Francis's News Feeds

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

July 28, 2014

Who Owns SF? by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App store annoyances by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on organisation - Aptitude and Attitude by Simon Wardley

This is something I'll return to but I'll put this up as a starting point. It relates to the use of pioneers, settlers and town planners within an organisation and is the bit I missed from my tutorial at OSCON. It's also something I'm working on actively at the moment. 

Be warned ... these are rough notes.

When looking at a new line of business, I tend to prefer to describe the entire line of business as a Unit. Normally, I'd expect to see a well defined fitness function (describing rules of engagement, what it does, how it is to be measured, measures against user needs etc) and some form of cell based structure (e.g. Amazon two pizza rule) with each cell described by its own fitness function. Please note, this approach is based fundamentally on a focus on user needs (i.e. maps) as opposed to financial value.

Each cell is autonomous (within the fitness function) and the fitness function is defined, measured and evaluated by the executive in charge of the unit. If there are too many cells in one unit, I'd normally expect to see this broken down into multiple units each containing cells with autonomy & separation between both cells and different units.

General rules are :-
In figure 1, I'll apply these principles to a map of a new business. I'll assume you're familiar with mapping, if not then start here.

Figure 1 - Basic structure, derived from a map.

Now obviously each cell is going to require different skills (i.e. aptitudes or capabilities if you wish). It's the cells responsibility to ensure it has the right skills.

However, there's another factor in here. Attitude. When we look at a map, we know that activities evolve from uncharted to industrialised and the methods, techniques, type of people and even culture changes. The type of engineering you need to build a highly novel act (i.e. genesis) requires experimentation and agile techniques. The type of engineering you need to build a highly industrialised act requires a focus on volume operations and six sigma.

Figure 2 - Different Methods

Hence, when looking at your environment then along with aptitude (finance, engineering, network, marketing etc), attitude also matters.

Figure 3 - Importance of Attitude.

To resolve this problem, you need to populate the cells with different types of people - pioneers, settlers and town planners. All are important. It's not realistic to think that everyone has the same attitude, some are much more capable of living in a world of chaos, experimentation and failure whilst others are much more capable of dealing with intensive modelling, the rigours of volume operations and measurement.

Figure 3 - Populate by Attitude.

One of the things that populating by attitude enables is a process of theft in order to mimic evolution and the natural effects of competition i.e. settlers steal from pioneers, town planners steal from settlers and pioneers build on the service that town planners create.

Figure 4 - Mimicking evolution through theft.

But how do you populate the cells? The cells have autonomy after all. Well, again the use of maps makes it easy for everyone to understand and challenge the type of attitude needed. The cells obviously need access to people with the right aptitude and attitudes. The net effect of this is you end up with two branches of an organisation, both defined by fitness function. One branch is focused on work through a cell based structure, the other branch is focused on preparation (the development of aptitude, attitude and cultures to support this).


A) The work is divided into units and cells, defined by fitness functions (as above) with each cell having autonomy and separated from others through services or products produced or delivered.

B) The preparation side has different responsibilities. First, it is subdivided into the three structures necessary to enable three culture covering the different types of attitude. I know everyone says an organisation needs one culture, I fundamentally disagree. It needs three.

Each of those structures (Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners) have multiple aptitudes (finance, HR, engineering etc) and an executive in charge (a chief pioneer, a chief settler etc). The responsibilities of the executive in charge of each attitude are threefold.

1) developing the necessary culture and skill required for that particular attitude i.e. for pioneer engineers a focus on agile and experimentation whilst for town planner engineers a focus on extensive mathematical modelling and six sigma.

2) ensuring that required skills (of the right attitude and aptitude) are available to cells & units.

3) identifying opportunities for theft i.e. the job of the chief settler is to identify all those 'pioneer' cells whose work is becoming suitable for productisation and hence to steal from them by creating a new cell to meet the fitness function and replace the existing cell, forcing its pioneers to move on to more 'pioneering'. Ditto the chief town planner whose role includes industrialising all the 'settler' cells to more utility services.

Figure 5 - Overall structure.

The matrix structure of aptitude and attitude is used in preparation (i.e. creating the right culture & training in order to create effective cells). The executives in charge of the training function are responsible for ensuring this preparation and that a process of theft occurs within the working environment forcing cells to evolve. This enforces adaptation in terms of evolution.

The working environment consists of cells (grouped into units) delivering against defined fitness functions and growing (as per a starfish model) to occupy the required space. As they create new cells, they steal from the preparation side any people they need. The cells control their work themselves (within the confines of a fitness function) and the only time they lose control is when a more appropriate cell (as in attitude) comes along and steals their work from them. The role of the executive function on the work side is in creating, monitoring and refining those fitness function. To spell it out one more time, the role of the executive side is not to tell the cells of work how to run themselves or how to organise themselves etc. The role of the executive function is to understand the environment and to adapt fitness functions according to any outside threat.

If you want a military analogy then think of the preparation side as administrative division (e.g. Divisions, Regiments or Battalions) where certain culture, attitudes and aptitudes are developed. Now, think of the units (the working function) as a tactical battle group, an independent fighting force consisting of smaller units made up from members from the administrative divisions. It's not a perfect analogy but it's close enough.

Now this model also complements platform approaches and the whole ILC technique for development and exploitation of ecosystems with town planners building the core services, pioneers developing new concepts on this and settlers exploiting both internal and external work (through the use of consumption data) to identify successful changes to be introduced. It also helps when it comes to the question of open source and how to implement 'open source on purpose' i.e. town planners have an incentive to industrialise components and push activities to open.

Parts of the structure are or have been implemented in different places. No single organisation seems to have covered both elements of aptitude & attitude combined with the needs of cell based structure. This is simply an area I'm exploring because I don't agree that our existing organisational structures (even Amazon's) represent the pinnacle of organisation. They are simply just a lot better than what most companies use.

WeChat experiencing the highest growth in luxury brand adoption. by Resonance China

resonance_social channel adoption among brands

This chart from L2′s Digital IQ Index: Luxury China 2014, tracks the changes in social channel usage among 100 global and local luxury brands from November 2012 to April 2014. WeChat experienced the highest growth in adoption at a 51% annual growth rate, which mirrors the platform’s surge in popularity among Chinese netizens. Youku (16%) and Weibo (4%) posted more modest growth number, but this reflects channel maturity and the already high rates of usage among luxury brands. On the flip side, secondary platforms like Tudou, Douban, Tencent Weibo, and Renren saw negative growth coupled with high rates of inactivity – which begins to paint a clearer picture of the social media channels that luxury brands are focusing their efforts on as China’s digital ecosystem continues to evolve at warp speed. [L2]


When strategy makes me sad ... by Simon Wardley

Many years ago, I was CEO of a Canon subsidiary (between 2003 to 2007 having formerly been the CIO). Under my stewardship this profitable SME had developed the first PaaS (2005), an internal private IaaS (2003) and was involved in technology from the use of mobiles phones as cameras to 3D printing to online photo storage to ... well, there was a long list. There was an awful lot of future industry that Canon was poised to have a shot at owning.

However, these and a host of other capabilities including arguably one of the finest development teams in the world were all lost when the parent company decided to focus on 3D televisions, remove its European R&D capability and outsource all our services. Many of the areas of technology that I've subsequently been involved in over the years - from Cloud to Devops to Gov to Mapping - were strongly influenced by that group in Old Street, London. Of course, this was when Old Street was barren of technology companies bar that one troublesome, open source focused, hack day driven, agile company - Fotango.

So, what makes me sad? This report on "Canon Inc. Corporate Strategy Conference 2014". You see, I still have some fond memories of Canon and this report is disturbing reading.

First, the language is weak throughout - "Creating Outstanding Hit Products", "Concentrate on Technological Themes that will Lead the Way to the Future", "Develop game-changing products", "Capture needs of people that desire to take even better pictures" and "Secure overwhelming advantage" are more cries for help than actionable insight. The elements on developing a sales network in emerging markets reinforce this and seem to be one of those epic fails of sensible CEOs.

There are some good bits here, DNA diagnosis to immersive tech to PLED tech are all interesting spaces. It's also finally good to see 3D printing make a mention but given that I wrote my first report on 3D printing technology for Canon in 2003, it's over a decade late.  However, despite the good bits there is no obvious coherence to this. It's more a 'nice story' than a surgical strike.

I do worry about Canon. Substitution effects of smart phones, liquid lenses and other changes heading their way are going to be harsh. I met Fujio Mitarai all those years ago on the Canon Corporate Executive development program (Oct 2003) and immediately got into a warm discussion over the future of 3D printing etc. He is a really interesting person to talk to, a pleasant chap but I do fear for their future. I imagine it's going to be a tough old decade for them.

July 27, 2014

A quick route to building a strategy ... by Simon Wardley

Need a strategy? Can't be bothered to understand your landscape? Don't care about situational awareness or gameplay? Need it fast? Minimal effort? No problem!

Take all the following words ...

digital first, agile, open, innovative, efficiency, competitive advantage, ecosystem, networked, collaborative,  learning organisation, social media, revolution, cloud based, big data, secure, internet of things, growth, value, customer focused, digital business, disruptive, data leaders, big data, insight from data, platform, sustainable, revolution, culture.

... then add some other words in-between and you're done! 

Sounds too hard?  Ok, just add the words here.

Our strategy is [..]. We will lead a [..] effort of the market through our use of [..] and [..]  to build a [..]. By being both [..] and [..], our [..] approach will drive [..] throughout the organisation. Synergies between our [..] and [..] will enable us to capture the upside by becoming [..] in a [..] world. These transformations combined with [..] due to our [..] will create a [..] through [..] and [..].

Still too hard? Ok, these are some I made earlier. Pick one.

Strategy 1
Our strategy is customer focused. We will lead a disruptive effort of the market through our use of innovative social media and big data to build a collaborative cloud based ecosystem. By being both digital first and agile, our open approach will drive efficiency throughout the organisation. Synergies between our culture revolution and networked learning organisation will enable us to capture the upside by becoming data leaders in a digital business world. These transformations combined with insight from data due to our internet of things platform will create a sustainable competitive advantage through growth and value.


Strategy 2
Our strategy is collaborative growth. We will lead a customer focused effort of the market through our use of digital business and internet of things ecosystem to build a cloud based revolution. By being both innovative and open, our social media approach will drive competitive advantage throughout the organisation. Synergies between our data leaders and agile culture will enable us to capture the upside by becoming networked in a big data world. These transformations combined with disruptive insight from data due to our digital first platform will create a learning organisation through  value  and efficiency.


Strategy 3
Our strategy is innovative revolution. We will lead a growth effort of the market through our use of customer focused competitive advantage and disruptive social media to build a collaborative digital business. By being both data leaders and cloud based, our ecosystem approach will drive insight from data  throughout the organisation. Synergies between our platform and open culture will enable us to capture the upside by becoming digital first in a networked world. These transformations combined with value due to our efficiency will create a sustainable learning organisation through agile and big data.

Worried it's not big enough? Print some random posts, reports and graphs from the internet, add a couple of pages from the Art of War, call it background material.

Worried it has no value? Send a random person a gargantuan cheque with a note on which strategy you liked. As soon as they cash it, record it as 'consultancy fees' and assume whatever you want. As we all know, the bigger the cheque the more value ... right?

... my work is done.

Or alternatively, try and understand your landscape BEFORE building a strategy.

--- Saturday 12th July

What started as a joke has struck a bit of a nerve with a couple of people. I've already received some examples of real company strategy that seem painfully close. If you're aware of a real company strategy that mimics the above then please let me know. You can DM me on twitter. No need to reveal the company name, I'm interested in the content and how pervasive the duplication of memes / phrases and other terms are. I'll publish any conclusions I find here.

Also, thanks to Benoit I've been made aware of this HBR article on 'How to Execute a 15-Word Strategy Statement'. Now, there's nothing wrong with brevity, in fact brief and specific statements with clear understanding of the landscape are good - "Hold the Persians at the hot gates and cut off retreat with a naval assault".

However, brief and vague statements without an understanding of the landscape, where to attack and why one space over another are not helpful even if they are fifteen words long  - "Let us be agile, fight more efficiently and use innovation to disrupt the Persian army"

--- Tuesday 22nd July

This is brilliant, an auto strategy generator created by Bill West. Guaranteed to mimic most others competitors :-)

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight By Jay Barbree by The Planetary Society

Mat Kaplan reviews a wonderful new biography on Neil Armstrong, written with the support of Armstrong and many of the other pioneering astronauts.

How to navigate without a map? by Simon Wardley

People often talk about competition between companies as being like playing a game of chess. Unfortunately it's a game of chess in which few are able to see the board i.e. the landscape that an organisation operates within. For the last decade, I've been using a mapping technique to describe competitive environments and exploited them accordingly.

But what if you don't have a map? What if all you have are box and wire diagrams like IT systems or business process diagrams? Well, without a map then the most common technique for strategy appears to be copy others (i.e. backward causality). Without a map, the most common technique for describing such a strategy is story telling.

There's actually a lot of precedents in the physical world. Before people had maps they often described the routes of long journeys through story telling. A recent example of this to come to light is the use of astronomical markers in Aboriginal songs.

So, how do you navigate without a map? Well, you tell a story.

Gods and genre by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Takes Soft, Still

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

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

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

Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Playing chess with companies by Simon Wardley

From my OSCON tutorial, I've added some basic slides on what we covered.

Also added my keynote from OSCON 2014

A few things to note.

The mapping technique described above is used to create what are now becoming commonly called 'Wardley Maps' (to avoid confusion with other value chain maps / strategy map techniques). The technique is creative commons share alike. This doesn't mean you have to make your own company maps creative commons but rather that no-one is going to turn up and say you have to pay some license fee to a strategy consultancy for building one. I would ask that if you use this stuff then cite the technique as creative commons share alike. An example map is given in figure 1.

Figure 1 - An example map

The best way to learn about mapping is to start to build one and share it with others. I recommend just picking a system or line of business and having a go. Don't worry about making the map perfect, it's far more important to get feedback from others. I have a step guide here on the process of building a map and an earlier attempt at writing a book (actually the 3rd attempt) which starts here. Don't expect a book soon, I alas have very little time to write one. By all means, gain some experience in mapping and write your own.

I've been doing this form of mapping from 2005 (almost a decade now) since I first developed the technique. Yes, it'll take time to gain experience in manipulating an environment but remember maps enable people to discuss an environment, they are not just about management techniques and scenario planning but organisational learning. I can't emphasise enough how important it's to just get started, once you get good then comparison between maps (both different business units and against competitors) is always useful.

Mark Thompson and Jerry Fishenden have written a book on digitizing government which has a section on Wardley mapping and is being published in November. Whilst I conducted the early research behind mapping, formalising the evolution curve, determining the driving forces of competition and examining common economic patterns, a co-conspirator of mine was James Duncan. If you do find the technique useful, it would be great if you could drop myself and James a note telling us so. My twitter handle is @swardley

I don't provide consultancy work on mapping as I work for a private members only research organisation known as the LEF. If you are using mapping then I'd love to hear about it. You can either ping me on twitter or if you're happy to talk about experiences in public then leave a comment here.

For those who missed the tutorial, I'll submit to do another talk at OSCON in 2015 - fingers crossed. Thanks also for all those who scored my tutorial and keynote. I'm very humbled by this and the kind comments. This is very much appreciated.

July 26, 2014

Four things that annoy me with strategy. by Simon Wardley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mapping technique is all creative commons licensed and is being used in UK Gov and other places.

Figure 1 - A Map

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

Figure 2 - ILC.

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

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

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

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

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

Wonder Woman's current representative. by Feeling Listless

Film Might as well just embed a tweet from the several hundred:

This is the new Wonder Woman
— The Verge (@verge) July 26, 2014

It's heavily, heavily photoshopped but Gal Gadot certainly looks the part and the costume is about as expected. This particular interpretation of DC utilises a more subdued colour scheme (see Man of Steel) and although this is no way how I wished Wonder Woman was appearing on screen for the first time, at least in terms of this photograph it could have been much, much worse.

Apart from Doctor Who which largely enjoys being a single story across two thousand fictional years and fifty actual, all franchise characters are imagined and reimagined, interpreted and reinterpreted and this is Zack Snyder and the film version of DC's version and hopefully (even though on the strength of Man of Steel I'm not positive) the script will serve her well.

The Films I've Watched This Year #27 by Feeling Listless

Film It's the Commonwealth Games. Just completed watching the Australia vs England pool match which with my miniscule understanding of Netball, I thought would see us slaughtered but ended up being a thrilling match that ended with a fumble from Jo Harten, a goal shooter who until that point had managed to get the ball into the net with great accuracy. But I was out of my seat. I was screaming. I was more excited about this netball group match as I was for the whole of the football World Cup, perhaps because I can see the skill, precision and tactics as the ball's passed with such rapidity across the court in a way which simply doesn't seem as athletic, as kinetic when men are kicking a ball around a pitch.  Plus the whole thing is over in an hour or so with useful breaks every fifteen minutes.

The Wolf of Wall Street
20 Feet From Stardom
Violet & Daisy

Her is a difficult film to watch in isolation if you've any idea of its history.  Apart from its similarities to Electric Dreams (of which this is, as I suspected, essentially updated homage with Miles in love with the computer rather than his neighbour) but the fact that Samantha Morton, present throughout shooting was replaced with Scarlett Johansson.  It's to Spike Jonze's fantasy romance and Johansson's credit that I did eventually manage to largely put this to one side, but there were still moments when I thought, how would Morton have played this?  What the Morton line like that Joaquin Phoenix is reacting to here?  What did Morton not do that Johansson is?  Was it simply that Johansson's the bigger name and they were looking for a wider audience, was this a studio decision?

Presumably I'm not the first to say this, but however heartfelt and entertaining 20 Feet From Stardom is, in no sense should it have beaten The Act of Killing to an oscar.  It's oranges and lemons, of course, comparing a premium rate Friday night BBC Four music documentary (where this will surely end up) with a historically rich investigation into the Indonesian genocide, the wrongs done to Darlene Love by Phil Spector barely on the scale to the mass killings by the awful pen portrayed in Oppenheimer's film.  But like Secret Voices of Hollywood, in cultural terms this is still an important story as the people that are the aural scaffold of some of our favourite musical moments are finally amplified.  Plus it managed to make me think warmly about Sting again for the first time in a while, which is quite an achievement.

Violet & Daisy's been unloved, not granted a theatrical release here, just 23% on Rotten Tomatoes but I do think it's rather better than all that, even if I also think A O Scott's NYT review probably gets the measure of it.  Back in the 90s, this is just the sort of low budget, indie piece which appeared on the art house circuit and I'd end up blundering into at The Hyde Park in Leeds for the nine o'clock showing (just £1.50 on a Monday), in which genre characters would play off against each other in limited settings, where the filmmaker isn't trying to say anything especially new or important, especially since he's clearly likes French cinema a lot, but doesn't do anything especially wrong (cf, Living in Oblivion, Denise Calls Up, Mute Witness).

The advertising didn't really help, throwing together all of the otherwise minimal action sequences even though that's not really the genre its aiming for (and couldn't afford to be if it wanted).  There are Tarantino overtones, but to criticise director Geoffrey Fletcher for offering a direct homage to Pulp Fiction almost twenty years after release while venerating Quentin for borrowing extensively from John Woo early in his career simply isn't unfair.  Plus in exploitation terms having Rory Gilmore and pre-Hanna Saoirse Ronan as hitgirls facing off Tony Soprano is bang on.  Orphan Black fans might also like to know this features an early appearance for Tatiana Maslany in which she doesn't have anything  much to do but does it very well.  My film of the week.

July 25, 2014

Spoiler Thread by Charlie Stross

For the folks who've been asking for somewhere to talk about "The Rhesus Chart" after they've read it, here's a spoiler-full discussion thread. Warning: if you haven't read the book and still plan to, don't read the discussion here! It's going to be chock full of spoilers within 2-3 comments at most.

(As usual with such threads, I'll monitor it for flaming; however I will only dip in to answer questions when I am asked directly -- this is your discussion, not mine.)

How do you make people watch your airplane safety routine? by Zarino

The mySociety guys are a pretty globetrotting bunch. On the way back from a recent trip to the USA, Tom, el capitán, saw this awesome safety video from Virgin Atlantic.

It’s awesome, not only because it takes the piss out of the insatiable urge to zone out of those boring safety demonstrations, but also because it crams a dozen British movie tropes into a 5 minute segment – from Spaghetti Westerns to The Avengers and Brief Encounter; from 2001 A Space Odyssey to any one of a number of 1960s spy thrillers, some Beatles psychadelia, and a breathless James Bond title sequence.

And at the same time, it manages to tell you what you already know, about how to use safety belts and jump onto life chutes.

It’s nice seeing a company like Virgin Atlantic take time to think about the little things—the boring things—and to give a hat tip to some of their national culture. Nice work Art & Graft!

He's back and it's a pound! by Feeling Listless

TV Big Finish has reached its fifteenth anniversary and to celebrate they're providing a series of offers which includes, today, the first seminal series of Eighth Doctor stories, the very stories which turned me into a Doctor Who fan, for a pound each:

"We're making another free story available as a download today - the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard tale Living Legend, originally part of a cover-disc on Doctor Who Monthly. We'd like to thank Tom Spilsbury and all at Doctor Who Monthly for their agreement on this.

Also available as downloads for £1 each are the first four Eighth Doctor stories: Storm Warning, The Sword of Orion, The Stones of Venice and Minuet in Hell, and then two of his adventures from later in the range for £5 each on CD or Download - Time Works and Memory Lane."
Links to the plays are available at the Big Finish post and if you're a fan of the new series at least I'd urge you to hand over your four pounds.  I wrote about Storm Warning here last year, but I'd suggest you listen to it first before wallowing in my nostalgia for it.  "TARDIS manual, TARDIS manual, TARDIS manual..."

Support. by Feeling Listless

Sport As a fair weather friend of sport, I'm always grasping around for who to support whenever there are athletes or teams which aren't British or English or otherwise reveal my nationalistic tendencies. After many years of study, I've finally decided on the following policy. Essentially, it's supporting the closest land mass.

(1) City. So Liverpool or if it's football Everton. Liverpudlian athletes if there's a group of people from the national team.

(2) County. Merseyside.

(3) Region. North-West for me. Unless it's Manchester United in which case you support whichever team is playing them.

(4) Country. England.

(5) Sovereign Nation - so during these Commonwealth Games, if it's Wales versus someone else, support Wales. Though I'll support Scotland over Wales because of my surname. Such things are very complicated.

(6) Continent. Europe.

(7) Hemisphere. Which is the Western Hemisphere or Northern Hemisphere for me, depending, which makes it ok to support the Americans.

(8) Planet. Just in case.

Which is fine. Except I was cheering Scotland's Hannah Miley earlier against the English swimmer. Also it becomes trickier if both nations are from the same continent at which point the whole thing becomes a nonsense as I choose France over Germany or Japan over China for arbitrary reasons. Sometimes I'll invoke a "commonwealth" rule.  Oh and underdogs.  Always support the underdogs.

Pretty pictures of the Cosmos: Perception by The Planetary Society

Astrophotographer Adam Block shares two recent images of star clusters, along with a pair of depth perception-defying galaxies.

July 24, 2014

Curiosity update, sols 671-696: Out of the landing ellipse, into ripples and pointy rocks by The Planetary Society

For the last four weeks, the name of the game for Curiosity has been driving. But these weeks of driving have been more challenging than they used to be.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: Minneapolis #2 by Feeling Listless

[from: 'Eroica: Piano Improvisions', Virgin, 1990]

Music When I was a student (mid-nineties) I knew two things. The first was that by the year 2000 my life would be complete. The second was that club music in all it's forms was the work of the devil to draw the populace away from real music. And I pretty much kept that opinion for the rest of the decade. Then last year something strange happened. I was standing in record shop and the DJ began to play 'GrooveJet' by Spiller featuring Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Here was a record almost designed to talk me around to the Ibiza way of thinking. A dance record with a good lyric and melody of sorts which also had the kind of structure I'd never heard before. I walked to the counter and bought the thing straight away - and listened to it five times as soon as I was home.

My distrust of dance music still exists, much of it seeming too easy for words. There are the exceptions - the crossover music which I now feel myself not only appreciating but going positively radio gaga over. I'm becoming particular impressed by R&B. During my long and delayed train journey home tonight, I was welcome of the company of Mary J Blige and her 1997 album, 'share my world'. I should not like this album. I mean it features R Kelly for god's sake. But here I am, listening to it again whilst I write this. I want to gas on about her vocal range (extraordinary) or the production (as you'd expect, with glimpses of genius) And as I 'groove' along to the track 'round and round' I've come to a startling conclusion, and believe me, this is something of a revelation...there isn't one type of music I don't like....

Actually that may not be true. I'd run a mile from Kenny Rogers, James Galway and in fact most people with beards. And I'll draw the line at boy bands. And Atomic Kitten (mention number three on this weblog - six to go possibly). But when it comes to everything else, I think I can - if not rave - at least understand. There isn't probably anything better at one o'clock in the morning having had many beers than throwing your weight around S Club 7's 'Reach for the Stars'. The rush of a Slipnot concert will be extreme. And quiet stylings of Vangelis lead you into believing that a calmer world is possible. The only boundary in music should be quality... [1st September 2001]

[Commentary: At the point when this was written, the blog was only two months old and many, many years before the invention of Spotify when and the exponential increase in the availability of music increased exponentially. As I've glanced through these old selections and choices, it's been interesting to me just how much my tastes haven't changed. In the main I still do only listen to female voices and soundtrack albums, with classical music and world music falling between the cracks and odd bits of pop music depending on who it is. Even with all of music available that's still where I head off to. Perhaps some folk and jazz here and there, but generally yes, nothing much has changed. I'm listening to the Mary J Blige album as I type, probably for the first time since I wrote the above and well, yes, it's fine and I can necessarily disagree with most of what's above but I'll still end up listening to Adele when I'm writing Doctor Who reviews.

What's missing from the above is that about this time I was commuting to Manchester to the RBS call centre and had decided to expand my cultural outlook by reading Rolling Stone. This was before it still had large pages but way, way past its heyday, featuring the "girls" from American Pie on the cover. I remember finding the newsier items far more interesting than the music in the end, so it was probably ultimately my entry drug into US politics and rabidly following the presidential campaigns. Mainly it was a way of discovering what was happening in US culture when most of it was still inaccessible and not just a click away. Now it's entirely possible to follow the Chris Christie scandal on a minute-by-minute basis or listen to whatever's at no 100 in the Billboard Hot 100 without having to stay up until two in the morning for Casey Kasem and America's Top 10.]

Standing on Venus in 1975 by The Planetary Society

Venera 9 and 10 landed on Venus in 1975 and sent back the first images of the planet's surface. Now, Ted Stryk brings new life to these images to show us what it would be like to stand on the Venusian surface.

July 23, 2014

Competition Redux! by Charlie Stross

The Laundry HR competition is now closed, and I have some winners to announce!

I make no apologies for this announcement being a couple of days late. There were a lot of entries, and while some of them were easily eliminated, others were much harder to wrap my head around. How, for example, do I judge the epic multi-author thread, amounting to a story in its own right, that started here and sucked in half the next 200-odd comments?

Administrative note: I am still waiting to receive a postal address for:

Nils Bruckner, Grant Privett, Mark Draughn, and the entities known as rk.radiohill, BigJay2K

(I can't mail you prizes if I don't know where to send them! Please email me!)

Also, there's just one of me and after reading 500+ entries my brain kind of melted. Trying to pick ten winners out of that many entries is hard work. So I used my initiative to throw a bunch of what I considered noteworthy entries—about 30-50 in all—at my long-suffering editor and marketing person at Orbit to see if they could help, especially in light of their experiences of meetings with HR being much more recent than mine. What follows is therefore mostly my fault, but with an [in-]sanity check by others (who shall remain nameless, both to spare the guilty and to reduce the risk of gibbering apprehension and dread among the readers of this announcement). I'm also favouring those who got their entries in first: it's always hardest to come up with an idea when working in a partial vacuum, so I'm rewarding the folks who shouted into the void first.

Note: Publishing folks aren't generally software startup veterans, so Haskell type system jokes tend to fall flat. I have therefore exercised my whim of steel to pick a couple of hardcore techie-only entries.

What follows is an unadorned list of 12 (rather than the original planned 10) winning entries. The first five will get signed copies of "The Rhesus Chart" by mail; the others will get ... something or other, via Zazzle. (I'll work it out when I recover from judging the entries.) If you're the author of one of these squibs, please send me an email via this link with the subject "competition" (and your username on this blog) so I can get in touch about where to send your prize!

The winners for the Laundry's worst workplace disciplinary problems follow below:

  1. koprivicamarko

[CENSORED]'s manager failed to realize that the employee in question took a day off from work for their grandmother's funeral on 13 different occasions.

Grandmother finally neutralized after a pitched battle with [CENSORED].

  1. rk.radiohill

Unacceptable number of bees.

  1. Anaxagoras

Upon review of security footage, former mainframe technician Galvin Galbraith was discovered to in fact be a chicken under a Class 4 Glamour. Mr. Galbraith was instructed to report to the commissary for debriefing.

  1. windypundit

"Two Girls One Cup" is NOT surveillance video of a demonic entity exchange between possessed persons. Please stop telling the new employees that they have to watch it as "training." It wasn't funny the first time.

  1. BigJay2k

The "Abyss Staring Contest" posted in the break room last week has been cancelled. Any attempt to reschedule it will result in offender(s) being reassigned to "Human Resources" staffing.

And now for some runners-up who I judged to be just slightly too meta, technically involute, recondite, or just downright squid-in-mouth to hit the same laugh-out-loud sweet spot, but whose sterling service to Human Resources horror stories will be memorialized in the shape of an official Laundry health and safety (or Magic Circle of Safety public information awareness) mug:

  1. danoot:

Stored a small but inconveniently curious extradimensional entity in the bitcoin blockchain.

  1. FaustHDr

At this point (159 comments so far) the management would like to remind staff, that copying one's own or co-worker's workplace disciplinary problems, then posting it on a public accessible blog in order to win trivial merchandise in a competition organized by a so-called author, who seems to know just a little bit too much, is not an appropriate use of time and resources.

  1. Jay

BILLION CORPSES is not an acceptable project codename. Please choose a less accurate one.

  1. flippac

Proposed a variant of Roko's Basilisk on LessWrong which induced a number of members to knowingly form a cult. Said cult attempted to perform a summoning to engage in acausal computing. All known members have subsequently been institutionalised after their ritual merely left a mysterious glyph behind that appears to read "YHBT".

  1. Ian Mackenzie

Appeal denied.

The tribunal strongly reaffirms its previous ruling that screaming "Fuck! Nyarlathotep! Run!" at a departmental SportsBall game without an objectively valid reason to do so is in violation of laundry policy not only due to Naming an Old One, but also inciting unnecessary panic. Even if your side is losing.

The Auditors want it emphasised that anyone found responsible for causing an objectively valid reason to scream "Fuck! Nyarlathotep! Run!" - whether or not at a SportsBall game - will receive their intense and hostile attention.

  1. Grant


This is your final formal warning.

  1. Randolph Carter

Strategically arranging Residual Human Resources on sidewalks so the Google Street View vehicle mounted cameras pass by and record "the world's largest lemon party" is unacceptable.

Additionally, the Liaison Officer from the Black Chamber reports that Google has purged the related images from all of their servers and backups.

Final repetition: if you're the author of one of these squibs, please send me an email via this link with the subject "competition" (and your username on this blog) so I can get in touch about where to send your prize!

Searching for Signs of Plate Tectonics in Polluted White Dwarfs by Astrobites

Plate tectonics is a unique feature of Earth. Unlike every other rocky body in our Solar System, Earth’s crust is broken up into roughly a dozen pieces (plates) that move around with different velocities. When two plates converge, one plate sinks under the other in a process called subduction, eventually becoming recycled into the mantle and causing volcanism, earthquakes, and mountain building on the surface.

Plate tectonics regulates Earth’s atmospheric composition through the cycle of subduction and volcanic degassing. Subduction returns carbonate rocks like limestone from the seafloor into the mantle, for example, while carbon dioxide is emitted from volcanoes at plate boundaries. It’s probably not a coincidence that the only known planet with plate tectonics is the only one with life. So, we’d really like to know if plate tectonics is a thing that happens on terrestrial exoplanets.

Today’s paper discusses the first step in a search for evidence of plate tectonics—a hunt for the remnants of continental crust within two white dwarfs that have accreted little bits of rocky planets, aka planetesimals. Although these two stars yielded no evidence for extrasolar plate tectonics, a survey of more targets seems exceedingly worthwhile.

Telltale Signs of Plate Tectonics

To a rough approximation, rocky planets are chemically differentiated into three distinct layers. Early in the process of planetary formation, an iron-rich core separates from a silicate mantle. A basaltic crust then forms over time from the partial melting of the mantle. Oxygen and silicon are the most abundant elements in basaltic crust, followed by calcium and aluminum, as observed on Mars, the Moon, and Vesta.


Figure 1 (Wikipedia). Cartoon of a converging boundary between oceanic and continental plates. Oceanic, basaltic crust is subducted because it is more dense than continental crust. The subducting plate partially melts, causing surface volcanism and the production of more continental crust, which is enriched in incompatible elements like strontium and barium.

Earth’s oceanic crust is basaltic, but we also have continental crust, which forms from partial melting of subducted oceanic crust. Continental crust is chemically distinct because it is extremely enriched in “incompatible” elements that generally have large ionic radii and thus tend to come out of a partially melting rock. In particular, Earth’s continental crust is dramatically enriched in strontium and barium, by factors of ~10-100 relative to calcium. No other known process can produce similarly high elemental ratios.

Continents are less dense than oceanic crust, so they tend to stick around on the surface, as shown on Figure 1. If a planet has plate tectonics for a significant part of its history, then evidence should remain on its outermost skin. Unfortunately, we can’t send a probe to any exoplanets in the foreseeable future, nor can we spectrally analyze the surfaces of distant rocky planets from Earth. Using a new technique, however, we can search the corpses of Sun-like stars for remnants of Earth-like planets.

A Pilot Search of Two White Dwarfs

Our Sun will end its life as a white dwarf, after it expands into a red giant and sheds its outer layers as planetary nebulae. (N.b., planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets and are a great example of astronomers being very silly with words. But they look cool!) Planets could survive this end stage of stellar evolution and remain orbiting the white dwarf.

Figure 2 (Jura et al. 2014). Spectrum of the polluted white dwarf GD 362 in the vicinity of the Ba II spectral feature. Black lines are data and the red lines are a model with the maximum amount of barium consistent with the observation. GD 362 is accreting rocky planetesimals, but they are not sufficiently enriched in barium to argue that they contain a significant amount of continental crust from a planet with plate tectonics.

Figure 2 (Jura et al. 2014). Spectrum of the polluted white dwarf GD 362 in the vicinity of the Ba II spectral feature. Black lines are data and the red lines are a model with the maximum amount of barium consistent with the data. GD 362 is accreting rocky planetesimals, but they are not sufficiently enriched in barium to argue that they contain a significant amount of continental crust from a planet with plate tectonics.

Elements heavier than hydrogen or helium quickly (in ~10,000 years) sink below the observable photosphere of white dwarfs. This is fascinating, because observing heavier elements in the spectrum of a white dwarf means that something like a rocky planetesimal has just accreted, or is accreting, onto the “polluted” white dwarf. (Without external accretion, we expect to see only hydrogen and helium.) Scientists used these tactics to argue for extremely water-rich asteroids orbiting the white dwarf GD 61.

Imagine the following scenario: an asteroid impact knocks off part of the crust from a planet orbiting a white dwarf that has plate tectonics. If these crustal remnants were then accreted onto the white dwarf, then we could observe signs of rocky material with a very high barium-to-calcium or strontium-to-calcium ratio in its spectrum.

Figure 2 shows the region of the spectrum of the polluted white dwarf GD 362 (black data) that would reveal an absorption line of barium. Alack, the authors place an upper limit on the barium abundance (red model) that excludes the accretion of a significant amount of continental crust. Similar results were obtained for another polluted white dwarf, PG 1225-079.

Current observational techniques are sufficient to detect signs of continental crust, if nature were to obligingly provide. Accretion of continental crust onto a white dwarf is probably an exceedingly rare event, even if rocky planets with plate tectonics are plentiful. But finding a plate tectonics is a big step towards finding life, so the search continues.

LightSail-A Has a Blown Radio Amplifier. Now What? by The Planetary Society

LightSail-A's blown radio amplifier doesn't affect the 2016 SpaceX Falcon Heavy mission, but it adds an unwelcome obstacle to the 2015 test mission's ever-shortening timetable.

The vast unlocked potential beyond China’s first tier cities. by Resonance China

resonance_china city tiers

This map from Nielsen’s recently published “A New Era In Consumption 2014,” captures the vast market size of the cities that lie beyond China’s booming first tier. Although only four cities receive the tier 1 classification, they represent 16 million households and one trillion RMB in spending power. But further down the tiers, we can see just how much potential exists with tier 2 cities possessing twice the spending power of the first tier, and tier 3 and tier 4 cities each having three times the income. As good as that sounds, a huge challenge lies in navigating vast regional nuances and consumer behaviors as marketers must adapt strategies that may have worked for 4 cities, to 23 cities, 229 cities, and up to 1,600 cities.  [Nielsen]


July 22, 2014

Liverpool Biennal 2014: The Bluecoat. by Feeling Listless

Art Here’s how I met Whistler’s mother. It’s Paris in 2001 (isn’t it always) and I’m visiting the Musee d’Orsay having entirely forgotten in the heat and having seen about a dozen other paintings of world importance that Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 is part of its collection too. Having completely destroyed my feet the day before doing the Doctor Who thing on the Eiffel Tower, I needed to rest my pins many times during that museum visit and having entered yet another small, packed room, noticed an empty seat and quickly sat down or as quickly as my feet would allow, sat down. After surreptitiously taking a drink of water, I glanced around and there she was, sitting, literally, on the wall to the side of me mirroring the position of the gallery bench, almost as though we were in audience.

The Musee d’Orsay in Paris is the kind of institution which has such an abundance of paintings of world importance that what would be put in the “average” position in a regional gallery is the sort of thing which would otherwise be given its own room in a regional gallery so here she was on a side wall, only really visible from this seat the visitor’s head cocked to the side. For minutes I sit scrutinising, dodging other tourists as they stand in the tiny space between the bench and the wall or almost in my lap trying to get the decent look which is only really possible from this position on this bench. Eventually my feet begin working again and I totter onward having become rather blasé about the occasion, which is just what happens when you’ve just recently seen about a dozen other paintings of world importance.

All of which makes it deeply unfair of me to say that the best artist I’ve seen so far at this Biennial is James McNeill Whistler because he’s James McNeill Whistler. But James McNeill Whistler is the best artist I’ve seen so far at this Biennial and it’s important to say at the outset that the existence of this exhibition is a blessing. As I have discussed and over-discussed at length elsewhere, Liverpool tends to be overwhelmed with exhibitions of post 1900 art, most often post-WWII art so the chance to see work which was created in the middle of the century before last outside of a permanent collection display, is, yes, a blessing. That in the unusual setting of the Bluecoat, which usually offers the most contemporary of contemporary art and exists due to the curatorial decision of Liverpool Biennial usually considered one of the most contemporary of festival is a brill curiosity.

But Whistler was a contemporary artist himself when the work was originally created and the big theme of the exhibition is justification. One room dedicates itself to the libel trial in which the painter sued the art critic (etc) John Ruskin, who’d taken umbrage at Whistler’s impressionistic artistic style and one painting in particular saying that he “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.” Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket is daring stuff and you can see that Ruskin, and Punch who also took a dislike to Whistler judging by the many cartoons included in the exhibition unable to cope with the idea that more than one artistic tradition could co-exist, that this cloudy blue surface could have the same emotional depth and poetry as the fine detail of a pre-Raphaelite scene.

Whistler (spoiler) won his trial due to Ruskin not being able to defend himself and so unable to provide the necessary defence, he did at least do art history the favour of putting the artist on the back foot and forcing him to justify his existence or at least the paintings that sustained his existence. In an exchange from the trial, he’s asked by his inquisitor exactly why as per Ruskin, The Falling Rocket, "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?" to which Whistler replies "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime” thereby explaining for that time onward the worth of painting and sculpture which are about thought rather than action or at least in which on balance the ratio tips more towards the former than the latter.

Anyone who visits as many exhibitions as I do will hopefully agree with me that we see a lot of crap art, utter, abject rubbish that not even a well worded explanatory label can morally justify. It’s a hazard of “culture” as defined by the section on The Guardian’s website that there’ll be a largish percentage of dreck, because there has to be, because “culture” thrives on mistakes. But, it could be argued, there might be less of it if artists were forced into a similar position as Whistler, of having to stand behind the work, of being able to not just explain what it means (assuming they can be bothered) but justifying what it’s doing in the world and how they hope it adds to human experience. In other words, why don’t artists (or indeed curators) have to face the same scrutiny and politicians and sports people?

The other theme of the exhibition is reproduction. Set designer Olivia de Monceau has been tasked with recreating Blue and Silver: Screen with Old Battersea Bridge (original at Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow) and a free-standing cross section of one wall of Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (original at the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.). The painting featured in the Biennial booklet, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre appears in the form of a digital print on Foamex (because the notion of borrowing the original from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco with the connected insurance costs would presumably be prohibitive) and Ruta Staseviciute's recreation of Arrangement in Black (The Lady in the Yellow Buskin) (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The display also contains a number of good etchings including the atmospheric Two Doorways from his Venice set, with its mysterious figures in silhouette.

But arguably the best work in the exhibition is one of the smallest and a watercolour, one of the few occasions when the artist himself is directly present. Nocturne in Great and Gold – Piccadilly captures the metropolis at its most impressionistic, vehicles, buildings and people lost in the fog. Like Turner, like the Abstract Expressionists later, it’s a painting which initially appears indistinct but repays our time as the artist’s craft in suggesting details through apparently uncontrolled brush stokes, motioning towards emotional realism through the viewers memory of what it’s actually like to me in that kind of fog. Presumably the street scenes of Atkinson Grimshaw would have been more Ruskin’s sort of thing. But as I think we’ve somewhat forgotten ourselves now, it’s possible for both to co-exist.

Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock: 20 February 1885: Public Lecture (recording by Mr P Cock, 2014)

This is a lecture the artist gave at Prince's Hall, Piccadilly on as the title states, 20 February 1885. Here’s a transcript and here’s an essay by Oscar Wilde (who was in attendance) written in response. It’s featured in the exhibition in the form of an audio reading played through speakers in “The Vide” section of the Bluecoat, the concrete area just past the lockers and round the corner from the toilets and notice boards which is more often used for installation art. It’s not a video, of course, but I didn’t want to break format too much so I’m ushering this piece of audio into the project even though I’m not sure what’s primarily of the most importance, its existence as a thing or the content, Whistler’s words. There are also reproductions of those words on a coffee table in the space so I expect that’s the point.

Except I haven’t really had a chance to experience those words. When I arrived at 10:25, the recording hadn’t been turned on. I asked a volunteer about this and after I sat at the table, eventually someone arrived to go behind the scenes and begin the recording. The words played clearly from the wall mounted speakers, “It is with great hesitation and much misgiving that I appear before you, in the character of – The Preacher …” then a lift arrived with a friendly “doors opening”. A staff member walked out. Another lift. More people walking past. The other lift. Clatter. Folded up furniture being moved. Chatter. Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock: 20 February 1885: Public Lecture is being played in the second most trafficked area for humanity on the ground floor of the building besides the entrance hall.

Fairly quickly I picked up one of the transcriptions determined to read along and like the video pieces at other venues stick it out to the end. But Whistler is making an argument, essentially reading an essay, and that requires concentration, especially since the language is just slightly more arcane and alien to our ears, and it’s difficult to concentrate when life is happening all around. Of course this isn’t life’s fault. Life has every justification for doing whatever it is that it’s doing. But eventually I gave up not entirely sure what the point was and is in presenting the lecture in this manner. Headphones would limit the audience, but you could argue the audience for this is limited anyway, predicated as it is on a person sitting in a gallery space for half an hour, ad-hoc, listening to a lecture.  Podcast?

Women Working on Mars: Curiosity Women's Day by The Planetary Society

Just after completing the primary mission of 669 sols on Mars, Curiosity's managers planned a special day -- June 26, 2014 -- in which mostly women were assigned to the more than 100 different operational roles.

Some rambling thoughts on region restrictions by Charlie Stross

I think at this point in the century, everyone reading this blog—with the [possible] exception of certain lurkers who are required by virtue of their position within their company to toe the Party Line and therefore may not be free to say what they really think—is clear on the drawbacks of DRM.

But regional restrictions make me wince, because from an author's point of view the situation is a bit more complicated.

In principle, I oppose region restrictions. As a reader, they make me itch. But in practice, the way book distribution works across international borders is worse than imperfect: it's broken. If I sell world English language rights to one of my books to a publisher, that publisher can't just print and distribute the book everywhere in the English-speaking world. Publishers used to be regional, not global, players. And even in the wake of the wave of takeovers that resulted in the Big Six Five owning about 70% of the business, mergers between publishing houses are incredibly slow and complicated due to contractual encumbrances. As a result, publishers generally don't have the branding, imprint, and corporate connections to sell books in more than one territory. Let me emphasize this: they're regional, not global, operations.[*] So if they find they've got publishing rights to territories where they don't have printing and distribution arrangements they generally sub-license the rights to other, local, publishers who've got the connections to sell books to the local trade channels.

This means that they can't offer me a bigger book advance for world rights than they would for their own regional rights (because they might not succeed in licensing those territorial sub-rights—this has bitten me in the past). If they paid a world-rights-sized advance for what turned out to be regional sales they'd make a huge loss, which in turn would make them very leery about doing repeat business with me. Consequently we end up with different editions published by local publishers at different prices, with regional distribution restrictions.

Also, when publishers sell sub-licenses, the contract side is generally handled by clerical staff who handle the sub-rights for hundreds of books a year, with no particular incentive for prioritizing my work.

Consequently I prefer to get my literary agent to split the various regional rights up and sell them separately, so I get paid for North American rights by my US publisher and UK/Commonwealth (except Canada) rights by my UK publisher. This results in more money for me. It also results in better royalty contracts—my agent takes a 15% commission, so the bigger the deal the more money she gets (and the more money I get).

But from a book-buying reader's point of view ...

This was fine in the old paper book days—books were uneconomical to bulk-ship internationally, and thanks to the first sale doctrine readers who really wanted foreign editions could legally mail-order them and pay for shipping. What the casual buyer doesn't see on the shop shelves they don't feel the lack of: so everybody was happy, more or less.

But in the age of ebooks, borders are increasingly porous. And Brits can see what is in the Kindle store on, and Americans can see what's in the Kindle store on, and British and American publishers can see how each others' titles are doing. Regional publishers are jealous of their regional sales—nobody wants a big rival from another country to kick down the door and eat their lunch—so they enforce contractual terms on the ebook stores that lock in territoriality. The ebook stores for the most part are more than happy to go along with this: it gives them a valuable lever for selling their DRM-enforced walled garden model of ebook publishing to publishers. The walled gardens in turn lock end-customers into the e-book store's platform, be it Kindle or iBooks or Adobe Digital Editions.

So what started out as a natural side-effect of books being heavy and not worth shipping across oceans has turned into a royal pain in the ass for readers—but where the desired solution for the readers (global sales, a flat worldwide market) will cause significant pain to the authors in the medium term (and by "pain" and "medium", I invite you to consider how you'd reply to a proposal that you take a 20-40% pay cut for 3-5 years).

What I'd like is a publisher who could genuinely operate globally—that is, publish a single edition throughout the English-speaking world, offering advances for my books that reflected global sales potential rather than regional, and removing the need for regional restrictions and DRM completely. And indeed—you saw that [*] footnote asterisk up top?—such a global publisher exists within my field. But it's Orbit ... a subsidiary of Hachette, and while there are a lot of good things I can say about Hachette their corporate high-level policy makes DRM mandatory, no exceptions. (Digression: Don't be fooled into thinking that Tor are a global player. While Tor US and Tor UK are both subsidiaries of Macmillan, which operates worldwide, they are entirely separate companies. Turns out, sibling rivalry is a thing: they're as jealous of their regional rights as any other rival companies.) So right now I can have my books published without DRM, in return for putting up with lots of regional messing-around (which is why the new Merchant Princes omnibuses won't be available on paper in North America until the back end of this year, a year after their UK publication). Or I can have a single publisher who operates globally ... but insists on DRM. Shorter Charlie: you can't win.

Hopefully the situation will improve in the medium term—meaning before the end of the decade. But your guess is as good as mine. And this is by way of explaining why you'll see different covers for my books, and different prices and publication dates and ISBNs, in different countries. Globalization: nice theory, shame about the practice.

The five biggest challenges facing WeChat marketers. by Resonance China


This chart from R3 and Admaster’s China Digital Media Survey 2014, captures the sentiments of 300 digital marketing professionals from leading global and domestic brands when evaluating WeChat. While the mobile messaging app is high on everyone’s priority list, the reality is that both brands and Tencent have room to grow in terms of getting the most marketing value from the platform. At the top of the list is marketers’ difficulty in attracting enough targeted followers (52%), which may be addressed in Tencent’s soon-to-be launched WeChat advertising platform. Difficulty in evaluating outcomes was the second most mentioned challenge, followed by lack of interaction. As WeChat evolves from its closed messaging roots, it will be interesting to see how Tencent balances brand needs and monetization with preserving the unique user experience that made the app so popular. [R3 via Digitaling]

AdMaster精硕科技联合R3胜三管理咨询,联合举办第四届中国数字媒体营销年度调研。这针对中国300位数字营销专家的访问结果显示,移动端的应用是各家品牌主的必争之地,其中又以微信挂帅,尽管如此,还是有众多的品牌商在微信的应用上面临困难。在300位调研对象中,有将近过半(52%)的受访者,发现微信难以吸引足够的目标人群;第二高位(37%)的为难以评定的投放效果;第三位(20%)为品牌与粉丝的互动较少。作为腾讯热门产品的微信,相信各家都在观望腾讯如何用微信拉近品牌与受众的距离及如何提供独特的用户体验。[R3 via Digitaling]

Chang'e 3 update: Both rover and lander still alive at the end of their eighth lunar day by The Planetary Society

Despite the fact that it hasn't moved for 6 months, the plucky Yutu rover on the Moon is still alive. Its signal is periodically detected by amateur radio astronomers, most recently on July 19. A story posted today by the Chinese state news agency offers a new hypothesis to explain the failure of the rover's mobility systems.

July 21, 2014

Cherbourg Cleaning. by Feeling Listless

Film For fans of this sort of thing, which is probably all of you, a short piece from Criterion about the restoration of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The videos features Agnes Varda and all the family, including Mathieu Demy, the French Andrew Collins it seems. Spoiler warning: it gives away the ending.

One Day on Mars by The Planetary Society

A single day's observations take us from orbital overviews all the way down to ground truth.

Can Icelines Explain Uranus and Neptune? by Astrobites

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System's ice giant planets. (Images from Wikipedia.)

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. (Images from Wikipedia.)

There is still much that we don’t understand about the two ice giant planets in our Solar System, Uranus and Neptune. In this paper, the authors posited a new theory that addressed four outstanding problems concerning how these planets formed.

The first problem is that there was likely not enough solid material in the Sun’s protoplanetary disk to build the ice giants at their current locations (19 and 30 AU). Without enough material, the process of giant planet formation couldn’t get off the ground before the protoplanetary disk dispersed.

The second problem is that the ice giants contain more carbon than we would expect. Specifically, their proportion of carbon to hydrogen is 30 to 60 times higher than this same ratio in the Sun. In contrast, Jupiter and Saturn have C/H ratios of only 4 and 7 times higher than the Sun. Why the carbon enrichment of Uranus and Neptune differs so much from that of Jupiter and Saturn is a mystery.

Third, the ice giants are severely depleted in nitrogen. The amount of nitrogen (compared to the amount of hydrogen) is only 1% of the Sun’s N/H value. Jupiter and Saturn, on the other hand, have N/H ratios of about 4 times the Sun’s. Again, the difference in composition between the ice giants and the Jovian planets is striking.

Fourth, from studying the current composition of the ice giants, it appears that the deuterium to hydrogen ratio (D/H) in the water ice that went into building these planets was 6 to 8 times lower than in the water ice of comets that reside on the outer part of the Solar System today. This is surprising because comets are thought to be very pristine specimens from the early stages of the Solar System’s history.

The author’s solution to all four of these problems relied on icelines. Icelines were the locations in the protoplanetary disk where a given compound transitioned between its solid and vapor phases. Inside its iceline a compound was warm enough to be a vapor, while outside the iceline the compound was a solid.

The crux of the authors’ idea was that the ice giants formed between the carbon monoxide (CO) and molecular nitrogen (N2) ice lines. The CO iceline occurs at a temperature of 25 K and the N2 iceline occurs at 24 K. Thus, these lines were quite close together at 28 and 32 AU in the Solar System’s protoplanetary disk.

The authors investigated the physical processes at play near these ice lines by using a computer simulation to model the disk. They found two competing processes that occurred at each iceline. Solid particles experienced gas drag in the disk and moved inwards, crossing the iceline and sublimating. At the same time, gas from just inside the iceline diffused outwards and condensed into solid particles. The second process occured more quickly, dominating over the first. The net effect was to leave the concentration of material enhanced just outside of the iceline and depleted just inside of the iceline.

Because the CO and N2 icelines were so near each other, the region between them was affected by this phenomenon from both icelines. This region of the disk ended up highly concentrated in CO ice, providing the reservoir of solid material needed to form a planet efficiently and solve the first problem. Since CO was the primary source of carbon in the protoplanetary disk, this effect left the planet enriched in CO, solving the second problem (see the pie charts below). This region was also depleted in N2 vapor, leaving the resulting planet lacking in nitrogen and solving problem three.

Pie charts showing the mass fractions of solid material just outside the CO ice line at the start of the authors simulations (left, before the ice line phenomena takes place), and 100,000 years later (right, at the time when the ice giant planets are forming). Note how effectively the ice line concentrates solid CO. (From Figure 4 of the paper).

Pie charts showing the mass fractions of solid material just outside the CO ice line at the start of the authors simulations (left, before the ice line phenomena takes place), and 100,000 years later (right, at the time when the ice giant planets are forming). Note how effectively the ice line concentrates solid CO. (From Figure 4 of the paper).

The fourth problem is solved by realizing that primordial ice (like that found in comets) may not have been the primary source of H2O for the ice giants. In addition to delivering lots of carbon, the concentrated CO also delivered much oxygen. This oxygen could combine with the primordial molecular hydrogen (H2) in the disk to form water with the reaction CO + 3H2 –> CH4 + H2O. The primordial H2 has a much lower D/H than the ice in comets, and the H2O of the ice giants has a D/H ratio much closer to this low value.

So is the question of how Uranus and Neptune completely answered? Not quite. While this theory does solve several underlying problems, it creates a couple of its own as well. For one thing, a leading theory about the dynamical history of the Solar System called the Nice Model requires Uranus and Neptune to start at 15 and 12 AU, which is much nearer the Sun than the location of these icelines (although the planets could have migrated inwards after they formed). Another issue is that there are two ice giant planets, and the zone between the ice lines was likely not large enough to have formed them both. Perhaps one planet formed and migrated out of the region quickly with enough time for the second one to form afterwards. Or perhaps there were fluctuations in temperature profile of the protoplanetary disk, leaving multiple concentric pairs of CO and N2 icelines at which to form ice giants.

The authors do mention one way to test their theory further: measure the amount of oxygen in the ice giants. Because carbon and oxygen are both primarily delivered to the planets in the form of condensed CO molecules, their theory predicts that the amount of C and O should be roughly the same.

July 20, 2014

Robot Ergon. by Feeling Listless

TV Robot Chicken have done Doctor Who and as is so often the case when they tackle anything outside Star Wars it's about as funny as a hernia (as I know from experience) making all the same mistakes as that stupid Extras thing with David Tennant of not actually referencing anything in particular from the show other than the relatively iconic stuff which wasn't even particularly amusing when Lenny Henry or French & Saunders did them decades ago.  Oh and the obvious sense that they haven't watched the revival at all which makes them look even less relevant.  Plus, Whizz Kid?  Hello?

On capabilities by Simon Wardley

Jay Fry is doing a grand job of tweeting some choice quotes from the Gartner CIO survey. I've already commented on the 'top ten challenges for I&O leaders' but this is another scorcher.

“The IT org has the right skills and capabilities in place to meet upcoming challenges.” 42% in Gartner CIO survey DISagreed. #gartneriom
— Jay Fry (@jayfry3) June 9, 2014
Ok, here's my problem with the quote. Unless you've mapped out the environment and created a meaningful strategy based upon this and gameplay then how do these companies know what capabilities they'll need

I more than understand that most strategy is simply 'backward causality' (i.e. copying others) and hence if you produce a list based on this - digital first, agile, big data, cloud, social media etc - then you can come up with a fairly uniform list of missing skills. But this doesn't mean you actually need those capabilities. It's more than likely that any strategy based upon 'what 67% of other generals do' is the wrong strategy.

In fact, I have quite a bit of evidence to point to this and how lack of situational awareness (a key element to strategic gameplay) is correlated with poor market performance (see figure 1)

Figure 1 - Market Cap impact of Strategic Gameplay

So, how exactly do these CIOs know what capability they need? Certainly the list of top ten challenges doesn't give me confidence or maybe I just inhabit a completely different world.

July 19, 2014

G! because we DIY! by Feeling Listless

Music Just watching the Live in Edinburgh Concert on BBC One which is what it is. They have at least had the good grace to invite Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, what remains of The Beautiful South. They sang this:

With its surprisingly familiar sounding chorus which is basically this:

I wonder if it's a direct homage and if so, well, goodie, goodie, yum, yum.

Mars and Europa: Contrasts in Mission Planning by The Planetary Society

Several announcements for proposed missions to Mars and on the planning for a NASA return to Europa that highlight the contrasts in planning missions for these two high priority destinations.

The Rhesus Chart: Chapter One by Charlie Stross

(Note: this chapter was manually converted from the final manuscript. It may contain minor typos and other errata that differ from the published book.)

"Don't be silly, Bob," said Mo, "everybody knows vampires don't exist."

I froze with my chop sticks halfway to my mouth, the tiny corpse of a tempura-battered baby squid clutched precariously between them, while I flailed for a reply to her non sequitur. We were dining out at an uncomfortably pricy conveyor-belt sushi restaurant just off Leicester Square—it was my treat, although I had an ulterior motive. Unfortunately I was in the dog house for some reason. I didn't know why, and it might not even have been related to the deed I'd brought her here to apologize for, but dinner showed every sign of turning into one of those rare but depressingly unfocussed marital arguments we had every few months. And the most prominent warning sign was this: the replacement of reasoned discussion with peremptory denial.

"We can't be sure of that. I mean, doesn't that take us right into proving-a-negative territory? The ubiquity of the legends, the consistent elements, all suggest to me that maybe we've been looking in the wrong place—"

We were here because I thought it might help soften her up before I apologized for what I'd done to her friend Pete the month before. But instead of unwinding or letting me tell her about my latest office project, she'd switched into hyper-critical mode as soon as we got to our booth. Apology shelved. Perhaps she'd just had a bad day at the office, but begging forgiveness for sins of necessity committed in the line of duty was clearly off the menu for the time being. Ten years together, seven of them married, have taught me to recognize the signs: right now if I reminded her that the sun rose in the east she'd start by stonewalling then escalate to a land war in Asia.

"Bob." When she said my name like that, it gave me flashbacks to Miss Pearson in Primary Two (not my favorite teacher): "Vampires can't exist. There'd be detailed records in the archives; they couldn't possibly evade detection by the state for any significant period. Besides which—" she aimed an alarmingly sharp wooden chop stick at my nose—"there'd be corpses everywhere. Human blood is a poor nutrient source; it's about 60 percent plasma by volume and only provides about 900 calories per liter, so your hypothetical blood-sucking fiend is going to have to drink about two and a half liters per a day. Those calories don't come in the form of useful stuff like glucose and fat: it's mostly protein from circulating red blood cells. Dracula would have to exsanguinate a victim every day just to stay alive, and would suffer from chronic ketoacidosis. The total number of intentional homicides for the whole country is around 700 a year; a single vampire would cause a 50 percent spike in the murder rate. Or they'd have to take transfusion-sized donations about two thousand times a year." She capped the boss-level takedown with a tight-lipped, triumphant smile, the better to conceal her incisors: "If you think you, or I, or anyone in the office could mind-control hundreds of people well enough to prevent at least one of them going to their GP to complain about the lethargy and anemia ..."

I gave in to the inevitable. "You've researched this already, haven't you?"

"It came up in a brainstorming exercise about six years ago. We were investigating using ecosystem analysis to evaluate the probability of emergent new threat modalities. We also brainstormed werewolves, golems, and sasquatch." She took a spoonful of miso soup. "If they existed we'd know about them, Bob."

"But—" I paused to swallow my squid and pluck another one from the color-coded plate in front of me—"your model assumes they're obligate hemophages, doesn't it? And that they're endothermic, or at least have an energy budget not entirely unlike every other vertebrate known to science. What if that's not the whole story? What if they eat—"

"Bob." She stopped short of rolling her eyes, but I could see she was bored, and growing more annoyed by the minute: "Eat your baby tentacle monsters before they go cold."

Mo has an aversion to pseudopods. When we first met, some very unpleasant people were trying to sacrifice her in order to summon an alien horror from beyond spacetime. I'd distracted them for long enough for the seventh cavalry to arrive, and sometime after that Mo and I had started dating—but she still couldn't (and can't) stomach calamari. I cleaned my plate and watched as she finished her soup.

"I'm done here," she announced, picking up her violin case without asking whether I was still hungry. "I'm going home."

Which is why I didn't get a chance to apologize for dragging Pete into the business in Colorado Springs. Or to explain my hypothesis about what vampirism really was, and what I was doing about it. Or to save our marriage.

The name's Howard, Bob Howard. I'm a computer science graduate and IT person, and I work for the British government in London, as does my wife Mo, Dominique O'Brien, who is a few years older than I am but still (in my opinion) a gorgeous redhead.

That's the mundane version, cleared for public consumption. It is also deeply misleading, but it's the version I'm allowed to give to friends and family without being required to kill them, so we'll call that a net win. It's also not entirely false.

The secret organization I work for is commonly called the Laundry because when it was established in its current form in 1940 it was based above a Chinese laundry in Soho. As Q Department, SOE, it was tasked with waging an occult war against the Ahnenerbe-SS. Today, the name may have changed several times but it's the same organization—the one you have just been admitted to, if you're reading this classified journal and your hair isn't on fire due to the security wards on the cover.

I'm actually a specialist in a field called Applied Computational Demonology: the summoning and binding to service of unspeakable horrors from other dimensions, by means of mathematical tools. Magic is a branch of applied mathematics: we live in a multiverse, there is a platonic realm of pure numbers, and when we solve certain theorems, listeners in alien universes hear the echoes. By performing certain derivations and manipulating theorems, we can make extradimensional entities sit up and listen, and sometimes get them to do what we want them to. True names have power: you should assume that any names or locations I give you may have been changed in the interest of security.

Although ritual magic has been around since the dawn of time (and indeed the Laundry's antecedents go back at least as far as Sir John Dee, in service to Queen Elizabeth the First under Sir Francis Walsingham), it was first systematized and placed on a concrete theoretical footing by Alan Turing in the 1940s. There are dark rumors that his "suicide" might have been a deeply misguided attempt to shut down a perceived security risk; if so, it was the organization's biggest mistake ever. Later on they took to recruiting anyone who rediscovered the truth by accident—which led, via the mushrooming popularity of computing during the 1980s and 1990s, to an increasingly unwieldy and overstaffed org chart full of disgruntled CS postgrad researchers and mathematicians.

I ended up in this line of work because once upon a time, my perfectly innocent master's thesis nearly summoned up an undead alien god in Wolverhampton. (We will step swiftly past the suggestion that this could only have resulted in urban regeneration.) Luckily the Laundry caught me in time and made me a job offer I wasn't allowed to refuse: take a nice civil service job in an obscure department where we can keep an eye on you, or be found crunchy and good with ketchup by a nightmarish monster from beyond spacetime.

That was about eleven years ago. Unfortunately, after a while I got bored with my tedious make-work job and made the cardinal mistake of volunteering for active operational duty. As a result of that error of judgment, I've had more encounters with nightmarish monsters from beyond spacetime than I care to think about, not to mention their deranged cultist worshippers. This doubtless sounds very exciting to you, but the committee meetings and form-filling that go with the job are a bit of a downer. And that's saying nothing about the hoops you have to jump through to satisfy the internal auditors that you did everything by the book. Adventures are something I try to avoid these days. Unfortunately I'm not very good at it.

Final wrap-up: on top of the ploddingly mathematical side of the job, I've stumbled into a specialized sideline as a trainee necromancer, which isn't a talent you'd wish on your worst enemy; and I work for an obscure boutique department called External Assets that provides—well, that would be telling.

Mo also works for the Laundry. She's not a computer geek. She's an academic philosopher and combat epistemologist, not to mention a talented violinist. The instrument she plays was provided by the organization and has exotic, indeed horrifying, capabilities: it's one of a kind. (If at this point you are thinking, "occult acoustic weapons," then pat yourself on the back.)

When I lay it out like that we sound like some kind of superhero team, don't we? But we're actually just a couple of married civil servants with day jobs that involve far too much paperwork, and the occasional terrifying incursion from another dimension. And we're probably doomed, but I'll get to that later.

An early autumn evening in central London can be a fine experience, or a lousy one. It depends on a variety of factors: on the weather, on whether you've just been sucked into a bad-tempered and pointless argument with your wife, on how worried you are about next month's credit card bill. Not to mention your uneasy anticipation of the meeting your new and somewhat unpredictable manager has scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.

That night I'd rolled ones on all of my dice: it was raining and gray, Mo was pissed off with me, the credit card bill was unpleasantly large, and Lockhart isn't the world's most forgiving boss. So I escorted Mo to the nearest tube station, then, rather than accompanying her home in prickly silence, I made a lame excuse and headed back to the office—not knowing that I was about to put myself in mortal danger.

I work in a building called the New Annex. It's a lump of mid-seventies concrete brutalism that squats above a closed discount store somewhere south of the Thames. The New Annex is one of the temporary offices we occupy while a public-private partnership rebuilds Dansey House, our headquarters building. Thanks to the current government's budget cuts, the months have turned into years and the Dansey House rebuild appears to have stalled. Turns out there's a nagging problem with long-forgotten and extremely powerful geases mucking up the foundations: we've run into the thaumaturgic equivalent of trying to rebuild a university campus and discovering that the walls are riddled with asbestos, the chemistry department used to pour mercury compounds and radioactive waste down the drains, and the admin block was built on top of a plague pit full of skeletons.

I'm resigned to working in the New Annex until I die. It wasn't furnished for comfort or convenience, even by civil service standards—nobody expected to be there more than six months—and these days it's just seedy, with peeling paint, cracked plaster, grubby uncleaned windows, and a persistent whiff of sewage in the basement levels.

There is an entryphone by the side door to a closed cheap chain store in London. It looks abandoned, but works just fine: it's our staff entrance. I stepped inside, pulling out my LED Lenser torch. "Hello?" I called.

Something hissed in the darkness nearby.

I raised my warrant card and pointed the torch in the direction of the sound. A withered face swung towards me: but then it recognized the warrant card and shuffled backwards, receding into the shadows again. (The lobby lights burned out six months ago and you can't get replacements for the type of bulb they use any more: hence the torch and the shadows.) I headed directly towards the stairwell at the end of the corridor, itching to reach the relative safety—and working lights—of my office.

The night watch are confined to the ground floor except during emergencies, and they're only supposed to eat unauthorized intruders, and in any case I have special talents for dealing with their kind; but batteries have been known to fail, and anyway, who wants to be alone in the dark with a bunch of Residual Human Resources for company? Note: never use the Z-word to refer to them. Our Facilities Management people fastidiously describe them as Residual Human Resources, former employees who are still present in body if not in soul. When your mission involves binding and controlling mind-eating horrors, after a while it seems perfectly normal to use some of the leftover corpses to cut payroll costs on the late shift. Anyway, the Z-word is disrespectful, insulting, and considered politically incorrect around here. You might end up as one of them yourself: How would you feel about being called a zombie?

As to just why I went back to the office after dinner with Mo ...

The Laundry marches to a different beat from the regular civil service, but we are not institutionally immune to outside influences. We do computery algorithmic stuff: this means we sometimes succumb to contagious management fads that are doing the rounds in the real world outside. In this case, the winds of change had blown in from Google (or, more likely, out of the arse of a senior management bod who had come down with a severe case of Chocolate Factory envy): management, bless their little cotton socks, decided that we needed to be Creative and Innovative and endowed with Silicon Valley start-up style va-va-voom. So they decreed that everyone above a certain grade was to spend four hours a week pursuing their own personal self-selected projects—which would have been great, if they hadn't missed the point.

At Google employees spend 20 percent of their hours on their own personal projects; in the Laundry we didn't get any extra time, or any extra budget. Also, we didn't get to pursue arbitrary time-wasting inquiries on our own initiative: there was a stack of vetted proposals for creative and innovative research ideas, and we had to pick one from the pile and sign our names to it. Our assigned jobs still came first, and in any case usually kept us busy for up to 110 percent of our working hours. In other words, the beatings were to continue until morale (and our va-va-voom) improved.

To be fair, we could also contribute to the suggestions box from which a committee selected the suitable candidates for working time. If you really worked hard to engineer it, you could probably run your own project—just as long as you could sneak it past the committee without one of the jobsworths shooting it down. Anyway, the Creative and Innovative self-directed work inflicted upon us from above now needed to be done—and with no hours allocated to it during the working day, it had perforce to be done at night.

I wasn't the only night owl working in the department tonight; the Laundry is eccentric by civil service standards, and although the fax machines and telephone switchboards were all switched off at night to stop employees abusing the facilities (per some ancient directive issued in 1972), the coffee machine and the network remain accessible. Quite a few employees choose to work outside core business hours to minimize the risk of being disturbed.

Tonight, the red NO ENTRY light above Andy's office was lit, suggesting that my years-ago former manager was burning the midnight oil; our current departmental admin asset—Trish: twenty-something, plump, amiably inquisitive in an utterly inappropriate way—was nose down in a book at her desk in the middle of the open-plan area.

"Bob? Oh, hi!" She deftly shuffled the book out of sight beneath a lever arch file full of forms, but not before I spotted the cover of The Hunger Games. "Can I sign you in?" I nodded, as she logged my badge and photographed me (duplicating a process that had certainly already happened before the front door closed behind me). "What brings you back to the office?"

"Couldn't sleep," I lied. "Also, got to finish writing up a report for the Auditors." The document in question was my report on GOD GAME RAINBOW—the apocalyptic clusterfuck in Colorado Springs a couple of months ago—but Trish didn't need to know that: mentioning the Auditors would put her off asking any more questions. (Our audits are not strictly confined to the realm of the financial, and the people who administer them are deeply scary.) "Is anyone else around?"

"Andy's up to something: he said he wasn't to be disturbed." Trish's expression of mildly affronted disapproval nailed it: she was bored. "But he requested night service because of some regulation or other about not working solo, and I'm top of the on-call rota, so it's overtime for me ..." She mimed covering her mouth for a theatrical yawn.

I got it, although I disapproved: regs meet reality. Andy needed to perform some sort of procedure that the Book said needed two bodies present, but he couldn't be bothered waiting for a qualified pair of hands. Instead he ticked the checkbox by ordering up a receptionist, then did it solo. Once upon a time that kind of sloppiness had been my forté—I'd gotten over it, but Andy had always been a little too casual to leave in a hands-on role. (That, I theorised, was why he'd ended up dangling from the bottom rung of the management ladder—too high to do any damage, too low to make anyone else do any damage.) "I'll go see if he needs a hand," I promised her. "If you'd rather go home I'll sort it out." I walked over to Andy's office door—diagonally across the open plan/cubicle area from my own—and knocked twice.

There was an unhuman presence on the other side of the door: it made the skin on my wrists tingle and brought an electric taste to my tongue. I listened with my ears and an inner sense I'd been uneasily practicing for the past year. Tuning in on the uncanny channel brought me a faint sizzling, chittering echo of chaotic un-minds jostling for proximity to the warm, pulsing, squishy meatsacks. The lightning-blue taste of a warded summoning grid—not a large one, just an electrified pentacle unrolled on a desk—was like fingernails on a blackboard: Andy was conducting midnight invocations by the light of a backlit monitor. Okay, so he wasn't being totally stupid about this. But it still set my teeth on edge.

"Who's there?"

"It's Bob. Am I safe to enter?"

"I'm running a level one. Make sure you don't violate the containment and you should be fine."

"Not good enough, Andy. Is it safe for me to enter?"

Andy sighed heavily. "Yes, mother, I'm deactivating it now."

"Good." A muffled click came from the other side of the door, and I felt the inchoate gibbering subside. I put my hand on the doorknob and pushed.

"Come on in, Bob."

I squeezed inside his office. Andy hovered over a home-brew lab, pale-faced and skinny, staring at me with bleary eyes. He was older than me, a member of a generation that had grown up wearing a shirt and tie to the office and who still tried to keep up appearances; he was the junior ops manager who approved my application and gave me my first ever field test. It was odd to see him in a polo shirt and chinos. "What's the project? Couldn't you wait for a health and safety check?"

He managed a self-deprecating shrug. "You know how it is; it's my weekly ten-percenter."

He'd built the summoning grid on a folding table that occupied about half his floorspace: by the look of it, it had started out as a NAAFI table tennis game some time in the 1950s, before he re-purposed it as an occult research workbench. I spotted peripherals: an Arduino controller, a laptop, a couple of wire-wrap circuit boards, a breakout box, and of course a summoning grid—which most people mistake for a pentacle.

"They roped you in to the Google cargo-cult, too?" I asked.

"Yes." He shrugged again. "On the bright side, it gives me an excuse to brush up on my practical skills: I've spent so long shuffling reports that I'm in danger of forgetting what it's all about. If you're willing to watch my back I'd be very grateful, Bob, but you really don't need to; it's perfectly safe."

"Yes well, I can't help thinking that you've been here since at least the BLOODY BARON meeting this morning." He nodded instinctively. "Which means you've been in the office for at least twelve hours. If you were a pilot they wouldn't let you anywhere near the controls of an airliner when you're that tired: it's how mistakes happen—"

"Don't be silly, Bob! All it is is a 'hello, spirit world' demo. There's nothing to go wrong: all it does is execute a contained summoning of a class one voice-responsive agent," (a demon, to you), "make it do a handstand, then send it away again. With maybe a couple of optimizations to the grid controller, which I'm trying to prove with cheap off-the-shelf components. There's no agency outside the grid." He pointed at the Arduino board. "See? It's perfectly safe. Watch—"

My hair stood on end, I broke out in a cold sweat, and I was already in motion, halfway across the room towards him when he began to utter the inevitable, fateful word—"this"—as his finger descended on the button wired to the breadboard beside the microcontroller, and power surged into the grid.

I shoved Andy away from the table, but I was too late: the circuit had been completed, and I could hear the chittering in the back of my head much more clearly, over a mumbling chewing sizzle like millions of mandibles on the move—

"Andy, get out!" I grabbed his arm and swung him towards the door. He resisted instinctively but ineffectually: I shoved him across the threshold. The alien gibbering was rising in pitch, and my skin crawled as we passed the side of the card table, where the grid was glowing with a rapidly brightening violet radiance. I felt a metallic taste on my tongue as we crossed below the lintel—

"Wait, what, I don't even—" Finally Andy began to move under his own steam.

Only a couple of seconds had passed since he began to say "watch this," but my Spidey sense and the frankly terrifying sense of wrongness in my guts told me that we might be too late: whatever the thing flooding into the powered-up summoning grid was, it certainly wasn't just a harmless class one emanation. I felt it tracking me as I stepped across the threshold, like a terrier that has spotted and locked onto a juicy mouthful of rodent on the run: cold and dank and terrifyingly alien, like something from the abyssal depths of another world's oceans. I turned and pulled the door shut, then leaned against it and reached instinctively for the ward I wear in a small leather bag on a thong around my neck. "Andy," I gasped.

"What? What?" He blinked, confused as I stared at him. Eyes: clear. No sense of possession—if I was a god-botherer I'd have given thanks right then.

The door behind me rattled. I shivered: it was becoming cold to the touch. I took a deep breath. "Andy, I need you to go get—no. First, I want you to send Trish home. Then I want you to go get Angleton." I took a step away from the door, and turned to face it.

"I don't understand! It's only meant to summon a class one—" I could barely hear his spoken words over the gibbering din in my head emanating from the other side of the warded portal.

"Andy." I spoke through gritted teeth. "Get Trish out of the building and to a designated place of safety. Then go and get Angleton right now. We will resume this conversation at a later date."


I glanced at him and he shut up. I'd never seen his face turn that color before: he nodded stiffly, then broke into a stumbling trot in the direction of the corridor leading to Angleton's hole. Finally.

I drew another deep breath, heart pounding. The tense feeling between my shoulders was getting worse. Andy was old enough to know better.

A class one manifestation, in our charmingly indirect lexicon, is nothing you want to make physical contact with. Many years ago I'd been on a training course where a guy called Fred from Accounting—who'd been assigned to the course because of a typo on an HR form—ended up extremely dead indeed because he hadn't understood that a voice responsive agent is a nasty little cognitive loop that can run on (and burn out) a human nervous system just as easily as a computing device.

Whatever was on the other side of that door was most certainly not a class one manifestation.

I could feel it from the other side of the door, like the hum of a national grid high-voltage bearer. Our offices are shielded by wards—we frequently handle occult materials—but whatever he'd invoked was flexing its magical muscles and coming dangerously close to overloading not only the summoning grid on that flimsy card table but the more substantial wards on the door frame. Which was very bad news. I pulled out my phone and pointed the camera at the door itself, then called up OFCUT—our occult monitoring app in a smartphone-sized can—to take a look. Sure enough, histograms shading from blue to violet were chewing around the edges of the elder sign in the middle of the elaborate tracery. It confirmed what I could feel in my tingling fingertips and roiling stomach: I wasn't about to open my inner eye and have an eyeball-to-eyeball look at the void by way of a third opinion, but I was pretty sure that if I did I'd see something so wrongthat it wouldn't even be visible at all, except as a sucking blind-spot distortion in my visual field, dragging everything around it together at the edges like a detached retina.

The doorknob appeared to be smoking. It was air condensing on the metal surface as vapor, then boiling off again. Elapsed time: thirty seconds. And here I was, with just my regulation-issue class four ward, my OFCUT-equipped phone, and whatever native magical talent I happened to have, facing the oh-shit lurking on the other side of the threshold.

An equally chilly voice from behind me said, "Speak, boy. What are we facing?"

I glanced round. It was Angleton, with Andy trailing along wearing a hang-dog expression. If it wasn't for the deafening hum and gibber I'd have felt Angelton's presence as soon as he entered the corridor leading to this office space: as chilly and powerful as the thing beyond the door. Not to mention his speech patterns: he spoke to everybody as if they were naughty schoolchildren. Judging by Andy's expression he was expecting a caning.

"Andy's ten-percenter involves a non-standard grid designed to summon and contain a class one. He hooked something else. I reckon it's class five or higher, minimally sentient or stronger, still inside the grid but working to get free. Leakage through the door wards is over six hundred milli-Parsons per minute right now, and rising; the grid is still powered up so I figure the entity on the other side is still trying to squeeze through the portal—"

"Understood," Angleton said crisply. "Mr Newstrom. How exactly does your grid differ from a standard design?"

I looked back at the door, but I could see Andy's expression in my imagination: a naughty boy who has had to get the headmaster out of bed because he's set fire to the chemistry lab. "It's not substantially different: I just used an Arduino microcontroller board and a bunch of control code I wrote for it to run a standard hello spirit world demo—"

"Did you use an off-the-shelf code library? Or write your own?" Angleton's interrogation was gentle, precise, and pointed. I could see him in my mind's eye, too: tall, cadaverously pale, thin as a mummy, with eyes like ice diamonds.

"I rolled my own code generator in FORTRAN77," Andy explained. "Atmel AVR machine code, not that high level Arduino stuff. It seemed more efficient to get down to the bare metal ..."

Angleton sighed. And now my blood ran cold. Because if there's one thing worse than an IT manager who's feeling the chill wind of obsolescence blowing down his neck and consequently trying to contribute code to the repository like an actual working developer, it's an IT manager who's getting creative. And Andy's project was nothing if not creative, for values of creativity that I don't want to go anywhere near without body armor and HAZMAT gear. "Mr Newstrom. We will have words about this later." Angleton paused: I could feel his eyes on me. "Boy. Tell me what you hear?"

He always called me boy. From anyone else I'd take it badly; from Angleton it was probably a sign of affection.

"I hear termites," I said. "About a trillion sixteen-dimensional, elephant-sized termites chewing on the edges of reality."

"Did you wire in a remote kill switch?" Angleton asked Andy.

There was an eloquent moment of silence, punctuated only by the munching of metaphysical mandibles. Then the sound changed.

"Oh dear," I said, as Angleton simultaneously said, "Mr Newstrom, evacuate the building. Mr Howard and I will remain to deal with this." Then, on the other side of the door, the over-stressed summoning grid ruptured.

The immediate consequence of the summoning grid rupture wasn't that spectacular; the door grew colder and the runes engraved in it flared up, glowing the eerie deep blue of Cerenkov radiation. The office was warded to a high level, and would hold for at least half an hour longer than the grid on the card table. But the thing Andy had inadvertently summoned was now forcing its way into our universe directly, no longer confined by the meter-diameter circle on the table. And if it was powerful enough to overload one grid, it might well be able to overpower another, including the structural wards built into the walls, floor, and ceiling of the New Annex: in which case, we could have a real problem on our hands.

Angleton closed the gap and stepped past me, extending a hand towards the door. He looked at it quizzically, even hesitantly: an expression I'd never seen on his face before, and most unwelcome. Angleton is a DSS, a Detached Special Secretary: in our unofficial lexicon the acronym really stands for Deeply Scary Sorcerer. This is, if anything, an understatement: he's known to some as the Eater of Souls. That's because he's not actually human—he's an alien intelligence bound into a human body by a powerful necromantic ritual. Luckily for us, he's on our side. I'm his assistant, apprentice, whatever you call it. I don't know the real extent of his power, but I'm a moderately competent necromancer in my own right; anything that gives Angleton cause for concern is, by definition, frightening.

"Boy," he said conversationally, "this is going to be messy. Please verify that all the human staff are off the premises, then fetch the night watch."

"Fetch the—what, all of them?"

"Yes, Bob. We're going to need zombies. Lots of zombies."

"Wait, what—" I looked back at the door. Either I had a sudden eyestrain or the wards on it were bulging ominously. I glanced at my smartphone again. The thaum field was strengthening rapidly, and the flux had exceeded a thousand milli-Parsons per minute. "Er, yes. Right away." I fled in the direction of the front door, leaving Angleton to face the glowing door alone, like an eldritch remix of the little Dutch boy on the dyke.

There is a formal procedure for evacuating the New Annex: it involves filling out six forms in quadruplicate to obtain the key to a key cupboard containing the key to a cabinet containing a silver hammer (that bit would normally be done in advance, daily, by the Security Officer on Duty), then using the aforementioned hammer to break the glass cover on a brass box containing a bell inscribed with mystic runes—

I hit the fire alarm. Then I raised my metaphysical fingers to my astral lips and emitted the most deafening mental whistle I'm capable of. Then I began to chant doggerel in Old Enochian: On Ilka Moor Bah't'At, or maybe, Get your shambling undead asses up here on the double. This saved a break-neck dash down a darkened staircase (not to mention all the SOD form-filling and the hammer stuff), buying me sufficient time to dash across to my own office and rummage around in the assorted crap on top of the filing cabinet for my pigeon's foot, cigarette lighter, silver paint spray can, packet of sharpies, and pocket camera—all the while carrying on the chant. Thus equipped I dashed back into the open-plan area just in time to see the first of the night watch shamble towards me, arms outstretched in classic Bela Lugosi style.

"Be so good as to make a new grid, boy," Angleton murmured, not looking away from the haunted office door. "Make it big; I need an airlock." I began to spray conductive paint in a big circle behind him, across the beige carpet tiles and continuing on up the walls and as high as I could reach.

I paused before sketching in the second arc, stopped chanting, and turned to face the night watchmen. "Acknowledge my authority," I ordered them in my halting Old Enochian. Slowly, with creaking joints, the wizened corpses in their blue uniforms went to their knees. Eight mummified faces turned to blindly inspect me. I could feel their attention, eager for flesh and life but bound to obey. "I am your lawful knight-commander," I added. "Under oath by way of my liege." They followed my gaze to Angleton, and cringed, suitably terrified. "A hostile intruder lies past yonder portal. Attend."

I went back to sketching in the new, larger grid around Angleton and the door. I could feel his concentration focussed on the wards around the office, intent and precise as that of any surgeon. "Nearly done," I murmured, sketching glyphs rapidly: Elder Sign, Horned Skull, NAND Gate. "What do you want me to do?"

"Move two zombies in here, boy." (Angleton predates political correctness.) "Then activate the grid as soon as I'm clear of it."

I waved the first two night watch shamblers forward, then ducked to connect the grid terminals to a clunky-looking wireless transponder controlled by my smartphone. "Ready when you are, boss."

Angleton stepped back sharply. "Now, boy," he said. I poked at the touchscreen and opened my inner eye. The new grid shimmered pale blue around a smaller violet doorway, fronting the roiling darkness around Andy's office—I could see the thing right through the walls and floor. "Thou," Angleton said sharply, in Old Enochian, "it is thine honor upon my word to open the door. Andthoushalt step through the portal and be my ears and eyes and tongue for that which lies within—"

I twitched slightly. Was Angleton really going to use a zombie as a webcam? I've gotten used to dealing with the metabolically challenged over the past year, but even so, that was a level of intimacy I wouldn't willingly approach.

"Sssss," said one of the night watchmen, reaching for the doorknob. I could feel the taste of its mind, half-afraid and half-eager to discover whatever waited behind the door, ready to eat

It touched the doorknob. And pushed.

The door swung open to reveal a luminous chaos. Green-edged shadows flickered across the room, dazzling me, as the other zombie lurched forwards, straight into the embrace of a tangled skein of many-jointed limbs and a hairball of writhing tentacles, some of them sprouting fern-like leaves that quested blindly around the edges of the door. One of them sprouted, extending swiftly into the room; it reached the edge of the inner grid and sizzled, recoiling violently. The mass of wildly waving intrusive appendages spasmed and twitched, pulling back—with the zombie dangling in its grasp, unmoving. "Close the door!" called Angleton, and the other zombie pulled, hard. The door scraped shut, the warding on it sucking it back into place in its frame.

"Well, that didn't go so well," he remarked conversationally, pulling a starched white cotton handkerchief from his breast pocket. He wiped his forehead: the cloth came away pink, smeared with perspiration and blood. Angleton glanced at the kerchief disapprovingly, then folded it neatly and tucked it away. Then he looked at me. "The natives are restless tonight." A mirthless smile. "A capital learning opportunity don't you think, boy? Quick. Tell me what you saw."

"I—" I swallowed. You have got to be shitting me. This was Angleton all over. What you or I would recognize as an alien invasion by tentacled horrors from beyond spacetime Angleton would see as a teachable moment. I could swear there was liquid helium running in his veins. "Morphologically diverse subsentient entity, didn't even notice it was in physical contact with a vessel for the feeders in the night; the usual death patterning didn't even touch it." (One of the reasons the night watch are so dreadful—to most people—is that skin-to-skin contact with one of them is usually about as survivable as skin-to-metal contact with an electric chair. Angleton is made of sterner stuff, and I'm immune to them for a different reason. But even so.) "What next?"

The mirthless smile broadened. "You send in another body and watch what happens, while I see what I can find out about the world on the other side of that door."

I turned to the group of Residual Human Resources in the corner. They looked singularly unenthusiastic for the fate Angleton had in mind for them, even by zombie standards. "You can't just go using the night watch as meat probes!" A residual budget-focussed reflex prompted me to protest. "There'll be hell to pay in the morning! Security will have a cow!"

"Security will have a much bigger problem to deal with if we can't close down this portal by then, boy." Angleton glanced at Andy's office. The remaining zombie in the outer ward was still clutching the door handle. After a moment I realized it was frozen to it. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"We don't have any spare nukes on the premises, do we?" Don't be silly, Bob, I told myself. "Well, hmm. It depends if what is on the other side of the door is still Andy's office, with a portal inside it, or if the grid's ripped wide open and the door is actually opening into another domain."

"The latter, I believe." Angleton cocked his head on one side. "You are considering the question of damage containment?"

"Yeah." I scratched my head, then pulled my hand back when I felt my hair dripping with sweat. "Send a bomb through, kill or injure whatever is pushing through from the other side, use the opportunity to exorcise everything on the other side of the door—"

"I have a better solution than exorcism," Angleton stated. "Your camera, boy. Have you loaded the basilisk firmware?"

"Um, let me check." My pocket snapper is a hacked 3D digital camera, with firmware that turns it into a not-terribly-accurate basilisk gun. "Yes, but I wouldn't recommend using it at this range ..."

Basilisk guns are a nasty little spin-off of research into medusae, and our happy fun way of dealing with other universes. It's an observer-mediated quantum effect that applies a rather odd probability field to whatever it focusses on. About one carbon-12 or carbon-13 nucleus in a hundred, in the target, is spontaneously swapped for a silicon-28 or silicon-29 nucleus. (Yes, this violates the law of conservation of mass/energy: we reckon it works via a tunneling process from another universe.) The effect is rather dramatic. Lots of bonds break, lots of energy comes spewing out. Protein molecules go twang, nucleotide chains snap, everything gets rather hot. To a naive bystander, the target turns to stone—or rather, to red-hot, carbon-riddled cinderblock.

On the one hand, it's a lethally powerful hand weapon. On the other hand, you really don't want to use one at close range—say, at something on the other side of a door. The smallest area of effect it has is a bit like a sawn-off shotgun; at worst, it's an air strike in a pocket-sized package. Right now I was standing close enough that if I pointed it at Andy's door the blast effect would probably kill me.

"I have an idea. Wait here, boy, I need to fetch something from my office. If the ward on the door fails, snap away by all means: you'll be dead either way." And with that reassuring message, Angleton turned and scampered helter-skelter back towards his den.

Angleton was only gone for a minute, but it felt like an eternity as I stood watching the vapor-smoking door in the pentacle. The zombie with the handle was slowly slumping towards the floor, leaning against the side of the doorframe; I could hear him in the back of my head, growing sluggish and faint as if the feeder that animated his body was slowly being drained.

I hefted my camera, checked the battery status, and pointed it at the portal, knowing that if the wards didn't hold it was probably futile; anything that could break in from another universe under its own motive power was out of my league. Possibly out of Angleton's, too. The night watch shuffled anxiously in the corner between the reception desk and the dying potted rubber plant; I could feel their unease gnawing at the back of my head. As a rule, Residual Human Resources don't do unease: they're placid as long as they've got some flesh to embody them and the occasional hunk of brains to munch on. (Any old slaughterhouse brains will do: they eat them for the fatty acids. At a pinch, you can substitute a McDonald's milk shake.) But these RHRs were definitely unhappy about something on the other side of the portal, and that was enough for me.

Man up, Bob, I told myself. I checked the camera again, double-checked that I had the basilisk firmware loaded rather than the charming novelty 3D snapshot firmware that had come with it, shifted from foot to foot. That's when the moment of blinding insight went off inside my head like a flashbulb. I peered at the display back and frantically scrolled through the settings menu. Pinky and Brains, our departmental Mad Scientist unit, had somehow gotten hold of the original source code and hacked the basilisk functionality into it, hadn't they? It had to operate as a stereo camera, or the medusa effect wouldn't work, but normally I just left it on auto-focus. But had they left the original features—the other features, like aperture, exposure, focus, special photographic effects—intact? Because if so ...

Angleton cleared his throat right behind me and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

"Well, boy?" he asked as I spun round. He was holding a small black binder, open at a page of peel-off stickers. Three of the five circular symbols had been removed, leaving shiny grease paper backing. I tried to look at the remaining ones but they gave me a stabbing pain behind my right eye.

"The thing on the other side of the door is pretty dumb," I said. "I think I can take it out, if we open the door, but it'll be touch-and-go. And if it's actually inside the office, rather than on the other side of a portal with its end-point in the office, it might make a mess of—"

"Leave that to me." Angleton hefted his book of stickers. "Harrumph. What do you propose to do?" I told him. "Harrumph," he said again, and considered the idea for a few seconds before nodding. "Yes, you do that, Bob. I'll sign off on the forms for the replacement kit tomorrow."

"Okay," I said. Turned towards the cowering crowd of Residual Human Resources. "Here's how we'll do it. Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, catch a zombie by the—"

I reached out with my mind and grabbed. He came, shuffling, reluctantly: an older, more withered corpse, wearing the dress uniform of a funereal military policeman. The original owner of the body was long dead. What held it upright now was a feeder in the night, a weak demon with a tendency to embed itself in (and take over) the neural connectome of its victims. I think it knew that I had a fate in mind for it, and not a pleasant one, but it was bound into the body by a geas, a compact of power that required it to obey my lawful commands. "Hear ye this," I said, in my halting Old Enochian: "define new subroutine basilisk_grenade() as callback from operator(); begin; depress red button on front of payload; aim payload at self->face(); walk forwards for ten paces; halt and retain physical control of payload indefinitely ..."

I set the self-portrait timer on the camera to ten seconds, handed it to the zombie, and sent him into the grid and through the door to blow himself up. Then things got weird.

About that sticker book:

"I want you to turn off the outer ward, boy," he told me. "Then shove your zombie inside and turn it on again. And after another fifteen seconds I want you to turn it off. Can you do that?"

I nodded. I had the beginning of a throbbing headache: the crackling gibber and howl from beyond the portal, combined with the Residual Human Resource's whining sense of dread at its undeserved fate, was getting to me. Controlling the ward at the same time wasn't exactly demanding but required focus—especially in case anything went wrong. "Okay," I said.

"Good. Then do it now."

I switched off the outer ward, and the howl rose to a near-deafening roar, a silent arctic gale buffeting at my attention. "Thou shalt advance!" I commanded my blue-suited minion: "Perform the operation as soon as the portal opens!" Then, to the all-but-deanimated relic on the door handle: "Open the door fucking right now!"

I shoved the full force of my necromantic mojo into the doorman, who twitched slightly and moaned something inarticulate and inaudible. So I shoved again. I'm not sure I can describe exactly what it feels like to pump your will into an empty vessel, filling and inflating it and bringing purpose (if not life) back to lumpen dead limbs. The feeder was still there, so I wasn't entirely doing it from cold: but it was listless and tired, as close to exhausted as I've ever felt. I rubbed my forehead and concentrated. "Go!" I shouted.

The nearly twice-dead corpse lurched to its feet. Then it twisted the door handle and pushed, opening the path for my reluctant bomb carrier.

I'm not sure what I saw through the open portal. My memory is full of confused, jumbled-up images of tentacles and lobster-claws and crazy-ass stuff looking like industrial robots made out of raw sewage and compound eyes the size of my head. I can't really say what it was, though, because my inner ears were ringing. It was total sensory overload, backlit by shimmering curtains of light and electrical discharges and the screaming of damned telemarketers in hell. Okay, I made that last bit up. But it was raw.

"Close, dammit! Close!" I yelled in Enochian. The door-zombie moaned incoherently and stumbled, collapsing against the portal, just as a bouquet of tentacles reached across the threshold and wrapped themselves around my bomb-carrier zombie in something that was probably not intended as a loving embrace.

My bomb carrier groaned piteously, with an inner voice so loud that I could feel it in my head even over the unholy din from the tentacle monster. I shuddered. I've never actually seen something kill a feeder in the night before—disembodiment is all very well, but something told me my minion wouldn't be coming back for sloppy seconds. But he'd stepped up to the threshold, and he was carrying the basilisk gun, and he'd pushed the self-timer "start" button ... "Close the fucking door before I invent a whole new hell to banish you to!" I screamed at the door-corpse. (I am taking a liberty here. I had, and have, no idea what the Enochian for "fuck" is. Probably because the beings who invented that language didn't have anything remotely approximating mammalian genitalia. Even before their final extinction rendered the whole point moot.)

I shoved, hard, with my mind. So hard, in fact, that everything began to turn gray and my ears—my physical ears—began to ring. K syndrome here I come, I thought with a resigned sense of futility. Angleton was in front of me, approaching the edge of the outer ward, but I could tell this wasn't going to work—

There was a soundless flash of light and a deep, resonant thud, as of a gigantic door slamming on the other side of a wall. I felt it in my gut as I stumbled. Another flicker: I couldn't see properly—

"Cut the ward, boy, cut it now!" Angleton snarled over his shoulder.

The ward? Oh, right. I fumbled with my phone and hit the "off" icon on the control app. The light show began to fade. "Hang on, have we closed the portal?" I asked.

The door to Andy's office was still half-ajar, a skeletonized hand dangling from the doorknob. Angleton stepped around the remains of the door zombie with the delicate gait of a man in expensive shoes avoiding a dog turd. He raised a hand: dust and bones and other disquieting shapes gathered themselves up from the pile on the threshold and rolled beneath the lintel, vanishing into the darkened space beyond.

Angleton waited a few seconds, then pulled the door shut with his fingertips. Next he raised the black folder and delicately removed a decal. "By the authority vested in me," he said, "I declare this office closed." Then he carefully applied the sticker to the center of the door, and stepped backwards.

"Have we closed the—" I began to repeat, then stopped. "Hang on. What's going on?" I stared at the mess of paint, charred patch of carpet, and graffiti'd patch of blank wall at the side of our office area. "Hang on," I repeated, backing up mentally. "Wow."

I took a step towards the wall. Angleton caught my arm. "You don't want to get too close until it's had time to anneal."

"Until what's had time?"

"The ward I placed on Mr Newstrom's office. Class ten," he added, almost smugly.

"Class ten?" I'd heard of wards that strong: I didn't know we actually had any.

"Yes, boy. By tomorrow morning nobody except you, me, and Mr Newstrom will even remember there was an office there—and Andy will only do so because he left his coat inside." He clapped his hands together. "I want you to prepare a report on this incident for me. But be a good chap and fetch Mr Newstrom back inside first. I believe it has begun to rain, and as I mentioned, he doesn't have a jacket any more."

I went outside and hauled Andy in, and thereafter we didn't get much work done, apart from the inevitable clean-up and sending the surviving Residual Human Resources back to their crypt. Then I made an executive decision that Andy and I needed to finish the night shift by performing a destructive bioassay on the contents of a bottle labelled "drain cleaner" I'd found in a drawer in my desk. After repeated oral analysis, we concluded it was mislabelled. It was a risky procedure—if the bottle hadn't been mislabelled we could have made ourselves very ill indeed—but certain traditions must be upheld. In particular, a young high-flying officer should not tell a former superior that they've been bloody idiots without the plausible deniability lent by a sufficiency of single malt whisky. Even if it's true.

"So what's your ten-percenter?" Andy asked after I finished explaining precisely why he needed the refresher course on health and safety procedures when conducting summonings. "Don't tell me you're working on an admin-side scheme?"

"Actually, I am," I said, hoisting a shot glass in his direction: "Prosit!"

"Up yours." He took a sensible sip. "No, seriously, they've got you on the hook, too, haven't they? That's why you came in to work late?"

Actually they didn't. The ten-percenter thing only really applied to staff with actual postgraduate degrees. I'd never finished my PhD, much less got to strut my stuff in a silly robe, but I'd jumped on the bandwagon with a carefully muted shriek of glee. I had my own entirely selfish reasons. Andy might have selected his project because he was suffering from that peculiar version of impostor syndrome to which researcher-turned-admin bodies are prone, but for my part I'd been bitten by a bug, and I needed a plausible excuse to spend 10 percent of my working hours on a scheme the suggestions box committee probably only authorized because they hadn't understood the full implications. (I had. And it was fascinating. I wish I knew who'd had the idea first, so I could shake their hand ...)

Last year, a series of unfortunate events in Colorado Springs coincided with me being promoted onto the management fast track—and earlier this year a series of even more unfortunate events derailed me from said track, dumped me on a jet-propelled skateboard, and shoved me onto the career progression equivalent of a crazy golf course played with zombies for putting irons and live hand grenades for balls. Since then I've been subject to matrix management by bosses in different departments with diametrically opposed priorities who still think I work under them, while trying to establish just what is expected of me by much more senior people who think I work for them. It's extremely fatiguing, not least because the furrow I'm ploughing is so lonely that nobody's actually written a skills development manual for it: the Laundry is about procedures and teamwork and protocol, not super-spies and necromancers.

"I'm on the hook to the extent that I want to be," I confessed. "Lockhart insisted, actually. Told me I'd never get anywhere unless I 'set a course and stuck to it,' to use his words. And Angleton just laughed, then told me to fuck off and play with myself."

"Angleton said—" Andy's eyebrow twitched again.

"No, that's me; his actual phrasing was more ..." schoolmasterly was the word I was hunting for. A long time ago, Angleton spent a decade teaching in the English public school system (the posh, private school system, that is) and it had rubbed off on him—along with the extra special version of sarcasm generations of schoolmasters have distilled for keeping on top of their fractious charges. (Even his current nom de guerre, Angleton, was chosen with irony in mind: it irritated the hell out of our American opposite numbers, because of the one-time CIA legend of the same name. Really, he ought to be code-named SMILEY or something.) "But anyway, he gave me carte blanche, and my other boss expects me to—" I waved my hands, nearly knocked over my glass, and caught it just in time. "No, that's not right. He just expects me to keep myself busy between External Assets jobs."

"Paperclip audits." Andy took a sip of Laphroaig. I didn't bother to correct his misapprehension: External Assets, which Lockhart runs, is about paperclip audits the way the FBI is about arresting thieves, i.e. not at all but it's extremely convenient for them that most people outside the organization don't realize that. "Sounds to me like they want to see what you can do. Hmm." Rueful amusement tugged at the sides of his lips. "So what are you going to do?"

"I'm building a spreadsheet. One with a lot of very interesting pivot tables." Andy peered at me with an expression of mild disbelief. "Getting clearances for the data to feed it is a bitch, and it's anybody's guess whether it's going to deliver anything useful, but if you don't ask you don't get ..."

"Ask for what?" He hunched down in his chair. He was still a little shaky from the events of a couple of hours ago, despite all the whisky. "You've always hated admin work."

"It's not admin; it's data mining." I smiled blandly. "Big data, forward threat analysis. It's a really neat idea from the suggestions box—my hat's off to whoever came up with it. What I'm doing is proof of concept; there's no way I could get a budget to do it properly. But if it works, then I can present it for discussion and maybe get something rolling."

"Threat analysis and data mining?" Andy isn't easily impressed: he has a habitual pose of arid detachment, an expression of distant amusement as if the slings and arrows of office politics (and the tentacles and curses of sudden-death engagement) are merely flying all around for his entertainment. But I'd got his undivided attention tonight: rescuing him from sudden death did that. "What kind of threats are you hunting, and where?"

"I'm looking for outbreaks. Not sure what, or where, so I'm trying to spread the widest net that comes to hand. Anything peculiar. A rash of spontaneous human combustion in Stevenage, or rabies in Ravensthorpe; could be anything. The point is to try and build a tripwire for anomalies."

"But the police already—" He stopped. I shook my head.

"Not the police. Sure they'll be on the line as soon as they confirm a fire-breathing lizard has come ashore in Liverpool, but what about the other stuff? We live in dangerous times. What got me thinking was, how many of the sort of problems we get called in to piss on start out small and get treated by the wrong emergency services? Body snatchers in Bath, zombies in Z—Zurich." My metaphor engine had just broken: I took another sip of whisky. "A lot of possession cases show up as anomalous behavior, and while the ambulance service often bring the police in, it's frequently mis-categorized as a mental health issue. So I'm trying to work out how to mine the National Health Service data warehouses for early signs of demonic possession. That's what the task was about. 'Everybody knows vampires don't exist,' it said: 'develop a data mining utility to provide three sigma confirmation of the null hypothesis based on evidence from the NHS Spine.' I don't know who put it on the stack but it's inspired! I mean I couldn't have come up with a better ten-percent project if I'd designed it myself."

Andy stared at me slack-jawed for a couple of seconds, then raised his left hand and theatrically closed his mouth. "Refill time." He shoved his glass across the desk, towards the bottle. "Then you're going to tell me why you're telling me this."

"You haven't guessed already?" It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.

"You need a minion to run interference for you with the nice Data Protection Commissioner with the taser, right?"

"Right." I topped up his tumbler.

He hesitated momentarily—"Deal. Because it's crazy but it just might work, and it sounds a fuck of a lot less dangerous than what I was working on turned out to be. What could possibly go wrong?"

Which is why, in the end, Andy didn't get to demonstrate his coding chops by summoning up an Eater.

And why I eventually sneaked my way into the clearances I needed to log onto the SUS Core Data Warehouse.

And, ultimately, why all the deaths happened.

Read the book (British links):

Read the book (American links):

One week to go to THE RHESUS CHART by Charlie Stross

I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that "The Rhesus Chart" is officially available from next Thursday, July the Third. And to whet your appetite, it got a starred review in Kirkus:

Laundry regulars by now will be familiar with Stross' trademark sardonic, provocative, disturbing, allusion-filled narrative. And, here, with a structure strongly reminiscent of Len Deighton's early spy novels, the tone grows markedly grimmer, with several significant casualties and tragedies, perhaps in preparation for Angleton's feared CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Stross at the top of his game--which is to say, few do it better. Pounce!

You can buy the US edition—and other Laundry titles—here, or the UK editions of the series here.

And tomorrow I'll be posting the first chapter here, on my blog!

YAPC::NA 2014 keynote: Programming Perl in 2034 by Charlie Stross

This is the keynote talk I just gave at YAPC::NA 2014 in Orlando, Fl.

YouTube video below: click the link below to read the full text instead.

Keynote talk for YAPC::NA 2034

No, that's not right ...

This should be titled Keynote talk for YAPC::NA 2014. What's up with the title?

Obviously I must have had some success with the experiment on applied algorithmic causality violation — that's time travel as applied to computing — that I was thinking about starting some time in the next twenty years, in my next career, as a card-carrying Mad Scientist.

Or maybe that was some other me, in some other parallel universe.

But this isn't the file I remember writing, it's some other talk about a conference that hasn't happened yet and probably won't happen now if I read you their keynote. It's probably not a good idea to read it to you — we wouldn't want to cause any temporal paradoxes, would we? So I'm not going to go there — at least, not yet. Before we take a look at the state of Perl in 2034, we need to know where we stand today, in 2014. So please allow me to start again:

The world in 2014

Back in the 1990s I used to argue with Perl for a living. These days I'm no longer a programmer by profession: instead, I tell lies for money. I'm a science fiction writer. As my friend and fellow-writer Ken Macleod observes, the secret weapon in science fiction's armory is history. So I'd like to approach the subject of this keynote sideways, by way of a trip down memory lane, from the year 2014 — late in English summer afternoon of the computer revolution, just before the sun set — all the way back to 1914.

To the extent that the computing and information technology revolution is a late 20th and early 21st century revolution, we can draw some lessons about where it may be going by observing the trajectory of one of the other major technological revolutions that came before it — the mass transportation revolution.

Like all technological revolutions, the development of computers followed a sigmoidal curve of increasing performance over time. Each new generation of technology contributed to the next by providing the tools and machines needed to bootstrap their successors.

The computer revolution started slowly enough, but the development of the transistor galvanized it, and the integrated circuit, and its offspring, the monolithic processor-on-a-chip, up-ended the entire board game. Over a fifty year period, from roughly 1970 to 2020, we grew so accustomed to Moore's Law — the law that the transistor count of a dense integrated circuit doubles roughly once every two years — that we unconsciously came to mistake it for a law of nature. But in reality, it was nothing of the kind: it merely represented our ability to iteratively improve a process governed by physics until it converged on a hard limit.

In the case of Moore's law, the primary governing constraint was electrical resistivity. As you shrink the length of a circuit, the resistance decreases: you can use lower voltages, or lower current flows, and run at a higher frequency. Physically smaller circuits can be made to switch faster. We build smaller integrated circuits by increasing the resolution of the lithographic process by which we print or etch surface features. But we are doomed to run into the limits of physics. First, we lose energy as heat if we try to switch too fast. Secondly, current leakage becomes a problem as our circuits become smaller. And thirdly, at the end of the day, we're making stuff out of atoms, not magic pixie dust: it's not obvious how to build circuits with tracks less than one atom wide.

Similarly, if we look back to an earlier century we can see that the speed and cost of mass transportation followed a similar sigmoid development curve between roughly 1830 and 1970.

And for me, one of the most interesting things about this sort of technological revolution is what happens after we hit the end of the curve ...

Addressing YAPC::NA in 2014 I feel a lot like a fat, self-satisfied locomotive boiler designer addressing a convention of railway design engineers in 1914. We've come a long way in a relatively short period of time. From the first steam locomotive — Richard Trevithick's 1804 Merthyr Tydfil Tramroad engine — to 1914, steam locomotives surged out of the mines and ironworks and onto permanent roads linking cities all over the world, crossing the American continent from east to west, reaching the dizzy speed of almost a hundred miles per hour and hauling hundreds of passengers or hundreds of tons of freight.

Speaking from 1914's perspective, it is apparent that if the current rate of improvement in the technology can be maintained, then steam locomotion has a bright future ahead of it! We can reasonably expect that, by 2014, with improvements in signaling and boiler technology our 200 mile per hour passenger trains will constitute the bedrock of human transport, and we, as boiler engineers, will be the princes of industry.

Pay no attention to those gasoline-burning automobiles! We can safely ignore them. They're inefficient and break down all the time, away from the race track they're no faster than a horse-drawn carriage — cobblestones and dirt trails hammer their suspensions, quite unlike our steel rails lying on carefully leveled sleepers — and the carnage that results when you entrust motorized transport to the hands of the general public is so frightful that it's bound to be banned.

As for the so-called aeroplane, it's a marginal case. To make it work at all requires an engine that can produce one horsepower per pound of weight — a preposterous power to weight ratio — and it's ability to carry freight is marginal. We might eventually see an aeroplane that can fly for a hundred miles, at a hundred miles per hour, carrying up to a ton of mail or a dozen passengers: but it will never displace the mature, steadily improving technology of the steam locomotive from its position at the apex of mass transportation.

So, that's the view from 1914. What actually happened?

Well, as it happens, our locomotive boiler-maker was absolutely right: 200 mph steam-powered trains are the backbone of passenger transportation.

Admittedly the steam is heated in Électricité de France's nuclear reactors and the motive power conveyed to the trains by overhead electrical wires — the French aren't stupid: nothing makes a steam boiler explosion worse like adding fifty tons of reactor-grade uranium to the problem — but it's not too much of a stretch to say that the European and Chinese high speed rail networks are so efficient that they're taking passengers away from low cost airlines on routes of less than 500 miles.

But in places where we don't have a determined government building out the infrastructure to support shiny 200mph atomic-powered trains, or where we have to travel more than about 500 miles, airliners ate the railways' lunch. The steam engines of 1914 and their lineal descendants were nowhere near the theoretical limits of a Carnot heat-cycle engine, nor were they optimized for maximum efficiency in either power output or weight. Gas turbines offered a higher power density and lower weight and made long-haul air travel feasible. At the same time, the amount of infrastructure you need to build at ground level to support a given air route — namely two airports — is pretty much constant however far apart the airports are, whereas the cost of railroad tracks scales linearly with the distance. A 2000 mile railroad route costs at least ten times as much as a 200 mile railroad route, and takes ten times as long to traverse. Whereas a 2000 mile plane journey — given jet airliners traveling at 500 mph — costs no more to build and little more to operate than a 200 mile route. Furthermore, a big chunk of the duration of any airline flight is a fixed overhead, the latency imposed by pre-flight boarding and post-flight unloading. Assuming two hours at the start and one hour at the end of the journey, a 2000 mile flight may take seven hours, only twice the duration of a 200 mile flight. So air wipes the floor with rail once we cross a critical time threshold of about three hours.

As for automobiles, our railroad engineer of 1914 overlooked their key advantage: flexibility. It turns out that many people find personal transport to be more valuable than fast or efficient transport. So much so, that they were willing to pay for an unprecedented build-out of roads and a wholesale reconstruction of cities and communities around the premise of mass automobile ownership. At which point the cobblestones and dirt trails were replaced by concrete and tarmac, driver and vehicle licensing laws were enacted, and cars got a whole lot faster and safer.

Mind you, even as the steam locomotive fell into eclipse, it wasn't all plain sailing for the aircraft and automobiles. Today's airliners actually fly more slowly than the fastest passenger airliners of 1994. It turns out that physical limits apply: we are constrained by the energy density of our fuels and the ability of our airframes to deal with the thermal stress of high speed flight through air.

Concorde, the type specimen of the supersonic airliner, was a gorgeous, technologically sophisticated, white elephant that, in the end, couldn't compete economically with aircraft that flew at half the speed but consumed a fifth as much fuel per seat. Concorde, in service, crossed the Atlantic in three hours, with a hundred passengers, while burning a hundred tons of jet fuel. A Boeing 747 would take twice as long, but could fly twice as far with nearly five times as many passengers on the same fuel load.

Automobiles have more subtle limitations, imposed largely by our requirements for safety. They operate in close proximity to other people and vehicles, not to mention large animals: they have to be able to protect their precious cargo of passengers from the forces of impact if something goes wrong, while not imposing undue safety externalities on innocent by-standers. Furthermore, they have to be manually controlled by poorly-trained and absent-minded ordinary people. We have speed limits on our highways not because we can't build 200 mph cars — we can — but because we can't reliably train all our drivers to be as safe as Michael Schumacher at 200 mph.

Now, the fact that we don't have 200 mph automobiles in every garage, or Mach 4 SSTs at every airline terminal, or 200 mph nuclear-powered express trains on Amtrak, shouldn't blind us to the fact that the mass transportation industry is still making of progress. But the progress it's making is much less visible than it used to be. It's incremental progress.

For example, the first-generation Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the 747-100, carried roughly 400 passengers and had a maximum range of just over 6000 miles. Today's 747-8 can fly 50% further on 30% more fuel, thanks to its more efficient engines, with 460 passengers in equivalent seating. Other airliners have become even more efficient. With Pratt & Whitney and Rolls now moving towards commercialization of geared turbofan engines, we can expect to see up to 30% greater efficiency in the jet engines of airliners in service in the next 30 years. But 30 years is also the span of time that once separated the Wright Flyer from the Douglas DC-3, or the Spitfire from the SR-71.

(Incidentally, I'm going to exclude from this discussion of incremental change the implications of the Tesla Model S for the automobile industry — an electric car that people actually aspire to drive — or Google's self-driving car project, or Volvo's equivalent. These are properly understood as developments emerging from the next technological revolution, the computing and information field, which is still undergoing revolutionary change and disrupting earlier industries.)

The point I'd like to emphasize is that, over time, a series of incremental improvements to a mature technological field — be it in engine efficiency, or safety design, or guidance technology — can add up to more than the sum of its parts. But it's nothing like as flashy or obvious as a doubling of performance every two years while a new technology is exploding towards the limits physics imposes on what is possible. Linear improvements look flat when they follow an exponential curve, even if they quietly revolutionize the industry they apply to.

And that, I think, is what the future of the computing industry looks like in 2014.

2014: the view forward

As of 2014, we're inching closer to the end of Moore's Law. It seems inevitable that within the next decade the biannual doubling of performance we've come to expect as our birthright will be a thing of the past.

We had a brief taste of the end of the exponential revolution in the early noughties, when the clock frequency wars that had taken us from 33MHz 80386s to 3GHz Pentium IVs in just one decade ended, killed by spiraling power consumption and RF interference. There will come a point some time between 2020 and 2030 when we will no longer be able to draw ever finer features on our atomically perfect semiconductor crystals because to do so we'd need to create features less than one atom wide. For a while progress will appear to continue. We will see stacked architectures with more and more layers plastered atop one another. And we'll see more and more parallelism. But the writing is on the wall: barring paradigm shifts such as the development of a mass-producible room temperature quantum computing architecture, we're going to hit the buffers within the next few years.

An interesting side-effect of Moore's Law, seldom commented on, is that each successive generation of chip fab — necessary in order to produce circuit features at ever finer resolutions — also double in price. Once the manufacturers of the highly specialized equipment that goes into fab lines can no longer up-sell Intel and the other foundries on new hardware, there are going to be interesting repercussions. We may see a vast shake-out in the hardware side of the manufacturing business. For example, in aerospace, between 1965 and 1975 roughly half the US aerospace engineering faculty found themselves thrown out of work. Or we may see a short-lived commodification of semiconductor manufacturing plant, as the suppliers desperately compete to stay in business and the cost of a new factory drops by an order of magnitude. Either way, once the manufacturing costs of the factories are amortized we can look forward to the commodification of the chips themselves. There seems to be no market-imposed lower floor to the price of computing machinery: that is, the cheaper we can make chips, the more uses we can find for them.

At the same time, improvements in the efficiency of microprocessors at any given lithographic scale may continue for some time. Power consumption can be cut. Incremental design improvements can be applied. A 64-bit ARM core from 2034, made using a 7-nm process, will undoubtedly out-perform a 7-nm 64-bit ARM core from 2020, both on energy efficiency and manufacturing cost — both factors in the all-important total cost of ownership per MIP.

But by 2034 the kind of progress we see in hardware will resemble the slow, incremental improvements in the transportation industry of today rather than the wildly surging sigmoid curve we experienced during the hey-day of the semiconductor revolution.

And we're going to be dealing with a world full of ubiquitous dirt-cheap low-powered microprocessors with on-die sensors and wireless networking, which remain in production for decades because there is no prospect of a faster, cheaper better product coming along any time soon.

2034: The view backward

Okay, so I'm eventually going to give you a digest of what I found in the YAPC keynote that my time-travelling future self sent me from 2034.

But first, having taken a look at the world of 1914, I'd now like you to bear with me as I describe the experiences of an earlier me, visiting the world of today by time machine from 1994. Then we're going to borrow his time machine and visit the world of 2034 together.

The world of 2014 actually looks a lot like 1994. And this shouldn't surprise us. Change is gradual. Most of the buildings around us today were already here 20 years ago. Most of the people around us were already alive back then, too. The world of 2014 is a wrapper around the smaller, less complicated world of 1994, adding depth and texture and novelties. And so my earlier self, visiting from 1994, would have found lots of things about the future unsurprisingly familiar.

My 1994 self would have been utterly underwhelmed by the automobiles and airliners and architecture and fashion changes visible in 2014. After all, these are ephemera that follow constant — if unpredictable — trajectories. The appearance of URLs in adverts everywhere might have made 1994-me raise an eyebrow — the world wide web was new and shiny and kinda slow and clunky in 1994 — but it was at least a thing and I was aware of it, so predicting that it would have spread like weed would have been an easy target. Nor would the laptops everyone here is carrying have been particularly remarkable. They're slimmer, shinier, cheaper, and much more powerful than the laptop I owned in 1994, but they're not a fundamentally different type of object.

What would have weirded 1994-me out about the 2014-present would have been the way everyone walks around staring at these little glowing slabs of glass as if they're windows onto the sum total of human knowledge. Which, after all, they are. Yes, the idea of ubiquitous wireless networking and pocket computers with touchscreens that integrate cellular phone services with data is the kind of thing that trips off the tongue and any vaguely tech-savvy science fiction writer from 1994 could be expected to understand. But that such devices are in every hand, from eight years old to eighty, would be a bit of a reach. We tend to forget that in the early 1990s, the internet was an elite experience, a rare and recondite tool that most people had little use for. 1994 was still the age of CompuServe and AOL — remember AOL, that's kind of like a pre-internet version of Facebook? Computers were twenty years newer than they are today: older folks didn't know how to type, or use a mouse, and this was normal.

But the mere existence of smartphones would only be the start of it. The uses people made of their smartphones — that would be endlessly surprising. Cat macros. Online dating websites. Geocaching. Wikipedia. Twitter. 4chan.

If 1994 me had gotten onto 2014 twitter, that would have been an eye-opener. The cultural shifts of the past two decades, facilitated by the internet, have been more subtle and far-reaching than 1994-me would have imagined. Briefly: the internet disintermediates people and things. Formerly isolated individuals with shared interests can form communities and find a voice. And once groups of people find a voice they will not be silenced easily. Half the shouting and social upheaval on the internet today comes from entrenched groups who are outraged to learn that their opinions and views are not universally agreed upon; the other half comes from those whose silence was previously mistaken for assent.

Once technologies get into the hands of ordinary people, nobody can even begin to guess where they're going to end up, or what kind of social changes they're going to catalyze. The internet has become a tool for revolutions, from Egypt to Yemen by way of Ukraine; it's also a tool for political repression.

(And I'm straying off-topic.)

Now, let's go and borrow that time machine and take a look at 2034.

2034 superficially looks a lot like 2014, only not. After all, most of 2034 is already here, for real, in 2014.

The one stunningly big difference is that today we're still living through exponential change: by 2034, the semiconductor revolution will have slowed down to the steady state of gradual incremental changes I described earlier. Change won't have stopped — but the armature of technological revolution will have moved elsewhere.

Now for a whistle-stop tour of 2034:

Of the people alive in 2014, about 75% of us will still be alive. (I feel safe in making this prediction because if I'm wildly wrong — if we've undergone a species extinction-level event — you won't be around to call me on my mistake. That's the great thing about futurology: when you get it really wrong, nobody cares.)

About two-thirds of the buildings standing in 2034 are already there in 2014. Except in low-lying areas where the well-known liberal bias of climatological science has taken its toll.

Automobiles look pretty much the same, although a lot more of them are electric or diesel-electric hybrids, and they exhibit a mysterious reluctance to run over pedestrians, shoot stop lights, or exceed the speed limit. In fact, the main force opposing the universal adoption of self-driving automobiles will probably be the Police unions: and it's only a matter of time before the insurance companies arm-wrestle the traffic cops into submission.

Airliners in 2034 look even more similar to those of 2014 than the automobiles. That's because airliners have a design life of 30 years; about a third of those flying in 2034 are already in service in 2014. And another third are new-build specimens of models already flying — Boeing 787s, Airbus 350s.

Not everything progresses linearly Every decade brings a WTF moment or two to the history books: 9/11, Edward Snowden, the collapse of the USSR. And there are some obvious technology-driven radical changes. By 2034 Elon Musk has either declared bankruptcy or taken his fluffy white cat and retired to his billionaire's lair on Mars. China has a moon base. One of Apple, Ford, Disney, or Boeing has gone bust or fallen upon hard times, their niche usurped by someone utterly unpredictable. And I'm pretty sure that there will be some utterly bizarre, Rumsfeldian unknown-unknowns to disturb us all. A cure for old age, a global collapse of the financial institutions, a devastating epidemic of Martian hyper-scabies. But most of the changes, however radical, are not in fact very visible at first glance.

Most change is gradual, and it's only when we stack enough iterative changes atop one another that we get something that's immediately striking from a distance. The structures we inhabit in 2034 are going to look much the same: I think it's fairly safe to say that we will still live in buildings and wear clothes, even if the buildings are assembled by robots and the clothes emerge fully-formed from 3D printers that bond fibres suspended in a liquid matrix, and the particular fashions change. The ways we use buildings and clothes seem to be pretty much immutable across deep historical time.

So let me repeat that: buildings and clothing are examples of artifacts that may be manufactured using a variety of different techniques, some of which are not widespread today, but where the use-case is unlikely to change.

But then, there's a correspondingly different class of artifact that may be built or assembled using familiar techniques but put to utterly different uses.

Take the concrete paving slabs that sidewalks are made from, for example. Our concrete paving slab of 2034 is likely to be almost identical to the paving slab of 2014 — except for the trivial addition of a dirt-cheap microcontroller powered by an on-die photovoltaic cell, with a handful of MEMS sensors and a low power transceiver. Manufactured in bulk, the chip in the paving slab adds about a dollar to its price — it makes about as much of a difference the logistics of building a pavement as adding a barcoded label does to the manufacture and distribution of t-shirts. But the effect of the change, of adding an embedded sensor and control processor to a paving stone, is revolutionary: suddenly the sidewalk is part of the internet of things.

What sort of things does our internet-ified paving slab do?

For one thing, it can monitor its ambient temperature and warn its neighbors to tell incoming vehicle traffic if there's a danger of ice, or if a pot-hole is developing. Maybe it can also monitor atmospheric pressure and humidity, providing the city with a micro-level weather map. Genome sequencing is rapidly becoming the domain of micro-electromechanical systems, MEMS, which as semiconductor devices are amenable to Moore's law: we could do ambient genome sequencing, looking for the tell-tale signs of pathogens in the environment. Does that puddle harbor mosquito larvae infected with malaria parasites?

With low-power transceivers our networked sidewalk slab can ping any RFID transponders that cross it, thereby providing a slew of rich metadata about its users. If you can read the unique product identifier labels in a random pedestrian's clothing you can build up a database that identifies citizens uniquely — unless they habitually borrow each other's underwear. You can probably tell from their gait pattern if they're unwell, or depressed, or about to impulsively step out into the road. In which case your internet-of-things enabled sidewalk can notify any automobiles in the vicinity to steer wide of the self-propelled traffic obstacle.

It's not just automobiles and paving slabs that have internet-connected processors in them in 2034, of course. Your domestic washing machine is going to have a much simpler user interface, for one thing: you shove clothing items inside it and it asks them how they want to be washed, then moans at you until you remove the crimson-dyed tee shirt from the batch of whites that will otherwise come out pink.

And meanwhile your cheap Indonesian toaster oven has a concealed processor embedded in its power cable that is being rented out by the hour to spammers or bitcoin miners or whatever the equivalent theft-of-service nuisance threat happens to be in 2034.

In fact, by 2034, thanks to the fallout left behind by the end of Moore's law and it's corollary Koomey's law (that power consumption per MIP decreases by 50% every 18 months), we can reasonably assume that any object more durable than a bar of soap and with a retail value of over $5 probably has as much computing power as your laptop today — and if you can't think of a use for it, the advertising industry will be happy to do so for you (because we have, for better or worse, chosen advertising as the underlying business model for monetizing the internet: and the internet of things is, after all, an out-growth of the internet).

The world of 2034 is going to superficially, outwardly, resemble the world of 2014, subject to some obvious minor differences — more extreme weather, more expensive gas — but there are going to be some really creepy differences under the surface. In particular, with the build-out of the internet of things and the stabilization of standards once the semiconductor revolution has run its course, the world of 2034 is going to be dominated by metadata.

Today in 2014 we can reasonably to be tracked by CCTV whenever we show our faces in public, and for any photograph of us to be uploaded to Facebook and tagged by location, time, and identity using face recognition software. We know our phones are tracking us from picocell to picocell and, at the behest of the NSA, can be turned into bugging devices without our knowledge or consent (as long as we're locked out of our own baseband processors).

By 2034 the monitoring is going to be even more pervasive. The NETMIT group at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab are currently using WiFi signals to detect the breathing and heart rate of individuals in a room: wireless transmitters with steerable phased-array antennae that can beam bandwidth through a house are by definition excellent wall-penetrating radar devices, and just as the NSA has rooted many domestic routers to inspect our packets, so we can expect the next generation of spies to attempt to use our routers to examine our bodies.

The internet of things needs to be able to rapidly create dynamic routing tables so that objects can communicate with each other, and a corollary of that requirement is that everything knows where it is and who it belongs to and who has permission to use them. This has good consequences and bad consequences.

Shoplifting and theft are going to be difficult to get away with in a world where unsold goods know when they're being abducted and call for help. That's good. Collapsing and dying of a stroke in your own home may also become a rare event, if our environment is smart enough to monitor us for anomalous behavior indicative of a medical emergency.

On the other hand, do you really want your exact pattern of eye movements across the screen of your smartphone to be monitored and analyzed, the better to beam tailored advertisements into your peripheral field of vision while you check your email? Or every conversation you have in any public space within range of a microphone to be converted via speech-to-text, indexed, and analyzed by the NSA's server farms for the Bayesian spoor of conspiracy? Or for your implanted cardiac defibrillator to be rooted and held to ransom by a piece of malware that doesn't know it's running on a life-critical medical device?

Arguably, these are the paranoid worries of a poopy-head from 2014, not a savvy native of 2034 who's had two decades to get used to the emergence of these new phenomena. To an actual denizen of 2034, one who's been sitting in the steadily warming saucepan of water for two decades, the concerns will be different.

The worst thing about the internet of things is that it's built atop the seventy year old bones of ARPAnet. It's insecure by design, horribly flawed, and susceptible to subversion. Back in the early days, national security bureaucrats deliberately weakened the protocols for computer-to-computer communications so that they could monitor at-will, never quite anticipating that it would become so fundamental to our entire civilization that by so doing, they were preparing the field for entire criminal industries and rendering what should have been secure infrastructure vulnerable to what is unironically termed cyber-attack. Vetoing endpoint encryption in TCP might have seemed like a good idea in the early 1980s, when only a few hundred thousand people — mostly industry professionals and scientists — were expected to use the internet, but it's a disaster when your automobile needs a reliable, secure stream of trusted environment data to tell it that it's safe to turn the next corner.


We hit the buffers at the end of the railroad track of exponentially accelerating semiconductor tech. The industry downsized, and aged. There's no money to develop and roll out new standards, nor the willpower to do so: trying to secure the internet of things is like trying to switch the USA to driving on the left, or using the metric system. Pre-existing infrastructure has tremendous cultural inertia: to change it you first have to flatten it, and nobody much wants to destroy western civilization in order to clear the ground for rolling out IPv8.

So here's my takeaway list of bullet-points for 2034:

And now, the state of Perl in 2034

(I'm reading from the keynote talk for YAPC::NA 2034 by Charles Stross, recovering Perl hacker, science fiction writer, and card-carrying Mad Scientist — Paratemporal Meddling Management Group, speciality: screwing up history).

Frankly I'm kind of astonished to be standing here, talking to you about a programming language that first escaped into the wild forty-five years ago. And not just because my continued existence is a tribute to medical science: it's because the half life of a programming language, back when people were still inventing new programming languages, was typically about ten years.

Programming languages come and go, and mostly they go.

Back in the dim and distant past, programming languages were rare. We rode out the 1950s on just FORTRAN LISP, and the embryonic product of the CODASYL Conference on Data Systems Languages, COBOL. Then the 1960s saw a small pre-Cambrian explosion, bequeathing us ALGOL, GOTO considered harmful, BASIC (as supporting evidence for the prosecution), and a bunch of hopeful monsters like SNOBOL4, BCPL, and Pascal, some of which went on the rampage and did enormous damage to our ideas of what computers are good for.

Then, between about 1970 and 1990, compiler design wormed its way into the syllabus of undergraduate CS degree courses, and the number of languages mushroomed. Even though most sane CS students stick to re-implementing Lisp in Haskell and similar five-finger exercises, there are enough fools out there who suffer from the delusion that their ideas are not only new but useful to other people to keep the linguistic taxonomists in business.

Student projects seldom have the opportunity to do much harm — for a language to do real damage it needs a flag and an army — but if by some mischance a frustrated language designer later finds themselves in a managerial role at a company that ships code, they can inflict their personal demons on everyone unlucky enough to be caught within the blast radius of a proprietary platform and a supercritical mass of extremely bad ideas.

Much more rarely, a language designer actually has something useful to say — not just an urge to scratch a personal itch, but an urge to scratch an itch that lots of other programmers share. The degree of success with which their ideas are met often depends as much on the timing — when they go public — as on the content. Which brings me to the matter at hand ...

Even twenty years ago, in 2014, Perl was no longer a sexy paradigm-busting newcomer but a staid middle-aged citizen, living in a sprawling but somehow cluttered mansion full of fussily decorated modules of questionable utility. That people are still gathering to talk about new developments in Perl after 45 years is ... well, it's no crazier than the idea that people would be drafting new standards for COBOL in the 21st century would have seemed if you'd put the idea to Grace Hopper in the early 1960s. Much less Object-Oriented COBOL. Or the 2018 standard for Functional COBOL with immutable objects.

So why is Perl still going in 2034, and why is there any prospect whatsoever of it still being a thing in 2134?

By rights, Perl in 2034 ought to have been a dead language. The law of averages is against it: the half-life of a programming language in the latter half of the 20th century was around a decade, and as a hold-over from 1987 it should be well past its sell-by date.

Perl, like other scripting languages of the late 20th century, was susceptible to a decade-long cycle of fashion trends. In the 1990s it was all about the web, and in particular the web 1.0 transactional model — now dying, if not dead, replaced by more sophisticated client/server or distributed processing frameworks. While Perl was always far more than just a scripting language for writing quick and dirty server-side CGI scripts, that's the context in which many programmers first encountered it. And indeed, many people approached Perl as if they thought it was a slightly less web-specific version of PHP.

But Perl isn't PHP — any more than it's Python or Ruby. Perl 5 is a powerful, expressive general-purpose high level programming language with a huge archive of modules for processing data and interfacing to databases. Perl 6 — if and when we get there — is almost a different beast, essentially a toolkit for creating application domain-specific sub-languages. And while Perl and its modules were once a bit of a beast (as anyone who ever had to build perl 5 from source on a workstation powered by a 33MHz 68030 will recall), by todays standards it's svelte and fast.

If what you're juggling is a city-wide street network with an average of one processor per paving slab, generating metadata at a rate of megabytes per minute per square metre of sidewalk, it pays to distill down your data as close to source as possible. And if those paving slabs are all running some descendant of Linux and talking to each other over IP, then some kind of data reduction and data mangling language is probably the ideal duct tape to hold the whole thing together.

But Perl also has a secret weapon in the language longevity wars. And that secret weapon is: you.

Back when I went to my first YAPC in London in the late 1990s, I had no idea that I'd return to one in Orlando in 2014 and see several familiar faces in the audience. And I'm pretty sure that 2034 my future hypothetical self will recognize some of those faces again in the audience at YAPC::NA 2034.

Perl has a culture — curated since the early days via the perl5-porters mailing list and the comp.lang.perl usenet group, and elsewhere. I don't know whether it was intentional or not, but for better or worse Perl tends to attract die-hard loyalists and has a culture not only of language use but of contribution to the pool of extensions and modules known as CPAN.

And Perl was invented just late enough in the semiconductor revolution that it stands a chance of still being in use by a die-hard core of loyalists when the progression dictated by Moore's law comes to an end, and everything slows down.

If a technology is invented and discarded during a technological revolution before the revolution matures and reaches the limits dictated by physical law, then it will probably remain forgotten or a niche player at best. In aerospace, perhaps the classic examples are the biplane and the rigid airship or Zeppelin. They worked, but they were inefficient compared to alternative designs and so they are unlikely to be resurrected. But if a technology was still in use when the revolution ended and the dust settles, then it will probably remain in use for a very long time. The variable-pitch propeller, the turbofan, and the aileron: it's hard to see any of them vanishing from the skies any time soon.

Perl is, in 2014, a mature language — but it's not a dead language. The community of Perl loyalists is aging and greying, but we're still here and still relevant. And the revolution is due to end some time in the next ten years. If Perl is still relevant in 2024, then it will certainly still be relevant in 2034 because the world of operating systems (research into which, as Rob Pike lamented, stagnated after 1990) and the world of programming languages are intimately dependent on the pace of change of the underlying hardware, and once the hardware freezes (or switches to incremental change over a period of decades) the drive to develop new tools and languages will evaporate.

Just keep going, folks. Focus on modules. Focus on unit testing. Focus on big data, on data mining and transformation, on large scale distributed low-energy processing. Focus on staying alive. Perl is 27 in this year, 2014. If Perl is still in use in 2024, then the odds are good that it will make it to 2034 and then to 2114.

Let's hope we get that cure for old age: people are going to need you to still be around for a long time to come!

Thank you and good night.

July 18, 2014

New Horizons to take new photos of Pluto and Charon, beginning optical navigation campaign by The Planetary Society

Technically, Pluto science observations don't begin for New Horizons until 2015, but the spacecraft will take a series of photos of Pluto and Charon from July 20 to 27 as it begins the first of four optical navigation campaigns.

Capitol Hill Responds to the Lure of Europa by The Planetary Society

A standing-room only crowd learned the lure of Europa, the moon of Jupiter with more liquid water than the Earth, at a special Planetary Society event on capitol hill.

A right old comet kerfuffle… by The Planetary Society

A European space enthusiast, children's author, and volunteer astronomy outreach worker asks for more images from Rosetta.

The Films I've Watched This Year #26 by Feeling Listless

Film To break format briefly, this has been a rich old week for film with any of the following being a potential film of the week in previous lists.  That one actually does rise above them reminds me exactly why film is my cultural medium of choice.  Missing from the below list is all the football I watched last weekend, the many episodes of Damages and the first episode of Stig Larsson's Millenium, meaning the first half of the television version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which as I guessed, oh so long ago, does flow much better structurally than the edited version which turned up on our cinema screens.  I'll still be interested to see if Lisbeth does have more to do in the second half, disappears as she does from the theatrical cut.  But that's for next week, I'm taking this slowly.  Anything else?  There was the FACT visit of course, but I think I've said everything I'm going to say about that.

City of Ember
Army of Darkness
The Dark Knight Rises
The Great Gatsby
Evil Dead
The Invisible Woman

Boyhood is one of the greatest films of all time.  Within six months to a year, articles will appear in film journals.  Within ten years it'll appear relatively high in the Sight and Sound film poll and within twenty it'll be in the top ten.  Along with Gravity, it's a demonstration of how every generation is still capable of producing works as thoughtful and mighty as Citizen Kane, Sunrise, La Règle du jeu or Tokyo Story, that in these moments when it seems that film has plateaued or become stagnant, that there will always be a work can stand amongst the greats.  If you've not seen it yet, go now before it disappears from cinemas so that in years to come when you're talking about it you can say you saw it at an auditorium on release rather than streamed it.  Or indeed go because it also feels like the final celebration of celluloid, the last gasp of a medium which as the filmmakers explain became increasingly difficult to shoot on as the project proceeded.

What will those film essays consider?  Most filmmakers change their style somewhat over time, especially directors as industrious as Linklater so we could ask about the extent to which that impacted on the creative decisions he made during shooting.  Is it possible to see his own creativity develop and change across the film along with his characters or is the resulting work different to how it might have been when he started out?  What about the element of nostalgia or as Linklater has himself identified in interviews the way in which he was shooting a kind of contemporary period piece knowing full well that what was cutting edge technology would seem archaic by the time the film was released.  As he also says, the ambience of society hasn't changed as much in these twelve years as it did between, for example the late 60s and the early 80s, the same period in years as his work on this has.

The film's production began at the same time as this blog.  I think of this blog as an ageing relic sometimes, so what must it have been like for the Linklater to edit this film?  What of the cast, who hadn't seen any of what was shot before it had been put together, not least Ellar Coltrane who was apparently entirely discombobulated by the experience of seeing the six year old version of him acting for the first time.  The film's big achievement, I think, is that it's constantly possible to forget the effort and simply enjoy the result even if sometimes it is possible to guess which other project Ethan Hawke was working on depending on the extent of his facial hair and girth.  There's also the clever Harry Potter element in which he acknowledges the kinship with that other film series which shows young actors growing with their parts.  But the intents have been different, Linklater's level of creative will greater.

Time's short so I'll give the rest the short shift they barely deserve.  City of Ember is Dark City for kids, obviously and just as unseen and unmemorable, despite the presence of Bill Murray as the mayor of a town lost for two hundred years beneath the Earth and Saoirse Ronan on the edge of ascendancy.  The real star is the set, which was the biggest ever at the time of shooting, a massive, completely practical edifice built in Belfast which unlike a CG replacement gives a real epic sense to a piece which would feet perfectly in the Moffat era of Doctor Who.  And yes, that's a compliment.  But The Great Gatsby is just as beautiful because of the way it utilised CG to create impossible shots as the imaginary camera sweeps across the landscape as is The Invisible Woman because like Boyhood it's interested in life's incidentals, like mechanics of going to the toilet in the Dickens household.

Star Formation on a String by Astrobites

Title: A Thirty Kiloparsec Chain of “Beads on a String” Star Formation Between Two Merging Early Type Galaxies in the Core of a Strong-Lensing Galaxy Cluster
Authors: Grant R. Tremblay, Michael D. Gladders, Stefi A. Baum, Christopher P. O’Dea, Matthew B. Bayliss, Kevin C. Cooke, Håkon Dahle, Timothy A. Davis, Michael Florian, Jane R. Rigby, Keren Sharon, Emmaris Soto, Eva Wuyts
First Author’s Institution: European Southern Observatory, Germany
Paper Status: Accepted for Publication in ApJ Letters


Figure 1. Left: WFC3 image of a galaxy cluster lensing background galaxies. Right: A close up of the cluster, revealed to be two interacting galaxies and a chain of NUV emission indicating star formation.

Take a look at all that gorgeous science in Figure 1! No really, look: that’s a lot of science in one image. Okay, what is it you’re looking at? First, those arcs labeled in the image on the left are galaxies at high redshift being gravitationally lensed by the cluster in the middle (which has the wonderful name SDSS J1531+3414). Very briefly, gravitational lensing is when a massive object (like a galaxy cluster) bends the light of a background object (like these high redshift galaxies), fortuitously focusing the light towards the observer. It’s a chance geometric alignment that lets us learn about distant, high-redshift objects. The lensing was the impetus for these observations, taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) in four different filters across the near ultraviolet (NUV, shown in blue), optical (two filters, shown in green and orange), and near infrared (yellow). But what fascinated the authors of this paper is something entirely different happening around that central cluster. The image on the right is a close-up of the cluster with no lensing involved at all. The cluster is actually two elliptical galaxies in the process of merging together, accompanied by a chain of bright NUV emission. NUV emission is associated with ongoing star formation, which is rarely seen in elliptical galaxies (ellipticals are old, well evolved galaxies, which means they’re made mostly of older stellar populations and lack significant star formation; they’re often called “red and dead” for this reason). Star formation is however expected around merging galaxies (even ellipticals) as gas gets stirred up, and the striking “beads on a string” morphology is often seen in spiral galaxy arms and arms stretching between interacting galaxies. But the “beads” shape is hard to explain here, mostly because of the orientation (look how it’s not actually between the galaxies, but off to one side) and the fact that this is possibly the first time it has been observed around giant elliptical galaxies.


Figure 2. Left: SDSS spectrum of the central galaxies, where all spectral features appear at uniform positions–no differential redshift is evident. Right: Follow-up observations of the central galaxies (one in red and one in green) with NOT. Here a small offset is seen, on the order of ~280 km/sec, which is small given the overall redshift of z=0.335.

So what’s going on in this cluster? First, the authors made sure the central two galaxies are actually interacting, and that the star formation is also related. It’s always important to remember that just because two objects appear close together in an image doesn’t necessarily mean they’re close enough to interact. Space is three dimensional, while images show us only 2D representations. Luckily, these targets all have spectroscopy from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which measures a few different absorption lines and gives the same redshift for all of the components: the two interacting galaxies, and the star formation regions (see Figure 2). Furthermore the authors have follow-up spectroscopy from the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT), which confirms the SDSS results. So they’re definitely all part of one big, interacting system.

Hα (the 3-2 transition of hydrogen) indicates ongoing star formation, so the authors measure the Hα luminosity of the NUV-bright regions to calculate a star formation rate (SFR). Extinction due to dust and various assumptions underlying the calculation mean the exact SFR is difficult to pin down, but should be between ~5-10 solar masses per year. From that number, it’s possible to estimate the molecular gas mass in the regions. This estimate basically says that if you know how fast stars are produced (the SFR), then you know roughly how much fuel is around (fuel being the cold gas). This number turns out to be about 0.5-2.0 × 1010 solar masses. The authors tried to verify this observationally by observing the CO(1-0) transition (a tracer of cold molecular gas), but received a null detection. That’s okay, as this still puts an upper limit on the gas of 1.0 × 1010 solar masses, which is both within their uncertainties and a reasonable amount of cold gas, given the mass of the central galaxy pair (but for more information on gas in elliptical galaxies, see this astrobite!).

The point is that there’s definitely a lot of star formation happening happening around these galaxies, and while star formation is expected around mergers, it’s not clear that this particular pattern of star formation has ever been seen around giant ellipticals before. The authors suggest that’s because this is a short-lived phenomenon, and encourage more observations. Specifically, they point out that Gemini GMOS observations already taken will answer questions about gas kinematics, that ALMA has the resolution to ascertain SFRs and molecular gas masses for the individual “beads” of star formation, and that Chandra could answer questions about why the star formation is happening off-center from the interacting galaxies. If the gas is condensing because it’s been shocked, that will show up in X-ray observations, but it would be expected between the galaxies, not off to the side as in this case. Maybe some viscous drag is causing a separation between the gas and the stars? There’s clearly a lot to learn from this system, so keep an eye out for follow-up work.

Doctor Who began filming this day ten years ago. by Feeling Listless

Travel ... and my first impulse on hearing this information was to book two days in Cardiff so that I could see the city before it became a tourist attraction, a trip I catalogued in a series of posts on this blog. Example:

"In the event, the only time I brushed past one of the main reasons for going to Cardiff was in a really undernourished coffee shop near the castle. One of the baristas, a tall, loud theatrical man was loudly telling his colleagues and by proxy everyone else in the place that he'd received a call from Cardiff Casting asking if he wanted to do a few days on Doctor Who. Ironically he seemed only to be thinking about it. I would have left my job and home and moved to Cardiff just to walk past in the background. They'd apparently been looking at him because he was a particular height, weight and proportion. I took comfort in the fact that if he took the job he'd more than likely be encased in latex and wouldn't be seen anyway, sweating his way through the three days. I'm not bitter about these things you see."
Yes, right.  In case you're wondering, because for some reason I failed to mention, the film I saw that evening was The Motorcycle Diaries at the Chapter Arts Centre.  There's no way I would have let a detail like that slip through now.

"Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest." by Feeling Listless

Film Nathan Rabin, the culturalist who coined the term "manic pixie dream girl" has now disowned and apologised for creating the term "manic pixie dream girl". Writing for Salon, he says:

"I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to pop culture: I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster. Seven years after I typed that fateful phrase, I’d like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the “Patriarchal Lie” of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse. I’d applaud an end to articles about its countless different permutations. Let’s all try to write better, more nuanced and multidimensional female characters: women with rich inner lives and complicated emotions and total autonomy, who might strum ukuleles or dance in the rain even when there are no men around to marvel at their free-spiritedness. But in the meantime, Manic Pixies, it’s time to put you to rest."
I can think of about a dozen films I utterly adore which feature a character like this. Half of those feature Zooey, a couple of Megs, a Natalie or two and some Kirstins. Ok, so actually more than twelve. I appreciate this is problematic especially since I'm also one of the first people to bemoan the lack of autonomous female protagonists (see recent moan about La Grande Bellezza) and how as was noted in the original articles these characters exist simply as motivational plot points but there's also an extent to which some films are fantasy and can and should work on that level, especially if they're only ninety minutes long. I liked Elizabethtown.

The problem is that there's no gender reversed equivalent that I can think of and we're still living through a moment when they're often the only portrayal of young women on screen.  That's the problem.  It's especially galling in films like Cemetary Junction or Love and Other Drugs when the MPDG figure is suddenly given a scene or twos worth of narrative agency in the worst kind of tokenism imaginable and only so that they can either make the big decision as to whether they're going chase after the male protagonist or put them in a position so that the male protagonist has to go find them and learn something about themselves anyway.

As the Norah Ephron scripted Meg Ryan films, Friends with Benefits and Easy A have demonstrated, balance is possible in romantic comedies and there have been other moments when female leads have been in the ascendency, notably in the eighties teen cycle.  Kazan's being slightly disingenuous about Ruby Sparks since at least under my reading its actively criticising the writers who create these characters even if it ultimately bottles it at the very end.  The character she plays therein is a MPDG as a way of demonstrating how disastrous in creative terms the worst excesses of these characters can be.  Which is all to the good, because it's only when you point this stuff out that anyone learns anything, or something.

The "Just In Time" Theory of User Behavior by Jeff Atwood

I've long believed that the design of your software has a profound impact on how users behave within your software. But there are two sides to this story:

Whether the software is doing this intentionally, or completely accidentally, it's a fact of life: the path of least resistance is everyone's best friend. Learn to master this path, or others will master it for you.

For proof, consider Dan Ariely's new and amazing book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.

Indeed, let's be honest: we all lie, all the time. Not because we're bad people, mind you, but because we have to regularly lie to ourselves as a survival mechanism. You think we should be completely honest all the time? Yeah. Good luck with that.

But these healthy little white lies we learn to tell ourselves have a darker side. Have you ever heard this old adage?

One day, Peter locked himself out of his house. After a spell, the locksmith pulled up in his truck and picked the lock in about a minute.

“I was amazed at how quickly and easily this guy was able to open the door,” Peter said. The locksmith told him that locks are on doors only to keep honest people honest. One percent of people will always be honest and never steal. Another 1% will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television; locks won’t do much to protect you from the hardened thieves, who can get into your house if they really want to.

The purpose of locks, the locksmith said, is to protect you from the 98% of mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock.

I had heard this expressed less optimistically before as

10% of people will never steal, 10% of people will always steal, and for everyone else … it depends.

The "it depends" part is crucial to understanding human nature, and that's what Ariely spends most of the book examining in various tests. If for most people, honesty depends, what exactly does it depend on? The experiments Ariely conducts prove again and again that most people will consistently and reliably cheat "just a little", to the extent that they can still consider themselves honest people. The gating factor isn't laws, penalties, or ethics. Surprisingly, that stuff has virtually no effect on behavior. What does, though, is whether they can personally still feel like they are honest people.

This is because they don't even consider it cheating – they're just taking a little extra, giving themselves a tiny break, enjoying a minor boost, because well, haven't they been working extra specially hard lately and earned it? Don't they of all people deserve something nice once in a while, and who would even miss this tiny amount? There's so much!

These little white lies are the path of least resistance. They are everywhere. If laws don't work, if ethics classes don't work, if severe penalties don't work, how do you encourage people to behave in a way that "feels" honest that is actually, you know, honest? Feelings are some pretty squishy stuff.

It's easier than you think.

My colleagues and I ran an experiment at the University of California, Los Angeles. We took a group of 450 participants, split them into two groups and set them loose on our usual matrix task. We asked half of them to recall the Ten Commandments and the other half to recall 10 books that they had read in high school.

Among the group who recalled the 10 books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools' honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result. We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

That's the good news: a simple reminder at the time of the temptation is usually all it takes for people to suddenly "remember" their honesty.

The bad news is Clippy was right.

In my experience, nobody reads manuals, nobody reads FAQs, and nobody reads tutorials. I am exaggerating a little here for effect, of course. Some A+ students will go out of their way to read these things. That's how they became A+ students, by naturally going the extra mile, and generally being the kind of users who teach themselves perfectly well without needing special resources to get there. When I say "nobody" I mean the vast overwhelming massive majority of people you would really, really want to read things like that. People who don't have the time or inclination to expend any effort at all other than the absolute minimum required, people who are most definitely not going to go the extra mile.

In other words, the whole world.

So how do you help people who, like us, just never seem to have the time to figure this stuff out becase they're, like, suuuuper busy and stuff?

You do it by showing them …

This is what I've called the "Just In Time" theory of user behavior for years. Sure, FAQs and tutorials and help centers are great and all, but who has the time for that? We're all perpetual intermediates here, at best.

The closer you can get your software to practical, useful "Just In Time" reminders, the better you can help the users who are most in need. Not the A+ students who already read the FAQ, and studied the help center intently, but those users who never read anything. And now, thanks to Dan Ariely, I have the science to back this up. Even something as simple as putting your name on the top of a form to report auto insurance milage, rather than the bottom, resulted in a mysterious 10% increase in average miles reported. Having that little reminder right at the start that hey, your name is here on this form, inspired additional honesty. It works.

Did we use this technique on Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange? Indeed we did. Do I use this technique on Discourse? You bet, in even more places, because this is social discussion, not technical Q&A. We are rather big on civility, so we like to remind people when they post on Discourse they aren't talking to a computer or a robot, but a real person, a lot like you.

When's the natural time to remind someone of this? Not when they sign up, not when they're reading, but at the very moment they begin typing their first words in their first post. This is the moment of temptation when you might be super mega convinced that someone is Wrong on the Internet. So we put up a gentle little reminder Just In Time, right above where they are typing:

Then hopefully, as Dan Ariely showed us with honesty, this little reminder will tap into people's natural reserves of friendliness and civility, so cooler heads will prevail – and a few people are inspired to get along a little better than they did yesterday. Just because you're on the Internet doesn't mean you need to be yelling at folks 24/7.

We use this same technique a bunch of other places: if you are posting a lot but haven't set an avatar, if you are adding a new post to a particularly old conversation, if you are replying a bunch of times in the same topic, and so forth. Wherever we feel a gentle nudge might help, at the exact time the behavior is occurring.

It's important to understand that we use these reminders in Discourse not because we believe people are dumb; quite the contrary, we use them because we believe people are smart, civil, and interesting. Turns out everyone just needs to be reminded of that once in a while for it to continue to be true.

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July 17, 2014

What the “universal typeface” says about us (hint: not much) by Zarino

So, a week or two back, BIC (the company behind the ubiquitous yellow ballpoint pens) announced it was compiling a “universal typeface” from the average of thousands of people’s handwriting, from all over the world.1 They launched a website that lets you explore the data gathered so far, and an app that lets you submit your own scrawl to the project.2

Eventually (once they’ve milked it for as much publicity as it’ll give) they are going to release the average alphabet as a font file you can use on your computer.

Average letter “L” for males and females

When I read the headline, I thought, hey, that’s pretty cool. And I’m sure, to some marketing guy at BIC, it sounded like a great idea. But think about it a little more, and you realise it’s utter fluff.

As any data scientist will tell you, the average (alone) is probably the least useful statistic you can pick to describe a population. It says basically nothing about how different the original data points were, whether there’s a skew in the data, what its minimum and maximum bounds were, and whether the fit is strong enough that it can be used to infer future values.

Average typeface for a number of age groups

The BIC data, in fact, is a perfect visualisation of the concept of “regression to the mean” – the idea that, as you add more and more samples to an average calculation, the average gets closer and closer to some ideal spot in the middle of that population. Which is cool for stats, but makes for a really, really boring typeface.

Average letter “L” for males and females

All of the amazing variation in human expression, and the effects of age or industry, are levelled out. You end up with a largely identical set of letters for every comparison. Men and women. Young and old. Bankers and artists. All exactly the same. The outliers are erased by the average. All variation ironed away. How utterly boring.

Average typeface for people in the finance, commerce, and craft industries

It’s ironic that BIC, while trying to showcase the creativity and uniqueness of each of their customers, has actually—accidentally, as far as I can tell—shown us the opposite: corporate America’s uncanny ability to shoehorn us all into the same little boxes. Like hundreds of thousands of their cheap yellow plastic pens.

  1. And when they say “all over the world”, what they really mean is the English-speaking world. Because, despite having contributions from places as exotic as Thailand, Korea, and Sri Lanka, if you don’t write in roman characters (A-Z) you’re out. Oh, and if you don’t have a smartphone or a tablet, or you don’t have time to donate to some poxy corporate marketing campaign for basically no return, then you’re also out. 

  2. Don’t get me started on the fact that they’re actually even half-seriously trying to assess people’s handwriting using a pudgy finger on a touchscreen, when pretty much nobody writes like that. Ever tried to sign your name in an Apple Store? Did it look anything like your name? Yeah, that. 

IBM ... a cunning fox? by Simon Wardley

In the battle between companies, ecosystems are force multipliers. Correctly used, they can increase rates of innovation, customer focus and efficiency simultaneously. The trick to doing this is a focus on consumption data.

Now, IBM has initially played a poor game in cloud and the battle for IaaS was lost. My eyebrows were raised however when it announced bluemix. This was a good move which enables them to to build a platform (ideally over several infrastructure providers) or even a market of platform providers and later on play substitution games in the IaaS space. However, this move could just be luck.

Next up is the deal with Apple. At first glance, this would seem to be in the long term favour of Apple as the applications provided in the store would feed consumption data into Apple. Admittedly Apple is not the best ecosystem player out there but the advantage would be to Cook. In order to swing the game in IBM's favour then you'd have to ensure that IBM collected the consumption data and Apple only had a generalised view. I will admit that when I first read an article on the deal, I discounted the possibility of IBM doing this and thought that IBM should push for a merge. I didn't think IBM was canny enough to play the game.
Fabulous move by Cook - - though IBM should be pushing for a merge.
— swardley (@swardley) July 16, 2014
@bmkatz : ... and unless IBM has been very canny, then APPL will become the main beneficiary over time.
— swardley (@swardley) July 16, 2014
To create such a swing in IBM's favour then you would need to have all the applications provided on a bluemix service provided by IBM. Turns out I was wrong to discount IBM. This seems to be the plan. This is smart. Very smart. The advantage long term seems to be with IBM and not Apple.

As the old adage goes "Lightning doesn't strike the same place twice". You don't make good moves like this through luck. I don't know what has changed in IBM or who they've hired but somehow they seem to be making the right moves. The question is whether in the heart of IBM is a extremely dangerous and cunning strategist? Has IBM found its own Themistocles?

I'm certainly not going to underestimate their moves again. IBM is definitely one to watch and with such play, then anything is possible. The future for IBM has just got a lot brighter in my opinion.

--- Update 17th July

I was just asked a rather interesting question of the form that this is only two events and since any two points make a line then you can't extrapolate. Alas, this isn't a measurement of physical properties and correlation between but a question of probabilities. If someone wins the lottery one week and then wins the lottery the next week, the probability of such is extremely low and it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions. You don't need them to win the lottery fifteen weeks in a row in order to draw a line. The probability of making a good move by random is relatively low in business due to the wide variety of permutations of choice and action. Two good moves are unlikely to be purely by chance, not impossible just unlikely.

Liverpool Biennial 2014: Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) by Feeling Listless

Art The first important piece of information you need to know about FACT Liverpool exhibition is that it opens at 11am. The other venues open at 10am. Having checked the Biennial website before today’s visit which said “Weekdays and Sunday 12pm - 6pm”, I was actually on Bold Street and in FACT briefly at five to eleven but then spent the next hour trying to find something to do, which in this case amounted to visiting Forbidden Planet and then wandering down to Marks & Spencers to buy a jar of marmalade when I didn’t need to. I mean I didn’t need to kill time rather than needing marmalade. You should always have a jar of marmalade in the house. But I could have bought it after visiting the exhibition rather than before. During the writing of this piece the website has actually been corrected to give the right opening hours (old version cached here) necessitating the replacement of the sentence which previous appeared here with this one. But remember, 11am.

FACT also demonstrates the “danger” of spreading out your Biennial experience across weeks and assigning a day to each. The venue is highlighting the work of a single artist, Sharon Lockhart, and focuses on just a few pieces across its massive spaces. Within the context of a day spent wandering around the whole Biennial or a number of venues this is presumably less of a problem than if it’s your only destination, where the experience is to be brutally honest a bit sparse. I was in and out in an hour and that included a good fifteen minute chat with one of the volunteers about the implications of one of the works in relation to visitor expectations. The artist is also curating a film series and premiering a new piece later in the year, but the fact remains (sorry) that this is one of Liverpool’s primary art venues and for the next three months it’s displaying something that previously would have more naturally found a home at one of the temporary spaces which are fewer in number this time.

Podworka (Sharon Lockhart, 2009)

The single piece massive gallery one space on the ground floor, Podworka is projected onto a giant, square screen resting on the floor, with a long bench or seat opposite. On that screen we see footage, half an hour of footage, of the same children, more or less, playing in a series of urban locales, car parks, derelict commercial properties, around bus stops and alleyways. We’re in Lodz, the third largest city in Poland (location of the national film school) and witnessing the creativity of children and their ability to find stimulation in the degrading remnants of humanity, of the disintegrating architecture which tends to destroy the hope of adults. Where we see a dangerous pothole full of dirty rain water, a small boy with a bicycle enjoys experimentation shifting the wheels of his vehicle in and out marvelling at how the water leaves patterns on the concrete or noticing how he can see the depth of the pool from how far the wheels have submerged.

The only adult appearis in the car park scene, in the very far distance supervising as the kids ride their bicycles around and round. Towards the end of that vignette, all of the children wander over and they embrace and we assume this must be a parent. But since we’re also sitting on a bench in front of each of these static scenes, are supposed to be experiencing what it’s like to be a parent or at least a supervising figure in these children’s lives? Certainly as two boys fearlessly climb up the side and onto the roof of a graffiti strewn building which looks as though it’s about to collapse at any moment, our natural impulse is firstly of fear and secondly to almost call out to them to be careful. But we’re also behavioural anthropologists guessing the implications of play and how the children interact with one another and if we can easily tell if they’re in long term friendships or simply at a loss that day and enjoying each other’s company however briefly.

As this rather good survey from The Seventh Art blog demonstrates, Lockhart’s approach is to lock off her camera in various locales and capture the results, a kind of long form, in motion version of still photography. But people interested in film will see parallels with slow cinema, notable Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte with its seemingly endless shots capturing the life of a goat farmer or for the (somewhat) more mainstream option Michael Hanneke’s Cache, in which important plot details are almost in hidden in full view in frame within lengthy mater shots of buildings or the view from a dashboard. There’s also perhaps some kinship with Atom Egoyan’s Calendar, which also plays on the intersection between a locked off moving image having similar properties to a still camera as he let part of his action play out against a backdrop of images of churches in Armenia in preparation to be taken (see here for a review).

But all of those are a fiction and have narrative intent, whereas Lockhart’s is a documentary vision, which is fine, but after the second or third vignettes, I was bored, the point having apparently been made. Because of my decision to watch through all of the film and video work on display at the Biennial, I stuck it out until the end, but most visitors drifted in and out, some watching a couple of vignettes, some barely most of one. If we are supposed to be in the position of supervising these children, perhaps boredom is the intent. Perhaps it’s simply that the vignettes are too long, on average about five minutes. It’s also notable that there’s no shape to Podworka, no credits, so it wasn’t until the first vignette I’d seen reappeared that I’d known I’d seen them all. Which was the first? Are we supposed to know? Or is the first whatever we see first, Lockhart conscious of the display of video and film art in a gallery setting where its usually near impossible not to mooch in at the middle and then after to stay after credits to see how it begins.

I’m also not sure what it’s for, or at least what we’re supposed to gain from it. There’s a certain poignancy in the way that it captures a moment in these child’s lives and evokes our own memory of similar modes of play when we were their age (which is especially true for me growing up in Speke in the 70s & 80s) and you can see why Lockhart has chosen to include  Richard Linklater's Boyhood within the series of film’s she’s presenting at FACT which does something similar across a much longer form. During the making of the piece, the artist one of the teenagers which led to a five year residency in Poland, the results of which appear in the rest of the gallery, but before seeing that, just watching this purely without context I was constantly wondering if I was learning anything particularly new about childhood and a child’s imagination that indeed my own memories don’t otherwise provide. Perhaps the best audience for the work will be these children, all grown up, being reminded of what it was like for them.

Introducing new guest blogger: Nicola Griffith by Charlie Stross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

45 Years after Apollo 11, NASA Prepares for Another Big Splashdown by The Planetary Society

A new version of Apollo 11's splashdown will play out when the first astronauts aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft return to Earth.

Mise en scène dans Quand Harry rencontre Sally... by Feeling Listless

Film The Vulture has a slide show demonstrating how the use of space on screen, and the physical position of Harry and Sally in When Harry Met Sally changes depending on how close the characters are emotionally:

"It's safe to assume that the main theme of When Harry Met Sally is about whether men and women can be friends, since the characters talk about it a bunch. However, on the 25th anniversary of the film's release, I'd like to offer another reading: When Harry Met Sally, with all of those cute old couple interviews, is a movie about how people come together. Not only is that the story Nora Ephron was telling with the plot, but it's also the one told visually by director Rob Reiner. In every scene involving Harry and Sally, the physical distance between the two in the frame reflects where they are emotionally. And I mean every scene. Here’s a scene-by-scene slideshow of screenshots, GIFs, and videos that explains what I'm getting at and illustrates how Reiner used spacing in the mise-en-scène to tell this love story. You'll never be able to watch When Harry Met Sally the same way again."

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: Your House. by Feeling Listless

Written by Alanis Morissette & Glen Ballard
[from: 'Jagged Little Pill', Maverick, 1995]

Music  This is my favourite Morissette track. It captures the essence of what she’s been trying to do, with all the props and guitars which usually flood her tracks entirely absent. Unlike everything else it doesn’t have many words syndrome, but like her best songs it’s a list. When she performs it live, it’s always with a minor guitar accompaniment which seems out of place as though someone else has joined her trek through her ex-lover’s new life. Keep it natural [originally written twelve years ago].

[Commentary:  This is still my favourite Morissette track.  It captures he essence was what seemed like she was trying to do before the props and guitars really began to flood her tracks.  Unlike everything it doesn't have many words syndrome, even though considered her recent excesses it is a list.  When she recreated it for the acoustic album, it was with a guitar accompaniment which was out of place and along with the vocals made it sound like a sub-Sarah McLachlan b-side.  Keep it natural.]

Molly Ringwald on her struggle to have a child. by Feeling Listless

"So when I was six years old I recorded a jazz album..."

Film Hosted at The Guardian, Molly Ringwald's turn at The Moth, the storytelling thingymajigy which is often the source for more stories of This American Life [see here].

How does structure grow? Understanding the Meszaros effect by Astrobites

Title: The Behaviour of Point Masses in an Expanding Cosmological Substratum
Author: Peter Meszaros
First Author’s Institution: Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge (at time of publication), Pennsylvania State University (now)
Paper Status: Published in Astronomy and Astrophysics in 1974

Why are we here? How did we get here? In particular, how did our galaxy, and the many others like it in the Universe, form?  The consensus picture is that inflation stretched quantum mechanical fluctuations in the incredibly early Universe onto large scales, and that at the end of inflation these perturbations in the density of matter seeded subsequent structure formation. Regions more dense than the average exerted more gravity on material around them, accreting that material and eventually growing into the galaxies we see today.


How did this growth process happen?  Well, as we’ve said, gravity is important.  Pressure is also, in some cases, important: the pressure of the material falling inward onto overdense regions can in principle stop it from being accreted.  It turns out that this is only the case on smaller scales than those we focus on today, so put it out of mind for now.  Finally, there’s the expansion of the Universe.  General relativity relates the total energy density of the Universe to its expansion rate through the Friedmann equation, and basically says the more energy density you have, the faster your Universe expands.


Now, to grow a density perturbation, you must compress more and more matter into a given region: this increases the density there.  If the Universe is trying to stretch as you do this, that makes it harder to squeeze more material into the region.  This point is the key idea of the classic paper we discuss today, written by Peter Meszaros in 1974.  This paper describes the growth of perturbations in an expanding background, and is the origin of the Meszaros effect, usually a subsection in every cosmology textbook’s chapter on structure formation.


Meszaros derived a single equation governing the growth of perturbations in an expanding background.  It has 3 terms: the first is an acceleration, describing the rate of change of the growth of the perturbation.  The second is a forcing term, just like in the standard harmonic oscillator problem: it is proportional to the size of the perturbation.  physically, this means a bigger perturbation grows faster—not surprising, as such a perturbation exerts stronger gravity on the particles around it. What is important about this second term is that it is only proportional to the density in the perturbed component.  In other words, if you have a region with only extra matter, the forcing only cares about that extra matter, not whatever else might be in that region (as long as whatever else is in the region has density at its average for the Universe).  In particular, you can throw in as many photons or neutrinos or gravitational waves as you like in the Universe, but they will not help a perturbation to the matter grow any faster as long as they are at their Universe-averaged values.


Now we come to the third term in the Meszaros equation.  This describes how the expansion of the Universe slows the growth of perturbations; it is usually called the “Hubble friction” or “Hubble drag,” because the Hubble parameter enters into it.  What is vital here is that all of the stuff in the Universe contributes to the Hubble drag—so the more total energy density in the Universe, the more pronounced the damping effect on perturbations’ growth.  In particular, you can add as many photons or neutrinos or gravitational waves as you like to the energy density, and while they won’t help the perturbation grow, they will help the Universe expand—and so actually slow the perturbation’s growth down.

The CDM, (cold dark matter, dark blue) is over dense, and therefore expands more slowly than the background universe in light yellow (with light blue arrows).  Thus from the perspective of an observer comoving with the background Universe's expansion, the CDM appears to contract.  But it is harder for the CDM to accrete matter because the background's expansion is pulling matter in the opposite direction.

The CDM, (cold dark matter, dark blue) is over dense, and therefore expands more slowly than the background universe in light yellow (with light blue arrows). Thus from the perspective of an observer comoving with the background Universe’s expansion, the CDM appears to contract. But it is harder for the CDM to accrete matter because the background’s expansion is pulling matter in the opposite direction.

This was Meszaros’ key insight.  Indeed, he was a bit more specific: he pointed out that if galaxies in a cluster are to be gravitationally bound to each other, there cannot be much mass in the Universe hidden in photons, gravitational waves, or neutrinos.  If the density of these exceeded that of the matter, then the clusters would continue to expand with the background Universe.


Today, Meszaros’ paper is important not primarily because of this specific point, but rather because it turns out to describe well the growth of perturbations in the first 200,000 or so years of the Universe, when radiation dominated the energy density but matter perturbations were trying to grow.  The Meszaros effect is the fact that the radiation’s dominance over the matter slowed the growth of structure over what it would have been had the Universe been matter-dominated.


July 16, 2014

Squirrel Girl! by Feeling Listless

Film Kevin Feige has commented on Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man and this really does, as I speculated, sound like the Torchwood problem. Key quotes from The Guardian piece:

"We sat round a table and we realised it was not working," he said. "A part of me wishes we could have figured that out in the eight years we were working on it. But better for us and for Edgar that we figure it out then, and not move it through production.

"We said let's do this together and put out a statement. What do we say? 'Creative differences'. I said: 'That's what they always say and no-one ever believes it.' Edgar said: 'But in this case it's true … '"
The more I scrutinise at this, the more it looks like Feige and Wright were desperate for two entirely different film making styles and creative modes to coalesce, so desperate that they recklessly went ahead anyway but ultimately, in the end, shrugs.

Watch this:

Edgar Wright - How to Do Visual Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

The idea that Wright could direct a Marvel film and have it do all of the above and retain his directorial vision is ludicrous for all the reasons, however much some of us would love to see it, Woody Allen's never directed a Western or straight science fiction film.  Or Alfred Hitchcock.  His fans would hate the thing because however much he tried he'd end up watering down those things they like about his films because of the needs of the 'verse and that's exactly what was happening as it edged towards production. MARVEL fans would hate it because it couldn't deliver on the things they expect, though it might have done some of the usual box office, it would have been the odd Ant-Man out.

Both sides have been pretty silly about the whole thing, especially MARVEL which is now saddled with this strange project which will still be a half-way house under Peyton Reid.  Is it still a straight up comedy?  Was it ever?  MARVEL could have cancelled this five years ago, but the cache of having Wright on board presumably gave the studio a certain cool and Wright was on a passion project.  The whole thing remains a mess, frankly, and if I was MARVEL I'd cancel the whole thing, or at least fill the production gap with something else (Squirrel Girl!) until they figure out exactly what a proper Ant-Man film should be like in the MARVEL universe.  Starring Amy Acker as The Wasp.

Mercury’s surprising density: What about magnets? by Astrobites

Title: Explaining Mercury’s Density Through Magnetic Erosion
Authors: Alexander Hubbard
First Author’s Institution: Department of Astrophysics, American Museum of Natural History
Paper Status: Accepted to Icarus

Mercury is an intriguing little planet. It’s small, hot, and in orbital resonance with the sun. It’s also really, really dense, much denser than the other rocky planets in the solar system. As all the rocky planets formed out of the same protoplanetary dust, you’d think they’d be of roughly the same composition, but whereas the Earth and Venus are about 30% iron by mass, Mercury seems to be more like 70%. That’s a lot, and it complicates our understanding of how planets form. Mercury’s weirdness points to weirdnesses in planet formation that we haven’t yet sussed out.

mercury core

A rough comparison of Earth’s and Mercury’s composition. (NASA)

Astronomers have proposed a variety of theories to account for Mercury’s high iron content. Maybe something happened after the planet formed that caused a bunch of its less dense silicates (i.e. rocky material) to evaporate. Maybe a giant collision knocked off a hunk of Mercury’s rocky outer layers, leaving behind iron in a new high proportion.

Or, as a today’s paper proposes: What about magnets?

Hubbard sees a need for a new explanation for Mercury’s density as the MESSENGER mission’s measurement of Mercury’s K/Th (Potassium to Thorium) ratio [pdf] contradicts a leading model for Mercury’s formation. The K/Th ratio is representative of the ratio of silicates to metals in a planet’s composition, and indicates the conditions of a planet’s formation. If Mercury ended up dense because its silicates evaporated post-formation, you would expect it to have a low K/Th ratio: potassium is more volatile than silicon, so if conditions allowed for silicon to evaporate, the potassium would have gone, too. Instead, MESSENGER found a relatively high K/Th ratio, in step with that of the other rocky planets. This contradicts the volatility/evaporation model.

MESSENGER visits Mercury (artist's conception)

MESSENGER visits Mercury and tells you your volatile evaporation theory is wrong. (artist’s conception via NASA)

Naked-eye observation seems to contradict the giant impact model. Earth is thought to have survived a giant impact; the evidence is our (relatively large) moon. This model suggests that a similar event could have relieved Mercury of a significant amount of its early (silicate) surface. But then where did all of that matter go? Earth’s lost material stayed nearby. But there’s no evidence of another Mercury’s worth of material hanging out nearby, in the form of a moon for Mercury or other debris, we can probably rule this theory out.

One model Hubbard leaves in the running is photophoresis, by which light unevenly heats dust particles and causes them to migrate to cooler regions. This astrobite provides good coverage of that idea. However, photophoresis could only be active in surface layers of the protoplanetary disk. The idea isn’t discounted, but it certainly leaves room for another mechanism.

Which brings us to magnetism. It seems like a logical consideration when you’re wondering how a lot of iron all got in one place. But no one was herding planetary raw materials with a giant horseshoe-shaped magnet. (Weirdly, a search of NASA’s image collection turned up no artist’s conception for that one.) Enough complicated, competing forces are at play in the protoplanetary nebula that a magnetic model needs rigorous testing.

Hubbard establishes that conditions in Mercury’s region of the stellar nebula would have been sufficient to magnetically saturate iron. One barrier to dust particle agglomeration in the hot inner regions of the disk is that tiny dust particles in ionized gas tend to accumulate a negative charge: they repel one another. But the ability of metal-rich grains to rearrange their charges helps them overcome this charge barrier. This favors the growth of metal-rich grains over silicates.

However, once grains are large enough to be knocked around by disk turbulence (which isn’t very large at all—this happens when the dust grains are as small as a micron across) the charge barrier becomes irrelevant, and dust is knocking into all the other dust, forming larger and larger particles. The silicates get in on the action. There needs to be a way for them to be removed.

If iron-rich particles are magnetized, their interactions not only lead to faster coagulation (as magnetic attraction helps them stick to one another) but also increase the velocity of their impacts. Hubbard finds that these collisions are sufficiently powerful to shatter and erode the silicates mixed in with (or surrounding the iron). The silicates get knocked off and the iron stays stuck together, resulting in the evolution of very iron-rich particles that would eventually form the Mercury we know and love today.

Since Mercury’s composition is unique among the rocky planets, the mechanism that Hubbard proposes needs to be able to work only very close to the Sun, in the region where Mercury formed.  If the mechanism would seem to work elsewhere, it would be invalidated by the evidence of the other not-particularly iron-rich planets. Since magnetization of the iron particles drives the preferential collisions, Hubbard looked at the factors that determine whether iron is magnetized: its Curie temperature and the presence of a magnetic field. He finds a narrow window at which it is hot enough for Magneto-Rotational Instability to amplify the magnetic field but cool enough to be below iron’s Curie temperature. A sweet spot for iron-rich planet formation, right where iron-rich Mercury came to be.

Planet formation is an extraordinarily complex process that we understand through theory and models built to explain what we can see. The flood of exoplanet discovery in the last few years has expanded our sample size and diversified the planetary systems our models need to explain. But there’s still also plenty of mysterious, fascinating weirdness close to home.

How Arecibo Observatory Transmits to the ISEE-3 Spacecraft by The Planetary Society

Talking to spacecraft is a normal occurrence at Arecibo Observatory, but sometimes the nuts and bolts are a little unconventional.

Senses of Gravity. by Feeling Listless

Film Senses of Cinema considers the sound design in the film Gravity, and how its "realism" was as a result of a series of very conscious choices rooted within the visuals and narrative:

"Techniques which defamiliarize a film’s soundtrack can be effective devices that create a disturbing, unsettling sensation for the audience that “shocks” them in an “immediate” way. The absence of explosion sounds for instance is not shocking merely because it is unconventional, but also because the defamiliarizing effect encourages the audience to focus on the disintegrating debris which in an ordinary film might escape such close attention as it would be in one sense just an embedded part of the overall mise-en-scene. By stripping away the expected explosion sounds Gravity demands more crucial apprehension of its visual details—just as the remote sound of the contact microphone recordings of Stone’s tools in the opening sequence focus the audience’s attention onto the exceptionally photorealistic virtual space environment."

I've been asteroided! (274860) Emilylakdawalla by The Planetary Society

What a great piece of news to receive upon returning home from vacation! There is now a small piece of the solar system named for me: asteroid 274860 has been formally named "Emilylakdawalla" by the International Astronomical Union. Here is everything I've been able to learn about my namesake asteroid.

The Doctor meets #leveson. by Feeling Listless

Education Liverpool John Moores University has updated a short video of their graduation ceremony featuring the university's chancellor, Lord Leveson and Paul McGann who was receiving an honorary degree at an event which took place at the Anglican Cathedral yesterday.

July 15, 2014

Quick Rosetta update: Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a contact binary! by The Planetary Society

I could not wait to post these amazing new images of comet Churymov-Gerasimenko from Rosetta. The nucleus of the comet is clearly a contact binary -- two smaller (and unequally sized object) in close contact.

People With Enough Disposable Income To Ignore The Event They Paid For [PWEDITITETPF]. by Feeling Listless

Music The Gothamist has an excellent rant which explains the 50% of the reason why I don't attend concerts any more which isn't about mobile phones:

"At Tuesday night's otherwise exquisite Andrew Bird performance in Central Park, I had to repeatedly ask people around me to please stop talking. Yes, at a performance by Andrew Bird, an indie recording artist known for his soulful whistling. You'd think the uniformly twee audience at an Andrew Bird show would be a reverent, bespectacled vacuum, but it turns out that people of all stripes are willing to wait on a very long line for the privilege of vapidly chatting over achingly sublime music. A young man next to me, who spent the entire concert gabbing with his friend about unrelated bullshit, added to the mix by occasionally CRUNCHING an empty plastic water bottle in time with the music. While continuing to talk. I asked him to stop, and he looked at me with incredulity, as if I was senile old man. Back in my day, we drank water from fountains."
Truth be told I tried attending the classical music portion of the Liverpool International Music Festival last year and ended up walking away for all these reasons. Stood next to the stage I spent my time watching and listening to people with smart phones and giant fucking camera lenses taking pictures of the event, clicking and beeping away during the music and if you were sat in the crowd you couldn't hear the music over the incessant chatter of people talking about they'd done that day, would be doing the next day or eating their way through the fast food being sold on site.  Just because it's a free event doesn't give people the right to be disrespectful, does it?  I really can't afford to pay for a similar experience any more.

July 14, 2014

Can gamma ray bursts be used as standard candles? by Astrobites

Title: Gamma-ray burst supernovae as standardizable candles
Authors: Z. Cano
First Author’s institution: Centre for Astrophysics and Cosmology, Science Institute, University of  Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are among the most energetic and explosive events in the Universe. Although the exact mechanism underlying a GRB is still uncertain, it has been proposed that these explosions are the result of a black hole forming in the midst of a collapsing star, and the resulting outflowing jets producing gamma rays through collisions with intervening stellar material. Many GRB events are also observed to occur with a companion supernova (also known as a hypernova). These GRB-SNe pairs hint that there may be a common physical mechanism powering these types of events.

Objects such as Type Ia supernovae have traditionally served as standard candles for distance measurements due to their relatively predictable luminosities. Given their extraordinarily large luminosities, abundance, and cosmological distances, GRBs might also seem to be good standard candles. However, the irregularity of GRB light curves have excluded these objects from being used as standard candles in the past. In contrast, the light curves of Type Ia supernova are remarkably consistent, and there are well constrained relations between these light curves and the intrinsic luminosity of the explosion.

This paper looks at eight different GRB-SNe events. To examine the consistancy of these light curves across these GRBs, the author calculates a luminosity parameter (denoted k) and a width/shape parameter (denoted s) of these GRB-SNe light curves relative to a template SNe light curve (SN 1998bw). This is done after correcting for extinction along the line of sight and subtracting the emission from the host galaxy. By doing a best fit and performing a correlation analysis between k and s, the paper finds that there is a statistically significant correlation between the two (Fig. 1). The author also examines an additional GRB without a supernova counterpart, and finds that this event has k and s parameters that also fit into the correlation. However, given that this is just a single data point, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about the applicability of this correlation towards GRBs without corresponding SNe.

Fig. 1:

Fig. 1: A correlation between the luminosity (k) and stretch (s) factors of the GRB-SNe pairs examined in this paper. The colors indicate data taken in different color filters, and the dashed line indicates the uncertainty of the best-fit line. The histograms on the bottom show the distribution of the best-fit parameters from a Monte Carlo simulation.

The author suggests that there may be a physical explanation behind this correlation. Since the gamma rays in a GRB are produced in beamed, relativistic jets, we are viewing these GRB-SNe pairs from the same orientation (i.e. along the jets). Hence, the correlation between luminosity and light curve shape might arise from the fact that the ejecta geometry is similar across objects. This correlation could also suggest some sort of connection between the luminosity of the explosion and nucleosynthesis mechanisms: since the light curves of GRB-SNe events are additionally powered by the radioactive decay of 56-Ni decaying into 56-Fe (which also has some consistency across different events), the similarities in the physics between Type Ia SNe and these GRB-SNe pairs could indicate why the latter might be useful as standard candles.

In summary, this correlation between the brightness and shape of a GRB light curve suggests that there is some promise for GRBs to be used as standard candles. However, given the small sample size used in this study, it is difficult to make generalizations about the applicability of this method. To test this idea further, more observations of GRB-SNe pairs are needed in the future.

Micro Services - the necessity of memes by Simon Wardley

In 2002, Fotango (the subsidiary that I was CEO of) embarked on a program to introduce component web services throughout the organisation. By 2005, we had component web services, our own private infrastructure service combined with configuration management and deployment systems (known as Borg), we had BYOD, continuous deployment & automated testing systems. We were agile, we extensively used and contributed to open source, we had started mapping, and we were launching our own platform as a service etc. Of course, we then had the usual big name consultants persuade the parent company that the stuff we were doing - 3D printing, mobile phones as cameras, utility computing - was not the future and the future was 3D Television ... duh. 

Anyhow, this is what I don't get. Micro services has become a big thing - good. But micro services has also become a 'new' thing. Why? These concepts aren't new. Building organisations with small components provided through services is circa 2002 and the concepts existed well before this. So, why do we have to continuously create 'new' terms to describe what is already happening.

I've seen this so many times - Enterprise 2.0, Cloud, DevOps - that I assume there is a necessity in creating a new meme for pre-existing and often fairly well established practices or concepts. It's a though we need the meme to crystallise action around a concept but of course that concept has to be spread before the meme can establish.

I would be interested in knowing if anyone is working on the necessity of memes?

July 13, 2014

Shocking Cultural Hybridizations: unlikely alliances that could crack society wide open by Vinay Gupta

Let me posit two easy-to-imagine, impossible-to-ignore cultural innovations which have not yet happened. If they did, they would show up as catastrophic cultural tipping points after which everything changes.

I’m not sure the changes which would follow would be good or bad. By virtue of being unthinkable, these changes are hard to model or wargame out. Without further ado…

Mumsnet and GCHQ gang up against (online?) paedophiles
The rationale:

Credibility: 4/10
Likelihood: 8/10 (GHCQ has to find a new reason to justify it’s powers soon!)
Impact: ???/10 (do they actually go after the paedophiles, or is it token gestures only?)
Surprise: 9/10 (Mumsnet… as protofascists!)

The National Rifle Association goes Cypherpunk, freaks out about the NSA

Credibility: 2/10
Likelihood: 7/10 (do gun nuts really understand cryptographic options?)
Impact: 9/10 (suddenly we realize we’ve got so much in common, except Jesus!)
Surprise: 4/10

So there’s my future scenario: Mumsnet & GCHQ vs. the NRA & EFF in a fight for the Soul of the Internet, and more.

Whadda ya think? Comments welcome below

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Obligatory Doctor Who trailer post. by Feeling Listless

TV I'll be quick because the #GER #ARG match is still on ("Come on my continental neighbours!"). But three things *

(1) The prominence of Clara.  Now that she's no longer a walking plot point, she'll presumably assume the more standard audience POV position and therefore be better liked by that most fickle of audiences, the audience.

(2) The prominence of Capaldi. I hadn't expected this much footage of him in character this early.

(3) Doctor Who Into Darkness.

(4) "I'm 2000 years old..." It's going to take a while for us to get used to the hundreds of years he spent on Christmas.

(5) Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

(6) Nice new library in the console room. The mini is parked just off camera, presumably.

(7)  Isn't that the same castle from The Almost People and Nightmare in Silver?  Hope it's a better episode than either of those two.

* It's never three things.

999,999 ways to die in the west: a Transformers Extinction review by Vinay Gupta

A sequel.

Patrick Stewart is the sheriff. He breaks his leg in a fall from a horse and is expected to die. Word is sent to send a new sheriff, a coffin made, but miraculously he starts to make a slow recovery.

Right about when he’s able to hobble around on crutches, the replacement sheriff arrives. It’s Vin Diesel, all fired up for his role as the toughest lawman in the west. “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us” type action ensues, complicated by Patrick Stewart’s heir, who is one of a variety of stock characters with twists: a total idiot; gay (insert the “one drunken, lonely night out on the prarie” subplot with Vin Diesel!); gay, butch and female (romantic triangle with her girlfriend and Diesel); other stock characters go here.

The Existential Threat in the piece is rampaging Mormon settlers. The deux ex machina salvation is Chinese rail road construction labourers who, obviously, bring their kung fun talents to bear using picks, shovels, dynamite and other common items from the rail road construction business, levelling the town in the course of a catastrophic brawl with the invading Mormons, bound and determined to drive the townsfolk to extinction. Get Jackie Chan in.

This is what your brain does when watching Transformers. It’s that bad. Enjoy!

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Streaming Forgotten Films. Nina! by Feeling Listless

Film Back in 2007 I spent a month reviewing a series of films which fell out of view within minutes of being released hadn't been seen since, which included the Laura San Giacomo starring minor classic, Nina Takes A Lover, which I wrote about here.

Well goodness. Only ever available on VHS in this country and well deleted on R1 dvd, this morning, Amazon Prime UK added it to their subscription, which is an unexpected pleasing surprise, and as you can see from the above image it's a nice, clean widescreen HD transfer (and thanks to Maft for the tip).

In 2012, I went through the list again to check on availability and this seems like the perfect nudge for me to try again.  Not much has changed.

I'm With Lucy (2002)
Still some availability on dvd, though it looks to have been deleted.  Are some copies from between £.01 to £3.50 depending on where you're looking.  Available on Lovefilm on dvd.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
On dvd.  On Amazon, for rental and streaming.

Magic Town (1947)
Meanwhile on dvd to buy and rent.

The Hour of the Pig (1993)
Only available on dvd via an expensive R1 copy under the rubbish title The Advocate.  Otherwise its still only available in the UK on a Curzon Video.  Sometimes turns up on BBC Four in a terrible cropped print.

The Red Violin (1998)
Available amazingly cheaply now on dvd at Amazon.  Reached BD in the US.  Dvd to rent at Lovefilm.

A Thousand Acres (1997)
Budget dvd at Amazon which is rentable at Lovefilm.

Barfly (1987)
Available in multiple versions and formats to buy.

Late Night Shopping (2001)
Available on dvd in various flavours.  Also at Lovefilm.

Loser (2000)
Second hand dvds plentiful.  Streamable at Lovefilm and Netflix but curiously not rentable by post.

All World Cinema (1895 - present)
Link included here for completion sake.  But I'd still recommend all the films listed.

The Core (2003)
Of all the films on this list to be available on region-free BD it had to be this.  Dvd too and in a double bill with Deep Impact which is practically a tragedy remake.  Lovefilm link.  Also added to Netflix today.

11:14 (2003)
Amazon, Lovefilm.

Hostile Hostages (1994)
DVD under its UK title, The Ref.  Lovefilm on shiny disc.

Quinceanera (Echo Park LA) (2006)
Amazon, Lovefilm (streaming and by post)

The Tribe (1996)
Still only available on R1 dvd, and even more expensive now than in 2007 or 2012.

Stealing Beauty (1996)
Amazon, Lovefilm.

Visions of Light (1992)
Some dvd copies still floating around for sale and available at Lovefilm.

View From The Top (2003)
The worst film on the list is still one of the most available.  Amazon, and on Lovefilm by post and streaming (so you can skip directly to the scene I'm writing about).  It's on Netflix now too.

Next (1989)

Life Story (1987)
One of the best films on the list is the least available.  The BBC Education VHS copy doesn't look likely now though there is a low grade copy on YouTube.

Nina Takes A Lover (1994)
Status hasn't changed in five years.  R1 only.

Love and Other Catastrophes (1996)
Status hasn't changed in five years.  VHS only, despite that cast.  I mean look at that cast.  Was available briefly to stream on Lovefilm.  Gone now.

Chacun cherche son chat (1996)
Available on R2 import for £20.

Memento: The Beginning of the End
Is an Easter egg on the special dvd edition of the film.

The Red Siren (2002)

One Night Stand (1984)
Not available.  Not even the VHS version I bought ex-rental in the mid-90s.  There are two clips on YouTube now though.  Here and here.

The Family Stone (2005)
Of course it is.  It's The Family Stone.  Happy Christmas.  Amazon.

Happy Endings (2005)
No, not the sitcom.  It's a Don Roos film.  Was available on R2 for about three seconds so there are copies floating around.  Lovefilm also have it and Amazon Prime has a purchasable SD version. Along with the sitcom.

The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968)
Amazon, Lovefilm.

The Whistleblowe (2010)
Cheap dvd.  Or Netflix.  Or by post.

July 12, 2014

Quick apologia for Lana Del Rey by Vinay Gupta

Screenshot from 2014-07-12 14:10:53

There’s a ton of informed bitchiness about Lana Del Rey over at The New Inquiry. A certain… misapprehension of the phenomena. Or possibly they’re trolling and I’m feeling gullible, I can’t tell. It’s the New Inquiry!

But if I may shed a little light.

Born to Die is chunk of applied hermetic philosophy. Lizzie Grant goes to Fordham to study metaphysics, and it sticks, never mind her dodgy guru experiences.

There are two levels of reality portrayed in the video. In one, “dead Lana” exists in her paradise as a queen, dodgy CGI tigers and all. In the other, she’s the Blonde In The Car, living out her ordinary material life, driven slightly off her rocker by the knowledge of her own mortality. She spins out version after version of Blonde In The Car: Lolita, the Other Woman in various forms, a series of roles she can play with ease because they are not real to her. It’s a dress up box of identities, a one person parade of potential beings.

And this is the secret of Lana Del Rey’s work: she is living as a person who is consciously certain of their own death.

You see this again in Ride – falling through space, insanely high risk behavior, living life as if it is a game with no stakes, no outcomes: nothing is real, and nothing matters.

“Who belonged to no one, who belonged to everyone… an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn’t even talk about, that pushed me to a nomadic point of madness…” there are hints that she actually did this, in some form, in the real world. Maybe.

She’s portraying the female Tyler Durden.

The young gnostic at war with the world.

Once you understand that nothing is real, that you will die, that everything is permissible, much comes. You can do anything, but not everything. You can get into, and out of, scrapes that would lose other people their skins. Having nothing becomes total freedom, and that nothing can include truth, identity, certainty, faith – even wisdom and knowledge can go, as the soul tries to bottom out the void.

That’s what’s happening in Lanaland. By the sound of the biography, she woke up hard, blew out, fell through space for a few years, and finally figured out how to dump the energy and the vision into the world, becoming a little more, and a little less than human in the process.

These things are not mysterious. You can get there from Jung, for example, but if you want the primer for our times, it’s Alan Moore’s Promethea.


There in the centre is Lizzie Grant, with her shattering gnostic insight throwing off sparks of identity as burning songs, entire people, lives, perspectives synthesized from the mythic fabric of America, given light by one young woman’s enlightenment.

Dreaming into the world of surfaces, she is, perhaps quite consciously, Babalon. All things to all people, utterly self-possessed, and here for herself: not you.

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The Films I've Watched This Year #25 by Feeling Listless

Film We painted the kitchen.

The Great Beauty
How I Live Now
This Means War
Two Lovers

This deeply average week for films was probably the last thing I needed given the situation described above the list.  Since I chose to watch two of them from streaming services it was partially my own fault.  That's especially true of This Means War which I knew was going to be rubbish before watching but having enjoyed McG's previous output, especially Charlie's Angels, held out some hope that it might not be awful.  It's awful.  Mugging, charisma-free unfunny performances from the three leads, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as two spies chasing one girl Reece Witherspoon, perfunctory action sequences and a conclusion which sets feminism back fifty years.

If however you do find yourself having to choose between this and Little Man as the only two choices other than sitting in silence looking at a wall if you've gone on holiday by mistake, you can take some comfort as you put the dvd on that the cliched wisecracking best friend Trish (yes, it's a character so generic she's called Trish) is played by Chelsea Handler is involved in at least three decent laughs and that you'll also have the "entertainment" of trying to work out what the excised material was because this looks it had a torturous post-production, offering reaction shots clearly meant for something else and the casting of Angela Bassett in a nothing role that must have been larger in some original version.

The Great Beauty was the greater disappointment because of the critical acclaim and the general sense of it being an important film and I tend to quite like important films.  But despite the winning performances, the lustrous visuals and the gorgeous music, I was bored, which considering that in many ways there isn't anything especially boring about it in the traditional sense is probably quite an odd reaction.  Glancing through those reviews in the post-match confusion, I realised that although I understood what Paolo Sorrentino's experiment in Italian decadence was trying to do, I simply didn't care, not least because he isn't adding anything new, simply reiterating the same notions as Rossellini and Fellini but utilising the language of the perfume commercials which appear on television at Christmas.

But part of me knows that my boredom stems from the sheer predictability of seeing an aging male writer going through these creative philosophical motions.  There are some good female roles in there, not least of his editor, but in general they're part of the visual landscape, to be gazed at.  I wonder what a film in this world would be like with a female protagonist, if we'd watched the story of his editor or one of the any number of contessas who feature or indeed if the writer had simply been female.  Instead we're offered another iteration of a particular tradition, in which the narrow potential both in viewer expectation and commercial viability have led to repetition rather than innovation.  Not that you can or should blame The Great Beauty for the entire industry's lack of imagination.  Probably.

The same defeatist, unfair argument could be made against Prisoners, which has Hugh Jackman as a distraught father and Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop searching for his abducted daughter, a thriller which would automatically be a hundred times more interesting if it had been gender reversed.  As it is, it's a two hour wait for confirmation of a twist which is obvious within the first twenty-minutes because, as a friend joked to me on Twitter, "Obvious casting is obvious."  Paul Dano plays the bloke fingered with the abduction and although that's not quite enough for the whole story to reveal itself, anyone who's seen enough of this kind of thing before will be left watching Gyllenhaal wilfully ignoring obvious clues because narrative structure needs him to, leading us to wonder if we're supposed to be ahead of him.

Denis Villeneuve wasn't an obvious choice for directing the material and it's true that a certain point Bryan Singer was attached with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in the central roles.  Leonardo Di Caprio was on the project for a while too.  Presumably that iteration was more generic in form.  But Villeneuve steers it more towards statement and austerity, long on psychological investigation, Roger Deakins's moody blue photography suggesting a piece which is more interested in form rather than story.  Perhaps in resting on clues for long enough for us to notice them, he is deliberately tipping his hand so that we're not strictly watching a mystery but a meditation on the inevitability of human behaviour, a subtler version of the game played by Hitch in the second half of Vertigo.

Which leaves How I Live Now as my film of the week.  Essentially the German film Lore with an unknown futuristic antagonist but without the socio-political tension, this has Saoirse Ronan's American teenager wandering the British countryside attempting to avoid "the other" whilst searching for her new boyfriend and protecting her neice.  Just the sort of thing which could be mucked up in the wrong hands, there's an alternative reality version of this somewhere presented as found footage, director Kevin Macdonald keeps much of the focus on Ronan (not all, see below) so that we share her confusion about the threat but continually wants to surprise us with her strength of will, subverting the expectations we have of the character superbly developed in the opening half hour.

If there's a problem it's that MacDonald and I'm guessing his producers, are desperate for the piece not to come across as too artsy, sacrificing some of the subtlety.  At a certain point Macdonald cuts away from an important conversation that Ronan is having with an official in her living room (you'll understand when you see it) to the boyfriend watching from outside the house in order to create some tension and empathy for him, when this really should just be just her story, her conflict.  Plus there's an absolutely godawful concluding voiceover, a poetic philosophical mush, which ploddingly sets out how Ronan's character's feelings and where the world is.  It feels imposed and undercuts a conclusion which would have worked perfectly well with just the existing visuals and music.  Sigh.

July 11, 2014

Growth of structure tells us how normal and dark matter scatter by Astrobites

Title: Constraining Dark Matter-Baryon Scattering with Linear Cosmology
Authors: C. Dvorkin, K. Blum, and M. Kamionkowski
First Author’s Institution: Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ
Status: Accepted in Physical Review D

There is a famous line by 18th century wit Alexander Pope: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”  Yet 300 years on, that’s far from true. 24% or so of our Universe lies hid in night, in a mysterious component known as dark matter. Thus far, dark matter seems to interact with itself and with other particles through gravity alone.  If this continues to be so, we now know about all we’ll ever know about dark matter.  On the other hand, if it is discovered that dark matter interacts through other forces, such as strong, weak, or electromagnetic, we may thereby find new insight into its essence.


Therefore, there has been great interest in addressing this question, and the paper I discuss today uses cosmology to do so.  It begins with a simple assumption: dark matter scatters regular matter (also known as baryons) when it hits it with some speed.  In these scatterings, the dark matter can lose or acquire momentum, so its spatial distribution is eventually modified by scatterings.  This in turn changes how structure forms in the Universe, which impacts many observables we see today, such as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the Lyman-alpha forest (dense clouds of cool, neutral hydrogen gas that we can trace by the light they absorb in a “forest” of absorption lines).


There are three important new aspects to the Dvorkin, Blum, and Kamionkowski work.  First, their analysis doesn’t need to make assumptions about how the dark matter and baryons scatter each other.  The dark matter could scatter baryons because it has a tiny electric charge; it could scatter them for some other reason.  Dvorkin, Blum, and Kamionkowski simply parametrize the scattering rate as some power of the collision velocity; different mechanisms correspond to different powers, and leaving the power unspecified allows them to treat a variety of mechanisms.


Second, there is a conceptual advance in the paper.  The authors work out from first principles how the dark matter scatterings can be incorporated into linear perturbation theory.  This latter is a framework for describing the growth of small deviations from uniformity in the early Universe, before the first stars had formed.  At these early times, regions with a bit of extra matter agglomerated more via gravity, seeding stars and galaxies today.  Scattering of baryons and dark matter, were it present, would change this process, and incorporating it into linear perturbation theory is an elegant way to predict how.


In detail, the story is slightly more complex.  There are two velocities at play: one is the average thermal velocity (in random directions) the dark matter particles have because they have some temperature, and temperature is just random motion of particles.  The second is the coherent velocity between the baryons, taken as a whole, and the dark matter, taken as a whole, which changes if the baryons and dark matter scatter each other.  As long as this second is much smaller than the first, it is straightforward to apply linear perturbation theory, and previous work had done this.  But when the Universe cools enough that the dark matter is moving in bulk comparably to its random (thermal) motions, then it is not straightforward.  Dvorkin, Blum, and Kamionkowski approximately incorporate this too into linear perturbation theory by adjusting their model of how scatterings change the particle velocities.


Now, at early times in the Universe, this adjustment is unneeded: the Universe is so hot that thermal motions beat coherent ones.  These early times set up large-scale structure, such as the Lyman-alpha forest. Hence, all that is needed to accurately predict the effects of scattering on large scale structure is straightforward linear perturbation theory.

The colored curves describe different velocity dependences of the scattering strength; it is scaling as v to the nth power.  The horizontal axis, k, is a measure of how separated two points in space might be; larger k corresponds to smaller physical separation.  The vertical axis describes how correlated two points separated by a scale 1/k are; higher number mean more correlation.  The one point with error bars shows that most of the models the authors consider are not very favored by the data. The black dots around the error-barred point show the slope of the correlations the data allows; it also is not very compatible with the models considered.

The colored curves describe different velocity dependences of the scattering strength; it is scaling as v to the nth power. The horizontal axis, k, is a measure of how separated two points in space might be; larger k corresponds to smaller physical separation. The vertical axis (technically known as a “power spectrum”) describes how correlated two points separated by a scale 1/k are; higher number mean more correlation. The one point with error bars shows that most of the models the authors consider are not very favored by the data. The black dots around the error-barred point show the slope of the power spectrum the data allows; it also is not very compatible with the models considered. Note this data is taken from correlating clouds of neutral gas we infer by the light they absorb; as described above as well.  These clouds, also known as the Lyman-alpha forest, are considered large-scale structure (in contrast to the CMB).


However, the CMB is sensitive to smaller scales that develop at later times, requiring the adjustment Dvorkin, Blum, and Kamionkowski have developed.

The colored curves are again models with different dependence of the scattering on velocity; scattering strength scales with velocity to the nth power.  Here, the horizontal axis is again describing spatial scales, and similar to k, the larger l, the smaller the scale.  The vertical axis again describes correlations, but here it is tracing the difference between those predicted by models the authors consider and the best-fit, non-scattering case.  The important point is that any scattering would cause differences from the standard, no scattering model of dark matter at a few percent level in the CMB---meaning we would probably have noticed them.

The colored curves are again models with different dependence of the scattering on velocity; scattering strength scales with velocity to the nth power. Here, the horizontal axis is again describing spatial scales, and similar to k, the larger l, the smaller the scale. The vertical axis again describes correlations, but here it is tracing the difference between those predicted by models the authors consider and the best-fit, non-scattering case. The important point is that any scattering would cause differences from the standard, no scattering model of dark matter at a few percent level in the CMB—meaning we would probably have noticed them. Note that the CMB is sensitive to evolution on smaller scales, and hence at later times, than the Lyman-alpha forest, so, as described below, it is where the authors’ advances are particularly important.


Overall, the authors place stringent new upper limits on how strongly baryons and dark matter can scatter: a typical baryon in our galaxy will not have been scattered by a single dark matter particle in the lifetime of the galaxy. Some of the specific models of the interaction they consider have constraints improved by a factor of 100 or so due to their analysis; some constraints improve by a factor of 2, and some constraints are entirely new.  In particular, if the scattering does not depend on the velocity between the dark matter and baryons, the bound in this work is a factor of 100 improvement.  If the scattering is due to very slightly electrically charged dark matter, the bound in the work is a factor of 2 improvement over previous work.  There is also a factor of 2 improvement on the electric dipole moment of the dark matter, and an entirely new bound on the magnetic dipole moment.


To my mind, the more important takeaway than specific numerical improvements on bounds is that this work offers a simple, fairly model independent way to use any cosmological observable generated by the growth of structure (and characterizable using perturbation theory) to constrain dark matter-baryon interactions.  As more and more precision and volume becomes available with upcoming cosmological surveys, this will be a useful complement to direct detection experiments and searches for astrophysical dark matter annihilation.

Trundling Across the Moon by The Planetary Society

High resolution images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera detail the 1973 path of the Soviet rover Lunokhod 2.

July 10, 2014

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0: Minneapolis #1 by Feeling Listless

[from: 'Eroica: Piano Improvisions', Virgin, 1990]

Music  I attended a concert for piano students at a local Christian Church in Liverpool's Chinese community, to give my mate Fani some moral support as she performed. For two hours the ills of the world dissolved for everyone as they sat watching children playing nursery rhymes and masters play traditional chinese instruments. Blinding moment at the start as the priest asked for everyone turn off their mobile phone and everyone went for their pockets and bags. How can we as a people have the ability to communicate but at the same time can't find a way to talk to one another? [Originally posted 14th October 2001]

[Commentary: Well, quite, and at this point it's impossible to go to a public event where someone isn't using their mobile phone to do something during the action.  If this was now, everyone would have their phones out recording the thing, including the priest and as ever there'd be some of us wondering exactly how much of it they're really hearing or seeing or experiencing.]

Special offer: Neptune's Brood (UK only) by Charlie Stross

For the month of July, while it's on the Hugo shortlist for best novel, my British publisher Orbit have discounted the ebook edition of "Neptune's Brood" to £1.99. (UK Kindle store: for some reason Waterstones still list it at £4.99 but hopefully that'll be fixed shortly: Apple iBooks store.)

(Note that the book is published by a different company—Ace, an imprint of Penguin Random House—in North America; while the price dropped at the end of June, when the paperback was released, it still costs $6.83, or about £3.99 at today's exchange rate. The special offer is, alas, available to UK/EU folks only.)

Rhesus Chart: blood dripping fresh ... by Charlie Stross

So those of you in North America will be able to buy The Rhesus Chart—or get your pre-orders—starting in a couple of hours. My fellow Brits will have to suffer in protracted misery for almost another two days.

For my part, I'm going to spend much of the next 36 hours sitting in a succession of noisy, cramped aluminium tubes while being subjected to sleep deprivation. Then on Wednesday, I'm going to be doing a reading from "The Rhesus Chart" (and signing—yes, copies will be on sale) at Blackwells bookshop on South Bridge in Edinburgh at 6:30pm (probably to be followed by eating/drinking/trying not to keel over from jet lag in The Auld Hoose). Later in the month I'm one of the author guests at Edge Lit 3 in Derby, England (on Saturday the 19th of July): yes, I'm sure I'll be reading and signing there, too. Subsequently, I'll be at Loncon 3 (the World Science Fiction Convention, held this year in London from August 14 to 18) and hopefully at Shamrokon, the Eurocon (held this year in Dublin, August 22 to 24).

There won't be a US signing tour—or any US signings—for this title, at least at this time. I'm probably not going to be back on US soil until early 2015. However, signed and personalized copies of "The Rhesus Chart" can, as usual, be ordered through my local specialist SF bookshop, Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh.

Bars: Star Mixologists by Astrobites

Title: Stellar Population gradients in galaxy discs fem the CALIFA Survey: The Influence of Bars
Authors: P. Sánchez-Blázquez et al.
First Author’s Institution: Department de Física Teórica, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Cantoblanco, E28049, Spain
Status: Accepted to Astronomy & Astrophysics

Figure 1. Age and metallicity maps weighted by both luminosity and age for one barred galaxy of the author's sample from CALIFA plotted against RA (x-axis) and Declination (y-axis). The younger, higher metallicity populations tend to lie on the spiral arms and bar. Figure 3 from Sánchez et al. 2014

Figure 1. Age and metallicity maps weighted by both luminosity and age plotted against RA (x-axis) and Declination (y-axis) for one barred galaxy of the author’s sample from CALIFA, shown in the top left optical image. Blue colours denote both young and metal rich populations in the disc; the younger, higher metallicity populations tend to lie on the spiral arms and bar. Figure 3 from Sánchez et al. 2014

Recent observations have shown that over half of massive, local disc galaxies have a galactic bar, even our own Milky Way is now thought to have one; yet we still don’t fully understand how these structures are influencing the assembly and evolution of a disc galaxy. Simulations of the formations of galaxies have shown that the interaction of the bar with the spiral arms of a galaxy can cause the migration of stars towards to the centre of the galaxy. All of this must occur without heating the disc, otherwise the disc nature of the galaxy would be destroyed.

One of the results of this migration would be to mix up the different chemical abundance (metallicity; remember Astronomers call everything heavier than Helium a `metal’) stars. For example older stars, will have less metals because they formed earlier out of purer Hydrogen gas, whereas younger stars form later out of gas that has been enriched by previous generations of supernovae. Typically we find that in a disc galaxy, the older populations of stars reside in the centre with the younger stars further out in the disc. If a bar can then cause a big mixing of all of these stars then we shouldn’t see such an obvious difference in the age or metallicity of populations in the different locations of the galaxy.

Observing this directly is a little difficult but the authors of this paper attempt to compare the age and metallicity gradients of a sample of spiral galaxies with and without bars from the CALIFA survey. They start with the spectrum of a galaxy and fit to it using a combination of spectra of different types of stars (stellar population models) that are needed to create the flux and emission lines observed.They can then weight by either  the mass or the flux to obtain the age and the metallicity ([M/H]) for a given galaxy across the disc. An example map of one barred galaxy NGC7459 is shown in Figure 1.

Sanchez et al fig 6

Figure 2. Age (top) and metallicity (bottom) gradients against stellar mass for the unbarred, barred and weakly barred galaxies in the sample from CALIFA. All galaxy types are consistent with a flat gradient. The barred galaxies do not exhibit different gradients to the unbarred. Figure 6 in Sánchez et al. 2014.

The authors then quantify the variation of the age and metallicity across the disc by calculating the gradient of each parameter across the disc; they plot these values as a function of the stellar mass for the barred, unbarred and weakly barred galaxies in their sample. This is shown below in Figure 2. Contrary to the predictions of the simulations the authors of this paper do not find any difference in the gradients of barred and unbarred galaxies. The authors also confirm with a statistical test that the difference between the mean values of barred and unbarred galaxy gradients is not significant. Another interesting point to note is that there is no trend of the gradients with the stellar mass.

The authors therefore raise the question of how reliable the simulations are at predicting the influence of a bar on the evolution of  a disc; perhaps the coupling of the bar and the spiral arms is much weaker than originally thought? Or perhaps if bars are not long-lasting, robust structures in discs (as proposed by other simulations) and are instead a phase that the disc can go through, then we would not expect to find any difference with the unbarred galaxies because they may have hosted a bar previously in their lifetime.

Suffice to say, the simulations have some catching up to do…

LightSail update: Launch dates by The Planetary Society

I’m excited to report some big news on The Planetary Society’s LightSail project: actual launch dates on actual launch vehicles!

July 09, 2014

"Would you like to write a new Doctor Who story?" by Feeling Listless

Books Marcus Sedgwick has written a short piece for The Guardian about the process of writing The Spear of Destiny, Puffin Doctor Who e-book from last year. Here's how he got the commission:

Four days before Christmas, the phone call went like this:

Editor: Would you like to write a new Doctor Who story?
Me: You had me at "Would you like to write".
Editor: It's a crash schedule.
Me: Scare me.
Editor: You have four days to submit a synopsis.
Me: Ulp.
Editor: And a week to write it.
Me: *strange strangled duck like noise*
Editor: *hangs up*

About five minutes after that, the reality of what I had agreed to dawned on me. For a good few reasons, I was, well, let's say apprehensive.
Under this pressure he arguably wrote the best of the series, entirely in keeping with the Pertwee era, especially in the characterisation of the Doctor and Jo, paying homage to it and also trying something new.

Harvesting Deep Images from the Web by Astrobites

Figure 1. Long-exposure images of faint tidal streams around massive galaxies (images from the study by Martinez-Delgado et al.). These are remnants of previous mergers. The colored inset image has been added for reference.

Figure 1. Long-exposure images of faint tidal streams around massive galaxies. These are remnants of previous mergers. The catalog numbers are (a) NGC 5055, (b) NGC 1084, (c) NGC 4216, (d) NGC 4651. The colored inset images have been added for reference. These images are taken from the study by Martinez-Delgado et al.

I live in Northern Idaho, where it is very sparsely populated, a great place for star viewing. Recently I was so struck by the bright swath of the Milky Way that I took my fiancé’s camera and snapped a great picture of…nothing: it was too dim. I leaned over and showed her, and she did a little magic with a dial and a button and we took another. This time we set the camera on a rock, and the shutter stayed open for several minutes. The result was a clear field of stars–but still no lovely swath of galaxy, that would have required an even longer exposure.

Professional astronomers battle the same problem. In most cases, they’re trying to record much fainter sources of light than we were. Deep images of distant galaxies usually take several hours of exposure time. That’s hard to get, but the science is worth it. Take as an example recent observations by Martinez-Delgado and colleagues which have revealed previously unknown tidal streams around normal looking massive galaxies (Fig. 1). These images strengthen the case that all large spiral galaxies have had a history of mergers.

Today’s authors present a way to get deep images without telescope time. Their method involves a clever compilation of sky images from the Web. The algorithm, called Enhance, synthesizes a collection of (usually) short-exposure images gleaned from the Web to produce a deep image.

This is much harder than it sounds. Images have different noise backgrounds. Some have text on them. Some have saturated regions (pixel brightness is maxed out). They might be false-color, representing x-rays or radio light. Worst of all, most digital images have had nonlinear filters applied (like gamma correction), so that the luminosity of each patch of sky cannot be recovered from pixel values.

But Enhance circumvents all these problems by focusing on the pixels themselves, bringing out subtle contrasts in both bright areas and dark areas. Enhance allows a large pool of images to ‘vote’ for the rankings of each pixel’s brightness, whether or not that pixel is representing optical or infrared or some other wavelength of light. Color images are broken into red, green, and blue components and treated individually. The consensus image is built from the pixel ranking that most images ‘agree’ upon.

As a demonstration of their method, they gathered images of NGC 5907 from the Interweb, literally searching for “NGC 5907″ and “NGC5907″ on flickr, Bing, and Google. Then they used automated astrometry software to register each image to its celestial coordinates, discarding those that failed, or those that were images of different patches of sky. They resampled the remaining 298 unique images onto a rectangular grid centered on the galaxy, and finally histogram-matched them. An image histogram displays the distribution of brightness values across the image. So this last step sloshed pixels up and down in brightness until there was the same amount of light and dark in each image; but, note, each pixel preserved its original rank in order of brightness. The resulting images were fed to their voting algorithm.

Lang and coauthors chose this particular galaxy for their demonstration because it is known to host faint tidal streams, but only recently known. (Actually the discovery was made by Martinez-Delgado and colleagues from above.) To pour water on the altar, they manually removed any reproductions of the recent long-exposure images by Martinez-Delgado et al. from their input pool. As you can see in Fig. 2, Enhance readily uncovered the tidal streams from the 298 input images in which it is not, or only faintly visible!

Figure 2. Images combined into a consensus image by the Enhance! algorithm.

Figure 2. Images combined into a consensus image by the Enhance algorithm. Example consensus images on the bottom, source images on the top right. Upper left: the 11hr-exposure image from Martinez-Delgado et al. Upper right: 8 representative images out of the 298 harvested from the Web. Bottom: 3 consensus images generated by running different permutations of the images through the Enhance algorithm. Notice how robust the algorithm is against different orderings. Also notice how the consensus image shows the faint stellar stream almost as well as the long-exposure image.

There are some interesting technical details to the Enhance algorithm. For instance, as I mentioned, the images must be registered to their celestial coordinates. This is done by an automated web service called It was developed by two of the authors. You can use it too! In exchange for uploading an image to their server, you receive a version annotated with all the interesting objects in your field of view.

I’d still rather step outside to look at the Milky Way. But it’s exciting to discover that Enhance can build scientifically interesting images from all the bits laying around on Web.

Crass commercial interlude by Charlie Stross

I'm in transit tomorrow (Tuesday), flying Edinburgh-Orlando for YAPC::NA, where I'll be giving a keynote speech (and unwinding/doing tourist stuff—I haven't had a proper vacation since April last year).

Because we're now just over two weeks out from release of "The Rhesus Chart", I'm making some changes around here:

You might have noticed (if you scroll down a ways and direct your eyeballs to the sidebar on the right of this web page) that my blog now features a discreet advert. No, this isn't a massive change in policy: rather, it's the semi-official Laundry (SOE Q-Division) souvenir shop. Now selling t-shirts, office mugs, and (in due course) materials designed to drive home the message of the MAGIC CIRCLE OF SAFETY public information campaign. Is your family prepared to survive CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN? Are they paying enough attention to the Twitter and Facebook campaigns or the public information posters (vintage 1974, designed by the same team who brought us PROTECT AND SURVIVE)? If not, why not help jog their memory by waking them up with a lovely coffee mug, or help reduce the risk of eldritch intrusions with a Health and Safety Warning tee shirt?

Also coming later this month: a Laundry Employee of the Month competition, and an extract from "The Rhesus Chart" ...

World Cup: engage Grinch mode now! by Charlie Stross

Normally it doesn't matter to me if two bands of over-paid primates kick an inflated pig's bladder around a muddy field. I just don't care. As long as they don't do it near me, I can live with that. (You can put this hate on football down to my having grown up Jewish in Leeds in the 1970s. Enough said.)

However, we're now into World Cup season. And I am in full-on Grinch mode, and I assure you that when I become Planetary Supreme Overlord all team sports involving goals and spheroids will be banned forthwith (except for elephant polo on ice skates, which oughta be fun, as long as the elephants give their informed consent beforehand).

Let me enumerate the ways the world cup has pissed me off so far ...

* World cup coverage has totally saturated BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. The kitchen radio is now officially Dead To Me. (If I had a gun I'd take the radio out round the back of the outhouse for the coup de grace, if I had an outhouse.)

* The world cup has hijacked the front page of Reddit (well, not as much as the BBC, but some sub-reddits are crawling with it, and I'm not talking about /r/soccer here).

* It's also hijacked the front page of my preferred newspaper. All the newspapers. (One wasn't enough, apparently. Why couldn't they just rename The Sun to World Cup Daily and leave the rest of us alone?) No, seriously: it's pushed a major military/political crisis in the Middle East—one so barkingly mad that the United States and Iran are actually talking about taking joint military action as allies—down below the fold. We are living through the run-up to the apocalypse, a death cult named after an Egyptian love-goddess is invading Iraq, lions and sheep are discussing engagement rings, but—GOAAAAAL!

* Random people in pubs who would normally be completely happy to make drunken small-talk about the weather expect us to give a shit. This being Scotland, we're expected to root for whoever are playing against England. (And you wondered where the roots of the Scottish independence movement lay.) Looks of blank incomprehension are met with sullen disbelief and a conviction that I really, must, somewhere, somehow, give a shit about the world cup. Not being football-mad is somehow seen as unpatriotic. Next they'll be convening a tribunal in Holyrood and asking questions like, "when did you last see your father [score]?"

* And speaking of pubs, the pub on the opposite side of the road from my bedroom window WHICH IS OPEN BECAUSE I NEED THE AIR CIRCULATION IN THIS GHASTLY EDINBURGH HEAT WAVE (it's due to hit a peak of 19 celsius this afternoon and the cruel burning daystar has been sighted near the zenith) has got the world cup on wall-to-wall wide-screen TV. The resulting mob of ball-deranged drinkers are consequently led to spill out onto the pavement where they set fire their vile stenchsticks and bloviate about goals and penalties at maximum volume, while propping the pub door open so that every goal causes loud cheering at sleep-o'clock.

This cartoon seems to sum it all up, frankly. Where will it all end? Oh, the humanity!

Do they have those rights? by Feeling Listless

Film Because we all have our own addiction, because I can never have enough film, I'm still receiving shiny discs by post and maintain subscriptions to both Amazon Prime and Netflix. Something which is becoming an increasingly nefarious problem is navigating who has the rights to films from which companies, the reason being that all too often I've received a film by disc only to have it turn up on Netflix a week later (Frances Ha) which, now that I'm only receiving two discs at a time through the mail is a bit of a waste.

In an ideal world I'd simply cancel the dvds (finally!) but thanks to the segmentation of services and the Murdoch exclusivity problem, some films don't appear on other services at all or for at least a couple of years. Plus back catalogue is all over the place. After the Century of Chinese Cinema season, I'm planning to work my way through all of Bergman finally and not all of his work is available to stream. Studio Gibli doesn't appear on either services. Disney is patchy.  Oh and some of the Amazon Prime streams slightly ropey old dvd masters.

With that in mind I'm going to start compiling an ad-hoc list of companies I think have been carved up between Amazon Prime UK and Netflix on the assumption that if a film is from any of these companies I needn't add them to my by-post list. I'm posting the list here for easy access / editing. Just to add: these are the studio names as utilised by the database on "Lovefilm".  Plus, this is for pre-release.  If it's been released and isn't on the relevant streaming service, it's probably been and gone.

I've also noticed the odd StudioCanal thing turning up on Netflix after its first run on Amazon Prime, but I'm sticking with first run here.  Some back catalogue for Lionsgate and Disney turns up on both services simultaneously too.  Plus quite often, once its dropped from one of these services I'm back to shiny disc again.  Also just to confuse things, the same company's films can be split between the two depending on who which theatrical label they used.  E1 Momentum's stuff is at Netflix, just E1 is at Amazon Prime UK.  Blaawhhehh.


Arrow Films (six months)
Artificial Eye (six months)
Brit Doc Films (near simultaneous)
Buena Vista International (not on Lovefilm)
Curzon Film World
Dogwoof Digital
Elevation Sales (not Anchor Bay) (including Chelsea Films)
Fusion Media Sales (four months?)
Independent Films
Kaleidoscope Entertainment (six months?)
Kotch Media (six months)
Lace Group
New Wave (about eighteen months)
Masters of Cinema (new releases)
Metrodome (four months)
Momentum Pictures (six months?)
Paramount Home Entertainment (unclear - three to six months? A year?)
Universal (Vertigo)

Amazon Prime UK

Entertainment One
Lionsgate (Television only?)
Momentum Pictures
Showbox Media Entertainment / CineAsia
Twentieth Century Fox (big delay possibly as long as eighteen months available for about six months)
Universal Pictures (big delay?) (also actually Universal Home Entertainment)
Warner Home Video (big delay?)

Elsewhere (only available by post)

Axiom Films
Entertainment on Film/Video
Revolver Entertainment
Third Window Films
Universal Pictures (The Works)

I'll keep updating this with more information as and when.  You can hardly wait.  It is hard to keep an eye on because the studio name on Lovefilm's database doesn't always reflect the actual studio or has variety of synonyms (Entertainment One, E1 Entertainment, E One Ltd etc).

Plus some of these are under advisement thanks to release windows and the like (checkable by comparing adding dates on the streaming service to the availability date on the rental service).  Warner and Disney take an age to get to the Prime, so it's up to the viewer as to how quickly they need to see Dream House and such.  I'll try to add some accurate data on how quickly after the shiny disc release these as I can.

July 08, 2014

Using Spotlight (or mdfind) from the terminal by Zarino

If you’re a Mac developer, you’ve probably found yourself typing something like this quite a lot:

grep -r 'some search string' .

Grep searches the current folder (and subfolders, with -r) for a given search term. Which is awesome. But on large nested trees, it can be slow. I also have a devil of a time remembering what order the arguments go in (is it search term first, or directory first?).

Typical Mac users are accustomed to invoking Spotlight for lightning-fast searches of their hard drive. It turns out Spotlight has a command line client, called mdfind, but its arguments are just as gnarly as grep’s:

mdfind -onlyin ./ 'some search string'

So, I made a wrapper function, defined in my ~/.bash_profile that gives me a nice simple spotlight 'some search string' interface for querying the current folder, recursively, and in a flash, with Spotlight:

# in ~/.bash_profile

spotlight() {
  if [ -z "$1" ]; then
    echo "Search the current folder for files containing a text string"
    mdfind -onlyin ./ "$1";

Give it a try!

spotlight 'some search term'

It’s worth bearing in mind that, unlike grep, Spotlight does fuzzy searching. So “person” will match files containing person, person-id, personality, and idPerson (but not impersonal). Spotlight also ignores pretty much all punctuation, which can be a big gotcha when you’re searching for a PHP variable like $foobar—which will return no results—or even a hypenated string like some-variable.

In these cases, you can either second-guess Spotlight by rephrasing your search term without punctuation, or fall back to grep. And grab a cup of tea while it chugs away.

Fishing for Jellyfish in Galaxy Clusters by Astrobites

Title: Jellyfish: Evidence of Extreme Ram-Pressure Stripping in Massive Galaxy Clusters
Authors: H. Ebeling, L. N. Stephenson, and A. C. Edge
First Author’s Institution: Inst. for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI
Status: Published in ApJ Letters, Feb. 2014

Although every galaxy is unique, astronomers use classification schemes to group similar galaxies with each other in order to better understand how galaxies form and evolve. The two broad characteristics for classifying a galaxy are its color and its morphology (shape/structure). To measure color, astronomers look at whether a galaxy emits more red light (longer wavelengths) or blue light (shorter wavelengths). Galaxies with more blue light are younger and have recent star formation, as new, hot, young stars emit more blue light (hotter things are bluer). In older galaxies, these stars are long gone, leaving cooler, longer lasting stars that emit more red light than blue. To determine a galaxy’s morphology, astronomers look at various physical characteristics, such as whether or not the galaxy has a defined disk, or spiral arms (like our Milky Way), or is fairly featureless (like an elliptical galaxy). (As an aside, if you want to try your hand classifying real galaxies for actual scientific research, there is a fantastic open-to-the-public project called the Galaxy Zoo that allows you to do just that).


Fig. 1: An example of a galaxy (A2667) undergoing ram-pressure stripping, whereby the gas in the galaxy is stripped as it moves through a surrounding gassy medium, identified in a previous observation. The tail of gas and blue knots behind the galaxy have been stripped during the RPS event. (Source: Fig. 1 of Ebeling et. al. 2014)

Astronomers agree that galaxies evolve from one type to another, but we are not completely sure has to how this happens. Dramatic events such as galaxy mergers play a significant role in galaxy evolution, as well as processes that remove gas (which is the fuel for star formation) from galaxies, such as ram-pressure stripping (RPS). In RPS, a galaxy moving quickly through a region of gas (like that found in galaxy clusters) is stripped of much of its gas, effectively cutting off star formation. There are several well-known examples of in-progress ram-pressure stripping events in nearby galaxy clusters (for example). The strongest RPS events are those that can completely strip a galaxy of its gas in under 100 Myr, and are seen to occur in galaxy cluster simulations. However, we don’t yet have a large sample of observations of strong RPS galaxies because 1) they are more rare, requiring very fast moving galaxies in very massive galaxy clusters, and 2) looking for these strong events has only been possible recently. The authors announce the discovery of several new, dramatic examples of galaxies undergoing ram-pressure stripping in galaxy clusters. Due to their appearance (see Fig. 1 and Fig. 2), the authors refer to these galaxies as “jellyfish” galaxies.

The Hunt for RPS Galaxies

The authors look through a sample of 37 galaxy clusters from the Massive Cluster Survey (MACS) that were observed with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. From this sample, the authors go through and pick out (by eye) galaxies with obvious, readily-visible ongoing ram-pressure stripping. The authors use this sample of galaxies to establish well-defined criteria that they will later use  to identify less obvious ram-pressure stripping galaxies in a larger sample of galaxy clusters. Since RPS removes gas from galaxies, the authors look for galaxies that have gas warped or shifted from what would be expected in a non-RPS galaxy. In addition, the pressure forces of RPS can cause a brief increase in star formation, forcing the collapse of already-dense molecular cloud regions. The authors look for the tell-tale sign of increased brightness due to star formation, and a color gradient from redder to bluer stars, possibly indicating a separate, younger population of stars was formed more recently than most of the stars in the galaxy. Finally, the authors look for long tails of gas and stars that are unambiguous signs of a dramatic, RPS event, and are responsible for the jellyfish-like appearance.


Fig. 2: The 6 most obvious examples of ram-pressure stripping in galaxies in the sample of 37 galaxy clusters examined by the authors. The red arrows indicate the direction of motion of the galaxy, and yellow the direction and distance to cluster center. (Source: FIg. 2 of Ebeling et. al. 2014)

Fig. 2 shows the 6 most dramatic examples of ram-pressure stripping identified by the authors. For each galaxy, the red arrow indicates the direction of motion of the galaxy within the cluster (in projection along the plane of the sky). The authors ensured that the direction of motion of the galaxy and the direction of the debris trail behind the galaxy was consistent, as is expected for RPS. In each image, the yellow arrow gives the direction and distance (in projection) from the galaxy to the center of the galaxy cluster.

Galactic Jellyfish

Although each galaxy in Fig. 2 has similar trailing debris tails, making each galaxy look like a jellyfish, with noticeable blue knots that indicate star formation, each of the galaxies are different. The differences arise from the different orientations of the moving galaxy within the galaxy cluster (whether or not the RPS is acting edge-on or face-on to the galaxy), different velocities of the galaxy and densities of the gas in the galaxy cluster, and finally by virtue of the fact that the galaxies have undergone RPS for varying lengths of time . The authors emphasize, however, that these galaxies are all some of the brightest in their respective galaxy clusters, due in part to the enhanced star formation that occurs during RPS. Each galaxy in this sample is unusually close to the center of the galaxy cluster (<500 kpc). This is odd because we would expect RPS to remove a significant fraction of the galaxy’s gas by the time it reached roughly 1000 kpc from cluster center. Although there is yet no good explanation for this, the authors discuss that possibly, by looking for the most extreme examples of RPS, they have self-selected to find examples of RPS that are both strong and unusually long lasting.

This sample of galaxies marks a first release in a larger sample of  new ram-pressure stripped galaxies in a galaxy cluster survey examining clusters over the redshift range 0.3 < z < 0.5. A larger catalog of RPS galaxies will help us better understand its effect on stripped galaxies, and its role in galaxy evolution. Finally, the authors note that conducting detailed, follow up observations of these galaxies, looking at, for example, the star formation history, is essential for understanding the history and evolution of these galaxies.



Voyager 3 Project by The Planetary Society

In 1979, the Voyager 1 probe took a stunning series of images on its final approach to Jupiter. Thirty-five years later, almost to the day, a group of seven Swedish amateur astronomers set out to replicate this odyssey, but with images taken with their own ground-based telescopes.

Competition Time! by Charlie Stross

As we're two weeks out from publication of "The Rhesus Chart", we in Human Resources at SOE (Q Division) thought it would be amusing to run a competition for the worst, most embarrassing, disciplinary hearing we in the Laundry have ever had the misfortune to be involved in.

Post your worst workplace disciplinary problems in the comments below. (Please remember to check that your name appears correctly on your comment. Due to a bug in the way the blog handles logins with Google OpenID, some names are mangled: if this happens to you, add another comment identifying yourself.)

Five lucky winners will receive signed first-edition hardcovers of "The Rhesus Chart"; five runners-up will receive "Magic Circle of Safety" public awareness mugs, and/or a surprise visit from the Black Assizes.

Entries will be judged by me (Charlie Stross) on July 7th, and announced in a separate blog post. (Many thanks to co-sponsors Orbit Books for ideas, support, and the clipboard above.) I'll arbitrarily pick the cleverest reasons, or just the ones that make me laugh the loudest and the longest. Here are some brief examples to get you started (extra points for florid and unforgettable details):

* Employee called in three OCCULUS teams to bring down the Bird-God of Balsagoð, which turned out to be a pigeon.

* Failed to attend mandatory diversity awareness training due to being trapped in another dimension.

* Made inappropriate sashimi-themed jokes when attending reception for treaty negotiation delegation from BLUE HADES.

* Emailed selfie of own genitalia to another employee, resulting in PTSD and nightmares about ovipositors and traumatic insemination.

Your Letters: The Stephens/Moore Conundrum solved. by Feeling Listless

TV I don't often receive comments, but I found this on The Stephens/Moore Conundrum post from last year:

"Thank you. This post just quickly and efficiently helped me resolve an argument with my husband, who thought they were the same person. x"
That probably makes this the most useful post from last year.

Prime ... to be or not to be? by Simon Wardley

I happen to use Ocado for my weekly shop.

I happen to use Netflix for video streaming.

I happen to use O2 for my mobile.

I'm avid fan of all of these services but they have a cost for provision. When I combine all those costs together it adds up to quite a monthly sum. I recently looked at the use of Amazon Prime. It has some aspects of a free kindle book rental, videos and free next day delivery but as an addition the total cost becomes too pricey for me. 

For me, it's more a question of substitution and my loyalty can be bought by meeting my needs. Amazon is apparently going to be launching Fresh in the UK.  Amazon is launching Fire though in the UK we have to 'stay turned' for the moment. At that point, Prime might become very attractive indeed. 

But will competitors combine in some form to make an attractive counter offer? A Netflix / Ocado  / O2 bundle has appeal (for me) - should the price be reasonable and should it be easy to manage. This begs a question - where are the consumer brokers providing a bundle of services between multiple companies at a single affordable price?

From banking to power to video streaming to my weekly shop, there seems to be ample scope for consolidation. Maybe it's too complex. However, as with our electricity grid where we have a separation between utility companies and generators ... does an opportunity for such bundles and brokers exist or will I just end up eventually choosing Prime?

July 07, 2014

The Habitable Zone of Inhabited Planets by The Planetary Society

A team of Colombian researchers are arguing for a new refinement to the idea of the habitable zone that takes the presence of life itself into account.

On Pseudo science by Simon Wardley

I read a post today by Dave Snowden on the followers of Elliott Jacques and the Requisite Organisation. The post talked about pseudoscience, acolyte syndrome and cultism and the language seemed pretty strong to me.

One of the comments to this post was 'I get accused of this (Acolyte Syndrome) by my wife, all the time, in reference to Cynefin' which made me think, as useful as Cynefin might be - is it falsifiable? Does it predict? Is it not pseudo science itself?

The demarcation between science and pseudo science is a long fraught affair with numerous luminaries from Karl Popper to Paul Thagard. Now this boundary is permeable. Activities often move from science to pseudo science and vice versa over time. It's not a question of what is right or what is more useful but instead what is science.

Falsifiability is an important part of that question both for Popper and Thagard. It's fair enough to say it is central to Popper but even Thagard asks whether the supporters of a concept 'actively attempt confirmation or disconfirmation?' 

Now, I'm not aware of any predictive capabilities of Cynefin. It's a sense making framework, a classification system to understand an environment. Without any predictive capabilities, how can you test it? How can you measure it? For me, it falls on the pseudo science line but then so do many useful management concepts and theories.

Hence, I thought the original post was a bit rich and called it out.
whoa ... @snowded - - throwing terms around like pseudoscience, acolytes ... a bit pot kettle black.
— swardley (@swardley) July 7, 2014
What followed was an interesting conversation which covered some statements on predictability
@swardley it does not claim predictive capacity it's claim is sense-making. Now justify that pseudo-science claim please
— Dave Snowden (@snowded) July 7, 2014
and some personal views
@swardley pseudo science is clearly derogatory & you really need to catch up on the philosophy of science
— Dave Snowden (@snowded) July 7, 2014 
Now, this is interesting for two reasons. First, pseudoscience is simply a classification and many useful things are pseudoscience (e.g. a lot of economic debate is in this camp). In my experience, whether something is viewed as derogatory depends mainly upon the perspective of the viewer.

The second interesting point is that though Snowden claims Cynefin has no predictive capability (which means it is not falsifiable) other supporters of Cynefin claim it is scientific.
RT @ImaginaryTime: @swardley @snowded ... Cynefin, my view is that it fulfils Thagard’s criteria of science < +1
— Florian Otel (@FlorianOtel) July 7, 2014
So, I asked Dave
@snowded : hence my question for you are 1) Is Cynefin scientific? 2) Do you think a scientific model for Cynefin is possible?
— swardley (@swardley) July 7, 2014

To which, I received the response
@swardley cynefin uses science to understand principlesof decision making unlike say NLP does not suggest simple causality
— Dave Snowden (@snowded) July 7, 2014
To be honest, I found it difficult to get a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer and Dave has kindly agreed to write a post to explain this and why I'm wrong.

So what is Cynefin? Well, I happen to view it as useful way of examining an environment but given it's not predictive then it's not falsifiable nor scientific. Now whilst Snowden makes no claim to it being scientific, his supporters do.  Hence, I'm going to put this into my pseudo science classification.  I don't see this as a negative but instead what something is. There's a lot of useful and often subjective concepts in that classification e.g. Gartner Hype Cycle.

--- Update 7th July

I just came across this excellent post by Tom Graves on whether 'Cynefin is a cult'. It describes how Cyenfin fails the 'science' test which is a paradox because 'most of us find that Cynefin is a very useful tool'. It provides a pretty hefty set of questions to be asked from isolation to non-falsifiability.

Overall the post is a fascinating read which concludes with 'Is Cynefin a pseudoscience, a cult? Short answer, as we’ve seen above, is “probably not” – but you’ll probably need a little bit of magic to help you prove it!'

For me, this is personally interesting because I have that same paradox. I find Cynefin useful but not scientific despite any claims made by supporters. In the same way I find the Hype Cycle useful despite knowing it's not based upon any physical measurement but instead aggregated opinion. The reason why I find them both useful is that they help encourage discussion.

I do understand Dave Snowden's view that 'pseudoscience' is uniformly derogatory, though I don't share that opinion and I certainly don't express this for that reason. His original post raised some questions in my mind over what is and isn't science. There maybe a missing 'useful but not quite scientific' category out there e.g. a proto-science.

Tower and Moat by Simon Wardley

I've just read this VentureBeat article on 'Why old-school tech giants need M&A to stay relevant' in which it talks about the importance of mergers and acquisition to companies like SAP. I don't know much about VentureBeat or whether this article is try to drum up business but there's a big warning here.

Before going on an M&A spree then you better know your competitors, especially if you're up against someone with a tower and moat play (which I suspect Salesforce is using). To summarise the tower and moat, I'll use the map from an earlier post on epic fails of sensible executives.

Figure 1 - Map

Notes on map.

So, now back to the VentureBeat article. M&A can be important in a counter play against someone running a tower and moat but you have to know what you're doing. It's extremely easy to spend hundreds of millions on buying up so called 'differentials' (e.g. B[1]) and find yourself still in a worsening position as the competitor copies you, growing their moat whilst their tower (and related ecosystem) expands.

The article talks about SAP 'augmenting its offerings' and buildings its 'competitive advantage' through acquisitions.  From my perspective, I'm not sure SAP realises how much trouble it is in. As far as I can see, its future positioning is poor, it's up against a tower and moat and random acquisitions aren't going to help it.

Perhaps the future belongs to the dedicated follower of fashion? by Excapite

So back to the big question left unanswered in yesterday's musings. Hemlines as a predictive indicator of the quality of innovation. Is there a correlation?

Actually a quick shake 'n bake of the data suggests: Yes, there is.

Here is the history of the hemline in the USA throughout the 20th Century vs. the founding year of the Fortune 500.

As you can see there is the macro trend that suggests the century long trend towards shorter skirts is mirrored by a fall in the sustainability of the business models of the Fortune 500

At the macro level things become even more interesting because, somewhat paradoxically, as we can see, a rapid rise in the hemline is a predictive indicator of the sustainability of the business models of the fledgling Fortune 500 companies of that decade.

Apparently robust innovation is more likely to occur when skirts are significantly shortened - no matter what their starting length.

All of which suggests, if you are an investor playing the long game, you may be better off reading Vogue, Harper's or Elle and sitting in on the New York Spring Collection than spending your days with the Financial Times, Forbes or Bloomberg and sitting in on the latest start-up incubator demo day. Because the big data suggests the musings of Anna Wintour will have more impact on the health of American Economy than a whole gaggle of VC's, Investment Bankers and hedge Fund Managers spruiking the merits of their *disruptive* investment portfolio.

Certainly, if the past is any predictive indicator of the future, hemlines must fall (significantly) before America can look forward to its next phase of sustainable innovation. And yes, this current crop of breakthrough IPO's may, or may not be, disruptive but today's stagnant hemlines suggest they won't be around for the long game.

Indeed, if the fashions on the street are any indication, America's next golden age of innovation could be decades away. Unless, of course, the rate of change in hemlines, like the rate of technology adoption, is speeding up. (#irony)

Something to think about perhaps... at least until next time :-)

July 06, 2014

Of moody lists and other lines of investigation by Excapite

I was going to embark on a study of hemlines and innovation. The correlation between stock market prosperity and hemlines is well known. But is there a correlation between the hemline and the rate of innovation? Are we more innovative in times of lower hemlines or during periods of the great reveal? Are we excited into action or motivated by its absence? Does absence make the head wander or wonder? and, is the rate of change in the hemline a predictive indicator of the quality of innovation realised by each generation?

To discover the answer the history of the frock must be scraped. Hemlines measured. Mapped to the trend lines of the S&P and the Fortune 500's. Threads must be sown and patterns matched. Was there a correlation between the tapestry of fashion, the spectacle of the catwalk, investment in ideas and the big data of the markets?

Was there yet another PhD to be had, buried deep within a post?

Alas we'll never known. I found myself distracted by another spectacle. The carnival that is the Facebook behavioural experiment.

So much has been typed. Thinkfluencers must have their say. Spleens must be vented. But most importantly the festival of the boot must be put in its place. And what better way to avert the spotlight back on you than to kick an own goal?

The medium is, after all, the message. And what is more Facebook than to be talking about... well Facebook of course.

So let's talk Facebook. At least for a short while.

The challenge is self evident. Brands are in the business of leasing influence. This is why they spend billions sponsoring the festival of the boot. Brands don't spend billions with Facebook. Yes they conduct R&D experiments but they don't spend Billions. They have yet to be sold on the idea of social influence. They don't believe they can lease mass influence on Facebook - targeted or otherwise.

So we have context. The problem to be solved is to change hearts and minds. Unleash the purse strings. Pivot sponsorship channelled through TV to sponsorship channelled through Facebook.

It is isn't rocket science but it may take the mystique of rocket science to convince the target market - brand managers - that Facebook is a more effective channel than TV when it comes to leasing influence. And by influence we mean the ability to influence or better still modify audience behaviour.

In the network economy data science is the new rocket science. Can data science provide the indisputable proof, the clinical evidence, that Facebook is most effect channel for modify audience behaviour?

What do you think?

Better still don't take our word for it. Look at all those thinkfluencers outraged by the discovery that Facebook is now the most effect channel for modifying audience behaviour. The lists are alive with heated discourse. The Facebook fail is the social proof. Brand managers delight. Celebrate with us. Better still lease influence on the most effective behavioural experiment now operating on the planet.


TV 0. Facebook 1.

Game over. And best of all no penalties.

And yes there are deep lessons to be learnt from this insight into the weaving of social influence across a database with friends. Least of which is accumulation of social influence, and the gaming of social behaviours across the network, has nothing to do with putting ads on the menu.

Which leads me to that other bold social experiment. The Tweetstorm or Tweetflood. The gaming of the list through frequency. Flood the timeline with messages and you have the commercial break re-imagined for life on the list. But this is nothing we haven't addressed before. Being top of the list may work in the one dimensional world of the web page but when you are feeding in 24/7 fire hose then frequency is the key to unlocking the opportunity buried within the chaos.

The tweetstorm is the new advertising blockbuster.

And again there are lessons to be learnt from this insight. Although hardly deep and meaningful. But it does reinforce this observation that the gaming of social behaviours across the network has nothing to do with putting ads on the menu.

You see the art of the list is conversational.

Facebook, Twitter, Google. Each in their own way delivering to each and everyone of us the opportunity to converse with a list. Be it a database of friends, links or random messages.

Google's strength is the conversation you have with the search engine is closer to a Turing Test than either Facebook or Twitter. The social networks are faux Turing Tests. The challenge of creating the illusion of machine intelligence is outsourced to friends and randoms. They fill in the gaps. The experience is the same. You converse with your smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC. But people - prosumers - make up the enormous gap between database and intelligence.

Google is different. You converse with the database. You ask it questions. It responds. You continue your discourse until you discover an answer that is acceptable or you simply give up. Either way the conversation unfolds and the machine responds to your requests. The machine evolves. Adapts. Gains from the experience.

This then is the real challenge that Facebook needs to address. So too Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and countless others of the social ilk. For they are each in their own way a degenerative step in the progression towards a networked machine intelligence.

And this is what makes the Facebook behavioural experiment interesting. It hints at a turning point in the Facebook story. When the social network evolves from a list of messages shared by the socially connected into a Turing platform. A conversational engine, nay a primitive form of AI, that is capable of modifying its behaviour to suit your mood. It shifts from a passive, to a reactive' to a progressive technology. It evolves from being merely a database with friends to something more significant. Something more useful. Something more socially interesting. More socially and technologically progressive.

The big question being are we ready for a network that is more socially and culturally aware than even the best of us? Are we really ready to be good friends with a database? A moody list engine.

I wonder... at least until next time :-)

July 05, 2014

The Films I've Watched This Year #24 by Feeling Listless

Film Surprisingly given that I spent most of last weekend watching Glastonbury, the Arena about the New York Review of Books, annotating the New York Review of Books and the Biennial, this is a surprisingly busy list.  Of course there's a grey area as to whether at least two of the items on the list count as films, but both the Inside Llewyn Davis concert and Behind The Candelabra received theatrical releases somewhere so I'm keeping them below rather than up here.  It's quite some time since I paid this much attention to Glastonbury.  I'm still working through the individual shows on the iPlayer, with Haim and Anna Calvi definite favourites so far.  I had thought to watch everything, and began in that vein, but some of the material isn't to me taste at all and I've decided that it's ok to digitally drift away if I'm not enjoying a show.  I do wonder about the psychology of that at the actual festival.  How easy is it to walk away from one show and join another?

A Touch of Zen
Another Day, Another Time - Celebrating The Music Of Inside Llewyn Davis
Side Effects
Ender's Game
Don Jon
Behind The Candelabra

Let's begin with the Don Jon, because I want to create a spoiler buffer for Ender's Game which I want to talk about in detail in the next paragraph or two.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut is a remarkable film and indicates that he's a real talent who understands what film's capable of in a way that his peers simply don't.  He appreciates that with ninety minutes to play with its possible to be simplistic and complex as he tells the story of a sexual troglodyte repenting and for all the content, which at one point almost caused a NC-17 from the MPAA until Levitt agreed to par it down, it's the classics he looks to, When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall and Groundhog Day (and I think The Fast Show!) in appreciating the comic but also the emotional potential of repetition, of presenting the routine of a character's life and reflecting on what happens when external forces disrupt that routine.

Spoiler mode activated.  Isn't Ender's Game annoying?  It's pretty generic entertainment for much of its duration, unashamedly working through the Propp/Campbell Benjamin Sniddlegrass, Harry Potter in space tropes in a way which suggests the novel was an ur-text in much the same way as John Carter (of Mars) was and then makes the bizarre decision presumably from the original material where it hopefully worked better, of robbing the audience of its climactic catharsis.  In storytelling terms, making one triumph, beating a simulation, into something more sinister is a thrilling choice, flying the face of expectation but it also cheats the viewer emotionally even if the message, with its Klaatu barada nikto, surprises intellectually.  Perhaps if this had begat the sequel suggested by the climax it would have worked as the end of an episode or chapter.  As it stands it renders the previous couple of hours of character arc rather pointless.

If Side Effects is to Soderbergh's final official theatrical release, it's quite a way to go out and also rather fitting because it's business as usual.  As ever, he's commenting on a particular genre, on this occasion the kind of Hitchcockian thriller most recently directed by Adrian Lyne (he watched Fatal Attraction a lot during production apparently) or starring Michael Douglas or both but also absorbing its every trope.  Watching the first season of Damages recently, I have noticed that this is just the sort of mid-tier material which has shifted to television, a genre forgotten by studios producing either ultra-expensive blockbusters or cheap comedies, yet here it is being reinvented by Steven.  It's also a useful reminder of just how good Jude Law can be at the sort of thing he does, which tends to be appearing he sort of mid-tier material forgotten by studios producing either ultra-expensive blockbusters or cheap comedies.

If Behind The Candelabra is to be Soderbergh's final film altogether then it's also quite fitting because up until its final moments it also feels like business as usual in that he's producing his version of the true life tv movie of the kind which is usually show on Five* or Sky Living over here, items like Growing Up Brady or The Karen Carpenter Story, and queer cinema.  Since it's for HBO he's able to work in the material which would ordinarily be glossed over even when it's supposed to be the "insider's story" but not in a sensationalist way.  Both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon turn in the performances of their careers, but that's potentially true of all the cast, especially Rob Lowe who's plastic surgeon is somehow both obviously Rob Lowe and entirely unrecognisable.  I'm too close to it now to really make a judgement, but I wonder if it fits with his other low budget works or his studio material.  I really don't know.

When I completed the Hitchwatch, I said that I wanted his final film to be summation.  What I'd failed to realise was that Psycho had actually been is final film and that everything after that was about him simply fulfilling a public obligation which is why so many of them are artistically suspect.  He'd unconsciously or otherwise, I think, reached the end of his experiment, presented his findings and was then effectively in the Q&A section of his symposium.  For all his creative resurgence, Woody's arguably in the same place post-New York, post-Melinda, though to stretch the analogy, it's almost as though he's resubmitting his paper for further consultation, especially in his returns to New York, or commenting on the work of other practitioners in his European films in a way which he simply didn't before, especially his London films, for all their variable comedy.

I simply don't get that with Soderbergh.  Soderbergh feels like a scientist who's had his budget taken away because the funding authority wasn't happy with the research he was carrying out and his interim results, but rather than chipping away in the hopes of gaining sponsorship from elsewhere so he can continue has simply walked away.  But to run away from that analogy, kicking and indeed screaming I also think in Candelabra he allows himself a Shakespearean moment, with Liberace as his Prospero.  As Lee ascends to heaven in those closing moments, full of Man of La Mancha describing what Scott means to him, it's almost like Soderbergh's talking to his viewers, with Matt Damon, one of the key actors from across his career as our avatar on screen.  Which is probably bullshit, but brought a tear to my eye and some closure as I completed my watch through all of his movies.  The tv series will be his Pericles obviously.

After the machines take-over by Simon Wardley

In twenty years, other things being equal, most of the routine blue-collar and white-collar tasks that can be done by automated intelligent systems will be. Our schools will probably be turning out a larger proportion of the population better educated than they are today, but most of our citizens will be unable to understand the 'thinking machine' world in which they live. Perhaps they will understand the rudiments of calculus, biology, nuclear physics, and the humanities. But the research realm of scientists, the problems of government, and the interplay between them will be beyond the ken even of our college graduates. Besides, most people will have had to recognize that, when it comes to logic, the machines by and large can think better than they, for in that time reasonably good thinking computers should be operating on a large scale.

There will be a small, almost separate, society of people in rapport with the advanced computers. These 'cyberneticians' will have established a relationship with their machines that cannot be shared with the average man any more than the average man today can understand the problems of molecular biology, nuclear physics, or neuropsychiatry. Indeed, many scholars will not have the capacity to share their knowledge or feeling about this new man-machine relationship. Those with the talent for the work probably will have to develop it from childhood and will be trained as intensively as the classical ballerina.

Some of the remaining population will be productively engaged in human-to-human or human-to-machine activities requiring judgment and a high level of intelligence and training. But the rest, whose innate intelligence or training is not of the highest, what will they do?

We can foresee a nation with a large portion of its people doing, directly or indirectly, the endless public tasks that the welfare state needs and that the government will not allow to be automated because of the serious unemployment that would result. These people will work short hours, with much time for the pursuit of leisure activities.

Even with a college education, what will they do all their long lives, day after day, four-day week-end after week-end, vacation after vacation, in a more and more crowded world? (There is a population explosion to face in another ten to thirty years.) What will they believe in and aspire to as they work their shorter hours and, on the outside, pursue their "self-fulfilling" activities, whatever they may be? 

No one has ever seriously envisioned what characteristics these activities might have in order to be able to engross most men and women most of their adult lives. What will be the relationship of these people to government, to the "upper intellectuals," to the rest of the world, to themselves?

Donald Michael, Cybernation : The Silent Conquest, 1962 (with a few minor edits).

Mark Spain's Water Meadow. by Feeling Listless

Does anybody who knows anything about art know anything about this? Mark Spain is a name apparently. Worth anything?

— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) July 5, 2014

Serial Koenig. by Feeling Listless

Radio Ira from This American Life has announced what sounds like it could be a gamechanger:

"I have exciting news today. We’re starting a new show! We’ve never done this before. It’s coming out in the fall. It’s called Serial and it’ll be a weekly podcast, not a radio show at all. The main way it’s different from This American Life is that instead of bringing you a different theme each week, every episode of Serial will bring you back not just to the same theme but to the same story, to bring you the next chapter. We’re starting with a crime story, that’ll run for about a dozen episodes. Our hope is that it’ll play like a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving."
Sounds like its going to be fact rather than fiction too and presumably they're in the unknown themselves as to whether a given real life crime story can sustain itself over twelve weeks in this intensive manner. Perhaps it'll appropriate the structure of something like Law & Order but over the long form format of Murder One, but in real life, each hour covering a different aspect of the story.

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Updated using Planet on 28 July 2014, 05:48 AM

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