I’d visiting a week earlier or later the previous four paragraphs would have been entirely different. Is Biennial therefore asking me to watch a range of his programmes in order to gain some knowledge of the kind of work he does? Is this art appreciation or screen theory?  If the piece had been displayed in a white cube rather than what's otherwise a student common room would I be asking the question in the same way?

The Biennial text suggests he was attempting to work against the grain of what television expects which does make him as much an artist as programme maker but within the limits of being a Biennial visitor, what’s the goal? Not for the first time this Biennial, I’m perplexed by the curatorial choices. On the basis of Container alone, with its artifice, I can see his artistic intervention (in a similar way to the Suzanne Lacey piece from two years ago) but by putting it in an exhibition does it become a piece of art and did Cornelis want it ever to be judged in these terms or was his primary focus simply on making this discussion programme visually interesting in a similar way to Roland Rivron when he decided to present a chat show while floating in the Thames?

Message for GISHWHES participants by Charlie Stross


Do NOT send me email.

If you send me email asking for me to do your homework for you, I will mock you publicly on this blog.

As per previous blog entries: I am not your bitch.

(This notice prompted by the fact that I am currently being mailbombed by people who want me to do their homework for them. Really fucking annoyed now. Got a job to do and a deadline to hit: You. Are. Not. Helping.)

Clarification (having slept on it): the thing about GISHWHES is that I've never heard of it, never volunteered to participate in it, and had no idea what a scavenger hunt was before this pile landed in my inbox. I'm not merely trying to work—I'm about 99% of the way into a third of a million word death march to finish a trilogy, I've got a deadline looming in the next week, I'm utterly exhausted from over-work, and I am not generally receptive to being bombarded by requests to write flash fiction (which I don't do, anyway) several times a day. It feels very much like a case of "shoot at the monkey's feet, watch the monkey dance" by a random internet flash mob, and it is not fun.

Longer term: perhaps GISHWHES, in future years, could establish a mechanism for allowing people in my position to post a "don't contact me" request. Then exploding messily all over twitter wouldn't be necessary.

I'm not the only professional working SF/F author who is having this problem; a bunch of us are comparing notes, and several are highly annoyed by it. Because it's not just one team doing it—one higher-profile author than me is fielding what seem to be hundreds of requests.

China luxury offline retail shoppers beat online shoppers 9 to 1. by Resonance China

resonance_omnichannel shoppers

This chart form Exane BNP Paribas’ “China Reality Check: Luxury and the Online Boom,” captures the shopping patterns of nearly 2,000 consumers in Shanghai across luxury product categories through online and offline purchasing channels. In terms of purchasing exclusively through a single channel, offline-only shoppers significantly outnumbered online-only shoppers at an average rate of almost 9-to-1. But perhaps the most interesting statistic is the percentage of consumers who were multi-channel shoppers (37%), reflecting the emergence of savvy consumers who are equally comfortable experiencing products in-store as they are with purchasing from parallel sales agents on Taobao. [Exane]

Exane BNP Paribas发布的调研China Reality Check: Luxury and the Online Boom,采样上海两千位的消费者购买奢侈品的来源,其中的亮点为纯线下的消费者远远超出纯线上的消费者,比数为一比九,而又有37%的消费者,偏好在多渠道购买奢侈品(线上+线下),这说明了中国的消费者对于购买渠道选择演进的快速及线上电商平台的急速崛起。[Exane]

August 10, 2014

Keep the money in the family by Charlie Stross

Today I’m here to sell books—not mine but books by other SF writers you know. Books available from online booksellers built by and for the SF community. This is essentially a commercial for a purely SFnal book-buying ecosystem: books by SF writers, published by SF writers, and sold by SF writers, with as much of the proceeds as humanly possible going to the creators. You can buy—without DRM—novels and short stories, collections and anthologies and magazines, stuff that you might actually want to read, and read anywhere, on any device.

Queen of this trio of innovative booksellers is Book View Cafe. BVC is a publishing collective initially formed in 2008 around a core group of SF writers who wanted to use the internet to sell their work. Six years later, they have a spiffy website with a daily blog and a formidable catalogue, both new and back-list. They sell in many formats—EPUB and MOBI, of course, but also a few in PDF, and a handful as audio and/or paper (these two last mainly, I think, through third-party retailers).

Book View Cafe is where you’ll find Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels and stories by Vonda N. McIntyre. She does much of the coding that makes the books you buy render beautifully, and she’ll be a Guest of Honour at next year’s Worldcon. I’ve been a fan of her work since reading The Exile Waiting, then Dreamsnake, then Superluminal. (Even her Star Trek novels are good.) Her Nebula-winning The Moon and the Sun will be a film starring Pierce Brosnan, Bingbing Fan, Kaya Scodilario, and William Hurt next year.

There’s a new blog post up on BVC every day. One of the bloggers—who, like McIntyre, is one of the collective’s founders—is Ursula K. le Guin. No doubt you’re familiar with her stories (novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy; shorter work like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) but you might be less familiar with her non-fiction. Le Guin is never afraid to say what must be said, often with compassion, sometimes with scathing wit. I still grin when I think about her review in the Guardian of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, more particularly her opinion of Atwood’s squirming away from the Science Fiction label.

Book View Cafe is where Linda Nagata publishes her novels, new and old. Try The Bohr Maker or her recent, Nebula-nominated Red: First Light. This is hard SF, military SF, and a bloody good read. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I’ve said, Book View Cafe began with SF writers but now they also sell historical, romance, and mainstream fiction. In the US you can find their books in your local library thanks to a clever deal with Overdrive. About 95% of their revenues go directly to authors. For more info than I could possibly give you here, see their FAQ. I think you might be particularly interested in how the collective works. And buy a book while you’re there; they’re not expensive.

I’m also inordinately fond of Wizards Tower Books, the sales arm of Wizards’ Tower Press. Formed by Hugo Award-winning fan Cheryl Morgan four years ago to sell both the books of other independent presses and their own WTP list, they’ve lately had a rethink and are now selling only their own books. Their list is small and interesting, with writers such as Lyda Morehouse and Ben Jeapes. Again, they’re available DRM-free, in just about any format. And you don’t have to choose which one: you get all formats included in one low price. For multi-platform folk, this is a great deal. The storefront is a bit sparse at the moment, as it’s just reopened, but I have no doubt this will change. Meanwhile, go take a look and see if there’s anything you fancy.

And finally there’s Weightless Books. This is the one with, possibly, the most varied selection. They have books by Kelley Eskridge, my wife: her novel, Solitaire, and the truly amazing collection, Dangerous Space. (Yes, of course I’m biased. I’m her wife. But take my word for it: if you want your conceptions about gender forcibly rearranged and your heart squeezed by truly fine fiction, then this is the collection for you.) They have work by another Kelly, Kelly Link. Lin’s husband, Gavin Grant, founded Weightless (and runs it with Michael J DeLuca) to sell Small Beer Press books. The works they sell now number in the zillions (it’s a technical term), work by everyone from Kelley to Kelly to Peter Dickinson to Lavie Tidhar, as well as anthologies such as Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best, and magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. All in a variety of formats and DRM-free. You can read them on anything, anywhere, anytime.

These three online book shops—Book View Cafe, Wizard’s Tower Books, and Weightless—are all worth your time. And money. They are enterprises built by SF readers and writers for SF readers and writers. The money stays in the community and supports the creation of more good books. Go buy something.

The Films I've Watched This Year #29 by Feeling Listless

Film Non-film viewing activity this week largely involved the BBC's superb coverage of the World War I commemorations on Monday, coverage which struck just the right balance between covering an event and providing enough contextual information about why that event exists.  The voice of Eddie Butler for the lights out service late in the evening was an especially good choice, with his deep, resonant, authoritative sound so reminiscent of Robert Hudson or even Dimbleby snr.  About the only criticism I might have is of the moments when the technology failed and we were left looking at a red or green screen, something I haven't seen before in a BBC live broadcast event to quite that extent.  But these things happen.  It was probably the weather.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Guardians of the Galaxy
Labor Day
American Hustle
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Under The Skin
Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari
Adventures in Babysitting

Busy week and I almost don't want to spoil it by writing about it.  Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari was covered yesterday.  Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is as exciting as all of these DC animations offering the kind of entertainment that you'd hope the live action film will but know for definite that it won't because for one thing it would require television's the Flash to exist in the big screen universe but the powers have deemed they're not connected so that's that.  Labor Day's a morally suspect, dull as dishwater misstep whose foley artists can't even distinguish the difference between a ripe and unripened peach (the latter do not crunch).  I think you know how much I love The Guardians of the Galaxy already and I can't understand anyone who would look at that thing and say they were bored.  Because, well, bored?  Really?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's an efficient, entertaining thriller which doesn't have much to do with any of the previous installments about an analyst called Jack Ryan but proves once again that Chris Pine is at the spearhead of what can be best described as a new vanguard of film stars, even if the production and distribution model as it exists now won't let them "open" films in quite the same way as the old guard.  Of course, if you know Liverpool at all, one of the major action sequences falls apart as you notice the adversaries driving through the Mersey Tunnel, past our town hall, up and down James Street and Victoria Street and crash in front of Mann Island and the Three Graces.  But it's probably fitting that it should return here.  The first shot in The Hunt for Red October is of St George's Hall.

Much as I enjoyed American Hustle, I did, very much, it has a confusion of styles not many of which have much to do with David O Russell, as throughout I had this nagging sensation of seeing someone evoking other directors while submerging his own cinematic interests.  So there's a bit of Scorsese, bit of Woody, bit of Pakula, Soderbergh's in its DNA too along with 70s Pollack.  Perhaps his point is to as well as pay homage to the clothes and music of the time, the filmmaking style too, which is fine, but it can have a similar effect to the Liverpool location shooting of pulling the viewer out of the story.  There's also the nagging sensation of having seen this story before, until you realise that if you were to take the nationality from the title and set it in London in the 00s, you largely have.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a disappointment and I'm actually pleased that I decided to watch the Netflix stream when it became available rather than await the extended cut at the end of the year.  Kristen Thompson has a typically in-depth examination of what went wrong in the added material and the extent to which it ruins the integrity of The Lord of the Rings by retooling various story points and character points so that if you watch the whole lot together its full of pointless repetitions but the main point I'd like to add is just how rote the whole thing feels, the work of a filmmaker trying to make the best of a contractual obligation.  All the middle earth elements are there, glances to the future, the characters and peoples exist but its empty, rather like the disastrous third season of Star Trek under new producer Fred Freiberger.

Having deliberately avoided reading The Hobbit all these years in anticipation of watching a film adaptation without "it's not as good as" syndrome, I didn't know that the material with the elves didn't exist, but it seems that in laying on extra jeopardy, Jackson's fallen into the trap of many blockbuster filmmakers of replacing spectacle for heart and character, or at least forgetting how to integrate the two.  The best moments, the best moments in these Hobbit films are the character scenes, when these peoples simply talk, laugh, fight and fall in love.  In The Lord of the Rings films, Jackson realised that the very fact of us not having seen these characters on screen before, seeing an elf and a dwarf negotiating was as interesting as any action sequence, creating consequence when the battle scenes finally did occur.

But the most damaging is the lack of focus in relation to who the protagonists are.  In The Lord of the Rings, each of the different strands had a very clear point of view character, be it Frodo, Aragorn or Gandalf.  The first Hobbit retained this clarity by making it the story of Bilbo's acceptance.  As a consequence of some of the uneven structural elements of Smaug, it tries to be more of an ensemble piece when in reality it should still be about Bilbos adventure, but he becomes a background character for stretches as Thorin is given leading man status until he isn't because the story demands Bilbo takes key actions.  It's odd.  Perhaps it'll be make better sense when the whole trilogy is viewed as an eight hour binge but as an individual film The Desolation of Smaug doesn't work.  Sigh.

What stops the film entirely being as I'd imagine a Lord of the Rings film being is Jackson had been replaced with Brett Ratner, is his casting eye and immersive production design.  Never mind Cumberbatch, the real find here is Evangeline Lilly who carries the stateliness of the elf remarkably, that hierarchy of physical presence which isn't just to do with relative height in relation to other races.  Like Blanchett, there's a moment when she gives a look of recognition to Kili which seems to bounce of the screen into our own stomachs as they flip over in awe.  Her next film after these three is Ant-Man, but I think we can add her to the list of actress who should have played Wonder Woman.  Let's hope she's able to find the right projects to propel her forward.

I'd also be interested to know how the transfer of the film was given to Netflix, in what form.  Famously shot in 56 fps but released in the majority of cinemas in the usual 24 fps, through Netflix on my television, parts of it, particularly when they were on sets looked extremely odd, yes, televisual.  The sequences in the forest and amongst the wood elfs in particular looked like sets, which of course they are, but in a much clearer 1970s Doctor Who way, planet Hell from Star Trek.  My guess is that the frame rate of the stream is keying into the format of the original footage somehow, but not having seen it at the cinema, I don't know that it didn't look like this here as well.  That was another distraction.  Shooting digitally is all well and good but something has gone desperately wrong when the resulting image is this inferior to film in places.

August 09, 2014

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari. by Feeling Listless

Film  Coming soon to a cinema near you is a brand new, as distributor Eureka suggests definitive restoration of director Robert Weine’s German expressionist classic, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari and I’ve been lucky to be sent a preview disc ahead of the London press screening because I’m somewhat out of the area. In Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll this seminal silent came 235th amongst critics, 322nd with directors which is surprising considering the near century long influence it's had on the cinema which came after with obviously horror and film noir most clear in its debt thanks to its dramatic lighting and sinister overtones.

Away from its film studies canonicity, now that it’s back in cinemas, can it be simply viewed as popular entertainment? The set-up is entirely unlike anything in contemporary mainstream film. In a small German town, carnival entertainer and hypnotist Dr. Caligari introduces his audience to a somnambulist and apparently clairvoyant Cesare who sets about predicting the future of audience members. At least it seems like clairvoyance until Caligari sends his cohort out into the world to carry out his bidding. Cue mystery, murder, mayhem and lashings of psychological horror as the towns inhabitants seek to find the truth of this unusual force.

The extent to which this scares you rather depends how much you can buy into the artifice. The sets, deliberately jagged and abstract are the stuff of a Munch painting and the actors frequently have to shift their weight in unusual ways in order to fit through rhombus like doors. The performances are expressive but that works with the general mood of excess. Perhaps the best entry point for modern audiences is the new soundtrack composed by John Zorn, which partly utilises the Karl Schuke organ at the Berliner Philharmonie and mixes classical, jazz and other genres to thoughtfully enunciate the emotional undercurrent of events.

My first experience of Caligari was at the Liverpool Biennial 2006 when I was invigilating at Afoundation in Greenland Street building, in the furnace section of what’s now Camp and Furnace, or the big room with the long tables and caravans. Goshka Macuga’s Sleep of Ulro installation included a giant wooden architectural construct directly influenced by the sets in the film, particularly in the studio bound moments when Caligari is apparently being chased across the landscape. At The Furnace, visitors could run up such a space then find themselves trapped in a dead end, much like the structures on screen (images here).

Accompanying the screener was an explanation of the how the restoration came about the gist of which is in the video I’ve included above. Even on this timecoded single layer dvd-r I can see clarity the new image has, the care which as been taken in sourcing the best materials to create as lucid an image as possible. To some extent it’s almost too unblemished. Scuzzier prints have ancient quality to them which in the case of silent horrors always enhanced the atmosphere. But it would be churlish of me to suggest that this isn’t an improvement of some rep copy which has done the rounds and it might just mean the film will survive for another hundred years.

Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is released theatrically in he UK & Eire on the 29th August.

From ecosystems to open source to force multipliers - I've been a silly billy. by Simon Wardley

I've done numerous different talks over the last decade often with the same title - it's an old joke of mine. These talks have covered everything from the use of IT as weapon, to open source, to manipulation of markets and the importance of ecosystems and platform plays. Yes, there's a lot of common memes throughout. But in looking back, I realised that almost all the talks could have been improved if I had simply introduced mapping. 

The reason why I didn't do this before was because I didn't think it was important preferring instead to use other graphical means. It was purely by accident that I discovered that people didn't understand mapping which followed a rampage on my part to explain it to everyone. Silly billy.

Anyhow when I compare the videos from ...

PRE the accidental realisation (i.e. just before)

2010 - OSCON

2011 - STRATA

POST the accidental realisation (i.e. just after)

2013 - Alfesco Summit

2014 - OSCON

I can see now that not talking about mapping earlier and focusing purely on the economic patterns was a mistake. Note to self - must do better next time and stop assuming everyone knows this stuff. In my defence for those earlier presentations, the concept of mapping was probably too much of a leap and some of the presentations do actually contain mapping constructs - I just didn't explain it properly.

By the way more slides and details on mapping are provided here

A new photo by Simon Wardley

I don't photograph very well. 

I'm not exactly what you'd call a 'looker' especially with the wonky eyes (one tends to wander off when it's bored), the scruffy beard, the unkempt features, the lack of sleep and the shockingly poor teeth (I'm a smoker who is English ... never a good thing). Let's face it ... even my mum calls me a 'wreck'.

Still, Trav Williams at Broken Banjo Photography was taking speaker photos at OSCON and has somehow managed to create something decent. I'm assuming this involved hours of photoshop along with excellence in photography. Well, I now have a new headshot ... welcome to the new 'me' ... which is almost identical to the old me, even with the same tweed jacket, check shirt, cords etc etc etc.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: Eric's Ghost. by Feeling Listless

[from: 'Eroica: Piano Improvisions', Virgin, 1990]

Music Looking over the compilation I’m not sure now what I was trying to achieve. I think I was hoping to complement the tone of the weblog, include some of my favourite music and also offer a few surprises. I think I’ve done that. The trouble with compilations is that they can imply that this is my musical taste, and look over the track listing I’m not sure that’s what’s here. ‘The Heights’ track is on the edge, as is ‘The Flying Pickets’, curiosities more than anything else. Ironically, ‘Extremis’ may well also have been a mistake. But it could have been a lot worse. I nearly did include the aforementioned Richard E. Grant dance record. And a ‘This is the World Trade Centre’ track I’m particularly fond of. But this was originally put together in May this year and I’ve discovered a bunch of new music since then so I’m thinking about a sequel featuring just instrumental music. Which would be an odd way of expressing a medium built so much on words [originally written twelve years ago].

[Commentary:  Yes, well, if you say so.  The choice of the Lisa Coleman tracks will probably require some explanation.  They make better sense in the mix tape where they're interrupted by the Morissette and McEvoy acapella tracks.  They originally appeared on one of this five inch cds in the box with the above album as a bonus.  I'm yet to find an interview which bothers to mention this, so instead, here's Richard Keys patronising both Wendy and Lisa on the TV-AM couch in 1989.  Opening gambit: "Are you sisters?"  Minor kerfuffle: "His surname is Nelson, well, I never knew that."]

The Circle Line of Life. by Feeling Listless

Music If the Circle was in NYC, but I couldn't think of a better punning post title. The second best thing about the video is the general shrug of the commuters, the general collective sigh of "not this again" as they keep their eyes firmly fixed on their phones which at no point are even raised to record the hub bub. The commenters at Gothamist are pretty much in agreement that this kind of marketing is just intrusive but if the cast of The Lion King turned up on Merseyrail, I'd be thrilled. Not that there'd be much time for them to get the song out before they'd be halfway to Southport.

August 08, 2014

Mars 2020 Instruments – A Plan for Sample Return by The Planetary Society

Van Kane gives us a tour of the instruments selected for the Mars 2020 rover.

Mars Exploration Rovers Update: Opportunity Sets Historic Distance Record and Roves On by The Planetary Society

It's official: Opportunity has traveled farther and lived longer than any other vehicle on another planet, driving to a place in history with an out-of-this-world distinction no one even imagined when the robot field geologist left Earth 11 years ago.

August 07, 2014

Twinkling worlds in motion: New Horizons' first optical navigation images of Pluto and Charon by The Planetary Society

What's that in the distance? A binary star? Those are two little round worlds dancing in circles, whirling around a point in space located between the two of them. It's Pluto and Charon, clearly separated by New Horizons' camera.

Comet Siding Spring: Risk Assessment by The Planetary Society

On October 19, 2014, Comet Siding Spring is going to have an extremely close encounter with the planet Mars. The bottom line: it seems most likely that our Martian spacecraft will be absolutely fine.

The Nuclear Poker Project: doom with production values by Vinay Gupta


Please support the Nuclear Poker PLAYA EDITION 2014 fundraiser for the Nuclear Poker Hexa-Bunker. Full details below!

Nuclear Poker is a card game designed to teach you how to think about nuclear war. Nuclear Poker is a card game design to have fast-to-play, fun, five minute rounds containing hysterical laughter, bellicose posturing and extravagant gestures. Nuclear Poker is as much satire as strategy: a mocking school teacher for a post-modern world that has forgotten itself and its reality. You should buy Nuclear Poker, so we can fully realize our wicked cool art project!

They are still there, sleeping in the silos

So let me tell you about the game. Ian Willey did the magnificently chilling art, and I, leashless did the majority of the rules (pdf). There’s some talk of playing it with defence bureaucrats who’re too young to really have a feel for the cold war. It’s a great conference game. The “take a stiff drink every time you get nuked” variant has great potential. It’s a fun game.

Screenshot from 2014-08-07 16:39:13

We’re releasing the PLAYA EDITION now, in time for Burning Man (order quick!) and to kickstart our Electromagnetic Field 2014 project, The Nuclear Poker Hexa-Bunker which is a half-scale quad dome filled with ominous things and military surplus hats and uniform fragments. Right now we’re at $500 of $2000, $2000 which will buy quite a nice production with, of course, various options for “it’ll do” along the way if we can’t quite clear the full whack. Not that that’s going to be any issue, of course, because you’re going to help us, right?

254c873134118eb117b7a4a142a4d2e4fd651dfaLost in thought

What we’d really like [stretch goal announcement music!] is enough spare money in the Nuclear Poker Project kitty to take the game to peace and strategy conferences alike, to teach a whole new generation of people about the realities of MAD, détente and all those other scary old terms from the Cold War That Never Ended (Ukraine!).

There are three versions of the game, with a few fun little extras to get you through the cold, dark night.

Buy DEFCON 1 ($100 incl. $60 donation)

Buy DEFCON 2 ($50 incl. $15 donation)
+ customizable cards

Buy DEFCON 3 ($25 cash on the barrel head)

+ the infamous, possibly illegal in some jurisdictions, Nuclear Poker Jokers

Yes, all these games play exactly the same way, but don’t you want emergency kittens? Don’t you love them? Don’t you want to give us a whole $60 donation so we can realize our dreams and stuff?


Buy nuclear poker. Get the EMERGENCY KITTENS edition because you deserve it.

The Nuclear Poker team in no way endorse nuclear war, or the planning and strategizing of nuclear wars using our game.

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Liverpool Biennial 2014: Tate Liverpool. by Feeling Listless

Art Either I’ve been taking on too much caffeine again or this Liverpool Biennial is finally starting to get to me. There’s no other way I can explain my Room 237 moment while visiting the Claude Parent installation in the Wolfson Gallery at Tate Liverpool. Room 237 is an increasingly notorious documentary regarding the conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, that more than a pretty good horror film, it’s at the nexus of socio-economic intellectual mush, which includes such things as the director subtly revealing that the footage of the moon landings was all created on sound stages with himself in charge. Like a fever dream, these theorists drag together disparate elements like Danny’s t-shirt, the shape of shadows and the colour of the carpet to reveal a truth which just simply isn’t there.

Clause Parent’s installation is a multi-level architectural construct which like much of his work, attempts to disrupt our expectations of a given environment, in this case filling the white cube space with ramps and balconies and splitting the levels turning the Wolfson into a kind of mini-Guggenheim. The works housed in La colline de l’art are supposed to extemporise and complement the space it seems, full of abstract shapes and circles on canvases against three-dimensional curves. In some respects it reminds of the fears expressed by artists in an open letter to the Guggenheim when it opened that visitors wouldn’t be able to experience their works in the best environment because they’d effectively be standing on a slope. As it turned out the gradient there wasn’t as exaggerated as they were expecting. It is here in places.

Now, join me in Room 237. After spending some time in the space, engaging with some pieces, reviling others, I walked up the ramp at the very centre of the space which leads up to the main balcony. At the top of this ramp is Paul Nash’s Voyages to the Moon, an abstract pieces which as apparently the result of him sitting in a restaurant and noticing a glitterball refracted the moonlight across the space. We see what looks like the moon gradually rising through the space and up into the sky. At the other end of the balcony is a Roy Lichtenstein piece, Moonscape, a gorgeous image which utilises plastic to provide the gradients in colour in the deep blue sky, like cosmic currents. Thinking about the both pieces, it occurred to me that in moving up the ramp onto the balcony, I’d essentially watched Nash’s moon rise in Lichenstein’s sky.

At which point I began to think about the other pieces I’d seen and the recurrences of moon and space symbols in them. Paul Delvaux’s Sleeping Venus has a crescent moon in the sky. Naum Gabo’s two pieces Model for ‘Construction in space, suspended’ and Model for ‘Monument to the Astronauts’ have it in the title. Francis Picabia’s The Fig-Leaf has a moon shaped ball on it with a person on top – moon landing? The video piece Trisha Brown WATER MOTOR has a slow motion section in which the dance looks for all the world like its happening in low gravity. Looped Network Suspended in Pictorial Space by Gillian Wise resembles a rocket scaffold. I was sure that the other pieces would reveal some connection but I just hadn’t seen it yet. I was enthralled. I'd found some hidden message right there.

Yes, well, ok. I did what you need to do in these situations and asked an invigilator and of course it was the first time he’d heard of it. This was not, as I suspected some hidden joke by Claude Parent. He hadn’t selected the art, just designed the space. The art had been selected by Biennial curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman and although its possible these connections were intended, it seems unlikely. In the main Tate collection display which investigates mundane domestic objects in art, we’re told in no uncertain terms that this is what its doing. If this whole moon connection was more than a coincidence it would certainly be mentioned in the accompanying text. It is not. The accompanying text is all about how the art complements and contradicts the space. Welcome to Room 237.

Trisha Brown WATER MOTOR (Babette Mangoite, 1978)
Felix Gets Broadcast (Mark Leckey, 2007)
Instructions No 1 / Instrukcije br. 1 (Sanje Ivekovic, 1976)
The Coat (Karen Cytter, 2010)

Since this is a Tate collection display, most the pieces are already heavily documented. Babette Mangoite has written at length about the making of Trisha Brown WATER MOTOR on her website and the Tate has its own critical appreciation which is the basis for the text which appears with the work in the gallery space. Both of these rather blow the wind out my sales and I can’t be bettered so you might as well go and read those. To offer a quick description, it depicts legendary postmodernist American choreographer and dancer Tricia Brown performing her WATER MOTOR piece in black and white in single takes firstly at normal speed then slow motion taking full advantage of her obvious abilities to compulsive effect. It’s projected at Tate and is arguably the most eye-catching piece in the space.

In her text, Mangoite says her one regret is that she didn’t record synchronous sound because as she says, even though the dance occurred without music its impossible to convey that without recording the silence, which of course wouldn’t be silence because microphones would have picked up the sound of the camera, Brown’s breaths and shifting footwork and ambient noise. For my part I probably violated the artist’s wishes by listening to my own music during the two or three occasions I watched the piece, various tracks (some Kevin Shields, Eliza Doolittle) all of which eerily synched up. Seeing it instead with the ambient noise of the gallery space was also counterproductive, the mix of children screaming, random chatter and feet banging on the woodeness of Parent’s sculpture working against the magnetism of Brown’s athleticism.

Having just spent the past week and a half with the Commonwealth Games, whose visual language, especially in the gymnastics, includes the slow motion replay, it didn’t occur to me that the recording of the second dance wasn’t simply the first duplicated and slowed down. But it isn’t. This was recorded in 1976 when such technology was still magnificently unreliable. Mangoite filmed the piece three times, twice at normal speed, the third in slow motion then selected the best takes. In the third take, did Brown especially emphasise certain moves for the purposes of extemporising on the underwater feel of the whole dance? Perhaps. Not sure. But it’s a starting, emotional piece of choreography which repays multiple viewings even if we can only imagine what it sounded like.

Who Owns SF? by Charlie Stross

[This is an essay in the old sense of the word. I'm not here to pick fights or bludgeon anyone with my point of view on SF1. I want to explore, to wander a little. I've used footnotes not as a scholarly buttress but in an attempt to keep this exploration from becoming a hopeless tangle.]

I’m English. I've lived in the US a long time (in fact last year I got my US citizenship) but I’m still English. You can tell: all I have to do is speak. There's no hiding that accent. In England, I belong. I visit often; I feel at home; I just don't live there anymore.

A few years ago, when William Gibson was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, he said: I am a native of science fiction but no longer a resident.2 I understood exactly what he meant.

My most recent novel, Hild, has no fantastical elements whatsoever. It's not set in a secondary world, there are no dragons, no wizards casting spells, no special swords or magic rings. Yet the book has been nominated for three SF awards3. Why?

Perhaps it's because I'm a native of SF and it shows: Hild might be a literary novel but it speaks with a fantasy accent and uses the grammar of science fiction. It relies on world-building, the grand "What if...?" learnt reading and writing SF. More than that, it relies on readers being willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown—the ability to take odd spellings, strange names, unfamiliar concepts in stride, to risk just going with the flow and trust it'll make sense eventually—that is one of the mainstays of our genre.

Perhaps it's because of the setting. Hild begins fourteen hundred years ago, in the north of Britain. A time that used to be called the Dark Ages, lit in our imagination by flickering flame, with menhirs looming from the mist and men on horseback waving swords. It was a time when kings were petty warlords, might was right, and some thought there was a god on every hill.4 The tropes of this milieu are often appropriated by fantasy writers, so much so that it's become a cliché. But here's the thing: the setting of Hild is real. Hild was a real person. Everything in that book could actually have happened.5

Perhaps, then, it's because I deliberately worked to give the book the feel of myth and epic. It might be a novel of character—Hild is in every single scene; there's no "Meanwhile, several hundred leagues away in the head of a character you've forgotten about"—but it's painted on a heroic canvas. There's gold and glory, plots and politics, sweeping change and a focus on systems (economic, climatic, and behavioural). There's also very human joy and misery, fear and hope, lust and boredom, and a few simple contentments.

I admit, I wanted Hild to be the Platonic ideal of a novel: to feel like myth, yet to make sense not only on an epic but a personal scale; for its magic to be the wild magic of the landscape and that of the human heart.

Margaret Atwood (in)famously defined speculative fiction as being about what could happen. If we focus only on that and ignore her other idiotic pronouncements6 , then Hild is separated from the genre only by a matter of tense; if I've done my research properly, it's what could have happened.

In this sense, then, I'm comfortable defining Hild as speculative fiction. It relies on a tradition practised by fantasy and science fiction writers and readers. It could not exist without the particular reading stance honed by and required by genre, the willingness to reach understanding as one proceeds. But I was surprised when it (along with Karen Joy Fowlers's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) was nominated for a Nebula.

Clearly some voting members believed a fantasy accent or science fiction grammar enough for a book to belong to the genre. But maybe it's not the books that are considered to belong but the authors.

I can't speak for Karen but, yes, I am part of the SF community and have been for decades. And it is a community (or, rather, many interlocking communities). I went to the Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose not because I thought I'd win—I knew I wouldn't7—but to hang out in the bar. To spend time with my people. Because the readers and writers of SF are my people. I feel at home here; I belong.

In May, before I went to the Nebulas, I read a review of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry, edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson.8 Frances Power, the reviewer, suggests (I'm paraphrasing) that speculative writing helps us to live because the definitions by which we live are products of culture. They are imaginary; we made them up.

She's referring to the work of Judith Butler on the gender binary but I think her opinion applies equally to the artificial division between SF and so-called mainstream fiction: both are cultural constructs, invented categories; we can uninvent them.

The tricky part, of course, is who are We—whose definitions are we using?

The world is changing. It no longer belongs to angry white boys sitting around in their white-wall buzz cuts eating white bread and watching Leave It To Beaver. (I'm not sure it ever did, but they certainly thought so.) The world is changing and the SF community is changing with it. I understand that this upsets some people; change is hard. But change also lies at the heart of the genre. It's who we are, what we do. We ask "What if...?" and follow the answer relentlessly.

The big "What if..." in Hild is: What if women had always been real human beings, human in, of, and by themselves rather than in relation to men? What if, despite the stories we've been told—and ask yourself who told those stories—women have always found a way around their constraints, just as we do today? What would history have really looked like? I wrote this book to find out.

What we read, what we experience in the privacy of our heads, changes us one at a time. For me the best books put us right there, right then with a character, make her experiences our own, his lessons our lessons, their lives ours lives. We become them, just for a little while, and come back increased.

In this way, books can change the world: they change us, one at a time. With Hild I've come back to the question that lay at the heart of Ammonite: What if all people are just people? What if that has been, is, and will be true in every time and place?

And so, for me—though of course every writer is different—the past is where I turn the key that unlocks the answers. If someone like Hild, someone with her agency, her will, her determination was possible fourteen hundred years ago, then she is possible now. If she's possible now then the odds are good that we're making very sure she will be possible in the future. And suddenly the world looks different: if the lights go out, women don't have to be chattels.9

This is why I made the world of seventh-century Britain as real as I could, why I decided against an alternate history or secondary world fantasy, though that would have been far easier: I wanted to change this one.

At SF gatherings built around books and stories—functionally I see no difference between conferences, conventions, and award weekends—the sense of community is palpable. It can be hard to tell the difference between writers and fans. First and foremost, SF writers are fans; we are readers. In this genre there's an assumption of equality between those two sides10 that I had no idea was not true for others. The gathering is structured for mutual support of readers and writers. We exchange reading recommendations, information on publishing, direct experience of life, the universe, and everything. The weekends (they are usually weekends) are administered and run by the community itself.

In my experience, then, the SF community is something special. Yes, there's always been in-fighting, some of it vicious. We have always fought, as all communities do, over who owns the clubhouse: who makes sets the standards and makes the rules? Who is Us and who is Other?11

Our community is in the process of experimenting, of unmaking and remaking. Expect the pendulum, the definition of what is and what is not genre, to swing wildly meanwhile. I have no doubt that many find this unsettling, but meanwhile there are some astonishing moments.

It was amazing to sit at the Nebula Awards and watch women win, cheer women of colour as they climbed the stage, listen to a woman who loves women tell her Toastmaster jokes. It was fabulous to see men applaud heartily and laugh at the jokes about gender. To me and many people in that room, it felt like a vast hand pushing aside old boundaries, making room for even more experimentation.

And isn't that the point of SF, to experiment, to ask "What if...?"

Perhaps my insistence on realism is what disqualifies Hild as SF. I'm okay with that. For now. But it'll be interesting to see if this holds true in the future, to see who We become, who owns SF.

1 I'm going to use SF as an umbrella term to cover fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, etc. It's just easier.
2 I'm paraphrasing. This was relayed to me secondhand at a dinner party by someone who attended the ceremony. That was six years ago. But I think the essentials are accurate.
3 Shortlisted for the Nebula and John W Campbell Memorial Awards and named a Tiptree Honor book.
4 Not everyone, of course. Perhaps not even most. Then, as now, culture was not monolithic; there were many layers, levels of status, belief systems. Then, as now, individuals in the same family could have radically different worldviews. (Just like the SF community. Or communities. I'll come back to this.)
5 Though I did, apparently, make one idiotic error regarding hay: they kept it loose and didn't bale it. (Mea culpa.) What people of early seventh-century Britain did or did not do with hay, though, is not (in my opinion) enough to classify a novel as fantasy.
6 See, for example, the Guardian.
7 Though I admit I was disappointed when I didn't win. Yes, intellectually I knew I wouldn't. Yes, I've won it before. No, Hild's not fantasy. Yes, it was an honour and delight to be shortlisted. But it turns out hope springs eternal and I want all the prizes!
8 May 2014 issue of Poetry magazine, beginning p 105.
9 Or the world all white, or straight.
10 Samuel R. Delany has talked about the egalitarian foundations of the genre as we know it today. I can't find the reference but he mentions Wagner and his demand that audiences listen to his music as though it were more important than they were. And how SF's refusal to privilege creator over audience antipates postmodernism. Or something like that...
11 Men and Women. White people and People of colour. Straights and Queers (whether we're talking sexual orientation or gender identification). Able and Differently Abled (whether we're talking physically or neurologically). The list is almost endless—and not particular to SF. Religion and class and political ideology are the stuff of war and revolution.

[Many thanks to Gary Wolfe, Jonathan Strahan, and Kelley Eskridge for the conversations that helped shape some of these ideas. See, for example, this Coode Street podcast.]

Watch a Recap of LightSail's Live LightSail Launch Announcement by The Planetary Society

Watch a recap of The Planetary Society's live LightSail Launch Announcement, which took place July 9 at the KPCC Crawford Family Forum.

Holding pattern by Charlie Stross

The shortage of new blog entries is down to me being on a death-march to the end of the first draft of an entire fricken' trilogy—alternatively, a 950-page novel that will be published in three volumes some time from late 2015 onwards (most likely in early 2016).

I have passed the 292,000 out of 300,000 word marker and am plodding along. Meanwhile, my current state of mind can be accurately summed up by the following three tunes (links via YouTube):

They're coming to take me away, ha-ha, he-he, ho-ho (Cover by Lard)

ah-ah ,eh-eh ,oh-oh ,yawa em ekat ot gnimoc er'yehT (B-side of the original single, by Napoleon XIV)

They Took You Away! I'm Glad! I'm Glad! (by Josephine XV)

Go on, I dare you to play them back to back without wincing.

Some rambling thoughts on region restrictions by Charlie Stross

I think at this point in the century, everyone reading this blog—with the [possible] exception of certain lurkers who are required by virtue of their position within their company to toe the Party Line and therefore may not be free to say what they really think—is clear on the drawbacks of DRM.

But regional restrictions make me wince, because from an author's point of view the situation is a bit more complicated.

In principle, I oppose region restrictions. As a reader, they make me itch. But in practice, the way book distribution works across international borders is worse than imperfect: it's broken. If I sell world English language rights to one of my books to a publisher, that publisher can't just print and distribute the book everywhere in the English-speaking world. Publishers used to be regional, not global, players. And even in the wake of the wave of takeovers that resulted in the Big Six Five owning about 70% of the business, mergers between publishing houses are incredibly slow and complicated due to contractual encumbrances. As a result, publishers generally don't have the branding, imprint, and corporate connections to sell books in more than one territory. Let me emphasize this: they're regional, not global, operations.[*] So if they find they've got publishing rights to territories where they don't have printing and distribution arrangements they generally sub-license the rights to other, local, publishers who've got the connections to sell books to the local trade channels.

This means that they can't offer me a bigger book advance for world rights than they would for their own regional rights (because they might not succeed in licensing those territorial sub-rights—this has bitten me in the past). If they paid a world-rights-sized advance for what turned out to be regional sales they'd make a huge loss, which in turn would make them very leery about doing repeat business with me. Consequently we end up with different editions published by local publishers at different prices, with regional distribution restrictions.

Also, when publishers sell sub-licenses, the contract side is generally handled by clerical staff who handle the sub-rights for hundreds of books a year, with no particular incentive for prioritizing my work.

Consequently I prefer to get my literary agent to split the various regional rights up and sell them separately, so I get paid for North American rights by my US publisher and UK/Commonwealth (except Canada) rights by my UK publisher. This results in more money for me. It also results in better royalty contracts—my agent takes a 15% commission, so the bigger the deal the more money she gets (and the more money I get).

But from a book-buying reader's point of view ...

This was fine in the old paper book days—books were uneconomical to bulk-ship internationally, and thanks to the first sale doctrine readers who really wanted foreign editions could legally mail-order them and pay for shipping. What the casual buyer doesn't see on the shop shelves they don't feel the lack of: so everybody was happy, more or less.

But in the age of ebooks, borders are increasingly porous. And Brits can see what is in the Kindle store on, and Americans can see what's in the Kindle store on, and British and American publishers can see how each others' titles are doing. Regional publishers are jealous of their regional sales—nobody wants a big rival from another country to kick down the door and eat their lunch—so they enforce contractual terms on the ebook stores that lock in territoriality. The ebook stores for the most part are more than happy to go along with this: it gives them a valuable lever for selling their DRM-enforced walled garden model of ebook publishing to publishers. The walled gardens in turn lock end-customers into the e-book store's platform, be it Kindle or iBooks or Adobe Digital Editions.

So what started out as a natural side-effect of books being heavy and not worth shipping across oceans has turned into a royal pain in the ass for readers—but where the desired solution for the readers (global sales, a flat worldwide market) will cause significant pain to the authors in the medium term (and by "pain" and "medium", I invite you to consider how you'd reply to a proposal that you take a 20-40% pay cut for 3-5 years).

What I'd like is a publisher who could genuinely operate globally—that is, publish a single edition throughout the English-speaking world, offering advances for my books that reflected global sales potential rather than regional, and removing the need for regional restrictions and DRM completely. And indeed—you saw that [*] footnote asterisk up top?—such a global publisher exists within my field. But it's Orbit ... a subsidiary of Hachette, and while there are a lot of good things I can say about Hachette their corporate high-level policy makes DRM mandatory, no exceptions. (Digression: Don't be fooled into thinking that Tor are a global player. While Tor US and Tor UK are both subsidiaries of Macmillan, which operates worldwide, they are entirely separate companies. Turns out, sibling rivalry is a thing: they're as jealous of their regional rights as any other rival companies.) So right now I can have my books published without DRM, in return for putting up with lots of regional messing-around (which is why the new Merchant Princes omnibuses won't be available on paper in North America until the back end of this year, a year after their UK publication). Or I can have a single publisher who operates globally ... but insists on DRM. Shorter Charlie: you can't win.

Hopefully the situation will improve in the medium term—meaning before the end of the decade. But your guess is as good as mine. And this is by way of explaining why you'll see different covers for my books, and different prices and publication dates and ISBNs, in different countries. Globalization: nice theory, shame about the practice.

Special offer: Neptune's Brood (UK only) by Charlie Stross

For the month of July, while it's on the Hugo shortlist for best novel, my British publisher Orbit have discounted the ebook edition of "Neptune's Brood" to £1.99. (UK Kindle store: for some reason Waterstones still list it at £4.99 but hopefully that'll be fixed shortly: Apple iBooks store.)

(Note that the book is published by a different company—Ace, an imprint of Penguin Random House—in North America; while the price dropped at the end of June, when the paperback was released, it still costs $6.83, or about £3.99 at today's exchange rate. The special offer is, alas, available to UK/EU folks only.)

Spoiler Thread by Charlie Stross

For the folks who've been asking for somewhere to talk about "The Rhesus Chart" after they've read it, here's a spoiler-full discussion thread. Warning: if you haven't read the book and still plan to, don't read the discussion here! It's going to be chock full of spoilers within 2-3 comments at most.

(As usual with such threads, I'll monitor it for flaming; however I will only dip in to answer questions when I am asked directly -- this is your discussion, not mine.)

We Need To Talk About Peter Quill. by Feeling Listless

Film If you've seen MARVEL's Guardians of the Galaxy already you'll know that it ranks with Inception, Gravity and Boyhood as one of the greatest film exploits of all time, one of those epoch changing moments in cinema which can do nothing but inspire awe. Much of this has to do with both the film itself which is as spectacular a space adventure as we could hope it might be based on the trailers, but also the effect it potentially has on the film business and the nature of the blockbuster. If MARVEL's Captain America: The First Avenger was innovative in how it extemporised the narrative synergy between film and television, MARVEL's Guardians of the Galaxy has the potential to change everything.

Such hyperbole probably need some explanation and in short order, here it is.  MARVEL is the shit.

Guardians made over $90m in its opening weekend in the US.  It's beaten by Transformers: Age of Extinction so far in annual totals but its the second biggest opening of the year and looks to have a huge second weekend.  But, whisper it, this was never a sure thing.  Transformers was a sure thing because even people who hate what Bay's done to the characters will have gone and it has a wide popular appeal with children.  Plus its the fourth installment in a franchise which has been massive despite the variable quality of the product.  Transformers was a sure thing.  Transformers was always going to be a massive opening.  People will go and see Transformers.

Guardians was not like this.  The trailers were excellent as was the poster marketing.  Arguably it had the best marketing campaign since all of the films listed above.  But it was never a sure thing.  Even up to a few weeks ago I was seeing online commentary, professional and amateur which talked about it being a risk.  No one was sure.  This Forbes article tries to have it both ways.  Nothing about the film made sense in relation to what people know about the film business.  Only one of the main characters is human, and two of the others are a digitally animated talking racoon and a tree.  The trailers betrayed a certain offbeat humour more akin to the cultiness of Firefly/Serenity, which have only really found an audience amongst the kind of people who like that kind of this.

Essentially it's asking the audience to accept the stuff they like about PiXAR films in a "real world" setting, in the middle of space, amongst giant alien empires filled with masses of preprepared mythology.  Star Wars and Lord of the Rings accepted, these are not the sort of things popular audiences like.  John Carter (of Mars) is a prime example of this kind of film, and although it's not quite as good as Guardians, it's still better than Transbloodyformers.  The storylines aren't dissimilar either in some respects and toally they're not that different either.  But a nervy ad campaign meant people didn't come even though that was also made by Disney.  If people didn't come to that why would they to this?

People came.  Boy did people come.  Look at them on the Twitters talking about this being the new Star Wars, even suggesting JJ's wasting his time because whatever he's doing can't be as good as this (which would make the Star Wars studio pretty nervous if it wasn't for the fact that it's the same studio).  It helps that the film itself is akin to the new Star Wars capturing quite a bit of the same humour and wonder of the original trilogy which the prequels sumerilly failed to offer.  It's funny, poignant, has some jaw-dropping visual moments and more importantly you forget the racoon and tree are being animated only now and then marvelling at just how accurate Rocket's fir is.

And in coming, they disproved the expectations of what we'll call the mass audience are tolerant of. The humour in this is offbeat and like I said the trailers told the audience that it was offbeat.  But they came and they came some more and social media suggested their friends come too.  Right up until I went yesterday, people I wouldn't imagine in a hundred years would see Guardians signalled their intention to go and afterwards tweeted how awesome it was in some way or other.  Having seen it myself I still can't quite believe this has happened.  This is a cult film.  It has all the elements of a cult film.  It's practically a remake of Space Truckers.  Yet there we are.  Over $90m opening weekend.

Now the previous MARVEL films will have something to do with this, what with MARVEL being a PIXAR like brand now.  But Captain America and Guardians are such different films you can't imagine there would be much crossover.  Tonally, Guardians is effectively a Troma film (as it would be given the career origins of the director) on a massive budget.  It's the kind of film which you'd find unheralded at Blockbuster in the mid-90s with c-list actors including Stephen Dorff directed by an auteur whose next film is The Incredible Ice Cream Suit but which more than lives up to your low expectations and which you know must have looked even better in widescreen before the studio panned and scanned the thing on the cheap.  Actually, no, that is Space Truckers.  $90m.

Amazing.  Game changing.

It's game changing for a number of reasons.

Not too long ago one of the blogs I read joked when seeing the plans DC has for their characters in cinema that MARVEL should just make a Squirrel Girl film to rub their faces in it, which was became even funnier when it emerged that MARVEL had copyrighted the character meaning that she's likely to turn up in film or on television in some capacity.  But the point is whereas before Guardians no one would think it possible that a character whose main power is the control of squirrels, who has cameoed in a Fantastic Four cartoon as a visual joke to demonstrate how low down the pecking order their recruitment process for a team replacement had sunk now looks like a sure bet.

Even Ant-Man looks like it could be a sure thing at this point even though in no way should they even be making it.  But Guardians gives them the flexibility to and make it another massive release.  Apparently yet more screenwriters are taking a pass at it, which is what happens when you have to replace your director.  If anything even at this point Ant-Man looks like about as appetising as the failed Gen 13 pilot with Alicia Witt but even turned out to be pretty good.  All Ant-Man needs to be now is pretty good and it'll open huge or at least huge enough for the whole thing not to have seemed like the massive waste of time it currently looks like.  Edgar Wright might even agree to direct the sequel, though probably not.

Right now, Disney's MARVEL could pluck any of the characters they have the rights to and turn it into a film and people will go.  They're still being cautious and they have every right to be.  They're not greenlighting projects left right and centre even though Black Widow has to be on the cards now, especially when you add in Lucy's opening weekend.  The trailer for Lucy ran before Guardians at FACT yesterday and as much as I enjoyed it and can't wait to see it, there's not one moment when I didn't wish it was a trailer for Black Widow.  Never mind Squirrel Girl, MARVEL at this point could probably make a Captain Barracuda film work and he's a pirate.  Obviously.

As a sidebar, Kevin Feige is still prevaricating on the point, but Guardians's screenwriter says on Twitter that she worked on a treatment in 2010/2011 for a film, the kind of statement someone only makes on the Twitters if they've been given the go ahead from someone to make that kind of statement even if she says that its not in active development, like a governmental leak designed to sound out some new policy.  At 80 odd retweets and fifty-five favourites its not exactly gone viral, but the news sites picked up on it, and you can imagine someone at MARVEL development is watching the reaction.  My guess is they're waiting for Captain America to have its threequel before offering Black Widow up as a replacement.

Sorry, second indulgence, but that's my theory about what MARVEL's doing here.  They're not thinking about the market in terms of characters but tones.  Now that Iron Man 3's shuffled through they're launching Ant-Man another film about a technoscientist.  Black Widow or even Hawkeye won't be launched until Cap is done because it would be strange to have another SHIELD agent based film series on the go.  I'm not sure what will happen after Thor, although you could argue the Doctor Strange film carries on the fantasy/horror element.  Guardians truly is offering a different genre to all of them.  But don't be surprised if in ten years when that's done, and after Fantastic Four tanks and they reintegrate the rights that we'll get Silver Surfer.

Anyway, they're sticking to two or three films a year which is a shame but probably all they can usefully produce without the quality dipping.  When the MCU was originally announced I remember one thought being that there would be a series of prestige films based on the bigger characters then smaller budget projects for the c-listers.  Arguably these smaller budget projects have migrated to television.  But think on that.  Agent Carter and the Daredevil series exist in the same universe as Guardians and Thor, which they do in the comics of course, but this is unprecedented in film and television.  But I've already covered that at some length elsewhere, so let's not do that again.

Because audiences turned up for Guardians, it means that studio expectations, notably at MARVEL but also elsewhere should widen, hopefully widen, and they'll take more risks with the kind of films they'll produce and the projects which look slightly offbeat may well get greenlit now [see this io9 piece].  My hope has been that MARVEL in particular will range out into other genres but set in the MARVEL universe and there's been some of that on television in the Netflix deal but I'd love to see a cop drama or rom com set in the MCU for the big screen.  I expect the question they'd ask is exactly why they would but if nothing else Guardians proves that a MARVEL film doesn't have to have superheroes in it in the traditional sense, even aliens, to be successful.

But what does that mean for the other studios?  Given their idiotic decision to not fall in with MARVEL and attempt to construct their own cinematic universes around the characters they have (though I still wonder if Disney and Sony attempted a proper deal over Spider-man which fell through) Guardians will either have a positive effect on them or it won't.  It depends on the percentage of the audience who went because it was the next installment of the films set in the MCU or simply with the MARVEL logo on the front.  That I simply don't know.

The other game change is in how DC reacts.  Up until this point they've been pottering along knowing that MARVEL's doing well but straight on with their plans.  But Guardians has to have given them pause not least because of comments like this found on Youtube under a copy of the trailer for Guardians:

Yes, exactly.  Superman and Batman are top draw characters which is why DC are so desperate to make films about them even though there have already been plenty of films about them and now MARVEL have come along and turned the equivalent of their Legion of Superheroes into a film and made it one of the most successful films of all time.  This shouldn't happen.  If DC are pinning their hopes on the same-olds it certainly wasn't even on their radar.  After writing that sentence, now I would be more excited to see a Legion of Superheroes film that Batman again even starring Ben Affleck.

But no one is excited about Superman v Batman that I can see.  Despite the release of the various images at Comic Con and the teaser footage with the glowy eyes and some ensuing excitement, I simply don't see the same level of excitement about that film than for pretty much every MCU release.  Everyone has something to say about everything, but people are already talking about Guardians 2 and what might happen in Guardians 2 in ways which I simply don't see with SvB or whatever it's called this week amongst the non-geeks, or should I say the people who would identify as geeks in the old usage.  That's a problem for DC and its unsolvable.

The other problem DC has is that its only making one film for release in 2016 [correction: actually two see below].  MARVEL will have at least four or five films out in the meantime not including the other version of MARVEL from the other studios.  Which will either mean that audiences are sick of superheroes anyway by 2016 and will simply shrug in the face of Kal-El and Bruce or the intervening films are so awesome they'll still shrug and wonder why they should care.  As Man of Steel shows, they will make money, but purely from a business perspective, taking into account the television series, in film terms they're sitting on a whole universe full of characters and still doing nothing with them.  HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Updated 07/08/2014  No sooner had I posted this and gone to bed had it been announced that DC have effectively blinked and moved Batman v Superman from its original release day of the 25th March 2016 opposite the third Captain America film to late March.  Deadline also reports they've offered up release dates for a raft of projects through 2020, none of which have titles yet but which exists to show that they aren't sitting on these characters and they do have some ideas.

Neither Variety or Deadline make the connection but I find it inconceivable that this announcement which has come under a week after the release of Guardians has nothing to do with Guardians.  The release dates will already have been decided but the fact of their announcement has to be connected, doesn't it?  Either way, in just ten years we've come to the point were DC actively believe a Captain America threequel would beat a film starring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman at the box office.  MARVEL is the shit.

August 06, 2014

Rosetta's Big Day by The Planetary Society

Stuart Atkinson muses on the difference between the Europe of today and the Europe of a century ago in the context of Rosetta's momentous arrival at comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Planetary Society Applauds ESA for Rosetta's Successful Comet Rendezvous by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society congratulates the European Space Agency on its Rosetta spacecraft arriving at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet.

Rendezvous with a crazy world by The Planetary Society

Beaming scientists all around, spectacular images on large TV screens, and the best - or at least most exciting - yet to come: such was the extraordinary scene at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, today as the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft reached its cometary destination.

"We're at the comet!" Rosetta has arrived at comet 67P by The Planetary Society

After a journey of more than a decade, Rosetta has finally arrived at comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Confirmation of the successful rocket firing came at about 9:30 UTC via a webcast from ESA's Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Losing Voice. by Feeling Listless

Music PopJustice has a column about the BBC's Saturday night pop talent content The Voice which notes that the first single from the winner of the last series, Leah McFall, went in at the high fifties in the pop charts despite being a pretty good pop song with the participation of William, sorry, Will.I.Am.

It notes that if a talent contest about singing can't produce successful singers, that it's a broken format. Of course it is but I think PopJustice misses the truth of it.

It's not that Radio One won't support the singers produced by the show, it's that it can't.

As previous winner Bo Bruce has identified, the BBC's own restrictions about cross promotion mean that Radio One can't A-playlist songs and heavily play them across the networks.  If they tried, the Trust would have an aneurysm which would lead to the press printing endless articles about them stepping outside of their remit.

But as PJ notes the given artist is also screwed because the commercial stations won't touch her either, presumably because they hate the BBC despite the fact that most of the artists they play were discovered by the BBC (who can play whatever other music they want) and also because they're part of the Syco promotion machine.

Now, I haven't watched one of these musical talent shows since Fame Academy which ultimate experienced similar problems, but for The Voice to exist as a thing going forward, which is somewhat important for some of us since it's somewhat wrapped up in the Saturday night Doctor Who whirlwind.

The BBC's restrictions are going to change any time soon.  They essentially exist so that Syco and the likem can't cry foul about a publicly funded body restricting them commercially.

Perhaps the prize needs to change.  A slot on Eurovision is problematic since as we've seen before it has the ability to destroy careers or at the very least not help them much and becoming the singer on a charity record brings other baggage.

Well, hum.  Let me have a think.

Prozac Nation at 20. by Feeling Listless

Books Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation turns twenty this year. For The Daily Beast, Nicolaus Mills offers this appreciation, which notes that those passages which some saw as its weakness were actually its strength:

"Anyone going through Prozac Nation can certainly find plenty of callow moments when Wurtzel does whine. Wurtzel’s mother gets mugged in New York, and Wurtzel is reluctant to leave Cambridge to be by her bedside. Wurtzel’s boyfriend goes home during Christmas vacation to be with his mother and sister, and Wurtzel, trying to avoid another breakdown, resents the attention he gives his family.

"But what reviewers who seize upon these moments as proof of Wurtzel’s fundamental callowness ignore is that in Prozac Nation she makes a point of deliberately parading her worst side. Her aim is to show her readers that her depression did not just make her unhappy. It often made her unfeeling and incapable of empathy."
Here's what happened when I read the book in 2003. I've since met someone who read that review and took it literally.

M-commerce will generate 44.8% of total mobile revenue in China this year. by Resonance China

resonance_mcommerce revenue

This chart from iResearch’s 2014 China Mobile Internet Report shows just how quickly Chinese consumers have adopted to making purchases through their phones. Competing against advertising, gaming, and value-added services - mobile shopping has grown from 0% of mobile revenue share in 2010 to an estimated 44.8% of a projected RMB 167 billion market this year. With China’s mobile internet revenue expected to grow at an average annual rate of 46% over the next four years, reaching an estimated RMB 490 billion in 2017, mobile commerce will play a huge role in shaping brand marketing strategies moving forward. [iResearch]


August 05, 2014

Join me on "Virtually Speaking Science" August 6 by The Planetary Society

On Wednesday's "Virtually Speaking Science" podcast, The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla and contributor Rod Pyle look back at the first two years of the Curiosity Rover’s mission on Mars, and look ahead to the future of Mars exploration. NBC News science editor Alan Boyle is the host for the show, which airs at 5pm Pacific / midnight UTC.

Today's the day Rosetta arrives at a comet! by The Planetary Society

In less than a day, Rosetta will officially arrive, becoming the first spacecraft ever to orbit a comet! Watch an ESA Livestream of the arrival, and check out the latest photos.

Loncon 3: Charlie's worldcon schedule by Charlie Stross

If you're attending Loncon 3 and want to see me, bookmark this blog entry. I'll update it as things change.

I'll be at Loncon 3 from Thursday August 14th through Monday 18th. Afterwards, I'll be travelling to Dublin for Shamrokon, the Eurocon. (No, I will not be attending Nine Worlds: doing three large conventions on consecutive weekends would be insane.) See below the fold for my schedule for the London trip, including non-convention events. I'll post my Shamrokon schedule in a different blog entry, once it firms up.

Note: the first event is provisional.

Wednesday 13th

6pm, Forbidden Planet, 179 Shaftesbury Ave, London

Titan Books mass signing

(This event is provisional: I'd like to be there, but I'm driving down from Leeds to London that day and my ability to make the signing depends on traffic, hotel check-in, the car not catching fire and exploding en route, and so on. So I'm promising nothing. Your consolation prize if I crash and burn along the way: Cory Doctorow!)

Thursday 14th

LOLcats in Space: Social Media, Humour, and SF Narratives

12:00—13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

This panel will focus on the challenges science fiction authors face in dealing with the plot and setting implications of social media. How do these tools affect the way stories unfold? Can writers represent the playful and ever-changing conventions of social media discussions without writing a novel that looks hopelessly dated before it even hits the shelves, and if so how? Put another way: would Kim Stanley's Robinson's 2312 have been greatly improved by a GIF of a spinning asteroid with a cat in it saying: Asteroid kitteh sez yur lint trap'z fulla cat haerz? So panel. Very discussion. Wow.

The Fermi Paradox in Light of the Kepler Mission

19:00—20:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL)

The Kepler Mission has been hugely successful in searching for exoplanets. It's results have been used as the basis of claims that Earthlike planets lie in the habitable zones of 20% of stars in the galaxy. This would mean that the nearest habitable planet s just 12 light years away. If habitable planets are so common why have we seen no sign of intelligent life spreading from star to star? Does this mean that we really are alone in the universe? The panel considers Kepler and other results and try to come up with more informed answers to Fermi's infamous question: "Where are they?"

Friday 15th

Scientists vs Authors Quiz

22:00—23:30, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)

After their narrow defeat at Eastercon, will the Authors get their revenge or will the supremacy of the Scientists go unchallenged? See what SF writers know abotu science and what scientists known about SF at the rematch!

Saturday 16th


12:00—13:00, Autographing 9

Literary Beer

20:00—21:00, The Bar (ExCeL) (You will need to sign up in advance: space is limited!)

Sunday 17th

Reading: Charles Stross

15:00—15:30, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)

(And later that evening you will probably definitely be able to find me in the Hugo Losers' Party!)

Monday 18th

Rat's Monkey's Ass

10:00—11:00, Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)

Swearing in science fiction and fantasy is occasionally a minefield of anachronism, but then, there's often nothing weirder than hearing someone yell "frak". Or even worse, a teenage character that refuses to curse at all. This panel will explore swear words in the genres. What purpose does swearing have within a society? What purpose does it serve in fiction, and how important, or not, are profanities to the narrative? When are invented curses more (or less) effective than real (contemporary or historical) examples, and why?

The Ruling Party

15:00—16:30, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

Is there an Alternative? Increasingly it seems that, no matter which party is elected, they do the same things. Charlie Stross has suggested that no matter who is elected, the Ruling Party, an agglomeration of top level politicians across all parties, always has the controls. Is there any alternative to this? Is this a bad thing? And if it is, what can we do about it?

Other stuff is going to show up here in due course: watch the skies!

The History of the Galactic Halo by Astrobites

The halo of our Galaxy is the oldest part. As such, it contains clues to the initial formation and evolution of the Galaxy. To understand these things, astronomers frequently try to understand the star formation history (SFH) and the initial mass function (IMF) of the halo. The SFH tells the rate at which stars were born. The IMF tells the distribution of initial masses for newly formed stars. By knowing the rate at which stars formed and what their initial mass distribution looked like, astronomers can simulate the evolution of these stars to try and match what we see today.

The authors of this paper specifically look at various SFHs and IMFs to try and match the distribution of white dwarfs to the observed value. White dwarfs were used because they are the end result of stellar evolution for most stars and have been used before to measure the age of the Galaxy and the universe. Results from these models were then compared to recent results from the SuperCOSMOS Sky Survey, which found 93 white dwarfs in the halo.

Figure 1: The white dwarf luminosity function for multiple IMFs (top) and SFHs (bottom). From Figure 5 of the paper. Each color has two lines corresponding to a different normalization of each function. The black line shows the observed distribution of white dwarf stars.

A variety of inputs were chosen for the SFH and the IMF to produce different results. Three different IMFs were tested along with three different SFHs. The three SFHs chosen were based on the observational indication that the majority of halo stars are old and formed between 10 and 13 Gyr ago. One SFH had a burst of star formation 13 Gyr ago. Another had a burst of star formation 10 Gyr ago. And the third had continuous star formation between 13 and 10 Gyr ago. These models were then evolved with a population synthesis code called SeBa. Once stars had evolved to become white dwarfs, a different evolution code was used. These cooling models describe how white dwarfs cool over time based on their mass, radius, temperature, and composition. This allowed the authors to compare the distribution of white dwarfs stars in their simulation to what is observed.

Figure 1 shows the results of the modelling for the different IMFs (top) and SFHs (bottom). The y-axis here is the white dwarf luminosity function, the number of white dwarfs per cubic parsec per bolometric magnitude. The black line on both plots shows the observed distribution of white dwarf stars. The differences in the IMF are largest on the faint (right) side of the plot. The SFH containing a burst of star formation 13 Gyr ago is slightly favored over the model with a burst of star formation 10 Gyr ago and the model with continuous formation between 10 and 13 Gyr.

Finding more white dwarfs in the galactic halo will further constrain the SFH and IMF. This is where Gaia will be enormously useful. Gaia, which launched just last year, is a telescope designed to look at around one billion stars over five years. In the models from this paper, Gaia has the ability to detect around 1500 halo white dwarfs. The discovery of this many white dwarfs, an order of magnitude more than those currently known, will help to rule out some of the considered IMFs. The SFH depends most strongly on the faint end of the white dwarf luminosity function. As Gaia will find fewer of these, it is much more difficult to constrain those models.

Whatever results Gaia helps find, they will help astronomers understand much more about the history of the Galactic halo and the evolution of white dwarf stars.

Buzz Mercury's North Polar Region in This New MESSENGER Video by The Planetary Society

A new video shows what a traveler aboard Mercury's MESSENGER spacecraft would see as they zipped over the planet's north polar region.

Watch Bill Nye and Special Guests in The Lure of Europa by The Planetary Society

We've posted the full video of our Washington, D.C. event exploring the lure of Europa, the moon of Jupiter with more liquid water than the Earth.

WeChat Moments is becoming the hub for mobile sharing. by Resonance China

resonance - wechat sharing behavior

This chart created from data compiled by Umeng’s research center, compares user sharing on WeChat between personal contacts (blue lines) against user sharing to the WeChat Moments feed (red lines) during the first quarter of this year. Although 1-to-1 sharing was on par with social sharing in the first part of January, we can see the dramatic evolution of the platform as WeChat Moments quickly became the preferred method for posting content in only three months. This trend is reflected in the decline in Weibo activity over the same period as users have really taken to sharing content within the more intimate networks they have created on WeChat. [Umeng]


August 04, 2014

On the accidental use of mapping by Simon Wardley

For those who know me, I've been using a technique called mapping to compete against other companies for a considerable amount of time

What you probably don't know, is that I actually thought everyone was doing this. It was by pure chance I found out that this wasn't the case.  Several years ago, I was sitting down with Liam Maxwell (UK Gov CTO) and explained a problem using a map. Liam's response was 'How did you do that?'

My immediate thought was that he was asking how did I solve that problem. It quickly transpired that the question he was asking was 'How did I do that mapping thing'. It was shortly after this that I discovered that something I thought everyone was doing turned out be to something that very few people did.

Mapping is a powerful technique in my opinion for everything from project to risk management, from strategy to gameplay, from organisation to culture, from scenario analysis to comparison. It might not be everyone's cup of tea but I'd always recommend that you give it a try.

I've provided three links, a keynote (OSCON), the slides from a 3 hour tutorial (OSCON) and a simple step guide to get started.


Tutorial Slides

Playing chess with Companies from Simon Wardley

For a step guide, start here.

Also, if you do find it useful, don't forget to say thanks to Liam Maxwell (without whom, I'd have continued thinking everyone was doing this and probably not have said quite so much) and also say thanks to my partner in crime, James Duncan. Do remember this work is provided under creative commons share alike. These maps are often nicknamed 'Wardley Maps' which I do appreciate.

Finally, don't forget to say thanks to CSC's Leading Edge Forum who have allowed me the time over the last couple of years to perform some important tests including a population study on organisational evolution and the delta between companies in terms of gameplay (see figure 1)

Figure 1 - Gameplay.

* Note, size of the bubble represents number of companies occupying that position.
* The data for figure 1 is not CC licensed.

Field Report From Mars: Sol 3737 – July 30, 2014 by The Planetary Society

Larry Crumpler updates us on the Opportunity rover, which now holds the distance record for a rover on another planet and is about to climb up its highest crater rim segment yet.

Notes on organisation - Aptitude and Attitude by Simon Wardley

This is something I'll return to but I'll put this up as a starting point. It relates to the use of pioneers, settlers and town planners within an organisation (something I did in 2004 more by luck than design, noticed the dramatic effects and couldn't explain why). This is also the bit I missed from my tutorial at OSCON. 

It's an area I'm revisiting - having spent many years discussing it - because enough people have doubts and questions on culture & organisation, that it feels right to challenge some cherished assumptions.

Be warned ... these are rough notes from my past combined with thoughts on cell based structure.  This does not represent how any organisation is run today. The concepts are certainly out of date with contemporary thinking. This is just where I'm beginning my exploration, not the end of a journey.

When looking at a new line of business, I tend to prefer to describe the entire line of business as a Unit. Normally, I'd expect to see a well defined fitness function (describing rules of engagement, what it does, how it is to be measured, measures against user needs etc) and some form of cell based structure (e.g. Amazon two pizza rule) with each cell described by its own fitness function. Please note, this approach is based fundamentally on a focus on user needs (i.e. maps) as opposed to financial value.

Each cell is autonomous (within the fitness function) and the fitness function is defined, measured and evaluated by the executive in charge of the unit. If there are too many cells in one unit, I'd normally expect to see this broken down into multiple units each containing cells with autonomy & separation between both cells and different units.

General rules are :-
In figure 1, I'll apply these principles to a map of a new business. I'll assume you're familiar with mapping, if not then start here.

Figure 1 - Basic structure, derived from a map.

Now obviously each cell is going to require different skills (i.e. aptitudes or capabilities if you wish). It's the cells responsibility to ensure it has the right skills.

However, there's another factor in here. Attitude. When we look at a map, we know that activities evolve from uncharted to industrialised and the methods, techniques, type of people and even culture changes. The type of engineering you need to build a highly novel act (i.e. genesis) requires experimentation and agile techniques. The type of engineering you need to build a highly industrialised act requires a focus on volume operations and six sigma.

Figure 2 - Different Methods

Hence, when looking at your environment then along with aptitude (finance, engineering, network, marketing etc), attitude also matters.

Figure 3 - Importance of Attitude.

To resolve this problem, you need to populate the cells with different types of people - pioneers, settlers and town planners. All are important. It's not realistic to think that everyone has the same attitude, some are much more capable of living in a world of chaos, experimentation and failure whilst others are much more capable of dealing with intensive modelling, the rigours of volume operations and measurement.

Figure 3 - Populate by Attitude.

One of the things that populating by attitude enables is a process of theft in order to mimic evolution and the natural effects of competition i.e. settlers steal from pioneers, town planners steal from settlers and pioneers build on the service that town planners create.

Figure 4 - Mimicking evolution through theft.

But how do you populate the cells and ensure that theft occurs? The cells have autonomy after all and a tendency will be to stick with what they are doing.

Well, again the use of maps makes it easy for everyone to understand and challenge the type of attitude needed. The cells obviously need access to people with the right aptitude and attitudes. To complete this circle you need to end up with two branches of an organisation, both defined by fitness function. One branch is focused on work through a cell based structure, the other branch is focused on preparation (the development of aptitude, attitude and cultures to support this) and ensuring that theft occurs.


A) The work is divided into units and cells, defined by fitness functions (as above) with each cell having autonomy and separated from others through services or products produced or delivered.

B) The preparation side has different responsibilities. First, it is subdivided into the three structures necessary to enable three culture covering the different types of attitude. I know everyone says an organisation needs one culture, I fundamentally disagree. It needs three.

Each of those structures (Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners) have multiple aptitudes (finance, HR, engineering etc) and an executive in charge (a chief pioneer, a chief settler etc). The responsibilities of the executive in charge of each attitude are threefold.

1) developing the necessary culture and skill required for that particular attitude i.e. for pioneer engineers a focus on agile and experimentation whilst for town planner engineers a focus on extensive mathematical modelling and six sigma.

2) ensuring that required skills (of the right attitude and aptitude) are available to cells & units.

3) identifying opportunities for theft i.e. the job of the chief settler is to identify all those 'pioneer' cells whose work is becoming suitable for productisation and hence to steal from them by creating a new cell to meet the fitness function and replace the existing cell, forcing its pioneers to move on to more 'pioneering'. Ditto the chief town planner whose role includes industrialising all the 'settler' cells to more utility services.

Figure 5 - Overall structure.

The matrix structure of aptitude and attitude is used in preparation (i.e. creating the right culture & training in order to create effective cells). The executives in charge of the training function are responsible for ensuring this preparation and that a process of theft occurs within the working environment hence forcing cells to evolve. Every time they detect that the work of the cell is now evolved enough to be controlled by another cell type, they create that new cell with the view of deliberately stealing the existing cells work. This enforces adaptation in terms of evolution.

The working environment consists of cells (grouped into units) delivering against defined fitness functions and growing (as per a starfish model) to occupy the required space. As they create new cells, they steal from the preparation side any people they need. The cells control their work themselves (within the confines of a fitness function) and the only time they lose control is when a more appropriate cell (as in attitude) comes along and steals their work from them. The role of the executive function on the work side is in creating, monitoring and refining those fitness function. To spell it out one more time, the role of the executive side is not to tell the cells of work how to run themselves or how to organise themselves etc. The role of the executive function is to understand the environment and to adapt fitness functions according to any outside threat.

If you want a military analogy then think of the preparation side as administrative division (e.g. Divisions, Regiments or Battalions) where certain culture, attitudes and aptitudes are developed. Now, think of the units (the working function) as a tactical battle group, an independent fighting force consisting of smaller units made up from members from the administrative divisions. It's not a perfect analogy but it's close enough.

Now this model also complements platform approaches and the whole ILC technique for development and exploitation of ecosystems with town planners building the core services, pioneers developing new concepts on this and settlers exploiting both internal and external work (through the use of consumption data) to identify successful changes to be introduced. It also helps when it comes to the question of open source and how to implement 'open source on purpose' i.e. town planners have an incentive to industrialise components and push activities to open.

Parts of the structure are or have been implemented in different places. No single organisation seems to have covered both elements of aptitude & attitude combined with the needs of cell based structure. This is simply an area I'm exploring because I don't agree that our existing organisational structures (even Amazon's) represent the pinnacle of organisation. They are simply just a lot better than what most companies use.

"another multi-sport event put t' bed" by Feeling Listless

Sport There we go again, another multi-sport event put t' bed. When the London Olympics completed I wrote this lengthy obituary, something which I don't propose to do for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. My sentiments aren't that different.  My favourite wins are still those in which the athlete was surprised by their success, which notably happened in the race events as they pushed on ahead of the Australians and Jamaicans.  My enmity towards Gary Linekar as a presentational force remains undiminished.  As exciting nights of competition drew to a close in the pool or on the track, he was always there at the end to suck the atmosphere from the screen like the televisual equivalent of the DJ playing St Elmos Fire at my 18th birthday party (which to be fair I did select) clearing the dance floor.

Once again I woke up this morning not really knowing what to do with myself, not having a whole day's worth of sport to navigate, chasing vicarious achievement for the home nations.  The BBC Sport app on my iPad whose schedule has been invaluable for the past week and a half has already updated, replacing much of the Games coverage with a live blog of the football transfer window day.  Mostly I've been watching the World War I commemoration services which have been a sobering contrast, though thanks to the iPlayer I do plan to catch up on a couple of events I missed even though I know the result, Laura Trott's gold in the cycling points notably and the rhythmic gymnastics.  That's my other main "takeaway" from these Games, a new appreciation for gymnastics.

Social media's been strange during the Games.  During the Olympics, the Olympics was the subject.  But the majority of the people I follow have generally got on with their lives, barely mentioned these Games even when the same athletes they were so very excited about last time were competing.  Even on Bolt nights.  I didn't see much outright hostility, other than during the closing ceremony which was as messy as closing ceremonies tend to be and, rightly, over the number of Commonwealth countries which have deplorable anti-LGBT laws often in places where equality has been fought for a won for other reasons.  I still tweeted away, especially during our unsuccessful netball campaign but even more than usual it was like texting into a vacuum.  The interaction which made the Olympics generally wasn't there.

So yes, another multi-sport event put to bed.  Doctor Who's back in a couple of weeks with all the chaos and mayhem inherent in that, already beginning to swirl thanks to the leaks, the cinema release of the first episode, the usual hullabaloo.  As always I make my usual promise to myself to try to follow some of these sports between Games but I don't know.  Will I choose whatever's being shown on the red button (where so many of these sports end up) rather than watch a film?  We'll see.  I would like to revisit Glasgow now in the wake of the games.  The couple of hours I spent there on a coach trip a decade ago clearly wasn't long enough.  I think I'll leave it until some of the buzz has died down though.  Except if it's anything like Manchester, that could take quite some time...

A new angle on Churyumov-Gerasimenko brings circular features into focus by The Planetary Society

It's just two days now until Rosetta arrives in its initial 100-kilometer "orbit" of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and the latest view from Rosetta's NavCam is fascinating. Circular features on the comet remind me of Tempel 1 as seen by Deep Impact and Stardust.

The Planetary Report: Summer Solstice Edition by The Planetary Society

Summer’s edition of The Planetary Report is on its way to your mailbox!

Xiaomi vaults past Apple to become China’s No. 2 smartphone brand. by Resonance China

resonance_xiaomi smartphone sales

Xiaomi’s growth in China’s smartphone market shows no signs of slowing down as the brand pulled within 2 percentage points of unseating Samsung with over 26M phones sold (+270% YoY) in major Chinese cities from January through May of this year, according to data released by Kantar Worldpanel. A closer look at the numbers bodes well for the homegrown brand’s future with 20% of purchases come from existing Xiaomi users – indicating promising returns from newly launched brand loyalty programs and best-in-class service and support offerings. But growth has been largely limited to the Android market with only 5% of new purchases coming from previous iPhone owners which means that Xiaomi is capturing market share largely from brands other than Apple. [Kantar Worldpanel]

凯度移动通信消费者指数(Kantar Worldpanel ComTech)近期的报告显示,今年1月至5月,智能机在中国主要城市的销售占比排名中,小米手机增加了2%的市占率,与排名第一的三星又更拉近了一点, 共占有21%。这21%的市占率主要来自小米的主要用户(曾有购买小米手机经验的消费者),此说明小米在对客户忠诚度的培养、完善的积分兑换体制及小米之家的客户服务,都表现地出类拔萃。另一项有趣的发现指出, 小米所增加的2%销售占比多半来自其他同是安卓系统的手机供应商,而非苹果。[Kantar Worldpanel]

August 03, 2014

Recommended reading list on strategy. by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 02, 2014

A storefront in every pocket by Zarino

So here’s an enigma. Amazon released a new phone last week: the Amazon Fire Phone. Jeff Bezos’ demo—and all the marketing surrounding the launch—made a lot of noise about a bunch of attention-seeking but largely useless features.

Jeff Bezos holding up an Amazon Fire Phone

Perhaps the most gimmicky is “Dynamic Perspective.” If you’ve seen a Nintendo 3DS, you’ll recognise the trick: use head tracking to fake a parallax perspective effect on a 2D screen, so for one viewer at a time, items on the screen look like they’re three dimensional. The Fire Phone uses four ‘cameras’ on its front to do the tracking, and the marketing video is full of ridiculous clips of people twisting and turning their phones to ‘peek’ round buildings in a mapping app or oggle the back-side of the icons in their launcher.

Dynamic Perspective is enabled in a handful of apps, and mostly to a superficial degree. In the worst cases, useful information is hidden behind on-screen elements, when it could just as easily be made visible in the first place. The same problem appears elsewhere on the Fire Phone, where mystery-meat gestures are required to open secondary panels hidden to the left and right of the screen.

Dynamic Perspective on the Amazon Fire Phone

The other big-hitting feature is Firefly, which, again, will be familiar to anyone who’s used either the Google Goggles app, or Amazon’s own barcode scanner app. Hold down the Fire Phone’s camera button for a bit longer than normal, and out swishes a cloud of glowing fireflies (very cute) which flit around the screen, converging on whichever items they can recognise. Once an item’s been recognised, there’s a plugin system that, theoretically, lets apps define custom things to do with the newfound item. But right now, pretty much the only action for most things is “Buy on Amazon.”

Firefly recognising a phone number on the Amazon Fire Phone

Now, most reviewers have, rightly, spent a great deal of time slating the gimmicks. Many have complained about things that’ll obviously get fixed in the log run.

Yes, Firefly recognition is rubbish right now, so was Apple Maps when it first launched. Heard anybody complaining about it recently? There you go. And yes, the phone’s US-only and AT&T-only (remind you of anything?) – but given time, that’ll obviously change.

These are all cheap shots. What about the phone itself?

“It’s heavy, but not really. Big, but not really. It has a 4.7 inch, 720p display that’s not anything special but certainly gets the job done. It has three speakers so you always get stereo sound, and about a day and a half of battery life. It’s all good enough without ever standing out. It’s just— fine.” (Pearce, The Verge)

Could my grandmother use it?

When a new technology comes out, it’s often worth asking “could my grandmother use this?” And by “grandmother” I really mean just anybody outside of tech bubbles like San Francisco and Shoreditch.

New gadgets and technologies get a lot of press from geeks, but anything truly popular has been made so by ‘grandmothers’ – from toasters and washing machines to iPods and Oyster cards. Grandmothers don’t require exquisite design, they just need something that cuts the crap and does its job without fuss.

Does the Amazon Fire Phone pass the grandmother test?

Well, with dynamic perspective it gets off to a bad start. But then, it’s a marketing gimmick, so we should expect that. The bizarre hidden tilting gestures will also, no doubt, confuse most users.

Amazon Fire Phone homescreen

But we’d be wrong to dismiss the Amazon Fire Phone off-hand (especially for software gimmicks that, I have no doubt, users will be able to selectively disable – if they can’t already).

Compare the rest of the Fire Phone to most other smartphones on the market, and bits of it actually start making sense. The screen is spacious, but small enough to be easily held in a single hand. The resolution might not be eye-bleedingly high, but why does it need to be? The icons are nice and big, with android-style shapes, so they’re easy to differentiate. It has good viewing angles, but nothing special, and a nice bright backlight.

The headphones are pretty neat.1 The earbuds are slightly magnetic, meaning they automatically clip together when you put them in your bag or pocket, drastically reducing cable tangles. And the bottom half of the cable is flat, rather than round, so the bit that doesn’t need to flex around your neck can be strong and, again, tangle resistant.

Amazon operative answering a Mayday call on the Fire Phone

I have no idea whether the fictional grandmother segment uses headphones. But here’s something they’d love: “Mayday.” Press one icon on the homescreen, and within 20 seconds you’re connected to a remote Amazon assistant who can hear you, speak to you, see your screen, and even draw on it if you need pointers. Speaking as someone who’s had to field their fair share of parental support calls, this thing sounds like a god-send. It’s a one-stop shop for customer support. Who needs a manual, or even a Google search, when you can get any question about your phone answered by a smiley orange-shirted chap in Amazon HQ?

“When I dug beneath the gimmicks, I found something better than 3-D heroics. The Fire Phone is uncommonly friendly and easy to use.” (Manjoo, New York Times)

Amazon’s killer app: the storefront

So the hardware’s as good as the best Android phones, and software tricks like Mayday make using the phone ultra unintimidating. Which is ace. But what’s clever is how Amazon’s pulling an Apple.

Apple changed the music industry when it brought all the major recording labels under one roof in the early 2000s and, in the face of rampant music piracy, made it simpler and quicker to buy a track via iTunes (or, later, your iPhone or iPad) than any other way. Apple got you into the ecosystem, and once people were there, they kept spending.2

If the Fire Phone—or its successors—get popular, Amazon could pull an Apple… on a huge scale.

Apple pretty much had music, movies, and TV shows in the bag. Amazon has, everything. Have you been there recently? They’ve got clothes and electronics, groceries and homewares, sports equipment, motorcycles, garden plants, MP3s, movies, books, toys… Amazon is grandmother friendly. If it weren’t for the hassle of getting an internet connection, messing with a router, a computer, a web browser, software updates—bah!—If it weren’t for all the crap around the Amazon experience, Amazon itself would be the de-facto way we all bought pretty much everything we ever needed.

So that’s where the Fire Phone comes in. If you have to wait until you’re next at your computer to order something, Amazon knows they’ve lost a sale. They need to put the store in your pocket (or handbag, I guess, if we’re still talking grandmothers). And that’s what the Fire Phone’s really doing.

Buying a music album on the Amazon Fire Phone

After running down some of the Fire Phone’s UI inconsistencies, one reviewer noted: “The only thing consistently straight forward about the Fire Phone is how easy it is to get things from Amazon.” As if to ram its point home, Amazon gives you a year of free next-day delivery with the Fire Phone, in the form of Amazon Prime. See something, click a single button, it’s on your doormat less than 24 hours later. It’s exciting and frightening in equal measure.3

If Amazon pulls out its finger, it could slowly and quietly become the de-facto supplier of smartphones that just work. Nothing flashy, nothing fashionable. The housewives’ favourite. Or maybe the grandmother’s favourite. It would be a brave play, but I’m sure Amazon thinks it can pull it off.

It just needs to man up and stop the gimmickry.

  1. I’m such a sucker for well designed headphones

  2. Apple’s only now starting to lose ground to streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, which cleverly realised kids these days don’t want to own music of movies any more, they just want to rent them. But Apple doesn’t care – it’s still the market leader, and it famously never cared about software or content anyway, it’s all about the hardware. 

  3. Especially frightening when you factor in Amazon’s semi-serious investigations into Skynet-esque drone delivery methods. 

[UPDATED] New Rosetta images show comet's craggy shape by The Planetary Society

A shift in position has brought shadows into view from Rosetta, outlining scarps and ridges on Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Films I've Watched This Year #28 by Feeling Listless

Film Idling the other evening between Commonwealth Games events I typed "opening ceremony" into Youtube. As well as discovering the Olympics channels archives whole matches and sessions from the London games after clicking on full coverage of the Danny Boyle spectacular, I found a wealth of similar events from across the world both on their own associative channels and the less official. I expect if you're the kind of person I am, you could become quite addicted to discovering the introductory evening of the Asian Games in Doha in 2006 or Barcelona 1992.

Presumably this was a valuable resource for Boyle and co and for David Zolkwer, the creative director of the Glasgow 2014 ceremony (who's primary decision must have been "How early do with deploy Barrowman?").  Having seen enough of them live, there's clearly going to be a genre-like aspect to them, similar themes and ideas which appear in all of them beyond the necessary.  Many is the history of the nation we've seen inscribed through modern dance, the legendary rock singer making a cameo appearance.  Boyle and Zolkwer included these elements but with a twist.  Wonder what we'll get tomorrow night.

Running with Scissors

As Charlie "Ultraculture" Lyne's otherwise exemplary review of the dvd in today's Guardian demonstrates, like Bee Season, The Juror and August Rush before it, Noah is one of those films which if you're tasked with describing it to a friend who hasn't had the pleasure makes you sound completely mad.  I've tried.  I got as far as "there are these angels which have been banished to Earth and become Rock Lords" before I realised that I was beginning to disbelieve exactly what I'd seen, even though I had in fact seen it.  But unlike those three spectaculars, but like Darren Aronofsky's equally bonkers The Fountain, it's a film I want to see again.

Partly it's because for all its run time and epic scale, it's a fairly simplistic story that looks backwards to the biblical epics of old.  Man is tasked by his God to build what must be a dimensionally transcendental boat in order to save all of nature from flood which is about the wash the smear of the humanity from the Earth,  The smear doesn't like the idea and wants in, but the flood comes before they can do much about it.  Then Noah's handed a series of choices which challenge his faith in the Father, his family and a few other fs and if you paid attention in RE at school you know the rest.

The photography is remarkable.  Pulling everything from renaissance paintings to Ralph Bakshi animations to indeed the London 2012 opening ceremony there are moments of both transcendental beauty and horror.  Next time I see a Andrew Graham Dixon figure who may even be Andrew Graham Dixon remarking on how cinematic a Hieronymus Bosch painting is, I'll be able to nod sagely because now I've seen it filmed.  Probably a bit spoilery but the shot of the last vestiges of humanity clinging to a rock are imprinted now.  I don't think I've seen anything quite so beautiful and hopeless in film before.

What's also gratifying is the how the film bothers to take a view on God within the narrative.  All too often biblical epics in an attempt to provide inclusivity prevaricate on the existence of a creator, often undermining the narrative.  Noah's quite clear on this.  Within this setting God exists.  It's source material says so, and so the film does too.  This frees Aronofsky up to explore the nature of faith and see above.  When the various miracles happen, when the flood comes, there's no doubt as to the cause.  Given the amount of religion there is in the film, I'm astonished as to why anyone with faith could object.

Where Aronofsky cleverly leaves some ambiguity is as to when or where this is happening.  There are sequences which could imply that what we're seeing is happening in the far future or some alternative reality or the kind of realm of legends inhabited by Camelot, Star Wars, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. He also embraces the theological theory that physics and natural selection could be the tools with which God created the heavens and the earth, that the seven days are as much about poetry and storytelling as the literal truth of the kind which leads to "museums" about creationism.  Perhaps that's why.

August 01, 2014

Dawn Journal: Not-So-Quiet Cruise by The Planetary Society

Dawn's Mission Director updates us on the status of the mission, and tells us what Dawn and Star Wars have in common.

I began blogging because I did. by Feeling Listless

About I began blogging because I did. I've written lengthy rationalisations all over the place but in the end they come down to because it seemed like a good idea at the time and no one else in Liverpool seemed to be doing it (though as I found out a couple of years later there were a couple) (Imperial Doughnut).

Partly it provided some structure to the day having something to do at bedtime. I was only able to get online for about three hours after 9pm at night due to a family agreement that we'd get the internet so long as I didn't dial-up during the prime time for phone calls and BT surftime was limited to evenings and weekends anyway.

I've now been doing it for a third of my life. It's at the stage where ending it is very tempting but self defeating. I'm still getting plenty of opportunities because of the blog, and it provides a purpose when purpose is otherwise lacking. I wish I hadn't felt quite so isolated right at the beginning, when I was apparently part of a scene and didn't properly know.

Fennel tea please.


Bit Touching? by Feeling Listless

Music Looks like MKS are recording again, whatever that means. Through the magic of Twitter and Keisha retweeting things we have this:

Harmonies harmonies harmonies today with @siobhandonaghy @MutyaBuena @keisha_buchanan bring on tomorrow's sesh!
— One Bit (@onebitmusic) July 31, 2014

This Instagram featuring music which sounds new though its vintage isn't clear and ...

Just a normal convo this morning with Mutya lol
— Keisha Buchanan (@keisha_buchanan) July 31, 2014

Can we get together properly this time? Please?

Watch "Lunar Bridgehead," a Wonderfully Campy 1964 Film about Ranger 7 by The Planetary Society

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has released a 1964 documentary on Ranger 7 in honor of the spacecraft's fiftieth anniversary.

How to destroy a debris disk by Astrobites

A large fraction of the exoplanet systems we observe have one or more planets on highly eccentric orbits but fairly small semimajor axes. One proposed mechanism for this configuration is planet-planet scattering, in which the orbits of two planet cross, and repeated close encounters between the two planets cause chaotic changes in their orbits. This usually ends with one planet ejected from the system and the other in a stable but eccentric orbit, close to its star.

What effect does this kind of disruptive event have on the rest of the system, like the planetesimals? Planetesimals are large chunks of ice and rock left over after planet formation. They are smaller and cooler than planets, so they are very difficult to observe. However, planetesimals on intersecting orbits will smash into each other, breaking into lots of tiny dust grains that we can observe in the infrared. We call this disk of planetesimals and dust a debris disk, but we can only observe the small dust grains, and they are only produced by collisions between the planetesimals. We know debris disks in systems with planets can survive periods of planet migration. For example, our own Kuiper Belt was sculpted but not destroyed by the outward migration of Neptune and Uranus. But what happens when the planets go through a sudden, chaotic change in orbits during planet-planet scattering? Should we expect to see a lot of debris disks in these systems, or very few?

The authors of this paper use numerical simulations to study the effects of this planet-planet scattering on any planetesimals unlucky enough to be in the way. Their goal was to determine if enough planetesimals would remain after the scattering event to replenish the dust in the system through collisions and produce an observable debris disk.

The authors simulated a system with three Jupiter-sized planets on near-circular orbits and a planetesimal belt. They performed over 50 simulations, varying the masses of the planets and the initial locations of the planetesimal belts. In each simulation, one planet was ejected while the other two remained in the system. The authors observed several different outcomes.

Fig. 1: Final eccentricities and semimajor axis of the surviving planets (big purple dots) and planetesimals (red and green dots). The blue line shows the initial distribution of planetesimals. The red dot planetesimals are on planet-crossing orbits and will soon be ejected. The green dot planetesimals are on stable orbits.

Fig. 1: Final eccentricities and semimajor axis of the surviving planets (big purple dots) and planetesimals (red and green dots). The blue line shows the initial distribution of planetesimals. The red dot planetesimals are on planet-crossing orbits and will soon be ejected. The green dot planetesimals are on stable orbits. In this simulation, the scattering event lasted long enough to scatter most of the planetesimals. (Fig. 1a in Marzari 2014)

Some simulations ended with no debris disk. About 5% of the planetesimals remained in the system, but they were so dispersed in highly eccentric orbits that they were extremely unlikely to collide and produce any observable dust. This outcome tended to occur after a long planet-planet scattering event lasting about 2 million years, or when the outer of the two surviving planets ended up on a very eccentric orbit, taking it through the planetesimal belt and ejecting most of the planetesimals. Figs. 1 and 2 show the eccentricities and semimajor axes of the surviving planetesimals in each of these two types of simulations.

Fig. 2: Same as Fig. 1, but in this simulations the outer surviving planet has a very high eccentricity and ejects most of the planetesimals.

Fig. 2: Same as Fig. 1, but in this simulations the outer surviving planet has a very high eccentricity and ejects most of the planetesimals. (Fig. 2a in Marzari 2014)

In other simulations, the third planet was ejected very quickly and the remaining planets had low eccentricities. In these systems, the planetesimals were stirred up enough to begin colliding and producing dust, but most still remained in the system. This created a nicely observable belt of dust, especially if the initial planetesimal belt was placed in the outer part of the system. Fig. 3 shows the eccentricities and semimajor axes of the planetesimals in this simulation. Notice that most of the planetesimals are on eccentric but stable orbits.

Fig. 3: Same as Figs. 1 and 2, but here the scattering event is short enough that the planetesimal belt survives, with some excited eccentricities.

Fig. 3: Same as Figs. 1 and 2, but here the scattering event is short enough that the planetesimal belt survives, with some excited eccentricities. (Fig. 3a in Marzari 2014)

In other cases, the planet-planet scattering phase was so short (about a thousand years) that the amount of excitation in the planetesimal belt was negligible. These planetesimals would need other stirring mechanisms (like secular or resonant perturbations) to produce enough dust to be observable.

So to create and keep a debris disk, you need the scattering event to last long enough to stir the planetesimals, but not so long that the disk is completely scattered away. You also need the outer surviving planet to have a not-too-eccentric orbit. Planet-planet scattering events are chaotic, so by definition we cannot predict the outcome of the planetesimal belt based on the initial conditions of the system. However, the authors were able to analyze their results statistically and calculate the probability of the different outcomes. They found that about 60-90% of their systems lost their planetesimal belts. They also found that starting the planets further from the start increased the likelihood that the planetesimal belt would be destroyed.

What testable predictions do these simulations make? The authors conclude that about 60-90% of systems in which planet-planet scattering has occurred should have lost their planetesimal belts, so we should see a lower rate of debris disks in systems where we see at least one planet on a highly eccentric orbit. The authors also recommend more simulations with different numbers of planet to study this topic further.

National interests by Simon Wardley

All nations are in competition but the governing force of nations is the interests of its society. Markets are a useful tool in achieving many of these aims but it should not be forgotten that the governing force of markets is self interest.

Where possible, a Hayekian approach of allowing markets to form with a light touch is desirable. But markets will exhibit modes of failure where self interest outstrips societal interests. In such cases, standardisation of a market, the use of regulation (see Adam Smith) or the deliberate forcing through investment (a Keynesian approach) become necessary. Markets often exhibit inertia to change, they are often short sighted and hence drastic changes have been required throughout history.

But intervention should not be the first step, a market should always be allowed to develop and where possible defacto standards allowed to grow as long they do not interfere with the societal interest nor impact the free functioning of the market.

Whilst the majority of ground breaking change comes from Government funding, the market has a very important role to play. The interests of individual players in the market should therefore not be allowed to interfere with the overall contribution to innovation by the market, no matter how paltry it might be.

This balancing act, the use of the market as a tool (rather than an ends) is a difficult but necessary art. Learning to game the market, to use it as a tool, to know when to invest, to know when to interfere, to know when to leave alone are not easy choices. Since our nations contain many lines of business then playing the game in different ways with different industries is almost always needed. In some you invest, in others you regulate.

But anticipating or exploiting markets effectively requires some understanding of the points of change along with a detailed understanding of the landscape. For example – the effects of big data, intelligent agents (e.g. self driving cars), 3D printing and nano-materials will vary between industries. In Transportation, big data may allow for more efficient competitors. But self-driving cars will introduce automated fleets and potentially disruptive competitors. 3D printing and nano-materials may also fundamentally alter the nature of what is transported and potentially be highly disruptive.

The same changes will have different effects in other industries, for example in Healthcare where all four points of change are likely to be adopted as sustaining changes rather than disruptive e.g. big data improving diagnosis, self-driving cars introducing more efficient ambulances, 3D printing allowing for organ creation and nano-materials impacting surgical devices and procedures.

In the case of Transportation, you might choose to take a Keynesian approach and invest in order to force companies to overcome their inertia and adapt to changes. In the case of Healthcare, you might choose a Hayekian approach (more hands off) for the time being. Effective management requires the use of multiple techniques specific to the market rather than blunt one size fits all approaches. You should never be Hayek or Keynes any more than a project should be Agile or Six Sigma. You need to be both. Despite the fervent belief of some that one is better, it's worth remembering the saying "Who cares if the cat is black or the cat is white, as long as the cat can catch the mouse. That's all that matters".

Understanding the landscape that industries operate in also allows a Government to anticipate the likely effects of points of change beyond simply noting that points of change are occurring. It allows for more effective gaming of the market assuming a Government can change it. Fortunately there are many means that Governments have at their disposal from investment, taxation, nationalisation, regulation and the all important 'do nothing'.

So why do I mention this? Because the loss of net neutrality has serious long term competition issues. The fragmentation of the internet into 'paid for services' can impact wider innovation. The choices Governments make whether to regulate, whether to nationalise, whether to use taxation and whether to allow market self interest to govern will all impact the future prosperity of those nations.

Hard choices need to be made including whether to do nothing. Personally, I'd keep a close eye on China as they seem to have built considerable experience in gaming markets to their favour and using the market as a tool for their own ends. Their ability to grow whilst balancing issues of social mobility is something to be highlighted.

The US on the other hand appears to view the market in almost reverence, as though the market itself is some force for good. It wouldn't surprise me if the US drives ever closer to a laissez faire system. The distinction between the two nations is most sharply contrasted in their gameplay towards virtual currencies such as bitcoin.

Though many excuses are made, China's rise and eventually overtaking of the US as the world's dominant economic force and centre for innovation will almost certainly be down to better gameplay by the Chinese Government.  As the old curse goes, 'May you live in interesting times' ... well, the next decade should certainly be that.

July 31, 2014

New Rosetta view of the comet - and a comparison to other comets by The Planetary Society

Rosetta's view of the comet is getting better and better. Today they released a new image from the high-resolution OSIRIS camera, and it's a very fresh one, taken only two days ago. Distinct features are coming into view. And it's finally detailed enough for me to compare it to the five other comets we've visited in the past.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: Stray Thoughts. by Feeling Listless

Written by Eleanor McEvoy
[from: 'Eleanor McEvoy', Geffen, 1997]

Music I lost my mobile phone on the train to work this morning. I’d moved it into my fleece pocket in case it rang so that I could hear it and as I alighted at the station I felt into my pocket for my season ticket and realised the phone wasn’t there. I dashed back onto the train to where I was sitting and it wasn’t on the seat and the lady who was sitting there wasn’t too forthcoming as she read the newspaper I’d left on the table. I was distraught. It felt like I’d lost a part of my life – as though there was a gap in my mind somehow.

On the platform I ran to the stationmaster. No one had handed it in. Then it occurred to me – I knew the number. He drew out his phone and I dialed the number. I listened. It rang. And rang. Then my own voice spoke, my answering service like a plea in the darkness ‘Hi! It’s Stuart. You know what to do…’

Where was it? Who had it?

I headed into work, stopping off at a telephone kiosk on the way to call the number again. It rang again, but less than last time. I met a former manager. We chatted on the walk up to work. I managed to keep the conversation going but all I could think about was the phone.

In work I took the nearest phone and called the number again. By this time, my hands were shaking. Someone answered.

‘Hello?’ I said. ‘I think I lost this phone, and you’ve picked it up.’

‘Actually,’ said the voice, ‘I’m the guard on the train – your phone was handed in by an elderly couple.’ I remembered them, sitting opposite me, his cloth cap, her bright yellow coat. I’ll never say anything bad about pensioners again.

The guard sent the phone back to Lime Street on the next train and I picked it up tonight, offering the somewhat appropriate password, ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’. When it was back in my hands, I kissed it lightly. I’ll never lose my phone again.

Something I neglected to mention. This is the day that everyone decided to call my mobile phone. Which was sitting in the lost property office at Lime Street Station. So everyone who called, from my Mum and Dad, to my friend and his friend spoke to the old gentleman in the lost property office, bewildering all of them with his gruff voice and tales of my lost phone. Apparently when my Mum called later on to find out when they close (yes, that’s right) he sounded as though he was about to throw it under the rails if anyone rang again…. Incidentally my ringer is ‘Enola Gay’ by OMD – I hope he’s never been in a war …. [Originally posted 28th December 2001].

[Commentary: I think at this point I was just plucking out any old posts to go with the tracks, unless the above is suppose to constitute "stray thoughts". Certainly actually having Enola Gay as the track here would seem to be more apt. This is the first Spotify embed. Sorry. The version on Youtube is awful. The version on the original mix cd was the b-side to McEvoy's Apologise single and acapella. Imagine this without the bagpipes, essentially.

The anecdote is entirely true and as a result I still have the telephone number of a public telephone box on Oxford Road in Manchester stored on my sim card.  I'd call it now and then for fun at night to see if anyone answered and now and then someone did.  I always remember the glee of answering a ringing call box and the people who answered always seemed amazed and delighted.  Haven't tried it in a while.  Such things have lost their novelty.]

[Updated]: NASA Selects 7 Science Instruments for its Next Mars Rover by The Planetary Society

Seven science instruments will help the Mars 2020 rover identify biosignatures and understand the history of the rocks it encounters on the surface of the red planet.

Planetary Society Selected as Mars 2020 Camera Partner by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society has been selected as an education outreach partner on the just-selected NASA Mars 2020 Mastcam-Z instrument, led by Jim Bell, Planetary Society Board president and Arizona State University professor.

Most 1.6 Earth-radius planets are not rocky by Astrobites

Title: Most 1.6 Earth-radius planets are not rocky
Author: Leslie A. Rogers
Author’s Institution: Caltech
Status: Submitted to ApJ

Whenever a new small or low-mass exoplanet is discovered, the internet gets plastered with images like this:

An artist’s impression of Gliese 581 g. Image credit: Lynette Cook

An artist’s impression of Gliese 581 g. Image credit: Lynette Cook

But these romanticised artistic impressions of exo-Earths and super-Earths with oceans and continents are totally misleading—in reality we know very little about what these planets look like. For most small planets all we know is their radius and the length of their year. We don’t know what they’re made of, what their atmospheres are like, whether they have clouds, or whether they have a rocky surface at all.

For a few planets (plotted in figure 1) we know their radius AND their mass. These planets are transiting—they pass between their host star and the Earth once every orbital revolution, blocking out a fraction of starlight. We can measure the radii of transiting planets, relative to their host star’s radius, from the decrease in brightness as the planet transits. Some of these planets orbit stars that are bright enough for us to measure their mass. We can detect the ‘wobble’ of the host star caused by gravitational tugs from its planet and measure planetary mass from the amplitude of the wobble. For the few planets with both radii and masses we can calculate their density.


Figure 1. All planets with mass and radius measurements. The red points are the Kepler planets used in this paper. The black points are other planets not used here. The triangles are the Solar system planets. The blue line shows the mass-radius relation for a planet made entirely of ice, the brown line is for pure silicate, the dashed brown is an Earth-like composition, the dashed grey is for the maximum theoretical density of an exoplanet and the solid grey is for solid iron. A rocky planet would lie near the brown lines - for example, the red point with ~ 2.5 Rearth and ~32 Mearth is probably rocky.

Figure 1. All planets with mass and radius measurements. The red points are the Kepler planets used in this paper. The black points are other planets not used here. The triangles are the Solar system planets. The blue line shows the mass-radius relation for a planet made entirely of ice, the brown line is for pure silicate, the dashed brown is an Earth-like composition, the dashed grey is the maximum theoretical density of an exoplanet and the solid grey is for solid iron. A rocky planet would lie near the brown lines – for example, the red point with ~ 2.5 Rearth and ~32 Mearth is probably rocky.

Planet composition

What does density tell you about a planet, other than whether or not it would float in the bath? Well, it tells you what the planet is made of, on average. Theoretical models can be used to calculate the radius of a planet, for a given mass and composition. A planet made entirely of silicates and iron—a ‘rocky, Earth-like planet’ will have a much smaller radius for the same mass than a planet made entirely of hydrogen and helium or a planet made entirely of water and ice. There is some degeneracy of course: planets made of half rock and half gas could have the same radius for a given mass as a planet made entirely of water and ice. Figure 1 shows exoplanet mass-radius relations for various compositions.

In our own Solar system, small planets (Mercury, Mars, Venus and Earth, in order of ascending size) are rocky and large planets (Neptune, Uranes, Saturn and Jupiter) are not rocky. Somewhere between Earth-sized planets and Neptune-sized planets lies the transition from rocky to not rocky. We have to look at other planetary systems to pin point exactly where that transition takes place.

The questions asked in this paper are: what fraction of planets are sufficiently dense to be rocky, as a function of radius? Is there a sharp transition from rocky to not rocky and where does it fall? For each planet in their sample, Rogers et al. calculate the probability that it is rocky (see figure 2).

Figure 2. The probability that a planet is rocky, as a function of its radius. Between 1.5 and 2 Earth-radii there is a transition from planets most likely being rocky to most likely being not rocky.

Figure 2. The probability that a planet is rocky, as a function of radius. Between 1.5 and 2 Earth-radii there is a transition from planets most likely being rocky to most likely being not rocky.


Hierarchical Bayesian inference

This paper throws the Bayesian book at this problem. The authors use hierarchical Bayesian inference to constrain the population of planets.

Rogers et al. have some data: a set of light curves and radial velocity measurements for each planet. They have a set of parameters that characterise the individual planets, e.g. planet mass and radius, which they can infer from that data. They also have another set of parameters that describe the population of exoplanets (which is what they’re truly interested in) which can be inferred from the resulting masses and radii.

Bayesians always use probability distributions to describe parameters. They allow intuition to enter their modelling process via a choice of prior probability distribution, which reflects their prior belief in the parameter values. For example, you wouldn’t expect to find a planet more dense than lead—theory just doesn’t allow it, and you can build that into your modelling process with a prior. Now here’s the clever hierarchical bit. The priors on the individual planet masses and radii depend on the values of the population parameters. Why is that? Well, if the population parameters tell you that it is unlikely for a planet to have, say, a very low mass and a very large radius, then you can build that into your prior and suppress the probability in that region of parameter space. Rogers et al. infer the values of all the parameters at the same time: individual planet parameters and population parameters. The population parameters feed back into the individual planet parameters, which feed into the population parameters, etc, and that’s what makes this process hierarchical.

The above process is not the only awesome statistical method used in this paper. They also properly account for the large uncertainties on their data using a fancy sampling technique, but I’ll leave the interested reader to check out the paper themselves for the details.

Figure 3. The posterior PDF of the position of the rocky-not rocky transition. The median value is 1.48 Earth-radii.

Figure 3. The posterior PDF of the position of the rocky-not rocky transition. The median value is 1.48 Earth-radii.

Model comparison 

Rogers et al. use a step function to model the planet distribution: i.e. below a certain radius all planets are rocky and above that radius they are not rocky. The transition radius is a free parameter (the only parameter of this model). They also try a couple of other models – one in which there is a smooth transition from rocky to not rocky, and one in which the rocky/not rocky threshold depends on the flux received by the planet from its host star. They compute the Bayesian evidence, or the ‘fully marginalised likelihood’, which is the likelihood of the data integrated over all possible values of the model parameters. The evidence tells you how likely your choice of model is, given your data, and penalises more complex models. Rogers et al. find that the evidence is highest for the simple step model. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some gradual transition between rocky and not rocky in reality mind you, just that this particular data set doesn’t favour that model.


Rogers et al. explore the posterior probability distribution of the single parameter in their simple step function model: the position of the transition from rocky to not rocky. The posterior, shown in figure 3 has a median value of 1.48 Earth radii. Using results from the second model, the one with the smooth transition, the authors answer the question ‘at which radius are most planets sufficiently dense to be rocky’? The answer: 1.6. Above this radius less than 50% of the planets are not dense enough to be rocky.

So next time you see a pretty picture of a super-Earth with a rocky surface, ask whether its radius is bigger than 1.6 Earths. If so, it’s probably wrong!

NASA Announces the Suite of Science Instruments on its Next Mars Rover Today by The Planetary Society

Today marks the unveiling of the suite of science instruments that will travel to Mars to look for signs of past life and help determine samples to store for possible return to Earth. The next rover mission will launch in 2020.

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