Francis’s news feed

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

August 01, 2015

Doctor Who in the Associated Press Archive. by Feeling Listless

TV Just as they updated the YouTube offering for British Movietone, AP also massed over a hundred thousand more recent clips from the past few decades. Let's have a look shall we?

Sci fi clcassic celebrates 45th anniversary - typos are a feature of this upload. The metadata on this clip says "Peter Davidson" whoever he is. Barnaby Edwards is our spokesman here in a tour of the exhibition in Cardiff in 2008.

UK Prince William meets the stars of Middle Earth at UK premiere - including Sylv.

Entertainment Weekly: The Biographer - post-TVM, pre-Big Finish Paul on the set of a film about Diana in which he plays Andrew Motion featuring Captain Henry Avery and Elder Ood. Yes really. Only ever released in the USA and Japan according the IMDb. There's a longer making of here.

Entertainment Daily: My Kingdom - released on Who's 36th anniversary, a short piece about the gangster remake of King Lear shot in Liverpool starring Richard Harris (and very good it is too).

Entertainment Daily: Invisible Circus - Chris at around the same time. With hair and oh so young. Bless.

There are also lots of clips of John Hurt.

A flight to the heart of England by Goatchurch

This blog has as many gaps as my logbooks which are sitting on the to-do section of my desk waiting for their pages to be filled with flights and caving trips done many moons ago.

After expo my passenger and I drove back to his house in Bristol. I continued onwards the next day through horrendous rain showers to a campsite behind the Long Mynd for the third and final BOS hang-gliding competition of the season.

Here’s a picture on take-off on the Long Mynd in special smudged-lens-o-vision:


The lens smudge was still there high up where all the world looked flat. I’m pretty sure this is Wenlock Edge (the trees sloping down on the left) that Becka and I cycled along last month just before she fell off her bike.

Due to some complete fluke, I made a 70km flight from here to a small village called Radford that was so patriotic it had two houses with union jacks on flagpoles in their front yards.
On the way I passed high over the notorious Clee Hill where I saw two gliders suckered and beating back and forth across its scree slope face and slowly going down. There was a vortex of five sailplanes like white swans banking hard in a tight rising column of air behind that hill. Luckily I’d lost my fear of being sliced up by these things and dived straight for them. They were high above me by the time I got there.

Hang-gliding competitions are like a form of geocaching, and the task set for the beginners’ Club Class like me was to reach this 400m radius goal cylinder near Kidderminster whilst still in the air.

To make it easy, you have a flight computer that displays a big arrow pointing you where to go.

To make it difficult, there’s wind drift, obstacles in the way, and no idea exactly what feature I was aiming for on the ground. You can’t see the names of the towns from above, and it all looks nothing like it does on these google earth maps.

Consequently I ricocheted about the place consuming a vast amount of luck and altitude.

I believe the strategic decisions were as follows:

I identified the urban mattress Kidderminster up ahead and thought that the goal was roughly centred on it.

I didn’t want to cross the scary pointy pine forest which looked completely solid giving absolutely nowhere to land, so I made a right turn to avoid it.

I caught a couple of thermals back to the cloud height and carried on going.

Then I suddenly noticed the arrow on the computer pointing to the left instead of ahead.

I tried to glide straight, following the arrow, and went considerably downwind when I probably should have been ferry-gliding. I couldn’t identify any target on the ground, so I just watched distance number on the computer to count down to zero at a rate which kind of felt like it was going to happen just a couple hundred metres above the ground.

There wasn’t anywhere good to land that wasn’t a field of tall wheat crops (wheat everywhere, as far as the eye can see). Luckily, before this became a critical issue, I caught a strong thermal that took me away.

Without the computer pointing me where to go, I really didn’t know what I should be doing now, so drifted with the wind for a while.

A light aircraft passed me by on the same altitude causing me to scream. Then another glider I recognized in the competition (grey with a white nose cone) joined me for a few minutes and circled, which convinced me I had not yet gone anywhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Finally, a pink and green microlight came alongside to have a look while I was doing lazy circles and defying gravity without any engine.

As I passed over the M5 I could hear the roar of the traffic. This was the only external sound encountered in the whole flight.

It was all going so well and beautifully that I resolved to cut things short and come down in a sheep field before something went completely wrong and spoiled everything.

I was stranded in a not very good pub for the next 5 hours unable to drink more than one pint of beer without getting a bad headache. I got rescued by the Club Class Retrieve Driver at 9pm and driven back to the campsite.

The next day (Sunday) it rained a lot.

Then on Monday it was too windy. Many of us had discovered the amazing pub breakfast. I cycled to Bishop Castle and then to Clun to burn some of it off, due to a tip-off from an indian cafe owner that there be snakes at Woolbury Hill. (We did find the castle.)


Tuesday was pretty windy on the hill. We sat in the cafe of the Long Mynd Gliding Club (what a discovery) and many of us paid for a 30 minute roller coaster ride of terror in a tin can. Sailplane gliders are just not natural.

On the final day there was going to be a lot of rain showers and not much wind.

For some reason I decided to take off first after a particularly brutal patch of rain and in full view of all the best pilots in the country, expecting my flying style to be criticized.


But they don’t give a damn about that. As soon as it appeared that I was managing to stay up, they came at me like gannets. I stayed away from them at the unpopular north end of the ridge not gaining much height while everyone seemed to go off to the south end and buzz about there like a swarm of flies. Unfortunately this meant I had the sailplanes to contend with as they chose to use the less crowded end of the ridge.

I should have joined the crowds in the right place, because then I might have done something, but I was too scared. I top landed by the car just before a huge patch of rain and couldn’t take off again as the start gate was now closed. The most fearless Club Class pilot did go for it, but missed exiting the 5km start cylinder by a mere 14metres.

Then it was back to the headquarters for the long wait and the unbelievable news that some pilots had actually made the task.

I sat in the back of the room where the scoring was done, and it was like watching a three hour Arthur Miller play with the props at centre stage being a table of glass trophies waiting to be dished out. At least three in each category, Flex, Club Class and Rigid wing.

The points from all the previous days and competitions were already known, so what happens on this day isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Scene 1: Grumpy man on sofa says, We know I’ve won the Rigid class. Can I take my prize and go home now so I don’t have to drive all night. Phil the scorer says, It’s not up to me, ask the Meet-Head.

Much frustrated hanging around ensues, and wives wondering why you have to wait so long for your piece of glass that you can easily pick up next year.

The Meet-Head is the man or woman who officially sets the task on the day, including all the time gates and relevant radii, like a very nerdy Wizard of Oz sending you on a some kind of mathematical location quest.

Scoring is a total a dark art. Phil downloads a tracklog from your flight computer and runs a program that turns all those UTC time-stamped squiggles into a number between 0 and 500, plus some fudge factors. One of the fudge factors is that if you go into an illegal air zone (as you get round some airports or experimental laser establishments) you get no points.

Gradually pilots begin to dribble in or phone up and arrange for lifts. Many of the leaders came short and didn’t score points, so the order at the top was got revised, which is a big deal. I sat back and laughed at the drama.

I mean I do a lot of ridiculous sports that definitely have no objective. I mean, caving, what’s the point of that?

Well, finding new cave passage does actually amount to something and makes a difference years into the future, but no one tallies it.

And diving, that really is pointless too. You just plop in the water and swim with the fishes across a shipwreck or something trying to have a good experience. It’s an aimless way to spend your time.

With canoe polo or octopush you’re counting the times the object gets thrown into the goal, which at least exists.

But only this hang-gliding sport has this bizarre random point scheme based on a rather sophisticated algorithm accounting for the distribution how far along the gliders have landed along the course to determin the quality of the day constant and many other fudge factors. It all adds up into this final flowchart thing.


I didn’t learn any of this at school. At the end of the evening Phippsy won, which was great because he does a fantastic Master of Ceremonies thanking everyone and wrapping up whilst bouncing around hugging his trophy.

On the other hand, I’m in a bit of a pickle because the rules say that the winner of the Club Class isn’t allowed to fly in the Club Class again. I am not ready for it. I haven’t got the right glider. I’m not going to be so lucky again.

This is as much of a reward as accidentally getting a girl pregnant: fun at the time, but the consequences are expensive.

The Small Magellanic Cloud in 3D by Astrobites

Title: The Carnegie Hubble Program: Distance and Structure of the SMC as Revealed by Mid-Infrared Observations of Cepheids

Authors: Victoria Scowcroft, Wendy L. Freedman, Barry F. Madore, Andy Monson, S. E. Persson, Jeff Rich, Mark Seibert, Jane R. Rigby

First Author’s Institution: Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington

Status: Accepted for publication in ApJ

Cepheid variable stars have long been famous for the role they play in the cosmic distance ladder. Intrinsic luminosities are generally difficult to measure, but because the luminosities and periods of variation of Cepheids follow a well-known relationship called the Leavitt Law (LL—you might also see this called the Period-Luminosity or PL relation), we can measure their periods and then calculate their intrinsic luminosities. The LL for a variety of wavelength bands is shown in Figure 1. Once we know their intrinsic luminosities, we can determine their distances. In addition, since Cepheids are supergiant stars, and are therefore very luminous, we can also use them to derive distances to objects much farther than we could with parallax.

Figure 1: Figure 3 from the paper, which shows the LL for 10 wavelength bands from U (the shortest) to 4.5 micrometers (the longest). We can see that there is a drop in the dispersion and increase in slope as we move from the shorter wavelengths to the longer wavelengths.

Figure 1: Figure 3 from the paper, which shows the Leavitt Law for 10 wavelength bands from U (the shortest) to 4.5 micron (the longest). We can see that there is a drop in the dispersion and increase in slope as we move from the shorter wavelengths to the longer wavelengths. The 3.6 micron-band has darker pink points. 

Usually when we look at distances—for example, to other galaxies—that we’ve derived with Cepheids, we consider all of the Cepheids in each galaxy in aggregate. Though Cepheid periods and luminosities are quite closely related, there is still some dispersion intrinsic to the LL, so we get more accurate distance measures when we consider what the LL looks like for all of the Cepheids in a galaxy rather than just using distances derived from individual stars.

The authors of today’s paper have used Cepheids in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) in the mid-infrared to derive a distance modulus to the galaxy. Their average distance modulus of 18.96 ± 0.01 (stat) ± 0.03 (sys) mag for the SMC, which corresponds to 62 ± 0.3 kpc, is consistent with previous estimates of the distance. However, they have gone a step further and used the Cepheids not only to determine a mean distance modulus to the SMC, but also to study its structure.

Previous observations of Cepheids in the SMC have indicated that the south-west side of the galaxy was farther away from us than the central or north-east portion. The authors of today’s paper noticed that while the intrinsic dispersion of the LL in the mid-infrared (3.6 µm) for the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and Milky Way is about ±0.10 mag, in the SMC, it is 0.16 mag. They focus in particular on this bandwidth because it has the lowest intrinsic dispersion (see Figure 1), which also makes it easier to calculate precise distance moduli. This intrinsic dispersion can be traced back to the width of the instability strip—the part of the stellar color-magnitude diagram where Cepheids and other variable stars live. The instability strip looks narrower in the mid-infrared, causing  smaller dispersion in the LL at those wavelengths as well.

Figure 6 from the paper, which shoes the individual distances derived from the Cepheids. The closest Cepheids are in blue while the farthest are red--they span about 20 kpc. The white points show what the typical uncertainty in the distance to each Cepheid looks like. The three plots to the side show what the SMC looks like in each of the three planes of a cartesian coordinate system, making it more clear that it has a

Figure 2: Figure 6 from the paper, which shows the individual distances derived from the Cepheids. The closest Cepheids are in blue while the farthest are red. In total, they span about 20 kpc. The white points  with error bars show what the typical uncertainty in the distance to each Cepheid looks like. The three plots to the side give an alternative view in each of the three planes of a cartesian coordinate system, making the “sausage”-like shape of the SMC more obvious. The image on the upper right-hand corner shows the SMC and distribution of Cepheid as they appear on the sky.

They attribute the higher dispersion in the LL for the SMC to the geometry of the galaxy—meaning that some of the Cepheids are closer to us than others—this is possible given the SMC’s known large line-of-sight depth. Since extinction can contribute to this spread in the LL as well, they also correct each Cepheid for extinction. However, even after dereddening, they find that there is still a higher than expected dispersion in the Leavitt Law that cannot be attributed to extinction. With this additional dispersion attributed to the geometry of the SMC, they find that the south-west corner of the SMC is about 20 kpc farther away than the north-east corner. Figure 2 shows the individual distance moduli of the SMC Cepheids.

Finally, the authors also compare the distance moduli that they measured for their Cepheids with theoretical models that seek to describe the mechanism that produced the irregular shape of the SMC. In particular, they look at a model of the mechanism that produces the “wing” of the SMC—a portion of the galaxy that is being drawn towards the LMC. They find that the locations of the young stars (like Cepheids) in the galaxy are in good agreement with where they are predicted to be by the models. They suggest that in the future, such measurements of Cepheids can also be used to inform simulations of galaxy dynamics as well, thus also contributing to our understanding of the dynamical histories of these galaxies. While we will probably have to wait a bit longer for reliable individual Cepheid distance moduli, it’s exciting to think that we could eventually use these stars not only to figure out how far away another galaxy is, but also to understand its structure.

Pretty pictures of the Cosmos: Star stream by The Planetary Society

Award-winning astrophotographer Adam Block presents the first-ever high-resolution color images of the "star stream halo" of the spiral galaxy NGC 4414.

Our Global Volunteers: July 2015 Update by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society's volunteers around the world have been busy these past few months, with all the excitement surrounding Asteroid Day, the LightSail test mission, the New Horizons and Dawn missions, and other space milestones!

July 31, 2015

Natural Regression (The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who) by Feeling Listless

Books Given its content, a very short story within an anthology threaded through a fact based look at the television series approach to science, Natural Regression is a nonetheless fairly momentous entry within the franchise. The first new piece of Eighth Doctor prose published by the BBC Books imprint since Fear Itself in 2005 (Spore was a Puffin eBook), it's also the opening salvo in a coincidental multi-platform reveal of what happened him between the end of the Big Finish audios and his regeneration (including a comic series and audio) refreshing the character again.  As one of the architects who helped establish the character, despite the slender pagination, Justin Richards instantly captures Eighth in his usual status quo, planets and galaxies exploding all around and just him and his small blue box trying to do their best against insurmountable odds.  The motivation for this small adventure fits within the scientific theme of the book (as well as poignantly paying homage to the educational roots of the series) and the only criticism I have is that it ends at just the moment when you want to read about him going off on further adventures with a potential new companion.  After nearly twenty years, this version of the character continues to surprise.

Soup Safari #52: Chicken and Sweetcorn at Bramley's Coffee House. by Feeling Listless

Brunch. £4.95. Bramley's Coffee House, 6 Church St, Ormskirk L39 3QS. Phone: 01695 578801. Website.

Ia, Ia, Google Fthagn by Charlie Stross

Filmmaker and comic author Hugh Hancock here again. Charlie's currently locked in his study babbling over blasphemous and forbidden tomes, so whilst we attempt to hack down the door with a fireaxe and get counselling for the guy to whom Charlie explained the hidden meaning of the Nightmare Stacks, I'm here with another blog post.

In the last couple of posts I've made over here (thanks as always to OGH for the invitation), I've been making the point that, both through necessity and lucky happenstance, the themes and subtext of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos are still very workable in today's world. In fact, they've acquired a lot of resonance thanks to advances in technology and society that run parallel to some of their main themes.

But still, the Cthulhu Mythos' core squamous, eldrich concepts were created just under 100 years ago at this point. They reflect the concerns of the time, like the sudden discovery that the universe is mind-blowingly, terrifyingly huge. And they have a few... issues for modern readers, like inbuilt xenophobia.

So what would a Cthulhu Mythos-equivalent for today, expressing the zeitgeist terrors of 2015 society, look like?

Bloody terrifying, that's what.

Because unlike Lovecraft, in 2015 we have plenty of experience with actual gigantic, inhuman entities with agendas entirely orthogonal to the safety and security of the human race.

One note before I begin: this article is explicitly about horrifying things in our current society. As such, I'll be hitting a lot of hotbuttons during the course of this piece.

They Know What You Did Last Summer

Lovecraft's concern was vast, alien entities who have no knowledge of, or concern for, the human race.

Our modern-day concerns are about vast, alien entities who have total, invasive, privacy-destroying knowledge of the minutae of the human race - and still have no concern for us.

In the era of Google, Facebook, datamining and intelligent advertising, the problem isn't that the alien entities who scare the crap out of us have no interest in us - rather the reverse. The aliens in our midst know when we've become accidentally pregnant. They know what pornography we watch. They can predict our behaviour and influence us to do what they want.

(Some of this is more or less accurate - as someone who buys quite a lot of advertising, I know that there are a lot of myths floating around about what targeted advertising can or can't do. But zeitgeist fears aren't about what's true, they're about what we fear is true.)

And this element actually fits rather well into the Cthulhu Mythos' core concepts - and it makes them a whole lot scarier.

Let's take Cthulhu, the Big Squid himself, for example. Beyond his Godzilla-like frame and immunity to nukes, he's written as having another power that gets less screentime. He talks in peoples' dreams.

In the 2015 version of the Mythos, Cthulhu still doesn't care whether you live or die, but he knows you better than you know yourself. And when he wakes, you get visions. Visions driven by the parts of yourself that you hide from the world, and the parts of people around you that they'd rather you didn't know.

In Old Cthulhu, our heroes manage to get into the West Wing, convince the President that Cthulhu is real, launch the nukes and watch helplessly as Cthulhu emerges from the blast, not only intact but now radioactive.

But what happens in that scenario with 2015 Cthulhu is far worse. Our heroes manage to get into the West Wing, ignoring the disquieting whispering they've been hearing for weeks now. They get to the President, which is rather easier than expected, because the many, many layers of security seem to be inactive. They explain the situation, and miraculously persuade the Joint Chiefs and the President to initiate a launch.

As the President keys in the launch codes, she starts on a soliloquy about her ex-husband and his treatment of her kids, for no obvious reason. The whispering's getting stronger. One of the Joint Chiefs is staring at pictures on his phone, and then he suddenly starts smashing it against the wall. He keeps on smashing until he's broken all the fingers in his hand and is working his way up his wrist. One of the Secret Servicemen draws his gun and shoots the other two in the gut before pulling a knife and starting to gut his colleagues, screaming incoherently about his experiences at boot camp. And then, just as the President hits the button, our heroes notice that the launch coordinates aren't centred on the mid-Pacific any more: they're centred on Sao Paulo, where the President's ex-partner lives.

And then Cthulhu makes landfall and eats everyone.

Cthulhu's All Around Us, And So The Feeling Goes

And that brings us onto another point about the terrifying entities that actually concern us right now.

Most of Lovecraft's entities are a long way away. And most of them only inhabit a single space.

Azathoth is a mass of bubbling chaos, but he's a mass of bubbling chaos a long way away. Cthulhu sleeps in Rl'yeh. Hastur inhabits dread Carcosa, or Hali, or at the very least somewhere that you can't get directions to on Google Maps. Even the Shoggoth are mostly chilling - pun intended - in Antarctica.

By contrast, the terrifying entities of 2015 aren't geographically located. They're everywhere. They can see everything, or at least everything that someone uploads a picture of, which is functionally close to everything and getting closer all the time. They can hear you, thanks to the handy microphone you carry around. And they're within arm's reach almost 100% of the day.

In 20s Cthulhu Mythos, summoning things was at least hard. You needed to reach across the vastnesses of time and space to cause Azathoth to incarnate and fuck your shit up. In the 2015 version, all of these things are right here.

Cthulhu listens whilst you dream. The bubbling chaos of Azathoth is here, only seperated from the physical world by the continuous luck of quantum fluctuation. When you go down on your boyfriend, the Black Goat Of The Woods With A Thousand Young hangs above you, just out of sight in the shadows, and her fluids drip down onto the sheets.

To update the Mythos to 2015, we need to assume that the problem isn't summoning them: the problem is avoiding them turning up anyway. And if you do want to summon them, it's terrifyingly easy. A few words, the right geometric shape, and terrible, sanity-destroying power is at your fingertips.

Oh, and talking of summoning things...

We are Young, We Are Free, We Are Heading For Insanity

One of the criticisms I've heard people level at Lovecraft is that in a world where we're not all terrified of people of different skintones the whole 'hidden cult' idea just doesn't work.

And my response to that tends to be 'Wait, what? Are you even living in the same century as me?'.

Because in 2015 we don't need to imagine the existence of hidden, malefic cults dedicated to sanity-destroying ends. There's hundreds of the bastards right there on any social media service you care to name.

The wonderous thing about the internet, of course, is that it allows people who share common interests to come together, form communities and not feel like they're alone in their weird little interest.

And the horrifying thing about the internet is... exactly the same.

There's a community for everything out there. Really into poodles? There's a community for you. Really into Zen philosophy? There's a community for you. Really into fucking 5-year-olds? There's a community for you, too, and it's easily accessible.

Forget about the DarkWeb - Tor and Onion routers and Freenode, oh my - which would usually come up at this point. Studies of pedophile websites show that most of the child pornography out there is accessible via the regular old internet, if you've been given the link. Likewise violent white power movements. Likewise howto manuals on suicide or anorexia.

It doesn't take much imagination to extend that to the Lovecraftian mythos. In 2015 Cthulhu Mythos, the insane cults looking to summon their dark masters aren't hidden in deepest Africa, and they aren't easily distinguishable by skin tone.

There are five of them in your home town. You went to college with the guy responsible for sourcing their sacrifice victims. They've got a forum and a Facebook group, they're uploading YouTube videos, they're considering starting a subreddit and they've got a Meetup in Birmingham next Thursday. Can you make it? It'd be awesome - we need two more to join the bloodletting. We thought about Kickstarting it but it was against their terms of service.

(Or perhaps it wasn't. The hidden, underground Kickstarter, where talented young occultists compete for funding from jaded oligarchs...)

All of this gains added tone - that being the tone of a creature screaming - from another iron-clad rule of the internet. No matter how bad the thing you're looking at on the internet is, there's something worse behind it. For the most abusive and manipulative PUA website, there's the PUAHate guys, who encourage self-mutilation for 'attraction points'. Think the pro-anorexia communities are bad? Try the pro-rape communities, dedicated to teaching best practise and encouraging their members. And so on.

So the question doesn't just become, 'where do the insane cultists trying to summon Nyarlathotep hang out?' (The answer to that is, obviously, , because /r/nyarlathotep went inactive in 2012 and /r/crawlingchaos was registered by some heavy metal band.) It also becomes 'and what's the thing lurking in their shadow that's even worse?'

Greed Is Good. Absolute Greed Is Absolutely Great

Which brings me to my final sanity-blasting point.

(I'm not even going into our improved understanding of mental health here, by the way. There is literally no school of psychotherapy that does not provide enough nightmare fuel to power a Mars mission.)

The prevailing flavour of fear in 2015 is one of inequality, uncertainty and insecurity. Jobs are vanishing. Capital is accumulating at the top. The few are becoming overwhelmingly wealthy, whilst the rest get to participate in the 'Sharing Economy' of zero-hour jobs, constant hustle and zero safety net.

(Or at least, that's the perception. I'm actually quite optimistic about where society's heading in a lot of ways, but this is a fear-and-horror article, and that's certainly the fear and horror that a lot of people are feeling right now.)

Say what you like about the Cthulhu Mythos, but at least it was an equal opportunities apocalypse. The stars come right, the Old Ones rise from their slumber, and everyone either goes psychopathically insane or dies horribly, possibly one right after the other.

That seems far too nice for our 2015 Cthulhu.

So here's a thought.

What if there's some room at the top? Or at least, at the same level as other long-term viable races in the Cthulhu Mythos universe - the Great Race, the Mi-Go and so on?

What if a few humans will survive? May even, in fact, get to wield some of the science that the Old Ones possess; live forever, and have incredible wealth and power by human standards?

Of course, you'll have to work for it; work harder than everyone else. Out-compete 100,000 other people for a chance at the prize. Impress your bosses - erm, sorry, I mean 'The Old Ones'. Hustle. Do what others won't.

If you read startup advice, which I do, you'll see the phrase 'do what others won't' crop up quite frequently in regards to the path to success. And that's... rather alarming, if you think about it in a certain light.

So yes. This is the new, caring Cthulhu Mythos. You're not doomed. Your children aren't doomed.

All you have to do is prove that you're more worthy than the people you're competing against for the favour of the Elder Gods.

All you have to do is...

Do what other people won't.

Doesn't that sound better?

If you'd like to read more of my squamous, eldrich rantings, you can find me at @hughhancock on Twitter or follow my current projects via email. If you'd like a mild unicorn chaser after all that, have a watch of a slightly lighter take on startup culture meeting Cthulhu Mythos horrors, available through your friendly local horrific privacy-destroying inhuman entity right now. Or if you want to see what I do with some of these horrifying ideas, follow Carcosa, my comic, as it develops.

Doing Terrible Things To Your Code by Jeff Atwood

In 1992, I thought I was the best programmer in the world. In my defense, I had just graduated from college, this was pre-Internet, and I lived in Boulder, Colorado working in small business jobs where I was lucky to even hear about other programmers much less meet them.

I eventually fell in with a guy named Bill O'Neil, who hired me to do contract programming. He formed a company with the regrettably generic name of Computer Research & Technologies, and we proceeded to work on various gigs together, building line of business CRUD apps in Visual Basic or FoxPro running on Windows 3.1 (and sometimes DOS, though we had a sense by then that this new-fangled GUI thing was here to stay).

Bill was the first professional programmer I had ever worked with. Heck, for that matter, he was the first programmer I ever worked with. He'd spec out some work with me, I'd build it in Visual Basic, and then I'd hand it over to him for review. He'd then calmly proceed to utterly demolish my code:

  • Tab order? Wrong.
  • Entering a number instead of a string? Crash.
  • Entering a date in the past? Crash.
  • Entering too many characters? Crash.
  • UI element alignment? Off.
  • Does it work with unusual characters in names like, say, O'Neil? Nope.

One thing that surprised me was that the code itself was rarely the problem. He occasionally had some comments about the way I wrote or structured the code, but what I clearly had no idea about is testing my code.

I dreaded handing my work over to him for inspection. I slowly, painfully learned that the truly difficult part of coding is dealing with the thousands of ways things can go wrong with your application at any given time – most of them user related.

That was my first experience with the buddy system, and thanks to Bill, I came out of that relationship with a deep respect for software craftsmanship. I have no idea what Bill is up to these days, but I tip my hat to him, wherever he is. I didn't always enjoy it, but learning to develop discipline around testing (and breaking) my own stuff unquestionably made me a better programmer.

It's tempting to lay all this responsibility at the feet of the mythical QA engineer.

If you are ever lucky enough to work with one, you should have a very, very healthy fear of professional testers. They are terrifying. Just scan this "Did I remember to test" list and you'll be having the worst kind of flashbacks in no time. Did I mention that's the abbreviated version of his list?

I believe a key turning point in every professional programmer's working life is when you realize you are your own worst enemy, and the only way to mitigate that threat is to embrace it. Act like your own worst enemy. Break your UI. Break your code. Do terrible things to your software.

This means programmers need a good working knowledge of at least the common mistakes, the frequent cases that average programmers tend to miss, to work against. You are tester zero. This is your responsibility.

Let's start with Patrick McKenzie's classic Falsehoods Programmers Believe about Names:

  1. People have exactly one canonical full name.
  2. People have exactly one full name which they go by.
  3. People have, at this point in time, exactly one canonical full name.
  4. People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.
  5. People have exactly N names, for any value of N.
  6. People’s names fit within a certain defined amount of space.
  7. People’s names do not change.
  8. People’s names change, but only at a certain enumerated set of events.
  9. People’s names are written in ASCII.
  10. People’s names are written in any single character set.

That's just the first 10. There are thirty more. Plus a lot in the comments if you're in the mood for extra credit. Or, how does Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Time grab you?

  1. There are always 24 hours in a day.
  2. Months have either 30 or 31 days.
  3. Years have 365 days.
  4. February is always 28 days long.
  5. Any 24-hour period will always begin and end in the same day (or week, or month).
  6. A week always begins and ends in the same month.
  7. A week (or a month) always begins and ends in the same year.
  8. The machine that a program runs on will always be in the GMT time zone.
  9. Ok, that’s not true. But at least the time zone in which a program has to run will never change.
  10. Well, surely there will never be a change to the time zone in which a program has to run in production.
  11. The system clock will always be set to the correct local time.
  12. The system clock will always be set to a time that is not wildly different from the correct local time.
  13. If the system clock is incorrect, it will at least always be off by a consistent number of seconds.
  14. The server clock and the client clock will always be set to the same time.
  15. The server clock and the client clock will always be set to around the same time.

Are there more? Of course there are! There's even a whole additional list of stuff he forgot when he put that giant list together.

Catastrophic Error - User attempted to use program in the manner program was meant to be used

I think you can see where this is going. This is programming. We do this stuff for fun, remember?

But in true made-for-TV fashion, wait, there's more! Seriously, guys, where are you going? Get back here. We have more awesome failure states to learn about:

At this point I wouldn't blame you if you decided to quit programming altogether. But I think it's better if we learn to do for each other what Bill did for me, twenty years ago — teach less experienced developers that a good programmer knows they have to do terrible things to their code. Do it because if you don't, I guarantee you other people will, and when they do, they will either walk away or create a support ticket. I'm not sure which is worse.

[advertisement] Find a better job the Stack Overflow way - what you need when you need it, no spam, and no scams.

Galactic Interlopers by Astrobites

Title: Interloper bias in future large-scale structure surveys
Authors: A. R. Pullen, C. M. Hirata, O. Dore, A. Raccanelli
First Author’s Institution: Department of Physics, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Status: To be submitted to PASJ



We look out into a universe that appears deceivingly two-dimensional. Our favorite constellations are often composed of stars that are separated by distances more immense than their proximity to each other suggests. This artificial two-dimensionality of the observed universe has forever been a bane of astronomy, for it takes a lot to squeeze information about the third dimension out of the universe. Deprojecting our 2D sky into a true 3D map by measuring distances to objects is an astronomical enterprise of its own, built up first from inch-long measuring sticks used exclusively for nearby objects, which are replaced by yardsticks as we move further out, to mile markers even further out, and so on.  We can use predictably varying stars called classical Cepheids to determine distances up to about 30 Mpc, a little beyond the nearest galaxy cluster, VirgoType Ia supernovae, stellar explosions that achieve the same brightness each and every time, no matter when or where they exploded, help us measure distances as much as 30 times further.  Each measuring stick in the sequence is calibrated by the sequence of shorter measuring sticks that came before it, a sequence which astronomers have called the “distance ladder.”  Thus errors and uncertainties in calibrating one yardstick can propagate up the sequence, much like falling dominoes.  We’ve directly measured the distances of only a small fraction of celestial objects; for a vast majority of the objects in the universe, we must turn to our sequence of sticks.

For objects far beyond the gravitational influence of our galactic neighborhood, the measuring stick of choice is the object’s redshift. This is unique to a universe that’s expanding uniformly and homogenously, causing things further from you to appear to move away from you faster. Much like how the pitch of an emergency siren falls after it flys away from you, the wavelength of the light from an object moving away from you becomes longer and longer, causing it to look redder. The amount an object’s light is “redshifted” depends predictably on the object’s distance—a relation so robust that it has been codified into what’s known as Hubble’s law.

Hubble’s law has embolded cosmological cartographers to take up the herculean task of drawing a 3D map of our universe. The feat requires measuring redshifts of a huge sample of galaxies via large spectroscopic surveys. The first such survey, begun in the 1970s, contained a few thousand galaxies. The biggest survey completed to date, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), contains nearly a million galaxies. These maps have revealed that the universe on its largest scales is fascinatingly varied and structured. There are walls of galaxies surrounding vast, empty voids; galaxies are often assembled together to form fractal-like filamentary strands; at nodes where the filaments intersect, one can find the densest and largest clusters of galaxies. The maps also contain clues to the physics and the cosmological parameters that govern the past and future evolution of our universe.

Thus even more ambitious surveys are in the works. Our quest for more galaxies requires us to search for ever fainter galaxies, for which reliable redshifts are difficult to measure. But it’s not impossible. One can look for an easy-to-find, strong spectral feature typical in galaxies and measure how much redder it’s become. It would have been a fairly straightforward task, except for one catch—there’s a handful of strong features that can easily be mistaken for each other. These interloping lines could cause a galaxy to be mistakenly given an incorrect redshift, and thus distance.

The authors of today’s paper thus asked, how much do galaxies with incorrect distances based on a single emission line affect our maps and the physics we infer from them? They looked at how upcoming spectroscopic redshift surveys undertaken with the Prime Focus Spectrograph (PFS) to be installed on the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope and the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) could be affected by interloping galaxies. In particular, the authors studied how the matter power spectrum, an important measure of the amount of mass found at varying cosmological size scales, derived from the two surveys would be affected. They found that if more than 0.2% of the galaxies were interlopers with incorrect distances, they can increase the total error by 10%.  If more than 0.5% of the galaxies were interlopers, they can drastically skew the matter power spectrum at small scales.  Such effects have consequences for many other cosmological studies, including those concerning dark energy and modified gravity.

Can the interlopers be weeded out somehow? The authors investigate two methods to identify interlopers. One could repeat the emission line analysis but for pairs of strong lines, since each of the strong lines pairs that PFS and WFIRST could measure have unique wavelength separations. Alternatively, one could independently measure the redshift of each galaxy based on the galaxy’s color, derived from a separate photometric survey. The authors tested these two interloper removal methods on a mock sample of galaxies and found that finding strong line pairs alone can help remove most of the interlopers in the PFS survey, while a combination of finding pairs and calculating photometric redshifts must be done together to remove interlopers in the WFIRST survey.


To see a video of the first author A. Pullen explaining this paper, follow this link.




Dawn Journal: Descent to HAMO by The Planetary Society

With a wonderfully rich bounty of pictures and other observations already secured, Dawn is now on its way to an even better vantage point around dwarf planet Ceres.

July 30, 2015

Identity Loss. by Feeling Listless

People The Guardian has a useful piece about memory loss or more specifically identity loss and how it's not uncommon:

"For some, amnesia is specific to a situation: being in car crash or witnessing a murder. In others, it is not a solitary personal experience that drifts away in time but your identity, your self. “Who am I, what have I been doing all my life?”

"Jason Bournes in the real world are usually found by police on street corners and led, in an often dishevelled and confused state, to emergency rooms. No name and no memories. Some have travelled hundreds of miles from home as part of their psychogenic fugue (fugue is Latin for flight). It is a departure from a distant physical location, but a remote place of the mind, too."

Solar by Albert Wenger

The progress with solar technology has been impressive and is well summarized in the following chart which shows the dramatic decline in the price per watt

Whenever someone shows a chart like this there will quickly be people who decry subsidies for solar. The answer of course is that at this point instead of subsidizing solar we should be taxing carbon, which would make solar instantly the preferred technology for homes everywhere.

In my personal portfolio (outside of USV) I am very long solar including holding in Solar City and First Solar as well as a private investment in M-Kopa an offgrid solar provider in Kenya. I was happy to see Hillary Clinton make a strong push for solar as part of her presidential campaign even though this still falls short of a comprehensive climate policy (which would have to include a carbon tax – but might not make someone electable).

In the meantime there is also interesting financing innovation happening in Solar. For instance, Wundercapital lets you back solar projects directly in a P2P financing model that returns 6% (while this is less than what you could earn on say Lending Club you are also doing something good for the environment). Another really interesting twist is Yeloha. Instead of a straight up financing play they connect people who have roof space available with those who have the money to pay for solar but are constrained by where they live. Yeloha connects the two through a clever hack that deducts the savings right off your electricity bill. So if you care about the climate and can’t have solar directly at your building both of these are great ways to support the transition. 

I am very bullish on the potential for solar. Let’s just hope this isn’t a case of too little too late.

Radio Crickets: A New Probe of General Relativity by Astrobites


This November marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (GR), our modern theory of gravity that describes its true nature and intimate connection with space and time. A century after the formulation of GR, one of the phenomena predicted by this theory has remained elusive to detection – ripples of gravitational energy propagating through spacetime like waves. These gravitational waves have remained elusive for good reason.

Spacetime is very stiff, and even extremely massive objects accelerating through spacetime produce feeble gravitational wave signals (so feeble that when Einstein predicted their existence he believed we would never be able to detect their minuscule effects on spacetime). Coincidentally, the centennial year of GR is also when the upgraded and unbelievably sensitive Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (aLIGO) will commence science runs. This machine is predicted to make the first direct detections of these ripples in spacetime over the next few years and open up a new window to the Universe through multi-messenger astronomy.

Though the first detection of gravitational waves will be more than enough to celebrate about, a true goldmine of scientific wealth will come from finding an electromagnetic counterpart of a gravitational wave signal, allowing these astrophysical objects to be accessed by two completely independent forms of information. Today’s paper considers a possible electromagnetic counterpart of what is thought to be the loudest gravitational wave event in the Universe – the merging of two supermassive black holes (SMBHs). These events would be screaming in gravitational wave radiation, and may be able to reach gravitational wave luminosities of about 10^50 Watts right before they merge. As comparison, this is about as luminous as all the stars shining in all the galaxies in the observable Universe! Though aLIGO is not sensitive to these frequencies of gravitational waves, pulsar timing arrays and future space-based interferometers like eLISA will be.

SMBH binaries are believed to emerge via the collision of two large galaxies, each of which hosting a massive black hole at its center. After the galaxies collide, the SMBHs lose angular momentum through dynamical friction, creeping close enough to the remnant galaxy’s center to form a gravitationally bound binary. After entering their orbital dance, the black holes continue to lose angular momentum by scattering gas and stars, causing their orbit to shrink (though this phase of binary SMBH evolution is up for debate, since theoretical models have a hard time making the orbits shrink when their orbital separation is on the order of 1 parsec, or about 200,000 astronomical units, an issue known as the final parsec problem). When they reach a separation of about 1/1000 parsecs (a couple hundred astronomical units…pretty close given that the event horizon of a billion Solar mass black hole situated at our Sun would stretch 20 astronomical units, or all the way to the orbit of Uranus), gravitational wave emission becomes the key player in angular momentum loss, quickly diminishing the orbital separation until the two SMBHs merge. It is this final phase of orbital evolution that may be probed with future space-based gravitational wave observatories. But alternatively, as today’s paper suggests, we may be able to gain insight about this period of evolution from electromagnetic radiation as well.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 4.26.31 PM

Figure 1. The jet and orbital configuration, assuming equal mass black holes. L_orb is the orbital angular moment, v_jet is the velocity of the jet without orbital motion, v_orb is the orbital velocity, and the red vector v~jet is v_jet + v_orb. v~jet precesses about v_jet as the black hole orbits. Figure 1 in the paper.


The key to the electromagnetic counterpart presented in today’s paper is that the black holes are able to hold onto an accretion disk and continue accreting gas during this gravitational wave dominated stage of orbital evolution, shown to be possible in recent studies. With accretion disks come jets of highly relativistic particles, and charged particles spiraling in the strong magnetic field of a SMBH emit synchrotron radiation detectable by radio telescopes. As the binary orbits, the jet will trace out a conical surface. This is easily seen by looking at figure 1 and recalling simple vector addition (remember, for an observer very far away, the solid black jet vector, which represents the velocity of the jet neglecting orbital motion, is essentially fixed, while the orbital velocity vector is constantly changing). The red jet vector, which is the combination of both the jet velocity and orbital velocity, therefore precesses about the black jet vector as the black hole orbits. This would be the end of the story if these binaries were not emitting gravitational waves.

Since the system emits gravitational waves during this phase, the orbital separation decreases, causing the orbital speed to increase. Imagine the black orbital velocity vector from figure 1 increasing. The red vector, which is the sum of the orbital and jet velocities, will therefore have an increasing contribution from the orbital velocity, causing it to precess about the black jet vector with an increasing opening angle. The increase in orbital speed and decrease in orbital separation of the binary will also cause the jet to precess faster, winding the jet tighter closer to the source and resulting in a classical “chirping” morphology in the jet (hence the “radio crickets” in the title of this bite). These effects can be seen in figure 2, which simulates the evolution of a SMBH jet during the first 100 years after entering the gravitational wave dominated regime of orbital decay.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 4.26.09 PM

Figure 2. The jets of an equal-mass binary with a total mass of 10 billion solar masses situated 100 megaparsecs away. The axes are angular size in milli-arcseconds. The left panel shows the bipolar jet pointed toward and away from the observer on the right and left of the box, respectively. The opening angle of the jet increases as one gets closer to the black hole, as this represents material emitted later in time. Also apparent is the chirping morphology; as one gets closer to the source the helicity increases because the orbital frequency increases. The twisting of the jet is due to apparent superluminal motion. The right panel shows the normalized brightness of the inner 30 milli-arcsecond region of the forward jet. Figure 5 in the paper.


Long baseline radio interferometry from telescope arrays such as the Square Kilometer Array, set to have its first light in 2020, will achieve the resolution necessary to observe these subtle milli-arcsecond jet features caused by gravitational wave inspiral. These observations would also put a lower bound on the abundance of bright gravitational wave sources detectable by future space-based detectors. Moreover, supplementing gravitational wave observations with electromagnetic observations of compact binary mergers will enable detailed studies on the strong-field regime of GR, where Einstein’s theory of gravity might break down and create problems that need to be solved by future generations of scientists.

Field Report from Mars: Sol 4060 - June 26, 2015 by The Planetary Society

Larry Crumpler gives an update on the Opportunity rover's activities in Spirit of St. Louis crater.

In Pictures: West Virginia from Space by The Planetary Society

Jason Davis shares five images of his home state, West Virginia, taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

July 29, 2015

My Favourite Film of 1988. by Feeling Listless

Film Still on air now in a different form and long after I stopped listening to commercial radio on purpose, the "peaceful hour" on Liverpool's Radio City was how I went to sleep during my school years, broadcast between midnight and one.  I can't remember who the DJ was, though YouTube suggests it might have been Paul Leckie, but I do have two vivid memories.  One that every night someone would request Minnie Riperton's Loving You and there was a brief moment when my tweenie soprano voice could actually reach some of those high notes and the adverts repeated at what seemed like ten minute intervals for the latest film releases at the Video City chain of which our local was in Garston.

These adverts, which included clips of dialogue from the films and what must have been a pithy synopsis supplied by the film company were repeated so often that after a while I could quote them verbatim.  Now there's only three films which pierce the fog: The Pick-Up Artist ("Hi, I'm Jack Jericho." "Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?"), The Boy Who Could Fly ("You told your mother something about a boy who rescued you." "What are you, a shrink?") and Working Girl ("I have a head for business and a bod for sin.").  Every night these same adverts.  But for some reason I never did actually see any of these films, on rental from Video City, which was odd because we were in there all the time.

As a family we were lent our first video player in the mid-80s.  We ventured out that night to buy a blank tape from the Asda at Hunts Cross which would eventually be the permanent home for a recording of the James Spader starring Starcrossed which was broadcast as part of a sci-fi season on Channel 4 (with, if I can complete the memory, a purple sticker across the top which had been given away free with the 2000 AD spin-off "magazine" Crisis).  But that evening it allowed us to finally experience the magic of recording something from live television and then playing it back.  Pretty soon afterwards we decided to try renting some films and the nearest shop which wasn't also an off license was Video City in Garston.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, this is where I first hired Star Trek: The Next Generation, but before that, one summer holiday, I remember working through the whole of the available Police Academy series, loads of Disney and oddly one Sunday afternoon Robocop, which would have been my first 18 certificate film.  Not a bad place to start.  The decor is about what you'd imagine a mid-80s video shop to be, with woodchip wallpaper and those red plastic display boxes for new released and wall shelves for the back catalogue (with its often lurid box art).  There might even have been a small, walled off section for adult selections.  The place seems huge in my memory, but was still relatively small, so it could have been about the size of an average off license.

Yet despite all of the advertising efforts I would eventually see these three films through other means.  The Pick-Up Artist, starring Robert Downey Jr in his notorious phase opposite Molly Ringwald just after she'd fallen out with John Hughes and was seeking more adult material was broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV back when they didn't simply rerun Loose Women and posh teletext, The Boy Who Could Fly was I think shown one morning on Channel 4 and I think I eventually saw Working Girl on a recording the same relative made of it from Sky for us.  Even as I type this, I still can't believe that all these archaic means of accessing film were only thirty odd years ago.  Though given that I'm forty, that is actually a very long time.  Let the river run.

Gone Without a Bang by Astrobites

Title: Gone without a bang: An archival HST survey for disappearing massive stars
Authors: Thomas Reynolds, Morgan Fraser, Gerard Gilmore
First author’s institution: University of Cambridge
Status: Submitted to MNRAS

It’s well known that stars with a mass about 10 times that of the Sun will explode in a supernova and leave behind a neutron star. We also know that colossal stars, those greater than 40 times more massive than our Sun, will also explode as a supernova and leave behind a black hole.

So what happens to stars in between? You might guess that they will also explode in a spectacular supernova, following the pattern of their siblings. As it turns out, many of these stars can die by collapsing into a black hole…without their characteristic supernova. How does this work?

Core-collapse supernovae usually explode when the inner iron core of a massive star has reached its Chandrasekhar mass and cannot support itself against its own gravity. The core then collapses until it reaches the density of an atomic nucleus – or about 5 billion tons for a teaspoon of matter. At this point, the infalling material rebounds outwards, producing a shockwave that blasts the outer layers of the star with the help of neutrinos, leading to a supernova. Things can go awry in this last step. If insufficient energy is supplied to the shock, the shockwave may stall before leaving the star. This lapse allows the black hole formed by the inner core of the star to simply gobble up the star before an explosion can occur. And–poof!–just like that, the star is gone.

Well, sorta. It’s predicted that there will be a very dim (about 10,000 times fainter than a supernova), red and long transient from the explosion, but we have never seen such an event! This is especially odd because these events shouldn’t be that rare; about 1/3 of all core-collapse may actually result in a failed supernova.The evidence for these events is the fact that red supergiants should end their lives as supernovae, but we haven’t found many that have done so (greater than about 15 times the mass of our Sun). This is known as the “Red Supergiant Problem”. The question then seems obvious: could these red supergiants be disappearing into the night sky as failed supernovae?

Fig. 1: HST image of the Antenna galaxies (NGC 4038/4039)  overlaid on an image from a ground-based CTIO telescope.  The image shows three snapshots taken by HST during 1996, 2004 and 2010.

Fig. 1: HST image of the Antenna galaxies (NGC 4038/4039) overlaid on an image from a ground-based CTIO telescope. The image shows three snapshots taken by HST during 1996, 2004 and 2010. [Figure 2 of Reynolds et al. 2015.]

This is what the authors of today’s paper explore this question by looking for the culprits themselves. The astronomers look for stars which have disappeared using archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). HST has been orbiting the Earth since 1990, so it has the unique advantage of having plenty of high quality images of galaxies, such as the Antenna galaxies in Figure 1. The authors look for galaxies which have been observed multiple times by HST over the course of its life, searching for any disappearing stars. In theory, you would only need three HST images in sequence to do this: two images before the failed supernova to ensure that the star was not extremely variable and a second image to capture its disappearance. By narrowing down the possible galaxies using this criterion, as well as some distance and galaxy-type cuts, the authors are able to find six potential failed supernovae in fifteen galaxies.

Of these six candidates, two are actually bright, variable stars and three others are far too dim to be red supergiants. This leaves a single, potential failed supernova! The lightcurve of this mysterious star is shown in Figure 2.

The authors can’t be entirely sure that this is truly a failed supernova based on the HST data alone; other transients or variable objects can mimic the predicted lightcurve of a failed supernova. One notable possibility are R Coronae Borealis stars (RCB), which are evolved stars lacking hydrogen. RCB stars can dim by many order of magnitude, likely due to intense clouds of carbon dust in their atmosphere. If these stars dim during the last few observations, they might seem to have disappeared altogether. Future data on this candidate would certainly help to unveil its true identity.

Fig 2: Light curve of a possible failed supernovae in NGC3021.

Fig 2: Light curve of a possible failed supernovae in NGC3021. The candidate clearly dims during the last two observations, but it is uncertain if it has disappeared altogether. [Figure 6 of Reynolds et al. 2015]

This is now the second survey to search for failed supernovae, following a survey by Gerke et al. in 2014 which used the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope. Both of these surveys resulted in single candidates, but, unfortunately, neither had sufficient data to build a complete transient lightcurve. In this regard, the mystery surrounding failed supernovae remains unsolved. This leaves an extremely exciting open question about the nature of black hole creation when a supernova fails to explode and the solution to the Red Supergiant Problem. Lastly, it’s worth emphasizing that this study was done on a small fraction of the thousands of galaxies publically available on the Hubble Archive – there is nothing stopping you, the reader, from trying to find a failed supernova for yourself!


DSCOVR's Halo by The Planetary Society

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has begun sending us fresh, whole-hemisphere images of our own fragile planet. Some sources say that the spacecraft is "orbiting" the L1 point. Dave Doody thinks this warrants some scrutiny.

July 28, 2015

An Icon a Day by Tom Darlow

Keeps the doctor away.

Just found this blog full of wonderful icons.

This was one of my favourites.

Icon design of plane window

Anxious Investors (the Investor Side) by Albert Wenger

Fred had a great post yesterday about why investors in private companies experience more anxiety than those in public ones (can’t sell) together with some spot on recommendations for entrepreneurs on how to deal with anxious investors. 

I have been an occasionally anxious investor myself. Based on that here are some recommendation for the other side: how to be less anxious as an investor.

1. Remind yourself that you have a portfolio whereas the entrepreneur has just his or her company.

2. Remember that the entrepreneur faces his or her employees every day and you don’t.

3. Consider that the outcome of any investment involves a large degree of luck and randomness that you don’t control.

4. Going into investments pick markets and approaches that you have a specific thesis for. Knowing why you invested helps in times of trouble.

5. Focus on the things that the entrepreneur can control and help the entrepreneur focus on that – anything else just adds stress for everyone.

6. Remember that all of us who benefit from technology are luck to begin with even when individual ventures don’t work out.

I am not suggesting that you need to become a robot as an investor. You should experience your emotions of anxiety but then figure out how to let go of them. If you can, you will do the entrepreneurs you work with a great favor. I know it’s not easy and has taken me a long time to get to a point where I mostly succeed at this.

Shifting the Pillars – Constraining Lithium Production in Big Bang Nucleosynthesis by Astrobites

Title: Constraining Big Bang lithium production with recent solar neutrino data
Authors: Marcell P. Takacs, Daniel Bemmerer, Tamas Szucs, Kai Zuber
First Author’s Institution: Helmholtz-Zentrum, Dresden-Rossendorf
Notes: in press at Phys. Rev. D

Tom McClintock

Guest author Tom McClintock

Today’s post was written by Tom McClintock, third year graduate student in Physics at the University of Arizona. His research interests include cosmology and large scale structure. Tom did his undergrad at Amherst College and a MSc in high performance computing at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his research, he is in a long term relationship with ultimate frisbee and dungeons and dragons.

Among the tests passed by the standard cosmological model, Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN) may be the most rigorous, in that predictions of light element abundances are consistent with observations over ten orders of magnitude. All of this production occurs within the first fifteen minutes(!) following the Big Bang, and ceases once weak reactions producing neutrons fall out of equilibrium. However, for over thirty years there has been tension over the abundance of lithium-7 between theoretical BBN calculations and measurements of metal-poor stars known as the Cosmic Lithium Problem (which astrobites has discussed here and here). The numerical simulations of \LambdaCDM predict an abundance that is over three times that found on the surface of Population II stars. Something has to give.

The authors of today’s paper investigate a nuclear physics solution, the reaction rate 3He + 4He \rightarrow \gamma + 7Be, shortened to 3He(a,g)7Be. Production of beryllium-7 is important because 7Be eventually decays to 7Li through electron capture. Nuclear reactions are described by reaction rates, which in turn are described by interaction cross sections, which can be measured by experiments. In the case of 3He(a,g)7Be, any change in the measured cross section affects the theoretical BBN 7Li yield, and thus the compatibility between the standard cosmological model and abundance observations.

In addition, 3He(a,g)7Be is a critical step in both the pp-2 and pp-3 branches of the pp-chain of hydrogen burning in the Sun. Both of these branches also produce electron neutrinos, observable on Earth. The authors use new stellar neutrino flux data published by the BOREXINO collaboration in order to constrain the 3He(a,g)7Be reaction rate. From there they recalculate the theoretical 7Li yield and confirm the significant tension between theory and observation.

The Tricky Part

Nuclear reaction cross sections have a temperature dependent sweet spot, called the Gamow peak, which allows for a maximum reaction rate to occur. For this reason, it is much easier for experiments to probe cross sections near the Gamow peak; at lower energies there isn’t enough juice to get the nuclei to smash together and at higher energies they whiz by each other too fast. Unfortunately, the energy range of interest (0.1 – 0.5 MeV) for BBN temperatures (~500,000 K) is too low, and lies just out of the capabilities of most experiments. Therefore, in order to perform BBN calculations it has been necessary to extrapolate the cross section down to these energies.

Takacs et al. sidestepped this limitation by utilizing the solar neutrino data to constrain the reaction rate at an energy lower than that of BBN, thereby removing the need for extrapolation.


By assuming a standard solar model (SSM) as well as the standard neutrino oscillation model, the authors determine that the predicted neutrino flux depends on a variety of parameters such as solar luminosity, age, opacity, and nuclear reaction rates. They then use calculations of the sensitivity of the neutrino flux for a variation in the 3He(a,g)7Be reaction rate in order to write this rate in terms of the observed flux, the expected flux from SSM, and the best theoretical reaction rate from SSM. As shown in the figure below, their data point was measured at an energy almost a factor of ten below all previous measurements of the cross section.

The so-called “astrophysical S-factor” S34 is a parameterization of, and is directly proportional to, the interaction cross section. Takacs et al. were able to measure S at an energy almost a factor of ten lower than the best accelerator experiments. The fit to S is given as a red line, while the blue dashed line is calculated analytically from theory but due to numerical limitations cannot reach energies considered in this paper. The solar Gamow peak is given as the red shaded region, and the blue shaded region indicates the energy range for BBN. This figure is from Takacs et al.

The so-called “astrophysical S-factor” S34 is a parameterization of, and is directly proportional to, the interaction cross section. Takacs et al. were able to measure S at an energy almost a factor of ten lower than the best accelerator experiments. The fit to S is given as a red line, while the blue dashed line is calculated analytically from theory but due to numerical limitations cannot reach energies considered in this paper. The solar Gamow peak is given as the red shaded region, and the blue shaded region indicates the energy range for BBN. This figure is from Takacs et al.


The cross section for 3He(a,g)7Be was lower by about 5% compared to the value previously used in several BBN calculations, and the precision increased almost by a factor of three, mostly due to the elimination of extrapolation. Using this cross section, the authors updated the reaction rate in a public BBN code and determined a small increase in the disagreement between the theoretical 7Li abundance and the abundance observed on the surface of metal poor stars. However, they caution that further work on the SSM may change their error budget for the 3He(a,g)7Be cross section.

This study both confirms and exacerbates the cosmic lithium problem (albeit slightly), yet it demonstrates how astrophysical processes even in our solar system can serve as probes into fundamental physics. BBN marks the boundary between precision and speculative cosmology, and the lithium problem restricts researchers from pushing this boundary further.

Proposals to Explore the Solar System’s Smallest Worlds by The Planetary Society

Van Kane rounds up some of the latest NASA Discovery mission proposals aiming to explore our solar system's smallest bodies.

July 27, 2015

BBC Genome adds links to actual programmes. by Feeling Listless

TV The BBC Genome is a massive database of everything broadcast on the BBC from 1923 to 2009 created by scanning in back copies of the Radio Times. Since it went public it's been an invaluable source of information as to what was transmitted when, providing the useful ability to remind us when memories of various shows actually happened.

Now it's even better.  Now they're going through and linking entries to actual programmes available on the BBC website across television and radio:

"When I started the work to find the programmes, we weren't sure how many published programmes, which are available outside the 30 day catch-up period for programmes available on BBC iPlayer — we would find on the BBC website. Over the years, different departments have uploaded select broadcast programmes, and they sit under different collections on – sometimes categorised and alphabetised, sometimes not. We knew about the large and well-documented collections, and estimated there would be many more obscure, single programmes too.

"Our guess when we started was that we might able to link about 3,000 videos or radio programmes – so far, we have found about 8,500 (282 television and 8,200 radio). And we're still working on more."
They're asking for user submissions, so of course ...

Afrolive by Tom Darlow

I’ve been planning a rebuild of my blog for a while now.

If I’ve learned one thing from product development, it’s know what problem you’re trying to solve.

So I sat down and actually thought about my goal: To write more frequently.

I wanted to worry less about maintaining a server, designing pixel-perfect user interfaces, performing backups and fiddly upgrade paths.

My previous blog was held together by an outdated version of Perch and a whole bunch of duct tape that was wearing thin.

I’ve Been Around the Block

  • I tried SquareSpace but didn’t like that I couldn’t setup a local dev environment to tinker with the templates.
  • I didn’t fancy Medium or Svbtle as I’m still a bit unsure of their business models. And, as much as I wanted a blog to do the heavy lifting for me, I still wanted to be able to play around with the templates’ markup and style -- for this parallel universe where I lots have spare time.
  • I never really got into the WordPress theme engine and I hate writing php in views. I prefer a model–view–controller architecture that separates concerns.
  • I thought I might use Craft. We use this at Fruitful and it’s a brilliantly comprehensive CMS. I thought I could tinker around at the weekends with my personal site, and that might help me day-to-day with Fruitful’s marketing website. I thought all of this and completely lost sight of my goal.
  • I tried Ghost and I liked it.

Why Ghost?

  • The experience of writing and publishing posts is very good. Clearly the team has put a lot of thought into this.
  • I like the templating engine. It’s Handlebars which keeps the markup in dynamic views readable and declarative.
  • It’s Markdown based.
  • They offer a hosted solutions for just $10 per month. Part of this contribution goes to supporting the continued development and support of Ghost. They dub it sustainable open source and although there’s been a bunch of criticisms of this movement, I feel that it’s a practical way to incentivise ongoing development -- but that’s a topic for another post. Bearing in mind my original goal, I went for this option.
  • It’s open source, so if I ever wanted to spin the site up on VM of my own, I’d be able to.
  • It has an active community behind it and it’s a culture seems to care about design and user experience.
  • The documentation is solid.
  • It’s written in Node.js and it’s super fast.

So now that this blog is back on its feet again (not to mention its new identity), I’m hoping I’ll get into the rhythm of writing more frequently.

Same Same. But Different. by Tom Darlow

It’s Sunday, late morning, and I’m right in the middle of cleaning the bathroom. In the other room I hear a frustrated girlfriend struggling to find accommodation on - lets say - website X, for our trip to the Amalfi Coast.

Complaints flying left, right and centre, vented in a tone that kind of suggests that this is all my fault:

  • “Why won’t this?”
  • “It won’t let me!”
  • “I keep loosing my tab when I go to trip advisor for reviews!”
  • “I hate this”
  • “Why can’t it show me what’s available on the dates that we’re going”
  • “Oh FFS!”

At this point I’m scrubbing the bottom of the shower. The smell of bleach is intense and my trainers squeak on the floor as I scrub back and forth. Before I hear the next complaint come in, I stop and shout - “try AirBnB?”

“Ahhh! I can’t use this useless website anymore.”

“Try AirBnB!” I shout.

No reply…

30 seconds later:

  • “This place looks gorgeous”
  • Then there was laughter “this guy’s review is hilarious… ‘It's a great place to unwind and get away from it all. Especially given the wifi and flatscreen TV doesn't work’ haha”
  • “I’m loving the ones that look good, ok”
  • “we can go through them later“

3 minutes later, “I’ve found somewhere! Let’s book this one!”

Same problem, solved differently

AirBnB and website X offered the same thing, that is: A product that helps you find, compare and buy accommodation for your travels.

One had concentrated on designing a delightful user experience, the other clearly has some work to do.

What fascinates me though, is the impact that poor design can have on someone’s Sunday morning.

Put another way, how important our work as designers is.

July 26, 2015

Are you MARVEL or DC? by Feeling Listless

Film At a certain point, I began to think of the MARVEL cinematic universe, which I favour because it's good, and the WB/DC projects a bit like political parties or at least with the sort of tribalism with which kids used to defend their favourite 8-bit computer with (a debate I was largely on the fringes of even then with my Acorn Electron during the Spectrum/C64 years and then owning a C64 while people were throwing STs and Amigas in each others faces).

Partly this is because the creatives, or actors at least, are almost choosing which of the big comic book franchises to join to the point and there's little or no crossover between them.  As far as I can see, none of the cast of the Suicide Squad or Batman vs. Superman films has previous appeared in the MCU or vis-versa so it's entirely possible for us, or at least me to think of them as either being, "MARVEL" or "DC" and be otherwise disappointed if they've chosen the latter.

Rachel McAdams is a favourite actress, so when she says she might be in the Doctor Strange film, it's a relief because it means she's MARVEL.  Finding Amy Adams in the Man of Steel was a shame because I like her too but she's hitched herself to DC (even if she was a predictably good Lois in an otherwise bad Superman film).  It should be noted that anything pre-Iron Man or pre-MoS doesn't count so I'm still in hope that Anne Hathaway might play one of the Inhumans or some such.

Is it possible to guess if an actor will turn out to be MARVEL or DC?  Maybe, maybe.  When the cast list for Suicide Squad was released, I wasn't surprised by most of the names.  Looking at other franchises for inspiration, Emma Watson feels very MARVEL, but Rupert Grint is clearly DC.  Daniel Radcliffe could go either way.  Greta Gerwig, MARVEL.  Brad Pitt, DC.  Cary Grant, MARVEL.  Gary Cooper, DC.  No idea why.

July 25, 2015

Upcoming appearances, Seattle and Spokane by Charlie Stross

It's that time of year again and I'm travelling and doing stuff in public on That Other Continent, so here's a preliminary list of fixtures.

If you're in Seattle, I'm going to be drinking in The Pike brewpub on the evening of Tuesday 11th of August, from 5pm: if you can read this you're welcome to turn up. (No reservations available but I'll grab the biggest table I can find before the after-work rush starts.) Directions here.

On Wednesday 12th, I'm giving a reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at Microsoft Research (1:30pm, Building 99, Redmond Campus). You'll need to be an employee or escorted by one to get in. But don't worry, because if you don't know anyone ...

On Thursday 13th I'm doing an evening reading and signing from "The Annihilation Score" at the University Bookstore at 7pm, and you don't need a bookstore employee to accompany you.

I won't be doing much in public that weekend because I'll be attending Prologue, a small local pre-worldcon SF convention instead.

And then ...

The following week I'll be heading for Spokane, for the 2015 world science fiction convention, Sasquan. And yes, I'll be on the program there. I'm on a bunch of program items:

Steampunk, Colonialism & Imperialism Thursday 11:00 - 11:45, Bays 111B (CC)

Steampunk was inspired by a time in history when colonialism and imperialism were at their apex. As a world becomes more technological, will colornialism and imperialism always decline?

Panel: Charles Stross (Moderator), Arthur Chu, Warren Frey, Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Beth Cato

The Future of Government Thursday 17:00 - 17:45, 300B (CC)

We like to think that US democracy is the ultimate and best form of government. But the world has seen many different forms of government over the centuries, and even today many different forms exist around the world. What will governments in the US and other countries be like in the next 10, 50, or 200 years? How will changing technologies and world conditions (e.g., climate change) affect those forms? Are there forms of government that have been proposed that have never existed in the real world, but might?

Panel: Karl Schroeder (Moderator), Joe Haldeman, Bradford Lyau, Ada Palmer, Charles Stross

Genre and the Global Police State Thursday 20:00 - 20:45, 300C (CC)

Thanks to the Five Eyes -- the joint intelligence sharing treaty between the USA, UK, Australia, and others -- and the total penetration of the internet by NSA/GCHQ monitoring, we now live in a society that is a secret policeman's dream. Wikileaks and then Edward Snowden blew the lid off the scandalous subversion of western democracies by unaccountable secret government agencies. In past decades, SF and fantasy provided a vehicle for trenchant social and political commentary on on-going cultural changes (consider "The Forever War" as a comment on Vietnam), but where are the genre works dealing with the global police state?

Annalee Flower Horne, Karl Schroeder, Charles Stross, Jim Wright

Reading—Charles Stross—Friday 11:00 - 11:30, 303B (CC)

Autographing—Neil Clarke, William Dietz, Rhiannon Held, Mary Soon Lee, John Picacio, Charles Stross, Jo Walton—Friday 12:00 - 12:45, Exhibit Hall B (CC)

Kaffee Klatche—Charles Stross—Saturday 11:00 - 11:45, 202A-KK2 (CC)

Join a panelist and up to 9 other fans for a small discussion. Coffee and snacks available for sale on the 2nd floor.

Requires advance sign-up

The New Space Opera Saturday 15:00 - 15:45, 302AB (CC)

We've come a long way since the days when "space opera" was a derogatory term. Many of SFs best writers over the last 20 years have written space opera. What's made the difference?

Rich Horton (Moderator), Jeffrey A. Carver, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Doug Farren

Nature’s Starships Vol. II – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Bloody Cold Beginnings by Astrobites

Title: Nature’s Starships II: Simulating the Synthesis of Amino Acids in Meteorite Parent Bodies
Authors: Alyssa K. Cobb, Ralph E. Pudritz, Ben K. D. Pearce.
First author’s institution: Origins Institute, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.
Status: Accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal.

Life, the Universe and … Amino Acids!

In Nature’s Starships Vol. I we learned that amino acids, the fundamental building blocks of DNA, might have formed in the interiors of planetesimals, asteroid-sized rocks in the early solar system that will later grow to form planets. Why would that matter to us? Because, according to the ‘late veneer’ hypothesis, all of Earth’s surface water (and possibly organics) was added by impactors long after the formation of the bulk Earth – in other words our planet was polluted by miniature versions of itself, harbouring the essential ingredients for life’s boiling pot!
The authors of Nature’s Starships I found an increased abundance of amino acids only in a very specific subclass of the most primitive meteorites and interpreted this as evidence for specific layers within planetesimals, where temperature and pressure are optimal for the needed chemical reactions to happen.

A Deep Thought about … chemistry! (again)

To test this hypothesis Cobb et al. ran computer models of amino acid synthesis with temperature and pressure conditions they expect in planetesimals. Figure 1 shows the surprising results of these considerations.

Source: Cobb et al. (2015)

Fig. 1: The influence of different temperatures on the total yield of amino acids by chemical reactions within the planetesimal interior. Each data point (and the corresponding line) represents the yield for a different type of planetesimal. An increase in temperature is equivalent for a different layer within the planetesimal. The blue and red dashed lines correspond to the minimum and maximum values of data measured in meteorites.  The total yield of amino acids is nearly unaffected by changing the temperature (i.e., the total amino acid abundance does not vary by much with different temperatures). This means that the specific location within the planetesimal does not matter for amino acid production! Source: Cobb et al. (2015)

Therefore, it seems that the layer where the amino acids formed is not crucially important for its yield. As explained in Nature’s Starships I the reaction rate of amino acids seems to be related to water in a way – in meteorites which are associated with very dry (or heated) environments a lot less amino acids have been found than for meteorites associated with watery environments. Thus, it seems that we need more water to achieve an increase in reaction potential and to change the picture above.

So Long, and Thanks for All the … Water!

Credit: Bill Saxton and Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Artist concept of an ice line transition within a protoplanetary disk. In this case for the TW Hydrae system. Credit: Bill Saxton and Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF

From planet formation models it is fairly well known that during the early era of the solar system the water snow line, the distance to the sun at which water is present as ice because of less sunlight, was located at roughly to 2-2.5 astronomical units (~ nowaday’s asteroid belt). This means planetesimals which were present around this location during the planet formation epoch featured huge gradients in water abundance – planetesimals within the snow line had less liquid water than their outer companions. This transition in the chemical state is artistically shown in Figure 2.

This is very peculiar, since most meteorites that fell on Earth are thought to originate from the asteroid belt, where the snow line used to be. Therefore, instead of scaling the total amino acid yield with different temperatures, the author’s try to vary the total water content within the planetesimals, which is shown in Figure 2.

Source: Cobb et al. (2015)

Fig. 2: The total abundance of amino acids in parts per billion according to the model of Cobb et al. (black line). The colored areas correspond to the spread in data in available meteorites and the dots represent single measurements of specific amino acid abundances within the most important samples for this study. The left plot shows the data points unaccounted for weathering effects (when meteorites lie on the surface for a long time, they incorporate water in their bulk material, which was not present in space). Therefore, the right hand side tries to account for that backdraw.  Source: Cobb et al. (2015)

So, when including the effects of weathering on the surface, it seems that expectations of amino acid abundances are consistent with our observations and fit well with the idea that water content seems to be the dominant factor for amino acid production. As often in nowaday’s literature, this finding underlines the deep connections of different fields and the need for interdisciplinary studies, in this case to achieve a better understanding of a possible formation pathway of organic molecules. What do we get from this study with regards to astrobiology? The formation of amino acids within planetesimals is not an isolated process. You can’t look at a planetesimal decoupled from its surrounding, instead the physical and chemical properties are directly inherited from the astrochemistry of the protoplanetary disk.

Looking back at Pluto by The Planetary Society

I don't think anyone was prepared for the beauty -- or the instant scientific discoveries -- in this "lookback" image of Pluto, captured by New Horizons shortly after it flew by.

Help map Mars' south polar region! by The Planetary Society

The science team of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter wants your help in mapping out the weird and wonderful features of Mars' south polar region!

Jupiter's changing face, 2009-2015 by The Planetary Society

Damian Peach's photo-documentation of Jupiter helps us monitor the giant planet's ever-changing patterns of belts, zones, storms, and barges, during a time when no orbiting missions are there to take pictures.

July 24, 2015

Tongue Restraint. by Feeling Listless

History In Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners, David Olusoga describes the legacy of cruelty which underpins our wealth. In one sequence during the first episode whilst visiting Jamaica he's confronted with the instruments of torture utilised to subjugate slaves. There's a clip of this sequence here and amongst the objects is this tongue restraint utilised to subjugate slaves who challenged authority.

The apparatus looked familiar and for the rest of the sequence I asked myself where I'd seen it before. Then I remembered.

In Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, Amanda Vickery describes the history of the women's suffrage movement. In one sequence during the first episode whilst visiting the Lancaster Castle Museum she's confronted by this tongue restraint utilised to subjugate women who challenged authority.

The Middle Child of Exoplanet Characterization by Astrobites

Title: Atmospheric retrieval for super-Earths: Uniquely constraining the atmospheric composition with transmission spectroscopy 

Authors: Bjoern Benneke and Sara Seager

First Author’s Institution: MIT

Paper Status: Accepted to ApJ, 2012

“Atmospheric retrievalists” are the middle child of exoplanet studies. The exoplanet saga usually goes as follows: A group of astronomers observe planet X for _____ hours and get fantastic data! Theorists agree that this planet could be ______. In this rendition of story there are two groups of people doing the work: the observationalists and the theorists. Here is where the problem comes into play. There is a whole other branch of exoplanet studies that actually builds the bridge between what we observe and what we model. Sadly, there have been no astrobites to date, on any of these techniques. Therefore, in today’s astrobites I would like to take some time acknowledge the work that has been done in this field by a relatively old paper by Benneke & Seager.

When I talk about exoplanet studies, I am specifically talking about characterization of different planetary atmospheres. Take for example GJ 1214 b and WASP 12b. In both these cases, observers studied them in transit to get relatively good transmission spectroscopy of their planetary atmospheres. But, the long-standing question is: what information about the planet can you get out of these transmission spectra? If you were looking at individual absorption features of certain gases, you would certainly be able to ascertain something about what gases are present in the atmosphere. However, what if you want to probe deeper than that? It’s much more useful to ask not only if you could tell if a gas was present in an atmosphere but also if you could tell how much of the gas was present. If there was methane in hypothetical Planet X, is there 40% methane or only 1% methane? It is here where the work by Benneke & Seager becomes crucial. In order to uniquely constrain these planetary atmospheres they follow this procedure:

  1. Analyze all of your spectral features
  2. Decide what parameters you are interested in recovering
  3. Produce millions of models with those parameters
  4. Decide which best fit your data

When put like this, it seems natural that the retrievalist often becomes the middle child. Let’s be honest, no one is interested in spending too much time on the statistical analysis of a paper. Almost 100% of the time, you care about the observation and the results. But, this four-step process is all but a simple one. So, it behooves us to go through it step by step and carefully understand what assumptions are going into the work.

Analysis of spectral features

Below is a model of an exoplanet transmission spectrum for a mystery planet X. In reality, our observations don’t look nearly as good as these models (yet) but this tells us what features we need to measure when deriving planet properties from transmission spectra. The first thing you’ll notice is the amount of features that are needed in order to get absolute mixing ratios.

On the left, is an example transmission spectrum of a planetary atmosphere. Labeled, are specific features that are important for atmospheric characterization. The diagram on the right shows how these spectral features combine to give you different planetary parameters.

On the left, is an example transmission spectrum of a planetary atmosphere. Labeled, are specific features that are important for atmospheric characterization. The diagram on the right shows how these spectral features combine to give you different planetary parameters.

For reference, I would take a look at the WASP 12b observation where they observed a single water feature from 1.1 to 1.7 micron. In that study though, they were able to get an approximate mixing ratio for water, which completely disagrees with the figure you see above. The difference here is that Benneke & Seager are trying to build an atmospheric retrieval technique that will work on not only gaseous planets, like WASP 12b, but also super Earth planets like GJ 1214b. The subtlety, therefore, lies in what you assume is the dominant constituent of your atmosphere. Gaseous planets like Jupiter have huge surface gravities so they can retain massive hydrogen-helium atmospheres. Smaller planets can’t hold on to the hydrogen and helium and end up with much smaller atmospheres made up of a heavier gas. Earth, for example ended up with mostly nitrogen and Venus ended up with mostly carbon dioxide. Therefore, if you know you are looking at a gaseous planet, you can assume it’s mostly hydrogen and helium. This is why for WASP 12b, they were able to get an approximate water abundance even though they didn’t have access to all the features outlined in that first figure.

Knowing this information, let’s take a look at figure one again. Because you don’t see any hydrogen features and you don’t see any nitrogen features you might be inclined to say that our planet X is dominated by carbon dioxide and methane. Sadly, this would certainly lead you down the wrong path since nitrogen and hydrogen are what we call “spectrally inactive gases”. Meaning, although they don’t appear in the spectra, they might still be there and might still be making up most of the atmospheric component! This is a striking fact and it does not bode well for us in terms of trying to figure out what these planetary atmospheres are made of. This is why we need so many spectral features to get any planet information at all.

What Parameters to Recover

This is a philosophical question along with scientific one. Technically, you would like to recover as much information as possible about these exoplanets. But, at what point do you draw the line? These exoplanet atmospheres only offer us a small peak into what is happening to the planet as a whole. Therefore, our models must retain a certain level of simplicity so that we are not “over-fitting” any of our features. For example, let’s say someone blind folded you and asked you to determine the composition of a bite of food. If you have a nice taste pallet, you’d probably be able to determine bulk ingredients: chicken, carrots, peas, etc. If you are an expert you might be able to say something along the lines of: 80% chicken, 10% carrots, 10% peas. If you tried to then determine how the chef spent his time preparing the dish, that might be a stretch. At that point, we would say you are putting too much weight on just that one bite you took, and are therefore “over-fitting” the data. In their model, Benneke and Seager determine that the parameters we can get from planetary spectra are the following:

  1. Volume mixing ratios of atmospheric constituents: i.e., planet X is 99% hydrogen, 0.5% carbon dioxide, 0.5% nitrogen.
  2. Surface or cloud deck pressure: i.e., planet X has a surface pressure of 1 bar, like Earth. Or maybe, we can’t see a surface at all! Instead, we are looking at a thick layer of clouds with a pressure of 0.001 bars!
  3. Planet radius:e., if planet X does have a very high cloud later, where is the surface?? Or, if the planet has no surface at all (like a gaseous Jupiter planet) where do we define the deepest atmospheric layer?
  4. Planetary albedo: i.e., how much light is planet X absorbing, versus reflecting

Modeling Thousands of Spectra and Statistics

In order to pin down these four parameters, we need to find the most exact combination of parameters that fit the spectrum of planet X. And as you might imagine, trying to guess what those might be is worse than trying to guess lottery ticket numbers! So the only way to make it work is to try thousands of times! Benneke & Seager generate about 100,000 of these models before they actually can move on to their statistical analysis. Now you can appreciate why it’s so sad that the atmospheric retrievalist get forgotten about! Once 100,000 models have been created, each model is carefully compared to the spectrum of planet X (the data) in order to determine a best match. This is done through very complicated statistical models which a guest writer Ben Nelson did a wonderful job of explaining in this post. In the spirit of completeness I’ll give a short summary here.

The basic principle is to start with four initial conditions for your four parameters and calculate the probability that those are correct. Chances are they will not be… So we jump to another combination of those four parameters and test those out. Is the probability of those four parameters being correct higher than your initial guess? If not, go back to your initial guess and try again. A great analogy for this, is the idea of climbing up a mountain. You start at the bottom of the mountain with very low probability of being correct and your goal is to make it to the very top. In some cases, you might accidentally choose a path that will lead you down the mountain. But if you evaluate your altitude (i.e. your probability) at regular intervals you would hope to make it to the top as fast as possible. The same idea applies here to the idea of picking four correct parameters in a sea of an almost infinite number of choices.

The last figure I will show is this pyramid like structure that appears at the end of Benneke and Seager’s work. Each leg of this pyramid is the mixing ratio of a different type of gaseous species: oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen/helium. Therefore, it’s a great insight into the amount of parameter space we are dealing with (remember that getting mixing ratios is just one of the four parameters we are trying to fit). But more importantly, it gives us insights into what can be gained from these retrieval techniques. Here, they’ve fed three different “pretend” observations through their retrieval technique: one hot-neptune like planet (green), one nitrogen rich planet (red) and one methane rich planet (blue). You can see by the very distinct groups of dots, that you can really tell the difference between these planets with this complicated retrieval technique. This is a great sanity check.

This pyramid like structure is called a quaternary diagram. It illustrates a large range of parameter space for different gaseous species: hydrogen/helium, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. The different groupings of points show the retrieval results for three different planets. The fact that they are grouped in very different regions shows that we could theoretically tell the difference between these three kinds of planets: hot and neptune like planet (green), hot methane rich planet (blue) and hot nitrogen rich planet (red). Main point: atmospheric retrieval works!!

This pyramid like structure is called a quaternary diagram. It illustrates a large range of parameter space for different gaseous species: hydrogen/helium, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. The different groupings of points show the retrieval results for three different planets. The fact that they are grouped in very different regions shows that we could theoretically tell the difference between these three kinds of planets: hot and neptune like planet (green), hot methane rich planet (blue) and hot nitrogen rich planet (red). Main point: atmospheric retrieval works!!

The study of exoplanet atmospheres will take off with launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and it is so important that the technique for retrieving planetary parameters from spectra works well! Without them, we have no way of testing our theoretical models against the real data. So even though retrievalists are the middle child of exoplanet characterization, we should really spend some time taking note of what they are doing!

A New Way to Prepare Samples of Mars for Return to the Earth by The Planetary Society

Mars 2020, NASA’s next and yet-to-be-named Mars rover, will be the first mission to collect and prepare samples of the martian surface for return to Earth. The rover's engineering team has proposed a new sampling caching strategy that differs from previous concepts in some interesting ways.

Summer 2015 edition of The Planetary Report is here by The Planetary Society

The summer edition of The Planetary Report has printed and will soon be at your door.

July 23, 2015

Work and Privacy: Hanging on to the Old or Inventing the New? by Albert Wenger

Too many people seem to be having a moment of Schadenfreude in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack – what were “those” people thinking of having an affair (estimates for the overall percentage of married adults having affairs range from 30-60%) or at least of being so “dumb” as to use a service to arrange their affair. But this is just the latest instance of information being disclosed that people thought would be private. Just shortly before it was disclosed that 4.5 million medical records at UCLA have been breached. And then there was the Office of Personnel Management’s database with 22 million records not just of security clearances but also of health records.

In each case evidence emerges about bad security practices and there is outrage of the form “how could they not have x” where x is some measure aimed at preventing a data breach. And while I agree that there was low hanging fruit that might have prevented on or the other specific breach, the idea that breaches can and should be avoided altogether is more dangerous than the breaches themselves. First, attempts to really control data inevitably lead down a path toward restrictions on general purpose computing. Second, the focus on technological solutions distracts us from investigating the social and economic changes required for protecting people instead of data.

In a conversation yesterday I came to realize that there is an important parallel between the discussions about work and the ones about privacy. I believe that digital technology is irrevocably reshaping both the labor market and the access to information. In both cases we are faced with two options: hanging on to the old, or inventing the new. We can try to get back to full employment or we can embrace decoupling basic needs from work. We can try to maintain existing notions of privacy or we can embrace transparency and collective learning.

In the same conversation an interesting point came up about dignity. We have constructed a notion of dignity at the moment that has become tied up with having a job and being able to keep secrets about yourself. This is really a profound confusion of the means with the ends. By hanging on to the old in both cases we are furthering that confusion and propping up a system that is already past its expiration date. That will require increasingly desperate measures and in doing so we make the inevitable correction that much worse when it finally arrives.

What in the world(s) are tholins? by The Planetary Society

The question “why is Pluto red” has been answered with a word that most people have never heard of and perhaps even fewer people can actually define—“tholins”.

Name Hayabusa2's asteroid target! by The Planetary Society

Have you ever wanted to name an asteroid? JAXA is offering the opportunity to name Hayabusa2's target asteroid, 1999 JU3 to the public through a contest that runs through August 31.

Expedition 44 Trio Flies through Solar Panel Glitch, Arrives at Station by The Planetary Society

A three-person crew is safely aboard the International Space Station following an early morning launch of a Soyuz rocket and spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

July 22, 2015

Doctor Who in the British Movietone Archives. by Feeling Listless

TV Associated Press have uploaded the British Movietone archive to YouTube. Find above some glorious images of Liverpool in the thick of winter 1936. Here's some text about the project:

"British Movietone is arguably the world’s greatest newsreel archive, spanning the period 1895 – 1986.

"Shot on 35mm film, this global archive contains many of the world’s enduring images and is rich in coverage of news events, celebrities, sports, music, social history, science, lifestyle and quirky happenings. It was the first newsreel to include sound, the first to use colour film, the first to break many exclusive stories, and is your first and last stop for newsreel footage.

"We hope you will enjoy exploring the British Movietone collection. Please feel free to share our content with friends and embed onto your own websites and social media forums."
Roy Greenslade has had a glance through at The Guardian.

Inevitably I've had a glance around for some Who related stores.

Working through the names of the Doctors, all I found was the charming footage of Jon's wedding day from August 1960:

The Boys and Girls Exhibition at Olympia in 1964 which was also in the Pathe cache but worth it here for the announcer attempting to immitate the voice:

The Jersey Battle of Flowers from 1965. Soundless clip which has a Hammer Dalek on a float in the middle:

Another soundless clip, this time of the British Toy Fair in February 1965 which features the Dalek costumes pictured above:

Which is about as far as I've got.  The metadata on the clips isn't as extensive as Pathe - you have to click through to the AP website for the dates of the clips - so if there is anything else, it's obscured by a lack of search terms.  Vwrop.  Vworp.

Question mark 90b and the avalanche experience by Goatchurch

Top camp was still relatively empty before the hoards arrived for the third week expo. Two young ULSA (University of Leeds Speleological Association) cavers fresh from their bus trip from Leeds showed up and were easily persuaded to walk up the hill at 6am. We got there in time for Rachel to organize us into three teams and go do Balconyhohle into the area known as the Leeds Bypass. (Leeds people are gradually taking over this expedition in name and numbers.)


The team comprised of David, George and myself. Frank had found a new hole in the floor the day before and persuaded David to check it out. George and I went for a poke in the western extents in the direction of the Tunnocks cave (to which this one has not been connected yet).

On the walk back, I said to George, “You know that thin gap we saw in the ceiling back there? Do you want a leg up?”

“Sure,” said George.

He found a moderately large unexplored chamber up there. I didn’t believe him because there was no echo, but I had to squeeze through anyway to check it out.


We went back to fetch David who had so far only managed to push a big slab of rock over so it filled in Frank’s hole. He didn’t take any persuading to give up. We traipsed back to the drafting ceiling slot (tagged as “Question Mark 90b” in the database), pushed all our kit bags through, drills, tacklesacks of rope and ourselves, and began exploring and surveying it. Down one end there was a perfectly preserved dead bat spread out on the floor complete with wings and fur. David began drilling for bolts and putting in rope to get down the hole opposite to access the next level below.

We ran out of time and came back the next day.

Partway through the trip I finally got suspicious at how quickly George had been taking notes.

“Oh, I didn’t know you were supposed to draw a map. I’ve only been writing the numbers.”

David’s rigging had by then lead us down a rope and onto traverse line along a loose ledge above a bottomless pit to a proper passage.

I lay down for a nap while David sorted out some of the missing surveys. I planned to bodge out a map of the chamber above.

We carried on while David looked down the far end where there was a sandy slope with rocks embedded in the crest. He pushed one of them forward and it slid round the corner and carried on down. Back in the main passage with the high domed ceiling, George and I thought the world had ended with the entire cave imploding like a pile of boulders in a blender. I went rigid, unable to see any solid looking rock shelter nearby that I thought wastn’t going to burst into an avalanche.

When the noise subsided, David didn’t know what we were yelling at him about, so we stood him exactly where we had been and then went and pushed one of the other boulders off the slope so that he too could experience the amazing sound explosion.

As we were derigging the rope, a couple of other cavers were struggling through the crack to inspect our discoveries. “Go up in that direction,” I said. “There’s a perfectly preserved bat on the rock.”

They did.

Luke said, “What bat?”

I led him over and showed him where it was, now trodden on by a boot so that bits of wing and tail were spread over a wide area.

It was time to go out.

I came down the hill in the morning and typed in the survey data. It definitely doesn’t look right. There’s one huge rift passage which claims to coincide with an already known small passage. What a mess.

Frauenbach canyon near Greifenburg with two spare cavers by Goatchurch


Last week I did quick day trip to Greifenburg to take advantage of a weather window and a chance to do the “best canyon in Austria” with a couple of spare cavers who were festering in expo base camp. My tent spot hadn’t been filled since I abandoned it three days earlier, so I left the cavers Frank and Dave to pitch up while I waited for the taxi to carry my glider up the hill. It turned out I’d just missed the 9:30am rush to the bus, so we ended up driving my car up with David’s mountain bike for a pack lunch in the shade of my wing and a lazy start.


And so it was straight off for a fly at 1pm with low cloudbase and strong lift to 2400m. I had my radio tuned to the channel of my german friends. They couldn’t hear a word I said, but I could hear everything from them, which wasn’t very useful as I don’t know any german.

After some time drifting around on the north side, finding that it was all too easy to hit the cloud, I attempted cross the valley and bombed out below Weisensee before striking a spot of weak lift. A less sporty glider might have glided better and got there higher. Anyways, it was a good chance to practice my low save skills. After about 30 minutes I was directly over the campsite and it began to get a whole lot easier.

A voice came over the radio in english from one of the germans. “Julian, if you can hear me now, I suggest you look at the big black cloud over the take-off.”


I decided I better play it safe and get down fast, which took some hefty maneuvering. Wheeee. Many others stayed up flying, and the big black cloud dissipated. Fortunately it was only three o’clock in the afternoon, which gave us just enough time to drive over to Lienz and do the canyon that Tom and I failed to do last May.

David was fascinated by the whirring hydro-electric turbine at the start of the walk up which evidently took all the water that would have flowed into the canyon at the top just below an obvious recent landslip. There were various watery inlets on the way down in the canyon which made the pitches quite wet towards the end.


There was barely a gap enough to make it worth packing the ropes back in the bags. The advertized toboggans and deep blue pools to jump into were for us nothing more than circular trays of grey gravel. How disappointing. The final two-stage pitch was more technical than we had anticipated, with a shagged belay on the far side of the now raging torrent over a 25metre waterfall.


I dropped David and Frank of in town at the best pizza joint in Austria while I parked the car at the campsite and cycled back.


In the morning we hightailed it back to Loser, dropping David out in Bad Mitterndorf with his bike, while Frank drove me to the top of the hill to set up my glider. Two paragliders were scratching around for an hour before I took off during a brief respite in the tailwind, whereupon I descended 800m in less than 6 minutes, scoring 4 m/s down most of the way. (A glider in still air descends at around 1 m/s.)

The flight on the following day wasn’t much better, but at least there were two locals to join me in the carpark. Unfortunately there was also a helicopter buzzing around shifting random bits of avalanche equipment to different points on the hillside for most of the morning.


They both went down. I waited for a paraglider to mark the one thermal of the day, and had a brief flight upwards to 2200m before the inevitable descent down past the corner of the Trisselwand.


We all went for a swim in the Altaussee lake from the private hotel pier.

It was definitely time to go caving.

Supernova with magnetar as origin of gamma-ray burst by Astrobites

Title: A very luminous magnetar-powered supernova associated with an ultra-long γ-ray burst

Authors: J. Greiner et al.

First author’s affiliation: Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik, Garching and Excellence Cluster Universe, Technische Universität München

Paper status: published in Nature

Dear esteemed reader,

Beware! It is summer time and today’s Astrobite deals with two very hot topics that are prevalent on any astronomy related TV program: supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. Observations of supernovae have changed mankind’s world view significantly in the past centuries. Supernovae are crucially important for stellar nucleosynthesis because they produce all elements heavier than iron. Moreover, the observation of SN1572 by Tycho Brahe was extremely important. Even though he interpreted it as a new star rather than a dying star, his observation gave strong evidence that the universe cannot be static beyond the solar system as postulated by the Aristotelian idea. (fun fact: his actual name in Danish is “Tyge Brahe”, which is pronounced like this.)

The first Gamma-ray burst observations, though much more recent in history than SN observations, were enthralling from a scientific aspect, and maybe even more from a political history aspect. During the cold war, the US military launched the Vela satellites to monitor potential nuclear bomb activities in the Soviet Union. In 1967, two of these satellites (Vela 3 and Vela 4) detected a strong signal of gamma radiation that could not be explained by nuclear activities. Later on, researchers in Los Alamos analysed more datasets and found several other gamma-ray burst events. After detailed analysis they concluded that these flashes of gamma-ray signals must be due to very energetic explosions far away from the solar system and they gave it the name gamma-ray burst. Eventually, they published their results six years later in ApJ triggering plenty of papers dealing with the phenomenon. Nowadays, there is agreement among astronomers that a specific type of supernova (SN Ic) is linked to at least some of the bursts in the most common group of gamma-ray bursts. The commonly observed gamma-ray bursts last for more than 2 seconds, which is quite long compared to observations of other bursts. Hence, they are called long-lasting gamma-ray bursts and 70 % of all observed gamma-ray bursts belong to this group.

Finding a link between gamma-ray bursts and magnetars

The authors of today’s paper extend the picture further to gamma-ray bursts of even longer lifetimes than common long-lasting bursts. They observed a so called ultra-long-duration gamma-ray burst, which is a burst that lasts for more than 10 thousand seconds (more than 2.8 hours). This particular burst (GRB111209) was observed for about 50 days, and it turned out that the burst evolved in time and colour in a very similar way to known GRBs related to type Ic supernovae. However, there are some substantial differences in the spectrum at long wavelengths compared to the spectra observed in supernovae linked with ordinary long-lasting gamma-ray bursts. The observed spectrum hints at a significantly lower metal abundance in the vicinity of this supernova and the authors interpret the observations in the following way:

The supernova is the result of the death of a very heavy star. During the explosion, the inner part of the former heavy star might collapse and form a fast-rotating neutron star with an extremely strong magnetic field around it. The object is therefore called a magnetar and it is extremely energetic. If this energy – or a significant part of it – is released in form of a bipolar jet, it has two consequences in Greiner et al.’s interpretation:

  1. it causes a strong and long lasting gamma-ray burst.
  2. the supernova gets powered with additional energy, also increasing its duration.

Finally, the authors test their idea with a physical model that considers the additional injection from a magnetar to the supernova spectrum and they find that it fits the data pretty well, although the best fit of a supernova powered by radioactive decay is also within the error bars (compare dark and light blue curve to dark blue points in figure 1, which is figure 2 in the paper). However, Greiner et al. rule out radioactive decay as the reason for the observed curve, because the derived mass of 56Ni significantly exceeds the known mass in known gamma-ray burst related supernovae significantly.

Fig. 1: Light curve of the supernova suggested to be linked to be linked to the ultra-gamma-ray burst (111209A) plotted together with the evolution of known gamma-ray bursts (941, 061aj, 98bw) as well as for super-luminous supernovae (PTF11rks, PS1-10bzj). The dark blue line shows the best fit, when considering the spectrum of a supernova enriched by a magnetar. The light blue line illustrates the best fit if the burst was triggered by radioactive decay of Ni.

Fig. 1: Light curve of the supernova suggested to be linked to be linked to the ultra-long-gamma-ray burst (111209A) plotted together with the evolution of known gamma-ray bursts (941, 061aj, 98bw) as well as for super-luminous supernovae (PTF11rks, PS1-10bzj). The dark blue line shows the best fit, when considering the spectrum of a supernova enriched by a magnetar. The light blue line illustrates the best fit if the supernova was powered by radioactive decay.

The attractive part of their interpretation is that it links two distinct explanations. The considered supernova is more luminous than all known gamma-ray burst related supernovae, though it is less luminous than super-luminous supernovae that are linked to the formation of magnetars. Loosely speaking, you can summarize their interpretation in this way: The particular ultra-long-lasting gamma-ray burst observation combined with the particular supernova is a hybrid of two known effects.

Featured image: Artist impression of a magnetar; credit: Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

New Horizons encounter plus one week: Weird and wonderful images from the Pluto system by The Planetary Society

So many new image goodies from the Pluto system!

Dawn at Ceres: A haze in Occator crater? by The Planetary Society

While Pluto deservedly stole the headlines last week, Chris Russell’s Dawn update at the Exploration Science Forum at NASA Ames reminded us that the other dwarf planets are also sharing their secrets with eager scientists.

My Favourite Film of 1989. by Feeling Listless

Film Politicians are often asked, "What you're favourite [insert album/television programme/film]?" and I'm usually pretty sympathetic when on hearing their answer it clearly sounds like something which has been chosen by their advisors or even through a focus group to best position their candidate or incumbent in relation to the portion of the electorate who aren't cynical about these things.  There is in fact no worse question because even your answer, as Nick Hornby writes about in High Fidelity, will have a profound effect on how other people view you for better or worse.  Hornby suggests that in the end it's not about what you like but who you're like.   But as I think most of us know that's wrong in almost every respect.

For years when I professed to be a film fan knowing full well that the next question would indeed be "What's your favourite film?" I never did have an answer for just this reason.  It's horrible.  For one thing if you're a film fan there is no single answer because there are films we admire, films we love, films with memories connected to them, films which are technically brilliant and the last great film we've seen which is still marinating in our consciousness before we decided the way in which we love it.  And it is also that we know that if we say the wrong film to the wrong person it can change a friendship or relationship going forward.  I know, because this has happened to me.  In both directions.

One of the harshest examples of this was in the first meeting between students and lecturers during my MA film studies course, just before lectures began when we were to introduce one another.  In other words, you're sat in room with peers and lecturers, all of whom are going to judge you in one way or other and whatever you say will be used against you later in some way or other.  Having just spent the past few years catching up, I could say without hesitation I rather liked French New Wave but something in me couldn't say I liked sci-fi.  I couldn't.  So I think I said something like "But I still admire films which are visually interesting even if the storylines aren't that great or some such."  On that occasion, I could have said sci-fi since one of the modules was just about that.  Yet, I fretted.

It's because of all of this, the pressure, that in the end I decided that I needed to choose a favourite film.  By then I'd narrowed it down to the most necessary five, When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Seventh Seal, In The Bleak Midwinter and Star Wars.  But keeping those rattling around in my head and knowing that sometimes they have a habit of swapping in and out (In The Bleak Midwinter was Citizen Kane for a while and Ferris Bueller is in for Adventures in Babysitting) and there's also the rather sticky conversational moment when you end up saying, I can't give you one but I have five, which shows you've really thought about this.  Oddly, if you can just real off one film people tend to think you haven't thought about it much at all.

Here's how I made the decision.  For official reasons related to important things (I know!) I was asked to name my favourite film and rather like the random letters out of the Scrabble bag at the end of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy it allowed me to give the answer without thinking about it and my ultimate answer was When Harry Met Sally.  Partly I wonder if it's because it was the first film on that list and with a previous shuffle it could just as easily be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which was there for a while too and would have been on this list too if it hadn't been for Before Sunset).  Then a bit later I was asked the question again in the predicted social setting, gave When Harry Met Sally again and it stuck.  When Harry Met Sally is my favourite film ever.

Why?  That's always the next question.  I think because people are surprised.  It's a film which is admired I think but it's from a genre which generally isn't thanks to it being thoroughly devalued by one too many Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Lopez vehicles and a general sense of making them all in the "chick flick" subgenre when for decades they were actually perceived to be enjoyed by men and women thanks to a more balanced approach to the gender portrayal within.  Perhaps if they already know me a little bit, on that basis they might expect me to say either something falling out of the art house or science fiction.  But I love them both equally so what would be the point.  Which isn't to say I didn't spend about six months saying Inception.  That was hilarious.

When Harry Met Sally is very funny.  Which it is.  As Hadley Freeman notices in her book about 80s films, pretty much every line is quotable and I do still at length.  "You made a woman meow?"  "Baby Fish Mouth." "Fur zee vest ov zee dey vee jall tuk lyke ziss."  "On the side."  "Married..."  "There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance." "Sheldon?"  But some lines are simply philosophical.  "You're right, you're right, I know you're right,"  are words to live by not least because it reminds you that sometimes you might be wrong and you need someone to remind you.  "Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn't possibly all have good taste."  "No one has ever quoted me back to me before."

Arguably it's Nora Ephron's greatest script, though she collaborated somewhat with all the main participants, director Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.  Its key feature is that it doesn't have some high concept thing like even her later scripts and pretty much every romantic comedy since, other than that they meet each other over a number of years.  The "impediment" which stops them from entering the relationship isn't time-travel, or being geographically separated or a number of dresses, it's that they're afraid that falling in love will ruin their friendship.  We don't have enough of these kinds of films any more, at least outside of television movies and even then they tend to be beset by tragedy.

It's perfectly structured.  When Harry Met Sally follows the classic Hollywood structure to the minutes.  The set-up section which covers the stuff in the past, the opening ride to New York and them meeting on the plane is exactly the first quarter of the film, about twenty-five minutes.  The next quarter, almost exactly twenty-five minutes, is about them becoming friends but the turning point is at the New Years Eve party when they realise they have stronger feelings than that.  The next twenty five minutes are about them trying to still be friends under these circumstances and the sexual tension leading to them having sex leading to the final twenty-five when they're apart leading to them falling love.  Then at the very end Harry and Sally, talk through this structure to camera.  Wow.

It's a film which changes as you age.  When I first saw the film, on rental video in probably about 1990, perhaps at a friend's house, all of these characters seemed to much older than me and worldly wise and having lives I could only dream of.  Now that I'm forty, the characters will seem much older than me and worldly wise and having lives I could only dream of.  But the process of aging which is one of the film's many topics runs deeper with me now.  Example: When Sally says "And I'm going to be forty!" "When?" "Someday!" "In eight years!""But it's there! It's like a big dead end!" She proposes it's different for men.  She's talking about the biological clock but for all kinds of other reasons that scene rings oddly hollow.

This speech: "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."  Which is more than enough to make up for the film resolving to type and having Harry run to the place to try and convince Sally to return to him.

Plus there's the atmosphere.  Whilst aping Woody Allen in some respects (though as I suggested in an earlier discussion without actually copying him as the film has reputationally been implied) (that would be Miami Rhapsody) the seasonal colours, the brownstones, the Manhattan streets.  When it came time to refurbish my flat, I asked for a faux-wooden floor in my bedroom as homage to carpet rolling scene in When Harry Met Sally.  It's the film which made me want to move into a city centre where everything is just accessible, all the time, when it's just as easy to go out for lunch as stay in.  Granted it's a dream-like place and like Woody Allen's films ignores most of the rest of the city, but as a school boy this was one of the films which almost acted like a portal to somewhere better.

It's another film I've owned in multiple formats.  My first copy was recorded from the BBC during its first network premiere on 26 December 1992 at 10.05pm.  Imagine my surprise a few years later when I bought a 4Front budget copy from HMV on Church Street and found that they'd snipped out a whole chunk of the wagon wheel coffee table scene for swearing.  In about 1995, The Independent gave away VHS tapes with their paper at the weekend and the first was When Harry Met Sally.  I didn't get it.  I already had a copy.  I eventually bought a dvd from Music Zone in Williamson Square in the early 00s after having established it was one of the films affected by MGM zooming and then in June 2013 finally purchased a blu-ray when it was released in this country.

Having had to reiterate all of that have a feeling that I probably would have chosen it anyway.  I can't think of a single reason why I wouldn't. For everything above but also because it's the film I most want to watch.  For various reasons I don't have my copy to hand right now and it's "killing" me.  I think I might end up buying another one too since Netflix didn't renew their license for it and having written about it again here, I'm desperate to see again.  Have you seen it?  The film, I mean, not my copy.  If you haven't, I hope this hasn't spoiled it for you too much and I recommend, no I plead with you to watch it as soon as you can.  It'll spoil the modern romantic comedy for you, but it's worth it for the pretty much the whole thing.

July 21, 2015

We Need To Talk About Hank Pym. by Feeling Listless

Film Briefly, very briefly. Having finally seen MARVEL's Ant-Man this lunchtime and in a similar style to The Avengers post because I don't have a coherent, flowing argument just a few random points of order... expect spoilers.  Don't read this if you haven't seen the film yet.

(1) It's a bodge but an entertaining bodge. Even after seen the film, I'm not dissuaded from anything I've said previously in these posts:

The Torchwood Problem.
Squirrel Girl!
Reedless to say.

Having pursued the insanity of making an Ant-Man film for years even as the MCU idea invalidated why Edgar Wright wanted to make it in the first place, there needed to be a situation creatively where the director put up and shut up in script terms with Kevin Feige simultaneously allowing him to direct it in his own style or dumping the whole thing and letting Diablo Cody produce Squirrel Girl instead or some such.

Just as the Thors are grand fantasy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a conspiracy thriller and Spider-Man will be their teen series, Ant-Man was supposed to be the Edgar Wright comedy.  So when the competent but directorally vanilla Peyton Reed took over, his job he was on to a loser since he couldn't direct what the project is supposed to be but similarly with the lead in he was unable to dump everything and start again, and it shows.

It's a bodge, a project in which two different directors with all obviously different styles are pulling away from one another, one of whom is behind the camera, the other still around as a kind of ghost.  It's AI (Kubrick vs Spielberg) or X-Men: The Last Stand (Singer vs Ratner).  There are moments which have to have been kept from the Wright/Cornish script, the funniest bits probably, and it makes the whole thing endearingly messy.

If anything, Reed seems to adopt three different styles.  The closest to Reed himself and certainly scriptwriter Adam McKay is probably the stuff with Scott Lang and his family which resemble an "adult" comedy or Indiewood piece (underscored by the Judy Greer casting).  Whenever the MCU interpolates it's the Russii of Captain America.  Everything else from the slapstick to the "mime" montages to all the business with Rudd's friends and visual gags (including the Thomas bit in the trailer) are very Wright.

Of course as anyone who's had to work out which bit of Shakespeare's collaborations are Shakespeare or someone trying to write like Shakespeare or Shakespeare trying to write like his collaborators, the who did what isn't certain and won't be unless the Wright script is leaked (assuming it hasn't already).  The casting was apparently mostly done before Wright walked (which is interesting because parts of Rudd's dialogue sound like they were written for Simon Pegg).

But let me be clear: despite all of this, in places, Ant-Man touches on brilliance.  Parts of it are as good as anything MARVEL has been involved with.  We can argue all we want about who is responsible for that and as I've said before at some point in the future there will be a long essay by someone who has the time arguing that the MCU is franchise as auteur, in which case Ant-Man is akin to The Trouble With Harry in Hitchock's pantheon or Woody Allen's Amazon series.  But, yes, brilliance.

(2)  Apart from the themes about passing the baton and essentially retelling the same story as Iron Man, Ant-Man is also about how to do an origin story in a universe where superheroes are a "reality" in a similar way to a Doctor Who alien invasion story when they sort of thing happens weekly or the Buffy comics now that magic and vampires are out in the open and actually have their own chat shows.  This is the action comedy version of Skye's arc in Agents of SHIELD.

Without going around in circles, the amount of MCU activity might have been why Wright walked and it feels bolted on, although I really did yelp on seeing the top of the New Avengers building wondering if anyone would cameo and very pleased with the answer.  See also the working of Spider-Man into the dialogue near the end.  For a teenager, he's already making waves in the verse and of course it'll be interesting to see how he appears in Civil War.

Far cry from Iron Man's post-credits.  To return to the Who analogy (sorry), we've now gone from Ninth not mentioning Davros by name in Dalek to Davros turning up in Journey's End and remembering who Sarah Jane is.  The trick now will be keeping things fresh, and doing away with origin stories seems to be the thing.  But shifting into radically "different" genres looks to be a useful process also, though I'd still like to see "non-superhero" material set in the MCU.

(3)  The box office.  Domestically in the US, Ant-Man's had the smallest box office of any MARVEL film since The Incredible Hulk but is doing well internationally, with a £4m weekend in the UK.  But the press have been relatively sanguine about this because the budget was much smaller and expectations were lowered due to the production history.  Plus its probably made about as much if not more as it might have done if it had still been an Edgar Wright film.

But content wise it doesn't feel like the kind of film which should be judged a flop on those terms.  If this had been an Avengers or any of the other larger films were a building, spaceship or town falls out of the sky at the end then it would have been worrying.  But much of the film takes place in and around Scott Lang's apartment, his ex-wife's house, Hank Pym's house or the laboratory which has his name.  The most compelling sequence is about a tiny reformed burglar drifting through inner space in a dayglo version of the Orphan Black title sequence.

Ant-Man represents the sort of film I'd like MARVEL to do more of.  Much as I like the larger films were a building, spaceship or town falls out of the sky at the end, I'm more often drawn to the minor characters into MARVEL comics, the non-Gods (which is also presumably why I still tolerate Agents of SHIELD).  There's a sense of that in Phase Three with something like Black Panther which doesn't look like it's going to be a giant blockbuster either.

Which is why I'd love a sequel.  There isn't one planned, but the obvious idea would be for the new Ant-Man and Wasp, mentored by Pym to enter the microverse searching for the older Wasp and with the obscuring of her face throughout, there's clearly a plan for that, leaving the door open in casting terms.  Catherine Zeta Jones?  Sandra Bullock?  Juliet Binoche?  Anne Archer?  I'm trying to think of actors who haven't already been in this space before.  It's tricky.

The problem is there's no space for it as such going forward.  The July slot is free next year but that's not enough lead time, which makes the next potential slot November 2019.  MARVEL could decide to slot another one in ala Spider-Man and push everything up again, but Ant-Man isn't Spider-Man.  Another option would be a DTV film in collaboration with Netflix but they're already tied up with The Invaders series so that seems unlikely too.  Sigh.

The Omen of Sefton Park. by Feeling Listless

Film The QuoDB is a search engine for movie quotes. Imagine my surprise when searching for somewhere local that I should find:

That's Sefton Park in Liverpool mentioned in Omen: The Final Conflict, which I will now have to watch. No there isn't an Ormsby Road in Liverpool, but there is an Ormsby Street, off Lawrence Road in L15.

Congestion in New York (and Elsewhere) by Albert Wenger

Just last week I wrote that there are legitimate concerns about Uber. Using congestion as the reason to limit the company’s expansion while ordering a study seems wrong and exactly the kind of political move that smacks of corruption. Given that Bill de Blasio received significant support from taxi fleet owners during his campaign it is hard not to believe this. Certainly taking one year to do a study seems like an undue delay.

Still congestion is a real issue and adding nearly 20,000 commercial vehicles to New York City streets has the potential to meaningfully contribute to congestion. There is without a doubt some fraction of Uber riders who would have previously used public transport. How large is that? And does it result in net new cars in the city thus adding to congestion? This is a legitimate question (also: most of the new for hire cars are gasoline powered and compare unfavorably from an emissions perspective to both public transport and taxi fleets in many cities). A one year freeze on FHV expansion, however, is not the right government response. An analysis could and should happen much faster.

Uber is counting on leveraging its popularity with riders and the claim that this is preventing job creation to fight against the cap. I am pretty sure though that Uber also has data in its possession that could be used for a first cut analysis. Unless Uber throws away trip data, which I highly doubt, Uber’s own data across the cities it operates in would provide a lot of insight into whether or not there is a plausible relation between the company’s growth and congestion. One might start simply by plotting average speed of Uber rides in a city against the growth of Uber in that city.

In the meantime city planners too could probably do a similar analysis quickly: compare the development of congestion between cities that have Uber, Lyft and others and those that don’t. Now you might say that correlation doesn’t equal causation and that maybe on demand services are only in those cities that have growing economies and it is the economic growth that’s leading to the congestion. That can be controlled for by also looking at economic growth as a factor in the analysis. We need these kinds of analysis and we need them fast.

What else can be done? First, New York City could pass sensible ehail regulation that requires every taxi in the city to be available on all hail applications (instead of the current situation in which there are two different apps to cover taxis and these are largely for payment after the fact). The regs should encourage the sharing of taxis. Anyone who has ever stood on a New York City Avenue to see dozens of cabs go by with a single passenger in them knows why!

We also should finally get the congestion pricing that Bloomberg was working on. The easiest way to implement it would be to charge a toll on all bridges and tunnels into Manhattan. Tolls could probably be made dynamic too with amounts that differ on the degree of congestion currently in the city. The original plan had been approved by the city and died when the New York State assembly didn’t vote on it.

Ride sharing and ehailing can and should be solutions but we should not dismiss congestion as a problem and also remember that public transport needs to be part of the mix as well.

Broken Bottle Strut Likely Doomed Falcon 9 Rocket, Says Elon Musk by The Planetary Society

The demise of an ISS-bound Falcon 9 rocket last month was likely caused by a broken liquid helium bottle strut, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

DSCOVR mission releases first EPIC global view of Earth, more to come in September by The Planetary Society

Five months after its launch, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission has successfully journeyed to the region of space where Sun and Earth gravitational attraction offset each other. From the vantage point of L1, DSCOVR's EPIC camera has captured its first full-globe view of Earth, and it's well, epic.

July 20, 2015

A Chronological Checklist to the Eighth Doctor (a work in progress). by Feeling Listless

TV Having recently completed the decade long business of reading, reading and listening through the mainstream of the Eighth Doctor's adventures and posting reviews, I thought I'd put together something which links to all of those reviews which could also double as a chronology should anyone decide to try and repeat the exercise.  Good luck with that.  As you'll see from the linked the dates, the novels took almost as long to read as their original publication history.

As I explained in the barebones version a few years ago although there are a number of chronologies available (and I'm grateful to @girlfromblupo for pointing me to this one) many of them tend to mix the various media together.  My own version keeps things simple and has the books then the comics then the audios since they're all relatively self contained, especially since Big Finish decided to create a whole new character to explain the reference to Sam from Minuet in Hell.

In the process of completing all of this, there is still a lot of material which I've missed so for the purposes of fannish completism, I'll be enjoying my way through those too and I'll add them into the main trunk of the list once they're reviewed where I think they should be (just to add to the challenge), as well as anything new which is published.  Some of the prose is about audio and comics characters so they'll be more obvious.  We'll see about everything else.

Finally quick word about format.  Anything which isn't in italics is original publication history.  Anything in italics was produced after the fact and I've added extra information in the brackets afterwards to explain what it is.  Originally, I did have lots more gaps to delineate "seasons", but decided in the end to just separate the more obvious runs of continuous narrative (which then runs aground with Dark Eyes which is a sixteen adventures, four adventures and a single one altogether).

Television Broadcasts

The TV Movie

BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures

Doctor Who (The Novelisation)
The Eight Doctors
The Dying Days (Virgin New Adventure)
Model Train Set (BBC Short Trips)
Totem (BBC Short Trips)
Spore (Puffin E-Book)
Vampire Science
The People's Temple (BBC Short Trips)
Dead Time (BBC More Short Trips)
The Queen of Eros (BBC Short Trips and Side Steps)
The Bodysnatchers
War of the Daleks
Alien Bodies
Option Lock
Longest Day
Legacy of the Daleks
Dreamstone Moon
Seeing I
Placebo Effect
Vanderdeken's Children
The Scarlet Empress
The Janus Conjunction
The Face-Eater
The Taint
Revolution Man
Unnatural History
Autumn Mist
Interference - Book One
Interference - Book Two
The Blue Angel
The Taking of Planet 5
Frontier Worlds
Parallel 59
The Shadows of Avalon
The Fall of Yquatine
The Space Age
The Banquo Legacy
The Ancestor Cell
The Burning
Casualties of War
Wolfsbane (BBC Past Doctor Adventure)
The Turing Test
The Stranger (Black Lace)
Father Time
Escape Velocity
Fear Itself (BBC Past Doctor Adventure)
Vanishing Point
Eater of Wasps
The Year of Intelligent Tigers
The Slow Empire
Dark Progeny
The City of the Dead
Fitz's Story (Big Finish The Company of Friends Audio)
Grimm Reality
The Adventuress of Henrietta Street
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Trading Futures
The Book of the Still
The Crooked World
History 101
Camera Obscura
Time Zero
The Infinity Race
The Domino Effect
Reckless Engineering
The Last Resort
Emotional Chemistry
Sometime Never...
The Tomorrow Windows
The Sleep of Reason
The Deadstone Memorial
To the Slaughter
The Gallifrey Chronicles

Doctor Who Magazine Comics

The Keep
A Life of Matter and Death
Fire and Brimstone
By Hook or By Crook
Tooth and Claw
The Final Chapter
Happy Deathday
The Fallen
The Road to Hell
TV Action!
The Company of Thieves
The Glorious Dead
The Autonomy Bug
Izzy's Story (Big Finish The Company of Friends Audio)
Beautiful Freak
The Way of All Flesh
Children of the Revolution
Where Nobody Knows Your Name
Doctor Who and the Nightmare Game
The Power of Thoueris!
The Curious Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack
The Land of Happy Endings
Bad Blood
Sins of the Fathers
The Flood

Big Finish Audios


Benny's Story (Big Finish The Company of Friends Audio)

Mary's Story (Big Finish The Company of Friends Audio)
The Silver Turk
The Witch from the Well
Army of Death

Storm Warning
Sword of Orion
The Light at the End (50th Anniversary Special)
The Stones of Venice
Minuet in Hell
Enemy Aliens (Destiny of the Doctors)
Invaders from Mars
The Chimes of Midnight
Seasons of Fear
Embrace the Darkness
Solitaire (Big Finish Companion Chronicles)
Living Legend (DWM Special)
The Time of the Daleks
The Creed of the Kromon
The Natural History of Fear
The Twilight Kingdom
Faith Stealer
The Last
The Next Life
Terror Firma
Scaredy Cat
Other Lives
Time Works
Something Inside
Memory Lane
The Girl Who Never Was

Blood of the Daleks
Horror of Glam Rock
Immortal Beloved
No More Lies
Human Resources
Dead London
Max Warp
Brave New Town
The Skull of Sobek
Grand Theft Cosmos
The Zygon Who Fell to Earth
Sisters of the Flame
The Vengeance of Morbius
The Beast of Orlok
Wirrn Dawn
The Scapegoat
The Cannibalists
The Eight Truths
Worldwide Web
Death in Blackpool
An Earthly Child (Big Finish Subscriber Release)
Situation Vacant
The Book of Kells
The Resurrection of Mars
Relative Dimensions
Prisoner of the Sun
Lucie Miller
To the Death

Dark Eyes
The Great War
Tangled Web
X and the Daleks

Dark Eyes 2
The Traitor
The White Room
Time's Horizon
Eyes of the Master

Dark Eyes 3
The Death of Hope
The Reviled
Rule of the Eminence

Dark Eyes 4
A Life in the Day
The Monster of Montmartre
Master of the Daleks
Eye of Darkness

Time War era.

Natural Regression (The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who)

The Night of the Doctor


Still to be reviewed:

Here's everything which will be moved above and nudged into place once I've read, read or heard them and posted the necessary paragraph.  Do let me know if you think I've missed anything.


Femme Fatale (BBC More Short Trips)

Sad Professor (Perfect Timing)

Growing Higher (Short Trips: Zodiac)

Apocrypha Bipedium (Short Trips: Companions)
Notre Dame du Temps (Short Trips: Companions)

Gazing Void (Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors)

Mordieu (Short Trips: The Muses)

A Good Life (Short Trips: Steel Skies)
Reversal of Fortune (Short Trips: Steel Skies)
Greenaway (Short Trips: Steel Skies)

Far From Home (Short Trips: Past Tense)

Syntax (Short Trips: Life Science)
Jonah (Short Trips: Life Science)
The End (Short Trips: Life Science)

Repercussions... (Short Trips: Repercussions)
The Time Lord's Story (Short Trips: Repercussions)
The Juror's Story (Short Trips: Repercussions)

Best Seller (Short Trips: Monsters)

Thinking Warrior (Short Trips: 2040)
The Ethereal (Short Trips: 2040)

The Eight Doctors of Christmas (Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury)
...Be Forgot (Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury)
The Feast of Seven... Eight (and Nine) (Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury)
Evergreen (Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury)

Seven Deadly Sins (Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins)

Round Trip: After Midnight (Short Trips: A Day in the Life)
The Heroine, The Hero and the Meglomaniac (Short Trips: A Day in the Life)
Before Midnight (Short Trips: A Day in the Life)

Venus (Short Trips: The Solar System)

Be Good For Goodness's Sake (Short Trips: The History of Christmas)
Not in My Back Yard (Short Trips: The History of Christmas)
The Long Midwinter (Short Trips: The History of Christmas)

The Wickerwork Man (Short Trips: Farewells)

Prologue (Short Trips: The Centenarian)
Dear John (Short Trips: The Centenarian)
Forgotten (Short Trips: The Centenarian)

Second Contact (Short Trips: Time Signature)
DS Al Fine (Short Trips: Time Signature)

Museum Peace (Short Trips: Dalek Empire)

War in a Time of Peace (Short Trips: Destination Prague)
Lady of the Snows (Short Trips: Destination Prague)

Remain in Light (Short Trips: Snapshots)
Osskah (Short Trips: Snapshots)
Salva Mea (Short Trips: Snapshots)
The Sorrows of Vienna (Short Trips: Snapshots)
You Had me at Verify Username and Password (Short Trips: Snapshots)

For the Man Who Has Everything (Short Trips: The Ghosts of Christmas)
They Fell (Short Trips: The Ghosts of Christmas)
Decorative Purposes (Short Trips: The Ghosts of Christmas)
Faithful Friends - Part 3 (Short Trips: The Ghosts of Christmas)

From Little Acorns (Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership)
One Fateful Knight (Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership)
Epilogue (Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership)

Doctor Who and the Adaptation of Death (Short Trips: Transmissions)
Lonely (Short Trips: Transmissions)
Nettles (Short Trips: Transmissions)
Transmission Ends (Short Trips: Transmissions)

Second Chances (Short Trips: How The Doctor Changed My Life)
Suns and Mothers (Short Trips: How The Doctor Changed My Life)

Illumination (Short Trips: Christmas Around the World)

Phoenix (Short Trips: Indefinable Magic)

Natural Regression (The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who anthology)

Fallen Gods (Telos Doctor Who novella)
The Eye of the Tyger (Telos Doctor Who novella)
Rip Tide (Telos Doctor Who novella)


Dreadnought (Radio Times Comic Strip)
Descendance (Radio Times Comic Strip)
Ascendance (Radio Times Comic Strip)
Perceptions (Radio Times Comic Strip)
Coda (Radio Times Comic Strip)

Prisoners of Time (IDW Comic #8)
The Forgotten (IDW Comic #5)
Dead Man's Hand (IDW Comic)


Klein's Story (Seventh Doctor audio)

Running Out of Time (Big Finish Audio Short Trips 1)
Letting Go (Big Finish Short Trips Audio 2)
All the Fun of the Fair (Big Finish Audio Short Trips 3)
Quantum Heresy (Big Finish Audio Short Trips 4)
Foreshadowing (Big Finish Audio Short Trips 5)

Museum Piece (Big Finish Audio Short Trips Subscriber Special)
Late Night Shopping (Big Finish Audio Short Trips Subscriber Special)
The Young Lions (Big Finish Audio Short Trips Subscriber Special)

Bounty (Earth & Beyond Audiobook)

The Elixir of Doom (Companion Chronicle)

The Four Doctors


Updated 25/07/2015  I've added "Time War era" in at the bottom because it looks like it's going to be its own multi-format thing.  It'll be interesting to see how co-ordinated Big Finish, Titan and whoever else will be.  I believe one of the IDW comics already contradicts Day of the Doctor in relation to the nature of the "moment".  No more, no more, no more ...

Ayesha Dharker on Queen Jamillia. by Feeling Listless

TV The Guardian has an interview with Ayesha Dharker, who was Solana Mercurio, the morally ambiguous PA in Planet of the Ood and one of the few actors who has appeared in both Doctor Who and Star Wars:

"Dharker was visually memorable as Queen Jamillia despite having only five lines. But she has said that the costume – layered black-and-gold capes topped off with a fan of gold blades like petals on a flower – did most of the acting. Could she call it a performance? “I didn’t have enough to do to answer that question.” Still, she got to meet George Lucas, even if she never saw the proposed doll of her character. “I don’t think they made one. I know the girl characters don’t sell as well as the boy ones. I feel sorry for any child who got given one of me – this small, Indian penguin.”"
No they did not. But there was this gaming card.

New Horizons: Awaiting the data by The Planetary Society

New Horizons' encounter and data downlinks have been going exactly as planned, but the raw image website has not been updated for many days. What's going on? I found out.

July 19, 2015

Two Thoughts by Charlie Stross

As Damien Walter noted recently on twitter, some time between 1995 and 2010, the human species began to develop functional telepathy. (Actually, the first sign of this became real on October 29th, 1969, but exponential growth from a small base takes a long time to become noticeable.) We now have over a billion human beings on the internet, and so many devices that the IPv4 address space is saturated: within the next decade we can expect multiple new satellite internet constellations (such as OneWeb and rivals) to bring pervasive internet access to the globe. Smartphones are pushing down into the sub-$50 space where they're affordable even by those living just at the global poverty threshold (and the decline in global poverty over the past decade is working away at the other end). It no longer looks implausible to suggest that almost everybody will be online by 2025.

A side-effect of this process is that we're becoming used to a constant background roar—the global id in full throat, blasting us with the prejudices, rumors, superstitions, bigotry, and (less obviously) love and passion of the entire human species. Everyone being online means that anyone can in principle yell in your ear at any time, be it encouragement or rape and death threats.

So far we seem to have handled the telepathy thing relatively well. It hasn't provoked a nuclear war, or even very many social media targeting drone strikes. It has provoked total panic among authoritarian political leaders, with its concomitant ability to facilitate flash mobs, and a much quieter level of paranoia and near-panic among national security organizations, but compared with the consequences of the development of the printing press it's pretty benign. However, we're still in the early days.

More significantly: Markets. Some would say we're entering the post-capitalist era; certainly it's interesting to speculate on the effects universal functional telepathy (lies and all) are going to have on how we handle business. The internet disintermediates supply chains, but there's a catch: you have to be able to find your customers, or your root supplier, before you can cut out the middle-men. Currently we're seeing a land-rush by new middle-men trying to stake out their position as the Sultans of Search: Amazon and eBay were first wave, but the likes of Uber or AirBNB are now trying to occupy the equivalent space in vertically segmented business niches (personal transport and rented short-let accommodation respectively). The current 2015 cruel joke is that to identify a new Silicon Valley start-up opportunity you just have to figure out what your mom no longer does for you now you've moved out of her basement and productize it. But that's not going to last forever.

One of the performance drivers of an internet startup is the ability to automate and replicate a service that formerly scaled up by adding human bodies—travel agents are replaced by Hipmunk or Kayak, for example. But a side-effect of this is that there's a constant pressure to deliver the same automated search results for less money, on fewer processor cores. It's a race to the bottom and it ends when search becomes free at the point of delivery. Which might, to a first order, sound like a recipe for "sponsored search results" and biased results, but when you can open multiple browser tabs and do meta-comparison across product comparison websites for virtually zero cost, such lying informational lacunae will be found out fast.

Ultimately most of those middle-men are doomed: they simply can't add enough value to stay viable as information arbitrage brokers in a telepathic world.

So where do we go from there? (Is telepathy compatible with the continued existence of capitalism?)

Alexander Siddig on everything. by Feeling Listless

Film Alexander Siddig is the subject of the latest random roles at the AV Club and he's entirely unguarded and generally personally uncensored. He says of DS9, "I had the stigma of Star Trek over me at that point" which makes him the Eccleston of that series and he has this to say on the subject of apocalyptic dragon film without many dragons, Reign of Fire:

"Wow, we’re covering the whole thing, aren’t we? [Laughs.] The only thing I remember about that was the first day. The first A.D. came into the trailer where we were all having our makeup and shit done, and he was, like, “Guys, I need your attention, please.” And we were, like, “Yeah?” And he said, “Um, Mr. McConaughey’s gonna arrive on set in about 15 minutes, and I have to give you a directive—which comes from the producers—that you are not to call him ‘Matthew’ or ‘Mr. McConaughey’ or anything to do with his real life. You must call him Van Zan.” Van Zan was his character name. “And even if you meet him outside in the road, even if you meet him out in town in Dublin,” where we were shooting this movie, “you must call him Van Zan.” And that is exactly what I remember about that movie, because as that first A.D. left the building, I shouted—rather lamely—“And he’s got to call me Elvis!” But he didn’t call me Elvis. In fact, he didn’t call me anything!"

July 18, 2015

Dark Eyes 4. by Feeling Listless

Audio Done. It's just over ten years since I posted a review of Gary Russell's novelisation of the TV movie with the Pertwee logo to Behind The Sofa (also now hosted on this blog) and now I'm finally caught up with the continuing adventures of the Eighth Doctor.  Admittedly, as I said the other day, there's still a smattering of short stories, some comics and the odd audio (so I'll still be posting reviews for completists sake), but in terms of the main trunk of publications I'll now be listening at the same rate as everyone else.  Before you start talking about Night of the Doctor, I don't think it's really relevant unless Big Finish decide they're going to work towards it and that doesn't look like it's happening soon, instead favouring an approach of populating the Eighth Doctor's Time War period as a kind of separate era.  Despite the Doom Coalition, it has to be at the back of their minds to do a box at some point set in that period.  But then I still hold out hope for a resolution to the way he left it with Charley Pollard ...

A Life in the Day

One of the greatest hours Big Finish has ever recorded.  If there's something I've missed in the Dark Eyes mission approach to narrative, it is the rather more classical form stories in which the Doctor and his companion land and have to deal with whatever's thrown at them (desperate as I am for the return of Eighth to the main releases), so it's rather nice to have a version of that, albeit linked to his search for Molly O.  Writer John Dorney also intelligently writes to character, so while the Doctor's investigating, we have Liv discovering her deep past in a rather sweet romance with Kitty's brother.  She's a weary figure, still shell shocked by her run in with the Daleks and then the Master so what seems like her first genuine laugh, at a Buster Keaton film of course, is genuinely poignant, instinctively captured by Nicola Walker.  It's only later that I discovered she was married to Barnaby Kay who plays, Martin her date and the centre of the drama.

The Monster of Montmartre

Moulin Rouge! meets the Daleks is a killer premise and writer Matt Fritton makes the most of it, although I'll admit there's a moment when I was slightly disappointed when I was reminded that the story wouldn't resolve itself here and would lead into the rest of the story arc.  You could well imagine a version which is about the Doctor trying to convince the spouse that their domestic arrangement will ultimately lead to death and destruction which of course it does.  Rachel Stirling makes a welcome return to the audios after The Crimson Horror on television and arguably even more brilliant (and sonically unrecognisable) as the brilliantly named Demesne Furze in the Fourth Doctor story Trail of the White Worm which features the Geoffrey Beavers version of the Master.  Why couldn't we have had that incarnation of the Master?  Nope, still not a fan of the MacQueen version which makes ...

Master of the Daleks

... a difficult listen in places.  The Eighth Doctor has amnesia again for part of this story and doesn't do much other than blunder about only partially being able to recognise the Daleks before sleeping.  But my fiscal discussion in regards to The Death of Hope is less relevant here because John Dorney's script is so much fun with its embrace of the alternative history genre and the mighty Dan Starkey playing every Sontaran and somehow managing to make them all sound distinctive and often very funny.  Just as Nick Briggs is an expert in Dalek voices, Starkey knows his Sontarans, and I remember seeing a clip of him during the anniversary year perfectly mimicking the voices of the various television versions from across the years.  Clearly the best part of this hour's when they're called upon to battle each other, notably when Starkey allows a newly birthed Sontaran go full Strax entirely unphased by the killing machine that's about exterminate him.

Eye of Darkness

Like I said, done.  In the unusual position of having to carry not just the completion of this boxed set but the whole of Dark Eyes, there's a lot of business to attend to and on those terms I'm not sure it succeeds.  Sorry.  If the series was supposed to be about anything, it was about giving the Eighth Doctor back some of his hope after the death of Lucie and although I enjoy nihilistic storytelling as much as the next film studies graduate, to essentially end the next run of stories with a similar dilemma and in a similar way is really quite disappointing.  Whilst I appreciate the need to move on and reinvent characters, do they always have to (sorry) embrace the darkness?  Dark Eyes has had its moments, sometimes episodes in length, but I probably would have prefered it to have ended with the original box, the notion of that being its own era and then moved on, having never really enjoyed the overall story or some of the characters.  But as we saw with the Lucie run appearing out of the wreckage of the Divergent Universe, this is a franchise that keeps bouncing back.  The Doctor is nearly smiling on the cover of Doom Coalition.  So anything's possible.

Cleaning Everhard Jabach and His Family. by Feeling Listless

Telltale Signs of Dwarf Galaxies by Astrobites

Smaller but Not Lesser

Galaxies come in many different shapes and sizes. Dwarf galaxies are the most common type of galaxies in the Universe. Compared to the Milky Way and other normal-sized galaxies that house hundreds billions of stars, dwarf galaxies typically only boast of several billions of stars. As a result, they have smaller masses and lower surface brightness (a measure of luminosity averaged over pixels area, in units of mag/arcsec2). These dwarf galaxies hang around larger galaxies and are good companions to their larger and more massive counterparts. For instance, we currently know of 43 dwarf galaxies that orbit our Milky Way (the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds are Milky Way’s most massive dwarfs, for instance) and ~50 that are contained within the Local Group, with membership belonging mostly to the Milky Way and Andromeda.

What is so interesting about dwarf galaxies that people are so keen in finding them? Besides being interesting from their sheer number, dwarf galaxies are non-negligible players in the cosmology playground: they are more dark-matter dominated than larger galaxies and are laboratories to test dark matter theories.  One of the recurring obstacles to the normative cosmological model we adopt, known as LCDM (Lambda Cold Dark Matter), is the overestimation of Milky Way dwarf galaxies predicted from simulations compared to observations, also known as the “missing satellites problem. Simulations also predict some massive dwarf galaxies to host more dark matter than we observed, another cosmology buzzword known as the “too big to fail” problem. In the hope of resolving these cosmological issues, dwarf galaxies are scrutinized more carefully and the expedition to uncover more dwarfs is more vibrant than ever.

A New Way of Looking

So now we’re pumped up to go and search for more dwarf galaxies. But wait. Current search strategies (which searches for dwarf galaxies by resolving stellar populations) restrict us against finding low surface brightness and low Galactic latitude dwarfs, a factor that could have contributed to the “missing satellites problem”. Figure 1 illustrates the biases in current dwarf search methods. Fainter dwarfs are just more difficult to find while the increasing number of foreground stars at low Galactic latitudes hampers dwarf searches in this region of the sky. This paper proposes to use a special type of variable stars, RR Lyrae (RRL), as tools for discovering faint and low Galactic latitude dwarfs.


Fig 1 – Left plot shows size versus luminosity for confirmed (closed points) and new (open points) dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way, while right plots shows luminosity versus distance for the same points. Notice the dearth of faint dwarf galaxies on the upper left corner in the left plot and the lack of distant dwarfs on the lower right corner in the right plot. These show that current search methods work best in finding close-by and bright dwarfs, but are biased against distant faint dwarfs. [Figure 1 in paper.]


What is this group of stars so exotically named, you ask? RR Lyrae (RRL) is a class of short-period (0.2-1 day) variable stars found in old and metal-poor populations. They have light curves that are easy to distinguish and are good distance indicators, having their intrinsic luminosity already well-determined. Because the Milky Way halo consists mostly of old stellar populations, RRL are particularly abundant there.  This is where it gets interesting: At least one RRL star has been found in each known (low-luminosity) Milky Way dwarf (see this earlier paper). Based on this informed premise, single RRL star is hypothesized to be indicators of extremely low luminosity dwarfs; this paper investigates the detectability of dwarf galaxies using RRL in simulations and ranks performance of time-domain surveys in RRL (and thus dwarf galaxies) discovery.

Groups of RR Lyrae as telltales of Dwarf Galaxies

To assess the improvement in discovery rate of faint dwarf galaxies using RRL, the authors simulated RRL spatial distributions in tens of thousands of fake dwarf galaxies. They then searched for groups of 2 or more RRL, which is the minimum group number to effectively search for dwarf galaxies at halo distances (ie, at d > 50 kpc). Figure 2 shows the detectability of simulated dwarf galaxies as groups of 2 or more RR. Notice that huge portion of white in the figure? This means that a larger portion of discovery space at low surface brightness and low Galactic latitude can be opened up using this method of identifying dwarf galaxies as groups of RRL.


Fig 2 – The detectability of simulated dwarf galaxies as groups of 2 or more RR Lyrae stars, as a function of size (x-axis) and luminosity (y-axis). The detectability of dwarfs is also dependent on how common we think RRL stars occur; left plot is for less common while right plot is for more common occurrence. The blue closed and open points are confirmed and new Milky Way dwarfs while the red dashed lines indicate constant surface brightness. Identification rate of low-surface brightness dwarf galaxies through RRL is high, as shown through the white regions. [Figure 7 in paper.]


The authors searched RRL catalogs in the hope of uncovering new dwarf galaxy candidates. Although their search is partially limited by the incompleteness of the catalogs, they managed to find two RRL groups that are not known to be associated with any Milky Way structures. Follow up of these two groups via deep imaging would be required to confirm their natures. Additionally, the authors also rank the performance of current time-domain surveys in terms of dwarf galaxy discovery using this RRL method. Among current surveys, PanSTARRS I (Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System) may be our best hope. Its survey region includes a large area at low Galactic latitude and it is deep enough to reveal low surface brightness structures. With PanSTARRS I, we hope to find ~15% of Milky Way dwarf galaxies. Looking ahead, LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) would crush all existing surveys in discovering new dwarf galaxies. It is wide enough, fast enough, and deep enough to find ~45% of all Milky Way dwarfs and would constitute the most complete possible census of the Milky Way dwarfs, according to the authors’ prediction.

In efforts mining for new astrophysical objects, astronomers always strive for completeness and efficiency. In this case, a complete and unbiased sample of dwarf galaxies would enable all sorts of interesting statistical studies, especially in terms of resolving the “missing satellites problem” mentioned in the beginning. Exploiting RRL as proxies for dwarf galaxies, the authors proposed a new way to find low luminosity and low Galactic latitude dwarf galaxies which current search strategies are biased against. Based on studies of dwarf detectability mentioned above, this method should unveil more dwarf galaxies, especially via PanSTARRS I and LSST.  However, it would be interesting to see how many we actually find using this neat little method.


OSIRIS-REx – Testing In Progress by The Planetary Society

While the OLA, OCAMS, and REXIS instruments on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft continue working towards their deliveries, other hardware onsite at Lockheed is undergoing testing prior to installation. The hardware is put through tests here on Earth prior to launching into space.

Report Finds SLS Cost and Schedule Estimates Tight, but on Track by The Planetary Society

The GAO says NASA is generally doing a good job with cost and schedule estimates for SLS, its new heavy lift rocket. But NASA is also running short on schedule margin as it works to have SLS ready for flight by November 2018.

July 17, 2015

Dark Eyes 3. by Feeling Listless

Audio Hmm. What to make of The Eminence?  The idea that at some point in the future of this fictional universe everything will recede to be replaced by this single entity is evocative and might even explain who's knocking on the door of Orson Pink's craft in Listen.  But it's also inherently the kind of idea which would be fine in a single story, like the evil from beyond time in The Satan Pit or the mad computer inadvertently created by the Doctor in time for The Face of Evil, but loses interested when pressed into service as it is here as kind of "not Daleks" in the Mechanoid mould (somewhat due to Nick Briggs's unavailability) in what also feels like Big Finish's attempt to create their own Time War or War in Heaven to play about in, ironically just as they were on the edge of licensing the new series.  The Death of Hope even paraphrases the Doctor's own description of fighting on the fringes of that later conflict, helping where he can without getting directly involved.  It's fair to say with this as the secondary antagonist and as you'll see a primary antagonist I found unbearable, I was less than impressed with the joyless exercise that is Dark Eyes 3.

The Death of Hope

Part of the problem is that I simply don't like this incarnation of the Master as played by Alistair MacQueen.  You're not supposed to like the Master, but as with any villain you should at least be able to tolerate their presence, but between his prosaic sentence structure and MacQueen's enunciating delivery, I find him very difficult to listen to.  Which is an especial problem in this opening installment in which we essentially hear the Doctor Mystery Science Theatre 3000 an installment of a non-existent spin-off series for his foe.  On the one hand this is as bold a choice as the opening episode of Dark Eyes 2, but at a certain point in here, I began to think about the fiscal implications.  Having spent £5 on an episode of Doctor Who starring Paul McGann (one quarter of the overall cost), I'd quite like actually hear him do something.  If I'd paid current the full cd price of £40 for Dark Eyes 3, that would have been a whole £10 to listen to a Doctor-lite episode.

The Reviled

The best episode of the set, mostly due to a pretty sneaky twist at the end and some of the sound design.  Otherwise this is a heavy handed allegory about colonization, imperialism and negotiation and as anyone with long memories will remember from my initial reaction to Planet of the Ood, I generally don't like being preached to.  Neither of the groups of inhabitants of the planet Ramosa raise themselves above generic and about the only real draw are the interactions between Liv and the Doctor which really are unlike anything else we've heard in these Eighth Doctor audios, she being someone who needs saving psychologically more than anything else, to go through much the same process he does.  Some notable casting - it's Sacha Dhawan who was so brilliant as Waris Hussein in An Adventure in Space and Time.  Can I suggest once again if not Romola Garai, why not him?


Let's quickly run down the treatment of the primary female characters in Dark Eyes 3.  Spoilers ahead (duh..).  Molly is hypnotised and drugged for much of the duration and essentially a macguffin and no Ruth Bradley's availability isn't an excuse.  She spends all of this episode in a box.  Dr Sally Armstrong who seemed like a promising friend to the Doctor in Dark Eyes 1, is hypnotised by one madman to do his bidding and eventually dies horribly having had her brain sucked out by another. Liv Chenka who spends much of the duration thinking she's going to die from radiation poisoning, not telling the Doctor this until it becomes a useful motivational tool for him, kidnapped, forced to nursemaid Molly, also hypnotised.  Pretty much every female character is hypnotised, drugged or brainwashed at some point.  Admittedly Doctor Who's often failed to distinguish itself in this area, and a lot of male characters come of badly too, but it's especially notable in Dark Eyes 3.

Rule of the Eminence

In which everything ends with a chronological dry run for elements of three Russell T Davies season finales, all of which were of course produced years before.  The Master hypnotises the entirety of humanity to do his bidding in a similar fashion to becoming the whole of humanity in The End of Time (whilst bluffing the Doctor and I suppose us with a false version of the Saxon ruse from The Sound of Drums).  Molly's dispatched in a similar way to Donna in Journey's End (and yes, ok Jamie and Zoe in The War Games).  Perhaps, just like the Daleks who essentially repeated their planetary weapon strategy from The Daleks Invasion and Earth over and over, the Master is later simply having another go at these approaches.  One must be cautious about ticking off (literally in this case) Doctor Who stories for their familiarity, much of its fifty-odd years are variations on a theme, but...  Oh well, four episodes to go.

Know your arts: Nouveau, Deco, Moderne by Zarino

Vintage is in right now. What with prohibition-style speakeasies, and 20s-style electro-swing in the air. Why not take a moment to impress your friends and up your cocktail party chatter, by learning the difference between the three early 19th-century design styles: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Moderne.

Art Nouveau 1890s–1910s

Wikipedia · V&A

Art Nouveau appeared like a flash, from different corners of Europe, between 1893 and 1895. By 1900, the Paris International Exposition was dripping with Art Nouveau.

Where the previous “Arts & Crafts” movement was all about returning to a more restrained, down-to-earth, handmade way of life, closer to nature and the home, Art Nouveau stripped away the twee dowdyness, kept the craftsmanship, and brought highly stylised natural patterns into everyday life.

Art Nouveau Pattern

Where Arts & Crafts had been about the humility and honesty of the artisan and his handiwork, Art Nouveau wasn’t afraid of new techniques or new materials. Exposed wrought ironwork hit the public consciousness via Art Nouveau, as did the use of glass as a major architectural feature.

Tassel House, Brussels

Art Nouveau was a whole style system, covering art, architecture, design, fashion. You could wear a Nouveau-inspired dress while walking up the sinuous wooden Nouveau staircase in your fashionable Parisian Nouveau flat, while carrying little yellow books of risqué Nouveau illustrations.

Art Nouveau is Paris. Art Nouveau is the Moulin Rouge. It’s Absinthe, Can-Can, the Orient. Art Nouveau is decadence.

Art Nouveau Posters

In fact, Art Nouveau had always been synonymous, not only with decadence, but with non-conformity. Here in the UK, the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895 had drawn harsh criticism onto the worshippers of the “bohemian” and the “nouveau”.

As it continued into the new century, Art Nouveau’s erotic content became more and more pronounced. Nude women draped over desk lamps, pert naked young boys holding up mirrors. Finally, when the Great War approached, Art Nouveau was seen as immoral, un-patriotic, destabilising. It was also expensive and time-consuming to produce, especially as the war dragged on. By the 1920s, Art Nouveau looked decidedly old fashioned.

Art Deco 1920s–40s

Wikipedia · V&A

After the war, a new style (it wouldn’t come to be known as “Art Deco” until the 1960s) appeared in France, borrowing some of the organic motifs of Art Nouveau, but reinvigorating them with new materials, and geometric patterns. Unlike Nouveau, this bold, exuberant style quickly spread to the USA, where a jazz- and consumerism-fueled middle class lapped up the exotic new look.

Art Deco Wallpaper

Art Deco was partly influenced by pre-modern art and architecture, especially ancient Egypt.1 But it also borrowed aspects from highly contemporary art movements like Cubism, Constructivism, and Futurism, whose rich colours, bold patterns, and machine-like aesthetics suited a world just regaining hope after the bloodiest war in living memory.

This was also a period of major investment in highly-visible public works projects. Many of the new skyscrapers in the US were designed in Art Deco style. Hotels across the world adopted Deco as the interior of choice for discerning western travellers. The London Underground expanded during this period, and many of the new stations had Art Deco elements. The Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway (built 1929), as well as the BBC’s Broadcasting House off Regent Street (built 1928), were both thoroughly Art Deco, from the tiles on the floor up to the Epstein and Gill sculptures adorning their rooflines.

Art Deco Architecture

In architecture and interiors, the Deco look was all about polished and rare woods, contrasting inlays, and precious metals. Large expanses of glass made up of regular, geometric panes sealed together with fine lead work. Sun-burst mirrors and polished cabinets, all triangles, zig-zags, and trapezoids, like unfurling ornate fans.

Art Deco is the roaring twenties, Jay Gatsby, and Jazz. It’s loud music, moving pictures, and starburst lights.

Great Gatsby

As time went on, Art Deco increasingly became all about luxury, and that was ultimately its downfall. When the Wall Street crash devastated the US luxury market in 1929, people needed a cheaper, less ostentatious style. Deco transformed into more sensible offshoots—such as Streamline Moderne—until the austerity of a wartime economy put the final nail in Deco’s coffin in 1939.

Moderne / Streamline Moderne 1930s–40s

Wikipedia · V&A

Streamline Moderne brass relief, Toronto Stock Exchange

Moderne strips out the splendour and precious materials of Art Deco, and focuses more on the technology. It replaces gold and rare woods with steel, aluminium, chrome, and astonishing new plastics like bakelite. Art Deco’s organic curves and repeating geometric forms (which only a decade earlier were a radical response to the twiddly whiplash swirls of Art Nouveau) are replaced in favour of streamlined swooshes, bullets, and teardrops.

Streamline objects

There’s an old saying: “Deco is chic, Moderne is sleek” – Moderne is all about movement, streamlined silhouettes, and chrome. Often even mundane objects like radios, fridges and toasters get the hotrod design treatment (after all, just because you can’t afford your own private plane, who says you can’t own a toaster that looks a little bit like one?)

America led the way in mass-production of new technology, particularly planes, ships, and automobiles. Moderne celebrated this progress. It was all about speed and precision. Buildings suddenly sprouted wings and finnials and tailfins. Sleek, extended horizontal ledges made them look like they were perpetually zooming past.

Midlands Hotel, Morcambe

The seaside towns of Britain, in particular, are packed with 1930s Moderne buildings. Hotels, homes, holiday parks— and cinemas. All with the same smooth rounded white walls, flat roofs, and elongated horizontal features. The poor things get called “Art Deco” all the time, but they’re resultely not. They’re streamlined, optimistic, utlititarian. They’re Moderne.

Although Streamline Moderne was mostly extinguished by the austerity of World War II, post-war styles like Mid-Century Modern owe a debt to Moderne – think of the streamlined, chrome-plated surfaces of the iconic 1950s American integrated kitchen, or the curves, grilles and vanes of a 1950s Vespa.

So there you have it. Curvey and sinuous? Art Nouveau. Triangular and jazzy? Art Deco. Sleek and shiny? Streamline Moderne. Simple. No more must you put up with people mis-categorising the stuff around you.

Use your newfound powers wisely.

  1. This is sometimes called “Tut-mania”. Not only were audiences were still reeling from Theda Bara’s depiction of Cleopatra in the 1917 smash-hit silent movie of the same name, but in 1922, after years of press coverage, Howard Carter finally discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in Cairo, and Egyptian style sky-rocketed to the forefront of 1920s fashion. 

Science at the edge of the Solar System by Astrobites

We interrupt this regular broadcast of academic paper summaries to bring you these science messages from the New Horizons probe…

February 1930, the Lowell Observatory, Arizona, USA. A 23-year-old Clyde Tombaugh is poring over multiple photographic plates examining them for anything that moves. He’s been doing this for nearly a year, searching for the long theorised ‘Planet X’ that’s perturbing Uranus’s orbit. At long last, he finds something and the discovery is announced to the world in March 1930. 85 years later and NASA’s New Horizons probe has finally given us a close up view of this alien world.

Trending across the globe with the hashtag #PlutoFlyBy, the New Horizons probe this week came within 7,700 miles (12,500 km) in a fleeting drive-by of the Pluto system. Launched in January 2006, when Pluto was still classified as a planet (it was downgraded to dwarf planet in August 2006 by the International Astronomical Union and people were not happy), it finally arrived, after a 9 year journey, at the edge of the Solar System.

Here’s what we thought Pluto looked like before:

Pluto as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002-2003. Image from NASA.

Pluto as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002-2003. Image from NASA.

For twelve years this was our sharpest view of the surface of Pluto: an oddly coloured, ugly blobish mess. No wonder it never got much love. The discovery of Charon in 1978 allowed us to measure the mass of Pluto.  Spectral observations from Earth told us that it had a thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. We also discovered some more pretty small moons (Pluto has 5 in total: Charon, Nix, Styx, Hydra and Kerberos), but we didn’t know much else about this tiny alien world.

New Horizons has turned this fuzzy blob and its moons into real imaginable worlds with features & craters, over the course of just a couple of days:

Pluto and Charon get clearer as New Horizons approaches it's final destination. Images from NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

Pluto and Charon get clearer as New Horizons approaches from July 8th-11th 2015. Images from NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla.

As it got closer, the other instruments on New Horizons such as its spectrograph, also took measurements and we started to get some science! We found out that Pluto was slightly bigger than we previously thought (by about 80km) meaning that it was therefore less dense than we thought. That means more ice than rock must be present on Pluto, a conclusion that is backed up by the observation that the polar caps on Pluto seem to be made of nitrogen and methane ice.  This thought excited a lot of planetary scientists. It also meant that it hopped over Eris to become the biggest dwarf planet of them all, but still just a bit smaller than our own Moon.

The probe also detected Pluto’s atmosphere, a really rare opportunity because it’s so cold out there.  At such a large distance from the Sun, the gases tend to freeze to the surface. In 1989 though, Pluto was at its closest point to the Sun, which warmed the atmosphere up enough for it to stick around until now. Which, if we’d waited any longer to send a probe, we wouldn’t have seen.

The weird result, though, was that some of this nitrogen gas was seen to be coming off the surface of the Pluto. This sparked a lot of discussions between scientists, who were at least thankful for something to do whilst they waited for the moment of closest approach. A moment that would be fraught with worry due to the perilous nature of the Pluto system. A collision with a a dust particle the size of a grain of rice could spell disaster for the probe and render it incapable of communicating with Earth.

So, hours before the closest approach, the probe took a high resolution image of Pluto and beamed it back to Earth. When the download came through the whole world was rewarded with this stunning image of an alien world finally come into focus:

Pluto, as imaged by the LORRI instrument on board New Horizons just hours before it's closet approach. Image from NASA.

Pluto, as imaged by the LORRI instrument on board New Horizons just hours before its closet approach. Image from NASA.

This image is over 10 times the resolution of images previously released by NASA.  The first word that comes to mind is, wow. The variety in the terrain is stunning: big craters, mountains, smooth regions, dark and light patches. Now we have these images, scientists can start speculating, particularly about the most striking feature of the image, and the one that also generated the most memes that day: the smooth, bright heart feature now dubbed the Tombaugh region after our good friend Clyde (remember him from the beginning of the story?). The fact that it’s smooth suggests that it’s young; the more craters an area has, the longer it has been around, and so the more impacts it has seen. People have speculated that it may even have been made from ice settling to the surface, just like snow falling.

With that image we also got a peek at Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, which turned out to be just as excitingly baffling as Pluto itself:

Charon, Pluto's largest moon, imaged by New Horizons just before it's closest approach. Image from NASA.

Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, imaged by New Horizons just before its closest approach. Image from NASA.

Again there are craters, but not quite as many as other moons of similar size.  Saturn’s moons Dione and Tethys, for instance, are peppered with them. This unexpectedly suggests a younger surface, with more features than anticipated as well. On the upper right side of the moon, you can see a notch in the edge, which runs into a deep, scarred canyon across the surface – one that was calculated to be about 6-10 km (4-6 miles) deep! Charon’s canyon trumps Earth’s “Grand” Canyon literally by miles. Also notice that dark reddish patch up on the northern side of the moon, a region affectionately dubbed “Mordor” (from Lord of the Rings) by the mission scientists. Remember that problem of the nitrogen escaping from Pluto’s surface? Well, at the moment people think that that’s where it’s ending up; it’s settling onto Charon’s pole and being processed into a cocktail of new ices, creating an even younger surface.

As the closest approach came and went and the world anxiously waited for the probe to phone home 14 hours later, the team then released an image with false colours, to highlight which surfaces were made of different materials. And with its release, that most beloved heart of the internet was shattered into two:

Stretched colour image of Pluto (left) and Chandra (right) to show surface features. Image from NASA.

False colour image of Pluto (left) and Charon (right) to show surface features. Image from NASA.

Now the right side of the heart appears much older.  It’s covered in craters and is made entirely of ice. Speculation was rife amongst the mission scientists and across the internet. Such is the way of science: to speculate, discuss, argue, speculate some more, and then hopefully agree to what sounds like a coherent theory.

The mission team were rewarded at around 9pm ET on Tuesday when the probe finally pinged back to say it was okay and that its hard drives were full, to much jubilation in the mission control room:

NASA's New Horizon's Team celebrates at Mission Control on Tuesday 13th July when the signal from the probe was received at precisely 8.52.37pm ET. Photograph: Bill Ingalls/AP

NASA’s New Horizon’s Team celebrates at Mission Control on Tuesday 13th July when the signal from the probe was received at precisely 8.52.37pm ET. Photograph: Bill Ingalls/AP

On Wednesday it rotated its antennae towards Earth and started beaming back that all-important data from the fly by. It has taken a lot though – so much so that with the 1.68 kilobits per second download speed that you get from the edge of the Solar System (compare that to modern Dial Up internet speeds of ~ 20 kilobits per second) it’s going to take months to download it all. That’s a whole lot of buffering rage for the mission team to go through.

On Wednesday, they released the first image they downloaded: this amazing image of a close up, taken a mere hour or so before its closest approach, of Pluto’s surface on the right hand side of that heart shaped Tombaugh region:

Mountains on Pluto's surface are imaged by the LORRI instrument 1.5 hours before New Horizon's closest approach when it was 770,000 km above the surface. Image from NASA.

Mountains on Pluto’s surface are imaged by the LORRI instrument 1.5 hours before New Horizon’s closest approach when it was 770,000 km above the surface. Image from NASA.

This incredibly detailed image revealed mountains that were over 3,500m (11,000 ft) tall! In general, smaller planets with lower surface gravity tend to have larger mountains, but compare that to Mauna Kea, Hawaii (4,205 m, 13,795 ft) and Mont Blanc, France (4,807 m, 15,771 ft) on a planet that is only half the size of the USA in diameter. Pluto has some serious lumps and bumps.

What it doesn’t have in this region though is craters – not one has been found yet on this image, suggesting again that these mountains are incredibly young for the Solar System – only about 100 million years old. What’s more is that these mountains are thought to be made out of pure water ice. That’s right, I did say water. Your eyes do not deceive you. It’s so cold though that the ice is acting just like rock. Maybe the idea of a ski trip to Pluto isn’t such a bad one after all, if it wasn’t for the whole -240°C(-400°F) thing and the lack of friction it’d be perfect!

The one unanswered question though is how in the Universe did these mountains even form? Previously, when we’ve observed icy mountains like this on other small bodies/moons in the Solar System (like Saturn’s moon Iapetus or Jupiter’s moon Io) we’ve speculated they’ve come from tidal interactions between the small moon and the giant planet it’s orbiting. But Pluto is already the “big planet” in this system, so these mountains can’t possibly have come from such a process. It’s a puzzling question, one which has sent planetary scientists and geophysicists back to the drawing board. Perhaps the core of Pluto is radioactive, and despite being a tiny, icy planet is still capable of storing enough heat inside to power geological formations such as this? No doubt there’ll be a lot more speculation and discussion before anyone agrees on anything.

Until then, all we can do is wait. Wait for more data. Wait for more science results. And wait to be amazed once more at the wonders of human discovery.

Latest New Horizons picture of Charon: oddly familiar by The Planetary Society

The New Horizons team released one more picture from Tuesday's encounter, one of three high-resolution images from a mosaic that crossed the center of Charon's disk, and it took me a while to figure out what it reminded me of.

LightSail Workshop Recaps Lessons Learned from Test Mission by The Planetary Society

The LightSail team held a workshop in Pasadena to discuss lessons learned from the test mission and plan for the second flight in 2016.

July 16, 2015

Dark Eyes 2. by Feeling Listless

Audio When Apple updated their Music app, they expunged audiobooks and dumped them into iBooks on phones, pods and tablets. Unfortunately the process included a lot of guess work, which for me meant that my carefully curated collection of Eighth Doctor audio turned into rather a mess and the various sections of Dark Eyes 2 became muddled with the episode titles being reduced to list of "tracks" none of which were in the right order. The knock on effect of that was that even though I worked out which was supposed to be the first episode, I went straight into the third and for various reasons didn't realise for about twenty minutes, assuming the sudden appearance of Molly to be part of the bold storytelling reflected in the first.  Luckily I realised in time so didn't end up listening to this lot in completely the wrong order.

Which is of course ironic since this bold storytelling involves the story being told in completely the wrong order.  Heading into spoiler territory for people who haven't heard this, Dark Eyes 2 employs a clever ouroboros structure in which the Doctor's story climaxes, or just about climaxes at the end of the first episode and we then have to listen to the other three in order to discover why he makes what seems like a momentously out of character decision (although in some ways for anyone remembers the thematic underpinnings of Deimos and The Resurrection of Mars isn't out of character at all).  When I do go back and relisten to this, which I plan to, Dark Eyes has that quality, it will include listening through this from two back to one again to see how that changes my attitude to the Doctor's attitude.  Such storytelling isn't unknown in Who with Flip Flop as a key example.

Quick word about covers.  On a few occasions just listening to the audios without looking at the covers has had an impact on how I listen to the episodes since some items which if you've looked at the covers are in no way revelations are just that, notably an amazing piece of casting in Eyes of the Master.  Which I'm now going to spoil here too so look away before the next sentence.  When he appeared in the actual television series and gave an interview to DWM it was pretty apparent that Frank Skinner was a fan and here he is before Mummy on the Orient Express in what must have been, as he thought, his one chance to be in Who.  Best bit, especially in relation to this project?  According to the making of, during the recording he was reading Mark Morris's The Bodysnatchers, which was only the third EDA and he was too shy to bring it to the recording to have it signed by McGann.  Bless him.

The Traitor

Tonally, The Traitor is closer to how I imagined the first Dark Eyes would be, with the Doctor slightly weary revealing something of his predecessor's malevolence.  Later episodes explain his mental state and his slightly more ambiguous attitude to the Daleks.  The introduction of Liv Chenka is well handled and even having not heard her introductory story Robotopia, Nick Briggs's script and Nicola Walker's performance present us with rounded character and a complete, as I found out later, reintroduction.  As with other recent adventures, Dark Eyes 2 is heavily networked into Big Finish's Who mythology but never to an extent that we feel like some of the narrative is missing, all the necessary exposition is here and carefully thought through.  The cliffhanger is chilling, earning the familiar sting.

The White Room

The appearance from the Viyrans almost had me wondering if we'd get a Charley cameo and a final resolution between those two, although given how packed these four episodes are already, putting such a momentous piece of drama at the fringes of this would have been a waste.  Alan Barnes's script is mainly a chance to see what a Molly story would be like without there being a wider context though and of all the episodes this is the most "stand alone" albeit with some set up for the Eye of the Master.  Perhaps the most significant moment is when the Doctor says he has "no money, no country, no family and no friends" which is either him lying or a notice that he's trying not to get attached to anything anymore because of what it can do to him psychologically, a bit like soldiers who go to war not wanting to know too much about their colleagues so that they won't grieve when they're gone.

Time's Horizon

There are always special moments in any drama, especially Doctor Who, when you're almost giddy with delight at how clever the writers have been irrespective of suspension of disbelief and the discovery of the Doctor and Liv appearing at different points in each other's lives but with the added confusion for the Doctor that they've already met but under different circumstances as a different incarnation doubly impressive.  Yes, it's a more simplistic version of his relationship with River Song and he quickly cottons on the ruse, but within the context of this story, it's fascinating.  Unlike River, Iris or Bernice for that matter, there's a reality to Liv, I hesitate to say reality, which is reflection of the experiences she's had with the Daleks and life in general.  She's not easily impressed with the Doctor's life which makes her one of his more compelling associates,

Eyes of the Master

Given that this is the first "recorded" meeting between the Doctor and the Master since the TV Movie, the tendency might have been to make more of them crossing paths but given that they've already bumped into each other in the novels and comics and also that the Master's own timeline is a tangled mess, writer Matt Fritton quite rightly decides to go with the "You again" and "I might have known" approach whilst referring to the evil genius's recent run in with Seventh in a boxed set I haven't heard.  In constructing the semi-conclusion to the story, the writers (because this is a joint effort) have decided to go small, effectively ending this series with a zombie battle albeit with big expositional ideas introduced through the Master.  It's now becoming clear that what Dark Eyes is actually a sixteen episode story arc in the manner of the novels and I can't wait to hear where it goes next. Eight episodes to go.

First look at New Horizons' Pluto and Charon images: "baffling in a very interesting and wonderful way" by The Planetary Society

Today's press briefing at the Applied Physics Laboratory in California was preceded by hours of New Horizons team members cryptically dropping hints on Twitter at astonishing details in the seven images downlinked since the flyby. The images are, in fact, astonishing, as well as beautiful, surprising, and puzzling.

July 15, 2015

My Favourite Film of 1990. by Feeling Listless

Film  Of the various seminars I attended during my MA film studies course, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary French Cinema was the weekly two hours I was least comfortable with. Not because of the content, we saw many excellent films many of which aren't generally available in the UK and which I'd really love to revisit, especially Place Vendôme, Nicole Garcia's thriller about diamond merchants starring Catherine Deneuve. But because of the approach to discourse which was to apply various critical perspectives to the work, which I found extremely difficult in open discussion having been unable to absorb, much less understand whatever it was we'd been asked to read that week.

Frequently I'd simply sit listening which as anyone who's met me will know isn't my usual pose. But this was the one spot when the gap between my own education and my fellow students, most of whom were on high qualification language or literature courses really showed. Many of them were working from knowledge already gained at undergraduate level and between the commuting the college from Liverpool and all the other courses and essays I had to write, there wasn't really time to catch-up on the necessary Freud and Lacan.  This struggle really showed in my writing and some of my lowest marks were for these essays.

On the upside I did get to write about some cherished films, of which Nikita is an example.  After seeing Leon at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds one night, I went straight the university library to find more of Luc Besson's work and the only thing they had in was the VHS Artificial Eye of this which I must have watched on one of the 14" monitors in the library.  At home, my main copy was an off-air recording from Channel 4 (I think) which I revisited on and off for a while until I eventually bought the dvd when I realised I needed a decent copy to study from (probably from since it's not in my order history at Amazon) (which never forgets).

In truth, I'm not sure that I've watched it since, one of the films I haven't been able to get back to after having studied them intensely for the purposes of academia.  Magnolia's another and you've seen what happened to Love Actually.  As you'll see if you bother to read the ensuing text which merited just 60% when it was submitted, I generally had to pick it apart, especially in its presentation of the central character.  Reading through now I don't know that I still agree with myself.  Does the film undermine Nikita's right to be considered a strong female figure because she appears tomboyish or is disguised as male at various junctures?

As the debacles surrounding films with female protagonists this year has demonstrated, we seem to be in the position that if a woman is presented as being "too feminine" she's not feminist enough for some people but if my essay's correct, she shouldn't be "too masculine" either.  My guess is that we have to approach this on a case by case basis and depending on the narrative requirements of the film and that we have to take those into consideration if the film makers are making an effort to tell a woman's story for a change in genres which are otherwise generally dominated by men.  Anyway, have fun with some of the punctuation....

To what extent does Nikita subvert or comply with representations of gender in the action movie genre?

Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990) is the story of a young drug addict who murders a cop at the end of a gun battle in a chemists, but instead of serving a prison term is co-opted into a state programme which trains her to become an assassin. Often considered to be a modern day Pygmalion story or even ‘a French action remake of My Fair Lady (1964)’ (Hughes & Williams, 2001:163), it is an example of the ‘cinéma du look’, a filmmaking movement prevalent in the late 1980s which was ‘preoccupied with striking stylistic effects’ with ‘improbable plots usually based on permutations of the urban thriller genre’ (Smith, 2001:39).

On release and since, the titular character has often been presented as an example of a strong female role model within a story of female empowerment, subverting the expectations of a male lead at the centre of an action film. As Susan Hayward describes, ‘much of the female audience of Nikita perceive the central character positively and read her story as a trajectory towards freedom’ (Hayward, 1998: 110). Problematically that disregards the roles played in the film by the three central male characters, Bob, Marco and Victor the Cleaner as well as the only other female character Amande. The following report will attempt to understand whether the film subverts expectations of gender roles within action films or confirms them.

Nikita appears central to the action, placing her within the pantheon of such feminist icons as Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley, and the main characters in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991). But Yvonne Tasker highlights that the latter, ‘far from being about empowering women, in this view the image of women-with-guns is considered to be one which renders the protagonists symbolically male’ (Tasker, 2002:135). In none of these films are such characters allowed to present an image of femininity. Compare Linda Hamilton’s appearance as Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and then Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992) and it is clear that both the actress and the filmmakers assumed that she needed to pump up in order to present a credible action character.

The foregrounding of Nikita’s masculinity begins in the opening moments of Besson’s film. As four figures drag themselves through the darkened streets it is not entirely clear that one of them is a woman. The character has a mass of hair, jacket and Doc Martins and is not until later when approached by the cop that it is even close to certain which gender she is. Similar to Annie in Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) she in a ‘“femme tomboy” guise, with the combination of butch/femme elements found in high street fashion’ (Tasker, 1998:78). The character is ‘coded as male, through her androgynous name and appearance and her monosyllabic, abusive and violent behaviour’ (Austin, 1996:130). The director shot the film in sequence, so that the actress who portrays Nikita, Anna Parillaud, ‘could let herself go completely as the punk’ (Hayward, 2000:298). This image continues throughout much of the first half of the film and the character almost blends in with what appears to be an almost all male environment (the only females to appear are Amande and a woman glimpsed during a lunch scene).

Nikita is unable to comprehend the idea of becoming feminine when she visits Amande for her first lesson. Casting Jeanne Moreau, a renowned French beauty, in the role as her mentor makes the contrast all the more vivid. As the character sits with her face in the mirror and her mentor places the wig on her head it is an uncomfortable image. She hardly registers her attention as Amande presents her advice: “Becoming man’s perfect complement … a woman.” When asked to smile, her face becomes crooked; the implication is that this isn’t an expression her face has had to use often during her presumably difficult life, but within the context of a beauty class it suggests that she has never tried to be a woman before. The scene would appear to represent the first in what would be a series of lessons leading up to her transformation, but it is significant the spectator is present for at a time when she is at her most androgynous.

Underlining her masculinity throughout the film, her strength is enforced through the use of technology. As Tasker explains within ‘action narratives, access to technologies such as cars and guns (traditional symbols of power) represent means of empowerment. These technologies are also intimately bound up with images of the masculine’ (Tasker, 2002:139). Nikita ‘is reborn into an all-male world of technology, electronic mass media and surveillance’ (Hayward, 2000:307). Unlike many action heroes, Nikita does not engage in hand-to-hand combat. Throughout the film, whenever she is required to take a violent action a gun is required. The images are particularly ‘phallic’ – they help to enforce a masculinity she is not able to exude when presenting her femininity. Hayward points to the assassination scene in Venice when Nikita is required to murder another woman using the rifle, suggesting that ‘the probe used by Nikita (the telescopic lens on the rifle with its camera-eye properties) is a displaced male probe’ (Hayward, 1998: 117). The assassin is metaphorically given that which she does not have in order to carry out her mission. Lucy Mazdon notes that this approach is unusual in French cinema, that ‘not only is there no real depiction of ‘women with guns’ […] roles for woman in France since the 1980s have been characterised by an increasing emphasis on youthful beauty and/or an overt femininity’ (Mazdon, 2000:115).

Despite her outward appearance, Nikita does not suddenly become female. She remains someone who is ‘symbolically male’ (Tasker, 2002:135) – with a ‘womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed’ (Doane, 1991: 765). Her training has presented her with the ability to become female when required. Throughout the film, Nikita oscillates between this and her original image. The former predominantly appears when she is directly working for the state, when she becomes ‘Joséphine’. An example of this occurs during her first mission, when called to the hotel to deliver the bugged tray. Before entering the service rooms, the camera focuses on her body and she is still wearing camouflage pattern tights and a grey business jacket, symbolically male clothes. After gaining entrance to the room by giving her codename, she is given the maids outfit. Nikita is literally substituting one appearance for another in order to carry out her mission.

Under these circumstance, since Nikita is given the ability to be the subject of the male gaze, it may be that she is actually fulfilling a similar role to a 'male figure in the contemporary action picture (who) controls the action at the same time as he is offered up to the audience as a sexual spectacle' (Tasker, 2002:16). Given the iconography of the film poster, which features Nikita with a short-cropped hair, little black dress and revolver alongside the tag line ‘A New Kind of Lethal Weapon’, it is not surprising that a prospective viewer could reach this conclusion. The difficulty with that approach, however, is that far from being in control of the action, throughout the film, in almost every scene, none of her decisions are motivated by her own choice. As Hayward explains ‘if we unpack the presentation of Nikita it becomes difficult to read her trajectory positively […] there seems to be a gap between representation and perception’, including as has already been described ‘the female body as a displaced figure of masculinity’ (Hayward, 1998:110-111). Viewing the film more closely reveals that, in fact, men are still in control of the narrative, in keeping with Ginette Vincendeau’s suggestion that ‘in French cinema it is generally men who hold power’ (Vincendeau, 1993:158). A more traditional reading needs to be employed.

One of the frequently demonstrated traits of the action film is that the male lead will rebel against the system. A repeated cliché, is when a cop is advised to leave a criminal investigation by their superior but carries on regardless, usually completing the mission with a commendation or as in Jim Cameron’s True Lies (1994) when ‘Schwarzenegger’s government operative actually has to disobey orders to get the job done’ (Keller, 2001:84). Nikita is unable to transgress in this fashion, and whenever she appears to be rebelling successfully it is either treated as ineffective or a joke and is always punished. When she attempts to break out of The Centre using Bob as a hostage, there is a lateral tracking shot of their feet – Bob is striding to the destination whereas Nikita’s are being dragged along. The music is ‘a light, upbeat major theme, detracting from the seriousness and urgency of the scene, which only becomes minor and darker-sounding when it is apparent her plan will not work (MacRory, 1999:59). His face has the expression of someone who is in control and it comes as no surprise when he wrestles the gun from her and shoots her in the leg.

In these different gender roles (which still predominate within the action genre) it is the strong male figure at the centre of a narrative. Laura Mulvey (paraphrased by Yvonne Tasker) suggests this as a ‘division of labour […] in which the male figure advances the narrative whilst “woman” functions as spectacle’ (Tasker, 2002: 16). Amber Mendez, Maria Conchita Alonso’s character in The Running Man (1987) who despite a sharp wit, is by the end of the film dressed in spandex and must be rescued from certain doom by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character Ben Richards. Even in films in which the female has much action potential the male protagonist will always be the one to beat the threat. Perhaps the most ludicrous of example of this would be the appearance of Michelle Yeoh, a well respected Asian action star, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) who even after choreographing her own action sequence still plays second fiddle to the secret agent in the dénouement. ‘Bond Girls’ are as important an element as the exciting gadgets, villain and exotic locations and this proved to be the case again.

When Nikita shoots the cop it could be argued that her action moves the plot along. However the events that lead up to the moment are a result of her colleagues in crime, Zap, Rico and Coyotte. In Nikita, the majority of the different facets of the expected modes of the male action hero are present. This is the only scene marking the appearance of the male body built muscular physique so prevalent in the action film genre. Alison Smith highlights that ‘when we do at last see them closely, they are shown at a low-angle, which […] creates a sense of menace’ (Smith, 2001:29). Of the three, Rico is closest to the stereotype; during the gun battle following the botched robbery, he is presented bare-chested, guns outstretched, shouting his name and trying to fulfil a leadership role. Nikita spends her time hidden under the counter, waiting for her friends to steal her drugs. Killing the policeman is the last gasp of the battle and decreases for the first time the character’s freedom.

A number of commentators argue that Nikita is child-like and examples of this analogy tend to begin here. Hayward characterises Nikita’s demeanour underneath the counter as ‘foetus-like’ and asks for more much like a youngster would to her mother (Hayward, 2000:299). She is ‘the naughty, subversive child who out hits the karate teacher, attempts to run away, shouts abuse, but then, counter to type, performs a ballet dance’ (Hayward, 2000:300). The implication here and in other sources is that part of Nikita’s oppression stems from a search for a parental structure. Smith suggests the judge during her trial is with ‘his dark clothes, his position, his stern face and discreet stubble […] a phallic father figure and a representation of authority’ (Smith, 2001:20). The character calls out to her mother twice whilst the knock out injection is administered. The man who eventually becomes the father figure and helps Nikita develop to maturity is Bob.

Bob is the character who leads the action. It is certainly not his voice on the end of the telephone when Joséphine is activated, though it is he that she reports to at the end of each mission for good or ill. He requires others to do his bidding, although it is worth mentioning that total control does not rest with him. He too has a manager to which he must answer and Smith strikes a parallel between their dynamic and that which he has with Nikita: ‘In a sense this superior acts as Bob’s conscience in the same way that Bob gradually appears to gain status as Nikita’s ‘conscience’, reproaching him for indulging in the pleasure of a presence that he cannot discipline’ (Smith, 2001:32). The difference is that he has the facility to transgress; when Nikita has adolescently bitten the ear off her Judo instructor and dances to Mozart his look through the window is one of humour and pride.

Extrapolating Bob as the father figure is problematical since their relationship though ambiguous, certainly has a romantic dimension. After Nikita fights her way out for the restaurant and returns to her room, when she attacks him their positioning on the floor has sexual overtones. The moment is ‘highly sexualised (by the film, not by the characters) and ends in a kiss; she is the initiator both of the violence and of the sexuality but his response is decidedly positive’ (Mazdon, 2000:37). She is unable to see him in those terms – when she kisses him it is for the last time. Although Nikita says that she understands his ‘sadistic games’ it is difficult to see his role as anything other than protector; from their first meeting in which he drags the table across the room to meet her on the bed, everything he does is to keep her safe. All of the negative information she hears (for example, when he advises her that she has two weeks to improve or live) is filtered through him, making it acceptable.

Nikitas’s retraining explicitly and consistently takes the form of what the French call éducation, a word closer in meaning to the English upbringing than to its own exact cognate, since it refers to a specifically parental right; (they) clear function as educators in the French sense, that is, as substitute parents (Durham, 1998:176).

That said, his intentions are not entirely sympathetic. Seeing Nikita in childish terms, she ‘is reborn into the family of the State, (and) it is clear that there is only one true parent, the father as embodied by Bob. And we see Nikita being shaped, tamed and reformulated by him’ (Heywood, 1998:160).

One trait of action orientated female role is a requirement to ‘explain away the actions of the heroine and to reassert her femininity’ (Tasker, 2002:20), in other words to present a reason why a woman would break free of their usual role as romantic interest in order to operate as the ‘hero’, ‘a common device has the heroine explicitly taking over her father’s role after his untimely death’ (Tasker, 2002:20). In common with many of Luc Besson’s characters, Nikita lacks a history, nothing about Nikita is real, and ‘she is the fictionalized commodity of the state’. (Hayward, 2000:301) The audience only sees and hears scraps of information -- the nostalgic moment when she sees her friend Titi on the photograph of her ‘funeral’, asking for her mother prior to her injection and that she can handle a gun. When Bob visits her and presents a story from her childhood over the dinner table, he ‘becomes, literally, her author’ (Smith, 2001:33) and he his presence reminds her that he has reshaped her into the person who embraces Marco.

This reshaping is within and without. It is Bob’s bidding that Nikita is presented with the ability to become female. As has been shown, Nikita is not comfortable with the process of learning. The turning point happens when Bob advises her over cake that she must change or face execution that she embraces the programme. Significantly, during that scene Bob removes her shoes and jacket as though he is removing her claim to her past self with him. When with the help of Amande, she is re-moulding her into a new form, it is done reluctantly – Nikita does not have a choice in the matter. Indeed her femininity is not a case of re-enforcing her natural state; Nikita actually embodies ‘the male construction of the femme fatale’ (Hayward, 1998:114). During the restaurant scene, as Bob ‘gifts’ the revolver he is completing the task of remaking her. It is worth noting that in the Hollywood remake, John Badham’s Point of No Return (1993), her counterpart Maggie’s transformation presented in far less gradual terms – in one shot she walks up a spiral staircase with one appearance and is revealed in her evening dress stepping downwards in the other. The transformation seems more complete and less ambiguous.

Hayward likens her to a cyborg – ‘a hybrid of machine (the weaponry of death) and organism (the female body), a creature of fiction and social reality’ (Hayward, 1998:115), ‘she is trained not only in computing, martial arts and target practice, but also in the construction of a new and ‘feminine’ identity (Austin, 1996: 130). Nikita even has new names selected for her and their connotations -- the virginal Marie or erotic Joséphine -- demonstrates a forced shift into femininity. In the final reveal, as Nikita sits at the practice table, the spectator views her new appearance through the eyes of Bob and the scene is problematic because although Amande aided the transformation, Nikita is his ‘creation’, the implication being that he is surveying his handy work as much as enjoying her new female identity.

In the final reel of the film, Nikita’s destiny is passed to Victor the cleaner. It is in these scenes that the standard gender roles of the action film reassert themselves: ‘Nikita is no longer the cool assassin, she is merely Victor’s sidekick’ with the cleaner being ‘a ludicrous parody of the macho hit man of convention’ (Austin, 1996:131). He is the man of action, completing a mission that Nikita is not able to. Although Bob apparently gives her control, she is still very much under the eye of the State, ‘she is unable to independently arrive at the appropriate result; the Organisation will always know more than she does’ (Smith, 2001:35).

Victor represents the person that the Organisation would require her to be in order to work within their guidelines, emotionless and charisma free. If Nikita is a cyborg, still capable of some humanity, Victor is ‘a programmed robot, unable to think independently, unable to react to what he is doing either in revolt of enjoyment […] entirely subordinate to the immediate needs of the organisation’ (Smith 2001:35). Their differences could not be starkly drawn than when they stand face to face in the final shoot out. Nikita is dressed as the ambassador and they are almost a mirror image of one another – except that she is crying and imploring for the killing to stop, as Victor looks on not able to comprehend.

An assumption could be that within gender opposite reading of the film using the traditional tropes of the action genre, Marco is in the position of romantic interest usually associated with a female. As Tasker relates such roles ‘provide little for the actress to do but confirm the hero’s heterosexuality’ (Tasker, 2002:15). Like those male action stars, Marco’s presence allows Nikita to present a more vulnerable state often in direct contrast to the person she has to be elsewhere. After the assassination scene in Venice, Nikita meets Bob in a café. She appears as the model of controlled womanhood, all dress and large white floppy hat as though she is parodying his expectation of who he wants her to be (she even says: ‘I know you and your sadistic games.’) In the ensuing conversation her face is nearly emotionless, accepting the mission whilst offering barbs. In the next scene, she sits on a couch with fizzy hair and shirted, smoking a cigarette and contemplating the next move. Marco appears carrying a large bouquet of flowers and she laughs – it is a spontaneous gesture, completely natural. The audience is once again able to see a sympathetic side to the character.

Marco’s presence also demonstrates Nikita’s inability to be both romantic and powerful concurrently. This limitation is underlined by Tasker as being a trait of many action heroines, giving the example of Julia Nickson’s character Co Bao in the film Rambo who is killed just after her relationship with the titular hero ‘shifts from that of comrades-in-arms to romance’ (Tasker, 2002:26), effectively it is made clear that ‘the two roles are incompatible’ (Tasker, 2002:26). There is a key moment during the trip to Venice. Nikita and Marco return to their hotel room after the gondola tour and they are in amorous mood, Nikita even calling room surface because she jokes she gets hungry after sex. That mood is broken when the phone rings and an operative says the code word ‘Josephine’ signalling the start of the unexpected mission. Marco is surprised by her changed emotion as she curtly disappears into the bathroom. As the scene progresses, Nikita follows the mission orders as Marco on the other side of the door talks about the future they may have together. The wall between them is a physical and metaphoric divide between Nikita’s romantic life and her work as an assassin. The two must remain separate. ‘If the film combines the macho thriller with ‘feminised’ romance, it is always the former which wins out’ (Austin, 1996:131).

The dénouement, in which Nikita is forced to disguise herself as a man in order to complete her mission, paradoxically confirms that she is not fulfilling the traditionally male role in the film. The difficulty is that because of the numerous personalities that are being impressed upon her, she is unable to maintain the pretence. Once she enters the embassy, the security guard can see the difference through the camera and the alarm is called. This is because she is attempting to repress her female identity in order to masquerade as the male, something Hayward sees as an impossibility: ‘She cannot make herself fetish, nor can she make herself phallus. She cannot possibly, therefore, cross-dress convincingly’ (Hayward, 2000: 304).

When Nikita disappears, it does not as some might argue, offer her the chance for freedom. In leaving, she acknowledges the incongruity between the identities which have been given to her by the Organisation and Marco which allow her to function within each of their societies and the person that she is, in other words be accepted without ‘losing the radical unconventionality, which is effectively her identity’ (Smith, 2001:39). For the film to be a story of female empowerment, Nikita would have had the ability to use her own nature to change the Organisation or at the very least to work within her own limits – she leaves since this is not possible. Hayward’s assertion is that because Nikita does not re-affirm the difference with the male because rather than being submissive she is transgressive she must disappear because ‘she threatens the very thing that secures masculinity’ (Hayward, 1998:114).

Nikita is a film of ambiguities both in relation to the gender roles of characters and the intentions of the filmmakers. As has been demonstrated, what would initially appear to be a feminist story of female empowerment that subverts the expected positions of the male and female within the action movie genre, actually confirms them. Nikita maybe a displaced figure of masculinity, however by highlighting her femininity, her role as the motivator of her story cannot be maintained.


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Doane, Mary Anne. 1991. Film and the Maqueade: Theorising the Female Spectator. In. Film theory and criticism : introductory readings. 5th ed. 1999. Edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Durham, Carolyn A. 1998. Culture and Gender in French Films and the American Remakes. University Press of New England, New Hampshire.

Hayward, Susan. 1998. Luc Besson. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Hayward, Susan. 2000. Recycling Woman and the Postmodern Aesthetic: Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990). In. French Film: Texts and Contexts. Second Edition. Edited by Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau. Routledge, London.

Hughes, Alex and James S Williams. 2001. Gender and French Cinema. Berg, Oxford.

Mazdon, Lucy. 2000. Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema. BFI, London.

MacRory, Pauline. 1999. Excusing the violence of Hollywood women: music in Nikita and Point of No Return. In. Screen 40:1. Spring.

Tasker, Yvonne. 2002. Spectacular bodies: gender, genre, and the action cinema. Routledge, London.

Tasker, Yvonne. 1998. Working girls : gender and sexuality in popular cinema. Routledge, London.

Vincendeau, Ginette. 1993. Fathers and daughters in French cinema:from the 20s to ‘La Belle Noiseuse’. In. Woman and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader. Edited by Pam Cook & Philip Dodd. Scarlett Press, London.


My Fair Lady. 1964. Production: Warner Bros. 170 mins. Directed by George Cukor.

Nikita. 1990. Production: Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, Gaumont, Les Films du Loup. 115 mins. Directed by Luc Besson.

Speed. 1994. Production: 20th Century Fox. 116 mins. Directed by Jan De Bont.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day. 1992. Production: Carolco Pictures Inc., Le Studio Canal+, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western. 137 mins. Directed by Jim Cameron

The Running Man. 1987. Production: Braveworld Productions, Home Box Office (HBO), J&M Entertainment, Keith Barish Productions, TAFT Entertainment Pictures. 101 mins. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser.

The Terminator. 1984. Production: Hemdale Film Corporation, Cinema 84, Euro Film Fund, Pacific Western. 108 mins. Directed by Jim Cameron

Thelma and Louise. 1991. Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Pathé Entertainment. 129 mins. Directed by Ridley Scott.

Tomorrow Never Dies. 1997. Production: Danjaq Productions, Eon Productions Ltd., United Artists. 119 mins. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode.

True Lies. 1994. Production: 20th Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment. 144 mins. Directed by Jim Cameron.

Debating the Gig Economy: Going Past Industrial Thinking by Albert Wenger

Yesterday Hilary Clinton mentioned the “gig economy” in a speech. She said

Meanwhile, many Americans are making extra money renting out a small room, designing websites, selling products they design themselves at home, or even driving their own car. This on-demand, or so-called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation.

But it is also raising hard questions about work-place protections and what a good job will look like in the future.

This is of course a topic I have been speaking and writing about a lot. Like Fred, I think that this is a discussion we need to have. I think the framing though of the question has to be quite different. We need to move past traditional concepts of work and jobs towards an era of economic freedom enabled by a universal basic income and something akin to what I have called the right to be represented by a bot.

As long as we frame the debate in terms of “work-place protections” and a “good job” we are still caught in the industrial system. The hallmark of the industrial system is what I call the job loop: most people sell their time and receive a wage in return — they then use that wage to buy products and services, which in turn are made by people selling their time. This job loop has been extraordinarily successful. In combination with relatively free markets it has given us incredible progress. But it is now breaking down due to automation and globalization.

The rise of the gig economy is a part of this break down of the job loop. Instead of trying to fix it and to imprint traditional work and labor thinking on these new platforms I propose an entirely different approach: truly and deeply empower individuals to participate on their own terms. Just imagine for a moment a world in which everyone can take care of basic needs such as housing, clothing, food, healthcare and education.

In such a world any and all participation in “gigs” will be entirely voluntary. People will have real walk away options from gigs that don’t pay enough. That also includes “jobs” at McDonalds, or Walmart or the local nail salon. In such a world there is no need to distinguish between a W2 employee and a 1099 contractor.

Such a world is now possible thanks to the productivity gains we have made over many years and the ones that are just now emerging. If you want some good numbers on the economic feasibility of a Universal Basic Income I propose reading this piece by Scott Santens. You can also listen to and read about a discussion from a few weeks back at Civic Hall which includes additional thoughts on funding. 

Empowering individuals economically through a Universal Basic Income is just the start though. We also need to give individuals informational freedom. This means that if I am a driver for Uber I should have the right to access Uber through a third party app that strictly represents me. In the open web era that was the browser (not by accident referred to as a “user agent” in the http protocol). We need the equivalent for apps.

The combination of economic and informational freedom for individuals will be a far better check on the power of platforms such as Uber, Etsy, Airbnb, etc. then any attempt to have government regulate directly what these companies can and cannot do.

So this is a perfectly good time to suggest you watch my TEDxNewYork talk on basic income and the right to be represented by a bot.

If you prefer to read, there is a transcript instead. I am also happy to report that my book (which will really be a long essay) on this topic is making good progress.

Digging into the Core: Dark Matter and Dwarf Galaxies by Astrobites

Title: Early flattening of dark matter cusps in dwarf spheroidal galaxies
Authors: Carlo Nipoti and James Binney
First Author’s Institution: Dept. of Phys. and Ast., Bologna University, Bologna, Italy
Notes: Published in MNRAS

The smallest galaxies in our Universe are referred to as dwarf galaxies. They are dwarfed by galaxies like our Milky Way by their total mass, which can be as much as 10,000 times smaller than our galaxy. Even though they are the most abundant galaxies in the Universe, their low masses mean less stars and gas, making them faint and challenging to observe. One common type of dwarf galaxy known as dwarf spheriodals (or dSph) are devoid of gas, and are observed as faint clumps of stars, like the dwarf galaxy in Figure 1. Observations of these dwarf galaxies suggest they they are dominated by dark matter throughout the entire galaxy, even more so than more massive galaxies like our Milky Way.


Figure 1: The dwarf spheroidal galaxy, Fornax. This dSph is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy, and is the large grouping of stars at the center of the image. Click here for a full resolution image. Credits: ESO/Digital Sky Survey 2


Large, cosmological simulations of galaxy formation and evolution using the LCDM model for dark matter predict that the density of dark matter in galaxies has a “cusp“, or peak, towards the center of the galaxy. However, observations of these dSph galaxies have shown that they contain flat, central density profiles, called “cores”, rather than cusps. Figure 2, which will be discussed more below, shows an example of the cusp (green) and core (black). We don’t know how these cores form, and whether or not their existence represents a big problem in our understanding of dark matter. One possibility, however, is that cuspy dark matter profiles can transform into cored profiles through gas and star formation physics that is usually not included in large, cosmological simulations. The author’s of today’s Astrobite use analytical and numerical models to study how the movement of baryons, gas and stars, effects the distribution of dark matter in these galaxies, and how it may transform cuspy dark matter profiles to cored profiles.

The Big Picture: Making a dSph

Astronomers currently don’t have a complete understanding of how dSph’s formed and evolved. However, we do know that during their evolution something, be it internal or external, must have removed their gas, leaving them the dark matter dominated clumps of stars we see today. The authors outline a formation and evolution scenario for dSph’s that forms the basis of their model. In the early universe, a low mass, cuspy dark matter halo forms. Over time, gas accretes onto the halo, eventually forming a gas disc. As the disc grows in mass, and the gas becomes denser, it eventually begins to fragment, breaking up into large, dense clumps of gas. In their picture, these clumps, if they manage to exist for long enough before they collapse further and form stars, feed energy into the dark matter particles. As the orbits of the clumps slowly decay, their energy is transferred to the dark matter particles contained in the cusp of the dark matter profile. With more energy these particles move outward from the center, flattening the cuspy profile into a flat core. Eventually, the gas clumps will start to form stars. As the younger, hot stars die, their supernova explosions drive out the rest of the gas in the galaxy, leaving a dSph galaxy behind.

Bringing the Picture to Life: Testing the Model

The authors’ goal is to test whether or not this picture can produce a realistic dwarf spheroidal galaxy with a cored dark matter profile. The crux of doing this is to be able to show that the massive gas clumps can form, and that they are massive enough and exist for long enough to influence the dark matter particles contained in the center of the galaxy.

They construct two marginally stable gas disc models, T2 and T3, that contain 11.7 and 76.1 million solar masses of gas, embedded in a billion solar mass dark matter halo. Using analytic equations that determine the stability of these discs, the authors find that fragmentation occurs in these two models at masses of 1.5 x 105 and 6.0 x 106 solar masses respectively. This means that the gas in these discs will fragment to form clumps of the given masses.


Figure 2: The dark matter density profiles of the two dwarf galaxy models, T2 and T3, at the start of the N-body simulations (green) and after 200 million years (black). The purple lines show how the dark matter profiles evolve after 200 million years without the gas clumps. The initial distribution is cuspy, trending towards at peak at the center, while the final distribution is cored, or flat. (Source: Figure 3 of Nipoti & Binney 2015)


The authors then construct N-body simulations of these two model dwarf galaxies, building a the billion solar mass dark matter halo with 2 million particles of 480 solar masses each. For the T2 galaxy, they add 76 1.5 x 105 solar mass clumps, and for the T3 galaxy they add 12 6.0 x 106 solar mass gas clumps. Each of these gas clumps are represented by a particle in these simulations. They then evolve the galaxies, studying how the initially cuspy dark matter density profile evolves as the gas clumps orbit around the center of the galaxy. Figure 2 shows the evolution of the dark matter density profile for the T2 and T3 galaxies on the left and right respectively. The green line in each shows the initial dark matter profile. The black line shows the profile after 200 million years of evolution with the gas clumps, while the purple shows the evolution without the gas clumps. In each case, an obvious flat core is formed, though is much bigger in the T3 model.

The Core of the Argument

The authors show that gas clumps formed in dwarf galaxies with unstable gas discs are enough to transform a cuspy dark matter profile into a cored profile long before stars ever form. The authors predict that this mechanism should operate in all dwarf galaxies. Therefore, they argue that any dwarf galaxy today with stars has most likely undergone this transformation, and any dwarf galaxy with stars will likely not have a cuspy dark matter profile. However, the authors acknowledge that their model requires the gas clumps to survive for a few hundred million years. The lifetime of clumps like these is poorly understood. Current research shows that they can last for a few hundred millions of years, but that they may also be destroyed after only a few tens of millions of years. Further research on the lifetime of these clumps will help determine the feasibility of this model. However, this model represents a possible solution to the disagreement between dark matter cosmological simulations and observations of dark matter in our Universe.

New Horizons "phones home" after Pluto flyby by The Planetary Society

After a wait of more than 22 hours with no communication, New Horizons "phoned home" precisely on schedule after its flyby of Pluto. The signal was received at 00:52:37 UT | 20:52:37 ET | 17:52:37 PT. As planned, New Horizons returned no images with the Phone Home downlink. But every bit of telemetry indicated that the flyby executed successfully.

The not-planets by The Planetary Society

Now that I have a reasonable-resolution global color view of Pluto, I can drop it into one of my trademark scale image montages, to show you how it fits in with the rest of the similar-sized worlds in the solar system: the major moons and the biggest asteroids.

New Horizons' best look at Pluto before close approach by The Planetary Society

Feast your eyes upon it!

July 14, 2015

Dark Eyes. by Feeling Listless

Audio Here we go again. There isn't a potential gap between To The Death and The Great War, with a year or so between in production terms, we can still well imagine the Doctor's impulsive trip to the future in which he's essentially abusing the TARDIS (which is never a good sign as we heard in Zagreus) happening directly after him taking leave of Susan and hearing again Lucie's final message. This is the sort of thing which simply wouldn't work on television, partly because you couldn't kill off a companion in quite that way but also because it's all about the next adventure. Even the immensely tragic Doomsday gives way to shouty Donna in the TARDIS or "I don't want to go" shifting to "Geronimo". The conclusion of Journey's End is effective (thanks to the intervention of Ben Cook) for embracing the tragedy, but narratively The Next Doctor changes the tone again. Not so here.

It's an interesting choice and one born of the production order, I think. As we've discussed the Charley stories ended after the start of the Lucie stories, but who's to say how they might have impacted one another if the producers, notably Nicholas Briggs had been gifted a period of reflection as here. Briggs is making a conscious decision to continue the narrative in the mode of nuWho. He could have started again with a happy Doctor and japes, but he decided that the loss of Lucie was so impactful it needed to be addressed.  Not having listened much to other corners of Big Finish due to money and the like, I don't know how this is treated elsewhere but I expect after Charley wiped the Sixth Doctor's mind there wasn't really a story that followed directly on, they just went and had a look at another piece of his era, perhaps teaming him with Peri again.

Some project notes.  Romana's not Lord President of Gallifrey any more, then.  I'd forgotten she'd left having not heard any of the original Gallifrey spin-off since they were released though apparently she's returned to office after the release of Dark Eyes.  That also makes sense of the Time Lords intervention during the Lucie series when it would have been entirely ludicrous for the Doctor not to pay Romana a visit to have a discussion if she'd actually been there.  Like the novels before them, Big Finish has now been writing its version of the narrative for long enough that it's become pretty dense.  Assuming they don't simply visit the TARDIS Datacore, perhaps there's a Leland "Holocron" Chee figure at Big Finish who keeps an eye on their internal continuity because with so many product lines and writers working it has be a challenge to keep everything straight (even if Doctor Who's never a been a show which cares that much about continuity) (Atlantis).

Plus the Eighth Doctor has a new costume!  Which fine.  'Spose.  I think that part of the Eighth Doctor's appeal was that he skewed towards the classic look and there was a distinctiveness to it, whereas this feels like a pre-cursor to the Ninth Doctor, though as we'll see from Night and the Doctor he'll retreat to something closer to his original so that's all fine.  It's ironic that having had WETA create this piece so that he could essentially have a bunch of new illustrative photographs taken for future Big Finish releases, a couple of years later he'd repeat the exercise in another new costume.  For the special release in which classic Doctors meet new monsters (and the Sontarans), it's Eighth's Time War gear which appears on the artwork.  Assuming Big Finish do decide to start extensive populating that future era with stories, perhaps this will be the shorthand they'll use to delineate the three (or so) eras.

Of less interest is that I agonised a bit over how I was going to post about Dark Eyes.  Having decided to dedicate a paragraph to each single story since the comics, here we have what's essentially a four hour adventure across four cds.  But it seemed wrong somehow to do all of Dark Eyes in a single post or four separates which is why I decided to ignore the rule and write about each cd separately.  Now that I've written that explanation, I can't believe that I've not only written it but that you've read it and yet here you still are.  Since you are I'll also admit that after the first episode I listened to the other three concurrently before writing about them much as I did with the final Lucie season, while attempting to maintain the pretence of not knowing what happens next.  Having done that, I can see how challenging it was for Jac and gang in Time Team to do with overfamiliar episodes in DWM all those years.  Now I've told you anyway.  Perhaps I won't bother from now onwards.

The Great War

Every now and then Doctor Who makes a conscious decision not to look or as the case here sound like Doctor Who. Even with some of the fantasy elements, parts of The Great War are indistinguishable from a Radio 4, probably Home Front.  But writer/director Nick Briggs also makes some deliberate choices in how he kisses the past, with Molly's voice over diary paralleling Charley's introduction and the notion of her being a figure to be saved by the Doctor at the bidding of the Time Lords, similar to Lucie.  From what I'd read and heard and indeed seen from his new look, I'd thought it would be a transitioned Eighth Doctor similar to Twelfth in how he approaches humanity, ruder, more reckless in his approach, angrier, but he's not that much different, less jokier perhaps, yet still fundamentally the same character.  The cliffhanger ending still came as a complete surprise.  Even with the boxed set sitting on my shelf, I haven't bothered to look at the cover.


There's a purposeful structural oddness to Dark Eyes in that it's a single story collecting together a series of incidents working towards a whole. You could envisage in a much longer season, the content of Fugitives opening out and spanning a few episodes with characters like computer expert Sally Armstrong figuring much larger in her own installment. I quite like these "caravan" stories, like The Chase or Seasons of Fear with a string of locales; in a way they seem to illustrate the thrill of the TARDIS and time travel than those episode which are specifically about paradoxes and loops.  Briggs is especially good here at tempting the audience with just enough information about the larger story, enough that they might be able to guess at who Kotris is, what Straxus is up to and what exactly is up with Molly.  The interaction between McGann and Bradley is delightful.  Although you don't want them to be shouty, shouty mouths on legs, the show always benefits when there's a certain screwball comedy like tension between the lead characters.

Tangled Web

Here's a honking great spoiler so look away from this discussion now.  The Doctor's dream sequence is an odd construction because it tallies almost exactly with a story set in his reality.  Published six months after Dark Eyes, Malorie Blackman's Puffin eShort from the anniversary year, The Ripple Effect, is about the Seventh Doctor landing on Skaro and finding that the Daleks have evolved into a peace loving civilisation which covers most of the same story beats.  It's one of those occasions when a "later" story featuring an earlier incarnation means a later incarnation looks forgetful.  Luckily, Eighth's had enough moments of amnesia, including the big one post The Ancestor Cell, that he's simply forgotten the earlier adventure.  On the upside it does provide a hilariously bathetic moment when Eighth dismisses the idea of the Time War out of hand.  Ho ho ho,

X and the Daleks

Narratively Dark Eyes also similar to the Clara chunk of the Eleventh Doctor's final season in that Eighth is the viewpoint character through all of this and Molly is a question that needs to be answered.  In both cases, the Doctor is rather dragged along by events, choosing certain paths in the hopes of revealing an important pieces of information (the visit to Molly's past analogous to Hide), but there's an inevitability to both of their stories and it's more acute in Dark Eyes, especially in this final episode because the story isn't resolved through something he does, it's because of the failure of others.  If the Doctor hadn't been here, providing a sort of interspatial red herring, would the story have resolved itself much differently?  As established in earlier episodes the Doctor is something of a mark anyway and only really turns the tables by underscoring the importance of Molly's continued existence.  Next...

Making a molehill out of a circumscribed triangle using numerical minimization algorithms by Goatchurch

Just how bad are these minimization algorithms

I’ve been caught short trusting these classical numerical recipes, packaged up in scipy.optimize.minimize and failing to get an adequate result in the case of the triangular machine tool calibration and its nine unknowns.

So here’s a simple example for finding the circumcircle radius of a triangle whose sides have lengths a, b, c.

The official equation for computing the circumcircle radius is:

def circumcircleradius(a, b, c):
    s = (a+b+c)/2
    areasq = s*(s-a)*(s-b)*(s-c)
    return a*b*c/(4*sqrt(areasq))

To do this using the numerical minimization methods, we consider the triangle having the corner points (0,0), (a,0), (px,py) where (px,py) is the vector we need to solve for to make the other two sides equal in length to values b and c.

def fun1(X):
    px, py = X
    berr = sqrt(px**2 + py**2) - b
    cerr = sqrt((a-px)**2 + py**2) - c
    return berr**2 + cerr**2

Xstartvalue = (a/2, b)
res1 = scipy.optimize.minimize(fun=fun1, x0=Xstartvalue, method='Powell')
px, py = res1.x

That gives us the positions of the three corners of the triangle. Now we need the centre of the circumcircle (cx,cy):

def fun2(X):
    cx, cy = X
    odist = sqrt(cx**2 + cy**2)
    adist = sqrt((cx-a)**2 + cy**2)
    pdist = sqrt((cx-px)**2 + (cy-py)**2)
    # variance formula that gives zero when the three numbers are the same
    var = 3*(odist**2 + adist**2 + pdist**2) - (odist + adist + pdist)**2
    return var

XCstartvalue = (a/2, -b)
res2 = scipy.optimize.minimize(fun=fun2, x0=XCstartvalue, method='Powell')
cx, cy = res2.x

Finally calculate the radius from the distance between the centre and the corner point at (0,0):

rad = sqrt(cx**2 + cy**2)

Now we can test this with a simple right angled triangle where the radius will be half the length of the hypotenuse:

a, b, c = 5, 4, 3
print(numericalcircumcircleradius(a, b, c), circumcircleradius(a, b, c))
>>> 2.5000001856192484 2.5

You can try different numbers, like:

a, b, c = 8, 6, 5
>>> 4.005002372412261 4.005009394574071

Until there’s a failure:

a, b, c = 5, 6, 8
>>> 291816.3453198005 4.005009394574071

Printing the full numerical results:

  message: 'Optimization terminated successfully.' 
        x: array([-0.30005037, 5.99246565]) 
      nit: 41 
      fun: 8.5873826055365998e-10 

  message: 'Optimization terminated successfully.' 
        x: array([-232333.60246079, -176572.58157313])
      nit: 121 
      fun: 27.671630859375

The problem is the XCstartvalue starting point is on the wrong side of some boundary where the minimization function thinks it’s a better idea to send it zooming off towards negative infinity from which all three points appear so close together that the distance to each is nearly the same.

Begin with XCstartvalue = (a/2, b) and it’s fine.

If you try to contain the value within a bounding box and use one of the methods which allows one to be set, you can have it completely ignore the limit, or you can sometimes get:

rb = a+b+c
bnds = [(-rb,rb), (-rb,rb)]
res2 = scipy.optimize.minimize(fun=fun2, x0=(a/2, -b), bounds=bnds, method='Nelder-Mead')
>>> message: 'Maximum number of function evaluations has been exceeded.'

Another common attempt to bodge an answer that stays within the limits is to add an upside down table function that tapers upwards outside the region where you know the answer must be:

rb = a+b+c
def fun2(X):
    cx, cy = X
    odist = sqrt(cx**2 + cy**2)
    if odist > rb:
        var += (odist-rb)**2
    return var


a, b, c = 5, 6, 8
>>> 19.10269590246688 4.005009394574071

which means it’s found a false minima right up near the edge of the table in the taper zone, since rb = 19.

Using a less smooth function:

def fun2(X):
    if odist > rb:
        var += abs(odist-rb)
    return var


a, b, c = 5, 6, 8
>>> 18.99999999998829 4.005009394574071

So that doesn’t work at all. Basically, if within your region there are cells where the solution is going to iterate out towards infinity, then trying to add this table function or force any kind of boundary will merely push such points up against the boundary wrinkle and solve nothing.

What a mess I’ve made from such a trivial example.

These numerical methods solutions are far from the panacea I thought they were going to be.

The day my beautiful wings carried me for five and a half hours by Goatchurch

I didn’t get very far up the Drau valley from Greifenburg, but the flight was sooo satisfying.

Anna Schutz is a bitch, if her Haus is anything to go by.

That’s the strange name for the sharp ridge on the north of Lienz marking the turning point where you can go around Kreuzeck range. It was my self-set task for the day because it’s described in a bit of detail in the Burkhard Martens Cross-Country Flying book.

Picture 8.5.17 Flanks over the Anna-Schutz house. A racetrack up high and a dangerous lee down below.

After a very difficult start of flight trying to get up from deep in the ravine between Emberger Alm and Gaugen, and then scoring 3000m altitude to get that hunger out of my system, I headed over to the red cliffs of Scharnik.

Here I had the usual nightmare with the rigid wing Atos gliders, who are always above you like mosquitoes because they glide more efficiently. However, they don’t thermal so well in turbulent air when a normal hang-glider can make progress by really throwing it around in the air currents, and inevitably you come face to face with them on the level. They think they own the thermal because they started out above you. And they fly differently so you can’t circle with them. And if your glider is easily recognizable like mine, they can give you a bollocking in the landing field as you’re derigging. They all look the same to me, these Atos gliders, so I have no idea when that was. It could have been two days before.

I do always keep out of their way, to the extent of making bad decisions and losing thermals. So I followed the back ridge from Scharnik to Damerkopf, lost all my height, went back to the rocks at Scharnik and did it all again this time without the distraction of the other glider threatening to bite me. I then crossed directly to Damerkopf, hopped over onto Anna-Schutz’s spine-back house perfectly lined up to take advantage of the thermal highway as advertized.

Far below on the southern flanks I could see gliders returning low from a competition task and having a hard time staying up. I’m glad I’m not down there, I thought to myself.

Five minutes later I was down there where it was as rough as a pair of long-johns flapping in a sea breeze. You couldn’t see anywhere to land except for a few green cornfields far in the distant valley that probably had three rows of power lines through them, so it was best not to bail out. Sometimes your shadow was so close you could almost touch it. Then you’d have a heart attack when you saw another shadow coming directly at it and you’d have to rapidly dart your head about like a chicken’s to see where the other glider was camouflaged against the boulders and scree.

It still amazes me how we are able to judge distances and trajectories so well in circumstances as alien as truck driving or glider flying where nothing ever touches and the whole experience is therefore unreal. I have this constant expectation that I’ll wake up face-planted on some inaccessible rocky cliff one day due to a brief time-delay or visual stutter in my visual cortex system.

I got back over to Damerkopf at the level of the powerlines, slowly circled above all the Austrian houses, farms and clusters of manicured cattle until I was at the summit, and then headed home towards Greifenburg.

Hang-gliding is all about the immediate skill of being able to soar and climb on the invisible air currents, while at the same time getting those long-range decisions right.

I had decided to chicken out of doing the Kreuzeck circuit task. Something was not right with the day. If this step was not consistent with what it said in the book, then all the other advice I’d memorized could similarly tend towards a disaster. In particular I didn’t have confidence in the following sentence:

You can also fly low into Molltal, the south flank at point “M” in picture 8.5.20 is a very reliable thermal source and continuing along the 12km long south east ridge of the Goldberg range is easy once you’re up over it.

So I was back onto home territory where I cruised straight up to a cloud at 3100m which proceeded to grab me. It was like being tipped up onto a set of rails, rolling downslope at speed while at the same time being on the upside of a see-sawed. I was on a serpent’s tongue tipping skyward as I slid into its throat.


Luckily (or because I’d made sure I was pointing in the direction) I punched through its gaseous cheek with a twang on all the wires as the net gravitational force went momentarily negative.

We were heading towards hour number four and the longest flight I’ve ever taken. I could just about wriggle my body inside the harness, which was as tight as a lobster’s shell. To the east in the valley I found 4 m/s downrushing air, but back over the Greifenburg the wind was okay.

I’d been longing to take a piss for some time, and now was a good chance to practice in stable air where I could fly safely one-handed for the necessary amount of time. The real fear when you’re digging around is that you might accidentally unbuckle the legloops, which would make the landing a lot worse than being caught with your pants down.

Anyway, the spray which went on for a long time was like a fuel leak from the underbelly of a cargo plane. It could only have been made more enjoyable had I been able to aim it at a passing paraglider.

Only kidding.

I’m sure they do it to us with those XC piss tubes they use down their trouser legs that are plumbed into a sticky condom as they sit on their backs in their canoe-shaped harnesses. The advice in the book is to go little and often, because the glue can’t necessarily take the pressure of a full-on stream that would likely blow it off and leave their backside floating in a cooling pool of water until they landed. So there are plenty of opportunities for them to play their aiming game, and I am pretty sure this is what I’ll thing the next time I get struck by some unexplained rain drops in a blue sky.

The datalogger — amazingly — still seemed to be operating, so I tried to fly for half a minute at different speeds in order to estimate the polar curve of the descent rate. However, it was very difficult to give a damn about anything at this point in the day. I was down to 1400m and the numbers weren’t coming out right on the vario. You’re supposed to descend faster the faster you fly.

I let the bar out and started to go up at 1 m/s. Straight to 2400m.

Way over on Gaugan a lime green glider that had been rigged beside me by an older gentleman was doing lazy circles. My god, someone else who has flown for too long, I thought. In fact, he had gone down, and this was his second flight. When I spoke to him, his experience was an exact carbon copy of mine from last year when on my second attempt after a disappointing bomb-out I had seen someone who must have been flying for an insane amount of time.

The sky filled out with an amazing array of lenticular clouds. This must be wave lift keeping us up in the unusual southwest wind. Landing was therefore from the trickiest direction across the campsite.


I got it in perfectly, and I felt great.

Not so great was the following three hour drive back to Expo Base Camp now that I’d already packed my tent.

Today it’s back to work till the grey weather blows through.

The Extreme Precision Radial Velocities Workshop by Astrobites

July 5-8 a few other Astrobiters and I attended the Extreme Precision Radial Velocities (EPRV) workshop held at Yale University. This astrobite summarizes the main takeaway points from the workshop.

Yale School of Management

Fig 1: The workshop was held at The School of Management at Yale University.

The radial velocity technique to detect exoplanets involves detecting the stellar wobble motion caused by orbiting exoplanets. To do this, we use spectrographs to take repeated spectra of the star to sample the stellar motion (or wobble) of the star. Is the star moving away from us (redshift), or towards us (blueshift)? To set things in perspective, the Earth exerts about a 10cm/s wobble on the Sun. The pace of a strolling tortoise. Our most precise spectrographs are able to detect signals down to the 1m/s level. Normal human walking speed.

We are, as of now, not precise enough to detect Earth analogs.

How do we achieve 10cm/s precision? Can we do that in the next decade? These are big questions—the key questions of the workshop. A group of 150 leading research scientists and tech company representatives came together to discuss the answers to these questions. There were numerous talks, parallel breakout sessions and posters. Below follows a summary of the sessions I attended.

The path towards 10cm/s

In the opening talks, Andreas Quirrenbach, Andrew Szentgyorgyi, and Suvrath Mahadevan noted that the challenges to 10cm/s radial velocity precision is a fight against a long list of error-terms—some of which are understood better than others—all of which add together to degrade the overall precision of a radial velocity measurement. “We need the right tools to hammer them [the error terms] down,” said Debra Fischer. We have advanced since the last EPRV meeting in 2010, but it is clear that more work lies ahead.

The challenges towards achieving 10cm/s can be divided into three main areas: instrumentation, statistics, and understanding of photospheric signals. From there, each area can be subdivided into finer, more concrete challenges.

Conference Room

Fig 2: The workshop brought together 150 leading research scientists and tech company representatives.


Hardware is hard. Many details need to be taken into account in the design of spectrographs. Additionally, spectrographs need to be calibrated in order to get accurate wavelength information from stellar spectra.

High precision spectrographs are usually echelle spectrographs. They tend to be higher in resolution, and offer better signal-to-noise ratios over other spectrograph designs. Echelle spectrographs come in two main flavors by how they are calibrated: HARPS-like and HIRES-like. The former is named after ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph which uses a simultaneous calibration feed to track instrumental drifts. The latter is called after the HIgh Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) at the Keck telescope, which uses an iodine cell for calibration. Francesco Pepe noted in his breakout session that HIRES-like spectrographs are in principle more precise, but in practice they require an order of magnitude more photons to achieve the same signal-to-noise ratio. Next generation spectrographs are generally designed to be HARPS-like.

We have seen tremendous technological advances in calibration methods. From least expensive to most expensive, the most popular calibration methods for HARPS-like instruments are: emission line lamps (e.g. Th/Ar), stabilized Fabry-Pérot etalons, and Laser Frequency Combs (LFCs). Emission lamps are cheap and have a long heritage in many observatories, but their spectra are not evenly illuminated. In his talk, Ansgar Reiners talked about Fabry-Pérot etalons, which offer a broad, evenly illuminated spectrum for a moderate price, but need to be externally stabilized. Scott Diddams, David Phillips, and Tilo Steinmetz all presented intriguing work on Laser Frequency Combs, which have progressed rapidly in recent years, and are now becoming commercialized. LFCs are still the most expensive choice, but are very attractive for the precision and stability that they offer.

EPRV Critical Path Challenges

Fig 3: The challenges towards 10cm/s can be divided into three main areas: instrumentation, statistics, and understanding of photospheric signals.

“Detectors are worthy adversaries,” said Suvrath Mahadevan. We have seen improvements in both CCD optical detectors and infrared detectors. Paul Jorden gave a broad overview of the fabrication steps and the strengths of the former. In his talk Jacob Bean talked briefly about near-infrared detectors which lag behind optical CCDs in overall performance. The poor performance of infrared detectors is one of the main drawbacks with working in the infrared.

Spectrographs need to be kept thermally and mechanically stable to eliminate errors caused by environmental variations. It has thus become standard practice to decouple the spectrograph from the telescope by using optical fibers. Paul Fournier (FiberTech Optica) talked about the importance of the right choice of fibers for your instrument: “Non-circular fibers are very good at redistributing the flux from the telescope, helping with scrambling gain. Sometimes a combination of circular and non-circular fibers might work best for your application. Every fiber is essentially a new project.”


As we push towards detecting smaller planets, it takes more sophisticated analysis. In his talk, David Hogg talked about how one can simultaneously model signals in the presence of structured noise. Eric Ford gave a discussion of the frequentist and the bayesian approach to modeling radial velocity data-sets, favoring the latter: “The Bayesian approach is great as you have to write down your assumptions, and your priors.” Tom Loredo commented on the repercussions for bad statistics for the field—”it undermines public trust in science,”—and he urged the exoplanet community to make exoplanet science the model for excellent statistical practices. “We need an astro-statistician working in every team,” said Eric Ford. A single person doesn’t have to know everything. This is why you collaborate.

Understanding Photospheric Signals

Our ultimate radial velocity precision is constrained by our physical understanding of the stars we observe. Spots, faculae, and plage on the star morph and change as the star rotates. These features—commonly referred to as stellar activity—can produce signals that can be wrongly interpreted as planets.

How can we distinguish stellar activity from a real planet? There are several ways. We can use line bisectors to characterize line profile variations. We can also use indicators that probe the presence of active regions on the star, such as photometric variations created by spots and plage. “Orbiting planets induce pure Doppler shifts, the same on all spectral lines, independent of wavelength,” said Christophe Lovis. Stellar activity signals are, however, wavelength dependent. Paul Robertson further discussed this issue, and asserted that early results show that planets can be distinguished from stellar activity. There is hope, and Pedro Figuera noted that “[p]robably the best way to check if a signal is a planet is to look at it in the near-infrared.”

Xavier Dumusque presented his results and analytics on the ‘Keplerian Fitting Challenge’, a large-scale blind test, where a number of research teams were asked to use their favorite detection method to find planets in synthetic radial velocity datasets, to better understand their limitations in presence of stellar activity noise. Some detection methods found most of the injected planets, but no method found all of them correctly. The question: “Do we need a ‘gold-standard’ analysis method?” still stands. The community liked the challenge, and agreed the challenge should be repeated later after the groups had had time to revise their methods.

EPRV dinner

Fig 4: Growing community coordination and spirit over the dinner table.

A look to the future

The workshop ended by drawing together the main points from the posters, breakout sessions and the numerous presentations. In our search for Earth-like planets, there is a real need to improve the precision of the radial velocity technique, especially for the follow-up characterization of Kepler and TESS planet candidates. “No spectrograph that we currently have represents ‘The Precision Radial Velocity Dream Machine’,” said Scott Gaudi in the last talk of the workshop. Better understanding of the stellar processes behind the observed signals, robust statistics, and sustained investment in technology development are the main steps we need to take to get us closer to that goal. Let’s see where we stand during the next EPRV workshop to be held in 2017.



Pluto minus one day: Very first New Horizons Pluto encounter science results by The Planetary Society

At a press briefing this morning, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern divulged some extremely preliminary first science results from the New Horizons Pluto encounter. Science results include Pluto's diameter and information on its surface composition and atmospheric escape.

July 13, 2015

Soup Safari #51: Boston Chicken Chowder at A2Z Cafe. by Feeling Listless

Lunch. £3.50. A2Z Cafe, 39 Strand St, Liverpool, Merseyside L1 8LT. Phone: 0151 227 4925. Website.

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Indistinguishable From Cthulhu by Charlie Stross

Hugh Hancock here. Charlie is currently in a space beyond place and time, folded into manifold dimensions that ring like bone-carved bells. Or to put it another way, he's on public transport. So I'm filling in for the day - he'll be back shortly!

Our Gracious Host's supernatural comedy-thriller series is set in a Lovecraftian universe, and features a geek of the programmer variety who uses his knowledge to invoke Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, following which he gets into a great deal of trouble.

My latest film, HOWTO: Demon Summoning (released about 25 minutes ago - watch here), is the first part of a supernatural comedy-thriller series set in a Lovecraftian universe, featuring a geek of the programmer variety who use his knowledge to invoke Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, following which... well, spoilers. But it doesn't end in hugs and puppies.

And yet, the two universes and the two stories aren't - at least as far as I can tell - very similar. The tone's different, the magic's different.

Is "Geek Cthulhu" sufficiently broad to actually constitute a genre?

The Black Goat Of The Woods' 1001th Young

As the 21st century gets its legs under it and starts to pick up a bit of speed, the entire concept of genre seems to be changing dramatically. We're in a world where artistic output in all media has climbed astronomically and, at the same time, data-driven segmentation (a la Netflix) allows us to drill down much more into exactly what people read, watch, listen to and play.

So genres are becoming, apparently, much narrower. And yet, it's clear that there's more space in them than we might have realised.

The start of the century saw the canonical example of the phenomenon with the appearance of 'Paranormal Romance' as a mainstream genre. Now, compared to a genre like 'sci-fi', say, or 'thriller', 'Paranormal Romance' is almost laughably narrow. It's set in the modern day. The protagonist is female (99%). She ends up in romantic entanglements with one of about five potential types of partner - in order of frequency, vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies or the occasional zombie. There is a heavy mystery element.

That's pretty specific, and yet it's enough to fuel hundreds of books.

Hence my feeling that with 'Geek Cthulhu' we're seeing the seeds of another genre. Let's see. Tech- or science- savvy protagonist (gender irrelevant). Modern day. Thriller tone. Awareness of modern technology. Lovecraftian magic. Some comedic overtones. And that's all there is to it - after that we've got the entire world to roam.

Charlie's Laundry is inspired by the British civil service, spy novels and programming. HOWTO's universe centres around a shady Internet forum where people who would otherwise be doing black-hat SEO crowdsource ways to profit from demonology. And I'm sure there are dozens of other spins on the same thing.

So why does it work?

Well, for starters, the Lovecraftian universe fits extremely well with the universe as understood by geeks. It's a fundementally science-driven place, where all magic is indeed just sufficiently advanced technology. Cthulhu isn't scary because he's a big squid, he's scary because he's a Culture Mind without the sense of humour or concern for human life. Yog-Sothoth isn't a Judeo-Christian demon, it's a force of the universe like Weak Nuclear or gravity.

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Bloody Terrifying

And that brings me to my title. The other reason that Lovecraftian horror and geek protagonist/culture fit together so well is that Lovecraftian horror revolves around a complete, horrific reversal of some of science's most basic precepts.

For starters, 'Knowledge is good'. That's pretty core to most of our belief systems. And the Cthulhu Mythos present a world where that's horribly not true - where knowledge is something that you must avoid if you wish to continue to function. Where people who learn, study and seek to understand, kill themselves or kill people close to them. Where all those idiots saying 'we should limit scientific exploration' were right.

At the same time, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' is a very scary phrase. Because whilst it might just mean 'whoa, this iPhone is like magic', it might also mean 'you only think that technology, science and the advancement of learning is good because you haven't advanced enough in it yet'.

In Lovecraft's universe, the Grand Universal Theory isn't a mathematical equation that allows us to understand everything - it's a mathematical equation that lets us understand that, in order to survive, we need to supplicate ourselves to horrible entities whose motivations we are literally not capable of understanding.

In the Lovecraftian universe, scientific progress goes fire -> smelting -> information technology -> understanding of quantum mechanics -> sacrificing innocents on a bloody stone to appease Shub-Niggurath.

Key to the assumptions of most science fiction is the idea that at no point are we going to realise that our framework - rationality, the scientific method - just doesn't work, and we're never going to hit a problem that human beings cannot ever hope to understand, even for a moment, let alone solve. That our brains are capable of anything.

And that's why Lovecraftiana works so well for geek culture in 2015; because we're starting to see those things cropping up in the real world, and they scare the crap out of us. Just as the Atomic Horror of the 60s and 70s reflected society's fears about mass destruction, and Charlie has persuasively suggested that Lovecraft's work was a reaction to the discovery of the size of the universe, Lovecraftian fiction right now echoes the lack of control we're starting to understand we have over complex, non-linear systems.

Any programmer who has suddenly realised that he can't fit all of the code he's working on into his head understands Lovecraft's concept of knowledge that the human mind can't process. And anyone who knows, say, that we literally can't untangle all the ways that Greece's debt intertwines with the rest of the financial market, or that sufficiently deep datasets in places like Google and Facebook will produce results that we are utterly incapable of truly understanding, gets the terror of realising that there's something big and alien out there that we just aren't smart enough to understand.

In the real world, we'll probably find a way to get a handle on that stuff; we'll develop better tools for understanding complex systems, and we'll untangle things that look irrevocably wrapped right now. But there's always that fear: what if we can't? What if our brains just won't do this? What if the system we're looking at is fundementally not subject to rationality?

That's a fear that programmers, scientists and geeks of all kinds can understand. And where there's a common fear, there will be a genre to tell stories about it, and to help us understand it.

Charlie's pioneered that genre, and I think we'll be seeing a lot more storytellers like me following along in his wake soon.

If you'd like to watch HOWTO: Demon Summoning, in which a disgruntled startup founder, Dave, has been screwed by his new CEO and has decided to get even via the power of demonology - and a handy YouTube tutorial on summoning dark entities to do his bidding - you can watch it on YouTube right now. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

And if you'd like to read more of my squamous, blasphemous ranting on things Man Was Not Meant To Know, you can find me on Twitter at @hughhancock. Cheers!

Equating Uber With Transport Innovation Considered Harmful by Albert Wenger

There were two tweets about Uber recently that I found myself disagreeing with somewhat. Paul Graham tweeted

Uber is so obviously a good thing that you can measure how corrupt cities are by how hard they try to suppress it.

And on the same day Chris Sacca (who is an investor in Uber) tweeted

Before Uber came along, I never understood how deeply corrupt so many American cities and politicians are.

What do I not like about them? Equating Uber with the much larger idea of using technology to efficiently connect people who are driving with people who need a ride. 

Yes, Uber is by far the most visible company competing with traditional taxis but it is not the only one. And yes subtlety is not the strength of 140 character expressions (and clearly making the tweets Uber specific made them easier to understand and share).

But it also makes it seem as if there are no legitimate concerns at all about Uber and its specific approach. For instance, as I have written before, Uber presents itself to endusers as a straight up transportation company. That makes the claim that it should be regulated as a technology platform more difficult.

Another legitimate concern is whether Uber is trying to monopolize markets. That concern has some basis in the company’s fundraising, marketing and regulatory tactics. Yes existing taxi medallion systems in many cities are artificially restricted, so having competition from Uber is helpful now but not if it results in a new monopoly.

I have no doubt that many city governments are corrupt to varying degrees and that the taxi lobby tends to represent medallion owners (not drivers or riders). Overall though we are not doing the world a favor if we equate an important idea with a single company. It is also not the basis for a longterm credible dialog with regulators. Instead we should be working towards a position that is pro innovation and will give riders and drivers a competitive choice of platforms.

Disclosure: USV is an investor in Hailo and Sidecar which both compete with Uber.

Zooming in to Pluto and Charon by The Planetary Society

In the span of a few days, Pluto and Charon have turned from spots into worlds. The latest images from New Horizons are showing Pluto and Charon to have unique faces, distinct from any other icy worlds in the solar system.

July 12, 2015

With Lucie, Tamsin, Susan & Alex: Season Four. by Feeling Listless

Audio  A masterpiece.  There's no other words for it.  As I've discovered time and again, one of the benefits of Doctor Who as a multi-platform franchise spread across fifty-odd years, for all the disappointments, there are often pockets of adventures, a run of books or comics or television or in this case audio which can stand TARDIS and lampstand above the best other fictions have to offer.  Whilst, as you've read, I've had reservations about some of its constituent episodes, as a run of four seasons, these Eighth Doctor stories represent the best Doctor Who has to offer with experimental storytelling and characterisation and innovations not just in how Big Finish tell his stories but which must surely have still influenced the television series.  In this final run (including The Earthly Child) we find Briggs, Barnes, Edwards, Robson, Platt and Morris at the height of their powers transitioning between comedy and tragedy perfectly.

There's an odd passage during the Russell T Davies book The Writer's Tale (which admittedly has a lot of odd passages) where he tells Ben about being interested in a particular actress for a companion role (I'm sorry I can't be more specific because I don't have my copy to hand for the moment) and the way he says it, I've always assumed he meant Sheridan Smith (I think he talked about annoying a few people which I always took to mean Big Finish who had only recently written her into their version of the series).  She's a national treasure now thanks to some key television roles, and her Doctor Who recordings happened during the period when she turned from being Janet in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps to the queen of ITV Drama but in the final interview on To The Death it's clear that she loved the character and loved the process of recording and her final moments, indeed her final two episodes, demonstrate the subtleties of her performance as she remains the same character but has matured, the war with the Daleks having taken its toll.

Quick project note: The Four Doctors is not available to Big Finish's non-subscribers and massively expensive in the secondary market, so I'll wait.  It's worth mentioning here that even after I've caught up with the Big Finish release schedule, there's a whole array of short stories and bits of audio which I'll still need to fetch and I do intend to write about for completion sake.  But a lot of those are in the massively rare Big Finish short trips books or old DWMs and the like so it'll be an interesting process to track them down.  Fortunately the TARDIS Datacore has a comprehensive list of appearances including sources to work from.  Turns out the recently published The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who has a Justin Richards short within (as well as a host of stories by authors most of whom wrote for the EDAs and audios) and this Paul Magrs Companion Chronicle The Elixir of Doom, even though it has Pertwee in the cover.

Death in Blackpool

Bye then Lucie.  Possibly although an episode title further down the list suggests it isn't forever and the actual end of this series has been well spoilt already for me by the internets and the party newsletter.  Alan Barnes successfully channels the audio Paul Magrs to complete the trilogy of Auntie Pat stories in an emotionally satisfying way.  Granted it's unfortunate that we have another example of the (almost) possessed Lucie trope which has turned into the dead Rory meme of these audio adventures but at least on this occasion it fits into the overall theme of identity, who the real Pat is, the man who has a logical underpinning to his delusion of being Father Christmas.  Plus the Doctor, always the Doctor.  There's also an interesting discrepancy in the dating.  The play is supposed to be set in 2008 but a Lucie from before she met the Doctor is at her house even though the current version was supposed to come from 2006.  A continuity error or something else?

An Earthly Child

Various chronologies place this special release in this gap and it fits pretty well, the Doctor finally deciding to catch up with his grand daughter almost after all these years (she oddly remembers the events of The Five Doctors even though Sarah Jane wouldn't later - perhaps it's because she's a Time Lord).  Within my version of the Eighth Doctor's timeline, he already met Susan in John Peel's novel Legacy of the Daleks which this does of course contradict, notably in relation to David Campbell's fate and their children.  Oh and the resolution of that novel.  But you know, Faction Paradox, the cracks, the Time War.  The story itself is fine, even if it relies on Susan being incredibly naive, but Carole Ann Ford's astonishingly performance (as good, if not better than she's ever been) just about manages to justify things, especially her chemistry with McGann.  You can hear the history, though he's apparently never seen An Unearthly Child (if the post story interview on the cd is anything to go by ...)

Situation Vacant

An utter joy.  According to the interviews at the end of the cd, the original idea was to have a release featuring four companions, then a public vote, which despite being a logistical and narrative nightmare (did the Doctor not otherwise travel with the losers?) wouldn't have worked because Big Finish tends to be so good at creating these +1s.  Taking that idea then turning it into a viable play that riffs on The Apprentice, writer Eddie Robson manages to include some proper surprises of the kind that even seasoned listeners won't catch up on (unless I'm just being kind to myself).  Having been to a fair few of these kinds of group exercises, I can also well recognise the forced politeness in a hotel setting.  Another top draw cast too: Joe Thomas from The Inbetweeners, James Bachman from Bleak Expectations and Shelley Conn, who was Ashika in Party Animals.  During those interviews, she's asked about her co-star Matt Smith becoming Doctor Who when filming had only just begun which reminds me once again just how long I've waited to listen to these.


Hello Tamsin!  Properly!  It's quite refreshing to have a companion who doesn't seem to be directly connected to the overall story arc of the season other than as a reject of whoever it is the Doctor is chasing (and yes, I know full well who that is and would probably have guessed anyway since the clues given aren't that deceptive).  She's in the Donna mould, slightly older, slightly wearier of the world, less easily impressed by the Doctor's heroism.  She's also notably less prone to acts of heroism.  When I read Poe a couple of years ago, I found his treatment of women tiresome but some of his stories enthralling.  In Nevermore, Alan Barnes appropriates some of the structural narrative techniques from the author and creates a kind of enmeshing of the celebrity historical within a futuristic setting, where it's about the influence of the author on setting.  There are flashbacks, of memory to Mary's Story and it seems to the Earth arc from the books, if this Poe encounter is supposed to correlate with the one mentioned in The Dreamstone Memorial.  The Doctor's mode of speech certainly sounds archaic enough to correlate.

The Book of Kells

Hello again Lucie.  Despite the cover and voice treatment,  was the big reveal of the episode truly a surprise when this was released?  Unlike the television series, there's a fair amount of pre-release and lead in marketing for Big Finish productions and in his script Barnaby Edwards seems to be aware of this, only thinly veiling her character.  The big question is what she's doing with the Monk (oh yes he's back too) and whether she's on board with his morally ambiguous adventures.  Graham Garden makes for a worthy successor to Peter Butterworth as the Monk, though like the Masters up until Jacobi, he's very much of a type, his speech pattern and manner not that much changed after regeneration.  Perhaps at some point we have story which explains why some Time Lords remain roughly the same between regenerations while others go wildly off in genetic tangents.  I'm not so sure about Tamsin though.  She's feels a bit blank, like a placeholder, like a companion of the week rather than someone who feels right for the TARDIS.  It's odd.

Deimos / The Resurrection of Mars

Well that explains my reservations about Tamsin then.  Imagine the television series introducing a companion, going through the business of publicity (as Big Finish did) then having her bug out with the villain having successfully been propagandised against the Doctor.  In a series where everyone's bringing their A-game, here's Jonathan Morris underscoring and emphasising what makes the Eighth Doctor different, cleverly referencing the machinations of his preceding incarnation, the shift from "time's champion" to "life's champion" which was also crucial in the novels.  The notion of people assuming the Doctor has the right to choose who lives and dies, and his own distress over the matter was also the the central theme of Tenth's regeneration which would have been around the time these were recorded (though this was released a year later).  All of this amid an Ice Warriors story which features David Warner as an expert pre-figuring Cold-War...

Relative Dimensions

Happy Christmas!  In a series full of surprises, there's Big Finish doing another full on Christmas episode which thanks to a slight change in the release schedule they made sure would be posted out in December.  Marc Platt's best script for the Eighth Doctor, I think, it nevertheless must have been an odd listen in the year when the tv version also featured fish that swam through the air in a timey-wimey storyline.  In some ways the tour through the TARDIS we might have expected Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS to be, there's the news that until at least this incarnation, the Doctor kept all of his previous companion's room in a kind of digital jukebox, able to call them up if necessary, which makes you wonder why Turlough moved into Adric's room in Terminus.  Perhaps he only keeps the rooms if he thinks they might be needed again or Fifth was simply testing Turlough's moral fibre.  In my mind, when he decides to delete all but one at the end, the TARDIS doesn't actually delete them, just hides them, knowing that like the control rooms the Doctor might want them back in the future.

Prisoner of the Sun

A sort of spiritual successor to The Cannibalists and referencing Silent Running to a degree, this has the Doctor adding another six years of solitude to his age, albeit with some machine company.  His choice of Lucie as the voiceprint for the robots must be him making sure that he'll remember her this time, acknowledging his memory lapse in Orbis though it's pretty jarring in listening terms after only finishing the Charley stories at the end of June to hear him prioritising someone new.  But such is the intensity of interest the Doctor has in the people who join him in the TARDIS and how, like a Tamsin or C'rizz, it's entirely possible to see the ones he's essentially recruiting to fill a space or really nothing more than an acquaintance and those he genuinely cares about.  That's presumably why some of them react so badly on discovering that they're not the first and that's it's often those who shake it off or treat it with good humour that last.  As I said at the time, one of the problems with the Capaldi season is that his relationship with Clara isn't properly defined in this sense.

Lucie Miller / To the Death

The big one.  Even after been comprehensively spoiled in some respects since the release of this story, it's so powerfully written and directed by Nick Briggs and acted, I hung on ever moment and word.  Designing the first half to be structured roughly like a Companion Chronicle just underscores the absence of the Doctor making his late arrival all the more tragic.  Perhaps the strongest element is how it manages to draw together continuity, not just from the past four of these series but also from elsewhere including Briggs's own Patient Zero which in a way means that Charley's obliquely present even if he doesn't presumably remember that adventure as the Sixth Doctor in that way, all without once making the listener feel as though they missed something.  But it's noticeable through all that how Briggs also skillfully manages to keep some of the franchise furniture intact without it feeling like a cheat.  Since Moffat is such a supporter of Big Finish, if he does bring Susan back, will it be in such a way as to not contradict what happens here?

July 11, 2015

"Things in the film world are actually really exciting at the moment..." by Feeling Listless

Film With Wittertainment in summer recess, here's Kermode speaking passionately about how there's no one good or bad period in cinema and that to say that film, and especially serious film is a dying art is misnomer - it's just the commercial end notably in Hollywood.

Two more brief mission updates: Philae makes contact; Akatsuki to perform course correction by The Planetary Society

As a followup to yesterday's post about Dawn, Juno, and OSIRIS-REx, I have updates on two more missions. With this post, I hope to have cleared the decks so that I can focus on Pluto for the next week!

July 10, 2015

Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits at the Imperial War Museum Manchester. by Feeling Listless

History Petra's statue.  Today being the first occasion for alighting at the Media City tram stop in Salford Quays and being generally oblivious to, well, everything most of the time, I had absolutely no idea that the most direct route after stepping from the platform in straight into a recreation of the original Blue Peter garden.  Signposted by large Blue Peter badges it's exactly as I remember it, with the pond and patio and worm house and the hands and pawprints of various teams from the television series and in the corner the statue of one of its famous pets Petra.  She was a bit before my time, Shep being from my era, but as a permanent fixture of the garden, I well remember seeing in the background during Percy Thrower's slots.  Even if the rest of the trip to Salford had been a wash, I could at least say I'd come away having seen, entirely unexpectedly, one of the icons of my childhood.

But my trip to Salford was not a wash.  Far from it.  I was invited by the Imperial War Museum to preview their new exhibition, Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits, a highly successful attempt to marry their collection with the popular educational franchise.  I was greeted by the person who invited me from the marketing department who was kind enough to give me brief explanation of what the museum and is and what it does.  Being something of a pacifist if asked, I had assumed that like Leeds Armouries, I'd be slightly repelled by the militiristicness of the whole thing, but as he describes the remit of the museum, which began in 1917 during the "great" war, is to document the human consequences of conflict.  Although they have large objects, tanks, planes and such, the focus is on the people who controlled those tanks, flew those planes and also the lives of the public who were acted upon.  The organisation has the second largest collection of British art in the country.

Horrible Histories: Blitzed Brits is at the apogee of that, explaining to children and it has to be underscored us adults, what it was like to live in those dreadful times through objects and testimonial from the period as well as interactive spaces (which I don't want to spoil too much) based around the style of the books, one of which, with the same title has also been turned into a successful stage play.  Being just too old when they began publication and not having children, my impression of the franchise is through the television series, and I had expected that a proportion of the display would simply be screens showing relevant excerpts and songs which would have been fine, but the museum and HH have very careful thought through the tone of the exhibition relying instead on appearances on the walls from the tv character Rattus Rattus to guide the visitor through the exhibition, otherwise keeping the tone relatively calm.

All of which is a pretty sombre description of a really excellent and exciting show.  Entering at about 11:30 this morning, I didn't leave for two hours, there being so much to see and do, to read and experience.  The sections cover various aspects of the blitz, from the blackout to Christmas to the grow your own campaign and clear-ups after bombing raids and throughout there's loads of trivia and history which I've previously simply been ignorant of, demonstrated through objects.  There's the macabre, toy soldiers made in 1930s Germany of Hitler and Goering watching a parade of the Hitler youth.  There's the legendary, a flag which was attached to the plane which flew Chamberlain to Germany for his ill fated meeting with the Fuhrer.  There's the innovative, black out light bulbs where the glass is almost completely black so that there's only just enough light to go about your business lest the Germans use a street lamp as a target.

There are plenty of clever ways of making the material accessible.  For the youngest visitors there's also a "survival guide", a workbook to guide us through the exhibition which of course I followed and filled in and during which I was reminded that I can't draw, especially my own portrait, but I am quite good at counting.  Most of the stories about Blitz experiences are from adults recalling their childhoods amid the bombs but it's usually the stuff ignored by television documentaries such as toilet arrangements in shelters or how children were chosen by potential homes during evacuation, a grim process related to assessing behaviour.  Stories of bravery, in which children put their safety aside to aid the effort and save others.  Little things, like the dolly that was given to a little girl who'd lost her home and her family at Christmas by a friend in the street who then kept it on her sideboard for the rest of her life.  Statistics, that 38,000 children were unclaimed at the end of the war due to their parents losing track of them, abandonment, or simply no longer having a family or home to return to.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Blitz which is what prompted the exhibition.  Later on, this evening, I realised that I was born just thirty years after the end of the second world war.  There was actually less time between those dates and my birth (during the dying moments of the Vietnam war) and now.  My Dad was born in 1942, Mum in 1947 so although they were just on the fringes of the conflict, they grew up in its aftermath, through the continued rationing.  Talking about my day's "discoveries" with them earlier, they already knew about much of it because they were there.  Presumably the experience of children visiting the exhibition with their grandparents will be even richer, assuming they're of the attention span to enjoy their company.  But even without, knowing how strong my reaction was, I hope and I guess kids really will respond to what they see and in a way which offers some perspective on the way they and we live now.

Week one whatever by Goatchurch


Little to report from Austria. Shoddy internet over the road that cuts out after 2 minutes. Eight minute flight straight down (with cavers watching, wondering what’s the point). Days of rain when I worked on my electronic logging devices, all of which were broken in various ways, from short circuits (caught in time before the Teensy boiled its plastic off), broken I2C connections, a completely bricked BNO055 orientation sensor, and a slightly folded micro-USB card probably from when I accidentally drop-kicked the device on my way out the door which was causing of the short circuit. I debugged for six straight hours like a machine, and still it wasn’t enough.

There’s something making the microcontroller crash after eight minutes whenever the Serial1 connection to the GPS is opened, but it doesn’t happen when you run a program that just listens to the GPS only.

I’ve also done two carries up to top camp of rope and metalwork and my soles are now sore. Now I’m worried that I’m coming down with the lurgi just before I strike camp and head for better air at Greifenburg.

I think I’d better go jump in the river to chill everything out while it’s still hot.

Three mission updates: Trouble for Dawn at Ceres; A new plan for Juno; OSIRIS-REx coming together by The Planetary Society

With all the focus on Pluto it's hard to keep up with all the other space missions currently exploring other planets. Here are brief updates on three of them.

July 09, 2015

Well it wasn't Marco Polo... by Feeling Listless

TV And here we are again. The next series of Doctor Who begins 19th September 2015, which with twelve episodes puts the finale on the 5th December which is astonishingly late in the year, assuming it's not a bloody split season. The trailer is what it is, the usual confusion of images, some of them intriguing, others confusing and one shot in a familiar cave based locale which probably is supposed to be somewhere else.  Very dark and blue.

The overall impression is to stress the Doctor as being a much more positive figure.  Definitive talk of the Doctor "saving people" which is a step up and a lot of shots of him smiling, which I know he did a lot last time despite everything but this seems more upbeat as though he's enjoying being in his own skin.  More heroic somehow.  Which perhaps suggests the production team have seen the criticism from last time and decided to try something else.

Right then, Maisie Williams.  If previous years are anything to go by it'll probably turn out that the Doctor's simply reacting to seeing a character of the week, but just in case ... younger version of Clara or a new incarnation of a familiar Time Lord, so River, Jenny, Donna, The Rani, Romana, Iris or Susan.  Or another family member we've not met before like Susan's mother or the Doctor's actual wife.  They do seem to be making a big thing of her casting. Old man, look at my life ...

The 100-day Corporate get fit plan by Simon Wardley

I was recently at a rather hellish event listening to a presentation on corporate strategy.  I’ll summarise it for you – “blah, blah, digital, blah, blah, agile, blah, blah, ecosystem, blah, blah innovation, blah, blah, disruption”. 

The folks around me were getting rather excited – “Did you hear that? Agile disruption!  It’s the future” - and I knew these ideas would be inflicted in an ever increasing number of internal PowerPoint meetings. Hell begets many smaller hells it seems.

The problem with words like ecosystem, disruption and innovation is they each refer to multiple things and though they have very precise meanings for specific contexts, relatively few seem to understand this or even the context their companies operate in. Instead we get meme copying, backward causality and the desire to copy others even when it’s not appropriate. “We should be like Uber” sounds exciting but I wouldn’t suggest surge pricing for funeral parlours as a way forward.

Understanding context is key to applying these ideas but such situational awareness is a rarity in corporates. The lack of it causes visible symptoms such as poor communication, misapplication of doctrine (e.g. agile everywhere or six sigma everywhere), massive cost overruns in contracts, silos, duplication, constant reinventing of the wheel and a long list of other undesirable effects.

I did want to write a post on the 61 different forms of strategic play and how to manipulate an economic environment but given the responses I’ve received from the Wardley mapping post, it seems something more basic is needed.

So, I’ve decided to write a hundred day corporate get fit plan for a newly appointed executive. This will help get you into a position from which you can start to learn and talk about strategy.  Obviously, different organisations are at different levels of fitness, so once you’ve completed day 1 then feel free to jump ahead to the appropriate level.

Day 1 – Let us be Honest

Are you a super lean fighting machine or do you just think you are? Let us find out. In table 1 is a simple checklist of things you should have. For reference, I’ve added how often companies seem to believe they have these things.

Table 1 – What you require

Let’s start with the first section, which is purpose. Ideally your company should have a scope i.e. the reason for your organisations existence, the moral imperative that others can rally around and hence the reason why people believe in you. This can often be found as ‘vision’ statements and they are quite common.

Of course, once you have a scope you need to examine how you interact with others and hence you need a list of transactions with others.  For reference, the UK Government has over 750 transactions from paying taxes to a license to bury a relative at sea. For reasons of prioritisation, it’s extremely useful to know what the volume and cost of each of these is. Obviously once you have a list, you can always think of other ways you’d like to interact with others but that’s future stuff. This is a get fit plan, so let us focus on the now and put those future transactions in a notebook for safekeeping. Surprisingly, it’s quite uncommon for a company to have a list of transaction with others.

I use the word transaction very deliberately here because you’re providing something to others that they value. Every transaction therefore has users. NB, there are times when YOU are the user to other companies transactions i.e. your suppliers. Don’t worry about these for the time being, your purpose in life isn’t to make your suppliers happy but rather their purpose should be meeting your needs. If they’re not then maybe you need new suppliers. 

Now by understanding your scope, transactions and users we at least have an idea of your purpose i.e. who your company really is. “We’re the best tea shop in Burmarsh providing tea and scones to members of the public” etc.

Don’t worry if you’re failing already, this is not uncommon. Many companies have a hard time describing their purpose and this is something we will try and fix in the 100 days. To begin with it’s simply important to be honest as to where you are.

We now need to look at the second section covering situational awareness. For each transaction, your users will have needs i.e. a piping hot cup of tea in a friendly and pleasant environment. We simply call this user needs. They will also have wants but that’s future stuff (scribble those in your notebook). 

It really helps to also have the user journey describing the process by which they interact with us e.g. enters building, selects tea and cake, receives tea and cake, pays for items, sits down etc. This helps us in ensuring the journey is simple, meets with the user need and doesn’t have complex and wasteful steps.

Now, each of the user needs will probably require many components to satisfy it e.g. a piping hot cup of tea needs tea, a cup, hot water and someone or something to make it and so on. Of course, those components have their own needs such as hot water needs cold water and a kettle. A kettle of course needs power. So, you can create a chain of needs focused from the visible needs of your users to the invisible components (such as power) that are required to make it happen.  We will call this a value chain on the assumption that meeting the needs of others creates value.

You can now use this value chain to create a map, I won’t go through the details of this as it is covered in the earlier post on Wardley Mapping but these maps enable you to see what is involved (relative position of components) and how those components will evolve (movement). Whether it’s a chessboard or a physical map in a battlefield, position and movement are essential for understanding the context.  For reference, I’ve simply included the map from a TV company in figure 1. 

Figure 1 – A Map of a TV company.


Have you read that post on Wardley Mapping? If not, you really need to do that. It won’t take too long and you’ll find it essential later on. There's no point starting a get fit plan if you're going to skip essential first steps like warming up etc. You'll just cause yourself an injury.

Now, if you have maps we can assume you have some understanding of your scope, your transactions, your users, their needs, the components involved and the context. This is actually very rare in corporations, so well done. If you don’t then don’t worry, we can fix that.

The third section is doctrine.  There are a number of discrete tactics you can use with maps to remove duplication, bias, inappropriate methods and a host of other operational inefficiencies. The scale of bias and duplication in many corporates is quite staggering. To date, the worst example I know of duplication is one large global company that has 380 customised versions of the same ERP system doing exactly the same process. In terms of bias, I’ve seen horrors of customised racks using customised servers in a customised data centre for a company that really doesn’t need to run its own compute. 

I’ll cover how to fix bias and duplication in a later part of this post. Once you have this all sorted (what I refer to as stopping self harm) then you’re in a position to start learning about common economic patterns of change and applying appropriate structure. This is the point at which you not only understand your context but you’re learning from and adapting to it. This is extremely rare in corporations.

Typical symptoms of failure to learn from or adapt to the environment includes bolt on structures (e.g. adding new Chief “something” Officers for every change), meme copying others (i.e. reliance on backward causality), outsourcing failures, lots of duplication including lack of awareness of, and one size fits all methods (e.g. tyranny of agile or six sigma or lean). If this is you then you have problems with your doctrine but this probably extends from little or no understanding of context. This is all quite normal in the corporate world.

The final section is where we start to get into leadership and strategic play. However, for our 100-day plan then I will take us up to the basics of doctrine. Until you get to this point then your only strategy should be “Understand what we do, who for and why and try to do it without breaking the bank”. Everything else is meme copying and could easily cause as much harm as good.

Regarding that table, most companies start failing at transactions, disappear off the cliff at user needs and then bounce back saying “But we have lots of strategy”. That’s surprisingly common.  Let us be honest, what they have are lots of aspirational things that they think are a good idea (probably because they read an article on them) but without any context. Surge pricing for Funeral Parlours, it's the next big thing - see Uber! I’m unlikely to get you to the stage of writing an effective strategy in 100 days, however we should get you closer. So, onto the get fit plan.

Day 2 to Day 20  - Map it!

Ok, the overwhelming chances are that you’re either missing large sections of table 1 or you’re deluding yourself. Don’t panic as you’re in good company.

Now, the first thing we’re going to do is collect information but we’re going to need to create a sense of urgency around this as a forcing function. There’s a reason for the 100 day time limit for the get fit plan because if you don’t get the ball rolling in this time then corporate antibodies will overwhelm you. Yes, the organisation hates change and will resist it even when it is good for itself.

So get your senior management together and point out that you’re lacking basic information and this needs to change quickly. Use table 1 as your guide – “we don’t know our transactions, our users, what’s involved but we’re still writing strategy!” etc. Be reassuring though, just make them aware that change needs to happen and spell out a temporary purpose (you will refine this over time). 

Now, you should add in some spice – sweet and sour. 

The sweet bit is you’re going to create a small team to start collecting this missing data i.e. first identifying what transactions you do, who the users are etc. This same team will also start describing the user journey and mapping the environment. You can also announce that there’s going to be NO CHANGES in terms of budget and existing strategy … we continue as are. Hurrah!

Whilst everyone is breathing a sigh of relief and you’ve diffused any arguments over “extra work” then you introduce the sour bit. Whilst there is no change in budgets you are going to introduce a spend control process for any project or spend over a set figure. Anywhere between £50K and a £1M will do but if you’re large then start with £250K.

Now, this will cause some ructions but you can simply say “Before spending a £250K on something, it just seems a sensible idea to know who the users are, what their needs and the journey is and what components are involved. All I’m asking for is a map. Do we really not know what we’re doing so badly that we can’t spend a few hours quickly mapping it out? It doesn’t have to be a perfect map, no maps are just something we can discuss!”

There’ll be some grumbling. You’ll have to be firm and reassure them that if they can’t map out what they’re doing, you’ll send someone to help them understand what they’re doing. NB, nobody ever takes you up on this offer. Now the spend control process needs to be run by your newly formed team. Their job is simply to collect the maps, help people map and start collecting all the missing data. Make it easy.

Let it run for several weeks and make your team know that you want the entire organisation mapped as fast as possible.

Day 21 to Day 40 – Analyse & challenge.

By now, you should have a pretty clear idea of the transactions that your organisation undertakes and a good few maps. Your team should have started to collate maps together for several purposes. 

First, you ultimately want to create an overall high-level map of the business along with maps of the value chains and maps of components in the value chain where necessary.

Second, you want to generate a common lexicon within the business – a wiki is a useful tool here. You will quickly discover the same thing is described with different terms in different parts of the organisation.

Third, you want to start tackling the duplication and bias that is rife in most organisations. As a rule of thumb, in any decent sized organisation then whenever some group is doing something (e.g. building a marketing system for analysing customer behaviour) then you can normally find five other groups hidden elsewhere in the organisation that are doing the same thing.

NB, when you find lots of duplication then every group tends to have people that argue that their way of doing something is special, unique to them or what we call ‘a snowflake’. In fact, most groups tend to think that their thing is somehow different from the rest of the market i.e. they’re the only group who do mass mailing in this way and it’s what makes us unique! This is what we call bias and whilst in cases it has genuine merit, that is the rarity not the norm.

I tend to find producing an aggregated chart from the maps (see figure 2) to be a useful technique for highlighting duplication and bias. Simply take your maps, identify common points and plot them according to how people have mapped them.

Figure 2 – Aggregated View.

The aggregated view helps you determine the lexicon, the amount of duplication in maps, the level of bias (i.e. custom building that which others consume as a commodity) and how things should be treated i.e. the cluster of common points.

Now, this is the tricky part. You have to start to introduce some challenge to the process. Up until now the spend control process has been about collection but this needs to change. When someone turns up with a map, you need to point out where the components are much more commodity than they realise or where others are building the same thing. You really need to be asking whether this map is reasonable?

To begin with people don’t tend to like to be challenged. You’ll also get bluster such as “I don’t have time for this”, “We have to sign this contract now” etc. You will experience (as I have done) numerous times when someone will be arguing that you need to sign a contract today for £10 million or the world will end. Be prepared to say “no” and to explain that until they produce a map or talk to another group then the project will not proceed. Be prepared for other execs to play power games but stick to the line “If we can’t explain user needs or what we’re actually spending the money on or you can’t be bothered to not duplicate another group’s work then we’re not spending £10 million”. 

The more maps you collect, the more obvious the duplication and bias will become. This can account for huge sums of money. I’ve seen past projects go from £60M to £800K and £1.6M to £96K just by removing duplication and bias. Don’t be shocked to discover levels of waste that exceed 90%+. It’s not you’re making some sort of mistake; it’s just this level of waste exists and very few have gone looking for it in a systematic way. If you clear out the waste, it’ll give you lots of muscle when it comes to strategic gameplay but that’s why this 100 days is all about getting fit.

Also don’t underestimate inertia to change. When you say that someone’s pet custom-built system is best provided as a product or outsourced utility service then expect arguments. There are 16 different forms of inertia (shown in table 2), so be prepared. You’ll get used to them all and learn counter arguments over time. 

Table 2 – Forms of Inertia

Day 41 to Day 60 – Doctrine

In the first 40 days, you’ve been focused on improving situational awareness (i.e. maps) and stopping obvious self-harm (e.g. duplication and bias). You should be collecting more of those maps, building up a lexicon for the business and helping people communicate (maps are great for this) along with challenging what is done and helping overcome inertia. You should start to feel a bit fitter and in control but don’t get ahead of yourself. You’re not ready for strategy and gameplay yet.

What you now need to change is behaviour in the organisation and you do that through understanding. You’re going to start by explaining to the organisation why one size fits all management rarely works. You can do this by taking a map and showing how you need multiple management methods to effectively manage it. As an example, I’ve taken the media company and marked on how to use agile, lean and six-sigma (see figure 3). 

Figure 3 – Appropriate methods for a TV company

Certain parts of the map are suitable for outsourcing and other parts should probably be built in-house. Even the purchasing methods need to change. As a guide, figure 4 provides an idea of where different methods are most appropriate.

Figure 4 – A guide for when to use methods.

It’s important to realise that on the left of your map you want to be focused on reducing the cost of change. This is because components in this area will change as they are uncharted and unexplored. Hence the use of VC based approached, agile (e.g. XP and scrum) and building in-house is appropriate. Experimentation is the name of the game.

As the components evolve (which will happen if supply and demand competition exists) then your focus becomes more on reducing the cost of waste i.e. you have an idea of what is needed and you now need to effectively produce it. Techniques like Lean, MVP (minimal viable product), A/B testing and outcome based approaches are all appropriate. You might still use techniques like Scrum for development but the focus (and the artefacts) will be different. 

As the components evolve further then we’re into volume operations of good enough and our focus must become reducing deviation. Techniques like utility pricing and six-sigma will dominate. This is all about empires of scale, industrialisation and operational efficiency.

What you want to get away from is custom building a commodity in-house or outsourcing something novel and new (which will change because you’re exploring an unknown space) to a fixed price development contract with expensive penalties for change.  So start challenging those maps not only for duplication and bias but also the methods being used and expect some fierce resistance here. People tend to like one size fits all methods and hence there’s a regular outbreak of semi-religious wars over methods. Keep to the line that multiple methods are needed.

In the first days of your new regime, you've probably developed an idea of how much skill your company has and how dependent it is upon others. In many cases, companies lack the skill they need in order to challenge vendors because they’ve outsourced it all or become dependent upon analysts. The maps will also give you an idea what sort of capabilities you require. However, be careful here.

In all probability, you are going to find you’re lacking in one or possibly two skills areas and so you’ll have to bring people in. Don’t try to retrofit people you have unwillingly into these areas. If you’ve mainly got people who are good at ITIL, six sigma & strong contracts then you’re going to need these people for those industrialised components. They are really important to you in the long term and so declaring, “we need agile people” and bringing in outsiders can cause a lot of friction. What you want to avoid is creating a “them and us” situation. Be upfront and clear. Use the maps to show you need additional capabilities to bolster what you have. Explain that all parts of the map are equally important.

It is critically important to understand that you need at least three basic skill areas – those capable of exploring the uncharted space, those capable of turning a poorly worked concept into a viable product and those capable of turning a product into an industrialised component. These are not the same, and after the 100 days we will look to turn these three skill areas into a cell-based structure and start strategic gameplay. Make sure you have all these capabilities to some degree.

It’s also a good idea to start looking into your contracts and have your team mark this up on your map. Ideally, you want small, relevant and focused contracts. It’s worth reading up on FIST principles (USAF, Lt Col Dan Ward) but as an example figure 5 provides a map with how the contract should have been broken up and figure 6 provides how it was.

Figure 5 – A more ideal contract structure.

Figure 6 – A less ideal contract structure.

This map comes from a Government system and the problem with figure 6 is the contract in the middle is too broad. You’ll end up incurring expensive penalties in change control because you’ll be applying a fixed contract to both industrialised components that you can specify in detail along with components that are novel, new and changing and hence can't be specified. Unfortunately, if you only have specification documents and normal box and wire diagrams (business process maps, IT diagrams) then you don’t have a cat’s hell in chance of spotting this problem. Poor contract structure appears to be rife in most organisations.

All this time, you still want to keep building that portfolio of maps, getting people to focus on user needs, improving your lexicon, removing duplication and bias but hopefully by now you should also start applying appropriate methods, balancing the capabilities you need, avoiding the outsource everything pitfall along with using appropriate contract structures. You should notice that your organisation is starting to become more efficient and effective, a bit more fit. Are those abs I can see?

Now, we turn the pressure up.

Day 61 to Day 80 – Flow

This is an important topic but first we need to explain some basic terms related to mapping. These are: -

Position: the position of components simply relates to how things are connected and how visible they are to the user need. The value chain itself is a chain of needs i.e. this needs that etc. At the top of the value chain these needs are exposed as meeting user needs (i.e. customers) and can often be expressed in terms of the customer journey. This doesn't mean the lower components aren't essential but a user who wants a cup of tea doesn't care about the power provider you use to boil the water. They only care about a piping hot cup of tea.

Flow: whenever you look at a value chain then there are often multiple paths within it. These we call flows and along these paths travel such things as information, risk, finance and materials. Sometimes one flow is more viable than another and financial models based upon flow can be developed. Sometimes a flow may be inefficient because it'll have bottlenecks and improvements can be made. There are all sorts of important things to be considered here from inventory to capacity to variability and time. 

Movement: Unfortunately value chains aren't static. They evolve. Fortunately the process of evolution is fairly well defined across activities, practices, data and knowledge and there are many common economic patterns, weak signals and gameplay that can be used to anticipate and manage this. There's however little point in understanding the value chain and managing the flow efficiently if you are treating most of the components as custom built when the market treats them as commodity. You have to accept that everything in your value chain will evolve (i.e. move across the map) and therefore you might be efficiently managing the flow in your value chain but at the same time being ineffective because you're treating components in the wrong way. 

Managing position, movement and flow are essential operational activities but unfortunately many people fail to understand them. Up until now, we’ve looked at position and movement (i.e. the value chain versus evolution) in the guise of a map. To improve we now need to examine flow in those maps.

In figure 7, I’ve taken the TV Company map and marked on two different financial flows (one in dark blue, the other in green). One is for the content provided by Internet broadcasting and the other for content provided by DVDs.

Figure 7 – Flows in the TV Company map.

Now for both of these flows, you can create a separate financial model and then examine the flows to determine whether one path is more profitable than another or whether there are bottlenecks in one or another or both. The same process can be used for fault tree analysis to determine risks (e.g. what is the impact if our web servers are lost?) and for the flow of information and materials.

An alternative way of viewing the flow above is the use of a message sequence diagram. In figure 8, I’ve provided such a diagram for the blue flow with some examples of what you might wish to consider in terms of financial metrics.

Figure 8 – Financial Flow (Blue)

There are alternative ways of viewing these flows e.g. value stream mapping. What’s important to remember is that you have three elements to your map – position, movement and flow. You should not only be making sure you’re effectively treating things (from removing bias and duplication to using the right methods) but also that your value chains are efficiently running. 

Day 81 to Day 100 – Keep it steady

By now you should be motoring in terms of understanding transactions, what users need, improving flow, doctrine and as a consequence you’ll find that mapping helps communication through a common language (Lexicon) and format (Map) across all groups. You’ve been removing bias and duplication. You should have started to balance out the capabilities the organisation needs and even resolved some horror contracts (there’s always a couple). Provide some time to let changes settle in, these are dramatic changes. Keep using those maps, providing challenges through spend control and allow the cycle to improve.

By around Day 100, you should also be able to clearly describe your purpose. You're now ready to start examining structure, mechanisms of learning and the principles of strategic play. You're well on your way to playing the competition game with some finesse. There are at least 61 different forms of gameplay and you’ll use multiple of these when attacking a market. The maps will also help you identify where to attack along with where to gamble. However, for most of you today that is still a long way of … you'll need these 100 days before you’re ready to play.

I do understand how people are tempted to dive into strategy, learning and structure but there is no point until you understand your context and have removed the flab. I know everyone is looking for the "get fit fast pill" for corporations e.g. "Agile Disruption!", "Be Digital!", "APIs ftw!", "SWOT will save the day!" etc but the pill doesn't exist. These are just memes and its potluck or more aptly potbelly luck if they work. You've got to put some effort in before you can be ready to play the games with confidence.

In the next post in the "Get fit" series, I'll cover learning and structure and bring you right to the cusp of strategic play. After that, I'll add a post on strategic play and get back to writing on the 61 different forms of gameplay.

Annihilation Score round-up by Charlie Stross

Here's a Big Idea piece about the book that I wrote for John Scalzi's blog.

I did an AMA on Reddit's /r/books forum—lots more stuff here!

Here's a review on

And here's the copy editor's account of working on the book.

(I may update this entry and add more stuff as I see fit.)

Update: On the Audio book front: there's been some delay with the recording process, but the audio book version is due out "soon". (Which in publishing-speak probably means 1-3 months tops.)

The Google AI Neural Network T-Shirt by Dan Catt


This Monday I saw the blog posts about the hallucinatory images created by Google’s Neural Network AI, by Thursday I had the t-shirt.

I ripped open the package eagerly, exclaiming “ta-da” with delight as I held the t-shirt in my hands. “It’s a bit ugly” was my wife’s verdict, “I know, great isn’t it!”, at which point I threw it on, grabbed my camera and daughter and raced into the garden to take photos.


The point of the exercise wasn’t really to end up with a t-shirt, rather it was a race to see how quickly I could take something off the internet, through the physical world and back onto the internet again, re-contextualised as a tumblr post.


A more extreme version is called a Flip-Flop, a term coined by Robin Sloan back in 2012, in his post Dancing the flip-flop, which in turn I wrote about in my own Dancing the flip-flop post.

Robin defines a flip-flop thusly…

the flip-flop (n.) the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again — maybe more than once

That’s pretty abstract. Here’s an example recipe:

  1. Carve a statue out of stone. PHYSICAL
  2. Digitize your statue with a 3D scanner. DIGITAL
  3. Make some edits. Shrink it down. Add wings. STILL DIGITAL
  4. Print the edited sculpture in plastic with a 3D printer. PHYSICAL AGAIN

It’s step three above that is most crucial to the flip-flop, because that’s where it becomes clear you aren’t aiming for fidelity in these transitions from physical to digital and back. That’s where your work gets exposed to a whole new set of tools — really, a whole new physics.

The mouse-mat (physical object) I had printed for my blogpost took 12 days to turn around. Later that year, a simpler project to print postcards took 8 days.


For which I was going physical (the botched restoration of Ecco Homo) → digital photos in the paper → physical postcards (to be theoretically sold in the shop of the chapel of the botched Ecco Homo) → digital photo of the postcards.

This t-shirt is more of a “bounce” than a flip-flop, bouncing something digital out into the physical world and back to digital again. The fun thing is to see how fast you can make the bounce happen. Back in 2012 it was 12 for a mouse-mat, 8 for postcards. This week it was 4 days for an all over, back & front, full-print t-shirt from SubLab.

The original Google post about its Neural Network “Inceptionism: Going Deeper into Neural Networks” was published last Wednesday on the 17th, with various other sites posting about it in the following days. I read about it on Monday and knew a tumblr photo-set of a t-shirt sporting one of the images was the correct response. And by “correct” I mean “fun”.

I even had the tumblr photo layout visualised in my head… bearded guy with tattoos wearing it (I had the beard, getting tattoos just for this seemed maybe a step too far), a woman wearing it for which my daughter would be a stand-in, and then a close-up crop of the design. Total tumblr fodder!

Because I’m old, my internet generation think of t-shirt printing as CafePress, but I also knew all-over full front-and-back t-shirt (and hoodie and leggings) was now a thing. I figured maybe CafePress now do those. A quick look put me right…

Cafepress|What is this, the 1990s?

I mean, come-on, maybe I want to order some CD labels with that.

The lovely SubLab to the rescue, importantly for me a UK based t-shirt printing team, friendly, surprisingly cheap. I snagged one of the Google images on Monday, sent it to SubLab (totally telling them that yes of course I had permission to use the image), it was printed on Wednesday arrived the following day. 4 days from reading about the images to wearing them.

I’m still kind of amazed.

If I’d been in London I probably could have popped in to pick it up Wednesday, a 3 day turn-around. If SubLab had Google’s Neural Network and a shop front you could probably walk in, say “bee hives” or “honeybadger” and walk out with a custom computer AI generated one-off t-shirt within a couple of hours. This probably already happens somewhere.

The future will only get faster.

Modesty wearing the t-shirt solely for the purpose of the tumblr post.

The t-shirt exists solely for the purpose of creating a digital artefact; the tumblr post. This is the somewhat weird world in which many of us live, something doesn’t really exists until there’s a post about it.

When I posted the t-shirt to twitter it got immediate response, people…

  1. got it
  2. liked it

…when I popped out to head to the local shop wearing it up here in the medieval market town of Shrewsbury, not a single person came up to me and said “Wow, that’s cool, I was just reading about those images being generated by computer, and now here you are actually wearing one on your actual body only a couple of days later”. It’s fair to say, that no-one gave a shit.

Either than or I don’t get invited to the cool parties in New York, London, Paris, Munich.

Anyway, bringing this back to something of a point, in-fact the whole point of printing, tumblring about the printing, then writing about the tumblring was to in someway comment about the flip-flop or bounce no longer being about art.

A couple of years ago the bounce was “art” now it’s business. The bounce is Kickstarter, the bounce is taking an idea, often something digital, then making a single physical version of it, purely for the intent of photographing and videoing it. For getting blogs to write about it, people to tweet about it, posts on facebook about it.

The physical object’s single purpose is to be digitised, it (and it’s offspring) will only come into existence again if it can circumnavigate the digital globe.

My wife will be very relieved to know that this t-shirt only wants to carry on its digital life as this post, never to reveal itself in the physical world again.

close up

Which is why I ended up going to the shops on my own.tumblr.jpg

Observing the Simulated Universe by Astrobites

Modern galaxy surveys, like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, are revolutionizing our understanding of the universe we live in. These massive studies show us the huge variety in galaxy types and challenge our expectations for how they are supposed to look and behave.

To complement these large surveys, numerical simulations have been designed that attempt to replicate how galaxies grow and evolve. Simulators, like in this Astrobite, try to show how physical processes like gravity and star formation can combine to produce the galactic diversity we see from surveys. The results of these simulations are compared to real observations to tell if they have done a good job. When simulations don’t appear to match, they often suggest that other, unconsidered processes play an important role in forming galaxies. See, for example, the importance of supernova feedback in forming realistic galaxies.

Drawing Comparisons

The focus of today’s article is to examine one of the intermediate steps above: comparing simulated galaxies to observations. When simulated galaxies don’t appear to match the observations, it is often blamed on the simulations being incorrect. But simulations have the advantage that they are far easier to interpret. All the relevant properties, such as masses, sizes, and star formation rates, can be directly and precisely counted up. But deriving these properties from observations can be a difficult task: how, for example, do you derive the mass of a galaxy just from the light you receive?

Fig 1. When trying to measure a value correctly (hit the bullseye), random error produces measurements widely dispersed, but centered around the correct result. Bias (or systematic error) leads to results not centered on the correct value, even though those results may themselves be close together.

Fig 1. A classic example of bias/systematic error: when trying to measure a value correctly (hit the bullseye), random error produces measurements widely dispersed, but centered around the correct result. Bias (or systematic error) leads to results not centered on the correct value, even though those results may themselves be close together.

Needless to say, observational astronomers have come up with brilliant ways of measuring the properties of galaxies. We’ll conveniently lump them together by the label of observational techniques. We won’t go into the details here, but they typically involve analysis of the colors and spectra of galaxies. The authors of today’s paper created simulated galaxies, for which the true properties are known. They then applied these observational techniques to compare the true answers to the values observers would expect to recover.

What the authors are looking for are sources of bias or systematic error. If observational techniques lead to biases, then the measured properties of galaxies will be off in one particular direction. For example, if the technique used to derive the sizes of galaxies had a bias low, then the sizes observers measure would always be lower than the true sizes. See Fig. 1 for an illustration. With the high-powered simulations available today, astronomers can now test whether observational techniques are biasing observed properties away from the true values.

The Simulations

Fig. 2 - Post-processed images of the simulated galaxies. The colors are produced using model stellar light from each star particle. The three columns represent three different codes chosen to run the simulation.

Fig. 2 – Post-processed images of the simulated galaxies. The colors are produced using model stellar light from each star particle. The three columns represent three different codes chosen to run the simulation. Figure 1 from Guidi et al. 2015

The authors used hydrodynamical codes to simulate the formation of five galaxies, similar in final mass and size to the Milky Way. Each galaxy has a unique formation history, however, based on the mergers and accretion they underwent. They also chose to run the simulation with three different codes, which use slightly different physical processes. This helps them check their results against different assumptions which went into creating the (15 total) galaxies. See Fig. 2 for the galaxy images.

In order to model “observing” the galaxies, each simulation had to be post-processed by assigning additional information to each particle. Originally, star particles have only physical properties such as mass, age, and metallicity, which must be turned into luminosities and spectra. Since computers can’t yet trace billions of particles for each star in a real galaxy, the star particles are much more massive (10^5 times) than a typical star. Therefore the post-processing requires a model for how many stars, and of what masses, would be represented in this large a bundle. This is known as a stellar population synthesis (SPS) model, since it is synthesizing an entire population of stars.

With an SPS model in hand, each star particle can be assigned a model spectrum, based on the ages and metallicity of all the stars represented by the particle. By combining these spectra, and applying various levels of dust extinction, the authors produce simulated spectra for the entire galaxy. The galaxies are now ready to be “observed”!

Do You See What I See?

Some of the most important properties the authors wished to “observe” were average stellar age and stellar metallicity, both of which can be directly calculated from the simulation. However, significant differences were found between the true values and those which would be derived using observational techniques.


Fig. 3 – For 5 of the galaxies, the ages of all particles in the galaxy are shown in light blue. The dark blue shows which particles would be observed if a fiber limited the view to the interior of the galaxy. Since the interiors are made of older stars, most galaxies (with the exception of AqE) would be observed to be older than they truly are.

One of the most significant effects was that of fiber-size bias. Most observational surveys use fiber-fed spectrographs, which direct the light from a narrow region of the sky down an optical fiber to the spectrograph. Therefore, the observed spectrum may only represent the inner portion of the galaxy where the fiber collects light. The authors found that properties such as age and metallicity were especially biased by this effect. This is because many galaxies have older, more metal-rich stars in the inner regions. So, using spectra gathered from the interior of a galaxy will not capture the younger, more metal-poor stars. Fig. 3 shows this effect for 5 of the galaxies.

Another significant effect was “light-weighting” the properties, particularly age. More massive, brighter stars die out very quickly. So, between two star particles which are identical save for ages, the younger particle will produce much more light. The authors found this will bias the observational techniques towards measuring younger ages. The observed “light-weighted” ages of galaxies are likely younger than the true average age, averaged over the mass of each particle.

So All Our Observations Are Wrong?

Luckily, it’s not so simple. While the authors point out important biases involved in measuring a few properties of galaxies, most of the observational techniques used are fairly robust. Techniques which measure total stellar masses, for example, are shown to be robust to within 10-20%, and are neither biased high nor low. Primarily, the results highlight the degree of random error (not systematic) inherent in deriving observed properties. Error bars should likely be larger than they are thought to be.

Furthermore, there are still uncertainties in the SPS models used to post-process the simulations. They were, after all, a major step between the “true” values derived from the simulation and the “observed” spectra that were analyzed. Until better ways can be found to check these models, it will remain uncertain whether the differences between simulations and observations in the paper were from errors in the observational techniques alone. It is exciting, however, to see that as observations continue to improve, so does the ability of simulations to keep up and help us interpret what we see coming from the universe.

MarCO: Planetary CubeSats Become Real by The Planetary Society

NASA recently announced the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission, which will fly two CubeSat spacecraft past Mars as part of its larger InSight Mars mission.

Explore Pluto in Google Earth! by The Planetary Society

The Pluto encounter team is producing the first maps of Pluto using images collected by New Horizons. You can now easily download the map and explore the best Pluto maps ever made!

July 08, 2015

With Lucie Miller: Season Three. by Feeling Listless

Audio As you can see I'm pretty well rushing through this series now. With shorter story durations and faster pacing, they're very easy to "boxset" in a way which wasn't the case with the longer stories in the earlier iteration with their ponderous duration, leisurely spreading their stories across two and a half hours filling two cds. But it's worth nothing this series sees another structural change with the fifty minute stories giving way to two half hours with a cliffhanger in the middle, seemingly at the behest of the BBC who ran the radio broadcasts one of these episodes at a time, filling up the rest of the "fourth dimension" with some other reading. Which makes it all the more strange that they would subsequently then miss some of them out. With only Orbis, The Beast of Orlok, The Scapegoat and The Cannibalists being transmitted in 2010 (which is why, as I said last time I waited until now to listen to any of this).  There'd be a three year gap before series four turned up, broadcast on a daily basis during two weeks in January 2013 as part of the anniversary celebrations.

The overall deliberate theme of the series appears to be sequels featuring monsters and villains we haven't seen for a while outside of non-Who licensing or the novels though it's odd that two of the choices happen to be insect based.  At a certain point, someone has to write a story about the Wirrn invading Metebelis 3 and attempting to impregnate the spiders, indeed it's amazing Big Finish haven't commissioned that for the Tom Baker series.  Imagine the arguments between a Wirrn Queen and The Great One with Tom refereeing.  There are other recurrences too.  Lucie's possessed or threatened with possession a lot again (to the point that she references it herself in the final episode).  Two of the episodes are underpinned by very similar backstories.  There's also a slightly darker tone for much of the duration, even in the notionally more comic stories.  But overall it simply underpins what I love about this franchise at its best, the sheer variety of stories and its constant ability to reinvent itself.  Same incarnation, vastly different approach to the storytelling compared to even Storm Warning.


It's The Time of the Doctor and Eighth has amnesia again were my primary thoughts by the end of the first half of Nick Briggs and Alan Barnes's script and didn't ever really leave.  The similarities to Eleventh's regeneration story are striking as his six hundred year stint on the eponymous planet sees him befriend different generations of the same jellyfish family to fighting off and negotiating for that local population in the meantime.  Of course, there's a certain winking element to adding these centuries to the Doctor's age when the television version was going about saying he was definitively nine hundred and something years old (often in a trailer friendly tone).  Only recently has the whole idea of him offering a definitive age become anathema, the notion being that when he does provide an estimate he's either guessing or flattering himself.  By my reckoning if you include this, the Earth arc, the business in The Sleep of Reason and other odds and sods, the Eighth Doctor's incarnation lasts over a thousand years.


"Aaah it's The Invasion of the Krynoids or the The Krynoid Invasion." "Caption: The Seeds of Doom."  Jonathan Morris's script does the usual business of Who sequels of taking the original idea and developing it further so on this occasion we have a more powerful human hybrid and an environmentalist antagonist (with shades of the sci-fi series Continuum in that the things he's fight for aren't wrong it's just that his approach is as Lucie might say,"Well dodgy.")  Lysette Anthony's really bright as a kind of proto-Kate Stewart in the first episode (sounding a bit like her too) even if her fate diverges somewhat.  The arc for the series is also reinforced as Big Finish attempt to do the post-The Ancestor Cell forgetfulness, his six hundred years of relative solitude now leading to him having to deal with a certain Capaldi-like misunderstanding of humanity and lack of memory when it comes to Terran customs like driving with Lucie in the Clara role of caring so he doesn't have to, though he's rather more gidding and good natured about it so we'll see.

The Beast of Orlok

Nicholas Briggs introduced some of the BBC Radio 7 broadcasts of these episodes and apparently has to declare an interest beforehand.  Before Orbis he explains that he wrote some of the episodes including that one and produced them all.  But his sheepishness about the whole thing only increases in from of The Beast of Orlok, when it becomes apparent that not only is he introducing it, he's the first acting voice heard and then he appears over the title music announcing what it is and who the actors are.  Maximum Briggs.  Written and directed by Barnaby Edwards, it's an entertaining twist on Hammer horror in that it somewhat abandons the whole notion of being that in the second half, replacing it with something akin to Delta and the Bannermen.  Finally gives Miriam Margolese a Who credit, the television version having omitted to include her even in the revival.  She's the gloriously named Frau Tod and one of her contributions to the story is simmered down, the TARDIS Datacore to, "She saved the Eighth Doctor from being boiled in tar."  It's that sort of story.

Wirrn Dawn

Clyde!  The TARDIS Datacore notices, quite rightly, that Daniel Anthony was the first black actor to play the Doctor, albeit not his own incarnation but Matt Smiths.  Here he's called upon to play a grunt with a soul in a homage to Starship Trooper featuring the giant insects from the Ark in Space.  Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, after some brilliant Gravity-like spacesuit action (and years before the release of that film) (and in audio where the special effects cost nothing) and the odd burst of action, it's mostly a talky, philosophical affair about the nature of war and why we fight.  Notable at the time of broadcast for being the first Wirrn story since a BBV production there are some useful developments to the mythology, including how the insects appropriate the psychology of hosts which means that if the hosts are cows, they become basic themselves.  At this point, the Doctor's initial forgetfulness post Orbis seems entirely forgotten and his relationship with Lucie is just as it was last year, albeit that the tone of the stories is a touch darker.

The Scapegoat

Hobbled by having a resolution which is essentially a reimagining of Wirrn Dawn which isn't necessarily writer Pat Mills's fault but it is interesting how these two stories were released one after the other and no one noticed that the ultimate justification at least for what's occurring is roughly the same.  Not helped either by Mills writing Lucie as though she's utterly unhinged or at least very drunk which is enunciated by Sheridan who plays up the comedy.  Features Paul Rhys as the eponymous and romantic hero of the title which isn't something which happens much any more, and Samantha Bond and Christopher Fairbank as goat people which just adds to the slightly (slightly?) unhinged tone.  As a side note, for years I used to say "scapeghost" instead thanks to seeing an advert for the old PC text adventure, this being the first place I'd ever seen it and no one corrected me for years...

The Cannibalists

Something I was especially curious about before listening to these audios was why Wirrn Dawn failed to receive a BBC 7 broadcast but something called The Cannibalists would sneak through.  Now I know it's because the former features some truly gory body horror, whereas this is the relatively innocent story of sentient server robots similar to The Autonomy Bug from the Doctor Who Magazine strips (with a dash of the Tenth Doctor novel The Pirate Loop).  As with a lot of Morris's work, it's impossible not to think of Douglas Adams here, especially when one of the robots is spouting poetry in hexadecimal and an entire action sequence featuring sacrifice and explosions turns out to have been entirely pointless because the Doctor didn't happen to ask the right question.  Phil Davis is clearly having a diode of a time as the eponymous android whose sole purpose is to strip his peers down for parts.

The Eight Truths / Worldwide Web

Another epic season finale in the mold of the new television series with a global threat (that's pretty easy to guess once you've heard about the cult, the crystals and you look at the title but I think you're supposed to) and what's now a pretty contemporary setting (made in 2008 it's set in 2015).  As ever writer Eddie Robson is really on point with his characterisation of the Doctor and Lucie with the former displaying all the bravery and also wit which turned me onto him being my favourite Doctor in the first place.  But the script's satire is itself very brave in places; was this the reason it wasn't ultimately broadcast on the radio?  In the process of wrapping up the story threads begun back in Orbis, with elements such an artificial sphere containing an electronic afterlife which seem to have influenced Steven Moffat's thinking later in at least a couple of stories.  Notable casting in the form of Sanjeev Bhaskar and Stephen Moore, or Colonel Ahmed and Eldane as they would be on television later.  Can't wait to find out what happens in Bla-

My Favourite Film of 1991. by Feeling Listless

Film Right, let's talk about Star Trek.

I don't actually remember the first time I watched Star Trek. From 1969 onwards the show was in almost continuous broadcast on first BBC One then BBC Two and it's entirely feasible that like Doctor Who I was propped in front of it at some point, not least because it often shared the Saturday night timeslot.

If I have a conscious memory of watching it being broadcast it's during the mid-80s BBC Two showings, which began as the BBC Genome reminds me on the 5th September 1985 with The Changeling (having ploughed through the first season on BBC One during the winter). Magically the junction and continuity for this have been uploaded to YouTube:

This was during the soon legendary, though still vaguely primordial at this point "cult" slot and on that day was followed by an episode of The Adventure Game with Sarah Greene, Anne Miller and Richard Stilgoe as guests a fragment of which is ...

At this point I was probably more of a fan of The Adventure Game. Note this was at a time when BBC Two was off air for most of the day, which was filled with Pages from Ceefax and Star Trek's lead in was coverage of the World Chess Championship.  Full schedule here.  When the cult was in full swing, the continuity for that week's episode would be supplied over a starfield, or rather asterisk field generated on a BBC Micro.

But there were two other steps which would ultimately tip me over into becoming a fan.

By that time I was buying, or rather being bought, remaindered copies of Starburst from Speke Market (along with DWM and the like) with the title torn off the front. In amongst the news pages was the first image of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a smudgy photograph in which everyone, including the humans, looked like aliens. In these pre-web days, such things were the only source of information for such things and I seem to recall that Geordi was still being called George in the text.

Come the next year, the first batch of episodes were released by CIC into the VHS rental market and I ploughed through them in weekly trips to Video City in Garston, this being about the time when were loaned our first video player and it was still a novelty and especially since the only classic Trek tape they had was a version of The Cage which amalgamated the colour pieces from The Menagerie with black and white fragments from the original version (ala The Mind of Evil, Who folks).

Around that time I also befriended someone at the local library who loaned me the way through her collection of Star Trek novels which included everything from the original James Blish adaptations through the original publications and movie adaptation and thence the pocket books.  I read and read and read and somewhere in there became a fan, buying my own novels and lending them back to her.  I have a vivid memory of being on a camping holiday reading David Gerrold's The Galactic Whirlpool.

Then the broadcasts of Next Gen began on BBC Two and that was that.  That was my first major recording from the television project even to the point of asking a disinterested friend in school to record The Big Goodbye one week because I was away on holiday.  Much as I can see its flaws its the first season of Next Gen I know best because it's the one I watched over and over and over again.  Even Justice.  Especially Justice.  I was at that age.

From there the fan experience is pretty much what it always is.  Meet like minded people.  Talk and talk and talk about it.  Slightly different to now because then it was simply people you met at school rather than the whole of the internet, but nonetheless, nothing has changed that much.  There's video footage somewhere of the seventeen year old version of me explaining the IDIC (smirk) and reading from the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual to other friends who really didn't care.

Why Star Trek?  Why anything?  Fans with a slight whiff of embarrassment about being a fan of a thing often become philosophical when describing their favourite show (I know my type) and Star Trek with its optimistic outlook tends to offer a number of potential possibilities in this regard and still does even as that's been degraded in the post-Roddenberry incarnations, especially DS9, which have allowed Starfleet officers to have some shades of moral ambiguity.

But my own sense is that it's not that much different to Doctor Who.  The characters, the quotability, the variety of stories often subverting genre expectations, the world building with what at the time seemed like an endless supply of mythology.  Never mind the novels, my shelves were also filled with those reference books including the Okuda Chronology.  Like I said, my interest in the franchise wasn't motivated by anything much different to Doctor Who.  I probably fancied Troi a bit too.

The Undiscovered Country appeared probably about equidistantly in the middle my Trekkerdom and still not quite old enough to go to the cinema by myself and not really having any interested friends at that moment, was taken along to the then MGM Cinema at Edge Lane by my Dad (now a Cineworld after spending a few years as a Virgin Cinema) (remember them?).  This was two years before Groundhog Day for those of you taking notes.

Not really his fault but my biggest memory was missing half the signatures at the end because he was asking me if I wanted any more popcorn not having realised it was the end of the film, I don't think.  I also remember him being very tolerant of me as I explained at some length on the bus home about how the film linked in to Unification, the special double episode of The Next Generation which was available at just that time on rental tape (hired from Blockbuster on Allerton Road).

Purists would probably choose one of the installments from the central trilogy, usually The Wrath of Khan (which is why Into Darkness is little more than an extended homage at just the moment when the reboot should have been going out on its own) (though was at least worth it for the comics spin-off which spends a good three issues explaining why one of the most prominent Mexican characters of all time isn't any more)(not very successfully).

The Undiscovered Country, despite the mangled meaning of the title, has the greater depth as the characters face their biggest enemy yet.  Old age.  Yes, it doesn't stop Kirk from having a near fling with Iman, but even Spock is starting to realise that his friends won't be with him forever.  It also has the best uses of Klingons of all the films (Christopher Plummer for goodness sake) and also a complex political storyline that throws forward to the sort of thing which would be central to DS9.

Anyway, so yes, I was a Star Trek fan right through my secondary school days, through university and right into the post graduation years.  When it was appearing on VHS months before television I collected those and when money ran out I hired the episodes from Roughleys Newsagents on Aigburth Road, eagerly awaiting the moment when each new release would appear on the shelves, knowing full well I'd be the first to borrow them each time.

But somewhere during Voyager my interest began to weign.  It was a gradual process which mainly had to do with Voyager being a bit rubbish and repetitive somewhere in the fourth series and I simply stopped being able to justify spending the money on hiring each of the tapes (though I suspect the rot began to set in just after Threshold) (the only episode which Paramount itself has apparently disowned from canonicity) (one where Paris and Janeway devolve into lizards and have babies together).

Eventually I watched the whole of Enterprise and loved that, but only in the same way as most of the shows you admire but of which you're not an out and out fan, you'll watch once but not return to and don't build up a knowledge of really (see Game of Thrones of which my guess is only the true fans know all the character names, the GoT equivalent of episode stardates for Trek and production codes for Doctor Who).

By then my Whovianism had taken hold and since, although I like the new films, well, ok, love the new films and read the rather brilliant spin-off comics, I haven't watched much in the way of Trek on television since buying that taster blu-ray of the remastered Next Gen episodes.  There's so much else to watch I simply haven't had the inclination to revisit though even as I write those words, I'm checking the price of the complete TNG on BD on Amazon.  Wow, that's expensive.  Not yet then.

Falling out of love with franchises is an odd thing.  That whole process occurred before I had the internet at home and perhaps if the web had been there still fuelling my interest it might have continued especially since it wasn't through a lack of content.  Parts of the final couple series of Voyager were pretty good, I hear.  If I'd known that then via a web discussion, I might have kept the faith much as I have since the first Capaldi series, my biggest Who wobble so far.

Star Trek's now experiencing its own wilderness years with the ongoing saga across various incarnations contained in novels and comics and audios punctuated periodically by the odd movie.  The parallels with Who are spooky.  Why isn't there a television series right now?  No appetite for space show?  Potentially too expensive?  Not wanting to upstage the cinematic version?  It'll be a travesty if something isn't sorted out for the anniversary next year ...

Pushing Back the Frontier: How The Planetary Society Helped Send a Spacecraft to Pluto by The Planetary Society

It took 16 years and five spacecraft designs to get a mission to Pluto. The Planetary Society was there through it all, always striving to help NASA push back our solar system's frontier.

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Updated using Planet on 2 August 2015, 05:48 AM