Francis's News Feeds

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


September 02, 2014

Apology by Charlie Stross

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

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


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

resonance_ecommerce spending tiers

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

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


September 01, 2014

Service update by Charlie Stross

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

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


Down tools by Charlie Stross

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

Lessons learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Taking a Gap Year – Part 1 by Astrobites

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

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

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

It Actually Is Rocket Science! (Anson Lam)

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

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

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

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

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

Other gap year tips:

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

4318_521983863185_1757366_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

resonance_tmall haitao

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

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


August 31, 2014

A Broom. by Feeling Listless

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Into The Dalek. by Feeling Listless



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ferguson Question by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recommended reading list on strategy. by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 30, 2014

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

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

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

Figure 1 - Security Industry.



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

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


Figure 3 - Play 2 - Trust as a Service


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

Figure 4 - Potential Steps


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

Figure 5 - Comparison to outside


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

Figure 6 - Scenario comparison


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

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

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

Figure 7 - Managing a system


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

Figure 8 - Business Model Canvas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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



Details soon.

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


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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Service announcement: upcoming outage(s) by Charlie Stross

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

[this stage is now completed]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 29, 2014

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

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


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

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


The Birth of the Modern Universe by The Planetary Society

Amir Alexander reviews Alan Hirshfeld's newest book, "Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe."


Back on the Rails with OSETI by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society sponsored all-sky optical SETI search at Harvard University went off the rails, telescope roof rails that is, but it is back on track and hunting the sky for ET.


August 28, 2014

Applying to grad school in the US: a timeline by Astrobites

I find that thinking about major undertakings and not knowing where to start can be extremely stressful. How am I supposed to know to be on top of something if I don’t even know I’m supposed to do it? In my experience, and maybe in yours as well, applying to grad school can be like that. This timeline is supposed to be a general outline for applying to astronomy graduate schools in the US generally from the perspective of a US-based student. Astrobites has a lot of other resources about graduate school as well. Check out our glossary on the application process or, if you’re interested in applying to PhDs in Europe, check out Yvette’s post on applying as a US undergraduate student. For full disclosure, in writing this I did not consult with any faculty who had served on an admissions committee, nor have I done so myself. As our commenting remains broken, ask us questions or offer your own thoughts on Twitter or Facebook.

File:Kansas banner.jpg

Wikimedia commons/ James Watkins // http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kansas_banner.jpg

 

Now: Sort out your tests.

Soon: Ask yourself serious questions.

File:Fall foliage Vermont banner.jpg

Wikimedia commons/user chensiyuan http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fall_foliage_Vermont_banner.jpg

 

September: Letters of recommendation.

Early October: Work on your fellowship applications.

Late October: Apply for fellowships.

File:Flatirons Winter Sunrise banner.jpg

Wikimedia commons/ Jesse Varner // http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flatirons_Winter_Sunrise_banner.jpg

 

November: Work on your graduate school applications.

December: Send in your grad school applications.

January: Try not to stress out!

February-March: Hear back from schools.

March-April: School visits.

April 15th: Make your decision.


NASA’s Big Rocket a Step Closer to Reality by The Planetary Society

NASA's Space Launch System passed a critical milestone yesterday, but buried within the announcement was news that the first launch could slip by nearly a year.


Canadian Mars Analogue Mission: Field Report, Week 2 by The Planetary Society

Tanya Harrison wraps up the final week of Mars sample return analogue mission operations at the Canadian Space Agency.


Aspiring for more Fiasco … again by Simon Wardley

The Times today screamed one of those eye catching headlines - "Whitehall IT Fiasco" - with a fairly detailed dissection of the HMRC Aspire contract. The relished shout of "failure" was only surpassed by the monumental fallacy of "the solutions". I think it's worth exploring why.

Lets start by simply taking the Times and its "experts" views that Aspire is a project that has 'spun out of control' with 'spiralling costs' and is beset by 'previous disasters'. I won't argue whether this is true or not but simply ask the question - why?

IT failure is not an unusual story in both the public and private sector. There is however a common factor at the heart of many of these problematic systems which is best illustrated with a map. Mapping, for those who don't know, is a process of comparing value chain against evolution. In figure 1 I've provided a map from current government system (I've removed the terms describing each component because it isn't relevant). The map is derived from three user needs (components A, B & C).

Figure 1 - A 'Wardley' map


The key thing about mapping a complex environment is it teaches you that ANY complex system contains multiple components at different stages of evolution. For example, in the above map there are 24 different components, some of which are in the 'uncharted' space (3 components - D, E & F) and some are highly 'industrialised' (G to M).

Now, each of those stages of evolution have different characteristics and require different methods to manage. For example, the uncharted space is best suited to in-house development with agile techniques because it's uncertain and it requires experimentation as the requirements are unknown. However the industrialised is best suited to outsourcing to a market with highly structured methods (e.g. six sigma). The industrialised is known, it's defined.

Now, key to mapping is to realise that there is no magic one size fits all method to management. Of course, when it comes to dealing with a complex system then you could decide to apply a one size fits all approach (e.g. agile everywhere or outsource everything) rather than apply appropriate methods to each component.  However, this 'one size fits all' choice normally occurs because no-one has a map and so they don't realise that multiple methods are needed.

Now, a 'one size' can be fairly problematic. For example, suppose we decided to outsource the entire of the system described in figure 1. We are likely to want to implement a contract which describes in detail what we're getting for our money - that sounds perfectly reasonable. The supplier however is likely to implement some process for managing any changes. All very sensible. However, here's the problem. 

If you look at the map, then components D, E and F are all in the uncharted space. This means we don't actually know what we want, those components will change rapidly. But if we've implemented a one size fits all contract across the entire system based upon an idea that we do know what we want, then we're going to get stung with the expensive change control processes for components D, E and F.

To be honest, most vendors seem to know this. The beauty of this approach for them is they profit handsomely from change control and they certainly (as the article points out) have "little incentive to keep fees low for changes". Even better than this, when the customer complains then the vendor gets to blame us for not knowing what we wanted and can get to point to other more industrialised components (those that didn't change such as G to M) as having been efficiently delivered.

It's all our fault! But we couldn't know what we want! We could only know what we wanted with the more evolved, the more industrialised components.  The fault is of course with the process. We should have never outsourced these uncharted components but instead we should have used agile, in-house techniques. By all means, we should outsource the industrialised.

A better way to treat this project is described in figure 2. 

Figure 2 - using multiple methods


However, vendors tend to dislike this concept because they make a fortune on change control processes. In some cases, the effective treatment of a system as components has led to cost reductions of individual components in the order of 99.3% - 99.7%. The sums of money (or profits) involved can be significant.

So, now let us turn to Aspire or what is described as the "country's biggest IT contract … heading for disaster". I can assume (as with most private company projects) that HMRC in the past didn't have a map, which is a pity. I can only guess at that the number of components involved in a complex system like this. So let us say it is 100 - it maybe more, it maybe less. 

Now with no map, I can't tell what components are evolved and what are not. So let's take figure 2 as a benchmark and generalise it for all projects. We know from figure 2, that there are 24 components. In the legend, I've quickly summed up how many of each type exist. About 12% are uncharted and around 42% are highly industrialised with the rest in between. So let's assume this "benchmark" is also true with Aspire … it's not much to go on.

So our guess gives us around 12 uncharted components and 42 industrialised components in our 100 component system. The 12 uncharted components are more in the experimentation phase, more suitable  for in-house, agile development techniques whereas the 42 industrialised components will be suitable for outsourcing to utility providers. The remaining are suitable for products ideally with minimal change. It's worth noting that you can also map data, practices and knowledge along with activities. 

Now, at the moment we can't say (without a proper map) if those figures are even roughly right but we can be pretty certain that Aspire isn't all uncharted and it isn't all industrialised. If you decide to outsource this entire project then you're going to be hit with excessive change control costs because those 12 uncharted components will evolve, they won't stand still and we don't really know what we want. No amount of specification will solve this. We have to (and literally are forced to) experiment. 

Of course, you don't want to run the entire project in an agile manner because at least 42 industrialised components are suitable for high volume, low cost, tightly defined utility like services. 

So lets go back to the Aspire article and look at some points in detail.

1) "it's heading for disaster", "it a fail" … well as the article seem to emphasise it has been a disaster for 20 odd years. There's nothing new here other than practices around how to manage complex projects have significantly changed during that time.

2) "plans to split into 100 parts" … seems to be cited as the problem. But hold on, this system probably contains a 100 different parts. So we want to pretend it doesn't?  Breaking complex systems into relevant components rather than pretending it is one thing doesn't seem a bad idea. We don't build cars by pretending they are one thing, in fact we often have complex supply chains meeting the needs of all the components. Now, we could simply break Aspire into the relevant components and offer one supplier (as we've done in the past) all the components to provide. Ideally you'd use a market but even with a limited choice then the advantage here is we can make sure appropriate methods, measurement and contracts are deployed based upon the component. It might make a little bit more work but we're talking about a project which already has a running cost at over £8 billion and is considered to be 'spiralling out of control'. From Amazon (see two pizza) to USAF (see FIST) to Manufacturing (see the entire industry) then organisations have learned how to manage effectively componentisation with supply chains and they certainly don't find it "too difficult to manage". Why not here? Why not Gov? Treating components appropriately seems to be the sensible thing to do.

3) "It will cause chaos" … cue the old "riots on the street" line.  Given construction, automotive and many other industries have no problem with componentisation and given a worst case of getting one supplier to build all the components with appropriate methods (which they're likely to outsource some of this anyway) then I can't see how we jump to this notion. We've continued to repeat the "one size fits all" approach which has led to countless cost overruns and failures. This seems to be scaremongering and I'm not sure what the objection here is to learning from other industries.

4) "hundreds of experimental startups" - ok, this one is becoming surreal. If you break a complex system into components then you're likely to give a large number of highly industrialised components to established utility providers (e.g. companies like Amazon for infrastructure) but you won't give them all the components because some are going to be experimental (they're uncharted). For these components then you're likely to do this in-house with agile techniques or use a specialist company focused on more agile processes. I'm not sure how the "experts" jump from componentisation (a sensible action) to giving it all to "hundreds of experimental startups". This wreaks of nonsense and a desire to keep the current status quo.

5) "interfaces" - this is where we use appropriate standards. Pretending a complex 100 component system with uncharted and industrialised components that have interfaces between them is in fact one system with a one size fits all method and non existent interfaces is fantasy. Those components are there, same as the interfaces. The complexity doesn't go away simply by "outsourcing". All you've done is try and pretend that the complex thing you're building is somehow simple because then it's easier to manage. It's barking on the delusional and it's extremely poor and dated management. It would be like BMW or Apple outsourcing their entire product lines to someone else and trying to have no involvement because it makes management simple. Whilst some have apparently said that HMRC "doesn't know what it's doing", it has obviously realised that doing the same failed process over and over again won't make things better. Good on HMRC.

6) "more expertise" - let us be clear, so far the "expertise" has managed to create "spiralling", "out of control" projects over a 20 year period. Yes, the project "spiralled out of control partly because of four major renegotiations" and yes, three of those negotiations happened between 2006 to 2009 with some absolute corkers like "granting exclusivity" and costs rising from £1bn to £8.1bn by 2009. It's worth noting that when this all happened was well before any apparent "imposed ban" on management consultants. By the way, the rate of cost growth seems to have dramatically slowed since the supposed ban. 

So, can I check that what we actually need  is more of "spiralling" and "out of control" costs because that's what the "experts" seem to bring or at least the data points to this. I certainly agree that the past vogue of outsourcing had weakened the government ability to negotiate but this is changing (see OCTO, see GDS etc). I can understand why we need to develop skills in contract management and supply chains which seems to be happening as this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Other companies have, why not UK Gov?  I'm not sure why we want to take a backward step here.

7) "500 people to manage 100 contracts" - ok, this seems to be one (and there are many) of the most exaggerated claims. I used to work in purchasing, I managed around 100+ different active contracts on a daily basis with over 100 different suppliers buying everything from stationery to missile components to jet fighters. I can sort of see the argument for a team of 25-50 (at a push) but 500. I'm guessing the "experts" would have us outsource that as well, probably employing them into the bargain. 

8) "Labour" - you could point out that such monolithic disasters using inappropriate mechanisms and excessive outsourcing occurred during Labour's reign and even make pointed remarks about Ed Milliband and Ed Balls involvement. Yes, the coalition has been carefully trying to unpick the mess that was created. However, it seems pointless to dwell on the past unless there's some belief that Labour is hell bent on recreating it. I don't believe that's the case, so this is just unhelpful point scoring by the Times. Not needed.

Overall, if the report is correct then yes we seem to have a mess of a project based upon outdated methods of thinking, The problem is that the "experts" then describe the same failed and outdated modes of thinking as some sort of future solution. The article doesn't stand up to scrutiny, you could drive a truck through the gaping holes in this one. 

Yes, some past disasters are bearing fruit and need to be fixed and no, that doesn't involve repeating the same mistakes which made those disasters. As Einstein pointed out, "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". HMRC seems to be learning that.

But learning is not much of a headline or a doom laden story. Which then begs a question - why was this article really written? 

Well, as the article points out the changes have "created a backlash" and there's been "concerns over the merging of back office systems like HR and payroll". However, the civil servants I've met seem broadly supportive of the changes and understand the need to do so. Government isn't there to waste taxpayers money, it's there to ensure it is wisely spent on things we need.

So, who benefits from encouraging a move back to the past and creating fear, uncertainty and doubt over the current changes and practices? It's worth noting that these change have simplified Government websites, won design awards, led to significant cost savings (National Audit Office) and propelled UK Gov IT from a backwater to a model being copied by other Governments. 

The question you really have to ask is who stands to lose the most by the continued progress and wants to paint a picture of heading towards disaster. There are two fairly obvious candidates and this is the real question that we should be looking into. 

As for HMRC, well problems in IT are not new and it's good to see that changes are being made. Many of the problems of the past are almost certainly due to single size contracts and the "expert" opinion involved. Obviously you're ruffling feathers and that's a good thing. Keep it up.

As for the "experts" - bah humbug. Given the widespread use of componentisation concepts in multiple industries over the last decade then I'd be more inclined to haul these "experts" in front of the Public Accounts Committee and where necessary hunt down those involved in this mess and sue them into oblivion for negligence. As a taxpayer, I save my wraith for them and not HMRC. I fully understand the awful games and exploitation of change control for commercial gain that happens. My preference is to use real experts which Government is already developing in groups like GDS etc.

Good on HMRC, Good on UK Gov IT. Keep going.

---

P.S. For clarity on any bias I might have. Though I'm not an employee of UK Government (either full time or as a contractor), I do spend time at various Government departments teaching them how to map out complex environments along with observing impacts. UK Gov is a member of the private research organisation that I belong to (the LEF) and I'm given considerable freedom by the LEF and UK Gov to observe the changes. I also (many years ago) wrote the 'Better for Less' paper with Liam Maxwell et al. I'm also 'old Labour' and whilst I might strongly disagree with many coalition policies,  I'm highly supportive of the positive changes that I see being led by the Cabinet Office. You'll often hear me saying "Rock on, Francis Maude!" which gives you an idea of both my age and that I can't give two hoots about politics when it comes to having the right person in the right role.


August 27, 2014

What’s in a Heartbeat? by Astrobites

The Kepler satellite is really good at finding things that go bump in the night. Even though the spacecraft was crippled and has been repurposed as K2, there are tons of data to analyze. While Kepler’s specialty is hunting for exoplanets, it also finds lots of interesting stars along the way. As a rule, the more we look at stars imaged by Kepler, the more oddballs we find. This paper by Thompson et al. describes a new category of eccentric binary stars discovered by Kepler and dubs them “heartbeat stars.”

words

Example light curves of heartbeat stars found in the Kepler data. The light curves look somewhat similar to an echocardiogram, which prompted the name.

As you can see, heartbeat star light curves somewhat resemble an echocardiogram, which is what got them their name. But what is physically causing this odd pattern?

In a traditional eclipsing binary star system, we see a dip in the light curve when one star passes in front of the other. Heartbeat stars, on the other hand, do not always eclipse. Instead, they have extremely elliptical orbits, which causes the two stars to spend a short amount of time very close together as they race past each other and a long amount of time farther apart. The main dip and subsequent peak of the “heartbeat” signature occurs when the stars are closest together and tidal forces are incredibly strong.

When tidal forces affect a star, they distort its shape and cause brightness variations. If you visualize two perfectly spherical stars orbiting each other, the out-of-eclipse luminosity should be constant. But if the two stars slightly distort each another with tidal forces, they become somewhat squished and more like ellipsoids than spheres. As a result, you see more star surface area during one part of the orbit than another, and that causes a slight increase in overall brightness.

Now, imagine dialing this effect up by drastically increasing the orbital eccentricity. Instead of happily orbiting in circles with constant velocity, the two stars spend most of their time far apart, and a few harrowing hours racing past each other. Or, to put it another way: hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. This is a heartbeat star.

Tidally distorted light curves were first theorized in 1995, but the first well-studied example was published in 2011 using Kepler light curves. This paper presents 17 new systems on top of four that were previously known, and successfully models how the tidal distortions contribute to light curves. They also measure radial velocity points for some systems and show that these are generally consistent with the orbital solution.

Observed light curves (red) and model radial velocity curves (blue) for four heartbeat stars. The black points are observed radial velocities. The x-axis is Orbital Phase, which means that both curves are “folded” on the orbital period of each system. (Phase = 0.5 is the same physical orientation as Phase = 1.5.) The blue radial velocity model is not fit to the black points; rather, it is calculated from a model fit to the light curve and shown to be generally consistent with observations.

Observed light curves (red) and model radial velocity curves (blue) for four heartbeat stars. The black points are observed radial velocities. The x-axis is Orbital Phase, which means that both curves are “folded” on the orbital period of each system. (Phase = 0.5 is the same physical orientation as Phase = 1.5.) The blue radial velocity model is not fit to the black points; rather, it is calculated from a model fit to the light curve and shown to be generally consistent with observations.

The discovery of so many heartbeat stars raises an important question: how can they exist at all? Over time, the orbits of relatively short-period systems (it only takes these stars several days to fully orbit each other!) should become less eccentric and more circular. But if this always happened, we wouldn’t see any “heartbeats” at all. One possible explanation could be the presence of a so-called third body—a faint star or planet that perturbs the orbit and keeps it eccentric. But this is not fully understood.

A smaller effect seen in many heartbeat star light curves is pulsations. These are the little wiggles in the red light curves above—one or both stars are pulsing in and out, or “breathing,” as they orbit (see a similar situation explored in this astrobite). The authors find that the majority of the heartbeat star pulsations are some harmonic of the orbital period. This suggests that tidal distortions may be causing the pulsations, and is a very interesting topic for follow-up studies.


International Postcards from Space by The Planetary Society

A collection of pretty pictures by cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, who currently serves as a flight engineer aboard the International Space Station.


The Competition for Dollars by The Planetary Society

We all know NASA needs more money to achieve its goals. But competition for money is intense within the U.S. federal government, and two trends have made it harder for NASA to get what it needs.


China’s consumer spending is strongest in smaller cities. by Resonance China

resonance_city spending

This chart from the Boston Consulting Group takes a look at consumer spending sentiment over the last four years based on a survey of 1,000 MACs (middle-class and affluent consumers w/ RMB 7,200+ monthly income) in 12 cities across China. While the data shows recovery with 31% of MACs planning to spend more in 2014 compared with only 27% in 2013, the levels were still below 2011 and 2012 with many respondents voicing a desire to save money in order to focus spending on quality over quantity in their purchasing. When comparing MACs in large cities to their counterparts in small cities, there was a drastic difference with only 28% of tier-1 MACs planning to spend more in 2014 compared to 34% for MACs in small cities. [BCG]

根据波士顿咨询集团所发布的报告(采样一千名月薪超过7,200元并分布在中国12座城市的中产阶级)中指出,今年愿意增加花费的受访者比例大于去年同等比例,成长到31%。尽管2011及2012采集到的数据结果显示,同类消费者较倾向于少量购买高质量的商品上,今年的调研表现仍然远远低过这两年的数据 。以城乡分类,今年一线城市的受访者更加不愿意增加支出,比2012年低了7%。[BCG]


August 26, 2014

Europa: How Less Can Be More by The Planetary Society

Van Kane explains three factors that make exploring Europa hard—factors that can make a mission concept that seems like less actually be more.


How accurate is a Wardley Map? by Simon Wardley

I was recently asked how accurate the 'Wardley' maps produced of a competitive landscape are? An example map (an early draft for a border control system) is provided in figure 1.

Figure 1 - An example map.


So how accurate is it? 

Well, first all maps are simply representations of what actually exists and are hence imperfect. Second, mapping is still in its infancy i.e. we're only just learning about how to map competitive environments, how to deal with bias, how to learn and exploit the landscape. We've had about a decade of practice at tops and there is a long way to go. So whilst the maps are useful tools for discussion, for risk mitigation, for management, for scenario planning - they are not even close to being accurate.

In business, I'd reckon we're about the stage of early Babylonian maps when it comes to mapping out the competitive environment. Very basic, with some understanding of principles but still a lot more useful than no map at all.


Before geographical maps we used to rely on story telling and poems with named visible celestial features and prominent geographical landmarks to convey navigational directions. It's amusing how story telling is currently the vogue for business strategy. We've got a long way to go before we can reach the finery of military strategic play and situational awareness ... a very long way.


So ... by Charlie Stross

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

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

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


Rosetta identifies five possible landing sites for Philae by The Planetary Society

The Rosetta team has announced the selection of five regions on Churyumov-Gerasimenko that they will study as possible landing sites for little Philae. Now, as Rosetta surveys the comet from its second triangular "orbit" at an average distance of 60 kilometers, the mission will target these spots for extra attention.


Planet of the Spiders. by Feeling Listless

Music Video evidence that Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan are back together recording. Or at least they're together and afraid of spiders:


Dungeons and Dragons vs the art of business strategy by Simon Wardley

For those who have ever played Dungeons and Dragons then there are some basic practices which become ingrained. These same practices appear in MMORPG such as world of warcraft (WoW). These include ...

1) The importance of maps. Before launching your team of elves, halflings and dwarves into the midst of a battle then the first thing you do is scout out the landscape and improve your situational awareness. Understanding the landscape is critical to strategic play, to learning, to using force multipiers and to not getting spanked (beaten soundly by the opponent).

2) The importance of capabilities and roles. The biggest battles require a multitude of roles from damage (those who do our spanking usually from range) to tanking (defensive protection) to healing (those tanks get spanked a lot and need healing from our Clerics) to crowd control (those Wizard sleep spells aren't there for just looking at). The way you play and how the roles are deployed depends upon the scenario. Of course, without situational awareness then you're at a huge disadvantage.

3) The importance of team play. A multitude of roles requires team play which means communication, co-ordination, acting in the interests of the team etc. If you're taking on a Lich or a Beholder then your team (unless massively overpowered) better be on the ball. 

4) The importance of preparation. There's no point turning upto the fight with a Sphere of Annihilation if you don't know how to use it. Preparation, the role of each group, working with each other, timing and discussion of strategic / tactical plays are all essential elements to good play.

So, how does this compare to business?

1) Maps. In general we don't have them. Most companies suffer from poor situational awareness being caught out by predictable changes. The most telling factor here is that business strategy is normally a tyranny of action (how, what and when) as opposed to awareness (where and why).

2) Capabilities and Roles. On the whole, we do a bit better here as we recognise multiple capabilities (aptitudes) are needed. However, we often fall down by not considering attitude, the scenario (we have poor situational awareness) and isolation (operation in silos).

3) Team Play. We certainly try, often having team building exercises which can be a bit hit or miss. We often complain about communication despite the plethora of tools available. The problem can usually be traced back to poor situational awareness - if we don't know the landscape and create a plan of attack based upon this (replacing it instead with vague notions of vision or a story) then it's difficult to communicate how things are actually going.

4) Preparation. Almost non-existent. In some areas we might attempt scenario planning and a few exec games (e.g. imagine you're a startup trying to disrupt your business) but on the whole we're often so busy with immediate work (e.g. firefighting) that there is little time to build an effective and prepared team. The largest guilds in some of these MMORPGs have many hundreds to thousands of players supported with extensive wikis, communication mechanisms, training and development, tactical game plays, UI engineering, structure, leadership, specialist cells and information systems. 

There's an awful lot to be said for learning about these aspects from online games - though it's rarely done effectively. However for anyone under the illusion that business is some bastion of strategic play then can I suggest you spend a few minutes either watching an experienced group play D&D or an organised raid on WoW. Those people tend to use levels of strategic and tactical play that businesses can only dream of.

Fortunately in business we're often up against other organisations that equally lack situational awareness, suffer from isolation, have weak team play, poor communication and lack preparation. The effect is somewhat remarkably similar to a group of inexperienced D&D players just charging at each other. An exciting brawl of chaos with often single participants (hero players) making the difference. Of course, face either team (or in fact both teams) against an experienced and well rehearsed group then it stops becoming a brawl and starts becoming a massacre. Opposing Clerics get wiped first, followed by crowd control, tanks and then poor (and undefended) damage dealers.

In the world of business, there are some really dangerous groups out there e.g. Amazon. Don't expect to go up against them with the usual 'Charge!!' approach. You won't last long. That's a hint to those gaming companies starting to be concerned about Amazon's encroachment into their space. Start learning from your own online players.


Message for GISHWHES participants by Charlie Stross

If you are a participant in GREATEST INTERNATIONAL SCAVENGER HUNT THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN ...

Do NOT send me email.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Holding pattern by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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


Keep the money in the family by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vipshop orders grew 138% driven by China’s demand for discount e-commerce. by Resonance China

resonance_vip sales

This chart from Vipshop’s investor presentation from May 2014 reflects the online discount retailer’s bullish outlook on the market, which was recently confirmed by their results from the second quarter of this year. For the three months ending in June, Vip.com saw order volume grow 138.4% YOY to 26.3 million orders, and active consumers grow 167.9% to 9.3 million. With rising demand from consumers who refuse to pay inflated China prices for brand name goods, and a lack of retail infrastructure (outlets) for brands and suppliers to closeout excess inventory – discount ecommerce platforms like Vipshop and flash-sales sites like Glamour-sales appear well-positioned to profit from China’s online shopping boom. [Vipshop]

在唯品会所公布的投资人报告,其清楚地点出电商折扣的巨大成长空间。在今年第二季度的财报中,唯品会的年增长达到了138.4%,共完成了2,600万的订单,活跃用户也增长了167.9%,达到930万人。在中国普遍缺少大卖场(outlet)及高额的进口税收情况下,电商所提供的大幅折扣减价(唯品会)及限时抢购(魅力惠),着实地满足了中国消费者对奢侈品的需求。[Vipshop]


August 25, 2014

Cloud, 2016 and onwards ... by Simon Wardley

For me, 2016 will be an interesting year in cloud. This is fundamentally because I'll get to test whether a specific model that I built in 2005 (and wrote a business case on - the Zimki project) has any semblance to reality or not. There were numerous 'forecasts' from the model across multiple industries extending from 2015-2025. Two of these I'll mention because I've talked publicly about both and this is timely for me as I'm working on a piece on predicting the predictable for the LEF,

The first 'prediction' was that by 2020, utility computing (in all forms) would exceed $1trillion p.a. and that 'on premise' utility computing (what we call 'private cloud') would represent around 5% of the total. I've said this publicly several times and I've no reason to change my view despite the long range (15 years).
@geoffarnold : I'll stick with what I wrote '05. By 2020 utility compute market is almost $1T and private (on prem) cloud < 5% & declining.
— swardley (@swardley) May 9, 2013
The second 'prediction' was that at some point during 2015 to 2017, the decline of private cloud would start to kick in. Private cloud was always a 'transitional' model in my view. I've talked publicly about this part of the model since 2008, a year in which I narrowed the forecast down to the later part of 2016. More recently, I've said that I expect this time to turn into a bit of a bloodbath in that space. Again, this was a long range forecast and yes, I've seen no reason to change my view.

The problem with long range forecasts of this type is there appears to be a very specific uncertainty principle between the predictability of what and the predictability of when i.e. we can often accurately assign probabilities to what is going to happen but not when or vice versa. There are 'ways' to cheat this with weak signals but alas I have only ever had the most wobbly of evidence to support these weak signals.

Over the years, I've tried varying weak signals, experimenting with componentisation of forecasts, changing time ranges, altering risk of forecast and other techniques.  Bit by bit, I've been collecting data on veracity, on failures etc. It's still relatively early days and it'll take me at least a further decade before I'll know how supportable the weak signals are (if at all) and start feeling comfortable talking about it. There are some particular aspects of the work that I'm highly 'uncomfortable' with.

Hence 2016 will be an interesting year for me, part of the journey. I'm about halfway there with this by my reckoning - of course, that's a prediction which could well be suspect.


Cool animations of Phobos transits from Curiosity by The Planetary Society

Shooting video of a lumpy moon crossing the Sun and turning it into a giant googly eye is not a new activity for Curiosity, but I get a fresh thrill each time I see one of these sequences downlinked from the rover.


Amazon just bought ... by Simon Wardley

(or more specifically is in the process of buying) ... a further piece to the gaming industry puzzle.

Oh, shock!

@dermotcasey : NB IMHO I'm expecting AMZN to chew up gaming platforms, take a big bite out of grocery and then chow down on insurance.
— swardley (@swardley) November 16, 2012


Cosmic rays on the sky – where do they come from? by Astrobites

The Earth is constantly reached by highly energetic nuclei from our Galaxy and beyond that we call “cosmic rays”. When these nuclei, mostly protons, interact with our atmosphere, they produce showers of particles that can be detected by balloon experiments or by experiments on the ground. The origin of these cosmic rays is not well understood. They span such a large range of energies (from 108 eV to 1020 eV, roughly), that it is hard to think that they could have a common origin. The lower energy cosmic rays (below ~ 1017eV) are thought to arise from the remnants of supernova explosions, while the more energetic ones are suspected to come from active galactic nuclei, gamma-ray bursts and quasars in other galaxies.

In general, it is hard to pin point the direction of the sky from which the cosmic ray is coming. The typical distance (or gyroradius) that a cosmic ray can travel before changing its direction due to inhomogeneities in the magnetic field of our Galaxy is 1 light-day. Any source of cosmic rays that we can think of (like supernova remnants) are much farther away. For example, the Vela supernova remnant is 800 light years away. Hence, the initial direction of the cosmic rays should be washed out before they reach us. However, scientists are puzzled: several experiments have reported an excess of  TeV (1012 eV) cosmic rays coming from certain directions in the sky.

The High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory (HAWC) is an experiment under construction near Sierra Negra, Mexico. It is originally built for the purpose of detecting gamma-rays. However, highly energetic cosmic rays are also detected by the experiment. When a cosmic ray reaches the atmosphere, its shower of secondary particles produces Cherenkov light when they traverse HAWC’s water tanks, and it is this light that is detected. With this information, the direction of the cosmic ray can be inferred to within 1.2 degrees. On the one hand, Cherenkov light from cosmic ray showers are a nuisance to the gamma-ray observations that are the main aim of HAWC, but it also constitutes an interesting measurement on its own. After roughly one year of gathering data, HAWC has measured variations in the cosmic ray intensity across the sky at the level of 0.0001.

The TeV cosmic ray sky as seen by HAWC.

Figure 1. The TeV cosmic ray sky as seen by HAWC. Large scale variations (on scales > 60 degrees), which are sensitive to incomplete sky coverage, have been subtracted from this map. The three excess regions are identified in the map, and these coincide with those found previously by other experiments. Figure 5 of Abeysekara et al.

The HAWC team has found an excess of cosmic rays coming from three different regions of the sky, as shown in Figure 1 above. All of these regions had previously been identified by other experiments (the Milagro experiment and ARGO-YBJ), and one of these regions is now detected more clearly in the HAWC data, confirming the previous results. The colors in the map indicate the significance level: a comparison of the level of detection of each feature to the noise in the measurement. The authors also explore the energy spectrum of the cosmic rays coming from Region A, the most significant region detected, and they find them to be more energetic than those that come from the whole sky, on average.

The team has also computed the power spectrum of the cosmic ray intensity. This is a function that tells us the relative abundance of intensity variations of a given scale in the map (commonly used in cosmology), and it is shown below in Figure 2. The blue points give the power spectrum of the whole map, while the red points correspond to a version of the map where the largest scale variations have been subtracted. The gray bands indicate the expected result if the cosmic rays came from random directions in the sky. Both the detection of the three excess regions and the structure in this plot can help elucidate the structure of the magnetic field in the neighborhood of the Earth, the physics of how cosmic rays propagate throughout the interstellar medium and the locations of Galactic sources of cosmic rays.

Power spectrum of cosmic ray intensity map from the HAWC measurements.

Figure 2. Power spectrum of cosmic ray intensity map from the HAWC measurements. The blue points correspond to the power spectrum of the map of the whole sky, while for the red points, the largest scales variations have been subtracted. The authors are most interested in the red power spectrum in this work, which shows variations in the intensity of cosmic rays across the sky on scales smaller than 60 degrees. Figure 8 of the Abeysekara et al.

 

 

 


Best-ever Neptune mosaics for the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2's flyby by The Planetary Society

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune, image magician Björn Jónsson has produced two new global mosaics of the distant ice giant, the highest-resolution ever made.


Which countries are restricting social media access? by Resonance China

resonance_social media blocking

This infographic from WhoisHostingThis.com breaks down the state of social media firewalls around the world. There’s no underestimating the way that China’s digital ecosystem has been shaped by guidelines that have favored domestic platforms like Weibo, Youku, and Baidu – but as the lines blur between mobile apps and browser-based websites, it will be interesting to see how booming global messaging apps and photo-sharing platforms will evolve, and whether brands will invest in domestic equivalents or choose to promote their global channels here. [WhoIsHostingThis.com]

WhoisHostingThis.com发布的信息图,囊括了世界各地封锁社交媒体的概况。不能否认的是,在中国封锁世界领先社交媒体的同时,其自身的相似平台(微博、优酷、百度)已建立了庞大的用户群并站稳脚步。[WhoIsHostingThis.com]


August 24, 2014

Deep Breath. by Feeling Listless



TV Evening. Well then yes, ok, there wasn’t a possible scenario in which I wouldn’t write about Doctor Who on Doctor Who night, especially after Keith said such nice things in the comments. There was a moment when I thought, you know what, they can do without me, I want Doctor Who to be just about Doctor Who and not about spending the following two hours writing about it before bedtime and the fixing process during the wait for the ratings in the morning. Why can’t I just make a few weak jokes on Twitter, tut at Gallifrey Base for two minutes then go off and wait for it to appear on the iPlayer so I can watch it again in HD, my television still being one the ones which says it's HD until you try to watch Freeview and the true horror of the deception is revealed. Yet, it’s Saturday night and here I am typing along to Adele’s Daydreamer.  Again? Why? Why?

Well, because, frankly, there’s so much to write about. Even after nine years of being back on television, Doctor Who, the entity, the programme, the worldwide broadcasting phenomena, the franchise of franchises, still has the capacity, well the capacity to be old and new, borrowed and blue (actually with as slightly sepia hew but we’ll cover that in the relevant paragraph). It would have been very easy to simply continue the style and substance into the next Doctor’s reign, for the “Moffat era” to have a cohesive sheen ready for cultural theorists to pick over when the next person, sorry Mark Gatiss takes over, but like JNT when Andrew (one l) Cartmel took charge, or earlier under Graham Williams when Douglas Adams handed on to Anthony Root, the tone has changed.  It’s a different programme.  Except thanks to the differing mechanics of how television work now, it’s the same writer.

There’s a new executive producer of course.  But due to the differing balance of power now, this whole shift was Moffat’s choice. He’s been a bit cautious in the run up to publication/projection about exactly how he views the change other than to say it was important to refresh things, and all we've really heard otherwise from both opening director Ben Wheatley (that’s A Field In England's Ben Wheatley) (for goodness sake) and Jenna, was about a darker tone, the scenes being longer, being more like the classic series which seems like a decent structure for the next few paragraphs. There’s just a general sense, despite the presence of the Paternoster Gang and a familiar adversary from the past, of everything being in the air, of the last vestiges of what we might expect from nuWho becoming something which isn’t really, is something else. There’s a political analogy here somewhere, probably, but it escapes me in a way that it doesn’t.

Darkness is an interesting word. How is the show darker? Clara’s literally breathless escape attempt isn’t that different an action beat to Amy pretending she has her eyes closed in the forest even if the former lacks the Doctor’s comforting voice to guide her. Is it that we genuinely didn’t think for a moment that the Doctor wouldn’t return to save Clara? Is it that for a second we thought he’d done something unmentionable to the homeless person to gain his clothes? That he called him a tramp? That he was capable of piking the clockwork man? Notice that we didn’t see a human spontaneously combust, just the dinosaur. Is it that lots of the scenes are visibly lit darker? The new creamier hue to the photography over the previous blues and greens? I’m not sure that it’s much “darker” in terms of story than previously in the likes of The Waters of Mars. We’ll return to this I expect. At this point I’m not sure.  I'll get back to you.

Yes, the scenes are longer, and how. Whole scenes full of dialogue, characters talking that go on for minute upon minute without cutting away to something else. Which isn’t to say that in previous post-2005 years there haven’t been long scenes, and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit springs to mind in this regard, yet here the scenes often play out in oners, on steadycams like some John Wells production or indeed the camera simply abides, with the action playing out within frame. That creates a new sense of unease as we expect a cut away to some other piece of business and yet there’s Clara going and having a look out of the window.  We’re not already in the drawing room with Vastra and Jenny. This post-credits scene is six minutes long. Clara’s confrontation with Vastra’s another four minutes. Clara’s initial meeting with the Doctor in Mancini’s is ten minutes before the lift starts.

Lord knows how this will work in a much shorter run time and there’s the potential that along with the simplistic overall story, it’s simply a function of Deep Breath’s duration (finally mentioned the title) and introducing Peter Capaldi (and the new lead actor) nevertheless there’s a genuine sense of taking mid-twentyteens sensibilities and reintegrating the pacing of the classic series circa the 70s and early 80s.  Even to the point that you can guess which bits might have been shot in the studio and which on film even though its all shot on HD.  Even to the point that you wonder if some of those interior shots which are supposed to be exterior are purposefully looking like interior shots which are supposed to be exterior (because they do) (the beach). I’m almost amazed they bothered to create a CG T-Rex and didn’t simply buy a Walking With Dinosaurs action model from Amazon and push it into frame.

Except the tonal shift runs deeper. After previous regenerations we've been slap bang into a story set "now" (or "year from now"), partly because it was to RTD’s taste and expectation of the need for audience recognition and then Moffat aping such as a way of settling the audience into what was his new house-style then. Yet, here we are again in Victorian London, a place which in the past couple of years has the same claim to being the show’s “contemporary” setting as well, a contemporary setting. This isn’t quite like the shift from Pertwee to Baker.  The Fourth Doctor was annoyed whenever the Brigadier dragged him back to Earth. It’s a shift in how the Moffat somewhat trusts the audience to keep with the show (more later) even when the setting doesn’t reflect their world, presumably because at this point the pretence that Earth-5556 has anything to do with the real world is unforeseeable.

But like The Eleventh Hour, he’s careful to provide enough points of familiarity, not least Vastra, Jenny and Strax being brilliant (and complaining about their screen time is like moaning about the Brigadier and Harry being in Robot a lot). Clara’s vital in this too, since as the other main tributary of continuity, she’s now shifted from being plot point in search of a character to fully fledged companion and viewpoint figure for the audience saying all the things we might potentially say about the new Doctor, perhaps voicing many of the comments that greeted Capaldi’s announcement in comment sections across the web. You could view that whole scene as Vastra telling such people to behave themselves and hold in their ageist prejudices. To an extent, that’s the bad cop approach, essentially saying “He’s the Doctor whether you like it or not…” and people will react to that the way that people will react to things.

Having always been a fan of Jenna Coleman, but understanding people’s resistance to her because of her status within the arc of the bottom eight last year, I was unsurprised by her luminance in Deep Breath. Having been hired because of her chemistry with one leading man, she’s continued that, albeit in a different way, with another and yes, I’m going to say it, in much the same way as Lis Sladen back in the day. Unlike Sarah-Jane however, this is arguably the same Clara. It’s simply, as we’ve discussed, she has tons more dialogue and character beats which aren’t about plot so much as giving her some extra dimensions. One oddity is her not apparently knowing who Amy is, or indeed the notion of regeneration which is which is at variance with what we saw in The Name of the Doctor, Clara and the TARDIS and The Ultimate Guide. Hmm….

The good cop approach is Matt Smith storming re-emergence at the end. This had been spoiled months ago by someone eavesdropping on set that day, but they’d surmised it was some message, yet instead here he was, the previous model interloping on his successors introduction. When was this shot? During the Time of the Doctor with Jenna filming the other side of the scene months later?  Pixley only know but if so, it’s seamless and again, a new approach to an old problem but a problem which has changed slightly also thanks to the reason why the show went on the transcontinental publicity tour. Matt Smith helped break the show across the world and to some extent it is for that audience to reassure them that this is the same character with a different face. It’s also for kids for whom he was their first Doctor to reassure them of the same thing, in a different way.

You could ask why this is necessary - Tom’s Doctor didn’t phone Peter’s companions to reassure them ("Hello, Adric? Is that you? Could you put Nyssa on, I want to have a chat about the new chap.") but like I said Matt Smith is, or rather was as much a part of the brand as the TARDIS and sonic screwdrivers and although the show has always sold internationally it was nothing like this. Even the New York Times today ran a Capaldi interview and I haven’t seen Twitter speaking with one voice to quite this degree outside of proper news stories since the 50th. More than ever this is a managed transition and if those closing moments resemble anything, it's a US presidential inauguration albeit with a time and space machine being handed over rather than a country, and a single fictional constituent who didn’t vote for change to be convinced that it’ll be ok.

Having just rewatched that scene back it’s notable just how well directed and edited it is. When Twelfth asks Clara to look at him, his eyebrows and the rest of his face fill the frame but when we cut back to Jenna it’s from a side on view, then back to Capaldi’s face and it’s like we’re viewing him together and I bet there were a few of us who did finally accept him as the Doctor in the moment when she finally hugged him (though given the complex cleverness of his performance I expect it was much earlier than that). In an episode which if Extradential is anything to go by was shot in continuity, we can see the actor learning to play the character on screen as the character discovers himself and in those moments it is as though the performance reaches a nexus point (having toured a fair few Baker and Tennant-like moments along the way). He is the Doctor and I like it a lot.

Which would be the perfect conclusion to this thing I wasn’t going to write especially since it’s gone midnight, but what to make of the ending after the ending? Having said that the story arcs would be on the low-low this year here’s Michelle Gomez dressed as Eliza Doolittle and claiming to be the Doctor’s girlfriend Missy (“I mean Mom.”) (no scratch that, wrong telephone box) in what looks like the garden simulation from The Girl Who Waited. It seems like a classic misdirect from Moffat to cause to us moan about the adherence of the repeated Melody-Lem but if she is the one who's helping to keep these two together, whatever could her motive be? All will be hopefully be revealed in time for the 51st anniversary, give or take a couple of weeks. Has the Doctor given up on his quest for Gallifrey or will she turn out to be the vital clue that leads to its resurrection?


August 23, 2014

Projects, Products, Open Source and Proprietary by Simon Wardley

A couple of points to note on terms. I'll use figure 1 and 2 to describe the process of change. For those completely unfamiliar with mapping then I'd suggest watching the video and reading through the slides provided in the early post on 'Playing Chess with Companies'.

Figure 1 - A 'Wardley' Map


Figure 2 - Evolution


From figure 1 : the overall map might be referred to as a system, line of business, programme, environment or even a project. It depends upon what you're looking at. Any complex environment however can be broken into multiple components sub components describing activities, practices or data. This is what figure 1 shows you - a complex environment consisting of multiple components.

Point A - Evolution (the x-axis)
The x-axis of a map describes evolution and you can read more about how this was created in this earlier post. The actual pattern I first used in 2004 at EuroFoo but it took until 2006/2007 to collect enough data to confirm it. Figure 2 shows how the pattern and the different domains on that x-axis are related. The terms here are very specific. I've used the same letters on both figure 1 & 2 to show the links.

Point B - Genesis : if you look at figure 1 you'll note point B - the creation of a new and novel act. Please note, this does not mean the first time that YOU have created the act but the first time that THE act itself has been created. If you examine figure 2, you will note that Genesis (also noted as point B) has low ubiquity and certainty. What this means is the act is rare, poorly understood and hence likely to change. Other terms used to describe Genesis are innovation, original, origin, unique etc.

Point C - Custom built :  refers to the re-implementation or copying of the act by others. From figure 2, the act is still fairly rare (i.e. low ubiquity) and poorly defined (i.e. low certainty) but it is more common and better defined than genesis. Such acts are also often described as bespoke, projects, own build etc.

Point D - Product :  the act has now become common and well defined enough (see figure 2) that products can be introduced. This is a world of feature differentiation, competition between vendors, development of brand etc. During this time we often see rental services appear (see figure 2).

Point E - Commodity :  the act has now become common and well defined enough (see figure 2) that feature differentiation no longer matters. The act is widespread, well defined and suitable for volume operation provision of good enough components. During this time we often see utility services appear (see figure 2) such services often being described as platforms.

Ok, so that's the basics of evolution. Now a couple of additional points are needed.

Point F - Uncharted to Industrialised : the map in figure 1 is not a static diagram as every component is evolving (from left to right) due to competition (supply an demand). As the acts evolve their characteristics change. Hence :-
Everything on the map is evolving between those two states as long as competition exists.

Point G - Methods : because components are evolving between polar opposite characteristics (uncharted to industrialised) then the methods you require are also different i.e. Genesis requires agile techniques wheres commodity requires approaches like six sigma. Since any complex system will have multiple components at different stages of evolution then any environment is unlikely to be suitable for a single size method and instead you need to use both whether agile + six sigma or push + pull or networked + hierarchical or Hayek + Keynes.

Point H - Manipulation : points on the map can be manipulated by either accelerating or de-accelerating evolution. This is done by changing competition, for example open approaches will tend to accelerate. Patents, FUD and constraints can be used to de-accelerate.

Now, on the question of open vs proprietary then there is little evidence to suggest that either approach is better for the genesis of a novel act (I undertook a research report on this question back in 2011). However, there's plenty of evidence to show that an open approach will quickly drive an act to a more evolved state and that an open approach creates natural advantages (due to switching, interop etc) in the more evolved states (i.e. the more industrialised). 

It should also be noted that evolution equally applies to activities, practices, data and knowledge. When it comes to basic core research (the creation of novel concepts etc) it is worth noting that the majority of this is government funded (see national science foundation study) as opposed to applied research (used in developing products etc). However, the most significant changes in our society don't actually come from the genesis of an act (i.e. the first source of electricity provision - the Parthian Battery in 400AD) but instead from industrialisation of an act (Westinghouse and Tesla, utility provision of A/C electricity).  Hence, if a Government wanted to accelerate the rate of change in society and overall progression towards a more technically advanced society then the logical thing would be to open source / open commons all core research in order to drive it to a more industrialised state.

On the origins of this work, the map - commonly known as a 'Wardley' map or value chain mapping (though the latter term can be confused with Kaplan's value chain maps which are something entirely different) - and the evolution axis are entirely original pieces of work dating from 2004-2007. They are provided creative commons share alike purely for the reason of encouraging industrialisation of the process and improving situational awareness between companies. I have my reasons for having open sourced this method - part of which was contribution back to the community and the other part was around encouraging progress.


A rough guide to competitive mapping by Simon Wardley

I've been asked for a lot of advice on mapping recently. Some of it has been fairly basic, so I've put together a rough guide to get people started.


Steps for mapping - a rough guide from Simon Wardley


UR #15: Colors of Quasars by Astrobites

astrobitesURlogoThe undergrad research series is where we feature the research that you’re doing. If you’ve missed the previous installments, you can find them under the “Undergraduate Research” category here.

Did you just wrap up a senior thesis? Are you getting started on an astro research project? If you, too, have been working on a project that you want to share, we want to hear from you! Think you’re up to the challenge of describing your research carefully and clearly to a broad audience, in only one paragraph? Then send us a summary of it!

You can share what you’re doing by clicking on the “Your Research” tab above (or by clicking here) and using the form provided to submit a brief (fewer than 200 words) write-up of your work. The target audience is one familiar with astrophysics but not necessarily your specific subfield, so write clearly and try to avoid jargon. Feel free to also include either a visual regarding your research or else a photo of yourself.

We look forward to hearing from you!

************

Poruri Sai Rahul
Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, India
http://rahulporuri.github.io/

Rahul is pursuing an integrated BS and MS degree in physics at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He’s also the head of the amateur astronomy club, Astro IITM. He did the work below under the guidance of Prof. Anand Narayanan at the Indian Institute for Space science and Technology, Trivandrum, India.

Colors of Quasars from the SDSS DR9

The practice of photometric redshift estimation through multi-band photometry was initially put forth by Baum 1962 but has only become popular and powerful at the turn of the century. The efficiency of these methods depends greatly on the amount of overlap between adjacent filters, which is why photometry using SDSS u, g, r, i, z and 2MASS J, H, K bands has an advantage over the conventional UBVRI photometry.

Colors of Quasars by Richards et al. 2001 is a study of the color-color and color-redshift relationships of 2625 quasars, mostly from the SDSS DR3 catalog. As only part of the original data set was available on the internet, instead of reproducing the results, I worked on extending them using quasar data from the SDSS DR9. Using sql query, I retrieved photometric data on 146,659 quasars and constructed the color-color and color-redshift relations. Variation in the color can be explained using the various emission and absorption lines that are characteristic of quasars. Refer to sec. 4.3 of Richards et al. 2001 for a detailed explanation.

 

Looking at one of the interesting features, it can be seen that there's a large scatter in u-g color at high redshifts. As mentioned in sec 4.3, the rapid rise is due to the Lyman alpha forest and lyman-limit systems entering the u band causing there to be little to no flux!

Looking at one of the interesting features, it can be seen that there’s a large scatter in u-g color at high redshifts. As mentioned in sec 4.3, the rapid rise is due to the Lyman alpha forest and lyman-limit systems entering the u band causing there to be little to no flux!


August 22, 2014

Radio Problems Scrub LightSail's Day-in-the-Life Test by The Planetary Society

A pesky radio problem that has occasionally stymied LightSail has returned, scrubbing the mission's day-in-the-life test.


Curiosity update, sols 697-726: Mars thwarts driving and drilling by The Planetary Society

The Mars gremlins really had it in for Curiosity this month. A computer glitch and slippery sand conspired to delay the rover's progress toward Mount Sharp. And shifting rocks proved unsafe for drilling. The rover will continue driving toward Mount Sharp, departing Bonanza King without drilling, skirting Hidden Valley along a plateau to its north.


Philae landing site selection process under way as Rosetta closes to within 60 kilometers of the comet by The Planetary Society

Rosetta spent the week transitioning to a lower orbit from which it continues to observe the comet. This weekend, the mission will select about five landing sites for more detailed study. They have also now estimated the mass of the comet.


More Blog Updates. by Dan Catt

So last time I wrote I was all "Yay, writing" and then promptly didn't do any more. Basically because I was yet again updating the code that runs this blog and couldn't really create anything new until it was done.

It's still not done, but it's done enough to write another post and most likely break your RSS readers again.

Sorry about that.

But hopefully all being well I can now focus on getting back on track again, and also finally getting all my Flickr photos back online. All of which I'll detail in another post.


The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen). by Feeling Listless



Written by Mary Schmich
[from the single: 'Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)', EMI, 2000]

Five pieces of music which make me cry:

(1) ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ – The Spinners
(2) ‘Moonlight Sonata’
(3) ‘Abide with me’
(4) ‘Dignity’ – Deacon Blue
(5) ‘The Sunscreen Song’

[Commentary:

Five more pieces of music which make me cry.

(6) 'The JCB Song' - Nizpoli
(7) 'This is Heaven To Me' - Madeline Peyroux
(8) 'Closing of the Year' - Wendy and Lisa
(9) 'Claire De Lune'
(10) 'Into The West' - Annie Lennox]


Free Shakira. by Feeling Listless

Music Musical artists having their music given away free has a range of implications, so it was with a deep breath and heavy sigh when I was notified because I'm on her publicity mailing list that Shakira's new album is being given away free to people who download her iphone app.

But I still quite like Shakira (having been there since just on the cusp of Laundry Surface) but had entirely forgotten to buy the album. Now a mobile phone company has paid for a copy for me. Which is fine.

You can have a free copy too if you download the app and follow the instructions. They do ask you to fork over your email address and mobile number so I suppose it also depends on how squeemish you are about that sort of thing.

The track Empire has the lyric"And stars make love to the universe ..." if that helps.  Rihanna's on one of the other tracks too.


August 21, 2014

Basic rules of mapping by Simon Wardley

I've been asked for a basic set of rules on mapping. Tough question, so I thought I'd simply write down the process by which I develop my own maps. This isn't a list you should follow in stepwise order but instead a continual set of guiding principles to be applied. Be warned, it's rough notes.

Focus on Needs
The most important part of any map is the user need. Take care not to confuse this with your own needs, they are not the same. Needs change over time, new needs can appears as activities evolve. Don't ever think needs stand still. If you have multiple types of users then there's nothing wrong with creating multiple maps.

Meaningfully Tiny.
When mapping you should always aim to break down systems into as small a components as possible. In some cases you might want to have a high level component and then go and create a separate map for it e.g. a high level map (think world atlas) and then more detailed maps for components of interest (think street view).

Act Appropriately
When looking at a map, you want to do the minimal possible for creating whatever it is that you've mapped. Look to outsource commodity components or consume utility services. However, for those things you need to build then use an appropriate set of methods e.g. agile for development of novel components, six sigma if you're building an industrialised service, lean if it's a product in between.

Challenge Constantly
Whenever you have a map, share it with others. Get them to question the map, challenge the assumptions and you need to listen! Look at the outside market, especially mature markets. Challenge biases. Remember the map is fluid, things will change over time.

Order! Order!
When using your map to plan your attack and try and change a market or to build and exploit ecosystems or to use any of a hundred different tactical approaches then remember the order!

Good Enough
No map is ever perfect. You can spend a lifetime trying to perfectly map something by which time it has all changed. The purpose of a map is to improve situational awareness and it doesn't take a great deal to do this. Think hours, maybe days when mapping before you start to act. Longer than that and you're taking too long, though obviously if it's your first time at mapping then give yourself a bit of leeway. Remember your map isn't going to stand still, it'll change.

Adapt to Facts 
To repeat - No map is ever perfect -  be prepared to change it, to iterate, to adapt to the situation on the ground, to events as they happen and to new sources of information. A map is a fluid instrument. 

Learn
Record what worked, what didn't and what patterns emerged. Maps are fundamentally a communication and learning instrument as opposed to a pretty visualisation for a presentation. They're often messy but that's not a bad thing.

Start
Probably the most important rule of all. You can't learn about mapping by reading about it. You have to go and do it, you have to try it. It's a bit like playing chess, there's only so far that reading books will get you. Eventually you have to play the game.

It's not really a catchy list but I thought it might help some. 


Mature Galaxies in an Immature Universe by Astrobites

Understanding galaxy evolution is a major goal of astronomy. In recent years, much work has been done to understand how galaxies can alter their appearances, form stars or bar structures, how they behave in groups and clusters, and much more. It is an active topic of research, and we are gradually beginning to put together a solid picture of how galaxies grow and mature. However, the most serious challenge lies in understanding the earliest eras of galaxy evolution, how the first galaxies formed, and under what conditions. It’s an open question deeply connected to our understanding of cosmology, and the main difficulty in answering it is simply that it’s extremely hard to see the earliest galaxies.

Astronomers use the fact that light takes time to travel to look back in time. If our telescopes catch light that has been travelling for seven billion years to reach us, then that light was originally emitted roughly around when the universe was half of its present age, by today’s estimates. The farther out we look, the farther back we look. Of course, there are incredible technological hurdles to overcome if we want to keep looking farther out. Finding the earliest galaxies requires long exposures on very sensitive instruments, plus some handy tricks like the ones described in this paper.

Figure1

An example of a model Ballmer break galaxy at redshift z=3.6. The break is bracketed by two filters used in this work. Such a galaxy would appear bright in the HAWK-I Ks image, but dim in the Hubble F160W image (from Figure 1 in the text).

The authors of this work describe how they found 16 extremely distant galaxies in the data of the CANDELS survey using what’s called a “break” method: a “break” is a point in a spectrum where the light intensity sharply drops off, mainly because certain colors of light are being absorbed by dust or gas. This means that if you were to take two pictures of the same galaxy in two different filters, one below the break and one above the break, you’d see nothing in the first picture, and a bright galaxy in the second picture (see Figure 1). This spectral feature will then be redshifted with distance, creating a method to potentially find galaxies with these features at great distances.

For a long time, astronomers have used the Lyman Break technique for this sort of thing, but a galaxy has to be forming a lot of stars to have a Lyman break. But a massive and evolved galaxy wouldn’t register with that technique, and some recent studies have shown that such galaxies do exist at such early times. For that reason, the authors use the Ballmer break instead, since it appears in evolved galaxies. Examining the selected galaxies shows that they are between redshifts 3 and 4.5, which means we are seeing them as they were when the universe was only about 1 to 2 billion years old!

There is more to learn from the photometric data, as they include photometry in 14 different filters. By matching all these wavelengths to model galaxy spectra, it is possible to get a rough idea of how old and massive the galaxies must be. The authors find that the galaxies are quite massive (an average mass of ∼ 5×10^10 solar masses) and relatively old: an average age of about 800 million years, at a time when the universe was no older than 2 billion years. That leads to the surprising conclusion that an old, evolved and mostly quiescent (not star forming) collection of galaxies formed this early in the universe – a population of galaxies that we are only now starting to uncover. It is possible that some of these galaxies formed the bulk of their mass only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang and might be the descendants of Lyman break galaxies at higher redshift. Figuring out just how this newly-discovered type of galaxy fits into the larger picture of galaxy formation and the evolution of the universe will tell us quite a bit about these early times. More research is needed!

 

Figure2

Two of the sixteen galaxies described in this work, as seen in the 14 different passbands used (from Figure 10 in the paper).


Comet Flyby Missions for Mars Rovers by The Planetary Society

On October 19, the Mars rovers — like their orbiting cousins — will become comet flyby missions. Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) will pass within 140,000 km of Mars.


Stardust@home Finds Some Stardust by The Planetary Society

What’s new at Stardust@home, the groundbreaking program that asked volunteers to help find interstellar dust particles collected by the spacecraft Stardust.


"Where's Earth-1?" by Feeling Listless



TV While I continue to ponder what I'll be doing after Doctor Who on Saturday night, here's what's happening in some other mythology trying to tie-down the rules of how their universe works as though that's a good thing and won't end up handcuffing or more accurately straight-jacketing creatives and fans for the next few decades. Some notes:

(1) The best thing about the video is the presenter's t-shirt. That is a very cool t-shirt.

(2) Where's Earth-1? Is that the pre-52 Earth? Why's it not on the map? Or is the whole Flashpoint thing supposed have changed the whole of the multiverse?

(3) In this context, presumably "Earth" means "Universe"? In which case what about Krypton?

(4) So Hades is also the phantom zone and it exists outside of normal space. Does that mean all of the various Kryptons in all of these universes send their criminals there? Can these criminals meet each other and interact? Isn't there some duplication? What about the good people sent their by the Justice League of super-villains?

(5) I like all of the maneuvering in trying to crowbar in all of the monotheistic and polytheistic religions, though its notable that its essentially "heaven" and "miscellaneous land".

(6) I do like the classical philosophical vibe.

(7) How does this fit in with the Omniverse?

(8) Haven't DC readers suffered enough?


Loncon 3: Charlie's worldcon schedule by Charlie Stross

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

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

Note: the first event is provisional.




Wednesday 13th

6pm, Forbidden Planet, 179 Shaftesbury Ave, London

Titan Books mass signing

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




Thursday 14th

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

12:00—13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

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

The Fermi Paradox in Light of the Kepler Mission

19:00—20:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL)

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




Friday 15th

Scientists vs Authors Quiz

22:00—23:30, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)

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




Saturday 16th

Autographing

12:00—13:00, Autographing 9

Literary Beer

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




Sunday 17th

Reading: Charles Stross

15:00—15:30, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)

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




Monday 18th

Rat's Monkey's Ass

10:00—11:00, Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)

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

The Ruling Party

15:00—16:30, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

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




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


Who Owns SF? by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


August 20, 2014

Canadian Mars Analogue Mission: Field Report, Week 1 by The Planetary Society

Tanya Harrison reports on Canada's efforts to simulate a Mars sample return mission here on Earth.


"an utterly beautiful expression of human achievement" by Feeling Listless



Dance Find above the opening ceremony for the current Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing which I watched this afternoon, and, frankly, it's awesome. Empty theatrics in comparison the London 2012 achievements, but still an utterly beautiful expression of human achievement. The first hour is essentially the admin, flag parade and speeches and you can skip that if you like, but shift to minute 1:08 and prepare to gape. If the dance version of Andrew Graham Dixon's Art of China doesn't do it for you, the chunk after that really should.  Wow.  Oh and watch on a big screen if you can, yes definitely.


Confidential Extra. by Feeling Listless

TV You will have read about this everywhere else already but in an unexpected or not unexpected move, the BBC, or more specifically the iPlayer which has quickly turned itself into a new television channel via the back door (and the line leading BT Wholesales junction box) have announced they're resurrecting Doctor Who Confidential Cutdowns, sorry Doctor Who Extra:

"The BBC has today announced Doctor Who Extra - a brand new series, exclusively on BBC iPlayer. Doctor Who Extra is much more than a ‘making of’ show as we follow Peter Capaldi every step of the way throughout the creation of his first season as the Doctor. Over the course of 12 programmes we trace the highs and lows of Doctor Who’s most ambitious run of episodes yet, getting the inside take on series 8 from the people who made it."
Or the "lows" as far as we can tell you now because let's face it you'll have to wait another twenty years when everyone's left the programme and the extra features on the super enhanced version of the show on whatever medium its delivered on for the real dirt about fallings out and actors being grumpy on set (but not too much because we've all still got to meet each other in Big Finish's green room) (in the unlikely event they have the license for nuWho by then).

Of course the real question now is whether I'll watch this before I write each review, assuming I am going to review the next series.  I still haven't decided.  Sometimes I quite enjoyed myself post episode knocking together an opinion.  But sometimes it was a real trial and part of me wants to be simply be able to watch them to watch them, rather than having the need for an opinion knocking around at the back of my mind right the way through.


"everything is just about Doctor Who" by Feeling Listless

Books More proof, as if you needed it, that everything is just about Doctor Who. Not having read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, I didn't have any idea that there was a character called Jamie. On the occasion of the tv adaptation beginning transmission and Fraser Hines being cast, Doctor Who News has highlighted this post on the author's website about what inspired her to write the series:

"I rarely watch TV, but at the time I was in the habit of viewing weekly PBS reruns of Doctor Who (a British science-fiction serial), because it gave me just enough time to do my nails. So, while pondering the setting for my hypothetical historical novel, I happened to see one very old episode of Doctor Who featuring a "companion" of the Doctor's-a young Scottish lad named Jamie MacCrimmon, whom the Doctor had picked up in 1745. This character wore a kilt, which I thought rather fetching, and demonstrated-in this particular episode-a form of pigheaded male gallantry that I've always found endearing: the strong urge on the part of a man to protect a woman, even though he may realize that she's plainly capable of looking after herself.

"I was sitting in church the next day, thinking idly about this particular show (no, oddly enough, I don't remember what the sermon was about that day), when I said suddenly to myself, Well, heck. You want to write a book, you need a historical period, and it doesn't matter where or when. The important thing is just to start, somewhere. Okay. Fine. Scotland, eighteenth century."
The character's full name is Jamie Fraser, but she says he didn't know what the actor's name was until ages after she named him because the episode's credits were missing.  Now, that is weird.  Three sleeps.


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

resonance_hotel reviews

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

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


August 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


App store annoyances by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gods and genre by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Takes Soft, Still

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

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

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

Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discuss.

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


Introducing new guest blogger: Nicola Griffith by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shakes It All. by Feeling Listless


Keynes vs Hayek by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

Figure 1 - Predictability and the economic cycle.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

resonance_tmall brands wsj

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

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


August 18, 2014

Income inequality, growth and mobility. by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hiatus by Charlie Stross

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


"and Steven Moffat" by Feeling Listless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change the world through changing yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Herschel’s View of a Neighboring Planetary System by Astrobites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New Postcards from Mars by The Planetary Society

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


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

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


Amnesty Local. by Feeling Listless

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

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

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


WeChat hits 438 million monthly active users. by Resonance China

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

日前,腾讯发布2014年第二季度财报,公布微信月平均活数已超亿多,直逼Whatsapp的五亿群。根据腾讯及南美洲市的大布局,很多预测,今年微信很有可能超越Whatsapp,成为拥有最多用的移端通讯应用。[TechinAsia]


August 17, 2014

Attention, toilet door is not locked! by Zarino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Button for opening the toilet door on a Virgin Pendolino train

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

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

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

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

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

The door lock controls on a Virgin Pendolino train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*sigh*

Sign above toilet flusher, telling you about toilet flusher

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Rumour Has It. by Feeling Listless

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

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

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

Bye bye 25... See you again later in the year x pic.twitter.com/HEmY14El5s
— Adele (@OfficialAdele) May 4, 2014


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


August 15, 2014

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

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


The OCO-2 First Light Spectra by The Planetary Society

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


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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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


A white dwarf eating a debris disk by Astrobites

600px-Artist’s_impression_of_debris_around_a_white_dwarf_star

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 3.21.40 PM

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

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


Four things that annoy me with strategy. by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1 - A Map


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

Figure 2 - ILC.

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

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

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

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

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


Jennifer Lawrence's Cinematic Crush. by Feeling Listless







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


August 14, 2014

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The show I keep coming back to.

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


August 13, 2014

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

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


Migrating Super-Earths vs. Terrestrial Planets by Astrobites

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

Super-Earths: Not So Earth-Like

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

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

Super-Earths vs. Terrestrial Planet Formation

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

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

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

Some Simulations

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

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

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

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

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

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

But What About Us?

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


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

resonance_ADI best practices apac long

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

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


August 12, 2014

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

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


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

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


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

resonance_luxury consumer journey

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

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


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Updated using Planet on 2 September 2014, 05:48 AM


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