Francis’s news feed

This combines together on one page various news websites and diaries which I like to read.

November 27, 2014

Let's put the future behind us by Charlie Stross

To the eternal whine of the superannuated free-range SF geek ("dude, where's my jet pack? Where's my holiday on the moon? Where are my food pills? I thought this was supposed to be the 21st century!") can be added an appendix: "and what about those L5 orbital space colonies the size of Manhattan?"

Well, dude, I've got your L5 colony right here. In fact, they turned it into a vacation resort. I just spent a day checking it out, and I'm back with a report.

As William Gibson remarked, the street finds its own uses for things: he might have chosen to generalize the observation by noting that if a thing is big enough and fantastic enough, people and the bizarre hominid hive intelligences called corporations will come together in groups to make a use for it, even if the use they find is nothing like the function it was designed for.

Big-ass L5 space colonies as envisaged by Professor Gerard K. O'Neill in his book The High Frontier turn out to be both economically and biologically questionable. To be fair, it's not entirely his fault: he took NASA's early-1970s estimates of Space Shuttle flight rates as gospel—one flight per week, costs around $1M/ton delivered into orbit—back when they were selling it as a "space truck". At which point, hauling 50,000 tons of hardware and 10,000 workers into orbit to build a gigantic factory town churning out gigawatt range solar power stations using materials mined from the lunar regolith and positioned where they could transmit microwave power beams down to Earth 24x7 sounded like it should cost about as much as the 350-odd tons and 6 astronaut crew of the ISS. And as a solution to the 1974 oil shock, it seemed like a good idea. If we ever do get space trucks like that, it might be time to dust off those concept drawings and go for it. But in the meantime ...

The 1990s were a time of wild commercial optimism, driven by the end of the cold war, rapidly burgeoning public access to the internet, and deregulation of financial and banking controls. All of these came with an eventual crash and an ugly hangover in the following decade, but at the time funds managers poured money into whatever high-tech startup sounded good with a cocaine high. Roton, the fully reusable surface-to-orbit helicopter, got funding. VCs lined up to pour money down the rat-hole that was Netscape Communications in the hope that they could sell a web browser (while Microsoft were giving theirs away for free). And in Germany, a bunch of very serious engineers did their best to take us back to the Gernsback Continuum by setting up CargoLifter AG, with the goal of developing the CL160, a gigantic cargo airship with a payload capacity of 160 tons and a 550,000 cubic metre lift volume. (For comparison: the Hindenberg, the largest airship ever built to date, had a payload of 90 passengers and crew, their luggage, and another 10 tons of cargo. Lift volume: 200,000 cubic metres.)

All these ventures came adrift, but not before they built extraordinary things. CargoLifter AG in particular bought the defunct Soviet air force base at Brand-Briesen Airfield, 50km south-east of Berlin: and before they ran out of cash they build a gigantic airship hangar. I use the word advisedly. The hangar at Brand-Briesen, known as the Aerium, is one of the world's largest buildings: The only larger buildings are the Boeing Everett works, the Airbus A380 super-jumbo assembly hall, and a Target distribution warehouse in Washington state. (It's 360 metres long and over 100 metres high: so large you could fit a Nimitz class super-carrier inside it.) It was a suitably ambitious plant for what was essentially a plan to build an aircraft with a cargo capacity even greater than the Antonov An-225 Mriya, with vertical take-off and landing thrown in as a bonus. And so, when CargoLifter AG went bankrupt in 2004, having completed the hangar, it should be no surprise that someone, somewhere, sat up and said to themselves, "hey, we could use that!"

So here's what happens. One morning you get up early in your hotel or apartment in Berlin. You collect your swimming gear, flip-flops, beach towel, and sundries. Then you wrap up warm, because of course it's November in Prussia and while it's not snowing yet the wind has a sharp edge to it. You head for Zoologischer Garten station (or maybe the Ostbahnhof if you're on that side of the city) and catch a train, which over the next hour hums through the pancake-flat forests and villages of East Germany until it stops at a lonely (but recently modernized) platform in a forest in the middle of nowhere.

You're wondering if you've made some sort of horrible mistake, but no: a shuttle bus covered in brightly colored decals depicting a tropical beach resort is waiting for you. It drives along cracked concrete taxi-ways lined with pine trees, past the boarded-up fronts of dispersal bay hangers and hard stands for MiG-29 interceptors awaiting a NATO attack that never came. The bus is raucous with small children, chattering and screeching and bouncing off the walls and ceiling in a sugar-high—harried parents and minders for the large group of schoolgirls in the back of the bus are trying to keep control, unsuccessfully. Then the bus rumbles and lurches to a standstill, and the doors open, and you see this:

Panoramic view of the Aerium

It's hard to do justice to the scale of the thing. It's one of those objects that is too big to take in at close range, and deceptively small when viewed from a distance. It's like an L5 space colony colony that crash-landed in on the West Prussian plains: a gigantic eruption from the future, or a liminal intrusion from the Gernsbackian what-might-have-been.

And inside it—I'm going to go with stock photographs because, alas, I was too busy enjoying the saunas to go back to the lockers and fetch my camera until after sunset (at 4pm, around this time of year)—it's, well ...

Panoramic view of Tropical Islands

Welcome to Tropical Islands, Germany.

You can get the history from the wikipedia link above: in a nutshell, the Zeppelin hangar was bought from the liquidators by a Malaysian resort operator, who proceeded to turn it into an indoor theme park. They stripped off a chunk of the outer cladding of the hangar and replaced it with a high-tech greenhouse film: it's climate-controlled, at 26 celsius and 64% humidity all year round. (That's pretty chilly by Malaysian standards, but nice and comfortable for the German and Polish customer base.) There's an artificial rainforest, with over 50,000 plants and a 5km long walking trail inside. There are about a dozen different saunas, hot tubs, and a swimming pool complex: there's a 200 metre long artificial beach with sun-loungers for you to work on your tan wrapped around an artificial tropical lagoon—a 140 metre swimming pool with waves. There are bars, shops, restaurants, hotels, even a camp ground for tents: and of course the usual beachside resort song and dance show every evening.

If you want to see it from above, a pair of helium balloons with wicker gondolas wait to waft you the length of the hangar for a guided tour: like the CL160 these aerostats are never destined to leave their hangar, but they're probably more profitable.

Tropical Islands is the mother of all water parks, with a separate play area for the kinder while the teens and adults discreetly down their pina coladas or Erdinger weissbiers in the thatch-roofed bars overlooking the beach. It's safe, and clean, and organized and curated and manicured to within an inch of its life. It's got that Malaysian high concept futurist vibe going, combined with German thoroughness and attention to detail, for an experience that's pretty much what you'd expect if Disneyworld opened a park in Singapore, only with fewer dire declarations of death to drug smugglers. It is in short thoroughly enjoyable if you're in Berlin and for some reason decide you want a relaxing tropical beach-side day out in an environment that's barely less artificial than an L5 space colony.

And then the real world—the panopticon future we never asked for but somehow ended up with all the same—intrudes.

Panoramic view of Tropical Islands

Entry is ticketed: you pay the basic entry price at a turnstile and in return you're issued with a band with an RFID chip in it, like a blank-faced plastic wrist-watch. You tap it against the turnstile, and go in. The changing rooms are first: your transponder has a number on it, and this is the number of your locker. To enter the sauna area (€10 extra for the day, or thereabouts) you go through another turnstile with a contactless reader. To pay for food at the restaurants, or a temporary tattoo at the tattoo parlour, you tap on a reader. Or drinks. Or a newspaper. They've abolished cash: you can leave your wallet safely in the locker—until it's time to leave, and then you settle up the balance on your transponder at an unmanned ATM, deposit it in an exit turnstile, and leave.

Of course there's a down-side. You can imagine a hapless tourist, buying entrance with their credit card, not realizing that their issuer's mainframe will decide their card has been stolen: they enter, and like Charlie on the MTA they can never leave. Trapped forever, unable to pay the robot it's exit fee, they live feral lives trapped in the interstices of a tropical future ...

But that's just a harmless fantasy compared to the real down-side. Every turnstile you go through, every drink you buy, every experience you request, can be logged and tagged with your unique ID. Yes, you can pay cash for everything: but the resort operators still know that someone entered the sauna area then, 42 minutes later, proceeded to Bar number four and bought a pint of Erdinger Alkoholfrei. And there are cameras. They've actually made wearing a tracking tag a rewarding experience. Of course it's entirely voluntary, keeping count of entrants and exits can be justified as a safety measure, and it saves you from having to carry cash around in your swimsuit ... but, but, tagging!

After you stop spluttering with indignation, you realize that it's an inevitable part of this package. Hell, Disney do it too, don't they? And now your imagination cuts loose. Let's imagine ourselves in that bright future of space trucks and (relatively) cheap orbital access, of hard-hat construction crews building out our solar future at the L4 and L5 libration points. They'll live in space colonies, derived from Bernal spheres or O'Neill cylinders, for it's too expensive to commute from Earth's surface to orbit even with fully reusable spacecraft as cheap to operate as airliners, as long as we rely on chemical fuels. These habitats will be comfortable, long-duration homes ...

O'Neill colony concept, via wikimedia

... And they're going to be as artificial as, and even more vulnerable than Tropical Islands. If someone goes nuts and tries to blow a hole in the wall of the fourth largest building in the world, well, there are evacuation routes into the car park. The failure modes for space colonies are much deadlier, so the panopticon paradise with tracking devices and cameras everywhere seems to be pretty much an inevitable corollary of such an environment. So, too, are climate control and the curation of space. The Aerium is cunningly filled with distractions and diversions, until the 5km rainforest walk seems unexceptional, even though it's folded into a space less than 300 metres long: it's as twisted and knotty as your intestines. Long-duration orbital colonists will need a sense of space: many of the same techniques—lots of interrupted sight lines, branching routes and creative environmental features—will almost inevitably be deployed. Everyone's going to be under surveillance the whole time, behaviour monitored for signs of stress. Any children are going to be shepherded, lovingly but firmly, away from harmful things like airlock doors and plumbing, protected by doors that refuse to open for the unauthorized and robots that offer alternative, more attractive diversions for the fractious and bored or merely curious.

So: I had a good time visiting the L5 simulator at Brand for my regular scheduled glimpse of our future in the off-world colonies. But I happen like novelty swimming pools, artificial beach resorts in giant geodesic structures, and spas with clothing-optional saunas. I can even kind of cope with omnipresent surveillance and being tracked everywhere: that's the real spirit of the age. I wasn't expected to strap myself into a spacesuit and go outside into the chilly darkness with its weird smell of gunpowder, diesel fumes and barbecue, working in an environment as deadly as the deep ocean. The surveillance was of the most anodyne kind, monitoring my spending and how much time I spent in each feature: not looking for tangible signs of stress with gentle but draconian enforcement waiting in the wings. And at the end of the day I could put my clothes on, pay up, and catch the train home. From L5, the best you can hope for if you can't handle it any more is that they'll lock you in a capsule with an oxygen bottle and some ration packs and fire you, screaming, at the Earth.

Anyway, this is the future, folks. It's built from the bones of the past, it's unevenly distributed, and it's already here. And while it's an interesting place to visit, I'm not sure I'd want to stay.

(The title is, of course, a tribute to Jack Womack's extraordinary historical post-apocalyptic novel of the same name.)

November 26, 2014

Some Recent Views of Mars from Hubble by The Planetary Society

Ted Stryk showcases some of his processed versions of recent Hubble Space Telescope views of Mars.

Joeyed. by Feeling Listless

TV Another rerun from Off The Telly and a first night review of the Friends spin-off Joey.


Sunday, February 13, 2005 by Stuart Ian Burns

Much like its main character, Joey is already lost during the opening moments of the first episode simply because its a spin-off from the biggest live-action sitcom on the planet. The pressure the creators and writers felt when handed this behemoth must have been extraordinary, considering the network will have been looking for something to fill a very big hole. Unless Joey was sitting in a New York apartment with five other people called Chandler, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel and Monica, then this was never going to happen for them.

Perhaps recognising that a pilot episode isn’t always the strongest way to begin the run of any series, five decided to broadcast it with the second edition back-to-back. Channel 4 often used a similar strategy at the beginning and end of seasons of Friends, so this added to the familiarity of watching the show. The big difference, then, is its appearance in an unfamiliar Sunday nighttime position. If you consider that C4 have dropped ratings magnet The Simpsons into the old Friday night timeslot, scheduling this series up against that would be suicidal. In addition, five have also acquired the services of LeBlanc himself – possibly as part of their rights deal – and we see him sitting at a kitchen table on the set improvising with the corporate logo. The channel undoubtedly has a lot of faith in the series.

As to sponsors Ginsters, the weirdness of that choice is a debate for another time.

Matching like-to-like, this first episode had a lot to live up to. The obvious unfair comparison is to the pilot episode of Friends which, for me, was a perfect 22 minutes of comedy that somehow managed to define all the characters, set up their relationships and still be barn-stormingly hilarious. Joey‘s intro, telling the story of the character moving to Los Angeles to start a new acting career, isn’t like that at all – it’s more of a slow burn and simply doesn’t fly in the same way. The funnier moments, for example, happened when references were made to the previous series, which is either lazy or provides good continuity depending on your point of view.

The equal comparisons with Frasier probably come to some extent from the choice of placing Joey within a family this time around, instead of another group of friends or a particular setting. However, it’s quite refreshing to find such a tiny ensemble who feel pretty well-defined from the off. With the sister Gina, an obvious attempts has been made to introduce a female character entirely unlike anyone on the previous series, all loud, brassy and extraverted. Her son Michael could have been a Mini-Ross but the expression is different, more introverted. Although Joey’s relatives are strangers to us, they’re obviously familiar to him so the comedy is about what’s changed rather than what’s new – the character’s reaction to his sister’s implants, for example, is priceless.

Despite the comparisons, differences also keep asserting themselves. The timeframe of the episode takes place over a few weeks, long enough for Joey to appear on a cancelled cop show and for another series he turned down to become a big hit in an overnight Desperate Housewives manner. The conceit just about works with the existing relationship between the Tribiannis, but in places it still felt slightly rushed, like edited highlights from three or four episodes.

However, no pilot can be described as “typical” which is why the appearance of episode two directly afterwards was helpful for the viewer to get a feel for what a typical show is going to be like. Disappointingly the plotline followed an old standby – older stud teaches younger geek how to pick up girls.

But curiously, it wasn’t totally awful. The script was fairly well constructed around Gina’s attempts to become co-tutor of Michael’s pick-up training, and the jokes were pleasingly character based; none of your Chandleresque pop culture references hanging around looking for a punchline, here. There was some good chemistry between LeBlanc and his co-stars. Drea de Matteo (of The Sopranos) as Gina has a real aptitude for comedy and, to a degree, there is a feeling that some of the slapstick has shifted from Joey to her. Paulo Costanzo’s Michael is pleasingly sympathetic and again bashes away excellently at the banter. Having a rocket scientist in the ensemble is a good choice, although they may have difficulties if they don’t eventually vary the idiot/genius dynamic between Joey/Michael before it gets tiresome.

And yet, there are a number of question-marks over whether the series can sustain itself. There remains the nagging feeling that we’re watching a subplot from another series of Friends writ large – like those scenes in special episodes set in London or Las Vegas when the writers were straining to find something for Joey to do while all the important action was happening elsewhere. Some of the funnier moments in the parent series were the times when we’d cut back to him doing something funny as a counterpoint to the more tragicomic scenes; but here they just sort of hang there, and after a while it could become repetitious.

I’m also not entirely convinced by characters outside the main family. Andrea Anders’ Alex seems a little blank to me. Perhaps the programme-makers are hedging, waiting to see what works and what doesn’t, but that can be dangerous as in this situation the viewer needs something to hold onto pretty quickly. So she’s married, and a lawyer and …? Also the legendary Jennifer Coolidge, as Joey’s agent, is probably going to be an important character as time goes on, but here she seems very tense, nervous even. Perhaps she’ll relax into it in a few weeks.

So I’m willing to give the series a chance, if only for nostalgia reasons. It doesn’t feel like the simple cash-in it could have been, with Janice turning up in episode two and Gunther passing by in four. Certainly, despite the similarities, there is a sense that Joey is most definitely a different show, with a different sensibility, and it’s quite pleasing they’re taking the time to set up the characters and relationships instead of relying on a constant stream of empty laughs. But the programme’s creators can’t leave it too long before providing us with that killer episode that will keep us around. These first two episodes were watchable – but a whole season like this?

Well, yes, never did quite manage to gel. Watched the whole of the first series, never did get around to the truncated second. Le Blanc faired much better in Episodes which oddly enough shares many of the same elements as Joey, only much, much darker.

Join me in Washington, D.C. for a post-Thanksgiving Celebration of Planetary Exploration by The Planetary Society

See Bill Nye, Europa scientist Kevin Hand, and Mars scientist Michael Meyer speak at a special event on Capitol Hill on December 2nd.

Abundance: Why Digital is Disruptive by Albert Wenger

A good friend of mine recently conducted a fun survey — he asked people why they thought digital was disruptive (I don’t know if he will ever publish the results as this was an internal project at a consulting company). My own answer to that is simple: digital is disruptive because zero marginal cost takes us into a world of abundance when all of our economics, politics and business practices are rooted in scarcity.

Making this flip runs counter to what we have come to treat as ground truths on par with the laws of physics. We say things like “people need jobs" as if they were the same as "objects fall to the ground." We have been conditioned to accept behaviors such as consumerism and financial indebtedness as rooted in human nature. The full disruption from digital will not be realized until we open ourselves up to a much broader conception of what is possible and why we are here.

United Launch Alliance Answers Burning Questions about Orion's Rocket by The Planetary Society

When Orion launches next week, you may notice something alarming: The spacecraft's rocket sort of catches itself on fire. But not to worry, says United Launch Alliance.

Catherine Tate on Surgical Spirit. by Feeling Listless

TV Catherine Tate gave a webchat to The Guardian today and was nice enough to answer my question:

And here she is!

Utterly superb.

Chondrule formation by shocks? by Astrobites

Extraterrestrial rocks are important

Fig. 1: A chondrite from Gujba. Most of the small roundish pieces are  chondrules. (Image adopted from J.   Bollard)

Fig. 1: A chondrite from Gujba. Most of the small roundish pieces are chondrules. (Image adopted from J. Bollard)

What’s a chondrule? Never heard of that before. That’s probably your first reaction after reading this esoteric-sounding word. However, you’ve probably heard about meteorites before. Meterorites offer an insight in the compositions at different locations in our solar system. Particularly, unmodified meteorites, i.e. bodies with no differentiation or melting, can help to explain the origin of planetary systems. These unmodified meteorites are called chondrites (Fig. 1) and their most important components are small grains of a few mm to cm size, namely chondrules. Measurements of radioactive elements (short-lived radionuclides) in chondrules constrain their formation to the first few million years of the solar system. Remember that the solar-system itself is about 4.6 billion years old.
Thus, chondrules are the building blocks of our solar system. However, it is unknown how these grains of dust formed initially. Imprints on chondrules reveal that they must have been heated almost instantenously before they cooled within a few hours. These time-scales are very short compared to the millions of years of solar nebula evolution. One suggestion is that nebular shockwaves allowed a fast formation of chondrules. The shock induces efficient heating, which caused melting of dust. Subsequently, the melted dust forms droplets, which cool and finally solidify to chondrules.

A simple model of shocks

Imagine a shock as a discontinuouity travelling through a medium. Roughly speaking, the authors investigate the following sequence of events. The shock induces a quick increase of the dust temperature to a peakvalue T_peak. After the shock event the temperature falls off again and settles to a lower constant temperature, so called post-shock temperature T_post.
It is the aim of the paper to test chondrule formation for different conditions. The authors carry out simulations, which solve a radiative transfer model in one dimension, to estimate the evolution of the temperature.
The authors distinguish between local shocks, such as planetasimal bow shocks, and global shocks, induced by gravitational instabilities for instance. You can imagine a local shock as a small hot bullet, which is put into a bucket of cold water. The hot bullet can radiate its heat into all directions thus the temperature drops very quickly. In contrast, a global shock can be described by a hot plate being put into the bucket of cold water. When one part of the plate radiates into the cold water, it radiates into regions, which are already heated by another part before. Hence, the cooling process for the plate, i.e. global shocks in general, is less efficient.

Results: Shock-induced formation of chondrules is at least difficult

First the authors examine the temperatures for global shocks and high opacity. They did that by plotting the peak temperature of the shock and the temperature after the shock with respect to the shock velocity for three different densities (Fig. 2). You can see there is no velocity where the peak temperature exceeds the temperature required for melting (upper solid line) and the post-shock temperature is low enough to avoid evaporation of volatiles (lower solid line). The authors conclude that chondrules cannot be formed by global shocks in a medium with high density, because emitted photons are likely to be absorbed by other particles again. Thus, it is diffcult to get rid of the thermal energy in this region. Formally speaking, cooling is less efficient in an optically thick medium. The situation is different for local shocks in an optically thick medium instead. These shocks might have the right conditions because of the possibility of more rapid cooling.

Fig. 2: The peak and post temperature with respect to the velocity of the shock for three different densities (left: 10⁻⁹ g/cm³, middle: 10⁻⁸ g/cm³, right: 10⁻⁷ g/cm³). As one can see there is no velocity for which the peak temperatures can exceed the minimum temperature required for melting (upper solid line), and the post-shock temperature is beneath the maximum temperature required for solidification (lower solid line).

Fig. 2: The peak and post temperature with respect to the velocity of the shock for three different densities (left: 10⁻⁹ g/cm³, middle: 10⁻⁸ g/cm³, right: 10⁻⁷ g/cm³). As one can see there is no velocity for which the peak temperatures can exceed the minimum temperature required for melting (upper solid line), and the post-shock temperature is beneath the maximum temperature required for solidification (lower solid line).

In the case of low opacity for global shocks, it is easier to radiate energy away because the radiation is blocked less by the surrounding. However, the escape of radiation energy turns out to be so efficient that the temperature already drops below the evaporation temperature after only a few minutes. This evolution of temperature disagrees with imprints on chondrules, too. Now you might think that if cooling is insufficient in one case and overly efficient in another, let’s look for the sweet spot in between! Unfortunately, such a spot does not exist for global shocks according to the authors.

Conclusion and Discussion: What comes next?

The conclusion of the paper is that formation of chondrules via global shocks is impossible because the induced cooling is either too weak (optically thick case) or too strong (optically thin case). However, local shocks in an optically thick medium could have the characteristic properties because the temperature can drop faster than for global shocks.
But are these simulations anything like a real protoplanetary disk? Well, the model is idealized in several senses. Most important, it only takes into account a one-dimensional model of radiative transfer, while protoplanetary disks are three dimensional. Furthermore possible processes such as nucleation and condensation are missing and only hydrogen dissociation and recombination is taken into account. Nevertheless, it is rather unlikely that adding more physics changes the general conclusion of the paper drastically. However, mentioning the problems and difficulties producing the appropriate conditions for chondrule formation via shocks raises doubt to the fundamental concept of shock-induced formation. Maybe chondrules are generally formed through a different mechanism instead?

A Rich Potpourri of Future Mission Concepts by The Planetary Society

The past few months have brought announcements for new missions from India and China as well as a wealth of creative ideas for future missions.

Because Reading is Fundamental by Jeff Atwood

Most discussions show a bit of information next to each user:

What message does this send?

  • The only number you can control printed next to your name is post count.
  • Everyone who reads this will see your current post count.
  • The more you post, the bigger that number next to your name gets.

If I have learned anything from the Internet, it is this: be very, very careful when you put a number next to someone's name. Because people will do whatever it takes to make that number go up.

If you don't think deeply about exactly what you're encouraging, why you're encouraging it, and all the things that may happen as a result of that encouragement, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.

Printing a post count number next to every user's name implies that the more you post, the better things are. The more you talk, the better the conversations become. Is this the right message to send to everyone in a discussion? More fundamentally, is this even true?

I find that the value of conversations has little to do with how much people are talking. I find that too much talking has a negative effect on conversations. Nobody has time to listen to the resulting massive stream of conversation, they end up just waiting for their turn to pile on and talk, too. The best conversations are with people who spend most of their time listening. The number of times you've posted in a given topic is not a leaderboard; it's a record of failing to communicate.

Consider the difference between a chat room and a discussion. Chat is a never-ending flow of disconnected, stream of consciousness sentences that you can occasionally dip your toes in to get the temperature of the water, and that's about it. Discussion is the process of lobbing paragraphs back and forth that results in an evolution of positions as your mutual understanding becomes more nuanced. We hope.

The Ars Banana Experiment

Ars Technica ran a little experiment in 2011. When they posted Guns at home more likely to be used stupidly than in self defense, embedded in the last sentence of the seventh paragraph of the article was this text:

If you have read this far, please mention Bananas in your comment below. We're pretty sure 90% of the respondants to this story won't even read it first.

The first person to do this is on page 3 of the resulting discussion, comment number 93. Or as helpfully visualized by Brandon Gorrell:

Plenty of talking, but how many people actually read up to paragraph 7 (of 11) of the source article before they rushed to comment on it?

The Slate Experiment

In You Won't Finish This Article, Farhad Manjoo dares us to read to the end.

Only a small number of you are reading all the way through articles on the Web. I’ve long suspected this, because so many smart-alecks jump in to the comments to make points that get mentioned later in the piece.

But most of us won't.

He collected a bunch of analytics data based on real usage to prove his point:

These experiments demonstrate that we don't need to incentivize talking. There's far too much talking already. We badly need to incentivize listening.

And online, listening = reading. That old school program from my childhood was right, so deeply fundamentally right. Reading. Reading Is Fundamental.

Let's say you're interested in World War II. Who would you rather have a discussion with about that? The guy who just skimmed the Wikipedia article, or the gal who read the entirety of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

This emphasis on talking and post count also unnecessarily penalizes lurkers. If you've posted five times in the last 10 years, but you've read every single thing your community has ever written, I can guarantee that you, Mr. or Mrs. Lurker, are a far more important part of that community's culture and social norms than someone who posted 100 times in the last two weeks. Value to a community should be measured every bit by how much you've read as much as how much you talked.

So how do we encourage reading, exactly?

You could do crazy stuff like require commenters to enter some fact from the article, or pass a basic quiz about what the article contained, before allowing them to comment on that article. On some sites, I think this would result in a huge improvement in the quality of the comments. It'd add friction to talking, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's a negative, indirect way of forcing reading by denying talking. Not ideal.

I have some better ideas.

  1. Remove interruptions to reading, primarily pagination.

    Here's a radical idea: when you get to the bottom of the page, load the next damn page automatically. Isn't that the most natural thing to want when you reach the end of the page, to read the next one? Is there any time that you've ever been on the Internet reading an article, reached the bottom of page 1, and didn't want to continue reading? Pagination is nothing more than an arbitrary barrier to reading, and it needs to die a horrible death.

    There are sites that go even further here, such as The Daily Beast, which actually loads the next article when you reach the end of the one you are currently reading. Try it out and see what you think. I don't know that I'd go that far (I like to pick the next thing I read, thanks very much), but it's interesting.

  2. Measure read times and display them.

    What I do not measure, I cannot display as a number next to someone's name, and cannot properly encourage. In Discourse we measure how long each post has been visible in the browser for every (registered) user who encounters that post. Read time is a key metric we use to determine who we trust, and the best posts that people do actually read. If you aren't willing to visit a number of topics and spend time actually listening to us, why should we talk to you – or trust you.

    Forget clicks, forget page loads, measure read time! We've been measuring read times extensively since launch in 2013 and it turns out we're in good company: Medium and Upworthy both recently acknowledged the intrinsic power of this metric.

  3. Give rewards for reading.

    I know, that old saw, gamification, but if you're going to reward someome, do it for the right things and the right reasons. For example, we created a badge for reading to the end of a long 100+ post topic. And our trust levels are based heavily on how often people are returning and how much they are reading, and virtually not at all on how much they post.

    To feel live reading rewards in action, try this classic New York Times Article. There's even a badge for reading half the article!

  4. Update in real time.

    Online we tend to read these conversations as they're being written, as people are engaging in live conversations. So if new content arrives, figure out a way to dynamically rez it in without interrupting people's read position. Preserve the back and forth, real time dynamic of an actual conversation. Show votes and kudos and likes as they arrive. If someone edits their post, bring that in too. All of this goes a long way toward making a stuffy old debate feel like a living, evolving thing versus a long distance email correspondence.

These are strategies I pursued with Discourse, because I believe Reading Is Fundamental. Not just in grade school, but in your life, in my life, in every aspect of online community. To the extent that Discourse can help people learn to be better listeners and better readers – not just more talkative – we are succeeding.

If you want to become a true radical, if you want to have deeper insights and better conversations, spend less time talking and more reading.

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

The Science of “Bennu’s Journey” by The Planetary Society

The OSIRIS-REx project released Bennu’s Journey, a movie describing one possible history of our target asteroid – Bennu. The animation is among the most highly detailed productions created by Goddard’s Conceptual Image Laboratory.

November 25, 2014

My Twitter Archive #4 by Feeling Listless

About Back in 2009, I was epically grateful to take part in Antony Gormley's One and Other project. The whole story is here. As became increasingly the case even in 2009, plenty of us sat around watching the live stream and commenting on events via Twitter and I've had a look to see what people said about me while I was up here. Well ...

Which is, well, is, really. Then someone I actually knew noticed:

In case you're wondering, because the's always mysteriously scary, it was Ianto Jones dying on Torchwood, a campaign against which was brewing online in a version of the kind of thing which has become especially scary now.  Now I won't use the hashtag.  Someone dared me I think and so I did while I was wandering around and trying to think of something to say...

Romola Garai is the Doctor. by Feeling Listless

TV Yes, well, ok, not quite yet, but as I work my way through all her films, I do keep bumping into scenes which demonstrate she'd clearly be very good in the role. Last night I sat through all three hours of Mary Bryant which I'll comment on more fully in the weekly film posts even though it's television, but I thought you'd appreciate a glimpse of just how Doctorish her performance is. Here's a link to a shaky ipad video on Vimeo:

Romola Garai is the Doctor

Well yes, she's brandishing a rifle, has a Cornish accent and I'm not sure that would be quite the costume but the intensity's all there and just notice the sparkle and wonder in her eyes when she says "a wonderful madness..." and goddamn doesn't the slow motion walk away at the end demand a Murray Gold theme of some sort?

Oh dear by Charlie Stross

The Japanese economy is officially in recession, and David Cameron chose to use his last speech at the G20 summit to warn of the risk of a new global economic crisis. I wonder if he knows something that the rest of us don't (yet)?

I'm off to Berlin tomorrow. I'll try to blog, if I have time and if the global economy doesn't collapse while I'm away. (If it does, I'm going into hiding.) Alas, the Stasi Museum is shut for construction; guess I'll just have to be content with the DDR Museum instead. Oh, and one final piece of news: I finally got (and signed) the US contract for "The Annihilation Score", so I guess next summer's Laundry Files novel is officially A Thing. (I never quite believe it until I have a chance to read the small print.)

Field Report from Mars: Sol 3848 — November 20, 2014 by The Planetary Society

Larry Crumpler returns with an update on Opportunity's recent activities, and its road ahead.

Starting with Ourselves by Albert Wenger

I believe in progress. I am optimistic about the longrun. But if we want to get to a better future we have to start by acknowledging how much we still let our emotions control our behavior. It is all around us everyday. From people yelling at each other on Twitter and in comments to physical violence in the streets of our cities and the world at large.

It would be easy to say that our brains simply haven’t kept up with the technological revolution around us. But that’s wrong. They still contain the past in their lower levels but we have the capabilities of not being controlled by our emotions. We just need to train and exercise those.

It takes knowledge, time and practice to learn how to experience one’s emotions, acknowledge them but then move on without being controlled by them. At a time like this when it is easy to want to yell at others the best place to start is oneself.

Bimodal IT - the new old hotness by Simon Wardley

I've recently come across a concept known as Bimodal IT. I couldn't stop howling with laughter. It's basically 2004 dressed up as 2014 and it is guaranteed to get you into a mess. So we better go through it.

I'm going to start with a map. Now, as we know the map of a business contains many components organised into a chain of needs (the value chain) with the components at differing states of evolution. As components evolve, their properties change (from uncharted to industrialised) and different methods of management become appropriate. Hence components in the uncharted space use in-house, agile techniques, quick release cycles, highly iterative etc. Whereas those more industrialised components tend to be six sigma, ITIL, long release cycles, heavily standardised etc.

When it comes to organising then each component not only needs different aptitudes (e.g. engineering + design) but also different attitudes (i.e. engineering in genesis is not the same as engineering in industrialised). To solve this, you end up implementing a trimodal structure known as pioneers, settlers and town planners which is governed by a process of theft. Ok, this is all old hat, circa 2005 and I've summarised it in figure 1. 

Figure 1 - Map of components in a business

So lets speed on and discuss what's wrong with bimodal.

The problem with bimodal (e.g. pioneers and town planners) is it lacks the middle component (the settlers) which performs an essential function in ensuring that work is taken from the pioneers and turned into mature products before the town planners can turn this into industrialised commodities or utility services. Without this middle component then yes you cover the two extremes (e.g. agile vs six sigma) but new things built never progress or evolve. You have nothing managing the 'flow' from one extreme to another.

For example, you start off with a new platform designed for the future on top of which your pioneers build new things. But unfortunately pioneers aren't usually so good at making rock solid and mature products, they're more pioneering. Of course, your town planners won't want to industrialise something which isn't a rock sold and mature product, it's too uncertain for volume operations. You end up with this stalemate that the new thing never gets turned into an industrialised service. Instead what happens, is something even newer gets built on top of your non industrialised component. And this continues with new things built on layers of components that are not fully industrialised. It becomes kludge on top of kludge on top of kludge.

Eventually, after five years or so then this creates spaghetti junction. It is an environment which becomes unmanageable - performance sucks, reliability disappears and costs spiral. You get everyone to together and the new idea is always to build the new "platform for the future". You then spend vast sums of money, create the new platform and repeat this exercise all over again.

This has occurred in almost every company that I've seen in the last decade using bimodal approaches for any period of time. I've seen many billions blown on the same mistake of pursuing solutions which fail to cope with evolution (e.g. one size fits all, outsource everything, bimodal etc) - we will have R&D over here and shared services over here and it will all work! Think again. Its why people use alternatives such as a cell based structures or a trimodal system (e.g. pioneers, settler and town planners) or a combination of both. 

The whole purpose of the settlers is to productise i.e. to take the early stage work of the pioneers, and iteratively mature it until the town planners can finally industrialise it. They are absolutely essential to the functioning of such structures. Remove it at your peril.

Of course, bimodal is still better than the madness of one size fits all (e.g. agile everywhere or six sigma everywhere). But you're still going to end up with SNAFU. So, think trimodal. Be a bit more 2005 than 2004, even though it's 2014. Create a virtuous cycle of theft (see figure 2).

Figure 2 - Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners

On that note, I can't believe people are flogging Bimodal IT as something new in 2014, that's taking the piss. Next week Gartner researchers will be telling us they've just invented the "internet" or the "wheel". Be under no illusion, bimodal plus time can go horribly wrong - seen it, done it, bought the T-Shirt.  Let me just reiterate that point. I'm telling you from the experience of having used both bimodal and trimodal forms over the last decade that bimodal is not what you want to do.

Apparently though Gartner's bimodal model has both pioneers and settlers in 'mode 2' group and Town Planners in 'mode 1' group. Whilst the language Gartner use - industrialisation, uncertain, non linear - is all familiar, the justification of combining these groups to form a bimodal is highly suspect in my view.

When I wrote my Butler Group Review Article in May 2008 on the need for use of multiple methods within an organisation (e.g. Agile and Waterfall), we already knew back then that you couldn't organise by this bimodal fashion because of the problems it had caused. You need that missing middle (the settlers) that dealt with the transition.

Now, I haven't read Gartner's recent research on this subject (I'm not a subscriber) and it seems weird to be reading "research" about stuff you've done in practice a decade ago. Maybe they've found some magic juice? Experience however dictates that it'll be snake oil and you really need to separate out the three groups. I feel like the old car mechanic listening to the kid saying that his magic pill turns water into gas. I'm sure it doesn't ... maybe this time it will ... duh, suckered again.

--- Update 14th Nov 2014
One thing I haven't made clear in this post and need to is where did the idea of a three party, trimodal way of working such as pioneer, settler and town planner come from?

From my perspective then the origin of the idea was James Duncan, now a CTO within UK Gov.  It started all those year ago, back in the days of Fotango when I was CEO. I was frustrated by several things - how the organisation worked, the lack of any competitive map to describe our environment , the compete blah of what was called strategy etc.  I'd shown James my work on mapping and evolution. We worked together on this to refine the whole Fotango plan. It was a time of exploration for me and James was my cohort in this (which is why I use the term Wardley-Duncan Map occasionally.  Well, credit is due).

However, it was James (who was the CIO) that proposed a three party structure within IT. It sounded right, I was happy to go with it and I was delighted by the outcomes that resulted. I then started to fold the rest of the company into this model. Now, I'm not saying others didn't have a similar model just from my perspective it was James Duncan who started this particular aspect of my journey. Sometime around 2004.

It's also true that back then I couldn't fully explain why the trimodal approach worked so well - in fact many of our successful experiments were hard to explain. All we had was the practice and the result. It took a bit longer for all the aspects of mapping and evolution to become clearer before the reasons why it was a good move stood out. I mention this because mapping, the use of multiple methods, the work on ecosystems, open source and organisations - all started with practice & observed outcomes first. Understanding why came a bit later.

--- Update 14th Nov 2014
One final thing to mention, my disapproval of bimodal IT assumes that CIOs are trying to use it to fix a problem by using a flawed approach. I've now come across an example where it is more being used to "bolt on innovation" in much the same way that some companies are not adapting to digital but instead "bolting on a CDO". This is akin to adding lipstick to the pig.

I'd argue that this indicates an additional organisational need which is removal of its technology leadership. In such cases, a CDO is not only needed but should replace the CIO. But how do you now?

Well, next time you have the chance to chat with the CIO, just ask what they think of the Bimodal IT approach. If they're positive, that's fair enough it's not too deadly a sign. But use the vernacular and ask "When our Sprinters have created something new, then overtime it'll become like the stuff the Marathon runners provide. How are we going to manage that?"

If the response is "they'll just hand it over" or you get hand waiving warble or you get any sign of confusion then you know you probably own a well lipsticked pig.

Calling Serious Asteroid Hunters by The Planetary Society

I am happy to announce a new call for proposals for The Planetary Society’s Gene Shoemaker Near Earth Object (NEO) grant program. Proposals are due Feb. 2, 2015.

Last Christmas. by Feeling Listless

TV Aha, the good old midnight surprise announcement. Here's the Doctor Who News version with a larger commitment to the above picture with Peter giving it some Pertwee and Santa brandishing a satsuma.  Note Clara's wearing a nightgown and if this is her final adventure its an interesting contrast to Amy whose first trip in the TARDIS was also in nightwear.

As ever, no title goes without some other pop culture resonance and having a glance at the lyrics to the Wham song, it could just as well be a duet between Clara and the Doctor going over the main points again. Perhaps we'll get a He Said/She Said style spoken word version for the trailer. Here's how I think it'd carve up.

Last Christmas
I gave you my heart
But the very next day 
you gave it away.
This year
To save me from tears
I'll give it to someone special.

Once bitten and twice shy
I keep my distance
But you still catch my eye.
Tell me, baby,
Do you recognize me?

It's been a year,
It doesn't surprise me

I wrapped it up and sent it
With a note saying, "I love you,"
I meant it.

Now I know what a fool I've been.
But if you kissed me now
I know you'd fool me again.

A crowded room,
Friends with tired eyes.

I'm hiding from you
And your soul of ice.
My god I thought you were 
someone to rely on.

Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on.

A face on a lover 
with a fire in his heart.
A man under cover 
but you tore me apart, ooh-hoo.
Now I've found a real love, 
you'll never fool me again.

Well, yes, ok sort of.  "Baby" doesn't seem like Capaldi's thing at all.

November 24, 2014

Gas to Black Holes: Direct formation of a supermassive black hole in galaxy mergers by Astrobites

Authors: L. Mayer, D. Fiacconi, S. Bonoli, T. Quinn, R. Roskar, S. Shen, J. Wadsley

First Author’s Institution: Center for Theoretical Astrophysics and Cosmology, Inst. for Comp. Sci., & Physik Institut, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Paper Status: Submitted to The Astrophysical Journal

Massive galaxies like our Milky Way all contain a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at their center, with masses ranging from 106 to 109 solar masses. The SMBH suspected to sit in the center of our galaxy, known as Sgr A*, is estimated to be around four million solar masses. Although we know they exist, how they form is still an unanswered question in astronomy. The challenging question is how so much mass can collapse into such a small volume (about 100 AU for our SMBH) fast enough that we observe them in the early universe as the power source of quasars, less than a billion years after the Big Bang (z ~ 7).

There are three likely possibilities, all of which involve forming “seed” black holes that grow over time to SMBH size: 1) low mass seeds from the deaths of the first stars, 2) the direct collapse of massive regions of gas into a black hole, forming massive seeds, and 3)  mergers of stars in dense star clusters, forming a very massive star, and, in its death, a very massive black hole. The authors use hydrodynamic simulations to examine the direct collapse to a SMBH of a region of gas formed from the merger of two Milky Way mass galaxies.

Merging Galaxies: A Recipe for a SMBH

The authors use a simulation code called GASOLINE2, which, at its core, models the flow of gas as individual particles in what is called smooth particle hydrodynamics. The biggest challenge in creating direct collapse SMBH seeds is keeping the gas cloud coherent throughout the process. These massive clouds can often break apart, or fragment, during collapse, forming stars or less massive black holes. The authors use a more efficient, lower resolution setup to simulate the merger of two galaxies of masses around 1012 solar masses each, then “zoom-in” with higher resolution in the final merger stages to observe the gas collapse at the core of the newly formed galaxy, exploring whether or not the cloud can direct collapse, or fragments over time. Fig.1 gives a projection of the surface density of gas of their two galaxies, and a zoom into the core of one, roughly three thousand years before the galaxies merge.

Fig. 1:

Fig. 1: The gas surface density of the merging galaxy pair around three thousand years before the final merger occurs. Each panel shows a successive zoom in the simulation, with the final showing the central few parsecs of one of the two galaxies. (Source: FIg. 1 from Mayer et. al. 2014)

The Direct Gas Collapse

The new work the authors put into modeling the direct gas collapse process is to include the effects of radiative cooling and a model that accounts for changes in opacity due to dust, dust heating and cooling, atomic and molecular heating and cooling, and cosmic ray heating. These processes together may stabilize the cloud against fragmentation, more easily forming a SMBH seed, or they may cause dramatic fragmentation of the cloud (bad news for the SMBH). Fig. 2 shows the central galaxy region, where the massive cloud ultimately forms, at five thousand years after the two galaxies merged. The panels show 4 different simulations, each of which testing the effects of including or removing different physical processes. In each case, the central region is a single, massive (roughly 109 solar masses) disk-like structure. The gas clumps around the core are examples of gas fragmentation that could ultimately form stars.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: Five thousand years after the merger of the two galaxies shown in Fig. 1, this image gives the gas surface density for the new galaxy and its core. The four panels each give the results of four different simulations the authors used to test the importance of different physics. (Source: Fig. 3 of Mayer et. al. 2014)

As the core evolves, it remains intact from heating due to shocks, turbulence, and its high opacity to radiation; these all prevent cooling, which can spawn fragmentation. Unfortunately, the authors can only follow the evolution of the central core for around 50 thousand years before they hit computational limits. By this, I mean that continuing to evolve the simulation would require too high a resolution than is computationally possible. In addition, as the core collapses and shrinks in size, the minimum time step drops dramatically and the simulation speed slows to a crawl.

Fig. 3:

Fig. 3: Gas surface density for the core shown in Run 4 of Fig. 2, 30 thousand years after the galaxy mergers. By this point, the core has fragmented into two massive gas clouds that may ultimately form two SMBHs. (Source: Fig. 10 of Mayer et. al. 2014)

Fig. 3 shows the final evolved state of the core 30 thousand years after merger for Run 4 shown in Fig. 2. As shown here, the core actually fragments into two massive gas clumps, one at the center, and one slightly off-center. These clumps are about 109 and 108 solar masses respectively, and may ultimately form two SMBH’s that could eventually merge into a single SMBH as the galaxy evolves.

The Cloud’s Final Fate

Using analytic calculations and results from previous work, the authors make some simple arguments for how the final gas clouds in Fig. 3 can form into black holes via direct collapse. They argue it is possible that these can form into SMBH’s in a ten thousand year process through a collapse generated by general relativistic instabilities. This work provides new insight into how SMBHs may form in the early universe from the direct collapse of gas clouds. The authors conclude by suggesting that future simulations including general relativity and observations by the James Webb Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array will be invaluable to better understanding how SMBH’s can form from direct collapse of gas clouds.


Soup Safari #9: Cream of Tomato at Westminster Tea Rooms. by Feeling Listless

Lunch. £4.95. Westminster Tea Rooms, 165 Lord St, Southport PR8 1PF. Phone:01704 540066.

Close to the end for Venus Express by The Planetary Society

Venus Express is nearly out of fuel. Any day could be the last of its long mission to Venus.

In Pictures: Expedition 42 Crew Launches to Station by The Planetary Society

Three more humans are in space today following the launch of Soyuz TMA-15M from the chilly steppes of Kazakhstan.

Beer, Berlin, Sunday 23rd by Charlie Stross

I'm in Berlin! (Combination of vacation and research trip.) And I'll be in Brauhaus Südstern (Hasenheide 69, 10967 Berlin) on Sunday evening from about 7pm. I gather they have good beer, and food. Conversation too, if you're in town and want to drop by.

(Facebook event here.)

Why Values Matter in On-Demand Transportation by Albert Wenger

I took last week off from blogging for family reasons which means I sat out a big wave of posts about Uber. Don’t worry, I am not going to rehash that particular discussion. Instead, I want to point out what I believe the big questions are that should be asked of all companies in this sector which includes two USV investments (Hailo and Sidecar). Here are two questions:

1. Are drivers genuinely independent contractors? A legitimate concern here should be that the level of control that comes from location monitoring and automated dispatch is turning drivers effectively into employees (but without any of the benefits). One way to counteract that would be to require that dispatch companies have a driver API. Sadly New York City is contemplating the opposite with a law that would require drivers to only associate with one service (“base” in New York lingo) at a time. Our two portfolio companies have taken different approaches here. Hailo works primarily with regulated drivers who have special rights and obligations governed by local governments (this has proven to be difficult) and Sidecar is taking a marketplace approach that gives drivers a larger degree of control and the potential for differentiation.

2. What is the trade-off between fairness and efficiency? As I pointed out in a post on Uber’s surge pricing, transportation is not a commodity market but rather a series of micro-markets. Demand and supply imbalances cannot be avoided simply through dynamic price adjustments without big implications. You cannot easily have enough supply capacity to satisfy peak demand (eg a rainy day like today in New York city) and yet pay that supply adequately at periods of lower demand. The traditional taxi systems have erred on the side of too little supply which created excess rents that were taken up by medallion owners. But it is equally possible to err on the other side where some group of drivers winds up systematically losing money. That is one reason why values matter a lot in this market.

That is true not just for the values of the individual companies but also what we value as society. We need to answer these questions in the context of what is happening in the labor market and how that is impacting inequality. I believe that as we use technology to expand the market for transportation — very much a good thing — we want to be careful to avoid the possible outcome of drivers as “meatware” — simply a human cog in a machine, threatened to be replaced by a computer.

Over My Dead Body: Keeping Dead Galaxies from Forming New Stars by Astrobites

How Do Galaxies Die?

It might seem easy for galaxies to form stars: they have the materials and literally all the time in the universe. Yet it is common to find galaxies that are basically done forming stars — these galaxies are called “quiescent”. When trying to account for how galaxies reach this stage of their lives, astronomers must consider two questions:

  1. What first shuts off (“quenches”) a galaxy’s star formation?
  2. What keeps star formation from restarting?

Several mechanisms have been proposed to answer the first question. Initial quenching of star formation could be due to one (or a combination) of three mechanisms. A series of supernova explosions could heat the gas, and hot gas cannot collapse easily to form stars. Mergers with other galaxies could knock the gas out of the galaxy, or an Active Galactic Nucleus could heat or blow away the gas (known as AGN feedback).

The second question has proved more difficult to answer. Recent observations show that all galaxies (even quiescent galaxies!) are surrounded by a massive reservoir of cool, low-density gas. This gas will be slowly pulled onto the galaxy, where it ought to serve as fuel for new star formation. Even if star formation has been quenched at one point (say by an onset of AGN feedback, or a large merger event), something must stop this fresh gas from forming new stars if galaxies are to remain quiescent.

The Proposal: Heating by Evolved Stars

The authors suggest that a process they call AGB heating could fit the bill, keeping this gas from forming stars over long periods of time. Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars are intermediate mass stars (about a half to a few times the mass of the Sun) that have finished most of their hydrogen-burning lives: they are running out of fuel in their cores. They are not massive enough to go supernova when they die, but they do lose large amounts of mass when they eject their outer layers.

In most cases, this mass loss forms a beautiful planetary nebula but does not release very much energy. However, if the AGB star is moving rapidly through the surrounding gas, the ejected mass could deposit much more heat into it (see Figure 1). Galaxies with high velocity dispersion ought to have many stars with high enough speeds to accomplish this. Such galaxies are also more frequently quiescent. The authors investigate whether this heating mechanism could keep the gas surrounding a galaxy from cooling to form stars.

Figure 1: An illustration of AGB heating. The left image shows the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stellar evolution: stars evolve from the “main sequence” up the “giant branch” . As a star evolves through the Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stage (upper end of the giant branch), it will usually shed its outer layers slowly as a Planetary Nebula (PNe, upper right). If it is moving fast enough through the nearby gas, the layers instead could be stripped rapidly from the star (lower right). The authors suggest this “AGB stripping” could heat the gas and prevent new star formation. Figure 1 from Conroy et al. 2014.

Methods: Balancing Heating and Cooling

The paper’s main goal is to compare the strengths of two processes in the gas: heating and cooling. Heating involves adding energy to the gas, raising its temperature and causing it to expand (think of the ideal gas law). Supernova and AGN feedback are the usual suspects for heating galaxies, but here the authors focus on the proposed AGB heating mechanism. Cooling in galactic gas is dominated by radiative cooling: the gas emits photons (via atomic transitions) which remove energy from the gas. This lowers its temperature and causes it to condense.

For a gas cloud to collapse and form stars, radiative cooling must be more powerful than any processes heating the gas. The authors compare AGB heating to radiative cooling to estimate whether it could prevent star formation. They make an analytic calculation of both heating and cooling rates, meaning they use simple physical arguments to determine how much energy ought to be added or removed from the gas, as a function of various properties of the galaxy. They adopt reasonable estimates for several of these values (for example: the average age of galactic stars), and focus on how heating and cooling depends on three important quantities: 1) the stellar mass of the galaxy, 2) the total mass of its dark matter halo, and 3) redshift.

Results: Don’t Discount Heating from Evolved Stars!

The authors find that AGB heating could overpower radiative cooling in many galaxies (see Figure 2). The most important factor in determining the balance is the total halo mass. Lower-mass halos will have cold, dense gas that will cool much faster than the hot, diffuse gas in massive halos. Redshift was also found to be important: at higher redshift, galaxies have younger stellar populations (more AGB stars) and are more likely to have high velocity dispersion (more rapidly moving stars). Therefore AGB heating should be stronger at higher redshift. They emphasize the importance of including this effect in simulations of galaxy evolution.

The authors of this paper pursued a mechanism which could possibly keep dead galaxies from forming new stars: mass ejected from AGB stars moving through the galaxy could heat the ambient gas. They calculated the heat which would be injected into the gas from this process, and found (in many cases) that AGB heating could outpace how fast the gas cools. It is important to note that this mechanism can only keep galaxies dead; other processes are responsible for shutting off star formation in the first place. But these results help explain how galaxies can remain quenched over long timescales despite being surrounded by very large reservoirs of gas.

Figure 2a: Results showing the efficiency of AGB heating compared to radiative cooling at redshift z=2. AGB heating is strongest in the red regions, while blue regions show where cooling would overpower this heating. The black curves show where most galaxies lie in stellar-mass/halo- mass space. At redshift 2, AGB heating should be significant for most galaxies. Figure 2 from Conroy et al. 2014.

Figure 2b: Same as Figure 2a but for redshift z=0. AGB heating is less efficient for many galaxies at these later times. The authors suggest this could mean that previously “quenched” galaxies could see a later revival in star formation. Figure 2 from Conroy et al. 2014.
















Hints for the Future: Do Quenched Galaxies Reignite?

As a final note, the authors point out that as galaxies continue to age, the total mass loss rate will decrease. With no new star formation, eventually the galaxy will run out of stars to go through the AGB phase. AGB heating may not be sufficient to keep these oldest galaxies quenched: this suggests that some galaxies could show signs of rejuvenating star formation. A few observations hint this may be possible, and if true, it would be a major change in our understanding of galaxies and their lives. Could there be zombie galaxies? Keep your eyes out for new observations on this frontier!

November 23, 2014

Leading question by Charlie Stross

This is an open question primarily for British readers. (If you're American and a non-expert on British political/constitutional affairs, I reserve the right to delete your comments in the interest of keeping the signal to noise ratio high on this discussion.)

Where do you think the sources of power in the British political system will lie in 2034?

Bonus points for references to Bagehot, Piketty, Marx and Wiener.

(Note: I'm making the key assumptions that the Beige Dictatorship is unstable and that something else will come to replace it in time: also that the Labour/Conservative political duopoly is drawing to a close after nearly a century as both parties lose their mass base, that they won't be replaced by other mass-movement parties as such (unless Anonymous qualifies as a political party), that the average age of TV audiences is going up by more than 12 months per year, that newspapers are in a death spiral, and mass media in general are being replaced by a foamy carbonated sea of micro-targeted filter bubbles. I'm also making the assumption that we're not all going to go a-flying up to AI Singularity Heaven within the next 20 years. So: after the next couple of stuck coalitions/minority governments, and maybe a fiscal/banking crisis or three, what replaces the current system?)

Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

51. by Feeling Listless

TV With fifty-one years of stuff, it's impossible to actually list ten favourite Doctor Who stories, but here's some that I would watch or listen to right now or in one or two cases because they're just very meaningful to me.

  1. City of Death
  2. Storm Warning
  3. Day of the Doctor
  4. Marco Polo
  5. Touched by an Angel (audiobook version)
  6. The Caves of Androzani
  7. Blink
  8. Torchwood: Children of Earth
  9. An Unearthly Child (pilot version)
  10. Planet of the Dead

I think.

[Inferno is now at eleven having been nudged out by Day of the Doctor which I rewatched in 3D last night and is near perfect. Poor Zygon Osgood.]

November 22, 2014

The Films I've Watched This Year #44 by Feeling Listless

Film Now that Peter Capaldi's been confirmed for the ninth series of Doctor Who, I decided I couldn't wait another year or so to see his replacement Romola Garai in action so I'm now in full "career watch" mode and although I've already had a few glimpses of her future with The Last Days on Mars and The Other Man, I've rewound right back near the start (timey-wimey) and begun working my way through her works in order where possible, Lovefilm permitting.  They have The Last of the Blonde Bombshells in which she plays the young version of one of the characters, but Attachments isn't available on anything other than overpriced second-hand VHS (probably for the best) and neither is the next thing, an ITV drama called Perfect starring Michelle Collins.

Andrew Davies's adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda is arguably her first big television moment, in which she gives us a very coquettish Gwendolen Harleth and luminously memorable introduction as she throws a fortune away on the turn of a roulette wheel under the enchanted eye of Hugh Dancy's Deronda.  From then on she pretty much commands the screen with all the confidence of an actor with years more experience entirely aware of how the camera regards her especially in the archery scene where she simply glows.  The BBC Genome tells me I originally saw this on BBC Four at roughly this time of year in 2003 and although it wasn't until 2009 and the double whammy of Glorious 39 and Emma that I really decided she'd have the perfect future as a Time Lord, her screen presence is almost fully formed here.

If you do have Netflix or the dvds and three and half hours this is well worth the effort.  Some of the writing and performances is in broad strokes.  Hugh Bonneville's Grandcourt is a bit of a two-dimensional panto villain but in some respects needs to be to underscore the misdirection of Gwendolen's choices.  But balancing that is Edward Fox's multilayered turn as Deronda's father, whose aristocratic surface has as many cracks as his face.  Other than Bonneville the main Doctor Who connection here is its producer Louis Marks who wrote four classic stories, Planet of Giants, Day of the Daleks, Planet of Evil and The Masque of Mandragora.  It's also directed by Tom Hooper who after a bunch more television ended up on The King's Speech and Les Mis.

The Emperor's New Groove
Nicholas Nickleby
I Capture The Castle
Dirty Dancing 2
Vanity Fair
Inside I'm Dancing

The IMDb has Nicholas Nickleby as Garai's first film role which I originally saw in a free preview before Deronda back in 2003 and reviewed over a couple of paragraphs here then again in 2012 (#hathawaywatch).  Here she's Nickleby's sister Kate who is treated badly by Edward Fox's Sir Mulberry Hawk who seems to be channelling Bonneville's performance from Deronda.  It's a film which has improved with age, not least because of the now unaffordable and eclectic cast which I notice includes Daisy Haggard as "Juliet in play".  It's all the more surprising because two years before the director Douglas McGrath, a big friend of Woody Allen, directed the utterly unwatchable Company Men which I wrote about here after having watched it, and later I Don't Know How She Does It.  But also Emma and Infamous.  Creativity's an inconsistent and strange business.

I Capture The Castle, the Dodie Smith adaptation. was Romola's first starring role and demonstrates she can carry a film.  She's playing younger here, the seventeen turning eighteen daughter of Bill Nighy's washed up novelist and is delightful as this naive but intelligent ingenue.  It's about the fear, I especially experience, that once we have some great achievement (which in my case would be my MA), we essentially then spend the rest of our lives in a futile process of trying to replicate as we await the inevitable.  The script is by Heidi Thomas, who after a slight blip on Lilies, bounced onwards through Ballet Shoes (with which this feels stylistically connected), Cranford, the Upstairs Downstairs sequel and now currently Call The Midwife.  Tim Fywell's next directing job was Ice Princess of all things.

At which point she runs, or rather latin ballrooms, into the notorious Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (to give it the US title) or at least notorious to those of us who've heard the This American Life interview with its screenwriter whose original script was a relatively serious biopic about a young girl growing up in Cuba during the revolution.  They suggest its "one of the worst movie sequels ever made" and although it might be with my Garai goggles watching, it's really not that bad.  The dance sequences are spectacular, the Cuban music soundtrack which has the original Shakira-less version of Wyclef's Dance Like This is stonking (Spotify playlist) and there's an unexpected ending given what the film's about (unless you've heard the TAL piece).  Swayze himself turns up for a cameo in one of the obligatory dance montages.  The additional content on dvd shows Garai and her partner Diego Luna really learned the routines.

I wish I knew the actual order in which these were filmed.  Seeing I Capture The Castle which is a highly literate script right next to Havana Nights which really isn't, is a startling experience.  Garai treats both jobs with the same professionalism, just as she would, but in the latter she's not best served by a directing and editing style in which the shot length is  fast even when there isn't the dancing.  Plus she's hampered by an American accent which is fine but sometimes the cliches she asked to voice simply sound wrong out of that mouth.  Glancing forward, it's interesting to note that she only plays one or more accented parts and no more Americans.  Director Guy Ferland would later lense three episodes of Torchwood's Miracle Day, though we won't hold that against him.  Much.

On Thursday I triple billed those two and Vanity Fair, Mira Nair's free version of Thackeray's novel and after seeing Garai in those starring roles, it was entirely curious to see her back in the supporting position as Amelia Sedley, friend to Reese Witherspoon's robotic turn as Becky Sharp.  Actually that's not fair, she's fine, but there's not a lot going on beyond her accent and although the editing favours her, she's acted right off screen by Garai whose own story, at the centre of a love triangle, comes across as far more compelling but undernourished because Julian Fellowes's screenplay can't quite decide just how to turn the original doorstop into a two and a quarter hour film.  The structure is all over the place and it's clear that as a piece of art it would have benefited from having Garai's part excised altogether.

Or having Garai play Becky Sharp which the other films show she'd be quite capable of but from here on in, right through to 2009, she's in supporting daughters and girlfriend roles.  Inside I'm Dancing makes her the object of affection for the two wheelchair bound protagonists,  played by James McAvoy and Steven Robertson who hire her to be their inexperienced home help as they fight for independence.  Adding mouthy Irishwoman to her repertory, she manages, with the aid of the script to retain the audience's sympathy despite reflecting our uneasiness with disability.  The film is problematic.  In purposefully foregrounding that disability it does fall into the trap of presenting pity/heroism attitudes but that always sadly tends to be the case with groups who are underrepresented by mainstream cinema.  Still cried though.

Quick update about our website by The Planetary Society

The last two weeks have been extraordinary for The Planetary Society. As amazing as this increased traffic is, it has brought to light some issues with our website including latency and missing content that we are still working on fixing.

November 21, 2014

Don't Miss This Great New Video About Europa by The Planetary Society

JPL released a slick new video highlighting the significance of Europa, the moon of Jupiter with more liquid water than the Earth.

Lunar Polar Volatile Puzzle by The Planetary Society

Deepak Dhingra gives an exciting update from the recent Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group (LEAG) meeting at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU-APL) in Baltimore.

Gen of Deek. by Feeling Listless

TV Den of Geek has a reaction filter article for the eighth season of Doctor Who trying to capture (a) what went wrong and (b) why people thought that wrongness occurred, as well as the good things. It's a good survey clarifying how I also eventually rationalised the thing which is that its the usual post-regenerative torpor playing out across a whole season, giving us all the usual beats as seen in Robot or The TV Movie or The Eleventh Hour stretched across ten of them. You could argue that if they'd signposted this earlier on somehow we (well, ok, I) might have been a bit more forgiving but nevertheless ...

Anyway so the Gen of ... Den of Geek piece covers the astonishingly objectionable gender politics in The Caretaker as a reflection of the show shifting towards the right wing and somewhere in this paragraph ...

"Then there’s the subject of gender. Granted, Moffat has long been accused of misogyny because of the way he is said to write female characters. However, this is more specific than that. Although this could be said to be typical of the season as a whole, consider "The Caretaker." Clara might be shouldered with the dramatic weight in this story, but she is still subject to the two men in her life (i.e. the Doctor and Danny). She is forced to explain her life choices to them as well as her decisions. Eventually, these two men assert their custodianship over Clara – something she accepts as positively endearing. Indeed, some have observed that, in this light, those of a more liberal disposition might see the very title of this episode as objectionable."
... they link back to my review which is nice of them. The phrase I've emboldened here.  Two things: (a)  I agree and (b) that its interesting that what I said would be considered as an expression of my liberal values because as we've all discovered recently it's one thing to say you're a liberal, another thing to be it and this seems like confirmation, albeit from someone reading a Doctor Who review written in desperation close to midnight that I'm not just a self-labeling liberal but display them in my writing too.  Oh well good.

Also on Den of Geek this week is a really rather good listicle of twenty-one stories which are better than their reputation suggests to which I'd add Robots of Sherwood from this series, which was in the end my favourite episode.  So there.

A New Way with Old Stars: Fluctuation Spectroscopy by Astrobites

Astronomers use models to derive properties of individual stars that we cannot directly observe, such as mass, age, and radius. This is also the case for a group of stars (a galaxy or a star cluster). How do we test how accurate these models are? Well, we compare model predictions against observations. One problem with current stellar population models is that they remain untested for old populations of stars (because they are rare). These old stars are important because they produce most of the light from massive elliptical galaxies. So a wrong answer from model means a wrong answer on various properties of massive elliptical galaxies such as their age and metallicity. (Houstan, we have a problem.)

Fear not — this paper introduces fluctuation spectroscopy as a new way to test stellar population models for elliptical galaxies. It focuses on a group of stars known as red giants, stars nearing the end of their lives. The spectra of red giants have features (TiO and water molecular bands) that can be used to obtain the chemical abundances, age, and initial mass function (IMF) of a galaxy. Red giants are very luminous. For instance, once our beloved Sun grows into old age as a red giant, it will be thousands of times more luminous than today. As such, red giants dominate the light of early-type galaxy (another name for elliptical galaxy). By looking at an image of an early-type galaxy, we can infer that bright pixels contain more red giants than faint pixels. Figure 1 illustrates this effect. Intensity variations from pixel-to-pixel are due to fluctuations in the number of red giants. By comparing the spectra of pixels with different brightness, one can isolate the spectral features of red giants. Astronomers can then analyse these spectral features to derive galaxy properties to be checked against model predictions.

The top panel shows brightness \textit{variations} in a model elliptical galaxy based on the observed light distribution of NGC 4472. The bottom panel shows a bright (left) and a faint  (right) pixel, while the inset figures are color versus magnitude diagrams of the stars in these pixels. The bright pixel contains many more bright giants than the faint pixel. SBF stands for surface brightness fluctuation.

FIG. 1 – Top left figure shows a model elliptical galaxy based on observation of NGC 4472. The right figure zooms in on a tiny part of the galaxy, and shows the pixel-to-pixel brightness variations within that tiny region. Figures on the bottom panel further zoom in on a bright (white) and a faint (black) pixel. The bright pixel (bottom left) contains many more bright red giant stars, represented as red dots, compared to the faint pixel (bottom right). The inset figures are color versus magnitude diagrams of the stars in these pixels, where there are more luminous giant stars (open circles) in the bright pixel.

The authors applied fluctuation spectroscopy on NGC 4472, the brightest galaxy in the Virgo cluster. They obtained images of the galaxy at six different wavelengths using the narrow-band filters (filters that allow only a few wavelengths of light, or emission lines, to pass through; see this or this) in the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, they acquired deep broad-band images (images obtained using broad-band filters that allow a large portion of light to go through) of the galaxy. These broad-band images, because of their high signal-to-noise compared to the narrow-band images (broad-band images receive more light than narrow-band images and so have higher signals), are used to measure the flux in each pixel in order to measure how brightness changes. Next, the authors divided narrow-band images in two adjacent narrow-band filters. Recall that since narrow-band filters allow only certain emission lines to get through, the ratio of flux in two narrow-band filters –an “index image”– is a proxy to the distribution of stellar types in each pixel because different stars produce different emission lines. The money plot of this paper, Figure 2, shows the relation between the averaged indices of index image and surface brightness fluctuation; it illuminates the fact that pixels with more red giants (larger SBF) produce a different spectrum (indices of index images) than pixels with less giants (lower SBF).

By fitting observed index variations with models, we can obtain a predicted spectrum. The authors compared observed index variations of NGC 4472 with modeled index variations derived from Conroy & van Dokkum (2012) stellar population synthesis models, shown in Figure 3, which performs well in characterizing the galaxy.

The last thing that the authors analysed are the effects of changing model parameters on the indices of index images, in particular by varying age, metallicity, and the IMF. They found that the indices are sensitive to age and metallicity, thereby enabling them to exclude models that produce incompatible ages and metallicities with observations. One interesting result is that the indices are also sensitive to the presence of late M giant stars, which allows one to constrain their contribution to the total light from a galaxy. This is useful because standard stellar population synthesis models for early-type galaxies do not include the presence of these cool giants.

In conclusion, the authors introduced fluctuation spectroscopy as a probe of stellar type distributions in old populations. They applied this method to NGC 4472 and found that results of observation agree very well with model predictions. Various perturbations are introduced into the model with the most important result being that one can quantify the contribution of late M giants to the integrated light of early-type galaxies. Before ending, the authors propose directions for future work, which include obtaining actual spectra rather than narrow-band images and studying larger ranges of surface brightness fluctuations.

Averaged indices of index images for different narrow-band filter combinations versus surface brightness fluctuation for NGC 4472. In this paper, the authors focus on an SBF range from 0.95 (low fluctuation) to 1.05 (high fluctuation). Most of the filter combinations exhibit a clear relation between index values and the SBF.

FIG. 2 – Vertical axis is the flux ratio in a narrow-band filter and the adjacent band. It is a measure of the different number of different stars present. The horizontal axis is surface brightness fluctuation, SBF. SBF = 1 is the mean, while SBF < 1 represents little fluctuation and SBF > 1 represents high fluctuation. There is a trend between index and SBF because red giants produce a larger-than-average brightness and a different spectrum that changes the index of different index images.

This figure compares observed indices (dots) with model indices (lines). The model predictions agree amazingly well with observations. The bottom panel is the residual, or the difference between observed and predicted indices.

FIG. 3 – The top panel compares observed indices (dots) of NGC 4472 with model indices (lines). The vertical and horizontal axes are the same as Figure 2. The bottom panel shows the differences between observed and predicted indices. These figures suggest that model predictions agree amazingly well with observations.


A Mission to Europa Just Got a Whole Lot More Likely by The Planetary Society

Rep. John Culberson, an outspoken supporter of Europa exploration, will assume leadership of an influential congressional committee that funds NASA.

November 20, 2014

Real-Time Stellar Evolution by Astrobites

Images of four similar planetary nebulae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope using a narrow Hα filter. All of these have H-rich central stars.

Images of four planetary nebulae taken by the Hubble Space Telescope using a narrow Hα filter. All of these feature hydrogen-rich central stars.

To get an idea of how stars live and die, we can’t just pick one and watch its life unfold in real time. Most stars live for billions of years! So instead, we do a population census of sorts. Much like you can study how humans age by taking a “snapshot” of individuals ranging from newborn to elderly, so too can we study the lives of stars.

But like all good things in life (and stars), there are exceptions. Sometimes, stellar evolution happens on more human timescales—tens to hundreds of years rather than millions or billions. One such exception is the topic of today’s paper: planetary nebulae, and the rapidly dying stellar corpses responsible for all that glowing gas.

All stars similar to our Sun, or up to about eight times as massive, will end their lives embedded in planetary nebulae like these. The name is a holdover from their discovery and general appearance—we have long known that planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. Instead, they are the former outer layers of a star: an envelope of material hastily ejected when gravity can no longer hold a star together. In its final death throes, what’s left of the star rapidly heats up and begins to ionize gas in the nebula surrounding it.

A Deathly Glow

Ionized gas is the telltale sign that the central star in a planetary nebula isn’t quite done yet. When high-energy light from a dying star rams into gas in its planetary nebula, some atoms of gas are so energized that electrons are torn from their nuclei. Hotter central stars emit more light, making the ionized gas glow brighter. This final stage of stellar evolution is what the authors of today’s paper observe in real time for a handful of planetary nebulae.

Most planetary nebulae show increasing oxygen emission with time as the central star heats up and ionizes gas in the nebula. The stars are classified into one of three categories based on their spectra. Points indicate the average change in oxygen emission per year, and dashed lines show simple stellar evolution models for stars with final masses between 0.6 and 0.7 times that of the Sun.

The figure above shows how oxygen emission in many planetary nebulae has changed brightness over time. Each point represents data spanning at least ten years and brings together new observations with previously published values in the literature. Distinct symbols assign each star to one of three categories: stars with lots of hydrogen in their spectra (H rich), Wolf-Rayet ([WR]) stars with many emission lines in their spectra (indicating lots of hot gas very close to the star), and weak emission line stars (wels). The fact that most stars show an increase in planetary nebula emission—the stars are heating up—agrees with our expectations.

Oxygen emission flux as a function of time for three planetary nebulae over 30+ years. The top two systems, M 1-11 and M 1-12, have Hydrogen-rich stars that cause increasing emission as expected. The bottom pane, SwSt 1, contains a Wolf-Rayet star and shows a surprising decreasing trend.

Oxygen emission flux as a function of time for three planetary nebulae over 30+ years. The top two systems, M 1-11 and M 1-12, have hydrogen-rich stars that cause increasing emission as expected. The bottom pane, SwSt 1, shows a Wolf-Rayet star with a surprising decreasing trend.

The earliest observation in this study is from 1978. Spectrographs and imaging techniques have improved markedly since then! While some changes in flux are from different observing techniques, the authors conclude that at least part of each flux increase is real. What’s more, hydrogen-rich stars seem to agree with relatively simple evolution models, shown as dashed lines on the figure above. (Stars move toward the right along the lines as they evolve.) More evolved stars cause oxygen in the nebula to glow ever brighter, but the rate of increase in oxygen emission slows as the star ages and loses fuel.

There’s Always an Oddball

However, the authors find that some planetary nebulae don’t behave quite as consistently. None of the more evolved Wolf-Rayet systems show increasing emission with time. In fact, one of them, in the bottom pane of the figure to the right, shows a steady decline in oxygen emission! This suggests the hot gas closest to the star may be weakening even as the star is getting hotter, but it is not fully understood.

This unique glimpse into real-time stellar evolution is possible because so many changes happen to a star as it nears the end of its life. Eventually, these hot stellar remnants will become white dwarfs and slowly cool for eternity. Until then, not-dead-yet stars and their planetary nebulae have lots to teach us.

Soup Safari #8: Mushroom and Leek at The Italian Club. by Feeling Listless

Brunch. £3.95. The Italian Club, 85 Bold St, Liverpool, Merseyside L1 4HF. Phone:0151 708 5508.

How NASA Plans to Land Humans on Mars by The Planetary Society

On the surface, NASA's humans to Mars plans seem vague and disjointed. But that's because the agency is playing the long game. Right now, it may be the only game they can play.

24ed. by Feeling Listless

TV Another Off The Telly review, of the second season finale for 24, best remembered in the UK to some extent for the stirling work of Tamzin Sylvester in the Pure 24 live discussion programme which ran on BBC Three afterwards.


Sunday, August 10, 2003 by Stuart Ian Burns

As far as the extras who stood by knew, the President would collapse, then recover, get back in the car and drive off. So they would have been somewhat surprised when they watched the actual episode on television as Palmer lay on the ground gasping for breath, his heartbeat ticking out the final moments of this season of 24.

The subterfuge is revealed on the excellent documentary that appears on the DVD release of the series. The producers had lied to the crowd to protect the fidelity of this, arguably the most shocking of endings, from anyone who might want to post it on the internet – how could they trust them again?

Trust. It’s about an expectation from the viewer that the programme will take them on a particular journey from start to finish. In a cop show, the standard will be that a crime with be solved during the time we spend with the characters; in a sitcom something happens and hilarity ensues. 24 doesn’t care about any of that; it doesn’t have a genre exactly; it’s impossible even to tell what is going to happen from one episode to the next.

Events will occur in real time, but that’s all they’re promising. In the past there have been a number of artistic attempts to capture the real time events of a person or character or group of characters over an extended unbroken period, usually a day. German performance artists The Gob Squad recorded their vocal meanderings over a extended drive around Germany and presented it unedited in 18 half hour slices; on television the E4 feed of Big Brother captured much the same effect over a longer period. In TimeCode, Mike Figgis actually recorded an ensemble drama with overlapping plotlines in real time and presented the results in shots at four corners of the viewing screen. The John Badham film, Nick of Time offered a plot in which Johnny Depp’s daughter is kidnapped and he’s told he must kill a US Governer within 75 minutes or his child will die instead. The last two are the clearest influence on 24, at least in the first year; but it encompasses all of them to some extent, twisting them to offer a much richer experience. Real time is only part of the issue.

In the first five minutes of far too many shows to count it’s possible to clock the ending. In this series of 24 that has never been the case. By the end of the first hour the viewer knew that a bomb would be going off somewhere and that Jack Bauer needed to find out where. At this stage our assumption could only be that come hour 24 we’d be watching Jack’s last minute attempt to America the nuclear threat. At no point could we guess that instead he would be at a stadium trying to prove that a recording had been falsified in order to implicate three innocent countries in the bombing. And convince a new president that the retaliatory war, which could begin within moments, was illegal. Heck, the “baaamb” (as Jack insisted on calling it) was exploded mid-season.

The potential death of Palmer was another example of the sheer unpredictability of the series; that he may have been assassinated by Mandy, who had lit the fuse of the first series, simply could not have been foreseen. It was an utterly audacious move and offered the possibility that the hoods who had been buzzing about both series were at the behest of an even larger organization to be revealed in the following season. And we thought they were making it up as they went along.

This final episode was breathtaking entertainment, which wore its filmic influences in its sleeve. The aforementioned stadium scene looked like it had been cut in from a 1970s political thriller directed by Alan Pakula. You almost expected Warren Beatty or Robert Redford to turn up in a corduroy suit with some other piece of evidence. After all the scrabbling about in the dark at the end of the first series, they were making the most of the sunlight with this massive location. For some reason, though, it felt slightly wrong that after all the corridors, rooms and basements the final scenes should take place here. It created angles and vantage points, and places for Bauer to pick people off, but overall it was a vastness which didn’t seem true to the rest of the series. It could be mostly excused though because of the entertainment value of seeing Sherry Palmer legging it across the stalls, running away from having to have a confrontation which didn’t involve her silver tongue.

The most important aspect of the episode was that, before the cliffhanger, all the loose ends which might have been forgotten in lesser series were tied up. Having been proven right Tony and Michelle (whose brother was still knocking about the holding cells) got their old jobs back, the former glaring down his boss Chappelle: “Either fire me or get out of my chair.” They had their moment in which potential romance continued to blossom.

The Warner family so disliked in the early episodes because of their interminable wedding day were reunited. Silence of the Lambs was referenced as the now utterly psychotic Marie Warner simply sat chillingly as her father wanted answers and while sister Kate advised him that they wouldn’t get any. “You think you’ll be safe out there.” Marie whispered. “You won’t.”

Meanwhile Calamity Kim Bauer was finally re-united with her father after 24 hours and didn’t manage to trip over anything. Kim has been a real weakness this year taking part in storylines without any real connection to the main thrust. Her role just seemed to be something to cut to when everyone one else was driving their car or searching for something on a computer. The most shocking example of this kind of shoehorning appeared in hour 22 two when her father’s plot effectively paused while he talked her into defending herself.

Some have written that to end this series with a cliffhanger was an unsatisfying move. Personally I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t. For me the end of the first series hadn’t worked because the death of Teri Bauer had felt like an after thought and an appalling pay off considering what she’d been through that day (including the amnesia). The wait for the next series was more about what else can be done with the format rather than what is going to happen with the characters. In this series the opposite is true. We want to know what Jack whispered to former lover turned enemy agent Nina Myers all those hours ago; who were the men in the café and on the boat, how do they fit into all of this; will the president survive? If the viewer is wondering from week to week, why not month to month?

Will Palmer die? I hope so. What I mean to say is, the governmental shenanigans have now been played out and its difficult to see what else can be done. The next series needs to be even tighter, even more about the characters and their lives, about the small emergencies rather than those on a global scale. Interestingly we know it’s happening three years hence (therefore in the future) which will be plenty of time for Palmer to recover (or not) and to give Kim Bauer a plotline which isn’t completely irrelevant to the main story, and for the status quo to change utterly (fingers crossed for Tony and Michelle). But whatever happens during those next 24 hours, I think we can be confident it’s going to be something very special indeed.

Ten years later and ...

Curiosity update, sols 782-813: Walking the outcrop at Pahrump Hills by The Planetary Society

At Pahrump Hills, Curiosity is becoming the field geologist she was intended to be.

November 19, 2014

Could we detect signs of life on a massive super-Earth? by Astrobites

Super-Earths are the Starbucks of the modern world–you can find them everywhere, its not exactly what you want but it’s just good enough to satisfy your desire for something better. Super-Earths are not technically Earth-like since they are up to 10 Earth masses and have thick hydrogen (H2) atmospheres. However, they are rocky like Earth, they have an atmosphere like Earth, and if they are in the habitable zone, there is a good chance they could have liquid water like Earth. Case and point: they are just good enough.

Unfortunately, in the next 15 years, the only way we will be able to characterize a super-Earth, is if it’s orbiting an M-type star. Since M-type stars are smaller and dimmer than the Sun, the planets orbiting them need to be closer in so that the planet get enough warmth to sustain liquid water. Therefore, habitable zone planets around M-type stars could be observed in transit once every ~20 days rather than once every year for an Earth twin. This bodes well for future missions that will try and characterize exoplanets such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

So, if super-Earths orbiting M-type stars are our best bet at characterization, it pays to think about what signs of life, or biosignatures, could hypothetically be detected in one of their atmospheres. Seager et al. investigate several biosignatures and aim to identify which are likely to build up to detectable levels in an H2-dominated super-Earth orbiting an M-type star.

Biosignatures and Photochemistry

To test the “build up” of any molecule, let’s say ABX, in an atmosphere, you need to know what molecular species are creating ABX and what molecular species or processes are destroying ABX. In the world of photochemistry, we refer to these as sources and sinks. The photochemical model that Seager et al. use includes 111 species, involved in 824 chemical reactions and 71 photochemical reactions. Dwell on that parameter space… A photochemical reaction occurs when a molecule absorbs a photon of light and is broken down into smaller components. We call this process photolysis and it can be a major sink for biosignatures, depending on how much UV flux the star is giving off. Let’s take Earth as an example.

Since oxygen, O2, is a abundantly produced by life on Earth, it is one of Earth’s dominant biosignature gases. O2 is destroyed by photolysis when it interacts with, you guessed it, UV light. On Earth though, UV radiation from our Sun isn’t that high, so O2 is free to build up in the atmosphere. If we were to increase the UV radiation Earth received, it is likely that O2 would all be destroyed and would cease being one of Earth’s dominant biosignature gases.

Because M stars might have a much higher UV flux than our Sun, it is uncertain how much UV flux a super-Earth orbiting an M star will receive. Therefore, in order to asses which biosignature gases will build up on an exoplanetary atmosphere orbiting an M star, we need to assess each of the bisoignature gas’s removal rate, or the rate at which a molecule is destroyed by photolysis or any other reaction.

The rate at which H, O, and OH destroy CH3Cl as a function of UV flux received from the parent star. The dashed lines represent the case of a 10% N2, 90% H2 atmosphere. The diamond and the circle show cases for an N2 dominated atmosphere and a present day atmosphere, respectively, Main point: Removal rate increases with UV flux. Image credit: Seager et al. (2013) ApJ

In order to illustrate this effect, Seager et al. took a biosignature gas, CH3Cl, and calculated the removal rate by reactions with H, O and OH as a function of UV flux. As we’d expect, the figure above shows that the removal rate increases with UV flux. This means that if we encounter a super-Earth around an M-type star that has a high UV flux, the rate of removal of a biosignature gas will depend largely on the concentration of the gas and how quickly it is being destroyed by H, O and OH.

The Most Likely Biosignature Gas

After considering the removal rate of several biosignature gases, Seager et al. find that ammonia (NH3) is likely to build up in the atmosphere of a super-Earth orbiting an M star. NH3 is created when a microbe harvests energy from a chemical energy gradient. On Earth, ammonia is not produced in large quantities so there isn’t a lot of it in our atmosphere. However, if an alien world produced as much ammonia as humans produced oxygen, it may actually be detectable in their atmosphere.

In a world where NH3 is a viable biosignature, life would be vastly different from what we see on Earth. It would need to be able to break the H2 and N2 bonds in the reaction: 3H2 + N2→ 2NH3. Since this reaction is exothermic (releases heat), it could be used to harvest energy. Is this possible though? Seager et. al. say that although there is no chemical reaction on Earth that can break both bonds of H2 and N2, there is no physical reason that it can’t happen.

Thermal emission spectra for a 90% H2, 10% N2 super-Earth (10 Earth masses, 1.75 Earth radii). Each color spectrum represents a different concentration of ammonia. Higher ammonia concentrations create stronger emission features. Main point: If life was producing lots of NH3, we would be able to see it in the spectrum of a super-Earth orbiting an M star. Image credit: Seager et al. ApJ, 2013

The plot above shows what the spectrum of a planet would look like if it were producing lots of ammonia. This spectrum is taken in “thermal emission” which means that we are looking at the planet when it is just about to disappear behind its parent star. There are strong NH3 emission features (labeled) from 2-100 microns. JWST will be able to make observations in the 1-30 micron range and will likely observe at least a handful of super-Earths orbiting M-type stars. So, should we expect to find one of these NH3 producing life forms? This is where I leave the Seager et. al. paper and let your imagination take over.

My Twitter Archive #3: First Mentions of ... by Feeling Listless

About Just for fun, here are the first mentions of some of my interests on Twitter (as far as I can tell):

First mention of the Sugababes:

(The BBC was the second. Old friend of the blog Anna Pickard was the third.)

First mention of the Shakespeare:
(which is pretty philosophical until you look further into the search and find...)
(So the first use of the word Shakespeare on Twitter was in relation to a pet. The next two, here and here, are people watching a film. This is in relation to study.)

First mention of Dr Who:
(First person to call it Doctor Who.)

First mention of the next Doctor:
(Still is. I'll come back to this topic I expect.)

First mention of the BBC:
(Which is pleasingly mundane. This is the second and here is the first ever link to a BBC News article (or indeed anything at the BBC website.))

First mention of Liverpool:
(The second mention is someone moaning about the team's performance. The third was @Ev himself. Oh and while we're at it...)

First mention of Sefton Park:
(Because of course it was.)

First mention of The Guardian:
(Here's the first time an article was linked to, about Second Life obviously.)

First mention of the word "film":

(Perhaps other films were mentioned earlier but they'd be much harder to find. Which is why I'm cautious to suggest this is the first film review.)

First mention of Star Wars:

First mention of Natalie Portman:
(Twitter was so small at this point, presumably all of his followers knew who Crystal was...)

First mention of Starbucks:
(@biz's tweet was actually the third.)

More soon.

Remember Comet Siding Spring? Mars Orbiter Mission got photos, too by The Planetary Society

A set of photos released by Mars Orbiter Mission last week completes the set of Mars spacecraft observations of the comet. Now we wait for science results!

Slinky. by Feeling Listless

25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Google Doodle.
"Determined to share this experience on the doodle and others like it around the world, we enlisted several folks and are grateful for their help. Our friends at arranged 17 international film crews to gather footage. The German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) provided powerful archival photographs by Klaus Lehnartz and Heiko Specht to set context for the video. Googlers from around the world translated more than 50 international versions. Morgan Stiff edited it all together."

What happens when you accidentally become internet famous?
"Aspiring neurosurgeon Balpreet Kaur had no idea her picture had been posted on Reddit until she was told by one of her Facebook friends. The picture, taken without Kaur’s knowledge, was uploaded to the site’s r/funny subreddit under the headline “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The user was apparently confused that Kaur is a woman with facial hair."

Artists Whose Debut Albums Sound Nothing Like Their Later Work:
"Before Alanis Morissette was giving us her raw emotions, and telling us about her dalliances in movie theaters, she was trying to make it as a dance-pop singer in the mold of say, Gloria Estefan or Paula Abdul. It’s honestly jarring to listen to some of this, mostly for the shock of hearing Alanis’s trademark howl performing such fluffy, inconsequential material. Luckily, Morissette’s dance-pop stage only lasted one album. Her work turned far more personal with 1995′s Jagged Little Pill, which became one of the most popular albums of the 90s."

Doctor Who blogging: “Death in Heaven”
"Chubby Rain is the hilariously awful movie-within-a-movie in Bowfinger. It’s about an alien invasion in which the aliens hide themselves in the raindrops. Really."

Doctor Who: How was Peter Capaldi's debut series?
"Doctor Who's eighth series reached its finale on Saturday with an hour-long episode that saw Peter Capaldi's Time Lord battling two old foes: The Cybermen and Missy - a female incarnation of his arch-enemy The Master. So what do TV critics make of the Peter Capaldi's tenure as the Twelfth Doctor so far?"

Charity records and the Radio 2 playlist.
"No Man's Land (Green Fields of France) by Joss Stone and Jeff Beck was played at a recent Radio 2 playlist meeting, at which the 11 show producers attending all agreed that, due to the poignancy of the lyrics and the subject matter, the song would be best played closer to Remembrance Day and that "free choice plays" - where shows choose their own tracks to play - would best suit the single. This approach would enable due respect be paid to the song's subject matter and the presenter could then properly showcase it, rather than it just appearing unannounced in a show's running order."

Interstellar is screening in 6 different formats. Here's how to decide which to see it in.
"Perhaps you already caught Interstellar over the weekend. Which format did you see it in?"

$2 Billion and Counting:
"When I hear stories about artists and songwriters who say they’ve seen little or no money from streaming and are naturally angry and frustrated, I’m really frustrated too. The music industry is changing – and we’re proud of our part in that change – but lots of problems that have plagued the industry since its inception continue to exist. As I said, we’ve already paid more than $2 billion in royalties to the music industry and if that money is not flowing to the creative community in a timely and transparent way, that’s a big problem. We will do anything we can to work with the industry to increase transparency, improve speed of payments, and give artists the opportunity to promote themselves and connect with fans – that’s our responsibility as a leader in this industry; and it’s the right thing to do."

11 Clever Uses for Your Old Phone or Tablet:
"As you don't need your old smartphone or tablet to travel around with you any more, you can fix it on a window or in a corner and use it as a home surveillance device or a baby monitor. Plenty of apps are available to cover the software side of the equation: iCamSpy, Presence and Manything are all powerful options that enable you to keep an eye on your property or your kids from somewhere else."

33 Things The Kids Of Today Will Never Understand:
"How you could occasionally find a fiver in your crisps and life would get that little bit better."

Remember Folks, Batgirl Is Smart – But Not *Too* Smart…
"She never even thought to backup her laptop, or store anything on the cloud…"

Brazil's Amazon opera house: 'I've done every job'
"In 1973, Raimundo Pereira do Nascimento, known as "Nonato," walked into the Manaus Opera House with a contract to hang drywall and help with some restoration work."

Art of the Title on Too Many Cooks. Interview with creator:
"I had the idea of doing this for Adult Swim, where I work, but I thought… it’s not going to really carry 11 minutes and so I just sat on it. I told some co-workers about it who told my boss Mike Lazzo at a party and he liked it so he said do it, but he said you’re right, that will only carry you about four minutes and then you’ve got to start zigging and zagging and layering other ideas. You know, right when the audience is starting to get bored or kind of figure out what you’re doing you’ve got to zip them in another direction."

"The only question that still seems to be plaguing people is this: why on earth would ITV commission Dapper Laughs in the first place?"

Sarah Polley, Leslie Feist back domestic abuse doc:
"Khan says she is making the film after having lived for two years with an abusive boyfriend who hurt her every day. Twenty years later, Khan says she bumped into her ex on a street corner and the experience inspired an idea of how to get answers to nagging questions about why he was violent to her, and how to get a film audience into the mind of a serial abuser."

Born before 1985? Then you’re a ‘digital immigrant’:
"2014’s best new music sounds lonely. As a firm believer in the theory that music’s evolution follows the path of technological progress (the Vox distortion pedal begat Hendrix and the face-melting solo, the Linn drum begat the Human League and 80s pop and so on), I had put this down to the fact that artists at the cutting edge these days work alone, by night (music doesn’t pay much, so they all need day jobs), on a laptop or home studio. That’s not a qualitative judgement, by the way. As much new music as ever is excellent – but, I believe, the circumstances of its construction leaves an audible imprint."

Romeo and Juliet Has No Balcony:
"It's perhaps the most famous scene in all of English literature: Juliet stands on her balcony with Romeo in the garden below, star-crossed lovers meeting by moonlight. Colloquially known as "the balcony scene," it contains Romeo and Juliet's most quoted lines, which are so closely associated with the balcony that they're frequently repeated (often incorrectly and in a hammy style) by non-actors who seize upon any real-life balcony, porch, landing, or veranda to reenact the moment. There's only one problem: There is no balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet."

The Problem With the Problems With Serial:
"All of this writing and podcasting is, of course, an interpretive endeavor. The same piece of evidence can mean different things to different writers, can be used to support different claims. (This is the creative work in academic writing, and a big part of why I love my job - seeing young minds learn how to make these moves.) And so, as an author, Koenig definitely colors our understanding of the material. And maybe she’s taking things out of context - who knows! Since I don’t have access to the full tapes and files, I have to trust her."

"We lived in Arizona, and the skies always had little fluffy clouds in 'em..." by Feeling Listless

Music One of the big sellers on Amazon at the moment is the compilation album Moods which has all the tracks you'd expect it to (Enigma, Vangelis, DJ Sammy) and includes The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds which I first heard when it was played to me by a friend at university when I visited his house. We sat on his carpet and he pumped it out of his very good sound sound system and it was like nothing this Debbie Gibson fan had experienced before.

Listening again just now on Spotify, I finally decided to try and find out exactly where the sample interview came from, this voice I've been listening to all of these years.  I've always assumed it was a news voxpop, perhaps from some US cable channel.  Or a documentary about the weather.

Inevitably the Wikipedia has an answer:

""Little Fluffy Clouds" is centred on clips from an interview with Rickie Lee Jones in which she recalls picturesque images of her childhood. Critics and fans sometimes attribute the odd nasal tonality of Jones' voice to drug use, though Jones later claimed that it was the result of a heavy cold. The samples are widely believed to have come from a conversation between Jones and LeVar Burton on the children's television programme Reading Rainbow., but in fact originated from an interview disc that was issued with some promotional boxed copies of her album Flying Cowboys. The interview was not actually conducted by Burton at all."
Which then leads to YouTube and the first interview most of us can actually speak along to ...

Interestingly, the uploader makes the LeVar Burton mistake too even though the voice we hear sounds nothing like Geordi LaForge.

What the Wikipedia doesn't mention is what the first voice we hear is. That would be John Waite whose audio show reel is also on YouTube and mentions The Orb in his CV:

He's currently the reporter on Radio 4's Face The Facts.

November 18, 2014

My Twitter Archive #2 by Feeling Listless

About Last time I delved into my Twitter archive was on the occasion of being able to download your own tweets. Now the company has made the whole archive available to search, it's even easier to look for landmarks, like the first ten replies to my tweets, either because the peopled followed me or I tweeted them first:

(This was still in the period when I was just reposting Facebook updates to Twitter.  Two long months and then...)

(Well the second post on the blog was about the Sugababes so why not?)

(I didn't know it had been this long since I watched I CLAVDIVS. I'd make time now but...)

(Was this something on television?)

(Pole Posssiitttiiioooonnn ... sit back and watch them gooo....)

(I wonder what this was? Pete?)

(Suw had written this piece about email addiction.  She suggests Twitter as an alternative.)

(I think the 2008 election was my favourite election)

(Because this.)
(I was preparing my application for the BBC's recruitment drive for Salford.  Sigh.)

November 17, 2014

Rosetta imaged Philae during its descent -- and after its bounce by The Planetary Society

This morning ESA released a set of images of the Philae lander taken by the Rosetta orbiter during -- and after -- the lander's first touchdown. The images contain evidence for the spot Philae first touched the comet, and a crucial photo of Philae's position several minutes into its first long bounce.

The Curse of Laundry by Charlie Stross

There's some kind of bizarre curse hanging over my Laundry Files series. Or maybe it's a deeper underlying problem with writing fiction set in the very near future (or past): I'm not sure which. All I'm sure is that that for the past decade, reality has been out to get me: and I'm fed up.

My first intimation came a long time ago—in 2001. I'd just finished writing "The Atrocity Archive" and it was being edited for serial publication in issues 7-9 of the Scottish SF magazine Spectrum SF (which folded a couple of issues later, in 2003). It was late September, and I found myself reading a terse email from the editor, Paul Fraser: "Charlie, about your story—do you think you can possibly find some new bad guys for Chapter 4? Because you've just been overtaken by current events ..."

In Chapter 4 of "The Atrocity Archive" Bob learns from Angleton who the middle eastern bad guys who kidnapped Mo, intending to use her sacrifice to open a gateway to somewhere bad, really were ... and when I originally wrote the story, in 1999-2000, they were a relatively obscure bunch of anti-American zealots who'd blown up the USS Stark and an embassy in Africa. I know this may boggle the imagination of younger or more forgetful readers, but Al Quaida and Osama bin Laden had not at that time hijacked any airliners, much less etched themselves into the pages of world history: they were not, at that time, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the New World Order.

So, on the 12th of September, 2001, the score stood at Reality 1, Fiction 0. And I hastily did an edit job, replacing ObL and AQ with Yusuf Qaradawi as inspiration behind a hypothetical radical group based in groan Iraq (hey, this was before the invasion, all right?). And lo, part one of "The Atrocity Archive" was published in November 2001, and parts 2 and 3 in March and June of 2002.

I don't recall being bitten by any such copy edits to reality in the process of writing "The Concrete Jungle", which together with "The Atrocity Archive" forms the first book, "The Atrocity Archives". Nor did anything particularly batshit derail me late in the process of writing "The Jennifer Morgue". But the Laundry Curse came back to haunt me again when I got to "The Fuller Memorandum", and it's been moaning and rattling its chains at ever increasing volume with every subsequent book.

I wrote "The Fuller Memorandum" in a cold-sweat panic in 2008. (It didn't come out until 2010 because I emitted it out of sequence in a frenzy of 24 consecutive 12 hour working days.) You may recall that the impact of the financial crisis of 2007/08 took a while to trickle down to affect all levels of the economy, precipitating a full-on economic recession in 2008/09.

For reasons of plot, I wanted to move Bob's office from the Laundry's HQ building at Dansey House—hypothetically, somewhere between Leicester Square and Charing Cross: the legacy of wartime spillover from Westminster—to a New Annexe located above a department store somewhere unspecified in South London. An ongoing background story arc that surfaces in book 7 concerns the abortive attempts to redevelop Dansey House, and their catastrophic consequences. While I was writing in the autumn of 2008, it seemed perfectly reasonable for the New Annex to be a dismal 1970s brutalist slab squatting on top of a branch of Woolworths, a downmarket department store chain that had been around for almost a century—at least until the chain's collapse on November 26th, 2008 left me grinding my teeth in frustration.

Take two: I briefly considered Marks and Spencer (too high profile, and anyway, these days they've all gone multi-storey), John Lewis (far too up-market), and British Home Stores (too likely to make non-UK readers go "whut?"). But the risk of any retail chain going bust before the book saw print seemed too great: so in the end I copped out and placed the New Annex atop a branch of C&A—who do not currently operate in the UK (although they have within living memory, and still trade elsewhere in the EU).

At least that zinger got sorted out before the novel went anywhere near a publisher. Right?

The next book I wrote was "Rule 34". I think I've already explained about how the first plan for "Rule 34" (titled "419") didn't survive contact with the global financial meltdown enemy, so let's tip-toe past it. This brings me to the next Laundry Files novel, "The Apocalypse Codex"

Early in "The Apocalypse Codex", which I wrote from April 2010 to March 2011, Bob gets sent on a training course at the National School of Government at Sunningdale Park, the civil service training campus. However, in March 2012 the NSG was closed down for good—some of its tasks were taken on by Civil Service Learning, part of the Home Office, but it was a thing of the past four months before the book finally saw print. I'm a bit burned about that: I spent quite a few days finding out all the publicly accessible information I could about the NSG and talking to a few folks who'd passed through its doors, only for HMG to pull the plug after the book had been typeset (at which point changes are virtually impossible to make without pulping a whole shitpile of printed book blocks—which publishers are loath to do because it costs lots of money).

For a while I thought "The Rhesus Chart" might actually have dodged the curse. It looked pretty bulletproof when I put together the first draft between September and December of 2012, and it didn't have a long lead-time to publication: but the curse struck yet again, this time in the way that the NHS Central Data Warehouse was set up and accessed via users of NHS Connecting for Health. I am told I nailed the description of Bob's project closely enough that an actual medical statistician working with that hairball of hideous Excel-generating big data didn't stumble over the reading—and it's murderously hard to get the minutiae of someone else's job right when you're writing a work of fiction. So I was still patting myself on the back when I learned that the NHS Spine Secondary Uses Service had been completely reorganized between me handing in the final manuscript (in June 2013) and the book being published (in July 2014). As wikipedia explains, "NHS Connecting for Health ceased to exist on 31 March 2013 ..." And to put the final nail in the coffin, The Spine was migrated to a new Open Source system in August 2014.

Which brings me screeching up to the event horizon of the present.

I cannot discuss the contents of "The Annihilation Score", Laundry Files book 6, without some risk of spoilers. This book is so fresh it hasn't been copy-edited yet; it's due out in the first week of July 2015. But I am going to have to modify it to explicitly set it in 2014 or 2013 (coincidentally setting the Laundry Files chronology in stone, something I've been reluctant to do before), because ...

I don't think it's a spoiler if I mention that a big plot point in "The Annihilation Score", is goings-on involving an organization called ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers. (The specifics of which are quite intricate, and totally central to the novel.) Indeed, I don't think it'd be a spoiler to say that ACPO is as central to the plot of the new novel as the Black Chamber was to "The Apocalypse Codex". But I fucked up, because I didn't make ACPO up: they're a real thing. Or they were.

I handed the manuscript of "The Annihilation Score" to my agent and editors around September 28th, 2014. That's last month. On October 17th, 2014, it was announced that ACPO is being scrapped and replaced by a new body, the National Police Chiefs' Council, which will be hosted by the Met and have a somewhat different role and responsibilities.

(You may now pause to imagine yr hmbl crspndnt. leaning on his desk, weeping and clutching his forehead.)

I'm officially done with this shit. The Laundry Files explicitly exists in an alternate history to our own, okay? Word Of God speaking here. "The Rhesus Chart" is set in mid-2013, and "The Annihilation Score" in summer/autumn of 2013. I'm going to kick "The Nightmare Stacks" (or whatever book 7 is titled) down the road into a 2014 which will be well in our past and nailed down by the time the book is handed in, in autumn of 2015. Because I am sick and tired of reality refusing to conform to the requirements of my meticulously-researched near-future or proximate-present fictions. It's gotten to the point where if I write a book that is dead on target when it's handed in, at just the most inconvenient moment before publication reality will snicker and pull out its blue pencil. And I am too old for this shit. Do you hear me, reality? Do you hear me?

(Author screams quietly, then gets up and slowly backs away from the keyboard before turning and shuffling dispiritedly in the direction of the kitchen, and another mug of tea.)

Soup Safari #7: Thai Green Chicken at Waitrose Cafe. by Feeling Listless

At lunch. £3.40. Waitrose Cafe, Waitrose, Three Tuns Lane, Formby, Merseyside L37 4AJ. Phone: 01704 873017.

ASASSN-13co: A Type-Defying Supernova by Astrobites

Authors: T. W.-S. Holoien, et al.

First Author’s Institution: Department of Astronomy, The Ohio State University

Paper Status: Submitted to MNRAS

There are arguably a lot of things defy categorization, but it’s not everyday that we find something that suggests we do away with our categories altogether. The authors of today’s paper believe that the recently-discovered Type II supernova ASASSN-13co — read that as “assassin”, please — might just be one of the latter. Its unusual characteristics call into question the validity of the two classes (II-P and II-L, more on that later) into which we usually group Type II supernovae. As a result, they suggest that we treat Type II supernovae properties as a continuum, rather than the discrete designations we’ve become accustomed to assigning.

Death Throes of Massive Stars

Type II supernovae are identified by the hydrogen in their spectra (meaning that they still have a hydrogen envelope when they die). They are formed when a star with mass of 8-50 times that of the sun dies through core-collapse.

All stars produce energy through nuclear fusion, but massive stars can fuse much heavier nuclei than stars the size of our sun – all the way to nickel and iron, which have the highest binding energy of all elements. While the fusion of the lighter elements is an exothermic process, fusing iron uses up energy instead, so fusing elements heavier than iron isn’t energetically favorable. As a result, a core of iron and nickel (which then decays into iron) builds up in the center of a massive star. The core is supported by electron degeneracy pressure. When the mass of the iron-nickel core exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit (about 1.4 solar masses), however, electron degeneracy pressure is not enough to stop the core from collapsing. As the core collapses, the protons and electrons in the core of the star merge to form neutrons and neutrinos. The neutrinos can escape and carry away energy. At the same time, the outer layers of the star fall inward until neutron degeneracy pressure kicks in, stopping the collapse and causing the outer layers to rebound.  The combination of the pressure from the neutrinos and the rebound of the outer layers off of the core causes the star to be torn apart in a huge explosion – a core-collapse supernovae.

Left: Archival SDSS data of the host galaxy PGC 067159. Right: LCOGT image that was taken during the supernova. The circles have radii of 2 arcseconds and are centered on the supernova's position. We can see that there was previously no visible object at the location of the supernova. An image like this is called a finding chart.

Left: Archival SDSS data of the host galaxy PGC 067159. Right: LCOGT image that was taken during the supernova. The circles have radii of 2 arcseconds and are centered on the supernova’s position. We can see that there was previously no visible object at the location of the supernova. An image like this is called a finding chart.

These supernovae exhibit a wide range of properties, but have generally been grouped into Type II-P or Type II-L supernovae.  Type II-P supernovae – the P stands for “plateau” – get their names from the long flat stretch present in their optical light curves.  Type II-L supernovae, on the other hand, show a relatively steady “linear” decline in their intensity after reaching peak brightness. However, it has recently been suggested that Type II supernovae light curves may not fall neatly into the two groups, but actually display a continuum of these properties. The authors of today’s paper hope that by studying unusually bright or hard-to-classify events, they will be able to better understand the variations in Type II supernovae and improve upon the current classification scheme.

Profiling an Unusual Supernova

The focus of the paper, ASASSN-13co, is a supernova that the authors state is both unusually bright and hard to classify. It was detected with the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN) on August 29, 2013 in the V-band — an optical bandpass with a mean wavelength of 540 nm. The supernova had an apparent magnitude of 16.9 +/- 0.1 and coordinates RA = 21:40:38.72, Dec = +06:30:36.98. Using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), they located the host galaxy as the spiral galaxy PGC 067159, which was offset by 3 arcseconds from the source of the supernova.

The bolometric (total flux over all wavelengths) light curve of ASASSN-13co in red plotted against the light curves of the supernovae used in making the PP14 model, in grey. The thickness of the red indicates the uncertainty in the light curve. We can see that ASASSN-13co is one of the most luminous supernovae and that unlike the other Type II-P SN shown, it does not have a long plateau phase.

The bolometric (total flux over all wavelengths) light curve of ASASSN-13co in red plotted against the light curves of the supernovae used in making the PP14 model, in grey. The thickness of the red indicates the 1-sigma uncertainty in the light curve. We can see that ASASSN-13co is one of the most luminous supernovae of the bunch and that unlike the other Type II-P SN shown, it does not have a long plateau phase.

After finding that ASASSN-13co had an unusually bright V-band absolute magnitude of -18.1 at the time of detection, they decided to launch an extensive follow-up campaign to fully characterize the event. They obtained photometric observations from space using the Swift X-ray Telescope and UVOT target-of-opportunity observations and from the ground using the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGTN). Since they do not have prior X-ray data from the host galaxy (and are therefore unable to determine if the X-ray flux comes from the supernova or the galaxy) they ultimately don’t include their X-ray data in the analysis. In addition, they have spectroscopic data from spectrographs located on the LCO du Pont 2.5-m telescope, the MDM Observatory Hiltner 2.4-m telescope, and the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-m telescope.

Finally, the authors also use a new model from Pejcha & Prieto 2014, which they designate as PP14, to calculate the light curve of the SN in the V-band, since they do not have follow-up data in the V-band. The model takes in measurements of the supernova’s flux and expansion velocities to calculate other information about the supernova, such as its light curve in other filters, its luminosity over all wavelengths, and the mass of nickel-56 that it produces.


The V-band light curve (in absolute magnitudes) for ASASSN-13co, plotted in red again against a sample of various Type II SN. We can see that it is one of the brightest light curves, and that it also seems to decline more slowly than the other bright SN light curves.

The V-band light curve (in absolute magnitudes) for ASASSN-13co, plotted in red again against a sample of various Type II SN from Anderson et al. 2014. ASASSN-13co has one of the brightest light curves, and it also seems to decline more slowly than the other bright SN light curves.

The spectroscopic data that the authors obtain allow them to determine that ASASSN-13co’s spectrum looks typical for a Type II-P supernova. However, the V-band light curves calculated using PP14 show that the duration of the plateau seems to fall between the values for typical Type II-P and Type II-L supernovae. Unlike a Type II-P, which has a rapid fall and then a long plateau phase, ASASSN-13co displays a steady decline in its luminosity. However, it defies easy categorization by exhibiting a steady decline in luminosity that is considerably slower than the decline of an average Type II-L supernova. On top of that, ASASSN-13co is just unusually bright for a Type II supernova.

ASASSN-13co’s unusual characteristics lead the authors to conclude that the supernova is not easily classified as Type II-P or a Type II-L. Instead, they offer this as another piece of evidence that the II-P and II-L designations for Type II SN are oversimplifications of the wide range of Type II supernovae characteristics. Lastly, they note that the PP14 model, which was able to provide a good fit to even the unusual ASASSN-13co, can be a useful tool for future studies of variations in Type II supernovae characteristics.

Exploring the Planetary Graveyard by Astrobites

Authors: Detlev Koester, Boris Gaensicke, Jay Farihi

First Author’s Institution: Institut für Theoretische Physik und Astrophysik, Universität Kiel, 24098 Kiel, Germany

 Example HST spectrum of a metal polluted white dwarf (a) with a zoom in on the key silicon (b, c ) and carbon (d, e) lines. The red line shows the model atmosphere used to calculate how much of each metal was present. Image Credit: Koester et al 2014

Figure 1: Example Hubble Space Telescope spectrum of a metal polluted white dwarf (a) with zoomed in sections showing the absorption lines from silicon (b, c ) and carbon (d, e). The red line shows the model atmosphere fit to the spectrum, used to calculate how much of each metal was present. Image Credit: Koester et al 2014

Over the past decade the study of planetary debris in orbit around white dwarfs has become an increasingly exciting area. Observations of this debris have allowed us to make unique discoveries about the chemical composition of extrasolar rocky planets, as well as revealing the endpoints of the evolution of planetary systems very similar to our own.

A key missing piece of information in these studies has been just how many, or more accurately what proportion of, white dwarfs have debris. Although many debris-polluted white dwarfs have been found, most of them were given away by other features such as orbiting dusty or gaseous debris discs. This leaves key questions unanswered.

For example, how many of the stars that formed the white dwarfs had planets? Does it depend on the kind of star? How do these evolved planetary systems change over time? In order to answer these questions, the authors have tried to gain an unbiased measurement of the frequency of planetary systems of white dwarfs.

The easiest way to spot the planetary debris in a white dwarf’s atmosphere is to look for light absorption by calcium, which creates a distinctive line in the blue end of a white dwarf’s spectrum. Unfortunately this calcium line tends to diminish at temperatures above around 15000K, severely limiting the range over which any results from the survey would be relevant. More importantly however, calcium only makes up a small fraction of the material in the planets of the Solar System, so might only show up in the spectra of more heavily polluted white dwarfs- not exactly an unbiased sample!

To get around this problem the authors decided to instead look for silicon, which makes up around a third of the Earth. If the composition of the planetary systems at white dwarfs are similar,  the silicon should therefore be easy to spot even in mildly polluted white dwarfs.  Unfortunately, all of the convenient silicon lines in the spectrum of a white dwarf are found in the ultraviolet. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out UV light, so this survey would need to use the Hubble Space Telescope.

The authors used a snapshot survey, providing a list of over a hundred white dwarfs that could be quickly observed in any order in the gaps between other, longer observations. Within a certain temperature range (1700027000K), these white dwarfs were chosen at random. Over three years, eighty-five white dwarfs from their list were successfully observed, enough to get a good grip on the statistics of debris pollution.



The key findings of the paper. Image Credit: Koester et al. 2014

Figure 2: The key findings of the paper. The horizontal axis shows the temperature of each white dwarf (bottom), which is analogous to the time since the star turned into a white dwarf (top). Red symbols show the results from the paper, with other white dwarfs shown in black and grey. Image Credit: Koester et al. 2014


The results of the survey are surmised in Figure 2. The key observation is the middle panel, showing the fraction of polluted white dwarfs. Out of the 85 white dwarfs, the authors found pollution from planetary debris in an astounding 48 (56%). This means that at least half of white dwarfs are orbited by the remains of planetary systems. Put another way, that means that at least half of the stars that turned into the white dwarfs once had orbiting planets. This result agrees nicely with the latest estimates from direct studies of exoplanets.

Out of those white dwarfs with debris pollution, analysis of their atmosphere shows that at half of them must be currently accreting rocky objects, whilst the other half will have been accreting recently. Far from being a few scattered objects, this paper has shown that active evolved planetary systems are abundan, and offer an intriguing opportunity to study the death-throes of planetary systems- including, eventually, the Solar System itself.


November 16, 2014

How we used to organise stuff .. by Simon Wardley

In the early days, we used to apply one size fits all methodology because we didn't know better (see figure 1). We used to yo-yo between methods but in 2002, most of us in the open source world had gone "all agile" whilst the enterprise was mainly "all waterfall and all outsourcing". Under such a model, the IT organisation is one large department and one attitude. Be warned, single methods fail to deal with evolution and tend to run into excessive change control cost overruns.

Figure 1 - circa 2002 - One size rules all, OK!

By 2004, in the open source world, we had learned that one size fits all didn't work. We had started to work towards the use of multiple methods. We knew agile was suitable in the early stages of evolution of an act but we also knew six sigma was better for more evolved activities. The foolhardy amongst us had started to organise by this bimodal fashion with groups such as common services or systems and development (see figure 2). Under such a model, the IT organisation is two groups and two polar opposite (usually competing) attitudes. Be warned, bimodal structures tend to fail to hand over activities and lead to lack of industrialisation of common components, spaghetti junction and platform rewrites. 

Figure 2 - circa 2004 - Bimodal rules all, OK!

By 2005 to early 2006, many of us had learned that the jump between the novel and the industrialised was too large. We needed a third group and a different set of methods / techniques and attitudes to cope with this. Structures that took this into consideration started to appear, in many cases we often formalised the "missing" group in our bimodal structures e.g. we went from development and common services to development, framework and common services. This three party system was applicable across the entire business as a pioneer, settler and town planner structure (see figure 3). Under such a model, the IT organisation is three groups and three overlapping attitudes which can be made to work in concert through the use of theft (i.e. enforced evolution). Be warned, such trimodal structures still tend to create large groups creating communication and other issues.

Figure 3 - circa 2005 / 2006 - Trimodal rules all, OK!

By 2007 to 2009, we had learned that we needed to divide our organisations into self organising cell based structures e.g. a starfish model, two pizza models etc (see figure 4). Under such a model, the IT organisation is many small groups but no specific attitude and no means of dealing with evolution. Be warned, whilst many of the communication and growth issues are better handled, the lack of means of managing evolution can create problems.

Figure 4 - circa '07 to '09 - Cell based structure rules all, OK!

By 2012 to early 2013, a few of us had started to look at combining both cell based structures and trimodal concepts, heavily using techniques developed in the military to create more adaptive structures (see figure 5). Under such a model, the IT organisation is many small groups and three overlapping attitudes which can be made to work in concert through the use of theft (i.e. enforced evolution). 

Figure 5 - circa 2012 / 2013 - Adaptive structure rules all, OK!
By 2014 ... be warned, this process is ongoing. The above leads naturally to administrative structures (covering training, culture and attitude) along with what can be loosely described as "battle groups" formed to implement a line of business. The closest there is to something that remotely resembles this sort of structure can be found in military organisations. The majority of organisations are still at the very beginning of one department and one attitude. 

Three things to note ...

1) Don't think for one second anyone knows the best way of organising stuff - we don't. All we know are better ways than the past. Anyone who tells you they have the perfect way is talking horse.

2) Mapping an environment really helps with organisation or at least the exploration of the possible ways we might organise.

3) The use of mapping and high levels of situational awareness is a necessity for coping with evolution unless you have exceptionally talented people who understand that things evolve (i.e. they have their own mental models, can cope with inertia etc). Without extremely good situational awareness then I'd suggest you go for a cell based structure and hire rock star developers who work well with others.

Who ordered THAT?!? by Charlie Stross

The Scottish Political Singularity is not only far from over, it's showing every sign of recomplicating, bizarrely.

From The Guardian:

a new poll by Ipsos Mori for STV showed that a record 52% of Scottish voters would vote SNP if there were an immediate general election, implying the SNP would win 54 Westminster seats - a nine-fold increase on the six seats it currently holds - leaving Labour with just four. Carried out in part after Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's sudden resignation last Friday, the poll put Labour at just 23% - its lowest figure in over six years, with the Tories cut to 10% and the Lib Dems down to 6%, tying with the Scottish Green party.

What does this mean?

Firstly, it's important not to read too much into this poll. It's been criticized elsewhere, and the timing (coincidental with the Scottish Labour leader and deputy leader's resignations) is iffy.

However, Scotland runs on first-past-the-post, like the rest of the UK, in general elections (of which one is due next June). And even if we knock 10% off the SNP voting intentions across the board, Labour is going to take a very deep, very cold, bath—punishment by their voters for running an unremittingly negative campaign during the referendum. Lots of Scots didn't actually want to leave the UK, but deeply resented being told that they were too wee, too poor, and too stupid to go it alone: this is the payback.

How crazy is it going to get?

Well, if the SNP pick up on the order of 50 MPs, they'll be the third largest party in Westminster (replacing the Liberal Democrats, who are in meltdown as voters desert them—the LibDem core are mostly centre-left, and the coalition with the Conservative party was pure poison for that base).

Alex Salmond, the former SNP First Minister of Scotland, has been rather coy when asked if he was going to run for Westminster in next summer's election. But he's been an MP before, and he'd be a shoo-in for a safe seat as party leader if he wanted one. In the wake of a "No" vote on independence, a Westminster seat would give him a good base on which to campaign to hold the UK party leaders' feet to the fire over promises they made during the campaign.

There are (still) going to be 650 seats in play at the election. A number will go to independents and minor parties: one or two Greens, a handful of Ulster Unionists, an indeterminate number (5-15) Liberal Democrats, plus independent MPs and maybe even a few UKIP. (My sticking-my-neck-out prognostication is that UKIP will get lots of votes, but distributed thinly enough that they win relatively few seats.) The Conservatives and Labour would, as before, each win roughly 250-300 seats. With 50 seats, the SNP would be the turd in the punchbowl: it would literally be almost impossible to form a stable government without them (unless we look at the apocalyptic scenario of a Labour/Tory coalition, which in the past has only happened during a World War government of national unity). It would be hard to spin Alex Salmond smirking and demanding Devo Max as being tantamount to Hitler! so quite possibly some sort of deal would be done. As the SNP already firmly ruled out a pact with the Conservatives (it'd be a political suicide pill for their base in Scotland), that leaves two likely options:

  1. A full formal coalition with the Labour Party. (I think this is unlikely, although Labour might have learned a lesson from the consequences of Brown's refusal to compromise with Nick Clegg in 2010: Labour and the SNP are natural rivals for the governing party/centre-left niche in Scotland.) Terms would be: the SNP get Devo Max and some ministerial posts, and in return they vote in line with Labour policy on any items that the parties don't actually disagree on, and abstain from voting on purely English non-budgetary matters.

  2. An understanding (like the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977) whereby a minority Labour government operates with SNP support contingent on them not pissing in the SNP's wheaties. This might work, if Labour are willing to cut a deal over Scottish powers. Otherwise ...

I could be wrong.

The most unpredictable alternative would be a landslide in the direction of UKIP. I find it hard to imagine UKIP picking up more seats than the SNP, because while they may have more voters across the UK, the SNP's are concentrated in constituencies where they stand a chance of winning: but if UKIP were to pick up 50 or so MPs, roughly matching the SNP's showing, then we're into total terra incognita in British politics. I don't think we're going to get into "rainbow coalition" territory in just one election—Labour and the Conservatives—aren't going to completely crumble just six months from now—but the number of possible combinations that could form governments in Westminster just exploded. And so did the outcomes. UKIP appear, ironically, to be intensely hostile to Scottish nationalism and devolution in general (they're a vastly stronger party in England than in Scotland, where they are out-polled three to one by the Scottish Greens). So we have the prospect of two historically ideologically polarized major parties (neither of whom can form a government without external assistance), and two ideologically polarized minor parties (one or both of whom might enable one or other of the larger parties to govern, with a tail-wind and some independent help).

Anyway: I can't be sure of the outcome, but as far as I can tell British politics is about to go sideways, very fast, next June—largely as a delayed consequence of the Scottish independence referendum. Order up the pop-corn: this is going to be interesting.

Poor Jen. by Feeling Listless

November 15, 2014

The Films I've Watched This Year #43 by Feeling Listless

Film It's Saturday night, it's after nine o'clock and I'm tapping away at a keyboard.  As I think you may have detected, this particular stretch of Doctor Who's been particularly difficult to parse, certainly as difficult for a range of complex reasons as Torchwood's Miracle Day.  Perhaps I've been out of practice, the recent shorter series and odd episodes not quite preparing me for knocking that out every week for twelve of them.  By the final episode, as I think you might have detected, I was pretty exhausted but there's no doubt that if the episodes had been up to snuff I might have been inspired to do something useful.  But I am genuinely looking forward to revisiting series eight when it's finally released for the home so I can reappraise.  At this point, my favourite episode is still Robots of Sherwood with Listen, Flatline and probably Deep Breath close behind.  Even taking the horrors of The Caretaker and Kill The Moon into account, the low point will always be In The Forest of the Night, potentially the worst episode since the show came back, beating even Fear Her because at least that's unintentionally funny in places (Bob).  Anyway, mainstream, symposium and ...

The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey: Extended Version 3D
Only Lovers Left Alive
Dan In Real Life
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Version 3D
Ernest & Celestine
Fantasia 2000
The Last Days on Mars
The Other Man

Now that this series has finished, I've decided to catch up on what I've missed from the career of future Doctor (Who), Romola Garai, starting with The Last Days on Mars, which is essentially The Waters of Mars if the Tenth Doctor hadn't turned up for his moral implosion.  The story is in the title, a group of astronauts fighting off a zombifying alien infection hours before they're due to leave the planet.  Garai is one of the astronauts, the Veronica Cartwright role, and although essentially a bystander, has one very good speech in which she's trying to talk Liev Schreiber into doing a brave thing.  Mainly funded with UK and Irish money.  Well done us for the ambition and that includes for the special effects which offers some of the best man against Martian vista in film history.  It has an eclectic cast.  Olivia Williams is in the more challenging Doctorish role of the science officer who says whatever everyone's thinking but don't want to look like assholes and Elias Koteas is the mission captain.  But it is better than the RT score of 20% but for once I agree with Peter Bradshaw's sympathetic review, especially that it's far more interesting before the viruses and mayhem.

Back in 2008, Garai was playing daughters, touring in Trevor Nunn's King Lear and in Richard Eyre's The Other Man as the offspring of Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.  Utterly ludicrous in pretty much every way, after some initial moments when it looks like it might be a proto-Taken, for much of its duration Eyre's pretending to be Hitchcock via Adrian Lyne before a jaw-dropping twist sends it off into other generic territories.  There are about four things to say about it.  (1)  Romola's character's random film job is as an assistant in Ely Cathedral's gift shop (set report) and her boyfriend seems to be some kind of restoration engineer.  (2)  Antonio Banderas plays the man Neeson suspects of having an affair and at one point having heard the voice of Puss in Boots on a voice message blames the not at all alike sounding Patterson Joseph instead (3)  The twist is so, well, ludicrous that I thought it was something we were supposed to have learned early on anyway and I'd missed and skipped back to the beginning at that moment to check and (4) the ever accurate IMDB says Laura Linney apparently replaced Juliette Binoche though I haven't found the necessary evidence.

Binoche turns up in the pleasantest surprise of the week, Dan In Real Life, which is essentially to Hallmark tv movies what Independence Day is to grindhouse.  She's the object of Steve Carrell's widower's affection having met her at a bookshop while visiting his families vacation house (with the rest of his extended family) (I'd be rubbish writing the Sight and Sound plot synopsis) and then something happens which clearly works best if you haven't seen the trailer.  Hilarity ensues, and oddly, considering my usual aversion of Steve Carrell films, it really does.  Bits of it are maudlin, and like I said, the scripting in places is at about the level of a Hallmark movie, but I happen to like those, especially when the children are cleverer than the adults.  As Carrell's daughter, Alison Pill who gets to make that face a lot.  You know the one.  The director's previous film was Pieces of April, in which goth Katie Holmes attempted to cook thanksgiving whilst being filmed on a consumer camcorder and Patricia Clarkson was nominated for the Oscar.  The even younger Alison Pill got to make the face in that a lot too.  You know the one.  With the eyes.

With my 3D television, I've now also caught up with The Hobbit films.  In 3D.  I still remain unconvinced.  By the 3D.  Apart from odd moments like wildlife flying out of the screen and pointy swords and spears, much of the action takes place on a relatively flat but textured plane, the landscapes rendered miscellaneously murky due to the glasses with large sections lost to hazing.  As with The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey: Extended Version 3DThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Version 3D is much improved by the tampering, a whole new layer of back story added for Dwarf King in waiting Thorin (which I won't spoil because it's delicious) and better pacing overall correcting many of the problems I identified back in The Films I've Watched This Year #29 which now looks unbelievably harsh especially in how it ignores some of the brilliant fight gags during the barrell sequence and Smaug himself.  Having dodged it at the cinema, I won't be making that mistake again and will be there when The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies turns up in cinemas wondering what's been left out.

The Oscar nominated Ernest & Celestine is a charming French-Belgian animation based on the storybooks of Gabrielle Vincent in which a bear and a mouse inadvertently become partners in crime and which rather makes me wish Disney had retained E H Shephard's original drawings for Pooh (though I know when those films were originally made animation technology wasn't quite up to the task).  #disneywatch continues with the fun if empty Fantasia 2000 which has Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance paying host to a version of Noah's Ark starring Donald Duck but also an utterly glorious interpretation of Rhapsody in Blue set in the melting pot of the Jazz age which really cleverly Mickey Mouses the twists and turns of Gershwin's score.  Dinosaur was Disney's first grand experiment in character digimation, presenting big lizards and monkies against photographic background.  The slightly rudimentary facial animation in places might explain its relative obscurity, but like the best of the studio Dinosaur tumbles along amusingly despite its especially nihilistic premise in which extinction itself is the antagonist.

Finally, I've seen Restless now too.  As suspected, it's rubbish, entirely wasting the talents of Mia Wasikowska in the same year (2011) as Jane Eyre didn't.  The worst film Gus Van Sant's directed, it's a romantic tragedy in which she's romanced by a loner played by Henry Hooper, a screen presence so exciting he makes Peeta from The Hunger Games seem like Oliver Reed.  Stuff happens which is attractively filmed, but none of the characters have anything witty or interesting to say, apart from in this case Ryô Kase's character due to the virtue of him being an actual ghost, of a Japanese WW2 pilot not that the screenwriter really do anything useful with this other than offer history lessons.  Glancing at Wasikowska's career since Restless, it's almost as though she's said to her agent that she's not doing one of these again and it's telling that Stoker and the peerless Only Lovers Left Alive (which is pretty much unreviewable so I won't) both gothic character roles came very close on.  Every young actress at a certain point has to decide what kind of career they want and Mia's clearly looking enviously towards Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton.  Good on her.

Now Philae down to sleep by The Planetary Society

My last post on the drama in Darmstadt, where ground controllers believe Philae may have fell asleep for good.

November 14, 2014

"Dear the BBC, I must complain about the Coca-Cola product placement in this year's Doctor Who Christmas special..." by Feeling Listless

TV She's back then. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, we no longer have to sit and watch Children in Need to see the Doctor Who contribution although to be fair these days it's usually just some odd scene rather than some specially written piece of magic. Surprising no one, especially those of us who noticed the reverse of her head in the trailer, Clara's quite obviously back and happy to see the Doctor as far as it goes. Of course, if this is indeed also Santa, the Doctor presumably should have asked the rotund reindeer wrangler instead if he was a good man rather than Clara. At which point Santa would have pulled out Steve Lyons's article in this month's party newsletter and begun pointing ... "Weeeeellll...."

Want Funding? Then Be a National Priority by The Planetary Society

On Monday, Jason Callahan published an article in The Space Review discussing the importance of aligning the goals of federally funded scientific communities with national priorities. This post highlights some of the main points of the article and suggests a possible role for The Planetary Society.

With New Horizons Ready to Wake Up, Scientists Prepare for Pluto Encounter by The Planetary Society

When New Horizons wakes up for the final time on Dec. 6, scientists will spend six weeks preparing for the start of the spacecraft's Pluto encounter.

Berlin trip by Charlie Stross

I've been quiet for the past week because I've been hammering on the redraft of "Dark State", the first book in my big fat post-Edward Snowden near-future SF trilogy. (Same universe as the Merchant Princes, set 17 years later, but still awaiting a new series title because, eh, series reboot.) For some reason I don't have much energy for blogging while I'm elbow-deep in the transmission tunnel of a novel: must be getting old or something.

Later this month I will be visiting Berlin. (That's Berlin, Deutschland, not Berlin, North Dakota. Sorry, folks.) Partly it's R&R—I've rewritten two novels since the beginning of September—and partly it's research (big hunks of "Black Sky" and "Invisible Sun", the second and third books in the trilogy, are set there, and I need to refresh my memory, walk some routes, and check out certain museums). But while I'm there, I'll be doing a kaffeeflatsch at Otherland bookshop (Otherland Buchhandlung Schmidt, Tress & Weinert GbR Bergmannstraße 25 10961) on Thursday November 20th from 7:30pm. (Facebook event sign-up here.)

I also intend to go here and here: guess which is for R&R and which is for Research? (Actually, that might not be obvious: Tropical Islands is like something out of a William Gibson novel—it's really mind-blowing, like an L5 space colony that has touched down on the East Prussian plains.) And there will be a pub meet-up announcement in due course!

Philae update: My last day in Darmstadt, possibly Philae's last day of operations by The Planetary Society

Emily Lakdawalla gives a status report on Philae from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt.

How to get to Strategy ... in ten steps! by Simon Wardley

I was asked by someone whether I could help with a particular strategy. My response, was rather simple ... you do steps 0-9, I'll help you with ten ... all in graphical form. There really isn't much point to start with step 10 until you've done all the previous steps.

Rev Dan Catt Experimental Audio Diary - Episode 008 by Dan Catt

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

In which we have a bonfire, the kids go Trick or Treating, Modesty tries the Oculus Rift and I try the Museum.

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

Lost in New York. by Feeling Listless

Travel In a lot of ways this Gothamist piece about the lost and found section at the Long Island Railroad isn't that different the many of the piece about lost and found sections in railway networks. That doesn't mean it isn't fascinating:

"Books never come back," Henry Felton said as he propped a surfboard against a shelf of laptops. "The books that I get, people aren't looking for. And the ones people are looking for, they never come in. People come in for nothing things like a shopping bag of toilet paper or a coffee cup. But the most expensive things—an iPhone 6—nobody's come in for it yet." Felton is the supervisor of the Long Island Rail Road Lost & Found; it's his job to collect, catalog, and try to return everything that comes in from the trains and stations. His work affords him a keyhole view into the private worlds of others. "You see people's lives play out right in front of you with the things they leave behind," he said."

November 13, 2014

LightSail Gets Burn Wire Redesign for Round 2 of Vibration Tests by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society's LightSail-A spacecraft is less than three weeks away from an expected go/no-go decision on whether the CubeSat will be launched into space for a shakedown cruise next year.

Philae status, a day later by The Planetary Society

The Philae team scrambled all morning to comprehend the initially confusing status of the lander, and the picture is much clearer today. Speaking of which, there are lots more pictures!

Landing on a Comet: The Power of Knowledge by Albert Wenger

Yesterday we landed a probe on a comet. I am saying we because this is a major accomplishment for humanity. For reference, powered heavier-than-air flight was invented only a tad more than one hundred years ago. It is important to really let this sink in. After millennia of dreaming about flying into the skies we went in a little over a century all the way to steering a craft to line up with a comet traveling at 40,000 miles an hour!

What makes all of this possible is human ingenuity together with the combinatorial power of knowledge. That’s why it is critical that if we want to advance humanity we need to tear down the bulwark of intellectual property protections that has been built up and figure out how to widely collaborate on big problems such as climate change, sustainable farming, healthcare and yes, interstellar space travel.

Brief Philae "Morning After" update: First ÇIVA panorama from the surface by The Planetary Society

I'm just getting up to speed on the news from overnight, which is mostly good: Philae remained in contact with the orbiter (which means the CONSERT radar sounding experiment was working), and it's sitting stably on the surface, although it's not anchored in any way. And they released the first ÇIVA image from the ground!

"...that’s where I learned to hate potatoes." by Feeling Listless

Food If you didn't think it was possible to hate potatoes, how about if you worked in a potato processing plant? Excellent commentary from "turbid dahlia" at Metafilter:

"Once your bucket had reached critical mass, usually about twenty kilos of spuds in there, you would manhandle it to the end of the line – potato starch and solution water draining and slopping all over the place and your eyeballs fucking frozen – and angle it to kind of funnel/shake the spuds into these sturdy, transparent plastic bags. You had to guesstimate five kilos per bag – they had scales there for another guy to confirm the weight – and then the guy sealed the bags and piled them into a huge crate and that stuff sat there until the crate had ten bags and then you hefted it on top of another already-full crate and the crates either got taken out for delivery (to restaurants all over the city) or it went up into the coldroom behind the greengrocer’s and was stored there for delivery the next morning."

Libertarianism, Anarchism, Monopolies and Land by Vinay Gupta

A follow up to my bitcoin magazine interview on natural monopolies, cartels and power law distribution of wealth.

Nothing special is required to constitute the State within strict libertarian thinking. It is simply a monopoly landowner: that is the _definition_ of the State if we are honest. You do not like this, but it is the clearest and simplest rendering of what the State is. The State is not a special case, and sovereignty, taxation etc. are all (within libertarian principles) simply outcomes of the State-as-landowner. Its powers are the powers of a landowner, and they are onerous by virtue of the State’s monopoly: nothing more, but nothing less. Can you list attributes of the State which are incompatible with property-rights based analysis of its status? I would be surprised, but I can be convinced. I am not doctrinaire about this. It is experimental politics.

Within libertarian thought, it’s clear that a landowner can set any terms they like for access to their land. The state is simply a monopoly landowner; it’s laws are nothing but terms and conditions; it’s taxes nothing but agreed rents. You choose to stay on its soil past the age of majority, and this constitutes consent. Your parents/guardians choose to keep you on its soil, and this constitutes their consent on your behalf while you are still a minor, as would be made for medical procedures or contracts with you as a beneficiary. The State’s authority comes from nothing more than its ownership of the land you stand on, and your consenting to a set of rules by choosing to stay on its land, or having your guardians choose this for you.

As soon as you become honest about the state’s status as nothing but a corporate landowner managing and defending its property, the idea that libertarian property rights result in freedom simply collapse. The system we have is the result of a landowner exercising libertarian rights to set terms and conditions for access to its land.

There is no solid intellectual ground for the fairy tale that the State is a special case: it uses violence to collect rents from those who choose to remain on its property, nothing less, and nothing more. If you will stay, you will pay.

The State is nothing but a company that owns all the land, and its laws are legitimized by libertarian thought because their force and legitimacy emerges from property rights. This analysis applies even to non-state anarchocapitalists of all because once we admit the State is just another landowner, how are we to pry land from the State to do something more interesting? There is no legitimate grounds for rebellion against a landowner managing its property within these systems of thought.

As for the argument that the State’s hold on its land is invalidated by violence, let me make three counterarguments.

* It has been suggested that those who are current landowners should have their claims to the land they own normalized, on the basis that they did not personally commit the violence which first took the land from its homesteaded state in deep antiquity. This also applies to the State-as-landowner. If current landowner claims are legitimate, so are the State’s prior-and-superior claims.

* The legal status of land owned by the State is very, very clear in many historical cases: land discovered by explorers paid directly by a king or queen and then claimed while still empty. Mostly that land is barren rocks, but not all of it. There is no doubt that the State as a corporation has at least some legitimate land ownership, discovered free of violence, in some cases.

* This may leave some number of Virgin Birth Homesteads – land that was peacefully settled *before* any other entity, including the State, had claimed the territory or improved it by providing protection from external threats to those who lived there, and which has been passed down on a voluntary basis ever since. I will grant that enclosure of those VBHs is theft; however, I challenge anybody to find a clearly historically documented example of the same.

Maybe New Zealand has some tribal areas that qualify, or Hawaii. But I’d be stunned if anything equivalent can be found in Europe, or America. Even in the US, 12000 years of settlement has left plenty of time to wipe out VHBs.

There is no intellectually honest way to render the current States as illegitimate within libertarian thinking. I know people hate this conclusion, but it is so. To escape it, you either have to do unseemly mental gymnastics to distinguish between the State’s rights as a landowner and its right to perform its activities, or you have to do the intellectually honest and brave thing, and admit that the state *proves* that property rights can be used to take away other people’s freedom, and therefore have to take a back seat to civil rights. When there is a conflict between freedom and property – and the State-as-monopoly-landowner argument proves that such conflict exists – freedom must win. Not property.

As I have said for many years: “free people will make free markets, but free markets will not necessarily make free people.”

Anarchism has for too long been a creature of the antis, of those who protest the status quo with no realistic vision of how to move forwards. Anarchocapitalism, in a world that started with fifty million landowners with allodial title on Virgin Birth Homesteads might work just fine, although the tendency to collapse towards rule-by-monopolies would likely be strong. But in the world we are in, those rules of play simply act to legitimize the State on the basis that its ownership of land legitimises its later activities. You can’t legitimize your claim that property rights produce freedom until facing down the simple truth: the State is just a landowner.

As I have admitted, anarchism is in equally bad intellectual shape. I can take an equally nasty look at their first principles and drive bloody great holes in them too. All of these political ideologies are getting rapidly outdated by events, from 11 billion people crushing the ecosystem through to transhumanism. We desperately need ground-up rethinks of all of these political positions relative to the facts that actually pertain in the world that we are living in. We need clear, coherent answers – very hard for freedom-based systems – to how we avoid ecological destruction in the name of freedom.

I’m not hostile to libertarianism on behalf of a more-perfect anarchy. Rather, I see that the anarchist critique of libertarianism is valid, and so is the libertarian critique of anarchism.

I do not have satisfactory answers, yet. Neither do you. But if we let the old stuff go, based on shoddy axioms and lacking the necessary teeth to manage humanity’s total environmental impact, including one-acre-at-a-time problems like deforestation, perhaps together we can find a better way: something that fully respects liberty and ecology, without wishing to pretend there is a better human nature, and in full sight of the awful abuses of power which are normal in government. But we have to raise the bar here, and with a little luck, now you know it too.

flattr this!

Away From it All: Dwarf Galaxies in Voids by Astrobites

Title: The Metallicity of Void Dwarf Galaxies

Authors: K. Kreckel, K. Croxall, B. Groves, R. Van De Weygaert, R. W. Pogge

First Author’s Institution: Max Planck Institut für Astronomie, Heidelberg, Germany

Paper Status: Submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters

A galaxy’s evolutionary path may be intimately related to its environment, which can vary dramatically from the dense environments of galaxy clusters, containing hundreds to thousands of galaxies and a lot of gas in between them, all the way to voids, large regions of space with very little gas and galaxies. Void galaxies are often smaller dwarf galaxies undergoing active star formation. Compared to their non-void counterparts, they form stars more quickly, and they have both younger (bluer) stars and more gas. As stars are born and die, they increase the fraction of metals contained within the galaxy, its metallicity. Therefore we expect these galaxies have low metallicities. Testing these expectations with observations is a valuable way to test our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve.

The authors do exactly this, by conducting observations of eight dwarf galaxies rich in neutral hydrogen gas that were first discovered via the Void Galaxy Survey. They use the Large Binocular Telescope to observe each identified void galaxy. Since it would be impossible to count all of the metals in a galaxy, and direct measurements of metallicty are challenging, astronomers often use certain spectral lines and features as tracers of metallicity, each of which have their own caveats and uncertainties. The authors of this paper focus on a few Oxygen, Nitrogen, and Hydrogen emission lines in order to do this. Finally, they select a total control sample of 34 isolated dwarf galaxies, 13 of which were identified in a previous work by their neutral hydrogen content (much like the sample void dwarf galaxies).

Oxygen in Void Dwarf Galaxies

In order to make a good comparison to the control sample, the authors consider the non-void analog to a given dwarf galaxy as one with a similar intrinsic brightness. They compare the measured abundance of oxygen (amount of oxygen relative to hydrogen) for their 8 dwarf galaxies (red points) against the control sample (black points) as a function of absolute magnitude in Fig. 1. The oxygen abundance is used as a proxy for metallicity (lower value means lower metallicity), but since there is uncertainties in translating the abundance to a real metallicity, Fig. 1 contains 3 panels representing 3 different accepted means of calibrating this measurement. In all cases, the void galaxies (red) do not appear to be any different from the control sample (black). This is consistent with two previously observed void dwarfs (orange). I’ll talk about the green points in the next section.

Fig. 1:

Fig. 1: The measured ratio of oxygen to hydrogen (oxygen abundance) for the void dwarf galaxies (red) and control sample (black) as a function of absolute blue (B-band) magnitude for three calibration methods. Two previously observed void dwarf galaxies are shown in black, and abundances derived from direct metallicity measurements for three of the author’s galaxies in green. (Source: Fig. 2 in Kreckel et. al. 2014).


A Direct Estimate of Dwarf Galaxy Metallicity

In three of their dwarf galaxies, the authors observe the [O III] λ4363Å emission line, which can be used to directly calculate the metallicity of these galaxies, without having to rely on different calibration methods (like those shown in Fig. 1). In Fig. 1, the abundances calculated from this measurement for these three dwarf galaxies are given as the green dots. Comparing the observed metallicities of galaxies with models of galaxies evolved in complete isolation gives us an understanding of how important the flow of gas into a galaxy can be, and also how important the removal of gas from galaxies (say via supernova explosions) can be. The authors do this in Fig. 2 for their void dwarf galaxies (red) and the control sample dwarf galaxies (black) that had direct metallicity measurements. The dashed line is the expected relationship from a completely isolated galaxy model, while the solid is 1/4 of the dashed line.


Fig. 2: The abundance derived from direct metallicity measurements for three of the void dwarf galaxies (red) and the control (black) as a function of the ratio of the observed total baryon (stars + gas) mass to just the gas mass. The dashed line is what is expected from a closed box galaxy model, and the solid is the 1/4 of the closed box model. (Source: Fig. 3 of Kreckel et. al. 2014)

Again, the void dwarf galaxies look similar to the control sample, and in general all galaxies have a lower abundance than would be expected from a completely isolated galaxy. This can occur in two possible ways: either the inflow of metal poor gas (i.e. mostly hydrogen) is very important in these galaxies, or the loss of metals is very important. Metals can be lost, for example, through supernova explosions that carry metal rich gas out of the galaxy.

The Evolution of Void Dwarf Galaxies

This final result is interesting because other observations hint that void galaxies more often have inflowing gas than non-void counterparts. This, in combination with the observation that the metallicities of the void and control dwarf galaxies are similar, indicate that environment may not have as significant an impact on the evolution of these dwarf galaxies as was expected. Even though there may be more inflowing gas, because void and non-void dwarf galaxies have similar metallicites, the authors suggest that it is the internal processes of galaxies (such as outflows of gas), and not their environments, that really determine how galaxies evolve. This work is a tantalizing indication that there is quite a lot about galaxy evolution that we have yet to learn.



November 12, 2014

PHILAE HAS LANDED! [UPDATED] by The Planetary Society

The landing happened on time just after 16:02 UT today! Philae mission manager Stephan Ulamec said: "Philae is talking to us! The first thing he told us was the harpoons have been fired and rewound. We are sitting on the surface." Those words later turned out not to be true; but we do know at least that Philae survived the landing and is returning good data.

2001: An Evening's Viewing. by Feeling Listless

Film One of the triumphs of the film sector in YouTube, the Toronto International Film Festival has just uploaded two videos from its screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood in attendance. Although even a big flat screen won't be a replacement for the massive screen at the ArcLight, this seems like it would be the perfect way to spend the evening.

So firstly watch this:


And afterwards:

Philae update: Photo documentation of Philae's separation! by The Planetary Society

Here it is. We knew hours ago that Philae separation happened, but there's nothing like seeing a photo, seeing Philae's mothership receding into the distance.

Philae update: "Go" for landing, despite apparent failure of cold-gas jet system [UPDATED] by The Planetary Society

Philae is "go" for landing. But there has been drama overnight. One of the steps to prepare for landing did not proceed as planned. UPDATE: At 09:03 UTC, the lander separated from the orbiter, beginning a 7-hour descent to the surface of the comet.

November 11, 2014

Unwelcome reality excursion by Charlie Stross

Here's a brief thought-experiment for you: imagine what the UK would look like today if the outcome of the second world war had taken a left turn early in 1940, and the whole of western Europe somehow ended up under Soviet control by 1946. (No nuclear weapons or gas attacks need apply: this speculation is about outcomes, not processes—so discussion of precisely how the British People's Democratic Republic comes about is left as an exercise for the reader (and is not to be explored in comments)).

Let us further postulate that Stalinism passes with its creator, much as happened in our own experience of history: that the Soviet empire eventually undergoes the same fiscal crisis and collapse (alternative discussion of the same process by a former Soviet minister—you can forget the urban legend that Ronald Reagan did it) much as we remember, except possibly somewhat later—as late as the early 21st century, perhaps.

What interests me, in view of recent revelations about police spying and the extent of the British surveillance state is: How would the practice of internal suppression of dissent and state surveillance have differed in a post-Soviet Britain from what we appear to be living with right now?

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent": as we have no way of knowing when the regime of the British Democratic People's Republic fell, or what level of technology was available to them, purely technical aspects of the Communist surveillance state of the British Isles must be excluded.

However, we know the general shape of the ideological envelope within which Warsaw Pact regimes operated (or were allowed to operate, before the Kremlin jerked their choke-chain), and so we can speculate as to the structure and objectives of the British regime under Actually Existing Socialism.

As with all such governments, Parliament embraced a number of divergent factions—nominally all part of the Communist Party, but in practice splintered between doctrinaire and pragmatist poles. The doctrinaire faction wanted to establish a true socialist state and work towards achieving communism; the pragmatists were more concerned with reconstruction, economic development, and not rocking the boat and thereby inviting Soviet correction (the lessons of East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956 did not go un-learned). Nevertheless, both factions agreed on the need for internal monitoring and control of dissent.

Although the regime initially enforced its rule savagely (the number of executions in the immediate post-war consolidation period is believed to be in the high five digits), after Stalin's death it moderated its approach. Control proceeded by surveillance, harassment, and public ridicule of non-active political deviants, with prosecution and imprisonment reserved for those who actively took steps the regime deemed to be "hostile to the security of the state"—questioning the dominant ideology in public, writing pro-democracy or anti-communist tracts, or engaging in a variety of other activities seen as subversive. These included promoting animal rights, protesting against industrial pollution, and complaining about corruption in the administration as well as more overt political right-deviationism.

From the 1990s on, under the policy of New Liberalisation, increasing diversity in public expressions of political sentiment were tolerated as long as they fell within unspoken guidelines. Questioning of the key tenets of Marxism-Leninism was off-limits, and people who published arguments against the dominance of the Governing Party tended to find themselves targeted for tax audits or charged and imprisoned for possession of illegal pornography. Attempts to organize ad-hoc pressure groups on specific issues would only be tolerated if the issues in question did not contradict specific state interests, be they economic or political. The fate of Greenpeace UK remains a particularly salient example of the limits of the regime's tolerance for dissidence, although the protestor's eventual release when their conviction for malicious hooliganism was overturned (after their protest against the acid rain emissions from the Drax B power station was found to have been orchestrated by a police spy operating under instructions from the British Coal Collective) deomnstrates that towards the end of the regime the administration became increasingly concerned with its image, and tended to blame excesses on zealous subordinates rather than crediting them as the inevitable outcome of state policy.

As to the mechanisms ...

The BDPR maintained the traditional British system of local constabularies, augmented by a national-level Security Service derived from the previous organization MI5 (suitably purged). The SS's remit included monitoring of high-profile dissidents and intellectuals, identification of foreign spies and saboteurs, and coordination of action against threats to the state (insofar as the state existed as a vehicle for the Party): it did not generally engage in extralegal assassination or wetwork because by definition the targets of SS monitoring were suspected of crimes against the state and could be prosecuted by the police and courts, thereby maintaining constitutionality and the rule of law.

The Police, for their part, maintained some thousands of active undercover officers who infiltrated illegal groupings, where necessary leading anti-state activity that could be prosecuted.

The London Metropolitan Police acquired responsibility for any national-level activities directly supporting SS operations. This included running the Special Demonstration Squad for monitoring and controlling dissident protestors at non-local events, e.g. protests against global warming or Party corruption (in particular, the revolving door between the Politburo and the well-padded boardrooms of state enterprises).

Telecommunications in the BDPR remained the monopoly of the General Post Office and, later, it's spun-out subsidiary, British Telecom. State enterprises were created to operate three rival cellular mobile phone networks (one of which was reserved for party, police, and military usage). The BT monopoly on connecting terminals to the national trunk backbone was preserved until very late in the process of de-Sovietization, and ensured that the post-BDPR internet architecture of the UK made is particularly easy to insert taps into all routers: these were subsequently mandated under the Communications Data Bill. This permitted the regime to make enormous cost savings by downsizing its army of paid informers from an estimated five million (at peak, circa 1965) to less than 50,000 by the turn of the century, allowing GCHQ to focus on traffic analysis based on metadata logging. In London, in 1970, the GPO had five thousand staff permanently listening in on wiretaps among the capital's estimated 500,000 telephones; by 2005, this had shrunk to an estimated sixty personnel in one call centre, but the capital's 9,200,000 cellular devices all contributed location tracking and call data to the surveillance system.

The citizens of the British Democratic People's Republic, languishing under the Communist yoke, were roughly where we are today in terms of their relationship with the panopticon presided over by an entrenched political elite who share a consensus ideology and differ only in their approach to it.

Today, we are dominated by the Washington Consensus (much as the BDPR operated under the unquestionable diktat of the Fifth International). Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democrat, our main parties are dominated by an elite of wealthy technocrats who all share a common set of assumptions not only about the way the world operates, but about the way the world should operate. To question this neoliberal capitalist consensus singles one out for attention as an enemy of all right-thinking persons just as emphatically as questioning the commissars of the BDPR singled one out during the dark years of the 1970s. We do not have a single governing party riven by factional splits; we have that situation's Rubin Vase counterpart: multiple governing parties united by a common cause.

The tools of the modern surveillance state require fewer direct telephone taps, fewer eyeballs on email, fewer envelopes to be steamed open, and fewer police spies. That is because the machinery of surveillance has largely been automated. The ends of surveillance remain the same in a neoliberal capitalist democracy as they were in a Communist satellite state: the difference in scope and severity of punishment is merely one of degree, not of kind.

From Net Neutrality to Access Liberty: Let's Build a Coalition by Albert Wenger

Yesterday President Obama came out strongly in support of the admittedly awfully named principle of net neutrality. I wish he had done so sooner but will take it now. This is an absolutely critical principle to maintain in order to keep the Internet open for innovation. I am not going to rehash all the arguments for why we need it or refute all the points suggesting this is the government encroaching into an area it should stay out of. So instead of just firing away in the comments please first take a look at what I have written about this before.

This is sadly shaping up to be a left versus right political fight. That’s unfortunate because there is nothing in the principle of net neutrality that is inherently left or right. On many similar issues we have had broad coalitions in the past recognize that market structure matters and that companies operating in markets with insufficient competition shouldn’t be allowed to extend their power beyond those markets.

So while it may be too late to avoid a partisan fight, we should try to rebrand this issue as Internet Freedom or Access Liberty and work on building a broad coalition. One interesting starting point for that are the executives of companies such as HBO and Disney that would like to establish a direct relationship with their audience.

Addendum: I just saw this piece which indicates broad support for the principle among conservative voters.

Philae update: First of four "go-no-go" decisions is a GO! by The Planetary Society

It's been a day of calm before the storm here at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, as we get ready for the big event tomorrow: Philae's hoped-for landing on a comet. The first of four "go-no-go" decisions has been made, and it's a "go." Mission navigators have gotten data back from Rosetta that indicates that the spacecraft is on the correct trajectory to deliver Philae to the comet.

Bigger Brother. by Feeling Listless

TV Here's my second week reviewing the fourth UK series of Big Brother for Off The Telly which contains one of my favourite television moments ever, when John Tickle effectively coached Nush on how to deal with the outside world, realising that he was in the unique position at that point of not only having been there but also having nothing to lose. The Channel 4 show cuts away from the action just as it gets interesting here, but you can see the start on the screen. I remember that night vividly, following along and chatting on one of the Big Brother discussion boards in real time as the drama unfolded on the live feed, the sort of event which would migrate to Twitter later.  But the whole week was extraordinary as a figure who'd previously been treated as the nerdy comic relief both inside and outside the house was sent back in with the assumption that he'd be more of the same but hacked the entire process (albeit within the boundaries of what the producers would broadcast and whatever it was the tabloids were up to).  Incidentally, some soul has uploaded the whole of Big Brother 4 to YouTube, though I suspect it's best left locked in the memory.

Big Brother

Friday, July 18, 2003 by Stuart Ian Burns

Information has become the true currency in the Big Brother house. Whoever has the most information wields the most power, and with that power the ability to control the outcome. It’s ironic then that within the house the most powerful voice isn’t actually going to be allowed to win.

Friday night’s eviction show had ended on a cliffhanger with Jon Tickle re-entering the house. As he sat and gave his old housemates the rules he was all but offering his strategy for the ensuing week. “I can’t tell you how I got here. I can’t tell you why I’m here. All I can tell you is that I’m here now.” They took him at his word. They assumed that he’d been advised by Big Brother not to divulge anything. Cleverly this wasn’t true at all. He couldn’t tell them about the outside world, but he could tell them that because he’d lost already, he couldn’t nominate or be nominated, and more importantly that he couldn’t win. But because they didn’t ask, he didn’t tell them. In moments he had become the focus of the group, commanding more attention than ever, his every word being hung upon, contestants keen to jump upon anything he would “stupidly” let slip. He knew this and capitalized upon it.

The viewer began scrutinizing his every move. How much of what he was doing was deliberate? As soon as he went into the house he went to the toilet. He told them it was so that they could talk about him behind his back, which they did as paranoia began to envelop them. Why was Jon back, what were his motives and how long was he staying? Later he left his luggage bag open and they quickly started to glance into it. Was that deliberate? The detectives amongst the group were hard at work – he had three pairs of underwear which meant he would be staying for at least the weekend. But Ray had a feeling it would be for the whole of the final two weeks and he wasn’t happy. Jon had enjoyed his time in the house, been put out on a public vote, it was out of order he’d returned with full privileges. Was there some other motivation involved? That night, Jon spent an hour in the Diary room. All we received in the Sunday night highlights was a glimpse of some master plan (with Tickle sounding unnervingly like Davros creator of the Daleks). He was going to be winding them up. A lot.

As the week progressed, we saw a different Tickle. There were still inspired moments reminiscent of the first four weeks, such as sunbathing whilst whistling the music from the Cantina scene in Star Wars – but this was a darker version of Jon. Once he had Scott and Nush to himself he expounded his theory about the Cameron’s game plan. With just two weeks to work within, he was acting quickly, no room for subtlety. “Everyone thinks that Cameron sits in a little shack in Orkney and guts fish for a living. Cameron is an international businessman. He is not the simpering fool who cuddles women and is no good with women. The whole Bible-bashing businessman, I’m not buying it in the least. I think he’s being quite fake. I’m not convinced by Cameron in the least. I don’t think you can send someone to Brussels to an international trade fish fair and have that bloke on the stand.” Nush seemed amazed as though Jon was either nuts or had hit upon something. Did Tickle really believe what he was saying or was he the one playing? If only he’d known that in a few days a handwriting expert would appear on BBLB and back up everything he’d said based on Cameron’s application form for the show.
The Tickle master plan seemed to consist of pointed comments at inopportune moments coupled with downtime to let people speculate about why he was there. As Lisa had been for the previous two weeks, he was now their primary point of contact for any scraps of information about how they were being perceived on the outside world, and how this would effect the voting. So anything he said, even if it wasn’t all that relevant, was picked upon. In this regard, the following is particularly revealing. It was featured on the Big Brother website, but not in the highlights show (presumably because it makes him out to be much nastier):

“The gang were playing their favourite alphabet game, this time based around TV shows when Jon dropped another conversation stopper. Out of nowhere, and it was never made clear to what he was referring, the 29-year-old announced: ‘Another thing I can’t talk about.’ Understandably the gang gave up on their game for a second. ‘It’s something that someone said randomly ages ago and now it’s boiled over,’ Jon finished darkly without explaining his drift. ‘It fills me with absolute f***ing peril when we have moments like this,’ Scott quivered in response. ‘I’m scared silly,’ trembled Nush. ‘Jon I don’t like this, you know stuff that we don’t,’ Ray shivered, summing up the words on each of the housemates’ lips.”

This happened late on a nomination day which had been quite tricky for the “29-year-old”, because it would the first time the housemates would find out about his immunity. As the computer man read out a laminate which broke the news to everyone that he was exempt from the process it was fairly obvious that Ray and Scott were waiting as long as they could to leave the vicinity without looking like they were leaving for that reason. The Irishman felt like the rug was being pulled out from under him. At no point did it occur to him to ask Jon whether he could win. This was very interesting indeed.

Now Ray became the target. A classic moment followed next day when the nominations were announced. Ray already rattled because he knew that everyone else had worked out his votes (and handling it a lot worse than the week before when they really did know) which had meant Nush would be up for eviction instead of Steph, tried to share a moment with Jon. There was a smile, then Jon explained that one of the people who had voted for Nush shouldn’t have because it now meant that they couldn’t win. Ray tried to give a look which said that he knew exactly what Jon meant. He didn’t have a clue. He ran directly to Steph and Cameron, misquoted what he’d heard, and began to sweat, visibly. It’s a very oblique comment, but giving it some thought, I think Jon meant that because Cameron had nominated Nush instead of Steph himself it meant that he had a stronger opponent in the public vote and there was a greater chance he would be leaving on Friday (Jon knowing what we know about the public’s general attitude to the housemates).

Ironically (considering later events) Jon seemed to have become the eyes and ears of Big Brother, and more than a spanner in the works. The fun-loving Ray was slowly giving way to an utter sourpuss. He was biting his finger nails to the bone. The façade was deteriorating and by the end of the week the public perception would be markedly different. Later, we found Tickle looking at the same two pages of Shakespeare for 14 minutes. It was Julius Caesar. He was covertly communicating to the outside world that the only way to win in this game was through backstabbing. Perhaps.

Jon understood that by controlling the flow of information, he could to certain extent control the emotions of his fellow housemates, but that whatever he did would stay within the house (bar some ill will towards him when they left). The ideal of a series like Big Brother is that it’s a cocoon. The people inside should have no idea about what has been happening in the world outside the house until they step out of the front door into the awaiting crowd. At no point during the four years the programme has been airing has this ever been the case. In the first year, The Sun flew a model airplane over the compound dropping leaflets exposing the double dealing of Nick Bateman. In Big Brother 3, Tim used his knowledge of the World Cup and his coded attempts revealing the scores as a way of currying favour with his new housemates. Now in Big Brother 4, The People newspaper nudged a story which was playing out far too slowly for them, and it might have been one of the worst moments in the history of the show. Unlike Jon who was particularly trying to effect changes within the house, the paper was trying to take control of the housemates lives to increase the potency of a story.

How bad can the security around the compound be that a journalist was able park up nearby, pull out a loud hailer and start shouting statements into the house? That it took so long to bring in the crowd noises to mask the sounds of the hack? Then subsequently that it suddenly became part of the Big Brother experience as Nush entered the diary room (assuming she would be called anyway) and wasn’t seen to be offered any kind of an apology for such a violation. And then, tellingly, the incident become part of the highlights show. Granted not to show any of it would have been tantamount to censorship, but as a viewer it felt terribly exploitative, especially as Nush went into her bedroom and felt the camera following her as she walked to her bed. None of the housemates had followed her there, why should we? It was a turn off and made the viewer question their own motives in watching the series, and what the producers were showing them. Which is no good thing, especially for a reviewer who knows he is going to contradict this holier-than-thou attitude at some point in this review. But the reasons became fairly clear. The incident had adversely affected their plans for the evening.

For Endemol the romance between Nush and Scott was hotting up, and they would do everything they could to manipulate the outcome. No matter what Jon or the journalist might think, the people with the absolute power are the producers. Even on the E4 live feed they have the ability to blank out the sound lest the public should hear anything they wouldn’t want us to (although they do let something slip now and again. Only this week via the feed shown on Channel 4 late at night did we find out that in the first four weeks a press photographer had been taking photos over the fence). Hence the housemates constant jitters as to how they are being portrayed. This was one of those occasions in which they would be attempting to manipulate the action. Did the producers allow the incident with the megaphone happen on purpose? You decide. But there have been precedents. In the final week of series two, Paul and Helen were given a candlelit dinner in a secluded spot. Nothing happened except a bit of rolling about. Helen was still attached and Paul knew better than kick into the apple cart. Two years later and it looked like it was happening again. Except yet again it backfired.

As ever on the Saturday night edition, the players were competing for the right to enter the Reward Room. The catch this time around was that there would be only one winner, who would then have a choice as to who would accompany them. This ruling was doubtlessly conceived under the assumption that the outcome would be something in the region of Scott and Nush going into the room together, and “things” happening between them. However, almost as if he was intent on usurping this plan, Scott sensitively volunteered himself as the Bingo caller in their game, thereby negating his entrance into the room. As a result Ray won deciding to take Cameron in with him.

For my money watching the two winners indulging themselves in a women’s night-in was far more entertaining than what the producers were fishing for. This was certainly the most gay friendly evening since Josh and Brian’s dinner together in BB2. Ray might have been using the cosmetics to make himself look hard with a black eye and all, but Cameron was enjoying the soothing oils. Watching their Morecambe and Wise inspired night in bed together was a joy, their discomfort at sharing the bed recalling John Candy and Steve Martin in Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Ray’s champagne consumption and Cameron’s pleas for more apple juice demonstrated that they were different people and so they would remain.

But wait – there was still second chance Sunday. And so predictably Scott won the task this time and picked Nush to go in with him. On the Monday night highlights show the producers again seemed to think that the nation was gripped by what was for me a non-story, and decided to devote almost the entire show to an utter non-event. Nush and Scott had refused to sing the tune of the producers and instead they just talked. A lot. We were subjected to the usual post-modern conversation about the questions Davina McCall would be asking when they finally left the house. They had an idea what would be asked, but why were we being shown this at the expense of some of the action that had appeared on the E4 live feed which was just funny? They also had a no physical contact agreement (which was mostly adhered to). The cushions went up the centre of the bed as they tucked in, and they reminded us that it was a statement about something.

Like the final night of a summer holiday before going off to University for the first time, it was clear this would be the highpoint of their relationship in the house and that nothing would be the same again. Over the next few days, they were much less physical when sober (and only hugging when tipsy), talking rather than touching. The final nail seemed to be during a conversation between the “couple” and Jon about Steph and Cameron. Nush had said she wished she could force them to be together. Tickle advised that he thought they knew it was nice that they had each other inside the house, but once it was over that would be that. He seemed to talking about Scott and Nush instead. They sat and shuffled. And to give the BBLB body language experts something to talk about, looked downwards. As the week progressed Nush had moved on. But Scott hadn’t – or at least this is how it was portrayed on the Thursday night highlights show.

Actually, in terms of manipulating the footage it’s difficult to remember whether in previous series the structure of the highlights shows were so much like television drama. In recent weeks there seems to have been a reliance on primary story, with secondary material buzzing about. This was clearly evident on Monday night’s edition, with the Nush/Scott situation being counterpointed with Steph’s reaction to the task. I have to admit to not being a great supporter of Steph as a contestant because up until this week she’s too often appeared to be a bystander, on the edges of the action; there to give Cameron someone to talk to. When she has been up for eviction she seems to have won through because the housemates she has been up against have been less liked. There’s nothing particularly to dislike about her, but nothing to lock onto. So it’s been very uncomfortable watching her come to the realization that she is under the shadow of Nush. It’s a self-esteem issue, of course, polarized by the Sunday night Bingo task in which she felt that out of the lads only Cameron might pick her. It was another reminder that these are not scripted characters, but real people and should be judged as such. At that time we didn’t believe for one moment Ray would have actually picked Steph, but as the nominations developed this was muddied somewhat. The triangle was being rocked to the core.

For the final nominations, Channel 4 decided to show something from everybody (a change from recent weeks which have been pretty lean). The biggest surprise was seeing Nush and not Steph up for eviction. The deciding vote came from Ray, who sadly wasn’t articulate enough for it to be clear whether he was actually being sincere to Steph the night before or if this was pure tactics. In the late stages of previous series, evictions were about who the housemates would have to spend their final week with. Was I really missing something about Steph? Or had we not seen any of the really entertaining things she’s done? In year two, for example, no one wanted to nominate anyone else because they had become such good friends (apparently). Now they were at it like hardened game players. The love-in I talked about last week had become a much harsher place.

And then it was Wednesday night in the Big Brother house, and the disembodied voices had lovingly supplied some booze. I can’t be certain, but I’m willing to bet that in a fortnight it will be possible to look back at the second half of that night’s edition and select the exact moment when Ray lost Big Brother. Could it be when he threw the heart to heart he’d had with Steph back in her face? When he got up and walked away angrily, pulling the lid off a beer violently before storming into the house and slamming it on the table? Dragging a hobbled Nush halfway across the house despite the protests of his friends that he was going too far and then threw a glass at her head? No, for me it was his classic line to Nush: “I just want to punch her in the f**king face!” He had become everything Scott had feared he could be after a few drinks and at no point was it fun.

Which brings us to the flipside of the accusation of the producers using their skills to portray the housemates in a certain way. The house is all about behaviours. Although the highlight shows are heavily edited, they aren’t fictionalised. Everything within them actually happened. If Ray (or Steph for that matter) had just been happy to have a quiet drink, sit about a lot, perhaps ask Jon for his impression of how the sky was looking, nothing would have appeared in the highlights show and their impressive work during the opera task would have been the big story taking up much of the show (as such, it was barely featured). They argued and the producers had to include it, and not just for ratings purposes. Not to include the actions would have just proved the accusation that they were controlling information flow from the house in order to control the outcome.

That said does anyone remember a housemate called Cameron? Went to South Africa, up for eviction this week, appeared in the girly reward room. You might have noticed that he hasn’t warranted a mention in the past few paragraphs because since the weekend his impression on the action seemed to be pretty minimal. From all the Lisa-hating which appeared last week he just seems to be around. The most interesting thing he’s done is appear as a Pavarotti knock off and turn up in the diary room understandably sermonizing about the evils of drink. His much self trailed secret was still out there, but he was keeping that close to his chest. He did get some coverage on BBLB and in the highlights sections of E4′s interactive service, but in terms of viewer coverage, that’s a bit like a rock fanzine reviewing a band the editor’s girlfriend saw in a suburban pub on a wet Tuesday night.

Where at one stage everything seemed to be about Cameron, Steph now seemed to have a point: everything really was about Nush. Which could be why she was evicted.

There is a pattern which has built up this series: Once the nominations have been made the focus seemed to shift to one of the housemates up for eviction, who after getting all of the attention somehow ends up leaving. Last week, the house spun around Lisa, she was the main topic of conversation, and her every move was writ large. For the latter half of this week, it was all about Nush. Even in Friday night’s mini-highlights she became the main character and the only time we saw Cameron doing anything of any import, he was talking to the orange stringer.

And so to the Friday night eviction show, which was the most enjoyable in some time. Whether it was that Nush left to cheers, or that she just seemed to want to love the moment and not try to make a point about something, I’m not sure. The voting breakdown seemed quite brutal: She received 66.87% of the public votes (951,512) in comparison to Cameron’s 33.13% (471,346). To some extent she was a victim of the press who developed a profile of her as an utter flirt using her sexuality to get what she wants. That might not be entirely fair. Granted she warmed to the male housemates a lot over the weeks but that was possibly more of a survival technique than anything else. I think on this occasion it was just a case of one housemate being more popular than the other overall, and more of case of the Cameron fan block vote going into effect.

Trust Jon to be involved in one of the moments of the series. Just seconds after Nush had been announced as the ninth evictee, seemingly with the backing of his fellow housemates, Tickle followed her into the bedroom and began a pep talk which within the space of a few minutes focussed the various themes and information from across the week into a point …

He told her he couldn’t win (his control of information within the house). He told her that she had the chance to make a lot of money over the following week and that she needed to make her mind up as to which Sunday paper she would sell her story to by 9am Saturday. Using the Helen Keller approach of finger on palm he told her how much his fellow evictees had made and advised her to get approval about any copy the papers write, but to understand that they would still lie (the press trying to control the story). He told her to be careful about the agents, but listen to their advice and not to go to every showbiz event. That Davina was one of the nicest people you could meet and to speak to Gos for support but stay away from Anouska and Justine (still no love lost there then). To stay in London so that she was close to the other ex-housemates who are a good support network – and do RI:SE (controlling your image and message within a wider context) …

By then, Big Brother’s call to attend the diary room had become a mantra and he had to go. She hugged him and said: “If they tell you off …” “They’re going to do more than that.” He replied. He received a reprimand, but frankly, the worst they could do is ask him to leave which would look very bad indeed for them.

As Big Brother 4 enters its endgame apart from more Jon Tickle it’s looking to be the least appetizing final week yet. In week one it would have been difficult to foresee that Steph would be the final woman in the house. That feels like luck. With her out of the picture the final prize will be between Scott, Ray and Cameron. As has been said, Ray may have ruined his chances after Wednesday night (and certainly the E4 ticker, which has backed Ray for some time has turned very hostile) and although there is a lot of popular support for Scott, I think that the widespread appeal of Cameron will lead him to the £70,000. But then I thought Anna Nolan had it in the bag and that Alex Sibley was a shoo-in.
Who would I like to win? Can I take the Nush approach? “Oh I don’t know … you decide …”


Report from Darmstadt: Philae status and early Rosetta results from DPS by The Planetary Society

I'm reporting live from the press room at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. There's little news on Philae yet except that its status is good. Meanwhile, Rosetta scientists presented their first early comet results at the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, Arizona, which I watched from afar using Twitter.

The Tablet Turning Point by Jeff Atwood

Remember how people in the year 2000 used to say how crazy and ridiculous it was, the idea that Anyone Would Ever Run Photoshop in a Web Browser? I mean come on.


One of my big bets with Discourse is that eventually, all computers will be tablets of varying size, with performance basically indistinguishable from a two year old desktop or laptop.

Apps are great and all, but there has to be some place for this year's bumper crop of obscene amount of computing superpower to go. I like to use history as my guide, and I believe it's going exactly the same place it did on desktops and laptops — that no-installing-anything friend of every lazy user on the planet, the inevitable path of least resistance, the mobile web browser.

For the last few years, I've been buying every significant tablet device in the run up to the big holiday sales season, and testing them all, to see how many years are left until mobile devices catch up to desktops on general web and JavaScript performance.

How are we doing? Let's benchmark some Discourse client-side Ember JavaScript code:

iPhone 4 June 2011 2031ms
iPhone 5 Sept 2012 600ms
iPhone 5s Sept 2013 300ms
iPhone 6 Sept 2014 250ms
iPad Air 2 Oct 2014 225ms

My Core i4770k desktop machine scores 180ms in the same benchmark on the latest version of Chrome x64. I'd say we're solidly within striking distance this year.

I don't like to spend a lot of time talking about news and gadgets here, since the commentary will be irrelevant within a few years. But this year marks a key turning point for mobile and tablet performance, and I've lived with every iteration of these devices for the last couple of years, so I'll make an exception.

Look at this performance rampage the iPad Air 2 goes on:

Just look at it! All the graphs are like this!

It's hard to believe we now live in a world where the Apple "Premium" is no longer about aesthetics, but raw, unbridled, class-leading performance. And you know what? That's something I can totally get behind.

Anyone who tells you the iPad Air 2 is some kind of incremental update must not actually use theirs. As someone who does regularly use his iPad, I can say without hesitation that this is a massively upgraded device. I grew to hate my old iPad Air because of the memory restrictions; I could barely have three tabs open in Mobile Safari without one of them paging out of memory. Thanks x64 and iOS7!

The bonded screen, touchid, the now-adequate-for-x64 2GB of RAM, the amazingly fast triple core CPU, the GPU, and yeah, it's a little thinner. For performance, nothing else even comes close.

It's so fast I sometimes forget I'm not using my Surface Pro 3 with its 4GB RAM and Core i5 CPU. I get hassled when I bring my Surface to meetings, but I patiently explain that it's a very nice third gen hardware design with a fully integrated keyboard cover, IE11 is a great touch browser, and that I'm mostly using the device as a tablet, as a sneak preview of what iPad 8 performance will look like. Based on today's benchmarks with the iPad Air 2 – chronologically, the iPad "6" – I believe that's about right.

I also purchased a Nexus 9. It's the first device to ship with Android 5 and the vaunted Nvidia Tegra K1.

I'm very impressed with Android 5.0; aesthetically I think it's superior to iOS 8 in a lot of ways, and it is a clear step forward over Android 4. Anyone on older Android devices should definitely upgrade to Android 5 at their first opportunity.

Performance-wise, it is what I've come to expect from Android: erratic. In our Discourse benchmarks, and the latest version of Chrome Android beta, it scores about 750ms, putting it somewhere between the 2011 iPhone 4s and the 2012 iPhone 5. That said, this is the fastest Android device I have ever laid hands on. I just wish it was consistently faster. A lot faster.

To that end, I'd like to ask for your help. We've identified some deep bugs in the Android Chrome V8 engine that cause fairly severe performance issues with JavaScript frameworks like Angular and Ember. (Desktop Chrome performance remains class leading; this is highly specific to the Android version of Chrome.) If you know anyone at Google, please ping them about this and see if it can be escalated. I'd love it if more Android users – including me – could have a better browser experience when using large JavaScript apps.

I hope over the next year the remaining Android 5 performance bumps can be ironed out. I still like the Nexus 9; if you're a big fan of Google services like GMail, Docs, and Maps like I am, I definitely recommend it. The one I have will be a gift to my mom.

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

November 10, 2014

(B)Links. by Feeling Listless

The Creepy New Wave of the Internet:
"Every day a piece of computer code is sent to me by e-mail from a website to which I subscribe called IFTTT. Those letters stand for the phrase “if this then that,” and the code is in the form of a “recipe” that has the power to animate it. Recently, for instance, I chose to enable an IFTTT recipe that read, “if the temperature in my house falls below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, then send me a text message.” It’s a simple command that heralds a significant change in how we will be living our lives when much of the material world is connected—like my thermostat—to the Internet."

The Chapter: A History.
"The chapter is tied intimately to our notions of literacy, as signalled by the fact that we give the name “chapter books” to the texts that offer school-age children their first mature reading experiences. More than this, the chapter has become a way of looking at the world, a way of dividing time and, therefore, of dividing experience. Its origins date back to long before the printing press or even the bound codex, back to the emergence of prose in antiquity as both an expressive and an informational medium. Literary evolution rarely seems slower than it does in the case of the chapter. What does the chapter’s beginnings reveal about the way our books and stories are still put together?"

Bread, circuses, and Oscar buzz:
"Oscar buzz is also great for filling of column inches or composition panes with text that costs very little to generate. Reviewers have to be sent to festivals so they can see the latest films, and they go armed with expense accounts. As long as they’re there, why not have them write about Oscar buzz as well? They’ve already seen the films, written their reviews, and perhaps interviewed some of the talent. Writing about Oscar buzz is easy and based on chitchat and speculation. It’s presumably a lot cheaper to run such stories than to have a reporter spending a lot of time tracking down information for a hard-news item about business trends in the industry."

Day One:
"And lo, did my first day of business at Sterling Silver Comics come to pass, and things went fairly well. For what was basically a “soft” opening, without all that “BIG GRAND OPENING” hoohar that will likely come later in the month, I did have several customers throughout the day, with one or two dead times that more or less corresponded to the doldrums I would have at the old shop at about the same points in the day, so no big whoop. Overall, I did manage to meet some new folks, welcome some customers from my previous job, and make a little more money than I was expecting for my first day. Hooray, I’m marginally less in debt!"

Soup Safari #6: Chicken, Broccoli and Brown Rice at Pret A Manger. by Feeling Listless

At lunch. £3.25. 50p extra for bread. 10p for the glass of tap water. Pret A Manger, Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet Village Kinsey Rd, South Wirral CH65 9JJ. Phone:020 7932 5203

Astrobites 2014 Survey and Free t-shirt Giveaway! by Astrobites

Astrobites logoDear loyal readers,

We’d like to invite you to share your experiences as an Astrobites reader with us in our latest Reader Survey. Your feedback helps guide our focus and style as well as shape our content. By participating, you will help to make sure we are serving your needs as a reader. So, please take ~5 minutes to fill out this short survey.

As an added incentive to participate, we’re giving away free Astrobites t-shirts this year to survey respondents! The more people that fill out the survey, the more shirts we’ll give away, so please follow this link and let us know what you think today!

Thanks for supporting Astrobites over these last four years. We look forward to many more years to come of bringing you the latest in astronomy research at a digestible level.

-the Astrobites team

Here’s that link again:

Most Asteroids are Not in the Asteroid Belt by Astrobites

  • Title: Eight billion asteroids in the Oort cloud
  • Authors: Andrew Shannon, Alan P. Jackson, Dimitri Veras, & Mark Wyatt
  • First Author’s Institution: Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK

What’s the difference between as asteroid and a comet? Most Astrobites readers probably already know the answer. Asteroids are made of rocks and metals and orbit primarily in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Comets, on the other hand, consists in large part of icy volatiles and reside beyond the orbit of Neptune, except when they occasionally approach the inner solar system on very eccentric orbits. This distinction is so fundamental that it is even emphasized in educational materials for children, like this fact sheet from NASA. Today’s paper, however, blurs the line between these two classes of objects, predicting the existence of a large number of bodies with asteroid-like compositions but comet-like orbits.

There are two reservoirs of comets in the solar system: the Kuiper belt–located at 30-50 AU from the Sun–is home to the short-period comets, while the Oort cloud–extending from tens of thousands of AU out to perhaps over a hundred thousand AU (over a light-year!)– hosts the long-period comets. The Oort cloud is by far the more massive reservoir, containing hundreds of billions of comets in a spherical distribution surrounding the solar system (see the illustration below). The Oort cloud is so far away that we cannot see it directly; we infer its existence by studying the comets that get close to the Sun. The asteroid-like objects discussed in this paper are predicted to reside in the Oort cloud and to have orbits like the long-period comets. They are thus dubbed “Oort cloud asteroids”.

An artist's illustration of the Oort cloud.

An artist’s illustration of the Oort cloud.

The origin of Oort cloud asteroids–and of the Oort cloud itself–goes back to the beginning of the solar system. The Sun was born surrounded by a protoplanetary disk of dust and gas. In this disk, the grains of dust grew into planetesimals (like asteroids and comets), which then collided to form the cores of giant planets and later the rocky planets as well. Once the giant planets became sufficiently massive, they could gravitationally scattered the leftover planetesimals. Many planetesimals were scattered into the Sun or other planets, or were ejected from the solar system entirely. Others survived in the relatively stable asteroid and Kuiper belts. Still others were scattered onto orbits that–although still gravitationally bound to the solar system–had very large semi-major axes. These became the Oort cloud.

The difference between comets and asteroids lies in where they formed. Asteroids formed interior to the ice-line (around 2.5 AU in the early solar system), so volatiles like water existed as gases, whereas comets formed outside of the ice-line, so volatiles existed as solids and were thus incorporated into the planetesimals. Oort cloud asteroids, the subject of today’s paper, are those planetesimals that formed inside 2.5 AU, but were delivered to tens of thousands of AU by the scattering process.

The authors used an N-body simulation to model the formation and evolution of the Oort cloud. They ran the simulation for 4.5 billion years–the current age of the solar system–and included the gravitational effects from the planets as well as those from galactic tides and close encounters from nearby stars. In the end, they quantified the likelihood of various fates for the planetesimals as a function of their initial location. The plot below shows how many planetesimals ended up in the Oort cloud. As expected, most objects in the Oort cloud are comets (planetesimals that formed outside of the ice line). However, the number of planetesimals in the Oort cloud from within 2.5 AU is not zero; the authors estimate the fraction is 4%. While 4% may not seem like much, this comes out to a total of 8 billion Oort cloud asteroids, which is greater than the number of asteroids in the asteroid belt!

The number of planetesimals that arrive in the Oort cloud, as a function of their initial locations. Although planetesimals that formed within 2.5 AU (asteroids) make up a minority of the Oort cloud, they total eight billion objects--more than the number of asteroids in the asteroid belt.

The number of planetesimals that arrive in the Oort cloud, as a function of their initial locations. Although planetesimals that formed within 2.5 AU (asteroids) make up a minority of the Oort cloud, they total eight billion objects–more than the number of asteroids in the asteroid belt.

Can we detect Oort cloud asteroids? Just like long-period comets, we cannot see them until they get much closer to the Sun. With the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)–which will repeatedly image the entire sky–a typical Oort cloud asteroid with a radius if 2.3 km could be seen when it gets within 13 AU of the Sun. Although there are billions of Oort cloud asteroids, the authors estimate that only 5 are within a detectable distance at any given time (this is when the asteroids are near their perihelion, so, according to Kepler’s Second Law, they spend relatively little time here). Over the course of ten years of observations, LSST is expected to discover 12 Oort cloud asteroids.

Interestingly, one Oort cloud asteroid may already have been found: an object called 1996 PW. While some astronomers have interpreted this body as a Oort cloud asteroid, others hypothesized that it could simply be a comet that exhausted its volatile supply on previous visits to the inner solar system–a phenomenon that could result in false-positive detections of Oort cloud asteroids.

Do Oort cloud asteroids poise a threat to Earth? In principle, their hybrid nature makes them dangerous. Unlike main belt asteroids, which reside close enough to Earth to be tracked for years, Oort cloud asteroids approach the inner solar system quickly (they can close the distance from Jupiter to Earth in less than a year), and so would not leave much time for us to react if one was detected. Additionally, Oort cloud asteroids will not develop bright tails–like comets do–that would make them much more easy to detect.

Fortunately, the likelihood of an Oort cloud asteroid colliding with Earth is low. As discussed above, at any given time, only a few will approach the inner solar system, and of those that get within 1 AU of the Sun, they have only a two-in-a-billion chance of colliding with Earth. These odds lead to Earth being hit by the typical 2.3 km asteroid from the Oort cloud, on average, once every 8 billion years (although impacts from smaller Oort cloud asteroids may be more common).

Although Oort cloud asteroids may not be an imminent threat, detecting them will reveal a great deal about the dynamic history of our solar system.

The Enterprise is slower than you think by Simon Wardley

In the late 1990s, I had taken an interest in 3D printing. It was one of the main reasons I joined Fotango (a small but failing online photo startup) because of my interest in the distribution of images.

In 2001, I was the CIO of Fotango and we were acquired by Canon. 

By 2002, we became an open source and agile (XP) development shop. We extensively used and provided web services. We lived online. We started to get involved more directly in open source projects particularly Perl. We built a centre of gravity to attract talent to the barren technological wasteland that was Old Street.

By 2003, I was the CEO. We operated an environment which had started to use mixed methods (i.e. we learned that Agile wasn't appropriate everywhere). We had introduced paper prototyping for design and worth based development techniques (known as outcome based techniques today).  We focused on the user need. We had BYOD, a wireless office, remote working. We had replaced the company intranet with a wiki and had started to explore alternative mechanisms of communication (core parts of what is now called Enterprise 2.0). We built multiple systems for others and we were profitable. 

By 2004, we had started developing our own private IaaS (though it wasn't called that back then). The system, which included creation of virtual machines through APIs and configuration management tools (based upon CFEngine) was known as Borg. We had developed continuous deployment mechanisms, extensive monitoring and started mapping our own environment to determine new game plays and opportunities. We had introduced hack days and ran mini conferences. We had introduced conference funding, started to promote our open source work and started working on the idea of providing public API services.

By 2005,  we had simplified internal procedures such as HR (removed timesheets, holiday forms etc) and looked towards using commodity services where possible. We had launched the first public Platform as a Service (known as Zimki). We focused on industrialisation of key aspects of building a platform. We understood how to play an open source game, create a competitive market and exploit an ecosystem and their network effects. We had converted most projects to outcome based metrics, we had started to introduce a new organisational structure based on evolution, we had common web services running through dozens of large public facing systems.

So why do I mention this? 3D printing, continuous deployment, agile, mixed development methods, open source, building centres of gravity, cloud, building and stitching together small discrete web services (microservices), ecosystems, IaaS, PaaS, BYOD, Enterprise 2.0, Hack days, focus on user needs, outcome based approaches ... these are all 'hot' words in the Enterprise today. 

But these "words" weren't born out of ideas but practice from a decade ago. Oh, if you think we were first - you must be kidding. We thought we were slow compared to our compatriots and competitors.

That is I'm afraid the point. I hear these words often spoken as something new within the Enterprise. Well, it maybe new to an Enterprise and it maybe new to some of your competitors but don't kid yourself that you're doing anything other than trying to catch up with where the edge of the market was a long time ago. The cutting edge of the Enterprise market is about a decade behind the edge of the market. An early adopter in the Enterprise world is still a laggard.

But why? Competition. 

You don't need to be near the edge unless your competitors are there as well. Which is probably why some traditional enterprise companies do so badly when companies like Amazon or Google move into their space. They're not prepared for the level of competition needed.

But that's why we need to adopt "3D printing, continuous deployment, agile, mixed development methods, open source, building centres of gravity, cloud, building and stitching together small discrete web services (microservices), ecosystems, IaaS, PaaS, BYOD, Enterprise 2.0, Hack days, focus on user needs, outcome based approaches" I hear some cry or more importantly their anointed consultants cry. 

It won't help you. Instead you need to think of the above list as stuff you've been doing for a decade (where the puck was) and work out what new things you'd have built on top of this during that time (where the puck is). Then you need to look forward five years (where the puck will be). That's where you need to be heading.

In Pictures: Expedition 41 Crew Returns to Earth by The Planetary Society

The crew of Expedition 41 is safely back on Earth following a 165-day stay aboard the International Space Station.

Some thoughts on turning 50 by Charlie Stross

Today is my 50th birthday. As Terry Pratchett noted, "inside every old man there's an 8 year old wondering what the hell just happened". In the absence of some really big medical breakthroughs I'm almost certainly more than halfway through my span: so what have I learned?

(Note: I'm putting this in a blog entry rather than a novel because this is the right place for self-indulgent bloviating and miscellaneous wankery. Put it another way: if you read it here, you don't have to get angry at me because you paid good cash money for it. Just file under getting-it-out-of-my-system and move on.)

Rule 1 is "don't die". If you fail at Rule 1, by definition, you failed at everything else.

NB: some people of a theological bent are of the opinion that personal experience continues after you fail at Rule 1 (and that's before we get stuck into the simulation hypothesis). I'll believe them when I get a bad review for a new book from a long-dead critic. In the absence of such feedback, I'm proceeding on the assumption that this is the only chance you get: no do-overs. Nor do you win some kind of prize for dying with the most toys, or the most money: you don't even get a prize for dying with the most children (they, on the other hand, might have reason to drink a toast to your memory) ... personal extinction is forever.

There are several corollaries to Rule 1, but they're mostly obvious: coronaries have right of way, for example; or never eat anything bigger than your head (unless you're a gulper eel). Some are less obvious: start exercising now because it'll hurt less than starting when you're older. (I generally hate exercise, but I hate it less than the idea of failing at Rule 1.) Or take the meds your doctor prescribed you, in the manner directed unless they make you feel really ill: in which case go back and TELL THE DOCTOR (don't just stop taking them). NB: medical professionals can argue the toss, you probably can't.

Rule 2: Idiots are everywhere: fixing their idiocy is not your problem (unless it really really is — which is seldom the case). No, seriously, XKCD nailed it:

Remembering this rule (and figuring out how and when to apply the exceptions) will save your blood pressure, your hair, and a lot of stress: it will also contribute to you obeying Rule 1. Unfortunately obeying Rule 2 may prove difficult if you are a bit obsessive-compulsive, but what the hell, at least you'll have fun Being Right on the Internet ...

Seriously, if you hold with Richard Dawkins' exegesis on the extended phenotype, there's a reason for this. We shaved apes can acquire cognitive tools from one another. So rather than having to think outside the box for ourselves, we can rely on the normal distribution of smarts among our species to ensure that some outlier can think outside the box for us, and we can then copy their technique. Once we developed language (the platform for horizontally transferable skills) we were no longer under an evolutionary selection filter for better individual general intelligence. We are, quite literally, no smarter than we need to be: we're the dumbest possible species of intelligent tool-using talkative mimics, except for African Gray parrots and Fox News commentators. (Who might actually be African Gray parrots in disguise, trying to bring about our downfall; that's no crazier than some of the things they come out with, is it?)

If it amuses you to do so you may occupy yourself by trying to do something about the stupids, or to contribute to the long-term commonweal for people who will never even know you existed. That would be good. But seriously, bear in mind Rule 2 — and beware of Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

Rule 3 is the Golden Rule, in the original (non-Jesus, i.e. negative) formulation: do not do unto others that which would be repugnant were it done unto you. (This is not the same as that meddling do-gooder's manifesto, "do unto others as you would be done by" because, hey, everybody likes to eat shit just like me, right?) Honourable exceptions for self-defence (as long as you didn't start it) and Being Right on the Internet, as long as you do not wallow to excess in Being Cruelly Right on the Internet. Ahem. No, seriously, a lot of things would be a whole lot better if we all just tried not to inadvertently stomp on each other's corns.

Oh, and by the way? These days I'm convinced that the reputation grumpy old men have for being grumpy (not to mention old) is a side-effect of the way chronic low-grade pain goes with the ageing process. It's a sad fact that once you pass your thirties you get increasingly creaky: and constant low-grade aches and twinges do bad things to your temper. It's another sad fact that, for better or worse, most of our world leaders are middle-aged or elderly men, who should be presumed grumpy due to low-grade pain until proven otherwise. (There's probably a political solution to bringing about world peace through better access to analgesics, but that's a topic for another rant.)

(There is an inverse corollary of Rule 3, of course: as some 19th century wag remarked in a Victorian ladies' etiquette guide, "a true lady never unintentionally gives offense". (At least, not in front of witnesses.) If you're going to hurt someone? At least be clear about what you're doing, and why. Hypocrisy sucks, especially when this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.)

And that's basically it.

There's a bunch of minor stuff I'd love to have been able to tell my 15-year-old self ("son, buy shares in a Californian company called Apple, that's AAPL, and don't sell them until 2014") but they're mostly spurious. There are also some regrets, but again: no point crying over spilled milk. And of course, with full foreknowledge some of my life choices would be different (I'm thinking of you, Mister school careers guidance teacher whose name I've forgotten). But all of that is me-specific, and probably meaningless to you.

So that's my distillate of fifty years of obeying Rule 1. What have you learned that you'd like to see engraved on your tombstone?

Metacommentary by Charlie Stross

It's a truth universally acknowledged, that every comment thread hanging off a blog entry sooner or later veers away from the original topic and ends up approaching a stable orbit around the usual strange attractors of the blog commentariat.

For example, in the last-but-one blog entry, over the course of 350-odd comments we veered from a not-a-manifesto about urban fantasy to the subject of future transport tech in a post-global-climate-change world, and thence to a discussion of Californian aquapolitics.

There is of course a reason for this phenomenon. In general, folks who use the comments do so either to express an opinion on the original blog entry, or to carry on a discussion. As the volume of comments expands, most casual readers skip past them to deposit their fragrant opinions on the original essay—but the folks who are there for the discussion read all (or most of) the comments, and participate in the top drift. As the volume of observations on the original entry dies down, the comment thread comes to be dominated by the ongoing discussion: which is to say, it's perpetuated by the usual suspects, who continue to focus on their usual subjects.

What are the usual strange attractors for this particular blog? Discussion of this topic is welcome, and encouraged! (But discussion of the strange attractors themselves may be moderated or deleted, lest this topic vanish up its own recursive arse.)

Interstellar: The movie that deserves to be called “Gravity” by The Planetary Society

Mat Kaplan gives his thoughts on the newest space film to hit theatres, "Interstellar."

November 07, 2014

Hunting Binary Asteroids by The Planetary Society

Thanks to The Planetary Society’s Shoemaker NEO Grant program, a new telescope has been brought to bear focusing on searching for and understanding the properties of binary asteroid systems.

The Films I've Watched This Year #42 by Feeling Listless

Film  The new Star Wars has a title, The Force Awakens, which has led to the usual idiocy about it being awful (which it isn't) and inferring there'll be "more of that Jedi shit" (as though the original three weren't about a teenager learning to be a man through the medium of the force and becoming a Jedi).  Despite getting the band back together, despite the brilliant new casting, despite the set photos, despite everything feeling right about the way JJ (Babylon 5'll be next) Abrams is going about things, the stench of the prequels still lingers for them sadly.  My hope is the first shot of the very first scene will have an elderly Jar Jar's face grinning broadly saying something "Meeza welcoming you back..." whilst holding out his hand to the audience through the medium of 3D just for this reason, but perhaps that's just me.  But yes, The Force Awakens is ambiguous enough to not reveal much of anything we don't already expect but also feels like it might suggest a narrative journey for someone in the film and more so than The Phantom Menace which is still inherently meaningless.

Suburban Mayhem
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D
The Pretty One

If there's a running theme to this week's films it is female protagonists with only Hercules and Tarzan fulfilling the usual masculine story arc which, now that I'm come to think about it is pretty similar in that it's also essentially Superman.  All three are about young men fostered by parents from a different species becoming heroes, not actualising until they've successfully defended the realm from some dastardly villain.  What's interesting about Mulan, of course, is that apart from the fostering, it has a very similar story but her heroic fight for acceptance also includes having to convince a male dominated society that she too can become a warrior.  I love all three.  Hercules is funny, funny, funny, especially James Woods as Hades.  Tarzan always makes me cry and is at the spectacular apogee of the integration between cell animation and cgi backgrounds.  But Mulan, which I haven't seen since release is the biggest surprise simply because it's a template of how female orientated action films can be done and now I wish there were more of them.

This week Vulture published Jesse David Fox's 27 Great Indie Romantic-Comedies From the Last 10 Years and having seen and enjoyed many of the items on the list already it prodded me to see a few more.  As Fox identifies, Zoe Kazan's appeared in a quadrilogy of brill alt.romcoms and The Pretty One has all the hallmarks, notably a high concept which you can see being done horribly in a mainstream film but presented with great emotional depth in this idiom, in this case a "dowdy" identical twin not correcting anyone when she's mistaken for her more successful and confident sister.  Unlike the other three films, even though there are male co-stars, in this case Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston, the focus remains on her throughout and we see through the world through the prism of her personality.  Even when she's supposed to be the object of desire, the male gaze is nowhere to be seen, which is really refreshing and create an unpredictability in what could be an inherently predictable premise.

Similarly, despite the title, Celeste and Jesse Forever favours the latter, with the mighty Rashida Jones in what's effectively the Bill Murray role of not being able to deal falling in love with a best friend and just the wrong moment.  Co-written by Jones herself (with Will McCormack who c0-stars and she's now writing Toy Story 4 with), like The Pretty One it has the not quite mainstream atmosphere of going with the emotional rather than comic beat whilst still being completely hilarious.  In places the screenplay even seems to be commenting on mainstream romcom cliche.  Elijah Wood plays a gay friend and Ari Graynor is the foul mouthed mate but neither of them fulfills the cliche, for reasons which border too closely to being a spoiler.  If nothing else, it's made me want to revisit NY-LON which is still on 4od bless it, in which Jones plays a character not too dissimilar to this and indeed everything else she's ever made.  Or at least the good things.  A few pointers would be helpful.  I can't imagine I Love You Man is any good.  Or The Big Year.

My film of the week is Tracks.  Having watched most of Mia Wasikowska's back catalogue in the past few weeks, including the utterly rubbish Suburban Mayhem in which she plays a beautician, I think Tracks is her defining moment.  The real life story of Robyn Davidson, who decided to walk the Australian outback in the 70s in order to get away from people, Wasikowska convincingly portrays someone who simply wants to be left alone and has to leave those people behind in order to understand why she really needs them.  Which sounds like a snatch of the voiceover script but is the best description I can come up with.  Adam Driver plays the National Geographic photographer tasked with photographing her and pretty much confirms his position as his generation's Jeff Goldblum.  No desert film trope is ignored, but it's mostly because they're part of the experience she's searching for.  It's a confirmation for people like me that there's nothing pointless in challenging yourself and experiences what, from the outside, look like entirely pointless exercises.

An Early Preview of Orion's Maiden Voyage by The Planetary Society

NASA's Orion spacecraft is just four weeks away from its first test flight. Here's an early preview of the mission.

Habitability Still a Go on Tidally Locked Terrestrial Exoplanets by Astrobites

Title: Water Trapping on Tidally Locked Terrestrial Exoplanets Requires Special Conditions
Jun Yang, Yonggang Liu, Yongyun Hu, and Dorian S. Abbot
First Author’s Institution:
University of Chicago
Status: Accepted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters

We’ve talked many times before on Astrobites about habitable exoplanets, defined by whether they can retain liquid water on their surfaces. To first order, this involves the habitable zone, otherwise known as the “Goldilocks zone” or the “just right” distance a planet can orbit its star where water on the planet’s surface will neither freeze solid nor be boiled away. But distance from the star (which translates directly into the amount of stellar radiation received by the planet) is only the first-order approximation; to truly understand the state of a planet’s water,  we have to understand the details of the planet’s atmosphere and heat circulation. This is mostly beyond today’s observational abilities, but we can apply models to tell us what kinds of planets are good candidates for habitability.

Yang and collaborators explore a specific subset of exoplanets: tidally locked, rocky exoplanets orbiting M-stars. M-stars are the most common type of star by far, and because they are small, cool stars, their habitable zones are located close in. This results in tidal locking for many habitable zone planets. Tidally locked planets orbit such that one side always faces their star, and one side out into space. Consequently, they have huge temperature gradients between their day and night sides. Atmospheric circulation in these planets will tend to transport water from the day side of the planet (where it evaporates) to the night side (where it condenses back out of the atmosphere). Once on the cold night side, it will freeze and potentially be trapped as ice. But how much of this water freezes? Once it freezes, is it lost forever as a liquid? To understand this scenario more fully, atmospheric circulation models must be combined with models describing the flow of oceans as well as both land and sea ice sheets.

Yang and collaborators use models developed to study Earth’s climate, which comprise coupled models to study atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, and land. In all cases they examine a typical super-Earth exoplanet with a period of 37 days, a radius of 1.5 Earth radii, and a gravity 1.38 times that of Earth, but with a variety of continent/ocean configurations. They examine a waterworld with no continents and three different ocean depths, a planet with one supercontinent covering the night side and an ocean on the day side, with uniform elevation and depth, respectively, and a planet that looks like modern-day Earth, with a substellar point in either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, or in Africa.


Figure 1. Diagram showing amount of water for three different types of planets. On the left is a waterworld, where water and ice are transported easily between the hot day and cold night sides, resulting in little ice trapping. In the center, a planet with a large continent covering the night side still maintains a sizeable ocean, because the high heat flux of the planet keeps the ice sheet small. In the right panel, also with a night side continent but with a lower heat flux, the continental ice sheet grows, trapping most of the water of the planet. This last is the worst case scenario for habitability, but is only possible when the heat flux is low, the continents are all on the night side, and the overall water reservoirs are small compared to Earth’s water stores. (Credit: Yang et al. 2014)

For the waterworld, they find that the ice on the night side becomes only 5.4 meters thick, leaving plenty of liquid water on the planet. While ice forms on the night side, it is also continuously melted by warm ocean currents circulating from the day side, and by surface winds that push the ice sheets towards the warmer substellar point. Yang adds continental barriers here, running north to south on the eastern and western terminators (the day/night dividing lines, a fixed geographical point on a tidally locked planet), to investigate what happens if the ocean and ice transport is disrupted by a land barrier. In this case, the ice grows to 1000 meters thick, effectively trapping the water as ice.

On a planet with one supercontinent on the planet’s night side, the water that is trapped as continental ice sheets is maximized for a low geothermal heat flux. For a planet with Earth’s water stores and heat flux, roughly half its ocean would be trapped in such a scenario. For a super-Earth, which would likely have a higher heat flux, only a small ocean, a few hundred meters thick, would be trapped. See Figure 1 for a comparison between this scenario and the waterworld.


Figure 2. For a planet with modern-day Earth’s continental configuration, ice sheet thicknesses are shown for the oceans (left) and land (right). The color bar shows the ice thickness, contours show surface air temperatures of 0, 5, and 7 degrees C, and arrows indicate sea-ice velocity. The black dot indicates the substellar point. This is for a planet with a low heat flux. Most tidally locked super Earths would probably have a higher heat flux, resulting in much thinner ice sheets. (Credit: Yang et al. 2014)

If less artificial continents are studied, such as modern-day Earth’s continental configuration, the ice remains ~10 meters thick in most areas, though it can grown to ~100 meters in a few isolated regions like Baffin Bay or mostly inland seas. Even small passages between continents allow enough transport of sea ice and water currents to avoid trapping a critical amount of water in ice. See Figure 2 for details.

In conclusion, the habitability outlook for these tidally locked planets is pretty good! Ocean planets can efficiently transport ice back to the day side to be melted, and even small breaks in continental coverage are enough to prevent critical amounts of water being trapped in ocean or land ice sheets. It will be difficult to detect the differences between these kinds of planets observationally, but looking at reflectivity measurements could indicate land/water/ice coverage on planets.


November 06, 2014

Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool. by Feeling Listless

Art I hate Andy Warhol. I loathe him all out of proportion. As a deeply held, foundational personality trait, my hatred of Andy Warhol has been an important part of my life almost as important as my inability to eat fish and to call people “honey”. It’s just always been there, the sense that at a certain point art history ended, expiring in the form of a painted representation of a Campbell soup can, a brand of soup that I dislike intensely no less and Warhol’s conviction that “art should be for everyone” leading to a stream of subsequent art which in trying to satisfy everyone ends up impressing no one and which also devalues existing art because of the prevailing attitude that it must be accessible. Oh really, must it?

There’s a frustration to standing in an art space filled with iconic, apparently important pieces of art not feeling anything positive but that’s what happened today at the press view for Tate Liverpool’s Transmitting Andy Warhol, whose first room, "Expanded Painting", contains all the work which crowds will be flocking to see but which makes me seethe. Oh it’s the Brillo boxes. Oh it’s those soup cans. Oh it’s the dayglo Monroe screenprints. Oh it’s the, well, you get the idea. It’s everything I hate about Andy Warhol within a single art space, have loathed across the years, as I say, all out of proportion. I’m fine with it. As Taylor Swift says, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” and it’s ok sometimes to be one of those.

Except, of course, it’s an irrational, incoherent hatred. Look closely at the earliest of the Monroes in the Marilyn Dyptich from 1962 and you can see that he’s not simply creating identical replicas, brush strokes introducing variations and I like that. His Dance Diagram, a painted reproduction of the foot movements in the Foxtrot just made me want to try it out, which I did, even though it’s ultimately impossible to do without a partner. When creating his Rorschach prints in the 1984 he misunderstood how the original test worked assuming subjects created their own blotches, which led to him creating his own version. That gives him an attractive fallibility.

Which is really the narrative of my approach to this very good exhibition. No matter how much I like to say I hate Andy Warhol, I don’t really. I like the idea of him and I like some of his work and what I probably hate is what’s been done to him in respect to exposure and the effect he had on the art world, plenty of which wasn’t really his fault and was a result instead of the art world’s inability to cope with his subversion. Plus he’s an extremely important marker in how we now approach celebrity and fame, especially at a time when the famous fifteen minutes have become literal, when a figure like Alex from Target bubbles up from nowhere on a Sunday via a Twitter meme only to lose credibility in days when a marketing company falsely takes credit.

So I took Taylor Swift’s other advice, shook it off and really quite enjoyed myself. In the next room is Exploding Plastic Inevitable or EPI, a recreation of a mixed media installation, in which a room is filled with footage from a series of similarly named events Warhol held in Chicago in 1966 featuring The Velvet Underground, projected across every wall amid mirror balls. About twenty-minutes long, it’s like standing inside a dream, as close-ups of Salvador Dali and a Nico are interspersed with performances pieces starring a man in a gimp mask and someone who looks disconcertingly like late era Lennon being hogtied and whipped. Bob Dylan wanders through briefly with his harmonica.

The experience notionally mimics what it’s assumed it must have been like in the Factory and certainly how it appears in some film representations (notably Men in Black 3 of all things) even though you know it was probably boring as sin with all the high and drunk celebrities talking rubbish while having their picture taken. Ironically, EPI will probably work best when the room’s filled with people, perhaps even a college group, folks from the same generation as would have attended the original happenings. Even with the professional press pack, the reflective light of the mirror balls flashing against their faces, pixels from the projectors making them look like products of Andy Warhol’s mind, the imagery was utterly transcendental.

And so I continued and in each successive room found my resolve broken. “Dispersal” is about Warhol in the wider world, through his commercial design products for magazines and for book and album covers, Chigall-like line drawings which show a draftsman with real flair and in the case of his fashion spreads accuracy. His classical and jazz images, providing in a still image what promotional videos still can’t all these years later, are so alluring and so perfectly capturing that moment in time, that I was jotting down titles for future reference (this is what Spotify was designed for, Taylor!). Not The Velvet Undergound and Nico with their banana, of course. I already own a copy of that.

I’m even charitable towards the concept of his novel, a, now, even though in many ways its appalling. A response to Joyce’s Ulysses (art is for everyone remember), it features a transcript of everything Factory stalwart, the actor Ondine says over a twenty-four hour period, poorly transcribed by non-professionals so as to render it entirely unreadable. Sigh. Except, having produced the worst book of all time, he stood behind it, putting poor reviews on the posters and generally taking advantage of his own celebrity to sell a few books, effectively taking the piss out of the kinds publishers for whom the ghost-written celebrity biography is their foundation and the kinds of people who buy them. You have to love that.

The final room is "Transmission" which sees Warhol wrestling with the artistic possibilities of new media, of putting his beliefs into practice. Piles of cathode ray tube televisions presenting recordings of Andy Warhol’s TV, his chatshow and magazine programme which ran in the early eighties. Although there are headphones, most visitors will probably simply glance at the given screens as, people who may or may not be a celebrity are interviewed about their lives. While I was there someone called Jim Fourett from something called Dancetaria was holding forth from a couch about something. Was anything he had to say any more useful or interesting than any of the other anonymous faces which cropped up on the other screens?

The pieces I spent the most time with are a collection of covers from Interview Magazine, which Warhol founded in 1969, this selection spanning from 1979 to the mid-Eighties. By then Warhol had withdrawn from the publication, it seems, only really being an ambassador but this display underscores, as so much of his work does the fleeting nature of celebrity, how some faces Jack Nicholson would go on to become iconic whilst others like Maxwell Caulfield slowly fade. Half of the covers on show don’t have the name of the cover star emblazoned on them and our inability to name them ourselves is very powerful. I spent a good five minutes with someone trying to identify one face. We think its Carole King. Perhaps.  Bette Midler?

His film work is largely represented by Empire, the legendary eight hour shot of the Empire State Building, shot in 24 frames, projected in 16. A gallery space is presumably not the best place for this though it’s only rarely been presented in the style of a typical “movie” (the wikipedia has a handy screening history). Within this setting and with the pressures of seeing it within the context of an exhibition, it’s difficult to see the subtle changes in image, as the accompanying text suggests, the drama. Inevitably there is an modern fan-produced sequel available on YouTube, Empire II: The Empire Strikes Back, which is more of the same, with the subtle addition of daylight, of only three hours. See it here.

All of which should illustrate that the problem with deeply held hatreds is that they’re inherently inconsistent. I will eat fish if they’re covered in a batter. I don’t hate Andy Warhol as much as I thought I did. I still hate his screen prints, but as this exhibition demonstrates, his work was so multi-faceted, because he applied himself to so many different media, because he was so clearly talented, it’s impossible to hate everything. It’s also impossible to hate the man too because all he really did was what we should all do which is take advantage of the opportunities presented to him, forever with his fingers crossed behind his back that he wouldn’t get found out, knowing better than anyone just how fleeting celebrity can be.

TPS at DPS: A Screening of Desert Moon, Advocacy with Casey Dreier, and a Sagan Lecture by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society will be well-represented at next week's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, Ariz.

November 05, 2014

Philae landing preview: What to expect on landing day by The Planetary Society

Earth's first-ever landing on a comet is a week away. On November 12 at 8:35 UT, Philae will separate from Rosetta. Seven hours later, it will arrive at the surface of the comet. Hopefully, Philae will survive the landing, and begin to return data.

The Consequences of the 2014 Midterm Elections for NASA by The Planetary Society

A Republican Senate will not drastically change the course of the nation's space program, though it will likely see less funding for NASA and a difficult path forward for the Asteroid Retrieval Mission.

Habitable Moons at the Ice Line? by Astrobites

Title: Water Ice Lines and the Formation of Giant Moons Around Super-Jovian Planets
Authors: René Heller and Ralph Pudritz
First Author’s Institution: Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University

Artist's conception of an exoplanet and its moon. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s conception of an exoplanet and its moon. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Those of us who love astrobiology get really worked up about the lack of Earth-sized exoplanets found at Earth-like distances from their stars. All we want, we who hope for lots of extraterrestrial life, is a bunch of Earth-like planets doing Earth-like things so we can feel better about the odds for lots of Earth-like life in the universe.

But among the glut of exoplanets identified in recent years, Earth-sized planets have not dominated the discoveries. Yes, some of that is due to the biases of the detection methods: very big planets and planets orbiting very close to their stars are just easier to find. But even still, all these hot Jupiters are dispiriting. Even when they’re not super close to their stars, Jupiter-mass planets orbiting at around 1AU—Earth’s distance from the sun are taking up orbital space that could otherwise be occupied by a friendly, terrestrial planet, right?

Except, judging from our own Jupiter, a giant planet could bring its own little habitable worlds along with it, in the form of moons. Today’s paper looks at satellite formation in super-Jovian planets.  If planets even bigger than Jupiter could feasibly have even bigger moons, rocky worlds with water that could potentially be homes to life.

In many ways, moon formation is a microcosm of planet formation: whereas planets form from the accretion disk left around a star after the star’s birth, moons generally form from the disk of material left around a new planet. (“Generally” because Earth’s moon is thought to have had a much later and more violent birth.) Saturn may wear the remnants of this process as its rings.

Yet moon formation has been studied less thoroughly than planet formation. Today’s authors look at one aspect—water ice lines acting as planet traps—that has been established for planet formations to see if it can account for the formation of large mega-Jovian moons.

The water ice line in an accretion disk, whether around a star or planet, is the distance beyond which water is solid. In planet formation, this is thought to be the boundary between big planets and small planets. Beyond the ice line, water and other volatiles are solid, so there’s more solid material for planetesimals to coalesce from, and the stickiness of ice helps speed things along. The ice line is also important in that it may serve as a “planet trap.” Due to the change in disk density at that line, planets on an inward migration may be caught and stopped from spiraling all the way in toward the star. However, no one has fully tested this mechanism in the context of moon formation. Current proposals for satellite formation either posit that most moons migrate into their planets and meet their doom, or they form closer in and drift outward as the material around the planet expands.

The authors model the evolution of accretion disks around Jupiter-like planets, building on previous research by taking into account the temperature profile of the disk. The temperature is important because that’s what determines where ice can form! They played out hundreds of simulations, with planets ranging from one to twelve times the mass of Jupiter. Figure 1 shows ice line evolutions for planets at various masses.

Figure 1: Evolution of water ice lines in the disks around super-Jovian planets. Each colored line shows the evolution of the ice line in time, as it moves in closer and then farther out again from the planet. (Each color represents a hypothetical planet at a given mass: dark blue is 1 Jupiter mass, red is 12 Jupiter masses.) The black dots indicate the end of moon formation, according to three different scenarios. The variable in the scenarios is the rate of accretion, and thus the depletion of material for moon-making.

You can see that all of the ice line distances at the end of moon formation (black dots) for scenario 2 are in that gray horizontal band. That band represents the orbits of Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. If ice lines do serve as moon traps, this is where Jupiter’s ice line should have been when its large moons finished forming. The match between the simulation results and the example of Jupiter is heartening for this theory. The authors write that their work confirms that Jupiter’s system scales: planets that are much bigger than Jupiter could host moons much bigger than Jupiter’s moons. These moons could even be as massive as Mars, a perfectly respectable planet. And since they form out beyond the ice line, they are likely to be rich in water, quite possibly habitable.

One hitch is that gas giant exoplanets orbiting within the habitable zones of their stars have probably migrated in to that point from more distant formation points. The planet and its disk, of course, heat up as they migrate in toward the star. Icy moons would have to form before the disk gets too warm. Adding the migration process to simulations would be the next step in the prediction process.

But in addition to modeling, we could also understand exomoons better by deteccting them. While no exoplanet moon has yet been observed, we’re very close to having the capability. Really big exomoons could be spotted with the transit method; moons orbiting very hot, and thus luminous, planets could be detected with the next generation of telescopes, such as the European Extremely Large Telescope. All those mega-Jupiters hogging their habitable zones may have something to offer the search for life after all.

Service announcement: upcoming outages (UPDATED) by Charlie Stross

UPDATE: The server this blog runs on will be shut down for 1-2 hours between 0700 and 0900 (UTC+1) next Monday the 13th of October. This is to permit the installation of additional memory.

The server will then be shut down again, for five hours, on the evening of Tuesday October 21st. Maintenance starts at 2230 (UTC+1) and should be over by 0330 (UTC+1). (That's 6:30pm on the US eastern seaboard, ending a bit after midnight.)

This is to permit the server to be physically moved from its current hosting centre to a new one with better bandwidth (and cheaper ground rent).

Normal service will be resumed on the 22nd. OK?

Subscriptions (feed of everything)

Updated using Planet on 27 November 2014, 06:48 AM