Francis’s news feed

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

December 19, 2014

Ask the Author by Charlie Stross

So Goodreads are trolling for author content. And they're trying to get authors with goodreads listings to make themselves available for Ask the Author events!

Shocking. I'd never have thought of doing that.

Anyway: here I am, I haven't done it for a while, so consider this your invitation to an open mike Q&A with me.

Note that I will be spending a good chunk of this week visiting relatives, so on a train/using an iPad/not responding promptly. I may decline to answer any question for any reason at all. I may even lie to you. (I am not a performing monkey: I will not dance if you shoot at my feet.)

What do you want to know?

On the lack of cultural estrangement in SF by Charlie Stross

In the previous discussion thread, someone mentioned having a problem with one particular far-future (well, set 400 years hence) SF novel that disrupted their reading of it so badly that they ended up giving up on the book. Interestingly, I had the exact same problem (and ended up bailing 50 pages before the end of a 1100 page novel—there's your sunk cost fallacy in a nutshell). And I think it's worth taking a look at it, because it's one of my own pet shibboleths and I'm bored and I want to take it out for a walk today.

Because I don't want to name and shame the guilty on the front page of my blog I'm putting it below the cut. But, for reference: the 1100 page novel I bailed on was Pandora's Star by Peter Hamilton, and it also put me in mind of most of the novels of Jack McDevitt (but notably his far-future Priscilla Hutchins Alex Benedict series). There are other authors I could point to, but you can take these as type specimens for the pathology.

These are not bad authors and they don't write terrible books: that's part of what makes the problem so jarring for me. And the nature of the problem? It's that the stories they're telling are set in a far future (hundreds to thousands of years hence), in an interstellar human polity (gifted with interstellar transportation technologies that are notably within the reach of ordinary people). And yet the civilization they portray can best be described as "Essex suburbia goes interstellar" in the case of "Pandora's Star" or, in McDevitt's case, Whitebread Middle American Suburbia to the Stars. The gender politics, religious framework, ideologies, fashions(!) and attitudes of today—specifically, of a type of Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to—has become a universal norm. And nothing else gets much of a look in.

In "Pandora's Star" there is at least the fig-leaf explanation of rejuvenation technology, allowing the wealthy to return themselves to physical youth every few decades (while the poor presumably die, senile and in pain in a gutter—but this is glossed over). One would expect a certain cultural conservativism (if not sclerosis) to set in under such circumstances. McDevitt's work ... I didn't notice him making such excuses, although in mitigation I'll admit his age: he didn't begin writing in earnest until after reaching what most of us would consider to be retirement age, and perhaps this colours his outlook.

You can make an argument for writing SF in this mode in that it allows the lazy reader to ignore the enculturation issue and dive straight into the adventure yarn for which the SFnal trappings are just a brightly-coloured wrapper.

But I still find it really weird to read a far-future SF story that doesn't deliver a massive sense of cultural estrangement, because in the context of our own history, we are aliens.

Imagine yourself abducted by a mad Doctor in a time machine shaped like a blue Police Box (itself an anachronism in today's smartphone-networked world) and dumped on the streets of your home city a century ago, in 1914. Let's suppose the Doctor is friendly enough to give you the free run of a wardrobe so that you are reasonably turned-out for a person of your gender, age, and status in that time and place: and a wallet containing enough cash to live comfortably for a week (to rent a room in a B&B and to eat, and to do a bit of judicious tourism: not enough to invest in a start-up business and disrupt the time stream; meddling is strictly forbidden). How familiar are you going to find things?

The answer is actually "not very". Because ...

You speak a dialect of the local language, it's true. But you have some words or terms that nobody recognizes ("atom bomb"), some words that have changed meaning radically thanks to the spread of technical neologisms ("virtual", "computer") or social change ("queer", "nigger"), and there are other words and slang that you probably don't recognize because they were quaintly dated back when your parents were in diapers ("masher").

The architecture and layout of cities will be vaguely familiar, especially if you're British (our buildings tend to be old and well-maintained). Some things will be mildly disorienting (the lack of street markings, traffic lights, and so on). Some items will be disgusting (horse shit everywhere, and the flies they attract). It may be hard to tell the difference between a shop front and somebody's living room, if you get away from the market stalls. And it may be hard to tell the difference between a contemporary crack house and the typical living conditions of the early 20th century poor, except that the junkies and dealers often have electricity and running water and don't sleep that many to a room. The rich, as always, are different: private yachts, palaces, grand houses, and a degree of insulation from the poor that is familiar today.

If you're British and less than 50 years old you probably don't know how the pre-decimalization currency system works. I mean, you literally don't know how to count the change after making a purchase. Or how to read prices. (It's a non-decimal system with three different levels of currency—big, medium, and small—and differing conversion ratios. Like imperial weights and measures, only crazier.)

Foodstuffs you expect to find are unavailable and exotic (bananas, kiwi fruit, curry), and stuff nobody in their right mind would eat is routinely sold (tripe, kidneys, beef hearts) and eaten. Just don't ask about food hygiene standards.

Don't ask about medicine, either. There are no antibiotics, tuberculosis and other infections kill as high a proportion of the population as cancer does today, and about 30-50% of infants die before the age of 5. People's attitudes to death and birth are alien—lots of babies, lots of baby funerals, lots of adult funerals, people dying at the age of 40 is taken for granted, and everyone has thirty cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Political views agreed on by today's conservatives are seen as dangerously close to socialism: you don't want to know what passes through conservatives' minds in 1914. (Hint: have a happy fun google search.) Social views: ditto. Racism of a kind that would make the Ferguson Police Department blush was normal, and as for gender relations, the freedoms and status in civil society enjoyed by women in 1914 in the UK or the USA were in some respects behind Iran in 2004. It wasn't a good time and place to be female unless you were financially secure or had a very forward-looking male guardian.

... And that's the whistle-stop tour of social change in just one century in the decades leading up to the society that this peculiar mode of SF takes to be the unassuming touchstone of future humanity.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that much of the social change that led up to the current cultural matrix was driven by technological change. Better medicine and family planning techniques gave us the basis for a society in which we don't go to a different infant's funeral every month, in which bananas are cheaper than potatoes, people aren't worn out unto death by fifty, civil rights for people who aren't rich white males are at least recognized as theoretically desirable, and in which you probably aren't dying of tuberculosis. So why do repeatedly we see the depiction of far future societies with cheap interstellar travel in which this hasn't bought about massive social change as a side-effect (other than the trivial example of everyone having a continental sized back yard to mow)?

Seriously, I feel that if I'm writing far-future SF, I've got a duty to at least try and portray a plausible society. And while I'd be the last person to argue that western suburbia is implausible (after all, we've got it), if there's any constant in human society it's change. Which is why I find far future settings that don't give me a hard time implausible, unless there's some overriding reason (such as a cultural critique or some kind of playing-card-tricks-in-the-dark postmodern commentary going on). Far future extrapolation: if you're not doing it to the cultural normals as well as the setting and technology, you're doing it wrong.

December 18, 2014

Review 2014: One Thing: Una McCormack. by Feeling Listless

Reading (out loud) like a writer

It was our Christmas Reading Party last night. (Reading as in books, not Reading as in gateway to Didcot.) Students taking our Master’s degree in creative writing meet up for a couple of hours at the end of semester to drink wine, chat, and read their work out to each other. We the tutors – with our last classes more or less over and the marking not yet quite on the horizon – get to kick back and listen. Last night was, as ever, a very enjoyable occasion with some great pieces by some very talented people. There was prose and poetry; humour and horror; fishing, reindeer, and cowboys. They are a smashing bunch and I have loved teaching them this semester.

The idea that I would have to read my work out loud never really occurred to me when I started this writing business. I did read my work out loud – but to myself, as I was writing. I’m muttering along as I write this post, to make sure that the rhythm and the flow is how I want it. I’m doing it quietly because I’m in a café and I don’t want people to think I’m odd. Also, I’m eavesdropping on the conversation happening opposite me.

But then I accidentally got published, and people who had done me the courtesy of putting my words into print asked me to go and do public events so that my books would sell and they would perhaps be in a position to pay me to write another one. It seemed rude to say ‘no’, so I said ‘yes’. I’ve done a few readings now, and I know it’s something that makes people very anxious. I quite enjoy it now (although I am something of a show-off), so here are my suggestions to make this less stressful for you, should a reading be on the cards.

Have a party piece. I almost always do the same scene from my Doctor Who novel, The Way through the Woods. It’s short, amusing, and I get to do Matt Smith’s voice, which usually gets a laugh. I’m comfortable and confident reading it, which means that people listening feel comfortable and confident that they’ll enjoy it.

Practice. Read through many times beforehand, out loud. Know the rhythm and the flow, where you need to take breath. Mark up the piece, if that helps. Red-pen the breathing points (there should be a comma or a full stop there already). Put the words that should be stressed in bold. Other people may make this look easy – but they’re not improvising. They’ve rehearsed.

Forget yourself. You’re not there as your usual introverted self, who prefers on the whole to be at home alone in jim-jams and bedsocks. You’re there as someone else – the communicator of this piece. Don’t put your gentle and sensitive self out there. Let her stay at home in her jim-jams.

Believe in what you’re reading. Easier said than done, I know. But if you’re telling the world that your work is forgettable and unimportant, they’ll take their cue from you. So do your work some justice. Cut it some slack. For the whole time that you are reading, you should love your work, and communicate that love.

I’m pleased to note that my students last night seemed to have done all of this. I said they were a smashing bunch.

You can follow Una on Twitter @unamccormack. Her Blake's 7 play, Ministry of Peace is just out from Big Finish and her Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel, The Missing, is out at the very end of December.

Christmas Links #18 by Feeling Listless

The worst Christmas films to watch on Netflix:
"Full disclosure: this started out as 'The best Christmas films on Netflix', but then I realised Home Alone and Groundhog Day are pretty much the only good ones, neither of which are on it."

When Talking Is Replaced By Texting, All Love Is Lost:
"I can go for days without talking on the phone."

Best of Star Wars Music Christmas Lights Show 2014 - Featured on Great Christmas Light Fight!
"Here's my tribute to my favorite songs on Star Wars!"

How many times has The Great Escape actually been on TV at Christmas?
"It’s a common joke made that the BBC always shows the classic movie The Great Escape at Christmas..."

Review – Into the Woods, the film:
"But since this cinematic entertainment is based on the Stephen Sondheim stage musical that Phil has seen about half a dozen times in various forms, including the original Broadway and London productions he just wanted to show off. He saw a preview of Into the Woods a week ago and frustratingly has been sitting on a most uncomfortable embargo ever since."

A pupil at Mission Grove Primary School was surprised by MP Stella Creasy this morning after she won her Christmas card competition:
"Stella Creasy MP surprised the winner of her annual Christmas card competition at school today."

More Bang for your Buck: Getting the Most out of Your Transit Light Curves by Astrobites

Title: How low can you go? The photoeccentric effect for planets of various sizes
Authors: Ellen Price, Leslie Rogers, John Johnson, Rebekah Dawson
First Author’s Institution: California Institute of Technology

I often think that all 3,000+ exoplanets that have been discovered are a lot like most people’s facebook friends. C’mon… Do you actually know all 3,000 of them? But who can blame you. You met them once years ago and now there isn’t enough time in a day or month or even in a year to comb through everyone’s profile and figure out whom you care about and whom you don’t. Well it seems like exoplanet scientists are having a similar problem. According to the Exoplanet Orbit Database, there are 3,303 planet candidates. For planet candidates, the following is true:

  1. The Kepler Mission has observed each planet passing in front of its parent star and has obtained a light curve (see transit method)
  2. From each light curve, scientists can determine each planet’s radius and orbital period
  3. Additional observations must be done in order to confirm each planet’s existence and/or to get additional planet properties.

A planet’s radius and orbital period gives us about as much information as looking at someone’s profile picture. You get a general feeling for it’s size and hotness. Ideally, though, we’d like to know how dense the planet is, and how it moves around its parent star. For that, bullet #3 indicates we’d need additional observations. Like vetting through facebook friends, it’s just not practical or physically possible to try and follow up all 3,000+ planets to determine whom we care about and whom we don’t. In fact, for some of the more distant Kepler planets, not even the world’s largest telescopes could obtain data with high enough precision to derive a parameter such as orbital eccentricity. Therefore, it would be infinitely more practical if we could figure out a way to strip out more than just planet radius and orbital period from the Kepler light curves. In today’s astrobite, Price et al. do just that by discussing a new technique to determine eccentricities of planets from Kepler transiting exoplanets, which they have coined the “photoeccentric effect”.

Photoeccentric Effect

Figure 1. Cartoon drawing of the transit method taken from JPL. The numbers above represent key states in a transit when the planet is 1) out of transit, 2) ingress 3) in transit. If we kept going, (4) would be egress and (5) would be out of transit again. Because the light curve is a function of time we can measure the time spent in each of these phases.

Figure 1. Cartoon drawing of the transit method taken from JPL. The numbers above represent key states in a transit when the planet is 1) out of transit, 2) in ingress 3) in transit. If we kept going, (4) would be in egress and (5) would be out of transit again. Because the light curve is a function of time, we can measure the time spent in each of these phases.

For those who are new to the transit method let’s quickly revisit some jargon. Looking at figure 1, there are three main events we want to internalize: 1) before the planet approaches the star it is “out of transit”, 2) when the planet is passing into/out of the disk of the star, it is in “ingress/egress” and 3) when the planet is in front of the star it is “in transit”. The planet in figure 1 has a perfectly circular orbit (zero eccentricity). Now, imagine stretching the planet’s orbit toward you in attempt to increase the eccentricity and think about how that might affect the planet’s light curve. As it turns out (and like everything in life), those slight deviations in the light curves can be described by a set of equations and voilà! The photoeccentric effect was born. Well… Not that easy. A little more magic is required to actually figure out the eccentricity from the equations. The good news is, this technique was proven to work on Kepler’s biggest (think jupiter-sized) planets two years ago by two of the authors on this paper (Dawson & Johnson). Price et al. take that same technique and try to figure out if we can pin down eccentricities of some of the smallest sized planets. Because let’s face it, those are the only ones we care about anyways (kidding!!).


In order to calculate the eccentricity, Price et. al. define a parameter, g, which describes how much a light curve deviates from the ideal, circular-orbit light curve shown in Figure 1. The parameter, g is a function of eccentricity, e, and ω, the argument of periastron (g(e, ω)). It is also a separate function of six different parameters we should be familiar with by now: transit depth, ingress/egress duration, transit duration, orbital period, radius of the star, semi-major axis of the planet (g(δ, τ, T, P, R*, a)). Now we have two equations and eight unknowns. So what do we do? Cry? No! Because we already said that δ, τ, T, P, R*, and a can all be measured directly from the light curve and our parameter g, can be determined. Now we just have one equation g(e, ω) with two unknowns. Price et. al. use Bayesian statistics to nail down the eccentricities. I refer the reader to this astrobite, which gives a great break down of Bayesian statistics for those that are interested.


Figure 2. To the right are the results for HAT-P-2b and to the left are the results for GJ 436b. The arrows represent the known eccentricities for each planet and the red dashed lines represent the range of statistically viable eccentricities derived from the Price et. al. model. If the model worked correctly, the measured value should fall somewhere in between the red dashed lines. Main point: Price et. al. accurately determines eccentricity for GJ 436b but not HAT-P-2b.

Figure 2. To the right are the results for HAT-P-2b and to the left are the results for GJ 436b. P(e) is the posterior probability distribution (see Bayesian statistics). The arrows represent the known eccentricities for each planet and the red dashed lines represent the range of statistically viable eccentricities derived from the Price et. al. model. If the model worked correctly, the measured value should fall somewhere in between the red dashed lines. Main point: Price et. al. accurately determines eccentricity for GJ 436b but not HAT-P-2b.

Price et. al. find that for smaller and smaller planets, the uncertainty in their calculation of eccentricity increases. Why is this? Well, for smaller and smaller planets, the light curve starts to resemble a useless flat line and it gets more and more difficult to determine δ, τ, T, P, R*, and a. And because we used those parameters to determine g, it directly effects our calculation of eccentricity. Figure 2 shows results for the cases of two different planets: HAT-P-2b (left) and GJ 436b (right). In both figures the arrow indicates the known value of the eccentricity. If our statistics was correct, the measured values should lie within the red dashed lines, which represent statistically viable solutions of the eccentricity. Therefore, Price et. al. were able to get eccentricities for GJ 426b but not HAT-P-2b. They ultimately find that their method works well for both very large eccentricities and very small eccentricities (GJ 436b has a low eccentricity), but not well for intermediate eccentricities (HAT-P-2b).

In the end this is a fantastic result. We are one step closer to unraveling the wealth of information that might be hidden deep within our 3,303 facebook friendly exoplanets.

Infinite Visions, One Planetary Society by The Planetary Society

Three weeks ago, we launched a social media campaign hoping to engage the public in space exploration. What we achieved was more than we expected—our Infinite Visions campaign reached more than 2.5 million people in 47 countries.

December 17, 2014

NASA Delays Asteroid Redirect Mission Concept Selection until 2015 by The Planetary Society

NASA's efforts to capture a near-Earth asteroid and tow it back to lunar orbit will have to wait a little bit longer for a final mission concept.

Mobile Innovation: We Need to Get Past the App Store Duopoly by Albert Wenger

The shift to mobile computing is fully underway. Over time everyone in the world will have a smartphone and data speeds will go up (and hopefully prices for data plans will come down). So the race is on to find the natively mobile versions of many (all?) existing businesses. There is, however, a major hurdle to that innovation here in the US and many other parts of the world: the control of Apple and Google over their respective app stores.

Many people have pointed to the amazing commerce integrations in WeChat in China as an example of what can be done. What fewer have said though is that China does not have an app store duopoly. So WeChat has been free to innovate on commerce without having to live in the confines of what Apple or Google deem appropriate (and hence not in conflict with their own ambitions). As far as I can tell Chinese smartphones work just fine and any claim that centralized app stores are required for security or quality control is simply a pretense for wanting to extract more economics. The price of Chinese phones also does away with the claim that cross subsidization is required for adoption or phone innovation.

We have seen several attempts here in the US to use messengers and other apps to crack open the app store and they have all been shut down by Apple and Google. I think there is a potential anti-trust case to be made against the vertical integration between hardware and software distribution given the market shares of the two dominant players. Yes, eventually this will somehow go away but that could take decades and do we really want to wait that long to get the kind of mobile innovation China is already seeing?

It is worth remembering that we have been here before and that each time more competition wound up being better. We started online with dial-up bulletin boards. I remember logging many hours on these as a teen. Each one was different and there was a lot of innovation as there was no control. Then we had a centralized era with Compuserve and AOL which bundled a lot of services but essentially became gatekeepers. They were disrupted with the shift to the web which gave us a huge wave of innovation. Now the web is being hidden behind apps which have to go through gatekeepers (the app stores) and that is once again slowing down innovation. By now we should understand that pattern well enough to recognize it and do something about it.

PS Sorry for only having a few links in this but written on the run

SpaceX to Attempt First-Ever Ocean Barge Rocket Landing by The Planetary Society

This Friday, SpaceX will attempt what no agency or company has done before: land a used rocket stage on a floating ocean platform.

Review 2014: One Thing: Sarah Wilson. by Feeling Listless

The Law  Streetwise Law is a community based educational project that I set up in June 2014. It involves conducting workshops in schools and youth clubs teaching young people about various aspects of criminal law, such as stop and search, advice on communicating with the police, the powers of the police and the rights of the individual, joint enterprise and the implications of obtaining a criminal record.

I decided I wanted to become a lawyer after watching a Nelson Mandela documentary in 2003. I learned that Mandela had studied law in order to teach the township people their rights. That seemed to me to be an excellent reason for being a lawyer so that’s what I set out to do.

By the time I had qualified as a lawyer, some years later, and was busy representing multiple clients in court every day, I had almost forgotten the reason I decided to study law in the first place. But one day, when representing a number of clients in the youth court, the plan came back to me.

The youth court can be a depressing place. For most young people, the drudgery of waiting for hours to be seen in court, not improved by daytime TV blaring in the background, is a punishment itself. I always thought, what a waste; they should be somewhere else, doing something better than this. As a criminal defence lawyer although the job is fundamental in protecting the rights of an accused against the power of the state, when dealing with young offenders I often questioned whether there was not something more that could be done to prevent young people entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

It struck me that these young people, who were, due to a variety of reasons, susceptible to being drawn into interactions with the police and criminal activity, would benefit from having some criminal law education. Perhaps if they knew the law relating to some of the criminal offences, the risks and consequences of certain activities, what powers the police have, and what rights they have as individuals, this could help them make better decisions. It could prevent interactions with the police escalating, and for some of them, it might prevent them ending up in court at all. This is when the idea for Streetwise Law was born.

This summer, I contacted a number of youth organisations and started conducting workshops. In relation to stop and search I inform the young people that they don’t have to tell the police their name or other personal details if they are stopped and searched. On the contrary, the officer is obliged to tell you their name and the station where they are from. Although an officer does have the power to stop and search anyone, this power can only be exercised if they have a good reason to suspect that the person something has on them they shouldn’t. Wearing a hoodie for example, is not a good reason, nor is knowing that the person has been arrested before, or has previous convictions. The officer must tell the person they are stopping the grounds for searching them, what power they are using and that they are detaining them in order to search them. If they do not comply with these rules, it could be an unlawful search.

I also teach the young people that if they are in a group and some members of that group become involved in criminal activity, like robbery or fighting, they could also be implicated in those offences, under the ‘joint enterprise’ principle; a principle that disproportionately affects young males, who tend more than any other group, to hang around in large, disorderly groups. Simply being at the scene of a crime, without any active participation, is not enough to render someone guilty of that crime, but it could certainly be enough lead to an arrest and even being charged.

It’s also important to inform young people about the implications of having a criminal record. There is also a common misconception among young people that once you turn 18 your criminal record is wiped clean or that any convictions you get as a youth will not come up on a criminal record check. While it is true that ‘spent’ convictions should not come up on a standard criminal record check, an enhanced criminal record check, required by increasingly more employers, will lead to disclosure of all convictions, spent or otherwise, for ever.

All the schools and youth clubs I have contacted so far have been very keen to engage with the project and consider it very important for the young people to be informed about these issues. I am currently running the project alone but hope to expand the project in the future to include more people and more subject areas. I also hope to make some short films for the project with the assistance of the young people. Overall, the young people seem to benefit from learning the law and having the opportunity to speak to a lawyer about the profession and the criminal justice system, and I get to do what I set out to do – teach people their rights.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter @coolvibes77. Streetwise Law is @Streetwiselaw1.

Christmas Links #17 by Feeling Listless

The story of O Come All Ye Faithful:
"Howard Goodall investigates the history of the Christmas carol and meets Professor Bennett Zon to find out more in this clip from The Truth About Christmas Carols, originally broadcast on Christmas Day 2008."

Marvel At 75: Still Slinging Webs And Guarding Galaxies:
"To compete against DC Comics' new Superman character, what was then called Timely Publications began selling 10-cent magazines with the illustrated adventures of its own champs: Captain America (a superhuman soldier), the Human Torch (a test-tube created android created who would catch fire around oxygen), and the Sub-Mariner (an undersea prince who hated humans)."

Japan's Beloved Christmas Cake Isn't About Christmas At All:
"Only about 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian. But you might not realize that if you visited a major metropolitan area during Christmas time. Just like in America, you'll find heads topped with red Santa hats everywhere and elaborate seasonal displays: train sets, mountain scenes and snow-covered trees. Often, these are set inside of bakeries hawking one of the highlights of the holiday season in Japan: Christmas cake."

A Scandalous Makeover at Chartres:
"Carried away by the splendors of the moment, I did not initially realize that something was very wrong. I had noticed the floor-to-ceiling scrim-covered scaffolding near the crossing of the nave and transepts, but had assumed it was routine maintenance. But my more attentive wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter—who as a Columbia doctoral candidate took courses on Romanesque sculpture with the legendary Meyer Schapiro and Gothic architecture with the great medievalist Robert Branner—immediately noticed that large areas of the sanctuary’s deep gray limestone surface had been painted."

Yes, Virginia, Mariah Carey Can Sing:
"Rumors of Mariah Carey's demise have been greatly exaggerated, she proved last night during the first of six sold-out, Christmas-themed concerts at New York's Beacon Theater. For much of the show, she was in as good of a voice as you could expect from a diva who's in her 25th year of wailing for the public's consumption."

Christmas crafts at National Museums Liverpool:
"Travel back in time and find out what Christmas time was like during the First World War. The Museum of Liverpool is holding a Wartime Christmas event to go with the exhibition First World War: reflecting on Liverpool's Home Front. Visitors can join us for talks, handle objects from our collections and craft activities."

December 16, 2014

Like A Bad Penny: Methane on Mars by The Planetary Society

With the announcement of Curiosity's detection of methane on Mars, Nicholas Heavens gives us a guide to the history of methane detection on Mars, a discussion of its scientific significance, and a few things to consider when hearing about and asking about the detection.

Review 2014: One Thing: Liz Lockhart. by Feeling Listless

From Write-Off to Writer: How 2014 Changed My Life

Life  Several years ago, when I was a penniless student (as opposed to a penniless graduate with a mountain of student debt), I took part in an English Lit class led by none other than Germaine Greer. Memories work in mysterious ways – I’m afraid I can’t for the life of me recall now what the class was about, but what I do remember vividly is an off-the-cuff remark Greer made. She argued that the adjective “life-changing” has completely lost its power because it’s so overused in popular culture.

She certainly has a point. The media harps on about “life-changing” events that are anything but. Similarly, advertisers are quick to promise us that everything from toasters to anti-aging creams are “revolutionary” products that we can’t do without. And perhaps you, like me, reach for the mute button when reality TV show contestants bang on about their “dreams” and “journeys”. We’ve heard it all before. It’s clichéd.

But then again, a cliché wouldn’t be a cliché if it wasn’t sometimes true. I’ve come to the conclusion that this year, more than any other, has in fact changed my life. Heck, why not take a couple of clichéd phrases, throw in the adverb we all love to hate and say, “At the end of the day, 2014 has literally been life-changing”? In 12 months I’ve turned my world upside down (another phrase we hear too often) to become a writer.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write for a living. We didn’t have a computer when I was a kid, just a temperamental electronic typewriter (Let’s just say that Dad’s never wholeheartedly embraced technology. He only agreed to buy a colour telly about twenty years after everyone else, when I was three and Mum was complaining that I’d never learn about the different colours the Play School presenters kept talking about if everything on the screen looked greyish. Even then Dad couldn’t be persuaded to buy a TV with that new-fangled invention, the remote control.) I used to type scripts for EastEnders (as a hobby – I was neither a child prodigy nor on the soap’s payroll, sadly). My Gran and I would do kitchen table read-throughs of each script (I’d play Angie, she’d play Pat). I took it all a bit too seriously, even asking Gran to time the scenes so that we’d know whether I’d written enough for an episode.

A few years later (in the days when people still sent letters instead of squeezing everything into 140 characters), I wrote to an EastEnders scriptwriter, Christopher Reason. He kindly sent me a very helpful, thoughtful reply full of good advice. He also gently pointed out that twelve was too young to launch a scriptwriting career, no matter how keen I was… Hopes of writing a Hollywood blockbuster would have to wait.

Funnily enough, all the big ideas I had back then didn’t take into account the need to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table. By the time I was all grown-up, I found I didn’t have much spare time for creative writing anymore. I took a series of office jobs to pay the bills and, after a few years, became pretty depressed. At the back of my mind was a niggling worry that I’d ended up on the wrong track somehow and was in danger of letting my ambitions be written-off. I started to lose hope that I’d ever be able to make a career out of scriptwriting.

That was my frame of mind in January this year. I desperately wanted to make a go of scriptwriting, but didn’t know where to start. How could I balance a demanding full-time job with learning about the art of creating a decent script? I didn’t have the time, money or energy to take a scriptwriting MA, so surely the life of a writer was not open to me.

Little did I know that 2014’s life-changing superpowers would soon kick-in.

When my family suggested that I look for a part-time scriptwriting course, I was adamant that there would be nothing suitable out there. I consulted Google in an effort to prove to them that no such thing existed.

Me: Look, these search results prove it: there are NO scriptwriting courses that don’t involve studying full-time and racking up humungous fees!

Mum: Well, what about that one there?

I squinted at the screen.

Mum: Evening classes, designed to fit around the demands of your day job. That’s what it says.

My jaw dropped.

To cut a long story short (which is kind of what scriptwriting is about), I’d soon signed up to City Academy’s scriptwriting evening classes for beginners. And what fantabulous (yes, I thought I’d made it up too, but it’s actually a proper word) classes they turned out to be. In short, they made it clear that you don’t need to lock yourself away in a garret and wait for your muse in order to write for a living.

To ease everyone’s nerves during the first class, the tutor asked us to scribble down the most toe-curlingly awful dialogue we could think of. Stilted pleasantries, meandering conversations and heated debates about cheese sandwiches were the order of the day. When we read those scenes aloud to each other, though, something funny happened – literally. What we’d initially thought of as awful made us all laugh. Not award-winning comedy material, of course, but not completely without merit either.

The golden rule, the tutor pointed out, is that there’s no such thing as “bad” writing – just don’t expect perfection first time round. This gave everyone in the class a real sense of creative freedom – something that I’d previously assumed could only be gained from several months spent backpacking far, far away in order to “find yourself”.

That’s not to say that the classes were plain-sailing. I often worked late in my office and so would usually miss the first part of each class, and it was difficult to concentrate or keep my eyes open after a day of admin and meetings. What’s more, it wasn’t love at first sight between me and this proper, grown-up scriptwriting malarkey, with all its rules and strict format. If your dialogue isn’t positioned in exactly the right spot on the page, for example, your script won’t be taken seriously by the industry. I had (and still have) doubts about whether I’ve got what it takes to write a compelling script – the process of creating convincing plots, characters and dialogue is undoubtedly lengthy and challenging.

But by the third or fourth class, something in my head clicked into place. I started to understand what makes scriptwriting addictive and satisfying for many professional writers.

The Eureka moment came when we were each asked to read aloud some short scenes we’d written and the tutor suggested minor adjustments to them. I discovered that something as small as changing a word or adding a full stop can alter the whole meaning of a scene, giving your script greater depth and clarity. Writing a script is rather like writing a poem, in that respect – economical use of language is essential. You have to keep pushing yourself to say more with less and always show, never tell.

By the middle of my second scriptwriting course (more evening classes, held at Sadler’s Wells, no less), I knew that not only was scriptwriting a passion, I was starting to think of it seriously as a career option. Was I brave enough to take the plunge and try to make a living as Writer of Scripts and Random Stuff (ooh, elegant job title)?

By my 29th birthday in April, I’d made up my mind. I was going to take a risk and go for it: I resigned from my office job. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, and it was with regret that I said goodbye to a lively, warm-hearted group of colleagues – not to mention a regular income. There were other drawbacks too: over the next few months, I had to give up my flat, the ability to meet up with some of my closest friends regularly, and the pleasure of living close to all of the art and culture that London has to offer. By the end of the summer, I’d cleared my desk, packed my bags and disappeared off to the middle of nowhere (where the air is cleaner and the rent cheaper!).

I also changed my name, choosing to call myself Liz Lockhart, having decided that alliteration is where it’s at if I want a memorable pen name. I now share my Gran’s name – as a tribute to the person who helped me to take my first steps in scriptwriting.

Looking ahead to 2015 and (shock, horror!) the start of my thirties, I know two things for sure:

1. I will start lying shamelessly about my age;

2. I will try my hardest to produce good scripts for good people, even if I don’t end up with a shelf full of awards or my own production company.

If you’re reading this article on New Year’s Day 2015, worrying that what you want most in life will forever be out of your reach, don’t give up hope. What’s happened to me this year shows that you don’t have to write-off your ambitions – you just need to be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone in order to fulfil them.

You can follow Liz on Twitter @LizLockhart1985.

Soup Safari #12: Chorizo, Apple and Leek at Cafe Tabac. by Feeling Listless

Lunch. £4.00. 126 Bold Street, Merseyside, Liverpool, Liverpool, Merseyside L1 4JA. Phone:0151 709 9502.

Soup Safari #11: Parsnip at Manchester's Christmas Markets. by Feeling Listless

Lunch.  £2.95. Lancashire Hot Pot stall (owned by Manchester Central Convention Complex), Manchester Christmas Markets, Albert Square, Manchester, M60.

Christmas Links #16 by Feeling Listless

How I made: Raymond Briggs on Father Christmas:
"I’ve always enjoyed taking something that’s fantasy – like a bogeyman or Father Christmas – and imagining it as wholly real. Take Father Christmas. What do we know about him? Well, he’s got a white beard, so he must be quite old. He’s rather fat, so he probably likes his food. He’s got a red face and a red nose, so he probably likes his drink. And he’s been doing this dreadful job for donkey’s years: going out all night long, in all weathers. He’s sick to the back teeth of it: who wouldn’t be? So it follows, naturally, that he’s going to be grumpy."

Cats vs. Christmas Trees:
"A compilation of cats destroying Christmas trees."

Gia Giudice's Girl Group Releases the 'Friday' of Christmas Songs:
"Everything feels so riiiiiggght! It's the seeeason of joooyyyy!"

Christmas with Chinese characteristics:
"Cities across China blink with fairy lights, fancy hotels flaunt trees and tinsel, and glossy magazine covers display festive recipes and table settings. “Joy up!” reads a sign (in English) on three illuminated trees by a shopping mall in Beijing. The Chinese are doing just that."

Prose Poetry 2.0: A Video Essay about Video Essays:
"As part of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Groningen"

Jilted girlfriend given a Christmas to remember:
"Until a few days ago, 23-year-old Zascha Friis from High Wycombe was facing a very lonely Christmas. The Danish nanny and part-time student had just broken up with her boyfriend and couldn't afford the £350 flight home to Denmark to spend it with her family."

Review 2014: One Thing: Kevin Anderson. by Feeling Listless

Life I have friends whose identity is tied up in the fact that they live on the bleeding edge of technology. They always have the latest gadget. Their lives are one continuous upgrade cycle.

While I have plenty of very modern technology lying around the house, my relationship with technology is quite different than these upgrade addicts. I savour the challenge of getting the most out of tech well past its due by date. I keep technology long after most people relegate it to the back of their cable cupboard or flog them on eBay, and because I end up using this kit for years, I develop a relationship with my most beloved bits of tech. Besides, sufficiently old tech develops a kind of personality, certain quirks or, let’s be honest, faults that feed the human compulsion to anthropomorphise.

In August, I opened a personal time capsule full of things I hadn't seen it in nearly a decade, since I moved from the US to the UK. Scattered amongst the books, CDs, bookcases and my bicycle were aged and obsolete tech bits and bobs, including one of my most beloved antiques - a vintage Mac SE/30, and I very much hoped that it had survived its long period of hibernation.

In 2005, I moved to London on what I thought would be a year long attachment from my job as the Washington correspondent for what was then called BBC News Online. I put all of my worldly belongings - not much to be honest - in a five by ten foot storage locker in suburban Maryland. That was more than nine years ago, and it was only this August that I finally liberated everything I had stored there.

In it, I found an old TV monitor, a six-head Toshiba VCR, an Onkyo turntable and my Mac SE/30. The TV monitor is in the garage waiting to be recycled. Neither the turntable nor the VCR work, but I didn't even wait until I got to my new home to see if the Mac was still with us. On a stopover at my parents, I took it out from the moving van. After nearly a decade in storage, it fired up without a hitch. It did take a little more effort to keep it working reliably, but now it's back in fine fettle.

The story of my Mac begins in the student computer labs at the University of Illinois. I first got onto the internet on a Mac SE/30 and wrote many of my college papers on it. But I never owned one. They sold for thousands of dollars then, and while the stars in media make hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars, and that was well beyond the budget of a journeyman journalist.

Six or seven years later, I had moved to Washington DC to work for the BBC. For some reason, someone left an orphaned Mac on my back porch, a Mac SE. It started up, but flashed the missing disk drive sign. After a little research online, I found that that the recommended repair for the Sony hard drive in it was to remove it from the computer, hold it about three or four feet off the ground and drop it. I am not kidding. The logic of this repair was that the drive would seize up, something called stiction, and the drop was just enough force to free up the drive mechanism. It was good advice, and once I put the drive back in the Mac, it started up much to my surprise although it didn’t generate a lot of faith in its longevity.

I gave that computer – with a new hard drive – to a friend, but then I wanted one of my own, and for my 30th birthday, I found a Mac SE/30 on eBay not for thousands of dollars but for about $30, not including shipping. This one came in a lovely carrying bag. It was a luggable and had been used by someone who worked for an insurance company who schlepped it from client to client. It's hard to believe that this is what passed for a portable computer back in the day. It weighs something like 8.8 kg.

You might wonder why I have such affection for a computer that has hopelessly out-of-date versions of modern software – Photoshop, Word and even WordPerfect. For one, I love writing on it. The keyboard is one of the old mechanical types that gives off a solid thunk when you hit the keys. The old word processing apps - Microsoft Word 5 for the Mac and WordPerfect 3.5 - are a joy to use. They do just about everything you'd want without a lot of the useless features that have crept in over the years.

More than that, I love writing on my Mac because there are far fewer distractions. I don't have message, email or Twitter notifications popping up to break my flow as I do on my MacBook Pro, and the nine-inch black and white screen draws me in. There isn’t enough screen real estate or enough computing power to have six or seven apps open that I can obsessively tab through. It is online, but opening a modern web page is glacial so there isn’t much temptation to nip off and check my email or do some online Christmas shopping.

But it’s more than that. From the first time I used one more than two decades ago up until now, I find something incredibly intimate about this little computer. From the moment the old smiling Mac icon pops up on the screen, it really does feel like a personal computer. Long before Siri was on the scene, Steve Jobs and his team could trick you into feeling that technology had a personality bordering on humanity.

That is a real achievement. Most technology is utilitarian. They are tools we use, but even amongst all of my devices, I never developed the kind of relationship I have with this old Mac, and it has been great to rekindle my friendship with this tiny, luggable, huggable computer.

You can follow Kevin in Twitter @kevglobal.

December 15, 2014

The Films I've Watched This Year #47 by Feeling Listless

Film Attachments isn't available other than through about ten episodes released on VHS over a decade ago. I never did track down Midsummer Dream or the short film Running for River. But apart from that #garaiwatch is done, completed, finish and until Suffragette is released, as I sit down to watch a film or some television it will be with the disappointment of knowing that Romola does not feature somewhere.  I'm hoping to go and see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies tomorrow.  I'm almost expecting her wander through playing an Elf.  Was it worth it?  It's fair to say that without her participation I may not have made time for Words of the Blitz in which she quotes, like the other participants directly to camera, from the diaries of a survivor Joan Wyndham, whose vivid descriptions of trying to maintain some semblance of a normal existence amid the bombs, really underscored for me just how important life is and why you should make the most of it.  Or the fascinating Russia's Lost Princesses (a rare voice over).  So yes, if only for those, yes it has been worth it.

Blitz was broadcast in 2010, right between Emma, which was covered last time and The Crimson Petal and the White, the 2011 BBC adaptation of Michael Faber's 2002 which isn't easy to love.  Garai is a Victorian prostitute who takes advantage of the attentions of an industrialist, a gloriously serpentine Chris O'Dowd, in order to shift herself from the squalor of the Dickensian undercity.  However extraordinary the performances, and Romola's pretty much a cameleon here in a role entirely unlike anything she'd done until that point, and how, I felt a tension in the adaptor not quite being sure whose story is being told or how to structure it.  Glancing at a synopsis of the book just now, I can see that it's more about the parallel stories of the two women in O'Dowd's character's life, the other being his frail wife.  Perhaps it might have benefited from giving just one of them the majority of the agency.  On the upside, it means Romola can add to theoretically non-canonical Doctors, Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who night sketch) and REG (Shalka) to her tally.

Of course, The Hour adds a whole bonafide, unarguable Doctor in her soon to be predecessor in the role Peter Capaldi.  One of the great tragedies of The Hour, other than the BBC's unwillingness to have everyone back for a couple more so they could resolve some of the storylines, is that it didn't manage to properly find an audience.  Like Party Animals and the like before it, this was British television attempting to offer something other than the same old tired genres, succeeding brilliantly but not finding enough viewers interested in watching this kind of drama to justify its existence.  At which point the very viewers who failed to watch it then complain about seeing the same old tired genres.  The second series isn't quite as good as the first to be fair, not managing to deal with shifting from what's a perfectly structured personal storyline in the first series to a moral crusade in the second.  None of which stops me from hoping Abi Morgan takes over as Doctor Who show runner in the future, not that she'd probably want to bother with it.

Garai's final, up to date credit on the imdb is for last year's drama contribution to the BBC's Cold War season Legacy in which she's  a spy who ultimately has little to do with the main plot other than provide the protagonist with some unrequited romantic interest and drive him around for a bit.  As I said last year, it's "like an episode of Spooks in which Harry's entered a coma and woken up in 1974 ala Life on Mars", not entirely unwatchable but mostly a reminder of when television used to broadcast this sort of play every week before deciding that if they were going to build all the sets they might as well get six episodes out of them, that working until the viewers lost interest anyway (see above).  On reflection, there's nothing about this which couldn't interestingly be turned into a series as well if the BBC had a mind to.  Which they don't lately (again see above).  Beyond this, Suffragette is in post-production as is Dominion, a $5m b/w, shot in Canada and Garai's been in New York on stage in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink.

Which isn't where I stopped.  For the last couple of nights I went right back to the beginning of her screen career.  In the 2001 ITV drama, Perfect, Romola's adopted daughter goes in search of her mother only to find that she's Michelle Collins, a serial bigamist (yes, indeed).  Adapted from her own novel by Susan Oudot, it's about as early 00s as an ITV drama can be with contemporary musical cues borrowed from Cold Feet, Cathy Tyson as Collins's best friend and Barbara Flynn as Romola's adoptive mother.  It's quite a shock to see Romola wearing what would have been contemporary clothes for the time, black faux-goth t-shirts and denim skirts.  With the exception of Inside I'm Dancing, she wouldn't be seen in contemporary clothing on screen for most of the rest of her career.  Perhaps of most interest is how the tabloid journalists are portrayed in the scenes after the secret is out, prying and prowling, the drama suggesting this to be the norm, even though in reality they're simply turning ordinary people's lives into entertainment to fill the gaps between adverts.

Then I ended this escapade where she began in The Last of the Blonde Bombshells as the young Dame Judi Dench in flashbacks which reflect on her time in a jazz band during World War II, performing in just the sort of clubs Joan Wyndham refers to in the extracts Romola reads in Words of the Blitz.  Written by Alan Plater, directed by Gilles MacKinnon, the production design is from Michael Pickwoad, who currently fills that role on Doctor Who including the current TARDIS set.  It's a really charming old fashioned story about getting the band back together, with Ian Holm as the love interest and Leslie Caron, Olympia Dukakis, Cleo Laine, Billie Whitelaw, Joan Sims and June Whitfield as the "girls".  In other words if Romola was going to have an eye catching start to her screen career it would be this and although there's no sign that she even met any of the older cast members, she does at least get to keep her own voice.  Grant Ibbs who plays Ian Holm's younger self is ADRed over by the older actor.

Having You
Babysitting (short)
Whitelands (short)

Garai's current penultimate screen credit, Having You sees her in the familiar spot of the fiance of the protagonist in this case Andrew Buchanan's Jack, who discovers after eight years that his drunken one night stand with Anna Friel begat a son, which is complicated because it was a year after he'd begun his current relationship.  Directed by otherwise actor Sam Hoare (who played Douglas Camfield in An Adventure in Space and Time) (pretty much everything Romola's been in it seems has some Who connection it seems) (I'm going to be checking this now aren't I?) who also lensed the Garai starring short Babysitting (poor dog) its the sort of thing which would probably have been an itv drama in the early 00s with its tonally awkward lurches between middle class lounge comedy and harsh mellodrama, notably in the form of Phil Davis as the disappointed father who feels like he's wandered in from a 90s Mike Leigh film.  Not unenjoyable but feels dated, especially its gender politics for reasons too spoilery to explain and in a way Whitelands manages to avoid.

Characterizing Cepheid Light Curves by Astrobites

Authors: L. Inno et al.

Institution of First Author: Department of Physics, University of Rome Tor Vergata

The Cosmic Distance Ladder

Distance is a tricky thing to measure in astronomy. We can’t use tape measures or rulers, and even more sophisticated methods like laser ranging are only good for the very nearest of neighbors, like the moon. To figure out how far away other astrophysical objects are, astronomers use the cosmic distance ladder. The cosmic distance ladder starts with objects that are close enough for us to get direct measures on their distance (usually though parallax) and then uses those fundamental distances to calibrate the distance farther out. Each successive measurement of distance from a new phenomena builds upon the measurements before it, hence the name. One type of distance indicator we use are standard candles (there are ‘standard rulers’ as well, but those are less common). Standard candles have a known intrinsic luminosity, so we can determine their distances from how bright we observe them to be.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Cepheids, which have been previously been mentioned in several astrobites, are stars that vary in magnitude in a periodic fashion. Cepheid luminosities are proportional to the lengths of their periods, something known as the period-luminosity relation (first discovered by the brilliant Henrietta Leavitt while she was working as a human “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory), which makes them good standard candles. Since an object’s brightness depends on its distance from us, we can generally only measure intrinsic luminosities if we know how far away it is. With Cepheids, however, we can measure their periods to determine their intrinsic luminosities, and from there determine their distances. They are also especially important because they are one of the first “rungs” in the cosmic distance ladder.

Figure 1: This is figure 5 from Madore & Freedman 1991. It shows the variations in the amplitude and the phase at which the Cepheid reaches maximum light across many different bands. The top light curves are at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths, and the bottom few in red and near-infrared, out to 2.2 microns for the K band. Note the distinctive 'sawtooth' shape in the shorter wavelengths, which becomes more sinusoidal at longer wavelengths.

Figure 1: This is figure 5 from Madore & Freedman 1991. It shows the variations in the amplitude and the phase at which the Cepheid reaches maximum light across many different bands. The top light curves are at ultraviolet and optical wavelengths, and the bottom few in red and near-infrared, out to 2.2 microns for the K band. Note the distinctive ‘sawtooth’ shape in the shorter wavelengths, which becomes more sinusoidal at longer wavelengths.

Characterizing Cepheids

Measuring the mean magnitude or period of a Cepheid, however, can be a pretty demanding task in its own right. A Cepheid’s light curve looks different in different wavelengths (as shown in Figure 1, taken from Madore and Freedman 1991). The shorter-wavelength bands like the B and V-bands have light curves with larger amplitudes of variation and more asymmetry than the light curves in longer-wavelength near-infrared bands like J, H, and K. This makes it easier to detect and characterize the Cepheids in the B and V bands, but harder to accurately determine the mean magnitude of a Cepheid in those wavelengths, since we have to know accurately what phase of the light curve we are observing in order to get a good measurement of the mean magnitude. In practice, we often want to use measure the periods using light curves from shorter wavelengths and measure the mean magnitudes using light curves from longer wavelengths.

Figure 1: Figure 4 from the paper, showing the merged Cepheid light curves and templates in ten period bins for fundamental mode Cepheids (Cepheids that pulse without any stationary radial 'nodes'). The P refers to the range in period in days and J, H, and K are three wavelength bands, with K, the longest, at 2.2 microns. The green line indicates the multi Gaussian templates and the red line the Fourier series templates.

Figure 1: Figure 4 from the paper, showing the merged Cepheid light curves and templates in ten period bins for fundamental mode Cepheids (Cepheids that pulse without any stationary radial ‘nodes’). The P refers to the range in period in days and J, H, and K are three wavelength bands, with K, the longest, at 2.2 microns. The green line indicates the multi Gaussian templates and the red line the Fourier series templates.

Near infrared (NIR) observations, however, are costlier than optical observations because it is more difficult to remove the background sky from NIR observations and because the camera technology is not as advanced in the infrared as it is in the optical. As a result, we have fewer observations of Cepheids in those wavelengths. This is where light curve templates can help us. We’ve already mentioned that a there’s a relationship between a Cepheid’s period and luminosity, but the shape of a Cepheid light curve is also related to its period. By putting together observations of many Cepheids, we can create template light curves that accurately predict the shape of a Cepheid’s light curve for a given period and in a given wavelength. Then, using the templates, we can get an estimate of a Cepheid’s mean magnitude in the NIR with just one observation.

New NIR Light Curve Templates

Figure 2: Figure 11 from the paper. Delta J is the difference in the J-band between the true mean magnitude and the and the mean magnitude computed using the J-band templates. A single phase point was selected from the light curve and then the template was applied to get the computed J-band magnitude, where F7 and G3 stand for the fits using Fourier series and multi-Gaussian periodic functions. The S05 refers to the templates from a set of NIR templates from 2005. Both the delta J magnitudes calculated with the F7 and the G3 templates have a mean of zero (less than 0.001 mag), whereas the S05 templates have a mean of about 0.001 mag, but suffer from non-symmetric, phase-dependent residuals not present in the former two.

Figure 3: Figure 11 from the paper, which shows the improvements in the residuals of their templates (red and green) over older NIR templates (blue). Delta J is the difference in the J-band between the true mean magnitude and the and the mean magnitude computed using the J-band templates and a single mock observation. The red and green indicate the different fit functions they used for their templates while the blue points are residuals from a set of NIR templates from 2005. The bin numbers just indicate the period duration they tested. The red and green points have a mean of zero (less than 0.001 mag) and uncorrelated residuals, whereas the blue points have a mean of about 0.001 mag and suffer from non-symmetric, phase-dependent residuals not present in the former two.

The authors of today’s paper have created new NIR Cepheid light curve templates that can be used in helping us measure the magnitudes, and thus, distances to Cepheids much more accurately. The templates cover a wide range of periods – from 1 to 100 days – and are based on a sample of 200 Cepheids (over 3 times the number used previously in making NIR templates).

Traditionally, the periods have been measured from the maximum of one period to the maximum of the next, but this can introduce significant errors for Cepheids whose light curves look like they have double or flatter peaks (a result of the Hertzsprung Progression) because it is difficult to determine exactly when they are at maximum light. The authors of today’s paper take a different approach: they make use of the ‘sawtooth’ shape of the light curves (as seen in Figure 2), where the brightness of the star increases rapidly. Using this steep rise to anchor the period is more accurate than using the peak. This method also allowed the authors of today’s paper to eliminate the phase-dependent residuals present in previous templates. Finally, in addition to fitting the light curves with (a more commonly-used) seventh-order Fourier series, the authors also tried fits using multiple period Gaussians. The period Gaussian functions allow them to get good fits with fewer parameters (from 15 to 9) and to be less sensitive to spurious features in the data.

Upon applying their NIR templates to a single NIR observation, the authors are able to provide mean magnitudes that are 80% more accurate than a mean magnitude estimated from just one data point. This brings the average error in magnitude to less than 0.02 mag. This error is less than the intrinsic scatter of the period-luminosity relation, so it means that these templates allow the mean magnitude of a Cepheid to be measured to the precision limit with just one NIR observation. The results of this paper will bring us closer than ever to accurate determinations of distance.

Reporting from the 2014 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union by The Planetary Society

In San Francisco, in an annual tradition, more than 20,000 geologists are descending on the Moscone Center. I'll be attending #AGU14 this week, but you can also watch press briefings and many of the sessions online.

Bitcoin: Clarifying the Foundational Innovation of the Blockchain by Albert Wenger

There is a confusion about Bitcoin that trips up a lots of people when they first learn about it: the blockchain is organizationally decentralized but logically centralized! What does this mean? Here is a 2 x 2 matrix that should help:

                organizationally       organizationally
                centralized              decentralized
logically           eg                      *new*
centralized       Paypal                   Bitcoin

logically           eg                      eg
decentralized    Excel                  e-mail

The “organizationally centralized” column on the left contains systems that are controlled by a single organization (EBay and Microsoft in the examples, but this doesn’t need to be a corporation, it could also be a government). Conversely the “organizationally decentralized” column on the right contains systems that are not under the control of any one entity whether for profit or otherwise.

The “logically decentralized” row at the bottom contains systems that have multiple databases and in which participant controls their own database entirely. For instance, when you send me an Excel file and I now work on that on my machine I only make changes to my copy. You and I can work on entirely different Excel files without them ever being connected to each other. Even with email we each control our separate databases. For instance, I can delete a message that you sent me and that doesn’t delete it in your “sent” box.

Conversely the “logically centralized” row on top contains systems that appear as if they have a single global database. I say “appear” because technologically there could be many separate database systems involved. What “logically centralized” means is simply that anyone in the world gets the same answer when querying the system.

The important innovation provided by the blockchain is that it makes the top right quadrant possible. We already had the top left. Paypal for instance maintains a logically centralized database for its payments infrastructure. When I pay someone on Paypal their account is credited and mine is debited. But up until now all such systems had to be controlled by a single organization.

Let me repeat that again for emphasis: before the blockchain’s existence there were *no* systems that were organizationally decentralized, yet logically centralized. This is why Bitcoin is such a foundational technology. When I send Bitcoin to someone then both the debit and the credit are recorded in the blockchain even though that database is not controlled by one organization. As it turns out, this means that many other applications that require a single global database can now be created on top of the Blockchain Application Stack.

Flying Free: A Supermassive Black Hole Kicked Out Of Its Galaxy by Astrobites

Authors: Michael Koss, Laura Blecha, Richard Mushotzky, Chao Ling Hung, Sylvain Veilleux, Benny Trakhtenbrot, Kevin Schawinski, Daniel Stern, Nathan Smith, Yanxia Li, Allison Man, Alexei V. Filippenko, Jon C. Mauerhan, Kris Stanek, David Sanders
Title: SDSS1133: An Unusually Persistent Transient in a Nearby Dwarf Galaxy
First Author’s Institution: ETH Zurich

The space between galaxies, long thought to be a  near empty void, is now rapidly being revealed to be home to a host of astronomical phenomena. We’ve seen stars flying free of their galaxies, and discovered that the Universe is built on a cosmic web  of dark matter. Now astronomers may have added a new type of intergalactic resident to the list: a super-massive black hole, a million times the mass of the Sun, kicked out from its home galaxy.

The search for such evicted black holes was prompted by the budding field studying gravitational waves, ripples in space time caused by the interactions of massive objects. Some theories suggested that in a merger between two super massive black holes, which are thought to be present at the core of most, if not all, galaxies, the resulting gravitational waves would carry away some of the momentum in the collision. If this caused the remaining momentum to be asymmetric, the newly merged black hole could be given a “kick,” a substantial increase in speed in one direction. Depending on the mass of the host galaxy, this could be enough to throw the black hole out into intergalactic space.

The immense gravity of the black hole means that it would carry with it an accretion disc of gas and dust. As the material in the disc fell on to the black hole, the released energy would shine out across a huge wavelength range. This means that, if the gravitational wave theories are correct, we should be able to observe such objects from the Earth.

However so far, with the exception of a few tentative candidates,  the search for escaped black holes has drawn a blank. The authors of this paper think they may have finally found one.


Top: The candidate escaped back hole, SDSS1133, and its host galaxy, Mrk 177, observed in two different telescope filters. Bottom: A close up of the centre of Mrk 177, with signs of two separate cores created in the events leading up to the expulsion of the black hole.

The authors concentrated their search around dwarf galaxies, as the lower mass of the galaxy should make it easier for a black hole to escape to an observable distance. Their candidate ejected black hole is a bright point of light known as SDSS1133, which sits about two and a half thousand light years from a nearby dwarf galaxy, Mrk 117. This had been observed before now, but, thanks to a non detection in 2005, had been classified as a supernova.

To show that this diagnosis was incorrect and that SDSS1133 was actually escaped black hole, the authors amassed a host of observations stretching back as far as 1950. Combining them with their own data allowed them to see how the brightness of SDSS1133 had changed over the past 63 years. Whereas a supernova should quickly fade away, SDSS1133 had stayed bright for all of that time- in fact it had even got brighter in some observations. The bright, near constant light from the object, which was constrained to an area no larger than a few tens of light years, was entirely consistent with SDSS1133 being an escaped black hole, together with its accretion disc.

In addition to the half-century’s worth of images, the authors also took several spectra of the object. Using Keck, one of the largest telescopes in the world, they found a number of features that matched observation of black holes at the cores of many other galaxies. Emission lines from super-hot iron and calcium matched what was expected from an active black hole, and the lack of features that would have been observed if stars had been present supported the idea that this particular black hole was alone in space.

More spectra of SD1133, obtained at different times over the past decade, could provide one final test. By measuring the width of the emission lines the authors could work out the Doppler shift of the material in the accretion disc, which is induced by the orbital velocity of the disc around the black hole. The orbital velocity is proportional to the mass of the back hole, so these measurements can be used to get a rough idea of that mass. If each spectrum had given a different result for the mass of the black hole then the hypotheses that this was a lone black hole would be in doubt. In the end, the answer came out the same each time- roughly one million times the mass of the Sun.

So have the authors found the first super massive black hole to be kicked out of its galaxy? The observations seem to match it, but there is another possible explanation. Giant stars known as luminous blue variable stars (LBVs), such as the famous Eta Carinae, share many similar observational properties with active back holes. If such a star had been ejected from Mrk 117, then exploded in a supernova, it could match all of the observations of SDSS1133. It would, however, be the longest-lived LBV known, with an unusually bright supernova finishing it off.

The authors conclude that, whilst SDSS1133 could be just an ejected LBV, the bulk of the evidence is in favour of it being the first discovery of a super massive back hole kicked out of its home galaxy. Continued observations of the object will be tested against predictions of how such lonely black holes should evolve, allowing astronomers to solve the mystery for good.

Christmas Links #15 by Feeling Listless

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: the thriving culture of pub Christmas carols:
"The carols in Lodge Moor are unaccompanied; everybody knows that. They might use an organ in Dungworth, a few miles away across the Rivelin valley. Other pubs a little further afield might have occasional brass or even string accompaniment. But here, in a handful of villages across a tiny stretch of countryside west of Sheffield, the festive carolling, fuelled by pints of ale, is to the sound of the human voice alone."

The first-ever oral history of Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album:
"I went in search of answers and spoke at length with Star Wars’ Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), co-producer/engineer Tony Bongiovi and composer Maury Yeston. Each man told me the same thing: I was the first person to interview them about this record in 34 years. From the mad disco money that made it all possible to George Lucas almost pulling the plug, CBC Music proudly presents the first-ever oral history of Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album."

Top 10 BMJ Christmas Papers:
"Every Christmas, the British Medical Journal publishes humorous scientific papers to bring some holiday cheer to their readers. So allow me to show you what science looks like with its hair down. Here are my top ten joke scientific articles from the BMJ."

Australians Offer To Travel To Work With People In Religious Attire Using #IllRideWithYou Hashtag:
"The terrible events in Sydney, where Martin Place was locked down after an armed man took hostages, have sparked a heartwarming reaction on social media."

"Christmas in Dublin during The Emergency - 28/12/1981"
"One woman's story of life at Christmas time during the Emergency in Dublin." From the RTE archive.

The Evolution of eInk by Jeff Atwood

Sure, smartphones and tablets get all the press, and deservedly so. But if you place the original mainstream eInk device from 2007, the Amazon Kindle, side by side with today's model, the evolution of eInk devices is just as striking.

Each of these devices has a 6 inch eInk screen. Beyond that they're worlds apart.

8" × 5.3" × 0.8"
10.2 oz
6.4" × 4.5" × 0.3"
6.3 oz
6" eInk display
167 PPI
4 level greyscale
6" eInk display
300 PPI
16 level greyscale
256 MB 4 GB
400 Mhz CPU 1 GHz CPU
$399 $199
7 days battery life
6 weeks battery life
WiFi / Cellular

They may seem awfully primitive compared to smartphones, but that's part of their charm – they are the scooter to the motorcycle of the smartphone. Nowhere near as versatile, but as a form of basic transportation, radically simpler, radically cheaper, and more durable. There's an object lesson here in stripping things away to get to the core.

eInk devices are also pleasant in a paradoxical way because they basically suck at everything that isn't reading. That doesn't sound like something you'd want, except when you notice you spend every fifth page switching back to Twitter or Facebook or Tinder or Snapchat or whatever. eInk devices let you tune out the world and truly immerse yourself in reading.

I believe in the broadest sense, bits > atoms. Sure, we'll always read on whatever device we happen to hold in our hands that can display words and paragraphs. And the advent of retina class devices sure made reading a heck of a lot more pleasant on tablets and smartphones.

But this idea of ultra-cheap, pervasive eInk reading devices eventually replacing those ultra-cheap, pervasive paperbacks I used to devour as a kid has great appeal to me. I can't let it go. Reading is Fundamental, man!

That's why I'm in this weird place where I will buy, sight unseen, every new Kindle eInk device. I wasn't quite crazy enough to buy the original Kindle (I mean, look at that thing) but I've owned every model since the third generation Kindle was introduced in 2010.

I've also been tracking the Kindle prices to see when they can get them down to $49 or lower. We're not quite there yet – the basic Kindle eInk reader, which by the way is still pretty darn amazing compared to that original 2007 model pictured above – is currently on sale for $59.

But this is mostly about their new flagship eInk device, the Kindle Voyage. Instead of being cheap, it's trying to be upscale. The absolute first thing you need to know is this is the first 300 PPI (aka "retina") eInk reader from Amazon. If you're familiar with the smartphone world before and after the iPhone 4, then you should already be lining up to own one of these.

When you experience 300 PPI in eInk, you really feel like you're looking at a high quality printed page rather than an array of RGB pixels. Yeah, it's still grayscale, but it is glorious. Here are some uncompressed screenshots I made from mine at native resolution.

Note that the real device is eInk, so there's a natural paper-like fuzziness that makes it seem even more high resolution than these raw bitmaps would indicate.

I finally have enough resolution to pick a thinner font than fat, sassy old Caecilia.

The backlight was new to the original Paperwhite, and it definitely had some teething pains. The third time's the charm; they've nailed the backlight aspect for improved overall contrast and night reading. The Voyage also adds an ambient light sensor so it automatically scales the backlight to anything from bright outdoors to a pitch-dark bedroom. It's like automatic night time headlights on a car – one less manual setting I have to deal with before I sit down and get to my reading. It's nice.

The Voyage also adds page turn buttons back into the mix, via pressure sensing zones on the left and right bezel. I'll admit I had some difficulty adjusting to these buttons, to the point that I wasn't sure I would, but I eventually did – and now I'm a convert. Not having to move your finger into the visible text on the page to advance, and being able to advance without moving your finger at all, just pushing it down slightly (which provides a little haptic buzz as a reward), does make for a more pleasant and efficient reading experience. But it is kind of subtle and it took me a fair number of page turns to get it down.

In my experience eInk devices are a bit more fragile than tablets and smartphones. So you'll want a case for automatic on/off and basic "throw it in my bag however" paperback book level protection. Unfortunately, the official Kindle Voyage case is a disaster. Don't buy it.

Previous Kindle cases were expensive, but they were actually very well designed. The Voyage case is expensive and just plain bad. Whoever came up with the idea of a weirdly foldable, floppy origami top opening case on a thing you expect to work like a typical side-opening book should be fired. I recommend something like this basic $14.99 case which works fine to trigger on/off and opens in the expected way.

It's not all sweetness and light, though. The typography issues that have plagued the Kindle are still present in full force. It doesn't personally bother me that much, but it is reasonable to expect more by now from a big company that ostensibly cares about reading. And has a giant budget with lots of smart people on its payroll.

If you've dabbled in the world of eInk, or you were just waiting for a best of breed device to jump in, the Kindle Voyage is easy to recommend. It's probably peak mainstream eInk. Would recommend, would buy again, will probably buy all future eInk models because I have an addiction. A reading addiction. Reading is fundamental. Oh, hey, $2.99 Kindle editions of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? Yes, please.

(At the risk of coming across as a total Amazon shill, I'll also mention that the new Amazon Family Sharing program is amazing and lets me and my wife finally share books made of bits in a sane way, the way we used to share regular books: by throwing them at each other in anger.)

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Astronomical Fashion & Design Gifts from Startorialist by Astrobites

For the past year, astronomers Summer Ash and Emily Rice have been scouring the web for all things space when it comes to clothes, accessories, and furnishings and posting them to their blog: Startoralist. They post about everything from astronaut nutcrackers to galaxy painted Doc Martins to nail polish inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson, but they especially try to highlight designs directly related to the Universe as we know, love, and study it.

We at Astrobites invited Summer to create a holiday gift guide for the stylish and savvy star-lovers in all our lives. Here are her top picks:

Snuggle up with your favorite planet in the comfort of your own bed with these Celestial Buddies.


There’s a moon and a comet but no Pluto. Sick burn.

When ever your data starts getting you down, punch the Universe back with amazing throw pillows by Dia Misuraca.


Cuddle up with NGC 2403.

What’s it like to eat dinner on Mars? We don’t know, but with these solar system plates you can at least eat dinner off of Mars.


Eat your astronaut ice cream in style.

Show your planet love on your feet with these socks from MoMA. Choice of Earth, Venus, or Jupiter.


Venus socks keep your feet toasty, but not at a realistic 450 C.

Prefer your socks to be a little bit out there? These universe socks should do the trick.


The average temperature of the universe is 2.73K. These socks will keep your feet warmer than that.

Cosmic Converse let you strut around and in the Universe at the same time!


This shoe runs half a size large. Perhaps because of inflation?

Pretty much everything from the Lost in Space Etsy store is amazing, but we especially love these “spacelet bracelets” (also customizable).


No word on if you can customize Pluto into a planetary bangle.

Portable and wearable telescope for the astronomer that is always observing.


Make sure you find some good dark sky.

Swatch watches inspired by the celestial sphere.


Accuracy may be relative.

Space up your daily look with these specialty hair bows.


These are also available as bow ties!

Or with these awesome scarves from Slow Factory featuring real NASA Images.


10% of your purchase goes to help refugee women in the Middle East.

While one Milky Way is high over your head, another can be hanging from your neck.


This original illustration is adapted from an 1822 star chart.

Let everyone know how “Hubble Gotchu” with this graphic print HST tee.


Hand screen-printed!

If you have any future plans of hitchhiking through the galaxy, you probably need one of these backpacks from SprialUK.


Shipping world-wide!

And if you really want to dress the part, you’ll need a proper “space suit” like these from ShadowplayNYC.


Shirt + scarf for your full-coverage nebula print needs.

Follow Startorialist for more amazing finds like these year-round on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Summer Ash is the Director of Outreach for Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy. She is also the “In-House Astrophysicist” for The Rachel Maddow Show and tweets as @Summer_Ash

December 14, 2014

Review 2014: One Thing: Annette Arrigucci. by Feeling Listless

Life The one thing everyone else should know about: Don’t worry so much.

And I know there is no shortage of things to worry about in the age of anxiety. 24-7 access to work email, text messages and an endless stream of tweets and Facebook posts form a slithering reptile of information that threatens to strangle me like a boa constrictor.

And this year I got engaged, which in theory should be joyous, but instead my inner worry demon has come out to play, with questions, such as: What if no one really *wants* to come to the wedding? How can a photographer possibly cost $3,000? Will I look fat in my dress? Why do roses have to cost double on Valentine’s Day? Pile onto that an impending cross-country move with my future husband and you can see why I’m a nervous wreck.

But at year’s end I have come to realize (again) that worrying is utterly useless. There is no use spending valuable mental energy worrying about things you have no real control over. And trying to live up to what you think other people expect is a losing game. Plan, yes, worry, no. The wedding is, in all likelihood, going to turn out OK. I know a few details will probably go wrong, but it will be a happy day because I and my fiancé make it so, no matter what my relatives, caterer, florist, cake baker, DJ or anyone else does. The same can be said for so much else in life – it’s time to live in the moment and enjoy it and deal with problems as they come, not stay up nights pondering nightmare scenarios that will probably never happen.

Anyway, here are the top 10 things that help me calm down when life has turned into an anxiety-filled mess:

  • Spend time with people. Face-to-face, not on Facebook. Most of the time I realize others have problems that are much greater than my own.
  • Write down at least three things I’m grateful for.
  • Read a book. Something about books encourages getting lost in them and forgetting yourself.
  • Find a charity to donate to. Here’s a worthy one:
  • Turn off the technology, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Cut off the text messages and stop checking email.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep makes everything seem worse the next day.
  • Cook something easy to make but healthy and delicious.
  • Pray and acknowledge your powerlessness to control things.
  • Go outside and look at something beautiful – a tree, a sunset, a mountain or a full moon. Do NOT post a picture on Instagram.
  • Take 10 deep breaths. Yes, 10. One is not enough.
Annette can be followed on Twitter @elpasoanne.

Christmas Links #14 by Feeling Listless

Hanukkah History: Those Chocolate Coins Were Once Real Tips:
"Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, starts on Tuesday night. But the flickering candles won't be the only things shining on the table. Many families celebrate with gelt, chocolate coins covered in gold and silver foil. But while this treat is beloved, it's not all that delicious."

Football gets in the festive spirit – in pictures!
"With just twelve days till Christmas there’s plenty of cheer around the grounds"

Parents angered by 'awful' Frozen party in Kilgetty:
"Parents said the room was too small, the advertised buffet consisted of crisps and a mini chocolate bar and the present from Santa was a 5p lolly."

You've been wrapping presents wrong this whole time:
"put down the scissors and let this employee at Takashimaya department store in Japan show you how it’s done, in just 12 seconds"

Christmas on the Bayou is Mardi Gras on water:
"Bayou Bernard and Gulfport Lake became a veritable winter water land Saturday night as a bevy beautifully decorated boats lined up for the annual Christmas on the Bayou parade."

Christmas Visitors (British Museum)
"Sheet of reproductions of drawings, 'La Pastorelle' in the centre with two men dancing in a ballroom, surrounded by eight other vignettes with individual titles"

11 DIY ornaments inspired by memes of 2014:
"The best part of the holiday season is enjoying a crafty afternoon decorating your Christmas tree with some homemade ornaments. But as much as you love stylish decor straight out of a Better Homes & Gardens spread, perhaps you're looking for some more niche DIY ideas to make your loved ones smile this year."

Happy Birthday Astrobites–a look back at our first four years by Astrobites

Yes, this cake is from 2011.  Is that too old to eat?

Yes, this cake is from 2011. Is that too old to eat?

November 29th, 2010 was the date when the concept of Astrobites was first discussed among a group of (then) first year astronomy graduate students at Harvard.  Over the next few weeks, our first several posts were published on the old version of our site.

In the four years since those days, we’ve published more than a thousand posts covering the latest research results in astronomy, news about our field, classic papers, our personal experiences as graduate students, our readers’ own research, and more.

First and foremost, we want to take this occasion to thank all the graduate student authors, guest posters, readers, and supporters that have made this long and continuing project possible.  We give a special thanks to the Harvard Department of Astronomy, the American Astronomical Society, and to our current and past webhosts (VoxCharta and Harvard Research Computing) for their support.  Perhaps most of all, we need to thank the hundreds of remarkable astronomers who have produced the original research that we have taken such pleasure in reporting on these past years.

But let’s also take this occasion to look back at how we’ve grown and evolved over the years, with congratulations to everyone involved as we continue our work together:

How we’ve grown

Not unlike a human child or a class II young stellar object, Astrobites has grown rapidly and substantially since its birth.  (Fortunately, the timescale for our growth is probably more like the human child.)

Principally, we’ve grown as a student organization.  From the seven Harvard students who started the site, we’ve grown to a collaboration of 62 students from around the world.  Our most recent class of authors, joining us this past October, numbers twelve strong and hail from Ohio to Zurich.


Of course, we’ve all each grown professionally in this time as well.  Not a few of us have graduated and taken up post-doctoral posts or found careers outside of academia.  You can read work by several of our alumns in Astronomy and Sky and Telescope Magazines, on Universe Today, FiveThirtyEight, and one of our own recently joined the AAS press office.

Map of astrobites readership by city from the month of November, 2014.

Map of astrobites readership by city from the month of November, 2014.

We’ve been delighted to see our vision for graduate student-led science communication projects pollinate and expand.  Sister sites to astrobites have popped up in other fields, such as Oceanbites, Chembites, and Particlebites.  The Communicating Science workshop series (ComSciCon) that several of our members founded in 2012 has flourished, with 9 national and local events around the country completed or announced.

Finally, it’s been a pleasure to serve, hear from, interact with, and learn about the readers who visit astrobites from around the world (four thousand per week according to our site analytics).  Our most recent readership survey shows us that about 20% of these readers are undergraduate students and 40% are graduate students, exactly the young scientists that we started astrobites to support as they begin their careers in research.  Indeed, 80% of our student readership is pursuing a career in research, while 20% are focused on other goals including outreach and education.

Somewhat to our surprise these past four years, our readership continues to be in no small part composed of non-students, including practicing researchers (12%), educators (6%), and astronomy enthusiasts (17%).  We’re glad that our work has broader impacts than to serve purely as an educational resource.

Your favorite posts

Kirit Karkare's route to the South Pole.  He cautions that the Mercator projection makes this route look more inefficient than it really is.

Kirit Karkare’s route to the South Pole. He cautions that the Mercator projection makes this route look more inefficient than it really is.

In our most recent reader survey, we asked you to tell us your favorite posts from our first thousand published on astrobites.  We’ll share a small selection of these here:

The five part personal research narrative and travelogue of Astrobites author Kirit Karkare on his way to work on BICEP2 at the South Pole remains a favorite.  Kirit’s gorgeous photographs from New Zealand and the Pole can’t hurt.

A number of international students wrote in thanks of Elisabeth Newton’s recent piece, Applying to grad school in the US: a timeline.  We certainly hoped this compendium of information would be invaluable for American undergraduates, but perhaps didn’t realize how especially scarce this information is to those seeking to come here from abroad.

Alice Olmstead clearly touched a nerve with her personal and heartfelt narrative of her decision to transition from a career in research to education.  One reader who wrote in called it “eye-opening.”

Another reader harked way back to one of my own favorite posts from our first year, A Day in the lives of astronomy grad students.  We featured a tableau of everyday stories from graduate students at universities around the world.  I think this remains one of the most realistic resources on the web for students trying to understand what it really means to be a scientist.

Several of you wrote in to highlight Yuan-Sen Ting’s brilliant guest series of astrophysical classics posts on Neutral Hydrogen in the Universe, featuring screenshots of Yuan-Sen’s interactive lyman alpha forest simulator that he later published through EdX.  Guest author Andrew Pontzen also published a great series of interactive cosmological simulations on our site.

Our favorite posts

Sukrit Ranjan boldly explores Mars, Utah.

Sukrit Ranjan boldly explores Mars, Utah.

Recently, we also asked Astrobites authors new and old to reflect back on their own favorite posts from the past several years.  Reflecting our authors’ varied interests, and the diverse subjects we’ve covered on the site over the years, these posts spanned the gamut of astrophysical research.

On the subject of galaxies, Chris Faesi highlighted his review of the relation between gas density and star formation rate and Anna Rosen picked her coverage of recent research in globular cluster dynamics.

In stellar astronomy, Elisa Chisari linked to her writing on the sun’s potential use as a gravitational wave detector and Meredith Rawls offered a look at some consequences of binary common envelope evolution.  Brett Deaton recently wrote about the beautiful imagery that would result from a binary black hole merger.

For the cosmologically minded reader, Andrew Emerick has covered hydrodynamic simulations of the universe and Josh Fuchs wrote about groundbreaking work on the use of white dwarfs as cosmic clocks.

Closer to home, Nick Ballering suggested his piece covering the new hypothesis on the formation mechanism for the dramatically different morphology between the near and far side of our own Moon.  Perhaps the most dynamic sub-field in astronomy over the years we’ve been writing has been exoplanets, and our extensive coverage (nearly 200 posts and counting)  has reflected this.  Ben Montet pointed to his excellent methodological review of how to model correlated noise, for example in exoplanet transit signals.

The oldest of this bunch was Sukrit Ranjan’s 2011 remembrance of his own journey to (an analog) Mars in 2011, which is just the second of three travelogue pieces we’ll list here.  The most recent was Ashley Villar’s piece from just last week, exploring new Kepler observations of the Blazhko effect in RR Lyrae variable stars.

The Internet’s favorite posts

A view from Adele Plunkett's tour of the ALMA facilty.

A view from Adele Plunkett’s tour of the ALMA facilty.

And just for fun, let’s look back at the most popular articles we’ve ever posted according to the all-seeing eye of Google Analytics:

  1. ALMA: An antenna array is a successful mix of apples and oranges by Adele Plunkett
  2. How to use SAO ds9 to examine astronomical images by Nathan Sanders
  3. What do we want graduate school to be? by the Astrobites collaboration
  4. The verbal GRE: dirty secrets on its role in grad school admission by Zachary Slepian
  5. Arecibo detects a fast radio burst by Yvette Cendes
  6. Installing and running Gadget-2 by Nathan Goldbaum
  7. The first discovery of a Thorne–Żytkow Object? by Yvette Cendes
  8. Kepler’s Habitable Worlds by Lauren Weiss
  9. Running your first SPH simulation by Nathan Goldbaum
  10. The Impossible Star by Korey Haynes

Each of these has received more than 9,000 unique visitors since we started tracking in September, 2011.  For context, the American Astronomical Society has a total membership of 7,000 (with about half that being active participants at meetings, etc.) and astronomy papers typically receive <200 reads in their first year after publication according to data on ADS Labs.

Our goals and our future

Astrobites’ fundamental goals have not changed since it was launched four years ago.  We remain committed to providing an educational resource for your students pursuing careers in research, and to provide writing, outreach, and leadership experience to scientists during their graduate careers.

I would note that, although it’s fun to look at the “top ten” list above, none of us are keeping track of the pageview statistics for Astrobites regularly.  Unlike much of the modern news media, our editorial direction is completely independent of readership metrics.  We’re writing about the things that interest us and that we think will be valuable to our readers.  We’ve never shown ads on the site, and all our authors volunteer their time.

In a media environment that is increasingly corporate sponsored; integrated with advertising; and, in some cases, in danger of sacrificing its objectivity; we think that these operating principles are important for our project.  We’re so glad to know that others do, too.

[Updated] NASA's 2015 Budget Increase is Confirmed by The Planetary Society

Senate passes the CRomnibus spending bill with an $18.01 billion NASA budget, which includes an increase to planetary science and Europa. The legislation now moves on to the President for his signature.

December 13, 2014

Review 2014: One Thing: Karina Westermann. by Feeling Listless

Life I live in the UK, but I was born in Denmark. This makes me an immigrant – an EU immigrant, to be precise. I settled permanently in the UK because I fell in love with a Scotsman. Luckily, I also fell in love with Scotland and this is my home now. My Bella Caledonia. Nine years ago Dave & I were talking about wanting to live together and we had to decide where that should be. We decided the UK would be the best option because Denmark has huge problems with racism and xenophobia. Did we want to live somewhere where Dave’s accent would always set him apart and he’d never really be considered welcome? No. Did we want to live somewhere where his name and lack of Danish language skills would affect his job opportunities severely? No. I’ve now lived in Glasgow for eight years and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I was worried about racism before I moved across, but it has been manageable so far. I’ve had a few drunks shouting things about foreigners, but that’s easy to shrug off. The drunks also recant as soon as I point out I’m a foreigner: Eh, I didnae mean you, hen!

In recent years the UK has seen the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric. From British Jobs For British People slogans to blaming foreigners for a National Health System struggling to cope with budget cuts. Britain even has its own anti-immigration party now which enjoys disproportional media coverage. I have a strong feeling of deja-vu as sentiments I recognise from Denmark have spread to the UK. Encouraged by certain corners of UK media, it has become more and more acceptable to say things that are overtly racist. Being one of those pesky EU immigrants blamed for everything from how sandwiches are made to pot holes in the roads, it is rather worrying.

Recently I was travelling from Glasgow to Edinburgh when I found myself next to a nice fifty-something lady with lovely hair, sensible shoes, a jolly yellow rain jacket and a posh accent. Without any prompting she began to inform everyone around us that Polish drivers were to blame for British road accidents, that Europeans had a different driving culture (“if you can call it culture“), that she once went to Germany and was shocked by how drivers did not stop for her when she crossed the street, and how foreigners coming to Britain needed to sit a driving exam before being allowed to drive on good British roads filled with decent Britons (although when challenged, she allowed that tourists may have a fortnightly exemption if they pledged to be law-abiding). This was the start of an hour-long monologue directed at different people around her. EU immigrants were welfare benefit cheats, killing people on the streets, stealing jobs from honest Britons, invading Britain under the cover of EU laws, intent on destroying Britain &c. The solution was clear, according to the nice lady. All foreigners should be thrown out of Britain! “What we need is a revolution!”

At first I was tempted to interject. I wanted to challenge her on what she was saying but I didn’t. Instead I started shaking. She noticed – oh, she noticed – as did a nice gentleman across from me who started talking to me about the sock I was knitting. Eventually I began laughing every time she said something particularly outrageous. It was a choice between laughter and tears – and I did not want to show her any tears. My laughter shut her up, finally, and she spent the rest of the journey reading a certain right-wing newspaper.

I have made so many speeches in my head since that experience. I have worked out all the things I should have said: “I am one of those EU immigrants you fear so much. Look at me. I hold two university degrees. I’ve never claimed any benefits. I run my own business. In my own country, people are saying all those things about my Scottish partner. What do you want us to do?”. I know nothing I could have said would have changed her mind, but I wish I could have tried. I have had racial abuse hurled at me before – including in my native Denmark! - but it has always been by people I could dismiss as either drunk or incredibly stupid. It is less easy to dismiss a a nice 50-something lady with a posh accent. It is scary because she is the type of woman who is recognisably, reassuringly an upstanding member of society. Her sort goes on BBC's Question Time or writes long letters to her newspaper. She legitimises scary sentiments.

I have decided the best way forward is to write about my experiences as an EU-immigrant. All those scare stories in the media work best if EU immigrants are portrayed as a faceless mass. Well, here I am. Hello.

You can follow Karie on Twitter @kariebookish.  Her blog is Fourth Edition.

Christmas Links #13 by Feeling Listless

Christmas Decorations in Google Search:
"Just like last year and many years before, Google shows some special decorations when searching for [Christmas], [Hanukkah], [Kwanzaa], [Festivus]. Christmas decorations are animated."

Big Pottermore Reveal Has Actually Been Known in the Fandom for Years:
"JK Rowling released her first story of the Harry Potter 12 Days of Christmas series via Pottermore today and, according to MTV, she's revealing some "serious Severus Snape secrets." Too bad that the "secret" is something that's been a widely accepted fact in the Harry Potter fandom for years now."

My Sister-In-Law’s Lonely Christmas Cards:
"All of my wife’s four siblings are married except one. Bridget, the unmarried one, got cut out of her mom and dad’s Christmas card picture five years ago. Her parents found it awkward to have just one remaining child in her mid-20s still in the picture, so they kicked her out. Bewildered, lonely, and unsure what to do with herself in this big world, she began sending out her own Christmas cards."

Sick of saccharine Christmas films? Here are 18 that won’t make you puke glitter!
"What do you do when you’re being evicted on Christmas Eve? Go on a drug-fuelled odyssey of intersecting stories and Timothy Oliphant. Which NOBODY will remember was set at Christmas."

How to have an office Christmas party for one:
"Working for yourself is one way to take some power into your own hands. But with that power comes a great responsibility: providing your own Christmas entertainment. Self-employed people like me can claim £150 as an office party expense (it’s an exemption, not an allowance, ie not free money, but every little helps), but then what? Here’s how to create that party feeling without stepping into an office."

Could ‘Arthur Christmas’ Become a Classic?
"Arthur Christmas is one of those movies that, if it passed you by on its release, you may forget its existence. Though it was well-received critically and loved by audiences, it is a mighty task for a new Christmas movie to become a ‘classic’ in our homes if we haven’t grown up with it. Depending on your age, you probably even have your own preference of A Christmas Carol – whether it involves Muppets or a computerised Jim Carrey. Is there room for another seasonal movie on your festive favourites list?"

Walking on beautiful clean ice in Slovakian Mountains:
"Me and my friend walking on frozen mountain lake in High Tatras Mountains in Slovakia."

An Astrobites Gift Guide by Astrobites

It is that time of the year when everyone wants to know what you want as a gift. Perhaps you want to buy a gift for your friend who is an astronomer. Or perhaps you want to buy a gift for your favorite Astrobites author! Either way, we have collected a few of our favorite astronomy-themed gifts. There are plenty of practical ideas (coffee, socks, software licenses, coffee) astronomy graduate students would also love, but we want to focus on fun ideas today. If you are still looking for other ideas, check out Shannon’s post on a list of astronomical books. GradHacker also has a list of gifts for graduate students. Let us know in the comments what great gifts we missed!


Subatomic Particle Plush Toys

The Everyday Matter collection from the Particle Zoo including a Neutron, Proton, Electron, Up Quark, Down Quark, and Electron-neutrino.

The Everyday Matter collection from the Particle Zoo including a Neutron, Proton, Electron, Up Quark, Down Quark, and Electron-neutrino. Available here.

The Particle Zoo makes plush toys of all the known subatomic particles from the Standard Model plus a number of other cosmology-themed plush items. All of the plushies are about the size of a hand. Their weight varies according to the property of each particle. The top quark and W boson are the heaviest, all the way down to the lightest tachyon. These are fun gifts for both scientists and kids. I personally think they look great both on desks and around a house or apartment.

Planetary Glass Set

Think Geek has a really cool set of glasses representing the Sun, each planet, and Pluto. The Sun is a bit larger than the others and Pluto is a little smaller. They are currently out of stock, but these are cool enough your favorite astronomer will be willing to wait.

Non-Euclidean Chalkboard

Astronomers love to talk about general relativity and the warping of spacetime. Perhaps a non-Euclidean chalkboard will show them you are listening! Most of the time we draw or write on flat, or Euclidean, surfaces. But it is possible to write on curved, or non-Euclidean, surfaces too! Instructables has instructions on making a Non-Euclidean chalkboard. In short, in involves taking a globe and painting it with chalkboard paint. I guarantee you the first thing drawn on it will be a triangle with angles adding up to more than 180 degrees.


Nightlight featuring the Horsehead Nebula.

Nightlight featuring the Horsehead Nebula. Available here.

Space Night Lights – Korey Haynes

Etsy has some pretty cool nightlights featuring the Horsehead Nebula and the Crab Nebula. What can be better than being reminded at night of all the beautiful things in the sky? Be warned: if you see these at night it might motivate you to step outside and look up!

Phone Cases

There are lots of sites that offer astronomy-themed cases to add some science flair to a phone. Redbubble, Zazzle, and Cafe Press have some I found from a quick search. But I bet there are plenty more options out there. If you thought someone was talking your ear off about astronomy before, think again after you get one of these!

Astronomy-Themed Yarn – Betsy Mills

In addition to helping support your favorite astronomer’s career, don’t forget that we all have lots of hobbies and interests outside of our work (and sometimes even have time to pursue them!). If your favorite astronomer likes to knit or crochet, try some of these cosmically-colored yarns.

Hopefully this will help all the astro-elves out there- happy holidays!

Astronomy-Themed Yarn

Clockwise from top right: Crystal Palace Mochi Plus yarn in “Neptune Rainbow,” Anzula ‘Nebula’ yarn in “Road Trippin’ – 1st Stop Lodi,” Malabrigo Rios yarn in “Jupiter,” Blue Heron yarn in “Deep Space,” Lisa Souza Hand-dyed Merino Yarn in “Mars Quake,” Pancake and Lulu hand-dyed yarn in “Astronomy,” Life’s an Expedition yarn in “Zenith Star,” Red Heart Stellar yarn in “Infinity.”


December 12, 2014

Review 2014: One Thing: Tim Worthington. by Feeling Listless

Music If you haven't been following the 'Saint Etienne Presents...' series of compilations, then you really have been missing out on something special. Put together by Bob, Pete and Sarah from their massive collective collection of forgotten popular beat waxings, with assistance from their longtime associate and genre-inventing crate-digger extraordinaire Martin Green, each one aims to evoke a specific time and place, from Central Park to a Lyons Corner House, using nothing but the sort of little-remembered pop discs you might have expected to hear in the designated venue. What's more, they're mostly drawn from pop's formative years, pulling in hits that have been hiding in plain sight since the late fifties and waving a jazzy two fingers at the tedious insistence by the mainstream rock press that everything started with Love Me Do.

This time, they've turned their attention to Christmas, which will hardly surprise anyone familiar with Saint Etienne's back catalogue; after all, they've released a Christmas EP every year since 1993 (kicking off, of course, with the glorious I Was Born On Christmas Day), and even released a full album of Christmas Songs. But being Saint Etienne, and indeed being their 'Presents...' series, this isn't just any old 'Christmas'. It's Christmas in London in the long-lost days of black and white TV, when festive shop window displays were a dazzling new thing, home entertainment barely existed, and people were as likely to pile into the local carol service as they were the office party. This of course involves rifling through the surprisingly large volume of Yuletide-themed chart contenders in the days before we came to associate the Festive season even with Glam Rock Santa-hattage and Phil Spector emulation, let alone X Factor winners and, erm, Rage Against The Machine. So there's some familiar names, some not so familiar names, and some rescued from well-worn nigh-on-sixty-year-old discs in the absence of master tapes, which occasionally makes listening on headphones a bit haphazard but let's face it, who cares when this stuff actually is on CD, in many cases for the first time ever?

Songs For A London Winter, it turns out, are a mixture of rinky-dink singalongs, politely furious instrumentals, skiffled-up carolling, cheapo cash-in supermarket own brand covers, and the odd bit of Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth thrown in for good measure. Johnny Keating turns in a ramble through We Three Kings in the style of his more familiar Z Cars theme, John Barry rattles through a Shadows-aping rewrite of When The Saints Go Marching In that bizarrely threatens to turn into incidental music from Mr. Benn at one point, and brother-and-sister singing child sensations Elaine and Derek - 'Derek' of course growing up to become Charlie in Casualty - try their hardest not to sound like they're trying to sound like Anthony Newley while listing the sights and sounds of advent. Meanwhile, Zack Laurence, who would go on to become both Mr Bloe (as in Groovin' With) and the theme composer for Treasure Hunt and Interceptor, engages in a bit of piano tinkling in honour of the humble snowman. There's even what sounds like it could be an early electronic instrument on the aptly-titled Sounds Like Winter by Dusty Springfield's backing band The Echoes.

Where the the real surprises lie, though, are with the songs and artists that you sort of half-knew at the back of your mind. Even aside from Billy Fury's original of My Christmas Prayer, as later of course covered by Saint Etienne, you'll find The Beverley Sisters getting a touch funky on Little Donkey, and Ted Heath doing quite nicely on Swinging Shepherd Blues, even if his definition of 'Swinging' might pose some problems under laboratory conditions, while the piano-rattling of Russ Conway - so often the target of 'naff' jokes, sometimes even in person, in latterday comedy shows - turns out to be very pleasantly produced and arranged, Lionel Bart being Lionel Bart - oh what a surprise, he's asking for a 'kiss' - is never not welcome, and Adam Faith's Lonely Pup (In A Christmas Shop) isn't quite as annoying as you'd assumed it was on the very fringes of your consciousness. Alma Cogan can still keep that laugh-in-her-voice to herself, mind.

This is more than just a look at a prehistoric age of pop music, though - it's literally a glimpse of a lost world. This is the sound of the sort of Christmas you see in ancient Pathe News films, where massive crowds turned up to watch trees being unveiled on the high street, where queues for department store Santas snaked around the block and the youngsters only left with a cheap plastic doll where the hair came off when you washed it, and indeed where The Beatles put together their very first Christmas Fan Club records, and, believe it or not, even appeared in panto. See, it didn't quite all change with Love Me Do.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @outonbluesix. He's the author of Higher Than The Sun, the story of four albums released by Creation Records late in 1991, available at Hulu here.

Christmas Links #12 by Feeling Listless

10 of the strangest: Messiahs
"As Christmas approaches, let’s focus on Handel’s famous oratorio and some of the weirder approaches to the Hallelujah Chorus. If you like your Handel with added psychedelic trance, LED lights and electric guitars, you’re in the right place"

Jewish angels and Roman gods: The ancient mythological origins of Christmas:
"Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful mélange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions – or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?"

Here’s why thoughtful Christmas gifts are the WORST gifts:
"In the coming weeks, millions of people will buy gifts for loved ones. Which is great—except that tons of those people will make the same glaring mistake, and buy the wrong gift. Roughly 10 percent of gifts are returned each year—and the percentage of unwanted gifts is surely higher given that nice people may not want to return presents."

Christmas parties: a survival guide:
"Parties – how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. There’s the dressing up for them. There’s the getting to them. There’s the being at them. The getting back from them. The meeting of strangers. Or people you know. There’s the not being at home. There are an awful lot of things."

The Planetary Society’s Global Volunteer Network by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society’s Global Volunteer Network has been busy these past few months!

Pretty pictures of the Cosmos: Strange and spooky by The Planetary Society

Award-winning astrophotographer Adam Block shares his haunting images of three different types of nebulae.

LightSail Completes Testing, Announcement Expected in January by The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft successfully completed testing to prepare it for a possible 2015 test flight.

El Gordo: A Spectacular(… and Theoretically Impossible?) Merger by Astrobites

Authors: S. M. Molnar and T. Broadhurst
Title: A Hydrodynamical Solution for the “Twin-Tailed” Colliding Galaxy Cluster “El Gordo”
First Author’s Institution:  Department of Physics, National Taiwan University, Taipei
Status: Accepted to the Astrophysical Journal

There’s hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. You’ll sometimes find them floating out on their own, but more often than not, you’ll see them lined up in elongated strings that intertwine with other strings in cosmic knots and tangles, forming a vast web that stretches through an otherwise mostly empty universe. Galaxies are gregarious; you’ll find them traveling together in groups and clusters. When two such clusters cross paths, they can merge in a spectacular event that ranks among the most energetic in the universe—second only to the Big Bang.  As such clusters typically approach each other at high velocities, cluster mergers are nature’s largest particle accelerators, generating relativistic particles whose births are betrayed by the showers of X-rays, gamma rays, and neutrinos they subsequently produce. Some of the highest energy particles can punch their way out of the merger in which they were formed and make their perilous ways out to our telescopes on Earth, where they are dubbed ultra high energy cosmic rays—among the most energetic of particles.

Looming large among these grand mergers is El Gordo. Its moniker, Spanish for “the big one” or “the fat one,” is telling of the merger’s standing among other mergers—at 2 x 1015 M_\odot, it rivals the mass of the supercluster in which we reside (which has over a hundred groups and clusters) and is the most massive cluster observed at its distance. In addition, it is extremely luminous in X-rays and contains massive amounts of hot gas.

Its mass, though a bit on the extreme end, is enough to raise one’s eyebrows at; its X-ray luminosity and vast quantities of hot gas, we can explain. But there’s one little oddity that begets a serious amount of head-scratching and hand-wringing—the velocities of its subclusters. For it exceeds the predictions of our standard model of the universe, concordance \LambdaCDM, the result of a centuries-long journey on which realized our universe is made up predominantly of cold dark matter (CDM) and dark energy (denoted by the \Lambda), and one which wields considerable predictive power when it comes to a stunning array of observations.  \LambdaCDM predicts that the subclusters in massive mergers like the El Gordo should approach each other with a pre-merger velocity of no more than 1000 km s-1. Measurements of the relative radial velocities of the subclusters in El Gordo give a value of about 600 km s-1—which seem just fine… until you realize this doesn’t take into account the velocity component tangential to our line of sight, nor is it the subclusters’ pre-merger velocity.

So that’s exactly what Molnar and Broadhurst set out to determine. Which is easier said than done. The distribution of the X-ray emitting gas and the locations of the peaks of the X-ray emission, galaxies, and total matter encode clues as to the true 3D relative velocity between the two subclusters at their observed redshift. Deriving the subclusters’ pre-merger velocities, however, requires backtracking in time. But as the brief introductory sketch of the energetics of cluster mergers may have indicated, the merger process is really quite a messy business. Isolated clusters pre-mergers can be relatively docile and unassuming, consisting of galaxies sweeping through a matrix of gas and dark matter, a mix balanced just so that they remain close to hydrostatic equilibrium (where the inwardly-directed gravitational forces are balanced by outward pressure forces). They remain in this stable state until the cluster succumbs to its gravitational appetite, subsuming its surrounding supply of gas, galaxies, and dark matter.

When a cluster’s gravitational appetite is matched by that of an approaching, similarly massive cluster, things start to get interesting. The merger can produce shock waves in the intracluster gas, which can heat up the gas so much that it emits in the X-ray, in addition to producing complex wakes and tails such as those seen in El Gordo (see Figure 1). How the merger evolves is predominantly determined by the invisible dark matter halos that dominate the matter content of the clusters and in which the gas and galaxies reside. The halos and their evolution can be significantly modified and deformed during the merger due to tidal stripping and dynamical friction.

Thus it is no simple task to trace the El Gordo merger backwards in time. But it can be done. In today’s paper, the authors turned to numerical simulations outfitted with a suite of realistic physics algorithms to do the job. Their idea was simple: they threw several identical pairs of subclusters at each other—that is, identical except for a slightly tweaked infall velocity and impact parameter (the closest distance they’d pass each other in the absence gravity and other forces; for a head-on collision, this would be zero)—and followed the merger until it reached the observed state. They then determined which set of inputs produced a merger that best matched observations.

Of course, the devil is in the details. The merger initial conditions were seeded with cluster masses and sizes from observations, and evolved forward in time using FLASH, a hybrid N-body and gas hydrodynamics solver. They presented results for simulations exploring infall velocities ranging from 2000 to 3000 km s-1 and impact parameters of 50-300 kpc. As the merger’s precise orientation is uncertain, each merger was rotated until it resembled observations. For a more precise comparison with observations, they calculated the X-ray emission expected from the gas, carefully taking into account relativisitic corrections that increase the amount of X-rays emitted by the shock-heated, accelerated gas during the merger, and the contributions from specific X-ray emission lines. In addition, they generated maps of the mass distribution and compared these with their observational analogs.

The result? The simulation that best reproduced El Gordo’s comet-like “two-tail” X-ray morphology (see Figure 1), peak locations in both X-ray and mass maps, relative radial velocity, as well as the X-ray brightness profile was one in which its subclusters initially approached each other with an impact parameter of 300 kpc and an infall velocity of 2250 km s-1—more than double what \LambdaCDM predicts. El Gordo is therefore another indication that \LambdaCDM, despite its many successes elsewhere, is a theory that is almost but not quite fully baked. Stay tuned for more extensive numerical and observational studies on this portly merger and its implications to cosmology to come.

Images of the El Gordo, observed (left, Menanteau et al. 2012) and simulated (right, this work). In the left image, the X-ray surface brightness (measured by Chandra) has been plotted in color and the SZ amplitude (measured by the Atacama Cosmology Telescope) overplotted as contours.  The image on the right is of Molnar & Broadhurst's best matching simulation; the X-ray surface brightness is plotted as red contours, the SZ amplitude in blue, and the total mass surface density in black contours.

Figure 1: Comparisons of this paper’s simulations with observations of the El Gordo cluster.  In the left image is El Gordo’s observed X-ray surface brightness (measured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Menanteau et al. 2012). The image on the right is of this paper’s best matching simulation; the X-ray surface brightness is plotted as red contours, the SZ amplitude in blue, and the total mass surface density in black contours.

New Churyumov-Gerasimenko Shapemodel! by The Planetary Society

Mattias Malmer shares his latest shape model of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, created using data from the Rosetta spacecraft.

NASA's Budget Increase Is A Step Closer to Reality by The Planetary Society

By a narrow vote, the House of Representatives passed the 2015 'CRomnibus' spending bill, which includes an increase to NASA and its Planetary Science Division. It now moves on to the Senate.

Brief Venus Express update: Not quite dead yet by The Planetary Society

Venus Express is still alive and talking to Earth, but may fall into Venus' atmosphere in January.

December 11, 2014

The YORP Effect and Bennu by The Planetary Society

The YORP effect is a phenomenon that affects the rotation rate and pole orientation of an asteroid. YORP is an acronym that combines four scientist’s names: Yarkovsky, O’Keefe, Radzievskii, and Paddack.

Lending Club IPO by Albert Wenger

Today our portfolio company Lending Club went public. Congratulations to the team


And here is founder Renaud Laplanche on the business

Review 2014: One Thing: @asta. by Feeling Listless

Coming of Age.

Life Go to the mall, the grocery store, or just stand on a busy street corner and look around at the people swirling about you. Are you younger than most of them? Perhaps you fit comfortably in the middle? Or do you notice that it is only the ones who look as if they might be collecting a pension that appear older?

2014 is the year I started to feel old. This came as a bit of shock, because as much as I flatter myself that I am a self-aware and a discerning observer of life around me, I swallowed more than a few glasses of youth culture kool-aid over the years.

Combine the decades-long bombardment of media messages exhorting us all to buy this cream, eat this super-food, join this gym program and follow these Six Steps to A Better You with the underlying premise that with enough money and effort you can reverse time, and you get a seriously messed-up culture.

Age is just a number.

You are only as old as you feel.

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.

Only the sentence by Robert Frost is correct.

I and just about everyone else of my generation grew up in expectation. Life was ahead. It was going to happen. Out there. When. When we finished school. When we moved into our own apartment. When we got that job. When we met the right someone. And it was all going to be champagne wishes and caviar dreams minus the braying Robin Leach soundtrack.

Our whole lives have been aspirational. Nations’ economies depend on it.

My parents’ generation grew up in the still lingering shadows of the Depression and World War II rations. They strove to contribute to rebuilding a better world. They still wanted the house and the car and the summer vacations. But they talked about being comfortable. They could see how their lives were easier and more secure than their parents’ and that was success.

My generation grew up with the message that it was all waiting for us Out There and television showed us just how much Out There existed in the world. Greedy doesn't begin to describe the rapacious insatiable appetite for the good life we all came to expect as our due.

We had a road map too. Hard work, good looks, and a winning personality and the world would fall at our feet.

Hard work was a matter of will. Good looks used to be a roll of genetic dice but by the end of the Seventies you could buy a new face for not much more than the cost of a car.

The winning personality depended on what collection of self-help aphorisms was hogging the best-seller list. It started with I’m OK-You’re OK which propelled us down the path to magical thinking and all its other delusional siblings. It was quickly followed by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which promised to teach us how to win at life while at the same time reducing it to a series of lists. Lists are great. Lists are manageable. Lists have no time for ambiguous, or intangible, nuanced messiness of living. Lists reduce everything into easy bite-sized Happy Meals. (The internet loves lists—but that’s another issue.) We kept chasing after the mirage of more, because to settle for less is to fail.

And so we continued living life as possibility. It can all happen. Still. Until the day it can’t. We wake up and suddenly, with even the most basic grasp of mathematics we know there is more behind us than in front of us and what lies ahead looks grim no matter how fat the wallet.

It happens in small increments, mistakes, accidents. The first bumps are the sort of hip check that takes you away from childhood dreams of professional sport or celebrity. You shrug it off as silliness and set you sights on a new passion. The thing is time is against us. We all know this and I have yet to meet anyone who accepts it on a personal level.

Live each day as if it were your last.

That’s crazy talk.

If I did that, right now I’d be on a beach in Hawaii (it’s December and I hate the cold) with a plane ticket to Europe in my purse and nothing in the bank.

We are all going to die. It’s the when and how that eludes us.

I have been told I can expect to live longer than previous generations did. I am not guaranteed that the quality of those days will be any better. Already, if I make a list of all the people I have known, the list of the quick is smaller than that of the dead. I am at the age where I understand why my grandparents spent so much time discussing the past—it’s where they did their best living.

What nobody told me about aging is that the outward signs are nothing compared to the interior collapse and decay and that it begins long before the end. Bones, muscles, sinews, synapses, hormones—it all starts to break down; if I was a car I’d be trading myself in.

This is where, if this were a magazine piece, I’d be expected to impart a piece of warm hopeful wisdom. The wonderful thing I’ve learned this year.


I’m still in the middle of this. More people have left my life than entered it this year, so I can tell you to cultivate young friends. I’m not being flippant.

Most of my friends used to be older than me, because they were more interesting. They had seen and done things, while my peers were as clueless about life as I was. Most of them are gone. I am cultivating younger friends because now they are the more interesting.

I can also tell you that anyone who says that they have no regrets in life is either trying to sell you something, or is too stupid to know better. I regret plenty of things, and most of them are things I didn't do. What I regret is of no use to anyone but me, with perhaps one exception- I regret any time I had a chance to be kind and didn't take it. Except with politicians. And bankers. And bureaucrats. Oh hell.

You can follow @asta on Twitter here. Kitchen Bits is her Tumblr.

Christmas Links #11 by Feeling Listless

Playing With My Son: An experiment in forced nostalgia and questionable parenting:
"I love games, and I genuinely wanted Eliot to love and appreciate them too. So, here was my experiment: What happens when a 21st-century kid plays through video game history in chronological order? Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming."

NPR Music's Favorite Songs Of 2014:
"... we turned our tidy list of songs into a massive, party-starting player in which you can actually listen to every single one of the 302 songs we loved this year, from every genre we cover. You'll find a 19-minute doom-metal epic and a few two-minute punk explosions. Classic-sounding R&B and Vine-inspiring hip-hop. Ecstatic choruses and devastating harmonies. Beats from around the world and unwavering political folk from here at home and plenty more that blurred the boundaries."

1647: The year Christmas was cancelled:
"Howard Goodall examines the original handwritten journal from the House of Lords from 8 June 1647, the day the law cancelling Christmas was passed, and meets Professor Ronald Hutton to find out why. Taken from The Truth About Christmas Carols, originally broadcast on Christmas Day 2008."

The six worst TV Times Christmas Covers:
"Slap-bang in the ‘so much more than TV times’ magazine era, Harry Secombe, there, firmly on the highway to getting sozzled, in a perfunctory photo-shoot of the ‘let’s just split for lunch’ variety. Sack the art ed who married those red and white hues with a lime flavoured logo."

How the film Elf ruined my day:
"I flopped down on the bus seat, on my way to do whatever it is I do for a living. I hadn't shaved that morning, for reasons which need not concern you. In a certain light I fancied I looked elegantly rumpled, in all other lights I knew I looked a total state. Then my phone buzzed. It was a message from a man from the television asking me to go on the news to discuss the Will Ferrell film Elf. This did not come out of nowhere. I had recently written a blog post about the film, which I detest, and it had provoked some controversy."

No, I will NOT wrap all the presents. Why are women still responsible for the holiday joy?
"We all know that women do the majority of domestic work like child care, housework and cooking. But the holidays bring on a whole new set of gendered expectations that make the season less about simply enjoying fun and family and more about enduring consumerism, chores and resentment so that everyone else can enjoy rockin’ around the Christmas tree. (I bet even Mrs Claus gets upset that Santa works one night a year but she’s dealing with hungry elves 24/7. That would be almost enough to make you want to over-indulge in eggnog and hurl yourself in front of a reindeer-pulled sleigh.)"

Mary And Joseph Brave Oxford Circus On A Donkey:
"Chester the donkey is said to be a bit of a diva, but hopefully the method-acting mule will be on form next week when he escorts actors playing Mary and Joseph through Oxford Circus at the start of the Wintershall Nativity."

Jim Broadbent and Rafe Spall on Get Santa:
"Director Christopher Smith, producer Liza Marshall and cast members Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall, Jodie Whitaker, Kit Connor and Warwick Davis reflect on Get Santa (2014), their seasonal comedy. Smith explains how and where he devised the film’s plot, while Marshall and the cast discuss the plot of the BFI-backed production."

31 Reasons Christmas In New York City Ruins You For Life:
"It’s not the holidays without at least one trip to the Big Apple."

InSight assembly begins by The Planetary Society

NASA's next Mars lander is becoming real, now under construction at Lockheed Martin.

Book Review: “The Art of Space: The History of Space Art, From the Earliest Visions to the Graphics of the Modern Era” by The Planetary Society

Mat Kaplan reviews a comprehensive new collection of historic and modern space art from author and superb space artist Ron Miller.

The age of cross-correlations by Astrobites

Astronomers have now mapped the sky in many different colors. For example, the Planck satellite has mapped the sky in the microwave frequency, showing us the light from 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) has mapped a good chunk of the sky in optical wavelengths, identifying millions of galaxies and quasars out to when the Universe was a third of its current age. In the high energy range, Fermi has produced maps of the gamma-ray sky, identifying Galactic and extragalactic energetic sources. All of these maps are not necessarily independent. Whenever the maps share some information, they can be “cross-correlated”.

A map of the sky in gamma-rays as observed by Fermi. The horizontal red band towards the center is emission from our own Galaxy. Individual sources, both from our Galaxy and beyond, are circled in the map, while there is a diffuse background in blue coming from unresolved sources. Some familiar sources of gamma-rays are identified in the map, such as the Crab Nebula, a well-known supernova remnant. This image is credit of NASA/DOE/Fermi/LAT Consortium.

An example of a cross-correlation would be the identification of common sources between two maps: gamma-ray sources from Fermi could also show up as active galaxies observed in SDSS. The reason why this is a useful exercise is that we learn something new by combining the two maps. In this case, we might learn whether all of the active galaxies emit gamma-rays, and with what energies, which will allow us to understand the black holes in the centers of those galaxies a bit better. We could also learn whether the gamma-ray energy emitted is related to the stellar mass or age of the galaxy.

Of course, there are more subtle cross-correlations to be explored. The authors of the paper present results of the cross-correlation between the light left over from the Big Bang and the diffuse gamma-ray sky (the emission that remains after removing point sources). It might look as though these two renderings of the sky had nothing to do with one another at first sight. But there are similarities. The photons from the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), observed by Planck, are deflected by matter along their path towards us, a phenomenon called “gravitational lensing“. At the same time, some sources of gamma-rays tend to live in clustered environments, where matter has been accumulating for a while due to gravity. There is more matter in those regions, which means that they act as lenses to the CMB. As a result, one would expect that the cross-correlation between the two maps is not zero and it would tell us how much of the gamma-rays observed by Fermi are extragalactic sources that can also lens the CMB.

Fig 1 of Fornengo et al

The cross-correlation between the lensing of the CMB from Planck and the diffuse gamma-rays observed by Fermi as a function of inverse angular scale in the sky. The points represent the measurements (blue and red are different two ways of combining the same data), and the solid lines represent the components of the model based on the emission of gamma-rays by star-forming galaxies and AGN. The solid black line is the sum of those components. The dashed lines represent generic models where the gamma-rays sources are at high (z=2, violet) and low (z=0.1, light blue) redshifts. The authors comment that it is more likely that the cross-correlation is due to intermediate redshift sources. The inset shows that the model that corresponds to the solid black line also reproduces the number of gamma-ray photons collected by Fermi at different energies. The amplitude of the solid black curve is not obtained from the model, but fit from the data. This is Fig. 1 of Fornengo et al.

The figure to the right shows the measured cross-correlation between lensing of the CMB and the gamma-ray maps obtained with Fermi, with a peak on large scales (low angular multipoles, l). The points are the measurements (blue and red are just different ways of combining the data); the solid lines represent the contribution from different extragalactic sources to the cross-correlation. In star-forming galaxies, gamma-rays are produced when protons accelerated in supernova shocks collide with each other. In active galactic nuclei (AGN), gamma-rays are produced when particles accelerated in the jets scatter off with photons (inverse Compton) or when they decelerate (bremsstrahlung). The total contribution of all these sources is represented by the black line. The overall amplitude of the model is fit to the data. The authors find good agreement between the model and the observations. There is a peak at low multipoles (large scales), which means that the gamma-rays sources follow the dark matter on those scales. The inset also presents the number of photons detected by Fermi as a function of their energy, again in agreement with the model.

The authors suggest that their findings are in agreement with the idea that the diffuse gamma-ray emission observed by Fermi is due to extragalactic sources such as star-forming galaxies and AGN, at intermediate redshifts (as opposed to low redshifts, shown in the purple line, and high redshifts, represented by the light blue line). In the future, better measurements of this cross-correlation will help us to understand which galaxies produce energetic photons in the Universe, at what epoch, and how they relate to the dark matter halos they inhabit.

December 10, 2014

Review 2014: One Thing: Essie Fox. by Feeling Listless

Film My One Thing relates to a film that I’ve never forgotten – because it scared it me half to death, and the terror of that memory remains just as vivid as it did when I was the schoolgirl who crept out of bed to watch the late night TV films. Since then I’ve often thought about the nightmare tension of that film – all the melodramatic darkness that burrowed its way into my mind, and from which it has never re-emerged.

The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise in 1963 (since when it has obtained a certain cult status, with Martin Scorsese calling it one of the all-time scariest films that he has ever seen) is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson; herself the undoubted mistress of compelling psychological horror. And this is how her novel begins, with an atmosphere of implicit threat contained within these few short lines that is then more than fulfilled in Robert Wise’s visual adaptation –

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Even today, that opening – the threat of the madness that haunts the house – still fills me with a sense of dread. I can almost relive the scene in which the vulnerable protagonist awakes from sleep to hear some monstrous banging sounds … like the beating of the giant heart of some animalistic, unseen ‘thing’ that is lurking outside in the corridor, trying to force its way on through the bulging bulk of the bedroom door.

There is also a cast iron staircase which swings and creaks as if alive, which seems on the verge of collapsing, just as the victim’s tortured mind is spiraling ever downwards into a private mental hell, while filled with the sense that she is cursed – her doom to be found within Hill House.

So – if there’s one scary film that I can recommend to you – the one film that I hope to watch again over this Christmas period, then it has to be The Haunting.

You can follow Essie on Twitter @essiefox.  She's the writer of Victorian gothic novels. The Goddess and the Thief, her latest book, contains many ghostly elements.

Christmas Links #10 by Feeling Listless

Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Spotify and App Stores Have Killed Christmas:
"It’s not just limited to films, either — my traditional Christmas shopping plans have been scuppered by Spotify and the many app stores. too. The Scott Walker and Sunn O))) albums for my older brother will have to remain on HMV’s shelf as he can already play it on Spotify. The Run the Jewels album for my other older brother suffers the same fate, while picking up the Shadow of Mordor video game for my teenage cousin seems a futile exercise seeing as it’ll almost certainly be knocked down to a pocket-change price by the Steam Christmas sale."

The Hazards of Christmas Decorations:
"Industrial hygienist Monona Rossol discusses the potential hazards of Christmas decorations, and the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s proposed rules about them. A chemist and an artist, Rossol is the president and founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts. She is the author of Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All."

In Soviet Russia, Christmas celebrates you!
"What was Christmas like under the communists? Well, actually, when the Soviets took power in Russia they abolished Christmas – but it was replaced by New Year celebrations, which under the Russian calendar actually happened 6 days earlier than Christmas! Bonus!"

Sony, you have the wrong Dakota:
"I get emails. Lots of emails. I get tons and tons of emails. Some of them aren’t for me, but they are for someone with presumably the same name."

Look!: A Giant LEGO Christmas Tree Built In Sydney:
"LEGO crazy at your place? The Southern Hemisphere's biggest LEGO Christmas tree has just been built in Sydney, Australia! Here are all the stats, and links to plans to build some LEGO Christmas trees of your own."

Christmas card from 1982 forms lasting link between families:
"It was the year E.T. wanted to phone home. Edmontonians were clubbing at Scandals and Flashback, Ottawa was in the midst of a constitutional crisis and the up-and-coming Oilers won the Smyth division for the first time. Mike Leggett sent a Christmas card to his boss in 1982 and started a Christmas tradition that persists to this day."

The Torture Report is Out, Now What? by Albert Wenger

I have only written about torture once before here on Continuations as part of my mini review of Zero Dark Thirty. I am glad that after long delays we at least now have a summary of the Senate’s Torture Report. Together with Guantanamo Bay itself, which I have mentioned a few times, and the Drone program, we have done great harm to the causes of democracy and freedom, all in the name of defending them.

I don’t actually question the motives of the people who conceived of and conducted these programs. The road to hell is always paved with good intentions. Those don’t excuse what has happened and I would love to see consequences including prosecutions — although they are unlikely as we had previously redefined the laws to make most of these actions legal.

Which means that our outrage needs to be directed at reclaiming our democracy. And by that I not only mean a government of the people, by the people and for the people but one that embraces a utopian vision of the future that can guide our actions today. Because even though they fell short of what we now envision, the original foundations of the United States were quite utopian by the standards of the day.

Revisiting Uranus with Voyager 2 by The Planetary Society

Amateur image processor Björn Jónsson brings us some new views of Uranus from reprocessed Voyager 2 data.

Tick Tock of a Double Celestial Clock: Discovery of a New Stellar Remnant System by Astrobites

Authors: M. Kilic, J. J. Hermes, A. Gianninas, W. R. Brown

Title: PSR J1738+0333: The First Millisecond Pulsar + Pulsating White Dwarf Binary

First Author’s Institution: University of Oklahoma

Status: Accepted to MNRAS


Astronomers are constantly on the hunt for new and fascinating systems of celestial bodies. From compact objects in inspiraling dances to planets orbiting multiple stars like Tatooine, it seems that if a system can be dreamt up (and it obeys the laws of physics, of course) the universe will provide one.  Oftentimes, these exotic systems deliver new methods for accessing the physics of the astronomical objects involved. Recently, one such system was discovered: a binary of stellar remnants consisting of a millisecond pulsar and a pulsating white dwarf.

The Instable Lives of White Dwarves

White dwarfs (WDs) are the remnant cores of small stars held up from gravity by electron degeneracy pressure.  Though theoretically WDs can reach masses of about 1.5 solar masses, the smallest ones that have been discovered are an order of magnitude less massive and are aptly referred to as Extremely Low Mass White Dwarfs (ELM WDs).  Many WDs have been observed with clear signs of luminosity fluctuations caused by quakes inside of the star, and studying these fluctuations provides an avenue into the interior structure of these objects through asteroseismology.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 5.15.51 PM

Figure 1. The light curve for the white dwarf companion of the millisecond pulsar PSR J1738+0333. The red line is the best-fit curve of the data, and measurements of a comparison star are offset and shown in blue. There was a period from ~2500-6000 seconds when the system was not being observed. [Fig. 2 in Kilic et. al 2014]

The first ELM WD that exhibited luminosity pulsations was only discovered in 2012, and since then much work has been done in attempt correlate the pulsations of these objects with their larger counterparts.  This study targeted two millisecond pulsars that were known to have ELM WD companions, hoping to catch pulsations in the ELM WDs.  Millisecond pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars (even denser stellar remnants than WDs) that have a strong magnetic field whose pole is misaligned from their spin axis.  As they spin, their magnetic pole points itself along with a strong beam of electromagnetic radiation towards Earth, like a precisely timed celestial lighthouse.  The predictability and accuracy of their pulses can provide excellent insight into the systems they are a part of.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 5.16.02 PM

Figure 2. The Fourier transform for the light curve of PSR J1738+0333’s optical counterpart. The green and blue dotted lines mark the 4 and 3 confidence levels, respectively. The three significant pulsations are marked by red ticks at the top of the figure.  The peaks tell us the primary frequencies at which the luminosity pulsations are occurring.  [Fig. 2 in Kilic et. al 2014]

Interestingly, the progenitor of the ELM WDs likely caused the speed-up of these “recycled” pulsars to millisecond periods.  The extremely strong gravity of the neutron stars allowed them to steal matter from their neighboring star and accrete it, leaving behind the dense core.  By conservation of angular momentum, pulling in this extra matter causes the rotation speed of the neutron star to increase, similar to how ice skaters can increase their rotation speed by pulling their arms closer to their body.

Discovery of Pulsations in PSR J1738-0333’s Companion

Kilic et al. used the 8-meter Gemini South and North telescopes to get the light curves of the two millisecond pulsar-ELM WD systems. The light curves obtained showed no pulsations for one of their targets, but signs of brightness variability in the other (figure 1).  If the seemingly-random scatter of black dots and questionably best-fit line do not convince you of this, don’t fret! By looking at the data in the frequency-domain by use of a Fourier transformation, a clear peak in frequency can be seen with a period of ~1800 seconds with two other significant peaks at longer periods (figure 2).

Though optical variability of WDs can arise from a number of differing mechanisms (for example, irradiation from the neighboring pulsar can heat the WD atmosphere and cause brightness fluctuations), its mass and temperature indicate g-mode pulsations are the likely cause of variability.  G-modes are pulsations caused by gravity waves, not to be confused with gravitational waves from general relativity.

Little White Dwarfs Fit the Trends

Pulsating WD

Figure 3. The instability strip for ZZ Ceti stars, shown in a surface gravity-temperature plot. Pulsating WDs are marked by open diamonds, and non-pulsating by filled circles. The companion to PSR J1738+0333 is labeled, along with the three other known ELM WD companions of pulsars. The solid blue and red mark the ZZ Ceti instability strip, and the dotted lines the hypothetical extrapolated extension of the instability strip for ELM WDs. [Fig. 3 in Kilic et. al 2014]

The ELM WD companion to PSR J1738-0333 is one of only a handful of pulsating ELM WDs known, and the only one with precise distance and radius measurements.  This makes it an archetype for modeling pulsations in helium-core WDs, and its pulsations make it another astrophysical clock in this richly timed system.  It also helps to extend what is known as the ZZ Ceti instability strip of WDs.  ZZ Ceti stars are a type of WD with hydrogen-dominated atmospheres that exhibit pulsations at certain masses and temperatures.  PSR J1738-0333’s companion sits in the middle of an extrapolated instability strip (figure 3), indicating that these recently discovered systems may follow similar trends to that of their hotter, more massive siblings.

Besides extending our knowledge of pulsating WDs, this unique system may let astronomers delve deeper into the interiors of compact stellar objects (figuratively, I hope). Optical counterparts to radio millisecond pulsars such as PSR J1738-0333 offer exceptional constraints on masses and thus equations of state of neutron stars. Physical parameters of the system, such as the cooling age of the white dwarf and spin-down age of the pulsar, may also be accessed and constrained by timing this system.  Future observations of this fruitful binary will hopefully lead to new knowledge of these exotic celestial objects.

The CRomnibus Comes Through for NASA and Planetary Science by The Planetary Society

The U.S. budget cycle for fiscal year 2015 is coming to an end. Should Congress pass the so-called CRomnibus bill as-is, NASA would see its highest funding level since 2011 and a great increase to its Planetary Science Division.

An age-old question by Charlie Stross

I'm fifty. I'm not the same guy I was when I was forty, or thirty, never mind twenty, or ten. I visualize identity not as a solid object but as a wave form travelling along the temporal dimension through a complex emulsion of memories, experiences, and emotions, bounded at front and back by singularities—boundaries beyond which there is no continuity (and almost certainly no persistence of identity). We're all waves travelling through this common soup of human existential phenomena, occasionally refracting through one another and being changed thereby. And as we move, we change. Not only are our physical bodies not made up from the same individual atoms: the bits you could notionally use to describe us change, too. New data is added, old patterns are lost (I have the memory of a goldfish these days).

Beyond the obvious (gross physiological deterioration and pathologies of senescence), what are the psychological symptoms of ageing?

I tend to be somewhat impatient or short-tempered these days. Examples: getting worked up about people obstructing a sidewalk in front of me, or carelessly blowing smoke over their shoulder and into my face, walking while texting ... you know the drill. This I put down largely to the chronic low-grade pain of the middle-aged body: joints that creak and pop, muscles that need an extra stretch, sore feet. Certainly dosing up on an anti-inflammatory like naproxen or diclofenac is mildly helpful: if it wasn't also associated with a slightly elevated risk of sudden cardiac death I'd do it all the time. (I take special pains to be mindful of this tendency when driving, and compensate accordingly: wearing a couple of tons of metal and travelling an order of magnitude faster than on foot raises the potential costs of impatience from trivial to lethal. But then, I probably spend less than a hundred hours driving in any given year. Driving isn't routine any more (although I used to commute around 20,000 miles/year for work, back in the dark ages of the 1980s) so I can usually keep track of it.)

My memory, as previously noted, is a sieve. Partly I find myself living in a cluttered cognitive realm: I have so much context to apply to any new piece of incoming data. If middle-aged people seem slow at times it may not be because they're stupid (although stupidity is a non-ageist affliction) but because they're processing a lot more data than a young mind has on hand to digest. That shop window display? You're not just looking at this seasons clothing fashions, but integrating changes in fashion across multiple decades and recognizing when this stuff was last new. (And if fashion is your thing, you're trying to remember how far back in the wardrobe you hung it last time you wore it, all those years ago.) A side-effect of this: when experiencing something familiar through long repetition you forget it — you don't remember it as a new experience but merely as an instance of a familiar one and (eventually) as nothing at all. (For those of you with a workday routine, this can cut in quite early: how well do you remember your last commute to work? If you do remember it, do you remember it only because it was exceptional—a truck nearly t-boning you, for example?)

An intersecting effect of the aches and pains and the difficulty retrieving information is that you have to focus hard on tasks—it's hard to execute a day with six or seven distinct non-routine activities in it, because that requires planning and planning requires lots of that difficult mental integration. Planning is exhausting. Instead you focus on maintaining routines (get up, brush teeth, take meds, shave, use toilet, make coffee ... check. Go to gym: check. Eat lunch: check. Work at desk: check ...) and scheduling one or two exceptional tasks. Mental checklists help a lot, but you run into the sieve-shaped memory problem again: this is where digital prosthesis (or an overflowing filofax) come in handy.

Your perspective on current events changes. Take the news media. Everything new is old after a time: you see the large-scale similarities across decades even without becoming a student of history. Today's invasion or oil crisis is just like the one before last. Our current political leadership are stuck in the same ideological monkey's-paw trap as their predecessors the last time their party was in power. And so on. So you tend to discount current events and lose interest in the news until something new happens. (If you're wondering why I'm obsessively interested in the Scottish independence thing this year, it's because it's a disruptive event: nothing like it has happened in UK politics for a very long time indeed. It's fresh.)

The same thing happens to one's interest in the current celebrity culture or pop stars. I haven't heard any of Taylor Swift's music. Or Amy Winehouse's. I have no idea about the Kardashians other than that they're famous for being famous. These people are successful players with careers that follow a handful of standard trajectories: well, good luck to them with it. If they make music that speaks to me I'll hear some of it sooner or later and then start exploring their back catalog, but I feel no urge to get sucked in by the hype and excitement right now. Been there, seen it all before. (The last live concert I went to was Nine Inch Nails; the next will probably be Lene Lovich. That should tell you just how non-current I am ...)

Planning takes on a different perspective because your relationship with time frames alters. When you're in your early 20s retirement seems infinitely far away, and the idea of laying plans for a 25 year span is positively surreal. But when you're 50 you've experienced multiple such overlapping periods. You can recognize gross patterns and trends in your life and understand how to set your sights on goals years in the future. My work, these days, often involves planning and executing projects that take months to carry out and must be scheduled years in advance. As an extreme example, I'm midway through a personal project (performing some rather informal A/B testing on two ongoing series of books) that will take 3-5 years to get any useful information out of. So, while short-term task-juggling becomes harder, really long-term project planning gets paradoxically easier.

Interpersonal relationships change in scope, too. Everything is intense and fresh and immediate when you're young. Emotional engagement is high. Emotional engagement doesn't necessarily slacken with age, but the amount of energy we can bring to bear on our relationships diminishes along with our stamina. Watch a pair of 70-80 year olds who've been together for half a century some time. They often appear to ignore each other, because they have such a strong internal model of the other's mind that they can anticipate their partner's words or actions: it's an ignorance derived from deep insight and familiarity, not obliviousness. There's some evidence from cognitive psychology that we use our partners or children or other relatives as external content-addressable memory storage, relying on their shared experience to fill in our patchy recollections: just like google. (Google isn't making our memory obsolete, rather it's plugging into an existing interpersonal human mechanism at a very low level.) At the same time, they may not notice or be able to respond effectively if their partner is undergoing an exceptional crisis such as a stroke or heart attack: the phenomenon is so far out of scope that they don't recognize it as an emergency at first, unless their attention is specifically redirected from their mental map of the other and back to the human territory it represents. Especially as our stamina diminishes with age, until in extreme old age even focusing on our own immediate needs is a challenge.

So, you've been reading a Charlie Stross blog entry and you're wondering where the zinger is.

Here's the speculation. Let us suppose that in the next couple of decades we develop a cure for the worst problems associated with senescence. We figure out how to reverse the cumulative damage to mitochondrial DNA, to reset the telomere end caps of stem cells without issuing carte blanche to every hopeful cancer in our bodies, to unravel the cumulative damage of prion proteins, to tame the cumulative inflammation that causes atherosclerosis, to fix the underlying mechanism behind metabolic syndrome (the cause of hypertension and type II diabetes).

We now have a generation of 70 year olds who in 20 years time will be physiologically in their 40s, not their 90s. At worst, they're no longer in the steep decline of late old age: at best, they're ageing backwards to their first flush of adult fitness.

You're one of them. You're 25-60 years old now. You're going to be 55-90 years old by then. Unlike today's senior citizens, you don't ache whenever you get out of bed, you're physically fit, you don't have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or Alzheimer's, you aren't deaf or blind or suffering from anosmia or peripheral neuropathy or other sensory impairments, and you're physically able to enjoy your sex life. Big win all round.

But your cognitive functioning is burdened by decades of memories to integrate, canalized by prior experiences, dominated by the complexity of long-term planning at the expense of real-time responsiveness. Every time you look around you are struck by intricate, esoteric cross-references to that which has gone before. Every politician, celebrity, actor, blogger, pop star, author ... you've seen someone like them previously, you know what they're going to say before they open their mouth. Every new policy or strategy has failure modes you recognize: "that won't work" is your usual response to change, not because you're a curmudgeonly pessimist but because you've been there before.

Maybe you're going to make extensive use of lifeloggers or external prosthetic memory assistance devices—think of your own personal google, refreshing your memory whenever you ask the right question—or maybe you're going to float forward in time through a haze of forgetting, deliberately shedding old context to make room for fresh. Some folks try for rolling amnesia with a 40-70 year horizon behind them. You gradually lose contact with such people because they just don't want to know you any more. Others try to hang on to every experience, wallowing in the lush, intricate texture of an extended lifespan until their ability to respond is so impaired that they appear catatonic.

Which are you going to be? And how will you cope with a century of memories contained in the undecaying flesh of indefinitely protracted adulthood?

December 09, 2014

Beer, Berlin, Sunday 23rd by Charlie Stross

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

(Facebook event here.)

Oh dear by Charlie Stross

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

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

Review 2014: One Thing: Simon A. Forward. by Feeling Listless

Life What has a hazelnut in every bite? Topic. I didn’t really have one in mind when Ian kindly invited me to write a guest post for his 2014 review, then I remembered I have a new book due for release this December.

And what better respite from the deluge of carols and Christmas pop tunes in the cafes and shopping centres of the world than the sound of an author blowing his own trumpet?

On the other hand, I didn’t really want to make this a commercial.

Now, in fairness, my Evil UnLtd books aren’t all about self self self, since if you put them on your shelf shelf shelf all royalties will go to Cancer Research UK so a purchase (of ebook or paperback) is all in a good cause. And in looking back on this year it’s impossible for me not to think on this, the fourth volume in this increasingly epic sci-fi series of mine.

It’s about time, as the tagline said of the Doctor Who TV Movie. Which is to say, this instalment is about time (my DW novel Emotional Chemistry featured four different modes of time travel and I think I may have outdone that with this one). And it’s also an admission that I took my own sweet time writing it.

You can put that down to my meticulousness and exacting standards. And if you’ve scribbled as many Doctor Who reviews as I have, complaining how many of the episodes don’t make sense, you’re under some additional obligation to take care over your own writings and make sure the dots all join up sensibly. Even more important, I suppose, when those writings are a fiendishly fangled Evil time-travel adventure. And if it turns out the tangled web of time is riddled with mistakes, well, readers are invited to make omelettes out of all the egg on my face.

Time allegedly flies when you’re having fun and it’s true to say I always have great fun writing these books. They’re supposed to be funny, after all, so it’s a good sign if I’m having a laugh or several along the way. Hopefully folks will have nearly as much fun reading them.

But time only flew occasionally. Sometimes it crawled, sometimes it got completely away from me, sometimes it had trouble dragging itself out of bed in the mornings, sometimes it crashed altogether. Because, at the risk of a brief moment of sobriety ahead of the impending festive season, there was one other major feature to characterise my 2014 and definitely played its part in slowing up the creativity.

Depression, to give it a name. The black dog, to give it another.

It’s hounded me (haha) for years, but this last year was particularly tough, turning at times into an obstacle course of deep troughs and huge mountains to climb. I mention this not to cast a downer on everyone’s Christmas, but because depression is far from uncommon and none of us should be afraid to fess up to it. Also because one other 2014 memory that springs too readily to mind is Robin Williams, a warm and very funny guy now who inherited RIP after his name in August. A sad loss, for him and us.

It’s particularly easy to fall prey to the black dog at this time of year and I wish I was brimming with wisdom and bright advice for other sufferers out there, but even if we are not alone but we do face it largely alone. What works for me may not work for you.

What worked for me this year is that I made it to December with a finished book to show for it. And a comedy at that. Depression’s not entirely useless in that it does fuel some measure of the cynical humour that colours much of the Evil UnLtd series. I guess that’s key: for one, it helps to laugh, even at the crappiest things in life, for two, it’s a matter of turning even the darker emotions to some sort of advantage.

It’s like turning fat into muscle. And as anyone with a lapsed gym membership will tell you, that’s hard work. But just as we needn’t be afraid to talk about it and should never be afraid to get help, we really need to not be afraid of the hard work it takes to negotiate that daily assault course and stay ahead of that damned black dog snapping at your heels.
So, I guess ultimately what I (finally) wanted to say here is this:

Happy Christmas. But in case it’s not, don’t be afraid of the big black dog. It may pee all over your Christmas tree, but it can be trained.

I can’t claim to have mastered it but at least for this year I can count my achievements as well as my blessings. A fourth book in a series is no mean feat, plus I’ve continued to produce short fantasy fiction in my Tortenschloss Chronicles at the rate of an episode a week and managed various other bits of creativity in the face of adversity. And knowing that feels like an encouraging pat on the back. So if you’re looking back on your 2014 and it’s been a rough one, I recommend counting anything and everything you’ve achieved, no matter how small. And if it was a struggle to get this far, well, d’you know what? That makes those achievements all the more notable and valuable. Count em twice.
There. That’s me done with being sober for the year.

Here’s to 2015, in which I’m planning, amongst other things, a fifth Evil book. That one is not going to be about time. In theory it should be about politics. So if nothing else depresses me next year, that certainly ought to do it.


You can follow Simon on Twitter @perfect4d.  He's the author of several Doctor Who novels, audio dramas and short stories as well as the writer of three novelisations for the BBC’s Merlin series. He also self-publishes his own sci-fi comedy series, Evil UnLtd (see and you can find some of his fantasy fiction at The Tortenschloss Chronicles:

Christmas Links #9 by Feeling Listless

Christmas tat comes but once a year, so embrace that reindeer jumper:
"The new issue of Vogue is specifically dedicated to people’s work wear: “I always enjoy trying to guess what someone does for a living from what they are wearing, and generally have a pretty good strike rate,” the magazine’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, writes. I reckon everyone has a great strike rate when it comes to guessing your occupation, Mr Claus, and while this might spare you some tedious small talk at cocktail parties (“What do you – oh, right”), I bet it raises other complicated issues, ones possibly not mentioned in Vogue, because life is complicated when Christmas clothes are your perennial personal style."

College basketball fans toss Christmas toys onto court during game:
"A college basketball team takes a technical foul just to make sure children have toys under the tree this year."

17 Badass Women You Probably Didn’t Hear About In 2014:
"The 600 volunteers who added 101 female artists to Wikipedia."

The Box of Delights and other stories about dreams:
"Yet The Box of Delights is also set at Christmas, when dreams mean something different. For one thing, they're important in the Nativity story. In Matthew 2, the Magi are warned in a dream not to tell Herod where he can find the infant Jesus; then Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath. I'm interested in the interpretation of dreams in life and fiction—and how one use of dreams in particular shaped our modern sense of Christmas."

The Interactive Polish Christmas Guide:
"Polish Christmas interactive guide project is horizontal scrolling, illustration-driven journey explaining Christmas traditions in Poland."

China plans a Mars rover and orbiter for 2020 launch opportunity by The Planetary Society

China is moving forward with plans to launch an orbiter and rover to Mars in the 2020 launch opportunity. The Mars program also includes plans for sample return in 2030.

First Look Photographs of Orion's Return to Dry Land by The Planetary Society

NASA's Orion spacecraft is back on dry land following its offloading from the USS Anchorage late Monday night. Here are some selected photographs by Kevin Baird.

Origin of water in the solar system is interstellar by Astrobites

  • Title: The ancient heritage of water ice in the solar system
  • Authors: L. Ilsedore Cleeves (1), Edwin A. Bergin (1), Conel M. O’D. Alexander (2), Fujun Du (1), Dawn Graninger (3), Karin I. Öberg (3), Tim J. Harries (4)
  • Authors’ institutions: (1) University of Michigan (2) Carnegie DTM (3) Harvard-Smithsonian CfA (4) University of Exeter
  • Paper status: published in Science

Why is water important?
The formation of life on Earth is strongly related to the abundance of water (H2O). Astronomers searching for life around other stars want to understand how frequently and under what conditions water forms. In other words, they try to estimate the abundance of water molecules in protoplanetary disks. It is easier to predict water abundances in protoplanetary disks, if its formation mechanism is understood. Protoplanetary disks are circumstellar disks, which form around a star during star formation and they are considered as the birth place of planets. The underlying question is whether water has formed in the protoplanetary disk itself (see this astrobite) or whether it has been directly inherited from its surrounding, namely the interstellar medium.

Conditions for water formation
The authors of today’s paper claim to have found an answer to this fundamental question. Their results are based on a few elementary conditions for water formation: 1) You need to have rather cold temperature (below 50 K), 2) you need oxygen and 3) you need a source to ionize molecular hydrogen significantly. Ionizing molecular hydrogen means that neutral H2 gas is hit by a photon and emits one electron, such that it becomes positively charged. Assuming the region of interest (e.g. a molecular cloud consisting of mainly H2) satisfies all these three properties, water forms through two mechanisms. Fortunately, both chemical paths have in common that they require a contribution of H2D⁺ (D for deuterium, which is an hydrogen atom with one extra neutron in the nucleus).

This brings us to the crucial concept of the paper. Since it is difficult to draw definite conclusions just from the water abundance in the disk, the authors investigate the characteristics of the water molecules themselves. Figure 1 shows measurements of the D/H ratio in water molecules of objects (mostly comets) in the solar system and the ratio of D/H in pure molecular hydrogen gas of solar system bodies like the Sun, Jupiter or Uranus. You can see that the ratio is enhanced by a factor of about 10 for water compared to the ratio of the bulk gas (H2), namely the value in the Sun. Moreover, you can see that the D/H ratio of water is similar for objects in the interstellar medium and solar system bodies. Consequently, a model predicting the water abundance in the solar system has to reproduce the enhancement of deuterium in water with respect to the bulk gas (H2).

Figure 1: Deuterium to hydrogen ratio for different objects in the solar system (dark blue symbols) and objects in the interstellar medium (yellow symbols). The grey regime refers to the D/H ratio in molecular hydrogen (H2) and the white regime refers to the ratio in water (H2). The light blue bar corresponds to the ratio of D/H in (H2) of the sun, referred to as bulk gas value.

Deuterium measurements inconsistent with water production in the solar system
The authors model a static disk including a simplified deuterium-reaction network evolution for 1 Myr with an initial D/H ratio of the bulk gas 2*10-5 and compare it to a simulation assuming an initial value reflecting the interstellar ratio of 10-3. They picked 1 Myr because this is the estimated period for which the disk is considered as gas-rich. In Fig. 2, you can see that the ratio in water stays nearly constant during the evolution of the disk and hence the ratio is far to low to explain the measured values of Fig.1 as for instance the value for Earth’s Ocean (correctly speaking the VSMOW, the Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water). Why is that? Remember the three conditions for H2O formation: ionization, oxygen and cold temperature. According to the authors, in most locations of the disk these conditions are not met simultaneously. Moreover, the D/H ratio stays constant when assuming an initial ratio similar to the interstellar value.

Due to the fact that the interstellar ratios are of similar values, the authors interpret their results as evidence for water being inherited from the parent molecular cloud. They suggest that the solar system underwent a period of high-temperature at the beginning of its formation and that a significant amount of water was added to the system at a later point by in-falling deuterium-enriched interstellar ices.

Discussion and impact of water in the solar system being inherited
Fine, but you may ask yourself how realistic is the underlying model? One of the assumptions the authors make is that ionization is reduced. They argue that the effect of stellar winds yields a smaller ionization rate through X-rays emitted by the Sun and stellar winds shield the protoplanetary disk from galactic cosmic rays. By overstating this effect, they potentially underestimate the degree of ionization, but conceptually their assumption of a shielding stellar wind is well motivated and probably accurate. Taking everything into account, their general point that deuterium enriched water cannot be produced inside the disk by the ion chemistry is solid and the conclusion that a significant fraction of the water in the solar system stems from the parent molecular cloud is very convincing.

But you may ask, why it is important to care about the origin of water? Do the authors’ results tell us anything else? Actually, they do! They may have consequences for the interpretation of other planetary systems. Assuming that the inheritance of water from the parent molecular cloud occurs in other systems, too, water should be widely abundant there as well. Consequently, chances seem to be not too small of you just missed an awesome pool party on an exoplanet, while you are finishing this bite.

Figure 2: Distribution of the D/H ratio illustrated as a blue line in H-5D+ (left) and in H2O (right) after 1 Myr of simulation for an initial D/H value of 2*10-5. The red dashed line corresponds to the D/H value in the Sun (bulk gas) and the black dotted lines corresponds to the Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (SMOW), which is an average value of the D/H ratio for the oceans on Earth.

Figure 2: Distribution of the D/H ratio illustrated as a blue line in H-5D+ (left) and in H2O (right) after 1 Myr of simulation for an initial D/H value of 2*10-5. The red dashed line corresponds to the D/H value in the Sun (bulk gas) and the black dotted lines corresponds to the Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (SMOW), which is an average value of the D/H ratio for the oceans on Earth.

December 08, 2014

What Happens When Space Projects Go Over Budget? The Curious Case of MSL’s Overrun by The Planetary Society

Jason Callahan takes a detailed look at the effects of Curiosity's cost overruns on NASA's budget.

The 10xers by Simon Wardley

Back in the days of Fotango (circa 2000 to 2007), we used to talk about the difference between an average developer and a rock star as being 10-100x. I used a number of techniques to create centres of gravity, a good working environment, interesting projects and went on a rampage hiring almost every star Perl developer we could get our hands on through the open source community. We certainly acquired a selection of stars.

But, here's the rub. What I didn't realise fully at the time (but I do now) is that we also knew where to attack, what to commoditise and we had a very highly developed awareness of our environment and markets. We certainly didn't exploit this as well as we could but in terms of cloud, we were years ahead of the game.

To give you an idea, here's a few snippets from an early 2007 board pack (remember this stuff was all in production, live in 2006, if not before) ....

Snippet 1 - Where we were and dealing with existing issues

Snippet 2 - An overview of Zimki - a PaaS (in 2006)

Snippet 3 - On the earlier 2006 Strategy

Snippet 4 - On the impacts of the Zimki PaaS

Alas, in an act of vandalism a well known consultancy gave the parent company advice that this stuff wasn't the future. But that's not what is important.

What's important here is that our strategic play came from our understanding of the environment and our use of techniques such as mapping. It's the same technique I used at Canonical when we took Ubuntu into the cloud against RedHat and others. There's also an array of gameplay that can be involved.

So what has this got to do with the 10xers? Well, this concept and the war for talent is all the rage but does it really help if you can build the thing faster, more efficiently and more well designed if you're building the wrong thing? 

The problem that I commonly see is that situational awareness is so poor in business that most strategy is little more than copying others, gut feel, story telling and astrology. I'm no genius but if I'm playing a game of chess against you but only I can see the board then you're going to lose every time no matter how good your people are. Of course, if we all suck at gameplay then 10xers will certainly make a huge difference because the one who has them will get to experiment, trial and gain feedback faster.

The point of this post is simple - don't just assume that 10xers are the solution to your problem. You may just end up getting where you don't want to be, faster. Know where you need to attack i.e. make sure you have good situational awareness and exploit it. Finally, and most importantly, NEVER employ big name strategy consultancy firms (under any circumstances). Learn to play the game for yourself.

Leading question by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

Review 2014: One Thing: Jacqueline Rayner. by Feeling Listless

Books Guest blog goal: to bring something obscure to a wider audience. Well, 2014 marked the end of a quest of mine, a quest to find all that could be known about a character called Reginald Fortune. Obscure? Well, I’m obviously not going to be the only person in the world to have heard of him. But back in the early 1980s it felt like I was...

When I was about 11 or 12 I was exploring my Nan’s house when I came across an old, very tatty cloth-bound book called Clue for Mr Fortune by H C Bailey. The (foxed) imprint page told me it was the third impression ‘(first cheap edition)’ and that it had been published in September 1937. No one knew where it had come from or who owned it, so I was allowed to take it home to read. Clue for Mr Fortune contained six stories, each dealing with a different ‘clue’ that spoke volumes to the eponymous Reginald Fortune, a gp who advised Scotland Yard. The book’s language was occasionally archaic in both construction and word use (the first story has a girl who steals a flapjack, which turned out to be a powder compact and not, as I confusingly thought at the time, an oaty treat), the cherubic Reggie was not the most sympathetic of lead characters and the action was often gruesome (the flapjack story not only had dead humans – perfectly acceptable in detective stories – but also a cat with its head bashed in, which was fairly traumatic). Nevertheless, I adored the book and wanted to read more.

I turned first to my library, but the Essex Library Network had only one H C Bailey volume – and that was in its reserve collection, not even on the shelves – a reprint of the first book, Call Mr Fortune. As far as I could tell with my limited resources (no internet!), only two books had ever been reprinted, the rest had been out of print for decades and the chances of any library having a 50 or 60 year old edition on their shelves seemed slim. So for the next few decades I scoured second-hand bookshops, flicked through every mystery anthology I could find hoping to see the magical words ‘by H C Bailey’ in the contents list, and even regularly picked up ‘Book and Magazine Collector’ to search through its classifieds (growing to loathe Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot along the way). Slowly, gradually, my collection built up. There were additional delights in discovering these often ancient books: for example my 1943 US Pocket Book edition of The Best of Mr Fortune Stories asks the owner to send it to ‘Commanding General, Fourth Corps Area Headquarters, Atlanta GA’ when they’ve read it, ‘to help the boys in the service’ who need books ‘for amusement and recreation’. Lovely stuff!

Mr Fortune is one of the detectives emulated by Tommy and Tuppence in Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime and H C Bailey is one of the authors mentioned in another of her books, The Body in the Library, presumably therefore both Fortune and Bailey would have been familiar names to readers of the 1920s-40s. So why have they both fallen into obscurity now? Perhaps it’s because authors such as Christie can transcend their time period, but Bailey is very much of his. In these cosmopolitan days there would be little place for some of Reggie’s deductions – there’s the time he solved a case by discovering that the stomach contents of a murdered victim contain saffron and deducing he must find a Devonshire household as only they would know of saffron cake, and a similar experience when he deduces a fragment of a menu must be from Brittany so searches for a crime there.

Then there’s his relationship with the police which is patronising in the extreme: he frequently bursts the smug bubble of some local police official by pointing out that, eg, an absence of blood on the ground means the corpse was murdered elsewhere, while his acolytes (Mr Lomas, the Chief of the CID, and Superintendent Bell) look upon him with awe (OK, so there was no CSI in the early 20th century, but really...) And then he’ll go in the opposite direction with deductions so out of left field that you have to credit him with second sight – even his colleagues think his powers verge on the supernatural. (“‘Very odd how he knows men,’ said Superintendent Bell reverently. ‘As if he had an extra sense to tell him of people’s souls, like smells or colours.’ And he has a clear head. He is never confused about what is important and what isn’t, and he has never been known to hesitate in doing what is necessary.”)

That’s a quote from ‘The Unknown Murderer’, a story from Mr Fortune’s Practice that showcases several of the features that distinguish the Mr Fortune stories: an unusual and disturbing motive (in this case, murdering people who are greatly loved to inflict suffering on those left behind), and Reggie’s own sense of justice – ‘doing what is necessary’ as the text has it – another thing that might make him unpalatable today. Here, his struggles with the murderer lead to her death, which he then denies knowledge of and classes as suicide during his own examination of the body as Home Office expert. Slightly dodgy? Oh yes. But at least in that case the criminal was trying to kill him at the time; in a really quite startlingly large percentage of stories Mr Fortune either causes or fails to prevent the death of the criminal, often cold-bloodedly – and even considering the death penalty of the time, this can make uncomfortable reading. It may make it more or less acceptable that these deaths often occur when Reggie knows that there’s insufficient evidence for a conviction or when the punishment would be, in his eyes, inadequate – he’s carrying out the death penalty that he feels they deserve. (“‘They’d tortured that boy and his mother. They planned to murder mother and son. They did their best to murder the boy’s soul. And the law would only have given them a few years in prison. I want justice.’ Bell looked at him with dread. ‘It’s an awful responsibility to take.’ ‘Yes. I take it,’ Reggie Fortune said.” – ‘The Only Son’, Mr Fortune’s Trials.)

Children feature frequently – Mr Fortune is a champion of children and places their welfare above all things, but what happens to them before his arrival is frequently extremely distressing, and there are many that he arrives too late to save and can only avenge. But putting aside the terrible things that happen to these children in the name of fiction, possibly the worst crime that is committed in these stories is the way that the youngest of the children speak: so vewwy vewwy twee. Weally they do. It’s the only folly in the prose that really needs the reader’s forgiveness.

Mr Fortune is the opposite to contemporaries such as Poirot and Inspector French in that he works better in short stories than in novels – even with my love of the character I find the novels can verge on impenetrable at times, but there are compensations: Mr Fortune Finds a Pig provides one of the best book names ever created, drily literal and absurd at the same time, although the plot of the 1943 book is grim – pig -> blood of a sucking pig used to culture typhus -> typhus used to murder evacuee children -> murder of evacuee children used to create unrest. Then there’s Dead Man’s Effects, the cover of which provides the unforgettable illustration of some people dramatically looking down at a very small set of false teeth (‘dead man’s effects’ being WWII slang for false teeth). Glorious!

As of 2014 my 30-odd year quest has ended: thanks to the Internet I have finally tracked down all the volumes of short stories. No more new Mr Fortune for me (although there are still those cases never recorded except as a brief recap at the start of a story: “‘That was chocolate cream,’ he said placidly. ‘You’d better arrest the aunt’” or “Mr Fortune came back from the Zoo pensive. He had been called to the inquest on Zuleika the lemur – a strange, sad case”, which can at least be discovered by an exercise of the imagination). So where do I go from here?

Mr Fortune is a great character. He’s lucky that in these Internet days he’s become slightly less obscure, there’ve even been reprints of a couple of his books in recent years – but they still need to be sought out, which requires people to know about them in the first place; that’s the challenge. How many other great characters have been lost to all but a few who frequent second-hand bookshops? How many now exist only in the few stories that have been anthologised? So I’m going to keep my eyes open for some other tatty, foxed, century-old volume that’s never been reprinted – and maybe find another character who doesn’t deserve to have been thrown on history’s scrap heap. Why not join me? Rescue a lost character today!

A few story picks:

‘The Furnished Cottage’ (Mr Fortune’s Trials): a twisted tale of revenge. “Perhaps the water wasn’t really poisoned. He put the tip of a finger into it and touched his tongue. Bitter! Yes, the old woman told the truth. Strychnine, and a good dose of it. And he would be sitting there, wild with thirst, looking at her poisoned water. . . . The old woman must have thought a good deal about making him suffer.”

‘The Dead Leaves’ (Clue for Mr Fortune): picturesque murder in the Lake District. “’He didn’t get it on that rock. It wouldn't grow there. He’d been higher. On the mountain.’ Bell watched him gaze up at it with a queer wistful look. His round face had the expression of a child wanting the cruel, difficult world to be kind.”

‘The Little House’ (Mr Fortune, Please): a drawing of a kitten leads Mr Fortune to a tortured child. “’They’ve been making experiments. Not for science. For the devil.’”

‘The Profiteers’ (Mr Fortune’s Trials): Reggie’s only supernatural case. “‘When they broke the door in they found him over there in the corner. Sort of kneeling in a heap, they say. As if he died saying his prayers.’”

You can follow Jac on Twitter @girlfromblupo.  This is her Amazon shop and she also has a Doctor Who blog.

New Views of Ancient Martian Landscapes by The Planetary Society

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter just keeps delivering remarkable scenes from the Red Planet.

Christmas Links #8 by Feeling Listless

Christmas at the Front (1914) - First World War:
"From the BFI National Archive"

Black cabs: is it the end of the road?
"In Liverpool, they use cabs instead of buses, partly because there aren’t many buses and partly because at night, few people want to take them. So here, in a neat reversal of the situation in London, there are cab ranks at supermarkets and in areas where people can’t afford cars. They’re also deregulated, so apart from a very slimline version of the Knowledge, black cab drivers are unified only by the desire to make a living. Thus, when you come out of Central Station, you can be greeted by any number of wedding, hen and stag cab specialists, plus at least 14 competing flavours of Beatles tour. Tourism is worth £3.1bn a year to Liverpool, and four men from a band that broke up 44 years ago must account for about half of that."

Starbucks Bets Big on Beans:
"Can the retail giant Starbucks recast itself as a source for rare, hand-crafted coffees? At its Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle the company is showcasing its premium coffees from roast to brew."

Bristol School Pupil Wins Competition to Design The Big Issue's Christmas Cover:
“My Dad always brings home The Big Issue and I wanted to make it Christmassy. Usually I start drawing quite quickly with my crayons and this didn’t take long to finish once I had started it. I hope it helps the vendors have a nice Christmas.”

Doctor Who Christmas special: What is the significance of the tangerines?
"In new pictures from the seasonal episode Last Christmas (see below), it pops up again and again. In one shot, a serious-looking Doctor (is there any other kind these days?) cradles a tangerine portentously. In another, Santa tosses one into the air."

This Henry the Hoover nativity scene is the best shop window you’ll see this Christmas:
"Kris Sale (44) and his son Ashley Sale (16) have done something very special in the window of their electrical appliances shop in Southend"

Putting summer vacation photos on Christmas cards:
"Areti Bratsis has found that summer visitors to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, often have more on their minds than going to the beach, eating seafood and watching sunsets. Many are hiring photographers to take family portraits with the intent of using the photos months later on holiday greeting cards."

The National Gallery Nativities Trail:
"Follow the Christmas story through six paintings in the collection."

Searchers find Sitka man lost while cutting Christmas trees:
"A Sitka man out cutting Christmas trees Sunday afternoon triggered a several-hour search involving multiple agencies after he became separated from the rest of his group, Alaska State Troopers said."

Counting Stellar Corpses: Rethinking the Variable Initial Mass Function? by Astrobites

Title: Evidence for a Constant Initial Mass Function in Early-Type Galaxies Based On Their X-ray Binary Populations
Authors: Mark B. Peacock, Stephen E. Zepf, Thomas J. Maccarone, Arunav Kundu, Anthony H. Gonzalez, Bret D. Lehmer, Claudia Maraston
First Author’s institutions: Michigan State University

Think of the stars in a galaxy as an iceberg. When we observe a galaxy, we see only the brightest stars, or the tip of the iceberg. To infer how much of the iceberg is hidden, we must make a few assumptions. One assumption is the shape of the initial mass function (IMF). The IMF is the initial distribution of masses in a population of stars. In the Milky Way, the measured IMF is similar across a range of environments. Until recently this same shape has been assumed for other galaxies. In the past few years, studies have found evidence that the IMF in elliptical galaxies varies systematically with galaxy mass. The authors of this paper revisit that question by counting the remnants of massive stars.

When massive stars die, they become neutron stars and black holes – collectively called stellar remnants. When a stellar remnant is in a close binary system with a star, it can pull matter from the star. This accretion is energetic enough to produce X-rays that can be detected in other galaxies. If the donor star is low-mass, these systems are called low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXBs). By comparing the number of LMXBs in different galaxies, we can compare the number of massive stars that were formed in these galaxies. If we divide the number of LMXBs by the number of low-mass stars (as traced by the galaxy’s light), we can compare the shape of the IMF in these galaxies. The authors take this strategy to compare the IMF in eight galaxies.

The authors select a sample of eight galaxies which have deep X-ray observations in the Chandra observatory data archive. The sample is also required to have Hubble Space Telescope (HST) photometry to measure the total galaxy light and exclude X-ray sources in background galaxies and globular clusters.To count the number of LMXBs in the galaxies, the authors first need to throw out other X-ray sources. Active galactic nuclei emit X-rays from the accretion of matter onto a supermassive black hole. If these are lurking in the background behind the target galaxies, they must be excluded from the tally of LMXBs. Another type of X-ray source that the authors exclude is LMXBs in globular clusters hosted by the target galaxies.

Why exclude LMXBs just because they’re in globular clusters? Remember that LMXBs are binary systems. In globular clusters, the stars are packed so tightly that binary systems can be formed by the interaction between two single stars. This enhances the numbers of LMXBs in globular clusters. Counting the LMXBs in globular clusters will lead us to believe that a galaxy with more globular clusters has more stellar remnants, biasing the IMF comparison. The authors exclude LMXBs in background galaxies and globular clusters by matching X-ray sources found in the Chandra data with optical counterparts in the HST data. All X-ray sources which have an optical counterpart are thrown out of the analysis.


Ratio between the number of LMXBs and K-band luminosity (nx) versus velocity dispersion (σ).The black points are galaxy data. The dashed lines are predictions for a constant IMF (red) and an IMF that varies systematically with σ, as predicted by previous studies (blue). The only change in the bottom panel is that it only includes brighter LMXBs, which allows a significant measurement in the 8th galaxy. In both cases, the galaxies are consistent with a constant IMF.

After discarding interlopers, the authors count the number of LMXBs in each galaxy and divide by the total K-band luminosity of that galaxy. The K-band light traces the red giants in these galaxies, which are close to solar mass. The ratio between the number of LMXBs and the K-band luminosity is a measure of the shape of the IMF. The recent studies of the IMF in elliptical galaxies predict that this ratio decreases (there are fewer LMXBs per unit of K-band luminosity) as total galaxy mass increases. What did these authors find?

In Figure 1, the number of LMXBs divided by the total K-band luminosity  is plotted against velocity dispersion (σ) for each galaxy. σ in these galaxies is directly related to total galaxy mass. The LMXB counts in 7 of the galaxies show no evidence for a variable IMF. One outlier galaxy has unexpectedly few LMXBs. This outlier cannot be explained by a systematic variation in the IMF, but the cause of the discrepancy is unknown.

The evidence from low-mass X-ray binary counts does not support the claim that the initial mass function varies systematically with galaxy mass. This is especially puzzling because of the studies which do find that more massive galaxies have more low-mass stars relative to high-mass stars. This finding motivates deep X-ray observations for a larger sample of galaxies, to measure the low-mass X-ray binary population in a wider range of galaxy masses. In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep guessing how much of the iceberg is lurking out of view.

December 07, 2014

Review 2014: One Thing: Chris Brown. by Feeling Listless

Life I was cleaning out a cupboard a couple of days ago when I found a blue bag filled like a time-capsule of my education. It was full of school reports spanning 10 years of my life and between them was everything from certificates celebrating my attendance through to my acceptance letter for secondary school and then, finally, congratulation cards for my first “proper” job.

What was notable about it was it didn’t contain a single element that I would put on my CV, I assume my degree certificates and professional qualifications are in another blue bag in a different cupboard elsewhere. But here it was a lengthy description of how I was doing at the age of 7 – 18. I was never very good a sport, for example, but quite good at writing.

There was one line in there that stood out though from when I was seven. “A quiet, rather unsure little boy.” As a statement it still stung me now. Was I? It’s a bit of a Barnum Statement really, which children do not face doubts at that age.

The thing that sticks in the mind though is, I wasn’t very confident as a child, but I’m not sure when that change happened. The more I think about it the more I consider that it was around this time. I do wonder the impact of reading that, at a time when I was trying to work out what kind if little boy I was.

So here’s what I’ve learned this year, or rather what I already knew but it’s the best advice I’ve got today. This is what I’d tell that seven year old boy. The world is full of experts that don’t know you but still feel they need to impose themselves on you. The most damaging thing I can possibly imagine is telling a child drawing a picture or writing a short story that their work is “fair“ and nothing else.

We are so obsessed with running towards the next thing, to recreate something else that replicates what we believe is good work, that we forget the value in all art, or the value in just creation.

Imagine telling a seven-year-old his creative ideas aren’t good enough. Then we plump them in front of X Factor at the weekends and show them armies of teenagers being informed that their impression of Al Green or Dusty Springfield isn’t up to snuff. We tell them that singing and enjoying performing isn’t enough. What they’re really being told in that crushing five minutes of their lives is that a panel of judges don’t think they can sell enough records off their back. They are reduced to a commercial failure without the benefit of having to try and then get the benefit of being patted on the back and told they are being done a favour. “Back to Tesco you go and no more of this nonsense about performing for others.”

There are also experts who always seem to pop up at University lectures as guests or the person who gives you “the talk” at work experience. Though a mix of nostalgia and a wish to reduce the competition, you’ll be told that it isn’t as good as it was. You’ll be told that the opportunities have gone and you might as well not bother. They’re the worst, they’re the ones who ignore the fact that the world changes and things improve and it’s them that haven’t adapted. They tarnish the young with the same ideas as their own failures. They accept that the rules can’t be changed because they don’t know how. They don’t understand that we need young people, it’s them that will push us all forwards. That won’t happen if we keep on telling them that they need to be only as good as the last good thing and woe betide if you try and innovate.

I couldn’t imagine not writing now, that quiet little boy has two successful podcast series and a book under his belt, along with a fair few years in journalism too and, probably, would have had more done by now if he wasn’t so unsure of himself. If that teacher had decided to do a little more of their job in educating and motivating, rather than being snide, then I might have done more.

So if you want to write, then do so. Do all you can. Grab the opportunities and write and write and write. Do it because you love it and want to keep on doing it. If you want to sing then do so, sing and sing and sing. Because every moment that you write, sing, dance and work you drown out those whose only contribution is to make you feel small.

The saddest thing about reading that report was I couldn’t remember a single thing that teacher had taught me - not one moment from her lessons.

That’s the biggest waste.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @orange_monkey.

Christmas Links #7 by Feeling Listless


"Here's what is playing on the Ice Rink (with the exception of Club Nights and other DJ's)" "Listening to 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (Arctic Monkeys)' by 'Sugababes'"

Rockefeller Center Christmas Trees through the years:
"Each year, Rockefeller Center celebrates Christmas by displaying an enormous tree lavishly decorated with ornaments and lights, attracting tens of thousands of visitors to see it."

Where do our Christmas traditions come from?
"Griff Rhys Jones and historian Daru Rooke discuss the history of Christmas decorations in this clip from Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas, originally broadcast on BBC One in 2007."

So I donned my Christmas suit and tried to blend in …
"And so it is that at 11am on a Thursday I emerge from the tube on to London’s Oxford Street in a bright red suit, for all the world dressed like a man in wrapping paper. The very first comment I hear is the succinct “Holy shit, what is he wearing?” "

Football Remembers: Celebrating 1914 Christmas Truce match:
"Professional and amateur clubs united on Saturday for the start of Football Remembers Week. Numerous events were held across the United Kingdom to mark one of the most iconic moments of World War I, the 1914 Christmas Truce football match. Teams uploaded pre-game photos this weekend to social media with the hashtag #footballremembers."

How Finsbury Square Gave The World A Christmas Tradition:
"It’s entirely appropriate that the ostentatious fountain should be a confection of architectural styles, for it was erected by the sons of sweet manufacturer and inventor of the Christmas cracker, Tom Smith."

Father Christmas: Saint Nicholas' face revealed:
"The "most realistic" portrait of the saint who became Santa Claus has been produced at a Liverpool university. Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century bishop who liked to give gifts secretly. His relics lie in Bari Cathedral in Italy. The image of him has been created using a facial reconstruction system and 3D interactive technology by Liverpool John Moores University's Face Lab."

Santa turns heads on Christmas motorbike:
"Liberton man Jockie Reid, 81, had cars honking as he roared through the area and was even chased by police – so officers could take a selfie with Santa."

Lyme Regis Christmas pudding racers aim for glory:
"Hundreds of people are competing for the honour of being the champion Christmas pudding racer. The event involves teams of six tackling an obstacle course on the seafront in Lyme Regis, Dorset, while carrying a Christmas pudding. Organiser Philip Evans boasted it was "Dorset's whackiest festive event". "

Looking behind the curtain by Zarino

Growing up I was always a Star Wars kid. But this year, after exhausting pretty much every other long-running modern sci-fi series—Doctor Who, Battlestar Gallactica, Babylon 5, Dollhouse—I figured I might as well see how the other half lives, and watch seasons 1–7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It’s a good series (if you’re short on time, Kevin Wu’s Graph TV will, as ever, tell you which episodes you can skip). But one thing that always annoyed me was how little you see of the people in the background.

Schematic of the Enterprise D

There are 1014 people on the Enterprise D. But how many do we see in the typical episode? Picard, Riker, Troi, Worf, La Forge, Data, and Crusher. Every now and then Guinan or Wes Crusher might pop up, but basically that’s it – A crew of 1000, and 99% of the action appears to happen to just 7 people.

The main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation

That is, until episode #176: Lower Decks.

Halfway through a thoroughly dull 7th season, Lower Decks bucks the trend by following a group of ensigns, rather than the main officers we normally get to see. And it’s fascinating.

The four ensigns chat in Ten Forward

Nurse Ogawa (who has featured as an extra in Beverley Crusher’s sickbay for a few seasons already) is worried her boyfriend has gone cold on her, because all he does is worry about his research. The stereotypically good-looking Ensign Lavelle awkwardly attempts to boost his chances of promotion by ingratiating himself with Commander Riker, who’s clearly thinking “Who the fuck is this guy?” Meanwhile, Lavelle’s academic rival, Ensign Sito Jaxa, fumbles with phaser alignments and has a harsh dressing-down by the Captain, bringing back everyone’s memories of the Headmaster’s office at school (or maybe that’s just me?).

Ensign Lavelle ingratiates himself with Commander Riker

The episode has some of the feel of a much more modern show like Battlestar Galactica – because when you focus on the little guys, away from the laser battles and the orders from Starfleet HQ, you get to showcase proper interpersonal relationships.

The moment where Captain Picard appears, without notice, from his ready-room, orders a change of heading, and then exits with all of the senior officers, leaving a handful of quivering Ensigns in charge of the bridge, is fantastic. Usually, by this point, the camera would already have switched to the observation lounge, to follow the senior officers’ discussion. But not this time. This time we linger on the bridge, and see what the underlings gossip about when the officers are away. And it’s brilliant.

Lavelle and Sito Jaxa left at the helm

The theme of focussing on the little guys isn’t unique to Lower Decks. Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which focusses entirely on two minor characters from Hamlet did the same thing thirty years earlier. But the episode’s so well known in TV circles, that it’s even the basis of its own TV trope: The “Lower Deck Episode.”

Anyway, watching Lower Decks made me think…

There is a fascinating part of being a designer that is just watching Lower Decks

All the projects I work on are guided by research into what the product’s users want and need. But the best projects are ones where I’ve actually sat with the users, watched them, soaked up their habits and behaviours, and spotted all the little things that high-level research just doesn’t capture.

Sometimes it turns out the people we thought were the primary users actually aren’t. Or the primary users were correctly identified, but there was a whole network of dependencies below them that we weren’t told about.

Getting behind the curtain—sticking around after the captain has left the bridge CEO has left the boardroom—can make you a better designer.

It can also make you a better salesman or project manager. Just like the ensigns in Lower Decks, your users are generally quivering bags of neuroses. They have likes and dislikes, fears and hopes. Getting behind the curtain can help you build clients the ideal products they never even knew they wanted. You can measure your progress against their defining hope or fear, and make sure, whatever you deliver, it satisfies the one central pain-point they probably never even articulated.

It isn’t a shortcut for making a fully-rounded product that solves all of your users’ needs, but knowing what motivates your users helps you prioritise your work without all the guess work.

Plus, for folks like me who peoplewatch from the windows of cafés, getting behind your customers’ curtains is completely fascinating. Because, just like on the Enterprise, there’s a whole world there that you never normally get to see.

December 06, 2014

The Films I've Watched This Year #46 by Feeling Listless

Film And so life in the #garaiwatch goes on, very much as it has this past age. Full of its own comings and goings with change coming slowly, if it comes at all. For things are made to endure in the #garaiwatch, passing from one generation to the next. When I began this a whole month ago it hadn't been with the intention of watching all of Romola's screen output with quite this intensity, but here I am going into week five with at least four films, The Crimson Petal and the White and both series of The Hour still to do.  She'd probably think it was mad and a bit obsessive, presumably because it is a bit mad and obsessive, but if nothing else it has been just the thing as I otherwise wade through the treacle of the Doctor Who series 8 boxed set, each episode as uninviting as the last.  At least with Torchwood's Miracle Day, it's so rubbish and creatively bankrupt it's possible to watch it with a certain detached irony.  The problem with s8 is that it's so close to being good but destroyed by inconsistent and poorly considered creative decisions. a different kind of disappointment.  But I digress.

As I think I may have mentioned, once or twice, notably here, I've never been a fan of King Lear, which tends to lose me after the generally quite strange first act and although I've seen some very good productions and the Trevor Nunn version for the RSC starring Sir Ian, Sylv and Romola comes pretty close to at least making me understand why some people think it's Shakespeare's best.    Last time I saw this was as part of the plough through the whole canon in 2012 and as then found the studio production understandable but distracting.  Garai is Cordelia so is absent for much of the show which must have been an interesting challenge when the show was on tour and as with her appearance in As You Like It, it's just a shame that Shakespeare doesn't give the character more to do.  Her absence is structurally important, she's out of Lear's sphere so she's out of ours, but Garai's performance is so much richer than is often the case with this character in production that it's as frustrating as when a really good Ophelia turns up on a Hamlet.

Glorious 39
One Day

Before all of that was Angel, Ozon's take on the heritage film, which is, well it's ...

Atonement is fascinating though to properly discuss why, I'll need to spoil it, so I'd skip to the next paragraph.  I'd also skip the One Day paragraph too if you've not read that book or novel.  Glancing about the general impression with Atonement seems to be that people feel cheated by the ending, that it doesn't provide the expected catharsis, and it's true on first viewing it is possible to feel aggrieved that having been shown the central couple piecing their life back together to have that blown away does leave a nasty taste, especially since the "reality" is shown in montage.  But on second viewing, I see it as a very daring approach to the material and one which shifts Joe Wright's film squarely out of the mainstream period picture into art house.  Audiences do tend to react badly to this kind of tonal shift, especially if, unlike Inception or Gravity, it's not part of the DNA of the piece to seemingly try and service the opposite sides of the venn diagram at the same time.

When the film was tackled on Newsnight Review back in the day, one of the criticisms was the decision to cast three different actresses as Briony, the sister's whose sexual misconduct allegation leads to the central couple being kept apart.  And it's true, especially now, to see Saoirse Ronan growing up into Romola Garai and thence Vanessa Redgrave, three actresses who couldn't look less like each other despite Garai's obvious attempts to recreate some of Ronan's physical performance.  Plus Juno Temple remains the same in both ages.  But I think what Joe Wright is doing here is extemporising the fact that Briony is a different person in each of these ages with a different understanding of what she did.  It's like the Doctor says when his writer had surety of purpose, "We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives and that's okay, that's good! You've gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be."

But the ending also makes apparent that in fact most of what we see in the film, especially that central relationship is a fiction.  When we're shown what happened at the fountain, what we're really seeing is how Briony imagines in the scene played out and every moment, which is why we cut back and forth to her looking out of the window.  We're effectively watching a film adaptation within a film adaptation, the version of events as she imagines them as they appear in her final novel.  In that way it's more akin to The Usual Suspects or Fight Club, in that the events we witness are a reimagining and it's not until the television interview that we're seeing the truth or something close to it.  Having not read the book (obviously), I'm not sure how much of this is from the book, but on screen it puts a lot of demands on the viewer who might not realise that Briony is the protagonist and that everything else that surrounds her is happening inside her imagination and expectation, a heightened reality.

After The Other Man and King Lear, Romola's next release was Glorious 39 which oddly enough has a similar flashback structure to Atonement but is clearer about it.  A modern undervalued classic, it's Steven Polikoff once again showing a piece of history from an unusual and original position, in this case the pre-WWII appeasement.  There's a weird old piece in The Guardian about how the film's scorn of appeasers is wrongheaded as though we're somehow not allowed to look down upon the ignorance of the past.  Essentially Poliakoff's film finds its edginess in its images, of the burning domestic animals, the mansion within existing ruins reminding us that the characters are all part of history which tumbles ever onward, the juxtaposition of steady-cam and honeyed photography with despicable acts.  Plus it's something of a reunion, Garai having played opposite a lot of the cast on previous project.  Oh and there's David Tennant bringing her Doctor tally up to two, not that there isn't one of her projects that doesn't feature another Who actors of some description.

The charming Emma was next (see trailer above) then into One Day in which she plays what she hoped would be a change, the "comedy bitch" but as she describes in the 2011 Guardian interview, "I thought there'd be a lot of fun in making her a total bitch, but [director] Lone Scherfig doesn't work in those sorts of stereotypes. The character was quite a departure for me and it was great to do comedy, I've never done anything like it before. If the filming experience is anything to go by, that film will have a lovely warmth."  She's right.  Because the film can't quite decide what it wants to be in general anyway, she's clearly wanting to do one thing but the film pulls her in other directions to the point that she's really quite loveable and given the behaviour of Jim Sturgess's main character Dexter probably understandable.  Indeed there's an action towards the end which leads you to actually wonder if her character doesn't have the more interesting story, which might have been a better film, of having to deal with falling in love with a man who already has a lifelong female friendship.

But the film is an adaptation and original writer David Nichols had a different idea which is essentially When Harry Met Sally as romantic tragedy. Which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that, except it's also exceptionally rote in places and the gender politics are up the wall. As friend of the blog Allyn Gibson said to me on Facebook earlier (comments reproduced with permission) (see also), "I have such mixed feelings about that film. It managed to film a book that I'd have thought was unfilmable, and in so doing it brought some of the book's problems to the fore. I didn't realize it when reading the book, but Em isn't much more than an manic pixie dream girl.  She gets a little more development than the typical MPDG (we see some of her life beyond Dex, though we never meet her family or friends), but her plot function is essentially the same -- be supportive to the male lead, be unattainable until the male is ready like a motivational tool, and then be available when the male has figured it out. And in case we missed it, Ian underlines all of that for us at the end."

Rereading that, Em's actually an MPDG squared, not just for Dex but also Ian and although she's gifted some agency, the whole Paris trip is from Dex's point of view, we discover with him her new found publishing breakthrough, her move to the continent her finding of a new boyfriend.  Then when the unfortunate incident occurs it's a good old fashioned fridging.  As I only vaguely noted in my old blog post about the genre, many, many of these films follow this structure of having a male protagonist and a female co-star with marginal agency whose own scenes are almost always in service of the main character's story (see also About Time).  That's why something like Celeste and Jesse Forever are such a revelation.  They subvert the genre by giving the agency to the female character in a way that they really shouldn't have to.  All of which is a terrible shame because Ken Stott as Dex's father is like weaponised Cribbins, especially in the final tv dinners scene. a single line from which and his delivery of will stay with me forever.

Review 2014: One Thing: Laura Brown. by Feeling Listless

Life There is only one thing that I actually know that everyone else doesn't; the secret to good lasagna is to spread soft cheese on the pasta sheets.

This can't be it, I muse. In 34 years this can't be it. I ask my husband. He says of course there is more I know, and promptly turns over and goes to sleep. On Skype my brother (perhaps wisely) pretends not to have heard the question. My mother is blunter, "answering that question sounds like something I would do if I had a death wish".

I do not know big things. Instead I know little things. My mother, when she is navigating truth bombs, always says "you only do today once". It is the little things that make the days richer. The moments when you sit with a cup of coffee and look at the pot plant outside that, despite all your efforts, survived the autumn. It's the satisfaction of a perfectly painted fingernail.

These are the little things you should know;

*Know how you like to take your coffee. Don't pretend. Having coffee the way you like it in the morning is one of life's simple pleasures

*Learn how to use emoticons. Technology is not to be feared

*Turn your TV down two notches. The reason you and your neighbour aren't friends is because your TV is on too loud

*When the winter light streams through your window at 4pm stop what you are doing and enjoy it. Winter might be cold, wet and sniffily but it has the best light of the year

*Unfollow people on Twitter who talk about themselves in an unfunny way. That doesn't leave you with many options, admittedly, but it is time we stopped enabling each other's navel gazing.

*Smile at people when you wait for them to go past you on a narrow pavement. At worst they are confused. At best they smile back.


*Wear headphones in Asda. Things you will hear in Asda can risk you despising your fellow man. Protect thyself.

*Never pass on the chance for a hug.

*Don't park like a dickhead. Similarly, don't judge people for parking like morons; you only have to deal with them today, they have to live with their inability to park.

*Ring your mother.

You can follow Laura on Twitter @mslaura_brown.

Christmas Links #6 by Feeling Listless

How to create a £500 luxury hamper on the cheap:
"Perhaps the most eye-catching is Asda selling a whole leg of Serrano ham, complete with a stand to carve it on, for £39. The cheapest you can find a basic leg from the upmarket Spanish delicatessen, Brindisa, is £115, though if you really want to splash out, Fortnum & Mason is selling an Iberico ham for £1,950. It comes with its own DNA certificate. Yes, really. For that price you could probably salt, cure and serve up Peppa Pig."

This American Life Holiday Sale:
"Hello, friends. We have some new merchandise and sale items available for your holiday shopping needs. The perfect gifts for people who like receiving things!"

Christmas tree growers get ready for the fir to fly:
"Rob Morgan and family at Poundffald farm on the Gower, near Swansea, who grow about 350,000 trees on 120 hectares (300 acres) – including one destined for 10 Downing Street – have been waiting for this moment for months. Last weekend they had a sense of what was coming when half-mile traffic jams built up in their village of Three Crosses as people queued to get to their farm."

Electronic Christmas cards on Tomorrow's World in 1982:
"Peter Macann looks at the bleeping musical cards of the future in this clip from the classic BBC show."

J.K. Rowling’s Christmas Present to You Is More Harry Potter Stories:
"The author announced the new stories in a newsletter to Pottermore members, explaining that each new installment would be posted at 1 pm GMT (8am ET) every day beginning Dec. 12. The email promises “wonderful writing by J.K. Rowling in Moments from Half-Blood Prince, shiny gold Galleons and even a new potion or two.”"

Yule Log 2.0:
"Yule Log 2.0 is back for a second season! Composed of a collection of short films created by illustrators, animators, directors, and creative coders, this site is bringing the traditional Yule Log back and into the digital age. So gather ’round and warm your hearts and hands with us on the web this holiday."

Billy Bob Thornton Was Hammered During Filming And Other Things You Might Not Know About ‘Bad Santa’:
"Generally, Christmas movies tend to cater to the family friendly genre, which is probably why myself and so many others love Bad Santa. It’s the anti-family friendly Christmas movie, trading heartwarming for vulgarity as Billy Bob Thornton plays a perpetually drunk Santa Clause who enjoys anal sex with women in department store dressing rooms. Billy Bob’s foul-mouthed mall Santa and his equally crude elf cleaned up at the box office in 2003 with the movie pulling in $76 million and becoming an instant holiday classic."

The Best Alternative Animated Christmas Movies:
"A camera in virtual motion allows us to follow the journey of a golden train ticket as it ripples, rolls, lifts, drops and swirls like a snowflake across mountain tops, through forests, past packs of wolves before finally resting on the beak of an eagle. It’s a glorious long take, and it’s from Robert Zemeckis' 2004 film, The Polar Express. The sequence is about winter, set amid a larger movie that’s very specifically about Christmas. This sequence, then, is a smart reminder of the visual allure and possibilities available to filmmakers in their depictions of both seasons."

Onward! The Planetary Society's Strategic Plan through 2017 by The Planetary Society

As 2014 comes to a close, The Planetary Society steps into our 35th anniversary year with a new strategic plan.

December 05, 2014

Ceres is round! by The Planetary Society

Okay, so the fact that Ceres is round is not news. It's still thrilling to see Ceres begin to come into focus as a round world.

Review 2014: One Thing: Keith Gow. by Feeling Listless

Theatre I need to tell you about an experience I had. But I don’t know where to begin. Does it even have a beginning? It has a dramatic ending, but where is the line between my life before Sleep No More and my experience at the McKittrick Hotel?

When friends or colleagues or acquaintances ask for theatre recommendations, I try to find good fits. Not everyone is going to like non-narrative drama in site-specific locations. Not everyone is going to like text-based dramas done on mainstages. I’m just glad when people ask for theatre recommendations at all.

Those who venture to New York, though, often feel like a requirement of a visit to the Big Apple is a Broadway show. And I can’t argue with that. It’s the city that still makes it feel like you are missing out if you don’t attend the theatre. Where you can be walking along a dozen streets that intersect with Broadway and be unable to move for crowds spilling out of theatres.

Broadway shows are still tricky to recommend. Do you want a musical? An uplifting one or a subversive one? A new show or an institution? Do you maybe want to see a play instead? Does it have to have a famous-famous person in it or is a Broadway-famous person enough? Do you want to get cheap tickets from the booth in Times Square or are you happy to pay Premium prices?

With all these questions, maybe I’m not the right person to ask.

I do have an answer now, though. If you ask me about a not-to-miss show in New York. The answer is Sleep No More.

And if I describe it, well – let me describe it. It’s part-Shakespeare riff, part-Hitchcock homage. It’s non-narrative but you can feel the story in your bones. It’s not just theatre, it’s an experience. And I recommend it because it’s unlike anything else you have ever experienced in live performance.

It’s a warehouse in the Meat Packing District of Manhattan. No, it’s a “renovated” hotel. It’s five stories. It’s spooky rooms and dark corridors. It’s creepy hospital rooms and abandoned bars. It’s an ensemble of actors and dancers who you might encounter in a moment that might easily be described as a blood orgy or, one-on-one, in a tiny room, a phone booth or a crowded bathroom.

You check in and then your experience is different than everyone else’s experience. You are let loose in the McKittrick Hotel. You can explore the space. You can open drawers and cupboards. You can read letters and move furniture. One minute a female actor reclines across you, the next a male actor is whispering a secret in your ear.
Then you’re in a ballroom watching exquisite dancing. Or a feast. Or an execution.

And all from behind a mask. The audience are all masked. And these masks imbue you with anonymity and a strength to immerse yourself into this noir world, with tinges of Macbeth.

I went in knowing that I wanted to throw myself into every opportunity. The friend who went with me was terrified by the whole notion of it. Each of us came out changed by the experience. Me, for finally getting to experience the rich world of a Punchdrunk show, and my friend feeling thrilled to have had a night that redefined what theatre could be for her.

And our experiences of Sleep No More couldn’t have been more different.

You want to know what show to see in New York? Sleep No More. Because no one will ever see the show you’ve seen and you’ll never forget it.

You can follow Keith on Twitter @keithgow.  His Doctor Who show, Who Are You Supposed to Be?, is playing at Adelaide Fringe in March 2015.  

 Photo credited to Robin Roemer.

Habitability Whether Rocks Weather or Not? by Astrobites

Title: Climate Stability of Habitable Earth-like Planets
Author: Kristen Menou
Author’s Institution: University of Toronto

Rocks and water, the site of weathering in the carbon-silicate cycle. (image: NASA)

Rocks and water, the site of weathering in the carbon-silicate cycle. (image: NASA)

Habitability is a far more complex question than “How far is a planet from its star and how bright is the star?” Insolation (the amount of energy received from the star) is an important factor, and the first step in determining the habitable zone around a star, but many, many factors contribute to how that insolation translates to habitable temperatures on a planet’s surface: geologic activity, atmosphere, surface albedo, or even tidal forces.

Many estimations of the habitable zone count on atmospheric CO2’s ability to keep a planet warm, along the lines of the greenhouse effect. On Earth—barring human intervention—this effect is regulated through the carbon-silicate cycle, a feedback effect that keeps Earth’s climate steadily hospitable to liquid water (and thus to life). The assumption of this effect on Earth-like exoplanets has been taken into account in definitions of the habitable zone. However, as today’s paper suggests, this “climate thermostat” may be much less effective on planets with lower insolation. We may be drawing the outer edges of the habitable zone too far.

The carbon-silicate cycle works to keep Earth’s climate in the liquid water range because of how increases or decreases in temperature affect its components. When the temperature is above freezing, rain and surface water weather rocks; the CO2 dissolved in rain reacts with the rocks and, through a series of reactions, the carbon is trapped in the seafloor, in limestone, and in the shells of some sea creatures. The more CO2 is in the atmosphere, the more acidic the rain will be; the more acidic the rain, the more it weathers rock, and the more carbon gets trapped geologically. Thus, the planet stays cool. On the other hand, if a planet freezes over, rain and thus weathering come to a halt—carbon stops being trapped and atmospheric CO2 is replenished from volcanic activity, warming the planet. (see the middle third of the image here)

Habitable zone estimations that take this regulation into effect assume that it would work on Earth-like planets much the same as it does on Earth. Today’s paper looks at the fact that, on Earth, vascular land plants are an impediment to rock weathering. Without that effect, does the carbon-silicate cycle still keep the habitable zone nice and wide?

In the absence of land plants, the rate of weathering is determined by how much CO2 is in the atmosphere. The author of this paper, Dr. Menou (a former professor of mine), models a slightly simplified version of the carbon-silicate cycle (discounting what goes on in the ocean, basically). He uses this model to assess if an increased dependence of weathering on atmospheric CO2, as would be seen on a planet without plants on land, can still allow for stable, habitable climates.

When the weathering rate is independent of CO2 levels in the air, the models show two climate/weathering solutions at which insolation and radiative cooling—heat in vs. heat out—balance: at 288 K, which is Earth’s current climate, and at 229 K, where the whole planet is frozen. But when the weathering rate depends on CO2—i.e. it is unmediated by surface plants—the only points of equilibrium are above freezing. At low enough levels of insolation—1.25 AU from a sun-like star—weathering that’s strongly dependent on CO2 levels entirely eliminates the possibility of a climate in equilibrium.

Instead, planets at the outer edge of the habitable zone go through dramatic climate cycles over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Most of the time is spent frozen, but CO2 released from volcanic activity gradually builds up in the atmosphere, until it triggers a brief defrost. But as soon as the planet is out of deep freeze, water facilitates weathering, and it’s back to a cooling trend.

fig 2

Figure 2. Two of the climate cycle scenarios for planets in the outer reaches of the habitable zone. The upper graph shows the temperature cycle; the lower graph shows the cycle of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

These findings raise a chicken-or-egg question about the evolution of alien life. If, on some planets, land plants are required for a stable, temperate climate, but liquid water is a prerequisite for most life… maybe we’ve been drawing the habitable zone a little too optimistically wide.

Menou find that the lack of vascular plants to slow down weathering impedes the build-up of atmospheric CO2. On a weakly-insolated planet—either orbiting a dim star or orbiting too far away—this may render the carbon-silicate cycle ineffective.

Christmas Links #5 by Feeling Listless

'What do you call a snowman in the desert?' Comedians test the best Christmas crackers:
"Like the gifts presented to Jesus by the three kings, the merriment contained in a Christmas cracker comes in three parts. Instead of gold, there is a paper hat. Instead of frankincense, there is some kind of item made out of plastic that will be forgotten about within 90 seconds, and instead of myrrh, there is (grits teeth) a joke. We’ve assembled a team of comedians to assess the quality of this year’s Christmas cracker gags, which is rather like getting Marcus Wareing in to judge the quality of an empty plate that a toddler insists contains a cake."

Young farmers pose naked for Christmas cards - all in a good cause:
"Market Bosworth Young Farmers have produced a set of nearly-naked Christmas cards to go with a charity 2015 calendar being sold to raise money in memory of two-year-old Tom Beaumont from Cadeby who died in April 2014 after battling a brain tumour."

Harvey Nichols' budget Christmas campaign relies on smart PR rather than big media spend:
"Harvey Nichols declined to reveal the total budget for its Christmas campaign but it is believed to be a fraction of the £7m spent by John Lewis – and even more by Sainsbury’s. Forget schmaltzy messages of love, peace and goodwill. Harvey Nichols has instead cut to the heart of the matter with the tongue-in-cheek message: get me what I really want for Christmas, or woe betide you – or, in its own words "Could I be any clearer?"

A Preview of the Real Amazon Store:
"Tier two is made of products that are adjacent to the tier-one products. They’re electronics, or electronics accessories, that don’t really get much advertising, unless you count how easily they’re discovered when shopping Amazon for other stuff. These are the best-known of the “Amazon Basics” products. They’re HDMI cables and adapters. They’re cheap things, things that only have to function, usually in a single way, to be satisfactory; they’re also, perhaps not coincidentally, things that physical electronics stores, which Amazon would like to destroy, tend to mark up." [via]

Newspaper Staffers Remember Ex-Colleagues With A "Ghost of Christmas Past" Tree:
"For the past ten years, newsroom staffers have put up a tree and decorated it with photos of former colleagues. “Most are from the past 20 years, but a few go farther back than that,” says design editor Scott Griffin. “We’re up to 183 people now.”"

HRH Duke of Cambridge to unveil Christmas Truce Monument:
"HRH The Duke of Cambridge will attend a dedication ceremony for a monument commemorating the 1914 Christmas Truce at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire on Friday 12 December 2014."

Houses lighting up Shropshire with Christmas cheer:
"The start of December has heralded the arrival of houses lit and decorated for the festive season. And for some it has become something of a sport, competing with neighbours for bragging rights."

The Bottled Water Taste Test:
"Is expensive water really worth it?"

Orion Returns to Earth after Successful Test Flight by The Planetary Society

NASA’s Orion spacecraft returned safely to Earth this morning after what looked like a flawless four hour, 24-minute test flight.

December 04, 2014

In Pictures: Orion's Scrub, from the Vehicle Assembly Building by The Planetary Society

Here are some scenes from launch day, shot from the unique perspective of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Orion Scrub Report: Sticky Hydrogen Valves by The Planetary Society

Windy weather and stuck liquid hydrogen valves forced a one-day delay of the maiden voyage of NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

Review 2014: One Thing: @ellielabelle. by Feeling Listless

Politics The one thing that I’ve learned this year isn’t even one thing and I’m also not sure that I’ve finished learning it. It’s a bit like ‘travel broadens the mind, but not half as much as trying to make it work where you are’.

To give some less abstract context, in 2014 I came back to the UK after two years working in the Netherlands. My partner and I had been taking advantage of the freedom of movement within the EU that has become such a vexed issue, and it was absolutely great. Honestly, if you are at the stage in your life where you can take a bit of a risk and you have a skill that’s in any kind of demand, you too can relocate to one of the various beautiful and ancient cities of Europe, have a great time and become a much braver person to boot. You don’t even actually have to go very far. It turns out that Europe was inside you all along - or is it possibly the other way round?

Be warned though, you will find yourself doing the all the half-barking expat things: complaining about imperceptible differences in teabags, explaining to French dudes that mince pies aren’t savoury, becoming a serious fan of The Archers, not understanding why your health insurance doesn’t cover this or that prescription. Obsessing over the Great British Bake Off. Weeping salt tears over the result of Strictly. Missing Britain.

When we came back, nobody seemed to know what Britain was about. Over the summer, we watched the Scottish referendum play out, tense and captivated and totally unable to predict the result. Maybe that would help us work out what 'British' meant? No, as it turned out.

Obviously, this is just a wild stab in the dark, but I think that what 'British' is [might be, could be, should aim towards?] is an acknowledgement that your identity is a complicated accident of history, made up of compromises and triumphs and travesties. The multiple strands in a British identity are inclusive and, if you’ll forgive an extended textile metaphor, this makes the whole thread stronger and creates a much more interesting weave.

I’m worried and saddened by the isolationist right wing, who see the British identity as a way to differentiate Us from Them. I can’t see things their way. I mainly see a whole world of people who have more in common than they have to separate them. I see the causes of inequality somewhere different to where the right wing see them. The one thing I hope to learn in 2015 is how to make my voice heard clearer and stronger than theirs.

You can follow @ellielabelle on Twitter here.  She's also the writer of The Hand Knitted Pirate blog.

Christmas Links #4 by Feeling Listless

Stars In Their Eyes - Christmas Special 1992:
"Stars in their Eyes Christmas Special recorded from ITV in 1992. Favourites from the first 2 series join together to perform a special version of Do They Know it's Christmas."

Taste test: the cast of Mother Goose rate the best festive fizz:
"The opening, last night, had been a triumph. The first schools matinee, this afternoon, met with near-riotous approval (the kids, wildly excited, had just piled out of the doors). And this evening, there is no show. So were the cast of Mother Goose, the Hackney Empire’s gloriously raucous annual Xmas pantomime, up for blind-tasting a few bottles of seasonal fizz, from basic supermarket plonk to one of the best bubblies in town? Oh yes they were …"

Christmas 2014: 14 best turkeys:
"Finding the perfect turkey is the first step to a memorable Christmas Day. But with so many on the market, choosing the best festive bird can be mind-boggling. This is not helped by the myriad of differing needs that families have. Whilst some want frozen, others want fresh. Whilst some want just a crown, others want a huge, whole bird to feed hoards of hungry relatives. And for many, the most important factor of all is that the bird has been treated well."

18 Surreal “Star Wars” Scenes From A Galaxy Not So Far Away:
"Artist Thomas Dagg has found unique and subtle way to incorporate Star Wars into seemingly ordinary modern scenes."

All your secret santa woes are over, with The 12 Rubbish Novelty Mugs Of Christmas:
"It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the time to buy something a bit cack for the office secret santa, or for family members you know next to nothing about. The perfect solution: an ‘amusing’ mug!"

New York Christmas Tree Lit Up:
"The giant Christmas Tree in New York's Rockefeller Center was lit up after a ceremony that included performances from Trisha Yearwood and Mariah Carey."

White Christmas:
"Bing Crosby dreamt of it, children wish for it but what counts as a white Christmas and how likely is it to happen? BBC Weather's Sarah Keith-Lucas explains."

Newly discovered letter reveals what really happened during the 1914 Christmas Day truce:
"The Christmas truce may have become one of the defining episodes that shapes our perception of trench warfare in the First World War, but a recently discovered letter shows how the event impacted on the soldiers on the front line in 1914. "

The New Statesman Christmas campaign 2014: end the detention of women seeking asylum:
"This year’s NS online Christmas campaign supports for Women for Refugee Women, a charity set up by longtime contributor Natasha Walter. The NS has covered the conditions at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre before, for example in this piece by Laurie Penny; this by Caroline Criado-Perez and this by Alan White. It is shocking that women who have often experienced sexual violence are locked up indefinitely while awaiting deportation, and Natasha’s work with WfRW has always foregrounded the words of those who have been through this process. Read Alice’s story below, and support our campaign by joining the 50,000 people who have already signed the Women for Refugee Women petition. "

The New York Verdict and What I Plan to Do by Albert Wenger

I did not write directly about the death of Michael Brown although what happened in Ferguson was on my mind and I referred to it indirectly. I was not planning to write about the death of Eric Garner but then I saw a tweet last night that reminded me that if you do nothing in the face of violence and injustice you are contributing to it.

So what will I do? My immediate action is relatively straight forward: assist in putting pressure on state and federal authorities to re-examine both cases as well as others like it. It does make a difference if you call your representatives on this. So please do. A next step is also relatively clear, which is to support legislation that requires outside prosecutors in any cases of police violence. As the SF Public Defender writes “[i]t is rare for grand juries to return indictments against police officers, at least in part because local prosecutors rely upon local police to bring their cases.

Beyond that it gets a lot harder. Yes, cameras will help but initially only to create more evidence. As we have just seen evidence without accountability doesn’t mean much. Still, better evidence than no evidence. The underlying causes here though are so much deeper as to seem intractable: hundreds of years of oppression of black people and the militarization of police driven by a fear of terrorism.

My own focus will be on continuing to advocate for a Basic Income Guarantee. Why? Because I believe it can help us get out of a system of self-reenforcing structural inequality. It can provide the basis for communities to strengthen themselves. Both of these seem essential to overcoming violence against black people.

Asteroseismic Spin Drs by Astrobites

Authors: G. R. Davies, W. J. Chaplin et al.
Title: Asteroseismic inference on rotation, gyrochronology and planetary system dynamics of 16 Cygni
First author’s institution: Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, CEA/DSM – CNRS – Univ. Paris Diderot – IRFU/SAp,
Status: Accepted for publication in MNRAS

Black swan, white swan

16 Cyg A and B are twin stars that revolve around their common centre of mass in the constellation of Cygnus, ‘The Swan’. They are not just twinned with each other by gravitational attraction, they are also extremely alike in mass and age. These stars are similar to the Sun in mass and age, so provide great test-beds for Solar physics. But despite being two of the best studied stars in the galaxy, their rotation periods (the rate at which each star spins on its axis) have remained elusive. Enter asteroseismology.

One of the reasons why asteroseismology is so awesome.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 19.33.17

Figure 1. The Fourier transform of the Kepler photometry of 16 Cyg A. The comb-like structure shows the oscillation modes. The data are in grey, the model is in black and the coloured shapes show the positions of the main oscillation modes, indexed by different ‘l’ values. The Fourier transform for 16 Cyg B looks very similar to this.

Asteroseismology was the tool used by Davies et al. to measure the rotation periods of 16 Cyg A and B. Here’s a little background on asteroseismology…

Stars oscillate, or ‘pulsate’ if you like, in a range of ways. Some stars oscillate like the Sun (and are unsurprisingly called ‘Solar-like oscillators’), with p-mode oscillations which produce repetitive fluctuations in brightness. The ‘p’ stands for ‘pressure’ because these oscillations are produced by periodic pressure variations in the convective envelopes of stars. Stars oscillate at a set of discrete frequencies, these are the oscillation ‘modes’. Each mode describes a different wave across the surface or through the interior of the star and therefore takes a slightly different path to all the other modes. The unique frequency of each mode is related to the integrated sound speed along its path and so measuring mode frequencies reveals the internal structure of the star.

Asteroseismologists measure the internal structures of stars observed by the Kepler spacecraft by producing Fourier transforms of the photometric Kepler data, just like the one in Figure 1. The modes appear as a series of peaks, producing a ‘comb-like’ structure.

What about rotation?

The rotation of a star causes splitting of the modes, i.e., instead of single peaks, double peaks appear in the Fourier transform with a small separation, \delta \nu. This occurs because rotation lifts the degeneracy between certain oscillation modes. In a non, or slowly rotating star, the frequency of a pressure wave travelling across its surface doesn’t depend on latitude. Adding a little rotation causes the star to bulge at the equator and, all of a sudden, latitude does matter. Waves travelling across the stellar surface at the poles have a slightly different frequency to those at the equator. This difference is greater for faster rotators. For more details see Chaplin et al. (2013). The amount of splitting, i.e. the magnitude of \delta \nu, depends on both the rotational velocity and the inclination angle of the star: a star viewed from above will not show the same amount of mode splitting as a star viewed equator-on.

Davies et al. used the observed frequency splitting to infer the inclinations and rotation periods of 16 Cyg A and B, finding that A has a rotation period of around 24 days and B has a rotation period of 20-30 days.

What’s the big deal?

One of the easiest ways to measure rotation with Kepler data is to look for variations in brightness caused by star spots on the stellar surface. These spots reduce the overall brightness of the star whenever they appear on the side facing us, once every rotation period. By measuring the intervals between periodic dips produced by star spots it is often possible to measure surface rotation. Unfortunately, 16 Cyg A and B are ‘quiet’ stars: they don’t have very many star spots, so this method wasn’t available. Asteroseismology produces the best measurements of the rotation periods of these stars.

Testing age-rotation relations

Stars like the Sun are expected to shed angular momentum over time and slowly spin down as they get older. The rate of rotational braking is the same for stars of similar masses. 16 Cyg A and B have similar masses and are the same age, so you would expect them to have similar rotation periods. The exact relation between age, mass and rotation period isn’t very well understood and still needs some calibrating. These stars will be extremely important for calibrating this relation, improving our ability to measure the ages of main sequence stars from their rotation periods. This paper provides a Cygnificant* contribution to the field of stellar dating.

*Couldn’t help myself.



The New Horizons science mission to the Pluto-Charon system is about to begin by The Planetary Society

It's been a long journey, but it's nearly over: New Horizons is just about ready to begin its science mission to Pluto, Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. I'll remind you of New Horizons' capabilities and simulate how Pluto will appear in optical navigation images.

December 03, 2014

Orion L-1 Report: Go for Launch by The Planetary Society

The stage is set for NASA’s Orion spacecraft to launch on a two-orbit, four-hour shakedown cruise tomorrow morning. Patrick Air Force Base’s 45th Weather Squadron changed their forecast of an on-time launch to 70 percent—up from the 40 percent chances that marked the start of the week.

Hayabusa 2 launches toward asteroid rendezvous by The Planetary Society

Hayabusa 2 successfully launched on December 3, 2014 at 04:22 UTC, and embarked on its interplanetary journey about two hours later. During the launch, cameras captured video of the spacecraft fairing separation.

Mars Exploration Rovers Update: Opportunity Roves from Wdowiak Ridge into Network of Fractures by The Planetary Society

Last month, the Earth's longest-lived and most traveled robot on another planet drove into a network of fractures the likes of which the scientists had never seen before on Mars and wound up working there through the end of the month – and then something not completely unexpected happened.

Review 2014: One Thing: Anna Lowman. by Feeling Listless

Film When you're invited to share something of real worth with a fine blog's readership, you probably shouldn't pick an insanely successful Hollywood blockbuster movie based on an insanely successful children's toy.

I have decided not to follow this advice and will be talking about The LEGO Movie.

So to counterbalance my complicity in the tyranny of commercialism, here is a quick list of some more spiritually wholesome things that I also recommend:

1. Somerset House

Coffee on the terrace overlooking the South Bank is a joy; the Courthauld Collection is one of London's greatest hidden gems.

2. Birds

Birds are great. Even when you're in the middle of a city, there's usually a bird or two knocking around.

3. Browsing bookshops for ages

I know I'm preaching to the converted, but now feels like a special time for books. From romance novels to political theses, they're works of art.

Of course, that's a slightly disingenuous opening, because I do actually feel that The LEGO Movie has real worth; I wouldn't be dedicating my, or your, time to it if I didn't. But as a premise, it didn't bode well - an animated kids' movie based on LEGO should be, by all rights, the pits. The fact that's it's not only not the pits, but actually funny, warm and inventive, is something to be celebrated.

What hinted at rather better things were the director/writers - Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are behind the "no, they're actually really fun" Jump Street movies - and the cast, which is essentially a who's who of American sitcoms: Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Alison Brie (Community), Elizabeth Banks (Modern Family and 30 Rock), Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and, of course, Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt as the voice of lead character Emmett.

With Guardians of the Galaxy also under his belt, this has been a fantastic year for Pratt, and his rise to more mainstream prominence has been cheered on by those of us who adore the human Labrador that is his Parks and Rec character Andy Dwyer. It's easy to forget that in the first season Andy was pretty unlikeable and selfish, and I think Pratt owes at least a little of his more recent success to that side of his personality being ditched - it's hard to see the guy who plays that Andy becoming a lovable leading man.

But I digress. For 400 words.

The fact is, a sitcom approach to gag-rate means that The LEGO Movie is consistently, impressively funny. A ridiculously strong opening sequence that sees Emmett following all the daily rules laid down by President Business (Will Ferrell) with an unthinking glee means that the film passes Mark Kermode's six laugh test within minutes, and there's no real dip over the course of the film.

And while that's a genuinely great achievement in itself (film, in the main, just isn't as good as telly at comedy), it's only one of this movie's charms.

Visually, it's genuinely like nothing else I've seen. After staying relatively tight-lipped about the animation process, Lord and Miller have recently given a little more insight into how they persuaded the audience they were were seeing real LEGO bricks, at their real size. While some bricks were used, the majority of the film is computer generated (they'd have needed billions of bricks to do it by hand) - but you'd never know it. There's weight and heft, imperfections and fingerprints. I found it astonishing.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the big risk in storytelling that's taken in the last fifteen minutes of the film, and somehow got passed by a studio that must have had its qualms. I won't give the twist away of course, but it comes so late, and puts such a different complexion of the rest of the story that for a moment you find yourself thinking: "they've ruined it". Almost immediately though, it becomes clear that they haven't ruined it; they've elevated it.

The LEGO Movie isn't perfect by any means - Lord and Miller have already promised to make sure the sequel is less of a boys' club - and it won't change your life. But it was my favourite movie of 2014, and if you haven't seen it already and you're quick, it might become yours too.

Anna can be followed on Twitter @annawaits.

Orderly disorder: Simulations of planet-disk dynamics with AREPO by Astrobites

  • Title: Planet-disc interaction on a freely moving mesh.
  • Authors: D. J. Munoz, K. Kratter, V. Springel, L. Hernquist.
  • First Author’s Institution: Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.
  • Paper status: Submitted to MNRAS.

Trace nature by (virtually) building it yourself!

Since the advent of computer simulations as a major tool in theoretical astronomy, the methods used have been perpetually refined. The use of ever increasing computer power helps us to achieve higher and higher resolution and perform simulations of increasingly realistic scenarios. Read this astrobite if you want to know more about supercomputers and computational challenges or read here about a recent, ambitious large scale simulation of cosmological structures. Computational models in general help astronomers to tackle problems which cannot be understood by observations alone. In astrophysics, only the combined effort of observational and theoretical methods can really bring us to a more thorough understanding of the Universe, since we cannot experimentally interact with our objects of investigation.

Fig. 1: Zoom-in onto the planet and its associated wake. The geometry and size of the fluid patches is adapted to the higher density in the region of the ‘planet’. This is a major advantage of the Voronoi tessellation. Source: Muñoz et al. (2014),

Fig. 1: Zoom-in onto the planet and its associated wake. The grey lines represent the boundaries in-between single cells, the color indicates column density. The geometry and size of the fluid patches is adapted to the higher density in the region of the ‘planet’. This is a major advantage of the Voronoi tessellation. Source: Munoz et al. (2014).

Predictive computer models of astrophysical phenomena are often based on the principles of fluid dynamics, which is the main driving mechanism of the dynamics of most astrophysical systems. Nearly all of the stuff we’re observing when looking through a telescope was initially formed from gas (i.e., a fluid). Therefore, to understand the underlying dynamics of the formation of astrophysical systems – from galactic structure to the build-up of terrestrial planets – fluid dynamics is a ubiquitous and mighty tool!

Evolution of technology as a boost for scientific advance

The authors of today’s paper use the code AREPO, one of a new and innovative breed of so-called ‘moving mesh’ codes, which was already featured in some great former astrobites with varying astronomical applications: AREPO vs. SPH, Pop III stars, galaxy evolution, structure & galaxy formation and Illustris & open science. The code’s main feature is its hybrid nature, computing the dynamics with grid patches that move with the flow (like SPH). The underlying equations are discretized (i.e., the continuous nature of the fluid flow is broken down into small tractable pieces) and solved on an unstructured grid. In this work AREPO is modified to deal with the dynamics of a young planetary object in a protoplanetary disk. This is the phase when the forming planet is still surrounded by a lot of gas and dust, but already accumulated enough matter to be clearly distinguishable from the surrounding material. To give you an idea of the code’s unique characteristics, Figure 1 shows the imprint of the unstructured mesh on the protoplanetary disk and the embedded planet, the red (and thus dense) region in the image. The geometry of all fluid parcels in the simulation adapts to the specific geometry of the problem (or body, notice that the planet also is entirely built-up of fluid cells) and shrinks the size of parcels if a region is  ‘interesting’. This enables a higher resolution with more precision in, e.g., the region around the planet. This kind of unstructured grid approach is called Voronoi tessellation.

The main goal of this paper is to benchmark the accuracy of AREPO, rather than develop new insights into the physics of planet formation itself. So, how do the authors go about doing this? To begin with they formulate a setup of a 2D protoplanetary disk and put a planet in it. They then evolve the complete system in time, quantify and analyse its behaviour and compare the results with simulations made with a code called FARGO (a well-established grid code for the use with such disks).

Number crunching for the sake of accuracy

The first thing they look at is the gap-opening criterion for different planet masses. This tells scientists the potential of a planet to open up a gap of negligible gas density in its surrounding disk, which, e.g., determines its migration behaviour. Throughout the paper they compare the evolution of a Neptune-sized and Jupiter-sized planet (to be more specific: the mass ratio of the planet to the central star in the simulation is comparable to that for Neptune/Jupiter and our Sun). You can see the effect of planet mass on the disk in Figure 2. The more massive planet alters the structure of  the disk much more than its lightweight counterpart!

Additional tests are done with vortensity (a measure of the potential swirlyness/vorticity, which is important for the initiation and cause of gap-opening) and torque and are partially compared to similar runs with the FARGO code. In most of the tests they find that the outcome from AREPO is comparable to that from FARGO. Minor differences can for example be seen in how well the code treats the pile-up of mass at the inner edges of the opened gap. Also, they argue that the dynamic tessellation introduces errors into the solution of the hydrodynamics equations due the shearing of cells at slightly different radii.

Fig. 2: Clearing of a gap in the gaseous disk by the planet. The planet on the left side is of Neptune mass, on the right hand side the planet’s mass is comparable to Jupiter. As you would guess, the lower-mass planet is having a hard time clearing all the gas from its orbit and thus eventually ends up (after 100 orbits) with a shallower and less pronounced gap. μ stands for planet/star ratio, ν for the amount of viscosity and NR for the number of initial fluid patches. Source: Muñoz et al. (2014),

Fig. 2: Clearing of a gap in the gaseous disk by the planet. The color scale is log density and cooler colors correspond to lower density. The planet on the left side is of Neptune mass, on the right hand side the planet’s mass is comparable to Jupiter. As you would guess, the lower-mass planet is having a hard time clearing all the gas from its orbit and thus eventually ends up (after 100 orbits) with a shallower and less pronounced gap. μ stands for planet/star ratio, ν for the amount of viscosity and NR for the number of initial fluid patches. Source: Munoz et al. (2014).

AREPO = panacea?

To shorten their findings, AREPO seems to behave quite well and be very suitable for further simulations of protoplanetary disks. They argue that the observed differences (which more or less always exist when you compare the results of numerical codes) are only of minor concern and thus more sophisticated studies of such problems are now possible. Finally, like in the other (above mentioned) applications of AREPO, astronomers now have access to an additional tool to model exciting and highly dynamic systems such as young (proto-)planetary systems, which extends the available range of problem approaches. In specific cases, when the scientists need to deal with effects demanding a high range of spatial scales (i.e., global effects which cover the entire disk and additionally small scale effects like local instabilities) the adaptive nature of the fluid parcels might be a huge advantage in comparison with other methods. Since this is much less computationally intensive than to refine the whole system it will enable the authors to study the details of the most important parts of such systems in much greater resolution than ever before. All in all we see another leap in technological advancement, which diversifies the range of theoretical instruments in the area of planet formation and will possibly help us to decipher the mysteries of planet forming environments!

Christmas Links #3 by Feeling Listless

It's A Wonderful Life: Rare Photos from the set of this Holiday Classic:
"Far more than a mere plot device heralding George Bailey’s dark night of the soul (and his joyful return to the land of the living), softly falling snow is something of a central character in Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. But the cheap “fake snow” so often used on movie sets back in the day — often just cornflakes painted white — simply would not do; Capra wanted real snow, or something as close to the real thing as he and his prop department could get."

The first Christmas card:
"Collector Jackie Brown shows historian Ruth Goodman the first ever Christmas card, which was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, in this 2009 clip from Victorian Farm Christmas."

Tony Blair and the art of a good Christmas card photo:
"It's set up to look like a domestic scene of an elder statesman and his devoted wife. But there's no getting around it - the former prime minister looks perturbed, even angry, according to dozens of tweeters. His teeth are bared and his eyes appear to be downright fierce, they suggest. "Perhaps the oddest thing about Tony Blair's threatening Christmas card is that this must have been the BEST photo..." tweets one observer. "The strange thing about Tony Blair's Christmas card is how the teeth seem to follow you round the room." "Be afraid. Be very afraid," write others."

23 Disturbing Santa Claus Photos That Will Wreck Your Christmas:
"You’d better watch out, ‘cause these Santas will make you cry."

Arena Christmas Bauble Auction 2014:
"Loosely based on the Fabergé Egg and born as a fund raising event, these collections celebrate the artistic talent housed in Arena studios on an annual basis. This year sees 10 boxes available for purchase. Each hand made box contains 6 solid wood baubles by 6 different artists along with a booklet containing the artists signatures."

Stop wasting time with Git branch upstreams by Zarino

I routinely work with about two dozen Git repositories at mySociety, spread across Github and our own in-house Git server. Inevitably, every few weeks, I’ll try to push or pull a repo and be greeted with this old favourite error:

$ git pull
There is no tracking information for the current branch.
Please specify which branch you want to merge with.
See git-pull(1) for details

    git pull <remote> <branch>

If you wish to set tracking information for this branch you can do so with:

    git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/<branch> master

Great. Thanks Git. That’s totally not useful.

You could copy and paste the command they suggest, remembering to update <branch> to match the current branch name. But we can do better than that.

Next time, save yourself the hassle. Set up a Git alias that does it automatically!

Open up your ~/.gitconfig file, and add a new set-upstream line to the [alias] section, like so:

  unstage = reset HEAD
  undo-commit = reset --soft HEAD^
  poh = push origin HEAD
  pulloh = pull origin HEAD
  set-upstream = !git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/`git symbolic-ref --short HEAD`

Now, when you see the “no tracking information” error, you can just type git set, tab complete the rest of the command, and you’re away.

It automatically assumes your local and remote branches are called the same thing (they usually are) and that you want to deal with a remote called origin (which you usually do). But if you don’t, you can always edit the alias to suit your workflow.

Plus, as a Christmas bonus, I’ve included in the above snippet some of the other shortcuts I routinely use:

  • poh is a god-send for quickly and explicitly pushing code to the right remote and branch.
  • undo-commit has saved me from embarassing reparatory commits more than once, by removing my latest commit – it leaves everything staged, ready for amendments, but you can combine it with unstage if you want to break up an accidentally overzealous commit into smaller chunks.

You’re welcome!

December 02, 2014

Orion L-2 Report: The Old Gives Way to the New by The Planetary Society

With less than two days before Orion's maiden voyage, NASA and United Launch Alliance are cautiously optimistic the flight will launch Thursday as scheduled.

Reviews of space-themed books for kids (2014) by The Planetary Society

It's that time of year again! I have a pile of great space-themed books for kids of all ages to recommend, both fiction and nonfiction.

Giving Tuesday: ChangeX by Albert Wenger

If like me you prefer Giving Tuesday over Black Friday and Cyber Monday then it might be a good time to give some money to ChangeX. Susan and I will continue to match any funds 1:1 until $25,000 is reached.

ChangeX is helping communities strengthen themselves by seeing what is working for others. No matter how much time we spend on the Internet we still live in a local community. There is no reason to re-invent the wheel for how to make that community a better place. Through ChangeX you can discover what has worked in other communities. Knowledge is the most powerful thing we have — let’s share it broadly.

ChangeX was founded by Paul O’Hara who is not only passionate about local change but also knows how to do build an organization and do things on the cheap like a startup. So instead of buying yet more stuff, please support the team at ChangeX.

Review 2014: One Thing: Ruth Moss. by Feeling Listless

Life  A review of the year would be easy, of course. I’ve had a really full year. It started with health worries (physical and mental, and the physical health worries have seen me have LOTS of blood tests, plus an x-ray and not one but two MRI scans), joblessness, plus really struggling on the musical circuit after a busy Christmas (I’m in a musical duo). It’s ended with a diagnosis which isn’t nearly as scary as I’d feared, passing a course which has landed me a wonderful job (still waiting for the paperwork, but it should start soon), and taken in getting married (that musical duo? The other half of it is my husband) along the way.  So yes, a simple old review of my year would be easy to write; it would have sorrow and joy and a happy ending.

However, Stuart doesn’t want a plain old review of the year, of course not. What’s the one thing, he asks, that I think everyone should know? Well, I’m a pretty opinionated person, so there’s an awful lot I think people should know, although this year I think I’ve finally learned that not everyone needs my opinions as much as I sometimes think they do.

In fact, I’ve learned such a lot this year.

Musically, we started the year a bit miserably. We’d had several amazing gigs at some well-known Liverpool venues at Christmas, which we thought had gone very well. At one, people even danced around in the freezing air, glasses of mulled cider in hand. At another, people clapped along to a mediaeval carol I was singing, getting faster and faster until I could barely keep up with them… but somehow I did. But then came January and neither of those venues replied to our requests to play again. Another venue asked us to play. We said yes, but they never replied to our “when?” Then a month later said they’d discussed it with their regulars and actually, they didn’t want “alternative” music there. Another venue said we weren’t a style they were looking for. Yet another venue booked act after act at their live music showcase once a week but when we asked for a gig we were told “we’ll bear you in mind” (as far as I know, we’re still being borne in mind). I felt miserable. In terms of people listening to our music (at that time, we had a handful of home-recorded demos online) we didn’t seem to be doing that much better either. We’d promote our music on twitter but our followers (which at that point seemed to be made up largely of other bands) didn’t retweet, or reply that they’d listened, despite the fact we’d listened to their music. We’d tweet and tweet and tweet about our music but when even long-term friends didn’t listen or comment, it started to feel a bit hurtful.

I wanted to give up music. Maybe I wasn’t musical at all. Maybe I should go back to poetry.

But then after talking with Marc (my musical and now marital other half) we decided to take it back to what we really liked and how we’d started out; just performing, at open mics, for the love of it. Not trying to make people love us, just writing and performing songs because we wanted to. In fact, we only contacted one place that spring to ask for a gig, and that was because it was a place I’d loved since I was much younger (the Bombed Out Church in Liverpool) and the thought of performing there made me excited and nervous. After every open mic event we wrote a little piece on our blog about what we’d loved, and what we’d learned. As for twitter, I stopped being so arrogant as to expect quid pro quo. I just followed more of the bands who made the kind of music I loved, and listened to it, and tweeted about it, without ever expecting them to listen to our music. Occasionally, if I knew someone had downloaded our music before, I’d ask them for their opinion on new stuff, but I stopped expecting people to listen just because they were friends.

And gigs did happen. We played the Bombed Out Church three times this year (four if you count our wedding), in fact, as they kept inviting us back! Word seemed to get out, and we got asked to play at several festivals, and even accompany a lantern parade and fire jugglers! My favourite musical thing of this year though was when Brighton indie/folk-pop band The Beautiful Word – gorgeous harmonies, imaginative arrangements, thoughtful lyrics – asked us if we’d play a set to open their gig with Wrexham’s finest noise-pop enthusiasts, Baby Brave, at Liverpool’s Sound Food and Drink! But here’s the thing; we were going to go to the gig anyway, as The Beautiful Word are one of my favourite ever bands (first saw them at a festival in 2012 and was blown away). We weren’t being cynical … in fact we didn’t even ask, we wouldn’t have dreamt of it… we just loved their music, and were honoured when they asked if we’d open with a set.

This year, of course, also saw Marc proposing to me. I am divorced from my first husband, and I was awfully cynical about the idea of getting married. I’d told Marc this, in fact, not long before we moved in together. The idea of marriage felt confining; the tradition was age-old and came with a solid, straight set of expectations. But, still being cynical, if anything happened to me, marriage would be more likely to mean my son could still see his stepdad, plus at that point, I was jobless, with some kind of undiagnosed, potentially long-term health condition and marriage was a big rubber stamp that said “security” on it.

I didn’t know what I would do if Marc proposed, and then he did. And it wasn’t cynicism or security that went through my mind at that point, but the realisation that I loved him completely, and woolly though that sounds now, at the time it was enough to make me say “yes” (and then ask a lot of questions about how it would work).

We got married in September this year, but it took some doing, and en route included: a visit to a village priest (my husband is a Catholic, and I an agnostic divorcee. To say the visit was unfruitful is a massive understatement), my dream wedding dress not arriving less than a week before the big day and me having to find a different dress at the last minute, and of course, the threat of our chosen venue (the Bombed Out Church, naturally) being closed down. Thankfully, that didn’t happen; people pulled together and donated to a crowdfunder to keep this much loved arts site, community space, live music venue and war memorial open. So many people love the Bombed Out Church that not only has it stayed open, but it also seems now to have on even more events than ever before. As for the dress, I wore a simple white robe rather than the full-on Snow Queen-esque gown that I’d planned to wear, and it didn’t matter, nor did it matter that we didn’t have the official blessing of the Catholic church; we entwined secular and pantheistic elements with Christian in our bespoke ceremony, and a prayer from a nun for good measure. Oh, and on the way to the wedding I bumped into my favourite ever band on Bold Street, and if that wasn’t a good omen, I don’t know what is.

And then there was my job. I lost my job in March 2013. I’d been in an administrative job I didn’t really enjoy but the hours fitted in perfectly with school drop off and pick up times; as a single parent, living on the dole was very hard. I did a bit of typing from home and in fact, disclosing this to the job centre resulted in nasty letters. Marc moved in with me, and we managed to get by on the one salary. I decided that it was time to do something I’d always wanted to do but never quite got around to; work with children. I started a course to train to be a teaching assistant, and volunteered in my son’s school. I loved it; I am impatient and easily stressed in many other areas of my life but I seem to have been blessed with a heap of patience with young children. Marc supported me while I studied; friends picked my son up from school one night a week so I could go to my course. In July this year, I learned I’d passed, but delayed looking for work while we organised the wedding (plus half a dozen gigs).

I saw a few jobs come up on the council’s website, but none were quite suitable; hours regularly longer than school hours in schools just that bit too far away from my son’s school (I can’t drive). However, I was starting to realise beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially as Christmas drew closer and money got tighter, and I would have to bite the bullet and arrange wraparound care every day for my son while I went out to work in a different school. However, a job came up in my son’s school, and I applied for it, and got it. I’m waiting on some paperwork, but should be able to start soon and I can’t wait. I actually worked as what was then called a Non-Teaching Assistant once before, during my year out, when I was just nineteen. However, after uni, I wanted to work in marketing and sales because that was “cool”; if I’d thought a little more, and used my heart a little more, I should have continued in the line of work I’d been in before uni.

But where do all these little vignettes into my year leave you, dear reader? All these things I’ve learned; what’s the one thing you should know?

I’ll let you into one last secret if I may, and this one is a little “out there”. I’m agnostic, though I was raised a Christian, then became a full-on atheist before starting to look at the world through neo-Pagan eyes, then coming to a more pantheistic understanding of it all. This year, I started to look at Christianity again, with the help of books like Living the Questions, and In Memory of Her. However, I simply cannot make myself believe in the supernatural elements of it all, such as an afterlife, or raising from the dead, or angels announcing an immaculate conception, but I have found a new appreciation of some of the parables and teachings in the gospel. And I think I’ve decided that I believe the “god is love” of the gospel of John in quite a pantheistic way. I believe love – which is both a verb and a noun – is something that threads through everything. That “god is love”, for me, doesn’t mean there is some kind of supernatural being who is loving, but that love itself is “god”. It’s one of those equations where the equals sign has three lines, where “is” means “the same as”. Maybe the universe runs on love, like a car runs on petrol, or I run on coffee and avocados. Maybe I’m wrong.

But it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that. It’s a bit “woo” really, and that’s not to everyone’s taste. But I have noticed over this year that when I’ve done things out of love, without too much cynicism, things seem to have worked out quite well. And that’s what I think everyone should know. Of course, to do things out of love in the hope that they then work out is cynical in and of itself. But perhaps it’s worth trying just for the sake of it?

A little caveat. When I talk about love, I don’t mean those awful memes that tell how if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s true for some people of course, but it’s easy to infer from those sorts of quotes that people who work in sweatshops are only there because they haven’t yet sat down and written that best-selling novel. Structural inequality isn’t something that can just be waved away with a bit of hippy faerydust; I’m aware of that, and it’s not what I’m trying to say. And of course, love is hard. Love is not shouting at the child who for the 100th night running has woken you up at two in the morning, unable to sleep, even though you’ve got work in the morning. Love is admitting that you were wrong and apologising for laying into someone on Facebook about their opinion, so utterly different from yours. Love is watching a football match with your child when you don’t support their team; you don’t even care about football. Love is picking up cat poo out of the garden and using what little savings you had to pay a vet’s bill because health insurance on an older cat has so many loopholes and clauses it’s basically pointless. Love is sometimes drudge work (and there’s a whole blogpost – no, a whole book – to be written on why this kind of “love” often tends to fall to women more than men, though that’s another subject for another time). But it is also doing the things you love.

Love is the one thing everyone should know.

Ruth can be followed on Twitter @mossandjones. Moss & Jones's Christmas single, A Song For Mary is available on Bandcamp.

Christmas Links #2 by Feeling Listless

Top 10 Christmas Gifts For Film Lovers:
"It's Christmas Eve, you've had one too many sherries and you're feeling in the mood... time to turn up the heat by breaking out this wax replica of sadistic Gestapo agent Tohte from Raiders of the Lost Ark and recreating one of the most memorable deaths in movie history."

Christmas rail delays on West Coast:
"Passengers are being advised not to use a main London to Scotland rail line over Christmas due to one of a series of engineering projects set to cause severe disruption to travellers in the South East over the holiday period."

Christmas tree-throwing contest launched near Keele:
"A farm in Staffordshire is hosting what is thought to be the UK's first Christmas tree throwing competition. Participants are given a 6ft (1.8m) tree, weighing about 10 kg (22lb), for the contest at Keele Christmas Tree Farm. They must then throw it as far as possible and get the tree as high over a bar as they can. One hundred trees are being used at the charity fundraising event to benefit the Help for Heroes campaign."

Every Official Christmas Number 1 ever!
"As we eagerly wait to find out who will be Official 2014 Christmas Number 1, we celebrate all the Christmas chart-toppers of the last 60 years! The Christmas Number 1 is the most anticipated chart battle of the year, and on Sunday December 21, Scott Mills and Jameela Jamil will reveal who has won the race to the Official 2014 Christmas Number 1 live on BBC Radio 1’s Official Chart Show."

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Winter Update (from Diamon Geezer):
"One thing that's popped up all around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park are stand-alone posters promoting the Orbit. The twirly crimson mega-sculpture has now been open since Easter, and I've never seen it busy, so needs all the customers it can get. Part of the issue is the cost of a ticket - fifteen pounds, or two quid off if you're local and happen to have turned up clutching a utility bill."

Leading boy gets proposal at Christmas panto:
"There was a magical fairytale ending to the Sleeping Beauty pantomime at Cheltenham's Everyman theatre ..."

Residents launch crowdfund campaign to bring back Christmas lights to Torry:
"A 'Lighting up Torry' project has been launched by local residents to reinstate the festive lights on Victoria Road. The newly formed Torry Development Trust, set up by six local volunteers, has asked for community support to put up new Christmas lights, after the original display mysteriously vanished several years ago. "They used to brightened Torry’s main street at the festive time of year," said David Fryer, a founding member of the group."

Saffron Burrows: ‘I’m really proud of my family and who they are’:
"The table in the Japanese brasserie that Saffron Burrows has proposed for dinner is so wide that we decide to sit not opposite each other, but side by side. Interviewing movie actors tends to be a mutual exercise in faking natural human interaction within entirely unnatural circumstances: a limited number of minutes in a hotel suite with “the talent” flanked by cardboard movie posters to aggressively remind everyone why they’re here: to sell the thing. Burrows is indeed here in this TriBeCa restaurant to sell a thing, but she’s also here because both she and I know that she wants to talk about her personal life for the first time. And the strange thing is how unstrange it all feels."

Christmas dinner: Lidl are good on price, but how are they on taste when it comes to festive favourites?
"With a growing number of budget options, Christmas doesn’t have to break the bank, but how does the cut price stuff fare up against the competition? Here's our first taste test for Christmas, featuring products from so-called budget retailer Lidl."

Star Trek “Klingon Bloodwine” Hits Shelves in Time for Holidays:
"Christmas has come early for wine-loving Trekkies. Following the release of the collectible Star Trek wine series launched last year, CBS Consumer Products produced its latest addition to the line, the Klingon Bloodwine. The 2012 Klingon Bloodwine is Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah blend from Paso Robles and is available for $20 online through and national retailers."

Placido Domingo plays golf with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and football with Kevin Keegan:
"In this clip from Placido Domingo's Christmas Choice, originally broadcast on 24 December 1980, the Spanish tenor reveals his love of football, takes to the golf course with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and enjoys a kickabout with Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan."

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Updated using Planet on 19 December 2014, 06:48 AM