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)

October 23, 2014

The Curse of Laundry by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 22, 2014

Some thoughts on turning 50 by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's basically it.

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

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

Herschel observations of Comet Siding Spring initiated by an amateur astronomer by The Planetary Society

The European satellite Herschel acquired images of Comet Siding Spring before its death in 2013 — thanks to an observing proposal from an amateur astronomer!

The Singles’ Club by Astrobites

Title:The Kepler dichotomy among the M dwarfs: half of systems contain five or more coplanar planets
Authors: Sarah Ballard & John Johnson
First author’s institution: University of Washington
Status: Submitted to ApJ

The Kepler dichotomy

The Kepler spacecraft hasn’t just found transiting exoplanets: it’s found transiting exoplanet systems. Hundreds of alternative Solar-systems have been spotted just a few hundred light years away, and Ballard & Johnson want to use them to describe the population of planetary systems across the entire galaxy.

Exoplanets only transit if they pass between their host star and the Earth, blocking out a little light once every orbital period. Sometimes we see more than one planet transit in the same system, which means they lie in the same plane and have small ‘mutual inclinations’ (the angles between exoplanet orbits within a planetary system). But how can you be sure that you detect all the planets in a system? If planets always orbited their stars in a single plane, with very small mutual inclinations, you’d see them all transit. But we know (through radial velocity measurements that reveal additional non-transiting planets in the systems, and through planets passing in front of star-spots, or in front of other planets) that planetary systems are often not well aligned and sometimes have large mutual inclinations.

Although Kepler has found lots of multiple planet systems (multis), it has also found lots of single planets (singletons – that’s what Ballard & Johnson call them). I mean LOTS of singletons. Is this large number of singletons what you would expect to see, given some distribution of modest mutual inclinations? Can the single population be explained by assuming that they have non-transiting friends? Or is there some mysterious process generating all these singletons?

This mystery has been investigated previously for Sun-like stars (Morton & Winn, 2014), where evidence was found for separate populations of singletons and multis. Ballard & Johnson apply the same logic to the M dwarfs, the small stars, to see whether the same dual population phenomenon exists in the mini-planetary systems.

The planet machine

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 21.23.32

Figure 1. The model is shown in red with its 1 and 2 \sigma intervals. The blue histogram represents the observations. Ballard & Johnson find that they cannot adequately reproduce the observations with a single population of planets.

Ballard & Johnson compare the exoplanets observed by Kepler to a fake set of planets. They generate thousands of M dwarf planetary systems with between 1 and 8 planets and mutual inclination scatter ranging from 0-10o. They then actually tested whether their fake planetary systems were stable and got rid of any that would shake themselves apart through planet-planet interactions. For each system they recorded the number of planets that would be seen to transit and created a histogram of the number of transiting planets. This histogram was parameterised by N (the total number of planets per star) and \sigma (the scatter in mutual inclinations of the planets). They then determined which values of N and \sigma best describe the observations by comparing their fake-data histogram to the real-data histogram using a Poissonian likelihood function.

Two populations of planets . . .

Figure 2. The same as figure 1 but this time two planet populations are used: one with one planet only and one with 2-8 planets.

Figure 2. The same as Figure 1 but this time two planet populations are used: one with 1 planet only and one with 2-8 planets.

Ballard & Johnson found that they couldn’t reproduce the observations with this simple model: they couldn’t create enough singletons to match the observations. This is shown in Figure 1 (above)—see how the model (in red) just can’t quite get up to the same height as the observations (the blue histogram) for the singletons.

Next, the authors tried generating two populations of planets: one of singletons only, and another with 2-8 planets and a range of mutual inclination scatters. The ratio of number-of-singletons to number-of-multis, f, was an additional parameter of their model. Ballard & Johnson generated thousands of planetary systems with varying numbers of planets, mutual inclinations and fs. Once again, they counted how many would transit and made a histogram, then found the values of N, \sigma and f that best reproduced the data. This time they were able to reproduce the observations—see Figure 2. The sharp upturn in the number of singletons seen in the observations (the blue histogram) is matched by the model (in red). They find a value of f that best reproduces the data: 0.55 +0.23-0.12, so around half of the systems are multis and half are singletons. For the multis, they find that there must be more than five planets per planet–hosting star, with small mutual inclinations, in order to reproduce the observations.

Trending hosts?

Having found that two populations of planets, one of singles and one of multis, best describe the data, Ballard & Johnson ask: is there a fundamental difference between the singleton hosts and the multi hosts? They looked at the host stars’ rotation periods, metallicities (the amount of heavier elements like Helium, Carbon, etc, in the star) and positions in the galaxy and found that the multi-hosting stars tend to be rotating more rapidly, are more metal poor and are closer to the galaxy’s midplane. The rotation trend might actually be an age trend: old stars spin slower than young stars, so perhaps we’re seeing that young systems have lots of planets that get shed over time. These findings are consistent with previous studies.

In this paper, Ballard & Johnson show that with some smooth statistical moves, you can probe an underlying population of objects even though you only observe a fraction of them. They show that the Kepler dichotomy persists for the mini Solar systems—intensifying the mystery behind the singleton excess. Some process that we don’t yet understand is generating all these singletons…. turns out it’s a lonely existence for most exoplanets.


A brief, bitter quiz by Charlie Stross

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

  1. What started on December 24th, 1979?

  2. What was Operation Cyclone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviews on Richard Ayoade. by Feeling Listless

Film You may have seen this really rather funny interview from C4 News last night in which Richard Ayoade entirely deconstructs the short interview format for the vacuous process that it usually is.

Like Simon Amstell he's clearly very uncomfortable publicising his wares. But he's pretty genial with Krishnan, which is quite a development from where he was in 2011 publicising his film Submarine on Kermode and Mayo's film review. He talks about the process and the work, but Simon's clearly very thrown by the intensity:

No Fish. by Feeling Listless

Food Hadley Freeman has much the same reaction I do to fish:

"I manage some of the salad – the squid, surprisingly, is totally fine, as long as I force myself not to think about the Milky Eye – but the mackerel was always going to be my Waterloo. I want to like it, I really do, but the texture and taste cross the boundary from “weird but OK” to “weird get this out of my mouth NOW"
The only fish I'll eat is in batter or breadcrumbs, one of the white ones, cod probably. It's the aroma, the texture in the mouth, the weirdly salty taste and how it feels in my throat as I swallow. I have tried, even one of the white ones, cod probably, without the batter or breadcrumbs and I have the same reaction.  Not just me then.

Newer Horizons Beyond Pluto by Astrobites

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Voyager probes visited the outer solar system, giving us some of the first close-up images of the giant planets at the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturrn before beginning a journey out of the solar system, while Voyager 2 continued along the plane of the planets and visited Uranus and Neptune. Not for the last time, Pluto was
left out.

To right this wrong (and to learn a lot about Pluto), NASA launched the New Horizons probe towards Pluto in 2006. After a nine year journey, it will reach Pluto in July, 2015. That sounds like a slow trip, but the distance to Pluto is huge: even light takes eight hours to get out there. New Horizons is actually moving away from the sun at more than 10 miles a second!

New Horizons before launch, including humans for scale.

New Horizons before launch, including humans for scale.

The high speed of the probe is great for getting to Pluto, but terrible for staying at Pluto. To put a probe in orbit around a planet, we need to get the probe and the planet moving at almost exactly the same speed and in the same direction. And it gets worse: the smaller the planet, the smaller the gravitational field, so the closer you need to match the velocities. For the giant planets this is pretty easy: their gravitational pulls are so strong that just getting the probes there is a good start; once the spacecraft is near the planet will do a lot of the work.

For smaller bodies near us (like Mars), we use a special orbit called a Homann transfer orbit to send the probes to the planets. The Homann orbit places the spacecraft in an elliptical orbit, using the Sun’s gravity to slow down the probe on its way out of the solar system. This technique is optimized for minimizing the amount of fuel needed to put a probe in orbit around another planet, but is very slow. Earth-Mars transfers take about nine months; an Earth-Pluto transfer would take about 200 years!

Gravity transfers are out: we don’t want to wait 200 years to see Pluto. Our only other reasonable option is to fire New Horizons’ thrusters near Pluto to slow it down. This process would need a lot of fuel; we’re decelerating to zero from more than 10 miles per second, remember! Fuel isn’t light, and adding all this fuel would make the spacecraft significantly heavier. This is a problem: now that we’ve added weight, we need more fuel to even get New Horizons off the Earth. And this fuel takes up room, so we need to build bigger tanks. But this is more weight that we’ll have to decelerate, so we need more fuel on board to slow them down too. See the problem? For every pound you add in fuel for the thrusters, you really add way more than one pound of mission. New Horizons weighed about 1,000 pounds at launch; to use its thrusters to stop at Pluto, we would have needed to launch it with almost 70,000 pounds of fuel!

We’re out of options. The only conclusion is that we can’t stop at Pluto. As a result, New Horizons is a flyby mission. It’s going to come within 6,000 miles of Pluto, but only once. It might seem like a waste to just go past Pluto once and end the mission; NASA agrees with you! Since launch, the plan has been for New Horizons to visit another Kuiper belt object after visiting Pluto. The problem is that we don’t know of many objects close enough to Pluto for New Horizons to visit. At launch, we didn’t know of any.

In 2011, the team started a search for new objects near Pluto to visit. They collected images from telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, where they were sensitive to objects larger than about 50 kilometers (30 miles) in size. While they found 50 objects, none of them were close enough to Pluto to be appropriate for New Horizons! New Horizons’ post-Pluto plans were on the precipice of peril.

This year, the astronomers turned to their last hope: the mighty Hubble Space Telescope. Being above the Earth’s atmosphere, Hubble is sensitive to even smaller objects than the ground-based telescopes were. In this case, Hubble came successfully to the rescue, finding three potential targets! Last week, the team announced the top choice (although not necessarily final selection) for a post-Pluto mission, the romantically-named Kuiper belt object “1110113Y.”

We know how bright the object is, but have to rely on models of its composition and reflectivity to estimate its size. The best estimate is that 1110113Y is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) across. Based on 1110113Ys position and motion, New Horizons should speed along to it and visit in January, 2019.

So why do we care? New Horizons’ goal is to study the outer solar system, and these observations will give us close-up information on a Kuiper belt object like never before. Kuiper belt objects are believed to be the building blocks of Pluto and the most similar objects to the original planetesimals that formed the planets. Therefore, studying Kuiper belt objects really enables us to probe the Earth’s formation, giving us an initial condition to use when modeling the effects of 4.5 billion years of orbiting the Sun.

75% of Chinese car owners plan to switch brands. by Resonance China

resonance_auto brand loyalty

This graphic from The Boston Consulting Group’s recent article, “The Battle for Automotive Brand Loyalty in China,” captures the volatile nature of China’s still emergent auto market as a survey of 2,400 consumers reveal some of the lowest brand loyalty statistics in the world. On the relentless march to trade up, BCG’s study found that more than three quarters of current Chinese car owners were planning to switch brands, representing over 67 million new car purchases. Among lower-priced domestic volume brands, consumers mentioned quality and performance as the primary motivation behind changing brands, while owners of foreign volume brands like VW cited the desire to buy a more prestigious brand as their motivation. Perhaps the most interesting response came from foreign premium brand owners, 57% of which plan to change brands because comfort and service experience did not meet their expectations for luxury. [BCG]


October 21, 2014

Have I Got News For You. An Old Review. by Feeling Listless

My first review for Off The Telly, way back in 2002, was of the first guest celebrity edition of HIGFY, a week after Paul Merton provided emergency cover, a week after he and Hislop eviscerated Angus Deaton (aided by Christine Hamilton) when it became apparent his position at the head of a quiz satirising the weekly news had become untenable when he himself had become the topic of the weekly news.

TV The high profile sacking of Angus Deayton from his role as host on Have I Got News For You has left the BBC with something of a problem. As with many shows, the topical news quiz worked because of a specific chemistry that had built up over many years between the presenters. Unlike other panel games where the host and team captains are as interchangeable as the guests (see They Think It’s All Over) it was always difficult to imagine the show without any one of the three.

In fact we saw the effects some years ago when Paul Merton took a series off to get his head sorted out, to be replaced by Eddie Izzard and Clive Anderson amongst others. Funny men in their own right, but without the specific wit and knowledge of the news displayed by Merton. Izzard was particularly numbing as he frustratingly offered “jam” as the answer for everything. And since the show has only recently become a cornerstone of the BBC1 schedule any change would no doubt affect its ability to entertain.

Merton tried his best last week under extreme pressure (no time to prepare, Deayton’s chair still warm). In a familiar studio but forced to put on his Room 101 style presenter hat, he was by turns squinty and nervous. The writing was probably as good as usual, but the script filled with the nuances of Deayton’s speech patterns lay there coming from his lips. During the missing words round he suddenly became Roy Walker on Catchphrase telling the guests that their joke answers were good but not correct. Now and then he seemed to glance over at Ross Noble, borrowing his seat for a week wondering if he would ever be back there.

Tonight he was much more comfortable as team captain again, as the second guest presenter in as many weeks Anne Robinson took charge. She had been one of the names that had been mooted by bookies as a possible permanent replacement along with John Sargeant and Chris Moyles. As is usual when such lists appear, none of possibles fitted the bill, the closest being Stephen Fry, although his showing during a special episode as part of last year’s Comic Relief didn’t inspire confidence. Of the rest, Robinson seemed an odd choice and so it proved during the show.

Things didn’t begin well. In a move which was supposed to provide context but in fact gave little cause for confidence, Robinson advised she “hadn’t watched the show since 1995″ (and she was going to present the thing?) and a clip of an old episode was presented as the reason why. Merton was off on one of his old tirades, this time about Anne Robinson’s wink as presenter of Points of View. It was a classic piece of nostalgia from when the show was arguably at the height of its powers, the late Paula Yates the guest, that very episode being the one in which she called Ian Hislop the “sperm of the devil”. For a moment some viewers might have hoped that this episode was going to get a repeat showing. No such luck. We were cruelly brought back to the present as Robinson stumbled through some japery about giving Hislop some extra points up front for Paul’s cheek. Merton tried his best to milk the moment but it didn’t really work.

The sinking feeling continued as Robinson stumbled through the introductions of the guests, John O’Farrell and John Simpson. These are hardly ever the best jokes of the show. Last week Merton didn’t even try. Here it wasn’t clear when O’Farrell’s introduction had ended – pregnant pause then laughter. This was something that continued throughout the show. The audience often seemed to wait for Robinson to get the line out, so that they could work out how Deayton would have said it then laughed. In many ways this isn’t Robinson’s fault. She isn’t a comedienne and is more used to the ad-libs which are written for her on The Weakest Link. But often after shows, Deayton was allowed to re-film his fluffed lines (seen on some of the series videos). This privilege didn’t appear to be available to Robinson which lessened her impression overall.

Luckily Hislop and Merton were largely on form in their savaging of the host. Hislop in particular was keen to turncoat her by bringing up her time on The Mirror under Robert Maxwell. Robinson squirmed uncomfortably after the reminder, and there was some sport as she turned against the Private Eye editor, who was relishing the chance to trot out his old (admittedly funny) Maxwell jokes. Oddly (in this edit) Merton’s last infamous television meeting with the former Watchdog presenter on Room 101 didn’t warrant a mention, although he did get one of the best lines. At a moment when the show was flagging Merton shouted “Bank!” crippling the audience. When told by Anne that she was pleased that he watched The Weakest Link Paul explained that he “only ever saw the last five minutes because The Simpsons was on after it.” Even the host smiled at that one. For a moment there was chemistry and spirit amongst the group.

The one thing Deayton was good at was shutting up at the right moments and letting the team captains speak. Presumably used to lengthy recording blocks when you can’t fall behind, Anne must have assumed she had to get the entire show recorded in half an hour and kept talking over the guests and captains. At one point she told an indignant Hislop to shut up so that she could say something. As his forehead furrowed he must have wondered whose show it was. Since the programme had become the story the guests felt slightly beside the point. John Simpson was like a walking (or seated) re-run of his past appearances, so we got to hear again about the interview with Gaddafi in which the Colonel farted constantly. It’s a surprise his rainforest psychedelic drug experiences didn’t put in an appearance, but that may have been in poor taste. But he was up to the challenge when Robinson tried to make something of his proclamation that he had liberated Kabul. Simpson told Robinson: “Do you know the burkha covers your entire face? Perhaps you might like to try one.”

Filling the role of the guest no one outside Whitehall had heard of was John O’Farrell who offered a couple of good one-liners but failed to make an impression because he became Robinson’s whipping boy. At times she seemed to be victimizing him as though he was a guest on The Weakest Link. There the host has a habit of constantly referring back to the one thing she knows about a contestant and here it was again – his failure in an election. It hadn’t been all that funny in her introduction, but it came back up time and again.

And so half an hour passed. On the evidence of tonight’s performance Robinson won’t be the permanent presenter of Have I Got News For You, but the experiment will have helped Hat Trick and BBC bosses to decide what they won’t want from a new host. While it’s difficult to see Deayton being invited back next series, it’s equally hard to see the show’s continuation without him, despite the best efforts of Merton and Hislop. The last name to be mooted was Johnny Vaughn. Personally I would prefer Johnny Vegas. He couldn’t be any worse than Anne Robinson was tonight.

Ouch.  Anyway as we've seen the show did survive, went from strength to strength and now has a regular rota of very competent presenters many of whom are arguably better than Deayton ever was.  Which reminds me that I haven't watched last Friday's episode yet.  Thank goodness the iPlayer's been invented since then too.

Metacommentary by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

Links for the Memories. by Feeling Listless

BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Witchfinder General / Digitally Remastered Special Edition / Blu-ray Review
"Meanwhile, the film went into production on a final budget of £83, 000 in September 1967 and some exteriors were shot in Norfolk and Suffolk and the Dunwich coast, in Black Park and Langley Park and the interior sets were filmed mainly in converted aircraft hangers in Bury St. Edmunds. The arrival of Price precipitated frequent clashes between the young director and ageing actor as Reeves desperately tried to reign in what he saw as Price's often florrid and camp performing style. The film was constantly short of equipment and extras and was briefly hit by a British technicians union strike. To cap it all, AIP producer Louis M Heywood insisted on the insertion of some brief nude scenes for the export version of the film, scenes he took great pleasure in 'supervising' on his brief visit to the set in Lavenham and which Tenser directed simply because Reeves refused to do so. "

Towson professor explores whether social media have left us disconnected:
"Reiner, a lecturer in English in Towson's Honors College, says students sometimes pretend to send text messages when they are alone out of fear that if they are not constantly connected to their smartphones, they will be seen as losers." [via]

Noisetrade: Free Comics & Graphic Novels:
"Mike Mignola - Hellboy: The Fire Wolves"

Doctor Who's identity crisis:
"The show is suffering from an identity crisis. It's now, alongside that
programme where they send three car-loving racists to various countries so they can laugh at Johnny Foreigner, one of the BBC's biggest exports. The problem with this is, in order to compete internationally, especially in America, it's lost its quintessential Britishness. It's aiming to be a big, respectable sci-fi show, and that's not what Doctor Who is."

"Twitter's for 140-character short-form writing and Medium's for long-form. Weirdly, there really isn't a great platform for everything in the middle — what previously would've just been called "blogging." Mid-length blogging. Middling."

‘Broken Windows’ and the New York Police:
"The inequity is glaring. With the aim of maintaining order in poor, high-crime neighborhoods, police saddle thousands of young men with criminal records for an offense that the state has largely decriminalized and that white people regularly commit with impunity. Penalties imposed by the courts for possession are usually minimal—dismissal of the case after six months if the person has no further run-in with the law—but the damage can still be considerable, taking the form of rejected job and housing applications or being banned from joining the military and attending certain colleges."

Beast: restaurant review:
"You could easily respond to this week’s restaurant with furious, spittle- flecked rage. You could rant about the posing-pouch stupidity of the meat- hanging cabinet that greets you as the lift doors open, and the frothing tanks of monstrous live Norwegian king crabs next to it, each 4ft across. You could bang on about the bizarre pricing structure, and the vertiginous nature of those prices; about the rough-hewn communal tables that are so wide you can’t sit opposite your dining companion because you wouldn’t be able to hear each other, and the long benches which make wearing a skirt a dodgy idea unless you’re desperate to flash the rest of the heavily male clientele. You could shake your fists and roll your eyes and still not be done."

Not a Manifesto by Charlie Stross

I'm just not that interested in writing science fiction this decade. Nope: instead, I'm veering more and more in the direction of urban fantasy. Here's why.

My personal take on science fiction is that this narrow slice of the literature of the Fantastika (hint: if you haven't met that term of critical art before, follow the link before reading on) is about the study of the human condition under circumstances which might plausibly come to pass. By "plausibly" I thereby try to exclude the implausible (wizards, elves, surrealist intrusions from the subconscious) and to include stuff that doesn't exist but which plausibly might exist (artificial intelligence, aliens).

Now, as various SF and fantasy writers have observed, our baseline definitions of what is plausible and implausible change over time. In part, this is because formerly plausible ideas have shifted gradually into the penumbra of implausibility (the luminiferous aether, for example: phlogiston: the other detritus of discredited scientific hypotheses; arguably time travel and faster than light travel might be heading this way too). In no small part, the Mundane science fiction movement is a response to this: if we have no plausible evidence to support large scale causality violation in the observable universe, doesn't it follow that FTL starships are little more plausible than fire-breathing, flying dragons?

(Meanwhile, some items which would have been pigeon-holed as implausible without an eye-blink a few decades ago are not merely plausible today but are probably sitting in your pocket right now. About which, more later.)

In addition to the redrawing of the plausibility/implausibility frontier, we have other factors to consider: notably, our relationship with technology and science. As Vernor Vinge remarked in his novel Rainbows End many modern technologies come with no user serviceable parts inside. Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, personal computers were (by modern standards) a bit crap, but they offered an unparalleled opportunity to open the lid and learn by tinkering. For example, the BBC Micro in the UK—which sold by the million—had an analog i/o port, user-accessible DMA ports, and ROM sockets into which users could install additional firmware; it was designed for learning. The Apple II similarly featured a fairly simple expansion port architecture. But today's personal computing devices (with very few exceptions) come as shiny sealed boxes; their expansion options exist but are complex and require considerable expertise to develop: they're not designed for learners and tinkers but for users or highly trained developers.

Similarly, in other fields our technologies have developed in a way that's hostile to monkey-see monkey-do learning. You can't credibly learn to service a modern automobile in your own garage. You can't formulate a new pharmaceutical preparation in the back of your dispensary (which, believe it or not, actually happened right up until the late 1930s: even in the late 1970s/early 1980s it was possible for a medium-sized company with perhaps 20-30 researchers to develop and bring to market new medicines).

In part, this is a side-effect of market globalization: to survive even locally a product has to reach a planetary market, which means competing with large organizations and getting access to huge supply chains, which means you need to be big ... and market regulations are structured to lock out upstart small competitors. But that's not the only reason for it. Lots of our technologies have become so complex that just learning how to use them is a full-time job; understanding the interlocking specialities that go into them is beyond individual comprehension.

As brilliant new fantasy author Max Gladstone notes:

Old-school fantasy is a genre of the unknowable. Magic in Tolkien's works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one! People acquire the One Ring, or the Palantir, and use each within its limits.

But consider the smartphone I have in my pocket.

No single human being knows how to make this phone. I acquired the phone, and I use it. People who know more about the phone can tell it to do more things than I can, but they're still bound by the limits of the hardware. A few communities are dedicated to modding and hacking phones like mine, yes, but for most people most of the time a smartphone is a portable magic mirror. We make mystic passes before the glass, address the indwelling spirit with suitably respectful tones, and LEARN THE FUTURE. ("Siri, what will the weather be like tomorrow?") The same thought experiment works for many modern technologies.

Max then goes on to make a point that I might well have made myself if I'd thought to put it so explicitly: while the technologies in our far-future SF now look more and more like numinous magical powers, our daily life is perfused by magical devices that obey relatively predictable rules—utter the right incantation and Siri tells you the weather. Which means we as readers are coming to expect an almost mechanistic causality to inform the magic in our fantasies.

(And if that makes sense to you, go try one of Max's novels. No, seriously: if you like near-future SF there's a rather good chance that this fantasy novel will speak to you. Weird, isn't it? Because he's writing SF set in a world perfused by mechanised, systematized magic. We need a word for this: the standard genre tags are too limiting.)

So here's my next step: we are living in a 21st century that resembles a mutant Shadowrun—by turns a cyberpunk dystopia and a world where everyone has access to certain kinds of magic. And if you want to explore the human condition under circumstances which might plausibly come to pass, these days the human condition is constrained by technologies so predictably inaccessible that they might as well be magic. So magic makes a great metaphor for probing the human condition. We might not have starships, but there's a Palantir in every pocket (and we might not have dragons, but some of our wizards are working on it ).

Over the past few years I've found myself reading less and less far-future SF and more and more urban fantasy. If you view it through the lens of the future we're living in rather than the future we expected in times gone by, that's not so surprising. Starships and galactic empires and aliens are receding into the same misty haze of unreality as dragons and demons: instead we're living in a world with chickens with tails and scales and teeth, magic mirrors with answers to every question (many of them misleading or malicious), dominated by abhuman hive minds.

So it shouldn't be any surprise to discover in the world I'm now living in I can engage better with the subjects of my fiction by writing urban fantasy, rather than by extruding good old-fashioned space opera just like grandpappy wrote. This doesn't mean that I consider traditional space opera to be dead (any more than high fantasy with elves, dwarves and dragons is dead): but it's not something I'm engaging with much, if at all, these days.

And now for one final thought.

Traditionally fantasy works were set in a mythologized past: frequently faux-mediaeval, occasionally classical, sometimes (as is especially the case with the more recent steampunk sub-genre) only 1-2 centuries removed. Some fantasies are set in the present: we often mislabel these urban fantasy, although very often contemporary fantasy is rural/wilderness oriented while it's quite common for urban fantasy settings to be historic (Ankh-Morpork, I'm looking at you). But it's still very rare to find a fantasy that's set in the cities of the near future: and I find this genre blind spot fascinating, because the future of humanity is overwhelmingly urban and magical ...

RDCXAD #007, the binaural episode. by Dan Catt


The latest experimental audio diary is out and this one is a bit of fun (for me). For this week it's all about the binaural recordings.

I was introduced to binaural recordings for the first time back in 2008 by Scott while working at Flickr. In short you record with microphones positioned at ear distance apart, with a head like object between them to block the sound from one side of the head directly reaching the other. A good way to simulate this head like object is to use your actual head, easy huh!

Then when someone wearing headphones listens back to the recording they end up with the slightly freaky experience of essentially ending up in your head. The effect isn't so great on stereo speakers, but I figure most people listen to podcasts with headphones.

Anyway, wearing a pair of handy in-ear microphones we all set off on a family walk around our local deer park, with the intent of getting some nice nature/field records. Turns out as a family we don't really shut up for more than 20 seconds at a time, I blame the kids.

I'm up to 10 episodes* down and must really get round to writing up why (and a bit of how) I'm making these recordings. In the meantime here's episode #007...

For those still using RSS readers.

*Although this is episode #007, there are 10 in total because I started with practice episodes -002, -001 and 000.

Resonance launches the China Social Branding Report. by Resonance China

Perhaps one of the greatest marketing challenges global brands have in China is understanding the nuances of the country’s esoteric digital and social media channels. Renren, Douban, Weibo, WeChat, KOLs… platforms change and evolve, as do the strategies and techniques to effectively use them.

Intelligence Tools for Social Media Teams

While reports full of high level statistics and graphed trends are helpful from a global strategic standpoint, we’ve found that to really understand the complexity of China social media and digital marketing, the best place to learn is from the experts: brands already succeeding in China.

The China Social Branding Report dives uncommonly deep to uncover the day-to-day execution, platform setup, and channel strategies of the biggest brands in the world. We also look at top, innovative campaigns launched across these experienced, matured brand social ecosystems. Brands available at launch include: Coke, BMW, Michael Kors, Xiaomi, Coach, Burberry and Lancôme with many, many more to come.

China Social Branding Report

Click the image above to download the CSBR brochure

Our aim is not to target the C-Suite with broad, sweeping trends, but rather to give each brand or agency’s social media strategist, community managers and creative teams the information they need to improve, optimize, and benchmark their own China digital and social media communities.

Getting On-Demand Help From the Experts.

As comprehensive as these case studies are, they won’t answer every question. So we created a consulting forum to pair with our reports. On the forums subscribers are invited to ask us any questions about the reports, to expand on concepts mentioned, or provide thicker background information on new channels and special brand techniques. Premium subscribers can even ask us questions not directly related to our reports, touching on their own brand strategies, KOLs they should partner with and best channels on which to develop their digital, social brand presence.

Providing the Knowledge Needed to Move Confidently into the China Market.

Our goal is to help global marketers enter China with confidence. We’ll keep expanding these reports, releasing a new one each week. Over time we hope to become a resource for brands researching China, and a guide for global and local social media teams venturing past the great firewall.


94% of Chinese shoppers research on mobile while in-store. by Resonance China

resonance_mobile retail

This chart from Geometry Global’s 2014 Connect Shopper white paper presents a fascinating comparison of consumer behavior around the world when connected devices are brought in to stores. Not surprisingly, emerging markets who have embraced mobile conectivity like China (94%), India (87%), Russia (74%), and Brazil (70%), exhibit the highest usage of connected mobile devices in-store to check pricing (35%), conduct on-the-spot research (25%), or take to photos for potential sharing (24%). On the other end of the spectrum, developed markets like the U.S. (35%), Japan (40%), and the U.K. (31%) showed the lowest usage of connected devices while in stores. These results only confirm the importance of O2O and omni-channel strategies for brands looking to do business with China’s sophisticated and always-connected consumers.  [Geometry Global]

Geometry Global的2014年Connect Shopper白皮书里的图表对比了各地消费者店内使用移动设备的情况。像中国(94%)和印度(87%)早已抓住与移动设备连接的机会,多用来查询价格(35%),做产品调查 (25%)或拍照分享(24%)。美国(35%)和日本(40%)等成熟市场则仅有少量的移动设备使用情况。[Geometry Global]

October 20, 2014

The other Flatline. by Feeling Listless

TV I was thinking whilst on the bus again today and something occurred to me about Saturday night's Doctor Who which I haven't seen anyone else extemporise. It's a small point, a directorial decision born by something in the writing.  But I think it explains why Peter Capaldi suddenly felt like he was playing the Doctor and the same man previous essayed by Matthew Smith.

I could well be imagining it, but here goes.

One of the elements of this series, as we've discussed, is how distant the Doctor has seemed. Some of this has to do with the decisions he's taken and how point of view on those and I don't want to dissertation on that all again with the swearing, but the distancing has partly been to do with how the Doctor has worked within scenes and episodes.

Looking back and I can't completely verify this without watching all of it again, but looking back I don't remember many scenes in which the Doctor has narrative agency, in which the scene is about him and his actions, without it being seen through the eyes of another character.

Agency within a scene is often kept pretty invisible unless your attention is being drawn to it and created through a mix of camera angles, close-ups and reverse shots designed to draw your attention to who's reaction in a scene is most important.

A classic example from Star Wars, because everyone uses Star Wars, is in the Death Star scenes at the end of Jedi, which are all about Luke's reaction to the Emperor. Throughout we keep cutting back to his face, in close-up to his reaction of the ensuring murder.

Or most of Citizen Kane.

In Doctor Who terms, when the Doctor and Clara are in a scene together, the narrative agency is all with her. It's been like watching Rose's reaction to the Doctor in Rose for eight episodes.

In pretty much every scene we've been seeing the Doctor through the reactions of Clara and in key moments when we might previously have followed the Doctor somewhere, for example into the crust of the Moon in Kill The Moon, previously we might reasonably have expected to follow him and make the discovery with him.

About the only episode in which this "rule" is properly broken is The Caretaker notably in the moment when he reacts to Clara and the man he thinks is her boyfriend as they walk away.

The Doctor when he's alone indeed has had a fair bit of agency.  Right through Flatline in fact.  But whenever Clara's been part of the conversation, it's still about her reacting to him.

But there are, and again, I'm willing to accept if I've missed one, but there are no scenes in this series in which we see Clara through the Doctor's eyes.

Except, in Flatline, right at the end, we suddenly do.

It's at an interesting moment too - just after he gives his "I am the Doctor" speech.

In the next scene  when he's dropping everyone off and Clara says her goodbyes, whereas previously such things have happened with the Doctor almost skulking in the background suddenly we're getting close-ups, reaction shots from him watching Clara, questioning Clara, who's standing in a mastershot or mid-shot much smaller in the frame.

I don't want to fill your screen with these little screenshots, so go back and watch the ending and I think you'll see it too. Suddenly Clara's back to being the one the Doctor's curious about as per last series and in every shot she's in the Doctor is a presence, over the shoulder, in large close-up or completely within the frame.

That's why Clara, who's been our hero for the past forty minutes suddenly becomes a mysterious, slightly sinister figure again.

At the very end of this scene when the Doctor's entering the TARDIS it seems like we're back with her.  He's walked inside and there's a big old close-up as she considers what he's said about "good not having anything to do with it" her eyes giving every indication that she doesn't understand.

Except within seconds we realise that the agency has in fact passed invisibly to Missy watching that reaction on her iPad.  Which means timing wise, Clara stops being the main figure in the episode from the moment the energy reinvigorates the TARDIS and seemingly the Doctor within.

Peter Capaldi, now, is the Doctor, just as he says he is.

But there's more.  After he literally says "I am the Doctor", there's a rather marvellously dramatic bit of score.  Up until this point too, I don't think we've definitively heard the Twelfth Doctor's theme, if he's had a theme at all.  Indeed in the some of the trailers, the Eleventh Doctor's themes been used.  If we go back and rewatch this series, will we, rather like Bond's theme in Casino Royale and Ode to Joy in the early movements of Beethoven's 9th, hear snatches of a Twelfth Doctor theme still cooking, which only really gain fruition in this "I am the Doctor" moment?

One other note: the Twelfth Doctor mourns the deaths, properly mourns them.  Ok, yes, he says the wrong people may have died, but that's not unusual.  He goes there in Voyage of the Damned, but in a switch it's him lecturing Clara about morality and mortality.

Now, it's possible he's testing her, trying to work out why she's not mourning them too.  Why she's being so cocky.  But I don't think so.  I think he's genuinely being compassionate for once.

It's almost as though when he said, "I am the Doctor" this incarnation finally believes it and his wrestingly back of agency from Clara, the music and his more obvious sentiment in relation to the loss of human life could signify that.  Effectively it's taken nine episodes to get to post-regenerative point the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors did in an hour.

Goodness knows what any of this means.  Could mean nothing.  Could be in the next episode we're back to the status quo of the previous eight episodes, me loathing the Twelfth Doctor, Clara in charge, all that business.

But, and it's a small but, it's also possible, that the Doctor's agency will continue, or we'll be back to the joint Time Lord / companion agency of previous series and that we could reassess his behaviour this series as post-regenerative torpor, about him learning to be the Doctor again.  If that is indeed the case, I wish they'd made it clearer...

Your Community Door by Jeff Atwood

What are the real world consequences to signing up for a Twitter or Facebook account through Tor and spewing hate toward other human beings?

Facebook reviewed the comment I reported and found it doesn't violate their Community Standards.

— Rob Beschizza (@Beschizza) October 15, 2014

As far as I can tell, nothing. There are barely any online consequences, even if the content is reported.

But there should be.

The problem is that Twitter and Facebook aim to be discussion platforms for "everyone", where every person, no matter how hateful and crazy they may be, gets a turn on the microphone. They get to be heard.

The hover text for this one is so good it deserves escalation:

I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

If the discussion platform you're using aims to be a public platform for the whole world, there are some pretty terrible things people can do and say to other people there with no real consequences, under the noble banner of free speech.

It can be challenging.

How do we show people like this the door? You can block, you can hide, you can mute. But what you can't do is show them the door, because it's not your house. It's Facebook's house. It's their door, and the rules say the whole world has to be accommodated within the Facebook community. So mute and block and so forth are the only options available. But they are anemic, barely workable options.

As we build Discourse, I've discovered that I am deeply opposed to mute and block functions. I think that's because the whole concept of Discourse is that it is your house. And mute and ignore, while arguably unavoidable for large worldwide communities, are actively dangerous for smaller communities. Here's why.

I worry that people are learning the wrong lessons from the way Twitter and Facebook poorly handle these situations. Their hands are tied because they aspire to be these global communities where free speech trumps basic human decency and empathy.

The greatest power of online discussion communities, in my experience, is that they don't aspire to be global. You set up a clubhouse with reasonable rules your community agrees upon, and anyone who can't abide by those rules needs to be gently shown the door.

Don't pull this wishy washy non-committal stuff that Twitter and Facebook do. Community rules are only meaningful if they are actively enforced. You need to be willing to say this to people, at times:

No, your behavior is not acceptable in our community; "free speech" doesn't mean we are obliged to host your content, or listen to you being a jerk to people. This is our house, and our rules.

If they don't like it, fortunately there's a whole Internet of other communities out there. They can go try a different house. Or build their own.

The goal isn't to slam the door in people's faces – visitors should always be greeted in good faith, with a hearty smile – but simply to acknowledge that in those rare but inevitable cases where good faith breaks down, a well-oiled front door will save your community.

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

When Good Rockets Go Bad: Orion's Launch Abort System by The Planetary Society

One of the tricky parts of launching humans into space is deciding what to do if something goes wrong. And that's where Orion's Launch Abort System comes in.

Status update: All Mars missions fine after Siding Spring flyby by The Planetary Society

All seven Mars spacecraft are doing perfectly fine after comet Siding Spring's close encounter with Mars.

Collaboration Between OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa-2 by The Planetary Society

The University of Arizona (UA) hosted representatives of the Hayabusa-2 asteroid sample return mission to explore opportunities for collaboration with the OSIRIS-REx team.

Gravitational waves and the need for fast galaxy surveys by Astrobites

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that occur, for example, when two very compact celestial bodies merge. Their direct detection would allow scientists to characterize these mergers and understand the physics of systems undergoing strong gravitational interactions. Perhaps that era is not so distant; gravitational wave detectors such as advanced LIGO and Virgo are expected to come online by 2016. While this is a very exciting prospect, gravitational wave detectors have limited resolution; they can constrain the location of the source to within an area of 10 to 1000 deg2  on the sky, depending on the number of detectors and the strength of the signal.

An artist's rendering of two white dwarfs coallescing and producing gravitational wave emission.

An artist’s rendering of two white dwarfs coallescing and producing gravitational wave emission.

To understand the nature of the source of gravitational waves, scientists hope to be able to locate it more accurately by searching for its electromagnetic counterpart immediately after the gravitational wave is detected. How can telescopes help in this endeavor? The authors of this paper explore the possibility of performing very fast galaxy surveys to identify and characterize the birthplace of gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars can be detected out to 200 Mpc, which is roughly 800 times the distance to the Andromeda galaxy. It is expected that LIGO-Virgo will detect about 40 of these events per year. There are roughly 8 galaxies per 1 deg2 within 200 Mpc - that is 800 candidate galaxies in an area of 100 deg2. Hence, a quick survey that would pinpoint those possible galaxy counterparts to the gravitational wave emission would be very useful. After potential hosts are identified, they could be followed-up with telescopes with smaller fields-of-view to measure the light emitted by the source of gravitational waves.

The electromagnetic emission following the gravitational wave detection only lasts for short periods of time (for a kilonova, the timescale is of approximately a week), and this drives the need for fast surveys. To devise an efficient search strategy, the authors suggest looking for galaxies with high star formation rates. It is expected that those galaxies will have higher chances of hosting a gravitational wave event. (Although they clarify that the rate of mergers of compact objects might be better correlated with the mass of the galaxy rather than its star formation activity.) A good proxy for star formation in a galaxy is the light it emits in the red H-alpha line, coming from  hydrogen atoms in clouds of gas that act as stellar nurseries. The issue is whether current telescopes can survey large areas fast enough to find a good fraction of all star forming galaxies within the detection area of LIGO-Virgo.

The authors consider a 2m-size telescope and estimate the typical observing time needed to identify a typical star forming galaxy up to a distance of 200 Mpc. This ranges from 40-80 seconds depending on the observing conditions. It would take this type of telescope a week to cover 100 deg2This result matches very well the expected duration of the visible light signal from these events! Mergers of black holes and neutron stars could be detected out to larger distances (~450 Mpc). To find possible galaxy hosts out to these distances, a 2m-class telescope would cover 30 deg2 in a week. Without a doubt, the exciting prospect of gravitational wave detection will spur more detailed searches for the best strategies to locate their sources.

Burberry tops global ecommerce rankings. by Resonance China

resonance_global ecommerce brands

Exane BNP Paribas’ recently released Digital Competitive Map is an update supplement to their Digital Frontier series, created in partnership with Contact Lab, that benchmarks the digital competencies of leading luxury brands around the world. This report benchmarks digital and ecommerce proficiency across 14 criteria including localization, device compatibility, and customer service. Not surprisingly, Burberry has come out on top of the rankings overall and in terms of strategic reach with localized ecommerce offerings in all major territories except for Brazil. Of particular interest are the brands that came in ranked 2-5, who all partnered with ecommerce juggernaut YOOX to power their online shopping platforms. [Exane BNP Paribas]

法国巴黎银行旗下证券部门与Contact Lab合作发布补充数字前沿系列的数字竞争地图。该地图检测了电商平台的在线购物等十四种基准。数字显示,博柏利在各项排行中位居榜首,有极佳的本地化执行;与此同时,排在二至五名的品牌,他们都与电商龙头YOOX合作,用以强化它们的电商购物平台。[Exane BNP Paribas]

October 19, 2014

Flatline. by Feeling Listless

TV Well, thank fuck for that. There’s no getting around this, Flatline is brilliant. For the first time this series, well since Deep Breath probably, I laughed, proper real belly laughs and I cheered, oh how I cheered and in the middle of that I was scared, really, really scared. I had, in fact, all of the emotions you’re supposed to have when watching Doctor Who which at its best, in a television drama land full of darkness, nihilism and despair, especially in this genre lately, provides comfort and a something they cannot and which it’s seemed this series it had entirely forgotten about. That indefinable magic. So yes, thank fuck for that, this is the Doctor Who I love and this is the Doctor Who that I’ve been waiting weeks for.

Not that it got off to the most promising of starts with essentially the same teaser as Fear Her, a civilian turning two dimensional. Flatline has roughly the same premise as both that and Night Terrors and indeed some of the visuals of people disappearing in carpets and walls are spookily familiar. Plus we're in warehouses and tunnels which bespeak Who in the 80s, though much of both Resurrection of the Daleks and Attack of the Cybermen was shot in studio, director for both Matthew Robinson would have killed to have been able to do a complete shoot in real locations. For some reason, I thought momentary Christopher Fairbank had appeared in one of this two. Seems odd from this distance that he didn’t.

I always forget to mention the guest cast, wedging a paragraph in where I can, so let’s do that early for a change. Fairbank is in the Brian Glover role here, his community service supervisor pig headedly cynical right through to the moment he’s saved and beyond, a yes man who under appreciates those who he’s supposed to rehabilitating. Fairbanks does feel like an actor who should have been in classic Who, but its easy to forget now that at the moment when he would have been at that point he was already too famous for it, turning up on then megahit Bergerac in 1987 during his stint on similarly megahitted Auf Wiedersehen, Pet when our show was entirely unloved and unwatched (oddly with the same overnight ratings) (megahits aren’t what they used to be).

As Clara’s companion for the week, the fantastically named Jovian Wade (seriously parents, assuming it isn’t a stage name, well done) had all the hallmarks of an actor on his way up. Acres of back story here, underplayed, especially in that train scene and afterwards when the first person he wants to call is his mother. It’s in the script, but Wade's tone of voice fills in the blanks on someone whose had the kind of life changing event the Doctor usually brings that makes a person reconsider their position. I like that we don’t know especially why he’s desperate to throw his life away, other than perhaps to give Clara an inclining of what it’s like for the Doctor when a total stranger sacrifices themselves.

The central thrust of the episode is about putting Clara in the position of the Doctor and forcing her to make the big decisions. Again, this has overtones of Fear Her in which Rose is the Doctor’s saviour in finding the nearest energy source in order to re-ignite an alien spacecraft. But Tyler made no claims to the mantle or title, whereas Oswald utilises the power, the sonic, the psychic paper to effectively take over the position and mores to the point embolden her to make those decisions. As we saw in Nightmare in Silver, she’s a strong enough figure not to require this backing but the episode is reiterating the point about how the Doctor rubs off on his companions, though it’s strange just how much she seems to want his approval.

The one note of caution about this is in the party newsletter’s preview, writer Jamie Mathieson says, “people have asked if there will ever be a female Doctor. We have a chance to do that here…” Well, yes, sort of, but not really. She doesn’t stop being Clara, and although it shows that it’s entirely possible for a female protagonist within this format to have the authoritative conversations about hope with potential victims, it’s still the Doctor who ultimately saves the day because he apparently has to, because his name’s in the title. It’s the same reason Michelle Yeoh is rescued by Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies even though her spy character is entirely capable of it herself. It’s a trope, part of the structure of this kind of show.

I don’t necessarily agree with this statement (necessarily?), but I understand it. Of course, if you wanted to dive down the rabbit hole, it could be that we were watching Jenna Coleman’s audition to take on the role of the Doctor. My ludicrous theory is that Clara’s this Doctor’s Watcher and that the production team with Capaldi are trying to pull an Eccleston, that he’s also only signed for one season and in the Christmas special for reasons that I can’t even begin to imagine regenerates into Jenna Coleman, hello female Doctor with a Blackpool accent. They effectively merge. Hello, entirely capable new Doctor and also Jenna Coleman leaving the role of Clara.

Part of me wishes this would turn out to be true, because Jenna’s simply magnetic here, though notice how much of “the Doctor” she’s playing owes a debt to her current companion’s previous incarnation. Partly that’s do with stature, the sonic screwdriver looked massive in his hands too sometimes, but her line readings when pretending to the Doctor, consciously or not, don’t have much to do with Twelfth. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but nevertheless, if the Capaldi’s single year rumours are true, and I can’t understand why they would be given who he is and the part he’s playing, having Coleman rather than Garai take on the role wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world however ludicrous that all sounds.

But not as ludicrous as the scene in which the Doctor’s hand pulls the tiny TARDIS out of way of the oncoming train, which by quite some margin is one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history. I haven’t laughed this hard since Brian’s box watching in The Power of Three. Perhaps it’s a small objects thing. Incredible shrinking TARDISes and Time Lords are always funny from the closing moments of The Time Meddler to the miniature Master in Planet of Fire. Whereas in Logopolis we could only imagine what it must be like, now we have the ability to have the Doctor’s eye peering out of the doorway and his hand passing things out of Clara’s satchel.

The episode is also deeply scary. As in Listen and Time Heist, Douglas Mackinnon makes full use of the notion of what we can’t see, of the shadows, of the antagonist existing just out of shot. But in shot, the visuals are stunning, these extra-dimensional beings becoming walking Enya videos, figures that are almost human. In my Mummy review, I didn’t give enough credit to the terrific Mummy, but that was about giving us a new spin on something we already knew well. Flatline presents something we really haven’t seen before and in a way which I’m not sure would be suitable for kids, particularly since we know they’re reconstituted human remains in a different form.  Which is a Mummy too I suppose.  Oh you know what I mean.

Really great action sequences too, especially in that flat with the bubble chair. Originally designed by Eero Aarnio in 1968, you can buy a pretty good approximation from Bubble Chairs Direct it seems should you have my monthly salary available to shell out on something that is entirely impractical in any meaningful sense. The sequence itself is classic Who, contrasting the excitement of being a companion with the comparative mundanities of relationship with a bearded acrobat who also happens to teach. Notice how throughout her conversation with Pink, she gives a decent representation of the Doctor’s rule one, which she then rechristens herself to be something else later on.

None of which was as heart-pumping as the climax, the TARDIS returning to full size and deposited the Doctor in front of the monsters. Yes, the Doctor. Because he’s finally said so. For the first time since Listen, at least for me, Flatline bridges the chasm between Peter Capaldi’s performance and the character whose been on our screens for fifty years. There he is, warning the monsters about what he’s about to do, sonic outstretched, our plane of existence defended, shouting his name. I cheered, oh how I cheered. “There he is!” I gesticulated at the screen, “There he is!” You can see it in Capaldi’s eyes too I think, that feeling that the cloak finally fits, that he’s earned the right to have that stance, in front of these fiends, and say those words.

Not just in that moment, throughout. The Doctor vs Clara dynamic which we all loved in the restaurant scene in Deep Breath and throughout Listen returned. Suddenly when he’s talking about the places he’s been, the things he’s seen, we believe it. He dances, I mean, he dances, that giddy dance which is sure to overtake the Picard "full of win" gif in Buzzfeed listacles in moments of pure happiness. Plus, in the closing moments, he’s clearly very shaken by the loss of life and Clara’s apparent lack of mournfulness, as though he’s noticed his own callousness has rubbed off on her.

Recently I’ve taken the advice of one of those Buzzfeed listacles, which I can’t actually find to link to now, that one is often well served by moments in the day without purposeful stimulus and so I’ve simply been sitting and thinking on the short bus journey to work. It’s during one of those journeys I began to rationalise the Doctor’s behaviour this series thusly: now that he’s at the beginning of what seems like a whole new regenerative cycle, he’s tragically, psychologically reset in some regards so that everything he’s learned about living within humanity has gone so that he’s essentially back in early Hartnell mode when brandishing a rock seemed like a good idea. What we’ve been watching is him getting back into the swing of things.

Not that I think this has necessarily been a great idea, especially since it’s not really been explained in the series and it’s only really something I thought about while looking out of the window onto Princes Avenue. His continued nickname for Danny, PE, remains problematic for all the reasons GKW describes in his review of The Caretaker in DWM and makes an unwelcome return here as does “pudding brains” and the trend of treating most humans interpersonally as though they’re Countess Scarlioni. Nevertheless Flatline sees him at his most Doctorish yet and, thanks to the needs of his lighter shooting schedule spending enough time in the TARDIS that it’s finally beginning to feel like his space.

Frankly, about the only thing that would have improved this episode would have been Muyta, Keisha and Siobhan turning up in person to sing their identically titled song or at least have it playing on the soundtrack. Even the Missy tease is properly intriguing for a change. Did she choose Clara? When she says, my Clara, what could that possibly mean? She was the woman in the shop?  It can’t be parental. Tied back somehow into her being the impossible girl? Sleeper assassin? Well, and indeed then. The fact that I’m bothering to speculate says something too. Three episodes to go, two Moffats but first a Frank Cottrell Boyce. The trees in the trailer are fascinating. Are we about to see a nightmare in East London?

October 18, 2014

Still Blogging by Dan Catt

It's fun to see people (by which I mean people I track) talking about blogging. Andy here and Gina here, and others in Andy's comments.

I thought I'd jot down my angle.

Of Peace, War and Wonder vs Company Age. by Simon Wardley

One of the more interesting discussions in recent times has been Prof Jill Lepore’s arguments against Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation. In her now famous New Yorker article, Lepore argued that disruptive innovation doesn’t really explain change, but is instead mostly an artefact of history, a way of looking at the past and is unpredictable. This really is a non-argument because both Christensen and Lepore are correct. The problem stems from the issue that there are two forms of disruption - one of which is predictable and one which isn't.

The two main forms of potential disruption are product to product substitution and product to utility business model substitution. 

With product to product substitution then the predictability of when (depends upon individual actors’ action) and what (genesis of some new feature or capability) is low (see figure 1). This means a new entrant can at any time create a disruptive product but a company will have no way of ascertaining when that will occur or what it will be.  So whilst disruption will occur (as Christensen points out), it is unpredictable (as Lepore points out).  Apple’s iPhone disrupting the Blackberry is a good example of this type of disruption.

Figure 1 - Predictability.

With product to utility substitution the “what” and “when” can be anticipated. Hence a new entrant can more effectively target a change to disrupt others. However, it also means an existing player can effectively mount a defence having prior knowledge of the change and time to prepare. Fortunately for the new entrants, the inertia faced by incumbents in terms of existing business models, developed practices, technological debt, behavioural norms, financial incentives to Wall Street expectations and self interest are often insurmountable, so the start-ups often win.  Hence, whilst the change is entirely defendable against (with often many decades of prior warning) companies fail to do so. This form of disruption is entirely predictable and it is here where Christensen's theory excels.

Now product to utility substitution is a key part of the commonly repeating cycle of peace, war and wonder that we've discussed extensively about. The 'war' element is highly predictable and the cycle occurs both at a macro and micro-economic level.

You can even model out the potential impact of this cycle on company age. Creating a simulation with 1,000 actors, assuming all actors are in competition, that the largest companies start with an age of 45 years, there exists some unpredictable disruption from product to product substitution and no peace/war/wonder cycle then you can graph out the emergent change of company age with the top 400 due to new entrants and previously successful companies failing. I've provided the output of such a simulation in figure 2.

Figure 2 - No Peace / War / Wonder cycle

In the above the average age remains fairly constant over time (shown as sequence steps of the model on the x-axis with each step of the model being analogous to a year). This is because whilst companies age, there is some substitution by new entrants counteracting the growing age. 

This requires a set of specific conditions including a moderate level of disruption from product to product substitution (3% p.a.) but I'll use this simulation as our base line. By adding in the peace / war and wonder cycle, starting with a condition of 30 steps (e.g. years) for an act to evolve from genesis to commodity and 10 steps (e.g. years) for a commodity to disrupt an existing industry then the following pattern (figure 3) emerges.

Figure 3 - Company Age with Peace / War and Wonder Cycle

What's happening now is a constant undulation in average company age as the environment moves through these cycles. It constantly attempts to return to a higher average age but the constant 'war's and disruption by new entrants (on top of the normal product to product substitution) keeps this in check.

Of course, one of the interesting aspect of the peace, war and wonder cycle is that this not only affects all activities, practices and data but these components can be communication mechanisms. Such communication mechanisms (e.g. telephone, postage stamp, Internet etc) will increase the rate of diffusion of information which impacts the speed at which evolution occurs. This in turn accelerates the speed of the peace, war and wonder cycle.

Rather than a case of we are becoming more 'innovative' as a species, it appears that the speed at which things industrialise (i.e. evolve to more commodity and utility forms) and hence the rate at which we are forced to adapt and move onto the next wave has accelerated. If you now add this communication impact into the simulation (i.e. assume some of those peace, war and wonder cycles impact communication causing a subsequent higher speed of future cycles) then the following pattern emerges (see figure 4)

Figure 4 - Company Age with Peace / War and Wonder Cycle plus Communication impacts.

What's happening is the system is constantly trying to maintain an age but the peace / war and wonder cycle is causing oscillations arounds this (due to new entrants and failure of past giants). However, the acceleration of the cycle (due to commoditisation of means of communication) is causing a shift downwards to a lower age (and a new stable plateau around which age will oscillate).

I mention this because the same pattern in a simulation - which is derived from supply and demand competition causing evolution and the interplay with inertia causing the peace, war and wonder cycle  - can also be seen in the graph of S&P500 company age over time by Foster (see figure 5)

Figure 5 - Variation in average company age with S&P500

You have the same undulation that is caused by peace, war and wonder cycles plus a decline in average age which would be expected from commoditisation of the means of communication and acceleration of the cycle (e.g. Telecommunication, the Internet etc).

So, why mention this? Well, I'd argue that what we're experiencing is all perfectly normal. The system is rebalancing to a new company age around which it will oscillate. There are many ways of countering this effect by exploiting predictable change (which is unknown to many) and through the use of ecosystems but that's another post for another day.

The good news is that most companies have appalling situational awareness and so it's very easy to exploit. I've only been involved in three startups (all sold to large companies) and I've used these techniques in working for Canonical (we stole the cloud from RedHat) and Governments. It's amazing how much power a little situational awareness and understanding of common economic patterns gives you.

--- Update 17th October

After talking with Florian Otel, a smart cookie and always a good chat, I decided to run the simulation above several times to see if we could get it to mimic real life.

After a bit of trial an error, I set the starting company age at 50 years, with each step of the model representing 270 days, a low product to product substitution rate (1%), a higher rate of disruption from the 'war' phase of the cycle (13%), a base time to industrialise of 30 years, a time to disrupt once industrialisation starts of 15 years, a set of peace/wonder and wonder waves each impacting communication, a 7 year rolling average of the top 400 companies, 1,000 competing companies (actors) and an initiation time of April 1937.

I ran the simulation 10 times, because each step in the simulation is probability based and each actor therefore has a chance to age or be disrupted or disrupt others in each step. Hence after each simulation is completed, different actors have died or taken over etc. No two simulation runs are identical.

Figure 6 provides the overlapping result of 7 year rolling average of company age for all ten simulations on a single graph. A very strong emergent pattern can be seen which doesn't do a bad job of mimicking real life.

Figure 6 - Approximation of Real Life through Simulation

It's not a bad approximation to Foster's graph but it's by no means perfect. There's some variation in the simulation when re-run (as can be seen by the different lines in the graph). The times are not perfect (often being out from real life by many years) nor is the shape identical. I've overlapped both Foster and in the Simulation on the same company age / time axis scale in Figure 7.

Figure 7 - Comparison of Foster to Actor (Agent) based Simulation

The simulation also pointed to three critical underlying dates when the industrialisation of communication mechanisms started to occur. These are 1967, 1991 and 2008 but obviously do keep in mind the simulation isn't perfect.

Now, not a lot can be inferred by this, an agent (actor) based simulation which creates an emergent pattern which approximates Real Life and points to the formation of the internet (1991), cloud computing (2008) and information technology revolution (1967) as key moments of industrialisation of communication could be just happy coincidence.

However, it's not bad though and gives food for thought.

October 17, 2014

Watching Siding Spring's encounter with Mars by The Planetary Society

The nucleus of comet Siding Spring passes close by Mars on Sunday, October 19, at 18:27 UTC. Here are links to webcasts and websites that should have updates throughout the encounter.

UR #16: Star Cluster Evolution 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 finish a senior thesis this summer? Or maybe you’re just getting started on an astro research project this semester? 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!


Bhawna Motwani
Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India

Bhawna is a final year Integrated Masters student of Physics at IIT Roorkee. This work is a part of her summer research in 2013 with Prof. Pavel Kroupa and Dr. Sambaran Banerjee at the Argelander Institut für Astronomie, Bonn, Germany.

Dynamical Evolution of Young Star Clusters

The much-debated classical scenario of star-cluster formation, first delineated by Hills (1980), suggests that the collapse of a proto-stellar core within a parent molecular gas cloud gives rise to an infant gas-embedded cluster. Subsequently, the residual gas is driven out of the cluster due to kinetic energy from stellar winds and radiation thereby diluting the gravitational cluster potential. However, pertaining to a star-formation efficiency $\epsilon$ <50% (Kroupa 2008) and slow gas-expulsion, the cluster remains fractionally bound and ultimately regains dynamical equilibrium. With the help of NBODY6 (Aarseth 1999) algorithm, we perform N-body simulations to examine the time-evolution of confinement radii ($R_f$) for various mass-fractions f of such emerging clusters. From this, we infer the cluster re-virialization times ($\tau_{vir}$) and bound-mass fractions for a range of initial cluster-mass and half-mass radii. We relate the above properties to stellar evolution and initial mass segregation in the simulation and find that primordially segregated systems virialize faster and possess a lower bound-mass fraction on account of mass loss from heavy stars and 2-body+3-body interactions whereas, stellar evolution does not exhibit significant effect. This research is the first instance where a realistic IMF (Kroupa 2001) has been utilized to perform an extended parameter scan for an N-body cluster model.

The figure depicts typical Lagrange radii $R_{f}$ evolution profile for a computed N-body model with initial mass = 3e4 M_sun and half-mass radius = 0.5 pc. From bottom to top, the curves represent mass fractions from 5% to 99% in steps of 5%. The dark-red lines represent $R_{10}$, $R_{50}$ and $R_{80}$ respectively. The delay time (time after which gas-expulsion starts) is 0.6 Myr.

The figure depicts typical Lagrange radii $R_{f}$ evolution profile for a computed N-body model with initial mass = 3e4 M_sun and half-mass radius = 0.5 pc. From bottom to top, the curves represent mass fractions from 5% to 99% in steps of 5%. The dark-red lines represent $R_{10}$, $R_{50}$ and $R_{80}$ respectively. The delay time (time after which gas-expulsion starts) is 0.6 Myr.


The Films I've Watched This Year #39 by Feeling Listless

Film This week I watched some films, which I'll talk about in a moment. On other nights, as well as Doctor Who (which you hear enough about already), Freaks and Geeks (which I'll talk about when I've completed its eighteen episodes) and Australia's The Code, BBC Four's latest transcontinental import this time from Australia which began last Saturday and most people don't seem to have watched due to the scheduling carnage on the other side and not just in Mummy on the Orient Express.  Nothing about it is original.  Some of it's a bit Homeland.  Some of it's a bit State of Play.  Some of it's a bit The Thick of It.  Some of it's Broadchurch in the outback.  There's also lashings of Attachments of all things (or the blogging scenes in Netflix's House of Cards if you want to be kinder).  But it's also entirely gripping, has some fabulous performances and has a bonus of being over in six episodes so you know it's not going to meander on like some US and UK shows with their multiple episodes of filler and red herrings.  There's one scene in the second episode in which what seem like they're going to be huge mysteries that will sustain the thing are explained in about two sentences indicating immediately that there's more exciting enigmas ahead.

The Zero Theorum
The Double

A week's worth of films about lonely men which is just the sort of thing you don't need when you're unmarried and pushing forty (two weeks to go) (yes, Halloween) (I've heard that one) (and that one too).  Transcendence wasn't well received on release (19% RT) which as ever seems to have been born from high expectation, a marketing campaign which suggested it was something it isn't and the kind of pack mentality which also killed the likes of John Carter which was also equally fine if not quite spectacular.  Inception this isn't.  What Wally Pfister's produced instead is a homage to the genre films of the late-70s/early-eighties, The China Syndrome, Electric Dreams, War Games, and um, Capricorn One, but focusing on contemporary concerns about the potential sentience of the web and were it might logically lead.  Coma especially is suggested in the large white rooms that the entity ultimately inhabits.  If there are problems, it's a lack of focus in relation to the protagonist, which should be Rebecca Hall's character, but because there are so many other great actors and Pfister feels the need to service them, her agency is depleted at just the wrong moments.  Except those other actor's characters feel underutilized too only really turning up for expository purposes.  Odd.

The Zero Theorum is a pretty good argument against home working and is just how I imagine it must be for people who work on the Amazon Mechanical Turk.  A bit of a greatest hits package from Terry Gilliam, an 80s retro Brazil with Parnassus's fantasy sequences.  It's obtuse rather than entertaining and it's dispiriting to see him falling back on some of his old tropes when he is given creative freedom for a change (albeit on a modest budget).  For all that, it's good to Christoph Waltz in a complex, sympathetic lead role and the production design is as atmospheric and remarkable as any Gilliam film.  I was also reminded how few of Gilliam's films have strong female characters that aren't objects of desire.  Only two female characters have speaking parts here and only one, Mélanie Thierry's MPDG any great stretch of screen time.  I've never really considered him a blokey director, but apart from The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, in the both of which he was "for hire" rather than working on personal projects as such, females above the age of tween tend to be damsels.  On the upside, the QR Codes on the street advertising actually work if you pause the blu-ray and scan them, offering extra textual messages and jokes.  If only all films had that attention to detail.

Curiosity update, sols 764-781: Work complete at Confidence Hills; puzzling arm issues by The Planetary Society

Curiosity spent a total of four weeks at Confidence Hills, feeding samples to SAM and CheMin several times. On two weekends during this period, the rover's activities were interrupted by faults with the robotic arm. Curiosity drove away from Confidence Hills on sol 780, and is ready to observe comet Siding Spring over the weekend.

October 16, 2014

Soup Safari #2: Mediterranean Chicken at Marks and Spencers. by Feeling Listless

At lunchtime. £3.00. 50p extra for bread. Marks & Spencer, 35 Church Street, Liverpool L1 1DF. (0151) 7088383.

Touching base by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

The morning after by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

What comes next?

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

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

As Deadlines Loom, LightSail Bends but Doesn't Break by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society's LightSail-A spacecraft is close to completing a final series of tests that pave the way for a possible 2015 test flight. But as deadlines loom, a new problem has sent the team scrambling to make a quick repair.

October 15, 2014

Fan Service. by Feeling Listless

TV Apologies for this mid-week interlude but Steven Moffat's been speaking to some conference somewhere and until those of us who have to visit a shop to buy the party newsletter tomorrow see what's in his monthly column, this is the first we've heard from him since this series began. For once he speaks the truth:

“You don’t give them what you think they want. That would be mad! The only useful index you’ve got is what you would like,” said Moffat, speaking during a panel session at the MIPCOM conference in Cannes.

“It’s really a strange way to write a story, and an arrogant way to write a story: to give them what they want. You don’t even know what birthday present to give the person close to you! How would you know what everybody wants?” he said."
On the one hand he's quite correct. Many is the show (Lost) which has changed its narrative to fit the requirements of internet discussion board before going a bit wonky. But unfortunately for Moffat, and I'm sorry, I'm really sorry if you're one of the ones who is enjoying this can't find anyone who doesn't agree with you but I think I've met about one person whose perfectly happy with this series and doesn't find it a total shame. So yes, Moffat isn't giving us what we want. But on this occasion it isn't a good thing.

Also since I'm on this, "You don’t even know what birthday present to give the person close to you!"  Actually, this is entirely possible if you know them well enough to know the kinds of things they like.  Failing that there's always the Amazon Wishlist.  I'm 40 at the end of this month.  Also, when it came to The Day of the Doctor, he gave us all exactly what we wanted.  So actually he's wrong about something.

Meanwhile here's a clip from Flatline which is simultaneously hilariously goofy in a good way and yet doesn't quite work because Capaldi and Coleman's performances don't match:

Theory. The reason Clara spent half of the last episode in the train carriage and the Doctor spends what looks like the majority of this one in the console room is how they're coping with the old double banking problem. See also Amy in the TARDIS in The Lodger while the Doctor's missing for a chunk of Amy's Choice.

Finally! New Horizons has a second target by The Planetary Society

What a huge relief: there is finally a place for New Horizons to visit beyond Pluto. A team of researchers led by John Spencer has discovered three possible targets, all in the Cold Classical part of the Kuiper belt. One is particularly easy to reach. New Horizons would fly past the 30-45-kilometer object in January 2019.

Field Report from Mars: Sol 3808 — October 10, 2014 by The Planetary Society

Opportunity will become a comet flyby mission beginning in mid-October. The comet Siding Spring will zoom past Mars at a distance of about 135,000 km on October 19.

Rand Han Interviewed by Campaign Asia: “Communities, Conversation and Content” by Resonance China

I was recently interviewed by Campaign Asia on the topic of China Social Media along with other top social media experts from MSL Group, Social@Ogilvy, and We Are Social:

Communities, conversation and content w/ @alicehu, @haiyitang and @tianyuxu1 @CampaignAsia

— Rand (@littleredbook) October 15, 2014


To read the full article, click here!


Shopping poised for highest growth among mobile activities in China. by Resonance China

resonance_mobile usage

This graphic from InMobi’s recently published 2014 China Mobile Behavior Insights Report, provides a current snapshot of mobile usage in China as well as growth trends for the coming year based on data from Decision Fuel. At the moment, netizens are using their smartphones mostly for gaming (20%) and consuming video and music (23%), followed closely by social activities (16%) on WeChat and Weibo. In terms of growth rates, mobile commerce will see the highest growth this year at 35%, followed by entertainment consumption (32%) and mobile payments (28%). [INMOBI via 199IT]

这份来自InMobi最新发布的2014中国移动互联网用户行为洞察报告,提供了最新中国移动互联网使用者的行为模式及增长趋势(信息图数据来自Decision Fuel)。中国移动互联网用户使用智能手机的用途主要在于播放视频/音乐(23%)及玩游戏(20%),排名第三位的是微信/微博上的社交网络活动(16%)。尽管如此,预估的成长率却大胆地说明, 移动端消费反而会在明年拥有最高的增长率(35%), 其次为媒介消费成长32%以及移动消费增长28%。[INMOBI via 199IT]

Mobile Usage By Activity

  1. 23% Entertainment (Music & Video)
  2. 20% Games
  3. 16% Social (WeChat & Weibo)
  4. 14% Finding Information (search, news, sports)
  5. 13% Shopping
  6. 9% Search Nearby
  7. 7% Email

Mobile Growth Rate By Activity

  1. 35% Shopping
  2. 32% Entertainment (music & video)
  3. 28% Mobile Payments
  4. 26% Gaming
  5. 21% Social (WeChat & Weibo)
  6. 21% Finding Information (search, news, sports)
  7. 18% Finding and downloading apps
  8. 12% Search Nearby

Phobos over Mars by The Planetary Society

Today the Mars Orbiter Mission released a nice four-image animation of teeny dark Phobos crossing Mars' huge orange disk. Mars Orbiter Mission joins a long line of Mars missions that have produced images of Mars and Phobos together.

October 14, 2014

The Apprentice Recapped. by Feeling Listless

TV As some of you know, back in the day I had the privilege of writing for the late lamented television review and comment website Off The Telly. In an effort to pull my various bits writing onto the blog, I've decided to post some of these over the coming weeks. Since The Apprentice is back this week, find below a recap/review of one of only two or three episodes I think I've ever watched, and one of those was the week before in preparation for writing this. It's for an episode of the 2006 series and if you're a fan you'll know the personalities.  Please note - it was sub-edited before being posted on Off The Telly which is why it shows the features of good English and grammar.

During last week’s episode of The Apprentice, two particular personalities were highlighted. Jo and Syed found it hard to make a good impression, simply because their estimation of what they needed to do and say, and what was actually required, were so wide of the mark. Where the rest were happy to sit back and carry on nonchalantly as though they really didn’t care if Alan picked them, these two went in with tons of passion from the off – albeit, some of it misdirected. While Jo really seemed to care for the image of her team, Syed just wanted to make himself look good. I predicted then that one of them would be fired before the hour was up. How wrong I was.

Alan Sugar reminds me of an old games teacher I used to have. At the beginning of every term before we could select which sport we wanted to try, he would offer the list (football, basketball, cricket, weight-training etc). Just after my usual selection of bridge, Mr T (for that was his nickname) would say, “There is no two-hour skive, no two-hour ‘go home’, no two-hour going to the shops”. Now here’s Sir Alan with his, “There is no phone-in here, there is no text a number, no panel of judges. I’m the one who decides who gets fired, and I’m the one who ultimately decides who gets hired”.

It’s quite disconcerting (he even shouts and points in the same way) but within the opening titles of the programme, it importantly specifies that, for once, this is a reality game show in which the public can’t vote Penny Smith to stay despite the fact she obviously can’t sing. Time is spent over these crucial initial moments in building up Sir Alan as a captain of industry, with all the planes and paraphernalia. Sadly they don’t mention the joy he brought to millions of school kids who gained friends because they had an Amstrad CPC 6466 with a built in monitor and disc drive. That would do it for me.

Those first few minutes of last week’s show had lulled the audience into a false sense of security. The use of Bill Conti’s music from The Thomas Crown Affair gave the impression this group were like teenagers given the keys to the big house and being allowed to play (I remember a similar scene in the first series of Popstars all those years ago). It wasn’t long before some polite discussions began.

This week over the recap it’s all drumbeats, clock-ticks and guitar riffs. Suspense from the off as some of the blokes rankled at the appearance of Syed, rather than Ben, back at the house. The Bangladesh born entrepreneur looked touchingly forlorn as colleague Samuel received all the hugs.

The gloves were off. Lads (and ladies) let’s get to work.

Tonight’s task was to create a design for a charity calendar for Great Ormond Street Hospital. As with last week, Velocity had an early bird on where they wanted to take the design. Then the solid wall of intuition seemed to crumble. The voiceover intoned, “Early research suggests pets sell the most calendars,” and the ensuing discussion began with the decision as to whether they should go with cats or dogs. The website for an American company flashed up on screen. With all the prices in dollars, would this be their first mistake – basing a business decision on researching the US market. Would anyone notice?

Jo was emotional. Quite rightly she thought the calendar should reflect the ethos of the hospital. It was difficult to watch the group’s reaction as she began to cry, only to be shouted out by her colleagues who were increasingly hostile, sensing a forthcoming kill. Suddenly people who last week could sell a tray of fruit for 30 quid simply by batting their eyelids became, well, banshees. As often happens in these situations, a group who are desperate to plough on with the doing of things failed to stop and listen to all the opinions.

Jo was being steamrollered and she didn’t like it.

Wondering how they’d come to that decision, I searched for calendars on Google and found the exact website which flashed up on screen, Their top seller lately is “Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light” with “Hot Buns” in fourth – although after Sir Alan’s reaction to last week’s escapades, I can see why they’d disregard that idea.

When Jo then held up a piece of GOSH publicity, it was abundantly clear the girls didn’t even want to consider the charity’s own branding. As ever, they were going to do their own thing. Within the show’s editing process, Jo had gone from being slightly annoying to quite sympathetic.

In the Invicta camp, Samuel was subjecting his teammates to a training session on how to brainstorm. In excruciating detail he talked through the various approaches until his highlighter ran out of ink. As usual, Ansell attempted to take charge as the group couldn’t decide what they wanted, or how. Margaret Mountford, Sir Alan’s aide, wasn’t happy and told them so. When they finally came to a decision it was as simple as the girls’ … and just as gut-wrenching. Babies. Dressed in work clothes. Syed dashed off the list. “This baby’s gonna be a doctor, this baby’s gonna be a businessman, this baby’s gonna be an astronaut, we’re gonna dress them all up in this”. Poor babies.

As Syed and Paul wandered through a prop department hunting for appropriate dressings, things were looking increasingly dodgy. Paul dithered over whether they should include handcuffs in the politically correct “policeperson” picture. “We could handcuff them together, but we don’t want to look as though we’re handcuffing kids”.

The cracks in Invicta continued to show as Syed, Ansell and Paul had the inspired notion of actually buying some charity calendars so they could get some leads on design and pricing. Alas, Syed garbled the reasoning behind the plan to Sam – he said it was to see if they could guess how expensive they were – and it went no further. Despite this failure, the “business bad boy” actually appeared for the first time as someone with good logical ideas. In the ensuing confrontation over pizza with Samuel and Mani, he was by far the clearest and most level-headed. Almost robotic.

At Velocity, Nargis had called a meeting for all the girls who sat around drinking wine and agreeing with each other. Except for Jo, who was in the kitchen crying. The following day, there was a telling moment, which remained unhighlighted. As they left the house, Alexa reached forward to touch Jo, who was walking ahead of her. We didn’t find out what was said, but it was odd the voiceover suggested one set of circumstances, while these details offered a different narrative.

As the day progressed we were shown a montage from the photo shoots. Michelle explained the high concept behind their cat project. “We don’t want anything climbing out of plant pots or anything like that. We want something that’s quite contemporary, quite sharp, quite classy”. Meanwhile, the boys’ babies were not even dressing in uniforms.

Problematically, they were totally naked with bricks and film cans keeping their modesty. It made for uncomfortable viewing. But not as uncomfortable as witnessing layout man Tuan producing the design and choosing a font horrifyingly like Comic Sans.

Before the rest of the team arrived, he complained to Mani (who had just returned from mangling Thomas Jefferson into his pitch) that there would soon be another six people arguing over the thing’s colour. In the end, predictably they argued over the whole layout. The resident desktop publisher adjusted his glasses and kept his mouth shut. We couldn’t blame him. While the gang debated, like Jo before him, Tuan was shut out and tearful.

As the third day dawned, Syed, Samuel and Mani were haggling over the item’s retail price. Samuel thought they should go for something a few pounds more than the internet.

“You think?” Syed said pointedly. If they’d gone to a shop and had a look as he’d suggested they would have known. Syed said he was feeling uncomfortable. Mani dropped the f-bomb and tempers finally flared. But, yet again – and I hate to say this – Syed was right and Mani was annoyed about that.

The pitching sessions began. At Harrods, Mani was trying to sell a calendar to a man looking directly through him. It wasn’t clear if Mani thought they had chemistry, but it seemed to me his presence was only being tolerated, especially when the question of money came up and he still didn’t have an answer. Although they had this straight by the second encounter of the day, they weren’t going to win with Virgin Megastore (“It’s not particularly nicely produced if I’m being honest … the inset pictures are quite dated looking … the use of colours has a little bit of a look of desktop publishing about it … I don’t think we’d be able to pay anything more than £2.70, £2.75 for this.”).

However, none of this was quite as excruciating as Nargis’ work. Beforehand, she’d advised everyone to stay quiet even if she was making a hash it. Painfully nervous, she actually interrupted the Virgin man when he had the audacity to ask how much he’d have to shell out – and she too, didn’t have an answer for that.

For all her ability to take charge in meetings, she simply couldn’t handle the random stress of a presentation. Each time she lacked the flexibility to answer simple questions, desperate to keep to the form of her pitch. Everyone watching The Apprentice tonight now knows there are six million cat owners in the UK alone, and that the majority of them live in London. I’m going to take that to my grave. Then the man from the Calendar Club asked: “Why are you selling a cat calendar for children?” Jo wondered about this two days ago. Nargis was flustered. She told him he’d find out if he just let her finish the presentation. “Oh, OK. Oh there’s more …” But what’s this? In the final meetings at Calendar Club for the boys and Harrods for the girls, no matter how awful the pitches were they liked the product. Calendar Club man even congratulated the boys on the design. Because he knows. Because he buys a lot of calendars. Lord.

Then the tension ramped up for the boardroom. Initially, it looked as though the girls had won. They’d managed to sell to all of the vendors and made £7000. But wait. The man from Calendar Club had bought a shed-load of the things from the boys, and they’d made £10,000. For all their indecision, a random variable had meant they’d turned a profit.

Nargis was shocked. She swallowed visibly.

In the ensuing “burn-down” session, Sir Alan pointed out cats had nothing to do with the hospital. Although this reflected well on Jo, her rambling self-assessment made little headway with the mogul. He looked pained. “Jo, will you excuse me for one moment and allow me to appraise the situation?” Karen, who was also brought in for the reckoning by Nargis, was the biggest surprise here. We hadn’t heard much from her, but her strong negotiating skills came to the fore. Sir Alan used her as counsel regarding Jo’s attitude. Could she be redeemed? And then, just when she needed to shut-up and let Nargis take the flack, Jo was back presenting her case, even interrupting Sugar. Frankly I want to her to win on the basis that she seems to be the most real of all.

Nargis was fired. Good.

Given that she was the second team leader to be given walking boots in as many weeks, I would have thought no one else would want the job. But in the preview for next week, it’s clear Jo is next up – no doubt in the team’s hope she’ll finally go overboard. But you know, I’ve a feeling she’ll still be there in the final week.

Her and Syed. What do you think?

Neither. Michelle and Ruth. Michelle was hired.

Music to program to by Zarino

iTunes mini player, showing Jan Jelinek, Kosmischer Pitch

There are two types of programmer (or, I guess, designer): those that listen to music when they work, and those that don’t.

I’m of the former type, and every time I meet someone else from the same camp, we inevitably end up swapping music suggestions.

The music I listen to at work ranges from tango (Gotan Project) and acid jazz (Hidden Orchestra) through post-rock (Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky), to ambient electro (Andrew Pekler, Jan Jelinek), and finally glitch and techno (Vladislav Delay, Jon Hopkins, Glitch Mob).

The whole point is to provide just enough stimulus that I can get into the zone, without providing so much that I get distracted out of it by an awesome tune.

Typically the songs don’t have lyrics (or are foreign, so I can’t sing along). And the range of styles means I can pick an album that suits the work at hand – acid jazz in Photoshop, say, and Glitch Mob when I’m hammering out some horrible CSS bug.

So here’s a run-down. I hope you find something new and awesome to listen to! Where possible I’ve linked song names to videos on YouTube, so you can have a listen. Album names link to Amazon.

Tweet me @zarino if there’s anything you think I should add to the list!

Gotan Project

Gotan Project Super-cool folk/latin/jazz from the continent

The name might not ring a bell but you will have heard music by Gotan Project before. They’ve got that catchy, unusual sound that makes them perfect for advertising and movie soundtracks.

It’s all about accordions and super-cool bass riffs, with bits of echoey foreign vocal lines smattered throughout. Everything is French and Spanish and it just oozes sophistication.

Like Andrew Pekler, this is the sort of chilled lounge music you’d expect to hear in a posh handbag shop, where all the sales assistants wear insanely well fitted brown suits and foppish side-partings.

Where to start: Their 2001 album La Revancha Del Tango is a classic, with Época, Chunga’s Revenge, and Santa María being the catchiest tracks.

If you like Gotan Project… you should also check out Libertango by Astor Piazzolla, and Ballroom Stories by Austrian trip-hopper Waldeck.

Hidden Orchestra

Hidden Orchestra Immersive, mind-blowing jazz

Hidden Orchestra are a Scottish group, based in Edinburgh. They have a completely unique sound which mixes jazz, hip-hop, and samples of the natural world, into a weird but wonderful soup you just want to get lost in.

Their 2010 album Night Walks is on the jazzy side of acid jazz – like my other long-time favourite, the Cinematic Orchestra, except entirely without lyrics.

2012’s Archipelago develops their trademark swooping, deep, rich soundscapes, with instrumental melodies that simply drip sophistication.

Bits of it (like the opening horns in Archipelago’s Overture, or arabic riffs in Flight) feel like they could be straight out of the Game Of Thrones soundtrack.

Where to start: Reminder and Fourth Wall are good introductions to their broody, bombastic bass lines. Disquiet, on the same album, is a good taster for their archetypical swirling, gliding, sophisticated instrumentals and complex string riffs.

If you like Hidden Orchestra… check out The Cinematic Orchestra (Ma Fleur is a good introductory album). And if you like them, try Patrick Watson’s Close to Paradise and Adventures In Your Own Back Yard.

Sigur Rós

Sigur Rós Ethereal, minimalist, bizarre

Sigur Rós are one of the longest-serving artists in my library. I first heard of them when their UK breakthrough track, Hoppípolla, was used in an advert for the BBC’s Planet Earth in 2005.

Compared to Hidden Orchestra, Sigur Rós feels like airy, ridiculous fluff. Gone are the deep, brooding baselines and windswept sound effects. In come fairy vocals and countermelodies that sound like the springs in a pocket watch. But it’s all very lovely.

Where to start: Takk is probably their most approachable album. Famous for Hoppípolla, but Glósóli and Gong are also really good. The untitled album, “( )”, has more typical, spaced-out, grandiose, post-rock feel – a bit like Explosions in the Sky.

If you like Sigur Rós… Try Amiina, Explosions in the Sky, and Múm.

Explosions In The Sky

Explosions in the Sky It’s all about the climax

Wikipedia describes Explosions in the Sky as making “brooding, ominous melodies building into crashing climaxes.” Which is pretty spot-on.

As with most post-rock, we get nice long tracks here, with lots of time taken to develop melodies around a theme, almost always building to some really satisfying, eardrum-popping crescendo at the end. It’s perfect background music for working to.

Where to start: The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place is a good introduction – not as broody or ominous as their earlier stuff. Try the opener, First Breath After Coma, or Your Hand In Mine.

If you like Explosions in the Sky… make sure to check out Enchanted Hill and In A Safe Place by The Album Leaf, and A Data Learn the Language and Chez Viking by The Mercury Program. Bits of 65daysofstatic (like Radio Protector and Drove Through Ghosts To Get Here) are also really similar.

Andrew Pekler

Andrew Pekler Broken little fragments of electro jazz

Andrew Pekler’s music is sort of like Hidden Orchestra: you can hear real jazz instruments, and they build up gradually to form often quite complex tunes. But unlike Hidden Orchestra, the instruments are warped and splintered. You get bits of melody, in weird orders, like a cubist painting.

As I said above, I always feel like this is the sort of low-fi electronic lounge music you should hear in trendy handbag shops like Louis Vuitton or Gucci. There is nothing offensive, nothing jarring, here. Which is nice sometimes.

Where to start: Andrew Pekler’s one of the newest additions to my library, so I don’t have many recommendations to give. I started with Station to Station and Nocturnes, False Dawns, Breakdowns.

Jan Jelinek

Jan Jelinek / Gramm Like you’re living in a computer

Jan Jelinek (who also performs under the stage name Gramm) is all about deep, reverberating, repeating soundscapes, brought to life with clicks and skips and driving rhythms.

The music sort of washes over you, and recedes into the background, making it perfect for working along to. There’s just enough variation and progression to keep you creative without distracting your focus.

Where to start: Legends / Nugroove™, the opener from Personal Rock, is probably a good introduction to his style, with a ridiculously catchy driving bassline, and metronomic clicking percussion, cutting through a mournful, wailing chord line. Once you get bored with that album, try Kosmischer Pitch for something with more melody, like Universal Silhouette.

If you like Jan Jelinek… then read on, because you’ll love Vladislav Delay and Jon Hopkins.

Sasu Ripatti / Vladislav Delay

Sasu Ripatti / Vladislav Delay Ambient / glitch / techno

Compared to Jan Jelinek, Vladislav Delay comes across as quite unfriendly. At first the noise is claustrophobic. But give it time, and you’ll find bits of his back catalogue that are energetic and intense.

Syncopated, semi-random bass lines and percussion give everything a sort of out-of-control runaway feel. Bits of it feel organic. Others feel manufactured. It’s hard to describe!

Where to start: This is the sort of music you just put on in the background, and no matter where you start or stop listening, you’ll still get the same effect. As far as I can tell, no one track is better or worse than any other. I found Multila a slightly more friendly introduction to his style than Kuopio which was just a little too close to having a rave going on inside my head.

Jon Hopkins

Jon Hopkins From excitement, to anxiety, to beauty

Opalescent is a really airy, ambient album. If a bit nondescript. I wouldn’t bother downloading it.

The earlier Insides shows off Jon Hopkins’ affinity with Brian Eno, and features a nice easter egg in the form of Light Through The Veins – which is a longer, better version of the only good bit from Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, the twinkly Eno-influenced melody that book-ends the album in Life In Technicolor and Death And All His Friends. Turns out that riff was too good to be a Coldplay invention – it was a sample from Jon Hopkins. Mystery solved.

His newest album, Immunity, is more similar to Jan Jelinek – clicks and skips, with real world samples that keep it from feeling too artificial.

Where to start: Open Eye Signal, on the album Immunity, is a good introduction to the modern Jon Hopkins. Relentless rhythm and pace. With a good set of speakers or headphones, the bass goes right through you.

Tron Legacy Reconfigured

Daft Punk: TRON Legacy R3CONF1GUR3D

The original soundtrack to TRON Legacy is pretty good as far as ambient, soundtracky music goes, with some stomping energetic bits (The Game Has Changed, Derezzed, Fall) and some plinky-plonky spaced-out bits (The Son of Flynn, Armory, Solar Sailer).

R3CONF1GUR3D is an album of remixes from the original soundtrack. It’s a bit hit-and-miss, but taken as a whole, standout tracks like The Glitch Mob’s bombastic remix of Derezzed, and Crystal Method and Photek’s synth-heavy covers of The Grid and End Of Line respectively, make it a worthy listen.

As you’d expect from an album originally meant to be a dancefloor counterpart to a more orchestral original album, R3CONF1GUR3D is pretty energetic and upbeat. Perfect for getting over the late-afternoon slump.

Where to start: Well, this is only one album, so start at the beginning and work your way through! If you like the sound of a track, look up the artist who mixed it – that’s how I found out about the Glitch Mob…

The Glitch Mob

The Glitch Mob Turn it up to eleven

Six months ago, I never would have considered a band like the Glitch Mob. But times—and tastes—change. This is all worlds apart from Sigur Rós and Hidden Orchestra – Glitch Mob is heavy and high octane, with deep rumbling bass lines and trippy, glitchy melodies.

Their 2014 album Love Death Immortality has astonishing energy (in tracks like Mind Of A Beast, Skullclub, and Carry The Sun), paired with wailing female vocals and equally wailing synths and guitars (in Our Demons and Becoming Harmonious).

Drink The Sea, from 2010, is less varied, and maybe less approachable for newcomers. In parts it’s almost more like a high-powered, bass-heavy version of a post-rock act like Explosions in the Sky.

Where to start: We Can Make The World Stop is a good introduction to their style. If you like the heavy bits of the title song, try Love Death Immortality, which takes it to the next level.

Is that all?

Hardly! I haven’t even mentioned my long time favourites like Zero 7, Lemon Jelly, Air, and El Ten Eleven.

But hopefully, if you’re the sort of person who listens to music while you work, it’s given you some ideas on what to try next. Let me know what you think – tweet @zarino :-)

Music videos dominate user sharing on Sina Weibo. by Resonance China

resonance_weibo video sharing

This chart from China Internet Watch aggregates data from Sina Weibo and analyzes user sharing behavior of videos on the microblogging platform for the month of August. In terms of content types shared on Weibo, music was the clear category winner with more than twice as many videos shared among users as the next category (Entertainment). In terms of video platforms, Youku was the most popular among Weibo users at 30.20%, followed by iQiyi at 17.40%, and Tudou at 14.20%. [CIW]

这篇来自China Internet Watch,统计了8月新浪微博用户视频分享行为。数据显示,视频分享最多的是音乐类别,比紧跟其后的娱乐类的高出两倍。在微博所有的视频平台中,优酷居首位,拥有1/3的市占率,而爱奇艺与土豆则紧追其后,分别占17.4%及14.2%。[CIW]

October 13, 2014

Video Introduction to Comet Siding Spring’s Near Miss at Mars by The Planetary Society

On October 19, 2014, Comet Siding Spring will fly very close to Mars. Here’s a 5 minute video introduction to get you up to speed on this planetary near miss, and some suggestions on how to find out more now, during, and after the encounter.

Mummy on the Orient Express. by Feeling Listless

TV We live in interesting times. As is often the case, especially in relation to the web, opinions are polarised, confusion reigns. There seem to be loads of people who’re very happy indeed with this latest series of Doctor Who and the character of the Doctor himself, exclamations that it’s the best season since the show returned and that in Twelfth the Doctor they always wanted. Then there are those who’re entirely disappointed with the whole thing, which they find highly derivative and that the Doctor, their hero is somehow absent. Someone even told me that they felt like they've lost a friend.

Opinions are opinions and there are many available and if you’re in the former constellation you’ve nothing to worry about. If you’re in the latter, well, you’re possibly like me hoping against hope that the Doctor’s general attitude which, to disappointingly quote a correspondent in Radio Times (who hadn’t even seen Kill The Moon yet), is “angry, defensive and doesn’t seem to like the human race very much. […] no light and shade in the character, the humour and compassion have been lost” is part of some arc plot, the reason why he asked up front about his face and enquired to Clara if he’s a good man or some other power governing his actions.

In the midst of what feels like open warfare (the kind in which long term fans who’ve written books on the topic have said they can’t be fussed with the next episode) comes Mummy on the Orient Express which will no doubt confirm to some that we’re essentially watching the pre-Capaldi era rewritten with the aid of the Oblique Strategy Cards which just for fun and to try and keep myself awake I’m going to utilise a bit in writing this review. “What is the reality of the situation?” Oh um, here we are on the Voyage of the Damned ramming into The Curse of the Black Spot with The God Complex floating in the wreckage.

In his first piece for the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Miller says of John Updike’s The Centaur, “This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.” I think that’s about where I am with this season of Who. When faced with an episode with such ostensible fine qualities like Mummy on the Orient Express, doing some very good things, there’s still that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that it’s not quite gelling, that the level of familiarity is just too strong this time and not in the same way as in classic Who where the Dalek’s same old plans was comforting. Next week looks like Fear Her with Chloe Webber replaced with Banksy.

“Fill every beat with something” Which is fine. It is. If I thought the show was being particularly meta, it’s just possible that like Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation which is ironically rubbish in its closing act, it’s testing viewer's resolve, putting in the same position as Clara in really, really hating this man we’ve so previously loved, and by extension the programme but know that we’ll be tuning in the following week anyway. The above mentioned Radio Times correspondent says that they won’t be watching it again until Capaldi regenerates, but they’ll have tutted through Kill The Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express too probably.

“Look at the order in which you do things” Yes, should get on with saying some things about it. For the past couple of weeks I've been a bit wary about rewatching the given week's episode. No sense of that here, I can't wait to see it again to catch its many nuances. Jamie Mathieson is a real find, someone who unlike most of the other writers in the Moffat era hasn't been a show runner, but is very capable and shows that a more open script policy does work even if the material which ultimately makes it to the screen is a bit derivative. Not that we can tell yet if it's meant to be deliberately so. Who is Gus and why does he sound like Tannis?

It’s certainly scary, the teaser teaching the viewer what they should be scared of thanks to the on screen clock actually telling us when the moment of death of the onscreen character is about to occur, brilliant paid off at the end as the sixty-six seconds which the Doctor had in which to save himself. Just the sort of Hitchcockian tension which hasn’t surfaced often in the show across the years and especially not in this form even if arguably it’s a simply a chronologically rigid version of the time between receiving the black spot and a visit from a supermodel shaped siren.

“Work at a different speed” The characters are meatier creations too, or at least feel as much thanks to the performances, Daisy Beaumont providing real emotional resonance to Maisie, a character who ostensibly exists for Clara to have a girly chat with thanks to the absence of such on Earth and Frank Skinner, the Cribbins of the affair, so scared that he’d let the side down when talking to DWM and it’s fair to say didn’t. At all. In those closing moments when the Doctor’s offering him passage on the TARDIS has an actors scripted words belied the sparkle in his eye. Seriously, if they wanted to make him a companion next year, well, they just should. As Joss Whedon notices, comedians make really effective actors.

“Only a part, not the whole” The Voyage of the Damned fake out was fun, turning the audience’s trailer expectations of seeing the parody ending of The Big Bang turned into a full episode. If someone was starting to write about the episode before it had even gone out, one might have been led to try to find clearer connections between the two so it’s lucky that I didn’t do anything of the sort. Clearly the idea is that that the Doctor’s supposed to imagine that they’re from Sto even if he also doesn’t ever thing anything of the sort. But you could forgive him for at least trying to allow himself a moment to think that. They even having a pop singer.

“Is the tuning appropriate?” Ah Foxes. I can count the number of artistes that I’ve seen in real life who’ve appeared in the television programme on one hand for loads of complex reasons to do with not wanting to ruin things by meeting my heroes. But it has happened, a few because they were in Shakespeare productions and Bonnie Langford who passed on Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool next to the 86 bus stop because she was in panto that year. And Foxes. Foxes is the one I saw on purpose. She had a set at Liverpool International Music Festival this year and since the stage was literally across the road from my house I couldn’t not go.

In the event she was very good even if it wasn’t the most attentive of teenage audiences (who seemed more interested in trying to kill each other, gangs creating sinister looking circles, paramedics and police storming into the crowd at various intervals, that sort of thing), good enough for me to download the album that night and listening to it pretty much solidly since. It’s in the same kind of synthpop area with Little Boots without ever quite tripping over in the folktronica of Ellie Goulding. Her signature song, Clarity is entirely unrepresentative but like Lady Gaga’s move back towards jazz, designed to show that she can actually sing. In octaves.

“"Look closely at the most embarrassing things and amplify them"” Now that I’ve presented a good example of why I don’t review music, ever, how did this addition to the growing list of this franchise’s foxes do? She did very well in her thirty seconds of screen time, though like UB40 in Speed 2: Cruise Control it was little more than a cameo and it seems her character of “Singer” may not have existed after all which in an episode heavy on societal stereotypes, men the experts in science, women the experts in entertaining and emoting, is a bit of a disappointment. When this was announced it seemed like a full blown part in the mode of Miranda Raison or Kylie.

Why cast her then? Her voice, that voice, which with its melancholy undertow as her in Clarity, is the perfect fit for a counter intuitive cover of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, coming at us like the soundtrack to a John Lewis advert for funeral services, with its horrendous thematic implications for Clara, who when faced with a choice between a boring life on earth with the man she loves and the all of space and time with an alien she can barely stand to be in the same room with, she chooses the latter, just as we all would, even if he isn’t the man he once was. “Why can’t I quite you?” The promo featuring the whole song is unbearable, this song, these words, but in this form, against often up beat shots of explosions! Running! Grins!

“Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor” Notice how there’s less of a sense of the companions being lost in time. Last week Courtney was able to update her Tumblr and here’s Clara casually phoning her boyfriend from her bunk. Such phone calls used to be magical interruptions conducted in moments of high tension, when Rose is first dealing with the notion of being in the far future or Martha on board the SS Pentallian. Clara ringing him for tech support was the first indication of a change and now she can contact her boyfriend in the right order. If only Rose’s call in The End of the World had landed some time in the middle of her missing year.

“Question the heroic approach” All of which said, I’m still not happy and for many of the same reasons as last week even though the episode is very much about explaining this incarnation and in richer and with more emotional clarity. We’re supposed to see him as continuation of the pre-Tennant form, of the man who in the face of death can’t mourn because there’s too much work to do saving lives.  Provocatively on the beach ala the torture scene in Mindwipe,  Clara slumbering amongst the dunes, finally he's gifted his version of C. Baker’s “I’m the Doctor, whether you like it or not” or indeed Eccleston’s “this is me, right here, right now."

“Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities” Beautifully played by both, directed skilfully by Paul Wilmshurst in the style of an idle moment in some ancient BBC costume drama, I still watched in an abject state of not understanding quite what they were doing. Cheering a heroic figure without sentiment is a difficult ask. Why it works with Tom in Pyramids of Mars, but not Capaldi, I can’t say other than that there are moments when you can see his love of humanity on the surface. Eccleston was brusque at times, but he still stopped for a moment in number 10 and apologise to a corpse for not being their quick enough to save their life.

“Abandon normal instructions” Now we have a Doctor who is more interested in the information he can gain from a dying man than the fact of his death. Perkins’s protestations here and similar queries by characters in previous stories demonstrate this is supposed to be a feature of the character, but I simply don’t understand why it would, could or should be. And also why, in relation to consolidating on the work of Matt Smith, you’d take this kind of a risk. As we’ve seen on other shows, and even this show in the past, viewers are fickle. If they’re not liking something, they simply won’t bother catching up once The X Factor has finished.

The props are there. The psychic paper makes a triumphant return this week as do the jelly babies, albeit from a cigarette case which is funny on first inspection but then oh so terribly wrong, which might well be the perfect metaphor for this incarnation of the Doctor, whose lack of understanding of humans now extends to the ones who used to be his best friend. I appreciate that this is a more sweary repetition of my comments from last week and the week before, but all I see is Capaldi acting his socks off with a character that’s as hollow as a tree would be if it was the same age and who simply doesn’t make any kind of sense within the unfolding text.

“Just carry on” But it is an unfolding text and that text surely wouldn’t be spending so much existential time questioning the nature of its lead character in this way if it wasn’t leading up to something and as I’ve said to people who ask, and people do ask, there’s every possibility that like my original positive review of Fear Her, this is all going to look a bit foolish. There has to be a reason why Clara hasn’t asked him why his personality isn’t what it used to be, even taking into account his attack eyebrows, its because somebody else surely will, just as there has to be a reason why he’s talking about himself as though he’s always been this way, as though he can’t even remember stopping for a moment in number 10 and apologising to a corpse.

“Simple subtraction” If I wanted to try to look at this from the perspective of this amazing show doing interesting things, it’s that we’re seeing a mirror of last season’s arc which was about the Doctor trying to understand Clara, and instead we have Clara trying to understand the Doctor. She’s playing him, being the wide-eyed human on a great spirit of adventure, both handles down on the console, but really she’s going in with her wide eyes open trying to find out why he’s become this person she doesn’t recognise. It’s always bugged me that we didn’t see a post regenerative console room scene at the start of Deep Breath, a Pudsey Cutaway.

“A very small object –Its centre” I don’t know. Possibly. Maybe. But that’s what happens when the thing you love confuses you, sends you reaching for rationalisations, makes you question exactly why you do love it. Of course the very best thing about Doctor Who is that it carries on, that there’s so much of it and it’s ok not to love all of it.  Even if there isn’t some clever, clever on-screen resolution to all this, Romola Garai’s incarnation will be along in a few years reading Abi Morgan’s scripts and pissing off a whole different group of fans. Assuming it survives. Next week’s episode title is just asking for trouble.

Planet Formation on a Budget by Astrobites

We’ve discovered over a thousand exoplanets and characterized many of their properties. We’ve also discovered and studied the birthplace of planets: protoplanetary disks of gas and dust surrounding young stars. While many of the details of the planet formation process remain to be figured out, we can check if there is enough material in protoplanetary disks to form the planets that we’ve discovered. The authors of today’s post do just that, and come to some interesting conclusions about how quickly planets start to form.

Figure 1. An artists conception of a protoplanetary disk. Image from NASA JPL.

Figure 1. An artists conception of a protoplanetary disk. Image from NASA JPL.

While protoplanetary disks consist of both gas and dust, the authors only consider the budget of dust (solid material) when making their comparison. The amount of gas is more difficult to measure, and much of it is known to be lost as the disks dissipate. The authors take a mass census of the protoplanetary disks in the Taurus-Auriga complex, a giant molecular cloud and a cluster of stars that are just a few million years old. The masses of solids in protoplanetary disks are typically measured from radio or sub-mm wavelength light that is emitted from the dust in these systems. The authors focus on class II disks, which are generally regarded as the birthplace of planets. Class I disks (which precede class II) are short lived and are surrounded by envelopes of material that are still feeding the disks and protostars. Class III disks (the final stage in protoplanetary disk evolution) have already lost much of their material.

To determine the mass budget in mature planetary systems, the authors account for solid material in the form of  Earth-like and super-Earth planets, the cores of gas giant planets, and debris disks (which consist of material ranging in size from dust to km-scale planetesimals). The frequency of different types of planets is derived from the results of the Kepler mission and various radial-velocity, microlensing, and direct imaging surveys. These planet detection methods are sensitive to different orbital regions, so their results are complementary when attempting to sum the total mass of planetary systems. The frequency of debris disks is derived from surveys with the Spitzer and Herschel space telescopes, which detect the infrared light emitted from the dust grains in debris disks.

The authors use the observational results to generate a simulated population of planetary systems using a Monte Carlo technique. The distribution of the total solid mass in these simulated planetary systems is shown in Figure 2, along with the distribution of solid mass in the observed protoplanetary disks. The figure is in the form of a cumulative distribution, where the x axis notes the mass of solids and the y axis notes the fraction of systems in the population having this mass or greater.

So is there enough mass in protoplanetary disks to build the planets and debris disks that we’ve discovered? These authors conclude that there is not. You can see this in Figure 2, by comparing the green or cyan lines — which represent slightly different versions of their simulated population of mature planetary systems — with the black lines — which represents the observed distribution of class II protoplanetary disks. At less than 20 Earth-masses the black line is below the green/cyan lines, meaning there are not enough disks in this mass range to account for the observed planets. Above 20 Earth-masses, however, there are enough disks to build these planetary systems.

The authors note that their conclusion is conservative, as they likely underestimated the solid content of planetary systems in their budget. First, they note the many planets exist that cannot be detected and counted by current planet detection techniques. Planets smaller than the Earth are extremely difficult to detect by any technique, and direct imaging — the only method sensitive to planets are very large orbits — can currently only detect planets with masses of at least several times Jupiter’s mass. Second, the process of planet formation is likely inefficient, with much of the leftover mass of small solid particles being lost from the system as the protoplanetary disk disperses. Gravitational interactions among fully formed planets likely send some planets crashing into the star while ejecting others from the system.

The authors do find a solution to the problem of insufficient mass by examining Class I protoplanetary disks. The solid mass distribution of these disks is shown in violet in Figure 2, and they clearly provide sufficient mass to build the planetary systems of all sizes. This means that the planet formation process must start very quickly, with dust already beginning to coalesce into planetesimals during the brief class I phase. Once solid mass is locked up in larger bodies like planetesimals, it is hidden from observations of protoplanetary disks, which explains why the class II disks appear to have much lower masses (the decrease of solid mass from class I to class II disks could have alternatively been explained by material falling onto the star or being ejected from the system by jets). The mechanism of planetesimal formation is still debated by theorists, but these results lend strong support to those theories that can build planetesimals quickly.

Cumulative distribution of solid masses in protoplanetary disks and mature planetary systems. The x axis is the solid mass, and the y axis is the fraction of systems in the population with this mass or less. Green and cyan: results of two versions of the simulated distribution of mature planetary systems. Magenta: same simulations but with the microlensing planet results excluded. Black: observed distribution of class II protoplanetary disks. Violet: observed distribution of class I protoplanetary disks.

Figure 2. The cumulative distributions of the mass of solids in protoplanetary disks and mature planetary systems. The x axis is the mass of solids, and the y axis is the fraction of systems in the population with this mass or greater. Green and cyan: results from two versions of the simulated distribution of mature planetary systems. Magenta: the same simulations but with the microlensing planet results excluded. Black: the observed distribution of class II protoplanetary disks. Violet: the observed distribution of class I protoplanetary disks.

Service announcement: upcoming outages (UPDATED) by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

The Links Effect. by Feeling Listless

Airbnb, the home-renting website, has been great for me, but I have misgivings:
"There were a few hiccups as we got used to being landlords abroad. The eight-hour time difference made emergencies a 24-hour potential distraction. Getting keys to our tenants required gentle exploitation of friends who worked or lived locally. The cleaner I employed to shine the place up between guests couldn’t get through a snowstorm to put the pieces together after a pair who had departed leaving a mess, so my host ratings went south for a little while. But overall, it was a good experience that allowed us a lifestyle we’d not have had if the site didn’t exist; it took away most of the donkey work and the fees they charged were much more reasonable than a letting agent on the high street."

Operations Ome Ce, Stonegarden: Racketeering investigation 'disrupts' Barrio Azteca gang:
"When El Paso police, state troopers and federal agents carried out a series of raids last month, it was the culmination of a three-year investigation targeting the Barrio Azteca gang, which has been hit with repeated blows using a federal racketeering law created to break the Mafia."

DC Digital Announces Wonder Woman '77:
"The Wonder Woman TV show ran for three seasons from 1976 to 1979, with a movie-length pilot in 1975, but the ’77 of the title is more than just an echo of the Batman ’66 name. The first season of Wonder Woman was set during World War II; the second season, which began airing in 1977, moved the action to the 1970s, and it’s the 70s-era Wonder Woman that DC Digital intends to revive for this series."

Whatever happened to ‘lost’ work ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’? The Royal Shakespeare Company might have the answer:
"We’ll never know – Love’s Labour’s Won is, well, lost. Although mentioned in a list of Shakespeare plays in a book by Francis Meres in 1598, it was not printed in the First Folio collection of his works, and no copy survives. But one theory is that, rather than a missing work, Love’s Labour’s Won is an alternative title for a play we do have (just as Twelfth Night is subtitled “What You Will”). The most likely contender? Much Ado About Nothing: it works, date-wise – it’s thought to have been written in 1597/8, and yet it is notably missing from Meres’ list."

Off Prompter: Joe Biden explained:
"The most common is the Biden crime of passion. In March, during a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, he was talking about health-care reform with reporters outside Butterfield’s Pancake House, when he spotted a young woman on a bench and bounded over to enlist her as a prop, pitching her on the need to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act: “Do it for your parents! Give them peace of mind!” he implored. After he had moved on, she explained to reporters that she couldn’t sign up because she was a tourist visiting from Canada. (“I just didn’t know if I should say.”) Some of this is just salty. On April 29th, in a White House event on protecting students from sexual assault, Biden said that, where he came from, when “a man raised his hand to a woman, you had the job to kick the living crap out of him if he did it. Excuse my language.”"

Writers join fight to save Liverpool’s libraries:
"Author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, born and based in Liverpool, put his name to the campaign, slamming central government for the cuts. “Imperial Britain was built on the playing fields of Eton. Innovative, creative, generous Britain – the Britain of Tim Berners-Lee and of the Beatles, of Alan Turing and JK Rowling – was forged in her public libraries. Now Eton is closing the libraries,” he said."

The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum:
“When you go to the library,” said James O. Pawelski, the director of education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “you don’t walk along the shelves looking at the spines of the books and on your way out tweet to your friends, ‘I read 100 books today!'” Yet that’s essentially how many people experience a museum. “They see as much of art as you see spines on books,” said Professor Pawelski, who studies connections between positive psychology and the humanities. “You can’t really see a painting as you’re walking by it.”

Off-Centaur. Jonathan Miller on John Updike's The Centaur.
"This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features."

Radio Station Lays Off All 47 of Its Journalists, Will Play Beyoncé All Day Everyday Instead:
"Houston's one and only 24-hour news station is closing up shop and replacing all its journalists with the perfect homage to the very best thing Houston has ever produced, yes, Beyonce."

Details of the exceptions to copyright that allow limited use of copyright works without the permission of the copyright owner:
"The personal copying exception permits you to make copies of media (CDs, ebooks etc) you have bought, for private purposes such as format shifting or backup without infringing copyright. For example the exception would allow you to copy content that you have bought on a CD onto your MP3 player, provided it is for your own private use."

RT @cheeflo: For those times when you can't even.
— John Carter McKnight (@john_carter) September 30, 2014

Everything you need to know about the state of global ecommerce. by Resonance China

resonance_global ecommerce

This infographic published by Baynote earlier this year provides a comprehensive snapshot of the explosive growth of e-commerce around the world. In the wake of Alibaba’s record-breaking IPO, its become clear that the nexus of online shopping has spread far beyond its roots in the U.S. In fact, e-commerce sales growth in America has stabilized at a modest rate of 12% (2012-2017) when compared to India (29.5%) and China (57%). [Baynote via MarketingProfs]

這張由Baynote在今年早期提供的信息圖綜合了全球迅速發展的電子商業的簡要信息。在阿裏巴巴創下了有史以來最大單的IPO之後,在綫網絡購物已經很明顯從它的起源國美國普及到了世界各地。電子商務銷售在美國已經處在一個穩定的增長率12%(2012-2017)對較印度(29.5%)和中國(57%)的持續增長率。[Baynote via MarketingProfs]

October 12, 2014

On maps, component class, pipelines, markets, inertia and economic states. by Simon Wardley

When drawing maps, I often use different symbols to represent different aspects of competition. For example, since activities, practices, data and even knowledge evolve then I'll often mark these aspects on the map (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - Activities, practices, data and knowledge.

With most maps, I tend not to mark up the different component classes unless it is useful. When it is useful then in practice though I might add a legend to show the different class of components (activities to knowledge), I tend to not fully write out the process of evolution for each class on the evolution axis - it becomes unwieldy.  I simply use the evolution of activities to represent the different publishing type I to type IV of evolution. 

It's worth remembering that maps (even geographical maps) are simply a representation of the space. 

In some cases, within a map there will be a pipeline of constant change e.g. content for publishing. I'll normally mark this on (as with the case of the TV industry in figure 2).

Figure 2 - A content pipeline

When scenario planning, I'll tend to add on different markets to show comparison to the market in focus. I'll also add on further contextual information such as price elasticity, known forces (buyer vs supplier), known constraints and known difference between the company and the market (usually a dotted red line identifying a delta or a solid red line indicating a difference). An example of this is shown in figure 3.

Figure 3 - Comparison to market.

I'll also add on potential force multipliers (e.g. ecosystems), potential sources of inertia, likely points of change (a grey dotted line) and general comments or areas of interest.

Figure 4 - Ecosystems, inertia, points of change and areas of interest.

Lastly, I'll add different competitive states (peace, war and wonder), current and future states, competitive forces and potential for impacts. See figure 5.

Figure 5 - Competitive states and competitive forces.

The final maps I produce tend to contain elements of all the above. They are complex but then, so is competition.

When scenario planning then all of these components from activities, practices and data, to inertia, competitive forces, constraints, economic state, points of change, ecosystems, comparison to other markets, buyer vs supplier relationships, pipelines, elasticity and other compound effects (co-evolution, Jevons' paradox etc) need to be considered. Trying to do this in your head without a map i.e. a way of visualising and discussing a landscape - is almost impossible for any complex business.

October 11, 2014

Cameron v Churchill by Charlie Stross

The European Convention on Human Rights was intended to enshrine the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in law for Europe. The UN UDHR was passed by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 as a response to the horrors of the second world war.

In no small part, the ECHR was pushed for by a fellow called Winston Churchill, who said:

"In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law. It is impossible to separate economics and defence from the general political structure. Mutual aid in the economic field and joint military defence must inevitably be accompanied step by step with a parallel policy of closer political unity. It is said with truth that this involves some sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty. But it is also possible and not less agreeable to regard it as the gradual assumption by all the nations concerned of that larger sovereignty which can alone protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics and their national traditions all of which under totalitarian systems, whether Nazi, Fascist, or Communist, would certainly be blotted out for ever."

So. Conservative-in-name Prime Minister David Cameron today promised to repeal the Human Rights Act, the legislation enshrining in UK law a chunk of supranational legislation put in place by notable former Conservative prime minister Winston Churchill as an anti-totalitarian measure.

Coinciding with Home Secretary Theresa May's attempt at reintroducing a universal surveillance regime of which the Stasi or KGB would have been proud, and her avowed desire to gag unpalatable political views from the media, you've got to wonder where all this is intended to go ...

PyconUK 2014 Round Up by ntoll

PyconUK 2014 Round Up

Saturday 11th October (5:30PM)

(This write-up is a bit late: I've been ill and we've recently had a death in the family.)

This year was the biggest ever PyCon UK conference - a community organised event for users of the Python programming language. Just under 500 tickets were booked including 45 for teachers and 75 for kids. We couldn't have done it without the support of the sponsors, especially Bank of America, the Python Software Foundation and Raspberry Pi Foundation without whom the education track would not have been possible.

For me, the person responsible for the education track, I had most fun working with the teachers and kids who turned up. I also seemed to be giving far too many presentations (four in total during PyCon UK). I also realised, due to circumstances beyond my control, that I have many kind and generous friends in the Python community and that when disaster strikes people step up and make "stuff" happen even at 4 o'clock in the morning!

It was a privilege to watch several masters at work during the education track:

The education team from the RaspberryPi Foundation are insane, inspiring and intelligent in equal measure - if you can attend one of their free Picademy events for teachers than you're in for a real treat. It's easy to sound bombastic about the work of the Raspberry Pi Foundation (so allow me to demonstrate): the pedagogical forces that they unleash are both unique (because who'd have thought such a small, cheap and "raw" piece of kit would result in such a huge amount of interest) and important (because the Raspberry Pi liberates computing education from the boring sad little world of locked down RM boxes, presentations and spreadsheets). That they are a UK based effort makes it all the more important that we, the UK's Python community, give them as much of our support as possible.

It was also wonderful to see Martin O'Hanlon work his Minecraft magic on both teachers and students. Martin introduces Python programming via only a handful of very simple Minecraft related concepts that he uses to build some amazing things within the Minecraft world (his in-game house that follows you around was a big hit with the kids). He's so good at this sort of thing that he's written a book on this very subject (that's bound to be a big hit with young programmers and teachers alike - what an inspiring textbook that would be). In case you can't wait for its publication you can grab his PyCon UK resources here.

(Here's a photo of Martin and fellow author Carrie Anne looking like the cartoon versions of themselves used in their books.)

I was especially pleased to welcome John Pinkney and his NAO robots. I met John at a CAS hub meeting over the summer where he described how he uses robots as a catalyst for all sorts of interesting educational activities. The visual programming tool used to interact with the robots strikes me as particularly child-friendly. Interestingly the code behind the visual building blocks used to describe the robot's behaviour is all written in Python (and thus handily gave me an excuse to invite John to PyCon UK). John gave two workshops (one for teachers, the other for kids) and the fact that he managed to keep both groups in rapt awe for an hour is testament to both his skill as a teacher and the "charisma" of the robots. We also ran a robot code dojo at which we let the developers play with the bots. I gave a quick overview of the Python API to the assembled developers and my slides can be found here.

Dave Ames also deserves a special mention for leading a couple of excellent workshops on using the PyGame project. Dave's workshops involved taking an existing (yet broken / unfinished) game and modifying the code to fix things and make it your own. I really like this approach since it gives students an existing base to work from. It also makes sure that beginner coders begin the think about debugging their own and other people's code (for which we provided all attendees with a PyCon UK Debug Duck. This rather excellent state of affairs is wonderfully encapsulated in the following video from the kids' day:

Alan O'Donohoe, Ben Smith and Vikki Dodd are three teachers without which the education track would not function. Alan's pragmatic encouragement when disaster struck (twice) was invaluable and Ben and Vikki made innumerable contributions throughout the event that meant I was regularly thinking, "Oh wow, [Ben/Vikki] has already done that." That's what I mean when I say that people "step up".

It was an immense privilege and a lot of fun to work with Naomi Ceder (founder of the PyCon US Education Summit) on our own small contribution to the education track: introducing object oriented programming to teachers through the medium of cows. I especially enjoyed the tag wrestling modus operandi of our talk. I'll leave you to guess which one of us was Big Daddy or Giant Haystacks (a UK specific cultural reference I'm sure Naomi will be delighted to quickly forget). In any case, both teachers and developers got stuck into our Parrot related exercise (as the picture below shows):

Finally, Carrie Anne gave a stonking keynote address to the whole conference on Sunday afternoon. I've heard far too many boring-yet-worthy-important-people-talking-about-boring-yet-worthy-important-things as conference keynotes in my time. Happily it soon became apparent that Carrie Anne's keynote was definitely not a boring-yet-worthy talk about matters of an educational nature. If you want to actually know what Carrie Anne said you should invite her to your conference to give the keynote. It would be definitely worth it: evidence via social networks suggests hers was the warmest received and most highly regarded keynote of this year's conference.

Other wonderful aspects of this year's PyCon UK included the beer for the conference meal (brewed using Python), the charity cheese shop that raised several hundred pounds for a local children's hospice and the inevitable silliness during the lightning talks.

Finally, it was a pleasure to catch up with Van Lindberg (chair of the Python Software Foundation). I'll leave what we discussed for a separate blog post but, in the meantime, you should all totally sign up to be members of the PSF here. Why? Because,

The mission of the Python Software Foundation is to promote, protect, and advance the Python programming language, and to support and facilitate the growth of a diverse and international community of Python programmers.

We've already started planning next year's conference. If you can think of any ways in which we can make it better please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Conference Eaters by Dan Catt

This is how tech conferences work, a group of high priests spread across the globe co-ordinate to create gatherings for the believers. On apointed days believers are ushered into temples of learning, excitedly sitting ready for their minds to be consumed and souls uploaded to the network. Then the anointed ones, the wise ones, nearly godly ones walk onto the stage. The ones with the answers, the ones who will save us all.

Their heads roll back, a loud crack as they open their jaws wide, a blinding white light emits forth and swirls around the room entrancing those it touches. Elated followers let the light fill them, inspire them... because oh it's so very inspiring, captivated they stand and wait.

Long boney fingers on long boney hands on long boney arms stretch to edges of the stage, pale, white, almost translucent. The face, jaw hanging open wide but now showing the age to match the countless years of wisdom, tired and gaunt emits a hypnotising whine.

The figure lurches forwards clawing its way through the audience, pointed fingers sewering body after body raising them to its gaping maw. Skulls crack as jaws close down, bone spliters fly, the wise one eats the brains.

Every, single, last, one.

Sated, he returns to the stage and surveys the scene of broken bodies, the confused but content smiles resting on what faces remain. A click, the last slide displays, the white light evaporates and in a sharp split-second the audience is restored.

With the brains of the brightest and best eaten the rejuvenated speaker somehow bigger now than before, strides off the stage ready to walk the earth better equipped to save us all, ready for the next pale white keynote wizard to shuffle onto the stage.

We willing give of ourselves to increase their power because we need them, we need them to feast upon our minds so they themselves can reach further than we ever could, solves the problems we can't. They are the thinkers, the solvers, the fixers and we give ourselves over to them for salvation.

The ushers usher us out of that hallowed place into the blinking bright sunlight the godly ones having already flown, blazing trails of CO2 in their wake.

And that's how conferences work.

Maybe I should back up a little and explain.

The tech conference should not exist.

Or at least not in its current form. This is what I used to believe until I finally understood the truth which I've written above. It's the only way I can make sense of it.

We are post future, we don't have flying cars but we do have the network slowly bringing us everything else. Hmmm, let me put it a different way, if you have a tech conference called "The state of the network" in 2014/15/16 in which speakers and audience travel from different parts of the country/world to talk/hear about how the network is making things better, then we've all clearly failed.

This is how technology and conferences are failing you.

People fly from one country to another, to sit in a room together and watch Edward Snowdon talk from yet another country up on a big screen. Don't even get me started on overflow rooms with screens for keynote speakers.

A conference cannot be about the dissemination of information because we have YouTube. Why reach an audience of 200 when you can reach the wired world? Tech conferences where a person stands at the front and preaches visions as a way to spread knowledge is so laughably outdated it's unreal. Vimeo, Twitch, YouTube, Podcasts, blogs, tweets are all faster and scale more than meatspace.

Maybe it's about the transference of money from supporters to speakers (and organisers). Perhaps those speakers wouldn't share their knowledge for free on the intertubes, maybe they've spent years working something important out and deserve to be remunerated for by a select few followers. Ah, Information as limited resources to give it value in a digital era, and of course not forgetting that speakers often don't get paid anyway.

Again technology is failing us if we can't work out a way to pay people for information in the age of the internet. However you're right, it's just like music. Bands have to accept that their music spreads for free (or even encourage it) as record labels cling to the last century, and make the money instead from gigs, a paying audience who want the live experience.

Which brings me to the final reason given for conferences. "That was inspiring" is the comment I often hear when asking someone how a conference went... "I'm not quite sure what they said is applicable to what I'm doing, but it was inspiring". Paying to be inspired, yeah ok, I get it. This goes smoothly into "it was a chance to get together with friends I don't normally get to see, and work paid for it".

If going to a conference is the only way to get time free from work to see your friends and peers then once again we have been tricked out of the technological future we were promised. The one where we weren't all so busy making computers do work for us that we had some leisure time beyond grabbing a coffee at lunch with the next start-up over.

The speakers are just a backdrop for the meetings in the corridors and bars. The solution to that is an Event not a Conference. Stop going to conferences, stop making conferences, stop flying people halfway around the world, putting them up in hotels and making them talk to 400 people in a room. Go to an event and talk with all 400 people in a room instead.


The tech conference should exist.

That is what I believed for a long time. I stopped going to conferences, well the conferences itself, I've still gone to the location of a conference to meet my friends and hang out in the bar afterwards. Paid for the transport and hotel myself, and then caught up with the conference videos afterwards if available. Then worked out how to support the speakers by buying whatever it is they're selling, if anything.

No, this is what I realised.

A conference is a way to force a smart person hurtling forwards to stop and collect their thoughts by making them a speaker, otherwise they'd be too busy to record their own video or write a blog post.

Every conference speaker I've know has come out of a conference understanding themselves and what they are thinking about better then before they went in. Its been the same when I've spoken at conferences (which I've stopped doing now) the weeks beforehand gathering up all the threads of an idea or two, weaving it all together for a single point in time.

These brilliant minds, which often run along and beyond the bleeding edge need to be made to focus to raise them to the next level so we can all benefit.

We supplicate ourselves before our idols, allowing them to consume our energy and brain to evolve themselves further. And that is what conferences are for, because otherwise what use are they that we shouldn't have already solved with technology.


  1. I use "priests", "he" and "white" here for satirical purposes, because this sadly still reflects the current state of tech conferences.

  2. If a conference speaker is pitching the same talk time after time, then there is no point to them because no new thinking is being done. Just simply record the first one and publish it. If the speaker doesn't want to have the talk recorded because they want the ability to keep their knowledge as a limited resource and trot it out time and again, then you know, fuck 'em.

  3. Events vs Conference. If we look at a list of conferences as defined by Wikipedia compared to a "Tech Conference" we can see a difference. Here are some examples "Academic conference, in science and academic, a formal event where researchers present results, workshops, and other activities." (tech conferences with presented results are good)... "Peace conference, a diplomatic meeting to end conflict."... "Business conference, organized to discuss business-related matters". In fact here's the general definition "A conference is a meeting of people who "confer" about a topic.". While a tech conference is often people standing at the front not conferring at all.

  4. I am avalible to speak at your conference on the subject of why your conference shouldn't exist, please speak to my agent.

October 10, 2014

From Mercury orbit, MESSENGER watches a lunar eclipse by The Planetary Society

Watch as our enormous moon -- a quarter the diameter of the planet -- just winks out as it passes into Earth's long shadow, in an animation captured from more than 100 million kilometers away.

Cold Brown Dwarfs by Astrobites

Title: The Luminosities of the Coldest Brown Dwarfs
C. G. Tinney, Jacqueline K. Faherty, J. Davy Kirkpatrick, Mike Cushing, Caroline V. Morley, and Edward L. Wright
First Author’s Institution:
UNSW, Australia
Status: Accepted to The Astrophysical Journal

Y dwarfs are a new addition (since 2011) to the very bottom of the stellar classification scheme. The trusted mnemonic “Oh, Be A Fine Girl/Guy, Kiss Me” might need some extra words, because we keep finding examples of cooler and cooler objects, including the L, T, and now Y dwarfs. A brown dwarf is often thought of as a failed star; it might fuse deuterium at some point, but isn’t massive enough to sustain hydrogen fusion. There is also ongoing debate over what the dividing line is between a brown dwarf and a planet, since at the smaller end of their distribution, these objects resemble large Jupiters much more than a tiny sun. Y dwarfs have temperatures less than 500K and masses between only 5 and 30 Jupiter masses. Temperature-wise, this places them neatly between the gas giants in our own solar system, around 130K, and the planets we find by direct imaging, at 1000-1500K. As you might imagine, finding these guys can be tough, and we’re only just beginning to understand their complicated atmospheres. Luckily brown dwarfs are relatively numerous, so there are enough close-by that we can sort out some answers.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 8.25.31 AM

Figure 1. Spectral type – magnitude diagram. You can clearly see in this chart that some objects’ assigned spectral type and measured absolute magnitude puts them well outside the established trend.

One of the most basic questions we ask about an object in astronomy is, “How bright is it?” Finding accurate bolometric luminosities depends on knowing the absolute magnitude, and therefore an accurate distance to these objects. For brown dwarfs, this is usually found by trigonometric parallax, which is always challenging. The authors illustrate this by pointing out that an object at 25 pc will move by only 40 milliarcseconds. That’s an incredibly tiny distance to measure accurately, yet techniques are always improving. The authors therefore conducted a targeted search for the parallax motions of very faint Y dwarfs, in order to achieve more accurate absolute magnitudes.

They plot their results first in a spectral type-magnitude diagram in Figure 1.  They plot T dwarfs for comparison at the brighter, hotter edge of the diagram, to show how the Y dwarfs fit it to the larger trend. The authors point out that spectral type (which is assigned by looking at the shape of an object’s spectrum), can be difficult to pin down for these objects, and is usually uncertain at about the .5 sub-type. So a T9.5 could actually be a Y0. But even with this uncertainty, there’s a lot of scatter, with many objects on this plot falling well away from the median line (in black). This means they are substantially either brighter or dimmer than can be explained by the uncertainties.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 8.25.09 AM

Figure 2. Color-magnitude diagram. Lines represent a variety of atmospheric models with different kinds of clouds. These serve as predictions for where objects are expected to fall on the plot. The presence and type of clouds can affect the observed color of the object.

The same scatter carries over to Figure 2, a more traditional color-magnitude diagram. Part of the scatter is due to the fact that accurately modeling these objects is extremely challenging. At these low temperatures, all kinds of molecular features come into play, and cloud physics and radiative transfer are tricky to calculate. Consequently, we have a range of expectations for where we expect to see these Y dwarfs on a color-magnitude diagram, and even with that range, there are objects that are far too bright for their color. The authors suggest that these could be unresolved binaries, in which case adaptive optics imaging could resolve the issue.

Another option for targets missing the predicted lines is that they are cloudy. The bands used for this study are the near infrared J band, a filter which peers deep into the atmosphere, and the WISE W2 band, whose flux is emitted from high altitudes. Sulphide and salt clouds form lower in the atmosphere, decreasing J band flux and making objects redder than their cloud-free equivalents, in which case they will sit above predicted trendline and appear overly bright. On the other hand, water ice clouds form higher in the atmosphere and affect the W2 band more strongly, so they will cause bluer colors, and these objects may appear too dim.

Of course, at some point, this all comes back to physics. Why do we see such large scatter on the color-magnitude diagram between otherwise similar objects? Why should one Y dwarf have thick clouds and another an almost transparent atmosphere? The answer probably lies in cloud variability. We have evidence for L and T dwarfs showing variability in time, so it would not be too surprising to see that the same Y dwarf could wander around this diagram as it rotates, showing us a cloudy side one day and clear skies the next. So now that we know where at least some of these Y dwarfs are, it’s time to watch them very carefully, and see what they can tell us about their clouds.

The Films I've Watched This Year #38 by Feeling Listless

Film I didn't watch any films this week.

October 09, 2014

JPL Releases a Big, Bold Website Redesign by The Planetary Society

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a major overhaul of its website. Here's a closer look.

Level One: The Intro Stage by Jeff Atwood

Way back in 2007, before Stack Overflow was a glint in anyone's eye, I called software development a collaborative game. And perhaps Stack Overflow was the natural outcome of that initial thought – recasting online software development discussion into a collaborative game where the only way to "win" is to learn from each other.

That was before the word gamification existed. But gamification is no longer the cool, hip concept it was back in 2011. Still, whether you call yourself a "gamer" or not, whether you believe in "gamification" or not, five years later you're still playing the world's largest multiplayer game.

In fact, you're playing it right now.

One of the most timeless aspects of games is how egalitarian they are, how easy it is for anyone to get started. Men, women, children — people love games because everyone can play along. You don't have to take classes or go to college or be certified: you just play. And this is, not so incidentally, how many of the programmers I know came to be programmers.

Do you know anyone that bought the video game Halo, or Myst, then proceeded to open the box and read the manual before playing the game? Whoa there guys, we can't play the game yet, we gotta read these instructions first! No, they stopped making manuals for games a long time ago, unless you count the thin sheet of paper that describes how to download / install the game on your device. Because they found out nobody reads the manual.

The project I’m working on is critical, but it has only about 3 to 4 users, most of whom are already familiar the application. One of the users even drives the design. The manual I’m writing, which is nearly 200 pages, is mostly a safety measure for business continuity planning. I don’t expect anyone will ever read it.

It’s a project I managed to procrastinate for months, working on other projects, even outside the scope of my regular assignments. The main deterrent, I believe, was my perception that no one needed the manual. The users seemed to be getting along fine without it.

And so as the year ticked to a close, instead of learning more about Mediawiki and screencasting and After Effects, I spent my time updating a 200-page manual that I don’t think anyone will ever read. It will be printed out, three-hole punched, and placed in a binder to collect dust on a shelf.

I guess that's not surprising for games. Games are supposed to be fun, and reading manuals isn't fun; it's pretty much the opposite of fun. But it is also true for software in general. Reading manuals isn't work, at least, it isn't whatever specific thing you set out to do when you fired up that bit of software on your phone, tablet, or laptop.

Games have another clever trick up their sleeve, though. Have you ever noticed that in most of today's games, the first level is kind of easy. Like… suspiciously easy?

That's because level one, the intro stage, isn't really part of the game. It's the manual.

As MegaMan X illustrates, manuals are pointless when we can learn about the game in the best and most natural way imaginable: by playing the actual game. You learn by doing, provided you have a well designed sandbox that lets you safely experiment as you're starting out in the game.

(The above video does contain some slightly NSFW language, but it is utterly brilliant, applies to every app, software and website anyone has ever built, and I strongly recommend watching it all.)

This same philosophy applies to today's software and websites. Don't bother with all the manuals, video introductions, tutorials, and pop-up help dialogs. Nobody's going to read that stuff, at least, not the people who need it.

Instead, follow the lesson of MegaMan: if you want to teach people about your software, consider how you can build a great intro stage and let them start playing with it immediately.

[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.

What did Dawn learn at Vesta? by The Planetary Society

It's now been two years since Dawn wrapped up its work at the second-largest asteroid. What else did we get from the Vesta encounter besides great photos? Recently, I asked Dawn's deputy project scientist, Carol Raymond, for help in summarizing a few of the big things Dawn taught us.

"I hate the fact that I have to hate this" by Feeling Listless

Film My lack of interest in the Star Wars expanded universe saga continues but I did spend five or fifteen minutes reading through's length, well researched article about how fans of the now dumped continuity are campaigning for its return. Caught between two banthas, of not wanting to shit all over part of its core readership whilst simultaneously trying demonstrate the sheer pointlessness of the exercise, the writer nevertheless manages to capture a flavour of the human wreckage that results from detailed continuities being rebooted:

"The members of the campaign to save the EU come from all walks of life and represent a diverse array of Star Wars fan constituencies. There are people who love the prequels and people who hate them. There are people who love The Clone Wars and (in far greater numbers, it seems) people who hate it.

Regardless of their particular interests, one thing unites these hardcore EU fans: They are deeply frustrated by the the decision to classify the EU as "Legends" and to only selectively incorporate its elements into future stories.

"I won't spend one dime on Star Wars until they make it crystal clear how much money I've wasted over the past thirty years," wrote Tony Castronovo.

In an interview, John Sadler, who helps run the "Alliance to Save the Star Wars Legends, Expanded Universe" page, said that the canon decision "really screwed over the EU fans."

These fans, Sadler said, "are the ones who helped keep Star Wars alive after Episode 6 came out and they are the ones who are invested the most in the EU." According to him, these fans "were told that those books/comics were official Canon [sic] for 30+ years."
Nothing illustrates fan interactions with this cross-platform media franchise is how in fighting against Disney and everything they've stood for, they've nevertheless adopted its language, describing the EU as Legends, as per the hashtag, #BuyLegendsOnly!, as though even if they do only buy Legends it'll change Disney/Lucasfilm's mind.  Disney/Lucasfilm don't care what you buy so long as it has the Star Wars logo on it, indeed they'd be pleased as punch if material from the discontinued continuity, the longtail, continues selling alongside the nuWars (sorry Graham).

Mars Orbiter Mission shifts orbit to take cover from Siding Spring by The Planetary Society

With only 10 days remaining until the arrival of Comet Siding Spring at Mars, ISRO has shielded the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) from the comet. On Tuesday MOM’s orbit was altered so as to move it behind the Red Planet when the comet arrives. MOM will carry out observations of the comet and its Mars Colour Camera will click images of it.

Parallel Reconstruction and the new Stasi by Charlie Stross

Retired NSA director William Binney explains what the Snowden leaks really mean. This is an indispensable read if you're trying to understand the shape of the flypaper we're collectively stuck to. It's quite long, and it's a transcript of a lecture (with slides), but it's well worth persisting. In particular, do not give up before you get to the explanation of the term "parallel reconstruction" and see what certain agencies are using it for. I don't want to sound alarmist, but? Be alarmed, be very, very alarmed.

No MySpace, just no. by Feeling Listless

About For months, six months possibly, I've been experiencing worrisome incidents when visiting this blog myself to check how items have posted or layout changes. Now and then I've heard random noise, sometimes music, sometimes people talking and sometimes, usually through Safari on ios, a pop-up purporting to be from asking for permission to see the current location.

After scanning my computers a dozen times for malware and viruses and checking the code on the blog several dozen more and finding nothing wrong and no ill effects elsewhere, I pondered and pondered and pondered, The West Wing scene featuring Toby Ziegler and his bouncy ball on repeat in my head because watching someone think is about the only recourse you have if you don't have any thoughts of your own.

I googled and googled. I used Twitter search and this morning, just now in fact after having the pop-up appear again on my ipad I googled and googled again and finally used the correct keywords in the magic combination and stumbled up this blog, a blog about solar energy written by someone trying to get the word out.

It's Site Meter.

For years, since I began this blog practically, I've had the little sitemeter square in the sidebar. Back then it was something you did, that you had, and when this blog began was about the only way to track how many visitors it was getting all thirty of them usually via Google. Since then, even though I've moved on to blogger's own counters and the like, I've kept it there as a historical curiosity.

Also since then, sitemeter's been sold on to another company and as part of its monetary strategy, has begun funneling ads through the sitemeter code on other websites and for months, six months possibly, that's been a pop-up advert for myspace. It doesn't appear with every visit and on most browsers it's blocked, apart from the audio which plays in the background, and on Safari ios asks for a location first.

Well, I've deleted the widget now and after reloading the blog a few times in ios Safari, the pop-up has gone too. None of you complained about seeing this thing yourselves so I wonder how many of you did. Did any of you notice? What did you think? Who you do trust? How do you know? Did Justin Timberlake know?

Dust gets interesting by Astrobites

Paper Title: The angular power spectrum of polarized dust emission at intermediate and high Galactic latitudes

Authors: Planck Collaboration

Paper Status: submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics

Last year, I went to a colloquium at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics given by Bruce Draine, an expert on interstellar dust.  I left the lecture amazed by two things. One: how much Bruce knows about dust (enough to write a textbook, which he did!) and two: that he was able to make dust seem interesting.  Well, today I’m summarizing a paper that makes dust about as interesting as dust can get.  Dust in our galaxy, that is.  So first, a little backstory.

Those of you who follow cosmology (or read the newspaper!) will remember that last March was quite an exciting month, with the BICEP2 collaboration reporting a detection of B-mode polarization (think little arrows following each other in a May-Day-like dance around a central point) at 150 GHz and on scales of about one degree on the sky; see this astrobite for a refresher!  This detection possibly was due to such modes in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), radiation coming from the moment the Universe became neutral 300,000 years after the Big Bang.  If the modes are truly in the CMB, they are most likely due to gravitational waves generated by inflation, an exponential expansion of space-time itself theorized to have occured in the first 10^{-31} or so seconds.

However, another explanation for some or even all of the signal BICEP2 saw could be dust in our own galaxy emitting polarized light.  How does this work?  Well, in the absence of Bruce Draine (his text is an excellent reference for those needing more detail!), I’ll do what I can.  Most dust grains are not symmetrical, but have one dimension that’s longer than the others.  This longest dimension tends to align with the magnetic field in our galaxy (there is one, and within our galaxy it has about the same energy content as the CMB).  Thus, one ends up with a fleet of dust grains, all pointing along the magnetic field.  Insofar as the field is coherent (i.e. doesn’t change direction too much), this means that there will be large swathes of our galaxy where dust grains are all pointing in the same direction.  Each of these grains, because it has one long axis, preferentially emits light that oscillates in one direction.  Light oscillates? Well, more precisely, light is just oscillations in the electromagnetic field (imagine a vibrating string), and the oscillations can in general be in whatever plane they like.  Polarization refers to the plane the oscillations are in (i.e., what direction is the string vibrating—up/down or left/right?)  Now, since all of the grains are aligned, the light from all the grains is oscillating in the same plane, so it all adds up and we see net polarization.  A fun, less scary interjection: sunglasses often block one polarization of light (it has two), because there is a similar phenomenon as light is reflected from water: this reflection produces a single polarization that can be effectively blocked so sailors’ evade glare.

Ok, so what does dust polarization have to do with inflation? Well, as I said, the dust can produce a signal that mimics the signature of inflation in the CMB.  Today’s paper attempts to assess whether this is actually happening.

Unfortunately, it gets complicated pretty fast!  BICEP2 measured polarized light at 150 GHz, but the Planck paper today focuses on polarized light at 353 GHz.  Why? Because we know that inflation doesn’t produce much signal there, but dust does.  Therefore, a signal seen at 353 GHz is pretty unambiguous: we know it’s dust.  (The Planck paper does consider other explanations, such as synchrotron emission, polarized point sources, and carbon monoxide emission, but there are ways to rule these out). The Planck paper then extrapolates from the 353 GHz dust emission down to predict what the polarized dust emission should be at 150 GHz, where the BICEP2 measurement is.

How do they do this? Well, the Planck mission actually has polarization data at 100, 143, 217, and 353 GHz.  The authors use this range of measurements to create a model for the dust’s spectrum (how much polarization there is at a given frequency). They find a modified blackbody to give a good fit: this is just a blackbody multiplied by frequency \nu to a power, i.e. \nu^{\beta_d}B_{\nu}, where B_{\nu} is the blackbody and \beta_d=1.59. You might wonder, as did I, how they know that at lower frequencies (e.g. 143 GHz), their “dust” signal is not actually including some of the inflation-generated polarization as well: the answer is that they study the dust’s frequency dependence in a variety of regions of the sky, many of which have so much dust that it would wash anything else out.

Using this extrapolation, they do several things.  First, they look at many different patches of sky of about the size the BICEP2 team used, and they calculate how well each patch could fake the amplitude of an inflationary signal at the scales where the latter would be strongest (about a degree on the sky). Note that this is only using amplitude information at one scale: in reality the inflationary signal varies in a particular way as one changes the scale on the sky one is looking at.  So for the dust to just fake the value at one scale, by itself, would not be compelling evidence that the BICEP2 signal is all dust. However, already for this analysis they do have a beautiful and interesting figure (below): it shows how much dust could “fake” an inflationary signal (at the one scale) in lots of regions of sky.  Not only is it pretty, but it shows that there actually may be cleaner regions of the sky (though not by much) than that BICEP2 used: an opportunity, perhaps, for future telescope pointings?

Upper map shows the amplitude at one particular scale of inflationary signal one would infer if one wrongly thought the dust signal was from inflation. The black box is the BICEP2 region; notice there are slightly cleaner regions in both panels (darker blue). The bottom panel shows the errors on the top panel: taking a given region in  the top row and then matching to the same region on the bottom row tells one how accurate Planck's inference is in the chosen region on the top row; cooler colors mean more accurate. Figure 8 from the paper.

Upper map shows the amplitude of inflationary signal (at one particular scale) one would infer if one wrongly thought the dust signal was from inflation. The black box is the BICEP2 region; notice there are slightly cleaner regions in both upper panels (darker blue). The left hand column is the Northern sky, the right the Southern sky.
The bottom panels show the errors on the top panels: taking a given region in the top row and then matching to the same region on the bottom row tells one how accurate Planck’s inference is in the chosen region on the top row; cooler colors mean more accurate. Figure 8 from the paper.

The Planck paper goes on to put in some information on how the dust signal varies with scale.  They focus in on the actual region BICEP2 used (more or less: they have a complicated procedure for trying to approximately reproduce this region, with some smoothing of its boundaries for technical reasons).  In this region, the authors compute the 353 GHZ polarization signal’s  “angular power spectrum” (basically, as you look at different scales on the sky, how periodic is the variation on that scale?)—sort of.  They basically just do so in three large bins that are flat (look at the Figure, below).  Why do they not give a more beautiful, more finely sliced curve? Presumably to enhance signal to noise: dividing all the data into just three different bins means each bin has a lot of data!  Even with the blocky-looking bins, though, this plot can make one a little queasy: the authors overplot a single, black curve showing what inflation would predict if it had the same signal BICEP2 ascribes to it.  This curve is bang-on within the three dust bins.  One hopes it is not thereby consigning the inflationary signal detection to the dust bin!  But certainly, it is suggesting (keeping in mind that extrapolations, though reasonably justified, are involved) that polarized dust could produce the entire signal BICEP2 saw.

The three light blue bins represent how much polarized light dust could be producing in the BICEP2 region at the BICEP2 frequency.  The amount is plotted versus scale on the sky; higher

The three light blue bins represent how much polarized light dust could be producing in the BICEP2 region at the BICEP2 frequency. The amount is plotted versus scale on the sky; higher “multipole” actually corresponds to smaller scales on the sky; these scales are all around one degree on the sky. The black solid curve is the predicted signal from inflation if all of the BICEP2 signal is from inflation: unfortunately, it is right in the middle of the dust, meaning that the dust emission could (though there is extrapolation) be responsible for all of it. Figure 9 from the paper.

This has been a hot topic for a few months now. Flauger, Hill, and Spergel and Mortonson and Seljak both had recent papers pointing out the potential contamination by dust emission. Meanwhile, Colley and Gott have a completely novel analysis that ignores the amount of dust emission at 150 GHz in the BICEP2 region (which is uncertain). Instead, their analysis focuses on the clustering of the dust emission, comparing it to that of the possible inflationary signal to see if they are similar. Quite soon, there should be an ur-paper coming out as a collaboration between the BICEP2 and Planck teams: whether it will be the final word on an inflationary signal or just the beginning remains as yet unknown.


October 08, 2014

Gamma Ray Bursts vs. All Life on Earth by Astrobites

Title: On the Role of GRBs on Life Extinction in the Universe
Authors: Tsvi Piran, Raul Jimenez
First Author’s Institution: Racah Institute of Physics, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem

When it comes to questions of extraterrestrial life, we spend a lot of time here (and in astronomy/astrobiology in general) concerned about planets’ habitability. The exoplanet boom feeds this curiosity—we’ve got a glut of data, so we’re asking questions in that realm. How many Earth-like planets might be out there? What does “Earth-like” really mean? Are other kinds of planets habitable, too? And on and on. All of these questions seem to rest on an assumption, or the excitement behind them does: that abundant habitability does (or could) necessarily mean abundant life, too.

But many factors determine the abundance or lack of life in the universe, especially intelligent, technologically adept life we could communicate with, or at least notice. The Drake Equation reminds us of this, seeming to cover all the bases: star, planet, habitability, origin of life, intelligent life, technological life, and civilization’s longevity. But even still, there’s more. That gap between origin of life and origin of intelligence is a big one. Space is a dangerous place for a little planet, and lots of things can happen to cripple or eradicate its fledgling life. On Earth alone we’ve had five major extinction events, wherein up to 96% of species were wiped out. Some argue that, thanks to humanity, we’re currently in the midst of our sixth. Asteroids and volcanoes are familiar harbingers of global doom. But what about Gamma Ray Bursts? Is another doomsday lurking?

Artist's image of a gamma ray burst shooting straight for you. (NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde)

Artist’s image of a gamma ray burst. And it’s coming straight for you. (NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde)

The idea that Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) could sterilize a planet isn’t new. These very high-energy blasts of radiation and particles are the brightest explosions known in the universe. We don’t know exactly what they are—their varying lengths suggest they may have a range of origins, perhaps the deaths of massive stars and the merging of binary neutron stars. But we do know that their main threat to life on Earth would be the potential ruin of the Ozone layer. Without the Ozone layer, UVB rays would reach Earth’s surface unfiltered, killing land-dwellers and life in the top layer of the oceans. This would include plankton, which is the base of pretty much the entire ocean food chain. You don’t want bad things for plankton.

The causes of some of Earth’s past extinction events are mysterious, and scientists have been wondering for decades if GRBs could be the culprits. We’d also like to know, if I can speak for all of Earth, if GRBs pose a threat to life here in the future at all. The authors of today’s paper use new findings about the rate of GRBs to estimate the probability of a GRB hitting Earth. They also expand their findings out to the rest of the galaxy and the universe. We’re used to thinking of the habitable zone as an orbital area around a star, but there are also zones of the galaxy (and universe) that are more habitable than others.

The authors look at three types of GRBs, but it’s really just long GRBs (LGRBs) that could pose a threat. The others are more frequent, but they’re just not strong enough to do serious damage.

But LGRBs. These GRBs could be trouble. In order to calculate just how much trouble (probabilistically), the authors estimate the fluence (flux integrated over time) of GRB radiation that it would take to seriously harm or wipe out all life on Earth. They then use the density of stars in the galaxy (assuming GRBs are randomly distributed) to see how likely we are to be hit by a GRB in a given timeframe.

Before we get to being pelted with GRBs, we’ve got a lucky constraint on their frequency. LGRBs are associated with the deaths of massive stars, and previous research has shown that they tend to come from dwarf galaxies with low metal content. (Be glad you don’t live in one of those!) This suggests that the threat of LGRBs from within the Milky Way would mainly be from stars with similarly low metallicity. The authors compare the metallicity of LGRB-hosting galaxies with the metallicity of Milky Way stars, and find that only about 10% of Milky Way stars are in the right range for generating LGRBs.

Taking metallicity into account, it seems that Earth’s likelihood of being hit by a life-threatening LGRB in any half-billion years is about 50%. Within five billion years that goes up to 90%. Life has been on Earth for about 4 billion years—have we been hit with a GRB in that time? There’s no way to know, but these numbers make it seem plausible. We may be lucky that life survived at all. But the Milky Way is not a particularly GRB-generative place and our spot in it isn’t too susceptible. Other galaxies, and other locations in the Milky Way, are subject to much more frequent hits.

Where stars are denser, LGRBs are more likely—the authors find that the innermost 25% of Milky Way stars are likely to see lethal LGRB events at least once per billion years. A billion years into life on Earth, we had just barely mastered photosynthesis and were still a billion years away from cell nuclei. Imagine if every time we got there, the slate was wiped clean by a GRB. We wouldn’t manage to get very far.

In addition to looking at the GRB hostility in other areas of the Milky Way, the authors look at other locations in the universe. The Milky Way is isolated enough that we’re not prone to GRBs from nearby galactic neighbors, but in other spots the universe is much more densely packed. The authors posit that those dense regions are less friendly to life because of LGRBs, and that galaxies are only habitable in “in voids and filaments of the cosmic web,” which is a lovely way to put “low-density.”

The more we learn about habitability, the more complex it seems. Earth-like is not so simple, nor is the habitable, or “Goldilocks” zone. And now we see that the habitable zone is not just a a planet’s orbit around its star but a star system’s place in its galaxy and the universe. Is life unique, rare, or common? A deepening understanding of the factors doesn’t change the ubiquity of life; it helps us understand it. Or at least estimate its probability.

1 week left to apply to write for astrobites! by Astrobites

penshot  This is a reminder that there is still one week left to apply to write for Astrobites!

We are seeking new graduate students to join the Astrobites collaboration. Applicants must be current     graduate students. The deadline for applications is 15 October. Please if you have any questions.

The application consists of a sample Astrobite and two short essays. The application and instructions can be found and submitted at

What are Chinese consumers buying on major ecommerce websites? by Resonance China

resonance_ecommerce categories

Kantar Retail’s inaugural 2014 China Digital Power Study takes a look at the major ecommerce platforms in China through the eyes of their trading partners including major global and local FMCG players such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Jahwa. This chart takes a look at product category distribution across the major Chinese ecommerce websites and gives us some insight into how they are positioning themselves in the early stages of the online shopping boom. From the data, we can see Alibaba (Taobao/Tmall) going after fashion and beauty, while JD is targeting appliances and consumer electronics. [Kantar]

凱度零售咨詢最新完成的首期”中國電商力量排行榜”調查顯示了中國主要的幾個電子商務平臺以及與它們合作的商傢, 包括了數個重要的全球以及本地快消品供應商巨頭如可口可樂,聯合利華和家化。這份調查顯示了中國各大電商的產品種類分佈,並且讓消費者們更加深刻了解了產品們如何在這樣一個在綫購物熱潮中佔據一席之地。我們可以從數據中看到 阿裏巴巴(淘寳/天貓)更多著重于打造時尚美妝類市場,而京東則將目標鎖定在了電器以及電子消費類產品。[Kantar]

October 07, 2014

Bip.... Bip.... Bip.... by Feeling Listless

Music After six months of inactivity, Mutya Keisha Siobhan's Facebook page was quietly updated today:

The references to "heart failure" and "life support" in this context is interesting considering the title of their only release so far in this incarnation.  "New team!" "Amazing album!"  Does that mean that there's now some zombie album knocking around which was deemed unreleasable or some such?

Of course it's possible they're just rereleasing Flatline to coincide with the new Doctor Who story of the same name.  Yes, it's probably that.

Tipping the Spherical Cow: The Initial Conditions of Star Formation by Astrobites

Paper Title: Are turbulent spheres suitable initial conditions for star-forming clouds?

Authors: R. Rey-Raposo, C. Dobbs, & A. Duarte-Cabral

First Author’s Institution: School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Exeter, UK

Paper Status: accepted by Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society


If you’ve ever taken a physics course, you may have heard the phrase “spherical cow” as a humorous metaphor for the simplifications theorists often use to model complicated three-dimensional phenomena. In today’s astrobite we look at a paper in which the authors test the spherical cow approximation in the context of star-forming molecular clouds using simulations.

Simulating stellar cradles

Stars form in massive concentrations of cold, dense molecular gas called Giant Molecular Clouds (GMCs). Within these geometrically complex structures, a vast array of complicated physics is at work, including gravity, turbulence, radiation, and magnetic fields. Modern simulations have become incredibly powerful, and are often able to simultaneously model the majority of these processes within GMCs (for example, see this video). For simplicity, the initial conditions in these GMCs are generally taken to be an isolated sphere or box of turbulent gas. However, GMCs are not actually isolated objects, but form, live, and are destroyed within galaxies. They are thus also subject to large-scale forces such as the global gravitational potential, rotation, shear, and feedback from AGN and star formation in neighboring regions of the galaxy. In other words, the true initial conditions of GMCs are set by the galaxy, and certainly do not resemble any regular geometric structure such as a sphere. Unfortunately, there is just no way to practically model both galaxy scales (1000s of parsecs) and star formation scales (< 1/1000 parsec) in a single simulation; the range of size scales needed is just too vast for even today’s impressive computing power*. Thus we have been stuck with spherical cow assumptions for GMC initial conditions. The paper under discussion here attempts to test the implications of these assumptions by combining large- and small-scale simulations.

The simulations

Figure 1:

Figure 1: Galaxy-scale simulation (main image) from which two GMCs are extracted: Cloud A (upper left), and Cloud B (lower right). These clouds are re-simulated at higher resolution using a SPH scheme (shown in the lower left inset). Figure 1 from Rey-Raposo, Dobbs, & Duarte-Cabral 2014.

The authors use simulations of galaxies to set the initial conditions for GMCs (see this movie from co-author C. Dobbs). These large-scale simulations show characteristics observed in galaxies like the Milky Way such as increased gas density in spiral arms and a disk structure. The authors then pick out structures within the galaxy that look like GMCs, and re-simulate these at higher resolution, preserving the gas density and velocity structure inherited from the full galaxy-scale simulation. The top-down view in Figure 1 shows the gas column density in the galaxy simulation, and the inset panels show the “clouds” extracted and re-simulated. For all the simulations, the authors used a Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics (SPH) algorithm, which tracks the motion of individual “particles” having a given mass.

For comparison, Rey-Raposo, Dobbs, & Duarte-Cabral also simulated spheres of gas with physical properties (mass, size, velocity dispersion) set to match those of the GMCs they extract from the galaxy-scale simulation. They then observe the evolution of the “realistic initial condition” clouds as well as the spherical ones and look for differences in the gas density and star formation that takes place.

Figure 2:

Figure 2: Gas column density 5 Myr after stars begin forming in the “real” Clouds (left panels) and corresponding Spheres (right panels). The Spheres begin forming stars 5-6 Myr after t=0, so the figure shows simulations at a similar stage of star formation. Clouds show more widespread star formation, and alignment of their major gas filaments along the larger-scale structures present in the galaxy. Part of Figure 2 from Rey-Raposo, Dobbs & Duarte-Cabral 2014.

Tipping the cow

The “real” clouds and simulated spheres show some similarities as they evolve: the overall distribution of the gas density is similar in each case, and the total fraction of gas converted to stars is also comparable. However, their appearances 5 Myr after the first star forms are markedly different (see Figure 2). Note that the Spheres take longer to begin forming stars than the Clouds do, so the total elapsed time is longer. The Clouds, particularly Cloud A, shows much more widespread star formation than the corresponding Spheres. The black dots represent sink particles, which are created in the simulation when the gas density exceeds a high threshold within a small radius — essentially representing the formation of one or a few stars. The main filamentary structures in the Clouds are also aligned with the larger-scale structures within the galaxy (see Figure 1), while the Spheres (unsurprisingly) do not show any correspondence. This shows that context is important: GMCs do not live in a vacuum!

While there are still some physical processes missing from the small-scale simulations presented here — in particular, magnetic fields, and feedback from stars after they form — this paper demonstrates the importance of initial conditions in star formation. It also shows that for certain properties of GMCs, such as the average gas distribution, the spherical approximation is actually not so bad. So while the spherical cow is not reality, it does clearly still serve a role in modeling the complex set of physics at work in our vast universe.


* Here’s a quick order of magnitude calculation that demonstrates this point. If you wanted to resolve 200 AU (~10^-3 pc) scales in a 10 kpc simulation, you would need (105 pc / 10-3 pc)3 = 1024 resolution elements (the cube comes from the three linear dimensions). Within each of these elements you have to keep track of multiple physical quantities, including gas density, three-dimensional velocity, magnetic field direction and strength, and radiation. Storing each of these quantities as double precision requires 8 bytes, so that’s about 1026 bytes needed, or 1011 petabytes of data at each time step. Never mind actually solving the equations of fluid motion (plus magnetohydrodynamics, gravity, and radiative transfer), and the fact that you have to do this at every time step of the simulation, which needs to model millions of years of evolution, and you can easily see why such simulations would not be possible any time in the near future!

New global Mars image from Mars Orbiter Mission features Gale crater by The Planetary Society

ISRO has released a second global image of Mars from the Mars Colour Camera on Mars Orbiter Mission, and smack dab in the center of it is Gale crater, home to Curiosity.

Rev Dan Catt Experimental Audio Diary - Episode 006 by Dan Catt

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

In which Isobel wanted to make some coconut ice sweets.

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

China online advertising to grow 33% in 2015 fueled by ecommerce spending. by Resonance China

resonance_media spend 2015

This chart from GroupM’s “This Year, Next Year: China Media Forecasts,” captures media spending trends for this year and 2015. Overall, total media spending is projected to increase 11% in 2015 to reach RMB 525 billion which reflects an uptick in consumer confidence compared to 9.8% growth in 2014. Not surprisingly, Internet spending will see the largest increase in spending next year at 33%, with the largest proportion of budgets going to search ads on ecommerce websites – which reflects their emergence as a primary starting point for the online consumer journey. [GroupM via Kantar]

這個來自GroupM 發佈的“今年,明年: 中國媒體的預測”中的圖表摘要了中國媒體今年和2015年的消費趨勢。合計的媒體消費預計將在2015年增長至11%達到525億人民幣,反映了消費者信心的增加相較2014年9.8%的增長率。互聯網消費將會在接下來一年增長至33%, 其中電商網站的搜索廣告佔據了互聯網消費的最大比率,此跡象表明了媒體著重于在綫消費者歷程的起始點。[GroupM via Kantar]

Spinning pair-instability supernovae by Astrobites

Title: Emission from Pair-Instability Supernovae with Rotation
Authors:  Emmanouil Chatzopoulos, Daniel R van Rossum, J. Craig Wheeler, Daniel J. Whalen, Joseph Smidt, Brandon Wiggins
First Author’s Institution: Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Chicago

One of the current challenges in supernova theory is explaining the mechanisms behind extremely luminous supernovae (SNe). While SNe are already some of the brightest events in the observable Universe, there exist types of supernovae that are unusually bright, and these are difficult to explain within the canonical supernova model.

It is believed that these extremely luminous events can be powered by very strong ejecta colliding with the medium surrounding the SNe. Another mechanism by which SNe can be abnormally luminous is by the radioactive decay of 56-Ni. All SNe produce emission via 56-Ni decay, however some (with 130+ solar masses) have such large amounts of 56-Ni that they produce an emission excess. Few stars are massive enough to produce the observed excess however, so this is unlikely to be the main cause of the ultra-luminous SNe. Although stars can be born with such large masses, many lose mass quickly through binary star interactions and radiatively driven winds.

One type of SNe is called a pair-instability supernova (PISNe). In these events, the carbon/oxygen (CO) cores of extremely massive stars are at such a high temperature that electron-positron pairs are produced. This results in a drop in radiation pressure, which then causes core contraction and explosive nuclear burning that produces a shock wave destroying the star. PISNe are expected from Population III stars, which are extraordinarily massive stars formed in the very early Universe.

In this paper, the authors numerically simulate the emission produced by PISNe. In particular, the paper details the effects of rotation on the luminous output of these events, whereas previous papers modelling PISNe have largely neglected rotation. One effect of rotation is that rotationally-induced mixing can shift the lower mass limit of PISNe to lower values, thereby enhancing the likelihood of a PISN occurring. This mixing homogenizes the star’s interior composition and enhances production of carbon/nitrogen/oxygen during the red giant phase of a star’s lifecycle, which in turn generates larger cores. On the other hand, rotation can also drive mass loss from a star’s outer layers, which can decrease the probability of a PISN occurring. The authors run these hydrodynamic and radiative transfer simulations for a range of different progenitor masses (90-300 solar masses) and varying degrees of metallicity.

Fig. 1: Light curves (left) and spectra (right) of PISNe originating from progenitors of varying masses. “No-rot” indicates progenitors that are not rotating, and ‘no-ST” indicates a lack of a magnetic field. Even for rotating stars, the surface temperature is high enough to keep elements such as C,N and O ionized, so we do not see strong spectral lines from these features even though mixing is presumed to occur.

The computed spectra seem to agree with those done by other papers. These spectra and light curves also reproduce the main features (ex. peak luminosity) of the super-luminous SN2007bi, but discrepancies between the predicted and observed spectra (particularly in the later epochs of its time evolution) seem to suggest that this event not a PISNe. Generally, the simulated PISNe seem to have redder colors and different spectral features compared with observed super-luminous SNe.

One major difficulty in drawing conclusions from these simulations arises from the fact that these spectra are often degenerate with respect to metallicity and rotation rate. That is, different metallicities and rotation rates for progenitor stars seem to yield very similar spectra. There also appears to be some degeneracy between the spectra of rotating and non-rotating star as well.

Since the Population III progenitor stars massive enough to result in PISNe are only expected to form in the very early Universe, we need more observations from these early epochs to test our PISNe models. Currently, these Population III stars are still hypothetical and have not yet been directly observed. However, the future JSWT and WFIRST missions, which are planned to observe the earliest stars, should provide us with more information on these objects.

October 06, 2014

Richard Curtis: Love Actually was a "catastrophe". by Feeling Listless

Film Apologies for recreating the same click bate headline I saw on about three other blogs with its implication that Richard Curtis (who at this point I'd welcome back to Doctor Who with open arms) and his opinion of his own film has evolved. It hasn't really. He actually just describing the editing process:

"The only nightmare scenario that I’ve been caught in was Love Actually, which worked at the read-through, and when we finished the film and I watched it edited it was … a catastrophe,” said Curtis in comments first reported by the Radio Times. “Because there were 12 stories, [finding the right order] was like three-dimensional chess … And that was enormously difficult to finish or get right.”
The editing left the film riddled with plot holes and continuity errors as I described in the original post-mortem.  He only finished in as much as he didn't do anything else to it.  He didn't get it right.

Hamlet #36: Zach Appelman. by Feeling Listless

Hamlet played by Zach Appelman.
Directed by Robert Richmond.

Audio The Shakespeare Folger Library, in conjunction with Simon & Schuster have begun a new series of full text audio recordings of the plays based on their own texts and inevitably, probably, Hamlet is amongst the first off the battlements.  The packaging is pretty basic, a cardboard box with the cds in a similarly cardboard inlay with the cast and credits printed on the first of the three cds, which was difficult to refer to when I wanted to confirm that once of the voices I could hear was John "Q" De Lancie.  It wasn't but I didn't find that out until I had to swap discs.

All of the discs explain this was recorded at Omega Studios and Audio School in Rockville, Maryland.  The cast is from the States who keep their accents, which might seem like a redundant statement, but I have heard similarly US produced versions in which the cast effect "British" accents.  Sometimes, tonally, it is confusing.  The smallish cast often doubles up and I'm sure I heard the same actor playing different characters in the same scene, especially the battlements.  Many audio productions can offer a range of regional accents to provide an extra clarity this does not.

As expected, due to its educational purposes, this is a pretty neutral rendering, director Robert Richmond realising that the target audience of teachers and students do not really wanting to deal with an eclectic interpretation of the text.  The audio design and music are basic, with simple suggestive stop effects and, I think I heard, two different synthesised musical jingles depending on whether the text is shifting between scenes or acts.  The intent is presumably for the listener to read along with a text, probably Folger's own.

The neutrality extends to the performances which dedicate themselves for the most part to textual clarity.  At times the irony of the text is ignored (Horatio admitting to Hamlet he's seen his father's spirit), at others its somewhat pantomimed (Gertrude's course correction on the identities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).  But it's difficult to fault this kind of production when you're aware of the intent, that the creative decisions have led to a purposeful blandness that can only really be apparent to someone who's seen/heard this many productions (albeit not recently...).

Polonius is largely played as though he drifted in from one of the comedies, probably Much Ado, notably when Ophelia's describing her strange visit from Hamlet to him, her father very pleased that he's taking an interest.  As sometimes happens, the Ophelia actress, in this case Emily Trask, really comes into her own during the descent into madness.  She also poignantly plays Gravedigger II later, which if this was on stage would provide the spooky image of Ophelia posthumously digging her own grave.  Ian Merrill Peakes's Claudius sounds disconcertingly like Jacobi.

In about ten days, Zach Appelman begins a two month run as Hamlet in Hartford.  His prince is not especially mad.  It's more that we hear the more adolescent, uncertain man in the private moments, but play-acts a kind of aristocracy in public.  As the production winds onward, particularly through the closet scene, the latter becomes his default as he gains a clearer direction of purpose.  His breathing, which earlier is raspy, the words difficult to say, reduces, increasing the coherence of what he's communicating. But like the rest of the production he's never, ever difficult to understand right up to and including his final words.

Folger Shakespeare Library presents Hamlet By William Shakespeare is out now on cd. Review copy supplied.

Comet Siding Spring: Exciting times by The Planetary Society

We're now less than two weeks away from Comet Siding Spring buzzing ridiculously close to Mars, and the excitement is building - in both good and bad ways...

Two Eclipses in October by The Planetary Society

October 2014 brings big sky fun: a total lunar and partial solar eclipse, both visible from North America. The lunar eclipse will also be visible from most areas around the Pacific Ocean. Here is info on how to observe these eclipses.

A Clearer Impression of Degas Crater by The Planetary Society

MESSENGER is revealing the first planet in sharp detail.

Kill The Moon. by Feeling Listless

TV Apart from the usual timeslot three things almost mitigated against me reviewing Doctor Who’s Kill The Moon tonight. After enduring itchy eye syndrome last week, this week I caught the September bug, which put me to bed for three days. There are still headaches. On the upside, I’ve binged through the second season of The Newsroom and the second season of Continuum which desperately seems like it wants to be The Wire with time travel but ultimately ends up being Fringe-lite. The second reason is Catherine Bennett’s storming Onion-like parody of just these kinds of blog posts in The Guardian this morning which is so on the nose most of the commenters don’t realise it's satire and which threatens to destabilise the process. Plus it depended on the quality of the episode. Yes, well, wish me luck. Let’s see how far I get before the paracetamol stops working.

The optimal condition to be watching Kill The Moon is on painkillers so with that in mind let’s start with the easy stuff. As readers of Lance and Lars’s AHistory will know, c 2040, The Seeds of Death featured a world dependent on T-Mat technology with spacecraft left as museum pieces. I can’t quite square what happens there with the Mexican survey ship, but the existence of this tubular transporter explains why Earth doesn’t have much in the way of a space programme so they have to pull this space shuttle from a museum with the events of Kill The Moon becoming the inspiration for Earth to properly return to the stars which ultimately leads to Bowie Base and all that Waters of Mars business which will become important later. Oh hold on, Adelaide Brooke says she first landed on Mars in the early 2040s. Time can be rewritten. Cracks. Rebooted universe. Faction Paradox. Breath. Breath.

Breath because Kill The Moon doesn’t have any “easy stuff”. It’s difficult, difficult and if you’ll excuse me, lemon difficult. It’s the kind of episode, which is everything Doctor Who should be doing and nothing at all that Doctor Who should be doing. Unpicking the recursion in that sentence shouldn’t take long but like the apparent fuzziness of the Doctor’s perception of time, which is rather a better explanation here than in Cold Blood, it means that you can’t categorically say whether this a good episode of Doctor Who or not. I do have another way of explaining that, but I’ll keep it for the final paragraph because at a certain point I’m going to have to end this thing and I need to lead up to something. I’ve even already written it so I’ll have it at the bottom of this Word document as I type as an ever-present reminder, rather like the flash forward in tonight’s teaser.

Kill The Moon is excellent, the kind of challenging television Doctor Who can and often is capable of.  The kind of episode you can show fans of Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones when they have the audacity to suggest it’s just some kids show. It’s morally complex, asks difficult questions about what humanity is and can be capable of in relation to saving itself and has some of the best performances, writing ("My Granny used to put things up on Tumblr.") and direction in television right now, doing all of this on a Saturday night between Strictly Come Dancing and Casualty. None of which is that new (cf, The Aztecs back in 1964) but at a time when, as someone suggested to me earlier today, “Saturday night television is rubbish”, here’s something which plainly isn’t and which arguably deserves its present timeslot. When the Hugos pop around again, expect Kill The Moon to be on the list.

Storywise, we’re effectively being handed a do-over of The Beast Below gene-spliced with The Waters of Mars. Like The Beast Below, humanity is essentially given a choice as to whether to let a giant space creature live or die in order to save themselves. Like The Beast Below, humanity chooses to save itself, which is something we do every day when we eat meat, wear skins and test animals for probably the very thing which is keeping me healthy enough to type and like The Beast Below, when a single time travelling member of humanity decides to override the that decision and let the giant space creature live, everybody does. Actually now that come to think of it, it’s also the same decision made about the Silurians over and over again, although the wind blows in the other direction on that, with the Brigadier's nonchalant moustache hovering over the YES (or is it NO) button.

The journey to that decision point is chilling. Preview clips suggested this was going to be something akin to The Ark in Space, a trad bit of base under siege, the writer having been told to "Hinchcliffe the sh** out of it" (source: DWM) and earlier in the episode, with its onion like structure that’s exactly what we were gifted, director Nick Hurran making full use of horror of shadows and Jenna Coleman’s saucer-like eyes screaming terror through their irises. Perhaps family programmes aren’t allowed to sustain that through forty-five minutes, but you can still imagine a range of old school actors, directors and special fxperts watching such things and grimacing as they remember the intense studio lights they had to work with. Actually you don’t have to imagine, just choose to a dvd commentary from any of the 80s Whos and listen to the pain.

The other half of the episode is The Waters of Mars if the Doctor had decided to sod off and leave them to it. The similarities with Mars can’t be unintentional. How heroes spend the episode wearing the same 43K2.1 era space suit the Tenth Doctor wore in that episode. Once again we’re greeted by another pioneering and surely famous female astronaut whose impossibly whisked back to her planet at a instant of certain doom.  Once again we have an important celestial body at risk. This latest series does seem to be very directly commenting on and reproducing iconic moments from RTD era, from The Girl in the Fireplace to Dalek to Blink to School Reunion and now this, which is also texturally similar to The Mysterious Planet/The Satan Pit.  Oh look, the paracetamol's stopped working.

By drawing attention to these similarities, new Who writer Peter Harness (welcome) and whoever illuminate the differences. In Mars, Tenth was aware of the temporal outcome and says that he can’t change it until he does which fulfils my old theory and that whole fixed point in time business is really just about whether the Doctor has knowledge of the future of a place and time and can only change things if he doesn’t. In Moon, the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t remember what happened, so could stick around and change things but curiously doesn’t, leaving the business at hand to Clara instead, almost as though he’s washing his hands of the whole thing when in reality he’s done nothing of the sort.

In Mars, Tenth counter-intuitively stays even though he knows the temporal outcome and decides to change it therefore displaying his Time Lord arrogance. In Moon, Twelfth doesn’t apparently know the outcome but goes anyway knowing that Clara will make “the correct decision” therefore displaying his Time Lord arrogance. On both occasions, there’s a human at the other end, a human to tell him what a rotter he’s been but again the difference is, whereas in Mars the Tenth Doctor realises the damage he’s done leading to hijinks, mayhem and marriage to Liz 1, the Twelfth Doctor simply stands there with a bewildered look on his face unable to comprehend his wrongness, which as far as he can see, unlike The Waters of Mars, wasn’t that big a decision in the imposing method of stuff.

Courtney’s now a companion too.  Why would he do that, and what is it with the show’s view of youngsters this age that they’re so cynical and bored with the whole thing until they’re frightened out of their wits? The episode was apparently originally written for Matt Smith (yes, really) and she's filling in the gap left by the Maitlands.  Figures (source: DWM).  Also, what about the Moon in the Whoniverse then? Giant space egg. The TARDIS Datacore entry’s already been updated but glance through the rest and you’re now reading about a bunch of colonies and bases being massed on the side of an egg shell. Shrugs. This is the sort of premise changing new information which will ripple through for quite some time. Unless, cracks. Rebooted universe. Faction Paradox.

Challenging, challenging stuff, aided by some remarkable performance from the small cast. About the only bum note is that due to the truncated base under siege chunk, acting legends and ‘verse veterans Phil Nice and Tony Osoba barely have enough time to get into their space suits on before the spiders bite them open. Despite the haiku-like characterisation  Hermione Norris is a tour-de-force, as morose as someone on that mission would be when face with three time travellers who seem strangely reluctant to save her planet. Ellis George is making the most of her first screen role. But the plaudits are with Capaldi and Coleman who’re both utterly mesmerising especially in that final scene with Clara burning with anger and hatred and disbelief with this man who was once her hero now, as Lundvik encapsulates succinctly, “a prat.”

Yes, well, fuck that. Intuitively, I can see what Moffat and the gang are trying to do here. They’re shaking things up a bit. Emphasising as the pre-publicity suggested, the Doctor’s alienness, reminding us that he’s not human, that he’s an Time Lord from Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous, the man who thinks that it might be possible for humanity and the Silurians to share the planet, who doesn’t favour one species over another. He doesn’t do hugs. Faced with the same moral dilemma he was handed in The Waters of Mars, he’d have been back in the TARDIS way before there was even the hint of danger to himself. An attempt to do the pilot version of the First Doctor or C. Baker “properly” not to mention The Cartmel Masterplan. Blah, blah, blah, see previous blog posts in this series.

Yes, well, fuck that because ultimately, in the end, for the series to work, the Doctor has to be a hero. The episode pays lip service to that, with his attempts to save Courtney and his speech about how humanity having seen this magnificent vision in the sky decides to go have a look at it, but at no point, and this is important on so many levels, should we as an audience hear a character describe him as “a prat” and agree with them, not be on his side. When Clara describes his actions as cheap, pathetic and patronising, we should not be nodding along. Simply put, it breaks the show and saps it of its uniqueness. In Kill The Moon, we have the absence of the Doctor syndrome writ large, we have something akin to Time Lord Victorious as status quo.

Yes, well, alright language, but between this and last week’s cavalcade of wrongness, we’re in very dangerous territory in relation to how the show’s treating its audience who’re almost in the same position as Clara in the episode. If the production team are challenging us with this aren’t they also patronising us for liking what came before? Is it somehow wrong of us to want a likeable main character going on a great spirit of adventure were moral discussions are implicit rather than explicit, as is ability to inspire humanity to do great things, in which he’s the one fighting monsters rather than giving a decent imitation of being one himself? As I’ve asked previously I wonder how this plays with the core audience. How do kids feel about Capaldi? Have they simply switched their allegiance to Clara as the protagonist?

At the risk of reviewing the gaps, I was desperate for Clara to say she missed the earlier version, really stick the dagger in.  Perhaps if, when Clara left the TARDIS, in the reverse shot Capaldi could have given some indication of the conversation having had some meaning for him but there’s nothing but a blank expression. An acting choice to be sure, understated emotion, but this is veering on Bresson-like in its ambiguity. At least he didn’t shrug. We have to assume and to hope that what we’re seeing from Capaldi and his Doctor here is some kind of arc towards being able to accept hugs, to remember what it is to be the Doctor, but at this point I’m pretty desperate for Clara to hit him so hard he regenerates, no matter what the recent correspondent to the Radio Times thinks.  Much as I wanted Capaldi and still do, I don't want him like this.

In other words, this might be a brilliant piece of television drama, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Judging by the trailer, next week’s episode looks like it’s going to be Clara-lite which means we’re back to double banking with a similar shooting structure to season four rather than mostly leaving both lead actors out for the week (seasons two and three) or clearly only shooting them for a couple of days on a few sets (The Long Game). The narrative implications of that are that Twelfth will have his first full on protagonist appearance. After that perhaps Flatline will be Doctor free then we’ll have a big reunion for Frank Cottrell Boyce’s In the Forest of the Night. Please understand, for everything I’ve said this past few weeks, I’m not discounting some grander arc like narrative which will explain all of these choices. I just wish, well, I just wish.

Flash sales in China to grow 106% this year and top $29B in 2016. by Resonance China

resonance_flash sales

iResearch’s recently published 2014 China Online Flash Sale Report captures the explosive growth of the still nascent internet flash sales industry in China. After growing over 100% in 2013, total online flash sales revenue is expected to grow by more than 106% this year and eventually reach $29.45 billion in 2016. Fueling this boom is an excess of product inventory in the wake of the government’s anti-corruption campaign as well as an increasingly price-sensitive Chinese consumer who is unwilling to pay inflated prices for products that can be purchased at significant savings overseas or through parallel channels. But as retailers adjust their inventories to accommodate for an increasingly sophisticated mainland shopper, it will be interesting to see how flash sales providers will continue to source product to meet demand. [iResearch]

由iResearch 最近發佈的2014年中國在綫閃購報告裏收集了在中國剛剛萌芽的限時搶購行業的迅速增長。在2013年增長了超過100%后, 今年總計在綫閃購的利潤預計超過106% 並且會在2016年達到$29.45億。這一猛烈增長的趨勢不只因爲中國消費者們開始通過國外的折扣網站海購而拒絕對國内通貨膨脹的高價物品買單,也是中國政府的反腐敗運動的結果之一。爲了滿足持續增昌的大陸消費者們,經銷商們不得不調整它們的貨品清單,而令人關注的將會是那些閃購廠家如何找到產品的供應商來滿足需求。[iResearch]

October 05, 2014

The Films I've Watched This Year #37 by Feeling Listless

Film As I said last night, I've been ill this week and binged on television. Completed the horrendous third season of Veronica Mars which like Doctor Who now, Buffy in its sixth season, the even numbered seasons of Friends and season five of The West Wing demonstrates that even the best series can go off the rails through a number of unforeseeable creative problems.  Thank god for the second season of The Newsroom which is as peerless as the first, even if it also Sorkin working through the same creative demons that dogged Studio 60 that spring from him not complete The West Wing himself.  Time and again I  applauded the screen in my lonely room, especially deep into the season when these acting giants, Fonda, Waterson and Gay Harden are supping away at this screwball dialogue, the direction buzzing, just buzzing.  If Hollywood was worth a damn any more, another rom com with Fonda and Redford would be greenlit, these two old pros bringing it once again.  Though not a sequel to Barefoot in the Park.  Well, ok, maybe.

Crime d'amour
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Veronica Mars

The essential problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that the Raimi films exist, which was also the problem with the first film of course, but here the effects are much more severe.  The really iconic moments having been snaffood for those earlier works, Marc Webb and his screenwriters are stuck trying to do something else knowing full well their target audience still has that imagery knocking around in their brains which is a shame because by some measure these feel more like the comics than Raimi's films ever did.  Garfield's a superior Peter.  Stone's playing the perfect Gren.  Paul Giamatti's a fabulous Rhino.  Spidey's connection to the city is enunciated much more clearly and the pacing of the narrative, rushed through in the opening installment there is played out at a much more leisurely pace.  I can take or leave some of the mythology manipulation, but it's within the DNA of the comics title for all kinds of narrative ookiness to occur, for such discoveries to be made.

The gravitational pull of Oscorp is problematic, especially as its related later in the film and how it suggests its connection to a range of other characters.  There's narrative short hand at play here in setting up the moribund Sinister Six film.  If only Sony and Disney could have come to some arrangement about the cinematic universe.  If only.  Without that backdrop, this iteration feels the need to justify why all of these superpowered beings exist in such close proximity, whereas the MCU offers the justification of just because.  It's a similar issue which seems to be brewing at WB/DC were Snyder's even apparently making Wonder Woman a result of Krypton exploding for some reason, as though having her moulded from clay by a God is somehow less problematic.  Either way, despite the Transformers moment, it's still a lot more watchable than Spider-Man 3 even though that at least had the unabashed lack of embarrassment about introducing the world to alien life for, you know, reasons.

The essential problem with Veronica Mars is that it ends.  Having endured s3, even though this isn't a monumental return to form, probably for reasons of budget and scheduling Piz, Wallace, Mac and Weevil are short changed and the mystery isn't that surprising, but Kristen Bell is extraordinary at this, and as soon as the voiceover kicks in, there's a sense of "and we're back".  All of the strengths of the series in its earlier years are here, the chemistry between Bell and Enrico Colantoni as her father, the class struggle, the corrupt police department and the sense of her investigations as a calling and addiction, not something she simply does as a lark but because she can and so therefore she has to.  There are a few stunt cameos but not so many that it gets in the way of the story too.  It's affectionate without being cloying.  If they ever do get around to making the My So-Called Life reunion it should be just like this, though you sort of expect by now it'll be more akin to The Big Chill.  Who would they bump off?

Like I said, the essential problem with Veronica Mars is that it ends.  For all the way its shot, this is still television and if nothing else this feels like a pilot episode for a new series, especially at the end when Veronica marks out her territory.  Don't read further if you haven't seen this yet.  Still here?  Gone yet?  Good.  Everything about it breathes set-up.  Wallace is back at Neptune High.  Mac's as Kane Software.  Weevil's back with the gangs.  The old information network's being put back in place.  That doesn't feel like an ending but a beginning and there's a desperate moment right as the screen turns black when you realise that the next episode isn't on the disc.  Plus it's more clearly what the show was leading up to than the silly FBI reboot which made the mistake of trying keep the spirit of Veronica Mars while removing everything which made it different to other shows.  You can take the Mars out of Neptune but you can't take the Neptune out of Mars.  Which probably works just as well as the moon being a giant space egg.

Something that will change the world of competition ... by Simon Wardley

One of the most powerful force multipliers in competition is the use of an ecosystem model known as ILC built around a utility service. This model has been in operation for about a decade and can be shown to create network effects in terms of innovation, efficiency, customer service and stability of revenue. There's nothing quite like it but since it's old hat, I won't go through it again.

However, the ILC model doesn't work quite so well in the product space (because the capture of consumption data requires expensive market research) nor in the physical commodity space (again there is no way of capturing consumption data).

This is all about to change. 

Sensors are getting to the point of being industrialised to commodity components that will capture and centrally store data through a "Sensor as a Service". Future products, even physical commodities will contain multiple "Sensor as a Service" components. This provides the capability for ecosystem games like ILC to be played out in the physical world. 

Supplier companies will start providing low cost commodity sensors with an attached Sensor as a Service capability as a highly industrialised platform. Other companies will deploy these components into their products, new inventions and hence an ecosystem will build around these Sensor as a Service. The benefit for the deploying companies is the sensors will be low cost and the Sensor as a Service will provide data aggregation, market comparisons (performance compared to other sensors) and a range of other useful capabilities. Whilst useful for lowering cost of experimentation and product implementation for the deployer, the real beneficiary is the supplier. 

The supplier can play the same trick that happens in the digital world of not interrogating what the sensor is doing (that'll be private to the company deploying it) but simply monitoring consumption through the Sensor as a Service to identify the spread of new successful innovations (whether genesis of a new act or a product differential). It's no different to the ILC model but now played out in the physical world and it will have the same impacts. 

From figure 1 below - you industrialise a component activity representing a sensor (A2) to a more commodity form (A3) which is provided with a Sensor as a Service data capability. Other companies then build new inventions / feature differentiation (B1, C1, D1) on top of the Sensor (A3) because you provide it at very low cost and hence reduce their risk of experimentation. You then simply monitor consumption data to identify what changes have been successful and when identified you aim to commoditise any component (D2) to a future Sensor service and repeat the game - you get everyone else to Innovate, you Leverage the ecosystem to spot success, you Commoditise - ILC.

Figure 1 - ILC Model

For example, let us suppose we were Amazon (they are very good at ecosystem games) and with big data becoming a rapidly industrialised component (already services like BigTable and EMR exist) and CCD being a fairly commodity component then let us hypothesise that we introduced a CCD Sensor as a Service. For makers of devices which include CCD, they would get low cost CCDs and a service telling them about the performance of their CCDs in the wild, maybe some other data aggregation capability (even to the point of customisation to location / time given environmental conditions). Of course, as the supplier, we would get to know what products (in which our sensors are deployed) are rapidly growing and being used regardless of who is making or selling them or the data being transferred. This is achieved by simply looking at consumption of the service, the actual sensor data being private to the deploying company. This is incredibly useful for the supplier and why ecosystems are powerful future sensing engines.

The net effect will be the same as the digital world. The supplier will start to simultaneously exhibit :-
There's a whole new world approaching where ecosystem games (from gaming theory to open source as weapon) can be re-applied in the physical world. Competition from physical engineering to healthcare is going to get seriously interesting. We've seen early starts in this space over the last couple of years but it is building. Key to success of course will be to position yourself as the supplier of commodity sensors with the Sensor as a Service attached i.e. you need to identify those sensors suitable for such a game, industrialise to components and start building the ecosystem of other companies building on top of it (see figure 2 for a rough simplification of the game).

Figure 2 - high level map of the game

That's the really interesting thing about the Internet of Things. The real battle will be over the underlying components and ecosystems that are built around this. Sensors are sexy - well, if you're a competition nut like myself. You don't want to be the device manufacturer, you want to be the component sensor as a service in every other manufacturers device.

Oh, and the best news is ... most of the competitors in this space probably won't see this coming (poor situational awareness), they'll focus on the device and communication between devices whilst you can start to build up in underserved markets. When it finally hits then combined with inertia, this will be one of those predictable forms of disruption that any start-up can have a field day in. There's a few billion to hundred billion dollar companies to be made in this space.

How do I know this? Well, I don't - well not for definite. With another 7,200 days of data collection I could be more conclusive (or not) but alas that's another story. At the moment, I'd advise taking the above with a pinch of salt as with any other prognostication on the future unless you're a start-up in which case I'd say 'you become what you disrupt'.  It'll take 10-15 years before this space really kicks off, so it's time to start building now.

There's a lot of future value in sensors and sensor ecosystems.

On disruption and executive failure by Simon Wardley

When examining the issue of predictability, it becomes fairly obvious that there are two important axes to consider - the predictability of what and the predictability of when. By examining change on these axes (see figure 1) then one pattern becomes clear - there is more than one form of disruption.

Figure  1 - Predictability of What vs When

The two main forms are disruption by Product to Product substitution (which is unknowable i.e. unpredictable) and disruption by Product to Utility substitution (which is knowable) :-

The Unknowable (e.g. product to product substitution). In this form, a change in the value chain (caused by some new component added to the product e.g. size) is unpredictable. The entrant has no idea whether it will be successful nor does the incumbent. However, the incumbent has inertia caused by past business success and if the change is successful then the speed of adoption tends to be non-linear. This means the incumbent has little time to react, lots of inertia to overcome and is unsure whether the change will dominate. Once they realise the change is inevitable them then it's usually too late to do anything about it. This type of disruption can only be accurately seen post event and in this case, Jill Lapore is correct that disruption is a post event classification and unpredictable.

The Knowable (e.g. product to utility substitution). In this from, the change is highly predictable and can be prepared for many years (or decades) in advance. Cloud computing fits into this category. This predictable disruption can be determined pre-event but for the same reasons this can defended against and shouldn't disrupt. The incumbent will have inertia but they also have plenty of time to prepare - from years to decades. The reason why incumbents become disrupted is due to one of two variations.

The first variation is that the change is usually unseen due to poor situational awareness & scenario planning on behalf of the executive. Less than 30% of companies have any form of scenario planning and less than 4% have any means of visibly seeing the landscape, hence such blindness is rife. In this scenario the incumbent fails to prepare for a predictable change and suffers the same consequences as though the change was unknowable. For an attacker, this is highly attractive as the change is highly predictable and therefore a new entrant can target a space with a good degree of certainty of success. If you can find a product to utility substitution for which all the weak signals indicate it is ready to happen and which incumbent executives show low levels of situational awareness ... well, it's like stealing candy from a child. For extra icing on the cake, you can often use incumbents inertia against them. This is how Canonical managed to walk in and help itself to the entire future cloud market against the vastly better resourced and funded competitor of Red Hat.

The second variation is that the change is seen but the incumbent still fails to act. In some cases (quite rare) this failure to act is due to extremely strong and entrenched inertia to change. This is what happened with Blockbuster vs Netflix - Blockbuster saw the change, was first with video online and on demand but completely failed to deal with the inertia cause by shops. The same happened with Kodak - first in with DSC and online photos but failed to deal with inertia caused by its analog fulfilment systems. Not seeing a predictable change (due to poor situational awareness) is a failure on behalf of the executive however seeing the change and failing to act is shockingly poor.

The points to take home are 1) disruption occurs (as described by Christensen) and 2) there are also two forms of disruption - unknowable and knowable. The unknowable type is difficult to defend against due to its unpredictability. So, in the case of APPL vs RIM then you can't really point the finger at the executives. It's just down to chance, a gamble and it's not surprising that companies get hit by this. Lapore is spot on regarding lack of predictability and post event classification with this form.

However, the knowable form is highly defendable against - it is easy to adapt to this. That companies get disrupted by this is either failure of executives in terms of situational awareness or even worse a failure to act upon what is known. There isn't much of an excuse for this. 

I mention this because 'disruptive innovation' appears to have become a common excuse for company failure. In many cases, the reason why the companies were disrupted was because of executive failure to either see or act upon a visible change i.e. the storm was visible, they either failed to look or failed to move the company out of the way. This shouldn't happen but unfortunately it does.

October 04, 2014

On the future ... by Simon Wardley

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once stated, “Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge”. However, let us assume that there is future change that is known to everyone and change that is unknown to all (i.e. we’re forced to speculate and predict). Advantage can be created by a business through change that is known only to a few and “unevenly distributed”. 

This raises a question; can we determine a means of identifying future change that is knowable but not known to all? When examining literature, we can often cite examples of past science fiction novels that appear prophetic. However, the sheer volume of publications (in excess of 70K novels & short stories per annum) means that this can be attributable to pure coincidence and often such predictions suffer from interpretation effects (i.e. we read into them prophecy where there is none, the prognosticators’ equivalent of the P.T Barnum effect). 

The challenge is whether we could develop a means of more accurately predicting change beyond random coincidence. Could we predict the predictable because the knowledge was already there even if we were only vaguely aware of it? Could we create a more ‘prophetic’ story? To exploit the future, we need to somehow create a framework that allows us to uncover knowable change. Such a framework must be inherently holistic, interdisciplinary, relative, repeatable and useful: - 
Is this possible? The answer turns out to be ... sort of, maybe ... but I'll leave that to another day ... well, to be precise ... another 7,200 days approximately in order to gather the data to validate it.

On Prognositication by Simon Wardley

The Internet did not catastrophically collapse in 1996 as Robert Metcalfe (co-inventor of the Ethernet) predicted. Apple was not ‘dead’ by 1997 as Fortune, Business Week and the New York Times told us. Neither wireless nor airplanes made war impossible – Marconi and the Wright brothers got this wrong.

I don’t use a nuclear powered vacuum cleaner nor do I live in Arthur C. Clarkes’ vision of the autonomous home that flies into the air to head south for the winter. Apparently I was supposed to in 2001 when not travelling around in my Fred Freeman 1999 Rocket Belt or taking saucer shaped flying ships to NASA’s permanent moon base which still hasn’t appeared after 50 years of prediction. Edison’s prognostication that Gold would become worthless never came true. My automated vehicle of the 1980s that David Rorvik assured us that we would get, never turned up. Without a getaway vehicle, it’s fortunate that Donald Michael’s warning that by the 1980s we would be replaced by intelligent machines never actually happened. Of course, I could have escaped to my 2014 underwater city of Isaac Asimov … except it’s not there. Nor am I taught by electrocution, Fireman do not have flying wings and I’m still waiting for my personal helicopter in my garage (I was supposed to get that in 1968).

Prognostication is a very sorry business.

Mars Exploration Rovers Update: Opportunity Gets Extension, Returns Killer Panoramas, and Roves onto Mystery Rocks by The Planetary Society

While the winds of Martian spring blew through Meridiani Planum in September, Opportunity reformatted its Flash memory then continued exploring Wdowiak Ridge on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Even though the Flash-related issues soon returned, the robot field geologist hardly seemed to notice as it sent home two spectacular panoramas, presented the scientists with a rocky Martian mystery, and delivered yet another September to remember for the mission. And that's not all.

How Richard Nixon Changed NASA by The Planetary Society

The end of the Moon race raised the question: what, if anything, was next for NASA? The decisions made by President Nixon in the aftermath of Apollo still impact the space program today.

October 03, 2014

Orion's Ride to Space is at the Launch Site. Why So Early? by The Planetary Society

On Tuesday, Orion's massive Delta IV Heavy rocket rolled from its Horizontal Integration Facility out to the launch site. Launch is still eight weeks away. Why so early?

Preparing for A-MAVEN Science! by The Planetary Society

How can we use MAVEN to learn about Comet Siding Spring, passing very close by Mars this month?

When to use a curve, when to use a map by Simon Wardley

The mapping technique is based upon two axes - one which describes a chain of needs (the value chain) from the user needs (visible to the user) to the underlying components (whether activities, practices or data) that meet those needs (invisible to the user) versus evolution. A description of how the evolution axis was developed including its relationship to publication types can be found in this post.

Now generally, when examining change in any complex system then you'd use a map because the system contains many evolving components and the interaction between them is also important (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - A map

The history of each component is simply a movement from left to right on the map and this can also be viewed on the evolution curve - for example, you can examine the change of computing infrastructure from its genesis with the Z3 to commodity forms today (see figure 2)

Figure 2 - Evolution of a single component (computing infrastructure)

However, sometimes it is useful to simply focus on the current state of change and view the position of all the components of a current map on the evolution curve  - see figure 3. This is part of a process known as profiling.

Figure 3 - The components on the Figure 1 map on the evolution curve

Now, the components shown on figure 3 are all independent and they are all evolving along the same pathway. Creating profiles is an extremely useful technique for competition and one I've mentioned beforehand, however for the time being I simply want to mention it.

Going to the source by Charlie Stross

You guys have listened to me go on for quite a few days now. I'm almost done! The material I've been talking about through this series of posts is all stuff that I was thinking about a lot during the time I was writing my novel Shadowboxer, which I began in 2008. These days I'm doing a physics degree that leaves me virtually no free time, but back then I was immersed in watching fights on You Tube and also looking at training footage from around the world in connection with my work with Steve.

But when it came to actually writing Jade, I was daunted. I had never fought in a cage. At that time I wasn't even doing fitness training. I was still recovering from a series of pregnancies. I had a gaping hole in the connective tissue joining my abdominal muscles that limited what I could do physically, I was breastfeeding, and I was feeling very soft because having small children to look after made me unusually empathetic. I saw threats to their safety everywhere; I was cautious. In that state, how on earth was I going to create a credible representation of a fighter--let alone a loose cannon like Jade?

When I brought it up with Steve he just shrugged. 'Look at fights,' he said. 'That's all you need.'

So that is what I did. But I didn't just look at any fights. For example, in the book Jade is an MMA fighter but for several chapters she is forced to fight Muay Thai, which has a more restricted set of rules that keeps the fight on the feet. So for that part of the book I studied Muay Thai bouts. In all cases I picked matches in which one of the fighters was a bit like Jade in terms of weight, reach, and overall style relative to their opponent. I did this because there is an immense variety of strategy and tactics that different fighters will use depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses, and what works for one person or situation can fail miserably for another. I tried to preserve tactical context sensibly and to think about the implications of different individual styles. Of course, the fights I chose always ended up being man-on-man because at the time there just wasn't enough footage of women to choose from. But that really didn't matter much in terms of the internal logic of each fight.

I then wrote down what I observed. Generally I lifted only short sequences at a time, but in the case of Jade's epic battle against Gretchen I took big chunks wholesale out of an incredible MMA fight that I'd watched on You Tube.

In one or two cases I set up a series of moves on purpose. There is a scene where Jade's trainers notice that her opponent has particular advantage and they are shouting to Jade from the corner what she needs to do to neutralize it. Jade is losing and she's too flustered to take in the information. Finally she is able to connect a tactic they'd worked in training to an opportunity that her opponent gives her in the heat of the moment. In this case I picked on a tactical problem that is common and easy to see. I sourced a solution to the problem that can credibly be shown to work. I found out a way of training the solution that Jade and her coaches could have worked on. Then I put it all together. I made everything as dramatic as I could, but I did not make any of it up out of my imagination. Everything I worked with is grounded in actual practice.

When I was working on the fight scenes I only took material from primary sources. Someone said to me that Shadowboxer reminded them of the movie Girlfight. I didn't watch it. I didn't watch Beautiful Boxer until after my fight scenes were written--I was looking at it for its culture and psychology. I avoided Million Dollar Baby also because it was a fictional representation. I wanted to make sure I was working as close to life as possible, because it's too easy to pick up on other creators' versions of events that are already exaggerated, and to exaggerate them further. And for the kind of book that Shadowboxer is, there was no need to do that. The resources existed; I just needed to understand what I was looking at.In the end, the fight scenes turned out to be the easiest parts of the book to write. I was more or less taking dictation from what I could see on the screen. It was a breeze.

I wish I could offer advice to other writers on how to deal with combative sequences without introducing excessive distortion. Obviously, in fantastic literature and cinema there is often no need for realism--in many arenas, artistic excesses are part of the package. But often we see a mixture of realism and fantasy, and then we want the realism to be as sound as possible. For most other areas of specialist knowledge the advice would be to talk to the experts; if you are writing a scene where paramedics do something, you read about paramedics and talk to paramedics, etc. The problem with fight scenes is that the people you'll want to go to will be martial arts teachers and self-protection 'experts' - but what you need to know is that their credentials aren't the equivalent of a professional credential in other fields.

Anybody can set up a self-protection or martial arts business and call themselves an expert. Large martial arts organizations hand out certificates and titles all the time, and people are creating their own organizations all over the place. Worldwide there are widely respected classical systems that claim lineage to ancient fighting traditions. Irrespective of the truth (or not) of these claims, remember that their grades and certifications are only meaningful for performing the art as it has been handed down or reinterpreted--usually this is without full-contact fighting and therefore devoid of reality checks. There are newer systems that are associated in some way with the military, police, or other security work and they generally offer grades and teaching licenses for having studied a syllabus of self-defence techniques--no fighting or front line experience required to become a teacher. There are systems that are totally made up out of hot air. And there are systems where the combat theatrics are purely aesthetic--hopefully you can spot those but sometimes I wonder!

Also, dodgy stuff goes on. There's a lot of political back-scratching. Sometimes grades can be bought over the phone, or certifications given in exchange for attending an expensive series of courses that offer a canned syllabus which is in itself fairly meaningless. Sometimes there is outright fraud. I remember here in the UK several years ago a prominent self-protection expert had been making good money for decades teaching people to defend themselves based on his experience in SAS, until someone did some digging and it came out that SAS had no record of him. Fraud can happen in any field, but in the self-protection business it's easy for someone to masquerade as an expert. They aren't going to have to perform open heart surgery; they just have to know some moves that seem plausible and present them with a lot of front. There are plenty of instructors out there making money and giving advice. As a writer, personally I wouldn't ask most of them to be my consultant. It's your call.

That's why I don't know what to suggest other than going to a fight gym and talking to the people there. You could do worse than make You Tube your friend. There are plenty of videos of street fights, including fights that involve multiple participants. These will give you an idea of the overall dynamics and flow of what happens and how people behave. I wouldn't recommend watching instructional videos, because skills are usually broken down and rehearsed in ways that don't resemble what really happens in a live situation. The one thing I can say is that fighting is chaotic. It shouldn't read like a planned sequence. Don't be Holmes.

So, this brings me to the conclusion of my time here. I would like to thank Charlie again for generously opening this blog to me, and I'd also like to express my appreciation to everyone who read and commented. Reading all of your responses has been immensely stimulating for me, and although I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I've said, I do hope that some of you have found a few points to think about along the way. Thank you so much for reading.

Who let the dogs out by Charlie Stross

So far I have talked about where I'm coming from when I talk about martial arts and the Philip K. Dick-like uneasiness I feel about the relationship between Hollywood and reality as I observe it play out in martial arts circles. Today I want to talk about representations of personal combat in popular media that I love. There are two examples that I want to share with you because I think they both exemplify the sincere effort to bring the live animal of the fight to the screen.

Beautiful Boxer is director Ekachai Uekrongtham's film about the life of Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol. There are many wonderful and fascinating aspects to this film, which is based on the true story of a person born in rural Thailand with male genitals and the psychological identity of a girl. As a young person in a male body she fought as a professional Muay Thai fighter so as to help her struggling family, eventually becoming the very successful adult fighter Nong Toom. While transitioning, she continued to fight men, with the prize money ultimately going to sex reassignment surgery so that Parinya Charoenphol could finally live life as herself; sadly, as a woman she was no longer permitted to fight on the professional circuit. I recommend Beautiful Boxer as a moving and involving piece of cinema.

What I love about the film from a martial art point of view is how the director cast professional fighters as actors--including the lead. He didn't choreograph the fight scenes, of which there are many. He allowed the fighters to go at it and filmed what happened.

When you look at this trailer, for the purposes of this discussion please disregard the synchronized, romantic displays of Muay Buran in the forest; look instead at the fight scenes that start around 1:15 to see what I mean. These scenes have been edited out of a real mix of two fighters going full throttle. This is not to say that nothing here has been planned--my guess is that they have been given a bit of general direction. The fights look maybe a little flashier than average. But the performers are real fighters and it shows. These are good fight scenes because they are real.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh's Haywire has fight scenes that appear meticulously choreographed, but the result is still effective because the choreography has been mostly pulled from actual fights and its performance is naturalistic. The clip below is an extended sequence in a hotel room, and it makes use of a variety of moves typical of what you'd expect to see a trained fighter use against another trained fighter--which is OK in this context because both people are understood to be agents schooled in hand-to-hand combat.

Some parts of the sequence are more believable than others (I think the exchange of blocked hand blows near the middle is shaky) but one thing that I find consistently believable is Gina Carano. This is because Carano came to the film on the heels of a successful Muay Thai and mixed martial arts career. Soderbergh offered Carano the part immediately after her defeat at the powerful fists of Cris Santos in Strikeforce. You're looking at a real athlete in Carano. Whether she's throwing, punching, kicking a guy through a door, or choking him out she's doing it just like she would do it in the cage. This makes for great cinema without chucking realism out the window.

Talking about Gina Carano brings me to the topic of women fighters. It can be no surprise to anyone at this blog that fighters get far less money, opportunity and attention if they are women. Not even ten years ago, a google for 'MMA women' revealed mostly pictures of 'hot ring girls' much like a google for 'science fiction women' revealed mostly hits about 'hot babes of sci fi TV'. (I know because I keep an eye on these things. If you google 'science fiction women' today you'll see 'kick-ass women' and 'Women Destroy SF' and stuff like that--but it hasn't been that way for long).

Maybe the 'hot ring girls' mentality explains why Gina Carano got unprecedented attention when she broke in as a mixed martial arts fighter--people talked as much about her looks as about her abilities. I want to make it clear that Carano is a great fighter. But to get attention as a woman it always helps to be eye candy, too. I believe that Carano helped to raise the profile of the women's game by both her talent and her marketability. It's the usual double standard.

In the last couple of years something has begun to change. In 2012 women were allowed to box in the Olympics for the first time. The UFC (the biggest MMA organization in the world) allowed women to fight for the first time in 2013 after having said in 2011 that it would never happen. It has taken a very long time to overcome deep prejudice, but finally we are seeing women fighters in the spotlight. And you know what? What a lot of resistance over nothing. Women fight just like men do.

All this time I've been talking about the screen. This is because I find the verbal descriptions of fighting that I've read in a lot of genre fiction to be far-fetched, but as a writer myself I know how difficult and challenging this work is. I don't want to pick on anyone's book in particular. The problems are broadly the same as you see in cinema: exaggerating certain features for effect without understanding the fundamental principles of live combat.

In my final post I will talk about how I approach fight scenes as a writer. Specifically, I'll discuss my novel Shadowboxer, which centres on a young woman who fights MMA. Early readers have said that the fight scenes are the best parts of the book. They were actually dead easy to write, and I'll tell you how I did it.

Wag that puppy by Charlie Stross

In my first post of this series I said I would talk about the depiction of personal combat in contemporary media. What I find most interesting here is the tendency to conflate stage-fighting with real fighting, and I am particularly impressed by the foolishness of movie-makers--who are themselves illusionists--when they are tricked by the illusionism of the martial arts into thinking they are showing something 'real' when in fact they are showing a martial art with only a tangential relationship to fighting

This is what I saw happening in Batman Begins with the use of Keysi, a modern Spanish system chosen for its claimed 'streetfighting effectiveness'. The style caught the filmmakers' attention because they needed something that looked convincingly combative but also that they could show being formally trained as a personal practice in Bat Gym. 

Nothing in any of the Keysi material online resembles a real fight to my eye. It is far too stylized. And I can't figure out what's so 'new' about it--the so-called signature enclosed-cover entry and elbows are nothing new, that's for sure. Nothing about these moves suggests they were born in the nightclubs of Spain; they're performed just like the techniques in Indonesian, Filipino, and Chinese martial arts with a sprinkling of Systema--none of which systems are centred around full-contact fighting in the modern day, though they would have historical roots in the fight.

But thanks to the Hollywood endorsement, Keysi received a rush of new students after that movie came out. If Batman does it, that shit must be good.

Here's a real fight with lots of guys against one man who happens to be a boxer. It ain't nothing fancy.

I'm going to leave old school movie kung fu alone. That'd just be shooting fish in a barrel. But look at this clip. I know a lot of people love this movie, but I find this scene incredibly annoying.

Here is Holmes doing some strange mash-up of Wing Chun and pugilism in a routinely silly way when suddenly he acquires the ability to rationalize and control combat like a boss! Apparently, if you are a genius and a lady is watching and someone spits on you, you can not only emotionally detach, but you can orchestrate several moves in advance as though solving an algebra problem. Who knew? The whole sequence plays as though born in the fevered imagination of a wannabe who has never been near a real fight. It may have huge nerd appeal but it's horse shit.

In a high-stress situation where a lot of sensory information is coming in very fast, the visual cortex can't keep up. The brain has to make a guess about what's going to happen next based on your opponent's position and the early 'cue' at the beginning of a movement. This guess is informed by your past fighting experience; the more fighting experience you have, the better the guess.  To my knowledge, the current understanding is that the myelination in cortical areas dealing with sensory information and motor response are only layered through specific experience, and there's science suggesting that with increased practice, visual tracking will still take place after the response is initiated, enabling an expert to deal with a late correction. This offers some explanation for how a great tennis player can return a seemingly impossible serve.

But the point is that all of these responses are happening below the level of conscious thought; in fact, conscious thought would interfere with the sensorimotor response. A fighter may have a general plan, and metacognitively they may be watching themselves in action--and they will surely be anticipating their opponent moment-by-moment based on what is known about how the other fighter has behaved so far. But fighters don't set up and run an extended series of moves like this any more than Federer looks at Nadal and says to himself, 'There can be no emotion. Place service so that opponent returns ball three inches from the line on left side of court. Be waiting there for return of serve.  Return opponent's forehand, run to net sticking racquet out at angle of 60 degrees to hit line shot into back left corner.  Dive across net to meet return and cunningly place ball six inches out of reach.' Just no.

Of course I'm exaggerating. A little. The thing is, this scene isn't just some fluff used in a movie for fun. It's representative of the way self-protection and martial arts are often taught, with a 'you do this, I do that' approach that centers on pulling the correct technique out of a hat in answer to an incoming technique, often in series. A fight is too holistic and it changes too dynamically to reduce it to a game of playing cards. The approach is misleading and movies like this only serve to reinforce the misinterpretation of what's going on in a fight.

I'm going to share with you a link to a video produced by the Eugene, Oregon police department. There are some things about this video that make me uncomfortable when it comes to the meaning of a snap decision in light of racial profiling, and I hesitate to post it in light of recent events in Ferguson. That is a huge subject and I really do not want to open up all that pain. With that said, I want to draw your attention to the opening minutes in which police behavioural consultant Alexis Artwohl says, of assessing what happened in officer-involved shootings,'We were expecting these events to defy the laws of physics. We were expecting officers to defy the limits of human performance, we often expect them to have a perfect memory and make perfect decisions when in fact research clearly shows that human beings are not capable of either one of those things...the training and judgement of police officers was frequently based on myths, assumptions, and personal opinions that necessarily may not be's a difficult thing trying to explain these events to the world at large who have been trained by Hollywood rather than what really happens.'

Some of the remarks made here strike me as a sober reminder that we live in a time and place where movie reality is wagging the puppy.  I sometimes feel like martial arts onscreen and on the page have become one big giant Philip K. Dick story. We are in a simulation of a reflection that games the idea of a trick inside a shadow under somebody's wishful thinking.

 On a lighter note,I don't know if this next clip is hilarious or just pathetic: here's  Steven Seagal giving 'lessons' to world class fighter Anderson Silva.

AYFKM? When this came out, people were taking this seriously. Guys were running around the martial arts forums saying that Seagal must be good if Silva was taking lessons from him--that's how much some people really believe in cinema warriors. The fact that Silva agreed to the whole charade says to me that as a culture we have lost the plot. I can't imagine what Silva was thinking but the idea that Steven Seagal has anything to teach him can only be a joke.

I will now take myself off somewhere to recover from the trauma of looking at that last one. In my next post I'll talk about fictional depictions of fighting that I can get behind, credibility-wise. Yes, they do exist!

But before I go I have to cleanse my palate. If you look at only one clip here, look at Ernesto Hoost. Here's what a real fighter does. See that towel fly into the ring.

October 02, 2014

Mattias Malmer's amazing 3D views of Churyumov-Gerasimenko by The Planetary Society

I'm thrilled to be able to share with you all a spectacular set of images of Rosetta's comet, produced from NavCam data by a master space image processing enthusiast.

MUSEing on positive feedback by Astrobites

Title: MUSE discovers perpendicular arcs in Cen A inner filament
Authors: S. Hamer, P. Salomé, F. Combes and Q. Salomé
First Author Institution: LERMA, Observatoire de Paris, UMR 8112 61, Av. de l’Observatoire, F-75014, Paris, France
Status: Submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics

Figure 1. Centaurus A (NGC5128) is the largest extragalactic radio source projected on the sky and is at a distance of 3.8Mpc. Located in the constellation of Centaurus in the southern sky it can be seen with the naked eye in perfect conditions. Credit: ESO.

Figure 1. Centaurus A (NGC5128) is the largest extragalactic radio source projected on the sky and is at a distance of 3.8Mpc. Located in the constellation of Centaurus in the southern sky it can be seen with the naked eye in perfect conditions. Credit: ESO.

Both observations and theory show that galaxies can’t form stars on their own indefinitely – they need some mechanism to moderate star formation in order to match the evolutionary path that we know galaxies follow. Turbulence within the gas used for star formation is needed in order to keep a galaxy ‘alive’. By mixing the gas available, denser areas can begin to form of cold hydrogen gas which can eventually collapse and form stars. As soon as this mixing stops, and the gas is allowed to settle, then further star formation will not take place.

Supernova explosions send shock waves and energy propagating through the inter stellar medium (ISM), which could produce enough turbulent mixing of the gas to self-regulate star formation.  But radio jets streaming from active black holes could be an even stronger source of turbulence which causes the same effect; known as positive feedback which occurs on a local scale (unlike the more documented negative feedback which acts to decrease star formation rates on a global scale across a galaxy). Although the mechanism responsible (supernovae, black holes or something else entirely)  for this turbulent mixing is uncertain, what is certain is that simulations which do not contain such a prescription produce galaxies which are on average too small to match observations.

The authors of this paper search for observational evidence for this interaction of radio jets with the ISM by observing NGC5128 (Centaurus A), which is a giant elliptical galaxy hosting a massive black hole (~20 million solar masses) and large radio lobes extending over 250 kiloparsecs (see Figure 1). Using the MUSE spectrograph on the VLT in Chile, they searched for the broadening of emission lines along optical structures which are in line with the radio jets of the galaxy. Such a broadening would indicate places where the gas has been shocked and therefore heated; providing energy for turbulent mixing. Therefore these areas are the predecessors of star forming birth clouds.

Figure 2 shows the results from observing the first Balmer line Hα emission from Centaurs A. The left panels show the flux of this line and right panels show how broad this line was in the given area. If an emission line is broadened, it means that the gas giving out this wavelength of light is moving chaotically and so a Doppler shift is imprinted on the narrow emission line to both lengthen and shorten the wavelength, giving a broader line feature on the spectrum.

One of the immediately noticeable features of these maps is the existence of the strange arc like structure (visible as the dark blue structure in the second panel of Figure 2) which is entirely separate to the main filamentary structures and also opposite in curvature to the optical stellar shell surrounding the central galaxy. The authors rule out the theory that these arcs are part of a separate filament feeding gas down onto the main structure as there would be a smoother velocity transition (calculated from the difference between the broadness of the two emission lines Hα – [NII]) between the arc and filament than seen in the third panel of Figure 2. They instead muse that these arcs are backflows of gas from the active black hole outburst formed when fast moving material ran into slow moving material at the front. Simulations show that this is completely plausible however such a structure would only be visible for ~1Myr, suggesting that the black hole activity in Centaurus A began relatively recently.

Figure 2: The first panels show the Hα flux maps of the main inner filament and the second with that area subtracted to show an arc like structure in the background. The third panel shows Hα – [NII]; by comparing the difference between the broadness  of two different emission lines ([NII] is an electron emission from Nitrogen) we can work out how fast the gas is moving. The fourth panel showing the broadening of the Hα emission line around the edges of the clumps of the main filament (right). All four maps show the same region of the galaxy. Credit: Hamer et al. (2014).

The second most striking results shown by the maps in Figure 2 is the thin region of highly broadened Hα emission around the edges of the  clumpy main filamentary structure, which can be seen in the fourth panel. The broadened width of these lines (~400 km/s) agrees with the predictions of simulations of shock waves, suggesting that this clumpy filamentary structure is surrounded by a shell of gas which has interacted with the radio jet. These clumps are also extremely bright in the UV (as observed by GALEX), suggesting that the gas in the filament is forming stars – possibly as a direct result of this interaction with the radio jet. The authors therefore claim that this is direct observational evidence for positive feedback from the active black hole in Centaurus A.

If their interpretation is correct, the black hole could spur star formation on Centaurus A for hundreds of millions of years to come.



The Boundaries of the Supercluster by Astrobites

This paper gives new precision to the term “galaxy supercluster“. With a clear definition in hand, the authors also trace the bounds of our home supercluster, naming it “Laniakea”, or “Immense Heaven” in Hawaiian.

From the study by de Lapparent et al. 1986. Observed velocity (from the redshift) vs. right ascension. The dots represent 1100 galaxies.

Figure 1: From the study by de Lapparent et al. 1986. Observed velocity (from the redshift) vs. right ascension. The dots represent about a thousand galaxies.

Previously, maps of the universe, on the scale of hundreds of megaparsecs, have been drawn from redshift surveys of large numbers of galaxies. Each galaxy is located in three-dimensional space by its projection on our sky and its redshift, which is sort-of a measure of its distance from us. One such project produced this amazing slice of the universe almost three decades ago (Fig. 1). Each dot represents a galaxy, and the whole map gave us a first sense that nearby structure is dominated by filaments and voids.

But Tully and colleagues were occupied by a slightly different problem than mapping galaxies. They wanted to map out the distribution of all matter in the nearby universe, including the dark matter. There’s a significant difference. For example, in the case of the famous Bullet cluster of galaxies, the dark matter and the visible matter don’t line up. And dark matter is much more prevalent than visible matter, maybe five times as prevalent (divide the cold dark matter density of the universe by the baryon density, catalogued here).

To map all the matter in the universe, Tully and colleagues used over 8000 galaxies as gravitational probes. If a galaxy was moving with respect to the normal cosmological flow, they ascribed the peculiar velocity to a gravitational attraction. Deep surveys show us that all distant galaxies are flowing away from us, the universe is expanding. But within that bulk expansion, swarms of galaxies are getting tugged by their host superclusters. A map of the peculiar velocities of nearby galaxies, therefore, will reveal which galaxies belong to our supercluster, and which are being tugged elsewhere.

Figure 2: From Tully et al. 2014. This shows a single plane sliced through the center of the nearby universe. The colors represent matter densities, as reconstructed from peculiar velocities (blue represents a void, green an overdensity). The white streamlines are traced through the field of peculiar velocities. And the orange line shows the boundary between diverging flows.

Figure 2: From Tully et al. 2014. This shows a single plane (perpendicular to the supergalactic z-axis) sliced through the center of the nearby universe. The blue dot is home. Each white dot is a galaxy. The colors represent reconstructed matter densities: blue is less matter, green is more. The white streamlines are traced through the field of peculiar velocities; they reveal the ‘drainage basin’ of our local supercluster. An orange line represents the boundary between diverging flows. Nearby superclusters are labeled.

To determine a peculiar radial velocity, the authors found a distance measurement using brightness, then subtracted the observed velocity (that is, the redshift) from the cosmological flow (that is, Hubble’s constant multiplied by the distance). All the distance measuring techniques they used compare an object’s brightness to an estimate of its actual light output. Some techniques focus on an object in the galaxy (for example a Cepheid variable or a Type Ia supernova) or a sub-populations of stars. Other techniques use the galaxy itself: its inherent ‘graininess’, its rotation rate, or a relationship between its size and range of stellar velocities. To construct their massive catalog of 8000 peculiar radial velocities they used all of these tools.

With a map of peculiar radial velocities for these 8000 galaxies extending out to hundreds of megaparsecs, the authors reconstruct the most likely three-dimensional velocity field, assuming no swirls in the flow (an assumption consistent with the standard cosmological model at this large of a scale). The underlying peculiar velocity field describes the tiny gravitationally-perturbed motions of galaxies after subtracting out cosmological expansion. Our local “basin of attraction” is the region containing all the galaxies that would contract to a single point, if we were to neglect the dominant expansion. The authors define this region as our home supercluster, Laniakea.

This is the first time the boundaries of the local supercluster have been defined. Here’s a video describing their method and showing the resulting map of the nearby universe. A slice of this three-dimensional map is shown above.

October 01, 2014

Two Weeks Left to Apply to Write for Astrobites by Astrobites

Astrobites logoThis is a reminder that there are still two weeks left to apply to write for Astrobites!

We are seeking new graduate students to join the Astrobites collaboration. Applicants must be current graduate students. The deadline for applications is 15 October. Please email if you have any questions.

The application consists of a sample Astrobite and two short essays. The application and instructions can be found and submitted at

Happy Fiscal Year 2015! Though NASA Still Doesn't Have a Budget by The Planetary Society

Congress passed a stopgap spending bill before taking off to campaign for re-election, keeping NASA's 2015 budget in limbo for another two months.

Mars Orbiter Mission activates all science instruments as NASA, ISRO form joint Mars working group by The Planetary Society

Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) began its science activities fully on Wednesday with all five science instruments being activated. And on Tuesday, an ISRO-NASA Mars working group was formed which will "seek to identify and implement scientific and technological goals that NASA and ISRO have in common regarding Mars exploration."

DO YOU 'LIKE' THE SUN? The Content Casino vs. the Long Game by Charlie Stross

I've been at a marketing conference the last few days, and underneath all the sales funnels and ROIs and synergies and native advertising and value-add content, there was a lot of talk about storytelling... and how we've forgotten how to tell stories in our endless quest to create MOAR CONTENT.

There's no doubt that since the rise of the internet, much of the job of "marketing" seems to be to fill the internet with crap. Content, any content, as long as it appears regularly and is stuffed with the requisite amount of keywords, has come to dominate what many firms consider "marketing on the internet" for a decade now. But as anyone who's tried to find relevant content on the internet, or sifted through their spam email knows, we've developed very good filters for sorting through BS for actual valuable results. And when we start having problems curating all that noise, places like Google and now Facebook, do it for us, with (in Facebook's case, especially) dodgy algorithms that decide what we're actually interested in and what we should see.

The widespread hatred of what's happened with Facebook, in particular, is a constant gripe not just for users (I finally deleted my personal Facebook account, and kept only the fan page) but also marketers, who have developed huge followings that they now have to pay to reach. But as was pointed out by a speaker at the conference, this is all the fault of myself and my colleagues:

"We're the problem! We broke Facebook. They had to switch to promoted content because we were spamming people with garbage. 'Here's a picture of the sun! Do you YOU like the sun? 'Like' this picture of you like the sun!' WE ARE THE PROBLEM."

All that daily editorial calendar garbage we're spewing out to clutter up the web has given both us and everyone else who uses it information fatigue. Data overload. It's added to the noise in the world. It's made it harder to find valuable, relevant work.

With Google changing its algorithm to increase the ranking of content not just on clicks, but also by time spent on the page, there was a lot of chatter about what this new shift in the algorithm and the information overload was going to do to the types of work we produced to share in online spaces. Some brands and agencies already understand that if you concentrate on just putting out a few big pieces of entertainment, good stories, valuable information, you can cut through the noise, and they're putting out less junk. Others are still stuck spamming you value propositions and bullet pointed lists, hoping something will stick.

When I come home from the day job, I write novels. I talk to a lot of writers. And I couldn't help but notice how these two approaches - lots of content you hope will connect with someone, versus focusing on a few quality projects - mirrored the career strategies of many novelists. There are two schools of thought, generally: you write as much as possible, in as many genres as possible, writing three, maybe even four (or more! Many romance authors write more, and self-published authors often write a dozen or more novella length pieces a year to make a living wage), and hope one of them hits it big (the casino approach). Or, you write your book a year or every three years and you slowly build up a small but passionate audience over time, hoping that by investing in just one piece at a time, that in twenty years or so you'll have enough money through writing to live on.

The reality is that for many authors, the casino approach is simply the only way to make a living. They can't afford to wait to "maybe make a living writing novels" in twenty years. This is often how I see myself in my role at my day job. Shareholders aren't here for a ten-year return. They get quarterly reports. They must, at all costs (even and especially jobs) see growth, a return on their investment, from year to year. That means everyone must produce work, lots of work, to justify their existence, hoping that some of it, any of it, will hit. Most corporations are like this, investing heavily in busy work, in everyone working hard, without sitting down to strategize or prioritize. But the checks come on time (which is far better than I can say for publishing!).

The longer game, the exhausting game, and the game that has less of a likelihood for regular checks, is the long game of relying on building a career on fewer pieces. You may be able to invest more time, energy, and thought into them, but the reality here is that there's less chance of writing something that will connect with readers at the right time, in the right place. If publishing is a gamble, then the more pieces you write, the more tickets you've bought, the better chances you'll have, right?

In truth, I see merit in both of these approaches. Spam works. I see it work everyday. So long as spam works, we are still going to see a lot of spam. Junk posts also work. Some people really like the sun, and they will be happy to like your post all fricking day long. But investing in the longer game, the big tentpole pieces, the novel that took five years or seven years to write, can be just as good an investment.

What I suspect most writers, and marketers, will end up doing in future is a mix of both of these approaches. We'll always have a lot of junk. People like candy. But in talking about how he schedules content on his blog, one of the speakers this weekend pointed out that some candy on Monday, candy and spinach on Tuesday, a big thinky roast piece on Wednesday, candy and spinach on Thursday, and candy on Friday isn't a bad way to schedule content (I think that's a little too much candy for me, personally, but you get the idea). You give folks some happy junk AND a nice chewy piece that makes them think, and then you're not just adding to the junk on the internet, you're providing some value and variety.

This is how I look at using online self-publishing platforms versus traditional publishing sometimes, too. Self-publishing or digital-only is ideal for small fun pieces in universes like the one in my God's War books that are fun slash-and-hack post-apocalypse stories with bad ass heroines and bug tech. Traditional houses can get the newer, chewier, more complicated stuff that gets people excited on a different level, like The Mirror Empire novels. And having a diversity of work also means that I lessen reader burnout. It's not just all the same tired thing.

I'm a marketing nerd, fully aware of its dangers and its potential for inciting positive change. And I admit I look forward to the end of the internet garbage era of marketing, or at least a reining in, a tactical deployment of candy vs. roast, instead of an endless sea of endless suns.

About Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God's War Trilogy, comprising the books God's War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year's Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

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Updated using Planet on 23 October 2014, 05:48 AM

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